Heikichi always bowed before he passed under the torii gate.
“It is the home of the Kami,” his Grandmother had told him, “Show the proper respect like you were entering anybody else’s home.”
Heikichi raised his head, and winced as the early morning sunlight flashed in his eyes. He stayed on the left of the sweeping pathway up to the main shrine. The centre of the path was for the Kami itself to tread on. To walk there would be awfully rude, and yet Heikichi couldn’t help but wince as the course stones bit at his bare feet.
The water basin stood a little to the side of the inner torii gate. The water looked as smooth as granite, even with the tiny trickle of fresh water dribbling from the stone dragon’s mouth pouring into it. He wiped the sweat off of his brow, and licked his dry lips. Resisting the urge to drink, he picked up a ladle and washed his hands, rubbed water across his lips, and poured the water down the hand ladle to cleanse it for the next user. The cool water splashed over his sore feet and he gave a little gasp.
He bowed again at the second torii gate and looked around the shrine. Save for the birds and the trees, Heikichi was alone. He approached the main building and walked up the steps to look into the inner sanctum. It was a simple gravel courtyard surrounded by a wooden walkway. Nobody could enter there. Except...
Heikichi dug into his pocket and pulled out two one yen coins. It was all the money he had, and half of it he’d found in a gutter. He’d given the coin a good scrub first, but there was no getting around the fact that it was only two yen.
He tossed the coins into the donation box, bowed deeply, clapped twice and prayed with his eyes closed.
“I just want a good day,” he muttered to himself.
He bowed again, backed away, and after passing back through the torii gate again he burst into a dash. He’d be late for school again.
The sun was setting behind the distant mountains, and yet Heikichi felt as hot as if it were high noon. He pressed the rice seedlings into the soil, stood up and stretched his back. He looked around at his work: he'd planted an area of rice bigger than a futon this evening. Not bad. But he looked down at his feet: they were nearly dry, not ankle-deep in squelchy mud like last year. He gazed up at the clear blue sky, flushing pink in the sunset. He nearly forgot what a cloud looked like. If it didn't rain soon, the crops would wither and die. He looked at his family's wooden house. It looked about ready to fall over in a strong gust of wind. They couldn't afford another bad harvest.
"It's always been like this," his Father had said when he handed Heikichi today's tray of rice seedlings a few hours earlier, "It's a five year cycle. One bad year, four years recovering. This is the bad year."
Heikichi sighed, and leaned down again, pressing more seedlings into the dirt. It can’t be helped. But still…
“Heikichi!” his Mother called, “Your dinner is ready!”
Heikichi caught a fleeting glimpse of his Mother heading back indoors. He lifted his tray of remaining seedlings, looked at his finished patch of the rice paddy one last time, and hobbled back towards the house.
Mother lifted the lid of the pot suspended over the fire, and steam billowed out. Blinking through the cloud, Heikichi’s stomach growled as white rice swam into view.
“This is too much,” Grandmother’s raspy voice sounded from behind him, “We need to be cutting back in times like this.”
“Saito-san gave me an extra cup for free,” said Mother, scooping the rice into chipped bowls, “Said he wouldn’t take no for an answer,”
“He’ll expect that favour to be repaid eventually,” said Grandmother, standing from the tatami mat and shuffling towards the low table.
“That was him repaying us,” said Mother, clapping Heikichi on the shoulder, “Heikichi helped his daughter, didn’t you son? Her sandals broke, and he gave her his pair.”
“Ah yes,” Grandmother smiled a wrinkly smile at him, “You’re a good boy. Remind me to weave you a new pair.”
Heikichi flexed his feet. If he kept to bare feet much longer he’d have no need for sandals: his soles were growing thick and calloused. And yet he could still feel the incredible heat pulsing through them. It seemed to be even warmer in the house, especially the floor.
Mother, Grandmother and Heikichi gathered around the low table, a bowl of rice to each of them.
The front door slid aside, and in came his Father. Even in the dark of the house, lit only by the fire, his smile shone brightly. And he was holding something by a string, something Heikichi couldn’t make out.
“You’re just in time,” Mother said, reaching for the pot again.
“Only rice again?” said Father, slipping out of his sandals.
Mother flashed him with a stare. “You know very well that it’s all we have. Unless you have anything else to offer…”
Mother trailed off. Father’s smile widened, and he held the thing dangling by a string aloft. Heikichi’s stomach growled loudly as the smell of fish caught his nose.
“Give the boy a good share,” said Father, using his chopsticks to pull off a big chunk of the cooked fish and placing it on top of Heikichi’s rice, “He looks like as thin as a rake. He needs sustenance.”
