Whenever Ashitaka and San got naked together her skin tried to limn her truth to him. On display were stories, histories, obituaries, works of art by nature’s whims. They were always dense, often cryptic, sometimes sad, and they could be old or new. Their development proved invariable and their interpretation difficult; every time they coupled he would discover uncharted legends he needed San’s help to understand. Of those, there was an especially distinctive mole under her left breast he once wanted to name until he realised he had not the right to claim ownership over it, and one tiny crater on her hand that had pained her to tears from only the memory of the burn. After that he became careful not to ask.
Yet there were no demarcations on this hide; San said to Ashitaka he was free to touch her anywhere, and when he did and felt as though there were an end to a tract, he would continue to work around a curve, about and about and about, until he was back where he began. Although where he returned would not always be where he left before; for instance, the difference in the alternating convex and concave of her belly as her breathing altered to the skill of his stroking; and sudden and increasing waters from the same; or the folding and curving of flesh and muscle at her bend or arch. But the finger, trailing from the centre of the lips to the breasts to the nub, could conclude yes, this and those are one place. Better yet, inside, with superlative contact and still higher feeling, he could become a passing part of her earth too, if only as a grain in her soils.
To where did her reaches extend? It must be beyond the toes, the fingertips, the crown of the rightful head. It must be inside, too. At first he believed her entire body served as a boundary to all but herself, if only as a precaution against incursion and possession, but after she invited him to it he knew it was not true in the least. She chose what came in and went out. More than this, he began to sense her everywhere. Now the question was: How much of her was wooded, wedded to shadow? The dark of her eyes in the shapes tossed by trees by which he was awed under; and through the night loveliest her darker hair in which he hid long as if to leap from the black to dream; her white battle-cratered skin on the moon; her raindrop feet in step with his footfalls as they together pushed down the roots deep beneath. She nestled into his perception, in eight million associations, in blood and salt and cedars and resins and mud, and tendrils of woodwind waft. Evermore he carried the heartwoods of her memory with him. The forest, revered from afar or below, bowered her; she belonged to it as he belonged to her. Moth to sloe, upturn by worm. He was lost in green black, amber gold: her pageant of lumens and shades. Or was he found? She frequented her foxholes and grottos often enough to sniff him out each time. And so there was nowhere else he wanted to be more than now, here.
What did she see on or in him? Privileges to knowledge, perhaps, of having his mother’s eyes and his father’s jaw and his siblings’ very noses; she hadn’t the assurance or responsibility of looking like anyone she knew. Could she through him travel to distant lands like everyone else? The barkprints of beeches he had climbed in childhood on his soles, or the kodama of ash and aspens still susurrant within his ears, perchance crude stockades like the ones of his village that she could level with a single stare. He was all virgin expanse, every time, up for her exploration. She never looked as though she was astray, and she touched him with so much industry and deliberation that it shocked him dumb and raw still. All his networks of root, stem, and nerve tingled erect at her parousia. At their hinterland her maw rolled beast-speech and he articulated their lingua franca like a mother tongue. What did she mean? He could only ever guess. In her generosity she tried to make it easier for him, sending messages in the colours she drew thence. He was ripe for her aureation. Glosses mingled; he gathered her reds and greens. With these exchanges, he hoped dearly, desperately she knew he was open, and free, and whatever she found was hers to rove and claim. She shaped him larger and firmer under her touch. She transfigured him. If he could thank the curse for anything, it would be for this broadening of land and love and experience.
Now they were beguiling their hours in the privacy of their favourite moss-mattressed dingle after one of those sessions of crashing and merging and drifting. Fast saplings had sprung up all around it, as had tods and bracken and a riverlet that ran purling through it. They liked it because it was not far for either of them, and soft, and full of drink and fruit, providing good natural shelter that did not smother the light hands of the sun. There the whole forest was their bed and canopy. The water didn’t flow so swift that either one of them could not hear the other over it; it was quiet enough for whispers to pitch, for the noises that so delighted the two of them to be clear. And what would be the crux of a tryst if one could not hear those? There were birds and kodama, sometimes, but they were everywhere else now, and mere accompaniments to their own clamouring.
Ashitaka was stroking a faded shape on San’s outstretched calf when she said, without needing to see what he was touching, “I think I was born with that. It looks like a butterfly, doesn’t it? But half of one.”
“Does it? It looks more like a tulip, from where I am.”
She blinked uncharacteristically fast. “Did you just find it?” After Ashitaka shook his head she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know how you’d feel about it. I didn’t want to hurt you. You see, some girls—”
She grunted, “I’m not a girl.”
“Sorry.” Even her irked face, with the underlip protruding, looked so fresh and beautiful that Ashitaka could not help but touch it and smile. He brushed the high broad grasses of her knitted brows till they were smooth, and stroked down her nose, fingers then curling around the arcuate swell of her mouth, which reset under his touch. “I forgot.”
“Do you have anything like it too?”
“A birthmark? Hmmm.” Ashitaka looked down at himself, at his own oft flayed limbs and rocky stomach, and last of all the flat pink shapes on his right palm. “Not that I know of. I do have a lot of scars, though.”
“Me too.” Her eyes widened and she edged a smile. “Is it supposed to be bad for humans to have them?”
“Most women avoid getting them.”
“Why? Because the other humans don’t like them?”
“I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s something to do with the expectation that men should be tough and women untouched for as long as possible.” Initiation against abatement. “I think it’s silly myself.”
San eyed a small scab on her knee. Her fingers attacked it. “Do you like scars on me?”
“I love everything about you,” Ashitaka breathed. To stop her before she bled he covered the knee. He waited for the right words until he had them. “I don’t like that you were hurt, but they’re a part of you. I think of them as milestones or mementos we can always keep with us. Proof of everything we’ve survived. They mean you’re here, and I love that.” He flexed his torso and traced over the raised cicatrix under his lowest right rib. Swinging her strong arms for leverage, San went from supine to cross-legged in one heave. “See this one? I got it when I was twelve, when I fought my first hand-to-hand war, by this huge spear.” He chuckled. “I thought I’d die.”
San slammed a fist down. “Don’t laugh!”
“But I didn’t die.”
The other fist followed. “You could have.”
“I was thinking that it’d be a lot less trouble had I died then. I’ve been near death so many times, but I’ve never died. So I laughed.”
San seized his hair and headbutted him. “Dummy!” Ringing pain ricocheted through his skull to the base of his spine. “Ow…”
Ashitaka laughed again. “You think that’ll leave a scar?”
“Takes more than that,” she muttered, biting her lip.
“I’m glad I didn’t die. I wouldn’t have met you otherwise.” Ashitaka tried to release the flesh from her teeth with his thumb. “You wanna find more?”
She glanced up from under a rubbing hand. “Can I show you mine too?”
Nodding, Ashitaka hoped he did not display his surprise too readily. Perhaps she was proud now, like all the boys he knew who loved to vaunt the finery of scars upon their skin to one another. Ashitaka’s heart had been like theirs, until the curse.
Kaya’s dagger bounced daylight off its facets in hues of hydrangea and beautyberry. The obsidian’s sharp blue shadow loomed across San’s torso. She disturbed the effect, sparking a brief glare into Ashitaka’s eyes, as she padded across her chest with her hands. When Ashitaka recovered San’s fingers had stopped at an almost imperceptible arc striking up from under her armpit. It tapered off into her collarbone. “That was Eboshi. It’s pretty new. She’s bound to have one that matches. Mine might not even last.”
Again frissons grouped with cooled sweat at Ashitaka’s tailbone. He touched the faint white line. “Did it hurt terribly?”
San scoffed. “I didn’t feel it at all. But there was blood, from her and me. Shame there wasn’t more.” She was grinning with all her teeth. “Don’t look like that. Are you a man, or a housedog, begging for scraps? Go next.”
“I think you’d like me better if I were the second,” he laughed, and she did too. “Hmm. I think—yes, here.” He put his hand over his hipbone and lifted it again to show her. Her eyes had trouble focussing where he wanted her to look.
“Did a former lover do it?” She reached out. The hand wandered. “Lucky they missed.”
