How convenient, this loose-fitting thing called a kimono. When the sky was not light enough to see me properly, not dark enough for people to feel too alarmed, that was the time of day I'd walk around among humans. I loved the thrill. Just waiting for the Darkest Hour doing nothing was too boring.
These days people were getting more and more stupid, not paying enough attention, even at twilight time. No one seemed to be too disturbed by the presence of a woman a little too thin, hiding her face completely in a cloth.
". . . Momma?"
I could freely walk around and sniff in the air smelling of dinners and baths. Of lives.
And who was this stupid child calling to?
I turned around, careful not to show too much of my face, careful what little skin I had be shadowed completely under my head-cloth.
There, a boy, six or seven years old the way he looked, was staring at me. I furrowed my non-existent brows and demanded, "What?"
"Momma." The boy smiled and sighed.
Stupid boy. It was time to learn a lesson. "Little apricot," I said, slowly tugging at my head-cloth. "Are you sure your momma looks like . . . this!"
I threw back my head-cloth to reveal my face, hands (previously hidden in my sleeves) and all, that were all bones, bones, bones. I had the grace to arrange a dead woman's hair on my bare skull like a wig, though. The skeleton woman was supposed to scare the life out of living people she didn't like, and now, look what I got here: birds fluttering away, children standing dumbstruck; soon grownups would start to notice, start to scream. And of course, that was the way I expected the boy to react.
Amidst the chaos of scared things the boy widened his eyes, then gaped a few times. Then he said, "Sorry. You are so much more beautiful than my momma."
We sat at a bench on the riverside, near a bridge and in its shadow. I had bought two sticks of rice dumplings, and let him eat them all. The money had come from the sleeve of the last man I had slept with, of course.
The boy licked the sticky syrup off the sticks and his fingers. He wiped his fingers on his kimono, and sat straight, looking very happy.
"What was your name again?" I asked him.
"Kiichi. You really are forgetful, aren't you?"
"Kiichi. Whatever. And you really think I'm beautiful?"
"Have you even forgot—"
"Oh, shut it." I waved a hand and sighed. A skeleton woman was supposed to look beautiful only to those whom she had enchanted. Scaring people was only a recreation at best. What we wanted was a human's strength, and a little money to make life easier. All the while I was thinking, the boy, Kiichi, was staring at me. I turned sharply at him. "What?"
"Why are you wearing my momma's kimono?"
I looked down. "Oh . . . because . . . I stole it from your mother!" I tried scaring him again, just in case.
But Kiichi chuckled. "Oh, I thought so. Momma's been dead for almost a full year."
I touched my hair unnecessarily, not knowing what to do with my hands. I had thrown them up trying to scare him. "Where's your papa?" I asked him at length.
The boy shook his head. "Long dead. I never knew him."
I looked up, and saw the sky already darkened. "Then where's your home?"
"Why are you wearing my momma's kimono?"
I turned to him again. "Don't answer a question with another question."
"But you haven't answered my question."
Oh well, he had a point. "I was hanging around just near the cemetery," I said, the first "I" more a sigh than word. "One night someone came and dumped a body. A woman. I wanted a new kimono so I just borrowed it from her. In the morning the temple took care of the body. . . . Hey." I shifted and faced the boy. "That doesn't sound like your momma had been offered a proper service, does it?"
He reached out and fidgeted with my sleeve. "Which temple is she at?"
"Well." I tugged it violently out of his hand. "I think it was the one halfway up the sloping road towards the hill in the west."
"I see. Thanks."
"Are you going to talk to them?"
"It's nice to have a place to visit and pray."
I wasn't sure about this. "Good luck," I said anyway.
Without looking at my face again, he walked away.
It wouldn't be very wise to go walking round the same area again, not after I foolishly drew attention to myself because of that stupid boy. Perhaps I should have a try on a traveler.
I walked towards the place where a few inns stood in a row. It was totally a coincidence that they stood vaguely in the same area as the temple Kiichi had gone for. I asked around, pretending to be a shop assistant who wanted to deliver something to a traveler, but I could find no lonely traveler to seduce tonight.
So I slipped in beneath the raised floor of the temple in question, and waited for the morning.
