In the capital city under the azure sky, fair maidens take small, mundane detours on their way home from school.
"All right, let's go home together." Her voice rang from the adjacent seat.
"Eh?" I was momentarily taken aback, but then I recalled making such a passing promise earlier in the day. "Ah, yes, give me a moment!" Placing my notebooks and pencil pouch carefully into my new leather bag that Father gave me just yesterday, I followed her out of the classroom.
This morning was my first day at Kantou Women's Academy. Due to the nature of Father's work, Mother and I had moved to this city all the way from our hometown in Fukushima. While it saddened me to leave the place I grew up in for the entire fourteen years of my life, at the same time an undercurrent of energy and anticipation permeated my very being.
A new city, a new school. And of course, new friends to make.
Unfortunately, moving in and filing the paperwork for enrollment took my family longer than we expected, and I ended up missing the first few days of the school year. As such, I had to do a short introduction in front of my new class.
"I'm Kobiyama Mareni. I have just moved here from Fukushima. I hope we have a pleasant year together!"
She approached me during recess.
"Kobiyama-san, is it?" I turned to see a rather tall girl standing next to my table. Her long, obsidian hair, while tied in a single horse tail with a white ribbon, still swished around at the tip whenever she moved her head. Even though we were wearing the same uniform, she somehow managed to look mature in it.
"Yes, and you are...?"
"Ah, I have not made introductions yet. My apologies," she said, lightly placing a hand over her chest. "I'm Hata Eiko. Earlier, you have mentioned that you are from Fukushima, and it thrills me to know that there is someone from my hometown in our class, as I am too from Fukushima."
"Is that so? Pleased to make your acquaintance."
We then conversed for the rest of the duration of the recess, and found out that not only were we both from the same prefecture, we were from the same city as well. Unlike me, she has been in this city for several years now. She asked me about how the situation was like back home, and I asked her about this city.
"Oh, I know," she clapped, "how about we go home together?"
"Eh?" I did not have the faintest idea of how she landed at that conclusion. But, seeing no detriment to her offer, I took her up on it. She gave a warm smile in response, while her horse tail swished in delight.
"Excuse me, but are we waiting for something?" I asked.
Upon exiting the classroom, we did not head straight out of the building, but instead loitered around in the corridor. Unlike the wooden boards in the school building back home that would creak when you stepped on them, this school building, built in the Western style, had solid floorings and walls that, while sturdy, gave off a ever so slight chill, as if reflecting the cold spring air outside. Our classroom gradually emptied out as the other girls streamed out and towards the exit. Yet, she stood next to the window and didn't budge.
"Oh, we're waiting for the other class to finish," she said. "Ah, here they come."
The door of the classroom behind us jarred open, and students emerged from the doorway. Two of them reacted upon seeing Hata-san, and trotted over to the window where we were standing.
"Ah, Eiko! Sorry to keep you waiting, homeroom took longer than usual." This first girl was slightly shorter than me, her silken hair tied into rings on both sides, and had a skip in her step.
Then, she stopped in her tracks. I felt her gaze humming from the tip of my forehead, down to my shoulders, and sweeping down my legs. Adding to the frost transpiring from the walls of the school, her eyes caused me to freeze in place.
"Who's this person?" she asked. "I don't recall seeing you before."
"I'm Kobiyama Mareni," I quickly bowed, "nice to meet you."
"She transferred into our school today," Hata-san added, "her family just moved into the capital a few days ago."
"Hmmmmmmmm..." I felt the weight of her stares pressing into me just a bit more, as her head slowly sank to my chest level. Then, her face flipped to a bright smile all of a sudden.
"Well, nice to meet you. I'm Jin Yuran!"
"Yu...ran?" My tongue tripped trying to repeat her name.
"She's not Japanese," Hata-san explained. "Though, we've known each other since middle school."
"Oh..." I nodded. "Did your family move here for work as well?"
"I suppose you can call it that," Jin-san said, but did not elaborate further.
Seeing a pause in the air, the girl that came along with Jin-san spoke. "I'm Wakabayashi Asumu," she said, giving a slow but stable bow. She was taller than Jin-san and I, though not yet reaching Hata-san's level. Her front fringes were trimmed straight, while at the back of her head a modest wave of hair reached down to her hips. An air of refinement surrounded her, yet not in the way that Hata-san's was — if Hata-san emitted a sense of fortitude, Wakabayashi-san's was that of serenity.
"Pleased to meet you," I returned the greeting. Wakabayashi-san smiled.
"Now that introductions have been made," Hata-san spread her arms dramatically, "let us welcome Kobiyama Mareni to the Going-Home Club!"
A brief moment of silence, broken a second later by the sound of Jin-san clapping rapidly and going "hurrah~".
"Sorry, but what's this about a club?" I asked, "I wasn't aware of this being a school-sanctioned organization."
"It's not." Hata-san proclaimed smugly. "In fact, I just founded it a minute ago."
"We do have four people now, which is the minimum requirement for forming a club," Wakabayashi-san said, putting a finger to her cheek, "I could ask the teacher for an application form tomorrow."
"No, it's just a joke—" Hata-san tried to wave it off, but.
"For 'Activities Description' we could put, 'Our club serves to research and discover new paths and methods of returning home after school, ranking each route on the scales of scenery, distance, and pocket money spent.'"
"Asumu please spare me, I'm sorry."
"Huh? Eiko, you weren't serious after all?" Jin-san looked disappointed. "Here I was thinking we could get some funding for our cafe visits."
"Speaking of cafes!" Hata-san changed the subject, "We haven't been to one since this school year started, have we? Let's go to one today on the way home."
"Good idea!" Jin-san took the bait. "How about the one on Yoshino-chou? I do have an appetite for their hotcakes right now."
"If you're fine with it..." Wakabayashi-san began, but Hata-san lightly patted her back. "Of course! It's my treat. Let's head out."
In the past week that I have been here in this city, I was largely occupied with moving and unpacking, and did not have the time to explore the neighborhood. Hence, this would be the first time I am venturing out into the yet-unknown streets of this capital city. And to be doing it with others! At this moment, in the street heading north from our school, the four of us were leisurely walking down the flat dirt road. I looked to my right, where Hata-san was engaged in teasing Jin-san about matters that I don't yet know about, and on my left, where Wakabayashi-san was quietly looking at the plum trees neatly planted in a row down the edge of the sidewalk as we walked.
The plum blossoms were in full bloom. Patches of brilliant red dot the otherwise still barren branches, heralding the coming of spring. Back home, plum trees weren't as common as cherry trees were, and so you would not have seen any flowers at this time of the year. However, in this land, a place that seemed to embody new beginnings itself, it seemed rather apt that flowers were in view earlier than anywhere else that I've known.
Just at this moment, a small breeze picked up. I instinctively clutched the scarf around my neck, a yellow-orange one that I have had for several years, and covered my nose with it to alleviate the stinging sensation that came with the cold, dry wind. The plum trees waved their branches against the sky, sending a blizzard of petals across the street. A wave of scarlet, like the ripples on the water surface.
"It's so pretty..." I gasped.
"These trees were only just planted a few years ago," Wakabayashi-san turned to look at me and smiled. Unlike Jin-san's stare earlier, her gaze was slightly ticklish, warming up my frosted cheeks just a little bit. "They came right after this road was finished."
"Really?" I asked. "Judging from their size, I had thought that they have been around for longer."
"Well, perhaps the soil is good around these parts." Wakabayashi-san chuckled. "But this city grew a lot in the past few years; they've really put a lot of thought into urban planning."
The four of us turned left fairly quickly into a bustling street. Here, trees no longer decorate both sides of the road; instead Western-style buildings stood proudly on both sides, ushering us immediately into a different world, one not of wooden panels and grated windows, but of red brick walls, white plaster, and fluted columns. Back home, there were several of such buildings that were built in the Meiji and Taishou period, but I would never have expected to see an entire street of them.
A shop selling spectacles and watches, with a full glass front going from the ceiling to the knee-level. A photography studio with small, rectangular windows swinging outwards, bringing light into an otherwise dark and dusty interior. A cloth-seller, with red carpeting and ornate wooden furniture.
And our destination, an intricate iron sign with the words "Kissa Kokuryuu", hung above a mahogany door with inset stained glass that opens into a warmly incandescent room, one not too big to make you lose your bearings, but not too small to suffocate you either. The windows were similarly made of stained glass, painting the edges of the interior with a kaleidoscope of rainbows.
"Good afternoon!" a young lady that seemed a few years older than us gave a small bow and smiled. Her navy blue apron with white frills swayed as she spread her left arm towards the seats further inside the cafe. "A table for how many guests today?"
"Four please," Hata-san gestured with her hand. "Can we take the window seat over there?"
"Of course, please mind your step as you come over." This was when I noticed the raised wooden flooring right after entering the doorway. Each plank was brightly polished, accentuating the wood's auburn color. We followed the young lady to our seats, and upon settling down into our mahogany chairs, she presented us each with the menu.
"The coffee here is really good," Jin-san looked up at me from her menu, "I highly recommend it."
"C-coffee?" I hesitated. "I'm not that good with bitter tastes..."
"It's alright," Hata-san grinned, "just get the children's blend. One with twice the amount of sugar and milk, like what Yuran does."
"Wait a minute, what are you trying to say!" Jin-san protested.
"With that amount of milk, you could perhaps call it coffee milk instead of milk coffee." This time, it was Wakabayashi-san chipping in. Jin-san was starting to fume.
"Fine! I'll have it black this time, just to show you all!"
"One coffee, black," the young lady scribbled on a small ring-bound notepad.
"How about you, Eiko?" Jin-san leaned sideways towards Hata-san. "Are you up to take the challenge as well?"
"No, it's okay, I'll have a pot of Earl Grey and a serving of hotcakes." This was met with more sounds of scribbling on the notepad.
"What!" Jin-san recoiled. "Asumu, what about you?"
"I'll have a cafe Viennois, please and thank you."
"Eh?" I buried my head into the menu. "Like I said, I'm not good with bitter things...excuse me, what tea would you recommend?" I quickly sought refuge in the young lady.
"Well, the Earl Grey that your friend ordered is quite pleasant, but personally I would suggest getting the lavender and chamomile. You could share it with your friend and enjoy both flavors as well."
"I will have that, please!"
As we were left to ourselves at the table once again, Jin-san was visibly agitated and had dread written over her face.
"Congratulations, Yuran," Hata-san said, "you're going to graduate to being an adult today."
"That wasn't very bushidou of you," Jin-san rested her chin on the table in dejection. "I had thought you'd back me up and go for a black coffee together. Aahh, what a tragic betrayal."
"I didn't see a need to," said Hata-san, "I had nothing to prove, unlike somebody here."
"I see how it is," Jin-san sat up, then waved to the young lady in the apron, who was at the kitchen counter. "Excuse me!" she shouted across the cafe, "I'd like to add an order of deluxe hotcakes!"
"Hey!" Hata-san interjected.
"You said that it's your treat, didn't you?" Jin-san gave a sweet, bubbly smile, "You're not planning to walk back on that, I hope?"
This time, it was Hata-san who slumped onto the table. "I guess someone here still refuses to grow up..."
