“He actually accepted you?”
“Well, first I have to pass the Shinto Association’s test but—Wait, why do you sound surprised?!” I put my hands down on the table with a bang. “Didn’t you send me there to be a priest?”
“That was the best case scenario. We thought you’d be lucky if he let you be a bellboy.” Hanamori’s eyes wandered, but I was sure he was hiding a smile behind that sleeve. “Kagari hasn’t had a priest since—” He exchanged a glance with Rin. “Well, he never had a priest.”
I frowned. “Never? How is that possible? I can feel how old the shrine is.”
“The shrine is old, but he isn’t the first deity to be worshipped there… Anyway, you should hear all of this from him. If he chose you as his priest, then it’s only right he answered your questions.”
“Like I said, first I have to pass—”
“Ah, phooey.” Hanamori waved my worries away, smiling that fox-like grin. “If the deity himself has chosen you, no one can say you’re not his priest. As for the test, you just have to pass the entrance-level exam. For appearances, if anything. You can do that, right?”
Something in his tone riled me. “Watch me.”
“In that case, please accept this gift from the Hanamori Inari Shrine to the Kagari Inari Shrine, Kamijyou-dono.” Rin cut in just as the sparks were beginning to fly, handing me a basket of fruit and flowers.
“Rin-niisan…” I couldn’t keep the disapproval and disappointment out of my voice. “Please, call my name as you used to.”
He smiled. “But Mikoto-kun, you’re a priest now.” That was what he said, but he patted my head anyway.
“Hmph, priest or not, a brat is still a brat.” Hanamori’s words threatened to put a damper on my happy mood. To think, I’ll be working with a fox like him from now on…
“Here. From the Hanamori shrine.”
“I hope you found them well.” Kagari accepted the basket, still in his human form. Tamura-san had just left; I passed her on the way to the lift. When he looked like this, there was no way even I could tell he was anything more than a normal priest.
“Rin-niisan is fine. Hanamori is his old, annoying self.”
“That’s good to hear. Well, shall we go in?”
“Why don’t you ask anything?” I finally blurted out. “How could you accept a stranger as your priest? Don’t you want have anything you want to know about me?”
As long as the words left my mouth, I regretted them. I sounded like a girl trying to tell senpai her blood-type and horoscope sign.
“What about you? I’m surprised you accepted my offer so easily.”
That wasn’t so much an offer as it was an order… I grated my teeth.
“I wasn’t going to ask unless you were willing to tell, but since you’re so eager—Tell me, how did you know that the shrine was old, and yet couldn’t see that I wasn’t human?”
“Don’t put it like that,” I said without thinking. “You feel human enough.”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah. I don’t ‘see’ things like some people do. What I do, is more of a ‘sensing’.”
“Of ‘life’, right?”
I nodded wordlessly. It was the power of my name, Hanamori explained to me before. When I asked my parents why I got that name, they said that apparently I wasn’t breathing when I was born. The doctor tried for ten minutes before he resuscitated me, and that was only because he could feel that I ‘wanted to live’. Even after that, I was extremely weak. No one was sure I would survive beyond the month. That was why my parents named me ‘Mikoto’. So I would hold on to the precious thing called ‘life’.
“It’s a good name.”
I winced a little. Yes, I was grateful to be alive, and my powers are probably a side effect of my parents’ intense desire to see me live as well. But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to grow up with these abilities. For one, I was aware of things most people weren’t, which made those things particularly aware of me as well.
“So, you sensed the ‘life’ of the shrine?”
“Sort of. When something has existed for a long time, I can feel some kind of… density, a sense of how many lives were lived here.” And that feeling lay in the existence of the shrine, not just its physical frame. “You… You feel alive, too. Not completely human, but I thought that was because you were a priest.”
‘Life’ to me feels like heat, or a glowing light, sometimes with a distinct ‘scent’. People whose lives were closely intertwined took one each other’s sense—the connection was especially strong with Rin and Hanamori, a priest and his deity. Would Kagari and I be like that too, one day?
That thought caught me off-guard.
“—Maybe that’s because I was human, too. Not too long ago.”
“Eh?” For a moment there, I thought I heard wrong. Kagari was still smiling like he always did, but I thought I saw something a little more mortal in those narrowed eyes.
“Now that you’ve answered my question, it’s your turn to ask. You want to know why I don’t have any priests or priestesses here, right? Has Hanamori told you anything?”
I shook my head.
“I see. Well, then, will you listen to a story?”
The story took place several decades ago. The priest then was an only child, and he fell in love with the only daughter of a wealthy family. They were each expected to inherit their family legacy. She knew she couldn’t afford to marry into a priest’s family, and she told him so, leaving him free to marry the girl his parents decided on. But on the day of the famous dance festival, she poisoned his drink.
He knew it was poisoned. He swallowed everything in one gulp. He thought he knew what she wanted to do, until she ran out and yelled for help.
“Why…?” was the last thing he said to her. Weren’t they supposed to die together?
In the end he didn’t die. While they did everything they could to save him, she ran into the forest of Japanese Andromeda and vanished. When they finally found her, it was as though her soul had left her body. She was alive, but she wasn’t.
She never woke up until the day she died.
He decided not to marry, either. This was the way they were going to spend their lives, together like this. When he died, the lineage died with him. The shrine no longer had a priest.
And yet she did not wake.
“…So I decided to wait for her in another form.”
My throat felt dry. “Until now?”
“Well, no.” Kagari laughed, as though he hadn’t just told me the tragedy of his life. “A few years ago, with Hanamori and his priest’s help, I finally sent her off.”
“…I see.” But you’re still here.
“A~nyway!” Kagari clapped his hands together cheerfully. “The shrine does need some new blood. I’ll be relying on you from now on, Kamijyou-kun.”
“May I ask something?” I kept my head bowed low. “Why me?”
“Hmm… If I had to say, it’s probably because you’re the first person to come asking.”
“Please don’t make fun of this!” My words had become more polite, but my tone more urgent. Now I knew what he went through, his dedication and his motivation… And his guilt. The previous line died in his hands. He became a fox deity after his death, not only to wait for his lover, but also to atone for letting the shrine down, right? That was why he had been holding up the shrine all these years, all on his own. As priest and as deity.
“Kamijyou-kun, do you know what the Kagari Inari Shrine represents?”
He didn’t wait for my answer. “Kagari means bonfire. We light these bonfires early in the summer, to get rid of evil and calm disease, to pray for happiness and safety. These bonfires also light a path in the darkness, for those who can’t find their way.”
He looked at me, and gave me a smile that looked like he was crying inside. “These past few years, I’ve been getting better at sending people off, too.”
Because even in the light, people still wander off the path. That’s why he has to lead them on their way.
“Kamijyou—Mikoto-kun, will you help me? Help me bring life into the shrine that has grown accustomed to the dead… Help me, who has grown accustomed to death.”
I thought about Tamura-san, and her partner. The old man whose memory still walked beside her, his lack of life as obvious to my eyes as her own decaying flame. Every day she prayed that Kagari-kitsune would lead him happily to the other side. But he was still waiting for her, just as Kagari had waited.
What was left, after the waiting was over?
I gripped my fist. This was no way to live.
“I’ll help you. I’ll bring the shrine back to life.”
I’ll bring you back to life.