The old woman sharpens her knife, its blade longer than her forearm, on a block of gray stone. She is naked except for her skirt. Her dugs swing loose in the cool air, her nipples gray and hard as pebbles. Back and forth, back and forth, she runs the knife across the bowed whetstone, listens to the faint screech of the blade, the song her knife sings in this lonely house. Particles of metal float into the darkness, flickering orange in the firelight, the ruddy stars in her constellation of hate. Your loss will be your gain, she murmurs to the blade, knowing the knife to be her one true friend, her trusted accomplice in crime. She strokes the cutting edge with her little finger. She feels nothing and, for a moment, it is as if nothing has happened. Then a slit parts among the whorls of her finger pad and a drop of blood springs forth, a bruised pearl grown from her own body that, overburdening, falls to the floor to join the other blood that stains the boards, puddling to the palest of pinks in the drizzle that penetrates the thatch.
Ibara’s blood is not a true red. It always contains a touch of blue because her hemoglobin is defective, the result of a mutation such that she can never obtain enough oxygen. Her blood is weak as tears. But she refuses to cry even though she is tired. Her muscles ache, twitching at the slightest exertion. But sometimes…sometimes…she throws her gray hair back, exultant, thinking about those times when her blood is made suddenly fresh and she feels like a newborn child brought forth to conquer the world.
The young woman enticed back to the Ibara’s lonely house has not left yet, although she arrived over three hours ago. She drank the herbal tea and a honeyed warmth spread through her body, washing away her nausea and belly pain. She set the china cup down on the pink floorboards, a little unsteadily, and leaned forward on the straw mat, an arm outstretched to brace herself, a blissful smile dimpling her cheeks. But her arm refused support and she crumpled to the floor, still smiling. When she woke, hours later, she was gagged and suspended upside down. The knotted rope, wrapped twice around her ankles and stretched vertically to a ceiling beam, continues at a diagonal across her vision, its far end secured to a stake buried in the sodden turf outside the house. Her flesh, where the rope gouges her ankles, is mottled purple like the interior of a rotted plum. She feels no pain, not even a prickle of diminished circulation in her feet, just a ghostly absence, a dream of strolling around the lily pond in her master’s walled garden, the koi trailing her shadow like forlorn lovers in their hope for a fistful of rice.
Kura’s blood is that of a normal adult: the four polypeptides of her hemoglobin twist into a lover’s knot that blushes the prettiest red when it has bound oxygen. Right now her cheeks are flushed past embarrassment. Burst vessels spider across her skin. Blood bubbles from her nose and trickles across her inverted forehead to coagulate in her hair. But the drug still lingers in her system and, in spite of the sting of blood in her eyes, in spite of the clammy fear she feels watching the old witch sharpen the blade below her, Kura cannot stop smiling.
There are three women in the lonely house on Adachi Moor, but the third member of this trinity is more possibility than actuality. Kura’s belly is distended with pregnancy, sweeping past her hanging breasts, so that together mother and unborn daughter twist and swing from the ceiling like a distorted pendulum. The fetus, still in the womb, floats with the serenity of one who never has and contemplates never leaving the oceanic safety of her mother.
The blood of the fetus contains a secret, a hemoglobin of its own, one contained only in the womb and to be lost at birth. This fetal hemoglobin draws oxygen to it like a magnet draws iron filings so that, with each desperate breath of the mother, the fetus draws some of that oxygen to itself, sharing her mother’s breath, sharing her life.
There are others in this lonely house as well, but none may be counted among living. Behind the bedroom door is a carnal pile of tangled corpses, previous visitors to Ibara’s apothecary. The bodies of these women, plumped and rank with death, are each bisected by a vertical slit from vagina to sternum. Their bellies, an immensity once born as proudly as any treasure chest, are evacuated, hollowed, delivered of their gold. But the umbilicals have not been severed. Each fetus is still connected to its mother although she has no maternal bounty left to give. Mummified lips purse for teats never tasted. Dead hands clutch for the excavated womb. On the wrist of each fetus is a small slit bordered with dried blood. Brown blood. The color of hemoglobin after its proteinacious knot has unraveled, after it has given up the ghost.