Ashitaka shut his eyes. “It wasn’t like that,” he broke. “Our foes aimed low. They knew I was a prince. Nothing excited them more than to think of rendering us heirless.”
“When was this?”
He held his hands out. “I was barely a man, then.”
“Hmmm.” She massaged folds and petted the shaft as if to congratulate them on their survival. Ashitaka did his best not to react too keenly to her motions and waited her out until she let go, went around, wrapped her hand around his left buttock, and squeezed. “What strange places to be wounded…”
“San!” Ashitaka guffawed. Her hand was still clasping the flesh. “San, that’s—”
“Surprised? You touch me like this all the time.” Though she was behind him Ashitaka could not shake the idea that she was now blinking rapidly in confusion. “No matter. Will you tell me how you got it?”
Heat spilled through his stomach. “Yakkul’s never told you?”
She returned to his front. Behold: her mouth was quirked, and her eyelids fluttering fast. “No.”
“Well, Yakkul and I met when he was still a calf—”
San folded her legs together and got comfortable, chin on knees. “I know.”
“Did you know he wasn’t born in our stables, though?” A shake of her head encouraged him to continue. “There’s a mountain near the village where the red elks live. It’s dense as—” …This forest used to be. But Ashitaka could not say it. Instead he raised little imaginary trunks from the ground with his fingers in as short a span of time as possible. “Ah, like this. There’re trees and flowers and kodama everywhere, in every colour you could imagine.” For this season he would represent the dogwood with his blood, freshly pricked, and the maidenhairs by yolk fanned thin. “Yakkul’s one of a dying breed, but the elders told me his kind used to roam all over Japan. For a boy to become a man in my village, he has to venture alone into the forest until he can return with a steed.”
San licked her lips. “Like a wolf’s first hunt?”
“Just like that. Except you bring home something alive. Red elks leap high and are very smart and sensitive so—”
“Of course! And kind and reliable.” San raised her head. “Yakkul’s my friend, too.”
“Haha, so you’ve both told me. That’s why the Emishi still prefer to ride them. They make good friends and partners. Yakkul started off as someone else’s mount. I don’t mean to be rude, but Yakkul looked rather distraught when he came to us under his lack of care. He was a tiny thing then; so small I could pick him up!” Arms drooped with Yakkul’s quondam softness and weight, rounding out to his calfhood size. “He wasn’t supposed to be so small. The idea is to have a steed ready to be ridden to war. Besides, Yakkul bled at the bit and the hooves, which isn’t supposed to happen. His master was mocked for this, and neglected him. He kept him anyway. I had never seen a baby of anything before, so I tried to befriend him, going to his stall every day and trying to share my lunch with him. And one day, after he got his first antlers, he escaped the stables.”
San gave a little cheer Ashitaka ignored for the time being.
“Now, no one had time to look for him by then. Everyone was defending against a skirmish. But I was still a boy. A cheeky one at that. I was supposed to stoke the fire for the forge, but out of curiosity I traced Yakkul’s footsteps instead. Soon I got lost in that forest. But just like the first time I passed through here, the kodama helped me find him. He had gotten himself trapped.”
San gasped, as if she didn’t know the ending to the story. “Was he all right?”
“I got him out, barely. He was big, much bigger than I was at the time. He charged me, and I fled. He was also much faster, so he ended up getting me right here. It really hurt.” Ashitaka slapped his bottom and chuckled. “I understand now why he did it. He’d been hurt, too, and he must have been so scared… I should’ve just let him go, but didn’t know any better at that age, of course, so I chased after him. I wanted—I don’t know what I wanted. Justice? I suppose, something like that. We went all around the trees until we ran into danger.”
San chewed her nails. “Danger?”
“You’re not going to like this…”
She took a thumb into her mouth. “How would you know?”
“It was a wolf.”
The thumb plopped out. “Had it speech?’
“No. We knew it was hungry, though, and Yakkul was bleeding. We had to work together. I covered Yakkul’s wounds with mud fast as I could. Then we ran in different directions and rattled as many trees as possible. The sounds of the fruit dropping confused it. But we couldn’t keep on doing that forever; there’s only so much on a tree. It was only fair that I be the bait, since I’d gotten us into that mess. It worked. While I led it on, Yakkul snuck up behind it and gored it well. Not enough to kill it, but enough to slow it.
“I’ll never forget the way Yakkul looked at me then. He had this great gentle calm in his eye, and arched his neck down towards me. He was offering me his horns, you see. I climbed on, and we rode right out of that nightmare. When we were far enough to rest he ate from my hand for the first time. It was a persimmon I’d just picked up. He even nuzzled into my hand as if he wanted more! But I hadn’t any more, not until we got back to Emishi. By law I was his new master, though I had shamed his old one, and I don’t think he ever forgave me for it. Yakkul seemed happy, though. Our wounds were treated together and we’ve been the best of friends since. We’ve lived through wars and death and births together. He’s been very good to me all these years. Too good,” he laughed.
San unfolded her legs. “You make a good team.”
“I think so, too. But I do wonder sometimes what happened to him before he was mine. He’ll never tell me about it.”
“Do you think he’d be upset if I asked?”
“If it’s you I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. Just be sure to be gentle, okay?”
San grinned her eyes into crescents. “I will. I’ll give him extra apples for his trouble.”
Ashitaka did too. “He’d like that.”
San shuffled forward. “I’ll ask before sundown. But first…” She smoothed Ashitaka’s shoulders under her tepid hands. Around and around she clawed until she found something over his shoulder blade she petted; he knew the place. “This is fun. Do you have another story for this one?”
“Ah, that I do.”
San poked the keloid. “Tell it.”
Ashitaka took a deep breath. "All right. So, back in the village there was a fire once. Our foes raided us. How old was I, then? Well, it was before the spear, when I wasn’t allowed to the fray, so I climbed a tree with my bow, aiming for arms and legs, because I don’t think I was truly ready to kill a man then. But I was a good shot. We chased them out; but not before they torched two of our huts. I heard a cry from one of them. There was a child within it. Some flaming wood got stuck there on our way out, but I only noticed it later.” He regretted the words once he said them. He was at once ten again. There was no heroism in what he had done, and he ought to have had the humility to not blare the story as if it had some. He cringed. “The child was safe,” he added, “he grew up to be a fine boy.”
San blinked slower than usual. “Are you proud of this? I can tell you’ve told this story more than once before.”
Ashitaka’s cheeks near burst from overheat. “Not particularly.” He let his shoulders fall low. “It’s what anyone would’ve done.”
“Don’t confuse should’ve with would’ve.”
San cocked her head. “You did do a good thing. It’s strange you don’t seem happy to have done it.”
“Huh? Oh,” he chuckled, “of course, I’m happy he lived! But it’s immodest at best, to speak of my part in it, as if I’d done him some sort of favour; I was obliged. We all are, to help the people who need us whenever we can. I shouldn’t have indulged. I’m sorry.”
San chortled. “You’re so stupid!”
That he was. Ashitaka hung his head low.
“You think I care about your modesty! What a human thing to say. Look at you,” she barked, fanning him from brink to brink. “There’s nothing I can’t see from here. I’d find whatever you hide.”
There must be steam rising from his face. “A-ah, but you said that I did a good thing? He was human...”
San squinted and snarled. She bit his hand. The worst of the pain was brief. She did not break the skin but she had probably ruptured a few vessels underneath. They would show later. “I may hate humans, but I’m not a lowlife!”
It was Ashitaka’s turn to blink like cornered prey. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
She bit him again, at the same place. This time he could not help but grunt. “I was a child too, when Mother found me. There’s always a chance to turn evil around.”
“Oh? Have you plans to abduct all of Tataraba’s children to raise yourself?”
“Don’t mock me!” San went to bite thrice, but Ashitaka recoiled at the last moment. She pounced him and gnawed his shoulder instead. He touched the place to see a trickle of blood at his fingertip. Across from it was one of her wordless barks. He raised his hands in surrender. They were long past the stulp where sudden praise could shock her into mercy on a whim, even if he were to be sincere, which he always was.
Ashitaka spoke low. “Hey, hey, not all humans are evil. Some are even good. We change, too, long past childhood. Aren’t beasts the same?”
