Authors: Yuya Sato
“Where am I?” Kayu Saitoh finally managed. It felt strange, speaking, and she realized how long it had been since she had last done so.
Makura Katsuragawa placed her hand over her nose as if to cover up the ravages of frostbite. “You’ve been saved,” she said.
“Saved? What does that mean, saved?” Kayu Saitoh asked.
“Well, this isn’t Paradise, if that’s what you mean.” Makura Katsuragawa grinned. “We’re on the other side. Of the Mountain, that is. The Mountain’s between us and the Village. So the Villagers won’t find us here. It’s a good place. Now isn’t that a comfort?”
Kayu Saitoh had never thought about life outside the Village during the seventy years that she had resided there, so Makura Katsuragawa’s words gave her a new shock. She understood vaguely on a theoretical level that there were places outside of the Village, of course, but the idea that she herself was no longer in the Village was beyond her comprehension, in the same way that she understood that birds could fly but couldn’t imagine flying herself.
“So you Climbed the Mountain too, right, Kayu?” Makura Katsuragawa lowered her face. “I was mighty sorry to see you in the state you were, collapsed in a heap at the top. But everything’s all right now. We dragged you along to Dendera.”
“Den … dera?”
“That’s what we call this place. When I was dumped in the Mountain eighteen years ago I was all afeared and cold, the crows were pecking at me, but then the people of Dendera saved me, just like you. Sasaka Yagi and Naki Sokabe and Nokobi Hidaka all Climbed the Mountain that year too, and all of them were rescued as well.”
“This place … has been here since before you Climbed the Mountain?” Kayu Saitoh asked.
“Just take a look around. Plenty of familiar faces, right? Of course, there are some who die here, and there are plenty we can’t get to in time to rescue, but there’s plenty that
survive, and here we are. And now you’re one of us! You’re one of the lucky ones! How does that feel?”
“What have you done?” Kayu Saitoh hurled herself onto Makura Katsuragawa, knocking the older woman to the ground. She wrapped her hands around Makura Katsuragawa’s neck and squeezed. “Why did you do this to me?”
The very idea that you could Climb the Mountain and not die offended Kayu Saitoh. And even worse was to make a place like Dendera and live there. It was unforgivable. Makura Katsuragawa was supposed to have gracefully parted from this world eighteen years ago. She was not supposed to be eking out a miserable existence on the other side of the Mountain. The very idea was sacrilege. Kayu Saitoh felt defiled.
If Kayu Saitoh were to go back to the Mountain now, even though she had never meant to come back down again, even though she had been brought down without her consent, the Mountain would
It would know, and it would not allow her to move on to Paradise. The path to the next world was closed off to her forever. The thought of this had made Kayu Saitoh boil with anger. And she had needed to take the anger out on somebody, and that somebody was Makura Katsuragawa.
Makura Katsuragawa was struggling to push Kayu Saitoh off her, but she might as well have been a rag doll for all the good her resistance was doing. Kayu Saitoh squeezed harder, digging all ten digits into Makura Katsuragawa’s neck. The other old women were watching the fray, though, and two of them leaped out and restrained Kayu Saitoh, pinning her to the ground.
“Let me go!” Kayu Saitoh shouted.
The two old women holding Kayu Saitoh down were Hatsu Fukuzawa, who had Climbed the Mountain four years ago, and Somo Izumi, who had made the journey fifteen years ago. Kayu Saitoh’s anger was now directed at them. Weren’t they ashamed to be still alive after Climbing the Mountain?
“Calm down, Kayu. What do you think you’re playing at? I thought you only just woke up?” said Hatsu Fukuzawa, her foot planted firmly on Kayu’s back.
“Maybe she thinks she’s still dreaming,” said Somo Izumi.
“Don’t you dare talk about me as if I’m one of you!” Kayu Saitoh howled. Her body was starting to work again; she was starting to feel again. She could feel the snow, cold, underneath her. She wasn’t
to be able to feel anything …
“Ka—Kayu,” Makura Katsuragawa sputtered out eventually between heavy coughs. She clambered up and looked at Kayu Saitoh warily.
“What’s this ‘Dendera’ shit?” Kayu Saitoh said. “Why are you all in a place like this?”
“What do you mean, ‘why’?” said Makura Katsuragawa, rubbing her neck where Kayu Saitoh had been choking her. “Because we don’t want to die. Why else?”
