You were ten when you first moved to the countryside, tracing a road that wound from angry silence to sullen acceptance, from farewell parties to an abandoned amusement park to a blue house on the hill. In the end, you discovered that you had lost three days along the way, exchanged for a shiny purple hairband and the knowledge that moving to a new place was perhaps not the worst thing in the world.
Although they too did not know where those days might be, your parents soon forgot and moved on, for what are three days to those who have lived so many? You could not forget so easily, though the whirlwind of new classes and new friends soon pushed them to the back of your mind. And there they remained, waiting to be brought back again and again by the strange reactions you now had to the most commonplace of things.
Why could you no longer abide the sight of pork, when you once ate it without complaint? Why did you stare so at the frogs in the pond, as if expecting them to speak? Why could you hear the wind and the rain whispering to you, softly and gently, as if to an old friend? Why did you feel such a sense of nostalgia and loss, whenever you saw that purple hairband glinting in the sun? And why did the world never seem as bright, vivid, and magical as you somehow expected it to be?
Those questions built up, a thousand contradictions swarming in your head, until you had no choice but to write them out. They soon accumulated, filling notebook after notebook with small stories, drawings, and dreams. And since you yearned for answers, you shared those notebooks with anyone who might point the way. Your parents took a passing interest, but mainly admonished you to not forget your schoolwork. Your friends devoured them, declaring your stories better than any manga they’d ever read. But you resented the comparison to those artificial worlds, for you knew that your stories were real. They were truthful, and you could prove it, if only you could remember.
Only your neighbor Mrs. Nakamura seemed to understand. A retired teacher and a widow, she spent her days caring for the shrines at the bottom of the hill. Many in the neighborhood called her wise, though she never claimed that name. It was she who first pointed out that a great many of your stories seemed to be rooted in folklore, and it was she who explained that the wind and the water were both the domain of dragons.
She even came with you, one summer afternoon just like that very one when the three of you had gotten lost, to visit that abandoned amusement park beyond the hill. And she comforted you when you trudged back dejectedly, hot and tired, having found nothing but wind, grass, and faded buildings. She asked what you were expecting to see, but you couldn’t say. Just a hunch, maybe, and nothing more. Something from those lost days always seemed to tug on you, like some long-forgotten promise that you had always meant to keep.
“Perhaps that was when you found your home?” she suggested. “No, not where you currently live. Your true home is much more than that. It is where your roots are, the place that keeps you grounded so that you will never feel lost or adrift, for you keep some piece of yourself there always. Many young people your age feel lost or aimless, because they have not yet found that place. But you may have already found that place during those lost days, for why else would they call to you so strongly?”
“So it is a place that I must find?”
“For some, it is indeed a place. For others, it is a cause. And for still others, it is a person. Follow your intuition, Chihiro. You have so far relied on it to tell you what feels wrong. Now rely on it to find what feels right.”
“Do you really think I’ll find it again?”
“Of course.” She smiled. “Nothing that happens is ever forgotten, even if you can’t remember it.”
You took that advice to heart, realizing that you could not understand the source of your stories if you did not first understand yourself.
With your schoolbooks, you filled your mind with knowledge, trying to find the one subject that captured your imagination above all others. Math was too exact, and science too sterile. Numbers, figures, and equations simply slipped from your mind, too abstract for you to grasp. History you found more appealing, for you loved old things and the aura they had about them, of grace and beauty so often lost in your modern world. But it was literature that became your favorite subject as you learned more about words, the power they held, and the writers who spent entire lifetimes honing their craft, so that they might use them wisely, properly, and reverently.
Entering junior high and high school, you joined club after club, trying to find the activity that seemed to resonate the deepest. The art club took you on after seeing your drawings, but you soon left after discovering that just imagination was not enough. You needed good form and attention to detail as well. You had always loved to swim, and even though you were not nearly the fastest on the team, it still felt in some way like flying. In the end, it was the service clubs that drew you in the most, be it the community-based clubs that visited the elderly or the environmental clubs that cleaned roads and rivers. It was there that you learned about and cultivated your gift for kindness, empathy, and humility. And it was there that you learned that the surest way to your own happiness was helping others achieve the same.
And then you were seventeen, still without a full understanding of who you were, but with a good idea of the sort of person that you would like to be. With the time to choose a profession upon you, you thought of all this and remembered Mrs. Nakamura, who had passed away just last winter. And you decided to become a teacher.
