The young man, Kano, had sailed to the island to kill a goddess.
This was not possible, his father told him before Kano filled the small boat by the shoal with provisions. A goddess cannot be destroyed by the hands of a mortal man any more than the winds or the rains.
But it was the rains that fired his anger, and the story his father had told him of the immortal Jun who inhabited an island far from the village. It was she who caused the storms to rage from afar, tearing the walls from their modest seaside houses, wrecking their boats against the rocks, and drowning the men who were only fishing to feed their families. He’d listened to the old stories since he was a child, and when the storms came, he accepted their wrath as stoically as the rest of his people. The last storm they endured had taken his best friend, Jiro, who’d fallen below the waves before Kano could find him in the tempest.
So, against his father’s wishes, he sailed the little boat across the sea to find the island.
Long ago, the priests agreed that Kano was surely born of water in a previous life, for he was the best sailor of the village, and swam without fear in the deepest range. No distance was too great for him to sail, and so he searched each island he encountered before gathering more provisions and continuing his journey.
He sailed the waters in this way for many weeks before his boat fell onto the rocks of a mountainous island surrounded by mists. A great gale rushed through the sky at his approach, and he knew he must be near the goddess, for why else would the winds suddenly rise from a perfectly calm sky except to turn away unwanted travelers? The sail was slashed to rags, and the hull was broken like a shell, but Kano rose from the waves and pulled his body onto shore. An ordinary man surely would have drowned, and so he was certain the goddess would remain unaware of his presence.
When the sun vanished beneath the waves, he stalked through the darkness of the jungle probing every cave and crevice until he saw a light high on the mountain. He climbed the rocks blindly, his lust for vengeance numbing the pain in his hands and feet, until he reached the mouth of a large cavern from which an ethereal glow seeped into the night. He quietly entered the cavern and stepped slowly toward the source of the great illumination.
His long journey hadn’t prepared him for the sight he now beheld. Great stones encircled a bed of fronds on which a still form lay, stones of many colors, like giant gems that held a magical fire within. The figure sleeping on the fronds was small and feminine, draped in a lustrous purple kimono, luxurious black hair fallen over her face and shoulders. Was this the goddess he was seeking? Dressed only in Jinbei worn thin by the unrelenting sun, he stood before the stones and wondered what he should do. The spear he’d brought to kill her was lost among the rocks; he had no other weapon but his hands. Surely this couldn’t be the terrible goddess of his father’s stories.
Presently, the glow from the magical stones flickered in the cave, and the figure stirred before him.
Kano stepped back into the shadows to conceal himself while the small form sat up on the fronds and then stood within the light.
He’d never seen such a beautiful woman, if that is what she was . . . so pale, yet so perfectly formed, her eyes the iridescent sheen of pearl, her hands long and white and unmarred by the labors of common people. Her breast rose and fell calmly, though she turned strangely within the stones and finally stood staring at the shadows where he knelt.
“Show yourself,” she said in a small musical voice.
He stepped into the light and stood before her.
“How have you come to this island?” she asked.
“I’ve sailed many weeks searching for you,” he said, despite his uncertainty. “A great wind crushed my boat on the shore.”
“But you are alive.”
“Another man would have drowned.”
“Who are you to defy the power of the sea?”
“I am Kano, son of Kin. And they say that I’m born of water.”
She turned from him and laid her hand upon one of the stones, muting its golden light.
“Does a man born of water hold dominion over the seas?”
“No. But I’ve always felt that the sea was my home before I was a man. So I do not fear the oceans or the storms.”
She turned to face him again. Her long hair disguised her expression.
“It seems you have endured great trials just to come to these shores,” she said. “A man who endures so much anguish must have a remarkable reason for doing so. Tell me, why have you come to my island?”
“If you are the one I seek, then I’ve come to kill you.”
She laughed, high and sweetly, and without fear. For a moment his resolve was shaken, but he stood unmoving.
“Have you never been told of immortals? We cannot be killed by mortal men.”
“Then you admit you are a goddess?”
“I am Jun, daughter of Raidon.”
“Then you are the goddess I’ve come to kill.”
She smiled sadly and turned from him. He stepped closer to the glowing stones, though how could he possibly hope to destroy an immortal with only his hands? Was she really immortal? She appeared to be only a small beautiful woman. How could she possibly be the cause of so many murderous storms? Kano had expected to find a ravening monster in the cave, not a lovely, rational woman. If it was an illusion, he didn’t know how to defend his mind from its effects.
She turned to him again, her hands folded against her kimono, and nodded slowly. “I see that you’re an extraordinary man, simply because no other man has ever been able to survive the storms that rise on these shores. Extraordinary men may have powers beyond those of common men, but they are still only mortal. But I’m intrigued. Why do you wish to kill me?”
