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To walk among the fallen

We arrived at Junrei-Ichii in the late evening, entering under the eastern Torii and walking along a broad gravelled avenue, lit by paper lanterns hanging from the trees on either side. The road ended at the great Temple of the Mother. It was an overcast night, dark and pregnant with rain; I could see only a huge shadowy bulk with a line of pilgrims waiting at the brightly lit Junrei door on one side.

Massey and I joined the line and soon found ourselves inside, where we went through the familiar routine of stamping and injections and dinner in the refractory. The food was quite good compared to the rough cooking of Massey and myself on the road, even if it was a variation on the standard Junrei fare of rice and beans and vegetables. There was even fresh fruit!

We slept the night sharing a large cell with four temple monks instead of sleeping in the enormous bunk hall with the rest of the pilgrims. This seemed to be a concession to Massey, as there were empty bunks below.

In the morning I rose early only to find Massey and the temple monks had woken even earlier and left on mysterious errands of their own. I went down to the refractory hoping for some sweet buns and found myself pressed into service with a ladle, filling pilgrim’s breakfast bowls with brown rice.

Afterwards I explored the grounds of the temple complex. I had been there a couple of times before, as a high-class tourist with an escort, but this was the first time I ever wandered the paths without someone explaining how the Temple of Fire was originally a wooden structure and had been rebuilt in stone after it burned the third time or telling me not to go that way as we were scheduled to watch the dancing at the Children’s Shrine in fifteen minutes.

I found the epiphanies of random exploration more to my liking than the structure of a guided tour. Junrei-Ichii is full of little nooks and crannies; rows of moss covered statues hidden in the forest, tiny tea houses perched over the edge of lily ponds. And, of course, shrines and temples everywhere. Thus I was in quite a good mood before I ruined it by coming around a copse of pine trees and finding myself outside the entrance of the Temple of the Fallen.

When I returned to the Mother’s temple I found Massey there, involved in some sort of ritual in the main hall. His part seemed to consist only of ringing a small bell from time to time, and chanting with the other monks, but he was clearly content with it. Afterwards we ate an afternoon meal and made the rounds of several temples, getting injections and stamping our books.

We ended up on the tower of the Temple of Winds, looking down over the temple complex. I hadn’t wanted to come up because it was a compulsory stop on the tourists itinerary and I had been there before, lost among the crowds. However, Massey insisted. We took the lift, manned (or rather womaned) by a temple monk; clearly female despite her shaved head and shapeless robes.

Once on top I was surprised to find we had the observation platform to ourselves and amused myself tracing out the path of my wandering that morning. The trees were tiny from that great height and the pilgrims and tourists looked like ants wandering among them. The roofs of temples poked up all over; some golden or copper from cladding, others rusted steel or earthen tile. I could even see the western Torii, though the eastern one was hidden behind the vast proportions of the Mother’s temple.

Massey was long silent, walking around the platform and looking out on Junrei-Ichii. Finally he spoke wisfully, “I find we have some need of haste. Tomorrow we will visit all the remaining temples. I would like to walk out of the west gate by Fishday morning.”

“Massey,” I said, hesitantly, “There is one temple I would skip.”

He looked at me knowingly. “But, to walk among the fallen is a great honour.

“Besides,” he added pointedly. “There are temples who injections you can pass over. The Temple of the Fallen is not one of them.”

. . .

The next day we indeed made the rounds of the remaining temples and shrines, getting injections and (in one case) soaking for a while in great iron tubs full of mineral water, piped from a hot spring on the hill behind. We even went to the small town north of the temple complex to stock up on supplies at one point. Massey planned our route such that the Temple of the Fallen was our last stop before returning to the Temple of the Mother for the night.

Even so I stood rooted for a long while outside; Massey waiting patiently beside me. The Temple of the Fallen did not have a Junrei door; pilgrims were expected to enter by the front door and walk a labyrinthine path through the building before getting their injections and leaving by the back.

Finally Massey spoke. “A couple of days ago I said we would need to discuss the reasons why you are on Junrei. We still need to do so, but I have already learned as much about you as can be found in the newspapers.”

