Eleonora Pilastro

Biography

Eleonora is a shy girl with a stubborn love for writing.
More a character-builder than a plot-thinker, she often lets her characters lead the story.

Her writing is inspired by Western classics and Eastern literature, by pop culture and classics from all over the world. She doesn’t shy away from trying new narratives and experimenting with new genres: that made her want to play with turns of phrases, punctuation and character archetypes.

You may not find a classic structure or perfect Western storytelling in her works, no relentless crescendo of events before the fall of action, no battle between heroes and villains. What you will find, however, are imperfect words that last.
Her prose aims not for technical perfection, but to strike a chord in the reader’s soul.

My cohort

Creative Writing & Publishing 2020

Synopsis

At only seventeen, Okita Soujiro is a force to be reckoned with. He’s a sword prodigy, a brother, a son. His destiny is to die in grass and blood.

Lady Ariko inhabits the Bathhouse. She is knowledge, power and time. She was a ghost before the word ghost was invented.

Their existences collide when a corpse appears on the doorsteps of Soujiro’s dojo. As he finds himself involved in an apparently unsolvable murder case, Soujiro learns that three kinds of ghosts haunt his world: the ones in his head, the ones of his past and the one that will offer him a glimpse of his future.

My Genres

Historical fiction, ghost story, urban fantasy.

Into Darkness,
Flowers and Water

Novel Extract

Death pitied Lady Ariko.

She knew nothing of the human world: her body could be seen but not reached, her voice heard but not answered to. She could be found, but she’d never be understood. She was a pale imitation of everything and nothing, an idle existence confined in the Bathhouse.

Unlike Death, Lady Ariko was a prisoner. When she peeked out of the window, her eyes wandered only as far as the Lake of Blood.

There, she saw spirits: women howling and washing the remains of cursed labours. Lady Ariko knew they died in childbirth, yet she’d never understood how life could kill.

When they didn’t haunt the human world, the spirits crowded the shores of the Lake of Blood, washing the same bedsheets that saw them die. Blood coloured their hands and feet and the lake and the sand, its rusty stench hovering in the air. It soaked the bridge that led to the Bathhouse.

The women would come and go, backs bent and burdened by the cold infants tied to them, but Lady Ariko had nothing to offer for their attention. They ignored her, as Lady Ariko couldn’t cross the bridge that separated the Bathhouse from the Lake of Blood.

She didn’t know what kind of horrible scenery existed past the lake.

All she knew was that she would have traded her non-existence for a minute in the company of those weeping souls. Surely, though, she was in no way presentable enough to join the group even if she could: what would the women think of her bare feet and silk white underdress? Would they be scared by her long, wet hair?

Lady Ariko remained a lurking shadow, watching them. Wishing to be them.

Lady Ariko had always been confined inside the Bathhouse, though she didn’t remember why, or by whom. From the smooth stones of its bathtubs to the delicate patterns of its doors, that space was the beginning and the end of her existence.

They were one and the same. The Bathhouse had always been, just like Lady Ariko had always been. 

From the outside, the bathhouse might have reminded visitors of a dollhouse: each of its pavilions capped with a green roof while the walls and pillars shared the same ruby red. Lacquered wood, shining like fresh blood. The bridge, too, had been painted red.

The house talked with Lady Ariko’s voice and breathed with every rise and fall of her bony chest.

The pungent fragrance of herbal drugs – ginseng and ginger, together with the cypress wood that composed the house itself – rose from the baths in plumes of steam. Everywhere, she saw nothing but steam and damp wood.

Whistles of flutes and chords being plucked by ghastly fingers ghosted in the air.

Lady Ariko would roll her head back and lay against a pillar, comforted by the music, rocking back and forth with the melody. Occasionally, the cries from the women in the Lake of Blood crawled through the windows. They mixed with the music, yet they remained remarkably different from the music born from the Bathhouse – high-pitched, darker, hysterical. Sounds unfathomable that made Lady Ariko shiver with feelings unknown.

She wished to ask those women what they were crying about.

She, too, longed for her soul to thaw as theirs did, for the sound they made was beautiful.


Death was one honest guest of the Bathhouse.

She harvested indiscriminately, warrior or farmer or emperor. It changed masks with the toss of dices.

Death was not a picky lover: she embraced humans regardless, for all they were equal to her eyes. Until, one day, it wasn’t a samurai who caught her eyes: it was a band of boys. The youngest had yet to turn seventeen. His voice silenced the songs and the cries and the flutes in the Bathhouse.

In that bottomless silence, Death stopped and listened. Lady Ariko did the same.

The soldier’s laughter rang hearty but shaky. His body was caught in a bizarre balance between thin and strong, weak and resilient.

Soon, Lady Ariko’s interest spiralled around the boy. Sulking in the mist, the mistress of the bathhouse pondered how her old guest might claim this new life.

