Title: By The World Forgot
Fandom: Spirited Away
Word Count: ~2900
Characters: Kamaji, Yubaba, Chihiro
Summary: "Have you always run the boiler room, Kamaji-san?" For genarti for Yuletide 2011.
"Since you're just sitting there, get me some herbs," Kamaji growled to Chihiro -- Sen, now, by Yubaba's decree -- and gestured to the row of tall glass containers that flanked his workstation. "First jar on the left."
"Is this for the bath salts?" she asked, the lip of the jar coming up almost to the little girl's armpit as she groped for a handful of his dwindling supply.
"No, just for my tea." He snatched the herbs with muttered thanks while another of his hands laid down the pestle in favor of his good yellow kettle, and chittering cries rose up behind him. "This doesn't mean you lot can take a break!" He shook a black-nailed fist at the soot sprites, lazybones that they were, and coal that had clinked to the ground was reluctantly retrieved.
As Kamaji slurped from his kettle, Sen looked around at his few personal effects -- his bowl, his toothbrushing supplies, the box and painted dolls on his dresser -- and then up at him. "Have you always run the boiler room, Kamaji-san?"
Kamaji wiped tea from his mouth with the back of a hand. "Always is a long time," he said finally.
* * * * *
Once upon a time, there was a man who worked in the rice fields. Well, there were many men who worked in the rice fields, but while there was much rice to be planted, there was not always so much rice to be harvested afterward, particularly in a year as dry as this one. And this particular man, because he had lost his wife to tuberculosis many years before, was left alone to care for his aged mother, and had no one to help him prepare her baths so she might soak her frail bones, and no one to help him make her tea at night. Even so, by day he worked in the fields or the nearby small-goods manufacturing plant, and in the evening he came home to look after her as best he could. But eventually the time came that she passed away.
"What will you do now?" asked his neighbor as the two lit their cigarettes. They surveyed the gravesite that they had been digging and looked out at the cracked fields with their tufts of young rice plants that would probably never bear. Soon there would be little indeed for him to do, whether to pay for his own upkeep or in his dark, silent home. The man blew smoke out through his bushy mustache.
"I will go to the city to look for work," he said.
The man packed clothes, food, supplies, and the two simple dolls his wife once kept for the children they had hoped to have, and then he set out for the city. While he had planned his route carefully beforehand, he found himself growing apprehensive as he passed alone through a patch of woods, especially when he came across a place where a torii had been broken down and thrown aside, with dozens of small stone shrines heaped beside it as if they were no more than trash. "The new generation has no respect for anything," he said under his breath. His apprehension only increased when he realized that the sun was falling lower in the west, and that he was lost.
For some time he wandered, stopping only to eat two of the rice balls he had packed before moving on, though he no longer knew where he was moving on to. A part of him did not care so much. But apparently another part of him still did, for it rejoiced at the sight of the tunnel that appeared as he rounded a bend. Wherever he had managed to lose himself, he had found a place to rest, and maybe even to work. But first to rest.
The town beyond the tunnel was colorful in red tiles and green paint, festooned with stained glass windows and strings of unlit paper lanterns that hung from the eaves of storefronts and across the narrow streets -- the most luxurious ghost town he had ever seen, for he passed not a single person on the street or in any of the establishments lining it, and he felt his hopes for employment here slipping away. A few of the restaurants must still have been open, however, for a savory aroma hung in the air that made him remember just how far he had walked today, and on how little food. Another block of walking revealed its source, a countertop restaurant where bowls large enough to hold a man offered up unimaginably rich fare -- pork rolled with stuffing and sliced in colorful pinwheels, the roasted head of the biggest carp he had ever seen, whole birds basted with sauce. Nobody would miss one of those young chickens, plucked from the edge of that stupendous serving bowl and secreted out of sight.
But stealing hardly seemed like the way to begin his stay here.
"Hello? Anyone here?" He slid behind the counter to survey the kitchen and see what labor he could offer in exchange for a bite to eat. Except for the cleaver embedded in the carving station, any dishes that had been used for preparation were either disappointingly clean or kept somewhere else entirely. There was one thing missing, though -- some idiot had forgotten to put on the tea. A little poking around revealed a large kettle and some of the nicest oolong he'd smelled, and soon he had water boiling on the stove as the lanterns hanging from the eaves lit one by one. So there was someone here after all. They should be glad their patrons wouldn't go without liquid refreshment.