"Are you okay...?" I asked. Hata-san tilted her head up and looked at me, her smile and energy gone, like a ghost at dawn.
"Don't worry about them, they're always like this," said Wakabayashi-san.
"Huh." I looked at Hata-san, who buried her face into the table again, and then at Jin-san, who was humming "hotcakes" to herself, then finally at Wakabayashi-san. "It must have been tough for you."
"Oh, not at all." An easy-going smile.
I gently cleared my throat, then placed both hands on the table. "Hata-san, Wakabayashi-san, Jin-san, I would like to thank you for inviting me out this afternoon. Even though we have just met, it is very generous of you to include me in your activities. I know this is a bit too much to ask, but if possible, I hope we could be friends."
A pause. Wakabayashi-san and Jin-san both looked at me. Even Hata-san slowly got up from the table surface just to add her gaze into the mix.
"I'm sorry, but..." Wakabayashi-san began, but her voice quickly trailed off as her head tilted to the side.
"Huh? What are you saying?" Jin-san added.
"I'm afraid I can't agree to that," said Hata-san.
Of course, it's still too early, isn't it. They were just being polite after all.
"Because," Hata-san continued, "aren't we already friends?"
"Come on, I even called you by your given name earlier," Jin-san said. "Of course, you can call us by our given names too."
"Yuran...san." Trying my hardest, I managed to squeeze out Jin-san's given name. "Yep, that's me," she grinned.
"Well, that's a start," Hata-san nodded. Wakabayashi-san gently clasped my hand and smiled, "Don't worry, take your time."
A wave of emotion swelled up in my chest, sending a warm and slightly prickly sensation up to my face. "It's my pleasure to be friends with all of you!"
"Of course." "Same here." "My, my."
Smiles went all around, brighter than the light that was shining through the stained glass windows. Thank heavens, that I was able to find a small circle to call my own in this corner of the world.
Our conversation was joined in by the squeaky sound of a tea trolley being pushed towards our table. "Thank you for waiting," said the young lady behind the cart, "here are your orders."
Placed gently in front of Hata-san and I were two silver teapots. Hata-san's teapot had a band of hydrangeas etched around the top and bottom circumference, while mine were similarly etched with marigolds. Next were matching teacups and saucers, with the same flowers painted in bright colors around the rims.
Next to appear on the table was Hata-san's hotcakes. The three fluffy layers seemed almost weightless on the plate, and it might have floated off somewhere had there not been a small square of butter holding them down. A thumb-sized jug of syrup was set on the side.
"That looks delicious," I remarked, trying to hold back my saliva.
"You haven't seen anything yet," Jin-san gave off a smug face as her plate of hotcakes — one on a much larger plate, with strawberries and whipped cream on the side, and not just two, but three small jugs of syrup — started occupying half of the table.
I could feel my eyes widening as I swallowed my saliva.
"And here are your coffees," the young lady said, placing a mug each in front of Jin-san and Wakabayashi-san.
"Gehh. I almost forgot about this."
"Do you want my cafe Viennois instead?" asked Wakabayshi-san. "I'm okay with an exchange with you."
"...No, it's alright." Jin-san said. "I'll try my best...gulp."
She took a cautious sip of the coffee. Immediately, her face turned a shade darker, causing her to turn to the hotcakes in response. Separating out a portion of the fluffy hotcakes, she skewered a strawberry, dipped it in the whipped cream, then took the hotcakes along with one smooth swoop of her fork. Masticating furiously for almost half a minute, she finally swallowed everything and went "aahn!" in relief.
"...That wasn't too bad," she said in a deadpan voice, batting her hair gently with one hand.
"Oh, you went and did it after all," Hata-san said. "But that aside, do you want my tea instead? We can do an exchange if you'd like."
Jin-san said nothing and slid the mug towards Hata-san. Hata-san said nothing either and, pouring a cup of Earl Grey, set the cup and saucer in front of Jin-san, who took to it immediately, sipping rapidly.
I carefully poured myself a cup of tea. As the amber liquid filled up the cup, a waft of floral scent caressed my nose. Placing my lips to the cup, I took a sip, and closed my eyes.
I had lavender tea once, in a similar Western-style cafe one weekend morning back at home with my parents. At that time, Mother told me that this was a tea made from flowers, to my amazement. "You can make tea from flowers?" I exclaimed excitedly, and wanted to try it out to see what it was like. The taste was smooth and light, and had the effect of loosening up my neck and shoulders as I made a deep breath after sampling it. It was as if I was slowly sinking into a pile of feathers, or even a bed of lavender itself.
This cup overlapped my senses with my memories, yet not entirely identically. While experiencing the soft, sinking feeling from the lavender, an undercurrent made me float back up, until I reached a perfect balance within myself. So this is the chamomile, huh...
"Haah." I exhaled in satisfaction, yet I could not find any words that do justice to what I had just experienced. In the end, all I could muster was, "It's delicious."
"Is that so?" Jin-san remarked, placing her cup onto the saucer. "Would it be all right if I had a taste?"
"Yes, please go ahead," I said, sliding my cup on the saucer diagonally across the table.
"Thank you. Ah, perhaps you could try some of the Earl Grey as well." Jin-san grabbed her pot and filled up her cup, before pushing her cup and saucer over to my side.
I took Jin-san's cup and brought it to my nose. Giving a whiff, the distinctive scent of orange peel bloomed, inviting me for a taste, which I did immediately.
The essence of the orange peel did not stop at the aroma, but it in fact pervaded the tea itself. Closing my eyes and letting the tea sit under the tongue invoked imagery of a citrus orchard in the summer, a refreshing respite from this chilly afternoon. As I finally let the tea enter my gullet, the oranges in the orchard peeled themselves open one by one, exposing the fleshy fruit within.
"This Earl Grey is really tasty as well," I said, smiling and passing the saucer back to Jin-san. "Thank you for letting me try it."
"So is your lavender and chamomile," Jin-san reciprocated. "Perhaps I'll order a pot next time."
"Mareni, do you want to try some of the hotcakes?" Hata-san asked, a forkful of hotcakes already waiting in the air.
"Eh? Could I?" Even though I asked out of politeness, the answer was already visible. "Well, then here I go..."
I leaned forward and opened my mouth, and the fork slowly approached to meet it. Closing my mouth, a soft, fluffy universe was captured behind my lips. Pulling the hotcakes from the prongs of the fork, I leaned back and started ruminating on it.
So soft, and sweet...!
The syrup, slightly caramelized, gave a sweet yet smoky taste to the hotcakes. The viscid syrup soaked through some, but not all of the confectionery, resulting in a contrast of textures mixing around on my tongue. I had the impression that I too was enveloped in some kind of soft wool on all sides, giving me a warm, calming sensation.
"Mmmm!" I couldn't help but squeal and clench my fists as I continued savoring the experience. Swallowing the hotcake, I let out another sigh of satisfaction.
"This is so good, thank you Eiko-san." Pouring out some more tea from my pot, I said, "I don't have much in return, so would you like a cup of tea?"
"Yes please!" Hata-san gave an enthusiastic smile. I slid the teacup and saucer across the table.
"Indeed, this is delicious," she nodded after sampling from my teacup. "Excellent quality, as usual." As she handed the teacup and saucer back to me, she asked offhandedly, "Do you want to try the black coffee as well?"
"No, thank you," I said without blinking.
We looked at each other in momentary silence, then broke into laughter. Even Wakabayashi-san, seeing us laughing out loud, chuckled softly. Only Jin-san made no sound, but buried her head further into her teacup.
And so this small communion continued for the rest of the afternoon, with us sharing food, drink, and conversation in a relaxed environment, without a worry for whatever goes on outside the four walls of the cafe.
Throughout all this, a belief within me germinated.
An extraordinary feeling that this was just the beginning of something new, and I would have even more cozy days with my new found friends in the days ahead.
"Let's go home," I said, resting my bag on Mareni's table.
"Eh? Ah, yes, let's go." She was always staring somewhere, be it out of the window, at the blackboard (but not the contents scratched upon it, I suppose), or even just into the space directly in front of her. Just what was reflected into her eyes? I did not know, and this difference in perspective caused an itch somewhere in my mind that I just could not reach.
A few days ago, when she showed up in our classroom out of the blue, my expectation that this school year would go like the last was readily shattered. Learning that she was also from Fukushima perked my curiosity somewhat, but it was my observations during class of her looking all around that made me unable to hold back, and to approach her during recess.
In this capital city far from home, where mundanity has slowly creeped into every street corner, what was she able to see? Perhaps by being with her, I could find some color back into my everyday life.
"Eiko-san?" Her voice snapped me back from my thoughts. Her eyes, usually fixated somewhere else, was looking directly at me. I felt my cheeks turn warm, but I didn't otherwise react to it.
"Right, let's make a move." We strode out of our classroom into the common corridor, where Yuran was already waiting for us.
"Heheh, looks like I'm earlier today huh," she grinned smugly.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," Mareni said, "copying the notes on the blackboard took longer than I expected."
"No worries, no worries," Yuran shook her head, "but Eiko owes me a drink."
"For being the last one out?" I asked.
"For being the last one out."
"If that was the case, I recall that Mareni and I have been the ones waiting for you for the past several days. Perhaps it would be a good time to get my drinks from you instead."
Yuran's expression first went into surprise, which then turned into a sulky pout. If you were to look carefully, you might even hear a "pu! pu! pu!" from her eyes.
"...Given that we did not have any rule like this prior to today, I am willing to let this entire proposition slide," she said under her breath.
"How unfortunate, there goes my prospects of receiving a week's worth of free drinks." Though, I got to see something pleasant during this exchange, which was not too bad.
"Excuse me," Mareni said, "but where might Asumu-san be? Is she still in the classroom?"
"Ah, she has a shift at a new part time work, so she won't be joining us today," Yuran said.
"Oh, she's working today?" I tapped my chin slightly. "Is that so. It'll be just the three of us today, then."
"I see..." Mareni's voice trailed off into the air.
"Somehow, it just feels different without Asumu-san around..." Mareni said, as she examined a crystal puppy in her hand.
We were in a shop that sold crystal trinkets and other small baubles, run by a balding old man with a white ring of hair like clouds around his summit. For today's itinerary, we decided to pass by Nipponbashi-doori on our way home. One of the reasons was so that I could show Mareni the other shopping street around these parts that happens to intersect Yoshino-chou (and to see what sort of expressions would surface). The other reason was simply that it has been a while since I have walked through this street, having been occupied with other places in the city lately.
So far, Mareni hasn't been showing her usual bright-eyed excitement at seeing novelties in front of her. This made my mood sink just a little bit as well.
After much hesitation, I figured that it was okay to tell Mareni about Asumu's situation.
"From what I understand, Asumu's family isn't well to do, and so she tries to help out with household expenses by doing part time work."
Mareni turned to look at me. "That was unexpected," she said, then lowered her head, clearly thinking about something.
"Thus, whenever we get food or drink on our way home, I always make it a point to foot the bill for the whole group, so that the expenses don't become a liability for Asumu," I continued.
"Hey, I've picked up the check several times as well," Yuran protested.
