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Autumn is associated with rot and decay; with leaves fallen, then turned to mulch, sludge, and slime. With autumn comes the surprise of a biting wind and the descent of night when you expected day. We turn inward, go back to school, learn lessons. Autumn is also the season of mushroom-hunting, and, especially in Japan, the blooming of the red spider lily. 

A flower of a thousand names, the Lycoris radiata is also called the “resurrection lily,” the “red magic lily,” and the “equinox flower.” This latter for the flower’s blooming when the hours of light and dark meet as equals, with cold and night eventually winning out, tipping us into what will become winter. This passage of time in Japan is known as higan (彼岸), a Buddhist festival of “crossing to the other shore,” of honoring the dead. Although this celebration occurs at both spring and autumn equinoxes, the spider lily blooms only in October, inverting the pale pink snowfall of its transient twin, the cherry-blossom, into a spindly, blood-soaked stalk shooting straight up from hell. 

My grandmother was born during this shifting of seasons, right around the equinox. Two years ago, shortly after her October birthday, she died. For one week following Halloween, her consciousness hung between the spirit world and this one, while her body lay propped on a hospital bed in a country too far away for me to get to in time. My mother played her the voice memos I sent, recordings of Japanese death poems written by Zen monks and Haiku poets - she was both a Buddhist and a poet herself. One of them read: “That which blossoms / falls, the way of all flesh / in this world of flowers.” 

In the Lotus Sutra of the dharma, it is said that the banks of the “other shore,” be it hell or some afterlife, are covered with red spider lilies. In the anime Jigoku Shōjo (Hell Girl), wherever the eponymous Hell Girl, Enma Ai, goes, these flowers seem to bloom, and in each episode she is shown ferrying the souls of the damned to this distant place, resplendent with Higanbana,「彼岸花」(“flower from the other side”). Spider lilies appear a lot in anime. In one of the most emo scenes of Tokyo Ghoul, a field of white flowers all close up, one by one, sucked in upon themselves into a fast spinning motion before, with a wet, gruesome sound like splattered blood, they reemerge as spider lilies. The metamorphosis of the flowers mirrors Kaneki’s battle with - and ultimate acceptance of - his dark side. In another widely known appearance, the lilies grace the closing credits of each Demon Slayer episode, as if to provoke or accompany a meditation on endings, closure, or finality. What always strikes me as the wiry flowers drift by the black window of my screen is how, if they are meant to be spider lilies, with their petals resembling arachnid legs, then these spiders find themselves turned upside down, laying on their backs. In other words, in a position of utter vulnerability. Either that, or caught in the snares of belly-up death.

The spider lily is symbolically linked with death for many reasons. Not only its time but also its location of bloom gives the flower its morbid aura, since it is most often found near graves and tombstones. The plant is not native to Japan, but was selected for its toxicity when ingested, and subsequently planted in cemeteries as an organic repellent to the worms, mice, and other critters that would’ve otherwise devoured the bodies sent underground before cremation became customary. The red spider lily’s poison, like all other plants in its genus Lycus, is due to a particular alkaloid, lycorine. In a true manifestation of the classic pharmakon (poison/remedy) it also contains another alkaloid, gantamine. This chemical, when isolated, has been used to create medicines that may help treat conditions of cognitive decline, like Alzheimers. Far from the highly contrasted aesthetics of any aforementioned anime, the ravages of such memory-corroding maladies are perhaps best portrayed by Gaspar Noé’s 2021 film, Vortex. A brutally stark, drawn-out depiction of Alzheimers, the film is dedicated “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” 

The last time I saw my grandmother she said, cupping my face, “I don’t know who you are, but I know that I love you.” She was never officially diagnosed with Alzheimers, but her severe dementia left little to be imagined. From the valley of the untellable and from her intimacy with impermanence, she still managed to speak simply, honestly. She was wise enough not to fight what is so fleeting anyway, even as the mists of disorientation swirled viciously around her. This was a lesson she lived: that in the face of pain, to be still is sometimes the greater strength. To admit what one does not know. To admit that one suffers. After all, this is the Buddha’s first noble truth: that life is suffering. I understand these lessons more each day, I think, and have begun to live them myself, in my own way. Which is to say that I suffer in my own way.

