A Door Through the River
But I can't go any farther. Just go back through the way you came; you'll be fine. But you have to promise not to look back. Not until you've passed the tunnel.
I stared at the painting on the wall, wishing with all my heart it was real.
What about you? What'll you do? Pointless worry. Of course he had an answer.
Don't worry. I'll go back and have a talk with Yubaba, and tell her I'm going to quit being her apprentice.
What about me? What was I supposed to do? But I’d said nothing. And he hadn’t asked anyway.
I'm fine; I got my name back.
And all I had to bring back was memories.
Will we meet again sometime? Pointless hope.
Sure we will.
Only in dreams we will.
Promise? I’d asked.
I still waited for him to keep it.
Now go. Don't look back.
I had never looked back, not once. Not until everything was too far gone to be brought back. To say I’d learned regret at an early age was an understatement.
The painting hanging on my wall taunted me. A white dragon swam in a river, the sunlight refracting off his scales. I almost wanted to throw the picture away it was so painful, but every time I thought about it, I couldn't bring myself to do it. After all, I had created it.
Weakling, my brain said. But my heart told a different story, of courage in the face of unending separation.
Shut up, I told it. Sometimes I wished I had looked back, even if it had meant being stuck in the spirit world. At least then I would’ve been happy.
Haku, why am I like this?
I stared at the painting. The white dragon swam in a river, green eyes brightly flashing and drawing me in. As I focused on him, the dragon gazed back at me with sad eyes.
"I have to go to school now, Haku," I told the painting reluctantly, careful not to be too loud. I didn't want my roommate to hear. "I'll be back soon. Don't worry. I promise."
As usual, the dragon said nothing.
Standing and stretching, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and walked out of the dorm.
Since I lived in a dorm, I didn't have far to walk to get to classes. However, the only class I really looked forward to was art. I specialized in painting mythical creatures, for some bizarre reason. No one else understood why, but I knew it had something to do with a certain spirit world that had screwed up my entire life.
"Hey, Chihiro!" my friend, Masuka, called. She ran over, ponytail bouncing and eyes bright.
"Hi, Masuka," I greeted, wondering briefly why she was so happy.
"Guess what!" she squealed, jumping up and down.
"I calculated, and you'll have enough money to support yourself for five years if you continue working in that tea shop! But you'd have more money if you sold your work and made me your financial manager," she informed me, waggling her eyebrows. Masuka had been bugging me to sell my art for the past few months, but I wanted to finish my degree first.
The tea shop had been a miraculous discovery for me. The owner, a wise old man named Izen, paid me well and had been the first to commission something from me. Every day he would get up early and dust off all his paintings and scrolls. He had quite the collection of old art hanging in his tea shop. If he sold it all, it would probably be worth several hundred thousand dollars.
What I really liked about his shop, though, was that the art he collected tended to feature mythological creatures. And he didn't mind me just sitting there quietly. He wasn't like the people at college, always chattering and loud and insensitive. It was better than the therapy I’d suffered.
"Earth to Chihiro!" Masuka exclaimed, waving a hand in front of my face. "What do you think?"
"You're amazing and I'm too lazy to do the math?" I guessed.
“Well, besides that,” Masuka said, rolling her eyes. “The tea shop is nice and all, but you should branch out.”
“I told you, Masuka, I’m not going to sell my art until after college,” I repeated patiently. “I need to get to class.”
“You’re no fun,” she retorted, but fell silent anyway.
We parted ways when I reached the arts building. Masuka was a business major, but aside from that, I didn’t really know what she did. Something that had to do with managing money. Boring.
I stepped inside the class and was immediately bombarded by greetings.
“Did you finish that—er, hi! Did you finish that—”
“Shut up, she doesn’t want to talk about that!”
“Yeah, who wants to talk about homework?”
I smiled at my friends’ antics. “Hi.”
“That’s it?” a black-haired woman, Li, asked. “We smother you in greetings and you just say ‘hi’? What kind of person does that?”
