It's simple to tell a place loved by humans, even in the poorest and meanest of communities. Clean-swept streets, bricks worn smooth by the touch of human hands and feet, bright colors and laughing children are only some of the signs of a place beloved by its human inhabitants. But humans in turn are drawn by the love of gods for a particular locale, as all living things feel in them the deep pull toward a place made sacred by great care.
Sakurashin Town had been the domain of the land god Shinatsuhiko Yae for hundreds of years. All the life and light of its bustling sidewalks and talkative citizens were drawn there in main because of her, like flowers turning toward the sun. But she didn't surround herself with the sun's radiance of divinity, to keep her separate from the strange and mysterious mortals and demons who lived in her city. She had no need for mantelpiece shrines in her name when she could move among the people of Sakurashin knowing every one by name, and every one could call on her in recognition. There was nothing unusual in the sight of a god in thick-soled boots walking up Chair Tree Street just after dawn.
Chair Tree Street was a scraggly avenue of Sakurashin notable for its cluster of pastry shops and for not being named Chair Tree Street. It had a dull official name printed on the city atlases and zoning maps of Sakurashin, but no one used it except for postal workers. Even the town's young mayor, Hime, usually a stickler for protocol, called it Chair Tree Street after its most relatively famous landmark. Where the street passed the library in a lazy semicircle, a fat old cherry tree had thick low branches grown together to form perfect low benches. People waiting for the bus to stop nearby took advantage of the tree to rest their feet. Yae remembered the migration of countless children from the library to perch like birds in the tree's branches, bark worn smooth by generations of hands. In spring they read comic books in the shifting light through the blossoms as cranky squirrels dropped twigs on their heads.
But a last year of root rot, parasites, and an ill-timed lightning strike had blasted the chair tree, which now despite the warm spring air was as bare of leaves as a winter inkprint. From beneath its withered branches, three young people gazed up with identical expressions of concern: Hime, the teenage mayor herself; Akina, the equally young director of the Hiizumi Life Counseling Office; and Yae, the city's land god and most prominent cosplaying nun.
Akina stroked the worn bark of the chair tree. "I really thought that last round of fertilizer would perk it up a little."
"It can't be helped. This tree is just tired out," Yae said.
"This tree has been dropping branches for weeks. It's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt." Hime's deep scowl was one of concern. "The chair tree has been here a long time, but I'm not going to stand around and let it stay a danger to the people in this town."
Yae lay a comforting hand on Hime's shoulder. "I'll take care of it, Hime-chan."
Akina pointed toward the middle branches of the tree, where a shabby twig nest was crowded with a trio of equally scruffy brown nestlings. "Are those birds going to be okay? It's late for chicks to be fledging, but it could be bad if their nest falls."
"Don't worry, they're old enough to leave the nest. I've seen them fly around when they think I'm not looking." Hime cupped her hands around her mouth and called upward toward the nest. "You birds are just lazy!"
The birds peered down at her with beady-eyed dislike.
"Well, then. I'll go ahead," Yae said.
"I know Hime could just get the gardening association to handle it," Akina said, "but we thought of asking you, because, well--"
"You and the chair tree are old friends," Hime said. "And it's our old friend, too. So thank you."
"It's my pleasure. Now, please stand back." Yae unsheathed the sword she wore at her side with a silken hiss.
The tree gave a long, low groan deep within as the sword passed through its trunk. The sound turned to creaks snapping through the wood as the tree shifted and began to fall.
The nestlings in the upper-branch nest rustled their feathers, squawking in alarm. Fly, Yae thought, though she made no move to help them with any gust of wind. Go on, fly, fly.
After one last groan, the tree fell quietly for its size. The soft whistle of the leaves through the air was the only sound before it sprawled on the pavement. The tree had fallen neatly in the gap between two parked cars, neatly missing hitting Akina and Hime to one side, a telephone pole to the other.
Borne through the air in a descending arc, the gangly nestlings resisted gravity until almost perpendicular with the ground. But at last they pushed off from the nest and flapped free, pushing into the air with strong, awkward strokes, squawking in complaint.
Akina blinked and blew out a mouthful of sawdust. Yae shook her sword free of debris and sheathed it, glittering sharp as ever.
Hime nudged the fallen trunk with her foot. "Goodbye, tree. Thanks for being our chair tree. Hey, remember the time we had the picnic in this tree?"
"Yeah, we weren't even in middle school yet, I think," Akina said. "What were we, nine? Ten? And Kyosuke got mad because I was sitting above him and dropped the ice cream on his head--"
"Hime-sama!" Kyosuke, the mayor's bespectacled assistant stood poised at a discreet distance with planner in hand, unfazed by the falling lumber. "If you'll bring that along, we have just enough time to clear the street before your meeting with the school superintendent."
