The Road to Kyoto
When he was a child, Roka’s aunt would tell him that the road leading to Kyoto was haunted by monsters. Always a sensible, level-headed child, Roka did not believe such stories. He didn’t believe in the mythical bakemono who were said to lurk in the mountains, or the tengu who were reputed to swing down from the treetops to seize those who walked the road. And soon in time, as he grew to adulthood, his aunt’s wild stories passed from his memory.
In his sixteenth year, Roka dedicated his life to the path of Shinto, and became an apprentice to the monks who lived in the Nara Prefecture, in the forest-covered mountains. He worked for many years at the shrine, where he studied eagerly. He learned the rituals of purification, to read, to study the stars and he learned the names of the kami. He read the histories of his shrine, the stories of Amaterasu, the politics of his land.
As he grew out of his youth, Roka would journey across Nara, undertaking pilgrimages and cleansing the homes of new house-owners. His journeys took him across the vast mountains, around their winding roads, beneath the fiery oranges of the crisp forest leaves.
It was only in his twenty-third year, when he was asked to cleanse the new home of a wealthy merchant who had purchased property in Kyoto, that his aunt’s old stories came back to Roka’s mind. Roka considered the tales, and despite the enlightenment of his mind in the Shinto arts, found himself still feeling pensive about the journey.
It was some weeks later that Roka commenced his journey, having given considerable time to planning his travel. Roka had travelled extensively in the last few years, preferring as he often did to stick whenever possible to one of the five main roads that crossed the prefectures of the island, and was regarded by the monks of the shrine to be the wisest in the ways of travel. The road to Tenri was strong and well-travelled – indeed, the merchants would often travel along it to bring foods and clothing for the monks, and wanderers would make offerings regularly at the shrine. Roka set out eagerly on this road, baring with him upon his back enough clothes to last him for the journey, a sturdy walking stick in hand, and good strong geta upon his feet.
After two days of travel, and resting in a small way-station along the route, Roka arrived at Tenri. Although he had spent much of his childhood in a city, his years of quiet solitude had made him appreciative of the peace of the mountainside, and he quickly found the eager bustle of the city to be disturbing. He paid for room to sleep, he drank a cup of fine sake, and he rested. In the morning, he made a donation at the Isonokami Shrine, the largest Shinto shrine he had ever visited. In awe at the size and splendour of the shrine, especially when he compared to the smallness of his home Kasuga-zukuri shrine, he prayed for a peaceful journey.
The road from Tenri was not a direct one towards Kyoto. Indeed, it wound its way across the valleys between the mountainsides, where the cherry blossoms still dotted the trees in soft blurs of whites and pinks.
As he followed the route through the valleys, Roka found the landscape humbling with its breath-taking beauty. Emerging from the valleys, the air cooled as the trail rose upwards along the hillsides, small dried leaves crunching underfoot as he went.
Soon the path began to snake its way along the mountainside, becoming thin enough that only one or two travellers could easily pass along the dusty path. From the side of the grey-shaded mountain, the land below was a wash of orange and red autumn leaves, the trees at this height having long since shed their blossoms. One morning, Roka woke to found that a fine mist had started to settle across the mountain path. He wrung the dampness from his clothing, his bones still feeling a chill from the night’s uncomfortable sleep.
The mist did not lift during that day. Roka walked on, Trees gradually fell away as he ascended the gently sloping road, replaced by grey-hued rocks bathed in a soft wash of pale mist. The horizon was soon a dull haze of white, seeming to stretch for as far as the eye could see. Roka began to feel cold, the dampness of the weather settling upon him and gooseflesh to raise on his exposed skin.
The landscape had grown desolate by the time that Roka found the inn. It stood high upon thick wooden supports, lit by soft yellow lamplight against the starless night sky. The sight came as a relief to Roka, fearing as he did to spend another night in the mist’s coldness. As he drew closer, Roka recognised the inn as a traditional ryokan, a pleasing sight. He ascended three aged, creaking steps that led up to a narrow porch, lit by two swaying lanterns on either side of the entryway. Sliding the door aside, Roka stepped into the entrance hall.
Resting his sandals by the doorway, Roka stepped into the hall, large as it was for the humble wooden building. Six small cushioned seats were set around the hall for guests, but the air felt still. From outside, a soft gust of wind made a dull groaning sound.
“Good evening!” came a voice, breaking the stillness of the silence. Roka turned to see the woman who had entered the room. She was tall, perhaps a head taller than himself, and dressed in a smooth blue yukata. Her hair was as black as the starless sky, pinned sharply backwards, and her face showed the ageing refinement of a commanding woman midway through her fourth decade. Her eyes were sharp, brown as fresh soil. “Welcome, welcome. Please, take a seat.”
