Jesse Workman
From Wikipedia Commons

Autumn rains spill water Upon the barren soil.

Forgetting the sun, Seedlings long to sprout. I hear the wind's lament. I relive it always.

I relive that day, the day the Gaki came to my village. I know I remember it; but as I remember it, I forget that I have lived it before; forget that I have remembered it before; and forget that I remember. And yet, I sense, I feel, that I have lived it all before- lived it a thousand times before. Bodhisattva, grant me peace; show me kindness.

It was in the second month of the autumn on the third day of the waning moon. The harvest was two weeks away. My father, a member of the village Counsel, spoke in quiet tones, whispering, about last winter's unnaturally warm days—about the condition of the rice crop—about the wet soil from which strange black tendrils reached up like disembodied hands. The crop was all but lost. Father sent a councilman to the city to ask for aid. The man failed to return, and when his absence had lasted for three weeks, Father asked Teisho, my brother's teacher, to go and find him. When he came back, he said the magistrate had no money to spare for us. 

It was in the hands of the Gods.

Then, the fighting reached us, and our men, so many, went off to fight in the armies of the provincial lord. No one ever said how the battles went, or even if there were any at all. Sometimes, war was all talk and little acting. Men sang songs and drank sake, but when the cry went up, they were more likely to run away, and then lie about it all, while the women laughed behind their hands. We are not Samurai. It is not for us acts of courage or greatness. There can be no help for it. There can be no help for it.So, Father spoke in fearful voices to the other men of the village. Mother tried to forget that we were hungrier each day. I tried not to hear the angry voices, the fearful whispers. I wove cloth, but still... still. Sometimes, on my way to the market, I overheard the children speaking softly. They stopped laughing and playing, and began whispering, repeating what their parents said to each other in the night. I could not distract myself. I could not.

Mother grew increasingly worried. She would say: "Ako, my dear. Ako. What is this? What is this you are doing? You try too hard to bind the thread. Let your hands be as the hands of the Gods and the Ancestors." Yet, when I thought of the Gods, or the ancestors, I couldn't help but see that they were silent, that they didn't answer our prayers, that they, like the magistrates, must have been busy with other things. I know I speak blasphemy.And as I wove cloth and walked to the market, or carried water, I dreamed. I dreamed.

I loved a boy named Kihei. He didn't know. I never told him. His Father was a warrior and he was a dutiful son, and I wept silently when he went off to fight in the battles. When he returned home after a short time, other people said he acted strangely. They said that sometimes his eyes were vacant and staring. His eyes were like deep pools, stagnant pools, where the mists never lift. He stopped speaking. He ran from children, afraid of them. At first, they pitied him, but as days passed they began throwing rocks at him. His father hid his shame as best he could, but it was no use. We all knew, and pretended not to know. I longed to reach out to him, to touch him, but I forced myself to look away as the others did. It would bring shame to my family and to his. I cried silently, while the others slept. How lonely he must be. I couldn't imagine what it was he had seen during the battle. It must have been terrible, for his father was a man of unquestionable courage.

I remembered only 2 short summers ago, watching from a discrete distance, Kihei and his father, practicing with wooden swords. He moved like the crane on the water. He moved like a whirlwind. Even the other men noticed his skill, and his father spoke praises of his son when he wasn't around. He told my father, that he was proud to have such a warrior for a son. He told Father that he was blessed to have such a strong son. He must have felt such sadness for him now.

Once, I tried to speak to him. He ran away, but I followed him. I called his name again and again. He turned away from me and wouldn't look at me. I asked him: "Kihei, what is wrong? What is wrong?"

He was pale, and at first he refused to speak. I waited. I watched over him, and I don't know if he slept, or if he was awake still, but mad, as a dog goes mad. He babbled in a strange delirium. I leaned closer to hear, but his voice was barely a whisper. I felt his breath on my cheek, hot like he was burning on the inside. He spoke of things, terrible things, in the fog, the ghosts of men who ate the dead. I ran from him then, even though I wanted to stay beside him. I didn't tell anyone what he said. I didn't want them to laugh at me for believing him.

