Moonbeams and Meetings
Eight year old Hino Rei hated the nights when the moon was hidden behind the clouds. Perhaps if there had been a thunderstorm to distract her from its absence, she wouldn't have minded quite so much, but no. The night was simply black. No stars and no sign of the comforting glow that made the constant ache in her heart lessen just a little.
Running the sleeve of her pyjama top across her cheeks, Rei wiped away the tears that had begun to spill past her lashes. Then, with a shaky sigh, she rested her chin across her folded arms, and continued staring upwards through the open window.
School had improved for her, at least a little bit. Rather than picking on her, as they had done for so long, her classmates largely chose to avoid her instead. While it was preferable to coming home covered in scrapes and bruises, it was still very lonely to have only homework and studying to look forward to in the evenings.
Rei suspected the change in her classmates had something to do with her unexpected recruitment to the school archery team.
Before that memorable day in gym class, she had never wielded a bow and arrow, yet when she was first handed the battered old school equipment, it felt as though she was being reunited with an old friend—a strange thought, given her young age. But after hitting nearly every target with effortless ease, including those usually reserved for the upperclassmen, Rei found herself being coerced by her teacher (threatened, really, with the choice between joining the archery club or attending summer school) into joining up. It would have been all right, as she discovered she quite enjoyed the activity, but for the older students being resentful of her prowess.
It seemed she was destined to remain friendless—not that she minded. People were stupid.
Rei wondered sometimes if her mother had been a skilled archer, and that was why the ability came so naturally to her. But somehow, she didn't think so. Her mother had been so beautiful and graceful. She would hardly have done something so barbaric as to play with weapons for sport. Rei felt her eyes begin to burn with angry tears. At least she knew who she didn't inherit her talents from.
Papa's weapons were his words, Rei knew, from the newspaper clippings that were thrust in her face by her fellow students, or the evening reports on the television that she had simply begun to ignore. Conversely, on the rare occasions that the senator would visit his daughter, the lack of words from him was just as damaging, if not more so.
Rei blinked, noticing that during her musings, a patch of cloud seemed to be growing a bit brighter. She swallowed, anxious, nearly afraid to breathe for fear she was only imagining things.
"Will you tell me about Princess Kaguya again, Mama?" Rei asked her mother in a whisper.
Hino Risa's voice was hoarse, her touch feather light as she stroked her young daughter's cheek. She had Rei curled up beside her in the hospital bed, in spite of the nurses' frequent orders for her to do otherwise. "Why don't you tell it to me, my love? I want to hear your sweet voice."
Rei bit her lip, not understanding the sudden feeling she had in the pit of her stomach. Why did it feel like there was something else buried beneath those words?
"But—I want to hear yours too." She was unable to keep the tremor from her voice and immediately felt guilty when her mother's eyes welled up with tears. "M-Mama? What's th'matter?"
With strength Rei had not seen since entering the hospital, her mother's arms pulled her close, and simply held on tightly for several minutes.
"Everything will be fine, my love," she said eventually. "I just… need to rest." There was a press of lips against Rei's forehead and a soft breath that could have been mistaken for a sob.
"Would you like a lullaby, Mama?" Rei murmured against her mother's neck. Cherry blossoms. She smelled of cherry blossoms, and her hair was so soft. Her smile was beautiful; her laughter was like music.
"I'd like that very much."
Rei began to hum a familiar tune, one known only between the two of them. Her mother often sang at home, frequently accompanying herself on her guitar, and promising her daughter that she could learn to play too, when she was a bit older. They had composed the melody together, during some of the late nights when Rei's father was away on business, and spoke of playing it for him when he came home—but then her mother had fallen sick and couldn't sing as often as she used to, especially in the quiet of the hospital.
Her guitar sat at home, silent.
The slow beeping of the nearby heart rate monitor caught Rei's attention, and the song she was singing trailed off while she watched, hypnotized, as the green lines moving across the screen grew still. Her mouth went dry as a group of nurses and doctors flew into the room. She was pulled unceremoniously from her mother's arms, and deposited outside the thin curtains surrounding the bed. She immediately turned and peered through a gap in the cloth, and her gaze was again drawn to the machines surrounding Hino Risa. A single, motionless line crossed the screen now, accompanied by an endless drone that only seemed to get louder with every passing second, despite the babble of voices in the room.
