The Shrine Maiden

Written September 3, 1995

            Shiomi, Kenji and I were the best of friends, and we did practically everything together in high school. When we went away to university, we kind of went our separate ways to different schools, or rather, I went away to the New Meji University in Tokyo, while they more or less stayed and went to Keio University near where we grew up. We come from a place that is really a little more than a village, but every chance we got, we went home and rejoined each other.

            Every tenth August around the Obon festival, there is a ritual at the village shrine at the edge of the forest. Supposedly centuries ago, an evil spirit, the Shinma Toku, rose to power and wreaked havoc upon the Earth. Susano-o, the God of the Earth, fought with this Shinma and, with the help of the Buddhist monk Gudo, defeated him. Susano-o then bound this spirit to a stone and bade Gudo and his followers to guard over the stone and prevent Toku from ever rising again. In this ritual, a person of great purity, usually a virgin maiden, would wash her hands and feet with blessed water and then chant the Sutra of Binding and bind Toku once more to the stone.

            This stone supposedly rests in the shrine in our village. There was a lot of revelry and pageantry surrounding the festival, and for us, it was really the first time we were old enough to appreciate the event. More importantly was the fact that the people in Shiomi’s family were the descendants of the people charged with guarding the stone. If you really thought about it though, in a sense we all could trace our lineage in one way or another to one of the families that were guarding the stone. Shiomi’s ancestors were the traditional keepers though, so the “person of purity” was usually chosen from her family. As fate would have it, our Shiomi was chosen to read the Sutra that kept evil in check. None of us kids actually believed the stories, but the old people seemed to think it was important and, anyhow, it was a tradition in our village, and quite an honor to be the chosen one.

            We didn’t really see Shiomi much in the days leading up to the ritual, because she was busy so rehearsing and getting ready for the event. Now, you have to understand that I’ve always harbored this secret crush on Shiomi, and all the while that I was away at school I couldn’t seem to find anyone who could compare to her. It’s pitiful, I know, but I had always hoped that she felt the same way about me. Anyway, we had gathered at the shrine to witness the reading of the Sutra and take part in the blessing. I had come early with Kenji and had gotten pretty good seats. We washed our hands and feet with a dipper of the holy water and settled back for Shiomi to come out.

            In a moment, taiko drummers came upon the stage and began beating a tattoo upon the drums. The shrine seemed to pulsate in the rhythm of the drums growing louder and louder until, all at once, the drummers stopped, and the low mournful wail of the shakuhachi broke the air. The curtains at the side of the low stage parted and Shiomi clad in a white yukata, led by an entourage of monks, approached the shrine.

            “She’s so beautiful.” I whispered half to myself.

            “Don’t you know it.” Replied Kenji in the same hushed tones. “I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than a girl in a yukata.”

            I nodded in silent agreement thinking to myself that there was nothing more beautiful than Shiomi in a yukata.

            “Of course, women outside of their yukata are pretty cool too.” Remarked Kenji.

            “Don’t be so crude.” I replied.

            “Who’s being crude?” He said. “Women are beautiful in the nude, even Shiomi.”

            Something in his voice took me aback. “What do you mean by that?”

            Kenji looked a bit uncomfortable and breathed out once before continuing.

            “Look, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this.” He said.

            “About what?” I replied, apprehensive all of the sudden.

            Kenji moved in closer and said, “Don’t be mad okay?”

            “I’m not mad.” I yelled not really caring that people were starting to look.

            “Look.” Kenji said. “Things just happened. We were studying one night, and things just sort of happened.”

            “What sort of things?” I exclaimed, standing up.

            “Sit down, you are making a scene.” Kenji said looking around nervously.

            “I don’t care.” I replied, but sat down anyway. “Did you.” I swallowed before continuing, “Kiss her?”

            “Yeah.” He replied

            “Did you touch her?” I asked.

            “Yeah.” He replied.

            “Did you…” I asked not able to finish.

