by Paul Carlson

Trees dripped in the mist, along a verdant hillside covered in pine and maple and camellia. A colorful pagoda, serene and untended, watched over slow centuries of change in the village below. Faintly visible across the mist-shrouded strait, Hiroshima displayed far more growth and upheaval.

Akiko Murasaki strolled, savoring a rare day off, away from her responsibilities. The sakura cherry blossoms had faded, and the primeval forest grew thick.

Toward the west, kilometers away, the first morning ferry departed from Miyajimaguchi. The boat’s fog horn sounded, heralding a cargo of Asian tour groups and throngs of independent-minded westerners.

As she knew from her seventeen years on Miyajima, most of the day’s visitors would linger in the village, gathered around the Itsukushima shrine and its world-famous o-torii gate. Only a few tourists climbed the stone steps to the Tahoto Pagoda, so Akiko would be alone for a while, unless a deer wandered by or a curious monkey paid its respects.

High above, Mount Misen caught the sunlight. Lush foliage concealed the summit, but Akiko pictured it easily. Every tree was protected, because this island had been sacred since prehistoric times, and the United Nations recognized this also. The mountain peak gazed back at the sunrise, far across the Inland Sea.

Here she could relax, ponder her high school science project. Yet there was something more, an ancient whisper, a call known to the most devout. Why might she hear such a voice? What interest did the kami have in a secular girl like her?

Indeed, a compassionate being wished her attention. This was something new, though such occurrences were ingrained in her culture. ‘Who are you?’ Akiko asked, within her mind where only the Buddhas might pay attention.

‘Kukai no Tomodachi is what the monks called me,’ came an answer so tranquil, any distractions and she’d have missed it.

Akiko’s eyes widened. A friend of Kukai? The revered Kobo-Daishi himself. That was sixty generations ago. The holy man had meditated here, living an ascetic life, then moved onward. He’d bequeathed an eternal flame, tended by his disciples. It continued to burn, within its humble shrine on Mount Misen, 1200 years later.

‘Yes, that is my home,’ the kami said, the moment Akiko envisioned the shrine. ‘Please come visit.’

Curious, Akiko wondered if she’d have enough time. The Ropeway aerial tram wouldn’t open for a couple of hours, otherwise it was a long hike. Then her cell phone rang.

“Akiko-chan,” her mother announced, “yesterday the German tour office forgot to notify us about a group from Munich. Eight rooms full, arriving at eleven.”

Many of the current guests would be checking out, and the staff must clean each room immediately. A boon for the family business, but a ton of work.

Forgetting all else, Akiko hurried down the hill, then across the village toward the hotel. She offered a polite nod to her friend Takashi-san, who was garbed for work in his topknot and blue servant’s robes. With the proper impassive expression, he was pulling two guests in his rickshaw.

Shiro Inoue wiped sweat from his eyes. Hotel work wasn’t easy, but he was no priest, so tourism and aquaculture were about his only career choices. He swallowed any complaints and lugged another armload of futons out of the traditional ryokan-style room. Westerners can afford to stay here, but they’re often so inconsiderate.

Payday soon, and he could buy his mother something; maybe a new translation dictionary from the Yodobashi store in Hiroshima. He’d seen one with Korean and English modes, and most of the Europeans spoke English. Never mind Chinese; since the Fukushima disaster, 500 kilometers away, tourism from China had dropped.

With two more rooms to clean, his extra shift would be over soon. He’d spent a night at the front desk, then an hour updating the hotel’s web site and Facebook page, and finally, went upstairs to help clean the guest rooms. How those Americans gawked at the hotel’s programmable bidet toilets.

Later he could relax with his favorite video games. No more homework, anyway. He’d not scored well on his nyugaku shiken college-qualification exam, too low for any good college. In Japan, distracted students didn’t get do-overs.

Anyway, his mother needed support. She did well, serving in the hotel’s little restaurant, but it was never enough. In America they give tips to waitresses, but not in Europe. All very strange.

At 13:00, Shiro was finally done. He ambled downstairs to the employee’s designated entrance, next to the dining area. There he caught a glimpse of Akiko and his mother, serving popular dishes to the lunch guests. Though tempted, he kept his workplace decorum and did not approach her. One white man, unusually bold, was eating an assortment of sashimi.

On his way out Shiro turned to offer a bow, more of a perfunctory nod, then strode toward home. The souvenir shops along the shade-covered Omotesando lane were crowded, so he walked beside the shore, weaving between flocks of visitors and the island’s hungry deer. Every one of those cute animals, it seemed, had a tourist photographing it.

As he watched, one deer snatched a piece of paper from a man’s shirt pocket. They loved paper, and if Shiro had correctly identified the snack, that man would have to buy another return ferry ticket.

He passed the rambling Itsukushima Shinto Shrine. Tourists gathered around the vermillion o-torii, its base exposed by the low tide. Uphill, a few more shops awaited those who explored the further reaches of this historic village.

Shiro headed into a narrow residential area, tucked against the foot of the mountain. Upstairs in his third-floor apartment, he donned slippers and stepped into his own corner, then flopped down onto a thick mattress.

