Title: Dreams, Not Reality
Day/Theme: 8/25) memories are films about ghosts
Series: Spirited Away
Character/Pairing: Chihiro, Zeniba, Haku/Chihiro
Summary: "Dip your fingers in the river. Take a drink and you will remember."
Rating: PG
A/N: Cultural & other notes are at the end.

Since encountering my beloved
While I dozed,
I have begun to feel
That it is dreams, not reality,
On which I can rely.
-Ono no komachi

The day cooled once the sun set, and the heat wave finally receded, like a thick cloth pulled back. The whole summer had been a disappointment so far, not that Chihiro was given to whining. Still, her closest friend, Miyuki had gone to Hokkaido to stay with relatives that kept an onsen and resort and the trip to Kyushu her family had been planning for months fell through at the last minute. The summer itself had been unbearably hot, and their air conditioning had resisted all attempts by her gung-ho father.

However, with summer always came festivals. In all the bustle there were shops to visit and lanterns to illuminate the night. There were new paths to follow and all kinds of delicious foods...and of course, fireworks to look forward to. The fireworks overhead were brilliant plumes of light and smoke, curling and soaring in the sky for brief, beautiful seconds before falling to the ground. But the lights, and the summer dress also lent an exquisite framing to the night.

Her yukata had a pattern of clouds and sky over a large mountain range. Her mother would have preferred the red floral pattern, but the majesty of the cliffs had captivated her. (It had reminded her of the snippet of a dream she once had about falling in the moonlight with another, a boy whose face she couldn't quite see. At first she had deemed the dream special, a revelation, but as Chihiro grew she learned that everyone had dreams of falling. The only difference was that theirs were terrifying and hers had been a glimpse of euphoria )

She already had boughten a similar patterned purse, more for the fact that she'd left her wallet behind and she had no pockets to put her currency in than any other reason. Holding it in her hands left it sweaty, sticky and unpleasant. She'd spent a little more on Azuki bean paste filled fish which ended up dribbling down her chin and missing her yukata only by a minor miracle.

"Ah, Chihiro. It's been such a long time."

Chihiro turned, her ponytail bobbing as she did so. A lantern's light spilled over her, viscid and deep. Her hair band shone in a way like a glimmer of a lost coin, like a forgotten memory. The owner of the voice was an ancient hag with a giant mole in the space between her eyes. Behind her was a figure in black with a mask for a face. He had on hat similar to the Sweets seller she had met earlier. What a costume, she thought. I bet it's secretly a plastic bag painted to look like that.

Chihiro blinked twice. Despite seaching in her memory for extended family, she could bring up no match for someone as bizarre as this. She took a step back.

"Oh, you must have been too young to remember. We met several years ago."

The eccentric old woman had a stand of oddities. Mostly handmade crafts, from things like doilies to ragdolls. The old woman dipped down to some unseen nook and cranny of her stand and brought up a fish. Surprising, as she'd already passed the Kingyo Sukui stand.

"This one will be perfect. He's been waiting for you."

She brought the clear plastic bag that held the koi to her face. The koi stared back at her, unblinking and surprisingly intense. Unlike the other drugged, languorous fish, this one was slimmer and seemed more intelligent. Its eyes were the most striking part. They were the color of jade.

"I don't have enough money for him," she said.

"Oh, but you can work it off. Yes, I'm sure you have lots of practicing working," the woman said. She smiled, knowingly and the creases at the side of her eyes crinkled in a way that made her seem like a fond, forgotten grandmother.

She almost thought about leaving this weird old woman and the koi itself, but he was such a beautiful thing. Besides, if she left him here, who knows what kind of creepy person might pick him up? They might not change his water, or forget to feed him.

"I'll take him," she said.

"You can take him home now. Just make sure you come back in two days once you've gotten his aquarium set up. Oh, you don't have that? Then you'll just have to work extra hours."


A dream, a boy, a dragon. Images flitted by like reels on an old time film. There was a world of strange creatures and magical beasts a boy who she loved. She forgot her name and his, and who she was. She found herself, she found him. And then, and then it was blank. Just stepping out to a car covered in leaves and dust.

What a odd dream, she thought. It would make an interesting story. At fourteen Chihiro was not quite enamored with writing, but certainly intrigued and infatuated. Maybe she'd major in journalism. She certainly had the drive for it. She had a stubbornness, an iron will that had come after she had moved. Or maybe she'd be a novelist. What kind of freedom would that give her? Chihiro let her pen laze over the notebook in an idle scrawl. The fish with its white scales and clear eyes swims in its bubble of a glass world. She should get him a larger world. A whole aquarium. No, he deserved a whole river to cascade through with his green and silvery-white gauzy fins.

