gloomy, moonless night. Clouds covered the sky and hid away the stars. The waning drone of the insects foreshadowed the impending end of fall. According to the calendar, a new month was upon them.
The craggy You Range in the north of Bun Province was home to four Ryou’un Mountains. The first snows of the season fell there that night.
The city had a distant view of the mountains. Wrapped in the black cloak of the night, the residents of the city looked forward to the brief respite of dreams. Outside the city, there were those who also waited for sleep and perchance to dream. Unable to secure lodgings or find anyone in the city to take them in, they huddled around a fire in a fallow field.
They had no idea where the morrow would take them or how far they would have to travel so they could settle down with peace of mind.
Along the hills looking down on that fire, dew dampened the graves of the travelers who had exhausted the last of their physical reserves along the way. As if mourning those lost hopes, the insects trilled once more before lapsing into silence.
No one rested well that night in Bun Province.
In a hut not far from the graves, an old man wrapped himself in tattered cloak. The hut had once been a tool shed. Save this shed, he had lost everything, including his house in the hamlet and his family. Working their fingers to the bone, they’d managed to save up that much, only to have it stolen by bandits. The old man alone was left alive. He had long since lost the will to live. Now all he could do was pray.
Pray to travel more quickly to where his family was waiting for him.
He had reached his limits. During this hopeless era, when such a prayer was the only wish left to an ordinary man, the sooner it all ended the better. He’d lived long enough and looked forward to nothing. He no longer possessed the inner strength to wish for anything more except to finally end things himself on this miserable night.
Save me, the old man muttered and tugged at the lapels of his cloak.
Except so many in so many places voiced the same desire. His own suffering was but a drop in the ocean. He harbored no yearning for salvation other than to be freed from suffering by leaving the world behind.
As he prayed, a woman stood at a window and gazed at the black night. Her winter home in the hamlet was home to no one but herself. She once lived here with her husband and child. Visions of that beloved family flickered in and out of the corners of her eyes.
Tonight is better. Because there is no light.
Any glint of light made the visions all the more piercing in their clarity. The chair where her husband sat. The son playing with wooden blocks around his feet. The daughter who had finally learned to stand while holding onto the table. Eating a frugal dinner around the table. Laughing and sleeping and crying.
That was why she did not light the lamp, why she did not wake during the day and kept the door shut tight while the sun still shone. During the day, she could see the claw marks left by the youma on the dirt floor and on the furniture, and the splatter of blood stains on the walls. The sight was sure to revive in her mind’s eyes those heartrending remains lying in a pool of blood.
She usually worked in the garden about now. But the lack of light made that impossible. These idle times weighed the heaviest on her heart.
A life like this can’t end too soon.
Pondering that same thought, a local civil servant lay in the dark and breathed out a painful sigh. He lived in a deserted village at the foot of the mountain. This house was the only remaining residence and he was the only remaining resident. His breath as well seemed on the verge of petering out.
He was born in this dying village in Bun Province. To the delight of his friends and acquaintances, he became a provincial civil servant. Then after ten years, he deserted his post and returned to the place where he was born.
The provincial palace had become an unrecognizable den of thieves. Bureaucrats wandered the hallways with lifeless eyes. Every time he tried to make things right, he was demoted and threats were made against his life. He had no choice but to quit. His name removed from the Registry of Wizards, he slipped out of the palace and went into hiding before finally making his way home.
The village was deserted. Anticipating his moves, the Provincial Guard had laid waste to the area, killing his beloved mother and father along with the neighbors he so dearly missed.
Since then, having no idea what he should or could do, he stood watch over the ruins.
But that was coming to an end too. He’d fallen ill over the summer. His condition grew worse day by day. He was no longer a wizard. That meant an illness could take his life. And perhaps that was a good thing. He had no desire to see how this world was going to turn out.
Lying on his sick bed for these past three days, he first lost his voice, and then he couldn’t even sit up. His hands and feet grew numb. He could barely move a muscle. Up until the day before, his joints had throbbed unbearably. Though today they felt strangely fine.
They were all waiting for him in that other world.
Wringing each breath out of him, he stared up into empty space.
A small hamlet located not far from that small village.
A girl came running out of a ramshackle shack barely distinguishable from a lean-to. She hurried down the road carrying a basket in one hand and a lantern in the other.
In the north of Tai, people didn’t usually live in the hamlets. Common practice in this world was to divvy up the house and farm properties between the hamlet and the village. But during the winter, the vacated buildings were bound to collapse under the snowpack.
Consequently, the buildings in the hamlets consisted of little more than temporary shelters thrown together during the summer while they eked out a living tilling the land and grazing livestock. The structures that collapsed over the winter were easily rebuilt once the snows melted.
These homes were furnished with the bare necessities. Except this was the house where the girl lived. Fire had destroyed the town she and her family had once lived in. Wandering along the road, a passing stranger said that one of these hamlet shacks should suit them fine. And so they ended up here.
They dug a fire pit inside the cramped quarters, heaped dirt around the outside of the thin walls, rethatched the roof with strips of bark, and managed to make a home of it.
