(The following story is an adaption of an ancient Japanese legend recorded in the 8th Century text Kojiki: The Record of Ancient Matters. While I have expanded on the tale and taken several creative liberties, I have endeavored to remain true to the essence of the legend.)
Sometimes on rainy nights, he would come to her in dreams. Lying in the darkness of her chamber, the creaking of the old house lulling her to sleep, the young woman would sense shadows at the edges of her consciousness as she drifted off to the sound of rain, and imagine the wood panel of her room sliding open. The dream always went thus: the strange visitor would enter, cloaked in shadows, his dark eyes unfathomable yet captivating in their mystery. She knew nothing more of him—not his name, not his origin, not even how he had found her. With a pale, gentle hand he would close the panel behind him and whisper in a soft, alluring voice. And each time he entered her bed and wrapped her in his arms, she would sink into the stranger’s embrace and could summon neither the will nor the strength to resist him. All thought was annihilated: she would yield to his warmth, to his power, and to the scent of rain that lingered even after her eyes at last fluttered open and dispersed the dream.
As weeks passed into months, the girl called Tamayori could only wonder at why these spectral fantasies had beset her. Anxiety, perhaps, at her parents’ recent “activities”—her mother and father, keenly aware of their daughter’s blossoming beauty, had begun seeking an advantageous match in the village nearby. Yet just as they landed on a promising potential husband—no less than a son of the village headman himself—they discovered to their horror that their daughter was already with child.
A miracle, an impossibility, a scandal—a hammer that smashed all their expectations into sand. How it had happened, none could explain; Tamayori had lived a sheltered life, had never so much as wandered from the house without one of her parents or an elder sibling present. As precious to her father as any jewel, as dear to her mother as her own life, no man could have laid hand on her without their knowledge. They kept their house locked day and night, and the dogs sat watch in the garden—what visitor could have stolen in unseen?
No less terrified and perplexed than her parents, Tamayori protested her innocence, vehemently denying she had been intimate with any man—yet the proof lay in her growing belly, plain for all to see. At last, distraught, she confessed to her parents the dreams of nightly visitations that had haunted her of late, for she’d known no other lover save the handsome, shadowy figure of her imagination.
Puzzled by their daughter’s claim, Tamayori’s parents still sensed her honesty, which only deepened their confusion. Determined to settle the mystery, they crafted a plan to uncover the phantom suitor.
“Here,” Tamayori’s mother told her one evening, pressing a long spool of red hemp thread into her hand. “I suspect the man you’ve been seeing is no mere dream. Should he come to you tonight, take the end of this thread and tie it into his clothes. Take care that he does not notice. In the morning, we will follow the thread back to him and learn the truth of who he is and where he comes from. As for your father and myself, we will keep watch throughout the night.”
Shortly before midnight, it began to rain.
Fearful though she was, Tamayori lay down in her bed to await her visitor; where once she had looked forward to the dreams, now she knew only confusion and prickling doubt. She placed one hand on her swollen belly and the other over her racing heart, no longer sure what was fantasy or what was real. But gradually drowsiness crept in, then deep slumber took her, and she dreamed.
The door panel scraped open, and once again he stood there—ethereal, handsome, wrapped in shadows. The candles flickered out, and though Tamayori’s parents should have been sitting watch that night outside her door, she could not see them in the darkness.
Eyes glittering like jet, the visitor beckoned her to stand. She knew she shouldn’t; some inhuman power was at work here, something beyond her comprehension. Yet a strange, intoxicated longing stirred inside her, and she rose into his arms, feeling possessed by a will not wholly her own. And as his arms coiled around her, an overpowering calm seemed to emanate from him, snuffing out her resistance like the candles whose smoke now ghosted on their wicks.
She pulled him back down upon her blankets, yet just before she surrendered to him, she tied the end of the spooled thread into his clothes.
At dawn her mother shook her awake with a cry: “He was here!”
Blinking away sleep, the girl sat up. “You saw him?”
“No,” said her mother, “your father and I kept watch all night long. We didn’t see anyone enter your room. But look!”
The red thread lay spooled out across the floor. It ran from Tamayori’s mattress to the door—and up through the tiny keyhole.
“Impossible,” her father said, investigating both sides of the door. “You’re sure you tied the string to him?”
“Yes, Father,” said Tamayori. “At least, as far as anything I dreamed was real.”
“Let’s follow it,” her mother said, “and see where it leads.”
From the keyhole, the thread ran down the hallway and out the front door, then under the garden gate. It followed a rippling, winding path down the lane, over the embankments between the rice paddy fields flooded from the night’s rain, among the farmhouses of the nearby hamlet, and then, finally, up the forested trail that led to Mount Miwa and the shrine of the mountain god.
Tamayori and her parents stopped beneath the torii gate that marked the shrine’s entrance, dumbstruck. Beyond the gate, the crowding tree cover cast the sacred grounds in cool darkness.
“He came from here?” Tamayori whispered, awed.
“It can’t be,” her mother said, shaking her head even as fearful understanding dawned on her face. “Still… who but a god could have passed through the keyhole and given you a child in your dreams?”
Wind creaked through the trees, sending a light shower down from the rain-laden branches. The scent of the damp forest was familiar—it was his scent, the scent of his robes.
“There’s something on the ground up ahead.” Her father pointed through the torii arch to where a white, papery object lay crumpled on the dirt path. “What is it?”
Tamayori remembered the jet black eyes, the coiling shadows, the twining embrace of her lover, and her mouth went dry with foreboding. Tentatively and on shaky feet she stepped through the gateway and into the sacred grounds, approaching the crumpled object. Beneath her, the red thread finally ran out.
Something squirmed in her womb.
Kneeling in the dirt, and with her fingers shaking, she picked up the object that lay where the red thread ended. She stared at it with disbelieving eyes, then turned wordlessly to her parents, holding it out for them to see and watching the blood drain from their faces.
Clutched in her numb fingers was a fluttering white snakeskin.