Morning came all right. I was really sleepy, but I tried my best to keep awake. As I had expected, I heard voices, a boy's and a man's, arguing.
"But it must be my momma!"
"And who told you she was here?"
The boy said nothing.
"Listen." The temple man sounded exasperated. "If you are so sure that your mother is here, come back with your guardian. An adult. Understand?"
Before the boy could reply, the door banged shut.
I chuckled. He heard. "You?"
"Yeah," I answered. "Come over under here. I hate to be in the sun."
Kiichi came crawling in and sat beside me.
"So who's your guardian, actually?" I asked.
The boy tried to be stubborn, it seemed, only for a moment. Then he rubbed his eyes. "Grandpa and Grandma handed me to a group of carpenters."
"They dumped you?"
"They hate me. They hate Momma."
"And you ran away?"
I could say no more. Silence never felt this way to me—clumsy, perhaps. Needed to be filled, but there was nothing that could fill it in a proper way.
I waved my arms around frantically, like a person about to drown. Kiichi looked at me as if I had lost my mind—perhaps I had, but what was there for a skeleton woman to lose, anyway?
"I don't know why I'm doing this," I said when I had finished flailing. "But I'll take you to your momma tonight. After the temple people have gone to sleep. For now, we both sleep."
I woke up to something warm. It was a strange sensation; the men I slept with would have gone cold by the time I decided to leave—sometimes dead cold, sometimes almost but not quite. Some men lived. My intention wasn't to kill.
Reflexively, I rubbed at the lump of warmth beside me. "Mmmomma?" it said.
A pause. "No, you're not."
We dragged ourselves out from under the temple's floor. It was almost pitch dark; I didn't have trouble seeing, but I guessed Kiichi did. I took his hand and we walked slowly, until his eyes adjusted to the dark.
Finally we came to the far corner of the graveyard. There was nothing to mark the place, but I could see the subtle difference in the colors of the mud. "Here." I pointed.
Kiichi knelt down. He reached out, hesitated one moment before he lowered his hand and let it touch the ground. "Momma sleeps here." His voice shook.
"Do you . . . want me to let you alone?" I asked.
"Did you see Momma's hair stick?"
"Her hair stick. Tortoiseshell. It was her favorite."
I thought hard. But . . . "No. If I did, I would have taken it, too."
Kiichi nodded. "I thought so."
The boy abruptly stood up, trotted towards me, and hugged me. Then he started to sob.
His sobs soon turned to wailing, and at first I worried it might wake the priests. But here, probably his momma's protection worked well again. I wrapped him in the sleeves, and they muffled the sound strangely perfectly. In the temple, no one even stirred.
"Momma said she'd give me the hair stick when I grow up," Kiichi said, when he was finished with his wailing. "So that I could give it to the girl I like."
"How did you learn that your momma was dead?"
"Grandma told me just before she sold me to the carpenters. She said Momma won't come back, for good. She was smiling when she said that."
"Sounds like your grandma knows what's behind it all."
Kiichi said nothing.
In silence we walked out of the graveyard, of the temple, to that same bench beside the river. "Your grandpa is probably too old," I said when we reached the bench.
"For me to take his strength. But I can try, I can stop as soon as he says what I need to hear."
I could feel his eyes. I couldn't help but turn to face him.
"You are helping me?" he said when our eyes met.
I shrugged. "This is a boat I've put one foot onto; I'll row to the end."
His eyes went watery for one second, before he looked away. "Thanks."
Kiichi's grandparents lived at the far end of the village. It was a fairly big house, considering the mid-to-small scale of the village it stood in, and I could guess it belonged to a relatively wealthy family as soon as I saw it. No wonder Kiichi's mother had such a nice kimono, and a tortoiseshell hair stick.
I had left Kiichi in the bamboo woods nearby. He didn't have to see or hear what I'd do here.
There were only a few servants, most of them resting in their quarters for the night, so it was easy to slip in unnoticed. I strained to hear more voices, and realized that another couple, other than the boy's grandparents, lived in this house; well, their lovemaking didn't sound as though it was from an elderly couple, anyway.
I shuffled through the corridors, towards the opposite end of the wing from the younger couple's room. And I had guessed correctly; now I could hear voices of older people.
