VOLUME 2: ~Naïve~
Chapter 4 “A full account of the New Year spectre”
(Good morning. It’s been so cold lately, hasn’t it?)
Don’t worry, I’m perfectly healthy. I just wanted to do a good, formal morning greeting.
Also, there’s a student studying hard for entrance exams in our home, so all of us have been on our best behaviour these days.
Eh? Hadn’t I been in the same situation myself last year? But I don’t recall everyone being as tactful then. Isn’t that a little mean on their part?
Oh well. The entrance exams for Karen Girls’ Academy’s middle school branch will take place soon in February, and my little sister Pop is studying hard for it. I remember that my entrance exams were in March. Does the one-month gap simply explain the difference in our drives? I mean, I don’t think I was slacking off too much last year, but Pop’s determination now definitely exceeded my own.
Pop has been working so hard, and her teachers had said that she has a chance of making the cut. I wonder if she, like me, is weak at taking final exams. But, judging from her personality, I really don’t think so.
I opened the windows, allowing cold wind to enter my room. The trees in our backyard had shed most of their leaves, and, because of the frost that had settled on their branches, they glittered brightly every morning. It has been really cold lately, but it looks like we’ll have great weather today.
Christmas had gone by in a flurry of activity, and winter vacation had officially begun. But we had been given so many reports and homework to complete that the amount of work we had to do back in middle school now seemed like child’s play. Such a mood dampener.
Oh well, it’ll be New Year’s soon.
Work has been easy these days, since we’ll be closed on New Year’s Day, but I’ve been working hard to earn the New Year’s bonus pay. If I didn’t earn at least a one-and-a-half-month bonus, I’d feel like a slacker next to Pop. So I really need to work extra hard.
Even with an entrance-exam-taking student at home, our preparations for the New Year’s Day celebration took place as usual. I’ve been kept busy with spring cleaning both at home and at the MAHO-do.
How is everyone spending their New Year’s, you ask?
Momo-chan has gone to Shanghai to visit her dad. Onpu-chan is on winter vacation too, but she’s been busy with movie location shoots and English lessons, so it’s not much of a break for her.
Hazuki-chan’s family is having a reunion event, and, since her dad is a movie director, there will probably be lots of guests. Ai-chan, like me, will be spending the New Year without much fuss, but she’s been pus.h.i.+ng herself with physical training every day.
“Hey, we’re leaving for the shrine visit.”
It was New Year’s Day, and everything was proceeding normally. We had filled our stomachs with the usual New Year’s dishes, and, just as I was getting comfortable on the couch, Dad’s voice rang out, rousing us up for the New Year shrine visit.
“Don’t we usually go in the afternoon? Let us laze around a bit first,” I replied, eyes glued to the TV while typing out messages to my friends on my mobile phone.
Pop was beside me, watching the comedy programme on TV and letting out an occasional laugh. We’d already done our a.s.signed ch.o.r.es for the day, and this was nothing unusual from our annual New Year’s routine.
“I’ll be done with the dishes soon, so do get ready to go. Pop, we won’t want you to catch a cold, so please bundle up well,” Mum called from the kitchen.
“OK,” Pop replied as she stood up. I had no choice but to follow her. Anyway, why were we doing the shrine visit so early this year? If I hadn’t been so caught up in that idol’s countdown concert on TV, I would have tried to argue and delay the visit a little.
Entering my room, I opened the closet and picked out the new coat that Mum and Dad had given me as a Christmas present.
It was strange, receiving a functional gift like this instead of toys or games, and it made me feel like an adult. If only I could start behaving like one.
“Where are we going? To the famous shrine with the G.o.d of Wisdom?” Pop asked.
It was barely 9 a.m. I had put on my new coat, all ready for the long trip to the shrine Pop had mentioned.
“No, we’ll be going to a shrine nearby. It’s just fifteen minutes away on foot,” Mum informed us.
“What?! Aren’t we going to pray for my success in the entrance exams?” Pop huffed, clearly dissatisfied.
“That’s what I thought initially, too,” Dad replied as we walked on. “It’s true; we can make our way to that faraway shrine, but isn’t it more important to pay our respects to the deity who protects our own town, where Karen Girls’ Academy is located?”
“We seldom travel down this way, but the shrine is a really nice place,” Mum added.
It was true; I seldom come to this part of the city. The surrounding houses and apartments looked new, and the roads were wide, too. Misora City used to be full of farms and empty land, but this section seemed to have been recently developed into a residential area.