I looked at him in surprise. Massey shrugged. “Yesterday morning, while you slept. It turns out you have been in those newspapers quite a bit, if mostly in the sports section. I know what awaits you within. I also believe you need to face it as part of your pilgrimage.

“Junrei is not just about injections and meditation you know. There are those who need to balance their karma even more than their physical body. To heal mental and emotional wounds. Or to expiate their sins by walking the Circuit.”

“And I am such?” I stomped angrily up the stairs and through the tall doors.

The first room is a meditation chamber but Massey, shaking his head, led me through. The twisting passage beyond was lined with open doorways and, through each, were small rooms filled with pallets, upon which lay sleeping men (mostly men) and women. Most of them barely moved, only the rise and fall of their chests showing they still lived. Some occasionally twisted about or rolled over as we passed. From a little round well in the center of every room grayish root-like cannula snaked over to each pallet and disappeared under the white blankets.

There were others there; tourist, pilgrims, and monks tending the sleepers. But everyone was quiet as mice, whispering when they talked at all.

After walking a long while, Massey took me by the arm and pulled me into one of those small rooms. There was no mistaking the reason why: One body there took as much room as two people, his bed extra large.

I walked up and stood over my ex school room-mate Jo li. He lay there as peacefully as the rest, his eyes moving slightly behind closed lids.

“I’m . . .” I started to speak and then lapsed into silence. Finally I tried again, “I’m sorry Jo. But I am happy you are here. And I pray every day you will one day walk among the living again.”

Jo didn’t move. Massey went to the end of his bed and studied a chart on a clipboard there. Then he looked up at me. “That prayer of yours has some hope of coming true. It looks like your friend might be here another four or five years, but he is healing.”

“Thank you.” That was something, at least. I felt some relief to learn Jo really was getting better. Some of the honourable fallen never walk again, even with the care they receive there. And competition for beds in this temple was fierce, which is why I was glad Jo had been accepted. Nevertheless I felt badly we hadn’t done more for him.

After a while in silence I started to leave, but then I heard a raspy voice behind me.

“Griff. Griff, is that you?”

I felt a moments fright and turned around to see a ghost. Jo’s eyes were open and he was trying to roll over towards me. While I stood there open-mouthed he sat up with effort, his blanket falling off his nude body. I could see where the ropy cannula faded from mottled grey to flesh coloured and entered his abdomen where his navel should be.

“Is that you Griff?” Jo repeated.

“Yes.” I was panicking again, I guess I had known the fallen could wake from time to time, if their injuries permitted, but I certainly had not expected this. “Yes, I’m here Jo.”

“Good. I was dreaming you were here. Then I was dreaming I was waking up, but I was afraid I wasn’t really.”

“No, this isn’t a dream Jo.”

“Good. I’m glad this isn’t a dream. Everything here is dreams. Sometimes I dream about things that really happened, like living through them again. My parents. Battles. Nights on the town with you and the boys. Sometimes I dream about you and the rest, only it is like a recording. I’m not really there, just watching it. I think that is things that are really happening when I dream them, only I am here instead of there.

“Sometimes I dream about other things. Fields and sheep. The wind blowing on trees. Waves on the sea. Calming dreams. Sometimes . . .

“Sometimes the dreams aren’t good dreams Griff. I dream about bad things happening in the cities. Sometimes I even dream about the Outside. It’s cold there Griff. So cold. But that isn’t the worst dream. You know what is the worst dream?”

I stared at him wide-eyed. I had never heard Jo speak so many words in a row the whole time I knew him. “No Jo. What is the worst dream?”

A shadow fell over Jo’s face. “The worst dream is the one about you and Colin. Was that real Griff?”

I could feel my heart breaking and melting. A darkness came over me. I believe I was near to fainting. “Yes.” I got out finally, choking. “It was real. Too real. I have wished and prayed every day since that it had been a dream.”

“I’m sorry Griff. I think he didn’t give you a choice. You tried to get out of it.” A look of great weariness passed over Jo’s broad face. “Even if it was your fault. You tried.”

Jo slumped back onto the bed. “I’m glad you came Griff . . .”

As Jo fell back into sleep, Massey picked up his blanket and covered him again.

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