The Karibusa mansion was bustling with unaccustomed activity. At the center of the small storm was Tama, barking orders in a manner that would have put the fiercest guard captain to shame.
"Satomu! You need two lanterns! If you put that one in the river, what will light your way back? Kotoe, my lady will need a coat! And a mat! Ginko, you must not let her sit on the ground: it will be damp by the river!"
Ginko, standing on the front porch with a cigarette, yawned. Tanyû gave him a wry look from her perch on the bench. "You didn't know what you were getting into, did you?"
"You'd think I was taking you to the moon and back, instead of half a mile down the road to the village."
"Three quarters of a mile."
"Whatever. You've walked farther than that on your own."
"But not at night."
Tama appeared in the doorway. "I wish you would have let Waka pack you supper, my lady! I don't think the food stalls are very clean."
"Tama, I want to eat at the food stalls. I want to do all the things a person does at the festival. We've been over this."
"We've always had such a nice Obon here at the house. I don't know why you are insisting on this."
"We've done all the things we usually do here at the house, Tama. The graves have been tended, the altar looks beautiful, the fire is lit. I want to see the celebration in the village and watch the dancing."
Tama looked at Tanyû's crutches and then away. She frowned at Ginko. "You must have her back here two hours after sunset."
"Listen to you - jelly wouldn't melt in your mouth! Ginko-kun, I am trusting you with my precious lady. Please do not give me cause to regret it!" Tanyû was hard-pressed not to smile at the old woman's half-teasing admonition.
"I won't," he said, calmly. "You know I wouldn't do anything to endanger the work of the Karibusa clan."
At that, Tama subsided. Ginko's passion for the study of mushi was as well-known as his coolness toward all other things. "I wish you wouldn't do this, my lady," she said at last, quietly.
"I'll be back soon, Tama," said Tanyû, patiently. "Ginko, we should go."
The little procession headed down the path from the house at Tanyû's painful pace, young Satomu ahead with the lanterns and the maid Kotoe trailing behind with the coat that Tanyû couldn't imagine needing and a rolled mat. As soon as they were out of view of the house, Ginko hoisted Tanyû onto his back, Kotoe took her crutches, and they were able to travel at a better speed.
The village square was hung with what seemed to be hundreds of lanterns. More of them stood ready near the river shore, mounted on wooden floats, for the toro nagashi. Stalls had been set up, with paper banners above them proclaiming their business and flapping gently in the light breeze. There was no sign of the earlier rain, and stars were to appear in the darkening sky to the east as the sunset laid its first glowing red and gold ribbons along the western horizon. The villagers bustled about in their festival best, with the children and young women in bright yukata, and appetizing smells and the sound of dance drums drifted toward the visitors.
Ginko set Tanyû down so that they could approach the cheery scene with a little more dignity. The festival-goers didn't even notice them at first, but gradually, the news of the arrival of the mysterious lady of the Karibusa began to filter through the crowd. A space was cleared for her near where the dancing was going on, and Kotoe unrolled the mat so Tanyû could sit. Ginko sent the servants after food and drink. They returned with cups of sweet barley tea, sticks of dango, melon slices, and savory-smelling fried spheres.
"What are the balls?" asked Tanyû, after Satomu and Kotoe had been sent off with a few small coins to try their luck at the game stalls.
Ginko gave her an odd look. "Takoyaki. Octopus fritters. You've never had them? They're for sale everywhere."
"Waka doesn't make them. And I don't go much of anywhere, you know."
He was silent for a minute, sipping his barley tea. "Well, you're here, now. Takoyaki are better hot. Go on, eat."
They were still very hot. She nibbled her way through the crispy outside, the dense, savory batter, and then the nugget of salty-sweet flesh in the center. "It's good – really good!"
