SOUL SAKURA: SPRINGTIME GODS

-†-

In nature's infinite book of secrecy

A little I can read

-Antony and Cleopatra :: William Shakespeare

Chapter One: Where the Sakura are Always in Bloom

Spring is all year round in this place for some reason. The cherry blossoms are always in bloom. Resplendent pink white petals drifting on the breeze and cast upon the ground in ephemeral streams that show the cherry blossom's transience and making it achingly beautiful. When twilight approaches, the sky is bleeding with reds and oranges and a slight bruising of purple. Most people describe it as breathaking, though I can't find words to describe the twilight cast sky. Sakura remarked it's the fleeting glimpse of something like this that makes it truly memorable. So many things in life are ephemeral, including the cherry , since the cherry blossoms are always in bloom here, Sakura says this land was blessed by the gods. She also says the gods reside within the cherry blossoms, their essence keeping them in full bloom all year.

So many years I've wandered. So many years I've spent keeping to myself and not opening up to anyone. But somehow, when I wandered upon this village, I intended to leave. But as I've gotten to know Sakura, who befriended me and managed to coax out my secrets for safekeeping and all my ambitions and cherished dreams that I thought had long been buried and forgotten, Sakura made me stay in this charming little village. I couldn't say that she was a goddess incarnate like the gods that supposedly resided in cherry blossom trees, nurturing the growth and warmth of spring, though she was beautiful. Stunning, even. She left me breathless, a perfect picture of serenity in the cherry blossom grove that she would disappear into when she wanted a private retreat. I found her in her usual spot, the cherry blossom petals whirling around her in mystifying patterns that gave her a unique air of the cool unattainability that any deity would surely possess and also Buddha's divine grace.

I haven't lived here long. This idyllic village, with its dream-like cast of cherry blossoms and hazy sunlight and the mysterious twilight seemed like the place I sought all these years. The sight of the sakura petals drifting through the breeze is nostalgic, somehow, the twilight sky rending heartache.

"Deja vu," Sakura remarked to me. "Is an odd phenoemnon, isn't it?"

I stood there with mouth agape. She always managed to catch me by surprise. Sakura never wasted time with trivial pleasantries; she always said something unexpected out of the ordinary. She read mythology and lore and literature, and because of her love for books and the ancient texts that would be found in the village library, she would often give me obscure quotes and texts that I would have to decipher the double meanings behind. Talking about deja vu…there was this sense of familiarity that somewhere, in perhaps another lifetime or another universe, we've discussed this before and Sakura were gently probing my recollection to see if I remembered some unspoken promise from long ago. Sometimes I wondered whether she was testing me, appraising my answer and how I would respond. Generally, I would play along, especially since her expression, despite all its innocence, was rather serious.

"Very odd," I supplied in response.

She laced her hands behind her back. I might've seen a smile teasing upon her lips, as though she were satisfied with my answer, sparse as it was. Maybe she parsed several meanings and subtext underneath that answer, as succinct as it was. She did, after all, know my secrets. My dreams. My wish.

"People say they experience deja vu every time they see the sakura or the twilight sky," Sakura then smiled gently towards me. "I get that feeling too. There is something sacred about this village. People call it a sanctuary.

I looked towards her, her back turned to me. I couldn't see her expression, though I'm sure noble profile would have a contemplative cast, a fuzzy question mark on her features while she thought and spun dreams of divination and oracular significance.

"This village is a sanctuary, you say," I said, trying to discern her thought process as her dark brown hair swayed through the gentle breeze. I caught a perfumed scent of lavender along with the cherry blossomes themselves in her scent, which soothed me. "If this is a sanctuary, then you expect me to stay here instead of wandering?"

"That what you came for, I think," Sakura said, staring ahead as we walked along the path lined with cherry blossom trees. Her long dark brown hair rippled through the slight breeze echoing amongst the grove. "Sanctuary. I certainly hope you find what you're looking for, Kaoru-kun."

I thought about it. I think there was an ache in my heart that wouldn't go away, no matter how many times I tried to push my emotions down and forget the traumatic memories that would surface. I would think about things I didn't wish to remember, of my own cowardice, of my own weakness, and my own failings as a human being that I wanted to run away from it all. But Sakura…accepted me as I am. When I revealed one of my secrets to her and I broke down crying, she wrapped her arms around me and comforted me. And that was enough. I vowed that I would stay with her forever.

"I made a promise, and I intend to keep it," I vowed. "Before…I'm not the man that I used to be. I'm someone different."

