Ashitaka laboured all afternoon to hew one San-sized hatch into the roof of his new abode. Beginning was easy, for he was very sure his hands remembered the volume of her breasts and width of her hips just so. The lumbering that followed was rough, quick work. Sanding was not, and it drew new blisters even under his old calluses. Still he persisted until the wood was as smooth as water is wet. Afterwards, he sat back. He put his right hand to the sky to inspect the wounds on it. With his arm still raised he fleetly measured infinity. Soon Ashitaka’s head hurt a little imagining how many Sans long the sky might be, so then he put his hand to kneading a stitch in his stomach. One turtledove and two bulbuls flew past before he was tasked with something else to do.
“Whatcha doing up there?” said Sae, holding her basket of plums. “Why don’t you get down here. All the better we can see ya!”
“Oh, good afternoon, Sae, Hina, Atsuko, Toki. I’ll be there right away!” Ashitaka stepped down the staircase of boxes pressed to the side of the house. He leapt at the soonest safe opportunity.
“My, he must be happy to see us,” giggled Hina, who held in one hand a bundle of candles and in the other a broom.
“I am!” Ashitaka dusted his hair and stood straight. “What can I do for you all?”
Atsuko almost dropped the blankets in her arms as she tottered forward. “Let us spend a little bit of time at your new place, eh?”
“Well, I hear he’s a married man, and his wife’s not the sharing sort. She won’t appreciate your loitering after lights-out,” Toki said, which spread Ashitaka’s blush a little. “We came for your housewarming, of course.”
“I’m afraid I’d bore you horribly with the state I’m in,” he said. “How about tomorrow afternoon? Would that be all right?”
All the women’s lips puckered into identical moues. “No fun!” said Sae.
“I’ve almost finished, but—”
“But nothing!” interrupted Hina. “We’ll help if you need us to.”
“You better give up now, Ashitaka,” Toki warned. “Eboshi’ll come.”
He sighed. “All right, all right.”
Ashitaka opened the doors through which all the women entered. The house was a single room with a high window to the west, a hearth at the centre, and a wideish bed in the corner. At first there was little else inside other than his clothes and tools, but as more guests came they brought with them little potted trees and painted china and all he needed to live as comfortably as he had in his old home.
Long into the night Eboshi strode in to usher her people out. She flushed Ashitaka’s once modest room with her dreadful immaculateness: her coiffed hair raised her taller than everyone there and her lips were painted the loudest colour in town. “It’s nice,” she said. She took another measured, floating step and placed a long magnum of sake by the hearth. “Good work.”
“I couldn’t have done it without everyone here.” He turned from her and addressed his words to all present, bowing. “Thank you. For having me and for all you’ve done.”
“You’ve done your share for us, too. Be sure to ask if you need help settling in,” said Eboshi. She proceeded to detail tomorrow’s plan for this scaffold and that buttress. When she was done she had four cups to drink, stretched straight her tall white figure, and ushered her people out lest they be struck wet and sick in the approaching cloudburst.
Ashitaka’s guests were a little late to get home. He watched them from a distance, as was his custom, to verify their safe arrivals. He could still see Toki skipping and screaming into Kohroku’s arms. To the left of her was Eboshi, wearing Ashitaka’s mino, walking stately as in a procession. She passed her office and the fenced cedar sapling that marked the transition of town into wood. Perhaps she would be out for another one of her walks down to the lake. Ashitaka was now too far away to be sure.
During the nights he waited for her he could never quite relax into sleep. Sore-shouldered and stiff-loined, he licked his lips and pretended his fingers belonged to someone else. He flipped himself over a few times in bed because of the heat. He always had the worst luck remembering how one ushered oneself into sleep the night before. He had to stop trying.
Thoughts branched twig by sprig. In time his hard-earned half-sleep folded him into the dark leafy loveliness thriving behind his eyelids. His skin felt very thin when he woke; with the rain came the brief and rare crispness of cool gliding air. Ashitaka wished to bare his whole slick back to it, but he daren’t leave his hut. He sat, unmoving, his eye to the brightest gap between the clouds. He watched for when the sky would show the gibbous moon she had drawn in the earth with her forefinger seven suns ago. He remembered her promise spoken in murmurs. She was true to her word.
