It’s the one-year anniversary for the release of my ghost book, and I decided the best way to celebrate would be by announcing its sequel. It currently has the working title of I’m (Sort of) an Expert on Ghostly Rituals, but I will probably refer to it as Ghost Book 2 most of the time. I have given this story a lot of thought for a while now, and over the last couple months I’ve managed to work out a plot and write the first few chapters. I still have a ways to go.
I plan to post the full book online once it is finished, meaning it won’t be up until after it has gone through all the necessary rounds of revising, editing, proofreading, and formatting. In the meantime, I will try to make sure there are a few more Healing Stories uploaded along the way. I don’t want to leave the site too dormant while I work on this book…
As a Halloween treat, I will go ahead and post a prologue I wrote for Ghost Book 2. This is a flashback chapter about an event in Naoki’s childhood, so it’s something a bit different from what the rest of the book will entail. I am not 100% decided on whether or not I will include this in the final release, actually–and either way, it may be edited in any number of ways (so please don’t consider it a polished draft). I hope it will be something interesting to read for now though, regardless.
A Prologue, in which I Get the Terrible Idea of Considering the Ghost-Hunting Vocation
I had nothing to do, so I stared at the tiny brown moths perched on the wall of a silent old hovel at the town outskirts. For a good ten minutes or so, I did nothing but watch the moths, curious to see if they would move. Even when I stuck my face close to a few of them, the insects remained fastened to the wall, never moving even the slightest bit.
Were the moths asleep? I had to wonder if a moth could stick to a random wall and just stay there for months at a time, doing nothing. At that point it wasn’t really a moth anymore—it was just a blemish. A blotchy wood stain.
Since there was clearly nobody home, I knocked on the wall a few times to try forcing a reaction from the moths. None of them moved. Were they even alive? Most insects would fly away if they felt threatened, but these clueless things wouldn’t even skitter about in confusion. I snapped a finger directly behind one of the larger moths. Not a twitch.
These moths may have been alive in some technical sense, but I would never consider them living creatures. They spent their lives doing absolutely nothing, as far as I could tell. No sense of self-preservation. Here I was, a thousand times bigger than any of them, and the thought of flying away did not even seem to enter their puny brains. Their thoughts could not process anything beyond eat, fly, and mate, and even then only if they really felt like bothering to go through with the effort. Maybe on a whim, sure—but none of these things were on their agenda. They had no agenda. No plans, no expectations, no dreams. None of those useless things.
Those lucky little bastards.
In the past I might have said my favorite animal was the cat, which could just lie in the sun all day without a care in the world. But even the laziest of cats had to make some effort to get food and to not get eaten by some other animal. And cats were always getting into pointless fights.
But these moths appeared to have perfected the art of effortless existence. Living wasn’t the right word for them, as they didn’t care to live. They perhaps saw me and were well aware I could destroy them all, but they weren’t going to dwell on it. What could they do about it? There was no point trying to cheat death when it was such a thoroughly unavoidable fate. If I die, I die. What does it matter? the moths seemed to squeak at me in a raspy old voice.
I poked one of the moths directly. It spasmed a bit, flying into the wall to the left and right of my hand. After a few strenuous seconds of effort, it froze onto another nearby spot on the wall. That was enough excitement to last me twenty lifetimes, the moth may very well have muttered under its breath. It hadn’t tried flying away to save itself. What I had witnessed was a mere physical reaction. An automatic thing like yawning when you’re tired, squinting when a dark room is suddenly lit, or reflexively kicking your leg out after being hit in the right spot below the knee cap.
I smiled at the bugs. For all fifteen years of my existence, I had been told day in and day out that I needed to get a life. These worthless moths had no life in any sense of the word, but look how peaceful they were! They were… happy? No, they were content. Perhaps in my next life I could be born an unassuming and unaffected moth. The kind of thing that nobody would care to even spare a passing glance for.
Well, almost nobody. I had just spent about a half hour watching them, after all. But did I really count?
