The following is an excerpt from “Voice of the Sword”, Book 1 of the YA Fantasy trilogy “Sword, Mirror, Jewel”, based on events and characters from Japanese mythology. To find out more about the trilogy – go here!
I have to write it down. If I record what happened, the story becomes history, something safe, something we can learn from, and above all, something to remind me I’m still alive. The only question is where and when to start. Should it be when Susanoo killed the monster Orochi, at the beginning of time? When They-Who-Are-Hidden-By-The–Flames drew up their plans for the future of Japan? Or should it be with … Hideaki?
Yes, I think it should start with my boyfriend, Hideaki. Or maybe ex-boyfriend. And my name is Reiko, though the kids at school call me Rekijo. The History Girl.
So let’s start the story with Hideaki and I having a not-exactly-hot-date at Yanaka Cemetery, Tokyo.
Yanaka Cemetery has been a strange place for generations. It rests on a hill between Nishi-Nippori station and Ueno Park, a silent maze of ancient trees, stone lanterns, and wooden prayer sticks. In the summer, it’s more of a forest than a graveyard. Dragonflies hover above statues of Buddhist monks, pathways turn into leafy tunnels beneath thick elm branches, and the hypnotic drone of the cicadas shivers through the incense-heavy air from dawn to nightfall.
On that day, August 20th, Hideaki and I stood at the cemetery gates, working up the courage to go inside.
“Ready?” I asked.
Hideaki’s voice was flat but there was a weird look on his face. “Can’t you feel it?”
“What? No. I don’t feel anything. Let’s just get it over with.”
Thinking about it now, everything came from that moment. The moment I lied to my boyfriend. Hideaki was right – there was an unpleasant, unreal edge to the stillness and quietness on the other side of the gates, but I refused to admit it. The Japanese name ‘Yanaka’ means ‘middle of the valley’, which is a good name for that place. The mid-point, where the world of concrete meets the world of the spirits. Where the neon meets the shadows. Where the livingA meet the dead. That day, we were already in the middle of the valley, even though we didn’t know what that meant, and the only thing to do was go forward.
Hideaki checked his mail one last time and put his smartphone back in his pocket. He looked fresh, even in the stifling, humid heat of mid-August Tokyo. His dyed spiky hair was even blonder in the bleaching sunlight, above his pale, compact face. He wore the baggy Tanizaki Twins T-shirt I liked, but I could have done without the tartan pants that clashed with everything else. My friends say he only wears things like that to see how far he can go. Maybe they’re right. There was something oversimplified about Hideaki, and that was something else I liked; when he made jokes in class, people thought he must be secretly clever, because only a clever kid could make jokes that stupid.
“Why did we have to get the spooky graveyard for summer homework?” he asked.
I shrugged and tried to look bored. “Mr. Akanuma said it was something to do with Tokyo’s cultural heritage. Pair up, go to the sites you’re given and make notes on what you find.”
“Yeah, but why did he give the Asakusa assignment to Chiaki? You can buy ice cream and hang out at Asakusa. It’s got …” he sniffed and looked around disdainfully. “Life.”
I gave him a smile and shrugged. He nudged me and pointed to the English-language signboards over to the left.
ANNOUNCEMENTS FROM YANAKA CEMETERY OFFICE
Every act that damages the sacredness of this cemetery is not allowed.
Do not enter another’s tomb without special permission
Do not stay overnight in this cemetery.
Hideaki was like, “Oh no! Reiko, we can’t stay overnight in the cemetery. We’ll have to party somewhere else.”
I smiled and joined in the joke. “Yup, we can’t go knocking on doors from tomb to tomb either. Where do you think we get that special permission from, anyway?”
He swept his stiff blond fringe over his eyes and hunched over, holding his arms out straight, shuffling his feet. “You must … ask… the dead…” he said in a deep, croaky voice. I hit him lightly with my tote bag.
We started walking. To the left and right graves stretched away, a man-made petrified forest beneath the boughs of elm, oak and cherry trees. Freshly cut flowers and half-burnt incense sticks stood in metal holders in front of some of the tombstones, but there was no sign of the people who left them there. Beyond the trees and the brick cemetery walls we could see the sloped roofs of cheap-looking two-storey houses. The residents had hung their futons out of the windows to air in the sunshine, the mattresses dangling limply like tongues lolling out of open mouths.
“You know how some kids dare each other to walk through a graveyard at night?” I said. “They’re all scared, but they’re trying to show they’re cool? Well, maybe it’s like that. Mr. Akanuma’s testing us to see how brave we are.”
Hideaki hid his smile but I could hear it in his voice. “Yeah, I wish they gave marks for bravery in the exam grades. He said there are over seven thousand graves in here – he could have given us a map.”
