“Oh!” says Yoki, limping slightly along the path behind her. Nui has given up trying to figure out where the kid’s faking ends and the injury begins. She hasn’t the heart the call him on his lies, though she will have to someday soon.
She turns. Even after only a week, she knows that it will be a mushi that has caught Yoki’s attention. Just as with her during her apprenticeship long ago, Yoki is reveling in meeting someone who can see them. Not that he is, or ever will be, her apprentice, but in a world where she hadn’t become lost in twilight, she sometimes imagines that that is what would have happened. His family would have dropped him off in her village, and he’d have stayed with her family until she came home. The thought feels warm. She ruthlessly pushes it away, and focuses on this world.
Dangling between the two of them is a claw-shaped jewel. It hangs from a branch on an invisible string, swaying slightly with the winds that are hitting the top of the trees, though the air is heavy down below. Whenever the jewel passes into the shadow of the trees, it glows with a faint white light. Nui is reminded of a fisherman’s line.
“What is it?” asks Yoki. He is already reaching for it. Nui almost moves to stop him, but freezes in place. The researcher in her wishes to observe the phenomenon.
Yoki’s touch is a gentle tap, before he is cradling the jewel in his hand. He holds it out to show her, as if she hadn't been watching the entire time. The jewel’s glow turns purple. Yoki yelps and throws his hands up in the air as if stung. Nui chuckles because the kid’s reactions are always amusing, and follows the path of the jewel with her eyes. It flies up towards the trees, but never comes back down.
“I saw something. A man reaching for the jewel, only he wasn’t burned!” said Yoki. Nui takes his hand. There is a faint redness where the jewel was held, but it is already fading.
“That was a Kondama,” she says. And he is not her apprentice, but he deserves this story. “Many years ago, when I was a new mushi-shi, I came to a town far to the south of here…”
Nui adjusts the straps on her pack, wincing as they dig into another tender spot on her shoulder. It would be nice if she made enough on this trip to buy some thicker cloth to pad the straps with, but she isn’t very hopeful. She was heading towards a poor town set in the depths of a swamp. Takehara-sensei had always been one of the more research oriented mushi-shi, so as a thank you for taking time out of her research schedule to train up an inquisitive young apprentice, Nui was taking over Takehara-sensei’s usual routes for the next few months so her teacher could focus on research. This was Nui’s first time visiting the village as an independent mushi-shi.
The last time she had visited Numa-mura, a thin bamboo path had wound around the swamps gnarled trees to make its way to the island of level ground the village was settled on. This time, the path led to a solid road of stamped earth which cut straight through what was left of the swamp. There were few remaining trees, and instead orderly rice paddies lined the path on either side of her. The village in the distance now sat several feet higher on a raised platform of earth, its bottoms lined with stone to prevent flooding. The buildings themselves were even bigger. Nui was tempted to consult her map to see if she was in the correct place, so much was changed.
Those working the fields gave her a small bow when they noticed her. Their clothing was of better quality, and she even recognized one as the grandmother of the family she and Takehara-sensei had stayed with last time. This was the right village, it had just been transformed.
With the better road, Nui was able to arrive in the village several hours before she had expected to. New houses, only roughly in the same place as their predecessors, perched on the newly raised ground. Nui had been here just a year before. How had they managed to accomplish so much in such a short time?
She turned her attention to the people, wondering who was now in charge. There was no house where the village headman’s had once stood. Two elderly men sat nearby chatting while their nimble fingers twisted fibers into rope. A woman, a hunter by her clothing, was dressing down a deer outside of a house that was much grander than Nui remembered. Two girls chased each other through the streets in a game of tag. Everyone, even the children, wore a curved jewel around their neck. Nui wondered if the older beliefs had experienced a resurgence here? She knew from her studies that a thousand years ago those jewels had been very in favor, and were worn regularly by mushi-shi and others. Their popularity never quite waned. Mushi-shi in the southern islands still wore them today.
But a change in religion did not explain what was going on in this village. Everyone was wearing clothes of a much better quality, and the tools scattered about were fresh and new. Perhaps I will be able to get that padded cloth I want, Nui reflected. But another thought was niggling at her mind. It took her a whole circuit of the village before she realized what it was. There were no mushi in the village. Or rather, the small, miscellaneous mushi that often lurked under eaves, or glittered only in sunlight were missing. Just because she couldn’t see them, didn’t meant that other mushi weren’t there.
All the villagers had nodded politely to her when they saw her so far, but seemed content to let her explore. Nui approached one now, an old woman watching over a toddler as he played in the dirt near her porch.
“Excuse me, would you know where the village head is?” she asked.
The old woman squinted as she looked Nui over, taking her time with the answer. Nui did her best to look both competent and older than her 20 years. “They’re over in the west fields.”
“Thank you,” said Nui, giving the woman a slight bow. She headed off, pondering what the woman had meant by ‘they’.
