Dust and must beset the Oginos the day they moved into the house with the floaty blue paintjob. Much coughing and sneezing ensued. That night Chihiro had lots of trouble sleeping, because she was developing a wilful nose-rash, missing her old friends sorely, and fostering a strange niggling feeling she was forgetting something very, very important.
Besides, she couldn’t get to sleep while weird things were lurking under her bed! She could hear them and, if their shapes were not sleights of shadow, see them. They were little pom-pom-looking things with big curious eyes and long wiry legs. Chihiro would call them ‘cute’ if she were certain of their benignity.
“I—I’m not scared of you!” Chihiro eventually proclaimed to the darkness, dredging up all the courage she could from a newfound well deep inside her. Then she gathered up her wobbly wits and her trusty torch, urging, “Go on, come closer. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Accompanying Chihiro’s bluff were her biggest, bravest smile and loudest, spookiest cackle. The creatures scurried up the walls when touched by the light. Chihiro was about ready to sprint, screaming, into her parents’ bedroom. Yet she was too mesmerised to move. So the unwelcome visitors were first to leave. They gazed at her lingeringly before they began to drift one by one through the open window, into the spaces between the stars.
Chihiro kept staring out into that emptiness until she did not even know she was falling asleep. She did not dream. But when morning gathered and swelled in the almost empty room no traces of the bugbears remained to prove she had witnessed those happenings in anything but a dream.
That slow, strange year was restless for everyone. Even Great Aunt Satsuki got busy and held a housewarming party before the next summer arrived. Not that Chihiro would mind languishing in a car for weeks to visit her. Satsuki cooked like an angel and was openminded and really cool and knew everything, so Chihiro had wanted to ask her about the fuzzy things that had invaded her room for ages and ages.
“It’s always a treat, moving houses,” Satsuki said, as she showed Chihiro around the kitchen. “It’s like a battle between your integrity and the antics of the makkuro kurosuke!
“They’re tiny, fuzzy balls of soot that breed and nest in old, empty homes. Your Great Aunt Mei and I could see them when we were little.”
“Really? You could?” Satsuki’s words stirred Chihiro’s heart to soaring. “So it wasn’t a dream!”
“Hmmm?” Her great aunts’ eyes changed, deepened. “Ah. You’ve met some too?”
“Well, I—” Chihiro wrung her shirt in her fists. “Uh, m-maybe?” She clapped her hands over her mouth. “Oh no! Please don’t tell my parents! I wouldn’t want them to think I was weird or something—”
“I understand.” Satsuki winked. “It’ll be our secret.”
Before Chihiro could respond a contemptuous black flurry rustled above her.
“Ah! The makkuro kurosuke!” Chihiro jolted in such a fright a mirror would have shown her ponytail as prickly and upright as a cactus.
Wordlessly Satsuki dashed to Chihiro’s side and shielded her with great catching flares of mirth. She laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed until Chihiro too was compelled to partake.
Even with the makkuro kurosuke gone they did not stop.
In time, their laughter turned to tears under an avalanche of memories recounting everything gone and going.
“I hear there was a kid who wandered in there and never came back,” Micchan whispered to Chihiro one sunny lunchbreak.
“Yeah,” Hatsue agreed, “and when his parents went to look for him they were swallowed by the trees, too.”
“Really?” said Chihiro. “I’ve been there before.”
“Eeeeeh?!” Yuki exclaimed. “When? Why?”
“My dad thought there was a shortcut through the forest. You know, when we first moved here. We got lost, but after passing a tunnel we found an abandoned funfair. Nice place for a picnic. Nothing weird or scary.”
“The perfect secret base!” Micchan hands flew above her head. “Whaddya say we give it a look after school?”
“But there’s so much homework to do,” moaned Hatsue.
“I’ll finish it for you,” Yuki offered, smiling, “I’ve already finished mine.”
And so the girls gathered that fine afternoon at the enshrined entrance of the forest. Yuki, who hailed from the most devout family in the neighbourhood, bowed immediately. Even though Chihiro hailed from the most secular family in the neighbourhood, she too could not help but bend her waist in reverence.
Once their respects had been paid giggling Micchan and hooting Hatsue were already ahead. Yuki and Chihiro followed with airs not nearly as fearless as theirs.
“The path should be around here,” Chihiro mumbled. In truth she was probably getting them lost. “At the mouth of the tunnel there's a stone with two faces. Although now it should have no faces at all.”
“I don’t get it,” Micchan said.
“You will, later.” There was a glimmer ahead that hinted at a clearing. “Over there!” Chihiro said, and without thinking she leapt towards the glow. She realised too late she had been standing atop a slope laden with twigs and leaves and dirt steep enough to make the fall painful.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow!” Chihiro clutched her bleeding knee and reflexively squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them she saw before her a golden wellspring radiant enough to outshine the pain. “The others have got to see this,” Chihiro said, “Miiichaaaan? Yuuukiiii? Haaatsuuueee?”
There were no responses.
Chihiro’s vision began to blur.
That stupid urban myth Micchan kept going on about might have been about her family, for all she knew. Why hadn’t Chihiro stopped her friends when she was supposed to? Now they could be scared, or hurt, or worse!
Nevertheless, Chihiro promised herself she would not cry and squander her energy. She had to undo the wrong that she had done. She tried ripping a bandage from her shirt like she saw people do in movies, but her arms weren’t quite rippling enough to do so yet. Oh well. She wasn’t bleeding so much anyway.
After gulping down two handfuls of water, Chihiro walked about the spring and followed a rill trailing away from it. As the first stars revealed themselves the woods became one colossus below shadow. Clacking and hooting and something like laughter was beginning to sound from tree to tree. Perhaps the forest was breathing.
“Hello? Is somebody there?”
Chihiro traipsed through more darkness. Nearby there was a creature the size and shape of a baby, though its grinning, rattling face was much too irregular and translucent to be human. And she was sure no infant could climb a tree so high.
Chihiro scrambled backward while crying, “Aaah, a ghost!”
The thing smiled some more. Laughing, its head spun in a full circle before it faded entirely and appeared again perched on a higher bough. About a dozen more of the child-spirits gathered near their sibling and began to frolic amongst the branches. Some of them turned back to face Chihiro, as if to beckon her to follow.
“You can show me the way out?” She touched her lucky hairband and hoped her hunch would lead her to her friends and an exit.
The spirits leapt through the canopy, stopping on occasion to allow Chihiro some rest. It wouldn’t be long before her parents would suspect her visit to Micchan’s was a guise for misbehaviour. Chihiro mopped grime and tears from her eyes as she searched for the road from which she had strayed.
When at last Chihiro’s new friends had accompanied her to the entrance of the forest evening had completed its descent. She wasted no time in waving them goodbye and sprinting back to town.
At the door of her home she kicked off her shoes and collided into her mother’s grasp, shrieking pleas for forgiveness.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” her mother promised, and then called her father over, “Honey? Get the torchlights!”
And it was as she promised. They found Chihiro’s friends unscathed by the shrines. Yuki had navigated her way out of the forest by Venus’ guiding light. Micchan had headed towards the voices that called for her. Hatsue had been the first to escape through sheer luck. Each girl claimed responsibility for causing the misadventure: Micchan had been the impish schemer; Chihiro, the thoughtless catalyst; Yuki, the passive condoner; Hatsue, the enthusiastic perpetuator.
But none were blamed. They all went home to be treated to mild chidings, warm broth, and the heartiest of hugs.
Sometimes, Chihiro returned to the woods to play with the kodama. But her friends never went anywhere near the place; instead they installed their secret hideout in a derelict yacht by a lakeside in which they stashed manga and dreamt of sailing the world together. They divided their time between school and schoolwork and sleep and dreams and shenanigans at the base.
And so life stepped into routine, interrupted by the occasional festival or summer vacation or family visit. Chihiro almost felt all right again. Still, the ache did not ebb. All the new friends and haunts Chihiro discovered between days and weeks and months could not quench her thirst for the last ineffable element missing.
Chihiro hunted all the encyclopaediae she could find titled with whatever people wanted to call the same thing, the same star-stuff. Then she committed to studying the numen who reigned sovereign over them: Sarutahiko, master of all earthly spirits; Ame-no-Uzumi, the divine dancer; Her Augustness Amaterasu, the sun, amongst countless others, shining in their homes in Takamagahara high above. Chihiro remembered their names and diligently doodled their likenesses in the diaries she insisted on keeping until the day she died, lest she ever forget.
