“That’s the Kamijyou boy, right? Where do you think he’s going with all that luggage?”
“I heard he’s not going to university…”
“Is he running away with his girlfriend?!”
“Him? Well, he has the looks, but all the girls said—”
A vein throbbed in my temple, but I plastered on a smile as I interrupted my neighbors’ chatter. “Sato-san, Ibuki-san, isn’t this a fine day?”
“Y-yeah…” Sato-san turned her gaze away, but Ibuki-san wasn’t so easily deterred. She lived two houses away from mine, and had watched me on my way to school for years now. I guess she prided herself as someone who knew me.
“Mikoto-kun, I know it’s not really my place to say this, but you must know that any actions you take will also reflect on your family. Your mother is a kind woman, and she tries her best while your father is out at work, so you should—”
--be considerate of her feelings, and set a good example for your sister. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Mother once confided in me that she wasn’t too fond of this neighbor either, so on a regular day I would have made up some excuse to get away. Just as I was about to make a run for it, though, I felt the weight of my suitcase in my hand, and remembered where I was going.
“I understand, Ibuki-san.” I gave her my brightest smile, shocking her into a moment’s daze. “Thank you for caring for me all these years. I’ll be sure to come back whenever I can, and we can chat some more then.”
“Where are you going?” She finally asked the question that was on her mind, her defenses lowered by the sudden change in my attitude.
But of course, I wanted her to ask. My smile was so bright now it positively sparkled in her eyes.
“Oh, don’t you know? I’m going to be the priest at the Kagari Inari Shrine. Please come visit us whenever you can.”
“Eh? But I thought that shrine was torn down years ago to make way for a skyscraper?”
Ibuki-san’s words still echoed in my head as I hit the button that led to the roof. As I thought, no one knew about the place… That wouldn’t do. As the new priest, I had to make sure people started coming again. Just Tamura-san wouldn’t be enough—
Hmm? I checked my watch. It was nine o’clock, but Tamura-san wasn’t here. Was she running late?
When the lift doors opened, a gust of wind blew a smattering of leaves directly into my face. I held up my hands to fend them off, bracing against the glaring sunlight on the roof.
The wind was strong today. I paused. Tamura-san wasn’t here, either. Instead I found Kagari standing on the edge of the rooftop, his hair and tail blowing in the wind.
He hadn’t bothered to take on his human form, or to look around when I approached him.
“Mikoto-kun, Tamura-san won’t be coming today.”
“Is she sick?” My voice was soft. “Shall I pay her a visit?” After all, she had been a loyal devotee of the shrine.
“…Thank you.” Kagari was still looking into the distance. At Tamura-san’s house, maybe? “I would like to come with you, but we mustn’t leave the shrine empty.”
A pause. “If it’s possible… please try to stay with her until nightfall.”
Tamura-san won’t make it past the night.
I knew that as soon as she opened the door for me. She was surprised to see me, and even more surprised to learn I was the new priest-in-training for the shrine she frequented. I told her I was a relative’s of Kou-san, and was there to learn the ways of priesthood from him.
When she smiled, her eyes crinkled up like crepe paper.
It was just a cold, she said as she served me some tea. Her son already brought her to the clinic, then he had to rush off for a meeting. Was she lonely here? No, it was fine. Her daughter and son-in-law already offered to let her live with them, but she didn’t want to disturb their newlywed time.
Her eyes seemed to shine when she spoke of her children, and her voice was full of love when she reminisced about her own honeymoon. Her marriage was arranged, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t blissful. She was a lucky, lucky girl, she chuckled. She only wished her husband had been able to attend their daughter’s wedding. It was the only thing that could have made her happier.
Listening to her talk, my features softened without me realizing it. When she asked me to stay for dinner, I didn’t even try to decline, though I insisted on making dinner for her. She was surprised, but pleasantly so.
After dinner I went outside to call her son and daughter before taking my leave. I didn’t say much, just that she would appreciate their company tonight before hanging up. Whether or not they came was out of my hands, but I was satisfied that I had done my best.
When I left, she waved me off with a gentle smile, like a kind grandmother would to a beloved grandson.
Her partner was an almost solid lack of life next to her, but I fancied he smiled at me too when I glanced at him. Throughout the day, their colors had slowly mixed even more. Her life was draining away.
“But she was happy.”
“I see.” Kagari was still standing in the same position when I returned to the shrine. “Thank you for the hard work.”
“It’s my duty.” I took off my jacket. “Oh, and this is for you.”
“Fried tofu, right?” He finally turned around, and his smile was beautiful. “She always knows what I like.”
“That’s what all foxes like.” Suddenly I felt the need to justify myself. “Rin-niisan said they’re not good for you, that’s why… That’s why I never got you any.”
“It’s because Hanamori eats too many.” When he laughed, he hid his mouth behind his sleeve just like Hanamori did. I had to wonder why he looked so much more graceful doing it. “By the way, what do you think of the Hanamori Shrine’s priest? He’s very pretty, isn’t he?”
“E-eh? Rin-niisan is…”
That was the first night I spent at the Kagari Inari Shrine. That night, I put the fried tofu on a few nice plates that were rarely used, and we shared a supper, the first of many. We talked some more, and got to know each other better. He was always smiling, and occasionally laughing. I smiled too, in spite of myself.
Halfway through the night, the last of Tamura-san’s life dissipated away. Both of us felt it. The chatter paused for a short second, then he raised his cup and we quietly toasted to a life well lived before continuing where we left off.