The Goddess Chronicleby Natsuo Kirino, Rebecca Copeland
In a place like no other, on a mystical island in the shape of tear drop, two sisters are born into a family of oracles. Beautiful Kamikuu is admired far and wide; Namima, small but headstrong, learns to live in her older sister’s shadow. On her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is chosen as the next Oracle, while Namima is forced to become the goddess of darkness,
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In a place like no other, on a mystical island in the shape of tear drop, two sisters are born into a family of oracles. Beautiful Kamikuu is admired far and wide; Namima, small but headstrong, learns to live in her older sister’s shadow. On her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is chosen as the next Oracle, while Namima is forced to become the goddess of darkness, destined to spend eternity guiding the spirits of the deceased to the underworld. As the sisters serve opposite fates, so begins a journey that will take Namima from her first experience of love to scalding betrayal. Caught in an elaborate web of deceit, she travels from the land of the living to the Realm of the Dead and back again seeking vengeance and ultimate closure.
Natsuo Kirino turns her hand to an exquisitely dark tale, masterfully reinventing the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki. The Goddess Chronicle is a tale as old as the earth about sibling rivalry, ferocious love, and bittersweet revenge.
"Fans of Kirino’s crime novels will find much to savor in The Goddess Chronicle. . . . Kirino is a master at creating an atmosphere of unease and distrust between her characters. In her skillful hands we see that the divide between man and woman is greater than the one between humans and gods. Kirino’s retelling is a taut, disturbing and timeless tale, filled with rage and pathos for the battles that women have to fight every day, battles which have, apparently, existed from the moment of creation." Tang Twan Eng, The Guardian
"A dark and lovely feminist retelling of the Japanese creation myth." NPR.com
"[An] enthralling tale of love, death and sisterhood. . . . It serves to immerse us in a world and mythology very different from our own. And yet, in the end, not so different." Washington Independent Review of Books
"Both realistic and dreamlike . . . Kirino writes lyrically as she spins a magical and ethereal tale." Kirkus Reviews
"A story of love and betrayal and then love once again. . . . A very good book that should be read and enjoyed by everyone." Minneapolis Examiner
"Kirino wows with her latest novel . . . [her] elegant writing brings Namimaa tragic, sympathetic heroineto vivid life. Readers will devour this tragic story and be left transformed." Publishers Weekly
"The central narrative is lyrical, with an impelling storyline that demands attention . . . This is a compelling tale, with foundations in an allegory-rich fable that more than deserves its rejuvenation." The Independent
"Kirino captures the rivalry-laced love of sisters, the bitterness of the female role in mythology and the destructive powers of yearning for vengeance." Shelf Awareness
"[The Goddess Chronicle] will make you think. There is a feel of the oral tradition of storytelling in this book that makes it seem like a story handed down from the older generation rather than a novel. One can almost imagine sitting with their grandmother and listening to this story and then passing it along to children of the next generation when the time comes. It is a feminist work in that it stars strong women in the lead roles and explores the roles of gender, but it is much more than that as well. It is a story of love and betrayal and then love once again. . . . A very good book that should be read and enjoyed by everyone." Minneapolis Examiner
"Charged with the power of Japanese myth, tempered by the author’s resonant prose, and propelled by a young woman’s love and sorrow, The Goddess Chronicle is a haunting fable, a literary phantasia." Alan Brennert, author of Moloka’i and Honolulu
"If you have enough time, I’m going to recommend you sit down and read this one straight through. . . . Although The Goddess Chronicle is not a mystery story, per se, I felt the same kind of insistent tug to read on that I get when reading mysteries." Three Percent
"Kirino’s foray into folklore shares similarities with her earlier novels, namely, female characters who, wronged by lovers, choose to resist societal expectations and fight to rectify injustice. Readers who enjoy crime fiction or re-envisioned myth will find that this imaginative veneer works well on such reliable scaffolding." Booklist
"Kirino enjoys depicting her heavenly characters as capricious and temperamental, much like the Greek gods. Yet despite the very human motivations of all involved, Kirino maintains an air of intriguing supernatural strangeness." Metro
"A spectacle that includes multiple layers of opposing forces . . . [Kirino] uniquely depicts an unruly mythological world." Shincho Magazine
"In her wildly far-reaching tale of relations between gods and men, men and women, life and death, darkness and light, Kirino tells a peripatetic, global, and truly satisfying love story of how it is to be human." Stella Duffy, author of The Purple Shroud
"An extraordinary re-telling of one small piece of a body of myth often overlooked in the West. . . . Kirino’s novel serves as a fascinating, approachable introduction to an ancient body of myth, thought and ritual." ZYZZYVA
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Read an Excerpt
And so it came to pass that sisters who had been the best of friends were forced to follow separate paths. ‘Separate’ is not quite the right word. Our paths were more distinctly different, as if she were to follow the day and I the night; or she the inner road and I the outer; she to traverse the heavens and I the earth. That was the ‘law’ of the island that was our ‘destiny’. Of course, as a child, I had no way of understanding what it meant.