"Right. Thank you for that." Although I could count the number of times she had paid for food and drink with one hand, but seeing Yuran in a good mood after being thanked, as well as the settlement amount involved during those rare times she had paid, I decided there was nothing to gain by bringing that up.
"Should I start chipping in as well?" Mareni pondered.
"Thank you for your consideration, but it is okay," I said. "I think Asumu does feel a bit uneasy about having Yuran and I pay for her food and drink, but we've struck out an unspoken balance of sorts. I think it would be better if you joined her in being treated by us instead of joining us in doing the treating...that's what I think."
"I see..." Mareni retreated back into her thoughts.
"Come to think of it," I tried to change the subject, "before you joined us, on the days that Asumu had work, Yuran and I didn't really walk around outside like this."
"We would just head straight over to your place, remember?" Yuran said, looking up from the glass ball she was holding.
"Eiko-san's place?" Mareni's ears twitched just a little. "Hmmmmm. What do you do there?"
"Well, she has mostly been teaching me naginata-kata," Yuran said, first putting the glass ball back into its woven basket, then doing a forward thrust with an imaginary weapon. Her form could have been smoother, but to be fair it is rather hard to sink your weight forward when you are wearing shoes, so I didn't bring it up.
"Naginata!" Mareni exclaimed in surprise.
"My family has our own style of naginata-kata," I scratched the back of my head gently, "but rather than calling it 'teaching' I would prefer the term 'sharing'...I haven't attained mastery yet, so technically I'm not allowed to teach others."
"Oh, now you're just being humble," Yuran came up to me and patted my back. "Your moves are already really slick and awe-inspiring."
"That is to be expected, novices usually can't pick out the nuances between different levels once a point has been reached...Mareni?"
Mareni's face was glowing with amazement. "That is incredible, knowing a martial art. I think that striving for mastery in a skill is something laudable."
Seeing her usual expression once again, my shoulders loosened in relief. "If you'd like, I could show you the basics as well."
"No, I am all right," she said, quickly waving her hands. "I'm not really suited to physical activity."
"Is that so." I didn't push the subject further. She does seem to be more on the soft side — ah, I don't mean physically, either.
Having sated our curiosity in what this store holds, the three of us made our way outside and back on the road.
"Now then, where shall we head to next?" I asked.
"What's that building further down the road?" Mareni pointed in the direction of the roundabout.
"Oh, that?" I looked at the giant, four-storey structure imposing its presence on one of the street corners. "It's the department store. It's rather overwhelming for me so I rarely go in, but we can take a look if you want."
We approached the building, which slowly engulfed our view.
"It's so big..." Mareni gasped. Indeed, this department store towered above all the surrounding buildings, which were one, two storeys at most.
"I have heard from my relatives who had traveled abroad that there are even taller buildings in the West," Yuran commented.
"That sounds like it would be an eyesore," I said. "It would ruin the view of the sky."
"Yeah," Yuran agreed.
I turned and looked down the street, beyond the other side of the roundabout. It had a gentle downwards incline as it unraveled, with short, unassuming buildings on both sides and one or two automobiles sputtering further downwards. In the absolute distance was a range of mountains, cool gray with white peaks, set against the cloudless azure sky.
I then looked at the entrance to the department store in front of me. Two glass doors twice our height with flashy bronze furniture, permanently swung open in a doorway that could easily let a dozen people through at the same time — indeed, people were going in and out the doorway even with us standing in the way. The checkered linoleum flooring was sparsely occupied with display cases, tables, and potted plants.
We stepped in.
A wave of warm air lapped my skin. Next, the smell of perfume hit my nostrils, and coupled with the sudden change in climate, caused me to sneeze.
"...Excuse me," I said, dabbing my nose with my handkerchief.
The three of us dispersed slowly over the first floor of the building. Mareni floated over to what seemed like a counter with combs and handheld mirrors, while Yuran peered into glass cases that contained what seemed to be pocketwatches. As for me, I let my legs take me around without a clear destination in mind, just trying to mediate within myself this clash of sensations.
Looking straight up, sunlight poured in through the glass ceiling — the upper storeys went in rings around the perimeter of the building. Chatter coming from a sales staff, introducing a product to a middle-aged lady. "You must try this out, ma'am." "Yes, please do give me a sample." A child with a vinyl balloon in one hand, and his mother's grasp in the other, making unintelligable noise. An entire display cabinet of silk folding fans, each painted with the brightest and most saturated colors that modern technology could muster. A haggling customer that seemed to have more money than upbringing. "Sorry sir, this is the best price we can give." Multiple plant pots the size of a table, each with an entire tree growing within, turning this place into a hybrid conservatory. Strange and unusual scents overlapping one another. An entire wall of parasols, all open, each with intricate, organic patterns on the vinyl. Ivory railings and carpeted staircases. Red, with gold trim. Sound of a woman laughing. Almost bumping into another person carrying a roll of cloth. Catching the dropped bundle. The smooth touch of blue velvet. Trading a "Sorry" with a "No, I should be the one apologizing instead." Price labels meticulously lettered into white cards with a brush. Rows and rows of fancy glass bottles, each purporting to contain a different scent. The overpowering chimeric smell around these bottles. Rouges both in small, round containers, as well as the more recent stick-type, stacked neatly on a table. A dozen different powders for the face and skin on an adjacent table. Several vanity tables, some of which were occupied. "Ma'am, you do look much younger with this foundation on!" "Really? I'll take this, then." Bumping into another person. "Sorry, I—" Realizing that it was a mannequin, dressed in a large coat, hat, and black stockings. Being surrounded by multitudes of such statues. A sudden case of vertigo. Brisk walking through the corridor. Leaves of a fern brushing against the arm. Colors swimming and mixing together. A parrot squawking. Ringing bells. Incandescent bulbs. Losing balance—
Someone grabbed my arm from behind just as I was about to fall, and pulled me backwards, spinning me around and landing into her embrace. I caught a scent of buttermilk as my face buried into her bosom. This clothing...looks like the uniform of the sales staff.
"Miss, are you all right?" she asked. Somehow, this voice seemed familiar.
"Sorry, let me stay like this for a moment." I continued resting my head against the sales lady's chest.
"...Ah!" I heard her gasp. "Could you be...Eiko?"
I lifted my head and looked up wearily. A familiar face.
"Are you feeling better now?" Asumu asked.
She had brought me to a sofa right outside the powder room and fetched a glass of water, which I sipped with much gratitude. The cool, clear taste of the water washed away my nausea somewhat.
"Yes, thank you so much." After putting the glass back onto the lacquered tray on the side table, I closed my eyes and gently massaged my forehead. "I'd never had thought that you were working at such a fearsome place. How do you cope with all these sights and sounds?"
"Well, I'm getting used to it, I suppose. When you're focused on your own section you start to tune out everything else elsewhere. But then again, you've always been more sensitive to these kinds of stimuli, huh?"
"Yeah." I put down my hand and slowly opened my eyes. My field of vision remains a blur, but I could make out Asumu's visage, who seemed to exude a very dependable air at the moment.
"Still, I wasn't expecting to see you here," I said.
"Me too. When you were stumbling around earlier, your hair was in a mess; I didn't even realize that it was you until you spoke."
"Really?" I tilted my head and gathered my hair to the front. It did seem slightly more grizzly than usual, though it was slowly softening up. "I never knew my hair behaved like this..."
"Perhaps you would like to take a look at our hair conditioners? It works wonders with unruly hair."
"That's smooth," I couldn't help but smile. "I'll consider it if you would personally give me a demonstration."
"Certainly," Asumu bowed. "Would you like to follow me to the dressing table?"
Having been able to see a side of Asumu that I did not previously know, I gave in to her sales pitch and proceeded to get up from the sofa.
On the way to the hair products section, being careful to not look at too many of the wares on display throughout the floor, we ran into Yuran and Mareni.
"Hey, Eiko!" Yuran called out. "We finally found you."
"We were wondering where you had went, Eiko-san."
"My apologies," I waved. "I seemed to have wandered off unknowingly. But let's put that aside for the moment, guess who we have here?" I gestured to the two to take a good look at the sales staff I was following.
"Good afternoon," Asumu smiled, "how may I help you today?"
"Whoaaaaa!" Yuran's eyes shimmered. "I must say, you're a perfect fit for this uniform. If I wasn't paying attention I might have thought I was speaking to an adult." "My, my," Asumu placed a hand on her cheek.
"How do you find this workplace, Asumu-san?"
"Well, it has been pleasant so far. My senpai has been showing me the ropes, and I feel like I'm able to do my best here."
"Asumu is going to give me a product demonstration for hair conditioner, want to come along?" I asked Yuran and Mareni.
Yuran's hand immediately shot up. "Yes, please count us in!" Mareni didn't say anything, but she was nodding furiously.
"This way, please." With Asumu leading the way, we headed to where the hair products were. Like the section with the powder and rouge, there were several dressing tables, each with a small plush stool and a mirror. Asumu sat me down in one of the dressing tables, gently undid the ribbon on my hair, and placed it in my hands.
"Please wait for a moment while I fetch the conditioner," she said, taking a brief absence. In the mirror I could see Yuran fidgeting in anticipation, while Mareni was staring towards me wide-eyed, with her mouth half open.
Within a minute, Asumu was back with an intricate amber-colored glass bottle and a hairbrush.
"I've just learned this from my senpai earlier today, so please be patient with me if I am not up to level yet." Saying that, she picked up my hair and started brushing it. I could gradually feel her gentle caress as she moved from the tips of my hair upwards towards my scalp. With each closing distance, both Asumu's hand and the brush began to give a pleasant resistance.
After a round of brushing, she removed the stopper on the bottle and applied some of its contents onto the brush. Feeling her hand in my hair and the hairbrush neatly sweeping through once again after the brief hiatus, my breathing grew shallower and quicker. With each stroke of the brush, I could feel myself blooming into a smile.
Then, contact. The massaging of the bristles against my scalp. Instinctively, a warm, fuzzy euphoria erupted within me, sending shivers to the rest of my body, enveloping me in a glowing shell. I closed my eyes to savor this soft, tingly feeling, which persisted for what seemed like a full minute, after which it faded and gave way to a steady tide of peace and contentment.
"Eiko, I'm done." Asumu said. I opened my eyes, as relaxed as if I had just taken a bath, and surveyed my hair in the mirror.
"Eiko-san's hair does look more docile now," Mareni commented.
"Yeah," Yuran agreed. "May I ask what went into that bottle of conditioner?"
"This is a botanical-based recipe consisting of floral extracts and medicinal herbs." An unfamiliar voice. Turning, I saw a middle-aged lady dressed in the same uniform as Asumu.
"Senpai!" Asumu blurted and shuffled a few steps back, her head looking at the floor.
"Oh don't worry, Wakabayashi-san, you did well. In fact, you showed more care this time than the other guest earlier. I'm guessing she's...?"
"She's my classmate," Asumu said, no longer looking downwards.
"I'm Hata," I bowed. "Thank you for taking care of Asumu."
"I'm Yao, and it's my pleasure to have Wakabayashi-san under my wing," the middle-aged lady said. "She really learns quite fast, it's lucky for me to be working with such an intelligent and understanding girl."
