---Return to Part 3---
The rain and its shadow at last lifted from the island, and after, the southern side of the island where Sano and Rin had settled became dry without relief. One morning, Rin was pulling onions up by their shoots, sorting the withered ones from the good, when she heard something heavy hit the dry grass at the side of the house. She rushed over to find Sano face-down in the dirt, cheeks gone pale and slack. She took him by the feet and with effort dragged him free, rolled him face-up. There was rainwater they’d gathered in a wooden bucket; Rin sprinkled some out onto Sano’s forehead and, before it could drip off, swept her hands across Sano’s face, his eyes, down the hollows beside his nose. She did not know how to resuscitate a fainted person. In her experience, once bodies went down, they were not likely to come up.
Fortunately, water worked. Sano woke with a sharp suck of air. “Oh,” he said, seeing where he was. He sat up, thought a moment, and said sadly, “I don’t know what happened.”
Rin took him by the hand and made him move down to the porch where they’d be shaded by the overhang. She poured water into a bowl; she lifted it to his lips, made him drink.
He gulped patiently as long as she poured. “Don’t,” he finally interrupted, gesturing at the bucket. “Save some.”
Rin got up and went inside. She came back with a purple beet—a miracle left to them by the last tenant—and a thin peeling knife. She sliced off a disc and pushed it toward Sano’s mouth. He jerked away.
“I don’t think I want it,” he said.
Rin turned his face back to look at her and showed him what she wanted, putting the slice of beet in her own mouth, sinking her teeth, sucking in at the corners.
“Sugar,” he said.
Rin nodded, teeth bared. She cut off another slice, and Sano accepted it on his tongue, closing his lips around it mournfully, like it was a horse’s bit or an amputee’s bite block. Rin stared at him, but he would not meet her eyes.
He took the slice of beet from his mouth, held it with two fingers just clear of his bottom lip. “I’m sorry you were scared,” he said, and put the beet back in. He rolled onto his back and lay quiet, staring at the overhang. Rin did the same beside him and sucked on her beet till it turned mealy. She took the slice from her mouth and from his, tossed both of them out into the front yard for the chicken to finish.
Sano went inside to lay down and did not speak for many hours. His eyelids dropped but did not close.
The sickness persisted the next morning. She could not get him to eat any more than another slice of beet. She washed his face again and dried it. All day long he was quiet and almost asleep, and Rin sat so long beside him that her feet went numb. She sat so long she forgot to pat the chicken, forgot to change its bed. The chicken was resilient, did not need her care. It found a clean patch of grass and straw and laid its egg there. But Sano gave the egg all up to Rin, that day and the next.
“No,” he said, “I can’t eat that.” His skin seemed flushed, the rims of his eyes reddened.
And the next night, when she lifted even a bowl of water. “No please.” He turned over, away from her, lying stiff under the blanket he’d woven for himself, fists curled up to his chin underneath. He fell asleep.
Rin drew his blanket tighter. She stood from her chair. She strapped to her feet the replacement sandals Sano had made her after seeing the others were splintering and too small.
The night wind whistled at their door, and when Rin went to open it she heard the chicken rumbling with low consternation, balled up as close against the door as it could get, its feathers ruffling. Rin bent down and blew on its crown. This was one of her ways of irritating it into behaving; she expected it to move.
The hen, buffeted now from both directions, only became a tighter hen. More round.
Rin knocked the door against the chicken’s rear until it scurried. The door pattered back into place, and Rin latched it behind her, walking out into the night. Her chicken made no noise but watched her go, eyes full open, gleaming black as marbles. Seeing it like that, from a distance, Rin remembered how much she used to fret about the potential for losing that chicken. She remembered how it had been to care more for its life than anyone else’s.
Rin was pleased at how well she recalled the route to the sea. Where the path ended, she kept forward and gained it again; where it split, she chose the correct fork. She retraced their steps, following a memory altogether gray and shifting, until at last she surmounted a bluff to feel the wind cut against her cheeks and poky plants scratch at her ankles: yes, this was the salt of it, this was the sound.
Rin ran to the shore, grew confident. There was no reason Sano shouldn’t have come to check at least once more for fish, no reason there shouldn’t be any.
Rin stood frozen at the edge of the beach waiting for strength to go into the water. She ran her big toe across the line where the waves met the sand. In the end she sank to the sand, and reached a hand out, hissing through her teeth as the water rushed over her—cold cold cold—but there, under the surface of the water, she could see her hand, flesh two shades paler, fingers magnified almost double. She waited there, the water breathing in and out against her, slow, with a noise like hair ruffled up against one’s ears, like the pages of Sano’s books rustling between his fingers. And when she felt brave, she told her body to move until she was out a ways from the shore. Then, braver, she told her feet to let go of the bottom.
Across Rin’s toes swished a fin.
