LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

The House of the Camphor, by Mina Ikemoto Ghosh

House of Camphor

On the way to the House of the Camphor, Tsubomi spotted the three-legged crow. She squeezed Tomie’s hand, pointing as it sprang silent as an apostrophe from a cedar. It glided up the narrow path, and Tomie followed, step after bruised step.

She walked the crow’s road
A drop of night untouched by
Day, day’s warmth—day’s fire
No longer burned. She was lost.
The crow loved the indebted.

She waited for Tsubomi to pull back. Her daughter had done so, all three times the crow came for them before, but this time she did nothing. Tsubomi gripped her little case in her burn-scoured knuckles and climbed the crow’s road, watching her feet for roots and stones, silent.

She had no words, gone
Burnt to cinder husks in black
Asakusa, where
Stones so hot and hands so cold
Turned over lost roads, and found.

The three-legged crow had won. Tsubomi had learnt that where the crow went, they had to go.

The House of the Camphor clung to the curving wing of the mountains like a pearly tick. A pale early Meiji faux-Western façade met Tomie’s gaze through tall black railings. It told her, with its gaping blue mouth, with the mist slurrying about its walls, that it was a house that ate and spat out bones. It crouched in a midden of shadows.

“Who’s there?”

The woman who emerged out of the gloom had a round cream face, the same shape and colour as the lantern she held up, her black hair in stylish rolled curls.

People came and went
But the House of the Camphor
Was true, and hungry
She burned its bark for firewood
Black as the jaws its roots caged.

Tonight she was Yata Tomie, the new housekeeper, responding to an advert marked by a demanding three-legged tread. There had been a funeral and a cremation here. She could see the bone-pale dust on the lintels, scattered salt in the cracks, the push of a breeze from another shore that caused curtains to be drawn. Might Tomie be of service?

“Oh! Yes, Yata-san, I apologize. I meant to send someone to fetch you from the bus stop, but—oh, you’ve come at such a sad time. Not a bad time, but a sad time. Ah, these nights always affect me. Come in, my dear, and—oh! Such a sweet little girl you’ve brought too. Oh, the children will be delighted. Well, not tonight, but perhaps tomorrow. Come in, come in. You might as well join us all for dinner.”

Madam Setsuko had been alone before she took in the children, alone but for the camphor tree at the heart of the house and the mynah bird that spoke with the voices of the dead. Her black dress was pressed with wealth and worn at the collar with loss. Its lace cuffs had a thread loose for every brother burnt in the fire-bombing, her elbows were creased with their wives and children, and her skirts were dusted down with the vanishing of her parents. Black beads glittered at her throat and ears. Not real, of course—pawned for the children. Everything was for the children, but weren’t her imitations fine? The children loved her imitations.

Tsubomi tugged at Tomie’s hand. In the centre of the entrance hall, five feet wide, cracked and charred, were the remains of a camphor tree that had been burnt, black, perhaps struck by lightning. The holy rope that had marked its girth was a charcoal cord. It rose out of sight up the house’s stairwell, tall and dead, and nailed to its trunk at around the height of Tomie’s waist were hundreds of straw dolls.

Winged men, nailed through their heads, their hearts and their woven outstretched wings, nailed in shades of pale greens and yellows, nailed crooked and straight with nails driven deep, splitting straw chests. Dark beads of iron glistened and straw wings quivered. The blackened camphor was dead but it whispered. Here was the throat from which the house’s pellets of shadows rose. In its roots were tangled feathers, a mouth gaping to be fed, and Tomie knew what had brought her here.

“Kyuuchan wants a cucumber!” 

Tsubomi jumped in Tomie’s shadow. A distant mynah bird’s screech echoed raucously through the entrance hall.

“Kyuuchan wants a cucumber!”

“Kyuuchan can have his cucumbers later,” Setsuko replied and there was an obnoxious whistle in response then the squeak of a tiny swing. “That’s the children’s pet. Don’t mind him.”

