a wandering song
The paulownias were in full bloom when I arrived in the valley. The light purple of their blossoms blanketed the hillsides, and the air along the road was heavy with their perfume under the warmth of the morning sun. After being so long in the deep mountains, it struck me like the scent of spring itself; the sound of insects awaking from hibernation, the music of it; and if you looked up through the branches just right, you could almost imagine the sun winking through to be the phoenix that the old poems say will only land on those specific trees.
On one side of this valley a river twisted down, thick at the time with snowmelt, and around that river a town had sprung up, nestled in the gully carved by the water and spreading out over the foothills. The roofs were steep, and as I neared I could see they were tiled, so this was no poor farmers' town, but here and there the smoke from a cooking fire could be seen rising from the hillside.
It was about midday when I arrived in the town proper, and right away it looked to be a town for travelers. The main thoroughfare was bustling with men and women dressed for the road, carrying knapsacks and straw hats over their shoulders. Shopfronts lined the street, which was paved with stone. The aroma of cooking rice reached me, reminding my stomach that it'd been some time since it last had a warm meal in it. So, reaching down into my trouser pockets for a little money, I stuck my head inside the nearest inn.
I was surprised to find it packed wall to wall, and it's no exaggeration when I say every last patron—and, who knew, maybe even one or two of the hosts—must have been, after some fashion, a traveler.
Moreover, it seemed a good portion of them were travelers of the musical persuasion—minstrels, students, or performing troupes—and their instruments sat beside them at the table as they ate, if they were not in actual use. There were as many different strains of song clouding up the place as there were aromas. Patrons strummed biwa or shamisen, or sang or told jokes for a few laughs and a hot lunch. Every sound and every style was fair game, from the band of classically-trained young women whose warbling voices pierced the din suddenly like birdsong, to the old man from the far south whose voice was as scratchy and worn as the beat-up jabisen he played, and every stripe in between.
"Hey! You, young man with the white hair," someone called from one corner of the inn, and I looked up to see a middle-aged gentleman with an unshaven chin who appeared to be waving me over to his table with a gloved hand.
I pointed to myself and he nodded.
"Lookin' for an empty seat, yeah? Better take it quick before some other bum nabs it."
I thanked the man and set down my case.
"So. What'll it be?"
I shrugged, my mind coming up blank. My stomach wasn't very particular. "Anything."
He laughed, waved down a hostess, and pointed to his own bowl for her to bring one more.
"What he means is, what's your persuasion?" said a younger man at the end of the table, this one with long hair and preoccupied with tuning a lute over his knee. "What're you carrying in that case of yours? Zither? Set of drums?" He gave me a once-over. "Something more exotic perhaps?"
"Oh. Nah, nothing like that," I said.
"You ain't a musician, then what? Storyteller? Salesman?"
"Close." I smiled. "I'm a mushishi."
As sometimes happens in this profession, eyes widened and brows were raised all around the table, as if I had said I had traveled there from another time. The lute-player sat up straighter.
"A mushishi?" echoed a teenage kid at my elbow.
"No joke?" said the lute-player. "It isn't often I run into one of your kind on the road these days."
The scruffy gentleman smiled a lopsided smile.
"Mushishi, eh? Well, in that case, you must be brimmin' with good stories. How 'bout it, Mr Mushishi? Give us a matatabi song, a wanderin' song, would ya? Somethin' 'bout a mushi."
"Really, you wouldn't want to hear me sing. Can't I just enjoy my lunch?" I said.
The hostess returned with my food, but the scruffy gentleman held up a hand to stop her from delivering it.
"Now now, not so fast. This here's a musical inn. Ain't that right, Oyuki? The rest of us've all gotta play for our rice, and if you don't got a thing to play, you use your voice. That's the rules."
He leaned back and folded his hands together over the table, like he had all the time in the world.
"So, what'll it be, Mr Mushishi?"
I glanced at the hostess, but either the scruffy gentleman was telling the truth or she was bound and determined to play along. Steam rose from the bowl in her hand, and between the sight of it and the smells of everyone else's meal around me, my stomach was grumbling so loudly I could barely think. I let out a deep breath and started on the first song to come to mind.
I had barely gotten through the first verse when the other fellows at the table began to laugh. Now, my singing voice isn't anything to be proud of to begin with, but even then I suspect their laughter had more to do with the song's lyrics, because I seemed to have forgotten in my hunger that it was a song more appropriately sung by a young woman recalling the mother she left behind—something I must have learned long ago before I set out on my own, when I wasn't so familiar with the land yet and used to follow caravans around the backwoods. I tried not to think too much about the words I was singing, but to my audience I must have seemed rather . . . incongruous.
After a few lines, the lute-player picked up on some sort of melody—I doubt my singing was much help—and strummed a bar or two. I must have colored, and I surely glared at my tormentors, because the scruffy gentleman interrupted, much to my relief: "Where's the mushi in it?"
I stopped mid-word. "You wanted a wandering song. People don't usually write wandering songs about mushi."
"Eh?" I'm not sure he believed me, but he relented anyway, chuckling, "Alright, alright, I think he's earned his rice."
The hostess finally set the bowl down in front of me. It was all I could do not to shovel food in.
They let me get half-way through my meal before they couldn't hold in their curiosity any longer.
"So, what's a mushishi doin' in a town like this? You lookin' for somethin' in particular?"
I felt like a kid again, speaking around a mouth full of food.
"No. Just passing through. I hadn't come by this way before, thought I might as well see if I was missing anything."
"Best-kept secret of the wandering minstrel class," said the lute-player. "When we sing of a valley shrouded by paulownia trees, people hear it and think of hermitages, loneliness, undesirable, hard-to-get-to places, not knowing it's our real Shangri-la."
"The muses are good to us here."
The scruffy gentleman grinned lecherously and called out.
"Ain't that right, Oyuki?"
"What can I say? Your luck changes for the better out here under the paulownias—luck with song, and luck with women. What more could a free spirit ask for?"
"A place out of the rain to lay his head, with a soft pillow and a hot meal," I said.
They must have been waiting for a punchline, but seeing there wasn't one, laughed anyway. The scruffy gentleman rapped his knuckles on the tabletop and wagged his finger at me.
"I like this guy. He knows precisely what he wants, don't mess around with the extraneous stuff. You know what? I'm feelin' generous. Your meal's on me, Mr Mushishi."
The lute-player narrowed his eyes at him.
"Why? He didn't do anything for us. Not even a good mushi yarn."
"Nah, but he's sure good for a laugh, and that's good enough for me."
I smiled and raised my cup, even if the joke was at my expense. "Glad I could be of some assistance."
The scruffy gentleman tossed a few coins into the center of the table and stood, still chuckling and shaking his head. He raised a hand in farewell to his dining companions and murmured something to the hostess as she passed by that made her go bright red.
The lute-player rolled his eyes and turned back to his instrument.
"Same old song. Every time I run into this guy the women all melt like snow at his feet—no pun intended to our gracious hostess here. You'd never guess the man was really a flutist, if you catch my drift."
I couldn't say I did.
The boy who had been sitting beside me slipped around the table and took the scruffy gentleman's vacated seat across from me, whereupon he proceeded to stare unabashedly. Now that I could get a good look at him, the boy couldn't have been any older than fourteen, but there was some muscle hiding under his loose sleeves already. I couldn't tell if he was a wanderer like the others—he was dressed for the road but at the same time felt like he belonged to the establishment and its foundation like none of the others quite did—and he didn't say much. There was something about the intensity of his a-little-too-open stare that reminded me somewhat of Adashino.
It was making me uncomfortable, so I pushed aside my empty bowl and lit up a cigarette. "What?"
"Were you serious when you said you were just passing through?"
There was something missing from his question. I let out a deep breath of smoke and looked up at him.
"Why do you ask?"
"Well, I mean, it just seems like too much of a coincidence is all. For a mushishi to just stumble upon our town, I mean, what with the legend surrounding the place."
The lute-player glanced up at him from beneath his hair but said nothing. The boy lowered his voice.
"Most of 'em won't admit it, 'cause they think they'll sound like superstitious loons, but I bet most of these people here either came hoping to hear the zither or out of pilgrimage for the spirit of the legend."
"What zither?" I said.
"Then you haven't heard of it!"
"Ah." The lute-player finally acknowledged him. "You mean the famed whistling zither."
"It's the whispering zither."
"Whichever." The lute-player strummed a chord, then stilled the strings with the palm of his hand and looked at me. "You want my advice, just disregard all this zither talk. It was a fanciful story, is all, about an instrument carved from one of the trees in these very woods, that after accruing much fame in the cities made its way back here to fade away into obscurity among its brethren. Makes a wonderful song, but that's about where it ends."
"It's true, I tell you!"
"Really? You ever seen it, kid?"
The boy shut his mouth and scrunched his shoulders over the table.
I felt a little bad for him, so I asked, "So, how'd this 'whispering zither' get its name?"
He perked up somewhat at that.
