An Ōgama Tale in Seven Voices
by Betsy Aoki
Edited by Hal Y. Zhang
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
2944 words — Reading time: around 14 minutes
The Spinning Wheel
I spin the world like sex at her knees. What flows around my body thins and splines, becomes more than just hemp coiling in the hand, becomes more than cotton thread in a basket, or a skein at her feet, tucked away to sell at market.
Don’t watch my blur too long, or I will twist you, too. It’s not really hemp or silk the Lady spins here on the bridge without looking, pleaching in twists during this short, brief shock of breathing. Not cotton either, but something more lasting emerges each night.
The Lady says we inhabit this folklore for a purpose: a blurred wheel, a webbed hand, a golden cyborg eye. We ripple the world and our shapes bring the watchers, who think they know what we are about — but they don’t.
Eating the villagers’ children came later. I wouldn’t ask what an ancient wheel can spin, if I were you. You won’t like the answer. I am older than you, bridge, and no bullets can hurt me.
The villagers trod my boards for more than a hundred years, going out to hunt past the river and to tend their farther pastures up the mountainside. I can talk forever about winter ice, about how the spring rains sluice the sides of these deep banks. The villagers had always loved to fish from my railings, before she set up her lantern and the blurring wooden spokes of her spinning wheel.
I welcomed her visits at first.
Her laughter invited the river waves to dance. Her bare legs splayed under her haunches were warm on my worn planks, and I was happy to find the cool night kiss of the water under my belly.
I remember her golden eyes glowing in the night like fireflies. I liked her much better than that stinking toad creature.
But the sudden heat of the bullet from the marksman’s gun, splintering the very edge of my wood railing! Well, of course it made me resent her immense foolishness in attracting an enemy here to disturb our quiet peace.
No one had ever tried to destroy me before she came.
The second night, I resolved to throw her off, to let the marksman target her well away from my wooden slats.
I’m still angry about everything that happened after that.
Takeo the Marksman, on the First Night
I came to the village because they asked, flattering me as the best marksman around. I came because they offered silver, rice, wine — things I could spend if I made it back to the city. Things that matter to a body far from home, to a mind that needs to forget.
I walked softly below the bridge on the southern bank, just as the villagers said, and sat in the bushes to wait. The collapsed shack nearby stank of wild pig scat, even in the twilight chill, and I suspected something else might have died there beyond river fish. The wind brought me all the smells.
Which meant the villagers’ demon couldn’t smell me watching her. Even on my best days, I might smell of gunpowder and smoke. The stink of technology.
A few of the young men from the village sat openly in front of the bridge, perhaps knowing from their elders I would be hidden nearby and trusting that I would save them, or perhaps simply brash in the way of youth everywhere. As I was centered off to the side, they didn’t block my shot, but I worried a chance look might give me away.
I shouldn’t have worried. When she appeared, the young men had eyes only for her, her bright lantern and wheel.
The elders had said she would be old, but it was only that her hair was silvered, whitened by lantern light. The white silk she spun gleamed like foam on the waves. Her legs extended under the thinnest of fabrics. One hand beckoned, the other spun the wheel, faster and faster. My breath caught at the briefest scent of jasmine, sandalwood, a woman’s musk.
Her face was beautiful, blurring. Almost familiar.
But then I saw and smelled the blood pooling under the basket at her feet. When I looked back to the shore, the barefoot boy that had been closest to me was missing. I wondered at the size of the skeins, doubling and redoubling.
Another one of the village boys, the one with the torn sleeve, vanished even as I watched him wipe his face. I saw that what I had taken to be wooden spokes of the wheel were in fact gray bones that multiplied even as I watched them whirl with spiraling light.
A whispered “No—” and the final frightened boy vanished before I could turn to see him go.
I heard the lady’s laugh as she saw clear through to me right then, despite all the leaves between us and my horrified stillness.
I knew that laugh! It knew me.
I raised my gun and fired at her heart. Everything went dark.
In the morning, I found no body — no lantern or wheel — just a shredded spike of wood where I had nicked the railing of the bridge.
The river boiled by me swiftly, as though the sea was back-churning. The bridge creaked incessantly against the muddy soil. I smelled seaweed, though it did not grow within miles of this place.
The Lantern Ghost
Each night, she arranged her hips perfectly, and I illuminated her face for the watchers: taut cheekbones, brilliant eyes, twists of hair that flashed silver back at the water.
