This all started around 40 years ago. When I was only a child, my mother got divorced and took me back to her family home out in the countryside. It was a small village surrounded by mountains.
Few people lived there so everybody knew each other, and the place was so small that it didn’t even have a supermarket, just a small store that sold goods.
There were two boys and one girl around the same age as me, and I quickly became friends with the girl, Kii-chan. The two boys were bullies so I tried to avoid them, but Kii-chan and I often played by the nearby streams and rice fields.
One day, Kii-chan came over and suggested we got and eat some of the wild strawberries in the mountains. Yet I was scared of wild boars, bears, and snakes, plus I worried about what we might do if we fell down into a swamp or over a waterfall. Plus my grandmother told me stories night after night about tengu and other yokai, so I hesitated.
But Kii-chan was born and raised in the village, so she’d gotten used to such stories. She said we’d go home quickly after and wouldn’t give up, so in the end it was decided. We would go up into the mountains.
At first I didn’t really want to, but we passed someone on our way up to the entrance, and Kii-chan told me all about the various trees, mushrooms, vegetables and even local freshwater crabs on our way, so I soon got lost in the adventure of it all.
On the way up, we passed a small shrine by the side of a huge stone. Kii-chan put her hands together in prayer as we passed it, so I did the same. I grew excited at this series of unusual events.
We soon arrived at the place with wild strawberries. At least, it felt that way because the conversation with Kii-chan had been so fun. Anyway, we were so happy that we quickly dug in. The tiny red fruits looked to my eyes like precious jewels.
As I went to climb up the slope to grab some of the strawberries up there, Kii-chan suddenly slip and hurt her knees and elbows. Seeing her bleeding (even though they were just scratches), and feeling guilty for betraying my grandmother and entering the mountains against her word, I suddenly grew scared and told Kii-chan that I wanted to go home.
“I’m okay, and there are more strawberries a little further in,” Kii-chan said, but she changed her mind once I burst into tears and so we went back down the mountain together.
That night, as I took a bath with my grandmother, I told her about my day as I always did and accidentally mentioned going up the mountains. I thought she’d get angry at me, but unexpectedly she just nodded and listened to me until I was done. Then, after thinking for a moment, she told me a charm she knew that would help heal injuries.
It was something I never heard before with a strange nuance, but it amounted to “bad things go away, go back to where you came from.” You had to chant it from the bottom of your heart, putting all of your energy and power into your navel, otherwise it wouldn’t work. And it was a special charm, so you could only use it on occasion, she said.
I repeated it over and over until I remembered it, and learnt the movements to go with it as well. Then she made me promise not to go up into the mountains again, because everyone would be sad if something happened to me there.
The next day, I performed that good luck charm for Kii-chan right away. I put my hands over her injuries and moved them around, doing my best not to look at her face as I chanted (my gramndmother said it would be best to look at the bottom of the person’s neck). I focused so hard on the charm and making Kii-chan better that I broke out into a light sweat.
When I was done and looked at her, she seemed to be frowning at me, but then she quickly smiled and said thank you. She laughed again when she saw the sweat on my forehead.
She asked me to go up into the mountains with her numerous times after that, but I always said no. I saw how hard the divorce was on my mother, so I didn’t want to do anything that might hurt her like that again.
We stayed in that village for a while, but before long it was time to move again. Kii-chan was upset about it, and I didn’t want to leave her either, so we both bawled our eyes out. We promised to hang out and collect wild strawberries together again sometime.
As we left the village, I saw Kii-chan by the mountains from the car. I waved to her as hard as I could, but she didn’t appear to see me.
I thought it wouldn’t be too long until I could see Kii-chan again, but not long after moving my mother got married again, and my grandfather suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised, so my grandmother moved to come and stay with us. Then my mother got pregnant, my grandfather died, my mother gave birth, my grandmother got sick and died, we moved again… things kept piling on top of each other, and we never went back to that village again. Then I started university, and began living alone for the first time.
During a class on folklore I remembered the charm my grandmother had taught me, so I went to ask the professor about it. It intrigued him, so he wrote the actions down and said he would look into it for me. I was happy that my grandmother’s super special charm had garnered his interest.
A few weeks later, he summoned me and told me all he had learnt about the charm.
The words used in the charm were a combination of two different dialects (both from rather strong areas), and on top of that there were ancient expressions as well. The charm translated to, “I know your true form, stay away from me, don’t come near me, go back from whence you came, if you don’t I will curse you with all the power of my family.”
He was confused as to whether the charm really helped heal her injuries. The expressions and words used were too harsh, and it sounded somewhat like a curse, so he was unsure.
I was confused as well, but I told him I was sure that was what my grandmother had said. It was a level above the saying “pain, pain, go away!” I thought it was nothing more than an exaggerated charm, so I had used it on numerous people over the years (Kii-chan wasn’t the only one, I also did it on my friends and younger brother when they hurt themselves too).
“So it isn’t a folk charm? It’s a curse?” I asked him, but he said that curses weren’t so easy to perform. Plus the words in the charm were difficult, so remembering them correctly right off the bat was impossible, and even if you did, if you didn’t perform the charm with all your might then there was nothing to worry about, he said. I was somewhat relieved.
I wanted to know why my grandmother would teach me such a charm to use on my friend, but she had already passed away. After giving birth to my brother, our mother often fell ill, so I’d taught him the same charm. This made me worried, so that night I called home and asked our mother various questions.
I asked her if she knew about the charm, and while she’d seen me muttering something and using my hands to cover him, she thought it was just something we’d seen on TV once. She also said something about my grandmother’s grandmother being from the same region as the other dialect in the charm.
But she also claimed to know nothing of Kii-chan, and insisted there was no other girl there. I had her put my brother on and I told him he must never use that charm again, but he was only young and didn’t listen to me seriously.
Speaking with her cleared nothing up, and not only did she claim that Kii-chan never existed, my grandparents were already dead so I couldn’t speak to them either.
I climbed into bed, hoping my old friend I hadn’t seen in forever wasn’t using that charm, but I couldn’t get to sleep, and I recalled all sorts of things about the village that my grandmother had told me.
The story about someone who had died in the mountains and turned into a yokai (a bad one, my grandmother said), who was lonely and came down into the village to steal children away but was destroyed. And the story of Tatsuo and Kiyo, siblings who had been sacrificed to the mountain long ago. That small shrine I saw in the mountains was dedicated to them.
The person we passed on our way to pick strawberries, it felt like he warned us that children shouldn’t go up into the mountains alone, but it was all a mess in my head.
Was Kii-chan Kiyo? I never found out where she lived, and that guy we saw by the mountain entrance (I think he was about junior high age) wasn’t someone I knew either, so who was he? I grew more and more confused and was unable to sleep for the entire night.
I don’t know whether this is related, but I think there was a reason my grandmother taught me that charm.
She could have just told me to stop playing with Kii-chan, but with my parents getting divorced and the move changing everything so suddenly, I was still waking up during the night crying and wetting the bed, so she probably felt that she couldn’t tell me off…
Instead, she taught me a charm that she thought would protect me. She watched over me while working in the fields, she cooked for me and bathed with me and slept in the same room, rubbing my back when I woke up crying. I truly am thankful for everything she did.
So, this might sound silly, but I can’t help but think that maybe by teaching me that charm, she was shortening her own lifespan. It might just be a coincidence, but when I tried to take away my grandfather’s pain in the hospital, she grabbed my hands and stopped me. Even now that memory still lingers in my mind…