Ginko smiled and ate his. The dancers had started up again, fans in either hand, pacing, turning, and bowing to the rhythm of the big drums and the singing of the crowd. The lanterns, lit now, gave the scene a bright yet constantly shifting light. The villagers who weren't dancing were chatting, reminiscing about their dead:
"He never liked beer, you know, but he was fond of a little shochu now and then –"
"Oh, how she spoiled that cat! I remember when it made off with a whole squid –"
"This reminds me: she always loved melon more than anything –"
Tanyû thought, as she seldom did, about her mother. She had only a few dim memories of her father, even. For someone who saw mushi as a matter of course, it was hard to imagine that ghosts actually existed: so many of the stories involving ghosts were clearly nothing but encounters with mushi. Yet as she listened to to the cherished scraps of memories being shared around her, she had a moment of gratitude that she had helped Tama burn the incense and place the offerings on the family altar. Be welcome, mother, father – wherever you are.
The ragged remains of the sunset had faded to palest turquoise and lavender, and suddenly, people were starting to move toward the riverbank. Kotoe and Satomu came racing back, clutching their prizes: a brightly painted vase, a lovely paper fan, a little basket of sweets. They and the villagers thought she should sit right in the middle of the crowd, but she insisted on sitting a little farther downstream, saying that she wanted to watch the lanterns float by – which was true enough. Ginko settled down on a stone near Tanyû's mat and lit up a fresh cigarette. She wished she had thought to bring her pipe.
Satomu brought her a lantern and a twig so that she could light the floating lantern they had prepared that afternoon. Then he carried it back to where the villagers all seemed to be waiting for the Karibusa family lantern to go first and waded into the river a little way to set it in the water. There was a sigh, as though all the people had been holding their breath, and then there was a strangely dignified rush as everyone placed his or her lantern in the water.
The river, slightly swollen still with the afternoon rain, carried the flotilla of glowing lights past them. Tanyû held her breath and waited.
She knew when he saw them. He went still, like a cat watching a bird, his smoke forgotten. His eyes were fixed on the tiny, spiked wheels that spun and glimmered above and around the lantern flames, little sparks of silver and gold making a tiny show of fireworks that only the two of them could see.
"I've never seen those mushi before," Ginko said, his voice soft with wonder.
"Hibanamushi," she said, and she did not care if she sounded proud. "They can be troublesome in cold weather in remote places, when they mob a small fire or lantern and absorb its energy, putting it out. But there are so many fires tonight."
"I guess that's what drew them, huh," said Ginko, and gave her a knowing look. "You researched this. You were expecting these mushi to show up."
"'Expecting' is too strong a word. I merely hoped. The second Karibusa writer described them."
The shimmering cloud of tiny almost-living things was fading now, as the last few wayward lanterns drifted past. The people on the bank were chatting again, but many of them were saying their farewells to their neighbors, and those who lived on the outlying farms were already starting to depart. Tanyû sighed and stretched her hands and her good leg. They still had the walk back, uphill. "We should go."
"I guess Tama-san will be getting wild if you don't return on time."
"Well, truthfully, I'm tired." She looked back to where Kotoe was talking to a young girl who kept shooting them shy glances. "Ginko, that child –"
"She was watching the Hibanamushi too."
"Huh." He crushed out his cigarette. "I don't guess you could take her."
"I don't think so. Unless Tama thinks she'd make a good maidservant. She's not a Karibusa. Do you know anyone who would?"
"Maybe," he said, slowly. "There aren't too many other women mushishi, or even married men. There used to be a woman over near Takaoka. I can go pay her a visit, if she's still alive."
"Thank you. I'll have Kotoe find out more about the girl."
"Sounds good." He stood up and stretched. "Hey, you two!" he called, and Satomu and Kotoe came running.
They went back to the mansion together, with Ginko carrying her on his strong back up the hill. The embers of the fire before the front gate glowed red hot in the darkness ahead of them when he set her down to take her crutches from Kotoe and walk slowly on her own, and Tama was waiting on the porch, a lantern in her hand. "Well! And did you have a good time, my lady?"
"It was perfect," said Tanyû, firmly, and smiled.