I walk the familiar paths and find them strange. The woods, which were once my refuge, become darker and more forbidding with each passing day. The walls of the hedge maze have come alive, my children and now my grandchildren tell me, and in the grotto grows a monstrous cherry tree no one planted.
Though once a place of childhood fun, it brings nightmares to my youngest. I find myself weeping, as though I grieve for a forgotten shadow.
We all feel it; the laughter is gone from this place. Instead the hedges are audience to silence, deafening in its sorrow.
I am the last to brave the ancient paths that circle my family’s ancestral home. Step by step, the whispers grow. They are the trusted, heartfelt warnings of a friend long gone. If only I remembered her. I am sure it is a woman. Sometimes, I almost think I could see her if only I were quick enough. That she will be waiting just beyond the next hedge.
The soft tread on the other side of the living walls, always leading to the cherry. The faint, gentle perfume, so out of place among the sharp, sweet tang of the evergreens. The echoing sob from somewhere far off. She is there, I am sure.
It is unnerving, in a family so attuned to the realm of spirits, that none of us are sure of what haunts our home. She is familiar but unknown, and stays apart from us with obstinate, heartbreaking consistency. So much so that we, the Kurohana who converse so freely with the intangible and unnamed, whose honor and fortune lie in our confrontations with the world beyond the living, begin to doubt our senses.
But we cannot doubt the silent threat that lies in the wood beyond the maze. Like the sorrow of the maze, the menace of the forest grows, like a slumbering giant in a tumultuous sleep.
The woman in the maze whispers urgently; to beware, to fear – as if a Kurohana has ever had to fear our own land or any land on account of spirits. But I obey. We all feel it.
The woods of the mountain and the maze are no longer places for the living, if in truth they ever were. The gates to the maze have been barred and the woods forbidden. Maybe, someday, our lands will be purged of this nameless evil. Perhaps then, the spirit that warns us, for whom I grieve, will be given rest. But I fear it will not be in my lifetime, nor in the lives of my children. I am old now, and the magic is leaving our blood. I will continue to pray.
It is all I can do.