San tried to cleanse from her mind her memories of the bald mountain, but they kept looping back to her with the recrudescence of a flock of geese in perfect formation. To anchor her thoughts at bay, she gazed at clouds wandering wayward towards some distant realm only the spirits knew. Yet, with time, that too failed to distract her, so she conjured up an image of Ashitaka and imagined trailing her fingers along his neck, his arms, his hands.
Night fell, death-cold. A throne of stars crowned a waning crescent moon whose ashy glow was sleepy and slight like San's spirit and skin. Her bones soured rancorous under its frail, pallid light. There were no more leaves in her forest for the wind to play; the stark silence seethed, for the green awning was gone, and the mountain new and naked under the stars.
Three gods had died that day.
San’s wolf-mother, first. Moro had been beautiful in her prime, strong in her step. Oh, her pelt; it had glimmered lush and long under starshine, sunbeams, twilight. Her whiskers would surface from running water shinier than silver. She'd been twin-tailed and more than thrice the age of any human. And her legs had been so agile when she'd leap from slope to slope, glorious and fine in flight.
And poor Okkotonushi. Moro had known him for a long time, he who had been the noblest of the boars. Oh, he had died a death undeserving. How terrible the moments before it must have been for him! San remembered scorching tendrils and her name on Ashitaka's lips, and had to bury her face deeper in the thick of her brothers' furs.
Then Shishigami-sama had made the earth rot under him before he greened his own grave. Nothing in the world could undo that loss. The sun would rise again and the woods would ripen back and San would grow old but the lord of the forest, oh, he was lost for all time.
When San at last slept she dreamt she walked across a meadow of white flowers towards a blue stream of stars. Moro must have become the niveous, howling grass on which she tread. Beside her a river flowed out as far as she could see, glittering golden, separate from the sovereignty of the sun, for Shishigami-sama was here; he had been tipped into the current, holding with his branched horns the torrent of stars the water met at the end of the world.
And from somewhere faraway, over the water, San heard Ashitaka's voice ringing through the dark, clear and true.
Live, he said.
The clouds were astir with his name before all ebbed away.
Live, he said again, but softer now.
San searched for him in the space above her, beyond the forest and the fields.
She scraped the sky with her forefinger.
Ashitaka was the horizon.
Less than six suns after the forest had been lost and then reborn, Yakkul trotted out of a slight skyline. Out of the misty white-blue dawn Ashitaka came to remind San of his promise with his bow on his straight-backed form and his eyes full of visions bright and hopeful.
"Good morning!" Ashitaka dismounted, breathed her name.
San stood with her head held high, barely meeting his eyes. "I didn't think you'd come so soon."
"Eboshi fell ill. I would've come sooner if not for that."
"Did she die?"
"No. But her fever cleared this morning."
"How disappointing." San touched Ashitaka's arm. The fabric of his sleeves was faded, blue and worn. Her fingers met the pale scar burned into his palm. "I don't mind that you've come, all the same."
San wore a smile now. It didn't feel ill fitted.
That day they encountered an exceptionally large stump, grey and roofed with green sprouts. Ashitaka stopped to stretch himself across it, and, laying his spine flat across the trunk, discovered the tree must have been thicker than he was tall. He propped his cheek against his palm, counted every rung, and suddenly looked miserable.
"Pity," he said, rubbing the side of the corpse. He furrowed his brow, frowning. He didn’t stop until he and San stopped by a pond for water by whose bank a lost chick was chirping, far from its flimsy, high nest; Ashitaka was delighted to find it still alive. He scooped the hatchling up in his hands, dusted off its little wings, and carried it back to its branch. Sunshine filtered through a patchwork of leaves and warmed his brown eyes amber.
San shook off a strange lightness in her stomach, rubbed her arms, and turned away. Closing her hand around the dagger she kept around her neck, she faced the west so she could watch the last moments of the day disappear into the horizon. Only seldom could she do that before, because the forest would all but eclipse a setting sun and the clouds up there with it, floating across the sky in gold-red and pink-white and lilac-blue.
"Ashitaka." She let go of the dagger and turned back to him. "You best return to Tataraba before it's dark."
"Actually—would it be all right to remain in your company for a little while longer? I brought some food up with me this morning and—"
"You want to stay the night?" San focused on the den in the distance. "You can, if you like."
San looked to Ashitaka again, who looked as lost and dumb as caught prey.
Yet she smiled to meet that gape, and held her hands supine before him, wanting him to know she would welcome him into her den.
A fire crackled at the mouth of the lair. A trail of slim smoke dragons spiralled from the flame, winging the scent of sesame and coriander and shoyu and miso and char into the air.
"Are you finished?" San asked. "I'm getting hungry."
"Just a moment." A flare, a sizzle, and a rattle sounded off in quick succession. Ashitaka handed San an elegant red bowl. She admired the depth of its colours and how the fire's shadow glossed it.
"You have many pretty things."
San raised her arm and glanced at Ashitaka's face beneath the burnish. A pretty smile, too.
Ashitaka mumbled his thanks as he served her her first helping of dinner.
“It’s hot! Please be careful."
San heeded and waited for the soup to become temperate before wolfing it down.
“It’s good.” She cleared her throat and licked her mouth clean. “Do you spend all day cooking to get this good at it?”
"No," Ashitaka laughed. "I wouldn’t have time to, anyway. We’ve all been working hard to rebuild Tataraba.” He handed San a second bowlful of food. “Eboshi wants to make it a good town now."
"Will I have to sharpen my knives for her?"
Ashitaka shook his head and smiled. "I'll see to it she upholds her promise."
"That won't mean I'll ever forgive the savageries your kind committed," she said, picking at her rice, "even if you don't have to answer to what they did."
"That's all right," Ashitaka murmured. "We're alive. We've made peace with Asano, the lepers have been healed, and my curse is gone. It's all that matters." He stared down at his hands. "We must make the most of our second chance."
San eyed her bowl. The chicken must have come fresh from the roost that morning. The mysterious white cubes beside it looked just as tasty, jiggling as San pressed her fingers to their soft, gold-sauced surfaces.
"That's tofu." Ashitaka took a piece with his chopsticks. "It's made from soy beans."
He chewed like a prince, slow and quiet. San was a different sort of princess, though, one who liked to dance under green shadows to the beat of the earth. She tore into meat, used her fingers, made noise, and ate voraciously.
Had her blood parents loved her more, San would have been able to feast on lavish meals like that every day. Live in a house perhaps, behind rice paper walls, and arise each morning to a steady supply of loaded dishes. Fine robes would have adorned her; her hair would have been slicked back with oil and punctured with ivory pins and kept heavy and long; she would have married a balding man and he would have sired her children and they would have grown up to be the same as she would have: selfish and disgusting and ignorant.
Moro would never have taught her how to run, how to hunt, how to listen to what the mountain said. A wolf she would not have been. A wolf she was now, but one that stood horizontally on two feet that carried a body rife with human hungers.
"But your curse has been lifted," she almost barked, without warning. San put her bowl aside and wiped her face with her wrist. "Why won't you go back to your village?"
It were as if she had said nothing at all. "I have no reason to go back."
"A village should need its prince."
