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this is how a river becomes a dragon

The river was simply a river once, ages ago. But long before that, the river once was not, once was a swirl of gas slowly coalescing, then a molten core of lava, then earth and rock and veins of metal. Then came the rains and the run off from snow-capped mountains, and time, so much time, carved a course. That was the river.

The river had no name, for there was no need, and it remained thus for most of its existence as it wore away its curves and smoothed jagged rocks round. And then came people, and with them, language, and they called the river a river and thus separated it from the banks beside it, from the distant mountains and the nearby hills, and even from the ocean it ran into. They used hands and sticks and rock to wrest clay from its sides and shaped it into pots decorated with the twisted imprints of rope. They split its stream with spears and net for fish and crabs, and they used the earthenware that was once riverbank to take its waters. And as they did so, they spoke of what they did and what they would do in the days to come, words and hands alike molding the shape of the world.

They took from the river and gave it a name, and as the river took from them as well, lives lost to rushing water and unseen depths, they learned respect and reverence.

And so it went: the river accumulating names as tribes moved on and villages stayed, as people were born and grew old and died. The river cared not; what does a river care for men and what men may call it? It was enough to be aware.

And then one day, it was not enough, and the river was no longer a river, but a dragon, bright and beautiful, and he chose a name for himself.

Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi, he called himself as he first stretched the snaky length of his body in the waters, used his claws to catch fish, the currents of the river a pleasant flow through his new whiskers.

this is how the dragon becomes a boy

He was a young dragon, as dragons went, and a small dragon, having only command of a river, not a sea. But he was a dragon still, and he commanded respect from the tengu and the kappa, from kitsune and tanuki alike, and the yuki onna blanketed him in white snow come winters. He talked with the spirit of the mountain, who had not yet decided what form to take, and he laughed with the grumpy spirit in the shape of a young girl who brought the rain to swell his banks.

And the people continued to name him and to tell stories, tales of strange creatures with human heads and dull scales and bony fins, of cold snaking arms dragging beautiful young men beneath the water's surface, of fish with rainbow scales transforming into long-haired maidens in twelve layers of kimono if caught in a net. And they spoke not only of the creatures that lived in his depths, but also of the dragon himself—his small kindnesses and quick rages, his bounty one season and penury the next—and they spoke of how to please him. They were small stories, as he was a small dragon, and he was satisfied.

He could not say which day it was, which story prompted the initial dissatisfaction, but it remained with him like a grain of sand pressed under a scale, irritating and impossible to ignore. And he hungered for more stories, for tales of the four great dragon kings; of Amaterasu with her mirror, sword, and jewel; of red phoenix, blue dragon, white tiger, and black tortoise. His own small world proved small indeed. He had known, of course, of the sea, communed with her in the lazy delta where freshwater met salt, but he had not known that she too was dragon. It had not been necessary before; he had been content with the tanuki occasionally gathering on his banks to drum through the night, with the sly harmless jokes the kitsune would play, with the small shrines and offerings of the humans.

And then one day, heart filled with discontent, he left his river, his form a small white curl in the dark night sky, to find someone who would teach him to be great.

He wandered the earth, visiting oceans and straits and inland seas, before slipping sideways through the gap between story and world to find a bathhouse frequented by gods and spirits, and he sold his name and his labor to the crone who ran it. He was Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi no longer, and a dragon only sometimes, and he learned finally what it was to walk on two legs and use mouth and tongue to shape spells.

this is how the boy returns to dragon

And then she appeared for the second time, the girl whose name he knew, only this time missing more than a shoe and grown in inches and years both. He watched her stumble as she scrubbed the bathhouse floors, gave her onigiri and strength as she sobbed, named her even though he had lost his own. He had no reason for tenderness; she was merely a girl, and a small, skinny girl with toothpick legs and a round soft face at that. But she was also Chihiro, even after Yubaba had taken her name and her parents and her world and given her nothing but work and more work in return, and though he did not remember how he knew her, the knowing was reason enough.

When she left, she left her gifts to them as well: hidden strength and uncovered courage, a home for the one who had stood at windows staring in, and a name for he who had bargained his own away long ago. When she left, the world of the bathhouse continued on, for there were still spirits to cleanse and gods to please, and even those who had regained their names had to work to stay in the world.

They told stories of her after she had gone: Kamaji of her kind-hearted but ill-conceived attempt to help the soot spirits, Lin of bathing a Stink God to find a river beneath, even Bou of a train skimming across still water, shadowy figures silently boarding and departing. The name "Chihiro" echoed through the back corridors and lived-in quarters of the bathhouse, though they had only known her as "Sen." They all knew the power of a tale, especially one with a true name in it, and even tales of a small girl were large enough to fill minds and hearts.