“There will be less empty land in this area in the future, and, even though there’s a park just across the road, the traffic can be quite heavy during the day. As such, the shrine has become a playground for the children who live nearby.”
We had arrived at the shrine, and I took a good look at the place. The main building was surrounded by tall trees, but it still gave off an airy, s.p.a.cious feel. It truly was a nice place, with so much greenery around it. And despite the fact that it was New Year’s Day, there did not seem to be a lot of people around.
“This shrine has been here for more than two centuries, ever since the Edo Period, watching over Misora City. Like you girls, I wasn’t really interested in shrines when I was younger, and I just took part in the activities without knowing much about anything,” Dad told us.
“This place is really great for strolls during the summer. The trees provide good shade,” Mum added.
It seemed like Mum and Dad had visited this shrine many times. I wondered if it was because they were at an age when they felt the need to pray for their health. Or was it because Dad was dealing with metabolic syndrome?
Following our parents’s lead, we washed our hands and mouth at the spring located outside the shrine building, and then proceeded to the altar. We threw some coins into the box at the altar, and then stood in a line to offer our prayers. It was the first time I felt such a serious atmosphere surrounding this routine procedure.
“Oh, they have votive picture tablets here, too. Go write one, Pop.”
The wall was already full of votive tablets hung up by other devotees, many of them looking new. We moved to a stall near the entrance of the shrine, where protective charms and votive tablets were sold. Mum bought a tablet and pa.s.sed it to Pop.
While I browsed through the displayed votive tablets, Pop wrote down her wish.
“Please let me pa.s.s the entrance exams for Karen Girls’ Academy. Harukaze Pop”
Her handwriting has improved lots. It no longer looked like the writings of a child, but that of a mature young girl.
I suddenly realized that, even now, I still treated my little sister like a kid. I also recalled how angry I had been as a middle schooler when my parents had treated me the same way as Pop, who was in elementary school at that time.
The votive tablets all held various wishes. There were ones wis.h.i.+ng for success in love or career, and some wis.h.i.+ng for speedy recovery from illness or injury. I hoped that all these wishes would come true.
Maybe I should also write one, to pray for a successful application to university. But I guess I need to work hard on my own as well. Otherwise, even the G.o.ds won’t be able to help me.
Work at the MAHO-do started up again on the afternoon of 2nd January. Hazuki-chan, Ai-chan and I were a.s.signed to prepare the lucky-dip bags for the next day, while Momo-chan went to try out her new cake recipe.
“Happy new year, everyone!” I called out happily as I walked through the door.
“Happy new year, Doremi-chan. Momo-chan and Ai-chan, please continue to look upon me favourably this year, too,” Hazuki-chan replied politely.
“Happy new year! This year’s first recipe will be mango and strawberry tart cakes!” Momo-chan exclaimed.
“Happy new year. Thanks for having us, Majorika and Lala,” Ai-chan greeted.
We were only apart for a few days, yet these New Year greetings made me feel as if we’d not met up in a long time.
“Onpu will be dropping by tomorrow evening,” Majorika said as she entered the room, Lala trailing behind with a tea set and wrapping materials in hand.
“Well, why don’t we start with tea time? Momo-chan came early to prepare these,” Lala said as she set about arranging a basket filled with candies on the table. The candies had been individually wrapped in tiny bags.
“What’s this? It looks so cute,” Ai-chan commented as she picked one up for a closer look.
“Hmm, is this one a rabbit?” I asked, examining a thumb-sized candy I had picked up. These must be decorations for the cakes we’d be selling tomorrow. I picked up another one. “Is this one a dog?”
“Nope! It’s a red fox!” Momo-chan corrected me.
These candies really reflected Momo-chan’s personality so well.
After having tea, we set to work baking the cakes for tomorrow.
It happened the next day.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come up with anything better.”
“Don’t say that. Thank you, Onpu-chan! I’m sure Pop will be delighted.”
While on her location shoot, Onpu-chan had gone to a nearby shrine to buy a protective charm for Pop.
“And this is from me,” Ai-chan added as she pulled out three short pencils from her bag. Each one of the pencils had numbers printed neatly on their sides.
“Look, each face of the pencil body has the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 printed on them. And the numbers are surrounded by their respective shapes. “3” is surrounded by a triangle, while “4” is surrounded by a square, see? These will be useful to her during the exams,” Ai-chan explained.