"The boy ran away from the carpenters," a woman was saying. Kiichi's grandma.
"Really?" a man—her husband.
"We should have killed the boy. We shouldn't have listened to the woman's last plea."
"I really don't think we have to go that far . . . killing a child who knows nothing—"
"But what if he comes back? What if he claims his rights?"
"Well, we could just . . ." I heard the man shift, his kimono rustling. "We could just say we don't know the boy. He doesn't have any proof, anyway."
The woman murmured a few things. And then, "I'm going to have a bath now."
I hid myself in the shadows until the woman had gone past me and turned a corner. Slowly, quietly, I went to slide the door open to the old couple's room.
Grandpa's back was to me. I almost glided to him, making no sound, and put my hands, then my cheek, onto his back. The old man jumped, but soon, as my spell seeped through his back and permeated his body, his shoulders slumped.
"Sir?" I whispered into his ear. I rubbed his back, up and down, up and down again, and then extended one hand through the gap between his collars, towards his abdomen. "Sir, I need to know something."
"Oh . . . what is it?"
It was dangerous to mention the boy at this stage—he might remember where he was and the spell might break. "Where is that beautiful hair stick?"
"Tortoise . . . you mean . . ." He swallowed. "You mean my daughter's?"
Damn. "Well, maybe." I reached lower and added a delicate touch on his groin. "Whatever. The hair stick."
He moaned, back in his dreamy haze. "I . . . I gave that away . . ."
The old man shifted, wanting more, so I coaxed him to face me. He blinked; he was seeing his ideal woman, his favorite actress, or whatever he wanted to see. He gasped, so I formed lips and a tongue to cover his mouth. When I pulled back I asked again, "Who?"
He inserted his hand through between the collars of my kimono, for my phony breast. "We paid the bandits with money and future favors, the temple with the accessories."
"Bandits?" I let him pull my kimono away from my thighs.
"The ones who killed my daughter. . . . Killed my daughter?"
The man focused on me with fully open eyes. Oh, shit. Now there was no going back for the spell. "Yeah?" I dropped my jaw slightly, making a deadly grin. "So you killed your daughter?"
He screamed. I heard a funny noise, and soon smelled urine. "Oops, don't spoil my beautiful kimono." I backed away a little. Good thing that I had let him open the kimono, away from his cock.
He screamed and screamed, then gasped for breath. When he opened his mouth to start screaming again, I pulled him closer to give him the last, long, sucking kiss.
Then I plunged away, into the shadows, where no human could reach me.
I had straightened my kimono by the time I reached the bamboo woods. He came out into my sight as soon as I called his name.
"Hey," he said. "Find out anything?"
While walking here, I had been thinking what was the best way to tell him what I'd found. But there is no best, no worst for a skeleton woman. There is only the truth. "Your grandpa and grandma had your momma killed."
He shrugged; a very non-childlike gesture. "I knew that much."
"I didn't have enough time to hear all of it, but I guess I'm really close to the truth. You have an uncle, don't you?"
"Did he live with your parents from the start?"
Kiichi shook his head. "No. They moved in after my papa died, I heard."
I knew it. "I think your relatives—your grandpa, grandma, uncle and aunt—all want your uncle's child to inherit your grandpa's properties."
"Have his money."
"I don't want his money."
"Doesn't matter. You're the first boy of the family."
The boy looked down at his small feet. I sighed and said, "Your grandpa and grandma hired bandits."
"Bandits? Very bad people?"
He made a choking sound at his throat. "Then . . . her hair stick . . ."
"That's where the temple pops in. I thought the corpse-carrying men simply dumped the body at the nearest temple, but it had all been planned out from the beginning. Your grandparents asked the temple to take care of it, and gave them your momma's accessories, for keeping quiet."
Kiichi said nothing.
"Your momma tried her best to keep you alive, it seems."
He still said nothing for a long time. Then finally, he took my hand and said, "Let's go back to the temple."
So we started walking.
Midnight again. Most of the priests and temple staff seemed asleep. We went around to the back of the main building, and found the earthen storehouse. Valuables must have been kept there.
"It's locked," Kiichi said once he had tried the door. Of course.
