“Kamisama, please help me find a job.”
It sounded like a cop-out, I know. Even I was not sure if I was asking for divine emotional support or an actual job.
Thankfully, the deity I was praying to seemed to be capable of both. Or at least, I thought as those tell-tale bells rang behind me, his priest was.
“Mikoto-kun? You sure are early today.”
“Good morning, Rin-niisan.” I grinned at the young priest of the Hanamori Inari Shrine—Well, he probably wasn’t all that young anymore, but he looked as pretty as he did when I met him almost ten years ago. With his waist-length straight silky black hair, large eyes and long lashes… I always thought he looked prettier in that kimono than any priestess I ever met.
“Shouldn’t you be at school?”
“School ended yesterday, Nii-san. I was looking for a job.”
“You’re not going to university?”
I shrugged non-committedly. “Didn’t think there was a need to.”
It wasn’t as though I couldn’t afford it, or couldn’t make it in with my results. I just didn’t have anything I cared about enough to spend a few more years studying it.
“Well, aren’t you carefree.” Rin laughed. “So, Hanamori, anything you can do to help this poor believer?”
“Hmph, must I?” The fox god leapt down from the rafters gracefully, hiding his mouth behind his sleeve, his golden eyes narrowed in contempt. For a long time I had wondered why a Japanese fox god looked like a beautiful blonde foreigner. He liked to tell people ‘This is the body of someone I ate!’, but those things never worked on me. “I bet he hasn’t even tried looking for a job, he’s just using job-hunting as an excuse to come bother my cute Rin.”
Well, Rin wasn’t the only one who hadn’t changed in the past ten years. Thankfully, the past ten years had also taught me how to deal with this troublesome fox. I took out the package in my pocket.
“Is that—Fried tofu!”
As expected of a fox’s agile nose.
Rin shook his head. “Despite everything you say, the two of you get along just fine. It’s a rare friendship, you know.”
Hanamori opened his mouth to retort, but then closed it again, deep in thought. “Yes, I suppose it is rare for a boy to talk to people like us so easily.”
I chose not to say anything. They knew perfectly well why and how I was different from everyone else. That was the reason I went to them ten years ago. No, that was why they came to me.
“In that case… You know what, boy, I may actually have a job for you.”
That was how I found myself standing in front of the skyscraper.
Is this really the right place? A muscle in my face twitched, and I nearly crumpled the paper in my hand. I thought a job recommended by a fox god would be another shrine, or a small shop whose owner went to the shrine…
Maybe the CEO here was a devotee?
“Excuse me.” Pushing back any doubts in my mind, I approached the receptionist. “I’m here looking for a job.”
The lady’s smile was purely professional. “Is that so? Do you have an interview or an appointment?”
“I have a… recommendation.”
Her gaze became a little less cold. “From?”
Here goes nothing. “From the Hanamori Inari Shrine.”
The lady blinked, her expression turning strange. “I see… Then you’re looking for that lift over there.”
“See the row of lifts on your left? Take the one at the very end and go to the roof.”
When I got into the lift, I realized there was no mistake. Because there were only two buttons: ground floor and the roof.
What a strange office building…
I kept the door open for an old lady and her partner to hobble in. She gave me a grateful smile, a bit surprised.
“Hello, there. I’ve never seen you before.”
I scratched my head. “You could say I’m new.” Or I will be, if by some miracle I actually get the job.
“We don’t see a lot of youngsters here,” she chuckled, inexplicably happy. “Didn’t think many people knew about it anymore.”
There were a lot of young office workers in this building. And in any case, it was pretty hard not to know about one of the tallest buildings in town. The lower floors even included a large shopping mall.
So by the time the doors opened with a ding, I knew to expect the unexpected. I didn’t know where my standards for ‘unexpected’ lay anymore, though.
That’s why, when I saw the picturesque little Shinto shrine, nestled comfortably in the middle of a rooftop forest, I only raised an eyebrow.
The sign said ‘Kagari Inari Shrine’, and there were two fox statues on either side of the entrance.
Huh. Now I knew where Hanamori came into all of this.
