Rice is heavy.
Of course, that’s not the way you’d typically describe rice. To most people, it’s a simple white grain. It can be made into many of delicious meals when combined with the right meat and vegetables. It’s the main staple of the Eastern diet. When you think of rice, you think wholesome and nutritious. You think about hand-made onigiri, made for eating slowly on long foot trips. You think about eating rice with your friends, all gathered under the kotatsu on a cold winter day. Rice isn’t heavy. Rice is good.
At least, that’s the image grain merchants would put into our heads.
But I’ve got a new image for you. Picture a young woman coming back from a shopping trip. She’s headed back to the Hakurei Shrine after purchasing some foodstuffs from the nearest village. Slung over her back, she carries a twenty pound bag of rice. With it are two sides of salted meat, vegetables, cloth, paper and pens.
The path to the Hakurei Shrine isn’t a fun trip in any case. The place is nestled up against the mountains, up where the foothills become mountains themselves. This means a zig-zaggy path up and up, past marching rows of trees and little streams that run down to the lake in the valley. The girl’s ears pop from lowering air pressure as she climbs. She breathes deeply and deliberately to keep from getting light-headed. She’s sweating, even though the air is cool. There’s no sun out to heat the day.
At long last, after leaving the packed dirt path behind, she comes to the hundred stone steps that lead up to her home. She’s happy to be back, but the sight of the stairs makes her want to break down and cry. She’s tired, for goodness’s sake. Taking another step upwards seems more than she can do.
“No wonder I don’t get more visitors,” I said.
I started climbing. My back ached. My shoulders burned. My legs begged me for rest. But I hate taking breaks before the job is done. So I climbed.
My name is Reimu Hakurei. To use the old language, I’m a miko. Closest current translation of that is “shrine maiden”. Hopefully this explains my whining. A miko lives and works at her shrine. She cleans the place, patches holes in the roof, sweeps the courtyard with a bamboo broom. Her doors are always open to those in need of spiritual guidance. She talks people through their problems, helps them be forgiven of their sins. She organizes festivals and get-togethers. Gives out fortunes to love-struck teenagers. Helps little children catch goldfish out of artificial ponds with tiny fishing nets.
Notice how heavy lifting isn’t in the job description. Maybe I should hire someone to go grocery shopping for me. Or so I thought as I stepped into my shrine’s courtyard, under the torii gate at its entrance. Just being home made the burden on my back feel lighter. I looked up to see the lightshow of the Boundary.
But in my weariness, I’d forgotten the weather problem currently over Gensokyo. Despite how close I was to the Boundary, I couldn’t see it. During the day, the Boundary usually dances with sunlight. It shifts with patterns of all colors like a rainbow wall of crystal, starting at the mountains and reaching up farther than the eye can see. Clouds on the other side look psychedelic and spectral, like puffy gemstones in the sky.
But even better is seeing the Boundary during a full moon. Without the sun to overpower it, the moon’s lesser light ignites the Boundary into a hypnotic swim of pastel color. It’s better than the aurora borealis and australis both combined. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and it’s a big reason why I love living at the shrine.
This is why my heart sank when I looked up to see no Boundary. To be literal, I could see it, but not the way I like it. Not the lovely, prismatic colors that I can stare at for hours at a time. Instead it looked like a pane of dirty glass. There was no sunlight for the Boundary to reflect. No one in Gensokyo had seen the sun for days.
I set my groceries down on the cobblestones. I turned and looked up at where the sun should have been. In its place, there was a bright orange-red coin hanging in the sky. Around it was an aura of rusty mist. The rest of the sky was a blanket of smog, darkening to mud brown at the horizons.
“These aren’t rain clouds,” I said to myself. “It’s worse than yesterday, too.”
And it would keep getting worse, maybe until there was no sun at all. No one would know when it was daytime. Crops wouldn’t grow, leaving us nothing to eat. The snow in the mountains wouldn’t melt, leaving us nothing to drink. If the mist didn’t blow away, everything in Gensokyo would eventually die.
I wasn’t the only one thinking this way, either. When down in the valley, I always talked to people. I chatted with the merchants and the farmers, asked how the kids are doing. Did so-and-so get married? Is business going okay? Oh and by the way, might your family be making its way up to the shrine anytime soon? Because I wasn’t going to mention it, but we’ve got a big discount on fortune telling right now.
It was obvious how worried people were. Not because they were talking less, but talking more. I learned that three new babies had been born since I’d last visited. Their parents forced me to memorize their names. I was told that livestock weren’t eating enough, because youkai were roaming the fields more freely these days. But sheep’s wool was selling better than ever, so things balanced out. And guess what! Did I hear that some guy kissed some girl behind the blacksmith’s place? They had better keep it secret from their parents, or heads were going to roll!
All this inane gossip told me one thing. People were scared. Their families were threatened by an unknown danger, and they could do nothing about it. But people tried to be happy, tried all the harder because something was taking their happiness away.
I knew how they felt. I was scared too. I wanted to help. I wanted to make things better. But what could I do? I’m just a miko. I have some power, sure, but at best I can chase infestations of youkai out of my shrine. I’m not an elementalist. I can’t write up a spellcard that makes clouds go away. Especially not when someone else’s spellcard put them there in the first place.
I folded my arms around myself. What if it really was magic blocking out the sun? A sorcerer strong enough to darken the sky would have been god-like. Even if he could be tracked down, no force in Gensokyo could stand against that kind of power.
And why? If there was some super-magician causing this, he would have to know that blocking out the sun would kill Gensokyo. Who could hate people that much?
I was shivering, and not because of the chill air. I was still looking up at the sun, and my eyes didn’t hurt. That was wrong. You can’t to stare at the sun without going blind. I looked down and shook my head, wondering what to do. Then I remembered. What does any good miko do when frightened and confused?