"I am no longer its prince—and I can't say I'm human, either." Ashitaka laughed, but sadly. He set his chopsticks beside his bowl and ate no more. "I'm as good as dead to my village."
A gloom hung over him again, not unlike the time he had been cursed to a slow death. Shadows swallowed the apples of his cheeks whole.
That brought her back to the night when Shishigami-sama had kissed closed the death in his chest. She had spent it with Yakkul, learning about Ashitaka's hometown, his forest. In the morning Ashitaka had looked to his still-blackening arm and had cried. He had been too tired to put his hands over his eyes.
He must have been exhausted now, for he did not cover his face when tears studded his eyelashes.
"Why do you weep?" San asked. Her reply was a sob too soft to have been heard by ears any duller. "Ashitaka?"
"It's nothing." Ashitaka turned away, but San edged close to him, pulled his head back, and swept the back of her wrists against his cheeks.
Ashitaka fell asleep on the flimsy straw mat he had brought from Tataraba. San slept close to him so they wouldn’t be sick in the cold.
When Ashitaka left he touched San's hands. He probably thought she wouldn't know, but San had been only half-asleep when he'd ridden on Yakkul into a black, starless morning. The spot where he'd curled his fingers around hers remained warm for a while, lingering about in a whorl of dreams.
San woke to the red bowl gone. The straw mat remained, and on it were two leaf-clad gifts. Last time, it had been San who had left some to send Ashitaka off on his journey home. Wherever home had been to him, then.
The treats were a welcome addition to San's evening respite. After the long hunt she went to crouch over her mother’s stone. Her shoulders were fresh with scratches and her ankles laden with mud; it had rained heavily during the hunt and they had only caught two rabbits. San ripped open the leaves to find the rice balls within. They had gooey, red bean centres and melted beautifully in her mouth.
She looked to the new mountain again: at the green, the butterflies, the sprawling town at the bottom of the rise. She chewed slowly and stopped now and then to cover her wet eyes with her wrists. She was thinking of Moro, again.
San remembered the once she had asked her mother, "Why do we howl?"
And the great wolf Moro had turned her giant head towards her daughter and said, "We do it when we are lost, or hungry, or lonely. Though sometimes we do it for the same reason the winds blow and birds sing and humans laugh."
San howled that night. She hoped her mother would hear her, wherever she was. Her brothers did, too, though their stomachs were louder than their bays.
"You hungry?" San asked, and put a hand on Eldest Brother's nose.
"Famished. We'll have no choice but to eat bark soon." Eldest Brother shook his head. "Where have all the fawns gone?"
"I'm sure they'll all be back soon." San scratched the underside of his chin. "You'll see."
Eldest Brother sniffed. "When you bear your firstborn, and I grow my second tail."
Something bloomed behind her skin then, hot and foreign and exhilarating. But before she could admonish him, Second Brother interjected, "We see the way you look at him."
"We don't dislike him, either," Eldest Brother said, "and what mother told you was not untrue."
San scowled and flashed them her fangs.
"It's all in good jest," Second Brother reassured her. He nudged her in the stomach with his nose. "Though he would make a good mate."
"You both mock me." She growled and made her spear rattle. "I’m your chief now."
"Even so," Eldest Brother snorted, "you'll always be our baby sister."
Second Brother pretended to have not heard the conversation at all. "If only we hadn't made friends with that elk," he said, sighing, "we could have eaten him."
San wanted to laugh. She hugged them, one snout for each underarm, and stroked both their whiskers.
"Oh, mother," San spluttered, "oh, help me."
Every sixth sun thereafter, Ashitaka, never without his stories and his spoils, would ride on Yakkul and come to San in the mountains.
By stoked embers, Ashitaka would tell her tales passed down from past generations of his tribe, shrouded by mystery and smoke and characters that seemed both real and not: gallant warriors, spirit companions, ancient beauties, immortalised lovers, vain gods. And he talked about his own life; about his childhood in Emishi; and about his oldest friend, Yakkul, when he was but a small calf.
They went for walks in the forest, idling, existing. San would remember well the day he stretched out over a boulder and she put her arms on either side of his neck and bumped her maw against his mouth. It was the first time he wasn't so shy about it, she knew, for he closed his eyes and sunk his hands into her hair. The moss between her fingers was moist, and his mouth almost a smoother version of it, soft like the rain that lined the soil beneath her feet.
San always smelled his want after that. She wanted, too, to explore him. From seed to bud to vine to bloom her desire grew. Ashitaka became to her a lone shell amongst shingles. Hawkish, she would take note of his flushing skin, fluttering lashes, enlarged pupils, quickening pulse; she found an education in coupled birds and deer and snakes and fish, to make sense of how she would one day let him in.
In the den they would slumber pressed close. During the shortening nights when they had bad dreams or trouble sleeping, they would roam the dark for kodama. Sadly, they never met with any such luck. The dragonflies had stayed, though, weaving their spindly rainbow bodies through grasses and reeds laced with dew; as did the owls, hooting into the sundered woods with voices like silken moonshine.
Along the ridges of the mountain Ashitaka sang and cooked and worked while San listened and howled and hunted. She showed him the abodes of snails and mice and dictated to him the roots good to eat and the spiders he would do best to avoid. He trained his ears so they understood the word of the woods, attuned them to its sorrowing and rejoicing.
Too soon, spring segued into summer, darkening the trees and lengthening the days. Fireflies swarmed through the groves during the short nights and new breeds of water insects began to yield in the ponds. The heat sweltered and hung in the air like bitter honey, so that even hairless San struggled to hunt under it.
To keep cool, she bathed and swam at every chance. San loved best the dips in the vales, and the cascades pattering into gnarled basins by the heights, and the wet peaks of the old crags. There she could doze off to the sounds of streams rolling rocks smooth, and birdsong, and a home reborn.
And it was by water, on one of those blazing, drenched days, that San addressed her want for the first time. Under a fuming midday sun it happened. San was foraging when she found Ashitaka all alone, lazing in a shallow rill no wider than his hips. He looked to have some trouble breathing.
"Oh, hello," she said as she stopped by him. "What're you doing here?"
He squinted up at her, shaking his head. "Too hot."
San scowled at him and forced the juiciest piece of fruit she had in hand into his mouth. She drenched his face in water and stared sidelong at the wetted prettiness of it. And the rest of him: the bright fruit lodged between his lips, his legs spread in the wet of the stream.
"Stupid Ashitaka. Why did you come alone?"
"Eboshi took off to Asano with Yakkul," he said, wiping his mouth, "but I still wanted to see you."
San ogled Ashitaka's undulating throat and remembered the elk wasn't around to watch her do it.
She dragged him out by the obi to let him dry on the grass. "Can you get up?"
"Yes." He bent over onto his knees. "I was just—I was only resting." Ashitaka groaned, stepped up, and stumbled into San's grasp, his moist cheek pressed against her temple; he was noodly in her arms and had to put his hands on her shoulders for support. The kiss he had intended for her cheek brushed against her ear.
San eyed him, daring him to try once more. She pulled him upright, and closer, until their noses bumped. She aligned their lips and kissed with her teeth, fidgeting in the clothes clinging to her skin, wanting to remove them, wanting him to do it for her.
