Note: Tokyo apartment buildings come all sizes, but a good many modern ones are two storeys high and consist of a dozen one-room units with small bath, small kitchen, and small balcony. Inheritance taxes are hideous in Japan, and the Tokyo government in general is death on wooden buildings, so families tend to sell old houses when the grandparents die in order to raise money. Then either they or a developer puts up one of these soulless apartment buildings on the lot. Effective use of land, yes, but... The Takahashi house and grounds here are based on what happened with a real house near where I lived in Nerima.
"Ritsu," my mother called from the kitchen, "will you take this over to Mrs. Takahashi's?"
"I have to study."
"But I want her to get it while it's still hot. Be a sweetheart, it's just around the corner."
"I'm sorry, there's a practice exam tomorrow. Can't you go yourself?"
"I'm afraid not. I'm making miso soup and I really can't leave it a moment. Come on now, you'll be there and back in five minutes."
I looked out at the grey sky and the restless wind. "It's going to rain. There's a typhoon coming."
"It's not due until late this evening. Ritsu, honestly--"
"Oh all right." You're the ones pushing me to get into university. How do I manage that when I'm the household errand boy?
Old Mr. Takahashi died last week. Grandmother strong-armed me into helping out at the wake, which meant a whole evening of studying gone. I'd figured that was the end of it for me, but of course the kind neighbourhood ladies, and especially my mother, were still making stews and lunch boxes and rice balls for the widow. And so I found myself walking over- or, the way our neighbourhood goes, walking round- to the Takahashis' overgrown lot. It stood next to the new two-storey apartment with its gleaming white siding. Because of the early darkness, harsh fluorescent lights were already switched on in a couple of the units, and they lit my way into the shadowy grounds next door.
There was nothing modern about the Takahashi place. At first glance it looked like a vacant lot untouched for decades. Overgrown trees kept the daylight out and ragged bushes choked the ground, but in the middle of this half-jungle was a tiny weather-worn house that looked to have been built back during the war. The Takahashis were once a well-to-do family and had built a fine Taishou mansion here-- I mean a real mansion, not two small rooms with a kitchenette and postage stamp balcony-- but it was destroyed in the fire bombing that killed Mr. Takahashi's parents and older brother. Now all the Takahashis owned was the lot and the two-room shack they lived in
"They should sell the land," my grandmother said often enough, "or build on it, at least. There's room there for two apartment buildings the size of the one next door. All that space just going to waste without even a proper garden-- it's almost selfish when you come to think of it."
"I suppose the old couple want to live where they always have," my mother said. "It would be hard for them, moving at their age."
Grandmother snorted. "They're no older than I am. They could build a nice new house on one half of the lot and an apartment on the other. I can't think why they haven't done that before."
"They'd have to cut the trees down to make room."
"No bad thing. It can't be healthy living there with no daylight in the house to speak of. The place looks so gloomy I don't even like to go past it."
My grandmother has no psychic sense at all. It says something about the Takahashi place that even she gets put off by it.
I do have a psychic sense, inherited with other things from my grandfather, and can see quite clearly what the problem is. The ancient trees drip with misery snakes and small-soul goblins; bulbous-eyed grues scurry about the undergrowth; and something lives near the top of the large zelkovia that I studiously avoid even thinking about in case it hears me doing it. "Ignore them," my grandfather used to say about the youkai that I saw everywhere as a child, "and they'll ignore you." Which is good advice, if you can ignore something that chokes your breath just to pass underneath it.
The thing in the branches was there that evening; the little lizard-like youkai chittered at me as I crossed the knee-high weeds around the house, that no one had ever bothered to clear to make a garden; and a presence like a black fog had congealed off to one side, just outside the wall of the trees. Something trying to get in and not able to manage it. Luckily I entered from the other side and was able to avoid it completely.
"Excuse me!" I called when I got to the porch. There was a single bulb burning inside, dimly showing through a dark window, that I hoped had been left on against Mrs. Takahashi's return. You'd think she might buy a proper light fixture. But the sliding door opened with an unpleasant sound and Mrs Takahashi stood in the opening. She greeted me without any change of expression.
