A slight breeze blew through the house, waking me from my short nap and alerting me of a presence outside, a familiar and welcomed one. Getting up from my futon, I walked over to the paper doors and slid them open to see a dark winged beaked creature dressed in a red juban, black hakama and a red tokin upon his head sitting on the veranda. A beautiful garden and koi pond lay still under the darkening sky behind him. Though he was dressed like that of a mountain hermit, he was not one. Rather, Kozue wasn't even human in the least, but a tengu, a god of the forest and mountains, yet he looked nothing of the sort at the moment.
His face looked flushed as he smiled cheekily at me. In one hand, he held a sake cup, and in the other, a sake bottle. Another sake cup lay empty beside him. There was no doubt in my mind that Kozue was drunk, or getting near there.
I sighed with a smile and called him, "Kozue…"
"Nomimasho?" he asked me with a slur and hiccupped.
Suppressing a giggle, I pulled up my sleeping yukata a bit and sat beside him. I picked up the empty cup and he poured me some as he hiccupped again. Tipping the cup over onto my lips, I took a sip, feeling it burn as it went down my throat.
"Good eh?" he grinned.
I smiled back at him and nodded. He let out a loud laugh and tossed another cupful of sake into his beaked mouth. I smiled and drank the rest of mine before asking for more. He obliged and together, we looked out at the garden in silence, drinking sake as daylight began to dim more into the night.
The silence stretched on before I was taken aback by his sudden question, "Why?"
Perhaps he was not as drunk as I thought.
"Why? Why indeed…" I said, unsure of what to say as I turned to look at him.
Although his face was still flushed, he was scowling, but it was not at me.
I looked down at the now empty sake cup in my hands, not sure what to say or how to explain to Kozue about my situation. How could I explain to him about these human responsibilities that we-that I was burdened with? He lived a different life, a different path than I and it would be a life that we would never understand and never have to deal with.
I shook my head and decided to change the subject, "Ne, Kozue, remember when you first came into our lives?"
He snorted and moved filled another cup to drink. I giggled and continued.
"When my brother brought you home, grandmother was so angry at him! She spanked him over and over again until he cried and said that he'd take you back to the forest, even though she told him not to go in the first place."
Kozue tipped the cup in his mouth and I continued.
"I remembered how small you looked, this small little green imp that was so scared and shy. When I asked you what your name was, you suddenly squeaked out, 'Kozue! My name is Kozue!' It was so cute! Too bad my brother didn't have a knack for naming people, even if he did find you in some tree branches. He should have named you something like Isamu, for courageous and brave, so you wouldn't have been so scared of us."
"I wasn't scared!" he slurred and smacked his lips, "I jus din know what t'say!"
I couldn't help the grin on my face from forming, "But you still came back every day to play with us. We were happy that you made things…entertaining for us."
He snorted and took another sip.
"Oh, you were such a brat then! Remember when you used to follow us to school and played mean tricks on the teacher? Or when we were helping our grandmother and uncle with the farming? You'd always distract us into playing with you and we'd end up not having our work done by the end of the day! Oh, how our grandmother and uncle were angry at us!"
I saw him smirk a little. He was such a child then and in many ways, he was still a child even now.
"Dem adults! They jus din know 'ow t'ave fun!" he hiccupped.
"If your idea of having fun was having them run after you as you were flying away, waving their hoes and shovels madly at you after accidentally burning down their crops, then I don't know what is!" I bursted out laughing.
"Not m'fault! Your bro was s'pose t'look out for us! It wouldn't 'ave 'appen if 'e 'ad watched care…fully…" he growled, but faded away into a sad whisper.
A sad pain enveloped me and I looked back down at my cup.
"I…I didn't mean it… honest…" he began to say mournfully as he suddenly seemed to have sobered up.
"Kozue, it's not your fault. I… I know…" I told him, looking up to see his sad, guilt-ridden face.
"If I had been faster, then he wouldn't have…" he stopped before he could continue, "we were just playing… him and me... I didn't realize that he'd fallen over the edge. I tried to pull him up and when he'd fallen, I tried to go after him… but I wasn't strong or quick enough… I… I'm sorry…"
I really didn't want him to wallow in misery anymore, or myself either. I'd accept my brother's death as a way of life, but for Kozue, my brother and I were the closest thing he had to a family. For someone who was young and an outcast, to lose a such a person who was dear to him…it was traumatic.
"Although the past can't be undone, you're strong now and you're the fastest person I know. You saved my life once, remember?"
"…several times actually…" he mumbled, sadness leaking away.
I let loose a small giggle, feeling the pain dwindle away little by little.
"Ok ok, that's true… but I remembered that after my brother's death, my great uncle, the mountain hermit, came to take you away into the mountains. I tried following you two, hoping to find you again because I missed you terribly. I took long walks away from home and even skipped school as I wandered into the forest, trying to find you. That one day, when I was attacked by wild animals, I thought that it was the end for me!"
He smirked a little, pride beginning to spark in his red eyes as he knew what happened next.
I grinned and continued, "I thought those wild beasts would kill me and I prayed to the gods and spirits of the forest to help me…and they sent you, my hero! I knew then that whenever I was in trouble, you'd be there to save me…"
His face seemed to have gotten redder and he looked away, making me giggle. He was rarely thanked for any good deed he did, considering that all his life he had been branded as an outcast among humans and was inherently a trickster, but whatever good compliments he got, he would take it loudly or embarrassingly.
