The old gods are being overtaken by ghosts. The spirits of nature are giving way to the spirits of man. Many generations ago, when this small resort town was a small fishing village, the stories were told everywhere; in the market, on the street, in the homes and on the boats. The spirits were everywhere; kappa drowning children in the river, the river dragon itself flowing down to the ocean, the kitsune in the forest and the oni on the mountain. Now all of the stories are ghosts.
When asked about local spirits, the tour guides speak quietly of a ghost.
"Sometimes she is only a voice. A bit of laughter cutting through the roar of the waves. A gentle murmur answering the rushing voice of the river. Sometimes, when the mist rises off the ocean to cover the land, people lost on the shore have followed the sound of her voice back to safety."
Others in the village know the ghost well. The maid at the hotel played with her as a child.
"She is there sometimes, on the shore where the river meets the sea. She likes to play with the children who go there. I used to see her a lot. Just a little girl, laughing and playing in the sun, her ponytail bouncing. I remember, we used to jump across the rocks, splashing each other when we fell in. She was fun."
No child has ever drowned in that river, though the current runs strong and the tides pull inexorably out to sea.
A man selling fruit and cool drinks speaks of a young woman, her pants rolled up, fiddling with nets and buckets in the middle of the river.
"Always counting things; counting bugs, counting fish, counting how fast the river runs. Her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her nose sunburned. There's a monitoring station on the river, you know. Not a very important one, but it's there. Sometimes people stop to talk with her. The tourists think she is just another scientist."
The monitoring station sends data daily to an environmental research center located out of Tokyo. No one remembers who set it up.
An old woman near the docks where the tour boats leave sees another ghost sometimes.
"You can see her early in the morning or when it first grows dark. She is old, her white hair tied back into a ponytail. She sits on the rocks, her bare feet drifting in the current, and watches the river water fight against the draw of the tide."
They say there is only one ghost on that river, even though she appears in so many different forms. It is the ponytail, they smile, and the shining purple hair tie that keeps it pulled back from her face. When she turns, it sparkles in the light like drops of water catching the rays of the sun. That is how they recognize her.
They say that she is the ghost of an environmental crusader. That she spent her life studying and protecting the river instead of raising a family. They say she is trapped on the river now, in the place she devoted her life to.
Sometimes, the grandmothers tell a different story to a wide-eyed audience of children. They say she is the wife of the river god. That he appears sometimes, a great dragon shimmering across the sky like a silver ribbon. They say he left the river years ago to return to his father's palace under the sea, that he is waiting for her to join him.
There is more water in the spirit world. Rivers stretch wider, fading into the distant horizon. Swamps grow bigger, turning the land into a patchwork of green and blue and brown. Summer days of endless rain fill grassy fields with shallow seas that broaden into infinity. His home is gone; filled up with dirt and trash and paved over with concrete buildings. Still, the water calms him. It is peace and safety. His soul is tied to this element, his element, in ways that reach far beyond a single river.
He flies over the calm sea, ignoring the small islands poking up here and there along the train tracks. The train itself passes over the sea like a ghost. He does not know where it goes or where it comes from. He followed it once, across the sea, watching the shadowy forms of spirits getting on and off. There had been fewer and fewer stops as the train moved on. The sea had grown wider and deeper; he had felt it pulling him, urging him further on. He had turned back then. Continuing would have meant never returning again.
The spirits who ride the train are careful to watch their stops. Some of them never return anyway.
More and more, spirits have lost their homes in the human world. New places are created out of steel and concrete; places with little room for the old spirits. A few manage to buy tickets for the train and travel on into the distant unknown. Some wander through the spirit world aimlessly, drifting in makeshift boats across the endless sea or building crude homes on the small islands. He flies over them, careless and indifferent. He could have been one of them, if a human girl hadn't held his name in her heart and given him that anchor.
It doesn't matter. Flying through the clouds, he feels the water brush against his scales. It will rain again soon.
He visits Kamaji in the bath-house when he knows Yubaba is away. The spider spirit is gruff and busy, constantly tending to the herbs and minerals for the bath waters. He does not offer Haku tea. They do not speak of Chihiro. Instead, Kamaji speaks of the bath house, of the magics Haku has learned, and of Boh's taste for adventure which frustrates and frightens Yubaba. He has changed from an overgrown baby into an overgrown child, just as spoiled and twice as stubborn as he ever was. Kamaji voice quiets as he speaks of the train; he has managed to collect more train tickets though he will not use them. Yet. The train is a one-way journey after all, although Kamaji claims to remember a time when it traveled both ways. Haku changes the subject.
