“You called for me, Master?” Sagiri asked, sitting on folded knees across from the elder tengu. It was a warm afternoon — the rainy season had just ended, leaving the air thick with humidity.
“Yes,” Shima replied with a nod. “I have a task for you.”
Sagiri straightened in anticipation. Though she had been training with Shima for decades, she still leapt at any chance to prove herself. She wondered if she might once again be able to show her skills in battle, or perhaps to uphold her medical abilities with a new patient. It had been years since the attack at the western temple and there was only so much one could display in a sparring match.
“There are two new children today,” the older woman continued. “I’d like you to tend to them until they’re settled in.”
Sagiri resisted the urge to slump. Her expression remained focused, masking her inner disappointment.
“But Master, I’m no good with children,” she said, keeping her tone even. There was a fine line between expressing one’s opinion and outright complaining.
“That’s why I chose you. You need to be capable with everyone, not only your peers.”
Sagiri had nothing to say. She knew that her mentor was right — though Sagiri had recently begun to show signs of leadership and authority, she had no experience with the younger monks. Any interactions with them were usually brief and barely tolerated. Her eyes fell to the tatami floor.
“Tell me, Sagiri… what is important to a monk?” Shima asked, her voice pleasant in spite of her apprentice’s silence.
“Discipline,” Sagiri quickly answered. “Humility. Focus.”
“You’re forgetting one. Something rather important.”
Sagiri inhaled, her eyes casting sideways as she thought. Her palms were neatly set on her knees and she resisted the urge to grip the cloth beneath them.
“…awareness?” she finally offered.
Sagiri fell silent once more. She silently cursed herself for forgetting, especially in front of her master.
“Stop berating yourself,” Shima said, knowing in an instant what was going through her student’s mind. “If you’re striving for perfection, it must be in all aspects. You need to find balance.”
“I understand,” Sagiri said, clasping her hands as she bowed.
“Good. Go wait in the courtyard. They’ll be arriving soon.”
The new arrivals were both boys. They were dressed in the clothing of common villagers, standing nervously aside the monk that had escorted them. It seemed they were the same age, no older than 12 or 13 years old. Sagiri sighed, deciding to count her blessings; they could have been even younger.
“State your names,” she said, clasping her hands behind her back as the other monk took his leave.
“Shusei,” said the first, adjusting his posture to match the older tengu’s. His eyes were bright and clear, eager to make a good impression on the monk.
“And you?” she asked, giving the other a passive glance.
“Shichi,” he said with a bow of his head, his voice much quieter than his companion’s. With only one word, Sagiri could see that he was dreadfully shy. He was slower to make eye contact and quickly looked away upon doing so. It was almost enough to make her cringe.
“My name is Sagiri. Until you have found proper mentors, you will do as I say,” she said, terribly curt as she spoke. “Understood?”
“Yes,” they replied with simultaneous bows.
“So,” she continued. “Tell me why you want to be monks. What are your skills?”
Shusei responded first, grateful for a chance to share his abilities.
“I like history,” the young tengu said. “I want to study and make records. My memory is very good, too.”
“Then what was the name of the monk who brought you here?” she asked, her eyes narrow with skepticism.
“Ah… he was…,” Shusei stammered, breaking his stance to rub the side of his face. Sagiri ignored his faltering, instead turning her attention to Shichi.
“And what about you?”
“I’m…,” the boy murmured, his heart pounding. “I-I’m not really good at anything.”
“Wonderful,” Sagiri said, suppressing a sigh. “Both of you, head up to the main hall. Shiho will have you fitted for your robes.”
As she turned to leave, she gave the boys one final look.
“Make sure you earn them.”
Shusei exhaled heavily upon her departure, forcing a laugh as he looked to his friend.
“I thought monks were supposed to be kind,” he said, scratching the side of his long beak. His failure to answer her question didn’t seem to phase him — in fact, he found the situation painfully humorous.
“So did I,” Shichi whispered, looking in the direction Sagiri had gone.
“So, where’s the main hall?” Shusei asked, glancing about in a mixture of confusion and wonder.
“I have no idea.”
Shusei quickly found his place alongside the temple historian. His memory did, in fact, prove to be excellent. His writing skills, however, were much less impressive. His hands were often stained with ink as he was set to practice for hours on end. Shichi’s time was spent elsewhere, completing chores in the kitchen and garden between studies. The work, however, wasn’t the hardest part of being a monk. The greatest difficulty in their new lifestyle was to simply sit in silence — in meditation.