"Ah, right, Kyosuke. But you should call me 'Mayor' when I'm working."
"Of course, Hime-sama."
Hime bent and hauled the prone tree with apparent ease to one shoulder. "I'll be going, then. See you later, Akina. Thanks for your help, Yae-san!" And she marched away down the center of the street, trailed by a thin trickle of sawdust from her enormous load.
"Guess I'll get back to the office," Akina said. "Would you like to come by for some tea, Yae-san?"
"I'll take you up on that later. I've got a busy morning planned out." With a first stop or two at the pastry shops here so temptingly close.
A busy morning was by no means atypical for Yae, designated land god and city bureaucrat. This is what godhood looks like when it's the practical divinity of close, living spaces. Twice the church computer froze while Yae was in the middle of typing a document, until no amount of smacking the case would convince it to release her file.
She gave up and spent an hour or two shaping pieces of the sacred sakura pillars into power limiters for the newest demonic inhabitants in town. For the tengu family moving into a comfortable apartment complex, she made a circle of matching bracelets. For the little girl werewolf, a sturdy necklace: sturdy and hard for small hands to remove. She made every piece with care; she was good with her hands and took pride in her work. Each of these limiters should be a source of comfort for the demons whose powers it will keep within limits safe for their human neighbors. It should not be a badge to mark them as separate, dangerous beings in need of control, but as a symbol of inclusion within this town. She couldn't help murmuring a little scrap of encouragement over the pillar scraps as she worked. May they bring happiness and good fortune, may their wearers find hope and community. May the spells hold out and the roots stay strong.
Today also is the twice-monthly meeting of the Sakurashin Town Ladies' Regional Flower-Arranging Society, which is as much an excuse for spry old women to drink shochu and argue about international politics as it is a meeting to discuss the perfect displays of plum blossom against pine. Today was extra special as Yae brought leftovers from this morning's pastry run. The Flower-Arranging Society fell upon the thick crepes and sticky mochi with howls of delight, and only a little liquor sloshed to the floor as they praised Yae as an excellent young woman and beloved young niece.
That Yae had known and socialized with most of them since their infancy was beside the point. The right to be nosy and affect elder dignity at will was an assumed privilege of their decrepit old age (never mind the points racked up by members on alternate weeks at the bimonthly Sakurashin Town Kendo Society). Yae dutifully ate her mochi and watched her little old ladies, a small half-smile on her face.
Hime found Yae that evening at Rin's noodle restaurant, serving yet another civic duty in her role as volunteer taste tester for Rin's newest variety of ramen. Yae secretly thought that Rin was such a good cook that she didn't need a taste tester, but perhaps one kept her from veering into exotic extremes of ingredients: candied ramen, hákarl ramen, ramen lambé. And anyway, what god or sane being, even after an afternoon of pastries, passes on free ramen?
"Yae-san!" Hime said, and then Hime smelled the ramen, and so the ordering and serving of vast Hime-sized portions of ramen commenced, which took some time and energy. When conversation resumed: "I'm going to ask Takei-san the carpenter to use the wood to make a street bench for that corner," Hime said between bites. "I'll put up a real bus stop for that corner this time with a roof for the rain. And!" She raised a fist emphatically. "We're going to plant more trees there soon. Good shade trees with lots of flowers. I've thought for a long time that street needs fixing up. I'll make it up to the chair tree by making that the most beautiful street in this town!"
"That's great, Hime-chan," Yae-san said, and meant it, even with her mouth full. Hime's passion for Sakurashin was rivaled only by Yae's own, to a degree that Yae felt responsible. Hime had loved Sakurashin all her life, but Yae had loved Sakurashin before any of its mortal residents had been born.
This was Yae's city. She belonged to the city as much as it belonged to her. She loved the trees and rocks and waterfalls, but also the pavement and bicycles and cellphone towers. "Don't get involved with the people," her brother always advised her. "You care too much. Don't let them affect you so deeply."
But how could she not? She loved this city that humans and demons alike shaped with their desires and technology into a form totally foreign from its shape two hundred years ago, but still so instantly familiar in the shape of their dreams and desires: food, shelter, love, hope for the future, comfort in the everyday. Here there was hot instant ramen thick with salt, TV dramas as exciting and histrionic as any kabuki classic, iron-toed shoes and electric guitars. Tomorrow there would be more ramen and mochi, sunrises and teddy bears, new construction on Chair Tree Street.
For now it was enough for Yae to watch this flower of a city blossom in all its fragile balance of beauty and impossible toughness. She'd keep this safe haven solid for as long as she could. She didn't doubt that when the city's foundations began to crumble, the people's roots here would have kept her city aloft and strong for long enough. Even the tiniest bird is meant to soar to unforeseeable heights.