“She does,” said a guy with a British accent, Henry, and the Union Jack all over his shirt. “Li, she does that every morning,” he remarked, running a hand through his long blond hair just to mess it up.
“Whatever. Anyways, did you finish your painting?”
“Finished mine,” Henry interrupted.
“Wasn’t talking to you, idiot,” Li snapped, glaring at him.
“Who are you calling an idiot?” he asked, mock offended.
“Well. I thought you liked me!” he exclaimed, pouting.
“Only when you’re not being a total dou—”
“Yes, I finished it,” I said loudly, “and stop being annoying, Henry. Li’s touchy enough without you teasing her.”
“I resent that remark,” Li told me, flipping her hair.
“You have all of class to work on your projects,” the professor interjected. “Get to work.”
We all complied, turning to whatever project we were working on.
I’d already finished mine, so I sat there, absentmindedly doodling.
“Whatcha drawing?” Li whispered, peering over my shoulder.
“I don’t know.” I looked down and saw a dragon wrapped around a little girl. Me. “Nothing in particular.”
“You really have a skill for drawing dragons,” she commented. “But you only ever draw that one. Why?”
I shrugged. “He's the only one I ever see.”
“See? Like in your head?”
“Sure.” But it really was because Haku was the only dragon I’d ever seen. Naturally, no one knew because if I told them, they’d think I was crazy and put me in a mental hospital.
Li shrugged and commented, “I think you should try other stuff. Just to see if you’re good at it. I mean, no offense, but dragons are kind of old and weird.”
“Maybe.” Had humans always been this insensitive?
“I’m soooo hungry,” Li complained, rubbing her stomach.
“Don’t you ever think of anything besides your stomach?” Henry asked, sighing.
“No,” I answered. “Almost never.”
We ate at the cafeteria because it was close and Henry offered to go to his place to study for finals when I remembered I’d left my brushes in class.
“I’ll be right back,” I told them.
Henry eyed Li, neither of them looking very comfortable.
“Behave, children,” I teased.
But when I came back, they were making out against the car, looking very comfortable with each other.
I cleared my throat, crossing my arms and smiling to myself.
They jumped apart, both blushing.
“I . . .” Li started, gesturing wildly. “We . . . er. . . .”
“Get in the car,” I ordered. “I’m driving. Both of you in the backseat.”
So they got in the car and I turned up the radio to try to drown out the sound of their kissing. I think they thought I would be jealous, but it just made me miss Haku with an almost physical pain.
Come back to me, Haku.
“Everyone out,” I said when we reached Henry’s house. He shared it with his brother, but his brother was usually at his girlfriend’s house.
We reached the front door and I unlocked it with Henry’s keys, went to the living room, and plopped down onto the couch.
“Explain,” I ordered, glaring at both of them.
“How long?” I asked, deciding to help them out.
“We’ve been dating for almost two weeks,” Li confessed.
“Two weeks?!” I shrieked, jumping up. They both flinched, so I sat back down. “You’ve been dating for two weeks and you didn’t tell me?”
“We didn’t know if you’d be mad,” Henry explained.
“Why would I be mad?” I asked, completely bewildered.
Li stared at me, but Henry looked rather uncomfortable.
“Well, everyone thinks you kind of have a thing for Henry,” Li whispered, averting her eyes.
No, the only person I had a thing for definitely was not Henry. That person wasn’t even human.
"Are you kidding?" I asked, laughing. "No offense, Henry, but you're like a brother to me. And you're not my type."
"None taken," Henry reassured me, sitting in an armchair with a sigh. Li perched on the arm and began playing with Henry's blond hair.
"I just can't believe you didn't tell me," I reminded them, a little bit hurt.
"We weren't sure how you'd react," Li explained. "We didn't want to hurt you."
"Right." Seeing the two of them together was wonderful, but now I just wanted a certain white dragon to rescue me.
"I'm gonna go," I said suddenly, standing up.
"Why?" Henry asked, frowning.
"Stuff to do," I lied, but really I didn't want to be there when they were all couple-y.
