A story set in Japan.
Spirit of the Lake
Perhaps because Annin was blind from birth, he had always loved to listen to stories. As he grew into a young man, he strove to make storytelling his vocation, and one who told stories for a living had to find those who were willing to pay, so he traveled from town to town. Since he was blind, neither views of clouds streaking above majestic mountains nor of sunsets blazing over sensuous shores could quicken the beating in his breast. Rather, he enjoyed the near silence of a breeze caressing the trees, the sigh of waves sinking into sand, the clop of horses prancing on a bridge, the laughter of children playing in the street.
He was enjoying a cup of tea with a sweet rice cake at a local tea shop when he heard rumors of a lake monster terrorizing fishermen. Always interested in new events, he set out on the three day trip with his cane tapping the road. A half day’s travel from the fishing village, he stopped in a town. A breeze carried the aroma of charcoal broiled fish; like the tendril of a vine, it wrapped itself around him and pulled him into an inn.
Annin felt the cloth hanging over the entrance of the inn, and parting it with one hand, wished he could see the inn’s name he knew was on the cloth. He stepped inside, instantly the proprietor shouted, “Welcome!”
Annin smiled. “Could someone kindly lead me to an open chair?”
The proprietor’s daughter saw that their guest was blind. She recognized the small folded cloth balanced on his shaven head and an apron’s pockets filled with scrolls and brushes as the costume of a storyteller. “Yes, I’ll be with you right away.” The sound of wooden sandals on hard packed clay and the swish of clothing approached. “Sorry to keep you waiting, honored guest. Here, take my hand.”
Annin held out his hand. It was evening and his hand was cold so the warmth of a young woman’s hand made him feel welcome. He couldn’t help smiling, thinking this was one of the benefits of being blind. “Thank you.”
“I’ll bring you tea.”
Annin nodded and gave his order. While waiting, he listened to two men at another table.
An enthusiastic voice said. “Aah, this fish is delicious!” While chewing on his food, he went on. “I haven’t eaten fresh fish for awhile. Thank you for bringing me here.”
A calmer voice answered, “Yes, isn’t it?” He paused to lay down his chopsticks, and considered his next remark. “Have you been to the market? The price of fresh fish is really high now.”
Nodding, his friend answered, “Yes, that’s true. You know, it’s because of that monster in the lake. The fishermen are afraid to go out in their boats. They’re only fishing from shore.”
The calm voice turned grave. “Something needs to be done, or we’ll soon be out of fish to eat.”
“Well, you could go out and ask the monster to leave.” They both laughed.
After dinner, Annin paid for bedding in a large communal room. The next morning, after breakfast, he prepared to leave the inn to head west for the fishing village.
The master of the inn parted the cloth at the entrance, and bowed as Annin stepped into the street. “Thank you for staying at our humble inn.”
Annin bowed. “The pleasure was mine.”
“Here is your lunch that I have packed for you.” The master placed the package wrapped in bamboo bark in Annin’s hands. “May you have a safe trip.”
Annin bowed, put the package in the sleeve of his kimono, and thanked him. Then he straightened his posture, and tapping the road with the rising sun on his back, proceeded west with his bowlegged gait. As the day progressed, sweat started to bead on his brow until a cool breeze from the north unhindered by trees relieved his discomfort. Yet, the wind also brought a mild unpleasant odor. Aah, he thought, I’m on the border of the lake. Soon the rustle of gentle waves on sand confirmed his guess.
Further on, the plunk of a baited hook entering the water stopped his steps. He swiveled, raised his head, heard the crunch of shoes on crushed shells, and said, “Good afternoon.”
Being from a small village, the fisherman didn’t recognize the garb of a storyteller, he replied, “Good afternoon, monk.”
Smiling, Annin answered, “I’m not a monk, just a bad storyteller. Are you from the fishing village?”
The fisherman peered into the unseeing eyes with curiosity; they appeared murky as if mixed with ashes. “Yes, do you wish for directions?”
Annin nodded. “Is this the road to the village?”
The fisherman leaned forward to get a closer look. “Yes, it is. Do you know someone there?”
Gesturing toward the lake, Annin said, “No, I’m going there to hear about the monster lurking in these waters.”
The fisherman smiled, for he loved to tell stories himself. “You need go no further. If it’s alright with you, I can tell you all about her.”
Bowing, Annin replied, “I would be happy to hear it from you if it isn’t a bother.”
“If you give me your hand, I can lead you to a nice place to sit down.”
Annin extended his arm. He felt a hard dry hand. “Thank you.”
“This way. Be careful, there’s a dip in the road. Good, now follow the path down and turn right. Just a little further. Here, there’s a log. Let’s sit here.”
Annin tapped the log with his cane and with a grunt sat down. “Ahh, this is nice.”
“So, storyteller, what is your name? Mine’s Gonta.”
“A good name, Gonta. Mine’s Annin.”
Gonta was hungry. He had been about to eat the lunch his wife had packed for him. She had made his favorite today, getting up before him to cook. He wondered if Annin were as lucky as he to have a person like his wife. He spoke with a respective tone. “Have you any food? If not, I would gladly share the miserable lunch my wife made.”
“That would be wonderful!” Annin beamed. “I will share mine, though I’m sure it’s not the equal of yours.”