And Kohaku said nothing, for it was Chihiro's story, and not his. For a while, he was content, the work and the learning and the companionship enough to carry him through. It was he they turned to when the mokumokuren took root in the gilded sliding doors, boring holes in the hearts of painted flowers to blind unsuspecting guests. It was he who organized the night the Hyakki Yakou made their yearly visit to the bathhouse, demons a hundred strong crowding entire floors and depleting Kamaji's entire supply of herbs. It was he who discovered how the customers' umbrellas were growing feet and leaving one rainy day, and he who convinced the now-kasa-obake to stay with their former owners. And it was he who ushered Zeniba and No Face in to Yubaba's office as the entire bathhouse held its breath.

And then one day, it was no longer enough, for he was now master of the bathhouse, but more importantly, of himself.

And so, he took his leave of the bathhouse denizens, bidding a solemn farewell to Yubaba, whom he had begrudgingly grown to respect, and a fonder one to the rest, who had not called him "Haku-sama" for some time. He had no need to wander this time, though his own home had been dammed up long ago, for he knew to whom he was going and what it was that he sought.

and this is how a dragon grows into a man

He found her quickly enough, but to his surprise, she did not find him. Instead, as before, he watched her, unable to help, unable to make himself heard. He could only accompany her silently as she took back roads and dirt paths, as she lurked around the restaurant kitchens and janitorial closets, the clutter and noise familiar and welcome in this foreign land. He looked over her shoulder as she tried unsuccessfully to train two pudgy rats and a twittering sparrow, the former unskilled with knitting needles and the latter unable to ferry them around. He saw the way she sat up straighter and leaned forward as she entered a tunnel, and he saw also how she slumped despondently upon exiting, the both of them missing a world that had never been their own.

And because she had given him back his name, he remembered that humans changed and moved on, that they grew different and discontent. They had always done so before, and he saw no reason why she would not simply because he knew her name.

And so it was. The bony legs filled out even as her soft face sharpened; oversized t-shirts and clunky sneakers turned to button-down school uniforms and oxfords; the shining purple hair band migrated from bushy ponytail to wrist and finally a dusty spot on her dresser. Her doodles turned from ambling daikon radishes to hearts and boys' names, and eventually, she stopped altogether as cram schools filled her notebooks with dates and vocabulary and formulas to describe the world. She was still Chihiro, but she may have never been Sen, and Kohaku found that in this world, he was no longer a dragon, but not yet a man.

And then one day, her bus passed through a small tunnel, and when it emerged on the other side, Kohaku found himself sitting next to her, his hand in hers as if they had ridden this way a hundred thousand times before.

"Oh!" she said as she looked at their intertwined fingers. "Haku?" she asked, and he nodded. She burst into tears and laughter both and flung her arms around his neck. "No, it's Kohaku now, isn't it?" and he nodded again, smiling too widely, afraid of hearing himself speak.

"Chihiro," he finally said, after she had withdrawn her hands and arms to keep them decorously at her side.

"Yes," she said, "but I was Sen too, wasn't I? I didn't make it up all along! I knew it, I did, but I was less and less sure and the memories were fuzzier and fuzzier and there were school festivals and sports days and final exams and winter breaks and the bathhouse was further and further away..." She laughed and ducked her head, not quite meeting his eyes.

"Yes," he said. "I saw, and I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't. I'm sorry." The spot on his shoulder where her head had briefly rested was still damp with her tears.

"How are you here now? It's so funny, because today I was thinking that there was nothing on the other side of the tunnel, but then I remembered the crepe store and the gnarly tree with all the messages carved in its side and the little windy street with its shops and the cobblestones and even the terrible worn-down plastic statues who look like they wish they were somewhere else."

"Show me," he said.

They got off the bus after a few stops, and strolled down the winding streets eating crepes filled with strawberries and whipped cream and cheesecake.

"It's not magical onigiri for strength," she apologized, not knowing how he felt more solid and more grounded with every bite he took, with every step he walked by her side.

The bright afternoon sun slanted through shop windows, the wavering shadows of the store decals changing to an unknown tongue. Their now-intertwined fingers were slightly sticky from the crepes and the taiyaki they had shared, Chihiro wolfing down the head and Kohaku nibbling at the tail. They walked in silence back to the bus stop, Chihiro kicking a small pebble ahead every so often as Kohaku sighed contentedly, his stomach very full. And around every corner was a new story just waiting to be found.