Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan

By Kaminaga Manabu

Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan Volume 1 Chapter 1

Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan Volume 1 Chapter 1

prologue

-

The moon was out –

The red-tinged moon was suspended in the sky.

Osayo was hurrying home. She had no lantern. The light of the moon was her only guide.

Because of the heavy rain a few days before, the ground was muddy and difficult to traverse.

She had not thought she would be returning home so late. Though she had only been going to deliver textiles to a customer in Kojimachi, there had been a huge couple’s fight at her destination.

Though Osayo could have just ignored it – not even a dog would have taken a bite out of this – her nature wouldn’t allow her to.

By the time she forced each side share their side of the story and managed to make them make up, the sun had already set.

Her younger brother, Yasohachi, would probably jokingly say something like ‘If you have the time to bother with other people’s troubles, worry about your own marriage prospects’, but Yasohachi, who had a personality that attracted trouble, had no right to say anything about Osayo.

– I must hurry home though.

Because black ships[1] had come to Uraga, there was some commotion, about expelling foreigners from the country and whatnot.

Osayo walked on the road by the Tamagawa Aqueduct and reached Yotsuya Ookido. Then, she suddenly stopped.

She had heard someone’s voice in the night wind.

She strained her ears to hear.

She could hear it clearly –

A woman’s weeping.

She looked around and spotted an old row house[2]. The building seemed to have been abandoned for a long time, as it had started to rot.

The voice seemed to come from inside. The room farthest in.

'Hello!’

Osayo called out as she walked inside.

The door was off.

'Is something the matter?’

Osayo stuck her head in and looked around.

There was someone in the dark.

A woman –

The woman wearing a white underdress had her back to Osayo and was curled up, shivering, in a corner of the room. Her long hair was disorderly.

– Perhaps her husband was rough with her.

'What’s wrong? Is something the matter?’ asked Osayo, entering the dirt-floored area. The woman stopped crying, but no reply came.

'Hello?’ said Osayo once more. Then, for a moment, the woman disappeared from in front of Osayo’s eyes –

But then she stood in the opposite corner. Her back was still to Osayo.

'Not here – ’

Osayo was about to speak once more when the woman suddenly spoke.

'Eh?’

'Not here either – ’

'What is not here?’

'Where?’

The woman’s voice was strong, to the point that you wouldn’t think she was the same woman who had been crying so feebly before.

Osayo felt a chill run down her spine.

'Excuse me…’

'Where!?’ shrieked the woman as she turned around.

The woman’s bloodshot eyes shot through Osayo. Osayo wanted to run away from that unnatural expression, but she was arrested by that sinister gaze and could not move.

'Not here – ’

The woman put her hands on her own belly.

Then, a red liquid started pouring out from there, dyeing the underdress and the woman’s hands.

It was – blood.

The woman thrust her bloody hands straight towards Osayo.

'Where did – it go – ’

Something slimy touched Osayo’s cheek.

Not even capable of shrieking, Osayo fainted right there –

-

1

-

'Is this really the place?’ murmured Yasohachi to himself.

It was hot enough to boil. The sun’s rays were like stabs – standing was enough to make sweat start to trickle.

The cry of the cicadas was almost noisy in his ears.

He was in front of an old shrine –

It was under Tokugawa patronage. It looked incredibly deserted in comparison to the surrounding shrines and temples which were at the height of prosperity.

The torii[3] had probably been painted vermillion at one point, but it was faded now, and weeds grew lush on the premises. In front, there was just a lopsided shrine.

Grass had grown all the way up to the roof.

– Well, there isn’t any point thinking about that here.

Yasohachi passed through the torii and stepped into the shrine. His eyes turned towards the mossy guardian lion-dog[4]. It felt like he was being glared it.

– This place feels rather unsettling.

He looked around once more upon reaching the shrine.

There should have been a place for the monk to stay, but there did not seem t be any building like that around him.

Yasohachi had a reason for coming to this shrine.

His older sister, Osayo, had met something a few days earlier – a ghost, or perhaps a spirit. Ever since then, she had been acting strangely.

Their father, Genta, noticed the possession – in a panic, he had gone to the shrine which they were on good terms with to consult for an exorcism, but Osayo did not seem to be recovering.

While they were worrying about what to do, a passing medicine seller recommended this shrine, saying 'If that’s the case, there’s an exorcist – ’

'Hello,’ Yasohachi said towards the shrine.

There was no response.

'Is anybody here?’

This time, he raised his voice, but there was still no response.

– There’s no helping it. I might need to give up.

Just as Yasohachi had turned around and was about to return on the same path he had taken earlier, there was a voice.

'What do you want?’

A low voice that carried well.

Yasohachi stopped walking and hurriedly looked around. However, he didn’t see anyone.

'Where are you looking? Here. Here – ’

Yasohachi’s eyes went toward the voice and saw the shrine.

Though Yasohachi was nervous, he started to walk towards the shrine.

He climbed the rotting wooden steps and put his face close to the lattice door of the shrine to try to peer in, and then bam! The door opened from the inside.

'Ahh!’

Yasohachi leant back in shock and lost his footing on the steps.

He hurriedly reached out but grabbed only empty air. He slipped down the stairs on his behind.

'Ow…’

Yasohachi looked up, his face twisted in pain.

A man was standing at the open door.

An eccentric man –

He was wearing a completely white kimono. The obi[5] was not tied but just hung loosely. Much of his chest was revealed as well.

He did not have his hair in a bun either, so his head was unkempt. His skin was pale enough that it could contest his kimono in whiteness. With a slender build, he looked like he had leapt out of a ghost painting by Maruyama Okyo[6].

Furthermore, what stood out the most was the red cloth that was wrapped around his head so that his two eyes were covered.

He couldn’t see anything like that – no, perhaps he was blind.

What was even odder was that eyes were drawn on that red cloth in black ink.

'You’re loud. What do you want?’

The man thrust the staff he was holding in front of Yasohachi’s eyes.

The eyes drawn on the cloth around the man’s head were looking down at Yasohachi. There was a pressure coming from them that was hard to describe.

'Ah, a-actually… I came because I heard about this place from Hijikata of Ishida Sanyaku[7].’

'Ishida Sanyaku? Ah, that baragaki[8]…’

'I heard that there was an exorcist here – ’

'That idiot Toshizou. He’s done something unnecessary.’

The man looked pained as he put a hand to his chin.

From that response, it seemed that this man was the exorcist that Yasohachi was looking for.

Now that he looked at the man again, the face that he had thought looked eccentric now seemed to let out power. It was mysterious.

Yasohachi stood up and fixed his posture before bowing at the waist and lowering his head.

'Please save me older sister somehow.’

'Like I care.’

An immediate response.

Yasohachi had heard from HIjikata that the man certainly was skilled, but he was obstinate. However, he hadn’t thought it would be to such an extent. Regardless, Yasohachi could not back down here.

Osayo could die.

'Please don’t say that. I truly need your help.’

Yasohachi bowed his head once more.

'You don’t understand, do you?’

'Yes?’

'I’m saying that bowing your head won’t get you anything.’

The man put his staff on his shoulder and sat down on the steps. Then, he put his hand out towards Yasohachi.

– Ah, so that’s what he wants.

'Of course, I will pay an appropriate amount.’

'Fifty ryo[9].’

'Eh? That much?’

'Do you have a complaint?’

The man frowned.

'No, that’s not… But fifty ryo is just…’

'If you can’t pay, go home.’

It didn’t seem like the man would budge a whit. Without showing any hesitation, the man stood up, turned around and started to return to the shrine.

'P-please wait.’

Fifty ryo was a lot, but it was worth nothing in comparison to Osayo’s life.

'Do you feel like paying now?’

'Yes.’

'Then give it over.’

The man held out his hand.

Yasohachi gave his wallet with everything in it to the man. The man immediately spread open the wallet and counted the money with his fingers.

The moment he finished counting all of it, the man turned towards Yasohachi. The two eyes drawn on the red cloth seemed to be glaring at him.

'This isn’t enough at all. Are you trying to take advantage of me because you think I’m blind?’

The man grabbed Yasohachi by the collar and pulled him up.

The force of it made Yasohachi gulp.

’T-this is the advance payment. Once you’ve rid my sister of the spirit, I’ll pay the rest.’

'Shut up. Get lost already.’

'But my sister…’

'Like I said, I don’t care,’ the man said expressionlessly. He put the money back in the wallet and threw it to the ground.

'Excuse me…’

'What? You’re still here? If you stick around, I’ll leave,’ said the man. He pushed Yasohachi aside and started to walk out of the shrine.

'Please wait.’

Yasohachi ran after him. The man turned around.

'You say you want to save your sister, but you won’t pay up. If she dies, it’ll be your fault.’

As the man said that, his lips turned up into a smile.

– My fault.

Yasohachi was at a loss for words after hearing something so unexpected.

'Honestly. I can’t deal with this without some sake.’

The man went through the shrine’s torii with his staff in hand and left.

For a while, Yasohachi stood, stunned, as the sun set on the shrine.

He had completely offended the man. He had to do something – as Yasohachi was thinking, he picked up his wallet.

'Eh?’

He felt something was strange so he took out his wallet again and looked inside.

'What is this?’

Inside the wallet, instead of money, there were small stones.

-

2

-

'I’m at a loss…’ said Yasohachi with a sigh.

He had come to request the services of the exorcist. He hadn’t even thought that he would end up being tricked out of his money.

He couldn’t return home in shame like this.

That man’s odd appearance and that confident way of speaking – he had to have a considerable amount of skill.

Yasohachi would overlook the man’s personality and slight suspiciousness. Right now, he had to save Osayo no matter what.

However, he had no idea where the man had gone. If he waited here, the man would probably return eventually – no, that man had stolen his money. He wouldn’t come back so easily.

Yasohachi would have to search for him.

That man had muttered about not being able to deal with this without alcohol. Perhaps he had taken the stolen money to some bar.

Near here, it would probably be Shiraiya or Marukuma.

Though Yasohachi wasn’t certain, it was better than staying here. He started walking towards Marukuma first.

– If she dies, it’ll be your fault.

As Yasohachi walked, that man’s words came back to him.

Yasohachi didn’t know his mother’s face. He had been told that she had died of an illness when he was young. Genta, his father, was busy managing the dry-goods shop and virtually never interacted with him. However, he had not felt lonely.

He had had Osayo.

She was nineteen, so three years older than Yasohachi. She was reliable and had looked after Yasohachi even since they were young.

When Yasohachi was being bullied by the local children, Osayo had helped him, and when he had been sick, she had been the one who nursed him back to health.

