“And this is your room,” Natsume says, sliding the door open to reveal a small room overlooking the forest. The futon is already set up on the floor and a desk is tucked into the corner. Tasteful watercolor scenes line the walls: a fox-spotted forest, a field of sunflowers, a bridge across a blue river. In the window hang gauzy curtains and a glass wind chime. On the desk, there’s a vase of early spring wildflowers.
Touko studies the room silently, not yet ready to believe all this comes without a catch. After a moment, afraid of coming across as rude, she beams at Natsume. “It’s a lovely room.”
Her mysterious relative smiles a little tiredly and leans on the doorframe. Natsume Takashi seems surprising spry for his age and slight figure, but Touko is starting to notice the way energy saps out of his body at unexpected moments. “Let me know if you want to change anything. I asked my friend Tanuma for help with the decorations, but they might be a little out of date. I thought tomorrow we might go shopping in town, if you like. Pick up a lamp, or a quilt, or anything else you might need.”
Touko nods along, the smile fixing itself on her face. “Thank you, this is—I’m sure I won’t need anything else, this is all very wonderful.”
She sets her bag down on the floor. It doesn’t make the room feel any more like hers.
“I’ll just leave you to unpack,” says Natsume kindly. He pushes off the door and studies her with his odd, catlike eyes. At his ankles, the fat calico named Sensei mirrors his expression exactly. “Curry alright for dinner?”
Touko nods again, and watches him goes. The cat follows. As they disappear down the stairs, the old man mumbles to the cat, “It will take time. Let’s be patient and give her space, hmm?”
Sensei yowls back, clearly unimpressed. Unsure if she was supposed to overhear, Touko turns back to the room, its charm and privacy and the forest outside, and tries not to imagine what it will be like to leave such a lovely place.
When Touko learned she was going to live with a distant uncle-or-maybe-a-cousin, she imagined a lonely, cantankerous man who smelled perpetually of tobacco, so Natsume Takashi surprises her by being not just gentle, but well-loved in his community. Her second night in town, no less than seven people drop by with a suddenly-remembered borrowed umbrella or an extra plate of food for Natsume, and two of them invite themselves over for dinner.
“They think I can’t take care of myself,” Natsume confides, trying to make room for an entire pot of oden in the fridge.
“He can’t take care of himself,” insists Kitamoto, a spindly man just going gray around the temples. Sensei chirps in agreement, and Natsume makes a show of pretending not hear.
“One time, I saw him eating tofu with a spoon,” chimes Nishimura, who had arrived with Kitamoto. He’s shorter and stockier than his friend, but laughs often and smiles even more. “Just plain tofu, like it was some kind of cake. It was the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen. Don’t let him bully you into eating anything you don’t want to, Touko-chan,” he says solemnly.
“Now you’re frightening Touko-chan,” Kitamoto chides. “Really, Satoru, Natsume’s a better cook than you are.”
Nishimura gasps, affronted, and the two banter back-and-forth like this for their entire visit, playfully insulting each other, her uncle, her uncle’s taste in clothes and cooking, and Sensei the cat, who looks deeply offended by their very presence in his home. Natsume moves around them with ease, refilling tea and taking plates and washing dishes, unbothered by each new insult and occasionally returning a pointed remark with one of his own. Although Touko is clearly an accessory in the conversation, Nishimura makes an effort to include her, asking about her favorite books and classes and if she’s met any interesting people in town yet.
“Not yet,” Touko says, too tired to explain that she’s only left the house once for the promised shopping trip with Natsume, in which Natsume had bought her more clothes and books than she’s had since she was six, and which ended awkwardly when she started crying over a winter scarf. She hasn’t even started school, so everyone she’s met has been at least fifty-years-old and a friend of her uncle.
“Touko-chan starts school tomorrow,” Natsume explains. “In fact, it might be wise to head to bed soon.”
What follows a flurry of activity, as Nishimura and Kitamoto trip over each other to locate hats and coats and umbrellas and Natsume ushers them to the front door. Touko watches it all with interest, wondering if Nishimura and Kitamoto are frequent guests, or if their visit was mostly prompted by the novelty of her arrival.
“Sorry about them,” Natsume says, when he returns to the kitchen. “They both still act like schoolchildren sometimes.”
“They seem nice,” says Touko.
Natsume’s smile crinkles the corners of his eyes. “They are nice, but sometimes they forget not everyone can match their energy all the time—Nishimura especially. Until very recently, they also worried I was neglecting my social life in favor of work, and kept trying to set me up on dates.”
“A constant nuisance,” Natsume says fondly. “They’re busybodies, though they mean well. We’ve known each other since school.”
She can’t imagine keeping a friend for that long. “Do they visit often?”
“About once a week or so.” Natsume pauses at the sink, hands immersed in soapsuds, and looks to Touko. “But if don’t like they’re, just let me know. I want you to feel comfortable here, no matter what. I can always meet them somewhere else.”
Touko imagines even more nights in this old house, alone except for Sensei and the long shadows. She remembers Nishimura’s bluster and Kitamoto’s dry humor.
“I don’t mind,” she says. She’s only a little surprised that it’s true.
School in Hitoyoshi proves to be the same as school nearly everywhere else. Touko is lucky enough to be starting near the beginning of the school year, so her arrival doesn’t cause as much stir as it could. She writes her name on the board and sits next to a boy who spends most of class sleeping.
On her second week of school, when she’s comfortably settled into a group of friendly classmates, Touko learns Natsume is probably, maybe, a witch.