With his Nexus he logged into a popular video game. Most of his friends preferred multiplayer battle games, so he usually played along. He’d made friends across the globe, a great way to learn more English.

Thoughts of Akiko kept bubbling up, a pleasant diversion, and he wasn’t winning any games today.

Finally, Shiro went out. It wasn’t far to the gate of the Buddhist Daisho-In temple. He walked up the long stone stairway, one hand touching its hundreds of brass prayer wheels.

To the right, a path led him to the Listening Buddha statue, whose gigantic ears awaited his beloved devotee’s troubles. Many nyorai and bosatsu and ten and other statues populated the area, some wearing cute little knit-cap offerings. Not many temple staffers were around, and as usual, only a handful of visitors had made it this far.

“What’s going on with mom?” Shiro said to the Listening Buddha, after dropping a coin into a waiting bag. “Why doesn’t Akiko like me? Small concerns, but his nonetheless.

The Buddha answered.

‘Hello, Shiro-san,” came a small voice. “Konnichi wa.”

A good afternoon indeed, but was this a joke?

“You serve your widowed mother well,” the voice continued. “I have a high opinion of Akiko-san. She’s a wonderful girl, and soon all of us can get to know one another.”

My widowed mother? Shiro was stunned. This was something he would never share with any stranger. A local prank, then? But there was no audible sound. The temple grounds remained still and calm.

“May I invite you to visit?” the earnest voice said. “I live on Mount Misen, but I’ve been asleep.”

Shiro envisioned Mount Misen and its Reikado, the famous shrine of the Eternal Flame. Am I dreaming? Reliving forgotten anime scenes?

Finally Shiro replied, “I’ll visit.” Local elders always said the mountain air was especially refreshing this time of year.

Shiro ran home, not really seeing the mess he’d made. His eyes fell on a DVD, a classic Jerry Lewis comedy with Japanese subtitles. Mom never understands. Maybe he’d watch it that evening, unless the craft shop on the building’s ground floor called him to help with their export-shipping software. All those fussy international rules!

Pulling on his seldom-worn hiking boots, he scribbled a note for his mother, then headed uphill past the temple complex.

Ach du lieber! Such bumbling service,” a male voice boomed from the front desk. “I am told Japanese are efficient, yet we wait long for the ferry, and a taxi to our hotel is not available.”

It’s only a short walk to our hotel, Mrs. Inoue thought. If these wealthy Europeans wanted a taxi ride for each quarter-kilometer distance, they needed to pick another island. I’ll suggest they take a rickshaw, send Takeshi-san some business.

She finished folding the linen sheets, and with a sigh of relief placed them on a cart to be distributed to the western-style guest rooms on the second floor. Now she’d change into more colorful garb, not a full kimono but something traditional-looking, to serve lunch in the hotel’s little restaurant. At least those noisy Germans won’t forget and leave tips, like Americans do. It’s so embarrassing.

Two hours later, after the lunch crowd subsided, Mrs. Inoue finished her shift. She’d served sashimi to the German fellow, which he enjoyed, and his wife turned out to be friendly. With a deep formal bow she exited the hotel. Threading the narrow Omotesando, she watched a group from India pose in front of the world’s largest rice scoop. A block farther along, she bought some foil-wrapped sweet potatoes for a snack.

She trudged up the valley, then climbed three flights of stairs. As usual Shiro had left dirty dishes, and his Nexus sat askew atop his mattress.

The boy had left a note, something uncommon. He is a filial son, deep inside, she assured herself. Even if he is a dreamer. He still moons over Akiko Murasaki, a girl far above his station.

Her family had its proper role, and no matter the hardship, she found reassurance in that. The Murasakis were among the island’s oldest families, claiming their position four hundred years earlier, when the great lord Asano brought in arts and trade. Their hotel was the island’s most prestigious. In contrast, the humble Inoue family’s records only went back a hundred fifty years, to when they’d been hired to make wooden rice scoops.

‘Dear Mother, I am hiking on Mount Misen,’ read the note. ‘Please do not worry, I will be home in time for dinner.’

Shiro took the Daisho-In trail, within a shady fold on the mountainside. Despite millennia of use the trail remained narrow, with gravelly soil. He passed groups of hikers looking northward toward Hiroshima. Shiro found the view familiar, along with the diverse visitors.

The sky was crystal clear, and it wasn’t typhoon season, though gentle rains could pass through at almost any time. Hence the abundant flora, no matter how stony the land beneath.

He met the ridge trail, winding westward from the upper Ropeway station, but turned toward the mountain’s shrines and summit. At this height the trail was crossed by numerous rain gutters made of small granite blocks. Nobody wanted to misstep and twist an ankle.

The Reikado Shrine followed a basic pattern: one interior room, with a double tile roof and three solid walls; plus an accessible front, which normally stood open. Shiro could almost reach both edges with outstretched arms. Near the front an ornate iron kettle held precious holy water, though the charcoal fire burned low this afternoon.

There was no stepping inside, as a flat metal shelf crossed the opening, useful as a candle and incense holder. Monks took care of the interior space, tending statues and more candles. Unlike many of Japan’s shrines, photography was allowed.

