They had done this three or four times now, and Yae knew what a house should look like when people were moving into it. She was familiar with the piles of boxes and clocks, books and cases, furniture, clothes all jumbled together, ink blocks in the cooking pots and shoes stuck in lantern shades. That was what she'd been expecting when she stepped inside Himuro Mansion for the first time, no matter what her husband said about getting everything ready before she arrived.
But the entrance was bare and clean, and the hall beyond that, and the room beyond that. In the fireplace room she saw a few pieces of furniture from their old home, but they looked small here. Himuro Mansion dwarfed all the other houses she had seen, and it had swallowed up all her possessions without any sign of disturbance.
She took a wrong turn into a tiny alcove with nothing but a staircase, which led up onto a second-floor mezzanine. When she retraced her steps, she found herself at the foot of a second staircase, which led to the same place. Perplexed, she went downstairs again, and was considering the door beside the staircase when Ryozo came in.
"Ah, there you are. Where's Mikoto?"
"I thought she went with you," Yae said. "I'm already lost. That wasn't ours, was it?" she added, looking at the five-panel screen half hidden behind a row of cabinets.
"Oh," Ryozo said blankly. "Probably not. The previous residents left a lot behind. I don't know where half of these things came from. Here, let me show you the way to your room." He led her back up to the mezzanine. "That's it there."
"Through the door?"
"No — well, yes, that's how you get to it, but I meant the screen window. Your room's on the other side. It doesn't have any exterior windows, so there won't be any draughts. It won't be so cold in the inner rooms when winter gets here. I had them put your koto in there, and that lacquered low table that used to be in the guest room."
He talked as they went, his arm through hers. Through the door of a room he said was his study, she could see the boxes of his books, still unpacked — he would have wanted to do that himself, and it made her feel warm inside to know he'd left his own things for later, to make sure her room was prepared.
"It's no good pointing everything out," she said, laughing. "I have no idea where we are. "
"You'll soon learn your way around. Mikoto can show you; I think she's been in more rooms than I have."
Of the three of them, Yae was the only one who had never been to the mansion before. Ryozo had been back and forth a dozen times for his studies, and to meet with local officials. Then, once the move had been decided, Mikoto had begged to go with him and see it too. She had come back full of stories of hidden passages and knocking behind the walls, the children she'd met from the village, a secret panel that she'd opened, and the centipede that had crawled out from under it.
"You know that's all your fault," Yae said. "You let her read that book about people opening tombs in Egypt. Now she thinks she's an explorer."
Ryozo might have protested, but at that moment there came a pounding of feet, and then Mikoto, racing up the stairs, filthy, with cobwebs in her hair, bellowing in triumph, "I found a mummy!"
30 years ago: a new start
The village was gone.
It wasn't possible, but there was no other way to explain it. Past the torii gate, where Misono Hill should have been, there was only more forest. Ryozo had even tried following the river, but it twisted into a deep pass overgrown with ivy, and after that he lost it.
Gone. Itsuki, Mutsuki, Mr. Makabe, Sae, everything. Only Yae was left, and she hadn't even known her own name until he'd told her.
While he'd been searching the forest, she had sat at the foot of the gate, staring vacantly while tears ran down her face in a continuous stream. Occasionally she lifted a hand to wipe them away. When he asked why she was crying, she only shook her head. She didn't know.
"It's getting late," he said finally. "We should go now if we want to be out of the forest by nightfall."
She blinked slowly and looked at him. "Go where?"
"I... I don't really know," he admitted. "I thought my teacher would be here. He'd know what to do."
Yae didn't say anything.
"But I'm going to keep you safe," he said with sudden resolve. Not because of a promise, not because of an obligation, not because he hoped that one day she might remember what had happened. "I don't really know any more than you. I don't know what will happen. But wherever we go, let's go together."
He held out his hand. She took it.
For as long as Yae could remember, there had been the dreams. When she woke up, she could never recall any details. Sometimes there was a forest — the forest where her husband had found her, she supposed, the one she'd come out of when she didn't know who she was — and sometimes she woke up with tears on her face, shaken by some emotion so deep and so far from its context that she couldn't even tell what it was. Grief? Guilt? Terror? Always there were a few seconds, between her dreams and her waking life, when she was lost again, groping for her memories, in a place she didn't recognise.
Like all dreams, it faded quickly, and by day she never gave it more than a passing thought. It wasn't enough to bother her husband with. For all she knew, everyone else was just the same.
But it was impossible to wake in Himuro Mansion and think you were anywhere else. Yae thought that even in her dreams she must have remembered where she was. That certainty was new and wonderful, like stepping onto solid ground after a long and stormy voyage.