Each bright thread flung and spun in my glow, golden beams sped out by the wheel and the heel of her foot. Oh, her graceful hands, curving out and back again like a toad’s belly, made our brief time together a luxurious gossamer strand of hours.
Disrespectful murmurs rose every night, but none dared openly approach her on the bridge.
I kept her safe. Humans will do horrible things when they can’t be seen. And my metal corners held the flames straight and true until the second night.
That hunter below the bridge, I thought inconsequential at first. But after the first night, he was all she could talk about. A challenge. Something or someone she had been waiting for.
The first night, he thought me unworthy of notice. The second night, he discovered my importance. I was the only reason he could see her beautiful face, she whom he clearly still loved, and yet he shattered me for it!
All he cared about was possessing her in the dark.
Takeo the Marksman, on the Second Night
Of all the people back home who would try to find me, it was always going to be her, wasn’t it? I came here precisely because I thought she would never dare. She never wanted to do field work, nor risk any kind of rustic existence.
The second day, I made my offerings at the shrine and vowed not to miss her heart this time. One of us had to die, and I’d preferred it not be me. I took my place in the bushes and waited.
The purple-blue of twilight fell across the mountains’ shoulders. The bridge creaked grumpily as she crossed it to sit down in her usual place mid-span. As before, the breeze brought me her perfume, inviting and heady.
There were no other watchers but me.
Once again, the gun inexplicably shifted from her heart, splintered the railing near her face. The bridge shuddered like it was going to collapse and take her down with it. The crude boards bent and bucked like a horse, but she and her wheel and her lantern rode the motion, like they had become part of the bridge itself. Like a surfer on a world far away from here.
She laughed when the boards finally stilled, sighing, holding up her hands full of glowing threads. The wheel spun faster, the skeins bulging white, crimson stains pooling underneath again.
Just as true night fell, I sighted a third time and fired at the lantern instead of her body. The monks had said light was what allows us to see from this world to the next and back again. That it is the light, bouncing back and forth from the demon world, within our eyes, and our perceptions, that tie the real and the spirit realm together. The light is the medium that creates illusions. If I could break her light….
The lantern shattered and darkness fell. I knew nothing else.
In the morning, I crossed the weathered bridge, treading carefully past shards of wood, glass, and twisted lantern metal. I found the demon’s true form then: an Ōgama’s six-foot-long scaled body with leathery green wings, a wide froglike face, and the longest green and brown fingers twined with hemp. No sign of the woman I once loved. Perhaps my own mind had provided the illusion. Perhaps the demon had.
The Ōgama’s rubbery skin stank like decomposing leaves, remains slick like swamp muck. Its open wound was worse — it stank like the slaughterhouse, the insides of pigs.
For a moment, smelling its blood, I was on a battlefield again, inhaling the corpses’ reek, staggering away. Vowing never again. Not even for you, Darja. We don’t need to colonize all these worlds. They’re doing just fine without us.
Then I remembered the fetid smell coming from the fallen shack. Had that smell been just a flashback, or would I find this toad monster had stuffed the bodies of the missing villagers in that shack as it spun its cloth?
No matter, the monster was dead now. I needed to collect my reward and get back to the city.
I threw the heavy body over the railing into the river, and it floated like a hollowed birch! Apparently even the river god would not swallow such a travesty, and so it floated down to the sea.
The villagers thanked me with their gifts, and I took my leave.
Perhaps a kilometer away, standing on the rise of a hill, I thought to rest and put on my heavier jacket as the mountain winds blew colder. When I looked back upon the river village in farewell, I found to my horror that I had begun drifting a few centimeters above the path. I grabbed at tree branches and they impaled my hands without pain.
I had no feet and cast no shadow.
I seemed to be memories in the shape of a man.
I am a skinny gargoyle of metal, an idea over one hundred years old. I earned my right to speak through the greatness of age, meticulous repairs, and the absorption of human intentions. I am angry most of the time, but that’s because I am a creature of explosions: contained, directed, hot. My barrel doesn’t melt, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get angry.
I keep myself calm and cool on the outside, for the sake of his hand on my grip and his finger threading the trigger. I hold my shape, even as it hurts to send the bullet out so far, to give away so many pieces of me.
I may have grown to have wit here, but I don’t belong here. The man carried me from our world, where I was made, to this place of insubstantial mountain villages and bridges to nowhere. Ever since we got here, he has been talking to empty air — in the ruins of the shrine, pacing the village with its burnt-out center, muttering by the cracked bridge near a shack filled with corpses, some centuries old.
