mushi ex machina

A jet engine roars somewhere overhead.

He looks up, shielding his eyes against the sun, but though the reverberation off the mountain is loud all around the valley, he can't find the jet itself, and scoots himself under the engine of the old pickup, penlight in hand and cigarette between his lips.

It doesn't take him long to find the problem. A mushi has gotten itself tangled among the hoses and valves of the truck's engine. It hasn't had a chance to get too big yet, which is promising, because if it had, the engine would almost certainly be kaput.

He pulls his gloves up just a little tighter, blows a carefully aimed stream of smoke, and reaches around the mushi. And pulls. It may look translucent and frail, but this mushi has found itself a comfortable spot, and is very reluctant to give it up, smoke or no smoke. It's a two-handed job.

If anyone drove by right about now, they'd get a good laugh at the man wrestling with the undercarriage of the '63 Daihatsu Midget. As it is, there's only a cow in the pasture on the other side of the road to hear his curses.

At last the mushi relinquishes its hold, and he crawls out from underneath the truck with it tight in his fist, and tosses it away into the reeds on the side of the road.

He wipes his brow, crosses his fingers, and starts the pickup. The whole thing shakes when the engine turns over.

He can breathe a sigh of relief. The truck's working fine, once again. At least for a little while.

He digs out his map, checks where he is. The old railroad trellis and the farmland, even the distinctive shape of the mountain might not help him much in figuring out where he's going, but they're calming to look at when you're doing spur-of-the-moment, roadside repairs.

Oh, he knows he probably should have traded this relic in years ago, but even if it hasn't had a paint job in at least three decades, the Midget's served his purposes well. It may not be the prettiest vehicle on the road—in fact, with its three wheels, it looks more like a mushi itself than a pickup truck—but like the landscape he's wandered into, it reminds him of a time the rest of his countrymen left behind long ago. He knows that's just the way things go, just like he can't really help it if he's one of the last of a dying breed. He didn't choose this profession. It chose him.

He leans over and adjusts the left side mirror, accidentally knocking into the air-freshener as he pulls his arm back inside the cabin. At least, it looks like an air-freshener, classic pine tree shape and everything, but it smells more like what it really is: a repellent. And one that's not doing such a good job of that anymore.

He'll have to stop and see the old woman who made it next time he's in that town, see if she can't give him a fresh one. She's always happy to give him a good deal, from one mushishi to another.

—= o =—

He's not sure he can call it an actual town, the place where he stops. There's a cluster of buildings along the side of the road whose purpose seems to be expressly to service the truckers who come by this way. There're a couple of service stations and car washes, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants of the good, old-fashioned kind.

He stops at a ramen-ya that looks like it could be something from an even earlier era than his truck.

There he takes a seat at the bar next to a big-rig trucker who looks too young for the job. Then again—the mushishi reminds himself—truckers only seem to be starting younger and younger these days, and wasn't he just a spring chicken himself when he hit the road?

Somehow they get to talking, and it turns out this trucker has a pretty good story of his own. Over the hissing of meat on the grill and the old postwar hits coming from the speakers, the trucker sips his beer and tells him about strange, super-realistic dreams he's been having.

"It's like I'm flying high above the country, with the road and the farmland and all these little cows passing by far below me. I'm . . . I don't know, weightless. And long. I don't know how else to describe it, but my body's all stretched-out-like and the wind's going right around me. Lifting me up, you know? I know it sounds crazy, but I'm telling you, it's not just a regular dream. You get what I'm saying? It's like I'm really up there, really doing those things, flying, as if I wasn't sleeping at all. I can even taste the moisture in the air and everything."

The mushishi sets his cigarette on the lip of the ashtray. "When did these dreams start?"

"Funny thing," says the young trucker, "it was right after I got back from visiting family in Satsuma, after I told them I was going to become a truck-driver."

"You do anything else while you were down there?"

"Come to think of it, that was when I got this."

He pulls the ring of his T-shirt down over his shoulder to show the mushishi a tattoo of a Chinese dragon, done in the monochromatic, brush-stroke style of an ink painting. The dragon has its mouth open to taste the air and its eyeballs bulge like tomatoes on a vine. It moves a bit as the mushishi studies it, and not just from the trucker's muscles either.

"The guy who did it said it would protect me on the road."

"You believe it?"

"Well," the trucker laughs, "it can't hurt."

—= o =—

Contrary to popular belief, mushi aren't opposed to modern technology. Some of them downright love it.

Sure the poor environmental practices of the first half or so of the twentieth century decimated much of their population, but they've made a remarkable comeback during the time he's been a mushishi. A lot of mushi-forms died out in the '50s and '60s, but the ones that survived have taken advantage of all the new niches mankind has provided for them with a vengeance.

He's caught them riding the currents of mag-lev lines, hijacking energy from the copper coils inside electric windmill towers, possessing folks' TV signals and microwave ovens. Not to mention, of course, their affinity for his pickup. In fact, it seems like the only thing they haven't managed to hack yet is digital encoding, but he wouldn't put it past them. Just give them the time to adapt. . . .

He's not the only one who recognizes it, either. He might be the only one who doesn't rely on a different day job to make his living, but there are some big names in the brotherhood. Murakami Haruki? Oh yeah, he's a mushishi. Where else do people think he gets his material? Same with Murakami Takashi and Sakamoto Ryuichi—they're spreading the message the best way they know how. Hell, anyone who ever claimed to have seen a ghost or an angel was almost certainly looking at a mushi.

It's just that these days, most people have forgotten the very word itself.

But there's a young woman who lives up in the hills who records all their stories no one else will ever hear.

It's the last house on the street. Over the decades the town has gradually crept up to it, but not beyond it, where the well-kept gardens suddenly end and give way to dry scrub land. The house isn't original, but the foundation is old, real old, like the mushi-forms that still live there.

She lives there alone with her lazy cat and the wind-powered generator and the laundry on the line. And with the mushi—both the ones that share the plot of land, and the ones in the texts hidden away deep underground.

"Do you have any new stories for me?" she asks him when he comes.

And he tells her about the oniko that he passed on the way up here, watching him from the woods as a giant crow, from a branch bent and bowed under its enormous weight.

He tells her about a retirement home with an outbreak of ka-ko, mosquito-children, whose young fill the residents' ears with strange and wonderful sounds, and memories of their own youth.

And he tells her about the man with the dragon tattoo who dreams of flying.

She writes them all down, and in return, she gives him access to the old files, carefully copied into the computer and backed up just in case the mushi that hold the originals together ever decide this time they're not going back to their pages. She teases him, "You know I could just send you these files anywhere, anytime. Don't you think it's time you joined the digital revolution?"

He just tells her this dog is too old to learn new tricks.

But really, if he buckled down and got a computer and Internet, would he have an excuse to come back here?

She winces as the words write themselves into the page, and the two last fingers on her other hand twitch—the ones she usually keeps wrapped up to hide how black and curled up and useless they've been since birth.

"I'm sorry," he says automatically every time. "Every time I come here I cause you pain."

"It's okay," she tells him, flexing her hand. "I think I'm close to finally beating this curse in my generation. If these fingers are all it has left, I don't mind enduring a little discomfort.

"Besides, Dad," she smiles, "I like hearing your stories the most."

A/n: Ka-ko means literally "mosquito child," but is also a pun on kako, "past".