Every morning, without fail, her sister chants a prayer to the goddess of the mountain. Once, long ago, the goddess was often angry and would spew fire down on the people of the island. The morning chant, along with a small offering of incense and dried herbs, is a prayer of dedication, to keep the goddess pacified, producing not rage and barrenness but greenery and life.
After the chant to the mountain goddess, there is a song to the sea god. Long ago, he was in constant turmoil, and is still so at times, but in this time of peace, he can be more understanding. The song praises him in his majesty, humbly asks him to allow the sailors to traverse his realm safely, and also asks that the sea be bountiful in sustaining creatures for the people of the island to eat.
Lastly, there is a prayer to the goddess of the winds. Long ago, she was completely unpredictable, and there would be torrential hurricanes, interspersed with long periods of drought; a few times, there was even snow. The prayer to the goddess of the winds understands that she cannot be tied down, yet seeks that she not be too careless with the weather she brings, and that inclement, destructive weather be hopefully rare.
The history of the gods is surprisingly violent for the peaceful place the islands are now, but the legends say that it was the people's kindheartedness and worship that calmed their world. When the people were blasphemous, or when they fought against each other, the gods were angry and the islands suffered; when piousness and civility reigned, the islands became a paradise. Their way of life is peaceful as long as they are dedicated.
Even when they were young, her sister had always been a fanatic. They were raised to be so, of course, having grown up right next to the temple. Their father's family has been priests and priestesses for generations.
"The power of the gods runs in our blood," their father often said, "and it is our duty to use our blessing in service to the prosperity and well-being of our community." Sometimes, a child would be randomly born with the characteristics showing the power of the gods her father often talked about, but the majority of them were related to one another.
"We're magical!" her sister responded, grinning toothily and swinging her feet at the dinner table. "The gods love us and are kind to us because we help them, right?"
"Please don't kick your feet at the table, Hinata dear," their mother gently commented.
"The gods keep this land peaceful because we show them respect and dedication," their father corrected. Hinata never understood that it was a correction, or if she did, she just didn't care. "If we stray from the path of respect and belief, then only harm will befall us, but if we are faithful, then we will receive joy and peace in hundredfold."
"I can't wait ‘til I get to help in the temple," Hinata sighed. "You're so lucky, Ayame; you get to do all sorts of stuff already."
"All I do is help clean sometimes." It was dead boring, and she'd never been as obsessed with religion as her father and sister.
"But it's cleaning in the temple!"
"You'll get to help me as well, Hinata," their father smiled indulgently, "but not until you're a little bit older." Then, the dinner conversation would move on to other topics.
In some ways, their parents had raised one flawlessly perfect heir; the problem was that it was split between two girls. Hinata had acquired the religious devotion, and Ayame had acquired the personality suitable for solemn dedication and quiet contemplation of their world. Everyone in their family knew this, but talking about it in the open was not often pleasant.
"I've decided," Ayame said one night at dinner, "that once I'm done with school, I'm going to take an apprenticeship at the hospital." For half a minute, she was met with dead silence. Everyone just kept eating dinner. Neither her mother nor her sister would meet her eye.
"...I'm disappointed, Ayame," her father said calmly, still feigning eating his fish. "I thought you were more responsible than that."
"It's a completely responsible profession, Father," she responded. Even when she was rebelling, it was always calm and well-thought-out. Her father sighed and focused his attention solely on her.
"You should know by now that our family has obligations that must he fulfilled. Your place is at the temple."
"If I work at the hospital," Ayame pressed, "I'll still be serving the community." And her rebellions were always within a set framework.
"You are the eldest," her father responded sternly. "When I am older and retired, it will be your duty to take over services at the temple."
"I'm sure Hinata would be more than willing to take over the temple once you retire," Ayame answered, deliberately keeping her tone respectful and focused. Hinata's eyes widened, and her hand flew to her mouth, but she thankfully knew better than to interrupt right now. "She would be much more suitable for the position than me; we all know that." Her father's eyes grew stony; maybe that last bit was too much. Ayame believed in the power of the gods, but she could never dedicate herself to them for the rest of her life as would be required of a priestess. In her father's eyes, it had been her one failure in an otherwise flawless upbringing. Perhaps their mother sensed the change in the atmosphere of the table, because it was then that she spoke up.