In the center of town there was a grouping of small restaurants I loitered around almost every day, typically in the late afternoon or early evening. It was summer, so I arrived as late as I could, near the time of sunset. The restaurants shared a dozen or so squat two-legged wooden stools, which worked well enough both for sitting on and for holding up a shogi game board. By ordering something from one of their menus, a board and set of pieces could be borrowed for the sake of passing an hour or two away with a game.
Small wagers with travelers and a decent win-loss record enabled me the funds necessary to order something small each evening. Tonight I asked for the usual, which the restaurant worker understood to mean a very small bowl of rice and a cup of green tea. The meal was for the sake of the game, and the game was for the sake of passing time.
And passing time was for the sake of…
I didn’t bother continuing this train of thought. Instead I set up the shogi board in anticipation of the arrival of my expected opponent: the mysterious “ghost woman” Nakashima-san. I had encountered her the first evening of her arrival in this town, and we agreed to play a game of shogi each night for as long as she remained here—likely a couple weeks, she had said. Tonight was to be our sixth evening together.
So far I had won three games and lost two, with every match being a close one. Nakashima-san was without a doubt one of the most interesting people I had ever played shogi against, thanks to her unorthodox playing style accompanied by her unusual personality in general. It was unusual for me to play against a woman at all in the first place, actually. And of course, she was the only onmyoji I had ever met, period.
I had my doubts that this was her true profession, but I decided to at least entertain the possibility while in her presence. The idea that I was interacting with a ghost hunter was amusing, to say the least.
She arrived while I was still setting up the game board. Accompanying her was a man dressed in black, a katana at his side. Nakashima-san had introduced him as her traveling companion a few days ago, and he had left before I got the chance to really speak with him. It looked like that was going to be the case again today.
“I will return here after the meeting concludes,” he said to Nakashima-san.
She simply nodded, and the dour-looking man walked away without a second glance. I still didn’t know his name, or what business it was he engaged in while away from Nakashima-san. So far she had been quite reluctant to reveal much of anything about herself or anyone she associated with, which I did not feel either pleased or displeased about. I didn’t care to talk about myself either, after all.
“Not a very heartfelt exchange,” I noted while placing down the pawn tiles on my side of the board. “Your boyfriend will leave you for good if you can’t act at least a little cute around him.”
Nakashima-san wore a very tired expression on her face, and now that I thought about it, she seemed to always carry herself in a countenance of weariness and exhaustion. Perhaps the ghosts kept her up all night.
“Not everyone cares for cute things,” she said in a quiet voice, not even bothering to insist that she and her bodyguard were not engaged in any sort of romantic relationship. She had explained as much on a previous evening, but I still took the opportunity to poke fun where I could.
Nakashima-san was reportedly at least ten years older than I was, making her over twenty-five years of age—but she acted more like she was fifty. Her languid and listless demeanor served as a strange contrast to her appearance, which in a painting at least could have easily presented her as approachable and, indeed, perhaps even cute. She wore a bright orange yukata that incorporated a lavender floral pattern, all of which felt entirely at odds with her personality. Everything else about her seemed straightforward though, with her plain long hair, dark sullen eyes, and what constituted an average height and figure for a woman in her mid-twenties.
Well, save for one—or rather, two—obvious exceptions. To put it one way, Nakashima-san was a healthy and well-rounded individual. Or to put it another way, she quite possibly had the largest breasts I had ever seen a woman carry. They weren’t so voluminous that I would deem them excessive, but they definitely stood out… It was just something one couldn’t help but notice; I wasn’t lusting after her or anything.
Besides, I wasn’t interested in older women in the first place. And if the woman in question was Nakashima-san specifically, it wasn’t hard to imagine she would be far too much trouble to have any kind of meaningful relationship with. The whole thing with her traveling from place to place, acting like an onmyoji—or actually being an onmyoji, should that somehow be the case—sounded like a terrible hassle to deal with. Perhaps I should have pitied the man who had to accompany her through all that nonsense.