"It hums when no one is playing it. If you hold it in your hands, you can feel this vibration deep within the wood, like someone speaking in a low voice behind a door, and if you bend your ear to it . . . And when it's strummed, you can hear this low hum moving round you like a ripple at the bottom of a still lake—"
He caught himself then, adding, "So the story goes, anyway."
"Why don't they call it the humming zither, then?" said the lute-player.
"How should I know? They were calling it that before I was born."
The lute-player turned his eyes stubbornly to his instrument again, but the boy turned to me like the thought had just struck him.
"You're a mushishi. How do you think a zither can act like that? You think it could be the doing of a mushi?"
I hummed to myself and removed the cigarette from my lips. The least I could do was humor him.
"Supposing this zither were real, that's one explanation. The other, of course, is that someone, by some stroke of either dumb luck or genius, messed up the stringing. I have heard of mushi living in paulownia trees, though."
"Sure. These woods are probably full of them. They curl up deep down inside the flowers in spring to lay their eggs, and in autumn when the seed pods split, the offspring fall out with the rest of the seeds like fuzzy snowflakes."
The boy's eyes had been growing wider and wider as I spoke, but when I reached the last part they lowered in disappointment. We both knew that wasn't what he meant.
"Hey," I said, "you look like you know this area pretty well. I'm going to need a place to stay for the night. Would you recommend this inn?"
"Um. . . ."
"I'm kind of on a budget until I reach my next destination, but I have things I can trade if need be."
"Would you be willing to work if they'd let you stay free of charge?"
I regarded the boy carefully before I answered him. Once again, I had the distinct feeling there was something he was being very cautious about not telling me.
"Why not? It wouldn't be my first time paying for my stay with menial chores. . . . Unless that isn't what you meant."
If the kid was trying to tell me about a mushi problem, he was being very sly about it. He would not take my bait.
Instead he nodded to himself.
"That's good, that's good. I think he could use an extra pair of hands around the house. . . ."
"Who, may I ask, do you have in mind?"
"The old music master. He lives just outside of town. I seem to remember him saying he was thinking of putting up a spare room for rent. You said you're on a budget though, so I'm sure some kind of deal could be arranged."
"The music master and the mushi master, huh?" The lute-player chuckled to himself. "Sounds like a good match to me. Maybe you could learn a thing or two in that house."
When I had finished my lunch, I gathered my things and followed the boy. He had his own ox-driven cart, loaded with wooden boxes of various size, which we led up an inclined street to the edge of town. There the paving turned to compacted dirt and ratty patches of grass, and the modest homes sat hidden among the brush and the vibrantly blooming trees.
We arrived at the gate to one house which sported a large shed behind it, and the boy struggled to bring the ox to a stop.
"Well, that's the old music master's place up there." He sounded eager to be on his way as he told me this. "You should find him in the workshop behind the house this time of day. And don't let his manner intimidate you. I'm sure you'll have no trouble at all reaching an agreement. Just one thing: Don't mention I brought you here, all right? Tell him you heard about his room for rent at the inn—"
"Oi, Asaru! Taking your time getting back, eh?"
The boy paled. He tried to hide his wince as he turned to face the man who had spoken.
I had been expecting someone with a more scholarly appearance, but though the music master was easily in his fifties and graying, his tied-back sleeves revealed hard and sinewy arms, and there was a brusqueness in his manner and in his low, clear voice that I could not help finding somewhat intimidating, despite the boy's warning.
"Trying to sneak around back thinking I wouldn't notice you were late?"
"No, sir, I swear," the boy said. "It's just that I got to talking with this fellow at the inn, and it turns out he could use a place to stay for a night or two. You know, before he heads back out on the road—"
The music master gave me a once over. I was used to being scrutinized, but rarely by folks who looked at me like they might look at a stubborn weed.
"You some kind of salesman?" he asked me.
"Don't need any more salesmen around here. Business ain't good enough for this one as it is. I suppose you're looking to haggle a cheap price for your board as well."
"He said he'd be more than willing to work around the place to pay for it," the boy was quick to add in my defense. "That would free up our time to work on the new shipment."
"New shipment? And how come you've returned with so much of the old shipment, boy?"
The music master held out his hand, and the boy withdrew a leather coin purse from his sash and put it in his palm. The old man dumped its contents, quickly tallying the coins before flashing a hard look from under his brow at the boy.
"This all of it?"
"Business is a little slow everywhere this season, sir. I had to cut prices just to move the merchandise. Seems people don't have a lot of extra coin lying around to pay for a luxury like music—"
"Music is never a luxury, Asaru," the music master cut him off, as though the boy had said something indecent. "It's a necessity. Music is the means by which we celebrate our humanity—it's how we give thanks to the gods we're alive. Keen?"
The old man sighed as he replaced the coins and pocketed the purse. Then he turned back to me. "Well, I suppose you might as well come in. You've come all this way, and while I can't speak for this boy here, I'd hate to be the one to bust a deal, even if it was made without my knowledge or consent."
I followed the music master up the steps to the house, while the boy led the ox and cart around to the shed. As we walked, he asked me about my business on the road, to the point I could no longer feign innocence and it slipped out that I was not so much the salesman he had taken me for, but a mushishi.
"A mushishi, huh?"
He chuckled, but it was without any humor.
"Seems like your kind are something of a rare breed these days, what with these times of skepticism and science, and foreign ideas."
"We've always more or less kept to ourselves. Though I think you'd find most of us consider ourselves scientists after a certain manner."
"I see." But I'm not sure he did. Maybe he was one of those who didn't believe mushi existed—who thought we were just a bunch of witch-doctors and con artists. It didn't matter to me: I was there as a guest and nothing more. I kept that in mind when he said, "May I ask what brings you to this town?"
"No particular reason. I'm on my way to visit a friend a few valleys over and just remembered I hadn't been by this way before. Seems like I couldn't have come at a better time, too. I've never seen so many paulownias in one place, let alone all blooming at the same time. You folks have kept your secret well."
The music master cracked a slight smile at that.
"Yes. I've heard it said that the purple clouds of Paradise themselves reside in this valley when our trees are in bloom. So, then. You're not just another legend-seeker."
I smiled. "You mean that story about the whispering zither. Nah. Some folks mentioned it at the inn, but that was the first I'd heard."
"Apparently it's pretty well known among the minstrel class."
"Well, I don't make much of it."
The music master's manner toward me relaxed a bit when I said that. The truth was, I was curious, but I wasn't going to learn anything about the legend if the old man believed it was what I was after.
Once inside, we kicked off our shoes and I set down my pack. His was a comfortably sized house for a single man and his help, simply but well appointed and looked after, with various musical instruments arranged along the walls to indicate his trade.
"I guess my only question, then," he said, "is what Asaru thought you could possibly do for me to give you room and board for a reduced fee."
The same question had occurred to me after watching the old man and the boy together; and, needless to say, the boy had given me little to nothing to go on. "Maybe he thought you could use someone for the hard labor around here."
The old man scowled.
"I already have Asaru to do that."
"Maybe he thought he could get someone else to do it for him. Boys his age do covet their freedom."
The music master just dismissed the idea with a shake of his head. In any case, I forgot whatever else I might have been thinking to say in the boy's defense when I caught sight of the figure sitting by the hearth.
It was a girl who looked to be a year or two younger than the boy, though in her posture was a maturity beyond that. She looked up when the music master came into the room, then blinked and stared when she saw me, as though she had seen a ghost. I was used to that kind of reaction, for one because my presence in places tends to be abrupt, and two, my physical appearance has a tendency to strike folks as unusual.
But this young woman was not what one in a back-country town like this would call normal, either. Unlike myself, her eyes were dark, liquid brown like the music master's and the boy's, her skin the same complexion, dusted lightly by freckles. But her chin-length hair fell down around her face in tight waves, and was a peculiar cinnabar red.
I set aside my questions about the whispering zither. Without any need for him to tell me—past experience was enough—I knew at once that was what the boy had led me there for. So I would see that girl.
The music master seemed resigned as well to the cat, as they say, being out of the bag.
"Kiri," he said to her, "I want you to meet our guest for the evening. I'm sorry," he turned to me, "I didn't catch your name."
I smiled at the girl.
"A pleasure, Kiri."
"He will be staying with us for a night or two, recovering from the road. Do treat him with your utmost courtesy while he's with us, won't you?"
The girl said nothing. She would not meet my eyes again, either.
"Kiri, would you run out and see if Asaru needs a hand unloading things?"
The girl watched his face carefully as he spoke. Then she nodded, bowed to me with averted eyes in that way folks do when what they really want to do is stare, and departed as quietly as she had been sitting there.
"You'll have to excuse her silence," the music master said when she had gone. He took a seat beside the hearth and bid me do the same. "Tea?"
"Is she deaf?"
"Not completely. Her hearing has been slowly going since she was a child to the point it's almost completely gone in one ear now, but she reads lips just fine. And the rest of a person, for that matter." He sighed. "She's mute, though—hardly spoken a word her entire life."
He poured two cups of tea and set one down before me, and the steam rising from it made me reach automatically inside my pocket. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
He extended a welcoming hand. "Be my guest."