The following day Kamikuu gathered up her belongings and left the house. From now on she would live with Mikura-sama in her tiny cottage just beneath the entrance to the Kyoido cape. Because I had always believed Kamikuu and I would be together for ever, it hurt me to see her leave. I stood there and watched her move further and further away. I think she was sad to leave me, too. Whenever she could evade Mikura-sama’s careful watch, she would turn back to me, her eyes full of tears.
Poor Kamikuu, ‘Child of Gods’. It must have been even more difficult for her than it was for me. She was taken from her parents, from her brothers, from me, and from that day forward she was expected to train as the next Oracle. No longer would we play together on the beaches or run naked through the rain. No longer would we wile away our time collecting flowers and doing all the things children on our island were wont to do. The sweet days of childhood had ended so suddenly.
It wasn’t long before the island chief gave me a new role to fulfill. My mother and the other women in the village took turns to prepare Kamikuu’s meals. The chief told me that it would fall to me to deliver them to her. Apparently Mikura-sama had made her own preparations while she lived alone. But now, with another under her roof, my mother and others in the village had to prepare and deliver meals made especially for Kamikuu.
I carried the food to Kamikuu once a day; she divided it into two and ate it in two sittings. We used two baskets for this purpose, both carefully woven in tight plaits from the fronds of the betel palm, both with lids. Each day I carried one of the baskets laden with food and left it in front of Mikura-sama’s cottage. Then I took up the empty basket, which had contained the meal from the previous evening, and carried it home to my mother.
My duty came with harsh restrictions. I must never lift the lid and look inside the basket. If Kamikuu had left any food in it, I was not to eat it but to carry the basket to the top of the cape on my way home and throw all of the contents over the cliff and into the sea below. Finally, I was never to speak to anyone of these matters. Those were the four rules I was given.
When I heard about my new assignment I was beside myself with joy. I now had an excuse to see Kamikuu and I would be able to learn more about her new life. What was Mikura-sama teaching her? How was she spending her days? I was bursting with curiosity.
The next day, as dusk set in, Mother handed me the basket. The weave was so tight, it was impossible to see what was inside. But as I carried it, the smells that wafted up from it were so intoxicatingly delicious I nearly grew dizzy. No doubt it contained a veritable feast. When Mother was preparing the food she had told me I wasn’t allowed to watch so I had gone off to play. But from the way the contents now sloshed in their containers I guessed she had made a sea-turtle broth. Or perhaps sea-snake soup. And there was the smell of grilled fish, and the dried fish the men brought home after their long sea voyages. But even more precious was the handful of steamed rice I imagined to be inside the basket, wrapped neatly in a bamboo leaf.
Of course I had never tasted anything quite so delicious. I doubted that anyone else on our island would have eaten such delicacies. Far from it. Everyone was always hungry. The island was small and there was a limit to what we could grow. As it was, the island association was hard pressed to make the little we had go round. All it took was a heavy storm that damaged our crops and it wasn’t unusual for some to starve to death. Sometimes a group of men went to sea and never came back because there was nothing for them on the island. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I couldn’t help feeling envious that Kamikuu was allowed to eat such wonderful food.
Once Mother handed the basket to me, I carried it with the utmost care to the little cottage on the edge of the Kyoido grove. The road to Mikura-sama’s house extended upward to the cape and I could hear the sound of the waves. I could also hear the murmur of Mikura-sama offering prayers. And just beneath her voice I heard Kamikuu’s. I pricked up my ears to catch the words they chanted, humming in rhythm with them, not thinking about what I was doing.
For a thousand years, the northern cape,
For a hundred years, the southern beach,
A cord strung across the seas, calms the waves.
A net stretched across the mountains collects the winds.
Sanctify your song,
Rectify my dance.
Today, this very day,
May the gods
Live for ever.
‘Is someone there?’
When I heard Mikura-sama’s stern voice I shrank back. My grandmother opened the door and stepped outside. Her eyes narrowed into a momentary smile when she caught sight of me. I remembered how she had pronounced me ‘impure’ at the ceremony earlier, yet now she was gazing at me with the affection a grandmother bestows on a beloved grandchild. Relieved, I began to explain, ‘Mikura-sama, the island chief told me I should bring this basket up here to you.’
