Disclaimer: Twinham does not own Spirited Away or any rights to this fabulous tale. Hayao Miyazai owns the rights to the story and Studio Ghibli and Disney own rights to the movies. Twiknham earns no money for posting this story and will not accept any gifts beyond free reviews. It is asked that reviews are kept clean since they do not come with ratings, but both good reviews and constructive criticism are welcome. Please enjoy.
The first time I ran into the woman, I was too young to realize how absolutely crazy the woman was. It was the middle of cherry blossom festival, my parents had brought me to Ueno Park so that we could eat under the ancient trees and possibly get a cherry blossom petal in our drinks, blessing us with a year of good fortune. There is this one tree near the Inari Shrine that always reminds me of an old lady, her arms held out, the skin sagging below. On that day, she was dignified with her pink finery and although the businessmen would sit on the other side of the walkway on their blue tarps, shoes on the edge while they crowded together under the multiple trees, I always wanted my parents to sit under the old lady. That day had been no different.
I found out years later that she noticed me because of my mixed heritage. My father is Japanese but my mother is Icelandic, with the grey eyes and blonde hair of that heritage. I came out somewhere in between with slate grey eyes and hair my friends likened to muddy river water. We were sitting under the old lady when I noticed a blossom floating in my tea. Holding up the cup, I danced around the trunk thanking the beautiful tree for its blessings. Suddenly I noticed the woman in the green and white striped shirt, staring at me with startled eyes. I stopped dancing to watch her.
"Haku?" She was standing as still as a geisha doll, her face about as white.
I ran over to her, curious as to how she knew my name. "Look, I caught a blossom!" I held my cup up in my eight-year-old hands and showed her my blessing.
She smiled. "Is your name Haku?"
My parents came over, surprised by her boldness. Japan is a fairly safe place for children, but the world is becoming a meaner place daily and my mother isn't as trusting as most. My mother looked at the woman, probably determining that the woman didn't look much older than a high schooler. "Do you know our son?"
The woman blushed. "Forgive me, for a moment he looked like someone I knew." She turned and walked away, taking the time to first bow in apology.
We saw her later that day, down at the Buddhist shrine below the park. She was sitting on a bench throwing bread to the ducks in the pond, tears causing ripples on the calm water as she cried.
I did not see her again for many years. The year I became an adult, our third year class took a trip to Kyoto to visit all of the significant structures. It was a four day stay, the days filled with riding the public transit to the lesser shrines of the area. We learned of the history of the shrines and even got to spend a little bit of time in historic Gion, although most of us boys were more interested in seeing a Meiko or Geisha than we were in learning that area's importance in shaping the country's history.
The third day of the trip, I woke early, the crows being especially loud outside the room I was sharing with three friends. I left a note that I was going for a walk down the Gamo River and headed out to grab a quick breakfast of salmon riceball and blueberry youghert from the 7-11 down the street. Armed with my bag of goodies and a bottle of hot tea to offset the chill of the early morning, I walked down the stairs next to the bridge and started down the path that parallels the Gamo. I had visions in my mind of samurai warriors making clandestine meetings in the early morning fog, planning some type of overthrow of the current daimyo. Stopping suddenly under a green cherry tree, I noticed a woman sitting on a rock in the river.
The woman had longish brown hair pulled up in a pony high on the back of her head and she was dressed very unfashionably in a green striped shirt and blue-jean shorts, the kind of outfit I expected my little sister to have worn when she was eight. One of her hands negligently trailed in the water and it looked like her mind was a million miles away. I sat on the bench under the tree and ate my breakfast, hoping she would come up so I could ask her what she was doing. It was obvious that she had passed twenty-five several years earlier and I wondered why she wasn't spending her morning fixing breakfast with her family instead of sitting on a rock in the middle of a half-empty river. However, she never came out of her trance and I ran out of time before she ran out of meditation.
On the last day, we hiked up the mountain to Kizu Mizudera. It was the grand finale in a long week of touring and hearing historical facts that we would never remember past graduation. The shrine was fabulous, the overhanging porch held all hundred of us and several of us dared to look over the edge at the city below. After the tour, our sensei gave us an hour of free time. Two of my friends had agreed to go to the Jinshu Shrine, or love shrine, with their girlfriends to see if they could blindly walk the true path of love from the first mystical stone to the other. I thought the whole idea of fated love was crazy, so I left them to their insanity. My other friend wanted to go see the five-tiered pagoda on the other end of the ledge walk so I wished him well as he set off on that long trip. I myself wanted to walk down into the village that had been hidden for many years by the fog that covered the valley below the shrine. After climbing down all of the stairs and thinking the return trip would be murderous, I found myself standing at the birthing place of a small creek. There in the solid stone wall, a fountainhead jutted out and water flowing through the spout.
Following an irresistible urge, I put my hands in it. "Is it natural?" I was thinking out loud, not expecting a response.
Startled, I turned to see the strange lady from the day before. Only, this time I recognized her. "I met you in Ueno Park years ago." I backed up, suddenly feeling wary. "Are you following me?"
She looked at me carefully. "Haku is it?" At my very suspicious nod, she laughed, a rusty sound that hurt to hear it. "No, but I agree this does appear to be a strange coincidence." She gently ran her hand through the escaping water, touching it like a parent would touch a new baby.
"What are you doing?"
She shook her head before turning away. "You are too young to understand Haku. May you have a fortunate life." I watched her walk up the stairs, her young body appearing very old in the lifting fog.
The year I turned twenty-five, I was madly in lust with a law student. She was from Beijing and I loved everything from her slightly rounded face to her awful accent that butchered more of my language than I cared to admit. After her last exam that term, we took a trip to Hiroshima. She had never been to the Heian Park where the atomic bomb had been dropped, so we planned a trip. After a very somber day touring the museum and listening to the gong toll every hour, we went back to our hotel and had ferocious sex to reaffirm that life had continued. The next morning we woke late and decided to spend the day clamming on Miyajima Island.
