The red rental car plunged into the tunnel. Hitomi’s eyes adjusted: the sun winked out, replaced by the yellow glow of sodium lights flashing by too fast.
Professor Ueda had insisted on driving. Hitomi had offered, of course, but he had looked so indignant that she was reluctant to offer twice. For an elderly man, he was a remarkably reckless driver. The tunnel was narrow and winding, and if she’d been driving, she would have taken the curves much slower. But then, living in Tokyo, he probably didn’t have many opportunities to speed down an empty road. He must have been enjoying himself.
“Are you excited for your first fieldwork, Sasaki?” Professor Ueda asked, raising his voice to be heard above the roar of the engine echoing in the tunnel.
“You’ll stay with me, right? When I’m interviewing her?” she asked.
“You’ll mostly be listening, not interviewing,” Professor Ueda reminded her. “But of course I’ll supervise.”
When Hitomi had first started her master’s in folklore, she had thought that no one went into the countryside trying to collect folktales anymore. Professor Ueda had assured her that there were still a few remote corners where old stories, beliefs, and practices lingered, if you knew where to look. Now that she was starting the fieldwork for her thesis, she imagined herself joining the pantheon of folklore pioneers from previous centuries, like the Grimm brothers or Yanagita Kunio, tromping out into the countryside to capture the last traces of oral tradition before they disappeared forever.
As they emerged from the tunnel, her eyes hurt from the sudden brightness of the sun. The village spread out around them. Its neat emerald gardens were strung with silver and gold streamers to keep away the crows; its distinctive steep thatched roofs were familiar from the black and white photographs she’d seen in old reference books. Utterly unchanged. How incredible that a place like this could exist, just a day’s travel from Tokyo.
It was August, which should have been high tourist season for this sort of mountain getaway, but the streets were mostly empty. Hitomi saw a single bent-double grandmother working in a garden, with a single family of tourists snapping photos of her.
“Looks like they could use some help with marketing,” Hitomi remarked.
“Fewer tourists are better for us,” Professor Ueda assured her. “Easier to get a sense of the village itself. Once the tour buses arrive at a village, it’s usually impossible to do any real fieldwork.”
They cruised through the heart of the village, passing the Mountain Heritage Museum, the Farming Tradition Center, and half a dozen restaurants and guesthouses. As they drove, the houses grew farther apart, and the trees encroached on the village from all sides. The road narrowed, then turned to gravel.
At the end of the road, there was one last house before the mountain rose up again, steep and thickly wooded. A thatched-roof farmhouse, like the others in the village. But the wood was darker and damper, the eaves sagging, the thatch visibly balding.
“Is this it?” Hitomi asked. There was no sign, nothing indicating that it was a guesthouse.
“There’s always some hardship in fieldwork, Sasaki,” Professor Ueda said, with some relish. The car crunched over the gravel and came to a stop. Before he got out, he squinted at the rearview mirror, whipped a comb out of his pocket, and combed his sparse hair into neat rows.
A gray cat was sleeping on the stones that led up to the front door. As Hitomi picked her way carefully towards the house, the cat woke and stalked towards her, lifting its head as if demanding to be petted.
“Hello, beautiful,” she cooed, crouching down to oblige it. The cat nuzzled her hands, then flopped down on the stone and sprawled out, displaying its fuzzy white stomach.
Ahead, the front door rattled as it slid open. The cat mewed, padding back over to the door and winding itself around the ankles of the man who appeared there. His jeans were rolled up to his knees, showing his bare, furry legs.
Hitomi’s first impression was of sheer size. The man was so tall he had to duck slightly to fit through the door, and he had big ungainly hands like boulders. Once she’d gone to a museum in Ryōgoku, where the sumo stadium was, and seen what had to be a sumo wrestler on his off hours, shuffling shyly into a convenience store as if he were embarrassed of his hugeness. This man reminded her of that, massive but standing with his shoulders modestly hunched.
The man bent and picked up the cat, letting it climb onto his shoulders. Hitomi’s eyes followed the cat up to his face. He looked only a few years older than she was, somewhere in his thirties. It was difficult to tell, because his ruddy face was obscured with thick black stubble.
“You’re the guests? Ueda and Sasaki, two rooms, three nights?” he demanded.
Hitomi’s soul withered and died at the thought of anyone calling Professor Ueda plain Ueda, as if he weren’t a tenured and published and profusely awarded scholar, the sort of man who got to make the first comment at all the monthly meetings of the Tokyo Folklore Study Group.
“That’s right. And you are?” Professor Ueda answered, taking out his handkerchief and wiping his glasses on it, apparently unruffled.
“Kiyama Tatsuya. I’ll carry your bags,” the man announced. Without asking, he went back to their rental car, opened the trunk, and hoisted their suitcases. Hitomi was an overpacker in general, indecisive about which clothes and shoes she’d want on a trip, plus she had packed several of the books she was reading for her thesis. Her suitcase was so heavy that one of the conductors had had to help her lift it onto the luggage rack in the train. But Mr. Kiyama hefted it in one hand as if it were weightless, and carried Professor Ueda’s two bags under the other arm, all without disturbing the cat riding on his shoulders.
Professor Ueda raised his eyebrows at her, as if to say, ‘Welcome to fieldwork!’
Hitomi followed the man to one of the guestrooms, where he deposited her suitcase on the tatami mats, carefully, like a giant setting down a tree trunk.
“Thank you, Mr. Kiyama,” she attempted.
“Just Tatsuya. Dinner’s at six,” he announced, and turned to go. She wasn’t sure if meals were supposed to be included, and she was especially not sure if she wanted to spend an entire meal sitting across the table from this odd stranger. There was something off-putting about him, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. But before she could figure out what to say, he was already closing the door.
The mats had the sweet, grassy smell of real tatami, but they were faded and a little musty, probably not replaced as recently as they should have been. The futon was already spread out on the floor, neatly made with flowered sheets and a padded quilt that looked handsewn. There was a little alcove with a tiny glass vase full of fresh flowers. It was hard to imagine a man like Tatsuya making beds and picking wildflowers, but she supposed that was part of running a guesthouse.
