The spirit of moonlight nights — A short story

Japan, 1885

On a moonlit night, wisps of water rise from a clear river, swirling gracefully toward the sky. They reach upward in a dance of water-drops and light, as if to mimic the twinkling stars and provoke their response.

Wolves that have gathered to drink from the river watch in awe as the water takes strange forms, rising in hypnotic motions. The water spirit observes the wolves, their precise stance and the flicker of their eyes in the night and, unknowing of any other living manifestation, slowly molds itself into a similar figure.

Under the guidance of the full moon, the wisps of water take the shape of legs, claws, long, feral teeth and white burning eyes and fur that envelops the taut, large body. The wolf of white fire crawls out of the water and gazes to the pack of feral wolves that are watching the strange creature with dread, baring their fangs and roaring at it.

The biggest of the wolves howls to the moon while strengthening its stance, and the spirit of water rejoices, hoping it has been accepted by those it now resembles. The spirit mimics the call to its mother moon, flames seeping between its fangs, the fur a blaze of burning light curls that wave with the breeze.

Suspicious of its appearance, the wolves throw themselves one by one at the water spirit. Puzzled of the wolves’ response to its friendly summon, the spirit tries to retreat, only to be met with increasing attacks. As the wolves continue to leap and bite in the moonlight, the spirit has no choice but to oppose its own strength. One by one, it fells the wolves, throwing their bodies to the side, unnerved at the necessity of its own actions.

When finally the night is only punctuated by the whimpers of the fallen wolves and the whispering breeze, the spirit of water trembles in dismay, frightful of the suffering it has caused. With one last grasp, it gazes to the moon and howls to call for understanding.

No answer comes beyond the murmur of the river and the gentle breeze. As howls sound from far into the forest, the spirit looks to the ensemble of trees, hoping it might find others there, others who will accept it as one of their own.

***

On a moonlit night, a horn blares at the edge of a village, signaling another marauder attack. Aiko kneels in the garden of her parents’ home, praying to the goddess of virtue and protection, as horses trample in the distance and the villagers scamper to their weapons or prepare to escape in the wild.

As Aiko stands, her father rushes out of the house, katana at his side.
“Aiko, go be by your mother,” he shouts.
“Father, let me help,” Aiko replies and grabs the hilt of her own katana. “I will fight by your side as well as the others.”
“Don’t be foolish, girl! I can’t watch your skirt while defending the village.”
“Father, please,” Aiko pleads, ready to brandish her katana as masterfully as any of the recognized samurai. From the distance come the sounds of stampeding horses, steel clashing, men and women shouting chants of war and fear.
“No!” Aiko’s father shouts. “Go, now!”
Aiko wipes her eyes and runs inside the house. From there, she steps into the back gardens, watching in dread as women of the village are gathering to flee into the forest.

Her father runs with sure steps to the opposite side, where men are clashing against each other, swords dancing against the twilight sky, the sounds of the evening drowned under terrible shouts and screams.

The samurai of the village are successful, pushing back the first wave of invaders. But as they regroup to ascertain how many of their own have fallen, a flurry of arrows rises from the edge of the forest and sweeps toward them, followed by the trample of horses that ride as demons from behind the trees.

As the samurai hurry to gain cover, Aiko’s father watches as the first arrows sweep downward, slashing into the fallen bodies of bandits and villagers, the few remaining horses racing haphazardly among the living and the dead.

Another flurry of arrows is released from the edge of the forest. Aiko’s father grabs the body of a fallen villager and struggles to hold it upright. An arrow slashes into the body, another into its leg, and as another one flies to it, a sudden Aiko flashes from behind her father and cuts the arrow in mid-flight with a precise swipe. Another one follows and Aiko brings her katana upward, blocking the arrow with a swipe to the tip then waves it downward and up again, throwing another arrow off its course.

Bandits on horses follow the arrows, loud and terrifying. Aiko’s father leaves the body, whispers “Thank you”, and stands on one knee.
“I told you to leave,” he says to Aiko. He breathes heavily, nervous to see Aiko but grateful that she is standing before him.
As the remaining men of the village gather to protect their homes, Aiko brandishes her katana. “It is too late for that,” she says, gazing with burning eyes toward the enemy.

They engage in battle. One by one, the samurai of the village clash with the marauders and their unrelenting rage. One by one, Aiko and her father defend their home as blood and steel sweep across the backdrop of the dusk.

When a furtive arrow flies between the fighters and catches her father in the shoulder, Aiko struggles to hurry him on a horse to no avail. Fallen to the ground, her father pushes Aiko toward the horse, pressing her arm away from him. They carry heavy tears in their eyes as he begs her to leave. Against her desperate plea, Aiko takes the reigns of the horse and rides in opposite direction, where the women have gathered for feeble protection.

