an English translation of the novel

Page 49-50

And although it’s not a bird, we can also occasionally spot minoshiro. It seems like they sometimes get lost while searching for plants for small animals and wander out of the forest onto the paths near the paddy fields. Minoshiro not only improve the soil but also eat harmful insects, so they are respected and regarded as good omens by farming communities. Normally they’re about a meter tall, but giant ones are over two meters tall, with numerous, waving feelers. From the elegant way they move, there’s no doubt as to why they’re considered divine creatures.

Other revered animals are albino rat snakes and melanistic striped snakes, both of which are hunted by minoshiro. How the folk beliefs at the time compromised between their stories and this reality is a mystery.

When students enter the upper grades, they go on expeditions to see the westmost village of Oakgrove, the sand dunes of Hasaki Beach south of Whitesand, and the upper reaches of the Tone River where flowers blossomed all year round. Along the waterfront were spoon-billed sand pipers and herons, and red-crowned cranes flew by once in a while. It was fun looking for great reed warbler nests among the reeds along the sides of the river, and for haythatcher nests on top of the mountains in open fields of silver grass. In particular, the fake eggs laid by haythatchers were perfect for pranking people with.

But no matter how many animals we saw, since we’re inside the Holy Barrier, it’s not really nature; it’s more like being in a miniature garden. Basically, in the past, the animals we had in a zoo were probably the same as the ones outside of it. The elephants, lions, giraffes and other animals we see now are in reality mutations created by our cantus — false elephants, imitation lions, faux giraffes — so that in the event that one of them manage to escape from their enclosures, there is no possibility of visitors being harmed.

The environment inside the barrier is completely altered to be safe for humans. That fact became much more obvious later, but before that, I never wondered why we could run around in the wilderness all we wanted without being bitten by venomous snakes or stung by insects. Inside the barrier, there were no venomous snakes like pit vipers or ringed grass snakes. The only snakes we had were harmless, like Japanese rat snakes, Oriental odd-tooth snakes, Japanese forest rat snakes, Asian keelbacks and rosary snakes.

In addition to that, the various cypresses growing in the forest secreted, to an almost excessive degree, a foul-smelling substance that killed mold spores, ticks, chiggers, germs and other things harmful to us.


Page 51-53

When talking about childhood, I also have to mention the annual celebrations and rituals we had. Passed on from one generation to the next, these seasonal events created a sort of rhythm in our lives.

Just off the top of my head, in the spring we have a ritual for driving away evil spirits, a festival to pray for a successful harvest, and a festival for keeping away infectious diseases. In the summer, there’s a summer festival (monster festival), fire festival, and a feast of lanterns. In the fall there’s a festival on the first of august, and a ceremony of offering newly harvested rice to the gods. And the events that remind me of winter are the snow festival, the new year festival and {another festival at the end of the new year festival}.

But the one that is carved deepest in my mind is the ritual used for driving away evil spirits.

It supposedly can also be called the Demon Chasing festival1 but whether that’s true or not is uncertain. It’s one of our oldest festivals, with over two thousand years of history.

On the morning of the festival, we children gathered in an open square. We wore “purity masks” made with damp clay and covered with powdered chalk and played the part of [“shinshi”] in the ritual.

Ever since I was a child, I was scared of this ceremony because two of the masks used were exceptionally horrifying.

The two were masks representing fiends and karma demons. The fiend’s face had a sinister grin plastered on it. Afterwards, when the ban on information about ceremonies was lifted, I tried to find out its history, but the information was unclear. What I found was that it closely resembles the snake mask from ancient Noh plays. It’s the final of the three stages of a human becoming a demon that goes from bestialization –> hannya2 –> snake.

On the other hand, the karma demon’s face is one of fear and anguish, though its features are muddled and crooked and sometimes don’t even look human.

The ritual that makes up the core of the festival goes something like this. White sand is spread out over the square with lit braziers on the eastern and western end, while twenty or thirty shinshi march around the flames chanting “demons, begone. demons, begone” in a peculiar rhythm.

Then the exorcist appears dressed in a traditional costume and carrying a big spear in his hands. But the first thing everyone always notices is his golden, four-eyed mask.

The exorcist joins the shinshi in chanting and circling the fires and scatters beans in all directions to ward off calamities and bad luck. He also threw them at the spectators and people would cup their hands to catch them.

From here, the horrifying part starts. The exorcist turns toward the shinshi without warning and throws the rest of his beans at them.

“Impurity is within us!” he shouts and the shinshi repeat after him. At this signal, two of the shinshi tear off their purity masks, revealing themselves to be a fiend and a karma demon.

