It had just rained, the fresh, clean air a sharp contrast to the mustiness of the tent she left behind. The moisture in the air is so heavy, she can practically feel it weighing down her movements, clogging her breathing. She can feel the air literally condensing on her skin, the humidity so overwhelming she could probably swim in it.
Mayumi opens her eyes to see that she is still in the same tent, but the tent entrance is wide open, revealing a tropical rainforest outside, slowly crawling in. The Bunny can only gape in astonishment and wonder; she has never seen such tree roots before, such huge behemoths that seem to be like several giants’ hands swallowing up the earth with clutching, greedy claws, all of them desperately claiming precious soil as they rake through the brown compost of fallen leaves and plants. Each tiny pool of sunlight on the ground is a scarce resource, with huge clumps of small plants growing towards it, trying to crush out the surrounding competition, leaves teeming with unseen insects and creatures that make the jungle literally buzz with life.
“Right,” says Meng.
Mayumi jumps at Meng’s presence, having clean forgotten about the gypsy’s existence. “Where are we?” she asks, her voice soft in awe.
“A rainforest. Not sure if you’ll ever see anything like it,” says Meng, grinning at May’s response. “Saw this during one of my travels. Doubt I’ll ever see the likes of it again.”
“Wait. This is from memory?”
“Yup,” says Meng. “Normally, I let the customer dictate what they presume to be a safe place–”
Mayumi isn’t listening anymore. “So I can recreate dreams out of memory?”
Meng huffs, a little vexed, for she is a long-winded person when she can get away with it. “Yes. It’s why I can help people seek closure, usually with themselves. In fact,” hurries Meng, seeing May about to interrupt again, “normally I start off inside the person’s dream which, for stability, is from a common memory. But since this is a… special case, I have to start from one of my own dream worlds. This just happens to be the fastest one I can recreate.”
“Can we get going?” asks Mayumi impatiently. “I have things to get done.”
Meng lets out an irritated sigh. “Really,” she says, stepping out of the tent and waving a beckoning hand. “This would’ve been a lot easier if you’d let yourself get hypnotised from the start.”
“It isn’t my fault that you tried to make me sing like a bird!” retorts Mayumi, getting up and following the gypsy.
“How was I supposed to know what you wanted, then?”
“You could’ve just asked–”
Sunbeams peep through the clouds, sending down columns to the ground ahead of Mayumi. The houses are small but neat and clean, not like Three...what was the name of that place? Three Blind Mice? No...that was a song he sang to her when she was little...when he taught it to her on the piano.
She can play the piano. She’d forgotten.
The street is narrow, lined with the walls that enclose the tiny, well-kept gardens around every house. It is early spring...plum blossoms are on the trees planted in tiny gardens behind the houses. The cherry blossoms have not yet opened, except for one tree she passes, the “crazy sakura” on the corner, the one with mixed pink and white petals, that always blooms early. Her heart pounds in her chest as she recognizes it. Her home is only a block away.
Over roofs of the houses she can see the enormous gingko tree at the top of the hill in the center of the ward. Its leaves are golden, fluttering in the wind like tiny folding fans. Legend is that it was once a wizard who tried to become immortal. But his spell went wrong and he became a tree instead. But the tree was supposedly over a thousand years old, so perhaps it was true.
She passes by another blooming sakura tree and pauses, thinking That’s not right, but she continues on, because she sees it, her home’s brilliant blue ceramic-tile roof, tiles edged with symbols of the element of water on them, to ward off fires. She can see it ahead...but wait, the house next to her has the same roof, and there’s another sakura tree blooming, petals all the colors of the rainbow. She closes her eyes, shakes her head. This isn’t right. And the gingko tree...its leaves turn yellow in the fall.
Then she sees a figure cross the intersection ahead, only momentarily visible before going behind another walled garden. He is too far away for her to see his face, but his straight bearing, his iron-grey hair – it’s him!
She rushes to follow, but as she turns the corner, he is gone. She runs through the maze, looking around only to find that every house looks the same now, every tree the same crazy mix of colors, blooming out of season. Panic strikes fear into her being when she suddenly remembers – she had not came here alone. In desperation she calls out, “Meng? Meng, what’s happening? Something’s going wrong!”
She hears a shrill of pipes, and a beating of drums, a cry of “Oissa! Oissa!” Around the corner comes a stream of men wearing short happi coats and tiny haramaki breechclouts, flanked by young boys and little girls dressed similarly. She remembers having participated as a child, shortly after “awakening,” still young enough to join the ritual from which women are excluded. She remembers being embarrassed at being so exposed, her ears and tail so obvious, but the women who worked behind the scenes to make everything run smoothly were kind to her, as were the men, not ignoring her difference but joking good-naturedly, in a friendly way, not bullying like some of the kids at school, and they set her at ease.
