“You burned every piece?” asked the old man.
“Every piece that I could find,” I said, taking my seat on the cold ground. The old man went on with selling his small wares and trinkets, little cups with carvings of animals, and finely cut pieces of wood painted with beautiful scenery. One in particular caught my eye, it was a ship sailing through a rough storm and neatly placed stars shining in its background. I looked away as soon as I saw how much the old man was selling it for. Nothing I could afford even if I saved for a month or two, not when food is more important. I took out my empty cup and held it out in front of me.“I haven’t seen him since.”
“… You won’t get much silver or copper waiting this time around,” said the old man. In the next few hours, people came and went. Few stopped shortly to browse through what the old man was selling; fewer still paused to even look in my direction. It went like this until dusk, with the sun being replaced by lanterns hung on the streets and poles, fueled on one stick of wax and warning everyone to pack their things before there was nothing left to burn.
“I only got one bronze coin,” I looked into my cup. “Is it going to be like this until spring?”
“Most likely,” he said, packing his things carefully into boxes. “You should think about stocking up on food to pass the winter without worry.”
“No one is offering work,” I said. “I don’t want to steal anymore.” Just thinking about getting caught would make my stomach turn, and there was this chance that I wouldn’t be welcomed in town anymore, not with the strict rules we have about living here.
“The last person caught stealing was left off with a warning,” said the old man, as if he had read my mind, “a second time is what you should avoid.”
I gave the old man the only coin I had, and in return he held out a loaf of bread.
“But that’s too much,” I said, eyes beaming and my heart telling me this wasn’t right. The old man shoved the bread into my chest and wouldn’t hear another word of it.
“That’s all I can give you,” he said.
“I’m grateful,” I told him, getting up and feeling my back ached from sitting all day. “Thank you.”
* * *
That night I had a dream about Daiko fishing near the river, calmly waiting for something to take his bait. I had sat next to him and saw all the fish swimming in circles of colors, red, blue, yellow, and many others. We sat there without uttering a single word. I blinked once and Daiko was gone. A second blink and all the fish did the same. I tried keeping myself away from a third, but soon felt sharp flick hit my head waking me from a dream about to seemingly turn into a nightmare.
There was a strong wing letting itself inside. Thick raindrops fell on my head and I saw the source coming from a whole in my ceiling. I sat up. My little house creaked and moved violently back and forth, as if wanting to give in to the will of the wind. I got out of bed and placed whatever was nearby on the bed sheet, tied it together and hurried outside. Just a moment after and the roof started cracking and crumbling onto itself until what remained was something I couldn’t call home. Thunder had struck somewhere in the nearby forests, forcing me to jolt in surprise. The cold rain had me shiver, and the only warmth had come from streaks of water falling down my cheeks.
* * *
I found myself in front of Daiko’s house, and surprised that his place could so easily withstand the storm as old and worn as the house was. When I opened the door the rain seeped inside, fallen drips of wetness mixed in with the dusty floor and the only moments of real visibility I had came from bouts of lightning. I couldn’t tell the shivering caused by the cold weather apart from the shaking fear in my hands, and I wanted to curse from the top of my lungs, just not in this house. Not in Daiko’s house.
“Daiko,” I whispered. There was nothing but the sound of rain drumming on the rooftop.
In the dark there was this very faint light coming from his bedroom, moving away as I got closer. I opened the door and found a little bird hopping around as if searching for something. I reached for it. My fingers went through its brown feathers and it began chirping. If the bird’s spirit wanted to, I don’t think even thick sheets of metal or wood could stop it from flying away.
I breathed in, and out. I wiped the floor in the room and made sure it was clean before bringing in my belongings. Of what remained, there was a set combs, scissors, a dress with washed out colors, some left-over bread that the old man had given me, and lastly the jar of honey I took from Daiko’s cabinet.
I sat in the corner of the room, placed my knees to my chest and let my tears flow freely. The bird chirped and looked at the ceiling. There was nothing there but the it kept moving around and looking as if following something I couldn’t see. I dried my cheeks. The bird jumped and chirped like a child would after seeing their parent come home. Then instead of joy, the bird hopped and flapped its wings but it wasn’t enough to fly.
