High in the misty foothills of the Ōu Mountains in Japan, built on the grounds of an ancient temple, stood a one-room curator’s house that was crafted out of stones excavated from the mountainside. A 200-year-old rose bush clung to its southern wall, dotting the stonework with thorny canes and yellow blossoms.
Inside the dwelling, the morning sunlight peeked through a gap in the faded cotton curtains, the warm rays fell over the futon where a man and woman lay together.
The man, a Native American named Billy White Smoke, had made his living by working construction and odd jobs back in the States until he ventured across the ocean to find the woman beside him. Her name was Haruto. She was an Earth Sentinel, like Billy, but also a Miko like her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother before her—a tradition dating back thousands of years to when female shamans mingled with Japan’s ruling class, acting as healers, mediums and ritual dancers. Her flowing black hair, tinged with a few grays, was sprawled across the pillow.
Billy held her close, kissing her forehead before rubbing her pregnant belly with his calloused hand.
Haruto wistfully said, “I wish this moment could last forever.”
His deep voice tenderly responded, “But then the baby would never come.”
“Still think it’s a girl?”
“We’ll have to think of a name for her. Maybe your mother’s?”
Billy hesitated, then said, “I was thinking, before the baby comes, we could get married.” He waited for her response.
Haruto frowned. “We’ve talked about this before.”
He turned away, lying on his back, clasping his hands behind his head, trying to remain calm.
She said, “We are in love and have a baby on the way. I don’t understand why that’s not enough for you.”
Billy answered louder than he intended, “Because I’ve traveled around the world to be with you.” He immediately regretted raising his voice and softened his tone. “I just thought you’d meet me halfway.”
“You know I want to be with you forever, but—”
“I just thought that you, of all people, would appreciate not conforming to society’s expectations. To its patriarchal controls—”
“God knows, no man would ever control you.”
Haruto shrugged. There was some truth to his words. “We can talk later, but, right now, I have to get ready for an appointment.”
Billy wasn’t happy at where the conversation was ending, but he was old enough to know you have to pick your battles, so he said, “Fine, I’ll walk with you.” He flung the duvet off himself, getting out of bed to rifle through his clothes piled on top of the dresser, putting on a pair of work jeans and a black t-shirt. He grabbed his black-brimmed hat decorated with silver conchos and turquoise from a peg on the wall, placing it on his head, adjusting it to make sure the tilt was just right.
Haruto snatched her scarlet-colored silk pants off the chair in the corner, pulling them on, wrapping the ties around her protruding stomach. She looked forward to this small act every morning. It helped her to measure the baby’s growth as the pant ties seemed to become shorter and shorter with each passing day. She let the white silk blouse fall over her head, sliding her arms through the draping sleeves, leaving the hem untucked so it would fit over her rounded belly.
Ready to face the world, the couple stepped out of the house. Billy closed the red-painted door behind them.
They strolled along one of the stone paths that meandered through the meditation garden filled with bonsai, cherry, apple and pear trees; lavender; wisteria; and cultivated roses.
As they walked, Billy admired the sky, taking in the view until he noticed several planes leaving iridescent trails in the sky, hatch-marking the atmosphere. He stopped walking, and cursed, “God, damnit! I thought we were done with that shit!”
Startled, Haruto glanced back at him, then followed his gaze, solemnly noting the unusual plane trails. “Was it all for nothing?” she questioned.
He scoffed, “Maybe. Maybe it was a fool’s journey to even try.”
Discouraged, she let out a deep sigh before offering Billy the only advice she could think of, “Just let it go…”
He gave her a reluctant smile.
Haruto stretched out her hand, opening Billy’s clenched fist, slipping her fingers between his, leading him through the garden toward the temple. “Everything looks wonderful,” she complimented him, hoping to brighten his mood.
“Thanks. It’s coming along.”
Billy was being modest. He had transformed the neglected garden into a thing of beauty by reinvigorating the trees, resetting the stone paths, and patching the numerous steps that had become hazardous. His favorite improvement was the addition of medicinal herbs that were planted throughout the grounds, which introduced an element of untamed wildness, and balanced the vibrational qualities of the landscape.
They moved toward the ancient temple at the forefront of the property, which faced the road at the bottom of the foothill. The building stood three-stories tall and had originally been built for Buddhist monks, who had abandoned the place due to a lack of parishioners and dwindling financial support. Its distinct gabled roof was a combination of Chinese and Japanese architectural styles, which, at one time, were used exclusively for those in power. The feudal lords had forbid farmers and commoners from copying it—one of the many tactics they had utilized to maintain their authority.
The couple stopped at the rear of the temple. Here, steps led to an expansive landing that supported a wooden pergola holding an enormous bell—seldom rung these days.
Haruto faced Billy. “See you tonight,” she said, standing on her tiptoes to give him a quick peck on the lips.
Two Mikos, who happened to be strolling along a nearby path, gave them disapproving glances.
Most of the women here had not adapted to Billy residing on the grounds, despite the passing years. Men traditionally weren’t allowed to live with Mikos. But in Billy’s case an exception had been made, allowing him to dwell in the curator’s house in exchange for his gardening and maintenance services. This exception spoke of Haruto’s status—one that had risen considerably after her participation in the Earth Sentinels’ group.
Billy ignored the other women’s disparaging looks, and tipped his hat to Haruto. “See you tonight.”
She went inside the temple, passing through the foyer and bypassing the stone staircase that led to the upper floors.