Dogging the invisible and elusive otherworld was almost impossible, however; instead its inhabitants would come to Chihiro, sometimes at her gravest inconvenience, and sometimes at her most exquisite pleasure.
Chihiro knew now, at least, that her first sighting of spirits had not been a solitary or rootless figment. The meetings thereafter were equally unexpected and unfathomable. Once she greeted an inebriated fox enrobed and dancing in the dawn. As staggering was the time she heard dying fireworks laughing in jade palaces on the moon. Then there was the plum storm after which she could see a rainbow somersaulting.
And another bizarre encounter occurred in Chihiro’s yearly wakeful scrambles before her entrance exams begun:
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for a night spoiled by anxiety and awash in caffeine. Chihiro’s eyes were bloodshot and closing when she heard music that sounded like starlight crystallised. Seated upon her tatami mat was an old woman strumming the biwa she had for a head. Her crescent eyes and tailpiece mouth were smiling.
At once Chihiro knelt and made the deepest of bows. She praised her song for being indeed beautiful enough to charm an oni and expressed gratitude for the gift of her performance. Her offering was hot tea and peach Castella. In return the biwa-bokuboku dipped her lyre-head and played serenely on.
Soon the slow lustrous flux of the music and the moonlight carried Chihiro into dreams in which she swam and swam and swam across a big sea of lost remembered things. Seaglass mirrored old friendships whispered of in seashells. A train chugged and whistled along railroads bound to endless waters. One lonely pink shoe eddied riverwise in a torrent of shrills and shimmers. And as Chihiro was borne from offing to foreshore to estuary, she plunged deeper down to kiss the promise sleeping beneath crystal scales.
When Chihiro woke she was brimming at heart, feeling freshly bathed, as if she were a beneficiary of ablutions performed in slumber.
The teacup was empty and there was barely a crumb of the cake left. But by the plate was a small book with a cover of gilt autumn grasses. Inside the pages was the story that had been sung the night before, written in an ancient script whose diction Chihiro could not always decipher.
Nevertheless she enjoyed its vivid illustrations of curlicued nimbi and silky dragons as music played on through her open window.
Thanks to some miracle Chihiro scored a few marks above what she needed for her preferred courses at Tokyo U. She imagined confetti raining from the trumpeting sky and kissed her lucky hairtie again and again until she was unconscious.
The following day was very weepy and very snotty. Hoards of graduates rallied up at the local school to organise yearly reunions. Akira finally confessed to Micchan, who later mentioned she would have punched him for withholding his feelings from her for so long if he hadn’t been so teary and earnest about it. Yuki was the only one also headed for Tokyo U, and was adamant about collecting everybody’s addresses and emails and numbers. And Oosaka-bound Hatsue spent ages biting her lip and pretending her eyes were dry.
At home, after a long afternoon fretting over the future, a new email from Risa arrived in her inbox. Chihiro munched on her sandwich as she scrolled through the message, which read:
Are you doing well? Congratulations on getting into Tokyo U! I knew you could do it.
Unfortunately, I’m going to end up as a rounin next year. My mother’s a little disappointed that I won’t be attending university straightaway, but she’s always done the best she can to support me. I'm grateful to have her in my life more than anything.
The good news is that my dream of becoming mangaka is finally coming true! Animage offered to publish the oneshot I sent them. I’m excited. And a little afraid... of the future, and stuff, you know? I don’t really have a plan for my life or anything like that. Except, I think when I finally graduate from university I’ll try to apply to an animation studio. Wish me luck until then.
It’s been such a long time since we last saw each other in person. So I have an idea. I remember how in primary school we’d gush all day over Tsukishima Shizuku’s novels. Well, guess what? She’s holding a book signing in her native Tama New Town next Saturday! What do you think? Shall we go together? I’m looking forward to your reply.
Chihiro gulped down the last of her sandwich. She jerked forward in her seat and typed up a reply in minutes. What luck! Tsukishima Shizuku was her favourite author in the world and Risa was a friend she had cherished for a decade now. Missing any opportunity to meet up with either of them was not a choice. The arrangements were made by Chihiro’s parents as soon as possible, on the condition Chihiro would report to her Great Aunt Mei’s in Tokyo during her stay at Tama New Town.
She could not sleep the stormy night before her departure. She wondered if anyone in the world had ever learned to plug that awful lovely lifelong stream of thought through anything other than sleep, wondered if she would ever be able to stand unafraid and firm when snared in the swirls and whirls of that which had been and was and would be.
A clothbound first edition of Mimi wo Sumaseba accompanied Chihiro during the four-hour train ride to West Tokyo. Iridescent sequins, silvered lettering, tiny starry charms, and white glitter arrayed the covers, which held inside them a story that had enchanted Chihiro for over a decade.
The prose always enthralled Chihiro as much as the first time. Tsukishima’s language had a way of speaking to Chihiro, as if the ink upon the pages were alive and able to reach out and embrace her in her glummest moments. And they had a power, a voice, which never failed to transport Chihiro to the worlds Tsukishima had grown with words.
At the rate she was reading, Chihiro would not have enough to read on her return trip. She shut the book just before the apprentice of the Shop of Light began to serenade his sweetheart in the moonlight. She’d save the best part for later.
Stretching and yawning, she lifted her chin to rest on her palm and watched her breath mist over the windowpane. Sidelong rain big as ramune marbles was pelting the glass and reducing the view to a grey haze. Assuring herself she could always have a nice, long look at the scenery the way back, Chihiro fell asleep trying to remember the first time she’d been aboard a train alone. She retrieved only the ebbing memory of lilac water.
After teetering through a maze of rhododendron dreams Chihiro awoke to dense sunlight continuing to thicken over her body. The rain was gone. Chihiro rubbed her eyes with her fists and noticed the view was different, too; the train was surrounded by a vast sea that went on for miles and miles.
“Not again!” Chihiro cried. “I’ve missed my stop, haven’t I?”
Even so, something was off about the entire cabin. Just how long had she been asleep? Long enough for the interior of the train to change, it seemed.
In a timeworn banner left of the cabin door an immaculate Showa Era beauty was advertising a salve for heartening moonlike complexions. Yamagata safflower rouge also featured in its cabinwide campaign. A promotion for ‘beautifully tasting’… kappa meat was pinned to the right. And there were figures seated near her with faceless, lightless bodies.
Chihiro swallowed hard, recalling the susuwatari, the biwa-bokuboku, the kodama. Her great-aunts’ stories about Totoro. She had seen enough to know she was not dreaming now.
“Oh no. Where am I?” Chihiro clutched at her temples. “U-um, excuse me… ma’am,” she said to the shawled shadow-woman presently sitting beside her, “could you please tell me where this train is going?”
The stranger secured her bulky handbag higher on her lap and pointed to a frame opposite the exit.
“A-ah, thank you so much,” Chihiro said, standing up and bowing.
The cracked frame contained a foxed timetable: a list of names of times and places that convinced Chihiro she wasn’t anywhere near Tokyo, let alone Japan. The peeling map below depicted foreign, serpentine railway lines that only furthered her confusion.
“The Nakamichi? Wasn’t this supposed to be the Porco Rosso Express line...?”
All of a sudden the train screeched to a stop. With a steamy huff the exit slid open. Chihiro peered out.
“Numahara Station, huh?”
Chihiro might as well get off now rather than later. She grabbed her things. Then she sprinted and landed in a wet puddle right before the door snapped her leg clean off.
It had rained here, too, probably to flooding. But floodwater was darker, muddier. This water was so blue and bright and clean and still the likelihood of it being of the earth was unviable. And that mysterious newborn sea touched no shores Chihiro could spot.
Chihiro knelt by the edge of the platform and wet her fingers to taste. The water was saltless and pristine and very refreshing. Yet the travellers congested at the station exit looked anything but invigorated. The sight of the little shadow girl crouching by the broken fence doused Chihiro’s spirits for no reason she could express.
Hadn’t Chihiro seen her before? Through her trickled a runny image framed by the windowpane of a train, seen for an instant, years ago. Or maybe she resembled someone Chihiro already knew. The pressed blouse and the stiffish pink skirt were clothes her great aunts likely wore back in the day. The shiny barrette and bobbed hair were styles they would have adapted, too.