“Listen,” says Hana, the girl who brings it up. “I don’t want to alarm you, but Natsume Takashi isn’t really—normal. That’s what my sister says, at least.”
Touko glances down at her bento, wrapped in a cute acorn-patterned cloth. Natsume had handed it to her on her way out this morning, and she’d been too surprised to stutter out a thank-you. So far, her uncle has insisted on packing a lunch for her every day, usually spread of rice, veggies, and meat. “What do you mean?”
“It’s true,” Kaho adds. She has long black hair that she braids and unbraids whenever she’s nervous. “People say he wanders through the woods, having conversations about impossible things, and no one ever sees who he’s having a conversation with.”
“He disappears for days at a time and returns with artifacts of mysterious origin,” Hana says, knowingly. “Chimes and sealed pots and ancient statues and things.”
“And,” Tomomi leans in conspiratorially. “I saw him drawing some kind of magic circle in the dirt once, just as the sun was setting. It looked like he was trying to summon some kind of demon.”
They look at Touko expectantly.
“Oh,” says Touko. She’s not sure she’s comfortable sharing Natsume’s details with others, having only lived with him a week, so she settles on something innocuous. “Well… he does talk to his cat.”
Hana considers this. “Does the cat talk back?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Touko says, intrigued despite herself. It’s true that Natsume behaves oddly, but if she were a witch, she wouldn’t waste her time wandering the woods or collecting old objects. She would make enchanted seashells that could speak to far away people and potions let you never feel hunger again. If Natsume is a witch, he wasn’t a very good one, she decides privately.
“What about the circles?” Tomomi asks.
“He likes to paint. Maybe it was an art project?” Touko says, unwrapping her bento, tucking the acorn-patterned wrap in her bag to keep it safe.
“He’s an ethnographer,” Touko says, with gaining confidence.
The girls lean back, contemplating Touko’s evidence, and she’s grateful they don’t ask her what an ethnographer does, as she still doesn’t entirely understand herself. Kaho and Hana seem ready to let the matter rest, but Tomomi, unwilling to give up, insists, “Still, he’s definitely strange, you have to admit.”
In her bento are two hardboiled eggs haphazardly made to look like mice nestled between her vegetables and rice. Her napkin reads, Have a mice day! Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything at all.
“Yes,” Touko says, faintly. “He’s definitely strange.”
And it's true. Touko tries not to let Tomoni's conspiracies affect her, but Touko has lived with many strange people, and Natsume Takashi is the strangest of them all.
Some mornings, she wakes to find him gone, while others he’s humming in the kitchen. When she returns from school, he’s as likely to be gardening as vanished without a note. As a local ethnographer, he listens to old women tell stories and wanders around the woods for “research”—which sounds made up to Touko, but half the time he comes home with a basket of farm-fresh vegetables, so he must being doing something right.
On the odd days when Natsume disappears without a word, Sensei usually keeps her company. He follows her around when she comes home from school, yowling for dinner, and settles in her lap when she sits down to work on her homework. Touko doesn’t mind. She’s used to returning to an empty home, and Sensei’s company manages to scare off whatever loneliness she would normally feel. She pets him and feeds him treats and asks, “If you were a talking demon cat, you would say something, right?”
Sensei’s eyes flick away, then back up to her. With a sudden grace, he hops up her lap and refuses to budge no matter how much Touko tries. Finally, she gives up and commits her evening to petting him.
“Well, if you can understand me,” she says, just in case, “I want you to know that your fur is very soft and I think you look very cute.”
Sensei purrs cat-breath into her face and settles more comfortably into her lap, pleased by the attention.
The Natsume house itself is lovely but eerie. An inheritance from Natsume's grandmother, it remains one of the oldest and most historical buildings in the neighborhood. Light and shadows play tricks on her in the kitchen and narrow hallway, creating the illusion of a silhouette one minute and nothing the next. More than once, Touko can almost hear a tinkling woman’s laugh or the sound of distant music, but when she stops to listen, it’s gone.
Every cabinet and corner is filled with oddities. Antique pottery and musical instruments, yes, but also smaller trinkets tucked away. What use the man had for a bowl of tarnished bells, or painted rocks, or a collection of clay cats, she didn’t know, but each day she stays, she excavates more and more questions.
On the mornings she leaves before Natsume, she finds strange offerings outside—clay bowls of mushrooms or woven wildflower crowns on the doorstep. Natsume laughs them off—pranks from the neighborhood children or thanks for odd favors, he says. Harmless.
One morning, she nearly steps on a delicate glass-blown dragon, catches herself at the last minute when she see a glint of green. She brings it inside to show her uncle, who looks charmed at the sight.
“A gift from an old friend,” he says, examining the bauble. “She was always shy.”
“It’s lovely,” Touko says. Whoever made it folded impossible movement into the glass, as if the dragon is always about to come to life and take flight.
“Where shall we put her?” Natsume asks, suddenly sly.
It feels like being let into a secret. Touko looks around the space, this little house she has come to know, all its faded shadows and half-forgotten stories and declares, with more confidence than she feels: “The window over the kitchen sink. So it can have some sunlight.”
"A fine idea," Natsume agrees. He settles the dragon on its new perch where, caught in sunlight, it blooms green and gold like a field of ripe rice.
The sight fills her with something she can't explain, and Touko swallows around a sudden tightness in her throat.
"Thank you," she says. For asking, she doesn't say.
Natsume blinks at her, odd cat-eyes full of warmth, and Touko suspects he hears as much as he sees. "Of course, Touko-chan."
And over the sink the dragon stays, scattering rainbows, the strange and fragile guardian of their strange and fragile home.