As I lit a cigarette, I couldn't help feeling a little uncomfortable under his stare—and not in the same way that I had with the boy at the inn, either. For someone who had spoken of skepticism so derisively, he seemed to be a rather suspicious person himself. It wasn't going to make the tension any lighter between us if I pretended I hadn't noticed the girl's unusual appearance, so I figured the sooner we got it out into the open, the better.
"What happened to her? If you don't mind my asking."
"You sure ask a lot of questions, Mr Ginko."
I grinned. "Sorry. A mushishi's inquisitive nature. If it's none of my business. . . ."
He sighed again at that, but indulged me anyway. "I'm not entirely sure what happened, but I do know she's been like this for as long as I've known her, almost nine years now."
"Then she's not your daughter?"
The music master looked down at his tea. "I've never told her as much, and I've raised that girl as if she were my own, but she knows. Children simply know these things."
He met the girl on one of his travels, he told me. Years ago he had been a wandering minstrel just like those who came to this village in such abundance. He arrived in a town not far away where a whole group of children turned out to hear him sing and play, and among them was the girl with the red hair. She alone listened in complete silence, as though she were straining to hear something no one else could hear. The music master was drawn to her instantly.
She was an orphan, a townswoman explained when he asked after the girl, as were many of the children in his audience. But he was only interested in that girl and her peculiar behavior. How was it, he wanted to know, that someone so young could show such insight already into the musical world? And, moreover, how did she come to have that red hair?
He soon learned that the girl's parents had both died of a wasting illness that afflicted their village. The girl, who was hardly more than an infant at that time, had also become ill and feverish, but she miraculously survived her parents and their nearest neighbors. She never completely recovered, however, as the fever bleached and curled her hair, and after that time she never spoke and her hearing grew gradually worse.
The music master had believed the girl to be a musical prodigy, but was dismayed to learn it was only her poor hearing that had made her cock her head and listen so intently to his songs. Still he was drawn to her, and curious as to what strange undercurrents the music must have held for her alone. He had already decided to retire from his career as a musician and was looking for a place to settle down. He had no wife or children, had spent his entire adult life on the road, devoted to his music, and now found himself entering the latter half of his life with no family nor home to call his own.
So he adopted the girl, and when he came to the village surrounded by paulownia trees, where no one had ever heard his name, he found a place to settle down and raise the girl like his own daughter.
"And it was just a coincidence that she has the same name as the trees here?"
"I thought it was fate."
The music master was silent for a moment, as though weighing his words.
"This might sound strange," he said, "especially coming from a musician, but sometimes I envy that girl. There are times I think how easy it must be to not hear all the noise and music in the world except as a quiet, distant hum, all blended together."
"I don't think that's strange at all."
"It must make me seem selfish when I say that, as if she were just some curiosity for me, but I really do love that girl like my own."
—= o =—
Supper that night was a quiet affair. Every few minutes the music master would ask the boy about his business on the road, and the boy would answer noncommittally, before both ran out of things to say and fell silent for another long stretch. I didn't mind the silence, though almost stern at some moments, that seemed to pervade each room in which the red-haired girl stayed for any length of time, but I could see how it weighed on the music master, how to accommodate my presence there that was not entirely welcome from the start.
I took those moments of stillness when the only sounds in the room were the clicking of utensils and the settling of bowls to observe the strange dynamic of this ragtag family: the retired traveling musician, his silent adopted daughter, and the boarding apprentice. All of them transplanted there from somewhere else, yet eking out what I could only assume was a good living together in that household, like a hermit crab and a couple of sea anemones sharing the same shell.
Before long it struck me that what had seemed like silence to us adults had been full of quiet conversation for the boy and girl. Some gestures and quick looks passed between them, and before long the boy was stifling a laugh and the girl trying not to smile, though neither the music master nor I could see what they had found so amusing.
I watched them more attentively, and saw then that they were in fact carrying on a conversation, if only with their hands—or at least part of one, before the girl made a motion that made the boy turn resolutely back to his food, though not without some difficulty keeping a straight face.
At that the music master flashed a warm smile, and the stern air that I had perceived to be hanging over the table evaporated in an instant.
"So, Mr Ginko," he said, turning slowly from the boy and girl to me. "You say you've had your share of travels."
"It seems it's all I ever do," I said.
"Then you must have seen your share of strange things, too. Were there ever any mushi that completely flummoxed you?"
The boy snorted at that. "Flummoxed, sir?"
The girl covered her mouth demurely.
But I could see where the music master was going with this line of conversation, so I started into the first mushi tale to spring to mind. I told them about the man who chased the rain for the rainbows, and the woman who was snatched up into the sky like a kite on a string. The master painter whose sketch of a mountain from his hometown in the lining of his jacket had been so realistic, mushi came to dwell there. Stories that didn't have unpleasant endings, not wanting to cast my stay in the music master's household in a sinister light.
Then I told them about the village where mushi stole folks' hearing, and where there was one boy who heard nothing but mushi, and whose condition had caused him to grow soft horns on his forehead like the budding antlers of young bucks. I thought his plight might resonate with the girl, and she might give me some clue as to what ailed her in her reaction. I explained to them how the boy eventually killed the mushi that had infected him by holding his hands over his ears, smothering it with the warm sound of his heartbeat, which roared in his ears when he did this like an active volcano. But as I reached that part in the story, the girl's smile only darkened in a melancholic way, which Asaru's tomfoolery cured a moment later when he performed the cure himself and exclaimed in amazement that it did indeed sound like a volcano.
We lost track of time, the talk of mushi keeping us occupied for well over an hour, until what little remained of the food had grown cold. All that time the boy listened avidly and laughed often, while the girl listened with her eyes, turning impatiently away from me only when the boy tapped her on the arm to sign some aside comment.
As for the old music master, he stared with a far-off look in his eyes as I talked, to the point he was shaken as though from sleep when the boy said suddenly, "The Master's been on a lot of travels, too. At least, so he says, but he never tells us about any of them."
There was an inviting tone in his voice, rather inquiring actually, as though he hoped to prompt the music master into a story of his own but was too afraid to ask outright. But the old man was quick to change the subject.
"All right, Asaru," he said, "best be helping Kiri with the dishes now, eh? It's getting late. And bring us the wine, would you?"
The boy looked disappointed for all of a second. The next he got hastily to his feet and tapped the girl on the arm to do the same.
She turned to him, he made a quick sign, and then both cleared the dirtied dishes and took them in careful piles to the washbasin, leaving the music master and me alone but for the boy's brief reappearance with the sake.
"Sorry to be so curt, Mr Ginko," he said to me then, "but there are some things I'm not wont to discuss with those kids."
"I hope my stories weren't inappropriate."
"No. Not at all. They enjoyed them immensely, and so did I. It's only that I wish my own past be left buried."
He turned briefly to look in the direction of the clinking of stoneware and the boy's hushed voice, which we could hear muffled behind the wall.
Reading the direction of my thoughts, the music master said, "You must have noticed their system of speaking to each other."
"Did they develop it on their own?"
"Aye. Ingenius, isn't it? Though, I suppose it's only natural they should figure out something of the sort, when you think about it."
I had thought he was just refraining for my sake, but, "You don't speak it with them?"
The old man made a dismissive sound, and sighed. "I'm not sure why I never thought to try and communicate with Kiri on her level like that. I guess all these years I've simply taken for granted her gift for reading people. Here, in the meantime, she and Asaru have invented their own language, and I haven't the first clue how to speak it. I wonder if they talk about me behind my back, knowing I can't understand them."
"Hm. But, in my experience, that's really not something you can allow yourself to dwell on. That way only leads to heartbreak."
"Yes, perhaps you're right. Perhaps I'm just getting distrustful in my old age."
As the music master sipped his wine, I could hear the boy humming lowly over the scrubbing of the dishware.
Occasionally I thought I might have heard the girl's higher voice as well, but, like the hissing of the sun setting over the ocean, I couldn't be sure if I had just imagined it.
—= o =—
I woke early the next morning to the sound of the boy's whistling outside the walls as he tended to the ox. We ate breakfast in the same relative silence as the night before, and when we were finished, I acquainted myself with the firewood pile and the music master's ax.
The master himself and the boy disappeared inside the shed, their workshop, where they stayed most of the morning. Smoke was soon rising from the chimney, and from inside I could hear the clunk of metal being beaten, of hammer taken to chisel. Every now and then, the music master would upbraid the boy, "Careful now, Asaru, careful! How many times do I have to tell you? Metal ain't cheap, boy." He emerged often to take more logs from the pile, or simply to pace, and at those times he would often glance at me and shake his head, as though I were just the audience he needed to vent his frustrations on, and garner sympathy with.
It did not occur to me to ask what they were doing in the workshop, as I had little doubt in my mind already. Many of the crates I had seen piled on the ox-cart the day before were the rough size and shape of koto cases, and with the town being veritably surrounded by paulownia, which grows like a weed to begin with, there was no shortage of the material with which to make them. The other, more irregularly sized boxes were probably wedding chests or keepsake boxes, I told myself. I was content to mind my own business, allowing my thoughts to wander, thankful for the cool spring breeze that passed through the yard as I worked.
