Storming around inside her tiny closet, she tore his things from the hangers, hurling them onto the growing pile in the middle of her bedroom.
Shoes, shirts, socks, underwear.
Karou left a lot of stuff at her place.
Everything went into the growing pile.
And it was getting so big it took over her tiny bedroom.
Robbing it of the feeling of home.
You've been together so very long, her mother counseled over the phone after the first time. Give him a break, Chihiro. Men stray easily when they're young. You've got a good thing going with Karou. He's so handsome and your father just loves him. Plus he's got a good job. How often do you find guys like that today? You can forgive him, can't you?
Mom made it sound like it was nothing to get upset about.
She made it sound like it was normal.
To be expected even.
Chihiro let it slide the first time after Karou brought her flowers. It was hard to stay angry when someone brought you flowers. The dozen dried roses were still in a vase in the living room. Something else to toss in the dumpster. Because one time turned into two times. And then three times. Until she was calling him at home. She always hung up when Chihiro answered. But she could tell it was her when Karou picked up. Karou never answered the phone. Not even when Chihiro called. Then yesterday she found a pair of women's underwear in his laundry that weren't hers. The worse part about it was he didn't apologize. He just shrugged with a dismissive smirk. That's what you get for going through my laundry.
She wasn't going through his laundry.
She was doing his laundry!
Anger boiled deep in the pit of her chest as she struggled to tear down a sweater that smelled like his favorite detergent. The only reason he had any clean clothes at all was because she came over twice a week and cleaned his apartment. She didn't have a job. Didn't need one. So she didn't mind picking up after him. He worked such long hours at the office. It was the least she could do. But apparently his long hours had nothing to do with extra work. And her eyes stung with tears as she heaved on knitted material that refused to budge.
The hanger snapped.
Along with the clothes pole.
Chihiro fell to her knees covering her head as the shelves above came crashing down. After the avalanche stilled, she sat up out of the pile. But she didn't feel anything. Not the dull ache where a box had bounced off the top of her head or the throb of her shins from where they'd knocked on the floor. All she felt was numbness. It filled her from top to bottom. Pushing everything else out, leaving her empty.
Because she was alone again.
Completely and utterly alone.
And as she stared at nothing in particular her eyes fell on a piece of paper. It rested on top of a pile of pages spilling out of the unmarked box she kept on the highest shelf in her closet.
It was a drawing.
In it a young girl lazed on the back seat of a car. Her face distant and sad as she looked away out the window. Feet tucked up on a moving box with a plastic wrapped bouquet of roses clasped in her arms. It was signed by Hayao Miyazaki himself. He'd painted the roses yellow with touches of watercolor. Even though in actuality the flowers her friend Michio gave her were pink sweet peas. But this was one of the first concept sketches. He'd given it to her when she toured Ghibli studios.
It was probably worth millions of Yen.
So were many of the things in the box.
Like the first manuscript she'd written by hand. It was so illegible she'd been forced to go through it word by word with the editors. And then there were the drawings she'd made. Pencil scribbles hastily filled in with scratches of color. Miyazaki had been delighted by her crude depictions of the bath house kami, of Yubaba's gigantic bulbous head, and Kamaji's spidery arms. He especially liked the Susuwatari, which reminded him a great deal of his soot sprites from My Neighbor Totoro. She'd let him borrow her sketches while he was working on the animated film.
It had been almost ten years since she'd written her book.
But it was still an international sensation.
Spirited Away had been translated into hundreds of languages.
And now it was the highest grossing box-office film in Japanese history.
Which was why she didn't have a job. Chihiro didn't need one.
That's why Karou had been interested in meeting her. Because of her book. He absolutely loved it when he was a kid. Michio had been the one to arrange their first date. Karou confessed early in their relationship that he'd always wanted to date someone famous. Chihiro didn't really count herself as famous. No one recognized her in the street or asked for her autograph. All the pictures of her in the newspaper clippings and magazine articles beneath the drawings showed the beaming face of a ten-year-old girl.
And then her eyes fell on the VHS tape. Her mom was still on her about bringing it over so they could transfer it to DVD.
On a whim she picked it up and carried it into the living room.
Popping it into the little TV.
Karou was always on her to get rid of the junky little set and get a big plasma screen. He had similar complaints about all the plain furniture in her tiny apartment in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture. It was small but she had a spectacular view of the bay and the Triton Bridge.
You've got all that money! She could just hear his exasperated sigh. Why don't you use it!?
That was probably the only reason he'd stayed with her so long.
But she forgot his voice entirely as the announcer from Japan Today blinked on the screen. A perfectly pretty lady whose name she'd completely forgotten. But she did remember her big glittery gold earrings. They were huge. Exactly something Yubaba would wear.