Several tourists had gathered, some casual, almost disrespectful. Three Korean women approached. They, at least, showed proper reverence. More than I have, Shiro thought with shame. What if I visited European shrines?

Would he have a numinous experience at an ancient Paris cathedral? It rankled to think of anyone rivaling Japan’s venerable culture. Few kirishitan lived on Miyajima, and their churches were over on the mainland. Miyajima had no hospitals either, since birth and death ought never occur on sanctified ground.

Across a small dirt plaza stood a Buddhist hall utilized by the monks. Mount Misen’s summit trail ran between these structures, but few hikers lingered. An elderly woman kept an eye on things, placidly sweeping windblown leaves with a straw broom. No guards or close attendants had ever been required.

Next to the Reikado shrine a small building, an ornate hutch, provided devotional offerings. Four British hikers obtained candles and incense, dropping coins through the wooden slats of the donation box. With a hesitant konnichi wa toward him, the group headed toward the summit.

The old woman went inside. She looked familiar, perhaps his great-aunt, but he’d paid too little attention to such things. Emi, that’s her name.

Finally alone, Shiro mumbled, “Here I am.”

Nothing happened, so he dropped thirty yen into the donation box and selected a candle. This he lit from a previous offering, and placed it on the shelf.

‘I am glad you came,’ murmured a voice. ‘Much time has passed. A few kindred souls are here on the island, people from families I’ve known, and today I called two of you.’

“You are the kami of this shrine?” Shiro asked, startled into speaking aloud. “I guess you’ve lived here a long time.”

‘Thousands of years.’ The telepathic voice was androgynous, not human yet somehow familiar. ‘When I first arrived there was little sustenance available, and I merely existed. Kukai sensed my presence, and when he built this steady fire I drew near. I’ve done what I could in return.’

Shiro focused on the embers. Was someone actually there? Never mind it was the 21st century, no Japanese could forget the legends woven into the landscape, often overlooked yet always ready to summon.

‘Much has changed,’ the voice continued. ‘The city across the water got destroyed, now it is much larger. Small boats always came here, now ferries are crowded with visitors. How long has it been since that terrible blast shredded my matrices?’

“You mean the atomic bomb,” Shiro responded, too astonished to doubt. “Almost eighty years. Perhaps you knew my grandparents.” He thought of the niche where his mother placed photos of their revered ancestors, now including a portrait of his father. “Not all of us survived,” he recalled with swift sorrow.

‘Kukai had compassion, and needed it. You humans make a great deal of trouble for yourselves.’ A subdued melancholy accompanied the ethereal words. ‘My home place is entirely different. Fortunately Kukai showed me the ways of the Buddha.’

“You aren’t from this world?” A few of the gods came from India and China, but others, especially the smaller kami, were very Japanese. “You were not formed along with my ancestral realm?”

There came a sense of wry amusement. ‘I am from so far away your language has no measurement for it, though I wonder if your new sciences might.’ Arcane visions accompanied each word. ‘When I found myself here I settled in, before you humans arrived. I suppose my presence contributed to people finding this island sacred.’

“Do you like Miyajima?” Despite quarrels and bombs, he added.

‘I would like to see my home again.’ Concern poured forth. ‘Shiro-san, I suppose you also need to get home.’

Like a bubble popping, Shiro’s became aware of his surroundings. The sun stood far to the west, about to drop behind the mountains above Hatsukaichi, on the mainland where he’d attended high school.

He’d been standing in place for hours, yet he wasn’t sore. This brought a flurry of doubt, and he stumbled backward, colliding with someone.

“Ulp!” came a deep feminine voice. Knocked off balance, the woman leaned forward.

She caught herself on the offering holder, then with a yelp shoved away. She’d placed an arm above several candles, snuffing them out with her bare skin. “Heisse!” Catching sight of Shiro, she quickly added, “Atsui desu.”

This lady speaks Japanese! Those candles sure are hot. He examined her arm. “I’m sorry. It doesn’t look too bad. Daijobu, neh?

Behind Shiro, vivid through newly-enhanced senses, the warmth of the fire and kettle diminished. Several more of the offering candles went out, but no one else seemed to notice.

Es ist okay,” the woman said. “Already my arm is better. Sorry to be clumsy.” She offered a handshake. “I am Hilde Mattern, and this is my husband Gunther. For years we’ve planned to visit.”

Shiro told Gunther, “Yes, my friend served you lunch today. She speaks better German than me.”

“A fine lady,” Hilde said, settling into English as their best common tongue. She glanced at the sun. “Is there time to reach the summit?”

“You’re almost there.” Shiro pointed. “Be sure to look inside the boulder-shrine beneath the summit area. There’s a water pool that rises and falls with the ocean tide.”

“Really?” Eager to go, Hilde took Gunther’s arm. “Good to meet you . . . uh?”

“Inoue, Shiro,” he supplied. “Sorry I did not bring any cards.”

“Here, I have,” said Gunther. “It is German, from my work.”

“Thanks.” Shiro pocketed the card, noting its quality inking, with a famous Bergtal Electronics AG corporate logo

Hilde smiled. “Perhaps we’ll see you again.” With that, they headed away.

