Salt of Blood and Sea
She sits on a boat with her hands folded in her lap, watching goldfish drift by as old men talk. They are all old men, she thinks, even the bard; especially the bard, pompous and self-satisfied in the way that only old men are. This slips out when the bard asks for introductions but she can't bring herself to be sorry. Defiance thrums in her blood as she stares them all down, something hard and dark flitting across the bard's face before he starts talking again. Old and stupid, she amends, shifting her gaze to her hands. She has seen the medicine seller on this ship.
Dangerous is the word for his smile when she asks if it was not him who put the magnet to the compass and led them all into the sea of the dead. It never falters and she knows then that he didn't do it, a certainty that settles in her breast and makes it slightly easier to breathe. He thinks I'm funny, she realizes, that we are. This thought brings her sorrow without understanding.
Wait, she calls after they disembark in Edo, and he turns slowly toward her in front of a market stall full of cut glass, swinging in the wind and refracting all of the color onto the dirt that he stands on. Breathless from running, she grasps his kimono and pulls him down for a kiss to his cheek that ends up on the corner of his mouth when he turns his head, startled.
Thank you is what she means to say, but she feels the coolness of his skin under her lips and the heat of what is racing through her own veins, and that is not what she says. She feels her own immediacy, small and bright and burning, wax candles that will flare and go out. Mortality is what she says instead, and then blushes and bows an apology.
He watches her run from him, cool and still as the mountains that nations are built on. She feels silly, and then again inexplicably sad.
A year later the sea laps against her toes as she steps across the sand and into it, kimono hitched up at her waist. She sighs into the blessed coolness of it and wipes the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. The heat wave has been unbearable.
Are you sure you should be doing that? comes his voice behind her, setting off a thrill deep in her belly. She turns around and he is seated on the sand, eyes on her flushed cheeks and the hair sticking to her neck. Behind her, the bodies of seven women drift across the bottom of the ocean.
Was it a mononoke? she asks instead, stepping out of the water and onto the blistering sands so she can stand before him. He unfolds himself so he is towering above her.
In the end, he answers, it was only a man.
Gulls shriek across the sky, sounds lost in the roaring of the sea, and she scuffs her toes through the grains at her feet. No one comes here, still, she tells him. How long will it be until they are not afraid?
A beat, and he replies, As long as memory.
She thinks about this, and about the surface of the sea, ever changing but no different from before. The memories of old men are very long, she says, bringing something like a smile to his face. I was hoping to see you.
She shrugs and suddenly he is right there, clutching her arm, nose in her hair and the crook of her neck, sniffing like an animal. His nose is cold, and she shivers once. In the back of her eyes there is a flash like gold, painted faces and red obis. He pulls back and she realizes he is breathing hard; her own breath comes short but has been since he arrived, so there is no surprise there. Are you going to kiss me?
Something like defeat breaks over his newly composed features. No, he says, but then he does, long and cool like waves breaking over the shore. She rests her hands on his chest while he licks the beads of sweat from her upper lip. In this kiss there are the stories of the ages, then and now and may be; but none of them, she realizes, none of them are his own.
For a second she steps out of time, but then just as suddenly she is alone, a tiny, filthy girl with her clothes clinging to her skin and grit on her ankles, looking out at nothing but endless sand in front and endless sea behind.
The washing is done by herself, and no one comes to bother her in this little grove by the stream on the estate, where the sun shines down in patches and makes the water sparkle. Not since she delivered the daimyo's son a swift kick in the balls, she tells the medicine seller on his log, scrubbing the linens. But he is a pervert, not a monster, so why are you here?
He shrugs. I was thinking, he says, about what you said. About old men and memory.
And? She stands.
You are right. It's very long. For old men and - He makes a gesture with his hands, helpless, and smiles wryly. And what are you, old man? she wants to ask, but keeps her mouth shut for once in her life.
I am supposed to be getting married, she says instead, to watch his eyes go dark and his nostrils flare. She starts to undo her obi. A second wife. Babies and servitude. A pause. I think I will die. Air against her bare breasts and she sucks in a breath, waiting, wanting too much to be appalled at her own audacity.
Not yet, he says, pulling her down hard against him and lifting his hands to her skin, two points of color high on his cheeks. Warmth, she thinks giddily, betrays him. This memory.
Let me go with you, she asks him at the end, his softening cock still inside her. He grips her hips and closes his eyes, and in that moment eternity touches transience and both are transformed.
For a little while, he agrees, and she smiles.