Yoki learns another life.
Before he can ask her if she means the illusions his mother tried to dispel, she turns away from him towards the stove, her white hair falling over her face but not hiding her smile.
When he says that he has nowhere to go and no family left, he imagines that her expression softens, but perhaps it is only a trick of the light. That evening, she shows him how to hold a brush and mix the ink carefully so as to spill as little as possible. She is a patient teacher, correcting him repeatedly on difficult words from her prescriptions; he is an impatient student, eager to learn all he can, especially about things that she is not particularly keen to instruct him in. All he finds on the scraps of torn paper used to plug cracks in the walls are scribbled observations about experiments conducted on fish in the dark, none of which shed any light on his questions, even the only one containing a complete sentence: It takes longer, but the result is the same.
He watches the smoke spiral from her pipe toward the ceiling; in these contemplative moods, it is easier to get answers from her if he avoids certain subjects.
"They are another form of life, with as much right to live in their own way as we in ours."
"How are they connected with us? Why is it that only a few people see them, and even fewer attract them?"
"Some say it is because mushi are so close to the source of all life and are connected to all organisms in the river of life: if we are the fingertips, they are almost at the core, and so are especially drawn to those in whom the channels of vitality run as straight and true as a pulse through a vessel from the heart. People with a will to survive, no matter what the odds."
"Like you, yes."
"What happens if we can't co-exist harmlessly with the mushi?"
"Then we have to avoid them, or accept them."
She follows his involuntary gaze to the window, to the approaching darkness.
"There's nothing to fear", she says, running her hand absently over his hair as she stares behind him into the formless gloom, and he realizes for the first time that she is not trying to reassure him.