Floating in the floating city

A Spirited Away story by Zara Hemla

The celluloid of our silent
film burns up and all around

the world is just
                the body
seven days before it is found.
  - from O Hollywood by Matthew Dickman


Site: If
Rating: G
Summary: Before, during, and after.


                Fist in mouth,
life is always physical first.
There is always at least a sound.
--Matthew Dickman


The gate to the garden is closed and she leans on it, half-sobbing. Her breath mists out and she thinks that it must be winter. She doesn't know the season, the time, only that it is night. It is always night. Sen cries out softly, one word: "Mama."

*     *     *

"I can't believe you have to move," said Rumi, holding Chihiro's hand tightly. She and Chihiro lounged lazily in the biggest, comfiest couch in the house, watching Hamtaro. They both loved Hamtaro even though Rumi's older brother laughed and called them babies for watching "that silly show." Rumi just reminded him that he still slept with his favorite blankie and that shut him up.

On the TV, Hamtaro and his friends were again trying to get Laura, his owner, out of trouble. Chihiro thought it *was* kind of silly to need your hamster to get you out of trouble.

"I know, and my mom won't listen to me at all about it! I don't want to move away, not when we're just finishing the project for geography!" She and Rumi had the project on Greece. Chihiro had spent all of last Saturday painting a tiny handmade replica of the Parthenon. It was really well-done, and her dad had said he'd put it up in his office if she couldn't turn it in to school. That made Chihiro very proud, but mad too.

"And what about my birthday party! And Ryo? You know he's going to misssss you so muuuuuch!" Rumi was just teasing, as she always did. Chihiro protested, giggling.

"He doesn't like me! And I do not like him!"

"Do too!"

"Do not!"

She and Rumi started a tickle fight. On the TV, Laura looked lost and sad without her hamster. Chihiro thought to herself: if I ever get in trouble, I won't need anyone but me to get me out of it.

*     *     *

Sen finds out soon enough that she's no-one special. The bath employees even tend to shy away, claiming that she smells funny. Sen has sniffed herself discreetly more than once, but she doesn't smell anything different. She keeps clean -- all the employees can use the baths if they haul their own water and don't waste the guests' time. But still, the men who look -- to Sen -- more than a bit like frogs shy and dance away from her.

The women aren't much better. Only Lin actually talks to her. The rest talk around her, behind her, as she is walking away. She can hear the trail of whispers begin as soon as she wakes, following her like ghosts' breath, never ceasing, ever. It tires her out. She knows that coming here had been a bad idea. But she can't remember when she'd ever thought it was a good one.

The glamour of the place has faded with her continuing non-status: as a glorified servant, Sen sees the ratty storerooms, the icehouse full of slaughtered animals, the old furniture in piles underwater, stuffing waving slightly in the current. When Eubaba finishes with things, she throws them in the sea. Sen thinks that's terrible, but no one else seems to notice.

Perhaps when Yubaba is finished with her, she will throw Sen into the sea too. Sen imagines herself floating on the sea floor, mouth open in perpetual surprise, skin being eaten by crabs. Who would remember her then?

*     *     *

"Mom, please. This job can't be so much better than what Dad's doing now?"

"It's a lot better, honey. It's a promotion. It means better pay and -- " her mother's face hardened as it stared down at her. "Chihiro, you're just a child. You can't understand the pressures your dad's under."

An answer like that just made Chihiro mad, and she hated her mother anyway today because she wouldn't let Rumi come over and help her pack. She considered stamping her foot, but long experience had taught her that her mother had no patience for stamping. She opted for pouting slightly.

"But can't he get a --" She paused; she'd forgotten the word her mother used. Her mother sighed, ripped off a long piece of tape and stuck it on a box.


"A promotion and still stay here? All my friends are here."

"Chihiro, whining won't help. Your father's company says to go, and we're going. I don't want to leave Mrs. Ashitake, but sometimes we just have to do things we don't want to." She heaved the box up in her wiry arms and carried it out into the living room.

Mrs. Ashitake was a small elderly woman who lived next door to them. She sometimes brought funny foods over for her mom to try, and they ate and giggled together about things. Chihiro never wanted to join in the conversations, but she envied anyone who could make her mom giggle. With Chihiro, her mom never giggled, never laughed. She was always giving orders and talking in a clipped, hard voice.

Chihiro looked up at the wall where her parents' wedding photo usually hung. It was gone, packed of course. In it, her mother looked happy but composed, like she was doing her duty long before Chihiro was ever born.

*     *     *

Sen sneaks out to the rooftop overlooking the sea. The light of the setting sun spreads over the water like blood. Sen sighs and spreads her legs over the slope of the roof.

They are probably looking for her. "They" are the nasty popeyed frog men and the people that look like women but aren't, because of the weird marks on their faces and the way they scurry around instead of walking.

