Didn’t win but here’s a short I submitted for a writing competition:
Hayashi no Jinjya:
The Shrine in the Woods
Word Count: 2,466 words
Her scratched fingernails slid aimlessly over the worn keys. The soft glow of the menu highlighted small cuts and dirt smeared across her face. But no matter what settings she tried, or where she waved her arm, she could not get any of those five stubborn bars to light.
Frustrated, she slammed the cellphone closed and pulled her knees beneath her chin.
She eyed the empty festival stalls dotting the lane. Their plastic banners, boldly coloured, hung limp overhead. A deceptive peacefulness filled the front of the shrine. The only sounds penetrating the thick copse of trees were the distant cries of an absent child. Her mother stood on the edge of the tree line, frantically peering between the trunks into the gloom. A colourful pinwheel was clutched to her chest. To Carla it seemed like she had been standing there for hours, never attempting to leave the front court in search for her wayward kid.
Carla flipped her phone open again. The reception bars were still empty.
It was a strange emotion: feeling utterly alone, yet surrounded by so many people. Carla couldn’t remember how long she waited on these steps. Time seemed to move slowly at the reclusive shrine. At least the shaking had stopped.
A fire crackled in the late winter night, the glow from a large iron barrel belching thick plumes of smoke into the twilight. Four older men sat around the barrel warming their hands and chatting softly. The kindling came from the same middle school where Carla spent her days teaching. She felt a twinge of guilt when the students’ wood projects were broken for fuel but knew it was not her place to say anything.
A tapping overhead caught Carla’s attention and she looked up at the thick shimenawa rope. It was a massive knot of woven rice straw with pristine white zig-zag pieces of paper dangling like thick icicles. She never understood their meaning only that they demarcated the transition to places considered sacred.
Carla glanced at her phone. Still no response.
An overbearing sense of anxiety filled the front of the shrine like an unwanted guest. Were they through the worst? Was this just beginning? They had no information and everyone was left literally in the dark as the power had been off since Carla awoke.
The gas lantern at her side hissed at the crunching of gravel beneath soft runners. She looked up from her self-imposed exile to see a round face smile encouragingly.
“Oh, Carla-sensei,” the girl whispered bowing respectfully. Her long black hair tumbled over awkward shoulders. The girl still wore her school clothes which always reminded Carla of an outdated navy uniform.
“Hello Ai. How are you?”
The girl chewed her lip. She was shy – a common trait in her students – but one of Carla’s favourite pupils. Ai’s eagerness to learn impressed Carla, even if she possessed the typical teenage awkwardness and uncertainty. Thankfully, she took her lessons seriously and could converse rather well with Carla. And it was a rare soul who even tried to bridge the language divide.
“I thought you are hungry,” Ai said in that slow drawl the students adopted when they first began speaking English. Carla could almost see her flipping through a mental dictionary as she translated her thoughts. She produced a small round can from behind her uniform.
“It’s pan!” Ai offered as if that made things clearer.
Carla gave a polite bow as she took the can with her hands – you always accepted gifts with both hands. She turned the tin over slowly. It was light and the metal cool to her touch. There weren’t any labels or familiar markings to suggest what lay within.
She hoped it wasn’t fish.
A tab, much like a pop can, was fastened to the top. She caught Ai plucking at the air as if Carla might need further instruction. Carla’s cheeks prickled at the implication. She was a foreigner, not an idiot.
She breathed away the indignation. She was stressed and tired. Perhaps food, even smelly salmon, was all she needed.
The can gave a soft pop as she pried the lid off. Instead of a pungent seawater smell, Carla found a soft, spongy yellow substance inside.
Confusion knitted Carla’s brow as she poked at the food. Pinching a small amount she brought a tentative piece to her lips. Surprised, she tasted the soft linger of pineapple sponge cake. She felt a moment of brief embarrassment wash over her as she made the correction.
“Oh yes, so sorry. It’s bread!”
