Wishing on Empty Shrines | Teen Ink

Wishing on Empty Shrines

August 7, 2022
By kay523 BRONZE, Seoul, Other
kay523 BRONZE, Seoul, Other
3 articles 0 photos 0 comments

The torii gates are large and strikingly red against the barren trees silhouetted like hands along the walkway. Kai breathes, feeling the air coil in his lungs, and bows before he sets off walking among the leaves and the shadows into the house of a god. The ground is dappled with sunlight, the small shrine left empty for once.

He scoops up some water from the basin, dipping his head to avoid the gazes of the shrine maidens, and lets the water run over the skin of his hands. He takes a ginger sip and lets the water drip onto his left hand once more. Then, he turns the ladle upright and watches the water run down the side of the wooden handle. The water gleams on the wood and his hands. He wonders if it is gleaming in his stomach, where it is resting, tranquil, like an untouched lake—clear and beautiful. He watches the droplets roll down, down, holy water held in a man-made ladle in a place not befitting of mortal hands. With this, he is purified. With this, he holds something holy inside of him. In his hands.

He walks on.

The bell chimes gently against the august wind as Kai shakes the rope, rough against the pads of his palms. It rings thrice, fading away into the breeze, and Kai watches the bell silently, always silent, until it shudders to a stop. The coin he’s brought glimmers like gold in the sunlight, bright against his eyes as it falls like a shooting star into the shadowy caress of the offering box, gone, like a fleeting dream. On it carries his wish—unknown even to him until the very moment he will wish it, dug up from the recess of his heart.

He bows twice, deep and reverent. He doesn’t necessarily believe in the gods of shinto in the traditional way; but sometimes when he looks at the trees, swaying in the breeze, and the earth, jagged and grandiose, he cannot help but think that there are some things holier than he can understand and some things that will be closer to the realm of god than he can ever be. When he rises, the water in his stomach swooshes. He feels his breath catch for a moment as he claps, the sound ringing loud in the empty shrine—once, and then again.

He had pondered over his wish for weeks now, staring up at the indifferent gazes of his parents—their callous eyes fixed on papers and numbers. He is not the son they wanted—the one that would bring them glory through studious victory. He had wondered if he should ask for good grades, or for intelligence, or perhaps for something practical, like good health. 

But as he stands, hands clasped together in an empty shrine, eyes fixed on the spot where his wish—small, round, and golden—has disappeared into the shadows, his eyes grow warm and wet when his wish bubbles up like an inescapable truth.

Love me, love me, love me, something within him cries with such blinding fervor that he can barely breathe. Perhaps gods do not truly exist. Perhaps the lake resting inside of him is just that—water waiting to be digested. Perhaps that coin is simply a piece of metal, resting within a wooden box. Perhaps nothing is listening to him now, cheeks wet as he stares at the blurry outline of his shoes, head bowed and hands clenched together so hard that they shake, desperate as the beat of his heart. But here he is anyway, wiping tears off his cheeks with wet, holy hands. 

I want to be a good son, he thinks, chest aching, aching. I want to be somebody they can be proud of.

The morning light filters into the classroom like molten honey, and Kai blinks sleepily, tuning out the sounds of his classmates chattering in the background. Toya, his friend, nudges his shoulder playfully from beside him.

“Were you playing games past your bedtime?” he teases with a smirk on his face. “Is Kai finally learning to have some fun?”

Kai frowns.

“No, I was reviewing our science homework yesterday and lost track of time,” he says a little sheepishly, and Toya groans at that, loud and theatrical.

“You need to learn to live a little, man,” he says, not unkindly. “You’re like a robot, I swear.”

Kai opens his mouth to retort—after all, Toya was just as robot-like whenever he got into one of his soccer moods—but the teacher walks into the class and everybody falls silent, slipping into their seats.

“Good morning, teacher,” they recite dutifully, a couple students giggling in between.

Kai straightens immediately, blinking the tiredness from his eyes.

“Good morning class,” Mr. Takahara says, adjusting his glasses on his nose. “Before class starts, I would just like to remind everyone that we have midterm finals coming up very soon. I am not trying to stress you out, but I would advise anyone who has not begun studying to do so sooner rather than later. Now today, we will be discussing…”

Mr. Takahara continues, but Kai finds his concentration slipping. 