"You can barely get cool in this vein; it's far too narrow." Almost shaking, San handed him her tusk of water and pulled him by the wrist. "Come with me."
"Where are we going?" he laughed, still hazy from the kiss.
"Don't you recognise this path? You've been here before." She gazed at him over her shoulder. "Well. I suppose you're only human."
"Oh." Ashitaka discovered their whereabouts anew: the grove had become a clearing now; hollow trunks shaped its composition, and though they had fallen and greyed, few of them lost the impression of their once immense stature. "It looks so different without—"
San put her hands under her garments and removed them in one quick motion. Another sent her hurling into the water.
San withdrew deeper down into the spring until her feet grazed the bones at the bottom. She wished not to dissolve from the dizziness of the day and remained submerged for as long as she could hold her breath. She broke from the surface of water only when her lungs and heart would no longer hold. Ashitaka had stationed himself all the way by the reeds at the bank.
"Aren't you going to come?" San said, through her teeth. Her words sounded more like a plea than a question.
Ashitaka’s mouth opened and shut and opened again. Then he stopped moving. So San swam back to the shallows of the pool. The water lapped around her waist and adorned her in a liquid dress with shimmering hems fanning out in ripples. His little blue knife shielded her from any shame; she always kept it tucked close to her breast, so she could gaze at it whenever she had nothing better to do after a long hunt, or when she wanted to evoke a vision of Ashitaka and his dark free hair and brown handsome eyes.
She could not see them now, though. Ashitaka had covered them with his arm.
"Am I so uncomely to you?"
San emerged from the water and stood tall and proud: a wolf-girl, a girl-wolf, a princess, and no breadth less.
"No." He swallowed. A deep, heady sound. "Not at all."
San remembered what Ashitaka had told her once. She remembered it well. She knew he'd meant it and still did, even if she didn't want to believe it.
"You're exquisite, San."
Then why had he stopped looking at her?
San's footfalls were soundless. A trail of them chronicled her path from the mouth of the pool to Ashitaka. San took his hands in hers as soon as she could reach them, uncurled his fingers as softly as she could find it in herself to do. She kept his fists in her fists and her eyes on his eyes.
Oh, how she wanted to nip, to lick, to bite! Yet she could not forget. Ashitaka was a human and they were the most fragile creatures of all. So she reached out, gently, telling herself to treat him like something delicate, something that ought to be handled with care: a cub, a hatchling, a sprout.
Ashitaka's hands quivered in San's steady grip. She waited until they wandered towards her nape, her jaw, her ear; then his grasp a cup in which he held her hair. At last she tipped towards the warm pads of his fingertips and poured her cheek into his hands.
Between his lips there was small gap, just big enough for San to see the tongue pulsing behind his teeth.
"Will you let me touch you?" Ashitaka wheezed. San breathed deep, looked up, and sniffed. He smelled potently of heat. "Oh, San, I've never—"
She nodded zealously and spoke his name so she could taste it in her mouth before she kissed him. He made a funny sound deep in his throat when her fangs skimmed his underlip.
"Does it hurt?"
Ashitaka shook his head and nuzzled her, hid his face in the crook of her neck. He trembled less while he killed a man.
"I want—” San licked her mouth and licked it again. "I want to—"
"—smell you. All over."
She didn’t wait for his response, kissing him once more as though fevered, with enough force that they tumbled down to the mossy marsh as she fumbled for Ashitaka's body through his sash, robe, sleeves.
Ashitaka moved with more grace than San did, or at least made attempts at doing so; his hands were deft clasped around a blade or a bow, but around her they were greenhorned, tenderfooted, infant.
San put her mouth against Ashitaka’s throat. How easily the neck bared against her fangs would bleed! But this hunger was different. To satisfy it she licked his neck red, raw. Shortly all thought became nigh impossible. The thumb Ashitaka was rubbing against the wet between her legs felt so, so good. San tucked her head between his shoulder and neck, simmering and shivering and sighing, almost unable to bear the strange thrill spreading through her.
“Please tell me if it doesn’t feel good,” Ashitaka huffed, his face redder than she’d ever seen it, “or if—if—you don’t want me to t-touch you, or….”
“Ha—why would I not want you to? It feels v-very—very good!”
The green smell of damp grass filled her. San laughed in Ashitaka's hair, and did it some more, for she liked the sound. In return, Ashitaka tucked endearments into the folds of her flesh, gently kissed in sweet words here, there, everywhere.
Ah, and then he kissed her stomach, again, then southward—
San's fingers tightened in his hair. She watched him work. Ashitaka's skin was sun-brushed and smooth, pretty and pleasing against her own white wrists. On his now-high shoulderblades San placed her hands, thinking them a pair of great god-wolf paws padding on hilly earth.
Ashitaka nudged and licked and nipped and sucked, his spine swaying. Was he whispering some secret into her, San wondered, because words seemed to thrum through her body as his voice and his tongue formed them against and within her. For a moment San became so light she was sure she could have been shaped from morning dew and frost and nothing else...
Once San could breathe again, Ashitaka looked up at her through the mussed hair sticking to his forehead. His eyes were keen and his smiling, shining mouth slathered with her wet.
"I've never tried that before," San said. She used one hand to wipe sweat off her forehead and the other to push some hair out of Ashitaka's eyes. "I suppose it's one other way I might benefit from having this form."
"Me neither." Ashitaka pressed his hot cheeks into her belly. She laughed when he murmured against it, "I'm sorry if I was terrible."
San shook her head and parted her legs so he could bring his chin higher up, to kiss her. "I would do it again."
“Thank goodness!” he breathed, and shoved his face into her belly again to hide the most amusing expression. San consoled herself for the loss by continuing to fiddle with his hair.
“Where did you learn to do that, anyway?” The conclusion at which she arrived displeased her. “You’ve had other mates.”
This time he raised his head and did not look away from her eyes. “No! I really haven’t! It’s the women of Tataraba. They kept telling me to do this and that, and they’re experienced in this sort of thing, so I couldn’t just ignore the things they said. Besides, I really wanted to kiss you everywhere I could, and you seemed to like it best when I...”
“Bahahahaha! Then let them teach you more of their tricks!”
San could not stop guffawing for a long time. But when she did she wasn't sure if she had really fallen asleep spread across Ashitaka's armspan and was dreaming, for at the edges of her vision glowed a spirit-child, limpid and tiny, grinning up at her. Sadly, it faded as quickly as it had appeared, as though it were a mirage . Yet its laughter kept echoing behind her breast.
"Ashitaka," San called, trying to ignore it. His eyes were dilated, liquid. "Humans wouldn't be so bad if they were all more like you."
"That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me,” he said, sincerely.
"I mean it."
"I hate humans. You don't seem to be one at all." San sniffed his collarbone, then rubbed her lips against it. Ashitaka perfumed himself with cedars, blue obsidian, pretty promises. He was cleanest when he was naked, when there was no trace of iron or coal on him. Now she could smell her on him, and him on her. "You don't smell or act the same as they do."
Ashitaka sighed. His chest lifted against her cheek. "Yet I still am."
"I like you, anyway, even if I can't forgive what other humans have done to my forest."
"I know." He rubbed her nose. "I'm awfully fond of you myself."