“Why,” Lady Ariko told herself, “it must be something special. It can only be something special for the boy who shares the stage with Death.”

For the first time in her existence, Lady Ariko tasted blood on her tongue: she had been gnawing on her lips, she realised. Impatient. Ravenous. Human. Obsession tasted bitter, like disease and hunger and a joy too wild to be appreciated.

That day, Death spoke to her:

“Do you know what men do, ghost?”

Lady Ariko hummed, trying to grasp a whiff of smoke with her bony fingers.

They die. Some sooner than others.”

“Before that.”

“They make each other bleed,” she answered. “Isn’t that what they always do? Leave me be, Death. The things you so desire mean nothing to me.”

That young soldier was the only one Lady Ariko saw and heard. His humanity intoxicated her, he tethered Lady Ariko to the outside world. The Bathhouse belonged to him, though he would never know it. 

Death asked:

“What do you care for, then?”

Lady Ariko’s fingers itched under her long, white sleeves and her mind spun, whirling with the rising pace of a shamisen. The women screamed. The water stood still.

The flute pierced the silence.

“That soldier boy,” Lady Ariko said. “I want him.”


The Tiger, The Sword and the Ghost
I

The spring of 1861 was a cold one.

The snow had been painted red during the winter months, in a chain of hatred and political instability. Samurai, civilians and barbarians alike were killed along the road that separated the foreign settlements. Rogue swords settled mundane disputes, for men wanted to fight only to feel alive and free from the sense of doom that gripped their guts.

Imperial emissaries disappeared with their entourages only to be found dead, tossed in paddy fields with faces swollen and disfigured by water. Sometimes they were never found at all.

Shōgun sympathizers laid with their bellies open on the side of country paths, their rotting bodies fertilising the rice fields. The rebel Domains, led by the Chōshu noblemen, and the crowded Yokohama foreign settlement up North, unbalanced the ever so fragile stability of the Country. Meanwhile, the dojos and samurai households quivered, buzzing like beehives, impatient to embrace their swords and show their worth.

At seventeen, Okita Soujiro was the young promise of the Shieikan dojo.

The only son of a foot soldier, a genius swordsman; a bad brother, an orphan, a sword teacher. With contempt, he had watched the cherry trees blossom yet another year.

Hanami.

The traditional cherry blossom viewing had a name that rolled on the tongue like water. One might have called those petals brave: the spring was cold and blood-stained and, yet, along the Sumida River, the cherry trees kept blossoming.

Because of the festival season, in the past few weeks securing the company of a decent-looking lady had been the only goal of most of the people gravitating around the Shieikan dojo. Soujiro had lost count of the times he had been asked to join the hanami: that day, it had been Harada’s turn to pester him.

They had been eating together on the engawa that overlooked the backyard of the Shieikan dojo. It was a nice place to idle around, and in the last few weeks, tender grass had replaced the earth of the backyard, and the trees close to the wooden fence – the same ones Soujiro remembered climbing when he was a child – had sprouted in green leaves.

Part of him missed the quietness of the backyard, and another was grateful for Harada’s loud chattering. His promises of liquor, women and songs made Soujiro smile, but his answer wasn’t going to change.

“No.”

“What!? Souji, why! It’s for the ladies!”

Soujiro scoffed, hugging his knees. “Then I suggest you save your strengths for them.”

“Not even the time for a drink? Please?”

Harada wasn’t a student at the Shieikan dojo – although, sometimes, Soujiro wished he was. However, someone might have called him a friend of the dojo, and of most of the people in there.

Sharp cheekbones and thin lips always quick with a smile were Harada’s trademarks, together with his yari spear and the thick seppuku scar that crossed his belly. They attracted people to him like moths to a flame. If he was in a good mood, when asked about his scar Harada would open his kimono to uncover the long, white line that crossed his stomach.

“You are all quite wise, learning the way of the sword,” he would shout, unashamed of the suicide attempt forever marked on his skin, “this is how being good with the sword served me!”

He had a good nature, yet no one dared to make fun of the yari spear in Harada’s fist.

Soujiro tilted his head to meet the midday sun. “The cherry trees blossom every year.”

 “So they do,” Harada said with a nod. “But girls love them, and we love girls.”

Soujiro went silent for a moment.

“I know nothing of such things.”

“Oi, don’t be so serious now. It’s never a good look,” Harada said, taking another bite. Some rice grains remained stuck to his chin, darkened by a veil of beard.

Soujiro didn’t envy that sign of manhood, but he did feel something off about himself whenever he was next to Harada: the man owned his skin, not only inhabited it. He ate with a genuine appetite and the spring sunrays seemed to embrace him, painting blue shades in his dark hair.