“Thank you” said Roka, “but I have travelled far, and am extremely tired. I do not wish to inconvenience you any more than I already do…”
The woman shook her head, striding over towards the monk. “Not at all. I am Tsubaka, owner of this inn. Please, make yourself at home. Our rooms are very warm, especially on a night such as this.”
Roka bowed graciously, giving a courteous smile. “That sounds exquisite, I thank you greatly.”
Within an hour’s time, Roka was seated on one of the cushioned stools opposite Tsubaka, discussing his journey. She listened to his words eagerly, all the while the smell of freshly cooking tsukemono filled the air. As he described his travels, his host smiled wide.
When the food was served, vegetables picked and served in warmly steaming bowls, Roka ate hungrily and felt the heat of the food refresh him. As he ate, Tsubaka let her smile grow even wider, pleased at his satisfaction. It was then that he noticed the girl who had brought forth the bowls, and presumably cooked the food as well. She was a small waif of a thing, surely no more than sixteen years of age, skinny and moving with delicate, quietly hushed steps. Her hair was worn long. Roka smiled to the girl as she hurried from the room. When the girl returned with cups of tea, Tsubaka took the cup and dismissed the girl, with an air of threatening harshness to her curt words. The girl scurried from the woman as if in fear.
“The girl,” asked Roka, “she works here for you?”
“She is my daughter” answered Tsubaka.
The monk nodded. “You both live alone here?”
“Her father perished some years ago,” explained his host, her voice cool like a winter’s breeze. “Since his death, we have continued to run the inn together. Tell me more of your journey, though – have you visited Kyoto often?”
The monk continued to speak with his host, telling her of his route, his humble life as a servant of the ways of shinto. As time pressed on, great weariness started to overtake him, and he found himself stifling a yawn. He finished drinking his sake, feeling its burning heat trail down his throat, and thanked his host for the most refreshing dinner.
As he ascended the wooden stairway towards his room, the thought occurred in the recesses of his weary mind that he had not been asked to pay for his room; indeed, the subject of the cost for his night’s stay had not even been discussed. The thought quickly faded, however, when he stopped midstep, hearing the sounds of the woman on the floor below. She was snapping angrily at the young girl, “Hurry yourself up with the cleaning! Worthless, filthy urchin!” she barked, although her voice was little more than a hushed whisper. When he reached the hallway to his room, Roka’s thoughts were with the girl.
* * *
The room was, although small, not much larger than his room at the shrine, and Roka felt instantly at home. He slid the door closed behind him, setting his walking stick beside it.
To one side of the room sat a small wooden table, beside which rested a futon. The small mattress looked warm and comfortable, and promised a contented rest for the monk. He stepped over and slid the sheet back – then, abruptly, he recoiled at what he had seen.
The creature twitched the moment that the sheet was removed. Roka covered his mouth with his hand, dropping the sheet where it fell. The soft candle-light of the room shimmered in the reflection upon the creature’s surface, which was slick with viscous translucent mucus. It was large, no smaller than the size of a dog, and it coiled upwards towards the monk with a sickening slurping sound. It was entirely white, plastered with only the thickest of globulous syrup to tint its form a sickly yellow hue – all aside from a pinkish-red bud that twitched and trembled as it surveyed the air, tasting it, sniffing for the monk’s scent. Looking like nothing less than a gigantic leech, Roka noticed the thinnest arteries that crossed its otherwise muscular surface. The creature was entirely muscle, resting there in a small bed of its own thick mucus. Catching scent of the monk, it started to urge forward, trailing its noxious filth behind it, slopping wetly along the mat.
The creature sent a wave of revulsion through Roka, hammering at his gut. He stumbled backwards, feeling his legs struggling to retain his weight. He grasped for his walking stick, clutching it tightly with both his hands. The leech slurped its way closer, its wet surface shimmering, its puckered tongue trembling. The urge to get away from the thing, to drive it far from him, pounded through the monk, and he brought his stick down on the creature’s twitching form. It responded with a loud, wet thud. Desperation filled him. He brought his stick down again, and again. The creature convulsed each time, thin licks of its slimy coating trailing its way through the air. With one powerful strike, the creature broke and ruptured; its white surface breaking to release viscous globules of fetid off-yellow mess. Roka continued to pound his stick against the wretched colossal leech’s corpse, his frantic actions drawing forth more of the creature’s rancid wetness. A thin wisp of an odour drifted from the split cadaver, causing the monk to clasp his hand to his mouth to keep himself from retching at the overwhelming smell of wet soil and spoiled mushrooms.