"My great uncle must been angry at you for always disappearing though," I sighed, teasingly, "You were always around when I needed you."
"I had to be quick to sneak away," he told me, face returning to its normal dark green color, "but when I came back, he'd always lecture me and beat me with a stick!"
"And you deserved it sometimes!" I laughed.
"I'm a tengu! We're tricksters by trade! We don't hang around in one place learning the ways of the Buddha or about communing with nature!" he scoffed.
"But you're a god of the forest and the mountains, Kozue. You can't deny that it's in your blood and your duty by birth to oversee and protect them," I told him.
"A life I'd gladly give up to stay beside you…" he suddenly said.
I blinked at him, not knowing what to say. He looked at me intensely for a few seconds before looking out into the dark garden.
"Maybe I don't know much about you humans, and maybe I never will, but I can still love as you humans do. I loved your brother as much as you did, and I love you, not as a sister, but in ways in which I'm told that I shouldn't," he said.
He sighed, "After my training with your great uncle finished, I was sent to Master Sojobo, the king of tengu, to further understand my own people. Master Sojobo was a strong and fearsome tengu. I learned much from him, about my people and our relationship with humans. Humans do not take kindly to tengu, for we are seen as pranksters as well as harbingers of war…"
He was quiet for a few moments. I said nothing. He continued.
"We protect our forests and mountains from the taint of humans, who would burn it all down to have our lands as theirs. I have learned that humans are greedy creatures and untrustworthy…"
Though I wanted to speak up, I pursed my lips, looked down at my cup and continued listening.
"But Master Sojobo told me that there are some who are worthy in this world. He met once, a human man, who had greatly interested him, and he taught that human everything that he knew. That man became one of the greatest human generals of all time…"
I knew of the same man whom he spoke of and realized that the rumors surrounding the battle prowess of the great general was indeed true.
"And then there are humans like your brother and you, who look at people like me, a tengu, not as a blight to society, but as a friend…"
His clawed hand reached for mine and pulled it away from fiddling around with the sake cup more, which fell onto the wooden floor with a "plink!"
"…your brother, I see him as family… and you, I see you more than a friend, even family…" he said.
He looked into my eyes with such feeling that I had to look away, not sure at how to react at realizing his love for me and slightly sad because I could not return it.
"Kozue, I… I cannot-"
His grip on my hand tightened a little as he held it in both clawed hands. I looked back at him.
"I know. We're two different races, but I want you to know that I know what this is. Its called love, isn't it? Humans cannot define this feeling nor can us tengu, but I know it, I can feel it, this love that I have for you!"
My other hand flew to my mouth as I choked back a sob, not realizing that I had tears streaming down my cheeks. I had to look away
"Kozue… I… I love you too…" I confessed as I wept.
He looked surprised at first, before his red eyes sparkled with my confession and his green beaked face widened with happiness…but it would not last long.
"Kozue… tomorrow, I'm getting married…" I told him sadly.
It was sad, to see that happiness that was there a moment ago to suddenly disappear in a flash and be replaced by a knowing anger.
"I…know…" he spoke slowly, anger stirring at the edge of his voice, "your great uncle told me."
"I'm sorry…" I whispered as the tears continued to flow and began rambling, "my uncle passed away and we need help with the farm. He's a kind man, the one whom I'll be marrying. He says he can take care of us and he's still young and-"
In the next moment, he had me wrapped in his arms, wings shielding us from the burdens from the world, for just a brief moment. I shut up completely. He was so warm and smelled slightly of the forest and sake. Why had I never hugged him before? We stayed like that for a while, just holding onto each other in the darkness.
"We should run away together…" he spoke up suddenly.
I shook my head, wiping away dried tears, "We can't. You know we can't. We have our responsibilities…"
"But we can't. I can't…"
"I hate it."
"I do too…"
"So this is it then…"
"So it is…"
He hugged me tighter. I buried my face into his juban. He was so warm...
"I don't want to let you go."
"But you have to," I said, pulling away reluctantly from his embrace.
"Last time, I wasn't fast or strong enough to save your brother… Now that I'm faster and stronger, it's not enough to save you…"
I raised a hand to his cheek and he leaned into it.
"Goodbye Kozue," I smiled at him sadly and pulled away.
Not daring to look at his face, I turned around quickly, walked back into my room and closed the sliding doors, leaving him alone on the veranda. I slipped back into my futon and slept a dreamless sleep the rest of the night.
The next morning, I opened the sliding doors and saw an empty sake cup on the veranda, the only evidence that I had been out there at all last night.
"Today is my wedding day…" I mumbled to myself.
My soon-to-be husband would come for me and together we would have to pass through the mountain to get to his village on the other side.
"I'm sorry Kozue… but one last time… please watch over me…" I whispered.
I was answered with a passing breeze...
Terms you may/may not know:
tengu: bird-like humanoid creature in japanese mythology associated with protection of forests and mountains as well as bad omens for war. wikipedia or google it for more info.
sake: rice wine
nomimasho: let's drink!
juban: undershirt worn underneath the kimono...though I don't think people back then wore them without the kimono over it, but since it's one of the items the EI gives with Yama no Tamgo, meh, I'll just work with it
hakama: traditional pants, looks like big pants or a skirt but divided into two
tokin: little box hats that yamabushi (mountain hermits) wore, as well as tengu
yukata: casual summer kimono, also worn in traditional japanese inns, usually made of cotton and lighter than kimonos
Kozue: a name, means tree branches
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