We were following the trail up to Daiko’s house all the while I kept a good distance from Mr. Holland. A reminder of his insistence on coming so that he could see for himself what remained of the bones I burned.
“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” he said, and turned to look at me with those set of mismatched eyes. One brown, one gray. “It’s quite obvious that you don’t trust me, and I can’t blame you.”
“No,” I said, “it’s fine. This was my doing anyway.”
Mr. Holland shrugged and we continued up the path. It was around noon and the cicadas weren’t anywhere around to fill in the silent awkwardness that had built up. Mr. Holland stopped in his tracks the moment we reached the front of the house.
“Do you feel it?” he asked.
“There’s something here. An unwelcoming presence, almost as if telling me to leave.”
All I felt was the wind chilling down my skin as winter was creeping in closer. We headed for the back of the house where I buried Daiko’s bones, past the overgrown plants and trees that made sure to make contact with our clothing. One sharp end of a plant was successful in tearing a straight line through Mr. Holland’s shirt, to his dismay.
In the backyard there was a stick planted in the ground where I buried Daiko. By now, however, it was slanted and I suspected the rain had something to do with it. Mr. Holland pointed to it and I nodded my head to confirm that Daiko was in deed buried under the stick. He crouched and began digging with his hands.
“There’s a bowl you can use inside the house,” I insisted, making my way to the back door of the house.
“No need,” said Mr. Holland, already uncovering a piece of Daiko’s remains. “The grave is very shallow. Also, being in touch with the earth, both physically and spiritual, will do good to the body.”
I walked to Daiko’s grave and began helping Mr. Holland. I started where I believed Daiko’s skull to be found, and that was closest to the stick. When I uncovered it, the skull was just as how I left it. Where it used to be a white cream color, was instead a dark charcoal. I picked up the skull and pictured Daiko having once been alive. To me it felt like he was always a spirit.
“Did you know Daiko?” Mr. Holland asked.
“While he was alive,” I said. “No.”
“Did you ever have difficulty seeing his spirit?”
“I thought he was alive the first time I saw him,” I said. “Normally there is a certain level of transparency where I could assume someone was a spirit, but not Daiko’s. He was almost… alive.”
Once we uncovered every piece, Mr. Holland had them neatly structured to form a complete skeleton. I got up and stretched while he counted every piece. It all added up to a little over two hundred individual pieces.
“There’s one piece missing,” he said, scratching his head nearest this bundle of gray hairs. “Can you tell which one?”
“No,” I said, hunched over and hands on my knees. “I don’t know much about the human body.” Mr. Holland pointed to Daiko’s chest.
“It’s the sternum,” he said, and pointed to the middle of his chest.
“Yes,” I said, “but what does it mean?”
“It means the purification you attempted is incomplete.”
He said that, but it was just a nicer way of saying that I failed. I looked up at the sky. The sun was hours from setting and the time when Daiko would appear wouldn’t happen until the following day in the morning. If he was ever still roaming around somehow, I had many times to see him.
“We should return tomorrow in the morning,” said Mr. Holland.
“For what?” I asked. “We need his missing piece, right?”
Mr. Holland got up. “There’s something we have to do before that.”
* * *
Back at the market in my usual spot. The old man was in the middle of a transaction and handing off a wooden carving of a scorpion. On his table were necklaces made with strings of various colors and bracelets to complement them. Little carvings of animals that could be hung on the necklaces and this created a sort of ‘make your own necklace’ shop.
“Why do you always have something different to sell each day?” I asked. The old man ignored me until he received the payment from his patron.
“It’s best to keep the customer guessing,” he explained. “If they always knew the same thing would be sold, then they wouldn’t come as frequently. Now, if you could stop avoiding the subject, what did the priest say?”
“We are going to return to Daiko’s tomorrow. Apparently there’s a bone missing from the remains.”
“Don’t tell me,” said the old man, “the sternum?”
“Yeah,” I said. “How did you know?”
“It was around the time when we had a series of murders in the past. Of the bodies that were uncovered, most had their sternum missing.”
“Why would someone do that?” I asked.
“A trophy, perhaps,” said the old man. “A reminder of what was done? That it was real? I don’t really know. I don’t suppose anyone with a right mind would want to know.”
“Was the culprit ever found?”
“No,” said the old man. “But the murders were getting out of hand, so the village leaders decided to enact a curfew. Which brings to mind. I hope you aren’t roaming around at night.” He paused to take care of a customer and completed the transaction before continuing. “… People might mistake you for the killer.”
“I didn’t know this town had such a history.”
“There’s no need to bring up such a past,” he said. “Do you have a favorite color?”
“March 11th,” I said. I got up and stretched, looked into my cup and saw nothing but a pale red leaf make its home inside. There was a tuck on the cloth of my shirt. The old man was staring.
“Lean forward,” he ordered, and just as I did, he placed a red string necklace over my head and a little carved fish hung at the end.
“I’m retiring the business soon,” he said.
“What?” I asked. Why?”
“I’m getting too old to sit out in the streets every day of the year. And the necklace isn’t just for looks. The wood carving will protect you from evil spirits.”
“… Is what you tell your customers to make the sale,” I commented.
“But I can’t accept this.”
“You can,” he said, “and you will.”
* * *
I looked around the area, far away from the market place to the point I couldn’t see the old man anymore. People were walking in all directions and not miraculously bumping into each other, like a pre-coordinated event. Lam wasn’t around. Just little kids that played tag and became obstacles for others minding themselves.
I looked down at my necklace. It was a carved piece of wood in the image of a fish and I couldn’t help but bend at the ends of my lips. Lam never appeared.