About one month ago, she had had a big fight with their father, genta.

The cause was Yasohachi’s saying that he wanted to become a painter. He had not just said it without thinking. When he became ten, because of a painting he had seen, he had started drawing himself.

Since he was the eldest son, he had to take over the shop – he had felt that way, but with time, he had become unable to repress the desire to become a painter, so he honestly confessed his feelings.

When Genta heard that, he had been furious. 'A painter is the one thing you won’t become!’ Genta was normally genial – Yasohachi had never seen him let his emotions explode like that before.

Genta had even talked about disowning Yasohachi, but Osayo had soothed him. Yasohachi hadn’t spoken properly with Genta since then, but thanks to Osayo, he could still live in the same house.

Osayo wasn’t just Yasohachi’s older sister – she was also his mother. He couldn’t imagine losing her –

While Yasohachi was thinking, he reached Marukuma.

The sun had already set.

A faint light and cheerful voices came through the oil-treated sliding door with Marukuma written on it.

'Good evening.’

Yasohachi went under the sign curtain and opened the sliding door.

'Oh, if it isn’t Hachi.’

Kumakichi, the owner of the bar, was carrying sake when he noticed Yasohachi and called out to him.

Perhaps because of the dojo he attended in the day, he had a very firm body.

On top of that, he had a fierce look to him with a beard, so he looked just like a bear[10].

However, in contrast to Kumakichi’s looks, he was good at taking care of others – a man kind to his core. He had played with Yasohachi a lot when he was young.

'Kuma-san, it’s been a while.’

'How’s Osayo-chan?’ asked Kumakichi, sticking out his sharp chin.

'Ah, no, she’s… not in a very good state…’

'I see… Then don’t come to a place like this – get home already!’

Kumakichi hit Yasohachi on the shoulder.

'No, that’s not what I’m here for, Kuma-san. Actually, I’m looking for an exorcist.’

'An exorcist?’

'Yes. He wears a white kimono and has a red cloth wrapped around his eyes… Has he come here?’

'Came just earlier.’

'Eh?’

The answer came so readily that Yasohachi was surprised.

'Really?’

'Yeah. Said he wanted to be alone so I sent him to the second floor.’

Yasohachi took the stairs while Kumakichi was still talking. He opened the sliding door forcefully.

'Ah!’

– He was there.

The man with a red cloth over his eyes whom he had been searching for.

He had his back to the wall, one knee up. He took a gulp from his sake cup before slowly turning his head towards Yasohachi.

The eyes drawn on the red cloth froze Yasohachi.

'How noisy. Who’s there?’

The man was not surprised or confused. He spoke calmly.

'My name is Yasohachi. We met at the shrine earlier.’

'Ah, you’re that brat. How’d you know I was here?’

'You had said you needed to drink alcohol, so I thought you would be at some bar.’

'I see. I guess you can put that head on your shoulders to some use.’

Being praised by this man didn’t please Yasohachi at all. More importantly –

'Expel the spirit for me.’

Yasohachi walked up to the man.

'I said I refused.’

The man took another sip from his cup.

'You took an advance payment, so you will do your work properly.’

'Advance payment?’

Yasohachi threw his wallet full of small rocks at the man. It hit his neck and then fell to the tatami.

'There are only rocks inside. You switched the money out for them.’

'You have no proof, right? Are you an idiot?’

The corners of the man’s lips turned up in a smile.

Not only had the man talked back to him, he had called him an idiot – his character was truly warped.

'In any case, you will expel the spirit from my sister for me.’

'Don’t make such a fuss,’ said the man, picking up the wallet and tossing it carelessly back at Yasohachi.

After Yasohachi reached out to catch the wallet, he glared at the man. Though the blind man probably didn’t care, Yasohachi couldn’t help himself.

'Of course I am making a fuss. My older sister’s life depends on it.’

'I’ll listen to what you’ve got to say. Drink – ’

The man poured sake into a sake cup and held it out towards Yasohachi.

Was the man planning on making Yasohachi drunk so he would lose his composure? Like Yasohachi would fall for that.

'Will you expel the spirit from my older sister or not – please give me a response,’ demanded Yasohachi.

'No – if that’s my response, what will you do?’ asked the man challengingly.

'I’ll search for somebody else.’

'How about the money?’

'It doesn’t matter. You don’t plan on returning it anyway, right?’

'You’re the son of a big shop, right?’

'That doesn’t matter right now.’

'Bull’s eye? From the opinion of a rich kid like you, that’s just loose change.’

The man’s words irritated Yasohachi.

It was true that Yasohachi’s family’s old dry-goods shop made money. They had never been troubled for food, but that didn’t mean they used money excessively.

Ever since Yasohachi was young, his father, Genta, had always told him to use money sparingly.

'Money is important. However, my sister is more important. That’s all.’

After Yasohachi said that, the man let out a high laugh.

'You’re an interesting man. Fine. I’ll keep you company for a while.’

'Like I said, I don’t have the time to accompany your alcoholic banquet. If you aren’t going to save my sister…’

'I’m saying I’ll expel whatever’s possessing your sister.’

The man stood up.

Now that Yasohachi looked at him from the front like this, the man was rather tall. Yasohachi had to look up at his face.

'What did you say just now?’

'I said I’ll expel the spirit possessing your sister.’

'You can do it?’

'You’re asking that now? You came all this way because you think I can, right?’

That was true – but it was also true that Yasohachi had doubts.

Would a thieving man that Yasohachi knew nothing about be able to do something that a monk from an esteemed temple hadn’t?

Yasohachi had begun to feel anxious.

'But how…’

'I see too much, you see.’

'See too much?’

The line didn’t match up with a blind man.

'Well, it doesn’t matter. Stop talking and show me to where your sister is.’

'Y-yes.’

Under the man’s pressure, Yasohachi tried to head out immediately. However, the man called out to him before he could.

'Before that, cheer up a bit. Drink.’

As the man said that, he thrust a sake cup in front of Yasohachi’s eyes. It would be troublesome if the man’s mood soured because Yasohachi refused.

Yasohachi drank the sake in the cup in one gulp.

-

3

'Oh. The house is rather nice.’

After Yasohachi showedthe man to his house, the man put his chin in his hands and said that admiringly.

Just as the man said, Yasohachi’s house, a dry-goods shop from the beginning of the Edo period, was rather large. However –

'Can you tell?’

'I can. There are things I can see even with these eyes.’

The man put his hand to the red cloth covering his eyes.

What on earth did that mean – Yasohachi was about to ask, but then there was a loud sound from inside the house, as if something had fallen.

– Did something happen?

Yasohachi ran inside.

'Eh?’

It was strange –

Even though Kanichi, the servant, would normally have been there, Yasohachi couldn’t see him. There was a strange atmosphere that Yasohachi couldn’t describe.

– I have a bad feeling.

Yasohachi gulped.

Then – there was a scream from further in.

Yasohachi started running before any thoughts came to his head.

Something might have happened to Osayo. As Yasohachi ran down the corridor, another scream reached his ears.

At the same time, a sliding door broke and a person fell in front of him.

Yasohachi stopped in shock.

It was Kanichi –

'P-please help…’

Kanichi clung to Yasohachi. Kanichi’s arms were cut. He was bleeding.

'What happened?’

Before Kanichi could answer, a woman came out from the tatami room.

– Osayo.

Her long hair was disheveled and her shoulders were heaving. Huff, huff – her breathing was ragged.

There was a short knife with blood dripping off it in her hand.

'Aah!’

Kanichi let out a scream and ran off.

Yasohachi didn’t move.

No, to put it correctly, he couldn’t move.

He knew that the person in front of him was Osayo, his sister. However, he still felt afraid.

'Where – ’

Osayo spoke in a hoarse voice.

'Sister.’

Yasohachi called out to her, but she didn’t seem to hear him.

Osayo glared at Yashoachi with bloodshot eyes, like those of a starving beast.

A sound like wind came from her throat.

'Where!?’ Osayo shrieked shrilly, waving the knife above her head.

The tip of the blade glittered.

– I need to run.

Contrary to his will, his body was frozen and would not move. It was as if he had been bound by an evil spirit.

The knife came down in front of him.

– I’m going to be killed!

Yasohachi shut his eyes tightly. At the same time, something thrust him away and he fell to the floor.

– What happened?

When he lifted his head, he saw that man grappling with Osayo, who was still waving about the knife. It seemed like that man had saved him.

The man lightly kicked Osayo in the stomach.

Osayo staggered backwards, but she soon regained her balance.

'No helping it. I’ll go all out,’ said the man with a click of his tongue. Then, he grabbed the cloth over his eyes and pulled it down.

– Just as I thought!

The man wasn’t blind. He could see.

Osayo jumped up and came towards the man. However, she collapsed partway and stopped moving.

Yasohachi had no idea what had happened.

When he came back to his senses, he ran up to Osayo, who was on the floor.

'Sister!’

'Don’t worry. She’s just fainted,’ the man said.

Yasohachi confirmed himself that she was breathing.

'You saved me…’

Yasohachi sighed in relief.

'This is part of my work too,’ said the man casually, but it wasn’t something that just anybody could do.

Kanichi had run off with a scream, and Yasohachi hadn’t even been able to move. The man had been able to respond calmly to such a situation, so perhaps he really was an exorcist, just as Hijikata had said.

Furthermore –

'Ah…’

The sound came out of Yasohachi’s voice unconsciously when he looked up and saw the man’s face.

Just as he had expected, the man’s eyes, now that the red cloth was off them, were open. That wasn’t all – they were dyed a deep red, as if they were burning.

'You saw…’ the man said, sounding pained. He hurriedly tried to cover them.

'Why do you hide them?’ asked Yasohachi, which made the man’s mouth twist into a frown.

'Don’t ask stupid questions. It’s obviously because people think they’re disturbing and are frightened.’

'Is that really the reason?’

'What?’

'I mean, I’ve never seen such beautiful eyes before. There’s no reason to be frightened.’

When Yasohachi said that, the man’s red eyes shook just slightly.

Then, the man let out a snort and sneered as he covered them with the cloth again.

'The world isn’t made up of idiots like you.’

'Is that how it is?’

'People despise those who are different from them.’

'I don’t think that’s true.’

'You’re naïve. I wouldn’t hide my eyes otherwise.’

The man’s voice sounded terribly sad.

Yasohachi wanted to deny it, but no words came out. It was true that, like the man said, some people despised those who were different from them.

Yasohachi thought about saying something consoling, but he stopped. That was definitely not what the man wanted.

'I was born with these eyes – ’

The man put a hand on the red cloth covering his eyes.

'Born with?’

