The Legend of the Shi-sa

The Legend of the Shi-sa is part of what inspired my new novel, Scarlett & Aka: Imprint. Let’s look at the legend.

You’ve seen lion statues outside Chinese restaurants? Think of shi-sas as their cousins. Some people call them shi-shi, but that sounds ridiculous to me. We’re not talking about purse puppies with rhinestone collars and turquoise highlights.

Shi-sa statues can be found all over Okinawa on homes and places of business. Most are in pairs, one with an open mouth and one closed. People disagree on the significance of the open versus closed mouths, but you can think of it as the complementary roles of a shi-sa and her canine mate. Some shi-sa statues have a golden sphere under a front paw. While it looks like shi-sas are into soccer, the balls actually symbolize the goodness a shi-sa brings.

There are many versions of the story on how shi-sas came to be Okinawan protectors. Some say a little boy had a shi-sa amulet, while others say he was a king. According to legend, the amulet came to life and protected the people of a village near Naha, the southernmost city in Okinawa. There are further folktales of shi-sas protecting people from dragons, monsters, fires, and crop failure.

In the novel, I take the legend and make from it a race of supernatural canines who choose a human to partner with them in super powers. Here’s a little about the magic system in my novel:

Shi-sa warriors are female. Not male and not kings. Shi-sas are not stone. The lion-dog description is only that: a description. There’s no lion in them, despite having a couple of traits in common. Shi-sas are separate creations, supernatural and natural combined, much like human beings are physical while we also have an eternal part we refer to as our soul or spirit.

Shi-sas, warriors, and their small team of best friends and immediate family are adept at keeping secrets. They must be. Super powers could easily lead to unwanted celebrity, hampering their ability to move around a community undetected. Also, they wouldn’t want bad guys to know they were coming! Their role is to rescue, to solve, and to assist according to each pair’s special abilities. Being a thing of myth keeps them safe from prying eyes.

The book is told from Scarlett’s point of view. She’s the human warrior imprinted by a shi-sa puppy the morning she arrives in Okinawa from the United States. She tells the story looking back at her time as warrior, introducing the book thus: “I’ve always thought there should be a manual for shi-sas and warriors. I am preparing to mentor the duo that comes after my shi-sa and me, and my doctor has prescribed bed rest, so it’s the perfect time to produce a guidebook. I’ve never read a memorable manual. I learn better from stories, so I’ll start by telling ours. You, a warrior in training or person in her inner circle, can glean what you need from our tale. When I moved to Okinawa, I had no idea of the legend, let alone the reality. May you walk into your role with more clues than I had.”

Pictured is my dog, Midori, who inspired Aka’s character, and one of our many shi-sa statues. She was a Labrador-Akita mix with deep empathy. I adopted her in Okinawa and often joked that she was actually an Okinawan shi-sa. If she sensed depression in someone, she wouldn’t leave their side. She was a powerful swimmer, and sometimes startled scuba divers when they surfaced offshore. She moved with me to the States, and back to Okinawa, and then to the States again to marry my husband. She died in 2015, before the first draft of Scarlett & Aka: Imprint was finished.

A Walk in Christ’s Passion

I recently heard Christ’s Passion read at church. As it began, I felt distant from the story. Shouldn’t I feel remorse at Jesus suffering? Shouldn’t I feel like part of the crowd who condemned him? Instead, the words barely reached me. It was like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher, “Mwah mwah mwah.”

I turned to the Lord in my heart and told him I was sorry for not being “into it.” Jesus responded! He transported my imagination to the walk I took on the beach with our dogs the day before. It started as fun. The dogs played in the water and with each other. But the walk was extra long because I wanted more exercise.

There in my imagination, superimposed on the face of Jesus’ suffering, was my older dog, her Labrador face as gray as it is black. Her head hung and her gait was slow. I realized then that the walk we took was far too long for her arthritic toes and her elbow with the bony growth.

I looked into her eyes in my imagination, just as I had on the beach the day before, but now the veil was off my mind. I saw her love and her determination to finish the long walk…for me.

Now I was ready to cry. Until then, I felt distant from Jesus’ suffering. To bring it home, he showed me the suffering of one I love. I realized I was the cause of my old girl’s suffering, and now I understood something about how I caused Jesus’ suffering. He didn’t just suffer for the world. He suffered for me.

When the reading in church came to the crowd mocking Jesus, I saw our younger dog, an energetic male red heeler/retriever mix, biting our older dog’s legs. She’d been in too much pain to join his romp yesterday. I usually step in to tell our rambunctious boy to leave her alone when I know she’s had enough, but he disobeyed me and tormented her for fun. I felt impotent as our boy dog hurt our old Lab in the moment the New Testament book of Luke arrived at the crowd crying, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” I relived my dog’s pain over and over until the congregation cried, “Crucify him!” I felt spent, knowing that Jesus’ suffering was now nearer to me than before.

At the carrying of the cross, I saw our old girl walking. Her back legs were stiff from arthritis, her front left leg askew because of the spur in her elbow.

The last half hour of our walk, I was far ahead of her in hopes that she’d catch up. My in-laws were coming for a visit and I needed to get home in time to greet them! Some kindly, Veronica-like dog lovers stopped to pat her. She gave them weak wags, not her usual full-body tail-generated gyrations, but she was gracious and loving to each person. And now I saw that she was grateful for the pause.

How selfish could I be? I caused the suffering of my beloved dog, Midori. She was the companion of my single days, the girl who checked on me when I was sick and lived thousands of miles from my mother, who got me up for work when I slept through the alarm, and who now cares for my husband as she does me. There, at Mass, I saw her face and Jesus’ face together.

As Jesus’ died in The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ According to Luke, I was no longer distant from his anguish.

My usual response to this moment is to wish that I could alleviate his pain, even a little. This time, he showed me how. Jesus suffered for each of us. In his death, he took onto himself all our sin and suffering. If we can ease another’s suffering even a little, we can ease Jesus’s pain.

Lent is long past, but we are meant to carry its lessons into the rest of the year. When we think of Jesus, let us picture the face of someone we know who suffers. That is also the face of Christ. Whether it is loneliness, physical pain, or spiritual emptiness, let’s live Easter’s joy by alleviating others’ pain.

***I wrote this in May 2010 when we lived on Topsail Island in North Carolina. Midori passed away on 11 July 2015. I miss my soul dog.