For Mizukui, rain had always tasted salty and bitter.
“Please!” said Jirou, throwing his head to the mat, prostrate before her. “I’ll do anything to stay! All I wish is to live here a little longer.”
Even the ever-peaceful, passive face of hers could not hide the difficulty of her words. “I am sorry, Jirou. You have been a wonderful guest. But you must leave. The time has come.”
“What have I done to offend you? To anger you?”
Mizukui leaned over, placing one of her scaled claws on the man’s head and pushed the hair away from his face with a delicacy not befitting such appendages. “Nothing. Please do not think that way. You have been helpful in more ways than you know, and such fantastic company besides. But now you must leave.”
“Because it is the way of things.”
Creases of desperation on Jirou’s face melted, twisted, and morphed into the ugliness of absolute defeat. She knew the dull glimmer of sorrow in his eyes that came before tears, the rasp of breath escaping his mouth like a death rattle but with a much different pain to it.
“I don’t understand… I just wanted to be someone for you…”
“My precious Jirou.” Mizukui reached out and held him to her chest while her tail wrapped him in its coils, tight and complete. “You are. You have been. But you cannot be the someone you wish to be, and I cannot be the someone you wish me to be. I shall forget neither the years you have given me nor the words we have shared nor the rains we have stood beneath together. You are young, Jirou, and it would be a cruelty for me to entertain such forlorn hopes any longer.”
“At least give me that choice.”
This was for him. She had to do it for him.
“It would ruin you, and your years would waste away to dust, far from the vibrant life you could have lived.” Mizukui uncoiled and separated from Jirou, perching properly once again atop her tail. “I release you. Leave this place and become the most you can. Shine so bright you join the stars above and I will watch you in the clear night sky.”
Jirou collapsed into a ball on the floor, clutching his chest and fighting to keep the sorrow rife in his body from marring his face. With every ounce of strength he could muster, he ambled to his feet and bowed to Mizukui’s almost-serene visage.
“I will go, then. I came to you with naught but the clothes on my back, but I leave with so much more. Farewell. I will not forget you.”
Mizukui gave him the slightest of nods, then closed her eyes, waiting for the pattering of Jirou’s bare footsteps to fade into silence. A silence she knew far too well.
“Far to the east and the south near this island of Zipangu, there is a shrine. Follow the rising sun all the way to the sea then trace the island’s edge to its southernmost point. There you will find another island in the distance, much smaller and dominated by a mountain. To persist, you must find a way across, perhaps with the favor of the youkai in the sea, or craft carefully constructed. Forge the waters to the point of the island nearest the mainland and you will find a curious port.
“It is known that all who come, eventually leave.
“Find a path that leads up the mountain and make your way upward. It is an easy path and the journey ends on the same day it begins. Just beyond the treeline, it will take you to the shrine you seek, the shrine of a water god.”
Mizukui nodded to the newcomer as he recited how he came to be there. It was the same tale she always heard from those who found her shrine.
“I now know how you came to be here. Could you now tell me your name?”
“Of course.” The young man settled to his knees and bowed his forehead all the way to the floor. When he raised it, it said, “I am Ataragaman Haruki, pleased to meet your…”
Mizukui waited for a follow up that never came. “Your…?”
“Uhhh.” His face had turned beet red. “I’m… I’m sorry. I forgot the word I was looking for.”
“Yes! Yes, that was it!” He repeated his earlier bow. “Pleased to meet your acquaintance. Sorry, I really messed that up.”
Mizukui suppressed her smile. It would’ve been rude. “You must be tired from your journey.” She looked around the man, finding nothing but a small bag on his side. “And hungry as well. I know it is not an easy one at this time of year in the cold. Come, rest and eat, and we will speak further.”
“Thank you so much,” said the man, bowing again. “And yes, I am incredibly hungry. But are you sure you have enough food for an unexpected guest?”