That was just like Ai-chan. She always had the most creative ways of making the exams less stressful.
“Here’s my present for Pop-chan,” Hazuki-chan said as she pa.s.sed me a small box. “It’s the school badge for Karen Girls’ Academy’s middle school branch. I’ve heard that it’s a lucky charm, so please tell Pop-chan to bring it to the exams with her.”
Pop would definitely be pleased to receive such a present from Hazuki-chan, her potential Karen Girls’ Academy senior.
“She’ll be able to wear it once she pa.s.ses the exams, too,” Ai-chan commented.
“I have a gift too—!” Momo-chan called out as she brought over some newly-baked cake tarts.
The cake tarts this time were mainly composed of sponge cake and custard cream, with strawberry slices laid out generously on top and covered up by a layer of fresh cream, such that the redness of the fruits was barely visible. Another batch had a thick slice of mango in place of the strawberries. Now, we just needed to decorate the top with those animal-shaped candies.
We decorated the strawberry tarts with the rabbit candies, and the mango ones with the red fox. With these woodland animals in place, the cakes looked all ready for springtime.
In the end, despite us baking a whole batch, the cake tarts were all sold out by the afternoon.
“I was wondering which one I should leave for Pop-chan, so I decided on the golden mango one to wish her success,” Momo-chan explained as she handed me the special cake she had set aside. This one was covered with many thick slices of mango. It would definitely cheer Pop up.
“Momo-chan, why is there another cake tart over there?”
I had spotted another strawberry cake on the table beside us, and was curious as to why it had not been put on sale.
“Oh, s.h.i.+nshuu-kun called me this morning to keep it for him. I’m sure he’ll be here to pick it up soon,” Momo-chan explained as she placed the cake into a box and wrapped it up. We heard a knock on the front door at the precise moment Momo-chan was done with the wrapping.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were closed already,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun apologized.
“It’s alright, I was just done with the wrapping, anyway,” Momo-chan a.s.sured him.
s.h.i.+nshuu-kun was one of our elementary school cla.s.smates, and his family runs the city’s temple. However, it was only recently that we learnt about his love for sweets.
“Oh, Harukaze-san. I was just looking for you,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun said as he pa.s.sed me a white paper bag. “I heard that your little sister Pop-san is taking her entrance exams this year, so here’s a charm from our temple.”
“Thanks,” I said. I wondered how s.h.i.+nshuu-kun even knew about this. Maybe I had spoken to him about it the last time we met. Or maybe it was because he lives in a temple, and news would have reached him easily with the large number of devotees visiting his home every day.
“I’m sure she already has a protective charm from a shrine, but our temple’s charms are really effective too. That said, no charm can replace an individual’s drive and determination,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun said wisely.
We had been chatting happily when the topic of New Year shrine visits came up. I was telling everyone how I’d never known about that shrine which was a mere fifteen-minute walk from my house.
“There’s lots of trees, but it’s still quite bright and cheerful. Pop wrote a votive tablet there too.”
I thought it was an interesting topic, yet everyone had fallen silent. In fact, Ai-chan and s.h.i.+nshuu-kun had really weird expressions on their faces.
“W-what’s wrong? Is something the matter?” I asked as I pulled on Ai-chan’s s.h.i.+rt collar. “Ai-chan, do you know something about the place? What is it? Is it haunted or something?”
“No, Harukaze-san, there’s nothing to worry about,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun hurriedly a.s.sured me.
“But we prayed for Pop’s success there! And Mum and Dad told us that it was a great place too! No—,” I blubbered as I started to panic.
“s.h.i.+nshuu-kun already told you not to worry,” Ai-chan replied, fl.u.s.tered.
Just then, Onpu-chan stepped in to break up the pandemonium.
“Yes, it’s true that something has happened there recently, right? s.h.i.+nshuu-kun, do you know anything about that?”
Yes, Onpu-chan was always the calm and reliable one.
“You mean those spiky things? Or that hundred wors.h.i.+p ritual thing?” Momo-chan interjected.
Just what are you rambling about, Momo-chan?
“Actually, I’ve heard some rumours too. It’s not that far from Karen Girls’ Academy’s campus, and some friends who take that road to school during the winter vacation had told me some scary stories,” Hazuki-chan whispered, trembling like a baby squirrel.
