12 Oct Lanterns
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Estimated reading time — 4 minutes
Mark’s head rocked wildly in the pillow as a muted moan popped from his throat. His eyeballs thrashed about under clenched lids, kamikaze fireflies trapped in a skin jar. He jerked awake, and his first sight was the glowing bulb of his bedside lamp. It lit the room in a pale imitation of daylight, and he was grateful.
He glanced over at the next futon. Wife-san lay there breathing regularly, apparently undisturbed. Her face seemed somehow strange, unfamiliar. But when he rubbed his eyes, everything was fine.
Wiping his forehead with the back of one hand, he examined his sheets and pajamas with the other. They were all drenched in sweat, and the book he’d been reading as he drifted off was wedged under the small of his back. Maybe he shouldn’t have started it. Sure, it was full of trite, mostly laughable “true stories” of alleged hauntings, but one of the tales in it had really creeped him out.
A little girl and her mother lived together in an old house in a small town. There was the usual stuff about disembodied footsteps, doors opening by themselves, and voices calling in the night. But one of the manifestations was a bit unusual, and had given him a case of the heebie jeebies.
The little girl had told her mother of a triangle headed man who occasionally peered into her room at night from the closet. The phrase “triangle headed man” had opened up bizarre geometrical perspectives for the human face and head, making Mark’s mind wander in lurid curiosity. After reading that passage, he had snapped the book shut and gazed up through his window, seeing an alien, bitter man with a triangle-shaped head in every dark cloud.
Again he glanced over at Wife-san, her face sweet in repose. He clicked off the lamp but the moon lit the room quite well all the same. A sudden sensation of being lost among dark mountains overtook him. He was traversing a mountain path, could feel the hard ground beneath his feet as he gently ascended a slope. Up and up he went, the moon lighting his way.
It felt good. He began thinking of the famous landmark, Bakke-Toro. Was it near here? No, it was in the mountains just to the west of Nikko City, an area of sacred shrines and relics. There one could find Bakke-Toro, a large copper lantern located in the grounds of Futara-san Shrine, which sat atop the sacred mountain of Nantai. In ancient times, the people of Nikko revered Mount Nantai as a gathering place for the gods and devils of the mountains. The lantern itself was traditionally believed to change into a demon when lit, and its ten sword marks from the blades of samurai attested to the power of this belief.
He imagined climbing that mountain, reaching the first few buildings of Futara-san and heading towards the Bakke-Toro. In the dim light, he could just make out the sword marks on its frame. Someone was nearby, seen in shadow. A robed man. That man was about to light the lantern…
Wife-san coughed loudly in her sleep, breaking the reverie. The cold, plain walls of the bedroom were again visible in the moonlight. His mountains had disappeared, but something from the vision had remained, an obstinate sense of a presence. The atmosphere felt murky around him, the blankets oppressive. He shook free of the heaviest of them and turned to look at Wife-san.
Her sleeping face seemed strange again, somehow distorted. He moved to get a closer look, and felt his hair stand on end. The face he gazed upon was not the face of his wife, but that of some incomprehensible, ghastly being.
It opened its eyes.
Lunging up through the darkness, he landed on his feet and slapped on the overhead light. There lay beautiful Wife-san again. Her eyelids tightened as she turned over on her side. He turned the light back off, and went next door to read in his den.
Several hours later, he awoke in the sofa, his neck aching. He headed downstairs to get ready for work. Before preparing his usual breakfast of toast and coffee, he went to the washroom for a quick shave in the dirty mirror.
Walking to the train station, he reflected on what he had seen. Up close had been the test. In the dark, Wife-san’s face had seemed fluid, evil. Then in the light, she had appeared normal again. Now here he was, heading to work in the early dawn, trying to convince himself it had all just been his over-excited imagination. He caught the rapid train as usual and found a good seat. On the twenty minute ride he stared at the pretty face of a young passenger who was intently reading a magazine. When she finally raised her eyes to meet his gaze, her eyes startled him terribly.
That night he found himself near the Bakke-Toro again. It was more real than sleeping, more real than his room. The robed man stood nearby, glaring at him with dull, triangular eyes. Mark turned away from the robed man and looked down at his own arm of copper, counting ten sword marks. The sudden reflection of a flame over those marks mesmerized him.
Then someone coughed, waking him back into reality under the blankets. His gaze fell upon Wife-san’s fluid face. It was changing again. The sight was unspeakably real, but he didn’t try to rub his eyes. Her face morphed through a rapid succession of hideous, animal appearances. Confusion became terror. He turned away and tried to focus on the moonlight, which soon coalesced into a cloud of mist. In awe, he perceived that something was trying to enter the room through that mist.
He fought desperately to move, to get up, but his body would not respond. He opened his mouth to scream, but the pathetic muted sounds he voiced were the incoherent mutterings of a baby. As though by some invisible force, his body vaulted upright all at once, and he came face to face with an evil triangular head, which somehow bore three distinct faces, each vying for space in dark shades of grey. They spoke to him in unison. Alien tongues.
Wife-san cried out. She could hear pained mutterings nearby in the dark, and some deeper voice as well. “Wh-h-Wh-who–is–” she began to ask, but her mouth refused to complete the sounds. Presently there came a violent thrashing of limbs and blankets. Fighting a burst of pure terror she lunged for the light switch…
Wife-san gazed down helplessly upon the convulsing body of her husband. His arms were flailing in unison, his hands gripping together as though wielding some invisible weapon. She called out to him, got down on her knees, and shook him; shook him and screamed his name. But he could not hear her calling to him. He would never hear earthly sound again.