Haruto entered the common area where a few Mikos mingled with the city dwellers, who wore workout clothes and held rolled mats while they waited for the yoga class to begin in the Great Hall. A plastic banner with the words “Sign Up for Yoga Classes” hung above the fireplace mantle, but it seemed out of place in this age-old building. On a narrow table, pressed against the wall, were jars of honey for sale.
“Haruto!” a young priestess called out, gracefully moving toward her. “A priest is here. Should I send him to you?”
“Yes, please.” Haruto always enjoyed a visit from the local Geki—the male version of their sect.
But her anticipation was squashed when a young Catholic priest strolled around the corner. The Japanese man wore the traditional black robe and white collar, and held a Bible in his hand. The gold crucifix hanging from his neck was centered over his heart. His eyes glanced at Haruto’s pregnant belly. If he held any judgments, he concealed them well.
The priest bowed. “Pleasure to meet you.”
Haruto hid her displeasure at what she considered to be an intrusion, mostly because she assumed that he was here to convert her as so many others had tried before. She politely bowed. “The pleasure is mine. How may I help you?” Being polite was the Japanese, and Miko, way.
“I wish to introduce myself. I’m Father Chong from Saint Agatha Lin’s church located downtown. I’m reaching out to the community, and would like to personally invite you and the others to attend our mass on Sundays.”
“Oh…” slipped off Haruto’s tongue before she caught herself, and tactfully responded, “I’m flattered you came all this way, but you see, I’m quite content with my path.”
“I do see, and your dedication is commendable, however, sometimes people are looking for…something else.”
Haruto was offended by his implication that her path was somehow inferior to his, but she chose to overlook it, saying, “I am familiar with Catholicism. I, like the others here, have studied many different religions and beliefs. It helps us to better understand those who come to us for spiritual guidance and healing, so I’m quite sure your religion is not for me.”
“Yes, I also am familiar with the Miko tradition,” countered Father Chong who, after glancing at her bulging stomach, mentioned, “but I wasn’t aware that Mikos were allowed to marry.” His words were meant to demonstrate his knowledge of their traditions, not insult her.
Because Haruto believed the priest had inquired sincerely, she answered, “We are allowed to marry, but, if we do so, our status changes to that of priestess.”
“Oh…so you’re a priestess?”
“No, I’m not married.”
“Oh.” The priest was not sure how to respond.
Haruto was in a hurry to end the conversation. “I have an upcoming appointment that I need to prepare for. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Well, again, I welcome you, or any of the others here, to attend our mass, or visit, or call me personally if you have any questions regarding our faith.” He opened the cover to the Bible that he carried. “If you change your mind, here’s our church address…” He pointed to the first interior page, then offered her the book. “Please take this. It’s my gift to you. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to return again, and perhaps catch you at a better time.”
Haruto graciously accepted the Bible. “Thank you.”
She moved toward the entrance, encouraging him to walk beside her. As they passed by the table displaying the honey, she picked up a jar, handing it to him. “My gift to you.” This token offering allowed Haruto to feel that she had repaid Father Chong for the Bible—and thereby released her from all obligations to meet with him again.
However, her action gave the priest a very different perception. He thought perhaps she was having a change of heart, and was pleased by the parting gift. “Thank you. Honey is one of my favorite treats.”
He had touched on a topic they could both agree on.
She responded, “One of our Mikos loves taking care of the bees. And the taste is quite delicious, mostly because the pollen comes from our garden. There are roses and jasmine, cherry blossoms, lavender and honeysuckle.”
Father Chong salivated at the thought of eating the artisan honey later. “Nothing better than fine honey,” he commented. “Thank you, again, um…I don’t believe I got your name.”
“It’s Haruto.” She politely bowed.
Later that evening, dark storm clouds gathered in the sky. The wind howled through the trees, forcing the limbs to dance manically.
Haruto and Billy were having dinner inside the curator’s house. They sat at the small table next to the window whose handcrafted glass panes had been rippled by time. Candles lit the room.
She quietly chewed her food.
He wondered if she was still upset about their disagreement from earlier that morning. “Is something wrong?”
Haruto wiped her mouth. “I had a visitor today. A Catholic priest.”
A forlorn look came over Billy’s face. He set down his fork. “Really? What did he want?”
“To save me.” She stabbed at her food. “I know he meant well, but it was…umm…”
Billy sighed, then solemnly said, “The white man came and killed our people, took our land, then took our children—beating them with one hand while holding a Bible in the other, trying to make them believe in his loving God. I have no taste for their medicine.”
“But he’s Japanese.”
Billy shrugged. “Same Bible.”
A gust of wind rattled the window. The candles on the table flickered.
Outside, the mounting storm tore leaves and twigs from their branches, hurling them through the air.
A barn owl crash-landed on the windowsill. Its golden-rufous breast thumped against the glass.
Haruto gasped, startled by the bird’s sudden appearance.
Unharmed, the owl righted itself, struggling to maintain its perch as the wind ruffled its brown plumage accented with orange-tan spots. The bird of prey focused its eyes on Haruto, who felt honored. Owls were considered bearers of good luck in Japan.
However, Billy did not have the same reaction. In his Native American culture, an owl was an omen of an impending death or tragedy. He felt a strong desire to stand between his lover and the night hunter’s line of sight, even as he knew he couldn’t save her from the harbinger’s premonition.
The downpour pelted the bird as it stared at Haruto through the rain-streaked window. Its strange unrelenting gaze caused an unexpected fear to arise within her.
Lightning ripped through the turbulent sky. Thunder exploded.
The barn owl screeched, then flew away, disappearing into the ominous darkness, leaving the man and woman with a sense of dread they couldn’t quite name.
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