'I do not think they will sing to me'
"It's called 'being taken by the mountain'," Ginko said. He was sitting on the porch of Adashino's house, looking out at the huge blue sweep of the sky and the great green spread of the sea. "People go vague and not-there; they sit in one place all day, smiling at nothing, or stand out in the rain not feeling the wet and cold. They talk very little, and what they say doesn't make sense. One man started calling his daughter 'Father'. A woman kept harping on some path in the mountains and wouldn't believe that her husband had never heard of it. The families have to feed and clean them because they forget to do it for themselves."
"But it's not senility?" Adashino asked from inside the house. The sun's bright refraction off the sea often hurt his eyes; he preferred interiors, and wondered that Ginko, so pale of eye and skin, was so fond of the open.
"Nh. Children and adolescents caught it too, and young parents. Sometimes only one member of a family, sometimes several; and other families seemed immune. The village was used to the mountain taking its old people, but this time it was stealing the young as well. They'd go too far into themselves and fade away. But just as often they'd develop a high fever and chills, and if the cough or pneumonia didn't carry them off, they made a complete recovery."
"Odd. So what made you think it was a mushi, and not just a virus?"
"I talked to some of the survivors, asked them what it was like when they went away. They said they hadn't been sick at all; just asleep and dreaming of long ago. So then I had a pretty good idea." Ginko threw his cigarette into the sand, leaned back and looked up at the sky.
"You going to tell me?" Adashino asked eventually.
"In time." Ginko grinned. "If I can get more tea."
Adashino sighed gustily, for show, and went into the back where the kettle sat on the iron hibachi. One did things slowly with Ginko, spinning out conversations and meals and even business deals into all-day affairs. Ginko liked ordinary interactions to last longer than they normally do, because for Ginko they weren't ordinary at all. Casual chat with a friend, a cup of tea, a little barter over something from his wooden chest: months might go by before he'd be able to do it again. Adashino didn't mind. Time worked differently for Ginko.
"It's good to be here," Ginko said, sipping his tea. "I feel I can breathe again."
"The mountains and the valleys, you know how it is."
Ginko turned a surprised head.
"You don't? But you come from Echizen. You must have felt it. The way the air piles up and closes in, weighing you down. There's a reason the mountains produce more mushi than the seaside."
"We have our share," Adashino objected, feeling an obscure need to defend the seaside's reputation.
"Of course. Mushi are everywhere. But like real insects, they breed more easily where things don't move. Deep pools, swamps, old forests where the sun doesn't reach. Wherever it's green and dark, that's where you find them."
They walked along the beach, greeting the fishermen out mending their nets and caulking boats.
"Wind's too high to go out, I guess?" Adashino said to one over the roar of the waves.
"That it is," the old man answered. "But it'll blow itself out soon. That flat patch near the horizon--" he jerked his chin at the sky-- "that's a calm set to move in."
"Mhh." Ginko's eyes were on the sand by his feet. He pointed. "What's this?"
"Kelp," Adashino said in surprise.
"Ahh, don't touch that," the fisherman said. "Those tangles have insects in them. They give you a rash."
"Mh," Ginko nodded. They said good-bye and walked on. "Good thing they know about them, but you should too."
"I don't handle kelp that often."
"It's not kelp," Ginko said.
"And this--" Ginko said, unwrapping a cloth bundle and handing Adashino a rough pottery bowl.
"Mhhm?" Nothing unusual about it to the casual glance. A farmers' rice bowl. Adashino turned it about, looking for oddities.
"Kind of a rarity. I don't know what these mushi are called. They go a long way back, well before any records are kept-- probably back to primordial times. They-- well, it's not correct to say they *live* in the clay this was made from. When the earth was hotter maybe they did, but as it cooled they went dormant and stayed that way."
"Until the pottery was fired?" Adashino guessed.
"Exactly. Then they came awake. There's no way to get them out of the earthenware now, but if it's kept in a cool place it can't do much damage. Your storehouse will be fine. Just be sure nobody gets their hands on it."
"I'll be careful."
"A *locked* drawer, preferably."
"Locked it is," Adashino agreed, and went to put it away in his desk.
They went back to the porch after dinner, with sake bottles heating in water and the ocean wind fluttering their hair.
"So, those mountain mushi," Adashino prompted.
"Oh, yeah. These." Ginko reached for his medicine chest and pulled a glass bottle from one of the drawers. Inside was something that looked like a willow catkin. "Kyomu, they're called-- 'past dreams.' They cling to the branches of low-hanging trees and brush against people as they go by."
"Old dreams, huh? Suppose you're the kind who doesn't remember your dreams? What effect do they have then?"
"It's not dreams they bring back-- Don't do that!"
