by Mitsui Matsuri (蜜井茉莉)
Ren lied, always, about how they met.
“We bumped into each other the library,” she said to their new agent, as they sipped weak coffee on a cold April morning. “I dropped Malleus Maleficarum on her foot and broke her big toe.”
“Ren was doing a thesis on witch-hunting. In Europe.” Miharu’s blue-tinted eyebrows drew close together. “She never finished it.”
Actually, Ren finished her thesis — and it was on ghosts in the post-Reformation worldview — but the useless degree it gave her was a lifetime she only cared to revisit in drunken reunions. She watched the agent without favour, noting the nervous flicker of her eyes and the way she plucked nervously at the tips her over-bleached hair.
Ren thought, this one’s not going to last long either, and speculated without guilt on Okazaki-san’s dangerously low-cut top. In winter, for god’s sakes.
Okazaki tried harder than the last one, though. She twittered, placing a well-trained hand over her mouth.
“At least you moved past that unfortunate incident,” she said, “into creative partnership.”
Miharu put down her undrunk coffee and leaned forward, the truth on her lips.
“Yes,” Ren cut in, flicking a warning glare at Miharu — who pouted, briefly, before smiling.
Okazaki’s teaspoon rattled slightly against her saucer. “You know,” she began brightly, “I’ve always wondered why Ha-ren never put out any girl’s love manga.”
“Oh, I don’t mean anything by it,” Okazaki hurriedly added. “But you have such wonderful female side-characters, and it seems only natural. Did your, er, old publisher not like it?”
Ren gritted her teeth. “No–”
“Why, it’s the perfect time for you to enter the market,” Okazaki rambled on, rather like a well-meaning bull, and Ren grudgingly revised her initial opinion. “You’ve always done boy’s love, of course, but with the bankcruptcy and all– and really, there’s a ready niche for the kind of stories you do.”
Miharu tapped Ren’s thigh, lightly. Let her talk, Miharu’s touch suggested.
“I mean, on the one hand you have schoolgirls, and on the other… well, more outré works. I hardly think Ebine Yamaji’s to everyone’s tastes–”
“I like her!” Miharu protested, twirling a sugar packet.
Ren hmmphed. “I don’t.”
“That’s because you–”
“I don’t have maple sap in my soul, thanks–”
“Exactly my point,” Okazaki interrupted neatly, beaming at their perturbed frowns. “As your agent, I want the best for you, and I really do think it’s time for you to diversify. Reach out to a new audience. And the old one too, of course, because my research says the crossover potential–”
“We’ll think about it,” Ren said.
She meant: no.
Miharu said, later, that she didn’t know why Ren never told the truth.
Ren said it wasn’t their truth to have. Anyway, lies didn’t cost her anything and they made the others happier than the real truth, so why not?
Once upon a time, Ren fell in love with a ghost who lived in the apartment next to her mother’s. She was thirteen and hitting her growth spurt, outgrowing her mother’s desultory attempts at affection. Ren would gather the baubles bought for her — a ribbon for her scarecrow hair, white chocolate marbled with strawberry, a tiny book inscribed with prayers — and pushed them through a hole in her bedroom wall.
It seemed to her that the ghost ceased sobbing on the nights she did this, even if only for an hour or two. Ren didn’t like it when the dark was too quiet, so that was all right. The ghost’s tears lulled her to sleep, a comforting constant in a life filled with sudden shrieks and broken glass.
By fifteen, Ren’s dresser drawers were overflowing with lengthy, embarrassingly overwrought poetry for the ghost, carefully handwritten on silver-edged paper she shoplifted from Jusco. Her teachers commended her for the exponential improvement in her calligraphy.
At sixteen, she made herself fall out of love, and wrote it into her first short story.
Sometimes, when it rained lightly on sunny afternoons, Ren took Miharu to watch the tragic romances Miharu would only admit to liking when bribed with cake. Ren never remembered a minute of the movies. She watched, instead, Miharu snuffling into a lace-edged handkerchief — and felt Miharu’s tears splashing on the back of her hand, and thought, yes, this is real.
“Freak,” Miharu sniffled, fixing a red-rimmed, accusing stare at Ren.
She never told Miharu about the ghost, or what happened the night she broke her right collarbone, but she thought that Miharu knew anyway.
“I like drawing women,” Miharu announced over dinner, four days after they had coffee with Okazaki-san.
“So I’ll write a witch,” Ren said, dividing her fried rice neatly into two: one with mayonnaise and one without. “Who adopted a wolf cub, and sacrificed a thousand snake hearts to turn him into a boy.”
“Something contemporary — I’d like that too.” The mulish set of Miharu’s mouth did not soften, but she obligingly let herself be distracted. “Why snakes?”
“Because they shed their skins and live.”
Miharu rolled her eyes. “That’s so clichéd.”
“Idiot. You haven’t even heard the rest.”
“But it is.”
Ren clicked her chopsticks together. “I’m not done yet. So. The boy. He has to change forms every spring: from black hair to blond to red, from gangly to stout and back.
“The witch of course hates it, and cries when he changes, because she does love him. She blames herself, the way most women do. When he turns 18, she sends him out to buy a jar of blueberry preserves — their favourite — and kills herself.”
Ren wrote her scripts on an aging Lifebook, a few hours before dawn, armed with a pot of black tea and her iPod. Miharu usually drifted awake just as Ren walked out the door, and Ren came home to a kiss and suggestions scribbled in moleskin notebooks with a rainbow of gel pens.
Miharu drew as she lived: in bold, graceful lines; looping out into sweeping capes and hair and long-fingered hands barely contained within the panels of a page. She worked in sustained but unpredictable bursts, and Ren had long grown used to Miharu rolling out of bed at 2am to pencil a two-page spread for a fight scene.
