Tsumi, by Sarah Hozumi
Photo by Nguyen TP Hai on Unsplash
While Kyoto seemed almost overrun by famous temples and shrines, Hakai Satoh managed to come across a shrine hidden in the mountains of the tourist-saturated Arashiyama mountains. Hakai was driven by a deep desire to be completely alone, and the paths leading up the mountain had offered nothing but an assortment of people complaining about the hike and randomly stopping to take photos. As the tourists plodded along the well-beaten trails, Hakai eased past them and let the call for silence guide him to paths that grew narrower and steeper. At last, he stumbled upon a path of stone that led to a series of old, neglected buildings dominated by clusters of hawk statues warily observing him.
He knew it was a shrine thanks to the black torii gate marking the entrance, but otherwise it could have been excused as a bazaar selling the statues. No two seemed alike, though all were made of some kind of gray stone. The shrine seemed too quiet and dark considering it was a bright afternoon, but Hakai felt himself drawn to the curious hawk statues littering the walkways and sides of the buildings. With crumbling buildings and broken statues, every corner of the shrine suggested it had been worn into the ground by time.
The entire shrine was buried in the statues, making it difficult for Hakai to find his way to the main area where visitors usually throw money into a box with a grated lid and pray.
Hakai was supposed to be meeting family friends on Arashiyama at the ridiculous monkey tourist site, but his desire for solitude had almost possessed him and pushed him to this altogether neglected shrine.
As Hakai tripped over the fallen figure of a hawk statue half buried in the ground and steadied his balance by using the head of a massive hawk statue next to him, he thought about how deeply he hated his mother for forcing him to meet people he didn’t even know, all because they had helped his family somehow in the past.
The family on his mother’s side had lived in Kyoto for centuries before his great-great-grandfather had fled to America long before World War II. Hardly anyone on his mother’s side spoke about their family’s history except to say they had been deeply wronged and driven out of the country.
Why, then, did his mother seem to have a profound love of Japan? She had forced Japanese lessons on him, dragged him across most of the country every summer since he had been 10, and now she had ordered he meet family friends he’d never even heard of on a mountain locals enjoyed avoiding.
Hakai planned on giving the little shrine some coins, praying for patience, then leaving. He also vaguely hoped he could run into someone at the shrine who could possibly guide him back to where the monkey tourist trap was. Considering he had no idea how he had gotten to the shrine, he knew it would take him hours to find his way back to the more touristy areas of the mountains if no one was around to help. The family friends would probably be long gone by then, and his mother would be furious.
He took his cell phone out of his pocket to check for any missed messages and stared at the blackened screen. Several attempts to push the power button were met with indifference. With a sigh, he stuffed the phone back into his pocket and took stock of his surroundings. Rows upon rows of hawk statues in varying states of decay greeted him, offering no suggestions as to where the main area of the shrine even was. It felt like a maze with its meandering stone pathways and walls of statues.
It was quiet enough that Hakai could easily make out footsteps approach him from his right. He turned and found a young woman in a white robe with red flowing pants traditional of priestesses slowly moving toward him, her arm stiffly held in front of her as she walked. Hakai took in only the brief look of annoyance on the woman’s face before he openly stared at the hawk resting on the woman’s forearm.
“Welcome to the Tsumi Shrine,” she said in Japanese. “May I give you a tour?”
Hakai’s mother had forced him to take Japanese lessons every weekend since he was five, and for the first time in his life, he was grateful for it.
“I’m trying to find where I pray here.” He held out his map of Arashiyama, which she briefly glanced at before returning to study his eyes. “I got lost, but I think I should pray before I go. Can you help me find my way back to the main path, too?”
“Are you American?” The hawk shifted restlessly on her forearm, drawing Hakai to openly stare at it again. Did she have no paddings on to protect herself from its talons? It looked like she had nothing but the single layer of the white robe. With a thrill of dread mixed with something akin to anticipation, he tried to indirectly focus on her forearm to look for signs of blood.
“I am. Is my accent that bad?”
The woman nodded at the map he was now stuffing back into his pocket.
“It’s in English. Either you’re British or American.”
