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My Second Self by LikeABlueThread

Chapter 1

Looking back on my life now, reader, I barely recognize the person I was so long ago. But if you will lend me your patience, I will tell you a tale.

I don’t remember my early childhood; I was found at the age of three in the shadow of a holy tree in a plague-stricken Shinto shrine, the only apparent survivor. The monks who found me said that there was a woman and an infant, a babe in arms, inside the shrine, both dead. I tried to mourn for them, the mother and brother I would never know, but more often than grief I simply felt loneliness. I belonged to no one, belonged nowhere.

I was raised by the monks in a larger shrine that functioned as something as an orphanage in the region. The leader, Ungai, was a hard man. Bitterly prejudiced against demons, he used his shrine to train a new generation of demon-hunters with spiritual powers. I watched the children who were of no use to him – children without holy powers, children without the stamina to become soldiers – wither in his care, ignored, neglected.

I, on the other hand, was never neglected; Ungai-sama and his monks despised me. I was wild, he told me, like a beast or a demon myself. He hated that I would fight on behalf of the other children and would tell him when I thought he was wrong; he hated that I would accept beatings rather than begging the monks’ forgiveness; he hated the way my hair curled instead of lying flat like a proper woman’s should; he hated the stridency of my voice and my instinctive proficiency with a bow and arrows; he hated that from very young I could sense others’ auras, indicating that someday I might have strong holy powers of my own. He beat me, berated me, and humiliated me, doing everything in his power to break me and turn me into a “correct” woman, like the other girls, demure and self-effacing.

I tried, at first, to conform to his desires, but soon learned that he was right – my wildness would not be tamed. I was incapable of being anything other than my irredeemable self. And I was irredeemable.

As I got older I grew more wary of his temper, more frightened of his brutality, more likely to be silent in the face of abuse than to raise my voice and be punished further – but even then, my wariness did not change my heart. The wildness rose up in my throat just as often as ever it had before; I merely grew better at biting it back in Ungai’s presence. And I learned disdain for the other monks. None of them saw me. They taught me, they yelled at me, they disciplined me, one of them tried to pin me to a tree and pull my hakama open (I bit him, and received the most painful beating of my life for it), but even then – I always felt as though I might as well have been a plank of wood with a face painted on it. Ungai hated me, but it was me he hated; he alone saw me for myself. Given that the only person who knew me for what I was hated me, I learned, deep into my soul, that I was a monster, that no one would ever love me unless I duped them – but still I scorned duplicitousness with all the wild pride in my wild heart. And so, in the absence of love, I treasured his hate.

The other children, for their part, mostly avoided me. I received a few shy smiles and soft thank-yous from people I’d defended, but no one spent much time with me. Looking back on it, I think they were right to shun me – at the time I felt some bitterness, but the monks would surely have lashed out at anyone they saw as my friend. So I grew up without companionship. The boys laughed at my wild hair and loud voice; the girls shrank from me in fear. The older children frowned at me, confused by my resistance to the monks who raised me; the younger children tried not to be like me, seeing how often I was beaten with bamboo canes or – worst of all – with the monks’ staffs with their metal fittings.

I say all this in complaint about my upbringing, but I must also give the shrine the credit that is its fair due; the education we received was exceedingly thorough. The monks taught us skills and ideas wildly beyond what any orphaned peasant might ever hope to learn; expert reading and calligraphy, mathematics, foreign languages, philosophy, history, theories of human behavior, theories of the way the natural world works and explanations for natural miracles ranging from the turning of the seasons to the mathematically-precise curl of a seashell. They taught us about youki, demonic power that lived inside youkai, the demons that shared our world; they taught us about reiki, the holy power that they themselves possessed – the power to extinguish demons. They taught us to think, to evaluate, to assess evidence presented to us and draw educated conclusions. They taught us to question our own assumptions. There, they succeeded, though Ungai would have hated to know how deeply. As I listened to them preach the evils of demons, a doubt grew in my heart. What if “demons are evil” was an assumption to be questioned rather than a natural law to assume will always apply? I knew better than to ask, but the question haunted me, especially when the monks and older children came back from their missions covered with blood.

**

As it happened, my life with the monks changed abruptly around my eighth anniversary at the shrine, when I was eleven. In our weekly archery lesson, I fired an arrow that lit up with holy fire like lightning bolt; the tree it hit exploded into pink flames. Children and monks alike gaped at the wreckage in silence as splinters of wood fell around us like autumn leaves. I was a miko.

