A Quiet Uproar
The shrill voices of the children who entered before us echo throughout the temple, ringing so loudly within the walls that I feel a headache coming on . I stop walking, unintentionally, and Lutz tugs gently on my hand, pulling me forward .
“Watch your step, there’s some stairs,” he says .
“Okay,” I reply .
As I take a few steps forward, watching my step, I hear a heavy groaning sound from behind me as the doors start to close . Startled by the shadow suddenly passing beneath me, I turn around to see gray-robed priests pushing the doors shut .
“Ah, that’s right, we were the last ones through, so…”
When the doors are shut tight, a blue-robed priest slowly walks in front of it . He waves some sort of wind chime-like bell, attached to which is a strangely-colored stone . It jingles . In the next instant, the voices of the other children disappear, as do their echoes, leaving only the faintest ringing that quickly fades to silence .
“What was that…?”
Lutz’s voice doesn’t come out . Or, more accurately, nothing more than a whisper comes out . Judging by his facial expression and posture, I think he’d tried to speak in a normal tone of voice, louder than what actually came out . He looks shocked at how little sound he made, touching his throat .
“Maybe it’s a magical tool?” I say . “It happened as soon as that blue priest rang that bell . ”
As I expected, my voice doesn’t come out any louder than a whisper either . However, since I’d seen the moment the priest rang the bell, I was able to figure out what had happened and stay calm . When I say this, Lutz relaxes, breathing a sigh of relief . Now that he knows it’s not just him, and that there was a reason for it, he calms himself down .
I sigh in admiration, then face forward again, looking along the long line of the procession ahead of us . The interior of the temple is like an atrium, long and with a high ceiling . The walls on both sides of the room are covered in intricate carvings, and thick, round pillars are lined up regularly along them . Tall windows, stretching nearly four stories high, line the walls in even intervals, letting long, straight shafts of light into the room . Both the walls and the pillars are white, with the exception of gold ornamentation here and there, and even in the dim light they still seem bright . The only place rich with color is the far end of the room .
Unlike the Christian churches I’d seen in collections of photographs and art museums, there are no frescoes or stained glass windows . The white stone construction makes the room feel very unlike a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, and the colors don’t match any of the vibrant shades from southeast Asia .
On the innermost wall, a multicolored mosaic stretches from the floor all the way to the ceiling, bearing an intricate pattern . It glimmers where it’s hit by sunlight from the side, reminding me just a little bit of a mosque for a moment, but there are stairs, too, over forty of them, going from the floor to nearly the height of the window . The stone statues that are arranged on the way up only reinforce how alien this all is .
Perhaps these stairs are meant to evoke the idea of climbing towards heaven and the gods? Something about the statues lined up at the top of the stairs remind me of the dolls we put out for Girls’ Day, though…2
On the upper-most stair, there are two statues next to each other, one man and one woman . Based on how they’re arranged, they give me the impression that they’re a married pair . Between that and the fact that they’re on the highest stair, I think they’re probably the highest-ranked gods in this religion . Even though they’re made of white stone, the male god is draped in a glittering black mantle set with countless golden stars, and the female goddess wears a golden crown, with long, tapered spines coming off of it like rays of light .
Perhaps this is the goddess of light and god of darkness? Or perhaps the goddess of the sun and the god of the night? Either way, the mantle and the crown stand out .
A few steps below that, there’s a stone statue of a slightly plump, gentle-looking woman, holding a golden chalice that glitters with gemstones . Below her, there’s a woman holding a staff, a man holding a spear, a woman holding a shield, and a man holding a sword . They’re all made of the same white stone, but the fact that they’re each holding just one brightly-colored item makes this even more mysterious to me . These statues were made to hold real things; is there some meaning to that?
Something like a Holy Grail or a Holy Sword, perhaps?
On the steps below that, there are flowers, fruits, bundles of cloth, and other offerings laid out . The more I look, the more it really does remind me of Girls’ Day .
“Maïne, don’t just stand and stare, keep walking!”
“Hm? Oh! Sorry, sorry . ”
Lutz tugs me forward, and I hurry a little bit to keep up with the end of the procession . The path down the center of the room is clear so that we can walk though, but on either side thick red carpets are spread out, spaced about one meter apart from each other .
At the front of the room, there are a number of desks, where a number of priests garbed in blue seem to be performing some sort of procedure . The children who finish going through that procedure are guided by gray-clothed priests to either side of the room . They’re led to spots on the carpet, from the outside of the walls in, and told to take their shoes off before sitting down .