Nakashima-san sat down opposite me and started the game. Our match went about slowly, as we each tried to utilize new strategies based on what we understood of one another’s playing styles from the previous five exchanges. I did not mind how long the average turn took—I had nothing better to do, after all. And Nakashima-san had explained briefly once that these shogi matches helped clear her mind a bit, and marked a clear divide between her regular efforts within “daytime investigation” and “nighttime investigation.” She did not go into detail of what these efforts entailed, and I did not press her to expound. Our focus was on the game, our daily reprieve from the responsibilities of reality.
As the match waged on, Nakashima-san managed to take advantage of an opening I left in a gamble, and I quickly found several of my pieces captured by her hand. She effectively proceeded to use her subsequent turns to drop the pieces back on the playing field, converting them into soldiers of her own army. It was an unfortunate turn of events, but I managed to at least hold the new opponents at bay effectively enough to keep the situation from turning any worse.
“You’re quick to force captured pieces to bend to your will,” I said. “A sentiment carried over from your line of work, I imagine?”
Without missing a beat, Nakashima-san responded, “Ghost hunting is more about being persuasive, rather than forceful.”
As was habit, I did not ask her to elaborate. I focused on my next move, and she in turn focused on hers.
Eventually I managed to make a gradual comeback, promoting a piece here and capturing a piece there. Every now and then she would catch me off guard, but I had enough of a back-up plan in each instance to prevent another tragedy from ensuing. After a shaky start, the match had become very much the sort of tight race that was the norm for the two of us.
I felt good about it. It was the sort of match that I would not be upset over should I lose, and would be quite pleased with should I win. Nakashima-san presented just the right level of challenge for me to work with to make things interesting.
“You know how to make the most of a trying situation,” Nakashima-san said. “I wonder if that says anything about you.” There was no discernible emotion on her face, as her attention was still on the board.
“My strategies in games rarely emulate any aspect of my lifestyle,” I replied. “There are no idler, miscreant, or vagabond pieces in shogi.”
“There are losers though,” Nakashima-san said, gesturing to a couple of my captured pieces off the board. “However… shogi is a unique game, in that the losers actually get a second chance.” She pointed at my rook she had captured and subsequently placed back on the board.
“They’re no better liked in their homeland though,” I said. “In fact, it would probably be better for them to have died as martyrs, rather than live on as traitors.”
Nakashima-san placed an elbow on her knee and rested her head in her hand. For a moment she looked like she might just take a nap, but instead she gazed over at me with half-closed eyes. “The captured pieces are a lot like ghosts, I think. They have been defeated, but show up again to make things more difficult for everyone who gets involved with them. It’s not so much that they are hateful though… It’s just kind of how the game works.”
I did not follow her line of thought, to be perfectly honest. I found it neither agreeable nor disagreeable. Ghosts did not affect my day-to-day life in the slightest bit, so as far as I was concerned they were not a thing that actually existed. With nothing to add to Nakashima-san’s observation, I returned my focus to the game.
The game went on without either of us saying much. Nothing beyond light commentary on our match. About an hour later, Nakashima-san finally won. I had worked hard to try making a comeback, and things had been improving slowly but surely—but in the end, the effort simply wasn’t enough to make up for my earlier mistakes.
It felt a little foretelling. If this match really were to be likened to my life, I couldn’t help but imagine that any future efforts I might make to turn my life around would never be enough to make up for past years of failure. Fate was a harsh and unforgiving force that governed this world—fighting it was akin to a worm trying to fight off a bird. Like those philosophers mused in days of old, if it’s impossible to swim against the rushing river, you might as well float along downstream. Granted, there is probably a waterfall at the end of it, but hey… Might as well go out in style.
There were philosophers who mused all this, right? Perhaps I was adding my own interpretation of things, but in my mind at least it all felt sound.
“You fought well, Tsunoda-san. Same time tomorrow then?”
“That’s fine with me.”
