Estimated reading time — 26 minutes
Fear is only as deep as the mind allows, was my mother’s favorite idiom.
Growing up, she never hesitated to use it against my childish fits, whether I was upset about sleeping alone in my bed or trying to convince her there was an Oni in the closet. It was what she lived by, even as the cancer finished eating her lungs. When the light in her eyes disappeared, I grew to loathe every syllable of that idiom, burning with a blistering hatred. I knew that I would never hear it spoken in her voice again. It became the cruel reminder of change. And yet, without it, I wouldn’t have survived the horror I’m about to share. It’s funny, though, how something you’ve rejected for half your life can turn out to be the only thing holding you together.
When I was thirteen (three months after Mom’s passing), my father told me I would be going to Akita to stay with my uncle during Dad’s marine exhibition in Hokkaido. I wanted to die. Not literally, of course, only about as much as I wanted to die in the dentist’s chair before the needle slid into my gums. But this pain wasn’t going to be a quick pinch; it was going to last for the next week.
It wasn’t seeing Uncle Hori I was dreading though, it was my cousin, Sota.
Dad’s cell phone rang. “Moshi, moshi. Yes, pulling in now, okay.”
A fair-sized, two-story home with a thatched roof came into view. It fit perfectly with the other picturesque houses in this secluded community straddled by deciduous forests. A slate path of stepping stones stretched to the front door where my uncle waited. A woman stood next to him, probably the new girlfriend Dad had mentioned. She was wearing a Nordic gray sweater.
“About time,” Hori called to us as we pulled ourselves out of the car. “Did you get lost or something?”
My father closed the car door. “Maybe if someone knew the specifics of their address better…”
“Learn to listen better.” Hori jeered at my father, exaggerating a smile. “Now where is my Yuki?”
“Hi, Uncle Hori.” I grabbed my bag from the trunk and walked over. His arms wove around me in a tight hug. He then gestured to the woman next to him. “Yuki, this is Hina, Hina Otori.”
She nodded her head at me and extended her hand. I smiled and shook it. Her black hair was very short and complimented her young features. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said with an ivory white smile.
“You’ll be staying on the upper floor, second door on the left,” Hori said. “Sota’s room will be right next to it, go say hi to him.”
I wandered upstairs and found the guest room while my father caught up with his brother-in-law. Although my uncle and his ex-wife had separated months ago, the room still had Aunt Maki’s décor scheme: a tiny space full of bright, vivid colors and furniture that screamed dollhouse, her special touch. I imagined an unblinking eye peering in around the flowery curtains and shuddered. The entire house had probably looked like this at some point before the divorce finalized.
I plopped my bag on the tatami floor mat and sighed. One week, my thoughts groaned. It’s just a week, right?
The door beside mine was the restroom, which had a sign on the door. BROKEN, USE OTHER DOWNSTAIRS, it read. Next to that was most likely Sota’s room. I stepped up to the door and stood there for a bit. I knew that it would be rude to not at least say hi to him, but I couldn’t help hesitating.
My cousin wasn’t a rude or overbearing person, but his obsessions worried me. We were both going to be fourteen this March, our birthdays precisely a week apart. The majority of my memories of growing up with him involved his eerie fascination with insects. At family gatherings, he would often be outside interacting with any creepy-crawly little thing he could catch. But Sota wasn’t the kind of kid who enjoyed pulling off bugs’ limbs or pitting them against each other in a plastic container deathmatch; he preferred to treat them as friends. He gave them names, voices, different personalities. All he was missing were tiny clothes.
While he collected insects; I ran from them. That was the gaping chasm that separated us. I didn’t doubt that his latest collection of new friends waited for me behind his door.
I’ll pop in, say hello, and pop out, I thought. As I was about to knock, I heard a muffled conversation on the other side. Sota was already talking to someone. Just as I decided to say hello later, he said, “Come in.”
I did so and shut the door behind me. The inside was dark, very dark, save for the bright laptop screen outlining a seated body. A few streaks of sunlight peeking around the floral curtains.
“You can turn on the light,” he said with distracted awareness.
“Sure, your majesty.” I sighed, flicking the light switch. After the darkness melted away, I saw the hanging scroll paintings and mounted pieces of calligraphy that covered his walls. As expected, several diagrams of different insects’ anatomies joined them. A framed picture of Aunt Maki sat on his desk. Situated on a table below his window was a miniature cherry blossom tree with missing branches. Sharing the space next to it was a foreboding glass terrarium.
