Gift of a Tennyo
The tennyo ran as quickly as her feet could carry her. She didn’t know where they were taking her, but as long as it was far away from Junko, she didn’t care anymore. Everything around her blurred as she held her breath out of fear.
It had been years since she had suffered such constant panic attacks. After finding her mother, she had been afraid to sleep, waking from nightmares screaming for her father. There should never have been a reason for her to know fear in the Celestial City, but after two centuries in hiding, it seemed to be an unwanted companion that stalked her inner thoughts.
Was it the anxiety of following her mother’s fate - dying without a chance to fight back - that drove her to these fits? Could it be the cruel method of her still unknown killer - tearing her larynx from her neck - that made her fear being touched? What reason could she have to rationalize the scene she discovered that day? With twelve women dead now in a similar manner, Akiko felt her existence had become a curse. She was no good to anyone, even herself.
Akiko crashed into someone, tumbling to a cement surface. The stunned voice sounded familiar, but in her hyper-alert state, the tennyo didn’t know who to trust at the moment. A cool touch to her shoulder made her whirl her face about to glare, but the visage sent a sudden calm over her.
“Akiko-chan,” the old woman said with worry, “whatever has happened, sweet child? You look as if your nerves are spent.”
Glancing around her gradually, Akiko realized she was in the shopping strip near her school. The antique store she had visited the previous day was to her right. A broom rested on the ground near Grandmother’s feet. She must have been sweeping the entry when they collided.
“Akiko-chan, you are safe, dear. I assure you of that.”
The reassuring words sent a last wave of calm over her, but instead of relaxing, tears streamed down Akiko’s cheeks. Twisting her face as sorrow welled up in her chest, she reached around the old woman’s waist. The tennyo wailed, trembling as the embrace was returned.
“There, there,” Grandmother said softly. “Let it out, dear. You’ve been strong for so long. Release the pain in your spirit now and cleanse your soul.”
They remained there for a moment before Akiko started to quiet. Fortunately, no one had noticed the scene to disturb them. The shopkeeper touched her shoulders to get her attention. She pulled a handkerchief from her obi, drying the rosy cheeks. Motioning her head to the side, Akiko nodded at the invitation to come inside.
“Come have some tea, Akiko-chan,” Grandmother said as they entered the store, “and tell this grandmother what has happened to drive you to my door.”
“A lot, I’m afraid,” Akiko said as she sniffled. She was holding the cloth Grandmother offered her, wiping the fresh flow of tears as they came.
“My, my, then we should make it a large pot.”
Grandmother smiled up at her with warmth. Akiko stared after her as they walked behind the counter to the shoji door. Sliding it open, the shopkeeper waved the tennyo in first before following behind her. Akiko gaped in surprise at the room beyond.
This didn’t look like a store backroom. It looked like the inside of an old Minka. She whipped her head around to make sure the store was on the other side of the door before turning back around again. Grandmother laughed lightly as she retrieved a kettle from a shelf built into the wall.
“I’ll be a moment at the well, but feel free to sit by the fire. Tsune can stoke it for us.”
“Tsune?” Akiko blinked as she wondered who that might be. Closing the door out of habit, the tennyo walked up to the irori pit. There were already cushions about, so she sat down wearily, glancing around her for this person Grandmother had mentioned.
“Oh, you did come by!” A giddy voice cheered from above.
The rafters had boards across the majority of the ceiling with a set of kaidan tansu steps leading up from the main room. The second floor overlooked the main room below. Akiko glanced up to find the speaker, but a figure jumped down beside her, startling her a bit.
“Grandmother said some nasty oni scared you last night, so you might come by today.”
“A fox?” Akiko gasped in awe and excitement as the light bulb switched on. “You’re a kitsune!”
“Yup! Grandmother raised me as a kit after my mother died. My siblings left a long time ago, but I like Grandmother. I could never leave her alone.”
The kitsune turned to fetch a few, small logs for the fire, picking them up in her mouth one at a time. Akiko watched her with a smile as the fox picked up some tongs in her jaws to stoke the flames. The swish of the puffy tail inspired a grin of wonder on the tennyo’s lips. It warmed her heart to know Grandmother had such a cute companion.
“Were you the one that brushed against me yesterday?”
“Yeah, Grandmother said it wasn’t time to meet you yet, but I couldn’t resist!” Tsune said cheerfully after setting the tongs down. “I’ve never met a tennyo before. Grandmother’s granddaughter was one, so I’ve always wondered what they’re like. You’re almost as cute as me!”
