I have a fascination with Ecruteak City, though this fic went through countless drafts over the course of a few years before I realized what story I wanted to tell.
The clues and answers are in the details, some more obvious than others. I am not always fair when I dispense information so please keep me honest. Please also feel free to ask me questions and comments/suggestions are all welcome as well.
Ghosts and Dancers
The night before Mai leaves for the Ecruteak City, she performs atop a pagoda. It is autumn, the surrounding trees resplendent in red and gold. There is no music save the faint chimes of a bell, and all around her lays the landscape of a crumbling metropolis. It is only when she catches sight of Mother, watching her amidst an otherwise faceless audience, that she realizes she is merely dreaming. Mother has been dead for years.
Mai stops. "Mother?" The knowledge that nothing is real does not lessen a ten-year-old's curiosity toward the woman who exists only in photographs.
Mother smiles, a cold smile that contains too many shades of meanings to discern.
"Why are you dancing, Mai?" she asks.
The explanation comes to Mai naturally, though she has not stopped to think of a reason until then. "I am going to the Kimono Dance Theater," she says. "I am one of five girls selected this year."
"You must be careful," Mother says sharply.
Mai stares at her, having expected Mother to be proud. She is frozen in place as Mother steps close and cups her cheeks. Up close, her resemblance to the woman in Mai's pictures fades. Her face is too pale, her lips are too red, and her eyes are an empty lifeless black. Her hands are very, very cold.
Mai wakes up shivering, remembering little of the dream aside from the feel of her mother's breath against her ear and the words she would later recall with different eyes.
"Stay too long in Ecruteak City," Mother had whispered, "and you will end up dancing with ghosts."
A city that even now bears the marks of its history. Mai reads the sign as she enters Ecruteak City and finds that it is an apt description.
Through the car window, she stares in amazement at the people strolling about in kimonos, the streets lined with machiya, and the town squares populated by trees and fountains. The Dance Theater is more of the same. A few miles north of the pokémon center, it boasts a collection of traditional buildings that sprawl over a hundred acres of manicured green. On her first night, as she watches the stars in the courtyard of her dormitory, Mai could almost imagine that she has arrived in a different era.
The next morning, the magic of Ecruteak fades somewhat as Mai sets out to explore the city in earnest. Here and there, she catches glimpses that give away the city's modern identity. Like the handful of skyscrapers that tower over shrines, or the newly constructed stores displaying sleek products from Devon and Silph. There are also the tourists and pokémon trainers, who look and dress in a distinctly different style from the native townspeople.
Keiko, one of Mai's new classmates, serves as tour guide. Her family has lived in the city for many generations. The other girls, like Mai, come from elsewhere. Chiyo is from New Bark Town, Akina is from Cianwood City, and Hana is from Cherrygrove City. None of them has been to Ecruteak before. Over their first breakfast together in the communal cafeteria, they resolved to take full advantage of the week before the start of classes.
Fortunately for them, their arrival coincides with the Obon Festival, one of Ecruteak's most famous events that draw many from all over the world. A giant carnival is set up in the middle of the city, complete with themed rides and food stands. Music blares over loudspeakers. Now and then, different groups of young women dressed in yukata would encourage everyone to start dancing to a modernized and abridged version of the Bon Odori.
The weather cannot be better. It is a warm summer day, not as sweltering hot as it could sometimes get in the more metropolitan Goldenrod City. After a ride on the famous Gyarados Roller Coaster, another on the Empoleon Water Slide, and a third on the Ponyta Go Around, Mai sits down on a bench with Keiko. As she licks her newly purchased watmel berry-flavored popsicle, she cannot stop stealing glances at the other girl. There is something about her that is different, possibly the allure of having been raised and trained in a Kimono Girl culture. She has an air of tranquility, in addition to a manner that suggests that she understands what most others cannot.
"This place is pretty amazing," Mai says, timidly starting a conversation. Keiko turns to her and cocks her head. "I mean, we have our own Obon celebrations too, but it isn't as impressive."
Her hometown lacks the atmosphere present in Ecruteak, though she is not sure how to describe it.
"It's pretty cool," Keiko agrees. "My family comes every year and I never get tired of it."
The two girls watch as another group of girls succeeds in getting the crowd to start an impromptu dance. Much laughter ensues as everyone tries to find enough space in the crowd to form concentric circles.
"Now this, I do get tired of, they are terrible!" Keiko says. "From second-rate dance schools, most probably. Sometimes I wish that the Kimono Girls would perform more, but they are really picky about their engagements, because most of the shows they get invited to would be demeaning to their status." She shakes her head. "That sadly means most of our tourists end up getting the wrong idea about what traditional dance actually looks like."
Mai scrutinizes the dancers before her more carefully, but having only trained in ballet, she could only tell that the dance looks quite similar to the Bon Odori in Goldenrod City. She turns back to Keiko.
"Have you seen the Kimono Girls perform in person then?"
Keiko nods proudly. "Of course! My old dance school is a little sister school to the Dance Theater. We perform in some of the same shows. Occasionally some of the top dancers would even come and instruct us, and of course the headmistress would come herself every once in a while to scout future recruits, like me."
"Wow!" Mai is impressed. "I wish I could see the Kimono Girls dance in person too."
"But you will, obviously," cuts in a different voice. Hana, Chiyo, and Akina have joined them. "We are Kimono Girl trainees now," Hana continues, "so I expect we will see the Kimono Girls all the time once classes start."
"Actually, you will see them dance today," Keiko says. "The Elder always makes sure that they perform during the Obon Festival. There will be a big stage set up here after lunch."
Mai brightens. "I can't wait!"
