The Last Spectre

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The hut sat atop the hill; a small, wooden structure that had the appearance of having been built and rebuilt multiple times. Its panels were each aged differently and holes and broken slats had been patched up with hastily nailed-on boards. Despite the warmth of the summer's day, the climate here was not generally kind to man-made objects. The rainy seasons lashed the hillside and in the humid summer the walls dripped even as the skies were clear. Surfaces were in a constant cycle of rot and renewal.

Yu, as he had sometime been known, was proud of the hut, for it was his own. He swept the floor every day and kept the place clean. A kettle always sat atop a prepared stove, ready to welcome a visitor should one arrive.

The hill rolled down steeply, before rising up again, undulating away into the distance. They were lined with terraces, encircling them like height lines on a map. Figures dotted the fields, moving slowly along the terraces tending to the crop. Soon it would be harvested and begin its journey around Zhangao, each hill's terrace feeding hundreds of mouths.

He wasn't a farmer, but Yu did what he could to help. Having a watchful eye observing kept the animals in check and his presence discouraged any rivals from other districts sneaking in and causing trouble. The locals gave Yu his space and respected him, knowing that there was mutual trust, while those from farther afield knew only the stories and the myths, of the ghost on the hill. Some called him a harvest demon. Some thought he was the god Heian, given bodily form. His mother would have found that amusing.

A photograph of his parents sat atop a dresser against one wall of the hut. It was the only photograph he had that showed them together, having been taken shortly after they moved out of the city, and they both looked happy. Yu wasn't in the picture and there were no other images of him. Nor were there mirrors or any other reflective surfaces; he had no need of them.

Yu lived by routine. Each day he'd rise, make himself a breakfast of eggs and perhaps bread, if he had some, then he would get dressed and head out into the fields. In the winter the hut would sometimes be iced over on the inside and he'd wake shivering beneath his furs, the outside air requiring a fortitude that he'd only built up after years of mental training. Summers out here were easier, at least before the rains, and venturing outside was always a pleasure. The sun would be low still over the horizon, casting long shadows across the hills and rice terraces, mist glowing brightly with horizontal beams of light as it hugged the ground.

Even in the summer he'd wear clothes that covered him from head to toe, including a hat and light shawl that he wrapped around his face, leaving only a thin space to see through. This was simpler in the winter, where one had to be covered in multiple layers simply to survive. In the summer he longed to wear short-sleeved outfits but couldn't risk the attention that walking, body-less clothes would draw. Of course, he could just go naked and the locals would be none the wiser but that always felt somehow dishonest. Withdrawing to his hut on the hill was enough: disappearing entirely from view would be to lose whatever part of him remained in the world.

He'd never met anyone like him, even though there must have been thousands. Retrospectively, it was easy to think that they should have made an effort to find each other; to forge a community around their unique situation. But that never happened, and the spectres remained invisible even to themselves.

There had been reports a couple of years back that the last of his kind had died. The quality of journalism wasn't what it once was, to which his continued existence was testament. The one certainty was that he was alone and always would be, now that he was in his waning years. Any chance to meet another spectre was long gone.

He sat on a tree stump next to the hut, watching the sun settling over the mountains in the distance, long fingers of shadow stretching out across the valley, while he boiled rice and sliced vegetables. His thoughts idled away until movement caught his eye, down at the bottom of his hill. Moving across a field between the rows was a man, a canvas bag slung over his shoulder, clad in simple, drab clothes.

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