‘Was this proper compassion?’ Kukai no Tomodachi asked Shiro. ‘I gave relief to the injured woman.’

“You did? Sure it’s proper,” Shiro replied. “That’s why your fire cooled so fast, just now. You can transform energy. I’m glad you healed the lady.”

‘It is natural for my kind,’ the alien kami said. ‘However, your world’s sources of energy are thin, and I must gather carefully.’

“You saved me much embarrassment.” Shiro bowed to the unseen inhabitant. “I am busy, yet hope to see you again.”

As Shiro hurried away, not wanting to dare the trail in full darkness, he felt satisfaction. Emi, the elderly attendant, watched him with a beatific if toothless smile.

Moving quickly, Akiko passed Shiro near the island’s public aquarium. He wore familiar work clothes, and she did not turn her head. She came from the respectable class of innkeepers. He was a menial worker in times of recession, unskilled except for tinkering with computers. He’s going to end up a freeter, with no substantial home or career. To her own surprise, she felt a surge of disappointment.

She would not meet Shiro’s admiring gaze. Others might notice, and word get back to her parents. Not that my father has time to care. Akiko knew she ought not feel bitter. Her father supported them well. My oto-san traveled this morning aboard a private high-speed ferry. Then, a reserved seat on the Shinkansen bullet train. Back to a skyscraper in Osaka, for endless business negotiations. Lastly he’d go to some club, for endless drinking, and chatting up the bar girls. Girls who aren’t much older than I am.

Ordinary, loyal Shiro compared better. Akiko kept her head down, bulling ahead, making others move aside. Locals shook their heads at such a display, but she was too upset to care. When her emotional storm reached a crescendo, and at last she looked around, Shiro was out of sight.

Her life was written in stone, in ancient cultural tales. Her mother kept promoting several high-class boys, inviting them to parties where she knew sweet little Akiko would meet them. They were all shallow, preening; on the road to success, but at what price?

Akiko felt like a tiny blip in a much larger problem. Modern life was too busy, too expensive. Half the young women she knew had yet to marry. They won’t bring a child into this world. Japan’s population was shrinking. Five years earlier, while visiting New Jersey with her father, she’d seen many schools bursting with children.

Akiko fumed and, almost without thinking, climbed the steps to the Tohoto Pagoda. Aren’t we better than that? None of those places enjoy the special aura of Miyajima.

Moments later a tour group from Thailand came along, and began taking photos. So Akiko kept on walking, along a level hillside trail with lush, sign-marked flora, toward the Daisho-In temple.

She entered the wooden Niomon Gate, then bounded up the steps and through the smaller Onarimon Gate. On her right she saw the Listening Buddha, but passed it by. She had girlfriends for that.

To her relief she found the Henjokutsu Cave, a dark stone grotto beneath the temple’s uppermost shrine, empty of visitors. Its 88 unique Buddha statues, with hundreds of identical guardian statues arrayed behind, brooded in silent intensity.

Akiko dipped her hands in sanctifying powder, enjoying its floral scent. Thus prepared, she moved from one statue to another, reading the individual prayer tablets and sliding the wooden prayer spheres mounted in front of each. Clack, clack, clack, the sound of Buddhist devotion was infinitely comforting.

‘I did not see you last week,’ came a quiet voice. ‘Someone visited me today, a happy occasion, and I hope to meet you also.’

Wasn’t she alone? Oh yes! The kami who spoke before. She’d pushed that amorphous experience from her mind.

Shitsurei. I apologize, things were hectic.” In the close confines of Henjokutsu her soft voice resonated. “I have several hours free, because I’ve completed my school science project. Might I visit you now?”

‘As you wish.’

The ticket price was trivial, so Akiko rode the Ropeway up, then made her way toward the summit. A difficult walk in heels, but she’d done it before.

She dovetailed easily with Kukai no Tomodachi, and the kami was full of delight. Akiko wondered at fate, that such a divine being would reach out to Shiro. Of all people.

Shiro was glad to visit the Murasakis, at such an exclusive gathering, especially since his disgraceful failure with the college exam.

“Please, Akiko-chan, more tea for our guests.” Mrs. Murasaki excelled in hosting afternoon tea, including a few hotel employees in her famous hospitality.

The Murasaki’s fine house overlooked the rocky eastern shore of the island. Below, small docks served oyster farming boats. The Matterns were present. Hilde conversed softly in Japanese, allowing the two outsiders to fit in well enough. She mentioned doing charity work, for the flood of Syrian migrants that had reached Germany.

Akiko knew her role as hostess well, and served o-cha with exquisite grace. Shiro admired this immensely, and fought to maintain a stolid expression. Both of their mothers were present, and this was his only option. In contrast, if so inclined, the gathered ladies could strongly critique Akiko’s style. Happily, this was a relaxed occasion.

Eight ladies shared the latest gossip, and business prospects, and how their growing children fared. There wasn’t much talk of grandchildren, and Shiro realized what sort of pressure this must bring upon Akiko. Three husbands came along, gathered at one end of the room. Gunther said little, though this didn’t seem to matter.

