There are no mirrors in the temple.
And so every day, in the early morning hours when the light is thin and pale and the mist still hangs heavy across the island, Shino goes to the river and fills a bowl with water. She returns to the temple, then, and sits in her room and combs her hair until it shines, watching her reflection on the still surface. She stays like this until the others begin to wake, and then she pours the water out once more, watching as it rains down upon the vibrant flowers that grow beneath the window.
Kasumi catches her in the act one morning, when she is roused earlier than usual by a nightmare. She glances over and meets Shino’s eyes and begins to laugh, a hint of scorn and condescension present in the twist of her lips.
“Why bother?” she asks. “Who do you have to impress, exactly?”
Shino just smiles.
“No one,” she says. “No one at all.”
Sometimes they speak of the future.
“What will you do, Shino?” Haruka asks. “Once your three years are up?”
They are out in the garden today for the autumn harvest, kneeling between the neat rows of carrot and turnip and yam. They must always prepare for the worst, the priest says. Winter is fast approaching, and soon the waters around the island will freeze, trapping the fish underneath the ice and making passage to the mainland impossible. Shino presses her fingers into the soft dirt, reaching down to pluck a taro root from its earthen nest.
“There is someone waiting for me,” she says. “When three years have passed, he will come back, and we will be together again.”
The other women exchange knowing glances.
“One of those types, eh?” Haruka is older than most of them, with faint lines creasing her brow and flecks of grey in her dark hair. Her brothel contract was nullified many years ago, the others claim, but still she remains, unwilling (or perhaps unable) to leave the sanctuary’s gentle embrace. “You really believe that he’ll come for you, girl? That he’ll wait all those years, just for you?”
“Of course,” Shino says. “He is a good man.”
But Haruka merely shakes her head, weariness settling deep into the hollows of her eyes.
“Oh, my dear,” she murmurs. “There is no such thing.”
Winter comes, and Shino is tasked with sweeping the snow from the temple walkway. They are the kind of snowflakes that twirl through the air like dancers, catching in one’s hair and eyelashes and dusting the bare tree branches an elegant white.
As she works her eyes are drawn to one of the many small shrines that line the path – little houses made of stone, where spirits are said to dwell. After pondering this for a moment she claps her hands twice and bows low, hoping that someone or something is listening.
Let Jin be safe, she prays. And please… let him be somewhere warmer than this. As if on cue, a shiver travels down the length of her spine. Her many layers do nothing to keep out the biting chill of the wind, and Shino wraps her arms around herself, dreaming in vain of a place where the sun always shines.
(But then again, she thinks, a paradise with no rain is hardly a paradise at all.)
Sometimes in the evening Shino likes to stand on the beach, with the waves lapping at her ankles and the sand rough and gritty beneath her feet. She can see the faint lights of the town from there, and likes to imagine what might soon be waiting for her on the opposite shore – not just him, but the world as well, all the places she’s never seen and the beautiful things she’s never experienced and the strange, wonderful people she’s never had a chance to meet.
When she returns to the temple one night, Kasumi scowls at her, eyes flashing bright in the semidarkness.
“You are insufferable,” she hisses. “Do you honestly believe he’s going to come for you?? Don’t be so naïve.”
Shino says nothing. Kasumi has been hurt, she knows, in ways beyond belief. Kasumi who flinches away from even the slightest touch. Kasumi who whispers things in her sleep that turn Shino’s blood to ice. Kasumi who cries when she is alone, but never lets the others see. Her anger stems from sadness, so deep and endless that she has become accustomed to it, unable to tolerate even the faintest ray of light.
“There are countless women in the world,” Kasumi is saying, spitting her words like they’re poison. “Countless women more beautiful than you! He will forget about you, Shino! He will forget about you and find someone better!”
But once again, Shino only smiles.
“No he won’t,” she says, and turns away.
The oppressive heat of summer is fading once more into autumn when Kasumi looks at her and asks:
“How long did you know him?”
Shino pauses and glances up from her sewing, thread pulled taught between her fingers. There is no anger in Kasumi’s voice today, only a quiet, melancholy tiredness, and Shino wonders if this is progress.
“Only a few days,” she says, frowning at an uneven stitch.
“A few days?” Kasumi echoes in disbelief. “You were willing to wait years for a man who was little more than a stranger?”
“Well it sounds rather foolish when you put it like that,” Shino laughs. “But he saved me, you see. I was ready to give up on life, and he gave me a reason not to.” She sighs then, gazing out at the garden where the summer flowers have begun to wither and fade. “Sometimes… Sometimes I look at the women here at the temple and I think that they are empty. Life has beaten them down again and again and now they are like hollow shells; there is nothing left of them. And I just wish… I just wish that I could give them what I have. I wish they had someone good and true to save them, to show them that there is always something worth living for, no matter what pain they may have suffered in the past.”
Kasumi is staring at her oddly.
“Maybe they already do,” she murmurs, so soft that Shino almost doesn’t catch it (and even then she is not quite sure she understands the meaning).
Spring has come again, and often Shino wakes to the scent of wet earth and growing things. Spring is a season of change, she knows. It has always been so for her, and again she feels something looming overhead like a thundercloud, ready to strike at any moment.
The priest comes to her one day and tells her that the time has come – that her three years are up, and she is a free woman again at long last. He says there will be a boat prepared for her that very night, if she so wishes, and Shino readily accepts his offer.
She bids goodbye to the women toiling in the gardens and the shrines; goodbye to Haruka, whose eyes are still sad, and goodbye to Kasumi, whose eyes are rather less so.
She prays once more in the temple and walks once more through the forest and sits once more by the riverbank, where she gathers water in that old lacquered bowl she knows so well. She goes back to her room for the very last time and combs her hair until it shines, and by this time the day has slipped away into dusk.
“It’s time,” the priest says from the doorway.
When finally Shino climbs into the boat and rows away from the island, she takes nothing with her and never looks back.
Halfway across the calm black expanse of water, it begins to rain, a faint drizzle soon escalating into a downpour, plastering her hair to her face and sluicing down her cheeks.
And when the boat finally glides into place by the dock, she is startled to feel the deluge cease abruptly. She glances up to find a red umbrella being held over her head.
“I had a feeling we would need one,” Jin says, as solemn as ever behind his spectacles.
“Indeed,” Shino says. She smiles wide and reaches up to take his hand. “Never bet against the rain.”