Lying asleep between the strokes of night
I saw my love lean over my sad bed,
Pale as the duskiest lily's leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
But perfect-coloured without white or red.
And her lips opened amorously, and said –
I wist not what, saving one word – Delight –
And all her face was honey to my mouth,
And all her body pasture to my eyes;
The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
And glittering eyelids of my soul's desire.
-A.C. Swinburne, Love and Sleep
love and sleep
The secret of Rei’s composure was that she was rarely surprised. Like all solitary children, to watch and listen at a distance came naturally. Early on she had taught herself to read the signs: a kettle sighing, snap or snarl of the Fire, the specific weight of air before a downpour. How some patterns repeated, bones dying like old wood in both her mother’s and grandfather’s hands; how others lacked precedent, the honden’s walls shivering months before its roof caved to snowmelt. In this way she had learned to sidestep the unexpected like others avoided sidewalk cracks. You could not be surprised by anything if you had conceded everything.
The priestess stood at the top of the ladder, halfway through the hole in the roof. The tarp she was nailing in around the edges would not last the wet season, but she thought it would not need to. It was only a temporary measure to protect the kami within from the elements, their calm gilt visage, until fresh beams could be laid. Above her the March sky was a pale bowl overturned; there was time before the rains. Below her was the dark of the shrine’s sanctum. And him.
She had become conscious of him slowly, an unfurling in her like tea flowers. By the time she was certain, it was too late to acknowledge his presence, so she didn’t. She went on, hammering loud from the ceiling, while he leaned in the honden entrance, watching her wordlessly. Rei stood with her back to him because she was not surprised.
When the floor creaked she spoke without pausing.
“No. Don’t come inside.”
The noise stopped.
“Sure you don’t need a hand?” it floated up to her, conversational.
“I’m sure,” said Rei.
“You might take down that sign outside,” he observed. “The one about the shrine’s restoration.”
She remembered that she had chained and locked the gate last night. Grimly she drove in the last nail. “Did you miss where it said the shrine is closed to the public?”
The pause that followed was prolonged, tolerant.
The priestess ducked her head inside, where the dimness made it hard to see, and swiftly knew herself at disadvantage.
She drew breath. “J – ”
“Junin,” he supplied. “Or Jude, I answer to either.”
Privately she thought that was ridiculous, especially in his Japanese – which was native, though she couldn’t place the accent. She came down a step, two, then halted.
“How long,” she said. “Where have you – what have you been – ” she stopped immediately, hearing the sound of her own voice.
“Come down here,” he said softly, as if coaxing a cat from a tree, “then we’ll talk.”
This alarming proposal she ignored out of hand. “Why are you here?”
His shape, silhouetted by daylight, shifted. “You don’t seem so sure that I am.”
One second to the next. It leaped without warning, fire filling her hands. She had to grip the ladder to conceal her trembling. His expression was in shadow, but the memory, a cool offensiveness in the eyes, was what she saw.
“Tell me or get out,” she said, with effort.
“I’ll do whatever you ask.”
She almost laughed. “What do you want?”
“To help,” said the stranger.
There was no trace of mocking in it. Rei stared at his outline.
“You imagined you? – could help me?”
“I didn’t imagine anything,” he answered, low. “I didn’t dare.”
In the long seconds, she felt her shoulders fall bit by bit from where they had been, humped like an animal’s spine.
Rei looked up as a breeze muttered into the break, lifted her hair stuck to her nape. The sky glared. The fluttering of the half-nailed tarp stippled him in light and shadow; in the corner of the eye he was almost illusory.
She was thinking of when she’d once locked herself out of the shrine. How she pushed, bruised her fists against the gate. Just when she gave up and leaned on it in exhaustion – it was opened from the other side. She had stumbled, fallen inside, dizzy from excess effort. It was that dizziness now; she felt it swim in her ears and swayed briefly.
When she looked down again, her vision was hazy, adjusting from light to dark; Junin had entered against her warning. It was his grip steadying the ladder. Their hands touching the same metal, ancillary to touching each other.
As Rei descended the honden came into view. Chigi and katsuogi from the roof littered like chicken bones. The tatami were threadbare, floorboards showing through. The faded kami were telegraphing to each other discreet, closed smiles. Likely they felt this her comeuppance.
“As you can see,” she faced him, careful in her space, “there’s plenty to be done.”
“Let me help you.”
The proximity of his voice jerked her like a puppet. “Have you done this kind of work before?” she demanded.
He was coming into focus. His shoulders lifted, dropped in a shrug. “Never.”
Up close he was more solid and taller than her guess, her eyes lined up with the top of his breastbone. Sparkling from where he had washed at the temizuya. She thought it was not a courtesy one would see from a foreigner, if he were one. The silver on his mouth and hands. She couldn’t help but look.
