On a day before
"Anyways," the king says, "let's check out the beach first. In case there's crap everywhere from people who wandered in and partied all over the place."
I bow my head. "As you wish," I reply.
I do not point out the obvious. Picking up litter is hardly a task for the king. In any case, there is never anything to dispose of. There are never any trespassers.
And, we always begin with the beach.
Waves wash in, out. White flowers froth and melt into the sand. The shore is, as expected, pristine. The staff take impeccable care of this place. As vast as the private reserve is, with its security and association with the king, who would dare - or even be able to - trespass onto it?
Granted, the land does not belong to the king alone. But the other owners kindly and quietly consider it wholly his. They have each told me as much, in private, on separate occasions. Such statements are left unspoken to the king. He would argue loudly against them. Naturally, there have never been any formal changes in ownership.
It used to be that the owners would gather here regularly. As years passed, the list of attendees grew shorter. The time between reunions continues to grow longer.
We make our way closer to the water. Some years the king runs to it, kicking and splashing playfully. The king's spirit beast might join us, breaking from its own wandering of the reserve. Other years we stand at the edge of the shoreline while the king tosses flat stones and watches them skip into the distance. Last year, it rained. We waited it out under a canopy, grey pouring down around us and feeding the ocean.
This year, the sky is clear. The king sits down on a large piece of driftwood the colour of bone. His motion is both measured and abrupt. He might have sighed as he sat down. Between the sound of light fabric being swept aside and the gentle hush of displaced sand, I couldn't say for sure.
The king sits, and we look out at the ocean. Far away, white gulls swoop and dip. Every so often, a bird's cry pierces the sky. And the sky -
It is an unending expanse of blue, merging with the ocean.
Incense wafts from slender sticks. Fragrant smoke floats over the white chrysanthemums, the bowls of oranges. The king sniffs the air, and pokes at an orange. For a moment I wonder if he is going to pick it up and eat it.
"Beats me why I keep doing this," he murmurs.
These words, or some variation of them, are spoken nearly every visit. I understand. He knows, far better than many, what is and isn't here.
All around us lie rows of white stone columns. Bare stone markers dressed in flowers and fruit, empty stone stations filled with dust. The trains long departed, hundreds of years ago.
The king gets back to his feet. I follow suit as he presses his palms together, bows his head and closes his eyes.
When he finishes, he turns slightly towards me and shrugs, as if in apology for dragging us all the way here.
"All ritual is meaningless," I say. "Save to those who partake in it."
The corner of the king's mouth quirks. "Guess we'll be coming again next year," he says.
The moon is not quite full. It hangs low in the sky, a heavy pome on an invisible branch, framed by the open shoji doors. Night grass rustles; cicadas chirp. The attendant steps over with a light foot and refills the king's cup. Steam ghosts around the flow of tea.
Just before the pot is tilted back, we hear the distinct call of a cuckoo. The sound echoes in the trees.
The king seems to pay it no mind. He brings the cup to his lips and drinks steadily, without pause. Tomorrow we would be heading back through the forests and up the mountains. The king's spirit beast would usually be awaiting us at the peak, where the gate to the Makai sits.
"Nah," says the king, setting down his empty cup. "Let's go back tonight. It's more fun to run around when you can't see stuff." Before I can open my mouth to question his judgment, he adds, "And I dunno if I can take any more of this temple zen shit." He turns his face away from me, towards the night, the moon, the fading cry of the cuckoo outside.
Before we leave, he asks for a moment with the staff. "Thanks," he says simply. "This place always looks exactly like I remember it." They beam with pride.
Unburdened, we slowly make our way up the well-worn path. In truth, we could easily cover it in less than one night, at even half our full speed. The king is purposefully taking his time.
The air is crisp. Sharp. It would be a clear day in the mountains, tomorrow.
Author's notes: I've been reading a lot of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry lately.
The title is a play on words. The Chinese character for clear (清 qing) and the first character that creates the word "tomorrow" (明 ming, which can also mean "bright") are also the characters for 清明- Grave or Tomb Sweeping [Day/Festival], a time for visiting the graves of ancestors.
After the Dark Tournament, Kurama explained to Yusuke that the Reikai is merely a stop (like a train station) for souls.
At the end of the series, Keiko tells Yukina that she thinks the ocean during the day is the most beautiful because the sky and the waters blend together.
The hototogisu (lesser cuckoo), is a traditional Japanese icon. In haiku, it serves as a symbol of summer. Its call is associated with nostalgia and longing.