For as far as Minami remembered he was this way. Some said weird, different or even dangerous. He heard other words as well. Words the boy tried to ignore, pretending he didn’t notice glares or gossips.
“I heard… the boy’s parents died because of him.”
“Wasn’t he the one who killed them?”
Minami’s life before the accident was shrouded in mist. He couldn’t remember his parents clearly, just the idea of their existence in his life. There was only a cold stain that their death left in his heart. But the youth couldn’t really be sad about someone, whose face and voice were blurred from his memories. Sometimes he imagined them, and how his life could have turned out if his parents were still there. The boy would himself dream of a different reality, so he wouldn’t have to think about the one he was living in. It was all he had. Hope. Dreams.
With years Minami learned how to seal himself, keep his mouth shut, eyes and head down. But words left deeper cuts in his tender soul until the youth secretly started to believe in their truth. Maybe it was his fault all along. How could he have known it was not when the boy didn’t have any memories about what happened?
Minami’s memories began with the time when he was taken in by his aunt, his mother’s sister, and her husband. But even from them the boy never heard the details, only that the house, where Minami used to live, collapsed. That place right now, which could hold answers, was nothing more than an empty field.
Minami didn’t want to admit it but he knew that the only reason why his aunt agreed to take him in, was because she had no other choice. He knew she blamed him for what happened to her sister. Near Minami, both his uncle and aunt kept their voices quiet and cold as if they were scared that someone would hear them talking with the boy. They did other things too, things that made the youth realize one fact, that even after years he still found it hard to admit - there was no one in the world who needed him.
His uncle had a little shop, selling all kinds of materials for crafts. That was where Minami also learned how to make a lot of things including clothes, and household items. Even though in years his uncle never said a single good word about Minami’s work, the boy knew it must be decent, since those sales were holding up the whole shop until now. He was happy to be useful at least somewhere. Minami also knew that the crafts he made were the only reason why his aunt and uncle still kept him.
“Minami! We have a customer! Why are you here? Why are you so useless….” His uncle hissed, coming inside the storage room at the back of the shop, where Minami was searching for some materials.
The man stopped next to the boy, gripping on his worn out clothes, slapping him hard in the face. Minami’s cheek burned up in stinging pain, but the boy only let his eyes down quickly in silence. He came here only for one moment, but there was no point in trying to explain this to the uncle. The people he actually ever got to talk with were only the customers at the shop. The boy barely had any courage to stand up for himself.
“I’m sorr--y…” The youth stuttered as the man let him go. He rushed to go back.
“Welcome!” Minami brightly smiled, bowing for the customer, who was observing goods on the shelf. The boy’s eyes lightened up seeing the familiar face. “Jirou-san, it’s good to see you looking well.”
“I may be old, but I’m still dancing.” The older man laughed, making the youth only chuckle. “It’s been a while, my boy, I hope you are doing alright.” Jirou turned around and after a glance at the boy’s face, the elder man frowned a bit.
“I’m doing great, thank you!” Minami almost forgot about his burning cheek after seeing the man, but Jirou was still staring, so the boy rushed to change the topic. “Is it the day to collect the prayers?”
Jirou was a monk at the nearby shrine, coming to their shop to buy supplies such as paper or ink. He was always kind and friendly to Minami, but the boy guessed it was only because the older man didn’t know anything about the talks that were going around about him.
“Minami… is this--”
At that moment his uncle came back into the room, and maybe Jirou noticed how terrified Minami’s eyes became, as he didn’t finish the sentence, only politely smiled.
“I need the same things as always.” The older man spoke again after a short pause and Minami bowed for him, before going to collect what he needed.
Minami wanted to believe that everyone in this life had their place. Gods, who were meant to grant people’s wishes and protect them from the darkness, such as Youkais. Demons, who slaughtered entire villages to feed on human flesh at night. Minami heard stories about how they could be in different sizes and shapes. He only saw small ones before, they would sneak in at night through the gaps in walls and try to scratch, bite his arms, face, and legs. Minami couldn’t explain why they would always come after him, but maybe that also had to do with the darkness he carried inside. Maybe they sensed that he was… evil.
The village where Minami lived was protected by the God named Ryou. Minami grew up hearing his name everywhere, seeing different sized fox statues made from stone, next to the house entrances and small shrines in the village, where people went to leave their prayers and offerings. Everyone worshiped Ryou since he was the God of Health. But with so many people daily asking, someone like Minami wanted to believe that the God was too busy to answer every small prayer or protect them from such insignificant Youkais, such as the ones that came after the boy.
Minami also knew monks, like Jirou. People, who were born with high spiritual energy. They helped the God in the main shrine, up in the mountain. Sometimes they would choose local boys to become their students.
Villagers were allowed to enter the main shrine only once per year, on the Day of God Ryou - the first day when wisteria started to bloom. Which was also known as the most powerful plant against Youkais. So monks would make tea for visitors from wisteria’s blossom as a blessing. That was something that Minami heard from talks, as he was never allowed to visit the shrine before. Every year, his aunt and uncle would leave Minami to look after the shop. Maybe there was another reason why they did so. The shrine was no place for someone as cursed as Minami. His aunt said that the boy would only bring misfortune - the reason why most of the time he was told to stay in.
