reading where chrysanthemums blossom
Everyone knows the story of how the moon came to be, of how a god clawed his way to the surface in an explosion of rubble, how the crater left in the wake of his birth is also the launch site of the sparkling jewel high in the night sky. Everyone knows, for there is no one who doesn’t know of the Father of Ghouls, the god born with too many appendages to be divinity or human, who are made in the shape of the sun god, Amon. Everyone knows of how the god had torn long, crimson appendages from his back and given birth to ghouls, humankind’s greatest enemy.
These are the truths that humans know. These are the songs that are sung to them as they sleep in their cradles.
Kaneki Ken is a foul-tempered, capricious god who holds little love for humans and holds an unending well of love for his children. Yet, he is the god of the moon that bestows light and guidance to travelers otherwise lost in the blackness of night. He is the god of knowledge and literature who taught humans written language and to chronicle their history, and the god who guards the underworld, keeping watch over the souls that have passed over.
And so they sacrifice one of them twice a month to appease this god. Twice a month, they send a murderer, a convict, a sinner, to the lake that fills the once-crater, the birthplace of this great and terrible god, and pray they continue to garner his good will. They burn incense and pray, because if his anger abates, maybe one day, so will the hunger of the ghouls.
“Yoohoo~ Anyone there?”
An hour and a half of sitting on this abominable raft has drifted by and Hide is so utterly defeated by his boredom that he questions how mortals wait for the portal to the Underworld to open. At least he has company. “How much longer will we have to wait?” Hide asks sullenly as he burrows his face into the thick fur of the rabbit he holds. “Clearly his sacrifices waste away before he ever reaches them. How dull this waiting is.”
“Are all the other gods this chatty?” a wry voice inquires from beneath the dark surface of the water.
“Only the ones on the verge of death,” Hide assures, putting down his furry companion and kneeling over the edge of his raft. “Hello, Father of Ghouls, Kaneki Ken. I’m the god of abundance, fertility, and music. But you can call me Hide. I’ve been dying, almost literally by the way, to meet you!”
“I don’t tend to get visitors,” the other god mutters wryly, “Aside from Amon, who visits every fourteen years, if I were to hazard a guess.”
“See, that’s just wrong, it must be horrendously dull, you all by yourself with just darkness and the dead. That’s why I figure I should drop by, bring some friendly companionship and brighten the décor a bit, y’know?” He waves a hand over the still waters. Sunflowers, vibrant and golden, materialize, fall, and sink into the endless depths of the lake, “I’d offer to visit but…” He hesitates, “I’m forbidden to go.”
Kaneki looks up at the distorted gold and bronze of the god peering into his world and says, “Thank you for the gifts. They’re lovely.”
“I figure we have another… what? Fifty, sixty, seventy minutes until the portal between worlds closes? How about we get to know each other until then?”
“There is quite a bit of difference between fifty and seventy minutes,” Kaneki says, his impassive countenance cracking. “Do musicians not have to keep time?”
“You wound me, Lord Kaneki. Wound me.”
“You look like you were born from the moon,” Hide says one night, “You share the same glow.”
“You know as well as anyone else that that’s not true,” Kaneki says, distant and detached, “Why are you mentioning it now?”
“Because,” he says, leaning over his raft, “sometimes I look up at it and get the same desolate feeling I have when I look at you.”
Kaneki leaves and Hide is left adrift.
“Why do you continue to come?”
“Because I cannot think of anything more devastating than an existence as solitary as yours.”
On a breezy night, Hide meets a sacrifice.
It certainly isn’t the first sacrifice he has ever met. It isn’t the first sacrifice he has met during his nocturnal visits to Kaneki, either, but the tall, dignified slope of her back as she waits for the Father of Ghouls attracts him.
“You don’t look like a convict.”
She turns away from him, eyes steel. “I am not. Neither am I a murderess or an adulterer.”
“No,” Hide agrees, “No, you aren’t. Why then, are you here?”
Defiant eyes turn on him, “What is the god of fertility and song doing here?”