'Yes. I don’t know why. Maybe it was in my bloodline, but I had no way to check, since I’ve never met my parents,’ said the man with a laugh.

However, there was no happiness in it. If Yasohachi had to say, it was an oppressive loneliness –

The man must have suffered in ways that Yasohachi couldn’t even imagine.

'I don’t know if it’s because of the colour of my eyes, but I can see them.’

– See them?

'What can you see?’

'The spirits of the dead. That is – ghosts.’

The man smiled faintly.

-

4

-

'Please keep this a secret from the master – ’

Kanichi had his grizzled head bowed deeply as he sat in front of Yasuhachi. The thin and small-framed man in his fifties looked even smaller than he usually did.

It seemed like Kanichi had been the cause of the incident.

Ever since Osayo had been possessed, she had been kept in the backroom with a pole propped against the door. Though none of them wanted to do it, there was no choice, since she would act violently otherwise.

Kanichi had taken the pole away to bring in food when Osayo burst out in a fit – and this was what had resulted.

Though Genta, Yasuhachi’s father, was not the type to be overly strict with servants, with the situation like this, the blame might fall on Kanichi.

'It’s fine. I will keep it a secret from my father,’ Yasohachi said with a smile, at which point Kanichi finally relaxed.

Kanichi had started working at this shop about one year ago.

He had had a shop himself before then, but he hadn’t been able to keep it afloat. He had been worrying about what to do next when Genta hired him.

Part of it was probably that Kanichi didn’t want to cause trouble to somebody he was indebted to, but the desire to not be chased out was probably stronger.

Well, though it had been tough, everything was sorted out thanks to that man. Currently, Osayo was back in the backroom. Things would probably be fine if they just did something about the broken door.

Furthermore, Yasohachi didn’t want to meet Genta himself right now. Though Osayo had helped them reconcile, the awkward atmosphere following the fight still continued.

'Thank you very much. I will clean up now, so – ’

'Oi.’

The man covering his eyes with a cloth called out to Kanichi before he could leave.

The man was sitting with his back against the wall and his arms crossed. He had a difficult expression on his face.

'What is it?’

'The knife she had – where’d she get it?’ the man asked.

'I do not know. Perhaps it was something that had been in the backroom.’

After hearing Kanichi’s explanation, Yasohachi remembered something.

'If I remember correctly, there was a knife in a box in the backroom.’

'Then the same thing will happen again. Move it elsewhere.’

The man’s words were absolutely correct. If Osayo took the knife out again, Yasohachi couldn’t say what would happen.

'I will do it,’ said Kanichi. Then, he left the room.

At the same time, the man stood up and walked towards the desk.

'Did you paint these?’ he asked, pointing at the paintings piled up on top of the desk.

'I did,’ replied Yasohachi.

The man pulled down the cloth covering his eyes and picked up the paintings to look at them.

Having somebody look at his paintings right in front of him was unexpectedly embarrassing. However, Yasohachi still wanted to know the man’s opinion.

'What do you think?’ he asked.

The man snorted.

'They’re pretty good.’

Yasohachi’s expression relaxed at the hones compliment, but that was just for a moment.

'But that’s all – ’

'What do you mean?’

'There’s no power in these paintings.’

The man’s words disappointed Yasohachi, but at the same time, he understood.

'So there really is no power in these?’

'There isn’t. For example, this painting – ’

The man picked up a painting of a woman in a red kimono. It was a painting of Osayo.

'It’s painted very accurately. The colours aren’t bad either. That’s all though. Nothing comes out of it. It’s like it’s dead. No, dead people have something in them too. If you can’t move someone’s heart with a painting, then it’s no different from a stamp.’

The man’s words were awful, but Yasohachi had nothing to say in return.

Perhaps he had no talent for paintings –

Perhaps he should take over the shop instead of dreaming about painting.

'In contrast though, this painting’s alive – ’

The man dropped Yasohachi'sp aintings to the tatami and walked up to the painting on the wall.

In the painting, a woman was sitting on her knees as she looked at water lilies.

Yasohachi didn’t know who had drawn it. He had taken it out from somewhere deep in the storehouse when he was young.

This painting had been the one that made Yasohachi want to paint.

He could remember clearly the impact he had received then. It had been like being struck by lightning.

This paint wasn’t only beautiful. It felt like the emotions of the woman in the painting were being conveyed.

To borrow the man’s words from earlier, the painting was alive.

'Your paintings really are rubbish,’ the man said mercilessly.

'More importantly, how was it?’ asked Yasohachi, to get back on topic since it hurt him to listen.

'How?’

The man cocked his head.

Yasohachi asked, 'Was my sister possessed by a ghost?’

That seemed to make the man finally recall what he was here for.

'Yeah, no doubt about it. She’s possessed.’

The man sat cross-legged in front of Yasohachi and poured sake into a cup from a gourd flask. He drank it all at once.

'Then please expel the spirit from here as soon as possible,’ requested Yasohachi, which made the man snort in laughter.

'You’re acting like an idiot again. If I could expel it, I’d’ve done that already.’

'Er, but…’

– I’ll expel the spirit.

That was what he said. That was why Yasohachi had brought the man all the way here.

'Putting up seals or reading sutras can’t expel spirits.’

'Eh?’

Surprise spread through Yasohachi, along with doubt.

'My method is a bit different from other people’s.’

'How is it different?’

Yasohachi leant forward. The man’s scarlet eyes looked straight back at him.

They were so beautiful that Yasohachi couldn’t help but let an 'Oh…’ out.

'Don’t react every single time, you idiot.’

'But beautiful things are beautiful – there’s no helping it.’

'You really are a strange guy.’

The man drank another cup of sake.

He had drunk a considerable amount at Marukuma too. Despite drinking so much alcohol, this man’s white skin wasn’t even the slightest bit red.

'Then how is it different?’

'I said this earlier, but these eyes of mine can see ghosts.’

'Yes.’

'You don’t doubt me?’

'I don’t. It wouldn’t be strange for such beautiful eyes to be able to do something like that – ’

The man made a click with his tongue.

'Your logic makes no sense.’

'Is that so?’

Yasohachi didn’t feel like he had said anything strange.

'Well, it doesn’t matter. Anyway – all I can do is see. I can’t do anything else. Buddha and the gods can all shove it.’

'So you can’t expel spirits – ’

'Don’t rush to the conclusion like that, idiot.’

'I-I apologise…’

'Seeing means understanding what is there. Ghosts don’t just wander to while away time. They stay in the world of the living because they have some sort of goal.’

'A – goal?’

'Yeah. A grudge or some regrets. A variety – ’

'Is that how it is?’

'That’s how it is. So I find the reason the ghost is wandering the world of the living and solve it.’

'I see.’

It felt very logical. Perhaps this was a more reliable method than seals and sutras.

'Then why is the ghost possessing my sister wandering this world?’

'That’s the question. From what I saw earlier, the spirit seems to be looking for something.’

'What is that something?’

'I’m going to look for that now.’

The man poured more sake.

'Look for?’

'Exactly. First, I want to know where your sister encountered the ghost.’

'A dilapidated row house.’

Yasohachi had been worried about Osayo, who had left on an errand and hadn’t returned. He had searched many places. Of course Yasohachi had, but people living nearby had also helped.

Dawn came and Kumakichi, the owner of Marukuma, had found Osayo collapsed in an abandoned row house and carried her back.

'Then we’ll go there tomorrow. I’ll wait at the shrine. Come first thing in the morning ot show me there.’

The man rewrapped the red cloth and stood up to leave.

'Excuse me – ’

Yasohachi called out to stop him.

'What?’

'I haven’t heard your name yet.’

'My name?’

The man put a hand to his sharp chin.

'I live like a cloud at the mercy of the wind. I don’t have a name.’

There was no way he didn’t have a name.

Perhaps he disliked his name or he couldn’t give it – in either case, Yasohachi felt like he couldn’t press too far.

That said –

'It would be difficult for me not to have something to call you.’

'Then call me whatever you want.’

Being told that was in itself troublesome.

However, Yasohachi immediately thought of a name that fit the man perfectly.

'Then would “Ukikumo”[11] be acceptable?’

Earlier, the man had compared himself to a cloud at the mercy of the wind. If that was the case, calling him Ukikumo would be appropriate. It felt like it matched the man’s appearance as well.

'Ukikumo, eh…’

'Yes.’

'Not bad.’

A faint smile appeared on the man’s lips before he left –

-

5

-

The next day, Yasohachi went to the shrine.

The shrine where Ukikumo was –

The truth was he had planned on going earlier, but he had had to help at the shop and ended up going near noon.

'Good morning.’

Though he tried calling out towards the shrine, there was no response.

– Perhaps he left first.

Yasohachi went up the steps to the shrine and opened the lattice door. He didn’t see Ukikumo there. However, the gourd and staff were there.

'Ukikumo-san!’ called Yasohachi. Then –

'I can hear you.’

A voice came from somewhere. Ukikumo’s voice.

Yasohachi went down the stairs and looked around frantically, but he couldn’t see Ukikumo anywhere.

'Where are you?’ he asked as he wandered the shrine’s grounds.

Then – the thicket in front of him suddenly shook and a dark shadow stood up.

'Eek!’

Yasohachi was so shocked he leapt back with a shriek.

'Why are you so shocked?’

Ukikumo stood there, looking unimpressed.

Since nobody was there to look at him, he didn’t have the red cloth on. His vivid scarlet eyes looked at Yasohachi.

They really were a beautiful colour. What pigments would need to be used to bring out such a colour –

'It’s because you came out so suddenly.’

'You’re the one who called me.’

'That’s true, but… What were you doing there?’

'Obviously, I was taking a dump,’ said Ukikumo, sounding satisfied as he started walking towards the shrine.

How is it obvious – Yasohachi was astonished, but he followed Ukikumo regardless.

'I was concerned that you had gone first.’

'You’re still an idiot then,’ said Ukikumo after returning to the shrine and sitting down, covering his eyes with his red cloth.

'Eh?’

'You haven’t told me where the row house is. How could I go first?’

Now that he mentioned it, that was true.

'Then, let us depart,’ said Yasohachi.

'Let’s go,’ agreed Ukikumo, standing up.

'Ukikumo-san, where are you from?’ asked Yasohachi upon leaving the shrine and stepping forth on the road to the row house.

'What would you do if you knew?’

Though Ukikumo’s eyes were hidden by the red cloth, the eyes drawn on the cloth seemed scornful.

'It isn’t as if I would do anything. I just want to know.’

'Why do you want to know?’

'I think that it is important to know the path someone has walked in order to know somebody.’

