“I went down to the Earth a few thousand years ago, you see.”
Momotarou is no longer surprised by Hakutaku’s sudden storytelling times. His superior has lived for longer than most of the beings living or dead and has a habit of pulling out an anecdote or two from that vast memory of his when business is slow.
“Is this about your spectacular fall from the heavens four thousand years ago?”
“No! I don’t like talking about that. Besides you’ve already heard about it. It’s about a different time…maybe a hundred years before that. Or after.”
This is the problem with hearing a story from a drunkard with a lifespan of eons: Momotarou has started to accept that timestamps on these stories end up fuzzy. Hakutaku is a celestial beast that resides over knowledge and thus probably can pinpoint the exact date if he really, really, wants to, but he’s not the type.
“So anyway, I went down. And I was really careful about it too because I wasn’t there for official business. Wouldn’t want some random ruler to think that they were doing well, right? I hid in the clouds and made sure to land in an unpopulated forest near a small village. I thought it was executed perfectly.”
If Momotarou knows anything it’s that Hakutaku’s plans never go as they are supposed to.
“I turned into my human form…and then suddenly heard a gasp. I looked around and realized that a girl had been between the trees….. I didn’t see her because she was so small. She had been covered by shadows and I, being in a hurry, failed to look around.”
“Please don’t tell me that you hit on her.”
“No, no! I have morals, Taotarou. She probably would have been a real beauty in maybe ten years, but at that moment she was too young.”
Hakutaku apparently fails to notice his apprentice mouthing ‘morals’ unbelievingly under his breath or is too eager to continue his story to care.
“I wasn’t sure what to do. I mean, it could get annoying if she told people about me. Celebrations, parades, imperial investigations, that kind of thing. But I didn’t want to threaten a little girl either. So I just said ‘Now don’t go around talking about this,’ and tried to be on my way when she suddenly ran up to me and grabbed my sleeve.
I tried to get free but the girl wouldn’t let go. She said, ‘Oh, God from the heavens, please help us.’ And it was so pitiful that I had to at least listen to what she had to say. Maybe it was something that I could help with.
’A gang of bandits have been coming to our village,’ she said. ‘They take our food and sleep in our houses and do whatever they like, and we have no way to fight back and they are blocking the only road that leads to the bigger cities where soldiers and watchmen are so we cannot even call for help. They don’t care that we have no food to eat, and this is why I am in this forest because rice is all gone and my family is starving and I was hoping that the trees might yield some premature berries so we will be able to put something into our empty stomachs.’ I couldn’t help but sigh at that—maybe if it was an epidemic or a demon-related problem I could have helped—because this was simply not my area of expertise.”
Momotarou thinks about the girl. He imagines her, hungry and afraid, venturing alone into a forest so that her family might survive. He thinks about what it might have been like seeing a real miracle appear before her eyes. And he understands the girl, who probably never heard about Bai Ze in her entire poor and uneducated life, grasping onto the hope of unknown god and begging for divine deliverance.
But Bai Ze, Hakutaku, is a celestial beast celebrated for kings and emperors, its appearance recognizing their greatness as rulers. Not for desperate villagers who are suffering from the harsh reality in front of them. Momotarou thinks about the limitations of gods and the tragic irony of it all as he hears the tale.
“So what did you do?”
“You know as well as I do that I am not built for battle, Taotarou.”
“Right, that’s why you should stop getting into fights with Sir Hoozuki.”
“Now why did you have to mention that asshole? It’s bad enough seeing him when he comes around, I don’t want to have to think about him when he’s not here!”
Hakutaku, annoyed, sets down a bottle of ingredients too roughly and the loud clanging noise makes the rabbits jump. At least he has the decency to apologize to his furry companions for scaring them before getting back on track.
“Even if I were to appear before them in my original form the bandits probably wouldn’t have known what I am—at worst they could have thought me a walk-in barbecue. The very least I could do was probably direct some flows of fortune towards the villagers, nothing fancy. So I promised her that I would look into it and went on my way.”
“Well, at least you did something for them. I’m glad.”
“Um, well, about that.”
The celestial beast is avoiding his eyes and Momotarou feels a headache coming in.
“All right, talk.”
“You’re so harsh to your master, Taotarou!”
“You began a story, might as well finish it.”
“…well, I…it’s just that, you know…. When I remembered the promise I made for the village, two hundred years had passed.”
Momotarou explodes at that.
“I thought that you’d actually done something godlike for once!”
“Is that how you have been thinking of me?! Besides, you can’t really blame me! Two hundred years pass by too fast!”
It’s at times like this that Momotarou remembers the basic and unfillable gap between them. For beings who live thousands and millions of years, two hundred years probably do pass in a blink of an eye. Still, Momotarou is thinking about the young girl in the woods who must have taken this careless god’s promise to heart. Who couldn’t have survived the two hundred years that is an impossible lifespan even with new technologies.
“Things worked out, though…. I went down and the village was still there, with better roads and more people. I asked them about the bandits, and they said that it did happen two hundred years ago. Except that,” Hakutaku’s expression, no longer like a pouting child, suddenly turns sly. “The bandit boss was completely drunk one day, see? Completely boozed up. And he went into one of the houses to sleep—only to have his throat slashed open by a little girl who was hiding under his bed.”
The shop is completely silent at this revelation, the master and the apprentice’s stirrings having stopped. Even the rabbits seem to perk up their ears in intense concentration.
“That girl, was she-?”
“Dunno!” Hakutaku cheerfully exclaims. Gone is the seriousness; his face is back to the happy, goofy smile that he usually wears.
“I don’t know if it was the girl I met. It’s probably impossible to find out now. She might not even be in Hell anymore. There was enough time for her to reincarnate and I never bothered searching. The bandits were in disarray after their leader got killed, and the courageous villagers took the chance to drive them out, so like I said it all worked out in the end, you know?”
“I think it’s her, though. The very same girl. That’s how these stories work, right, Taotarou? That’s how fate is woven. I like thinking that she thought of me before she went and killed the man. To think it’s the promise of god’s justice that gave her bravery. Sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for humans. Give them a sense of certainty, and they can do anything. Even things that they think impossible. That’s why they are so great.”
Having ended in a self-satisfactory note, Hakutaku goes back to stirring the pot and starts humming. But Momotarou thinks to himself, you are the one that’s impossible. This is the thing about gods. They are so humane and sympathetic, always willing to help mankind and unwilling to see them suffering. But they are also fickle and irresponsible, so careless and forgetful, that although they might not mean it they end up being cruel.
Hakutaku could care about an individual human if he or she were in front of him, but in hundreds of years, he probably wouldn’t even remember their name. He could see people cursing the heavens for not helping them and embrace their anger with that weird all-encompassing mindset that gods seem to share, but he probably wouldn’t understand exactly what they were angry about. Momotarou’s boss is good, even great when not around women and alcohol, but the more he spends time together more he realizes that the fundamental differences between god and man are not going away.
For now, though, he can live with that.