Hakai held out his hand to shake hers. “I’m Hakai Satoh. It’s nice to meet you.”
She studied his hand but made no move to take it. Several uncomfortable seconds later, Hakai returned his hand to his side and took to staring at the statues. The woman followed his wandering gaze.
He gave an uncomfortable laugh. Everyone he met in Japan never stopped commenting on how his name, which sounded like the word for “destruction”, was ridiculous to them.
“My mom picked it out.”
The woman didn’t seem to hear him.
“This is a shrine dedicated to a tsumi from long ago,” she said.
Tsumi? Hakai struggled to remember what the word meant. Didn’t it mean “a crime”? He struggled to remember if the word meant anything else, nodding at the woman as he did so. Her long black hair was pulled back to fully reveal her face, but her eyes still seemed covered somehow. Reserved, perhaps. She was beautiful and quite possibly entirely alone in a neglected section of the mountain. It made him worry about her safety on her behalf, though she seemed entirely comfortable with statues for company and a hawk digging into her arm.
“What’s a tsumi?” he finally asked.
The woman held the hawk up to her eye-level, causing the bird of prey to flap its wings before settling into a new position on her arm.
“Perhaps I can give you a tour before you leave? This place has a fascinating story to tell.”
The sound of feet crunching against the gravel lining the stone walkways the shrine offered caused Hakai to turn around. A group of five college-age boys were walking in almost complete silence, their eyes careful to avoid the statues as they stared at the ground. Hakai tried to move closer to them.
“Hi, can you tell me how I get out of here?” Hakai went to reach for his map again, but the group of boys had passed him as if he hadn’t spoken. “Hello?”
The woman nodded at the boys, who nodded almost as one back at her before disappearing into the folds of the shrine.
“It really is an interesting shrine,” the woman said to Hakai. “I’d be happy to give you directions after a tour.”
The air felt too heavy in such a congested shrine so overpowered by broken statues. He felt seized by the urge to simply leave.
“I’d really rather just get directions. I’ll come back another time to pray.” He pulled out his map and tried to find Tsumi Shrine within Arashiyama. Nothing suggested there was anything worth visiting at all there beyond the monkey-feeding area carved out near the summit.
The woman began walking back into the depths of the shrine.
“Go back the way you came, and you’ll find the path again.”
Slightly incensed by the woman’s brisk sendoff and useless advice, Hakai watched her until she disappeared behind a corner of a decayed building. He was about to turn to leave, his eyes on the black torii gate in the distance, when he heard his own voice call out, “Hey, actually I’d love that tour.”
His hand went to his mouth, touching his lips. Why had he said that? No part of him had felt any inclination to stay any longer than he needed to at such a bizarre shrine.
The woman appeared from around the corner of another building, the hawk still on her arm. She attempted to offer him a smile, but the look of annoyance was clear in her eyes.
“Great, follow me.”
How could he tell her he had no idea why he’d called out to her like that? He silently followed behind her and hoped it would be a quick tour.
They meandered between rows and rows of buildings, all pale white with black roofs of stone. So many statues lay scattered enough across their path that Hakai took to looking down to avoiding falling over them.
“Long ago, there was a farming village near this mountain.” The woman continued her saunter along the path as the buildings on either side began to show increasing signs of decay, as if they were slowly traveling to the future on the pathway. Hakai nearly fell over several fallen hawk statues as he became mesmerized by the buildings. The pristine white of the first buildings had given way to charred stone, cracks running throughout the walls.
There’s no greenery anywhere, Hakai realized. This much decay usually was a call to plants to take over, but the shrine had only stone. Everything was a shade of black and white.
“They were a poor farming village,” she said, “but they were good. They did not deserve to be driven out.”
“Driven out?” Hakai realized the shrine was narrow yet unfathomably long. He was used to shrines in Kyoto that seemed to spread out like a blanket over a swath of the city. This felt more like someone had dug into the mountain with a shovel and left behind a scar of a shrine.
“The villagers were driven out by a wealthy man who wanted to make his grand home there. He tricked many of the villagers into selling their homes to him until he owned everything.”
Again, Hakai heard his voice despite having no inclination to speak.
