Zeniba cocked her head a moment before someone knocked on her cottage door.
“Excuse me,” a voice called politely.
“Come in,” Zeniba called back.
A small girl, perhaps ten or twelve, opened the door and carefully slipped off her shoes. She wore a shimmery hair tie with a subtle woven pattern. “Hello, Granny,” she said. “I’m very glad to see you.”
“Chihiro!” Zeniba said. “What a pleasant surprise! What brings you here?”
“I was out exploring by my new home,” Chihiro said, sounding puzzled, “when suddenly the road twisted under my feet and dropped me off at Swamp Bottom.”
“Ah,” Zeniba sighed out, her breath whistling around the room. “Swamp Bottom and my house are a sort of a waystation, sometimes. Since you made the journey here once by the long route, any path you take can make a stopover here before it continues on. If you’re here accidentally, Swamp Bottom must like you a lot.”
“I like Swamp Bottom, too,” Chihiro said. “And your house is very cozy.” The cottage made a creaking sound, as old houses do when the walls settle; it sounded like an old woman chuckling. “But, um, I don’t know if it’ll be good if I keep coming here when I have to be somewhere else…”
“Don’t fret,” Zeniba reassured her. “Now that you know what’s going on you should only come here when you mean to, or when you need to. And if you ask nicely, the time you spend here won’t pass in the human world.” The cottage made the laughing noise again. “Let me put up some tea, and then we can catch up. It’s too bad that No Face is out; he’ll be very sorry he missed you.”
They settled next to the fire in Zeniba’s comfortable threadbare chairs, in the relaxed clutter of Zeniba’s workroom. The fire threw flickering shadows on the walls, and some of the shadows didn’t have anything to cast them. A glass ball rolled from one end of the room to the other, trailing sparks of silvery lights that the extra shadows chased after like tiny kittens.
Zeniba turned her huge head to face Chihiro and smiled. “How are you, girl?” she asked. “I was a little worried after you left here last time, but I had faith you could handle it. I heard you managed from one of my paper dolls, but I didn’t get any proper details.”
“We did manage,” Chihiro said. “You were right that I hadn’t really forgotten the first time Haku and I met, so I was able to remember his name, and he told me he’s going to quit as Yubaba’s apprentice.”
“Excellent,” Zeniba said. “Yubaba and her bathhouse were not good for him at all. Maybe now he can do better for himself. And how are your parents?”
“They’re confused and angry, but they’re safe,” Chihiro said. “When we left the Spirit World, they didn’t remember anything and it turned out we’d been gone for a week.” She paused. “It felt longer, somehow.”
“You grew up, girl,” Zeniba said. “Of course it felt longer.”
They sipped their tea. The glass ball rolled across the floor again and the extra shadows piled on top of each other to form one large shadow, which chased the ball until it rolled under a chair with a giggle and vanished from view.
Life at the bathhouse had changed for Haku, since Chihiro had come and gone. Not only had she given him back his name and the freedom to choose his own actions, some of the other bath attendant spirits were looking at him differently. It was not that they were no longer afraid of him – they still knew what he had done, in Yubaba’s service, when he had been unable to tell her no – but ever since they’d seen him help Chihiro they’d gained a new perspective on him.
In particular, Haku’s relationship with Rin changed. Before Chihiro, Rin had been one of many attendants. Not faceless, exactly, since Haku knew the face and name of every spirit working in the bathhouse, but nothing out of the ordinary. After Chihiro, Haku began to realize just how much of her personality Rin had been hiding behind her deferential bathhouse professional mask.
“You need to eat more,” Rin accused, almost throwing an onigiri at his head. Haku caught it easily. “Kamaji ordered me to bring you this since you skipped dinner, and we heard you were out all day hunting down some herbs Yubaba wanted so I know you didn’t have lunch. You should take better care of yourself.” She didn’t say “you idiot” but it was clearly implied.
Haku didn’t mind her casual disrespect as much as he would have expected before. For one thing, it wasn’t actually casual. Rin was in the process of feeling him out, feigning nonchalance at Haku’s potential reaction while watching him surreptitiously for danger signs. Every time Haku failed to react negatively, Rin unveiled a bit more of her true self. Earning Rin’s trust was surprisingly gratifying.
For another thing, Haku knew for a fact that it was Rin’s idea to save him food from dinner, not Kamaji’s. Rin was the one who was concerned about his eating habits and general health. Kamaji had given up on trying to get Haku to look after himself years ago.
“Thank you for the meal, Rin,” Haku said so politely that Rin bristled. She was easy to rile, and amusing when annoyed.
Making friends was a new and welcome experience. Even after Rin’s subtle fussing convinced the Soot Sprites that Haku was starving and they tried to feed him their star-food.