Aiko rides, fighting to drown her fear, eager to meet with her mother. As two small bands of marauders encircle the village and resort to following her, she signals to them, brandishing her katana in the crimson light of the dusk. The bandits notice and veer toward her, a furious stampede of horses heading for the woods.

***

Aiko rides into the forest, weary and quivering, her hand strong on her katana. Arrows follow fast and unwavering, cutting tree bark and fragile leafs. As Aiko’s horse falters and refuses to go upward around the bend of a river, an arrow bursts in its neck. Unsettled and tormented, the horse shakes uncontrollably and throws Aiko into the forest brush, just as an arrow rams into her shoulder.

Trembling and bleeding before the river, Aiko utters a prayer to the goddess of protection as she hears the trample of men and horses approaching from beyond the trees.
Just as she is about to give up, a majestic creature appears above the bend, watching her with burning eyes, its fur made of beautiful swirling white fire.

Aiko stands as the marauders approach, their katanas eager to spill blood. As she pleads with blazing eyes, the spirit of water leaps from above and offers itself to her.

Aiko’s moves are otherworldly. One by one, she bends and cuts through the waves of bandits. She dances with her katana as never before, a ritual of swirls and leaps that slash through flesh and bone, her own body gentle and smooth as water, curling and twisting in impossible ways.

Hawaii, 1985

On a moonlit evening in October, Ano is standing on the windowsill, watching bands of children trick-or-treating across the neighborhood. He sighs as they hoot and cheer, happy to share the gloom and mystery of this Halloween night. He wishes he could join them, be like them as they admire each other’s scary costumes and take pleasure in the treats they will receive.

While gazing onto the street, he hears a knock on the door.
“Hey, buddy,” his father says while entering the room. “It’s pretty late. Are you sure you won’t go out? We can still improvise a mask and cowl out of… something.”
“No, thanks,” Ano replies. “I don’t want to go out.”
His father sits on the bed, taps his fingers, rearranges his glasses and speaks.
“Everyone your age is out there tonight, showing off their costumes and getting treats. Doesn’t that sound good to you?”
Ano comes next to his father. “I don’t know,” he says, shrugging. “I don’t feel like I belong out there, with anyone.”
“Oh, buddy,” his father says and grabs Ano’s shoulder. “The only thing anyone cares about tonight is cool costumes and having a good time.”
“But what if I don’t get along with anyone in the first place?”
“Well, it would be nice if you’d tell me why you think that is. But even so, this is the night where you can worry less about that, when you can wear a scary mask and everyone will accept you, just as you are.”
Ano waits for seconds, then speaks. “But if I wear a mask, that’s not who I am, is it? I don’t want to be accepted because of a mask.”
“Well, then, buddy, consider this: don’t wear a mask. Go out and be yourself. But not as you think others want you to be. No — go out and be as true to yourself as you can possibly be.”
“And everyone will accept me?” Ano asks with suspicion in his voice.
“Well, not everyone. But we either live true to ourselves — or — we compromise too much and more people accept us. But that generally won’t make us happy.”

He ponders for moments. “You remember your grand-grand-mother? How she jumped on a ship from Japan to come here because she felt people didn’t like her anymore?” Ano nods. “She kept true to herself. And she was happy in the new world, in spite of how others tried to keep her down. She made that essential choice. As for you, you just have to go out and enjoy the night. Mask or no mask. That’s your choice.”
“Thanks, dad,” Ano says as his father caresses his shoulder.
“You’re welcome, buddy.” As they hear children clamoring outside, the doorbell rings. “And we have visitors,” Ano’s father says while standing.

He goes downstairs and opens the door. On the porch stands a girl dressed in a black gown adorned with feathers from head to waist.
“Trick or treat!” she says and raises her pumpkin-head pouch, where Ano’s father places some sweets. “There you go, miss… ahem, I mean scary specter.”
Kala raises her mask and smiles. “Is Ano ready, yet? I told him I’d come pick him up.”
“Not exactly. But wait right here and I’ll go get him.” He rushes up the stairs. “Ano, someone’s asking for you.” He opens the door. “Hey, buddy, Kala’s…” Inside the room, he sees only darkness punctuated with slivers of light that spill through the open window.

***

The cozy neighborhood streets are alight with varicolored lamps hanging from trees or welcoming from porches. Children march in search of treats and merriment, while somewhere in the distance “Take on me” by A-ha is blasting from a cassette player.

Ano is hurrying his pace on the sidewalk, doing his best to stay hidden in the shadow of the trees, glancing between the branches to the full moon. The more he lets himself attracted by her hypnotic gaze the more he feels liberated from the mask he felt he wore his entire life. As his skin takes on an increasingly white flaming visage, a tremor shakes his body. He stops in the shadow of a tree, presses his hands on his knees and breathes deeply.

This part of the neighborhood is more quiet, though in the distance Ano hears the lively clamor of children and, just beyond the tree, sees a house adorned with Halloween ornaments. He exhales, squares his shoulders while shaking the gaze of the moon off of himself, and walks to the friendly house.