“You’re the cause of all the storms in these seas,” he began. “Through the years they’ve destroyed too many homes, too many boats. They’ve killed my friends and family, and now I’ve come to stop the one who sets them upon innocent people.”
“Yes, I am the one who sets the storms loose in these waters,” she said. “I cannot deny what I’ve been made to do. And I cannot deny that many good people have died because of my conjuring. But I don’t wish to make the storms. I don’t wish to bring ruin on your people.”
“Then why do you bring the tempests?”
She cast her gaze to the ground. “Because my father has cursed me to remain on this island at his bidding. He’s filled with hate for men, and is very powerful. I refused to do as he commanded, but he placed an enchantment on me that I cannot break. I never wanted to make the storms, but I was compelled to follow his wishes. When he calls to me across the sky, I must cast a spell upon the waters and set the storms loose in the world. I have no power to prevent it. Young Kano, believe me when I say that I would never cause another tempest if it were my choice.”
When she looked at him again, he realized she was speaking the truth. The ways of gods weren’t the ways of men, he thought, but, for all the pity he felt for her, his heart still burned with hatred because of all the people she had drowned. It meant little to him if her magic was intentional or involuntary; she was still the cause of too much misery. Her father may have been a cruel god, but Kano had come a long way to silence her magic, and he wouldn’t fail his people.
“I see that you are still compelled to kill me,” she said.
“I must calm the seas, and I see no other way to do so but through your death.”
She nodded again, her beautiful eyes full of suffering.
“I’ve been on this island too long,” she said. “I’m full of sorrow, and think that death may be the better realm for me. So I’ll tell you a secret: it’s true that no mortal man may kill an immortal with any common means or weapon. But with an enchanted weapon, you would be able to kill even a goddess.”
He wondered why she would tell him this, and was wary; was her sorrow so profound?
“Where would I find such a weapon?” he asked.
“There is a serpent that lives in a lake at the center of this island. It is a creature from another time in this world when magic ruled the lands. If you break the horn from its head and pierce my heart through with it, I will die, then the storms will cease, and your people will not drown.”
“How do I know you’re speaking the truth?”
“It’s the truth,” she said. “But it’s also the truth that a mortal man would have to possess a spirit of surpassing strength to steal the serpent’s horn. Young Kano, you’ll die before you have the weapon you require.”
“It’s said that I’m born of water, and a man born of water would surely be able to find a way.”
She turned and sat among the fronds, her arms extended to the stones surrounding her. The light they cast flowed over her flawless skin, and filled her eyes with fire. For a moment his heart beat to the music of such beauty, and then he turned away from her to keep his heart shielded from her charms.
“If you should succeed in recovering the serpent’s horn,” she said, “I’ll not cry out to my father before you kill me. If your quest is honorable, I’ll have no cause to stop you.”
“And I’ll be sorry to have to kill you,” he said. It was true; he could no longer deny her pure heart, or her beautiful spirit. But his friends and family, too, were beautiful, and had died at the hands of the unwilling goddess. “I will return.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
He walked through the forest beneath the shroud of night. By morning, he found the small lake. He ate the fruit he’d gathered from the trees he’d passed, and as he sat on the muddy shores, he watched the water for a sign of the magical beast. All through the night, he thought of the goddess, Jun, and found his heart softened by the memory of her face. The sweet juice of the fruit was bitter in comparison to the music of her voice, and the gentle breeze that fell across his cheek was a violent stroke compared to the graceful motions of her body. That she was cursed by her father was an unjust punishment, though he knew of no other way to silence the storms than to end her life.
Presently, the surface of the lake stirred, and a great horn rose from the depths into the morning light. A large gray head followed the horn, and then a broad gray body of exceptional size. For a moment, the head of the beast shook menacingly in the froth. Then, the serpent lowered its neck into the lake and its immense body followed.
Kano, impressed by the goddess’s honesty, sat on the shore and watched the great serpent rise and fall through the swells to breathe the open air. In this way, he discerned that the serpent wasn’t truly of the water, but like the whales of the deep, must rise to breathe.
Toward the late afternoon he finally rose from the shore and slipped into the lake.
He swam effortlessly through the pure water, holding his breath for a remarkable length of time as he slowly maneuvered near the bottom of the lake to observe the creature.
After a few moments, the serpent seemed to notice his presence in the depths, and circled close to him. The beast seemed to study his motions, but failed to approach near enough for Kano to engage him in battle. He perceived the creature’s reticence and swam back to shore where he pulled himself from the water and stood expectantly on the rocks.
The serpent carefully swam toward him and raised its long neck from the water. Large, black pupils gazed on him curiously, while long white teeth glimmered in the sunlight.
“Who are you to intrude in my realm?” the serpent bellowed thunderously.
