Witching Hour

by Morokoshi Katsura (唐 桂)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/3707.html)

“Back then,” said Yukio, “I hated summer vacation, because my mother would send me to the countryside. She’s never liked me underfoot though I suppose I can’t blame her, since she works at home and I was such a noisy kid. No matter how I begged her to let me stay in Tokyo, when the first day off rolled around there I’d be on a bus to my grandparents’ place out in the middle of nowhere.

“My grandmother was a bit deaf, and my grandfather’s legs weren’t in great shape. Every night they watched television and went to bed by nine. They treated me pretty well, I guess, or at least they didn’t much care what I did. The downside was that there was nothing to do. When I went into town I’d see other kids hanging around the baseball pitch or quickie mart parking lot, but they all hated me because I was from the city. The first time I fought and came home with a split eyebrow, grandma cried so much I gave up and avoided them afterward. They were all idiots anyway.

“My grandfather had an old bicycle. I’d go out on it and just circle around the fields, or up the mountain until my legs gave out. Then I’d turn around and coast all the way home. An entire day, just like that.

“One year – it was when I was fourteen, I think – I discovered an old abandoned house on the mountain. It was built on a cliff overhanging a bamboo thicket, not really very far from the road but enough that you couldn’t see it while passing by, and the approach only if you knew where to look. I’d come across it entirely by accident. It was obvious no one had set foot in it for years.

“The interesting thing about the house was the way in which it was cobbled together. Half of it was a sort of wooden lodge on stilts, built on a platform that extended into a balcony that ran the length of the house and overhung the cliff. The mountainside view would’ve been great if it weren’t half hidden by the tops of the bamboo that grew underneath. It was like a rustling, breathing green curtain.

“The other half of the house was a round stone tower that rose up three or four stories, like a lighthouse without a sea.

“Inside it was all the same structure. The ceilings were high, the windows and floorboards intact but grimy. The electricity had been cut off, but the water pump out back still worked. The tower, which was obviously older than the rest, had been divided into several stories connected by a spiraling staircase. Each story was a single round room. The first two were walled with empty shelves from floor to ceiling. The third contained a broken mattress frame – it was probably used as a bedroom. There was no other furniture remaining, not even a thrown-away chair or lampshade.

“When I returned home that evening I asked my grandparents if they knew the house and to whom it had belonged. ‘It was someone from the city who had it built, up against the tower,’ said my grandmother. ‘A writer, wasn’t it, dear?’ My grandfather concurred that it had been a writer. ‘Bit touched in the head,’ he added. ‘Packed up and left one day and never came back. That was years ago. Maybe he’s dead, come to think of it.’

“Needless to say I was delighted. I spent most of the rest of vacation in that house, kicking about and pretending who knows what to myself. The year after that as well.”

***

“The summer vacation after that I shipped out in a royally foul mood. I hadn’t wanted to go to my grandparents’; I wanted to go to the seaside with a few of my schoolmates, had it planned out in advance. My mother overruled me, saying that my grandparents missed me. Well, they didn’t miss me that I could see, she just didn’t believe I could do without the babysitting. But they’re my father’s parents not hers, and he’s dead, which always ends that argument.

“I didn’t even think of biking up to the abandoned house until the second or third day.

“It was a hot parched summer. When you biked along the dirt roads clouds of dust rose into the air and coated your skin, got into your eyes. By the time I arrived at the house I was sweaty and dirty and not a little bugbitten. I abandoned my bike on the front porch and went around back with the intention of sticking my head under the water pump. I got the pump going, took off my shirt and splashed some water on my face and arms. Then I heard a noise over the running water – I don’t know what – and turned around.

“There was a boy leaning against the kitchen screen door, watching me and smiling. He was probably my age but more slenderly built and pale, with hair that fell softly over his forehead and cheeks. I can’t remember what he was wearing. I’d never seen him before.

“‘What are you staring at?’ I said. It occurred to me immediately that he’d found my secret hideout, and I didn’t like the idea. ‘What are you doing here?’

“‘My name is Emiru,’ he said, although I hadn’t asked for an introduction. ‘I live here.’