As I handed it to her, I peered into the dimly lit cottage. Kamikuu was kneeling stiffly on the wooden floor. She glanced over her shoulder at me and smiled with delight, waving her tiny hand. I smiled, too, and waved back, but Mikura-sama quickly pulled the door shut.
‘Namima, thank you for your trouble. When you come tomorrow, leave the basket in front of the door. Here’s the basket from yesterday. Kamikuu didn’t eat all the food so what she left is in here. Go up to the cape and throw the leftovers over the edge. And you mustn’t sneak a bite for yourself. That, you must never, ever do.’
Basket in hand, I cut my way through the thickets of pandan and banyan. Hardy pemphis shrubs clung to the side of the cape as though climbing to the summit. I was so hungry that I was tempted to open the basket and steal a bite of the leftover food, but Mikura-sama’s stern words rang in my ears. Once I reached the summit, I opened the basket and hurled the contents over the side of the cliff. Gingerly I worked my way to the edge and looked down. The morsels of food floated for a few seconds on the rolling waves, then sank.
It seemed so wasteful. But my mother and grand¬mother had given strict instructions. The finest food the island could provide was to be gathered for Kamikuu and what she left was to be thrown away. I had no choice but to obey. And the task I’d been given had allowed me a glimpse of my sister. She had looked well so I was happy. I began to sing as I turned for home.
Little girls of my age rarely walked alone at night. As I hurried along the southern beach, the cliffs glittered white under the full moon. I could see the bats taking flight from under the droopy branches of the tea trees. Suddenly I was terrified, my eyes darting left and right. Tomorrow I would make this trip again, and the night after that, and after that as well. Would I ever grow used to it? How could I? The night scenes were so frightening.
The moon shone brightly over the beach, and I saw a person. Someone had come to meet me, perhaps, worried for my safety. I started to run but almost as soon as I did I froze. I didn’t recognise the person: a woman, with long hair flowing down her back, wearing white. She was plump, her skin fair. ‘Mikura-sama,’ I called, but stopped. She was similar to my grandmother, but she was not Mikura-sama. The woman caught sight of me and smiled. With barely two hundred people on the island, how could there be someone I’d never seen before?
She must be a goddess. Overcome, I felt gooseflesh rise on my arms. My legs would not move. The woman turned and walked into the sea, disappearing into the darkness. I had met a goddess! I had met a goddess who had smiled at me with love. My heart surged with joy. I felt immense gratitude to the island chief and Mikura-sama for assigning to me this task. The goddess did not appear to me again, but my vision of her became my most precious secret. From that moment on I was able to endure the hardship of delivering Kamikuu’s food.
And so I began the ritual of walking the path to the Kyoido cottage with the basket of food. I went every day without fail. Some days the summer sun beat down mercilessly; on others bitter winds swept in from the north.
There were days when I was buffeted by rain and on others there were sand storms. It didn’t matter. I carried the basket to that roughly hewn door and brought away the basket that had been left there. The basket I took was filled with the most delectable food, and the basket I carried away was full of the food Kamikuu had left. No matter how delicious the feast, she seemed to eat hardly any of it. Still, I threw what remained over the edge of the cliff and hurried home. I knew that Mikura-sama was listening: she wanted to hear the food hit the surface of the water, making sure that I had thrown away what Kamikuu had left. I did as I was told, and I never looked inside the basket.
It seemed that Mikura-sama ate none of the delicacies herself, and I did not understand why. I wanted to ask my mother about it, but I was afraid to. I was ‘impure’. And I was afraid there was some connection between the two.
A year passed before I caught another glimpse of Kamikuu. On the island we offer prayers on the thirteenth night of the eighth month for the safety of those who voyaged by sea. Mikura-sama conducted the ceremony, but this time, Kamikuu sat beside her before the altar. And she kept her eyes on Mikura-sama, watching carefully as she recited the prayers.
Heavens . . . we bow before you.
Seas . . . we bow before you.
Island . . . for you we pray.
Heaven-racing sun, revering you,
Sea-bed creeping sun, shunning you,
Our men sing the seven songs.
Our men spell the three verses upon the waves.
Heavens . . . we bow before you.
Seas . . . we bow before you.
Island . . . upon you we rely.
Finally, at Mikura-sama’s urging Kamikuu stood up. She beat on a large white shell in rhythm with Mikura-sama’s chanting. When I saw my sister I was astonished. She had grown so much taller. Her figure had filled out, and her skin was whiter than anyone’s I had seen on the island, so finely grained it was lustrous. Kamikuu was beautiful.
