Sample chapter from “The Mists of Osorezan”, a supernatural thriller by Zoe Drake.
The last lesson of the day had finished, and the girls were now getting ready for their daily ‘after-school’ activities. Taking out brooms and brushes to clean their own classrooms, getting changed for the sports club activities, or arranging their textbooks for the pre-exam cramming sessions. In David’s schooldays, the end of lessons meant exactly that; the end of lessons. The school emptied. Here in Japan, with lessons on Saturday, sports club tournaments on Sunday, special tests and seminars in summer and winter, school never seemed ended.
Making his way through the clumps of chattering friends blocking the corridor, he walked past the stairs and entered the junior high school wing. The doors to one of the classrooms were open, and the students were busy pinning sketches onto tall display boards, manga pictures in the different stages of being inked and colored. David walked slowly through the classroom, peering at each misshapen creature – stylized, detailed drawings of figures that seemed partly human, partly animal, but all with something fundamentally wrong about them.
A fox standing upright, wearing a kimono. A Japanese woman with her head on the end of a ridiculously long, serpentine neck, a forked tongue poking out from her lips. A man in a priest’s robe and straw hat, one huge eye in the middle of his forehead. A girl in school uniform with long hair falling over a blank, featureless face. A scowling red-faced goblin with a huge phallic nose. Paper lanterns, paper doors, and waxed cloth umbrellas that had grown eyes and had ripped holes for mouths.
It was a tradition carried on year after year. The junior high school students were making a display devoted to the undead for the School Festival. The Japanese were very proud of their ghosts, especially in the summer. David imagined a village back in the Edo period, all of them sweating and trying to relax in the sultry night, and the traveling storytellers summoning bizarre, grotesque creatures for the audience. Tales to chill the listeners at the hottest time of the year.
The word for ghost was Obakemono, which literally meant ‘changing thing’. The kanji for the verb bakeru, to change, was based on the ideogram meaning ‘person’ next to the same ideogram twisted into a different posture. In Japanese ghost stories things and people changed; umbrellas, lanterns, any household object could become poltergeists, foxes could become beautiful girls, that soft-spoken old man you met on the road to the next village could be a corpse-eating ghost…
“Ne, ne, ne – David-sensei!”
He turned. One of the high-school students had entered the room behind him; Maki, from his after-school conversation class. From the other teachers, David knew she had a reputation as one of the bad girls of the school – her shoulder-length hair was tinted brown, her skirt was habitually hitched up above her knees. She always came to his after-school conversation class, though; her English wasn’t bad, but she seemed more interested in gossiping than in the lesson’s subject.
“Japanese ghost,” she said in broken English. “It is very scared, desu sho?”
“You mean, they’re very scary.”
Maki pointed to one of the sketches, her finger crowned with a painted nail. “Do you know Yuki-Onna? Her love is deadly weapon, and her touching will turn you into ice and you will die of cold.”
David moved his face closer to the portrait. It was a woman, her face the same deathly white as her kimono, her mouth and eyes delicate brush stokes in the long, triangular face.
His gaze moved to the paper next to it on the wall. The sketch of another woman, who looked apparently normal – she wore contemporary clothes, but her nose and mouth were covered with a gauze mask, just like the ones the Japanese wore when they were suffering from colds or hay fever.
Maki went through a savage parody of shivering. “She is Kuchisake-Onna, David-sensei, and she is really, really scary.”
“What’s her story?”
“When you are going home, you maybe meet a woman wearing a mask like this one. She will come to you and ask you, Do you think I’m beautiful? Do you think I’m beautiful? Then she takes off her mask, and she has a really wide, ripped mouth.” Maki traced lines on her cheeks, from the corners of her mouth to her ears. “A wide, cut mouth. And teeth like wolf.”
David took a deep breath. The Japanese, he thought, were great at finding ways to scare themselves.
“Maki, why are these ghosts always female?”
The girl shrugged. “What’s most scary thing for an old Japanese man? A woman. A dead woman with magic powers, who wants to do revenge, for how the man treated her.”
He went back to the English department on the second floor and made himself a cup of tea. The staff room was empty; the other teachers were in meetings, or drawing up test papers, or overseeing club activities. He checked the messages on his phone and finished preparing for the next day’s lessons.
Still no messages from Saori, he thought ruefully.
The cup of tea in his hands, he walked to the window and looked out at the sports grounds. About thirty students were below on the parched and faded grass, practicing tennis. “Issatsu!” they each called in singsong voices as they served – “Here’s one!” Small clouds of dust drifted close to the ground, kicked up as their uniform white trainers scuffed the soil.
David lifted his gaze, from the students darting back and forth in their blue track suits, to the line of oak, beech and cherry trees that stood along the fence and blocked out the view of the road outside, and beyond the trees, the deeper green of the wood-covered mountains in the distance. Standing with the cup in his hands, he found it difficult to tear his eyes away. The sound of the crickets outside made the view even more exotic and foreign. Mesmeric, in fact.
When he had learned the kanji character for north, the textbook explained the origin of the ideogram. The shape illustrated a pair of near-identical figures sitting back to back. In the minds of the ancient Japanese, turning your back on someone meant the same as heading in the coldest direction – the direction of north.