The girl’s mother was dead. She’d been told her mother died in an accident. By and by she came to learn that her mother had been assaulted by sadistic soldiers and murdered. Her father worked in a nearby town for a wealthy farmer. He’d leave, work, and return. In their father’s stead, as he labored with all his might, the three children managed the household.
On days like today, when their father couldn’t return home, they took on the chores their father normally did, such as watching over the charcoal kiln and gathering branches from the mountains. They split the wood, peeled off thin strips of bark and steeped them in water. Weaving the properly soaked strips into boxes and baskets was the only thing they couldn’t do on their own.
Passing the night so engaged, the girl suddenly remembered that this was the night of a new moon. On the night of a new moon, her father always went to a nearby mountain make offerings. Her father wasn’t home that night, so one of the children had to go in his place.
But her older brother was standing watch over the charcoal fire. Their father could catnap throughout the night while keeping the fire from going out, something her brother couldn’t pull off yet. The charcoal was critically important. They could sell nuts and berries instead of charcoal but there was little profit in them. Charcoal was the only way to earn a living.
One of them had to stay up with her brother and make sure he didn’t fall asleep, and the only person who could do that was her older sister. She stripped the bark off the boughs as she chatted to keep him awake.
The girl was still only nine. She couldn’t stay awake all night peeling the bark off the tree limbs. In their stead, she ran down the pitch-black road bearing the offering.
Though the road at night was frightening, she didn’t want to disappoint her father. He wouldn’t get mad at her if she didn’t. But he would surely grieve. And the next day, despite having returned home ragged and worn, he would still set off, even a day late, to make the offering himself. Bringing the offering once a month was terribly important to him.
With a tight grip on the basket, she hurried as quickly as she could. She left the hamlet and scampered down the dark road. Descending the mountain path brought her to the deep stream pool in the valley river that would carry the offering away. She ran on with all her heart and soon arrived at the edge of the pool.
A wide rocky ledge pitched slightly below the grade of the path skirted the edge of the pond. Coursing down the mountain from its headwaters, the river slowed here and pooled. Tucked into the embrace of the gorge, the brimming pool narrowed to a gap at the far end. Beneath the fissure that rent the cliff like a torn cloth, the black hole gaped open. The river poured through the mouth.
There must be a cave at the back of that mouth, though the throat appeared too constricted for even a child to wiggle through. To be sure, She and her siblings hadn’t ever tried. The opening was set into the base of the cliffs on the opposite side of the pool. It could only be reached by swimming across the widest part of the pool.
Worse, the placid surface of the pool hid the strong undertow, making it dangerous for children to swim there. The water was deep and the black mouth swallowed water at a prodigious rate. A little harmless wading could easily result in being swept into the hole. The girl did not dare do such a thing even in the middle of the day.
This night as well she swallowed hard and carefully inched toward the edge of the ledge. Along the way she paused and cast her eyes upwards in the direction of the headwaters. The farm her father worked was located near the headwaters of the mountain river.
The girl once asked why they performed such a ritual. Her father always put a few edibles and a few coins and scraps of clothing into the basket they wove from vines and strips of bark. The girl knew what it was like to go hungry when there was no food to put on the table. And yet food was placed in the basket and cast into the water. She simply couldn’t understand why items they could all share were going into the basket.
Her father explained that a very important person dwelt at the far reaches of this river. The water that flowed from the pond was consumed by the mountain, Mount Kan’you. That very important person had died there.
He died on Mount Kan’you and resided in the spirit world located on that mountain. A lack of food and clothing would leave him in distress. Though their family was poor, they had enough for a daily meal. As that august person could only partake once in a month, they should do their best to persevere. That’s what he taught them.
Much the same way, they left food and clothing on their mother’s grave. While treating someone she didn’t know as a close acquaintance was odd, in truth, she did not know her mother that well either. She’d died when the girl was young and she didn’t remember her face or voice.
It’s so sad that he can only eat once a month, the girl thought as she checked her footing and dropped the basket from her small hands into the water. The covered basket did not sink but bobbed along in the current until the wan light of the lantern no longer reached. The girl watched it disappear out of sight, then turned her gaze toward the cave, now hidden behind the black veil of the night.
She wondered if she would have to live in that scary place one day when she died.
Not far from the ledge overlooking the pool in the ravine of the mountain, a man hunched down in the gloomy dark. A voice echoed faintly around him.
“—we fought there—”
So dark the single point of light appeared on the verge of winking out.
“—and died there—”
Surrounded by the night, the figure sitting there didn’t move. The song spilled from his mouth more like a hum.
“Perished like dogs at the side of the road and ended up food for the crows.”
The low and lifeless voice, altogether bereft of emotion, flowed through the gloom. From not far off, the sound of rushing water chimed in like a chorus.
Please tell the crows on our behalf
To spare a moment before gobbling us down
And shed a tear like they truly care
Weathered and worn and without even a grave
How in the world might our rotten meat
Flee from the tip of your pointed beak?
The man hugged his knees and buried his head between his arms and shook with stifled laughter. Perhaps he remembered the day when he roared with laughter while singing the song. Or perhaps he was laughing to scorn at his own private recital in the dark.
The dim lighted wavered again. The figure stirred, lifted his head to make sure the fire had steadied again, and then lowered his head again.
The day dawns
And full of life they set off for war
The night falls
And none of them have returned