Moths watched us through
The window. Seated at the table,
We were skewered by their lambent gazes,
Harder than their shattering wings.
It's not as if she's become suddenly ugly, suddenly bereft of all grace. It might be easier if it looked like that. If death was coming as it should, so sudden, like the first snowfall or the green tips on the trees in spring; a glance away, a night of tedious sleep, and then seeing the world had pulled back from one brink or another.
(Only in this case just the opposite; a death, a sudden irrevocable stepping-over of all brinks, uncannily quick, preternaturally cruel.)
But no. It comes so slowly, so leisurely, and she becomes starker as it does, like an egret against a dark lake. Thinner, more frail, like a chrysanthemum losing all its moisture under the blind sun.
She becomes paler and paler as the disease makes a long full meal of her muscles and her innards. Her lips wet red with blood, her eyes larger and darker and deeper by the day. Lovely, just like a painting, swathed in her robes, still singing, striking the strings of her shamisen. Fantastically beautiful as she fades.
Anotsu hears her coughting in the morning, rough and ugly. He knows she's bringing up blood even if she never complains about it or asks for anything much more than hot tea and some rice. It makes him sick to hear. It makes him sick, the impossibility of doing anything to change all of this. He doesn't know what to do. No idea, none at all.
Makie is dying, and he's watching while she goes, as distant from her as he was that first night he saw her, cutting dogs to ribbons under the light of the engorged moon.
They get meat when they can. Red meat. It's expensive but it's good for strength and he hopes it will force some life back into her waning body.
The stuff is soft and easy to eat, and Anotsu catches her flicking pieces out the window one morning for the cat (which has attached itself uninvited to their little renegade band) to eat. He sits across from her and watches her nip up the diced pieces pickily between her fingertips before – flick – out the window it goes. Then there's the orangey blur of the cat, pouncing on the latest morsel.
Makie nods to him in acknowledgement but says nothing, and Anotsu watches her toss away two more pieces before he says anything at all.
"That was for you."
Perhaps she does sigh, there, pausing in throwing out the scraps for a moment. Hungry, greedy, the cat
paces back and forth across the muddy yard, not ready to give up yet.
"Look at his color," her voice low when she speaks, so quiet, although she's never needed to speak loudly to command every part of his attention, has she? "It must be difficult, hunting with a coat colored like that. It's a trying time of year."
"The cat would do better to wash his hands of us and try town life. Or find a family with a softhearted child who'll take pity on him, and try his luck with them."
"I don't think I'm such a child," Makie muses, her smile wan, and all Anotsu can think of is a dying candle although Makie's smiles have rarely approached anything over lukewarm. That, and that he has insulted her. "As for being softhearted… I think many would disagree, if you were able to ask them."
He shakes his head, and her eyelashes flutter in a slow blink. "Don't mind me, Kagehisa. It seems I don't have much of an appetite this morning and I thought perhaps the meat could go to someone who would appreciate it a little more."
"The meat can keep until the next meal." And the next, and the next, as long as it takes until you have an appetite again. "And if he had any real hunger at all, he wouldn't be here with us."
"A strange cat, don't you think? Here we are, and here he is, arrived all on his own and still here even though no one has fed him or welcomed him at all. A household should have a cat." She leans her head back against the wall, her cropped hair moving a little as she does, lusterless now. Cold iron rather than the light-hungry back of a crow. "I wonder why he's still here at all…"
"Perhaps it's because he found someone charitable," Anotsu suggests, meaning to sound a bit dry but coming out much too serious instead. "I doubt he'd get such a fine meal anywhere else."
"Such loyalty deserves some reward," Makie murmurs, setting her tray aside with a little clack. Anotsu looks at the remaining meat, which is diminished significantly from the beginning portion, and the high mound of rice, which has remained untouched, and feels his jaw clench. Makie goes on: "And he needs his strength more than I do. That meat might do him more good than me… He'll become so strong, eating that."
"I need your strength, Makie. Even the strongest cat couldn't join the Ittu-ryu."
"Oh?" He has difficulty placing the tone that's surfaced in her voice; whether it's curiosity, grief or whimsy. "You could train him to play my shamisen. He already sings at night. And if his claws are sharp enough, who knows what he could do?"
If she won't eat any more… "It would also be beneath our dignity." He reaches out for one pale foot, and Makie allows him to draw her leg out straight. He presses the sole of her foot against the palm of one hand, presses the top of her foot with his other hand. Her skin is freezing cold. Makie closes her eyes. Her face is very relaxed.
"Thank you, Kagehisa."
"Is it pleasant?"
"It is." He thinks, tell Magatsu. Heating stones, for night, in the morning too. Better if she's warmer. Maybe that will help.
Outside, the cat rowls, long and demanding. Hungry, tireless, persistent beast that it is.
He listens to her coughing in the night. A long time, counting the seconds between fits, long silences and then coughing again, longer than it seems possible that anyone so ill could survive. Each time it ends, it must be the last time – it must, it must be nearly over. Then it begins again, until afflicted with his own weakness he can't leave her any longer and slides in close at her side, takes her hands in his, tries to still her with no knowledge of how he should or if he can.
"Kagehisa, no," she says, her voice hoarse and wet. The choked voice of a crow, a dying woman's voice. He has no idea what to say. "Don't," she tells him again. "Kagehisa."
"You don't need – " Her words break off, making way for coughs again.
A long moment. Eventually she settles. "You won't be able to sleep."
"I couldn't anyway," he admits. This is something he can say, in the dark, to her.