With this empty exchange of farewells, Nakashima-san took her leave. I watched her walk away, past the restaurants and on down the path toward the eastern part of town. Where she was headed to precisely, I could only guess. A part of me couldn’t help but feel curious about it. Was she really going off to engage in some bout of ghost hunting? It was probably best to assume she had other plans for the evening. And besides, what kinds of ghosts would be in a boring town like this, anyways? It all seemed too unlikely to consider a part of reality.
After I returned the board and its game pieces, I wandered listlessly down the road, heading in the direction opposite of the one Nakashima-san took.
My earlier thoughts lingered alongside me like a haunting specter.
If Nakashima-san really were out hunting for ghosts, what did that entail exactly?
I didn’t bring up the topic until three days later.
We were in the middle of what looked to be our longest game yet. It had already been at least two hours, and neither of us held a distinct advantage. Chances were this match was going to last a good while longer.
I moved my knight tile and looked over to Nakashima-san. “Just out of curiosity, what does one do as an onmyoji?”
Nakashima-san did not look up from the board. “Oh, this and that.”
Not satisfied with such an answer, I pressed further. “Do you exorcise ghosts?”
“Sometimes. I try to work things out so that I’m more… helping ghosts, rather than just fighting them. I try to understand them. I suppose it all ends the same regardless though.” Her eyes were fixed on her king piece. I didn’t see any reason for her to move that now, and I wasn’t in a position to try capturing it. But her gaze was fixed solely on that piece.
“Is it a hard job?”
Nakashima-san did not look away from her king. “Yes. Or perhaps more accurately… it is a sorrowful job.”
It was interesting that she chose to describe her work in that manner specifically. I imagined most people would call ghost hunting a scary job, or a dangerous job. (Or, you know, a fake job.) What was it about ghosts that made Nakashima-san sad?
It made me second-guess the way she had been feeling over the past week. I had kept assuming she was just sleepy each evening, and that she had a bit of a gloomy personality in general. But was it possible she was in a state of grief? Perhaps hidden beneath a layer of fatigue and a layer of bleakness, there was a woman who was suffering in ways I couldn’t imagine. Perhaps this daily game of ours was a way to take her mind off heavier matters.
Well, it was none of my business. I never got the answers I was looking for from her, but it felt like the conversation had already come to a close. I wasn’t about to come to an understanding of an individual through a shogi tournament.
Day twelve. Nakashima-san said she was about done with her work in this town, but promised to not leave until one of us reached eight wins. With that specific goal in mind though, it was possible this would be our last game together. She had seven wins, while I only had five.
Once this match got going, I decided to pose a question on a whim. If this was the last time I was going to see this unusual woman, I thought it would be nice to have learned at least a couple things about her.
“Why did you become a ghost hunter, dare I ask?”
“I don’t know,” she replied immediately.
And that was that. It made me more suspicious about her claim of being an onmyoji in general. Couldn’t she have come up with a little bit of backstory? If she couldn’t bother with even that much…
She is just playing with me, I thought. Of course. This was all just a game to her. Something to pass the time away when she was not busy with whatever it was she was really here to do in this town. I could venture a guess or two for what her night business was all about, but I didn’t care to dwell on the possibilities. She could do whatever she wanted; in the end I didn’t care.
Nakashima-san moved a pawn forward and looked up at me with a faint smile. “Tsunoda-san, what is your given name?”
I wasn’t particularly excited to tell her, but I didn’t feel like lying either. “It’s Naoki.”
“Naoki-kun… It is a cute name. It fits you.”
“Does it now.”
Nakashima-san nodded. “You’re a little rough around the edges, but there’s a roundabout cuteness to that.”
“I see,” I said, not exactly embarrassed or annoyed. Perhaps it was more accurate to say I felt… disenchanted. I might have expected something more from her assessment of me, and was let down when it turned out she simply found me cute. “You enjoy hanging out with young boys in your free time. I understand.”
“Oh, you’re not that young. Or at least you certainly don’t act it.” She smirked, entirely unfazed by my comment. “Don’t make me out to be something I’m not.”
I decided to shift the conversation back to her. “How about you? What is your name?”
