MUSHISHI (is a very cool anime and manga series that doesn't belong to me)
Characters: Ginko, Original
Genre: Psuedo-episode type thing
Notes: Absolutely no knowledge of Mushishi required to read this. In fact it might be better if you don't know anything. Based on the anime, up to episode twelve.
Walking on foot through thinning vegetation, a man in grey pants and an open-collared white shirt, maybe thirty years old, paused to adjust the pack strapped to his back. Leaning pines crowded the trail in front of him. They ended thirty feet ahead, on the other side of a slight incline, where the thin soil gave way to flat, gray rock. The air smelled strongly of salt. Almost there, the man thought. After three weeks of forests, it would be good to see the ocean again.
He broke free of the trees. The path continued off to the right for another fifteen feet, then vanished over the edge of a cliff. He could vaguely see water merging into sky far, far away. The cliff was made of the same flat, gray stone, strewn liberally with pine needles.
A large, white pillar stood directly in front of the ocean, blocking his view. It sparkled in the late afternoon light, pinprick spots of light, as if covered by a million tiny crystals.
On closer inspection -- although he wisely did not attempt too close an inspection -- the pillar was not solid, but a lattice of sharp, approximately conical outcroppings, a few pointing straight up but most angled slightly outwards. Each cone connected to the sloped side of another, lower cone, packed tightly enough together to look solid from a distance. The entire structure was barely half again his height, and was almost that size around.
It was beautiful. Breathtaking, the man thought wryly: even the air around him was still, as if the wind was holding its breath. At this time of the day, dropping temperatures should have pulled the cooler air at the cliffs out to sea. As if prompted by his thoughts, the wind restarted in fitful gusts, and from the pillar came a wild howling melody even more beautiful than its appearance...
He picked his way down the side of the cliff, gingerly. Sea spray had almost worn the path away. At the bottom was a rocky beach. Seaweed lay all along it, from the waterline to the cliff face, indicating that at high tide there would not be a beach at all. Heading south, he walked with the cliffs to his right until they became an embankment barely higher than his head, then further until they dropped away entirely.
After more than two hours' walk, he reached a shallow bay. The stones of the shore here were finer, about the size of swallows' eggs. At the edge of the shore, tucked up against a mountain, was a small village of simple wooden houses.
The man walked uphill across the beach -- several hundred feet -- and through the village. It was quiet -- no, it was deserted. No one called out to him. There were no dogs or children; he saw no laundry hung out to dry. Most doors stood open; the houses typically contained a few items of simple wooden furniture, but no wall scrolls or bowls, cooking utensils or bedding. They appeared to have been abandoned, everything portable or difficult to replace carried off.
He continued through the village to the foothills of the mountain looking over it, and found a path leading into the forest. A large, fine house occupied its first clearing, two or three hundred feet up. In contrast to the single or double-roomed houses below, this one had carved wooden eaves extending over an outer hallway. Its roof was tiled and its sliding doors were papered and in good condition. The man walked through several rooms that were nearly fully furnished, but didn't see a single other person. In the inner courtyard, the rock garden was overgrown with grass.
There was a spring behind the house. The man stopped to drink, then filled two bottles with fresh water. I wonder, he thought. Where had everyone gone? Whatever had driven them out, it hadn't done any damage to the property.
When he left the spring, it was almost sunset and there was a boy standing in the middle of the path to the village.
"I saw you climb up here," the boy said.
The man squinted into the sun at him. "Ah. I was looking for someone."
"For the people who lived here? They're gone."
"No, not for them. Only someone." He took a longer look. The boy's robe was threadbare, but had once been of average quality; the boy was sturdy and clean and looked well-fed, about ten or eleven years old. He was wearing wooden sandals. "I guess I've found what I was looking for. Are you the only one here? I'm Ginko."
"Natsume. I live with my grandfather. Come on."
Natsume led Ginko down the mountain and through the village in a more-or-less straight line. The streets were as empty as they had been, but Ginko noticed that the dirt on the path they were following had a well-formed groove worn into it, and that it had been tracked through the overgrown kitchen gardens of the abandoned village houses. It didn't seem like a path that would have existed while the houses were occupied.
"So, what happened here?" he asked, but Natsume didn't even turn around. Seeing that he was falling behind, he gave up conversation to save his breath for the walk. They came to a small, weathered house on the far side of the village. An old man rose from where he had been crouched by the door to greet them.
"Pleased to meet you, I'm Jiro. It's been so long since we've had any visitors here, I sent my grandson to fetch you, I hope you don't mind. Come in, have some tea. And there are fish and radishes from the garden for dinner, nothing much, but of course we'd be glad to share them with you. You'll come in for tea, at least? It's been so long since we've had company."