I paused for a breather on the porch, and that was when I caught sight of the girl out of the corner of my eye, tidying the music master's study through the open doors.
Now was as good a time as any, I thought, what with the music master occupied in the shed, to try and deduce what kind of mushi the boy thought had infected her as a small child. But whether she remembered anything from those earliest years of her life, there was no way I could know until I asked.
I said her name, and hard of hearing though she was, she stopped what she was doing with a rag and biwa and came toward me. She watched my lips attentively, waiting for me to speak what was on my mind.
I decided to plunge right in.
"I'd like to ask you a personal question, if you don't mind. How did you get that interesting-colored hair?" I touched my own to illustrate.
She must have been expecting me to ask something much simpler of her, like a cup of water, because she involuntarily jerked back an inch.
"See, mine was from a mushi," I said. Give a little to get a little, I figured. "It took one of my eyes, and changed the other one along with my hair. Just took the color right out."
Her expression softened with some affectation of sympathy, but she did not return to her work. It must have been clear on my face I had more on my mind.
"Since then I've encountered all sorts of mushi, some that pass through this world with hardly a ripple, and others that affect the human beings who come in contact with them in some unusual ways. Like those folks I told you about last night who lost their hearing, but recovered it after the mushi responsible was excised. But I haven't seen anyone who looks quite like you. So I'm curious—was it a mushi that made your hair that lovely color?"
The girl was still a moment, as though it took a while for my words to fully sink in. Then she shrugged.
"You don't remember? Or you don't know?"
She made an expression of thinking hard. I suppose the two questions were one and the same.
I tried a different tactic. "See, I ask because I think Asaru is worried for you. I think he brought me here because he wants you to gain back your hearing, and he thinks I can help. But I can't help if I don't know what caused it to go in the first place."
I had no idea if that was the right thing to say, if it was too bold of someone she had only met just a short while ago, but it did get her attention. I asked: "Would it be all right if I examined your ears?"
She glanced once toward the shed, then shrugged her acquiescence and turned to go back into the room. I followed her inside, and took some items from my case. Somehow I didn't think the music master would approve, but I had the girl's consent and resolved to be brief.
She watched my lips intently as I explained to her the instrument that would allow me to look deep into her ears, and the purpose of the herbs and minerals that, when left to sit in small glass vials with strands of her hair, might shed some light on their color's origin. There are subtle ways our bodies have of indicating a problem that lies beneath the surface, of which hair follicles are just one example—imperfections in the irises of the eyes or in fingernails that can warn of parasites or mineral deficiencies, as well as mushi infections.
None of those indicated anything out of the ordinary, however, and her ears were clear, as well as her throat and sinuses. On the surface, she appeared to be free of any harmful mushi, but that still did not explain the reason behind her unusual hair color.
So I asked her as I was stoppering the vials, "Have you ever seen a mushi?"
Instead of answering, the girl got to her feet. At first I thought she had had enough of me, until she went to the slateboard that was set up on one side of the study. The music master had written something across it, gibberish to me, but what were most likely the notes of a composition. Written music sometimes comes up in mushi texts, so I could recognize it for what it was, but that doesn't mean I ever learned to read it.
The girl picked up a piece of chalk and found a blank space beneath his notes, where she scribbled in small and simple characters: Not seen. Heard.
"Heard?" I said aloud. Now we were making progress. "How?"
She thought about that, gesturing to her ears and obviously searching for the words to explain, but there didn't seem to be any.
Scratch how, then. "Never mind. Where did you hear it?"
A much easier question to answer. The girl erased her words with the dusting cloth, and wrote: Inside the zither.
"The whispering zither? The one in the legend that people come to this town for, is that the one you mean? But Asaru told me it was just a myth."
She was erasing her words before I could even finish. It is real, she said with adamant strokes. I have seen it.
She punctuated the last part with a hard tap on the board, watching me to make sure I read it, like I had offended her personally by implying the story was just that and nothing more. I raised my hands in surrender, and made sure in turn she saw I was serious when I said, "All right, all right. I believe you—"
Asaru seen it too.
"But, then, why would he tell me it wasn't real?"
He lied so you won't ask Master.
All right, so the old music master did not want to talk about his past or this whispering zither. Maybe to him it was just another superstition he didn't want to encourage.
I nodded to the girl. My host wouldn't hear a word of this from me. "Where did you see it? Is it here in this valley?"
Then the girl stopped. She put down the chalk and quickly erased what she had written, and her haste spelling plain as day that she had told me something she wasn't supposed to. I opened my mouth to explain to her that I would be discreet, but doubted she would have heard me as well as I would have liked with her back turned, so I held my tongue until she was facing me again.
Instead, she opened a hidden compartment in the built-in on one wall, slid out a koto case, and placed it carefully in front of her on the floor. When I didn't move, she waved me over impatiently, and only when I had kneeled down beside her did she deem it right to open the case.
As soon as the lid was lifted I could hear it: a low, faint hum that seemed to emanate from the floorboards themselves, like when a small earthquake passes underneath you. Of course, I knew the sound was coming from the koto, and that it wasn't normal for them to behave this way at rest. But the way the girl sat back on her heels and watched patiently for my reaction, you would think she did this all the time.
"Do you hear it too?" I asked her.
"But not with your ears."
Another, more careful but eventual nod. A not-exactly-but-close-enough sort of nod.
"And does it always make that noise?"
She thought for a long moment, the guilty look returning to her face, so I decided not to press the issue. I was more curious about how the sound was made, whether what was responsible for that sound was something living inside the instrument, or just a mistake on the part of the stringer like I had said in passing to the boy, back when I thought we were speaking hypothetically. I bent closer to the koto.
The wood was paulownia, rich in color and as beautifully grained as it was curved, the edges slightly worn with use and travel. There appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary here, no otherworldly glow, no crawling, ghostly forms of mushi—nothing, that was, but the slight blurring of the silk strings as they vibrated in that continual, low frequency that the boy had described as a sound like a person speaking on the other side of a wooden door. It was enchanting, and relaxing, like how a child must hear its mother's voice when still in the womb.
I put out a hand, but the girl placed hers over the strings. If it were plucked, she seemed to say, the music master might hear and know that the koto's case had been opened, and neither of us wanted that.
Her touch was so light it hardly even dampened the hum, as if she were trying to still an excited dog. Then she closed the lid, sealing in the sound, and replaced the case in its hidden compartment.
She turned to face me with a silent sigh, as though to say, Well? What do you think?
And I felt like I imagine Adashino must, giddy and speechless at a new discovery.
"Why doesn't the master want it played?" I asked.
She put her index finger to her lips, eyes darting to the door, and I smiled.
"Don't worry. I won't tell him. Did he ever tell you how he came to have it?"
But the girl was rising to her feet before I had even finished. She began to gesture with her hands, then stopped herself and, remembering I didn't speak her and the boy's signing language, scrawled on the slateboard: I go make lunch.
She patted her stomach to make sure I understood, as though I were the mute one, raising her eyebrows as if to say, You must be getting hungry, yes?
She disappeared into the next room before I had a chance to answer, and the music master appeared from the shed hardly a minute later, whistling a tune. For all her supposed difficulty, I couldn't help wondering if the girl had been able to hear him coming.
I slipped my vials inside my trouser pocket and packed my instruments away. The old man stopped at the basin out on the patio to wash up, and I went to meet him. He stopped his whistling mid-note and looked up at me.
"Tell me, Mr Ginko, this has been bothering me all morning, but which sounds better to you?" And he sang a quick line, just a few words: "Spring, ah, spring in the northcountry" first one way, then another, rising at the end.
I laughed as I lit a cigarette. Not at his voice, which was no less than what I would have expected of a former minstrel—rich and low and perfectly in pitch—but at his assumption that my uncultured tastes would be of any help to him. "I have no idea."
"Huh." He sighed, dabbing his face and the back of his neck dry. "Of course you do. Don't be modest about your opinions. Eh? Speak up. Either something sounds right or it doesn't. That's the way it is with music. One part inspiration, nine parts perspiration."
"What if I think both ways work equally well?"
He shook his head at me and let out a long breath. "Then it's a good thing you're a mushishi and not a musician. You'd never make a name for yourself if your melodies are as wishy-washy as that. A tune's gotta stick with you if it's gonna last at all."
He seemed to be in high spirits, so I was content to listen as he outlined for me the pros and cons of the different types of music—and musicians—that came through his town, each player striving to leave his or her own individual mark on the community. He groused more often than not, but even that seemed to only energize him, and build up his appetite, until at last the girl's taking down bowls indicated our meal was near its completion.
"Mr Ginko," the music master said to me, "do me a favor, would you? Run out and tell Asaru to come in for lunch?"
