Shhh, shh, shhhh, goes the wind in the trees. The sun is setting and turning the sky is turning into brilliant puddles of orange and violet and pink, and there is a breeze that makes fallen leaves rustle and whisper amongst themselves. The air is growing cool. In the distance, people are talking and laughing and singing, can you hear them? I’ll light a candle–hold it, if you would.
It’s a good night for stories. Here is one that my grandfather told me.
You know how they say when a cat lives to be a certain age, its tail splits into two, and it becomes a totally different creature? It becomes a demon that can make the dead dance and bow to its whims. There’s a faster way to do this, though, and bind the resultant creature to you. Take a black cat that is exactly three months old and not a second older or younger, and tie a ribbon around its neck. Red is the traditional color. Tie the other end of that ribbon to your wrist and lift it up. Let the cat hang. As it goes through its death throes, be careful not to let it scratch you; then you’ll have to start all over. While it dies, exactly as its last breath leaves its body, be sure to look straight into its eyes. Say its name (its true name, mind you, the one that is so difficult to get out of cats–they’re secretive bastards, worse than even foxes, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) as it fades.
If you did it right, the cat will start to squirm again after it dies. You can let it go at this point. In fact, it’s better that you do, because cats don’t like to be held like that, and it’s a lot more powerful than it used to be. So let it go, and if it tries to attack you, use its name to keep it in its place. That’s how you’ll command it for the rest of your life, by using its true name. Raise the dead to torment your enemies! Create an army to conquer your village with! Make certain that the guest lists at your parties are always full! Isn’t that nice? They have so many uses!
By the way–you’d better be careful. Once you make a demon cat, you’re stuck with it for the rest of your life. You’ve got to carry that weight. The responsibility is yours, now, and that cat expects you to bear its weight. Sometimes you’ll need to feed it, and don’t forget. Have you seen what a regular cat does to a mouse when it’s hungry?
Haha, I know! My grandfather knew a selfish stupid man who made himself a demon cat in this way. He wasn’t a very good master, though; he made the cat dance for him, and corpses dance for him, and he terrorized everyone in his village. He was the undisputed leader because of this, saying things like, “If you don’t do as I say, I’ll feed you to my cat! And then your naked bones will dance for your family, and they’ll never rest in their proper grave.” Things like that, all the time, so people were forced to listen to him, just in case he was actually telling the truth.
Oh, he was such a bad man! Everyone disliked him! But he did have a demon cat (a great big hungry creature with yellow eyes and very long fangs), so no one could ever say anything against him. However … well. I said it before, didn’t I? He was a very bad master. He would say, “I’ll feed you to my cat!” and the poor cat would become so excited that it would drool and cry–but then, the man would never do it! People would become afraid of his threats and do as he said, so he never fed them to his cat–and he never fed it anything else, either. He thought, well, it’s dead! What does it need to eat!
–I did say he was stupid, didn’t I? Haha!
Well, what happened next? The story is kind of garbled at this point. But one day–or one night, I should say, when the sun had gone to bed and the moon hadn’t dared show his face, there was a great shrieking sound, like the wailing of a thousand angry cats. People in the village hid under their bids. I bet they had lots of laundry to do the next morning, it was such a terrifying noise! In the morning, though, when they finally crept out of their homes under the light of the sun, they found that the man on the path that led up to his house (which was the biggest in the village, of course). All over it, in fact! And on the door, and inside, all over the walls. They found his face on the windowsill, turned upwards.
They never did find the cat. No, not even haunting the area or lurking on the full moon to scare some unwitting traveler with a few well-placed corpses. Would you want to hang around somewhere where you never got anything good to eat? I wouldn’t! Hopefully it went and found a nicer place to live. Cats who are changed by this way instead of the old-fashioned “live forever” method aren’t as clever, but most of them adapt pretty well. Or so I’ve been told.
Hey, now, don’t leave! I have another story. The other evening, I took a stroll through the festival, the one they’re holding on the hill over there, see the lights? I met a little girl who told me this one. You’ve heard about the no-face, right? It looks just like an ordinary person, but its face is completely blank! It’s not even like wearing a mask, it’s just all smooth blank skin there. Weird, right? This is a story she told me about them.
It was on the night of a summer festival, not an autumn one like this, and there was a couple who attended together. They were both very young and very silly, which is how the story even happened, I suppose. The girl wanted to look at the hairpins that were for sale and the boy thought he would show off by winning her some prizes, so eventually they said to each other, “I will meet you here in this spot, so please wait for me when the fireworks begin,” and they went to opposite ends of the festival.
We’ll start with the girl. She liked some of the pins she saw very much, and bought one that had small green crystals and little twisted gold chains that stood out very nicely in her dark hair. With her purchases wrapped in silk, she went to the meeting place to wait for her lover. But wait! He was already there, and with another girl! Oh, no! She stood there and felt her poor heart break into pieces, and she was so ashamed that she ran away from the scene rather than raise any sort of fuss. She dropped her hairpin–but that’s not important for the rest of her story. She ran beyond the bounds of the festival and into where the the lantern lights couldn’t reach, and it was dark except for the pale light of a sickle moon. And she cried, the poor girl, which is hardly shameful: she was betrayed, after all.