Junin stood patiently under her inspection. His eyes were the same acute blue, but his hair was cropped to the skull. She could stretch her palm and feel its velvet; she could leave a print of fire on his throat. Going by the amusement clear in his features, he knew the options under consideration.
She located her voice. “You expect me to pay someone without experience?”
“All I need is a place to stay.”
The priestess reared back. “You want to live here?”
“I won’t be underfoot,” his eyes were laughing, “unless that’s where you want me.”
“Not possible,” she bit off. “We don’t have a lot of living space. Only my room and – the former priest’s.”
Dust motes floated aimless in the light where they stood.
“It’s up to you,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard her stumble.
All the muscles of his face were held in place; she studied the planes of them without a word. She had assumed him sure of his welcome, but looking close, she saw he was still awaiting it. It was not too late to tell him to go.
The priestess had already stepped past him, making for the honden entrance. Outside the sun puddled on the cobblestones, weak and white as rice-washing water. Shading her eyes she noticed crow droppings maning the stone guardians; their lion-dog faces looked at her resentfully. As she walked by, Phobos gave an innocent caw.
Between her footfalls and breaths were his, an echo in the quiet of the courtyard. His presence was a physical pressure at the back of her neck. There was a change in how she moved, supposing she was not alone. It had occurred to her that she could touch him but she wasn’t sure what it would prove. He could still be a ghost of her making.
The trouble was, her grandfather liked to say, ghosts didn’t wait for a date like Obon to come back. To hear him tell the story, the dead were not so much gone forever as they were on a sort of indefinite sabbatical. They were drawn to the living like mothwings beating the lantern; they could leave but unpredictably they would return, like certain comets or relatives dropping in every few years. When Rei was very young and balked at sweeping steps, he would chide her. Girl, how is your mother to recognize her home?
“Sounds like a good way to get a kid to do their chores,” said Mamoru.
“You would say that,” muttered Rei.
It was a few days after her grandfather’s period of mourning had ended; Mina had cajoled her into a yukata for the Obon fireworks. Leaving the shrine after fifty days, the priestess had hung by the gate for a full minute, watching the overloud traffic and passerby. She could not have guessed how much it would feel like a relinquishing of the world outside.
They were flopped on the hillside, taking in the display above. The warm dusk drifted with thick clouds of smoke and shouts of festival-goers. All the other girls had gone as entourage to Usa, glowing with beer and desperate to find a kakigori seller. The two of them stayed to guard the blankets and coolers.
She didn’t think she had drunk very much, despite Haruka surreptitiously refilling all their cups, but perhaps the heat of the day had gotten to her. When she turned her head to him fireworks burst behind her eyelids in miniature.
“Mamoru,” she said. “You really don’t believe in ghosts?”
She scoffed. “Because so much of what’s happened to us can be explained by science.”
A belated rumbling above them; ash fell into her, their hair. He had turned his head to her too. The look in his eyes was disconcertingly familiar.
“I think, when someone goes, it’s best to let them,” he said. “If you can.”
She blinked at him a few times, fast. Then she broke his gaze to stare up at the night. By her elbow was her forgotten cup. She sipped, a little more, then drained the sake.
In no time the drink evened in her blood, a pleasant rush unmetered by any clock. The beating drums, hawkers’ shouts, and giggling children joined in unison. Rockets sprayed orange-yellow-purple flowers overhead. The air was richly perfumed: grass, sulfur, and fried tempura, like the feasts her grandfather laid out for her mother’s homecoming.
The thought struggled to surface, fighting through a shimmer of oil. For a weightless moment, she had almost forgotten, or stopped remembering. There was a difference.
“...check on Usa,” he was saying.
“May I ask you a question?”
“You just did.”
Rei waved a hand to disperse this impudence. It seemed to move with somber grace, a blackness over the fount of stars.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “About letting go. Any of them.”
“Look at your stones. Spirits. Whatever you think they are,” she mused on that a moment, “only you can talk to them.”
“That’s not a question.” His chin had thrust out stiffly.
“If that’s so, how do you know he’s – ” she stopped, restarted. “How do you know it’s real?”
Another boom above, a shock of light. A strangeness in Mamoru’s expression, come and gone before she could name it.
“I don’t,” he said.
In the waning half of night she woke from an unrelated dream and reflected blankly that she should have phoned Mamoru before. But when Rei tried his number he didn’t answer; though he was on call, she knew that much. She let the old landline beep smally in her grasp as she stared at the screen door. On it swayed the shadows of maples, unfamiliar to her, in her grandfather’s room.
For all she had laundered the linens after the funeral, his smell of starch and cypress was there; her chest seemed to expand endlessly to contain it. When she turned her head to the side, the pillow was damp, for what she hardly knew. The old wound still troubling her and now a fresh one tender as peeled fruit. She slotted a palm under her wet cheek while she thought about it. The – guest in her room, what he wanted. What ghosts wanted of the living.