A murmur had begun at the counter behind him -- customers waiting to be served? -- and he poured a little tea into a cup to see if it was ready. His eyes closed in bliss at the flavor, and then he nearly dropped the cup as a hand clamped down on his shoulder. When he spun around, the cup shattered on the floor, and it wasn't boiling tea that made him stagger backwards.
The black shape reached for him, taller than a man, its eyes like burning coals. Had his eyeglasses steamed over, that he could make out so few details? Other shapes surrounded him now, speaking in angry tones, but their conversation sounded like it came from the other side of a solid wall. The shapes loomed over him shaking their fists, solid now but no more distinct, and then his sight failed him entirely.
On waking, the man wished that it had failed him for a while longer. He was no longer in the countertop restaurant, but in a huge space enclosed by screens painted with scenes of rampaging oni. The stern-faced men that pinned his arms behind his back and crowded curiously around him looked squat and subtly wrong, but not so wrong as the huge-faced hag that pushed through their ranks to study him more closely. A monstrous eye closed in on him, and his own eyes slammed shut.
"It's a human, Yubaba-sama," said one of the men holding him. "It was stealing food from the restaurants, and --"
His eyes flew open. "I never ate so much as a bite! I was making tea in the hopes that someone might offer me some dinner in exchange, but instead they hauled me in here."
"And I suppose you sampled that tea without so much as asking permission," said the hag, stroking invisible wrinkles out of her blue silk dress.
"How else was I to see whether it was ready?"
"Well, that would explain why you haven't faded away or turned into a pig," the hag said with an unpleasant smile. "But you have invaded our realm with your human stench, and that cannot go unpunished."
"All I wanted was to work!"
"And work you shall," said the hag, her hands weaving before her in a complicated pattern. "You'll do a fine job of keeping down the fly population."
He was falling, falling. The hag was above him, so far above, as were the leering faces of the froglike men. A shadow fell over him, and he scrambled away on hands and knees that were no longer hands and knees at all.
Night fell, and he wedged himself into a corner of the ceiling, for that was now something that came as naturally to him as breathing. Before today, he would have scoffed at the notion that so small a creature could weep. But hunger would not let him indulge himself for long. It turned out that spinning silk and drinking the blood of unlucky moths was also second nature to him now.
While hunting sated his hunger, it did not take away his desire for revenge. He crawled across ceilings and through ventilation shafts to take stock of his situation, and that only made him wish that he could howl with the strength of a human throat, because this, this was a workplace beyond his wildest fantasies. Always busy and bustling, with moments for rest but not for reflection that led to regret -- at least, for everyone but him. On the lower floors, squat men and women prepared baths and food for creatures out of dreams or nightmares, but it was the floors still further below that truly fascinated him. The halls that led to the boiler room were a forest of pipes and dials and steel, and this was where the magic happened, because this was why everything worked. Workers more like frogs than men kept the furnace that heated the bathhouse fed with coal, while others leapt up walls of drawers to fetch down herbs to soften the water, and still others pumped that water up to the guests' baths. It was a frenzy of activity and a wonder of engineering, and the man who was now a spider could only imagine how well it would run if it was supervised by someone who could see what needed to be done instead of manned haphazardly by a few dozen scrambling frogs.
He couldn't stay long. Small creatures were short-lived, and he did not know how much time he had left. So he ascended through elevator shafts, past the workers' quarters and guest floors toward the ornate upper rooms that made up Yubaba's quarters.
He began by weaving a few strands of webbing across the door to her bathroom for spite, so that when she got up in the morning she had to wipe the sticky stuff from her face, grumbling. The next night he progressed to weaving his web across her monstrous nostrils and eyelashes. The resulting spectacle satisfied him more than the blood of flies and moths, and he put his mind to finding even more uses for spider silk.
His first victims were the rings and bracelets that lay on her dressing table in glittering heaps. Had he merely woven his thread across them, the game would have been over all too quickly, so instead he lined their inner rims with his stickiest silk. He wove in such a way that she did not notice when she put them on in the morning but swore and stomped delightfully when it came time to remove them at night. From there he glided on gossamer strands to Yubaba's desk, where he found that even a spider could turn the pages of her ledger with a carefully thrown thread, and that paper stuck together much more permanently than fingers to rings.