Sakura paused a few steps ahead of me. Instinctively, I stopped as well. Turning around, a veil of dark hair momentarily obscuring her face, Sakura said, "The gods are sleeping, dwelling deep within the heart of these cherry blossom trees. They stand witness to your vow."

Lifting a slender hand, Sakura caressed the smooth bark of one of the cherry blossoms. "Do you believe in gods, Kaoru-kun?"

There seemed to be a weighty significance to that question. I paused, thinking over my answer while Sakura stared at me with that serene expression of hers. A few petals drifted by. For a moment, a rush of wind almost deafened everything else in the world. Seeing Sakura among the cherry blossom petals made me see a phantasm of her suddenly disappearing in a flurry of pale pink. Blinking from the unusual vision (or hallucination) I said, "I don't know."

I stated that honestly enough. Sakura must've read the honesty in my oice, as she lifted her hand from the cherry blossom tree and turned around, lacing her hands behind her back. "I've always believed in them. Perhaps one day, you'll begin believing in them too."

Our conversation ended there. I walked alongside her, though I caught a fleeting glimpse of embryonic babies nestled in the wood in my mind's eye.

-x—

The Kurosawa are one of the most prominent families in the village. In fact, they are responsible for the festivities that take place here. Long ago, they worshipped a deity that blessed this land with eternal spring, and legend has it that the Deity dwells within a temple at the very top of the mountain that the village stands at the foot of. I've been to that temple a couple of times, though I did not pray, would merely mouth the words without much conviction in them. I did not believe in deities or gods, as much as Japan believed in teh animistic nature of the trees and rocks and winds and spirits and ghosts and Youkai that the sacred text of Japan's mythology that harbored the religion and beliefs that embodied the Japanese spirit. The most favorite event, though was cherry blossom viewing (obviously), though there were several other festivals taking place. It seems like on festival after another in this village.

Today, the Tanabata, or the Star Festival, takes place. People already deocrated bamboo sticks with thin strip of paper, declarations of romance and heartfelt wishes. Staring at these and then towards the night sky, I wondered if the gods were reallyl real and what would happen when they finally awoke from thier slumber, sweet dreams of a springtime daze and cozy warmth of life growing from the earth."

"Arata-kun," Kurosawa Shion, Sakura's twin brother, said. "Will you join in the festivities? Perhaps write romantic sentiment about my sister?"

It might've sounded sarcastic from someone else, though I knew that Shion was rather earnest in his demeanor and never had a quip or put down for anyone even if someone deserved it.

I smiled towards him welcomingly. "I will write something."

"I've already wrote something to put on the bamboo branches. Personally, I think you would write something involving some kind of purpose in your life? Right?"

Like his sister, Shion had a habit of announcing surprising insight. I guess twins shared a mental wavelength and supernatural abilities than ordinary siblings or something. They could finish one another's sentences and complete thoughts for one another.

"I guess," I ventured to say.

Shion lowered his head into a respectful bow towards me. He treated me as a senpai of sorts, though for reasons I didn't know why. I don't think I've done anything t hat would cause him to have such reverential respect form e, but it was honestly nice that someone gave me the dignity and esteem that I wished for back home. "Surely you'll find your life's purpose here. THis place is sanctuary for people like you."

That word again. Sanctuary.

"Sanctuary," I repeated.

Shion smiled warmly towards me. "I certainly hope you find what you're looking for, Kaoru-kun."

With a certain air of mystique Shion usually carrieed, he cast his green eyes heavenwards. I followed his gaze, staring at the luminous backdrop of stars sprinkled across an expanse of velvety black. Out here, without the barrier of tall skyscrapers or buildings, wiht only the slight coverage of trees silhouetted in the night, it appeared infinite, receding farther and farther away into a void that the eye or mind couldn't conceptualize. "You can see the stars clearly here. Not like in Tokyo, with all those artificial lights and tall buildings."

"They're really bright," I noted.

"They've always have been," Shion said with a good natured tone. "I think living here would be good for you. The iar is purer."

"Yeahm," I said. "It not like the city at all."

"Oh, definitely not."

Turning, Shion then said. "When you live here long enough, you start noticing things city peoiple never even begin to notice."

"I suppose that's true."

"I like you. Is it all right if I call you Kaoru-chan like Sakura does?"

"That's fine, Shion-san."

"Shi-chan would be nice, if you wanted to. But oh, I wouldn't want to impose upon you. I know that you like Sakura of course, but still…close friends and family call me Shi-chan."

"It will have to suffice, then."

