Upon an old, wooded mountain, there was once a temple. The surrounding trees were knotted yet proud. It was a well-kept temple—maintained and honored by a group of monks numbering no more than twenty. Their lives were quiet and filled with prayer and study.
Despite their peaceful nature, and despite their respect for the land and one another, the temple was never visited by the villagers from the foot of the mountain. It was a place mentioned only in hushes, in tales to frighten children and in stories shrouded with superstition. The monks, of course, were not human like the villagers. They were karasu tengu. Crow-demons. Monsters.
Shichi did not think of himself as a monster. Most of his time was spent gardening and studying herbal medicine. He had recently begun to practice acupuncture under the mentorship of an elder monk. Occasionally, he liked to indulge himself with a nap up in a tree, or perhaps a drink to loosen his shoulders. He sometimes wondered if these were things that monsters did, or if there was some other reason the humans viewed their temple with such contempt.
Similarly, the tengu had been advised to never go near the village. Humans were unpredictable. They were greedy, cruel, and violent. They could kill and take without giving a single thing back. Yet these claims were also questioned by the young monk. How could it be that an entire populace would act in such a way? Surely there were many kinds of humans—terrible, kind, clever, and foolish. Yet it would only take one terrible human to take a life—one cruel notion to bring immeasurable suffering. It was probably for the best that they stay clear of the village and that the humans keep their distance as well.
Such thoughts often distracted Shichi, especially when he was alone in the forest. His mind was wandering, hazy from the scent of pine and the warmth of the sun. He was gathering herbs, examining their stalks and leaves before making a smart cut at the base. It was important not to over-pick, or there might not be anything left for the next season. His hands, black as the rest of him, smelled of chickweed and shiso. There were smudges of dirt on the knees of his pants from kneeling to dig up roots. The scent of damp earth lingered from the previous night’s rain and he inhaled deeply, relishing his solitude.
A clatter of rock and a distant splash, however, piqued his attention.
His eyes turned north toward the sound, wondering if it was worth investigating. The woods were full of animals, not to mention the local spirits. It was most likely a boar rummaging through the underbrush. Most likely, but not certainly. Dusting his hands, he straightened himself and moved through the trees. He could hear the ripple of running water and headed toward the source of the sound—whatever splashed must have done so in the stream.
As the tengu reached the edge of the tree line, he froze mid-step. It was not a boar that had slipped into the stream—no, it wasn’t an animal at all. He was, for the first time in his life, staring into the eyes of a human. It was a female, or at least, he was fairly certain it was. He had seen them before, from a distance. This, however, was quite different. She was close—close enough to see each strand of her dark hair, to see the water soaking her cream-colored yukata to a dark brown. What struck him most of all, though, was the look in her eyes. They were wide with fear, shuddering and locked on his form. It looked as though she wanted to cry out but had forgotten how to create sound. All he could hear was a sharp inhale as her mouth opened. Shichi knew what a scream was, and this certainly looked like the birth of one. Not wanting to be around for it, he backed up in such a hurry that he stumbled, desperate to disappear into the woods.
He stopped. His body paused with thought before he turned to look at her once again. It was only then that he realized she wasn’t just sitting lopsided in the stream in some kind of odd human ritual. Of course—she had fallen in. The woman’s legs were folded beneath her in an awkward position, one leg jutting out to the side. He didn’t have to be experienced with human anatomy to figure out that she had hurt herself.
Shichi’s heart began to pound. This was terrible. His day had been going so well and now he was facing a tiresome trial of morality. Should he remember the advice of the elder monks and stay away from her, a human? Should he follow the guidelines he had been raised with—to always help others before oneself? Or should he simply follow the burning instinct to throw a rock at her before darting back into the forest? The feathers on the back of his neck began to puff with agitation.
“Do you understand me?” she asked, breaking the silence.
“Of course I understand you,” he said, a bit offended. It took him a moment to consider his words before he spoke again. “Ah. What I meant was . . . to ask, that is—”
The woman swallowed. Noticing her anxiety, he crouched down beside her to avoid looming.
“Do you need help?” he said, this time more gently.