I nodded and started pacing. Probably the temple master had the key with him, and a priest usually wasn't an easy prey. Perhaps the priests at this greed-blinded temple weren't so difficult to seduce, but still. . . .
I stopped and looked at the boy. He was knelt down on the ground, one side of his body in full contact with the door to the storehouse. "What are you doing?" I asked him.
"There's a hole," he said.
I crouched down beside him, and he let me inspect the door. Just as he'd said, one of the bottom corners of the door was broken, the hole a little too small for Kiichi's head to go through. "I was seeing if I could touch anything inside," he told me.
Perhaps I wouldn't have to cross the too-wobbly bridge. Only if. . . . "Kiichi." I looked at him. "You really do want your momma's thing back, do you?"
"Well. For once, I'm going to take off your momma's protection," I said. "You'll see something scary. But you cannot scream, or you'll wake the priests. Worse, you'll have to bear the horrible part and help me with your hand. Do you still want your momma's hair stick back?"
He frowned. "I'll do anything."
"Okay," I said and stood up. I pulled my kimono apart, braced myself for his reaction, then let it fall onto the ground. Kiichi stared on at me, still frowning, saying nothing.
"Well?" I spread my arms a little.
"Aren't you scared?"
"Mmm. Right after you held me, just beside where Momma sleeps, I think you stopped looking beautiful."
"Momma must have known you weren't such a bad spirit, I guess."
"And you've been with me, a skeleton woman, all the while? Holding her bony hands?"
Stupid boy. I chuckled and said, "Okay, then. Now, I'm going to dissolve myself to bones, bones, bones. You'll have to pick them up one by one, and pop them into the storehouse through the hole. Leave the skull, it's too big. When all but the head is inside the storehouse, I'll reassemble myself into a headless skeleton woman. When I've found the hair stick I'll be bones again just inside the hole, so then you'll have to pick me up again. Can you do it?"
He regarded me with those round, black-black eyes. "I'll do anything," he whispered at length.
I nodded, and inhaled.
Dark, dark. Darkness should do no harm to my eyes, but I saw nothing.
Somewhere, a voice. "Hey. You're inside the storehouse."
I remembered who I was and felt for each bone, and one by one, constructed me. My body felt so much lighter without the skull and I swung around a few times. "Yeah, thanks," I said, but the voice must have come out of the skull outside. Kiichi jumped.
I walked deeper in, spun around, felt around, and measured the amount of dust on every touchable surface, to find the latest addition to their collection.
On top of a small shelf, I found a lacquered box. I took it down, lifted the lid. The box was full of exquisite accessories, like hair ornaments and obi-jewelry. At the bottom, I found what I'd come here for. Tortoiseshell.
I grinned. "Kiichi, do you want me to bring all of your momma's accessories? I don't think the box would go through the hole, though."
"Just the hair stick," Kiichi answered.
Good, because with only the hair stick gone, the temple people might not notice anything was missing at all. I put the box back onto the shelf and went back to the door. "Here." I put the hair stick through the hole.
Kiichi grabbed it. Turned it around in his hands and stroked it. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. Now, help me get back outside. And this time keep talking to me; it's easier for me to keep awake that way."
I went tumbling down onto the floor. This time, though, the bones hit the stone floor with a loud bang, instead of landing softly onto the ground of soil. The next moment we heard commotion inside the temple building, then lights started to be lit. "Oh no," Kiichi and my skull said in unison.
Kiichi quickly retrieved the bones out of the hole. People were shouting. When all my finger-bones and most of my arm-bones were outside, I said to Kiichi, "You run, my boy."
"I'll take care of myself now. I'm a skeleton woman, humans cannot do much to me. But they'll surely beat you up if you get caught. Now run, with your momma's hair stick. Find the girl you like."
"No! You're coming with me!"
I rubbed his cheek lightly with my incomplete fingers. "Kiichi. Please. Go."
Kiichi jumped once, looked me in the eyes, then stood up. "I'll see you around—right?" He sounded scared for the first time.
"If you don't get caught, yes. Now go!"
The boy ran away. I looked back at the hole and started collecting my bones by myself. Soon they'd notice someone had come for their treasures—but now, most of my bones had been reassembled—
I tried to pull out the last bone, my fourth rib, through the hole. But I was in such a hurry. Silly me. I pulled the rib at a wrong angle, and it collided with the door without coming through; cracked into two, and the half I wasn't holding flew and went spinning away, deeper into the darkness of the storehouse.
