Gehoubako

During the spring of my first year at university, I went on a bike tour with my local bike store. Our goal was Kodokoro Hot Spring, just a short distance before Mount Odaigahara in Nara. Head of the line was veteran Taki-san. Behind him was Kenta, who had two years of touring experience. Kenta wanted to be the lead, but the organisers wanted someone who could lead with a decent, but not too fast pace, so he was rejected. Several of the tour members were elderly, so I suggested they just let Kenta go on ahead, but again they refused. “He’ll get carried away,” they claimed. It was decided that I would hold up the rear of the tour, riding at the end of the line.

I had been to the Yamabatoyu Hot Spring near our goal several times before, so of course I knew all the break spots on the way. I wasn’t too worried if the tour got a little ahead of me. I took my time.

Kenta, on the other hand, was fine while we were in the city, but the moment we reached the mountains and cars became few and far between, he took off, overtaking the lead. I was the last person to enter the designed cafe for break time, and I the rest of the tour was in the middle of a heavy discussion.

“Look, when you’re with the group, you need to act as part of the group, okay?”

“Ugh, come on, you guys are too slow…”

“Idiot. If you ride off by yourself and have an accident, don’t you see how that’s gonna become a problem for the rest of us as well?”

“And what do you think’s gonna happen if you ride over a snake, huh?”

“Huh? A snake? But I already rode over one?”

The group froze at his words and disinterested tone. I don’t know how it is in other places, but where we live, there’s a legend that states if you stand on a snake in the mountains during spring, then you’ll trip over nothing in particular and fall over the edge of the cliff; bike and all. Doesn’t matter if you’re alone or in a group. No exceptions.

But Kenta wasn’t worried, even when they told him as much. Rather, he laughed out loud in their faces.

“That’s stupid. It’s just a superstition.”

When coffee time was over, we got back on our bikes. To the left was the lake and river created by the nearby dam, and to the right was a series of cliffs. The road was wide and flat, perfect for bike riding. Even Kenta rode with us at a quiet pace.

We took a gentle right turn, and about a hundred metres after that was a large left turn. Taki-san rode at the head as we approached the turn. Then it happened. Someone and their bike fell from the line to the left and fell over the edge. They fell right underneath the guardrail. Everyone stopped and ran to see who it was.

Kenta and his bike were lying on the ground at the bottom.

“Kenta!” we called out, but there was no response. Stones often fell down from the cliffs during spring. Higashi-san picked one up and threw it at Kenta to see if he was still alive. He moved when it hit his right thigh. He was alive.

The swift Motoki-san ran to the nearby public phone. Maru-chan from the bike shop took several photos and then returned to get a car to pick up the broken bike.

The well-prepared veterans of the group lowered a rope and pulled the bike up, but Kenta complained that his back was sore, so they left him there. Apparently, he rode over a rather large snake, and his bike was so messed up that looked like it had been through an explosion.

Kenta was hospitalised with a broken tailbone, right femur, and several other bones. The bike was a write-off.

“We told you, idiot. Step on a snake and something terrible will happen.”

Kenta himself spends his time imparting the same wisdom upon the young now.

In August, during the summer of my first year at university, my younger brother and I decided to take a trip to Yamagata. I went to the bike shop to have my bike looked at before I left.

“Morning!” I greeted the staff, and the person Maru-chan was chatting with slowly turned around.

“Ah, Naito-san! Long time no see, hey!”

Kenta was smiling back at me.

“My name isn’t Naito, how many times do I have to tell you?”

For some reason, Kenta always called me “Night-san,” like day and night, but of course with his accent, it sounded like he was calling me Naito-san.

“How’s your health?”

“Yeah, okay. Just got out of hospital last week, and had the bolt taken out the day before yesterday.”

“Yokaze-san,” Maru-chan said to me. “You gotta do something. Kenta’s back on his bike already.”

“I told you, it’s fine. It’s easier for me to ride than it is to walk.”

Kenta smiled while Maru-chan looked conflicted.

“Anyway,” Kenta continued, “my parents wanted to thank everyone for what they did that time, so if you’d like, they wanted me to ask you guys to come around. Our house has just been renovated so everything is real nice. We’re celebrating that as well. I live out Kaochidani way, but how about it?”

“I’d love to,” I said, “but wouldn’t so many of us just be trouble?”

“We live out in the countryside, so we could easily fit 10 or 20 people, no problem.”

In the end, we contacted everyone who was on the tour and Taki-san, Higashi-san, Motoki-san and myself agreed to visit Kenta’s house.

