Even for a village still repairing the damage done to it by a serpent made out of moonlight, they were, Monkey thought, unusual.
In some other kind of story, she or Beetle or both of them might have drifted quietly out of the ending. When even the Moon King dirtied the soles of his sandals on the ground, the days of magic were nearing their end: Kubo’s origami was all that seemed to be left of it, outside of the two jokily misshapen forms of his parents. They might have burned away in the dawn of that new and calmer morning like mist on the hills. But she hadn’t gone through all that to abandon her son.
And she hadn’t gone through all that to lose her husband a second time, either.
“We’re stuck with each other,” she said to Beetle. “That’s what love means.”
“Right,” he said. “A kind of stickiness. Like sap.”
Kubo watched them curiously, strumming just a little on his shamisen, creating some sort of melted-wax backdrop of serene magic that Monkey didn’t know the purpose of. She supposed he’d surpassed her—children did that. That didn’t mean she had to give in to it without crankiness, though, and she was about to ask what he thought he was doing when she realized that small origami flowers were forming everywhere like drifts of pink-and-white cherry blossoms. All boys knew of romance was flowers. It was all she’d known herself, once.
“Kubo,” she said gently, “none of us are going anywhere. There are three strings on the shamisen, and that’s the three of us.”
Something I haven’t figured out yet, Monkey thought.
“Your grandfather,” Beetle said, bringing himself up very proudly to his full height, “is a fish.”
Her father lifted his head. “I’m a fish?” He put out his hand and caught a falling cherry blossom.
Even Kubo looked skeptical. Monkey was relieved by how young his face looked that way, befuddled by the strangeness of his elders: she didn’t like remembering how silent and intent he had been when he’d been her caretaker, or even how brave and wild-eyed he had been when he’d called up the ghosts to defeat his grandfather. She wanted him to be a child for a while longer.
“A fish,” Beetle said. “Well, you remember fishing.”
“Yes,” Kubo said, drawing the word out, unsure.
Beetle held up his fingers and ticked off their roles one by one. “One to fire the bow—that’s you, son—one to tie the rope—that’s your mother—and one to… be the person in charge of teaching people how to shoot fish with arrows. And that’s me. Which makes your grandfather the fish, but we’re not going to eat him.”
“Your father’s right,” Monkey said dryly. “And speaking of eating, none of us have had dinner.”
So, as sticky as sap, as tight as the three strings of the shamisen, and as ungainly as shooting fish with arrows, they settled into a new kind of life together. It was possible, especially in the early days, to keep themselves busy simply with Kubo, who still found a complete set of parents a novelty. Every morning, Monkey and Beetle woke to small origami versions of themselves running around the house, as if Kubo couldn’t stand to be without them even in his dreams. Beetle showed him how to walk on stilts—Monkey had been good at that herself, when she had been Sariatu, but her legs would no longer bring her up so straight—and Monkey licked her palms and pressed them like kisses against the scrapes and bruises he got from falling off them.
Then, too, there was her father—she had no new name for him yet, though Beetle had started, with devastating practicality, to call him Fish—who entered cautiously into teaching Kubo how to play go. He would sometimes pick up the smooth white stones and look at them very, very closely, as if he were remembering something, but then he would laugh at one of Kubo’s jokes—he laughed much more easily these days—and the recognition would fade. The humanity would stay. He bore watching. She loved him, but she had loved him long ago, too, and that hadn’t changed anything. Sometimes love didn’t.
But one day, he said to her, “As much as I still don’t understand precisely how I came to have a daughter who is a monkey who is married to a beetle, and how the two of you came to have a magical but quite human son, it seems to me that, well.” He paused, and there were small spots of red on his cheeks. She had never seen him blush before. The moon and stars have no shame, he’d said once.
“There has been a period of separation, and you and your beetle—good heavens, that sounds ridiculous, my apologies for saying so—might do well to take some time for yourselves.”
“You give marriage advice now,” Monkey said. As far as she could remember, she had never had a mother. Family arrangements had gone differently in the heavens.
But her father, human, wanting to be good, was undaunted: “You should have a chance to be happy.”
“I am happy.”
“You’re at peace,” he said. “Which is not the same thing as being happy.”
She repeated that to Beetle that night, in the awkward arrangement of extra legs and fur that was their cuddling in bed.