“Have you no shame?” Kayu Saitoh’s voice was full of hate, and Makura Katsuragawa scurried back into the crowd without listening to the actual words. Kayu Saitoh wanted to chase after her; she made a renewed effort to throw off the two old women who were restraining her. At the same moment a new figure arrived on the scene. She too was an old woman. She wore dog pelts over her grubby white robe. Kayu Saitoh recognized her. It was Hono Ishizuka, the old lacquer-tapper’s wife. She too had Climbed the Mountain—sixteen years ago. She too was supposed to be dead. She too was a gutless coward. Kayu Saitoh glared at her.
“Ah, Ms. Kayu. You are welcome here.” Hono Ishizuka looked down at Kayu Saitoh. “Violence, however, is not permitted in Dendera. The next time there is a violent outburst from you, we will place you behind bars. You shouldn’t cause such a scene. It makes problems for people. For yourself too. Now, you have been granted a new lease on life. Shouldn’t you show some gratitude for this?”
“Who asked you to bring me back to life?” Kayu Saitoh snarled, still held in place. “Hono Ishizuka! You used to be important in the Village. I used to respect you! Now you just disgust me.”
“You were prepared to roll over and die just because they told you to,” said Hono Ishizuka. “You are weak. Your opinion of me doesn’t mean anything.”
“You were supposed to have Climbed the Mountain! You were supposed to be dead! What are you doing
?” Kayu Saitoh asked.
“Living,” said Hono Ishizuka.
“That’s what I’m saying!
are you still living?” Kayu Saitoh said.
“Ms. Kayu. I live because I don’t want to die. Do
need a reason to live?”
“Shut up! I don’t need to talk about this! Now order these two women to release me!”
“Release you?” Hono Ishizuka sniffed, as if Kayu Saitoh had finally touched a nerve. “Why would I want to do a thing like that? What a stupid notion. If they were to release you, you would no doubt simply kick up another ruckus. In any case, I do not have the authority to give such an order.”
“Then get the person who does!” Kayu Saitoh shouted.
“Oh, you’ll be meeting her soon enough,” said Hono Ishizuka, nodding. “In fact, as you are a new arrival, Ms. Kayu, we’ll be taking you to the Chief right now.”
“Yes. Someone you know well, I think you’ll find.”
Dendera was similar in size to the Village, in terms of its boundaries, but once you considered the fact that Dendera was comprised of nothing more than sparse clumps of crude huts, it paled in comparison. It was through this meager landscape that old women, wearing white robes topped with rough straw overcoats, flitted like withered leaves drifting silently. They were caked with dirt and grime that made each one indistinguishable from the next, at first glance, but when Kayu Saitoh looked more closely she began to see that they were all old women who had once upon a time lived in the Village. These old women were now looking at Kayu Saitoh through bloodshot eyes, with a mixture of wariness and anticipation. Kayu Saitoh registered all these stares one by one as she was marched off under guard by the three women holding her captive. All the while she was thinking about what pathetic creatures these old women were. After a while walking, though, Kayu Saitoh had occasion to revise her view somewhat, when she found herself in front of a larger building. They were still wretched, shameful creatures, of course, but she understood for the first time that they really were making a go of
She stood in front of a two-story wooden building.
It certainly wasn’t anything that could have been described as fancy, but it was surrounded by a rudimentary persimmon-colored earthen wall, and there was even a crude balcony jutting from its second story, the effect of which was that it stood conspicuously apart from the other buildings. Hono Ishizuka, who was leading the way, stopped, and Kayu Saitoh thought she saw a smile emerging from underneath the wrinkles on her face.
“Ms. Kayu, the rest is now up to you. Just be sure to think for yourself before making up your mind,” Hono Ishizuka said.
Kayu Saitoh didn’t really know what Hono Ishizuka meant by that, but even so she found herself walking toward the entrance to the two-story wooden building.
Once inside she found herself in a room with an earthen floor, and she saw three more old women milling about. There was Naki Sokabe and Nokobi Hidaka, who had both Climbed the Mountain the same year as Makura Katsuragawa, eighteen years ago. And then there was Itsuru Obuchi, who had Climbed the Mountain twenty-four years ago. Kayu Saitoh was surprised by the fact that Itsuru Obuchi was still alive. After all, if she was still alive (and she was) that would make her ninety-four years old.