As Chihiro came closer she could tell the girl was crying. She reached out for the child’s shoulder. The sensation, or the lack thereof, of fading, like an apparition, roiled in Chihiro’s stomach. But this child was, oddly, tangible. Chihiro’s fingers did not go through.
To try and offer comfort, Chihiro began to gently pet the crying girl on her tiny back. The tremors wracked her for a long time. Chihiro didn’t mind waiting. In the past she had done this a lot for her mother and her friends, be the sorrow because of poor finances or boy trouble or tireless insecurity. Or all different kinds of ineffable loss. She herself knew them all too well.
“I’m Chihiro. It’s nice to meet you,” she said, once the terrible quaking had eased. “You’ve lost your way home?”
The girl nodded.
“Can’t find your mum and dad, huh?”
She nodded again.
“It was the same for me, a long time ago.”
The girl thumbed her locket, which was engraved with very fine writing.
“Makiko… What a lovely name. Is it yours?”
Makiko nodded for the third time. She opened her trinket to show Chihiro the desaturated photograph inside. A pigmy elephant plush was contained in her embrace. The toy was winged and had the constellation of suzaku stitched to its cerulean posterior.
“And a friend’s gone missing too?”
This time Makiko seemed too sad to respond with anything but an affirmative bow of the head.
“All right, then.” Chihiro rolled up her sleeves and smoothed her skirt. Then she wrapped her hand around Makiko's tiny shadow fingers. “Why don’t we try and find your folks together? I’m sure we’ll come across your friend along the way.”
Makiko nodded, with zest now. Her nearly weightless fingers squeezed Chihiro's.
Upon descending the steep staircase they stepped onto a little rickety wharf to which many small tarai-bune were docked. First, Chihiro lifted her companion into the boat. Then she stepped in herself and manoeuvred the scull paddle the way she saw women from Satogashima do in documentaries.
“To which direction should I row?”
Makiko pointed sunward towards a distant blur of roofs the colour of chalky crayons.
“Will do. Oh, also! ” Chihiro reached into her knapsack to retrieve an éclair. “I thought you might be hungry. Eat up, all right?”
Chihiro was growing very fond of that little, silent, happy nod. Makiko offered Chihiro a packet of kintarou-ame swathed in cheery vintage packaging. Chihiro helped herself to two.
Then Chihiro rustled Makiko’s soft phantom hair, which was probably the last nice texture Chihiro’s hands would feel in hours. Though Chihiro’s success in paddling was variable and her arms soon began to ache, she did not submit to defeat.
The journey was long and not easy. The body of the open sea went on and on and on and on. Now and then Makiko put her hand on Chihiro’s shoulder to point to a heron gliding or a cloud they would agree was particularly grand.
Chihiro became the water. Thinking about missing out on Tsukishima Shizuku or standing up dear Risa devastated Chihiro’s heart with figurative hedgehogs, yes, but it wasn't tomorrow yet. She still had time.
For now, Chihiro was glad for the solitude and the quiet and the calm. Here she was safe from scrutiny and expectation and that awfully near realm of adulthood tethered to making requisite promises doomed to be abandoned. Dreams and desires, she had often been told, meant very little when you got older, when you grew out of the passions you once had, for people and places and things you couldn’t even remember loving.
“The truth is, Makiko-chan, I’m lost too.” Chihiro sighed, not because of the blisters on her hands. She raised her head. “But wandering astray sometimes is not always so bad, I think. And it’s very nice being here. I feel like I’m in one of Tsukishima Shizuku’s novels!” she laughed, and became the water again.
Evening was very shy to come. The clouds were first to change. Their underbellies languidly went from pale blue to pale violet. The sun was next, splashing gold radiance over the clouds and hoary glitter over the sea. And then the water, the manycoloured mirror, waited for the sky’s blush to darken at last into nightfall. Only then did the dizzying archipelagos of stars arrive in constellations no celestial atlas had yet captured.
When Makiko began to jump on the spot, Chihiro, trying to hold her still, had to ask, “What’s wrong?”
Makiko stopped and pointed. Chihiro heard distant trumpeting, and had to squint to see an amorphous presence advancing towards them. Though Chihiro really should have been beyond surprise, she was a little startled to see that the elephant in the picture had not been an inanimate plush.
The reunited friends embraced each other. Makiko’s squeezing was rewarded with big kisses and trunkfuls of water.
“Oh, wow,” Chihiro said, admiring the elephant’s wings, “can I touch him?”
With Makiko’s permission Chihiro petted the smooth warm satin hide and cotton tail and wings. “Hello,” she said to the elephant, “did you come this way from Makiko’s house? Maybe you could help us out a little.”
The elephant trumpeted and flapped his wings again and soared from Chihiro’s arms.
“Should I follow him?” Chihiro asked Makiko.
This time she shook her head.
Makiko and Chihiro watched the moon rise while waiting. Soon a huge, low, slow star neared them from afar, flashing intermittently in what Chihiro guessed was Morse. Makiko understood the message; she clutched her little hands to her chest and pointed her chin out towards the brightness. The star became faster and larger until it was a headlight that belonged to a conspicuous yellow boat chugging to Makiko’s rescue. As soon as the two boats touched, Makiko leapt into the arms of a tall man, who spun her before putting her down for her mother to embrace.
A second man dressed in swimming gear forwarded his hands to pull Chihiro up onto the boat. “Thank you,” she said to the lifeguard, bowing. Then she turned to the approving parents and assured them, “She’s been lovely the whole trip.”
The mother was sobbing now in the silent sad quivering way these phantom folk did. Makiko seized her green silk dress and looked like she wouldn’t ever let go. Meanwhile the enchanted elephant flew laps around them while trumpeting the Bringer of Jollity.
Chihiro sat, quiet, like them. What quarrel or disaster had caused Makiko to wash up so far from home? There were all sorts of reasons a person could lose their way, not all of them bad, not in the end. There were a slew of mistakes Chihiro herself had become all the better for making.
Lax waves licked the boat’s keel like arms rocking a crib. The tarai-bune from which Chihiro had evacuated drifted from her periphery into starless darkness. Chihiro wished for her thankless companion the friendliest seas to sail upon and the very best of harbours to be docked to in time.
Eventually their sailing lead them to a small solitary islet. The cottage with the smoking chimney and the jacaranda in full bloom were about the only landmarks the place could fit. There Makiko’s family disembarked and inclined their heads to Chihiro. Makiko herself lingered a little, pulling Chihiro’s arm.
“Excuse me, but, could you take me to the nearest town?” Chihiro asked the lifeguard first, to check. He responded with a nod. “I’m sorry, Makiko. It was nice to meet you, but I can’t stay.”
Wait, Makiko seemed to say, and pushed out her palms. Chihiro stood still as Makiko raced in and out of her house. Something inside her hands was glimmering. Fish, was it? Chihiro could use a meal.
Makiko bowed while holding out her opened hands. The present was something much grander. In her hands in the firelight seeping through the open door an inrou decorated with paulownias and clouds and riverscapes gleamed. One black-blue pearl and another white-pink one jointly acted as the ojime. The netsuke was a tiny ivory dragon chiselled to the last whisker and scale.
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly take this—”
Makiko pushed the inrou back to Chihiro.
Makiko would not take no for an answer. Chihiro received the gift with all the gratitude in the world.
“Thank you for such a beautiful present. I’m really sorry I ran out of time. Maybe I’ll come back later and play?”
Makiko stamped her foot and lifted up a pinkie. Chihiro entwined their little fingers.
“All right, it’s a promise,” she said, and the words carried weight.
After they sealed the oath the boat revved into life. Chihiro waved at Makiko until her arm ached and the tantara of Makiko’s pet was one murmur coalesced with the many thousand sounds of the sea. Even though their names were all Makiko and Chihiro had to find each other in the future, she knew it would be enough.
Sitting at the edge of the boat, Chihiro lifted her knapsack onto her lap and took the inrou out for a more thorough inspection. It would be an awfully nifty thing to have during festivals, to pair with her prettiest kimonos while acting as a storage box for money and amulets and tickets.
Chihiro took a peek inside the inrou to find it full with gold nuggets! She huffed a little at Makiko’s excessive magnanimity and returned the gift back into her bag for safekeeping. It took more digging for Chihiro to find the egg sandwich she’d packed that morning. Miraculously the food still tasted fresh!
A galaxy of marvels passed Chihiro in the time she took to finish her meal. Probably because what she saw was so flabbergasting she often forgot to lift her chin off the hull.
