The thing is, he’s spent his entire life hearing the stories about the great god Amaterasu, of her beauty and nobility and purity of heart. There is not a one among their tribe who hasn’t, and even Princess Kaguya bows her head in respect of Amaterasu’s name.
In all honesty, he may have been a little in love with her for all his life, only he’d never admit as much; how ridiculous is it (how expected is it!), anyway, for one of the moon-tribe to love the sun-god? It’s the sort of thing poets write reams of metered verse about, even though everyone falls asleep halfway through the first act and everyone dies at the end.
All this, and no one is quite sure what she truly looks like: she patrols the heavenly plain as a sleek white wolf, but her silhouette behind the screen, when she has audiences, is a woman. There are a thousand paintings and statues in her likeness, and none of them are the same: in one she is heavy-breasted and full-hipped, her pregnant belly round as the moon; in another she is barely more than a child, stick-thin and small, and her eyes are dark and wild. In another she’s a fair maiden whose face is hidden by the edge of her lace fan, dressed richly as any queen; in yet another, she is a warrior that even the wind-god cannot outrun.
And in his true-dreams, the ones from which he spins his prophecies, he walks alongside her with all the familiarity of a comrade and intimate, but when he turns to speak to her, all he sees is a blood-colored shadow that seethes at him, leaving a trail of dried dead grass in its wake.
As a sign of goodwill, Princess Kaguya herself is to head the diplomatic envoy to Takamagahara; as her oracle and guardian, of course he comes as well.
At the doorway to the inner sanctum, a giant wolf sits to block their way — for a moment Ushiwaka’s heart feels like it might split in two from sheer excitement — but its pelt is the dark inky blue of midnight, and the markings along its powerful shoulders and across its forehead are silver. Kaguya bows low.
“Tsukuyomi-no-mikoto,” she says. “We beg audience with your honored sister.”
The wolf says nothing, but his yellow eyes are keenly intelligent; there is kinship between him and their people, the legends say — that they alone did not spring from Amaterasu’s blood, but from that of her brother.
Without a word he moves aside to let Kaguya pass, but when Ushiwaka tries to follow, he is blocked. What he sees beyond the door, before it closes, is a room with no roof, so the sun shines in freely, and a screened box set up, and the elegant shape of a woman seated inside.
Though he prides himself on his skills of observation, he doesn’t actually hear her approach. The first thing he hears is a woman’s voice, and what she says is, “Do you play often?”
He almost drops his flute. He wants to turn, but shock freezes him in place and makes his stomach knot in uneasy anticipation. Now that she has made her presence known, he can’t ignore it — she fills the entire area, the sheer joyous presence of her enough to stun, just like one might expect from the sun. “Often enough,” he says. “The princess says it soothes her to hear.”
There is no answer at first, and he’s afraid he may have offended her, before he can even see — but then she says, closer now, “I would like to hear.”
His palms are sweating, and his fingers feel leaden and thick. “Ah,” he says. “Amaterasu-ookami …”
“I would like to hear,” she says, and from the corner of his eye he sees — something, a faint white shadow, and the goddess smells like sun-warmed grass, like clean water cutting across smooth stone.
“Play something for me,” she says. It’s not a question, but neither is it a command, and Ushiwaka reacts instinctively, almost helplessly, straightening his back and putting the pipe to his lips.
She never comes any closer to him than that, a faint outline at the edge of his vision, but he keeps as much of it as he can in his peripheral vision as he plays lullabies and folk songs and half-finished pieces of his own composition under the gentle eye of her sun.
“You’re quite talented, aren’t you?” she says when he finally stops. Her voice is warm with approval. “Such as I would expect from the moon-tribe’s oracle.”
Her praise makes his stomach feel light and his cheeks feel hot. It’s a very strange feeling — one he has always known intellectually, though not personally; he has courted but never been courted in turn. “Amaterasu-ookami …”
“I would like it very much,” she says, her voice growing fainter in the wind, “if you would play again for me, sometime.”
He turns quickly, but she’s already gone.
