It had been a year since the incident, and I was recovering well.
After the fire incident of my tree village, I was taken in by the Tsukahara family, a Buddhist family living just outside of Bellingham, a human city near my old tree village. They were very understanding of different types of beings living on the earth and were more than happy to house a tengu and help her adjust to human society.
Of course, it was easier said than done. I mostly helped them with the temple, but I had not socialized with humans at all before, so I was painfully awkward. I knew English because my tengu friends had taught it to me, but I hadn’t spoken it before, so my accent was clumsy. I had to study a lot harder than lessons among friends.
Luckily, I spoke Japanese, as most tengu in my village learned in our primary school in history lessons, since our ancestors spoke that language. The Tsukahara family, being Japanese-Americans, were able to communicate with me through that language, and this way, I was also able to teach them Northwest Oni, the modern youkai dialect of our region. I always found it ironic that we spoke Oni, yet my kind spoke so ill of the youkai of the same name.
This thought crossed my mind when I was busying myself with genmaicha in Woods Coffee, a coffeehouse of Bellingham on the waterfront. I liked to sit on the second floor and look out to the Bellingham Bay out the window as I studied English. But what was normally a quiet study session aside from the light chatter amongst the college students and indie-folk music in the background was interrupted by the door swinging open so loudly it made the room go quiet. Even the track had finished at the same time. I could hear chairs creaking to see who had entered.
Two oni had stormed in, drenched from the rain outside. One of them was tiny and built boyishly, with her ginger hair a wild mop beneath horns that looked more like antlers. The other was tall and muscular, with horns looking as though they had scales, her ash blonde hair windswept and almost as messy as her redheaded companion.
They were also holding hands. Were they a couple? I had no interest in dating, so I was rather new to the idea, but tengu tended to not be physically affectionate. I had never met oni before, though, so maybe they were? As far as I knew, humans tended to hold hands if they were courting.
“Can I help you?” the human at the front counter, Kelsey, asked. She was a petite blonde girl and, as I had found out from my times here, was a Psychology major at Western Washington University. She lived a cushy life with human Christian parents that loved her very much, but she loved the Buddhist teachings of the Tsukaharas a lot more and visited the temple often nowadays.
The taller of the two looked down at her possibly-girlfriend expectantly. “Can we get uhh…two sixteen-ounce mochas? And do you guys serve, like, soups here? We’re starving and you’re the only place open this early ‘round here.”
Before Kelsey could reply, the manager, a rather-racist man named Jonathan I tried to not associate with, stepped in. “We don’t serve your kind.”
The redhead put her hands on her hips. “The fuck you mean, you don’t serve our kind?”
“We don’t serve oni,” he said firmly. “Your kind are loud and destructive and a nuisance to the nice community humanity has created.”
“What about her?” she gestured toward me sitting on the balcony. “She’s not human.”
He gave me a passive look. I slumped in my seat.
“She’s quiet. She’s alright enough. You two look like a mess, you smell like the dead, and your kind is not welcome here.”
The ginger cracked her knuckles, but the tall oni grabbed her shoulders. “Keisa, no.”
Keisa ignored her. “We’re muddy because we live in the mountains, ‘cause your kind is so intolerant to anyone different than you? My girlfriend, Tess here? She was—”
“They don’t need our life stories, Keisa love.” She chewed her lip stud and squeezed Keisa’s shoulders.
“But they need to understand what we go through just to get a damn meal!”
I felt my legs carrying myself down the stairs, genmaicha in hand, bookbag slung over one shoulder. My mouth felt like cotton balls had been shoved under my tongue, and sweat was beading up at my hairline. But I couldn’t let these girls be discriminated against like this.
“Excuse me,” I said, as politely as I could, wincing at my accent.
“What is it, bird-girl?” Jonathan asked, crossing his arms.
“If you are all too bigoted to serve these poor homeless girls, then I will.” I handed Keisa my mug of genmaicha. “You look like you haven’t eaten in a while.”
Keisa’s coffee-colored eyes lit up, and her head inclined in a polite bow. She seemed brash and wild, as moody as the Pacific Northwest nature itself, but she was a lot more polite than her kind was rumored to be. “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry, do you two…know each other?”
I shook my head. “I’ve never met any of her kind before. But everyone is deserving of love, no matter what they look like.”
Keisa blushed beneath her freckled cheeks. Tess gave me a polite incline of her head. Up close, I noticed that her eyes, in contrast to her girlfriend’s, were the brightest blue I had ever seen to the point they almost glowed.
“Now that you’ve met their kind, you see why they’re not welcome here? They’re loud, dirty, smelly—”
“That does it.” Keisa launched herself across the counter and punched him as hard as she could square in the face. He fell back, then lied still, blood pooling on his face. “Nobody disrespects me, my girlfriend, or my kind like that!” And she spat on his unconscious form. “C’mon, Tess. There’s bound to be another coffeeshop around here.”
“Wait!” It was the loudest my voice had ever been. I covered my mouth instinctively.
Keisa furrowed her brows. “Sorry, we should probably go before the po-po are called.”
Tess snickered quietly at her slang.
“No, um, I can walk you to my place. If you like. You don’t need to be without a home.”
“Doesn’t your kind live in trees?” Keisa asked. “Not sure how we’d get around your place without wings.”
“Well…I did.” My eyes stung for a moment, but I blinked it away. “I live with a human family.”
“Great! At least you’ve seduced the humans! Trickster spirits like you would.”
Tess gave Keisa a punch in the arm. “Dude, she’s trying to help! Shut up for a second.”
Keisa rubbed her arm gingerly and nodded.
“I live with a Buddhist family. They took me in after…my village was destroyed by humans.”
Keisa’s eyes widened. “Do you have any family left?”
“Keisa!” Tess hissed. “You can’t just ask people that!”
“It’s fine,” I said to her girlfriend, even though the memories still plagued my nightmares every night. “I was the only survivor. But…maybe we can make our own family? We’re not so different, you and I.” I held out my hand to Keisa.
“It’s worth a shot.” Keisa took it. I felt every bone in my hand crack as she shook it. Oni sure were strong.
Tess shook my hand afterward, a bit more gently than Keisa, even though her hands were large to the point of intimidating.
“I can’t promise you how long you can stay, but…I’ll talk to them, alright?”
“Show us the way!” Keisa grinned. “I’d kill a man for a shower.”
“You almost did,” Tess added.
“And what did I get? A fucking shower, man!”
I chuckled lightly. In Oni, since I assumed they spoke the same tongue, I added, “You two will be safe now.”
Keisa squealed and in rapid-fire Oni responded, “I got to punch a bigot and I made a cool tengu friend? Today’s sure a win!”
“You need to stop punching coffeeshop managers,” Tess sighed in the same language. “You’ll start getting banned.”
“People’s minds need to be changed somehow.”
“I don’t think punching people is going to change their minds about us being brutes, honey,” Tess said delicately. “I know what a little fireball you are, but…”
Keisa sighed and dug at the boardwalk with her toes as we walked along it in the direction of my house. “I know. It’s just so frustrating. I’d like to live as a regular person someday.”
I gestured toward my bag. “That’s what I’m trying for.”
Keisa pursed her lips. “Then…we definitely should be friends. Pals going for the same goal. Besides, I didn’t scare you off yet.”
“You’re not scary. Just noisy,” Tess teased, earning an elbow from her tiny girlfriend.
I shook my head and laughed. Life was sure to be interesting and a whole lot louder from here on out…