This year's crop was small as drought had taken its toll. There was little to feed the families, never mind the few cattle that a select few families were lucky to secure from their dangerous trade with thieves. The villagers had been desperate, on the brink of starvation if they stayed put. The risk of trading with those band of thieves was greater than that of a village protected by wealthy lords, armed with trained militants. Every so often, they would receive a visit, a traveling merchant. But this time, a member of the village miles across the great river arrived at their village. Rumors of pillaged villages, hundreds of corpses from starvation or murder, and kidnappings had reached every family by the end of the month. A small assembly had been called, and most the villagers were there, sitting in the circle around dried fruit and tea or crammed at the entrance, looking in.
No one had an appetite. The area was thick with uncertainty and blanketed fear.
"You've brought destruction on us!" cried an middle aged man, known for being hot headed and impatient but not generally unkind. "You've lead them to us."
He said the last sentence with a pained cry, like the sound a defeated deer made when shot with an arrow. After he spoke, there was tension in the room. Anger and fear felt like the only emotion anyone could feel.
"It's already done," said a woman in her prime. "Can't be undone."
There was a murmur, a consensus. It was true, but it felt hopeless. What could be done? The thieves had raided several villages, even the more armed village westward. If they failed, what could a small village like theirs can do? The refugee had fled prior to their attack of his village. It had taken him a week's time to wander here. Soon, the raiders would arrive. They had to abandon their village. There was nothing here now. No healthy land for crops, only houses, which they can rebuild, and an unfinished shrine.
The villagers went home and prepared for dinner. The next morning there was a great hurry to pack for the trip at the end of the week. Food had to be packed. Carts were attach to cattle, made to carry the load.
Inside a shed, once made for bags of rice, was empty except a young man, thin and gaunt with long hair and long nails, as there was no one to trim them and no need for it. Looking presentable wasn't his aim; it was surviving. He had taken ill with a respiratory disease and had been quarantined in a shed by his caretaker, an acquaintance of his late father, to prevent the spread to other villagers and the ill omen they believed he carried with him. He heard a lot of noise throughout that week but had no inkling as to the trouble facing the village.
There was little food coming as of late, but there was even less food this week. His caretaker had forgotten to feed him at times, often sending children later with apologies from uncle for the late meal. The children were frightened of him and would quickly open the wooden latch before tossing in leftovers into the room as if he were a stray dog.
He was tired. He wanted to ask where his caretaker was, but the children had already fled.
That was his last meal, and most of it was scattered on the ground. He had feared that they were would coming in less and less and had rationed his food, taking small bites and small sips of water. By now, most of the food had rotted, and the water in his bowl was home to flies. The stench was unbearable, and he wanted to get out, but the door was locked, wedged shut by a large piece of wood.
But rain arrived that day, after a long time without it. Ukitake reached out the gap in the shed and cup water in his palm. He brought it to his lips and took eager sips before reaching out again.
The next day, the wedged was removed and the door opened. Ukitake felt a rush of hope. Was it a doctor? Was his illness over? Had they found a cure?
The group scanned the room, taking in the dry blood on his clothes and grimaced. "Nothing here but a dead man," called one.
Ukitake felt like heart sink. There was anger coursing through his body. He wasn't dead. He was-
"He's still alive."
"Not for long. Leave him and close the door."
Their footsteps conceded quickly, but their laughter and crude jokes took longer to fade. From their conversation, he knew that his villagers had fled. Their department was marked by the smell of smoke. Once again, he was encased in dimness, but there was sunlight peaking through the door. They had not locked it.
He stood up, feeling dizzy from the sudden rise and inched closer to the door, pushing his weight onto the door and welcoming the outside world for what seemed to have been eternity of wasting away.
His village had become a ghost town, devoid of the living (and Ukitake was hardly living, as the pillagers had mentioned). Many of the houses had been burned, blackened to the core and engraved with the lingering smell of smoke. Ukitake felt pangs of hunger but didn't dare enter the few left standing to scrounge for food like the pillagers before him. These people had fed and sheltered him in his dire need, and he wished to give them his utmost respect. But respect required another, more difficult feat: possibly burying the body of the dead. He knew he couldn't leave their bodies there to rot, but he had for so long evaded death that the possibility of looking death in the eyes, of seeing the dead bodies of his villagers chilled him to the bones. He went to each house, most were burnt but some were unscathed as if the owners had simply left for the day, pushing open doors and pull curtains back.
Everyone had left.
He felt relieved and alone.
The was unbearable. The day was cold, and the air was damp. His respiratory disease had reacted to the environment and became active, making it difficult for him to breath without heaving. He knew he needed a place to stay, but it felt wrong to stay in someone else's house in their absence and to dirty their homes with disease.
He wandered towards the unfinished shrine. When the crops were abundant, there was no time to complete it, but there was no enthusiasm or energy to complete it during the drought. His knees were faltering to his weight, but he urged it to continue. He was already through the Tori gate and would soon reach the steps towards the shrine, where he collapsed inside the shrine.
No one lives here, Ukitake thought, I can rest here for a while.