The landscape flowed past as Nmir climbed and leapt her way up the hillside, one hand clenched tightly around her haversack. Inside it the empty medicine bottles jingled, as if urging her to hurry. Nmir doubled her pace, scrambling from rock to branch to the occasional piece of flat-land, until she burst into the clearing, still soaring through the air.
Quickly checking that none of the bottles had been broken, Nmir sighed, looking at the small thatched hut before her. Beside it lay a small well, and a large garden filled with all many of herbs and plants. She recognized a few of those flowers from her classes back at the village. Most of them grew only on elevated ground like this, where the temperature and wind made conditions ideal for their flowering.
She walked slowly down the worn dirt-path, savoring the atmosphere, the tranquility, the sheer isolation of the place. Over the years she had come to enjoy these quiet moments of being alone, away from the noise, from the suspicious glances and curious looks…
At least illusions can be seen through-
It’s not like she belonged to the village…
How can you trust something like that?
The mission was simple. Deliver a small bag of food to the old herbalist in the hills in return for the medicines he grew. Twice a month the village would send someone up here. Twice a month, they chose her. The trip took at least two days on foot, as the hill was quite a distance away. For more than a year she had done so, to the point where Elder Dunzon could recognize her approach without even turning to look at her. He’ll be just behind the door again, waiting with a pile of dried herbs and a big mug of tea…
Nmir reached the door at last, a faint smile of anticipation on her face. Without hesitating she slid the wooden panel to the side, the sound of Elder Dunzon’s cheerful, creaky voice already on her ears-
Nmir! What a surprise. Come, have a seat-
Nmir blinked, looking around the tiny living room. The simple wooden table was where it always was, yet there was no one sitting there. No wrinkled old man smiling atop the rattan mat, a mug of tea in his hands.
Silence. The room was empty, eerily so. Even the sounds of the forest seemed muffled inside. Something was wrong…
“Elder?” she called, wincing at how loud her voice seemed, “Elder Dunzon?”
Silence was all that answered.
“Elder Dunzon! Hello? Anyone?! I’ve come for the usual delivery! Elder Dunz-”
There! An answering cough, coming from the bedroom. Nmir approached cautiously, carefully sliding the separator that divided the living room and the old man’s sleeping quarters. What she saw made her gasp.
“Nmir…” wheezed the old man from upon his bed, his skin as pale as snow, “tis good to see you…”
Nmir poured the last of the soft blue flowers into the jar, sealing the lid tight. The herbs had been all prepared, laid out just for her in the shed at the back. She had left the bag of ingredients and soup-stock on the table in the living room. For all purposes, she was done.
Elder Dunzon was dying.
Dunzon. The old man with whom she had spent several afternoons twice a month talking to, drinking tea, listening to his stories. Elder Dunzon, whom didn’t know of what she could do, who knew only the nice girl that visited him each time, unaware, unprejudiced...
A sudden, wracking cough from behind made her cringe. The sickness was getting worse. According to the Elder, it was simply age, nothing more. The inescapable disease, that all men shared, that could never be cured.
For a while Nmir simply drifted, walking from the living room to the shed and back, not quite knowing what to do. Finally she sat down; her green eyes dull, staring at the tiny portrait of a young woman dressed in blue, her smile eternally frozen upon the wall.
Anami. The old man’s wife. Elder Dunzon used to go on and on about her, on the afternoons they shared. About her smile, how she would always cook for him, and how she passed away fifty years ago. He moved up to the hills soon after, away from the village. Some wounds never quite heal.
…while others simply continue to grow. Just because I wasn’t born there…
The mat felt oddly uncomfortable, as though there was a something underneath it. She checked: yes, a small bump, just next to where Elder Dunzon used to sit. Curious, she reached under the rattan, fingers closing around something rectangular and hard…
The book was old but well-preserved, pages yellowed with age. The cover was the common brown of the village record books, the ones commonly used in administration. Yet scrawled in faded black ink in the bottom right-hand corner, was a single, curled signature.
Realization dawned. An idea of what she could do. Nmir looked at the diary, then the portrait, and then the diary again. For a brief moment she seemed to hesitate, as if wrestling with some inner voice...but then the moment passed, and with sudden force Nmir wrenched upon the cover page, glancing at the opening words of the book:
To chronicle our time together, from the night of our marriage to the day we part, I keep this diary. That in the years to come we may look back upon these pages, and recall the wonderful times we had…
In the light of the noonday sun, Nmir began to read…
Dunzon..." whispered a voice, "Dunzon..."
