He would shower her with them: freshwater pearls as slim as raindrops, black pearls fat as the stones of plums, white pearls nursed in the flesh of close-lipped clams on the ocean floor. She must have necklaces of mother of pearl, of abalone shell, of cowries spangled with leopard spots, of nautilus whorls. She would wear robes the color of wakame, the color of sky seen through warm shallows, the color of sunlight cast from the crest of a wave. He would give his own scales to her, not the ones shed and fallen to the riverbed like old leaves, but bright ones prised fresh from his belly, his throat, his bared neck.
Kohakunushi made these vows as the girl-child waded barefoot through him, her shoes clutched in one small hand. He made them again years later as her thighs parted to receive him, as she opened smooth and hot to welcome him in.
Her voice quavered. He licked hungrily. The pleats of her skirt crumpled against his cheek. Her body had spread and blossomed, but within she was the same, the same sleek untainted soul that had lured him as she waded that day, then tripped and nearly drowned in his waters. He'd caught her, lifted her, borne her to shore as her hands fisted in his green mane. Somewhere on the bank searched a frantic mother, calling
and he nudged the child toward those cries, speaking to her with the silent assurance of his kind. Go on, he told her. It's too early yet for you to come to me. So she toddled back to the business of learning and growing, and he kept watch over her, patiently, never hovering, giving now and then only a glance, an affirmation. He never forgot her name.
Summers passed. She liked to dawdle by his river--sometimes with her friends, more often alone. He liked to feel her presence near, but he didn't show himself to her again until a day when she shuffled down his bank, dropped her bag, and flopped on the grass with a groan. Her hand was tucked across her stomach. Even from beneath the water he could smell blood: not a wound, but a fresh signal scrawled in readiness. With an unthinking surge he shaped himself to look like one of her kind, pulled the water into a semblance of clothing around him, and rose from the river.
She turned her head, and he was there. She seemed astonished but unafraid.
"You've grown," he said, and drew near enough that he might have touched her. She fidgeted, smoothed her skirt down to cover her knees.
He opened his hand and held out to her a small pink shoe. "I believe this is yours."
She exclaimed. Her gaze fixed on him, studying his face. As a child she'd seen only his other shape. "Do I...know you?"
"We've met before. I looked different then."
The shoe sat cradled in her palms. He watched her frown deepen, then looked her in the eyes and bade, "Remember."
She did. She dropped the shoe in her surprise. Smiling, he reached to fish it from the water before it could sink or be swept away.
"I can't believe--I can't believe I forgot." She pressed both hands to her cheeks as if to cover the blush, but accepted the dripping shoe when he passed it to her. A moment later she recovered. "Thank you. For that time when I was little."
Minnows darted around his shins. A bullfrog splashed past him, fearless of human intrusion when the lord of the river stood so close. Chihiro observed all this with avid eyes. "Do you live here?" she asked.
"Have you always?"
"As long as there's been a stream."
"...How come you haven't said hello to me all this time?"
"I didn't want to startle you," he said.
"Today you did."
The water purred as it rippled. Kohakunushi breathed in, detecting again the faint scent of blood. The girl on the grass was redolent of maidenhood. He looked at her mildly.
"Today I thought you might not mind the company."
From then on she came to him almost every day. In late afternoon he looked for her, for the trim figure in navy skirt and white blouse, with a school satchel thumping at her side. She would scuffle down the slope, shuck her bag, kick off her sneakers to dip her feet in the water. She wore her hair bound at home and at school, but at the riverside she tugged it free to sway around her shoulders. When Kohakunushi sat on the bank beside her, she no longer troubled how high the skirt fell above her knees.
He told her his name so she might summon him. Chihiro had almost no inkling of the power it gave her. She fretted instead over what to call him when he looked the same age as her classmates, but wasn't.
"As you like," he said, lounging in the grass. Red dragonflies lazed above the water's edge, baiting the carp that loomed below the surface.
"But not my full name. Not unless you want my full attention."
She blinked, then laughed. "I guess that means I don't have it already?"
He sat slowly upright, narrowed his eyes to survey the river that was his charge. He could feel its minutiae, every leap and bend of it, every rapid and lull--not only feel but command it. It belonged to him. He turned to Chihiro. She was lovely and deep, but she was small, as all humans were small.
"My full attention may not be easy to bear," he said.
"Well...." She licked her bottom lip. "Maybe I want to try."
Surprise slithered through him, then pleasure. He reached to touch her face; his thumb traced the spot she had moistened. "I'd like that."
"...Haku," she said.