I was the first one to fall ill with the fever. Days blurred and I couldn't stay warm. I couldn't stop shaking. I heard my grandmother's voice. She was weeping. I called out to her: “Grandmother ...” But, when she heard my voice, she turned away. I dreamed that the ancestors walked by my bed. They looked down at me and turned away.

When I awoke things were... wrong. I felt lighter somehow. The dizziness never went away. I sat beside the fire, but it gave no warmth. I felt hungry, but didn't want to eat. People in the village, even my own family, stopped Speaking to me as though they refused to see me. I couldn't bear to look at my reflection. I didn't want to know what the sickness had done to my face. At first, I cried, but no one heard; no one cared; no one offered to help me.

Not long after that, the fog rolled in. It was a strange heavy fog that the sun couldn't burn through. It was cold. First, they found dead foxes on the edge of the forest, and then animals in the village began to die. The priests didn't have an answer.

Then, the plagues came. First they took one of the village blacksmiths. He died after three days of fevers and flux. He convulsed horribly and cried out that a demon was dragging out his soul. Mother and I nursed him, but he died.Now, the villagers gathered and said prayers to keep away the spirit of the illness. I joined them, through my tears, but they didn't notice me. I had been outcast.

The priest said that it was a Gaki who brought the sickness and that only fire would purge it. They tried burning the crops, but the fire gave no heat. I stood next to it, praying to the ancestors, but it didn't do any good. Kihei shook with what I at first took to be fear, but realized was actually laughter. When I tried to speak to him, he turned his back on me. I wept for my family. I burned incense for the ancestors, but the incense wouldn't burn. More of the villagers died. So many of them died. Kihei stood beside them as, one by one, they died. He did nothing to help them. He stood staring out across some place only he could see, laughing.

Sometimes, he looked as though he was going to weep out of fear, but no tears fell. When they would die, he would reach out as though he could catch the soul and put it back inside them. The head priest saw him standing there, laughing, and he shook with rage. He grabbed Kihei and dragged him by the hair to the temple. 

The villagers watched the struggle, and followed listlessly behind them. The priest shouted: "This one. He has brought this plague among us. I've seen what he is.

He is the Gaki." Kihei only laughed at them. He laughed as they tied him. He raved that he could see the Gaki. He shouted that it was right in front of them, but they couldn't see it. "There's no hope for you," he cried. "We are lost. Lost. There are no Gods.” And he laughed as a man possessed. His father stood over him. He said: "You are no longer my son. I never had a son. You were never born to me."

They left him for a day and a night. I snuck in to see him. I wept for him. He didn't look up at first, but when he did, he went white. He stared through me. I said: "Kihei. Kihei? What is it?"

"No." he said laughing at me. "Fool. You can't save them.” I reached out to touch him.I wanted to feel his warmth, wanted to untie him and set him free to find his honor again, but when I touched him, he shook and choked. He grasped at the air and died. He died. I wept. I stood over his body all night, and when the dawn came, the priest found him. He cried out that Gaki had taken his soul. He looked afraid. The fevers took more of the women and children.

After another week, they all were dead. I tried to tend to them. I didn't sleep. I didn't eat. I brought water and sang to them. I tried to watch over them every second, but they still died. They all died.

Even the priest died. He cried out to the Gods: "Save this poor servant. Keep away the Gaki. Return it to the bosom of the Earth from which it springs." But, the Gods didn't hear him. And, the Gaki took his breath.

I could not save him.

Now, I am alone. I am so hungry. I am so cold. I cry for them all. I walk among the empty houses. Although I am tired, I do not sleep. Although hungry, I do not eat... Although thirsty, I do not drink, now only the Gaki lives here. Only the Gaki. I don't remember any more if I lived it or if I imagined it all. I don't remember now if I loved, or only wished I had. Everyone I know ... everyone I touched, prayed for, sang for... are... dead. I do not sleep or eat. I watch for the Gaki, but, maybe, the Gaki left them to whatever final peace they may find. I watch the sunrise, veiled in blue and gray fog. It looks wrong, and gives no warmth. I shiver. I cry in the empty houses for the dead. I am so very hungry. So very, very hungry.

Gaki was first published in Samurai Archives.


Jesse Workman

Jesse Workman got his MFA in Screen Writing from Boston University in 2002. He is working on a book of poetry and short stories.

Jesse's Articles at KGB Bar Lit

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