It was Auntie's vegetal smell that made me think of it: we could boil her. That's how to ruin vegetables, right? Boil the life out of them, and you never want to take another bite.
That's what I say, quietly, to my brother when he stumbles back into our room, feeling along the wall until he reaches his sleeping mat.
“Haru, did you hear me? We can do this. Tomorrow, even.”
He doesn't answer. Instead, he sinks on the mat, facing away from me. His legs have gotten so long from Auntie's regimented meals they fold up like a grasshopper's. I've grown out too, just in other ways, and I'd rather not share a room.
I listen for the telltale sounds of Auntie's ablutions in the attached bathhouse. Whenever there's blood involved, she drops hot stones into the tub, followed by dried dokudami, large-fruited adlay, mulberry, and shiso. With the strange minty-fishy smell of the bathwater and the smoke that permeates everything in this house, it took me weeks to figure out the underlying scent of Auntie herself. Once I recognized it, however, my plan came together neatly. Really, I'm the one who's always thinking, even though it's Haru who's being groomed as the hero.
Male enemy, male savior. So Mother says.
Haru curls into a tight ball, and then I see his left cheek. Fresh cuts. Three this time. One from the top of the cheekbone, another from the middle of his forehead, and the third from the outer corner of his eye. All the lines converge at his temple. He looks like he's crying blood the wrong way—upward, like smoke drawn to sky.
He starts shaking, so I take my bag of feathers and move to his sleeping mat. I get lucky and find a flight feather that's mostly intact. From the length, it's a sparrowhawk's. I breathe in, imagining frosty winter air. As I smooth the feather, my fingertips tingle, and the barbules reweave, tight and clean. I've noticed that happening lately—the tingling, the connection, the memory. When I finish, the feather feels perfect. I reach over and tap Haru, but his back just stiffens.
“Get away, Miu.” He sounds growly and fierce, like a tiger. His voice has deepened over the past year so that, at times, I catch a note of our father in it.
“Come on. I have a feather.”
He doesn't move, but his shoulders ease enough that I'm able to roll him on his back. Auntie cut deep this time. The smell of feathered smoke clings to him. She must have dosed him several times. Quickly, before he can lash out at me, I lay the feather across the cuts and chant the refrain Auntie uses for the worst cases:
Long ago, we forgot.
But feathered, we remember.
we slip this world and fly.
Usually, when a family summons Auntie, it's for one reason alone. To administer the killing dose, she slashes neck, arms, and chest, delivering the drug by smoke and feather through the cuts. As the body is carried out, Auntie sighs, “Poor soul.” Then she briskly collects payment. Sometimes coin, but more often labor: little boys to chop wood for her fire. Little girls to cook and sweep and pluck. (“Skinny girly fingers,” Auntie cackles, “no other use for them.”) The loaned children spend weeks keeping her house in the woods pristine. A paradise. A prison.
Haru and I are different. Though everyone calls her “Auntie” (that is the name we use for witches), our mother is Auntie's real sister. I remember when Auntie first saw Haru, a young, intact version of Father. She'd stared at him and gone pale.
“Katsu?” she'd said.
“Auntie.” My brother had bowed and pressed her hand to his forehead, not hearing the name she'd used. “Our mother sent us.” As he launched into an explanation of how and why we'd come, she ushered us in, sat us at the table, fed us eggs, rice, fish—things filling and well salted. I ate and ate and let Haru do the talking. All useless words. I knew already she would take us in. Mother had told me what Auntie had felt for our father. As I said, Haru and I are different. We're not here to pay a debt. We're here to pay with our lives—Haru as a weapon, I as a witch.
I watch until Haru's cheek ceases twitching. His eyes close, and his mouth falls slack. Even in the grip of the drug, even with half his face cut—he is beautiful. Thick black hair, a fine, pinched nose, strong jaw, pearl-white teeth. I sing Auntie's words one more time to send him deeper. But when I sing them, I'm thinking not of my brother, but of the birds. The hundreds of birds who've died to yield their feathers and a drop or two of blood.
