Chapter 1:

[Akemi] — Something to Live a Thousand Years For

Questionable Days with Yokai — Volume 2

Over one thousand years ago, Akemi was a normal river otter. She could not speak like a human, nor could she transform into one. She did not wear a kimono, and she did not know the taste of saké. Her life was a simple one. But it was not peaceful.

Memories of her regular otter life were vague. She knew that she must have had a mother, who nursed her, protected her, and taught her how to hunt underwater and forage on land. It was highly unlikely her father stuck around for any of that though. And after a year, Akemi had to venture off on her own and fend for herself. Over time she forgot her mother, and any siblings she may have had.

Akemi would eventually have a family of her own. She surely interacted with other otters at least, and at some point likely rolled around with a male and had some babies. She would have cared for them on her own, same as her mother did. And then they would have all left her, just as she had left her mother.

Akemi was pretty sure she went through this process a few times. Though specifics were hazy, she knew there were times when foxes, raccoon dogs, or hawks devoured some of her children. And there were times she barely escaped with her own life. She also learned from a young age to watch for traps laid by humans, and to flee at the first sign of their dogs. Of all her predators, Akemi found humans the most unsettling, because they didn’t hunt otters to eat them—they sought the otters’ dense and lush fur coats.

That said, it wasn’t like Akemi found humans to be any worse than otters. Whenever she was in trouble, she could not rely on any otters she knew to help her, no matter how much time she had spent with them. If she were ever to be ensnared, no otter would risk its life to free her. And whenever a predator gave chase—well, it was every otter for itself. Meanwhile, she was well-aware of how many otters raped, tortured, and killed for sport, and how it was common practice for otters to take over the riverbank dens of other animals and steal their food.

By the time she had lived a decade, Akemi had distanced herself from the other otters in her territory, and had stopped having babies. She never considered instilling any particular purpose in her life—such a concept had yet to take root in her mind. So she simply focused on surviving from one day to the next. This went fine for her up until one early autumn night, she found herself cornered by a lumbering black bear at least three times her size. The bears of this region typically ate plants, nuts, and berries—but they were content to feed on smaller animals too, when given the opportunity.

Akemi dashed to slip past the robust creature, but the bear struck its paw against her with terrible force and accuracy. Its thick claws tore into her side, and sent her limp body flying directly against the base of a tree. There were only a few seconds of intense pain before everything went dark. Her mind didn’t have time to even process that she was dying, let alone attempt to think back on her life. But before she lost consciousness entirely, she heard a human shouting—and then a tremendously loud blast, like the snap of lightning.

She could not make sense of the human’s speech, and she could not understand where the lightning had come from on a cloudless night. But this chance encounter would not only save Akemi’s life, but completely alter the course of it forever.

* * *

When Akemi came to, she couldn’t move a muscle. Her body ached tremendously, and where she had been clawed in particular stung bitterly—but she did not feel overwhelmed by the pain. Still, she cried out a slow, hollow, weary, and disoriented squeak. She couldn’t lift up her head, let alone attempt standing up. It took all her energy just to open her eyes a crack.

Her whereabouts were entirely foreign to her at the time, but she was in a small ramshackle hut in the forest, lying atop a soft pile of kimono fabric on a worn-out tatami floor.

A human walked into her line of vision. She did not yet have enough knowledge of humans to be able to describe him beyond “big and scary,” but he was a large middle-aged man with an unkempt beard and short scraggly hair. Likewise, Akemi didn’t know anything about human apparel—but he was dressed in dark, dirty clothes: a ragged jacket, loose patched-up trousers, and straw sandals that were starting to fall apart.

Though he was imposing—as large and intimidating as the bear had been—Akemi found his eyes to appear strangely... gentle? At least, they weren’t the steely eyes of a hunter preparing to strike. Akemi knew for a fact that humans were dangerous to otters. But somehow, this one seemed different.