As a shinshi, this scene was scary enough to take my breath away. Once, the shinshi right next to me suddenly transformed into a fiend and the rest of the shinshi scattered like roaches in terror, convinced that they were seeing the actual demons.

“Expel impurity!” the exorcist shouts as he drives away the two demons with the spear. The demons put on a show of resisting, but when everyone joins in shouting, they run off, and the ritual is over.

I still remember the sight of Satoru’s face when he took off the mask, shivering.

“You’re pale as a ghost,” I said, and Satoru’s colorless lips trembled.

“So what? You are too.”

What we saw in each other’s eyes was our own hidden fears.

Satoru’s eyes opened wide and jerked his chin toward something behind my back. I turned around and saw the exorcist coming back to the square, unfastening his mask.

I just made up this name; “yarai” in the original name has multiple meanings and I wasn’t exactly sure which it should be.
2 Hannya

Page 54-56

The exorcist is generally accepted to have the most powerful cantus of us all. And as far as I know, Shisei Kaburagi has never once let anyone else take that claim from him.

Shisei Kaburagi felt us staring at him and smiled slightly. What was strange was that even after taking off the exorcist’s mask, he was still wearing another one on the top half of his face. It’s rumored that no one has ever seen his true face. His nose and mouth looked plain, but the dark glasses hiding his eyes gave him an ominous, intimidating air.

“Was it scary?” he asked in a low, resonant voice. Satoru nodded with an awestruck look on his face. Shisei Kaburagi’s gaze lingered on me for what felt like an abnormally long time.

“You’re interested in a lot of things, aren’t you?”

I stiffened, unsure of how to respond.

“Will you have good luck, or bad luck?” Shisei Kaburagi left with the shadow of a smile on his face.

For a while we stood there as if entranced. Then Satoru sighed and murmured, “That guy probably has the power to split the earth in half if he really concentrated…”

Although I didn’t believe in Satoru’s nonsense, what he said remained in my mind for a long time.

 

Happy times never stay that way for long.

My childhood was no exception, but the ironic thing is that back then I worried that those happy times were too long.

Like I said before, everyone graduates from Harmony School at a different time. The first to graduate from our class was Shun. A boy with better grades than anyone else, and with an adult’s wisdom and maturity, he suddenly disappeared from our class one day. Our homeroom teacher, Sanada, proudly announced his graduation to the rest of the class.

After that, my one wish was to hurry up and graduate so I could be in the same school as Shun. However, even though my schoolmates began leaving one by one, it was never my turn. When Maria graduated, I was left behind again. No matter how much I tried to explain, other people couldn’t understand how I felt then.

When the cherry blossoms started wilting, there were only five out of the original twenty-five students left in the class. Satoru and I were among them. Even the usually boisterous Satoru looked depressed. Every morning, after we made sure that no one else had graduated, we would sigh with relief and continue with our day. If possible, we wanted to graduate at the same time, but if not, we each secretly wished to be the first.

But my meager wish was completely destroyed. As we entered May, Satoru, who was my last hope, finally graduated. Two others followed almost immediately, leaving only two of us. Though it may seem weird, I can’t remember that other person’s name no matter how I try. Although he may have been the slowest in the class and a completely unremarkable student, I don’t think that’s why I can’t remember. I think I may have unconsciously repressed my memories of him.

During that time, I holed myself up in my room every day after school and didn’t talk to anyone. Even my parents became worried about my behavior.


Page 57-59

“There’s no need to be impatient, Saki,” mother said one evening, stroking my hair. “It doesn’t matter if you graduate early. I know it’s lonely because everyone is gone, but you’ll meet up with them again soon.”

“I’m not really…lonely or anything,” I said, throwing myself facedown onto my bed.

“You know, graduating early isn’t that special. It doesn’t have anything to do with the strength or quality of your cantus. Have I ever told you? That your dad and I didn’t graduate particularly early either.”

“But you weren’t last in the class either, right?”

“No, but…”

“I don’t want to be dropped out.”

“Don’t say something like that!” she said in an unusually stern voice. “Where did you hear that from?”

I buried my face in my pillow and remained silent.

“The gods decide when you get to graduate, so all you have to do is wait. You’ll be able to catch up to everyone else in no time.”

“What if…”

“Hmm?”

“What if I can’t graduate?”

For a split second, mother was speechless, but then she smiled brightly and said, “Were you worried about that, silly? It’ll be fine. You’ll definitely graduate, it’s just a matter of time.”

“But there are people who can’t, right?”

“Yes, but that’s less than a one in a million chance.”

I sat up and our eyes met. For some reason, my mother seemed a little shaken.