Here they were in the north, Tohoku – and the rest of Japan had turned its back upon them. They were stuck here, with their history and their peculiar festivals, their past of triumph and tragedy, and their stories of girls with no faces, girls with ripped mouths, girls whose touch could freeze you to death.
As it was a Tuesday it was his session at the hospital, so he had plenty of time to kill. He decided to go up to the computer room on the third floor and do some more research. As David left the English department and walked to the main staircase, the corridors were still bustling with students coming to and fro.
In the computer room, Takenouchi-sensei was packing away folders in his bag, his plump face looking even more florid that usual. “Ah, David-sensei,” he said, producing a set of keys. “Owatta-ra, kagi o-kakkete-kudasai.”
Looked like Takenouchi-sensei was going home early, because he’d just asked David to look up after himself. “Wakarimashita,” David replied. I understand and agree.
David switched on the aging PC and logged in.
There was the usual mail from Mum; the rainy spell in Brentwood still hadn’t let up. Dad was in the attic, bro was off camping with his mates, little Sis was in Ibiza.
Nothing from his Lisa.
Nothing from Saori, either.
Sighing, he wondered what to do. There’d been nothing to tell him not to go to the Yoshida family’s place tomorrow night; so maybe Saori hadn’t told her parents about what he was doing. Or maybe they were all waiting to confront him tomorrow night, to grill him when he turned up in their lobby? Would a Japanese family do that?
Why did I enroll at the hospital, David asked himself. Was it something so ridiculous? Maybe I should just leave. Tell that guy Nozaki tonight that I’ve had second thoughts and resign from the program. The funny thing was that he actually felt better because of the program; he felt healthier, fitter, and when he woke every morning he felt genuinely refreshed. Also, over the last few nights, he’d been following Nozaki’s guidance, and he was actually remembering his dreams more.
He looked at his watch. It was almost six; time to get moving. He logged out, switched off, and turned out the lights and air-conditioner before locking up with Takenouchi-sensei’s keys.
Picking up his bag from the English department, he started walking along the long, echoing corridor that led to the stairs. As Japan had no Daylight Saving Time, it always got dark at about six o’clock, regardless of the season – something that had thrilled David when he’d first arrived. It seemed so tropical and secretive, the darkness laced with the hot smells of yakitori and katorisenko mosquito repellant, the tinkling of wind chimes outside balconies to make the occupants imagine themselves cooler.
As he reached the last classroom before the staircase, he stopped. The school was usually quiet at this time: only the murmurs of teachers’ voice from the ground floor, or the traffic outside. But this time there was something else. There was a clicking noise, a peculiar clockwork rattle, like someone rattling a stick against metal railings as they walked by.
He turned and looked at window of the nearest classroom. Unlike the others, this room had lights coming from inside – but not electric lights. He peered through the glass. Those flickering orange lights were surely not supposed to be in there. In fact, as he kept looking, there was only one thing they could be…
He put down his bag and slid open the door. A thin, acrid smell of smoke caught at his throat. Beside the teacher’s desk, flames licked upwards from a small metal trashcan. He stepped forward, wondering what to do; it wasn’t a dangerous fire, but the paper inside was burning vigorously. No chance of putting out the fire by stamping it out with his foot.
With a whispered curse, he reached down and picked up the trashcan. It wasn’t as hot as he’d feared. Holding it away from him, he half-ran to the washing area beside the staircase, the long metal sink where the students washed their hands. Dumping the can in the sink, he positioned it beneath one of the taps and turned the flow of water onto maximum. The fire went out fitfully, with a lot of spitting.
“Bloody hell.” He looked at the water-spattered trashcan and the black, sodden mass inside it. Picking it up once more, he walked to the staircase entrance,
“Do shita-n desu ka?” What’s the matter? A uniformed figure stood in the corridor, a bright circle of light in his right hand. Keibin-san. One of the several security guards who patrolled the school day and night. Retired salarymen who’d traded cheap polyester suits for a uniform of a different kind.
David explained what had happened as best he could. The guard stared at the trashcan, mouth open in almost comic surprise. He took the can out of David’s hands, reached inside and gingerly pulled out one of the pieces of card. He held it between finger and thumb, as if trying to avoid staining his fingers, and placed it on the rim of the sink. There was something written on the card. Bold, cursive letters written in hiragana script. Looking closer, David noticed something odd. The letters didn’t seem to form words. Instead, it looked as if someone had just written out the hiragana alphabet in order, using a magic marker.
“Kokkuri-san,” the guard whispered, his eyes wide and staring.
David frowned. He didn’t recognize the word.
“Jya. Kyoutou-sensei tanominai-to,” the guard said, recovering himself. We have to tell the Vice-Principal.
The guard left, taking the stairs down to the first floor, carrying the trashcan with him. David stood looking back at the classroom where the fire had been, feeling faintly troubled. He’d heard of inner city schools in London where the students would start fires, but it was pretty depressing to find it in Japan.
He could still smell the sharp odor of the smoke. But there was something else; something stronger, more pungent. He suddenly realized what it was; the volcanic, rotten-egg reek of sulfur. The sort of odour he’d smelled at hot springs.
The sort of odor he’d smelled everywhere when he’d stayed at Osorezan.
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