Upon hearing my voice, he turned to look at me. “Oh, hey,” he said quietly, rolling towards me on the chair’s caster wheels. We gave each other a light, two-second hug; then he returned to his laptop to shut it off. “I saw you pull in. I wasn’t sure when you’d come by.”
I shrugged. “You sounded like you were already talking to someone.”
“Oh, that was just my mom,” he replied in the same monotone. “She Skypes me from her trip whenever she has time.”
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Europe. She’s touring France right now. Oh!” he suddenly cried with spontaneous eagerness, catching me off guard. “Do you want to meet someone?” He rolled his chair toward the window and ushered me to follow. He was no doubt referring to the glass container.
Pop in, pop out, my thoughts reminded me. Pop in, pop out!
At that moment I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t interested, but the words never reached my mouth. It didn’t take much to hurt Sota; his feelings were like pieces of papier-mâché living in a world of knives. Instead, a measly, “Sure,” wafted out of me.
I’d feel awful destroying that ray of excitement on his face within the first five minutes. As long as I didn’t have to touch anything, there was no immediate problem.
As I joined him at the window, repulsive images were already firing off in my head: a spider outweighing my hand with its hairy limbs, a mantis with those alien claws folded in prayer to thank the evil gods for giving it wings, horrible things like that. I looked down, peeked inside, and saw a horrible, enormous…nothing.
The missing branches of the cherry blossom were planted in a patch of black soil.
“Can you see her?” He asked eagerly.
I finally did. Attached to one of the brittle stems was a worm-like thing. But no worm I’d ever seen before; this looked much worse. Its bloated squishy skin was black and orange with a dark pointy tail. Four spindles protruded from its backside like black, curling tendrils. Goosebumps puffed up my arms. Fear is only as deep as the mind allows, my thoughts repeated reluctantly.
“Her name is Kodami; she’s a Brahmin caterpillar.” Sota lowered his finger an inch from its chewing mandibles. “When she turns into a moth, she could have a wingspan up to seven inches.”
“How do you know it’s a she?” I mumbled.
“I just do.” He shrugged, “Want to hold her? They don’t bite.”
“Nope, no, I’m good,” I said, promptly backing away. Just the thought of that thing’s rippling, squishy mass touching my skin made me want to die again.
I tried to think of anything I could say to change the subject. “So, what do you think of Hina?” I asked.
His smile melted. Dark cloudiness replaced the enthusiastic look. He bit deeply into the skin of his bottom lip. It was clear I had accidentally struck a nerve. Before I had the chance to apologize, he answered me. “I don’t know. Mom isn’t going to like her when she comes back, though.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. “You mean after her trip?”
He looked right through me and tightened the left side of his face into a smirk. “Yeah, after her trip.”
I finished unpacking and waved my father goodbye as he left for his new venture, leaving me to sulk over mine. I spent the rest of the day killing as much time possible with the books and handheld games I’d brought. When that wasn’t enough to sedate me, I’d wander around the tea garden in the backyard.
I slept well that night and thankfully did not wake up to an eye watching me sleep through the windows. When morning came, I went to the kitchen. Hina was there, standing over a purple kettle. “Good morning, Yuki,” she said, flashing that same ivory smile. “Breakfast isn’t ready, I’m afraid. Care for some oolong while you wait?”
“Oh, thank you.” I took a seat at the table. The aroma of dry roasted leaves graced my nose.
She poured some tea into a mug and placed it in front of me. “Your Uncle always likes a hot batch waiting for him when he wakes up. It’s the only tea he ever asks for.”
I blew on it, slurped some up, and then gasped.
“Burn yourself?” she asked.
I looked at my dark reflection in the brew. The complex woody flavor mixed nicely with the subtle creamy nuttiness. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close. For a moment, I felt happy. In the next moment, I felt sad. “No, sorry, it’s just…My mom used to make her tea similarly. It was her ‘special touch.’”
“And who do you think showed her how?” my uncle said, strolling in while Hina preemptively handed him a cup. He smacked a quick kiss on her cheek.
I blinked at him. “But Mom said she had a secret method.”
“Well.” He grinned at me. “She may have perfected it, but I’m the one who gave her the idea, mind you. I don’t think ours will ever be as good as hers, though.” His grin faded.
Sota then walked in and poked his head into the fridge.
“Hey kiddo,” his father greeted him.
“How did you sleep?” Hina asked. He didn’t answer, just muttered under his breath. “Would you like a cup of—”
“No.” he interrupted audaciously.
“Sota,” Hori said, uncharacteristically stern. His son gave him a passing glance and returned to the stairs, leaving an invisible heaviness behind.
“Sorry about that,” he told me, pressing and massaging his left temple. I took another sip of tea.