Moonlight and rain silvered San as she climbed in through her skylight. Soon her profile became a starlit face whose fierce, fine features were sultry from her journey through heatwaves and shroom-thorps.
“Welcome,” Ashitaka said, reaching out for her with outspread arms. San’s response was a muted hum.
Ashitaka helped her in through the slippery, dew-flecked, rain-flushed hut and directed her earthward. Then he lowered his gaze to greet her with his eyes. It was when he raised her clenched hands to his chest that he noticed the blood.
"Show me.” He frowned as he uncurled her fingers one by one and found she had clenched her fists so hard her nails had slipped through her skin. “Oh, this won’t do,” he said, shaking his head, and reached for the mint salve he’d newly mixed.
San made a deep growly sound in her throat. "I don't like it here." She buried her nose in his shoulder. "It stinks."
Ashitaka cradled her head with his hands. "You didn't have to come."
"I wanted to come.” San began to nuzzle him. "Don't think I did it for any sake of yours. I wanted to watch the people working.”
"Ah, of course." Ashitaka lowered his chin to hide his smile. He spread a slab of green balm over each of the ten red crescents. "Does that feel better?"
San nodded and sniffed the heels of her palms. "Smells nice.” She fell back on Ashitaka's stone of a mattress. "Do you sleep on this? It's too soft."
"Haha, you think so?” Ashitaka slumped next to her. “I guess it’s something you would need to get used to.”
“I won’t get used to anything because I won’t ever live here,” she barked, “and I don’t understand why anyone would want to.”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Ashitaka returned, in his gentlest voice. “Even I haven’t gotten accustomed to the place. Not yet.”
“I’m… I’m not angry.” San shook her head. A rush of hair broomed Ashitaka from his cheek to his chin. “I’m not angry.”
Another measured twirl of her neck brought her head closer to his, so that her lips pressed against the rim of his mouth and her presence submerged him in her particular scent of wood and rain and raw damp wilderness. Ashitaka answered with his hands her initiative by kneading the smooth swerve in her back. And they continued to nudge and knot until the cock crowed the town awake.
Ashitaka brought out for San the hooded cloak he had dried by the chicken coop, which pleased her as much as it teased her stomach to howling. The two walked along the rooftops under the pretence of applying thatching to them. San had never spoken to him of any visits to the realms of humans, but he could see that it was not the first time she had observed them without violent intent. Her incorrigible curiosity was human beyond her power to argue.
The cramped residential quarters pressed close to the high palisades that enclosed the old obliterated forge stagnating at the heart of town. For a long time San watched, quiet, wide-eyed, the people who ambled and paced along and about the place.
“Is something wrong?” Ashitaka asked her, noticing after a while that she would not let go of his hand.
“Your hand seems very eager today to keep to me,” he laughed, “but I don’t mind.”
“Because you’re in the pack, now,” she explained, “though I hadn’t noticed I was doing it. It’s easier, I suppose, holding the hand of human than it is to hold the shoulders of a wolf.” She looked down at their interlaced fingers. “Shall I let go?”
“No, no.” Ashitaka returned a squeeze and pretended to spread some straw by his feet. “This is nice.”
San nodded and resumed her looking. Over roaming, burgeoning eyes her lashes wavered. She barely blinked. A fisherman hooked her attention when he ambled by with a pail of water in one hand and a thrashing forearm-long catfish in the other. The earth did not shake.
When they had walked a circle around the roofs San sat down and asked, “What will that woman do now?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t think it’ll be the same as before, not for a while. Do you know how long Tataraba’s been here?”
“It feels like always. I know it’s not true, though. I can’t remember.”
“So it’ll be a long time until it’ll be restored.”
“I’ll kill her if she so much salts a leech near the lake to do it.”
“I know,” Ashitaka sighed.
“Why’s she so stubborn? She ought to build her rotten town elsewhere. There won’t be anything in the mountain of any use to her in years.”
