High in the misty foothills of the Åu Mountains in Japan, built on the grounds of an ancient temple, stood a one-room curatorâs house that had been 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 falling 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 herâa tradition dating back thousands of years to when female shamans mingled with Japanâs 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, âI wish this moment could last forever.â
His deep voice tenderly responded, âBut then the baby would never come.â
âStill think itâs a girl?â
âWeâll have to think of a name for her. Maybe your motherâs?â
Billy hesitated, then said, âI was thinking, before the baby comes, we could get married.â He waited for her response.
Haruto frowned. âWeâve talked about this before.â
He turned away, lying on his back, clasping his hands behind his head, trying to remain calm.
She said, âWe are in love and have a baby on the way. I donât understand why thatâs not enough for you.âÂ
Billy answered louder than he intended, âBecause Iâve traveled around the world to be with you!â He immediately regretted raising his voice. âI just thought youâd meet me halfway.â
âYou know I want to be with you forever, butââ
âI just thought that you, of all people, would appreciate not conforming to societyâs expectations. To its patriarchal controlsââ
âGod knows, no man would ever control you.â
Haruto shrugged. There was some truth to his words. âWe can talk later, but, right now, I have to get ready for an appointment.â
Billy wasnât happy at where the conversation ended, but he was old enough to know you have to pick your battles, so he said, âFine, Iâll walk with you.â 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 snatched 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 grabbed 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 babyâs 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. 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 view until he noticed several overhead planes leaving iridescent trails in the sky, hatch-marking the atmosphere. He stopped walking, and cursed, âGod, damn it! I thought we were done with that shit!â
Startled, Haruto glanced back at him, then followed his gaze, solemnly noting the unusual plane trails. âWas it all for nothing?â she questioned.
âMaybe. Maybe it was a foolâs journey to even try.â
Discouraged, she let out a deep sigh before offering Billy the only advice she could think of, âJust let it goâ¦â
He gave her a reluctant smile.
Haruto stretched out her hand, opening Billyâs clenched fist, slipping her fingers between his, leading him through the garden toward the temple. âEverything looks wonderful,â she complimented him, hoping to brighten his mood.
âThanks. Itâs coming along.â 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 the medicinal herbs 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. The three-story structure sat on top of a foothill overlooking the road below. It 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.Â
The couple stopped at the rear of the temple. Here, steps led to an expansive landing that supported a wooden pergola holding an enormous bellâseldom rung these days.
Haruto faced Billy. âSee you tonight,â 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 werenât allowed to live with Mikos. But in Billyâs case an exception had been made, allowing him to dwell in the curatorâs house in exchange for his gardening and maintenance services. This exception spoke of Harutoâs statusâone that had risen considerably after her participation in the Earth Sentinelsâ group.
Billy ignored the other womenâs disparaging looks, tipping his hat to Haruto. âSee you tonight.â
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 âSign Up for Yoga Classesâ 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.
âHaruto!â a young Miko called out, gracefully moving toward her. âA priest is here. Should I send him to you?â
âYes, please.â Haruto always enjoyed a visit from the local Gekiâthe 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 Harutoâs pregnant belly. If he held any judgments, he concealed them well.
The priest bowed. âItâs a pleasure to meet you.â
Haruto hid her displeasure at what she considered to be an intrusion, mostly because she assumed he was here to convert her as so many others had tried before. She politely bowed. âThe pleasure is mine. How may I help you?â Being polite was the Japanese, and Miko, way.
âI wish to introduce myself. Iâm Father Chong from Saint Agatha Linâs church located downtown. Iâm reaching out to the community, and would like to personally invite you and the others to attend our mass on Sundays.â
âOhâ¦â slipped off Harutoâs tongue before she caught herself, and tactfully responded, âIâm flattered you came all this way, but you see, Iâm quite content with my path.â
âI do see, and your dedication is commendable, however, sometimes people are looking forâ¦something else.â
Haruto was offended by his implication that her path was somehow inferior to his, but she chose to overlook it, saying, âI 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 Iâm quite sure your religion is not for me.â
âYes, I also am familiar with the Miko tradition,â countered Father Chong who, after glancing at her bulging stomach, mentioned, âbut I wasnât aware Mikos were allowed to marry.â His words were meant to demonstrate his knowledge of their traditions, not insult her.
Because Haruto believed the priest had inquired sincerely, she answered, âWe are allowed to marry, but, if we do so, our status changes to that of priestess.â
âOhâ¦so youâre a priestess?â
âNo, Iâm not married.â
The priest was not sure how to respond.
To fill the awkward silence, Haruto said, âI have an upcoming appointment I need to prepare for. Is there anything else I can do for you?â
âWell, 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.â He opened the cover to the Bible he carried. âIf you change your mind, hereâs our church addressâ¦â He pointed to the first interior page, then offered her the book. âPlease take this. Itâs my gift to you. And if you donât mind, Iâd like to return again, and perhaps catch you at a better time.â
Haruto graciously accepted the Bible. âThank you.â 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. âMy gift to you.â This token offering allowed her to feel she had repaid Father Chong for the Bible, and thereby released herself 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. âThank you. Honey is one of my favorite treats.â He had touched on a topic they could both agree on.
She responded, âOne 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.â
Father Chong salivated at the thought of eating the artisan honey later. âNothing better than fine honey. Thank you, again, umâ¦I donât believe I got your name.â
âItâs Haruto.â 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 curatorâs 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. âIs something wrong?â
Haruto wiped her mouth. âI had a visitor today. A Catholic priest.â
A forlorn look came over Billyâs face. He set down his fork. âReally? What did he want?â
âTo save me.â She stabbed at her food. âI know he meant well, but it wasâ¦ummâ¦â
Billy solemnly said, âThe white man came and killed our people, took our land, then took our childrenâbeating 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.â
âBut heâs Japanese.â
Billy shrugged. âSame Bible.â
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 birdâs sudden appearance.
Unharmed, the owl righted itself, struggling to maintain its perch as the wind ruffled its plumage. The bird of prey focused its eyes on Haruto, who felt honored. Owls were considered bearers of good luck in Japan.
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 hunterâs line of sight, even as he knew he couldnât save her from the harbingerâs 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 couldnât quite name.
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