Hibari: The skylark
Hiro raced as fast as his feet would carry him, stopping only when he reached the other side of the bamboo fence. He searched for the plum tree and found it exactly where it was before, nestled between the cryptomerias.
“Inari-sama! Inari-sama!” he cried to the canopy of branches above.
The world felt full of pain and sorrow. In the tranquil sun of spring, a startled hibari soared in the sky. Hiro gazed at it and almost tripped. There was a popular belief among the people of Tang that a hibari was the spirit of a person who had come back from the dead. He hoped it was a good sign.
Hiro arrived at the plum tree, his heart burdened with guilt. He called for the fox god again, and moments later, he appeared.
Inari’s eyes glinted. “What is it, child?”
Hiro wordlessly opened his hands to reveal the bird, its soul shimmering above the body.
The god snarled, baring his fangs. “How can you do that?”
“I don’t know,” the boy sobbed. “Can you help me? I don’t know what to do.”
A breeze swished the leaves of the plum tree, and the forest fell silent. Even the pink flowers turned to listen. A lonely red blossom fell from the tree onto the moss-covered ground. It transformed into a purple chrysanthemum, opening its petals and leaning toward the fox god.
“So be it,” Inari said. He sat on his haunches and tilted his head, nose tenderly brushing the soul of the bird Hiro carried. It flickered at his touch.
“I can give this soul another life, but only once it completely separates from the body. And that can only be done by a shinigami.”
“A shinigami?” Hiro asked.
“Yes, a death god. They take the souls of the creatures on earth back to the Land of Yomi, where the dead live.”
Twinkling white light floated above the uguisu. Hiro hovered his right palm over the corpse until he could feel the gentle warmth of the bird’s soul.
From the veil I murmured, and he repeated my words as if they were his own.
“Don’t be afraid,” Hiro said. “I am here to help. Entrust your soul to me and leave your body.”
The light began to rise. Hiro turned his palm up and it landed there, cozily nesting in the center.
Inari’s seven tails flicked behind him nervously as Hirotsugu reaped the soul. “Incredible,” he said. “It is unheard of for a human to hold a creature’s soul in his hands.”
Hiro would dwell on that later. At the moment, something else was urgent. “What do we do now, Kami-sama?” he asked the giant fox.
“Now the soul can live as one of the yōkai. I give you the honor of choosing its new life and new name. Who will it be?”
Overcome by the weight of the decision, Hiro panicked. The purple chrysanthemums began to glow silver from within, giving him an unexpected hint of what to do. “Can it live in a flower?”
“It can live in anything,” the god said. Hiro pointed at the violet petals. “Is that your choice?” Inari-sama asked. “For it to become a yōkai hana?”
“It is, Kami-sama.”
“And what will the name be?”
“Biko. Because he was like a little spy.”
The fox blew lightly over Hiro’s palm, and the soul levitated to the flower Hiro had chosen. He watched in rapt fascination as it landed snugly between the petals, and then the chrysanthemum closed into a blossom.
“There. It is done. We need to let Biko-chan rest now. When he’s ready, he will awake. Leave the body with me to bury.”
“Will he know me when he wakes?” Hiro asked. “Will he remember?”
“No, child. He will be something else then, with a new life and no recollection of what he was. Only if he willingly touches something meaningful from his last life, will the memories return.”
“That’s good,” Hiro said. “I don’t want him to remember his death.”
“Do you feel guilty for it?”
“Don’t. It is in man’s nature to be violent. And it’s the nature of spirits to be forgiving, because they are superior.”
Hiro’s attention lingered on the blossom. The words settled deep within him, like seeds.