Written for the Beyond the Camera's Lens Christmas Exchange. When I saw Ouse/Woman in Black and Kureha&Shiragiku friendship in the list of likes, I was powerless to refuse.
Until now, Ouse had thought the darkness had no end. She fell for lifetimes; she expected to fall forever. But just when she'd almost forgotten what it was like not to fall, she landed.
All around was a wasteland, like the bottom of the sea, stretching off in all directions. There was a kind of half-light, which cast no shadows and seemed to negate all colour, but did allow her to see for a short distance. As she became used to it, she saw the landscape was not entirely featureless after all. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see paths or roads twisting away into the distance. When she tried to look at them directly, they vanished.
"I don't know where they go," said a voice behind her.
Ouse turned to see a young girl watching her. The girl's kimono was black with yomi, but her hair was as shimmering white as Ouse's bridal veil, and Ouse remembered something she'd heard once.
"You're the girl they buried under the Katashiro Shrine," she said. "The Lady Tadasume remembered when you came to the mountain. One of my sisters swears she saw you once, when she was walking in the forest. A girl like a white chrysanthemum."
Shiragiku shrugged. "Who wants to stay asleep all the time?"
"She said she got the feeling you were waiting for somebody."
"Well, he's not coming now," Shiragiku said flatly. She lifted her strange, blood-coloured eyes, and Ouse looked up too. The darkness above shifted and shimmered with a murky raven's-wing iridescence, blue and green. She couldn't see where they'd fallen from.
"I was waiting for my friends," Shiragiku said, "but I don't think they're coming, either. I'm going to see where these roads go. Do you want to come?"
Ouse looked around again, at the empty plain. The thought of waiting here at the crossroads alone was not inviting.
They walked as feathers blow in the breeze, weightless, sometimes drifting. Ouse couldn't tell whether they moved through water or air. After a little while she stopped trying to keep track of the turnings they took. There were too many paths. Some led down into the ground, and others climbed up and up, until the shadows swallowed them. The longer they went on, the more Ouse became aware of voices that sounded sometimes all around them, carried as if on the wind from far places.
"Where do you suppose we are?" she asked.
"If they don't teach it on Mount Hikami, they wouldn't know on Mount Kagiroi."
"They say the night-spring flows from the land of the dead," Ouse mused. "But I don't think we can be there. For one thing, there aren't any dead."
Shiragiku squinted into the dark ahead. "I think there's something."
As they advanced the shape grew clearer. Ouse had never seen anything quite so sinister as the house standing on its own, rising out of all that lightless nothingness, but perhaps even stranger were the vines that covered it, so thickly that at first glance it didn't seem like a house at all, until you noticed the angles of the roof, or came close enough to see the front doors. They hung a little off-kilter, as if they had once been broken off their hinges and not very expertly set to rights.
The vines shivered in a non-existent breeze, and again came that murmur of voices, from everywhere and nowhere, louder this time. Ouse put her hand to the door, and just before she made contact, it swung inward with a creak that seemed to resound throughout the house beyond.
"Wait here," she told Shiragiku.
"I won't," Shiragiku returned, for the first time sounding her age. "It's boring out here. I'm coming to see."
"No, you aren't."
"Because I'm older, and I say so," Ouse said, just as she had done a hundred times before to put off her younger siblings. "It might not be safe."
Shiragiku clicked her tongue angrily. "I already died twice!"
"Then it's my turn. Please stay here until I come back."
Stepping through the doors was a little like stepping back into her box – darkness, a sense of being enclosed – only instead of water her bare feet encountered a drift of dried leaves and flower petals. They skittered and whispered around her with every step.
There was a split staircase ahead, mounting to the second floor, and as she climbed she began to hear music, a dreamlike echo winding down the hallways from somewhere deeper in the house. She couldn't identify the instrument, and the song didn't sound precisely like anything she'd heard; nothing people used to sing in the fields where she grew up, nothing the entertainers had played when they passed through, nothing she had ever heard drifting through the open windows of teahouses on her rare trips to the city. She followed the sound, stirring up waves of purple petals as she went.
At the end of the hall, light was spilling along with the music out of a half-open doorway. Though Ouse still couldn't tell what the instrument was, she recognised the loneliness of the song. It spoke to something in her, some voice that still answered at the sound of another person's pain.
There were two girls in the room, and Ouse knew at once something was strange about them. They were not mirror-images, exactly, but perfect opposites, inversions. One, in a white dress, was making the music, and the other, in black, sat at her feet, gazing up at her as she played.
Ouse took another step, and this time the girl in black heard the sound of the scattering petals. She lifted her head swiftly, then reached up and tugged on her companion's skirt to get her attention. They both stood up together, and for a long time, nobody said anything, but in their frightened eyes and identical expressions, Ouse could read everything she needed to know.
"How did you get here?" the girl in white said, thinking, I sealed it, I know I did. Her name was Maya. They were both Maya, because they were both the same, and yet there were whole worlds of difference between them. It was as if Ouse Kurosawa, the cursed spirit of a mountain shrine maiden, had come to stand beside Ouse, the village girl with no family name, who still secretly believed that travelling priests were gods come to earth.
"This house is sealed to the living," Ouse said. "I came by a different road."
The girl in black was harder to look at. Her lips and eyelids still bore the scars of the ritual she had suffered, and she had waited so long. Even after her wait had come to an end, the damage remained, like a blot upon her soul. In time it would grow again, if someone didn't take it.
"When I was alive, I was a priestess," Ouse said, choosing her words with care. "It was my job to watch over people as they crossed the border between life and death, and take in the memories of their last moments, and the things they felt they couldn't share with anyone. I know you died a long time ago, but if you'd let me, I could perform this duty for you as well."
