The priest at the Shinto shrine, known for his wisdom, was much revered by the locals in the town. Takeru, a man of little importance who went largely ignored even among his family, counted himself among those who looked upon the priest with awe.
He harbored a dream of becoming a designer, and every day he would sit by the canal running along main street and sketch new ideas for kimono into his hand-me-down sketchbook. Takeru longed to be a famous designer, to one day dress the shogun lord and all of his attendants at the nearby castle. The village could continue to ignore him so long as his works were seen.
On a particularly warm autumn morning, the priest happened to pass Takeru as he sketched along the canal, and the priest was kind enough to stop and notice his work.
“A fine sketch,” the old man said as he touched the drawing. “You have great talents.”
Being the middle child of seven, no one had thought to praise Takeru before. He could only stare, open-mouthed, as the priest knelt beside him on the ground.
“What occupation do you hold, young man?” the priest said.
“I’m an apprentice at the tailor.” Takeru fought to hide his charcoal pencils shaking in his hands as he spoke. He wanted the priest to think him a young man of dignity, not a quivering child.
The priest smiled and held his hand out for the sketchbook. He then flipped through the pages as though he had the entire day stretching before him to sit beside Takeru, admiring his designs.
“Fine work, indeed,” the priest said at length. “Perhaps one day you may show me something you design.”
“It would be an honor, sir,” Takeru said as he took back his notebook. “Thank you.”
After the priest left, the young man wasted no time in running to the tailor to tell him the news. He burst through the front doors, interrupting a fitting with one of the rich merchants who often used the canals to move his goods.
With a frown, the tailor told Takeru to show some respect, but he could not contain his joy.
“I’m going to be famous,” he told the unamused tailor. “The priest said so. He said I’ve got real talent for design. I’m going to dress the shogun one day, he said.”
To this, the merchant standing on the fitting pedestal raised a lone eyebrow.
“Oh indeed?” he said. “Well then, perhaps I have wasted my time with this man here and should be spending my time asking for your work.”
Takeru watched the tailor’s eyes narrow as he continued flitting around the merchant.
“Please ignore the foolish whims of my apprentice,” he said as he worked.
“That priest is known for being something of a prophet,” the merchant said. “I’d take his word over yours any day.”
Still holding his sketchbook, Takeru stood as straight as he could before the powerful merchant, who eyed his shabby clothing and stained face from where he had accidentally rubbed charcoal.
“Hm,” was all the merchant would say. The tailor continued his work fitting the lovely kimono the merchant had ordered, though his eyes would occasionally find Takeru’s, and winter swept over the room.
“Can you design, boy?” Takeru nodded. “Well, then make me something new. Something more from the West. Can you do that?”
The young man nodded, though he felt fear crawl into his heart. He had no idea what fashion in the West was like. The tailor couldn’t help but smirk to see Takeru squirm as he finished pinning the kimono.
Several minutes after the merchant had left, the tailor began throwing sewing needles, spools of thread and anything else he could find at Takeru.
“How dare you try to steal business from me by sputtering such nonsense!” he seethed.
Takeru hid behind an oak table before running out the front door. The tailor chased him for a few blocks before tiring and returning to his shop. Takeru managed to stand from his hiding spot and survey that the tailor had decided to leave him alone. He sighed.
He felt too ashamed to go home and tell his family he had just lost his apprenticeship. Perhaps if I tried to apprentice for the tailor in the next town, he thought as he began to walk.
At first, Takeru simply wandered. He thought about heading to a bar and spending the last of his pitiful allowance on alcohol, but something drove his feet toward the shrine at the top of the hill outside of town. His feet had climbed the seemingly endless stairs to the shrine’s entrance before he realized where he even was, so lost in thought about his shattered future was he.
There, at the top of the hill just at the entrance to the shrine, stood the priest. He was sweeping fallen leaves while humming to himself.
The priest looked up and gave another warm smile.
“Ah, the young designer. Have you come here to pray?”
“I lost my job thanks to you.”
A blatant lie, but Takeru longed for someone else to blame, and here stood the beloved priest before him.
Grave concern crossed the old man’s face as he set the broom down near the top of the stairs. He ushered Takeru to sit along a shallow wall beckoning worshipers to the main shrine.
“How did I so deeply wrong you?”
Takeru recounted the jealousy of the tailor and the merchant seeming to toy with him in asking for the impossible. The priest listened; his eyes unfathomable in the growing darkness of the evening.
At last, the young man fell silent.