But the lid was off. Adashino raised a startled face at Ginko's cry and so missed the pale pollen-like mist that briefly floated out of the jar. He smelled something musty and green, pine and cryptomeria needles damp with rain fallen in the darkness under the trees. Water dripped around him; mist melted into formless white-grey clouds high above. Nowhere and everywhere, but he was on the hillside path that curved down towards the village's scattered roofs. The headman's house, the one poor tavern, the grammar school: or rather, the room where Kitamura Sensei, kind and lazy, taught the village children when they could be spared from planting and harvesting. He'd long since exhausted Sensei's store of knowledge but not the contents of his library. And he had questions to ask about this book under his arm, the one with pictures of the human body and its organs, and the insides of those organs, and the insides of the insides down to a level that was, it seemed, not visible to the eye. It made him dizzy. The solidity of himself-- the unquestioned seamless wholeness of his body-- had dissolved in the face of this evidence that he was *constructed*: made of parts that could be taken apart again. It was a terrifying thought, but the terror was wonderful: everything was so different from the way he'd thought it was.
Old Gen called a greeting to him, Masa's wife bowed as he passed. He nodded a distracted reply. How odd the village looked suddenly, suspended in the clouds like an artifact packed in cotton wool. Was it because his own world had just been pushed farther apart? Not bigger on the outside, like when that travelling doctor from Nagasaki had come visiting them with stories of things unheard of on the mountain; but bigger inside-- all the stuff that lay under the surface even of his own body, leading its unsuspected life where no one could see it. The dark green hills ringed the village and lifted to the indeterminate sky. Did unknown things lie deep under the hillside, did invisible things travel through the thick humid air? Smell of pine, smell of water hanging on needles, smell of wet thatch on Sensei's roof... Were there things he couldn't see living within the thick straw? Were there whole universes of tiny beings inside those water drops? The doctor had said something like that but he hadn't been listening. His nose itched-- his nose *burned*-- he sneezed violently and his eyes streamed scalding water, there was something in his *nose* like a dozen hornet stings, and terror grabbed him briefly-- who ever said all those tiny forms were *friendly*---
"Good thing I know where you keep your pepper," a voice said. A pale face with one strangely pale eye, blurry in Adashino's sight before he had to sneeze the agony from his nose again. There was cloth in his hand and he dabbed at his face automatically. Ginko, his mind said, and he knew it was Ginko but not who Ginko might be. A sound of waves. His home by the sea. He blinked, and the mountains and amorphous clouds were gone, his father and the world of his village, the golden future that had just opened before him...
"Kyomu," Ginko said. "Not dreams you've had in the past. The past *like* a dream."
...detailed, marvellous, real enough to hold in your hand; and gone to nothing when you open your eyes.
"The mushi get in through the nose. You can drive them out by sneezing. That's why a head cold works just as well."
Adashino said nothing.
"Actually, the dream state is only a side effect," Ginko rattled on. "The mushi irritate the part of the brain that recall smells-- the sense that calls up the most vivid memories. With that constant stimulation, the memory state turns into a constant hallucination."
Adashino picked up his eyeglass where it had fallen and looked at it numbly.
"How old were you in your memory?" Ginko was asking.
He made his slow lips move. "Nine."
"That sounds about right. Some people went back as far as five, but none were later than ten or so. Childhood memories, basically." There was a silence. "What is it?"
Adashino pulled himself together. There was no reason to be angry at Ginko; no reason to be angry at anyone. He hadn't lost anything. He'd regained, oh so briefly, the memory of a lost time and a vanished self. He ought to be grateful.
"Nothing," he said, and reached for the flask. "More sake?'
The sound of waves here in the dark. He hadn't realized how much they sounded like trees thrashing in a mountain gale. Was that why he preferred to sleep in the interior room rather than out by the verandah, where Ginko was now? Here he felt safe, the ocean's turbulence soothing but distanced. Out in the open-- he'd always felt an unplaceable unease about sleeping there. It wasn't likely the sea would rise up in the night and wash him away, but trees uprooted in the mountains, branches crashing down, boars sent from their homes-- that could happen. Just an old fear, brought from his old life into this new one.
He turned to his other side. In his mind's eye were mountains, forested to the top, not bald and wind-swept like the ones here. Deep shadows, flickering light-- other things that flickered too. A world full of mushi. His for the having, except. Except.
He wasn't a master, and mushi could be dangerous.
It was better like this. He had the mushi Ginko brought him, the mushi artifacts locked away in his storehouse, their properties known and confined. Ginko could travel through the human and mushi worlds unharmed-- had to, because the mushi wouldn't leave him alone. But even if Adashino went with him, he'd never see the same world as Ginko. And it *would* be dangerous. Careful as he was, he'd already been hurt once or twice. There was no need for sadness or regrets. The wonder was still there, even if it would never be his. He could still own pieces of it, even if he'd never see it whole.
Mountains in his head, the undreamed-of wonders just opening to his boyish mind....
I have that now, he thought. It's my profession. Bacteria in the bloodstream, nodes in the lymph glands-- I know those tiny lives, those worlds hidden in the dark. It isn't what it looked like then. It isn't as wonderful as I'd thought.
But there are the mushi, and the mushi *are* marvellous-- endlessly marvellous. There's still that.