Although her door was closed, she could hear the muffled clatter of pots and pans, and she could smell something faintly savory. She went out into the front room to investigate.
The storyteller was there.
Sitting comfortably on a cushion was a tiny old woman, so small that her body seemed to disappear inside her kimono, until all you could see was the soft round peach that was her head, topped with sparse white fuzz. She sat beside a traditional hearth built into the floor, with an iron kettle hanging on a chain from the ceiling.
There was a more modern kitchen off to the side. From the well-loved patina of the appliances, Hitomi guessed it probably dated back to the sixties or seventies. In this narrow kitchen, not much larger than the one in her parents’ apartment back home in Tokyo, Tatsuya was standing at the stove, stirring a pot. His massive, hairy arms were especially incongruous against the daffodil-yellow apron he was wearing as he cooked.
She realized she was staring—although to be fair, he was difficult not to stare at.
“Dinner,” he explained tersely. As if that was what needed explanation.
It was a little funny to see someone so enormous and so decisively male fussing in a kitchen. Her ex-husband had never cooked.
Tatsuya, his brow knit in concentration, set aside some of the vegetables and ran them through a blender. She guessed that he was preparing mushy food for his grandmother, who might not have enough teeth left to chew fibrous vegetables.
Hitomi realized all of a sudden how much she was inside someone else’s home, how intimate the whole scene was. She froze at first, trying to think of what to say, but Professor Ueda breezed past her into the front room and sat across from the old woman as if it were all quite natural.
“Mrs. Kiyama,” Professor Ueda began.
“Everyone calls her Grandmother,” Tatsuya interjected from the kitchen.
Grandmother inclined her head in apparent agreement.
“Grandmother,” Professor Ueda said. “My name is Ueda, and this is my graduate student Sasaki. We’ve heard that you know a lot of stories. Would you be willing to tell us a few?”
“After dinner,” the old woman declared. “I never tell stories before sunset.”
Or at least that’s what Hitomi thought she said. Grandmother’s dialect was so thick, she could hardly be sure.
“A sensible practice,” Professor Ueda nodded.
Although Hitomi had worried that the dinner would be too awkward to bear, sitting across from Tatsuya (a silent, sullen mountain), the food itself was remarkable. Plain mountain fare: a bowl of rice, homemade pickles, cold tofu, stewed vegetables, and buckwheat soba noodles. But everything was fresh and subtle and perfect. She’d never had soba with such intense flavor or such lovely, springy texture; she suspected that someone in the village must have made it by hand.
And once Grandmother had her dinner, she was an endless fountain of chat. Her accent was so heavy that it was hard for Hitomi to follow, but she got the general idea. Grandmother attempted to introduce the village to her two citified visitors, explaining that the village one ridge over had been made a UNESCO World Heritage site, and they got heaps of tourists in the summer, but the houses in the Kiyamas’ village weren’t as well-preserved, so they had been passed over. Which was apparently a source of some grief to the local restaurants and guesthouses. She’d run this house as a guesthouse for forty years, doing all the cooking herself, but these days it was all up to her grandson, and they didn’t get many customers, since they hadn’t been able to rethatch the roof as often as it needed, and the neighbors’ guesthouses were in better condition. But, she added, these two guests were clearly discerning travelers, because she was the only one left in the village who knew the old stories.
“No one else in the world knows these anymore,” she boasted sweetly. “They don’t have these stories in the next village. And no one else here remembers them all—I’m the last one left born in the Meiji period.”
“You were born in Meiji?” Hitomi gasped, forgetting her manners for a moment in her surprise.
“June 1912,” Grandmother nodded. “Just one month before the Emperor Meiji died.”
Hitomi had never met anyone born in the Meiji period before. There couldn’t have been many left in the whole country. She noticed that Grandmother, whose eyes were still sharp, seemed rather gratified by her awe.
“My, it’s getting dark already,” Grandmother observed, with an air of great ceremony. Shadows were gathering at the corners of the front room, and the cooler night air was seeping in through the old house’s walls.
“I’ll make tea.” Tatsuya knelt next to the old earthen hearth, arranged wood in a neat pile, and started a fire. He filled and rehung the iron kettle above the fire.
He turned off the electric lights in the kitchen when he filled the kettle, so that the only source of light in the house was the flickering flame of the little fire starting in the hearth. The kettle swayed slightly on its chain, making shadows waver on the dark wooden walls.
Hitomi felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. This was not at all like sitting under fluorescent lights in the library, reading an edited collection of folktales with helpful annotations. It was a performance, an important one, one Grandmother had been repeating for decade after decade.
“Excuse me, Grandmother,” Hitomi put in. It felt almost sacrilegious to interrupt with reality. “May we record your stories?” She held up her phone.
“Go ahead, if you like. Now, what sort of stories do you want to hear, children?” Grandmother began, settling herself comfortably on her cushion and accepting a cup of tea from Tatsuya, who then receded into the shadows behind her, like a black-clad stagehand.
Professor Ueda, at sixty-eight, was indeed young enough to be her son. He only smiled. “Why don’t you tell us your favorites, Grandmother?”
Grandmother launched into a long series of practiced, well-loved stories. Hitomi recognized some as cousins of tales she’d read in collections, but others were wholly new. Kappa, ghosts, forest fires, disappearances, babies delivered by the gods, good little girls and bad little girls, mountain deities and mountain demons.
As Grandmother continued telling her stories, Hitomi lost track of time. It surprised her when Grandmother hid a yawn in her sleeve and reflected: “Well—I think there’s time for one more story tonight.” Her eyes narrowed in a smile. “Do you want to hear the story of why our family is called Kiyama?”
Hitomi found herself leaning forward, entranced by the sparkle in the old woman’s eyes.
Just then, the electric lights popped back on with an audible buzz.
“It’s past nine, Gran,” Tatsuya announced, a little too loudly. “You’re usually in bed by now.”
“Oh, I suppose,” she sighed. “More stories tomorrow night, then.”
Grandmother allowed Tatsuya to lift her from her cushion and help her into her bedroom.