She flung her legs over the side of the futon and went there. Her room was at the other end of the hall. The door was open. Approaching from this angle, in three-quarters profile, she could see her few things undisturbed: paper-shaded lamp in the corner, slippers by the closet. The low table where she kept nothing, just so. Rei halted a moment before seeing more.
Hikawa Jinja had never held more than two occupants at a time; when she came to live here she had been aware this was her mother’s old room. On that low table they had sometimes placed a tray heaped with raw rice and water, so her spirit wouldn’t have to hunt her meal at the home altar. When it remained untouched Rei used to think it meant the offering was not to her mother’s liking.
He lay with an arm flung overhead, long fingers flexed outward, grasping. Asleep his face was unguarded. She observed the wide mouth downturned, lines carved down to his jaw, heaviness under the eyes. When she leaned in the doorway, echo of the honden, he murmured unintelligibly. He slept light. All this she remembered about him.
The moon was coming in full so it made no shape on the floor; rather it laid the room open and lambent like oyster shell. All the corners plainly visible, without darkness anywhere. She looked on him a while, taking her fill, thinking. Almost by accident she noticed near Junin’s hand was the water glass she had left him. Beads strung the rim and pooled beneath; it had been drunk to the last drop.
What might she have done, meeting one of her ghosts? She had never gotten so far in the story. When she was young she had pictured her mother showing her the use of the baffling objects left in her room, hair curler and pressed powder, instinctively hidden from her grandfather’s view. Sometimes she imagined running into him in the hall, he inquiring after her plans for the shrine. The edges lit like camera flare. She could have asked. What they would do, in her place.
Now that he was here for her to ask anything, all her questions seemed to close off her windpipe. She thought of what they had been to each other and it shrank her. He seemed to carry it so easily, but that too was only a story: where the moon touched him she’d seen its weight like poured silver. The same memories she carried, the same density, the same texture. Perhaps that was what the living wanted of ghosts. What she had wanted, without even knowing.
When she woke late and went to the kitchen, she found Junin already there, staring out the screen door. Motionless but for his shoulders rising and falling, the steady roll of his breath.
As she joined him he glanced at her briefly. “Sleep well?”
Rei folded her arms in her robe, against the seeping chill, and considered this.
“Tell me something,” she said suddenly. “Why ask if you already know?”
The kitchen faced the evergreen trees, morning coming in diffuse jade. Even in the boiling months it was cool and cavelike here. On his face the light played like water, shivering.
“Small talk,” he said.
She was certain she had misheard. “What?”
“It’s when – ”
“I know what small talk is.”
His features bland, like a coin’s back. “It’s polite. And passes the time.”
“I can think of better ways,” said Rei crisply.
“Well,” he said casually, “so can I, but they’re not so polite.”
The laugh burst from her, she couldn’t help it. As she did it she saw she had astonished him more than herself, and this made her laugh harder. Her chest ached as if out of tune.
Junin was watching her now, not the leaves outside. Not speaking. The priestess pushed the heel of her hand into her damp eyes, useless. Likely he thought her unhinged.
“Look,” out of breath and her side in a stitch, she rested her forehead on the cold glass, “I mean to start in the courtyard this week.” She gestured at the decadence of balsams before them. “Pruning, weeding, planting. All this should be done before the rains start.”
“With this overgrowth the shrine can’t be seen from the road. I’m not even sure how you found – ” her mouth snapped shut on this idiocy. He would be familiar with that road.
If he heard her slip, he let it pass. “And the honden?”
“After.” Rei had conjured the calendar, was apportioning days. “The tarp will do if I nail it in. For the next few weeks.”
Junin leaned a shoulder on the door. “Let me.”
“I can manage,” she said coolly.
“Obviously.” He folded his arms across his chest; they were gold-furred, dark from sun. More than could be had in Japan in winter. “But I told you I want to help. I meant it.”
Her chin lifted. “And when you said you’d do whatever I asked?”
In budding dismay she watched the lazy curve of his mouth.
“I meant that, too,” he said.
Red had started to bloom on her cheeks. She resisted the urge to press her hands over them, instead turned to go, spine straight.
“Good,” the priestess issued evenly over her shoulder, long dark hair proving a useful curtain. “Then you can make tea.”
His low huff of laughter followed her out.
She bathed until her fingers emerged like raisins. An armful of clothes piled in her grandfather’s room, yanked from her dresser at random yesterday. From it she pulled her oldest jeans and the mens’-sized Harvard sweatshirt Usagi had forgotten years ago; by now all of them had one, save Mamoru. At one point she caught herself searching for the stick of kohl Minako had left, stopped aghast, and in disgust severely braided her damp hair out of the way.
