by Sakura Nakashima
It’s a grey Wednesday at Kikuya.
The cool reflection of low clouds hanging in the coming twilight stirred her memories. The clouds are beginning to part as a new wind blows across the hills.
Again, she heard his whisper over her right shoulder, like a phantom glitch. Closing her eyes and inhaling with a strained measure, she held the longing for his sharp silhouette for a moment longer before releasing it as a warm breath. The freckles on his pale skin; the faint aroma of clove cigarettes and soap that cloaked him. These arbitrary, whimsical things cling to her, even though they had split up half a year ago.
“Hi-chan, what about you?” Washida-san queried from behind the wooden counter. The petite woman with a red bandana was hand-drying a set of beige porcelain mugs. “What are you doing for New Year’s?”
Absently, Hitomi was staring at the sky’s reflection on the counter before glancing up at the velvet clouds. Rain had stained the windowpane, but rosy light still filtered in like a film of pink lemonade. A half-eaten chestnut boiled in sweet shoyu sat on a dish in front of her.
The distracted woman, who looked no older than 17, shifted suddenly in her counter seat. “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Failing to discern what the original question was, she apologized a second time. “Pardon me, Auntie, I didn’t hear you. Could you… repeat that?”
Washida-san chuckles. “You have something fun planned for New Year’s, Hi-chan?”
The café proprietress laughs at the young woman often, but only because she has known her for three years. One of the first acquaintances Hitomi made in this town, her friendship was offered with a steaming cup of coffee before they could even communicate with each other. Different as they were, both women recognized that the common language of compassion moves mountains. Like a mother hen taking in a lost chick, but really more like an auntie hen, Washida-san especially loved to share seasonal delicacies with Hitomi around holidays, which she knew could be lonely without a real family. As January approached, the days were again growing short. Seat reservations on trains were filling up. Glimmering boxes of osechi were stacked on tables at department stores. Winter was really setting in now and it seemed like everyone was preparing to travel to visit relatives.
“Nothing special,” Hitomi began, hesitating to say too much in case Washida-san became nosy about her romantic relationships again. “But,” she considered, “actually, I think I would like to go to Dazaifu. It’s already been a year and I want to go by myself this time.” Something about the historic town in the winter had a hold on her since she first took a train there last year. With her now-ex.
At the time, she was 21 and somehow managed to talk Akio into traveling with her. Considering it was their first trip outside of the city together, and a major commitment of valuable holiday time, his eventual agreement felt momentous. As unconventional as it was, she had actually made a personal request to his boss to secure an extra day off for him – almost unheard of – in order to make the trip. He had fought the unmistakable smile on his face when he heard the news. They were still getting acquainted at this point, driven by their mutual interest in each other, but his total curiosity about her was much more selfish than she initially realized. Akio was such a serious guy around most people, it just didn’t seem right to talk about his interest in her openly. But this is a story for another time.
Now, faced with the reality of commanding her freedom to use time and money however she wanted, all Hitomi could think about were the mossy shrines and rain-slicked paths of that mysterious town.
She never did try umegaemochi. Or see the National Museum.
“Yes, I’m going to Dazaifu,” she decided. “If I go, I might have to leave tomorrow or so, before the trains are full. It takes, like, half a day to get there on the local lines. But the scenery is so nice on the way up north.” She took a swallow of cappuccino while turning to face Washida-san. “Have you been there before?”
Washida-san continued drying and stacking muted earthenware dishes. In a bright voice, she spoke to Hitomi without looking up. “Yes, many times. But it was years ago. We took Kanade to the museum when it had this great exhibit on flower scrolls since she liked them a lot when she was a kid.” Washida-san loved spending time with her daughter Kanade and now devoted a lot of energy to reminiscing about her. “Time flies, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” she agreed. “What will you be doing for New Year’s, Auntie? Going somewhere?” Hitomi wondered, before bashfully recalling that many small business owners continued operations, even on holidays. She thought, too, about Kanade and immediately wished that she had asked the question with a bit more tact.
“Ah, you know. I’m just going to be shuffling around here, putting things in order for a few hours. Then probably stop to see Kanade on the way home,” her voice trailed. “But my brothers and their wives are coming to celebrate with Teruo and I this year,” she smiled.
This was good news. Washida-san always had a bigger personality, a lifted spirit, around her husband. This was to be expected, perhaps, since Teruo was such a humble, but hilarious man. “That sounds so fun. I wish I could see everyone. Please tell them I wish them a wonderful new year and I’ll bring some special mochi from Dazaifu. Promise.”
“Ah, I haven’t had umegaemochi in years! Hi-chan, always so thoughtful,” Washida-san beamed. “I wish Kanade were still around to hang out with you. She’d learn a lot from your generosity. And courage.” The older woman turned her gaze back to a red-and-white spotted teapot she was finishing drying. Her glasses fogged slightly, but perceptibly.
“Auntie. I’m sorry.” Hitomi swallowed. “You know, I wish I could become as beautiful as Kanade someday. She always had life in her eyes. You know,” she ventured, “I feel like she’s always with you. Even now.”
Washida-san looked up thoughtfully and grinned. “Haha. It’s true, isn’t it? Kanade’s watching over me.” Her daughter’s framed full-color portrait gleamed on the wall, alongside her original paintings and black-and-white landscape shots of old Kumamoto. “Well, it’s a great thing, you going to Dazaifu. Make lots of friends this coming year!” she suggested. “You never know who you’ll meet.” She winked at Hitomi and set the teapot on the middle shelf with two careful hands. The Mariya Takeuchi record spinning on the back cabinet was coming to an end.
