In the time that the old books called shimotsuki, the month of frost, it seemed to Tanyuu that there was no color left in all the world. White pages, black ink. White snow, black earth. White sky, black branches. White foot, black foot. When Ginko arrived as unexpectedly as he always did, trudging through the heaped-up snow and trailing streamers of smoke and condensing breath, his eyes were hidden under a fall of ice-crusted hair and his clothes were wet and black.
Tama grumbled over the extra work when Tanyuu prodded her to dig up the vegetables they had preserved under layers of dirt and snow, and hardly seemed pacified when Ginko helped. But she cooked a fine nabemono for the three of them. Ginko and Tama ate with great appetite, but Tanyuu only sipped at the broth and nibbled on the winter vegetables and shreds of wild boar meat. It was hard to work up an appetite when her crutches were unsteady in the ice and snow, and the biting air made her reluctant even to get out of bed. All she wanted to do was huddle in a blanket with her feet under a hot kotatsu and a cup of hot tea in her hands, and wait for the season to change.
When she and Ginko were settled with kotatsu, blanket, and tea, and Tama had gone off to her own fleecy nest, Tanyuu cupped her hands around her earthenware mug and looked at Ginko expectantly.
“What sort of story would you like to hear tonight?” he asked.
“Oh, anything,” said Tanyuu.
“Last month I found a mushi that’s born in the ice atop frozen ponds, and dies in the spring thaw.”
She frowned. “Maybe not that.”
“A traveling mushishi told me how to drive away the mushi fuyugomori. Once it infests a house, it lowers the temperature until no human can live there.”
“I could tell you about the mushi setsuzou,” offered Ginko. “It feeds on body heat, and eventually turns people into living statues of ice.”
“I know it’s hard to think about anything but cold.” Tanyuu pushed her feet closer to the heat source beneath the table. Her cursed leg could not distinguish fire from ice, but it ached beneath its charcoal surface. “But do you have any stories about fire mushi, or heat mushi, or summer mushi?”
“Summer mushi,” repeated Ginko thoughtfully. A curl of smoke wafted across her face, sharp-smelling as crushed new herbs and warmed from his mouth. “I do.”
He settled the blanket around his shoulders, and began.
“I was called to a village by a man who wanted me to see his wife. He didn’t describe her condition, but only wrote that it was so bizarre that I wouldn’t believe it until I saw it with my own two eyes. He must not have dealt with mushishi before, or he would have known how little seems strange to us. Or maybe it’s that we see the strangeness in everything, so we have as little trouble believing in a stalk of bamboo that becomes a snake as we do in a baby emerging from a woman’s body.
I got his letter near the end of summer, in a forest where the cicadas sang so loudly that I had to shout to be heard. I meant to get there sooner, but I had a few little troubles along the way—“
Tanyuu began to giggle. “What do you call ‘little troubles?’ Being swallowed up by a mud-mushi? Hibernating all winter?”
“Nothing like that,” replied Ginko. “Well. Maybe I shouldn’t share sake with the next half-human mushi who offers me some in a cup of green bamboo. I’ll tell you about that tomorrow night. But between this and that, snow was falling by the time I reached that village. And when I asked the innkeeper where Haru’s house was, she told me that I was too late. His wife had just died.”
“Oh,” said Tanyuu. The room felt colder than ever. “I should have said, ‘A happy summer mushi story.’”
Ginko did not offer to tell another story. He continued, “I went to his house anyway. Even if I couldn’t help his wife, sometimes people are comforted by learning what had happened and why— and sometimes by knowing there was nothing anyone could have done.
The old man, Haru, greeted me at the door. His hair was white as mine, and his eyes were red and swollen. I apologized for coming too late, but he wasn’t angry.
‘I doubt there was anything you could have done,’ Haru said. ‘I’m sure no one’s heard of such a thing ever happening, so how could there be a cure?’
He invited me inside. To get to his home, you had to walk through his shop. It was full of sturdy blankets and fine yukata, all beautifully dyed and woven. A wooden loom operated by foot and hand stood in the center of the shop.
‘I weave the cloth, and Yayoi dyes— dyed— and sewed it,” he explained. “See that muddy reddish-orange blanket? That’s my work, from the one time I gave her job a try. When Yayoi crushed the same berries to make the dye, it came out red as blood.’
Inside the home, he gave me a cup of hot barley tea. I drank it as he told me what had happened.
‘Yayoi and I lived and worked together for fifty years,’ he said. ‘We’re the same age— even born in the same month— and we used to joke that we had the same number of hairs going white every day. But last spring her hair began to turn black again. I thought she was dying it. I told her to either stop or share it with me. I didn’t like having her hair black while mine was still white. But she insisted that it was happening naturally.
All that spring, her white hair fell out and black hair grew in. Every day, her wrinkles filled in, her skin smoothed out, and her body became plump and strong. We didn’t know what was happening, but we couldn’t deny it: Yayoi was becoming young again. By the time the irises bloomed, she was a beautiful woman of thirty, and I was still an old man.
