In a time, once ago there was a farm. It sat at the bottom of a mountain that was topped with crisp white snow, nestled at the edge of field of shallow greens and fertile browns, and beneath a sky of crystal clear blue. In this farm there dwelt five brothers and one sister.
Hitotsu was the eldest brother and the strongest. Futatsu and Mittsu were twins and the funniest of the brothers. Yottsu was the next brother and the smartest of the boys. Then finally, there was Itsutsu, the youngest brother. He could not till the fields as fast as Hitotsu, or tell time by looking at the sun like Yottsu, or even make the others laugh till they spit forth their rice like Futatsu and Mittsu. No, Itsutsu was disturbingly average in every single way, except for one. He was a dreamer.
The youngest child of the family was Rei, the only sister. She had the biggest heart of the family, but most of her attention was often reserved only for Itsutsu, and the two siblings would spend their days together playing in the field and pretending to be great warriors or wealthy daimyo.
Their farm was small, yet it was also one without want. Life was hard, but the siblings were kind and generous with their time and provisions. The children were respectful of their elders and the soil was unstinting with its bounty. The brothers and their sister often went to bed with bellies full of rice and pork, and heads full of song and story.
For living on the farm with the siblings was an old man named Grandfather. He was neither bound to the siblings by marriage or blood, but they treated him as such. He was simply a kind old man who had no family and no place to go. In return for their hospitality, he told the most magnificent tales. In these stories heroes vanquished great creatures made of wind and magic; beautiful maidens fell in love with dashing ronin; and bravery was always rewarded while cowardice was always punished. Yet, the most often and whispered stories the old man told were of the Aerials.
“They can take the form of any beast or man they perceive, and yet mischief is so often their common shape. When not stealing your lost trinkets or tripping the prideful, they dance on the rays of the moon, and make love on the tips of stars,” said Grandfather. “To look upon them is to know bliss and to leave their presence is to know longing.” The old man often became sad after he spoke of the Aerials, but the brothers and their sisters had too much honor for him to ask more.
That is until one night, when Itsutsu’s courage outpaced his sense of respect. With great reluctance, but a burning in his heart, did the youngest brother press the subject. He did not want to show dishonor to the man who had been more than a father to him, and so he waited until that night’s tale had come to a close. Then he said, “Grandfather, why do you look so sad?”
The old man simply smiled and waved away the impish question, but after enough prodding from Itsutsu and his brothers he finally relented. “I have seen the Aerials,” he admitted. “I have danced to their songs, and laughed at their merriment. I can still recall how they shone, like the light of joy itself. I do not know how long I kept their company, but one morning I awoke and their great feast had disappeared. Their village was turned to stardust and their light was lost to my eyes forever.”
“Can we ever see them, Grandfather?” said Futatsu and Mittsu with one voice.
“Please, Grandfather,” pleaded Itsutsu, his appetite whet from the stories of the old man. For he had always felt he was destined with a glorious life beyond the farm and the familiarity of his siblings. He ached for the sort of existence he had heard in Grandfather’s stories: adventure, love, and honor.
“Mortals, such as yourselves, can only behold the realm of the Aerials for one night, the night of your fifteenth birthday.” The generous old man smiled a distant and faraway smile as if meant for another person in another time.
“Why is that grandfather?” asked Yottsu. “How is it that we are only permitted one night?”
“Hardly seems fair,” said Itsutsu who sank down in sorrow for the boy would not turn fifteen for another four harvests.
“Aerials are unlike mortals such as you. They are wandering sprites, creatures of pure nature and emotion, like the trees or the dragonflies. They do not have souls and are left to exist for eternity, and yet time has no meaning to them. They have no beginning and no ending. Thus, you may only see them on the night you make the journey from childhood to adulthood, for it is a time of transition when you are old enough to be honorable but still young enough to be playful.”
“I will be fifteen with the new moon,” said Hitotsu the eldest. He had remained silent throughout the story as his siblings had whispered and wondered aloud to each other at the prospect of meeting the Aerials. “Where might I find them?”
“If you truly wish to see them,” said Grandfather. “They will find you and guide you to their meadow, and there you will behold their glowing presence.”
“I cannot wait until I am fifteen,” said Itsutsu as he trembled with anticipation.
“Itsutsu,” said Rei, for she was never far from her big brother. “I want to go to bed. I’m tired.”
“Soon, sister, soon,” said the boy with a shooing motion.