Kano, surprised to hear the serpent speaking the language of men, managed to keep a confident expression, though his heart beat fast with fear.
“I’m Kano,” he said, “and I’ll swim wherever I please.”
“No man has ever disturbed this lake. You have violated the purity of my domain.”
“I’ve heard that you’re a relic of another time. It is you who should abandon this lake to the world of men.”
“I am unafraid of men,” the serpent hissed. “As I am unafraid of you. I give you warning, impudent man, that if you should disturb my waters again I will surely kill you.”
With these words, the serpent swept its majestic head above the mirror of the lake and threw itself violently into the water. As it slipped beneath the surface, its long tail snapped the air angrily.
Kano sat on the shore contemplating the serpent’s words. He waited for the sun to fall behind the mountains before eating his remaining provisions and meditating on his dilemma. He had no weapon with which to kill the serpent, so he would have to use his guile to achieve his goal. But would this be enough of a weapon? The beast could easily crush him in its jaws, and with this thought, his fear returned. But he couldn’t fail his people, so he pondered for hours for a way to best the serpent. When he was finally certain of the method he would employ to attain the serpent’s horn, he said a prayer for fortitude, lay down in the grass and slept.
While he slept, he dreamed of the beautiful goddess, of touching her white cheek and kissing her red lips. As he roused from his sleep, he scolded himself for his dreams, but knew they’d been born within his heart.
When the sunlight warmed his arms and face, he knew it was time to take the serpent’s horn.
He slipped once again into the lake and swam along the shore, hoping to raise the serpent’s ire. He hadn’t long to wait before the creature captured sight of him in its large black eyes and began swimming quickly toward him.
But the serpent couldn’t have known how well the young man could swim in the sea, or with what agility he turned his body beneath the waves. As determinedly as the beast tried to snatch him in its jaws, it invariably closed its teeth on only water. Kano moved too quickly for the serpent to capture him, his body slipping and darting through the depths like the most agile fish. Presently, the serpent grew furious, and thrashed its tail into the air. Kano rose to the surface to take a deep breath before returning to the floor of the lake. He waited on the bottom by the rocks as the serpent circled above him. When the serpent dove down through the water to spear him with its horn, he darted easily out of harm’s way and watched as the beast dredged only mud.
It was then that Kano swam to the shore and stood to his waist in the water. Behind him stood a sharp outcropping of rocks.
The serpent rose from the depths and regarded him furiously.
“Impudent man!” it roared. “I will kill you for your insolence!”
With this declaration, the serpent lowered its massive head and began swimming with great speed toward Kano.
Kano stood by the rocks and waited fearfully as the serpent’s horn drew nearer to his chest. If he moved too soon, his plan would fail, though every muscle in his body ached for him to flee. Finally, at the last moment, he leaped from the serpent’s path and watched as the creature’s horn lodged deeply in the rocks. He didn’t laugh or mock the beast, but stood near the imprisoned creature as it struggled to free itself from its snare.
After watching the serpent thrash helplessly for a while, he looked to the sky and studied the glowing sun.
“It’s such a hot day,” he said. “I see that you’re trapped above the lake. Surely if you don’t free yourself soon you’ll wither to death in the heat.”
The serpent roared disgustedly, but there was no more it could do to free itself.
“Disagreeable man,” it said resignedly. “You have bested me in my own waters, and now I must die.”
“You don’t have to die,” Kano said.
“How would you prevent it?”
“I’ll find a sharp stone and break the horn from your head. Then you’ll be free to return to your waters.”
“Why would you do this for me?”
“I don’t wish to see you die. But I need the horn from your head so that I may kill the goddess Jun.”
“You are mad. You will never kill her. Her powers are too great.”
“That is my concern. As for you, you’ll surely die if I don’t remove your horn. And if you deny my generosity, I’ll wait for the sun to take your life and then cut your horn from your rotting body.”
The serpent considered the matter before blinking its eyes placidly.
“I will agree to this,” it said at last, the light of the sun glimmering from its hide.
“And you’ll not try to kill me?”
“Unworthy man, I give you my word.”
Kano nodded to the beast and found a large, flat piece of stone. He worked the stone until he produced a sharp edge on one side, and then he expertly dropped it onto the serpent’s horn.
The serpent howled piteously at this assault, but the horn broke away from its head and it was once again free to fall beneath the lake. It circled out beyond the shore, shaking its hornless head mournfully, as Kano hammered at the stone around the horn with the rock. With only a few strokes, he freed the horn from the crevice in which it was wedged and held it high in his hand. The serpent bellowed a furious curse at the sight, and then vanished beneath the surface.
When Kano was safely within the jungle, he made a bed of soft fronds and slept with his arms wrapped securely around the serpent’s horn.
