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He finds her basking in the mid-afternoon glow of the forest, half-asleep but still alert. She knows he's there. She turns her head and sets her eyes on him and his red-elk, with an intelligent look. A scrutinizing look, but not a harsh look. His entire being shivers. That causes her to smile, self-consciously.

 

"It's all right," she promises.

 

San looks away from Ashitaka and his companion Yakuul, back to the male nightingale she'd been watching. Ashitaka sighs. He turns to leave, but then hears San shift. That the wolf-girl would make any noise at all means she wants to be heard. So, he turns eagerly back to her. She's blushing; she knows it too. She's naked except for some fabric tied around her hips. The tension within Ashitaka does not permit him to move. San is also not moving. They gaze at each other. 

 

San is the first to soften her look and flutter her lashes.

 

Ashitaka can finally move, a step or two forward. Should he touch that nerve? He does.

 

"Mildness becomes you," he confesses and San blushes more. But she knows what Ashitaka said is probably true. And she knows he means it as a compliment.

 

"What now, Ashitaka?" San asks, laying back and eyeing the distance between her and the young banished prince of the Emishi tribe.

 

"The summer solstice emboldens me, and I thought I'd pay the princess mononoke a visit," says Ashitaka, grinning.

 

San smiles too, submitting to the romance of it all. She arches up invitingly and Ashitaka comes and kneels by her side. Her large eyes look up to him in love, and he leans down and kisses her lips.

 

"I missed you," whispers San, reaching up to touch the stubble on his chin.

 

"Me too," says Ashitaka. His fingers graze her belly, then up to her rosy cheek.

 

"Why do you have your hair like that?" San asks, sitting up and resting on her elbows, looking curiously at Ashitaka's topknot. It'd been a month or so since he'd visited her.

 

"Oh, it's a habit from my younger days," says Ashitaka. "All the men of my tribe wore their hair like this."

 

San pets Yakuul's snout and welcomes the elk's affectionate snuffle.

 

"Are you preparing, then, to overcome that woman Eboshi and become leader of Tatara?" she asks.

 

Ashitaka chuckles. "It's merely a convenient way to keep hair out of my face, especially in the heat."

 

"I like your hair in your face, and on your face," says San.

 

It was true, last winter San'd been very taken with Ashitaka's beard and would keep running her fingertips over it, and rubbing her own cheek against it, much to Ashitaka's amusement.

 

"But, I see now."

 

Ashitaka smiles, and unashamedly peels off his shirt. He looks at San, who is still eyeing him, then looks up to the fully-blushed and buzzing forest canopy. The emerald sunlight glitters down through the foliage.

 

"This is a nice spot," he comments.

 

"The heat like the frost will bring death to some creatures," says San, suddenly stoic. "How is your iron-hot Tatara standing it?"

 

"More fights break out among the men," says Ashitaka, sighing. "The women adapt much better."

 

San nods. She and Ashitaka unburden Yakuul of the sacks the elk is carrying. Ashitaka nickers at him to run down to the river where he may drink. San leans back again upon the cool rock, sighs and shuts her eyes. A line of ants march nearby. Ashitaka lays beside her.

 

"I had a dream about you a few nights ago," he whispers. "You were swimming in the river, but the current picked up and you were almost swept away."

 

"Then what?" San and Ashitaka link hands.

 

"You were fine," says Ashitaka. "The water knew it had betrayed you and then it calmed."

 

San laughs. "That was no real river you dreamt of!"

 

"No," agrees Ashitaka. "I think it was a metaphor."

 

San looks curiously at him. "For what?"

 

"Your strength of will," comments Ashitaka.

 

"Tell me another metaphor," beseeches San, gripping his roughened fingers in hers.

 

"Hm." They had talked about metaphors before, in particular the sun and the moon.

 

"Well," says Ashitaka, "I would think a river is a metaphor for something that looks the same but is always changing. What say you?"

 

"I think so, too," agrees San. "Are there paintings and drawings of rivers too? Like how you said there were about the sun and moon and the forest?"

 

"Yes!" Ashitaka leans down and kisses her. "I've kept my promise, and brought you some. Look."

 

From one of the sacks he extracts three scrolls, and unfurls one. He and San turn over and examine it under the dappled sunlight. It's of an ocean wave splashing, with kanji written on the side.