"I'm Kobiyama, pleased to meet you." "I'm Jin Yuran, please continue taking care of Asumu."
"Of course, of course." Yao-san then turned to Asumu. "Your friends came to support you on your first day here, they must really treasure you a lot."
"Actually, it was a coincidence—" Yuran began sheepishly, but Yao-san continued her monologue.
"In this turbulent age, it's good to have sisters that have your back, no matter what happens in the world, your family away from home. Oh, I know!" She raised a finger. "Why not take a short break with your friends since they're here already? There's a diner upstairs with a decent menu." A pause. "But, only for today, just so you know," she added.
"Is that really okay?" Asumu hesitated.
"Yes, don't worry about it. I'll let the manager know — speaking of which, here he comes." Yao-san waved to catch the attention of this one middle aged man in a suit at the other end of the corridor, then made a few unintelligible gestures in what seemed like a kind of sign language. The man gestured back, and Yao-san gave us a thumbs up. "He's okay with it," she said, "he says that the crowd has thinned for the time being as well so we can take a breather."
"Well, if you insist," Asumu said, "I'll take a small break and come back quickly."
We greeted Yao-san good day and went upstairs to the diner that she told us about.
It was a medium-sized room brightly lit by the afternoon sun pouring in through the large windows, with furniture that you could find in any other Western-style restaurant. We took our seats at a square table near the middle of the room, and a young man handed us the menu.
"Oh look," Yuran pointed at the menu. "They have a sparkling water fountain here."
"Sparkling water?" Mareni asked. "I've heard about it, but I've never had the chance to try it."
"Same here," said Asumu, "the cafes that we've been to don't offer them, do they."
"That's decided then," I said, gesturing to the young man. "We'll have a sparkling water each."
"Any flavorings in your sparkling water?" he asked.
"Flavorings?" Yuran parroted.
"If you'd like, we can add syrup or other extracts into your drink." He pointed out a line in small print under the menu item, which listed out the different flavors available.
"Is there any extra charge for the flavorings?" Asumu asked. The young man shook his head in response. "Then...I'll have a melon flavored water, please."
"A strawberry flavored water for me, please." Mareni made up her mind as well.
"A lemonade water, please," I said.
Yuran took longer than us in inspecting the menu, going "hmmmm" and "this sounds pretty mature" under her breath. Finally, she declared her choice. "I'll have this 'tonic water', please!"
"Certainly," the young man said, and headed to the bar counter to get our drinks.
"Yao-san sure is nice, giving you a break and all," Mareni said, leaning forward.
"She seems a bit odd though, going 'she has your back!' and 'they're like your family!' and whatnot," Yuran said.
"She does seem different," Asumu said, "but so far she's been treating me quite well, so I think I will be okay."
"Yeah, she doesn't seem like a bad person," I chipped in. Asumu nodded.
"Excuse me, ladies." The young man returned rather quickly with four fluted glasses, each with a different colored water bubbling within. A glass of green for Asumu, red for Mareni, for me, clear and colorless, and for Yuran, also colorless...or is it actually glowing slightly blue? I rubbed my eyes. No glow after all — seems like I was mistaken.
"Well then, cheers to Asumu for a smooth first day at work!" I raised my glass.
"It hasn't actually ended yet, but thank you."
The four of us tapped our glasses against each other's, let out a hurrah, then brought our glasses to our lips.
A froth of foam crashed from nowhere as the water rolled into my mouth. Even though there were bubbles visible in the glass, it was from a small, modest thread in the center of the glass. But yet, when it leaves the glass—
As the carbonation danced a number in my mouth and left as quickly as it came, a sweet taste with a tinge of sourness slowly surfaced.
"This isn't exactly what I know to be lemonade," I commented, "but it tastes pleasant."
I looked at Asumu, who seemed to be savoring her glass, then at Mareni, whose eyes seemed like she was currently traveling a different world within her palate.
Then, at Yuran, who was visibly in discomfort, but tried to pretend all was well.
I waited until our eyes met, and I tilted my glass towards her. She pouted, shook her head and took another large sip from her own glass. Again, her eyes shut tightly and her lips gave a petite frown, but I had already gotten her message.
"Just wondering," I asked Asumu, swirling my glass gently, "what made you decide to get a part time job here? You seemed to be doing well at the manjuu shop previously."
"Well, the shop owner brought in a few specialized machinery to fill in the stuffing lately, which reduced the amount of people needed in the kitchen..." Asumu said.
"Aah, that sounds unpalatable," Yuran commented.
"And at the same time, I wanted to try something where I would have opportunities to interact with the customers," Asumu continued.
She held her glass with both hands, in the same way one would hold a single stalk of a flower.
"Actually, it's still incredibly far away, but one day I would like to run my own candy store. "
"Oh?" My eyes grew wider. "That's the first time I've heard you say that."
"Well, I haven't really told anyone before this, since it seemed like chasing clouds," she said, giving a small smile. "But recently, Papa got promoted to a supervisor at the construction company, so we won't have to just get by anymore. He told me that he is really thankful for my helping support our household expenses all this while, and that this is a good chance for me to start focusing on my own dreams instead."
Asumu's eyes started becoming damp. I reached out and held her hand.
"After thinking about it, I thought that it would be nice if I were able to bring smiles to the children in the neighborhood, so I think that opening a candy store would be a good way to go about that."
"Asumu-san, that's wonderful of you!" Mareni's eyes shimmered. "To bring smiles to the children, that is a great aspiration to have. Please let me cheer you on from now on!" It was as if a breath of fresh air swept through the room and cleansed Mareni's heart; her melancholia from earlier in the day was no longer anywhere to be found on her face.
I had a hunch that in the future, on the days that Asumu can't join us on our strolls, Mareni would still be all right.
"A toast to Asumu!" I suggested, raising my glass. "May your dreams of opening a candy store come to fruit soon!"
A clinking of glasses. Asumu rubbed away the moisture in her eyes and said, "Thank you."
"As for me," Mareni continued, "I have entertained the possibility of becoming a schoolteacher in the future."
"Oh? I didn't know you wanted to be a teacher." This time, it was Yuran voicing her surprise.
"I think that it would be a good way of giving back to society. What knowledge our teachers have entrusted to us, I want to safely deliver them to the hands of the subsequent generations."
"I think you would be able to become a schoolteacher," Asumu said. "Teachers not only impart information but they are also responsible for well-rounded character development in their students by caring for them, and I think that you are suitable for that."
"A toast to Mareni!" "May you become a splendid schoolteacher one day!" Another round of glasses making contact with other glasses.
"While we are on the topic, what about you, Yuran?" Asumu asked. "Anything you would like to accomplish in the future?"
"Me? I haven't really given it much thought." Yuran took a bigger sip from her glass than usual. "I'd like to travel the world some day, I suppose."
"The rail network's always expanding," Mareni said, "Perhaps some day you would be able to take a train all the way to the Americas. Let us have a toast to that."
"I doubt it, but it'd be great if it did," Yuran said, raising her glass.
Next, three pairs of eyes landed their gaze on me. "W-wait a minute, I'm not ready yet."
Dreams, huh. For someone who is betrothed to a man I had hardly met, speaking about these sorts of fancies seemed superfluous. I racked my mind — becoming a good wife? That would be easily fulfilled, but it's not really my dream to speak of.
"Mastering my family's naginata-kata, perhaps?" I said, looking up at the ceiling. The ceiling was painted to give an impression of depth, like in a cathedral.
"Ah, and my...um, gardener," I added, making the switch at the last second. "He's been rather busy the past several years, I hope that he could retire soon."
"Well, that's not really something you can achieve, is it?" Yuran gave an uncomfortable look for a split second when I brought up the subject. "But yes, let's hope it comes to pass. Cheers to that!" She raised her glass.
The toasts became more and more frequent. "Actually, besides becoming a schoolteacher, I have also thought about the possibility of becoming a detective." "A detective? Now that came out from nowhere." "Yuran-san, don't you think detectives are dandy?" Clink.
"In the summer, I could also serve shaved ice in my store." "I'll visit everyday when that happens then!" Clink.
"I want to go to the moon." Clink.
"It would be nice to eat meat for almost every meal." Clink.
"I wish that each day would be this peaceful." Clink.
"May we be friends forever." "Of course we are already, aren't we!" Clink.
"I wish our troops out there could come back safely." Clink.
"I'd like to take the train down south some time." "Yuran-san, I can ask my father about that, perhaps." "Really? I love you~" Clink.
We continued toasting until all our glasses were emptied.
"Thank you for treating us to the drinks, Yuran, and thank you all for coming today." Asumu waved from the top of the staircase.
"You're most welcome. Good luck with the rest of your shift."
"Good evening, Asumu-san. See you next Monday."
"Thank you, Asumu. Please brush my hair again some time."
As we left Asumu and the department store behind us, the sun was slowly creeping towards the mountain ridges in the horizon, painting the sky a brilliant gradient of damson and orange. To stay warm in this rapidly chilling air, the three of us hummed a tune that we made up on the spot as we headed towards the residential neighborhood, confident that some day — it might be far in the future, next year, or even this summer — our dreams could spring from the well of possibility into our reality.
The silk drawstring bag containing a box of hair conditioner swayed in my hand with every step.
I have this feeling,
Even though it's unexplainable,
That tomorrow is going to be better.
"Let's go home now," Yuran said, picking up her bag. I nodded, and waited for her to get up before we walked out of the classroom together.
It has been three weeks since the start of the school year, and I have managed to ease into the everyday schedules. Going to school, paying attention in class, going home with Yuran and the others, working two afternoons every week...I am thankful for the routine and mundaneness of it all — after all, one doesn't need to have too much in life.
And for those that I do have in my life, I give my utmost attention.
Which was why when I saw Mareni downcast again today, a sense of uneasiness mirrored in my heart.
Yuran noticed it as well. "Mareni, are you alright? You seem to have something on your mind."
"Yes, I'm all right...thank you for your concern."
"We can go straight home today if you're not feeling well," Eiko suggested.
"No, please, it's all right, I insist. Come, let us head out." Mareni started walking towards the building entrance. The three of us looked at one another, traded worried looks, then followed behind.
Exiting the campus, we walked around with no destination in particular. Mareni, along with Eiko, was at the front, meandering through the nearby streets, as if trying to get ourselves lost. Mareni's gaze wandered less than usual — normally she would dart around, trying to take as much of the sights into her view as possible, but today she was looking mostly at the sky heading towards the east.
Nobody talked during the entire period. Even Yuran, who would usually be pestering Eiko on some matter or other, said nothing throughout, frequently stealing glances at Mareni.
Eventually, Eiko broke the silence.
"Ah, I recall there's a cafe around these parts as well. Perhaps we could have a change of atmosphere once in a while?"
"Yes, that sounds nice," Mareni said. I nodded in agreement.
"I'm on board with that," Yuran tried to drum up some energy. "Eiko, show us the way."
I looked at Mareni and found that she was looking at me as well. Our eyes met, and she gave me a faint smile. I tried my best to return her a smile.