Heikichi bowed his head in thanks. A coarse hand ruffled his hair. “My goodness, how did we raise such a polite young man?”
“He didn’t get it from you!” Grandmother looked accusingly at Father, though there was a sparkle in her eyes. Father laughed heartily, the rice in his mouth on clear show. “No argument there!”
The house was completely dark, a lick of smoke curling from the extinguished fire. Heikichi looked through the open window at the rice paddy. It was nearly a full moon. He remembered last year, when the moonlight would shimmer on the water between the neat rows of seedlings. Not this year. Heikichi shuffled on his futon. They had only thin sheets for blankets, which was just as well as it was a hot night. Winters were not nearly as pleasant, though the floor seemed to stay warm even in the deepest cold.
Heikichi looked around the room at the slowly rising and falling masses of his sleeping parents and Grandmother. He smiled a little bit, and his stomach no longer growled. As he drifted off to sleep, he silently thanked the Kami of the shrine for the good day.
Get out. Now.
Heikichi floated under the torii. Clouds raced overhead, dark and heavy. He tried to look around for the source of the voice, but he couldn’t move his head.
You must leave. Quickly.
Who was it? Heikichi didn’t ask aloud – he didn’t think he could – yet the voice seemed to hear him nonetheless. A force he couldn’t see pulled him up the stairs.
You know who I am. Listen well, Heikichi. You must leave. All of you.
“Why?” he found his tongue at last.
No answer. He turned around, and a scorching heat blasted his face, blinding him with a brilliant white light –
Heikichi launched from his futon. A film of sweat covered every part of him. He looked around. The light outside was a dull grey. Morning was coming. Breathing fast, he looked over his still sleeping family, though they were stirring at the sounds he made. The sense of dread from his dream wasn’t fading: in fact, it was balling up inside him. He felt as though his knees were about to give way. And somehow, he knew what he had to do…
His Mother turned over, and she looked up at him with bleary eyes. “Heikichi? What’s the matter?”
“We have to leave,” he said in a voice that didn’t sound like his own, “Now.”
Heikichi launched onto his Father, shaking him. “Wake up!”
His Father grunted, but Grandmother was already rising. “Heikichi, what is the meaning of this? The birds aren’t even awake!”
“We have to get out!” Heikichi found a stray tear rolling down his cheek and wiped it away, “Please!”
His Father yawned like a bear coming out of hibernation, “You’re going delirious, Heikichi,” he said groggily, “It’s the heat. Go get yourself some water and get back to sleep.”
A flash of light from outside made them all launch bolt upright. Heikichi scrambled for the window. The sky was indeed grey, though not just from the early morning: thunderclouds billowed overhead. Heikichi recoiled as the thunder rumbled through the house, as powerful as a small earthquake.
Heikichi turned to see his parents and Grandmother all standing.
“Looks like a storm is about to break,” said Father, putting on a smile, “This drought will finally come to an end.”
But Grandmother’s eyes stayed fixed on the window. Leaning on Mother for support, she shuffled forward and joined Heikichi at the window ledge. Her eyes took in the sky. Then she looked at Heikichi once more.
“Do as he says,” she rasped, “We must leave.”
Another flash of lightning. The thunder came immediately after, an almighty clap that made them all jump.
“OUT! NOW!” Heikichi had never heard his Grandmother shout so loud. His parents didn’t need telling twice. They raced for the door and, leaving their sandals behind, threw the door open and ran out into the paddy field in their simple nightclothes.
Lightning and thunder struck together and Heikichi stumbled and fell on the hard earth. He heard his Mother scream and his Father curse, and the smell of smoke stung his nostrils. Terror welled up inside him, fearing what he’d see if he turned around…
“Look away, child,” his Grandmother whispered gently in his ear.
I can’t. He lifted himself from the ground, and slowly turned.
Wild yellow flames lapped across the roof of their home. The sound of cracking wood filled the air, and with a loud crunching noise the roof collapsed inwards. Father held Mother tight in his arms, and Grandmother looked as though she’d turned to stone. Heikichi’s knees finally gave way. The clouds above broke, and the light drizzle quickly turned into a downpour, his tears hiding in the rain streaming down his face. He tore his eyes away from the burning home to the distant trees where the shrine lay hidden.
Heikichi had nothing to give. He could only give an extra-long bow of apology before the inner sanctum. He clapped twice and prayed. At least, he tried to: he hadn’t been able to pray properly since they lost their home. Every time he closed his eyes, he could only see fire and his crying Mother.