“You’re right. I don’t know why she stays either.” San crossed her arms under her breasts. At first Ashitaka thought it was in anger, but a low rumble from within indicated otherwise. “Ah! You’re hungry?” San nodded sullenly. “Then please wait a moment.” Ashitaka’s shoulders were too broad for the hatch. He went down the side to bring up a bowl of sweetened congee and fried salted cod. He spoke gently. “It might make you feel better to understand her reasons.” But he did not want to tell San that she and Eboshi had their similarities; he knew how it would anger her. “She’s had a hard life. It’s been her dream since forever to build a safe place for all the disadvantaged people in the world. More than that. She wants to recreate paradise on earth.”
San stopped listening as soon as she finished her food. “How does that make her any less an enemy of mine?”
Ashitaka took the bowl from her hands before she could shatter it. “You’re right.”
San’s open hands twitched. “Sometimes I want to kill her so much it hurts. Like I would die if she didn’t. I could do it so easily. She’s lost her good arm.” Ashitaka put his hand on her shoulder. “But it’s a waste of energy now. I wish I had killed her that time you stopped me. No. I wish I could have killed her the night before I met you.”
“Sometimes I wish I could kill every human there was.”
“That’s not true...”
San slammed a fist on either side of Ashitaka’s knees. Her face was too close to see. “You’re wrong!”
“Everyone in this town would be dead already, if what you say were true. Besides, it’s been a long time since you tried to kill me…”
San shrieked and barrelled away. She leapt off the roof, and was both imperceptible and untraceable after the one instant it took her to do it. Ashitaka could weep. He swallowed a stone of air and ran after her to apologise.
He looked in the alleys and the storehouses and the kitchens and the crawlspaces and the bushes. She was not above the eaves nor was she hiding in a barrel. When he had been condemned to death he could isolate the pulse of her far footfalls from merely standing upon the earth, and the wind pushed forth by her body had been like drums inside his ears heralding her approach. His stomach swirled. She must have escaped to the mountains, where he might never find her again. This was not his first time angering her. If she came back to him, he was afraid it would not be the last.
By the time Ashitaka had scoured the town he could not think of anything to do other than return beaten to his hut to fetch his laundry. The sun was high. Sweat was dripping off his nose. It might be good to go to the lake for a swim and a bath. In the water no one could see if he wept and ask what was wrong. So he went, longing for San and the cruel snows of winter.
Halfway down the slope to the lake, he heard the uproar not very far behind him. He dropped his things and sprinted to the town square, where he was beset by onlookers. He clambered to the roofs. Exactly how many times had this happened before? In the centre of the phalanx crouched San, with her skinning knife pointed at Eboshi, who stood in her faultless, albiet reversed, battle stance. Ashitaka knew the fight would not be fair without her right arm to lead it.
So he jumped down, pushed through the crowd, raced to San and held her arm fast, huffing. “Don’t.”
“I’m not going to kill her,” San said. “This is the reason I came. Release me!” San struck Ashitaka’s collarbone with the butt of her knife. Unlike the last time the blow was debilitating. Still, she was withholding her full strength from him. Ashitaka fell on his side. He rubbed the dirt out of his eyes, only to see that she had her back to him. “Tell me why you did it!”
“Hmmm?” said Eboshi, blocking a stab with alarming finesse.
San resorted to growls and screams. Ashitaka winced. “Why did you kill Shishigami-sama?”
Eboshi hooted. “Why do you hunt?”
“That’s different.” San slashed at the air. “We take what we need.”
Eboshi lifted her chin very high. “And I took what I needed.”
“No!” San lashed out. “You took what you wanted.”
“You and I aren’t so different. Regrettably, we were placed on opposing sides, which is what I suppose brings you to me now.” Eboshi waved her one hand in Ashitaka’s general direction. “Haven’t you also seized what you want? Not that I blame you; that fellow is the favourite of all the women here.”
Any village girl would have succumbed to shame and stopped there. San, being beyond it, did not.