As the procession slowly makes its way forward, either something happens or Lutz notices something new . “Geh,” he says, grimacing, as he looks ahead at whatever he’s seeing .
“What’s wrong, Lutz? Is something happening at the front?”
After waffling for a moment, as if he’s trying to figure out how to say something difficult, he lets out a defeated sigh, then looks over at me .
“It’s a blood seal, like you hate . ”
“Some kind of magical tool, I think . Everyone’s thumbs are getting pricked and they’re pushing their blood onto it . ”
I’d much rather I hadn’t heard that, but now there’s nothing left for me to do but do a sharp about-face and immediately get right out of there . Lutz, however, grabs my hand tightly and refuses to let me go .
“Give up,” he says . “This looks like some sort of registration thing . I’d bet this is related to that citizenship thing, right?”
“Urgh… yeah, you’re right . I think that’s probably it . ”
Otto and Benno had both told me that after my baptismal ceremony was over, I’d be acknowledged as a resident of this town and granted citizenship rights . In other words, if I can’t get through this ritual, no matter how bad it may be, then I can’t get my citizenship .
“…Why do magical tools like blood so much?” I ask .
“Dunno,” he replies .
Every single time I have to use a magic tool, it involves cutting open my finger and making blood on it . No matter how many times I do it, I’ll never be able to get used to the pain of it . When I look ahead to see what the other children are going through, I see brusque blue-robed priests jabbing their fingers with needles, then pushing those fingers firmly into what look like medallions of flat white stone . Those kids have their mouths open in what look like screams of pain, but I can’t hear anything coming from them at all . Seeing them clutching their sore fingers while being lead away towards the carpets has me trembling in fear .
“Next please, this way,” says a priest .
The line of people in front of me has thinned out, and a voice calls out from one of the empty desks . Lutz pushes me forward, and I start heading towards where I’m being called . The blue-robed priest smiles at me a little, looking me up and down, and then holds out his hand .
“Please hold out your hand, palm up . I’m going to prick your finger, but it’ll only hurt a little bit . ”
Of course, the thing he said wouldn’t hurt does, in fact, hurt . The instant the needle pricks my finger, I feel a sharp pain, like being poked by something very hot, and a fat, red drop of blood wells up on my fingertip . Between the pain and seeing my blood, I can feel myself going deathly pale .
“Smear that blood on here, if you would . ”
Unlike the priest I’d seen earlier, who’d been roughly forcing kids’ fingers into place, this priest just guides my hand over to a small medallion-like object . It seems like just gently smearing my blood onto its surface was good enough, leaving me relieved that the process wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be .
I’m glad that this priest wasn’t anywhere near as violent, but my finger still really stings!
I wonder, had that magical tool that had been used to quiet us down not actually been used to stop our chattering from resounding through the temple, but to stop our screams of agony?
“You two are the last ones through . This way, please . ”
We’re called over by a gray-robed priest who, despite being an adult, seems to still have a little immaturity left in him . Lutz and I start walking towards the carpet . After being instructed to take of our shoes, we do so, and then sit down on the carpet . Amongst all of the kids who are either sitting cross-legged or with their feet splayed out in front of them, I’m the only one sitting with my legs propped up, like I’m back in PE class in elementary school3 . Being in such a wide-open, gymnasium-like space, surrounded by other children my age, makes me feel like this is the only correct way to be sitting .
“Maïne, why’re you curled into a ball like that?”
“It’s not a ball, it’s a triangle,” I explain . “It’s called triangular sitting . ”
“Huh? A triangle? Where?”
“Like this,” I say, gesturing .
As the two of us chat, the blue-robed priests, having finished registering everyone, collectively step back behind the desks . After they carry all of the boxes that they had been putting our registration medallions in out of the room, the gray-robed priests burst into action, bustling about as they start getting ready for the next phase . They carry out the desks, and in its place they bring out a much more extravagant altar and place it in front of the steps .
The blue-robed priests come back into the room, lining themselves up on either side of the altar, and at roughly the same time the gray-robed priests line up along the walls where we’re sitting, seemingly finished with their preparation work . The way they’re standing behind us reminds me of teachers keeping watch over students at a school assembly, and I take extra care to make sure I’m sitting up properly in my triangle .
“The head priest enters,” intone the blue-robed priests, waving the rods they’re holding . The sound of countless bells rings out, and an old man, dressed in white robes with a golden sash crossing his shoulder, slowly enters the room, carrying something . With careful, deliberate footsteps, he makes his way to the altar, upon which he gently sets the thing he was carrying .
Is… that… a book?!
