Irina Talty is a first-grade teacher in Atlanta, Ga. She attended Emory University and double majored in creative writing and film studies. She is currently applying for her MFA in creative writing. She loves reading, cooking and walking her dog, Gatsby.
by Irina Talty
She could not remember when she became an oni, or how long she had been one, or if there was ever a time she had been anything
but an oni. Of course there must have been a time where she was human, she knew that, but with
no memory of it she found it difficult to truly believe.
She must have done something horrible to become an oni, but what it was she could only imagine. Perhaps she had lied and schemed and cheated her way through life. Or maybe she had harmed somebody. Or killed them. She had no way of knowing what she did to deserve this life, only that she had done something and it was so terrible and unforgivable that she had been cursed with these gnarled scarlet hands, sharp jagged teeth that spilled over her lips, and crooked horns the color of gray milk bursting from her skull. Had she been beautiful? On the good days, she liked to imagine that she had been a beautiful princess, locked far away in some castle, whose only misdeed was her unwavering naiveté. Perhaps she had been tricked into this life by a faraway witch, leaving her trapped inside of the body of a monster.
On the bad days, well, her imagination wasn’t so kind.
She knew she must be wicked because they gathered for the Setsubun festival to chase her away. She watched from the dark corners, unseen, as they scattered soybeans and shouted Oni wa soto! One didn’t drive away good spirits. She knew this much.
She spent her days in the forest, only approaching the village at nighttime. She often snuck up to homes and peered into the windows. The houses offered a warm and inviting glow, and like a moth to light, she could not resist. She watched families gather together for dinner, piling steaming food onto their plates. She watched man and wife argue so viciously she couldn’t be sure that they weren’t oni as well, that was, until they settled down into a passionate reconciliation. She watched family mourn friends, mourn neighbors, mourn animals. She watched teenagers sob when they thought nobody could hear, sneak out of windows and into the darkness, pull bottles of clear liquid from underneath their beds. She would pretend she was in the houses too, feeling the warmth, the sadness, the anger, the love. But she could never quite shake the feel of the damp earth underneath her feet, her solitary position of watchfulness, like an unwanted guardian.
It was the evening of the year’s Setsubun when she found the young man. He was lying at the edge of the forest, right before the village roads began. She would have thought he were sleeping were it not for the gash along the side of his head. She was not sure if he was dead or alive, and she was not sure how to check. After all, she was only an oni. They did not know these sorts of things.
She decided to roll him onto his stomach. When she nudged him, his clenched fist opened and a handful of roasted soybeans tumbled out. She stepped back, her heart pounding. He lay, unmoving.
Everything in her told her to run away. He could only be bad news. Perhaps he had ventured into the forest to harm her. She hadn’t checked his pockets; there could be a knife. She did not know if they would hunt an oni, but she wouldn’t put it past them. She knew she was hated, feared, unwanted. She supposed if she was one of them, she would hunt her down too.
She began to retreat back into the forest when the man coughed. It was a broken, rattled cough; the cough of somebody who couldn’t have much longer to live. She heard the blood in his lungs, his gasp for air like a fish out of water.
“Hello?” she said. She had never spoken before. Her voice poured out of her like oil.
The man coughed again, then groaned. He painfully pulled himself up into a seated position. She stepped behind a tree, blending into the night.
“Hello?” he called, looking around.
“Hello,” she said again. To her surprise, her voice sounded like his. Without seeing her appearance, you would never know you were speaking to an oni. She supposed this was one of her tricks. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know.” He shifted, and tried to rise to his feet. He could not. “I don’t think so.” She didn’t say anything, watching him look left and right to try to discern the source of his companion. “Do you think you could help me walk to the village?” he asked.
She was silent, contemplating her possibilities. She knew what oni did to humans–peeled their skin from their limbs, crushed their bones into powder, pulled their fingernails clean off their skin. But all she wanted to do was get a little bit closer to the boy so she could see his face. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Where are you?”
Without thinking, she stepped from the shadows. The moonlight illuminated her wicked face. She stared at the man–he was handsome, with carved cheeks as shapely as marble, soft brown eyes, and thick, curly black hair. He stared back at her. It took her a moment to recognize the look in his eyes–fear.
“I can help you,” she said desperately.
His eyes darted wildly around, until they landed on a rock within his grasp. He snatched it, the sharp edges piercing into his hand, and pulled his arm back to throw. “Oni wa soto!” he screamed.
“I can help you,” she pleaded. “I’ll bring you into town so you can get help and then you’ll never have to see me again.” She stepped closer to him, hands in the air, head lowered in submissiveness. She stared at the ground and prayed he would trust her. She felt the sharp edge of the stone sting her forehead. “Oni wa soto!” he repeated, scrambling backwards. “Get away, you horrible beast!” She then felt the smaller thuds of small soybeans raining onto her head. It was then she knew that this had been a mistake.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I will leave you.” She turned into the forest and sprinted until she could no longer hear his angry shrieks. The branches whipped across her face, she ran, ran, ran, until she found a cave made of two boulders pressed together. She dove inside and curled into the corner, burrowing her body into the soil. The bellows of oni wa soto echoed in her head, forever lodged into the recesses of her mind.
The next morning, the villagers found the young man in the middle of town. He had dragged his body across the ground, leaving a trail of soybeans and bloody soil behind him. He was dead, completely dead, and they sobbed and cursed the evil oni for killing him. The story spread across the village of a female oni who had lured the man to the edge of the forest and planned on torturing him then roasting his corpse to eat. But the courageous man had fought back and escaped, crawling back to civilization to leave his body as a warning to the villagers. The story was passed down generations, a statue was erected of the young hero, and years later the villagers built a barrier around their town to prevent any oni from entering. Children were punished if they entered the forest, and the surrounding woods became an overgrown wilderness.
She sat at the edge of the fence, unable to pass it, pressing her face against the wire and watching the town go by.