“I get that! I’m not an idiot,” she snarled. She scrunched moss in her hands. “It’s about you, isn’t it.”
“I can love and not forgive at the same time.”
“I’m aware,” he murmured, and moved to touch the arrow at her cheek. She evanesced before he could. “I’m sorry you have to do both.”
A leap away sat she, cross-legged, with her hands around her ankles, her brows bunched up again over dark flared eyes. The young trees scattered medallions across her cheeks. Quiet frogsong and softer water filled the silence and somewhere a hart moaned for a hind. Ashitaka ached along with him. He packed his lungs with her, and himself on her, amid the morning’s rain and the moss and the soil and the autumn flowers. San licked his film of blood off her teeth. “It’s your fault, you know.”
Ashitaka forced his lips straight and nodded. “If you want to be left alone, I can go.”
Her brows gathered more furrows and her shoulders hunched towards him. “Do you want to?”
“No,” he sighed. He stood and cleared a space for himself, casting twigs and leaves behind him. Before her he sat, himself beyond her armspan but she within his own. He reached out again. “I offended you. I’m mistaken and sorry.” First a growling San darted a dry sharp branch at him that scaped some skin off his arm. The pain was representative rather than bodily. Ashitaka, beaten, made to stand; yet San sidled up to him with something like a whine. Thus, Ashitaka sighed and relit and replanted himself in the ground with open hands. He tried once more: “May I stay here? With you, still?” Like the last time he aimed for her face, but the blade of her gaze deflected him before he could even touch her; the hand fell away and scraped the skin over her heart, by accident, he thought at first; or by needs, he reconsidered, of which he wasn’t yet aware.
Nevertheless, she accepted the gesture. Prior to his withdrawal, she in her purity grasped his hand against her chest and grunted, “It’s not like I could get you out. From inside me, right?”
“Oh,” he said, and at once his fingers breached her diaphanous skin right to her scorching, throbbing heart. He used to be like this, at the height of his curse, used to swear he could hear her heart scream, could bear the whole crushing heft of it in one palm, could caress it until it was singing instead of burning, could expunge the rage and the grief and be among the gods who knew her true heart. Losing that ability had been devastating, and regaining it more so. Yet in his lesser arrogance he no longer believed he could bear it, not alone, not anymore. Only now, with the grace of her words, he was naturalised into that dark loud place, navigating new knowledge, being able to begin: and so he thought, even if he could not lift such a freight from one whose frame could never withstand it, he might be able now to water with his throughfall tears the fallow earth that had none left to weep. All he could do was swallow the soot and the ashes and help along the bloom. “Thank you for being so patient with me,” he breathed, but his breath hitched, and his hand jolted.
She petted it. “Are you all right?” Ashitaka swallowed. When had his throat had begun to feel so dry? He turned his palm up and swept the sweat off his forehead with the other. The scar was still the same. San covered it. “I know it still hurts. Sometimes you scream in the night.”
“I’m sorry for all the times I’ve woken you.”
San shook her head. “Wolves aren’t supposed to sleep much after moonrise.”
Ashitaka closed his fist. “I suppose it could flare up again at any time. I always hope it’s just a scar—because that’s comforting, isn’t it?” To consider a volcano extinct, not dormant. “I’m not brave. I am honest. I don’t want to die. It would mean not being able to do this with you for a long time, if at all.”
“I won’t let you die!” San roared, as if she could cow death by the volume of her voice and force of her contempt; next to her Ashitaka felt safe and believed in it. It occurred to Ashitaka that they tended to talk as much about dying as living, for the reality of San seemed to coexist with the possibility of immortality; she was a god, and she knew better about these things, even if that wasn’t much, they both were sure to remember. Yet for all he knew, loving her all that time had indeed been what had kept him clear-eyed so long. Unlike Eboshi and San, he had never been ready for death. Hatred was its expedient. And, oh, how easy it had been to succumb to despair and self-annihilation, how effortless it had been to forget love. Now it was not so, and as long as San lived Ashitaka would believe his desire to stay in the world longer better stifled the rancour of the tatarigami; love attenuated its bloodlust, tamping it down with open, unshakable hands. “I—I—”
Ashitaka seized San’s moist gaze. Behind her broadened the leaf-wreathed sky and the new land, laden still with blossoms and blissom loves. She said nothing but was not silent. Noise resounded around and inside them. Rasping silvergrass, whispering teatree, wagging witch hazel, clopping serow and birds astir. Above them all clouds scudded in earlier forms of the dead. Before Ashitaka San sat, her skin blanched by the old forest to be a sunfleck between the shadow of her eyes and hair short and undone, more phenomenon than wolf or girl. In her eye he reached behind himself, earth and empyrean doubly seen domed in her two bright-black worlds. Both mirrored him in them, and he himself looked as clear and comely as he hoped she looked to herself in his own eyes. His image was so small and yet took up so much space in the circles of her watch. Ah, he thought, so this is infinity. At that moment the sun rose over high distant knolls, and the light increased over them, until there were no reflections, and San’s irises fused into rings of flamed wood. The instant passed. What was death, anyway?
“Thank you,” Ashitaka laughed at last, taking her in his arms. Over her shoulders he spotted a profusion of morning faces observing their embrace with noontime mildness. He held her so close that he felt the dagger sharp against his skin; when they separated he went to smooth the imprint over his breastbone. “It’s because of you I’m still here. I won’t go where you can’t.”
“You promise?” San took his wrists.
Ashitaka flipped his palms. “I promise.”
San opened her hands over his, as if to compare them. She had those of a lady, their shape and size between Eboshi’s and Kaya’s. They seemed to him at once very delicate, with tiny brittle bones, those narrow hands. But as their palms moved against one another he remembered that they were just as hard as his. Callous on callous against like sets thereof. The dreadful beautiful hands that could build as easily as they could raze. He kissed his way through the mazes of her fingerprints.
“We’ll be here a long time,” she mumbled into his hair as he navigated those tiny isopleths, “you’re Shishigami-sama’s last gift to me, you know.”
His heart flipped; surely he was more than that? So he asked, “Is that all?” He didn’t stop kissing her regardless.
“Don’t try me,” she muttered. “And of course not. You’re you. But he gave you a gift, too.”
“Mmmn. I think I know what it is. I’m grateful.”
Whilst his lips were crossing the joint of her heartline and fateline, she raked her other hand through his hair. The scrapes left odd bracing smatterings of pain that rustled him awake. Her hand slid to the nape of his neck, his shoulder, and stopped at his ribbed side.
“What happened here?”
Ashitaka craned to find a shiny raised patch of hard tissue. He had to think hard to remember what caused it, and was almost embarrassed when he did. “Oh, that.” Ashitaka chortled. “Would you believe me if I said it was a bug bite? Well, that’s what I think it was. It was a really hot summer, and though I slept with the mesh over, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I had scratched myself to bleeding. I wonder if it was a spider.”
“Hmmm.” San slowed her lids. “Disappointing. I have better stories. You can pick another.” She outstretched her arms to display all her array without obstruction.
“Let’s see, um,” he said, and put his hands up to her face at last. “These? Tell me about these,” Ashitaka asked, brushing his knuckles over the arrows on her cheeks. He lifted the hassock of hair over her forehead to trace the last one. She must have chosen to ink those herself.
She bared all her teeth to him. “Fangs, bloodied from the hunt. This way humans understand that I’m not. You all depend on your eyes too much and not enough on anything else.”
“I see.” Still indelible was her imbrued face from the other side of the river, her gaze the deepest incision he had ever received.
“I could mark you, too, if you’d like.” She drew a shape across his waist. “It would look good here. It’d match your hood.”
“Ah,” Ashitaka sighed. “I’ll consider it.”
San raised an eyebrow and huffed. “After all that effort I went to show you everything. Pick another!”
