The Bird of Dawning
A Christmas party. What do we need a Christmas party for, for god's sake? Christmas is for going out on a date, if that's what you're into, but if you want a *party*, then you have a bounenkai. Them I can live with, because bounenkai happen at the end of term when the papers and exams are over, so even if they're boring- 'cause getting drunk with a bunch of other people isn't *my* idea of a good time- at least they don't interfere with deadlines. But Christmas is when the papers and exams are still happening, or my papers and exams are still happening, whatever the thesis writers may be up to. So who gets to lug the beer and decorate the lounge and set out the food for the Ethnology Department's Christmas party? Not the thesis writers, my oh-so-reverend senpai. First year Iijima Ritsu is who, lowest of the low and least of the kouhai. (I looked up kouhai in the J-E when I was trying to explain it to Ashuri-san. It said 'underclassman'. How true. We're a brutally overworked underclass. Marx was right: "kouhai of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.")
Ashuri-san of course is the reason we're having a Christmas party in the first place. It was her idea originally, because that's what they do in America, and the senpai-tachi jumped at it because Ashuri-san is Ashuri-san, all glamorous blue eyes and red hair. No, not entirely true. They jumped at it because none of them has a girlfriend to go out with on Christmas, so better to get drunk together with our exchange student. My cousin Akira at least tried to get it scheduled on the 23rd, which is a holiday already, but Ashuri-san said no, it wasn't right to celebrate Christ's birthday on the Emperor's birthday. It had to be the 25th or at least the 24th, she said, for some reason having to do with the difference between kami and kami-sama that no one quite followed. So there we were, Christmas Eve, having a Christmas party in our department's lounge. Beer bottles scattered everywhere, bowls of chip and dip drying up, and the usual conveni dried snacks- shrimp crackers, dried squid, wasabi peas- looking no more appetizing than they usually do. Some home-made stuff from the girls, croquette and sushi, which was the only edible thing around.
Good that it wasn't a sit-down affair, maybe, because there was one guest too many. Other people kept complaining about someone drinking their beer or making off with their futomaki. At first I thought the birds had snuck in as they tend to do, but then I saw him in the middle of a group, laughing like everyone else and cheerfully into the swing of things.
"Hey," I said to Watanabe senpai, "who's that over there next to Ashuri-san?"
"Hunh?" he said. "Which one?"
"The guy with the red highlights in his hair."
"Him?" He looked astonished. "That's- you know- whatsisname."
"What *is* his name?"
"Uhn- you know- Damn, it's on the tip of my tongue. He hangs around the department. You *must* know him."
"I'm just trying to get a name for him."
"Yeah, well- go ask him what it is, why don't you?" and he turned away.
"I'll do that," I said, though Watanabe wasn't listening.
"Oi," I said over his shoulder. "Long time no see."
"Iijima! Iijima Ritsu! Where ya been!" He punched my arm. It hurt. He needs to go back in the pot, or *a* pot, whatever. He's been hanging around humans way too much and picking up all sorts of undesirable habits-- to add to the undesirable habits he possesses by nature, of course.
"I've been right here," I said meaningly, "where I belong. Unlike some people I could name."
"Huh?" He made a big show of looking around. "We got gate-crashers?"
"Yeah, we do. Maybe you should get rid of them, senpai?"
"Sure. Point 'em out to me and I'll sort them."
Oh fine. Impasse. Ashuri-san was giving me go away looks. I couldn't think what to do. This guy's notion of fun can be no worse than a bad scare. It can also maim people or even kill them. The best I could hope for was he'd try something that'd kill *me*, because then Aoarashi would have to come and save me. Short of that there was no hoping for any help from my supposed guardian demon.
Since I was in for the long haul here I looked around me for a beer, but there weren't any left on the table and I didn't want to have to go out to the kitchen. And of course at that moment Morishita-senpai yelled at me, "Hirose's cousin!"- 'cause half the guys don't even remember my name- "Get us another six-pack from the fridge!"
"And some more dried squid!" Iwano demanded.
"And some ice," Morishita added.
"Aye aye sir," I said. They could take it as a joke or not. But on the way I made a detour to grab Akira, who was off in a corner with her guy Saburou.
"Look, you two. That guy over there sitting by Ashuri-san, see him? Go over and keep an eye on him in case he tries something."
"Tries--?" She looked at him and frowned. "Who *is* that? It can't be Ashuri-san's boyfriend?"
"I wish. He's an old friend of Grandfather's."
"Oh my god."
"What do you want us to do?" Saburou asked.
"Whatever you can. Trip him up. Spill beer on his head. Anything." I don't imagine either can do much against a youkai like that, but Akira's psychic like me and Saburou-- well, he's halfway to being a youkai himself. I figured they'd manage something, push coming to shove.
I went off to the kitchen, across the hallway and on the other side from the common rooms. Beer, snacks, ice- no tub for the ice. I bugged two of the girl who were there cutting up sandwiches and they found me a bowl, and I stumbled back to the common room with my arms full.
Someone had started to play the piano while I was down the hall and now almost everyone was singing- the school song for starts, and then popular stuff. Akira and Saburou were hovering about Ashuri-san's group: Akira was singing and Saburou, of course, wasn't. My heart sank. I'd made a huge mistake. Redhead had noticed Akira- psychic power draws youkai- and his eyes were gleaming with excitement. Ashuri-san was sitting beside him, tapping her hands in time to the music but not singing either. His eyes were on Akira, but he raised his hand behind Ashuri-san's head. I made a move to try and stop him- instinctive, unthinking, and useless from where I was- and of course banged into a corner of the table. The dried squid, the bowl of ice, a couple of beer cans, all flew out of my arms and crashed to the floor. The music and singing came to a sudden discordant stop.