“‘No, you don’t, smartass,’ I said. There were none of the obvious signs of habitation you’d expect. The windows were still covered with dirt and cobwebs, and the yard was as overgrown as ever. Even the screen door he was leaning against was torn. But something about the way he smiled made me uncertain, and that made me angry. ‘Where’s your family, then?’

“‘They’re not here,’ he said. ‘I’ve been sent away.’

“That gave me pause. Before I could think of anything to say he turned around and went inside, leaving the screen door to swing aimlessly behind him. After a moment I pulled my shirt back on and followed.

“I found him standing on the ground floor of the tower, gazing into mid-air at nothing in particular. At first he didn’t seem to notice me. Then he did and looked mildly surprised.

“‘What are you still doing here?’ he said. ‘I didn’t invite you in.’ Just like that – thoughtful, not annoyed.

“‘Piss off, all right,’ I said. ‘This place isn’t yours. I was here first.’ He was obviously not living there. The house was in the exact same state as I’d left it the previous year, down to the smear of ashes where I’d started a newspaper fire and then stamped it out. ‘Get out of here if you don’t feel like getting your ass kicked.’

“By way of response he stepped in front of me, peering into my eyes.

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘how interesting. Perhaps you were here first; that might explain it. Towers can be so wilful.’

“‘Get the hell out of my—’

“He reached up and touched my forehead with one fingertip. I forgot what I was going to say; in fact I believe I closed my eyes. The next second I jumped the way you do when you start awake and have no idea how long it’s been since you dozed off. I blinked a couple of times, took a step back and stood still, swaying.

“‘If you wish to come and go here you must ask my permission,’ said Emiru. The eyes he turned up to me were an unusual deep grey. Gazing down into them made my heart beat faster all of a sudden, as if I’d been running. ‘There is a price to pay.’

“I nodded. Why had I thought the house was empty? Behind Emiru I could see that the room was filled with looming shadows, blurred shapes that gleamed here and there like precious stones or metal.

“‘This is for you,’ said Emiru. He took a length of slim red ribbon out of his trouser pocket and looped it around my neck, tying the ends together in a complicated-looking knot. ‘I’ve told you my name. What is yours?’

“‘Yukio,’ I said.

“‘Yukio. You will attend me from now on.’

“I nodded again. I couldn’t have asked for better.

“When I went home that evening I wondered if my grandparents would say something about the ribbon, but they didn’t seem to pay it any notice.”

***

After my grandparents went to bed I sat for a while beside the open window, gazing out into the darkness.

The day had grown gradually humid. Evening brought with it the oppressive stillness that spoke of an incipient storm, but the rain refused to fall. The air weighed heavy in my lungs; the ribbon around my throat chafed like tiny pinpricks. I could not see the moon or any stars.

On the side of the mountain a white light flared. It pulsed once, twice, then settled into an unwavering glow.

I got up, opened the screen door and slipped out, quietly so as not to wake the house, and went to retrieve my bicycle.

The path was hard to navigate in the dark. I fell several times. Each time I got up, got back on and kept pedaling. When I lifted my head I would see the light, guiding me like a homing beacon.

The first flash of lightning came before I reached the foot of the climb, followed some seconds later by a long roll of thunder. Then again, and again. By the time I was nearing the house fat, warm raindrops had begun to fall, splattering on the bamboo leaves and the dirt road.

The sky opened up just as I was leaning my bike against the front porch. The front door was unlocked; I ducked inside, shaking water from my hair.

The interior of the house was lit by white candles, suspended by the dozen from jagged, cast-iron chandeliers, like fruit hanging from dead trees. They gave off an unusual light, more blue than yellow, and did not flicker. In that illumination I saw sea chests, swoop-backed thrones, cavernous wardrobes with doors left half ajar, all pushed up against the walls and each other every which way, turning the series of rooms into a labyrinth. Faded tapestries were spread on the ground or rolled up and propped in corners. Every available flat surface was piled high with objects: a set of lacquered enamel trays, a stuffed perroquet, a silver bowl full of crystal pears, an astrolabe, a wilted bouquet, a long sword with a green tassel dangling from the pommel. It was as if I’d wandered into an antique shop, or like the inhabitant of an old European castle had been forced to move house, in haste and no small disorder.