So Ashitaka pressed his fingers into her shoulder, along the ridge of the bladed bone and around, till his hand was flat against where he remembered it was. He could even trace the trajectory by following the rougher depressed skin. It was half her small back long. When he did this he did not do it with his forefinger, but gingerly with his whole palm, so to soothe rather than scrutinise. Still she shook, like a child friendless in the dark, though she did not turn away. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I have no pride for it,” she spat, “because it wasn’t won in battle, fairly, honestly.” So many of the others were. Arrows by opponents she did not remember, who missed; shrapnel, glass, fire, falls. Ashitaka had witnessed the creation of many of them himself, and he remembered them when her skin or mind did away with them. San’s knuckles blanched over the dagger. “I was struck, a cub still, for what? It was only a few scraps of cured meat they took from our own forest. It was a hard winter. Before Eboshi. I didn’t know how to fight for anything other than food, then.”
“I’m so sorry,” Ashitaka choked; he gathered her close once more, not stopping his relentless stroking. “I’m glad you survived it. But what a cut it must’ve been! How could you have healed this yourself?”
“I didn’t. There was a woman who watched. She pitied me and stitched me in secret. I went back when it healed to get them out.”
“Thank goodness,” Ashitaka whimpered. Out of his own selfishness he did not want to hear more, but for her love he would. If there were any use for pain other than cruelty, then alacrity and sincerity of commiseration was it. He glided over the bruises from falling and scrapes from careless charges through twigs and thickets, and scabs, which were only advanced states of those. Aside from those and some natural formations her back was bare. This was the usual configuration, though he had never asked why, until now.
“I can’t afford to bleed where I can’t see. How would I treat the wounds?”
“I would gladly tend to them in the future. Although I’d be gladder to prevent them in the first place.”
She scoffed into his neck. “Do you say the same thing to all the females you know?”
“I wouldn’t have the opportunity.”
“Pah!” she woofed. “I’ll take the first offer. You can’t even protect yourself.” Pinching his cheeks, San said, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
“I promise to try. You must trust me to do at least that.”
“So be it,” acquiesced San, her hands falling low again. He kissed his way above her elbow. “I trust your intentions are true. I’ll try to do the same.”
To put a hand on her arm was a lesson; they were as much a warrior’s as Ashitaka’s, and he could not guess at how many times the muscle had been shredded to be regrown, stronger and stronger after each slash and strain. He opened his eyes to look at her face, but a certain tilt of the sun illuminated a flash of silver from the joints of wrist to elbow. At once he sheathed her arm with his hands over what abruptly seemed a straggly desperate scar.
San hid behind her fists as soon as she realised he had found it. “Oh.”
Ashitaka let go. “What’s wrong?”
“No, it’s—if, if I had given her this hand, this limb, my life, she might’ve lived.”
Ashitaka cooed, “What are you talking about?”
“My sister, Yanagi. My beautiful, gentle, poor sister—”
For the first time Ashitaka realised it was autumn; the season with the wake of Moro’s echo chilled him to the marrow. “It couldn’t have been your fault—”
“But it was. Think, if I had thought to give her my blood or flesh a little earlier, she wouldn’t have been so hungry. No, if I hadn’t been part of the pack, how much better she would have eaten. The winter wouldn’t have needed to take her, then.”
Ashitaka stroked her head over her hair. “How can you think that?”
“Because it’s the truth.”
“Nobody should die for someone else.”
She smeared snot over the back of her wrist. “You almost died for me, did you forget? And you told me not to discard my life for the forest, but you do the same for all you believe.”
Ashitaka’s hand’s stopped. Lest her skull crack he kept them bundled atop her head. “That was different.”
She looked up at him true in the eye. The black flashed. “It was? I know you’d try to do it again.”
Ashitaka stared at the green space between his crossed legs. “Everyone deserves to live. I don’t think any life is worth any more than that of another. You can’t blame yourself for continuing to exist.”
“But when you hurt others it’s better if you don’t.”
“I’ve done that, too. The curse—it killed through me. No, I killed. Before that I meant full well to take Nago’s life. I don’t expect to be forgiven. I’m sorry I did all those things, but I’m not sorry I’m still here. But I would protect you with my life because I’m little use to the world and I don’t—I don’t have much else to give you.”
Her brows went high. “Then you know how I feel,” she broke. In her gorge her voice cracked with all the force and tragedy of the oldest tree splitting open. She fell forward into the centre of his chest, yowling landslides and faultlines, her face behind her hands again. Ashitaka’s heart too rived asunder for her. He pried her fingers off to dry the tears behind them.
“San.” He spoke low. “San. You give your all to the forest and your family. You’ve fought and loved so well. Isn’t that enough? I love you, hey, have I told you recently? I love you.”
Blunt fists buffeted him. “What does that achieve? I love you, too. So what? The dead are still dead, and the forest—”
“And the past is the past. We still have the future, and we’ll be together through it, won’t we?”
Her face was sticky on his chest. She sniffed into it. “Will we?”
“Well, think of the curse. It’s hatred and suffering with a form, right? I think the things that stifle it might be things that make it reconsider. Beauty, and love, and joy, all that.” So he tried to glut himself with those things; they were ends in themselves, besides. She stared on. “Well, it comforts me to think of it that way. And I think it’s worked so far.”
“Maybe,” she said at last through a sniff.
Ashitaka began to pet her again. “Anyway, it’s not about me. My point was, I think, that your sister—she loved you, right? And you loved her. So don’t blame yourself for something you couldn’t help at all for her sake.”
After there was no response his hands fell. What could he do to make her laugh, feel better? It seemed all he could ever do was let her grope in the dark when she needed something solid to hold. Tickling her would be inappropriate. Yet at least he should dry her face with cleaner hands. So he cast all their shorn raiment over his shoulder, then put one arm under her knees and the other under her armpit.
“Ashitaka!” she screamed as he gripped her and lifted her. It was not quite as effortless as when the curse was rampant, but he was strong enough still to be confident that he would get her as far as the cataracts, and likely past them. She thumped her fists against his chest. Her new exasperation swallowed her old sadness. “What are you doing?”
“Ah. Do you want to be put down?”
She calmed and slung her hands around his neck. “Tell me what you’re doing first!”
Forward he strode. “I suddenly felt thirsty.”
“Why take me?” She began to kick again.
“You want to be put down,” he said, but they were already by the stream bordered by trees that seemed to bow to her presence. Ashitaka lay his brocade on the ground for her. Kiyo had given it to him as an apology, mentioning that it had belonged to her late husband. It was a sturdy haori, of fine scent and make, that had a secret landscape painted inside the interior, all winding pines and languishing scholars. He didn’t like to wear it, but it was the warmest and finest cloth he owned. Of course he would ride to San dressed in it at least the once, no matter what the villagers thought of him for it. Over the cloth he placed her, so that she was a beauty who dwarfed the scenery lining the inner seams. “I didn’t want to leave by my lonesome.” Ashitaka washed his fingernails in the cool water and sluiced handfuls over her face. San flinched. “How’s that feel?”
“Better,” she mumbled, arching into his hand. Her gaze meandered. Ashitaka followed her line of vision. Across the bank from the earth heaved ecstatic clusters of bushclover into the water. The long arches began green and ended deep pink on the surface of the bedecked beck. Through them dashed riches of gemweed glistering. Life still stirred underwater too; San wriggled her fingers into the shallows and an iridescence of pilchards and sweetfish fled from them. Eels slithered lower. “Is it because of my form?” she groaned. “Is that why so many things I want to keep close turn to ash?”
“That’s not it,” he murmured, touching her fingers, her womb. “It’s got nothing to do with you. Things happen. There isn’t always someone to blame. I realise it’s already happened, that I can’t take away any of the pain, though I wish I could, oh, how I wish I could. The only thing I can try to do is make you feel good from now on. And happy—we can be happy, can’t we? Not all the time, of course not, but sometimes is enough. The world isn’t—the world isn’t how we want it to be, but I want, and I think we can, change it a little.” He held both her hands. “Together.”
He expected her to look at him in her usual way, with her chin upturned, so she could meet his gaze below. But she was level now, steady. “Sure,” she said, squeezing his hands. Her thumb lingered and dug into the mark, as if she were testing the solidity of the skin above it. With this done, she sniffed it. “It’s still fresh. Not like before.”
Ashitaka bit his cheek to combat the sudden urge to cover himself. “Ah. Your poor nose.”
“Yes,” she rumbled. “You used to smell awful.”
Ashitaka crossed his arms over his chest. “Like what?”