San scrunched up her face and tried not to smile. Ashitaka chuckled easily, though he appeared to be marvelling at a world beyond them now.
"What are you thinking about?"
"How it's so nice, this moment now." Ashitaka’s forefinger traced the clouds above them. "We're all so lucky to be here."
San ran her hands over the trails of flowers she had left on Ashitaka that marked him as hers.
"But it'll tear you apart." And there were scratches, along his hips. She guessed she had left them there before. She touched them now and thought about how strange it was that he had left her skin spotless. "Coming and going from here to Tataraba and back."
"It isn't going to stop me.” Ashitaka closed his hand to form a fist he brandished up against the sky. "I'm strong."
"And that's a promise? You'll need to protect it if it is."
He put his hands around his head, yawning, "Of course."
Heat melted time, slowed it. San waited until Ashitaka's brows slackened and his limbs grew soft with sleep to seek refuge in the spring. She jumped in feet-first into a cocoon of cool heavenly water. San waded around and relished the chill. She closed her eyes for a bit, lying on her back, washing her face, floating on, waiting for Ashitaka to wake.
A familiar noise waylaid her. The spirit of her mountain in a sound. It shook her heart, travelled in long echoes that trickled towards the tips of her toes.
San scoured her surroundings. And in the tall grass by the bank the little eidolon appeared once more with its queer laugh and crooked smile.
Storms inscrutable both stilled and stirred in San. She was sure, this time.
"Ashitaka?" At her call he stirred from his half-sleep. San turned to him and led his eyes in the direction of the spirit. "Can you see it? Am I only dreaming?"
"The kodama?" Ashitaka paddled towards San, breathless and shaking. "Oh, San. Didn't I tell you that Shishigami is still with us?"
"Yes, you did," she said, eyes burning , not because of the heat, "you did."
Laughing, Ashitaka held San by the temples and pressed their foreheads together. The kodama waddled close and sat on the edge of the stream, head cocked to the side.
"It smiled at us." San wanted to beckon to it, but Ashitaka had already pulled her away. And his cheeks were flushed, hot when she touched them. "Are you ill?"
"No." But his roving eyes gave him away. An impression of their bodies remained in the marsh on which they had lain. A cluster of kodama had gathered around it, their rattling heads turned intently to the telltale imprint.
"Hush," he said, with a laugh. Ashitaka dipped his hands through the surface of the pond. He found San's hips, clenched them, and toppled them both headlong into the water. All afternoon tthey splashed at each other, fending off the heat, slippery fish sliding under their feet.
The old tanuki’s brown head was buried in her paws.
"Wolf-girl, help me!” she cried. “Your arms look so long and dextrous. Won't you help me?"
"What with?" San crouched low so she was level with her beady black eyes.
"My two cubs." She looked up for a moment before she put her face back in her paws. "A human set a trap in—"
San gritted her teeth, dug her dirty nails into her palm, snarling. She reached for her spear. "Where?"
The tanuki pointed to a nearby ditch. San only needed to bend down to retrieve the trembling cubs from the trap.
Their mother cotted each child with a paw.
"My children! Oh, I don't know how to thank you, dear. It's hard work enough raising cubs without sturdy roots to hold our burrows."
"Yes." Then San remembered what Ashitaka had said. "But we should try to live the best we can."
"Yes, yes, we must. Sensible words from one so young."
"No. It's only something my friend keeps telling me."
"Oh, I think I've seen him around. Dresses in blue?"
"Is he a wolf-boy, too?"
"It seems like it. Though the only thing I know for sure is that he's mine."
"The child makes a good point, either way. If only we all thought like that from time to time."
The tanuki bowed and spread some berries by San's feet before she and her children went on her merry way. San put the gift into her pouch, rubbed her soil-streaked hands on her dress, and motioned to leave to ready more skins for the winter.
But San only made it five paces forward before the sound of a shot shrilled to the bone. Her pores seethed and her eardrums pounded and she swore vengeance upon whomever it was who had fired the bullet ringing like arrows in her ears.
San pivoted on her heel to see Eldest Brother skittling across one rocky ledge to another over her. She leapt towards them. With a few scuds San caught up to the gunman. He was heavy-footed and not young; it would be no trying task killing him. Only, San wasn't careful enough when she slashed at him with her dagger. She pounced too hard. He was too unbalanced. They tumbled down that peak together.
Only the whites of his eyes showed now. Too late now to make him suffer. She lifted his heavy corpse off her lap and offered him to the maggots. She didn't bother pulling his eyelids down.
San sat up. Her back hurt. Her arm was grazed. There was a sharper, overwhelming pain near her left foot. She swallowed back bile and bit her tongue and drew blood so she wouldn't scream like a human. The gash on her ankled throbbed on. There was whiteness between the redness. San feared it to be bone.
"Oh, mother.” Her vision dimmed from the rims in. The ghostly silhouettes of her brothers seemed so far away. Was she in hell? "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts."
When San opened her eyes again, a hand held her steady. San didn't need to look to know who it was.
"Why have you come?" She would kick if it would not cost her her foot.
Ashitaka dabbed at her ankle with something wet. It hurt! "Your brothers summoned me so I could—"
"I don't need your help!"
"Would you come down to Tataraba, then?"
"Not a chance!"
"I didn't think so." Ashitaka propped her foot up on his lap. Surprisingly, for the movement left little pain. "Then this'll have to do. Hold on while I try to stitch up your leg."
"Curse you," she said, spitting, "What was that man—that monster—doing in my mountain?"
"He was one of Asano's men. He was hoping to poach your brothers' pelts for gold." Ashitaka frowned. San had been through worse but the pain now was agonising regardless. "Times are hard."
"Is he dead?" San scrubbed her arms and wished it to be true.
"I took him away from your soils and buried him elsewhere."
Growling, San grabbed hold of Ashitaka's arm and clenched it until it bled. She screeched, "Tell me where you put him; I'll dig him up and feed him to the apes. That man was the lowest of the low. Human filth never fit for a burial! He will find no peace in hell, I swear it. My mother, not even she—"
"San," Ashitaka said, gently, "he might have had a family, like you do. What's a goat to you, if your brothers were starving?"
Flinching, she mistook his eyes for arrows shot true. San withdrew and licked along his arm, as it was what Moro used to do to her knees when she was clumsy and scraped them against sharp things or fell from high places.
"Go," she grunted against his skin. "I won’t be in the company of your kind, not tonight."
Ashitaka's hands were dry but too warm on her forehead when he thumbed back the damp hair hanging over her eyes. "Your fever is too high."
"I don't care." San covered her eyes. "Leave."
"I can't." Ashitaka took a clean cloth and twisted it. He smiled. "Bite on this."
Had a volt of vultures flocked to her flesh to shred it? San shut up and bit the rag; she didn't want her teeth to slice through her tongue when more pain came, so by the time the cloth was out of her teeth San had already mangled it to strips.
It was a hard night. Ashitaka would occasionally stroke San's shoulders as he sewed up her gash. Later, San slept heavily but woke up in the middle of the night to the smell of cinders and herbs. Ashitaka sat by a fire brewing a spell in a cauldron, singing something about moons and spirits and bowstrings and hearts, his voice a murmur astir.
"Oh, you're up." He turned towards San and knelt beside her. "Drink this, would you?"