“My given name is Eiko. You can call me Eiko-chan if you wish.”
“That would be weird.”
Nakashima-san smiled a little wider, and her eyes even seemed to brighten a little. “How cold, Naoki-kun. You wound me.”
“Don’t act so surprised,” I said as I captured her knight.
I won that game and the next. It was a particularly hot evening when the time came for my final match with Nakashima-san, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit disheartened about that little reality. Perhaps I had grown a little fond of her over our two weeks together. It wasn’t a feeling I was accustomed to, and I didn’t quite know how to act on it.
Nakashima-san sat across from me and clasped her hands together on her lap. “Are you ready, Naoki-kun?” She said this with a simple smile, one I somehow interpreted as bittersweet. Perhaps I was reading too much into it… but at the very least, it was a nice smile to look at.
“I am ready. And you, Nakashima-san?”
She responded by making her first move.
Not wasting any time, I responded in turn, and the match continued at what constituted a rapid pace for the two of us. There was a strange contrast between my physical movements and the thoughts passing through my head. I knew where I needed to move each piece in response to each of Nakashima-san’s moves. We had gone through fourteen matches in succession, and we had become so accustomed to one another’s playing styles that our reactions were nearly automatic. I could tell when Nakashima-san was doing something new just to try throwing me off-balance. And she in turn immediately knew when to switch between the offensive and defensive in response to my shifting tactics.
And all the while, my mind had slown down. There were thoughts there… things I wanted to say, questions I wanted to ask… But the words would not escape my lips. Here I was with Nakashima-san, likely for the last time in my life—and all I could do was make these automatic movements. My existence was within the game. This useless, pointless game. A meaningless thing that was just there to pass the time. That was all I ever wanted though, wasn’t it? Perhaps wanted wasn’t even the right word…
Whatever. It didn’t matter. This worthless game had brought the two of us together for a couple weeks, and during that time I got to be in the company of someone interesting. Someone different. I never really got to know her, but she had gotten a reaction out of me. She had touched my wings, and for a few brief seconds I couldn’t help but try to fly.
The game was about to end. So soon, it was going to be over. Hadn’t we just barely started though? And yet, the sun had clearly set already. We had been at this for some time, if the sun goddess was a reliable means of gauging the passage of time. Nakashima-san and I had made our moves so quickly and with so little interruption, but in the end this was likely our longest match against one another.
I was cornered, about to suffer defeat at the hands of Nakashima-san’s gold general, lance, and dragon.
I placed my hands flat against the sides of the stool-table, one to either side of the game board. “Nakashima-san. I have a question.”
She looked up from the board and blinked a couple times. “Hm?”
“Are you really an onmyoji?” I maintained the most reposed of expressions I could hold. If I took this seriously, then perhaps she too…
Nakashima-san leaned back, folded her arms, and tilted her head to the side a bit. “What’s this all about?”
I repeated the question, and Nakashima-san gave me that half-eyed stare.
“Some would call me a ghost expert,” she said.
A non-answer. She wasn’t going to go into detail for anything, was she? I really only had myself to blame for that though. From the very beginning, I had acted aloof… and even now, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was getting worked up about any of this.
Why should I care if she is an onmyoji or not? I thought. We’re never going to see each other again after this. Our time together won’t actually matter at all in the grand scheme of things.
And yet… “I am interested in learning more,” I said. “Could you tell me something about how you hunt ghosts? Or you could just show me one of your techniques…” I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted from Nakashima-san. Perhaps I only wanted her to have a reason to stick around a tiny bit longer after this game concluded. It wasn’t that I cared to learn more about ghost hunting, so much as I simply wanted to see how she would respond to my sudden request.
Nakashima-san smiled, but she didn’t laugh. She closed her eyes for a few seconds before opening them again and responding, “Naoki-kun, isn’t it a little late for this? I mean, I have to leave shortly. My work in this town is finished, and I must search for the next hopeless spirit I am to aide. I have nothing I could show you so suddenly like this. And if you are truly interested in the way of the onmyoji, it would require months of training just to get a feel for the basics. Not to sound rude, but I assume it’s safe to say you would not be up for such a task.”