Rei's gaze fell on her mother, whose eyes had closed.
She could have been sleeping.
Rei had clambered through her open window, and was now creeping around Hikawa Shrine in the dark, looking for a particular tree that grew close to the old building's roof. During the day, climbing it would have been an impossible task, as she was constantly under someone's watch, and she no doubt would have been ordered to come down before getting very far.
Grunting softly, she shimmied partway up the sturdy trunk and grasped a low-hanging branch. Hauling herself onto it, she stood up to grab another limb, then another, climbing with surprising ease. Glimpsing up through the leaves, she allowed herself a tiny smile when she saw that the moon was finally breaking through the clouds.
She stepped carefully from the hanging branch onto the Shrine roof, wanting to get even higher up.
If only she was a bird. Then she could fly right into the heavens, beyond the stars… and see her mother again. That was all she wanted in the world. Everything she had, and all that she knew, Rei would gladly have traded it in a heartbeat, if only she could get to the moon, where she was sure her mother was. Waiting for her.
Rei knelt down and crept up the tiles on all fours, feeling slightly unbalanced on the steep side of Hikawa's rooftop. The moon looked so close now that she was sure she'd be able to touch it once she reached the apex.
After another short climb, Rei stood upon the roof's sturdy beam and gazed skyward again. She choked back a frustrated sob when she saw that the waxing moon, while big and bright, was still as far away as it had ever been.
Sniffling, Rei sat and buried her face in her arms, wishing desperately for a set of wings.
All of a sudden, something tugged at her hair, startling her. Confused, Rei reached up and grasped the object. In the moonlight she could see that it was a feather, as jet black and soft as her mother's hair had been. She ran her fingers across its surface, almost reverently, when she heard a strange sound. Standing slowly, Rei looked around her, wondering where it was coming from, and spotted a dark shape nearby.
Clutching the feather to her chest, Rei moved cautiously towards the shape. The sound, or sounds, rather, grew steadily louder as she did.
She gasped quietly as the moonlight revealed two young birds—were they crows?—huddled together in a nest.
"Oh, wow," Rei breathed, wondering where their mother was.
Abruptly the birds went silent, regarding Rei with wide eyes. She realized she must look rather threatening to them, looming over the nest as she was, and sat down. Their identical gazes never once left her face. A shiver ran through her, and despite everything she had ever been told about never touching wild animals, she had the strongest urge to reach out and stroke their black wings.
Her hand hesitated above the nest. The birds—they were not crows, but ravens, something told her—gave her an impatient look.
Hurry up, they seemed to say. Don't be afraid.
Rei bit her lip and closed her eyes as her fingertips brushed against the silky feathers. She could feel the ravens' warmth and their hearts beating in unison.
"You're twins," Rei murmured in surprise. "You came from the same egg." It wasn't strange that she knew such a thing from only a touch. For all of her life, Rei had known more about the world and about people than she cared to admit.
She opened her eyes again, and looked at the birds. One of them was nuzzling her palm and making a contented sound. The other was eyeing the feather she held in her free hand.
"It's your mother's? Where—" The answer came to her before she had finished asking the question. "Gone." There was unmistakeable sadness emanating from the ravens now. "I'm sorry," Rei whispered. She placed the feather between the birds and gave them a watery smile. "I know how you feel."
Rei didn't recognize the word, yet there it was, moving across her mind's eye. "Phobos? Wh—"
One of the ravens ruffled its downy feathers importantly.
"Deimos?" The other raven inclined its beak—was it bowing to her?
Clearly, she was dreaming. That had to be it. Rei rubbed at her tired eyes, knowing she was lying to herself. She could find lost items she had never seen and sense the future before it happened—but this couldn't be real?
Phobos and Deimos—these were their names, Rei realized—seemed to be waiting for something.
"Oh!" she said after a moment, and the birds both made sounds of surprise. "You want to know my name! I'm Rei. Hino Rei." She folded her hands together and gave as respectful a bow that sitting down allowed. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Phobos and Deimos. Are you hungry? I bet you are."
Out of habit, Rei checked her pockets. She had taken to keeping snacks close at hand on a regular basis, due to her lunch's tendency to vanish at school most days, but of course there was nothing to be found in her pyjamas. "Damn," she mumbled, using a word she often heard Toshihiro-sensei, her favourite teacher at the shrine, utter when he was angry. She grinned at her new friends. "I'll be back soon, okay?"