“Ashitaka’s different, because he wants me too. You violated our forest without asking or listening, without a thought for anything that lived in it!”
“What a delightful wife,” Eboshi guffawed, and turned to face Ashitaka. “You must be happy to have her.”
San spat before Ashitaka could respond: “I should kill you.”
The crowd jeered. A flash of silver metal emerged from the tumult of many-coloured flesh. Ashitaka’s eyes flared open. “San!”
San did not look at him. “Shut—”
But there was no time. “Look out,” Ashitaka yelled. The threw her and himself over her back. The sword cut cleanly into his shoulder. Adrenaline rushed up to minimise the pain. Ashitaka pushed the blade by the blunt side so that it would not go farther. This too used to be easier. “Blast!”
“Ashitaka-sama! You weren’t supposed to… I—I’m sorry!” screamed the man, who Ashitaka could not identify before he evanesced into the anonymity of the crowd.
Already pale Eboshi blanched whiter than white. Her eyes narrowed to knives. “Cease at once!” she commanded the rally. “None of you will harm her. I owe her life to the tribe.” She sheathed her blade and strode up to San, but her eyes were sweeping across the faces of the mob. “There’s much work to be done, so attend to it and begone!”
The crowd groaned. Dozens of voices hurled threats and insults in unison before dispersing. All three of them deflected the disparagements without so much as an extra blink. San rushed to Ashitaka, tearing fabric from his body to bare his shoulder. She stuffed the rags into his mouth. The wet cloth filled it with iron. “You fool!” she screamed. “I can handle myself.” She stanched his open wound closed with some secret styptic and butted him. He chomped on the fabric as the collision and the powder did their work. “Good-for-nothing!”
Ashitaka cursed. She had clearly prepared to bleed the night before, what with the panoply she had carried with her. His vision blurred from the impact of her forehead, but he could still see a red blur incoming. “And for heaven’s sake, Gonza,” it said, “fetch the girl some food and give her a place to rest.”
There was a prolonged sigh from the one who must be Eboshi. “Just do it.”
A grunt and heavy footsteps sounded in increasing distance. Small warm hands held Ashitaka’s shoulders, which he judged by grip and size to be San’s. As Eboshi approached, those hands receded until they no longer touched him. Though no sounds accompanied her feet in her scramble to the rear, the tinkling of her jewellery revealed her motions to all parties present. Ashitaka caught a wrist before she could run.
“San,” he choked, “it’s safe now.”
She shook her head, heaved back, and squeezed out a whimper. “I’m going to kill her.”
San returned to focus. The arm he held quivered like a drawn bow in the hot deepening daylight.
“It’s over,” he murmured. He dragged her close into his good side till she was furled inside his embrace. She shivered so violently in his arms. He touched her cheek and she shook a little less. “It’s over.”
San sat rapping her soles on the ground, hunched over, with the dappled marks of her pride slung over her shoulders, squaring herself to look as large as possible. It was self-induced torture in this heat. When they were alone he would strip the furs and pile them by their feet, swipe the sweat off her brow, put his lips to her ear and tell the secret: everybody tended to feel a little smaller next to Eboshi.
“You’re free to stay here as long as you want,” said scarlet-lipped Eboshi to San, as she poured her a princely cup of tea, “I’m sure Ashitaka would appreciate it.” She offered the drink serenely.
San hissed. Her hand lurched to smash the little piece of precious china, but Ashitaka intercepted the exchange.
“You’ll get burned,” was his excuse.
Eboshi’s eyes cut like volcanic glass. “We call it mugicha,” she said to Ashitaka, “It’s supposed to be served cold. I’ve done so to the best of my ability.”
Meanwhile, Ashitaka received none of San’s attention. “For all I know you mean to poison me!” snarled she, darting one of Eboshi’s hairpins at her. Eboshi dodged it, but San still managed to draw a thin line of blood at her temple. Ashitaka clutched San’s knife tighter and stood. Eboshi bade him to sit back down. He too didn’t think anybody would get hurt beyond a scratch this time, but he insisted on staying as long as the possibility remained.
