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Tales of the Bathhouse

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Lin, hands on hips, sizes up the new girl with a sniff.

"Skinny, aren't you?" she says disapprovingly, before turning to the linen closet. "Here," Lin says, turning back and thrusting a bundle of clothing into her arms. "No doubt these won't fit and goodness knows there's nothing to be done about your hair, but it'll have to do."

Contrary to Lin's rough words, she finds the clothes fit perfectly. She smooths them down over her sides and takes a deep breath before joining Lin on the deck overlooking the water.

"So what do we call you, girl?" Lin says, setting out two bowls, two sets of chopsticks, two cups.

It's dinnertime already, she realises with a rumbling of her stomach. She kneels on the deck and folds her hands in her lap. "Ki," she says, trying it out loud for the first time since Yubaba gave it to her, only a few short hours ago. "You can call me Ki."

"Well, Ki," Lin says, passing over a bowl of rice. She smiles, her sharp features transformed, and it's like cool rain in the summer heat after Ki's long day. "Welcome."

Until then she'd been a little wary of this woman who seemed so quick to snap, but the smile changes that. As they eat their meal of fish and rice and pickles, they start to talk of the house and their duties and the arrival of the new apprentice and even, daringly, Yubaba herself.

Lin answers her questions patiently but briefly, until Ki finally asks, "How did you come to work here too?"

"Ha!" Lin says. "Now that's a story." She sets down her chopsticks and starts to tell it.

 


 

The Weasel and the Sorceress

It was a cold and very early morning when the weasel poked her nose out of doors.

Inside the den her old mother and younger brothers and sisters were still sleeping. They'd wake soon enough, stirred by the rumblings and groans of their empty stomachs. There's little so cramped and desperate as a too-small den filled with hungry weasels so she was glad to be out in the air, despite the morning chill.

If the weasel had her way, her family would not be hungry for long. Over the hill from where the family had made their home there stood a great house owned by a famed sorceress. Many grand and important folk came in and out the house each day, and in order to feed all the guests the house had several busy kitchens constantly cooking up mountains of food. Beside the house stood a plot of land for the sorceress' livestock and a well-tended vegetable garden that magically flourished even in the coldest of winters. It was to this farm that the weasel was headed on this still-dark morning.

Like most of her kind, the weasel was very bold and very clever, and in a more prosperous year she would have been be far too clever to even think of trying to steal from a sorceress. However in times of hunger, daring was in much greater demand than wit.

So she stood herself up on her hind legs, donned a bright robe bound with a sash that flattered her slim weasel waist, and combed her dark hair down over her ears. Provided one did not look too closely, she seemed no more than one of the many attendants of the sorceress' house.

So disguised, the weasel's first stop was the chicken coop. The rooster was already strutting about the yard, waiting for the sun to rise, but otherwise the yard was still and quiet. It was easy for a small and nimble-footed weasel to make her way across the yard and into the shadows beside the coop, to put her mouth to a cracked slat in the wall and whisper into the dark:

"There's a raccoon in here."

She only had to say it once for a hen to hear the word and repeat it. "Raccoon?" the hen clucked, still half-asleep. Then another stirred and said, rather more sharply, "Raccoon." Which in turn woke yet another and then it was as though a lit match had been set to a haystack. "A raccoon! A raccoon! I can hear a raccoon!"

"We'll be safe in the garden," the weasel called again through the crack in the slats. She'd already unlatched the gate to the garden on her way inside for this very purpose.

"The garden! Oh yes, the garden! What a good idea!"

When the hens were safely in the garden and making a raucous hubbub, it was easy for the weasel to push the broken slat aside. She filled her basket with a dozen fine eggs from the unattended nests and then slipped out just as quietly, never attracting the attention of the ruffled, squawking crowd.

Her next stop was the vegetable patch, where a mole was already hard at work, turning over the earth with spade-like paws. "Oh, Master Mole," she cried loudly, hurrying forward in feigned distress. "You must make haste, for the hens have got into the gardens!"

"What?" The mole looked up, blinking rapidly. "But my peonies, my camellias - oh, my chrysanthemums!"

Soon he too was hurrying away, leaving his vegetables unattended and ripe for the plucking, and the weasel filled a second basket to the brim with daikon, leeks and melons. She looked over her shoulder as she worked, tense and ready to run at the mole's return, but there were none to witness her theft but a bird overhead whose shadow passed on the ground beside her.

The weasel could have slipped away then while the mole and the hens were running rings around the roses. She might have taken her laden baskets back to the den with none the wiser and her family would have slept with full bellies that night. She would have escaped, if not for the buzzing of the bees.

