an English translation of the novel

Page 44-46

“I have no idea…but did you know? That guy saw something even scarier than the graves,” Satoru found a chance to change the subject.

“What did he see?” As I expected, Maria took the bait.

“You can’t ask right away. Satoru hasn’t thought of something scary yet, so give him some time,” I teased, but Satoru was serious.

“I’m not lying. That guy really did see something. It wasn’t exactly in the courtyard, but…”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“So what did he see?” Ken couldn’t resist any longer.

I thought Satoru would be smiling conspiratorially at sharing the secret, but instead his face became expressionless.

“An unbelievably huge shadow of a cat.”

It went completely silent.

At this time, I admired Satoru for his oratory skills. If there were ever a job for making scary stories, he would be the first to be picked for it. Though of course, I can’t think of any society that would have such a dumb job.

“Is that, a copycat…?” When Maria asked the question everyone was thinking, we all started talking at once.

“It seems like copycats show up at the elementary school a lot.”

“But I wonder why?”

“Isn’t it obvious? They target children!”

“They often come out at night during autumn.”

“They sometimes show up at your house, but usually only around midnight….”

We were simultaneously afraid of and attracted to the dark. We were obsessed with scary stories about evil spirits in the mountains and rivers, but out of all of them, copycats were the ones that made us shiver with fright. Although the stories circulated among children were all embellished, most agree that copycats are about as large as an adult. Although they have the face of a cat, their limbs are abnormally long, and they slink behind children like a shadow. When they reach a deserted area, they’ll reach out from behind and pin the child down. The child will go numb as if hypnotized, then the copycat opens its mouth a hundred eighty degrees and chomps down on the child’s neck so he can’t pull away. In that way, not a drop of blood will be spilled, so the child’s body will never be found, and so on.

“And then? Where did he see the copycat?”

“I don’t know whether it was a copycat or not. All he saw was a shadow,” Satoru said confidently, his previous embarrassment forgotten. “But the place where he saw it was really close to the courtyard.”

“Where though? There’s no way to enter or exit the courtyard from outside.”

“It wasn’t from the outside.”

“Huh?” I doubted what Satoru was saying, but then why did I feel a shiver run up my spine?

“It was at the end of the hall in the administration wing and disappeared right in front of the door to the courtyard…”

No one could say anything to this. Although I don’t want to admit it, Satoru got the result he wanted. Anyway, they were nothing more than made up stories told among children. At that time, I still believed that.


Page 47-48

Looking back on it, my days at Harmony school were pretty happy. Even though it was just going to school and meeting our friends, we couldn’t help but have fun every day.

Starting in the morning, we had math, language, social studies, science and other boring classes, but the teachers kept an eye on all of us to make sure we all understood the material, and patiently explained to those who needed help, so there was never anyone left behind. At the same time, we also had a lot of tests — one every three days, if I remember correctly. But most of them weren’t related to what we were learning. It was short essays like “I’m sad, because…”, so they weren’t really stressful.

Rather, what was more difficult were self-expression assignments. Although drawing and clay-sculpting was fun, writing daily essays was annoying. But it’s probably thanks to all the practice I got then that I can write this story without much trouble.

After the boring classes, we spent all afternoon playing. And since we had two days off for the weekends, we spent a lot of time running around outside to our heart’s content.

When I first entered Harmony school, I had already explored all along the lazily winding canals, gazing at the thatched roofs of the houses, going as far as Gold. During autumn, the entire village is covered in golden ears of rice, which is where it gets is name from. But the village is actually more interesting during spring and summer. When you peered into the paddy fields, you could see pond skaters darting on the surface of the water, and loaches and mosquitofish swimming underneath. At the bottom, tadpole shrimp crept about, stirring up mud to conceal themselves among the weeds. In the canals and reservoirs providing water to the farms were giant waterbugs, water scorpions, watersticks, diving beetles, and other insects, as well as crucian carps and various fish. The older kids showed us how to use cotton thread and dried squid to bait crayfish, and after a day, we had caught a bucket full of them.

There were also a lot of birds in Gold. In the spring, the cries of skylarks wheeling through the sky echoed all around, and in the summer, before rice was planted, dozens of ibises frequented the fields to hunt loaches. Ibises mated in the winter and built nests in the nearby trees. The young ibises left the nest the following autumn, and although the sound of their cries wouldn’t be considered beautiful, the sight of a flock of light pink ibises in flight was quite majestic. Other birds that we often saw flying around were black kites, brown eared bulbuls, great tits, Oriental turtle doves, puffer sparrows, triwing crows and more.


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.