* * *
By the time that he had scrubbed himself down and immersed himself into the hot, steaming bathtub, Roka felt only half purified. Any touch of the creature’s viscous filth was long since gone from his skin, but the memory of its foulness remained, sending goosebumps across his flesh. Worse still was the gnawing sensation it left within him, the revulsion both at the creature’s unclean nature, and shame at his own rage towards it. As he sunk into the embracing heat of the water, he hoped to ease the sensation from him, and perhaps ease his muscles and his mind to rest.
The sound of the door sliding shut brought Roka abruptly from a slumber that he hadn’t even been aware that he had fallen into. For a moment he was concerned as to how long he had slept, but when he turned to see who had entered the bathing room, his worry changed.
The girl looked over to him. Her hair seemed darker than before, her eyes just as wide and equally as soft. “Oh! he exclaimed with an apologetic tone, “I am sorry. I thought this was the male bathroom. Am I in the women’s bathroom instead?”
With a hesitancy to her movements, the girl stepped a few paces closer. “No, oh no good sir, you are in the correct bathroom. Forgive me, it is myself who should not be here. But I had to speak with you! Please, forgive my impropriety!”
Roka flushed slightly, becoming very aware of his nakedness. He put the thought from his mind, leaning against the side of the bathtub, “What is wrong?”
The girl inhaled. “My name is Misho” she said in a timid tone. For the first time, Roka noticed that the left side of her face bore a reddish mark, which he assumed had been delivered from the innkeeper’s wrath. “We so rarely have guests here”, she explained, “Far less ones as young as yourself. Mostly we cater for merchants. Forgive me. I have not seen a man in many months. And your tales of your travels that you told over dinner, they were most inspiring.”
There was, thought the monk, more than a sense of longing in her voice. “You wished to hear the stories that I told to your mother?” he asked.
With that, Misho’s tone seemed to change. Her body seemed to shrink back as she clasped her hands to her chest. “She is not my mother” she said, in a voice little more than a whisper.
“But,” asked Roka, “I thought…”
“She has always owned the inn, without a family” explained the girl, her voice cold and filled with an icy misery. “My father was killed in the war. Without him, I travelled for days through the mist, until I found this place. She brought me in, said that she would keep me safe. But she is an awful, awful woman.”
Roka felt his heart sink as he heard the girl’s words, heavy as they were with tears that lurked beneath the surface. “She does not treat you well?” he asked, knowing the answer.
Shaking her head, Misho answered. “She makes me cook and clean, and forces me to keep the horrible leeches that live along the mountainside out of the inn.” The girl turned her gaze downwards, “If I am lax in the duties, or if I annoy her, she beats me most brutally. She tells me that I am worthless.”
Roka felt silence burning within him. “I am sorry” was all he could manage, knowing that the words were inadequate to express his feelings. The girl’s tragedy set an iron weight inside his heart. “Is there anything that I can do for you?”
Misho let her eyes remain downcast. “Sir, I cannot ask you to take me with you, as I have no possessions and cannot pay my way. But, if you would take me with you…” her voice faltered. Gently, her hands moved across her chest, easing back the folds of her dress. Her skin was as pale as lilies, her breasts small but strong. She approached the bathtub, letting her dress fall behind her. “I have nothing that I can offer you, sir, but myself” she whispered.
Roka stood, the stirring in his lower quarters impossible for him to deny. His heart slammed in his chest. His mind stumbled, straddling both the vision before him, and the pain in his soul at the girl’s misfortune. “I cannot,” he whispered, “It would not be right for you to pay me in such a way.”
Misho looked up, a sense of urgency in her eyes. “Please!” she said, louder, urging to the monk. “I… I want to.” She leaned closer, her slender milky form bending across the rim of the bathing tub towards him. “Like I said, it has been a long time since I have seen a man. And have never truly known one. Won’t you teach me?”
As the monk’s resolve finally crumbled, Roka took the girl into the bathing tub with him. They coupled eagerly, frantically, spurred on with the heat of the water and the promise of a fresh start on the morning’s sunrise. His thrusts were fast and expertless, and when he peaked the girl wrapped her legs around his waist to keep him within her. What lingered most with Roka wasn’t the tightness of her sex, or the sharpness of her cries. Instead, it was the curious sensation that her body, when he was within her, felt oddly and almost unnaturally cold.
* * *
“What can you tell me of the leeches?” asked Roka as he dressed.
“They are a nuisance” explained Misho, tying her hair into a ponytail. “They live all around this mountainside, often in the trees where they drop on travellers as their prey. They are drawn to heat, which is why they creep into the inn.”
“I found one in my room” explained the monk, “and killed it.”
The girl nodded. “Soon we will be free of this awful place.”
They fastened their clothing into position and, with steps as silent as they could make them, slid the door open and emerged into the hallway. It was now the depths of night, closer to sunrise than sunset, and the silence that surrounded the inn was like a great abyss.
