Chapter 12: On the hilltop

Since her first visit, Miyo had begun hiking the East-West trail regularly, though she had yet to go all the way to the western coast. The peacefulness of the path usually calmed her but she felt nervous stepping off the trail into the forest by herself. While there was the occasional whisper of the wind through the trees, it was mostly just the duet of her own footsteps and breath.

 

She paused halfway up the hill to adjust her hat and sleeves. The trees were thick enough here that she wasn’t in any real danger of getting water fever but it didn’t hurt to be careful nonetheless. One never knew which way the weather could suddenly turn.

 

Miyo checked her surroundings against the map Fumi had given her, the scribbles on the paper a mix of Fumi’s hand and her own. According to both Fumi and Miyo’s own studies at the museum, there were dozens of local water shrines scattered across Crescent Island, with a handful along the shoreline and visited by Sirens as well. “They’re a bit different from the typical shrines,” Fumi had said with a fond smile. “These are a bit more natural, as in, they walk the border between humans and nature.”

 

Fumi had noted that there was a shrine near the tea shop and when Miyo realized that it was just off the East-West trail, she knew she had to visit it.

 

‘Maybe it was the spirit from this shrine that I had felt when I first arrived,’ Miyo thought as she tucked the map back into the bag slung over her shoulder. ‘It would explain the restlessness from back then.’

 

Not that the spirit was known to be malevolent by any means. According to Fumi’s research, this shrine had been created for the spirit of the mountain, who occasionally took the form of a woman called Okanoue who often helped those who were a mix of Siren and human.

 

As the legend goes, the people that had once populated these hills had found themselves in a terrible drought. Among one village had been a family with a mixed child who had fallen into water fever. The village had all banded together to get as much water as they could for the child, gathering mist and dew, some even trekking across the trail to the western coast every day. So moved was Okanoue that she created a freshwater spring in the middle of the forest, to honor the village’s overflowing kindness.

 

Though there were still tribes that lived in the valley and the high mountain, over time the hills had emptied of its people, leaving little else but the small shrines created to give thanks to the spirits that had helped them through their lives.

 

Miyo wondered how it must have been to live within these hills back then. While things were quite simple on Crescent Island, here on the hills, among the stillness of the trees and their shade, it struck a note similar to the cold and solitude of the Island of Five Peaks.

 

She paused. There really was a note that her magic was responding to. ‘It’s a song,’ Miyo realized. ‘Could it be the shrine?’

 

Miyo took in a deep breath to calm her excited thoughts, sinking down into herself like her mother had taught her. Once still, the distant melody sounded within her mind and the feeling of a cool breeze seemed to flutter across the edges of her inner self. It was coming just slightly off of her right shoulder. In her mind, she wrapped her own magic around it, pulling herself towards the sound.

 

With each step, she could hear the melody become clearer, though it didn’t rise to more than a murmur. When Miyo finally opened her eyes, however, she understood why.

 

From her research with Fumi, Miyo had learned that most shrines had a small structure next to the water source where it was said the spirit resided. The structure could be anything from a pile of stones like the ones found in the Wind Islands, to enormous structures like the marble fountains near the capital.  Crescent Island, however, Fumi had mentioned, were so simple that they often didn’t seem like shrines at all.

 

And that was certainly the case here.  The clearing Miyo found herself in was marked with a gazebo standing at the head of a shallow spring overtaken by weeds. If it wasn’t for the song, Miyo might not have ever known this was a shrine. Hidden there in the heavy shadows of the forest, the shrine seemed resigned to its forgotten state.

 

In Siren practice, there was usually an offering made in the form of a complicated song, but Miyo had only heard it done once when she was a child. She felt a bit useless, standing there empty-handed. ‘Well, I suppose I can use what I do have: my hands.’

 

Miyo took her bag from her shoulder and placed it in the grass by the spring, then squatted down to begin pulling up the weeds, one by one. If she couldn’t make an offering, the least she could do was let the spirit know that someone had been here, that someone had remembered.

 

The weeds were rough against the palms of her hands.  It was a nice change, feeling something textured in her hand where there was usually the smoothness of teaware. The weeds came out fairly easily, water pooling into the ground it once occupied. With each mini pond she created, she imagined it reviving a prayer, a wish that had been left there generations ago, brought to life by the water’s return.

The work was comforting, the repetition reminding Miyo of her morning drills. She wondered though if they were really helping. It was helpful in maintaining what little she knew, but she couldn’t deny the prick of envy she had felt while watching Hiroki making ice. If Miyo hadn’t even known ice was possible, who knew what else she was lacking. And while she knew neither Youko nor Hiroki were the type to laugh at her for asking for help, Miyo wasn’t sure if they were close enough that either of them would feel comfortable teaching her.

 

So engrossed was Miyo in her thoughts and weeding that it was only after her sleeves had started to stick against her skin that she realized it was raining. Instinctively, she grabbed her bag and ran to the gazebo for shelter.

 

The gazebo echoed with the rattling of the rain against its roof. Miyo took off her hat and peered up at the sky from under the overhang. It was a common sun-shower but, judging by the song, one that would be taking its time marching across the hill.

 

Miyo turned around to survey the gazebo. Low benches were installed into the waist-high walls, likely made of the wood of the trees that lined the forest. Within the posts, however, she caught a glimmer. Miyo rose up on tip-toe to discover a trio of blue stones, each a slightly different shade. One was the clear blue of a playful, rushing river. Below it to one side was a second stone that reminded Miyo of the deepest parts of the ocean, cool and mysterious. And the last was more cloudy, the color of the sky before it rained – or snowed, even.

