"To think that two and two are four..."

 

           My sister's apartment is close to a river with cherry trees growing on both its banks. I'm sure it's stunning when the flowers are in blossom, but with all the picnickers and families and office parties crowded beneath them it's not a place I can go to with my dogs: and of course the dogs go with me everywhere, so there's no question of leaving them home and going out by myself.

           Which is why I went out to the little parklet around the corner for my own private hanami, with a couple of chuuhai tins from the 7-11. There's a cherry tree there, a reasonably big one, covered with flowers that shine under the lights of the streetlamp quite as magically as any cherry blossoms elsewhere. I sat down on the bench directly opposite it and checked to be sure the dogs were settled as well. Then I snapped the tab off a tin, took a sip and fell to considering the tree.

           Cliché or no, all Japanese go out to look at cherry blossoms in season, and I, after all, am Japanese. But I have a semi-professional interest as well. I call the blossoms magical for a reason: I've always found something uncanny about them. I mean that in a sense quite distinct from any of the evil stories that often attach to cherry trees, about corpses buried in the roots and blood soaked into the ground.

           They're beautiful. More beautiful than anything of this world should be. Every year that beauty takes your breath away, no matter how familiar the sight of them is and how much you think you're prepared to see it again. The constant unexpectedness of them, that's the spell I've never been able to unravel. It isn't the kind I'm familiar with; it doesn't follow the rules of either the youkai dimension or our human spirit plane. Their magic is something more delicate and intricate than that, yet it's totally of the physical mundane world.

           I was idly wondering if one could diagram it as one does an ordinary ward- if there might be a pattern of lines and symbols that would express the essence of the otherworldly but this-worldly charm. I could almost see how it would look- almost- as the delicate scent of the blossoms came to me on a small breeze and the white clusters swung a little on their branches. I narrowed my eyes, trying to get the precise order of the lines. There was a yelp from one of my dogs. I came back to myself and looked to see the problem.

           It was a youkai, a slender male wearing a black crested kimono. Several cuts above the common run, obviously, with ravelled silver hair and a long disapproving mouth. Two taloned fingers grasped the ear of one of my own- I need hardly say, much inferior- youkai, which he dropped howling at my feet. It ran cowering to hide behind the bench.

           "You might keep an eye on where your shikigami go wandering off to."

           "I beg your pardon. I hope it didn't make too much of a nuisance of itself?"

           His arching eyebrows went up. "Not to me. How could it?" He folded his legs and settled onto the bench, tucking the feet I'm not sure he possessed beneath him, and regarded me with annoyance. "You shouldn't let them loose if you want to keep them."

           "It was kind of you not to eat it," I said, since it was. Strong youkai eat weak ones, and I could sense this one was very strong.

           "I've eaten enough for one evening. Hanami," he grunted.

           "Really? That's interesting. Most youkai I know don't go in for blossom viewing."

           His frown grew deeper. "Are you being funny?"

           "Not at all. This-" I gestured at the dogs- "is about the level I associate with. Youkai of your kind are rare in my experience."

Politeness is generally wasted on youkai, but you can't afford not to use it with the more powerful of them. This one however was clearly not mollified by the soft approach. His head went up in indignation.

"You don't recognize me."

           "I'm afraid I don't. There's something vaguely familiar about you, I will say, but I can't place the face. Sorry."

           "You moron-- I'm Aoarashi!"

           I blinked. "You are?"

           "Of course! You saw enough of me when you first got back. Who do you think I looked like?"

           "Well..." Now I knew I could see a resemblance to the human body he wears. Same long upper lip, same wide mouth with the chronic droop to the corners, same general air of sniffy ill-temper. But he wasn't at all like the dragon I knew growing up. "Is this a side-effect of taking over my brother-in-law's body?"

           "Don't be stupid! I had this one ages before that!"

           "I never saw it."

           "Naturally not. Kagyuu knew better than to show me off to *you*."

           "Kagyuu?"

"Your father. Had you forgotten?"

"That's my father's pen name. Interesting that you call him that instead of his real one."

           He shrugged. "Kagyuu was more his name than Iijima Ryou."

           "You'd know, I suppose."

           "You're being provoking. It's adolescent, and just as annoying as when you *were* an adolescent. You're forty-six. Time you got out of the habit."

           "I'm twenty, actually, but you're right. I should get out of the habit, if it wasn't so much fun."