The boy was still working with his back to the open door when I reached the shed. It allowed me a quick glance around the inside, which was spacious and well ventilated, and appeared to be evenly divided between a carpenter's shop and a smithy, with a lean-to for the ox visible through the slats. The bodies of koto, finished and unfinished, leaned against one side of the space, a couple laid out on benches in the process of being strung, and wood shavings littered the compacted-dirt floor.
The boy was sitting on a stool beside a small forge on the opposite side, where he hammered out thin pieces of metal no longer than my little finger on an anvil. His light, precise blows beat out a tinny rhythm to which he was singing a lilting sort of traveling song. The words went something like this:
You cut me down a tree
And brought it back to me
And that's what made me see
Where I was going wrong
You put me on a shelf
And kept me for yourself
I can only blame myself
You can only blame me
And I could write a song
A hundred miles long
Well, that's where I belong
And you belong with me
And I could write it down
Or spread it all around
Get lost and then get found
Or swallowed in the sea
His voice belied his age, and was rather plain and undisciplined, quite the opposite of the music master's rich timbre and more traditional fashion of singing. But there was something refreshing in the boy's style as well, perhaps because it was so honest and simple, without any self-consciousness or concern for listeners' sensibilities. It was not meant for any listener except one. It was that intimate, and sincere. It left me feeling rather nostalgic.
I rapped my knuckles on the open door and cleared my voice, and the boy jumped and flushed deep red as though I had caught him at something shameful.
"I'm supposed to tell you it's time for lunch."
"Oh." He hastily finished up what he was working on. "All right. Thanks, I guess."
"What was that song, just now?" I asked, hoping to make amends for startling him.
But he averted his eyes with a sheepish smile. Maybe he had been wishing I wouldn't mention it.
"Oh, that. That was nothing. Just something I came up with. . . ."
"You wrote it yourself? I'm impressed."
Apparently, though, despite my better intentions, my compliments only seemed to make the boy more awkward, and defensive.
"Yeah, well, I just started singing it when I was on the road, is all. It's something I do to keep myself occupied. I don't have the Master's discipline, that's for sure."
Then he hurried ahead of me toward the house so I couldn't ask him about it any more.
—= o =—
That afternoon, I learned just what it was the two were making in their workshop.
The music master had me come with him out to the shed, and when the two of us arrived, he gestured to the boxes and half-completed instruments that lay about the place, saying proudly, "Well, Mr Mushishi. Can you guess what it is we do here?"
"You make koto," I said, to which he raised an index finger.
"Not just koto. Sure, that's how I make my living, but let me show you my specialty."
Smaller boxes filled a case of shelves along one wall, and he picked one out from the rest, hefting it in his hands before placing it in mine. It was a decorative case like one might keep their combs or other small valuables in, about the width of both palms together and a little heavier than I expected, and was paulownia carved with a diadem of a cicada on a branch, but the craftsmanship of the box itself was of little concern to the old man. He lifted the lid.
A large brass cylinder took up most of the interior cavity, with little raised nubs, arranged, it seemed at first glance, in a random pattern across its surface. Against the opposite side of this cylinder was a comb of dozens of tiny metal fingers of different lengths—like the pieces I had seen the boy working on—that did not quite touch the cylinder itself, but were at precisely the right distance to run up against the little nubs.
"What is it?" I asked.
The music master laughed.
"Why, man, it's music! Music in a box, to be exact. Isn't it ingenious? Up until now, folks have had no choice but to wait for a festival or a minstrel show to listen to the songs they love, or else try to sing them themselves from memory. But with this invention—nay, this instrument—they can hear music any time they want. They never have to be without their favorite song. All they need do when they want to hear it is wind it up. The song will always be there waiting for them, ever the same, and it will last forever."
He wound it up as I watched, turning a little crankshaft in the back of the box. When he let it go, the cylinder inside turned, and a tinny sort of melody that seemed vaguely familiar sprang up from inside where the metal fingers hit the nubs on the cylinder. Each finger resonated with a different note, and the nubs' placement corresponded to which ones would be struck at any given time and in what order. In essence, it worked like a thumb harp, but with a cylinder that was self-turning taking the place of the human thumbs that would work it. It played the song itself like that, until the gears had unwound all they were able, and the song slowed to a stop.
"That's quite something," I said when it had finished.
"It is, isn't it? Today I'm perhaps the only maker of these boxes in this country—that is, Asaru and I—but I have confidence one day everyone will have one or two of these in their home. Maybe someday we won't have to subsidize our hobby by selling koto to the music schools, and can concentrate our energies on crafting better boxes, and collecting more melodies to put inside them. You see, a favorite song—it becomes a part of you. No matter how many times you hear it, it brings back memories. Memories of good times, of loved ones, of places far away. That's all part of the very essence of music."
I shut the lid of the box, and turned it over gently. A scrap of paper had been glued to the bottom, and on it was written the first line of the song. I remembered where I had heard it then, and just as the music master had said, I found myself recalling the circumstances of that time. It made me smile.
He caught my reaction and said, "You know that song."
"Yeah. It's been a while since I heard it. I'd almost forgotten all about that summer."
"Then you see, that's why I have Asaru take our work all over the country."
"Because no one should be without the songs they love."
He crossed his arms over his chest then, his hands disappearing under his sleeves.
"Of course, as with any great endeavor, we've got our share of nay-sayers. I've been told it degrades the aura of music when you can hear it any time you like, makes it less of a precious commodity—and, I suppose, takes some of that sense of mystery they rely on so much away from the minstrel class as well—but I prefer to think I am only correcting what is the inherent cruelty of the beast. Its intangible, ephemeral nature, that is."
"But some would argue that is also part and parcel of music's beauty."
The music master hummed. "I don't deny that. However, I don't think anyone could ever make permanent the way music can seize your entire being with just one single, resonating note. Music will always be a living thing, no matter what medium it is captured in."
His choice of words suddenly reminded me of the zither hidden in his study, and in turn I thought of the song I had caught the boy singing to himself, and how something in the words had touched me, made me think of the mushi I had encountered. And the people touched by them. But I kept these thoughts to myself.
"Are any of these boxes Asaru's?"
"He is responsible for making many of the parts. Or are you referring to the songs themselves?"
I smiled. He had caught me out.
"I caught him singing something in here earlier. It was a traveling song—a rather good one. He told me he had just made it up along the road."
"Hm. And which one would that be?"
I summarized the lyrics I'd heard as best I could for the old man, and he nodded before I could even finish. "Oh, yes. That old strain. I'm familiar with the one you mean, though I can't say I know what possessed him to come up with it."
"It sounds like something you would write for a sweetheart."
I was thinking aloud, more or less, with that observation, but the old music master heard something else in it. His mood turned serious, and he cast a quick glance outside the shed to make sure we were still alone, before turning back to me and lowering his voice.
"Mr Ginko, I'm concerned that boy might be stealing from me."
The sudden change of subject startled me. "Why are you telling me?" I hoped he was not going to ask me for advice. Mushi I could give advice on, but the upbringing of someone else's children?
He shook his head.
"I don't know. Maybe part of me hopes that by saying it out loud, it will sound so crazy I won't believe it. But I can't ignore how guarded Asaru's been acting lately, when I press him about business on the road. This isn't the first time it's happened, or that he's supposedly slashed prices. Could it be he's claiming business is slow just so he can skim something for himself off the top of our profits? But whenever I try to ask him about it, he pretends not to know what I'm talking about."
"Maybe he really doesn't."
"And maybe you're right. And, don't get me wrong, I want to trust him as I have these past years and let the matter work itself out. I tell myself he has never lied or hidden things from me before, so what reason would he have to start now? However, there is a part of me that says, if I don't nip this thing in the bud now, I might be inviting more trouble in the long run."
He turned to me, as I dreaded he would. "What do you think?"
I really didn't have any thoughts on the matter, nor was it my place to judge.
"He's young yet," I said instead. "It's only natural he have some secrets."
"Yes," said the music master. "But I was young once, too, Mr Ginko. I know what it's like to have secrets. And I know how dangerous they can be."
About that time, a middle-aged gentleman showed his face around the workshop door and called out. "Asaru said I might find you in here," he said. Then he saw me and he flashed an awkward smile. "Sorry if I'm interrupting—"
"It's all right," the music master was quick to say. "This gentleman's just renting our extra room for a few nights before he's back on the road. I thought I'd show him my craft, is all."
"Ah, yes. Those famous musical boxes. Nothing like a captive audience to make your pitch to. That it?"
"Nah, it's nothing like that. . . ."
The music master laughed. And even though the newcomer—I assume he was a neighbor of the master's—joked easily enough, as he glanced over me he didn't seem entirely satisfied with the old man's answer.
"Are you still coming?" he asked anyway.
The music master turned to me apologetically.
"You'll have to excuse me, Mr Ginko, but I'm afraid today's the day I usually go into town for a bit to see the latest talent to come through. It's something of a weekly ritual. You might even call it research. Of course, you're free to join us if you'd like."
His offer was tempting, but as much as I would have enjoyed seeing a minstrel show, the man's neighbor looked less than enthusiastic about the prospect of me joining them. Nor did I have any particular desire to run into the musicians from the inn again.