Misho stayed close to the monk’s side as they moved down through the hallway. Reaching the top of the stairway, it seemed to descend downwards forever. A small light flickered somewhere in the distance, reflecting the wooden surface of the steps which were otherwise blanketed in darkness. Carefully, Roka stepped onto the top stair, hoping beyond hope that it would not creak. It did not.
They descended together, step by step, and with each step it felt as though they were sinking deeper into the mouth of some terrible beast. The candle light fell from the entrance hall, on the other side of the panelled door that divided the inn, the flickering sending thin shadows dancing wildly against the paper of the wall.
Roka touched the door, watching the candle’s light dancing on the other side. Gradually, he slid the door open. The candle sat on a short table, opposite the main entrance, with the monk’s sandals laying tidily nearby.
The voice of the host broke the night’s stillness, “You have not paid for your stay”.
Roka turned to face the voice, which lingered in the air. It had come from beside the stairs – there, in the reflected candlelight, he could see Tsubaka, or more, her face. Her features seemed pale, her neck thin, but the rest of her was lost to the shadows cast by the stairway. It occurred to the monk that she had surely watched as he and her adopted daughter had sneaked downstairs and made to flee the place. Roka shot her an angry glance, feeling the hairs on the nape of his neck bristling. He stepped forward towards her, interjecting himself between Tsubaka and the girl. “I will pay for the room and board, but the girl will come with me as well” he said, drawing up his chest to stand as tall and as firm as he could.
Tsubaka’s lips turned wide, smiling again just as she had done over dinner, but wider still; wide enough that the monk felt uncertain if that peculiar, bodiless head would split in two. “The girl? The girl?” she rasped. “You can take the girl. Go ahead. She is yours – rut away, spill your seed in her. She is yours, little monk. Go ahead, claim your prize.”
A stifled cry came from Misho. Not quite obscured, but muffled, as if it were spoken into a mass of fabric. Roka felt a thin finger of cold, as if it brushed along from the small of his back up to his shoulders. Slowly, as if time had slowed and he was moving through mud, he turned his head towards the girl.
Misho stood there, where she had been behind Roka. But her body was rigid, as if her back had been pulled taught, like a bowstring. Whatever she had tried to say, Roka couldn’t understand it and never could – she had no mouth with which to speak; no face at all. Instead, the space where her face would normally occupy was a void, vast and empty, as if the front of her entire skull had been artfully cut free and removed. All that the monk could see was the smooth, off-white interior of the girl’s skull – clean of blood, of organs, of gristle or features, it resembled more than anything a grisly and grotesque scoop.
Roka could do nothing to prevent the scream from breaking from his lips. He stumbled backwards, his balance failing him. He hit the floor with a thud. As he watched, a dim shadow seemed to spread beneath the girl – twitching, scrambling, oozing its way down from the top of her legs. He realized what they were at the moment they reached his feet. Spiders, moving en masse, swarming across the floor. They poured from between Misho’s thighs, cascading down across the floor. Roka kicked the swarm away as best he could, unable to stifle his cries as more and more of the spiders crawled their way from the girl’s sex and escaped across the inn’s floor.
It was only in the gaps between his screams that the monk could hear the host’s laughter. Pulling his eyes towards her, his body shaking uncontrollably, he watched as her head seemed to rotate. Turning entirely upside-down, the woman’s face seemed to be hanging now from the ceiling, dangling as it laughed. She moved forward, scuttling as well, and the last vestiges of Roka’s sanity left him. Tsubaka hung upside-down from the ceiling, or at least, it seemed to be the same woman who the monk had shared dinner with before. She was naked, her skin mottled not simply with wrinkles, but an almost leathery carapace. Her breasts sagged downwards towards her neck – where her nipples should dwell, in the place of aereola gaped two vast, open mouths, rimmed with glistening mismatched teeth. She scuttled along the ceiling, her legs spread wide, and from beneath her thin tuffs of pubic hair her vulva gaped wide; from within her sex slathered and lapped a long, probing tongue, the length of the creature’s thigh. The tongue flicked wetly back and forward, tasting the air, coiling and flexing.
The creature’s mouth opened to speak, her lips flexed so wide that the top of her head flapped limply in the night’s cold air. “Let your children feed, daughter” said the innkeeper, “and then I will take my fill.”
As the spiders – his own offspring, he realised; the result of his spurting pleasures within the girl’s cold embrace – crawled and scuttled their way over every inch of his body, Roka could only think of one thing. That his aunt had been right. That there were indeed monsters on the road to Kyoto. This was his last thought, as the spiders began to bury into his eyes and eat his flesh.