'You’re an idiot.’

'Why do you say so?’

'The place someone’s born doesn’t determine them. Knowing it won’t tell you anything about a person.’

It was an incredibly conclusive way of speaking.

Ukikumo’s reasoning made sense – though Yasohachi thought that, he still wanted to rebut.

'Is that how it is?’

'That’s how it is. And I’ve never been in one place for longer than five years. I don’t have any place I can say I’m “from”,’ Ukikumo murmured, turning his head up towards the sky.

A line of clouds drifted in the blue summer sky.

Though Yasohachi did not know what past Ukikumo had, when he looked at his profile, he thought that it must have been a terribly sad one.

After that, they continued walking in silence. Soon, they reached the abandoned row house.

'I hear that my sister collapsed in the room in the very back.’

Yasohachi stopped to point.

Without any hesitation, Ukikumo tried to go in.

'Please wait a moment.’

Yasohachi hurriedly pulled Ukikumo back by the arm.

'What?’

'Isn’t it dangerous?’

'What?’

Ukikumo cocked his head.

'I mean, this is where my sister was possessed by a ghost…’

'That’s why it’s safe, you idiot.’

'Oh…’

It was just as Ukikumo said. The ghost that had been here was possessing Osayo now. That meant it was no longer here.

Yasohachi and Ukikumo went into the row house.

The whole building was on a slant, and the rooms were filled with dust. It felt like the building might collapse at any moment. It made the shrine that Ukikumo had made his stronghold look practically magnificent.

Ukikumo took the red cloth off and then stepped onto the rotten tatami. He slowly looked around.

– What is he doing?

'Mm, this is awful…’

After a while, Ukikumo looked grim.

'What is it?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo let out a sigh.

'The ghost possessing your sister was probably killed here…’

'How can you tell?’

'Look here. Sword marks. Fairly old ones.’

Ukikumo pointed at the centre of a wooden pillar.

It was true that there was something that looked like a sword mark.

'And here – ’

Next, Ukikumo pointed at a corner of the room.

The tatami and the wall had dark speckles on them.

'What is this?’

'Probably dried blood – ’ Ukikumo said casually. It made a chill run down Yasohachi’s spine.

'Does the ghost possessing my sister have a grudge against their killer? Are they searching for them?’

'Well, it would be appropriate to think that way.’

'So if we catch the person who killed the ghost, my sister will be saved.’

'You can think that way too.’

Though Yasohachi had just been wandering in the darkness until now, Ukikumo’s words gave him a light of hope.

'But how should we search…’

'There’s probably somebody who knows about the incident. Somebody who lived in this row house before, maybe.’

'I see.’

'Tell me when you find out.’

After saying that, Ukikumo covered his eyes with the red cloth and left the room.

Yasohachi hurriedly ran after him.

’“Tell me when you find out”? Am I doing it myself?’

'Of course. Even an idiot can do this much, right?’

'But…’

Yasohachi wanted to object, but Ukikumo left before he could say anything –

-

6

-

Yasohachi was at a peasant’s home in Tama –

He had asked around about the people who had lived in the row house. Since his family ran a dry goods store, he knew a fair number of people.

With Kumakichi from Marukuma’s help, he finally found the person he was looking for before evening and came here.

The man sitting in front of him called himself Rokusuke. He was an old man in his seventies. Since his wife had passed away before him, he had moved to Tama, where his son lived.

At first, he had said, 'I don’t really remember since it happened so long ago,’ but when Yasohachi anxiously explained the situation, Rokusuke gave in and started to speak.

'It was a bad affair…’ Rokusuke said in a hoarse voice.

The light of the setting sun from the window made the wrinkles on Rokusuke’s face look even deeper.

'What happened?’

Yasohachi leant forward.

'I think it was seventeen years ago – ’

'Seventeen – ’

Around when Yasohachi had been born. It seemed like the event had occurred much earlier than he had thought.

'I lived in the room next to where the sad affair happened.’

'Is that so?’ said Yasohachi. He could feel his heart racing.

'The people who lived next door were a man called Gorou and his wife.’

'What did the person named Gorou-san do?’

'He painted pictures.’

'Was he a painter?’

'Racy pictures, that kind of thing. I think he had an apprentice, but I don’t know the details. Well, he didn’t make that much money, so his wife worked too.’

Yasohachi hoped to be a painter himself, so he knew very well that it was difficult to live on painting alone.

Gorou had probably painted racy pictures because he had to do so to sell rather than because he wanted to.

'And?’ urged Yasohachi.

'The two of them were a quiet and good couple, but there was a strange rumour – ’

'A rumour?’

Yasohachi licked his dry lips.

'Apparently Gorou was a part of a group of robbers.’

'What!? Is that true?’

'I don’t know. It was a rumour.’

'But why would a rumour like that…’

If there was such a salacious rumour, there had to be a reason behind it.

'Gorou was sometimes asked to paint racy pictures of prostitutes… One day, when he went to a brothel for work, somebody was robbed and killed, and Gorou was involved in it somehow.’

'He would be an awful man if that were true.’

'He didn’t seem like that to me. He might’ve been a bit hard to please, but he got along with his neighbours and there weren’t any real problems.’

Rokusuke took out a pipe and lit it. He took a puff before continuing.

'Then, that day – it was just at the end of Yayoi, the third month, if I remember correctly. My wife and I were sleeping when I heard a loud noise from the next room. At first, I thought it was a lovers’ quarrel and went back to sleep, but then I heard a scream.’

'A scream?’

'My wife thought maybe Gorou’s wife’s birth pains had started.’

'Was his wife pregnant?’

'She was. It was about time too, so I went to take a look.’

Rokusuke took another puff. His eyes narrowed.

'What happened after you went there?’ asked Yasohachi, his hands in sweaty fists.

He had a terribly bad feeling.

'I was shocked. Gorou was standing in front of his room with a face as pale as death. He had something in his left arm and a sword in his right hand.’

'A sword – ’

'He did. And the sword and Gorou’s clothes were all bloody.’

Rokusuke shook his head, looking pained.

Yasohachi shuddered as he imagined the scene. Though he did feel afraid, at the same time, he was also curious.

'Then what happened?’ asked Yasohachi. He held his breath as he waited for Rokusuke to continue.

'Gorou ran off. My legs wouldn’t move so I couldn’t run after him… I just stood there in shock.’

There was a deep wrinkle between Rokusuke’s eyebrows.

'What on earth happened?’ urged Yasohachi.

Rokusuke nodded and continued, 'I don’t know the details. I was even more shocked when I looked inside the room. What do you think was there?’

'What was there?’

'A dead body.’

'A dead body?’

'Yes. Gorou’s wife’s – ’

'Did Gorou-san – cut her?’

'Probably. She was cut diagonally from the shoulder, but that wasn’t all.’

'What do you mean?’

'The most important thing was missing.’

'The most important thing – what’s that?’

'The baby.’

'Eh?’

'The wife’s stomach had been slit open. The baby had been pulled ut.’

Yasohachi was so shocked he couldn’t speak.

The murderer had not stopped after cutting the woman to death – he had even sliced open her stomach to take out the baby. It wasn’t the work of a human being.

'Had the person named Gorou gone mad?’

'Probably… Now that I think about it, Gorou had probably been holding the baby.’

'I-is that true?’

'Well, I don’t remember clearly. The baby’s been missing since then, and Gorou’s dead too…’

'Dead?’

'Came floating up in the river the next morning. Stomach sliced open. Well, that was probably, you know…’

'Suicide.’ That was probably what Rokusuke meant. Yasohachi said the word with a sigh, his spirits heavy.

'Well, there was a rumour that it was a lovers’ suicide, but both of them were buried at Myouhouji with nobody to tend to their graves.

'Thank you very much for your help,’ said Yasohachi before standing.

Even though it had happened so long ago, Rokusuke had remembered the details, which was helpful for Rokusuke.

He was about to leave when he suddenly stopped.

'Excuse me – ’

'What?’

'Rokusuke-san, did you continue to live in the row house after the incident?’

'I did, for five or six years.’

'Did somebody live next to you then?’

'Nobody. It was too disturbing.’

That made sense. Not many people would want to live there after finding out somebody had been killed there.

'Did you ever hear about a ghost appearing in the next room?’ asked Yasohachi.

'Never heard anything like that,’ Rokusuke replied.

If the spirit possessing Osayo was Gorou’s wife, why had she started wandering seventeen years after the fact?

With that question on his mind, Yasohachi thanked Rokusuke and left the room.

-

7

-

'Yasohachi-san.’

Yasohachi had returned from Tama to Yotsuya and was walking when somebody suddenly called out to him. He was standing just in front of Marukuma.

He looked up and saw a face he recognized.

Hijikata from Ishida Sanyaku –

He was tall and had such lovely looks that even a man might fall in love in at first sight. He was so gorgeous that he seemed more like a kabuki actor than a chemist.

There was just one thing – his eyes always had a sharp glint in them. He was a man of many mysteries.

'Hijikata-san. Thank you for the other day.’

'What are you talking about?’

'Regarding the man who can expel spirits.’

'Ah. It was nothing. He is a man of many tempers, so please ensure that you are careful in handling him.’

Hijikata smiled slightly.

'Who’s got many tempers?’

There was suddenly another voice.

Yasohachi looked up and saw Ukikumo peering out from the sliding door on the second floor of Marukuma.

He had his eyes covered with the red cloth. It seemed he could still see properly with it on.

'Stop talking and get up here already.’

Ukikumo jerked his chin towards the building.

Yasohachi thanked Hijikata once more and then went under the curtains into Marukuma. After greeting Kumakichi, Yasohachi went up to the Japanese-style room on the second floor.

Ukikumo was leaning against the wall as usual while sipping sake out of a sake cup. Yasohachi felt like this man was always drinking.

'So what did you find out?’

Ukikumo pulled the cloth off and looked at Yasohachi with his crimson eyes.

'I heard a number of things,’ said Yasohachi, sitting down to face Ukikumo.

'Let me hear them.’

Ukikumo held a filled sake cup out towards Yasohachi.

Yasohachi took a slip, took a breath and then started speaking. It took some time since he explained what Rokusuke told him in detail.

Ukikumo sometimes said things like 'Hm’ and 'As I thought’ as he listened intently.

'The ghost possessing your sister is probably that Gorou’s wife – ’ said Ukikumo confidently, putting a hand on his pointed chin, after Yasohachi finished.

'How can you be sure?’

'The ghost possessing your sister was cut in her shoulder and stomach. It matches what old man Rokusuke said.’

'But Rokusuke-san’s story might not be fact. It has been seventeen years after all,’ said Yasohachi.