The cafe that Eiko brought us to was hidden in an alleyway right off the street. Although there was a metal sign hanging above the entrance, it was perpetually in the shadows of a facing wall, and I would have missed it entirely if I was the one trying to look for it.
The interior was as small as it appeared from the outside — a bar counter with six stools, and two tables for two leaning against the outer wall, separated by the door. A single lamp from the ceiling was sufficient in lighting up the place in a warm, amber light. The owner, a middle aged man with a mustache, was wiping coffee mugs behind the counter, flanked by two framed Western-style prints on each side of the wall behind him, and a menu chalked into a board above them. Lastly, there was a vinyl record spinning on a player on the far side of the bar counter, filling the space with soft violin vibrations, which complemented perfectly the aesthetic of this location.
Not wanting to be separated, we took to the bar seats. Mareni sat between Eiko and I, while Yuran settled down beside Eiko.
"I'll have a coffee, with extra milk and extra sugar please," Yuran said readily.
"Let's see..." Eiko studied the menu. "Mareni, Asumu, what are you getting?"
"It's okay, I don't feel like drinking anything at the moment." Mareni shook her head. "I just needed a short break from all that walking," she added.
Hearing Mareni's response, I decided against geting a drink as well. "Is that so," Eiko remarked. "A rose tea for me then, please."
The owner nodded and started boiling a kettle of water. The cafe had only the sound of boiling water and violin movements permeating the air. Mareni was staring at the countertop lost in her thoughts, while Eiko and Yuran were both looking at her, then noticing that I was looking at them, switched their gaze towards me while tilting their head slightly.
Suddenly, Yuran sat up. "Did any of you just say something?" Mareni, Eiko, and I turned to look at her.
Eiko tilted her head again. "No, why?"
Mareni seemed equally quizzical. "Why, did you hear something?"
"I didn't hear anything, sorry," I said.
"That's strange," Yuran said to herself.
"It's probably the violinist in the recording that you've just heard," the owner said, bringing a tray to the countertop. "He was telling his accompaniment to skip the third movement. Here are your drinks, by the way."
"Perhaps that was what I heard, yes," Yuran said, taking over the saucer from the owner's outstretched hand. "Thank you." Likewise, Eiko received her pot of tea and poured herself a cup.
Indeed, there was a brief pause in the music before it picked up again, as sudden as it had stopped, with such a rapid succession of notes that seemed almost humanly impossible. For a brief moment, I had a vision of the bow of the violin bouncing as it went back and forth on the strings, quick yet soft and pleasing on the ears.
After a little more than a minute of the violin frolicking in the air, the final notes of the piano accompaniment signalled the end of the piece. The cafe fell into the first real silence we've had since entering through the door.
Yet, the very presence of this silence made us acutely aware that we were usually not this quiet. Yuran quietly sipped her coffee, as did Eiko her tea, while Mareni continued brooding by herself.
"Sir, can you put on another record please?" I asked, trying to shake off the creeping silence.
"Sure thing," he said, walking towards a small shelf next to the vinyl player. "Maybe something more recent for you young ladies? Let's see, how about this one."
As he gently brought the needle down onto the new record, the sound of a gong being hit several times, followed by hearty toots from brass instruments, heralded the start of the song.
Don't you bear not to part with the sound of the gong
The waves of the sea brings on a new dawn of hope
Please don't cry, O you seagulls, for that girl is like
The black smoke rising from the first ship of daybreak
I know this song; it's a popular hit from two, no, three years back. I was impressed with the owner's taste and started swaying to the melody when I noticed Mareni shaking silently in her seat.
"Mareni? I lifted her hair from her face, only to see her cheeks wet.
If by chance you leave warm tears, then you will, for sure
Someday be that lovely girl's cap'ble strength and shield
I swear to protect her with ev'ry inch of my being
Like how the wharf guards against the waves, don't you see
Without saying anything else, I leaned forward and hugged Mareni in my arms, embracing the soft, vulnerable lamb in my bosom. "There, there," I gently patted her back.
Her sobs became more audible. A faint "I want to go home" reached my ears. Knowing that she was not referring to her abode in this city, I could only listen in silence as I continued holding her against my chest.
As the ship leaves in the distance, my tears start flowing
But they aren't tears of heartbreak, nay, they are something more
They are tears shed praying for her, tears of happiness,
That she may, too, find happiness wherever she may be
The singer stopped, then the accompanying orchestra. The cafe fell silent once again, save for the muted wailing coming from my embrace.
"You miss Fukushima, huh?" I said, stroking her head. She nodded in response, her head still buried in my bosom.
"Yes, I miss home. I miss it so much."
"But," she leaned back, "I don't mean that I dislike being with you and Eiko-san and Yuran-san. It's just that, just that..."
Eiko got up from her seat and embraced the both of us. "I know, Mareni. I feel that way sometimes as well."
I wish I could say the same, but having been born and raised in this city, I don't really understand what it is like to leave your hometown to start life again anew elsewhere. I looked at Yuran, whose expression seemed to know and agree with what I was thinking.
Just like this, I continued hugging a crying Mareni, while Eiko hugged the both of us, for what seemed like a full ten minutes.
During this time, an idea came to mind.
"Mareni, Eiko," I said, while not moving from my position, "If it's okay with you, there is somewhere I'd like to bring you to after this."
I felt Mareni getting up and released her from my embrace. Likewise, Eiko got up and stood behind Mareni.
"Sure," said Mareni, "I think I feel better now, after letting it out." She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and looked at the owner, who seemed rather uncomfortable at making her cry. "Please don't take it to heart, sir. That record just reminded me of home, that's all."
"Shall we go then?" Eiko asked.
Yuran downed her coffee in one large gulp, placed the mug on the countertop with a thud, then reached for her purse. After paying for the drinks, she picked up her bag. "Yes, let's get back on the road," she said.
"Back in Fukushima, I had a neighbor who collected vinyl records. However, he only seemed to be interested in popular Japanese songs and not Western orchestral music. He would go, 'I'm not a Westerner, why should I listen to their music?' I could sort of understand what he was getting at, perhaps."
We were on the road to our next stop. Mareni did seem slightly more chipper after that cry; she was talking to us now, instead of quietly staring into the distance like before.
"He would play a few of his records every evening, after dinner. It was loud enough that we could faintly hear what he was playing from our house."
"That sounds like it would disturb the peace," Eiko said. "Didn't you or your other neighbors complain about the noise?"
"I heard from Mother that when our neighbor first started his hobby, he would play it until late at night. Mother and a few others went up to this neighbor's gate and told him that if they heard anything playing after the sun went down, they would go in and snap his records into two."
"Now I'm not sure if I'd ever want to meet your mother, hearing that," Yuran recoiled.
"Please don't get the wrong idea! Mother is really nice, most of the time."
"Most of the time...?" One of Yuran's eyebrows floated upwards.
"Anyway, after that encounter, the neighbor stuck to playing his records at a reasonable time. It worked out for all of us — eventually we realized that we did welcome having some music in our everyday lives after all. The songs he played were quite agreeable anyway, so eventually we reached a happy medium."
Mareni tilted her head upwards slightly. "That song in the cafe earlier, he would use to play it rather frequently as well. Perhaps he liked that song a fair bit more than the others." Then, lowering her head again, she added, "I wonder how he's doing right now."
"Playing his records each evening as usual, I bet," Eiko said.
Our destination slowly came into view. The large stone torii gate could be seen from a distance away, surrounded by trees budding anew after winter. As we got closer, the bright white fence that run both sides of the perimeter began to catch your eye as well. We continued walking until the torii gate towered right in front of us.
"Here we are," I said, stopping in front of the gate and taking a bow, before climbing the few stone steps behind it.
"The capital's shrine, huh," Eiko said, before doing the same. Mareni said nothing and followed suit, while Yuran went "So I bow here?" before copying our actions.
As we crossed the torii gate proper, two grand stone lanterns stood on each side welcoming our presence. A stone-paved path stretched out in front of us. There were multiple pillars on each side of the path, each topped with a wooden lantern. Slightly further away from the path, trees were lined in a row on each side.
Walking down the stone path, I asked Mareni, "This is the first time you've been to a shrine since moving here, I suppose?"
"Yes," she said, "the last time I've visited a shrine was back at home to pray for a smooth travel over here."
"Which god did you pray to?"
"We went to the Shinmei Shrine, so it should be Amaterasu-sama, I believe."
"Oh, that's just good then. This shrine is also dedicated to Amaterasu-sama," I said, stopping in my tracks and doing a half-spin to face Mareni. "Perhaps we could give thanks for your safe arrival."
"That's a good idea," Eiko said. "Though Yuran might end up feeling left out from all this."
"Don't worry about me," Yuran said, her hands behind her head. "This is my first time to a shrine actually, so I'm rather curious about how everything works. I'm just going to think of this as a field trip."
"Now then, before we enter the shrine proper, we would cleanse our hands and mouth with at that pavilion over there," I said, gesturing to the smaller wooden structure up front, at the left side of the footpath.
"That...sounded quite professional, Asumu," Yuran gaped. "For a moment I thought we had a tour guide with us."
"No, I'm nowhere near that level yet, but thank you for the compliment," I said.
"Yeah, it's the tone of voice she uses," Eiko grinned. "It reminded me of that time we met at the department store."
Reaching the hand-washing pavilion, I picked up one of the wooden dippers resting above the stone basin, and scooped it full of water.
"First, you use your right hand to pour some water on your left hand, like so." I proceeded with a demonstration as I explained the steps. "Next, using your left hand, you wash your right hand. Then, cupping some water in your left hand, you bring it to your mouth. After washing your left hand again, you hold the dipper upright and let the water run off the handle."
"Sounds easy enough," Yuran said. She scooped some water and proceeded to empty it over her left hand. She was about to plunge the dipper into the basin again when Mareni said, "Y-Yuran-san, you're supposed to use only one scoop of water for all the steps."
"Oh, is that so?" Yuran tilted her head. "So what do I do now?"
"I don't think its a problem you have to worry about," Eiko said, picking up a dipper from the basin. "You could continue with your right hand, or you could start from the beginning again."
"I guess I'll do that then," Yuran said, fetching another scoop of water and rinsing her left hand again.
After the three of them completed their cleansing, we made our way to the second torii gate at the end of the footpath, guarded by a stone lion on each side. Unlike the first gate that we had passed through, this one was made of wood, with a shimenawa rope hanging across it. White shide streamers gently swayed hanging from the rope, even though I couldn't feel any wind blowing.
We bowed at the gate and stepped through.
At the steps of the prayer hall, I took out a coin and slipped it into the offering box. I bowed once, twice, clapped one, two, then held my hands pressed against each other, and prayed in a muted voice.
"To the one whose words inspire wisdom and awe, in the great presence of the master of the capital's great shrine, I have come to humbly worship. With the greatest fear and respect, I would like to sing gratefulness of the great gods' providence upon us. I would also like to praise the Emperor accordingly to the high and noble laws of the gods. Please grant me a straight and upright heart, that I may not stray from the path of righteousness, and to see through my responsibilities to the end. Please comfort Mareni's melancholic heart, that though she may pine for her hometown, be able to transmute such feelings into motivation for her to face each new day here with renewed energy. This I pray with utmost fear and respect."