"Tea would be wonderful," Ginko said, smiling. "Thank you for your kind offer. I'm Ginko."
"Good, good! Very good! Come in!" He took Ginko's hand and all but dragged him into the house.
Inside, the house was not any larger than the other houses but it was in much better condition. The slightly elevated wooden floor was swept clean, and brightly colored netting decorated the walls. The only furniture was a low wooden table in the center of the room with several cushions laid out for seats, and two neatly folded mattresses tucked into an alcove on the far wall.
"It's only the boy and me," Jiro explained. "We don't need much."
He gestured that Ginko should seat himself at the table, and turned to a stack of clay bowls on a shelf by the entranceway. He selected a large, decorated bowl from the bottom of the pile. Lifting the other bowls away, he stumbled slightly. "I can help with that," Ginko started to say, but the grandson, Natsume, had already taken the stack and lifted it gently aside. Taking the bowl from his grandfather, he exited through the door and then disappeared into the space under the house, which Ginko belatedly realized must be a storage area.
Ginko shrugged and seated himself on one of the cushions by the table. He was the guest, after all. The cushion was low and not very padded, so he sat cross-legged.
"How long has it been just you and your grandson?" he asked.
"About five months," Jiro said, picking up a covered pot and shaking it experimentally. Water sloshed around inside. He set the pot over the embers of the fire pit. "Before that we lived with my daughter-in-law, in the big house on the hill."
Aha, Ginko thought. Finally, some answers. "So it's only been five months that this village has been abandoned? Pardon me, but I was wondering what had happened to it."
"You've been here before? I don't remember you. And, no offense, but with hair and clothing like yours I would have remembered." The old man wore a robe like Natsume's, clean but worn. He prodded at the embers.
It was interesting that Jiro mentioned his clothes and not the first thing most people noticed, his hair. He wasn't alone in wearing Western-style clothing, though it was rare; but he'd never met anyone else his age with white hair.
Maybe he was getting old. "I was only here for half a day, in the late fall," he said. Three years ago? Four?
"Ah, during the sardine run. That makes sense, I was always busy mending nets in those months. That was what I did," Jiro explained, abandoning the pot to settle cross-legged across the table from Ginko. "I mended fishing nets. Did good work too." He inclined his head at the nets on the walls, and Ginko obligingly turned to admire them. They were handsome.
Natsume returned with the bowl held carefully in front of him. It was half-filled with rice, topped by several pounds of radishes. On top of the radishes lay two small and one large fish. Ginko, on the verge of protesting that a small fish would be fine for him too, caught the old man's challenging look and thought better of it.
Natsume knelt to turn over a log and blow gently on the embers, and very swiftly a fire caught. He watched long enough to make sure it wouldn't go out, and then was just as swiftly out the door again.
"He isn't used to strangers," Jiro explained. "Shy. But a good boy."
"I can see that."
"He's a good cook. You'll think so too. You're staying for dinner, aren't you? It shouldn't take more than a half an hour for the food to cook. And," Jiro said, forestalling any interruptions Ginko might have been considering, "after dinner, I'll tell you what happened to the village. Agreed?"
Natsume was a good cook, at least of fish.
As promised, the old man began his story after dinner.
"This is a rough part of the coast, no real harbors but ours. A good thing! We never had any competition. Back in the old days, everyone fished. Before my son died, he was a fisherman too. That's how he died, at sea. There was a terrible storm, the worst in memory. This was three years ago. I was sitting here, in this house, and the wind was so strong it shook the walls, shook the floor, I thought maybe the whole house would blow away. In the mountains there was a landslide that changed the course of a river, that's how strong the wind was.
"The trouble started after the storm. Very slowly at first, people started to disappear. It was a while before anyone realized what was going on. You haven't seen them, but there are these white pillars on a cliff overlooking the ocean-"
"I've seen them. There was only one pillar, though."
"You don't say?" Jiro looked impressed. "I haven't been to that part of the coast in years. They've been there forever, you know, but it was only after the storm that they started to sing."
"What do you mean, sing?"
Jiro scratched at the back of his head. "Eh, I guess it's not really singing. It's hard to describe, like howling sounds when the wind passed through them...Sometimes people'd walk down the coast to listen, or sometimes the sound'd carry all the way here. That was when the wind was strong. It was strange, but we got used to it pretty fast. My daughter-in-law's father, he was a real poet. He said the cliffs were singing a dirge for those that died during the storm. I was living with her family by then, I had to put up with this stuff.
"So after the pillars started to sing, the people started to disappear. Young, old, didn't matter. It usually happened past midnight, when the wind was strongest. At first it was only one person every few weeks, but later it was one, maybe two people a week.
