Mamiya Ichirō wanders out of the room, his face smudged with paint.
He’s just begun the fresco for his family. For his newborn son. It will be just theirs, unlike the rest of the work he’s shown to Nihon, and the world. It will show every step of his son’s development, from infancy, to childhood, his adolescence, and his adulthood. One day, when he inherits their ancestral estate, he will see it and show it to his family. Or maybe his brothers and sisters will have other rooms.
It’s chilly in the house now. Most old families, even modern ones, would simply bear it with blankets on futons and stringent tea. But Ichirō’s work has paid dividends: not only are his works world famous, but neither he nor his family will never want for yen in his life. His family had been well to do even before this, and he’s upgraded the furnace they had installed here decades back. He’s left the room to turn it on, but he can feel the house beginning to warm up. He smiles. His wife must have turned it on already. It does take a while to kick in, or to ventilate through an old, drafty house like theirs. That’s why he’s taken a break. The furnace and incinerator for the garbage sometimes break down, and he just wants to make sure they are all right.
Sometimes, he gets lost in his own work. His wife, his beloved, she has to remind him to eat. And it’s different now that they have a child. He has to keep pace with his time. Painting his child growing up is one thing, but seeing him grow, and being there is another. He has to remind himself to take more breaks.
His wife comes across the hall. Usually, she is composed and serene. Always a gentle word, and a smile. With her long straight dark hair, and her pale skin she wouldn’t look out of place at a Heian court. Their families were said to have survived from that time, even the Mamiya that were a minor clan of craftspeople elevated by one of many courts. His wife’s family were minor nobility, and he never forgets it when he looks at her manners, and her temperament, and the beauty that she represents. They managed to even survive the Second World War through ingenuity on his family’s part, and then the frescoes he’s made from his family art and the serenity he so desperately sought and found in himself during that time.
“Kāsan?” He takes his wife gently by the shoulders, her white yukata soaked with sweat, the same moisture glowing from her flushed forehead. “What’s wrong?”
“Thank goodness you’re here.” She holds him, then breaks away. “I can’t find find our son.”
“Oh?” Ichirō smiles wearily. “He’s … he can walk?”
“He’s been to walk for a while now, Ichirō.” Her dark eyes turn stern. He knows he’s made a mistake now. He knew even before he asked the question. Of course his son can walk. He’s learning. It’s been some years now, and it’s about time. How can he track his son’s progress with his art if he keeps getting sidetracked like this.
“I’m sorry.” He bows. “I … where is he?”
“I don’t know.” There are tears in Mamiya Fujin’s eyes. “He likes to play on the lower levels. That’s where the servants find him too. I’ve been calling him for a while after turning on the furnace. It’s tea time.”
Something in Ichirō turns. It’s as though his centre of gravity has reversed. “Pardon?”
“It’s tea time. I turned on the furnace, it’s been chilly …”
Ichirō feels the blood drain out of his face. She looks at him with concern. “Koishī? Ichirō?”
It’s a premonition. He grabs her hand, and runs. They run. The boiler room is close. Adrenaline seems to fill Ichirō’s veins. His heart is pumping furiously. By the time his wife realizes where they are, at the door, she breaks away from him and tries to open it.
“No!” He draws her back, as she struggles with the door.
“Aisoku!” The gentle affection behind that word is gone, replaced with panic. “Aisoku!”
“My love.” He pushes her back. “Get the servants!” He wrenches open the door. “Get them to turn off the heat!”
“Ichirō …” She tries to come back.
“Get them, I say!” He roars as the heat blasts him. “Aisoku! Aisoku!”
He leaves her behind, hoping she will do as she’s asked. It is hot. Everything is blurred. He can’t breathe. But … but as tears come into his eyes, he sees … a shape on the ground. He runs over, staggering, and picks it up. He picks him up. His son. His son is breathing shallowly. But he’s alive. He’s all right. Tears stream down Ichirō’s face as he holds his son in his arms, as he walks slowly, and painfully away from the boiler, towards the door.
“Papa …” The boy whimpers. “Papa …”
“Aisoku.” Ichirō sobs, burying his face in his son’s damp hair. “My Aisoku. You’re all right. We are all right.”
He sees the door. The red hot light is dimming. Ichirō feels his skin burning. He hurts. But he has his son. His son is alive, and unharmed. He can see him. There are soot smudges on his yukata and his face to match the paint on his. They’d been nearby. They got here just in time. Primal terror fills Ichirō when he considers that he could have still been painting that room, or his wife could have been upstairs. No one knew where his son had gone! He hadn’t known. He’d been so busy with the business, and his work. He realizes he hasn’t particularly spent as much time with his wife. He has something for her. An amulet he bought from a merchant. Something old. Perhaps Buddhist, or even a talisman from the early days of Shinto. But a trinket would have meant nothing without their beloved son.
“I have you, Aisoku.” He says. “I have him, Kāsan!” He calls out, as the cooling shadows grow. It is the end of a long, arduous day with one terrifying moment. But it is all right. He staggers out, his carrying his son in his arms, and his wife is there, her own arms wide, ready to encompass them. He smiles. He did it. He …
The man, who died a long time ago, staggers out into the darkness. The halls are cool and mouldering. But he is burning. His flesh is seething. His power of concentration is waning so much now, the strength that allowed him to crush that bottle of sake gone for what seems like ages.
He drops the girl. He can’t help it. The others … Kazuo, and Akiko rush forward to pick Emi up. Without her in his arms, he is burning in agony. The boiler still leaves its mark on him. It is charring his skin, as it had the man incinerated in half upstairs, and the woman melted on the wheelchair in another room, and Mamiya Fujin, and those children, and … and the child …
He focuses. He has to have some concentration left. They need him. “Run!” He rasps through burning lungs. “The shadows are coming!”
“But Mr. Yamamura …”
The stupid man. So indecisive. So caught up in his work. He didn’t pay attention! He didn’t pay attention! Not to this house, not to his loved ones, or his own flesh and blood. He needs to listen. He …
“Don’t worry about me!” The man, calling himself Yamamura Ken’ichi, growls. He hurts so much, and there is no time. It is too late. It’s always been too late. But not for them. Not … “Get out quickly!”
Then, it is just the agony. They take her. He registers that. They call out her name. They call out his a few times. He feels his flesh liquefying, and his bones charring from the flames inside of him. The woman … Akiko. She is crying out for him. For a few moments … he sees her again. She is pale, like the grave, like Izanami no mikoto herself, with part of her beautiful face burned away. He is Izanagi-no-mikoto, who ran away. He thinks about the flames now, how she suffered, how the child burned, how he lost them, and the children that are now forming on parts of her neck. All of his sins, of neglect, come back for him. Yes. The man calling himself Yamamura deserves this. He is just as guilty of killing those children, and the people that came here after despite the memorial and the warnings …. these people, and those poor devils Akashi, Etsuko, Shogo, and Kenji … the servants that refuse to leave, in terror of their mistress, and the child … and Kāsan … Kāsan …
I’m sorry. He says to her, in his mind. And for a few moments, he thinks he almost sees some sadness there on the face of the woman who killed children, because she had been abandoned in his own grief too. He reaches out with one crumbling hand. Then, it’s just Akiko and nothing more as his eyes run down his face. Just darkness. That woman. Perhaps he was wrong about her. Nothing is stronger than a mother, or a mother that has lost her child. Gods only know a father’s love only went so far. Concentration. Prayer. Regret. Redemption.
Love. Akiko feels love for that girl. Yamamura contents himself with that, realizing in his last moments, he still feels love as well, that it’s all he has left, as the remnants of the person he used to be finally disintegrate into ashes.