The Snake and the Mirror

Purity

September 22nd, 2024

 

The waters of the Tiber thrashed and churned like the waves on a storming sea. Great swells a meter high smashed into one another in flying sprays of white that splashed against the concrete banks of the river. The oddest thing of all, however, was that all this storm and fury was happening under a clear blue sky on a windless day.

“That certainly is…unusual,” Megame said, standing at the river’s edge as she watched the churning waters.

“Not exactly natural, is it?” Nora asked. The pair of them stood slightly apart, given a berth by the people who had gathered to watch the strange thrashing of the water.

“No, it’s definitely the water kami in the river fighting one another.”

“Well we need them to stop,” Nora said. “If they get too out of control it could damage valuable infrastructure and put a lot of people at risk.”

“Absolutely,” Megame nodded. “I just need a way of reaching out to them.”

“How do you do it normally?” Nora asked. “It’s easy with gods since they usually want the attention. But these spirits seem pretty distracted.”

“Well there are a number of ways,” Megame said. “They don’t all work outside of Japan though…I’m going to need a bridge to be cleared.”

“It’ll get done,” Nora said. “Best to get this solved quickly.”

“Ah…thank you,” Megame bowed her head, slightly embarrassed to be ordering the Pontifex around.

“Hey, you’re the expert here,” Nora said. “If it’ll stop these spirits, then you say jump and we’ll jump.”

“I’m going to do everything I can.”

It took only a few minutes for them to clear the closest bridge with the help of some nearby local guards. People had gathered in a growing crowd at either end of the bridge, all interested in seeing the young shrine maiden at work. There were many in the city who didn’t support the shrine or Megame’s position. To many in Rome, spirits were evil and needed to be eradicated or ousted by the city rather than negotiated with, and others were deliberately inflating the problem for funding, making up fake conflicts and capitalizing on everyone’s heightened superstitions. Megame might have been a little nervous working in front of so many people, but more than anything, she was determined to show that not only was her job important, but it was vital to the safety and prosperity of Rome.

Still, anxiety tugged at her stomach, and her hand went to the small satchel at the base of her back that was tied to her sash. If something went wrong, she always had backup to call upon.

Megame stood alone at the center of the bridge, water splashing violently beneath her as the water spirits raged. Taking a deep breath, she gestured for the guardsman who had helped clear the bridge to give her his canteen. He handed it over, a slightly confused expression on his face as she took it gratefully. First, she poured some of the water over both of her hands, then poured a little more into her cupped left hand before bringing it to her lips. After briefly rinsing the water in her mouth she spat it out onto the ground then poured more water over her left hand before handing the canteen back to the confused looking young guard with a smile.

“Thank you very much,” She said as she handed it back.

“Er…no problem,” he said. “Does that…help?”

“It helps me,” Megame said, the water dripping freely from her fingertips. “One must be physically and spiritually pure to commune with the kami properly.”

“Um…alright then,” the guard simple nodded before returning to the far end of the bridge with the rest of the crowd. Megame could hear him muttering with another guard as she prepared herself mentally.

“Did she just spit it out?”

“Ya, it’s weird, didn’t think the spirits’d like that.”

“And you just have normal water today, right?”

“Well ya, it’s not like I asked a bishop to bless my canteen today. It’s just water…”

“I don’t get half this ritual stuff.”

“Well, that’s why you’re on this end of the bridge, isn’t it?”

Megame smiled to herself. The purification ritual didn’t have anything to do with the kami or the water. It was a symbolic gesture to show Megame’s body, heart, and soul were spiritually pure before attempting to speak with the Kami. It was a formal necessity in Japan, but she found even as far as Rome the spirits responded well to an effort to make the body pure before speaking to them. Kami, most people failed to realize, were a symbolic race rather than a literal one. Megame could have taken a cleansing shower in Catholic holy water for an hour, but if she did not respect the inherent nature of the rite, then the gesture would be meaningless. So long as she believed the ritual made her body spiritually pure, the kami would as well.

Now she was clean, so it was time to begin the communion.

Megame bowed deeply at the waist, her body facing upstream. It was a long, formal, and deeply reverent bow and she rose slowly from it. Then she repeated, once more bowing deeply to signal her sincere and deep reverence for the spirits churning in the waters before her. When she rose the second time, she clapped loudly twice, the sound of her wet palms striking echoing over the water. After clapping, she repeated the bow a third time.

This was to catch the attention of the kami, to let them know that a mortal was listening and wished to speak. Unless they were offended, this was usually when a Japanese spirit would give sign that they were listening, if not quite willing to communicate directly. The water beneath her, however, continued to thrash violently against the banks.

This was the tricky part of the game. It was a test of formality and patience when it came to spirits. The world over, all spirits were proud, and most did not appreciate needing to communicate with mortals at this level. Megame’s posture, gestures, and intent all pointed to reverence, but also her desire to negotiate. To come too quickly to her call would indicate subordinate position in the discussion, something no spirit would abide.

Megame had heard that Nora had directly negotiated with Hera Okami in order to secure the removal of Echo’s famous curse, and Megame was astonished that she was able to bargain with something as powerful as that. Megame had spoken to a number of Okami in Japan, but she had never truly negotiated with them. This kind of interaction, with lesser more earthbound kami was more her speed.

The river continued to splash wildly. It was time for Megame to make another gesture.