“Is it true that if you can’t graduate, a copycat will come after you?”

“Don’t be silly, copycats don’t exist in the world. You’ll be an adult soon; if you keep talking about stuff like that, people will laugh at you.”

“But, I saw one.”

In that instant, an unmistakeable shadow of fear flitted across her face.

“What are you talking about? You must have imagined it.”

“I saw it,” I repeated, trying to elicit the reaction again so I could confirm what it was. I wasn’t lying. I really felt that I had seen one. But it had happened so quickly that even I thought I must have imagined it. “It was before I came home yesterday, around sundown. I was at an intersection and saw something that looked like a copycat crossing it. It disappeared instantly though.”

Mother sighed.

“Do you know the saying ‘seeing ghosts in silver grass?’ If you keep thinking about scary things, everything you see will be scary. What you saw was just a cat, or a weasel. It’s hard to see things clearly when it’s getting dark.” Mother was acting like usual again. When she said goodnight and turned off the light, I fell asleep easily.

But when I opened my eyes again in the middle of the night, all feelings of peace and safety had disappeared.

My heart was beating like a drum, my hands and feet were icy and my entire body was drenched in sweat. Really nasty sweat.


Page 60-64

Something sinister was scrabbling at the wainscoting between the ceiling and the roof. It was barely audible, but sounded like the panels were being scratched at with sharp claws.

Did a copycat come to get me?

I couldn’t move as if frozen by a curse.

Struggling to regain control, I slowly freed myself from the spell. I slipped out of bed and slid the door open silently. Moonlight spilled into the corridor from the windows. Although it was already spring, the floorboards beneath my bare feet were cold.

Just a little bit more, almost there. My parents’ bedroom was just around the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw light leaking out from under the door. As I reached out to open the door, I heard them talking. My mother’s voice, filled a concern I had never heard before. My hand stopped in midair.

“I’m worried. At this rate, she might…”

“If you keep worrying, I’ll only be a bad influence on Saki,” father said in a dejected voice.

“But if this continues…has the Board of Education started moving yet?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s hard to exert any influence on them from the library. But you have sanctioning privileges, so can’t you do something about it?”

“The board is independent. I don’t have the power to investigate them, much less from the position of Saki’s father.”

“I don’t want to lose another child!”

“You’re being too loud.”

“But she said she saw a tainted cat!”

“She probably just imagined it.”

“What if it’s real? What do we do?”

I took a step back. Although the contents of their conversation were beyond me, I understood clearly that I had overheard something I was never supposed to hear.

As quietly as I had come, I went back to my room. There was a pale blue emperor moth the size of my hand sitting on the window. It seemed like a messenger of ill omens sent from the underworld. Although I wasn’t cold, my body wouldn’t stop trembling.

What’s happening?

For the first time in my life I felt vulnerable and alone, with no one to turn to.

What in the world is happening to me?

An unpleasant creaking sound was coming from the ceiling.

Something was approaching…

I sensed something as huge as fear itself, coming closer and closer.

Ah, it’s almost here.

The moth took off and vanished into the darkness

The next instant, the window frame started shaking and rattling, even though there was no wind. The shaking got stronger and stronger, like someone outside was trying to tear the window out of the frame.

The door slid open on its own and slammed closed again with a bang.

I gasped. It was hard to breathe. I tried to draw air deep into my lungs. But I couldn’t. It’s coming. Coming. Coming…

Suddenly, everything in the room started banging around violently. The chair and table started bucking like a wild horse, pens and pencils flew across the room and pierced through the door. The bed slowly floated toward the ceiling.

I screamed.

Sounds of hurried footsteps came down the hall. My parents were shouting my name. The door sprang open and they tumbled into the room.

“Saki, it’s okay now!” my mother wrapped me in a tight hug.

“What in the world is this?” I shouted.

“It’s okay, don’t worry. It’s a Spirit of Blessing! It finally came to you.”

“This?”

The invisible monster wrecking my room had slowly calmed down after my parents arrived.

“This means you’re an adult now, Saki,” father said, relief showing in his smile.

“So, I…?”

“You graduate from Harmony School today. Tomorrow, you enter Sage Academy.”

The book that had been floating lazily in midair dropped lifelessly to the ground. My bed tilted and landed with a thud as if the thread holding it up had been cut.

Mother hugged me so tightly it hurt. “Thank goodness! There’s nothing to worry about anymore!”

As warm tears fell on the back of my neck, an overwhelming sense of relief washed over me and I closed my eyes.

But my mother’s pained cry of “I don’t want to lose another child!” echoed in the back of my mind.