Back in the kitchen, he had been busy. Clouds were forming above the kettle. She recognized the smell of the (likely expired but he was already drinking it) instant coffee they kept for guests. On the table were all manner of foodstuffs: pickles from the back of the fridge, peach jelly candies, spicy curry-flavored chips, a forgotten and now dessicated tangerine. The priestess passed her fingers over the things piled like a feast. Belatedly she realized she was starving.
“This is…” she trailed off.
“This is the diet of a fraternity pledge,” Junin pushed her chipped cup across the table, piping even to her fingertips. He was already sitting on a rickety chair he’d pulled up, so she did as well. “There’s nothing else. We should go shopping.”
“I’ve never heard of – whatever that frat-thing is,” she decisively ignored this we. In truth she paid almost no attention to what she ate; of late she dined on stale rice crackers and tea. “But I can buy food if you tell me what you want.”
“Sure.” He bit into a pickled radish. His teeth were like an advertisement. “We’ll split it.”
“You’re a guest,” she dismissed, and then to unbalance him, asked, “Why Jude?”
She was thinking of it again, his expression earlier, when she’d laughed. His eyes moving over her with a startled, intent precision.
But this time he only grinned as if he were expecting it. “My dad. Beatles fan.”
“I’m – not sure I understand that either.” It was mortifying that until he said this she hadn’t considered the probability of his having parents. “These are American things.”
“The Beatles were British,” coffee drained, he went for the chips, “and I’m only half.”
“American." More chips crunched. "I was born in Okinawa. That’s the provincial accent you’re scrunching your nose at, by the way.”
Rei lifted her cup, blew on it a little, steam hiding her flush.
“Go on.” Her guest sat back; the chair protested. “What else?”
She took a peach candy and began to open it. “Nothing.”
His grin had shifted. “Going to let me off easy?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I figured you’d have more questions.”
Rei exhaled. “I’m not – afraid of what you think I’m afraid of.”
Calmly, he said: “And what is that?”
She went on peeling the plastic from the jelly, flicking off bits of wrapper. Between them was a growing landfill: bags dregged with crumbs, empty foil packets. The same on their hands, shared dust of their meal.
The candy stuck sweetly to her fingers. With the water boiling the kitchen had gone warm and close; you could see where his hair would curl were it long enough. If you knew it would curl, if you were familiar.
“You’re in my house, aren’t you?” though it wasn’t a question, not anymore. “Sleeping in my room, eating my food. It should be enough for you.” Rei concentrated on the fogged screen door, deep green smudges of trees behind. “You don’t need to hear me say it.”
In her periphery he was very still. Already she was recalling his unnerving lack of tics, how he conserved motion. It made it easy to see even his smallest movements, a telling shift in weight. His hand reaching for her.
Rei’s chair squealed on the floor as she sprang back, stood up. The tangerine rolled off the table. Under the kettle the flame surged hissing then died. His palm turned up before her like an offering tray, open and empty.
Junin was looking at his hand, coldly perplexed, as though it belonged to someone else.
“I’m sorry, that was – I’m sorry,” he said.
Into the ear-splitting hush, she said, “No. You’re not. And I let you come here and make small talk, tea – but.” She swallowed. “I won’t let you pretend to be safe, or – kind.”
“Pretending,” his voice held no particular inflection. “Is that what you think we’re doing?”
“It’s so unlike you it’s obvious,” she said tightly. “You keep asking. How I’m sleeping, what I’m afraid of, what I think. Not from compassion – to have the answers.” She might’ve imagined the slight flare of his nostrils. “And you don’t have the right, when you know as well as I do none of this,” she gestured around, “should be happening.”
“This is exactly what should have happened,” said Junin. “From the start. All this.”
“Why?” she demanded. “Would it’ve made any difference?”
He didn’t reply. He was still dispassionately focused on his palm, hanging between them. As she watched his fingers closed over one by one.
She shoved past him though he wasn’t in her way, straining for the courtyard, its unbreathed air.
They were lying in the near-night of his tent, every flap drawn to keep out the unthawed wind. It had risen while they slept then fallen, then came again strongly to batter the hide walls, and broke her wide awake. She had been listening a while and now it was going, only a sighing over the steppe grass.
It was very late, or early. Inside there was no discernible light but the black was softening apace. Outside, the birdcall he had told her meant dawn, here. She thought there was not much time left before she would need to slip away. By her was his shape, definite among the shadows. He had not stirred for hours.
When she felt among the furs for her clothes, his hand closed over hers neatly as a trap.
Mars ceased to move. “Don’t you sleep?”
She saw teeth flash, white in the dark.
“Sometimes,” said Jadeite. “But you didn’t come to me for sleep.”
There was no real response for this; it was not particularly deniable. “I have to leave.”
“Wait,” his grip tightened. Easily she could break it, he knew. “You’ve never been more than a night. Stay a little longer.” His fingers flattened to hers. “Be here, with me.”
As he said it, in her palm she felt a fluttering, like something was trapped there.