Today we have a very special guest for our evening interview, Ogino Chihiro, child prodigy and author of the international best seller Spirited Away. Thank you for being with us tonight, Chihiro.
As she bowed the camera switched to a little girl in a bright pink dress with a way too frilly collar. Her mother insisted she wear it, bought it especially for the occasion even though it was ridiculously expensive. She'd also insisted on the bright pink blush and lipstick that made her look like she'd just finished a bowl of cherry flavored shaved ice.
The statement came out in a rushing single word. And the little girl bowed so deeply her pony tail came flipping over the top of her head.
Chihiro smiled as the girl on the TV sat bolt upright in the enormous chair. Gods, she'd been nervous that night.
We'd like to talk about your book tonight, Chihiro. Would you tell our viewers how you came up with the idea for your story?
The little girl shook her head. Oh it's not a story, ma'am. It actually happened!
The perfect pretty lady laughed, leaning in. Really? Even the dragon?
Oh, yes! Haku is real! She clambered to sit up on her knees in the chair and almost fell over as it swiveled. All of them are really real! We were moving into our new house in the sub-developments on Route 21 outside of Mizunami city when we took a wrong turn and ended up in these creepy ruins of an old theme park. I didn't want to go in! But my dad just had to go exploring…
Captivated, the woman listened to every word, every detail.
But Chihiro could tell she didn't believe a single one.
No one did. Not even her parents. And after a while, neither did she.
It was just a dream.
An imagined world full of friends to make up for the friends she'd lost when they moved. Kids stuff. Make believe. Because dragons and talking frogs didn't exist. Neither did soot sprites or greedy black limbed monsters.
There was no such thing as magic.
No such thing as happy endings.
Fast forwarding past the interview, she resume the tape amid a punch of static as another clip exacted out of the snow. A thin angry man with dark glasses and a trench coat was being mobbed by a bunch of TV reporters.
Mr. Fukane! Mr. Fukane! One of the men with microphones called as they trapped him beside a car. Do you still purport to be the real author of the book Spirited Away!?
Of course I do! He snapped back. Do you really think some dim-witted ten-year-old kid could come up with a bestseller!?
The screen flicked back to a newscaster who turned, addressing the viewers. Legal matters in the Ogino versus Fukane case were settled tonight. The Gifu District Court ruled in favor of the Oginos, striking down Mr. Fukane's outrageous and unsupported claims that he was the first person to be transported to the world which Ogino Chihiro described in her best seller and therefore is the original owner of the intellectual content.
All at once she was incredibly tired. As she hit the power button the TV popped and the screen went black. Looking at her desk, she stared at the laptop open on the table. A word document was open. The blinking cursor the only thing on the page. Ten years she'd stared at that same blank page.
It remained empty.
Just like her insides.
No matter what she did it felt like something was missing from inside of her. Something she'd forgotten. Something she'd lost. And she couldn't put her finger on it. Looking around at her practically empty apartment, Chihiro couldn't find a single thing that mattered to her. Things left over from high school and her failed attempt at college.
Stuff. It was all stuff.
Retrieving the tape from the TV, she carried it back into the disaster of a bedroom that was more Karou's then hers. She gathered all the things about her story back into the box, tossed a random assortment of clothes into a bag, and went into the bathroom to get her toothbrush.
Chihiro stopped. Staring at the woman in the mirror.
She was slim with a long black pony tail and pinked cheeks.
Her dark eyes stared back uncomprehending.
And she was frowning.
Because she was a stranger.
A ghost. Transparent. Lost. Confused.
Chihiro fled the reflection. Box in hand, bag slung over her shoulders, she grabbed her laptop, cell phone and charger, balancing the load on her knee so she could lock up. Flying down the stair well. Dumping everything into her little white Daihatsu Mira. It jostled as she climbed inside, making the plushy soot spirit hanging from the rearview mirror bounce and swing. She watched it dance for a moment and then pulled out her phone. Speed dialing. The answering machine picked up before Yuko could answer.
"Hi, mom… It's Chihiro. I'm coming home."
By car it only took about an hour to get to get home.
The flatlands fell away as Route 19 drifted north east, climbing out of the sprawling suburbs into the gentle swelling hills of the tree covered Kani District. But things had changed since the last time she'd visited. As she turned onto Route 21 she noticed with a sinking feeling that more and more of the trees were gone. And the hill tops that once sported red and yellow maples were now crowned with rows upon rows of neatly arranged houses.
It shouldn't have bothered her. Her parent's house was perched on top of a nearly identical hill. But for some reason the change upset her. It upset her a lot. So much so that she stomped the brakes as she was about to turn onto the winding incline leading up to her parents home. Their house was perched on the edge of a grassy field directly adjacent to the tangled woods that ringed the old amusement park. She'd spent hours exploring the edges of the forest. Watching tadpoles turn to frogs in the mossy ponds. Spying on crows and jays. She'd even seen a weasel once.