“But it’s really nothing to be afraid of. It’s just that some people have been hearing children’s voices there…”
“Could it be a murder? I mean, it was pretty empty when we visited, even though it was New Year’s Day!”
Aaah—. Pop, run for your life—.
“Calm down, Doremi-chan. s.h.i.+nshuu-kun, please tell us more,” Onpu-chan requested, completely ignoring my panic.
“Actually, I was thinking of checking the place out. Shall we all go together?” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun asked.
s.h.i.+nshuu-kun then arranged to meet us at the shrine after he had dropped his cake off at home. As the cakes in the shop had been mostly sold out, we made quick work of tidying up the shop and getting the materials for tomorrow ready.
After that, I made my way home with Pop’s cake tart. I was sure that if Mum had not made me promise not to touch it until night time, when the whole family would eat it together, I would have gobbled it all up out of anxiety.
Night had fallen by the time we met up. In the dark, the large trees surrounding the shrine made the place look huge and foreboding. We made our way up the path leading to the main shrine building.
“s.h.i.+nshuu-kun, where are the voices coming from?” I asked nervously as I strained my ears, but aside from the rustling of the dried leaves in the breeze, I heard nothing unusual. I turned around to look at the others, but it seemed as if n.o.body had heard anything strange too.
We pa.s.sed under the torii gate and went up some stone steps. There were a few people around the place, probably there to wors.h.i.+p. s.h.i.+nshuu-kun did not follow us, but had made his way to a gravel-covered area beside the torii gate. There were some low bushes planted around it; the area probably served as the shrine’s yard.
“I’m not sure, but they are children’s voices. It seems like they are searching for something, or there is something troubling them… But don’t worry, they are not malevolent in nature,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun explained to us with a smile. It seemed that he was the only one who could hear the voices.
“So you can hear them? Can you see them anywhere?” Onpu-chan asked.
s.h.i.+nshuu-kun looked around before replying. “There seems to be only one. I can sense it moving around, as if searching for something, but I don’t think that what it is searching for is here. However, since it’s here, I’m guessing that this place holds some important clue.”
His words sounded so cryptic and otherworldly to me.
“But you can’t talk to it, can you? It’ll be great if we could somehow help it in its search,” Hazuki-chan said. It was easy to see that she was frightened by the way she held on tightly to Momo-chan and Onpu-chan’s hands, but her words spoke of her bravery and willingness to help.
“That’s right. It’ll be easier if all of us can join in the search, too,” Ai-chan backed her up immediately.
“I love helping those in need,” Momo-chan declared happily.
“It’s probably something very small and hard to find. I wonder where it could be…” Onpu-chan mused. She and Momo-chan were standing strong next to Hazuki-chan, looking like gallant princes protecting a princess.
“Well, it’s starting to get really dark. Let’s head back,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun suggested as he cast a final glance around the yard. I wondered if he could see the child spirit, or if it appeared like a dim shadow to him.
With us in tow, s.h.i.+nshuu-kun started to head homeward.
“I’ll come again tomorrow and talk to the chief priest. Maybe what it’s searching for is an actual physical object that we can try to find. As for today, we’ve learned that it’s not an evil spirit, so there’s nothing to worry about,” he said as we walked along.
Well, if s.h.i.+nshuu-kun said that it was fine, things were probably not as dangerous as I’d previously imagined. But it’ll be great if we could find out what the spirit was searching for. If we had an idea, maybe we could help solve the problem.
I decided to wait for s.h.i.+nshuu-kun’s update tomorrow.
That evening, everyone in my family ate less than usual during dinnertime. It was obvious that all of us were saving our stomachs for Momo-chan’s cake.
“Wow! It’s so cute—!” Pop exclaimed as she picked up the seven red fox candies Momo-chan had placed on the cake, a symbolic Lucky 7, and lined them up neatly on a plate. Yes, they were all so cute; it seemed like such a waste to eat them.
“The mango slices are glistening, just like gold,” Dad said. He usually disliked sweet things, but even he had a soft spot for Momo-chan’s cakes.
“You can see a layer of fruits under the fresh cream, and that’s supposed to give an image of spring arriving soon. The mango slices on top are like a wish for success for your exams,” I explained.
“This is perfect for New Year’s. Isn’t this great, Pop? Everyone really cares for you,” Mum said happily. All the gifts from everyone—Onpu-chan’s charm, Ai-chan’s pencils, Hazuki-chan’s badge and the charm from s.h.i.+nshuu-kun’s temple—were lined up neatly on the table as well.