“One more thing, children,” said the old man. “This is important. If you ever do find yourself in the company of the Aerials you must remember not to eat of their fruit. Can you remember that?”
“Itsutsu,” complained Rei. “Please, can we go to sleep now?”
“We understand, Grandfather,” said Hitotsu, though his two youngest siblings had not heard the man at all. Instead, Itsutsu was still trying to quiet the complaints of his sister.
“Can’t we go to sleep?” said Rei again as only little sisters can.
“I think your sister is wise beyond her years,” joked Grandfather. “Now off to bed with all of you and no more about such things.”
That night Hitotsu slept fitfully, rolling and turning in his slumber. When asked about his disturbance the next day he simply exclaimed, “It was nothing, just unusual dreams.” Yet, the eldest boy’s fits continued for many nights until the rising of the new moon, for on that night Hitotsu’s mat was empty.
The siblings searched for him, but they could not find where he had gone. It was unlike their brother who was the most responsible of them. They sought high and they sought far. Even little Rei looked behind each blade of grass, and yet no one could find Hitotsu. The only one who did not seem concerned was Grandfather who only smiled at the apprehension of the siblings.
For the old man was wise and when the sun rose the next day their brother had returned and was waiting for them at morning meal with the most magnificent tales. “Brothers and sister,” he said. “I have been with the Aerials, just as Grandfather said I would.”
“You have,” said Itsutsu with great curiosity. “What was it like? Tell us, please?”
“It is like a barely remembered dream now,” said Hitotsu, “but one that was sweet and pleasant. We tested our strength and ate a feast redolent with succulent fragrance. Bowls of rice and soya, sweet donburi, dishes topped with tonkatsu and kare. Plates of udon, soba, and somen cooled in the night air beside crisp yakitori and honeyed nikujaga that would put any other to shame. I ate without ever growing full or fat. It was truly magnificent.”
The eldest brother smiled and spoke no more. He appeared older and much more like Grandfather, for the old man seemed to share Hitotsu’s silence as he too became lost in memories. The other siblings, however, whispered excitedly to one another, imagining what wonders they might see when they visited the Aerials.
The twins, Futatsu and Mittsu, were the next to turn fifteen. They too slept fitfully leading up to the night of their birthday, and on the night of the crescent moon they could not be found. They returned the next morning looking as their eldest brother had and telling tales of the tricks and the games they played among the Aerials.
“It is like a barely remembered dream now, “said Futatsu. “But one that was sweet and pleasant,” said Mittsu. Then they both spoke together, “We played great games and laughed with unabashed merriment.”
“My cards were triumphant in Daifugō and Butanoshippo. My skill was sharpest with Menko and Irensei. I surpassed all my opponents while playing Sudoku and Oicho-Kabu,” said Futatsu with a great laugh.
“Well my dice was swiftest in Chō-Han and Kitsune Bakuchi. My words were cleverest with Dajare and Shiritori. I was victorious over all my opponents while playing Pente and Shogi,” said Mittsu with genuine pride.
“We played without ever growing tired or defeated. It was truly magnificent,” they said together, and then both twins spoke no more that day. Each seemed older than the night before just as their brother had after his night.
The next to turn fifteen was Yottsu, and just as his brothers had before him he slept in fits until the night of the half-moon when he disappeared. He returned the next day to tell the tale of what he had seen.
“It is like a barely remembered dream now,” said Yottsu, “but one that was sweet and pleasant. We talked on topics of great literature and poetry, and together we sang great tales on instruments of varnished pine and cypress. Rich notes sprang from the Koto and Kugo accompanied by the decisive beat of a Taiko and Ikko. Harmonious notes flowed from a Hocchiku and a distant Hichiriki. Their chords mingled with a chorus of Kokyū, and the clear ringing of a thousand voices. I listened without ever growing bored or stale. It was truly magnificent.”
Most of the brothers were silent that day, all except for Itsutsu, for he waited with mounting anticipation for his own birthday when he too could see the Aerials and play and feast and sing among their great realm. So he waited through the cool breeze of the harvest, the harsh winds of the winter, the gentle caress of spring, until finally he came to the airless swelter of the summer season.
One night as he laid down, Rei nestled beside him, he began to dream. In his dreams he saw them, creatures of light and beauty dancing beneath the moon. They feasted and laughed as only their kind could and in those dreams his provincial life was gone and he too was beside them, twirling in the shimmer of night.