Each opened their lunch and shared with delight. Gonta unfastened a flask from his belt. “I have some tea. Take this cup.” He put the cup into Annin’s hand and poured the tea. With a slight bow Annin raised the cup to his lips and drank. He voiced his pleasure, wiped the cup with a cloth from his sleeve, and handed the cup back with a bow. He heard Gonta noisily drink his tea and tie the flask to his belt.
Annin asked, “What is the nature of the monster?”
Gonta looked out over the lake. “It’s not a monster. It’s a hag. A water spirit.”
With his fingers, he tapped his cheeks, brow, nose, and chin. “Very ugly with open sores on her face.”
He moved his open hand over his head and down his shoulders. “Her hair is falling off. You can see her scalp in places. It must have been beautiful once. Long and shining black. It’s like this lake. Dirty now, but beautiful in my boyhood. I sense she’s angry at the filth the town and village put into the water.”
Annin nodded in sympathy. “I heard in the town that she won’t let anyone go out onto the water.”
Gonta bent down to pick up a tiny shell. “That’s true. She rises out of the lake and scares us away. She can raise a chilling fog. We only fish from shore now.”
“What a predicament. You can’t catch enough from the shore, can you?”
Gonta tossed the shell toward the lake. It didn’t reach the water. “Sometimes we catch enough to sell. We’re surviving is all.”
Slipping his feet from his sandals, Annin dug his toes into the sand. He loved the dry heat warming his toes. “If you take me out in a boat, I’ll talk to her.”
Mouth agape, Gonta turned to look at the fool. “Don’t do it. No one can predict what she’ll do. It’s better if you just go back to where you came from.”
Annin smiled. “I’m a storyteller. I make my living entertaining people with tales of adventure. I need something new. I have a plan in case I fail.”
Gonta bowed deeply. “I’ll take you to the village. I cannot take the responsibility alone. You can tell your plan to the elders.”
That evening Annin laid out his plan to the council. Without much argument, yet with much discussion, it was accepted.
As the next morning sun rose, mist began to swirl above the lake. With a small group of villagers, Gonta waited next to a boat on the sand. Tethered to it was another boat that Gonta would return to shore in. When Annin wanted to return, he would yank on the tether, and his boat would be pulled to shore. Sitting in the middle of the boat, Annin raised his hand and waved forward.
Men approached the side of the boat and pushed. As the boat slid into the lake, Gonta jumped in and heard his brother land in the other boat.
Standing at the stern, Gonta moved the single oar back and forth through the gray water. He never looked to shore at his neighbors praying for their safe return only straight ahead into the mist. He wanted to believe they were gliding among clouds safe from she who hated them. Yet, he couldn’t block out the splash of water on the boat’s prow.
Completely in the mist, Gonta raised the oar out of the water. Laying the rope next to Annin, he said, “Pull on this when you’re done or need to escape.”
His brother’s boat came alongside. As Gonta climbed into the boat, he tried to be cheerful. “I’m be waiting for your signal. See you in a while.” He kept his eyes on Annin until he vanished in the mist.
Annin calmed his breathing. He focused to catch any sound beside the gentle lapping of the lake, yet he couldn’t ignore the clammy clutch of the mist; it permeated the folds of his kimono, chilling his skin till he felt the bumps form. A gust rushed from behind, blowing up over his back and scalp. There was the stench of rotting flesh. He heard a disturbance in the water. Ripples rocked his boat, then the sound of water dropping and slapping the wooden bottom of the stern; approaching, they thumped to the pounding of his heart.
A voice hissed, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Without turning, Annin answered, all the while his teeth chattering, “My name is Annin. I’m writing a story in my mind.”
The hag's eyes blazed. “Look at me when you speak.”
Annin turned while rubbing his face to warm it. With an inner strength he stopped shivering. “I can face you, but I can’t look, and my eyes are ugly and disturbing.”
The eyes softened. “Your face is like a baby’s compared to mine. It’s good that you cannot see it.”
Annin sensed the anger lessen. “I’ve heard that your hair glistens darker than the deepest black. I can only imagine how it would light my soul if only I could glimpse it.”
She raised her hands to her face, but didn’t touch it. “My face is marked with bloody sores.”
“Your sores will heal if the lake is healthy.”
The hag pointed to the shore. “The people living here polluted my home. I should have acted sooner. I was beautiful.”
“You can be beautiful again. I can help make it happen.”
She stared into Annin’s smoky brown eyes. “Make me believe you, and I will let you live.”
Annin paused; he needed to use all his skills here. “I will tell the fisher folk what you have told me. They will go to the town to tell the people there. I will write a story of you and the lake, and travel throughout the land. Some people will change when they hear our story. Little by little, they will teach others and show by example to protect this world. This will be the starting place. Be patient, it will happen.”
The hag moved closer. “Trust... without love. Lies betray trust. Can you love me?”
“Yes, for loneliness is my pain.”
The spirit of the lake knelt. Annin embraced her and gently kissed her blistered lips. The spirit clung to Annin a long moment then rose. “I believe you are sincere. I hope I shall look back upon this day with love, and to the day when I am healed. May we meet again.” She floated off the boat and faded into the mist.
Annin let out the air in his lungs in relief, then tugged the rope. He had his story and a duty, and was eager to begin.