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Kasugayama

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At noon, Keiko is only a child, and the day’s highest sun is all but lost to the forest that surrounds her.

She stumbles, tiny feet no match for the roots of primeval evergreens that have claimed this ground as their own for millennia, for longer than she knows how to count. Not even Obachan is so old. “My own grandmother took me on this same journey when I was your age,” she had told Keiko at the mouth of the path. “Our family has come for generations.” Keiko imagines a grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s awe at the same trees, the same leaves, the same gentle light. She thinks if she could run fast enough (if she could not trip) around the thickest of these trees, maybe she could glimpse the echo of the past — see the since-gone girls that this very tree watched before.

“Look, Keiko,” Obachan says, “a lantern! This is very ancient also. It’s to guide us to the shrine. We will see more, look, down the path.”

Keiko runs her hands over the dead stone lantern. Moss rubs back. She wonders whose fingers it has felt.

“Look, Keiko,” Obachan says while later, “do you see the deer? Their home is this shrine. They have no fear of people anymore. If you are quiet, you can walk right up and touch one.”

But Keiko drops her lunchbox on accident as she approaches. The leaves below the crashing case crackle and echo, and, skittish, the deer leaps away.

“Look, darling,” Obachan says, as they reach Kasuga Taisha at last, “the shrine-keepers used to tear down and rebuild the whole shrine every 20 years, so it could always stay new. Isn’t that incredible?” Keiko regards the younger-than-its-years building, and feels sorry for it.

Quercus gilva, she reads from a pamphlet one of the site’s employees offers her. She repeats it, once and then twice, to remember.

At night, Keiko is a botanist, seer of life that keeps on living, learner of all its secrets.