When they return to the moon and their own people, Ushiwaka does not quite so much spend his days brooding as he does thinking, watching the golden shadow of the sun in the far distance. The petty lords and ladies of Kaguya’s small court titter behind their hands: O Ushiwaka, you have fallen in love, finally! And with a goddess from Takamagahara, how shameful, O!
Kaguya calls him into her audience chamber and they drink tea together, quietly.
“There are wiser choices,” she tells him when he leaves her presence. “But that means little to the heart.”
Ushiwaka looks at her, his princess and ward, and he bows low to her. “It does,” he says, which is the most he comes to admitting it.
When she appoints him as the next emissary to Takamagahara, he knows better than to be open about his gratitude. As he leaves, though, he catches her eye once and knows she already understands.
The gods are not as solemn as those of the moon-tribe. The longer Ushiwaka lives among them, the more he comes to appreciate this. Secure in the protection of their sun-god, they frolic in the wide fields and streams, and even Amaterasu herself joins them, a long lithe wolf that glows in the sunlight, utterly carefree. There is no shadow, only cooling shade that makes for a pleasant spot to nap.
They alternately charm and infuriate Ushiwaka with their naivety. Other than the thirteen brush-gods of Amaterasu’s inner court, not a single one of them has any knowledge of warfare, or fighting beyond wrestling with the goddess-mother in the long soft grass. He offers to teach them, with the approval and aid of the honored Tachigami, but the lesser gods grow bored quickly, drifting away from their lessons.
“Do not be discouraged,” Tachigami tells him, as they watch the last god wander away. “As long as Amaterasu-ookami watches over them, there’s no need for them to learn.”
Ushiwaka leans on his practice sword, thoughtful. “But what if she cannot be there?” he asks. “They leave for the mortal world, sometimes, and there are monsters who roam in the darkness. What will they do then?”
“Pray,” says Tachigami, and he swings his long sword up over his thin shoulders with careless ease. “Pray, and hope that her divine mercy will save them.”
Ushiwaka frowns at this. “That’s a poor way of handling things,” he says. “They need to be taught properly–”
“And would they believe it?” Tachigami’s voice is wry. “After all, we live here in the garden of Amaterasu. There is nothing here to be afraid of.”
Ushiwaka tries rolling the thought around in his head, nothing to be afraid of. It’s as alien to him as the serene fields and the careless laughter of the gods. The moon is a dark and cold place where monsters live just beyond the border of every small village and town; children are to properly fight as soon as they are able to hold a weapon.
But of the the god-tribe, it seems that only Amaterasu and her inner court have any skill as fighters.
“Don’t trouble yourself with it,” says Tachigami, breaking into his thoughts. The mouse-god’s eyes are wry, and his small hand is very strong when he clasps Ushiwaka’s shoulder. “Mother Amaterasu watches over us all.”
He walks away, the sword settled over his small shoulders. Ushiwaka watches him and the practice blade in his hands feels brittle and thin, like it might snap under any pressure.
When he looks up, the sun has begun to sink low in the sky, blood-red with the coming evening.
Seasons do not pass in Takamagahara the way they do anywhere else; here, it is perpetually spring-on-summer’s-cusp, where the breezes are sweet-scented and gently warm. Flowers nod under the spreading canopy of fruit-laden tree branches. Takamagahara is exactly the sort of paradise Ushiwaka has spent all his life hearing about, and despite that, he finds himself unsatisfied.
He had expected more, especially of the tribe that made this place their home. For those who bragged direct lineage with Amaterasu, they were a childish, flighty race. He’s not sure why he expected otherwise.
He watches the sky change from afternoon to evening, as day-blooming flowers shut and night-blossoms open, and in the distance he sees the moon rising.
“You’re troubled,” she says. As before, as always, she comes without any indication of her presence — though now he’s noticed her, ah, there’s the smell of warm summer hanging in the air. This time, when he glances to the side he happens to see a woman’s white foot against the dark green grass. “What is it you want?”
“It’s hardly anything,” he says, then he corrects himself: “It’s nothing at all.”
He hears the rustle of cloth, and the foot vanishes as a knee leans into his vision. He imagines: she is crouched beside him, faceless and slim, watching his back.
