One - Droplet
“Hello, my name is Chihiro Ogino. I’m very pleased to meet you.” The new girl bowed formally to the class. She was of average height, and fairly ordinary looking, but there was an odd assurance in the way she spoke.
“Welcome, Chihiro-chan.” Sensei nodded. “What club were you planning to join? Perhaps sports, or languages?”
“Actually, I was thinking of starting nature club, if there isn’t one already.”
Sensei looked surprised “Nature? You mean like hiking or climbing mountains?”
“Perhaps more like environmental campaigning – trash clean-up and recycling.” Chihiro smiled, and her whole face lit up. “There’s also a river near here – the Kohaku River – which was channelled underground many years ago, and I thought we could petition the prefectural government to have it uncovered.”
Two – Ripple
From the day that Sen arrived, many things had been set in motion, such that even when she left, the world continued to change. Baby Boh was stronger and more independent, leaving the nursery on his own and wandering the grounds, the bouncing head brothers his constant companions. Aniyaku and the other servants, suitably chastened by their experience with No Face, came to focus on the happiness of their customers as much as on the money they earned. And Haku continued to serve as assistant to Yubaba, but now he did so by choice, on his own terms. Indeed, the witch herself seemed to have mellowed as a result of her experiences. Time moves strangely in the spirit world, but this flow seemed unstoppable.
Three – Stream
After the opening ceremony, everyone wandered off, aside from one high school girl, who remained on the pedestrian bridge, staring intently down into the water. As dusk fell, a young man approached, still wearing the kimono and hakama of his kendo or archery club.
“Haku – You’re here, I’m so glad! I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I knew that it was the right thing to do.”
“As always, you figured out the solution on your own – freeing the river meant that I can enter the mortal world again.”
“I’ve missed you! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you – sometimes I even thought it might have been a dream, everything that happened in Yubaba’s bathouse.”
“I promised we would see each other again. But it has been seven years. You’ve grown up.”
“You have too. You’re a lot taller than me now! And you look kind of stern – a little scary, maybe?”
“Surely you wouldn’t be frightened of me? You know I would never do anything to harm you.”
“I know that. And, I still have Zeniba’s gift, for protection.”
“You’re wearing it, I can see. You’ve become very beautiful, Chihiro.”
“I don’t think you’re seen enough mortal girls to judge, yet! Will I be able to see you more often?”
“Not very often – occasionally, on special, sacred days, but only for a little while.”
“Is that all?”
“Perhaps there is another way. But we will need to wait, until you are older and I am stronger.”
Four – Cascade
The source of the Kohaku River lies deep in the mountains. She could have driven most of the way there, but it seemed more appropriate to take a bus to the end of the line, and walk from there. In lieu of pilgrim robes, she wore a waterproof jacket and trousers with sensible boots, but it was a long and tiring journey, and she had been hiking several hours before she finally reached her destination. She could not tell at which precise point she entered the spirit world, but it gradually became clear that a barrier had been passed, and so it did not surprise her greatly to find, out in the middle of the wilderness, a small traditional inn on the shore of a great mountain lake.
The obasan at the inn was not familiar to her, but seemed to be expecting her arrival, and with few words, ushered her to a room where a bath had been prepared and a white kimono laid out. Once she’d removed her boots, and set down her rucksack, Chihiro checked her messages, but despite the fact that their environmental charity was a small one, her colleagues seemed happy enough to take care of things in her absence. She shut her phone with good conscience.
As she bathed and dressed in readiness for the ritual, she reflected that the sacrifice expected of her was oddly lessened by the effects of the modern world – it was far less uncommon now for a woman live alone and unmarried, and given the nature of her work and interests, few people would find it strange if she often went on long hikes and camping trips in the mountains. Haku’s trials had been and would continue to be far greater – but over the years, his power had increased enormously, and more so, his cunning in using it.
As night fell and the lanterns were lit, the old woman brought her a meal, prepared and displayed in beautiful lacquered boxes, along with a bottle of sake and three dishes. There was more than enough food for two people. Seeing this, Chihiro’s heat began to beat a bit faster, and she struggled to remain composed as she waited for the appointed hour. Finally, the wind began to rise, and a light patter of rain fell on the veranda. In minutes, the wind rose to a howl, and the rain to a crashing downpour, until it seemed a typhoon was about to descend on the old inn. Then, just as suddenly, all became quiet, and a sinuous shadow fell across the screen. The door slid open.
As soon as she returned downstairs to the kitchen, Zeniba shifted back her shape, and when the sacred wind rattled the shutters, she smiled in satisfaction. Her part in all of this had been small enough, but she would take great pride in telling Yubaba, when next they met, that for the first time in many generations, the river god had taken a bride.