He fills me with his memories of our original world, thanks to the magic of this place, but it doesn’t help us in the here and now.
We are in this hellscape because of her, of course. He fled here to escape her, her wild math and her idea of bridges to other worlds, and her idea of him as a loyal killer necessary to her schemes of multiverse colonization. An idea of him that practically grew sentient on its own, it was so old and out of date with who he was and how he felt.
If they ever met again, he had sworn he would kill her, if only to stop what she was trying to turn him into. What she was trying to turn the universe into. The world we came from made physical sense: I was aimed, I fired, and people died. Factories made millions of guns like me, and we all worked according to solid principles, metal intent, behaving in the way we were made, no more and no less. Nothing bendy. Nothing chancy.
Now I am here in this new place with him, and it’s not just that I can’t see what the man thinks he is aiming at. His warm fingers are cooling day by day and growing ever more insubstantial. Men were not made to hop multiverses as he has done. He’s already lived much longer than he should here. The experimental animals came back as carcasses after a few hours.
As his memories collect in me, the rest of this world seems to fade further into the air. But I am also part of him, and so I have his legs to walk with, trying to make sense of this place. Unless those too start fading.
He forgets there was a fourth bullet that I sent, unseeing, after he broke the lantern.
I didn’t miss.
The Lady or the Ōgama
Each night I strove, in the moments when I could stitch this world to the next. It is not enough to spin and weave; the threads must catch the right watchers. And each brane must attach to each knotted thread. The Ōgama was kind enough to be my anchor, to enfold the bullet in its flesh and help me bring everything together to make the bridge work complete.
The Ōgama had grown weary of being old, of the way the villagers didn’t revere its house or scent. Annoyed at how enacting a beautiful woman’s body erased everyone’s perception of its poisonous perfume, its terror and power. It had run this con for centuries, killing one stray traveler at a time, in the way of most horrifying creatures of the night.
But the body heists grew meaningless over the years. So the ancient kami evened the odds for the humans and made each encounter more sporting. In doing so, it made mistakes, possibly dangerous ones, ripping holes in the fabric of its world.
I said to the Ōgama that I understood. I had made my own mistakes, fortunately without others noticing, as I had been vastly underestimated. Women scientists often are, in the beginning of their research.
I could mend all the mistakes, stabilize our two worlds, I told it. The substance of its world would stop leaking away.
The Ōgama had wanted a grand death, worthy of story. It had buried its spear down in the river mud already, it said. It was happy to go beyond.
Not like the old bridge, bitter and jealous to this day at how I co-opted its existence and took its villagers away. The bridge will never regrow a new railing, just as my poor lantern will never greet me again. Still, the spinning wheel is content. And I have my stable conduit.
In quantum physics, watchers affect the outcome, but in this case, the watchers are the outcome. Each curious villager who stared at the Ōgama became my weft and warp, each yielding sinews and gristle to the quantum mesh. And gave their bones to knots tied between this land and the next.
In that way, Takeo’s body is also immortal, strung deep between the worlds. His cells came from my world; to keep the balance, the other world’s brane holds him fast in all the ways I never could. His very blood and bones keep the way open for me to enter.
I will step over him to conquer this world.
Yes, I miss him, but intellectually I know he’s not really gone. His kami remains. Just as before, all we can ever do is talk past each other.
Once I broke the demon toad’s skin, the Lady stepped back into her world of machines and light, leaving a body behind — not her own, of course. Never her own. She makes great use of puppets, human and robotic.
I left a casing behind on the bridge. Tribute to the Lady. But also something else. Another balancing.
Come closer to where you see fireflies rising above the bridge, and the hinted outline of a spinning wheel stretching its connections to particles it has no right to touch. A bit of the poor Ōgama’s stench lingers, but then again, it asked to be eaten and made into something new. What floated away wasn’t its real self. Its yearning went into the other world, beyond the bridge. The Lady’s world. Wonder what the Lady will make of it there, or what it may make of the Lady?
Who has the greater desire? Who is more of a husk?
You might see the shadowy figure of a man staring, heartbroken, aiming his gun. His determination to come back the second day, when he should have kept walking to remake his own, better story. His commitment to death as an outcome. Her commitment to keep him alive forever, in the way she wished to see him.
I sympathize. I am a bullet and make what I touch into something else.
Now, so are you.