"It's not some evil elixir, is it?"
"It's ordinary medicine, I'm afraid. It'll help you get better sooner." Ashitaka pillowed her head with his hand and put an icy bowl to her burning mouth. The bitter medicine garbled her throat with fibres.
San coughed and spluttered. Though it stained her voice to speak she did not waver.
"You owe me nothing. All I’ve done is hate every last one of your kind, and—"
“I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for you. Have you forgotten?"
"I haven't." San smacked her lips. "But you've returned the favour enough. It’s a luxury to be nursed this way, like a sickly cub. I've not done anything to earn it."
"Well, you let me come near you, don't you?" He put his hands on her shoulders and urged her back down against the mat he'd brought all the way from Tataraba. He smiled. "Now hush."
San was too tired to argue and too hot to think. Her bones ached. Her head hurt. Her gums were sore. She was barely cognizant when she twisted her fist into the side of Ashitaka's robe, to tell him she wanted him to sit beside her.
Ashitaka sat. San curled up into a ball and nestled close to him for comfort. Meeting her in the shuffle, Ashitaka resumed his lullaby, his voice as tender as the hand he smoothed over her shoulders.
Calmed, San slept soundly, dreaming she was a sword: a just sharpened blade, loved well by its bearer. She happily lived that life being sheathed and whetted and brandished for a long, long time.
In the morning, she almost felt rue, for in waking she was a bleary-eyed, phlegm-filled wolf-girl again. But then she gladdened again when Ashitaka's wrist rose against her nape. She felt the shape of his arm under her shoulders.
"Shouldn't you be gone?" Her own voice was wheezy and thin and not very suitable for howling at all.
"I think I'll stay until you get better."
"I hope it makes you happy, though." When San didn’t respond, he laughed. "It's not a very wolfish thing to do, is it, to lie?"
San buried her hot head in his arm.
"Now you're just being conceited," she said, and blew into his skin.
Mirth like butterflies soared through the cavern.
The calm subsisted until late that night, when the both of them caught wind of paws padding around the foot of the cave. San asked Ashitaka to pull the furs up higher. He did as she requested, breathing steadily into her arm as he listened to her brothers slip away into the dark.
When they returned in the morning caked in blood, Ashitaka said nothing. He knelt beside San with his eyes drilling into the fists he clenched tight over his lap.
San suspected Ashitaka had guessed what her wolf-brothers had done. Wan, green-faced, he endured it for a long while before he stood and asked ever so politely to be excused. Then he stumbled towards the opening, and from inside San could hear him be sick.
They didn't speak of that time ever again, and neither she nor her brothers ever apologised for what they had done.
But that night Ashitaka woke up thrashing. His right arm acted as if it were possessed again. His left hand clutched at it desperately to restrain it. Five red arcs bloodied his sleeve. San snarled at the disturbance, but cradled his face close to her, prepared to hear of the terrors that had visited her man that night. Yet he remained so silent swathed in those shadows, pressed close against her, and never spoke a word of what had happened in that distant, dire dream.
A moon later and Ashitaka was bathing in the forest's pools and spending his nights beside San. The rank of the town was purged from him and it pleased her to be near the redolence of the soil and bark and sunshine that superseded it.
As San healed, she carved three new masks, replaced her old wolfskin with crude sheepskin, and made a new spear. It would be a while before she could run on her two feet again. Ashitaka accompanied her always, for she would loathe to hunt alone. He would scour the sky for prey, and she would spear fish in the streams.
This time they had caught a net of trout and a few birds, tasty and plump from the feed they had readied for the winter. Ashitaka sat down beside San and handed her a bowl of broth of duck marrow and bones.
"So this is what autumn's like in your forest?" Ashitaka sipped his soup silently. "The trees here look as they do in summer."
"What do you mean?" San asked, shaken; there was nothing odd about the mountain that year! Though the trees, being only newborn, were much smaller than their predecessors, gathered together they still painted the most vibrant greens San knew. She looked out the cave to be sure, where her mountain's colours showed deep and lush. Mist girthed its paramour, the precipices. Yes, this was her domain, of breath and blood, dearer than all the jade and emerald the humans hoarded in their barren lands. And it was as it always had been.
"Ah." Ashitaka twirled his bowl to bring the fibres at the bottom to the surface. "In Emishi, the forests go to sleep for a while, every year. Around about now all the leaves would look as if they were rusting, crinkle up, and wither away."
San covered her mouth before she cried out. She took a moment to compose herself, Then asked: "They'd all go red?"
"Yes. Like an ocean of fire."
"Must be sad to look at."
Ashitaka stilled. He was quiet for a long while.
"But I think that's part of what gives it its beauty."
"Then I'd like to see it some time. I wonder what a beautiful death smells like."
The first snow had just fallen when Ashitaka visited San for the last time that year. He brought with him a bulging bundle containing matchsticks and mattresses and coats and cloaks and shochu and mochi. He flopped everything down by the maw of the cave and hurried towards San, rubbing her cheeks, worrying about her in earnest, pleading for her to go with him to Tataraba before winter would coat the mountain.
"Please come with me," he appealed, but he had come to her in her heat, and she was deaf to all but desire.
San pushed her hand over his mouth and spread him across the furs. The leafy bedding below crunched as San climb onto Ashitaka's lap. He put his hands on her waist, stroking it over the cloth a little before he pulled all that fabric over her head. As his hands traced long paths over her body, he placed his mouth between her breasts, nuzzling them, before dragging in turns his lips towards the cusp of each one.
“Ah, how lovely,” Ashitaka mumbled as his fingertips drew whorls all over her. Ashitaka's mouth was never far behind. The warmth of his breath took away hers as his mouth neared a nipple, then enveloped it.
Soon it was biting and suckling and snarling and tickling and feet and hands and flesh clasping until San let him in, starting fresh on a steep ascent. She rocked her hips and leapt up crags, kept clambering when Ashitaka breathed and shuddered on and against and into her, until she was so high up she could swallow a cloud and carry the softness of it in her veins.
In the aftermath, Ashitaka rubbed her knuckles and San's head lolled against his shoulders. The perspiration on both their bodies became cold quick. They did some redecorating around the den, arranging their things to ward off the cold. San unpacked the bundle and made them a larger fortress out of straws and leaves and furs, while Ashitaka set the snacks, warmed the shochu, and poured them into two floral cups. A sweet aroma wafted under San’s nose as Ashitaka passed her one serving.
"So you're sure you won't come with me?"
"Of course," she said, the liquor sharp and hot on her tongue, "I would suffocate. It must be hell on earth over there."
"All right," Ashitaka sighed, and scooped her closer by the shoulders. He took a small dried plum into his mouth. "But doesn't it get cold during the winter?"
"A little." San shifted the bearskin higher over their shoulders. She grinned toothily. "But I'm not cold now."
In the bitter morning that followed, San and Ashitaka said their goodbyes. She insisted he go back with her bearskin and asked for his new cotton coat in exchange. He, agreeing to all she would ever ask of him, accepted readily. And so San held his coat close to her chest, gathering his lingering scents about her. Although if she was not careful, they would soon disappear, smothered by her brothers, by the woods and the wilderness.