In the electric light, the front room looked shabby, the fire pitiful, and all the veils of mystery had departed.
“Wow,” Hitomi whispered to Professor Ueda, who answered with a boyish smile.
“There’s nothing else like it, is there, Sasaki?”
That night, Hitomi curled up underneath the padded quilt with her phone. It was so silent and dark in the house. She was used to the streetlights and traffic noise of her neighborhood in Tokyo. The light from her phone, at least, was a thread connecting her to the real world.
She texted her parents to let them know that she had arrived safely and to wish them a good night. Then she settled in to browse the internet; she was too keyed up to sleep.
Do you want to hear the story of why our family is called Kiyama?
She had known that the guesthouse was called Kiyama Guesthouse, but she hadn’t seen how it was written. Now that she thought about it, she wasn’t sure what characters the name Kiyama was made of; ‘yama’ was obviously mountain, but ‘ki’ could be any number of things. It wasn’t a common name. She searched for the guesthouse online, and after a while found its listing on a travel site: Minshuku Kiyama, spelled 鬼山. The ‘ki’ was an alternate reading for the word ‘oni,’ or ogre.
When she was a child, she had mostly thought of oni as cute cartoon figures: bright red skin, huge eyes, wild hair, that silly tigerskin loincloth they were always wearing in children’s books. It wasn’t until she’d started her degree in folklore that she saw the grotesque images of them in older illustrations. The way people had once imagined ogres, back when people took such things seriously.
She thought of a picture scroll she’d read just last semester, a sixteenth-century story about an ogre in the mountains outside of Kyoto. He would go down into the city at night to abduct young maidens and bring them to his mountain dwelling, where they became both the servants and the main dishes at his luxurious, depraved banquets with his ogre friends. She had been shocked by the graphic violence in this prettily painted little scroll. Cups full of sparkling human blood. Ogres chewing on girls’ naked thighs. A platter full of girl sashimi.
Ogre mountain. There was definitely a story behind that name.
In the center of the formica table in the kitchen were two full plates and a scrawled handwritten note:
GRAN IS SLEEPING.
KEEP IT DOWN. SOUND CARRIES.
Tatsuya’s hospitality was somewhat lacking. On the other hand, when Hitomi peeled back the plastic wrap covering her plate, she discovered a fluffy omelet, a salad with neatly halved cherry tomatoes glistening like rubies, and a little knot of a roll studded with raisins. It was a breakfast any housewife would have been proud of.
“What are our plans for today?” she whispered to Professor Ueda. She didn’t want to wake Grandmother.
“I suspect Grandmother won’t tell any more stories until sunset,” he mused, neatly buttering his roll. “You have some time to yourself until then. Why don’t you go out and explore the village?”
“Isn’t there fieldwork I ought to be doing?”
“That is fieldwork. Walk around the village, talk to people, write down your observations. Even if you never use this material in your thesis, it’ll help you write. Folklore only exists in context.”
“I promised the curator at the Mountain Heritage Museum I’d pay him a visit. I’ll meet you back at the house before dinner.”
Hitomi slipped an apple into her backpack (she didn’t feel bad about it, because there was another messy handwritten note beneath it reading “YOU CAN TAKE THESE”) and headed out the front door.
The village felt different on foot and by the morning light. Flowers smiled at her from everyone’s garden. Inspired by Professor Ueda’s exhortation, she took photos of all the flowers she didn’t recognize, and resolved to look them up in a botanical manual once she got back to the library. It might be important. Anything might be important!
She had never had time to think about flowers before. The last year of her marriage, she had tried to make a date with her ex to see the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park, and he had kept pushing the day back, saying he was too busy to take the time off work. By the time they both had a Saturday free, the blossoms had already fallen.
Closer to the center of town, one of the local stores was open. There was a woman out front, setting out a sign advertising different varieties of homemade tofu. Unable to make up her mind, Hitomi ordered three different kinds: hiya yakko, cold and topped with soy sauce, scallions, and bonito flakes; dengaku, grilled and glazed with miso; and ganmodoki, a fried tofu-vegetable fritter. The woman delivered her tofu and sat across from her to keep her company as she ate, and they got to chatting.
“Have you lived here long?” Hitomi asked, which turned out to be a stupid question, because the woman just wiped her hands on her apron and chuckled. Everyone in the village had been born there; no one had moved there. Although plenty had moved away.
“Where are you staying?” the woman asked.
“At Minshuku Kiyama,” Hitomi answered, pointing back up the road to where it disappeared in the darkness. Somewhere in those shadows was the old house.
“Oh.” The woman’s mouth worked slightly, as if she were trying to restrain herself from informing this outsider that Minshuku Kiyama was the worst guesthouse in the village.
“I came to hear Mrs. Kiyama’s stories,” she explained.
“Ohh,” the woman nodded in understanding. “They’re a unique pair, those two.”
“Mrs. Kiyama and her grandson?”
The woman nodded again. “He’s a good boy, really. He puts the snow tires on our car for free every year, won’t think of taking money for it. But there’s funny blood in that family, always has been, that’s all.”
Hitomi ate her three kinds of tofu and listened to the woman’s stories about the village, which weren’t at all like Grandmother’s; they were about whose guesthouse went out of business, or who the mayor used to be before the village was disincorporated, or whose children had moved away to Tokyo and didn’t visit as often as they ought to. Hitomi nodded and urged her on when she could. Before she left, she bought vacuum-sealed packs of smoked tofu to give to her parents and classmates as souvenirs. Then she strolled back up the road to the Kiyama house, hurriedly taking notes on what she remembered of their conversation, although she doubted that the tofu-seller’s gossip would make it into her thesis.
Beside the house, Tatsuya was stretched out underneath some enormous piece of farm machinery.
“You okay under there?” Hitomi asked, peering down at his feet sticking out from under the machine.
“Fine. Just fixing.” He rolled out from underneath the machine and sat up. His face was smeared with grease, and his hands and forearms were black up to the elbow.
Part of fieldwork is getting to know the people, she reminded herself. Folklore exists in context. And Tatsuya was part of that context. He had grown up hearing Grandmother’s stories, breathing the air in that house. He and the stories were inseparable.