“Yep. I’m so happy! Thank you, big sis. I promise to work really hard,” Pop exclaimed as she hugged all the gifts happily.
“You’re always working hard, so you’ll be alright. Just bring all these along on the day of the exams, so it’ll be like we’re all there to cheer you on,” I a.s.sured her.
I could sense that Pop was worried for the exams, so I hoped that the gifts would lend her some confidence and strength to go on. She looked ready to cry as she held the gifts, and I, too, felt myself tearing up.
“Come, let’s dig into Momo-chan’s new creation. I’m sure eating it will make us all pretty,” Mum urged.
Mum, what are you talking about?
“Looks like you’ve got lots of charms to ensure your success, so I guess Mum and I will have to start looking for a gift to celebrate your pa.s.sing of the exams,” Dad joked.
With that, we cut up the cake and took a slice each. I wanted to eat it slowly and enjoy each bite, but in the end, I couldn’t help gobbling up the cake. It was just that delicious.
Momo-chan’s cakes were always wonderful like that. They were not only beautiful to look at, eating them often brought a smile to people’s faces. The sweets were also made this way, and each piece told of her feelings and heart.
Because of this, Momo-chan’s sweets were best enjoyed when eaten with friends and family. The confections tasted wonderful during our tasting sessions at the MAHO-do, but, with good company, they tasted infinitely better.
The new cakes sold out really quickly the following day too. Momo-chan was the main baker, while us girls, Majorika and Lala helped to frost and decorate the cakes. When the store opened, some of us moved into the shop to serve customers.
There were many people milling around, and sales picked up fast. The seasonal cupcakes were really popular, and the grilled candies were selling well too. There were several other items on sale as well, all lovingly made by Momo-chan. She had talked about wanting to increase the variety of items we had on sale, though I personally thought that what we had now was good enough already.
At the end of the day, we headed over to s.h.i.+nshuu-kun’s house. I wondered if the problem had been solved, or if he had gleaned some new information. Onpu-chan could not join us today, but she sent us a message requesting us to keep her updated. She was probably really interested in the whole matter.
As we neared s.h.i.+nshuu-kun’s place, he hurried out to greet us.
“There’s been some developments,” he told us excitedly.
This morning, s.h.i.+nshuu-kun had made his way to the shrine to meet the chief priest. The priest had told him that the children who used to come to the shrine to play had stopped coming recently, despite the fact that it was the winter vacation. Apparently, some kindergarten and elementary school kids who lived near the shrine would often come to play in the shrine’s yard, but many of them had not come in a while.
“Since it’s a shrine, the kids won’t be allowed to play too close to the main building. But the area next to the torii gate is a good and safe place for the kids,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun explained.
“That’s right. I remember seeing barriers around the place, so it’s really very safe from traffic,” Hazuki-chan recalled.
“Mum used to let me play in the grounds of the shrine near my place when I was a child too,” I mused.
“Was it because you were too mischievous, so it was safer to let you play outdoors?” Momo-chan teased.
Well, I guess that explained things.
“The priest had done some investigating too, but nothing had happened that could have roused any spirits. No one had damaged the sacred trees, and n.o.body had died around that area too,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun brought us back on topic.
“The shrine covers quite a large area. Maybe he just missed the spot?” I suggested.
“Could it be vandalism…? That would be really sad,” Momo-chan added.
“I don’t think so, since he could hear the voices even when inside the main building. Anyway, he’s said that it’s good to have the children around, and that the shrine will always welcome the kids if they want to come back and play,” s.h.i.+nshuu-kun said.
“That’s nice, since there aren’t many safe places left for children to play in these days. He sounds like such a nice man,” Hazuki-chan commented.
I agreed with Hazuki-chan. The priest sounded like a kind man, and I wanted to help him.
“s.h.i.+nshuu-kun, we’ll try to gather more information,” I said.
“Thank you, Harukaze-san.”
With that, we waved goodbye and left s.h.i.+nshuu-kun’s house.
After some discussion via messaging, we decided to transform into witch apprentices and meet up again at the shrine. Since Onpu-chan was not an apprentice, we kept her informed via mobile messaging.
“I wonder if we will hear the children’s voices now?”
We had gathered in a circle near the torii gate, backs to each other. Closing our eyes, we listened hard.
“I hear a boy’s voice, Doremi-chan,” Hazuki-chan whispered.