From the bedroom door entered a cat. The spirit of one with its paws mostly transparent, and it eyed the bird as if looking at its dinner. I got between the two but the cat ignored me.
“Get out!” I yelled. The cat walked through me and I knew that trying to grab it would do nothing, but I still tried. The cat hissed loudly, ran outside the bedroom and vanished out the kitchen as I followed it. When I checked up on the bird, it was gone. The bedroom grew colder than before. Much like being in winter when the first sheets of snow-covered everything from the green pine trees around the forest, to the mountains and hills that were visible from the home I grew up. Except this cold wasn’t welcoming me to create snow angels.
The only other thing that reminded me of this feeling was that thing I saw attacking Daiko. I ran towards the hallway and saw that the kitchen was empty. The dark spirit wasn’t there, but I could feel something new mixed in with the cold. Something bad. It was freezing, more intense like I was buried in deep in snow. I fell to my knees and felt something was trying to yank me out from my own body. I wanted to yell from the top of my lungs and ask for something to end me!
It lasted only a second. I coughed, my eyes watered and faced heated. I slammed my fist to my thigh.
“Come on!” I yelled, struggling to balance myself against the wall, “get up!”
I heard a loud thump coming from Daiko’s bedroom. When my legs finally listened, I ran for the door not looking back.
* * *
The storm passed. I headed to the market, leaving all my stuff at Daiko’s. I found the old man selling different items from yesterday. Writing utensils, chiseled statues that can fit in my palm, and bracelets made of strings and rare pieces of colored shells I remembered to be considered good luck. Anything to keep my mind off of what happened at Daikos. I sat on my usual spot.
“You’re late,” said the old man. I held out my cup to people passing by. “I heard rumors that a house in an alley had fallen on itself during the storm.”
“It wouldn’t happen to be your house?” he asked. I’m sure he already knew but I still answered.
“Yeah..” I said, and he sighed.
“Don’t get yourself into trouble. The last thing I need is worrying over a homeless girl.”
“… Sorry.” I held my knees to my chest and placed one arm inside my shirt.
“Well,” said the old man. “where are you living now? Can’t be that you stayed out in that bad weather?”
“I stayed at Daiko’s for a while,” I explained. “No one lives there anymore. I think.”
“You think?” he asked. “Did you see anything?”
“I don’t know,” I said, lowering my voice. “I didn’t see anything.” Not a person. Nor a human spirit.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sure.”
“Maybe you didn’t see it right.”
“My eyes are perfectly fine,” I said.
“Maybe you should get them checked out,” he said. “Our eyes change over time, you know.”
“I didn’t see anyone at the house!” I yelled, startling an old lady in front of me with a coin in hand, ready to drop it into my cup. She left and took her with her. “Ah—no, wait!” I got up, holding my cup to her. I saw everyone’s stares from all directions; I must have looked like a crazy person. I sat back on the ground and hid my face with my shirt above my head.
“Is there something wrong with my vision?” I asked.
“I’m the wrong person to ask,” he said. “Usually, the more involved someone becomes with spirits, the more those same spirits become attached to those involved. Wanting for someone to see them.”
“So, what?” I said. “My eyes are trying to keep me from seeing?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I heard this from a friend. He’s the town priest, perhaps you should ask him to help you.”
“Do I have to pay him?”
“No, no,” said the old man. “Nothing like that. If anything, you’d be the one helping him.”
“He was the one we relied on to find Daiko. You see, Daiko was popular around town many years ago. He would sell fish that others found hard to catch and made his living from that.”
“You knew him?”
“No,” said the old man. “Those that knew him had a taste for fish. Unfortunately that excluded me. And when he didn’t come down to the market for a week, we thought something happened to him.”
“And.. what was found in his house…” I said.
“There was blood, just blood. That’s why we had the priest look into it when the search party was unable to find a body, but in the end he was never able to find Daiko either.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“He just never saw Daiko,” said the old man, “I assumed it just never appeared.”
“Yes,” he said. “We thought perhaps Daiko had nothing holding him back in this land and so the priest couldn’t be able to see Daiko.”
“But I saw him.”
“True. I never thought his body was so close,” the old man paused, and offered his hand to me as I used it to get up. “So you’ll see the priest for help?”