Later that same day, Sota wanted to show me one of the nature trails near their house. If anything, I figured it would help the day pass a little faster. Hori’s only condition was for us to be back before sunset, or else we’d go to sleep hungry. Luckily the day still had plenty of its golden hours left. Just in case, he made us take the tactical flashlight that he kept in the garage.
We followed the neighborhood’s gently sloping hill, which quickly led us to the park. Behind its empty playground was the trail entrance; a boardwalk that cut through the old-growth forest.
A cold breeze sighed between the beech tree canopies. Sota whistled every time he heard it. The wooden path brought us to a bridge hovering over a small creek. The moss floating over the surface smelled like wet fertilizer, the kind our janitor used on the school lawn, only much more pungent.
Before I had the chance to cross, Sota’s hand clamped over my wrist. “I want to show you something cool.” His eyes suddenly had that electric eagerness again.
“What is it?” I asked cautiously.
In one swift movement, he leaped over the wooden railing and walked headfirst into the foliage. “Come on!” His voice whipped back at me.
“Really?” I groaned angrily and sluggishly followed. What else was I supposed to do?
The sheer lack of a distinct path to follow made me nervous, but it appeared he was following the creek. Some gangly saplings crunched under my shoes. No matter how many times I tried to coax him back to the trail, all I’d get was one of his whistles harmonizing with the wind.
We came across an abandoned railroad track. It was, for the most part, buried beneath a bed of weeds. Whatever route its ancient metal and wooden ties had once followed now belonged to the underbrush. A rusted rail spike was jutting from its iron harness like a snapped bone. I thought maybe this was the “cool thing” my cousin wanted to show me until he stepped over it and continued.
The tree-top thickets above us darkened the area. Less and less sunlight slipped through. Piles of dead leaves were everywhere, with the occasional bell-shaped mushroom poking out of them. The trees here were different, too; their bark was covered in sunken dead cankers. Slimy brown ooze leaked out of them like pus from a popped zit. The visual made me cringe. I didn’t like it here. It was cold; it was different. The air felt stale and damp.
“Here,” Sota said merrily, finally breaking the awful silence.
A torii gate stood over us, the sort of gate you’d find leading to a Shinto shrine. Its large structure was held flimsily together with decaying wood. The horizontal crossbar connecting both pillars had a tablet caked in slime mold in its center, impossible to read. It was honestly a miracle the gate was still standing. Beyond it was a set of rocky steps covered in fuzzy orange clusters that led up the hill in a disorganized mess.
“I found this place two months ago. Don’t bother asking how I did, it just happened. It’s where I met Kodami.”
“Your caterpillar?” I asked, to which he nodded.
I clamped my nose shut to keep out the musty smell of wet-socks and rotting cedar. “Okay, you showed me, can we head back now?”
“Not yet,” he answered and began hiking up the rocky steps toward the top of the hill.
I followed, losing my footing a few times on loose patches of dirt. Situated atop the incline was a large dead tree. I clambered to the top and joined him. The foul odor infecting the air was stronger up here. He pointed at something in front of us.
A sculpture stood at the foot of the lonesome tree. It was clearly of a naked woman, roughly the same height as one, too. Her copper skin was dark and coated with a film of green residue. Spiny black catkins with red and black spindles covered the majority of her body. Her disturbingly thin neck was bent to the side as though broken. Not just that, but her mouth was open in a tooth-baring grimace that displayed a set of uncomfortably realistic teeth and gums. Her tight, skeleton-like arms were digging their fingers into her chest, portraying great agony.
“Watch this,” Sota whispered. He clutched a small rock and then tossed it at the sculpture’s leg. The rock clacked loudly against it.
The sculpture’s skin started to move, wriggling and squirming with life. The slim, spiny objects I had mistaken for catkins were caterpillars, swarms of them, all writhing over each other in tight, jerking clumps. They wormed out of her eyes, her open mouth, her ears, everywhere nightmares could reach.
I staggered back and fell over, nearly sending myself spine-first down the hill. My heart leaped into my throat. My muscles tensed and refused to move. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. All I could do was let the deafening static wash out my thoughts.
The static always came when the fear started to blossom. I couldn’t turn to any fight or flight instinct buried within; I could only freeze. Eat your heart out, natural selection.
“Brahmin caterpillars, every last one,” Sota muttered. “They all come to the sculpture, lots and lots of them. But none become moths. They just die sooner or later.”
He wasn’t wrong, the ground at the sculpture’s feet was riddled with their dried, deflated bodies. “Kodami didn’t want to be here, she wanted to come home with me.” His eyes then scanned the small corpses, “What kind of caterpillar never wants to fly someday?”
