When the river spirit flew out of the bathhouse, he left behind more than gold and the mysterious ball he'd pressed into Chihiro's hands.
"There's no justice, having to clean this room a second time," Lin said, tossing one last beer can into the wheelbarrow she'd heaped with bottles and food tins. "It won't be me hauling that refrigerator away, I can tell you that." Lin had been in a bad mood ever since she'd been forced to turn over the gold she'd scooped up -- and since she'd been in the middle of everything almost from the start, it had been a lot. Chihiro had seen how it weighed down her pockets as she dug out the shining nuggets and threw them into the barrel the foreman held.
Gritting her teeth with effort, Chihiro tugged the last corner of the old plastic tarp she'd had her eye on out from beneath a rusted-out oil barrel. Since nobody had lent a wheelbarrow to her, she figured she'd better make do. "At least we have help this time."
"Sure, now they help."
Her treasure in hand, Chihiro turned and almost bumped into a particularly frog-like worker, who blinked yellow eyes at her in dislike and went back to pawing -- carefully -- through a tangle of snack packaging and fishing gear in search of gold that might have escaped Yubaba's keen eye.
Somewhere in the bathhouse, a gong rang out. A dozen froggy heads popped up.
"Break time, everyone!" the foreman said, strolling past the doorway. "Lady Yubaba's best sake, coming right up!" As the frogs and Lin made for the door, the foreman's eye settled on Chihiro, and he frowned. "Not you, Sen, you're too young. We'll have hot pot ready in half an hour or so, though. Good work, boys!" He bowed toward the workers as they filtered out, but Lin lingered a moment.
"Don't feel bad, Sen -- you don't want to be around those guys when they're full of sake, anyway. I'll see you in a while, okay?" And she was gone.
Chihiro sighed and glared around at the piles of garbage. Even though the frogs had already hauled away many of the things she never could have hoped to lift, like the metal beams that Yubaba wanted to have melted down for building materials, it was hard to know where to start. Plastic bags full of kitchen trash were at least pretty portable, so she grabbed two of the largest she could find. Naturally, one of them burst as she squeezed through the doorway. Squinching her nose shut against the new barrage of stench, she whirled around frantically looking for her tarp, then stopped. The floor beneath her was almost dry, so what was that splashing sound? She squinted around the room, half-expecting that strange masked spirit to appear in the corner again. There was no movement, but Chihiro could still hear it -- splish, splish.
It was only on her third trip out to the rubbish heap, as she dragged a tire past a broken toilet, that Chihiro realized where the noise was coming from. Letting the tire thump to the floor, she backtracked and peered into the porcelain bowl.
It was like the river spirit had left a piece of himself behind. Despite the toilet's dirt-encrusted exterior, the water inside was shining and clear, and a flurry of silver minnows ruffled the surface as they schooled around the basin. Chihiro crouched down for a closer look, and they raced even faster, sloshing water over the edge. Then another movement caught her eye.
Down in the hole at the bottom of the bowl lurked an armored predator. The thorny-looking water beetle must have been at least five centimeters long -- longer and much wider than any of the tiny fish. Chihiro supposed it would wait until one of them got just a little too close, a little too careless, and then…
There was so much water outside the bathhouse right now that the minnows would be sure to have a happy life if she set them free. She didn't feel right leaving the bug behind, but he'd have to go separately. She looked around for something she could carry them in.
Boots thumped down the hall, and one of the supervisors stuck his head inside the room. Chihiro scrambled to her feet and bowed. "Oh, thank goodness," he said, his anxious face relaxing, "someone who's not drunk."
"Listen, Sen," he said, pacing back and forth. "Since we had to send everyone back to their rooms when the sti-- er, river spirit came, we're giving the guests free food, and someone forgot to bring the radish spirit his. Can you do it? He doesn't usually buy refreshments, but he's getting pretty grumpy being stuck in his room and all, and he's always been such a good customer that..."
"Uh, sure!" she said, her mind returning to the minnows, and also, with a sudden pang, to the prospect of lunch. The savory smell of hot pot was beginning to cut through the reek of garbage, and the radish spirit was intimidating enough when he wasn't grumpy. "What do I need to do?"
* * * * * * * *
Chihiro padded down the fourth-floor hallway, tray in hand. The guest quarters weren't nearly so gaudy as Yubaba's chambers, just wooden framework and plain white paper. She stopped in front of the third door on the right as the supervisor had told her.
"I have your tea," she said, bowing in case the spirit could see her silhouette through the paper screen. "Is it okay if I come in?" That drew a grunt from somewhere behind the door; it might have been a yes. Carefully balancing the edge of the tray between her chin and her chest, Chihiro slid the door aside.