From that time on, Ungai began to cultivate me as a tool in his war on demons; I was no longer merely a mind to mold to suit his worldview, but a weapon to hone. And hone me he did, with whetstone and fire. My schooling was cut down to four intense hours every morning, and the rest of every day was devoted to training me, mind and body, as a holy warrior. I learned to moderate my aura to a polite size around me to alert others to my power, or to mask it completely for stealth; to imbue weapons with holy fire that would purify demons into ash; to create barriers; to heal. I could still see that he despised me, but now he had a use for me. Under the monks’ disciplined guidance, my power blossomed beyond their hopes.

I encountered a demon for the first time the following year, when I was brought along on a demon-slaying mission. At twelve, I was by far the youngest to go on one of these trips. About ten other children and I were led to a clearing with a wooden cage in the center, its door bound by a holy sutra. Inside was a terrified-looking fox demon. None of us had ever seen a demon before; I had no idea that some of them looked so human! He looked my age, though I knew from my lessons that he may have been centuries old, given the difference in demon aging. It was the first time I had ever felt a demonic aura against my own; it grated against my soul with a strange electric buzz and made me shiver. 

The monks stood around it, declaring its evil deeds in ringing voices; it had attacked a human village, it had murdered a human family, it had made off with livestock and ruined many livelihoods. As they were declaring its crimes to the world, the fox begged for its freedom, claiming that it was starving, that it had only killed those who had tried to kill it, that it only took the livestock to feed its own family.

Ungai told us to kill it for its crimes against humanity. The other students obeyed without hesitation, raising their bows. I closed my eyes and turned my face away.

When we returned, I could feel Ungai’s cold stare on me at every turn. After a day of miserable suspense, wondering what my punishment would be, I was finally called over to him in a quiet corner of the courtyard while my classmates were drilling with staffs. I knelt before him, trembling. He remained standing, and loomed over me like one of the great forest oaks.

“You did not fire upon the demon,” he said without preamble.

“No, Ungai-sama,” was all I could respond. I waited for him to strike me.

“You are useless in our holy war if you are unable to stomach bloodshed,” he said softly. I was terrified by the promise of violence in the quiet hiss of his words. He watched my face for a moment, eyes stony; I kept my eyes down, not knowing what to say.

“Can you explain your actions to me?” he demanded at last.

“I am sorry for my disobedience, Ungai-sama,” I said quietly, trying to keep my voice from quavering. 

“Explain. Your. Actions.” he repeated through gritted teeth, each word like a slap. My hands were sweating and trembling; I knitted my fingers together tightly and squeezed. The wildness was rising in me; I knew that whatever I was about to say was likely to get me beaten, perhaps worse. I tried to think of something politic, something to say that he would approve of, but all I could think of was the look on the fox child’s face just before he was murdered. And still, Ungai was waiting for an answer.

“The demon was not a threat,” I blurted out at last, looking desperately up at him. “It was caged and subdued, and its crime was a crime of poverty, like so many of us here have known.” I gestured to the yard of orphans, many of whom came to the shrine after childhoods of thievery and foraging. “It was not a threat.” I was repeating myself in my emotion, a demonstration of lack of discipline that I knew Ungai hated. I clamped my lips tight together.

Rather than striking me, though, he squinted down at me with revulsion and frustration on his face. After a long moment, he sighed. “You will accompany me on a three-day mission. Prepare yourself; we leave at dawn.” He strode across the courtyard without another word, while I gaped after him.

**

Our mission, he explained on the road the following morning, was to a neighboring village. The two of us walked side-by-side down a dusty road, him with his staff and its luminous gem bisected by a gold cross, me with my bow and quiver of arrows, our breath forming white clouds in the morning chill. He had received a letter begging for his assistance in subduing a demon that was terrorizing them. A shiver passed through me. This, then, was to be my first combat experience. For most of us, it was not until we were sixteen or so.

We walked all day in silence, and reached the town as the sun was setting. Ungai was greeted with joyful shouts and warm smiles – children ran to tug at his robes and beg him to tell them stories, and the adults came out of their homes to offer us tea and sake. With smiles and kind acknowledgments – so strange on that cold, angry face! – he made our apologies and led me to the house of the village chief.  I was pulled into a fragrant kitchen by friendly arms and handed a bowl of something hot and savory. A number of women clustered around me as I ate, fussing with my hair and cooing over the bruises and scrapes on my arms from training. Overwhelmed, I answered their flurry of questions about my age and my parents and my life with the monks as best I could, taken aback by the gasps and moans of pity and sympathy my words elicited. Finally, confused and exhausted, I was led into a small room where some dozen children already slept peacefully, and shown a futon and warm blanket in the corner. I retreated gratefully into silence. For a brief while I tried to center myself with meditation, but the strangeness of what I had seen kept jarring me out of it. Eventually my exhaustion conquered my nerves, and I slept.