“What’s that called?” she asked.
“Combine. For harvesting rice.” He frowned and rested his elbows on his knees. “Hand me that cloth?”
She found the rag he was gesturing to and handed it to him. He tried to wipe the grime off his hands.
“Is it yours?” she asked. She hadn’t seen rice fields around the Kiyama house.
“Neighbor’s,” he answered, fiddling with the rag. “This is my work.”
“Oh—you’re a mechanic?”
He nodded. “Only one in three villages. Only one young enough to do it, I guess.” He paused, staring not at her, but at a spot in the distance somewhere off to the left of her head. As if he were frightened of looking directly at her, she realized. “So you’re a researcher?” he ventured.
“Sort of—I’m not really anything so impressive. I’m just a student.”
He blinked and didn’t say anything, so she kept going.
“I mean, I’m in graduate school. I’m a little old for it. I started my master’s at twenty-nine. Everyone else in the seminar is younger than I am, which is a little awkward. All the girls act like I’m their big sister, even though I’ve been out of school for so long that actually I’m always asking them for help…”
“Sometimes I think I looked at the course catalogue and chose the most impractical, most useless degree,” she joked. Mostly joked. “I used to work in finance. It was really, really practical. Totally real-world. Real money, real problems, real deadlines. And so for a few years I worked twelve-hour days doing real, important stuff, and I broke out in hives all over my body, and then I quit.”
Her stomach clenched in embarrassment, and she realized she had just vomited up her life story to him. At least she had managed to leave out the divorce. He didn’t seem particularly fazed by any of it, just nodded thoughtfully.
“So you listen to stories instead?”
“Yeah,” she agreed, and she couldn’t quite hide her smile. Breathing fresh mountain air, eating the world’s best tofu, and listening to people’s stories: it was ridiculous, but that was her job now. Placing things in context. A great big jumbled puzzle that was this village and its past, with Tatsuya as one funny jagged piece of it. “Actually, I was wondering if you could help me sometime. I’m going to need to transcribe the recordings of your grandmother’s stories, but I have some trouble understanding her accent…”
“I bet.” Tatsuya had a strong regional twang, but he was comprehensible. His grandmother had probably been raised in a time when even the schoolteachers still spoke dialect, and she might not have had much schooling at that.
“Would you help me transcribe? I don’t know how I’m going to find someone back in Tokyo who could do it.”
“Sure, no problem.” He nodded solemnly.
A bell rang faintly from inside the house. Tatsuya glanced over his shoulder, then set down his greasy rag and closed his toolbox.
“Gran’s up. Guess she needs help.”
“You take good care of her,” Hitomi observed.
He glanced back at her; for a moment, he looked as if he were about to say something. Then he just awkwardly grunted his assent. “Dinner’ll be ready at six,” he added, and disappeared inside.
People probably didn’t notice him often, she thought. How often would he meet new people at all, here in the village? Here everyone had known him since birth, had a whole narrative to explain him, and would never have an occasion to experience the pleasure she just had, seeing for the first time that there was something sweet in him. That he might be kind.
“Tonight, you’ll do the talking,” Professor Ueda informed Hitomi.
“Are you sure?”
“You’re ready. It’ll go well. And I’ll be there if you need help.”
Hitomi glowed with pride. If he was letting her take the lead on the fieldwork, it meant he trusted her judgment. He was going to use these recordings for his own publications, too, after all.
“My, my—it’s good to have the house full of young people,” Grandmother sighed, as Tatsuya helped her shuffle to her customary cushion.
Hitomi started her phone recording and folded her hands in her lap. “Grandmother, will you tell us more stories tonight?”
“I’d be happy to. Tatsuya, will you pour some sake for our guests?”
Like the night before, Tatsuya started a fire, filled everyone’s cups, turned off the electric lights, and receded into the darkness behind Grandmother. The fire cast a web of shadows over the wrinkles and divots in her face.
“What kind of story do you want to hear?”
“Tell me a story about the village, please,” Hitomi urged.
Although she had already told them stories for hours the night before, Grandmother resumed her performance with undiminished energy. Her voice rose and fell. She was a child, a barking dog, an exiled samurai. For as long as Grandmother spoke, her stories were the only reality. Hitomi forgot about her thesis research, forgot about Tokyo. Time slipped away.
“I think there’s time for one more story tonight,” Grandmother finally murmured. “What would you like to hear?”
Last night, Grandmother had tried to tell a story about the family name. Kiyama, Ogre Mountain. There had to be a great story there—but was it all right to ask for it? Something so personal? She saw Tatsuya leaning forward in the shadows, his hands on his knees as if he were getting ready to spring up.
If she didn’t know this story, if she left the village without hearing it, she would regret it forever. There wouldn’t be a second chance. Grandmother was 103, and no one else knew her stories…
The fire spat sparks at the iron kettle. Grandmother waited for her answer.
“Can you tell me the story about the Kiyama family, Grandmother?” Hitomi asked.
The old woman’s face creased into a smile. “That’s a good one. I’m glad you asked.”
Behind her, Tatsuya stood, but before he could reach the light switch, Grandmother raised her little pink hand in a wordless command. Tatsuya sank quietly back to his knees on the mats and didn’t move again.
Grandmother closed her eyes and began, her voice low and deliberate:
Long ago, hundreds of years ago, in this very village, in this very family, there was a mother and a father with just one daughter. She was a great beauty, and they wanted only the best for her. But this was a poor family then—is still a poor family now—and their beautiful daughter had to help her parents earn money. She used to go up to the mountain to gather brushwood to sell in the village. It was a sad sight, to see this lovely girl climbing down from the mountain with her back bent from carrying brushwood, but all the village said it was wonderful to see a daughter so devoted to her parents.
But one day, the daughter didn’t come back down from the mountain. The whole village searched for her day and night for a week, but they couldn’t find her. The parents were beside themselves with grief. Although the rest of the villagers accepted that she was gone, her father did not, and every day he went into the mountains looking for her. The house fell into disrepair as he neglected his work to search for his missing daughter.
