t the ends of the earth was an ocean called the Kyokai, the “Sea of Nothingness.”
Two realms sat at the borders of its eastern and western reaches. Although normally cut off from each other, with no communication or commerce passing between them, the same legend had arisen in each—of a land of dreams far across the horizon.
Only a chosen few could visit that blessed and fertile place, where riches gushed forth like fountains, whose people, free from pain and suffering, neither grew old nor died.
One of these kingdoms was known to the other as Hourai. And the other called its mysterious companion Tokoyo. In both of these mysterious, isolated worlds, in Hourai and in Tokoyo, a child opened his eyes. In both it was the dead of night.
He was awakened suddenly by the sound of voices. The whispers crawled through the darkness. His mother and father were conversing outside the house.
It was less a house than walls and a roof formed by straw mats strung across four poles. The bare earth was his bed. The trill of insects filling the night spoke to the lateness of the season. But he didn’t have even a blanket to burrow under, only the shared body heat of his brothers and sisters.
The family had enjoyed better accommodations in the past. But they were no more, reduced to ashes in a city consumed by fire.
“We have no choice,” his father said under his breath.
“But—” his mother stammered. “He may be the youngest but he is so smart it’s frightening.”
The boy shivered in the darkness. Now that it was clear they were talking about him, the fog of sleep abruptly fled.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders. Other children his age have barely learned to talk. It’s almost like he’s from another world.”
“That’s true. But no matter what else, he is still a child. He won’t understand what’s happening.”
“That is not what concerns me. I fear that anybody who takes that child’s life will be cursed.”
The child tugged his collar up around his ears, curled into a ball, and tried to fall asleep. He didn’t want to hear what his ears were telling him. Though he wasn’t yet four years old, he knew what this conversation was about.
The voices droned on. He did his best not to listen, driving consciousness from his mind, forcing himself to fall asleep.
Two days later. “Boy.” His father peered down at him. “I’ve got to run an errand. Want to come with?”
“Sure.” He didn’t ask where to or why.
“All right, then.”
His father reached out his hand, an enigmatic expression on his face. The boy took hold of it. The big, rough hand enveloped his. They left the house and set off through the sea of charred ruins. Forging deeper into Mt. Kinugasa, they continued up and down the slopes until he had surely lost his sense of direction.
That was when his father finally let go. “Boy, you wait here. I’ll be back soon. It won’t be long.”
“Okay.” He nodded.
“Stay here. Don’t go wandering off.”
He answered with a bob of his head. His father strode off, glancing back over his shoulder several times before disappearing into the woods.
I’m not going to budge an inch. I’m going to stay right there. He clenched his fists and looked in the direction he’d last seen his father. I’m definitely not going to do anything like go home.
True to that pledge, he didn’t take a single step from that spot. When the sun set, that was where he slept. When he grew hungry, he plucked the wild grasses within his arm’s reach and nibbled at the roots. He drank the night dew. After three days, he could not move if he wanted to.
Here is where I will wait, for he knew that going home would only leave his parents fit to be tied.
The bodies of the dead were heaped in piles around the burned city. The man his father worked for had been killed by a common foot soldier in the West Army. Without a job or a home, keeping the family together might be possible if there was one fewer mouth to feed, one fewer child who could not work to feed himself.
He closed his eyes and surrendered to his muddled mind. Before consciousness fled, he heard a sound like that of a wild animal prowling through the grass.
I am waiting here.
He would wait for his family to survive and live on, for this ravaged world to settle down, for their fortunes to improve. Then they would remember him and come to bury his body and send his soul onto the next world.
He would wait forever, if that was how long it took.
He awoke in the middle of the night. People were talking. He was so tired he couldn’t make out what they were saying, only that they were taking his mother to task. He tried to rouse himself and rush to her defense but could not tear himself free from the bonds of sleep.
The next day, his mother took him by the hand and they left the village. She wept as they walked along. He’d never seen his mother cry before.
He didn’t have a father. His mother said he’d gone to a faraway place. They’d moved here after their farming hamlet burned down. They slept on the ground in a corner of the village.
The large group of people that had gathered there had dwindled away, leaving only a small number behind. He was the only child. The adults, except for his mother, treated him coldly, beat him cruelly, and showered him with abuse, especially when he complained that he was hungry.
Stifling her sobs, his mother led him through the scorched rice fields. They came to a mountain and continued on through the trees. He had never ventured this far before.
In the midst of the forest, she finally released her hold. “Let’s rest here for a while. Are you thirsty?”
He was and he nodded.
“I’ll go look for water. Wait here, okay?”
He was tuckered out from all the walking, so despite the unease he felt about his mother going out of sight, he nodded again. She patted him on the head several times, then quickly backed away and hurried off into the forest.
He sat down on the ground. At length, worried that she wasn’t coming back, he set off to find her. But after stumbling through the forest, calling out for her, he couldn’t tell where she’d gone or how to get back to the village.
He was cold and hungry. Worst of all was the thirst.
He walked on, crying and looking for his mother. Eventually the forest ended and there was the seacoast. Following the shore, he made it back to the village by evening. He ran through the village searching for her. He only met people he’d never seen before.
The only thing that made sense was that somehow he’d ended up in a different village.
A man approached him and asked what was wrong. He managed to choke back the tears long enough to explain what had happened. The man patted him on the head and gave him a little food and water.
After that, the man exchanged a long look with the people gathered around, then took him by the hand and brought him back to the cliffs overlooking the sea. Far across the blue water was a range of tall mountains that continued on and on like an immense gray wall.
They stepped up to the edge of the cliff. The man patted him on the head again, mumbled, “Sorry.”
And pushed him off the precipice.
When he next opened his eyes, he was in a dark hole. The smell of salt water filled his nostrils, twining together with the familiar odor of rot and decay. The smell of the dead. He was used to it by now so it didn’t frighten him or leave him especially unsettled.
He was simply wet and cold and lonely. He heard something moving nearby and turned in that direction. Due to the darkness, all he could see was a large, lumpy shadow.
Now he wept. Yes, he was scared but the loneliness was far more overpowering.
He felt warm breath on his arm and jerked backwards. Something light and fluffy ran across his skin, like a bird’s downy feathers. This dark place must be home to a big bird, and it had taken a good measure of his condition.
He was too startled to move. The feathers pressed forward and around him. The wings enveloped him. In that precious pocket of warmth, he clung to the feathers.
“Mama—” he cried over and over again.
There never was a Paradise waiting at the furthest reaches of the Kyokai. In the end, that dream was only a reflection of the deeply-held desire of people suffering in Hourai no less than they did in Tokoyo.
These two children had been abandoned in two realms to the east and west of the Kyokai. And yet one day, quite by chance, they would meet.
Together they would bear the ruin and destruction of the world on their shoulders, even as they sought to create a Paradise here on Earth.