Perhaps it was because the mansion had had stood so long, serving the same purpose, the same family, for so many generations. Perhaps it was only the silence. You could never mistake it for the city. The closest she could think of was the Makabe house, which had been set back from the road and enclosed in gardens, but that had been a long time ago. All she really remembered of it was the scent of jasmine blowing in through the window at night, and an incongruous feeling of peace. She had been a girl with no family, no memories, no sense of who she was, but she'd felt safe. Ryozo had brought her out of the forest, and she had trusted implicitly that he would go on protecting her. She'd been naive. She'd been lucky. Everything could have gone so wrong, and instead she'd had the best life she could have imagined for herself.
She could hear Ryozo now, the floorboards creaking in the corridor below, and it made her smile. He was close by, and they wouldn't have to be apart any more. He wouldn't be leaving her behind to go off and study strange masks and customs in far-off parts of the country.
For a few minutes she lay quietly, listening — she thought he was just pacing in circles, probably constructing arguments against some other author in his head — but at last she got up and started to get dressed. She wanted to breathe the fresh air again, in the cool of the morning.
She expected to meet Ryozo in the corridor, but as she descended the footsteps grew more distant, and at last faded away entirely. It sounded as though he were disappearing down an impossibly long hallway. She didn't hear the sound of a door. Perhaps he was in a different part of the house after all; sound carried strangely in old buildings.
At least the way outside was easy, and she had no difficulty finding her way to the burial room and out into the atrium. She thought again what a pity it was that the cherry tree had died — Ryozo had said they could cut it down and plant another, but that idea seemed sadder still, and somehow disrespectful. It had stood here for so long, planted by unknown hands, and its bare white limbs had a certain austere beauty. She touched its trunk as she passed, wood turned smooth as silk by the years.
Past the tree, past the torii gate and the little shrine, there was a door set into the high wall, one Yae might have overlooked if Ryozo hadn't pointed it out to her. She had forgotten to ask him why the area on the other side was called the Abyss. As she stepped through the door now, it couldn't have looked more beautiful and full of light. The lake reflected the dawn sky, luminous and calm.
In the city, spring had been well on its way into summer, but here in the mountains, the mornings were still cold. Yae breathed the chill, fragrant air and let it out again in a plume. She felt invigorated.
The wooden jetty wasn't safe to walk on yet, so she stopped at the shore, gazing out towards the little pile of stones that seemed to float in the mist. Yesterday, Ryozo had been a little hesitant to show her outside, and she knew it was because of all these graves and memorials scattered about, but she didn't mind them. In fact, there was something comforting about it. Ancestors and guardian stones watched over the mansion and its inhabitants. Perhaps she too would stay here, after she died, and join her vigil with theirs.
She heard the creak of the door and knew Ryozo had come looking for her. "Isn't it lovely?" she called over her shoulder, not turning. He came up behind her, and she leaned into his warmth with a little shiver. "I thought I'd watch the sunrise, but that's in the other direction."
He put an arm around her and reached for her hand; she crept it up his sleeve instead, laughing when he winced at the cold.
"I'm glad you like it here," he said. "On the journey up I started worrying you wouldn't. It's a lonely place. Some people might find it oppressive."
"That was a little late for second thoughts." She took out her moderately less icy right hand and replaced it with the left.
"I know you wouldn't complain," he said, looking at her seriously. "But if you ever feel — if you really didn't want — "
"I feel better than I have in years. The quiet, the fresh air, having us all together... I think this was what I needed."
She felt him relax. "Good."
"Is Mikoto still asleep?"
"At this hour? I doubt it. I didn't hear anything from her room, but I expect she's occupied." He'd found a set of beautiful old dolls in storage, and had given some of them to Mikoto. She was old enough to be embarrassed about playing with them in front of her parents, but Yae had no doubt she'd started the moment she was alone.
"It's chilly out here," Ryozo said after a while. "Would you like to go back inside?"
The sky and lake gleamed like pearl, with the slightest edge of gold. He was with her, and her hands were warm. She said, "Just a little longer."
30 years ago: guardian stones
The gates to Kurosawa House were locked. Ryozo fell back, bewildered. Probably there was some ceremonial reason for it, this close to the festival, but nobody had warned him — Mr. Makabe hadn't sent word. Now they were cut off from each other.
He wandered slowly back to the main entrance of Tachibana House, thinking hard. He would write a note for Mr. Makabe, perhaps, or ask one of the villagers what was going on, if he saw any. The sunken path between Kiryu and Tachibana was utterly deserted, but when he turned the corner at the top of the steps he saw Yae and Sae. They were bending before one of the twin guardian statues, clearing weeds from around its base. They stood up when they saw him approaching.