Nui was not surprised to find that the west fields were new as well. What did surprise her was to find a few farmers gathered around two figures dressed in the old robes for a male and female shaman (as mushi-shi were called long ago). The woman stood on the raised edge of the rice field, her hands held up in supplication. She was singing an old harvest song, but Nui ceased to hear it as she focused on the opposite side of the field. It was practically glowing with mushi of all sorts. They were confined to a rough square, low upon the ground, and she had to shade her eyes so as not to be blinded by the way the sunlight was magnified and reflected by them. Were the mushi responding to the song?
She became aware that the singing had stopped only after the mushi had dispersed. The woman was helped to the ground by the male shaman, and Nui was just close enough to hear her say. “It’s getting both harder and easier.” The man gripped her arm tighter, but they both straightened when they saw her.
“Are you a mushi-shi?” asked the man.
Nui nodded. “I am looking for the village head.”
“You’ve found us,” said the woman. “I am Aiko, and this is my brother, Shinobu. We don’t have any need for a mushi-shi at this time, but please be welcome to Numa-mura.” She turned to the farmers who had been watching. “It should be ready to plant by tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Aiko-sama,” said one of the farmers. They all bowed, and headed towards the village. Nui, lagged behind, wanting to take a look at the no longer mushi infested field. But Shinobu and Aiko waited patiently for her to precede them back to the village. She schooled her face into blankness and followed them.
She was put up for the night in a long community hall, set against the side of the mountain. It adjoined with the large house that was Aiko and Shinobu’s residence. Nui had asked for and received permission to peddle her medicines the next day, so she had only two days at most to solve the mystery of the revitalized village which was strangely bereft of mushi. Or rather, bereft everywhere except where Aiko had been singing.
Nui waited until the village settled in for the night before heading out. The path was harder to follow in the dark, but soon she found herself at the field that had been swarmed by mushi earlier. She lit a small light, keeping her hand cupped around it to prevent it from being seen. There, faintly in the dirt were the imprints of many mushi bodies, like fossils embedded in rock. The light touch of her finger caused them to disappear. Had the mushi died to give life to the field?
Back in the village, she paused outside the community hall before walking past it to Aiko and Shinobu’s house. Checking to make sure there was no one around to see, she slipped around the back, following the stone wall that guarded the edges of the property. There was a gate in the back, and it was next to it that she settled after hearing voices from behind the house.
“I don’t think she will notice,” said Shinobu.
“Even if she doesn’t, “ said Aiko. “We won’t be able to prepare the final field tomorrow if she is here. There are only a few more good days left to plant before summer.”
Shinobu laughed. “Well, if that’s your only worry. We’ll just hold off the rainy season for a few days.”
“You truly think I am that powerful?” ask Aiko.
“I think that jewel is,” said Shinobu, and there was the playful mocking of a sibling in his tone.
“I told you,” said Aiko. “The power is mine. The jewel just unlocked it.”
“Whatever you say, sister. Whatever you say.”
Nui examined one of the village children in the morning for a cold that wasn’t mushi related. In the process of checking the little girl’s chest, she made sure to touch the child’s jewel, but could sense no mushi or power within it. None of the others she managed to handle over the course of the day had any power to them as well. But Aiko spent the day overseeing the village square, handling complaints and issues while her brother dealt with the fields. Nui didn’t think she was imagining the faint glow Aiko’s jewel gave off whenever she passed into the shade.
The people themselves were very grateful to the two saviors who brought prosperity to the village. A middle-aged man told Nui that they wore the jewels to honor their leaders, but was prevented from saying more by a sharp look from Aiko. Nui thought back to 1000 years ago when mushi-shi had been the rulers of the country. This would have been her life back then, bringing joy rather than misfortune through her ability to see mushi.
Nui only travels so far from her husband because she must. Every day, she imagines she is growing more patient, more able to be so far from her home without breaking. But the truth is, she only has so much patience, and since she uses it all up on waiting until she can return home, it makes it harder for her to be anything other than impatient with those who are misusing mushi. (She told this excuse to her teacher once, and Takehara-sensei had laughed, and laughed.)
It is late afternoon when Nui approaches the spot where Aiko has been joined by her brother. She waits until the teenage boy they are talking to leaves before making her petition. “We can talk about this out here, where everyone can hear, or we can discuss this in the comfort of your own home.” Nui has hidden a knife up her sleeve in case this turns nasty, but only Shinobu looks angry. Aiko is pale and resigned. She stands and Shinobu and Nui trail after her.
Once inside the house, they settle on two tatami mats with Nui facing the siblings.
“Would you like some tea?” asked Aiko.
“No, thank you,” said Nui. “I have only one request. May I touch the jewel around your neck?”
“You think you can just - ” began Shinbou.
Aiko silenced her brother with a wave of her hand. “You will not take it from me?”
“Not unless it is harming you or this village.” Aiko nods, and cradles the necklace and jewel in the palm of her hand, leaning forward so Nui can reach. It is strange how even now she won’t take it off.
Nui touches the glowing surface of the jewel. A sharp pain goes through her, and she is certain she made a sound, but it is far away.