She sat upright, not bothering with the blankets that slipped down to her waist. His hand covered hers like a jewelbox lid. When it fell away, movement caught her eyes.
“Oh!” in her other hand she made flame and brought it close, throwing the enclosure into fluctuating orange light. Intrigued, she inspected the thing’s tiny stiff claws, quivering arc of its tail. She twisted halfway to put both illusion and its maker in her sightline. “Is it a bird, too?”
“Scorpion,” he said. “I used to chase them when I was small.”
In firelight he was the same color all over: skin stretched tight over the slow-expanding cage of ribs; curls loose on his head, down his front, between his legs. He looked like an object for diversion someone had set down, the gold-mask with much patina or the carved flat of a blade. It was a subtle irony that pleased her. She thought he looked, for once, like what he was.
“You’re smiling,” he observed.
“I am.” She didn’t elaborate. “Is it dangerous?”
“Why do you think so?”
“It looks fierce,” she had decided, “and,” she slanted him a look, “I know you.”
“Maybe you haven't met many small boys,” his tone was idle, “but on the whole, they’re remarkably dim.”
“Do they outgrow it?”
He opened his mouth, then shut it, looking thoughtful. “I can never tell when you’re joking.”
“Maybe I never am,” her lashes dropped. “Were you hurt?”
“Oh, often. But no one stopped me.” His court diction had stretched to the drawl he used among his own people. Some boyhood argot which they liked; she didn’t doubt he kept it partly for effect. His face was very relaxed. “Maybe they thought I’d learn. Not to touch what I shouldn’t.”
A few bright strands fell loose as she bent forward.
“Did you?” she murmured. “Learn?”
He didn’t answer immediately. He had lifted a hand, pushing back her hair. His fingers lingered there at her neck, the heat like a shock or a luxury, sharply abundant on her skin. Through his lashes, flat to the bones of his cheeks, she saw a brief flicker.
“You tell me,” he said.
She could feel the withholding in his fingers, the firm lightness of his touch. It was far from the usual urgency that bound them, hands snarling on the closures of each other’s clothes, the roughness she sometimes pushed him to. Her pulse eager beneath.
As the silence filled up its brim, she tilted her cheek in his palm.
They remained like that, only breathing, warming the air with it. Their shadows melded inextricably on the hide walls, run together like drops of water adjacent. Her gaze drew there, those shadow-selves joined with such absoluteness, not even light between.
“Is that how you learned illusion,” she turned her wrist to let the scorpion climb atop. Her voice steadied. “Playing your games, with things like this.”
He didn’t seem to feel the bite of her words. “They are games, in a way." His eyes were long, slivered. "But there are no rules in it; you learn your opponent. Even a creature like this. Its pleasures, defenses.” He let his hand fall away from her, thumb easing over her temple. His voice had dipped like the bottom string of a harp. “What the mind wants to be real.”
The scorpion was pickily mincing along her knuckles. Its body luminously showed the innards like in amber; the legs rubbing together sounded of twigs. Up close there was a warm pungency that made her nose twitch. She had the urge to stroke it, then before she could correct the impulse, thought of the danger. But it was only illusion.
It stared past her blank-eyed. She put the thumb of that hand to its claw. Even that was right, how it resisted her touch. It didn’t crumple cheaply like paper or evaporate like smoke, as the puffed tricks made by charlatans on feast days did. She thought its tail might lash her skin and she’d feel the sting as strongly as if it were real.
She parted her lips; it slipped out soft. "And what it doesn't want."
The fire snapped high, erratic. In her hand the scorpion scrabbled diligently; behind them its shadow reared enormous.
"That's what you use illusion for," she said gently, eyes on her hand. “Not – this.”
He was sprawled prone. His eyes were closed.
"Are you asking?"
Nothing had changed in the languor of his tone; it was a knife thrown up, weightless at the apex. She had seen him do it, that toss and catch, effortless. Likewise she had been taught to make fire in her hand without burning it. She had been thinking it awhile. These were all games for children and they had not outgrown them, only grown to learn their use.
She said, "With this you can – "
"I can," he said.
He said nothing.
Her palms closed as if in prayer; this time there was no resistance. She took up her clothes – on her other side all along – and went out of the tent.
She had thought the gale died down but as soon as she straightened it struck her with all the force of a blow. She made her way to the edge of the bluff where they were, not ten paces from the tent, where she could see the grasses made flat below. It would have been better if she knelt, made herself less of a target, but she stood. Her hair whipped like signal fire.
The wind was continuous now, ice to skin, the pang before it numbed you. She looked out over the chapped vastness, steppe furred silver, the chilled flat of sky. There were features, here and there, swellings of earth, squat twisted trees. She thought of the young animals taking shelter in those places, bodies drawn close for heat and what open-mouthed softness they played at, delaying what they would do with teeth later. That time for love and sleep before they rose yawning for the hunt.