"Oh. Well, call me and we'll talk," Li ordered, sliding off the arm of her chair onto Henry's lap.
I nodded, and walked as fast as I could out of there without looking like I wanted to get out. I loved both of them and hoped they were happy, but I needed to do some moping and reflect on what had become of my life.
I was jealous of Li and Henry. Jealous that they were at least in the same world as each other. How did I know Haku hadn't forgotten about me and gone off with some female spirit?
When I got home, I went straight to the bedroom I shared with my roommate, Sylvia. Thankfully, Sylvia wasn't home and probably wouldn't come home until early in the morning. She was the type of girl who partied all night and recovered from hangovers all day. She always had at least one man, if not more, and I'd even known her to bring home women. We didn't exactly see eye-to-eye, but we tolerated each other.
I flopped onto my bed and stared at Haku's painting, taking my hair out of its customary ponytail. I'd painted it when I was fourteen, and it showed. The style was slightly different than what I did now, but I'd captured Haku perfectly. For some reason, sometimes it seemed like I was actually talking to him, but I knew that was impossible. I'd even tried going to Haku's river to talk to him, but to no avail.
Where are you, Haku? Why won't you talk to me? Have you forgotten me already?
I sighed and fingered my purple hair tie.
Haku sighed. Chihiro was talking to that damned painting again.
Where are you, Haku? Why won't you talk to me? Have you forgotten me already?
"No, Chihiro. I could never forget you," he told her even though she couldn't hear him. Sometimes he wished she'd never painted it. It killed him to hear her begging and pleading for him to come back without being able to answer. But sometimes, he liked hearing about her even though it tore his heart and made him wish he could be there with her.
He had no idea how she'd managed to make the painting magical, but he suspected it had something to do with the hair tie Zeniba had given her.
"I’ll come for you. Just a bit longer."
I blinked. What time was it? I'd cried myself to sleep yet again, and—crap! It was almost six in the morning! I was going to be late. Thankfully, it was Saturday, which meant no classes, just homework, but I had a ritual to attend to. Every month I would go to Haku's river and try to talk to him. I always went at high tide, so that more of him would hear me, and if I didn't hurry, the tide would go down soon.
I quickly got dressed and grabbed a piece of toast on my way out the door. Sylvia was asleep in her bed, probably nursing a hangover, so she had no idea I even went out in the mornings. I liked it that way because then I didn't have to answer any questions.
By the time I got to the river, it was six thirty. High tide was almost over, but I still had about twenty minutes. Most of the river was underground, but this part went above. This was the part I'd fallen into.
I parked the car and got out. Walking to the bank of the river, I sat and kicked off my shoes and socks. I tipped my toes in the water and leaned back, closing my eyes.
"Li and Henry are dating now," I rambled to the river. "I'm happy for them. They probably won't spend much time with me anymore, though. And Masuka still wants me to sell my stuff, maybe get a gallery. I don't know about that. I'm happy with the tea shop. Sometimes I wonder if Sylvia is happy the way she is. Staying out late doing who-knows-what with whomever catches her fancy. Drinking and smoking and other things. And yet she hasn't failed college. I don't even know what she's majoring in since we never see each other.
"Where are you, Haku?" I asked quietly. "Why have I had to wait so long? Maybe you think I still have time, that it hasn't been long, but remember, I'm human. I only have about seventy years left, and then . . . I'll be gone. Maybe you've forgotten. Or don't care anymore. People change, I suppose, though it doesn't make much sense for a spirit to change that much because nothing in the spirit world seems to change much. I don't think you'd forget intentionally. You're not the type to break promises, I don't think. Or maybe you are. I guess I don't really know you. Or anyone.
"Come back to me, Haku," I implored, bowing my head. The grass sparkled with dew and the lake refracted the sun's early rays. "Take me back to the spirit world. It's where I'm meant to be. I guess I should go now. Goodbye. I'll see you in a month. I miss you."