She breathes. He breathes. She still lives; they breathe together.
Eventually she does sleep. He listens to her slow, whistling breaths, thinking he could never stop listening to them while they still remain constant, until he sleeps too.
When morning comes he wakes first, aware as he does that Makie is still sleeping. Still, calm, for a wonder. Anotsu listens to her breaths again. Strands of his hair move with the rhythm of her inhales and exhales; in the early winter light her face is grey and exhausted.
She is dying so slowly. The cat would do better eating that meat than she is now. The cat will outlive her, almost probably, if things continue as they have been. The cat would be done more good, damn that animal and damn this illness. He is losing something important. There must be something, something that he can do.
He slides out from between the covers. Makie does no more than shift and sigh, beautiful as always and unwary. In the morning light it looks as though she's carved out of soapstone; the shadows under her eyes are deep and blue. He waits for her to become restful again before he moves; he doesn't make any excess noise. The room is sparse and he knows where everything is anyway. He won't stumble.
Creaking floorboards and Magatsu's snores are the only sounds. Anotsu steps over his friend's sleeping body to get his sword, and then to the door to go outside, without disturbing either of them.
It's brighter in the yard, although the sun isn't over the horizon yet, and it's cold. He shivers but forces himself to walk quickly, braced against the cold. If he's active, he can outpace his chill.
Things are hardly going to get warmer, after all. And there's always training to be done. Falling twigs to decapitate, and fleeting thoughts of other, more reckless things: could he find a bear and kill it, wolves, wild dogs, a real challenge and hot blood spilling out on the skiff of snow.
Winter is coming. The world is tending towards a brink.
More locally, he moves towards the trees. They're stark and graceful against the lambent sky, severe without their leaves, like amputees. Everything is stiff and brittle, but Anotsu is beginning finally to warm up. His breath comes out in clouds. By the time he goes back in his eyebrows and eyelashes and parts of his hair will be grizzled with frost. Old before his time, winter makes him old; winter herds everything irreversibly closer to death, even as the world senesces newly each year. It does so by feasting on corpses the old winter left behind; new trees will grow, new flowers, the long summer days moving blithely by and always returning to this –
His grandfather shadows him through the trees. An old man bitter as poison, regarding his grandson with warhawk eyes. You ought to have known the futility of admiring a woman's strength. It would be better if she had died back then, when I first gave her the opportunity. Back when she was just that tiny thing entered in a game of chance: whether she rolls and becomes food for the curs slavering below her, or whether she doesn't move, wakes, cannot fight and dies, or whether she wakes, and fights, and wins. The last and least likely option.
Some of these fights are battles that it's actually possible for a man, or a woman, to win.
Stop following me, old man, Anotsu thinks. You're long dead and buried and I'm doing what you wished, just as a filial grandson would. Now be dead and as quiet as you should be.
Branches creak and chuckle as the wind combs through the trees.
If there was a pack of wild dogs here, he would find them and kill them. Maybe it would have been better to stay abed, wait for his companions to wake up, practiced with Magatsu when the other man woke up. Certainly it would have been warmer.
He realizes he's tending back towards their building, that he has been without realizing it, and allows himself to continue that way, without hurrying but without meandering either. He'll make sure Makie eats this morning. He'll talk to her about the medicine again. Surely, surely, there must be something –
He's nearly out of the woods when he realizes he's being stalked.
Makie is probably right – the cat must have trouble with winter hunting, with its coat that shade of orange, no matter how silently it ghosts through the trees. He's not sure how long it's been dogging (catting?) his footsteps, but if it's been longer than a minute or two he'll have to be embarrassed. He stops, watching the little animal, his hand falling to the hilt of his sword for no reason at all – it's not as if a cat is really any danger to him. The cat stops too, watching him, eyes large and ears alert, turned forward.
It really is a handsome creature. Bright fur, a white patch on the chest, pale green eyes the color of new leaves, long white whiskers. It's certainly healthy-looking, good sized, for a feral animal. When he stays still it skulks closer, the same needy rowl he heard the night before directed towards him specifically now. It sounds frustrated, with a demanding overtone like a child's – although it's just a dumb animal. He's giving it too much credit, and he knows it.
"Leave," Anotsu says, talking to animals now and the stress must really be getting to him – he should have slept in. "There's nothing here for you. We don't need a useless hanger-on or anything but fighters that can win."
The feel of his sword – sometimes he feels like he was born to hold a blade.
The cat humps up its back but creeps towards him anyway, pupils dilated huge. Anotsu's fingers flex and everything runs lucid, his blood in his ears and everything so clear. He steps forward and the cat freezes, there's just a tiny rasp of metal like a gasp –
"Kagehisa?" Makie calls from the direction of the house, and that combat clarity leaves him so quickly that his head spins. For a moment he can't see, and when his vision clears the cat is gone, only traces of paw prints indented on the snow indicating it was really there at all.
Stiffly, he turns towards Makie's voice. He can see her slender figure standing in the doorway, still dressed for sleep, her hair ruffled like feathers and thinks of her seeing him, stiff and poised for battle.
There is space. With luck she was too far to see the cat, which now undoubtedly will be back again.
He sheathes his sword. Another breath.
"Here," he calls back to her, turning his back on the quiescent slow-breathing woods, making his way towards the little building, quicker now.
Another winter-shadowed day begun.
You'll always be outside,
Past the pane. And we'll be here within,
More and more in. Moths watched us
Through the window, in August.