The radish spirit slouched on a tatami chair before a low table, pudgy legs almost crossed. Combined with the rootlike protuberances on his face, the position made him look particularly walruslike. She laid the tray on the table and poured him a fragrant cupful of tea, but he only grunted. Well, from what the supervisor had said, he had been waiting a long time. Chihiro bowed deeply before turning to go.
As she reached the door, something, possibly a sound, made her turn around. The radish spirit had picked up the cup and was looking at it glumly. She realized that his arms were so short he couldn't raise the tiny glass to his mouth, or where she assumed his mouth was. Maybe he didn't have a mouth. He was a radish, after all.
"Um, sir -- have you ever had tea here before?" she asked, thinking of what the supervisor had said. The radish spirit shook his head from side to side, then drew a deep breath and tossed the steaming tea toward his face. Chihiro cried out, but while the tea dripped forlornly down the tusklike protrusions, the spirit didn't seem bothered by the temperature.
Actually, there seemed to be a lot less tea dripping into his lap than had been in the cup.
She came closer and peered up at him. He looked down at her gravely. Each facial protrusion looked very much like the end of a large daikon, tiny rootlike tendrils and all. "Do you, maybe... drink through those things?"
His eyes going wide, the spirit nodded.
"I know! I could pour the tea into a bowl for you. Do you use that for eating?" she asked, pointing at the red bowl he wore atop his head, but he drew himself up, offended. "Er, okay. Don't worry, I'll be right back."
* * * * * * * *
"Mr. Supervisor, do you have any bowls I can use?" Chihiro asked. The frogman stood on a step stool, dipping hot pot out of a huge black kettle and into a small iron pot he held in the other hand. The aroma made Chihiro's stomach rumble.
"Didn't I tell you to serve tea to the radish spirit?" he snapped.
"This is for the radish spirit, sir, so he can drink his tea."
The supervisor sighed. "The bowls are on the shelves over there. Now move -- I have to make sure those guys don't start throwing dishes through the walls." He hopped down from the stool. "Oh, and when you're done with that, get him some hot pot as well."
Chihiro bit her lip -- at this rate she was never going to get lunch. As the supervisor pushed past her, she saw that what filled his pot was oden. "Wait -- aren't there radishes in that?"
"Should I really serve radishes to a radish?"
"You think too much. I have to get back to the others -- just do your job!" He rushed out of the room, muttering to himself. Chihiro sighed, squared her shoulders, and made her way over to the shelves on the kitchen's north wall.
It was easy to get herself serving utensils and a pot with a handle like the one the supervisor carried, but bowls posed more of a problem. The ones that were as wide and deep as she wanted were up near the top. She carried the stool over, but even standing on tiptoe didn't allow her to put so much as a finger over the rim of the blue ceramic bowl she had her eye on. A quick scan of her surroundings revealed a square crate almost as tall as she was that had recently held chickens, judging from the feathers that floated out between the slats as she dragged it across the floor. How much meat did they go through in this place, anyway? She remembered the platters her parents had eaten from, heaped with roast birds and ribs. It wasn't a comforting thought.
The crate was big enough that Chihiro needed the stool to reach the top, and that extra height in turn let her easily reach the bowl she wanted. While she was there, she chose an extra bowl of similar size -- this one white with pink flowers -- for serving the spirit his oden. When she turned around, though, she saw that somebody had taken her step stool away.
"Oh man," she muttered under her breath. After nesting the bowls and setting them down, she let herself slide as far over the edge of the crate as she dared before dropping to the floor. She stumbled as she landed, jogging the crate, but she survived and the bowls did too.
The culprit was a very short, drunken frog who had dragged the stool back over to the kettle of hot pot. A full pot dangled from one of his hands, but he was still using the other to gobble oden directly from the dipper.
"Excuse me, sir," Chihiro said, trying not to let the irritation seep into her voice. "Can I get some oden, too?"
"No way, kid." The frog lowered the dipper again. "Ah, right from the bowl -- there'sh nothing like it." He slurped loudly as he ate, and drops of broth pattered onto the floor.
Chihiro clutched the bowls against herself. She had to think of something, and fast. All that came to mind was --
"Hey, is that a spider on your back?"
"Sshhpider?!? Where?" The pot fell to the floor with a loud chonk, but Chihiro snatched it up by the handle before it could spill. "Hey, you tricked me!"
"Thank you!" She bowed in his general direction before running for the exit as fast as she could.