“Of course.” She slid toward the dining area, pausing before she reached the shoji. “Haruki.” Her tongue tasted the name. “I am known as Mizukui. I am also pleased to make your acquaintance. Now please, follow me.”
It was a short trip. Her shrine had never been more than four rooms: one for meditation, one for greeting, one for sleeping, and one for eating. Mizukui gestured for Haruki to take a seat near the hearth. He sat down on his knees and let his curiosity run wild. Mizukui smiled to herself. This place had so long been her home that sometimes she forgot it was possible to be so enraptured with the sight of it.
“This place is very cozy,” said Haruki. “And the tatamis are so smooth.” He tapped the rice straw mat beneath him. “Amazing. Did you just make these or something?”
“I like to get in the habit of replacing the mats in one of the rooms each year. They wear easily with my weight and it is fine practice to maintain the dexterity of such clumsy hands I have.”
She showed off one of her large claws to punctuate the point. Lost in the wonder of such a simple explanation, Haruki could only nod and gape.
“I would hardly call those clumsy if they can put these mats together.” His eyes took the walls. “Do you do the same with the walls?”
“They are a touch sturdier and do not bear the duty of my weight. But I have replaced them several times.”
“Several times? Wow.”
Suppressing an undignified laugh, Mizukui slithered toward the small waterfall in the back of the room in order to draw water for the meal. When Haruki’s attention caught up to the fact that such a spectacle existed, he let out another impressed gasp.
“Wow again! How did you get that in here?”
“Some kind visitors helped me to construct channels that lead down from the mountain. They collect melting snow and channel much of that to here. From here, it leads down to a nearby river and then the sea.”
“You get visitors all the way out here?”
“You are here, are you not?”
Haruki’s eyes widened at the realization. He turned away, blushing. “I figured I was an exception.”
With the water in hand, Mizukui placed the pot above the hearth, then laid a comforting claw on Haruki’s shoulder. “You are, in a way. Did you pass through the southernmost village on the mainland? Most do on their way out here.”
“I did, actually. They fed and sheltered me for a night.”
“Such is their kindness. Two times a year, once before winter and once before summer, they will send someone to me with tribute and good company. They are my only consistent visitors.”
Haruki then reached out to help with the food, but Mizukui gently pushed his hands away with that soft smile on her face. “Allow me to do this, for you are tired, and I very much welcome the company.”
She went back to lighting the hearth, but Haruki’s hands were still awkwardly held out halfway between helping her and withdrawing. She could see the battle going on behind his eyes.
“This doesn’t feel right. It’s so rude of me.”
“Only if I decide so. Your offer is more than enough courtesy. The pleasure of preparing a meal for another is such a rarity for me and I would like to have this one selfish gesture.”
A rather polite young man, thought Mizukui, and he offered a sort of blunt curiosity of her the villagers were oft too nervous to show.
Soon enough the meal was ready. Haruki ate slowly and silently, eyes on Mizukui more often than his food, trying to figure out a polite pace to eat at. Mizukui kept a stoic face despite the childish grin growing within her. She ate deliberately slow just to see how Haruki would react. He went as far as to place a bite of food back down in his bowl twice when Mizukui did the same.
Once they were finished, Mizukui resumed their talk.
“Now that you are full and rested, Haruki, I would like to hear your story.”
Haruki cocked his head in confusion, but Mizukui could see apprehension in those creases upon his face as well. “My story?”
“Indeed, for no one makes this trek without their reasons. Perhaps you can start out by telling me where you are from?”
“Ah, well, I guess that’d be, um, Kitayuki.”
“Kitayuki? The name is not familiar to me.”
“Yeah, I’m not all that surprised. It’s to the north.”
“Northward? How far?”
He swallowed deep. “The northernmost village on Zipangu. Up against the ocean.”
Surprise graced Mizukui’s face. “That is quite an incredible journey to take. How long have you been traveling?”
“About a year.”
“I imagine you have seen everything Zipangu has to offer.”