"There have been times in the past," her mother commented gently, "where a person has studied medicine rather than religion." Her father brought his gaze to her mother, and Ayame felt a deep sense of gratitude welling up within her. She kept her composure, of course, but she vowed to thank her mother profusely afterwards. "If there is precedent for it, and if she is still dedicated in service to the people, it would still be appropriate." Her father sighed again, closed his eyes, and was silent for about five solid minutes. Somehow, Ayame kept her poise.
"Hinata," her father said, eyes opening and gaze focused sharply on her sister.
"...Yes, Father?" Hinata asked, voice small, eyes still wide.
"When I retire, and can no longer carry out my duties at the temple, would you be willing to take my place in service to the people of these islands?" Hinata bit her lip, but her expression was somehow hopeful. She wanted this, even without taking Ayame into consideration. This could work.
"Yes," Hinata replied, somewhat breathless, "I would."
"It's decided then," her father declared. "Hinata will succeed me. Ayame, you may apprentice at the hospital, if that is what you desire." He said it as if it had been his decision all along, but that was the way he always was, and Ayame did not begrudge him for that.
"Thank you, Father," Ayame replied calmly.
When the time came for Ayame's graduation from school, festivities were in full swing. Even though Hinata was younger, her bubbliness and cheerfulness had made her popular enough to also be invited, so she took it upon herself to help Ayame get ready.
"You're so pretty, Ayame," her sister sighed. "I don't know why you don't dress up more often." Ayame just finished putting her outfit on. "More than a few guys like you, and they're going to be at the party tonight, so you should do something about it for once in your life.” Hinata pouted into the mirror. “I’ve got all these freckles, and my eyes are just boring old brown.”
“You seem to be popular enough with the boys regardless,” Ayame responded. Her sister was an incorrigible flirt, and while she did have a few freckles, they weren’t nearly as many as Hinata made them out to be. Her eyes were brown, but they were warm and friendly compared to the icy blue of Ayame’s own eyes. The only things the two sisters had in common, really, were their slim, willowy bodies and long, silver-white hair.
“That’s because I actually talk to boys, instead of just studying all day.” Ayame was perfectly capable of holding a conversation with a boy, she thought; most of them just weren’t worth the conversation. They just didn’t understand that there was more to her than her looks or her family’s status. "I mean, really," Hinata continued, "the only boys you'll meet at the hospital will be stuffy and boring. At least let me do your hair for the party?" The mark of those chosen by the gods, but Ayame wasn’t thinking about that right now.
"You can do my hair if you want," Ayame acquiesced. "Just stop talking about what boys you think I should date." Personally, she'd prefer a boy her sister considered 'stuffy' over all the immature ones.
Just as her sister predicted, Ayame met a 'stuffy and boring’ boy. He worked at the hospital as well, and while he was neither outspoken nor flamboyantly romantic, they loved each other in their own quiet, serious way. By the next year, they were married, and by the year after that, she was with child. All through this, her family was alternately pleased, confused, and exhilarated.
When the time came for the baby to be born, one balmy Saturday evening, the hospital was in a tizzy. Though her husband silently stayed at her side the entire time, the midwives had taken over and were constantly bustling back and forth. Her pregnancy had been eagerly anticipated, and all her friends at the hospital had clamored to help participate in the birthing. The labor itself was a long, exhausting process, but it thankfully passed without complications. Her husband remained at her side, holding her hand, and eventually the cries of a newborn were heard.
"Congratulations," the midwife said, smiling, "it's a boy." Ayame sighed and relaxed against the bed she was reclined on. The baby cried loudly. Her husband smoothed her sweat-damp hair back and out of her face while the cord was cut and tied. "He's got a good set of lungs on him. He'll be strong and healthy, I can tell."
"Let me hold him," Ayame said. The midwife nodded, and then placed the crying baby into her arms.
He was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. His skin, though still slick with blood and afterbirth, was impossibly soft, and his eyes had the clear paleness of the newly-born. Ayame and her husband gave him a name traditional to the islands, spent a good few minutes just staring at him in utter amazement, and then Ayame handed him back to the midwife to clean up. After he’d been cleaned, the baby was handed back to her, and while her husband went to tell their families the good news, Ayame nursed her son, smiling tiredly and gently stroking his fine, pure-white hair.
A few hours later, when the baby was asleep and Ayame herself had gotten some time to rest as well, her family came pouring in. Her sister cooed over the sleeping newborn, her mother gave gentle smiles to both the new parents and the new grandson, and her father looked so incredibly proud. Ayame was tired in the most exhilarated manner possible.
“This child,” her father said, beaming, “has been blessed with the power of the gods.”