Rin swiveled in the water. The shape of a fish jerked ghostlike away from her palm, going deep, dimming, invisible. She bobbed where she was, kept still, watched.
The fish, or its brother, lurched back up out of the depths, wiggling a little side to side, until it was a few inches from her fingers. It flapped its wide mouth at her, as if trying to determine what she offered. Its eyes fixed, white, bulging. It waited in the water. Rin did not know why. Sano had described to her the skittishness of fish. Fish were not known to want to be caught.
Rin had a vision—a wish—and made it her truth: Sano, farmer of fish, had month by month come down the mountain to see his bluefin; had entered the water with them, just as she now did; had been their defender, their father, their food. This was a fish who remembered his feeding. This was a fish who knew Sano now stood in need. It knew the duty it had to fulfill.
Rin felt her muscles at the ready even as the cold set in. She dove, head, shoulders and chest barreling down into the water, knees and elbows stinging with kicked-up sand, hands out, clenching, capturing, and emerging.
Here in her hands, the best fish left in the world.
Rounding the bend with the fish under her arm, within sight of her home, Rin heard a sound fearsome, unfamiliar: a clacking of teeth meeting teeth, and a snarl ripped from a throat once, twice, louder, louder. Then silence. Rin stopped. She held the fish close as if to comfort it.
Into the sun-washed yard she crept to see an awful dog, grey-skinned, fur gone, ears bitten and eyes raw. In front of their house it lay leisurely, and in its mouth a kill—a tight, round body. A torn, limp neck. The creature’s claws worked patiently. Down and feathers littered the ground.
Rin withdrew her shawl slowly from her shoulders. She balled it up around the fish and tied the bundle about her waist. She reached forward, taking the sharpened stoker from beside the fire pit. Meeting the dog’s two eyes with her one, she poked the fire into life, sending the dry ash flying, the sparks crackling. She took her old bone knife from her waistband.
The creature reared to its feet and danced backward, away from its kill, jaws dripping with tufts of grey-brown, with blood-thickened saliva. It growled and began to circle the smoldering fire. Rin raised her knife, gripping it tight at the level of her shoulder, and watched as the creature squared the circle, closed in, bent low at the haunches.
“If you move I’ll kill you!”
Rin startled and looked to her side. There stood Sano at their door, braced against the frame. “Don’t move,” he barked, and no one did—Rin, the dog, Sano. Sano’s shirt was thrown open at the collar, his trousers rumpled from long sleep. From her vantage, Rin could see his cheeks were flushed, could see the sweat pouring down the sides of his face.
Threatened now from two sides, the dog began to retreat, sniveling as it went. Then, as if to dignify its defeat, it snatched the mangled body of its kill from where it lay at Rin’s feet, snarling and slobbering, dragging Rin’s chicken on the dirty ground.
Rin leapt forward at the ugly thing with a gravelly scream. It gave a vicious bark, wet and high and warning, as she drove forward for its throat, aiming down its gullet, aiming for teeth.
A stone came flying, and the creature keened in pain as it landed, thunk, against the ribs. Another stone struck the fire, sending up sparks and ash. No more posturing: the creature took off running, out into the wilderness, until the morning fog eclipsed its shape.
Rin looked over to Sano, his fist clenched full with stones. He sank down to the dirt beneath the porch. “Go into the house. Now,” Sano wheezed.
Rin bent down for the body of her chicken. She didn’t want to touch it. She had to.
“Please,” Sano said, holding his head in his hands.
Rin dropped the knife by the body of her chicken and abandoned them both, lending Sano her arm, drawing him over the threshold, sitting him down on the straw pallet that was his bed. She put her hands on his shoulders, guiding him down to rest.
“That was a pariah dog,” he said, shaking off her grip. “And if it had bitten you, I would die.” He rolled onto his side and away from her.
Rin came round the bed so he’d have to look at her. From the bundle around her waist she drew the fish, only a little limp, a little dusty, a little scathed.
“Where did you find this?” asked Sano. He looked it over, stroked its damaged scales. He took it from her, turned it over in his hand like it was a piece of money. “It’s small,” he said, appraising it all over, pressing on its belly, prodding open its gills, grazing the fork of its tailfin with his finger.
Rin rose from the bed, unable to watch, afraid to hear. It had to be his fish. She would accept no other way.
“Will you look at it,” said Sano, marveling. “It was alive?” he asked.
Sano lifted the fish up to her. “It’s a little bluefin,” he said. “You found one.” He gave her a weak, kind smile. “Did you want me to have it?” he asked.
Rin gutted the fish; she cooked it over their fire, and as the sun climbed through the cracks in the mountain far away, streaming in through their dusty windows, Rin watched Sano eat the fish in full, his eyes closed in a reverence approaching sleep.
“Full,” he said, putting down his tray, suddenly. “I can’t eat anymore.”
And that night, the vomiting began.
---Continue to Part 5---
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology. http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/