I rub frantically at my eyes in disbelief, looking again and again to make sure that my eyes aren’t deceiving me . When I see the head priest start to slowly turn the pages, I’m convinced . That is, beyond the shadow of any doubt, a book . It feels like a bible, or some other form of holy scriptures .
“Lutz, a book! That’s a book!”
I poke him excitedly on the shoulder . He had been fidgeting constantly, unused to sitting on the ground . He cranes his neck to see .
“Where? Where do you see it?”
“Look, there, the thing the head priest is holding . That!”
It looks like it is bound in leather, and the easily-damaged corners are reinforced with finely-worked gold . I can see from here that it’s studded with small gemstones, as well .
“That’s a book? Whoa, that looks expensive . That’s nothing like the one that you’ve been making . ”
“There’s not a whole lot in common between a book like that, which has a lot of artistic value, and what I’m making, which is mostly practical . It’s like comparing the sword that that statue is carrying to your knife . ”
“Ahh, I see . Even so, aren’t you surprised to see something like that here?”
“…I’m not surprised at all, actually . If you think about it, it’s actually pretty obvious . ”
As an ordinary Japanese woman with no particularly strong interest in religion, I’d never even considered going near the temple, but in a religious institution like this, there would of course be some way to collect all of the scripture, holy texts, bibles, and various teachings in one place . There would be books . Even if my body doesn’t let me move the way I want, even if I didn’t have any money, even if I didn’t desperately try to make them myself, books definitely exist .
If the merchant’s guild is on the cutting edge of gathering information, then the temple must be on the cutting edge of theology, mathematics, music, arts, and all of the other fields of study that could bring them closer to the gods . The Christian church had fostered scholarship like that, and in Japan Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines had been places where people gathered to learn from leading intellectuals .
“Aaaaaargh, I should have come here earlier! Why didn’t I think of this?! I’m such an idiot! I could have been reading books without going through all this trouble!!”
It’s probably for the best that my voice isn’t getting any louder no matter how much I scream . As I cry out from deep in my heart, Lutz looks at me in amazement, then just shrugs his shoulders .
“So, it looks like you’ve completely forgotten, but they don’t let kids who haven’t gone through their baptismal ceremonies into the temple, you know? Even if you’d thought of it right away and come here, the gatekeepers wouldn’t have let you in . ”
Now that he mentions it, he’s right . The only children who can enter the temple are those who’ve already been baptized .
“But, to just happen to go to the temple and come across a book on the day of my own baptismal ceremony, couldn’t that be fate?”
“Everybody goes to the temple when they turn seven, Maïne . Fate has nothing to do with it . ”
“Ugh, Lutz! Stop picking everything apart like that!”
“I know you’re excited about there being a book here, but calm down . It’ll be a big problem if you pass out here . ”
Lutz seems to think I’m a little too excited and is trying to calm me down .
“Huh? But, there’s a book so close . Not getting even a little bit excited is completely impossible, you know?”
“Even if it’s impossible, you have to . I mean, that’s not a book that they’d ever let you read, right?”
“Ah… that’s right . ”
Even though there’s a book, it’s not a book that I can ever touch . There’s no way that I’d ever be allowed to read a book wrapped in leather and studded with gemstones . As soon as I realize this, my excitement quickly dissipates, and my head drops dejectedly .
“Today, you are all now seven years old, and you have been recognized as citizens of this town . Congratulations . ”
Although the head priest seems quite old, he still has a powerful voice that reverberates through the temple . After opening with his congratulations, he then proceeds to start reading aloud from the book in his clear voice . It sounds like some sort of scriptures . I, with my entire heart seized firmly by the book, lean forward in anticipation .
The contents of the scriptures are similar to what Benno had told me a while ago, about the creation of the world and the changing of the seasons . The priest is reciting it in simpler words that are easy for children to understand .
“For a long, long time, so long that we can’t even imagine it, the god of darkness lived in total solitude . ”
After that, he met the goddess of the sun, a bunch of things happened, they got married, had many children—among them, the goddess of water, the god of fire, the goddess of wind, and the god of earth—, and created the world we live in, or so the story goes . The “bunch of things happened” part seems like it was abbreviated for our sakes, but it sounds very soap-opera-like to me .
Myths are like that, though . All of the myths I know are all chaotic like that . Now’s not the time for snark .
Just hearing a new story is already fun, but comparing it to the other myths I already know while I only makes it even more interesting . Lutz, however, doesn’t seem to be interested, nor does he seem to know how this could possibly be fun . He rocks back and forth restlessly, looking enviously over at me .