I looked up and saw fires flickering, closing in. I really had to go.
I gave up my half-rib and ran.
I never imagined what a missing rib could do.
By the time I was well away from the temple, I was exhausted. Everything in me crackled, and it hurt like hell. I settled myself behind a huge cedar tree, away and invisible from the road. I waited there for the pain, the exhaustion, to pass.
But they never went away.
Whenever I tried to move, lacking the rib to suppress it, my fake heart went crazy and I had to fall unconscious for a while. I had to wait for men to pass the road by the tree, steal their strength and live on until another man came. Somewhere along the line I lost count of men. Of years.
I just wished death was possible for a skeleton woman. But we don't have enough life in the first place, even to lose. That's why we have to take it from humans.
One night I woke up to find the moon shining like the night I had met Kiichi—Kiichi? Who was that?
I snapped fully awake. Someone was walking along the road by the tree. From the way the walking sounded—a man. I slowly drew myself up into a standing position.
When the man was close enough, I said, from behind the tree, "Sir? Please, my feet hurt. Come help me."
The man stopped. I was still behind the tree and couldn't see his face. "Are you all right?" the young man asked. "Do you want me to call for a litter?"
"No, sir. Please give me a hand as I walk, is all I need. Come round."
I heard the man step out of the road, crunching on branches and cedar needles. "Here," he said. "Let me look at you."
I secretly grinned, and then, slowly turned around. I looked up at him, just with eyes, expectant and inviting. "Thank you," I said, and looked into his eyes.
Those black, black eyes. Why did they look familiar?
The man grinned. "I knew it."
He shook his head, held my shoulders as if he were expecting me to run away at any moment. "Look at your kimono. It used to be so beautiful—look what you've done to spoil it."
My half-tumbled teeth chattered. But no words followed.
He drew me even closer. And then, pulled out something from his bosom.
A hair stick. Tortoiseshell.
But before I could blame him—or be nostalgic, or do whatever should have been done—he opened the front of my kimono. I wondered if I should resist; I wouldn't have even thought of resisting anyone, but in my head, he was still the child who needed his mother.
He didn't strip me completely naked, though. He only opened the front seams wide, revealing my torso. Then he produced some thin strings from his sleeve. "Don't move," he said.
The man fiddled for a few minutes with his hair stick and my imperfect rib cage. He used a few more things I couldn't see, his hands and sleeves in the way. For a long time, he seemed so concentrated that I couldn't even ask what he was doing.
When he finally stepped back, looking satisfied, I was almost unconscious from using too much strength in my effort to stay put. He called me and I snapped awake. "Have a look," he said.
I did as he said. Where there had been a hollow because of the missing rib, was now the hair stick, kept in place with strings and a few obi-ornaments. "Huh?" was all I could say.
The man chuckled. It was Kiichi—my Kiichi—childish smile and un-childlike gestures all mingled. I almost choked, but I didn't know why.
Kiichi stepped close again. "I worked so hard with the carpenters," he whispered. "When I was fully grown, I was a respected man. The temple hired me for some refurbishment, and I volunteered to fix the door of their treasure-storehouse properly—after they had seen the skeleton woman run away, they had put some wood panels to fill that hole."
I couldn't help but smile.
"When they opened the door for me, they told me about the skeleton woman's rib. Sorry, they had burned it." He shook his head again. "Then I stole my mother's jewelry box. And realizing that you must be suffering somewhere, I started looking for you."
"You shouldn't have bothered," I said, still smiling.
"But it was really easy to find you, skeleton woman. Now rumors about you are everywhere, and the village council is even considering blocking this path."
"Oh. That's why I get fewer and fewer men here."
"Right. So now, take a little of my strength. And come with me, to my house."
"You own a house?"
"Of course, I'm a respected carpenter!"
We laughed together a little and I almost fainted. Then I grinned—my old, horrible grin that I hadn't had enough energy to wear for such a long time. "I can take your strength, you say?"
"N-not too much, okay?"
So I plunged into his arms.