“What? I hear an old man’s voice,” Ai-chan countered.
“I’m hearing what sounds like a papa’s voice soothing his child,” Momo-chan offered.
What was happening? I opened my eyes.
“Look! I see a child over there!”
The others immediately turned around and followed my pointing finger. It was quite pale and translucent, but we could clearly see the figure of a young child, looking troubled as he wandered in circles around the gravel-covered area as if searching for something.
Momo-chan slowly made her way closer, “What are you looking for? Let me help you.”
The spirit didn’t seem to hear or notice her, continuing his search as he brushed past Momo-chan.
Just then, we heard the faint ghostly voices again.
“…It’s fallen right here, but he can’t hear us calling to him.”
“That’s what we keep trying to tell him every day, but he never listens.”
“Big brother, there’s no need to keep harping on about it. Besides, we’ve become obsolete now.”
Just as I was about to start screaming, Ai-chan slapped a hand over my mouth. A brief struggle ensued.
“Doremi-chan, you’ll disturb the neighbours if you scream,” Ai-chan warned.
But that’s not the problem, is it?!
I glanced over to the others for help, just to see Hazuki-chan walking over to the pair of stone lion-dogs guarding the shrine.
“Erm, excuse me. Did you just say something?”
I wondered if Hazuki-chan had lost her senses due to shock and fright. Why else would she be speaking to the stone statue? And she was being so polite about it too.
“H-Hazuki-chan…?” I called out weakly.
Ai-chan and Momo-chan had made their way over to the other stone lion-dog.
“The mean-sounding old man’s voice came from this one,” Ai-chan confirmed.
“Really? But I heard a really soothing man’s voice,” Momo-chan argued.
It was true; the voices had indeed come from the direction of the stone lion-dogs. But it was absurd; could it really be the statues speaking?
“Look, it seems like these girls can hear us.”
“Lion-dog-san… You seem like you know about the spirits. Could you please tell us more?” Hazuki-chan addressed the statue again. She was so polite, the epitome of a Karen Girls’ Academy student.
“There have been rumours about people hearing children’s voices around here. We’re just trying to help solve the problem,” Momo-chan added.
“These old lion-dogs must know something,” Ai-chan said as she moved nearer to the statues.
At that, the eyes of the stone lion-dog on the right started to s.h.i.+ne.
“I’m not a lion-dog. I’m a real lion. The lion-dog is that guy over there,” it growled.
“Does it really matter, big brother? The young people nowadays won’t know the difference either way,” the other statue replied.
“Anyway, I’m not your brother!”
We stood in front of the lion-dogs… No, the self-proclaimed lion and the lion-dog statues, stunned into silence and not knowing how to continue the conversation.
In the end, I decided to speak up, “We saw the figure of a child searching for something, and you said he’d dropped whatever it is nearby, right? Where is it?”
“Please, at least tell us what he’s searching for, so we can help out,” Ai-chan added.
We moved a little closer to the lion-dog statue’s pedestal, partly because it was the one who said that the object was nearby, but mainly because the lion statue sounded so mean—not that we dared to admit it out loud.
The lion-dog statue informed us that he was missing a piece of his back leg. We circled behind it to take a look, and, true enough, there was a chunk missing from the statue. We spotted the missing piece lying just a few feet away, though it was hard to tell since it was the same colour as the gravel on the ground.
“Did the boy do this?” Momo-chan asked.
“Those kids used to climb on top of us and launch themselves onto the ground. It was during one of these jumps that he chipped off that piece,” the lion statue grumbled.
“Well, it wasn’t a significant piece. Besides, I’m such an old statue, so it doesn’t matter to me,” the lion-dog statue replied.
It then went on to talk about how the boy had been dared by his friends to attempt the jump. However, in his fright, he had reached out his hands mid-jump to try to stop his fall, and that was how he had broken the chunk off the lion-dog’s back leg. After the incident, the boy’s spirit could be seen every night, searching for the missing chunk.
To those who are unfamiliar with this part of our culture, let me do a small introduction. These statues of dog-like creatures that guard our shrine from evil spirits are actually a lion and a lion-dog. They serve as lookouts at the shrine entrance, and also help to protect the place. They’re part of our traditional culture, dating back to the Heian era. We heard all of this from the statues as well, though it was just a little too much to take in at that time.
