The Abhorrent Excerpt 5

Shindara snapped out of his reverie and looked up. A grove of cherry blossoms was growing near the end of the mountain pass. To his astonishment, he could see the vaguest of pink shimmering on the petals. It was as if color was trying to break through the diluted blacks and grays of the Yomi. His pulse quickened when he saw ripe fruit hanging from the branches, too.

The shift in energy was unmistakable here. It felt as though the all-pervading darkness lifted and let a sliver of light and hope inside. Without thinking, he took one step toward the grove.

“Shindara, don’t.”

The tone in Hrioshango’s voice made him hesitate. After all, one look at the fruit-bearing trees reminded him of the hag’s warning. Anyone who ate from those branches would be damned to the Yomi for eternity. Ignoring his doubts and trusting his instincts, Shindara set out toward the other end of the gorge.

His feet sifted through countless blossoms strewn across the ground. The air tasted sweeter as a mountain breeze rustled past him. Finally, he stood in the shadow of the great cherry blossom trees and he felt transported to another time and place. He sighed and looked up at the slender branches weaving patterns in the sky.

Suddenly, his eyes opened wide when he heard laughter. It was a sound that couldn’t possibly exist inside the Yomi. Again, light laughter rang out from somewhere in the grove. His head whipped from side to side and he spotted a young girl running through the trees. She nearly tripped over her feet as he tried to catch the petals falling from the boughs.

Shindara felt drawn to her as surely as if his soul was being yanked forward.

Realizing she was being watched, the girl stopped in a circle of cherry blossoms and turned to face him. Shindara wanted to speak, but he was afraid to shatter the silence.

“Do you not know me?” the girl asked.

Shindara searched her face and a pang of fear exploded through him. He was afraid to believe what his eyes were telling him. He recognized features of himself and his beloved wife in the child’s face, and the sight took the life out of him. Tears filling his eyes, he began to sink to his knees. Between shakes and sobs, Shindara choked out one word.

“Ryoko…?”

The girl smiled warmly at him.

“Of course, father. It’s me. Your daughter.”

Shindara felt as if he had been born again when he heard the word “father.” He reached blindly for his child, but she was already running into his arms. He caught Ryoko and swung her up into the air and held onto her with every fiber of his being.

When at last he set her down, he tried to stop from crying, but it was futile.

“Are you happy?” he whispered through his tears, his pain, and his joy.

“I am,” Ryoko replied with a giggle. Still gasping for air, Shindara reached out to stroke her cheek.

“Your mother… is she here? Have you seen her?”

“She is always with me. I see you carry her close to your heart, too.”

Shindara looked down at the flask of ashes hanging from his neck and he immediately grabbed it.

“I’ve thought of you and prayed for you every day. I whispered your name to the ancestors, begging for your happiness and your forgiveness.”

Ryoko answered with earnest seriousness and a hint of puzzlement.

“What for? There’s nothing to forgive, father.”

“But I should have saved you. I could have fought harder, ran faster, and maybe…” He wiped at the tears streaming down his face. “I’ve lived with your loss and your mother’s every moment of every day.”

Rushing back into his arms, Ryoko gave him the tightest hug that she possibly could. After much silence, she looked up at him. Her face was playful and joyous, but her eyes betrayed the somberness in her voice.

“Remember, father, all darkness must end.”

“How do you know this?”

“Because nothing lasts forever.”

Her words comforted Shindara and reminded him of how much he had at stake. He knew the darkness would end once his curse was removed. If his daughter believed in his salvation, then he certainly did, too. He squeezed her hand in thanks, but her fingers quickly slipped through his.

Shindara watched as his daughter slowly retreated, but the loving smile never left her face. Ryoko stepped back as if her soul was being tugged in the opposite direction. With a sigh of the wind, she vanished in a shower of flower petals. It felt like Shindara’s heart was wrenched into two as the cherry blossoms tumbled to the ground.