After months and months of searching, one day he slipped through a crevice in the rocks and found himself inside an ogre’s cave. Inside the cave, he found his daughter—pregnant.
“Quick,” the father said. “Come with me. I’ll take you home.”
But the daughter said, “No, it’s not safe. My husband the ogre will come back to his cave any second. You’ve got to hide.”
So she hid her father inside a chest in the cave, and not a moment too soon, because just then the ogre returned to the cave.
“It stinks like human in here,” the ogre growled.
“Of course it does, darling; I’m here,” the daughter answered.
“I smell two humans,” the ogre insisted.
“Then you must be smelling the child in my stomach,” the clever daughter suggested. “He’s human too.”
The ogre accepted this answer, and he sat down to eat his dinner of human flesh. The father waited, terrified, inside the chest, all night long. And in the morning, after the ogre left the cave, the father and the daughter escaped back to the village together.
The daughter never dared to climb the mountain again, and lived safely in the village for the rest of her days. But a few months after she returned from the ogre’s cave, she bore his child. A child who grew to be like all the Kiyama men, a great big strapping boy like my Tatsuya there. And all the village knows there is still ogre blood in the Kiyama family, and that is how we got our name.
Grandmother picked up her cup and drained it of sake, breaking the spell of her story with a satisfied sigh.
“Then do you believe you are descended from an ogre, Grandmother?” Hitomi asked.
“Oh, no. I married into the Kiyama family,” she answered brightly. “My Tatsuya is the last one in the village with ogre blood in his veins.”
Across the room, in the dim firelight, Tatsuya’s dark face was flushed red. Red like an ogre’s face, his coarse hair wild, casting shadows on the wall almost like a pair of horns—
“That reminds me of a famous story from the northeast,” Professor Ueda began. After a drink or two, he was often inclined to start lecturing. “Grandmother, have you ever heard of a story called ‘Kozuna, the Ogre’s Child’?”
“Tell me,” she urged, her eyes brightening. “I don’t hear new stories often these days.”
It was well past nine, but she didn’t look at all tired. Tatsuya made no attempt to hurry her off to bed. It was probably too late for that; the damage had already been done.
“The story of Kozuna, the ogre’s child, begins very much like your story. An ogre kidnaps a girl and makes her his wife. Her father goes looking for her, and finds her on Ogre Island.”
“Ogre Island?” Grandmother protested. “Everyone knows ogres live in the mountains.”
“You have a good point,” Professor Ueda conceded politely, “but there are quite a few stories from other regions which are very clear about Ogre Island. At any rate, the story continues as your story does, with the daughter hiding her father from the ogre. Then they escape, in this version by boat. But the ending is different.
“I heard this ending in a town in Iwate Prefecture. The ogre’s child is named Kozuna, and as he grows older, he realizes that he has an ogre’s hunger for human flesh. Finally, unable to control his hunger, he chooses to take his own life rather than devour his neighbors. He asks the villagers to burn his body so that nothing remains. But after they burn him, the ashes of his body drift into the wind, and even his ashes still hunger for human flesh. And that is the story of where mosquitoes come from.”
“Oh—that poor boy,” Grandmother murmured, shaking her head in sorrow, as if the character in the folktale were real.
Tatsuya was sitting behind Grandmother, still and massive as a statue. His craggy face had the plain, decent ugliness of a carved wooden mask. Hitomi felt suddenly that she had been wrong to ask for the story of the family’s name.
“If you’ve finished your drink, Gran, let’s get you to bed,” he rumbled.
“More stories tomorrow night,” she assured them cheerfully. Perhaps she didn’t have an audience as often as she would like. It was a long trek into the mountains to visit her, after all, and she had a century’s worth of stories she needed to get out.
“I look forward to it,” Professor Ueda enthused, bowing his head deeply. “Goodnight, Grandmother.”
Hitomi stopped her phone recording. She quashed a momentary impulse to delete that night’s file. She wanted to tell Professor Ueda that she wished they hadn’t come, that she wished he hadn’t let her lead the fieldwork.
“You did well, Sasaki,” he declared, standing and heading to his guestroom.
“Thank you, Professor.” She waited for his door to close before she stood. She turned the electric lights back on in the kitchen and washed up the sake cups and a few lingering dinner dishes. Tatsuya didn’t reappear, even after it had been more than enough time for him to put his grandmother to bed. He might not have wanted to talk, after that.
Hitomi slipped out the front door. He wasn’t there, but she heard or sensed something out in the darkness, and tried to feel her way around to the side of the house.
“You’re going to break your neck walking in the dark like that. You don’t know your way here.”
A spot of light shone from the darkness to her left. She saw Tatsuya sitting on a rock by the edge of the woods, holding up his phone to light the way for her. Why hadn’t she thought of that? She pulled out her own phone and illuminated the ground in front of her, picking her way carefully over to him.
Once she reached him, he made room for her on the rock next to him, and she sat. Neither of them spoke for a while. She resolved that she wouldn’t speak first. It would be easy to babble something stupid, maybe even make things worse while she was trying to make things better.
Silence stretched between them.
“What’s it like in the city?” he asked, finally.
“Have you ever been to Tokyo?”
“Never. I lived in Nanto for a while.” Nanto was the nearest city to the village, actually a conglomeration of seven villages that had merged after their populations dropped. It wasn’t much of a city. It was hard to imagine that anyone could live in Japan without seeing Tokyo, but she supposed it would be a long, inconvenient trip from this deep in the mountains. And he had his grandmother to care for.
“Did you like it?”
“Hated it,” he answered quickly. She stayed silent, waiting to see if he’d continue. “There’s no high school in the village. I went to the high school in Nanto, and it was so far I had to live in a dormitory.”
“Must have been hard being so far from home at that age.”
“I’m not good with people. I don’t like to leave the village.” He wouldn’t look at her, just stared at his enormous hands in his lap.
“Don’t you get lonely here?” she asked. “If there really aren’t any other young people?”
“There used to be other people my age. They all left. Nothing here for them.”