"Do you really have to do that kind of thing?" he asked.
"It's a tradition," Yae said. "It's almost time for us to go into seclusion, so we have to pay our respects."
"Oh. Does that mean I'm not supposed to talk to you? Sorry. I was just trying to get into your house to see Mr. Makabe, but the gates are locked."
Yae looked down, her mouth twisting. Sae said, "He asked us to tell you he's very busy. It — he — there's a lot he has to do to prepare for the ritual."
"For observing the ritual," Yae interjected quickly. "Since it's so unusual for an outsider..."
She trailed off into silence. Both of them looked miserable.
"Well, do you think you'd be able to see him? If I wrote a note, or — "
"We'll try," Yae said. Without even seeming to realise what she was doing, she had slipped her hand through Sae's, and in the waning sun they looked just like a human-sized version of the guardian statue, down to the way Sae's face was in shadow. Ryozo wasn't usually susceptible to ominous feelings, but it was hard not to feel a tremor of premonition, seeing them like that.
Before he went inside, he thought about asking them to say a prayer to the guardian deities for him and Mr. Makabe as well, but he thought better of it. Whatever gods lived here, they protected the village, not him.
There were two women from down the mountain who came to help with the housework. Yae hadn't been able to speak with them much — they spoke in an obscure dialect peculiar to the region, and she found it hard to understand them — but she tried to make up for it by smiling and acting as friendly as possible. She thought they were sisters, and they always worked as a pair, never alone, even when it would have been more efficient. They always made sure to be away before sunset. Still, they worked hard, and Ryozo had told her how difficult it had been to get any of the locals to agree to spend time in Himuro Mansion at all, so Yae tolerated the eccentricity. Ryozo said if the villagers got used to people coming and going from the mansion, perhaps they'd fear it less, and become more communicative about its history.
They had been at the mansion over a week now. Yae no longer got lost between her room and the entrance hall, but some areas remained vague to her, not least because several doors were still locked with odd mechanisms, and others were nailed shut.
She stood outside one of these doors now, listening intently. She'd passed through Mikoto's room, looking for her daughter, and had been on her way down towards the cherry atrium when she'd heard — or thought she had — a voice on the other side of this door. She thought it had been a little girl crying. The sound had faded at her approach.
She tested the planks nailed across the door to see if any were loose. They all held firm, but that meant nothing. The place was full of passages and shortcuts, mazelike in the way it kept circling back on itself. Mikoto could have found some other way into this room. What if she couldn't get out again?
"Mikoto?" she called, rapping on the door. "Are you in there?"
She would have to find help. They would have to pry the boards away and open up the room to see what was inside. Ryozo had said something about trying to open the doors in the little ruined room next to the Burial Room, so Yae started in that direction, but she never got that far. In the cherry atrium, the two village women were scolding a little boy — Yae couldn't make out all the words, but she thought they were telling him to go somewhere. And, to her intense relief, Mikoto was there too, standing off to the side and looking uncomfortable.
"What's the matter?" Yae asked, hurrying towards them. The fright and then the relief had made her breathless and shaky, and she nearly stumbled on the steps. She caught at the railing and stopped a moment, one hand to her heart. "Is everything all right?"
The women came over to her, concern making them look more alike. She was sure they were sisters. She had always wanted a sister.
"It's only my son," one of them said reluctantly, careful of her language. "I'm very sorry, but he followed me. He's not allowed to play here. He knows that."
"Oh, no!" Yae waved a hand. "Please, don't worry. I like to have children around the place. I only — just now, I thought I heard a child in one of the locked rooms."
The women looked troubled, though Yae couldn't tell whether that was because of what she'd said or because they didn't understand her when she talked so fast. Finally the other said,
"That's not possible, madam. I've been keeping an eye on them. They're all close by. You must have imagined it."
Mikoto came forward, impatient with the conversation. "Mother, they can play here, can't they? It's so good for hide and seek."
Yae hesitated. She didn't want to disappoint the children, or send them away and leave her daughter with no playmates, but she couldn't forget the way her heart had squeezed in her chest when she thought Mikoto was trapped somewhere, unable to get out or even call for help. The mansion was so big, with so few people nearby if anything went wrong.
"You can play," she said, "as long as you stay where someone can hear you if you shout. And if you find a door, or a passage, or... or anything you don't know where it goes, tell your father before you go exploring it, all right?"
The two women stood, stone-faced. Yae said more slowly, for their benefit, "This house belongs to your families. It's your history. My husband wants that, and I do, too. I want the children to enjoy it."