The bees were from Yubaba's own prized hives and the melting sweetness of their honeycombs were famous throughout the land. Buoyed by her success in the coop and the garden, the thought came to the weasel that this might be her only chance to try them for herself. So she flicked an ear, sniffed the air, and followed the trail past the vegetables and into the orchard.

"Madam Bees," the weasel called in her most dulcet tones, raising her voice only a little as she picked her way past bushes that would soon be laden with berries, past trees starting to bud and bloom. "Yubaba has sent me to fetch some honey for her table. Where are you, Madam Bees?"

"Come to ussss," buzzed the bees in response. "We're here, weasel, jussst a little further."

The weasel did not even stop to think as she greedily followed the sound of their wings and the scent of wild honey.

"Yes, weasel, you are very clossse now..."

The buzzing grew very loud now and the weasel's mouth watered at the thought of the honey that she would surely be tasting in moments. "Are you here, Madam Bees?" the weasel said sweetly, brushing aside a branch with her paw and -

- and realised in the same moment that what she brushed aside was not a branch but the edge of a cloak worn by none other than Yubaba herself.

The sorceress was a terrible sight to see, not to mention a horrible shock, her enormous heavy-lidded eyes flashing lightning and a swarm of bees buzzing around her shoulders like a deadly, living stole. A claw-like hand heavy with rings shot out and grabbed the weasel by the scruff of her neck, and in the same moment vines burst from the ground and twined around her feet and ankles. Struggle as she might, the weasel could not have run a single step.

"So you'd frighten my hens and take their eggs, would you now?" Yubaba demanded, her voice rising to a level that drowned out even the bees. "And you'd thieve from my garden and steal from my bees - why, you impudent creature!"

"Mercy," cried the weasel. "Have mercy on me, great witch, I only stole for the sake of my family."

"So there's more where you came from, are there? I'll show you mercy, weasel," Yubaba said, swelling in her fury to two, three, four times her usual size. "Oh, I'll show you-"

"Oh great and mighty Yubaba," the weasel begged, clasping her paws together and bowing her head. "Please let me work for you to repay my debt. I promise to serve in your house faithfully, if only you would spare my family!"

Then of course, storm and rage and screech as she might, there was nothing Yubaba could do, for she had made a vow long ago that she could not refuse work to any who asked. So the weasel signed a contract, agreeing to give up her name and serve Yubaba for a period of seven years and seven days. In this way the weasel was able to save herself and provide for her family, and the sorceress in turn gained a faithful, clever servant.

If you were to ask the sorceress about this story (and you would be very brave to do so), she would doubtless grumble that thieves ought not to be rewarded.

But the weasel, if you asked her, would say only that it showed boldness was required when poking one's nose out of doors.

 


 

"Then what happened?" Ki says, forgetting for a moment that the tale she's hearing is true.

"Well, my contract's nearly up, so ask me again when it's over," Lin says drily, starting to put the dishes away. "So that's my story. What about you?"

"Well, that's simple, it started when I-" Ki stopped abruptly. She tried again and said, "It happened when I-" Again the words died in her mouth. She searched her memory frantically and to her consternation found that she could not recall how or why she had come to beg Yubaba for work only a few hours before.

"Let me guess, you can't remember?" Lin says understandingly. She shakes her head. "I've seen this happen before. Never mind, it will come back to you. Now, time for bed. Sleep well; you'll need the rest."

Lin's right. The house is already up in arms with the imminent arrival of Yubaba's new apprentice; and as the lowest of the servants, Ki is assigned only the roughest, dirtiest jobs in the house. She scrubs out cauldrons and washes floors and darns clothes and hauls water and shovels coals from the moment she wakes until the end of the day, when she collapses on the pallet next to Lin's and sleeps like a bear in winter.

"You snore like one too," Lin says grumpily, but she saves Ki's breakfast all the same.

One of the few tasks Ki looks forward to is feeding the susuwatari - soot sprites - in the boiler room. She likes their little chittering voices and the way they'll dash for the pink candies first on one day, then the yellow ones on another.

While the soot sprites are eating, Kamajii takes a break too. He'll cease grinding herbs at the yagen to wolf down his own meal of tempura and rice, and sometimes if he feels particularly generous he'll tell them all a story.

The gruff old man has many of these, having been at the bathhouse longer than any except perhaps Yubaba herself. The soot sprites gather at her feet and munch at their candies, and Ki draws her knees up to her chin, as they listen to him tell tales of a long ago time, or a far away place.

 


 
The Twins' Quarrel

Once there was a very great witch, who hatched and raised twin daughters. These daughters themselves grew up to be sorcesses and famous in their own right - in fact, you have met one of them already.

