Of course, nobody believed him. Frankly, he wondered if he believed himself. A ceremony doll kicking him off the roof of the float and disappearing into thin air in the middle of the chaos? Perhaps all the adrenalin he had coursing through him at the time made him see and hear things.
But Nozomi believed him. In fact it was the one thing that hadn’t gone wrong: she wasn’t mad at him (“Father sees street festivals in the big city all the time,” she’d said when they finally caught up, “He says there are accidents all the time. Danger is all part of the fun, he says.”)
Hayato gave a weak smile: he appreciated her attempts to cheer him up, but there was no getting around the fact that he was sitting in the local police station waiting to be questioned.
“No, really, I believe you,” she insisted, “You’ve got a lot of flaws, Hayato –”
“– but you’re not a liar. Even if you were making excuses, you’d be the last person in town to make up an excuse that involves…well, magic.”
Hayato would have been grateful for her loyalty, but his mind was too full of fear. What would they do to him? How would he be punished? His mind ran wild with increasingly terrifying possibilities: would he be made to rebuild the float and shrine by hand, alone? Forced to repay for the damage for years to come? Maybe even banishment…he shuddered at the thought. He knew of no relatives beyond Namerikawa. He’d have to go it alone. Would he be begging on the streets of the big city or would he live like a wild thing in the forests? He wished he could shake himself, and tell himself that he was overexaggerating, but then he reminded himself over and over that he was responsible for destroying the two most traditional icons of a town that loved its traditions. Anything seemed possible.
The door next to their seats creaked open, and an imposing policeman stepped out.
“Enter” he said, beckoning Hayato in towards his doom. Nozomi gave him an encouraging thumbs up, and he stood up. His legs felt like lead. Everything seemed to slow down as he stepped through the door, and into the room.
A single light bulb barely lit the grim room. Inside was a long, bare table. On the side nearest to Hayato was a single empty chair. On the far side were many chairs, all occupied: police officers, town governors, the Headmaster, some of his fellow drumming students and – Hayato felt a cold sweat break out on his palms – his parents.
Mother had been angry at him. Actually, she had been furious. But a small comfort was that she only seemed mad that he’d done something dangerous that could have injured him. She hadn’t even mentioned the destruction he’d caused.
But father was there too. Hayato hadn’t had the chance to speak to him yet – he’d dashed straight from work when he’d heard the news – but Hayato was terrified at what his reaction would be. This whole sorry mess would bring a great deal of shame to the family, and father was a quietly proud man. Hayato considered the prospect of Father never wanting to speak to him again after this, and he felt ill at the mere through of it. That would be the worst punishment of all.
“Sit,” said one of the police officers. Hayato lowered his aching body into the lone chair, and felt the hot light burning on his neck, though not as stinging as the stares he knew were all trained on him. It was impossible to make out individual faces under the glare of the light, and that made it all the scarier. He felt so small, with everyone across the table towering over him like a jury.
The Mayor, a stern-looking woman with lines etched into her liver-spotted face, sat front and centre. She cleared her throat. “Hayato Takei,” she declared like a judge, “Well, then. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Hayato’s mind raced. What did he have to say? He thought about telling them about the living doll again, but knew it wouldn’t do him any favours. He even considered telling them this was the Headmaster’s idea, but how would that help? It was still him that did the deed, and he’d still be punished. All he’d end up gaining was a powerful enemy for the rest of his time at school – if he was still going to be at school by the time this was over. No, it wasn’t worth the risk: he’d keep his mouth shut, shoulder the blame alone and hope it would cause the least amount of trouble.
Hayato lowered his head. “I’m sorry.”
Scoffs and snorts of indignation popped through the jury. The Mayor’s lip curled.
“Oh, how wonderful,” she sneered, “Our festival is in tatters, the festival float is literally is fit for the fire, our Shrine with over two-hundred years of history is in ruins, and you’re sorry. What in name of the wide wide world were you thinking, pulling off such a…ridiculous stunt?”
Hayato’s eyes flicked to the shadowy figure of the Headmaster and back, and he licked his dry lips. “I…err…”
“We trained for a solid month for this, Hayato!” one of the students blurted out, “This was meant to be a chance for all of us to shine, equally, as a group. But no, you think you’re so special, you think you deserve the spotlight more than the rest of us!”
“It wasn’t like that,” Hayato countered meekly.
“Oh?” the Mayor leaned forward, the shadows on her lined face carving in deeper, “Then perhaps you’d care to tell us all what it really was. Because what I saw was a stupid, selfish boy hijack a traditional ceremony for his own entertainment, and send the float crashing into the Shrine.”
“I didn’t do on purpose!” Hayato squirmed in the spotlight.
The Mayor leant back, “No…no, you didn’t. That’s about the only thing that can be said in your defence. But you did climb onto the float on purpose, yes?”
“Well, yeah, but –”
“And if you hadn’t done that then this wouldn’t have happened, yes?”
