Shindara lingered several steps behind Izanami as they meandered through the foothills. The grass was bending low under a cold gale. The sky above hinted at rain or portending storms, but they seemed to hold their collective breath as Izanami approached. Above, there was an angry whorl of gray and white haze. Nonetheless, the heavens didn’t split wide open.
Izanami didn’t seem pleased with their good fortune. She seemed more nervous than excited at the thought of whatever awaited them. The fact that she was this anxious made Shindara brace himself.
Honestly, he still couldn’t believe that he was talking to the creature deity of the Yomi. The first Abhorrent. He glanced around the hillside and wondered again if he was dreaming all of this. Maybe he was going to wake up in the next few moments beside a campfire burning low. Yes. None of this was real.
“Are you coming?”
Shindara didn’t mean to stop in the middle of their trek, but he was hypnotized by the sights around him. As he scanned the low-lying hills, he realized they were haunting in all the right ways. Ghostly trees were emerging from a sea of mist. Cloudy, yellowed miasma. He imagined this must be what it was like to view the setting sun through a chunk of amber.
He expected it to taste like poison with his next breath, but it was simply mist.
“I wanted to ask you something,” he said, focusing on Izanami’s silhouette. She was becoming less of a person and more of a strange shape in the fog. For a moment, he grew nervous and hoped she hadn’t heard him—but no, he had to ask her. “Before I summoned you here, where were you? When I spoke to the hags of the Yomi, they said you hadn’t been seen in centuries.”
“Centuries? I seem to recall thousands of years passing me by.”
“Then what happened to you during all that time?”
“I’m honestly not sure. I don’t remember how it happened, but I think the rage and shame eventually consumed me. I ceased to exist. I became the blackness at the bottom of the ravine. The shadows between the mountains. And I became the ichor in the River of Three Tortures. When you put on my mask, it gave me form. You woke me.”
Shindara hesitated with his next step.
“I brought you back…”
“You seem to have trouble wrapping your mind around that idea. Is it really that difficult to believe? I felt you when put on my mask. It was like looking into a mirror in some ways.”
Shindara wasn’t overly fond of that comparison. “So you think I’m just like you?”
“No, not exactly. I think I’m better.” Izanami coyly glanced at him over her shoulder, as if she was daring him to prove her wrong. Shindara only chuckled in response and followed her toward a massive hill.
He almost didn’t feel the path rising at first because it was such a subtle climb. It gradually dawned on him that he was looking over the tops of the trees, high enough to see the forest stretching to the South. It was a dramatic and jaw-dropping vista, one that completely captured his attention. He could see the bog he marched through earlier where he tripped and fell.
Turning away, he noticed Izanami was also standing frozen in her steps. She was further along the path and staring at something ahead of them. Whatever it might be, it was shaking her to the core.
Forgetting the view of the hills, Shindara moved quickly to join her. When he reached her side, he was stunned by the viewing awaiting them. The top of the hill was dominated by a dozen or so burial mounds. Each of them was roughly the size of a boulder, and they commanded the hilltop with the presence of the gods. Shindara felt oddly nervous to walk in their shadows, but Izanami had no such hesitation. She seemed to know exactly where she was going as she wove among the graves. She took her time pausing here and there to reflect on the round-shaped mounds of earth. Each of them represented a life that was taken too soon or cruelly lost to her. Interestingly, some of them were guarded by unglazed, clay figures.
They were known as haniwa, and each of them was formed in the likeness of a human. Some of them wore happy expressions while others appeared to be crying or inexplicably angry.
The haniwa were meant to act as talismans to protect the deceased. Some of the nearby villagers believed the spirits of the dead actually resided in these statues. If it was another day and another time, Shindara would have been tempted to sit down and contemplate their existence.
It was likely that no one else knew they were here besides a few wandering samurai or nomadic peoples.
Izanami seemed like a nomad herself as she walked silently among the dead. Memories seemed to find her because she occasionally offered a quiet chuckle or a tired smile. Clearly, she was thinking of another life that Shindara wasn’t privy to.
“Who else is buried here?” he asked.
She didn’t reply.
Instead, she led him toward a slightly higher knoll. A burial mound was placed on the sloping side of the crest. Like the others, it was circled by stones and haniwa figures, but something felt noticeably different about this one. It was as if the air grew thinner and crackled with sinister energy. Adding to his suspicions, the sky seemed to grow darker and lighter at the same time.
Shindara knew at once that this was her grave. The site was ringed with tiny clay figures that were a gross parody of humankind. In fact, Izanami was looking at one of them in particular. Without speaking a single word, she knelt before it. Her eyes grew wider still as if she was expecting the clay figure to come alive.
“Do you know how I died?” she finally asked.
“I’ve heard the stories. I know that you were—”
“You know nothing. However you’re imagining it, it wasn’t.”
She seemed unusually volatile in that moment. It startled Shindara to see the fury that was practically burning its way through her eyes. He didn’t say another word for fear of offending her or setting her off. He could tell from her savage expression that she was going to tell him the truth, but not yet. Not until she was ready.
Besides, he already knew how this tale began. It was marred by the birth of the fire god Kagutsuchi. Some claimed this was how Death came to be in the first place.
Izanami stared numbly into the distance as she remembered.
“I was giving birth to one of our sons. Little did I know that my child would be of the flame. I gave birth to the deity of blacksmiths and fire. How was I supposed to know that it would be my last moments on the earth?” She swallowed a deep breath. “He didn’t start to burn me alive until the middle of childbirth. I held on anyway… because that’s what we’re expected to do, isn’t it? We have to swallow the pain without complaint and bite our tongues. So I did. I was determined to see my child live even if I had to die.”
