What is the mysterious location in northern Japan known as ‘Osorezan’? Why does it have such an enigmatic reputation? Experience its eerie, uncanny atmosphere for yourself … with this excerpt from Zoe Drake’s supernatural thriller, “The Mists of Osorezan”!
British teacher David Keene has been invited to Osorezan by Saori, his private student, and her family …
Gravel beneath his feet, the sky above a cloudless glaring blue that almost hurt to look at, David looked around at the stony gulch he found himself in. It was like standing on the surface of the Moon, except the Moon didn’t have steam rising up through cracks in the ground, didn’t have the stench of sulfur filling the air, didn’t have the mocking cries of crows echoing across the stones. David and Saori started to walk along a path between large rocky mounds that blocked their view of the landscape. Wisps of foul-smelling steam issued from cracks in the heaps around them, but it wasn’t this that disturbed David the most; it was the statues.
Around them at irregular intervals, a number of small figurines lined the path. Sitting on top of columns of pebbles and flat pieces of stone, they were short, roughly hewn things, lumpy torsos only vaguely humanoid, faces blackened and scarred with age. Some were a foot tall, some only a few centimeters. All of them had bright red cloth wrapped around their necks, like bibs. And in front of them…
Scattered before the tiny stone gods, like offerings, were items of children’s clothing. No, David realized; they were offerings. Hats. Gloves. Coats. Toys. All spread out upon the yellow earth. The smell of incense now mixed with the sulfur, wafted on the hot and heavy air.
“Red is the color of defense against demons,” she explained. “The statues are Mizukojizo – dedicated to children. Jizo is a Buddhist god – well, maybe like a saint. Protector of children. This is a children’s place, David.”
“Jizo,” Saori continued, “is the guardian of the souls of dead children. After death, their souls must go to the Sai-no-Kawara – the river that leads to the world beneath.”
“It sounds like the River Styx.”
“Parents whose children have died come here to pray for them. They leave offerings.”
“You mean, the child’s possessions?”
“Yes. And they plant those. How do you say that in English?”
David looked. It was a child’s plastic windmill. There were about a dozen of them nearby, blue and orange and pink, making a faint rattling noise as they spun round, plucked by the fingers of a fitful breeze.
“Windmills. Plastic windmills.”
Saori led the way to a tall statue of Jizo, taller than the rest and serving as a landmark to navigate in the eerie barren landscape. There were mounds of stones everywhere along the path like miniature volcanoes, rocks piled up in blunt cone shapes, thin yellowish exhalations seeping through the cracks and adding to the stench. He read the faded Kanji characters on the rotting wooden plaques that marked the area: the Infinite Inferno. The Thousand Armed Goddess. The Temple of the Master Monk who Awakened in Mercy.
Saori went on: “You know what I was saying about the river to the underworld? There’s a story of a demoness called Shozuka-no-Baba who lives there. She steals the children’s clothing and makes the children’s spirits pile up columns of stones by the sides of the river. She tells them if they make the towers high enough, they’ll be able to reach heaven. But the demoness and her pack of followers always try to knock the towers of stones over as soon as they’re finished.”
Thick, greasy sweat was matting down David’s hair and oozing over his brow. He started mopping his face with the towel-handkerchief from his rucksack. “That means it never ends,” he said.
“But Jizo is there to save them. He drives the demons away and hides the little children in the big sleeves of his robe. Then he takes them to heaven.”
No other birds sang here, David realized, just the rasp of the crows. Sound was muted and distorted. The chirping of crickets, the wind in the trees; all the natural sounds were absent. There only remained the crows and a tiny squeaking and rattling; the sound of the bright plastic windmills, spun round by the fetid breeze.
The path to the lake led them to a number of small wooden bridges set across tiny streams of sluggishly moving water. The River of Three Crossings, said the Japanese inscription written on a piece of material that looked like driftwood, hung on the bridge post at a precarious angle. Saori told him that the bridge led to Gokurakuhama – the Shore of the Home of the Happy Dead. The color of the soil now changed from red to entirely white, volcanic ash underfoot leading down to the lake. The piles of rocks fell away, and within minutes Saori and David were walking by themselves upon a lonely beach, the shore giving them a view across misty waters to desolate mountains in the distance.
As they got closer to the edge of the water, David peered harder at the sand. It looked as if the beach had sprouted hairs. In many places the sand had been shaped into small conical mounds, and in each of them, at dead center, had been placed a wooden twig, pointing straight up at the sky.