“If I leave, there’s no one to take care of Gran. Or fix things. Or help out the old-timers.”
“But how are you going to find a Mrs. Kiyama?” she asked. Stupid, again. Her preparation for fieldwork hadn’t taught her how to stop asking stupid questions.
“Last year, Gran learned that there are agencies that can send you a wife from the Philippines over the internet. Now every time she sees me on the computer she badgers me about ordering a pretty wife.”
“Are you considering it?”
He shot her a dour look out of the corner of his eyes. Apparently not.
It was several minutes before he spoke again, and then all he said was: “I won’t pass it on.” Without a goodbye, he stood and stalked back off into the house.
It was so dark in the mountains, a pressing kind of darkness unimaginable in Tokyo. Hitomi clutched her phone, stared at the circle of light it cast at her feet.
Kozuna, the ogre’s child, was terrified that he couldn’t control himself, that one day he would find himself eating human flesh and he wouldn’t be able to stop… She shivered. It was as if Tatsuya really believed it.
I don’t like to leave the village, he’d said. I’m not good with people. As if what he meant was: I don’t trust myself around them. It’s not safe for me out there. They’re not safe around me.
That night, Hitomi had three texts from her mother, but she didn’t text back, not even to tell her about the magnificent tofu she’d eaten.
Back in the Meiji period, a prominent philosopher, Inoue Enryō, had attempted to convince the backwards nineteenth century populace that the supernatural wasn’t real, that ghosts and kappa and ogres were just stories. It had always amazed Hitomi that this had been a real scholarly endeavor, that fairy tales had once been so deeply rooted that anyone had to do what Inoue Enryō did.
But here was a twenty-first century man who believed absolutely in the existence of ogres. No—who believed that he himself was an ogre. It was outrageous, and still…
Hitomi noticed with some distress that there was no lock on the inside of her guestroom door.
She felt a tickling on the back of her neck and reached back to rub it. When she pulled her palm back, there was a smear of blood on it. She had to swallow a scream—it had just been a mosquito. She’d crushed it with her hand, without meaning to.
She was losing it. Ever since they had left that tunnel, nothing had been normal. She had to get back to Tokyo, where the laws of physics still operated, where the night wasn’t as black.
In the morning, there were fresh pancakes waiting on the breakfast table for her and Professor Ueda. No sign of Tatsuya or Grandmother.
“What did you think of that story, Professor Ueda?” Hitomi asked.
“The origin of the family name. Do you think it’s true?”
He chuckled warmly. “The mountain air is working its magic on you, Sasaki.”
“I don’t mean the part about the ogre—but is there any historical truth to it, do you think?”
Professor Ueda swirled his spoon in his coffee cup thoughtfully. “In villages like this, many of the local legends and stories are tied to historical fact. I know of some cases where local folklore has been corroborated through temple records. But all this story implies is—well, a single mother. A woman, a disappearance, a baby with no father. I suspect that sort of thing was just as common in premodern times as it is today.”
It sounded so sane when Professor Ueda described it. He had probably encountered similar stories before; he’d done fieldwork in places much more remote than this. It was only her inexperience that was spooking her.
The night before, she’d dreamed that she was in the woods, and there was something invisible in the dark taking great big juicy bites out of her…
“I’d like to take the car today,” Professor Ueda added, cutting a neat wedge out of a pancake. “There’s a museum in Nanto I’d like to visit. You’re welcome to come along if you want, but it’s unrelated to your thesis project, so I’d encourage you to stay in the village.”
“I’ll keep exploring,” Hitomi agreed. She wondered if he was leaving her alone in the village on purpose. In all his stories about the adventures of his younger days, he had been out on the mountains and islands by himself. Perhaps that was an important part of fieldwork: encountering the unknown by yourself without backup.
She stood outside the house and waved goodbye to Professor Ueda as he drove away. He was susceptible to a certain amount of fawning from his students, and it was only polite, after all.
Once the car disappeared, she stood on the stepping stone outside the front door and pondered. She had the day to do what she pleased. Grandmother wouldn’t tell any more stories until sunset. She could have gone out into the village again, tried to find another villager to chat with.
But that seemed silly after what had happened last night. There was only one piece of context that really mattered after that.
Tatsuya was half underneath the combine, scowling at it while he worked.
Hitomi found a metal bucket and turned it over to make a stool, taking out her phone and her notebook. “Care to help me transcribe? Will that interfere with your work?”
They spent the morning working their way through Grandmother’s recordings. Hitomi was careful not to play the one about the Kiyama family name. He translated from dialect to standard Japanese for her, explaining the local words for moss or mushroom. As long as she didn’t say the word ‘ogre,’ he seemed happy enough to help.
“This must be different than working in finance,” Tatsuya observed. “Are you happy, now that you left your old job? Is this what you like to do?”
“Honestly, on my worst days, I feel like the world’s biggest loser.”
He grunted disapprovingly.
“But it’s true! Just last year, I had everything someone in my position could expect to have. A good job. A husband with a good job. A nice apartment. And I just set it all on fire.”
“You were married?”
She nodded. “Three years. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We got along so well back in college, back when we were just dating. But once we got married and moved in together, it got… well, it was like I stopped being Hitomi and started just being a wife, to him. He wouldn’t wash a dish or fold a shirt. Forget cooking or ironing. And I was working just as many hours as he was! It was just—you know, I never wanted to be a divorcée. But the divorce was the best decision I ever made.”
She didn’t know why she was telling him this. But he nodded seriously as he listened.
“So anyway, by any objective measure, I’m a loser. I’m thirty, already divorced, unemployed, living with my parents, spending a fortune on a degree I can’t use for anything. But—” She shook her head. “But on the good days, I feel like—I don’t know, like an adventurer. Like Momotarō.” That was an unfortunate choice of folktale; Momotarō was famous for slaying ogres. “Like I just got into my little rowboat and paddled out into the open sea. And I left behind everything that was safe and stable on dry land, and I don’t know where I’m going… but I’m totally free. And I’m kind of proud of myself for being so brave. Does that make sense?”
“It’s not easy to leave things behind,” he murmured. “I think the second version of your life story is better.”