“I come to meet a friend,” he says, “to chase away the loneliness that ails him.”
“What does a god know of loneliness.”
Hide thinks Kaneki knows quite a bit about loneliness. The god of the moon has lived so long without friend or family. Kaneki, who has only the quiet and surly Amon's sporadic visits and the quiet, sullen dead to fill his life, whose eyes are so distant and sad, is intimate with loneliness.
“Tonight, I die. I will not allow anyone, even a god, to patronize me.”
“But you won’t. You won’t die tonight.” Hide takes her hands in his, curls her fingers around a bright, red chrysanthemum and says, “You won’t die, so please, smile.”
“I am here to die. I have been set adrift to be eaten by the monster,” and he hears her breath catch, feels her stumble over the word, “who claims divinity. What other fate do I have?”
“But Kaneki isn't a monster,” Hide says, “and he isn't in the habit of eating good people.”
“Good people are not sent as sacrifices to the Father of Ghouls,” she hisses.
“And evil people do not face their death with such dignity and calm,” he says, “But people who love, people who have something they wish to protect; they do.”
For the first time, her composure slips and she blinks back moisture and Hide’s heart aches for her.
“Love is never evil,” he says, “I may not be the god of love but even I know this.”
She blinks away her tears, lips quirking sardonically, “Never?”
They wait, together, for Kaneki, under the waning summer moon, her back just as straight as when Hide first saw her.
Seconds, minutes, hours later, Kaneki’s image filters through the dark depths of the lake. The woman sits as still as ever, back as elegant as ever, as she gazes down at the god before her. She is so beautiful, Hide thinks. How love strengthens humans, he wonders, It makes them blossom like nothing else in this world.
Kaneki regards the woman and the minutes stretch. The woman gazes back and Hide admires the strong line of her jaw, the determined slant of her mouth. He sees it, he tells himself, Kaneki sees what I see.
“You’re not what I was expecting,” Kaneki states, left hand rising to his chin as he inspects her. “I do not need another meal as of yet. You may return to land. You will find a young man waiting for you on the easterly shore.”
Hide turns, squints under the silvery light of the moon, and makes out an outline by the lilies. “You shouldn’t keep him waiting,” Hide encourages, “He is risking his life, coming here.”
“Nishio…” the woman whispers, tears falling. She worries the red chrysanthemum in her hands, unsure.
“My last meal was quite large and I do not entertain my meals. You may go,” Kaneki repeats, pointing to the figure.
When the two lovers have disappeared beyond a copse of trees, Hide smiles down into the rippling water and says, “I always knew you were a softie.”
The other god turns and begins to retreat further into the underworld.
"I'll have my priestesses notify the humans that you will be requiring a meatier sacrifice the coming new moon."
Figuring out the timing of the portal between worlds takes more math and science-y things than Hide likes and while it doesn’t stop him from visiting Kaneki every two months, month, three weeks, two weeks, week, few nights, night, it does mean he spends more and more time going not-at-all silently stir-crazy on his raft. “The length of time the portal stays open changes with the waxing and waning of the moon,” Kaneki had said once, after Hide spent a good portion of their two hours fuming about the five hours he spent dozing in and out of sleep with only his dear rabbits as company.
“It’s not that I don’t love you guys,” he explains to his friends, once again confined to their tiny raft in a very large lake, “It’s just that I get to spend all day with you guys and at most, a hundred and forty two minutes with Kaneki.” The eldest of all the rabbits twitches his nose, flicks his ears twice, and Hide knows he can’t hide anything from his friends. “He always looks so lonely. I can’t leave him like that, can I?”
They still. They regard him with their large, large eyes, and Hide is filled with the incredulous certainty that, somehow, he has lied to them for the first time ever. He feeds them sunflower seeds in apology, unsure of where his lie lays. They nibble at his fingers, forgiving, and Hide knows he has the truest friends anyone, divine or mortal, could ever want.
“How rare to find you so quiet,” Kaneki muses from beneath the gentle waves, “Have you finally figured out how to calculate the portal’s timing?”