Lin brings food for Kamaji and his soot sprites. She complains to Kamaji about her job, the frogs, Yubaba, and the rain. Haku has a long habit of ignoring her and she, in turn, pays little attention to him; but…he hears the yearning in her voice when she speaks of the train. One day, he knows she will be one of those who ride across the sea and never return. He nods his head slowly in acknowledgement of her. They are not entirely different.
When he leaves, she gives him a sweet bean bun. He knows who it is for.
It took him years to find the magic to exist in the human world without the anchoring point of his river. He had not been surprised to find her at another river when he did. She had always liked being near the water; he had seen her many times at his river before she fell in.
He visits her often; mainly when there are no people with her. The humans who visit the river are too much like her parents. They are too invested in the concrete; too sure that they know exactly how the world works. They distract her too much. Draw her attention away from him so that the echo of his name in her heart sounds less powerfully. And he does not like being seen by people who will never understand.
Sometimes he plays with the children though.
The spirit of the river she has devoted herself to faded away long ago. It is Chihiro's river now. She is stubbornly determined to keep this place, where this river meets the sea, safe and beautiful. Haku wonders if she would have been able to protect his own river so well had she been old enough.
He thinks she would have.
Still, the Kohaku River is gone. She spends her life and energy on this river instead. He is fiercely glad for her devotion. It tied her to this place long after her mortal life had faded.
She is not the only ghost he has seen. They crouch in the dark places of the cities and wander across the interminable roads. They are shadowy things, fading slowly out of the human world even as the old spirits they had replaced fade out of the spirit world. He does not know where human ghosts go when they fade; perhaps, nowhere.
It doesn't matter. Chihiro is nothing like them.
Even in death, she is full of life. She flickers between different ages according to her mood. As a child, she is joyful and curious, exploring the river over and over as if it were brand new. Her hand slips easily into his as she pulls him along in her games. When she is grown, she is more serious, caught up with the problems of the world but sure of her ability to fix them. Her hand in his is callused and her smile gentle. When she is old, she is thoughtful, sitting still in quiet wonder. Her hand is lined with age but still warm in his grip.
He loves her always, in all her moods and all her ages. He loves her when she is dragging him down to the shore to play in the surf. He loves her when he is far away in the spirit world, flying over the silver train tracks and wondering. He loves her when she greets him as if he had been gone for only minutes. He loves her in her death as easily as he did in her life. She seems both farther away and infinitely closer to him.
The humans in the nearby village tell stories about her, he knows. Sometimes they come to her river and build fires on the shore. They come with their food and blankets and stories as if they had a right to sit on her beach and speak of her.
Some of them speak of her as if she is as pathetic as any of the other ghosts he has seen, as if her devotion was an unhealthy obsession, as if her lack of human ties and family was a tragedy. Their words cut him as sharply as Zeniba's paper birds, and he feels the mindless rage boiling through his blood. He escapes to the spirit world then, whipping across the sky, letting loose magic he learned from Yubaba; great winds tear the waters of the sea until he finds his center and returns to her solid presence and her joy and the sound of his name in her heart.
Other stories speak of a palace under the sea where her love waits for her. He does not stay to listen to these either. These are the times when he visits Kamaji to hear of the small world of the bath-house or the spirit of the great dragon who taught him the magic that let him find his way to Chihiro. He dares not fly in the spirit world without a destination after hearing these stories. The train vanishing into the distance calls too strongly to him.
He will not leave while she remains fixed to her river flowing into the ocean.
She has tied herself so deeply to this place that he wonders if she will ever leave it. Perhaps when the river no longer exists…when it too is filled in and paved over…perhaps then she will leave. Perhaps she will disappear, as humans do, to whatever place their dead go. Perhaps she will fade away slowly as the spirits who have no homes to speak of do.
There are times, when she is translucent and distant, when she is merely a voice echoing in the wind, that he thinks she might disappear even before the river does. Once before, a simple piece of candy had brought her back from fading into nothingness. It had given her a tie to the spirit world, loose enough to be easily broken by her own desire to return home. It will not work again, that spell cannot be set again once broken, but he cannot stop himself from bringing her Lin's bean buns, Zeniba's pickled daikon, his own carefully spelled candies. Quiet determination is something he learned from her.
Still, there are some things stronger than spells. The ties that bind them, that managed to save him from Yubaba's spells and that allowed him to exist in the human world without a physical anchor, have not faded in all the many years that have passed. Perhaps when her river no longer holds her, she will finally return to the spirit world, to Lin and Kamaji, to Boh and Zeniba. To him. Perhaps her bold stubbornness will lead them to follow the train tracks across the sea and finally see where it leads. Hope is something else he learned from her.