“Ayano was put into the equipment, and she fell asleep. But something went wrong.”
The girl stopped, and David tried to think of something to prompt her. “Some kind of reaction?”
“I don’t know. The doctors told us that her heart stopped during treatment.” Saori sniffed, blinking rapidly as her eyes filled up with emptiness, like the same emptiness glittering on the surface of the lake in front of them. “She never woke up.”
The urge to touch her became almost overwhelming. “I’m so sorry…”
She lifted up her head and her pellucid eyes met his in the lakeside silence. David felt that if he moved, even breathed, the scene might shatter into pieces like a broken mirror.
“We went to see Ayano’s body and her face was wrapped with bandages, because the doctors had to break her jaw to close it. She was screaming…”
Saori’s voice faltered, and she had to turn aside, brushing away tears. “She was screaming when she died. They told us she had died in her sleep, we thought that meant she died peacefully.” She stopped, unable to go on.
I’m going mad, David thought, in rising panic. Or Saori’s mad. She can’t mean what she’s saying. This place is enough to send anyone round the twist, maybe the morbid atmosphere has got to her.
He told himself to reach out, to hold her hand and reassure her somehow. But his hand refused, as if something was blocking signals from his brain. He looked back, away from the lake and back at the rolling mounds of volcanic rock, half-expecting to see Mr. and Mrs. Yoshida strolling towards them on the path, come to check on their daughter.
Their surviving daughter.
Saori made the next move. She pulled a tissue from her bag, wiping away the tears, coughing the tension out of her face. She stood up, flicking back her hair, looking not at David but at where the waters met the sand. “We’d better go back.”
Trying to shake off his depression, David followed her lead.
Away from the shore, the path took them through a clump of scrubby rhododendron bushes – the only kind of plant that could survive in this ground, Saori explained. They were back in the barren volcanic area, the white ash pocked with tiny tufts of grass like hedgehogs.
Before them were two inscriptions that David translated as the Inferno of Felony and the Inferno of Blood. Behind them, the decaying majesty of the Tower of Spirits who Left no Relatives Behind. He could only wonder at how Saori kept her equilibrium, kept herself from tilting her head back and screaming wordlessly at the sky. Then he wondered what kept him from doing the same thing.
“Saori, look – can I ask you a question?”
She still had a tissue to her face, trying to cough back sobs and was now looking intensely embarrassed. “Sure.”
“What did the autopsy say?”
“There was no autopsy. The head doctors said our family would feel better if we had the funeral straight away, to put our sadness behind us. Mum and Dad just did what the doctors told us. The police didn’t want to get involved.”
David stared back at her, speechless.
Near their feet, steam and cloudy liquid bubbled out of the earth, hissing like a pressure cooker. People had left ten-yen coins as offerings on the mounds of stones lining the path; David raised his eyebrows as he saw that the coppery brown metal of the coins had turned a greenish-yellow in the corrosive air.
Saori took in a deep, shuddering breath and coughed. “I’m sorry, David. I didn’t want to upset you by telling you this.”
“No, no, that’s not…”
“It’s all this death and despair, you know? Around here.” She waved her arm at the desolation that surrounded them. “And Mom and Dad going on about the Itako, as well…I wish they’d done something else. I just want to remember how happy Ayano was, what a great person she was. I helped her pack to go off to college, she was going to have such a great time…” She stopped, the tears catching in her throat again.
“Saori, why did your parents bring me here?”
She sniffed. “I think for the same reason my mother wants you to teach me. She doesn’t want me to be alone. She thinks, if I’m alone I’ll think about Ayano, and I’ll get…I’ll get in a bad condition.”
“Depressed, you mean. I can understand.”
No, a sarcastic voice said inside him. No, David, you don’t understand. You’ve never lost anyone. You have no idea what she’s feeling.
The path fell away into a narrow gulch, the grotesque stone hillocks thinning out and leading to a patch of unbroken waste ground. Beyond that were stone walls, workers’ prefab huts, the parking lot near the temple entrance. It was the end of the walking course.
David felt he would have nightmares for a week. He remembered what Saori had told him about Osorezan; it’s like Heaven, she’d said, and also like Hell …
Win a free copy of “The Mists of Osorezan” by joining the newsletter service – here!
All of Zoe Drake’s books are half price during the Haunted Summer campaign, through August 2018. Find them here!