“Hardly trickery if the villagers were well paid.”
The woman’s eyes briefly widened, and the hawk on her arm flapped its wings once in irritation. Her face became unreadable as she settled back into telling the story while continuing her slow walk around the shrine.
Hakai, for his part, wondered how he could suddenly speak such eloquent Japanese. He knew his accent was rough; he knew he could make only basic conversation. Where had such words come from? The shrine made him feel deeply unsettled.
His footsteps stilled, and the air was filled with silence save for the droning of the woman’s feet pushing against the stone path as she walked. Stopping like that felt like standing in the middle of a river swiftly gathering force to push itself off the edge of a waterfall. He tried to make himself back up, go back the way he came, but he could no longer see the black gate.
“I really should go,” he said. His voice grew small. “Please.”
Another look of deep irritation flickered across the woman’s face as she turned to face him. With her free hand, she reached out and took his.
“There’s something I need to show you.”
Hakai felt her pulling his hand, but somewhere in the far corners of his mind, he found the strength to pull back. Their hands broke, and using the momentum of resistance, Hakai turned and ran.
He had no idea which way to turn, and he fell too many times over broken statues littering the ground. His hands and knees scraped and bleeding, Hakai at last found the black gate ahead. Just beyond, he could make out a path with tourists on it, though no one seemed to even notice the torii gate. It took more strength than he thought was entirely needed to will his feet to take one step, then another, toward the way out. He could almost touch the gate.
The five boys seemed to appear from nowhere and stood in front of him, their heads down. Hakai leapt back with a cry. They paid him little attention as they walked past in almost uniform steps, and Hakai couldn’t help but stop and follow them with his eyes as they walked back into the shrine. They were the exact same boys from before. What were they doing?
Fighting the desperate plea from within to simply leave, Hakai couldn’t help but follow the boys back into the folds of the broken shrine. They never once acknowledged him walking a few steps behind them, nor did they seem to notice anything. Only when one of them stumbled over pieces of statue did Hakai recognize they must be somewhat conscious of what they were doing.
Following behind gave Hakai a chance to better study them. He noted their shoes were all worn to the point of falling off; he took in the scratches and scrapes on their legs and arms, the holes and stains on their clothing, the backpacks that seemed to be falling apart on their shoulders. For how long had they been there?
The five boys led Hakai to the heart of the shrine, the largest building where the woman sat on steps leading to a massive prayer-offering box. The boys went to the edge of the first step and kneeled, their heads bowed. The woman nodded at them, and the boys stood and disappeared into the shrine’s grounds.
Hakai alone remained as he reached for his cell phone again. Something about all of this was profoundly unnatural. His phone lacked any breath of life, and he shoved it back down into his pocket again in frustration.
“This is what I wanted to show you,” the woman said as she stood. The hawk was now perched on the roof, and it screeched as Hakai moved closer to the stairs.
Behind the box, covered in shadows within the interior of the massive building, Hakai could make out the outline of a massive hawk statue. Unlike the others, this one seemed to be in pristine condition as its eyes bore into Hakai’s.
The woman continued her story.
“One villager refused to sell his land.” Hakai pushed himself past the box blocking the entrance to the building, drawn to the statue. “He refused, so the wealthy man killed him. The villager’s wife tried to seek justice, but the wealthy man threatened to kill her.” The eyes of the statue seemed to be glowing, perhaps thanks to a stray ray of sunlight filtering through one of the holes in the roof above. “She went to the magistrate, who told her she was needlessly panicking. The magistrate threw her out of his building, and the wealthy man murdered her when she went home.”
The statue seemed almost familiar to Hakai. He saw his hand reach out without realizing he had ordered his hand to do anything.
“When the woman died, it is said a hawk circled her house for five days after. Then, a hawk circled the magistrate’s house. Five days later, members of his household died. Then, the hawk was spotted over the wealthy man’s house. All but one member of his house died shortly thereafter.”
Hakai’s skin touched the cold statue, and he felt himself smile without wanting to. In a rush of darkness, his mind seemed to slip into a great abyss within as he felt something pushing its way forward through his consciousness. Another form.
“So, you’re the cause of my suffering,” he murmured.