Everything she said was absolutely true, of course. It was too late to bring any of this up, wasn’t it? If I had wanted to interact with Nakashima-san at a level beyond just our nightly shogi, I should have brought something up much sooner than… well, the last minute. We were literally on the final move of the final game.
And indeed, the very idea of me taking the time to learn something as ridiculous as ghost hunting—it wasn’t even something that registered within the realm of possibility.
I was in a reckless mood though, and my mouth acted before my mind could stop it. “But still, I am curious. I wish to know more. I want to see what it means to be an onmyoji.”
Nakashima-san shuffled her stool back and stood up. Wait, was she leaving? She walked a few paces away from the game and stopped, turning to face me directly.
“Naoki-kun, stand up.”
What was this all about? I stood up as she instructed and stepped to the side of the game a couple steps. The way we faced each other brought up the image of two samurai about to clash swords with one another. It all felt off-putting, to say the least.
Nakashima-san raised her arms up in the air straight out to either side of her. She stared through me with dead eyes, her long hair blowing listlessly against her face with the faint summer night’s breeze. Her expression was that of a woman whose spirit had been dragged into the coldest naraka of hell.
“Punch me in the face as hard as you can.”
I stood there, wondering if I had heard her correctly.
“Punch me in the face, Naoki-kun! You have five seconds!”
My heart raced. I glanced to the left and right. My arms shook. What was this all about? I stepped forward. She wasn’t serious, was she? What kind of a—
“Time’s up.” Nakashima-san placed her arms back down to her sides. “You do not have what it takes to be a ghost hunter, so you can go ahead and give up on that fleeting whim of a dream of yours.”
I sighed. “I really don’t understand what you’re trying to get at.”
“The feeling of punching a friend in the face as hard as you can, with no warning, and for no reason—that is, I think, the essence of being a ghost hunter. We are not even friends, so technically the task I gave you should have been easy in comparison.”
Okay, so this woman was just insane.
I did not respond to Nakashima-san’s words. Nothing I could say would have held any weight after that crazy display of hers. I waited for her to say something more.
She placed her hands on her hips. “Well then, if that’s all settled, I believe we have a game to finish.”
I looked over to the board and its two sets of nearly-decimated armies. My king was in check, and if Nakashima-san followed with a sensible move I would have no choice but to resign in defeat.
For a moment I considered letting her win right there, but she had sat herself back down and looked anxious for me to follow suit.
“I don’t think there’s much reason to bother at this point…” I said.
“No, sit down! Take a close look.”
I did as instructed. Nakashima-san made her move, and gestured for me to inspect the board more closely. She leaned her face down close to the board, and I followed suit. There really didn’t seem to be anything new to glean from this closer perspective, however.
Nakashima-san flicked one of her wooden tiles straight into my forehead.
And thus ended my shogi tournament with the mysterious “ghost woman.” Upon her illegal—and frankly quite juvenile—move, Nakashima-san lost the final match on a fleeting whim. Perhaps that too was intended to prove some strange point.
Before she departed my town with the grim katana man, she left me with a book about ghost hunting—something she no longer needed, she said. Something for me to pass my time with, and something to remember her by.
It was all so ridiculous.
But even so, I read the damn thing. I learned everything there was to know about ghost hunting—or at least enough that I could claim to the average person that I knew everything. Then once I was old enough, I left my apathetic parents and this languid town behind me. I pretended I was a ghost hunter, just as I always suspected Nakashima-san likely had. If she could fool everyone, so could I. And so I did.
Truly, there was no more nonsensical path I could have taken in life.
And even then, the road took me to a place I never could have possibly expected.
Nine years following my obtaining of the ghost hunting book, I stumbled upon a mansion with a real ghost in it. And not just any ghost, of course… It had to be a ghost who fell in love with me.
What an absurd story that was.
And seven months after all that happened, an even more absurd story was about to begin.