“Now, Tsune,” Grandmother said, returning from outside, “don’t overwhelm the poor dear. She’s still acclimating back into the spiritual world. I’ve sheltered you by not interacting with mortals as much.”
“You’re not mortal either, are you, Grandmother? How did you know about the oni last night or that I would come today?” As much as that knowledge should have frightened her, she couldn’t bring herself to doubt the woman. Surely, Grandmother wasn’t a bad person.
“I see Tsune let her tongue get away from her again,” the old woman sighed lightly, attaching the kettle to the hook above the fire. The fox showed no sign of remorse for flapping her gums away. “No, I am not mortal anymore, but you needn’t worry about anything in this old house, Akiko-chan. Tsune and I have been watching over you for some time.”
“Really? I never realized.” Glancing around the room again, she could tell the air was different here. It felt thinner, but it also smelled fresher than around town. Were they in the mountains somewhere? Tsune seemed like she needed space to play, but how were they connected to the shop in town?
“The door is enchanted, dear,” Grandmother answered the obvious question in her eyes. “That’s what doors are for after all. Leave one room, and enter another.”
“That’s true...” She muttered softly, as her brain was processing her environment. Something about the place just felt comforting. She knew they had to wait on the tea a bit, but the rustic feel of the Minka was pleasing to her soul already.
“Now that you know that we know about the oni in your town, tell us what happened to make you leave school today. I noticed your hagoromo is missing as well.”
Akiko gasped as she reached for her neck. She must have left it in the locker room. Her father would never let her hear the end of this one. Tennin were always griping about tennyo losing their scarves in the Mortal Realm. For two centuries, she had proven the stereotype wrong... until today.
“That’s just one more for the list,” the tennyo groaned. Pulling her knees up to her chin, she hugged her legs, reflecting on the chaos going on in her life. Her hostesses must have seen her neck as well. She felt smaller than Tsune right now. “Well, you know about the oni from last night, but did you know about the oni from nineteen years ago?”
“Oh yeah,” Tsune said, swishing her tail from side to side aggressively. “Grandmother and I would have stepped in, but that policeman took care of the big oaf for us!” The fox’s ears drooped as she suddenly remembered how he’d managed that one. “I’m sorry you lost your friend though, Kiko-chan. He was really nice to you.”
“Thank you, Tsune-chan, but he’s come back now. Two days ago, he showed up for the bokken and seed bag he left to us. He reincarnates with all of his memories, and he’s been around for a long time. He’s amazing!”
“Ah, so this was the young man you sought out the mirror for,” Grandmother grinned at the memory. “An ‘old soul’ would explain the aura I saw around him both times you met.”
“How did you see him?” Akiko turned her face up at the elder. “I’d never met you before yesterday, Grandmother. Why are you watching me anyway?”
“I was contacted by an emissary for an unknown patron about capturing you over a century ago. The price was high, but I do not partake in harming innocent lives, especially tennyo. Instead, I decided to search for you myself, throwing off other agents that I could to keep you from harm.”
“You mean someone connected to my mother’s death recruits others to capture me?” Akiko gawked at the old woman. This was important information. Kazuki had mentioned oni were lapdogs for bigger fish, but they had no idea what kind of big fish they were dealing with. “You said this emissary came to you. Was there any kind of clue about who sent them?”
“I’m afraid the only thing I could discern was the benefactor resides in Tendou, but that is a place I am not familiar with and have no connections anymore.”
“I see...” Akiko sighed heavily. So much for that idea. “Well, how have you been watching me though? Wouldn’t others be able to as well then?”
“I have a special trick up my sleeve,” Grandmother replied, winking a gray eye at the tennyo. “Tsune, would you show Akiko-chan upstairs for a moment? The tea will be a while longer, but our friend might feel better if she could see them.”
Tsune’s eyes sparkled with excitement, jumping into a flip. Without a word, she scampered across the floor to Akiko’s side. Tugging at her t-shirt, the fox pulled her toward the steps.
“Tsune loves my treasures, but this would be the first time she’s been able to show them to someone. Won’t you indulge her for now?”
Akiko blinked back at the old woman’s warm smile. Nodding, she stood to follow the kitsune. The stairs were narrow, but not enough to make her nervous to climb. Once she reached the next floor, she gaped at a short table with a clear orb resting on a silver stand, shaped like a five-clawed dragon’s hand.