Tatsuya took a break from his repairs to cook lunch. He delivered a tray of soup and rice porridge to his grandmother, then returned to the kitchen.
“I could keep working on the combine, but there’s no hurry.” He hung his yellow apron on a hook. “It’s hot today. It’ll be cooler in the woods. We could go pick mushrooms.”
“You know how to pick wild mushrooms?”
“Sure. Gran taught me.”
In the entryway, Tatsuya paused by the door and pulled out a pair of clumsily handmade bracelets, colorful string and little bells.
“To warn off bears,” he explained, and handed her one to wear. He was careful to drop it into her outstretched palm, as if he were avoiding any chance of accidental touch.
He led her up past the house and the garden, up the mountain’s slope through the trees. It wasn’t long before any trace of the village disappeared behind them. Hitomi realized she had become hopelessly lost within just minutes; she wouldn’t have had an easy time finding the house again.
“There’s no path,” she pointed out.
“Not enough people come up here to wear a path. It’s fine. I know the way.”
“You come up here a lot? By yourself?”
“Free food all over the forest if you know how to look. Plus, it’s quiet.”
Sunlight filtered through the leaves overhead, then dimmed as the trees closed in around them. The forest was thick, and it was difficult for Hitomi to walk through the undergrowth. She regretted not changing into jeans and sneakers. Tatsuya, despite his size, slipped through gaps in the trees as if they were made for him, while she was stumbling and getting her skirt stuck on prickers. He noticed her trouble and started making sure he cleared a path for her, holding branches out of her way and warning her of logs or rocks underfoot.
“I’ve never been anywhere like this,” she admitted. “I’ve been in the woods before, but… not like this. This isn’t like Yoyogi Park. It feels like—like the woods aren’t used to having humans in them. As if when I passed through that tunnel, I entered another world entirely.”
“Like an alternate universe.”
“I like sci fi,” he offered. “Old stuff. I like anything with outer space.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed that.” There were little things about him that were oddly charming: his affection for the cat, his housewifely yellow apron, his handmade bear bracelets, his sci fi fandom. If he hadn’t had an ogre’s face, an ogre’s body, an ogre’s name, he would have been almost sweet.
They walked for what must have been an hour. She didn’t want to check the time on her phone, didn’t want to allow reality to intrude.
Although Tatsuya was carrying a basket, he didn’t often stop to inspect mushrooms. Mostly he just walked in silence. His silence, or his clumsy, abrupt attempts at conversation seemed less awkward in the woods. It let her hear the birdsong. Occasionally he pointed to trees or birds or flowers and named them for her. She’d never heard the names before, but she wasn’t sure if that was because of her general ignorance, or if he was speaking in dialect.
He stopped at the base of a broad tree and pointed to a cluster of squat mushrooms. “These are edible. Do you see how the ridges here…” He paused and looked up. There were little tapping noises all around them: raindrops on leaves.
“I guess I should have checked the forecast,” Hitomi said.
“Sky looked clear when we started,” he frowned. “Better head back.”
Abandoning the unpicked mushrooms, Tatsuya headed back down through the trees. Even without a path, he seemed to know exactly where he was going. He was so much faster moving through the thick forest that he often had to stand and wait for her.
“How much longer until we reach the village?” she asked. A fat raindrop plopped onto the tip of her nose.
“It’s an hour’s walk at a good pace. There’ll be mud; you’ll have to take it slower going downhill.” He scowled up at the sky. Even through the leaves, she could make out the dark shapes of gathering clouds. “Better hurry.”
Hitomi followed him downhill. The rain was starting in earnest, and it was a struggle to keep pace without losing her balance on the wet leaves, the newly slick ground. She kept having to wipe the water out of her eyes, and then she took one wrong step—she lost her balance and came down hard on her left knee.
Tatsuya turned back, as if to help her up, then recoiled. Hitomi was suddenly aware that blood was welling up out of her scraped knee. She tried to wipe it clean, but only succeeded in smearing dirt and blood all down her shin.
“Rain’s only going to get worse,” he announced, staring off into the distance. As if he were afraid even to look. “We’d better wait it out.”
Hitomi couldn’t imagine where they could shelter from the rain; there were no paths, no shelters, and the rain cut through even the thick trees. But his eyes were sharper, more accustomed to the woods, and he pointed to a rock formation not far away.
They were close to the naked mountainside, she realized, where the rocks formed a natural overhang that would keep off some of the rain. The rain pattered down harder, and by the time they made it to the overhang, it was pouring. Hitomi pressed herself back against the cool rock and shivered. Her skirt was soaked through, clinging wetly to her thighs, her scraped knee.
“Good idea,” she whispered to him. “I wouldn’t have liked walking for an hour in this.”
It rained and rained. Tatsuya sat at the base of the rocks, his eyes closed. He looked utterly natural there, like a boulder that had just come loose from the mountain.
Hitomi poked around the cliffside, making sure to stay under the overhang. Water was pouring down like a curtain from the edge of the cliff, so she only had a narrow strip of dryish earth to explore. She took photos of the dripping wildflowers, the sodden moss, and the slick rocks. The flash of her camera shone off the cliff in an unexpected way.
“Hey, look at this.” She tossed a pebble at Tatsuya to make him open his eyes. “I think there’s a cave here.”
“Look. There’s an opening in the rocks.” It wasn’t easy to spot, but there was a break in the mountainside, a spot that curved inwards. She tried to aim her phone inside, but it only illuminated a few feet.
She expected him to warn her about wild animals living in the cave, or something like that. Certainly he knew more about the forest and what was safe and dangerous than she did. But he didn’t say anything at all, just walked up to the entrance of the cave and squinted at the inky blackness inside.
“It would be drier in there,” she pointed out.
He didn’t seem to hear her. He drifted inside the cave without looking back.
She followed, turning on her phone’s flashlight. She swung the beam around the cave as she entered. It went back farther than she’d expected. It was surprisingly spacious inside, and pleasantly dry. Musty and dark, yes, but not smelly or dirty like she’d imagined an animal’s den would be.