"You would be free to wander the ends of the earth if you wanted," San asked, right before she let him go. "But you don't. Why?"
"I want to stay and help the people of Tataraba."
"That's a daft reason."
"Then because it's closest to you," he said, "and that's a fine reason."
"You're strange. I've always known it, I think."
A gale bit both of them. Specks of snow stuck to Ashitaka's eyelashes. The chill greyed his skin. But it still was not quite cold enough for snowflakes. A pity; San would have liked to have gone searching for them, with him.
"Keep warm," Ashitaka said, and held her at the shoulders. When he kissed her he tasted sweet, like water from the deepest spring there was. "I'll come again."
He manoeuvred himself astride Yakkul.
San remained outside as she watched their footprints evanesce into the snow.
That winter was the coldest and longest of all those the wolf tribe had ever known.
The erstwhile proliferation of deer dwindled. San's brothers, who needed fourfold the food she did, grew gaunt and petulant. San starved for Ashitaka more than she did food.
It had been easier to be a cub in the white-gullied forest. San had ridden on Moro's neck, while her brothers had in her teeth. She had wrestled with them and climbed up trees and made traps to taunt them when she lost, and they had teased her for being coatless and quick to bleed when she won. There had been no worry about food.
They caught a stag, once. San skinned it with a knife made from the bone of its sister before she and her brothers ate the rest of the carcass raw. It was the finest meal they'd had in too long. Later, San took its antlers to fashion into a comb, thinking about Yakkul's tales of Ashitaka's bygone tresses, their dark lustre. San spent all winter working on it, which made it easier for her to wait for the chill to thaw away.
She itched, sometimes, deep under her skin, for no particular reason, though she found those to be the times she would reach out in the night for a human body that was not there. News of Ashitaka’s return couldn’t come soon enough.
It did on a day of the third moon. Great clouds framed the sun as it peered into the mouth of the cave. Under that shivering light San stepped out as quickly as she would have had her brothers brought home a herd of deer. Outside, the grass had all but pierced the sleet that sheathed the blades.
"I want to meet him halfway," she said.
And she meant she wanted that always from then on. Because that was what the two of them together were all about: countless halves converging, a sea that never spilled ashore, a wolf-girl and a drifting boy, a princess anchored to a prince of a kingdom too far away to keep. Yet they still swam out to one another and met, crawling out from their palaces of leaf and steel to touch, skin to skin. Although up until now it had only ever been him who had come to her.
"So much time seems to have passed. Why do I feel so young?"
"Is it a human thing?" her Eldest Brother asked. She grabbed two fistfuls of fur, climbed on, and hid her face deep into his coat.
"I don't know," she said, nestling further in, "but it frightens me."
"So it should."
San choked. "Mother told me once that there was a life waiting for me, with him. Do you remember that?"
" I believe it." He bowed his head. "You’ll be our sister for all time, even should you choose to keep him."
"Brother," San sighed into his fur, scratching the back of his ears, "thank you."
San tugged on his coat to tell him to go. It was after running through miles of bark and bough, familiar and unfamiliar, that San reached a clearing and saw Yakkul in the distance, sun-gilded, and Ashitaka beside him with his arms lifted high. Rain slicked his hair, which glinted under the sun, and almost red and gold at the tips. He was bellowing her name, making it ricochet about the mountain.
His voice surged into San's ears like rain into a riverbed. At once she dismounted and moored her feet into the ground. She too would have Ashitaka’s name ringing all over the mountains and throughout his whole body. And so she howled it, letting it resound three, four, five times, so all the kodama would know it.
"I'll come to you," San called, and she did so as quick as her legs could allow her down the slope of the mountain. When he was close enough she pounced upon him so that they went tumbling down the knoll, rolling in grass and dew and petals and rain.
"Dear me! San," Ashitaka said, when they slowed. He was chortling uncontrollably, touching the backs of her ears. He moved on to trace the fangs on her cheeks. The one on her forehead received tender slow touches from his nose. "You're…."
"I didn't think I'd miss—" she breathed, "—I didn't think I'd miss you so badly."
"The sentiment's mutual, I assure you." Ashitaka's hands fell back to his sides. He smiled up at her with stars in his eyes. "Though longing for you all this time was a given, on my part."
San brushed grass and dirt from Ashitaka’s hair and nuzzled and nuzzled his lips. Then she mouthed his nose, pawed at the rest of his face. She wanted to make sure she remembered where its features were, what he smelled like.
"I made you something," San said into his cheek, excitedly, "Yakkul told me your hair went up to here once." To demonstrate, she put her arm around Ashitaka and drew a line across his waist. Then she pulled the gift from her pocket and placed it in his waiting hands.
"That's for me?" His lifted it tenderly, his fingertips trembling over the curve of the comb carved into the likeness of three kodama. They stopped at the morning glories coiled near the teeth. San watched him marvel at her work with smug satisfaction. "How beautiful!"
"Let me brush your hair first to see how good it is in practice." San took the comb from him and began. "Then take it with you, as a token of gratitude."
"Thank you." Ashitaka lowered his head. "I'll use it every day."
"You know, it took me most of the winter, to make. I did that and hunted, as I always do. What did you do, in Tataraba?"
"A lot of things. What do you want to know?"
"Hmmmm, well, I got to know all the women and men better. I played a lot of go. I'm getting good at it!" He paused to think. "Um, I made myself a new bow and some arrows. And a few wandering chefs came early in the year. I even learned some new dishes from them!"
"So you'll be able to cook new things for me?"
"Will I!" he said, brightening. "Oh, and Toki had her baby. The whole town was awake the night she was born. Kouroku dotes on her like nothing in this world."
"A baby?" It must be a small thing, San imagined, about the size and shape of a kodama. "Is it cute?"
"Yes, very much so! Oh, those two did nothing but stay in bed after they built it back. They wanted a child by spring, and into the world she was born, by spring." Ashitaka stroked his chin. "Ah! And Eboshi wants to meet you sometime and apologise. She's saved you some of her best sake, if you want it."
"We'll see." San meant it. The smell wasn't so bad without the ironworks running. Breathing in those fumes had been like tasting blood in her mouth all the time, though it was harder to look at the lake and the rivers that fed it. At least she could stand to do so now, as since the ceasefire it had cleared into a reflective blue. "Perhaps I will go as an envoy of the wolf tribe."
"I'm glad." Ashitaka leaned back as San presented him with the brush once more. They sat in silence for a long time after that. The wind brushed them and the valleys still, silent, except for skylarks each endeavouring to outsing all the others. And San had to wonder why so few humans could not stay with such beauty.
The edges of the sky were golden. A thin rainbow arched from a pink cloud into a clearing doused in light. It did not drizzle where they were, but a sunshower was sprinkling in the distance. San thought of all the mated kitsune she had met the spring before and wondered whose wedding it was, if she would ever be invited to one in the future.
The mountain’s spine dipped in parts, a woman's waist; and crested in others against the horizon, a man's throat. The rain had already washed away the snowcaps.
Ashitaka found another world within the little pond beside him. He slid his hands in with a splosh and scattered the squiggling tadpoles in it.
"Say," he said, making eddies, "San?"
"It's strange. It's so much colder in the towns than it is in the mountains.” He chuckled. “But then again, I don't have to sleep alone when I'm with you."