They kept a scrupulously updated website and a blog, where Ren wrote about music (“Björk and Bebel Gilberto combined: We are Overrated, Defender of the Unlistenable!!”) and posted pictures of a cat that actually belonged to an office lady in the next apartment. Miharu never wrote anything. Not even about the weather, or that time she found an original 16-bit Seiken Densetsu 2 and nearly knocked over an entire display case, or when her father died in a heart attack without ever having mended his relationship with his only daughter.
Ren wasn’t the only one with secrets, after all.
She didn’t expect Miharu to drop the subject — Ren wasn’t stupid — but she’d underestimated Miharu’s persistence.
“Long black hair,” Miharu said, and tugged at Ren’s short, wispy hair. “In braids, with pearls weaved in and around them. The other girl– red curls, piled on top of her head.”
Ren didn’t look up from her laptop, vindictively deleting an entire page.
Miharu sighed. “Ren.”
“Have I told you the rest of that story? The boy buries the witch and takes to the road, shedding his skin year after year. One day he realises that the only thing he remembers about himself is his name.
“He finds a thief in the next town, about to be condemned to the guillotine. I’ll buy your freedom, he says to the thief, if you’ll remember my name for me.
“The thief protests: I’ve never been freely given anything in my life. I steal and cheat, young sir.
“That’s fine, says the boy. Steal my name if you must. Please, please just remember it.”
Miharu played football in a club that made it to the second division of the L.League exactly once. There were none left from the 1991 team to talk about it — the women had drifted away, one by one, into safer dreams. Miharu spent hours studying the faded photographs on the walls of the club’s lockerroom. She drew them scoring imaginary goals, faces lifted in joy.
One of her teammates claimed someone had taped the 1991 matches, but the goalie shook her head and said the tapes were all lost.
Ren watched all their local matches despite, as Miharu put it, not even knowing there was such a thing as an offside rule. Miharu was a midfielder, fast and accurate on the ball — according to their coach, and Ren was content to believe him as long as his hands stayed the fuck away from Miharu.
She followed the swing of Miharu’s blue-dyed hair, tipped gold in the afternoon sun, and ignored the rest of the team. They all called her, delicately, “Miharu’s best friend.”
At home, a section of the west wall was reserved for Miharu’s posters of Nadeshiko Japan — all the teams from 1995, when the national women’s team made the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup. Miharu knew all the players’ names and could, with a little effort, recall their exact retirement dates.
Ren once asked, “Did you ever wish you were born a boy?”
“Don’t all girls?”
Miharu said nothing, curling and uncurling her slender fingers, her mouth flat. Ren made as if to speak, but Miharu averted her eyes and bounced a football off the wall, echoed by a shriek from their next-door neighbour.
(Ren put up a poster of Chelsea, but only because she knew Miharu’s coach hated the club.)
“So what happened to the boy?”
Ren contemplated the wisdom of asking if Miharu had abandoned her campaign, and quickly decided against it.
“For a few brief years, the thief becomes the boy’s dearest companion. But the thief, not having a witch for a mother, soon succumbs to mortal illness–”
“Not done yet. So, with the thief at death’s door, the boy sets off to find a cure. He finds another witch, one who loved the woman who raised him.
“She asks, why do you want to save him? The truth, please. The boy hesitates, but finally answers: because he has my name. Because I love him.
“Then you have to decide, she says, which one’s more important. The boy becomes angry, desperate. Why can’t I have both?
“Because this is the way magic works, boy. You can save him, but lose a part of yourself. Or you can let him die, and still lose another.
“So. Which one?”
Miharu leaned forward and kissed her, slow and heated and not at all sweet.
“I wish,” Miharu said, “you’d tell me why you won’t write what Okazaki-san asked.”
Ren ran her fingers down the line of buttons on Miharu’s shirt, red against white cotton, plucking them apart. Miharu’s skin was warm under the thin cloth, rough with goosebumps where Ren’s thumb caressed the curve of a breast.
“I won’t turn this into fiction,” Ren whispered fiercely against Miharu’s neck. “I won’t give the only real thing I have — give you — away, like I did everything else so I could be here. This is ours and no one else’s, and I don’t see why they should have any of it when they don’t give a shit.”
“You’re stupid.” She felt Miharu swallow. “This isn’t math and you’re not writing our life story, and you’re just– you’re so dumb, Ren–”
Ren gently turned Miharu’s hands over, palms up, and pressed her lips against them.
“Can’t we stay like this for a while? A little longer?”
Miharu breathed out, not quite a sigh. “Okay.”
Ren swallowed the last syllable in a kiss. She noticed the downward tilt of the corners of Miharu’s mouth only when they kissed — Miharu smiled and laughed as if every day was the very first day she turned her pencil into a wand, and delighted in the discovery, and shared her joy with Ren without reserve.
She didn’t quite trust that it was all true, not just yet. But she had known for a long time now the meaning in the quiver of Miharu’s voice — in this Miharu was the wordsmith, not Ren — and seen the honesty in the way Miharu bared herself, from cloth to skin and skin to heart.
Miharu’s taste burned in her mouth like saltwater on a parched tongue and she drank it in greedily, and forgot to be afraid. Ren ran her hand gently up the soft skin on the inside of Miharu’s thighs, pressing against the wetness at their apex — gently, gently, watching the butterfly flutter of Miharu’s eyelashes.
I can only write about this when it’s over, Ren thought, so I won’t have to worry about seeing things that were never there.
On Miharu’s birthday, Ren gave her a velvet throw pillow, patterned in violent oranges and purples.
“To commemorate our first meeting,” she said.
“You freak,” Miharu laughed, spoiling the invective. “You do remember.”
“Sometimes,” Ren said, and smiled as she went back to writing.