Here's my fic for the book prize.
The Stones of Home
There's a tree where Yae died. Not the tree where she hanged herself, tied a hangman's noose and stepped off of a stool. This one is at the base of a circular staircase, covered in leaves, going nowhere. This staircase, this tree, perfectly symbolizes her life, one that went nowhere and caused so many people so much pain.
Perhaps there was a house at the top, once. She remembers the spot being flat, but she doesn't remember how long it's been since she died. For all she knows, mountains have moved and seas have flooded the land. Ryozo said that the sea has flooded before, there were myths and legends he studied about it, and she believes them.
There are two ghosts under the ground. She knows that because she can sense them and know they're there. But that doesn't surprise her; Himuro Mansion was full of ghosts when she died, and ghosts are all she meets now. When she wanders, she encounters no living humans, though she doesn't mind. She has a vague sense that meeting humans wouldn't be a good idea, like her very touch would hurt those around her.
Animals are there, and maybe monsters too, because she sees both at times. It turns out that Ryozo's folktales weren't as fictional as he told her they were. But he's long gone, passed on, because he doesn't bear the stain that she does. She is the one cursed to see everything that nobody knew was really there.
She spent some time in Minakami Village; she doesn't know how long, though eventually the water there receded, not that there was much of home left. She met several things that could only be kappa; a few greeted her as a fellow traveler. A kasha asked her if she'd seen any corpses, but she could name none. She asked if he could take her; he said that she'd been dead far too long.
A mokumokuren she spoke to had not seen anybody in ages, but it didn't mind because it had enough eyes. It didn't need travelers, and its door would stay intact for years more. Eventually, she came to where she had been, where she died.
She sits by the tree a while, because she can. Because it's been a long time since she was last in the place, and if she's to go mad like so many ghosts did, at least she will do it in someplace familiar. Maybe she'll go back to Minakami, protect it like she should have years ago.
But for the moment, she sits, and waits.
One of the ghosts comes out of the ground. She doesn't recognize him, though she admits that no ghost of Himuro Mansion would have been wearing those Western clothes. They talk a while. She gives him her name, and he gives her his. Apparently, he's her great-grandson, and he chose to be there so no tragedies ever happen again. She asks him how long it's been, and he answers that it's been a very long time. His sister's family visited for years before they built their own house on the site, and that place has long since rotted away. The land became a park, had a monument built on top of a human-made hill, and now both are gone, except the steps.
He hasn't seen humans in a long time, either. He thinks it's been a few centuries since he died, and she can see his duties have worn on him.
She promises to visit him every so often. She can tell that he's lonely, and the shrine maiden he speaks highly of is lonely too. They've only had each other for so long, and they are family.
For what's left of her family, she will do anything, just to make up for her crimes. Besides, it feels good to tell him what's become of the world, because he's stuck where he is.
It must be painful to be a guardian spirit, she thinks, as she wanders on. But that's what Sae was supposed to be, had she done it right. Yae herself would have perished of old age; Sae would have lived on forever.
There are still crimson butterflies deep underground in Minakami. She wonders if she should go back, tell them about her great-grandson. Maybe one of them would go and keep him company. Maybe they could talk to a fellow guardian, even if they won't talk to her, even as she pleads at them to do so. They shun her, a failed Remaining, for good reason. But maybe one of them will listen to her, once.
A nurikabe wanders across her path at one point, as if to tease her. But it can't stop her, because she is not human, not anymore. She can easily go through it. It pouts, but they sit together side by side and mourn times past. It has no sense of time, but it knows that it hasn't seen a human in years, either. They sit together for a long time, and then it accompanies her on her journey back to Minakami. It thinks that it might be able to talk to the butterflies and get one of them to fly to where Himuro once was.
At least she can make someone's life a little better.
The nurikabe helps her at Minakami, gets one of the butterflies to come back with them to the staircase, to Himuro. It still won't go near Yae, but it seems to like the nurikabe. The nurikabe tells her that this is her uncle, her father's twin, and that he feels some responsibility towards his family.
Not her, but it doesn't matter. Her uncle Tatsuo will come and guard her great-grandson while she guards the village. The nurikabe negotiates this with some amusement, and they leave Tatsuo at the stairs while she and the nurikabe return to Minakami. It promises her that it will bring her back stories.
It's all that she can ask for. It's more than she can hope for.
The village is basically nothing but a few rocks and the barest bits of wood, the Twin Deity statues worn to faceless stone. The stoves, of all things, seem to have survived better than anything else. But it is home, and it is her duty, and she will stay there forever, even when there is nothing she recognizes.
For Yae, finally, is coming home.