He sighed and then lifted his sleeve to itch his arm. Something was written on his skin. Before I could read it, he tugged his sleeve back down. He turned to me and smiled wildly. “It’s getting dark; we can head back now.”
We made it home just before the peak of sunset. Hina was cooking teppanyaki (“The cornerstone of our love,” said Uncle Hori). Unfortunately, she didn’t join us to eat any of it afterward, which Sota seemed cheerful about. For the last few weeks, Hina had been experiencing spontaneous episodes of feeling unwell. Sometimes she felt better in minutes, other times it took hours.
The food looked great, but my appetite had shriveled up and crawled away. I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman. The horrible woman, drowning in a living, wriggling coat. I tried to push the thought back. Useless. That God-awful image wasn’t going anywhere.
Later that night, I dreamed that I was back there, standing in the abandoned shrine. The woman’s grimy face and broken neck faced me. Her mouth started to move. “Yuki,” a hushed voice sang. “Where are you, Yuki?”
The voice was cruelly familiar. I gasped. “Mom?”
“Yes, Yuki,” she whispered, and crooned, “I miss you.”
“Mom!” I screamed and ran to her. The ground squelched and clung to my soles like thick muddy pools. The face staring at me was no longer the pain-infused face of the woman, it was Mom. Her neck wasn’t broken, and she was smiling.
“I want to move, Yuki. But my legs won’t bend.” she said softly to me. “Will you help me move again?”
I wrapped my arms around her cold, metal skin. “Yes, please come home, please come back to me!” I screamed, unable to wipe the cascading tears.
Her mouth elongated. A flurry of Brahmin caterpillars slithered out. They engulfed her, swallowing her body up into a twitching silhouette. “Will you help me, Yuki?”
“I’ll do anything,” I wept. “Just come back.”
“Mommy will come home, but first you must let me in. Let me breathe again. Let me move again. Let me inside.”
“Yes,” I blubbered, thoughtlessly digging my hands into the mesh of larva and pulling out two meaty handfuls. They struggled and jerked in my grip. All at once, I forced them into my mouth. Their flexible, squishy bodies popped between my teeth. Their spindles cut into my gums and the roof of my mouth like a dentist’s needles. Bitter, slimy flavors covered my tongue as I choked them down.
I startled myself awake, looking wildly around for a few blurry seconds. No shrine, no caterpillars, just cold sweat and a miserably tight bladder. I climbed out of bed and walked next door. The please-use-downstairs sign mocked me. Still not fully awake, I groggily stepped downstairs and crossed through the dining room to reach the west bathroom. After relieving myself, I washed my hands and headed back. But this time, I froze.
The lights were on. Hina was sitting on her knees at the dinner table. It had to have been two or three in the morning by then. Why is she up so early? I thought. I passed by her, intending to apologize if I had woken her up.
Something wasn’t right. She was doubled over the short table, blowing out deep concentrated breaths; the blue sleeves of her jinbei hung loosely from her wrists. Her neck was bent, and her shoulders were hunched and locked stiff. A black pool of Sumi ink had been spilled on the table with a pungent sickly-sweet odor. She was dipping her fingers into it and sloppily writing on her left arm, repeating the same characters again and again:
I leaned toward her, “Is everything all right?”
She abruptly twisted toward me. Her sleepless eyes were bloodshot and rapidly rolling around in their sockets, utterly independent of each other. “Ke-ke-ke-ke,” she croaked through a grimacing, toothy smile.
The wall touched my spine before I realized I was backing up. Hina stood up, and her neck slumped to the side and hung there. She turned to me, eyes swiveling like a chameleon’s, streaks of saliva slipping down her chin, and slowly approached. Her legs seemed rigid as she clumsily forced them to bend, like a puppet learning how they work.
I pressed further against the wall, wishing I could fade away into it. My mind was saying Run, but my muscles rejected the order. The static was taking control. Just scream, my thoughts echoed. Wake someone up, just scream!
Her wet fingers grasped my wrist. She leaned forward – her musty breath smelled like old, used-up mothballs – and pressed a finger against her lips.
She let go of me and trudged awkwardly to the front door, where she disappeared into the night. My trembling legs dropped me to the floor. I’m not sure how long I sat there, trying to take back control of my sporadic gasping and disabled motor functions. Once I was able to feel my legs again, I rushed into Hori’s room, nearly giving him a heart attack in the process.