Curtains hung at the windows, from ceiling to floor. They were made from some sort of heavy, silken material, originally midnight blue, but bleached grey with dust. The dust covered everything.

No one was in the main part of the house. I entered the tower. Here there were books – not on the shelves but under them, stacked in high, tottering heaps. I went up a floor, then another.

The bed took up most of the room; the canopy brushed the ceiling. The same curtains cascaded from it and trailed impossibly over the floor, so that the bed seemed to rise from a sea of crumpled blue silk. There were less candles here.

Emiru was lying on his stomach at the foot of the bed, his head propped on his hand, reading a book. I approached and knelt beside him, overcome with a kind of ache – I didn’t know what. He smiled at me and brushed a strand of hair away from my forehead.

“Why, you’re covered with mud,” he said. “Go stand in the rain for a while until you’re clean.”

***

“The next day I woke at dawn. I was sprawled face down on the balcony, outside. My shoes were soaked and lying a few meters away, and I’d somehow managed to lose my shirt (I never found it again). No one else was in the house. I got groggily back on my bike and pedaled home.

“My grandparents were in a state. They’d discovered I was gone and were convinced I’d been out all night. I managed to convince them that I’d gotten up before the sun for a constitutional, though I couldn’t satisfactorily account for the shirt. For all I knew it was what had happened; I had no memory of how I’d ended up at the house at all. The last thing I remembered was sitting at the window and daydreaming, about to go to bed.

“It wasn’t until after lunch that I remembered Emiru – with a shock, the way one remembers an appointment that slipped one’s mind. As soon as I did I felt impelled to see him again. Where had he been that morning?

“I found him curled up in one of the oversized, swoop-backed chairs, reading. It made him look as if he were sitting in the blasted stump of a tree that had been struck by lightning. He seemed startled to see me walk through the door, more so than the day before.

“‘You never do as I say,’ he said. ‘Didn’t I tell you not to come back until sundown?’

“‘I want to be with you,’ I said, because it was the truth.

“He blinked up at me for a few moments. Then he suddenly looked away, as if I had reminded him of something he’d rather not think about. I thought that I saw him blush.

“‘Very well then,’ he said. ‘You can help me clean.'”

***

“So I helped him clean. I shook out his curtains and stacked his books on the shelves. The next day I came back with a bucket, rags and a broom, and started trying to get the dust off and out of everything, despite the fact that I’d woken up on the balcony again – as tired as if I’d gotten no sleep at all.

“Emiru never lifted a finger to help me. Sometimes he would wander off or read a book, but most often he sat on a windowsill or random piece of furniture, his feet drawn up under him like a cat, and watched me work with a kind of puzzled interest. Sometimes he would order me to fetch an object that would take me several hours to locate in the jumble, only to glance at it and set it aside. There were other unreasonable demands.

“It made me think that he spoke to me for the sake of speaking – as if he hadn’t had anyone to talk to for a long time – but all he knew how to do was give me orders.

“Once or twice I looked up from my scrubbing and polishing, only to realise I hadn’t seen him for hours. Then I had to go and find him. He was always in the same place: at the very top of the tower, where the stairs ended in a trapdoor and you could stand on the stone platform and look out over the mountain and the fields below. From that vantage point the hillside bamboo rippled like water with the wind. You could pick out my grandparents’ house. But Emiru wasn’t interested in what happened on the ground. He always scanned the sky, as if looking for messages in the pattern made by clouds, or flying birds.

“This went on for days. At least I stopped waking up on the balcony after the second morning, but there was still the annoying blank between when my grandparents went to bed in the evening and when I woke in my futon, drained and grasping at dream-images that faded with the sun. Try as I might I couldn’t remember what happened in the interim.

“Why did I obey him? None of it made sense even then. I only remember, very clearly, the certainty that I would do anything he required: as long as it might make him smile.”