Her mother was certainly assertive. “Akiko-chan,” Mrs. Murasaki said, “please show everyone your science project.” She beamed with pride. “My daughter has won first place.”

“Yes, mother,” Akiko said. She slid open the wooden screen to her bedroom.

A moment later she returned, holding a box. Shiro helped clear the porcelain tea service, then Akiko gently opened the container.

Inside was a veritable antique, except as Akiko explained, every part of the crystal radio was brand-new. To demonstrate she hooked up the battery wires, then searched for a station. Gunther came over, clearly fascinated.

Soon they were listening to a speech by the Prime Minister, something about trade negotiations. With a little fiddling, Akiko tuned into a sumo tournament, and then a music station from Korea.

“This only receives AM radio,” Akiko explained. “The mechanism is simple yet effective.”

“Yes,” said Gunter, in English. “We have such an early German radio, built in 1908 by a Bergtal company technician. It graces the lobby of my office building in Munich.”

Hilde provided a translation. Shiro realized the oldest woman present was over 90, and might have used a crystal radio herself.

Mrs. Inoue turned to her son. “Shiro, you made one like this, two years ago in the same class, didn’t you?”

Caught off guard, he answered quickly. “Oh yes, and it worked, though not as well.” He talked fast to cover the awkward situation. “The scientific principles involve fine electronics and even quantum physics. Of course, I only received third place.”

“Quite impressive,” Gunter remarked, and handed Akiko a business card. “We are always interested in technological creativity.”

“A great lesson for you young folks,” said Mrs. Murasaki. Dismissively, though with such a subtle tone the Germans probably missed it. The conversation turned to other things.

As Shiro and his mother departed, Akiko favored him with a quick smile. Thoughts of their little crystal radios, along with Gunther’s cutting-edge projects, tickled Shiro’s mind.

Shiro was delighted to see the latest room-reservation list.

“Hey look, Gunther Mattern. It’s a German couple I met last year,” Shiro told the hotel’s morning shift clerk. “They’ll be here in two weeks.”

“It’s good to make personal connections,” the middle-aged clerk replied, with a lightness he’d never show any guests. “More likely to elicit return business.” With a wink he added, “Those European women are hot.”

Shiro rolled his eyes, but his bachelor colleague meant well. “These two like sashimi, and the wife is fluent. He’s a tech researcher.”

This news visibly impressed the jovial clerk.

Shiro texted Akiko. She’d done well on her exams and was beginning classes at a mid-level college, majoring in Business Administration. She replied a few minutes later: the Matterns had timed their visit to coincide with her college break.

“So happy to see you again, Hilde-san,” Mrs. Inoue said. The Matterns had assured her it wasn’t using up their valuable time to meet for dinner.

Shiro was present, at the Mattern’s invitation. They’d met at one of the island’s other restaurants, above the Momijihodo Nature Walk near the lower Ropeway station.

“We have other places to see,” Gunther said, with faint ambivalence. “Egypt to visit the Pyramids, but that will have to be next year.” He patted his wife’s shoulder. “Hilde insisted on returning here first, and she will be well enough.”

“Please remember to ask Takeshi for a rickshaw tour,” she told the Matterns. “He specializes in serving honeymoon couples, and it will spark up your stay here.”

She noticed Shiro cringe at this statement. But it was westerners who’d been so puritanical, not the Japanese. Plenty of hot spring inns around the Inland Sea still had shared facilities for bathing in the nude. Shiro-chan spends too much time on that computer, getting foreign ideas.

“Actually we did,” Gunther remarked. “Hilde was tired, and we wanted to see the Omoto Shrine, so Takeshi brought us there. The man fills such a medieval role remarkably well.”

“I want to see the aquarium,” Hilde added. “The oceanic life here is so different from our Baltic Sea.”

Soon the meal was over, with many cups of o-cha consumed, and then a little sake. They quibbled over the dinner bill, simultaneously apologizing and insisting, until Mrs. Inoue prevailed. It was expensive, but she’d saved a little money.

Hilde stood to go, then winced, face drawn with pain. “It’s nothing,” she managed to say. “Daijobu. I’ll be fine in a minute.”

Gunther and Shiro helped Hilde walk outside. Takeshi waited, impassive though concerned.

As she and Shiro trod the dusky Momijihodo path toward home, her son passed along what he’d learned earlier, from Gunther. “Hilde has slowly gotten worse, all year, and her doctors are stumped. She insisted on coming back here, and couldn’t explain why.”

This was truly odd. “I’m glad to meet them again. Why did she make such an effort?”

The evening was cool, and Shiro wore a jacket. Now he fumbled in the pockets, and came up with an envelope.

“Hey look,” Shiro said, seeming only half surprised. “Gunther sort of jostled me, after we helped Hilde into the rickshaw.”

The envelope held more than enough yen notes to pay for their dinner.

“Akiko, Hilde is really sick.” Shiro’s voice cracked with strain. “We had to help her after dinner.”

“Do you think Kukai no Tomodachi could heal her again?” Akiko asked. “Mom told me Hilde looked weaker this morning.”