“Ehhhhh, what, what is going on?” He jumped in a drowsy panic. I told him what had happened, showing my wrist, smeared with black fingerprints. He pulled himself up and wandered into the dining room. The black pool of spilled ink was coagulating on the table. Hori reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and dialed a number into it. From the front door came the vibrating bzzzt of a cellphone on the floor: Hina’s cellphone.
He picked it up and glanced at me, concerned. “Did she take her car?” Before I could answer, he was already checking the garage. The car was unmoved. I heard him curse under his breath. “I’m going to take a look around. Stay here in case she comes back, all right?”
I nodded to him and sat on the stairs while he got dressed and headed out with a flashlight. He’d come back shortly after, flustered and empty handed. “She isn’t anywhere close by, let me make a quick call.” The call was to the police.
An officer came by shortly after the call. His barrel-shaped chest protruded out of his dark blue uniform. He had dry scabby lips that screamed for Chapstick. My Uncle talked with him while I waited in the kitchen, washing the ink off with a wet cloth. I idly wondered if I should wake Sota, but decided not to.
The officer came in and asked me questions, one after the other:
“How do you feel about your uncle’s girlfriend?”
“Has she ever acted differently around you?”
“Has she ever told you about any secret?”
I answered him as best as I could.
He smacked his chapped lips together and finalized his notes about Hina’s physical description and the jinbei she was wearing. “Given the circumstances, we aren’t able to conduct a search for an adult who just doesn’t wish to be home. I can hold onto the information you’ve given me for the time being. If you have not heard anything for at least twenty-four hours, or have any reason to fear for her safety, we can provide more assistance. Please keep us informed.” He bowed and returned to the parked cruiser.
We watched him drive off. Uncle Hori looked at me. “Get some sleep, Yuki. I’m sure she’ll turn up in the morning.”
I nodded to him and went to bed where I laid for hours staring at the ceiling. As exhausted as I was, my mind had no intention of resting.
I called my father, who answered groggily. I told him what had happened and how scared I was. He promised to cut his Hokkaido exhibition short and said he’d get me the day after tomorrow. Twenty-four hours never felt farther. I was scared, not quite sure what to do with myself. Why had Hina written on her arm? What was wrong with her eyes? What was happening in this house?
The next morning, the cold breeze from the day before had brought an overcast gray sky.
Hori was making oolong tea alone in the kitchen. He didn’t say too much; his look of exhausted defeat said enough. Sleep must have been scarce for him, also. Sota was in the backyard, seated in the garden. His elbow was lifted and pointed outward as though striking an invisible person. He was giggling and talking out loud, a jaunty, ear-to-ear grin radiating from his face. I thought he was talking to himself at first, before spying the glass terrarium in his lap and the caterpillar’s four spindles crawling across his arm.
“I can’t believe it.” He sniggered quietly. “I just can’t believe it, Kodami.”
We didn’t hear from Hina that day. Nothing but silence through the morning, noon, and evening. All we could do was wait while the pale clouds wafted over us. Despite this, Sota’s upbeat attitude never left him. He was joking, smiling, and perkier than usual. I’d never seen his spirits higher. It wasn’t right, and it also didn’t seem real. He was hiding something. And for both Hori and Hina’s sake, I had to find out what it was before tomorrow.
Around sundown, Hori left for another drive around the neighborhood, another attempt to find her. It was now or never. Just as I was about to tap on Sota’s door, I heard him talking on the other side. I pressed my ear to the frame and listened intensively.
“…don’t understand,” He said softly. “It’s okay now; your trip can be over.” A distressed weight lowered his voice. Another voice replied, too quiet and distorted to make out clearly, but I was almost certain I heard the word complicated. There was a bang on the table. “I don’t care!” He cried. “I did this for you, so why can’t you do this for me? You need to be here! Dad needs you here!” More distorted words. More complicated. His voice rose to a volley of incoherent screams. There was another loud thump and muffled sobbing. No more talking. The discussion must have been over.
I creaked open the door, slid inside, and gently closed it. The room was dark and the laptop’s white void screen once again blinded me. Curled up on the bed, where the light couldn’t reach, was a vaguely outlined body. A desk chair lay on the floor, probably thrown there.
“Was that your mother?” I asked quietly.
No answer. I scooped up the desk chair and planted myself next to him. “Whenever I was upset, my mom would tell me to cheer up before my face got stuck that way.” The dark lump that was my cousin didn’t move. His stifled sniffling sounded in the sheets. “Come on. Just talk to me, okay?”
“I did everything right.” He spoke faintly. “Everything. Right. Everything the woman said to do. And it still isn’t working. She said it would, so why isn’t it?”
I rolled the caster wheels closer, reminding myself of one of those psychiatrists you see on TV. “What woman?”