“Good morning, Tamura-san.” There was a man in priest’s robes sweeping the path leading up to the shrine, and he raised a hand in greeting as the old lady walked past. They chatted for a while, just the normal about the weather, Tamura-san’s kids. She obviously came here often.
While I waited for my turn, I stood in front of one of the statues, pretending to appreciate its detail. And then, slowly, I closed my eyes.
It was a nice place, this shrine. Compared to Hanamori’s, which always smelled of flowers, this place had a cleaner, sunnier and crisper feel. Something like the difference between spring and summer. But there was one thing they had in common: no matter how new the actual structure was, the shrine – its existence, its god—was old. Much older than the skyscraper it rested on.
“What are you smiling about?”
“I was just thinking that it’s nice the shrine could be relocated.” I opened my eyes to see the priest smiling politely at me. He wasn’t very old, as priests went. He didn’t look as young as Rin, but on second thought they were probably around the same age. With his glasses and long hair tied loosely behind his head, he looked just like a young father or teacher. He even had that same gentle smile.
“Really? I’m glad to hear that.” He didn’t ask me how I knew.
I observed the priest carefully, and decided it was safe to shake his hand. “My name is Kamijyou Mikoto. I’m here to look for a job.”
“Nice to meet you, Kamijyou-kun. May I ask, how is your name written?”
Ah, as I thought. “Mikoto is written with the kanji for ‘life’.”
“I see.” The priest’s smile widened. “People call me Kou-san.”
“And how is Kou written?”
The priest only smiled some more, nodding his head at the large sign on top of the gate.
“Good work as always, Kou-san.”
“Come back often, Tamura-san.” The priest waved cheerily at the old lady’s retreating back. Tamura-san waved at me, too, but my attention was fully on the priest, and so I only caught myself after a moment, smiling back hastily. She didn’t seem to mind, though.
It still felt weird, watching her vanish into the lift that seemed to stick out of the floor, in the middle of a yard and surrounded by trees. I know circumstances made it that way, but what a strange place to have a shrine.
“So, Kamijyou-kun, shall we talk business now?”
Once the old lady was gone, the priest turned back to me. But compared to when he was looking at Tamura-san, there was something different in the way he smiled at me. It was as though he put a little less effort into faking that smile.
“The Hanamori shrine sent me here, said you could give me a job.”
“Hanamori, is it? No wonder. Please, follow me.”
I kept a few steps behind him as he led me into the kagura-den, where the priests and priestesses lived. On the way there, I marveled at how torii gates were red and shiny, the water in the temizuya crystal clean. There seemed to be only one priest and not many more devotees, yet this place was immaculately kept.
“Please, make yourself comfortable.”
I settled myself down in the meeting hall, and waited patiently for the priest to offer me a cup of tea. My attitude to him hadn’t been the best, but by now I could tell he meant no harm. Probably.
By the time we finished our first cup of tea, I asked the question on my mind, trying to sound casual, “So, where’s the fox god of this shrine?”
Just like Hanamori no Byakko, there was a fox god enshrined here. Kagari no Byakko.
The priest smiled again, and this time he wasn’t faking anything. His eyes narrowed and curved, glinting golden.
“You’re looking at him.”
I crushed the cup in my hand.
“My, my, and I thought you guessed.” He put down his cup, and by the time he stood up, the man before me was barely recognizable as the gentle priest from before. His black hair was now white and longer, the ribbon brushing his waist. Without those glasses, he looked less like someone you saw on the street every day, and though those features were generally the same, there was a feeling of intricacy to them that wasn’t there before. Something not human.
So it wasn’t Kou, but Kagari…
“Hmm, you’re taking it rather calmly.” The Kagari no Byakko started circling me as I carefully cleaned up the pieces of the cup. With a flick of his wrist, the remnants vanished, together with the tea stains on the cloth. A new, whole cup reappeared in my hands a moment later, filled with more steaming tea.
Of course, foxes were good at disguises and illusions. I should have guessed. Is this tea just an illusion, too?
I took a sip. It tasted real enough.
“Okay, then, I’ve decided. You will be my new priest.”
I spewed out the tea again.
“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.
“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.
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?
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.
Aaaand- done! xD