Disclaimer: Mushishi is © Yoshiyama Yuki, Afternoon Magazine, Kodansha, Artland, etc.. This is a non-profit fanwork.
The Living Heart
by Fushigi Kismet
He is a man who above all believes in reason. He has spent his life chasing the mysteries of the world; has doggedly followed every wayward passing cloud, dipped his toes in every spring that bubbled its way through all the layers of the world, and plunged headlong into every cave that held an endless night.
The wild, the strange, the fantastic . . . each has held their own answer.
There is a truth at the heart of every unknown thing.
Death, he thinks, like life, has an answer that will only be known to you when the moment is upon you. Perhaps it is the same moment - the cessation of life, the beginning of death. It is a mystery that stretches endlessly before him but he cannot think of it as one he wishes to solve. Not now. There is either endless time with which to explore that secret or there is none at all. Either way he cannot be bothered to search for an answer that will come to him in its own sweet and bitter time.
This is the beginning of silence. This is the end.
The flesh that should have been consigned to ash, to earth, to the river of light that flows beneath all the world's surfaces stands before him now, a littler paler, a little less solid, but nonetheless there.
An avalanche in the mountains had delayed him a week. He had lit incense for her and traveled faster.
My sister is dying, the note had read. Please come quickly.
It seems he has been in too much haste. Here she is, the same as always. Reaching forward he pushes down on her head, an older brother's gesture of affection, says, "I'm back."
"Ginko," she whispers and his smile fades, his hand drops. By the door her silent brother stiffens, turns, goes out; a burst of snow; the door slams shut.
She is the pale white of snow; she seems thinner; he can see the sharp angle of her collarbone. But of most concern to him is how in the guttering candlelight she glows, lit from the inside out like a jellyfish in the sun, and just as translucent around the edges.
He knows what this is. Her brother does too. From the expression she offers him now, so does she.
"I got it from a traveler," she explains before he can ask. "A man with a little knowledge and not enough wisdom. Dangerous, you would say. You needn't blame my brother. He was on his way back after hearing I was ill. He didn't know what I would do."
"Mushishi don't prescribe that to people," he says, the words slowly unraveling from the knot in his throat. "I know your brother wouldn't have . . ."
"You don't have to tell me that I'm dying," she says kindly as though to a small child. "My brother and I both know it. Nothing can stop that now. My brother thought perhaps you might know of something, but I knew better. That's so, isn't it? I see it in your eyes.
"Don't make that face, Ginko. I've been sick all winter. I should have died long ago."
"Then why?" he asks softly.
"I was waiting."
He looks but what her eyes hold is nothing like regret. It is the same warm regard they have always held for him. He draws a ragged breath, forces his hand to unclench and reach out for her. Her hand is cold; when he touches it, it blurs around the edges as though not quite there. He grasps her hand tightly and against his hand she is suddenly solid. He feels the calluses on her fingertips.
"I was waiting," she repeats, and her eyes finish saying what her mouth cannot.
He looks at her wordlessly.
"This mushi is a people-eater. I knew when I drank it. But it eats one slowly and it draws out death . . . It gives one time."
I was waiting.
"It took from me and it gave to me. I took from it and I gave to it. Is it such a bad trade?"
"When you die, you won't be human. I don't know if you will even be able to die."
She blinks and he continues on ruthlessly, telling her all that she must hear while silently cursing each word, "This mushi devours your body from the inside out, changing the consistency of your flesh and blood into something its children can feed on. It runs through your bloodstream, the liquid in your body . . . it requires fresh water everyday. If you do not drink it will devour you more quickly. Day by day you grow less solid. Day by day you fade away until you are no more substantial than light, than breath, than nothing at all. Your voice, your sight, your hearing - it eats not only your body but everything that makes you human."
"No." She shakes her head. "You know it best, don't you? To be human or mushi is not a question of the seeming. The outside is like a skin that can be shed and regrown. The essence, that which cannot be bottled or pressed, cannot," and here she almost smiles, "be chained to flesh and bone, is what keeps us human."
"There is a way," he begins with difficulty.
"To save me? To let me die? Or to make me a mushi? My brother told me of that last - that there are ways and there are ways. It's all right, Ginko. I will die as I have lived, a human woman, even now."
"A secret." She lifts his hand in hers, presses it to her chest. Her pale face flushes. Beneath his fingers he feels the quickening beat of her heart.
"Ginko," she says, the words no louder than a breeze lightly lifting the ends of blades of grass, "here is a heart that will not die."
And even as she says it, her eyes bright, even as he pulls her featherlight body close so she can listen, wonderingly, to the painful answering beat of his all too human heart, he thinks:
'This is the beginning of silence. This is the end.'
Once she stops drinking water she should have faded quickly but rather than the customary three days it takes her a full week to die. She never stops being cheerful, she never once looks afraid. Instead she nags them, her brother and Ginko both, and worries over how they would get along in the world, two Mushishi with barely a bit of common sense between them. To her brother's half-hearted protests and Ginko's still face she makes no reply, but once in a while she smiles at them as though deep in a dream and Ginko looks away.
"Don't frown," she chastises him once, smoothing the lines between his brows and around his mouth, "you'll age faster." Her touch is lighter than falling petals, her words so faint he has to read them on her lips. He kisses her then, as though that would keep her from scattering to pieces on the wind.
They look at one another, and Ginko thinks that here is his Spring; how quickly the season fades. The dreaming expression crosses her face again, fills her eyes, and he feels her slipping further and further away. Hot pain wells up inside him. Here is a mystery. Love.
Why do we? he thinks. Why do we stay and why do we love and why do we go?
He never should have stayed that first time. Now he cannot bear to leave. This time she will be the one to decide the moment of their parting.
He kisses her again and her arms go around him, soundlessly laughing, crying. This, he thinks, is the instant before her death, the long-drawn out instant, and the truth she is teaching him is not of what comes after but what comes before.
Against his mouth her lips shape the words: I was waiting. Always waiting.
I am here, he answers.
He cannot solve it. He cannot chase it. He cannot hold it fast.
Here and now, in his arms, she is already slipping away.
Selfishly, he wants her to drink, but he will not ask. He thinks, encircling one thin wrist with his fingers, stroking back the dark hair that has already lost its luster, she has already waited too long.
This is what she has already given up for him: Human arms to hold you and human eyes to see you and a human voice with which to speak.
But still, in the night, he hears the beating of her heart.
He does not know the instant when she dies, nor does her brother. A moment. She is there. A moment. She is gone. There is nothing to mark her passage but a breath of air like a sigh, two sets of eyes straining too long to see an image of a girl who is no longer there.
Once he thought death was an unbroken silence.
But in after years he will wonder at his understanding.
In the still night before drifting to sleep, on occasion he will hear a faint sound like a drum beat, feel a touch no heavier than a puff of air dance across his cheek, and, dreaming, he will utter the name of a dead girl with a still living heart.