In the otherworld, the moon swelled to the size of fists. Stars were not stationary and often tinkled as they darted from one tropic to the other and back again. Roaming aspidochelones were in abundance. On the shells of turtles whose flippers lifted waves miles high stood countless tiny shrines that guarded tall vermillion temples. Among the holy places was the whiskery smiling god with a pillar for a forehead and a lifegiving staff in hand, accompanied by a pale crane and a black doe. Kaleidoscopic funfairs pulsed atop rocky blue whales flanked by their pavilion-bearing calves. Jungles sprawled and waterfalls crashed down the backs of dinosaurs whose names Chihiro’s brain hurt to remember. Under that enormous moon there was no wonder too strange to exist.
The faraway city was a diadem of embers crowning the otherwise sloe-black skyline. The long crimson reflection of the lights in the sea had a will of its own, for when Chihiro brushed her fingers along the soft water the light it contained skirted briskly around her touch. A path set by jolly chouchino-bake lead the ferry ashore, to the city, which was a closer than it looked. Chihiro gave her ferryman a gold nugget for his help, exited the boat, and walked up the stairs into the domestic dominion of the sumptuous and the sublime.
Red and gold soaked the place in a million shades and hues. Chihiro stumbled past a vertiginous swirl of sauntering parasols and disembodied masks before she smashed face first into an unhappy stranger.
“Hey, watch it, you jerk!” belaboured a voice Chihiro had most certainly heard before.
Chihiro rubbed her sore nose and blinked and bowed and apologised in a frenzy. A welting welling bout of presque vu bubbled in her as she stared into the face of her flailing victim, who was tall and slender and had the long brown hair of a Heian beauty. She was blinking as hard as Chihiro was.
“Sen?!” the woman yelled and squeezed Chihiro’s shoulders. “I thought I smelled something weird coming this way… Since when did you get so big?”
Sen? Before now, when Ogino Chihiro would render her name, she could not be reconciled to its first character; though ‘Sen’ belonged to Chihiro, she had no power, for no one had called her by that name, not for a long time. Now, the utterance of the word suddenly turned it to shimmering light, which filled her hollow vessel to overflowing, and returned the power to her.
And then everything gushed forth at once, as if the name were a key that unlocked the floodgates of a thousand dams Chihiro had never known to be inside her. Backwaters crested and coursed and secrets tossed and thrashed and surfaced at last. Chihiro tried to catch memories leaping past her like slippery salmon up cataracts. At first she only managed glimpses of the visions in the iridescence on their skin. The early summer warmth. Jizou guarding the gate. The susuwatari scurrying amidst stellate kompeito. A man with eight limbs. An edifice. Red. Rank. A dark shape without a face. A train, no, that train. Evenfall. Flight. And, and…
“Rin?” Chihiro said, touching her own wet face.
“Duh.” Rin rolled her eyes. A few seconds of staring later, she grimaced, palming her forehead. “Oh, no, you didn’t…”
Chihiro steadied her wobbly hands on her knees and huffed and puffed and cried. “I can’t believe I did! ‘Don’t look back’, he told me. Who told me?”
“Haku, maybe?” Rin suggested. She was rubbing Chihiro’s back now, like she used to do in the bathhouse.
“Yes!” A whirlpool opened inside Chihiro. “And how did you escape from the bathhouse—and why are you still wearing the uniform? How’s Kamaji! And Bou?”
“Too many questions!” Rin hands flew up in a flurry. “Lemme swipe some food first! I’m starving. Let’s do the talking later.”
“Ah, wait, you don’t have to—”
“You kidding? I’ve barely enough dough for a bag of horse poop.”
“No, I mean, I’ve got money.”
Chihiro showed Rin the gold in the inrou. Rin hissed at once, “Put that away! You wanna get robbed blind?”
Chihiro shook her head.
“Good.” After Rin’s hands shoved the stash back into Chihiro’s bag they returned to her hips. “How did you get your hands on that, anyway?”
Chihiro grinned. “We’ll do the talking later, right? Let me buy you something to eat. I’m pretty hungry, too.” Chihiro clutched her stomach for emphasis. “My treat. I haven’t thanked you properly for helping me out in the bathhouse yet.”
“Well, I can’t say ‘no’, since you asked so politely. Still, are you sure it’s all right?”
“Yeah. If you tell me what you’d like…?”
“Mmm? I’d kill for a leg of charred newt—”
“Then let’s get some!” Chihiro smiled. “I think there’s a sign way over there that says, ‘imori no kuroyaki: super cheap’!”
Rin and Chihiro weaved through the motley crowd towards the stall, keeping their shoulders aligned, and screamed their orders over the noise. Rin chewed on her newt in ecstasy and likewise downed a sparkling enope squid live. Chihiro tried her best not to squirm as she watched and settled for the less adventurous choice of arrowroot water served with skewered gyoza.
Under the undulating patches of lemon and amber lights, they traipsed through more denizens and ended up in the most sensible inn they could find, sweaty and tired from brushing against all different kinds of midnight strollers. Thank goodness there were no stink gods roaming the streets tonight.
Chihiro rented for Rin and herself a nice traditional room with sliding paper doors. On the wall of the tokonoma there was a picture from the floating world depicting a scene of early spring, in which fresh shoots sprouted on snow-crisp mountains and two young lovers rendezvoused in a wolf's den, underneath a scarp, eyed by curious kodama. In front of the image a celadon vase enclosed a posy of pale spring blooms. The rest of the inn complimented the quiet elegance of the painting and the flowers, and was quite free of the sybaritic décor common in the Yuya.
Additionally, the girls were welcome to use the natural hot springs in the back, if they liked, which they did.
“Ah…” Chihiro sunk nose-deep into the water. “That’s nice.”
“I feel like an empress,” Rin cackled. She leaned back and spread her arms to rest over rim of the tub. “What a role reversal! Say, Sen, do you remember that time we had to clean that filthy tub in the Yuya? Ain’t it grand that we’re the bigwigs bathing now?”
“Sure is. This is sort of like Kamaji’s special mugwort soak…” Chihiro let green watery heaven pulse about and through her body. “Oh, and Rin… Did I ever tell you my name? My real name.”
“I don’t think so—”
“It’s Chihiro. Ogino Chihiro.”
“Chihiro?” Rin grinned. “Awesome name.”
“I’m sure yours is, too!”
“Bah! I wish I could tell it to you, but I don’t have it back yet.”
“But, then, why are you, how did you—”
“I never thought I’d leave the bathhouse this early either. But Bou’s been missing for weeks. Yubaba’s worried sick and ordered the fastest of us to look outside Aburaya. If we dawdle in the bathhouse, we’re pigs. If we can’t find Bou, we’re pig fodder. It’s a lose-lose situation, so I’m just here piggin’ out on a few pieces of heaven, heh heh.
“Everybody in the spirit world knows he’s gone. The dragons that preside over the area say they’ve abducted him because they’re convinced Yubaba stole their tide jewels; they heard the stories about Zeniba’s seal, see. Today’s the first rainless day in two weeks. They’re probably just resting now; they won’t stop all this flooding nonsense unless they get their jewels back.”
Dragons were creatures Chihiro had encountered more than a few times during her readings on the otherworld. She remembered the legends about black horses galloping down into the deep through whalefall as an offering for rain and white ones ascending to the heavens to stifle the flood.
“Wasn’t Hoori the bearer of the jewels, though?”
“He was only half-divine and kicked the bucket centuries ago. And as you know, dragons are worth as much as they brag their hoards to be.”
“Well, at least we know who to start with,” Chihiro said. “Why don’t we try and find Bou tomorrow?”
“Eh?” Rin flinched and splashed some briny water Chihiro’s way in doing so. “Do you want us to be eaten?”
“No, but, if you manage to bring Bou to Yubaba, you can have your name returned to you.”
Rin deadpanned Chihiro.
Chihiro shrugged. “It worked for me last time.”
“Forget it,” Rin said. She puffed out her cheeks and left the baths, huffing. “I’m gonna go and hit the hay.”
In Chihiro’s nightmare, she received hundreds of papercuts from bills and fines, and bled to death on a winding corporate ladder she had been forced to climb, for some bureaucratic job she’d never even liked. When Chihiro woke the pain remained and manifested in patches of rawness that pricked her arms and legs.
