It was a simple but regrettable fact that San's sense of smell was nowhere near as sensitive as her mother's or her brothers'. In the heat of full day, either of the younger wolves could tilt their heads to the wind and catch the lingering traces of a deer that had passed by a nearby stream while the sun was still low in the sky. In the dark of full night, more than one wandering fox spirit -- thinking to raise its standing amongst its fellows by playing some clever trick on the great wolves of the forest -- had turned tail and fled when Moro's deep growl warned it that no amount of cleverness could conceal its betraying scent. In comparison, San often felt as if she were stumbling half-sighted through a world as rich and colourful to the nose as it was to the eyes. It was no one's fault, of course, but nonetheless it sat ill with her at times. Still, she trusted to her family to alert her to what she had missed, and bore the occasional pangs of envy and longing as best she could.
All of that changed the day her mother returned to their den, panting and worn as if she had fought a great battle, with the stink of humans still clinging to her fur.
All at once, a multitude of foul smells assailed San's nostrils. Sweat and blood -- not the fresh raw scent of a hunt, with a clean kill and the promise of a full belly at the end of it, but a messy tangle like ruptured guts and a voided bladder. Cow dung and seared flesh, so pungent that it sat heavy in the back of her throat and made her stomach roil with repulsion. And then, just at the edge of what she could detect, she caught a whiff of something unusually acrid, a deeper and more brutal stench, one that lingered over her mother like the fumes of a hidden hot spring bubbling up through a fissure in the rocks.
For a moment, San was overwhelmed.
In the next moment, she had a thousand questions, each more urgent than the last.
Moro answered only a handful of the questions, in the rare pauses when she was not otherwise occupied by grooming the reek of battle out of her fur. Her sons assisted as best they could, though they could not help but sneeze every so often to try to clear the tainted air out of their own heads. San, whose tongue was not made for such work, could do little but stroke the fine short hairs just above her mother's nose with a calm, soothing touch, and try to make sense out of everything she heard.
The humans had been encroaching on the edges of their forest for some time now. If the air was right, San could often hear the echoes of their axes and staves, and smell the smoke of the great dirty fires they laid to clear paths for their destructive work. None of the great clans of the forest would have begrudged the interlopers their share of the land if only they had shown some restraint -- by clearing away only fallen trees, perhaps, or thinning the growing saplings to leave the strongest behind -- but the humans took both the fallen and the felled, more than would have built any dwelling or kept any cooking fire alight. They tore up the earth, so that not even a worm or a beetle could cling to it. And whereas in times past they might have left offerings to the great guardians of the forest, a sign of respect and gratitude for their use of the land, now they left nothing behind but great scars across the mountainsides, as the rivers and streams grew murky with ashes and soot and the waste of their cattle.
As the leader of the wolves, Moro had thought it wise to send a warning to the humans: This far, and no farther. And so that morning, before the sun was high, she had set out to do so. Now, as darkness closed in around them, she had returned -- and it was evident that her warning had not been heeded.
By the time the last fetid traces of human odours were gone from Moro's fur, it was well after moonrise. Though her sons were restless, impatient to act, she had no interest in doing more than retreating to their den to rest. The next time, she told them, as they reluctantly curled around each other and settled in to sleep, we will strike them on the move. Out at grass, their herds are too well guarded; where they fell trees and scrape the soil, they have sentries to warn of approach. But at dusk and dawn, they must move as well as watch. They have weapons, but not the eyes or ears to use them to their best advantage. Then, we will have a chance.
San, who had been about to lie back against her eldest brother's flank, bolted upright. 'Mother, please let me go with you!'
Moro turned a weary eye on her youngest. No, San, she said. It is not your place.
'But I can help you!' San's hands clenched, her fingers digging into her palms. 'Even if I cannot cover the ground as fast as you do, I can still run! Even if I cannot rend and tear flesh with my jaws, I can still stab and strike! Let me prove myself to you!'
Moro's eyes narrowed, and her lips drew back from her teeth. You have no need to prove yourself to me, child. In this moment, the only need that you and I have is for sleep. And that is what we will do.