Ai bowed hastily in deference to her teacher. Carla smiled and motioned to the stone step. Pulling her skirt beneath her, Ai sat.
The one thing Carla could never appreciate was the sweetness of their bread. Of everything she missed from home, it was a simple fresh, crusty bun that she longed for the most.
“Where did you get this?”
“I find it down way…” Ai paused, struggling with some idea she couldn’t quite express. Instead, she merely turned and waved down the road. “Offering for strength and happiness.”
Relief supplies, Carla thought. It would explain the lack of labels. Perhaps things were worse than she thought. There hadn’t been any news over the town’s public announcement system but that was probably due to the lack of electricity. But she still didn’t have contact from her head office. She flipped open her cell but there was still no signal.
“You hear from family?” Ai asked, leaning in to look at the screen.
Carla offered the empty inbox as a reply.
“Don’t worry, Carla-sensei,” Ai smiled.
“Thank you,” Carla said, offering Ai a piece of sweet bread.
The girl merely shook her head and rubbed her stomach.
No subject, past tense – full. No doubt she had already eaten before thinking of Carla. Carla only wished she knew they were handing out supplies. She could have helped instead of sitting here feeling completely useless.
Carla licked dry lips as she searched for something to say to the third year student.
The two girls were best friends and almost inseparable. Ai cocked her head sideways in that curious fashion her students had when asked a question they didn’t fully understand.
She gave a short sigh and reached into her pocket, pulling out six hundred-yen coins. She looked morosely at the small collection before turning and glancing at the shrine behind her.
Carla followed her gaze, spotting a pair of vending machines not far from where they sat. Was she thirsty? Carla reached into her pockets and was surprised to find her wallet missing. Then it dawned on her; she’d left her purse in the teacher’s office.
Ai looked very curious to see Carla remove her empty hand from her pocket.
Carla looked around at the gathered solemn faces. The shrine was an evacuation area indicated by the green sign hanging from the gate. With the worst over, everyone should have returned home. Yet no one here seemed ready to leave.
Carla was waiting for more information. This wasn’t her first earthquake, but it was the worst. She didn’t know what to do but the thought of being alone in her dark apartment kept her on the steps before the shrine.
“Yuki was at 4-C,” Ai whispered.
Fourth floor, third room from the front stairs – the music room. Ai was an avid member of the Band Club so it seemed reasonable for her friend to be there. Perhaps she was working on the upcoming student rehearsal for the cherry blossom festival. The trees about them were just about to bud and Carla was excited for that brief week when they would bloom and surround the town in a cloud of soft white and pink.
Carla nodded but was surprised to see tears welling in the girl’s eyes.
“What about your parents? Are they coming?” Carla asked.
Ai wiped her eyes with her palm before looking around and shaking her head.
“They’re not here.”
“Maybe they will come later.”
“No,” Ai whispered. “No, I do not think they come. It is good. They are safe.”
The girl smiled.
Carla looked at her phone. Still no reception.
“I am sad for Carla here,” Ai said slowly. “You should be home. Gomenasai.”
“Oh, no! This is good. I’m happy to be here!” Carla said.
Ai tilted her head.
“Of course!” Carla sighed. “To tell you the truth, I was very scared. When it started, I didn’t know what was happening. It wasn’t until Takuma stood and shouted that I knew something was wrong.”
Carla paused but Ai sat patiently, staring at her. She couldn’t tell if the girl was waiting for her to continue or completely lost in the words. Oddly enough, Carla didn’t care.
“I crawled under a desk with everyone else. That’s when I felt it. The whole school seemed to shake and the windows sounded like they were going to shatter in their frames. But it was the floor that scared me the most. It bent and waved beneath my hands like it was made of water. I thought… I really thought it was going to collapse.”
Carla could feel that fear building up in her again. She shuddered and pulled her suit jacket tighter about her.