“You look like you’re having fun,” he says .
“Yeah, tons,” I reply .
“What’s fun about it?”
“The beginning, the end, and all the bits in between!”
I answer him with an enormous smile . He looks at me, amazed, then sighs, shaking his head .
“…Alright . That’s good . ”
After the creation myth came the story about the changing of the seasons . I’d already heard the basics of this from Benno: “Spring is the season of water, where the melting snow causes sprouts to grow . Summer is the season of fire, where the heat of the sun causes the leaves to unfurl . Fall is the season of wind, where the cooling air causes the fruits to ripen . Winter is the season of earth, when all life sleeps . ” The actual myth itself, however, is different .
“The goddess of earth was the firstborn child of the goddess of the sun and the god of darkness . At that time, the god of life took one look at her and instantly fell in love and asked her father, the god of darkness, for her hand in marriage . The god of darkness thought that their marriage would bear many children and was pleased by this proposal, so he granted the god of life’s request at the two were married . ”
So the myth of the season begins . Lutz, however, yawns, seeming to find this entire thing immensely tedious, so I think I’d rather explain it in digest form .
To put it simply, the god of life turned out to be more than a little bit crazy . He locked her in a prison of snow and ice and raped her until she got pregnant, and then even got jealous of the unborn children . Winter is the season of plunder and of nothing being born .
The goddess of the sun got worried that she hadn’t seen the goddess of earth ever since she got married, so she melted the ice . The crazy god was worn out after having been able to copulate as much as he wanted, so the water goddess washed all of the snow and ice away, freeing her friend and sister . Spring is the season where the two of them worked together to help seeds, the earth goddess’s children, sprout .
The god of fire then lent his power, making summer the season where the budding life grew to ripeness . However, after that, the crazy god regained his strength and started looking for the earth goddess . Fall is the season where the goddess of winds put all her power into making sure the crazy god couldn’t get anywhere near her sister, while helping to ensure that the harvest is finished .
Then, when the brothers and sisters were finally exhausted, it was the crazy god’s turn . Once again, he locks up and rapes the earth goddess . Her siblings want to kill the crazy god even more, but if they do that, then no new life can ever be born, so they cannot . So, caught in this irreconcilable dilemma, the siblings are forced to wait through the winter, gathering their strength .
This back-and-forth forms the endless loop of the seasons, it seems . This is a myth that’s as full of opportunities for snark as every other .
Incidentally, since the children here were born in the summer, our guardian deity is the zealous, hot-blooded god of the sun, and we have divine favor relating to guidance and rearing children . With that, the head priest concludes his talk of the gods and closes the book .
“Now then, I shall teach you how to worship the gods . If you offer your prayers and gratitude to the gods, then they will surely grant you greater divine favor . ”
He wears a very serious expression as he says this, slowly walking out from behind the altar . While he does this, gray-robed priests quickly unroll carpets in front of the blue-robed priests .
The head priest stands in the center of the room, with a line of ten blue-robed priests behind them .
“Now then, before you try it yourself, watch closely . …We pray to the gods!”
As he says this, the head priest opens his arms out wide, raises his left knee high, and looks up towards the heavens .
I quickly clap a hand over my mouth, clamping down on my sudden outburst . It is absolutely not okay to spontaneously burst out laughing in the middle of a sacred temple . I am fully aware of this . However, no matter how much I may try to remind myself of this, I am filled with the undeniable urge to start laughing out loud . My stomach is seizing up .
I mean, that’s the Gl█co pose4! They’re doing the █ico pose! With a straight face! Why Gli█?! You don’t need to lift your leg like that, right?! You’re an old man, you shouldn’t be standing on one leg like that! It’s dangerous!
I can keep myself from laughing too rudely here . This man is keeping himself perfectly balanced in such a crisp pose . I must just be fixating on the joke . I’m confident that no matter what else this man does, I’ll be able to bear it .
The head priest slowly places his foot on the ground and lowers his arms, looking like he’s doing Tai Chi . If that had been all, I would have been able to keep myself under control, but does this old man have some sort of grudge against my aching sides?
“We give thanks to the gods!”
With elegant movements, like flowing water, the head priest transitions from the Gl█co pose to the dogeza, getting on his hands and knees and pressing his forehead into the floor . Seeing this is too much to bear . A strange noise bursts out of my mouth .