She thought for a moment, clearly trying to decide if she should trust her life to a bird-monster or to just die alone in the woods. Neither option was very appealing.
“I hurt my ankle,” she finally said. “I can’t walk.”
“Clearly,” he muttered as the water continued to seep into the fabric of her clothes. He moved closer, lowering his head to take a look at her injury.
“May I?” he asked, to which she nodded her permission. He felt carefully over the tendon. Shichi avoided looking at her, not wanting to see whatever expression of revulsion she might have on her face. Instead, he focused on the woman’s heel, taking note of the redness and swelling. A slight turn of the ankle drew a hiss of discomfort from the human’s mouth.
“It’s sprained.” He gingerly set it back down before rummaging through his satchel. Luckily, he had a few fresh turmeric roots. Setting one down on a flat stone, he held it steady while crushing it with even strokes of a fisted rock. This wasn’t exactly ideal. Normally he would boil and dry it before turning it into a fine powder, but little about this situation was ideal to begin with. Once the yellow root had been mashed into a paste, he began to apply it over the reddened skin.
“This will ease the swelling,” he said, covering the sprain with tightly wrapped strips of leaves. The entire time he worked, she simply watched. As the minutes passed by, so did her fear, and her breathing slowed in relief.
“Do you have anything to tie this?” he asked. “A string or sash, maybe?”
The woman turned her head, tugging a long, white ribbon from her hair. It fell loosely around her shoulders as she handed it to him, and he hesitated before accepting it. It was strange, human hair. It was stringy like an animal’s fur, but so long and smooth looking. Turning his attention back to the sprain, he wrapped the piece of fabric in even loops around the leaves, then tied it firmly with a knot. Satisfied with his work, he closed his herb bag and picked himself up.
“Well . . . good-bye,” he said stiffly before turning once again toward the trees.
“You’re just going to leave me here?” she said.
“Y-yes?” he said, wondering what more she could want from him.
“But I still can’t walk.”
Oh, right. That.
“Well, I— ah, I can’t exactly—” he began to say, unsure of what to do. He couldn’t bring her back to her village. The humans there would likely kill him on sight. Taking her to the temple was even less of an option. But, then . . .
“All right.” He sighed, then knelt in front of her, offering his back. She considered him briefly before leaning forward to wrap her arms around his neck. He hooked below her knees and stood, groaning in surprise at her weight. Humans were heavy. Was it because of all that hair? Even heavier, though, was his guilt. Above all things forbidden, going near a human was the most dangerous. Not only had he gone near one, but he’d touched one—spoken to one—and was now carrying this human up the side of the mountain.
He could feel her breath on his shoulder and the light tug of her fingers on his clothing. This was most likely hurting her pride as much as it was his. Did this woman actually pose a threat? Was there some underlying danger he was overlooking? Or perhaps his earlier musings were correct—that not all humans were destructive. Either way, it was too late to change his mind.
Soon, they came across a small structure. It had been partly reclaimed by the forest, with thick vines covering the eastern walls and roof. Time had worn down the little building without mercy. What mattered, though, was that it was still standing.
With a bit of struggle, he slid open the wooden door, revealing the inside of the abandoned storage shed. It had once been used to keep dried vegetables, grains, and liquor. It was eventually deemed too distant to be viable and had been forgotten by most of the monks. Light filtered in through tears in the paper windows, illuminating floating specks of dust. Carefully, he set her down on an empty sake cask.
“You can rest here for a while, but you should leave as soon as you can walk,” he said, taking a step back toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve been gone too long. I-I really shouldn’t be talking to you,” he admitted, averting his eyes.
The woman didn’t reply, only looking down at the dusty floor. Realizing that he sounded rather cold, he softened his voice.
“I’ll return later with something to eat. Will you be all right?”
“I should be.” Her expression eased. “Thank you.”
Shichi nodded, closing the door behind him. As it shut, he let out a heavy sigh. This had to be the most foolish thing he’d ever done in his life.