We held hands while we rode the street trolley to the ferry station for Miyajima. The ferry was boarding and we laughingly ran down the ramp waving our tickets and pleading for the attendant to hold the boat for another minute or two. On board, we climbed the narrow stairs to stand on the upper deck. I put my arms around her as we stared out at the water and the platforms marking where the crab pots were located. As the Floating Torii approached, or so it appeared to us, we moved to the forward deck to watch the island and check to see how many people were already in the muck digging up clams. It appeared to be a busy day clamming and I sighed in relief, not wanting to carry home stinking clams that were too old to be safe to eat. I leaned on her shoulder. "Why don't we go to the shrine instead?" I released my hold to point at the small pagoda almost hidden by the trees to the right of the Torii.
"I'd rather see the monkeys."
I smiled in her lovely face, nodding my head and hoping I had enough to pay for the tram lift across the island.
Once there, she had a fun time watching the little creatures with the soft light brown fur and pink faces. Taking a small footpath, we held hands and walked through the trees, whispering our dreams to each other. As we came around a bend, I saw a flash of something white just as she saw movement in the other direction. Exclaiming joy at the thought of a monkey in the wild, she broke her hold of my hand and turned to look intently into the trees.
"Stay right there, okay?" I saw her nod before I turned toward the flash. Quietly winding my way between two trees, I was unpleasantly surprised to yet again see the woman in the green and white striped shirt. She was kneeling on the shore of a small stream, dabbling her hands in the water as if she could feel the spirit of the river. Very fine streaks of silver were barely visible at her temples and she looked at least thirty five.
I stepped up beside her, breaking her concentration and startling her. "Excuse me!" She moved to stand but I stopped her by holding up my hand.
"Listen, don't leave on my account. I'm just a little curious what the hell you're doing. Seems we keep running into each other and although you continue to age, every time I see you, you wear the same outfit." I smiled in a disarming manner. "Do you actually own any other clothes?"
She bowed over her hands, taking her time to answer. "I do own other clothes, but I always wear this type of outfit when I go on these journeys." She looked up at me. "It's what he last saw me in." She abruptly stood, gingerly wiping loose debris off of her knees. "Haku is it?" At my nod, she smiled, the motion tightening her face and showing lines that should not be so visible yet. "Maybe we are just fated to continue to run into each other. You are my reminder that sometimes we walk away from unfathomable riches only because we cannot appreciate them for the package they arrive in." She turned towards the sound behind us and gestured a hand. "Possibly I am a reminder to you that if you wait too long, you will lose your opportunity as well." She bowed quietly and stepped back through the trees, disappearing as my lover appeared.
"Who was that?" She had a curious look on her face as she gently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
I smiled and grabbed her hand, walking back up the path towards the tram. "An old acquaintance that I did not expect to see here."
"A girl?" The tone was there, just under her voice. I should have realized then that unspeakable jealousy lay just under her smooth exterior.
"An old acquaintance, not anyone of consequence."
"What was she doing here?"
"I don't really know, she appeared to be looking for something or someone."
Looking around curiously, jealous eyes turned back to me. "There's no one here, who was she looking for?"
I shrugged and laughed. "I've never been able to figure that out."
Seasons change and as the leaves turn brittle and die, so did our affection for each other. I took a long hiatus from relationships, going home to visit my parents for a year after university. I had a degree in accounting and the job market was a little soft so we spent the year learning the very painful lesson that children need to grow up and parents need to let them go. At the end of the year, I had worked through the angst of a lost love and grown into an adult. It was very cathartic, I felt much like the new butterfly as I spread my wings and headed north. Fukushima was a growing electronics area and they needed accountants.
The first year was rough, filled with more late, late trips back to my apartment by train than nights out on the town. By the third year, I had been promoted to assistant head of the department and by age thirty-five I had been asked to join the internal audit group. My friends, who had been easy to make but harder to retain, took me out for drinks to help me come to a decision. They all hassled me about how I couldn't audit them, all of us knowing we'd done the very best we could do over the years; but knowing that there had been little reconciliations that had never totally equaled zero along the way. Over karaoke and warm sake, I came to the decision that I indeed was meant to become an auditor. We staggered home that night, each of us to our own separate places and the next morning slightly the worse for wear, I stepped up to my new manager's office to tell him my decision. Just as I raised my hand to knock, the door opened and a surprised smile crinkled the corners of his crafty eyes as he ran a hand through his silver hair. "Just the man I was looking for." He threw a friendly arm over my shoulder. "Pack for the outdoors, you're going with us."
I was not expecting this and stood there with my mouth agape. After a few seconds, I realized I was staring and lowered my eyes. "Sumimasen!"
He chuckled and backed up. "I can tell by the gleeful look in your very hung over face that you've made the decision to be on our team. We are going up to the Kido this weekend and it'll be the perfect opportunity for you to meet the rest of the group."
I cocked my head to the side. "Kido?"
"Yes, great salmon. You'll love it."
I had to admit that over the years I'd felt the draw of fishing. Surprised, I laughed. "Fly fishing I hope."
He looked at me as if I had suddenly become very foolish. "Of course! If you don't have the gear, I'm sure I have spares."
"No, but thank you. I have my own." I shook his hand and thanked him, turning back to my office to give my manager the bad news that I had accepted the new position.
Within a day we found ourselves waist deep in the Kido River, casting the line and watching the fly dance enticingly on the top of the water. We were fishing on private property so we did not have to contend with the foreigners who flocked to the area during salmon season. I was no expert, but the fish were plentiful and after we caught our regulation five, we headed back to the boss's river cottage to enjoy a dinner prepared by one of the team members who was better at cooking than fishing. We spent the night talking and telling stories from our pasts, finally calling it over when we ran out of beer.