Back at Daiko’s house I gathered wood in the fireplace and had it lit. The house was cold and the holes in the roof didn’t help. I had made sure to clean the kitchen, too, but the rain from a while ago made sure there were always droplets of water welcoming themselves inside. Aside from the water there was no one. No spirits. Not even the bird or cat from before.
I held my bed-sheet by the fire with arms spread out, switching corners every minute until I felt it had absorbed enough heat. I wrapped it around me and sat down with back resting on the sink. It was the warmest I had been in a long time. My eyes welcomed the moment and closed.
When I opened my eyes I was a strange world. The skies were replaced by towns and lights far away in the distance. Mountains and hills stretched far away until the earth’s round shape cut the rest from my view. And when I looked at my feet, below it was the sky and I started falling into the stars.
I woke up. My heart was racing and I was out of breath. I heard a knock in one of the rooms and saw the fire was long gone except for the last pieces of ember glowing in the dark. When I got up, the knock returned once again and repeated once every moment. The knock was coming from the living room, opposite to Daiko’s bedroom. As I got closer, I heard the knock coming from the other side of the door. The entire time my heart rushed. I wrapped my bed sheet tighter and placed my hand over the door knob and stood, waiting.
The knocking stopped. I let go of the knob and returned to the kitchen with every step more rapid than the last one. I covered my head and pushed my legs to my chest. Every part of me was covered under the bed sheet and I shut my eyes tightly.
The knocking returned. This time louder and more violent. A huge bang was made as I ran past the door. Outside and I saw someone holding a torch. I couldn’t slow down in time and collided with him.
“Wha-what’s wrong?” he asked. It was a middle-aged man, Mr. Holland.
“Mister Holland,” I said, and moved off him. I stared back at the house. “What are you doing here?”
“I felt something following me for a while,” he said and I offered him a hand. “Its presence led me back here.”
“We should leave,” I said, taking a step back and away from the house. There was another knock on the door coming from inside. Mr. Holland picked up his torch and took a few steps in the sound’s direction.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, and took another step. “If you believe in them, it only makes stronger.”
He went inside the house while I waited outside. The knock continued. Slow knocks. Then it stopped. Mr. Holland signaled with an open hand to do the same and we stood there, waiting. Now instead of knocks, the only sound that filled the room was my breathing and the fire crackling wood of the torch.
“Have you been in the living room?” asked Mr. Holland.
“Not recently,” I said. “No.”
The living room door slammed open with temperatures becoming freezing to the point I could see my own breath. Mr. Holland pushed me back outside the house.
“It’s vile,” said Mr. Holland. “Thick scented and disturbing.”
“We need to leave!” I yelled and pulled Mr. Holland back until we got outside the house.
“We should be safe away from the house,” he said. ‘Should,’ he said, sounding more and more uncertain.
“From what exactly?!” I said frantically. My voice couldn’t have been any louder.
Mr. Holland made off for the back of the house, and signaled me with his hands to follow. Daiko’s bones was as we had left them. Most of it covered by a thin white sheet of cloth that Mr. Holland placed over the bones. He took it off and laid bare every piece of Daiko long dead and decomposed body.
“What are you doing,” I asked, keeping gaze over the back door of the house. I expected it to open at any moment.
“I’m going to undo the purification.”
Mr. Holland handed me the torch, got on his knees, and took out what looked like a flute from his pocket. He started playing the instrument, making random pitches. There was a glow in the night coming towards us. It was Nahwoye. The spirit dog came up to Mr. Holland and he stopped playing his flute. From Daiko’s back door I heard something attempting to open it, though I’m sure it wasn’t locked.
“Stay back,” Mr. Holland ordered . “That spirit is very disturbed. It still believes itself to be alive.”
“What’s it trying to do?”
“It’s looking for Daiko,” he said. Nahwoye laid on top of Daiko’s remains and barked once. Mr. Holland started praying and as he did, the dark spirit banged on the door with enough force to break one of the hinges. A second time and something sharp pierced through the door. Mr. Holland prayed louder, uttering words I couldn’t understand. The banging on the door stopped. The knob turned and the door creaked opened. There was nothing there. Nothing but the cold air becoming more intense.
“Mister Holland!” I yelled, my throat getting sore. He kept praying. Whatever was knocking before had started becoming visible. Small pockets of darkness were forming in the air, pieces of it growing and connecting towards each until a body was formed. Mr. Holland’s praying grew louder. The dark spirit formed itself into the shape of a person and began walking to Mr. Holland, forming a sharp object by its hand, sharper, more deadly. I moved between them and pushed the torch in its face, and waved it like a mad person.
“Go away!” I yelled, but the dark spirit wasn’t deterred. It kept walking and I took steps backs. I tripped over Mr. Holland’s with the torch burning out as it landed in a puddle of water.
The dark spirit was like a silhouette with the moon behind its frame. It raised its arm and with something sharp in hand. Mr. Holland kept praying and I saw Daiko’s bone undoing its burnt soot black layers. I saw someone come from inside the house, and just as the dark spirit was plunging the knife towards Mr. Holland, it was tackled to the side.
It was Daiko. Both rolled on the floor until Daiko could restrain the dark spirit. It was really him. His spirit visible and so was his brown hair, his gray eyes. Where he made contact with the dark spirit, parts of him were turning black as if being overcome by the dark spirit. Mr. Holland stopped praying and made and echo with a clap of his hands. Both Daiko and the dark spirit vanished.
“It’s done,” said Mr. Holland. Nahwoye got off Daiko and barked while wagging her tail.
“No,” said Mr. Holland. “Now Daiko should return to normal, as he was before you did the purification.” He offered me his hand and helped me get on my feet.
“What about his memories?”
“… Likely gone,” he said.
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Thanks for reading.