When I was eight, I came face to face with death for the first time.
For the eight years before that, I ran around like any other kid, having fun, making a mess with my best friend Shou. I had an older brother and a younger sister, parents who adored me and healthy grandparents I would visit during the holidays. Then in my second year of elementary school, everything changed.
It was one of my classmates, this girl called Naoko. We were still at that age where boys don’t mix with girls unless they can help it, but for a few months my life revolved around her. She was dying, and nobody knew it but me.
That was the first time I realized I was different from everyone else. Before that everyone around me was just so full of life, and the world was perfect. But Naoko was different. To me, she felt like an hourglass with a tiny hole in the bottom—the golden, glittery sand that surrounded her kept leaking away. When I first noticed, my immediate reaction was to try and plug the leak. And that was the first time I laid my hands on a girl.
I didn’t understand what death was back then. I just knew that if all the sand leaked away, if the light left her completely and she went dark, something bad was going to happen. Something irreversible. In those years when we wrote with pencil and any mistakes could be erased with a swipe, it scared me, this feeling of something that couldn’t be rewritten.
So I tried to tell somebody about it. The first people I approached were my parents, and thank goodness for it too. It seemed that these… abilities were not uncommon in my family. An uncle had them, and a great-aunt had been a popular medium. That was why my parents knew not everyone was as understanding, but they promised to try their best.
For the next few months I watched anxiously as my parents tried to convince Naoko’s family to bring her for tests. She caught a cold in that time, which turned into a fever, but it was nothing serious. Sometimes it felt as though my parents would be convinced that it was just a phase as well, and would pass. But only I could see how the sand was still trickling away.
I hovered around her, even though the teacher told me her cold was contagious. After a while I did catch her bug, but that made me even more sure that the cold wasn’t the reason her light was slowly fading. If I could see the change, I struggled to reason to myself, doesn’t that mean I should be able to do something about it?
So I stood around her, helplessly. I couldn’t ignore her if I tried, the one fading light in a class that had suddenly gotten unbearably bright.
Shou was the brightest of all. Yet he couldn’t understand why I was ignoring him.
Finally, my parents got through to Naoko’s. The fever was low but persistent, and my parents’ bugging had finally made them scared.
I was ecstatic. I wasn’t too sure why, but I was. I just knew that I would never have to find out what happened when all the light disappeared.
Two days later, Shou died in a car crash.
I stood over his body in the middle of the road, not hearing the chaos that erupted around us. I never knew the light could drain out so fast, as fast as the blood pooled, and I was watching it with a morbid fascination. The blood was still flowing when I thought to myself,
Ah. That’s what happens when the light goes out.
When the light goes out, it never comes back. The person never wakes up with a yawn, looks at you and smiles a good morning.
I chanted and danced around the coffin, waving my fan. The body inside was just another object to me now, with the same traces of life a beloved piece of clothing or precious diary would have. When the light went out, I knew, an absence of life took its place, a vacuum or black hole that collapsed in upon itself. It was a new existence, and my job now, as priest of the Kagari Inari Shrine, was to send that existence to where it belonged.
Tamura-san’s children were weeping openly. Her young grandson sat in his mother’s lap, fist in mouth and eyes wide with curiosity. In a few years he wouldn’t even remember how his grandmother looked like, much less how he felt when he found out she was never coming back.
I closed my eyes and continued with the dance. I didn’t remember how Shou looked like.
After the ritual, her family came up to me with red eyes and choked voices, thanking me for spending time with her on her last day.
“She was really happy when I brought her supper that day, just like you suggested,” were the daughter’s words. “She told me a lot about you, and when she… when she went to bed, she was smiling.”
I see. So I wasn’t imagining the little smile on the corpse’s lips.
“Mikoto-kun, were you close to the deceased?” Rin asked once we were back at the shrine. He had attended the funeral as well, out of support and concern for me, even though Hanamori said he shouldn’t have bothered. The two of them didn’t seem to think too much of leaving their shrine empty… though they did have a new assistant priest, so maybe it didn’t matter too much.
“When’s the last time you actually took the initiative with someone?” Hanamori sounded genuinely surprised. “What happened to the little boy who came to us with attachment issues?”
You were the ones who came to me. But I wasn’t going to complain. I was eight years old and terrified of anyone around me dying at any time. After Shou, my grandfather passed away peacefully in his sleep. Naoko died of leukemia a few months later, but by then I was numb. Just when I was starting to reject all human contact, I met, for the first time, someone who would never die.
I spent a lot of my time at the Hanamori Inari Shrine after that.
“You act like you’re used to death, but the truth is you’re more scared of it than anyone else, aren’t you?”
I should have said something sarcastic, but I didn’t. Instead I looked straight into Kagari’s eyes, until the laughter died away and his gaze became serious. “Yes, you’re right. I can’t stand it when I get attached to someone, and then they die on me. I hate watching people die slowly, but I hate it even more when death comes suddenly, and I can’t do anything but watch.”
That was why I never committed myself to anybody or anything. Until now.
“I’m your priest now, Kagari. We’ll be working together, and living together from now on. You chose me because I was the first to ask, right?” I took a deep breath. “Well, I chose you because I know you will never leave before me.”
Kagari’s smile turned helpless. “That’s mean, Mikoto-kun. You’re tying me down for another hundred years. Don’t I have any say in this?”
I shook my head stubbornly, feeling like the kid who circled around Naoko again.
He sighed while Rin and Hanamori looked on like proud parents on their kid’s graduation day. But with a smile they couldn’t see and a voice they couldn’t hear, Kagari whispered, “You say you chose me, but didn’t you choose your Rin-niisan first? So much for not being attached to anybody.”
I stiffened, and glared at him, my cheeks slightly heated. Yeah, so maybe I had some feelings for Rin-niisan. I wasn’t afraid to admit it. When I was at my lowest point, he came to me with a kind smile and a distinct smell of flowers, his light fainter yet stronger than anyone else around me. I didn’t know it was Hanamori’s divine aura that affected his, but I knew instinctively that he wouldn’t die as easily as everyone else, and so I reached out to him.
It didn’t hurt that he was so pretty, either. Prettier than any of the girls in my class. Prettier than pale Naoko.
I snuck a sideways glance at Kagari. Not prettier than him, though.
Now, why did I think that?