The next morning, I followed my normal routine of waking early and going for a walk or run. In Fukushima, I would jog on a well traveled route. However, out here I opted for a brisk walk up the river bank and back. The trees provided plenty of shade and the morning mist off of the river gave the appearance that I had traveled back hundreds of years. The sound of underbrush crunching up ahead froze me in my tracks and I waited. Bears were uncommon but not improbable, especially during this time of year. A sudden splash followed by an exclamation caused me to speed up. What I saw as I stepped through the fog had me blinking. An older woman was standing in the river, talking in the vague area of the opposite shore. The water was rippling wildly around her and I wondered if she had accidentally stepped into a nest of snakes. She didn't appear to be in trouble, but I watched as the water suddenly stilled and she put her hands over her face, sobbing in what sounded like frustration. Unsure about what to do, the choice was taken out of my hands as a bird, finally realizing there was a human nearby, flew out from the tree beside me and startled me. As I tripped over a small log behind me, the woman raised her head and turned to look at me.
I lay there, pushed up on my elbows and staring as she turned revealing a face framed with a thin border of silver hair and a green and white striped shirt exposed by the unbuttoned jacket. We stared at each other. "You!" It was simultaneous and neither of us knew how to answer. In my typical tactless fashion with her, I frowned. "You never answered my question."
"Are you following me?" She turned and waded towards the shore, uncaring that her shoes and pants were soaked.
"Avoiding it again I see. You've gotten older." I watched as she walked over and reached a hand out, holding steady as I used her as leverage to pull myself out of the awkward spot I was in. When I was standing, she backed up so that her wet clothes would not dampen my dry ones.
After a moment she chuckled, it sounded even rustier than the last time I'd heard it. "It does tend to happen with the passing of the years." She looked towards the water, it appeared almost to pause in its passing as if to give honor to the woman in green. "Haku, I would guess you were following me this time, but I hadn't scheduled a stop here."
"Every time I see you, you're near a river. Are you a surveyor?"
She sighed. "No. I am trying to find a particular river."
I looked at her, beginning to wonder even more about her sanity. "You've been all over the country, how hard is it to pick up a map and find it?"
"Ah, but I don't know its name. I only remember its face." Her eyes glazed and I knew she had moved elsewhere.
"Rivers don't have faces." I was wondering if the woman had gotten lost from a mental ward.
"No, but their spirits do."
I was intrigued. Of course I didn't believe anything she said, but all of us had studied the spirits in school and knew that the Shinto religion believed that spirits took care of those things around us.
"So, suppose I believe you, what does this river's face look like?"
She stared off, her eyes becoming glazed as she seemed to think back through her memory. "He was very wrinkled. He didn't say much, but I remember he smiled in a peaceful way." She smiled suddenly. "And he left gold flecks all over the floor of the ofuro."
Yes, I was sure she was crazy. "Gold eh?" I smirked. Have you thought about Fukuoka?"
"I have been to all the rivers in Fukuoka." She frowned and glared at me. "I'm not a simpleton." After a moment, she sighed. "And Hokkaido too."
I shrugged, she took the words right off the tip of my tongue. "Can't help you then."
She nodded her head in acknowledgement. "No one can. I should never have left him."
"The old river spirit?"
She laughed again, the sound less rusty than before. "No, he's still here somewhere. I'm working my way back to the Naka River, I thought I'd try near the Kegon Falls." She turned back towards what I noticed was a road. "But my vacation is over tomorrow and it will be another year or two before I can get back this way." She started in that direction.
"Have you tried the Naka before?" I followed. It would be quicker to take the road back.
Her eyes looked older than the trees around me as she pierced me with her gaze. "Yes, but the spirit has a lot of ground to cover and he isn't that big."
"I'm really confused, why are you looking for this mythical spirit?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Unrequited love."
I rolled my eyes. "Save me from that."
Suddenly she turned. "I forgot, you were with a girl last time. I take it that fell through?"
"She was jealous of you."
Confusion ghosted her face before finally settling. "Me?"
I shrugged my shoulders this time, to show I felt indifferent about the whole mess. "Yeah, but it was a good indication to me that we were doomed."
"I am sorry, I do not know why we continue to meet like this, but I would never cause you problems."
"I know." We were finally to the road. "Hey, would you mind giving me a ride back to my humble housing? I've spent too much time out and I suspect my new manager is looking for me."
She unlocked the car and reached across to get the handle. "Sorry, I spend money on trips, not new vehicles. The door doesn't work from the outside."
I pulled it closed and listened while the old starter struggled to turn the engine. "You need to go on less trips, this car is dying."
She looked sad. "I know, that's why I said it would be a couple of years before I could get to Kegon Falls."
She was true to her word, dropping me off at the cabin before telling me to have a good life and driving off. I waved in farewell, knowing that with our luck we'd probably see each other again. The boss was surprised that I'd already finished my morning run and laughed about how maybe I could help get the rest of them in shape. It was the start to an incredible advancement in my career.
Like the salmon swimming against the stream, looking for a peaceful continuation to their lives, I also started looking for a family. I hadn't been in the job two years when the divisional director asked me to move to Sendai and take over management of the accounting department at that facility. Shortly after I moved there, I started looking for my morning run route. It took a while but finally I found the path that seemed to work best for my mind as well as the time frame I had to run. It took me out past the local university, up a small river that led to a smaller shrine, across the bridge and then back past the park. It was very pleasant and except for when it rained, I stepped back into the house more refreshed than when I had left.