“S-something like that. The trip had its ups and downs.”
“Let us start with the beginning, shall we? Tell me about…”
“…why you are here.”
The clump of dirt hit the ground with a thud. Mizukui offered a towel to Haruki as he knelt over the soon-to-be flower bed, panting. With a thank you, he accepted and wiped his brow.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You told me so much about your journey here when we first met, but never your reasons. I have grown curious.”
After taking a long drink, Haruki paused, his mouth stuffed with water. The way he stood with his mouth full made Mizukui think he had temporarily forgotten how to swallow.
“I, uh, I guess if you want to know it wouldn’t hurt to tell. Let me go get the seeds first, though, before I forget about them.”
Mizukui’s eyes narrowed. Haruki never forgot anything. “I already have them. Here.”
“Always a few steps ahead of me, huh.” Careful not to drop any, Haruki scooped them up from Mizukui’s claw.
“Are these the purple ones or the pink ones?” he asked.
“Weren’t we talking about something else?”
Haruki had never mastered the art of subtlety. “Yes, why you came here.”
Mizukui gave him a moment before coughing.
“S-sorry. I guess the best place to start would be Jirou.”
Mizukui’s eye twitched. Subtly, she hoped. “Who is he?”
“I’ve got a friend back in my village, a girl named Aina. I know her family just as well as my own. Jirou is her grandfather.”
“Aina, what a cute name. Do you like her?”
“W-well, yes, but not that kind of like, you know. We just like a lot of the same things and I guess I like looking after her. Like a little sister I never had. But she’s not really part of the story.
“Jirou’s been around almost all of Zipangu and tells stories about it all the time. I guess that’s where I picked up my adventuring side. Funny thing is, he always told me not to travel. That nothing good would come it. I never really understood why, considering he always seemed so happy when telling his stories. Well, most of them.”
“Most of them?” It took more effort than she expected to keep her voice level.
“You wanted to know why I came here, right?” His eyes drifted away from hers. “There you go.”
That removed the last of her doubt. That’s where the story, the guide to her shine had started. Mizukui took a deep breath, absentmindedly staring at the floor, eyes flashing a thousand emotions at once.
“Is he…” No, she had to ask now or she would never be able to. “Is he happy?”
“Jirou? It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he’s the happiest person I’ve ever met. Nothing ever gets him down. He’s got a wife, kids, grandkids, and he’s great to chat with. Why?”
“Just a passing curiosity.” Mizukui pointed to the seeds she’d given him earlier. “Iwakagami.”
“Huh?” Haruki looked down at the seeds as if he just realized they were there. “Right! Iwagakumi.”
He gave her a confused look.
“The pink ones are Iwakagami. The purple ones are called Lavender. You should try to put in the effort to remember the names, I find them quite beautiful.”
“Okay, I can try. Iwakagami, then. There’s a lot of seeds. I guess we should plant them all, huh?”
“We certainly have the room for it.”
Haruki smiled and went about his work of laying out the seeds. As he worked, Mizukui reached for the sky, concentrating on the clouds and smiling when the first drops of rain began to fall. Haruki quickly noticed and turned around, gaping when he saw Mizukui.
“Wow. You look… radiant.”
A wide grin covered her face at the compliment. It had been so long since she last heard one. “Thank you.”
“So this rain is yours?”
She nodded. “You should finish burying the seeds before the dirt gets too wet, though.”
“I’ll do that.”
After he turned, Mizukui caught a small puddle in her claw and sipped from it. The taste dashed her smile, but she kept herself from frowning in front of Haruki. Still salty. But she had expected as much.
“Alright,” said Haruki. “I guess…”
“…this is never going to happen.”
Mizukui looked up from her tea. “You should not be so hard on yourself. Weaving tatami mats is not a skill so easily acquired.”
“But this is the third room for which I’ve helped—well, tried to help you replace them. And you can do it easily with claws.”