But Chihiro clambered out of her car.
Staring at the gigantic sign showing a smiling modern family in front of an equally sensible modern house.
Coming soon! It proudly announced. Phase two of the Tochinoki Residential Development!
And she wasn't looking at the sign anymore.
She was staring at the muddy scar.
The east side of the hill had been stripped of all its green.
The woods were gone.
The old bristle pine and its old tori gate was gone.
So were the little Kami houses and the stone guardians.
Out of the stump covered wound in the earth the cindered bones of the clock tower pointed at the sky. Badly burned, missing its roof and windows, it's blue tiles and vermillion walls were consumed in black. Only the tower remained, listing to the side as if ready to fall at any moment. It was a husk. A tattered shell she did not recognize.
Her knees dissolved. And she caught the door, barely holding herself upright as tears flooded her eyes, falling uncontrollably as she sobbed. And she didn't understand the overwhelming sorrow that assaulted her. Didn't understand the gaping hole that opened in her chest.
The word reverberated in her mind like the knell of a brass bell.
And she didn't understand.
"Aren't you hungry, dear?" Yuko frowned at her still full rice bowl.
There was gray in her mother's hair. Strings of silver at her temples that didn't used to be there along with the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. Only her pink lipstick remained a perpetual constant. It never smudged.
"I'm not feeling very good." She murmured, taking a sip of tea. It didn't taste like anything. Not barley. Not honey. And she struggled to not to look out the window at the bleeding red earth beyond their yard. "May I be excused?"
She was a grown woman. Twenty years old. She could drink, smoke, and vote if she wanted to.
But the moment she sat down at her parent's table she became a child.
"I don't see what you're so upset about." Akio huffed around a mouthful of pork katsu. "The theme park's been derelict for decades. I'm surprised it didn't burn down sooner what with all the kids from the development going over there after hours and making mischief. Good riddin's, I say. Someone was bound to get hurt over there."
Chihiro looked at her dad as he tipped his rice into his mouth, leaning back to shovel in every last grain. His greedy eyes never left his food, as was evident by the additional weight he was carrying around his middle.
"They're planning on building a park once the houses go in. They'll plant more trees. You'll see. It'll be better than the old forest. With lights, play equipment, a soccer field and everything."
Instantly she was sick to her stomach.
That wasn't possible.
"You go on up to bed, dear. I'll check on you later." Yuko planted a kiss on her head as she stood, turning to her husband, "Do you want some more rice, dear?"
"Yeah," Her dad held out his bowl. "Pork too. G'night, Chihiro."
Pushing away from the table, she passed through the house without making a sound. She hadn't told them about breaking up with Karou. Hadn't told them that she'd given up on another term at Nagoya University. Staring at the carpet, she climbed the stairs. It was the peak of summer. And a wall of warm waited on the second story in spite of the fact that the air conditioner was humming at full tilt.
But she paused as her eyes fell on a huge frame in the hall. It was brand new, made of silver gilded cobalt glass. Expensive from the look of it. Inside was a drawing, another of Miyazaki's watercolors. She'd given it to Yuko for her birthday. A little girl with a pony tail wearing a pink uniform looked up at the expansive sky of blue. In the distance, curling like a wisp of cloud, was a long line of white.
Chihiro stared at the dragon.
Startled by the thrill that sank through her chest like an electric shock.
Ducking into her room, she pushed the door closed, letting the familiar space surround her like the warm press of the evening. Like her mother's lipstick, her room hadn't changed a bit. It was the same as the day she left for College, right down to the frilly pink rust ruffle Yuko'd put on her bed. Sunset was climbing through the windows, turning the pale walls blood red. And she pushed open her window, letting the evening breath its breath into her room. But there were no cicadas singing outside. And as she curled up on top of her blankets she missed their song terribly.
"No!" She gasped.
Jolting awake, trying to escape the gigantic gaping mouth that opened behind her like a black pit. Beyond the burned shards of its sharp teeth, the monster's tongue bled red earth, turning to a muddy slick that pulled her deeper into the emptiness inside its stomach. And she kicked her knee into the wall as she thrashed. The impact knocked something off the shelf overhead. It beaned her right on the head. Landing in the dark with a musical plink!
"Ow!" She whined, sitting up only to find herself drenched in sweat.
Switching on the light, she found she'd kicked all the stuffed animals off her bed. They glared up at her disapprovingly with their beady button eyes. Then she her music box had been the thing that'd hit her on the head. The lid had broken in the fall. The lining was separating from the interior. Leaning over the edge of the bed she plucked it up, only to have something fall out. It was a waded up handkerchief. Pink. Like the rest of the things Yuki bought for her when she was a little girl. There was something wrapped inside it. She turned the contents out into her hand.