Sen doesn't care what they want. She doesn't want to work anymore. Having a job stinks and she's only a girl anyway. Who expects a girl to paint walls all day and scrub floors and do dishes?

Above her, a window pops open with a hiss of steam. Loud singing drifts down to her: an old old song that Sen knows has to do with true love and how it can break all spells.

The wind from the sea is warm and comforting. Sen closes her eyes just for a minute. When she awakens, Haku is sitting next to her, his black hair whipping out behind him and his skin shining even in the darkness.

"Hello," he says. And sits there. Sen wonders if he wants her to talk, or maybe he wants something else. What could it be? She feels awkward and says hello in return.

He stares into the ocean, watching the darkness like it's his friend instead of her. And really she doesn't know if Haku is her friend. Maybe he helped her and maybe he didn't. She just knows that he is as familiar to her as her own fingers, and that he is beautiful. She watches his face, knowing he is really somewhere else, somewhere far away where she can't reach him.

The silence stretches out. The wind blows. She huddles up against the wall and the night chill seeps into her. So far below that darkness has swallowed it, the train swirls water out of its way. Sen feels tears slipping down her face, but there's no sadness in her heart: just the feeling of a great loss, long ago.

"I'm tired," says Haku abruptly. "I'm so tired of being hers. I don't even know how long I've been here." He turns his face and he is crying too. She knows then that her tears are a reflection of his, that they are bound together. She shifts forward until she can put her head on his shoulder. He puts his arm around her. And they sit side by side until the moon begins to rise, swollen and white above the water.

Far above them a window pops open. "Sen!" The voice is strident: Lin's. Sen gasps a little and starts to stand. She is reluctant to leave. Haku grasps her wrist as she rises. His green eyes are almost see-through in the moonlight.

"Your name is Chihiro, remember? Don't forget it." She nods, startled. Her name is Chihiro! How can she have forgotten?

Haku's warm hand leaves her wrist and he stands up quickly. He smiles at her and swipes at his cheeks, then he says, "I'll see you again." She nods again, watching him as he takes two quick steps and leaps from the edge of the roof.

In a moment she sees him again, twirling his way up the side of the bath-house. He slides into one of the upper story windows and disappears. She turns and with numb hands begins to navigate the maze of pipes and turns that lead back to her window.

She frowns as she climbs. Hadn't Haku told her something important? She can't quite remember what it was. Maybe it hadn't been such a big deal. Maybe boys who were dragons said cryptic things all the time.

As she slides back in the window, Lin accosts her. "There you are! It's time to scrub the tubs and you missed dinner. Don't you care that we're on a schedule here?"

Sen shrugs. "I'm here now." She follows Lin through the women that aren't - quite - women, pushing through a cloud of giggles and silk robes, all the colors of the rainbow except the color of Haku's moon-touched eyes.

*     *     *

The car will be dusty and covered in branches. Her father will exclaim and her mother will make caustic comments about robbers and good security systems.

Chihiro will stand and watch the dark entrance to what she thinks of as the chapel, with its stained glass window and its fountain. Nothing will come out of the dark entrance. She will not think of going back in.

Eventually her father will get the car cleaned to his satisfaction and he will say, "Chihiro, get in! We have to find our new house!" When Chihiro gets in, she will find that her flowers from Rumi are dried almost perfectly and they still have their shape.

On the way back down the grassy road, her father will check his cellular phone and find his voice mail crammed full of forty-two new messages. This will amaze him so much that he will discuss it with her mother all the way home.

Chihiro will turn around in her seat for one last glimpse of the red plaster building, but she won't get one.

Her father will get back on the highway and quickly find the turnoff he missed. As they wind up the hill to her house, Chihiro will watch the roadside and see several tiny shrines, each with a small candle, some lit and some not.

They will turn onto their street and they will see the blue house. Her mother will exclaim in happiness and say something about a nice clean neighborhood. Her father will mention how he hopes that the movers have made it okay without him.

Chihiro will get out of the car in the driveway and she will stand still, looking down the hill to the place where she thinks the red brick building is. But she won't see it. She will walk around the back of the house to where a small garden blooms. The flowers in it will smell familiar. She will bend over and sniff them deeply.

Her mother will come around the side of the house and stop, because she will see Chihiro sniff the flowers, then stand and exclaim aloud, "No Face!" Even though there is no one there, Chihiro will bow, palms together, and smile widely and say, "You came to visit me!"

And her mother will step forward and put a stop to that, because little girls should not be talking to thin air. Chihiro will be disappointed but understanding. And when her mother goes back around to the front of the house after establishing that, indeed, there is no one to talk to, Chihiro will smile again, a small smile, and she will say, "I'm so glad to see you."



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