Monday, September 12, 2011

Because I'm Home - Part Two

Most of the chores that I do on a daily basis around the shrine are rituals in themselves. Lighting the incense, sweeping the steps of debris, washing the stone path and such are done adoringly. A few times, I've been able to silence my inner dialogue. It's a strange feeling. The silence makes you step outside of yourself. I see myself walking down the mountain, the sentimental, cloying light of late afternoon in early fall scattering the forest in tangled shadows.

I stop at the river, and dunk the urn in the cold water. Further down the river, the kappa is sitting in the reeds. I think to call out to her, but my eyes catch a glinting of light in her hands. It's a small, metallic cube, about the size of a large apple. She looks terrified, her eyes alarmed and wary. With shaking arms, she slowly turns the cube in her hands, and she is gone.

This jars me, and my balance on a rock trembles a little. The kappa is fairly competent at recreating basic technology; an object like this is simply beyond her capabilities. I lift the full urn and see Nitori standing, further down the slope. Seeing me at last, she runs towards me with exceptional speed.

Arriving at the opposite bank, she stands panting for breath, holding the cube up for me to see. She does not blink, and she is shaking all over. “Do you know what this is?”

On closer inspection, the cube is etched with an intricate, symmetrical pattern of overlapping circles. “I have no idea what that is. Why?”

Nitori catches her breath. “I'll tell you what this is. It can fold space.”

I'm not sure how to answer, so I look at the water in the urn. Nitori offers me the cube.

“Go ahead. Try it.”

“Is this something Yukari gave you?”

Nitori shakes her head dismissively. “You don't leave space with this. You don't actually go anywhere – space itself folds over, and when the two folds connect, that's where you are.”

I'm half curious to try it just to see what she's talking about. “Nitori, where did you get this?”

“What do you mean, 'get this'? I made this.”

This I find difficult to believe. “Alright. How does it work?”

“Look, it's really complicated to explain. If you want I can give you the long version after you try it yourself.”

It bugs me how she talks to me like this. “I am not simple, kappa. I do have a grasp of science.”

Nitori sighs. “I'm sorry. You're right. Well, in essence I discovered that matter is a lot like sound. It has frequencies, and there are many transmissions happening at the same time, all around us. And just as when you alter a sound's frequency, its shape changes, the same is true for matter. This is proven by finding and altering the frequencies of matter around you. And I found a way to do that.”

Nitori moves her right thumb, and with a clean click, she lifts the cube, leaving its floor in the palm of her hand. Resting there is a delicate framework of steel mesh supporting a cylindrical chunk of bright orange crystal.

“This crystal is sensitive to the frequencies of matter. When you hold this box, you can feel it vibrating. By turning the crystal in different directions, you can find a very strong current of frequency. If this current strikes the top or bottom of the crystal, matter along that current experiences a closed loop – a short circuit. Just as in a short circuit, this cannot sustain itself for long. It breaks, but rather than staying broken, it quickly snaps back into place. However, the spot under you has changed, because the frequency has changed ever so slightly after the circuit broke. In other words, you are suddenly not where you were.”

Nitori closes the cube. “The only problem is, I haven't figured out a way to control where you go.”

I consider the box a moment. I have a lot of questions, but a more immediate one springs to mind. “So I could have ended up anywhere? Back at the shrine? Or the bottom of a lake? Inside the mountain?”

The kappa nods. “Yeah, pretty much.”

“And you wanted me to try this?” I nearly want to smack the thing out of her hands.

“Look, I'm joking. I've done it dozens of times. You never go more than a mile or so away. And you can sort of feel which direction its going to go, how far away you'll be. You get the hang of it. It's hard to explain.” She gives the cube a small shake. “Go on. You won't get hurt.”

Incredulous, I take the cube from her. “Of course I won't get hurt. That wasn't the concern. I was thinking of what would happen if other people got a hold of this.”

“No one else is going to. And even if they found the crystal's source, by some fluke, they'd never guess it had these properties.”

I can feel the cube buzzing in my palms, as if filled with hundreds of small, soundless hornets. “So how did you know?”

The kappa waves her hand. “Trade secret.”

Cautiously, I turn slightly to the right, and turn the box in my hands. The buzzing oscillates between strong and weak. Stopping on a stronger position, I use smaller movements of my hands. Suddenly, it feels as though a wind is pressing in from my left. It feels like an early winter morning wind. Physically, though, nothing changes – nothing moves, and I hear no wind. And then, I am at the tree line. Turning to my left, I see the river far below me, the kappa a spot of blue.

After a considerable walk that gave me plenty of time to think, I meet Nitori halfway, and give her back the cube. She smiles with satisfaction.