She had come out intending to leave but she understood it was pointless, that she could be here with him or a thousand leagues gone and nothing would change. There wasn’t anything she didn’t know, inside or outside, it was only the clarity she wanted. The violence of wind on her naked face, of his touch when she sounded it from him. That oneness.
“We were pretending,” she was shivering, “and that – that was all.”
He had come up by her still fastening his tunic, which was heavy-made and would’ve been warm closed. Over his back was a pelt, as if this helped matters; she was afforded glimpses of his sternum whenever a gust hit. He didn’t seem to care. She didn’t know if it was all his people or only him who was so assiduously without shame.
“Take care how you go,” he said lightly. He made no attempt to touch her. “There is worse, out there.”
It was – nonsense. She was sickened of it. Her teeth bared to the cold.
“Like – what? Scorpions?”
“Like us," he answered.
He was smiling, but she saw that it was wrong, amused and helpless. His gaze was far-off on the gray sky and grayer plain; she might as well not have been there. She wrapped her arms tight around herself, noting as she did his were loose at his sides.
“Us,” he mused, almost to himself, “we are worse out there.”
“You – I – ”
But it wasn’t just them, it was everything: beasts asleep in the boreal land, their hot breath and bristling fur. The land treated them as it did its own because they were a part of it; they were a part of it.
She contemplated that for a moment.
“We can’t change it,” she told him. Her hair welted her cheek. “It’s what we are.”
She watched him close his eyes, a few moments, taking in himself the attenuated air. His profile was so pure she thought again this place couldn't have birthed him.
"Then in here," he said, finally, "we'll pretend."
"To be what." But she knew.
Jadeite's face had turned to hers; it was remote and bright as a star.
“Better," he said.
She looked away. Her hand reached out blindly, closed by convulsion over his.
They stood there and listened to the wind that didn’t stream past but butted them ungently as though warning them back, had wanted from the beginning but that they stay in. They might have been the first to see the coming of the season, or the last to see one gone by. Who could say which? Perhaps, she thought, stunned, they could.
She couldn't have said how long they were there. The sky had lightened to pearl. Somewhere behind the sun moved; shades of clouds herded over the steppe. The cold had moved on, or hadn’t, it was just where they touched. Chasing up her arm, their arms, wood put to fire. As her grip shifted she felt it between them: that heat, from within.
“Let’s,” she said. “Let’s go back inside.”
Ultimately she thought better of garden work and went instead to run errands with only a hazy idea of what required doing. Anyone could have told her this was a tactical error. Four shops in, Rei had purchased a number of things she was not sure she needed. Among them was a tin of instant coffee, which she didn’t drink, and asparagus onigiri, the only flavor she could find. She resolutely did not think of who would consume either of these.
Early dusk, she came back to the shrine with her arms full of odds and ends. It had been a long day of walking, but still on impulse she took a roundabout way to the living quarters, following the prayer circuit, stopping again by the honden. The handles of overloaded bags reddening her hands. In the long hush, the priestess looked at the walls rising with the dignity of a fossil, which it was now apparent required a will more dogged than hers to keep up.
It was one of those timorous evenings, bloodless. In another time she would have come home to her grandfather seeding the first herbs. He would scrape off on his robes, she would put down her things, and they’d sit on the steps to watch night coming on. In another time she had watched from that bluff in reverse, dawn paling to this luster. Rei had kept her head down in her tasks all afternoon not glancing up but now, here, with the wound in her roof still open to the wind, she had to see it.
It struck her that all the people coming from the office were seeing this sky in glimpses between buildings, overpasses, looking up from phones, and after all it was nothing to them or to anyone without memory – wanted or not – attached. She thought of the moonlight on Junin’s taut brow, and wondered if this sky was what he, too, remembered. The feeling rose up in her like a sudden craving; it seemed like something she should have known.
When she went in she closed the door carefully and dropped the bags without sound. It was a vestige of those last days when she had been anxious for an old man’s sleep; alone she hadn’t been able to break the habit. Without switching on the lights she made her way through the corridor skimming hands over the woven grain of the walls. She was sockfooted, but like the imperial castles Hikawa Jinja could have been built to deter invaders, and some floorboards chirped.
The priestess passed with quickening steps her bedroom where the futon had been folded, to the kitchen where the dishes were washed and stacked. All the wrappers thrown out. Her tea things were out but the coffee mug had been put away like he knew she had no use for it. It was at that point Rei thought to pause and judge the grade of the silence, with which she was well-versed. What she heard was breakable as glass; the slightest thing dropped would do. The radiator serenely spat steam. She listened and knew herself alone; he had gone.
What she had wanted to tell him about pretending was it was just that – pretending. There was no satiety to be had, fooling the mind with that thinness. You could never fully drink it with your eyes or taste it with your tongue, and after it was gone you were still empty. You were carved out worse than before, now what was real couldn't content you. It couldn’t do anything to make anyone whole.
