Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering,

fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before

-The Raven :: Edgar Allan Poe

Chapter 2: The Meaning of Gods

I never believed in God or gods before. I was never particularly religious and didn't hold reverence towards the sacredness of nature like in Shinto, nor did I believe in an omnipotent all mighty being that could create and destroy things with god-like powers, nor did I think of a religious avatar reincarnating as a man on earth to witness life through the eyes of a human. It never captured my imagination that deities resided in this world alongside the material plane of the world. The talk about gods, however, stirred something inside of me, something ancient and primordial, like the need to know that there is the comfort of the afterlife awaiting us in the end, when death comes to claim us all.

Was there such thing as miracles? I never believed in miracles either. There is no divinity in the universe, merely the operable laws of science and rationality. That's what I believed, and still believe. Still…what about the cherry blossoms that are always in bloom around the year? How does one explain that? I didn't know, though I was sure that there was a rational explanation for it. Some unusual phenomena in the world needn't be the cause of deities or gods. Though speaking of gods, why was Shion so insistent on me in believing in them? Did he believe that I will suffer irreparable consequences if I decide not to believe in invisible beings? Would the gods punish me for my lack of faith? I didn't know, though Shion and Sakura both tell me that believing in the gods would make things easier for me.

Would it really change my life, believing in the gods? I've heard that believing in gods could lead to a transformational experience in some people. Or sometimes, people have near death experiences and they witness something beyond this realm, and they are totally convinced that there is an afterlife in the end after all. I can't say that I have had a near death experience, though maybe in time, when it comes to me on my deathbed, I will reflect back on my life and wonder about all this, and then look towards the light at the end of the tunnel that is awaiting me. What is waiting there for me, I would wonder? Though I guess that's a question I don't have to answer until I'm finally lying on my deathbed, gasping for the last breath of air.

Shion said that I will eventually see the gods. But when would this happen? And why would it happen? How come, after all these years, I will be able to see these gods when for most of my life they remained invisible to me? However, I have to say that I feel a strange presence throughout the village sometimes. A prickle of the neck, a premonition of sorts that indicates that someone is behind me, watching me. Whenever I would turn, I would find nobody there, but that sense of unease still remained. Then I had to wonder, if these gods were really real-were they benign gods? Or were they wrathful gods that inflicted their terror upon humans who didn't believe in them? I don't know. I can't say for sure. However, I can say this.

The next morning, everything proceeded as it normally did. There were no sign of gods anywhere that I could see. I woke up as I normally did, brushed my teeth and washed my face, doing the daily ablutions necessary for the rest of the day, and then I went out into the open sun, where its warm rays greeted me welcomely. I enjoyed the fine caress of warmth on my upturned face, and I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. This always spring atmosphere was a nice sanctuary for someone like me. Sakura was right about that.

The Obon festival was today. I knew that Sakura and Shion would be at the grave-site of their ancestors, where they worshiped and revered those who passed away before them. Like Sakura and Shion, the Kurosawa family before them were spiritual practitioners that respected the dead and honored the spirits and gods. They both invited me to the grave site where their grandmother lay buried, though somehow I felt that I was misplaced among these people. I didn't believe in the gods and spirits as they did, and when I lit up a lantern to keep vigil over the grave for two hours or more, I didn't think much of it. I didn't voice these thoughts aloud, though Sakura and Shion seemed to sense my reluctance about the entire ordeal.

"Our ancestors are watching over us peacefully," Sakura said to me as she folded her hand in prayer and watched the candlelit flame dance upon the incense that was set out upon the grave. "See how the flame flickers and wavers like that? That means that grandmother is smiling down upon you, Kaoru-kun."

"Is she now?" I asked out of curiosity. I looked at the flickering flame, and for a moment I thought I could see the kindly visage of a grandmother peering at me out from the flame. I jumped a bit, and Shion seemed to sense my uneasiness and laughed.

"There's nothing to be scared of," Shion said. "A ton of people come to this grave-site. Grandmother used to be a wonderful fortune teller who brought good fortune to those who sought it."

"So you pray to your grandmother for good luck?" I ask out of curiosity, and Sakura and Shion both nod in response to my question.

"We pray to our ancestors for good luck and good harvest," Sakura explained as she still had her hands clasped together in prayer.

"And we pray for an eternal spring for this village," Shion said as he clapped his hands together once, before he then turned to look at me. "If you're wondering why it's springtime all the time around here, it's because it's a blessing from the gods and our ancestors. They wished for this land to be blessed in eternal springtime, where the sakura are always in bloom."

