Ferns crunch under my feet in the pre-dawn shadows as I step with practiced ease to the grave, following the swirls of the water around until I reach the right spot. I kneel on the mossy stone, imprints from my knees and those keepers before me fitting just right. It’s how they knew I was meant to be here. Our knees are identical, marking us before the first tattoo is laid upon them, the sacred runes the keys to the gate.
“Ishi no kyoryokuna mono suimin,” I sing the first notes of the lullaby right as the sun rises, as the women here have for so long. It is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, and the Stone Sleepers are in danger of waking. I repeat the line, soft as a rabbit’s fur and loud as thunder overhead, short as a sneeze and long as a wolf’s mournful cry. My eyes sting from staring at the shadows and the light for so long, but it will not do to falter.
“Mizu wa anata no tamede wanai jikko.” A crack like ice breaking in the spring startles me, and the last note comes out a squeak instead of the long note it should be. My stomach clenches. Something is not as it should be. The birds are all gone now, gone in a flutter of notes and wings the moment I started to sing. They know what’s coming. They know better than to be here.
I take a deep breath to steady myself. I am Yuina. I chose the name for what I do here. I bind. I tie. I restrain. Time, always too long on this day, stretches even further as I repeat the line time and again until the shadow of the stone reaches the next mark.
“Yasumu, yasumu suru,” I urge, raising my voice in as strong a song as I can.
The ground beneath me rumbles half-heartedly, like a giant rolling over in his sleep. Or a monster.
I can do this. The shadows crawl across the stone scraped clear of moss in the ring immediately around the stone with aching slowness, languid in the heat of the day no spring water will soften.
“Yoru wa sugu ni kite iru. Yoru ni modorimasu.” The ground bucks as if knowing I’m nearing the end, as if it can hope to throw me off. I cling to the stone finger in front of me, keeping my knees firmly pressed to the moss.
“Makuragi wa me o samasubekide wa arimasen.” A crawling sense of ice down my sweaty back alerts me, and I glance at the stone’s shadows. An extra shadow, almost hidden in the moss, reaches towards the stone, disguising it. A demon lays over the sundial, and know I know to look, I see the true shadow. The true time.
I’m almost out of time.
The words tumble out, barely in the key, definitely off rhythm. “Watashi wa anata ga me o samasu koto wa dekimasen. Neru. Neru. Neru.” I add in the extra line as I feel the ground begin to still, to sigh back beneath my touches. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.
The sun touches the horizon, and I collapse to stone and moss, insensate in exhaustion. Another year is safe from the Akumu.
Sleep in stone powerful ones. The water runs not for you. Rest, rest easy. The night is coming soon. The night will return. The sleepers must not wake. You must not wake. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.