The old man's eyes creaked open at the sound of her voice. So familiar...filled with warmth...
"Anami?" he croaked, old withered eyes squinting in the evening's soft light. Thousands of wrinkles, like crevices on his forehead, bunched up as he frowned, trying to lift his skeletal-body off the bed. She shouldn’t be here…couldn’t be here. And yet…and yet…
"Shh..." the voice whispered, soft hands easing him back into bad, "you must rest. Rest..."
…here she was.
A small, warm bowl was pressed against his lips. Dunzon swallowed, drinking the simple herbal soup. The taste was bitter, as memories flashed past, memories of times spent with his wife in the forest. Every mission without fail, she would make a bowl for him. She was always a talented cook…
"Heh..." chuckled Anami, that light, airy chuckle that he loved "sixty-five years and you still can't stand my soups. And after all the trouble I went through to prepare it too! You could at least pretend to like it."
The words were exactly what she would have said. Exactly what she used to say.
Dunzon smiled, looking up. A pair of bright blue eyes -Anami's eyes- gazed back at him, filled with concern. Long red locks of her spilled messily from her head, framing her long, oval face. She smiled too, thick red lips pursed in the exact way she used to smile, all those years ago. The vision wore the same blue dress that he had gave her, every thread identical in pattern and texture. Exactly the same...
"Now don't you go apologizing now," she sniffed, getting up, "Focus on recovering. And at least use thicker sheets! You're going to catch a cold at this rate. Sheesh, men these days..."
She walked swiftly towards the door, taking the bowl with her, careful not to make any noise. "Anami" had barely gotten five feet away before Elder Dunzon spoke up;
"You're not her, are you?"
She froze, simply standing there, not knowing how to react.
"You're not Anami, though a better imitation I have never seen..."
"You look the same. Sound the same. Even your behavior...mannerisms. An exact duplicate. But you're not her, are you? There's still something different..."
Nmir turned around, dropping the disguise. Long red hair faded to a dark blue, while the face became more youthful, more immature. She sighed, lowering her head, whispering;
"My deepest apologies for the deception Elder. It was…rude of me to assume the form of your wife without permission. I shall-I shall take my leave at once."
"No. Stay." croaked the old man, one withered finger signaling for her to come closer. Nmir complied, not knowing how to react.
"I knew you were not her, but still..." he chocked, eyes glistening, "but still...for a while...I could pretend she was here again. I wanted her to be here. I knew it was just a disguise, and yet...would you, could you..."
Nmir didn't need him to elaborate. Anami returned, hands gently grasping the old man's wrist, stroking his forehead tenderly.
"Hah. Don't...have much time...left" wheezed Dunzon.
"Idiot. Stop saying that," she chided softly, tightening her grip on his wrist. His limbs felt felt so weak and brittle, pale even under the setting sun's light...
"Ha!" grinned Dunzon, "even on my death bed you use the same old insults. Ever since we first met, eh? Its been *cough* eighty years and you still...can't come up with anything better than that..."
"Idiot..." whispered Anami,
"I always loved to see you in that dress, y'know," he rambled, "always thought you looked...beautiful in it. My dancing flower, blue petals under the moonlit sky..."
Anami was shaking now, her eyes wet as well. She was gripping his wrist so tight now that her fingers had turned white.
"I'll be...meeting you soon. Hold my hand, Anami. Hold..." whispered Dunzon, his voice barely audible, "Everything feels so cold now. So dark and cold..."
Slowly, quietly, Elder Dunzon closed his eyes, never to open them again.
For a while, she sat there unmoving, eyes closed as well. Then, with a choked sigh, Anami got up, leaving the bowl by bedside. As she stood her body shimmered, leaving Nmir standing there, face bowed in respect. With an almost ritual-like stiffness she pulled from her cloak two articles: a diary and a small drawing of a red-haired woman, placing them upon the old man's chest.
Her head kept low, Nmir exited the room, picking up her haversack as she did. The bag felt unusually heavy, as though it was filled with more than the herbs she had been sent to collect. High above, the full-moon gleamed brightly in the darkness of the night.
Only then did she realize that she couldn't stop shaking.
A cool wind blew, rustling the trees. In the old man's garden, where the herbs he planted grew, a small blue flower broke from its branch. Caught in the breeze, it scattered into the air- A series of small blue petals, dancing under the moonlit sky.