"Good evening," I said, forcing a smile and holding up my bundled package. "Mom sent this over. I don't know if you'll care for it or not..."
"Mh. Thank you." She didn't reach to take the bento boxes so I put them on the porch's edge.
"Well, I'd better be getting home before the rain starts," I said hastily. Back of Mrs. Takahashi's dour face I could see a large one-eyed thing squatting on the kitchen table. "So long."
Probably it was as well that she was so antisocial. With anyone else I'd have had to spend a half hour over tea and local chat. But with anyone else it was very likely there'd be no bogles, one-eyed or not, infesting the house.
I came in as my mother was serving up.
"Oh good. You got it dropped off safely? Thank you. Here, take your father his dinner."
"Mhh." I picked up the tray and went down the main corridor, to the room by the back garden where the thing I call Father- at least in front of other people- spends most of its days. My father died when I was four. It was a while before I understood that the person who lived in his body wasn't him-- wasn't, for that matter, even human.
"Ahh, food!" Aoarashi said with ferocious delight and grabbed the rice bowl before I'd even got the tray settled on the table. I shoved the chopsticks in front of his face. He took his mouth out of the bowl and looked at them in puzzlement. "What do I need those for?"
"So you don't disgrace us when we have company."
"We don't have company. This is faster." He scooped a handful of rice into his mouth with his fingers. "More-" he said, shoving the empty bowl back at me.
"Because you don't get any more until you do." He frowned. I stared him down.
He hissed his annoyance. "Seconds, please."
I served him from the small rice tub mother always sends with his meals. He eats more than the three of us put together. I said as much.
"I need more than the three of you put together. This rice of yours can't keep a youkai going. If you'd get me some proper food-"
Proper food to a youkai is other youkai, the older and more powerful the better. "Why not go forage over at the Takahashi place?" I suggested. "It's crawling with youkai fodder."
"Rice crackers! Popcorn! You mock my starvation. There's nothing worth eating at the Takahashis."
"Not so, Aoarashi-dono!" Ojiro piped up from my shoulder. "In the zelkovia there--"
"Quiet!" Aoarashi snapped. The wooden windows rattled in a sudden gust of wind and a few drops of rain thudded against the glass. Aoarashi glared out into the garden, jumpy and annoyed. "Don't talk about things like that. You never know who's listening."
"No fear, Aoarashi-dono," Oguro remarked from the window sill. "It cannot leave its tree lest it lose its strength."
"And if it gets strong enough to leave its tree, what then? Yakitori, that's what." Oguro looked sulky. "But it's true," Aoarashi added sadly, "a spirit like that would be a meal and a half if I could only take him," and he licked his lips unconsciously.
"Yes, well, if you can take him, do. We'd all be grateful." I went back to the living room to get some dinner, took it to my room and hit the books again.
The wind got louder and the rain became a heavy drumming on the roof. My mother called me to help her with the rain doors, and together we wrestled the heavy wooden shutters out of their niches beside the windows. Our house is old and the wood has warped over time, which is why we normally only close the ones on the ground floor at night.
"It's been years since a typhoon hit Tokyo directly," my grandmother said, clearly fretting.
"It's just a lot of wind and rain and a few stopped Shinkansen, " I shrugged. There aren't any hills near us to turn into mudslides, which is the only kind of typhoon damage you ever hear about on NHK.
"And broken branches dropping onto the wires," my grandmother retorted. "Blackouts at best, fires at worst. I don't think I'll be sleeping much tonight."
I hadn't thought about that. But it still didn't seem worth worrying over. The same thing can happen in an earthquake. I went back to studying until I couldn't keep my eyes open. Too late for a bath. I got into my pyjamas and burrowed into the futon, listened a moment to the wind and rain outside the house, and fell asleep.
"Young master!" a voice was shrieking at me. Two voices. "Young master! Wake up! Wake up!"
"Anhhh- whazzat?" Oguro and Ojiro were flapping about the room in hysterics.