The walk back to the temple was hurried. Over a hundred stone steps led up to the entrance of the grounds, each worn with age and lined with moss. Shichi had been expected back before the evening meal, but most of the others had already entered the dining hall. Only Sagiri, his mentor, remained outside.
“Ah, there you are.” She glanced up from the stairs where she had been reading scripture by the fading sunlight. “I was beginning to get worried.”
“Master.” He bowed his head in apology. “Forgive me, I was distracted.”
“Surely your training all these years would have taught you to focus,” the elder tengu said, though her tone was light.
“I have no excuse. My mind tends to wander when I’m alone.”
“Tell your mind it can wander all it wants during meditation this evening.”
Shichi wondered if he was committing a sin by keeping his encounter secret. What would his mentor say if he told her the truth? He was utterly loyal to the temple, and to his mentor. There was the possibility, however, that she wouldn’t take the news well. Perhaps she would tell him to cast the woman out. He couldn’t take that chance.
“You missed another one of my training sessions,” Sagiri said, “with the naginata. You’re going to have to learn to defend yourself sooner or later.”
“Perhaps if I were not burdened with so many chores . . .”
“Get inside before I decide to burden you even further,” she said, making a curt gesture toward the door. He bowed once again, then left her to her reading.
His meditation, normally a source of composure in a busy day, was laden with guilt. The feeling was only worsened as he removed a meal’s worth of cooked vegetables from the empty kitchen. The idea of being a thief in his own home was at least eased by the knowledge that he had forgone dinner that evening, and this was simply his uneaten share. When the temple’s residents had bedded for the night, he was finally free to step back out into the darkness.
His pace slowed to a stop as he approached the old storehouse. Once again, he questioned his actions and tried to find an alternate course, one that would minimize his contact with this human—not to mention the sneaking around, lying, and stealing. In the end, he remembered what he’d said to her—the promise that he would return. He also found himself concerned for her, wondering if her sprain was still painful or if it had begun to heal. He gathered himself, then opened the door.
What he found was a bit anticlimactic, and his posture slumped in disappointment. The woman had fallen asleep, lying curled on the wooden floor. For the first time, he found himself taking a careful look at her features. It was curious, the face of a human. She looked rather peaceful in her rest, her expression soft yet lonely. Crouching, he removed his outer robe and draped it over her, then set down the wrapped bundle of food. Before he could stand, however, she shifted.
“You came back.” She sat upright groggily.
“I said that I would,” he answered, trying not to look startled. “Didn’t I?”
She smiled, despite his blunt reply, and gave a light nod.
“How does your ankle feel?” he asked, resting his hands on his knees.
“It doesn’t hurt as much.” She offered her leg for him to examine. He unfastened the ribbon and removed the wrapped leaves. The root paste had hardened, and he wiped it free with a cloth to let her skin get some air.
“The swelling is minimal,” he said, pleased with his own work. “You should be able to walk by morning.”
They were both silent for a moment, avoiding eye contact amidst the sound of wind creaking through old beams.
“Thank you,” she said, forcing her thoughts out before she could change her mind. “I thought I was going to get stuck out there and be eaten by bears and die without—”
“You wouldn’t have died,” Shichi said pleasantly, cutting her off before the morbid fantasy could play out further. “It was just a sprain. You probably would have just hobbled down the mountain all day and maybe ended up a bit muddy.”
The human gave a restrained laugh. It sounded as if she wasn’t sure if laughing was appropriate around him.
“What were you doing up here anyway? The village is quite a walk away.”
“I needed a little time to myself. I thought being alone would ease my mind. Who knew that rocks would be so difficult to balance on . . .” She trailed off in embarrassment.
“The stream can be treacherous. It’s nearly a half shaku deep in some places,” the tengu replied, remembering that the surface barely reached his calf.
“Ah,” she said with a smile. “You’re being mean to me, aren’t you?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Partly to distract her, and partly to give his hands something to do, he unwrapped the cloth parcel he had brought. Inside was a simple meal of rice, poached plums, and assorted pickled vegetables. There was also a gourd of cool water.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what humans like to eat. Forgive me if it isn’t suitable,” he said with an apologetic bow of his head. The smell of cooked food seemed to pique her attention, and she set into it with an almost disturbing vigor. The monk could only blink as he watched her consume the meal, and began to wonder if she’d eaten anything at all that day.