"Tchah. I should have known. Give me one of those-" and he held out a hand for a tin.

           I took the second chuuhai from the bag. "Where *is* my brother-in-law's body, come to that?"

           "Home, of course. Sleeping off the cherry-blossoming with Ritsu and his birds."

           "Can't be sleeping if you're not in it," I pointed out.

           "Whatever." He shrugged his indifference and took a swig of the chuuhai. "Drinking in that body makes me feel weird after a while. I need to get out for a bit."

           "Weird how? Drunk?"

           "Yes- No. Maybe." He blinked in thought. "What do you call drunk?"

           "Drinking too much."

           "I know that. How do you feel when you've drunk too much?"

           "I wouldn't know," I said serenely. "I've never done it."

           He grunted. "And I thought Ritsu was bloody-minded. Cut it out. I'm not Kagyuu so there's no point trying to get my goat."

           I didn't pursue it. I know he's not my father and he might be right about the pointlessness. "Alright then. Some people feel happy when they're drunk, and some feel generous, and some get amorous and look for a partner, and others get belligerent and look for a fight. Which do you do?"

           "None of those. It's quite different." He upended the tin into his mouth, deposited it on the bench between us, and held out his hand for a second.

           Luckily I had one, against the not remote possibility of acquiring company at the parklet, though this wasn't quite what I'd expected. I went to put the empty in the bag. It sloshed, almost full. Intrigued I took a sip. Fruit juice, no kick to it at all.

           "So that's how spirits manage to drink our alcohol." 

           "We take the spirit out of it." He smiled suddenly with that preternaturally long mouth of his, showing two delicate fangs. I didn't try to hide my wince, which seemed to put him in a better mood. His long-lashed eyes, oddly beautiful for a youkai, shone with amusement, creating an effect that was on the whole rather repellent. "I do like having a physical body," he said, regarding the chuuhai tin genially. "Most of the time, anyway. Everything's thicker in your world-"

           "Thicker?"

           "I don't know what else to call it. Your food- it tastes, and it's hot or cold, and thick or thin or chewy, and hard or soft. Really surprising, all the differences that simple fodder can have. But sometimes it gets to be a bit much. All that complication isn't really necessary. And these bodies of yours do things that ours wouldn't even think of."

           "Like what?"

           "I don't know. I don't have a word for them."

           I could hazard a few guesses but preferred not to. There are youkai of lust as well as the others, but appetite with the breed usually reduces to what they feel as a belly-hunger: a desire for soul-stuff, either human or youkai. I couldn't imagine what sexual arousal would feel like to a dragon and I wasn't going to ask. At his age- or rather, the age the body he lives in is- it might in fact not be a consideration any more, and I didn't feel like giving him ideas.

           "I know the feeling of not having words for things," I said instead. "Like that." I nodded to the tree.

           "That? Of course there's a word for it. It's a cherry tree."

           "I know. It's the feelings you get when you look at a cherry tree that I don't have the words for."

           "What feelings?"

           "It's like you when you drink- I don't have words for them. I can use ones that come close and say 'but that's not quite it.' But the exact word for it probably doesn't exist."

           He snorted. "And a good thing too. Words are dangerous. They make things solid. You look at that very ordinary tree and say Oh I feel naninani, and right then the naninani spirit is born and takes possession of your soul." He turned moody, chewing his lower lip in thought. I can imagine there are a number of things he's felt in his new body that a youkai has no words for and would prefer not to have made real. It might not be sex at all, which is actually not that much different from hunger. But sex can lead to feelings of tenderness and affection, and what could a youkai make of those? When a youkai sees beauty through human eyes, how does it understand the swelling feeling in its chest, the near-pain of looking at loveliness?

           "So what's this naninani spirit that comes when you drink? Or if it's simpler to say, what isn't it?"

           "Why do you care?"

           "Just interested. Youkai are my life's study. I'm willing to bet the feeling is actually quite ordinary for a human."

"Fat chance."

"Are you afraid of making it real by putting words to it? We don't have to if you'd rather not."

"Imbecile. *I'm* willing to bet it has no name at all, even among humans. In fact, I *will* bet. What stakes do you want?"

"We're playing for stakes? Fine then. If I name it you agree to become my shikigami, not Ritsu's."

"Certainly. And if you fail to name it I eat your soul."

Well, the usual. Besides, I'm not sure how much soul I have left. "Good enough. No cheating though: you describe it fair and square, and you don't deny it if I actually do hit on the thing."