"Sakura," I said finally, to break the silence. "What's it like to believe in something? How can you believe in something without any guarantees or certainty?"

"It all takes an act of faith," Sakura said simply. "People believe in things because they have hope, and that hope hasn't died out yet. Of course not believing in something could also be an act of faith. There are people who don't believe in a Theistic God, but I think that those people live truer lives because they are guided by their own conscience rather than by a Deity that tells them to do it."

"I see," I said as silence drifted between us once more. "I…I want to believe in something. Anything."

Sakura turned from her praying posture and took both of my hands with her own."Remember when things get scary or out of control, that there is a person that you can rely on. Find that person, hold onto them, cherish them, and never let them go. I'm sure that you'll find that person one day, Kaoru-kun. Even if that person is yourself. You should love and cherish yourself for who you are, and have faith in yourself."

"I don't believe in myself…"

"Then believe in Shion and I. We believe in you. You can do this, Kaoru-kun. We have faith in you."

"I just…" I said, before this memory of the Obon festival cut off. Before I came to this village, my previous life before I came here had been blurred. What was I supposed to remember here? This incident had weighty significance, surely, though try as I might, I couldn't figure it out. Still, the belief in God or gods; what did it mean to believe in them? What would it cost me to believe in them? It went against my principles and rationality.

I stood blinking aghast. Shion disappeared out of sight. I couldn't see him anywhere. I couldn't explain his disappearance, all I know is that my eyes couldn't perceive him through their optical senses. I felt a tap on my shoulder, I spun around wildly, though no one was there. How could have Shion disappeared like that? It made no sense. But I'm sure there had to be a rational explanation for it. Surely.

"You still have earthly attachments and notions," Shion's voice said around me. "You can easily perceive me once your realize the hidden trick behind my disappearance. It's all about shifting perspective."

"You just disappeared out of nowhere…" I said. "That makes no sense. A person doesn't suddenly disappear from sight like that. I can perceive the other senses around me, such as the sakura and grass and village, but you disappeared. You must still be around somewhere if I can still hear your voice. An optical illusion? But then that means I'll have to acknowledge an x factor in this equation—that this is the phenomenon of something supernatural. I refuse to believe it."

"It's that attitude that is holding you back," Shion said with a sigh, before he rematerialized right in front of me and shook his head. "This will not do. If you don't remember anything before you came to the village and acknowledge this village's mysteries, then the Shinigami will come after you."

"Who now?" I said, still skeptical.

Shion waved a hand.

"The Shinigami. What you perceive in front of you isn't something that you can trust. All that is before you can be a very well animated simulation. Do you believe that you are dreaming, Kaoru-kun?"

"This is real," I said while putting a hand to chin my chin. "I can perceive things through my senses. I still have a consciousness. I can interact with the things around me as though they're real. How is this not reality?

"So you have no doubts that this particularly schema, this perception of your world, is the reality?"

"The only senses that I can trust is my own, rather than someone else's."

"If this is reality, then why won't you acknowledge the x factor. That is, sadly…the existence of the supernatural?"

"Because…" I said while clenching my hands into fists. "There's no way I would believe in the supernatural. I am a man of science and rationality."

"Though isn't science about keeping an open mind and changing your preconceived notions based upon new evidence?" Shion said cheerfully. "Why are you so adamant against acknowledging the gods or the supernatural?"

"You're starting to annoy me," I said impatiently as I began to make my way across the dirt path, towards the village.

Shion reappeared in front of me. I blinked. How did he manage to do that?

"If you deny the existence of gods, then you won't be able to reincarnate," Shion said. "You are stuck in a perpetual loop of suffering."

"When have the gods ever helped me? Everything I did was through my own achievement," I said, before a head-splitting ache shattered through my skull. A burning white light inside my mind shone like the corona of the sun.

"Do you still defy the Shinigami? His existence?"

"Yes," I said "I will never acknowledge a deity such this. I only believe what I know to be real and true, and that's my own perception of the world."

"And what would it take for you to change your perception of the world?"

"A miracle. God knows, I've stopped believing in miracles a long time ago."

"Do you know what it feels like to die?"

I paused.

What?

Shion smiled sadly.

"I've seen into the darkness and the abyss gazes back at me. My time is limited, but I have a favor to ask. Please come find me, Kaoru-kun."