I pressed my hands again, then after clapping twice, bowing twice, I took a step back.
Next, Mareni stepped forward. She placed a coin on the offering box and let it slide in, bowed twice, clapped twice, then pressed her hands togetherin prayer. After around a minute, she clapped twice, bowed twice, and finished her devotion.
After Mareni finished praying, Eiko and Yuran stepped forward. "Just repeat after me," Eiko said. Yuran nodded.
Leaving the two of them to their prayers, I approached Mareni, who drifted a small distance from the prayer hall and was now waiting next to a statue of a horse.
"How does it feel to pray at this shrine?" I asked.
"It's magical," Mareni said with a soft smile. "As I went through the steps, it felt like I was at my shrine back home, and everything was in its right place. Perhaps I just needed something familiar to me in this new and unknown land. This definitely helped a lot — I do feel much more at peace now. Thank you, Asumu-san."
"That's good to hear." Seeing her smile once again, a weight was lifted off my heart.
Just then, a calico cat appeared from behind the statue. She looked at us, then let out a small mew.
"My, my, what's this?" I said, squatting down and stretching out a closed hand. The cat approached my fist, sniffed it several times, then started rubbing her cheeks against it.
"Cat!" Mareni squealed. She squatted down and waddled over to us. The cat, however, jumped and scurried a slight distance away before stopping and turning back to look at us.
Oh no, Mareni's face is starting to show a sad expression again. I silently prayed for the cat to come back.
The cat looked at us for a while. "Cat?" Mareni stretched out a hand, inviting the cat to come back. It worked — the cat slowly and carefully approached us again, this time sniffing and rubbing Mareni all around. Thank you, great gods for the everlasting providence.
Mareni slowly reached out to the cat with both hands, and holding her by the belly, slowly stood up. Surprisingly, the cat did not struggle, but looked up at Mareni.
"You know, the shrine back home had a cat just like this on the grounds as well — orange and black spots, and not afraid of people. Amazing, isn't it," she said, slowly rocking the cat.
"Who knows, maybe it's the same cat," I joked.
"Perhaps it is," she said. "The coat patterns do seem to look the same, now that you mention it."
"There's a saying that all the Inari shrines are linked together by their torii gates, so their foxes could travel through them freely. Perhaps that's the case too for other shrines as well."
"Are you suggesting this cat is a messenger of the gods?" Mareni brought the cat up to eye level. "Well, are you?" she asked.
The cat let out a yawn and licked its lips. Mareni giggled and lowered the cat onto the ground. "I guess we'll never know."
"It's not just the torii gates, I feel," I continued. "Even though I was born and raised here, through the performance of these rites that were taught to me by Papa and Mama, I am connected with not just your shrine back home at Fukushima, but all the shrines serving Amaterasu-sama under the sky, as well as all the devotees that worship at these shrines, past and present. It's like an invisible thread that connects you to those you hold dear."
I took Mareni's hand. "So please, don't think that you're alone here — you're always bonded to your hometown in some way, and that won't change regardless of where you might be."
"And, well," My cheeks warmed up, causing me to look away, "You have us, too."
I felt the weight of Mareni's head resting against my chest, our hands still interlocking. "Yes, I'm really lucky to have such caring friends. Thank you."
Suddenly, I was bumped from two directions at once. "Group hug!" Two pairs of arms embraced us. "Wait!" I giggled. Eiko and Yuran gave us a hearty squeeze, then let us go.
"Eiko, Yuran, you're done with prayers, huh. What did you pray about?"
"Well, not much, really," Eiko said, scratching her cheek. "The security and stability of this country, the safety of the troops that are out at war, and that Mareni would feel better soon."
"Thank you for your concern, Eiko-san. I do feel much better now, all thanks to your concern. Though I must say, as expected of Eiko-san, you're much more mature than I am, what with having the wellbeing of the country and the ongoing war in mind as well."
"All three topics are of utmost importance to Eiko and I," Yuran grinned. "I followed after Eiko in prayer as well, so that makes me mature too, right?"
Seeing Yuran's smug face, I couldn't help but chuckle. Mareni and Eiko couldn't help it either, and started stifling their laughter as well.
"Hey, what's that supposed to mean!" Though Yuran protested, her face was one of relief.
After the laughter subsided, I looked up at the sky, which was now turning orange from the setting sun.
Invisible threads, huh. I was amazed, and now thinking about it again, slightly embarrassed, by what I said earlier. I haven't talked that much in a long while, not to mention such sappy lines...but then again, it did make some sense somehow, I guess.
Mareni cheered up in the end too, which was the most important outcome of all.
Another prayer came up in my mind, but seeing that it wasn't too convenient to run back to the prayer hall right now, with the three of them getting ready to head home, I silently prayed where I was standing.
May the thread that connects us persist forever, no matter what may happen in the future.
This I solemnly wish with the utmost fear and respect for the gods.
"Eiiiikoooo, let's go to your place today." I moaned while taking unsteady steps on the road.
"What? Why? Coming over is a bit..."
"It's so hot outside, I think we all need a place to hide from the sun."
It was a week or two right before school closes for the summer. At this point of the year, the sunlight was always unbearingly hot, baking the streets and creating mirages floating above in the heat haze.
"That sounds like a good idea, I'm rather curious as to what Eiko-san's residence looks like."
"See, Eiko? It's two against one. Let's head to your place right now."
"Wait a minute, you can't just decide on your own like that! Asumu, how do you feel about this counterproposal? We head to our usual cafe and wait out the afternoon sun."
Asumu gave an angel's smile. "Now that the subject came up, I do kind of want to check out Eiko's place." Thank you, Asumu. I love you.
At the same time I was made aware that Asumu hasn't been to Eiko's house before. Thinking back, the times that I've paid visits to Eiko's residence was always when Asumu was working. I see, it's going to be Asumu and Mareni's first time, huh.
"I guess it can't be helped, huh." Eiko was lightly tugging at her head, and her hair seems a bit curlier than usual. "For some reason, I'm feeling embarrassed at the prospect of showing my friends my house."
"You were fine when I first visited your place, though." I tilted my head. "And every other time after that, in fact."
"Ah, well, if it's you, it doesn't matter as much," she said in the most deadpan voice possible.
"What's that supposed to mean? Are you asking for a fight?" I lightly punched Eiko in the sides.
"A fight? Sounds good to me."
"Eh?" Mareni gasped. "We can settle this amicably; we don't have to resort to violence..."
I quickly waved my hand. "Don't worry, Mareni. We're talking about sparring with naginata later. Right, Eiko?"
A silent, smile-in-lips-only response from Eiko.
"Eiko...?" I began to waver slightly.
Her face pressed closer and closer to me as she lowered her back to meet me at eye level. Suddenly, the outdoor air wasn't as excruciatingly hot as before.
Then she stood straight up again. "Yes, Mareni, we're talking about the naginata. Sorry for letting you worry."
"Well, let's get going then," I said, taking a larger step forward. "Looking forward to sipping delicious barley tea and eating dango on the veranda!"
"Dango sounds great! Thank you, Eiko-san."
"My, my. Thank you for the hospitality."
"Hey, who said anything about dango? I don't run a rest stop, alright!"
"Eiko-san, your house is really big."
"...Yes, it is." Eiko scratched the back of her head. "It used to be my grandfather's though. He was the commanding officer of the army, so he had a big house. I just happen to live in it right now."
We were at the gate to Eiko's house. If you peer through the open sliding door, you could see a footpath made with several slabs of flat stone, leading to a solidly-built Japanese-style house. Next to the footpath was a garden, teeming with pine trees of various shapes and sizes, their needles penetrating the hot summer air.
"You have a big house."
"Yes, you've said that just a few seconds ago. You can come in now, Mareni."
"Y-yes. Please pardon me for my intrusion." She meekly stepped through the gate.
"Asumu, please come in as well...Asumu?"
I looked out of the gate to see Asumu standing outside smiling, the light in her eyes gone. I waved a hand in front of her. No response.
"Eiko, I think she blacked out outright."
"What?" Rushing out the gate, she placed both hands on Asumu's shoulders. "Asumu, are you okay?"
After some mild swaying on Eiko's part, the light returned to Asumu's eyes.
"Huh? Oh. Sorry, Eiko. I was slightly overwhelmed earlier."
"No, please don't apologize. I understand. Aah, this is so embarrassing, I knew this would happen."
"In any case, please pardon me." Saying this, Asumu stepped through the gate as well.
I made a wry smile watching the situation unfold. Eiko's house was indeed ridiculously huge, easily larger than any of my relatives' residence by an order of magnitude.
After reaching the entrance of the house proper, we took off our shoes and stepped onto the wooden corridor.
"Asumu, Mareni. I know the both of you aren't particularly interested, but can Yuran and I practice at the doujou first? If you'd like, you could take it easy at a nearby room."
"Thank you, Eiko-san, but I'm curious about your naginata-kata. Would it be okay if I watched the both of you practice?"
"Same here, Eiko. I've heard about the both of you doing this martial art but I've never gotten the chance to see it. If possible, I would like to spectate as well."
"Well, if the both of you are okay with it...this way."
We turned to the left and started walking down the corridor. As we made our way through the twists and turns of the corridor, the sprawling garden cwas right within our reach on our left. Perfectly trimmed bushes, various flowers I don't know the name of, and ornamental rocks were tastefully selected and placed in different corners of the garden, resulting in a private oasis within the neighborhood. On the right, we passed by various rooms, most of them with their doors closed, but occasionally an open door would reveal a banquet hall-sized space within.
"Eiko-sama, you're back." After making a turn at a corner, we met O-Ine, a servant at Eiko's household. She was a thin, middle aged lady around Asumu's height.
"O-Ine-san, I'm back," Eiko returned the greeting.
"Good afternoon, O-Ine-san. Please pardon our presence," I said.
"Good day, Jin-sama. And these two might be...?"
"I'm Kobiyama, thank you for having us over today."
"I'm Wakabayashi. Please pardon our intrusion."
"No, not at all. Please call me O-Ine. Now if you would pardon me, I'll bring over some refreshments right away."
"O-Ine-san, if possible, would you bring us some barley tea? And some dango, if there's any."
"Understood, Eiko-sama." After giving us a bow, she turned around and scooted down the corridor, turning into another corridor heading indoors.
"...You have servants, Eiko?" Asumu gave a surprised look.
"Yes," Eiko said with a sigh, "Just O-Ine though. She brought me up since young, so she's more like family to me."
"I see." Asumu didn't pursue the topic further, and turned to silent contemplation.
We reached the doujou. I slid my right foot across the polished wooden flooring and it went forward with minimal resistance, just the way I remember it.
"Yuran, do you want to change into something more mobile? I have a spare set of clothing."
"No, uniform's fine," I said, placing my bag down near the door. "Let's get warmed up."
"You were complaining about the heat a moment ago. Seems like you can't make up your mind, eh."
We walked to the weapon rack, where naginata and swords, in both wood and metal, were neatly arranged. Eiko picked up a metal naginata, as did I. The black steel shaft of the naginata was cool to the touch, a tiny respite from the summer heat. I rotated the shaft with one hand, and different angles of the room reflected onto the blade mounted at the top as it spinned back and forth.