And a friend. He looked so lonely there. She put her finger to the glass and he followed, eager and fast.

Another thought passed her mind, of a dragon. That's what his scales looked like, the glittering kind she'd seen in a picture when browsing for an assignment. It had caught her eye, that picture with its striking, wild eyes and hair blowing restlessly in the wind. It had a shock of fire-red mane, though she thought green would've complemented the color more nicely.

How often was it the reverse? The woman saved from the coldness of her impending entombment? She had the beginning of a fractured tale of myths and fairy tales in her mind.

"If Miyuki were here, she'd say I was crazy, but– Well, she isn't."

She let her hands linger on the glass a minute. The fish watched her intently, as if listening to every word.

"I should name you, shouldn't I?"

She thought of the first name that came to mind. Not Bubbles or Jade but—

"Kohaku. It's the name of a river that dried up recently," she said.

"So, Kohaku... what should I call the prince who is imprisoned in this story? I'm thinking of calling him Haku. After the Naruto character...though the name has always appealed to me."

She ambled her pencil over the page again, and with words, built up the castles and horrors that her dreams had hinted to her. A little her, a little there. It could be a novel, if she tried. She hadn't set out to be a novelist, but Chihiro tended to take things in life as they came to her. Somehow, her life seemed one destined for unexpected things.

At night she dreamed of a boy named Haku and a girl named Sen.


Throughout the festival, she ran errands while the old woman (she had finally learned her name as Zeniba) kept shop. At time she offered things, though to her slight confusion, there were no other goldfish for sale other than the one she had bought. (When Chihiro asked, Zeniba had said because he was waiting for you. It didn't quite explain things, but she could be enigmatic like that at times.) There was, however, many handmade woven and knitted goods that were quite skillfully crafted. At times when business was slow, she'd lift them up and examine all their intricacies. They shone from within, as if she had interwoven pieces of mica as she worked. Day by day she noticed that it was a very motley assortment of characters that came to Zeniba's stand. Strange people flitted in and out, people with frog lips and weasely faces. People with voices too high, eyes too wide apart, hair too light, skin too pale.

Chihiro didn't ask. She just worked and incorporated it into the story. a girl bought the freedom of a dragon. She met the obake, all spirts wearing human skin like poorly fitted clothes. They don't fit in. She kept her calm for if she showed a hint of fear they would surely devour her. She lifted her chin, and straightened her shoulders. She carried things, went on errands, dealt with customers. When they looked at her she had to paste on a neutral expression and pretend that her skin wasn't crawling as they licked their lips, as if she would be something delicious.

The strange no faced thing helped followed her everywhere, it was almost puppylike in its adoration. It was hard to be afraid of something that would be wagging a tail if it had one. It only took her a few days to realize that it was no child in a plastic bag costume made up for a festival. After she figured that out, it was easy to accept all the other unbelievable things happening to her. One could not simply stare into the face of a tall spirit being without a face and blithely waltz on by, expecting the crystal veil that had separated the perfectly linear, normal life from the one where creatures who were obviously not human shopped at a witch's stand which she worked at.

After then, anything was possible. She felt almost flippant about it. When one has accepted the insane was now sane, then life became so much easier without doubting and clinging to overrated conceptions like reality. She could fall into dreams and writings and let the normal world pass with its nine-to-five workday and exams to be taken. This, this was a world apart.


Zeniba called her in early that day, promising that the end was very soon, right after one last job. She came in sleepy, with the sun barely on the horizon.

"We're going to make a little magic. Because sometimes you have to make your own instead of leaving it up to fate," Zeniba said. She winked, and No Face bowed in a way that was bashful and happy.

This job was beyond the shop, and she left it closed for the day. They were dressed as construction workers, and even her masked helper had an orange hard hat on. There was something entirely whimsical about it. She pushed the proffered neon orange hard hat over her own head, though it was a bit too large and dipped down, obscuring her vision.

There was a long trench dug near the city she had come to. Quick, quick, people flitted about in work. The whole scene seemed a rewound reel for a movie.

"Lin, make sure they don't go out of line," Zeniba called.

Lin scolded a frog-lipped man. She saw little black things, that seemed almost like specks of coal come alive. She rubbed her eyes. And the girl tamed the soot to do her bidding, took them from the fire hearth and held them in her hands.

Zeniba looked on, serene and knowing as even. She turned to Chihiro, and bent to whisper some secret to her, a secret of their own.

"I was able to convince my sister to lend me some of her helpers. They'll be assisting us for the meantime."

Chihiro looked out at the workers. "What should I do?"

"You will run a drink stand. This is very important because if they get dehydrated, they won't feel well. Don't worry about the punch bowl, for it will not run dry."