How many ghosts haunt the lonely house? Ibara, dog-like in her attentiveness to the supernatural, raises her head to sniff the air. She smells greasy soot from her bone-fed fire, the friction-heated steel of her blade, and the flowers on the gourd vine entwining her house, their scent like a bee’s comb dripping honey within the ribcage of a dead horse. Ibara knows this last scent for fact, a girlhood memory from when she traveled with her family along the northern road from Edo to Kurozuka. Even then she was weak and could barely raise her head from the cushion. But she heard the gentle drone of the bees, and, twisting sideways, saw the piebald carcass rotting in the summer sun, smelled the distillation of life from death. She was fascinated and now, with the benefit of years, the memory carries with it the whiff of a prophecy long since fulfilled.
A Sound Faint as Memory
Ibara cocks her head, one eye squinted, mouth sagging. Does the sound come from behind the bedroom door? A subtle repositioning of tangled limbs? The scrape of bone on bone, of gristle flexed at joint, of withered tendons as mother fumbles for lost child? How many ghosts haunt the lonely house?
Who Demands Attention?
Truly, someone is calling. Not the young woman who twists overhead, her breath like the trills of a trapped bird. Not the fetus, announcing its intended birth with a barrage of blows against the womb. Do the dead call for Ibara? And, if so, does the language of ghosts sound like rain-dampened reeds whispering their secrets? Does it sound like wind shouldering aside the leaves and blossoms of a heavy vine, like wooden shutters ripped from a window frame, like an ax splintering the sodden door? No. The dead are dead. It is only the living that demand attention.
The living? Yes. The townspeople have come at last! It does not matter if the townspeople are led by Kura’s penniless lover, the one who serenaded her behind the garden wall eight months ago. It does not matter if they are led by Kura’s master who raped her the following night and cannot shake the sound of her stifled moans from his mind. Which of these two fathered her unborn child? It does not matter. None of these things matter at this moment, at this time, because the townspeople have come at last. Stirred to action, almost believing a princess is held captive by that old demon-witch Ibara, they have crossed dread Adachi Moor. They arrive in twisted loincloths, in pajamas, in threadbare blankets worn as armor, in prized kimonos handed down for thirteen generations. They arrive waving rakes and cudgels, axes and knives, wooden clogs and sandals, heirloom swords still tied in their sheaths. They arrive with shouts, curses, whispers, and song. They arrive like a storm beating across the shivering grasses of Adachi Moor.
They ask Ibara before they kill her, hauling her from her briny house as if a fish fresh-caught from the sea, they ask her before they bury her under a deluge of boulders, crushing her bones, her tender skull, they ask her, “Why did you do it?” The old witch smiles. She knows she will die, but she smiles, glad of a question that distracts, one that allows her to follow the thin golden thread of nostalgia back to a happier time, a sweeter time, the time when she sliced open a mother’s stomach to reveal the treasure within. She holds this memory tenderly, carefully, as if it were the child itself, still attached by its umbilical to the dying mother. Just a prick of the knife, the wrist of the mewling fetus nicked. Careful now. Mustn’t spill. Then her lips pressed to the blossoming slit, sucking in the sweet nourishment, the strength returning to her limbs, so that she might be young again. Young and beautiful. A courtesan. A princess. It’s true, this is what she was once and will be again. She smiles, lids drifting across her ancient eyes, memory as real as yesterday, today, now. She smiles and, lisping across her broken teeth and torn tongue, the burbling of her own wan blood, she says, “Because it tastes like life.”
Based on Yoshitoshi’s woodblock print, The Lonely House on Adachi Moor.
Eric Schaller’s work has been published in Postscripts, Sci Fiction, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. His stories have been reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best of the Rest, and Fantasy: Best of the Year.