Thus, did Itsutsu dream for nine nights, and thus did each night his visions grow stronger. While awake he became restless with his work, and agitated with his sister. Even the words of Grandfather failed to fill the empty bowl of his heart. He became impatient with the mundane and intolerant of the routine of life, until the night of the full moon.
Like the call of a distant wolf he head music. He followed it to a shining meadow far beyond where he had ever gone before. Upon entering he believed that he was alone, yet he had not been alone. For the Aerials were all around him, invisible at first to his eye, but as the light of the moon fell upon the glade Itsutsu’s senses became swallowed by the sights, smells, and music of the wondrous creatures he beheld. Truly, the stories of his slumber had come to life in the glow of the night.
“Aren’t you a brave, boy,” said the soft voice of a beautiful woman. So pale as to almost be made of silver, her flaxen hair fell wildly to her waist. Round eyes and sharp features gave her a tempting and mischievous look. Every movement was full of promise and every word an unspoken vow that no man or boy could resist. Adorned in nothing but twinkling silks and a small jade tiara, she was powerful to behold.
“Who are you?” said Itsutsu after stepping into the realm.
“I am Nyotei, Queen of the Aerial and Keeper of the Unseen.” The queen gestured behind her and the world became a dream. The youngest brother feasted and frolicked among crystal dells. He ate his fill and drank his weight in rice wine and oolong. In that one night he lived a thousand lives, floating above clouds, moving unseen through villages near and far, racing the wind and speaking with the trees. It was the life he had always knew he’d been born to live.
As light began to rise in the east, Nyotei put a warm and inviting hand around his shoulder and offered him one last treat, a ripe cherry. The boy held the fruit, admiring its rich amethyst skin. His mouth watered for a taste, but something within him held his hand.
“One last treat, for my brave boy,” said Nyotei. Her words were as cloying as her hips. “If you eat this fruit, than you will be able to stay here forever, with us. You could live the life you have always wanted.”
In the Realm of the Aerials the land of the living felt like a barely remembered reverie. The words and warnings of Grandfather swam up to him as if from the depths of a great and dark ocean, but he could not hear them. They were ill-defined and lost to time and memory, and as the moon began to set in the west Itsutsu found himself forgetting his farm, his brothers, and even Rei as one forgets the colors of a distant dream.
The boy thought only of the adventure and excitement of the night and so he closed his teeth upon the succulent cherry, and Nyotei smiled as sweetly as the fruit she had offered.
It was then that the sun rose and the saccharine juice turned to ash in Itsutsu’s mouth, and the Realm of the Aerials turned to sunder. The boy’s skin burned as the rays of the lights fell upon it until he too faded from sight along with Nyotei and her kin. The world around him became as empty as his own heart, no fear, no joy, and no love could touch Itsutsu, for his soul was gone and he became one of the Aerial.
Thus, did the siblings awaken the next morning and Itsutsu was nowhere to be found. Their youngest brother was not waiting for them to tell the tales of his nocturnal adventures, nor did he appear the next day or the next day after that. Rei and her four brothers grew sad and life on the farm became as grey as rain and twice as cold.
For even though Itsutsu had not been as strong or as smart or as funny as his brothers, he had been the soul of them all, and without him life became dull. In his depression, Hitotsu grew weak and thoughtless in his farm work. Yottsu became disinterested in his books and mathematics, preferring to instead sit alone. Even Futatsu and Mittsu refused to laugh or joke after that day. Rei would often disappear and none of her brothers could be sure of where she went.
Grandfather seeing the well of melancholy that grew in the siblings became disturbed. He thought of them as family and so he went off in search of answers. On the night of a full moon he traveled once again to a familiar meadow in hopes of seeing the shining faces of old friends.
“Nyotei,” Grandfather called into the darkness. “Do not do this. You may never forgive me my transgression, but I beg of you to release the boy. I beg of you, great and terrible empress.” Yet, all the old man found were the songs of night birds and the admonishing whisper of the winds. Grandfather wept as he had wept after the first time he found himself in that meadow.
Unbeknownst to the old man, Itsutsu was nearby, unseen by any mortal eye. As he watched Grandfather cry softly into his wrinkled hands, the Aerial who had once been a boy began to remember. He remembered the tenderness in those kindly old hands. He remembered his brothers and his sister. He remembered laugher and family, and he remembered that he missed them all.
Then Itsutsu wept too. Grandfather was blind to the boy’s presence but they cried their shared their sorrow as only family could. That was when Nyotei, Queen of the Aerial and Keeper of the Unseen took notice of the boy. He was one of her subjects now, and yet she did not understand his sorrow.