“Like rot. Smoke, metal. Disgusting.” San wriggled her nose and approached.
Ashitaka hung his head low. San lifted it, untangling his arms from his chest. She twirled around him, nudged both his cheeks with hers, bumped her head against his throat. “Don’t worry,” she said against it, “I make sure you smell of me now.” She poked a hand over his lung, where she knew the bullet had been. There was no mark there, but sometimes in his dreams the windtunnel penetrated him once more and the air sliced through anew. She wriggled her finger against the place, as if she expected the skin to rip and the imagined cavity inside to receive her nail. “I remember this.”
“So do I,” said Ashitaka. “How could we forget?”
“It smelled the worst here.” She poked it hard. “Did it hurt?”
Ashitaka gulped. “Unimaginably.”
“Poor Ashitaka.” She put her ear against his heart. Her warmth bounded him. “It was strange. I could still hear your heartbeat, that night. You should have died.”
“Without you I would’ve,” he sighed.
“Without me the humans wouldn’t have turned on you.” She bit his throat; he gasped for breath and composure. Come tomorrow he would have to swathe himself in a scarf. “You just had to meddle,” she growled.
True, he used to have the luxury of ready affiliation. He had not needed to consider where home was, who family was. If asked, “Who should win?” he could direct a finger at some someones and believe he was right, even when he knew, at the hind of his mind, that the losers on the other side did not always have a means to survival. Now it was “Who should live?” and thus he was immured in the limits of his performance: how could one point to the entire world? But his mother had raised him to be true, and there was nothing more true than what the world meant to him: now, if asked, he would say San, for that was who she was. He had known that then. But to be a good global citizen meant to be on everybody’s side, or at least to be capable of it. So he said, “It was an accident.”
“Was that woman trying to cut off your arm an accident?”
And San herself had tried to bite the other one off. “She had my best interests in mind.”
“Smarten up!” she snarled, wrapping her hands around his throat. She said, softer now, “You should know better.”
Ashitaka shut his eyes. Her hands fell away. “I try.”
“And this!” She pressed her thumbnail into his jugular. “How could you leave yourself open enough for this to happen?”
“That?” Ashitaka stared into her flared eyes. “Well, I was doing something stupid. I was racing my friends to the bottom of a hill, rolling. I must have scraped something sharp along the way, but—”
San released him and effaced herself into his chest. Ashitaka smoothed her hair back and back, catching the temples of her temples, easing her slowly rearward until he could see her again. She was puffing out her cheeks and stifling a laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he teased. “Is there a kodama on my head?”
San shook her head against him. “It isn’t funny! At all! You should have been more careful.”
“I agree. It was fun, though. I don’t regret it.”
San drew back. She tried to frown. It didn’t work, but it was the fact that she could not frown that allowed her to do so. “Listen to me, Ashitaka!” she groaned, and kicked at his cheek.
Her sole was damp and smelled of loam. Ashitaka caught it. “I’m listening.” He caressed the instep. “How’re your feet? Still sore?”
San fought to keep her frown. Her eyes swept the white line of the soft slow brook. “A little.”
Ashitaka kissed her hallux before proceeding to crack the joints of all her toes. “You shouldn’t strain yourself so much.” If she did not pretend to be digitigrade like her brothers she would have it much easier. He was hesitant to tell it to her again, for he was not looking for a fight, and it was such a beautiful day. The sun was smiling on her shoulders as the shadow of a wing flitted across them within a rim of warm fresh gold. The wind loved him in many brisk embraces. It did the same to all the soft boscage around them, tickling laughter from the leaves.
“Who else would hunt and guard in my stead?”
“I’ll do it next time,” he promised, rubbing circles into her arch. “How’s that?” he asked, though he had done this enough times to know when she was enjoying it. There seemed to be cords running from her feet to her face; if he could manoeuvre the right ones then it would show in her grin, as it did now.
“Fine.” Then he spread his thumbs in long arches from heel to sole before swirling into the pads of her toes. He finished by giving them a little tickle. “Ashi-ahaha—”
“Thanks for the meal, by the way. It was really good.” Unstressing the muscles tendon by sinew, he continued up her ankle and calf. At the precarious asterism on her right thigh he halted and lowered his head to her lap through the pass between her breasts. He kissed each little meteorite.
“Have I never told you about those?”
“No. But I have always wondered about them,” he said against the skin.
“Ah, that was from my first hunt. I was gored by the tines of a big hart. I should have gone for a fawn or hind. But it’s a craven’s sport to pursue the small or weak.”
“Aye, it is; but who taught you this? Surely not a wolf. Your brothers tell me all the time about their liking for fawn.”
She hissed at him. “They are lazier than I am. They were whelps at the time, and made me the bait while they stalked, because they blamed me for giving them a hard time. They don’t remember this, or deny it ever happened. I hadn’t yet learned how to make a good knife. I learned soon, though.” She lifted her arm to reveal a thin falcate scar there, which Ashitaka had considered numberless times, silently, when running his mouth over her. “There was a boar who aspersed my mother. Maligned her honour, which she was never without. I pulled him from the herd and fought him hard, till there was blood in my eyes, but I can fight so well blind, did you know? He kicked with his hind legs—this is the imprint of his hoof. As you can see, he was no small fellow, that it was clear his body had outgrown his brain. I took one of his ears, but I wanted his tongue. At least it made a good meal for my mother.”
Ashitaka went cold. “He still lives?”
“If that woman didn’t get him.”
“Right.” Ashitaka began to work at San’s other leg the same way as he had the first, except in the opposite order; he would go from hip to toe this time. But before he could begin he encountered a silver curve curling up the back of her thigh. San caught him staring.
“Do you want me to tell you about that one?” she asked. When he nodded, slowly, afraid, she said: “The first winter I could walk, I thought I saw a fire across the lake. I didn’t know it was a lake, because water and ice didn’t look or feel the same. Now I know. Back then I ran before I could be stopped. The ice cracked underneath me and I cut my leg on the ice and slid into the water. My brothers pulled me out. I chase colours in winter. My brothers can’t see nearly as many as I can. You’re deprived of them so long that anything that isn’t white looks good to get and eat. I suppose it’s because half of us hibernate while the rest half-dream awake.” She contorted to inspect the scar. “It was all for nothing, because it was only a fox.”
The back of Ashitaka’s own thigh itched now. “You don’t seem to be such a klutz,” he chuckled. “I guess even you had to grow into grace.”
“Grace!” she howled. “What made you think I keep something so useless about me?”
Without pause for thought, Ashitaka said, “You’ve never seen yourself move. More than your opponent, always a step ahead or closer, and faster, but always for a reason. You never look like you don’t know where you’re going, or as if anything could stop you.”
She gulped air and said nothing, dark and heavy-lidded. Colours always showed so easily on her fair skin; in a blink the pink spread right to her ears. In the interim between realisation and speech Ashitaka’s heart thumped to her heavying breaths.
“Ah,” said Ashitaka in time. “Now that I think about it, why would you chase a fire?”
San’s cheeks darkened. “When I was little humans would camp in the woods. They gave me things if I went to them.”
Surprise fluttered through his stomach. “Like?”
“Clothes. Stories. Food. I didn’t hate those humans.”
Ashitaka grasped the flesh over her thighs. “There are always people like that in the world. Good people.”
San raised her voice. “I know!” She softened it again. “You… you remind me of them.”
“I’d like to meet them, someday. Do you think you could take me?”
Fast fingers closed over her dagger. “Dunno. Mother told me to stop seeing them a long time ago.”
“Oh.” Ashitaka should have known. He went down past the cooled patch of sweat at her kneepit. Before he could advance to her calf, he took the time to thumb the raised streak at her knee crosswise. It was just below the new scab. San recognised the landmark when he touched it at once. This cicatrix garnered her smile, abloom, incandescent.
“You’ve never asked me about that one!”
“I was afraid.”
“Of what?” she scoffed. “Let me tell you about how I got it.”
Ashitaka smiled. “If you will.”