It was early in the spring when I about killed myself on that journey. The river was a little higher than usual, the rains having added to its flow, and I was enjoying the extra sound the water made as it rushed through the rocks. Suddenly I noticed a wall of water rise and crash at the feet of a woman in green and white. Immediately I thought of the crazy lady that I continued to run into during the years and I literally stopped running. I wish I could say I stopped moving, but momentum took over and I found myself flipping over and lying on my back.
The woman in green ran over and stopped right in front of me, leaning over to check on me in a concerned manner. I focused slowly on a young face with brilliant brown eyes and startling black hair. "Are you okay?"
I bent forward, propping up on my elbow. "What did you do back there?"
She looked at me strangely. "Back where?"
"You made the water just stand up."
A light twinkling noise graced my ears. "Oh, you mean this!" She pulled a driving iron from beside her and waved it lightly. "I like to practice my swing in the river. The natural resistance builds muscle."
"That was one hell of a swing." I sat up and internally checked that everything was working.
She smiled. "I didn't say I was bad at golf." She reached a hand down and helped pull me to my feet. "Are you heading in to work, or are you free to get breakfast as my way of apologizing?"
I thought for a moment and decided my perfect attendance warranted a day of hookey. "I'm available for breakfast. What were you thinking?"
She started walking and I kept up, limping slightly from an overextended calf. "There's a really great bakery down the street. I have a weakness for their ham and cheese stuffed Danish."
My tastes were still more traditional, running towards the salmon riceball and pickles than the newer custom of breakfast breads, but I thought a nice akai bean roll didn't sound too bad. "I'm Haku."
She blushed. "I'm so rude. My name is Jenny."
I stared at her very hard for a second and she laughed. "My parents are both Japanese but my mother always liked the name."
I shook my head. "I can't say anything, I'm half. You just seem familiar to me."
"You play golf?"
I shook my head. "No, fishing is my thing. I'll sling a reel, don't care too much for the golf club."
"Well, I probably don't mean anything to you then." She looked at the man behind the counter and politely asked for a ham cheese Danish. He wrapped it in paper and handed it to her. She handed him a five hundred yen coin and waited patiently for her change.
I smiled and pointed at an akai roll. "I wouldn't say that exactly." I watched as the man smiled and handed her the change before turning to retrieve a roll for me. I took the roll and handed him two one-hundred yen coins, the roll being much less expensive than the Danish.
She took her time responding, but eventually she did. "Are you saying that I mean something to you?"
"You could. Are you interested?"
She picked up the iron and turned towards the door. "I don't know, are you married?"
I held the door for her, stopping long enough to thank the shop owner for the wonderful roll. "I came close about ten years ago, but I couldn't contend with the jealousy."
"Okay. I'll give you my address, you can pick me up on Friday night." We started walking back to the river but we didn't stop there.
"Wow, that was quick."
She smiled, a crafty witchy look that should have warned me. "Nah, I've been watching you for weeks. You have a wonderful ass."
This time I blushed. It was fate, she had a sense of humor much more wicked than my own. "Seven and wear something nice."
She stopped and gestured towards her very wet shirt and shorts. "What, this isn't nice enough for you?"
I gently ran a hand down one wet sleeve, the obvious side effect from practicing a water swing. "Sure, but the concierge might mind."
"Okay, something nice it is." She turned at the college and headed towards the gate.
"You're a college student?"
"No, I teach Golf here." She stopped long enough to write her phone number on the small receipt from the bakery. "Call me tonight, I'll give you directions." She waved and loped off, disappearing behind the stone entrance to the school.
That night started the beginning of a beautiful relationship. I found out over dinner than she had gotten a silver in the Exposition sport of Golf during the summer Olympics held in Scotland. I asked her why she lived in Japan when there were much better places to play golf and she just looked at me strangely before explaining that her home country was Japan.
We dated for five years before we agreed to move in together and another two before we agreed to get married. I was forty-three and she was thirty-two, both of us comfortable in our lives. We had agreed we didn't really want children and since our lives were both extremely compatible, it would hurt neither of us to go ahead and have the ceremony. It was not a love match, but we both agreed that there was probably no one better out there for us and we were happy with each other.
It was a quiet ceremony, more documentation than celebration, but our few friends were there along with our immediate families. My parents, having given up on me settling down were happy to be there while her parents were patient and only voiced one concern about Jenny marrying a "half" so much older than herself. At the end of the day, we exchanged hugs with everyone and headed towards our honeymoon destination.
When Jenny turned 50, I let her pick the destination of our second honeymoon. When she told me where she wanted to take a trip, I protested the destination, just on principle. But, she had her heart set on it so I weighed my odds and reluctantly agreed. Tochigi was our final destination, with our plans including a trip to Nikko and an exciting day at Motegi watching Grand Prix racing.
Motegi was everything we expected. We were even blessed by seeing the amazing father of drifting, Keiichi Tsuchiya. After retiring from driving, he took over leadership of the Honda-NSX team and has raised them to a new level of racing. We left the track awed and sunburned.
The next day we slept late and headed towards Kegon Falls. Since it was during the week, we didn't have to deal with the traffic that normally blocks the road on the weekend. Kegon Falls attracts many tourists, both Japanese and foreign. It is one of the largest falls in the country, and one that has a reputation. Kegon is the falls that more people have committed suicide from than any other falls in the country. Because of that, it also draws a select group of people who call it the haunted falls, or ghost falls. We went on up to Lake Chuuzenji and spent the afternoon riding the swan boats and enjoying the brisk wind coming off of the chilled water.
Tired from the day out, we fell asleep early and woke even earlier. Jenny said she wanted to go to the Futarasan Shrine, so we headed out. The Futarasan is the shrine to the gods of thunder, rain and spirits. It was early enough that the faithful were still performing their morning rituals and we quietly walked towards the red colored god bridge that graces so many calendars and spans the Daiya River. She wanted to sit and listen to the birds, so we found a quiet bench and sat still long enough for them to start singing again.