By this time the hag was frantic, snorting fire as she stalked her rooms and glaring up into corners, armed at all times with a fly swatter or a broom. However, he had become very good at being a spider, and he revealed himself for no more time than it took to taunt her with his presence before crawling away behind a row of books or hiding on the back side of a statuette or multicolored urn, many of which she shattered to bits in her futile attempts to hunt him down. Perhaps he was becoming more than a spider in this magical place, because his silk was becoming stronger, so much that if he wove it back and forth across her door all through the night, the fine network of threads would trip her in the morning, and if he wove it thickly enough across the mouths of the golden faucets that brought water to her bathtub and washbasin, it would spray up at her when she turned on the tap.
The hag ran out into her sitting room with water dripping from her ruined dress and hair, breathing flames that burned hotter than the furnace in the basement. "Fine, you win!" she cried. "Show yourself, and I will make you a man again and give you work, if only you leave me alone!"
The man who was now a spider never knew that such a small body could contain such a feeling of triumph. With utmost caution, he dangled down from the ceiling in front of her, preparing to drop free and run for a corner if she made a move to squash him. But although her eyes narrowed, and he saw her consider it, her word was good. A pen and a sheet of paper flew from her desk to hover in the air at her shoulder. Her hands moved over him in a complicated pattern, and he stood before her again with the height of a man.
"I'll work for you on three conditions," he told her. "One, that you'll return the few things I brought here with me. Two, that you let me run the water works below the bathhouse. And three, that I can leave here if I wish."
At first she looked like she wanted to spit, but then Yubaba's face seemed to crack in a grin. With a cackle she waved her hand, and the contract rewrote itself and leapt at him, tapping fingers he'd forgotten he had. He looked down as the pen slid into his grasp -- and recoiled, gasping. His hands had always shown the effects of work in the fields, but now they were ancient. He glared up from the lines and age spots: "What have you done to me?"
"Not a thing but make you a spider, with a spider's life span," Yubaba told him matter-of-factly. "You should be grateful I got sick of your pestiferousness before you dried up to nothing. And turning back the clock isn't part of my powers. If it were, I'd have done something about this face of mine a long time ago. But as long as you work here, you won't need to worry about that body of yours changing anymore." The prospect seemed to amuse her, but then she gave a nod and a frown. "Now sign your name before I get tired of waiting and change my mind."
Kabayama Masao. He wrote it painstakingly, in beautiful cursive lines that he hoped made him look better educated than he was, and paused for a moment of wistful admiration before handing it over to his new employer. The crone scanned his signature with narrowed eyes, then lifted her hand again, and the ink that hadn't even dried performed magic much as it had in writing and rewriting the contract: the last characters of his family name and given name vanished, and the first characters performed a swirling dance like ends of a rope knotting themselves together to form another word altogether, making him suck in his breath and lean forward as if he could snatch them back.
"Kama!" the crone exclaimed, laughing. "Because that's what you're minding, whether it's the boiler you're running or a kettle for that tea you're so crazy about. But since we have to show the proper respect to a man of your years" -- though her tone and expression indicated she meant no such thing -- "everybody will call you Kamaji, old boiler man. You will run the boiler room without help from a single soul. And if you ever get so tired of it that you feel like tormenting me again, here are five tickets to take the train across the water." She held them high, dangling them as if to tease him, and he practically leaped forward, hands outstretched -- all six of them. He drew back in horror. Growing older was the least of what had happened to his body.
The crone smiled a nasty smile. "Yes, you can always leave by train, if the world outside will have a tsuchigumo in their midst."
It was not so bad. The boiler room made for fascinating work that he could just barely handle himself, even with all the new limbs he'd been given. He made unexpected friends over the years, in Haku, the river spirit who appeared one day at the bathhouse gates without a home to go back to, and Lin, the weasel spirit who was made an indentured servant for stealing food. In time, Kamaji even learned to enspell the soot so that it would work for him, tossing coal into the furnace so that he could devote himself to improving the herbal concoctions he made for the baths.
Learning his job too well turned out to be his downfall. Time for rest meant time for reflection that led to regret, and sometimes, as now, his eyes wandered helplessly about the little room that had become his whole world.
Sen must have followed his gaze. "Those dolls look really old," she said. "Are they yours?"
"Yes, child, of course they are."
She looked from Kamaji to the painted dolls again, then asked, "Have you had them since you were little?"
There was a long silence as Kamaji paused, took several swallows of tea, and stared at the kettle as he put it down again.
"I don't remember," he said at last.