“Hmm,” he said. “The moon has always given me terrible advice. But this doesn’t seem like a trick.”
“He said he would watch Kubo.”
“Well, Fish and Kubo get along really well when you take out the eye-gouging and the attempted murder.”
“If Kubo wouldn't mind it,” she said slowly, “and if you would like it, I think—I think a few days away might do us some good.” She felt shyer saying that then she had the first time she had come to him as a woman and let him take her hair down and kiss her. Then, she’d had the confidence of the immortal and the beautiful, and the certainty that theirs was a true and storybook kind of love. Now, they were older and banged-about; their bodies were different. His mind was different.
They could hold together—she believed that—but holding together as a family was different from holding together as husband and wife. Were there any cherry blossoms left for them? Or would it all be the shared quest of their son and her father? She hoped for more, somehow. She had not wanted to lose him and for a time it had seemed like enough to keep him, but—
To be cherished. She had been cherished once.
And she had cherished him, and if he were no longer Hanzo, she was no longer Sariatu. They were still themselves. She burrowed her face into the hard chitin of his shoulder and he tentatively put his arm around her and held her close.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course, my love. Where would you like to go?”
“The hot springs?”
“Heat and springs,” he said. “I love both of them. And you.”
So in the morning, she swung Kubo around in her arms until he protested he was too grown-up for it and, very tentatively, she butted her head against her father’s hip. He settled one hand down on the fur at the back of her neck. “Be well, daughter. Be safe. I will look after Kubo—in the company of a small army of paper soldiers, no doubt. We’ll expect your return in three days.”
“Three,” Beetle said, when he’d finished planting a loud, noisy smack on Kubo’s forehead. She envied his lips—her own were a little too slobbery for that kind of thing now. “One, two, three. Like the shamisen. Like the fish. So you know we’ll remember.”
They were able to hire a small cart in the village.
“Oh, sure,” the woman said. “I can give you a ride out to the onsen. My aunt went there just last month and said it did wonders for her cramps. Do you think it’ll turn you human again?”
“I’d be very surprised,” Monkey said.
“Ah, well. You’ve got your health and your husband and your son and your father.”
“I think my wife is very beautiful,” Beetle said.
People forgot him sometimes, Monkey thought, because in unfamiliar company, he would fall into a kind of puzzled silence, as if he were trying to put together exactly where he was and why. They forgot him as much as it was possible to forget an enormous samurai beetle, at least. That was the kindest way of looking at it, and Monkey did want to be kind, because the village was their home and because they had all lied so beautifully and so helpfully to her father. But the less kind version was that people ignored Beetle because they didn’t think he had anything of value to say.
“Well, of course she is,” the woman said, unruffled as anything.
Monkey thought, We could be happy here. Really happy, not just still alive.
They thanked her for the ride—Beetle repeating her name over and over again to make sure he remembered it and then urging her to bring her daughter over sometime to play with Kubo—and then they were alone. The hot spring was small and secluded—only the size of two or three tubs put together and surrounded by rocky ground that human feet couldn’t negotiate as easily as their own. They bounded towards the water with a kind of giddiness and Monkey threw herself into it without much grace, floating up to the surface and sighing contentedly as steam rose up off her. She breathed in the heavy scent of the minerals.
“I might end up cooking myself,” Beetle said, but not as if he minded it. His hard plates of armor seemed looser somehow, as if he would pop open at any moment like a crab out of its shell. Would Hanzo be inside?
With the white uncurling steam around them and her own body relaxed under the surface of the water, Monkey found she somehow hoped he wouldn’t. Hanzo had been good for Sariatu. Beetle, perhaps, was good for her.
“You might,” she agreed. “It’s your punishment for calling my father a fish. He lives in fear of the sushi knife.”
Beetle laughed a booming kind of laugh. “I don’t remember you being funny before.”
“You don’t remember anything from before.”
“I remember you, I think,” he said. “I mean, not you. But you.”
“The way I used to be?”
He frowned. “No, not at all. I remember—feeling like I had never seen anyone else in the world like you and knowing that was because there wasn’t anyone else like you. I remember wanting to take your hand. I still do.” He reached for it under the water and held it. “You have longer fingers now, that’s all. I mean, by deductive reasoning. I don’t actually remember that. But I remember the feeling of being in love.”
