Rin had no memory of going up the mountain before the disaster came. Each year when the weather changed, some bigger or older cousins would get chosen to join the group following the pack animals to the ridges. The rest of the kids would stay with the old or injured, doing the chores needed to prepare the camp for winter. Rin was usually sent to forage around the treeline. This was the place the young and small spent the most time, a place requiring no supervision, and this was the place she had gone to hide after the storms started and did not stop, when the adults started sacrificing more than food and more than animals, increasing the value of their offerings day by day—offering up their own blood, then the blood of their youth, offering up mobility, fertility. Hearing. Sight.
This was the place she had run when she was not sure where else to go. It was also the place she’d met Sano.
Rin wanted to go someplace new.
The trees stretched up before her, raven-black, into the slick wall of night, beyond which Rin thought she could make out the mountain peak: a faraway crag scarred with white, visited by the very barest snow. Tired, cranky, haunted and lonely, Rin distracted herself on the way up the cart path, imagining she recognized things she had in reality already passed, or had never remembered. There, maybe, had stood the ring of cedars where they waited out the storm. There, the ruined farmhouse they had scavenged. There, the former phone pole, a silent cylinder buried beneath fallen trees, rusted all through, the color of the ground. There by the cold spring the weakling birches, drooped at the neck, their skin like paper peeling, their few leaves fanning sadly, eagerly: the hands of the other children, waving. Sending Sano’s ships away, and welcoming them back.
Rin looked for chances to experience the land as Sano had described it, the land as she knew it must have been if she could only remember before the disaster—full of dappled light through dancing trees, with bugs who buzzed and (when angered) stung, with wild creatures who kept hidden, shy, but sometimes came closer and nibbled the ornamental grass. Their sounds at night, the chirping and yipping and keening and yowling and crooning, their restless rustling through the grass and the trees. Jealous, Rin felt, as she trod unbothered up the mountain. To have had seasons full of noises, to be side by side with them even in a house, in a nice house such as Sano must have, living at the top of the mountain. To never be unaccompanied, to never be allowed to think a thought of being alone. How much quieter the island was now than Sano ever described—absent the sound of even one other person, a man who always wanted to talk, and a dottering hen. All their thoughts and wants and feelings made audible.
Days passed. Farther up the mountain Rin moved distractedly, forcing herself onward through physical habit and a haze of imagination. In the daylight she searched for wild onions and unattended birds’ nests, and at night she whipped stones into the darkness, just to prove that she was right not to be afraid. Maybe another chicken would find her. Maybe another pariah dog. She would coax the one and strike the other till it fled. Maybe someone would come looking for survivors; she imagined scenarios in which she would go to them, in which they would gaze upon her relieved and grateful—one child left, a child of the island, great fortune, celebration and joy!—in which they would take her back with them to Sano’s mainland, in which she would attend one of the schools such as he described. She imagined other scenarios in which she would see a look cross their face, the pallid spectre of malintent, the white-eyed vigilance of a person with a plan, and she practiced her responses in her head so she would know when she saw it, would know when to flee.
The thoughts she had when she did not create these diversions for herself were bitter, dark. She thought of how she might have spared Sano the last of his vitality by hurling rocks at the dog first thing, on sight, instead of waiting to see what it had done. She thought of the fish she caught, and wasn’t it moving rather erratic, weren’t its scales a little mottled, wasn’t the reason she caught it so easily, having never before in her life caught a fish, attributable in truth to the fact that it did not flee, and did not struggle, and did not apprehend much at all her coming after it. Wasn’t the truth that she had snatched it only a moment early from its death and fed it sick to a sick man.
Very far up the mountain, just as Sano had described, there was a house hidden in the trees. She could just spot the ridge of its roof through the green.
Rin followed the cart path around till it ended, and she was left in a pebbled courtyard, looking up at Sano’s house: the high roof and imposing façade, the dark wood against the gloomy clouds. The house had been left shuttered against the storm that had long ago passed. The entryway was barred, but was easy enough to un-bar. Rin entered because she felt that Sano would have invited her in.
Inside, at her feet, Rin found a narrow hallway running in both directions, and both directions looked the same. Rin picked one and trailed close along the inner wall, sliding open paper screens as her fingers found the holds, revealing empty rooms, three of them—clear of furniture or effects, bare of everything but the floor mats, almost as if untouched. She felt something like disappointment in Sano for this barrenness. But seeing as there stood so many the same all in a row, perhaps they were intended this way, and it was she who was wrong.
There were some storage shelves filled with bedding. There was a room to wash and a separate room with a toilet. There were three more rooms, identical to the first, just as empty. Rin followed the hallway all the way around, and when it made a box depositing her again at the entryway, she stubbornly doubled back, and did not leave. She found two heavy wooden doors, stuck a little from moisture. With effort, she made them open.