“This is impossible,” Shusei said, sitting next to Shichi in the empty zendo. They had chosen to come practice while the other monks were occupied, mainly to avoid embarrassing themselves in the process.
“It’s not that bad,” Shichi insisted. “Try counting your breaths if you can’t concentrate.”
“How am I supposed to concentrate when Sagiri keeps hitting me with that stick?”
“Maybe she wouldn’t strike you if you didn’t fall asleep.”
“I can’t help it -- I get bored,” Shusei sighed. “I’m not cut out for this. I can’t even do the full lotus like you can.”
“You don’t have to sit this way. Do whatever is comfortable,” Shichi explained.
“How about this?” Shusei asked, laying himself down on his side and propping his head up with a fist. They both started laughing, momentarily forgetting their intention to meditate. Shichi covered his beak with both hands, hoping that nobody had heard them behaving so foolishly in the hall.
“Don’t let Sagiri see you lounging like that,” Shichi said, still stifling his laughter.
“Who cares, she’s not going to be my master anyway,” Shusei said, remaining in his pose. “Say… do you think Sumio will take me on?”
“The historian? I think you have a chance. He seems to like you, and you really impressed him with the dates you recited,” Shichi replied, trying not to think about his own chances of finding a master. He hadn’t seemed to make an impression on any of the monks, nor had he thought of a focus he could devote himself to.
“But nobody is going to mentor us if we can’t even meditate,” Shichi continued, giving his friend a gentle reminder of their purpose.
“Maybe some incense will help,” Shusei said, fishing out the wooden box where the sticks were kept. “It will at least keep track of the time, right?”
He opened the box, releasing the scent of jinkoh incense. It had a light, natural aroma, reminding Shichi of the way trees smelled after a storm — of old books and tarnished bronze. Shusei removed a long stick, taking it to a candle to be lit.
“Ow!” he cried suddenly, dropping the incense and clutching his hand.
“What’s wrong?” Shichi asked, immediately moving to his friend’s side. He took Shusei’s palm into his hands, examining the faint burn on his finger.
“The candle, I—,” Shusei said, putting forth a tremendous effort to keep from crying. “Ah, it hurts.”
“Come with me,” Shichi said, keeping a gentle hold on his companion’s hand as he led him out of the hall.
“Where are we going?”
The temple gardens were lush and vast, carrying enough to provide for every monk who resided there. There were rows of cabbage and radish, with an even larger field of rice past the border. Herbs were carefully lined in the soil, used for both seasonings and medicine. Shichi led the other tengu down the neatly spread aisles, crouching next to a patch of aloe.
“Give me your hand,” he said, breaking off a thick, green blade. The inside was swollen with a clear juice. Carefully, he applied it to the burn, using gentle movements to rub the liquid into Shusei’s skin.
“Wow, that’s—“ Shusei began to say, but was cut off by the shadow that had swept over their bodies.
“What are you two doing?” Sagiri asked, her arms folded as she addressed the young monks.
“Ah, well, we…,” Shusei said, wincing at the sight of her.
“Sumio is looking for you,” she said, glaring thorns into the boy’s wide eyes. “Don’t keep him waiting.”
Shusei gave a hurried bow, then rushed off through the outstretched leaves towards the main building. Shichi had frozen in place, still holding the broken aloe leaf as he looked up at her. For a while, she simply watched him, her eyes motionless as she thought.
“Where did you learn to use that?” she asked.
“I… I used to grow plants behind my parents’ house. I found it out on accident.”
“So, you like plants?” Sagiri said, still towering over him with a fist on her hip. “Good. You’re going to de-slug this entire garden to make up for the aloe that you destroyed. Don’t come to dinner until you’re finished.”
“Yes, Master,” Shichi said, lowering his gaze to the dirt.
“I am not your master,” she snapped. “Don’t call me that again.”
Shichi’s face grew hot as he tensed, wondering why he had let his words slip. His body shrunk in her shadow, his shoulders tightening in embarrassment. He wished that he could remove the aloe plant and bury himself in its place.
Before he could even finish apologizing, she had already turned to leave.
The next day, Shima had once again called upon her student. She watched as Sagiri made the motions of preparing tea, each movement precise and deliberate. The usual eloquence that the monk performed with, however, was strangely lacking.
“How are the new arrivals doing?” Shima asked, accepting the steaming cup.
“They’re fine,” Sagiri answered, placing her hands on her folded knees.