"This went on for maybe four months ...by that time, we knew that the vanished people weren't leaving for the village over the mountains, or sailing down the coast, or anything. A man, Miike, said the singing and the disappearances had to be connected because they started at around the same time. I only heard this second-hand, but he and some people got together and headed for the cliffs. The pillars weren't singing that day, even though it was windy. Two children had vanished the day before -- and, sure enough, they found two pillars with small bumps on 'em, like storage sheds or something.
"Some men wanted to head back for shovels, but Miike couldn't wait, and tore into them with his bare hands. They were hollow. Inside was..." He paused.
"Inside was?" Ginko prompted. He thought he knew where this was going.
"Inside, was bones! Small bones, like a child would have. Clean, I heard. Very white. The men broke apart one pillar after another, each one was hollow and filled with bones."
Jiro and Natsume both shuddered. "Creepy," Ginko volunteered.
"Yeah. I heard some people went back with shovels and rakes, smashed the pillars and threw the pieces into the sea. But it didn't help, people kept disappearing just the same. Fatser than ever, even. Sometimes even during the day. They'd get this far-away look in their eyes, look past you like you weren't there, then they'd just start walking toward the cliff, like they were possessed or something... it wasn't hard to break them out of it, just covering their ears or shouting at them did it, but every now and then someone slipped out when no one was watching. It was the music, definitely, that called them.
"Word spread around the village -- stay away from the cliffs, they're haunted by flesh-eating ghosts.""
"Not ghosts," Ginko said. "What you've described are mushi."
"Eh? Mushi? But isn’t that the same thing? Mushi are ghosts that not everyone can see, that's what I've always heard."
Ginko shook his head. "It's true that only certain people can see mushi. But they aren't ghosts: they have physical forms, and they interact with the physical world. They can look like anything, like a stone or leaf or a giant flying snake. But there's nothing supernatural about them."
"Yeah, cause charming fifty people to their deaths is natural."
"It might not be normal, but it is natural. Mushi are only another kind of evolution. Say the world is a bowl filled with radishes and rice. If animals are radishes and plants are rice, mushi might be the bowl. They existed first, before plants or animals. But mushi are simpler than bowls. Really, they're more like the clay that makes up the bowl -- something that's closer to the ground, to the source of all life."
"So what are the fish, then?"
"Delicious." At Jiro and Natsume's incredulous stares, Ginko admitted, "I hadn't really thought that far. It wasn't a very good analogy."
Jiro threw back his head and laughed. "What are you, another poet?"
"I'm a mushishi, I collect mushi."
"You don’t say." Jiro looked impressed again. "That's really something. You do a lot of traveling?"
"A fair amount."
"You don't say." Jiro laughed again, but this time softer. The fire had long since died down, and Jiro spent a thoughtful minute prodding at the embers. In the red glow of the fire pit, Ginko thought he looked regretful. He got the impression that Jiro had been laughing at himself. "I've never wanted to travel. I was born here, you know, in this town - "
"You said that already." It was the first thing Natsume had said since "dinner is ready." Although he hadn’t said anything, he'd been listening intently, hands on knees, to his grandfather's conversation with Ginko, and especially to Ginko's explanation of mushi.
"-you're right, I did. Forgive me, mushishi Ginko. I'm old."
"Nothing to forgive."
Jiro laughed that same self-deprecating laugh. "Guess not. Any case, I've lived here my whole life. It was a was a good life too. I did pretty well with my nets, pretty well by my family -- my son married the daughter of the local big shot, you know. "
"The wedding was really something. But I'll spare you. Promised I'd tell you about this town, anyway. Truth is, this was a pretty large village. For every ten families, only maybe one or two people wound up at the cliffs. The rest just...left.
"It wasn't all at once. One family would go, then another, then three more...no point in staying, they, said, when there was nothing to be done about the disappearances. Most of them settled in a valley on the other side of the mountain. Good farmland, I hear, the rice practically grows itself. It's the valley where where the river used to run, so that figures.
"They don't fish anymore. No other harbors on this stretch of the coast, nowhere else to go. But they're doing just as well -- no, better -- over there as they did here."
"But you're still here," Ginko observed.
"I'm still here. My daughter-in-law's father, he told me: you'll always have a place with our family, come with us. But I told him I couldn't, even if I was the last person left in this village. I'm too old to learn farming. I built this house myself. I don't regret staying, even if it does get lonely sometimes.
"The only thing is that I'm keeping Natsume with me. It's selfish of me, I know, it's just- "
Natsume interrupted, "I'm staying because I want to, Grandpa."
"Is that so?" Jiro laughed again. "You're a good boy. I don't know what I'd do without you. I should have made you go with your other grandfather, but I'm not that strong..."
Natsume stood abruptly. "I's getting late," he said. He turned to Ginko. "Would you like me to set you up for the night?"
