At The End, The Sea
You meet a freshly minted ghost and have a strange dream.
Your skin is drenched in sweat but you can't seek shelter from the burning August sun yet. You continue trudging along the street, squinting between the paper in your hand with an address written on it and the never-ending chain of shop signs.
Eventually, you duck into a narrow alley. In its refreshing shade, you find a black parasol with the characters
Tenman'ya scrawled on it in white and a basket with colorful omamori sachets in it. Next to the shop, a polished ebony statue of Enma, King of Buddhist hell, stands vigil. You contemplate cooling down in the shop but eventually shrink back from Enma's piercing glare.
Instead, you wipe the sweat from your brow and decide to circle back to the road. As you turn left and left again, two male figures block your path.
"Why won't you just listen? It's destroying you!" the young man facing you is shouting. He wears a sporty T-shirt and his chestnut hair is styled in spikes.
"On the contrary. It's my only chance at life," the other one says. You can't see his face but he is dressed in all black and holds a majestic bamboo flute in his hand: a shakuhachi.
"What does that even mean?" When Black doesn't respond, Spike pleads: "I can't help you if you don't tell me, Suwa!"
"There is no help for me. And if you won't get out of the way…" Suwa raises the shakuhachi. When the first note sounds, your stomach turns. It's not because he's a bad player, no, that single note is crystal clear but it carries a chill with it. Your hair stands on end.
Spike's fury melts into horror. He jerks but seems frozen in place.
You have to do something, anything. You rush forward, slip around Suwa and raise your hands. "What's going on here?"
Suwa hesitates. He's handsome with long black hair and inky dark eyes. After a blink, he puts the shakuhachi to his lips and plays another note. This one trembles like a twig in a winter storm and you shudder.
"Get out of the way!" Spike shouts, but you can't. Your feet are rooted to the asphalt just like his when you peeked around the corner.
Suwa plays a high trill and his eyes radiate murder. Someone shoves your shoulder, hard. The world tilts and goes black.
When you come to, a man is sprawled on the ground.
It's not Spike, but Suwa. His eyes have lost their light and there's a thin trickle of blood under his nose.
Spike gives you a hand up. You take it with a grateful nod. "What happened?" you whisper.
His hair stands on end as if he's run both hands through it more than once. He turns away as if the body is too much for him to look at. "He wouldn't listen. Everyone knows it's dangerous to play with ghosts, to force them to obey. He tried to frighten me away but whatever he summoned, it went for him instead." His eyes glisten. "Suwa was my friend."
Didn't sound like friendship just now, you think but can't deny some macabre attraction to that lifeless shell on the ground. At least it knows peace now. You crouch down and place one hand on his neck. It's still warm.
A jolt goes through you and his skin cools abruptly. Friend, echoes a voice in your head. Your other hand closes around the shakuhachi. Your legs straighten and you walk out of the alley into the sun, ignoring Spike's questions. Your feet carry you back to the little occult shop and its no longer soothing shade. The ebony Enma at the entrance seems to mock you. Inside, the sense of familiarity is cloying.
"What..." At your sight, the shopkeeper steps out from behind the counter.
As you look at the white-haired wrinkled man--a man you've never seen before--sudden fondness warms your bones. The voice coming out of your mouth isn't yours. "Shinbei ambushed me, Uncle Goemon. I was careless, I'm so sorry to worry you like this."
The shopkeeper's eyes widen. "Suwa?" he breathes.
You nod. "I'll be around like this for a while if you don't mind."
Goemon blinks slowly, gathering his wits, before gesturing at you. "What about this person? Did you plan to possess them? You're doing quite well if I do say so myself. Coming through crystal clear."
You shake your head. "It was a spur of the moment thing. I just didn't want to disappear. I can't go yet, not like this."
Goemon sighs. "Well, just take it easy. It's incredibly taxing on a body to have two souls fighting for control over it. You should allow them to rest too."
"I won't trouble them for long. Thank you," you whisper. "I'll go now."
And then you-not-you march out of the shop.