Ukikumo’s left eyebrow went up as he glared at Yasohachi.

Under that pressure, Yasohachi shifted just slightly.

'You’re an unexpectedly distrustful guy.’

'If you hold any preconceptions, you won’t be able to see the things that you might have been able to see otherwise,’ said Yasohachi, which made Ukikumo snort.

'That’s a good attitude. Well, there’s other proof.’

'What proof?’

'The wife of the guy called Gorou was called Kayo.’

'How do you know that?’

'Got Hijikata to look into it for me. You can trust what he says.’

So that was why Hijikata was in front of Marukuma earlier – now Yasohachi understood.

He didn’t know what methods Hijikata used, but he felt like if anyone, Hijikata would be able to get that information. He was a man who had such a strange atmosphere to him.

'However, there is something I don’t understand,’ asked Yasohachi, changing the topic.

'What?’

'From the conversation yesterday, the ghost possessing my sister is searching for the person who killed her – correct?’

'Yeah.’

'But if we summarise what we’ve learnt, the person named Kayo would know that the person who killed her was her husband, Gorou.’

Rokusuke had heard the sound of fighting and a scream, so Kayo probably hadn’t been cut in her sleep.

Even if it had been dark, it had been her husband. She must have noticed.

'Probably,’ Ukikumo replied readily.

'That makes things troublesome then. Gorou is already dead. There’s nothing to be done.’

'That would be true if Kayo were searching for Gorou,’ Ukikumo said offhandedly, stretching his arms out.

He made it sound like it didn’t concern him at all. Well, it didn’t actually concern him, but after coming all this way, Yasohachi would be troubled if Ukikumo didn’t accompany him until the end.

'Please don’t say something so irresponsible. At this rate, my sister…’

Ukikumo interrupted Yasohachi with a wave of his hand.

'Don’t be in such a rush.’

'But…’

'I said this earlier, right? If Kayo were searching for Gorou, there’d be no way to find him. But there’s still hope if she’s searching for someone else.’

'Someone else… Who would that be?’ asked Yasohachi, leaning forward.

Ukikumo sighed in exasperation. 'I can’t tell if you’re sharp or dull.’

Even if Ukikumo said that, Yasohachi didn’t understand the things he didn’t understand.

'Please explain what you mean.’

'I mean, somebody’s gone missing since that incident, right?’

Yasohachi immediately understood what Ukikumo meant.

'So Kayo is searching for her son?’

'That’s it.’

Though Yasohachi understood, at the same time, his heart sank.

'However, if we think about the situation, the child is probably…’

– Not living.

They were back at the start. If the baby was dead, they had no way of finding him, same as with Gorou.

In contrast to Yasohachi in his shock, a meaningful smile appeared on Ukikumo’s smile as he finished his sake in one gulp.

-

8

-

Yasohachi knelt on the wooden floor of Myouhouji.

Ukikumo had his eyes covered with the usual red cloth, covering his crimson eyes. He knelt on one knee, supporting himself with his staff.

The candlelight shook, even though there was no wind.

'What happened to Osayo-san afterwards?’ asked Dousai, the Myouhouji monk sitting opposite them.

Dousai had been the first to attempt to expel the spirit from Osayo.

He had a warm personality. Though he was of a rather high rank, he didn’t let that get to his head. Because Dousai was like that, Yasohachi thought he didn’t need to hide anything.

'Well… It doesn’t seem like she is getting any better…’

'Is that so? I apologise for not being of any help.’

Dousai bowed his head deeply.

'Please lift your head. I do not blame you even the slightest.’

'No, I must apologise to Genta-san as well.’

'My father knows that you did all you could.’

'But…’

Dousai swallowed his words and turned his eyes towards Ukikumo.

Though Dousai did not say it aloud, it was clear that he was suspicious about why Ukikumo was here.

'This is Ukikumo-san. Er…’

Yasohachi was about to introduce Ukikumo, but he hesitated to call him an exorcist in front of Dousai.

That would definitely make it seem like he blamed Dousai.

'Me and Hachi are friends of sorts,’ said Ukikumo as he poured sake from his gourd into the sake cup he kept at his waist.

'Friend?’

Dousai furrowed his brows.

'I heard about Osayo-san from Hachi and had an idea, so I got him to bring me here,’ said Ukikumo nonchalantly.

'What do you mean?’ asked Dousai.

'The ghost possessing Osayo-san is probably a woman named Kayo who was killed in the row house near here seventeen years ago.’

'Kayo? How do you know that?’

'Kayo’s my older sister, though we’ve never met.’

Perhaps Ukikumo’s heavy weigh of putting it had convinced Dousai, as he replied, 'So that’s how it is,’ though he still seemed doubtful.

That was quite something, since Ukikumo had just been spewing out lies.

'I heard that my older sister was buried here,’ said Ukikumo.

'She was,’ said Dousai with a nod. 'Kayo-san was buried here because of her connection to Genta-san.’

'Connection to my father?’ said Yasohachi without thinking.

'Yes. Kayo-san was an assistant at Genta-san’s shop.’

'Is that so…’

It was the first Yasohachi had heard of it.

'Actually, Kayo-san’s husband, Gorou, was Genta-san’s childhood friend. Well, I was too… Anyway, that was the connection.’

Yasohachi had never heard that before. It had been before Yasohachi was born though, so it made sense that he didn’t know.

Furthermore, Gorou might have killed his wife and himself. His father had probably not wanted to talk about it.

'I want to visit her grave,’ said Ukikumo.

Dousai nodded.

'There’s an unmarked grave in the back, but…’ Dousai stopped talking.

'Is there some sort of problem?’

'Actually, because of the heavy rain ten days ago, the ground broke and the gravestone fell. I am ashamed to say it, but it has not yet been rectified…’

Come to think of it, there had been terrible rain the day Osayo was possessed too. The river had swelled up and the ground had come loose. There had been damages everywhere.

Ukikumo put a hand to his chin with an 'Oh’.

'Did you figure something out?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo slowly turned his head towards him.

The eyes drawn on the red cloth looked straight through Yasohachi.

'Yeah. I know why Kayo’s ghost appeared now – ’

That had been bothering Yasohachi.

She had been killed for seventeen years. From what Rokusuke said, there hadn’t been any ghost sightings at the row house either.

'Why?’

'The gravestone moved, that’s why.’

'Eh?’

'That happens sometimes. Some change wakes up a sleeping spirit.’

Ukikumo’s red lips twisted into a smile.

Yasohachi shivered, even though he was in a muggy temple.

'Are you a monk?’ asked Dousai, who had been listening to the conversation.

'No, definitely not. As you can see, I’m blind.’

'Even if you can’t see, you can walk the path of Buddhism.’

'True. Then it’s a problem of attitude. Anyway, I’m a fool who wouldn’t even be able to write the B in Buddhism if you asked.’

Ukikumo took a sip of sake, as if he were proud.

After seeing that, Dousai’s expression clouded just slightly, but he didn’t say anything.

'By the way, what sort of man was Gorou?’ asked Ukikumo after a pause.

'Hm… When he was young, he was a man of few words who was always painting.’

'How about swordsmanship?’

'None to speak of. He was unskilled at moving his body.’

'Was he the sort of man who would slice his wife open?’

'No – is what I want to say, but he did, so…’

'Right. To me, he’s the villain who killed my sister,’ said Ukikumo, his tone challenging.

It would be a natural tone if Kayo were his older sister, but that was a lie. Dousai didn’t know that, so with a solemn expression, he said, 'I apologise.’

'To tell the truth – ’ That was how Dousai began, but then he left a pause. It felt like he wasn’t sure whether he should speak. Finally, he took a breath and then said, 'That night, Gorou came to this temple.’

'By himself?’ asked Ukikumo.

'Yes, by himself. He came covered in blood. He had a sword in his hand. When I asked him why, he told me that he had killed his wife.’

'And the reason?’

Dousai shook his head.

'He just said that he stll had something to do and that he wanted me to bury his wife.’

The wrinkles on Dousai’s face grew deeper.

'What happened afterwards?’

'He said what he needed to and then ran off with the sword. The next day, he was found floating in the river…’

Dousai sighed. The candles’ flames trembled.

Yasohachi understood. What Gorou had had to do was kill himself. To take responsibility for his actions.

It was silent in the temple –

How long did the silence last? Suddenly, Ukikumo stood up.

'Was he really alone?’

As Ukikumo said that in a reverberant voice, he put his staff on his shoulder.

Dousai looked up at Ukikumo and nodded.

'Lying’s not good.’

'Eh?’

Yasohachi was the one who was surprised.

Ukikumo ignored Yasohachi and looked down at Dousai. The eyes on the cloth seemed to glow with a demonic light.

'He wasn’t alone, right?’

'What do you mean?’

'Gorou should have had someone with him.’

'Someone?’

'A newborn child.’

– Oh!

Gorou had cut open Kayo’s stomach and taken out a baby. He had run off with that baby in his hands.

So that baby had gone to Myouhouji.

'I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

Dousai shook his head firmly.

Ukikumo crouched in front of Dousai and put his face up close.

'Is it OK?’

'Is what OK?’

'For somebody following the path of Buddha to lie in front of Buddha.’

Ukikumo’s words made Dousai’s face twitch. Yasohachi could tell that Dousai’s lips, pressed tightly together, were trembling slightly.

The statue of Buddha in the back of the temple seemed to glare at Dousai.

'Does your Buddha lie?’ continued Ukikumo, pointing at the Buddha statue with his staff.

Dousai looked away and was silent for a while, but his shoulders finally slumped down in resignation.

'It is just as you say,’ he murmured.

Ukikumo nodded in satisfaction and stood up.

'Where’s that baby?’

'I can’t say that now,’ Dousai replied immediately.

His tone was firm, completely different from what it had been before.

From this response, it seemed like the baby that Gorou had taken from Kayo’s stomach was still living. Furthermore, Dousai knew where the baby went.

'Could you tell us, please?’ begged Yasohachi.

If they could find the baby, they might be able to expel Kayo’s spirit from Oayo.

Yasohachi was desperate. However, no matter how Yasohachi pleaded, he did not open his mouth.

'It’s fine,’ said Ukikumo, placing a hand on Yasohachi’s shoulder.

'But…’

They still didn’t know the most important thing. Furthermore, Dousai knew the answer. If they backed down now, they wouldn’t be able to save Osayo.

'It’s fine, since I have a pretty good guess.’

After declaring that, Ukikumo left the temple briskly.

Yasohachi was about to chase after him when Dousai called out.

'Yasohachi-san, stop this already.’