“Well, I’m sorry,” Soujiro said, with a smirk. “Guess that desperate must be a much better look, huh?”

Harada rolled his eyes and laid on his back while Soujiro stayed still, legs rocking down the engawa’s edge. The tips of his sandals brushed the grass.

“You don’t want to spend time with your friends?”

Ah.

Soujiro cocked his head to the side.

“Didn’t someone say, ‘I make my mind my friend’?”

Harada barked out a laugh.

“Ungrateful little bastard,” he said.
It sounded somehow abrasive, like sand rubbed against Soujiro’s ear. In there, he could almost see the questions dancing in Harada’s mind, too personal to be uttered out loud: what’s wrong with you?

What is your problem?


…I don’t know.
I wish I knew.

Taking a deep breath, Harada closed his eyes and raised his hands, using them as a pillow under his head to make the wooden floor more comfortable.

“Well, you’re going to regret it.”

“I’m sure I will,” Soujiro said. If the other heard the light edge of sarcasm in his voice, he didn’t comment.

To be honest, Soujiro couldn’t care less.

His fingers had been twitching; his lunch had been offered to Harada in exchange for cheap saké, and now restlessness twisted his empty belly. His hands ached to hold a sword, his nose had started picking up the frail scent of sweat and his ears heard the screams coming from the gym at the other side of the compound.

The training hall, after a while, always called him back.

“Shall we go back?” Soujiro asked, expectation vibrating in his voice. “I’m bored.”

Harada rolled on his side to face him. 

“Why? It’s a nice day; stay. Didn’t your sisters teach you to enjoy the pleasures of life?”

“As expected from an old man such as yourself, Sano-san,” Soujiro purred.

Harada blinked, letting the accusation and the nickname sink in. Twenty-three was not an age to be ashamed of, and if nothing it made him a senior of the man grinning down at him, but Harada’s throat bobbed visibly.

“You little—”

“You coming or not, old man?” Soujiro interrupted him, knowing that mentioning his age had nudged Harada’s pride.

Although he laughed at his impatience, Harada propped himself up on his elbow, using it as leverage to lift his upper body. Soujiro’s heart raced a little faster, sensing the shift in the air. He got up first and stretched a helping hand towards Harada.  

Hanami.

The word that sounded like a drop of water rolling on the tongue meant nothing to soldiers.

***

Soujiro followed Harada in the dojo, breathing in the familiar scent of wood and sweat as soon as he stepped past the shoji door. His whole body relaxed. His heart seemed to slow down at the rhythm of the yells and the swings cutting the air.

 “Souji! Good, you’re back.”

Soujiro spun to face the voice, happiness making his heart flutter.

If you were a dog, you’d be sweeping the floor with your stupid tail every time Kondou-san enters the door,’ an older student once told him and, in his heart, Soujiro never considered it an insult.

Kondou-san had raised him. Mentor and brother, guide. Friend.

However, the smile already curling his lips vanished when he saw the familiar face, his gaze stopping on the wound. A black circle covered the right side of Kondou’s browbone: a bruise about the size of an apricot quickly turning purple. His eyebrow was swollen, too, a mass of battered skin and dry blood that reached the hairline.

“Kondou-san!” Soujiro called, rushing forward.

With a raspy laugh, Kondou scratched his nape. He opened in an apologetic smile, soft fine lines cutting the pale skin around his mouth.

“Ah, this? No need to worry, really.”

“It looks bad!”

“What happened?” Harada asked. Soujiro noticed how his hand grasped the spear until his knuckles went white. His concern was met with another chuckle. Kondou had always laughed louder than most.

“Boys, I appreciate it, but it’s fine. I walked right into one of the students practising swings, it’s nothing. See, it doesn’t even hurt.”

“But—” Soujiro tried, blocked by a hand firmly raised to silence him.

“I’m fine, Souji.” Kondou’s eyes softened. “Go check on the juniors, please? See if they need help.”

Soujiro bit the inside of his cheek as Harada chimed in to ask if someone was fetching water for the bruise. He felt nothing close to relief when Kondou shrugged the matter away.

Of course, such a wound must hurt; it hurt Soujiro just to see that person injured and disrespected as if he was a normal man, and not the best of them.

An accident.

As if there was anything as simple as “just an accident” when it concerned Kondou-san.

Soujiro clenched his jaw, scanning the room in search of a culprit. His eyes met the juniors on the other side of the training hall, practising swings in neat rows of four. One boy stood far away from the others.

Every now and then, the dojo would have to deal with one trainee uncommonly versed in the art of doing the wrong thing: names Soujiro couldn’t forget and students he not so secretly despised. Taro was only the most recent one of a long line of failures.

His face was screwed up in concentration, sweat ran in streams down his forehead and strands of hair were glued to his scarlet cheeks and chin; still, he remained slow and painfully inaccurate.

