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Bridge of Thought

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He came to visit me in early autumn, when the last cicada had sunk into its long sleep, and the maple leaves had just begun to catch fire.

That is a metaphor. They were not actually burning. They were red and orange, the colors of flame.

He told me stories of humans and mushi, spiraling in complex patterns like the smoke from his cigarette, in his voice that was also slow and hypnotic as smoke. They were mostly stories I knew, and I wondered if he would tell me our own story, which I also knew...

He had been called to a village where people had been falling dead, in the houses and the fields and the cobblestone paths. They were found sprawled and cold, or were seen to shout some cry of protest, then fall. Only one had survived: a girl who said that she had suddenly felt a sense of invasion, as if someone was trying to pry into her thoughts and memories. Instinctively, she tried to push it away, felt weak, and started to collapse... and then the other presence was gone, and she was able to stagger back to her home.

Ginko interviewed that girl, but was unable to find any reason why she alone had survived. Nor had any records he'd read described a mushi that pried into the mind, then killed. He made markings on a map, of where the deaths had occurred, but found no pattern. And while he searched the village for traces of the mushi, and tried to understand it from the evidence it left, two more people died.

When at last he found it, by patiently searching every street and field and house in the village, he had only one idea about how he might deal with it. He had hoped there might be another way, that he would recognize it once he saw it and know its vulnerability-- to fire, perhaps, or loud noises, or gold-- but he had never seen anything like it before, or ever heard of it.

It had curling fronds like a fern or a sea worm, which extended and retracted from a central core. It was radially symmetrical. Perhaps it was most like a sea anemone, if a sea anemone was spherical, the size of a man's head, and entirely composed of spinning flakes of phosphorescence in shifting colors, like a whirlwind of petals or bits of a rainbow.

Ginko approached the shimmering mushi with careful, slow steps, though what he meant to do was not at all cautious. He would have touched it, but it touched him first. A tentacle darted out to touch his cheek, and he felt that curious presence invade his mind.

As if he had touched a flame, his instinct was to flinch away. But a person can pick up a hot coal, or hold a match to their finger and let it burn, if they're expecting the pain and have reason to do so. As well as he could, for he had never tried to do such a thing before, Ginko threw the doors of his mind wide open to the mushi.

Look, he told it. Learn. But don't kill.

Ginko had meant to teach it just enough human language, and perhaps some human morality, to explain to it why it should stop killing people, and have it understand. But what the mushi learned, in a packed moment that Ginko could only perceive in a flurry of images and ideas-- stray lines of poetry, the glint of light off a monocle, the reason why humans burn or bury their dead, the curious life cycle of the mushi called Rainflower, what the color blue looks like to a human-- was everything.

The entire exchange lasted no longer than it takes a leaf to fall from a tree. And it was irrevocable. What I learned, I could not unlearn: language. Emotion. Life, and death, and the fear of death. The knowledge that I was now unique, and alone.

My first emotion was that thick red feeling that humans call anger.

I spoke to him, the man who had changed me, in the words he had taught me to say: What have you done?!

I knew, of course. It was my first figure of speech.

Before he could reply, I consumed some of his life force. I didn't need it for sustenance. Now that the connection had been made, I could easily feed upon it a little at a time and leave him alive, as I had done with birds and foxes and beetles in the forest. It is only when the connection is blocked, as all the other humans had done, that I must leave aside the small flashes that carry thought to thought, and feed upon the other little pulses of power, the ones that make the heart beat. Those were the ones I took. Just enough to make him fall to his knees.

"There are others," he gasped. "Mushi-human crosses. Mushi who can speak. You're not the only one."

They are not like me. Nowhere in his memories or research was there anything quite like me, before or now.

I took a little more energy from him, and his face hit the ground.

"Shit," he mumbled. The cigarette fell from his lips, and went out.

But his mission had succeeded. I did not care to kill any more humans. I left him alive, and returned to the forest. He did not pursue me, not even after he regained his strength and once more shouldered his wooden box. I watched him from the forest as he walked away from the village. But a few months later, he was back. By then, as he phrased it, I had cooled off.

"It hasn't been that bad, has it?" he asked.

No, I allowed. I realize now that I had feelings before. Restlessness. Hunger. Satiation. Curiosity. The other human I touched but didn't kill-- that was curiosity. A butterfly landed on her body, and I wanted to experience its mind, as I couldn't experience the girl's. But I hoped that eventually, I would be able to see into human minds, as I could with animals.

"You got your wish."

Yes... Perhaps that strong feeling I experienced around Ginko was curiousity. Come closer.

He blew out a long wisp of smoke. "You're not going to try to kill me again, are you?"

No. I want to see you better. Come closer.

He got up, took a few steps forward, and sat down again. "Do you have eyes?"

My sensory filaments can perceive light. But not in great detail unless I'm very close. Hearing and touch are superior. I do not have those sensations you know as taste and smell. He was still too far away, so I arose and settled down beside him.

"Don't touch," he warned me.

I am only observing. Like you do. Your hair is white as snow. Your eye is green as summer maple leaves, or bamboo wet with rain. You are bilaterally symmetrical. Except for the eye.

"You like similes."

I learned them from you.

He edged away, out of clear visual range. "I had an offer for you, actually. You're a mushi with human language, and some human-type feelings. But unlike some mushi-human crosses I've encountered, you don't see yourself as human, or even part-human... Do you?"

I am mushi.

"You couldn't live in a village. But there's no one for you to talk to in the forest. I worry that you might get bored, and... well, that you might get bored. But there's a post office I know of. It's run by mushishi, and visited by mushishi. You could live there. There's a forest nearby, full of interesting animals and birds for you to experience. And you could talk to the mushishi."

They would want to study me.

"You could study them back. Humans are fascinating creatures."

True. You are fascinating.

I extended a sensory filament and grasped his wrist. His muscles twitched.

I will not harm you. I am merely studying.

His skin was cooled close to the temperature of the air, but the blood which pulsed beneath it was warm. His nails were polished smooth as pebbles tumbled in the river, but they were flexible, and their edges were uneven. The skin of his wrist...

"Ah-- Don't do that."

Does it hurt? I recalled other unpleasant sensations humans could experience with touch. Does it itch? Or tickle?

"No... Well... Just don't go past the elbow."

I thickened my tendril, enveloping his hand and wrist. The complex patterns at the tips of his fingers intrigued me.

"I suppose I should warn you," he said. "You may not find most mushishi as... interesting as me. At least, not in quite the same way."

I paused in my explorations. The skin of his inner wrist was most delicately soft, like a cherry petal. But luckily, less fragile.

How long is the journey to this place of mushishi?

"About a month. If the weather's good."

How can weather be good or bad?

"I meant, if it doesn't rain. If it rains, it'll be a bit longer."

I will come. If I may study you on the way.

He made a small sound, like a smothered cough. "It's a deal. Let's go."

I sprang up from the moss and perched upon the box he carried on his back.

"Nothing above the elbows," he warned.

Yes, yes. After some time walking, during which I was able to stealthily twine several filaments into his hair, I said, I want a name.

"What? You mean, like mine?"

Not a human name, a mushi name. A species name. I think you must have thought of one already.

"Omoibashi." He traced the characters in the air: Bridge of Thought. "Do you like it?"

Yes. You are one too.

He turned his head, startled, and a filament pulled his hair. "Stop that... What?"

You were to me.

He stood there for a moment, his face so close that it was all I could do not to extend a tentacle or four. Then he went on walking. The smoke from his cigarette drifted over me like the mist that arose from the mountains, and the clouds overhead (gray as the smoke) promised me bad weather.