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Ephemera

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Wait, I know this story. Haven't I told it to you before? Waking before dawn, writing until breakfast. The morning walk, five minutes from the front door and back. Rest from exertion for two hours until lunch. The afternoon spent writing, with long breaks for napping and staring at the wall until it starts wriggling into headachey lines. Then dinner and pleasant conversation with the guests. 'Lady Tanyuu, Lady Tanyuu, let me tell you of the newest ways to skin harmless mushi and make them into hats.'

Sounds nice and restful, give or take the last bit. The three meals a day alone make it worth the vacation.

You don't fool me. You'd go a week before you'd be begging to go back to work. 'Please, give me a mushi to chase, please, please, any mushi to bottle, anywhere at all. A mushi on a mountain, on a faraway island, an island mountain covered with mushishi-eating tigers.'

Of course I'd go. Who wouldn't go, for mushishi-eating tigers? Sneak out at night, half your larder on my back. Running for the hills.

No, to the ports, to learn the latest fashions in mushi hats. Come back and tell me, please.



"Come on, you'll like this." She holds the largest of the paper cranes Ginko has obligingly folded (wings only slightly crooked). "Now watch—watch—"

Tanyuu tosses the crane high into the air. Her Shimi are on it before it reaches the peak of its arc. Now it's a bird wobbling in flight atop the force of the Shimi devouring it from beneath. The bird bumps a wall and tumbles, but it is gone before it hits the ground, a paper phoenix swallowed by flame.

The writing room's walls are muffled for quiet, but her laughter with Ginko's manages to make them ring all the same.



She can measure her life in reams of paper, brought twice a year by the straining wagonload. She likes hot sake, dirty jokes, imported tobacco that smells of vanilla and jasmine. Lady Tanyuu, crippled from birth by the mushi so terrible it had to be forbidden or so fearsome it had to be forgotten. Now it dances into neat rows of grammar under her fingers.

It would be a sad thing, to not love the sorry life fate's given you, only because you don't remember any other way of living, you know? This is my job. Ha, the worst part is probably fixing my ancestors' spelling mistakes. No, probably not. But old words don't like to move.

Those writers are dead, the pain they wrote with gone, the story they tried to end still living. Only their words remain. She flicks a chopstick at a century-old noun that is too much "road" where it should be "bird." Looped scribbles sullenly rearrange themselves under her stern poking.

(Lady Tanyuu, must it only be stories mushishi bring you? What if you did and wrote tales of killing mushi yourself?)

But, freeing myself that way... Living that way...

No, I would not let it happen.



"Tanyuu. Hey, Tanyuu. Have I told you the one about the kid who drew mushi that came alive? The one with the mushi bowl." Ginko sprawls on a cushion to recover from his seventh bowl of soba, inhaled at an alarming rate.

Tanyuu is painting his name in delicate strokes on his left palm, so after the sake, you won't forget who you are in the morning— "Ahh, the ghost mushi story? That's one of my favorites. Tell it again."

When his ink-wet fingers close briefly over hers, she does not pull away.



"You're giving me someone else's record scroll?" Tanyuu's face is blank with confusion. "Ginko, thank you, but it doesn't work if I'm not the one writing. Next time you can just tell me and I'll record it for you."

"It's a scroll to look at, not write about. Open it, open it." Here, impatient flicking of his cigarette.

She's doubtful still, yes, but her hands go easily to the familiar clasps of the carrying case, uncoiling the freed paper one-handed with expert, practiced— "Oh. Oh, how did you—"

It's a map of the world. At least the parts of it that matter: here's the tiny dot of the Karibusa country house on the rocky karst hills. Here's a forest luminous with mushi, green-tentacled paint blobs scraped furry with a pin. Here's a patch of green crosshatched over blue where the dying swamp plunged into the sea. Over all of it is the acrid stink of the fish oil paste the hungriest Shimi won't touch.

"That doctor owed me a favor again. He has the original, of course, but I got him to track down its cousin."

"Thank you, really this time. And thank your friend. It's beautiful."

"True, that. One of a kind." But he's watching her face.



He's a mild source of envy among his colleagues, Ginko who can visit the Karibusa library as often as he likes. Just a silly, soft-hearted girl-child playing favorites with her soft-hearted mushishi pet, Ginko the wanderer, Ginko the tinkerer, who's been an odd one though likable for it since he was a boy.

But if you need to be healed, for sure you can't pass healing on. Whose secrets are you keeping? What cursed you, to mark your hair and flesh so, child? What hurt you, that took your eye, your life, the person you would have been?

An old record scroll, Tama's crabbed ink-strokes still crisp: "To preserve the business of today so that I may tell it, my account of the scarlet thread mushi and how they may be eradicated. It is twelve days from the day young Lady Tanyuu took her first steps, such steps as they are. She continues as a clever child and may learn to to read and write within a handful of years, and so continue her story herself."



And what will it be like, traveling?

Mmmm, there'll be fleas. Lumpy futons. No futons, only rocks. Running out of water a mile from the lake. Rain until the roads are winding loops of sinkhole. Another dinner of charcoaled probably-rat, fresh from the bushes.

Surely it's not so bad.

It is, but not all bad. Suits me well enough.

Care to trade, for one of our lumpy futons?

But all of your futons are wonderful.