But as summer ended, she started finding her black hair scattered on her pillow. White hair grew to take its place. She lost weight and her wrinkles came back. It seemed as if whatever had happened was ending as quickly as it had begun. We were both relieved. Everyone old sometimes wishes they were young again. But it frightened us to not know why or how or what the price might be. And to have her young and me old made us both feel as if she had gone on a journey and I couldn’t follow.
By the time the ginkgo leaves turned gold, Yayoi seemed the same age she had been when it all began. But it didn’t stop there. She got older and older, until her back bent and her eyes clouded over, until she was older than her own mother… She died with the first snowfall.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
Haru took my cup of tea and busied himself refilling it, though I’d hardly taken a sip. His voice was muffled, and he kept his back to me.
‘Well, young man?’ he asked. ‘Do you know what killed my wife?’
‘I have an idea,’ I said. “Can you show me where she made her dyes?”
Haru led me to a shed behind the house. The scents of berries and fruits, grasses and herbs, roots and vegetable skins and lye were present but faint. The vats were stained and empty, but a number of tightly covered barrels still lined the walls. Most of the barrels were neatly labeled with colors, like ‘Palest blue-green’ and ‘Bright crimson.’ A few had no notation for color, but only a list of plants and their proportions in the dye. One barrel’s label read only ‘Soaked and fermented leaves’ and a drawing of an unnamed shrub with pinnate leaves and branched clusters of flowers.
I pointed to the drawing. ‘Do you know what that is?’
The old man peered at it. ‘Some new plant Yayoi found last year. She was always experimenting with different roots and leaves and combinations.’
I carefully opened the barrel and peered into the opalescent liquid inside. A thousand tiny shapeless mushi shimmered on its surface, combining and separating in an endless cycle. I closed the lid.
‘There’s mushi in the dye,’ I said. ‘They can probably be absorbed through the skin. I’ve never heard of them or that plant before, but I’d guess they caused your wife’s condition. I think the mushi that lived in the plant and were transferred into the dye are tightly connected to the seasons, and when they infected your wife, she became connected to them as well. But…’
I hesitated. The theory I was turning over in my mind might only cause the old man even more grief. ‘When did she die?’
‘Yesterday night,’ he replied. ‘The funeral is tomorrow.’
‘May I see her?’ I asked.
Haru gave me a sharp look, but led me to the room where she lay. The withered body of the old woman was covered with the same mushi I had seen in the barrel of dye. I had to watch for a while to be able to tell, but they were still moving.
I hated to give her husband hope that might be false. But if I didn’t, he would cremate her the next day.
I made him sit down before I told him that she might not be dead.
‘It depends on whether the plant the mushi came from is an annual or a perennial,’ I explained. ‘If it’s a perennial, she might come to life in the spring, when the plant blooms again. If her body seems unaffected by time, hold off on cremation until the change of seasons.’
I had expected him to argue or weep, but a determined light replaced the blank glaze of despair in his eyes. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I’ll wait for spring thaw.’
I did some research after I left the village, but I couldn’t find any information on the mushi or the plant it belonged to, much less a cure. I had meant to return to the village in the spring, but this and that delayed me, and it was high summer by the time I once more knocked on Haru’s door.
A handsome man in his thirties greeted me. His black-haired wife stood behind him. If it wasn’t for the mushi that shimmered beneath their clothes and skin, I might not have recognized them as Haru and Yayoi, whom I had last seen as a grief-stricken old man and the shrunken corpse of an old woman.
They took me inside and offered me cold barley tea. I checked it for mushi before I drank. The couple seemed perfectly happy, but I didn’t want to be old in autumn and mostly dead in winter, even if I meant that I would be young in spring and in the prime of life in summer.
‘I couldn’t let her go through those changes alone,’ explained Haru. ‘So after she woke up a young woman again, I put my own hands in that barrel of dye.’
‘What will happen to us?’ asked Yayoi. ‘Will we live forever?’
‘I don’t know,’ I confessed. ‘I’m curious myself. Maybe you’ll live as long as you would if this had never happened. Maybe you’ll live as long as those shrubs normally do. I don’t think anything lives forever… but I’ve never seen anything like this before. May I visit you every year?’
Haru nodded, and Yayoi smiled at me.
‘Come in summer,’ she said. ‘It’s recently become my favorite season.’
It’s been five summers now. Every time I’ve visited them, they’ve both been young, and the mushi-shrub they planted in their garden has been in bloom. I named it tanensou: perennial.”
A stalactite of ice crashed down from the eaves outside. Ginko pushed his hair back from his one real eye, giving Tanyuu a glimpse of green like the first shoot of spring, and took another sip of tea.
“Two months of winter to go,” said Tanyuu. But she felt warmer already.