She dragged her nails through the earth, squeezing a handful of dirt between her fingers.
“But my husband, Izanagi… killed… him. In a fit of mindless rage. I felt his death in the seconds after I awoke in the Yomi.” She gently opened her palm, watching the dirt spill through her fingers. “I was going to name him Kagutsuchi.”
Shindara looked around the burial mounds as an eerie thought occurred to him.
“The rest of these are your children, aren’t they?”
“Some of them. I have many more sons and daughters who exist in one form or another.” She didn’t seem keen to elaborate. Instead, she lowered her gaze to the cold grass beneath her. “It’s so strange coming back here.”
“We don’t often get the chance to stand at our own grave.”
Shindara’s dry humor elicited a chuckle from her, which was exactly what he was hoping for.
“It’s a little more complicated than that. It’s strange coming back into this world and feeling alive again.”
As she pondered those words, Shindara noticed she was shaking. She didn’t have to say out loud what she was thinking because it was obvious. She was trying not to finish the tale she began. She hated the ending, and more importantly, she hated the part when her husband fled and abandoned her.
She sucked in an angry breath and felt paralyzed.
“I remember the look in Izanagi’s eyes when he saw my face and my body…” Though her skin was flawless now, it was clear that she hadn’t forgotten the touch of rot and decay. She pressed a cool hand to her cheek and shivered, but it was followed by sounds of mewling, vicious rage. “He looked at me as if I was beneath him. As if I didn’t matter anymore.”
Though she was doing an admirable job of trying to keep herself together, Shindara knew she was badly wounded. It was a wound that no amount of time would heal, and damn the fanciful notions about time healing anything. In fact, the centuries that followed only made it fester.
“I guess I didn’t matter. My traitor-husband ran away from me as if I was filth. He abandoned me to my darkness. To my sorrow. Ever since then, I couldn’t help but wonder if he never actually liked me at all. Maybe I’m not worth loving.” Her lip trembling, she turned a horrified expression on Shindara. He was surprised by the tears in her eyes. The supposedly wickedest creature in existence was crying before him. “What if he never wanted me?”
Shindara felt pity for her as he listened, but he also felt something else. He yearned for her. He almost shrank away from Izanami when he realized these strange feelings. Was it wrong for him to want her like this?
He faced countless demons on the plains outside of Namida, but he never once felt scared. He never ran away in terror of the Oni devils or the tengu demons. He didn’t even panic when a hell beast crept through his bedchamber window with all eight of its legs. Yet, he was suddenly frightened by the way he was looking at Izanami. More than that, he didn’t feel alone when he was with her. For the first in years, the loneliness came crashing to a halt.
He tried to hold in these emotions, but he couldn’t resist saying one stupid and impulsive thing.
“He would be a fool for not wanting you.”
She glanced up at him. It was a sweet expression of thanks, but it was also subdued. She was too meek to accept his compliment. The years of sadness couldn’t allow her to believe anything else.
“As soon as my beauty was gone, I became nothing to him. Is that all I’m worth?”
“No,” Shindara said, kneeling next to her. He almost reached for her, but he hesitated. As he watched the tears rolling down her face, he finally wrapped one arm around her. He was still searching for his next words when she rested her head against his shoulder. “I’ve seen your kindness and your warmth. You have a certain lightness about you.”
“You saw all of that in the cave?” she laughed between her tears.
“No… but I’ve read the stories about your kindness and your…” They both laughed as they recognized this for what it was. Shindara was still trying to hide his embarrassment when she turned his face to hers. Unexpectedly, he found himself looking straight into her eyes.
“Why am I back here? Because of you? I’ve been dead for so long that I’m not sure how to live. I wish I could be grateful, but I only feel confused. I wasn’t supposed to be here. Not here and not anywhere. I don’t know how to not be alone.” She laughed at how ridiculous this sounded and she regarded the man responsible for her return. Despite her melancholy, a hint of thanks shone from her eyes. “So tell me,” she said softly, “how do I feel like I belong?”
Shindara looked past her for a moment, unable to hold her gaze for a second longer. Not without feeling like he wanted to violently kiss her. He gazed in the direction of Sakai, the City of Knives, instead.
“I’m still trying to figure that out ever since I left the rage behind. But if it gives you any comfort, I’ll be here to help you. I’ll try to keep you safe.”
Izanami chuckled at such a sweet and naïve notion.
“What will you protect me from?”
They smiled at each other as they considered how absurd his answer was. And yet, it was the only answer that would suffice. Slowly, she rose and walked past him, running her fingers along the side of his jaw. Bidding him to follow her.
It was strange how he felt as if he already knew her. Theirs was a bond that seemed to span days instead of hours. What he realized in that short amount of time was that she deserved the same second chance he’d been given. Maybe it was because she was the Abhorrent, too, and he needed to know they both deserved a chance at happiness.
He was still smiling at her when he felt the ground loosen with his next step. As if irony was answering him, the burial mound nearest to him collapsed.
The earth seemed to swallow up Shindara and send him floundering into the deepest possible hole. He heard Izanami crying out his name above, but he was more acutely aware of what lay below. He saw a blur of weapons, armor, and ornamentations left as gifts at the bottom of a grave. Every clay vessel and iron breastplate seemed to be rushing up to greet him.
Because life is the greatest irony of all.