Zeniba smiled and dipped a long finger into the bowl, and tasted the drink. Chihiro bent down and brought up several paper cups. She filled them one by one, and almost as quickly as she did, little froglipped people came up to drink them. They did not linger, nor did they talk to her much. They seemed almost wary of her, or perhaps the No Face. It never did leave her side, and such a large thing could be intimidating, even if it had the temperament of a puppy eager to do its master's bidding.

Zeniba returned after a while, when the sun had traveled farther. She took another sip of the drink, and took a sly look at Chihiro.

"You should drink one yourself," Zeniba said.

Chihiro looked at the whitish liquid. It didn't smell particularly bad.

And so, the witch from the land of the spirits told her to drink the wine. She thought of a boy, a dragon. She brought it to her lips and drank.


It had been a long, hard time of work, but Kohaku was finally hers. Zeniba had asked that she bring him, and she put him in a small bowl held against her chest the whole bus ride through. People stared, but she didn't notice stares anymore. She'd worked with far too many strange people to care what other people thought. She'd brought her notebook too, in a brown shoulder bag with a couple of pens . She couldn't stand the sound pencils made, even if it meant a messier paper full of crossed out sentences.

It was dark when she met Zeniba at the dig site. Now, there was a river where there'd once just been a lot. It was quite long now, and curved about the town like it was moulding itself to it, embracing it.

"Haven't you ever heard? Koi were once said to be the form of baby dragons." Zeniba lifted the bowl to her face and smiled in on him.

"I'd heard seahorse," she said.

"The details vary from place to place," Zeniba said, "Like all stories."

She thought of the story, how it was almost completed, and yet how something kept at her, beneath the surface. A memory that didn't fit with the rest of the story, of drowning, and being saved.

"Have you ever had the feeling that you've known someone already for your whole life even though you've just met?"

"Our bodies have memories. Even if your mind can't remember, your muscles do."

It went through her mind, jittery, that old film reel. It was pitted with jagged, missing parts and sepia in color, yet she saw bits and pieces. A surreal wonderland; a boy, a girl. Dust and soot, befriending and ending.

A story began to unravel itself in her mind. A endless journey of the mountain to the stream, stream to river, river to the ocean.

"A person I can't remember...."

"It will all tell with time. Now, Let him go into the river."

She held on a bit tighter to Kohaku. She liked talking to him, and putting him in the river would put him in danger. What if a fish ate him right up?

"You can keep him close to you, keep him in a bubble, but if you do, you'll never find out the key to the story."

She took a long look at Kohaku. He seemed more eager now, and it seemed like the more moonlight, the closer he got to the river, the less of a normal koi bought from a festival. His fins seemed growing, and little horns were springing up. He wasn't a normal fish, just like the customers weren't normal, and she wasn't normal either.

So, Chihiro trusted Zeniba. She had never lead her wrong yet. She let Kohaku go into the river. The river glowed for a moment. The moon rippled over the water, leaving a white apparition of a reflection.

"Dip your fingers in the river. Take a drink and you will remember."

She closed her eyes, cupped her hands and lifted the water to her mouth. It was remarkably clean and pure, some of the purest she had ever tasted. With it, came the apparition of a young boy behind her closed lids. This was the same sequence of images, but in a focused, coherent path. It was like watching a soundless film, a pantomime of ghosts, some with her face or a face that had once belonged to her.

"Zeniba–" She began. But when she looked Zeniba was gone. Instead, there was a dragon, one with a mane of green, like underwater plants and skin like the moon seen through a cloudy haze.. As she watched he shed his skin, and shimmering white-gold scales rained down around a boy. He stared back at her, this boy from another time. He looked like the boy of her own notebooks, like she'd made him up herself and Zeniba had painted him into existence.

"I think I know you, or at least that I should."

She pulled out her notebook with all of the novel written out, with parts crossed out, parts misspelled, parts jotted down quickly.

"This should be it, if you don't remember," she said.

"I never forgot," he said.

And so began their story again.

This was for 21. your river seems so deep . / alphabet_love 16. penelope fish. A seeming lot, I know but the 31_days theme was late, so basically writing it was only for personal challenge, and the Gauntlet is another personal challenge against a friend, so.
The concept is a take on the goldfish-as-baby-dragons mythos. I've heard several other versions of this, as well as seahorse-as-baby-dragon and carp-as-baby-dragon. It was changed to koi as an as the mental picture of a goldfish kept coming off as comical for all the wrong reasons and I couldn't take it seriously. Koi, however, had all the elegance I was looking for. Kingyo Sukui Is the goldfish dipping game. A lot of the original inspiration comes from the song Ningyo Hime, Chobits' second ending, and Kingyo Hanabi by Orikasa Ai.

The 'plastic bag' is a tribute to an actual (award winning!) No Face cosplayer.