I, on the other hand, had hardly changed. I was still dark-skinned and shabby. I was thin and small no doubt because my diet was poor. On the rare occasions when I caught a small crab, I was delighted. Normal meals consisted of taro root, sago seeds, mugwort, fern fronds and other such greens, small fish, shellfish and seaweed. Plenty of edible plants grew on the island, but it took time to cultivate them. And if we gathered them all at once, they would soon be depleted. Mother and I had to go to the beach every morning to collect seaweed, shell¬fish, minnows and crabs.
On days when storms prevented us doing that, we didn’t eat. But Kamikuu ate a magnificent feast all by herself, the like of which most people on the island could not even dream. No wonder she was beautiful. The sight of Kamikuu’s rounded body overwhelmed me I couldn’t speak. We had been so close, yet the distance between us now was vast.
Mikura-sama’s prayers ended. She set off towards her Kyoido cottage with Kamikuu, who stole a hurried glance in my direction and nodded. I forgot about the gulf between us. All I could think now, from the depth of my heart, was how much I wanted to talk to Kamikuu, to play with her again.
That evening I took the basket Mother handed to me, as I had done in evenings past. As usual I smelt a delicious aroma rising from it. But this time, I asked Mother, ‘Why is it only Kamikuu who can eat such delicious food?’
Mother hesitated, then said, ‘Because she is destined to become the next Oracle.’
‘But Mikura-sama doesn’t have food like this.’
‘Mikura-sama doesn’t need it any more.’
I had no idea what Mother was talking about.
‘But isn’t Mikura-sama still the great miko?’
Mother smiled. ‘Mikura-sama is preparing the next miko. Her turn is almost over. What if something were to happen to Mikura-sama? Kamikuu must be ready to take over. In this way we can keep up the tradition. The one thing this island cannot allow is the loss of its Oracle.’
Mother peered inside the large earthenware jar to see how much water we had left. There had been little rain recently and she was worried. I looked inside the jar, too. Barely an inch remained. Soon we would be forbidden to drink it. We would have to save it for Kamikuu.
‘Why aren’t you the next great miko, Mother? You’re Mikura-sama’s daughter. Why did she choose Kamikuu?’
I assailed Mother with one question after another. She continued staring at the water in the jar and did not answer. When I peered into it I saw my face floating alongside hers. I stared hard at my mother’s reflection. Her face was small and dark, exactly like my own.
‘You’re still a little girl. It’s hard for you to understand, but on our island everything is already decided. Yang is always followed by yin. Mikura-sama is yang. That means her daughter is yin, and my daughter, Kamikuu, is yang.’
Mother stopped and looked away. I might have been just a little girl at the time but I knew what this meant.
‘Then I’m yin?’
‘Yes. And if you had a little sister she would be yang. Yin and yang are the dual forces of nature, like day and night, and they continue one after another for ever. Fate decrees it so. That means, of all the people on the island, Kamikuu must live long and bear children. One of her children must be a daughter, and that daughter must bear a daughter. That is the only way we can give birth to a great miko and continue the tradition. So, you see, it is our fate we live so that the island can live. Or, really, I should say that the island lives by our fate. We carry the future of the island. We keep everyone going.’
I saw a smile spread across Mother’s face in the water jar. Finally the riddle had been solved. Satisfied, I let out a sigh. For the sake of the island, Kamikuu had to eat rich food, live a long life and give birth to a daughter. I might have been young, but I felt profound pity for my elder sister and her heavy burden. I wondered if I could have borne the pressure. I decided I would do everything in my power to help her. And I began to wonder if the goddess I had seen on the beach that night had come to impress this obligation on me.
Of course, at the time I had no idea that I shouldered an entirely different burden.
What People are saying about this
"Kirino enjoys depicting her heavenly characters as capricious and temperamental, much like the Greek gods. Yet despite the very human motivations of all involved, Kirino maintains an air of intriguing supernatural strangeness." Metro (UK)
Meet the Author
Natsuo Kirino is a prize-winning Japanese writer, most famous for her novel Out, which received the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction and was a finalist, in translation, for the 2004 Edgar Award. Four of her novels have been translated into English: Out, Grotesque, Real World and What Remains.
Rebecca L. Copeland, professor of Japanese literature at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, received her Ph.D. in Japanese Literature from Columbia University in 1986. Her published works include The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan (2006), co-edited with Dr. Melek Ortabasi; Woman Critiqued: Translated Essays on Japanese Women’s Writing (2006); The Father-Daughter Plot: Japanese Literary Women and the Law of the Father (2001), co-edited with Dr. Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen; Lost Leaves: Women Writers of Meiji Japan (2000); and The Sound of the Wind: The Life and Works of Uno Chiyo (1992). She has also translated the works of Kirino Natsuo, Uno Chiyo, and Hirabayashi Taiko, among others.
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