“Timing shmiming,” Hide grouses, “Who needs such a thing. If you add everything together, we have all the time in the world.”
An expression of surprise flits across Kaneki’s face and Hide is filled with an urge. He’s not the god of patience or forethought, so he thinks nothing of leaning further, until he breaches the gateway between worlds and his lips are pressed against another’s. He pulls back, blood thundering in his ears, high on adrenaline, and says, “Wow, that’s not what I thought it’d feel like, crossing the threshold.”
The Guardian of the Underworld looks back with disbelief, “Is that all you have to say?”
“I think I should introduce you to spearmint?”
Hide likes to bring Kaneki gifts from the human world, particularly small things, like adorable bamboo cups, interesting, new musical instruments, or earrings carved from wood and so tenderly polished that they shine beneath moonlight. He likes to bring Kaneki bits of the world he cannot experience.
One night, Hide drops a scroll into Kaneki’s open hands and says, “There’s this author, something Sen? Anyways, this author is the most popular thing since humans discovered olive oil. Rediscovered. Again.”
The other god unravels the scroll, traces the flowing script, and smiles. “Thank you, Hide.”
Hide gifts Kaneki with more scrolls and collects the little smiles he receives in return like paper-pressed flowers.
Hide whiles away his time amusing himself with ripples. Lately, his friends haven’t been so keen on accompanying him during his visits to Kaneki. They don’t seem unhappy with him and Kaneki doesn’t frighten them; they would never allow him to visit something they feared. Their reluctance is strange and upsetting, but he doesn’t push the issue any further than attempting to coax them on board with some carrots and lettuce.
“You’ve been rather alone lately, is something the matter?”
“No. At least, I don’t think so,” Hide admits, sullenly stirring the calm waters.
“What?” Hide blinks at the blurry image below him.
“What is it you told me? ‘Rabbits can die of loneliness’?” Kaneki spreads his arms wide, a small, secret smile dancing across his face, “You’re so used to having dozens of friends to hug, right? You must be suffering withdrawal symptoms. How long have you been sitting out there by yourself?”
Too long, Hide thinks as he jumps into the lake.
Kaneki begins to read to Hide the scrolls the blond brings, his voice always soft and steady, until Hide drifts off.
“You seem to really like Takatsuki Sen,” Hide remarks blearily one night as the other god reads from Monochrome Rainbow, “Your pace always slips a bit when you read her works.”
“Do I?” Kaneki asks, and Hide thinks he hears a touch of wonder in the other god’s voice.
“Yeah… you do. You really like… Takatsuki Sen…”
“Go sleep, Hide.”
Hide collects every Takatsuki Sen scroll he finds, hoards those special, delighted expressions Kaneki makes when he drops them into Kaneki’s hungry hands.
The Underworld is a bleak, disheartening place, Hide learns. So dark, so barren, the only lights are the soft glow of the spirits of the departed and the silvery radiance of the moon that cloaks Kaneki. It hurts Hide to even think about it, how lonely it must be, even with its millions of residents wandering its long, endless corridors.
“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeey,” Hide calls, sticking his head past the barrier, “Kaaaaaaaaaneeeeeeeekiiiiiiiii.”
“You’re so noisy,” the other god laments, “Stop it, you’re disturbing the dead.”
“Have room for one more? At least for a few days? A week, tops.”
“No,” the tiny smile that usually graces Kaneki’s face hardens into a thin line of disapproval, “You’re not supposed to cross. A few minutes is one thing, no one will notice. But days? A week?”
“It’ll be fine, Kaneki, don’t be a worry wart. Nothing’ll go wrong. Just going to pop in and out, no one’ll notice.”
Crossing the threshold is always like jumping headfirst into freshly fallen snow naked –sharp, stinging cold for all of fifteen long seconds, and then slow, tingling sensations dance the samba up and down the length of his body. “Too late, get a bed ready for me, will ya?” He sashays past the fuming god and ventures deeper into the cavernous space that makes up Kaneki’s world. “I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
“Hide, you need to go back. Now.”