It was a shell. Or a scale. Or something.
Smooth and white like a fresh water clam. But harder. Shinier. Thinner. A blue iridescence coated the inside; it showed all the colors of the rainbow as she turned the scale back and forth. Only then did she notice the loop wrapped around it's the narrowest part. At first it looked like a hair tie. But the loop seemed to unroll in her hands, until it became a cord on which the shell hung like a pendant. She had no idea where it had come from.
"Pretty…" Chihiro murmured, putting it on.
The moment she did a cold wind rushed in the open window, bringing with it the smell of distant rain. Reaching up she pulled the window closed, curling up on the bed as she wound the music box, putting it on the beside table to play.
She recognized the tune.
But couldn't remember the words.
Slightly annoyed, she listened.
Until she fell asleep.
It was raining when she woke up.
Her mom was more than upset to find she'd packed the Mira by the time she'd got up to get breakfast together. Chihiro couldn't stand to stay there a second longer. Not with what was waiting for her outside. She got all the back to Nagoya, but passed her exit, finding herself still driving, turning onto Route 1. Heading east. Heading towards the sea.
And it was still raining after nearly five hours of driving.
Fat raindrops pattered against the windshield as she turned off the 1 onto Route 136. And the angry black waters of great Suruga Bay churned below the highway perching on the edge of Izu Peninsula. She eased her way down the waterlogged switchbacks into a little fishing village tucked onto the handful of white sand that ringed Matsuzaki Bay. But even as she slurped cool soba noodles she didn't find any peace. Outside on the beach, towering over the quaint little restaurant, shadowing the beautiful green swells of forest was an enormous hotel. It dominated the circle of land, and from the cleared swathes torn in the hillsides, Chihiro could tell the resort was expanding.
Back in her car, she kept driving, crossing a muddy angry river as the road climbed sharply, snaking its way up and over the cliffs. The blades of the Mira's windshield wipers squeaked back and forth and back and forth as the downpour continued. Falling heavier and heavier until she could barely see the road. But she didn't care. She wasn't afraid of driving in the rain. If anything an anxious point of excitement was winding tighter and tighter inside her chest. It felt like she was getting closer to something. But she had no idea what that something was.
Again she dipped low into another fishing village: Kumomi-cho of Minamiizu read the sign.
On the way back up the opposite hills she saw another sign. A hot spring bath house and inn.
Something snapped inside her.
The same something that made her pass her exit in Nagoya.
The same something that drove her all the way to Izu.
It rang like a bell, sending her fingertips humming.
And it wasn't long until she saw the sign again.
As the Mira parted thick mists that were really clouds as the road suddenly leveled out, cutting inland away from the seaside. Old trees leaned over the road, and she peered through the sunroof at their mossy nodding heads. Cedars, maples, and pines. She was so busy marveling at their huge trunks that she almost missed the turn off. But she didn't miss the "For Sale Sign" tacked above the main gate. She frowned as an irrational twinge of worry started up in her stomach. Gravel crunched beneath the wheels of her car as she slowly trundled down a long drive that cut a winding path through the forest. A swiftly running stream ran its way back and forth beneath the road. And she crossed several wooden bridges. Finally the road opened up into a parking lot ringed by a bamboo fence. And in the distance through the moisture laden air, she saw the bath house.
Something fluttered in Chihiro as memory beat its wings against the inside of her head.
Déjà vu hit her full force, leaving her feeling like she'd been here before.
But she'd never in her life been to Izu.
She stared between the dripping trees at the front of the building. It was a traditional Japanese building, two stories, with many sliding paper doors and windows that glowed with light from within. A long fence continued on either side of the house, disappearing off into rows of decoratively trimmed ornamental pines. Over the top she could see miniature trees frosted in flowers of pink and purple. Rain ran in rivers from the flared corners and gables of the blue tiled roof. Dripping down in a curtain before the split curtains hanging from the inside porch, washing over the light posts flanking the main entrance. A gracefully arched bridge spanned the same chuckling stream from earlier, leading right up to the wide welcoming entrance. Flying in the weather like a soggy towel was a indigo flag printed with the symbol for "bath." And over the door was a great gold plaque that bore the bath house's name.
Hakuryo Onsen. The White Dragon Hot Springs.
Leaving her things in the car, she ran through the rain up into the main entrance, pushing through the curtains. The insides breathed warm moist air that smelled sharp and green. Unfortunately the greeting station empty. There was a steaming cup of tea on the table beside the open appointment book. Feeling only slightly guilty for being nosy, she glanced at today's entry, hoping they weren't booked for a special event. It was empty. Just like the parking lot outside. Hence there wasn't a single set of shoes in the entryway cubbies. Taking hers off and stowing them in the visitor spaces, she hung her dripping jacket on one of the hooks, smoothing her damp hair.