I was startled out of my thoughts when an older woman walked up to the river's edge. Although I recognized her, I did not recognize her outfit. It was a dark pink, almost red working gi and hakama with a blue shirt underneath. The birds were not surprised by her sudden appearance and I hesitated in my motions because Jenny was still silently enjoying the place. As we sat there, the morning fog seemed to suddenly become very thick, which startled me since it had been dissipating. But even more of a surprise was when I realized there was an ancient looking man standing near her. Craning my head and very obviously holding my hand to my ear, I listened unabashedly to the conversation.
The old man laughed as he walked away from the edge of the water. "Well Sen, you have certainly grown up since I last saw you!"
The older woman suddenly dropped to her knees, bowing her head as if she was in the presence of royalty. "Mister River Spirit, I have been looking for you since, forever."
"Child, please stand up. You'll make a scene." He held a wrinkled hand out to her and she took it.
"I can see that we humans are taking better care of you than the last time we met."
He laughed again. "Actually, I have just returned from my visit to the ofuro. I do have to say that the staff were much more polite and welcoming than my last visit, but none were as nice to this old spirit as you were."
She bowed her head. "I apologize for their rudeness the last time."
"Oh no, that was Yubaba's fault, not yours. But I can say that the new management is much easier to work with." His wrinkled mouth smiled, showing many missing teeth.
He watched her eyes lighten in hope. "Who is the new management?"
"Ah child, you surprise me. Yubaba has retired to the countryside with her son. He demanded that she take him to see his Aunt Zeniba and they never returned. Haku took over the operations and quickly turned things around."
She sat abruptly, staring at him in awe. "Please, tell me everything. I miss him so much."
"Well, I don't get there very often, so I can only tell you bits and pieces. Your friend Lin became the head mistress and takes care of the books. She's not greedy and as long as the ofuro is doing okay, she shares the money with the workers. All of them are happy to stay. No Face has also returned to the bathhouse and with all the honor and dignity that he has found over the years, makes a proper Concierge. He has been widely received by both the staff and the spirits that come for refreshment."
"The staff are not mad at No Face?"
He shook his head. "No. Lin stood up for him, explaining what he could not do himself. It's humorous, but they've actually changed his name. He's now No Voice." He shook his head in disbelief. "The workers of that establishment are as unusual as you are." He helped her stand again. "Please, tell me why you are here?"
"Here at Futarasan or not in the spirit world?"
"Both." He pulled fog towards him, using it to gently wipe his wrinkly skin.
"I am originally from here, I was trapped in the spirit world and Haku kept me from dying."
"I see. Your family also got trapped?"
She bowed her head in embarrassment. "Yes."
He smiled. "I see that as well. So you came back to this realm to be with your family. How old were you at that time?"
"Ah. Too young for what I'm sure the young man had in his heart." He watched as tears started welling in her eyes. "Child, don't be sad. He does not regret letting you leave."
"But I regret having left him." She suddenly straightened. "Wait, are you telling me that he has moved on?"
The old spirit shrugged its shoulders. "I will tell you that he holds no regrets. He misses you, or at least he asks if I've seen you every time we meet. But, he knew you needed to come back to this world. You were ten and he was so many more times than that."
"But he looked so young."
"Sen, how old do you think I am?"
She looked closely. "Several hundred years old."
"No. I am one of the first rivers in this country, ancient and well settled. My path travels through many areas and I have been here long before people." He laid a hand on her shoulder. "Kohaku was several hundred years old when he arrived in the spirit world." He nodded wisely. "A little too old to foolishly keep a young girl from growing up."
"I see." She looked at him, earnestness shining out of her eyes. "Please, next time you see him, tell him that I loved him."
"You speak in the past tense, have you fallen out of love with the dragon?"
She smiled, a sad smile that didn't reach her eyes. "No. But my time here grows shorter than when we met. I have spent most of my life looking for you so that I could find him. Since he has no home to come back to, I have no mistaken dreams that I will live long enough to find him."
He nodded with wisdom. "I understand." He turned back towards the water. "I will let him know."
Suddenly he looked over at me, nodding his head once in acknowledgement before he was interrupted.
"Mr. Daiya, sir!" She sounded like a little girl in that instance.
"Thank you for your gift, it saved Kohaku's life."
He nodded again before drifting off into the fog. "You are welcomed. You may have saved mine as well."
I blinked as she turned and headed back towards the entrance to the shrine, not wishing to make my presence known. Jenny sat frozen beside me. Suddenly the fog disappeared and the sun came out, making the entire event feel less real than imaginary.
"Did that just really happen?" Jenny was looking at me with big eyes.
"What did you see?"
She smiled. "An old lady and a river spirit talking, I think."
I laughed. "Well, that's good because I thought I had gone crazy for a second." I kept the silent acknowledgement to myself, wondering why the river looked like it knew me. I had never been fishing in this body of water.
Jenny broke my thoughts. "Are you sure we haven't gone crazy?"
I leaned over and kissed my wife. "Well, at least we're going there together."
She stood and held her hand out to me, waiting for me to take it and join her on our next adventure. "We will always do things together."
I didn't understand that day how infrequently life grants us all of our wishes.
A few months later, Jenny came down with a persistent cough. After a few weeks she went to see the doctor and within a month, she was being treated for advanced stages of lung cancer. At first, neither of us understood how it had happened because she never smoked, had always been athletic and generally didn't have problems. However, when we started investigating the family medical tree, we discovered that lung cancer was the single cause of most deaths in her family. Armed with that information, she started undergoing aggressive treatments. It was hard, the chemicals and the radiation both sapped her strength and I would come home from the office with dinner that I knew she would not touch and I would often only have time to tuck the blankets around her and carry her to bed before she was asleep. She dropped weight rapidly, something that alarmed the both of us. But there was hope. Jenny actually beat the cancer. She found out on January 17th that she was cancer free. On January 19th a winter storm blew in and on February 7th, I buried my wife and best friend. After overcoming all of those obstacles, she died of simple pneumonia, her immune system too weak to fight a lung ailment.