'What do you mean?’

'It is for your own good,’ said Dousai, letting out a small sigh.

Yasohachi didn’t understand. He just bowed and left.

Ukikumo was outside, staff on his shoulder. His @pse gave him the overwhelming presence of an excellent swordsman.

'Is it really OK for us not to get the answer from him?’ Yasohachi asked first.

The answer was right there. Dousai definitely knew where Kayo’s baby was.

'It’s pointless,’ Ukikumo said immediately.

'But…’

'That monk won’t talk no matter what we say.’

'Why?’

'He couldn’t say. Not in that situation, at least.’

'Please speak in a way that I’ll understand.’

'You don’t have to know right now,’ said Ukikumo. Then, he started to walk.

Yasohachi followed him as if dragged along.

Ukikumo walked to the unmarked graves behind the temple. Just as Dousai had said, the ground was broken and the gravestone had fallen.

'If not for the heavy rain, my sister would not have been possessed by Kayo’s ghost,’ said Yasohachi.

Ukikumo pulled the red cloth down.

In the moonlight, his crimson eyes seemed to let off an unearthly light.

'Maybe. But this might have been fate.’

'Fate? What do you mean?’

'I want to meet your dad.’

Ukikumo’s response had nothing to do with Yasohachi’s question.

'Why is it necessary for you to meet my father?’

'In order to ask whether you should know the answer.’

It was like some Zen question.

Yasohachi had no idea what Ukikumo was thinking at all –

-

9

-

Yasohachi had his arms crossed in front of the desk in his room.

He had brought Ukikumo to his father, Genta, just as Ukikumo asked. Though Yasohachi had intended on talking together, he had been chased out of the room.

The two of them had been in the room ever since, not taking one step out.

Yasohachi wanted to know what they were talking about, so he tried to listen through the sliding door, but Ukikumo had noticed immediately and chased him away.

Yasohachi looked at the painting on the wall.

Even though nothing had changed, the gaze of the painted woman seemed incredibly sad.

What was the strange beating in his chest?

'Sorry for the wait – ’

The door suddenly opened and Ukikumo appeared, red cloth over his eyes.

'Ah!’

Yasohachi leapt back in surprise. Ukikumo snorted.

'You’ve got no guts.’

'I’m surprised because you suddenly showed up.’

'That’s why I said you have no guts.’

'More importantly, what did you talk with my father about?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo’s lips turned up in a meaningful smile.

'I got him to decide.’

'Decide?’

'In order to expel the spirit from your sister, he had to be prepared to sacrifice something big.’

'Prepared to sacrifice…’

'Yeah. Your dad’s decided.’

'Prepared for what?’

– And what does he mean by sacrifice?

The door opened again, interrupting Yasohachi’s question. It was Genta and Kanichi. They were carrying Osayo, who was asleep.

'Please put Osayo-san there – ’

Ukikumo pointed at the centre of the room.

Genta and Kanichi put Osayo where Ukikumo pointed.

'Now, please leave the rest to me,’ declared Ukikumo. Kanichi bowed and left the room. Genta was about to do the same when he stopped and turned towards Yasohachi.

Their gazes met-

There were traces of tears in those eyes. However, his expression was not weak – it was filled with a strong will.

'Sorry…’ Genta said in a hoarse voice.

'Eh?’

'I cared for you. That’s why I didn’t want you to paint…’

Genta’s tight fists were shaking slightly.

– Why is he talking about that now?

Yasohachi didn’t understand.

He couldn’t relax. It felt like he was standing atop a cloud.

'I…’

Though his mouth opened, nothing else came out.

Genta smiled gently and then said, 'I’ll leave the rest to you.’ He bowed deeply towards Ukikumo and left the room.

For some reason, Yasohachi felt like he wouldn’t be able to meet his father ever again. He wanted to chase after him, but his body wouldn’t move.

'Now, let’s start.’

Ukikumo took a gulp straight from his gourd and wiped his mouth with his kimono sleeve.

It felt like he was trying to cheer Yasohachi up.

'Start what?’

'To expel the spirit.’

'Are we really starting?’ asked Yasohachi, lifting himself up.

'That’s what you want, right?’

That was true. Yasohachi wanted to save Osayo. However, his heart had been beating wildly since earlier.

He didn’t want to see what happened after this – it was like his heart was telling him that.

His forehead was sweating.

He had an unpleasant feeling, as if somebody was watching him.

It was the gaze from the painting of the woman on the wall –

'I…’

Yasohachi had started to speak when Ukikumo grabbed him by the collar and pulled him close.

At some point, the red cloth had come off Ukikumo’s eyes.

His crimson eyes looked straight at Yasohachi.

'Listen carefully. I can save your sister, but you’ve got to be prepared.’

'Prepared…’

'Yeah. You have to prepare yourself.’

'What do you mean?’

'If I expel the spirit from her, you won’t be able to return to where you are.’

'Where I am?’

What did Ukikumo mean by where he was? What did he mean, Yasohachi wouldn’t be able to return? Would he have to go somewhere? Where would he go? To paradise, or perhaps to hell?

The endless questions kept coming.

'You won’t be able to be who you’ve been up until now. You will not be able to return.’

'What if I say no?’

'Then your sister will die.’

'Die?’

Ukikumo looked at Osayo, who was lying on the floor.

Ever since Osayo had been possessed, she hadn’t been eating properly. Her cheeks were hollow and she looked as pale as somebody already dead.

Perhaps her life was being drained out of her.

Just as Ukikumo said, Osayo probably couldn’t stay like this much longer. All that awaited her was – death.

'Then what will you do? Tell me your decision.’

The red eyes questioned him.

The answer was obvious. He had made that decision from the start. Yasohachi didn’t know what Ukikumo was going to do or where the place he was was or where he would go.

However, regardless of that, it would be better than Osayo’s death.

Even if he would lose the person he had been up until now –

'Please save my sister,’ pleaded Yasohachi.

'I accept your decision!’ said Ukikumo with a bewitching grin.

-

10

-

'Then let us begin – ’ declared Ukikumo, hitting the tatami with his staff.

The floor shook slightly.

With that tremor, Osayo’s eyelids fluttered open.

There was no light in those eyes. They were dark. Nothing was reflected in them. They were the eyes of a corpse.

'It appears you are awake – Kayo-san.’

Ukikumo spoke in a voice that carried well.

In response, Osayo let out a moan.

Saliva dripped out of her half-open mouth.

'You must be suffering,’ said Ukikumo, his voice gentler than Yasohachi had ever heard it. It appeared this man had a kind heart that didn’t seem like him at all.

Osayo stood up. A noxious gas seemed to be coming out of her.

Yasohachi trembled under that force and pressed up against the wall to escape Osayo.

Meanwhile, Ukikumo , facing Osayo, didn’t budge at all.

'Can you see as well?’ asked Ukikumo, pointing at his own eyes.

'These red eyes – ’

Osayo groaned.

'These red eyes can see the spirits of the dead. In short, they can see ghosts. I can see you. That is – ’

Ukikumo stopped here.

His eyes met Osayo’s.

'The way of the red eye – ’

Ukikumo’s voice rang as he slammed the staff into the tatami again.

The candles shook along with their flames.

'Wheeeeeerrree…’

Osayo’s eyes were wide open as she bared her teeth, her face contorted into an expression of rage.

– Just like a demon.

Yasohachi now understood the depth of the darkness that Kayo held.

He didn’t know the details of what had happened, but she hadn’t just been killed by her husband, Gorou – he had sliced her stomach open and pulled out her baby.

It must have cut away at her heart.

How would Ukikumo clear away such strong emotions – with the child in question still nowhere to be found?

'Wheeeere did you goo!?’ screamed Osayo, reaching forward with both hands o grab Ukikumo’s neck.

– Ah!

Yasohachi was about to go help, but Ukikumo stopped him.

Even though his face was red from being strangled, His crimson eyes were still looking at Osayo.

'Are you looking for the child that had been in your belly?’ asked Ukikumo in a hoarse voice.

That instant, Osayo’s expression changed.

Her wide-open eyes closed slightly and her cheeks twitched.

'Do you… know…’ asked Osayo.

'Yes, I do.’

Perhaps Osayo had loosened her grip, as Ukikumo’s voice was clearer than it had been before.

'W-wheeerre…’

'Your child – is a boy.’

Nobody had mentioned anything about Kayo’s child being a boy or girl. How did Ukikumo know?

Ukikumo continued despite Yasohachi’s question.

'Seventeen years have passed since you died. That boy has grown up splendidly.’

– Again.

How could he say the boy had grown up splendidly even though they didn’t know where the baby had gone?

The deeper Yasohachi’s doubts grew, the louder his heart beat.

He wanted to know the reason, but at the same time, he didn’t want to know. No, he felt like he couldn’t know.

'He must take after his father. He likes painting.’

– What is he saying?

A cold sweat poured down Yasohachi’s forehead.

'Gorou-san left the baby at Myouhouji and then somebody raised him. The owner of a dry goods shop. His name – ’

'Stop!’ shouted Yasohachi without thinking.

What was Ukikumo saying? It was as if –

'Why are you acting so mad?’

'I mean, from what you just said, it’s as if I… No. That’s ridiculous.’

'It isn’t ridiculous.’

'You have no proof.’

'I do.’

'Wha – ’

'The monk named Dousai didn’t say where the baby went, even though he knew. He said, “I can’t say that now.” Do you know why?’

The monk had said that. When he said 'now’, he had meant that he couldn’t say in front of Yasohachi then. But –

'If that’s all…’

'I have other proof.’

’…’

'Kayo was killed and the baby was taken out of her at the end of the Yayoi month – which means the eighty-eighth night. You get it, right?’

– And so my name is Yasohachi, written with the characters for eighty-eight.

That was probably what Ukikumo meant.

'Stop joking. My father had reasons…’

'Your father hated how you painted. Even though he was normally gentle and let you do whatever you want – why did he not want you to paint?’

Gorou had been a painter. Then, he had gone mad and killed his wife. Had his father thought the same thing would happen to him if he continued painting?

Though the logic lined up, Yasohachi still couldn’t accept it.

'That’s not true.’

'It is. I checked with your father. I checked that it was all right for me to tell you this too.’

Ukikumo’s words shook Yasohachi.

He couldn’t stand. He fell to the tatami on his knees.

'Stand.’

Ukikumo grabbed Yasohachi’s collar and forced him up.

His red eyes stared at Yasohachi.

'You decided to save your sister, right? Even though you knew you wouldn’t be able to return – ’

Yasohachi’s body was trembling.

He escaped Ukikumo’s grasp and backed away.