Far away in the spirit world, Haku listened to Chihiro plead for him to come back. He gripped his chopsticks so hard they snapped.
“Haku! That’s the sixth pair this week!” Rin exclaimed. “If you break any more, Yubaba might charge you for them.”
Haku didn’t bother to respond. He simply sat on the floor, wishing he wasn’t so helpless. He’d do all he could so next time he could get her.
But there wasn't a next time. Time in the spirit world mirrored that in the human world, but a month came and went with not a glimpse of Chihiro.
Haku was even more agitated than usual. He spent his days pacing the bath house, brooding, and generally doing nothing for the business, despite Yubaba’s constant reprimands.
Maybe she's given up or forgotten, he thought. Maybe I'm too late. Maybe she's . . . gone. What short lives humans have, always in danger of dying.
And so Haku dreaded the next month, for he could only take so much pain.
Sighing, I smiled up at Sylvia. "Thank you so much for taking care of me," I told her.
"No problem," she said, shrugging. It had been quite a surprise when I’d become sick, and she’d started taking care of me. Apparently, Sylvia was majoring in internal medicines, and she was fairly close to getting her MD. Sylvia, the woman who drank too much, smoked, and partied all night and morning every day. Although, she said she'd stopped smoking and didn't drink as much anymore. School was catching up to her.
As for me, I was much better now. I just worried about Haku. If he heard me every month, would he know that I'd missed this month? Would he even care?
Those thoughts swirled in my head all through the next month, until it was time to visit Haku's river again.
I made the drive to the river and parked in the same spot as always. But this time, Masuka was with me. I’d told her this was where I got my inspiration for my art, and she’d insisted on coming along. I’d tried to stop her, but it's hard to prevent someone from doing something when you can't explain the reason behind it. I wouldn’t be able to talk to the river, but maybe I could think to it.
We got out and I walked to the bank. But this time, I didn’t take my shoes off and dip my feet in. I had a vague feeling of finality, one that was probably because Masuka had been here now. It would never again be just my river.
“It’s beautiful,” Masuka breathed.
“Yes,” I replied, but I wasn’t talking about the river. In my mind’s eye, the sunlight bounced off the water and reflected me, ten years old, and Haku as a dragon standing together. Ten year old me hugged Haku’s neck, and the image faded away.
“I can see why you come here,” Masuka commented. “But what’s that?” She pointed at a wooden door in the side of the bank, across the river.
I frowned. “I don’t know.” I’d never seen it before, and I’d studied every bit of this river and drawn it hundreds of times.
Masuka walked towards the bridge. “Let’s go see,” she said, walking across. I followed, curious despite myself. For some reason, the door reminded me of the boiler room door at the bath house.
We walked across the bridge and down the bank.
"Why don't we take a peek?" Masuka suggested.
"I don't know. . ." I hesitated, not sure if going through a strange door was a good idea.
"Oh, come on, it'll only be a moment," she replied, putting a hand on the door knob and turning. The door swung open without a creak, but I couldn't see anything inside.
"Masuka, are you sure—" I began, but Masuka had already stepped inside. Sighing, I followed her inside.
The interior was dark, but there seemed to be a light, almost like a fire. As we stepped forward, I could see pipes and the edge of a wall. It looked oddly familiar, like something from a dream. A strange dream, in which soot came to life and parents turned into pigs and. . . . This couldn't be possible. To think that after years of waiting at rivers and going back to the gate Masuka would be the one to get through?
A startled shriek interrupted my thoughts.
"What do you want?" a familiar voice barked.
"You–you're not human," Masuka gasped, then collapsed.
I crept forward, and blinked in surprise. Kamaji, the boiler man, sat in his usual spot, working just as he always had.
"How did a human get in here?" Kamaji muttered to himself.
"Kamaji?" I dared, half hoping he’d remember me and half hoping he wouldn't.
"Who is it and what do you—another human?! When did we get so popular?" Kamaji demanded, turning to face me."It's me," I said. "Chihiro. I mean, Sen. I’ve come back."