“Haruki, I have been doing it for many years. This is your third time attempting it, and you have improved with each attempt.”
Mizukui took a sip of her tea. Genmaicha, as the villager called it when he brought it by yesterday. It always tasted best fresh.
“Come, take a break and have some tea. It will help refresh you.”
“I don’t want to be refreshed, I want to learn how to do this.”
“When did impatience and ire ever help anyone complete a task?”
“I’m not impatient or iry…? ired…? Whatever. Angry!”
Mizukui shot him a look.
Shaking her head, she set her tea down and glided across the floor to where Haruki was working. He flinched when she sat down beside him and put her arm over his shoulders, but did not pull away.
She could feel the tension in his muscles.
“Why are you so concentrated on this?”
“Because, well, it’s something I should be able to do. You make it look so easy.”
“Is that the only reason?”
His face grew redder. Mizukui saw words choke up in his throat several times before any made it out of his mouth. “I can’t… I’m not doing anything. All the villagers who come here have helped you out somehow, whether helping make that waterfall in the dining room, or fixing the walls, or even just giving you tea when they visit. They’re actually being productive.”
Ah, that’s why he didn’t want the tea.
“I always do this, too! I always just run into the most ridiculous situations and end up regretting it!”
Mizukui grabbed his far shoulder and gently pulled him closer, then wrapped her tail around them in a loose circle. Haruki hardly seemed to notice.
“Tell me,” she said. “Take a long, deep breath and tell me.”
The seconds passed silently, Mizukui holding Haruki close, listening to his shallow breathing and rumbling heart. Only when he swallowed and released a big breath did words again meet her ears.
“It wasn’t just one time, it’s been spread out in little bits over my entire life. When I was younger, I took Aina with me through a forest near our village because I’d just listened to one of her grandfather’s stories and wanted to be an adventurer. We got lost and it took almost until dawn for our families to find us.
“One time I became fascinated with a traveling peddler and absentmindedly followed him far outside the village. I didn’t even think about the consequences, I just did it! Well, I got jumped by an oni and she probably would’ve carried me away if the peddler hadn’t been keeping an eye on me.
“And then… this trip. I wanted to go on it, I knew I had to go, but when I told everyone, they just said I should stay. Even Jirou, who I thought would help me out, just scolded me! No one saw any good in it, they said it’d be not only a waste of time, but dangerous, too.
“Mizukui, even if I come back safe, even if they forgive me for leaving like I did… what will it all be for? My village needed me for tending crops, cattle, for fixing houses, for so many things, but this is where I am? Why?”
This poor soul. For so long he must’ve been living in a world he felt he was not meant, a nomad born amongst settlers. He would not find joy in the sort of purpose his friends and family could give him, but perhaps he could find it in something else.
Her one claw drifted from his shoulder to the top of his head while the other pointed forward through to open shouji and toward the horizon. “There. Do you see the sun?”
“Look to the side. That glimmer just on the edge of the horizon.”
“It’s the tip of the mainland.”
“And it is all I can see from here. The pendulum of time ticks so much more vicariously for humans. The village that so often lends me aid and tribute was hardly a dozen people when I traveled through it. Now there are so many people living there I cannot remember all of their names. Some villages will have turned to towns while others will have withered away. The entire continent you walked, taking in tales, memories, joys and tears. And you shared them with me.” Mizukui gave Haruki’s head a little rub. “I am thankful for that.”
Haruki’s face heated like a tea kettle. He did not, however, remove Mizukui’s claw, ever resolved to finding his victories where he could. “Thanks.”
She could give him this one.
“There’s still one thing I want to know, though,” said Haruki.
“Why are you alone out here?”
Her claws snuck between the meager curls of his short hair as her hand idly pat his head. One day he would have know. One day, she would tell him…
“…It is time.”
Haruki turned from his view of the sunrise. “Huh?”