You loved teaching from the start. It felt right, like what you were born to do. University and training seemed to breeze by like a dream, and suddenly you were twenty-three, standing in front of a classroom on your own for the first time. This was no longer practical training, you thought, heart hammering, as you looked over the class of elementary students and their sullen faces. Late summer sunlight filtered in through the windows and into the glazed-over eyes of your students, who were clearly there only in body but not spirit. You smiled then despite your nervousness, remembering yourself at that age, and your own spirits lifted as you saw a few students smile back. It was not much, but it was enough. “Good morning, class,” you said in a clear, strong voice.
“Good morning, Ogino-sensei,” they replied.
That first teaching post soon brought you both joy and distress as you made both friends and mistakes, learning to be not just a teacher but a counselor and mentor as well. It was a demanding job and one that left you feeling exhausted each day, both physically and emotionally. But the reward was more than worth the price, as you constantly reminded yourself, watching your students learn and grow. Then when you finally felt settled and confident in your position, a new assignment came down and it was time to move.
And so it was. You moved from assignment to assignment, never staying more than a few years at each. You grew to love a job that was more than just a job to you, for it demanded all that you had to give and more. Soon you were forty, teaching literature in junior high, and dissatisfied with the books available for your students to read. Those old notebooks full of impossible things now seemed, more than anything else, your personal piece of a rich collective memory of folklore and myths. Fed up with seeing that memory slowly vanish from the minds of each successive class, you picked up your pen to share your piece before it too could disappear.
The years passed, far too quickly. In the blink of an eye, you were sixty, a nationally recognized teacher and children's author, and given the choice of where to take your last assignment. You looked at the list of available postings, and saw one that caught your eye. It was your mother's old hometown and where you had once visited as a child, though you had few memories of the place. Your intuition seemed to tell you to pick that one, and so you did, for it had not failed you yet.
The town was a great deal smaller than you expected, situated on the lower slopes of a green mountain, not far from the sea. You could see the remains of a factory nearby and plenty of abandoned buildings, but almost no sign of anyone not very old or very young. This was once a factory town, you learned, and once the factory moved, it took with it all the jobs. “Was there not once a river here?” you asked, and only the very elderly seemed to remember. They had drained it when the factory first moved here, to make way for housing and parks. If it still existed somewhere near its source, up in the mountain, they did not know.
You felt indescribably sad and borrowed an old map, searching your memories for the town that it was. You could only call up images of a fast, rushing river that did not swallow you up when you once fell in, but instead pushed you to shallower water. Other childhood memories surfaced at the same time, of your lost days, Mrs. Nakamura, and something she had once said about dragons. You traced the sinewy line of the old river, as it coursed from mountain to sea, and seemed to see a dragon in flight.
“Hello again, old friend,” you said, and it felt just right.
An idea began to form in your mind, and you wrote to former students who were now professors of ecology and civil engineering at nearby universities, asking if they would come and study if the river could be restored. Only one responded, but she arrived in force, with a team of students who spent spent the next month surveying the area. In the end, she told you that although it would be possible, too much time had passed and it was now a major project, the likes of which they had never attempted. Funding would be a problem, as would government support.
You then took up that idea with the town council, asking if it would not be wise to revitalize this town by restoring the old river. They were not very difficult to convince, but the prefectural government balked at the cost. Undaunted, you helped set up a local organization dedicated to the restoration of the river, and began donating all the proceeds of your books there. You wrote to local newspapers and magazines, using the power of your words to convince their readers that the land was where their roots were. The national media soon picked up the story, due to your fame, and more donations came in from readers, admirers, and former students who treasured you still.
Your assignment in this town was over when the project was finally approved, but you stayed, happy to have finally found your home. It was in the land, which had given you both life and wisdom and to which it was only right to give back. And when the Kohaku River flowed again, there was still more work to do, to rebuild the town and make it prosperous again.
On Tanabata of your eightieth year, you climbed to the roof of your home on the slopes of the mountain, far above the lights of the now bustling resort town that had sprung up on the banks of the river below. You laid there, gazing at the stars while mist rose from the river, blurring where it ended and the heavenly one began. You fell asleep, dreaming of dancing soot balls, a train skimming across an ocean of water, a red bathhouse, and a white dragon. And then at dawn, you whispered my name while I called you by yours.
You are a spirit now, neither young nor old, but you feel young, so very young. You laugh and cry in turn, and demand to see all your old friends. “Are they still there?” you ask. “Does Kamajii still tend the boilers and Rin sweep the floors?”
Yes, I reply. We will visit the bathhouse and many more places besides, but this is where we must always return, for you are now as much the spirit of the town as I am of the river. Can you see the shrine they will build you, by the home where you once lived? Can you hear the wishes of the children for good grades, and their mothers' for their safety? Your road that wound from the spirit world to the real world and back again has ended, but this one is about to begin.