“Look here, Kiko-chan!” Tsune called to the tennyo from behind the table, drawing her attention. The fox was nudging a tansu box toward Akiko. When the other knelt down to open it, she gasped in shock at what rested within.
“Isn’t it pretty?” Tsune asked with awe. “This was Grandmother’s granddaughter’s hagoromo. Her biwa is over there!”
“Grandmother really knew a tennyo...”
“Yeah,” Tsune answered softly, nestling the feathery cloth with her mussel, “but she died before I was born. Grandmother buried her in the garden, but she held onto her biwa and robe. I heard she was really pretty, too, like you.”
Running a hand across the feathery material, Akiko felt a different sadness in her chest. Grandmother had refused to hand her over because of her lost loved one. If she had once been mortal, she wondered what kind of relationship they had shared. Picking up the hagoromo gingerly in both hands, she held the pale blue cloth against her chest to avoid getting tears on it.
“It’s beautiful, Tsune-chan.”
Kazuki stared at the ground after knocking. He had no idea if Karura would be home. After all, he did work. The old soul hoped he could get the tennin to check on a lead with him, but it would be a bust if the spiritualist was out. Too bad he didn’t have a cell to call...
“Oh, Kazuki,” the tennin answered the gate, clearly surprised to see the young face. He tucked a fuda slip back into his yukata sleeve. “What brings you here this morning?”
“I’m so glad you’re home!” Kazuki said with a big grin on his face, relieved to see the other. “I was hoping you would come with me to talk to my local informant. Do you have some time? I was planning on calling the shinigami as well. We might get some clearer answers after pooling our information together.”
“‘Pooling our information’? I don’t understand.”
“I think the biggest obstacle we’re facing is no one has been on the same page. Before I met you last life, I worked with a different city’s department to solve a cold case, and the key to finding our man was staring them in the face for years before I showed up to help piece all their work together.
“I truly believe Miss Takahashi has worked diligently on your immediate security, but she hasn’t had time to examine the little incidents in between. That’s where Mr. Ono and Miss Yamamoto come in. Your knowledge of Tendou, the initial crime, and Akiko’s situation are crucial to the investigation as well, so I think we need to start working together instead of just passing along things to look out for.”
Karura stared back at Kazuki’s passionate expression. It was clear he knew how sensitive they all were about their situation, but he was trying to be considerate through his directness. The tennin had trusted his insight and perspective before, so he would be a fool to dismiss the input now.
“What did you have in mind exactly?” Karura asked, curiously.
“There are kodama in the nearby park. I used to check in for any gossip in the yokai circles while I was living as Mamoru. I took Akiko to meet them Tuesday, and we got some good intel. If we all pool our notes, we can ask some more specific questions that can help with this last oni. We might even find a clue to who you’re running from.”
“Kodama would be able to reach out to the other towns we have lived before. Trees never forget anything.” Karura considered the reach of the network of roots, wondering why he had never considered it previously. Perhaps they really needed a fresh pair of eyes and ears after all this time. “Let me reach out to Yoko. We can talk here before speaking with the kodama. Come inside.”
When Karura headed for his study, Kazuki fired off a quick text message outside, asking Mei and You to come by the Tennin residence. He shoved the phone back in his bag, since Karura was not a fan of cellphones or computers. He didn’t care for the interference with natural energies. It was fine last life, since the technology was relatively new and less common. Now, they just seemed stuck on a dead zone island in the digital age.
“I contacted Yoko,” Karura said, returning to the entryway. “I expect she will be at the door within the next ten minutes or so.”
“I hope Miss Yamamoto got my message. I’d like us all to work together to knock out this last oni. We’ll all rest better once it’s out of town.”
Karura and Kazuki set up the tatami room for the additional guests. The tennin mentioned his last talk with their shinigami, and the old soul agreed that giving up on Akiko’s voice wasn’t a realistic solution. She needed to regain her identity, not lose it. The idea seemed like a chance to get them home, at least, which he felt the shinigami ultimately desired. With such differing points of view, he hoped he could get everyone to work as a team.
Yoko was punctual as ever, knocking at the gate. Karura went to greet her. He blinked when he saw the two behind her.
“I presume you are all associates of Meido.”
“Associates?” Yoko turned to look where the tennin was staring. Mei and You waved back at her. “You’re up already, I see.”
“I had a wake up call of sorts,” You said with a light laugh. “Mei got a message to meet here, but I didn’t want to step on your turf, Yoko.”