Bleary and aching, Chihiro crawled out from her blanket overlaid with chrysanthemum patterns. Rin was already awake, brushing her long hair in front of the mirror. The both of them smelled of silk and sugar and sunshine and the buttery lush melon soap with which they had bathed.
“Good morning, Rin. Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah, like a log! Last night was awesome,” Rin said, stretching and yawning, her reflection grinning at Chihiro’s. “Thanks for spoiling me so! When you were yea high I couldn’t even count on you to scrub a floor. You’ve changed heaps, and I gotta admit, I’m kinda proud.”
“Change? Oh no, that’s what I’m afraid of most…”
“Not in a bad way, silly!”
“I know,” Chihiro said, clutching the closest pillow. “But I had a dream that reminded me of how afraid I am of changing even more—changing badly—when I became an adult. Afraid of being so bent up in grades and work and propriety that I’d be twisted beyond recognition. I’d be selfish, and forgetful, and arrogant, and cowardly, and dreamless.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.”
“That could be the future me.”
“It happened like this the last time. I was afraid and I didn’t understand why I had to move on… I wasn’t ready. I wanted to save my parents, but for a long time I also wanted to stay in this world forever. I feel the same way now.”
“But at the end you did go home, because you were ready, and that’s what you wanted. And then time happened to you. You became a dashing young lady very good at being grown-up and all that. Tell me I’m right!”
Chihiro had no excuse for the tears plopping over her legs. “I can’t. The only reason I wanted to go back to my world was because of Risa, and Tsukishima Shizuku’s signing. But n-now I’ve missed what was possibly my only chance to meet either of them in a long time…”
“Hey, get a hold of yourself! Zeniba might have a charm or two that’d fix your mess up, right? We still have time.” Rin heaped Chihiro’s clothes over her lap. “Look, I’ll accompany you to the Sixth Station. Forget about finding Bou. I might not have my name back yet, but I do have these sterling arms to help you all I can.” Rin brandished a fist. “You can tell me more about this Tsukishima Shizuku character on the way. Get dressed, all right, kid?”
“All right,” Chihiro said. She smiled wobblingly. “Thank you, Rin.”
The city was dead at dawn. Nobody walked in the streets. Nothing but wind and gullsong and sea sounded in the air. Chihiro brought a whole booklet of kaisuuken at a nifty automated booth for Rin’s future keeping. The ferry on which they rode to the station platform was its own helmsman. Along the way Chihiro read aloud excerpts from Mimi wo Sumaseba, because Rin had never learned to read; the only words she had been able to recognise were the ones in her name, before Yubaba had taken them from her.
Rin smiled sometimes while she listened. The story might’ve been everyday to someone who lived in the spirit world, but Chihiro was sure she and Rin and Tsukishima Shizuku had all shared experiences similar to those explored in the book. Chihiro didn’t think anyone in the bathhouse had the time or means to read to others, besides.
After exiting the ferry they walked barefoot over the wet platform, waiting for the Nakamichi to arrive. The morning went without disagreeable incident until sudden, tremendous masses of water clapped behind them.
Chihiro whipped around to look behind her. “Oh!” she said, tracing with her eyes a humanoid shape and two serpentine forms.
One shining dragon the colours of mother-of-pearl broke from the sea, its huge, sharp claws poised, its wake lifting whitecaps. Another was a ringlet thick as an oak and long as a road whose skin was coated in dark marble-berry glitter. That one sent snow-breath towards the boy with the head the size of a giant pumpkin, who commanded thunderbolts and fire to smite them back.
“This is bad!” Rin’s fingertips dug into her cheeks. “Bou’s—”
“Yeah, Bou! He’s become a warlock that’s much, much worse than Yubaba…” Rin snatched Chihiro’s wrist and pulled. “Run. Now!”
“But, we ought to help!”
“How? We gotta leg it!” Rin, through sheer force of strength, tugged Chihiro back the way they came.
They ran at full speed for many heartbeats while focusing on only the ringing blood in their ears. What stopped them was not fatigue, but a looming presence directly behind them.
Chihiro turned and faced Bou, who would not be recognisable without the huge cranium he had inherited from his mother; he had dark fluffy hair now, was longer than he was wide, and wore a knitted red jumpsuit that was likely Zeniba’s handiwork.
“Sen,” he said, quite resolutely, “give them the jewels!” He yawned a little. “This is getting boring.”
“Just what sort of mischief have you been up to now?” Chihiro fumed. The two dragons coiled forth in their breakneck advance. “I don’t have the jewels!”
“Sure you do. Check your bag.”
Through Chihiro’s mind flashed Makiko’s gift. Rin rolled her eyes and raised her hands in disbelief.
“You don’t mean—”
“Yep. I cast a spell to shrink em’! Aren’t I clever?”
“As a goldfish!” Rin castigated, standing akimbo. “Unbelievable. Do you want to kill us all?
“No… But the smaller the jewels are, the harder they are to find,” he explained, looking hurt, “and the angrier the dragons get, the more fun I have.”
Chihiro ignored Bou’s piteous attempt at reasoning and, scowling, burrowed through her bag and unthreaded the ojime from the inrou. As soon as Chihiro’s already wettened hands touched the surface of the jewels they heavied and expanded and began to look more like indomitable dragon eggs than petite, breakable pearls.
Meanwhile the dragons were a leap’s distance away. In a moment a gelid saltless tide strode up to Chihiro’s neck. Yet she did not so much as shiver as she raised Manju in her left hand and Kanju in her right. This is what she had to do.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble we’ve caused.” Chihiro spoke her loudest. “However, I must ask you to grant us a favour for each jewel.”
“Do not bargain with us, girl,” the dragons said in unison, their voices neither male nor female, immense and deep and ageless, like brontide bristling.
“Have you lost your mind?” Rin muttered under her breath and nudged Chihiro in the ribs. Chihiro, taking lessons from her great aunts, answered her with a wink.
“All the power you have is in the jewels, too, isn’t it?” Chihiro said to the dragons. “You can’t hurt me while I have them.”
The white dragon lashed its tail and bared its teeth. The black dragon growled and hissed until a thundercloud rose above the sea. Their voices separated:
“You are not wrong, young one,” said the rain and the snow.
“What shall be your desire?” said the sea.
“First of all,” Chihiro answered them, “you’re not to harm anyone who hails from the lands that touch this temporary sea. That includes us. Second of all, you’re going to do everything in your power to help Rin get her real name back.”
Rin cut in, “What are you saying? Didn’t you want to go home in time for—”
“That’s not important right now.” Chihiro smiled. Louder now, she said to the dragons, “Do we have a deal? You have to make an oath.”
“Very well,” the white dragon promised.
“It is done,” the black dragon swore.
The stormcloud cleared in an instant. The dragons seemed to lift the jewels to them with their breath. Kanju and Manju ascended, wet and shining all colours found during night and day. Then their ephemeral shapes liquefied into one star-white stallion, another cosmos-black mare, cantering skyward and seaward until they returned to foam. Leaving behind a roaring wake of waves, the dragons slithered towards their underwater palaces built from coral and ammonite, bound now to answer to Rin's call.
The living water fell right off Chihiro’s now dry clothes. Rin waited for the ripples in the water to expand and fade before she coughed out a wheeze.
“Chihiro! Don’t ever do that again!”
“I’ll try not to.” Chihiro huffed and rubbed all the cold perspiration off her forehead, giddy with relief. “But I sure was good, wasn’t I?”
“Yeah,” Rin said, before she turned to Bou, and barked, “As for you, you nitwit, I don’t care if Yubaba has my tongue for telling you like it is, but you can’t just go around like a lunatic stealing dragons’ things for fun!”
Bou was staring at Chihiro with a desperate look. “But I didn’t make Sen sad, did I?” he asked, fiddling with his fingers. “Or Mama? Or Auntie Zeniba?”
Rin shot Chihiro a glance and a nod.
“Well, I sure am disappointed. Tell me, who taught you those spells?”
“Auntie Zeniba… a-and Mama, when I told her I would cry if she didn’t…”
“Bou. Don’t you know by now that you should only use magic for good? Now you see what happens when you don’t. Your mother was worried sick about you. More importantly, the dragons destroyed homes and lives when they were searching for the pearls you deliberately hid from them. You mustn’t do this again. Do you understand?”
“I swear I won’t!” the jumbo toddler bawled, wiping his face, great gourd tears dripping from his eyes.