“I suppose it is, then,” he said under his breath.
“I’m surprised you have normal food,” she said. “They always tell children that tengu will eat their eyes.”
Shichi couldn’t hold back his laugh, which was unnaturally loud for the quiet monk.
“It’s not true, then?” she asked, setting the gourd down after a long drink.
“I, ah, we only eat what we grow,” he said, his voice still unsteady from the laughter. “Though now you have me wondering what eyes taste like.”
It was at this inopportune moment that his stomach decided to voice its hunger, interrupting his words with a whine. She paused before taking another bite, then glanced down at the food before her.
“Is this . . . your dinner?” she asked.
“No, it’s yours,” he said helplessly. “You’ve had a long day.”
The woman made a tight-lipped frown, and before he knew it, half of the meal had been separated into a bowl and placed before him on the floor.
“So have you.” She slid the small wooden bowl forward. Shichi wasn’t sure what to say and could only look down at the offering with reluctance.
“You’ve already been kind enough,” she said. “Please don’t go hungry for my sake.”
“Very well,” he finally said, giving her a nod as he picked up the bowl. It was unexpected, this human behavior. It didn’t fit what he’d been warned about all these years—of humans being bloodthirsty and selfish. Then again, she had been told that tengu would eat children’s eyes. It was likely that many of their stories were exaggerated, to say the least.
Though Shichi was used to eating in silence, the woman continued to talk. He supposed it would be too much to expect the manners of a monk from a villager. Additionally, he truly was curious about her and what she had to say.
“Is it true that you can possess women?” she asked, her eyes as wide as a child’s.
“I don’t know, I’ve never tried.” He stared at her with firm intention, as if concentrating on some kind of spell. After a moment his expression fell with disappointment. “No, I suppose not.”
“You’re not at all like the stories,” she said. A smile lingered on her face as she spoke.
“Neither are you.”
The two considered each other until she looked away, rubbing the side of her neck.
“What . . . what is your name?” she finally asked, daring to return her eyes to his.
“Shichi. And yours?”
“I’m glad to have met you, Kana,” he said. “Until now, I thought most humans were heartless.”
“Well,” she began, her voice low with discomfort. Shichi’s head tilted curiously, wondering if she was actually about to correct him. Her voice faded, however, and her sentence died just as quickly as it had started.
“Thank you, again.” Kana bowed her head gratefully. “For the food, and for taking care of me.”
“Of course. I’m happy to help,” he said, gathering up the empty dishes. “I should return, though. The morning bell rings before dawn.”
“Here, your robe.” She pulled the dark fabric from around her shoulders.
“Keep it for the night. It might get cold.”
As he left the storage shed with the bundle of used tableware in his arms, his guilt was forgotten. No longer did he question his choice, nor did he notice the chill of the night air as he made his way back to the temple.
The next morning’s meditation seemed to take longer than usual. After cleaning the hallway floors, hauling firewood, and grinding dried roots for their stock of herbs, the sun was high and proud in the sky. Shichi finally found a spare moment to gather a pouch of fruit, making his way down the endless steps and along the side of the mountain toward the shed. During his work, he had thought of more questions to ask her about her life, and about humans in general. He was fixedly guessing exactly which fruits she would prefer when the door opened to an empty room.
His eyes fell on his robe, which had been folded neatly and left on the floor. It was then that he realized her ankle had probably healed. She must have gone back to the village. Oddly, he felt disappointed. Just the previous day he had wished terribly for her departure, and now the sight of the empty shed grounded his floating mood.
From the corner of his eye, Shichi noticed the discarded white ribbon that had served as a bandage. Crouching, he picked it up and ran it through his fingers. It was good that she had healed. She belonged in the village, and now things could return to normal.
Seating himself, he untied the parcel he’d brought and removed a peach. Even as he sat in relief, no longer burdened by guilt, he couldn’t help but wonder if she liked peaches, too.