She was extra careful as she made her way towards the edge of the roof and shimmied down the tree trunk. A faint glimmer was beginning to appear at the edge of the horizon, and Rei said a silent goodnight to the moon as she dashed towards the Shrine's main doors, and promptly collided with something. Someone.
"Rei-san, whatever are you doing out here?" It was Hikawa's elderly head priest. Rei had forgotten that he woke very early most mornings to meditate in the quiet of the shrine grounds. She cursed her stupidity—she had run right past her open window without even thinking.
Bowing down, Rei struggled to come up with a response that would seem plausible. She didn't think the head priest would take kindly to her scaling trees and scrambling around on the rooftop. Nor did she think he would approve of the ravens' presence there, remembering what had happened to the tiny mouse she used to leave crumbs for in the kitchen.
"If you are so eager to be out and about, Rei-san, perhaps you should begin your daily chores?"
Rei dared a glance at her elder. He had an eyebrow raised and looked resigned at her silence. She nodded and bowed again, moving towards the shed where the brooms were kept.
It felt like the longest morning of Rei's life as she worked in the grounds, convinced her new friends were starving to death as they wondered where she had gotten to. The head priest seemed to be keeping an annoyingly close watch on her throughout the morning as well. Then, when he disappeared to his office to handle the shrine's paperwork, Rei took the opportunity to duck into the kitchen to shove a few slices of bread into her pockets, but by then, the two local middle school girls who worked as shrine maidens at Hikawa had arrived. While most days they usually chose to ignore Rei, they seemed intent on keeping a close watch on her today as well. Probably under the elder's orders. Damn.
The sun was high in the sky when she spotted Toshihiro-sensei entering the grounds with his guitar in tow, and grinned as the two older maidens turned to wave to the well-liked priest. Rei saw her chance and hurried off towards the tree she had clambered up hours before, hoping the girls wouldn't notice her absence.
Rei had forgotten one crucial thing, however: she hadn't slept. It took several tries before she managed to shimmy up the trunk and grab onto the low branch, and she was only partway up the tree when the other shrine maidens spotted her climbing.
"Rei-san! You come down from there right now!" The taller of the two girls put her hands on her waist and tried to look imposing.
Rei snorted softly and continued to climb. Come and get me then, she thought. She grasped another branch and pulled herself higher.
"Rei-san! Rei-san! Please! You're going to get hurt! Come down!"
She kept ignoring their voices, climbing steadily—then she heard the music.
The song. The song.
Her hand froze in midair as she listened. She wasn't imagining it. Her mother was close by, playing her guitar. She had to be.
Unthinkingly, Rei turned, trying to see where the music was coming from—and her foot stepped into the open air.
Even though she'd been examined in a different part of the hospital, Rei'd had a difficult time being in the stark, grey building nonetheless. She hadn't been there since her mother had died, and it was hard to ignore the groans and wails that occasionally emanated across the emergency ward.
It had been Toshihiro-sensei who had found her, alerted by the screams of the other girls after she had fallen. An ambulance had been called, and Rei regained consciousness just as they had arrived at the hospital. Her head was pounding, but her arm—she wondered if they'd have to remove it, and tried not to tremble too hard when the doctor—a kind woman named Mizuno—examined her.
Rei had needed stitches and a cast, as her arm was badly broken—much worse and she would have needed surgery to reset the bones—but she was very young and would heal quickly, so Dr Mizuno said.
It was night time again, and Rei was back in her room at Hikawa, sitting on her futon, thinking about her mother's guitar. She hadn't looked at it even once since burying it beneath a pile of clothing after her father had dumped her at the base of the shrine's steps two years earlier. Rei was so sure it had been Mama playing that song earlier when she was in the tree—
She moaned to herself as she remembered the two ravens, and buried her face in the hand that didn't have a cast wrapped around it. How was she possibly going to climb the tree now?
There was a knock at her door before someone slid it open. It was the head priest.
"Hello, Rei-san. How are you feeling tonight?"
Rei shrugged, not even bothering to bow. There were painkillers flowing in her system that would make even the hardiest grown-up feel a bit, for lack of a better word, loopy.
"I don't suppose you'd care to tell me your reasons for being in that tree?"
She shrugged again, and looked away. There was a quiet sigh.