 

A cool breeze swept into the space, making Miyo shiver. ‘It won’t do to catch a cold,’ she thought as she pulled out a cup from her bag and filled it with rain water. As she waited for it to fill, Miyo couldn’t help but remember the snow on the Island of Five Peaks.

 

She frowned, pondering what had triggered the memory.  It certainly wasn’t because the rain now and the snow then were similar. In fact, the first thing that had struck her while she had stood on the docks at Five Peaks was just how different the snow was from anything she had seen before.

 

Even the cold that had accompanied it. Here in the rain, there was a feeling that warmth was just within reach. But that had not been the case on Five Peaks. Instead, Miyo remembered feeling overwhelmed by the expansive, endlessness of the cold. There had been no longing for warmth within the snow’s song, just a quiet, steady, matter-of-fact, melody.

 

As the memory of the song filled her mind, Miyo wondered if she could use it to make ice. She couldn’t remember the song that Hiroki had used, and had been too embarrassed to ask. ‘It wouldn’t hurt to try…’

 

Nodding to herself, she settled onto the floor, placing the half-filled cup of water in front of her. She ordered the notes in her mind let it fill her, until finally the song magic spilled from her to flow towards the water itself, coaxing it to cool, willing it to harden.

 

She repeated the song for several minutes but there was no response from the water. When heating water, Miyo always felt it jump in response to her song. But here, it seemed like it wasn’t reaching the water at all.   She must have gotten the notes wrong.  ‘If only I could learn the song …’

 

Miyo was just about to stop when she felt a tug through her magic. She had barely registered the whisper before she was propelled back into her memory of the Island of Five Peaks.  Miyo swallowed down the creeping feeling of panic. Wherever this magic was coming from wasn’t malevolent. It wanted her to see something, here in this memory.

 

She was standing in the middle of that great white expanse, alone.  Miyo willed herself to wait quietly as the snow fell around her. Her breath rose in small white clouds that dissipated a moment later. But out of the corner of her eye, she noticed clouds of a different shade that didn’t fade.

 

Miyo looked up and gasped. The air was full of small clouds floating just above her head.  They moved through through the air in a slow cadence and as they passed over her, she could hear a clear tone from each one. Understanding dawned on her. ‘They’re notes…’ The different shades represented a different note and all of them, she realized, wide-eyed and breathless, were the song of snow.

 

The song bubbled up from her, mixing with her laughter as she sang. As she did, the clouds pulsed in sequence, reacting to her magic. She closed her eyes and let the song fill her, feeling as if a stream of ice water was now flowing through her veins, reviving every inch of her body.

 

The sound of the rain slowly faded into her consciousness and Miyo opened her eyes to find herself back in the gazebo, the cup still in front of her.  But the surface of the water had a certain gleam to it.  She took in a breath and held it as she poked at it with her finger. Her answer was the tinkling sound of ice.

 

Miyo’s triumphant laughter, however, was cut short with confusion. ‘But how…?’

 

Another breeze rushed through the gazebo. But this time, it had the feeling of a gentle beckoning. Slowly, Miyo turned towards the entrance.

 

Floating above the spring was a woman’s form, shimmering in the falling rain. The eyes reminded her of one of the stones inlaid in the post, the deep mysterious blue that held Miyo still with its power. She knew without a doubt that this was Okanoue.

 

Did you enjoy the cold?

 

The voice came through to Miyo not in sound but through magic, filling her mind more with a series of feelings than words. Miyo nodded, and tried to respond in kind. Yes, I enjoyed it very much. Thank you for showing me. She held her breath, hoping that it reached Okanoue.

 

The eyes seemed to darken even more, as if pulling Miyo further into its depths. But she felt the hold slacken after several moments.

 

You are a mixed child.

 

Yes, my mother is a Siren. 

 

The spirit nodded, what seemed like tresses of hair shifting in the rain-light with the movement.  She’s far away.

 

Miyo sucked in a breath. So it wasn’t just her thoughts, it was also her emotions that were transmitted.

 

Okanoue’s thoughts were gentle. It must be hard, to be here by yourself and without family.

 

Miyo nodded, understanding that there would only be honesty with this spirit. There’s so many things I want to ask my mother about being a Siren … There’s so much I can’t do.

 

She felt a breeze sweep around her, a warm touch against her downturned face. It brought Miyo’s gaze back up to meet Okanoue, a soft smile glimmering on her face. There will be much you will never be able to do. But this is the way of all things.

 

The spirit gestured to the forest around them. You will never know the view of the ocean from the eyes of the forest. But neither will the forest know the joy of simply walking, exploring new places.  It is natural to all beings, Sirens and humans alike, to want what you do not have, to do what you cannot do.

 

A cool breeze brushed over the flush that had started over Miyo’s cheeks. It is a beautiful thing, the selfish, giving heart you have.

 

Miyo felt a tremulous smile pull at her lips. It was if her whole self was laid bare in front of this spirit, and instead of poking holes at her faults and shortcomings, Okanoue had instead given her a blanket of comfort, and the reassurance of her own potential.

 

The rain began to lighten, and with it, the image of Okanoue began to fade. I look forward to seeing how you’ve grown. While time is the best teacher, if you have need of one more, I will always be at your service.

 

Miyo lowered herself into a bow, touching her forehead to the floor as one final breeze swept through the gazebo, lightly ruffling through her hair. When she finally rose up, a surprised laugh bubbled up from her chest.

 

The sun had burst through the trees and now lit up all that had been touched by the rain. What had seemed lonely and forlorn was now sparkling with energy and hope for what was to come.

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