Going around the corner she looked down the empty hallway. Fidgeting. Waiting. A clock on the wall ticked away as the rain pattered on the bridge outside. Distantly she could hear an old radio playing scratched war era tunes. Chihiro started as a paper screen suddenly snicked open. An old lady in a blue head scarf and apron shuffled out backwards. Slowly. Unhurriedly. Carrying a huge stack of clean towels, she was humming to herself absently. Chihiro's heart leapt at the tune. It was the song from her music box. And a strange shiver passed between her shoulder blades. But the woman turned away, heading down the long hall, not even seeing her.
The old lady gasped, tossing towels every which way as she knocked back against the wall, genuine fear turning her face into a mask of wrinkles.
"I'm sorry!" Chihiro cried, coming over to help gather up the towels, folding them back up as she handed them over.
"Goodness! You gave me quite a fright, young lady." An easy laugh slipped from her before she beamed like sunshine splitting clouds, "But please! Please come in! Welcome to the Hakuryo Onsen. I hope you didn't try to call. Unfortunately the phone is out."
"N-no…" She was still hurriedly folding towels, "I saw the signs and thought I might stop."
"Excellent!" The old woman nodded with another warm smile as she opened a cabinet and tucked away the towels. "We're completely open. You'll have the whole place to yourself, lucky you!"
The light filtering in from outside suddenly blotted out as the downpour intensified. It sounded like someone had dumped a bucket of bolts and screws on the roof. Overhead the lights flickered and went out as the radio silenced in the distance.
"Oh dear…" The old woman blinked at the ceiling with a weary frown, "M'afraid that happens a lot out here. They'll come back on eventually."
Suddenly Chihiro's stomach let out a loud petulant growl. The soba noodles hadn't lasted long. And the old woman looked at her before smiling into the back of her hand. Her watery gray eyes disappeared into wrinkles behind her gold rimmed spectacles.
"Goodness! Looks like you came at the right time. I was just going to make lunch." She waved her down the hallway, beckoning, "My name is Mrs. Nikkou and I would be honored if you would accept the hospitality of my kitchen."
Chihiro followed, instantly feeling at home. Mrs. Nikkou reminded her of someone. But she couldn't remember who. A spark of irritation went through her at the failure of her memory. She was forgetting things left and right! But it was definitely not dad's mother. Mrs. Ogina was a foul tempered old pepper-pot with a penchant for scolding and slapping hands. She had a jar of rice candy that was a relic from the Meiji Era. Grandmother Ogina insisted Chihiro take a piece every time they visited even though they were all stuck together and rubbery.
But her attention drifted form family relations as they passed the main hall. This is where communal meals were served to guests. It was a big beautiful room floored entirely in tatami mats with many sliding paper screens. The open rafters were constructed of enormous beams, cut from single trees from the look of it. All the exposed wood was stained in warm maple, just like the lacquered hall floors beneath her feet. She peered inside, marveling at the beautiful screen paintings. Long spindly pines emerging from creamy mists. Then she caught sight of a Kamidana at the very end of the room. Facing west, the household Shinto shrine was decorated with a gigantic shimenawa, one of the biggest braided rice straw ropes Chihiro'd ever seen. Hanging from it were numerous shide, which brushed blooming wands of sakisaki leaves set up in earthware vases. Oranges, cherry blossoms, bowls of water, sake, and rice also adorned the house shrine.
Yuko and Aiko were both modern Japanese. They didn't necessarily believe in anything expect the healthy development of material wealth. Although she'd never really thought much about religion, for some reason the fact that Mrs. Nikkou was a Shintoist made Chihiro very happy.
Continuing down the long hallway, they pushed between an indigo split curtain printed with cranes, going down series of wide steps into a cozy kitchen that seemed to span hundreds of years. Tucked under the somewhat smoky sloping eaves, it boasted a traditional open fire pit as well as a wall hearth. It also had a somewhat modern range and refrigerator: hulking chrome war era beasts from the look of them.
"Here we are," the old lady beamed.
And the fridge began vibrating tremulously as the motor kicked on. And the lights flickered on overhead somewhat dubiously.
"Hah!" Mrs. Nikkou laughed as she came down to the big sink. It was tiled in rich emerald squares. So were the walls and floor, a sharp contrast to the shockingly bright orange cushions on the benches at the small table in the breakfast nook. Bunches of tart smelling herbs hung on hooks far overhead. And a battered black kettle hissed and sputtered on the pilot light.
Chihiro jumped back as the hissing continued, shrinking from the black cat that she'd mistaken for a heap of charcoal. It fluffed up its tail, growling as its eerie red-brown eyes fixed on her.