San did too. She shuffled close to him to make sure he heard the story well: “It was so long ago, but I remember it. I was little then. I would have only stood to be up to here:” she prodded Ashitaka’s shoulder. Then she closed her lids, the eyes flickering with memory behind them, focussed, a beast basking in the sun, dream-seer at her divination, wind-whisperer with her lips to the breath of the sky. “I was more like a monkey than a wolf. It was winter deep inside the mountains, after a blizzard, and before another; I had snow up to my thighs, and even the sky was white. We had been four moonrises without a meal. But there it was. A big tree with strange fruits on it. I was so hungry, Ashitaka, so I went up the branches to take them. The tree didn’t hold, but I got my yield.”
“Persimmons that late?” He stroked the scar. “It couldn’t have been worth it, for this?”
“But you don’t know how they tasted! They were these small orange suns, with crumbles of ice on them. I thought they were sugar lumps or little raw diamonds. How could so many suns not melt the winter? I didn’t know I could touch or eat them until I tried. I thought they would warm me. So I ate to the point of pain; they stung my teeth, they were so cold, but they were so sweet too, so soft, yet chewy at the centre, like this:” she nipped his wrist. After this demonstration she wrung her hands before her face, as if she were trying to fill her palms with the fabled fruits. “I felt I was nourished enough for the rest of my life. It was worth bleeding for them.”
Ashitaka wiped the drip of drool off her chin with the hand that was not on her scar. Now, he realised he had done it again, started one place and peregrinated and returned, though as always it was not precisely the same. They had begun with that knee, and though he had touched it numberless times, before it had not been seasoned with story. In celebration of the discovery he kissed the knee and a trail above it until he could nudge and peck the still wet groove.
“I bet it didn’t taste as good as this will.” With his nose he nudged her clit in fine lupine tradition. Her thighs shivered under his spread hands. He smoothed them over the cuts and scratches on her stomach, some of which were new, others almost done healing.
“I don’t think that persimmon tree survived,” she said, voice tottery with rue and yen, “if I could find it I’d show it to you and make you eat from it. So you could compare the taste. They really were very good.”
“No, no.” He nuzzled again. She gasped. “I don’t need to compare this and that to know this is better.”
San whined as he opened her with his thumbs. Already she throbbed and glistened for him. “Oh. You’re pretty eager to start up again.”
“So wh—ah!” she yelped, as he knuckled her from opening to clit to wet them and his hand. San breathed deep and harsh before regaining poise enough to say, “W-what if we roll into the water? We’d catch cold…”
“Hmm. You’re right,” said Ashitaka. He hoisted all their things over his shoulder again. After tapping her knees he edged his hands around her back. “Hold my neck and put your legs around my hips. Yeah, like that. There we go.” Ashitaka licked his lips and gulped down his salivation. He scooped her off the ground, hands on rear and face in coarse heady hair scented with sunlight and leather and musk and valerian. Her breath was hot and fast in his ear.
Past green boulders and sedges he relocated them to a soft, thick mound of moss, near an explosion of bellflowers, away from the last sward. Ashitaka spun in a circle to ascertain that they met with no distractions. To the north were laminae of storied mountains, all in greens with different names, hugged by pursuant fog; to the south were, confoundingly, a row of carved bodhisattvas he could not remember being there before. Ashitaka was not so familiar with all the figures, but he could recognise among them Miroku upon a lotus, long-lobed Jizou chanting over rosaries, and Kannon bestowing mercy and blessings of life and love with her willow and water. But why would there be statues so far into the forbidden forest? Ashitaka could not help but suspect a compromise afoot. He bounced San in his arms. “Hey, were those there before?”
“Oh,” San hummed. “Old friends passing through. They’re scared of men, you see. They’ll leave us alone.”
“Y-you mean…” Ashitaka almost dropped San. Out of embarrassment and involuntarily his hands fastened around her bottom.
San cocked her head. “Aren’t you going to put me down before we do that?”
“Uh, right—um, okay, so.” He set her down before he really did get so weak-kneed he couldn’t even support himself. He fluffed her bearskins and gathered them into satisfactory support for her head. His face was thick and hot with desire and mortification. “Maybe we shouldn’t with—”
“What!” San pinched his cheeks and dragged his face till she was his aspect. “Concentrate! They’re gone, right? They even waved goodbye.”
Despite that when he whipped around the suspects were missing, Ashitaka’s heart didn’t slow down any and his fever ran as high as before. He cupped her hands, breath so much hotter than the outside air that their confluence took form now. “You sure?”
“They didn’t mean to watch. I’m sure. I walk in on them all the time, so I know.”
“Ashitaka! Stay calm,” she woofed. “Didn’t you hear it? Smell it?”
There were no noses or ears he trusted more than hers. That aside, he was still huffing, for another reason now. He rested his forehead over hers. “All right,” he wheezed. “All I can or want to smell or hear is you.”
“Good.” San pet his hair. “You don’t want that mark of yours to flare up again, do you? This’ll relax you. Come here.” She grasped an ear and jerked it towards her belly. She wiggled her hips and parted her thighs ever so slightly. “Come here.”
At once Ashitaka’s focus narrowed to the sharp peak of San, the points of the red fangs, and the blue petals ringing against her flushed cheeks. Decisive now, Ashitaka lowered his own to her thighs. The colours were stamped into the back of his eyelids and seen anew against the darkness after each blink. Once more he eased her open. She was shining and soaked still, likely more, and tender to the touch. He buried his nose between one hot place and another.
“Oh, oh my,” he thrummed. “San.” If they were being watched it no longer mattered. He glided two fingers across her to slicken them. Once all was wet enough he pinched her clit. San gave. The moss cushioned her. From the beginning he had not mistaken her abandon for submission, though it had taken her longer than he to do it too. He rested his chin on her pelvis and his thumb against her clit. “What would you like me to do now?”
“With what?” Her foot kicked and dug around until it sat squished between his legs. “Ah, I’m still recovering. Would you mind if I stalled for a while with these?” He wriggled all his digits and stuck out his tongue too. San laughed and tossed her head forward and back.
Each of his fingers was about twice as thick as her counterpart, maybe a little more, and quite a bit longer. With just the forefinger in he oft filled her about full widthwise, that her walls were already taut and flush around him; at least before he got her to come the first time, after which she could yawn to receive thicker, longer dimensions.
Now she was still yielding from before. His third finger could fit. He slid it in only to the first joint and curled it. It was a test. She was duly responsive. He plopped out and pressed in again and wriggled his fingertip against her opening, earthward, then skyward. She trembled inside and out. Behind her bitten lips she muffled whimpers. When he pushed his finger to the base she opened her mouth at last, bucking, pushing him out as swiftly as she retook him. While he continued the slow steady pumps, his tongue was busy, spread broad, drawing leaves and fronds and flowers over her clit between more traditional shapes: circles, or stripes, or her name spelled in the runes of his own language.
This was an activity that prior to commencement required the utmost circumspection. He had listened long to the women of Tataraba, who, so unlike the women he used to know, were fenceless about it. If San’s feedback were any indication, their bellowed advice was worlds and stars wiser than the whispered hints on the lips of the men of Emishi. Yet years of princely etiquette had their use; they taught him to make entrances polite and memorable and always with a gift, and he had decided long ago that along with feasts and treasures he would give in pleasure whenever he could, for he hoped they would override what seemed to be, from her scars, an old and importunate pain. Even before he had linked visitation and sex in his mind, he had so disdained the rude men who marched in without proper preparation, especially without providing the prescience wherewith the host might provide the appropriate reception. He did this with care and in time San whimpered his name.
“Hmmm?” Ashitaka replied, resting nose by clit, lips against the flesh around his digit. She juddered. Ashitaka curved his finger inside her, tensed and still.
“Can we try to find it? The—t-the tree, I mean. It’s the right season…”
He pulled his finger out and faced her. “Now?”
“Obviously not! H-hey!” She slammed a fist on the moss. “Why’d you stop?”
“Ah, forgive me?” He returned his finger and nuzzled her again. San’s head lolled back against the bellflowers.
“Depends.” She pushed his head down. “If you do a good job I’ll—ah!—c-consider it.” Her knuckles knocked into his scalp. “S-so? Tomorrow?”
“Sure! I’m sure there’s an even sweeter persimmon somewhere out there this moment just waiting to be plucked.”