“Maïne, what’s wrong? Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m f… fine! …I’m still fine . I can do this . This is just how people worship the gods around here, after all . ”
I clamp my mouth shut, burying my face in my knees . Lutz looks at me with concern . Even if I try to tell him that I’m finding these worship poses hilarious, even if I try to explain the joke, there’s no way he’d understand . Nobody who didn’t already know about the Gl█co pose would understand these waves of laughter .
This is their religion . This is their religion . They are doing this in earnest, laughing is rude .
I remember the image of opening the classroom door and walking in on a Muslim classmate praying to Allah, and I gradually manage to soothe my cramping stomach . To an outsider, a religions prayer practices can look strange . I’m only laughing because I wasn’t expecting a Gl█co pose out of nowhere, that’s all . Laughing is bad .
I take several long, slow breaths, then, when I’m confident that I can keep my face under control, raise my head . As I do that, the head priest encourages us all to stand .
“Now, then, please rise . Let us do this together . ”
Together! Together, he says! Please, have mercy!
Everyone around me stands up . I do so as well, but I feel the corners of my mouth squirming and my stomach twitching, the harbingers of an enormous laughing fit . No matter how much I’m telling myself over and over that laughing is bad and that laughing is bad, the urge to laugh is only growing stronger .
“We pray to the gods!”
The head priest intones this, raising himself into the Gl█co pose . This is fine . This is the second time I’m seeing this, so this isn’t shocking . I have successfully weathered this crashing wave of laughter . This is a victory for my abdominal muscles .
In the next instant, the blue-robed priests, in perfect unison, lift their arms and legs .
“We pray to the gods!”
Seeing ten priests, standing in a row, with perfectly straight faces, doing the Gl█co pose is too much . My sides give out . The angle of their hands, the height of their legs, the seriousness of their faces are all perfectly identical . I can’t keep myself upright anymore . My legs give out and I crumple to the floor .
“Ngh! …Mmph… nggeh…”
My stomach! Someone, save me!
Even though I’m still somehow able to keep my mouth shut, tears are welling up in my eyes, and snorts of laughter are still leaking out . If I could just roll around on the carpet, smacking the floor as I laugh my guts out, I know I’d get over this immediately, but being denied like this is only making my laughter stronger .
“Maïne, you really weren’t okay after all!”
When I look up at Lutz, I see him looking down at me with concern as he holds the Gl█co pose, balancing unsteadily on one foot . He has delivered my finishing blow . I start smacking the carpet, unable to contain myself .
“I’m sor… geheh… I can’t… breathe…”
“Maïne! Why didn’t you say something earlier?!”
“Th… that’s not it… I’m… heh… I’m fine…”
Lutz crouches down next to me, frantically waving his hand . A gray-robed priest rushes over, looking like he’s seeing a disaster unfold .
“You two, what’s wrong?”
“Umm, it looks like Maïne isn’t feeling well, so she suddenly collapsed . She’s already pretty weak and has a fragile constitution, so since she got too excited by the ceremony…”
Well, I certainly did get excited, but I’m not particularly feeling unwell . This is an ordinary laughing fit . There was no need to call over a priest .
“I’m… I’m fine! I’ll be okay in a moment! Look!”
I frantically try to stand up, but unfortunately, whether it’s because my body wasn’t expecting such a sudden movement or because I’m oxygen-deprived after laughing so much, I completely fail to put any strength in my arms and fall flat on my face in front of Lutz and the priest .
“As if you’re fine! What about this looks like you’re fine!”
“Urgh, that was just a mistake… I’m really okay, you know?”
Saying that while I’m still collapsed on the floor can’t possibly be convincing at all . Even if I’m fully aware that I’m fine, if I were to step back and look at me from the outside, it is only natural that people would have a lot more faith in what Lutz is saying than what I am .
“I’ll bring you to the aid room,” says the priest, not believing me in the slightest . “You can rest there until the ceremony is over . ” He picks me up, and I don’t have the strength within me to resist .
Due to my aching sides, I retire from the baptismal ceremony . It seems like this will become the kind of bitter memory I can tell absolutely nobody else about .
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
1 . Content advisory: mention of serial abuse and rape by a domestic partner, in the context of a myth .
2 . Girl’s Day, or Hinamatsuri, is a Japanese festival in which dolls representing the Imperial family are displayed on a series of steps .
3 . In physical education classes in Japan, elementary-school children are taught to sit in a particular way on the ground, with their feet flat and their hands on their knees .
4 . Glico is a food company, known internationally for its confectioneries such as Pocky and Pretz . Since 1935, it has maintained an enormous billboard on the boardwalk in Dōtonbori, Osaka, featuring the image of a man triumphantly crossing the finish line of a race . This is a major tourist attraction .