“Truly? I noticed one of them crying in the garden yesterday. The quiet one,” Shima said, setting her cup down with a soft clink. “Did that have something to do with you?”
Sagiri swallowed, not daring to blink as she took in her master’s words.
“Children cry. It can’t be helped,” she replied.
“Well, since you’ve become such an expert on children, I’d like you to consider becoming a mentor to one of the boys.”
“But,” Sagiri said, her chest puffing in trepidation. “But if I take an apprentice, I won’t qualify for head monk. I’ve worked so hard for this.”
“I had to make the same decision, you know,” her master said, turning to look out into the courtyard. The stone path was bathed in sunlight, highlighting the birds that flitted between the rafters. “Would you rather I had given up on you?”
Where before Shichi had merely been unimpressive, his presence was now enough to raise genuine irritation. She had spent decades refining herself — of developing skills in battle, healing, and leadership. Talk of the new head monk had been circulating for months, and the favorite of every discussion had always been Sagiri. What had once been a clear path to her goal was now cruelly blocked — barricaded by a mere child. Perhaps she could simply ignore her mentor’s advice and leave him to someone else. Her words had only been a suggestion, not a command. Even so, Sagiri couldn’t help but view the boy with disdain.
“This is unacceptable,” she said, gazing out into the overgrown garden. It was summer, which meant the weeds grew exponentially faster. Even constant tending could barely keep up with their tenacity. “I want you to weed the garden until I return — and no breaks. Diligence is vital to being a monk.”
“I understand,” Shichi said, his voice flat as he replied.
“Good. Get to work.”
Sagiri was rather pleased with herself as she walked back towards the main hall. Weeding was a boundless task — something she could burden him with for hours while she continued her training and independent study. Completing the entire garden was certain to take at least a week. She spent the afternoon in refreshing solitude, practicing her stances in the courtyard before returning indoors to make tea. The evening brought rain, allowing her to fall asleep to the sound of water on the tile roof.
The sun had not yet risen when she awoke, opening her eyes to a dark, silent room. The rain hadn’t stopped. She was glad — more rain meant less work watering the garden.
She sat up quickly, throwing off the thin blanket that covered the futon. Grabbing her robe, she tied it on as she rushed out through the courtyard and past the meditation hall. Her pulse raced as she hurried around a storehouse and through the gates that led to the garden. She scanned the rows of vegetables, looking for the quiet boy who had promised to follow her every order - to trust her completely.
“No,” she breathed, finding him on the ground beside a row of turnips. His body was soaked, the water beading on his feathers and staining his robes to a deep, mournful blue. He stirred as she turned him, cracking his weary eyes to look up at the older monk. Without a word, she gathered him into her arms, noticing just how light his body was as she carried him out of the garden. He coughed against her shoulder, each breath harsh and scratchy against his throat.
Why couldn’t he have just disobeyed her and gone inside? What was he trying to prove?
Sagiri took him through a narrow hall, sliding open the infirmary door with her foot. The scent of dried herbs was light in the air, yet did little to calm her as she set him down.
“I’m sorry, Shichi,” she said, helping him out of his wet shirt and wrapping a blanket around his shoulders. “I made a mistake.”
He didn’t reply right away, doing his best to keep down his coughs. She left his side to prepare a pot of hot tea, selecting fresh roots for the water. In that moment, she had forgotten everything else — about his failings, her master, and the position of head monk. All she could think of was making him well. It was an odd change from her normal state of mind — of her strive for perfection, for accomplishment and strength. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt this way — blinded by true, open compassion.
She recalled what Shima had once said to her when she was younger — when she was still learning medicine.
‘You cannot heal with anger in your heart.’
“Here,” she said, handing him a ceramic cup. He waited a moment, then took a careful sip.
“Is it ginger?” he asked, looking up as she dried his head with a cloth.
“Yes. And one more thing.”
Shichi paused, averting his eyes as he considered the taste. He inhaled, considering the scent of the steam.
“And licorice root?”
“That’s right,” Sagiri replied. “They’re good for colds.”
“I see,” he replied, letting his eyes fall back down to the cup. “What else is good for a cold?”
“I’ll tell you after you’ve gotten some rest. You need to sleep,” she said, drying the last of the feathers between his eyes.
“All right,” Shichi said, finishing his tea before setting the cup down on a low table. “Thank you, M-… ah, wh-what should I call you?”
“I changed my mind. ‘Master’ is fine.”