“The woman in my dreams,” He said, rolling over to face me. His eyes were wide and drenched with tears. Blotches of light reflected off his wet pupils. “She came because I brought Kodami here. That’s how you let her in—through the caterpillars. She said Hina would leave and Mom would come back. She’s real, Yuki, I’ve seen her.”
I didn’t like the seriousness in his voice. The look in his eyes was both real and terrifying. Sure, there was living in your own world where bugs had voices and their own personalities, but this was different. This was the real world, where real people went missing. “It was just a dream you had, probably from that creepy place. I had one, too. Listen, if you know what happened to Hina, or where she is, you have to tell me.”
Abruptly, in a whirlwind of speed, he leaped out of bed and paced around. Words in flakey dried ink were written down his right arm.
“The woman is a liar—That is why it didn’t work. She came because of Kodami, so if I take Kodami back home then maybe she will leave too.” He dashed to the glass case and scooped it up in his arms. “I can fix this!” He bolted for the door.
I grabbed his shoulder and tried to yank him back. “Wait, wait, you need to calm do—”
Something struck me in the head. It took me a moment to realize it was his elbow. Pain throbbed in my temple and blood rushed to the forming goose egg. My knees buckled and dropped me to the floor. I could hear the sound of feet pattering and swinging open the front door. Hot tears left dark blotches on my shirt.
I thought about Hina. I thought about oolong tea. I thought about Mom.
“I’m sorry,” I blubbered pitifully to myself. It felt like I was losing her all over again. The stupid idiom bounced around my aching skull. I wanted to tell it to shut up. Why was I even crying? Sota said he’d come right back. But what if he doesn’t? I blinked my eyes, both marinating in tears. But what if he doesn’t? Here I was, crying my eyes out, while he was going to that awful place all alone. No, I couldn’t let something happen to him. I couldn’t let Hori lose him, too.
I reached into my pocket and called Hori’s cellphone. It rang emptily and delivered me to the voicemail. A few more attempts, same result. Of course, why not? I thought sorely. I texted him a message filled with misspellings and panic. He’d read it eventually, and it would probably give him a heart attack, but it was all I could think to do. Before any more regretful thoughts could sprout up, I grabbed his tactical flashlight from the garage and rushed through the front door.
I raced down the sloping street to beat the sundown clock. I’d find Sota and bring him back; then there would be no more need for hysterics. I hoped so, anyway.
I crossed the empty playground and reached the trail entrance. As much as I tried to fight them back, poisonous thoughts were still breaking through the monsoon. Wriggling caterpillars all over her skin. I pressed on, trying to ignore them. Her slender broken neck. The damp mossy smell hit me when I reached the bridge. That grimacing open mouth, those real looking teeth. Both my hands gripped the wooden railing. Let me in Yuki, let me in. “Oh, shut up already,” I mumbled to the ugly thoughts and hopped over.
If not for the creek, I’d have completely lost my sense of direction. Everything looked the same, especially with so little sunlight breaking through the canopies. And it was only going to get darker from here.
Something metallic crunched under my shoe. I reached the abandoned railroad track. Still no sign of him, though; he must have already crossed. Something also felt different about the tracks, like something was missing. Regardless, I pushed forward. The forest was losing what little light it had left from the day.
My eyes played tricks on me, meshing the branches and shrubs into monstrous shapes. Then I saw Sota, hunched over against a tree. He was breathing heavily, clearly exhausted from the run here. He pressed the glass terrarium carrying his precious cargo into his side.
I quickly caught up with him. “Are you done running away now?”
He didn’t raise his head. “No, I—huff, huff—I still need to—huff—I still need to take Kodami back there.”
I rested my hand on his shoulder. “It’s getting dark; your dad is going to be worried about us. Do you think he needs that on his plate, too?”
“Please, Yuki.” He lifted his red, weary face. A thread of spittle dangled from his mouth. “Just let me do this first. I have to do this. Then we can go back, okay?”
“Why not just squish the thing and be done with it?”
He shook his head, “She’ll come back. I don’t know how, but I know she will. I took her out of that place, now I have to take her back.”
I sighed deeply. The thought of wrestling him all the way back to the trail and then dragging him back home sounded miserable. “It will be quick, right?”
“Yes!” he said with exasperated relief and started walking again. “I’m sorry I hit you, I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s alright; I’ll just have to get you back for it later.”
The shrine gate, in all its decrepit glory, was waiting for us. That pungent rotting smell was back, floating through the air. It had gotten worse somehow. The earthy wet-sock smell had intensified to an outhouse full of moldy meat. “I’m going to wait here; you go do it and come back. I don’t want to see that thing again,” I said, clamping my nose shut.