"Nah," I said. "Thanks for the offer, though."
I smiled. "Yeah. I'm sure. I was thinking of taking a short walk, actually, take in some more of this landscape, so don't worry about me."
That satsified the two of them. Or, at least, if that didn't, as they set off—the music master having assured me he would be back for supper—I could just hear the neighbor exclaim "Eh? A mushishi?" in response to some whispered exchanged.
Same old, same old.
—= o =—
I really didn't mind my host abandoning me, either. As beautiful as the hills surrounding the music master's neighborhood were, I was far more interested in what he had in his home. And while it was never my intent to be devious, two puzzles had been placed in front of me, and my curious mind was bound and determined to figure them out, even if I had to be a less than honest guest to do so.
The master of the house's going out just happened to be the excuse I needed.
On the one hand, there was the enigma of the whispering zither of local legend—which I now knew to be real, and residing there in the music master's household. I had not come for that, though, but, if my instincts were correct, to find out what was ailing the girl with the red hair and, if at all possible, correct it.
As I strolled through the surrounding grove, I took the glass vials from my pocket to see if there had been any changes to their contents in the past few hours. None of them showed any reaction to the herbs and minerals that had been mixed with them—except one. One of the strands of red hair had reacted, however slightly, in a way I had not expected, nor did I think the possibility was likely to have crossed the old man or the boy's minds either.
So on one front I had a tentative answer; but my curiosity on the other had yet to be assuaged.
As I was returning to the house, I passed the boy coming from the cowshed.
"So the Master's gone down to town already, has he?" he said when he saw I was alone. "It'd be about that time. Every week like clockwork."
"Is he usually gone long?"
"M-m. But he'll be back just in time for supper. Always is. It's like he can smell when it's ready from in town. But if you ask me, the Master's got something of an affinity for those minstrels, like he wishes he could be one of them, traveling from place to place all the time. Makes me wonder why he doesn't just take our product to market himself."
I thought I might have had some idea why myself, from what the old man had told me so far, but I kept it to myself as I followed him back to the house. "So, he won't be back for a while."
"A few hours yet, at least."
The boy put the feed pail he had been carrying down outside the door, but paused at the washbasin to look over at me. "Why?"
I think I grinned. Couldn't pull any fast ones on this kid.
"I was wondering if you would humor me for a spell. I hear you write your own songs and sometimes put them into those musical boxes of yours. Do you ever play?"
It was his turn to look suspicious, and his awkwardness from lunchtime returned as well. He tried to hide it behind the towel.
"A little," he admitted. "But I'm not trained in theory like Kiri, here, so I'm nowhere near her level."
He had said the last part after turning to look over his shoulder, where the girl sat at the hearth.
She made a sign to him, and he laughed. "It's not just modesty. It's just that the Master sends me on long trips to sell our instruments and, like I said, I make up songs to keep me from getting bored. It's good for business, you know. Give a customer a taste of how the instrument will sound when it's played, and if they don't play, at least they can take the song home with them. So, I guess you could say I taught myself."
"Would you play something for me?"
Once again, the boy laughed bashfully, and tried to worm out of it: "Really, Kiri's the talented one. I may have written some songs, but she brings them to life."
He glanced at her again.
But much as the girl may have appreciated his words, she just sat back on her heels and signed nothing. She wasn't going to help him out of this one, it seemed. I smiled, thinking maybe now the boy knew how I'd felt at the inn.
"Fine," he sighed. "If it means that much to you, I'll play. Let me get one from the shed."
It was a long shot, but I had to take it.
I said, "Actually, I can think of a koto I saw in the master's study I'd be really interested in hearing. It has a, shall we say, unique sound. Even when no one's playing it."
The boy started, then turned an unsure glance to the girl before he looked back at me. "You know about that?"
"Kiri showed it to me, with the understanding it would be in the strictest confidence."
I turned to her to make sure she understood: "Somehow I don't think I'm breaking that confidence too much by including Asaru."
She nodded slowly, and the boy, sticking his head out the door and casting a cautious look down the path that led up to the house, sighed his resignation.
Kiri and I followed him to the study.
Once again, I heard the low humming before the koto appeared. The boy removed it fully from its case with great care. He tipped it on its base at my request so I could have a look inside the holes in its underside, then allowed me to examine the surface with a magnifying lens as he tuned the instrument. I bent over the koto, and as the boy moved each bridge into position, I could just catch the slight change in pitch in the strings—very faint—as if the whole zither were coming into proper alignment, one note at a time.
I could see the change as well, if only faintly, within the dark bands of the grain. It was a crystalline geometric pattern, like the crystals of snowflakes or the chambers of a honeycomb, that gently expanded and contracted with each bridge moved into place, as though the instrument itself were breathing.
There the mushi was, plain as day under the lens, flexing to the pitch change. I wanted to study it further, but the boy was ready to play, so I sat back to watch, and listen.
He plucked tentatively at the strings at first, getting used to the feel of the instrument and acquainting himself with which strings made which sounds. His earlier modesty was rather unwarranted, though, in my opinion, because very quickly the melody took form under his hands. Even if it was only a simple one, his fingers moved over the strings with purpose and the song rang out clear.
It wasn't the song that captured my attention, though, in all honesty. Instead, it was the sound of the koto itself that had me mesmerized. Even if he plucked only one string, a whole chorus of vibrations arose from it. They were separate from the harmonic resonances that the strings produce naturally, the ones that ring in your inner ear; they behaved . . . differently, independently; but they complemented the natural frequencies much like the reflection of a hillside in a still lake, with a timbre more easily felt than heard.
It sounded a little like catching strains of someone's conversation or singing far off, like the boy had said, mingled and muffled beneath the music itself, or like the ripples of a lake gently knocking a wooden boat against its mooring. It was a little like when a buzzing bee gets itself stuck between the paper walls of a lantern, or migrating geese alert you to their passing overhead—like the whistle of a gust of wind over the lips of empty pots, or how it makes bamboo stalks rustle hollowly together, and wind chimes tinkle in the eaves.
Of course, none of that can completely accurately describe this sound that was, in essence, that self-same vibration you can sometimes catch, on a particularly still afternoon, when mushi pass by, raising their voices in harmony to one another. But at the same time, the mushi's voice was amplified and warped by the wood of the koto's body and the strings themselves, turning it into a sound not heard by anyone else before. Nor could a person hope to hear anything like it again afterwards. It was alien, always shifting, and cacophonous.
But it was also very beautiful.
The girl's face brightened, and, perhaps emboldened by the boy's playing, she signed something to him that made him scoot over. She took his place, slid a few of the bridges to different but obviously familiar positions, and started up a new song in a new scale. This one had a livelier rhythm, and her playing was bolder and more intricate. The mushi within the koto responded in kind, releasing vibrations that made the strings almost seemed to glow.
Presently the boy began to tap out a beat on his leg and sing along. I wondered how he did it, because at first the song he was singing sounded nothing like the melody the girl was playing. It was indeed the same song, but it was as if she had found the notes between the notes—as if the rest of the song had been lost to time and the elements, and was only now being pulled back into existence by her fingers on the strings. Her hearing had not gone completely, but even that could not account for the girl's insight. Perhaps the music master's instincts about her as a child had been correct after all.
I remembered, too, what she had been trying to tell me earlier, how she had somehow felt the mushi's vibrations within the wood rather than heard them with her ears. Perhaps it was that that allowed her to hear something in the music ordinary ears might have missed entirely.
Something in the whispering—to take a cue from the legend—of the mushi within the instrument.
With the sound at its maximum filling the study, I bent close to the koto again, careful not to touch the strings as I studied the activity in the grain. The geometric cell-bodies of the mushi veritably danced under the girl's spirited playing and the vibrations it made. Even to the naked eye, the arcs in the grain seemed to tremble visibly, as though they were trying to break free of the wood and stretch outward, like ripples that struggle to reach the shore.
Eventually the boy fell silent, and the girl drew the song to a close with a satisfied chord that faded away into completion.
The instrument itself, however, was far from silent, but now it only resonated with that low, monotonous hum—if a little more charged than before, like the air before an electrical storm—as if waiting patiently for its next turn.
The boy broke the spell with a sigh.
"So, there you have it. Now you know the truth about the legend of the whispering zither."
"I can see now why the music master wants to keep it a secret. There are some who would spend all they were worth to have an instrument like that. It truly is one of a kind."
"Maybe. But if that's the case, I don't know why he doesn't just sell it. It's not like he plays it anymore. I always thought the Master forbade its playing because he thought it was too dangerous somehow, but he and Kiri would be set for life if he just got rid of it, instead of hiding it away. Maybe it is dangerous after all."
He looked up at me. "There's a mushi in it, isn't there, Mr Ginko?"
"Yeah," I told him. "Embedded in the grain. It's the kind that makes its home in woody stems, acting as a sort of mediator between the forest and the lifestream that feeds the mushi. Most would simply leave if their trees were cut down, look for other plants to inhabit, but for whatever reason this one didn't. It must have gotten itself trapped when the wood was finished. But the one thing it's not is dangerous."