"Oh, that Cinna." The bath house keeper waved dismissively even as the creature continued to glare. Her dander had gone down, but her tail remained at end like a bottle brush. "Cinna for cinnamon. She's a good kitty. Aren't you Cinna?"
The cat looked away from the old woman's cooing. Smacking her lips in utter disdain she slunk out a hatch in the back door with the tip of her tail twitching, letting in a puff of damp smelling air. And Mrs. Nikkou bowed her to the kitchen table, returning with a cup of green tea.
"I do apologize for not serving you in the main hall," She fretted bashfully, "But it's so much warmer in here."
"Thank you for the tea," The bowed to each other, "No, no. I like it here." Chihiro assured her as she whipped up in what seemed like the blink of an eye a delicious lunch of a rich seafood broth and fish dumplings with boiled rice and pickled daikon radish on the side.
"This is absolutely delicious!" Chihiro bowed again as Mrs. Nikkou refilled her rice bowl.
"Oh, you're too kind." She flushed just a little bit, revealing that she must have been quite beautiful when she was younger. She poked a knotted finger at the window, "I still grow the diakon in my garden, although I'm too old to grow much else. My grandson Hidé brings me the fish fresh from the sea. He's about your age. A fisherman down in Minamiizu like his father Maboru."
Chihiro found herself frowning, "You live here all by yourself?"
"I do. No one here but me and Cinna. Hidé comes to visit me whenever he can. And the bathhouse guests come as they may. Sometimes I hire girls from town to help in the summer. But the sea took my husband twenty years ago so I'm used to running this place," She remained smiling as she sipped her tea, and Chihiro almost missed the last part.
"I… I'm sorry!"
"Don't be. What the kami take they eventually give back." She waved again, her eyes lost in wrinkles, "But what brings you to Shizuoka?"
"I…" Chihiro floundered, "I don't know."
"Eh?" Mrs. Nikkiou beamed up at her, her pale eyes strangely knowing, "You're on a pilgrimage them?"
"I… I guess so."
"What are you looking for, my dear?"
"If you have time you should go ask the Kami-sama at the Sengen Jinja. It's a beautiful shrine if you have the legs for all the stairs. How long will you staying with us, dear?"
"A while I think. Maybe a week." That sounded right. Because more and more Chihirou had a feeling she needed to be here. Thanks to Mrs. Nikkou it already felt like home.
"Wonderful! I must say I haven't had hardly any visitors this season." A line formed between her brows, and the frown on her lips seemed thoroughly out of place, "People just don't get away as much as they used to. Young folks don't want to leave behind their phones and their computers. And old folks don't have the money they used to. What with the hot springs in Atami by the train lines and that big resort in Matsuzaki, we're seeing fewer and fewer people out here. My son and grandson already have their hands full with fishing. Neither one of them are interested in hot springs. Too bad I never had a daughter, because the bath house had been in the family for ages. But I'm getting old and I just can't keep up anymore. It's sad, but unfortunately I'm trying to sell our little Onsen."
"Bah… Enough of my troubles," the shadow passed from the old woman and her face resumed its Buddha's smile as she flushed darkly, putting a hand to her mouth. "Oh my… You know what, my dear? I just realized I haven't asked you your name yet."
"Ogina." Chihiro smiled, "Ogina Chihiro."
Mrs. Nikkou stared at her like a gaping fish, her colorless eyes going large and utterly shocked. It took her a moment to find her voice, which was hushed with hope.
"The… the author of Spirited Away?"
"Ummm..." It was her to turn to go bright red, "Y-yes."
Mrs. Nikkou stood bolt upright in her chair, clapping her hands and laughing exultantly, giving Chihiro quite a scare.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" She dabbed her glowing eyes with the corner of her blue apron, reaching out to take her hand, "Oh, you must think I'm a crazy, crazy old lady, but I can't tell you how delighted I am to meet you. And not just because I run a bath house, ha-hah! I used to read your book to little Hidé practically every night when he was a boy. He loves it still. Almost everyone in Kumomi and Minamiizu have copies since the movie came out. I'll have to call him when the phones come back on. I'll ask him to take you to the Shrine and show you around town."
"T-thank you." It hard to not smile when Mrs. Nikkou was smiling.
"Oh, dear, I'm so sorry for making a fuss." She was bright pink again, bowing again and again so the back of her blue head scarf waved up and down in the wind she was generating, "Here you are on vacation trying to relax! But could… Could I ask a small favor? Would you please sign Hidé's book?"
"Of course," Chihiro reassured her with a bright smile. "I'd be glad to."
"Thank you! Thank you!" Mrs. Nikkou bowed her way out of the room, and she could hear the quick patter of the old woman's steps growing distant as she went off somewhere into the inn to retrieve the book.