Eventually, though, she heard footsteps behind her. Thinking–hoping, maybe–that it was her lover, come to apologize, she called out his name.
“Yes, it’s me,” she heard his voice say. “I came because I was worried. What are you doing out here in the dark?”
And now she was a little bit angry, because she wondered if maybe he didn’t know what she’d seen. “Why does it matter to you!” she said sharply. “After all, you were with that other girl, weren’t you?”
“Ah,” he said, and now he sounded ashamed. “I’m sorry. She had fallen and I was helping her. It must have looked bad, I’m sorry.”
“It looked terrible! Oh, you’ll have to apologize more than that to make me feel better!” She stomped her foot, which made her feel a little better. “Did she really just fall onto you like that, into your arms?”
“She really did,” the boy said. His footsteps came closer to her, and then a hand took hers. “Please forgive me.”
And because she was very young and very silly, she melted and said, “All right. But only this once!”
“I’m so glad,” he said, and pulled on her arm. She went with him gladly, and they walked back to the festival. Isn’t that nice? When you’re really in love, I guess making up can be just as easy as that. Or maybe when you only think you’re really in love, but you’re too excited by how wonderful it is to think you’re in love to really be bothered about trivial things like trust or guilt or responsibility.
So they walked together, arm in arm, and as they drew near enough to the light to be able to see, the girl looked up at her beloved. And oh! Oh no! His face! It was entirely blank! How terrible, how frightening! She screamed and she pushed him away and she ran, back into the darkness. That’s silly, isn’t it, she should have gone the other way, towards the light and where there were people, but I’ve told you before: she was a very silly girl. She ran and she could hear footsteps running after her, so she ran faster, and she was so frightened. She ran and she ran and because this is how these sorts of stories go, she tripped and she fell–but she did not hit the ground, oh no! Arms caught her and pulled her back, and though it was dark, she could see that awful blank face clearly as it leaned in.
“Got you,” he said, and they say you can still hear her screaming late at night, if you’re very quiet and you hold your breath. Listen!
Hmmm? Oh yes, the boy. What happened to him when he walked away from his pretty girl, who wanted to look at hair pins? Well, he went to look at the game stalls so he could win a prize to show off for her, but while he was there, what happened! Another pretty girl came up to him, with her long hair loose around her shoulders and with a sweet little voice, and she told him she’d been watching him ever since he arrived, and oh! Even though he’d already had someone, he was so very handsome and she just had to express her admiration. She wore a very fancy robe and had good shoes, so obviously she had to be rich! That’s what the silly boy thought, so he said he would gladly walk with her for a while. Only for a little bit! He had his own girl to go back to, but this new girl was so pretty and so very rich, how could he possibly say no!
But being very young and very silly, he lost track of time. They walked together to where he was supposed to meet his pretty girl, but he didn’t want this other pretty rich girl to leave just yet, so he kept talking to her, and talking to her, asking her questions and saying silly things to make her laugh. I understand she had a very nice one, the sort that makes silly young boys excited in ridiculous ways. Did he see his actual lover appear? Maybe he did! Maybe he didn’t. But he stayed there for so long, talking and talking, and eventually it grew late.
“I have to go home, now,” the rich girl said. And she blushed, which was very pretty indeed.
“I’ll walk with you,” he said immediately. “We’ll go together. It’s dangerous to be in the dark alone.”
The rich girl demured and blushed, which was very charming to the boy. Eventually, though, she agreed, and they walked together away from the lights and protection of the festival.
–Did I say protection? People. I meant people.
So they walked, and eventually they were in a dark place alone. And the boy became very bold, putting his hand on the girl’s back and leaving it there, though he’d only just managed holding hands with his actual lover. He was leaning over to breathe in the smell of a rich girl’s hair, which he imagined would have all sorts of nice expensive perfumes, when there was a scream somewhere in the darkness. When he jumped away, he saw his companion’s face clearly.
Or maybe I should say “he saw her lack of face,” because there was none. Smooth clean skin, unmarked by silly things like eyes, or a nose, or a mouth. Her long pretty straight hair, which had been lying so nicely on her shoulders a moment before, came to life and writhed around her face (her lack of face) and she held out her arms to him. And if the girl had screamed in fear for seeing her lover’s doppelganger without a face, how loudly do you think that silly boy shrieked, seeing his new potential lover pulling him into her arms and drawing him in? Haha, I bet that was a shock! You never hear him, but I suspect it’s because that kiss he’d been hoping for went a little deeper than he’d anticipated.
What, you didn’t like that, either? How cruel! A picky audience is always the most demanding, isn’t it–well, don’t worry, I still have another story. This is one that a good friend told me, when he had returned home after traveling from all sorts of different places. He even made it all the way to the capital, how is that fair, I ask you! I’ve never gone beyond the borders of this village, and that’s absolutely the truth–just like everything else I’ve told you so far is.
One last story, then. It is about a dream-eater, a baku. You’ve heard about them, haven’t you? My old grandmother keeps a talisman of one by her bed, and I am sure everyone in this little village does that sort of thing. They eat dreams as well as misfortune, so it’s always a good thing to keep one nearby, just in case.