Iyo stomps over to the archery target to retrieve her arrows. They were perfectly in the center, but the achievement didn’t please her. No one cared if she was good at archery. No, she is simply the first of her line, the line of shaman queens and kings, to be born without the ability to see mushi. And not only that, but those who can see them say they avoid her. She is a mundane and cursed child. How she must be a disappointment to her aunt, the queen.
She snaps an arrow in half by slamming it against the standing stone in the garden, but it doesn't make her feel better. It doesn’t matter how accomplished she is at archery, at politics, at household affairs. Nor that she has memorized the ancient chants, and spent countless hours in lessons learning mushi she would never see. She should have been named her aunt’s heir long ago, but without the ability to see mushi she cannot rule.
Something touches her head. She reaches up to brush it angrily away, but stops when her hands close over smooth, coolness. Iyo grasps it tightly and pulls, feeling as if a string gave away high in the plum tree above her. She opens her hand to see. Lying on her palm is a curved jewel of the type all shamans wear. It pulses with a white light which turns golden before going back to white. Iyo wonders where it came from. She looks up into the tree, and gasps. There, flitting about in the shadows of the leaves are sparkling creatures which she knows are mushi.
Iyo doesn’t bother to hold back her tears.
Nui comes back to herself, rubbing absently at her burned finger. There had been much more information underlying that vision. “You had little connection to this world before you found this. You were sickly maybe?” she asked slowly, trying to piece together the images in her head.
Shinobu nodded. “Yes. I had to take care of her because she was sick so often.”
“A mushi-shi came through here several years ago. She said that we rely more on mushi than we think when we grow. Since I was somehow repellent to them, I was never going to be in perfect health. I would always be a burden to my family.” Aiko clenched the jewel within her fist. A golden glow seeped through the cracks between her fingers. “But one day, I was bringing him lunch in the fields when I ran into this jewel, perfectly suspended in a sunbeam. When I took it in my hand, mushi became visible all around me, and I felt better than I ever had in my life.”
They were all silent. “There is more though,” said Nui finally. “The jewel granted you something more than sight.”
“It gave me the power to control other mushi. Not all of them, I think, but most.”
“You said it was your power that the jewel awakened,” said Shinobu.
“I…” said Aiko. “I didn’t want you to take it from me. Nobody must take it from me. It must be buried with me.”
“Because only the earth can contain it,” said Nui. Everything was coming together. “This mushi is born of air, so it must be buried in earth. It’s granting you a great, almost terrifying power, but the price is...?”
“The price is me. The jewel is absorbing my soul.” Aiko is too calm.
“I don’t believe in souls,” said Nui. “But your essence, yes. I’m certain that mushi is taking your essence in return for granting power. It is an illusion though.” She makes a mental note to look up the name of this mushi since she is certain she is not the first to encounter it.
Aiko’s calm breaks. “It’s not an illusion! I have transformed this village into something good!”
Nui inclines her head. “You have, but you are not the only one paying a price. The mushi are dying for this village as well. It grows harder for you to control every day because the mushi are learning to avoid this place. They are not alive as we know it, but they are capable of warning others. You will find your powers much diminished in the coming days, and the villagers will begin to grow sick once all the mushi leave for good.”
Shinobu scoffs, but Aiko believes her. Nui can see it in her eyes. “I cannot be parted from it now. The bargain was struck from the moment I touched it,” said Aiko. She is covering the jewel, defending it from prying eyes.
Nui reviewed the information she had received from the jewel and nodded. The mushi and Aiko were bound as one until Aiko’s death, and even then she would live on in a way inside the jewel, just as Iyo did today. She wondered how long Iyo’s grave had managed to contain the mushi until it found its’ way out to hunt down one of the rare humans who couldn’t tolerate mushi?
“If you love this village, then you will do as we mushi-shi do and travel. The mushi will still flee from you, but they will eventually come back into this land.”
“No! Not after we have achieved so much. They love us here,” said Shinobu.
Aiko sighed. “They will not love us so much when their crops begin to fail and the children fall sick. You can stay here though. They will keep you on as village head, I’m sure.”
Shinobu hesitated for a long moment. “Who would watch your back on the road if not for me?” he asked. Aiko smiled a faint smile.
When Nui left the village the next morning, they traveled with her.
“I looked up the mushi’s name later. With the help of the Kondama, Iyo was a magnificent queen who built a massive earthen tomb for herself without the help of any human hands. She never kept how she gained her power from the mushi-shi, and in fact there were earlier tales going back centuries of others gaining power using the Kondama as well. Some thought it was a blessing, others a curse.”
“Which was right?” asked Yoki.
“I don’t know. I know Iyo and Aiko never regretted their trade.” She thought of a pool filled with shadows and silver. “But I also believe they were fools. You can never get back what the mushi take from you.” It broke her to say it, but Yoki needed to know. His fascination with mushi would only bring him pain.
Yoki’s brow furrowed in thought. “What did they take from you?” He reached out to touch her, but she turned away. The sun was beginning to set. She wanted to answer, but she was not ready to teach him that lesson yet. She laughed, knowing it had a bitter edge. “I hope you never find out.”