"Then stay for longer here, with me."
"Oh, I want to. I thought of you during the wintertime too often."
Ashitaka kept his eyes downcast for an awfully long time. When he levelled them with hers she thought she saw them quiver.
"What would you say if I asked to be your husband?" San's hands stopped. So did her lungs. And her heart, almost. "Not now, but someday?"
"I'd say you were stupid to ask." She spoke truthfully. "You would accept me, despite how I am neither human nor wolf?"
Ashitaka grimaced. He withdrew his hands from the pond with a plash. He shot up to his feet, so quickly he startled San into doing the same.
Then he looked at his hand, at the faded scar. His breaths were deep and measured. A breeze scattered his hair about and carried San's thoughts back to the day the forest had been reborn, when Ashitaka had stood rooted to the mountain beneath him and watched her with eyes radiant, unclouded. The strength and spirit in him now grew arborescent, kingly, as they had then.
Ashitaka tucked his lungs full of air and took San tight by the shoulders.
"You're San. Lovely and wild and both human and wolf," he began, taking another breath, "and I'd like to live with you. I mean, I already do, but I want to do it while being yours."
"You are stupid," San sighed, feeling his forehead. "Is it the spring that's making you like this? Do you feel unwell?"
"No," he said, laughing and laughing and laughing, "I'm fighting for a future, that's all. I want us to make one, together."
"Can we do that? What about Tataraba?"
"I love the forest. I love the town. I often feel as if I'm torn between the two, but I'll never stop coming to you. You mean too much to me."
"But gods die. Hatred thrives. Humans fight their blasted wars. They snuff out the earth and don't care that they do it. And they do it slowly, which might be the worst thing. It's like that forest of yours, withering away every year."
"Yes, but there's hope yet. We'll look after each other, and we'll fight it." His gaze burned her. "Oh, I didn't remember to tell you that the trees grow back in the spring. San, they bear shoots and seeds and it's all so lush it'd make an ogre cry."
"Ashitaka." San's breath hitched, and her heart stirred a little. "You would go so far to sacrifice so much? To live with a thorn in your side?"
"It's not so bad," he laughed, standing with his legs apart and his arms akimbo, "I'm happy when I'm with you."
"Then so be it," San said, neither doubting nor hesitating. Ashitaka took her up in his arms, lifted her high, and spun her round and round. "You're mine now!" she laughed.
"Oh, but I thought you knew being yours was only an excuse." Ashitaka exulted and put her down. "You talk as if it hadn't been true from the beginning."
"Help me, I've been promised to a fool! A human fool."
"I'm your fool, though." Ashitaka batted his eyelashes girlishly. "Cherish me?"
San laughed at him. "I already do."
Ashitaka exhaled, relieved, and his breath flowered out in a white mist. San reached out to touch it, and thought her hand might be a bird flying alongside a cloud.
When Ashitaka disrobed that night his body carried the scent of a forest, but not hers.
"You smell funny," San said. Her hand brushed against his hipbone. He had been in a different mountain, perhaps one with more pines or elms.
"Oh." Ashitaka gritted his teeth and twitched in her hands. "I forgot to tell you."
"Tell me what?"
"I had to ride east, late in the winter." He reached for and fumbled with the red pouch he always kept attached to his sash. "I hope you didn't notice I was running a little behind schedule. Eboshi asked me to run some errands and it took a few weeks for me to get gone and get back."
San shook her head. "Lucky you didn't come during the blizzards." She stilled and smiled at him. "And you journeyed unharmed?"
Ashitaka nodded with enthusiasm as he worked his way through that mysterious pouch.
"And look," Ashitaka said, his eyes sparkling with excitement, "I got these at a market along the way."
Two blue stones dangled from silver hooks. Even to San, they were so fine they would not have been out of place amongst treasures dug up from some grand, sunken city in the ocean. San thought of the snow sylphs that sometimes inhabited Ashitaka’s stories. The jewels she held in her palm now could have been teardrops they had cried, out of sorrow or happiness, dropping from their eyes like small glaciers, once lining a seabed somewhere far from where they were now.
"Pretty," she murmured, holding them up against the moonlight, "they're the colour of saltwater."
"Aquamarines. I thought they'd go well with the dagger." Ashitaka lifted a hand. "Put them on and show me?"
San bobbed her head in his direction. She tossed her hair back and put her hands under her ears to remove her two deerbone disks.
"Ashitaka, do you think we could go to the sea when summer comes around?"
"You have a shore nearby?"
"At most it'll take us two days to reach the south island. Come with me," she said, grinning, "and I'll catch you a turtle."
"I'd love to." Ashitaka reclined with his hand on his cheek. "It sounds like it'll be nice and cool in the summer."
"It is." The earrings fit well. San knelt back and swished from side to side, wearing her naked skin proudly, as she might a gorgeous gown. "How do I look?"
"Dazzling." Ashitaka held one stone in his left palm and reached into his pouch again with his free hand. "So you like them?"
"They're far too extravagant. But I'll wear them, because they are nice."
"I still had some gold I had to get rid of. I never do anything with it, and it'd been more likely to have been stolen than to be left untouched." Ashitaka's hands fluttered up her shoulders and into her hair. "I'm glad they please you, anyhow."
"Doesn't make them any less of a luxury," she sighed, "or any less attractive. They are awfully pretty."
Ashitaka’s face filled with dumb joy. "Oh, and before I forget!" He drew his hands back from her neck. "There's still something else I want to show you."
"You like to collect fragrances, don't you?" Ashitaka emptied the pouch and poured into his palm a multitude of what looked like seeds: big, small; fuzzy, smooth; green, black. Each one looked the part of a tiny gem, pristine in their promise. "I managed to get some seeds of plants that'll have the loveliest perfumes when they grow."
"Seeds! How wonderful…” Ashitaka's gaze washed over her, his eyes heavy-lidded, lustrous. "What?"
"Nothing. ‘Wonderful’ is a fine word, and it's good hearing it come off your tongue." Ashitaka smiled toothily. "I'm so glad you like them."
San began to sort them into her own hands. "How many different types of seeds did you get?"
"As many as I could find: apricots, plums, peach, wisteria, oh, and more. Aspen sprouts are Yakkul's favourite. We could set them and the maples now so I could show you what our autumn colours are like."
"Oh, do they smell good?" she asked, with genuine enthusiasm. "Do they bear fruit? They ought to—and if they do, what do they taste like?"
Ashitaka cocked his head and gave her questions some serious thought.
"Well, wisteria smells of something celestial on a summer's day," he said, and put his lips to her jaw, "like kissing you."
Ashitaka curled his calloused fingers around San's sides, tickling her. She giggled into his underside of his tongue.
"They're white in the spring when they first bloom: the colour of doves' wings. When they ripen they grow yellow fruit that’re tangy and hard when you bite them."
"What about plums?"
"Pulpy." Ashitaka mouthed at her hand like a puppy at play. "The best ones are bruised and ripe to eat."
She laughed. "And p-peaches?"
"They're like—" Ashitaka searched for some sort of verbal descriptor. Ultimately he slid his hand down her tailbone and set it around her rear, squeezing. "Your skin." He mouthed her throat, mumbling against it, "Succulent and soft and sweet."