What happens, though, when you’re born under a lucky star? I know of a woman who my mother’s sister in the next village over had learned about from her mother-in-law, who made sure that her son was born on the most prosperous day of the year, on a fortunate day in the luckiest month under the brightest stars of the year. I heard she held off labor by sheer force of will! How frightening mothers can be, when worrying for their children.
So this boy was born, and he was both beautiful and intelligent, like all the hard work his mother had put into timing his birth for luck had really paid off. Maybe there’s something in fortune-telling after all! People flocked to his side and tried to win his favor, hoping that just a little of his luck would rub off on them as well. And the village was unusually prosperous after all, so just maybe there was a lot of excess luck in the boy’s life, enough to spill over and share with everyone else.
His mother wasn’t satisfied, though: he was the only child of a soldier father who’d died a month after she became aware of her pregnancy, and she was determined that he would know no other misfortune in her life. She bought a baku talisman from a traveling peddler who sold other luck charms and incense from the wooden box upon her back, and she hung it over her son’s bed. She kissed him that night and wished him the best of dreams, telling him that she believed that he would be the safest if he had a baku to watch over and eat his bad dreams whenever they appeared.
Years passed like this, my friend told me: the lucky boy grew up to be a lucky man, who never had to work hard or ask for anything: if he wanted it, it became his easily as breathing. If he stretched out his hand, fruit just dropped from the trees into his palm–or say the story my friend told me goes. I don’t think anyone’s really that lucky, do you? But my friend swears it’s true, sure as he lives, so I’ll believe him if you do. Either way, he was a lucky man who was very soon a rich man, and he moved himself and his mother into a large fine house, and he employed many people in the small village to work and care for them both. That sounds like such a nice life, doesn’t it? I’m sure he was very happy.
And then, one day–just overnight–he went from being a healthy strong young man to a pale sunken-eyed thing overnight. It was remarkable; everyone noticed! He looked like a ghost and he shook like a strong breeze might just pick him up and carry him away. And oh, his poor mother! She saw him and after that couldn’t stop worrying, wringing her hands and fussing over him; she sent him right back to bed right away and called up fortune-tellers and other soothsayers to consult what had happened. None had any idea what was wrong with him, not even the old man who had predicted the fall of the Emperor’s family ten years before.
However, conveniently–and it always happens like this in stories, doesn’t it, I know, I know–the traveling peddler who’d sold the lucky man’s mother the baku charm years before appeared in the village again. He set up shop at the far end of the village, but the mother found out and made her way down there. She fell on her knees and begged the peddler to save her son–poor thing, he was wasting away, what was wrong! He’d been so lucky! He was born lucky! How could this happen!
The peddler looked at her and she said, “The baku is eating your son’s dreams. He’s become too lucky, there’s no longer anything in his life that the baku can eat. It’s hungry, so it’s moved on. They just eat dreams, after all. Nightmares aren’t the only thing.”
“But that’s not how they work,” the mother protested. “They only eat bad dreams! They eat misfortune and sickness! How could this be?”
“They’re just dream-eaters,” said the peddler. “And you mustn’t imagine that because humans see things one way, that the baku will see it the same.”
“It’s not supposed to hurt him!” the mother cried. “But if it is–”
“Be careful,” the peddler said. “You don’t want to be reckless.”
But the mother had already run away. And can you blame her? She was worried for her son, her precious only family, and she’d discovered what was the source of his overnight illness! I said it before, didn’t I: mothers are frightening when it’s for the sake of their children. She ran all the way back to that big fine house her son had built for them out of his luck and money, and she grabbed that talisman from his bedside. The image of the baku was tarnished, almost black, except for its eye. She took it and she ran to the big fires that were kept lit in the kitchen, and she flung it in with all of her might.
Her son began to scream. Oh, it was such a terrible sound! Loud and piercing, like something was being ripped out of him, and immediately his mother ran back to his rooms–by herself, of course. None of the servants would dare approach such a terrible sound; the cook fainted dead away. The mother burst into her son’s room, and what do you suppose she saw?
It’s not completely certain, you understand. My friend heard this story while he was traveling, from someone who’s cousin had been friends with the wife of a man who worked in that household. Still, it must have been a terrible sight: the mother was found with her eyes bleeding, and she’s been weeping nonstop since that day.
And her son? Well. The baku talisman burned and it ended rather badly for him. He was a creature made up of good luck and his mother’s dreams, after all; his extreme fortune had brought about misfortune. I can’t say for certain; this is gossip, after all! It’s no longer a story and therefore it’s no longer true. Don’t you believe me? I’ve told it to you, though, all in good faith and honesty, and that’s a truth in and of itself, don’t you think? Every single story I’ve told tonight is true in its own way. You’ve heard about the power of words, right? Repeat a story enough times, and …
Hmm? What happened? Ah, right, right–well. They never found him, though they found his mother. The power in my words are there, if you’re paying attention. I’ve told you a lot so far.
But what is it I’m talking about? Haha, I wonder!
Maybe it’s nothing important after all.
Blow out the candle, my friend, and we’ll call it done.