“Of course. I’ll try my best to make friends in Fukuoka, too.” Hitomi heard the last notes of Genki wo Dashite drift out of the big, vintage speakers. Departing on the second day of the new year and returning on the fifth would give her more time to see the new things she wanted to, plus extra hours to revisit her favorite places. Visit the sento, go to the shrine on top of the mountain, pay the God of Erudition for a blessing. Find the umegaemochi shop. It was already made up in her mind to see the grand museum – at least a day would be devoted to this segment of the tour. Sucking in the second-to-last bitter dollop of foam, she gazed out the window again, over the dark rows of tiled roofs that stretched down the hill to the distant river. As feminine as she came off around others, she was kind of a tomboy when it came to eating and drinking. With an audible gulp, not unlike a hiccup, she turned her attention back to Washida-san. “Do you and Teruo-san need help with anything next week? I’ll be back before long, and will have a couple of days off before work starts again.”
“Oh, no, no. We’ll be fine. But come here when you can, after you return home.” Washida-san paused. “In fact, you could come by our home, if you’ve got time? I didn’t tell you, but Kanade’s cousins will be staying at our place for a little bit. Taro’s maybe your age. Violet is a year younger.”
“Violet?” She wasn’t sure if she heard that right for a second. Foreign names were so rarely held by Japanese people, but then again the trends were changing. “What an interesting name. Very… British. Did she choose it?”
“Actually, yes, she chose that name herself. Back when she was in high school. She insisted that we started calling her ‘Violet’ and I thought it sounded odd at first.”
“Haha. It’s a really good name. I want to meet Taro and Violet. How about I come by your place in the evening when I get back on the fifth? If it’s not too late, that is. I’ll send you a message first.”
“Okay, Hi-chan. Sounds good!”
“Thank you, Washida-san.” Hitomi hopped down from the window seat and brought the empty cup to the wooden counter. “Thank you for the feast,” she bowed. “I’m going to ride home now before it gets too dark outside. That hill is scary at night.”
“Yeah, it is! Be careful, girl.” Washida-san took the cup and ran it under hot water for a few seconds. Hitomi settled her bill – one cappuccino and one kiwi sandwich – with a blue one-thousand-yen note. No amount of time in Japan seemed to be able to alter this strange diet of hers, but no one really complained. “I will see you next year.” Washida-san raised a finger in the air as if striking a disco pose. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Of course, Mom,” Hitomi laughed. “See you next year.” She called a final goodbye over her jacketed shoulder as she pushed open the front door of the café.
Feeling a rush from the sudden change in temperature and caffeine entering her bloodstream, she hopped over to her old bicycle, faithfully hugging the building. L’ AMORE. Something about Italian printed confidently in white caps against the black paint of her secondhand bicycle made her laugh every time she saw it.
“Well, let’s go home,” she said to her bike. “You’re really cold now, aren’t you?”
She kicked up the stand and turned the bike to face west. The one good thing about riding in winter was that the ancient bike chains didn’t rust and squeak from humidity. Now, down the windy hill. In striped tennis shoes, she pushed off the rough ground and gingerly rolled down the first incline of the hill. The horizon smoldered pink and orange, but the late-afternoon sky above had become dark fairly quickly. A hardware store sat on the neighboring lot, and a small cluster of new homes with low shrubs and immaculate driveways lined the rest of the street. Why build homes like these along a cobblestone road, she thought, but then realized it was probably the view that homeowners invested in.
The light woodiness of the bamboo grove bordering the opposite side of the street mixed with the distant aroma of charcoal and roasting sweet potatoes. And then there was the unmistakable scent of curry, fading in and out as she passed residences preparing dinner. The sky was a dusky wine now, somewhere between blueberry and blackberry. She wanted to smile at the quaint perfection of all of it. A cough fell out of her mouth instead.
Leveling out at the bottom of the hill, she started pedaling and noticed for the first time how lonely it was. These houses; these seasons; these automobiles of all makes and models. Ah, his car looks like that one, doesn’t it? Each time she recalled Akio’s absence, it was like the air in her lungs got colder and harder. “Sora no koe ga,” she sang to herself, “kiki taku te.” Winding down the street past the elementary school and the older homes with tiled roofs and family crests, she sang louder with disregard. Where are you now? Probably commuting home from work now, she guessed. But she hoped, like she often did, that he was already comfortably at home with his parents.
She said quiet prayers for his happiness, every night after setting out her futon. Akio, she always began. Be healthy and sleep as much as possible; please eat all your meals, and for God’s sake, please stop smoking cigarettes. Yet, she could not tell if they were coming true. They stopped communicating, even irregularly, after he transferred to a different factory farther away and told her he was too busy to reply to texts. He was basically unreachable. Sooner or later, she’d have to stop pining and move on. This is so unhealthy.
Shifting her legs over the frame as she got off the bicycle, Hitomi tried to focus on the luxury of warmth that momentarily awaited her inside the apartment. The landlady’s cat greeted her with a ring of its collar bell. She was relieved to be out of the cold air but would soon be out again in her running pants and reflective neon sash.
Marathon training was the only productive thing to do with this pent-up sadness; it was the only escape she had discovered. Tonight, especially, she decided she would keep running – past the covered fields, the dogwood trees, the deserted bicycle lanes – until these stupid memories were temporarily numbed to dead silence.
“Tomorrow I’m going to Dazaifu, buddy,” she confidently told the gigantic orange cat in English. “This time, alone.”