I could hear commentary coming from near the door, where Mareni and Asumu were seated.
"Don't martial arts practitioners usually use wooden weapons? Isn't using a real naginata really dangerous?"
"They seem like they know what they're doing, so let's hope nothing bad happens."
Well, to be honest I haven't practiced in a while; I too hope I know what I'm doing. But I didn't say anything about that.
Eiko and I took up position at the center of the room, with a weapon's length gap between us. I leaned forward, resting my weight on my front leg, both hands gripping the metal section.
"Ready when you are," Eiko said.
I took a deep breath through my nostrils, and looked Eiko in the eye.
I stepped forward swiftly, thrusting the tip of the naginata at Eiko's chest. As expected, a split second later the blade whiffed as Eiko sidestepped out of the way. Sliding my left leg forward, I diverted the path of the shaft leftward, sending the entire pole towards Eiko's sides.
Clang! A chime of metal striking metal, as Eiko met my advance with her own weapon. Recoiling from the parry, my weight momentarily shifted from my left leg into my right.
Ah, I lost my momentum. Eiko sneered at my gap, and sent the bottom of her weapon swinging upwards.
I quickly took two steps back. The black metal base of the staff narrowly missed my chin on its ascension. I took another few steps backwards to open up the distance, but Eiko was also closing up while swiping downwards with her naginata.
I raised my own weapon horizontally to meet her attack. Clang! Yet another step backwards. Drats, at this rate I'm going to lose my balance.
Eiko wouldn't relent. Sideswings after overhead swipes after sideswings came one after another, and I could only react fast enough to block them. With each blow I was sent backwards, to the side, then back again, with no chance to catch a breath and reestablish my ground.
Is there any gap I could use for a reversal...?
I felt something hard pressed against my back. This is...the wall of the doujou? Have I already been pressured into a corner?
Eiko held her weapon up with a split second pause, as if relishing the hunt. Then she swung the naginata down.
This is it!
As the blade came down with great inertia, I twisted my body sideways, narrowly pulling myself out of the naginata's trajectory. The metal tip went all the way down, stopping right before it touches the floor.
A stone dropped in my heart, but I had no time to tend to what it might have meant. I took to my heels and ran halfway across the room. I might have dropped all initiative in escaping, but at the same time by doing so it denied Eiko any additional momentum.
After making sure I was sufficiently far away from Eiko, I put up my stance again. Shaft in hand. Weight going forward.
Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. It was just then that I started noticing my heart racing. A fuzzy feeling spread through my limbs and face, competing with my line of sight, which seems to get narrower with every second, for my attention.
Eiko held her naginata in the neutral position once again, and slowly walked towards me.
Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. I found my breathing becoming rapid and shallow. The feeling of sweat rolling down my cheeks. Eiko closing the distance. Is she within reach? When do I strike?
Suddenly, I realized I swung out the bottom of my weapon towards Eiko. When did that happen?
Clang! It hit resistance once again. But unlike being parried while swinging the tip, the bottom being struck away instead gave sufficient inertia for me to follow up with a swing from the other end.
Eiko, having just blocked an attack on her right side with her weapon, couldn't bring it to her left side fast enough to parry the upcoming blow.
Hence, she struck the floor with the bottom of her naginata, and spun behind it instead.
If you can't bring your weapon in front of you, go behind it, huh.
Though, it seems like a poor move to make, as the strike caused her to reel a few steps backward.
Looks like the momentum is on my side now. I quickly followed up with a sideways swing.
"I think it's about time to end this, Yuran."
I felt my naginata come into contact with Eiko's, though the texture was different from all the previous parries so far; instead of a head-on striking of metal against metal, it seemed to be more muted,
The feeling of weightlessness. The ceiling came into view.
An impact on my back. I slapped the ground hard with my free hand, trying to break the fall.
Before I could raise my naginata, Eiko had hers pointed right in front of my nose.
Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. I was once again made aware of my pounding heart. Relaxing my shoulders, I breathed as my body required.
Eiko withdrew her blade.
"That sidestep was rather good," she said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, "but everything else was full of holes."
"I don't have the opportunity to train as frequent as you do," I complained between rounds of catching my breath.
"I was talking more of your form and intent. You're too scared to come in, and too hasty when you actually decide to come in. You become quite predictable that way."
"Is that so? For the most part I was the one being pressured, though."
"I did equally punishable moves as well, unfortunately you didn't act on them."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. Like, what was with that spin? It was absolutely silly."
"It was indeed. But I wasn't talking about that; all my overhead swings could have been interrupted with a quick thrust to the neck."
Eiko was right. There were dozens of times I could have reversed the situation, but I chose to be defensive instead.
Perhaps, maybe, in a corner of my mind, I was afraid to do so, in case I wasn't able to control my weapon and stop it in its tracks just in time.
"I think I might have to go back to practicing with the wooden naginata for a while. This extended absence from training has made my hands quite rusty."
"Sure, if that's what's required to build up your confidence again."
Eiko stretched out her hand. Feeling my breathing and heart rate lowering to a more reasonable level, I took her hand and got up.
"Good work, both of you," Mareni waved. "O-Ine-san brought us barley tea and dango, come take a break."
At some point during our skirmish, a lacquer tray appeared beside Mareni and Asumu. Both of them were already holding a cup each, so I assume the two cups left on the tray were for us. Also present on the tray was a plate of dango — white and pearly and covered in a caramel syrup.
"Hurrah, there's dango after all." I put down the naginata and trotted over to the snacks.
Sitting down, I took one of the cups from the tray, and carefully sipped the barley tea. To my surprise, a cool, refreshing taste filled my mouth.
"It's chilled," I remarked with surprise, taking a larger gulp.
Next, I took a stick of dango and stuck it in my mouth. Pulling the stick out, I started chewing on the glutinous rice snack. The texture and the sweetness was just a heavenly match.
Chew, chew. Gulp.
"This is the best," I said, washing down the dango with the barley tea. "Thank you, Eiko."
"You thanked me for the snacks, but didn't say anything about the training." Eiko sighed, picking up the last cup and sat down. "I can see where your priorities lie."
"Of course, I'm grateful for the training, but you know what they say, 'You can't fight on an empty stomach,' and all that."
"That was amazing, Eiko-san, Yuran-san." Mareni's eyes were shining brightly. "It was as if the both of you were dancing in unison."
"A dance, huh." Eiko took a sip from her cup. "In the sense that you have to be aware of the other person's movements, I suppose you could put it that way."
"I don't think a dance would be as stressful as that," I said.
"It gets less stressful the more you train," Eiko said, reaching for a stick of dango. "When you know your capabilities and your limits, all that is left is to do it."
"Will I ever reach that level?" I looked at my cup and at the swirling drink within.
"I think you can do it, Yuran." Asumu gave a smile. "As long as you put in the effort, you will be able to reap the fruits of your labor."
"Thank you, Asumu." I gave a wry smile. "But, the road to mastery sure is treacherous."
"If it was easy, there won't be any value in it," Eiko said.
She had finished her dango and was now twitching the skewer with her mouth.
"I guess you have a point," I said.
We fell silent for a while, sitting still, sipping our barley tea and looking out the door into the garden.
The sunlight was harsh as always, but we were now indoors, enjoying a respite from the outside world.
"It's so peaceful."
"If only every day was like this forever."
"You're not talking about the heat, I hope."
"Don't be silly." I smiled.
It was when we were getting ready to leave Eiko's place that disaster struck.
O-Ine shuffled to the entrance where we were putting on our shoes, and whispered to me in a low voice.
"I'm terribly sorry, Jin-sama, but our gardener would like to show you something."
It had been a while since this happened and I had almost forgotten about it, but the scab was torn off once again. A wave of dread welled up within me, but I tried to not let it show.
"...Mareni, Asumu, you can make a move first. It looks like I might still have some business over here."
"Are you sure? We could wait for you," Asumu suggested.
"No, it's fine. I'm not sure how long it would take either."
"Well, in that case, see you tomorrow then."
"See you." I waved, looked at Eiko, and followed O-Ine into the garden.
At a secluded corner of the garden, an old man was clipping a minature potted pine tree with a pair of shears. O-Ine bowed, and left the two of us alone.
"Good afternoon, sir," I said begrudgingly.
"Oh no, like I've said so last time, please don't call me 'sir'. Right now I'm but a simple gardener."
"And I'm just Eiko's friend, and I want it to stay that way. Calling me out like this troubles me a lot."
"I usually leave you alone when you visit, don't I? In the few years you've been visiting, we've only started talking like this recently. And don't worry, I haven't told Eiko a thing. Even though she has asked me several times, all I've told her was that we were both horticulture enthusiasts."
I don't even have any slight interest in plants, but that was the least of my irks.
"What business might you have?" I asked.
"Oh, I was just wondering how your uncle was doing."
"I don't know," I replied bluntly. "I've told you before — we don't really keep in touch." This was true; he was erratic and hard to deal with. Father had us mostly stay out of his way for as long as I remember.
"The thing is, I've heard that your uncle is really fond of orchids, and it so happens that I have this pot of orchids over there that I would absolutely love for him to have. Could I get a favor from you and get you to bring it to him?"
I don't know what goes on behind the scenes between the two of them, but even I could tell that this was not a request.
"I'll pay him a visit over the weekend and bring it to him then. Is that alright with you?"
"Yes, that is fine. Thank you, my lady."
I said nothing and picked up the pot that he gestured at. It was small and not too heavy, and two orchids sat snugly in it.
Back at the entrance, Eiko was waiting for me with a worried face.
"Yuran, did anything happen?"
"Ah, your gardener just wanted to give me a pot of orchids to take home, that's all." I forced a smile.
"...I see. He seems rather fond of you for him to do that."
"I guess you could put it that way."
After putting on my shoes, I picked up the flower pot and headed out the door.
"Well then, see you tomorrow, Eiko."
"See you, Yuran."
I stepped through the gate and onto the street.
The twilight sun painted the barren road a shade of vermillion. After walking a distance away from Eiko's place, I shouted with all my might.
Frustration, at being thrust into the adults' world without any consideration for what I want. What accursed fate. If either Eiko or I were born to a different family, I wouldn't have to deal with this.
Just like the setting sun, I could feel my fortunes entangled in a web, gradually suffocating.
Will things get better? Of course I hope for the best, but at the same time I've grown to expect less.
I know it's unlikely for these peaceful days to stay forever. One day, it will all come crumbling down.
But, if possible, please grant me tomorrow, at least.
Just for another day—
"Is that all the luggage we have?" Eiko-san said, sinking downwards while her hands hanged off the luggage rack.
"Yes, Eiko-san," I said, my empty hands relieved of the weight of the suitcase I was carrying earlier. "Thank you for helping us stow our suitcases."
"She's the only one that could easily reach the racks anyway," Yuran-san shrugged. "It's only proper for her to do it."
"Do you want to be on the racks as well, Yuran?" Eiko-san smiled on her lips only; her eyes lacked the amusement to match. "First-class observation rack, with a splendid view of the entire carriage. What do you say?"
"I was just joking, please forgive me."