They stood before the Shinto faith’s little Omoto Shrine, the island’s oldest. Clouds wracked the sky, not quite a typhoon, but a storm to be reckoned with.

Would the kami help us? Shiro asked himself, about that enigmatic being. Of course, and we need to arrange it. Mutual concern drew Akiko close, a safer pairing, but it wasn’t comfortable.

“How?” Shiro wondered aloud. “Hilde can’t walk, and the weather will be awful. A rickshaw won’t help, that far uphill.” He recalled comedies where the goofy hero pretended to be a doctor, or a professor. “Can Kukai no Tomodachi reach into town?”

Akiko shook her head, no. “Our friend needs solid evidence.” She took hairbrush from her purse. “I was showing Hilde some hairstyles. This will have her DNA, and hair carries a metabolic record of sorts.”

Shiro got out his cell phone. “This is serious, even if we can’t explain. I’m calling in sick from work, no matter the consequences.”

Akiko nodded, ready to support him in front of her mother, if it came to that. “Let’s go.”

Rain began to pour. Kindly old Emi motioned for them to come inside the hall, but the two youngsters stayed by the kami’s shrine. The trail gained traffic as people rushed back to the village.

“Hilde Mattern is suffering.” Akiko spoke aloud for Shiro’s sake. “Doctors are stumped. Can we help her? This is compassion, and it will forge links between families and nations.”

“I’m no idealist,” Shiro added, “yet I hope this can be real. Hilde is doing charity, so it’s not just for her.” He knew that millions of people suffered, including plenty of local residents, but how much could two kids and a kami accomplish?

‘You need not implore,’ the kami said. ‘Please show me the hairbrush.’

“Okay.” Then, “Ouch!” Akiko groaned, favoring one leg. “Stupid fashionable me, next time I’m putting on hiking shoes.” She pulled out a few of Hilde’s hairs, and dropped them into the fire pit.

Immediately a sensation of dismay washed over Shiro, overwhelming anything the storm could inflict. Akiko’s expression mirrored his own.

“What is it?” Akiko asked.

‘It’s my fault!’ the kami silently wailed. ‘When I healed her from those candle burns, I made an error with Hilde’s DNA. She cannot recover, using your current medical science.’

“We have to help.” Shiro struggled to gain confidence. “You can do that, yes?”

‘I know her DNA and metabolism, from our last encounter, and with a year of analysis my understanding is deeper. Hilde was drawn back here, so a connection must remain.’

“Then let’s get to it!” Akiko shivered from more than the weather.

‘I can perceive Hilde’s life force,’ the kami said, ‘however, I cannot act at such a distance. Can she visit me again?’

“Oh, no,” Akiko cried. “She’s very ill. We’re two ordinary citizens, we have no influence or helicopters or anything.”

Shiro tried to recall his high school science courses. Can’t I find a good possibility? Then he remembered something about enduring patterns, and quantum entanglement. Something our friend would find natural.

Reading Shiro’s thoughts, the alien kami agreed. ‘One of you can be a link. Your consciousness can be so arranged. It must be done quickly, as such an entanglement would not last long.’

Shiro could tell his friend’s energy was low. How, he wondered, might Kukai no Tomodachi gain a better source of sustenance? But that was for another time.

“Akiko is hurting, so I’ll go.” Shiro shut his eyes, not certain what to expect. In fact he felt great. Slowly his heart filled with an age-old merciful kindness, a calm certainty about the goodness and wisdom hidden in the world. Is this what the Bosatsu, the bodhisattvas experience? More like the fierce Fudo Myo-o, going forth in righteousness! Thus the monks strove endlessly for enlightenment.

‘You are ready,’ the kami announced.

“Hurry,” Akiko told Shiro, with an admiring look that gave him additional energy. “It’s getting late.”

Effectively motivated, Shiro dashed away. He leapt over each gushing drainage gutter. Soon he came within sight of the Ropeway station.

A line had formed at the entry. Shiro halted, reluctant to butt in. He would never cut in, and even if he bore such boldness or authority, the Ropeway staff would resist. Rain-soaked children awaited a ride down.

He turned, soon reaching the Daisho-In trail. Not wanting to slip in the mud, he bounded downhill like the mountain goats he’d seen on television.

In a short time he was past his apartment and into town. His cell phone rang. It was Akiko, informing him she’d reached her mother by phone. Gunther and Hilde were at the aquarium.

Pocketing his phone, Shiro realized his wallet was gone. He’d checked it for the requisite 1000 yen, when near the Ropeway, so it must’ve fallen to the ground along the trail. Inconvenient. Anyway, someone will find it. He’d have to pick it up later, at the police station near the Omotesando.

Shiro angled toward the aquarium, which would close to new entrants at four o’clock. The streets were almost empty, and the deer bereft of newcomers to pester.

Arriving five minutes before closing, Shiro felt relief to be under the overhanging entrance. The feeling vanished when he saw that the attendant was Katsu-san, a retired bank manager who commuted from the mainland. The man was among the strictest he might encounter.

