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Today's Story by Yen Nguyen

"Who talks of dying?” Genki finally grumbles before giving the signal of his hand.

Survival Instinct

Translated from French by Andy Pham

“I would want not to die,” I whisper.

No one bothers to answer me. “Who talks of dying?” Genki finally grumbles before giving the signal of his hand.

I open my eyes and concentrate very hard on the candle flame rested on the altar draped in red before me. Someone hands me a glass. I take it, trembling. I carry it to my lips. My mouth refuses to drink the greenish liquid that fills it. A hand lands on my shoulder, impatient. I lift the chin. I tilt the container and all of a sudden I feel a sour taste filling my oral cavity and a cold and viscous liquid descend along my throat. All of a sudden I feel light. I float. “Go,” Genki said to me and here I am sliding down along a cold and wet tunnel. As I advance, I see a growing light. I lead suddenly into an immense space that snatches a cry of delight from me. A sudden and ardent desire seizes me: to run towards these woods with glossy foliage, to throw myself into this shimmering river and to lounge at the foot of these hundred-year-old trees. But Genki has warned me of the danger. The decor is just bait for souls. Charmed, they would lose their vigilance and their chance to come back.

The instructions are to find Akio and to bring him back. I should linger nowhere. I look for the traffic circle where the five paths dedicated to each of our five senses converge. They all lead to a door, the one that opens on the way of No Return, and on the fire that destroys. I was not told the rest. All I know is I have to find Akio before he reaches the door of the Damned. I must find him and bring him back. I only have thirty minutes. After that time, his body will decay.

Genki normally has three hours to bring back someone who has left healthy, by practicing the technique of “Detachment of the Soul.” Akio has left healthy, his body did not suffer loss of blood. But his death was sudden. During the night, he went out on the terrace of the magnificent residence of Lord Tanaka, his father. It was fifteen degrees below zero. He was in pajamas. At dawn, he had a high fever and succumbed shortly afterwards. The master of the house has gathered his subjects in a hurry. Despite the speed at which they came, discussions and preparations have taken time. They designated me for the soul hunting. I was Akio’s governess and the only person he listened to from time to time. I had no choice but to bow. We all must show loyalty and obedience to our Lord. He has in his hands our lives and our destiny.

Here I am in front of the crossroad of the five paths. We must choose.  Error will be fatal. My brain is working at top speed. If I were Akio, which one would I take? No, not the path of the Sight. He is too young to appreciate the beauty. Not the way of the Smell. His nose, battling against the aggressive perfumes of Lord Tanaka’s ladies, will not lean towards the delicate scents of nature. Not the way of the Taste, either. An eight-year-old child raised in opulence is not on the lookout for delicacies. That leaves me the paths of the Touch and Hearing. Akio loved music. He obeyed me partly because I sing well. I made him fall asleep at night with my bed songs. Last night Lady Tanaka, subject to a violent migraine, asked me into her apartment to relieve her with my massage. I could not put Akio to bed. I suppose he missed our ritual.

But the child was also thirsty of tenderness. He loved that I took his hand or stroked his hair, gestures that I did furtively. He was, as his parents, my master and I owed him deference while waiting to show him respect.

I glance at the path of Touch. Everything is soft and cuddly. No angle, only roundness. Even the stones look like welcoming cushions. Objects show vague shapes, generous and voluptuous. A soft euphoria comes over me. I want to let myself go in this warm and cozy cocoon. But I doubt Akio has chosen this path. He was raised to become a leader or a warrior. He was taught to resist all the weaknesses and to toughen up. He would not let himself go. On the contrary, he would have been suspicious … No, taking this path was the last thing he would do.

I have the path of the Hearing left. My intuition tells me I’m right. I fork left and I rush into the driveway that opens before me. I’m in the domain of the ear. All kinds of sounds, deep, shrill, raucous, reedy, pure, complex, are mixed into a harmonious concert. As soon as my attention focuses on a sound, it is amplified and drowns all others. At the same time, I feel so light that the desire to dance, run and frolic resumes.

Again, the recommendation of Genki emerges from the fog of my brain. I must not forget my goal.  Hands cupped around my mouth, I call with a cheerful tone the child’s name. I do not want to show the anxiety that inhabits my heart.  A thousand echoes answer me. A note more acute than the others reaches me. At the same time, an agile shape runs up to me. It is Akio. His unbuttoned red jacket floats behind him. I smile. The task is much easier than I thought.  Everything will happen as planned.

“Come, Lord Tanaka and Madam, your mother, are waiting for you,” I say with warmth.

He ignores my words. Happy to see me again, he wants to show me the prowess he learned since his departure. He pirouettes, hangs a moment in the air, lands on his feet and start again. I applaud. He roars with laughter. “Come,” I repeat. I take his hand. He freed himself and resumes his stunts. His face glows with pleasure. Akio is, at this very moment, the happy child he has never been. But time is running out. I cannot linger further. I approach and grab him by the arms. Surprised, he struggles with fury. I emphasize my grip and drag him behind me, deaf to his cries and insensitive to kicks he throws at my calves. I have barely ten minutes left to return to the starting point. Clenched teeth, I advance with difficulty, getting entangled in his legs and trying to ignore his blows and screams. By dint of stumbling, I finally get to the tunnel. For him, it means the end of his merry escapade. For me, the success of my mission. The game is won. We will soon return to our two bodies. I burst into a nervous laughter, as the pressure has been great.

But suddenly a shooting pain goes through my wrist and spreads throughout my entire body. Akio bit me. I let out a shrill scream. Against my will, my fingers loosen. Akio escapes with a cry of victory. Before running away, he turns around one last time to stick out his tongue. Furious, I dash behind him when suddenly the bell rings out. It reminds me that I only have three minutes to come back. I stop short. My knees weaken. How would I dare coming back without the child?  Despair overwhelms me. Despite myself, I step into the tunnel staggering. I soon end up in the room where we are expected.

Here I am on top of our two bodies lying side by side. I hesitate to dive to reach mine. I see Genki, rigged out in his silver blue tunic, sitting in the lotus position before the altar. His pressing incantations come up to me. I see Lady Tanaka hide her face in her hands, shoulders shaken with sobs. I see Lord Tanaka and his grave eyes tinged with anxiety. Anxiety which, alas, will soon risk turning into wrath. Many of his trusted men surround him with respect. They have their eyes on the child that I did not know how to lure…

I hear a terrible snap when I come crashing down on the stretched shape. How long did I remain unconscious? Like in the mist, whispers, sighs, but also laughter reaches me slowly. I feel a hand brush against my forehead. I smell Lord Tanaka’a tobacco and his acrid breath on my face. I feel cramped. I think my body has shrunk during my absence. “You’ve come back to us, son,” my master whispers in my ear. In a flash, everything comes back to me: at the time of the dive, an impulse made me deviate to the left, towards Akio. I remember I had trouble adjusting myself. I rise with a bound (Akio always rose with a bound).  A unanimous acclamation increases in the room. People surround me, take my hands, congratulate me. I keep my gaze fixed on the irascible lord Tanaka, my father. I ignore the movement of his men who diligently are bustling about around the adjacent layer, around the body which was mine.


Yen Nguyen is a published author at The Stone Hobo and at The Miskatonic Herald.


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