"Done. Very well, riddle me this." He fixed his eyes on the cherry tree and concentrated. "When I've had a few drinks, even if I've been eating with it, I feel that I'm hungry for something else. Not having the thing I'm hungry for makes me feel like I've eaten tempura-" he patted his stomach - "full but uncomfortable. Whatever the thing is I want, I know I can't have it; and I can't have it because someone took it away from me, and that makes me angry. But I don't know who it was who took it and I never had it in the first place to be taken away, and I don't even know what the thing is I'm hungry for. Oh, and if it helps- this is something Kagyuu felt a lot and I'm sure you never did. So what do you call *that*?"

I thought. "If it wasn't for the last bit, I'd say regret--"

"Regret is being sorry you did something. I haven't done anything."

"You can regret not doing something."

"You can? How?"

"Doing one thing when you should have done another." Running away while Arimura was killed by the oni. "Not being able to do something because it happened before you could stop it." Like Kiyoshi being drowned in the river. "Like that."

"The way you'll never see Kagyuu again because he's dead. Do you call that regret as well?"

           "I've no desire to see my father again. He's not nearly dead enough for my peace of mind."

           "Liar."

           "Quite true. But you--" I turned my head to look at him.

           "What about me?" Caution, was that?

           "Everything's thicker, you say. Rephrase that from our way of seeing, everything in your world is thinner. Food, because it's spirit stuff. Touch, because it's spirit body. I can talk to you like this, but only because I'm me, and I know I'm talking with something more than my physical voice and it sounds to you different than it would to your human ears. So." I sat back and considered. "Here you are in our thicker complicated world, wearing a body that obeys the laws of our world and not your own. The thing you feel as hunger, that's wanting something you don't have, and maybe can't have. Not having it makes you sad: that full-but-uncomfortable feeling in your belly is how sadness registers with us. And the sense that it was taken away from you though you never had it, by someone you can't name- we have that all the time. It's a staple of the human condition, in fact. Circumstances- the way things are- make it impossible for you to have what you want. It isn't an enemy acting from malice, it isn't anyone actively keeping it from you, it's just- things went one way and so they can't go the other, any more than a man standing at a crossroads can go both left and right at the same time."

           "And there's a word for that?"

           "We say mono no aware. The sadness of things."

           "That's not it. Things don't make me sad. You lose." He drew himself up in triumph and started to smile, showing those very sharp fangs of his.

           "I don't think so. Kinu said you were bedbound for years after your-- near-death experience. Like a stroke victim: you couldn't move properly, couldn't speak clearly, had to relearn everything from the start, including language. You'd come into my father's world and could finally meet him in the same form he wore. You could hear his true voice and talk to him in his own language, and just as our food is more filling than youkai fodder, his voice and his language were far richer and more filling to your senses than what you heard of him in this shape." I nodded at him.

"But he died a year later, long before you could speak; maybe even before you could understand what he was saying to you. And when you get drunk you remember how you were cheated of knowing him the way he really was, cheated by simple chance, and you're sad and angry and baffled because, in the end, things like this just happen to us and we can't do anything to stop them. Right?" I smiled in my turn. His face was still and frozen, from anger and the truth he wouldn't admit to. "I win. You're my servant now."

           "No," he said, and a mean satisfaction showed in his eyes. Very youkai, that. "No. Your mistake- the mistake all you humans make- is thinking I belong to Ritsu just because I protect him. I belong to Kagyuu, still, and he's not here to release me from his service so you can take it. Too bad." He gave me a vindictive smile and vanished.

           I sighed. "I'll never be a favourite of Aoarashi's," I told the dogs crouched around the bench. "Home." I stood up, tidied the cans into the bag, and dropped them into the trash as I passed.

           He was quite right about one thing, though. I've never repined over the fact that what is, is, and what happens, happens. It's no surprise that my father did. He wouldn't even try to use the power he had to change the way the world is, so the only thing he could do was sigh uselessly. I know better. I have power and I intend to have more and I mean to use it to get the things that I want- including, of course, Aoarashi- without moaning over the occasional setback- including, of course, this one. Life in general is too short for that: and mine, now, is even shorter than it was. I don't have time for anything else.

 

 

To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three,
The heart of man has long been sore
And long 'tis like to be.

 

-AE Housman, Last Poems

 

mjj

April 07