"That would probably be best," Ginko said. He stood, then bowed to the seated Jiro. "I look forward to hearing the rest of your story in the morning."
"Nothing else to tell," Jiro said, but he looked pleased.
"We have to borrow a mattress," Natsume explained, leading the way toward a house whose door had fallen off entirely. "We can just take one of the extra ones, no one will mind. Three beds will be a little crowded, so I'll sleep outside-"
"Actually," Ginko said, as he watched Natsume tug apart and then refold a mattress that didn't seem any worse for the wear, "I thought I'd sleep on the beach tonight. The weather's perfect for it."
Natsume looked uncertain. He shifted the folded mattress from arm to arm, looking down at the ground, before eventually looking up and asking, "Can I join you?"
"Sure," Ginko said.
They set their mattresses up between the Jiro's hut and the ocean, and sat watching the reflection of the moon on the water. Ginko pulled out a cigarette and lit it, cupping his hand against the wind. The tip of cigarette threw Ginko's face, and Natsume's beside him, into sharp relief, the only light on the shore -- but on the ocean, a brilliant shining path towards the moon. Small, rippling breakers formed over the larger pull of the tide, breaking the moon's reflection into a thousand tiny pieces.
"Beautiful," Natsume said, softly.
"It is," Ginko agreed. They stayed like that for a while, in silence, and then Ginko ground out his cigarette. "Good night," he said.
In the morning, Jiro was gone.
"Wait," Ginko said, when Natsume started for the path to the cliffs. "Let me get my supplies." Natsume waited patiently, but set a walking pace along the coastline that was halfway to a run. Ginko followed without complaint.
As they hiked, Ginko explained.
"The pillars were made by a mushi called koitogure. Individual koitogure are small, about half the size of your smallest fingernail. They live in large groups or swarms, usually along the coastline although I've heard stories of swarms that live deep underground near lakes. Their primary nutrient is salt, or rather, the impurities of sea salt. The mushi ingest it, then excrete the refined salt as a thin shell."
"That's what the pillar is? Salt?"
"What about the sound?"
"Wind. The mushi form the instrument, and the wind is the player." Ginko stopped to think for a moment, unsure of how to broach the topic. Eventually he said, "Your village was a fishing village. You must have eaten a lot a fish."
"That's a very high-salt diet."
Natsume stopped walking. Ginko gave a silent sigh of relief and attempted to catch his breath.
"You mean," Natsume said, "that we were food?"
"Well, yes. It's an unusual situation: the amount of salt in a person, compared to the amount of salt in sea air, is really not significant. Normally the mushi would take its nutrients from the air alone. The significant difference is the river. Your grandfather said that it changed course three years ago?"
"Yes, after the storm."
"Did he say where it changed course to?"
"It comes out just below the cliffs - oh."
Ginko nodded. "Yes, and where it meets the sea the water is half seawater, half freshwater. Brackish. The mushi wasn't getting enough salt, so it called to the villagers as a kind of supplemental source. Like a vitamin," he added, gently.
Natsume didn't say anything, just turned to march around a bend in the shoreline.
"We're here," he said.
The old man sat in a lotus position. The left side of his body was covered by a thin shell of salt which just reached his shoulder. Already the skin underneath was starting to cave as if deflated. The expression on his face, however, was not one of pain, but of peace. His face and body swarmed with glittering, beetle-like mushi, each one half the size of Natsume's smallest fingernail. The salt and the beetles both glittered in the pre-dawn light. Very softly, music played.
Natsume stood entranced. "They're beautiful," he said.
"You can see them, can't you?"
Ginko lit a cigarette, then blew out the smoke in a long slow stream. "You’re grandfather died in his sleep. He didn't feel any pain. The koitogure secrete a fast-acting poison that paralyzes the entire body instantly, including the heart. We shouldn't approach too closely, or we'll be affected too."
Ginko studied Natsume appraisingly. The boy hadn't said anything, but continued to watch his grandfather as if in a trance. Finally Ginko shrugged.
"I have a mushi that eats this one," he said. "It looks like a snake with two mouths that's tied itself into a knot. If you want, I could use it to kill the mushi the killed your grandfather. We could recover his body for burial, and it would be safe to settle the village again."
Natsume finally tore his gaze away. "No," he said, softly. Then, louder: "No. It's okay this way. The mushi is what it is. I'll go over the mountain to live in the riverbed, become a farmer. I think it's what Grandpa would have wanted."
"I'm sure." Natsume clapped his hand together in prayer. Ginko hastily followed suit.
When he looked up again, Natsume was smiling.
"It would be a shame to destroy something so beautiful," he said.
Ginko exhaled, a long slow stream. "True," he said. They stood together to watch the sunrise, the pillar transformed into a million tiny orange flames.