Hayato felt his punishment closing in on him, and he threw caution to the wind. “I told you, that doll kicked me, and –”
But he was drowned out by a chorus of outraged shouts and jeers.
“Not this again!”
“Such revolting lies.”
“This doll can talk and disappear, too, have you heard?”
“Doesn’t he have a scrap of intergrity in him?
“It’s not even a good lie!”
A calm, strong voice silenced the babbling, and a hand lay on Hayato’s shoulder. He looked up, and saw his Father standing there.
“When you have all finished scaring and screeching at my son, would you kindly set his punishment so we can be off?” he said, his voice careful and authoritative, “He knows he’s done wrong. But I must ask you to never to question to integrity of our family. A Takei never lies.”
If Hayato’s legs hadn’t frozen him to the spot, he’d have leapt up and hugged his father there and then. As it was, he merely nodded at the Mayor.
The Mayor screwed up her face, making an eerily accurate impression of a crumpled paper bag. “But Mr. Takei, you heard him yourself! He is blaming a ceremonial float doll for this.”
“I’m not blaming anyone!” Hayato protested, finding his voice with his Father by his side, “I’m just telling you what happened.”
“And you say that a stuffed doll kicked you off the roof of the float?” The Mayor gave a sardonic grin.
“Mayor Nieda, may I remind you that you are talking to a boy,” said Father, “Boys see things at the best of times. Hayato has experienced severe trauma today, and now you and your friends are putting on the dramatics and turning the screws on him. Do you really expect his mind to be crystal clear?”
Father and the Mayor held each other’s gaze for a while, as though engaged in the eye-version of an arm-wrestle.
“Bring out the punishment,” the Mayor spat at last, waving a hand.
Hayato’s heart pounded. Bring out? What was this going to be? Some sort of…corporal punishment? Father squeezed his shoulder tighter.
A policemwoman stood up, and placed a clear, air sealed bag on the table. Inside the bag was a small, golden box, no bigger than a pencil case.
“We have heard about your cynicism towards our traditions, Hayato,” the Mayor gave an evil grin, “So we thought it fitting that you are given the most traditional of punishments.”
The Mayor opened the bag and held up the golden box. It gleamed in the light. Hayato’s eyes watered.
“Do you know what this is, Hayato?”
“Please stop stalling, Mayor. You know very well that he doesn’t.” His Father had a rare edge in his voice. The Mayor’s eye ticked.
“Very well. Here’s an easier one: do you know what a Shinto Shrine is for?”
The question threw Hayato off completely. A history quiz, now? Not wanting to get on the wrong side of the scary Mayor, he racked his brain, recalling what he’d half-heard in school.
“Well…they’re a place to pray.”
“That’s obvious. To pray to what, precisely?”
“The Gods. Kami.”
“Exactly. Every Shinto Shrine houses a different Kami, protected in the innermost sanctum. But when the float crashed into the Shrine, it cracked open the sanctum, leaving the Kami open and vulnerable, down to it’s last protective shell. This protective shell.”
The Mayor laid the golden box on the table. Hayato frowned, absorbing what she’d just said.
“You mean…there’s a Kami in there?”
“Correct. But you don’t really believe in such stories, do you Hayato?”
He didn’t, but still, the idea of it made his throat dry. Everyone else in the room shifted uncomfortably, gasped, bowed their heads or did a combo of the three. Hayato had to stop himself from rolling his eyes, and instead merely shrugged.
“Well, it doesn’t matter if you believe it there is a Kami in here or not,” the Mayor said, “Your punishment is the same: this Kami is the protector of our village. Without a Shrine to house it, the Kami, and the whole of Namerikawa, is vulnerable to attacks from evil Kami.”
“So…you want me to rebuild the Shrine?” he leaned forward in my seat: he could feel a wave of relief rushing towards him. It was going to be the least life-destroying of the punishments.
But the Mayor’s twisted grin turned even twistier, and she shook her head. “As satisfying as it would be to see you covered in splinters on the way to work every day, we need it rebuilt as soon as possible. So I’m sending you off with this,” she picked up the Kami box, “I want you to take the Kami to the nearest abandoned but intact Shrine, and house it there. Then, after seven days and seven nights have passed from now, you may return to our village, where you can return the Kami to its rebuilt home.”
Hayato ran the details through my head. That was…easy. In fact, it sounded fun. Seven days camping out? Was that it? Hayato could almost feel a smile cracking on his face, but he forced it down and replaced it with what he hoped was shock: if they knew he thought was getting off lightly…
“I understand,” said Hayato gravely, “I will carry this task out with the respect it dese –”
“Oh, shut up, you silly boy!” the Mayor snapped, specks of spit flying towards him, “Of course you don’t understand: there are sacred rules to be observed, and I bet you don’t even know where the nearest intact, Kami-free Shrine is, do you?”
She had a point there. “Where?”
The Mayor smiled, and licked her lips. “The peak of Kasayama.”