However, the wall stopped him immediately. He had nowhere to run.

– So this is what he meant!

Yasohachi finally understood Ukikumo’s words.

The steady world he had lived in up until now was crumbling underneath him. He was trying to cling to something, but it was pointless. There was nothing for him to cling to.

It felt like he was sinking into a bottomless swamp.

If this were going to happen, it would have better not to save – no, Yasohachi wouldn’t stand for that.

Then what was he supposed to have done? He asked himself, but no answer came to him. Of course no answer came.

No matter how he floundered now, it was too late.

Even though he would have been able to continue living peacefully if he had known nothing – but he knew now. He had found out.

Now – he could not return.

He was not Genta’s child, nor was he Osayo’s younger brother. The people he had thought were family were complete strangers.

'The baby you’re looking for – ’

Ukikumo paused.

then, he slowly pointed at Yasohachi.

'Is right there – ’

Osayo turned towards Yasohachi.

The demonic expression that had been on her face earlier was gone. It was gentle, warm and familiar.

– I see.

Yasohachi understood.

Osayo – no, Kayo – was not filled with hatred.

It was a deep love –

She didn’t care about her own life at all. She didn’t care who killed her.

Even after her death, Kayo had just wanted to make sure her child was safe.

A tear fell from Osayo’s eyes.

'Mother – ’

The word naturally came out of Yasohachi’s mouth.

Osayo walked towards Yasohachi. He felt no more fear. She was his mother.

A mother who had never embraced her child even once and still loved him enough to continue caring for him.

Osayo put her arms around Yasohachi and hugged him tightly.

In Osayo’s arms, Yasohachi felt like he could feel his mother, Kay.

Kayo sobbed and said something. Yasohachi hadn’t heard them clearly, but he felt like they had been a cry of happiness.

Yasohachi cried as well.

He himself wasn’t sure what his tears meant, but he could feel something that had been empty in his heart filling up.

'Mother.’

He said it once more, and as if that had been a sign, the strength left Osayo’s body.

– What just happened?

Yasohachi looked at Ukikumo, who nodded.

'Your mum’s gone.’

After saying that, Ukikumo looked up.

'I see…’

Yasohachi followed Ukikumo’s gaze, but he couldn’t see anything.

– I envy him.

He honestly thought that. If he had red eyes like Ukikumo, he might have been able to see his mother’s face.

After telling Ukikumo that, Ukikumo laughed.

'Haven’t you been looking at your mother for years?’

Ukikumo pointed at the wall with his staff.

There was a painting there. A painting of a woman looking at water lilies.

– I see. That woman is my mother. The person who painted this was probably my father.

'Yasohachi…’

He heard a hoarse voice.

Yasohachi saw Osayo looking up from within his arms.

Her eyes were different from how they had been earlier. They were beautiful and full of light. They were definitely Osayo’s eyes.

'Sister!’

Though Yasohachi exclaimed in happiness, he felt his heart whisper.

Could he continue to call Osayo his sister after this?

-

11

-

Yasohachi was in his futon, but he couldn’t sleep.

After that, Ukikumo had left. Osayo had collapsed there, extremely exhausted.

Though Yasohachi had met with Genta, they hadn’t said anything.

He must have known that Yasohachi knew the truth. Perhaps he couldn’t think of what to say.

Yasohachi felt the same way. He didn’t know what to say to him.

For seventeen years – he had been Genta’s child. He had never doubted that. Now, that had suddenly changed.

No, for Genta, Yasohachi had never been his real child.

Yasohachi had unknowingly shown his interest in painting – the foolishness of that made Yasohachi shudder. Of course Genta had opposed it.

Yasohachi looked at his right hand.

He couldn’t see it clearly in the dark, but the blood of a man who had killed his wife ran through it.

No, it wasn’t just his hand. The blood ran through every corner of his body.

Hateful cursed blood –

'I really can’t return…’ murmured Yasohachi.

Suddenly, he felt someone’s presence. Yasohachi sat up. He could see something like a piece of paper between the sliding door and the wall.

He slowly got up and took it in his hand. It was a letter. He opened the door and went into the corridor. There was nobody there any more.

He read the words in the moonlight.

The blood left his face –

I have Osayo.
If you want her back safely, come to the row house alone.
If you tell anyone, Osayo’s life will come to an end.

Yasohachi ran down the corridor to Osayo’s room and opened the door.

It was empty. Yasohachi gripped the letter in his hand tightly.

– Who on earth did this, and what for?

He couldn’t think about that now. He had to save Osayo as soon as possible.

He had already started running.

– Why am I running so frantically?

That question suddenly came to Yasohachi’s head as he ran down the road to the row house. Osayo wasn’t his sister. They were complete strangers.

– Is that really true? Even if we aren’t related by blood, does that mean my life up until now was a lie?

'No!’

Yasohachi shouted that aloud.

Osayo had been the one who took care of him when he had a high fever. She had come to help him straight away when the neighbourhood kids were bullying him. She had been the one who helped Genta and him make up when they fought. It had always been Osayo.

Even if they weren’t related by blood, that didn’t make the time they had spent as family a lie. Even if that was just how Yasohachi thought, still –

Yasohachi, panting, reached the row house.

The fateful row house where his mother had died and he had been born.

It was completely dark. Though it was dark around him, the entrance to the row house was even darker. It felt like the entrance to hell.

To be hones, he was afraid. But –

Yasohachi peered in with determination.

At first, he couldn’t see anything, but soon his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness.

He saw a woman in a white nightdress in the corner of the room.

It was – Osayo.

'Sister,’ he said, which made Osayo look up and shake her head frantically.

There was a gag on her mouth so she couldn’t speak. Her hands and feet were bound with rope as well.

– I need to save her right away.

He was about to go in when he heard a footstep from behind him.

He turned around instinctively.

A man was standing there. He had a sword at his waist. He had a washcloth on his head and was covering his mouth and nose with a cloth.

His glinting eyes looked right at Yasohachi.

'Why did you do this?’

The man didn’t respond to Yasohachi’s words.

His antagonistic eyes kept staring at Yasohachi as his right foot stepped forward, right hand on the sword handle.

He wasn’t an amateur. It was clear that he was practised in swordsmanship.

When Yasohachi thought that, one man’s face came up right away.

– Kumakichi.

He would know about this case and he was also a good swordsman, but Yasohachi couldn’t think of a reason for him to do this.

'Who are you?’

The man still didn’t answer.

His killing intent was clear. He gripped the handle tightly.

– Will he draw?

Yasohachi’s forehead was covered in sweat.

Unfortunately, Yasohachi knew nothing about swordsmanship. He had weak arms on top of that.

If he tried to fight back, he would be cut down immediately, and if he turned around to run, the result would probably be the same.

He couldn’t run away and leave Osayo here anyway.

If he was going to be cut down either away, he wanted to save Osayo, at least. HE would have to leap forward and sacrifice his own life.

The moment he was about to step out, somebody shouted, 'Are you an idiot!’

It wasn’t the man in front of him. The proof was the man’s shock as he turned around to look.

'Where are you looking? I’m here.’

The voice spoke again.

It came from the entrance to the row house.

Yasohachi looked in and saw, in the dark, a man wearing a completely white kimono. His skin was white enough to compete with the colour of the kimono. His hair was unkempt and he had a red cloth over his eyes.

'Ukikumo-san!’ exclaimed Yasohachi.

Ukikumo grinned at him.

Instead of the usual staff, he had a sword in its scabbard.

'You were thinking about rushing him, right? You’re an idiot, as usual.’

Ukikumo walked forward.

Perhaps it had been an idiotic idea, but –

'I wanted to save my sister…’

'Relax. Osayo’s here.’

Ukikumo pointed his chin towards the entrance to the row house. Osayo was standing there. Her ropes were loosened and the gag was off her mouth.

It seemed like Ukikumo had saved her while Yasohachi was facing the man.

– But why is Ukikumo here?

Before Yasohachi could ask, Ukikumo pushed Yasohachi aside to stand in front of the man.

'Give it up already,’ Ukikumo said to the man.

'You…’ growled the man. Yasohachi recognized that voice.

'I’ll let it go if you back down here. But if you fight back, I’ve got an idea myself.’

'An idea?’

'I’ll cut you down,’ said Ukikumo in a dark voice.

The man laughed.

'You’re going to cut me down, blind man?’

'Blind? Who said that? I can see. I can see more than you can.’

'What idiocy – ’

'That is – the reason of the red eye.’

Ukikumo smiled, showing his teeth. He pulled the red cloth down.

In the moonlight, his crimson eyes glowed with a demonic light.

'Wha…’

The man backed away.

'I’m just going to say this, but I’m strong. Just lay down your sword like a good kid.’

Ukikumo stepped forward to make up for the distance the man put between them.

His very existence was that of overwhelming pressure. Even Yasohachi, who knew nothing about swordsmanship, could tell that Ukikumo had to be quite good.

'I’ll say it once more. Lay down your sword.’

Ukikumo’s warning didn’t reach the man.

The man unsheathed his sword.

'Idiot,’ said Ukikumo with a click of his tongue.

'Ey!’

The man pulled out his sword with bloodshot eyes and slashed.

– He cut Ukikumo!

That was what Yasohachi thought, but Ukikumo was fine.

He had quickly put distance between him and the man. The man’s slash had missed.

'You make too many pointless movements.’

Ukikumo smiled, full of confidence.

'What?’ said the man in an unstrung voice.

'You put too much force into it and make yourself slower.’

You!’ shouted the man angrily, raising his sword high above him.

It was a forceful stance, but Ukikumo did not move.

'If you put that much force into it, your blade will lose its sharpness.’

'Shut up!’

The man used that force to swing down.

Ukikumo evaded the slice with only the movements that were absolutely necessary, dancing on his toes.

As if to mock the man whose movements he had evaded so easily, Ukikumo hit the man’s arm with his sword still in its scabbard.

The man’s hand dropped the sword and he fell to the ground, his body twisted into the shape of a gourd.

'This is the end. Give it up already.’

Ukikumo put the tip of his scabbard to the man’s sweaty chin. The man just let out a groan.

Ukikumo sighed and turned towards Yasohachi.

And then – the man moved.

He got up and started running, picking up the sword he had dropped. 'Die!’ he cried out, leaping up to slice Ukikumo.

'Are you so desperate to die?’

Ukikumo quickly unsheathed his sword and sliced the man diagonally from the shoulder.

The man fell down face up, unable to even let out a scream.

-

12

-

Yasohachi was stunned for a while by all the events, but he came back to his senses and looked towards Osayo.

'Sister!’

