…for he did not understand the ordeals of passing from the life above to life below, what it meant to shed the light and embrace the dark of Yomi, to let the dark envelope one’s mind as well as one’s heart, and he was foolish enough to believe that his desire to rescue her would be sufficient. Somehow, in his limited view—and she could see this now that she was here—he thought his heroics would transform not only the situation, but her own experience in this place, would eradicate them. Once more, his arrogance asserted itself: his will, his need, his attempt to change things should therefore make a new reality, despite her knowledge.
It wasn’t that Izanami wanted to stay here. It wasn’t that at all. This place was black and the dankness folded over her like a cloak so that her skin turned pale, turned transparent and even her sinews and her blood were turning as clear as air. In short, she was disappearing, evaporating, and becoming one with the ethers. The decay of her body, and there was that as well, hastened this process. To say that she “wanted” this would be to suggest a choice—to think that her life, now changed, might revert back to the simple joys of a sunlit morning. It was not possible.
Yet she loved him. Also true was her past, a million dawns, a million blossoms in spring, which occupied part of her soul. So when Izanagi burst into her cave and announced he was saving her from this, the separate voices in her head quarreled. The small creatures of the dark, even the fungi and mushrooms, shrank back from this voice from above. They knew him as a foreign god, a god of life.
He seemed to be pleading with her but, at the same time, ordering her to obey when he demanded, “Why wouldn’t you simply leave with me this moment? Come with me now.”
She shook her head, could see his expression for her eyes had adapted to Yomi’s dimness, could see his outrage. “You don’t understand,” she said.
“I don’t need to understand,” he replied, “I only need for you to listen.”
By “listen,” he meant for her to follow, not that he had more to say. She would try it another way with him, “Nature forbids it.”
“I am here to bring you out of this ‘nature,’” he said.
A pang of recognition stirred in her, for he seemed to have surrounding him the wild mountain wind smells and the tang of salt air and even the sharp animal scent of desire, foreign to this place. She considered rushing to him, grabbing his arm, letting him lead her away, out of this, back to the light. Once in the light, she would praise his bravery and she would work to get back to aliveness, rebuilding her blood and bones in the sunlight, letting the storms wash away the gloom and replace it with sparkle.
Then she knew: once in the light, he would see her as she was now, as she had been transformed by the experience. She had been here, she was here, Yomi was part of her now. If nothing else, Izanagi would see the decay of her flesh—he would shudder and look at her in abhorrence and he would run from her. The one she had loved with all of her being would be repulsed. So she said to him, a metaphor which he would take as truth, “I have eaten of the fruit here.”
“You need to rest,” he said, “And then you’ll wake and see that I am right. Together we will leave this place.”
The confusion, the contradictions, the need to explain to him something he could not understand had indeed made her sleepy. Perhaps the contradictions would bring their own solution. He could not understand because he had not experienced Yomi, and so was it not possible (she thought even as she retreated and curled up to sleep) that he might himself stay the night and understand? When she woke, perhaps he would be beside her and together they would embrace this new reality, and together they would let their skin and bones dissolve and be free, as spirits, forever. He would be her King here.
She woke to his shrieks of despair. He had set his comb aflame and the light formed around her. She could see his open-mouthed screaming and the fear in his eyes as he—as he looked upon her. She didn’t need to glance down to see the decay of her body. If she’d had the time, gone now, she would explain in darkness how the decay led to freedom. But now he was fully in his own body, and his agony came from fear of losing it, and in seeing her already leaving this corporeal existence behind. She tried anyway, “Listen, Izanagi, stop crying and listen to me… what you see is an intermediate phase…”
“The worms! The worms!” he screamed.
“Yes, they are eating away at this flesh in order to make me invisible, to release me.”
“You should have told me!” He was backing away.
“It is not a simple explanation. You needed time to understand before you saw me.”
“I will never understand!” He started to run.
“Don’t run!” she warned, for running, she knew, would bring all of the larger creatures of Yomi after him, some that might even be able to take him down. Like dogs, only in a mismatched pack of chaos, they’d pursue any fleeing creature to bring it down, to keep it here. If instead he walked away, he might make it out without being noticed, but his running asserted his aliveness, and the aliveness would waken their own drives.
Izanagi did not heed her. If they caught him, she knew, he would blame her for this. Once above-ground, if he made it, he would then blame her for death entirely. He would craft an entire explanation out of his own projected emotions on her. Izanami would become the mistress of Yomi, the Mother of Death.
Then a strange calm spread throughout her torso, reaching beyond what were once her bones, radiating within and without. The small bat at her feet fluttered up when she stood, and it perched on her shoulder with a squeak. Already, she was the Mother of Death and already the inhabitants here recognized this. She fled after Izanagi. Three steps into it she no longer needed her feet at all, but floated, soared, the small bat clinging tightly, and she reached the entrance just as Izanagi fell, just as the howling, multicolored pack pounced on his back.
“Enough!” she yelled at them, “Away!” Immediately, they froze, heeding her, and then they shrank back, whimpering, wagging what was left of their tails.
Izanagi got to his feet without turning to look at her and charged out into the light, fully alive in the sunshine, panting for the breath his lungs and his heart demanded, immortal and whole, wholly supreme in the above-ground world, the one she had loved forever (and would love forever): the one whose job it was, now, to rule the living… and to shun her.
[Sandy Hiortdahl is a recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize and a Maryland State Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Novel. She has an M.F.A. from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming this year in Barely South Review, Alimentum Journal, OCEAN Magazine, Poetic Story/KY Story, MatterPress Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Nemesis. She is an Assistant Professor at Northeast State Community College. Her website is: www.sandyhiortdahl.com]