She didn't know if they understood. Their expressions didn't change. Without a word, they turned and went back to their work.
30 years ago: hide and seek
For the first two days, Ryozo stayed in the Kurosawa House, close to Mr. Makabe. Mr. Kurosawa had said they were welcome to investigate any books that Mr. Makabe thought might be pertinent to his studies, and the priests always seemed to be nearby to assist with any textual ambiguities. Mr. Makabe was more than happy with the arrangement, but Ryozo soon started to get restless. The priests' extreme helpfulness only seemed to go so far. They wouldn't answer any of his questions about Itsuki and Mutsuki, except to say they had died of an illess. What illness? No one knew. Had anyone else died? No one would say. Even Yae and Sae were close-lipped about it, and Ryozo didn't miss the look that passed between them when he asked, brief and secretive.
On the second night, with Mr. Makabe's permission, he slipped out of the house as casually as possible and wandered about for half an hour. He didn't know what he was looking for; at any rate, he didn't find it.
The next day Yae came to see him. "My father says you must be — sad about Itsuki and Mutsuki," she said, with her eyes averted. "He says, would it console you to spend a few days in the Tachibana house? There are books there, so you could keep studying."
Ryozo knew there was a message here — that people had noticed him sneaking around last night, and he was being offered a chance to see for himself. He didn't trust it, but he went with Yae anyway. Perhaps he would learn something.
"You'll have to watch out for Itsuki's sister," Yae said. "She's shy, so whenever strangers are around she'll hide. You might not even know she's there."
"I bet she never runs out of hiding places."
"No, I shouldn't think so. When we were little, we used to play hide and seek all the time, all four of us." Herself and Sae and the Tachibanas, she must have meant. "It's the best game to play in a place like this. I still remember how much fun we had. I'm sure it's very different growing up in the city."
She was smiling, but the smile was wistful. Ryozo looked away, confused. Maybe he was wrong. People didn't smile like that about friends who were still alive, did they?
"Do you miss him?" he said carefully.
"Of course. Mutsuki was — " She started, blushed, and began to stammer. "I mean, I miss them both. Itsuki and Mutsuki."
I'm not wrong.
Ryozo wanted to take Yae by the shoulders, or by the hands, to look her in the face and make her tell him everything. But Yae wasn't a natural liar; if she was lying now, it was because she was afraid of something. Maybe one day, if she felt safe, she would trust him enough to explain.
So he pretended not to notice her slip. "Well, I hope Chitose won't be scared of me. I'd like to talk to her about her brothers. She must miss them, too."
He pretended, too, not to notice the grateful look she sent him, but that didn't stop him holding onto the glow it lit inside him, all that day and night.
It had been a while since Yae had played the koto. She'd learned it at the Makabe house, and for years it had given her something to occupy her mind and days with, especially when Ryozo was away travelling and the house was too quiet. She'd always meant to teach Mikoto, but then she'd fallen ill, and even playing had been too much.
Downstairs the children went thundering by in the walkway. That was a good sound. She'd always wanted more children, but there'd only been Mikoto. She hoped one day the locals would all let their children play here; it was really too big for a family of three. A place like this ought to be full of people.
She plucked at a string, then another. Her fingers felt clumsy, and the koto wasn't quite in tune, but she could still pick out the simple teaching melody she'd learned all those years ago.
Movement at the corner of her eye. She looked up and gave a violent start, her hands striking the koto strings in a discordant jangle. There was a little girl in the room, standing by the door of a closet that wouldn't open.
"Oh! You gave me such a fright. When did you come in, dear? Are you looking for the others?"
The girl said something, but Yae couldn't understand a word. She would really have to get Ryozo to help her with the local dialect. It had an odd, antique sound when the girl spoke it, quite pleasant to the ear.
She lifted herself slowly to her feet, then held out a hand. "Come on," she said. "There aren't any hiding places in here."
The girl looked at the hand for a long time before taking it, and although the day was mild, her skin felt icy.
"You must feel the cold, like me," Yae said, more to herself than to the girl. She liked having someone to talk to; when she was young she'd talked to herself, or her reflection. "Sometimes I wish I could wear winter clothes all year round, too."
In the hall they met Ryozo, coming out of his study. "Did I hear the koto just now? You must be feeling better."
"You did, and I am, but you're not supposed to listen," Yae said. "I'm too out of practice. I'll play for you when I get better again."
"Consider me deaf until then. Were you looking for me?"
"No, I'm fine, but one of Mikoto's friends — " She turned as she spoke and frowned, perplexed, when she realised no one was there. She hadn't even felt the girl's hand pull free. "She's as quiet as a mouse. She wandered into my room and I was taking her to find Mikoto, but I suppose you must have scared her away."
