Around ten or eleven summers back, I took a load of glassware to Kai and traded it for raisins. It wasn’t a really eventful trip compared to some of my others, but looking back on it, two things stand out in my memory:
One – never deal in fragile, useless shit like glassware again. It’s semi-lucrative if you know the right routes, but it takes up too much space per unit and it’s hard to liquidate when you see an opportunity and need cash fast.
Two – the encounter I had with that man.
It happened when I was passing through unfamiliar country, this mountain valley out in the middle of nowhere. The lonely road travelling through it had ended days ago in a swamp, but I couldn’t afford to stop or go back the way I came since I was already behind on time. …You know what it’s like having to forge a path with your own hands? It fucking sucks. Clearing logs and rocks and helping your cart out of sinkholes makes you tired and dirty, and when you haven’t seen any signs of civilization for weeks with your food about to run out…
…I don’t want to think about what would’ve happened if I hadn’t come across his shrine.
I’ll never forget it – how relieved I was for having escaped out from the miles of marshy lowland into a pine forest, how sore my arms were from trying to cover as much ground before nightfall by beating the oxen, how shocking it was to see a footpath, stone steps and lights over the next ridge. After I parked the cart and set out a censer of blessed incense to keep away any curious youkai, I went to see what was going on. (I’m curious like that.) The long staircase, which wasn’t laid but had been cut out of the bedrock, ran in a straight line up the densely wooded hillside and opened onto this vermillion-colored gate hung with festive lanterns.
It was like I had stepped into another world! I mean, here I am in this ratty old weather-beaten cloak and these heavy travelling clothes that are all greasy from having been waterproofed, and I’m surrounded by crowds of celebrating people in yukata! A couple of them stopped and flashed me weird looks before going on their way, but most were too busy having fun – eating, drinking, laughing, going between the various stalls that had been set up on the grounds – to give me a more than a second thought.
Everyone except him.
“Would it please you to join us, traveler passing-by? My gods would be gratified if you should have their company – and I would be gratified if you would have my company.”
The man who had emerged from the mass of revelers to offer me his arm was something else: tall, light-brown hair, a smile that was easy on the eyes, a nice voice and even nicer manners. If it weren’t for his white clothes and peaked black hat, I’d never have pegged him as being the shrine’s priest! Now, I’m not normally a person who embarrasses easily, but goddamn if I didn’t get all red-faced and flustered at his invitation! I remember mumbling some bullshit excuse about not feeling well and how I had things I needed to do, and… shit, what was it he said again?
“Lady Merchant, might you be familiar with why every shrine is adorned with a torii?”
When I told him that I didn’t, he explained that: “The torii is what demarcates the realm of men from the abode of the spirits. For that reason, no matter if it should be as humble and far-removed in the wasteland as mine, the torii is a shrine’s most important construction; it distinguishes said shrine from a simple palace, and perhaps more significantly, it comforts suppliants with the knowledge that they have surrendered their cares and sorrows by entering within.” He then pointed down at my long, hobnailed leather boots, which were just inside of the gate. “As you have already come all this way, will you not consent to forget your worries and enjoy the evening with me?”