Now with nothing left to say, Ashitaka’s tongue was once more in commission. His free hand drew upward swirls on her shivering stomach, until he found a breast, and rolled the nipple that capped it. “Mmm. Any—anyway, ah, nnm, Yakkul’d appreciate it too.”
Ashitaka licked as he nodded. The surprise of the new sensation had San bucking and producing high open-mouthed sounds. Ashitaka continued until his tongue was stiff. His other hand retreated from her breast to replace his tongue. He didn’t like for his mouth to be away from her very long, but the upside was that with his head free he could wallow firsthand in the beauty of her face too.
“You’re divine,” he said again for the umpteenth occasion of her loveliness. She had long since stopped wasting breath to object. She had seemed so shocked the first time he had reminded her of her own beauty; even with inimical Moro having raised her into no keen knowledge of it, even then he had recognised her effort; how else could one explain away the regalia, the diadem that could not be anything but a celebration of herself? The markings might be a warning, but also a beacon to be seen, known.
This he did well. All of him must know her: his lungs her breath, his heart her all, his skin her skin to skin to skin. They must grind their bones till they shared marrow. They had done that once, when the curse had spread through the both of them. He must learn and learn until he knew her better than himself. He lapped, thinking he was so glad to have already learned so much about this delicious, this delectable succulence.
Upon entrance to her queendom, her dark, her depths, they could share that lesson together in the sanctuary of their own little forest. He could sit there with his hands behind his back and think of nothing but climbing into the trees and still quicken himself to bursting.
But she had to be first, every time; he insisted. So he reinforced his approach. As his teeth grazed her clit she yipped his name. He inserted another finger. He could count her pulse with ease now, as he kneaded the muscle inside to ready it for himself again. She grabbed fistfuls of hair and sank her knuckles into his scalp and squirmed and kicked stripes into his back. Her pants quickened with his timing, until he nipped, and she pooled herself upon him in a soft long moan and a longer stream warm, ashimmer, bejewelled, spilling into the bed of his parched throat to the singing banks.
She continued to douse his mouth and contract around his fingers. As much as he would like to do so, he could not indulge in that for long. He kissed her clit a last time. She rippled at that. When he pulled away a sliver of spit and slick tethered them still, between teeth and clit. He caught her end of the thread with his thumb, against which she quaked, and did not waste a grain of her salt. He did this quickly, so he could palm her hard to extend her feeling. She pushed back with uncontrolled zest. He continued until she slowed, breathing contented little noises, and sieved his fingers through her black matted curls to glean each dewdrop. He sucked his slick warmed fingers and every wet lock.
“How was that?”
“I’m sorry for making you cry,” he said, sliding up to put his head by hers. His fingertip hovered over a bead of sweat, following its path from her forehead to her cheek. He caught it before it was lost to the earth.
San hummed again, eyes half open. “You didn’t make me cry. You really think you have the ability? The memory did.”
“Ah. My mistake.”
San was curled in recline and chafing her wet quivering thighs together. Ashitaka whisked his hands over her pink belly, a cradle for the shadows of his fingers and frisks of dapples, gold and green. She laughed at this. “Are you drawing?”
“If you think I am.” His fingertip swirled its way up a breast.
She reached for the knob at his throat to rub it. “Maybe.”
“So what are you drawing?”
Neither said anything. To everywhere, he thought. He kissed her above and below, with his fingertips and lips, and all her basked hair scorched the skin it contacted; but Ashitaka only wished he could do to them what the sun did.
Soon he held a breast in each hand. They were so soft already. From now on they and all her body would swell and soften yet to cushion and feed her vitals in preparation for the winter months. Absentmindedly he fondled striations; flocks of flecks; chance adornments; the impress of a rare quatrefoil; a flower, here or there, that he had sucked to the surface. They sometimes faded, sometimes stayed. He loved these unconditionally, for they gave her no pain, and reminded him of her many delectable forms through the seasons. When he returned to the breasts, he kissed her nipples and flicked his thumbs over them till they puckered firm. Her breath delivered warmth across his throat.
Now that it was her turn to touch, she followed the thick protruding veins rooted at his shoulders that ramified over the supine joints of his elbows, his wrists, the tremulous backs of his hands, against which hers seemed so very small. His blood looked green under his darker skin, but hers were flatter and bluer and purpler beneath her comparative fairness and delicacy. For this he wanted to steel himself to protect her, though he knew she needed no saviour. Rather, neither of them required the defence of the other; all those scars along their ways were testimony enough of that.
San parted with his fingers to stop at his hipbones. “We have the same scar,” she breathed. Two small hands gathered to his core.
She rested a hand against her own navel and stuck a finger into his. A strange and novel feeling whipped through him. He laughed, for lack of a better response. “It’s a scar, too, isn’t it? From being born. All wolves have one as well. They’re hard to see, but they’re there.”
“Oh, right! I never thought of it that way.” He likewise circled her bellybutton. “Ah, I love yours.”
San’s eyes flashed. The shadow of her dagger sparkled smalt under her chin. “Why?”
“Because it means you were born into the world.”
San wrinkled her nose. “You’re still glad, after everything?”
The answer would be the same for the question: Is life a scar? Was to emerge animate from the perfect darkness to the light of all suffering and desire and ugliness a trauma from which one could even heal? What horror this life of exile, destruction, and desecration was. It was not easy to love the world, this realm of war and famine and disease and disaster and loss of home and heart and hope. Even so, even so, they had survived. To be here was to baulk at despairing of his birth. Wound or no, Ashitaka thanked suffering, thanked desire, thanked ugliness all in equal measure. Where would compassion and love and beauty be without them?
Ashitaka licked the last of San from his lips. “Are you?”
It wasn’t in wolves to lie. San smiled. “I’m happy.”
Her beam, warm, pure, delved low into him. Her archaeologist’s touch too was warm, tempering. Ashitaka put his forehead against hers and nuzzled her nose with his own. He opened his mouth over her maw, kissing, searching. “Then I’m glad.”
“Silly Ashitaka,” San murmured against his breath. She found him. “Silly me.”
“It’s not silly. It’s necessary to be happy sometimes, to get better.”
Unearthed, he existed anew as a bone or fossil or drop of amber that she had burrowed out with her nose and paws. Against her goodwill he was raw. An art could be founded out of suffering vicariously for San. Any pain he received from her always meant multitudes of her own hurt lurked behind it. And she more often raged than relented, so his specialty was in receiving her distress, not her happiness. He hardly knew what to do now. Bating, he waited her more of her words. Before she spoke a rainbow of birds flittered fleet through the crowns of the trees, squawking, crackling, crowing and crooning; their songs had as many voices as their wings had feathers. Disbandments of summer choirs had done nothing to reduce the diversity of flora and fauna on this mountain.
“Mmmmn.” San’s hot soft tongue flicked over his cheek. She palmed the tip of his still tender sex. “You’re not wrong.”
“Oof!” Ashitaka jolted in her hands.
San frowned. “Still not ready yet?”
He grinned. “Almost.”
“Hmphf.” San aspired to poise but stumbled upwards instead, unfurling like a frond at dawn. At the back of her head burst the sun that lined her hair in familiar tones of fiery gold. Ashitaka attempted to stand and touch it, but was pressed to the moss with a foot, which then rose, and settled next to his ear. “What do you think happens next?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied, too occupied with looking up to think. As a great god San descended on still quaking legs to bower his face with the thick firm muscles of her thighs. She tucked her calves under them and fingered his nose. “Oh,” Ashitaka said into her interior.
Ashitaka’s hands scaled her knees to her haunches. The flesh got softer the closer to her hips it was. He cupped her rear to buttress the both of them and performed the rites. For this she consecrated him at her fane: his head her throne; her body the world. He would raise her to the canopy and beyond as she swayed and rolled and undulated above him. In intervals she curtained his eyes from the light. The forest that first night, dark as this. Hence, his surrendered directions, bearings; and instead his maunderings through the sweet, strange murk, replete, fruity, and his soujourns by echoed secrets, natural treasures, nameless haunts.