I don't remember much of the rest of that year. I went to work and I came home. My parents, in the last stages of their own natural lives, took the trip to Sendai and stayed with me for several months. I finally decided I needed to be alone and sent them back home. It was a tearful goodbye, all of us facing the reality that one of them could pass before we got together again. However, they knew I needed space and frankly, they were ready to go back to their friends and schedules.
It was a lonely time, as normally is that period between when you accept the reality of death and when you decide it's not a sin to move on. Jenny had been my best friend and a wonderful wife and I would miss her for the rest of my days. During the lonely stage, I stayed at home and drank gallons of hot green tea. I would sit on our back porch and watch the birds, imagining Jenny was sitting beside me. That time melted into anger and I spent countless hours pounding the pavement trying to run away from my anger at Jenny for dying and leaving me. My anger of course was liberally coated in guilt because I would feel guilty that I was angry at Jenny. Then I just felt guilty that I hadn't noticed Jenny's condition before it was too late. There were many conditions I referred to while my guilt ate at me. Then came the sadness, the true gut wrenching, tear your soul into mindless confusion, sadness. It was overwhelming. In the midst of the emotional trauma, both of my parents passed within a month of each other. I went home and closed the house, putting it in the hands of the attorney who would sell it and disperse the items that I had not taken as keepsakes. Finally I got so tired of the pain that I ran. I took early retirement, a privilege of being the outgoing leader of the branch, and put together the game plan.
I packed my bags and hefted them by foot to the Shinkasen station and took the Nozumi to the Hokkaido ferry. Once on Hokkaido Island, I made my way to Kamiyubetsu. I'm not sure exactly why, but Kamiyubetsu was heavily settled by the Dutch. In fact, the Yubetsu river is dyked in several locations. Kamiyubetsu is best known for the tulip season and becomes a tourist mecca for people wanting to see the colorful gardens. I wasn't really thinking about the time when I arrived, but it was during the last few days of the tulip festival. The streets were crowded and the scenery was gloriously vibrant in its foreign flowers. It was a complete antithesis to what I was looking for. I was actually disappointed that I'd traveled to the furthermost part of Japan only to find that much life.
There was an even bigger problem than my disappointed gloom. I had no place to stay. The town, usually fairly settled, was awash in out of towners. I was sitting in a tea house, contemplating my options when an old man sat down beside me. After a few minutes, he asked me if I was here to see the flowers. Surprised by his boldness, I was even more shocked to realize I wanted to talk to this man. For some reason, he struck me as the kind of person who would understand my life. I told him that I was here to get away from everything that was my world. I explained that my wife and both of my parents had died in the last year and that I really felt a compulsion to start over.
He laughed and slapped me heartily on the shoulder. "Yes, at our age, it is good to start over."
I was shocked by what he said, he was old. I was… "How old exactly is our age?"
He shrugged nonchalantly. "I figure sixty to sixty-five. It is a good time to start over."
That's when I realized that my whole life had passed. My life was marked with transition from the symbolic cherry blossom falling to the final burning of the incense over my father's shrine. I tried to remember if there had been any consistency to my world and the only thing that came to mind was a green and white striped shirt. Every change in my life had been heralded by a green and white striped shirt. I turned pale as I caught such a sight walking through the curtains. The woman was old, too old to be dressed in such youthful attire. Her hair was completely grey, looking like it had suddenly turned old instead of aging gracefully. Her eyes lit slightly in joy as she walked up to the old man.
"Hello Noki. I was wondering if I could get one of your fabulous matcha?"
He scowled at her and leaned forward on his elbows. "Only if your attitude gets better." He looked at me. "She shows up here two months ago telling me that she's come here to wait by the river for her death."
The old woman turned to explain and recognized me. She faltered, giving me a second or two of perverse delight that she was discombobulated by my presence. "Ah, hello Haku."
The tea sensei looked at me. "You are not Haku."
"My name is Haku."
He smiled in relief. "But you are not THE Haku."
I shrugged. "If you are referring to her unrequited love, I am not that person. I have never felt the need to be in love."
"Ah, but you were married, were you not?"
"Yes, but we were never 'in love' as the poets put it. Both of us felt that Mr. or Mrs. Right was never available and we accepted Mr. and Mrs. Pretty Close."
The other man, the one much closer to my age than I cared to admit, chuckled. It was a gravelly sound that gave away a long-term smoking habit. Suddenly standing, he pulled two American style coffee mugs off of the wall and turned back to us. "I do not believe either of you needs matcha today. Today you have my choice." His left hand reached out, almost as if it had a mind of its own and delved into a tea canister, coming back with two little bags while his right hand had independently reached for the hot water pot and filled the white ceramic mugs. He dunked the tea bags and stood there watching intently over them until they were the correct shade for his liking. "You drink these today." He passed both mugs towards us, turning their handles so we could reach them.
I was nervous, having talked to this strange man for less than ten minutes. The scent was strong and pungent, smelling more like an old medicine ball than a fresh cup of tea. I wrinkled my nose as I took a sip. It tasted like burnt leather and was unique in its offensive flavor. I reached for the sweetener but his hand quickly snaked out and stopped me.
"That will not improve the flavor. You must drink and savor the bitterness. It puts things into perspective."
I looked over at Sen, hoping she was also ready to revolt. What I saw startled me. She sat there coddling the tea mug in both hands while she stared at the counter and tears ran down her face. I started to reach for her but the obnoxious Noki stopped me.
"She needs to find her perspective too. Let her be and finish your tea."