* * * * * * * *
As the elevator rose to the fourth floor, Chihiro regarded the steaming contents of the iron pot with anything but hunger. When she was younger and had refused to eat her vegetables, her mother would always tell her that the carrots would feel bad if they went to the trouble of growing up and she didn't eat them. She wondered if her mom would think about it the same way now that she and dad were pigs. Maybe it was better that they didn't remember being human. She thought of her last sight of them as they slept off their meal in the barn, and her stomach knotted.
What if the radish spirit considered the daikon in the soup to be creatures under his protection? As impassive as he seemed to be, Chihiro doubted he would be happy if she served him something he thought of as children. Maybe he would be sad. Maybe he would be angry. Maybe he would eat her instead.
The elevator slowed to a halt, and Chihiro sighed and trudged out into the hall.
Back in the radish spirit's room, the bowl she'd brought for the tea was a success. Sighing happily, he held the bowl of tea in his arms, facial roots submerged and soaking up the fragrant liquid with a sound almost like slurping while she spooned oden into the pink-and-white bowl. She half wished she'd had the nerve to scoop the chunks of radish out of the pot and eat them herself, but given what happened to her parents she wasn't sure she should eat anything at all here she wasn't expressly told to. Besides, he might still be able to taste it in the broth.
Amazingly, the tea was almost gone when Chihiro turned around, and she took a deep breath as the spirit accepted the oden with enthusiasm. To her mild surprise, he didn't dip his roots into the broth. Using the chopsticks with surprising dexterity, he popped a cube of tofu into what was, after all, a mouth that had been hiding entirely behind the roots on his face. Next a slice of fish cake disappeared, and then he picked up a chunk of daikon. Chihiro bit her lip.
Unlike the other pieces of food, this one caught the spirit's particular attention. He raised it to eye level and blinked at it suspiciously, then held it to his roots and sort of… snuffled. Chihiro started calculating how long it would take her to make it to the door. At least the radish spirit didn't look like he'd be able to get up very quickly.
He popped the chunk of radish into his mouth and chewed slowly, thoughtfully. His eyes went shut in what Chihiro slowly realized was an expression of undisguised bliss.
With renewed enthusiasm, he began poking through the soup for more pieces of daikon. He made small, gleeful sounds as he crunched and swallowed. Chihiro made him a slow bow, which the spirit returned.
Apparently the radishes had grown up to please him after all.
* * * * * * * *
Once she had made her way downstairs to the room where a few of the workers were still enjoying their sake, Chihiro was finally able to fetch a bowl of oden for herself. It was even still hot. She settled herself on a tatami chair near Lin, who was sipping one last cup.
"Hey, what kept you all this time?" she asked Chihiro curiously. She didn't sound all that drunk, but her words came a little slower than they normally did.
"It's a long story," Chihiro said and dug into her hot pot. It was as good as the radish spirit had seemed to find it, even if it was probably riddled with frog spit.
Happy and no longer hungry, Chihiro padded back down the hall toward the room where she and so many others had bathed the river spirit. When she got to the door, she was astonished to find the room almost empty compared to when she'd been there last. The refrigerator was still there on its side leaking sludge, and a couple more pieces of broken furniture lay haphazardly around the room, but all the smaller trash was gone. A single frog worker pushed a broom, sweeping up water and silt and goo.
Maybe the toilet had just been moved. Chihiro darted around the room in case she had missed it, in case it was hiding behind the refrigerator or the dresser. Nothing.
"Sir, have you seen the toilet that was in here before?" she asked him nervously.
He rolled his eyes. "If you need to go, you should use one that's hooked up."
"No, that's not it -- it was full of minnows."
Stopping for a moment, the worker wiped his brow. "As far as I know it went to the trash heap outside along with everything else."
Miserably, Chihiro trudged out of the room.
* * * * * * * *
As Chihiro and Lin pulled their bedding off the shelves later on, Chihiro glanced over at the older woman. She looked tired but relaxed, and hopefully open to conversation.
"Lin, I have to find a way to get my parents out of here. The spirits eat so much that..." The words wouldn't come out past the lump in her throat.
"Good luck, kid," Lin said, shaking out her blanket. "It's a lot easier to get into this place than out." Chihiro looked away, her chest tight. It suddenly occurred to her to wonder how Lin had ended up here. She wasn't like the other women in the bathhouse.
Lin turned, her expression cynical, but it softened when she caught sight of Chihiro's face. "Hey, you never know," Lin said a little more gently. "You sure made that river spirit happy today -- keep that up and maybe one spirit or another will help you and your parents."
Chihiro suddenly remembered the strange, soft ball the spirit had left her. A smile touched her lips.
"Maybe you're right," she said softly, and patted her pocket.