Mr. Akanuma had assigned a different site for each group to research for the summer homework – a Shinto shrine, a Buddhist temple, a hanging scroll in one of the museums – but for lucky Hideaki and I, it had been the tomb of Shinkai Kanemune, a sword-smith from Japan’s civil war period.
“The legends say that every Kanemune sword has an evil spirit inside it,” Mr. Akanuma had said with relish. “I’m not saying I believe in that, of course, but … it could make the homework more interesting. Part of your assignment is to go to the Kanemune tomb in Yanaka cemetery, and make notes of the inscriptions you find on the stones. I think you’ll find them fascinating.”
“Oh, a cemetery, gross,” Hideaki had whispered to me in class. “What do we know about swords? Cursed or otherwise?”
“I know my grandpa likes falling asleep in front of the TV samurai dramas,” I whispered back. “Maybe I should ask him.”
“Not much point if he sleeps through them.” Then he turned and looked at me again, his eyes wide. “Oh, I get it! We got this because you’re the class Rekijo!”
I just shrugged. Yes, the Rekijo, the History Girl, a contraction of the Japanese words Rekishi (history) and Joshi (young girl) to make Rekijo. A young lady who’s a maniac for Japanese warlords, samurai, stories of bravery. Or that’s what the trendy magazines say; the truth is, the girls who call themselves Rekijo just watch the TV historical dramas to see which hot idol is playing the young Tokugawa or whatever. As for me? I just have a good memory for dates and names and places, I like a good story, and I’m kind of interested in the difference between life now and life then. It’s no big deal. I’m only half-Japanese, and I haven’t even been in Japan for most of my life. Some History Girl.
And here in the cemetery, we had more history than we could deal with. Gravestones with the names of the dead in ancient Kanji lettering. Buddhist saints with stone faces blackened with age and licked by moss. Modern Tokyo, our families, our school seemed to belong to a separate world, a world that we had forfeited by walking through the gates. Cemeteries weren’t exactly new to me; every year, for the three years I’d been back in Tokyo, I would visit the family plot in Iriya with Mom and Dad to clean the gravesite, offer fresh flowers, light incense, and say prayers for our ancestors. Japanese graveyards weren’t supposed to be scary, but even so …
Nope. I’m sorry, but every graveyard is scary.
Hideaki fidgeted with his hair and then suddenly grabbed me round the shoulders. He’s done that kind of thing before, but still – I couldn’t help flinching. “When I go,” he said, “I don’t want to go like this.”
“Put in a jar and stuck underground. When I go, I want someone to take my ashes to the top of Mount Fuji, and scatter them from the top. My ashes will drift across the Pacific Ocean for, you know, forever.”
“Mount Fuji is nowhere near the ocean,” I told him.
“Yeah, well, some other mountain near the sea.” He gave me a weird look. “You’re not very romantic, you know that?”
“It’s kind of hard to be romantic when you’re standing in the middle of a cemetery.”
It wasn’t his fault. I was getting fed up with the heat, the unforgiving sunlight, the endless graves that stretched away in all directions with nothing to show who was buried where, and the headache-inducing drone of the cicadas.
“I got a mail from Shunsuke this morning,” I said, trying to change the subject. “The class council wants to put on a play for the School Festival. A new version of Cinderella.”
“What’s new about it?”
“They’re going to call it Junkorella.”
“After Junko the head girl? Oh, please.”
“Junko says it wasn’t her idea and she hates it, but nobody believes her. See, the story is that Junkorella lives in this big Tokyo housing complex with her …”
“Look, whatever. Let’s talk about something else. Junko will be going on about this all the time when term starts again, so … yeah.”
We walked up to an intersection of paths that crossed each other beneath a massive paulownia tree, and Hideaki stopped, mopping his face down with the towel-hanky slung around his neck. He waved at me to stop.
“Listen, Reiko” he said, “maybe it’s best if we split up.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. “What?”
“No, sorry, I mean … go our separate ways. No, wait! Don’t hit me! I mean, search in different directions. You go that way and look for the tomb, I’ll go this way, and we meet up again in an hour!”
“You did that deliberately, didn’t you?” Despite myself, I was starting to laugh. That’s the thing about Hideaki; you couldn’t get angry with him. Not for long.
“It’s too hot to walk around here all day,” Hideaki said, “and we’ve got more chance of finding this thing if we go in different directions. So let’s scoot through the place as quick as we can, then go shopping in Shibuya.”
I looked around. I wasn’t too happy about it, but I knew he was right. “Okay. But I can’t take an hour of this.”
“Forty minutes. And the ice creams are on you.”
Walking away, I looked over my shoulder and saw him under the trees, giving me a broad smile. He waved and turned away into the undergrowth.
That was the last time I saw the Hideaki I used to know.
TO BE CONTINUED …