Kaochidani can be found in Soni Village, on the border between Nara and Mie Prefectures. It’s in the middle of Muroukazan District, which has numerous courses for hiking fans. In particular, there’s a place near Kenta’s house called Kigan Zeppeki, which translates roughly to strangely shaped cliffs, that’s especially famous.

As soon as we arrived, Kenta’s parents lowered their heads in gratitude and thanked us for what we did for their son. Taki-san, the eldest and most worldly, politely thanked them in return and we followed suit. Then Kenta interrupted us and showed us inside.

Everything was already laid out for us, the table packed to the brim with food and drinks. There was so much that I wondered just how they expected us to finish it all.

I’m not a drinker, so I went around sampling all the food, but even my stomach has its limits. Which is to say nothing of the fact that it was my first time as a guest in their house, so I didn’t want to indulge in any disgraceful behaviour.

At some point Kenta left to go to the bathroom, and when he returned, he was holding something wrapped in a cloth.

“We didn’t think there was anything left there, but when I went into the storehouse we found rice bowls and such leftover. We moved everything to the main wing of the house, but then amongst all that we found this.”

Inside the cloth was a box about the size of a rice bowl covered in white paper.

“The bottom of it is kinda strange,” Kenta continued. He flipped the bottom paper up roughly. Inside was more black paper, and a red string tied around the box like a cross.

“I got this from somewhere, but when I asked my parents about what’s inside, they said they had no idea.” Kenta’s father remained silently, nodding in agreement. “I figured Taki-san might know something about it, seeing as he’s familiar with these sorts of things…”

“Well, can’t hurt to have a look at it, I suppose,” Taki-san said. “Whether I’ll know anything about it is another story though.”

“Please.” Kenta handed him the box, and Taki-san went to undo the red string. Then, suddenly and very loudly, my phone started to ring.

“Shit!”

Everyone froze.

I was the most surprised of all. I set the phone to silent before we got there, so why was it ringing out loud? I apologised several times and pressed the ‘answer’ button. My mother’s voice rang out across the room.

“Don’t touch it!! Don’t open that box!!”

It was so loud that everyone heard it. It nearly blew my eardrums out. No-one moved a muscle.

Uh, hi, Mum. What the hell are you talking about? That’s what I wanted to ask, but suddenly she screamed again.

“It’s a gehoubako! Don’t touch it! Put it back in the wrapping!”

Taki-san placed the box on the ground without thinking.

“Did you hear me? Hey, are you listening?!”

A loud tone rang out, piercing our ears.

“Yeah, we heard you,” I replied in pain. “And what do you want us to do? Do we just have to wrap it up again?”

“It was wrapped in white paper, right? Put that back as it was. Then put it in a bowl or something similar on top of some salt. The first time you do it the salt will dissolve, but by the seventh time it’ll stop. Then put it back in the original cloth and leave it in the storeroom. I’ll come over later to collect it.”

I explained to the room what my mother told me, and Taki-san put the box back in the white paper, twitching the whole time. Kenta ran to the kitchen to fetch some salt and a bowl.

Everyone watched as the salt melted like toffee. Kenta hurried to grab another bowl. The second time it was a little slow, but it continued to melt like toffee. Then the third time, and the fourth time, and by the fifth time it started to show signs of change. Only half the salt melted, and half remained the same. The sixth time it steamed a little, but that was it. Then, the seventh time. Just like my mother said, the salt did nothing. It didn’t sizzle nor did it melt.

Kenta put the box bag in the cloth and looked at me with tears in his eyes.

“I’m so sorry, Naito-san. But could you possibly come with me?”

“Sure,” I said. But stop calling me Naito.

The night wore on and a heavy rain started to fall. Thunder roared nearby. I hoped it would clear up by morning.

We were lying in bed when suddenly we heard a faint sound from somewhere, like pishi pishi pishi, and then a bang and a crash from underground. Did lightning strike nearby? It had to have. I got up and ran to the window but couldn’t see anything. The rain continued to pelt down. I gave up and went back to bed.

The next morning we discovered that lightning did strike. Only the outside of the storehouse remained, the inside completely burnt out. The roof was entirely gone.

It was a coincidence. Right? Yeah, it had to be.

Everyone nodded in agreement and went home. The morning mountain roads seemed to sparkle after being drenched in heavy rains.

You might be wondering what that box was about. My mother has a stupidly powerful ability to sense the supernatural, which is how she knew we had it at the time. And as for the gehoubako, I heard it’s a box used by fortunetellers and witches for curses. It’s a tool they dedicate to the spirits. I didn’t see what was inside it at the time though, so I can’t say for certain just what was inside…

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