“That was Kazuki’s doing,” Karura admitted, standing aside to let the shinigami inside. “He wants to discuss a plan of action against the last oni.”
All three shinigami seemed intrigued at hearing the old soul’s proposition. He had proven himself a worthy ally to each of them. Whether it was skill or information, Kazuki was a rich asset. If only he wasn’t such an unknown variable...
When Akiko hadn’t returned, Grandmother brought the tea up to the second floor. Tsune had curled in her side, resting her head on the tennyo’s lap. Seeing the pale blue robe in her arms, the old woman sighed heavily. She set the circular tray on the table before patting Akiko’s knee.
“What happened to her?” Akiko’s whispered softly as she cried. It was obvious the tennyo had perished, and based on the old woman’s expression, she imagined it was not well. “Your granddaughter, I mean.”
“She was fetching water from a nearby stream,” Grandmother said sadly. “Mountains often harbor bandits, but we had not encountered any for decades. I think I frightened them away initially. Hiroko was too kind a child. They attacked her, taking her hagomoro. If it had just been that, I might have spared their lives, but they stabbed her. She bled to death before I could retrieve her robe.”
“You tried to send her home to heal,” Akiko said, looking back at the elder. “I’m sure she couldn’t fault you for that, Grandmother.”
“I thank you, Akiko-chan, but I should have stayed by her side to the end. Though I do not regret retrieving her robe from those men, my last face to her was not gentle. If I could return to that time, I would have sent her to the next life with a loving smile.”
Akiko smiled sadly back at the old woman, but she noticed her eyes were not on her. Grandmother was looking at Tsune, who had fallen asleep. She wondered why the kitsune was so precious to her.
“Sweet maiden, you have suffered much in this life, but no matter the burden upon your spirit, you must allow yourself to grieve lest your anger consume you.”
“Anger? What do you mean?”
The old woman looked back at Akiko. The gentleness faded for a brief moment, and the tennyo thought she saw darkness in the gray pools. It surprised her after only seeing kindness from her, but she had learned that not everyone was as they seemed. Everyone had a past that made them who they were.
“If one is not careful, anger can transform a person beyond redemption. I was a slave to my spite for more than a lifetime and lost who I was. Hiroko saved me from my rage and isolation. With all you have endured, what have you lost, dear?”
Amethysts gaped back at Grandmother. It was foolish to imagine the elder was not aware of her voice. Having known a tennyo previously, she probably noticed the lack of humming in silences. Hanging her head, she furrowed her brow with frustration.
“Ever since I found my mother, I forgot my song. She always said I would write words to it when my soul was moved, but...” She reached to touch the welts at her neck. “Every time I try, nothing comes out, and I get so angry! I know I only have myself to blame, but just once, I wish I could recall the song in my heart!”
Grandmother bowed her head, sadly. Akiko faced a great obstacle. While it might be true that only she could reclaim her voice, the burden of blame was too much to shoulder solely herself. Her trauma was valid, and she needed to believe that. What catalyst did she require though?
“Akiko-chan,” Grandmother said as the biwa caught her eye, “do you still play?”
The young tennyo glanced up at the question. Seeing the elder looking elsewhere, she turned to see the instrument. It was the traditional mousou design she had seen in the shrine back home. Her mother had used one like that when she played in the gardens with her. Her grander instrument had been for courtly affairs outside the shrine, but this model had always felt more intimate and loved.
“I use one at school for club, but mine is back in our family shrine in Tendou. It looks much like your granddaughter’s actually. I can tell hers is much older though.”
“Why not try to play it? In the hands of a tennyo, I’m sure it would hum with clarity these old hands could never achieve.” Grandmother stood to retrieve the biwa and wide plectrum resting in front of it. Returning to kneel before Akiko, the old women extended the instrument.
“I can’t remember my song though,” the young cried softly.
“Then listen to my grandchild’s lullaby.”
Akiko set the hagoromo back inside the box. Staring at the biwa, she anxiously reached to take it. She felt unworthy to hold it somehow. Maybe she thought a shamed celestial as herself had no right. Grandmother’s smile encouraged her though. She turned the bowl of the biwa against her torso, hugging it close.
"Darkness sleeps within us all. It fuels our wants and needs. The glow of light slumbers as well and gives our souls sweet dreams.
"To those who hear this humble hymn, come now and hark my plea. Be not ashamed of who you are. Open your souls to dream."