He had and still refused to map her. Maps were not the problem; they were made often with no ill intentions; human limit, the inability to refrain from delineating marges and fringes, fiefs and vassalages were the problem. To name might be to tame and what followed must be thraldom. So he called by name only what she had already titled herself. He left her to thrive and wilt as she would. He loved her all the same, each scar, pore, and hair alone and as a segment of her entire. This way she never ended or was divided. This idea of a skin mutable and unlimited dizzied him often to binding incoherence.
To be voluntarily lost was as good as being found. She was the meridian cutting through him, and rolling unbounded before him, as terrible, as high. It was a mistake to think she could be contained in cartography; she was living land, uncoverable, god of herself, god of his good dreams, guardian of sundry countries, impish mistress, clever queen, she who was found hiding in shades, interstices, sacred spaces, and between each tier of the moonbow: the bitch, all bedlam, wild one, great one, darkly his to hail, San. San. “San!” Ashitaka lauded; and then he whispered prayers into her hairs, tucked orisons inside sanctums of flesh. None could tame or own her as much as any mortal could own the earth.
He luxuriated. Her scent always suggested to him she had just stepped out from a thunderstorm. Her skin had a heady effect on him no matter what she did with it. Today she carried the river and its grasses and mosses for him to scent; she had scrubbed all her nooks sweet with the petals of jasmines and roses and orange blossoms. Under these were her own notes of her own, the best ones, spreading and seeping with the nectar garnered through each long right lick.
For San he slept always with a pillow of lavender, and before every meeting lustrated himself in the wellspring she said tasted best, oiled his hair and skin with essence of myrrh before airing himself in the sun. That morning he had broken a sprig of osmanthus to put in his hair and give to her at their meeting to sniff. It had long since slipped from her ear. He would never now go to a god such as San smelling of soot or metal, of impurities; but he had, at the beginning. For this he hoped to atone digging for her delight.
“A-Ashitaka,” she thrummed, her nails piercing his shoulders, “you’re mine, understand?”
She lifted herself off him to let him bark clear and quick: “Yes, of course. Utterly. I want to be so, so, so much.”
And to shoot up here, he the vagrant soul; if he could, he would no longer be that, or a ghost.
She rocked against his tongue again. “When the forest smells me on you, everyone in it’ll k-know...”
“Yes,” he said, for what else could he say? “Yes.” She stared down at him hard, imperious: her eyes half-closed but still alert and alight with the same gaze that had ribboned him to the marrow the first time he had seen her, yet keener now. “You’d be doing them all a favour. You smell so good,” he all but howled, and so her eyelids wavered and mouth wobbled, askew. There were few configurations of words of praise left that could be spoken from his mouth and still shock her. This was one of them. Maybe because it helped her pretend she was with a wolf instead of a man, at least in spirit, if not form.
Was that what got her to come? Her lids drooped very low now, and the eyes under them lost their focus, albeit none of their gleam. Twitching, she shoved hard against his mouth, her own open and whining. If her nails were any longer his scalp would be bleeding. Ashitaka drank as if he had just happened upon an oasis after days of treading sand without water.
Recovery was almost instant on her part. The next time she draped him she unfolded her calves, putting her weight on his neck and linking her ankles around the back of his head. He stroked her bottom before long, first for her sake, then his own, the stroking progressing to grabbing. “San,” he burbled into her, muffled. He wanted a moment for some air but could not communicate it.
“What’d you say?” San shoved and slid back and forward again. His lips went from the front to the back. They worked together. Ashitaka nudged with his nose, sucked and flicked, performed the occasional flourish of the teeth. San ground him to seed. Blood roared in his face and refilled his loins little by little. Ashitaka rollicked, giddy for her taste and scent and warmth and weight. Heels sunk into his nape. He strained to see her at all times; from beneath her he relished her at a new angle: the sweet sunlit curves of her breasts, and the span of her pinking sides tapering to the point of her face, the red stark, the brows high, the eyes enlarged, the mouth shivering. They were both so wet at their juncture that he no longer knew what was her wet or his spit or froth. San tugged at his hair when she enveloped him again like a good long tale by the hearthside, anointing him with herself. His nose nestled flush against her clit. She trembled yet against his breath.
Ashitaka smacked his lips beside her sex. He was revived to the marrow. In response San writhed and giggled, fisting his hair. “I’m fine now,” Ashitaka purred. “Feeling good?”
“Well, what—ah,” she panted through one last hard fit, “nnnm! W-what do you think?”
San pushed off his face. Ashitaka mourned the loss of her warmth as his head was reintroduced to the open wind. But not for long, with their prospects. San slinked all the way down his body, leaving a long trail of her slick down to his waist. “Not bad?”
“What happened to modesty?” she hummed. She planted her palms against his chest and rubbed against his full eager length. She swung back and forth, spreading the wet and the heat over him, to agony, to agony.
“San,” he whimpered, “I can’t—Could you please let me in?”
“Not now.” She shot him that downward stare again. Still she warmed him under her vulva. She did slow a little, mostly to change her motions, from rubbing to prodding his tender jolting tip with her clit. It was difficult to tell who shuddered more or harder.
Ashitaka clutched her wrists. San blinked hard in surprise. “Ha, then when?”
“Soon,” she guessed, brow bunched, lips bitten dark, letting herself slide close to the verge. San’s hands were no longer anchorage enough. Ashitaka clapped his hands on her thighs and clinched and cursed and hoped he hadn’t bruised her in the process. Now he was here he began to worry; he had always worried so much about fitting. Even if he could no longer count now how many visits they had paid to each other, it still and would always astound him how something so large could lodge into something ostensibly that much smaller. It had seemed impossible at first, but with her awakening she opened herself to him wide, her hallowed walls so wet and warm for him.
He must settle inside. There he wished to stay until there were ridges in both their skins, etched by time and with memory; until they were leading characters in the stories they told about their own bodies and, by proxy, about themselves. Who would listen to those stories? Mayhap their scions, in time, when San was ready; the curious; the liberal; the voyeuristic; or the ears of the burrs by the echoes of their wayward witnesses. But it didn’t matter; what mattered is that they were ever one in truth. Ashitaka feared to leave behind on her all but a wake of gooseflesh, proof of pleasure and not pain, but their notching and moulding to each other was inevitable as rainfall upon these mountains. They were already all across each other: the slash of her knife on his cheek, the fissure he had sewn closed in her leg, on the disembodiments gathered by his hands’ adventures, in certain flicks of her tongue shaped to his teeth or name. They fit each other flush, finger between finger, head to neck, sex within sex.
When they pressed so close for passage through each other they each became a site for arrival at their one destination, her place her essence and his worship, their union of disasters and raptures. Yet what was Ashitaka’s place for San? Where was he founded now? When he had severed his hair he had dispersed his soul, his body stippled into the irreconcilable pieces of who he had been: whilom prince, belligerent extraordinaire, wanted man, ghost of ghosts. How easy it was to look at San and see through to the kernel, kneel at the altar of her complete constitution, so tired, and incarnadined, yet flagless and free and one, for under the red was green greener than green because wherever she went she bore still her heartland inside. Whereas at once she was everything from canopy to understory to soil to roots and the forest entire, Ashitaka was loess, blown here by that unexpectedly merciful calamity, clinging to her solid primordial grounds, carved by all her tools into what was as much a house for himself as a palace for her regalement. Yet when she looked at him he felt as if her gaze met him at a place he didn’t know he reached; and so with her guidance he realised that he had become his own place. She at once faced that which was behind and ahead and within: all of himself refound. At that novel land he could climb into the forests of her past from which the future branched on and out and up to the canopy to the clouds to the great uplift of the stars where the once quick run yet with rivers of light and leap through tines and limbs of a landscape lusher, limitless. This is love, he thought, now I am certain: here.
Dare he call this home? This obliterating bliss? He might be so inclined, when she with a guiding hand welcomed him to where inside he was enfleshed and enfolded, consolidated in her enshrinement of him, her dense wet soils burying his new roots long and thick and deep; and deeper they would shoot with the years, echoed out in rings of knowledge, cycles of relinquishment, somersaults of manifold returns; deep enough for verdure indefatigable, grafted or seeded or regrown, immolation impossible whether with fire or otherwise.