Tatsuya kept walking, moving forward blindly without a light until he stumbled on something.
“Careful!” She shone her phone at the ground by his feet.
There was a ring of stones there arranged in a neat circle. Precise and even, except where Tatsuya had kicked one of the stones. Definitely not the work of a bear.
“What is that?” She bent down, focusing on the ring of stones. The center was black and full of smeary ashes. “Is that a firepit?” She swung her phone around eagerly, and she caught sight of what might be other signs of human habitation. A heap of moldering wood. What looked for all the world like a rusty metal knife blade, although she didn’t dare to touch it. “Did someone live here?”
Tatsuya hadn’t spoken, she realized, since they’d discovered the cave.
“Someone lived here,” he agreed. His voice was like the rusty creak of an old gate. “An ogre lived here.”
“Can’t you tell? Can’t you feel it?” he insisted.
It was like there was an unreality field around him, distorting what she knew to be true, replacing it with this shared delusion. He believed it. Grandmother believed it.
Inoue Enryō had been wrong, she thought. The mosquito bite at the base of her neck itched. Her wet skirt clung to her legs. She was suddenly aware that there was still blood welling up from her scraped knee. Ogres chewing on girl’s naked thighs…
There was a broad flat rock beside the firepit. Tatsuya sat heavily on it and rested his elbows on his knees. He looked steadily up at her—looking straight at her for the first time.
“Let’s go back outside,” she suggested.
He didn’t move, didn’t speak. The sheer immovable weight of him compressed her chest, made it hard for her to breathe. He was going to stay here, she realized. He was going to stay in the cave. Because he believed it was where he belonged.
Hitomi knelt on the hard floor of the cave, on the other side of the firepit from Tatsuya. Where there would have been a fire, long ago. She set her phone on the ground between them, the weak blue light from its screen barely illuminating his inscrutable ogre’s face.
This wasn’t what she was supposed to be doing in her fieldwork. She was supposed to listen and observe and analyze. Certainly not to intervene, to try to change the village or the people in it.
“I’m going to tell you a different story,” she began. “Do you want to hear it?”
He nodded very slightly.
Long, long ago, in the Edo period or maybe earlier, in this village, in your family, there was a young woman who lived with her mother and father. She wanted to make things a little easier on her parents, so she would often go up into the mountains to gather brushwood to sell in the village.
Many people lived on mountains, back in those days. There were the villagers with their farms or their shops, of course. But deeper in the mountains, there were all sorts of other people. Travelers. Hermits. And hunters.
One day, while the young woman was gathering brushwood, she came upon a hunter. She was terrified of him at first. He was a huge man who didn’t cut his hair or his beard. He wasn’t like any of the men she knew from the village. And she was afraid of his arrows and knives.
But he spoke gently to her, even though he was such a big, wild man. And so the young woman started to look forward to seeing the hunter in the woods. They would share food together; he would give her bits of the meat he caught, and she would bring him little delicacies from the village, whatever she could spare.
Sometimes he even let her visit him in the cave where he lived. He was embarrassed, because he knew it wouldn’t compare to her home in the village, but she was happy there. Because she could be alone with him.
She never told her parents about him. He wasn’t the sort of man she was supposed to be seeing. She was the village beauty, and she knew she was supposed to marry a village boy. Not the hunter, who came down from the mountain once in a while to sell his catch, but belonged outside the village.
And one day, the young woman decided to stay on the mountain with the hunter. The villagers would never accept him as her husband, so she had no other choice. So, for a time, they lived together in his cave in perfect happiness as man and wife.
They might have spent their whole lives on the mountain together, but before too long, the young woman was with child. Although she was delighted to carry the hunter’s child, she realized that she could not raise a child alone in the hunter’s cave. Her baby would be better off in the village, with a roof over its head, and its grandparents and neighbors to help care for it. So she reluctantly parted from her husband and returned to the village to give birth.
The young woman gave birth to a son who grew up to be just as strong and bold as his father, the hunter. She was always wonderfully proud of him, but he was different from all the other children in the village. And because he was different, and his children were different, and his children’s children were different, the villagers began to make up stories about the family. The same way we make up stories about anyone who is different.
The young woman never told her story to anyone, not even her son, so it was forgotten, and the villagers’ lie was remembered instead. But you and I know the truth.
Hitomi wasn’t an experienced storyteller like Grandmother. But she had practice, at least, in retelling her own story. And she had tried her best.
“You just made that up,” Tatsuya pointed out. His eyes shone in the dark.
“Your grandmother isn’t the only one who can tell stories. You can have your own story, too. Especially about yourself.”
Hitomi understood, finally, why she had chosen a degree in folklore. Not just because it was deliciously impractical, but to study the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It was just what she had needed at a time when she had to rewrite herself. And no one needed a different story more desperately than Tatsuya.
He sat without speaking for a long time, but she could wait. She felt the ringing silence of the cave, the great weight of the mountain above and around them. Her injured knee throbbed, her legs cramped, and her phone ran out of battery.
“You could come to Tokyo one day,” she said. Her voice echoed strangely in the cave. “I’d show you around. It’s full of people, and you might hate it… but sometimes it’s good to experience something new.”
“Maybe,” he conceded roughly. “One day.” She tried to imagine him in Tokyo, hunching to fit through the train doors on the Yamanote line, towering above the press of people in the Shibuya scramble… It wasn’t impossible.
The muffled sound of raindrops from outside the cave slowed. Hitomi stood, her legs shaking from kneeling on the floor of the cave, and peeked outside. The light hurt her eyes.
“The rain has stopped. Do you want to go home?” she asked. Standing there in the mouth of the cave, she offered him her hand and held her breath.
The massive shadow of Tatsuya was unmoving inside the dark cave. She couldn’t see his face, couldn’t tell what he was thinking. The light from outside barely filtered through the narrow entrance of the cave, cast weird shadows behind him. For a moment his form blurred; she saw his red face, his horns, his cruel fangs. But then they were gone.
When he stood, he was a person like anyone else: huge and ugly and gentle and human.
Tatsuya grabbed her hand and let her pull him out of the cave.