“That’s a good boy. You should start calling me Chihiro the next time we meet,” she told him, smiling and patting him on the back, “I loved being able to play with you again. You’ve grown up a lot.” She turned to Rin now. “So I guess this is where we part ways. You should take Bou to Yubaba. I’m sure she’ll give you your name back.”
“Whaaaat?” said Rin. “But you just got here!”
Bou grumbled, “Is it because we’re no fun?”
“Not at all. My friends are the best,” Chihiro laughed. She reached for Rin’s hand and stuffed it with all the gold she’d emptied from the inrou. “It’s just that I’m ready to go home now. The both of you take care, all right?” Chihiro bowed deeply and did not lift herself from the position. The attempt did not hide her tears nor adequately express her gratitude. “I made a promise to myself to never say goodbye again, so I won’t,” Chihiro said, “and that’s what more grown-ups ought to do, right? Keep their promises.”
“Aw, ya sap,” Rin said, and hugged Chihiro for one long minute. “Be safe, you hear? Especially around that Kaonashi creep.”
“Okay,” Chihiro giggled wetly. “If we meet in my world next time, we should go shopping together.” She turned to Bou now. “Then we can go beachcombing by the coast to find all sorts of shiny treasure,” she said to him, as she received his child’s embrace. “I’ll see you two later.”
“I’ll get my name back and find you again, I swear!” Rin yelled, pivoted on her heels, and began walking. Chihiro considered her friends truly out of reach when Rin’s words of chastisement for Bou were no longer distinguishable.
Chihiro waited. Bou shrunk until his head’s circumference matched a pinhead’s. The train still did not come. For a time only scudding clouds and the folding sea moved. But then Chihiro noticed something else.
Where sea wedded sky a white spring coiled in rising. The ecstatic form’s proximity and size was swift to increase. When the dragon was close enough, like another moon he hoisted all the feeling within Chihiro to cresting.
His tail and whiskers billowed in the river-scented wind he brought forth with his sinuous body, encircling Chihiro in a clinch as he purred and purred and purred. With excited hands Chihiro held his feathery snout close to her cheek. The dragon nuzzled her back and greeted her with a purling rumble.
“Nigihayami Kohakunushi,” she mumbled into his wet warm nose, as if she were learning how to breathe after years submerged in mud. She said the name again. This time it flowed out like pristine water.
Then Haku shifted into the shape of a happy man with eyes like green rockpools and hair the colour of turquoise shoals.
“Chihiro. How grown you are now,” Haku said, touching Chihiro’s palms with his cool luminous fingertips. “I thought it best to assume a form more apposite to yours.” He looked at her unblinkingly for a while. “Is it to your liking?”
“Of course!” Chihiro leapt headlong into his offered arms. “You know, you could come to me as a puddle and still be to my ‘liking’.” Her hands met the soft hair that reached down his back. “I’m just glad to see you again.”
“Yes. It has been a time.” Haku pulled away and looked exorbitantly chagrined. “And I am beyond forgiveness for not yet visiting you in your world, as I had promised.”
“No, you must have done your best. I’m sure you had your reasons.” It was Chihiro’s turn to display her sorrow and mortification at her delayed memory. “I couldn’t even remember you until yesterday.”
“I see.” Calculatingly Haku’s eyes narrowed. "Would you like to hear my guesswork?"
"Yeah." Chihiro cupped her hand over his heart, as if to contain it from bursting. "Please, go ahead."
“Well, I am afraid I have faded to obsolescence in your world, where none know my name. The good people who used to live by my banks and pray to me are not of your world any longer. In their mouths they have no words to summon me. Even you could not recall any memory of the river I had been for some time. Perhaps that, and not the loss of my other body, is what makes it so difficult for me to manifest on the other side. I am sorry.” Haku closed his eyes for a while. “No matter. I am glad you remember now.”
“So am I.” Chihiro squeezed Haku’s hand and hoped the gesture offered comfort. “I heard you only went to the Yuya because you didn’t have anywhere else to go. But I don’t think that’s true. You’re still here, so you must exist in somebody’s heart, or a backwater somewhere; even if your river isn’t what it was, it still is, just in a different state.”
“Yes… you may be right. I do hope you are.”
“Just you wait and see,” Chihiro said. “I’ll find some way to get you back into my world. I ended up in yours, didn’t I? Twice! Though I didn’t expect to see you here, in the middle of nowhere." Again Chihiro glimpsed at their surroundings. "Where were you going, anyway?”
“I was delivering this to Zeniba.” Haku held up an envelope. “Then I sensed your presence from afar.”
“With your nose?”
“Yes. And my whiskers.”
Chihiro giggled and examined the envelope addressed from Kamaji to Zeniba, which she almost mistook for a love letter.
“So he’s still working at the bathhouse…”
“Huh. What’s the story with him and Zeniba?”
“The particulars were neither fortunate nor uncommon.”
“Perhaps you could ask her yourself.”
Chihiro handed the letter back. “Then will you fly with me to Zeniba’s?”
Haku shifted into his other form and lowered his great white head in invitation.
Chihiro gripped his smooth thick horns and climbed on.
The day mellowed as the sunglade receded from the opalescent sea. The wind was thick and mild in Chihiro’s hair and Haku’s fluctuating neck cooling against her body. She talked about things she thought Haku might like to hear: her adventures thus far, her ecologist heroes and what they were up to now, her friends and their ambitions, her home and her hideaways, her fears and her dreams, and, of course, Tsukishima Shizuku’s newest novel.
Chihiro recognised the sixth station at once when Haku flew over the frozen cobwebbed clock that guarded the platform. By then she had stopped talking, because it was getting hard to speak with the wind in her mouth, and she was afraid her throat would go before her journey was over.
When the pair arrived at their destination, the lamplight at the entrance of Zeniba’s garden waved them hello. Through the already open doorway sat the mistress of the house, humming and making potpourris, and Kaonashi, silently knitting a giant sock that was probably for Bou.
“Oh, visitors! How delightful. Do come in.” Zeniba stood from where she was and gestured with her nails, which were hot purple today. Kaonashi, following her lead, smiled and ushered them in. “Welcome, welcome.”
Haku regarded Zeniba with a nod and passed her the envelope.
“Hello, Obaachan,” said Chihiro. “It’s good to see you again, after all this time.”
“Look at you, all pretty and grown up!” Zeniba petted Chihiro’s hair and lingered a little on the hairtie. “Oh dear, how many years has it been on the other side?”
“Seven,” said Haku, sadly.
“Poor dears, you must have counted all the days you spent apart,” said Zeniba, and filled a teapot with water. “Well, at least you two are in luck today. I was baking all morning. There’s pecan pie, lemon meringue, and angel cake on the table. Help yourselves.”
“Sit,” Zeniba urged, and offered Chihiro a chair. Chihiro did as she was told and Haku took the seat beside her.
“What is it?”
“I’m sorry that I have to ask another favour of you, but I’m running late and have to get back to my world as soon as possible. I was wondering if you knew how to get me there? Or would helping me be against the rules?”
“A spell for lost time, eh? Well, as long as my magic won’t affect business in this world, it’s fine. I’m sure I can whip something up. Stay the night and chat for a bit with this old crone. We’ll see what I can come up with in the morning.”
Chihiro placed her trust in Zeniba and turned to Haku. “In that case, Haku, could you catch up with Rin and Bou and look after them? They should be on their way to Numahara now.”
Haku gazed at Chihiro for a long while with eyes that grew greener and deeper by the moment. At the end of the trance he took her hands in his.
“I shall.” Haku pressed his forehead to Chihiro’s, sending a slow ripple of sweetness and calm throughout her. “We’ll meet each other again. Soon, I should hope.”
“I promise I’ll make it happen somehow,” Chihiro said. She did not watch him go.
The room was still for a long time, before Zeniba opened her mouth, and said, “That was a brave thing you did, Chihiro.”
“No, I was being cowardly.” Chihiro stirred sugar into her tea. “I feel like the more time you spend with somebody, the less you want to part from them.” Chihiro munched on a macaron. “Say, Obaachan, I was wondering if you knew why I lost my memory and was unable to find the entrance to Aburaya?”
“The worlds affect one another. Just yesterday you probably prevented a natural disaster from happening on the other side. What you accomplished the last time you were here probably changed things in your world. Perhaps that’s why you weren’t able to remember or return the same way.