Hayato felt his insides disappear. “You…what?”
The Mayor went on, “You must also travel on foot. No other form of transport is allowed when carrying a Kami upon your person. You must also travel alone.”
Now his insides were returning, in the form of blocks of ice. He must have had a face that pleased the jury, because they were giving satisfied sniggers.
“Lastly, don’t think you can wander around or hide out on the edge of town for seven days. The Kami must be taken to Kasayama. It is an old shrine, and its height on the mountaintop meant that in olden times it was believed to be closer to the heavens, so it was used for praying for help, giving thanks…or forgiveness.
“When you install the Kami there, you must pray for seven days and nights to the Kami for your forgive. You cannot get around this: an event will occur after you have committed the full time. We know what this is, and you will tell us what that event was when you return, otherwise we will know of your shortcuts. Any questions?”
Father had been silently shivering with rage as his sentence was being read out. Finally, he spoke up.
“Mayor, this is outrageous,” he said, his voice cracking, “I am not going to let you send my boy out into the wilderness on his own. It’s over ten miles to Kasayama, and that’s before you even take into account scaling the mountain itself. No, I won’t let you do it. Destruction of your precious float and Shrine is one thing but this is putting a kid’s life at risk – my kid’s life.”
“The alternative is that your family pay for the full cost of repairs and reconstruction,” the Mayor folded her arms, “You’ll be looking at a bill upwards of one-hundred-million yen.”
Father swayed on the spot. It was an impossible amount. Even if they lived on nothing but rice on water and bought nothing else for ten years, they would have barely made a dent in that debt. The colour drained from Father’s face. He knew it too, but worse still, I could see his mind working: he was actually considering it! A curious calm overcame Hayato. He turned to the Mayor, and nodded.
“I’ll do it.”
The Mayor made a pyramid out of her fingers, and drummed them together. “A wise choice.”
“No!” Father gasped, “Son, I can’t let you –”
“Dad, this is all my fault,” Hayato whispered to him, “It’s not yours. I…I don’t want you all to suffer because of me. I mean, what about that boat you’ve been saving up for all these years?”
“Forget the boat, Hayato!” he hissed, “It’s you I’m worried about.”
“Dad, I’m not going to let us live in poverty for the rest of our lives when I can repay the debt with a couple of weeks of walking.”
“On your own, in the middle of nowhere,” Father added.
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, come off it Dad, what lies between here and Kasayama? Arashiyama, Ogawa…that’s pretty much it. We’ve gone fishing around there loads of times and you know it’s as safe as anywhere around Namerikawa. In fact after today, it’s probably safest if I make myself scarce for a while.”
I could see the fight going on behind Father’s furrowed brow. Forced into poverty for decades or letting your son out into the big wide world for a couple of weeks…to Hayato it seemed like a no-brainer, but Father was really struggling with it. Then, his Father stood up.
“I ask for one small compromise,” he said to the Mayor, “He must be allowed to send messages home at any post office.”
“Oh, that is no problem,” the Mayor waved an airy hand. Now she’d sentenced Hayato to his crazy punishment, she looked positively cheerful, “He can check send messages to his heart’s content, but there must be no messages back. That could be contrived as assistance.”
Father stared at her with the utmost contempt. “You don’t have children, do you Mayor Nieda?”
The Mayor threw up her hands, “Don’t blame me, this is just…how should I put it? Tradition.”
She gave him a wink. Hayato would have been angry if he didn’t feel so calm. Now he knew his fate, he felt a great weight lifted from him. It’s not so bad, he thought, well, it’s pretty bad, but it could have been far worse.
She slid the golden Kami box across the table towards him. Up close, he could see it was ornately carved with complicated Kanji symbols.
“You will leave at sunrise tomorrow morning, the same day reconstruction starts here. And one final rule,” said the Mayor, “Whatever you do, do not open the box.”
Hayato stepped out into bright light of the Town Square. Mercifully, it was deserted, the whole area sectioned off by police barriers. He cringed at the huge pile of debris in the centre of the square, and as he walked down the stone steps, he saw a couple of firemen glare at him. He’d been handed his punishment, but he still felt bad. The sooner I get out of town, the better.
Father had stayed back to comfort Mother and explain that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Hayato had been so preoccupied that he hadn’t even noticed her leaving through the back door, finding it too much to take. He was relieved that Father had volunteered to calm her down: he didn’t think he could put his Mother at ease so simply.
Nozomi leapt off of the wall she sat on when she saw me. “You’re out at last!” she said, looking torn between relief and anxiety, “I was beginning to think you’d never come out. So, how did it go? What do they want you…to…”
She trailed off as her eyes were drawn to the golden box in his hands. “Wow,” she breathed, “It’s so beautiful. What is it?”
“It’s a long story,” Hayato pocketed the box before it caught anyone else’s attention, “Come on, let’s head to the shops, I need to get something to eat. And a pair of walking boots.”