He told nobody of his dream. The village thought that he was some kind of hero for having rescued his family from the house before lightning struck it. The village had banded together to help in whatever way they could, clearing the remains and foraging from the ruins what they could still use. Saito-san had offered to shelter their family until they could rebuild their home again, and already the locals had taken to the nearby forests to fell trees and prepare fresh timber for the house. The storm had revitalized the rice paddy, and the seedlings looked green and strong. Heikichi even saw Mother smile for the first time since the fire yesterday.
And yet…guilt gnawed inside of him. Was it my fault? Did I bring this upon us? He was in no doubt that the Kami had warned him in his dream, and that had indeed rescued them from the storm. But that storm…there hadn’t been rain since that morning, and it had only been over their area: the shrine remained dry the whole time. Was the storm pure chance too? Or had the Kami also sent it?
Heikichi clasped his hands tighter. Why would you save our lives but destroy what little we had? What did I do wrong? Am I too needy? Did my constant prayers anger you? Please tell me…
Heikichi still visited the shrine every morning just as he had done before. The village thought him an incredibly faithful boy for doing so, but Heikichi knew otherwise. He just wanted answers.
Heikichi peeled his hands apart and spun around. It was his Father, running towards him. Heikichi winced as he ran down the middle of the path and didn’t stop or slow as he passed under the torii gate. “Heikichi, come quickly!” Father said, sweat streaming down his face.
Fear seized Heikichi. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
Father grabbed his hand. It was hot and slick. “No time to explain, come with me.”
Father half dragged him out of the shrine. Heikichi bit his lip as the sharp stones dug into his feet. He still managed a nod of the head as he passed under the torii gates.
They arrived at the old ruins of their home. Heikichi had avoided coming here, though he still worked on the paddy field every day. A pile of timber lay in a neat stack next to what was left of the old house. Heikichi felt a lump in his throat as he saw that nothing was left of the old building now, only scorch marks in the dirt.
Father let go of his hand, and Heikichi stopped immediately. He didn’t dare take another step closer.
“Why are we here?” Heikichi asked, looking at his Father. To his surprise, Father was smiling.
“Come and look at this.”
Father strode forward and stepped into the old foundations of the home. The earth seemed to swallow him up and he disappeared from view.
Heikichi gasped, and he dashed forward, heart pounding. No…please, no…
He stood over the foundations. His Father hadn’t disappeared. They had dug a deep hole, to lay the foundations of their new home. Other men from the village were in the pit with his Father too, muddied but with bright eyes, all staring into one corner. Heikichi followed their eyes and saw immediately what they were looking at.
Water spouted from a hole, pooling in a small puddle. But it wasn’t just any water. It was yellowish and opaque, and steam rose from the puddle.
“Do you know what this is?” Father stared at Heikichi.
“Hot spring water…” Heikichi whispered.
“Hot spring water!” Father laughed, throwing his hands up to the air in delight, “And it was running underneath our house all this time! No wonder why the ground was so hot.”
“You are extremely lucky, boy,” one of the men grinned at him.
“Lucky?” Heikichi nearly laughed too, “How?”
“Do you know how rare hot spring water is around here?” said another man, pointing at their surroundings and at the lack of volcanoes in the distant mountains, “The nearest onsen hot spring inn from here is three days by foot.”
“And this village sees many travellers pass through,” said another, “Passing through from one trader’s town to the next. Tired travellers. Rich merchants. People who would pay a pretty penny to have a way to relax…”
Heikichi’s hands trembled. He jumped into the pit, and the men parted to let him get to the water. Already the puddle was bigger: it was a strong spring they’d uncovered. He carefully tapped a finger against the water, then lowered his hand into it. Bliss washed over him. Already he could feel the heat and the natural minerals in the water soaking into his skin, massaging his aching muscles.
Strong hands lifted him around the waist, hoisting him up and dipping him in the puddle. The water came up to his ankles, and Heikichi sighed in delight as the water eased into his tired feet.
The men laughed. Father placed his hands on Heikichi’s shoulders.
“We shall open our own onsen here,” he said, “It will be hard work, but that’s nothing we’re not used too, my son. And we’ll be able to afford you real sandals before long. Maybe we’ll get you a leather pair!”
They all laughed, and Father gathered Heikichi up in his arms in a tight hug.
Yes. Today is a good day too.
BIO: P.J. Leonard grew up in Worcester, UK and moved to Japan in 2010, where he lives to this day. He works in a concrete building by day and commutes on sardine-can trains by night. He writes to maintain his sanity.