Masou dashes through the rain and, after almost falling twice, slows down. He reaches the path that leads to the stream and in minutes has reached it. Kimi’s parents kneel in front of a grey mass on the grass. Masou stops, closes his eyes in a grimace, and steps forward. Kimi’s parents do not acknowledge his presence.
“No.” The denial is choked out as he sees the soaked clothes and mottled skin of Kimi’s body. Her hair lies around her in strings, eyes white and glossed over, and her skin tone is a pale, almost blueish hue. Where it is exposed, the skin is wrinkled and translucent, and torn at places. Masou’s shoulders shake as his eyes move from one place to the next, and then they stop as he looks at her fingers. The nails have fallen off and the joints that connect them to her palms look as though they have either rotted or been eaten away, the smooth, bright white bone exposed to the air. He can see rainwater sliding down the bones and in between the spaces. Masou spins around and places his arms against a tree, hanging his head, his breath coming out in quick gasps.
“So that’s… that’s why.” The sound of splashing footsteps comes from the trail, and Masou looks up, still more gasping than breathing, water dripping down his face. Meda is breathing hard and she comes to a staggering stop as she reaches the clearing by the stream.
“Masou! Help me. They’re coming. Please.”
“What?” His eyebrows raise and his eyes widen even further.
“I managed to get away but they’re coming! They’re going to kill me!” Her shrill voice breaks at the last two words. Masou stares at her, unspeaking. Half a minute passes and then he jumps forward, grabbing Meda’s wrist, and drags, their feet splashing through the stream and into the woods on the other side. Kimi’s parents barely notice their passage, nor do they notice the tendrils seeping through the grass towards them.
Meda wakes the next morning to the violent chirping and squawking of the birds. It is not completely light outside yet, the sun just peeking over the peaks in the distance. She sits up, long hair floating around her. She stretches and yawns, rubbing her eyes and looking down at the still sleeping Masou. A tight-lipped smile comes to her face as she stares at him.
She walks through the woods towards where the trees thin out and comes to a lake, the other side far in the distance. The shore extends to either side just as far if not farther, for all appearances it could be a river if not for the land that can be seen on each side. She walks to the edge and dips her hands in the water, hands cupped to splash some on her face. As she does, shadows appear on the surface, radiating out with the ripples created by her intruding hands. Her eyelids droop and she stretches out her fingers further into the water. She stands up and draws her hands back with a gasp as the dark patches continue to snake, growing larger and darker. She runs back into the woods to Masou.
“Masou! There’s something in the lake!” Masou is gathering up their things and packing them again. He looks up as she runs toward him and stops, hands on his knees.
“I told you to get up early, but not so early that you hadn’t woken up yet… have you been crying?”
“What? No! And I wasn’t dreaming! There was a shadow that reached for me from under the water.”
“Not a fish or water snake?”
“No! I know what I saw… or rather, I know what I didn’t see.”
“Hm. Well, let’s investigate together. I’d like to wash up as well.” He slings the pack over his left shoulder and Meda leads the way back to the lake.
They reach the lakeside, a muddy patch between the otherwise abrupt cutoff between grass and water. The water is still, the occasional ripple ricocheting across the surface but, other than that, no unusual movement.
“I didn’t realize we were already so close to the mishigami, we must have really moved fast. Have you ever seen them before, Meda?” She is glaring at the water and does not respond to his question.
“Meeedaaa.” Her eyes narrow further.
“Huh?” Her shoulders twitch and she looks up, eyes looking past and then at him.
“… I don’t see anything, do you?” He turns from her and crouches by the water, hands on his thighs. She shakes her head and looks back at the water.
“But the lake is so big. I’m sure whatever it was is just hiding now.” Masou stands back up and looks left to right, eyes scanning the shoreline.
“Our best bet is to cross the lake, shadow monster or not – it would take way too long to walk around it. I know our hunters stashed canoes around here somewhere. Let’s wash up and then look for them.”
“I don’t want to touch the water again.” She folds her arms.
“I’ll go first if it makes you feel better.” He steps toward the water, watching her from the corner of his eye.
“No!” She reaches to stop him but he steps into the water, the legs of his trousers darkened by the splash. He reaches down and tosses some water up over his face, which he shakes, sputtering.
“See? Perfectly safe! So, have you ever seen the mishigami before?”
“I don’t think so. I would definitely remember this.”
They walk along the shore, Masou in front. The ground slopes up as they go and becomes rockier, orange-white sandstone showing through the dirt and grass. The fractured cliff faces criss-cross down to the dark blue water below. Meda looks out over the water as Masou looks down and to the left, squinting at the bushes that grow beneath the trees. Meda turns her head and looks at him.
“I don’t think they’d hide them this far up.”
“And that’s why I’m looking. It’s inconvenient, but we have less stolen canoes because of it. Which is ironic, considering our current circumstance.”
“Thank you again for doing this. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me without you.”
“I just can’t believe they blamed what happened to Kimi on you. And I still can’t believe that happened.” He looks at Meda. “once you’re safely hidden away, I’m going back.” Meda’s mouth opens.