“No can do, Kaneki,” Hide says, languidly stretching, “I have a job to do.” He brings his right arm up in a wide arc, delights in the large tree that shoots out from the floor, its white papery bark and soft blue glow. He pulls off his shoes, wiggles his bare toes before sinking them into the earth. Delicate, crystalline grass and wildflowers spring from the soil, trail behind him as he runs, arms sweeping as he orchestrates more growth, more color, more life.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m putting the life back into afterlife, duh.” Hide twirls his index fingers playfully, encourages delicate pink petals to bloom, for soft butter-yellow vines to grow, ten feet from the ground, “I mean, these poor folks had to live with Amon’s need for rigid structure their whole lives up there, they should be able to have some more fun and freedom now that they’re here, right?” He coaxes fruit into a tall tree, delights in its strangely sharp sides and lurid purple coloring.
“Hey, you,” Hide calls after a wandering spirit, “Try this.” He tosses the fruit to her and she catches it quizzically, as if she has never seen fruit before. “The skin’s pretty thin, so I figure you can just bite into it, no peeling necessary.”
Kaneki sighs and glides past Hide and gently plucks the fruit out of the bewildered woman’s hands and brings it up to his mouth and mimes biting and chewing. He hands the fruit back to her and she eyes it apprehensively for a few seconds before biting into it. A look of wonder flashes across her face and she makes a delighted little noise, excitedly waving down other spirits.
“She is one of my children,” Kaneki says as he watches other spirits gather around the tree. They pass the fruit back and forth, climb the tree for more, chatter excitedly to each other at this new discovery. “She has never had the opportunity to try…fruit.”
Hide starts. “Ghouls and humans aren’t separated?” he wonders, even as he sees deer and birds and small fish in the rivers.
“Of course not. Everyone is the same in death.”
“That’s wonderful,” Hide breathes, “There’s peace here. There’s no need for them to fight.”
Kaneki regards him for a long, long time.
It takes a little over a week to fully furnish the ever-expanding underworld and Hide knows he’ll have to visit again in a little over four months, to add more flora as it expands to house the ever-increasing newly departed. For the health and stability of the flora he has created, he may have to sneak in short visits every month or so, but all in all, Hide feels euphoric in his accomplishments.
“You should see it,” he whispers conspiratorially to his friends under the warm summer sun, “It’s beautiful. I’ve made sure of it. And without all of Amon’s rules, I can go wild, and everything’s just so – so amazing. You should see it.” They bump his hands affectionately, burrow into his warmth, and Hide smiles. Everything is right in the world.
“Try this,” Hide says, carefully dropping a steaming mug through the portal.
“You know I can’t drink anything but water,” Kaneki says, suspiciously eyeing the dark liquid. Hide vibrates with ill-contained excitement. “Try it, try it!” he titters, “It’s something your children discovered. They call it coffee and they can drink it.”
Kaneki takes a tentative sip. He rears back, suddenly, as if punched in the mouth. “What is that?”
“Coffee,” Hide says laughing, “I guess you’re not used to the bitter flavor, huh?” Kaneki had the tendency to describe what he consumed as either sweet or not sweet, an interesting peculiarity that no other god or human possessed. “Humans add sugar and milk when they drink it –it softens some of the bite it has.”
“It’s foul,” Kaneki laments, even as he takes another sip, clearly already attached to the dark ambrosia. Hide cannot contain his grin. “I’ll bring by some coffee beans and a mortar and pestle tomorrow. Oh, and something to brew it in.”
“Only if it’s not any trouble,” says Kaneki, staring forlornly into his empty mug.
“Not at all,” Hide promises, stretching. “Now tell me more about the tale of the serial killer and her murderous baby?”
“It’s called The Black Goat’s Egg, how can you not know this? You’re the one who brought me the scroll.” Hide yawns, “I bring you so many scrolls, though. I can’t be expected to remember all of them.”