"Then maybe that's the reason," the boy said. "I still think it's selfish of him, though. If it were up to me, this kind of sound would be shared with the whole world. It's magical in a way, and people need to feel magic in their lives now and again, to let them know there's something more in this world, something they can't necessarily see or touch."
He pulled the koto closer to himself with a sigh, absently retuning it in that way folks do when they feel they can't speak honestly without some sort of distraction.
He said, "I need something more. That's what I've come to realize lately. I'm tired of pounding old songs into metal day after day, other people's songs."
He glanced up once at the girl, who had been watching his lips the whole time. She smiled, and he smiled back.
"I want to write new songs—songs that no one's ever heard before. Living songs, for Kiri to play."
"I will have none of it!"
The music master was standing in the doorway, and his eyes went wide when they found the koto. He rushed forward and snatched the instrument from the boy's hands, throwing it hastily in its case. One of its old feet snapped in the process, but he didn't pay it any notice.
"Put this away," he shouted at the boy. "Put this away, I said! How many times have I told you not to take that koto out of its case? How many times have I told you never to play it?"
The girl balled her fists in her lap, saying nothing.
The boy started to apologize and excuse himself, and that was when the music master took hold of his shoulder.
"Why didn't you listen to me?" he said, and cuffed the boy on the ear before he could answer back. "I try to raise you right, teach you in a trade, and this is how you repay me? When I agreed to take you off your uncle's hands, it was with the understanding that I was gaining a craftsman, not some daydreaming minstrel! Everything I have done is so that you two can have enough to eat and make something of yourselves, and now I find out that you are deceiving me behind my back? Are you stealing from me, too, Asaru? To pay for some girl you met on the road, is that it—to buy her presents with my money? After I gave you everything! After I trusted you! Is that what you broke my trust for?"
The boy opened his mouth to try and explain himself, but he had trouble getting more than a few words out.
It was unacceptable to the music master, who demanded, "Well? Speak up. Answer me, boy! Are you going to look me in the eye and tell me the truth this time? Eh?"
It was the girl who answered for him.
"Papa!" she said, staring the old man down, and all of us were so stunned that she had actually spoken—not least of whom the music master—that the whole room seemed to hold its breath.
The boy ducked out of the music master's grip then and disappeared into the next room. When he returned, it was with a wrapped parcel.
"Here," he said, waving it at the old man, who was still staring at the girl in his surprise. "If you must know, then yes, I did take some money—our money that I made for us on the road. You want to know so bad what was so important I had to do it, well . . . this is my reason right here."
The boy unwrapped the parcel, and inside was a porcelain doll of a young lady dressed in kimono, with cinnabar-red hair. Just like the girl's.
"I bought it for her," he said. "For Kiri. They told me at the shop that its hair got bleached in the sun, but they still wanted more than I could pay for it. But when I saw it there on the shelf, I had to buy it for her. I just couldn't wait. So I took a little money from what we made on these last few trips, just so I could afford it. I always intended to pay you back, from my own wages if I had to. I was planning to save the surprise for after I'd done that, wait 'til the moment was right, but now. . . ."
His voice had begun to waver, and his ear was red where the old man had hit him, but he looked over at the girl with bold, dry eyes.
"I just wanted her to have something special. That's all. Something that's like her, so she won't feel so alone all the time. Something to remind her how beautiful she really is. I know she's getting a little old for it, but . . . well, girls should have things like this, I think."
The music master sat back on his heels. He ran a hand over his mouth, as though sloughing water off his chin.
The boy held the doll out to the girl, and when she had taken it, he bowed to the old man, pressing his forehead to the floor.
"I'm sorry I took the money. It was wrong of me. But believe me, I always intended to pay it back. Every last copper. Little by little, whenever I could."
The girl stared at the doll with the red hair that matched hers and stroked its gown—and no one watching her, certainly not the music master—could doubt how much she treasured it.
And perhaps, though far be it for me to assume, the one who had given it.
"Forgive me, Mr Ginko," the music master said to me later that evening. "I wish very much that you hadn't had to witness that. I do love these children, I do. Like my own. But as for my behavior today. . . ."
He shook his head.
"I've been a deplorable host. I owe you—and Asaru—a grave apology."
"But he was stealing from you, just as you suspected."
"Aye, he was, but his intentions were . . . Well, they were not what I thought they were. For a moment I saw the worst of myself in that boy, and in that moment my mind was made up. I was not going to allow him to make the same mistakes I did."
"But he's not you."
"No, he's not. Thank the powers that be for that."
"Obviously you thought you had good reason to react the way you did," I said. "The money was just one part of it, but it was the koto you seemed more concerned about. I bear responsibility for its being taken out of its case. Asaru was reluctant—he wanted very much to honor the rules you set down—but I wanted to hear it played. So I have to ask, why so many rules around that koto?"
The music master stared at me for a long moment, then he sighed as though in surrender.
"Well, I suppose it would have come out sooner or later. You've seen it, you've heard what it can do. It's a magical sound that instrument makes, isn't it? You might even say seductive, the way it seems to sing to a person all on its own. As if it were possessed."
"More like inhabited. There's a mushi in it. It's not magic. Though I suppose to the casual listener, the lines between the two must be pretty hazy."
"I wish you would have come to me about the koto in the first place."
"You would have allowed me to examine it if I'd asked you?"
The music master thought for a moment.
"You're right. I probably wouldn't have. But I'd still rather it was I who told you about it, rather than the children. No one else knows that instrument as well as I do. I'm not so proud to admit it as I once was, but I was the one who made it.
"I was apprenticed to a master koto maker when I was around the boy's age," he explained. "My parents recognized in me a sharp ear for music, but they hadn't the money to send me to a school so figured making the instruments was the next best thing. Pay was good, even better for a master craftsman, and I learned all the ways of the trade so that one day I might go into the business for myself. How to string the silk, set the bridges, work each piece of wood to bring out its unique, natural resonance. Of course, everyone knew that paulownia wood, the wood of the empress tree, was best. It was plentiful, it grew quickly, and its grain gave it the most beautiful resonance and finish. A well-tuned paulownia koto could turn over a handsome profit.
"So, with that goal in mind, I set to work making that zither, not knowing it would be the one that would change my life. It was not until I was stringing the instrument that I noticed anything out of the ordinary. A faint humming sound that did not go away no matter how many times I re-strung it or where I set the bridges, or what grade of silk I used. I could not understand why it made that noise, or how the sound kept coming back no matter what I did. The other men I worked with joked that the tree the board had come from was enchanted, but I was afraid they would see the flaw as a failure on my part.
"I continued to work on the koto in my spare time, to see if I could make that persistent hum go away. But the more time I spent fine-tuning the instrument, the more beautiful the humming became to me. There was a depth and color to that hum, when I put my ear to it, that no other instrument either man or nature could make could ever reproduce, and I came to love each unique sound the koto made at rest, even more so when it was played. It was as if the instrument were speaking just to me. I wanted the koto for my own, but it was not mine to have, even though I had made it. Most likely it would have been sold to some wealthy music school, and until then it belonged to my master's workshop.
"But I had to have it. It became an obsession with me. I knew I could never afford it properly on my wages, and if I were caught with the instrument after I had taken it, it would mean my position in the workshop and I would never see the koto again. So one night I stole it for myself, and left that workshop behind me forever.
"I took to the road, playing that koto for my rice and board in each town I came to, and before I knew it, the koto and myself had developed a following. And a name. The Whispering Zither. No one had ever heard the likes of the chords and strange melodies that came out of that koto, and they paid me well to awe them, not knowing that my still unschooled talents as a musician had little to do with the strains they heard.
"Still, the fame I garnered took its hold on me, and I became attached to renown and all the wonderful things it brought me. It brought me trouble as well. Other musicians who were jealous of that koto, who were willing to hurt me to have it for themselves, and, every once in a while, someone who was convinced it was possessed by some great evil and had to be destroyed. Even that just fueled the high-and-mighty image I had of myself. I became arrogant, and greedy, and by the time I realized I had spent the better part of my life seeking only others' praise, I was an old man without a single soul in the world to fall back on."
"And that was when you met the girl."
The music master nodded.
"It was as if Providence had placed her in my path. She turned my world on its head—made me realize that all music is, Mr Ginko, is sound, and all sound, no matter how beautiful or complex, mere vibrations in the air. This is elementary. I had been chasing an illusion, and beautiful though it was, it was still only an illusion. That's why I was so forceful with Asaru. That instrument is dangerous in the hands of a person who doesn't know their own heart. Its beauty is seductive, and can lead one who's not careful to his downfall."
"It's no fault of the instrument itself."
My words seemed to shake him out of his own past. He blinked, and nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, I know that now."
"The mushi is trapped within the grain of the top piece, invisible to the naked eye, but it gives itself away in the vibration it causes through the wood. You would never even know it was there if the instrument hadn't been strung. Mushi give off noise constantly, but it's typically so faint even animals can't hear it. In its natural environment, this mushi's vibrations would be swallowed up by the living tree that surrounds it. But in this particular medium, it's like giving the mushi a horn to project its tiny voice with."