The polished sandalwood floors whispered softly. The house guarded its children jealously. It was so quiet that when Tomie first heard the muffled sounds of children she thought it was her ears filling the silence with noise, like dreams filled a mind with visions at night.

Setsuko threw open the doors. “Children, what is all this noise?”

Twenty children, war orphans all, missing fingers and limbs from frost and fire, bitten by fleas and sewer rats, worn thin and made small by the grown-ups’ desire and heartfelt wishes that none of them existed at all. Boys at Setsuko’s table had fought with stray dogs. Girls had called themselves “pan-pans” and sold their desperation to Merikens, who’d looked down their long white noses and congratulated themselves on how kind they were to pay little ghost bitches like real people.

A boy and girl, both perhaps sixteen, had each seized the other by the collar.

“Kanayo! Mitsuo!”

The boy, Mitsuo, startled at his name. “Kanayo’s saying we shouldn’t do a Send-off for Sumiko.”

Kanayo did not
Remember before the fires
She was born in fear.
She had no dead to speak to
To clutch her ankles to earth.

Kanayo shoved him away. “We’re not doing one. I’d rather go back to Nogami!”

Tsubomi quivered and Tomie pulled her close. Nogami. Tokyo Ueno Station, around which thousands of homeless drifters sheltered in the sewers and drains, making a living scraping the bottom, picking the pockets of naïve country-types who came to Tokyo expecting better than where they’d come from, robbing those rich enough to afford the train fares to get out.

Kanayo would not be sweet. “Bandou-san told me everything. That’s why she’s gone, isn’t it? And now you’ve already replaced her! Why don’t you tell this new brick-faced hag what you did to her?”

Bandou?

“The previous housekeeper. A local woman, prone to fancies. Kanayo, sweetness, I’ve done nothing to Bandou-san. She left of her own volition, and she would be very sad right now to see how you’re disrupting a night that should be of reflection and remembrance.” Setsuko turned to Tomie and lowered her voice. “Sumiko was one of our children here. She was cremated this morning.”

The fifth to die since these children arrived, dumped from a purge of Ueno’s sewers into the mountains. They had found the house whilst fleeing dreams of bears, demons and child-snatchers in the dark water of the sea of trees.

“The children were so weak when I brought them from Ueno Station. Some never recovered. Sumiko, we thought she was on her way to good health, but sometimes with these children, they’re so hardened. They’ve trained themselves not to show weakness and they’ve got used to so much pain that you just don’t know when they’re suffering inside. But around about these parts, Kanayo,” she returned to the girl, who was braced like a boar to run, bristling and fierce, “there are ways, and the ways must be kept, like paths must be swept, and whilst you all eat beneath this roof, you are all children of the camphor, and we will Send-off Sumiko as we’ve done all the others.”

Dinner was in silence. The shadows of the House of the Camphor were thick about the walls and touched every tongue with ash. They choked off words, wrung them, plucked them unidentifiable. Setsuko wouldn’t punish Kanayo by sending her away without dinner, because Kanayo, like all the children, needed to be sweet and to become sweetness.

“Kyuuchan wants a cucumber! Kyuuchan wants a cucumber!”

From the living room, the bird’s voice was heard, but not even the smallest children took any notice of it. Mitsuo, however, caught Tsubomi glancing down the hallway, and, crouching down to her level, told her in a gentle whisper that Kyuuchan was a mynah bird, a sleek little blue-black songbird with a patch like a ray of sunshine under its eye. It could imitate human voices, and their Kyuuchan was special because sometimes, sometimes, if the children were very good and did as Setsuko asked them, it could talk to them in the voices of the dead they had lost.

Grandfather told him
The eldest is expected
To carry the house.
But all he could lift were the
Beams from himself. The rest burned.

After dinner came a tray of nails and another tray of the small straw dolls, wings woven to their backs. One by one, the children took them. One by one, Setsuko praised them. The dead were here and listening and waiting for their sweetness. Kanayo left the table quickly. She refused the dead who spoke in feathered tongues, tying them to the house rather than giving them wings.