“Well, then, I think I should have you meet the Western man who is staying with me today. Perhaps he can give you insight.”
Words failed Takeru as he managed to nod, tears welling in his eyes. How could a man he had only just blamed be so kind? Surely this old man was otherworldly.
A great gust of wind rolled the priest’s old, weathered broom closer to the edge of the grand staircase that had led Takeru to the top of the hill. The priest gestured for Takeru to wait a moment as he went to pick up the broom.
Leaning down, somehow the great priest lost his footing. With a horrible cry unbefitting a man of such dignity, the old man fell down the flight of stairs head-first.
With a horrible crack, the screaming was cut off.
Takeru, who had risen from the wall just in time to see the priest fall, felt like his feet had become welded to the ground. For one long, agonizing moment, he simply stood and stared at where the priest had only just been, at where the broom still was, lying innocently on the ground.
His eyes managed to break free from the paralyzing trance of fear to look around and see if anyone else had witnessed the tragic fall of the priest. They were alone, it seemed.
Swallowing the bile of fear, Takeru managed to wrench his feet from the ground and slowly walk to the top of the stairs. His eyes could just make out the crumpled form of the priest halfway down the stairs, drenched in what looked like ink spilling from his robes. The young man gave a sharp cry and ran down the stairs.
A chill swept over Takeru as he stopped on the third step from the top and looked around to see who had called his name. It had sounded like someone had whispered directly into his ear.
Do you want power?
“No, I just wanted to design grand clothing.” He sat down on the step with a great sob and buried his head in his hands.
Takeru, you can be. The priest can still help you.
“Help me? He’s dead!”
He had magic within him to see paths forward. You can harness that magic now that he is dead.
His sobs quieted as Takeru contemplated the whispered words falling in the wind. Behind him he could make out the footsteps of the priestesses of the shrine closing doors and shuttering windows. If he strained his ears, he could hear one of them calling for the priest.
Burn the body to ashes.
“No.” The young man stood and turned to move toward the priestesses, to tell them where the priest had fallen.
They will suspect you pushed him.
Cold reality crashed down on him. He was the only person around where the priest had died. Of course everyone would pin the death on him, an anonymous scapegoat.
Burn the body to ashes.
“I can’t do that,” Takeru whispered. “I can’t.”
You could be great.
“I can’t, I can’t.” The young man could hear the priestesses asking one another whose voice they could hear near the stairs. He had seconds to decide.
Burn it to ashes.
It felt as though someone moved his body as he turned away from the shrine, went down the stairs and knelt before the body of the priest. He swiftly, silently managed to heave the frail body over his shoulder and make his way down the stairs. Just as he had hidden amid the trees near the bottom of the stairs, he heard the priestesses calling louder for the priest as they stood near the top of the stairs.
Burn him by the old farmhouse.
“Who are you?”
Someone who wants to help you.
Because you are someone of great interest to me. Go.
As soon as the voices of the priestesses grew distant, Takeru lifted up the body, slung it over his shoulder like a sack of rice and stole into the shadows. He felt lucky, at least, that the shrine was near the outskirts of town, away from the lanterns burning to light the streets of the town.
Despite how light the body felt, his shoulders were still aching by the time he reached the dirt road that would take him to the clearing. His mind was far from the pain, however, as it contemplated the whispering voice guiding him through the nightmare. Had he done the right thing? Several times he thought about going back to the shrine, but showing up now with the priest’s body would sentence him to life in jail, at best. He kept going.
He saw the warm light of a roaring fire greet him up ahead. Farmers often burned rice stalks after harvest, but Takeru was still surprised to see a fire exactly where the voice had told him to go. At first, he shrank from the bonfire, worried farmers might be nearby. Several minutes of hesitation passed before his shoulders ordered him to put the body down.
Takeru staggered to the edge of the fire, the heat stinging his eyes, and with a great heave, he thrust the priest’s body into it.
For an instant, the fire seemed to accept the body as added fuel and swiftly set to work consuming the robes adorning it. Takeru took a step back, a new weight of dread settling within his bones.
The whispering voice was like someone touching his earlobe to speak to him. Takeru flinched at the sound just as the fire seemed to groan like a ship lost at sea. He looked to see the flames were changing colors. First, white, then glittering like gold, then blue, then purple, black, green, deep orange, pink. The flames alternated the colors with increasing rapidity, as if they were confused.
Takeru took another step back, his eyes wide even as the smoke raked at them.
The magic within him is being pulled out. Wait here until the fire dies. You will find ashes.