“You can’t! You saw how they were with me. I don’t think they’ll understand or even give you a chance to explain yourself.”
“I have to try. We can’t be on the run forever.” Meda pauses and looks down.
“You’re right. I’m just worried. What if they don’t believe you and then I’m left out here alone?”
“I’ll go to Chogan first. I’ll sneak in. He knows me. He’ll understand.” Meda looks at him for a few seconds.
“If you think so, I trust you.” Masou smiles at her.
“Now, don’t you think those bushes over there look a bit strange?”
“It looks dead.” Masou walks over to the dry and faded bushes and lifts them with one hand.
“Ah!” The bows of several birch bark canoes can be seen from under it, more thickly leaved bushes propped and placed over their sides and on top. Meda walks over and looks down at them. There is an oar in each.
“Help me drag these to the cliff. Don’t want anyone following us.” He walks to the far end of one of the canoes and lifts it up. Meda dashes to the opposite end and lifts it, the canoe forming a downward slope towards her. They move toward the cliff, every few steps yielding a small grunt from Meda. Masou steps sideways, positioning the canoe parallel to the precipice.
“All right, set it down.” Meda’s side makes a loud clunk on the stone and she flexes her fingers, which move as though resisting her thoughts.
“They have to carry these down to shore every time they want to use them?”
“It’s better than making new ones each time they’re stolen. And they’re really not that heavy.” Meda gives a half frown and shrugs. Masou tips the canoe over the edge. It strikes an outcrop as it falls and shatters, the shards making individual splashes as they hit the water fifty feet below. Meda claps her hands together.
“Okay! Four more to go.”
“Haha, if you want to swim!” Her cheeks redden.
The canoe rocks back and forth and small waves ripple outward from the prow. Masou sits cross-legged in the center. Meda reclines near the front, propped up on one arm. Dusk is turning to night, the blue water deepening in hue as time passes. Meda’s eyes close as Masou’s oar splashes in and out of the water. They are less than a third of the way across the lake. Masou twists where he’s seated and looks back at the shore, squinting his eyes. He frowns at shadows that move along it, walking up the slope to where the canoes were hidden. Turning back, he laughs at the dozing Meda, her mouth open a little. Mid-laugh he stops, his eyes drawn to the right. He makes a stroke with the paddle once on the left and then leans over to look into the water. Eyes narrowed, he extends hand towards the swirling shapes just below the surface.
Green eyes open to the night sky, stars abundant. Meda’s body is bent into angles and as she rises a few pops sound from her back and shoulders. Yawning and eyes closed, she stretches her arms over her head.
“How far across are we?” There is no answer, and when her eyes open, there is no Masou. Her eyes open and she sits up straight, the canoe rocking back and forth from her movement. “Masou?” Her voice rises in pitch. She crawls to the left and peers overboard. There is nothing visible in the lapping water. Checking the other side reveals nothing either. Even if thee was something to see, in between the darkness of the night and the opaque blue of the lake, she would not be able to see anything. She falls back into the canoe onto her butt. “Masou!” she yells out into the silent darkness. The boat drifts as she looks all around her. A half an hour passes, further cries of his name falling upon the unhearing night. She puts her hands over her face, and then lowers them to pick up the oar. With each paddle forward she lets out a short gasp. Just a few strokes in and the paddle hits something in the water and she drops it in. “No!” She crawls over to the side of the canoe and looks over the edge. Masou’s face rises up out of the water, gasping and spitting, and he grabs the oar. Flailing in the water towards the boat he pulls himself into it, the vessel almost tipping over as he scrambles out of the lake. He lays on the floor for several minutes, his bare back heaving, his wheezing breaths rippling in the water on the bottom of the canoe. Meda backs away from him almost to the prow of the canoe, knees pulled up to her chest. He lifts his head to face her.
“Definitely not… a fish or… water snake,” he pants.
“What… what happened?” Masou lowers his face and takes a few more breaths before answering.
“After you fell asleep, something reached up out of the water and pulled me in. A tendril. When I tried to pull it off me, my hand passed right through it. I managed to swim to the surface again, but by then the canoe was far away, and then it dragged me under again. I kept struggling and trying to follow the canoe and I guess it finally just gave up.” He looks up at Meda again. “Sorry I didn’t believe you. Guess we should’ve walked around instead.” He lets out a wavering laugh, and coughs up some more water. Getting up into a crouch, he leans back and lays down on the bottom of the boat. His arms shake at this sides.
“What are we going to do? We still have a day on the water!” Masou sits up and looks at either side of the vessel.
“There should be… ah, there it is!” He reaches forward and pulls at what appears to be part of the canoe but separates easily from the woven wood. A second oar breaks away with a small noise of wood scraping on wood.
“Guess I shouldn’t be surprised after the lengths you all went to prevent theft of these.” Masou is already paddling.
“We’re going to alternate. The sooner we’re off this water the better.”
( ©2015 Sean Dorsey )