***

“Sometimes, when the sun was dipping low in the sky and my stomach was grumbling from not having had anything to eat since breakfast, he’d call me to him for a ‘refresher’. He never gave me anything to drink or eat. What he meant by it was that I could sit by him while he told me a story. I’d call them fairytales except they were full of references to politics, and casual horrific deaths that illustrated no moral I could figure out. Sometimes they had no ending. They were strange and not particularly satisfying, but I was glad to be sitting down at least.

“For instance: once upon a time there was a witch-queen whose country’s borders touched the land of humans. She was very proud – by the standard of her people she was young – and perhaps justifiably so, as she was both beautiful and strong in power. She ruled her country as well as could be reasonably expected, deferring to the judgment and laws of the High Council.

“This witch-queen had conceived a dislike of the magic-less humans who toiled and crawled at the far edge of her domain. She thought they were useless and unsightly blights, unfit to tread the same earth as she. So in her moments of boredom, she took to crossing the border in the shape of a white mare, flawless and without saddle or bridle. When a human she encountered tried to capture her, she would allow him or her to mount, then take off at a gallop back to her own castle. Once there she would return to her true form and subject the human to all manner of tortures and privations for sport. She killed many of them in this way.

“Eventually rumours of her activities reached the High Council, who did not hesitate. They called her before them and found that she had violated the many treaties, ancient and recent, that kept the peace between the witch-people and humans. None of them liked humans any better than she did, it must be said, but the humans were numerous, and the extent of their lands increased with every passing year. It was wiser to respect the treaties than to make war, powerful magic users though they were. So they sentenced the witch-queen to a punishment that was as cruel and fitting as the norm: she would sleep like the dead until a human woke her, and then she would fall hopelessly in love with him.

“A stone tower was chosen in human territory, not far from her own country, and strong enchantments placed upon it. There she slept for countless years, while the cedar trees grew tall all around and tales grew even taller.

“In time a young prince of the human country decided – as hotheaded young princes are wont to do – that he would brave the enchanted tower and slay the ferocious monster who dwelt within (the legend had grown considerably garbled with time but retained the essentials). He fought his way past spells and traps and guardian beasts, and upon reaching the top of the tower was considerably surprised to discover a sleeping maiden and not (he thought) a monster, though one glance sufficed to convince him that he was not ill-used in the matter. In the fashion of the day he woke her with a kiss, and when she proved amenable, took it upon himself to do much more.

“After they had dallied some time, the prince informed his newfound love that he would return with her to his kingdom and make her his bride. ‘I will go with you gladly,’ she said, ‘but in truth I, too, am the ruler of my own realm, which lies not far from here. My people have long been under the same enchantment as I, that cannot be broken until my return. Once I have freed them, we shall be married, and our lands shall exist forever thereafter in peace and harmony.’

“The prince agreed. He sat her before him on his steed, and they rode off together toward the border of the witch country. He was never seen again.”

“I gaped stupidly when I realised this was the end of the story. ‘So what happened to him?’ I finally asked.

“‘I don’t know,’ Emiru said, shrugging. He didn’t like to answer my questions. ‘How am I supposed to know? I assume she killed him.’

“‘But wasn’t she supposed to fall in love with him? What did he do wrong?’ I honestly thought there was a trick I’d missed.

“‘Nothing. It went off just as the High Council had ordered.’

“‘But why would she kill him then? If she was hopelessly in love with him?’

“‘What has that got to do with anything?’ Emiru said in genuine surprise. At the look on my face he added, ‘She wouldn’t have been able to live with herself otherwise, I don’t think. Not with her character.’

“I couldn’t think of a response to that. Eventually I said, sounding ridiculously forlorn even to myself, ‘But then she didn’t really learn anything. At all.’

“‘Of course not,’ said Emiru. ‘No one expected her to learn anything. The Council had to be seen to uphold the law, so they made an example of her. Otherwise the diplomatic repercussions would have been awful.’

“I was silent. Emiru got up and paced to the balcony window, gazing out. The sun was nearly setting; beams of warm light filtered through the bamboo, wavering with dust like smoke.

“‘Of course,’ he said after a moment, ‘maybe she didn’t kill him. Maybe she kept him. Who’s to know?’ He clapped his hands brightly. ‘That’s all for today!'”