“Ashes…” Takeru continued to pray this was a dream. “Ashes.”
Gather the ashes, and I will tell you what to do from there.
The flames seemed to be building in their confusion as they writhed in the sky, turning colors as they stretched to reach the stars overhead. Takeru’s eyes fell away from the flames almost in shame to see how greatly he had tainted an otherwise dutiful fire, and he found one of the farmers had left an old robe out to dry on the side of a wagon sitting near the fire. He looked down at his own blood-drenched clothing and didn’t hesitate to strip, throw his bloodied clothing into the disturbed fire and borrow the clothing.
This is all too convenient, he thought as he changed. How could the voice have everything so beautifully arranged? To what end?
Just before sunrise, the fire gasped its last breath before disappearing in a cloud of white smoke. Takeru woke with a start as a wind ripped through the threadbare clothing he wore. A glass jar lay near him. The young man kicked some of the ashes away from the center of the pile and scooped them into the jar before they could burn him. The voice had failed to say how much of the ashes he needed, so he filled the jar to the brim.
A great wind wove through the clearing, carrying with it the echo of the words: Follow me.
Takeru saw the wind roll down the dirt road before settling on a broken shack. He hugged the jar to his chest like a talisman and approached the old house.
The building was falling apart, with holes in the roof offering views of the rising sun. He set the jar down on a little table still situated in the middle of the room.
Wind rattled the windows, and Takeru’s body moved on its own accord. His mind seemed to be wiped clean of thought as he moved to a window that seemed ready to fall out of its frame. His hands and arms pulled the glass neatly out of the frame and laid it on the tatami. His fingers reached the jar, and he poured the ashes onto the glass.
There was a burst of light like a firework, and Takeru dropped the jar as he shielded his eyes.
He opened his eyes to see a mirror reflecting the mice scurrying in the rafters of the exposed roof overhead. If Takeru closed his eyes, he could hear a kind of music emanate from the mirror. It was more beautiful than the flutes he heard played on the streets sometimes, more beautiful than his father’s singing. He leaned forward.
I knew it.
The mirror’s call to Takeru almost blocked out the gloating whispers of the voice.
You know how to bend the magic to your will. I knew it was you. You can help free me.
Takeru touched the mirror, and it flashed to show the castle standing in its magnificence on the hill opposite the shrine. Takeru leaned closer to the mirror and saw the shogun standing in clothing he had made.
“That’s my work,” he murmured as he touched the smooth surface.
That is your destiny now.
But Takeru stood and wrenched himself away from the mirror’s vision. For the first time since the voice had spoken, the young man locked eyes with the demon he now saw lurking in the shadows of the house.
“No,” he said, “my destiny is beyond this.”
Takeru looked at the mirror and touched it again. The vision shattered before being smoothed over by a new vision. Takeru was the shogun, wearing his clothing with pride as the villagers bowed low before him.
Do not go beyond your own means. The demon sounded afraid.
Takeru laughed. “A boy of no note destined to overthrow a shogun. I see it now.”
The mirror cracked before smoothing itself over as it showed Takeru sending the farmers, the shopkeepers, the tailor, even the merchant to war to conquer the neighboring lands. The mirror would show him the path forward.
This is not your way forward.
“Enough, demon.” The whispers died in the demon’s throat. “You sensed the darkness within and unlocked it for me. I thank you for that, but you have underestimated me.”
It appears I did.
Takeru touched the mirror as though it were a lover reunited with him at long last. He could still hear the intoxicating music filling his mind with visions of conquest, of domination.
“This is part of me now.” He held his hand out to the demon. “Come, I bind you to me.”
The demon, who had been slowly trying to leave the house, now felt the mirror’s reflection encase it in blinding light. With a shriek of pain, the demon’s will joined Takeru’s in the mirror. It bowed low before Takeru while its consciousness drowned in the reflection.
As you wish.
Takeru surveyed the old house, not seeing the decay inviting the house to disappear nor the sun fighting to find a way to blind his eyes; he could only drink in visions of the path to his goal illuminating everything he needed around him.
He picked the mirror up from the tatami and leaned it against one of the sturdier walls of the house. The reflection faithfully showed him not as he was, a young man in stolen clothing with blood and dirt caked into his hair, but what he could be: the ruler of the new nation he would build.
Sarah Hozumi is a translator and rewriter who has lived near Tokyo for about 14 years. To read short stories she’s had published, and to read her blog mostly about all things Japan, please visit sarahhozumi.com. You can also follow her on Facebook at sarahjhozumi.