One by one, the children approached the camphor. Mitsuo was first. He set the mallet Setsuko gave him to the nail-head. With one blow he drove the nail through the doll into the bark. Bark splintered, the blow rang like a chime. “I remember when Sumiko ate the steamed potato I’d given to her just to hold. I’d been planning to sell it in the market, and she threw it up.”

He gave the mallet to the next girl. The halls were silent. The shadows listened. The dead held their tongues. The girl nailed her doll to the tree in three blows. “I remember when Sumiko ate something bad and wouldn’t go outside to take a dump, so she did it right where we were sleeping.”

“I remember when Sumiko snored too loudly and I couldn’t sleep.”

“I remember when Sumiko scared away the carp in the pond when I just wanted to watch them.”

“I remember when Sumiko lied, so I missed the old volunteer lady coming round with the rice balls.”

One by one, with every drive of a nail through a winged doll, the children pinned their resentment and their anger, all their small meannesses, all the petty black bile of their thoughts and feelings, to the camphor, and the burnt black wood took it. The vile poison of their hearts seeped into the tree. The eyes of the nails gleamed. It took their sweetness like spring rain.

At the final blow of the mallet, there was a great groan from the trunk, a low creak that ran up and down its length like the gathering growl of thunder. The children quailed, cringing behind Setsuko and Tomie, but the sound soon vanished, sudden as a squall, a door slammed shut.

From down the hallway came the clear whistle of a bird, then: “Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Chiyo. Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Kazuo. Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Mitsuo.”

The mynah bird had messages for three children especially sweet to the dead that night. Mitsuo took the hand of Chiyo, the youngest, and followed Kazuo, who had already disappeared into the living room.

“Tomie-san,” Setsuko called her back before she could follow, “the children need to bathe, and I could do with your help.”

Setsuko was holding Tsubomi by the hand, so Tomie obeyed. The children were bathed and readied for sleep. By the time they were finished, Mitsuo, Chiyo and Kazuo had returned. All three were smiling. All three were trembling in the sweet grip of voices they would curse any one of their friends to hear again.

The three-legged crow woke Tomie in the night with the rush of its shadow over her thoughts. There was something in the House of the Camphor to be found, something nesting at its heart, and when Tsubomi’s breathing evened, Tomie pressed her amulet into Tsubomi’s hand, stroked her forehead and left their bed.

Under candlelight, the burnt camphor tree glittered. The nails in its bark caught the light like animal eyes watching in the dark.

There was a scuff of cloth on polished wood, a light tread. Tomie held aloft the candle. It lit up the figure of Kanayo on the stairs.

“Are you going to shout?” Her whisper carried, lapped up by the dark that fed on its fear, which was sweeter than grief but not the honey of a curse.

Tomie said that the Send-off looked like a cursing ritual.

“That’s what Bandou-san said.”

What else had Bandou-san said?

“That it wants seven children.” Kanayo’s grip tightened on the banister, spots of red high in her cheeks. “Seven hated and despised children, to take back to its roost and feast on all the cruelty in their skin, and when it’s full, and its skin is hardened against the world’s cruelty, hard enough to take it, it’ll come out into this world for one night of feasting.”

And Kanayo had believed her?

“Bandou-san showed me pictures.” She crept toward Tomie noiselessly, carefully placing her feet, and the house growled in Tomie’s ears that it had no dead to keep this sweet girl with. “The tree wasn’t dead before the war. Are you going to stop me?”

No, said Tomie, and she felt the shadow of the three-legged crow flutter over her heart, its grip tight. Tomie was there to help her.

By the door, Tomie found Setsuko’s cream-coloured lantern. She lit the stub of the candle inside. Her own, she gave to Kanayo, but it blew out the instant they stepped into the night where the cedars murmured, brushing their voices against the wind. The cedars knew the house and its secrets. They knew that children had entered and never left, even in death. Kanayo led her to a log room where wood for bathwater had been chopped and stored. In the moon-pale lantern light, the axe was dark and slick as feathers. Kanayo watched Tomie heft it to her shoulder. She said not a word as Tomie carried it back to the front entrance.