 

"Can I touch it?" says San.

 

"If you like it, you can keep it," says Ashitaka. 

 

San nods, then runs her fingers over the painted paper, over the curves and bumps of the dried paint.

 

"I like this, Ashitaka. Thank you."

 

"Here's another one." Ashitaka unfurls another scroll showing a fierce battle in the moonlight.

 

"These still depictions are strange," San remarks. "But I understand them."

 

"You would," breathes Ashitaka, and looks at her with longing. San knows that look. It means, come and live in civilization, where you belong, with me.

 

"Do you think I'd show you the mildness you so value, if I were to live among them?" San twists her mouth in annoyance. Ashitaka sighs heavily. San continues looking with fascination at the paintings.

 

Ashitaka unfurls the last one, the one he'd been waiting to show her. It's of a wolf.

 

San gasps. "Who did this?"

 

"I don't know," admits Ashitaka. "I only know that the seal - this symbol down here - means it comes from the Imperial City." Ashitaka travels there often. "There are less beautiful ones sold in the streets, but I was able to get these particular ones from Jigo." He chuckles at San's flabbergasted expression.

 

San shakes her head knowingly and sticks her nose up. "That toad with a scavenger's brain isn't trustworthy."

 

Ashitaka laughs. "He likes you, though! Let's hope at least that he procured them somewhat fairly."

 

San scoffs. She turns back to the painting of the wolf, admiring it and touching it.

 

"This is beautiful."

 

Ashitaka nods.

 

"Whoever did this, understands the way of things," says San. "Look at the clever way the lines curve, and how the colors blend."

 

"Would you do something like this, if you had the tools?" Ashitaka looks to San.

 

San shakes her head. "I'd have no reason to reproduce what I've lived. My memories are vivid enough. They are superior, because they are moving and not still." She pauses, thinking of her wolf-mother Moro. "If I were to make still images, I would give them to you."

 

"I'd gladly accept them," says Ashitaka. "I'll bring you paint, brushes and paper next time then." San nods. Ashitaka rolls the paintings back up and puts them away.

 

"What else have you come with?" asks San, grinning.

 

"Besides the usual? A coconut for you," says Ashitaka, grinning back.

 

This is another (expensive) treat from the Imperial City. Ashitaka first tasted this strange fruit there last month. He bought one back to the forest, then, to give to San. Ashitaka taught San how to open it. He also told her its story. Coconut trees were growing more and more in Okinawa, having been brought from islands in the far south. San said she'd never tasted anything so exquisite.

 

"Why don't you open it?" Ashitaka says now, handing the ripe coconut and a bowl to San.

 

San runs her fingers over its hairy hard exterior and shakes it to her ear, hearing the water. It makes her giggle like a child. She leans over to where she's left her belt and extracts her knife. Then, holding the fruit over the bowl, she hacks at its center, turning it skillfully, letting the water drip down into the bowl. Once it cracks completely, she spills all the water out and then hands one of the halves of the fruit to Ashitaka.

 

"You drink," Ashitaka insists when San offers him the water.

 

San shakes her head and insists, "you've been traveling."

 

Ashitaka knows better than to argue. The coconut water is sweet and rich, and Ashitaka moans in relief. But he refuses to drink more than one gulp and offers the rest to San, who drinks happily. Together, they eat the fruit's meat and contemplate the damp, hot afternoon.

 

San experiments and rubs a little of the fruit against her knee, noticing the soft, cool and healing sheen it leaves.

 

"This fruit is sacred," she concludes, rubbing it on her opposite knee. "In all ways, down to the very convenience of its shell."

 

Gently, she takes Ashitaka's arm with the scars left on it by the curs, the curse nature's rage had once placed on him and which forced him to leave his tribe, and rubs the whitened lines.

 

"There's ways to cook it," comments Ashitaka. "I passed a house and smelled its fragrance in the smoke."

 

"What else was cooking?" San asks curiously. "Could you tell?"

 

Ashitaka nods. "I couldn't help but ask someone, and she told me coconut was being cooked into rice, and fish was being cooked with garlic and scallions and many other vegetables in a stew."

 

"I would cook rice with this fruit," admits San, looking off to watch the bees. "And I would make stew."