"Think about what you're going to write on the bamboo. The stars appear to be in your favor, Kaoru-kun."

During that time, I didn't realize the importance of his words until much later.

-x-

That night contained some sense of prophecy. The stars foretold the future, though their encryptions remained unreadable to me. Sakura could read the signs in the stars, just like Shion. The Kurosawa were fortune-tellers, diviners of some sort. I never really believed in the supernatural, though it would be clearer to say I've never believed in anything. Aliens, ghosts, gods-I never paid attention to things like that.

When I saw Sakura that night, dressed in a royal silk kimono and dancing among the stars, dramatically belled sleeves performing graceful flourishes, I noticed how pale she appeared. Even when spring always dwelled in this village, Sakura seemed unblemished from the sun. Shion as well. It might've seemed rather strange, considering that the sun always glimmers upon this village all year round, from what both Kurosawa siblings tell me. I've gone hiking with them several times, traversing through the forest with winding paths that seem to go on forever. They spend as much time in the sun as I do, though the sun doesn't seem to bronze their skin like it has done to mine. I figured that some people simply might have complexions like that. Or considering the odd phenomena around this village, such as the perpetual springtime and fully blossomed sakura trees, I didn't think much of it.

With only the cast of stars from above, Sakura truly appeared ethereal from the nighttime illumination. Spectral, perhaps-just like in the vision I saw of her disappearing in a whirl of sakura petals. The entire village was festive with lanterns and colorful kites brandished through the air like birds of paradise, with a shower of fireworks spraying out bright sparks of rainbow hues. Amongst the glittering display, the stars were blotted out momentarily, so bright and intense the fireworks were. I even shielded my eyes from them; the sights and sounds of everything momentarily blurred my vision. Everyone appeared like ghosts, wavering from view.

Shion's grinning face appeared before me. Startled, I stepped back, though everything re-focused once more. Staring at me from underneath his spectacles, Shion said, "Ah, Kaoru-kun. You appear dazed. Had too much sake to drink?"

"I don't drink sake."

"Oh? Seems like I learn new things about Kaoru-kun all the time. Perhaps he's enamored with Sakura-chan?"

"Stop saying weird things," I murmured.

Shion didn't seem deterred by this at all. "My sister is attractive, isn't she? We both share the same genes, you know."

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at that comment. If I didn't know Shion any better, I would've shrugged him off. Shion simply said odd things to spur a conversation on. "She looks nice."

"Doesn't she?" Shion said pleasantly. "She said after the ceremony, she would like for you to come with her to the sakura grove."

I must've appeared surprised, as Shion laughed at the expression forming on my face. "Come now, Kaoru-kun. I expected a better reaction than that."

"How am I supposed to react?"

Clasping a hand on my right shoulder, Shion simply shook his head, as though I was the hopeless one. "Oh, Kaoru-kun. What are we going to do with you? You're quite fortunate my sister likes you."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

This seemed to amuse Shion further, as his smile stretched tauter on his lips. "Don't think too much about it. Go join some festivities, drink some sake-live a little, you know?"

"I guess I'll have some dango or something."

"Try some okonomiyaki, especially with the shrimp. They're very fresh this year."

"Okay then."

Before parting, Shion then said, "Might as well make the most of this festival experience. Experience all the pleasures in life. It's far too short to waste."

"You're way too hedonistic, you know that?"

"But isn't that what life is about? Enjoying it? Having fun? Living it to the fullest."

"I suppose so, though there's a point where you have to take life seriously. You can't just have fun all the time."

Shion then tsked at me and shook his finger while he was at it, as though he were disappointed in the words that I said. I was dead serious though. Life wasn't all about fun and games, like Shion always seemed to see it as.

"That's where you're wrong, Kaoru-kun. You need to learn how to relax and let loose. Which is why you're going to drink this sake."

I looked at the drink that he held out towards me, and I had to admit-it was pretty tempting to swallow down the rice wine and enjoy the festivities, having that warm rush of alcohol flow through my veins and cloud all my worries. I just wanted to relax and let go, just like Shion said-though it seemed that Shion could induce this state without the influence of alcohol, though I suspect that he just drinks alcohol for the social aspect of it rather than inducing some feel good vibes from the drink.

"What the hell," I said, before taking a sip of the sake. Shion did have a point, after all. Life was far too short to waste.