"Our tree! Our tree! The wind is blowing our cherry tree down in the garden! Open the window! Let us out! Our tree!!!"
"Anh- buhh-" The drumming of the wind was immensely louder and seemed somehow to have got inside my head. "Look- there's nothing you can do to save your tree. That's a typhoon out there-"
From somewhere outside came a heavy booming crash that seemed to resonate through the floor. Right after I heard a louder and clearer crash from the downstairs of our house. Oguro and Ojiro swooped out of the room. Cursing, I stumbled out into the dark hallway and heard my mother's anxious voice.
"Ritsu, what was that? Is Father-?"
"I'll go see. Can you get the lights on here?"
"They won't turn on. There must be a power outage." That was my grandmother, coming out of her room with a candle.
I took it and went downstairs to Aoarashi's room. The wooden doors had burst apart and dark wind and rain were blowing in from the garden, but wouldn't you know it, Aoarashi was still sleeping like a baby in the middle of the confusion.
"Oi, wake up," I said, grabbing his shoulder. "Give me a hand here--" The body was heavy and unmoving. No heartbeat when I felt for one. Aoarashi wasn't there any more.
I got what remained of the door pulled closed, though the rain still came through the split wood. At least Aoarashi would be able to get back in when he returned. I couldn't see what damage had been done in the garden, and if the birds were having conniptions out there it was more than I could hear over the wind roaring in the tree branches. I went back upstairs.
"Dad's fine," I said. "The study door's a bit damaged but it didn't even wake him up. Nothing else seems to be broken down there."
"Nor up here either, though the third floor roof may be..." My grandmother looked apprehensively at the ceiling.
"Well," I said with determined cheerfulness, "if it is, there's nothing we can do about it until tomorrow. I'm not going up to the attic with a candle to look." Not given what lives in our attic.
"Father's really alright?" My mother looked worriedly down the stairs.
"Really alright. He's sound asleep now," which was as true as metaphor ever is.
I came down in the morning to find my mother and grandmother clucking over the state of the garden. Leaves and twigs lay scattered thickly about, and a four foot branch of cherry tree had fallen among the chrysanthemums.
"What a mess," I said, to show sympathy, and went off to see how the study was. At the doorway I nearly tripped over Oguro and Ojiro, flopped on the tatami and clearly incapable of movement. Aoarashi, finally back where he belonged, was lounging on one elbow, picking his teeth.
"That's odd. I don't remember bringing you your breakfast," I said.
"Hanh, breakfast. Who needs breakfast? I'm stuffed."
I looked them over. "What have you three been up to?"
Ojiro gave a happy little moan. "Ohhh what a feast. What a feeeast. Ohhh---"
The light dawned. "Oh no," I groaned, and hurried back towards the voices at the front of the house. My mother met me on the way.
"Ritsu, hurry, we have to go over to the Takahashis. That big zelkovia, you know? It blew over in the typhoon and fell onto their house."
"Oh, she's alright- she was in the other room-" Thank god for that. My domestic porkers aren't too careful about what happens to humans. "-but terribly shaken of course, poor thing. We're trying to get her bags together- she'll have to move to her daughter's place for a bit- Can you come give us a hand with the lifting?"
"I can't move a whole zelkovia tree!"
"No of course not. That has to wait till the tree company brings their crane in. It won't be for days. Just getting her trunk and things into Grandmother's car."
I sighed. "Yes of course."
The hoardings went up a week later. The tractors and diggers started soon after.
"Another new apartment building," my grandmother said, shaking her head. "Maybe two. I don't know what this neighbourhood is coming to."
"What? You were the one saying they should build there!"
"I know, but it's not the same. All the old trees going down and strangers moving in... And it's not as if those six-mat apartments are big enough for a family. Young working men- and women- who knows what they get up to at night?"
"I do. Last train home, conveni bento, bed for five hours and the first train back to Ohtemachi. That's what a BA gets you these days." I sighed. That week's practice exam had been a disaster. "I can't think why I'm trying to get into university. Just now I'd rather be a monk. At least you don't have to go out for karaoke with the other monks after services."