At night, you dream. You sit in a traditional six-mat room, inhaling its sun-warmed-rushes scent. Suwa, in a marine kimono and hakama, kneels in front of you, whisking matcha powder and water inside a glazed black bowl. When the powder has dissolved into liquid and foam, he passes the bowl to you. You drink, expecting bitterness. To your surprise, it is silky smooth and light with an aftertaste of peach.
When you return the empty bowl, it disappears along with the rest of the tea utensils. Suwa looks at you with his black-light eyes. "I didn't want to involve anyone else but we can't help it now. If you want me to apologize…"
What can you say to this ghost that has usurped your body as easily as if he were ordering a sakura latte at Starbucks?
"Why didn't you move on?" you ask. You can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to escape the drudgery of everyday life, the weight of hustling just to keep your head above water--not to mention the muggy heat--if given a chance.
His gaze burns into you. "I don't want to die. Ever. That's all you need to know."
"Everyone has to die," you point out. An edge of irritation is creeping into your confusion.
"That is something I cannot accept," he whispers. There is such conviction in his voice, in his entire bearing down to the last fold of his hakama that you find yourself believing him. He might just be the one person to tame the ghosts and evade King Enma.
Suwa stands and opens the paper sliding doors. Outside, there is a porch, a rock garden, and beyond, a turquoise ocean under a rose-colored sky. "As I said, I won't trouble you for much longer. As soon as I…"
"Take me," you interrupt.
"Excuse me?" For the first time, his composure slips.
You stand, facing him. Your hands are fisted. "Whatever you are, you're not alive, aren't you? Why don't you just give it a rest, enjoy some peace and quiet? I don't get it. But if you don't want it, I'll take it. You'd be doing me a favor."
Suwa gapes at you. Behind him, the water is gently lapping against the white pebbled shore.
Finally, he gestures to the porch. You sit. When he joins you, a black lacquered tablet with two white mochi appears between you. When you bite into yours, you discover a strawberry nestled inside. Its fruity sweetness explodes in your mouth, washing away your anger and leaving only hollow sadness. You finish the mochi with burning eyes.
"I won't do that to you," Suwa says. "Gods, I haven't sunk that low yet. Won't you understand?" He takes your hand. In the dream, the warmth of the living passes between you. "I am… I was ill, when I was alive. I had random seizures, my brain was a ticking time bomb. This," he gestures at the scenery, "is a gift. I want to use this reprieve I've been given to find a way out. There's always a way out. I have to believe that."
"Immortality," you whisper. The word is like a spell on your lips.
He nods. "And for you too."
You try to take your hand back but he holds on. "Look around. In a way, this is the perfect place for change. It's still new to me but I'm discovering patterns. Time is squishy. Space is subordinate to thought and will. It's much more obedient to your wishes than reality."
"Seriously?" you snap. He makes it sound like child's play.
When you look at him, however, his smile is radiant, his eyes liquid with possibility. "Try it."
"Wish for something?" He nods. You look out over the turquoise water. A smattering of wispy clouds is reflected in it. So tranquil, you could sink under the surface with barely a splash and disappear. You wonder if it's salty or sweet. If it will hurt, having the air squeezed out of your lungs. You hesitate. What would you wish for, given the chance?
"I wish to be happy," you whisper to the water.
"And happy you shall be. Now sleep." His words resonate with power. Your eyes close as if he had pulled a weighted blanket over you. Suddenly, you're too tired to wonder how much better he is at this, whatever this is. Even in your dreams, you're tired.
And so you sleep.
When you wake, sunshine cascades over your duvet and the birds are chirping in the maple tree outside the window. Thinking back to your dream, you finally recognize Suwa's face.
It's you. It has always been you, all of it and all at once. You wished for immortality/happiness. If you want your wish to come true, you have to live. To live, and to keep wishing. There is no other way.
Thank you for reading! Usually, I aim to post every Friday. This week I just couldn’t get the original idea to work so I took a different story and rewrote it slightly (a lot). Are you curious about Suwa? He has his own plot arc that far exceeds the span of this story.
Lastly, is there anything you didn’t like about this story, anything I could improve? Let me know in the comments!
depression, light suicide and drowning