Were midterms really so soon? His stomach churns as he burns holes into the top of his desk. For last semester’s finals, he had studied so hard. He had walked out of school proud and confident in his abilities, but the numbers he had received had not reflected his efforts. His parents’ eyes had been cold and uninterested, glancing over him as he sat at the dinner table with the papers in his hands. Something had grown in his chest then. Like a little hole with teeth, it had blossomed between his ribs, and it throbs there now, like a second heartbeat. 

You cannot fail again, it tells him. It stings worse than a slap to the face. You cannot afford to fail.

“Hey man, you okay?” Toya’s soft voice breaks him out of his stupor and he gasps quietly, breath caught in his lungs as he turns to look at his friend’s concerned face.

“I’m fine,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut. He thinks about the shrine and the coin that lies at the bottom—his wish, amongst countless others, hidden in the shadows. 

He will not fail.

The thought is bitter in his mind.

The days pass in a haze. Kai wakes in the morning and buries his head in a book as he brushes his teeth. Sometimes he will head downstairs and with a desperate kind of hope make some breakfast for his parents. Sometimes they eat it, and sometimes they thank him. Very rarely do they speak to him at the table. The hole grows.

At school, he writes notes with a single-minded determination and almost terrifying fervor—so much so that Toya asks him if his hands do not hurt. At lunch he reads over his notes, again, again, until the words are emblazoned into his mind; pages upon pages of words, like lines of prayer in his brain for a god that will not hear him. Sometimes he will get home and realize that he has not eaten since yesterday. Sometimes Toya will push his tray at him insistently until Kai manages to eat a few bites between pages. 

Kai loses track of time. Pages of his notebook flit through his life like dreams, a single constant between the ever-changing scenery around him. He will find himself taking notes in class in one moment and then reviewing them in soccer club the next. Between one blink and another, Kai loses himself in the lined paper of his own handwriting. In his dreams, the same words swim in front of him. Occasionally he finds himself confused as to which is reality and which is dream, always aware of the second heartbeat thudding inside of him, only growing louder and louder as the days go by and the time he has left grows ever shorter. 

He does not know if the hole inside of him is holy or not, but it is growing, and it is gnawing at his ribs, and it is consuming him, like a wild animal inside of his chest. When he finally collapses in bed at night, the crushing weight of its pressure eats him whole, ripping tears into his lungs and his flesh until he cannot breathe. Until his vision blurs and he can no longer see the words that he knows by heart in front of him. 

Sometimes through the haze, Toya talks to him. Kai isn’t quite sure what he says, but his face is pinched and worried. It’s okay, Kai wants to tell him. It’s all going to be okay when this is over. 

My parents are going to love me again. 

But Kai doesn’t know if he can tell his best friend something that he doesn’t quite believe himself, so he keeps his mouth shut. He thinks of his coin, dropped like an offering at the shrine. It doesn’t feel like enough. Nothing that Kai does ever seems like enough, so this time he will offer every single thing that he has left to give. 

He will not fail. 

He cannot fail.

Kai blinks. When his eyes open, he is standing in soccer club. Every time he blinks, black washes up like a tide of a thousand little dots against the shore of his vision.

Blink; a wave of black; recede.

Blink; a wave of black; recede.

His lungs feel so heavy. He wonders if he’s forgotten to breathe. Because sometimes his breath will catch in his lungs and it will take him a moment to remember how to breathe again. He sways. The black is not receding as fast anymore. The sky looks concerningly gray, and briefly Kai wonders if someone has written notes on the clouds. He should do that—write his notes on the clouds. The hole is growing larger again. 

A wave of dizziness washes over him. This time, when he blinks, the black does not recede at all. Kai tries to remember how to breathe. He thinks that his lungs should expand, but it doesn’t feel like any air is entering. He chokes, desperation crawling up like vines in his veins and around his throat. If he could forget how to breathe, it’s no wonder that he could forget everything else, sitting in a chair in a test room, words blurring before his eyes. The hole grows once more.

The next thing he knows, Kai is on the ground. Toya is a blurry silhouette in front of him, kneeling against the sky and the ground. He’s shouting, face panicked, but Kai can’t hear him at all. He wonders why Toya isn’t making any noise. He wonders why the black tide isn’t receding. He wonders why his body isn’t listening to him. He thinks he might have left his math textbook back in the classroom. 

The black tide overtakes him.

And then, Kai doesn’t wonder anymore.