 

"I can bring you another coconut, and some more rice, oil and salt, and those vegetables, in a few weeks," says Ashitaka. He shifts. "Come, will you fish with me?"

 

San nods and pulls on that dress she always wears. Together, like children, she and Ashitaka run down to the river.

 

Ashitaka comes nearly once a month and brings her many things, sometimes staying only a day, sometimes staying a week. He never stays more than a week. He knows better. San begins to become too attached to him, and the separation is excruciating. He wishes more than anything to take her back to Tatara; he trusts that eventually she will go with him, but the doubt is overwhelming.

 

Once back in snowy February, tired of cold nights alone in the village, he got spiteful with San: that time, he tried guilting her into going back with him, which only resulted in San experiencing a bout of utter despair. The entire forest shook with her howls and screeches, as she threw herself about her cave, scratching at the walls and spitting threats of curses at Ashitaka. Her brother-wolves would have torn the prince to pieces, had they not known it would cause San more pain. They howled at him too. Not even the deep snow could muffle the cries in that cave. The Deer God then wandered by the mouth, and its emanating light briefly shone a ray of divinity into the void of unrest. San, the wolves and Ashitaka all fell silent. Ashitaka then wept and begged San forgiveness. He confessed to not understanding her pain, nor the pain of the forest. He confessed to feeling helpless and frightened against the profound mysteries of nature. In return, San admitted that she was frightened of her own feelings. She confessed to having deep guilt anyway, guilt about being human, guilt about cleaving Ashitaka into two (one half with her, the other half with civilization).

 

"I feel it most, when-" San huffed, wrapped in Ashitaka's arms, hearing the warmth of his heartbeat in the cold, "when... we..."

 

But, now, at the budding of summer, and unable to contain this anymore, she finally spills forth her emotion, her human emotion. That night, after cooking their fish and some rice over the fire, after the lazy sunset during which they played the clever Hindustani game Ashitaka had brought to her last year (with the dark and light squares) and brewed the tea-leaves, she hands him her heart.

 

"You make me remember something I didn't even know I was a part of," she says, holding Ashitaka's face while he gazes at her.

 

Ashitaka's eyes flutter with the light of curiosity.

 

San continues, "My very core, something deep and voided in me, calms when I'm with you. I've felt this void all my life, and I've known that only I and not the other creatures feel it. I was alone, always alone, till you came." A tear falls down her cheek. "I don't know whether I wish to kill you for that, or-"

 

Her breath catches. "How can you look and know me?"

 

"Because, I love you," Ashitaka whispers, taking her face in his hands too.

 

"Love." San tries out the term. "Can't the creatures feel it?"

 

Ashitaka shakes his head. "You know better than I that the creatures, with the exception of the Deer God, can't hold our gaze."

 

"Then, are we made to gaze at each other?" asks San.

 

"In love, I think so," replies Ashitaka.

 

Something breaks in San, and a cry comes forth from her heart. It's a cry of relief and yet of fear. It's a cry of submission and yet of command. It's a paradoxical cry, and paradox belongs only to humans. Therefore, neither her brother-wolves nor Yakuul can understand it. But Ashitaka does, and he kisses her the way only a human man could kiss a human woman. She becomes a woman in his arms that night, though this was not their first time; it's as though it were, though, laden with pleasure and ache. Front against front, hand in hand, eye to eye, breath among breath, in blinding, breathless, gripping unity. Humans are the only creatures to mate this way, so that the heart of man in his left side beats beside the heart of woman, as though it were in her right side and vice-versa; so that what is uneven in one becomes even in two; so that opposites become analogies of infinite mirrors for each other. Sleep brings with it dreams of a harmonious world, a world which is both created and yet insubstantial.

 

At the dark indigo dawn, when they wake, San begs Ashitaka to sing to her, old melismas invented by the Emishi when words and actions weren't enough to express the truth. He does, his song haunting the waking forest, and San weeps.

 

"Your voice is like the strokes in the paintings, Ashitaka."

 

Ashitaka nods, stray tears slipping, eyes far away. He pulls his beloved closer.

 

"Rightly were you prince of your tribe," San whispers, kissing the underside of his jaw.

 

"Thank you, princess."

 

The morning star of the heavens twinkles in its final moments before sunrise.