“And then everything was still. I remember Iwai-sensei opening the door and yelling for everyone to evacuate. The class ran. I followed but just as I reached the stairs, I remembered that Megumi asked to use the bathroom. I was worried she would get left behind. I ran to find her and then the building began to shake again. The floor shifted beneath my feet and the walls rumbled so loudly. And then…”
Everything else was a haze. Her best memories were a jumble of noise and chaos. She could vaguely recall the burning of dust in her eyes and the sharp stabs of pain running up her body. But she must have got out, how else could she get to the shrine? The last thing Carla remembered was collapsing against the wall with the girl’s bathroom only feet from her. Had she heard someone crying within?
She felt that growing knot of worry in her stomach return. She had so many unanswered questions. Were the rest of her students alright? What of her co-workers? She didn’t know them all that well even after a year together. Few spoke with her, perhaps fearful of making a mistake with their English, but Carla felt she was beginning to understand them. Even if it was just a little.
She didn’t notice Ai move until she felt warm arms wrapping around her and the young face pressing against her shoulder.
“Carla-sensei! I… I thank you.”
“For what?” Carla asked shocked that the shiest girl in her class would suddenly embrace her.
“For being so brave.”
“I’m not brave.”
“You are! I could not… I didn’t leave my desk. But you went for Megumi. You came here and alone! Your stories of travel inspired me. I wanted to see your world. I wanted to be you. You are brave and pretty. And… I say thank you! Thank you for coming. I could not be brave without you.”
Her arms tightened and Carla lifted hers to return the embrace. She was speechless. Not because these people were reserved with showing affection but as a teacher there had always been a distance between them. A gap created more by her strangeness than her position. She wasn’t Japanese and this cursed her forever as an outsider in their world.
“Well, I think that’s a good goal,” Carla said. “I love travelling and I think you will too.”
She wasn’t sure what it was, but the hug was comforting. Perhaps it was the contact, that little bit of tenderness, Carla needed. For a moment the two women sat on the steps of the shrine in peace.
A gust pulled the trees, bowing their great heads to its passage and the thick rice straw rope swung above them.
“Almost my time,” Ai whispered.
The girl pulled back, her hands briefly taking Carla’s.
“Gambare, Sensei. You will do well!”
An encouraging phrase – good luck. As she stood, Carla felt the girl slip something cold into her hand. She looked down to see Ai’s six coins.
“I can’t take these!” Carla cried as Ai turned.
“Yes,” Ai said, bowing respectfully. “Carla was brave. It is Ai’s turn to be brave. Don’t worry, Sensei, I don’t need them. I am good swimmer. I have family who help me on my travel. I now help you on yours.”
The great shrine doors groaned opened before a hunched priest with the barest wisps of hair dotting his spotted head. Ai gave a bright smile before turning and passing beneath the faded wood torii gate. The old man raised a gnarled hand to stop her but Ai merely shook her head. Wordlessly he nodded, moving aside. Carla cried out, standing and hurrying up the steps after her student. As she rushed towards the gates, the aged priest eyed her briefly before slamming the doors shut.
Carla stood there, staring at the cracked wood. It was then she noticed the mural etched on the front. She ran one hand over the stylized ukiyoe etching of a grand, forked river. A trickling stream of downcast people made their way towards the waters. Before them stood a balding man in faded robes holding out his hand.
For those with enough coins they passed over the river along a marvellous bridge. Those with less picked carefully along a ford; the water pulling at their exposed ankles.
The last group, those without coins, passed naked by a tree covered in clothes. They waded into the turgid waters; their faces petrified as the waves curled around their bodies wrapping like thick snakes about their arms and neck.
It was a passing but not for the living. Carla looked down at the coins in her hand then to the dead cellphone in her other. She began to realize that she would never receive word from her family.
And yet, as she turned back to the gate, there was a worrying fear those doors would never open for her either. They were not built for her. They were built for everyone else. They were built for the Japanese who looked upon them and understood.
In the distance, the unanswered cry of a lost child echoed through the night.