Zeniba hadn’t intended to neglect her nephew. Truthfully, she had never given much thought to the boy at all. She’d initially heard about Boh’s birth from a friend who frequented Yubaba’s bathhouse, rather than hearing it from her estranged sister; she hadn’t been impressed with Yubaba’s latest choice of projects. Nothing she’d heard since had indicated that the boy was anything but an immature, fat crybaby whom Yubaba spoiled and coddled shamelessly. That opinion hadn’t changed any during their first face to face meeting.
Zeniba hadn’t really thought of her nephew as a person so much as another blatant example of Yubaba’s foolishness and poor taste.
But Boh was a person, and given half a chance he’d proven himself braver and stronger than anyone expected. He had made friends with someone who didn’t cater to his every whim; he’d learned to walk under his own power and offered assistance to people in need. Who knew what he could accomplish, with just a little encouragement?
Zeniba chuckled, snorting out small flames of merriment, and started to make plans to kidnap her nephew again for some quality bonding time with his aunt.
Besides, it would drive Yubaba crazy.
About a month after Chihiro left the bathhouse, Haku touched down again outside of the Swamp Bottom cottage. Zeniba’s lantern swung twice in greeting from its spot over the gate, and Haku nodded regally back. He knocked gently at the door and entered at Zeniba’s invitation.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he’d come. Maybe it was only that the bathhouse felt stifling today, with Rin away on her day off and Kamaji too busy to talk, preparing water for the latest round of guests. Yubaba hadn’t let Haku see Boh since Boh changed back from being a mouse. Haku suspected Boh might have something to say about that once he realized what his mother had done, but for now that was out of his hands.
Zeniba had tried to kill him but she had also forgiven him, and she had been very good to Chihiro. Perhaps that was why Haku was coming to see her now.
Zeniba displayed no surprise at her visitor’s identity, allowing him inside without any hint of reluctance. She ushered him through the cottage he’d only caught glimpses of before, when he broke in to steal her seal.
Daylight painted floating dust motes gold and silver; a spinning wheel turned itself next to the empty fireplace, which lit itself as Haku watched and reached out with hands of flame to grab a teakettle. Outside, birdsong transformed into a chorus of jingling, tiny bells.
After distributing cups of tea and then well-mannered inquiries into each other’s health, Zeniba asked how her nephew was doing. Haku admitted he couldn’t tell her.
“Hmph,” Zeniba snorted, breathing out so hard she knocked over a flowerpot. “My sister is as overprotective as always. Well. She’ll learn better.”
From there, the conversation turned to different philosophies of magic. Haku was astonished at how similar and yet how different the style he learned from Yubaba was to the methods practiced by Zeniba. They began a debate on the effectiveness of placing good luck charms on wind chimes, and suddenly hours had passed and it was time for Haku to leave.
“You’ve got a solid grasp on charm work, although your hex theory could use some polishing up,” Zeniba said. “Still, I enjoyed our discussion. You’re welcome to come back anytime.”
“Thank you,” Haku said. “I will.”
Moving had been good for Chihiro, Mrs. Ogino decided. Her daughter was quieter, more mature. Thoughtful. She had more confidence now, and she worried less about being liked. Chihiro didn’t even complain about doing chores anymore.
Still, Mrs. Ogino thought, it might be nice to have the old Chihiro back, just for a little bit. Something was different with her daughter, something maybe a little sad, and Mrs. Ogino simply couldn’t figure out what it was. Her daughter still loved her parents as much as ever – Chihiro was gratifyingly attentive to them – but somehow, it felt like her child didn’t completely trust her anymore.
Ever since she got back from the bathhouse, Chihiro saw spirits. Sometimes they were just bright, tiny flickers in the corner of her eyes, but other times the spirits were indistinguishable from ordinary humans. Chihiro had talked with a gentleman she bumped into on a street corner for more than a minute before realizing her parents couldn’t see him.
Now, Chihiro sat on the back porch doing her homework and watching the spirits of ancient umbrellas dance across the skies, whirling and dipping like leaves chasing the wind. She could hear her mother clattering in the kitchen and her father’s voice drifting down from his upstairs office as he shouted on the telephone, but for now Chihiro could sit quietly and enjoy the oncoming night. Above her, the umbrella spirits sprung open one after another in a wave, then fluttered off towards the horizon, and Chihiro let herself slide closer to sleep.
Just before she nodded off, Chihiro heard a wheezy, squeaking noise. A light snapped on. Chihiro sat up, blinking in the sudden brightness, and there, swinging above the doorway back into her new house, was Zeniba’s lantern.