"What is it?"
"It is called Lapsang Souchong. It is quite unusual."
"I'd say it was burnt, it is like drinking a cigar."
"The leaves are not burnt, but they are dried in a smokehouse heated by burning pine."
"And that's why it has a smoky flavor?"
"Yes. It is a very unique tea."
"And not one I prefer." I looked back over at the woman. "What is Sen's problem?"
Noki turned towards another customer. "Lost love is always bitter."
"Did she tell you her story?"
"She told me she met him when she was only ten and has been looking for him ever since."
I nodded as he turned away, leaving the two of us. I sat in uncomfortable silence as she continued to weep over the horrible drink. Finally she rubbed her arm across her face and looked at me in embarrassment. "I'm sorry, this drink reminds me of a place far from here."
She blinked. "How did you know?"
I put my cup down and stood, holding my hand out to her. "You've known me for almost sixty years, do you feel safe enough to take a walk with me?"
She shrugged. "I'm an old lady now, over seventy. Even if you weren't a good man, you could do nothing that would destroy me."
I left money on the counter and we walked out into the lengthening evening. "Are you staying here?"
"I am leasing a house on the Yubetsu. It is in the curve and is quite isolated. I spend hours sitting in a chair staring out into the water, something I've been told old people do."
"I see. Do you remember the last time we met?"
She smiled. "Yes, you had just gotten a new job." She looked at me. "It appears to have gone well, you look like a very fortunate man."
"I have been able to afford to retire early, if that's what you mean." I let her steer me away from town, not sure where our final destination was; but trusting her to lead. "We've met one time since then."
I watched her try to figure out another time. I chuckled after a few minutes, unable to hold it in. "Actually, I met my late wife because of you."
At her curious look I continued. "She was wearing a green and white striped shirt and standing at the river. When you and I had met years before, at the Kido River, I'd watched the water swirl around you. When I saw the water suddenly stand in front of a woman dressed like you, I was sure it was you. I was surprised to met Jenny instead." I stopped her before she could ask. "She was practicing her golf swing, using water resistance. However, if she hadn't been dressed like you, I would never have noticed her. We had a little more than fifteen wonderful years together before she died."
"So you didn't actually meet me then."
"Oh no, I met you. It was an encounter that I will never forget." I looked around. "Where are we going?"
"Noki told me you didn't have a place to stay. I trust you can behave?" At my nod, she smiled. "You can stay at my place until the tourists leave."
"Thank you. You do not have to do that."
"I know. So where did we meet? I don't remember."
"I was at Futarasan Shrine."
She stopped suddenly. "Did you see him?"
"Yes." Tears of joy ran down her face. "Someone else saw him!"
I looked at her. "Have you always doubted your sanity?"
Suddenly she looked fierce. "I have NEVER doubted my sanity. But because I understood from an early age that what happened to me is unbelievable, I have never been able to talk to anyone about it."
I looked at her. "Please tell me, I want to know your story Sen."
She chuckled and turned towards a very pretty little yellow house with a small yard leading to a river. A single chair sat facing the river. "We'll add a chair, okay? And please call me Chihiro. That is my real name."
"Is Sen part of your story?"
"A very important part."
Over a plain dinner of rice and fish, she told me about her father's transfer to a new city the year she turned ten and the incredible adventure she had in the spirit world. If I hadn't seen the river spirit myself, I would have thought she was telling me a fairytale but I recognized the truth even while my common sense screamed reality warnings. When she told me how she'd been given her name back by the young boy who shared my name, I began to see how she could have a crush on him. But when she told me about how she'd given him his name back and I realized that they had both saved each other physically and freed each other emotionally, I knew that their bond went beyond anything I could imagine. When she told me she had to leave and go back to her human family, I watched a single tear roll down her wrinkled cheek and felt my eyes burn with unshed sorrow.
We were both hurting inside and made good companions. We had our moments where life was funny and we would laugh about small incidents, but in the evenings we would both sit out in the chairs and stare at the water flowing past like the days that have made up our long lives. I asked her during one evening why it took her so long to finally make it to the Daiya River and she told me that her mother had died from an unexpected coronary and her father was diagnosed with Alzheimers within a month of the funeral. She said that her strong, fearless father had gone from being invincible to being lost in his mind in less than eighteen months and she'd cared for him during the many years it took for his body to fail. Chihiro said that she had just buried him a month before that trip and if she hadn't met the river spirit that day, she wasn't sure what would have become of her. She laughingly talked about how Kegon Falls wasn't that far away, at least her spirit would have passed through a river on its way to the next life. I admonished her for being so morbid, but inside I was beginning to understand how a person could become desperate after decades of being the only person to know that there was another world out there that she could never get back to.
I asked her if she thought our spirits went there when we died. She shook her head. "No. We go somewhere else. That was the place where working kami go to be renewed so they can continue their tasks. I saw nothing of a human spirit there, only shadows that were people traversing between this world and their next one."
We talked about Jenny, although my modest relationship felt wan compared to what she'd experienced. I confessed that I always felt there was someone out there, but that she was unobtainable. I told her that Jenny and I had both come to the decision that we were better off with each other than waiting. I also told her that on the night before we married, Jenny told me that she had always felt there was no one out there for her, like maybe she was fated to die early, and she was glad that we had the relationship we had.
Chihiro looked sad. "You didn't wait for love?"
I shrugged. "Jenny and I loved each other, it was a very warm thing that grew over the years. We were passionate with each other, but it was not that soul eating love that I saw my friends succumb to."
She sighed. "I guess I have that kind of love. It saddens me because I know that eventually I will leave this place and Kohaku will live the rest of eternity alone. At least while I am alive, I feel that he has hope."
"So you think Kohaku will never fall in love again?" I was curious, did she really think she held that much influence with a river spirit?