“It’s better than waiting all day for nothing,” I said. “And you won’t stop bothering me unless I do it.”
“I’m old,” he said. “If add more to my worries, I’ll only shorten what little time we old people have. Just be sure to take care of yourself if you want me to live longer.”
I left after getting directions to the priest. There were fewer people wandering the streets while the roads were just starting to dry. If anything, the gravel added on the street surface made it more pleasant to be out and not having to worry about our feet getting absorbed into the mud. I stopped. I saw the little ghost girl standing in the middle of the street.
“Hello?” I greeted her. Those little dark brown eyes she had moved to look at me.
“Can you see me?” she asked. I nodded. “Can you really see me?”
“Yes,” I said, giving her a smile. “Where were you headed?”
Her eyes changed, like they had become hollow. She started walking, and I kept close making sure not to lose sight of her. We walked to one side of town for about ten minutes, passing block after block of houses. Blacksmiths were pounding their hammers, craftsmen were cutting large pieces of wood and making doors, tables, and chairs out of them. We reached a house and the girl passed through the door. I looked inside from the window and saw a family gathered around the fireplace. There was a framed painting of a girl with her name carved “Lam,” it read. It looked just like the ghost girl. Flowers rested near the fire and candles were lit by the picture. Wax melted off the edge of the candle and fell down the floor.
I saw Lam’s spirit standing in the middle of the room. Some of the more mature people were sitting while the younger ones were offering them drinks. Lam continued upstairs and never come back down. The front door of the house opened and before I knew it, I saw a bread flying at me and hitting my forehead. It was a very hard piece of bread as it left a my forehead stinging.
“Take the bread and leave!” yelled someone at the door. “We don’t have time for you!” I glared at him and he went back inside the house. I picked up the bread and returned to where I first found Lam. I looked up and saw the sun directly over me and continued walking to where the priest could be found.
* * *
“Excuse me,” I said, letting myself into the house where people pray to spirits.
“Come in, come in,” said a dry and mature voice. There were rows of chairs all facing small shrines of animals. I if recalled correctly, these were guardian spirits. I saw a man’s head had popped up from of the chairs to look at me. “We hold group prayers on Sunday, among other things.”
“I need help with something,” I said.
“We can help you on Sunday,” he said, moving his head out of sight.
“Then why did you let me in?”
“Oh,” he said. He popped his head out again. “I thought you needed to pray to a spirit by yourself. Sorry, I can’t help you until Sunday.”
“So you are the priest of this place?”
“Of course,” he said.
I made my way past the rows of chairs. He was gazing up at the ceiling and I saw fish, dozens of them, some red, yellow, brown, even ones that were colored green. This was a familiar sight, like the ones I had seen in my dream.
“Can you see them?” he asked, pointing at the ceiling.
“I sometimes see fish swimming around on the ceiling,” he explained. “I think it was about a hundreds years ago when this land was first discovered. The area around here used to be a lake but then it dried up for some reason.”
“What are the fish like?” I asked, and he sat up on the chair.
“They would come into view for a brief second before disappearing,” he said, “I might have seen some red fish and maybe even green.”
I looked at the fish again. All of them were in view and they wouldn’t vanish. I remembered the old man telling me to keep it a secret that I can see spirits, but this guy blurted it out not long after we first met.
“That’s fine though, not many people can see them,” he said. “The real question is, do you believe in them?”
“Believe in them how?”
“Do you pray?”
“What would anyone pray for?”
“… We pray to the guardian spirits for protection, so that we can be safe from harm,” he said. “The fact that we continue to believe is what nurtures these spirits. It’s a mutual relationship that both the spirit and its believers benefit from.”
“… I don’t pray.”
“Well,” said the priest, “you should try it sometime. It’s a blessing when you can interact with spirits and ask them for help.” The room grew cold in the form of a nice cold breeze. I heard a dog bark and saw it on my left wagging its tail.
“Is that your dog?” I asked. The priest looked at me confused.
“I call her Nahwoye,” he said. I reached for the dog to pet her thick white fur. My hand slipped right through and I heard the priest chuckle. He looked me straight in the eyes and I noticed his eyes, one brown and one gray. “Others call her Solace, she’s a guardian spirit.”