Stories told to a travelling mushishi

Most of them begin the same way: There's a village where...

Sometimes they are simple tales of the trade, told over tea or around a brazier. When Tanyuu tells them second-hand, they are more like adventures. Most commonly they are requests for help. In the next village over, say. Or: We've been waiting for a mushishi to come by - now, please... In those cases Ginko has to find his own way to finish the story.

At one of many mushishi meetings, on a warm summer's night, he hears rumours of a small, isolated hamlet where most of the people can see mushi. Generations have grown up learning to identify them, as one might teach the children of a fishing village how to read the weather at sea. They have scrolls upon scrolls of records, illustrated by a dozen different hands. But their scholarship, though rich, is a parallel path: completely separate. The names of famous mushishi are foreign to them, and they have different names for even the most common mushi. Perhaps they do not even call them mushi at all.

"I heard they've tried to use them," one mushishi says, more amused than impressed. "Mushi that warm you on winter nights, mushi that keep your food from spoiling."

Ginko pours another cup of sake for his interlocutor. "If they've found a mushi that keeps you dry in rain, I'd like to hear about it."

None of the mushishi can say where the hamlet is. In the middle of Higashiyama, one says. No, surely it was a farming village down south? Says another: I heard that they bring mushi with them to sea, so it must have been on the coast.

Interesting, they agree, even if it doesn't exist.

For the rest of the summer, Ginko finds himself receiving more uro-san mail than usual: requests to check certain stretches of forests or fields for any interesting villages, 'if he's in the area'.

He never is, and thinks it's just as well. Some stories are perfect in their ambiguity.

"...and they never saw him again. The end." Tanyuu smiles, almost teasing, and takes another slow drag of her pipe.

"So what mushi was it?" Ginko asks. "It's not one I've heard of before."

Tanyuu laughs. "It wasn't one. Just people, being people."

And yes, there are those stories, too: simple human ones. Most of them are tragedies. Children who disappear in the woods and are found at the feet of hills, on rocky riverbanks; men and women who lose their wits by their own devices. Sometimes dreams caused by mushi and those caused by guilt can be hard to tell apart.

Ginko finds it easier to forget those cases. He is a mushishi, and mushishi have obligations to the future: what he chooses to recall is also a form of responsibility.

Over the years, apprentice to several masters, he learns many things. There are mushi that enter one's veins, hungrily, yet healing sickness as a matter of course. Mushi that cause their hosts to wander onwards, barely pausing, until they collapse from exhaustion. Mushi that ruin crops or make them flourish; mushi that bring rain and mushi that follow it. Mushi that add a certain lustre to silk, or extra resilience to wood. Hundreds, thousands more, most as yet unnamed.

Ginko has heard of mushi that sound like monsters from stories told to children: mushi that drag strong swimmers into icy depths, mushi that lead men away into the forest to the sound of what might be laughter, high and inhuman; mushi that cause casks of sake to run dry overnight. How many folktales could one destroy this way? He once met an elderly mushishi who asked him that very question. The old man had spent years looking for mushi which could explain kitsune-bi and found too many possibilities. The last Ginko heard, he had retired to write poetry instead.

There are mushi in farms, forests, towns; in the coasts of fishing villages and the beds of mountain streams; in hearth-fires and dead trees.

There is a mushi which moves in swarms, eating light after the sun sets: dimming candles, lamps, fires. Once, Ginko wondered how it lived before it encountered humans.

(He has seen hamlets left empty by mushi: bodies covered by fallen leaves, the earth taking back its own. He has seen whole villages gone mad. Families fallen apart because a mushishi arrived too late.

He doesn't want to tell these stories, but he does. One has a duty to pass knowledge on. Personal qualms are little more than selfishness.)

Isaza's handwriting is careful, his letters concise. To the untrained eye it can look like callousness. A village on a node of the koumyaku-suji; mushi were flooding to it. The crops flourished but some villagers died. Or: Gatherings of kouda along the south coasts of the inland sea. Reports of drowning. He narrates cases the same way he reports the koumyaku's flow, or the terrain he crosses, not stopping to differentiate between human and natural phenomena. Perhaps he knows the distinction is a false one.

What the casual observer will not realise is that being brief is its own form of kindness. One spring, after a winter of silence, he writes simply:

Met the son of a villager you helped once - kagedama. I'm sorry.

But the first mistake is to think of these as stories. Stories have some meaning to them, a progression of events: conflict, resolution, conclusion. Life is nowhere near as organised. Not everything has an ending, let alone a happy one.

In time, Ginko learns this too.

One misty autumn night, in a farmer's house, Ginko dreams of that rumoured hamlet. Children are taught to tell a kouda from a rainbow, and told to be wary of wandering shadows at dusk. At night, the sea is alive with flashes of light. The boats have been pulled in hours before; families go down to the shore and watch the show together.

Or perhaps: in the mountains, the mist sparkles in a million colours in the early morning. The village farmers watch it together, and give thanks.

Or maybe it is near a forest: the men avoid hunting on full-moon nights, and when they do go out they are careful not to become the prey.

Never mind where it is. At a harvest festival, a child asks for an uro-san for a pet, and everyone laughs. No illness goes untreated for long. A craftsman embroiders mushi along the hem of a winter coat, for good luck. There are festivals to celebrate migratory mushi and seasonal nagaremono. Parents worry no more than they do in any other village. The village doctor is the chief mushishi, and his records list ills created by mushi alongside reports of mere fevers and accidental wounds.

There is an old poet who writes haiku filled with the names of mushi. Kagebi is a season-word for autumn, harumagai for winter.

Ginko wakes with scraps of the dream still fresh in his mind: children learning the use of a mushi-pin, mushi-tobacco thrown on hearth-fires, a family by a shimmering sea.

Outside, the sun is just rising, weak light breaking golden through the morning mist.

A new day. He lets himself forget.