The essential ingredients of fentun.
Nearly all families partake. And who would blame them? Winters are cold here. When there's not enough food in the belly, not enough wood for the fire, not enough hope to tuck into, there's nothing like the smoke of fentun settling like a blanket over a family, keeping all warm and tight.
Yes, the price. Nine times that of saké. But still, the bargain when you consider drink just gets in your way, slurring your speech and fuddling your hands and feet. At least, fentun gives you whatever you need at the moment: strength to perform the work of two men; focus to stitch a bride's trousseau; repose to counter illness, injury, or weariness.
With Haru asleep, I empty the contents of the bag on the mat and begin sorting, first by species and then by function: flight feathers, contouring plumage, insulating down. I place them in piles, lay them like cards of fortune on my lap and across my brother's legs and chest.
I unfocus my eyes, as Auntie trained me to do, until the bed becomes a patchwork of gray and brown, white and rust. Choosing feathers for fentun bundles is not an exact art. Sometimes, a combination is too heavy, making the smoker lethargic and stupid. Sometimes, it's too heady. Then it interrupts the pulse or fries the brain. There is no recipe, says Auntie, as she shows me how to stack the feathers. Reserving the longest one, she breaks the shaft along its length and twists it about the bundle. Once it's bound, she dips a finger into a pot of blood—taken from a dozen different birds—and seals the loose ends. If the bundle is well crafted, then the smoker inhales pure energy, true euphoria.
It's magic. Old magic. Blood magic.
The kind that demands sacrifices. In every village, every family, someone goes rabid from fentun addiction. Not all at once—not usually. Most people tolerate years, even decades of use, before the body collapses, worn out from the fraud of conjured energy. It's when fentun warps the spirit that monsters emerge. Monsters that must be defeated by counter-monsters.
Beside me, Haru whimpers in his sleep. Gently, I lift the feather from his cuts. They've already closed. All that's left of the bright red slashes are precise pink lines. I shudder with amazement and not a little fear. How much of this was Auntie's skill? How much my own? It had taken Haru's first cuts three weeks to heal. He'd gripped my hand, holding back the tears that would have stung with their saltiness. It was I who wept and wept.
By the light of the oil lamp, I study the pattern of cuts on the left side of his face. The thickest line encircles his eye, making it appear large, wide-awake, and staring—even when closed. The three new lines, though not as thick, sweep upward, forming a tuft-like ear. It's a wild face. The face of a hunter, the face of a raptor.
I start trembling from my winter memory, so I return to the work of bundling. That's where my hands are slow but sure. In this way, I'm like my mother. At the loom, she weaves only a few inches a day, nowhere near the lengths produced by other women. But Mother's weaving is so complex and her dyes so rich that her work is breathtaking, fit to clothe the emperor. She climbs the ladder to our attic three or four times a day to feed the young silkworms. Only the tenderest of mulberry leaves will do. She fusses over them, fretting as they shed their skins. She tucks them into covered baskets when their time for cocooning comes. In the dark, they spin their silk—a single, continuous filament, nearly a mile long—looping the thread about their bodies over and over in a figure-eight pattern. Tiny ardent lives, aching for transformation.
Then Mother sings them to their deaths, slipping the precious cocoons into boiling water, the notes of her song quavering. It takes her days to smile again, after the harvesting. She spends her happiest moments in the attic. Maybe that's why she didn't notice my father noticing me, at least not right away. When she sent us off to Auntie's, it wasn't just to protect me. It was to preserve it all: the ritual of ascent and care, the cycle of death and art.
I'm finishing the last bundle when I notice Haru watching me. He takes the bundle from my hand before the blood seal dries so that mulberries stain our fingertips. In the lamplight, our eyes meet. I nod when he whispers a single word.
I haven't told Haru what happened during the winter.