“When my leg was broken, big brother let out a cry. That boy must have heard his cry, and so his spirit left his body each night when he’s asleep, to come and search for the missing chunk,” the lion-dog statue concluded his story.
“I did not cry out! And I’m not your brother,” the lion statue insisted gruffly.
“So you weren’t angry?” Hazuki-chan asked.
“Big brother was actually worried that the boy might have hurt himself, so he cried out before he could stop himself,” the lion-dog statue said.
“Children are just so reckless,” the lion statue sighed.
Shrines have always been a makes.h.i.+ft playground for young children. These stone statues had been around for over 100 years, so they must have watched over this place and all the children who played here for all this time.
I wrapped up the broken piece of the statue’s leg in my handkerchief.
“Hey, where are you taking it?” The lion statue growled.
“To the boy. He’s been searching for it ever since he broke the statue, right?” I replied. Ai-chan and the others nodded in approval.
“We’ll leave this piece next to his pillow tonight, and tell him to bring it to the chief priest,” Momo-chan explained.
“With that, everyone will be happy,” Ai-chan added.
“We’ll also give him some courage and strength, so that he will come to apologize,” Hazuki-chan a.s.sured the statues.
Yes, it would be pointless if we delivered the piece. The boy was regretful, so it was right that he be the one to apologize for his mistake. Besides, it would give him peace of mind as well.
“Will that be alright with you?” I asked the statues.
“Please also tell him that it’s okay for him to come and play here again,” the lion-dog said.
“…And tell him not to climb all over us, in case he gets hurt,” the lion statue added.
After a.s.suring the statues that their messages will be delivered, we left the shrine.
Outside the torii gate, I summoned my Sweet Poron and held out the stone piece.
“Pirika pirilala poporina peperuto! Bring this piece to the boy who broke the lion-dog statue’s leg!”
The stone piece started to glow and float above my hand, before flying away. We chased after it until we saw it stop in front of a house nearby.
“So it must be the child living in this house,” Hazuki-chan whispered as the stone piece pa.s.sed through a gla.s.s window which probably led to the boy’s room.
“Now it’s my turn!” Momo-chan said as she summoned her Sweet Poron.
“Perutan petton pararira pon! Turn us invisible!”
Now invisible, we easily slipped into the boy’s room. We saw that the stone piece had lost its glow, and was now resting beside the boy’s pillow. The boy was fast asleep, but he had a troubled expression on his face.
“Bring this stone piece to the shrine’s chief priest, and make sure you apologize,” Hazuki-chan whispered to the boy.
“He won’t be angry, so be brave,” Ai-chan said.
“Fight on, young man,” Momo-chan added.
So saying, the three looked at each other and smiled. I couldn’t say anything, as Ai-chan had insisted on keeping a hand over my mouth the entire time.
The boy’s expression slowly turned peaceful.
“I think we got through to him. He looks so peaceful now,” Ai-chan whispered.
“That’s great. I’m sure he’ll have the courage to visit the shrine tomorrow,” Hazuki-chan whispered back with a smile.
Ai-chan, why must you insist on keeping me quiet? I tried my best to glare at Ai-chan. Just then, Momo-chan spoke up, as if she had read my thoughts.
“Well, it’s because Doremi-chan always loses control,” she teased.
I could only let out a m.u.f.fled sigh.
Mission completed, we slipped out of the house, and only then did Ai-chan release me.
Once the boy delivered the stone piece to the chief priest, the issue would be resolved and the rumours about the shrine would slowly die out. But that also meant that we would never get to talk to those funny stone statues again, since they would recognize and expose us as witch apprentices. I guess we had to take care not to call attention to ourselves whenever we visited the shrine in the future.
When I stumbled sleepily into the dining room the next morning, Pop had already finished her breakfast.
“Good morning, big sis!” she called out cheerily.
“Good morning, Pop,” I replied, letting out a yawn as I sat down on a chair.
“Big sis, I know it’s the winter vacation, but you’re really too lazy,” Pop reprimanded in her usual tone. However, she was smiling, and no longer had that worried look about her. Yes, the bratty Pop was back.
I wondered what would happen if she enters Karen Girls’ Academy and slowly becomes more mature. I hoped she would aim to become like Hazuki-chan, instead of someone like Tamaki Reika.
“Did you say something, big sis?”
I quickly dug into my breakfast.
1. A torii is a traditional j.a.panese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a s.h.i.+nto shrine.
2. Read more about lion-dog statues here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komainu