“Trick or… treat,” Ano mutters while a man opens the door. 
“Hey, there,” the man replies. “Forgot your costume?”
“Uhm, yes.”
“No, worries, pal. I keep the best stuff for the best disguises, but I still have goodies here.” The man scours through a bowl, takes out a chocolate and places it inside Ano’s pouch. “There you go. It’s not much, but it’ll rot your teeth just the same.”
Ano turns to leave while mumbling a “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, pal,” the man says. “Oh, and next Halloween, put some heart into it, will ya?”

Ano continues to wander, thinking of the security of his room, where no one could see his true form and judge him. The more he tries to stray from the other kids, the more his thoughts reel, and the more the gaze of the mother moon calls to him from between the branches, spurring him to reveal his true form.

When he finally reaches one of the neighborhood’s ends that edges with an ensemble of hillocks, he finds himself still. Alone with the darkness, he feels both safe and longing for the clamor and the joyfulness that pervade the streets and the cozy homes. He would like to join the others, to wander with them, visit houses and scare the hosts, share stories and treats while being grateful for a fulfilling night.

But he cannot. So he watches the distant neighborhood lights and their dance in the breeze, mesmerized, alone at the edge of town. Once he snaps out of the trance and decides to return home, the moon catches his sight, and for the first time he cannot look away. As the great glow in the sky peers over him, Ano feels his skin ablaze, as if enveloped by fire that does not hurt, but brings something purifying and true, something that Ano has waited on forever.

With his true form revealed and finding strength in its freedom, Ano returns to the neighborhood’s sidewalks. Though he still tries to cling to the shadows he finds it impossible to not attract attention, as an unworldly light follows his figure even in darkness, provoking admiration and commotion among the other children.

He paces onward, evading the crowds and doing his best to visit several houses. On one occasion, an old lady answers the door, gets scared and falls on her backside when seeing the creature of blazing white flames that stands on her porch. Ano leaves the candy and rushes out into the night. On another, a younger lady answers the door, screams and immediately apologizes, then calls out to her husband to come see “the coolest costume ever!”

After other worrisome encounters, Ano thanks everyone for their treats, and considering he has scared enough people, deems it well to return home. But the more he rushes to his home, the more children notice his form from afar and try to gather and witness the prowess of his appearance.

As he finds himself afraid, Ano hurries to a dark garden, where the lights of Halloween have not been laid yet. Curious children approach, eager to see the marvel of his costume, while Ano goes to the backyard and hides behind a large tree.

Kala raises her mask and steps out of the crowd, calling for his name. Another boy answers from the crowd, and after Kala sees it is not her Ano, she walks into the backyard.

“Ano, is that you?” Kala asks.
“No. Please go away,” Ano says, hiding.
Kala glances the light behind the tree and steps closer.
“Why are you hiding? Everyone wants to see your costume, to see you.”
“They don’t want to see me,” Ano says. “No one wants to see me… as I really am.”
“I want to see you,” Kala says. As she approaches, curls of white fire spread from behind the tree. “And everyone wants to know how you are doing this.”
“Everyone will be scared if I show myself.”

Kala almost rounds the tree, the white light now stronger, mesmerizing.
“Please, don’t,” Ano says.
Kala stops just before reaching Ano. “You have nothing to fear. I promise I’ll be by your side, no matter what the others say.”
Quiet moments pass, the music silent now, the clamor subsiding.
“You’ll be afraid if you see me,” Ano says. “It’s best if you leave now.”
“If I’m afraid, I’ll run away, ok? And I won’t tell anyone, regardless of how scared I am.”
“Cross your heart?”
“Cross my heart.”

Kala steps in front of him, her eyes widening as she witnesses the curls of fire that rise from Ano’s body, the unworldly light that waves from his skin. She screams loudly and then chuckles.

“Oh, my god,” Kala finally says. “How are you doing this?”
“This is how I really am,” Ano says, staring at the ground. “Are you scared?”
“Yes. But I can’t look away. This is incredible.” She tries to touch the curls of fire on his skin as Ano retreats his arm.

“Everyone will be so amazed when they see this,” Kala says, her eyes blazing with light.
“No one can see me like this. I’m a monster.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because of… this.” Ano opens his hands. “Because of how I look.”
“Let’s pretend that’s true. But what if there’s more than one monster around?”
“What do you mean?”
Kala smiles, raises her mask and fixes it on her face.
“Boo!” she exclaims. “I’m a monster too.”

In Kala’s mesmerized eyes, Ano sees the same wonder the spirit of water remembers from a century ago, when in a dark forest a young woman asked for protection.

Ano chuckles and looks into Kala’s eyes, where he can see his light dancing gracefully. Kala takes his hand. “Come on,” she says. “This is the perfect night for monsters to roam.”