They have lunch in a nearby restaurant run by friends of Keiko's family. Over rice, miso soup, and grilled magikarp, Keiko tells them more about the Kimono Girls. There are generally five to seven full-fledged Kimono Girls, she explains, but the exact number is not fixed and changes from generation to generation. Only the very top dancers in each incoming year can even be considered to become a Kimono Girl. Once selected, they will keep their positions until they retire.
To Hana's visible disappointment, she also mentions that Kimono Girls do not spend all their time at the Dance Theater. Instead they travel very often to other cities and regions for performances and media appearances. Outside the public eye, the Kimono Girls are very private. They never give interviews and few are privileged to know them personally.
Not all of these are new to Mai, who has watched the Kimono Girls dance on television multiple times and learned about them through newspapers and magazines. Nevertheless, some of Keiko's anecdotes of her own interactions with them arouse new curiosity, so she can hardly wait to see the dancers perform in person.
When the girls return to the carnival, they see that some of the rides have been cleared to make room for a large wooden stage, its curtains closed, surrounded by rows of chairs. There is already a huge crowd waiting and many people are standing. Strangely, despite having arrived rather late, the girls find many chairs in the front conveniently empty. Following Keiko's lead, they sit down.
Once the seats are more or less filled, an old man dressed in a dark blue kimono walks onto the stage. Keiko explains in a whisper that he is Sage Masa, one of the aides to the Elder.
"I thank all of you for coming," he says in a loud voice, without using a microphone. "My introduction to you will be quite short. As you all know, Ecruteak City is known for its beauty, and I daresay there will be nothing that embodies the notion of beauty more than the dancing of our top dancers. Please, let us welcome our Kimono Girls!"
Loud applause ensues. The curtains slowly rise, revealing seven slim figures each dressed in a different colored kimono, holding an umbrella in a corresponding color. They are greeted by more applause, screams, and even catcalls from the bolder audience members. The purple-clad young woman in the center raises her hands and, almost immediately, everyone falls quiet.
Soft shamisen music begins playing in the background, soon accompanied by the sound of a flute and the beating of a drum. Then the dance commences.
Every moment that the Kimono Girls make is delicate and deliberate. Mai feels chills down her back. She knows enough about traditional dance to know that it is very nuanced. The smallest of gestures can tell a whole story on its own, whether it is the curl of a finger or the tilt of an arm. Though their style of dancing is introverted, with little eye contact with the audience, the Kimono Girls nevertheless draw everyone into their story. In this dance, they seem to portray young women searching for someone across a large river, a love story perhaps. The music grows more sorrowful as the dance speeds up, until all that could be seen of the dancers are the blur of their kimonos and umbrellas.
They look like a rainbow, Mai thinks, a rainbow that bridges the river so the lovers can meet. And indeed, there is sudden joy in the music and the dancers' movements become gentler, almost flirty. The umbrellas twirl merrily and each Kimono Girl seems to be engaged in her own dance with a partner, though she remains perfectly in sync with the others. Mai is again reminded of a rainbow, though this time the rainbow just seems to represent the joy of seeing the sun again after a large rainstorm.
The last notes of the song play, and both music and dancers come to a stop. There is a brief moment of silence, and then, a huge roar of applause. Even the pokémon, who have not stirred throughout the performance, join in their owners' cheering with their own cries of approval. The Kimono Girls bow gracefully and decline an encore. Afterwards, they retreat to the back of the stage, allowing the curtains to fall, hiding them from view once more. Mai brings her hands to her face and is surprised to find they are wet with tears.
The imageries evoke by the dance persists for hours, as does the feeling of wonder.
On the last night of the Obon Festival, the girls sit at the edge of Poliwag Pond to wait for the Daimonji. The last ray of the sun fades and shadows fall. The night is cool and a scent of the earlier rain lingers in the air. Curls of smoke rise in the distance; the natives are burning one last round of incense for ancestors and their pokémon.
When it has become almost completely dark, bonfires are lit in the distance in predetermined patterns, emblazoning fiery pictograms into the night sky and the distant silhouettes of surrounding mountains. Down below, people begin standing up, handing paper lanterns to the poliwag and poliwhirl by the edge of the pond. The lanterns are then placed in the water, their flames providing a nice contrast to the reflections of the bonfire.
Mai gets up to get a better look, watching as the lanterns glide smoothly into a connecting river and pass out of sight, though they are soon replaced by more. She gives a soft sigh. Perhaps it is the knowledge that spirits abound tonight; she can almost sense the presence of Ecruteak ancestors, haunting the world they had once inhabited.
Mai glances up to stare directly at a haunter. She is startled, though not frightened. Wild pokémon in the National Park sometimes talk to humans. Why not the wild ghost pokémon in Ecruteak City?
"Hello," she says.
Welcome back! the haunter says, its face splitting into a big grin. We missed you.
Automatically Mai starts to say, "I missed you too," but she stops herself. She has never seen the haunter before. "I don't think we've met before," she says. "I just arrived in Ecruteak City."
I made no mistake, the haunter replies. I know who you are. But your friends are watching us and I must go. You know where we are. The Burned Tower.
He disappears, just as Keiko comes. She looks around curiously. "I didn't know wild ghosts talk to humans," she says, her sentence clearly a question even without the inflection.
"I wasn't talking to one," Mai lies. "It – it was just making faces at me and then it left."
"Then –" Keiko stops herself, too tactful to press on.
Mai is relatively quiet for the rest of the night, trying and failing to understand the encounter with the haunter. It had been so sure that it knew her, and yet she was equally sure that it was wrong. By the time she gets up to leave with everyone else, however, she is outwardly her normal self again, having resolved to put the incident out of her mind.
Indeed, back in her bed, Mai has no trouble falling asleep, nor does she dream.