There was no way for her to be certain, but she believed this human had scared the bear away with the loud noise she’d interpreted as a lightning strike. Afterward, had he brought her to this place—presumably his home? But for what purpose? All Akemi could guess was that he wanted her pelt, or possibly intended to eat her. In either case though, it made no sense for her to be kept alive like this. It would have been very simple for the human to finish her off while she was out cold.

The human made some noises, perhaps attempting to communicate with Akemi. There was no way for her to understand his gibberish, but he didn’t sound threatening. He placed two smooth shallow pieces of wood on the floor directly in front of Akemi’s face—one filled with water, the other holding a small chunk of river trout. Akemi was both famished and parched... but she couldn’t move her head. And even more so, she couldn’t believe a human was going to all this trouble for her. He hunted for the sake of an otter... Was this some kind of trap? Or...

Are you my mother?

It had been years since Akemi last thought of her mother, but now here was a human of all things making her feel... something. She could not yet describe this feeling, much less make sense of it.

Again, the human tried to communicate with her. She wished she could discern the meaning of his low yet placid growls. More than her desire to eat, to drink, and to survive... she yearned to understand this human.

What does he want from me?

The human knelt down on the floor and stared directly into her eyes... Was he going to skin her? Or eat her?

He placed one of his paw’s fingers on the back of Akemi’s head, and gently stroked it.

Maybe... this really is my mother...

It was common for otters to groom each other, but the way this human brushed her fur reminded Akemi so much of her mother’s comfort. For the first time in years, Akemi felt safe. Reassured. At ease. She couldn’t help but wonder if she had died, and she was now beginning some strange new life.

With each calming stroke down her back, Akemi felt a little more energy return to her. It took some time, but she eventually managed to work up the strength to get some water down her throat, and to take a couple bites of the fish.

The expression on the human’s face shifted, but it was entirely unreadable to Akemi. His mouth arced upward, as did the thin bits of fur above his eyes. And most curiously, his eyes glistened.

With every faint trace of might within her, Akemi pushed herself to survive... But not simply because of her own natural instinct.

She wanted to find out what that expression on the human’s face meant.

* * *

Each day, the human would place something over Akemi’s wound. At the time she had thought of it as a leaf of some kind, but it was actually a healing talisman. It wasn’t too powerful, but under his circumstances at the time it was the best the human could manage.

With each passing day, Akemi found herself feeling a little better. The human continued to give her food and water, and he could even warm the den on cold evenings with a fire. Though her instincts told her she was in great danger being this close to a human, she soon found herself feeling safer than she had ever been before. The human would even check on her each night before retiring to his own resting spot, petting her gently or scratching her chin.

She would then watch him fall asleep, noting the way his face’s expression would usually shift. His shut mouth would tighten, and the thin bits of fur above his eyes would point downward sharply. At times he would turn in his sleep, repeatedly adjusting his position in discomfort—or at least, that was how Akemi interpreted it. She could only guess what was troubling him.

He has a nice, safe, and warm den. And plenty of food...

He was all alone though, Akemi realized.

Perhaps his mate left him... It was always a stressful time for Akemi whenever her mate took off, at least. But she was always too focused on raising her litter to give any of her partners much thought afterward. Maybe because humans could survive more easily, they had more time to think about things of this sort. And maybe that distressed them in ways Akemi had yet to fully grasp.

* * *

After a week had passed, Akemi was able to move about the human’s den without difficulty. She had eaten all the fish that was provided for her, and now she had the desire to hunt and forage for more food on her own.

The human awoke while Akemi was shuffling about the den and sniffing at all the unfamiliar things scattered about—things that had once been trees or rocks, but had been reshaped by humans in one way or another. Everything was curious and uncanny, but some part of her otter brain continued warning her to go away. Really, she should have fled the place as soon as she was the slightest bit capable of doing so...

But she didn’t want to leave. She felt indebted to the human. He had saved her life, and she didn’t even know why. If there was any way she could understand this human, she was determined to find it.

