Many years ago, the Kagari Inari Shrine would hold a festival in late spring, of which the kagura dances were particularly famous. While the bonfires burned brightly, the priest or someone from his family would stand in the kagura-den… Sometimes it would be a woman, but more often than not, it would be a young man in the woman’s dress.
That night late in spring when the flowers fall… They light the bonfires, to chase away the darkness and vengeful spirits, suppress diseases and pray for safety. The dance to calm the flowers…
“So! If you want to revive the shrine, this is the first thing you must do!”
There was just something about Kagari’s expression that rubbed me the wrong way. “I know, but you don’t have to look so goddamn pleased about it!”
“Eh? Why not?” Kagari was practically glowing. “We haven’t had this dance in so many years… Ah, but recently Rin did dance it once for me.”
“Huh? Is that okay? He’s not from this shrine—”
“Ah, it’s no problem. Because it wasn’t him dancing, but me borrowing his body just for a few steps.”
I knew what he was talking about: that time Rin and Hanamori helped him a few years back. He talked about it often, as though his time still stopped there occasionally, even though that was when her time began again. That night in late spring, just like now…
“So Rin—I mean, you used to wear this outfit too?” I put on the heavy headdress, golden chimes dangling everywhere, and opened the ceremonial paper fan. Was it just me, or was there a suspicious brown stain on the tip? And the sleeves were all dusty…
Kagari clapped appreciatively. “You look good in that outfit. Different from how Rin looked, but good anyway.”
He was mentioning Rin a lot by name recently, what was up with that? I snapped the fan closed. “Well, before that we’ll have to clean this place and this dress up thoroughly, the amount of dust here is just—”
“Nii-chan!” A voice called, and another sneezed.
“Akari.” Even I was surprised by how calm I was, despite having my little sister catch me crossdressing. Although I did tell my family they could come watch on the night of the festival, I hadn’t done the necessary mental preparations yet. Thankfully, Akari was used to her second older brother having the expressiveness of cardboard, and my composure must have been contagious. When she saw me in a dress with chimes dangling about my face, she tried her best not to laugh.
Maybe I haven’t been too bad of a brother to her, either.
“Kamijyou-senpai.” Her friend behind her was feeling even more awkward than either of us, head bowed and hiding behind my sister.
“Kaori-chan, right?” I still remembered her from Akari’s birthday party last year. “Thank you for coming to visit. I must look like an idiot, huh?”
“Pfft—” Akari finally laughed, while Kaori looked up, red-faced and stammering, “N-no, I think you look… great…”
Her voice trailed off, because she noticed that there was someone else here. And that someone was staring at her intently, with an expression of deep shock.
I had never heard Kagari’s voice tremble like that before.
“Nii-chan, who’s that?” Akari’s voice brought us all back to our senses. Kagari had put up his disguise as soon as the lift doors opened to indicate visitors, and though the spell wavered when he recognized Kaori, it did not shatter. I smiled shakily as I hastened to introduce him.
“Akari, Kaori-chan, this is Kou-san. He was the priest here before me, and he’s still teaching me all the things I don’t know.”
“Your brother is a great student, I’m very lucky to have him here.” Kagari’s mask was back on, but I thought I heard sincerity in his words. “Plus, doesn’t he look wonderful in the dress?”
“Ka—Kou-san!” Would it have killed you to not add that?!
We might have joked around a bit more if it weren’t for Kaori staring at us. I couldn’t tell if she was staring at me more or Kagari.
Akari giggled. “See, Kaori-chan? I told you my brother only comes to life at shrines. It’s like he was destined to become a priest.”
I wouldn’t say ‘destined’, but I knew that I wasn’t exactly the life of the party usually. Even at home, I killed way too many dinner table conversations. And yet, despite all that, my family believed me when I sounded crazy, didn’t push me to talk when I didn’t feel like it, and even supported me when I told them I was going to be a Shinto priest instead of going to university.