If only they could all live as the landscape on the cup Ashitaka had just saved. There land and water and house huddled next to one another and homed both beast and human in harmony. The figures all seemed perfectly content to coexist as the same blue smalt, intersecting lines on the larger canvas of the porcelain. Together they could be something beautiful.
“San,” Ashitaka murmured. He petted her shoulder.
She shoved his hand off. “What?!”
Ashitaka sipped a bit of the tea himself. Eboshi followed suit. “It’s really sweet. Good,” he promised, slowly extending his hand to her, “Why don’t you have some? It’ll cool you down.” San looked him up and down, then rested her eyes on his eyes for a long, long time. Neither he nor Eboshi said a word in the interval before she made her decision.
They watched her squint and snatch the cup from Ashitaka, sploshing fluid all over the floor. With a creased brow and pursed lips she sniffed the remaining liquid. Then her tongue, experimental, flickered out to taste it. She glared at the cup for a duration of three excruciatingly slow blinks prior to downing the rest of the tea in one fell swoop, after which her eyes returned to inspecting the utensil. She ran the china in her hands, checked its underside, viewed it from every angle.
She yelped as she was gawking into the empty bottom. “Ashitaka!”
“This looks just like Shishigami-sama’s forest used to! Except the kodama are missing…”
Ashitaka shuffled close. “You’re right.” His eyes followed her fingers as they outlined the faces of the crags, the shrugs of the willows, and the postures of the pines that she found so familiar in this imagined scenery.
“You may keep it if you wish,” said Eboshi at last, and it was as much of a semblance of an apology one might ever wring from a woman such as herself. Once before he had asked about the cup, for she always seemed to be drinking from it, and she had told him that it had been part of a set given to her by an old friend from China.
The gift was not quite interpreted as such. San snapped out of her reverie and scowled at the other woman. “More!” she barked, shoving the cup into her face.
Eboshi obliged. She also brought out a luxurious bowl of white rice topped with sizzling pheasant and salt and pricklyash and diced century eggs. It must have been Eboshi’s intended dinner. Ashitaka almost laughed. The villagers would have a riot if they knew into whose mouth it was going. San deflected the proffered chopsticks and wolfed all the food down with her fingers. Ashitaka held her new cup for her.
“I’ve yet to thank you firsthand, Mononoke-hime—ah, no, San, I think?” Her one hand fell to her lap. She smiled with the eyes she reserved only for the women of Tataraba. “So thank you. Your brothers, too. Would you be so kind to pass the message?”
“I don’t want your gratitude,” grunted San. Eboshi proceeded to set sweetheart cakes on her plate. “Nor do they. What use is it to us now?”
Eboshi laughed shrilly. “And I don’t want your forgiveness. It’s as unnecessary to me as my appreciation is to you.”
San ate on. Ashitaka remained silent; this was not his fight anymore. It never was. Not unless there was violence, which he hoped with all his heart there wouldn’t be. His eyes bored into the dagger slung around San’s neck.
“You’re pretty bigheaded to think I’d forgive you in the first place.”
“Well, I never expected it of you,” Eboshi said low. San downed a cake in one gulp. Large flakes stuck to her lips. “You came for answers to your questions, didn’t you? Or to try to kill me again?”
Ashitaka moved to intervene, but before he could San said sharp and clear, “I won’t kill you. I want to kill you. But for my brothers’ sakes I won’t. You say they let you live?”
Eboshi retrieved her bowl, eyes as impenetrable as San’s. “Yes.”
“What a waste!” San scattered rice grains with her scoff.
“I know you’re upset that I live. I can understand that,” chuckled Eboshi. “Girl, you think you’re the first to wish me dead?”
“I’m not a girl!” San slammed her bowl on the nearest table and stomped to Eboshi. She was too tall to be looked at the way Ashitaka could be when San was mad, with her chin up and eyes down, so she settled with reaching up, scrunching her kimono at an attempt to drag her to her level. Ashitaka shot up and jerked forward, hands shaky before him.
“Ah, my mistake: woman. Surely you must be one by now,” unbudging Eboshi sneered, and glanced sidelong at Ashitaka. He scorched to the eighth shade of hell’s red.
