Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in the quirky blend of worlds, especially for the one who takes his job seriously. A round of recognition is due. To Yuki Urushibara for creating the hauntingly beautiful, often melancholy world of Mushishi. And to Hayao Miyazaki, the creative force behind My Neighbor Totoro. Stories like theirs capture my imagination and stir my creativity. May they go on forever.
Chapter Two: Professor
Relieved when they exited the thicket so he could stand, Ginko followed Mei's unerring course to a sagging house of unusual design. He took a moment to study the view. Fields and paddies stretched toward the horizon, confirming little more than the long walk he had ahead of him.
Turning to consider the enormous camphor tree, he tried to think of anyplace he hadn't been. Some corner of the country he'd missed. Because surely he'd have remembered such a landmark.
At least the way back to the Uroana was well-marked.
A man came around the side of the house, the little girl leading him by the hand. Ginko rubbed his chin to hide his frown. The man's clothes didn't suit the setting. Only cityfolk and travelers adopted Western styles, much as Ginko had. He took another, longer look at the house. It was old. A worn-out place. Yet it was new to him. Unusual.
Perhaps this man's family were carpenters? That might explain it.
"Hello. How do you do?" The girl's father smiled and offered his hand. "The name's Kusakabe. Tatsuo Kusukabe. Mei said you're lost?"
Ginko accepted the handclasp even though it was out of the ordinary. In his line of work, it helped to have a keen eye for details, and his attention kept catching on them. The style of the man's clothes. The frames of his glasses. Even the cut of his hair.
"Please, come inside," the man invited.
Stepping out of his shoes, Ginko followed the man into a room that was a blend of familiar and eccentric. Worn wood and fresh tatami covered the floors, and the sliding screens were in good repair. But the ceilings seemed unusually high.
Waving toward a low table, Kusukabe invited, "Have a seat. I'll bring something to drink."
But Ginko followed him, wanting to see more.
The man didn't protest, only asking, "Are you hungry?"
"A little," he admitted. The house wasn't offering much information. No sign of industry, unless there was a workshop in an outbuilding.
Kusukabe stepped off the smooth planking into a narrow room with an earthen floor, where a hand pump stood over a wide basin. "It's not very convenient, but I grew up with this sort of thing. It's nostalgic, you know?"
Ginko offered a vague hum. Setting down his traveling case, he dropped his coat over it, then stepped down into the room, which seemed to have been designed solely for food preparation, like in the big houses in prosperous villages. Odd to find such a citified custom imitated here.
"I'll fix an early lunch while you freshen up. Just through there," invited the man.
Along a narrow hall, up a few steps, Ginko found himself in a room covered in blue tile. A bathhouse?
Despite his curiosity, he quickly washed up and returned to find Mei grimly setting the table. She eyed him suspiciously, so he let her be.
"Do you need to telephone anyone?" asked her father.
Mystified, Ginko only replied, "Can't say I do. May I ask… what's your line of work?"
"Professor at the university." His wave communicated distance. "They're on summer break right now. That's why I'm here. How about yourself? What brings you out this way?"
"I'm a traveler, and I found myself here." Ginko fell back on old habits. "Any trouble in the area? Strange happenings? I make my way as a mushishi."
This was met by an expression of pleasant confusion.
Ginko was beginning to be worried.
"And you lost your way?" Kusukabe snapped his fingers. "Would a map help?"
"Quite a bit, even if it's out of date."
Waving for Ginko to follow, the man strolled into a room full of books, papers, and a dozen oddities he didn't recognize. Perplexity was edging toward suspicion. Kusukabe pulled and pushed until he located a large square of paper which he unfolded atop a table scattered with papers. Ginko stared in increasing concern at the perfect lines and tiny characters.
"We're here." Kusukabe laughed lightly and traced a line. "I take the bus all the way into the city here. We moved out this far to be close to the hospital where my wife is recuperating from a long illness. The countryside is meant to be good for her health."
Ginko nodded. Then shook his head, trying to deny the evidence spread before him.
The shapes were right. He traced a few of the roads he'd traveled, the mountains he knew. But too much was different. And he could only think of one reason for the discrepancies. He'd been wondering where the Uoana spat him out. He should have been wondering when.
"May I confide in you, sir?"
"I traveled here by unconventional means, and I think I made a … a misstep." Ginko rested his fingertips lightly on the map. "I seem to have been displaced. What is the year, please?"
Ginko frowned. This might be bad.
Eyes wide, voice low, Kusukabe asked, "What year is it by your reckoning?"
"First year of the Meiji era."
"But that's astonishing!" The man whirled to look at his shelves, then whirled back so fast he teetered. His fingers flashed as if doing sums. "Are you quite sure? Because that would be 1868. Ninety years ago!"
End Note: Posted on September 22, 2019 in celebration of my fandom anniversary! More festivities underway at ForthWrites dot com. 882 words.