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The Man of Snow and Burbling Water

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I have a Mushi living in my heart, keeping it beating. It is always with me even though I can’t see it, or feel it.

When I was young, I thought I was going to die. I often took walks, out in the gardens that surrounded my family estate. The smell of the flowers calmed me and when I shut my eyes I thought I could hear the soft singing of some unknown person or creature. Like bells chiming.

Then one day, when I was walking, the singing got louder and louder until it overwhelmed me. My father said that he found me laid out in the cold, and thought me dead. Limp and unmoving.

When I awoke, my heart didn’t hurt anymore. I could hear everything when I walked in my garden and when I wasn’t paying attention to what I was seeing, I caught glimpses of creatures floating on the breeze. Transparent, ephemeral beings flowing and morphing through the air on the flower scented currents.

A man came to me in the winter, when the gardens slept and the creatures had hidden themselves away. His hair was like snow and his eye was the color of the burbling springs. He spoke of helping me, taking away the Mushi that lived in my heart. My father turned him away. Better to have a creature hidden away inside my heart, then to loose me forever.

= = = =

When I was married, my husband and I moved away from my mother's gardens, but I had grown stronger. The years had been kind. I could see the creatures, spinning, swirling, dancing in the wake of my steps and hidden among the nodding buds and burbling pond of my new garden.

I let them guide my hands. The creatures I saw and the twinges in my heart. My husband was proud of my ability with plants and we both grew richer thanks to the Mushi, and the knowledge it gave me. A guardian spirit that acted as a guiding light to me.

This time when the man with the hair like snow came, I invited him in for tea. He spoke of many things. The creature that lived in my heart and those that lived in my garden. He offered medicine to make me better.

This time it was my husband that sent him away. I watched him go, the slope of his shoulders and the swirl of smoke rising into the air. A creature of light and the sound of bells wrapped around my throat and sang to me softly of a time that was yet to come.

I would see him again, the man of snow and burbling water.

= = = =

The next time he came to me was when my children were young. My first-born, my son, was strong in heart. My second-born was not. She shared my weak heart.

I waited, watching, for her to get the second chance I had. It did not come. She grew weaker. A wisened, dying soul in the body of a youth. My garden was a comfort to her as my mother’s had been to me. Guilt bit into my heart, past the warmth of the Mushi who dwelled within.

All of my work. Years spent growing and nurturing my plants, and I still could not bring a miracle to my daughter.

In her final days, I bundled her up. Borrowed my neighbor’s horse. Together we made the journey to the land where my mother’s garden had once flourished. It was abandoned now. Overgrown with weeds and vines. In the center of the bramble maze, her prize rose still bloomed. Golden roses, shimmering with light, as big as my hand.

I carried my baby. Laying her to rest beside the bush. Hands folded across her chest and eyes closed. Dark half moons on porcelain cheeks. Ink stain of hair spilling out against the bright pattern of my kimono covered lap.

Bending over her, my own hair trailed down to mix with hers. My tears rolled down her cheeks.

He came then. Face smooth, eyes knowing. There was no one to send him away when he told me of the price I would pay for my gift of a new heart. Would I force my daughter to pay the same?

I couldn’t, wouldn’t. I had wished to live, had grasped at my new life with needy hands. My daughter had made her peace with going to the afterlife. How could I steal that away? An undying heart would be as much a curse to her as it was a blessing to me.

A rose turned to smoke. Swirling, glistening in the sunlight, it rose up to swirl around my head before sinking towards my daughter’s chest. I caught it in my cupped hands, like water. Shuddering it returned to its original form. A rose, petals slowly falling away.

My daughter’s chest quivered, stilled. Her breath stopped. My tears poured down to wet her cooling cheeks. I lay the rose on her clasped hands. Eased her head down onto the moss covered ground.

The man helped my dig a grave beneath the rose bush. We laid her to rest beneath my miracle roses.

He left me then, still sobbing over her grave. This time I took no comfort when the Mushi spoke of seeing him again.

= = = =

I didn’t see him again for many years, until the last of my grandchildren had passed. Two husbands, five children, and twenty grandchildren had passed through my life and my heart was still beating strong. Now my immortal heart had become a curse on my soul.

The man disappeared during the ceremony, but he didn’t need the Mushi to tell me that he hadn't gone far.

When I returned home, he was waiting for me. We shared a cup of tea as we had once before, when I had been a newly married young woman. He looked the same despite the years that had passed. I on the other hand had changed, aged in soul and body.

We sat together, sipping our tea and listening to the Mushi sing. I expected him to leave as soon as his cup was empty, but he remained. He kept me company through the period of mourning.

When I left my home he followed. Together we made the journey back to my mother’s garden and the rose bush that had defined my life and first brought the man into my life.

The garden had long since disappeared. Only the rubble of my parent’s home remained to mark the way. It took half a day to clear away the vines and reach the bush of Mushi roses. The man lent a hand. Clearing the brush away and helping me to kneel by my daughter’s grave.

“Have you decided to return the Mushi?”

“Yes.” I replied. “I have lived my life. Raised the children the Mushi that resides within me allowed me to bear. Now it’s time for me to return their gift.”

He was kind enough not to ask me if I was sure of my decision. I had lived a full life, but the fear of death that had filled me as a child, still remained. Nestled in my breast, beside the Mushi housed within my heart.

Kneeling beside me, he reached out and placed his hands against my chest. Translucent smoke swirled into his hands. Turning rose as large as his cupped hands. My eyes began to close but before I fell into my final sleep, I felt him place the rose in my hands.

A smile pulled at the corners of my mouth. Comfort spread from my fingers, where the man clasped my fingers. The rose clasped between our palms. I was grateful that he stayed with me, this once.