A great weight dropped into the pit of Ayame’s stomach.
“My son…” she murmured, suddenly feeling faint.
“The markings are clearly there,” her father elaborated. “As soon as both you and the child are well enough to leave the hospital, we’ll take him to the temple and perform the proper blessings.” Ayame just turned her head to stare at the small crib in which her son was sleeping.
What had she done?
Her son was only a few hours old. He had only just been born, and his future was already laid out for him. He would work in the temple like Ayame’s father and sister, or he would work in the hospital like Ayame and her husband. On the islands, there were no other options available to him. He was less than a day old; was he already trapped in the same roles the rest of their family had endured?
Ayame’s husband must have noticed the change in her mood because he promptly started shooing everyone out of the room.
"What, leave already?" her father asked. "We just got here."
"Please, Father," Ayame murmured again. "I need to rest..." Her husband upped his efforts in shooing the visitors out, and once they were gone, returned to her side. "Let me hold him again," Ayame said, still reeling.
"You don't need to listen to that old man," her husband responded. "He's a fanatic, he's always been a fanatic."
"I want to hold my son!" She was trying very hard not to cry. Her husband stared at her for a moment, then nodded and brought the baby to her. Ayame cradled him in her arms with the utmost care. "Ohh, little baby, little boy..."
"Shh..." She stroked his hair again. "My beautiful little boy... I'm so sorry... I love you so much..." She rocked him slowly for a few minutes, kissed his forehead gently, and then handed him back to her husband. "I need to rest..."
"Ayame, are you alright?"
"I'm so tired..."
Thankfully, the postpartum depression only lasted a couple of months. The months seemed very long while they were happening, like the very mountain was swallowing Ayame and her son whole, but by time it was done, neither of them seemed too worse for the wear. The boy grew up healthy and inquisitive, though she was sure that he was even more rebellious than she had been. He was normally a very good child, but there were times when she just didn't know what to do with him.
"I don't see what's bad about wanting to learn," her son demanded, four years old and crossing his arms like he was forty-five.
"But swords are so violent," she protested. "It's so peaceful here; what would you ever do with it? It's too dangerous. Fighting like that has no place on these islands." It was true that there had been times in the distant past when different families warred with each other for the right to rule the islands, but those times were long gone. Any swordplay now was simply ceremonial, though it was also a little barbaric, in Ayame’s opinion.
"You don't get it," he retorted, huffing. Some things, he just couldn't be budged from. Ayame was resisting the urge to tear her hair out, but her husband just kneeled and looked her son in the eye.
"Maybe this is a conversation we should have between men, then? If you don't think your mother understands?" Her son just kept frowning.
"It’s not anything like that!" he insisted, spots of color appearing high on his cheeks from frustration.
“Then why don’t you explain it to us?” her husband prodded again. Her son looked away for a moment.
“…I just want to,” he said, still flushing. He still wasn’t explaining himself. “I need to.” Her son was generally very well-behaved; Ayame knew this, which was what made the situation all the more puzzling. He was not spoiled, and he did not throw tantrums. He was very intelligent for his age, and friendly unless given cause to be otherwise.
“I don’t want you to hurt yourself,” Ayame said.
“But I won’t! I’ll practice every day, and I’ll keep on practicing, and-and then I’ll get really good at it, and then-” he cut himself off, and then just stared at her like he was daring her to call him a liar. She couldn’t bring herself to disagree with his enthusiasm, but she couldn’t bear it if anything went wrong. Her husband took over the conversation again.
“You would practice every day?”
“Even if it got very difficult and you thought it was a lot harder than it seemed at first?”
“And you’d be careful not to hurt yourself or anyone else?”
“You’ll do your very best?”
"Of course! I'm going to be the strongest!" His eyes looked so fierce, Ayame couldn't find it in her to deny him. Her husband must have come to the same conclusion because he nodded at their son in approval.
"Alright," her husband declared, "we'll allow you to learn. Remember, if you try your best at it, you can accomplish anything."
"I know," her son smiled, frustration from before gone as if it had never existed at all. He was completely serene.
On festival days, all the islands were bustling with activity. Dinner was often at her parents' house next to the temple, so Ayame's own household was especially high-strung. When her son finally came in the house from playing, Ayame immediately got to work.
"There you are. We're having dinner at Grandfather's house tonight. What on earth did you get on your clothes? Go wash your face." She handed him a washcloth, which he made a face at. "Let me brush your hair."
"I can do it myself, Mother."