“Besides, my silly dear, you could’ve come at any time after I sent you your own grimoire! A few of the spells in that book were passed down from the great Kiki Kopori, you know. That’s her,” Zeniba said, pointing to the tapestry on the wall, “one of the most powerful witches in history. She also happens to be my third cousin once removed.”
“Uh, but Obaachan, I don’t remember any spellbook—”
“I’m sure you do. I asked a friend of mine to bring the book to you. You know the one: she’s the well-dressed singer, with the lyre for a head.”
“Oh, so that’s what it was! But, Obaachan, I couldn’t read a word in that book.”
“That’s strange,” Zeniba mumbled, “I put the alphabet first, then the beginners’ guide, then the spell for inducing memory…” Suddenly her voice levelled to a shout, “Oh, Kaonashi, you fool!”
Kaonashi shirked attention and shame and blame by blending with the shadows on the wall. Zeniba grumbled and snapped her fingers. A piece of paper came flying through the other room.
“There it is. That might help you some. Study hard from now on, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am!” Chihiro packed the sheet into her trusty knapsack.
“You’re about the age children in your world begin their tertiary education, hmmm?” Zeniba took one last sip of her tea before she returned to her potpourris. “Have you made any plans for the future?
“Some. I wanted to learn classical Japanese, because I thought it would help me read the grimoire and understand this world better, while I studied ecology at university. I didn’t want anyone to suffer like—like Haku and the River Spirit and Makiko did.”
“Sounds like you never really forgot about everything that happened to you here,” Zeniba cackled, revealing two full rows of her huge white teeth.
That evening Zeniba magicked a cabin into existence and bade Chihiro good night. Chihiro tumbled into sleep as fast as she collapsed headlong into the futon.
Scrubbing her eyes after a long, dreamless sleep, Chihiro ambled back into the cottage to a bespectacled Zeniba reading Kamaji’s letter against the firelight. Kaonashi was still asleep by the hearth, nurturing a huge bubble that expanded and contracted through one of the nostrils on his mask.
“G’morning,” Chihiro grumbled.
“Aren’t you up bright and early?” Zeniba put the letter down and pushed a plate in Chihiro’s direction. “Sit down for breakfast. Then my work’ll be done. All you need to do now is walk a little to the clearing behind the cottage and wait.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” Chihiro said, bowing before she sat. She eyed the letter on the table, but Zeniba caught her gaze before she could gather any information from it.
“Well, I suppose it won’t hurt for you to know the story behind that,” Zeniba sighed, and with a spatula slapped pancakes and blueberries over Chihiro’s plate. Then she drowned the dish in maple syrup. “Kamaji used to be a medicine man, going around healing people and collecting Kokeshi dolls and kaki seeds on his travels, and so forth. I disapproved of his lifestyle, so one day he up and left and didn’t come back. Well, he sure picked the wrong woman to jilt! Though I must admit, revealing his name to Yubaba was a bit harsh.”
“Oh, so that’s why he had all those tickets!”
“Ahaha! We’ve been exchanging letters again for some time now—he tells me he wants reconciliation. Hah! Reconciliation!”
“Maybe you should give him his name back,” Chihiro suggested, solemnly. “You seem to still care about him. Kamaji-san is a really nice person, so I’m sure there was some sort of a misunderstanding when he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—return to your side. I bet he’s just too proud now to admit it.”
“Heavens, I’m too old to listen to lectures from a chook like you. You just worry about getting back home.” Zeniba lifted a brow and made terse shooing motions. “Go on, now.”
“Ah, I said something bad!” Chihiro covered her face with her hands and bowed. “I’m so sorry for burdening you with my questions and my troubles. Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“It was no trouble. My spell-weaving was getting little rusty, anyhow.” Zeniba walked Chihiro out and slipped one of her headily fragrant potpourris into Chihiro’s breast pocket. “Take this charm with you: some rosemary for remembrance, a lotus for luck, and a few sakura blooms for beauty. Oh, but you don’t need any of my help. You look like you’re ready to take on the world. Come back soon, all right?”
Teary Chihiro hugged Zeniba for a long time. She was sniffling as she jogged through the door and around the cottage. Dewfall had just ceded its prime to dawn’s inauguration. The woods around the house still looked impenetrable in the half-light, but Chihiro pushed on until she had entered the clearing Zeniba had spoken of.
There, an old cat-liner, huge as a camphor tree, with rheumy eyes and hoary fur, was making its landing, its many hundred legs undulating in unison like the fins of a stingray, and its innumerable windows casting equally uncountable streaks of light before Chihiro’s feet. The destination sign sandwiched between mouse headlights read “The Land of Pure Wind”, which daunted Chihiro a little. She remembered Great Aunt Mei telling her stories about her encounters with the fabled catbus and kittenbus and cat-liner to try and get Chihiro to sleep, but back then she had regarded the story as a fairy tale, and nothing more.
Chihiro was starting to like being wrong. Bowing as deeply as possible, Chihiro fed the venerable cat the kintarou-ame she had received from Makiko. Upon contact with the sweets the old cat’s body flexed a fur-door wide open for Chihiro, whiskers bristling in delight.
Bobbing about Chihiro was a carnival of spirits whose names she had never learnt. Eventually she decided to sit by a round, ursine creature clutching a black umbrella, even though it had not rained in two nights. The instant Chihiro placed her bottom on the living, warm, velvety seat, she felt as if she had been sucked into a whirlwind; the cat-liner sped through the sky so fast Chihiro near lost her breath. She reflexively shut her eyes and clutched her neighbour’s arm.
Yet, at such speeds the wind was softer than duckling-down. Once Chihiro’s senses returned they were occupied by nothing but the white circuitous body whirring outside the open fur-window.
All chambers of Chihiro’s heart bore the brunt of surges upon spates.
Her neighbour grinned toothily and offered to cushion her on his belly. Chihiro gladly accepted his invitation, climbed on, and pawed at the open window.
The dragon roared, loud and proud as a lion or a tiger or a king, and spun his body into tendrils and wavelets, very swiftly, so Chihiro could almost find words in the fluid shapes he painted over the watery amethyst sky.
Chihiro screamed the name of his river, and asked, “Are Rin and Bou all right?”
Haku dipped his head in solemn affirmation.
“Thank you for looking after them!”
Chihiro drew yet again from the heartfuls of tears still within her. Haku spiralled forward and showed her how dragons cooed, sounding hums that swathed and soothed Chihiro from the toe up.
“Our reunion happened sooner than I expected, but this won’t be the last time we meet, I’ll make sure of it. I never go back on my word!” Chihiro rummaged through her backpack for Zeniba's grimoire. "I have the spells! I'll come to you as soon as I learn them. We'll spend the summer holidays and then winter break together and figure out how you'll meet my parents..."
Haku lowered his head again, and continued to flank the catliner for another minute more. Eventually he slowed and drifted from the reach of Chihiro’s voice. She waved fiercely until Haku was a dot, indistinguishable amidst clouds.
By then familiar cityscapes had begun to line the terrain beneath the catliner. Morning mist layered the caps of the buildings and mountains like a second see-through sea. In minutes the catliner soundlessly dropped Chihiro by New Tama Town station and through sheer speed was out of sight in the blink of an eye.
Risa was right in front of Chihiro. She was dressed in a cute pastel skirt paired with a pale pink blouse that had a cotton bunny sewn onto the breast pocket. The easy sweetness in her face had not changed a bit. She looked so cuddly that Chihiro acted on her impulse to wind her arms around her friend, like a brazen child, even though they were in public and there were probably a few people watching.
“Chihiro?” Risa applied a few slow pats to Chihiro’s back. “Hey, I’m glad to see you, too. But, um, are you okay? You’re acting a little strange.”
“That trip was much longer than I expected it to be,” Chihiro said into Risa’s vanilla-and-peppermint scented shoulder. “I’m really glad we’re actually meeting each other after all this time.”
“Me too.” Risa drew back slowly and gingerly and took out a copy of Suitenfutsu ni, the edition that had the shiny seashell bookmark dangling from the pale blue ribbon. Her glee continued to increase. “And I’m really stoked we’ll get to meet Tsukishima Shizuku together, too! Kenichi-kun got all sulky when I told him I’d be gone for two nights, but this is totally worth all his gloom and doom.”
“Are you sure it’s okay? Leaving your boyfriend alone like that?”
“Pfft, are you kidding? Kenichi’s at my beck and call all day every day. Us girls don’t get quality time together nearly so often.”