Kai slowly wakes to the ceiling of the nurse’s office, blinking black from his eyes. His head swims when he sits up, a bit confused as to how he got there. Next to him, Toya startles from his seat. He isn’t smiling, which is rare, and his expression is unreadable when he pushes Kai back gently against the headrest.

“Stay here,” he tells him, before getting to his feet and disappearing around the curtain. Kai blinks, and Toya is by his side again, the school nurse sitting right next to him. 

“Mr. Takahara,” the nurse tells him. “You passed out from exhaustion on the soccer field around two hours ago. It seems as though you haven’t been getting enough sleep or food.”

She frowns at him disapprovingly, clicking her nails on her clipboard.

“It seems as though there is nothing otherwise wrong with you, so I would advise you to go home, have a large dinner, and go to sleep earlier, young man.”

She writes something down on a clipboard, and then she’s gone when Kai opens his eyes again. He jolts a bit, disoriented. His head spins, even when he’s sitting down, and he feels like everything around him is written in a different language. 

“Kai,” Toya starts suddenly. Kai startles because he had forgotten that he was still there. He has never seen Toya so quiet before. “What were you thinking? I knew you weren’t sleeping but eating, too? You passed out!” Toya’s voice crescendos as he looks up at him, eyes burning in the shadow of the curtain. Kai has never seen Toya so upset; not even when he’d stolen his favorite candy at the New Years’ Festival three years ago.

Kai hesitates as his head pounds. The world melts around him, drifting out of focus except for Toya, his expression etched into Kai’s mind like a striking pinpoint. He doesn’t understand what he’s done wrong, but everything hurts and Toya’s upset—which he never is—so he must have done something really bad. He wishes he knew what it was.

“Sorry,” he rasps, heart aching, aching. He looks up at Toya and shudders, feeling heat build at the base of his throat. Don’t leave me, he wants to say, but he can’t bring himself to open his mouth to say the words.

Toya sighs, face pained. 

“It’s—that’s not—I meant that—” Toya pauses. He takes a deep breath, and when he opens his eyes, they are hopelessly sad against the hard lines of his face. “Can you—can you tell me why you weren’t eating or sleeping?” His voice is suffocatingly gentle.

Kai trembles.

“I—” he rasps, suddenly unable to look Toya in the eye. “I needed to study.” A fresh wave of anxiety wells up at the thought, kissing the edge of his mind like an endless tide, pulling back only to inevitably return to his side. Study. Yes, that’s right, he needs to study. He wishes that he could stand. Go home to his desk, bathed in silver moonlight and golden lamplight, piled high with books and pages. Go home to the words that he will read over and over again until they are lodged into his mind—so that he will never fail again.

“So you decided not to take care of yourself?” Toya does not sound like himself. He has always smiled in the near decade that Kai has known him, but now he is horribly still. “Kai, that’s—that’s—!” He stutters, rising to his feet so quickly that his spinny chair falls over. 

“That’s stupid!” Toya finally exclaims, his whole body shaking with—anger? Rage? Kai can no longer tell. Stupid. The word stings, even though it doesn’t seem to be the right one that Toya is looking for. All his life, Kai has been stupid, but it isn’t something that he’s been able to help. He wishes he weren’t so stupid. He wishes that he weren’t so unlovable.

“It’s not stupid!” Kai exclaims, indignant. His lungs gasp for air. He can’t breathe. Toya stands next to him, his expression the most tortured Kai has ever seen, and Kai had put it there. Why are you so angry? he wants to say. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

“Yes, it is!” Toya shouts back, and—oh, he’s crying, tears spilling out of his eyes and hitting the floor with tiny plops. “Whoever heard of someone passing out because he was too busy studying? I bet you were just going to go home after this and keep reading those damn notes of yours!” The heat builds until it stings against Kai’s lips. The tears overflow out through his eyes, drawing burning lines down his cheeks.

“Yes!” he replies because that was exactly what he had been planning to do. “And what’s so wrong with that? I just don’t want to fail again!”

“You’re ruining yourself!” Toya is inconsolable. Kai has never seen him like this before.

“I don’t care!” Kai shouts right back.


“I can’t fail!” Kai finally says. “I can’t—I can’t fail.” 