***

That night I said, “Let me remember.”

Emiru was playing with my hair, petting me as if I were a dog or cat. At my words his hand froze in mid-gesture. Then the movement resumed, and he laughed. I hated him more in that moment than I had for the entire past week.

“Yukio,” he said, “I’m doing you a favour. Surely you’re happier during the day? What would you do, trundling about on your funny contraption and sitting down to dine with your grandparents, if you knew all the time what was happening to you and still couldn’t speak?”

I took his hand and kissed his fingers, his palm, the inside of his wrist where the veins showed delicate and blue. He caressed my cheek, and I nuzzled into the touch.

“Let me remember,” I said against his skin.

“No.”

I took hold of both his wrists and pinned them to the mattress above his head. He only gazed up at me with heavy-lidded eyes. There was a flush in his cheeks as if he’d been drinking.

“I wouldn’t do anything,” I said. “What choice do I have anyway? But you – would you kill me for remembering? Or would you keep me after all?”

“Do you think I am in love with you?” he asked.

His voice was as light and mocking as ever. But the rest of him reacted to my inexperienced fumbling, in a way that spurred me on savagely. It seemed to me that he fed off my touch, that he grew warmer and somehow more real as our bodies pressed together. I’d learnt how to make him hard, to make him cry out – even say things I didn’t believe he meant, sometimes, but by then neither he nor I knew what we were doing.

I reached down, took hold of his cock and stroked him firmly. That made him shudder, and his lips part.

“I want to remember you like this,” I told him. I parted his knees and pushed into him, watching his face to make sure he felt it.

He was hot and maddening. I never learnt to hold back with him. He would let me use him as hard as I dared – would urge me on in fact as if it pleased him, though it must have hurt. When I began to move in him he drew me close, running his hands over my sweat-slick shoulders and arms, rocking against my thrusts and panting in my ear. I could feel his erection straining against my belly.

When he came he didn’t say a word, but his nails tore down my back, hard enough to draw blood. I spilled into him helplessly, willing it to last.

Afterward he let me hold him for a while. I pressed my face against the curve of his throat, where I’d left kiss marks that would fade before morning.

Even after all that he didn’t taste human. He tasted like bamboo leaves, and rain.

***

“One evening soon afterward I was sitting by the window, staring out into the dark and thinking about nothing in particular, as I’d gotten into the habit of doing. I must’ve dozed off, because I dreamt. It was about Emiru.

“In the dream he was standing on the top of the tower, gazing up at the night sky. Not a breath of wind stirred. The moon was huge, larger than I’d ever seen it. If Emiru had lifted a hand he might have touched its face as it hung there in the preternaturally still air. The light it shed turned his hair to silver gossamer.

“‘One is grateful, deeply grateful,’ he was saying. I couldn’t see to whom he was speaking. The moon, perhaps? ‘The Council’s mercy knows no bounds. This undeserving, criminal one—’

“He paused, as if listening.

“‘Yes, one has the wherewithal. It was… gifted to one, of late. One shall be departing presently, as soon as Your Presences see fit to remove the barrier.’

“I woke up, gulping for air and with an acute sensation of dread. I ran outside, got on my bike and rode off for the house. I didn’t understand what the dream meant; all I knew was that I had to see Emiru.

“The house was deserted. It was as empty as if neither I nor Emiru had ever been there. The floors were bare, the furniture gone. The windows were open but stripped; no curtains moved in the wind. No lights. I dashed from room to room, calling out Emiru’s name. I took the stairs of the tower two by two. No one was in the library, nor the bedroom. But I knew where he had to be.

“The moon was huge, the size of dreams as it hung in the sky. Emiru stood on the very edge of the platform, silhouetted by the silver light. He was gazing upward, swaying gently on the balls of his feet, like a bird preparing for flight. He turned when he heard me clattering up the stairs, met my eyes and smiled.

“‘Emiru,’ I said, ‘Don’t, please—’

“He threw his arms wide and let himself fall. I dashed forward and somehow managed to catch him by the wrist, but it wasn’t enough to reverse the arc of his momentum. I saw his eyes widen in surprise before my feet came off the stone, and I tumbled into thin air after him.