San didn’t catch on. “A wolf!” she bayed. She snarled in Eboshi’s face.
Eboshi laughed in hers. “And a fine beast you are.”
“At least we beasts have honour and honesty. You say you’re grateful? Then you still owe me an answer!”
“Why.” San shook Eboshi. Tears glossed her great sad eyes. “Why, why did you do it?” she choked.
Ashitaka, who had been standing tensed by the both of them, reached for San’s shoulder, but she swatted his hand away. He stayed as he was.
“It’s not easy to explain to someone like you,” answered Eboshi.
The kimono almost ripped against San’s stranglehold. “I’m a wolf, not a fool.”
“All right, then tell me who’s on the bottom of the food chain in your precious little forest. The bottom-feeders, if you will.”
“You waste words,” San spat. “How should I know?”
“Right. You’re a big bad wolf, top of the chain, so you never have to consider it.” Eboshi raised her voice. “But know this: there needs to be a safe place for the lives considered to be at the very lowest, the ones who cannot walk this world safe if alone. Innocent women who have been used for filth, the friendless diseased, the weak and the wronged and the disenfranchised. The people who aren’t treated as people. You suffer, so you say, but so do they. There is no solution other than power. I will steal it if I must. You wouldn’t understand. How could a wolf who’s never known more than one human understand?”
“Lies,” screamed San. She closed one hand around her dagger. Ashitaka gripped her wrist until she let go. Her hand returned to Eboshi's kimono. “Don’t talk like what happened was a good thing. You did it for greed! For pride! You did it for yourself.”
The spiel indeed sounded to Ashitaka to be as much or more for Eboshi herself than any other ears. And it was not as if San would believe Eboshi’s accounts any more than Ashitaka’s. But Eboshi spanned her frugal room with her single hand. “Hardly.”
San looked to Ashitaka in desperation, back to Eboshi, the smothering ceiling, and Eboshi again. “And, and—and doing one good thing doesn’t mean you’re excused for doing another million bad things—” she faltered. She loosened Eboshi’s kimono. This involuntary tenderness must be what she had feared most on her visit here.
“I’m well aware of that,” said Eboshi, stretching her swan neck straight, “but it’s necessary. Punish and curse me as you will. You understand sacrifice as well as I do, at least.”
This time Ashitaka stepped in close, squeezing himself between the women, chest to San’s breasts and back to the knot of Eboshi’s hakama. In his precipitous judgment in stretching out a barrier with his arms he almost undid the stitching in it. He cursed before he spoke: “No! I think we three can agree that sacrificing yourself isn’t—it isn’t—”
“Ashitaka,” San said sadly. “It’s okay. I won’t die for nothing anymore.” She rolled her hands into fists, so human, so small. She raised her voice again. “But if she wants to, that’s fine with me.” It was Ashitaka’s yukata she clutched this time, keeping him upright through his pain. “I want to go home,” she groaned. “Talking to humans is depressing.”
“All right,” he said, turning to Eboshi. “Will you grant us leave?”
“Do as you will. Know that I’ll do my utmost to better the town from what it was,” Eboshi said. She paced past them to retrieve a silver mirror, very plain for a woman of her standing. She sat with her back to them, thumbing the blood off her skin and concealing it with hunks of rice powder. Her reflection scowled at herself. “San. May you please inform me of your visits beforehand, or do so through Ashitaka, so that I can make the necessary preparations next time?”
San grunted assent or indifference. She sniffed a phial of Eboshi’s perfume and pinched her nose. “Better for you or us?”
Eboshi put her mirror down. “Us, with any luck.”
San nicked her sake and her sunflower seeds too. “How would I know you’d be true to your word?”
“I always am.” Eboshi waved a hand in Ashitaka’s direction. “Ask your man.”
“It’s true,” Ashitaka said. “And if she falters, I’ll know.”
“Satisfied?” asked Eboshi.
San only growled, face twisted into a glower, bundling in her skirts the rest of her spoils. Ashitaka lead her out by her vibrating, hackle-clad shoulders.