The following morning I woke early and crept silently out from between the other children’s sleeping forms. A woman saw me as I slid the shoji door closed behind me and shepherded me into the kitchen again, where again I was presented with a bowl of hot rice and fresh fish, more flavorful than anything I had ever tasted coming from the monks’ kitchen. I ate ravenously before venturing outside in search of Ungai.

Ungai was meditating in the courtyard of the chief’s house. I knelt silently beside him and tried to soothe my mind into some semblance of order. Meditation had always been difficult for me, but it was the most useful skill I had learned from the monks. I counted my breaths, allowing my mind to clear. I felt my spiritual power blossoming in the emptiness where my thoughts had been, surging in like the sea at high tide.

“Come,” Ungai said when the sun was high. He rose and strode out into the barren fields without looking back. I followed, tripping over my feet in my haste to keep up. It was late winter, and nothing had yet been planted; I was foolishly grateful for that, as I hated the idea of a battle taking place on top of a poor village’s crops.

When we were at the farthest point in the fields from the village, Ungai released his aura. It engulfed me, bringing my own aura roaring up in answer. I gasped, trying desperately to rein in my power, fighting the urge to drop to my knees. I had never felt anything like it before. The monks had released their auras in front of us, mostly to goad a response from our own, but never Ungai, never anyone this strong. His spiritual power was immense.

After a few moments of gasping like a beached fish, I felt a tingle brush the edge of my aura – a buzz, like an electric charge. From the south. At first I could barely sense it, but it grew more insistent by the moment. Youki – demonic energy. The youkai was approaching, lured by Ungai’s power. I nocked an arrow and face south.

The demon that burst through the trees did not look human. It was a boar, bigger than a house, bigger than I had ever imagined any living thing could be. My jaw hung slack. It galloped towards us, horse-sized hooves plowing cavernous divots into the field. Its eyes were red, its tusks stained a dark rust, its every movement indicating fury, frenzy. Before I could collect my wits, he was nearly upon us.

Ungai was better prepared than I. Chanting in a low voice, he cast a paper sutra up in the air, then with a blast of spiritual energy from his palm he sent it flying at the boar’s face. It hit him squarely between the eyes, and the boar froze. How he roared! The earth trembled under my feet with the sound of his fury – but the sutra held. He was immobilized by Ungai’s power. I took a deep breath, and turned in awe to face my teacher.

Ungai was watching my reactions, and had opened his mouth to say something to me, when a blast of youki knocked him off his feet. I whirled to face the boar – it had broken through Ungai’s sutra, and was wielding its spiritual power in huge writhing tentacle-like whips of rage that lashed the air and left deep furrows in the ground. I could feel its malevolence – it hated me, hated Ungai, hated humans, hated! There was so much hatred in it. Shaking off the last vestiges of the sutra with another burst of youki, it turned its sights on Ungai, who lay motionless on the packed earth some fifty feet from me. It lowered its head like a bull, stamping its feet in preparation for a charge. I couldn’t think; my mind felt sluggish with the weight of my disbelief. Ungai was defeated! He would be killed! I would be killed – then this thing, this monster, would kill the people of the village, who had been so kind to me!

The boar charged. Without thinking, I raised my bow and fired. A holy arrow to his shoulder knocked him off-course – he staggered, then turned to face me. Another arrow, this time to the throat. He took a few steps in my direction, but his charge had lost its terrifying speed. Another arrow. Another. A fifth arrow, and he fell to his front knees. A sixth, and he dissolved into pink fire.

I fired three more arrows into the space where he had been standing before I realized it was over. My bow fell from trembling fingers, and I dropped to my knees on the earth. I covered my face with my hands and wept.

The villagers had been watching the fight, and soon swarmed across the field to us. I was picked up by strong arms and carried, half-insensible, back to the village. On the verge of hysteria, I blocked out their celebrations, their concern, their reassurances, and sank as deep into meditation as I was able. I was dimly aware of being laid out on a futon, of businesslike hands checking my limbs for injury, but my mind did not mark the events. My spiritual power swelled into the void where my thoughts had been. I allowed the sea to wash over me, to overwhelm me.