The silence stretches long. Kai sniffs loudly into it, bringing weak hands up to try and wipe his tears away. Toya’s familiar hand gently offers a handkerchief. Something in Kai’s heart pangs when he realizes that it is the same one they’d bought together years ago so that they’d match in first grade. When he finally looks up, Toya just looks desolate, tears smeared like jelly across his own cheeks.

“Why,” Toya says again.

Kai opens his mouth, all the words caught in his throat.

“W—Why?” Kai repeats, shaking. Toya’s hands are steady and devastatingly tender when he steals the handkerchief to wipe Kai’s face for him.

“Yeah,” he says, still so crushingly gentle. He goes to retrieve the chair that he’d knocked over and sits back down. “Why can’t you fail?” His tone is not unkind. Kai shudders anyways, feeling awfully vulnerable lying on the bed in the nurse’s office, staring up at his best friend.

“I want to be good enough,” he finally blurts out, and the words lodge right back between his ribs to hurt him. He wonders if the gods are looking down at him now, heart shattered in his hands as he lies like a broken offering. He wonders if they are disgusted. If they could pity him. I want to be loved, he tries to say, but the words catch in his mouth. Kai covers his face with his hands.

“Kai,” Toya says, like his heart is breaking all over again. “Kai—sh*t—dude, of course you’re enough.” Toya says it like it’s obvious; like the sun will always rise and the sea is always blue and Kai is enough in his eyes. Kai presses his palms to his eyelids and tries to breathe. He doesn’t reply.

“Kai, could you look at me?” And then Toya is reaching out with his hands, thumbs rubbing gentle fingers over his knuckles and pulling them from his face. “Dude, so um—this is kind of awkward, but you’re like a little brother to me even though we’re the same age—which in hindsight is kind of weird?”

Toya smiles at Kai like he means every word he says. Kai cannot bear to continue looking Toya in the eye, but he’d asked so gently for him to look, so Kai keeps looking, even when all the tenderness highlighted there in the fading light makes his chest ache.

“And well, to me you’ll always be enough, I think. I mean—you could trip over your own feet and break your jaw on the stairs and I’d laugh at you, but you’d still be Kai and I’d still be your best friend and I think that’s enough, for me.” Toya seems to have forgotten that he’s still holding Kai’s hands, and he squeezes them every time he finishes a sentence. Kai wants to lean down into them and weep once more. 

“But even more than that, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Why do you have to determine your worth on your grades? You beat everyone at soccer without breaking a sweat. You make, undoubtedly, the best gyoza I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that you’re an amazing person, and I’m so glad that you’re my best friend.” 

Once Toya started, he caught traction and let it all flow out of him. He’d always been like that, chattering without thought, brutally honest. Kai likes that about him. In a world where everyone lies, Toya is always the same. Now though, the words dig into Kai’s chest and simultaneously bleed and grow at the same time.

Kai sniffs, and embarrassingly enough, the tears pour out again. Toya pauses, then snorts.

“Oh you big cry baby,” he says affectionately, then chucks his hanky at Kai’s face. His following laugh brings a smile to Kai’s face, even through his tears.

When his tears finally stop, Kai looks up, more tired than he’s ever felt in his life, but unwilling to let go of Toya’s hand. He blinks slowly, feeling sleep start to take over.

“D’you really mean it?” he asks, words slightly slurred as the world starts to fade away. Toya just smiles, squeezing his hand faintly.

“Have I ever lied to you?” he says fondly. 

No, Kai wants to reply, but everything has gone fuzzy. His eyelids are heavy.

“Sleep,” Toya says from somewhere far away, and Kai does.

Kai goes home.

When dinnertime comes, his parents sit at the table. They don’t seem to notice the tear stains on his face, so Kai just helps himself to his cooked fish and stays silent. His mother asks him a cursory “How was your day at school?” and Kai hesitates before answering, “Fine.” His mother nods, mutters something about exams, and turns back to her miso soup. Father starts a discussion about the recent rising taxes, lifting the focus off of him. Their half-hearted chatter fades into the background.

Kai uses his spoon to shift around the soup. Little cubes of tofu spin around and around. The brown liquid reflects his face back up in it, tired and puffy, and Kai feels that familiar sensation well up inside of him. He feels like a stranger in his own home, like a shadow that no one else can see. Like the big red numbers have been stamped on his forehead, where all can see and judge.

Kai stares down at his bowl of rice, half empty, and thinks about Toya, who’d practically threatened him about finishing his dinner on their way home.