Before he took another step, we heard a sound. The crackling of dead leaves being repeatedly crunched. Footsteps, coming closer. A set of fingers curled themselves over one of the gate’s supporting pillars and pulled a trudging body forward.
It was Hina, slogging toward us with unbalanced steps. Her bare feet caked with grime. The seams on her dirt-stained jinbei split to the point that it was virtually falling off of her. Her head swayed limply on her shoulders. Stretched across her face was that ugly, twisted smile. And those eyes, they were still twisting freely in their sockets. Things were moving all over her, clusters of spindly caterpillars scrambling endlessly across her body.
Before I even realized it, the crippling fear had already squeezed between my joints. My heart rattled around my ribcage, trying to burst its way to freedom. Sota stepped forward and dropped to his knees in front of her. He was saying something, but it was difficult to hear anything over the deafening static. “…sorry…take back…didn’t want this…”
Hina clenched a handful of his hair. He screamed and struggled in her grip, dropping Kodami’s terrarium into the dirt. She breathed stiffly in croaking moans that sounded like, “Ke-ke-ke-ke,” From behind her back, her other arm lifted. Brandished between her dirt-caked fingers was a rusted train spike.
I stood there, succumbing to paralysis. My thoughts couldn’t free themselves. I was losing myself to the static.
This isn’t real; it’s just a bad dream.
No, it isn’t.
I’m somewhere else, somewhere safe.
No, you aren’t.
A scream broke through.
Is that Sota?
Someone is hurting him.
I have to help.
Then you’re going to have to move.
Before even realizing it, I had fired into a sprint. The dazed muscles in my legs were pumping like steam-powered machinery. I was scared, absolutely terrified. But it didn’t matter; I was moving. My mother’s idiom rang off the walls of my skull, guided by her voice.
Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.
I swung the tactical flashlight. Its toothed head met Hina’s face and splattered a caterpillar on her cheek into a blue-green paste. Her neck swung back with a loud grunt. Although she stumbled a bit, her fingers still clenched Sota’s hair. Three bloody weals opened on her still smiling face.
“Put her back!” Sota yelled, batting at Hina with his small fists. “Put Kodami back!”
All rationality was gone. Maybe he was right; perhaps everything would turn back to normal. The terrarium was lying on its side. I ran toward it and shined the flashlight inside. The caterpillar was crawling along the tipped black soil. I tucked the flashlight into my jacket pocket and cupped the small thing in my hands—I couldn’t believe what I was doing. The feeling of its small, grubby legs tickling my palms sent shivers up my spine.
As I ran for the gate, Hina swayed in my direction. Her fingers unhooked from Sota’s hair. She hurled herself at me with a shocking burst of speed.
I started up the slope, doing everything in my power to ignore the harsh, throaty sounds behind me and the tickling sensation between my palms. A hand locked around my ankle. I tumbled forward into the dirt. When I looked back, Hina’s eyes were no longer rolling. They were dead-set on me. Her arm rose, displaying the rust-coated spike. I screamed, trying to kick my free leg at her, but my awkward position on the slope made it difficult.
She struck with the spike. I forced my body to roll to the side. My ankle, her hand still clamped around it, popped. Sparks flew as the train spike struck one of the stone steps. Tight, searing pain resonated from my ankle up to my leg.
She made a guttural cackling sound and hoisted the spike again. But this time Sota was behind her, the glass terrarium held over his head. He smashed it over her, sending a fine spray of glass and grime everywhere. Her grip slackened, just enough for me to escape.
I pushed off my elbows and got back to my feet. I trekked the rest of the way up the hill, fighting through the sharp pain in my ankle. The sculpture was waiting for me below the lonesome rotting tree. Its frozen grimace matched Hina’s perfectly, only this time, there wasn’t a single caterpillar on its filmy green skin.
Hina tromped up the hill as I staggered to the sculpture. I wasn’t sure what to expect, would this even do anything? A horrible, guttural scream came out of her as I forced the caterpillar between the sculpture’s realistic teeth and into its coppery gullet.
The train spike slipped from Hina’s hands. She took a few weak steps and fell limply to the ground like a filthy ragdoll. The numerous caterpillars she was wearing all toppled off of her and curled into unmoving ovals.
I collapsed. My swelling ankle couldn’t handle anymore. Sota helped me back up, supporting me with my arm over his shoulder.
“I’m sorry.” He was weeping uncontrollably. I’m still not sure if he was apologizing to Hina or me. We left her behind with the sculpture and the caterpillars, who worshiped it no more.