Behind the doors, a room of polished wood, impossibly large: large enough to hold all the kids she had grown up with, all the old people; larger than the house and porch she and Sano had shared, made larger by the fact that there was again nothing in it, only the flat symmetry of mats, a small recessed area with a single jar and a painted scroll, and herself in the center, a stranger here, alone. Rin did not understand what such a room would be used for. She did not understand where in this house Sano had lived.
Temper rising, feet squalling from so long a walk and so little reward, Rin shoved open the next set of doors. She would find something of his to carry forward into the world. In his last days he had owned little, but from this house he had owned the entire island, and in all this infinite space there had to be something of his he’d have given her, if he’d had the chance. A gift, a token of his friendship.
She deserved it.
Past the big room, another hallway like the first. There was a closet that she rummaged through, finding only cleaning rags, towels, bath supplies. There was a room with many cushions whose purpose was unclear. There was a kitchen, which she scoured, undoing its arrangement of tea pot, cups, and kettle, raiding its tall cabinet, bare of food, stocked instead with all manner of useful things: utensils, fire stokers, and boxes of Sano’s matches. Rin took none of them. They were not what she wanted.
At the back corner, the house diverted suddenly from its symmetry. A new hallway, bright with color and generously wide, shot straight off toward the back of the house, so jarring next to the rest that Rin had the thought it must have been dropped in from some other person’s house, in some different land. The floorboards were slick, shining, unknotted and without gaps; the walls were smooth and hard and painted flower yellow. And this hallway did not loop. It ended: a closed door made of rosy, polished wood, carved with wisps and flourishes. A door that was meant to be looked at from outside. A door meant to remain closed.
Rin opened it.
The room inside struck Rin as very serious; a large desk, polished to a high gloss, set with a low gold lamp, with pens and ink; an oversized chair of supple leather, strangely colored, a deeper red than blood; two tall sets of shelves filled completely with books; and across the entire floor, a thin green carpet, bright and clean as new grass. The room made Rin not want to leave dirt, made her presence here feel indelible, something that would seep into Sano’s carpet and suffuse the walls of his house. And yet she would cross the carpet on tiptoes, she would open all Sano’s desk drawers.
Scraps of colored paper. Stamps. Wound-up string. Pens in pieces, not yet repaired. A child’s rubber ball. A small gold key. Rin picked up every thing, one at a time, and held it in her hand. She put the others back, and took the key.
In the shadow of the bookcases was a second door matching the one she’d entered. The knob did not turn. She snapped back from it, jaw flattening like a snake’s, threatened by the existence of a locked door in Sano’s house, upset at this room, unique in all the house, for resisting her. Defiantly, she used her key, barging in.
Her hands flew to cover her mouth. A protection against spirits.
The smell was what woke the knowledge in her. A wet, musky decay like the scent that had clung to the bottom of the mountain after the storm. The body itself she might have missed until she came closer to the bed in the center of the room—the barest bulge under layers and layers of white linen, the face shrouded carefully from view. Rin kept her mouth covered, did not know Sano’s traditions, did not know how he would want respects to be paid. There was a moment where she felt powerfully the urge to leave, to lock the door, to move back through the house and start putting everything back the way she found it, and then a moment where she realized she was going to look through the things gathered round the body, and Rin knelt next to the bed, pressed her hands together in brief prayer, and began to search.
In all his talking, Sano had never mentioned to her a wife. And yet Rin knew that was the person who lay here: white-sheeted, decked with flower petals long since dropped and drying, curling up at the edges, stiff. Around her form, at impeccable intervals, Sano had placed a mirror, some coins, a comb, a silk handkerchief, and two carvings, a wooden bear and a bamboo carp. And tucked close to the sheets where the right hand would be, something glittering. Rin said an apology in her head and reached over to rescue it. What she came back with was a beautiful knife. The grip was old gold, but polished clean, with a jewel set center among golden arabesques. In her vision, the blade shone against the white burial sheets, elegant, curved just slightly, like a waning moon.
Rin knew she was going to take that knife. Not because a real blade would be more useful than her old bone, or more effective. She was going to take it because its significance was evident, because when she looked it she was filled with determination, because it had been Sano’s, and because she wanted it to be hers. She knew that to take such an object from a burial bed would be to cut some sacred bond Sano had made to help his wife in the afterlife. She had not been told such a thing, but she did not have to be told. She was going to take it anyway.
Weighing the knife’s blade flat in her palm, turning it back and forth, she saw blood crusted on its thinnest point. She scraped at some of it with her fingernail until it flaked off, and wondered.
Rin locked the bedroom door behind her. She re-hid the key and hurried back through the house, fighting the thought that Sano may consider her behavior bad, pushing back feelings of being a thief—worse, a graverobber—clutching the knife nonetheless, unable to leave it behind for anything.
She was near the entryway when she heard, from the end of the yard, men’s voices.
“Wait,” said one. “He still could be here.”
“What rich man leaves his front door wide open? Don’t ruin this for me.”
“Better to be sure,” said the first. “Hello! Excuse us! Is anybody home?”