When he rose from sleep he remembered his dreams, breathtaking visions of the lovely Jun walking along the shore of the island and singing sweetly into the night air. Perhaps his dreaming mind was merely witnessing her lonely rituals, or perhaps they were an enchantment cast to capture his heart; despite the reason, he held these visions in his mind as a rich man would embrace his gold. In his dreams, she walked along the sand, the hem of her purple kimono brushing her bare feet, calling out to the universe in song. And when the song was finished, she knelt before the waters and cupped them in her hands, then let them trickle slowly back into the sea.
In his dreams, Kano believed she was singing to him.
But as he walked through the jungle toward the mountain, holding the serpent’s horn across his shoulder, his heart was hardened by the memory of his dead friend, and of the memory of all the people who had drowned before him. He forgot the dream as he climbed the mountain, and resolved to pierce the goddess’s heart with the serpent’s horn.
He entered her cave again, moving slowly to anticipate her defense.
But she didn’t move to attack him.
She sat with the back of her hands crowned on her knees in meditation. Her beautiful eyes opened in the light cast by the colorful stones.
“I see you’ve retrieved the serpent’s horn,” she said quietly. She wasn’t afraid. “Only an extraordinary man could have slain the serpent without weapons.”
“I didn’t kill the beast,” he said. “I was able to provoke its wrath by avoiding its attack. I trapped it above the water and made a bargain. The serpent had no other choice but to let me have its horn, or die.”
“Even an enchanted creature has wisdom enough to accept the inevitable. As I do now.”
She rose from her meditation and walked to where he was standing. Then she knelt before him and pressed her arms to her side. She closed her eyes and sighed.
“Young Kano, I gave you my word that I wouldn’t cry out to my father. My life has been wasted on this island. I’ve not known love or companionship in many generations, and my heart breaks with loneliness. I have no desire to preserve such a life. So if it is your wish, you may do to me as you will.”
Kano drew a deep breath and raised the horn above his head. But his arms betrayed his promise to the memory of his people, and he couldn’t strike down the beautiful Jun. Presently, the circle of stones glowed more brightly, until the light became too intense to bear. Then he heard a frightening peal of thunder rumble from a faraway place beyond the seas. The ground shook as the sound vibrated through the very rock, and Kano had difficulty keeping his balance.
“My father calls to me to bring the storms,” she said as the terrible noise abated. She raised her head and opened her shimmering eyes. “I cannot do other than his will. Kill me now, or let me walk down to the shore to cast my spells.”
The serpent’s horn remained poised above his head, but his heart was too full of love for the pitiful goddess. How could he kill her when her father was the one who really caused the storms? His cruelty toward men had condemned both his daughter and the people of the islands.
Kano let the horn fall to the ground.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t destroy what you despised,” she said, rising to her feet. “And I’m also sorry you couldn’t end my eternal isolation.”
He followed her down the mountain to the shore where she spread her arms before the darkening waters. She knelt and scooped the pure white sand into her hands, turning as she let it drizzle down in a circle around her feet. As she began singing her enchantment, he felt the winds stir around them, first lightly swirling, and then becoming stronger as her words echoed across the sea. The clouds billowed magically along the horizon, bright white, then turning nearly black. Oppressive shafts of lightning swept across the sky, and the thunder of the storms reverberated across the waves.
Kano knew these storms would soon be rolling furiously across the ocean toward his island, and the islands of so many other innocent people. But the love he felt for Jun was stronger than his pity for his own people, and he could only stand and watch.
When she completed her spell she stood weeping in the sand.
He touched her cheek, and she raised her immortal eyes.
“You’ve failed to stop the storms,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’ve learned that love is far greater a virtue than hate,” he said. “As is mercy. If your father felt this in his heart he wouldn’t seek to hurt so many others. Or his own daughter.”
“What will you do?”
He looked out toward the seas.
“I’ll swim the seas whenever you’re compelled to bring the storms and save as many of my people as I can. I’ll use my gifts to preserve life instead of destroying it.”
“You’re a man of enchantment,” she said. “Stay with me so my eternal loneliness will cease.”
He bent to kiss her lips.
Then he said, “I’ll stay with you while the seas are calm. But when you must cast the storms upon the world, I’ll swim out to rescue as many of my people as possible before returning to your arms.”
“Then we’ll both be bound by duty.”
“And by love.”
And forever after the man born of water and the imprisoned goddess laughed and wept together in the joy and misery of the world.
Lawrence Buentello, a native of San Antonio, Texas, is the author of over fifty published stories. He writes in a variety of genres, his fiction reflecting his innumerable literary interests, and has worked most of his adult life in libraries of one variety or another. When not reading or writing, he enjoys life with his wife, Susan, and two Australian Shepherds.