“Minami, could you please help me carry these outside?” Jirou’s voice pulled the youth away from his thoughts.
“Of co-urse…” Minami felt his uncle’s stare at the back, so he rushed to take Jirou’s bags. He was so surprised because the older man had never asked such a thing before. He always called students, who helped him around.
The group of three were standing just next to the shop talking, holding the stacks of wooden tablets with prayers and offerings in their hands, that they gathered at smaller shrines around the village.
“For how many years will you stand that kind of treatment, boy? You should care about yourself a little bit more.” Jirou walked a little bit further aside with Minami. The youth felt how students were glaring at him from a distance and he didn’t feel comfortable. “Minami?”
The boy wanted to say he had no clue what the elder man was talking about, but he was bad at lying. Jirou then made Minami put the bags down, exposing his scratched and wounded hands. The youth wished he could shrink, that was so embarrassing. His uncle was not the one who left those injuries, but Minami couldn’t bring himself to tell about the curse and Youkais. The boy did what he knew would be the best - remained silent. But Jirou was persistent.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go Jirou-san.” Minami admitted. “I’m alright… so please...” he tried to smile, but the older man saw right through him. Nothing slipped his wise eyes, but just like Minami, Jirou knew that there was absolutely nothing he could do. “I’m sorry, I have to go back… please take care Jirou-san.” Minami bowed deeply, apologizing for everything, feeling strangling tears.
The youth watched Jirou and his students leaving and he forced himself to go back to the shop. That night Minami returned to his tiny room, covered in fresh bruises and wounds. He deserved them for not listening to his uncle, for being selfish and daydreaming.
Laying on the old futon, as tears were already drying off his face, staring at the dark high ceiling Minami heard them in the shadows. Quiet cracking, slow scratching inside the walls. He knew they were coming, and curling into a ball, covering his head with hands wouldn’t help. The boy still did it all the same, and like every night, he prayed. Asking Ryou to help him. But the God was probably too busy to hear him.
“Get up and leave.” His aunt broke into Minami’s room in the early morning, just after sunrise. The boy had barely any sleep from pain and Youkais making noises, trying to reach him.
“Wh-y?” It took him a long moment before the boy could collect his drowsy and heavy thoughts.
“Finally, Mighty Ryou-sama heard our prayers, the monks came to take you. Maybe they will be able to purify the demons that live inside you.” She dropped at Minami with absolute disgust in her voice. Leaving the door open.
Minami sobbed, crawling out of the bed. His whole body ached, his hands were still bleeding a bit from marks, that smaller Youkais left. When Minami finally came outside he saw Jirou and another monk, whose name the boy didn’t know.
“Let’s go, Minami.” Jirou nodded for the boy with a serious face.
He could have asked but swallowed his words. There was nothing he could have done anyway, Minami always followed everyone’s orders, he would have done anything to avoid a fight with the ones he cared about. And he did. He did care about his aunt and uncle, they gave him shelter, food and, no matter what, Minami loved them. But as he glanced back for the last farewell, both of them were already back in the house.
Minami had never gone so far away from the village before. The once mysterious forest that was like a line separating the boy’s knowledge about this world, didn’t seem so dark anymore. The gravelly path leading through it tickled Minami’s soles; wind playing with the branches, and creating soft murmurs, like a secret forest’s song brushed over Minami’s wavy hair. The forest was cozy, inviting, full of the rich smell of emerald greenery. Minami smiled while walking behind the monks. He never found it hard to enjoy and find happiness in little things, even at the hardest moments. He just had to learn how to do it.
Minami noticed the first red gates already from the distance. The youth’s heart raced inside his chest, seeing something he heard about for so many years. They were as high as the boy imagined, but as he passed through them, chills ran down his spine. Minami inhaled deeply, as the morning sun went through the woods, uncovering more of those mystical gates ahead.
The boy’s jaw dropped and gates were pushed in the corner of his mind when stairs opened in front of his eyes. Wide stairs, probably hundreds of them leading to the top of the mountain. He gazed at them mesmerized, pinned to the ground. Lanterns at each side were still slightly glowing, creating a captivating starry trail.
They walked up slowly. Minami heard Jirou’s and the other monk’s deep sighs, as they climbed higher. At some point, he lost count of the steps. And as the boy glanced over his shoulder, they no longer had a beginning.
“Finally. It’s getting harder every time.” Jirou mumbled. “Minami, you alright?”
However, Minami missed the elder’s words. His shoulders fell, but eyes looked up at the giant scarlet red gate. The youth’s back ached from walking, but cold sweat washed everything away. The light. The warmth. Minami stared at the signs above it, with no idea what they meant. The youth was tempted to enter, learn more, but at the same time petrified by that unknown shattering inside his chest.
Minami wanted to believe that everyone in this life had their place.
Maybe it was never a place… but a feeling.
A tiny five-tailed fox statue was placed on a tall squared rock, next to the gates at each side. Welcoming home. The God’s home.