The dolls nailed to the camphor rustled, strong wings catching the wind. The nails in the black camphor watched Tomie give the lantern to Kanayo and raise the axe up high.

“Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Kanayo! Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Kanayo!” 

The shriek of the mynah bird caught Tomie by surprise. When she dropped the axe, it glanced off a jutting nail and didn’t bite deep enough, but the tree let out a long, drawn-out groan that shuddered through the walls of the house and shook the shadows.

“Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Kanayo! Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Kanayo!”

“I knew I had to shut that thing up. Tomie-san, don’t stop!” Pulling an ice-pick and a dinner fork from her sleeve, Kanayo ran to the living room as doors opened and shut above them.

“Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Kanayo! Kyuuchan has a cucumber for—” The bird broke off with a piercing shriek.

“Kanayo! Kanayo! What are you doing?” Setsuko’s cries cut through the babble of children who were looking down into the stairwell, all pale sweetness. Tomie raised the axe again. “Tomie-san!”

This time the axe cut deeper. It shredded winged dolls and splintered nails. She swung it again, and again, and each time the groans of the tree grew louder and harsher, its burnt-blackened-fire-death rallying against her ears, spitting nail shards into her face. She heard Setsuko scream, her feet pounding down the stairs, and the house shook, the floor buckling as if under an earthquake, but Tomie raised the axe again, and again, cutting into memory, into the soot of Tokyo, the flattened city, the ragged trails of footprints in ash, and the thousands who had stood upon it, swaying and brittle upon the fields like stalks of rice burnt dry in a summer of drought. Burnt-blackened-fire-death, she had refused it, and the three-legged crow had led her from it.

And then on the seventh blow, the burnt tree split. A wide seam opened down its side, cracking it from just above Tomie’s height to the base. With a shudder a black and steaming pile of eyes and tar-streaked pinions poured forth from the fissure in the tree. Arms with knotted veins and bulging muscles reached out, a saw-toothed beak gaped, demanding sweetness, but as the demon stretched, begged, sneered, those arms, that beak, all softened. They melted to dribbling paste, dripping to the floor in chunks that turned to smoke and simmered.

“No!” Setsuko snatched at Tomie’s arm, staying her hand and keeping the axe trembling in the air. “It’s too soon, can’t you see? He needed another two, another two! Oh, you wicked woman! Wicked, wicked, low, mean! This world’s too cruel for him, and he’s melting for it!”

“It’s like Bandou-san said.” Kanayo had returned, blood flecked across her pale face, but it wasn’t Kanayo speaking. It was the bird in her hands. The ice-pick was stuck through it, but the mynah bird’s beak still opened and closed, and from it came the voice of a girl. “It’s too soft. Its skin isn’t hard enough.”

Sumiko was sweet
She was blue as the lilacs
That the Merikens
Compared the eyes of girls at
Home to. The house ate her sadness.

“It’s the demon from under the camphor.” The dead spoke in an ashy whisper. The mynah bird fluttered in Kanayo’s hands with its death throes. “She freed it from under the tree. She makes it a body each month with seven children, then feeds the rest of us to it, just so that she can get a week of time with it before its body softens again.”

“They cursed him, Mama and Papa, when they knew what I’d done. They bound his spirit to the tree with their deaths, so that he can never stay. They knew I wanted to never be alone, and to have somebody to love who would never die!” Setsuko pushed past Tomie. She crouched over the demon gurgling at Tomie’s feet, its rolling eyes wide, its saw-toothed beak clacking as it shook, its half-formed molten claws scrabbling on the floor. Dipping her arms into the pool of bones and flesh, Setsuko pulled the mass of ink into her lap and cradled its long-snouted head. “But this is enough! All it takes is seven children a month. Seven unwanted, hateful, rotten children who would have burned, and he comes back to me! My brothers didn’t. My fiancé didn’t. Nobody comes back for me. That’s all I ask for, someone who will never leave me! A little sweetness! And he’s been here, all my life. He’s always been under the house. He’s always been sweet at my side.”