“Please, follow me.” Head down, Mizukui slithered toward the foyer. Haruki followed closely but carefully, his posture making his hesitance clear.
Mizukui perched upon the raised area of the floor to look down on Haruki like when he’d first arrived, the most minute of sighs brushing past her lips. Nothing could make this easy. At least her time alone had hardened her heart enough to give her the capacity to say it.
“You must leave, Haruki.”
She clasped her claws together, bowing her head in silence to give Haruki the time to realize the weight of what was now occurring.
“Wait a second. You’re telling me to go?”
“Okay, well, I’m going to need some sort of reason. Because I really don’t want to go and I don’t think you want me to leave either.”
“It is the way of things.”
Mizukui had seen hopelessness twice before in response to that statement. A despair, once gnawing, that grew to a beast of vile hunger and swallowed the others whole.
Haruki did not flinch.
“Unless you plan on forcing me to go, I’m going to need a better reason.”
“It is for your own good.”
“That’s a lie. I love it here, and I love your company. I want to be with you, so don’t tell me leaving is for my own good.”
In meeting his gaze, Mizukui searched for something to pull on, some weakness she could uncover or a fear to exploit in order to make this less painful for the both of them. It seemed, however, one thing he had gained from her over the past five years was how to conquer such things. Only the brute force of truth would conquer Haruki.
She was not looking forward to the broken expression that fierce face would know.
She took Haruki outside and prepared a small rain. Hardly more than a drizzle, just enough to get her message across.
“Is this yours?” asked Haruki.
“Hold out your hand and gather some of it.”
He did as asked.
“Now taste it.”
Still watching her, he licked up the small puddle in his hands, eyes widening the moment the rain lit up his taste buds. “It’s salty. And a little bitter.”
“It has been that way for a hundred years. Rain from a ryu will betray the wound in her heart, as this rain does for me. It is how I know I am not yet ready.”
Closing her eyes, Mizukui lifted her head to the sky. It had been so long since she had spoken the name. “A long time ago, I knew a man named Shinichi.”
Even with innocent intentions, the words burned as Mizukui swallowed them. It had been a hundred years, was she truly not ready to give these memories breath?
“No. And that, perhaps, is the sin of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Shinichi was once like you, a young visitor to my shrine when it was far, far to the north. He came with only his curiosity and a need he could not define. We oft spoke at length, even with all the visitors my shrine saw.” She saw Haruki’s unspoken question in his eyes. “It was rather close to two villages, and many came to meet me. Even ryus from other shrines.” Mizukui raised her gaze to watch clouds go by. “I also saw many suitors, but could never choose. I still do not know why. Shinichi stood by me through all of it, even knowing my indecisive nature.”
“He met me when he was merely eighteen. He died at fifty-four to a cruel disease that robbed him of himself. But all those years, he stayed close, helping me, keeping me company, defining so much of the youkai that is now known as Kouko Mizukui. He loved me. He said so many times. As a ryu so young, I did not know what love was, what I felt toward Shinichi. I asked him to leave, to find another, but he refused. So the years, so ostensibly slow, ticked by, and Shinichi grew old and sick. In his last days, torn apart by dementia, he cursed me.
“My naivety and crassness had stolen his life from him.”
Mizukui flinched when Haruki’s hand rested on her shoulder and squeezed. “He was wrong.”
Mizukui looked at him. “One hundred years ago, I would have denied that. But in reflection, I believe you are correct. Those last days were not Shinichi’s, they belonged to some beast that had taken his body. But that does not change the reality of what I had done.”
“He made the choice to stay. Knowing you had trouble finding love, even refusing to leave when you told him to.”
“Yes, he did make that choice. It was the wrong choice and in the end, he regretted it. As a ryu—no, as another sapient being, I had a responsibility to him which I failed in the most horrific way.”
“Mizukui.” Her stoic eyes shifted to the hand on her shoulder. “What happened to Shinichi was…” Haruki trailed off, fumbling with his mouth. “Shinichi’s life was his own. A life he loved, until the very last day.”