The two girls exchanged uncertain glances.
"I know what you've done," Ouse said gently, speaking only to the girl in black now. "You were searching for the one who could understand your pain, and when you couldn't find her, you inflicted it on everyone around you. I understand."
The girl in black took a step forward, then another. "Will I have to leave?"
"No," Ouse said. "But I think you'll be able to."
The girl looked once at her opposite, her other half, then turned back and gave a small nod. Ouse reached out to touch her cheek – a formality, unnecessary, but somehow all the more comforting for that. Physical contact with another person, after so long without, felt as warm as the sunlight she'd almost forgotten. For the first time in a long while, she thought of Yuuri Kozukata, and smiled.
She walked from the house of vines in such a daze of memory that she almost forgot about Shiragiku. Shiragiku was not helpful in reminding her; Shiragiku was gone.
Ouse stood perplexed, exasperation mingling with genuine anxiety. The two Mayas had not wished to leave their house yet, and although Ouse was all the more eager now to explore some of the other roads, she had no desire to go alone. She had almost decided to wait a while when she spotted something crimson lying on the ground, the only spot of colour in sight. It turned out to be a red obijime, laid on the path in a neat coil. It wasn't the most conventional yosuga, but it would serve to tell her the direction Shiragiku had gone.
After a little while, the path began to descend, until at last a tunnel yawned before her. For a while she went on in total blindness, following the strong sense of Shiragiku, like a splash of dark blood on white silk, like the sharp smell of sap from a cut flower. Again she heard the murmur of voices, but this time she recognised one of them, and quickened her pace.
She found Shiragiku lying on her back in an old, old shrine, gazing at the lanterns above, and talking to someone just out of sight. "I wish I did have a sister," she said. "Even one that died. Everyone said I shouldn't have been born. They couldn't have said that if there were two of us." She turned her head, saw Ouse and sat up. "I found someone who knows what that place is," she announced. "Her name is Kureha. This is her shrine."
Ouse circled around the altar. The other person in the shrine was a woman of about her own age, leaning carelessly back against the wall, and the hair spilling over her shoulders was as white as Shiragiku's. She was watching the younger girl with a look of mild curiosity and amusement, rather as a cat might watch a bold mouse walking nearby.
"Where she comes from, all the shrine maidens are twins, and nobody dies properly," Shiragiku said. "She thought I was a twin too, because of my white hair. She can read hearts when she touches people. You should have come to Mount Hikami," she told Kureha.
Ouse approached warily. A flash of the other woman's green eyes was enough.
"Many people have left through the door behind the altar," Kureha said, smiling. "You're the first to come in that way. It's been so long since I had guests. My village was freed from the darkness, but I... remain."
Ouse knelt, assuming her most formal pose as if to counteract Kureha's careless one. "You say you know the place that lies beyond the door?"
"In some places they call it the rift. It is the interstice between life and death, the back road that joins all lost places. Everything that inhabits the darkness, everything that falls into the hidden world, everything shaped in dream. There are many ways. I have never walked that road myself."
"Why don't you come with us?" Shiragiku asked, sitting up again.
Much to Ouse's relief, Kureha shook her head. "This is where the ashes of my bones are buried," she said, apparently sorrowful, but a golden gleam was dancing in her eyes. "Until they are only dust, and the dust is absolutely forgotten, I must wait here."
"Shiragiku," Ouse said. "We should be moving on."
"Shiragiku was telling me how the priestesses on your mountain use the ability we share," said Kureha. "It sounds fascinating. I wish I had known of it in my time. I might have learned so much."
Yes, Ouse thought, you might have learned to help people, instead of feeding on their fear.
"Kureha's sister died before they could perform the ritual together," Shiragiku said. "So she didn't have anybody. She's like an everlasting flower with no yuukon partner."
"And unless you're volunteering to play the role, I think we should be going," Ouse said in her most deliberately melodious voice. She stood, and bowed to Kureha. "Thank you for your hospitality to my little sister." She caught Shiragiku's sharp, startled look at that, but pretended not to.
Kureha rose too, her movements as languid as Ouse's were precise. She slid her hand around the nape of her neck, under the curtain of white hair, and pushed it back over her shoulder. "I'll send a guide with you."
The crimson butterfly went ahead of them in the blind tunnel, and though Ouse was dubious of any guide summoned by Kureha, she had no choice but to follow. When they came out again and the butterfly left them, the path was different, but Shiragiku said it didn't matter. After all, it wasn't as if they had any destination in mind. She started off down the path, but Ouse called to her to wait.
"You want this back," she said, holding up the obijime. "Here, let me tie it for you."
Shiragiku obediently lifted her arms, and Ouse was forcefully reminded of her real sister, in the life before Mount Hikami. She'd had to help her dress just like this, tying her obi in extravagant bows at the smallest excuse, digging up pretty ornaments in the storeroom for obidome. Again came that sense of tenderness – not the compassion of a priestess to the people, but the warm affection of one human being to another. A strange thing to feel, in this dead land.
"Is that why you called me your sister?" Shiragiku asked, watching her narrowly.
"No, I called you that because you were a priestess of Mount Hikami."
"Even though I wasn't born there?"
"Nobody was born there. It's not a place to be born."
Shiragiku sighed. "I knew that."
As they went on, and on, Ouse noticed strange constellations taking shape behind the fleeting luminescence of the sky. Nothing else could have so utterly convinced her that they had left behind their sealed coffins, left behind even the sunset. The night was before them, but she wasn't afraid. Perhaps they were walking towards the dawn.