He was kneeling near the entry to his den, motioning toward the forest outside. The human made some noises, again likely trying to communicate with Akemi. She guessed he was encouraging her to return to her own home, to be among the other otters at the river once more. Chances were the river wasn’t far from here, and that it wouldn’t take long for her to find parts of the forest she was familiar with.

Akemi crawled over to him, and looked up at his face. She couldn’t expect him to understand any of her words, but maybe he could at least guess the feeling she wished to convey to him.

Please, please, please. Know that I am grateful to you, for saving my life.

Akemi turned every which way as she squeaked, meek and jittery.

Please, please, please. Let me know if there is any way I can repay you, for caring for me.

She stood up on her hind legs, then returned to all fours, back and forth, her whiskers twitching.

Please, please, please. I want to stay with you. I wish... we could understand each other.

The human did not turn away. He studied her closely, but not in the way a predator prepares to lunge for its prey. If he listened carefully enough, would he be able to make out her words? Akemi made as concentrated an effort as she could possibly muster.

“Puh... Puh... ee... eeee... eeeeee... ease...”

The human’s eyes widened. Akemi’s immediate instinct was to flee, but she forced herself to stay put. She felt she was on the verge of getting through to him. Even if it would cost her life, she had to keep going. She had to cross the barrier that separated their species.

“Puh... ease... Plea... ease... Please. Please. Please.”

The human smiled. Akemi didn’t know how, but she recognized it as a smile. The human was happy to hear her speak.

“So you’ve become a yokai then, have you?” the human said.

The sounds coming out of the human’s mouth... Akemi understood them.

Well, all except for the word yokai. Perhaps that meant an otter that can speak to humans, or something along those lines.

Not fully understanding why, Akemi decided to bow her head. “Can I... stay... with you... human?” She glanced upward, and saw him nod his head.

“If you wish,” he said, his voice deep and gravelly. “But I warn you, I can’t promise you safety or happiness. My life is a perilous one, and a sorrowful one.”

That didn’t sound so different from the life she had been living. If her time with this human would prove perilous and sorrowful, it at least would be so in a new and potentially rejuvenating way.

Her response came out as squeaks at first, but she managed to correct herself. “I... I wish to stay. Thank you. Thank you for... saving me, human.”

“Please call me Ichijo.”

“Ichijo... My name is Akemi.” She bowed again, then looked up into Ichijo’s eyes. “Tell me... Why were you there in the forest? Why did you save me from the bear?”

Ichijo sighed. “I happened to be following the bear. I was trying to decide... Well, it’s hard to explain. I don’t think you’d understand.”

“Please, please, please. I want to know. We can speak now. I can try. I can try to understand.”

“Very well.” Ichijo smiled a bit, but Akemi could tell it was forced and fragile. “I was trying to decide if I should offer myself to the bear. Let it tear me apart. Maul me to death.”

“You’re right, I... don’t understand. But maybe one day I will.”

“I hope you never do.”

Akemi could understand the words, but not their hidden meaning. She decided to move on for now though, and repeated her question of why Ichijo saved her.

Ichijo clasped his hands together on his lap. “I understand bears need to eat. And that shortly after I scared it away, it very well could have devoured some other creature, one just as living as you are. So what I did made no logical sense. I didn’t know you. I had never seen you before.”

“So... why?”

“Because you reminded me of her. I saw you facing an insurmountable crisis, and I thought of her. I thought of my wife.”

“Your... wife?” It took a moment for Akemi to interpret the word. “Ah, your mate. Where is she?”

Ichijo shakily forced that small fragile smile back on his face. His eyes glistened.

“She died. I killed her.”

Akemi did not understand, but she wanted to.

...And one day she would. In fact, she would come to understand so well, that when she would gain the ability to take on a human form, it would be an exact likeness of that woman.

The daughter of the emperor, betrothed to Ichijo no Shunzai for his unparalleled feats as an onmyoji. Terumi Obayashi.

“If it pains you to kill, then I shall kill for you,” Akemi would one day tell Ichijo. “And if it pains you to die, then I shall die for you.”

Kuromaru (クロまる)