When I came out of my meditation, it was dusk. I still felt ill and shaky, but no longer like a cracked vessel that would shatter at a touch. I rose, and went in search of the others.

A feast was being held at the chief’s residence. Ungai was there, bandaged and pale, but alive – and clearly the guest of honor. I slipped silently in and took my place, kneeling at his elbow. He glanced over at me momentarily, then visibly dismissed me and turned his attention back to the food and company. The villagers were telling stories of the havoc the boar had caused – it had ruined their crop last summer, leading to many deaths by starvation over the winter. It had trampled all of the young men who had tried to fight it. It destroyed a house, killing the family that was trapped inside, including two small children. There was nothing to mourn. A monster, a menace, an evil had been dispatched. At some point I realized I was ravenous, and ate, though I don’t remember what; at some point not long after I realized I was exhausted, and slipped silently away to restless dreams. 

**

That was not the last demon-hunt that Ungai chose me for. Time after time, I was chosen for wildly difficult hunts, ones where the demons were mad with power-lust or fury, where they were mowing down innocents and destroying whole towns. But there were many more missions I was not chosen for. I wondered if Ungai suspected my doubts about the nature of youkai, if he was choosing me only for the missions that would affirm his teachings. While I killed many youkai, I was never faced with another demon like the one who had begged for his freedom from the wicker cage. They were all like beasts – incapable of speech, incapable of thought beyond the instinct to kill before they were killed. I knew there had to be others.

I grew, in age, in stature, and in power. By the time I was fifteen, Ungai’s spiritual power no longer overwhelmed me when he released it. By the time I was sixteen, my spiritual power could overwhelm his, though the whipping I received when I discovered that discouraged me from releasing my power in full ever again.

Despite my power – or because of it – the monks respected me, feared me even, but never fully trusted me. I was never asked to lead any of the missions; others went out protecting villages and slaying demons, but I stayed in the monastery. It suited me well. I found that for all my aptitude for war, my doubts about the justice of our actions prevented me from being the great demon-slayer the monks wanted me to be. That realization was chagrining, but also liberating. I was set to training the younger students, teaching archery and staff-fighting as well as meditation and spiritual exercises like healing, barrier-creation, and imbuing objects with holy power. I soon discovered that I loved teaching. The younger children did not fear me; they ran to my lessons with smiling faces and dedicated minds, and I watched their progress with a heart that felt too big for my body. For the first time in my life I felt loved, needed. That feeling was the greatest treasure I had ever known.

At eighteen, my training complete, I was turned loose on the world with nothing to my name but the clothes on my back and a bow and quiver of arrows, which I was to use in my holy crusade. Ungai took me aside the day before and told me to travel north, where he had heard of a village that was in need of a priestess. There I could serve out my purpose, a respectable miko in a respectable village, defending them from marauding youkai and healing the sick. It would, he said with what appeared to be an attempt at kindness, be very much like my life here.  

That night, however, one of the younger girls had come to me whispering rumors from her home village: there was a great lord to the west who was seeking a tutor for his young ward, an unruly mute child whom a dozen tutors had tried to teach and abandoned in despair. If anyone could help the child, she told me with heart-rending earnestness, I could. I considered her words with something like hope beating its wings inside my chest. The position would allow me freedoms not admitted to a village miko; I would be paid, and might eventually become independent if I saved wisely. And I would be able to teach. Her message and stuttering directions to the castle delivered, the little girl had thrown her arms around me and began to weep quietly into my stomach. My home at the shrine had not always been a happy one, but it was still the only home I had ever known, and the other students were like sisters to me. At the same time – freedom. I had a momentary vision of true freedom: no one to tell me my voice was too loud, my opinions too strident, my hair too wild, my spiritual power too strong. But then my heart plummeted, and I found myself clutching harder at the little girl sobbing into me. I knew better, I chastised myself. I would never escape those strictures. The lord I would serve would be no different. No one would ever accept me as I was. I would spend my whole life choking back my words, controlling my aura, smiling and bowing and screaming inside.

But I didn’t have to do it here, nor did I have to let Ungai dictate where and how I lived my life.

I left the monastery the next morning with my head high, and turned westward rather than north. And if I shed tears for the sisters I left behind, there was no one there to mock me for it. 

 

INUYASHA © Rumiko Takahashi/Shogakukan • Yomiuri TV • Sunrise 2000
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