Although the sisters appeared to be exactly alike, Yubaba and Zeniba's hearts were very different. A tale that made one laugh would drive the other to anger. One adorned her hands with only the finest of gems while the other loved to spin thread until her fingers cracked. As her skill and fame grew, Yubaba surrounded herself with luxury and was waited on by many attendants. Zeniba, meanwhile, baked her own cakes and swept her own floors. So you may guess for yourself how these sisters regarded one another.

One day the old witch died. She had gathered some strange and wonderful items in her long long life, and the twins weren't slow about divvying up their mother's treasures.

"I'll have the scissors," Zeniba said, putting them into her apron pocket. A piece of paper or bolt of cloth cut by those scissors will hold an enchantment or even come to life. Though Zeniba may rarely stir from her home, it's said she has an army of paper dolls that are her eyes and ears in many distant places.

"Well, I'll take the cloak," Yubaba said promptly, casting it about her shoulders. The cloak has the power to transform its wearer into a bird and Yubaba uses it to this day to spy on her enemies and travel the span of the land.

Most of the spoils were divided in this way without much fuss - a yagen, a silver comb, a carved peach stone, and so on - but their mother's golden seal caused the sisters some grief. Although the seal had no magical properties in itself, it was precious because it bore the name of their family and as we all know names are a very valuable currency indeed.

"Of course the seal is mine," Zeniba said, reaching out her hand, "just as our mother promised me."

"Not at all, sweet sister," Yubaba said, smiling through gritted teeth as she too stretched out her hand, narrowly beating her twin to the punch. "I'm sure I heard her promise the seal to me."

"Indeed, my dear, she said no such thing," Zeniba said with a smile stretched tight to match, and snatched the seal right back.

"But I'm the oldest!" Yubaba snapped, lunging forward with her claws outstretched. "So by rights the seal is mine!"

It's bad enough when siblings fight, but when they are sorceresses to boot... well, at least everyone in the house knew enough to run for shelter at the warning signs.

The twins' quarrel reduced their childhood home to a wreck. Pine trees sprouted where Yubaba threw a broom down on the tatami. A river gushed through the doorway where Zeniba tipped out a jug of water. Lightning bolts crackled from their hair and fingers, leaving the shoji walls entirely scorched and shredded.

The battle was decided when Zeniba snatched up a handful of soot and threw it in her sister's face. As Yubaba screeched and coughed and staggered about the room, it was easy for Zeniba to slip the seal into her pocket and flee. By the time Yubaba recovered, she had already flown far beyond her sister's reach.

Since then the twins have rarely spoken, and never civilly, for Yubaba cannot forget that she was bested by her sister. Indeed if she did, I'm sure Zeniba would be the first to remind her.

 


 

"Yubaba's never been too fond of soot sprites since then either," Kamajii observes, stroking his chin. "She thinks they're lazy," he adds, with a significant glare that sends the soot sprites scurrying to the coal pile. Mealtime is over.

"What happened to the seal?" Ki says, reluctantly getting to her feet and starting to gather up Kamajii's dirtied plates. "Did Zeniba manage to keep it?"

"Oh yes," he says, "though Yubaba still tries to steal it back from time to time. In fact, when the dragon was still here to do her dirty work, she almost succeeded!"

"There used to be a dragon here?" Ki says, frowning slightly. Something sparks in her memory, as though she's forgotten something important. She looks up at Kamajii, hopeful that he'll continue, but he's already too intent on his work to give her more than a brief wave with one of his six hands.

It's Lin who confirms the tale, as they labour in the laundry room on the morning of the new apprentice's arrival. "That dragon was a tricky one," Lin says, stirring the washtub with enough vigour to send suds slopping over the sides. "Too smart for his own good."

"What was his name again?" Ki says, stirring her own tub with somewhat less force.

"Haku," Lin says absently, before her eyes narrow and she gives Ki a close stare. "Why are you so curious about the dragon all of a sudden? What's he got to do with you?"

"Haku." The name rings in her mind, like a bell being struck. Ki's hands slow and come to a complete stop. She repeats the name again and thinks suddenly of a snow-capped mountain, a boat moored to a riverbank, a tree with its branches bent over moving water...

 


 
The Fox and the Maple Tree

In a place far from here, there once lived a wild fox maiden. She lived on a mountain and loved all the trees and flowers and beasts as though they were her brothers and sisters. For many years she was as happy as can be.

However, this happy time was not to last. For the fox maiden had been promised as an apprentice to the great sorceress Yubaba and it was decided that her training should begin when she reached a certain age. The girl wept and protested, for nothing could be further from her wishes than to be separated from the home she held dear and sent into the care of one such as Yubaba. But the contract had been agreed upon many years ago and so within a day of being told the news, the fox maiden began the long journey to Yubaba's home.