“Eboshi. Please don’t be brash,” Ashitaka said, with the kindest intention and tone he could manage. He opened the door for San and led her out. They bumped right into Toki, whose face had been pressed true against the door. She now stumbled back in slow shock.
“A-Ashitaka-sama! And, uh—” she stuttered, agape, her eyes fixed on San.
The wolf barked and bared all her teeth.
Together they spent the night entwined like the roots of an old tree in his new house, her nose buried deep in the furs she had hauled over from her own lair. Moonfall and starlight spilled blue over her black hair and glazed her whiter skin, so translucent at this hour, to the same frangible cobalt surface of her new cup. The air, hot on their skin and in their bones, soaked them through, but they did not care and sweat over each other. Shivering, even in that heat, Ashitaka stroked San’s arm to test it. Was this real? Would she shatter? What a relief to find that that arm was not like china at all, but so elastic and so warm under his like fingers.
“San,” Ashitaka said, at high moon, “you always wonder why Eboshi and I don’t leave. But you don’t, either.”
She tilted her head. A shaft of moonlight aligned with her eyes and paled them. “What do you mean?”
“Well, why do you stay? There’re older forests standing, still. More deer, there, and less humans.”
She hummed. “Same reason as you. The forest, I'll never leave it. I'm rooted to it. Just like the trees. And all my friends and family are here.”
“Ah, I see,” Ashitaka murmured, “I’m sorry it turned out like this.”
San’s wrung her trembling hands. “I wanted to kill her so much. It was really hard not to.”
Ashitaka gulped. “Scary thing is, I know how you feel,” he murmured to her salty forehead.
“What do you mean?”
He quavered, “I—I wanted to kill her once too.”
“I don’t believe you,” San chortled, “’cause you’re weak. You never want to hurt anyone at all.”
With the big round bamboo fan Ashitaka attempted to summon up a breeze for her. “Deep down I think I really did. I was selfish. I didn’t want to die, you see. Maybe killing her would have lifted the curse off me. But I was scared.”
San growled. “You should have done it! If you had, then—”
Ashitaka shook his head. “I tried to control it. Otherwise I might have slain everyone here, too. You included.”
San’s whole face contracted. “No! That’s not the Ashitaka I know.”
“Exactly.” He pushed her sweat-soaked hair back from her brow. “I would’ve totally lost it.” He thumbed her cheek. “I don’t want you to do the same.”
Summer indolence swaddled San so that what might’ve been an indignant scream tapered into a small frown. “Huh?”
Ashitaka pressed a hand to his stitched shoulder. There was only a dull ache in it now, if he was careful not to apply too much pressure to it. “You didn’t sense the blade as you would’ve normally. Please don’t be blinded by hatred.”
San tossed her head. “I can take care of myself! I’m—I’m not like you.”
“I know.” Ashitaka smiled and cupped that blue shivering shoulder of hers. “I feared that you forgot.”
“Well, I didn’t,” she huffed, burying her nose now in the dressing. “I owe you, though, for this.”
“Oh, no,” he insisted. “Just be a little gentler with your own life for me. Seeing you safe and happy is repayment enough.”
San remained silent. Cicadas whirred in the great summer outdoors. Ashitaka wondered what it was about which they sang. San might know. He asked her as nascent rain rumbled farther out. She considered the question as other sounds stalled for her. Within the walls moths bated, their wingbeats easily mistaken for flung laundry. Mosquitoes buzzed over the plate of fowl blood Ashitaka had kept in the corner of the room to draw them away.
