I reach the town just before sundown, strolling in on a dirt road, scored by what looks like hundreds of years of carts and oxen. In the center of town there is a narrow, two meter wide stream that runs parallel with an intersecting road, then bends sharply around a corner past a couple of well stocked fruit stands and a row of rectangular homes with thick, thatched roofs that hang precariously over the walls of the houses like so many hay bales.
I stop in front of one of the stands and grab a satsuma. “Hello?” I say, digging my fingernail into the orange peel. “Konnichiwa?”
I walk a little further, peeling and pitching the rinds into the little stream. “Anyone here?”
The fruit is good—fresh, and has a little bite to it. Overall, quite satisfying, especially after a long day of hiking with no water and only a small amount of bamboo. I call out again, but it appears the town is deserted. Weird.
Surely they wouldn’t just leave their fruit carts unattended, and their doors? I walk up to one of the thatched roof homes and pound out “shave and a haircut.” The door swings open before I can finish: shave and a creeeeeak.
I’m hit with a sudden, wretched stench. Gagging, I pull my shirt over my nose and step inside. “Hello?” I say, the hardwood floors groaning underfoot. I turn to the right and follow the hall, past empty rooms and open shoji screens. The smell thickens as I near the end of the hallway. The door at the end is closed, and I stop to breathe. I don’t really want to know what is behind door #3. I’m pretty sure there’s only one thing that can smell that bad, and I’m not eager to find out. I’m starting to throw up, anyway. I can’t take it. I run outside and a little cement buddha watches me vomit in the rock garden.
I’m wiping my mouth on the edge of my hand when I see the leg. It, and its owner are partially submerged in a shallow pool of water, a fountain. A pair of wooden sandals lie nearby. Her exposed feet are pocked with sores, as are her arms, and her left cheek, neck, and ear. The rest of her is hidden in the water. She doesn’t smell yet.
Something bad happened here.
I leave the dead girl in the fountain and run to the next house. The smell is even worse there, and there are bodies in the front yard. One of them is covered by a blanket. Another lies nearby in gloves and an apron, riddled with sores, just like her neighbor.
They’re all like that. No one was spared: men, women… children. All dead, and all infected with some kind of terrible flesh eating disease. It looks like it happened fast. They didn’t even have time to bury their dead.
I’m on the steps of a small temple, standing over a dead man and his wife when I hear it. “YOU!” Something strikes me on the head, hard enough to knock me over on top of the corpses. “It’s YOU!”
I roll over to find what looks like one of the corpses standing above me, sneering, pointing. My ears are ringing. She’s covered in sores. She has a giant stick in her hands, gripped like a sword. I can’t tell how old she is, maybe twenties, thirties. She’s in bad shape. One of her eyes is only half open, bleeding, and the other looks like it has burst or been punctured. She’s naked, no underwear or anything, and there’s literally almost no white flesh left on her body. It’s so infested with sores.
She lifts the stick above her head and I scamper backwards. “YOU!” She yells again, the stick slicing through the air.
“Yes, okay, it’s me!” I say, struggling to get to my feet. “The American from the Nisshin Maru, right? Is that what you’re thinking?”
“You bringed this!” She screams, hurling the stick at me.
I easily dance away. “No, I didn’t bring this, I don’t even know what this is! Are there more of you? Are you the last one alive? What happened here?”
“No ENGLISH!” The woman barks.
“Okay, okay, look, I want to help you. Help? Tsuku? What is it? Tsukun? Is that the Japanese word for Help?
She’s not getting it. Blood gurgles in her throat. She lunges for me, her arms outstretched.
I don’t have a choice. Whatever she has, I don’t want it. I dodge her attack, scoop up the heavy stick, and as she comes back around, I swing for the fences.
Warm blood sprays me in the face.