Just as we staggered out of the trail’s entryway, we saw Hori in the parking area, speaking to the same barrel-chested officer as before, most likely because of my message.
He quickly spied us and dashed from the officer to meet us halfway. He pulled us into a tight embrace. “What happened, is everything all right? I’m so sorry I didn’t answer your calls.” The officer followed shortly after.
My cousin and I looked at each other with the same addled uncertainty. The aftermath of everything had left our minds haggard and broken. Even I wasn’t sure what exactly the truth of what happened was.
“We found her in the forest,” Sota said quietly, to the man with chapped lips, a tear trailing down his cheek. “I know where she is; I can take you there.”
An ambulance and a few other officers arrived at the scene. Both Sota and his father accompanied them back into the woods while I stayed with one of the EMTs to have my ankle treated. They gave me some ice and wrapped it in an elastic brace.
After some time, everyone returned. Hori was wearing a face I’d never seen before— a dazed foggy stare, like a ghost trying to remember how to feel. They asked him to remove us from the scene and to return home for the night. They’d be in touch.
The drive home was long and quiet. We pulled into the driveway, walked into the house, and quietly went to our beds. No one said a word. I wanted to say something, anything, but absolutely nothing could clear that troubled air. None of us were going to find sleep that night. I kept the closet light on; it provided some comfort from the shadows that were continually morphing into an upraised arm, waiting to pierce my heart with its rusted spike.
When the sun rose again, I started packing my things. Now and then I’d eye the window, expecting to see my father’s car pull up at any moment. I heard someone crying downstairs. The kitchen was empty, but the crying came from the connecting hallway. Hori was standing there facing the wall, his face buried in his forearm. I could tell he was doing his best to stifle the sounds, but failing miserably. There had to be something I could do, but what?
An idea struck. I hobbled to the purple kettle.
When he came into the kitchen, a cup of oolong tea was waiting for him on the table. He looked at me, puzzled at first, but then he gave me a subtle smile. I watched as he picked up the drink, blew on the steaming liquid, and sipped it. He suddenly winced.
It was probably the poor taste. “Sorry, I’m sort of a lousy tea maker.” I shook my head.
“No, no,” he said, waving his fingers at me. “It just caught me off guard how familiar the taste was. It’s—it’s perfect.”
My dad eventually pulled into the driveway. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to give Sota a proper goodbye through his locked bedroom door.
It was later released that Hina Otori was found dead at the scene. But according to pathology reports, her time of death was the night she disappeared—the same night she walked out the front door.
The next time I saw Sota was at the memorial service held for Hina. For the most part, he disregarded me, every so often granting me a passive glance. It wasn’t until the end that he pulled me aside and started talking. “Everything was gone,” he said in a rattled, trembling voice. “There was no gate; there was no sculpture, only Hina, and the weapon. Where did everything go, Yuki? Was it because of the adults I brought? Is the woman somewhere else now, looking for someone else to let her out of that sculpture?”
I didn’t have any answers for him. How could I have? We both felt crazy. We probably were both crazy. But there was no denying the horrors I witnessed that night. They were real, sickeningly real. Something tried to stop us from returning to that sculpture.
The nightmares that followed were constant, almost every night. That place haunted me: the torii gate choked with slime mold, the rotten pus-bleeding trees, the woman baring her open-mouth grimace, the place where the caterpillars went to die. Without my mother’s idiom, the fear of falling back asleep would have caused me to collapse mentally. But progressively, the nightmares became less and less frequent. I guess even bad dreams can grow bored of their hosts. Even now, when one manages to claw its way back and wakes me in a cold sweat, I always pull myself back.
It became increasingly difficult for me to keep in contact with Sota. He seldom returned my messages. Hori mentioned to me that his son had been seeing a therapist on a regular basis, most likely to help him cope with the dark guilt on his shoulders—reshaping it, making it easier to chew up. Regardless, he’d have to live with it, the ungodly force that he had conjured and used to rip Hori’s new love away. All for the sake of keeping his father from moving on.
I’ve changed a lot since the last time I saw Sota, but how much didn’t strike me until recently. I was typing a last-minute essay, trying to beat my midnight deadline. Something fluttered in my peripheral. A large moth had flown in through the window.
Two intricately patterned eyespots on its wings resembled skulls. It’s black and brown body was robust. I didn’t know until later that it was a Brahmin moth. Taking an interest in the light from my computer monitor, it whiffled over and landed on the screen. It was so close that I reached a finger out and touched its feathery antenna.
It was kind of cute.
Credit : Michael Paige
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