Hide falls asleep to Kaneki’s voice, the gentle rocking of his raft, and the comforting silver glow of the moon.
Every so often, Hide spends a few days with Kaneki in the underworld. He spruces up the plants that have begun to wilt in his absence, encourages more growth and color wherever he can, and, after the spirits lose their skittishness around him, spends time sprawled across shimmering fields of blue with them, exchanging laughter and song.
“You’re gorgeous,” Hide smiles, tucking a glittering amber flower behind the ear of one bashful spirit, “Don’t be so afraid to be yourself. Anyone would be a fool not to fall in love with you.” And it’s true, he thinks, hand over the man’s breast, feeling the thrum of his soul, so familiar, like the warm timbre of a well-loved cello. “I’d fall in love in an instant if a soul as pure as yours professed undying love to me.”
“Is that all it takes to charm the god of fertility? An unblemished soul?”
Kaneki’s face is clouded, subdued.
It’s too painful to look at, Hide decides, so he tucks tiny white flowers and delicate lavender berries behind Kaneki’s ears and looks the other god in the eye. “A kind soul,” he says, “with a warm heart.” Everything feels too heavy, too solemn, so he throws in a wink and a light-hearted, “And a good song, too. You can never go wrong with a ballad of true love.”
“The heart of the god of music is easy to sway, it seems.”
“It’s not just me, Kaneki. Music can touch the essence of everything that breathes; it too holds life.”
“So do words,” Kaneki sighs, “So do actions. Everything holds weight, Hide.”
“You’re dwelling,” Hide says, pulling the other god away with him. “Goodbye, thank you for playing with me! It’s been so much fun, please share more songs with me next time!” he calls as he waves to the throng of spirits he had been entertaining moments before. “And you! Just go for it!”
They crackle and break apart into dust when handled, the strange golden leaves that have started to grace the trees on the other side of the portal. The trees are not ill, Hide has laid his hand upon the trunks of every tree and all he can sense is drowsiness. He curls at the base of a large oak tree and wonders. Has the world been changing without him?
He gazes at the half-hidden moon through a veil of gold and green and thinks –has the moon always been this beautiful?
Kaneki is reading to him, voice indulgent and soothing, and Hide’s eyes flutter shut.
“Why do the humans think you hate them?” He yearns to say, “Why do you let them think that when it’s clear how much you admire them? You taught them to read and write. You read everything you can get your hands on, from the scrawling lines of a child to the precise, fine letters of scholars, to the fantastical tales of authors like Takatsuki Sen.”
Instead, he says: “Your love shines through when you read.”
This time, he does not wait for Kaneki to appear at the other end of the divide; he casts a look at the far shore, whispers one last apology to his friends as he gathers them into his arms, and plunges in.
“Hey,” he breathes, arms wrapped around a familiar warmth, forehead to shoulder, “I think I love you.”
Hide wakes in a tangle of limbs and satin and no sun beyond the open window.
It feels like home.
He strokes the delicate white strands of Kaneki’s hair, tests the words ‘I love you’ once more, feels it roll off his tongue as heat coils through him.
This is home.
Kaneki smiles at him and Hide’s heart swells, his tongue knots. So he does the only thing he can –he kisses that smile.
It won’t last forever. Forever isn’t an option they have. The inevitable is a nearly tangible thing, constantly breathing down their backs, but when they are curled around each other, it feels like they have it.
Eternity is theirs.
He had known they would come for him, had always known their happiness was doomed to be as short lived as the dying embers of an untended hearth.
“You must return,” Amon says solemnly, “I have allowed many transgressions, but this is too much. The world is dying. The trees are withering; the flowers turn to dust in the afternoon breeze. I cannot allow you to stay here any longer.”
“What about this world? What about these people? Don’t they deserve more than a cold, barren wasteland, void of life?” Hide burns, and he thinks he may finally understand the righteous fires that always burn so strongly in the sun god. “What about the fairness and justice you so like to preach?”
“Life is for the living,” the god of retribution sneers, “The dead need not the creature comforts of the world above. Besides, this is his due.”