I am incredibly thirsty, but I cannot drink from the urn. “Nitori, is the crystal's source far from here?”

“Yes. It's not something you could find by accident. And no one else knows where it is.”

“But you did. But you can't tell me.”

The kappa doesn't say anything for a moment. Opening the cube, she takes the crystal out of the steel meshwork, and puts it in her left chest pocket.

“I don't mean to be coy. The fewer the people that know where it is, the more secure it'll be. It's math.”

“Yes, thank you, I know what that is.” I try a different approach. “How much of this crystal is there?”

“I don't know how big the vein is. But from what I can see, there's an exposed part twice my size.”

I nod. “Well, thank you, Nitori. That's all I needed to know. Thanks for sharing this invention of yours with me. You can trust me to keep this our secret.”

“Yeah, well, I was dying to show at least one person, and since you spotted me anyway, it seemed convenient.” The kappa puts the cube in her right hip pocket. “I'll be seeing you.”

I wave her off, and head back up the mountain.

Now I know exactly what I need to do.

Because I'm Home - Part One

I'm walking down a path that snakes its way along this ridge in the side of Youkai Mountain. I like to come here when I can't take it at the shrine anymore. When I need to breathe, and be by myself.

I never asked to come here. I was perfectly happy sweeping the front walk of a shrine hardly anyone ever visited. I didn't care that people believed more in weather forecasts assembled by satellite and using chemicals to make their crops stronger than they did in making offerings to the gods. People change. Their needs change with their technology. Let them have the modern world, I told Kanako. So what if fewer people believe? The numbers might be fewer but their faith is stronger than ever in the face of this modern world.

But it wasn't enough. She had to have more. She had to move. And I am loyal to my Lady, so I went with her. I said goodbye to everything I knew. And I told myself this is the life I chose. I will get used to it, I decided, as I stepped across the Hakurei Border. This new world will be my home.

I'm sitting down by the ridge now, looking down over the mists clinging to the tree tops, the breeze moving over me like a mournful ghost. This beautiful, magical land, where the gods and mythical beings flourish. It's my home now. And I loathe every second I spend here. My hands, resting in my lap, clench into fists. I want to scream so loudly that my body will shatter into a million pieces and be scattered to the ends of the world.

My emerging rage is knocked off balance, tumbling clumsily away, as I hear the distinct whistling rustling of the tengu reporter's wings. I look around, but of course I don't see her coming. She drops down in front of me, from where I have no idea.

I don't know why I dislike this person as much as I do. It's not because she's nosy, sarcastic, a bit arrogant or a bit of a liar. Those are all forgivable. Looking at her standing in front of me now, smiling cheerfully, the pointy ears, the red eyes, the black feathered wings - it's all very Gensokyan, which I thought was what made me dislike her. But looking at her now, I realize why, I realize what it is I'm feeling, when I see the camera in her hand. That camera, so out of place in this country, seems to bear the sad, lonely glow of a lost child. It doesn't belong here. It belongs in the outside world. And I hate her so much for holding that camera in her youkai hands.

"Sanae!," she chirps. "What are you doing out here all by your lonesome? Hm?"

I shrug ambivalently. "I just wanted to be alone."

Naturally, she ignores the hint. "Oh? What's the matter? Everything alright up at the shrine?"

Why should I tell her? What can I say? That Lady Kanako sits there all day brooding about all the youkai who don't visit, that she mumbles to herself, plots and schemes in circles of logic, that Lady Suwako laughs at her behind her back, and gossips to me about how Kanako is losing her touch? Do I unload this weight on my heart, that I'm tired of being between the two of them, being their mutual sounding board, that all I want to do is go back home? Even if I wanted to say all these things, who am I going to tell? And what difference would it make?

"Things at the shrine are the same as they've always been," I say. "Nothing new and exciting to report."

She doesn't believe me. I don't care. She's not going to pry me open. No force of nature would ever break me open here.

"Well," she clears her throat. "That's disappointing. But ... you know, Sanae, you can always talk to me. I know you're young, and you're not from around here, but that doesn't mean you don't belong. Or can't belong. I might understand more than you think."

The sentiment catches me off guard. She sounds sincere, but I don't know if I can trust her. I feel a tiny stone in the bottom of my heart stir, like a pebble in the silt of a riverbed, stirred by a sudden shift in the current. And then she fiddles with that camera again, and the feeling is gone.

"I'll make a note of it," I say, more sarcastically than I intended.

She smiles awkwardly. "Alright then. Well, I'm off!" And in a blast of cool air, the space where she stood is empty again.

And I'm alone again. I'm sitting on this ridge on Youkai Mountain, overlooking this land, this place that's my home now, feeling the reach of the shrine coming down the mountain, sliding its cool hands around my shoulders. And I ache.