light snowfall danced through the night air.
The man crouched down and leaned back against the tarnished silver tree. A ragged brown cloak covered his head. He tucked the cloak around his chin and ducked his head to stave off the freezing wind. A small fire burned in the cracked, rusted pot at his feet, his sole source of light and heat. He’d collected the kindling along the way.
Branches hung down around him, the same dull gray color as the trunk. The hard lines of the bare branches seemed smelted out of tarnished silver, as if embracing him within the bars of a jail cell.
The tree was surrounded by a wrecked building. The roof was mostly caved in, the walls fallen down. Nothing kept out the wind and snow. The fire at his feet was alone in the darkness, the only sign of human life.
The village beyond the building was much the same. At least half of the structures had collapsed, filling the streets with small mountains of debris. Of the houses that managed to survive, few retained any useful form or function. No lights glowed in the windows. No signs of the inhabitants were evident anywhere.
The barrier walls surrounding the village were in no better condition. In places where sections of the wall had crumbled away, the ink-dark night sky peeked through the gaps, revealing the black ridges of the craggy mountains beyond.
Feeble signs of life yet remained in the center of the ruined village.
Not far from the border, the village was surrounded by steep mountains. The terraced slopes, never suitable for farming in the first place, had long been abandoned. Freed from human hands, the once blessed mountain forests grew wild and untamed. The orchards closer to the village withered as the dense green native conifers crowded them out.
Higher up the slopes, a line of leafless deciduous trees stood like a row of corpses. The cold wind rushed through the woods. The trees trembled and raised sounds that resembled no living thing.
With the ruins of the village reduced to the remnants of a lost civilization, before long, these mountains would no longer be the domain of human beings. The only light that remained glowed at the feet of the man in the shattered remnants of the rishi.
The man crouched there, slumped against the tree in the midst of the dying night.
The fire popped, the flames danced up. For a moment, the light took hold of his attention and focused it on the cold and lifeless branches that reached down around him. The tips of the branches should be white. They were turning black, as if collecting rust while they withered away.
In better times, villagers came to the riboku to offer prayers. Except for a handful of intact houses and a population of nine, the villagers were gone. The riboku too seemed determined to shed its useless limbs.
It was probably too far gone and would perish along with the village. But the man made his camp here and patiently bided his time.
He aroused no undue suspicions among the remaining villagers. They paid him no mind. Impoverished and exhausted, they had no curiosity to spare for the outside world. When the night came, they huddled together against the hunger and the cold. They’d used up the oil for the lamps, and used up the desire to gather kindling to warm the night. As if waiting for a slow death, they closed their vacant eyes and slept.
This village would not sink into ruin alone. The hamlets and villages dotting the wrecked roads were equally spent. All it’d take was one more calamity to tear out what little life remained.
It will not come to that. The man truly wanted to believe. And so he waited for proof of his faith. He pulled the tattered brown cloak over his head and turned his attention back to the fire.
The wind whistled a funeral dirge. The delicate snowflakes danced through the air.