Hide bristles. “His due? His due? What has Kaneki done to deserve to be locked in such a desolate place?”
“What has he done?” Mado’s lips curl, teeth clenched, “All your dear Kaneki has done is unleash a monstrosity that nearly destroyed the human race.”
Do not make things personal, he reminds himself, “Mado, hasn’t humankind destroyed many species before them as well? How many creatures have graced the earth before them only to be driven to extinction? We cannot favor man so much that we forget objectivity.”
“They are heretical existences, born from the greatest blasphemy in existence. What other birth has injured the Earth as grievously as his has? What,” Mado seethes, “what other god is born with those mutations. What other being that claims divinity feasts on human and divine flesh alike. It is only right that he pays for his sins, Nagachika.”
Kaneki stiffens beside him and Hide links their fingers together. “Just because the human you loved –”
“You won’t be staying here; I’ll bring you back with force if I have to.”
“Make me,” Hide hisses. “I may have no powers of war, but I’d like to see you try to remove me from my home without –”
“Enough,” Amon sighs, pained. For the first time, Hide understands the burden his role as guardian of justice.
“I’m sorry, Amon.”
The god of the sun ruminates for a long time, eyes pinned to the churning waters of the underworld’s largest river before moving, finally, to settle on their intertwined fingers. “One year,” he says, finally, “You must return to the world above for one year, Nagachika, to set your affairs in order after which I will grant you leave for half a year.”
Hide’s heart flutters, “Half a year?”
“What you say makes sense,” the god says, “There is no reason to curse the departed with such bleakness and despair after death.” He sends another meaningful glance at them, “And I am not cruel enough to separate lovers when there is no need. But there is a need; you have a job, Nagachika, and your job is to ensure the world above flourishes. You know as well as I do all creatures that live above rely on your endeavors to survive.”
Hide colors, “I know.”
“So you will send word to your priestesses –have them warn their followers, and through them, the rest of the world, of an impending change. For roughly three months of every year, trees will lose their leaves, flowers will die, vegetables and fruit will fail to take root; they will have to make the appropriate preparations to survive this hardship.” Amon smiles softly, “For six months, you may live here, with Kaneki. For the next six, you must return to the world above and bring back the colors of prosperity and life.”
“Thank you,” he breathes as Mado turns on his heel and stalks away, “Thank you, Amon.”
“Keep in mind how difficult the first few months will be upon your return, when you find almost everything around you is sleeping or dead,” Amon says.
And it is such a small, trifling price to pay that Hide can only throw his arms around the god that always towers so high above them all. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Kaneki whispers, unsure.
“The sins you think you have committed,” Amon says, “Are only as heavy as you allow them to be. You know as well as I do that you do not have to stay here.”
Kaneki gazes at the spot where Mado once stood and says, “But they are as heavy I think they are, as he thinks they are.”
“He has lost much, but he cannot always let his grief consume him. One day, he will understand.”
“He has mellowed quite a bit,” Kaneki admits, “I expected to be set aflame the moment you meted out your verdict.”
“It isn’t that Kureo’s rage has faded any. He has always valued justice as much as I do; he will not go against what has been decided as just, no matter how he feels.”
“I guess I should apologize,” Hide admits, “I shouldn’t have tried to throw her in his face, no matter how incensed I was. What’s Mado’s favorite fruit? Vegetable? Flower? I’ll bring him some as a peace offering when I return.”
“Just bring something Akira likes. Kureo is a doting father through and through; the way to his heart and his forgiveness is through his daughter.”
“I’ll remember that,” Hide promises.
“If you’ll excuse me…” the sun god begins awkwardly, and Hide cannot help but burst into laughter, “Yeah, okay, hold on. Let me give you something to try first –I’ve got some really cool stuff growing down here that can’t be found up there. Just hold on a second!”
“I wish you both happiness,” Hide hears Amon say as he sprints for the first fruit-bearing tree he sees.
“I love you.”
“About time you said that, you dork.”