Behind them comes a group of the strongest men in the ward bearing a large float, a portable shrine that weighs over a ton, on which rides Princess Ori, goddess of textiles, sitting impassively as she is carried through the streets. Only, this is a summer festival, she remembers. The sakura petals should have long since fallen like pink snow to the streets; the gingko leaves should be a pleasant green.
The crowd fills the street ahead of her, blocking her progress, bearing down on her. She steps back, afraid of being run down by the shrine-bearers. She takes another step back as the crowd shows no sign of stopping.
Her foot finds nothing.
She nearly falls, catches herself. She is on the edge of...not a cliff. Of nothing. Her knees nearly go out from under her as she sees the sheer emptiness behind her. Her mind cannot take it in. Turning back, she sees the crowd rushing toward her, about to trample her...but she would rather be crushed than fall into that nothingness, alone.
“Please!” she calls out, her eyes filling with tears. “I just...I just want to find my home! Please!”
But her pleas do nothing as the men bear down on her. Rushing with the heavy shrine, they couldn’t stop now if they wanted to. Mayumi closes her eyes, braces herself, too frightened of the void to step back – and then she is tackled from the side, and feels herself falling – not, not falling, floating, in nothing.
She feels arms around her and she holds on tightly. She opens her eyes. There is nothing around her, nothing but Meng, who pulls her into a warm embrace out of worry. Mayumi hugs her tightly, pressing her cheek against the young woman’s.
“Thank you,” she says.
Meng awkwardly loosens her grip, as if stunned. “... You’re welcome.” mutters Meng. She becomes silent for a moment, her expression full of confusion before hiding it.
“That escalated quickly, and it ain’t funny,” she chides Mayumi, righting her. “What’s wrong with you? I’ve never seen something like this happen to anyone! Seriously, this is the most craziest, whacked-up dream I’ve ever been–”
“I wasn’t laughing,” Mayumi replies softly. “Thank you...I’m sorry...I don’t know what happened. But...where are we? This is horrible...I feel like I’m going to go mad.” She shuts her eyes tightly. “If you weren’t here with me I think my mind would just shatter.”
“I don’t really know where we are,” says Meng uncertainly. “I thought it was your dream, your memories. And,” adds Meng, pulling what’s left of her bravado around her like a threadbare cloak, “let me tell you sister, if that’s the case, you are seriously jacked-up in the head to go into places like this–”
“No,” says May. “I’ve never known anything like this.”
“Well in that case,” says Meng, all bravado fading away, “We... could have a problem.”
“What do you mean?” Mayumi cries. “Get us out of here, already!”
“I would if I happened to know where ‘here’ is!” Meng nearly yells. “Seriously, what kind of freakish dream-memory thing were you channeling there?!”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” shouts Mayumi, her voice quavering. “You’re supposed to be the expert!”
“This isn’t normal!” says Meng desperately. “This isn’t a dream OR a nightmare! I don’t know where the heck we are!”
“SO? HOW DO WE GET OUT?” Mayumi nearly screams from a mix of fear and frustration.
Meng gulps. “Umm… Normally…” She trails off, her mind racing to get her facts in order.
“Normally? Normally what?” asks Mayumi, becoming infuriated with the cowering gypsy. “Are we just supposed to stay here until I wake up?”
“Well, that’s always an option,” says Meng, now regaining confidence. “It’s a strong sleeping drug I gave you but with a short effective time. Can’t have people walking in on sleeping customers,” she adds under her breath.
“So how long does it last?” asks Mayumi.
“Thirty minutes,” says Meng firmly. “No matter how deep or immersive the dream or nightmare, you’ll be booted out within thirty minutes. Twenty, if you’re particularly resistant to the drug. In the event that somehow forty-five minutes have passed without awakening, the previous hypnotism kicks in, which you did succumb to for a bit.”
“So basically we just have to wait this out?” asks Mayumi, feeling relieved.
“Yes,” says Meng. “Good thing too, ‘cause this place is giving me the creeps!” Meng’s eyes suddenly widen as if she was kicked in the stomach and, bit by bit, her figure begins to fade. “Oh, crap,” she mutters.
“Meng? What’s happening, Meng?!” Mayumi asks, eyes widening with fear.
“I’m being pulled out of the dream,” Meng says, as calmly as she can, for to send Mayumi into hysteria would be the worst possible idea at this moment. “Don’t worry, it’s a natural thing. I’m a foreigner in your mind. Just relax. Any panicking will speed it up,” she adds uselessly, as the gypsy’s fading process rapidly quickens with each passing moment. “Just remember, this is all in your head. Nothing’s gonna hurt you unless–”
A loud sucking sound fills Mayumi’s world for a moment, and Meng vanishes. Somehow, the gypsy must’ve been lighting up her surroundings with her presence, for with her disappearance Mayumi’s vision plunges immediately into darkness.
"Unless? Unless what?!” Mayumi shouts. “Meng! Where are you, Meng?! Meng!"