The woman touched his wrist and pulled his hand away from the statue. Their eyes met, and within the woman, he could see the ties she held with the pathetic villager’s wife who had so boldly dismissed her place in society.
“You must break it,” the woman said. She briefly looked at the statue, and fear crossed her eyes. He felt a rush of joy seeing the fear there. Fear always served him so well. He saw his hand reach out to touch her face, to relive that glorious moment once more.
“Break it, Hakai, please.”
His hand hesitated in the space between himself and the terror she so beautifully kept in her eyes.
Was that his name?
“Hakai, please.” Her voice sounded small, weak.
“I am well within my rights of exacting justice if you are the one who brought forth a ghostly sparrowhawk to murder my family,” he said. “Hiding in the form of your descendent offers you no protection from me.”
How should he kill her this time? Perhaps more slowly for having not helped him awaken in his own descendant’s body sooner.
The woman shook her head as she jerked her body away from him. “No, I’m me. I’m still me. Even if you trap me here, even if you trap every descendant from that woman here, I am still me. In all of this time, I have not lost sight of myself. Please, Hakai, please don’t fall to him. Please break this nightmare.”
Who is Hakai?
“What else could I do, woman? You cursed my family; you gave me five days. What did I have left but to use my last days alive finding a curse of my own? You brought this upon yourself.”
An enormous offering box blocked the woman’s chance of escaping him. The man studied the box, which he had erected so long ago here, and noted it was almost half full of gold coins.
What better way to appease a vengeful ghost than to build a shrine honoring it? He silently applauded himself for finding a way to appease the sparrowhawk ghost and to trap the descendants of that spiteful woman in the confines of the shrine. Everything to ensure his family line, which all stemmed from his youngest son miraculously surviving the woman’s supernatural wrath, would continue to survive.
Yet here stood one of the descendants of that reprehensible farmer’s wife, still in her right mind. The curse should have slowly decayed her senses to the point of oblivion, much like the other five children he had managed to trap at the shrine so many years ago.
Such an odd name, the man thought. Why would one of his descendants have given their offspring such a name?
The woman managed to push her way around the offering box and was running down the stairs just as the five boys continued their unending pilgrimage to the box to offer pieces of their sanity. On the roof, the sparrowhawk cried out before swooping down to land on the edge of the box, blocking the man from following the woman.
He frowned as the sparrowhawk spread its wings, temporarily shielding the woman from the man’s sight.
“I have no quarrel with you,” the man said. “I merely wish to make amends for the past wrongdoing.”
His eyes briefly studied the five boys as they knelt before the shrine, and he wondered if they, like the woman, were still secretly holding onto their consciousness somehow. Why had he allowed his soul to be devoured by such a curse if it didn’t properly work?
It had been his every intention to move past the sparrowhawk, around the box and hunt the woman down, but his mind found itself fixated on the name Hakai. It belonged to someone who was now screaming his way back to consciousness.
The man tried to suppress the flailing attempts of the child within, but he nevertheless found himself once more before the great statue of the hawk inside the building. In horror he watched his arms reach out and grab the statue’s head. His arms pulled, and with a heavy groan, the statue fell at his feet, breaking into several pieces.
He heard a single word ring out into the disturbed air around him.
The building began to shake as though the side of the mountain was collapsing, and the man was forced to his knees before the fallen statue. Despite his inner pleas to somehow fix the statue and appease the ghost of the sparrowhawk once more, his body seemed to no longer listen to his commands.
His body twisted itself back toward the box, where he saw the woman fighting to remain standing as buildings fell around her. The sparrowhawk had disappeared.
“Run!” His voice sounded entirely unnatural, entirely other.
The woman disappeared down the stairs and began running to the black torii gate now visible through the destroyed buildings and statues.
As the roof of the main building collapsed in on him, the last thoughts occupying the ancient man was stunned rage that a descendant of his could so deeply betray him.
Sarah Hozumi is a translator and rewriter who has lived near Tokyo for about 13 years. To see short stories she’s had published, and to read her blog mostly about all things Japan, please visit sarahhozumi.com. You can also follow her on Facebook at sarahjhozumi.
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