"Tasty." San puffed against his cheek before she bit it. She hooked her leg behind his shin.
"Oh, and they're pink." Ashitaka rubbed the corner of her mouth and drew her attention to the skin on her thigh, her throat. "The same colour as this." And then he moved his hands from her breasts to her navel and to the warmth between the branching flesh below. "And this."
Rain fell all night, though in a soft, affectionate sort of way. It pattered off leaves, moulding the earth it sunk into, between the breaths San counted below her ears. She drowsed to the rhythm of the perennial heart beating beside her cheek, and fancied, in her half-slumber, that a forest was growing for them within: entwined boughs between fingers interlaced, roots at hips coupled, kodama frolicking amongst pools of hair, and kisses that planted prospects, bright and evergreen.
Ashitaka had hummed again before he fell asleep first, his mouth slack on San's shoulder. San looked upon his still cheeks, the thick lashes, and the shut lids, and wondered what it was he now kept behind them. Did he dream of her and her wild face? Of the primordial wonders of the old forest? Of Emishi, far off in the long east? Did he dream at all?
San closed her eyes, thinking of Ashitaka's bronzed skin and his hot hands around her hips, her breasts. And when she did that for long enough, she was visited with a dream—
—Of a meadow, blindingly green, burying San under it; the earth there was old and without roots to hold it together. San’s half-lidded eyes were still awash with light from a moon too close and too big and too bright.
A voice screamed her name in the dark. She followed it to find him steeped in the milk of the moon, his arms flailing about, desperate to escape. She squinted to see him under the dreary light. And then San called for Ashitaka in the same way she always did in her dreams.
"Live, San!" He gasped for air, for her. "Please! Please."
Something stirred within San. She sat up, struggling free of the grass shackling her down.
In the distance a spooked animal kicked its way around a sinking dell; the ground was quaking, tumbling down boulder by boulder.
"Yakkul?" she called, running to him before the land below ceased to be. The elk perked up at her call and stomped his cloven hoof. It would be a rough road to Ashitaka, but Yakkul was brave and he was strong; he could do it with valour left to spare. "Help carry me to Ashitaka."
The elk bowed his head and allowed San to take him by the horns.
But where would she go? She searched high and low for a trail to the moon. But the only things resembling a viable path to her man across the desolation were the constellations above. They twinkled, mocking her, goading her into rising up to that challenge. Then so be it: San would go to him on a path set by all the star-stoned isles suspended in the sky.
So she held Yakkul's neck fast as they departed, leaping from star to star, straining against the stringent wind, against her own rocky heart.
When she was close enough she reached out for him as desperately as the time she had almost been lost in Okkotonushi. San had always thought the moon would be cold and hard if she were ever to touch it, but this one was not. The grey-white rock slipped through her hands as foam, then dripped away from her fingers. She dug at fluid like a mole would for his home. It was seeping into her eyes, but she clawed at it and struggled against it until she could grip any solid part of him. She fastened her hands around his wrists and pulled with all her might, as she would a stubborn turnip.
"San!" Ashitaka said, finally free, clasping her hands as they floated away from the moon. He was very, very warm. "San, thank you."
"For everything," Ashitaka said, laughing. "We're flying!"
"I guess so."
Something wet was pattering on chuckling San’s shoulder. She tore her eyes away from Ashitaka for a moment and found that above them, the moon was melting and raining down on the earth below. She steered Ashitaka out to take refuge aloft a pearly cloud. The two of them held one another. Ashitaka's arm fit around San's shoulders like a pelt she'd never grown, and she responded in kind by winding her claws around his waist to guard against a vicious world.
Pointing under them Ashitaka said, "Look."
Hydrangeas and forget-me-nots sprung from the ground, blanketing it in hues of early dawn and late dusk: cream-blue, sky-white, violet-pink. Lilies-of-the-valley nestled around them to form a string of white sprites descending from green tethers; camellias and peonies popped open, their petals velvety and flushed like stirred flesh; the orchid dancers twirled in their yellow dresses flecked with crimson. And they all coursed below in a running river of flowers blooming into every colour. Tendrils sprouted between them and soon enough, a forest was born from creeping bark, thickening until the trees had grown tall enough to graze their feet.
San was laughing into Ashitaka's hair, and he was humming the words to that song he so often sang up in the mountains.
Perched above the earth, the two of them remained and watched the forest flourish for an age. The very last thing San remembered dreaming was Moro's husky laughter sounding off on a high northerly wind.
When San stirred from the queer dream, kodama’s laughter was reverberating through the wood from one end to the other. Or from one start to the next. They tended to be particularly lively after rains, for they relished play in the mud and loved their mothers to be happy. And nothing pleased young trees more than long, cool sips of rainwater.
Dewdrops and raindrops rippled through puddles. Birds twittered customary aubades. Crabs traipsed up the river, as was their wont this time of year. The smell of damp soil was close. The crystallised forest would thaw soon. And Ashitaka was resting beside San with his arms around her neck and his breaths hale and warm.
"Are you awake?" she asked, nudging him, "Ashitaka."
"Oh, San—good morning." Ashitaka roused, put his hand to his temple, shook his head, and smiled up at her. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes. I had this dream. It felt like a memory I'd forgotten."
"Ah. Would you share it with me?" Ashitaka wriggled towards San under two layers of sheepskin and bearskin and chafed her hands between his own. "I'd love to hear all about it."
"Well, we were both drowning, in opposite directions." And then San quietened for some time, before she continued, "You into the moon and me into a meadow. But then we called to each other. I found Yakkul nearby and I rode a path of stars to you. I took you out and we flew up to a cloud. Then the moon turned to rain and made a forest grow. We watched it all happen for a long, long time."
"You shook, you know," he said, rapt on her tale and her face, "in the night."
"Did I?" Then she thought of how tactile he had felt when she had touched him in the dream. "I'm sorry I woke you."
"It's all right." He grinned. "You held me in your sleep once it was over and that was the end of it. We both slept soundly after that."
"Were you singing? That song about the bowstrings and the blade and the spirits?"
"Perhaps in my sleep I had been; did you hear it in yours?"
San nodded, touching his jaw. "So you dreamt too? Was it a nice dream?"
"Yes and yes." Ashitaka licked his lips. "I built a hut in the middle of a wood so vast I couldn't ever hope to see the end of it. And you and I and Yakkul lived there. Everyone could come and visit us as they pleased—your brothers, my village, my friends from Tataraba. We had a garden, too. The trees in it bore fruit like opals and the flower buds bloomed into every colour imaginable. Oh, San, it was wonderful."
"Sure sounds that way."
"My, it really was sublime, though it feels strange telling it to you."
"It doesn't feel strange hearing it. And there are parts of it we could try and make happen." San remembered Ashitaka had brought with him seeds in a pouch and kissed the interiors of her lids with the memory of them, their motley spectrum. "We could plant that garden now, if we wanted."
Ashitaka stroked San's cheeks and then her hair, his fingers feather-soft, floating. His eyes lit up, bell-bright and wonder-wide and keen, pealing high into the morning light.
"Why don't we? It's a beautiful day," he said. And then he beamed into the tender greenery outside. "I can hear the kodama laughing."