San huffed. “It’s been a while since I’ve sung cicada,” she mumbled, “but I’ll try. Let’s see, most of them are blandishing the females. ‘Come to me my sweet willow leaf, oh sap of my veins, great green-wing, all my rich seed is yours. Typical. There are stranger songs, though. One of them’s sulking: ‘I am utterly denuded. Where is my shell? Why must I melt without it?’ Someone cries, ‘Mother, I am afraid to go into that dark place again. I shall miss the sun all too much. I shall miss more the moon.’” Muscles played delicately over San’s face. She wriggled inside Ashitaka, earthworm in the ochre of his heart. “And the owls say, ‘Goodnight, my friends. The maggot of the dawn will be mine.’ The bats have thrown a midnight feast in the meantime. ‘No, you may not eat this fig. You still owe me five caterpillars. Ah, but if you trade me a sweet tale…’ The mosquitoes sing lullabies to the new lives inside them. I’d need to tell you all about their mores for you to understand the lyrics. But they’re too complicated to explain in one summer’s night. Oh, and the moths say nothing at all. They never do.”
“San! How could you translate all that? You’re incredible,” Ashitaka gasped, tracing the treasures of her ears on the fine and rare occasion of demystification made magical. Her long, fine eyelashes swooped up at him, perplexed.
“No? Insects and most winged-things are easy to understand. They’re so simple-minded. Pure. Have you ever tried to talk to a tree? Loud and inscrutable. And I think the foxes are almost too clever for me. But the real challenge is the humans,” hissed San. She stretched her limbs like a dog at the day’s end and cracked her knuckles. “Still. It feels good to hear everyone from home after listening to that woman’s dross.”
“Aw, do you think you could ever be friends?” Ashitaka laughed, swirling a hand over a cheek.
“Allies, maybe,” she hissed, biting the knob at his throat. “If she’s good and we must.”
“I-I think she’s doing her best,” Ashitaka stammered. He would count his bruises and lovebites and decide how or whether to hide them later. For now he was content to receive them on end.
“Still. I hope it never comes to that,” she groaned, hands tightening around his fingers. “But she’ll give me food if I come again. Yes?”
“Yes.” Ashitaka raised his eyebrows. “You’ll be back?”
“Not unless I have to be. But I look forward to the food.” Her fingers pushed his brows back down. “I still can’t bear the smell.” Ashitaka chuckled and poked the tip of her nose. She crinkled it. “I didn’t know human homes smelled different, though. This room—right, that’s what’s it’s called?—smells completely different from hers now.”
“Yep, a room,” he chirped. “And I know what you mean. When you go to someone else’s house for the first time, it smells of—something hard to describe—of the people who live there. Say, what does this one smell like now?”
“Different from before. Bit of blood, clay, straw.” She sniffed the air again, chin up, black eyes piercing the ceiling. “Mint? Lavender. Other flowers, dried up. The food we ate. My furs, skins. You and me. It’s not bad.”
Then Ashitaka rolled in San's scents, until he could be sure that he could smell her on himself and she him on herself long after her departure. And so his room too would be redolent of her for days on end now. There’d be gossip, too, to outlast her spoors manifold. Ashitaka didn’t mind. They could say what they liked; there were still those who thought he was a spy, others an envoy from the emperor. Whatever the interpretation, he was always a foreigner from a far place, and almost as often San played the wicked temptress. No matter; the kodama and San’s brothers likely had worse things to say about him, and San was not girl enough to worry much about her reputation. Besides, they had their supporters, too.
A prince ought to concern himself more with face and propriety, perhaps. Fortunately, Ashitaka wasn’t one anymore. Tittle-tattle was the least of his worries. They were as pebbles to the monoliths of true calamities, which Ashitaka could often not help but catalogue in litanies before and in bed. Yet falling asleep with San here was easy. She corralled all his human anxieties to the confines of her sensibilities. From the same pen she unfettered and unloosened his shadows, his wildernesses: the galloping dreams, the sleepward blooms, fairies, fabulae. She lay beside him with her red fangs and bladelike jaw and closed her lips on his heavy eyelids.
All the wet night long she guarded him from his nightmares.
In the morning, when the townsfolk counted their stock, they found they were two oxen and ten chickens short. The women's rooms had been raided; kimonos were strewn on the floor and perfume had been spilled; a dozen tubes of rogue went missing. Eboshi looked upon the bedlam and quirked her mouth.
Ashitaka could not withhold his guffawing, “‘I’ll be collecting this town’s offering to the gods. They’re overdue,’ she said!”