As she waited Chihiro pulled the bit of shell from under her shirt to fiddle with the smooth surface. Worrying it back and forth between her fingers. Until she heard the approaching patter of Mrs. Nikkou's slippered feet.
"Here it is!" She held up the colorfully bound hard back as she pushed through the curtains, "A first edition even!"
But she came up short, her eyes going wide behind her glasses as she stared at Chihiro's shell necklace.
"Where did you get that?" She was pointing. Recognition flared up in her colorless eyes like an exploding firecracker. And the line was back between her brows as they knitted high onto her forehead.
"This?" She looked down at the shell, "I… I dunno… I found it at my parent's house before I came here. Do you know what kind of shell it is?"
"Actually it's a scale. Not a shell." Mrs. Nikkou was smiling again, but it seemed forced as she put the book before her and retrieved a pen from a jar beside the ancient looking phone. Bowing again. Deeply. "I can't thank you enough, Miss Ogina. This really does mean the world to me."
Rolling around on top of the futon, Chihiro sighed into the indigo twilight.
She couldn't sleep. Again.
All she could think about was the "For Sale" sign out front.
Outside the cicadas were singing away. And she listened. Finally giving up. Coming down the stairs from the second story where her room was located, Chihiro opened a sliding door and stepped out onto the roofed balcony running all three sides of the courtyard. The Hakuryo must have been a farm at one point. Because the cleared gardens went on and on. Raised beds mostly choked with weeds melted into the distant tree line.
The rain had passed.
Leaving behind a sea of stars.
Looking at the sky she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen stars.
Nagoya was too big a city. Noisy and bright 24 hours a day.
And beyond the adjacent wing of the inn she could see steam rising into the clear night sky from the outside pools. Following the covered walkway to the changing rooms, storing her things in one of the lockers before stripping down to a towel. She scrubbed herself with the soap in the wash cubicles before pushing through the split curtains out into the patio. The steaming pool was lined with flat black stones probably hauled up from the beaches, smelling slightly sulfurous. The water was as green as the tiles in the kitchen. And a waterfall gurgled from a pile set up in the deep end. All around the high fence were well manicured miniature trees. A blooming plum leaned out over the pool, dusting it with the red snow of its petals as the black mirror of its surface reflected the Milky Way overhead.
Chihiro shivered as she pinned her locker key to the folded her towel, putting it on the lip of the pool, stepping into the hot water. At first it was a shock against her skin. But the heat faded, turning soothing and silk as she waded through the shallows to the deep side. Pulling her long black hair from its bun, she ducking her head under the water. Holding her breath she sank to the bottom, enjoying the whispering feel of her hair floating around her bare skin.
It was so quiet under the water. So peaceful.
Wrapped it in completely she forgot the emptiness inside.
Forgot all about cheating Karou.
She wished she could become a fish. Or a turtle.
Anything so she didn't have to surface.
But her lungs were beginning to burn.
Reluctantly she straightened, gasping in a breath, only to catch shreds of a quick approaching conversation. Chihiro shrank behind the waterfall, hiding, listening as an unfamiliar female voice called out in utter irritation. Young and snippy.
"Ba-chan! Ba-chan!? Will yeh quit makin' me chase yeh!?"
There was no mistaking the drawl of the strange woman's northern accent. Just like there was no mistaking the harried patter of Mrs. Nikkou's slippers. But Chihiro frowned. Because there were no other guests at the Ryoken. She hadn't heard any cars pull up. And Mrs. Nikkou said she lived alone.
"Oh, dear…" The old woman was pacing, obviously upset, "Oh, dear, dear, dear… Where am I going to get that kind of money? I can barely afford to pay our property taxes as is. But they're going upagain!? Oh, dear…"
"Will yeh stop frettin' 'bout money an' listen to me!?" The stranger hissed. They were on the patio now, and Chihiro shrank closer against the smooth rock, cheeks burning. Because she was very naked.
"Shhh, Cinna!" The old woman whispered, "You'll wake up Chihiro!"
Chihiro blinked. Cinna was the cat's name.
"Ah, calm down. Yeh can't hear nothin' at the house from here. Besides, let her hear! M'telling yeh she wants teh buy the ryoken!"
And Chihiro started. How… How did she know!? She hadn't said a thing to anyone! She listened more intently, cheeks still burning as the strange continued to talk. Making so sense at all.
"This's what' you've been waitin' for! An' she's perfect! When you ever gonna find another human better'n her!? That necklace is proof!"
Necklace? Chihiro's hand unconsciously went to the shell around her neck. She'd forgotten to take it off.
"I know! I know!" The old woman fretted, "But they want this place so badly I don't know what they'll do!"