Chihiro flashed Risa a toothy grin. “Heehee! I missed you a lot, Risa-chan.”
“I can tell.” Defeated, Risa smiled and hooked an arm through Chihiro’s elbow. “And to celebrate our joyous reunion, how about we go to this great little mangakissa around the corner? The food’s great!”
“Okay!” Chihiro chirped. She nodded deliriously and followed her old friend’s lead.
The manga café around the corner was a nostalgia bomb waiting to detonate. All the arcade games and pulp manga that had surrounded Chihiro and Risa during their childhood were stacked like the rainbow bricks of a magical castle of awesome. Feeling dizzy, the friends sat and ordered their food. Risa scoffed a katsu-sando and Chihiro licked away at a banana split.
“My new manga’s gonna be about the adventures of an alien girl and her telepathic winged bathtub,” Risa announced, raising her sandwich. “The story will be strange and life-affirming and like something out of a dream! People spend enough time stressing over everyday life, so I want my work to invigorate my readers in the least.”
“Oooh, can I read your work when you’re done?”
“’Course, you can have a look at what I’ve got now, though so far I haven’t needed to write any dialogue.”
Chihiro flipped through the pages of a black notebook. The panels of the comics were squiggly, as they were done without a ruler. Otherwise, Risa’s line was impeccable, precise, and duly expressive. Something about the little extraterrestrial in her spacesuit amidst a field of wilted flowers, looking out pensively at the nebulous beyond, struck a chord in Chihiro.
“You’re really good.” Chihiro kept going. More pages showed various renditions of floating islands, cities in snowglobes, fairy treasure, and bottled dreams, all done in pencil and bookended by wordless character interaction between tears and triumphs, meetings and departures. “It’s really beautiful.”
“Ah, ya think so?” Risa blushed some. Her eyes were glued to her lap, over which her hands were speeding back and forth.
“Uh-huh. You’ll go far, Risa-chan.” Risa beamed, sweet as ice cream, but did not adjust her gaze. Chihiro peeked over the table. “Oooh, what’re you up to now?”
The busy artist tilted a larger notebook between her palms to show Chihiro a portrait of a pretty girl with the whole universe sparkling in her great unfathomable eyes.
Risa winked, stylish as a superstar. “Preserving a keepsake of you. Thanks for the smile!"
Chihiro and Risa squealed their way through the cosy, neat roads of the fabled Tama New Town, amazed they had finally completed their pilgrimage to the suburb in which their favourite author had fallen in love with the legendarily handsome luthier Amasawa Seiji, her husband and muse. After ticking off all their checkpoints (the World Emporium, the school, the apartment), they ventured forth into the baby-pink glamour of Sanrio Puroland, where they shamelessly took dozens of pictures together and bought all the merchandise they could without going broke.
Adhering to their parents’ rules, at the end of the day they hopped onto the monorail and turned in for the night at Great Aunt Mei’s. Mei led the three girls in defying the maturity with which they were expected to behave by encouraging them to surrender to the most childlike of indulgences. They stayed up late, complimented one another’s adorableness in the pictures they’d taken on their phones, re-enacted scenes from Tsukishima Shizuku’s novels, and watched vintage animations while munching on caramel popcorn.
Mei, citing her age as the factor, took her leave of the festivities halfway through the night. Risa was second to doze off, moaning Kenichi’s name in her sleep whilst she grabbed and squeezed a bolster with her thighs. Smiling, Chihiro pulled a blanket over Risa and sent her regards to her friends on the other side of the sky.
Given their reckless immoderation the night previously, Chihiro and Risa woke up near noon and joined the queue for the signing when it just about curled around two whole blocks of buildings. Chihiro and Risa stood in line for hours, keeping themselves occupied by brainstorming different chapters Risa could write for her manga and sharing titbits about the new friends they had made over the years. Waiting was worth it when it was Tsukishima Shizuku they were meeting.
Each skyscraper was golden with the sundown by the time Chihiro and Risa were finally first in line, palms wet and hearts pounding. Tsukishima Shizuku in person was dressed sensibly in a yellow cardigan, and was bright and lovely and surprisingly young; she didn’t look a day over thirty.
“Thank you girls for coming today. I must also apologise for keeping you waiting for long,” Shizuku said, pulling Chihiro out of her reverie. “Would you like to tell me your names and a little bit about yourselves?”
It dawned on the girls that the event had dragged on so long because the author had taken time to talk individually with each signee, which was a prospect that both frustrated and excited them. Chihiro nudged Risa forward and let her go first.
“I-I’m Risa. And a-a-aaah, oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’m meeting you for real!” Risa all but slammed her book on the signing table. “I did nothing but read your books the summer my grandma passed away. They’ve stayed with me ever since,” Risa said, shakily. “Your stories pulled me through a lot of tough years.”
“Oh, I—I hope your grandmother’s keeping well, wherever she’s resting. I’m so glad my little stories could do that for you.”
“And more. I wouldn’t have met one of my best friends without the help of your novels.” Risa tugged on Chihiro’s arm.
“Ah, so this is her? Hello! What’s your name and what can I do for you?”
“Chi-Chihiro—” she said, and held out her beloved copy of Mimi wo Sumaseba. Every word of the little speech she’d practiced for a week slipped from her mind. “I’d love to get this signed. It’s—it’s an amazing book—and you’re—you’re an amazing person!”
“You’re far too kind,” Tsukishima said, blushing, even though Chihiro was sure she hadn’t said anything special compared to the praises millions of voices were singing around the globe. “I’m grateful such a kind person enjoys my books.” Tsukishima caressed the book’s spine, lifted the cover open, and put her pen to paper.
“I think Mimi wo Sumaseba is my favourite story of yours,” Chihiro said, feeling a bit braver now, “I read it whenever I started despairing during my university entrance exams. It helped me to work hard and really believe in myself.”
“How nice it is to hear that! I felt the same way. At the time, writing the book was the most difficult thing I'd ever done, so I'm glad I stuck with it, since it's inspired so many lovely young girls like you. So what'll you be studying at university next year?”
“U-um, classical Japanese and ecology. I’m especially interested in the restoration of rivers, the ecosystems of forests, and the preservation of Japan’s national parks.”
“Ah, I see! I' sure you'll do a great job of it,” Tsukishima said, “you know, you two are my kind of heroine. I wish you all the best for the future. I’d love to meet you girls again.” Tsukishima smiled sheepishly as she returned Chihiro’s and Risa’s books, accompanied by two kumade decorated with ribboned bells, heart-shaped keys, and silvered wings: a bonus that hinted at elements of her upcoming novel.
Clutching their books to their chests, Chihiro and Risa walked back to Mei’s, gurgling the whole way. They couldn’t believe their luck in receiving personalised messages and such nice omake to boot. In a year the autographed pair would easily sell for a half a million yen on Yahoo Auctions, though it wasn’t as if Chihiro or Risa were making any plans to part with theirs. They spent the rest of the afternoon fiddling around with the grimoire's alphabet, which was surprisingly easy with Zeniba's instructions. It was very possible she'd be kissing Haku within the week.
For dinner Mei took them for shabu-shabu at a bayside restaurant. There, the three women made a toast with faux-champagne for Chihiro’s prospects at university, the success of Risa as a mangaka, and another year of health for Mei. Inwardly, Chihiro was also wishing the best for all parties absent.
Walking along the quay after dinner, they exchanged jokes from their respective childhoods and tried to think of what Tsukishima’s new book would be about. Wistfully Chihiro recalled how disastrous moving away from Risa had been, how desperately she had clung to her card and bouquet of farewell flowers. Then she passed the word along to Mei that the cat-liner and her descendents were still alive and well, rejuvenating her into childlike glee.
Dazedly Chihiro would sometimes glance over the pier, into the black dazzling water, and wonder if the sea in the other world was still there, if Tokyo Bay was connected to that temporary ocean and Haku’s river somehow.
Because, per Chihiro’s perspective, like this open bay, her life was a network of waterways and airways and heartways, whose trajectories fluctuated in unknowable ebbs and flows, and odd rhythms, and colours full of brilliance and darkness, unplumbed from nadir to acme. Though the water and the air and her heart at times terrified her because of their immensity and mystery, she knew she would be all right in the end with enough hard work. She had survived scarier things that way, after all.
And all waters had been kind to her. Chihiro was no longer afraid to dive and swim.