“Great spirits of the river,” she spoke out over the wild waves. “I ask that you please hear my words. I speak for the people of Rome, those who rely upon these waters to survive. We wish to know, all of us, why such good spirits who have allowed us to survive should choose to cause such chaos.”

She spoke using her most formal Japanese as the language held far less bearing than the tone. She was deliberately placing herself in a somewhat subordinate position, showing that any further negotiation relied on their willing cooperation. But she did not debase herself entirely, naming herself as active representative of Rome so that they could not simply ignore her and demand a more ‘important’ representative.

At this, the waters paused, the waves stopped and settled as the current again took hold. There were a number of “oohs” and hushed talking from the crowds, as well as a cheer or two. Megame’s heart was speeding up, however, as she knew that this was far from over.

On either side of the bridge the water began to churn, great white foam frothing up from the river’s depth as great mounds of water began to rise up until they formed great cascading water hills that loomed over the bridge. There was a sudden hush of whispers, several people shouted in fear, but Megame retained her calm, turning ninety degrees so she would be directly facing neither of them, keeping her head bowed.

The great hills of water began to take defined shape. Both of them took the appearance of large broad-shouldered old men. The one on her right, on the downstream side of the bridge, took a much lighter appearance. His beard and long hair were formed from white foam, as were his large bushy eyebrows. His eyes were a light shining blue, like looking up at the sun from under shallow water. His counterpart was physically darker, with skin taken from the deeper siltier waters. His beard and hair were an oily mess of river plants and sunken flotsam with odd pieces of shell, driftwood, and rusted iron wrapped in his long beard. His eyes were a deep green, like a sunken lantern in night waters.

The pair of them eyed her suspiciously, but she did not move until they spoke to her.

“This human is an odd one,” The brighter river spirit said, great watery hand stroking his foamy beard. “Look at how she is dressed.”

“Agreed,” the darker river spirit said, leaning in closely to observe her. Both of them were massive, the waterline only at their waist as they towered over the bridge. But Megame wasn’t intimidated. Size was no true indicator of power. “All white and red, no blue at all, and not nearly enough skin.”

Megame frowned slightly. One thing that she’d found in Rome was that spirits in this land were far more interested in attractive young humans than she had been used to. Hachi had suggested using this to her advantage and using her body for negotiations, and Megame had flatly refused. She took the ‘maiden’ part of ‘Shrine Maiden’ seriously.

“My name is Megame Kamigawa,” she said, keeping her head lowered. “Might I know your names, great spirits of the river?”

Both of the spirits began speaking at once, their voices splashing and gurgling with the sound of a flowing stream as they tried to speak over one another, shooting angry looks at one another before taking their turns. The lighter one with the beard of foam spoke first.

“I am Adversum,” he said, his voice carrying a regal bearing.

“And I am Amnis,” Said the darker water spirit through his floral beard.

Megame turned to both of them in turn as they introduced themselves, making sure never to offer attention to one more than the other.

“Lords of the river,” she addressed them both. “Why do you cause such chaos in the Tiber?”

“Because it is my river!” Adversum shouted angrily, his voice a crash of waves upon the rocks. “Up to Mount Fumaiolo!”

“And time and again I have told you it is mine!” Amnis protested angrily, teeth clanking like sheets of metal. “Down to the Tyrrhenian Sea!”

“Both of you stake claim,” Megame said. “And such great spirits would not lay claim to a river without just cause. Pray tell us humans why it is the river is ones and not the others.”

Instantly both spirits set into one another, their arguing at such a rage and such a volume that Megame could scarcely make heads or tails of it. The noise sounded much like the crashing waves below her did, incoherent and directionless as the two river spirits verbally crashed into one another. She did all she could to try and coax clearer answers from them, but it took some time.

 

“So let me get this straight,” she said, hands on her hips. The argument had gone on for over an hour, and the spirits had largely accepted her role in it. It let Megame speak a little more casually.

“You, Lord Amnis, command all that flows downstream and gathers at the bottom of the Tiber.”

“It is so! That is my ancient duty and I will not abandon it!” The vine-haired spirit gargled.

Megame turned to his counterpart. “And you, Lord Adversum, command all the waves and spray of the Tiber from the coast up to the mountains.”

“Wherever the sky kisses the water is my domain!” Adversum said. “This river is mine.”

“And you two refuse to share the river?”

“The Tiber can have but one spirit as its master,” Adversum said. “So before it was with Tiberinus, so too shall it be with me.”

“I command more of the water!” Amnis shot back. “The waters of the river beneath the surface are mine and I will not give them up.”

Waves splashed over the bridge as the two spirits shouted, drawing closer together until their hands rested on the bridge railing and water and detritus fell from their bodies to the pavement.

“M-my lords, please if we could just-“ Megame’s words failed to reach them as the shouting continued until it reached a fever pitch.

“I’ve had enough of your filthy scum dirtying my waters!” Adversum roared.

“The Tiber is nothing but a trickling stream without me!” Amnis shouted. “Take your pretty waves back to Fumaiolo and shove them up your spring.”

At this final insult, both spirits came to blows, watery fists thrown across the bridge as both river spirits exploded into geysers of water, the churning and roiling returning to the river’s surface as Megame sighed in defeat, water falling down on her like rain.

This was going to be tougher than she’d thought.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

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