“You lie,” she says. “Are all the people of the moon-tribe so oblique?”
He laughs once, shortly. “Perhaps it’s just me. I’m difficult to please.”
For a moment she says nothing; then, “Perhaps if you knew better what pleased you, happiness would come easier.”
He goes still. “Ah,” he says. “You think I don’t know what I want?”
“You are not the first who came here with expectations,” she says, almost kindly. “Nor would you be the first to leave not understanding what you found.”
“Then I’m not the only fool?” He turns his head — not enough to actually see her, but he can see the sun glowing off her white hair, which flows and eddies around her in some unfelt breeze like mist. “O Amaterasu, mother of us all?”
She doesn’t answer right away. He expects this, but when he turns away, he hears (and her voice is so sad, with a heaviness he regrets at once), “You are not the first.”
Ushiwaka turns, quick as he can, but sees nothing but faint curl of fog left behind.
A great river cuts through Takamagahara, beginning as a bubbling swirling spring and ending in a cascading waterfall, which occasionally mingles with the rain that falls to the mortal realm. It is two day’s journey to go from one end to the other, and it is a route Ushiwaka knows well. He travels it often, undisturbed by god or animal alike.
Today he reaches the spring in time to see a goddess rise from the waters, her long pale-blue hair rippling down her back. From both sides of her head sprout long delicate fins that are rainbow-translucent in the air, and her long fingers are webbed in-between. She turns to him, unashamed of her nudity, her strange eyes unblinking.
“You are far from your usual fields, child of the moon,” she says. Her voice is all the rush of water: rainfall, ocean wave, babbling brook. “You are far from Mother Amaterasu’s court.”
“I am,” says Ushiwaka. “I am allowed to leave, aren’t I?”
“Mother Amaterasu holds none against their will,” Nuregami says. “But that does not mean someone’s heart binds them when nothing else might.”
Ushiwaka looks at her. He could run away; Nuregami is not the swiftest of gods on land.
“My heart is a very poor thing,” he says. “Oracles are rarely suited for the marriage-bed.”
“Ah,” says Nuregami. Water winds its way down her cheek like a ribbon of tears. “So are gods.”
And one day he walks up to the great palace where Amaterasu holds court. The dark wolf is there again, standing guard outside the doors. Its silver eyes regard him with cool disdain.
“I want to speak with your sister,” Ushiwaka says; it’s not the gentle formal language Kaguya had used, so long ago, but he is not his princess, nor will he ever be of her level. “Let me through.”
The wolf growls softly, and its fangs are very sharp. Ushiwaka does not back down. He meets the wolf’s eyes straight on and does not back down. In one hand, he grips his flute like a sword.
And then slowly, still growling, the wolf rises to its feet and steps aside — not far, but just enough that, should the doors behind it open, a man could slip by without contact. Without a word, Ushiwaka strides past and into the sunlit audience chamber.
He sees now that there are actually thirteen seats, all arranged in a circle around the room; directly opposite of the door, a tier higher than the rest, is a white screen printed with the emblem of the sun. Behind it kneels a woman, her outline backlit by light. He does not break stride until he reaches the center of the room, where he goes down onto one knee and bows his head.
“Amaterasu,” he says. “Origin of all that is good and mother to us all.”
“Are we so formal, then?” she asks; in the room her voice echoes and sings. “O child of the moon, it is far too late for that.”
“Not so formal,” he says, without lifting his head. “I haven’t seen your face yet, after all.”
A low murmur goes through the chamber; the other gods must be in attendance, then, though he cannot see them at all.
But Amaterasu says nothing until all the voices have stopped. Into the new silence, she says, “And what would a child of the moon want with the sight of the sun-god’s face?”
He almost lies: there are quick and charming things he could say, glib and rolling off the tongue. He has charmed men and women alike with his words, effortlessly bright. But he puts his hand over his heart and he keeps his head low and he says, “Merely to see it.”
There is another murmur from the others. He can recognize individual voices now; he has only spoken directly with a handful of the brush gods, but their voices fit their forms, high and deep and bright and dark. He waits, unmoving.