It was the day Auntie said she would carve the “eye” on Haru, and this cutting would be the worst. She sent me to gather more firewood, for the fire needed to be extra hot. For your bath, I thought resentfully, but I went out into the cold as she ordered. It took a long time to find even an armful of branches. Wherever I went, the snow lay thick and sullen, the forest refusing to yield anything.
When I returned, the main room was filled with smoke. Ordinary smoke from the irori. Haru lay moaning on the floor beside the sunken hearth, one leg dangling over the stone barrier, dangerously close to the fire in the sandy pit. Auntie was nowhere to be seen.
Haru was burning hot. “Fentun.”
I nodded, but when I crossed to the apothecary chest, it was empty. One hundred drawers and not one single bundle. Wildly, I searched the house, going through even the bath and Auntie's room. Nothing. Not even a sack of feathers to start a new bundle.
As I waited for Auntie, I dabbed at the blood pooling in Haru's ear and laid cool cloths across his neck. From time to time, my brother uttered ugly, ugly words about Auntie, about me. I waited an hour, maybe even two before realizing Auntie was not coming back. At least, not in time.
Despite the fire, the room had gotten frigid. I could only imagine what it was like outside. I pulled on heavy stockings, two pairs of trousers, both my kimonos, my overcoat, and my brother's. Then I stuffed straw into my clogs and wrapped a length of cloth several times about my head.
I set off in the nearest hut’s direction, less than one mile away. I knew the couple who lived in the hut: a crude man and his shrewd wife. Their fentun’s quality would be poor. I had no money to pay them, but I was the witch's apprentice, and maybe that fact would go far. If necessary, I would steal.
In the earliest days, only the most powerful witches smoked fentun. Anyone else would have burned up, for the first bundles came only from the Ghost Owl. Legend says he mutilated himself: ripping the feathers from his body and piercing his flesh to draw the requisite blood. It took months to recover—both the owl and his conduit—but the forest thrived, which meant its inhabitants did as well.
Then came the mania for salmonwood. Already rare, taking one hundred years to reach maturity, its wood was so sacred it was only used for temples, many of which still stand. Grandfather called salmonwood a sawyer's dream, for the wood mills straight and true. It resists warping, rot, and fire. When cut, the rich striated planks weather to a soft salmon color, hence its name.
When he was a boy, Grandfather once traveled to the prefecture’s main temple. The setting sun laid a dazzling path across the lake, and the trees, in autumnal red and gold, framed the horizon. The feel of frost hung in the air. There was the temple—perched on the lake's edge, the sunset brilliant upon its coral sheath, so like a living fire upon the dark, still water. He was nine, but my grandfather knelt. Submission. Revelation.
People ought to understand. Such things are not matters of trade.
Midway to the couple’s hut, I stepped into an unfamiliar clearing, lined by tall spruce and fir, their granite shades blending with the early night. One tree towered above them all.
The salmonwood is an elusive tree. Sometimes, it looks like a commonplace pine. Other times, it’s fantastical. It can sport jeweled leaves or crack its limbs like thunder or wade through a river like a sylvan fisher. There’s only one way to discern a salmonwood, said Grandfather. Look for the Ghost Owl.
Something was perched in the tree.
Ghost owl, eagle owl, frost owl, escort owl. We wood folk have many names for the bird. We indulge in our superstitions, it's true. But everyone believes this: the Ghost Owl guards the forest, and when he appears, it's to take you out of it.
Something giant and grim winged toward me. I didn't even have time to flinch before it was upon me, seizing my shoulders in its talons and slashing Haru's overcoat. Wings beat at my head covering, ripping it from my face and neck. Beak and claws tore at my garments. The assault continued until all my clothes lay in shreds on the snow. Even my clogs had somehow been thrown off.
I fell to my knees, naked—but not cold.
The Ghost Owl was before me, our eyes level. He was tawny with charcoal streaks. Two pointed tufts framed his face. A strip of my kimono still hung from his hooked beak. We stared at one another, yellow eyes to black ones, long and longing.