-x-

I remember when Sakura offered to tell my fortune. Not thinking of it, I simply allowed her take my hand, lightly pressing the tips of her fingers against my palm. I couldn't see the portents or mysteries that the lines of my palm held, though Sakura stared down at my hand with too intense concentration. My half-curled fingers twitched in response, and Sakura recomposed her lovely features into that gentle smile of hers. It seemed too reassuring, in a way-theatrically composed to ease whatever unsettling expression I might have worn.

"Very interesting," Sakura said, still smiling. "You will live a prosperous life, Kaoru-kun."

"Huh. Does palm-reading tell me what kind of purpose I'll find in life?"

Lifting her hands away from my own, Sakura folded her hands behind her back. "You will find it eventually. To tell you beforehand, I've read in the stars that a significant change will happen in your life."

"What kind of change?"

She gave me an apologetic smile. "It seems I can't see your future as clearly as the others."

When I didn't respond, she took on a more self-conscious mannerism of turning her head to the side. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"It's not that I don't believe you," I said, trying to think of a way to tactfully explain my hesitation. "I just haven't been around the supernatural enough, I guess."

"It's all right, Kaoru-kun. You don't need to lie in order to spare my feelings," Sakura said, though she smiled all the while. "Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, of course. But when you live here, you'll learn to understand."

"Understand what?"

"That there's more to the village than you believe," Sakura said simply. "And you will discover something very important here. But right now, now's not the time for you to know. Eventually you will, and when you do…"-

-x-

-Shion trekked ahead of me, easily traversing the uphill slope. I marched along, feeling my legs cramping with the sweet ache of kinetic release. Quite ahead of me, Shion turned back, grinning toward me,

"Ah, Kaoru-kun, isn't the air purer around here? It isn't like anything you'll see in the city."

"Definitely not."

"The temple shouldn't be too far off from here. The atmosphere is different from the other parts of the forest."

Whatever atmosphere this was, I didn't notice. Then again, the Kurosawa siblings both supposedly possessed supernatural powers, which was beyond my understanding. Shion decided to take me into the forest, trek easily over five miles, to see an ancient temple that lay in ruins in this great forest, so that I could become acquainted with the supernatural. Even if they drew me into their world of mysticism and the occult, I couldn't find myself belonging in this place. It's true that I was trying to seek a sanctuary of some sort, and this place did provide me with a home, but…

"Ah, here we are," Shion announced cheerily, adjusting his glasses. There was no sign of sweat on his pale face. "What do you think?"

I glanced at the ancient shrine standing before me, listening to the ambience of insects all around me.

"It's…something."

"Oh? I expected more enthusiasm than that. I suppose it can't be helped, though. Kaoru-kun doesn't seem to like indulging me."

"It's not that. It's just…"

I paused, trying to think of the word to describe it. There was a vague sense of oddness about it-not anything that involved auras or stuff like that, like what the Kurosawa siblings can sense. Simply a prickle of the neck kind of sense of odd.

"Well, you probably have to explore it first," Shion suggested. "It might not look like much, but this place has a lot of history behind it. Legends too."

I felt compelled to ask. "What kind of legends?"

Shion then adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. The light from the sun momentarily reflected off his glasses, obscuring his green eyes from view. His grin seemed to spread wider, and for a moment, I felt a rippling chill. I then realized that this place seemed to have a few odd cool breezes that passed through the village and the surrounding area. Still, there seemed to be something-odd about Shion's expression. I normally thought that Shion was simply fooling around, though there was something rather sardonic in his curved smile.

"Legends about how the sakura came to be about this place. The reason why it's always springtime. It's just not natural for sakura to stay in bloom all year."

There was something hidden in the meaning of his words, too. All of a sudden, I felt my stomach knot itself. I didn't want to know the legends or the mystery behind the perpetual springtime that this place has. I didn't want to know about the gods that were probably nestled deep into the heart of the sakura. It was superstitious, and it was stupid of me to be spooked by a legend, but…

"They're just legends, right?" I murmured to myself. This only seemed to amuse Shion even more.

"If you have been exposed to the supernatural more often, Kaoru-kun, you would understand. This place is full of magic. The sakura just happen to be one of the remnants left behind by the gods."

The uneasy feeling only grew in the pit of my stomach. Shion didn't help alleviate this feeling. "This land originally belonged to the gods, you know. Before people eventually began to populate it. When they have treaded this sacred ground, they were lured into their spell. When people come to this place, they become blessed-or cursed, depending on your perspective of the manner."

"What kind of spell are people under?" I ventured to ask, even though I might regret the answer. Shion's smile only grew more mysterious.