When Moro spoke in that tone, San knew that it was fruitless to continue the argument. She might as easily fling herself against the walls of their den and expect the very rocks of the mountain to yield to her fists. But the rage still quaked through her, and it was a long time before the warmth of her brothers' fur and the regular sound of her mother's breathing drew her down into a restless sleep.
Well before dawn, her eyes flew open. Her brothers were snoring heavily together, but her mother was not in the cave with them. As San's vision adjusted to the dim light, she spotted Moro on the ledge outside their cave, her eyes fixed on the stars in their slow silent turning overhead. Drawing her own furs about her for warmth, she slipped away from her sleeping brothers and out into the twilight.
A few quick steps, and she had buried her face and arms in the thick ruff of fur around Moro's neck. 'Mother, forgive me if I spoke out of turn earlier,' she said. 'I will obey you, but I only want to understand. Why will you not let me help you?'
For a long moment, Moro said nothing. She might have been made of the same night-cooled stone as the ledge on which she sat. But then, one ear flickered, and she spoke:
It was on a night such as this one that you came to me. A bundle of ragged skins, with you inside.
San blinked, and then a small smile eased its way across her face. The words were more than familiar to her. 'A bundle of ragged skins,' she echoed, repeating the tale she had known from her toddling days. For all that she was a wolf now, she had not been a wolf all her life. 'With me inside, left behind by humans. Given to the forest.'
She waited for Moro to go on, picking up the story. How she had been given as a gift, to honor the forest and the gods who dwelt within it. Not so common an offering these days as it might have been in a time long past, but not beyond the realm of the possible. Perhaps this was her mother's way of letting her down easily, by reminding her of the gift that had allowed her to become a wolf. Such a gift should be protected and cherished, of course. And if that was how her mother saw it, then perhaps --
But Moro's next words were not at all what San expected to hear. The child within that bundle of skins did not know why it had been left behind, she said. And so, like many children, it voiced its displeasure at the unknown. It wept, and it stormed, in anger and in fear, against the one who had found it and the ones who had left it behind.
San's arms tightened, pulling closer to her mother. All infants cried out to their parents for comfort, from the open-mouthed shouts of newly hatched chicks to the bleats of a shaky-legged fawn. It was foolish to imagine that she might have been different. But why would this be part of the story now, when it had not been before?
In the same calm, unhurried tone, Moro continued. Surely, I thought, there will come a point when this one's howls will cease. When its rage at this world is spent and its wails fade to whimpers, then will I take its head between my jaws and end its short existence. Rather than bear the curse of its anger, I will free its spirit, and it will be glad to flee this realm to the twilight shores where the shades of humans dwell. So I settled beside you to wait for the moment when you would grow quiet, and I would give you a quick death to spare your body from the long hunger and the cold night.
'A quick death?' This time, San drew back, alarmed. Had Moro not known her for a gift at first? 'But I thought -- ' She knew the chill of a winter's dawn, and the demands of a belly not yet satisfied, but the long hunger and the cold night were terrors revealed only in the worst dreams. To be spared from both would have been a blessing...and yet what sort of blessing would it have been?
Moro, sensing her daughter's growing unease, took up her tale once more without lingering on the worst of the evils. For a night and a day, you raged. You did not cry, as a human child would. There were no tears on your face. But the noise that came from you was unceasing. Long after any other babe would have lost breath or voice to continue, your howls shook the leaves on the trees, and sent the birds above wheeling and scattering to the winds. A low rumble, not quite a laugh. Even if the world had wanted to give you peace, you would not have accepted that peace at any price.
In spite of herself, San shivered. She could not bear to think of herself so small and vulnerable. 'And then what happened?'
This time, Moro did pause before she replied, and in the silence San's breathing was loud and irregular. In that night and day, she said, through the storm of your fury, I did not take my eyes from you. Even as an infant, your inner will gave me pause. Naked beneath your outer wrappings, alone and utterly defenseless -- and yet you threw yourself against an unfeeling, unhearing world. And at that moment, for the first time in a very long while...I felt something akin to fear.
'Fear?' San leapt back, looking her mother full in the face. 'How could...why would you have feared me?'