And here is why I haven't told Haru. When you gaze into the heart of the forest, you never want anything else.
How long we remained that way, I can’t recall. I don’t remember how I made it back or when I got clothed or what I said to Auntie. I remember only the feather clutched in my hand. Potent enough to heal Haru and poison enough to haunt me. Often, I wonder whether I truly returned. Perhaps the real me is still there, kneeling in the clearing, with the crown of the salmonwood rising above me and the ghost of a bird keeping me warm.
A girl's face and form, if fair, can be a curse. Had I been ugly or plain, would I have stirred up such feelings in those around me? How many times have I wanted my own face cut! What power, what relief to wreck the thing desired!
That's what I'm thinking when Auntie slides open the screen to our room and hisses at me to get breakfast. She doesn't wake Haru. While we eat, she studies me, her anger and malice like a white-hot fist. She reaches with her chopsticks and nabs a piece of fish from my bowl. I almost drop my food. Her hand is stained with blood.
A terrible thought comes to me. She didn’t bathe last night. Wearing Haru’s blood, the blood of a victim, is a tidy witch’s trick. It’s not just a scare tactic, a reminder of violence done. It’s protection. If she bound the blood to her skin, then she can still be harmed, but her victim suffers whatever she suffers. My stomach lurches. Did Auntie overhear me last night?
“You're getting fat,” she says. “And lazy. I want you to scrub out the bath. Fill it with fresh water. Then get it nice and hot for me.”
Yes, she'd heard.
The bathhouse is dark. I open the screen doors to let in light and fresh air, but the space still feels wrong, unsettled. In the center of the room is the rectangular bath, perfectly crafted and unusually large. A third of it is below the floor planks to make it easier for the bather to climb in. It's completely empty.
I kneel at its edge and begin scrubbing the interior with a damp rag. I rub methodically, following the grain of the wood until it gleams, soft coral and warm umber. Salmonwood. Of course, I’d known for months what it was. That Auntie was wealthy enough, profane enough to use it for her private bath was harder for me to grasp. Something cold and hard lives at her core. I wonder—are people born or made that way?
If I'm being honest, sometimes even Haru makes me wonder. The things he'd say to Father: “Let me take care of that,” with a trace of derision. Or the things he'd accept from my mother: money, praise, blind trust. Most of all, the things he believes about himself. That he'll always prevail. That only he loves me.
Twinned at birth, and yet, we're somehow strangers.
There are no loaned children today to help me lug water from the well. I haul two buckets at a time, filled two-thirds, so I won't spill a drop. Everything is quiet and still. I'm scared because I don't know where Auntie has gone. When I've nearly filled the tub, I realize I haven't yet heated the stones. I return to the main room and push several large stones into the flames of the irori.
“Oh, I'll be needing more stones than that. At least another dozen.”
I nearly jump out of my skin. Auntie is right behind me. She smiles, almost purrs. “Today's bath is special.”
I don't need to tell her the water will boil with that many stones. That's what she wants. And—at my core—that's what I want, too.
I only hope boiling water will be enough. When I calculate the odds, they're not in our favor. One: decades of controlled exposure to fentun has toughened her. Two: as a witch, she's not entirely human. Three: there's the matter of Haru.
He hasn't awakened yet. I stand at the entrance to our room and stare at his sleeping beauty, taking in both the perfection and the scars. Then I go to him. I empty the three bags of fentun over his bed and begin arranging the bundles on his face and body. The pattern comes instinctively to me, like a silkworm's spinneret in pure, natural motion. In my mind's eye, I see the threads of our lives crossing and re-crossing, weaving us tight—our blood, once commingled in the womb, wild at the reunion.
When he's covered, I return to the task of filling the tub. The water is cool from the well, and as it’s poured from my buckets, it’s the only sound in the world. Then I don heavy mitts and drop in the stones. One by one, they sizzle at the surface and send up steam. Soon, the water's roiling, and my work is done.