She remembered how she had gripped his hand white-knuckled and unthinking as if that would keep them safe. They could have done anything and the end would have been the same, or not, it might have changed everything. Who knew? A story could become real, perhaps, but not in a lifetime, or even a hundred of them.
Remembering was its own kind of pretending, its own story. It needed no illusionist. What you remembered was part of you, called back as though it had never left. Like putting your hand in deep water and seeing it cut off at the wrist. One sense perceived severance when the rest told you otherwise. At any time she could close her eyes; her skin would remember if she let it. She did. It did.
“I brought the drill,” said Makoto when Rei opened the door after the umpteenth knock, later that night. It was becoming apparent the chained and locked gate would do little to keep anyone of supernatural athleticism or determination (or both) from crossing the shrine grounds. “The one you asked me for last week. Don’t tell me that’s dinner.”
The priestess looked down at her tangerine, peel coming off like woodchips, dented on one side. Its introduction to her floor had done it no favors.
“I’m not very hungry." On cue her stomach made an unhappy noise.
Her friend muttered something about politicians' daughters who couldn’t lie their way out of sopping paper bags. “Neither am I, looking at that." She tilted her head, pretty features gone sly. On her the expression was improbable. "Want Thai?”
They walked around the corner and put in a large order of drunken noodles for sharing; without asking Makoto requested extra chili packed in how Rei liked it. They doled out portions into the scratched melamine bowls and bent their heads to the steam. They were cooling their tongues with iced lime tea when the other woman spoke.
“So, how is it going,” she began, “the restoration.”
“Do you want any help?”
Rei shook her head. “I have – I had someone helping. It’s better that I handle it.”
“You know best,” said Makoto. “Though it’s a lot. Rebuilding – and all.”
The priestess glanced up and saw it: her brow creased soft with recognition. Like Mamoru’s scrutiny under the fireworks, the same barren set of association. Dipping her gaze back to her bowl, Rei stirred the noodles in their neon soak of oil, and thought she was not the only one who wanted ghosts.
“Thank you,” she said clearly, when the waitress took away their dishes.
Across the table her friend blinked, roused herself with a minuscule shake. Rei felt their knees bumping underneath, the other woman’s legs eating most of that space. “Are you planning to just make repairs? Or will you change things around? Oh, excuse me, do you guys have a dessert menu?”
Four mochi stuffed with ice cream arrived with dispatch. Rei had little to no appetite left but she took the one that appeared to be green tea-flavored, then felt vaguely displaced when it was revealed as pistachio instead. Expecting a bitter taste and instead voluptuous on the roof of her mouth.
They spoke, then, of building techniques and construction, Makoto having had extensive experience with her café. They spoke of the correct wood to buy for the honden roof, the best drills on the market (at which juncture Rei ordered herself more tea), the irredeemable cheapness of contractors, the time to plant various cuttings, the gutters leaking snowmelt still. Through it all the priestess had an odd sense of making plans for someone else, another person at this table, perhaps herself, once. These were things she would have budgeted for, in the shrine ledgers for the new year.
Another year it would have been frugal giddiness over smart doorknobs that didn’t come off when twisted, and the right sheen for eggshell paint. These were conversations to shore up a home, an idea of spring Rei couldn’t imagine. It was too far ahead in the story. It still looked and felt like winter.
“But there's a bright side, don't you think,” blurted Makoto around a bite of raspberry mochi.
Rei lifted her eyes from her bowl. “There is?”
“I mean." She had gotten uncomfortable. Her cheeks tinged as the mochi. "Just, no one knows the place like you, right? And of course it's in terrible shape right now, but. When it breaks down you can remember. How the roof used to look or where the urn should go.” Her friend had given up on her dessert, hopelessly melted and oozing pink around her bowl, was fishing in the goo with great focus. She was losing her words. “Maybe you can make it like it was. Or better. Either way you can – make it real – again.”
“Not better,” murmured Rei.
“Nothing,” she turned her head. Outside the street-level window where they sat, cars of salarypeople driving home flashed by, sudden and wet-seeming blue and red halos. She wondered if Junin was somewhere like this, with Mamoru or someone else, a woman, sharing a beer, another, returning to his room and bed, alone or not. If he was in the same place as her or some place altogether different. It was completely dark, the sky like any other now. Tensely she allowed herself to think of going back to the shrine.
"Know what I mean?" the other woman's voice brought her from her thoughts.
The bill was placed before them, the plastic tray clacking down.
There was nothing but icewater in her glass but Rei took it up anyway. The cold felt on her teeth familiar. Her temples hurt from it. “It’s getting late, you bake early. You should go.”
“Thanks, you’re right. I don't have cash, what app do you – oh, for – you still use that landline, don’t you?”
“What I meant was I’m paying,” she answered evenly. “Politician's daughter and all that.”