When I watched Demon Slayer for the first time, I was hurting. Heart freshly broken, with a slew of other random injuries to match my state of sorrow, I took refuge in this world of Total Concentration Breathing, of bloodthirsty mouths stopped up with bamboo scrolls, of pure and true familial bonds and the wonders of unbounded stamina. I found it comforting to watch Tanjiro train until he collapsed, told myself that if he and his comrades could sustain broken ribs and other mortal injuries, then I could heal, too. It sounds childish and cliché to put it that way now, but it was and remains true. I also felt like I was unironically learning valuable lessons. I kept a running list in my encrypted notes, which included: 
- do not give up
- identify your goal
- get stronger
- each life is precious - even the pitiful deserve peace
In season 1, episode 16, Tanjiro and Inosuke conclude their first major battle with a dysfunctional family of spider demons by beheading the mother. Sat on a rock in the middle of her mountainous forest, letting fall from her fingertips the webs that had controlled the bodies of distant demon slayers, she accepts her imminent death, saying “But if I die, I’ll be released. And then, I’ll know peace.” The descending slash of Tanjiro’s sword brings with it a brief ripple of water, a rainbow.

“I never dreamed that my end would be this tranquil,” the spider mother sighs before vanishing. 

I imagine - hope - that my grandmother’s end was tranquil. Or that if she suffered it was for all those who may never know peace, who may never find tranquility in their affliction. Despite all the lessons my grandmother has taught me - from beyond the grave and before it - I still wish we’d had more time. More time to meet one another in the shared clarity of our understanding. There were so few possibilities for us to overlap as ourselves. As my crisis of adolescent rebellion waned, I took more and more interest in her work, her books, including those of Russian poetry she could still recite by heart even as she remembered fewer and fewer details of my life, or of hers. But this was already too late in many ways. Even so, everyone in our family says we resemble each other - both physically and intellectually - more than anyone else. I feel this to be intuitively true, and wonder if in fact we are not some kind of time-warped twinning: two halves of the same stalk, or two different species flowering on either end of the year. 

It is only once the blossoms of the spider lily wilt away and decompose that its leaves sprout. Whereas other plants tend to produce both at the same time, the spider lily’s leaves and flowers are kept apart, each allotted a separate lifespan. The death of one is the cue for the birth of the other, even though they grow from the same seed. This peculiarity has earned the plant yet another name, Manjushage 「曼珠沙華」, recalling the myth of Manju and Saka, two elves from Chinese folklore who were each tasked with caring for one part of the flower - petals and leaves - but whose forbidden love resulted in the curse of their separation. 

I’ve long felt that just as I was coming into myself, my grandmother was going out of herself. We could never truly meet, or at least not in this layer of reality. There’s a tragedy in that that sometimes feels a lot like injustice. But injustice may also be another name for when we squirm in our suffering, when we hurt but don’t want to admit, accept, hold, or adore it. In the face of pain, she taught me peace. 

“The world dies from each absence; the world bursts from absence,” writes Vinciane Despret in the Extinction Studies reader. I feel the world burst with my grandmother’s death, feel the presence of that absence. I notice where she is not, and mourn for those empty contours. Even as I feel her sensing through me, and the world sensing through that, there’s no denying the singular ache of the ones we miss. Her birthday is coming up. Her death day, too. If she had been buried, I would lay red spider lilies on her grave. Instead, her ashes were scattered at the base of a tree, in the gardens of the sōtō zen temple where she learned how to suffer, how to be still, where she taught me to grow up, to go on. I imagine red spider lilies growing there now.