“Hello,” Chihiro called, delighted. The lantern squeaked in response, then hopped down from the porch door, onto the lawn, and from there to the edge of the woods before it straightened up into a full lamppost. Its light pooled around it in invitation, illuminating a forest path that sometimes didn’t exist. Chihiro glanced back at the house, where her parents were busy enough not to notice her absence for at least a few hours, even if she didn’t ask for help from Zeniba’s house. Chihiro smiled and followed the lantern without hesitation.
Haku’s visits with Zeniba in Swamp Bottom reminded him how much he had loved magic, before. When he’d had a home in his river, when he’d belonged and known his duties and responsibilities, magic was wonderful – it was elegant and useful and fun.
After his river was gone and Haku was cast adrift, Haku had thought that maybe, even though he couldn’t ever go home to his riverbanks again, he could find a new place to belong. Yubaba’s bathhouse had seemed as good a spot as any to try, and the chance to learn more magic was appealing. If he could hone a valuable skill like sorcery, the loss of his home and his very identity might hurt less. Learning and improving his magic could give him a purpose again.
Haku had thought he’d known what he was getting into, when he became Yubaba’s apprentice. He had thought that since he was a dragon river god whose river was gone nothing worse could happen to him, that there was no lower he could fall.
Haku had been wrong, and the reckless carelessness caused by that ignorance cost him dearly. After that, magic was still useful but it was no longer a joy.
Swamp Bottom was completely different. The cottage had a quieter atmosphere than the bathhouse, without all the hustle and bustle of the attendants scrambling to cater to their patrons. Even aside from the bathhouse’s commercial aspects, though, Swamp Bottom just felt… friendlier. Whenever he flew in, no matter the time of day or night, for a moment the still waters of the swamp pools glinted with light like far away stars and the trees rippled their leaves in greeting. Haku felt welcomed there, in a way that the bathhouse hadn’t been since Yubaba rendered him unable to leave without permission.
With Zeniba, Haku rediscovered his pride and sense of accomplishment in his magical craftmanship. He helped her with the charm work of a stained-glass window, once, which Zeniba created only because she felt like making something beautiful.
They talked about matters other than magic, too. They discussed ethics, philosophy, classical works of art and literature. One day, Zeniba asked Haku a question he hadn’t considered before.
“What do you want to do?” she asked him.
“I want to quit my apprenticeship with Yubaba,” Haku told her. “I’m very close now, much closer than she realizes.” Haku still hadn’t quite understood the question, yet.
“No, that’s what you need to do,” Zeniba said. “But what do you want?”
When Haku still had his river, he hadn’t truly wanted anything. There had been no need; everything he could possibly have desired was already his. After his river was lost, Haku had been too focused on survival to consider it. Now…
“I don’t know,” Haku said slowly.
“Well, that’s a place to start thinking,” Zeniba replied. “Don’t worry, you’ve got time. You’ll figure it out.” Kindly, she changed the subject to a poem she had recently read, and Haku gratefully accepted the new topic.
Sometimes Haku wondered what his life would be like if he’d gone to Zeniba and Swamp Bottom instead of Yubaba and her bathhouse. Perhaps Swamp Bottom could have been a real home instead of the bathhouse’s self-made prison, and Zeniba would have been his less greedy, wiser teacher.
Still, Haku never told Zeniba his true name.
Zeniba’s feet itched; she eyed the horizon every time she left the house. It was just a hint of unease now, but she knew it would grow. There was nowhere better than Swamp Bottom to live, but Zeniba had stayed still for too long. Not even the splendor of the sunrise filtering through the trees was enough to completely soothe her these days.
Zeniba wanted to travel to the Americas again, to see the thunderbirds flap their wings and call down the hail on the mountains. She wanted to venture into the jungles of the Amazon and talk with the snake spirits who inhabited the trees and crystal caves. Zeniba wanted to go north to the top of the world and watch the ice spirits dance.
However, she wasn’t ready to leave Swamp Bottom yet. Living in the Swamp Bottom cottage on the sixth stop of the train tracks came with responsibilities. It was nothing too taxing for a witch of any caliber, but it was important work nonetheless – maintaining the cottage and gardens, guarding the train station, mediating between her more contentious spirit neighbors, or occasional assistance to the odd questing hero.
In four or five years, Chihiro would be experienced enough to handle it and old enough to live by herself. The girl was sensible enough already. In a few years, Zeniba would ask her if she wanted the Swamp Bottom cottage and its attendant job, but she already knew Chihiro would say yes.
Zeniba would be free to wander soon. She’d ask Boh and that bird friend of his if they wanted to come along.
It was inevitable that Haku and Chihiro would visit Zeniba at the same time eventually. It should have been a dramatic moment, when Chihiro looked up from her teacup to see Haku standing in the cottage doorway.
“Haku,” she said, and smiled.
“Chihiro,” he replied, lips tilting up to smile back.
Instead, it simply felt like coming home. As long as Chihiro lived, Haku – Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi – would have a place to belong.