“You ask for a great thing, child of the moon,” Amaterasu says. “Would you forsake your own people for this gift?”
He considers. He swallows.
He says, “They will always be my people, but I would gladly call this place my home.”
“I see,” says Amaterasu. Behind her screen her shadow moves. Ushiwaka expects more protests, but the other gods are silent as her white hand comes and pulls aside her veil.
And the face of the Amaterasu, the origin of all that is good and mother of all, is no more grand or special than the face of any other god but for the red brushstrokes on her face, which are more elaborate and spiderwebbing across her white skin. Ushiwaka looks at her and sees a lovely face, a noble face, but still no more lovely or noble than any of her inner court.
And yet in his throat there is a sudden pressure that makes it hard to breathe, a tightness in his chest that is physically painful. The longer he looks at her the harder it becomes, and yet he knows if he turns away everything will end; the sun cannot be one man’s alone. This is an unexpected sort of gift, one he knows that few even of the tribe of gods has ever been given. It is trust, and it could bring him to his knees easily.
He wants to weep, but his eyes remain dry.
Amaterasu-oomikami smiles down upon him, and the sun is radiant off the pure-white of her hair. To his surprise she stands and she descends, down the long stairs to stand before him. Her bare feet are grass-stained. The toes are long, and the nails slightly curved into points.
“Here I am,” she says. “I’ve always been here.”
And Ushiwaka bows until his forehead is pressed to the hem of her juu-ni hitoe, and cries at last.
He writes reams of poetry, all of it very pretty and painstaking, and still can’t capture the exact cascading flow of her sleeve down her arm.
He writes scores of poems and burns each page as soon as he’s finished.
To his surprise, she seeks him out.
He sits on the banks of the River of Heaven, his bare feet dipped into the water, playing the melodies of his homeland. It seems very distant and strange to him now, the cold dark wary places where he was born, like something out of a nightmare. And yet he knows that’s not so: because the memory of cold and the leering faces of youkai are lumped in his belly, low and hard and icy to the touch.
The melodies were all in minor keys. Here, whenever someone sings — and some of the gods are whimsical enough to do so regularly — everything is major and bright.
He plays lullabies and doesn’t pay attention to anything in particular until she says, behind him, “Ushiwaka.”
And despite that he is not stunned into jumping; his breath dries in his throat and he lowers his flute. He breathes twice and says, “Amaterasu-oomikami.”
“Are we so formal now?” she asks. She steps now completely into his line of vision; with a start, he realizes that she is fully human in shape now, white-haired and barefoot and close enough to touch. “Before, you called me as the other gods do. Now, you refer to me as a stranger.”
She sounds amused. He swallows.
“I apologize for my rudeness,” he says.
“It’s hardly rude,” she says, amused. “Ah, the formalities are Tsukuyomi’s domain, less of mine.”
“Tsukuyomi-no-mikoto is very devoted to you,” Ushiwaka mumbles, looking at the water. “He always stands guard outside your chambers, protecting you–”
“Ah,” she says. “And sometimes, I change his fur so that it is white, and leave him in my place so I can go play.”
In shock he turns. She is looking straight at him and smiling; her maiden’s smile is not coy, but it is still playful. “He always protests,” she says, “but he still does it. That is part of his devotion, I guess.”
There is something seductive in the easy way she talks: she is polite, but her speech is casual, flowing as easily as the water around Ushiwaka’s ankles. He swallows and instinctively leans back when she lists towards him.
“Are all men of the moon so stiff and formal?” she asks. “Have you all taken so much after my brother? Ah! I’m not sure I want any more of that.”
“Surely,” she says, her voice and face suddenly serious — though she puts no more distance between them — “surely you already know how silly that is.” From the corner of one eye he sees her lift one white hand, and her long fingers trace something in the air a scant hairsbreadth from his cheek. “You already know, don’t you?”
Ushiwaka takes a deep breath. He lets it out. With a shaking hand he leans forward into her hand.
a long road that stretches thin and winding, starting at his feet and ending at hers
blood soaking the hem of her haori, a red pattern of cherry blossoms across the white cloth
her smile and her dimming eyes — if one must die, spring is a good time for it —
and the solemn unchanging essence of stone.