The entrance fee was 1400 yen, but for the moment he was broke. Shiro could see the large outdoor pool, but that area was empty. “Is there a German couple here?” he asked Katsu. “I’d like to see my honored friend Hilde Mattern.”

Katsu did not change expression. “We will be closed shortly. Do you wish to purchase a ticket anyway?” When Shiro said nothing he went on. “There were many Germans today; however I think you mean a certain middle-aged couple. They would be leaving by five, however the woman is in a wheelchair. A medical transport van is coming, with priority access to the JR ferry, to bring the unfortunate woman to a clinic. My esteemed director has permitted them to wait inside.”

The dour man did not exactly hold out a palm for the money. Shiro patted his empty pockets, and must’ve looked rather stricken. Adam Sandler would know what to do. Jim Varney would yell ‘hey Vern!’ and outrageously bluff his way inside.

Shiro felt a real urgency from Kukai no Tomodachi. He even felt, as a faint echo, Akiko-san’s concern, and her admiration toward him. He was steeling himself to dash through the entrance, to shout for Hilde, when Katsu took out his own wallet.

With the 1400 yen paid, Katsu silently handed over a ticket. Shiro bowed deeply, hands clasped, and then again. “Dozo. Sumimasen. Domo arigato.” Quite smooth, no shouting required.

Like most locals, Shiro didn’t visit these tourist attractions often, but it only took him a moment to locate Hilde. She was in an office with Gunther and two staffers, and to Shiro’s surprise, his own mother.

“Mother,” he said with formality. “I came here on behalf of a friend, to assist Mrs. Mattern. She is unwell, and Akiko-san and I are confident the situation can be improved.”

“You are speaking of me?” Hilda inquired. “Did you say ashisuto? Something for our benefit?” From her wheelchair, she placed an affectionate arm around Gunther’s waist.

“Yes,” said Shiro. He struggled for the English words, unclear in his own thoughts. “I cannot explain very well.” In Japanese he added, “This island is special. Many kami, holy men, much good fortune. I do not ask for belief, only a chance.”

As he spoke, Shiro’s mind reeled. How to do this? He felt Kukai no Tomodachi, with no gap between them, and what might the last barrier be? Then he saw it: physical separation.

He needed to embrace Hilde, to literally close the final distance. Everything within his mind and emotions grew stiff, and his whole self resisted. With his own mother watching? With these brusque Germans?

Oh yes, a shameless American like Jim Carrey wouldn’t hesitate. Hug the woman, and probably kiss her too. In public! No inhibitions, no matter how socially un-related this older woman was.

‘Kukai himself would have done this,’ Shiro heard. ‘Compassion transcends all social norms, all personal resistance.’

Fighting for equilibrium, Shiro used English for Gunther’s sake. “Hilde, can you stand? Please? This is . . . grace. One year ago you were injured, on Mount Misen, and that began your illness. Now we can offer recompense from an enlightened Buddha, our island’s own nyorai.”

The two aquarium employees looked flabbergasted; however none dared interfere. Gunther shrugged, doubtless ready to try something new, where conventional medicine had failed.

To Shiro’s astonishment, his mother gave a slight nod. “Onegai-shimasu, Hilde-san. Bitte. Please let my boy show our concern.”

Bravely, thin arms straining, Hilde levered herself up. Gunther stepped forward, yet already his wife stood, eyes wide.

Shiro shut his own eyes tight, and embraced the German lady. At that moment he ceased to be himself, as Kukai no Tomodachi borrowed his consciousness. Quickly, the kami worked to heal Hilde.

Before he knew it, Shiro came back to himself, and Hilde was in the wheelchair again. Was this outlandish effort worthwhile?

Hilde stretched hesitantly, as though waking from a deep sleep. “Dadurch fühle ich mich besser.” She looked at Shiro. “Danke. Thank you. Arigato. Also, my thanks to your mysterious holy friend.”

“My ancient friend, who really is named Friend, says you are welcome.” Shiro glanced at his mother. “Akiko is glad. She helped arrange this special effort.”

The youth in Shiro felt smug, vindicated by his mother’s utter astonishment. His feelings of compassion dimmed, but Shiro knew he could never forget.

“The transport van will be here soon,” Gunther said, his usual gruffness resurfacing. “My wife will have medical tests, see what has happened here today.” If anything really did happen, the man clearly left unsaid.

The quantum link faded, an experience for which no language bore words. Shiro found it pleasant to perceive Akiko, but then at the last moment, he felt a jolt of alarm. Not personal fear, but her sudden concern.

One dire possibility loomed. Shiro bowed to everyone, and shook Gunther’s hand. He walked slowly away, professing apologies and gratitude several more times. The moment he was out of sight, heedless of the storm, he dashed back toward the Reikado shrine.

‘We are ready,’ said Kukai no Tomodachi. ‘The proper moment arrives.’

Akiko couldn’t possibly describe the sensation, as her alien friend relayed healing patterns down the mountain. She shared Shiro’s storm of emotions, his victorious outreach, and best of all, his immense relief over Hilde’s apparent recovery.

The quantum connection faded, and with that loss she herself drained of energy. Unutterably empty, and numb from the rain, Akiko staggered. Her mind faded, her sense of self leaking into some fathomless black dimension.