Makoto laughed, delighted.
“I’ll get the next one,” she said. “Hey, who did you say had been helping you?”
When she came home there was a voicemail from Mamoru, a tiny orange light that filled the kitchen with a peculiar glow. Rei set her hand on the receiver, thinking. She lifted, then put it down.
Once in her grandfather’s room all of the day fell on her eyelids with an insistent pressure like dipping her head in the bath. She had barely set the futon before she was taken by profound sleep.
Next day, the lifeless sky had given way to cuspate blue. A few clouds daubed, as if someone had tried to use all their paint, glutted rich white. The sun dazzled irregularly between them. On the air meandered a sweetness.
When she went out to inspect the situation in the garden she was nonplussed to find growth on the late-budding maple branches splayed like spider limbs. There was more. Weeds coming up prodigiously from piles of chunked plaster; one or two yellow flowers between the stones. Mint planted last year had gone rogue, found the beds all but unoccupied (her fault, entirely), and settled in for the long game. A particularly grasping patch puffed up near the path; she had knelt and was uprooting it when a shadow fell across her.
The jolt went all the way to her fingertips, thrill of pain like missing a stair. That was its nature, she supposed dimly, surprise. There was nothing she could have done to douse the spark that had lit in her, ungovernable.
His shape contorted, a duffel slung over. Canvas hitting concrete. He was already talking. “This has the basics, shirts, razor, that kind of thing. It got past midnight so I stayed where I was. I figured I'd wake you coming in late."”
Without looking up, she said, unnecessarily, “You’re back.”
She heard an unzipping, leather jacket shucked. It fell in a heap on his bag; his shoes stepped over. "Where else would I be?"
Rei twined a stem around her finger twice, thrice. "Never mind."
By her Junin dropped fluidly to a crouch. She was conscious of the adjacency, clean musk coming off him. He wasn’t a big man for his height, the long-unfolding frame of a dancer. He exerted a similar control over it, but this close, she could see his pulse jerk.
For several minutes he didn’t say anything, only watched with apparent absorption, her grandfather’s work undone as it had to be. She continued easing out the roots, setting fragrant bunches aside for some use she didn’t yet know, until she saw his arm move.
“Stop,” he was about to pluck one of the isolated pea shoots, “those aren’t weeds.”
He didn’t stop or even falter. His thumb and forefinger caught the tiniest leaves between them. These he rubbed in the pads of his fingers, so gentle it was hardly a touch, the stalks leaking milk. A green pungency rose all around them, an awareness.
“You remember," she said.
Junin bypassed her question, which hadn’t been one.
“Are you angry?” he asked.
They could’ve been talking of anything. His voice lulled her as it had once in the glowing dark. Absently she flexed her cramped fingers. There was no getting the dirt out from her nails, blackening her palm with new lifelines. New words unearthed. She opened her mouth and they were there. She answered, “I tried to be.”
“But you didn’t know where to start." And it was nonsense again, but this time she knew what he meant. She had been thinking it too. These things they had done that spiraled upon themselves, doubled to no point of origin like the back of a snail, and here they were winding the nautilus, seeking the start of the end.
“I killed you,” she said, and couldn’t help but add, “twice.”
“You were right,” he told her.
“And I didn't want to,” she went on dully. “When you came I – thought you were a ghost.”
“You wish I were?”
“I wish I didn’t remember. What we did.”
“Them,” said Junin. “Not us.”
She said, low: “I wish we’d done – anything else.”
“Rei.” Her name held like that in his mouth she had to shut her eyes, against the unblunted edge of all his attention. “They didn’t know. What will we do?”
Her eyes opened to meet his.
They were glittering, dark with the sun behind. Light shining through the abbreviation of his hair so foreign to her the urge rose again to feel it for herself. She was aware of each of her muscles, gathering with anticipation. But his hands remained loosely crossed between his knees. The fingers of them curled, once, as if seeking something. Silently she reached for him.
Her fingertips found first the vein down his knuckle. She touched his palm, lines known to her. She touched the web of thumb and forefinger, sensitive on him, and glanced up to see his throat working. A sunburst scar on the wrist puckered and round. She touched this carefully asking nothing. She touched the whorls of his fingertips that had touched the leaves, and her.
At some point Rei had sat altogether in the soil and it smeared on her ankles, sleeves pushed to the elbows, her arms and her hands, and now his too. That deep alive smell. She looked at the earth with which she'd marked him. He didn’t move or speak but let her touch him as she wanted. They were quiet like children learning small tasks of the garden, the care of tenuous things.
“Can you ever make something like it was?” She didn’t know what she was saying, not really, but she knew that he was listening. “If you rebuild. Is it the same?”
A moment passed. Their fingers grazed and brushed like the budding branches above them. Like that they laced.
“I don’t know,” he said. Wonderment in his voice. “Should we try?”