I paused to flick the ash from my cigarette.
"That doesn't explain your popularity, of course—"
"That humming," the music master cut in, "it must speak to other folk like it did me—put them in a sort of trance."
"Maybe. Then again, there's no excusing real talent. You blame the instrument for your fame, but in truth, in the hands of someone less capable, it would have quickly faded into obscurity and been treated as nothing more than . . ." I shrugged. "An oddity. A mistake."
"Then everything I became . . . my arrogance, my selfishness . . . I have nothing to blame but myself."
He said so somberly, but I detected a note of relief in the old man's voice as well—the relief that comes with knowing the truth after so many years, even decades, of uncertainty.
"The mushi might have embellished your playing, but only because folks liked what they heard to begin with. In return—if you can call it that—you saved it from being taken for a mistake and destroyed."
"Even though there were many times I felt I should have destroyed it? I wanted to, you see, but could never bring myself to go through with it. That koto felt too much like a part of me. Almost as if it had chosen me."
I smiled. "Well, if it's any consolation, there's no reason you shouldn't play it. The mushi is harmless, even if the sound it makes does have a peculiar appeal. You must have guessed as much even then—even when you didn't know there was a mushi inside. You must have had a feeling, that even though it was just an instrument, it was also still alive."
I was eager then to turn our conversation to some other matter.
"Now, about Kiri—"
"You think maybe a mushi is infecting her, too? Do you know what it is?"
I didn't answer right away. To be honest, his question took me somewhat aback. Until then, I had thought it was the boy's concerns that had brought me to that house, so I was surprised after all his airs of skepticism to learn that the music master's thoughts might not have been so different after all.
I sat back and cleared my throat.
"It's fairly commonplace that when a person is afflicted by some condition that medicine can't explain, a mushishi is called in to deal with it. Most folks can't see mushi, and even fewer have more than an inkling of what they really are, even though so many have heard of them. They hear stories of the people who have crossed paths with mushi and had their lives altered in surprising ways—ways that defy belief, and any more mundane explanation. But the truth is, most of the time mushi simply pass through the world around us unseen and unnoticed. Keeping our environment in constant balance while remaining hidden from our eyes, like worms that nourish the crops as they pass through the soil beneath our feet. Like the one living in your zither."
I shrugged. "I think Asaru jumped to a conclusion that, frankly, was only natural when I told him what I was. He thought maybe I could help Kiri where no one else could, but now I don't think her case falls within my area of expertise."
The music master blinked slowly. "If not mushi . . . then, what?"
I took the glass vials from my pocket, and found the one wherein the girl's hair had produced some curious effects. I held it up to the light, not expected the old man to understand what he saw, but knowing it would help him to see it nonetheless.
"There are some minerals, however rare, occurring naturally that, when they break down, can make the living things around them very sick, even kill them. If they get in the water supply, they can poison a whole community. That was probably how it started in Kiri's village. Those repeatedly exposed to the contamination would have succumbed to terrible fever, and by that time it would be too late to repair the damage done to their bodies' tissues. An infant might be lucky to have only second-hand exposure, and so be spared the brunt of the disease. Either that, or she was blessed with a strong immune system. No one can really know for sure. Either way, exposure to the contamination probably turned the girl's hair red and changed the shape of the strands themselves, and the ensuing fever could have damaged her hearing."
The music master was silent a long moment, nodding slowly. Then, "How do you know? I mean, how certain can you be that it's some mineral that's to blame?"
"As certain as I can be without having a sample of the water from her village. I'm pretty confident it's not mushi, though."
I took a longer drag on my cigarette and let the information sink in.
After a while, the music master cleared his throat. "Then, ah, this contamination. . . . Will it—"
"It's no threat to her now that she's been removed from that environment. The damage has been done, but otherwise I don't see any reason why she can't expect to live as long and normal a life as she would had she never been exposed to that mineral in the first place."
"But her hearing. It won't return to normal, will it?"
I nodded, letting out a long breath of smoke.
"It will probably continue to decline. I wouldn't see that as a thing to mourn, though," I was quick to add when the music master lowered his eyes. "You noticed a talent in her early on. That hasn't changed. She could still become an accomplished musician, if she has those aspirations. And even if she doesn't, she's surrounded by people who care about her. And," I slipped in, "who speak her language."
The music master started at those words, but I was not sorry for saying them.
"Yes," he finally said. "Yes, that is true."
—= o =—
I set off the next morning. I'd stayed a day longer than I intended in the valley, even if it had led to an amazing discovery, and was eager to get as early a start on the road as I could.
The girl said nothing to me, as usual, but packed me a few generous meals' worth of food. Maybe it had something to do with the old music master's mood, as he seemed humbled by our conversation the evening before. I even caught him trying to learn a few words in her and the boy's signing language—much to the two's amusement—before my presence was noticed and the music master awkwardly cleared his throat.
"I feel like I should be the one paying you," he confessed to me a little later, when the subject came to my debt.
"I thought the agreement was I'd work for my lodging and pay the difference."
"Yes, and you've done that. I mean, for what you've done for Kiri—"
I was sure to cut him off with a wave.
"A few encouraging words, is all." There's no price that can be put on a person's peace of mind, so I'd rather not try to find one. It just leaves everyone feeling obligated in the end, which rather defeats the purpose of payment. And besides, as I was loath to remind him, my stay in his house had brought them just as much hassle as relief.
"There are a few things I'd like to buy off you, however."
He was reluctant to let me pay him, but eventually we worked out a deal. Metal wasn't cheap, I reminded him, and so he accepted my money for three musical boxes, albeit at reduced prices. A couple of melodies on which he had built his own fame decades ago, and one the boy had put together just recently, of the simple, lilting tune he had written on the road.
Then, with ox-cart in tow, the boy accompanied me into town to see me off.
As I reached the end of the main street, where the cobblestones turned once again to hard-packed dirt, I could hear the crowd hustling a minstrel somewhere behind me, calling to him over the sound of applause and raining coins: "Give us one more for the road, man—give us a wandering song!"
And the minstrel's warbling voice carried over the muffled sound of my footsteps keeping time, the promises of returning to some distant hometown where loved ones wait reverberating in my mind long after the rooftops disappeared behind me.
—= o =—
"And that's where it ends."
"So, the mushi wasn't subdued—well, not really. There wasn't really anything to subdue. It finally got to rest in the same valley as its brethren, like the legend said."
Ginko lowered his hand and turned his gaze away from the sky to look at Tan'yuu. "Does your leg not feel any better?"
She smiled and shook her head. "It isn't that. I guess I've come to expect ambiguous endings from you."
"Well, life doesn't have a punchline, even for a mushi. Things just happen, and oftentimes they don't make any sense—not in the sense that we mean 'sense,' anyway. They don't have to have a purpose."
"Like what happened to the girl with the red hair."
Ginko stared at her for a moment as though lost in indecision.
"I guess for some of us," he finally said, "there's some comfort to be taken in the belief that everything that happens to us does so for a reason. The girl lost both her parents to illness, but as a result the music master was able to meet her, and she Asaru. Then again, for others, it's easier to believe nothing is fated; if we started looking for reasons behind every unpleasant thing we'd lose our minds."
Then, like he had just remembered, he slipped his hand inside his trouser pocket and withdrew a small bundle of cloth.
"I guess if the story had any purpose it was to explain how I came to have this." And he handed her the bundle.
Tan'yuu did not open it right away. "What is it?"
"A souvenir of that Shangri-la of minstrels. I told you I brought some of the music back with me. And now I'm giving it to you, to brighten your darker days when I move on again."
Tan'yuu looked up at him, her brows knitted and her fingers stilled on the tiny music box that now lay in her lap. "You shouldn't give me things, Ginko," she said. "Stories are fine, but trinkets like these aren't cheap—"
"If it makes you feel any better, Adashino paid me twice for his what I paid for all three of them."
She tried not to smile, but could not keep one corner of her mouth from turning up. "I don't know how it's supposed to make me feel better about accepting it knowing you cheated your own friend out of his hard-earned savings."
For once, Ginko was without a comeback.
And Tan'yuu laughed lightly. "But thank you, in any case. I'll always treasure it."
"Well, go on," he said with sudden, inexplicable bashfulness. "Wind it up."
She did so and a tinny, crystalline melody came up from within the tiny wooden box. It did not sing like the zither in the story, but it was still an amazing thing to feel the vibration from the minute machinery within, beating like the heart of a small animal as it played. The tune was the same tune that the boy in the story had sung over his work, that he had finally immortalized in a metal cylinder; but the exact words Ginko had spoken escaped Tan'yuu's memory.
"Ginko," she teased, "sing me a wandering song?"
Traitor, his ensuing look seemed to say.
"You don't want to hear me sing."
A/n: Lyrics from "Swallowed In The Sea" belong to Coldplay, from their album X&Y, and are used without permission because they fit.