Some time later she tightened her hands, blinking hard, struggling to reassemble her consciousness. Akiko found herself in an awkward sacrilegious position. She’d fallen halfway into the shrine, and now had both hands on the iron holy water kettle.

Akiko almost fell backward, into the muddy plaza. Taking a desperate grip on the candle holder, she gathered her thoughts. A sense of alarm took hold, as she realized something else: the iron kettle was cold. The fire pit gave no heat. The millennium-old flame, a sign of Japan’s devotion, had gone out! Perhaps her friend was dead, or asleep for another century.

Tears flooded her eyes, blinding her where the rain had failed. Slumping, she twisted sideways. Through the miasma came a glimmer. Akiko looked more closely, and saw one candle still burning. Some hardy devotee had left an offering.

That lone candle burned low, its own stubby remnant protected a tiny flame from the erratic winds. The offering hutch wasn’t shuttered, so fast as lightning Akiko dug into her purse, pushed coins through the wooden slot, and brought over a fresh candle.

Carefully she caught the frail flame, and reached into the fire pit. Would it catch? Emi appeared at her side, carrying the proper materials, and together they transferred the fire to its rightful place.

They built up the flames higher than usual, shrugging off the enveloping dampness, and soon the kettle began to warm. All terribly improper, yet no compassionate believer would object. Akiko listened, in her deepest recesses, and knew the old woman shared her quest.

At last, Kukai no Tomodachi entered Akiko’s mind. ‘That was difficult,’ the kami said, weakly yet with no complaint. ‘I believe we succeeded.’

“Awesome,” Akiko replied aloud. “I think Hilde is better now.” Her practical mind began firing on all cylinders. “Tomo-sama, I took electrical engineering in school. Gunther works for such a company. I hope we can provide you with more energy. Something appropriate and reliable.”

Wordless as always, Emi grasped Akiko’s rain-sodden sleeves. Nodding vigorously, the attendant gave her approval.

Mrs. Murasaki felt she was dreaming, yet she sat firmly ensconced in her hotel office. It had shocked her, that Akiko-chan would take leave from her college courses, with a greater shock when the girl informed her why.

In trembling hands she held a letter from the Division of Physics and Astronomy, Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University. It named Akiko Murasaki, Shiro Inoue, and Gunther Mattern as panelists for a discussion on a new science and its technological possibilities.

My own daughter! Akiko would speak at the top school of science in all Japan. With young Shiro-san, wasn’t this a surprise?

Mrs. Murasaki carefully replaced the letter, then picked up a copy of yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun newspaper. Her husband, looking pleased, had brought it from Osaka.

Front page news: two Miyajima youths develop new electromagnetic techniques, file eight patents, offer a license to Bergtal. Initial payment in the range of five hundred thousand euros, about seventy million yen.

Akiko had done her best to explain. This was all mixed up in ancient lore and advanced technology, and gave her a headache. Something about invisible fields that can temporarily hold up a building when an earthquake strikes, or instantly stiffen a car’s frame if there’s an accident.

There was more, exotic waves of cold plasma that undergo complex transformations, allowing a thrifty computer to handle many calculations.

Her daughter had also spoken of more, not yet ready to introduce: possible ways to heal people without drugs or surgery. Great good or harm might result, Akiko had confided.

Even those first ideas were amazing, and lucrative. Mrs. Murasaki concluded with a scandalous thrill, I always knew that youngster Shiro would be a good catch.

A happy crowd gathered at the Reikado Shrine. The mayor of Hatsukaichi, and the chief priest of the Daisho-In temple, joined several other dignitaries. A throng of Shingon Buddhists and other well-wishers, along with curious tourists, filled the earthen plaza.

The priests performed a ceremony to rededicate the shrine, then the mayor gave a speech, both mercifully brief.

Akiko squeezed Shiro’s hand. Local youth make good, and nobody’s complaining. The rebuilt shrine could withstand earthquakes and typhoons, and its artfully concealed technology provided quiet sustenance.

Takeshi-san was there, servant’s blue robes swapped for the garb of a woodworker. He’d fulfilled a generous contract, to do much of the reconstruction. Katsu stood nearby, he now handled her own finances with an iron grip.

“Thanks to Shiro Inoue and his lovely fiancée Akiko Murasaki for their generosity,” the mayor proclaimed. “Here, revered traditions join with the farthest future, to benefit our citizens and ultimately the world.”

Peering from the hall door, Emi watched. Akiko whispered to her soon-to-be husband, “Now that Kukai no Tomodachi has more energy, perhaps he could strengthen Emi-san.”

“Tomo suggested that yesterday,” Shiro replied. “Wait until the crowd leaves.” He frowned. “There’s enough power that our secret friend might go home. I’d miss him a lot.”

Akiko offered a surprise. “I’m told it’s more like opening a portal than taking a one-way journey. Call it a tomoguchi.

She’d watched Shiro’s comedies. He wants to be bold, like Jim Carrey? Not minding the onlookers, Akiko took Shiro’s face between her hands, and give him a big smooch on the lips.



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