I knelt down on the cobblestones. I had never prayed in the middle of the courtyard before. Usually I’m in my meditation chamber, facing an ornamental mirror surrounded with sacred trinkets of various size and shape. But a good miko is humble and non-materialistic. She doesn’t need porcelain idols or padded floors to pray. She’s not above praying on the ground, even if it hurts her knees and gets dirt on her dress.
In fact, praying in an uncomfortable position can help. It reminds me of the real world. And that’s what prayer is all about. Getting in touch with reality. Shedding all my silly hopes and doubts and fears, seeing the world as it really is.
Miko don’t pray to God. As far as we know, there is no Being who rules the universe with a benevolently iron fist. We don’t believe that when a person dies, he goes to Heaven and lives in perfect happiness forever. Or even if such a thing happens, miko aren’t concerned with it. We care about here and now. We deal with the present life, being good and happy before one’s death.
And after death? We can deal with that when it comes.
I had more immediate things to worry about. I prayed for wisdom, but not for insight. I didn’t care where the mist had come from, but what I should do about it. What could I do about it? Would it be the right thing to do? And even though no answers came, I did find peace. My fear left me.
At least until I heard a light swish swish sound behind me. Felt gentle warmth on my back. Then I panicked. I had made a stupid mistake. Never turn your back on food while outdoors in Gensokyo.
This time, a small dance of fairies was gathering towards my groceries. The largest of them was the size of a child’s doll, about a foot tall. She had two pairs of wings that glowed with blue light, and wore a frilly white-on-blue ballroom dress. The smaller fairies following her were naked or nearly so, showing breasts and bodies that would have driven married men insane in a full-sized woman. The lesser fairies had only one pair of wings each, and didn’t glow as brightly as their leader’s.
While my back had been turned, they had floated out of the nearby woods and crossed the courtyard. Their tiny feet never touched the cobblestone, so I heard nothing until their wings were flapping nearby. Now they were settling on the ground, interested in my hard-earned food. They were gathering towards the cured meat, but the largest fairy was knocking her minions away with her wings. She would have first pick of the good stuff, and the smaller girls would settle for dry rice grains until their leader was full.
That was, only if I sat and watched.
“Hey!” I said. I reached after the big fairy, intent to grab her by the wings and throw her back into the woods. But she saw me coming, didn’t flinch or run. Instead she wrapped her little hand around my forefinger, pulled it down to her mouth and chomped. Hard.
“Ow!” I screamed, pulling my hand away and shaking it out. I stood up and backed off, checked my finger for damage. The skin on my fingertip was dented, but not broken. A miko’s calluses had just saved me from catching the diseases that wild youkai sometimes carry. Like having my blood clot up and eject from my body in unpleasant bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. Or having all my hair fall out and not grow back for six months. Some magical pathogens are deadly, and some are just embarrassing.
“You little beast!” I yelled at the fairy. She ignored me, tearing open the cloth sack that held my ham. The smaller ones had already started on my rice, popping in one grain at a time and crunching them down.
“You’ll regret this,” I said. I walked around the fairies and headed up to the main building of my shrine. Leaning up against the wall was my trusty bamboo broom. I grabbed it and ran back down the courtyard, ready to whack Little Miss Fairy Pants right out of Gensokyo.
She saw me coming. I swung the business end of my broom down at her, but her wings carried her up and back. I missed her completely. Instead I scattered the smaller fairies working on my rice, and hit the bag of rice itself. I tore it open further and sprayed grain over half the courtyard.
“Agh! No!” I slammed my palm against my head.
I wasted a precious second lamenting my lost rice. The big fairy flew straight at my face, her otherwise adorable face twisted in anger. I lifted my broom to swat her out of the air, but she dodged aside. I missed her again, but at least it kept her away from me.
I swung my broom again, and she dodged again. And again, and again. I felt like an old man trying to swat a house fly with a rolled up piece of paper. Except I was doing much worse. My fly was a lot bigger, and getting ever closer to biting my nose off.
“Oh noes!” said a voice from the courtyard entrance. “Reimu’s locked in mortal combats!”
I had time to turn and look at the voice’s owner. I had time to see her and understand who she was. I had enough time to say, “No! Don’t you—”
“Don’t worries!” said the newcomer, running forward and holding up a small piece of paper. “Just stand asides! Love sign: Master Spark!”
I was stupid enough to be looking straight at her when she used the spellcard. The daytime sun was no longer bright enough to hurt my eyes, but this certainly was. White light erupted from the girl’s hand, shot out in a beam that seared across the courtyard. If I had been standing two feet to the left, it would have punched a hole clean through my chest.
The spell caught the fairy dead on, but only for a split second. As the spell’s caster was running forward, she slipped on the rice grains I had spilled. If she had been careful, she might have kept her balance. But this girl was neither careful nor balanced. She fell face down on the cobblestones, losing control of the spellcard. The beam of light angled up, shooting off into the sky.
The spell died out, leaving me with red afterimages in my eyes. I rubbed my eyes hard with my free hand, kneading the sight back into them.
The spell had knocked the fairy to the other side of the courtyard. What little of her hadn’t been vaporized did so now, her flesh and clothes dissipating into little sparkles. I smiled. Bitter satisfaction. This battle with the youkai was won.
Content knowing my nemesis had been reduced to her base elements, I went to check on the new girl. She was still lying face down on the ground, passed out or acting like it. I hit her shoulder with my broom, harder than necessary. But I was mad, and I needed to take it out on someone.
“Marisa?” I said. “Are you dead?”
She looked up at me, wearing a grin with grains of rice sticking to her face.
“Nopes!” she said. “Just fines. That’s why I love coming over to plays, Reimu. You never fail to entertains.”
Forward to Chapter Two
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