"Iijima!!" Morishita howled at me; and a couple of other people too, by the sound of it.
"Sorry, sorry-" I was trying to pick things up and mop up and still see what had happened. Akira came to help, and Saburou.
"Hirose, keep your butter-fingered cousin under control."
"Yes, yes, sorry, senpai." She cleared away the ice and the singing started again as I was shovelling dried squid back into the bag. No screams or shrieks, in any case. Whatever he'd done, it wasn't something immediately noticeable. I straightened up and glanced, apprehensive, over at Ashuri-san's group. The guy- the guy was looking what I can only call put out.
"What did you do?" I whispered to Saburou.
"I didn't do anything."
"Huh? What did *he* do, then?"
"He didn't do anything either."
I looked at his open, pleasant and not exactly intelligent face. "Well, what was he *going* to do?"
"I don't know. He didn't do it."
"Well, pretty sure."
Maddening. He'd pulled something, or tried to pull something, and I didn't know what; but at least it hadn't totally come off. That only meant he'd try something worse later on.
He got up and said something I couldn't hear to Ashuri-san. She nodded and went with him out of the room. I followed right behind, of course. Out into the darkened corridor with the kitchen lights shining a few metres down its length. He turned to look at her, grinning broadly. I could see that much from the light that came from the common room door behind me. Something went wrong with his grin and his head seemed to jerk a little side to side, like someone with a tic.
"What is it you wanted to show me, Akama-san?" Ashuri-san said.
"I- I thought-" That little flick again. A snort of impatience and temper. "I must have been mistaken; I thought there was someone here," he said, smoothly enough.
There was an awkward little pause.
"Well, let's go back to the party," Ashuri-san suggested and turned back in my direction. He came after her, giving me a look of seething suspicion and fury as he passed. And I still didn't know what was going on.
They'd run through all the current hits back in the common room. As Ashuri-san came in Watanabe-senpai bellowed, "Hey, Ashuri-san! Sing us something in English!" Everyone else picked that up and began yelling, "Yeah! Yeah! Sing us an English song, Ashuri-san! Sing us your Christmas songs!" For some reason that made her blush bright red.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I can't sing."
"Can't sing?" Iwano echoed, and a couple of the girls.
"We don't go in much for singing where I come from," she said, still blushing. I couldn't figure that one out; I mean, everyone sings, even if not well. Akira caught my eye and mouthed 'Tone-deaf?' at me. I shrugged. I suppose.
"But if you like I'll recite you a Christmas poem in English. It's from a play by Shakespeare called Hamlet."
"Hey, I know Hamlet," Ota said. "There's a Christmas poem in it?"
We all know Hamlet, actually. There's a set piece in third year high school English from the play, the 'To be or not to be' bit. But I didn't know there was anything about Christmas there either. I thought it was all about a bunch of people getting killed.
"Yes," Ashuri-san was saying, "very early on there's this bit," and she started saying it:
"Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time."
I think everyone looked as blank as I did when she was finished because she said, "I'll try to translate it for you. 'The story is that when it gets to be Christmas time, the umm chicken that usually cries at dawn cries all through the night.'"
"Rooster?" Akira hazarded.
"Is that what it's called? A male chicken? Thanks. 'The rooster cries all night long. And then they say no ghosts can appear. The nights are umm healthy, and unlucky stars have no influence, and umm- I don't know what the Japanese word is for fairy. Do you know what a fairy is?"
"Youkai," I supplied.
"Oh, thanks. 'The youkai don't take and witches have no power-'"
"Wait," Iwano said. "What don't the youkai take?"
"Mmh, people's souls, I think. Whatever it is they usually do take. They can't at Christmas, 'because the season is so holy and so beautiful.'" Everyone clapped when she was finished.
I went over to her after people had gone back to singing karaoke classics around the piano. "I've heard something like what you said," I remarked. "I think there may be some truth to it," and I gave red-hair my best smile. He was seething, but I could see he was still puzzled.
"Oh yes," she said to me, beaming. "It's a very holy time of year, all the world over. Would you two like to come to church with me tomorrow?"
"Ahh, sorry. I have a paper due. In fact I should probably get back to doing it," now that it was clearly safe to leave.
"I'll walk you to the door," red-hair said to me; and did. Akira gave me a worried look. I smiled and waved to her and Saburou.
Out in the corridor he turned on me. "What did you do?!"
"Not a thing, senpai. You know, if you're going to hang around our department you should at least come to some of our lectures. The ones on the psychology of religion, for instance. Nothing like a solid belief system to dictate your reality for you."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Just that human reality is what humans believe it to be. It changes in accordance with the way we think. Like my cousin Tsukasa, say." His face froze. "A bit of youkai crosses her path, all she sees is a cockroach- and whacks it with a rolled-up newspaper."
"And Ashuri-san's the same. Only worse, 'cause hers is a gaijin belief system. No figuring that one, let alone fighting it. I mean, you're welcome to go on trying, but you don't seem to be having much luck."
He sheeshed between his teeth. "You humans. You're no fun at all."
"That's us," I said. "Sorry."