“For one full second there was the sickening lurch of freefall, wind rushing past my ears and my heart in my throat. Then – suddenly – nothing. I hung suspended in the air, as if gravity had ceased to work on me. The world spun. I was upside down; the mountainside extended to the horizon as far as I could see, a rustling, silver sea.

“Directly beneath me Emiru floated, gazing into my face. I still had him by the wrist. I pulled him to me – or myself to him – and twined my arms around his shoulders. The movement set the two of us to rotating gently. It was like moving underwater. We were still falling, only slowly, like the drift of a down feather. Emiru’s hands wrapped around my arms, and he dipped his head close to mine.

“‘You’d be better off not remembering,’ he whispered against my lips.

“‘No,’ I said. ‘Take me with you.’

“That made him smile. It was a sad smile, such as I’d never seen him use. ‘You don’t really feel like that,’ he said. ‘Here, you see—’

“He touched the ribbon around my throat. The knot came apart. I caught at it but it slipped through my fingers and floated away.

“It was as if a shadow had lifted. I gasped as the memories rushed through me. I understood what he had done to me, now, and how he had put me to use; could speak of it if I wanted. The spell was over.

“I still didn’t want him to leave. Desperately I pulled him close and kissed him on the mouth.

“It was the sort of thing that might have worked in a fairytale…

“I barely felt my feet touch the ground. For a moment he held me, his face pressed against my shoulder. Then he took a step back, smiled at me, and I woke up in my own futon with the morning sunlight streaming in through the window.”

Yukio gazed out the window of the café, but there was no sun. It had been grey all day; now I saw that it was beginning to snow. Passersby strode past the glass with their arms full of bags and packages, their shoulders hunched against the weather.

“I went up to the house and stayed there for the rest of the day, and the night as well. But he was gone. The place was swept clean, and no matter how much I called there was no one to answer.

“The day after that my grandparents put me on a bus back to Tokyo.

“School started. I went through the motions, but nothing mattered anymore. I barely tasted what I ate, and when my mother or my friends spoke their voices washed over me like white noise. All I could think of was Emiru, and how I would probably never see him again.

“I’d’ve been better off not remembering. He was right about that much.

“This went on for a year – more. Then…”

The tinkle of windchimes at the entrance caught my attention, and I waved. Emiru had just come in through the door, carrying a load of library books in his arms. He was bareheaded, and above the loops of his scarf his face was flushed with cold.

“There you are,” he said. He set his books down among the detritus of our tea, took off his mittens and stuck them in the pocket of his coat. Only then did he lean over and kiss the top of Yukio’s head, ruffling his hair as if he were a child. Yukio leaned into it, his eyes sliding half-shut. “Sorry for being so late, some of this folklore stuff was impossible to track down in the stacks… Were you talking about me? Flattering, I hope?”

“Yukio was just telling me how you two met,” I said airily, lifting my cup to my lips. The remnants of Earl Grey had gone entirely tepid.

“Oh, how I sat beside him for the college examinations, you mean?” Emiru pulled up a chair and sat down between Yukio and me. “It was terrible. He stared at me so much I thought I had something on my face, or that he was trying to get a look at my answers. But of course I couldn’t say anything. It’s a miracle I passed the exam, with that kind of scrutiny.” Yukio gave him a look.

“That should be my line,” he said. “You really know how to make an entrance.”

“I have to go, I’m afraid,” I said, getting up. “I can’t be missing this class, I haven’t been to three in a row already.”

When I glanced back from the sidewalk I could see them through the glass window of the café. Emiru was talking animatedly to the waitress, who’d come up to take his order. Yukio was slumped comfortably in his chair. He simply watched Emiru; there was an intensity to his expression I’d never before noticed.

To be honest I still had half an hour until my next class, but Yukio’s story had unnerved me, more than I liked to admit. Who would have expected a physiotherapy major to have that kind of imagination? Up to this point I’d thought of him as a cheerful, uncomplicated, outdoorsy sort, no still waters to speak of in the first place.

Just like Emiru to take up with someone like that, I thought.

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