Let go, Tomie warned, as the shadowy flesh of the bird-faced demon crawled up Setsuko’s legs, wrapping about her arms and pulling, pulling, gently sliding them, inch by inch, back to the burnt camphor, over nails and blackened dolls. The demon was hungry. It wanted life and, with it, death’s sweetness. Setsuko had to let it go, but it would never let her go in turn.

“I don’t want him to.” Setsuko was sinking into the heap of feathers and dripping talons. “I did it all for the children. Our children. We were going to have such beautiful children. We would feast on all these children, and our children would be nourished.”

Tomie lifted the axe. In the lantern light, its edges flickered. The shadows wavered along its edge. They danced about her wrists. They were wings, then a feathered hand, stopping the fall and holding her. No, it said, not this time.

Planting the axe between her feet, Tomie stood firm and looked into Setsuko’s hollow gaze, into the lonely fear so monstrous that it had found solace in a monster and shared its shadowed sweetness.

Go.

“Thank you.” Setsuko closed her eyes. The demon surrounded her in the black folds of its flesh, and dragged her into the camphor tree. Its shadow flowed up to her neck where nail-heads floated like her paste-black jewels. Tomie smelled smoke and oil, the fuel of aircraft trails. “Thank you.”

Setsuko disappeared into darkness, swallowed by a saw-toothed mouth. The crack in the camphor tree sealed shut.

Mitsuo came creeping down the stairs. He stared at Tomie, then at Kanayo with the bloody mynah bird in her hands. The sweetness of the voices of the dead was fading from his tongue. His eyes went to the black camphor tree. He sank to his knees.

“I’m not going back to Nogami.” His voice quivered. “I’m not taking these kids back there.”

“You cursed Sumiko,” said Kanayo, clutching the mynah bird. “And we all cursed Hanayo, Sachiko, Heikurou and Benio. We gave them to the demon. Maybe we deserve it.”

The rest of the children were looking down from the banisters. Tomie surveyed their faces, saw the cruel curses they’d unknowingly flung from their fingertips, the debt they owed now and had to pay for, and she knew what she had to say. The words that rose to her lips came from the squeeze of three-legged claws.

They weren’t going back to Ueno Station. They were her own now.

Mitsuo looked at her with wide eyes, both overjoyed and aghast. He was the first to realize the truth. He felt the shadow of Tomie’s words already, the pattern of feathers imprinting to his skin. The crow would like him. It already liked Kanayo.

“Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Tomie!” Juddering and twitching, the mynah bird’s beak opened and closed, its voice trailing off with a rattle. “Kyuuchan has a cucumber for Tomie! For all the children…”

And as the ghost of Setsuko’s voice turned to dust, the shadow of the three-legged crow settled over the children. It folded its wings about their shoulders, and, in time, these children would learn that where the three-legged crow went they, too, had to go.

*

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Issue 20 (Fall 2019)

Story copyright © 2019 by Mina Ikemoto Ghosh

Artwork copyright © 2019 by Paula Arwen Owen

Mina Ikemoto Ghosh is a British-Japanese writer based in the UK. This is Mina’s first published short story. In 2018, she interviewed her grandmother on her wartime experiences, about what she most strongly remembered. “Hunger,” said her grandmother. “The war was hunger—and after it was doing anything to escape it.”

Paula Arwen Owen is an artist who works in hand-cut paper silhouettes and collage, using the contrast of darkness and light, of dreams and reality to create compelling illustrations. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Mythic Delirium and Strange Horizons, and on book covers by authors including Cherie Priest and Catherynne M. Valente. She lives at the edge of an enchanted forest in the Catskill Mountains with her husband and a variety of creatures domestic, wild, and mythical. Paula’s unique cut-paper greeting cards, artwork, and decals are available at her Etsy shop and in retail stores.

 

 

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This entry was posted on May 1, 2020 by in Stories.
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