“I remember that too,” Monkey said softly.
She thought he would say, Well, of course, there’s nothing wrong with your memory, but instead, he just held her hand a little more tightly. She held him back with her new long fingers.
They bathed there until they felt in real danger of falling sleep in the water, and then they swam to the edge and clambered out onto the wet rocks. There was no nearby place to lodge, but neither of them was picky about the trivial luxuries of walls and floors. They ate the food they had brought with them—shaking one of Kubo’s offended and still-twitching origami swans out of the pack too—and then found some soft ground and the shelter of a tree. Monkey climbed up it to get a better view of the stars.
“Unfair,” Beetle said. “A clear abuse of monkeyshines.”
“Well, if we need carrion stripped to the bone—”
“—or a tunnel dug through the dirt,” she said, “you’ll have the advantage there.” She lay back on a wide branch. “They’re very beautiful.”
“I know. I can see them. From the ground.”
“Not as clearly.”
“If I didn’t know better,” he said, “I’d think you wanted me to try to climb this tree after you.”
She dangled one hand down invitingly, and that proved to be all the invitation he needed. Beetle approached his ascent up the tree with a samurai’s resourcefulness and efficiency—well, with that resourcefulness and efficiency combined with his own particular aptitudes. Which was to say that in the end he remembered that he was a beetle and that while beetles could not climb in the strictest sense of the world, they could crawl perfectly well, and in the vertical as well as the horizontal. He skittered up to her in one great noisy rush and then flopped beside her on the branch—the tree shook a little but maintained its dignity—seeming very pleased with himself.
“You and I get along very well,” Beetle said.
“We do. I’ve been thinking we might want to get married.”
“The idea so nice, we had it twice.”
“I love you,” Monkey said. “You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course,” he said. “I’m very lovable. I love you too, and, let’s face it, you have a little rougher exterior. All the teeth-baring and the demanding that people listen to you.”
“I was trying to save our son’s life!”
“The important thing,” Beetle said, “is that—well, I don’t know what the important thing is. But I love you very much, maybe even more now than I did before, with the caveat that I’m not an expert on what I did before. But—you’re like being told I can lie down when I’m tired, or come into a warm house when I’m cold.”
She nuzzled up against him. He wasn’t especially comfortable for that kind of thing—it was a bit like the time when, exhausted from battle, he had tried going to bed still wearing the Amor Impenetrable—but all the same there was no part of her that wanted to be anywhere else. He draped one diaphanous wing over her shoulders like a blanket.
Monkey said, “The stars are more beautiful when I look at them with you.”
Really, he had been the one to teach her to appreciate the stars for their own beauty; to love them even when she was earthbound. Her family had had loyalty in place of love—the stars were like them and therefore the stars were worthy of mortal reverence and their own immortal respect. It had taken Hanzo to teach her adoration. She had learned it from the way he traced the shape of her body in the dark, as if he could barely believe she was there. To say: you are not like me, and I love you, I love even the distance and distinction between us because it lets me know how much yourself you are.
That was something very mortal. It seemed worth the price of dying.
They looked at the sky for a long time and then he said, “I liked you saying we were stuck with each other. I—do better with things that are always the same kind of thing.”
“I do too. Some part of me is still used to things being true for centuries.”
“I would love you for centuries.”
She took two of his hands in hers. “I would love you for all of time. And our son. And, whether I should or not, my father.”
“Fish isn’t so bad now,” Beetle said. “And it’s good, having other people. It takes three to catch a fish, and one to be a fish. That’s fine. That’s a family.”
Monkey liked the sound of that. However strange they looked, the matter-of-fact way Beetle accepted it all made it seem natural. But she could feel the tug happening already to be a mother and a daughter and while she wanted those things—wanted that particular set of fishermen companions—she wanted, too, to have this moment just with him.
“Look,” she said, pointing out a shooting star.
Beetle said, “But I can’t take my eyes off of you,” and in such a funny voice—very serious and almost forlorn in its seriousness, as if he didn’t want to miss the star but couldn’t help it—that Monkey loved him more than ever. It seemed sillier with each passing minute to think that there was less magic in the world than there had been before, and just as she thought that, she felt a silky cherry blossom land on her fur, as gentle as a kiss.