Inside the musty room the three old women were busying themselves with sundry tasks: carving wood ornaments, boiling water, hanging pelts to dry, and generally keeping themselves occupied as if their pride were at stake. So they paid no attention to Kayu Saitoh, and, much to Kayu Saitoh’s relief, she was able to slip past them and start climbing the ladder to the second floor. The second floor was smaller, more cramped, but the walls were lined with real wood panels now, somewhat rough-and-ready ones perhaps, but it was more impressive than the usual mix of straw and twigs that was used in most houses.
And in the middle of this room sat a solitary old woman.
She wore a mask that framed the edges of her face while leaving her features visible, as well as robes that were so dirty that they could be called white in name only. She sat atop a pelt of some unidentifiable animal, and beside her was a well-used walking staff.
Kayu Saitoh peered at the face framed by the mask. It was a heavily sunburned face, and she had no memory of it.
“What’s this? Don’t say you don’t remember me? Or perhaps you’re going senile in your dotage, hmm, Kayu Saitoh?”
As soon as Kayu Saitoh heard that ugly rasp the mystery was solved, and she was brought back half a century. The old woman’s looks might have become gnarled beyond all recognition, but that distinctive braying voice immediately gave her away. It was Mei Mitsuya. Mei Mitsuya, who had entered the Mountain thirty years ago. Due to their age difference Mei Mitsuya hadn’t really played much of a direct role in raising Kayu Saitoh, but Mei Mitsuya had been an important figure in the Village for a number of years, a
leader of the women even, so Kayu Saitoh naturally knew who she was.
“Mei Mitsuya, is it,” Kayu Saitoh said briskly, without any ceremony. “Well, you can tell me what’s going on, I’m sure. What’s this all about, this—”
“So, how do you like my Dendera?” Mei Mitsuya blurted out, drowning out Kayu Saitoh in her usual loud, unrestrained manner. “Anyhow, sit. Relax. Make yourself at home. We may have a hierarchy here in Dendera, but we don’t stand on ceremony. Every woman is as good as any other.”
Kayu Saitoh was still none the wiser regarding her new situation, but she did as Mei Mitsuya ordered and sat down in front of her.
“So, Kayu Saitoh. It’s been a while. I remember when I last saw you, you were a mere stripling of forty. Yes, you’ve aged quite nicely, ripened to maturity. Life in that shitty Village has taken it out of you, all right! So how do you like my Dendera? Great little place, no?”
“Are you one of the founders of this place?” Kayu Saitoh asked.
“I asked you how you liked my Dendera,
!” Mei Mitsuya snapped and then appeared to reconsider her outburst almost immediately. “Still, just this once. Just this once I’ll answer your little question for you. Yes, I founded this place. I Climbed the Mountain thirty years ago, but of course I had no intention of dying. So I climbed down the Mountain, down the other side, away from the Village, and found myself here, in this place. Back then there was nothing here. Nothing here, nobody here!” Mei Mitsuya was shouting now. “I had no tools. I knew nothing about survival. Oh, it was something all right, it was something! The rains! The storms! No people. No food. But I never gave up the fight, not for one moment. For the first year I must have survived on anger and bile alone. Then, the next year, when Mountain Climbing Season began, I staked out the Mountain, waiting to rescue the abandoned, the discarded, and make them my friends, my neighbors. And with these new friends, together we built this place. What you see around you. A refuge for the abandoned. That’s what this place is.
“Thirty years …” Kayu Saitoh mused aloud. It was an incomprehensible length of time to be in this place.
“And so I turned a hundred. A hundred years old! How’s that for a freakish life span? Sometimes I feel more like a devil than a person, I can tell you.” Mei Mitsuya laughed, a demonic cackle emanating from her large red mouth.
“So, how many?” Kayu Saitoh had finally started to regain her composure. “How many of you here in this
“Forty-nine,” Mei Mitsuya grinned, her toothy smile disconcerting. “And you bring it up to a nice round fifty!”
“What have you done, Mei Mitsuya? What have you been doing?” Kayu Saitoh asked, her voice full of reproach.
“ ‘What have I done?’ Come, now, I’m sure you can think of a better way of phrasing that. How about ‘What have you achieved?’ ”
“No. I mean what have you
?” Kayu Saitoh hissed.
“Kayu Saitoh. I can tell that you’re still delirious. That’s plain for anyone to see. You’re confused by your own feelings. You’re feeling embarrassed that you’re still alive. Survivors’ guilt.”