When I tried to look at Akari apologetically, she sighed and shrugged me off. “Mom just wanted me to tell you to come back for dinner whenever you feel like it. We’ll always have enough for you.”
I have a good family.
“Kou-san is welcome to join us, too, of course.” Akari was all smiles when talking to my ‘sensei’. “But Mom will probably want you to tell us ahead before you bring him over, so she can put on her lipstick and make a fuss over which chopsticks to use. By the way, is there anything Kou-san likes to eat in particular?”
“Fried tofu,” I answered without thinking.
“Just like a fox, huh? As expected of a priest at an Inari Shrine…”
“What about you, senpai?” Kaori asked suddenly. “What do you like to eat?”
…Come to think of it, Akari may have said something about her friend liking me.
“Well, Nii-chan is a priest now, right?” Akari laughed. “Maybe he likes fried tofu too.”
I thought about all the fried tofu we got, and how Kagari always shared them with me. As a shrine we didn’t receive a lot of visitors or donations, but we had enough for a few bottles of cheap sake. Fried tofu, sake, and simply chatting in the night, with the fantastic view we have up here of the city and the moon—
Before I knew it, I was smiling. “Yeah. I like it.”
Akari brought Kaori over a few more times over the next weeks leading up to the festival. They would bring me tidbits from home or anecdotes from school, or otherwise watch me practice my dance and offer critique.
At least, Akari did. Kaori just stared at me, like how I sometimes found Kagari staring at her.
I was starting to understand why it felt as though Kaori belonged in this shrine. As though a piece of her still dwelled here.
I never talked to Kagari about it though.
On the night of the festival, there was quite a crowd on our little rooftop shrine. My family was rather well-liked, with the possible exception of me, and word got around. Akari and her friends made posters. Hanamori and Rin helped, too, in exchange for the best seats in the house—right in the kagura-den together with Kagari and me. Besides, I needed help in the dressing room and Kagari needed help with the music.
At first Hanamori had suggested using their fox magic to create temporary musicians, but I could tell Kagari wasn’t ecstatic about the idea. This was our first festival in so many years. So after I did some convincing, the three of them could more or less cover the basic instruments between them.
But I was the one who would be in the spotlight.
Stage fright was one of many emotions I wasn’t used to, but underneath that foreign anxiety was an equally unknown anticipation. I haven’t found myself feeling this excited for as long as I could remember. The quiet little shrine—my shrine, our shrine, was filling up with people, and buzzing with life. I breathed it in, deeply.
One lift wasn’t enough. After this I was going to tell Kagari to talk to the CEO about it.
“Are you ready?”
Kagari’s voice and warmth enveloped me from behind, soothing my nerves. He was strongest in the summer, and on this late spring night, his aura was subtly filled with power, ready to burst forth at the peak of my dance. All those who attended would be cleansed with the power of the bonfire, and receive the Kagari Shrine’s fox blessing for the rest of the year.
I nodded wordlessly, my eyes searching for the girl in the crowd. Did Kagari notice her too? She was looking intently at me—I wondered if Kagari was looking past me, and at her.
Somehow the idea put a small damper on my spirits.
“I can tell what you’re feeling, you know.” His chuckle sent a warm breath down my neck. “You are my priest, after all.”
“Kaoruko… Was that her name?”
“You finally asked. Yes, it was.”
“Do you believe in reincarnation?”
“You say that as though you don’t know for a fact that it’s true.”
“She may have Kaoruko’s soul,” he said quietly, “But she is not Kaoruko. Just as I am no longer the priest who waited for her. Right now, I am Kagari no Byakko, of the Kagari Inari Shrine. And you—” He leapt over my head, his hands in his sleeves, to smile at me, his tails waving. No one else could see him. I could see no one else.
“—You are my priest.”
“Hmph.” I lowered my head, smiling. “Yeah, I know. Now stop playing around and get into position. Let’s get this show on the road.”
That late spring night, I put on the ceremonial dress and danced a long-lost dance, two foxes and a priest played the music, and a mass of people watched and witnessed--
The revival of the Kagari Inari Shrine.