“Why do you cry, little one?” asked the queen.
“I cry because I miss my family. I cry because I can no longer feel the sun, or touch the grass, or laugh as heartily as I once had,” said the creature that had been Itsutsu.
Nyotei nodded slowly and a smile spread across her face. “What if I could give you back your mortal life and return to you your eternal soul?”
“How?” said Itsutsu, seizing upon the question as a starving skylark seizes upon scraps of food. “I will do anything to breath fresh air again.”
“It will require that one takes your place, one of your own flesh and ancestry,” Nyotei’s smiles became like that of a viper’s, cold and serene, and Itsutsu nodded his understanding.
Two harvests passed and Rei finally entered her fifteenth year. She never gave up looking for her lost brother, and when the full moon rose on the night of her birth she found herself standing in a moonlit dell surrounded by mist and vague figures. As the haze cleared her surroundings glistened to life and her search finally came to an end.
Standing before her was her brother, Itsutsu, though he no longer appeared as he once had. His skin sparkled with silver and his eyes were the deep black of two endless pits. His hair was longer and it shimmered like light dancing on water, but it was him. Rei recognized her brother the same as if she had seen him that morning.
Rei on the other hand had grown from a child into a woman. Her smile was as lovely as bird song and her cheeks were the color of roses. Life had filled the once small girl and blossomed her into vibrant womanhood. Itsutsu hesitated. He was unsure if the image he beheld was his sister, but Rei embraced him immediately with tears falling from her eyes with love.
“I have sought you far and near, brother,” she said. “I just knew I would find you tonight, just as my dreams foretold I would.”
Rei, unlike her brothers did not feast or frolic, or sing or play. Instead, she spent the night with Itsutsu and together they walked through distant fields, talking of life. They talked about what had transpired in the youngest brother’s absence, and of Rei and her hopes and dreams for the future. She told him how she had recently fallen in love with a young merchant from a local village.
“He is good, and kind, and though he is not wealthy we will be well taken care of,” she said and smiled as Itsutsu had never seen before.
“I wish I could be there for the wedding,” said her brother.
“I do as well.” A tear fell from Rei’s eye. As it fell it caught the light of the rising sun in the east. “I wish that more than anything.”
“I was foolish,” admitted Itsutsu as he understood that his time with his sister was running short. “I miss the world. I miss our home.”
“But, your brother could be restored,” chimed in Nyotei as she appeared as if from nothingness. In her hand she held a plump shining cherry.
“How?” said Rei. “I will do anything to make it so.”
“I know, my child,” said Nyotei, her tone as smooth as silk. “All you have to do to help your brother is eat this fruit.” She held out the cherry. It glowed in the soft light of approaching dawn.
“I will do it. I will help you, Itsutsu.” Rei snatched the fruit and raised it to her mouth.
“No,” exclaimed the Aerial who has once been her brother, for he could not let his only sister sacrifice herself for him. She was too full of vitality, too full of promise. Her life was just beginning. In that moment he saw her as she would appear through the years.
Itsutsu saw her as a bride, as a mother, and even as a grandmother. He saw her take her last breath at a tender old age surrounded by loved ones who had yet to exist. He saw her smile her last smile as her soul ascended to bliss and peace. He could not rob her of that promise. He could not destroy the children she had yet to birth.
Itsutsu grabbed the cherry from her hand and crushed it beneath his fist. Nyotei screeched a horrible noise. “That was your last chance,” she bellowed. “You will remain here forever. You will never know the feeling of love again.” As the sun began to rise she disappeared, leaving the two siblings to embrace for the last time.
“She is wrong, Itsutsu,” said Rei as he too began to fade from sight. “I will always love you. Remember that.”
“And I will always be with you, sister,” said her brother.
She reached for him one last time, but he was gone and the morning light now basked the empty meadow in the promise of a new day, the promise of new life yet to come. Rei walked home to tell her siblings of what she had beheld on her night with the Aerials. It was a story she hoped would heal the wounds of her family and give hope for the world ahead.
Rei nor her brothers would ever see Itsutsu again, but he would watch them from time to time, concealed from their vision by the magic of the Aerials. He was there when Grandfather took his last dying breath and for a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to find him.
He watched his siblings as they all grew older and started families even as he himself never aged. So, when the time came for their children and their children’s children to come of age, he was there to greet them and play with them and sing for them. Yet, mostly he was there to make sure that none of them ever forgot the importance of family or the thrill of living a humble mortal life.