"I know, I know, I'm just kidding. Back to the books."
The months passed. The entrance exams were getting hideously closer. Life consisted of study, study, more study, and for a bit of a change, study. I eventually learned to work with the cacophony of construction coming from the old Takahashi place but it didn't help my mood.
"I really should have made sure the tree people burned that zelkovia on the spot," I said sourly to Aoarashi one day.
"What for?" He'd gone back to scarfling four bowls of rice a meal.
"I don't like to think what'll happen if they use it for furniture or a building. "
"They won't. It was rotten from the top down and the roots up. That's why the typhoon brought it down so easily, so I finally got to have a decent meal for once." He glared at the rice tub meaningfully.
"It was still quite a job to get the roots free," Ojiro remarked.
"Huh? What did you do that for?" I asked Aoarashi.
He looked sly. "Who says I did?"
"Who else would have? I thought the youkai lived at the top of the tree. Did he get his power from the roots?"
Aoarashi shrugged. "Who cares, now?"
"But if there's something underneath the tree that has power..."
"There was. It's gone."
"What was it?"
"None of your business."
He shoved his bowl at me. "More rice."
I reached for the rice ladle. "Seconds please."
It was a warm afternoon in late November- sun shining hazily from a milky blue sky, the ginko trees all golden, some few remaining insects shrilling in the dried grass. I couldn't stand the heavy sour atmosphere in my room any more. It was Labour Day and everybody else had a holiday, so why not me? God knows I'd laboured enough these past five months. I started walking and with no purpose in mind, found myself passing the Takahashi place.
The hoardings had come down and a solid stone wall, maybe a metre and a half high by now, was going up round the edges of the property. I blinked as I looked through the opening where the gate would be. In the centre of the lot stood a large Japanese-style house, two and a half storeys high like ours, with the beginnings of a garden laid out around it and a number of small flowering bushes. The trees had been cut back and the mellow sunshine flooded in. The shoji of the house were all open to the light and air and a group of people, several of them in kimono, sat in the large living room looking out at the view. One of them saw me watching and waved me in. It was old Mr. Takahashi.
I picked my way through the ornamental bushes to the porch edge. "Ritsu," Mrs. Takahashi said, smiling, "I really must thank you for your help after the typhoon." It was true, when she smiled she looked no older than my grandmother. "I don't think you can have met my husband's parents? This is Ritsu, the Iijimas' grandson," she said to the couple who sat across from herself and her husband.
I bowed to them. "How do you do?"
"Pleased to meet you, young man," Mr. Takahashi's father said. He looked about the same age as his son.
"Yumiko told us about your grandfather," his wife remarked politely. "I was very sorry to hear it, but I hope your grandmother is well?"
"Yes, thank you, she still gets about."
"And this is my older brother Shin'ichi," old Mr. Takahashi said, indicating the man of about thirty who sat next to him.
"How do you do," Shin'ichi said, smiling. "You looked a little surprised there. Was it us?"
"Nonsense," his father snorted before I could answer. "That's Iijima Ryou's grandson you're talking to."
"Well, actually," I said, "somehow I'd thought they were building an apartment here."
There was general laughter. "Oh, it would have been an apartment," old Mrs. Takahashi said, "except for the old gold pieces that were buried under the zelkovia. I found them when I went to look at the damage next day."
"The old gold? What was that... Oh," as I realized what that was doing there.
Mr. Takahashi's father looked self-conscious. "Well, it was the *war*, you know. National state of emergency and all. I suppose I should have handed it over for the war effort like they said to, but really- I suppose I can say it now- I always thought the government had the wrong idea entirely."
"I just wish I'd known about it when I was alive," old Mr. Takahashi said. "It'd have made life a lot easier."
"We kept trying to get to you to tell you," Shin'ichiro said, "but there was something that wouldn't let us into the garden."
"Well, we have it now," old Mrs. Takahashi said, looking about her happily. "It's lovely to be living in a proper house again."
"Yes," I said, "yes, I can see it is."