The massive white wolf met her gaze, stoic and unblinking. Your will to live is strong, San. Only by such strength could you have defied the fate given to you with every bone and sinew. And yet for all creatures, there comes a time when will to live is not enough. Those who are mortal will go to the grass. Those who are not will fade into shadow. But those who refuse to accept this ending, who rage against fate and death with a will that does not yield, will become consumed by that rage. Her eyes pierced San's heart like the sharpest thorns. Unable to live, unwilling to die, they become the darkened souls that we call demons. The greatest and most terrible of these, the Tatarigami, spread their curses across the land like a blight, until there is nothing left of them but their wrath.
San had no words. The whole world seemed to be giving way underneath her feet, splitting and cracking and coming apart as if she were caught up in one of the rare tremors that sprang up from nowhere to shake the very roots of the trees, like a storm underground.
Even as she reeled, her mother's story was not yet finished. It was not within my power to determine your fate. Moro said. That is why, as that first night and day drew closer to night once more, I brought you to the Shishigami.
San opened her mouth, then shut it again. She could feel the blood burning in her cheeks, thundering in her ears. 'The...the Shishigami?' she whispered, not without awe.
The tips of Moro's ears flattened slightly in assent. I took up your ragged bundle in my teeth, as I carried your brothers when they were but cubs, to journey to the heart of the forest. A long journey, as the daylight faded fast, until I came upon the sacred waters where few but the Kodama dare to venture. It was there that I placed you, on the island of the Shishigami, beside a branch that I tore from a nearby tree. An offering, and a choice. A life to end -- and a life to renew.
San knew of the sacred place. It was a lush, green paradise, where the air was always warm and sweet and even the pebbles beneath the trees seemed to have beating hearts of their own. All creatures were welcome, but none would dare to enter without true reverence for the great lord who lived there, seldom seen but always present. To have been brought there, long before she knew what it would have meant....
I trusted that the Shishigami would see into your heart, and make the right decision -- whether to free you from the suffering of this world, or give you the chance to see another sunrise. Then, almost imperceptibly, Moro's expression softened, as memory crept in. And at dawn, my daughter, yours was the life that had been chosen. She brought her nose to brush San's forehead, mingling cold touch with warm breath. It was there that I nursed you for the first time, and from that day forward you were a wolf of my clan, and the child of my heart.
'Mother, I....' Treacherous tears had sprung into San's eyes. She dashed them away with the back of her hand. 'Why are you telling me this now?'
After all that I have said, you do not know? Moro's voice was suddenly stern, her face had lost all its gentleness. What would happen, child, if I permitted you to fight the humans? To run and stab and strike as you wished, fighting as a wolf against those who had once left you to the cold and the dark? San opened her mouth to speak, but Moro had not yet finished. The Shishigami's gift cannot protect you from yourself. Knowing what you know now, would you be able to close your heart to your own rage, or would you allow it to eat you alive from within? And if you were to die, would you accept your fate -- or would you spread a dying curse upon this world?
Even with the ground still so unsteady beneath her, San knew that there was only one answer. Gritting her teeth, she threw her shoulders back.
'I will be a wolf!' she declared. 'I will not give way to my anger.' A flash of understanding, brighter and fiercer than lightning, blazed through her. 'To honor the mother who blessed me with love, and the Shishigami who blessed me with life, I will give my love and my life for this forest, without hesitation and without regrets!'
The rocks and treetops caught a faint echo of her voice, sending it calling across the vast expanse of the fading twilight. Moro's ears pricked up as she heard it. Giving San one last long, searching look, she slowly turned her gaze back to the horizon, where the first rays of the sun had turned the land a soft pink and the stars were all but lost to view.
Wake your brothers, she said at last, quietly. We will hunt first, and I will see where you are weak and where you are strong. Then, we will decide what may be done.
It was all that San needed to hear. With a soft, glad cry, she threw herself on her mother in a passionate embrace. In the next instant, she was back in the cave, her voice raised and urgent as she exhorted the sleep-sodden younger wolves to rise and prepare for a morning's hunt.
As the new day dawned before her, Moro closed her eyes. Without hesitation and without regrets, she murmured, like the rumble of distant thunder. May it be so, my daughter. It may not be in anyone's power to save you from your fate a second time.