I’m struck by the calmness of the moment. My heart is thudding, but it’s not exactly fear. More like waiting.
When the shove at my back comes, I can almost hear my mother’s song echoing in some distant attic, and I'm aching to submit, but then I remember—just in time—to reach behind me, take hold of her arm, and pull her into the water's burning embrace with me.
It's said that at their public execution, the thief Ishikawa Goemon held his infant son aloft, safe out of the boiling water, until the crowd began to fidget, to regret. Awed by his determination, they clamored for the lord's pardon. The son was saved, the father succumbed. But I held Auntie down until I was sure there would be no reprieve.
Our shared pain was beyond anything I could have imagined. If you store up a lifetime's worth of savage agony, then multiply it a thousandfold, perhaps that begins to describe what it felt like, to have my skin bubbling, my nerves flaring, my body bucking at the trauma. I opened my mouth to scream, and liquid fire poured down my throat, searing its tender lining. My eyelids fused to my eyes. My ears and the tip of my nose melted.
Before I blacked out, Haru pulled me out of the bath. I wished he hadn't.
“Miu, Miu,” he said. “Why did you do it? Why didn't you wait for me?”
He wrapped me from head to toe with clean linen. Whenever I surfaced into consciousness, he delivered reports: “I buried Auntie by the outhouse.” “I sent the loaned children away.” “I sold some fentun for our journey home.” He trickled water down my throat, and once, he tried to change my wrappings. The shock of it nearly killed me. As my body arched in protest, he said, a tinge sullen, “Okay, okay, I was just trying to help.”
From then on, he left me untouched.
Fever burned through me, erasing boundaries of time and distance. I saw my father in the throes of fentun ecstasy, smashing lanterns in the street. I heard my mother whispering her plan as Haru and I huddled by the fire. “I'll send you to Auntie, and she'll make you Karura, half-bird, half-man. Powerful and righteous. When you come back, you'll rid our home of this scourge. This disease that calls himself a father, a husband. You'll do the same for others. You'll be a hero.”
“What about me, Mother?”
“You will help Haru. Any way you can.” She stroked my hair, but her eyes remained on my brother.
Through the agony, did it comfort me to know I had done that—helped Haru any way I could? I had gambled that my blood would suffice, that my body would be accepted in exchange. Old magic. Blood magic. Had I known the cost, would I have done it again?
Do we dare answer such questions?
In my wrappings—how comforting they felt!—I drifted through other visions, fractured yet familiar. Yellow eyes glowing in the night. Talons closing upon a little life. The ghost waiting, watching for another. . . .
Haru kept a fentun bundle smoking by my bed. “To help you,” he said. He didn't like looking at me. I could sense it. He would ask, “How is it today?” And I would nod. Then he'd wave the fentun over my body and hurry off. Eventually, he came by less and less, and when he did, spoke more and more of home. In the long stretches of silence, I waited. Something elemental was happening deep inside me.
One day, he announced he was leaving. “I have to make this all worthwhile, Miu. I have to make what happened to us here mean something.”
“I'm taking the fentun, all right?”
I nodded again.
“Do you need anything?”
I did, but how could I convey it? He didn't bother to close the sliding doors behind him. I was grateful for that, at least. I had much to do.
Beginning is hard, even when it's to bring matters to an end. After Haru left, I fell into a deep sleep. This I wrapped tightly around me. After all, what was to come would be either dream or nightmare.
After some time, since I had no sense of sight or touch remaining, I latched on to sound to get my bearings. Off to my right, I could hear crickets chirping through the open window. It was dusk. I rolled on my left side, reached and strained, and came off my sleeping mat on my stomach. The impact, though minimal, sent pain, sharp and fiery, shooting through my body. I broke down, guttural half-sobs clogging my throat. I can't do it, I thought. I'll never reach it.