“He was deceived. Misled. He invested his life into an idea that never came to fruition. How can you not call that a tragedy?”
“Because he got to spend that life with you.”
The fire with which his words burned glowed in eyes already flooded with the light of the sun. How clean he spoke, how clear he struck his message could only have been spurred by a certain spice of madness. Mizukui looked away and lost herself in the sky.
“Unique I may be, but not so worthy for my company to be priced at another’s life.”
“You ever noticed you do a funny thing with your nose whenever you take a whiff of your tea before drinking it?”
“You’ve got this weird twitch that happens when you sniff tea. And it happens every time before you take a sip.”
“I am not sure I understand.”
“When you pass the flowerbed behind the shrine, you always stop and adjust one of the flowers.”
“That… yes, I do that.”
“I have a lot more. Like how you try to get me embarrassed or confused. You love messing with people and I think it’s because you want to see every side of them. To see how they react in every situation.”
“Yes, that is true as well. Why are you mentioning it?”
“Do you know why I stayed here so long? Why I don’t want to leave now?”
“I could presume, but I do not know for sure.”
“Because of those things. The island is beautiful, sure, and I enjoyed the adventure of getting here, but what kept me here, what I look forward to every day, is you. How you move across the ground. How you hold on to that passive face so strongly but it breaks when you’re enjoying yourself. How you pretend you’re having trouble with something just so I have an excuse to help you. I’m here and that is my choice.”
“And I must stop you before you make the same mistake Shinichi did.”
“It wasn’t a mistake.”
“You are so young, Haruki. Too young to understand your error. Your heart is restless and your life is meant to be an adventure, not idleness.”
“No, my youth is exactly what you need. You’re too sure of how things are, how people are supposed to live their lives. There is no ‘should’. There is no ‘should not’. There is simply what we chose to do with the conviction we chose to do it. You did not fail Shinichi and you did not deceive him. He was happy, you have to believe that.”
“That is not the truth of it.”
Haruki’s hand slipped to the small of her back. His head fell, then raised again, eyes wrought with tears in an expression so torn she could hear his heart rip.
“You need to leave now.”
“I’m not going to leave because of a misguided attempt to help me. Maybe I’m not in love like Shinichi was, but I still want to stay. For so many reasons.”
Did he not realize this only made it more painful for them both? “Will you leave because I ask?”
Haruki crossed his arms and gave her a look.
“Please. If you care for me, respect this wish.”
For too long he stared at her, quiet in thought but sharp in expression. As the seconds ticked by, his features softened, his frown mellowed, and his arms dropped to his side. Mizukui nodded, but he did not return it.
He turned. His steps fell with the weight of a heavy heart, but just when Mizukui thought her ordeal ended, he paused and looked to her.
“Mizukui… it’s okay for you to be happy.”
A void of silence more violent that a typhoon roared through the air between them. The statement laid bare before Mizukui, naked to her eyes for the first time in a hundred years. Holding onto the void in her chest, she turned around, went back into her shrine, and, like every time before, drew her heart back within herself and waited for the patter of rain.
It always came after someone left. Even in her age, she could not hold the grip on her power to keep her emotions from leaking into the sky. But maybe it was fitting that it happened, to show she still cared, to show her penance was not yet over. Closing her eyes, she lifted her ears to the sky and lived in the downpour.
Until she heard the sloshing of feet on mud. Coming at a run.
She looked up just in time to see Haruki throw open the entrance, panting and smiling, drenched in sweat, tears, and rain, haggard as a beggar.
He shoved his hand out, cupping something inside. “Taste it.”
He didn’t wait for Mizukui to reply, promptly walking up to her and shoving his hand right in front of her face, dripping all the while. Eyes locked on Haruki, she leaned down and took a sip.
And for the first time in a hundred years, Mizukui knew the taste of Rain.