"Rei-san, you need to know that we care about you. All of us."
Rei stared at her sheets, and pretended to struggle against hiding a yawn.
"I miss her too, you know."
At that, Rei looked up.
"She was my apprentice, your mother—until she met your father. I used to resent him a bit, for stealing her away from us, but then—then I met you."
Rei had no idea how to respond to this revelation, so she kept quiet.
"You look very like her, Rei-san. Except you're so angry. Risa was always smiling." There was a silence then, perhaps one in which the elder hoped Rei would respond.
She let her eyes fall back towards her blankets. There was another sigh.
"You should get some rest, Rei-san. Sleep well."
She stayed motionless, waiting until her door was completely shut before getting up to move towards her closet.
It was a bit of a struggle to drag the guitar case free with only one arm, but somehow Rei managed it. She flipped open the metal clasps, and pulled the instrument free, taking care not to bump it against anything as she placed it on her futon.
She had half-hoped that the guitar would be missing from its case, as it would have without a doubt proved that Mama had been in the grounds earlier, playing her song, but—
There was another knock at her door.
Rei hurriedly flung her blankets across the guitar, wincing when she forgot that one of her arms was not up to the task at the moment.
"Rei-san?" Toshihiro-sensei stood in the doorway as he switched on the nearby light.
She saw her teacher's gaze pass across the guitar case she'd foolishly left in the middle of the floor, before he sat down.
Rei bit her lip, remembering Toshihiro-sensei crossing the grounds earlier, his guitar in hand. "Why were you climbing that tree, Rei-san?"
His voice was calm, but there was a tremor there that made Rei feel horribly guilty. So she told him the truth about Phobos and Deimos, and the reason she had fallen.
"I thought M-Mama had come back."
To her very great surprise, her teacher looked guilty. "I'm sorry, Rei-san. It's very beautiful music. But I won't play it again if you don't want me to."
Suddenly, Rei remembered singing the song to herself once, to her mother, as she coloured in a picture of Princess Kaguya, and stopping when she realized their secret song had been heard by her teacher.
She looked down at the lump of blankets that hid her mother's guitar, and thought about the possibility of never hearing the song ever again. Slowly, she uncovered the instrument, and found herself asking Toshihiro-sensei to teach her how to play it.
"…Not tonight," he eventually said. "You've had a busy day, and need some rest. Okay?"
Rei nodded and watched as the guitar was tucked safely back inside its case—but it wasn't shut or put back into her closet—and Toshihiro-sensei bid her goodnight.
She curled up beneath her blankets, and ignored the dull ache in her broken arm. The moon's light was visible through her open window and Rei stared at it until she fell into a fitful sleep.
She stumbled into the shrine's kitchen the next day, feeling very much like death warmed over, and wondered how she might obtain some of the coffee that her elders seemed to swear by. It certainly made them far less grumpy, Rei had noticed. Clearly, the substance had some kind of magic power.
"Rei-san, good morning."
She was surprised to see Toshihiro-sensei sitting at the small table in the corner, with a very familiar bundle of sticks in front of him. "Did you know that ravens are quite fond of peanut butter and jam on toast?"
Rei moved towards the table, where a stack of toast sat atop a plate, feeling faintly stunned. Contented sounds—as well as the scent of peanut butter—were emanating from the nest.
"I've talked to the elder—he says you can keep them, but they're to be your responsibility. I'll help you though, if you like—at least until your arm is healed."
She stared at her teacher, knowing that she should thank him, but her tongue seemed to have completely frozen.
Toshihiro-sensei seemed to understand though, as he drew out a chair and pushed the stack of toast towards Rei, grinning as he did.
Phobos and Deimos had been tucked in for the night, their nest stationed in a corner of her room. Rei could hear them making soft noises—did ravens snore? —as she wrapped herself in her blankets and once again stared up at the moon.
It was full tonight, and gleaming through Rei's open window. She raised her hand, smiling to herself as the moonbeams alighted upon her skin.
"G'night," she murmured.
As she drifted off to sleep, the moon's light slowly shifted, covering Rei with its glow, and looking for all the world like it was embracing the little girl and holding her close.
Months and months and months it's been since an update. And I give you a story you've already heard. And Minako is completely opseyo. …uh, that's Korean for "not here" or "missing" or "non-existent".
…could you leave me a review anyway? Please?