"I've already laid your nice outfit on your bed. Get cleaned up and then put it on." She also handed him the brush. "We're already running late as it is. Honestly, what did you do that got you so dirty?"
"We were playing, Mother." He scrubbed lightly at his face with the cloth.
"Go look in a mirror when you do that, and make sure not to miss any spots. We need to be at the temple in half an hour."
"Yes, Mother." Thankfully, by the next time she saw him, her son was cleaned up, hair brushed, and in his formal outfit. There weren't even any wrinkles. He was still scowling a bit, but that'd go away once they left the house; he knew how important being respectful was when they were at the temple. Ayame and her husband were ready as well, so the three of them made the walk together.
Once they paid their respects in the temple itself, they moved to the small house next door. Ayame's sister opened it with a smile, and then everyone spent the next few minutes with their hellos.
"There you are!" Hinata smiled exuberantly. She was holding her baby against her with one arm, and used the other to wave at Ayame and her son. Hinata's baby was already her fourth, though it was the first one that had the trademark white hair. This probably meant that Hinata was going to finally stop popping out children, although Ayame couldn't say for sure.
It probably wasn't for the right reasons, but Ayame had breathed a great sigh of relief when Hinata's latest child was born. It meant that unless something drastically unpredictable happened, her own son was safe from her family's plans. She'd been so distraught after the birth of her son that she and her husband had made the decision to stop at one. Their son would probably still end up working at the hospital, but now he was honestly free to choose something other than the temple. This was an even greater relief because Ayame's son was even less enthusiastic about religion than she was.
Mother's little agnostic. If she thought the words sweetly enough, the guilt was a little less crippling.
"Oh, you've grown so much since I last saw you!" Hinata gushed at Ayame's son. "How old are you right now?" She ruffled his hair lightly.
"I'm eight," her son responded curtly, smoothing down his hair with a slightly annoyed expression. "We saw you last month for Christmas."
"Ooh, they grow so fast at this age, don't they?" Hinata said to Ayame, completely ignoring the irritation she'd produced - as always. "I can't wait until my little ones are this big." She cooed at her own infant once more. "You'll be big soon, too, little baby! Before you even know it!"
"We're all glad to see the young man growing up so well," Ayame's father said, clapping a hand on her son's shoulder. Hinata went to fuss over her brood once more. Ayame decided that once she peeled her son away, she was going to escape into the kitchen with her mother.
"Hello, Grandfather," her son said, expression grave.
"Do you know what night tonight is?"
"It's the Silent Moon night," her son answered promptly.
"Exactly. Good job." Ayame's son just blinked back at her father. "It's good to see you're keeping up your studies. That's very important, especially for our family."
"Father, we haven't even gotten ten feet in the door yet," Ayame says. She didn't need her father going on about this subject again.
"Be patient for a minute. It's important for him to understand, now that he's getting a bit older." Her father turned back to her son again. "You have an important responsibility." The boy just blinked back at him silently once more. "Our family has been blessed with the power of the gods, and it is our responsibility to use that gift in service to the people of these islands." Her son maintained his silence. "You'd best believe that, young man." If Ayame's son believed in anything, she didn't think it was anything that existed on these islands.
"Alright, let's say hello to the others," Ayame declared, sounding much more sure than she felt. Her father nodded once, and then Ayame steered her son with her. "You can go play with your cousins if you want," she told the boy.
"They're all little," he responded.
"Then why don't you go see what your father and uncle are doing. I'll be helping Grandmother in the kitchen if you need me." He turned without a word and walked over to her husband and brother-in-law. Ayame allowed herself a small sigh, then went to help her mother prepare dinner.
After dinner, they migrated back to the temple. The younger children were deposited with the women who volunteered to sit out the ceremony that year, and the rest of them took their seats on the ground in neat, orderly rows with the other islanders. Ayame's family sat in the front row, with the mayor and other important figures on the island. Her father, her sister, and their assistants carried out the ceremony. Ayame's son looked a little bored, but he remained silent and maintained his proper sitting posture, so she decided to give him a passing mark.
The gods are angry.
After all these years of being frustrated by her family's obsession with religion, her first thought is that the old legends are finally coming true. She has not been faithful, and now the price is being paid. The wind must be howling, the sea must be churning, and the mountain must be shaking. It feels as if the islands are tearing themselves apart, bit by bit. She absently wonders if her sister or father are at the temple right now, trying to calm the gods, but she feels as though there is nothing anyone could possibly do.
Her son is missing.