"I'll tell you what they'll do!" The younger woman growled like an angry cat, "They'll tear down the village and the hill sides and the trees and the shrines! They'll fill in the bay and the rivers and streams and build condos, and… and resorts!" She spat the word like poison, "And it will be just like the Tama Hills! They'll be no where left for us to go! I won't play human like the tanuki or the kitsune! I'd rather beg for scraps!"
"Buddha be merciful…" Mrs. Nikkou was praying, her soft voice tremulous in the distance, "Buddha be merciful…"
Chihirou went still as the stone beside her as she imagined the perfect hills stripped of all their green. Bleeding muddy red as the cranes loomed overhead. And her insides boiled with rage. No. She wouldn't stand to see the same thing happen to these hills. Not if there was anything she could do about it.
But Cinna wasn't done with her tirade yet.
"I don' like you bein' here by yourself! Works too hard for you. An' I can't be around all the time to look after you! That's why you gotta sell to her before the city takes back the property and They get their hands on our home at the auctions."
Chihiro was beginning to understand that They was synonymous with developers. Probably the same people responsible for tearing holes in the hills of Matsuzaki.
"But she's such a nice girl!" Mrs. Nikkou was tearful, "I couldn't stand myself if they did something to her."
"Aw... She's got ah few tricks up her sleeve." The younger woman dismissed her worries, growing mysterious, "He came with her, after all."
He? Chihirou frowned. Who had come with her?
"R-really?" The old woman was snuffling hopefully.
"Tch! Where do you think all that damned rain came from!?" Cinna smacked her lips irritably, just like the cat in the kitchen, "Chihiro's gonna wake up sooner or later. S'written all over her face. Best it behere an' not in the city."
How… How did these people know her? She'd never been here before, but these people seemed to know things about her no one could know. None of this made any sense!
"Leave it alone for tonight, Cinna… We'll talk about this in the morning."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah…" The stranger sighed. Her voice fading as she pushed back through the curtains into the changing room, "See yeh, Ba-chan."
"Good night, Cinna." Mrs. Nikkou paused, talking to herself now. "Oh… What's this doing here? Goodness… This old lady is leaving things all over the place."
Chihiro waited anxiously until the inn keeper's slippers patted their way into the distance, coming out from behind the rock only to find her towel was gone. And so was the key. Why she'd even bothered to lock her stuff up was beyond her. There was no one out here! Although apparently there were people out here. Whoever this Cinna lady was Chihiro had no clue. One thing remained certain. She was going to have to wear a towel back to her room and be glad no one else was staying at the Ryoken.
With a heavy sigh she ducked back under the water, tucking her knees up against her chest, blowing out the air in her lungs until she sank to the bottom. The bubble gurgled in her ears. Filling her head with watery murmurs.
Once again she was forced to surface before she wanted to.
Gasping and coughing, she wiped the water from her eyes.
Staring at the clothes that had appeared on the rock beside the stairs.
Her clothes. Neatly folded and placed onto of a fresh towel.
Looking around she didn't see anyone.
No one at all.
"H-hello?" She called to the silence, receiving it in return.
What the hell was going on at this place!?
Chihiro frowned at the tray set out in the great room.
She barely noticed it as she passed.
It was positioned in the place of honor. At the head of the long low table that stretched the length of the room. Directly below the Kamidana. It looked like it had been there all night. But the rice bowl was empty and tea cup dry. So was the plate bare of any food. A white dragon was painting on the ceramic dish, hovering over the curving emerald hills that dropped into a glassy cobalt glazed sea.
But the plate was not entirely empty.
In the middle, balanced in the cup of an shell, was a perfect pale pearl.
Still frowning, Chihiro picked up the tray and carried it down the kitchen steps. And her eyes went straight to the cat curled up in front of the refrigerator exhaust. The tip of her black tail flicked and twitched as a red eye cracked open in the barest acknowledgement that she existed.
"Good morning, my dear," Mrs. Nikkou beamed over the pot of rice porridge she was stirring. Although a nervous twitch tightened her eyes as she saw the tray in her hands and the shell on the plate.
"I found this in the great room."
"Goodness… I'm such a forgetful old lady." She took the tray and set it aside, waving her towards the table, "Would you like some breakfast?"
Normally she would have replied yes.
Currently, however, she was very sick to her stomach.
She hadn't slept a wink last night.
Thinking about what the other Cinna said.
Because she was right, and no amount of queasiness would change her mind. And after ten years of staring at an empty word document, she decided she needed a change of profession. Getting down on her knees, Chihirou bowed deeply.
"If you please, Mrs. Nikkou, I would like to buy your bath house."
The old woman dropped her spoon.
It bounced off the range ad clattered to the floor.
Stretching, Cinna got up and came over to lap up spilled flecks of rice.