A smile rises to his lips unconsciously.

That night, Kai falls asleep as the clock strikes eleven. He dreams about playing soccer on a big field. The wind rushes through the air and whooshes into his lungs. The sun gleams in a cloudless sky, and Kai feels more alive than he’s felt in a long time. Toya is there. He’s laughing in that snorting way he does. Kai lies in the grass and laughs with him into the open sky.

There are no numbers. They don’t even exchange any words. It is just Kai, Toya, and the wide blue sky.

It’s a pleasant dream.

The torii gates are large and strikingly red against the barren trees along the walkway. Kai breathes, feeling the air coil in his lungs, and bows once before he sets off among the leaves and the shadows into the house of a god. The ground is dappled with sunlight, and Kai hums into cloud and wind, hands tucked into his pockets.

He scoops up some water from the basin, dipping his head in greeting to the shrine maidens, and lets the water run over the skin of his hands. He takes a small sip and lets the water drip onto his left hand once more. Then, he turns the ladle upright and watches the water run down the side of the wooden handle. The water gleams on the wood and his hands. The water shimmers in the afternoon sun, like small pieces of glass etched onto wood. He watches the droplets roll down, down—holy water on the ladle and his hands and his lips.

He doesn’t feel particularly holier, but he thinks about the god of this shrine and the vast spirits that thrive in the earth and the rock around him, and he thinks that maybe that was the meaning of it all—that in the end, nothing is truly holy at all. Perhaps there is a measure of holiness already within him, entering through the wind that passes through his lips, and in the lake resting in his stomach; he is here, he is part of the divine, and he is alive, despite everything.

He walks on.

The bell chimes gently against the wind as Kai shakes the rope, rough against the pads of his palms. It rings thrice, fading away into the crisp spring air, and Kai watches the bell in comfortable silence until it shudders to a stop. The coin he’s brought glimmers like gold in the sunlight, bright against his eyes as it falls like a shooting star into the offering box, like a tender dream. Bright and curling, his wish is carried by the coin like a nameless spirit.

He bows twice, deeply and reverently. He smiles when he claps twice, the sound echoing through the courtyard of an empty shrine.

The temples stand tall behind him, rigid and quiet. They were made from the bark of the oldest cedar trees, chopped from their place in the mighty earth hundreds of years ago. They were painted with the careful hands of countless artisans throughout the ages, pouring their own spirits into each touch of red paint. In each crease of wood lies a story, strewn across time, and in each creaky stair lies a dream, left by a nameless footprint from a nameless time.

In a place such as this, in which time and status has no meaning, Kai is just this—a young man, 17 years old, standing before the divinity of the world to offer up his own wish upon the altar, soft and dug up from the very recess of his heart. There is no place for numbers and rankings here. Here, Kai is no longer 21st in his class. He isn’t a so-called straight C student or an academic failure.

Kai is just Kai, and it is absolutely liberating.

He clasps his hands together, palms pressed against one another, fingers intertwined. He brings them first to his chest, where they just barely brush against his collarbones, and then up to his lips. His fingers tingle every time he breathes upon them, gently.

Tomorrow, final exams will finally arrive. Tomorrow, Kai will walk into school with Toya by his side and he will sit in his seat, anxious. The teacher will pass out the tests and Kai will write, furiously, desperately, and eventually it will be over, and Kai will be done with it all.

Kai does not know what number will be on the top of the exam paper when it finally gets back to him. He doesn’t know how many numbers will be slashed through by red pen. He doesn’t know what his parents will say—if they’ll look at him with those disappointed eyes again.

The trees sway, and Kai hums, mind clear for the first time in weeks. The wish comes easily, like the flow of running rain, spoken softly into the swooping gale so that it may carry it up to the endless blue sky. Unbidden, a smile forms in Kai’s face.

As he turns to leave, he glances back one last time at the offering box. The glint of gold metal from within the shadows seems to wink at him, ropes swaying playfully under the spirits’ touch. Kai laughs, shaking his head, and moves to head back the way he’d come. 

If he misses the movie, Toya will kick his *ss, after all.

The author's comments:

Kay L. is an eleventh-grader attending school in Seoul, South Korea. She is currently putting together her writing portfolio and was recently accepted into the Emmerson Summer Pre-College Creative Writing Program and has previously attended the Juniper Young Writer's Program as well.

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