Haruki sat in his nursery. From downstairs floated the gentle sounds of his haha and chichi cooking together. He hefted the large picture book in front of him onto his lap and traced his fingers over the embossed gold letters adorning the cover. Though he could not yet read, he knew what they said- Kaguya Hime. The corners of the book, worn with use, were soft beneath his chubby fingers. He flipped through the pages until he found the one he was looking for- a beautiful princess, flowing black hair and soft eyes, sent from the sky. Haruki giggled.
"Hime!" he squealed. "Hime!"
A pair of calloused hands encircled him, closing the picture book. He heard his mother's voice. "Ahh, Kaguya Hime. The princess from the sky, who refused the emperor. Is that who you want to be, silly princess?" She giggled.
Haruki blinked in astonishment. A princess? He couldn't be a princess, could he? His thoughts were soon swept away by the smell of dinner and the laughter of his parents, but the word echoed in his mind: hime.
Haruki is twelve years old. They have grown their hair and spend sleepless nights braiding and unbraiding. Their mother is sick, the doctors do not know with haha and chichi do not cook together anymore. She is sicker and sicker every day. They come home one night to their father crying softly.
"My son," he says to Haruki. "My son." Haruki feels something in their stomach clench and quietly makes their way up the stairs.
That night, they sleep more soundly than they have in years. They dream of a woman, ghostly, floating above their bed. "Haruko," she says, and her eyes widen. "Daughter of the wind."
Awaking to a sensation of cold about their feet, Haruki realizes the window is open. They pad out of bed and close it silently, and do not sleep the rest of the night.
The next morning, their mother is gone. They do not cry, but sigh, a tiny wind from thin lips.
In the months following, they spend increasing amounts of time in the tiny room that was once their nursery. One winter day, they stumble across a small book, worn with age. The gold letters on the cover read Kaguya Hime. Hakuri smiles, remembering what their mother told them. "The princess from the sky, who refused the emperor." A breeze comes through the open window, flipping the pages. They settle on a picture of the princess, and Hakuri is startled. The page is almost a mirror. Hakuri recognizes their own dark eyes in those of Kaguya Hime.
That night, they dream again of the ghost woman. She is pale, with dark lips and sunken eyes. She whispers in Hakuri's ear, "Wake up. This is not your body, kodomo. Find your wings." Hakuri awakes with the sensation of falling into bed from high, high above. Their window is again open. This time, they stay in bed, relishing the breeze.
In the morning, Hakuri walks to the market. The shopkeeper welcomes them with a cheery "Morning, sir!" Haruki's jaw clenches. They spend half an hour in the market, but return home empty handed. Somehow, their appetite is gone. When they return home, their father is sitting on the porch, his head in his hands. He says nothing to Haruki. They push past and go upstairs to their old nursery, where they have spent most of their time in the past months. This time, however, someone is there.
Haruki gasps. They recognize the woman in the corner, sitting cross legged. She is not young, but still elegant, draped in silk. Her dark hair is piled in a messy bun. The lines at the corners of her eyes seem to be those of laughter, but her forehead is creased in a manner to suggest pain.
"You...you were in my dreams," Haruki breathes. "You said- you called me Haruko. You said.. this was not my body."
"You noticed me, then. Haruko, have you heard of the Mu-Onna?" she asks, and Haruki is suddenly aware of how much like their own mother the woman is.
"I am a yokai, a spirit." Haruki laughs.
"That's not real."
"We were dreamt by folklore, born into consciousness by powers even I know not of. We- the Mu-Onna, that is, are mothers. Were mothers," she says, and her eyes narrow. Haruki steps back.
"Mu-Onna? That means.. nothing woman."
"The literal translation, yes."
"Why are you here?" Haruki asks.
"I need you."