"Me?" Ryozo looked wounded. "They're not scared of me."
"I know, but children can be shy." She glanced past him through the open door into the study, at his books spread across the desk. "I hope I didn't disturb your work."
"I'm taking a break from investigating the mansion, just until we can get someone to open some of these locked doors. I was actually looking for Mikoto. She gave me this old camera she managed to dig up somewhere. I doubt it's anything special, but I'd like to know where she found it."
That night, Yae called Mikoto to her room for her first koto lesson. Ryozo, in spite of his assurances, came to listen, but Yae didn't mind. As she talked her daughter through the old, simple exercises, she remembered that he'd listened when she was learning, too. He'd stood just outside the doorway to her room in the Makabe house, trying to be inconspicuous, but she'd felt him watching her. It was her first memory of safety, of happiness, and for the first time, instead of feeling adrift, she'd seen a glimpse of a life ahead.
She felt it now, with Mikoto beside her and Ryozo nearby, watching over them. She felt young again. Himuro Mansion had given her a second chance.
30 years ago
Mr. Makabe had only had Dr. Asou's camera out a few times on their journey, and he hadn't bothered explaining it to Ryozo. So Ryozo knew he ought to be paying attention when Mr. Makabe started telling the Kurosawa family head about it, and he stood dutifully trying to listen, but his gaze kept drifting over to the twin girls. They had moved to stand off by themselves, under the red camellia, and they kept darting glances at him, too.
He wanted to go over and start asking questions. What had Itsuki told them? Where was Itsuki? What had he asked Ryozo to come here for? The letters had been so vague.
He sighed, and tried not to fidget. One of the twins — he didn't know which one — caught his eye with unexpected boldness, and held it a moment before looking away.
"If you'll permit me to make a demonstration?" Mr. Makabe was saying, and it took Ryozo a moment to gather his thoughts and understand what was happening. The twins stood hand in hand under the tree. The picture caught one of them smiling, a little uncertainly, and the other...
"Sae's face came out wrong." That had to be Yae, then. She was leaning in on Ryozo's right to see the little slip of paper Mr. Makabe was holding.
"That happens sometimes. We can take another."
Mr. Kurosawa cleared his throat. "It's very interesting, but perhaps later. The purification rituals are quite stringent, and the priests will be expecting Yae and Sae at the shrine."
Ryozo started to reach for the photograph, but Yae had taken it before he could get a good look. It was hard to picture that half-smile now, she looked so serious. He opened his mouth, drew breath without the slightest idea what he was going to say.
"Ryozo," Mr. Makabe called. "Come along."
He went, but couldn't help one last glance over his shoulder, to see whether Yae was looking at him, too.
The weather turned fine, warm and sweet. The mountain air was like a glass, making everything clearer, so even the trees on the far-off hills looked close enough to touch.
The camera button made a satisfying, heavy click when she pushed it. She'd never held one before, but she liked its weight and the sense of complex mechanisms whirring and turning inside, capturing moments in time and anchoring them on paper. She'd only asked to hold it the day before, to take a few pictures of the children, but she'd enjoyed herself so much that she'd decided to bring it on their walk that day.
Three or four times Ryozo had asked her whether she wanted to turn back, and every time she'd shaken her head, and after a while he'd stopped asking, only watched her and smiled. She hadn't felt so strong in — years, probably. They walked hand in hand up the path as it curved ever upwards, and she only let go long enough to take pictures of it all.
They came to a widening in the road, a place where the woods parted a little, and in the gap between the trees, Yae saw Himuro Mansion across the lake, through a shimmering haze. It occurred to her that she might be looking back at herself from that morning a few weeks ago, when she'd stood in the Abyss watching the sky grow light. It gave her a strange sensation, as if she were falling into the past, and down through the years a chain of Yaes were looking back at each other across the water. On impulse she raised the camera and took a picture, but for an instant as the shutter whirred open, she thought it was a different lake, and a different house, long ago. A place she knew. A memory she'd lost.
It was only an instant. Then it was just Himuro Mansion again, solid and changeless, standing as it had for hundreds of years.
She knew the picture wouldn't come out. But she could take another.
"Yae?" Ryozo said. He brushed a strand of hair back from her temple. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said. She wanted to say she was happy; she wanted to say she understood now. But it was already disappearing like a dream, and all she had was the certainty that this was right, that somehow this was where she was meant to be. "I think I'm ready to go back now."
She took Ryozo's arm and Mikoto's hand. She turned back, towards home.