If I hadn't heard the call—a skipping, distant hoo-hoo hoo hooo—I would have given up. But the call came again, beckoning and urgent. I gave a low moan in response. Yes, I knew. Whether I moved or not, my body was already a mass of pain. Better to have what I wanted, ever since that winter encounter.
I came up on my hands and knees and, shaking hard, inched forward. I fought to steady myself. I moved. Another inch, and another. Small, lurching movements across the floor.
At the threshold to the hearth room, my knee dragged something along beneath it. I reached back and caught a whiff of fentun, its smokiness clinging to the cloth in my hand. Had Haru left an entire bag behind? I breathed in, and my pain eased enough to give me hope.
Hope. A boon I hadn't looked for.
Changing course, I struck out for the center of the room. My heart was beating fast, and my bones felt light, airy. The quiet crackling of the fire drew me. It, too, was hope. Periodically, I checked that I still had the bag of feathers. One thing without the other would be useless.
Yet the floor stretched on and on. Suddenly I bumped my head into a wall, and in my surprise, my right arm buckled. I went down hard on my elbow.
Somehow, I'd missed the irori.
As I lay there, hazed by pain and realizing that I'd overreached, I was taken beyond again, to the darkest center of my heart, where I kept the monstrous things that haunted me. If this was the end of me, I would let them go. I would no longer be their keeper.
So I looked, and there was my father, with his glassy eyes, ragged breath, and restless hands. A “disease,” my mother had called him. But she was there too, spinning about herself a cloak of fineness so that we could tell who was the villain and who, the victim, in her stories. Auntie, of course, loomed large. She had fed upon my brother and me until we were hollowed-out shells. How else to explain Haru? My only brother, my beautiful twin. For he was there, too, in that darkest of places.
Is there anything worse than betrayal?
Yes, said something wild in my heart. It is loving that betrayal.
That voice reminded me what to do. I couldn't hear the crackling of the fire in the hearth, so I reached up and tore the cloth from my ears. Pain no longer mattered to me. I caught the sound of a twig falling away from a flame, and I homed in on it. My right arm was useless, so I dragged myself forward, gripping the floor with my left arm and scrabbling with my knees. My wrappings came undone, leaving a bloody trail of my progress.
When I reached the stones lining the irori, I drew a fentun bundle from the bag. Selecting a feather, hoping that it was down, I reached forward . . . and was rewarded with the tiny sound of a spark flaring to life. I offered another feather and another, the flame lapping greedily each time until the bundle was gone and the fire could feed on the more mundane fare of twig and branch.
There was, however, the matter of transporting the fire. Auntie had kept a cast iron kettle suspended above the fire. Was it still there? I came to my knees and waved my hand before me until my fingers brushed its side. I grasped the hook's iron counterweight and slowly lowered the heavy kettle. By sound and instinct, I gathered what I could of the fire and nestled it into the vessel.
Armed now with feathers and fire, I had only to complete the journey. The distance to the bath measured ten or twelve feet, but it might as well have been the entire span of forest between my parents’ home and Auntie’s. I thought of Haru, traveling as well, back in a direction I could never take. Nor would, even if I’d had the choice.
May we both reach our destinations, I prayed.
Somehow, I made it to the bath. I began dropping in the fentun bundles. I lacked the strength to lift the kettle, so with my bare hand, I scooped up a burning branch and dropped it into the tub. Then, with my last reserve of energy, I hooked my left arm over the wooden edge, braced myself, and with an animal cry, heaved my spent body into the bath.
In the stories that follow, some say the girl Miu burned hot and quick in that salmonwood coffin, leaving only ash and bones behind. Other versions say she burns there still, in the witch’s house, haunting the woods for miles around.
But I sing another tale: that when the girl pitched herself on that pyre of feathers, the alchemy of longing and memory wrought something ancient and true from her wrecked form. Thus she slipped this world and flew, a beautiful, grim bird recalled by the ghost in the forest that even now is dwindling in our memories.