With a gasp he pulled back. It takes a few moments for her face to swim back into focus, and her expression is solemn. “Ah,” he gasps, and realizes that he is gripping her arms, so tightly that his own fingers hurt. “Ah, Amaterasu–”
Spring will come with no sun, he wants to say, though his throat closes on the words. There is darkness coming.
Her fingers move across his face. Her nails are sharp and trace the curve of his cheek. She leans forward and puts her forehead to his, and her hair slides forward, down her shoulder. It smells of musk and sun-warmed fur, of flowers and ripened summer fruit; it follows the gentle curve of her breast. The eyes of the sun-god are brilliant gold, and he feels like he might fall in and burn away. It’s utterly, painfully trite, but he cannot make himself blink.
“I believe,” she whispers to him, her breath against his face. “Don’t forget that.”
Ushiwaka finally releases her arm. He presses his hand over hers, so that it is trapped against his face. Her palm is hot and dry. He thinks suddenly, absurdly, of how they must look: the exile from the moon, standing with the sun-god, intimate as lovers. She smiles at him now, and he sees a single fang peeking over her lip: it’s a canine grin, brilliant and guileless and he finds himself smiling helplessly back.
He doesn’t say her name, and he doesn’t dare put his arms around her, but when she tilts her head towards his, he closes his eyes and leans to meet her halfway.
The Day of Darkness brings with it a shadow from behind the stars. The beast Orochi rips through Takamagahara like paper, uprooting ancient trees and leaves scorched poisoned gouges in the once-fertile earth. Gods fall before its onslaught: they cannot fight, and so they die.
In his life Ushiwaka has seen many great and terrible things, and on this day he sees the last face of Mother Amaterasu, which is both: the snarling beast, the divine protector, she whose blade was swift and deadly, whose claws tore and teeth ripped, who bore down with the ferocity of the divine wind and scoured the earth clean as she passed. The other small gods can do nothing but flee, but Ushiwaka stands beside her and follows her charge.
Together they drive the beast back to the edge of the heavenly plain, but though they strike it and again, though it bleeds black from a thousand terrible injuries and several of its heads hang almost severed from its thick scaled necks, it does not fall. Against the inevitable spread of the Day of Darkness, with the prayers of mankind grown silent, they can do nothing but hold fast. Ushiwaka stares up into those eight hideous faces and sees instead a glade under the clean light of the moon, and the single tiny human that lifts his trembling hands in a final attack.
He sees this and he thinks: this is not that place.
This is not that time.
Ushiwaka draws his sword, and into Amaterasu’s ear he whispers the name Izanagi.
She glances at him once with her flashing eyes, and then she leaps, her white fur shining in the darkness, and strikes Orochi. For a moment they are poised on the edge, suspended for that heartbeat of time.
And then they fall, writhing together, down with the trumpet of Orochi’s roar, down with Amaterasu’s mane streaming, down, down, down to the mortal plane, and though Ushiwaka rushes to the edge and looks as hard as he can, he cannot see her light any more.
The statue is such a crude thing, made of rough stone and awkward craftsmanship; it hardly looks like anything recognizable, and yet there is still something within that makes his throat tighten. Ushiwaka runs his hands over the snarl of the beast, the arch of its back and the suggestion of claws, and presses his forehead to that of the stone wolf.
There will come a time, he knows, when she will walk again: she is Amaterasu, she is the sun-god and even when her mortal body fails and fades, she rises to travel through the sky every day. Her injuries will heal, and there will come a time when her children will cry out and she will answer.
It will come, but it is still a long time that he kneels at the statue’s base, first in silence, and then playing the flute-melodies she’d asked for so long ago.
“When Konohana blooms again,” he says to himself, as day once more fades to night, “we’ll meet again.” He turns and places his hand on the stone wolf’s breast, where the heart should be. He looks into the blank eyes and imagines that, for just a moment, he sees them flash. He smiles.
“I believe,” he says softly. “I believe, and I won’t forget.”