Osayo’s eyes went wide in surprise, but she walked toward him.

'Are you all right?’

'Yes.’

'Thank goodness.’

Yasohachi took Osayo’s hands in his own. When he felt their warmth, he finally felt like she was safe. It was all thanks to Ukikumo.

The man in question looked bitter.

Osayo’s eyes were probably pointed straight at Ukikumo’s crimson eyes.

Ukikumo had said before that his red eyes frightened others.

'Sister, this is…’

Yasohachi was about to explain, but Osayo spoke before he could.

'How beautiful!’

As Osayo said that, she looked entranced.

They were probably words straight from her heart.

'Honestly. Both the brother and sister are idiots,’ said Ukikumo with a click of his tongue, covering his eyes with the red cloth again.

After a pause, Yasohachi was concerned about something.

'Did you kill him?’ asked Yasohachi, looking at the man on the floor.

Ukikumo nodded. 'Like I could kill him with this.’

The sword that Ukikumo had been holding was a bamboo one. It was true that it would be impossible to kill someone with that.

Ukikumo walked up to the man and pulled the cloth covering his mouth andnose away with his bamboo sword.

– It was Kanichi.

'Why would Kanichi…’

At first, Yasohachi had thought it was Kumakichi, but he had realised it wasn’t upon hearing the voice. That said, he didn’t understand why Kanichi had done this.

'Do you remember when I first went to your house?’ asked Ukikumo.

'Yes.’

Osayo had escaped from the storeroom and had been acting violently with a knife.

'That had been incredibly unnatural. That guy explained it away as Osayo having found the knife in the storeroom, but that doesn’t make sense.’

'Which means?’

'Kayo was searching for her child. Not a knife. And there was no reason for her to attack.’

Now that he mentioned it.

'In short, Kanichi tried to kill my sister when he went into the storeroom with the knife, but she fought back?’

'Well, that’s probably what happened. Anyway, his actions had been incredibly suspicious. I got Toshizou to look into him.’

'Hijikata-san?’

'Yeah. Toshizou’s a merchant, see. He doesn’t need to go out of his way to look things up – he already knows.’

'I see.’

'Kanichi used to be a peasant in Tama. He left the village to become a samurai, but it didn’t go well so he began a life of thievery.’

'Is that so?’

Yasohachi looked at Kanichi.

He didn’t seem like the sort at all, but people had hidden faces to them.

'Well, at first he just stole loose change. It didn’t change his livelihood. He was probably thinking of making one big robbery and then starting up a shop to settle down.’

'Could it be…’

'The rest of this is only my theory, but – ’

Ukikumo said that before continuing.

'Seventeen years ago – the robber that entered the brothel was Kanichi.’

'Then Gorou…’

'I can’t say he wasn’t related at all. This is also a theory, but Kanichi was just one person. He couldn’t pull off a big robbery by himself, so he needed an accomplice. There, he found Gorou.’

'Why Gorou?’

'They probably met at the brothel. Gorou went in and out as a painter, and Kanichi as a patron. Gorou was about to have a child. However, he didn’t make enough money from painting. Kanichi had probably known that when he approached him.’

'That doesn’t become a reason to aid in a robbery.’

'Now, don’t say that. People will do anything when they’re in a corner.’

It was sad, but perhaps it was true.

'What a series of events,’ muttered Yasohachi.

Osayo gripped Yasohachi’s shoulder as if to comfort him.

'But Gorou hadn’t thought somebody would die. In his guilt, he tried to give himself in

Yasohachi could see the gist of things after Ukikumo had explained this much.

'So then he fought Kanichi.’

'Yeah. It wasn’t just a robbery. Somebody had died. There’d be a death penalty. Then he might as well just kill him too – that was probably what Kanichi had thought.’

'Then – perhaps – ’

'Yeah. Gorou didn’t kill your mother, Kayo. This scoundrel did.’

Ukikumo looked at Kanichi again.

'B-but Dousai-san said that Gorou said he’d killed her – ’

Gorou had said it himself.

'He felt guilty. Because he had committed robbery, his wife had died. That was why it was his fault. It was the same as killing her himself – that’s what he felt.’

'Did Kanichi cut open her stomach to take out the baby?’

'That was probably Gorou. Well, Kayo was probably the one who asked him to.’

'W-why?’

Something so frightening –

'Love.’

'Love?’

'When Gorou went back home, Kanichi had probably been there too. They fought, but he got away. All that was left was the sword and Kayo, covered in blood.’

Rokusuke had heard a fight. That had probably been it.

'Kayo was still alive then, but at the same time, she had known that she couldn’t be saved. At this rate, the baby in her belly would save too. So – ’

'She asked Gorou to take the baby out.’

'Like I said, love,’ replied Ukikumo.

It was true that perhaps that was love. Kayo – his mother – had gone that far to try to protect her child.

Yasohachi couldn’t even imagine the pain of having your stomach cut open while still alive.

Gorou had taken the child out and left him at Myouhouji, a temple he was acquainted with, and he left his child and his wife’s burial to the monk there.

No, there was still something that Yasohachi didn’t understand.

'Why did Gorou kill himself?’

'He didn’t.’

'Eh?’

'Think about it. Would a man who wasn’t a samurai choose to slice his stomach to kill himself?’

Yasohachi understood once Ukikumo said that.

Gorou wasn’t a samurai. It would be strange for him to choose seppuku. It didn’t fit the situation.

'That’s true. That means Gorou was…’

'Killed.’

'By whom?’

'Kanichi.’

'So that’s how it was…’ said Yasohachi in a hoarse voice.

An unexplainable feeling writhed within him.

'Anyway, Kanichi took the money then and started a shop, but it didn’t go well. He was wandering around, unsure what to do with his life, when your father happened to pick him up.’

While Yasohachi understood what had happened thus far, another question came to him.

'Why did Kanichi try to kill my sister and then kidnap her?’

'He noticed that the ghost possessing your sister was Kayo. He was afraid that she might reveal his crimes.’

'What!?’

'Even after the spirit was expelled, he was still suspicious. He knew that you were Kayo’s son, so he had probably intended on killing both of you. Then he’d take the money from the shop and escape somewhere. The work of a man worth no more than rubbish.’

After Ukikumo finished saying that, Kanichi woke up and let out a moan.

Yasohachi saw Kanichi trying to crawl away.

However, Ukikumo grabbed Kanichi by the hair to stop him and pulled him up.

'Where do you think you’re going?’

Ukikumo brought Kanichi’s face close to his and pulled down the red cloth again.

Kanichi shrieked under the glare of those crimson eyes.

'It’s fine. I won’t kill you. I can see the spirits of the dead. I don’t want to be possessed by rubbish like you.’

'L-let me go.’

Kanichi writhed about.

'Sure. I’ll let you go. You can go anywhere you want.’

Ukikumo let go of Kanichi.

Yasohachi was surprised at how readily Ukikumo had released Kanichi. Yasohachi wouldn’t stand for it if Kanichi came back for revenge.

Osayo looked anxious. It seemed she felt the same way.

However, Ukikumo was different.

His lips were twisted in an uncanny smile.

'But don’t forget. He’s always with you.’

'W-what?’

Kanichi’s face twitched.

'Gorou’s possessing you. For these seventeen years, you’ve tried to work properly, but nothing’s gone right. You think that was coincidence?’

Kanichi had no reply to Ukikumo’s words.

However, his face grew visibly paler –

'Gorou’s watching you. Always – ’

'You’re lying,’ said Kanichi, looking like he might cry.

'I’m not. Look. He’s right there behind you.’

Ukikumo pointed behind Kanichi.

Kanichi frantically turned around and screamed, 'Stay away! Stay away!’

'It’s pointless. Gorou will always be with you. You can’t escape.’

'Aaahh!’

Kanichi collapsed and held his head in his hands.

Ukikumo murmured this into his ear.

'That’s what it means to kill someone – ’

Kanichi let out a scream and ran into the darkness, waving his hands wildly –

'Is Gorou-san – no, is my father really possessing Kanichi?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo snorted. 'Your birth father and mother just wanted their child to be happy. They have no reason to possess a scoundrel like him.

'Then – ’

'That was a curse.’

As Ukikumo said that, his red eyes seemed somewhat sad –

-

epilogue

-

A few days after that, Yasohachi went to the shrine.

The shrine which Ukikumo had made his stronghold.

'Hello – ’

When he called out in front of the shrine, the door opened and Ukikumo came out.

He was wearing a white kimono with the obi sloppily wrapped around him. The red cloth was covering his eyes as usual.

'What, it’s you, Hachi?’

Ukikumo yawned and sat down on the steps.

'Hello.’

'What do you want then?’

Ukikumo poured sake into the cup at his waist and drank it all at once.

'I talked with my father and sister after that.’

'And?’

'They said that I could continue to be my father’s son and my sister’s brother.’

'How lucky. You’ve got a big family,’ Ukikumo said brusquely.

Osayo had said the same thing.

His mother, Kayo, had tried to protect her child even though it meant giving up her own life. His father, Gorou, had been the one to actually save him.

He was alive now because of their love.

At the same time, Genta had raised him even while holding such a dark secret.

That was also love.

It was the same with Osayo. She had probably noticed much earlier on that Yasohachi wasn’t her real brother, but she had still supported him.

That was nothing but love.

Yasohachi felt himself foolish for thinking for even a moment that there was no place for him.

He was incredibly blessed to have so much love. He had lived his whole life without even thinking about that.

This incident had made him realize it.

Ukikumo had said then that he wouldn’t be able to return to the place where he had been, but the place he was now was much more pleasant.

'Actually, I came here today because there was something I wanted you to look at.’

Yasohachi gave the painting he brought to Ukikumo.

Genta had given Yasohachi permission to aim to be an artist after the incident. If he was going to do it, he would have to aim to be the best in every kingdom – that was what he’d said.

Yasohachi had thought that Genta didn’t want Yasohachi to be a painting because then he would go mad like Gorou, but it seemed that wasn’t the case.

Genta had thought that if Yasohachi became a painter, he would have to go far away.

Osayo had told Yasohachi that.

'Oh, looks like you’ve improved a bit. There’s a bit of feeling in here.’

Ukikumo looked at the painting with his chin in his hand.

'Really?’

'But you’ve still got a ways to go.’

Ukikumo thrust the painting back towards Yasohachi.’

'I’ll be diligent. This painting is for you.’

'I don’t need it.’

'What?’

'This is a painting you should keep.’

After saying that, Ukikumo smiled brightly.

Perhaps he was right.

Yasohachi had painted a woman holding a child.

In short, a portrait of a mother –