"I went to see Kawadaiya-sama just before I moved up here. He had been back to the ofuro and had taken a little time to find Haku. He told Kohaku that I had relayed my love and hope for him to have a full life, moving on after I was gone. He said Haku had literally gone on a rampage, demanding the river spirit tell him how he could find me. Kawadaiya-sama did not know and expressed his deep sorrow for being unable to help. He told me that Kohaku wanted me to know that no one would ever mean what I meant to him and that although he knew I needed to leave with my parents, there had never been a day he didn't think about me and wish me happiness."
I had nothing to say to that so we sat and watched the sun set, agreeing to visit the tea house the next day.
The next morning we were surprised to find the town almost empty. We had been so immersed in our own little world that we failed to realize that tulip season was waning and the tourists had mostly left for the year. Noki was pleased to see us together and tried to tease us about having a relationship when Chihiro quickly reminded him that she was in love with another man and had been for over sixty years. I just shrugged and reminded him that I was recently widowed and not looking to replace my wife. He apologized by serving us perfectly prepared matcha and throwing in the soft little bean cakes that compliment the bitter drink at no charge. The three of us sat and talked until lunch.
When we left the shop, I told Chihiro that I appreciated her hospitality and that I would find a place to stay tonight. She smiled and told me I had a place until I was ready to leave and that she could tell I wasn't ready yet. I couldn't argue with the truth so we spent the day at the market picking up more supplies. As thanks, I treated her to a traditional dinner from my mother's Icelandic heritage.
That set the tone of our friendship. We were like siblings who had moved back in together for the last season of their lives. Chihiro was ten years my senior and we celebrated our birthday on the Chinese New Year while standing in front of the frozen river and shivering.
My mother once told me that life goes by quicker the closer you come to the end and although we were taking time to enjoy the days, summer was upon us in an instant. We enjoyed the long evenings sitting in the chairs watching night approach. But it was gone before we really grasped it. One evening, as the shadows were beginning to get long, Chihiro asked me to grab her shawl. It had gotten chilly before we were ready to call it a night.
As I approached her chair, I noticed a young man walking towards us. He was oddly dressed, wearing clothes I would have associated more with the feudal period than today. His hair was almost blue in its grayness and his eyes looked like stagnant pools of mountain water. It was his very serious approach that had me the most concerned. "Can I help you young man?" Chihiro came out of her daze at the sound of my voice and turned to look at the boy in white. I heard her breath catch.
She tried to stand suddenly and I put my arm under her elbow to steady her. "Is it really you?"
He laughed a twinkling thing that reminded me of a free flowing river suddenly breaking over rocks. "Did you give up on me?"
She smiled a sad smile. "No, just on myself."
He came to stand in front of her, just barely taller than her in his youth. "You came to me, it was my turn to come to you."
"How were you able to leave?"
"Zeniba made it happen."
"How did you find me?"
"I sent someone to look for you. It took a long time, but you were finally located."
"I'm too old Kohaku."
He laughed and grabbed her hand, gently kissing the wrinkled skin knotted with veins. "You forget that I was old when you were still a baby. I doubt you could be accused of robbing the cradle."
"So you have come for me?"
"If you will have me." He suddenly backed up and bowed formally. "Chihiro, Sen, please come live in the spirit world. Share the future with me." She fell to her knees and he bowed beside her, holding her hands in a confidential manner. "I need an answer soon, I have to be back before the sun sets."
I looked up and found the sky was turning brilliant shades of vermillion and pink. "Chihiro, go with him. Don't look back, just go."
Suddenly those intense greenish eyes were honing in on mine. "Would you like to come with us as well?"
I was shocked. "Me?"
"Yes." He bowed formally. "I believe you would like the world in which I live."
Chihiro looked at me. "There is nothing for you here now, please come back with us."
Kohaku suddenly knelt down and tightly embraced the old woman. "You will come back with me?"
She smiled, tears gathering in the corner of her eyes. "If you can stand to be around me."
He laughed. "Always. Would you be afraid to ride on my back?"
This time she laughed. "Never."
I watched as Kohaku suddenly turned into a marvelous silver scaled dragon with a blue mane and pink clawed feet. As Chihiro reached for one of the horns on his head, I was shocked to see small soft hands curl around them and a young teenager throw a leg over his neck. She turned to me, brilliant happiness in her eyes. She had a hand held out. "Haku, it's time to go. Come explore the world I've told you about."
With a giant leap of insanity, I reached for her hand, pulling myself up behind her. I felt no different as the dragon suddenly jumped into the air, turning and heading south. I looked behind me to find two chairs remaining behind, the tired empty bodies of a past life still in them.
As the sun sank over the edge of the water, the shadows became alive and I was shocked to watch the land light up below me. I saw a plume of steam in the distance and the smells of food were pungent in the air. Suddenly I was looking forward to stepping over the red bridge. I didn't know what the future held, but my heart told me that good things were in store.
As we landed, Kohaku shed his scales and turned back into a human. Holding Chihiro's hand, he smiled. "You know the rule, but he doesn't." He looked at me. "Don't breathe going over the bridge. Things are easier if the staff don't know you're here before we can get you a job."
"Is that a requirement to stay here, you have to work?"
Kohaku smiled. "Yes. But I think a young strapping lad like yourself can handle it."
I looked down and realized that I was no longer old. I wasn't sure my age, but I felt about twenty. "Will I age here?"
He shrugged. "You won't ever tell." Suddenly he looked ahead and smiled. "Everyone ready?"
On the other side of the bridge, I noticed a young woman with long brown hair glaring at Kohaku. She was beautiful. Feeling more excited than ever, I took a deep breath, held it and made the first step into a new life.
A/N: I know, not my usual. But I needed to write it. I hope it made sense. Thanks for reading.