 “Taro-kun.”

The boy’s head perked up, and he smiled and bowed from the hips.

“Okita-sensei.”

Soujiro looked at him for a long moment, head tilting towards the boy’s gear that was lying abandoned in a corner. His technique was below average, his face forgettable.

Good for nothing, idiot.

 “Come on. I want to check your progress.”

 Taro nodded, blushing.

Everybody knew that a single fight with Okita Soujiro was worth weeks of training and meditation: people would get hurt and grown men would tear up, but a bruise didn’t mean a thing if a man wasn’t ready to learn from it.

That day, though, the demon teacher wasn’t in a rush. He grinned, head tilting towards the boy’s gear that was lying abandoned in a corner.

 “By the way, Taro-kun, did you see what happened to Kondou-san?” he asked, looking over Taro’s shoulder.

Taro’s neck stiffened for a second, his chubby hands freezing mid-gesture as he reached for the gear. Soujiro waited as the student squirmed inside his protections, adjusting the plaques around his hips.

“…It was an accident.”

Soujiro’s head whipped up. A chuckle crawled up his throat.

You hit Kondou-san?”

Taro closed in his shoulders. “I’m so terribly sorry. I will never apologize enough, sir.”

“True that.”

As he grabbed one of the wooden swords from the reel on the wall, Soujiro could see Taro whimper. A little man, so defenceless and pathetic, who could only hurt someone when he didn’t mean to.

 Soujiro took his place in the middle of the room, gesturing for the couples already training to get out of the way. Taro’s heavy breathing echoed behind him, his tabi socks swooping on the floor as if the kid was forcing himself to walk.

“Be ready,” he said without turning.

Taro choked on his own breath. Kondou’s face fluttered in Soujiro’s memory – his wound, his smile. The pain he didn’t dare to show. With that image in mind, he spun and dashed towards Taro, lowering the bamboo sword as the boy raised his above his head.

Shivering, pathetic.

Then, Soujiro blinked – a second, just a flutter of eyelashes – and the whole world flickered. The dojo disappeared. He breathed in damp air, his senses slapped by the piercing smell of ginger and cedar.

Suddenly, he wasn’t seeing Taro’s pitiful face, but a pale woman. No eyebrows, only big black eyes piercing through him from beyond a curtain of steam. 

 “AH!”

Taro’s yell brought Soujiro’s attention back to the dojo and the fight.

He knew the kid had spotted the opening on the left side: a perfectly unguarded patch of skin waiting to be hit, covered by nothing but rough cotton. Surely, the poor boy couldn’t believe his luck.

Soujiro waited for his prey to rush to him with a belligerent cry – too slow and, yet, too rushed. Pulling back, he switched the balance to his left foot and turned, swinging the bamboo sword with both his hands.

The next thing he heard was the hardwood ricocheting against Taro’s ribs. It hit hard and true, in between protections. The sound of bones cracking and the whistling breath curled Soujiro’s lips.

The child bounced back like a broken toy.

Does this count as an accident?

He charged another blow to the boy’s shoulder, and another and another, hitting blindly since there was nothing – no guard, no willpower, no fight – to keep him from doing so. Taro fell on his knees and curled on himself, seeking protection from the hits.

            You’re useless, you’re useless, you’re useless, you’re—

His sword sang with every blow.

Taro’s cry died when Soujiro hit his sternum, stealing the air from his lungs.

 Avenge Kondou-san. Kill.

He had a debt to pay to the man who had brought him up, believed in him, turned him into someone with a purpose.

Don’t be useless.

Soujiro’s sword was already mid-air, ready to aim for the head, when a hand grasped his wrist. He had enough time a glimpse at Taro shielding his face, tears streaming down his cheeks, before Harada dragged him away.

“That’s enough, Souji.”

His voice was a clap of thunder, although he didn’t yell.

Suddenly, Soujiro was breathing again, surrounded by eerily pale faces. Taro rolled on the ground, his laments breaking the silence. Harada’s short nails sank in the flesh of Soujiro’s wrist as if he was trying to scratch the bone.

“Are you crazy?”

“You saw what the kid has done, Harada,” Soujiro said, hissing when Harada shook him violently. He sneered at Taro, still gasping for air. “A dog that hurts his master has no right to cry. Rise, farm boy. We’re not done.”

 “Enough,” Harada cut him off. “Kondou-san wants to see you.”

Soujiro pressed his lips together.

He shook his head, trying to keep at bay the feeling of being in two places at the same time: a dojo and a bathhouse. Somewhere where he could spill blood, and somewhere where water would wash it off.

In the deaf silence, he freed himself from Harada’s grip and stalked out.

           ‘What is wrong with you, little soldier boy?’

            ‘I don’t know. I wish I knew.’

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