It was only a piece of his name, but he arched into the sound of it. He never paused to wonder how or why this girl had beguiled him, this one girl when he'd furrowed past so many in his years of running. It might have been her scent; it might have been the sough of fathoms in her name. Maybe he'd been a child himself until now. At first he feared unnerving her with his hunger, but she kept returning to him, spending longer and longer evenings by the river, staying so late that fireflies came alight. They were flickering among the grasses the first time he lowered his head to her lap.
She squinted at her watch, finger-combed the hair from her eyes. "My mom's gonna have a fit." Her fingers slipped on the buttons of her blouse.
He reached to help her with the fastening. "Should I come and speak to them?"
Chihiro looked blank.
"To your parents," he said.
"To apologize. Since I mean to steal their daughter away."
She went still. In the rising dark the white rims of her eyes flashed wide. "If the daughter is amenable," he said, not quite smiling. "Chihiro."
Crickets sang reedy vespers in the grass. The river rolled on unhurried, certain of its course and destination.
"Don't ask them," blurted Chihiro. Her hands fumbled against one another. "They'd say no."
His eyelids drooped. "I won't ask, then," he said, though from the first he'd had no intention of asking. She smiled shakily and reached for his hand.
He would give her bridal gifts: ambergris, lotuses from the hall of the naga queen in her southern sea, ivory from the spiral tusks of whale-kings whose reign had long since ended. Jewels, too, she must have: jade and moonstone, black glass formed in the molten wombs of mountains, white gold and yellow gold, diamonds of every color. All the treasures he'd ever guarded, all the offerings ever made to him by men for the sake of quenching drought or quelling flood, all were for this purpose. Nothing was too fine for her. Nothing was fine enough.
The sun still shone high when she came the next day. Kohakunushi went to meet her in surprise. "I skipped last period," she said, running to be caught in the curve of his arm. She seemed giddy at her truancy. "I never skip school."
He led her to the shade of a secret grove and showed her how pleased he was. Duties to her parents, duties to her studies must bend aside in favor of devotion to her husband, if he was to become that. She must wean herself of this world. He would help her do it.
Later she lay murmuring into his shoulder. "I don't want to go home. It's been hard...you know? The past few weeks. I haven't gotten any homework done. I'm always zoning out in class. I don't want to think about anything but you. I don't even feel like trying."
Her talk faltered into hitches of breath as he nuzzled her. He could still feel the impress of tiny crescents where her fingernails had clung at his neck. "You want to give me your full attention," he said.
Satisfaction coiled and uncoiled in the pit of his belly. He lifted her across his hips and smiled.
"You can come with me," he said.
She looked at him. "Really?"
He tried to explain: how she might be his bride and come to live with him, at his hall. Where was it? she wanted to know, and he could only say, in the river. There would be no more of this school, this homework--she grinned when he told her that--but it would be difficult for her to see her family again. It would be as if she lived someplace far away.
"Okay," she said.
Kohakunushi sat up. His fingers flexed like victorious claws. "Yes?"
"But I have to go home tonight." She seized her hair and ponytailed it in one deft twist. "I have to say goodbye."
He bit back the eagerness that had swelled in him. "Of course." After all his biding, there was no sense in seizing her by the wrist and pulling her down to the riverbed tonight. Not if it would grieve her. He could wait one more day. He would wait.
Chihiro noticed his pause, felt the crestfall in it. She clutched his hand and brought it to her lips, not for kisses, just to hold it cradled against her smile. "Thank you," she said. "It's nice of you."
He had to agree that it was. Her smile broadened.
"You're the nicest person I know." She squeezed his hand. "Tomorrow--should I bring stuff? Like, my toothbrush?"
He blinked, but didn't laugh. "In my house you'll want for nothing. If there's something you can't bear to be without, bring it."
Prickle by prickle the stars appeared, peering earthward to oversee a lone girl as she tottered home one last time, half-breathless, still slick between her legs. When Kohakunushi returned to his lair that night, he told his vassals to prepare for the arrival of their lady.
The frogs had gathered, the slugs and snails, turtles and newts and all scaled things. In the entry hall they bowed low as their lord led his new bride across the threshold. He had clothed her as he clothed himself, in water, but for her it became a kimono with sleeves that drooped like egrets' wings. Her hair hung loose and damp around her shoulders.
Kohakunushi called for sake, and a frog hopped to obey. Chihiro protested.
"Well, maybe a little--"
"A little," he said. "We should have our wedding toast."
What her mother and father found was a school uniform lying rumpled on the banks. There were no rips in the cloth, no bloodstains, no signs of struggle in the surrounding grass. Their daughter had been a swimmer: neither of them could believe she had drowned here, in the river that had returned her so tenderly once before. They searched for a long time past nightfall, clutching at one another, calling her name.