"What kind of spell indeed, I wonder," Shion said, looking at me evenly. "It all depends on how much you believe in the gods. Believe me, Kaoru-kun, it is better that you believe in them. Just a friendly piece of advice between you and me."

"Isn't it up to me to decide what I should or should not believe?" I asked. I was not angry or even vaguely irritated with Shion. It was an honest question.

"Indeed it is," Shion said evenly. "And that all comes down to how the gods will decide to treat you. You seem to be a reasonable person, Kaoru-kun. That is why I decided that I will show you what's inside this temple. Come along."

The climb up the carved stairway in the mountain side was an arduous one. There were many bright red torii gates that lined the path. I stared above at them, suddenly thinking of legends that involved such structures. How the ancient Japanese believed that the torii gates would act as perches for the messengers of the gods, who came in the form of birds. As we were about to cross the final set of stairs, the torii gate looming above us had a great big black crow perched atop it. It looked down at us unblinkingly, and the same sense of foreboding crept across me again. As we stepped through the threshold and towards the temple, I turned back to glance at the crow. It had its head turned towards us, still watching with unblinking black eyes.

I blinked once, and the crow was gone. No sound indicated its departure. The only thing that indicated that the crow was there after all was a few black feathers that began drifting down. I suppressed a shiver. There was no need to be afraid of this place.

"Magnificent structures, aren't they?" Shion said, leaning towards me confidentially. "They were meant to ward off Tengu. Before there were such gates created, people who walked this pathway were often 'spirited away' by them."

"Did they ever come back?" I asked. "Do you have any idea where they went?"

"It was said that they were spirited away into the land of the gods," Shion said. "Only those that they deemed as worthy of coming into their world were taken away."

I looked at the structures, before shivering a bit out of foreboding. Were people really spirited away from this village? A chill wind rose, and I couldn't stop shivering.

-x-

We finally made it to the ancient shrine. Even though it was a long walk, I felt refreshed from walking up the steps and passing through the torii gates. I was also wondering about what Shion said. About the Tengu spirits that spirited people away into the mountains. Of course, it is a part of Japanese mythological culture. But really, I never believed in fantastic creatures and gods. Even at a young age, I knew that Santa Claus wasn't real. Other people would have thought that this was disenchantment, though I find myself rather relieved. Some of the stories relating back to Saint Nick are rather unnerving, in a way. Like Good old Saint Nick saving three little children from a butcher after they had been cut up into pieces and pickled in brine. I remember that Shion told me this charming little story with obvious delight.

Shion told all kinds of macabre stories with obvious relish. He's a fun guy to be around, though sometimes he can be just downright weird. Currently, he stretched out his limbs, looking at the sunlight filtering through the interspersed space of the leaf canopy above us, before turning to face me with that fox-like grin of his. I always have to wonder what goes through Shion's mind, at times. He always seems to be scheming something.

There was a reverential awe to the place. Even I stood amazed as I looked across the shrine grounds.

"Sakura and I would always play up here as children," Shion said while adjusting his glasses one his face.

"A deity dwells here, though people have forgotten how to worship him. So Sakura and I come up here to play, then pray to the god here."

I nodded in response.

"Gods get lonely, you know," Shion said matter of factly. "That's why you pray to them."

He then clasped his hands in front of him, before bowing his head and looking rather reverential. I clasped my hands together as well, and bowed my head, but I didn't pray like Shion did. I do not believe in the gods that he did.

"Why don't you believe in gods, Kaoru-kun?" Shion said, cocking his head to the side while regarding me as though he read my mind.

This was a touchy subject, though Shion wouldn't be deterred. He is like a fly buzzing around constantly, before honing in and biting where it hurts. You see, Shion has an insatiable curiosity-he'll simply probe in deeper and deeper, and it doesn't matter if he strikes a raw nerve along the way.

But really, should I just tell him to get him off my back? I was considering it. Shion can be annoyingly persistent, along with having an insatiable curiosity that ends up with him being tactless.

I stopped in my tracks while I was walking down the stairs. Shion paused and started matching his breathing with my own. He claimed he could 'synchronize with people's soul waves' and read their thoughts this way. He has a habit of making me believe the things that he does. Crazy, isn't it?

"What good does it do to believe in gods?"

"Oh?" Shion leaned in and looked closely at me. "Were you always this skeptical?"

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"What if, Kaoru-kun, I told you that we can help you by praying to the gods?"

"I wouldn't believe you."

"The gods are there even if you don't acknowledge them. It's only a matter of time before you see it."

"Can you see them?"

"I can. And you will too. Eventually."