Rin walked weakly down through the forest covering the top of the mountain. As far as she knew, this was all still Sano’s land. The hemlocks and sedge, the bunch-grass and sharp sticker-plants, dwarf saplings poking up where they normally would not, where the disaster had torn down big trees that choked out the smaller ones’ sun. Rin hugged her arms close to her chest, fighting a chill. She yanked down her sleeves, the split seams of these clothes she’d had, it felt like, her whole life—though Sano had made them new, not long before he sickened, to accommodate her growth. They fit ill on her already, too short. She pulled and tugged at them, her arms and legs begging for cover. The wind came down from the top of the mountain and bit at the back of her neck.
Through the gaps in the trees, one could see the steep slopes down to the sea. One could see the eastern plains and the southern marsh, where she and Sano had lived; one could see the dark swamp to the west, where neither Rin nor Sano had ever gone. One could see the sea on all sides. One could see the two robber-men’s ship leaving the harbor. Rin saw these things disdainfully, with mounting pain from hunger, and with no real interest. She ran her thumb idly back and forth over the blunt of her knife.
After some time picking through the forest, looking for anything to eat, Rin came across a broken ring of brick and stone filled with some water. She crouched against the edge, holding her stomach to keep it from dropping. Cupping her other hand, she drank her fill, and found that her fill came suddenly, sooner than she was used to. She did not want more. Somewhere, insects congregated; Rin could hear them but could not see where they lived. From above, she heard a single bird’s voice. Louder than anything was the little wind, the rush of the leaves, the bristle of grasses, and Rin had a faraway feeling, a feeling of coming unattached from the earth.
Rin saw her own reflection in the low, still water, and folded forward like a frog, her hands splayed at the edge of the pool, leaning as far over as she could to see. She was surprised: it had been a long time since she’d seen herself, and when the question came up, which wasn’t often, her mind had provided an image based strongly on Sano’s. She was startled to relearn her distinctions from him, that her face was round, that her nose was small, that instead of the wispy thin sweep of his hair, there was the dense long shag of hers. And she was surprised, too: She looked older than she’d thought she was.
In the cracked brick ring, a flicker of movement. In the murky deep, a flash of silver scale. Her reflection rippled, broke apart.
Near the surface where her face had been, swimming in tight, deliberate circles, was a silver-scaled fish. Rin watched, not daring to breathe, as it poked its mouth above the surface, opened, closed, open.
And Rin felt suddenly compelled. Her tongue lifted behind her teeth, she grew hot with hope, with expectation, and she felt that if she opened her mouth the right sounds would rise, full and proper, erupting from the cavern of her throat, echoing in her ears. For the first time in her life she thought she understood how it worked, how a conversation started, how really easy it was to say anything at all:
“Rin,” she said. “Here I am. It’s Rin. I’m Rin.”
The fish dipped its head back under for a moment, then emerged and resumed begging.
“You want food. What do you eat?” she asked, then, remembering Sano’s oft-rehearsed instructions, “Feed. You have special feed. Oh!” she said, seeing a second silver body slide by deeper under. And a third. The both of them rising now to the top, joining the first, mouths opening in steady rhythm, each a perfect ‘O,’ a silent choir.
“I know what to feed you,” Rin said. “But I don’t know where your food is. I suppose you have been eating insects. Good job! Still, I would like to help you. It is hard finding food of any kind, now.”
The fish tired after a while of begging, and went back under, swimming pretty loops near to the surface, sometimes breaking formation to poke back up to the surface, sometimes darting into each other’s way. It seemed to her they were showing off. “You are bluefin,” she pronounced. “It is hard carrying food down the mountain day after day. Sano would have kept some nearby, yes?”
And she left them and began to search, clearing aside tall weeds with her hands, checking every bit of ground. Behind a tree not too far away was a mound overgrown with broadleafed vines. They would not move for her hands, so Rin set to picking them apart with her knife, cutting knots out piece by piece. Soon it would get dark.
“I’m still here,” she called to them, so they would not be afraid. “We have found each other, so I will take care of you.” Her blade glinted as she worked. “After all, you are Sano’s, yes?”
When at last she freed the feed bag from the clearing she’d made, she filled her hands both full. She knelt carefully at the edge of the pond.
“Did you know Sano?” she asked, as the bluefin bobbed up to the surface. “Did you know his wife?”
They were bluefin, and bluefin were mute. But Rin would listen, and she would wait. Sano would hear their answer, and hers, and in the brighter, other world he would have something he had wanted. Rin scattered food for the fishes and made this wish her truth.
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology. http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/