As the news of the fox maiden's departure spread, the trees all rattled their branches, the flowers wilted, and the beasts of the mountain lifted their noses up to the moon and howled.

Saddest of all was a maple tree that grew by the banks of the river. The maiden of the maple tree, who had been planted by the fox maiden herself, missed her friend dearly and sat down on the riverbank to weep.

"What's wrong, little maple?" said a kind voice, interrupting her tears. "Why are you crying? Why are all the trees so sad tonight?"

The maple tree maiden looked up to see a young man sitting beside her on the riverbank. He said his name was Haku and that he was on a journey down the river. He seemed so kind that she found herself spilling out the whole story.

At the name 'Yubaba' the youth's expression darkened. When she finished her tale he was silent and thoughtful for some time. "It is no easy thing to be Yubaba's apprentice," he said at last, confirming her worst fears. "She can be a thoughtless mistress, even to those who enter her service willingly."

"If only I could help her!" cried the maiden. "If only I could be by her side in Yubaba's house, and free her from the contract, and bring her back home to our mountain." Another tear dropped from her eyes into the river's clear waters, for the task seemed impossible.

"Little tree, do you truly wish to free your friend?" Haku said gravely. "Even if it means entering into the service of Yubaba yourself? Even if it means, should you fail, that you may never return to your mountain again?"

"I do!" said the maple tree maiden bravely.

"Then listen carefully," Haku said, and he told her what she needed to do.

He made her repeat the instructions back to him three times over and warned her that even then, she might struggle to recall her task after Yubaba had taken her name. "But you must remember," he said, "you must remember why you are there and for what purpose, or else all is lost. And above all, you must remember-"

"-her name," she finished with a sharp nod. "I will, Haku," she promised, and bowed deeply to thank him for his help.

So that she would arrive at Yubaba's house as swiftly as possible, Haku put her in a coracle that was moored to the side of the riverbank. "This coracle will carry you straight to Yubaba's house," he said, and then pushed it out into the middle of the current. "Farewell, and good luck!"

The maiden of the maple tree waved to Haku until he disappeared from sight. Then she settled down in the little coracle, repeating the instructions to herself over and over so that she would not forget, until the stars had faded and the sun had dawned and she found herself in a place far, far from home.

 


 
"I remember now," Ki says slowly. "I remember her name!"

"Her name?" Lin says, frowning. "What are you talking about?"

At that moment a foreman rushes into the laundry. "Attention, everyone - the new apprentice has arrived and Yubaba wants all of us on hand to greet her, so make yourselves ready! Quickly now!"

The new apprentice is a young fox maiden, and Lin joins in clapping and bowing to her with the rest of the bathhouse attendants. In all the excitement an over-eager frog trips down the stairs with an undignified yelp, causing Yubaba to scowl but the fox maiden to smile. Immediately everyone sighs over how lovely the new apprentice is, and how different she will be from stern Haku.

Still, Lin can't help noticing that the fox maiden's eyes remain sad even through all her smiles and graces. She turns to ask Ki if she agrees, and is surprised to find her young friend gone. She doesn't see Ki for the rest of the day, which would worry her more if she wasn't so busy with preparations for the welcome feast. Doubtless Ki's busy on some task and Lin will see her at bedtime.

But that night the pallet next to Lin's lies empty. Fret though she might, Lin is too tired to stay awake for long and she falls quickly into deep, exhausted sleep.

The next morning Lin wakes to find the whole house in a frenzy. People are running back and forth, and from downstairs there's the sound of Yubaba flying into a rage and crockery being smashed, while the slugs and the frogs all seem to be raising their voices at once. Something momentous has happened in the night, it seems.

All of this Lin ignores, for Ki's pallet is still empty and there is a piece of paper sitting next to her pillow. With a heavy heart, she unfolds the paper and reads.

The paper contains a farewell, as she suspected, but also a story. Lin's eyes widen as she reads of the fox and the maple tree, who gave back one another's names and set each other free from Yubaba's contracts. She realises then what all the fuss downstairs must be about.

Promise that you'll visit us as soon as you can, Lin, wrote the maple tree maiden. We'll be waiting on the mountain, by the river.

Lin reads the note three times over and by the third reading finds herself chuckling. "A bold one you are," she says to herself, "to be outwitting the sorceress herself! And I'm not surprised Haku helped you - that boy was always one for trouble."

At last Lin folds the note neatly and puts it under her pillow. She's glad for them, and since her seven years are nearly up she'll be seeing them again soon.

Then she gets out of bed and starts to get dressed, ready for another day in Yubaba's bathhouse.