            “…Yeah.” He replied.

            I couldn’t even look at Kenji. I couldn’t believe it, my two best friends! I had always thought Shiomi liked me better, I never thought that Shiomi and Kenji could … I was mad, but oddly enough not at Kenji. I felt like Shiomi betrayed me. All of the sudden the arena seemed very crowded and I wanted to throw up.

            On the stage, Shiomi began her reading of the sutra.

            “Susano-o Susano-o. By your power, bind this Shinma and protect us from evil. Bind this Shinma whose name is Toku. Protect us, protect us.” She chanted over and over again.

            “Shiomi and Kenji!” I kept thinking.

            Back on the stage, smoke started coming up from the rock in the shrine, but no one seemed to notice. It grew so big that it hovered over the entire entourage.

            Even as the smoke started to coalesce though, all I could think of was that Kenji and Shiomi was bound to happen, considering how close they were, and the fact that they probably spent a lot of time together at school. The rationale didn’t help the feeling of betrayal though.

            Then, from nowhere, I heard laughter, maniacal laughter. My head snapped up and I saw that the smoke had formed the shape of a heavily cloaked demon! The audience was so mesmerized by the ritual that they didn’t seem to see him.

            The Shinma looked over at us and looked me right in the eyes as if taunting me before facing Kenji and bowing towards him. “Thank you.” It said. I couldn’t seem to move. I tried to cry out but I couldn’t make a sound.

            The Shinma knelt at Shiomi and cooed at her. Her eyes were closed enrapt in her chanting. She didn’t notice him at all. Toku then licked his lips and smiled evily at me. It was only then that I realized that Shiomi was in danger.

            “Its not working!” I yelled, as I leapt to my feet and startling the congregation around me. “Toku isn’t bound anymore!”

            Everyone turned to look at me.

            “Not me! On the stage!” I was screaming now. Toku was reaching down to caress Shiomi.

            I did the only thing I could think of. I shoved the people in front of me out of the way and leapt onto the stage interposing myself between Toku and Shiomi.

            “Fool!” Toku intoned.

            I closed my eyes and expected the worst. I felt Toku touch me and then heard him scream. I opened my eyes and saw that his hand was burnt from where he touched me. It was then I realized that Toku couldn’t hurt me because I was still pure.

            “Susano-o Susano-o. By your power, bind this Shinma and protect us from evil. Bind this Shinma whose name is Toku. Protect us, protect us.” I cried with great force.

            Toku screamed and collapsed being pulled back into the stone.

            People by now had run up onto the stage and were milling around me. The effort of binding Toku was huge and before I knew it, I had fainted.

*          *          *

            I woke to find myself in a hospital bed. Shiomi and Kenji were all there standing around the bed.

            “What happened?” I asked.

            “That’s what we were going to ask you.” Kenji said.

            “Are you all right?” Asked Shiomi.

            “Yeah, thanks.” I replied.

            “So what happened?” Kenji repeated.

            “What do you mean, ‘What happened'” I replied. “After binding Toku, I must have fainted.” I said.

            Kenji looked at Shiomi then back at me.

            “What do you mean?” He said.

            I stared at them for a moment.

            “You mean you didn’t see anything?”

            “Only you acting totally deranged.” Kenji replied.

            “Oh.” I said chewing on my lip.

            “Did you really see Toku?” Shiomi asked

            “Yeah, didn’t you?”

            “I don’t know, I thought I saw something right before you leapt onto the stage, but I’m not so sure. I just remember seeing you crash onto the stage.” She said.

            “There wasn’t anything there.” Kenji said.

            I let it go. “Well, anyway, I guess I really made a commotion.”

            “Don’t worry about it.” Shiomi said.

            “Yeah, it’s okay, it made for an interesting shrine festival anyway.”

            There was a moment of silence, then Kenji asked, “Are we still friends?”

            I looked at him and then at Shiomi before replying.

            “Yeah, of course, we’ll always be friends.”