Asumu-san chuckled at the exchange, causing me to start laughing as well.
"Alright, let's get seated," Yuran-san said cheerfully, carefully squeezing against us through the aisle and turned into the seats. "I'll take one of the window seats, if you won't mind." Bouncing onto the beautifully upholstered seats, she then shuffled towards the window.
I looked at Eiko-san and Asumu-san, wondering if they had any interest in taking the other window seat.
"Please go ahead, Mareni." Eiko-san said. "It's your tickets, after all."
Asumu-san nodded in agreement.
"Well then, if you would excuse me." I stepped in towards the window, and sinked my weight into the seat opposite Yuran-san's. The cushioning was bouncy, yet firm and supportive. Asumu-san sat down upright next to me, and Eiko-san casually took the remaining seat next to Yuran-san.
Yuran-san took out her ticket and looked at it while fumbling with the thin, blue paper. "I can't believe I'm actually traveling out of the city for the first time. Thank you, Mareni."
"Same here," Asumu-san said. "Thank you for inviting me along."
"Please don't mention it," I said. "It was my wish to go on a trip with all of you, after all."
On the Tuesday night the week before summer vaction started, Father came into my room and sat down next to me.
"Mareni," he began, adjusting his round-rimmed glasses. "About your birthday next week...I know that this is the first time in years that our family would be living together under one roof, and I was really looking forward to celebrating your birthday with you and Mother, but unfortunately a business trip cropped up."
"No, it's alright, Father. I understand." I gave a weak smile. Father's work has always took him to far-away places for years at a time. Even though now we had decided to go to where he was, it looks like not much has changed.
"Ah, no, this trip is only for a few days," he said. "But it just happens that I would have to miss your birthday. I'm sorry."
Reaching into his shirt pocket, he took out something and pressed them into my hands. Taking a closer look, they were eight pieces of thin, blue paper, with a motif of a locomotive and the word "ASIA" stamped in bright red.
"To make it up for you, I thought to procure some tickets using the staff pricing. You have three really good friends, right? Every night at the dinner table you would tell Mother about the times you spent with them everyday after school. One of them dreamed of traveling, if I recall."
I did remember telling Mother about our visit to the department store that night, as well as talking about their dreams.
"So I was thinking that maybe you could go on a trip with them somewhere together. Once you've asked them and decided on a date and destination, I could call up our company's hotel in that city and book a room for you."
"Thank you, Father." I smiled, but it was a different smile from the one I had earlier. It looks like Father was also trying his best, after all. "I will let you know soon."
The following day after school, I extended the invitation to Eiko-san, Asumu-san, and Yuran-san. Eiko-san refreshingly agreed on the spot, while Asumu-san and Yuran-san said they would have to check for possible dates. I was worried that they might not be able to make it after all, but my worries were alleviated the day after. Over a cup of tea, we agreed on a date and a place to go for this trip.
And now, sitting in the sleek and modern second-class carriage of the special express train heading south, our journey was just about to begin.
I looked at Yuran-san, dressed in a white blouse with a thin black ribbon, a blue flared skirt, and white stockings, grinning innocently while staring out the thick glass windows.
I looked at Eiko-san, in a navy blue one-piece dress with small floral patterns, her left arm propped up on the armrest, which her head was gently leaning on as she relaxed and closed her eyes.
I looked at Asumu-san, fitted in a slightly worn but well looked after yukata with black, orange, green and yellow stripes, looking at Yuran-san with a gently smile.
My three friends, each lovable in their own way, and who had loved me back for the short few months we've known each other. I'm glad we could all make it; it just wouldn't be the same without any of you around.
Just then, the sound of a whistle came through the glass from outside like waves at the seaside lapping against the sand, and with a slight jerk, the train started moving.
"Ah, and one more thing," Eiko-san opened her eyes and looked at me, her gaze warming me up in this chilly air-conditioned carriage. "Happy birthday, Mareni."
""Happy birthday, Mareni."" Yuran-san and Asumu-san greeted in unison.
I could feel my eyes moisten slightly. "Thank you," I smiled.
The scenery outside the window had much to behold. Upon leaving the station, we were enveloped on both sides by the sights of the city passing us by. Streets that would otherwise look nondescript when walking turned into entirely new experiences as we raced past them. Buildings, automobiles, people, they appeared before us and left in the next moment, like the flames of a firework fizzling out.
A woman with an infant waiting at a railroad crossing waved at us while we interrupted their traffic. Before I could wave back, we were already somewhere else, far away.
The rhythmic "gata, goto" of the rails gradually carried us out of the city. Suddenly, the Western masonry that characterized the architecture of the city was nowhere to be found — instead, the view gave way to large swathes of farmland, dotted by a few houses here and there. Wheat fields at various stages of nurturing covered the land like patchwork. A few green squares here, others golden yellow, and when the wind combs through the place waves and ripples could be seen.
Eventually, the farmland, which seemed for a brief moment like it would go on indefinitely until we reached the next city, gave way too to a raw wilderness. This time, the yellow earth did stretch all the way into the horizon where it meets the mountains. Sparse grasses occasionally appeared outside our window, but for most of what we could see, it was just muted yellow clay baking under the summer heat.
"It sure seems hot outside, isn't it," Yuran-san verbalized my thoughts, her eyes still on the scenery outside. "Thank goodness that this train comes with air-conditioning."
"It didn't use to always work, though," Eiko-san said. "I heard that back then, people would quip, 'Asia Express? More like Africa in here.'"
"Oh, there's a lion," Yuran-san sat up and pressed her nose against the glass.
"Wait, really?" Eiko-san got up and scrambled to the window.
"Yes, and she's right here with us, prowling towards the windo—oof!" Yuran-san had her belly audibly slapped by Eiko-san, after which she burst out laughing.
"O great lioness, please don't eat me! Hee, hee!"
"Oh, I won't eat you all right." Eiko-san proceeded to pinch both of Yuran-san's cheeks, stretching them in curious and unusual ways.
Asumu-san looked around in the carriage, then whispered to us hastily, "I think we should tone it down; others are watching."
"Sorry," Eiko-san withdrew her hands and sat down, adjusting her position. Yuran-san was still giggling afterwards, but she quickly quietened down as well.
Yuran-san massaged her cheeks, which had turned a shade of deep pink courtesy of Eiko-san. "Speaking of eating, there's a dining car up front in the next carriage. How about we check out their menu now? There's not much else to see out the window right now anyway; it's all dirt."
"We've just had lunch before we caught the train, though." Eiko-san said.
"That was more than two hours ago. I'm ready for tea. What do you say, Asumu, Mareni?"
"As it's a rare opportunity to be on vacation and to try out new experiences, I do want to know what dining on a train feels like." Asumu-san was surprisingly more assertive than usual.
"Yes, I agree," I leaned towards Asumu-san. "It sounds like it would be most pleasant."
"That settles it," Yuran-san said. We got up from our seats and made our way to the front of the carriage, swaying slightly with the train as we walked.
Entering the dining car, a peculiar sight greeted us. Two long rows of tables, each fully furbished with silverware, filled the interior; tables for two were on one side of the carriage, while tables for four were on the other. On each table next to the window was a potted plant — a leafy succulent, or even a pine bonsai. Some of the tables were occupied by guests, who were in the midst of enjoying their meal or a coffee. Had it not been for the constant reminders coming from the slight wobbling of the carriage, and the ever present "gata, goto" sounds, I might have mistaken this for the interior of an oddly shaped diner.
"Please, this way." A smartly dressed waitress in a black apron showed us to our table and presented us with a modern-looking menu — on the cover was a silhouette of a pagoda in white contrasting against the green sky, while another silhouette of an orange donkey-drawn cart traveled the road below. "Tea is ready", proclaimed the menu in orange block letters, inviting us to peer within and find out what may catch our fancy.
"Let me know when you are ready to place your order," she said, giving a small curtsy before going off to attend to another table.
"So this is the dining car," I remarked, looking out the large rectangular window that was next to us. Just like the windows in our carriage, these wide windows were made with viewing in mind, with the entire wilderness beyond the tracks being offered up as a panorama for our leisure.
"For drinks, there's a choice between black tea, lemon tea, coffee, and milk." Yuran-san was visibly more interested in the menu than in the scenery. "I'll have a coffee as usual. What about the rest of you?"
"I'll have a lemon tea," I said.
"Lemon tea sounds interesting," said Asumu-san, picking up the menu and browsing through it. A moment later, her expression turned a shade darker. "Actually, I'll be fine with just black tea."
"Asumu, there you go again," Eiko-san said. "You said it yourself earlier, didn't you? This is a rare opportunity so you should let loose a little. Excuse me!" She waved at the waitress, who quickly shuffled over. "Three lemon teas, and one coffee with extra milk and sugar. Oh, and a serving of sweets as well, thank you very much."
"Three lemon teas, one coffee, extra milk and sugar, and a serving of sweets, is that all?"
"Um, please change one of the lemon teas to—" "Yes, that's all, thank you," Eiko-san waved in front of Asumu-san, blocking her from the waitress' view until the waitress had left.
"Eiko..." Asumu-san pouted.
Eiko-san grinned in response. "Don't worry about it."
"Really, you're always like this..." Her voice trailed off and became softer until it was barely audible over the sounds of the train. "...but thank you."
"Like I said, don't worry about it."
Asumu-san opened the menu once again, browsing through its contents. "Still, the prices here are easily more than twice that of a normal cafe's."
"It does seem twice as fancy as our cafe, though." Yuran-san picked up her butter knife and twirled it around in her hand. "These seem to be actual silver, for example."
I held my butter knife in my hands. It had a pleasant weight to it, but I couldn't otherwise tell if what Yuran-san was saying was correct. "Is that so?" I wondered.
"The furniture seem quite decent as well," Eiko-san commented, sliding her hand across the tablecloth. I followed Eiko-san and laid my hand on the table. It was light silky to the touch, a far throw from the heavy cotton that most restaurants would use.
Our investigation into the inventory of the dining car came to an abrupt stop as the waitress showed up with our drinks. "Who asked for the coffee?" Yuran-san politely raised her hand, and a coffee cup on a saucer was placed in front of her. Next, the waitress presented the rest of us each with similar cups and saucers, only that these white porcelain teacups, with china blue stripes across the rim, contained black tea and a slice of lemon instead of coffee.
Lastly, a small woven basket was gently placed at the center of the table. The basket was lined with paper, and within it was an assortment of cookies. Each cookie seemed to be unique — there were round flat ones with sugar sprinkled on top, checkerboard-patterned ones consisting of alternating light and dark squares, and even swirly ones with a jam filling in the middle.
"This looks so good," Yuran-san's eyes sparkled with joy. Even Asumu-san, who would usually keep her composure, began to salivate just a little.
I brought the teacup to my lips. A soft scent of citrus tickled my nostrils. Taking a sip, the sharpness of the black tea washed over my palate, but it gradually gave way to the taste of lemon as I let the tea roll down my throat. The lemon gave an additional dimension to what would otherwise be a standard black tea, and at the same time the tea dampened what would otherwise be a stinging sourness of the lemon. It was as if I was being held firmly as I was led through a ballroom dance, with me following in tandem. A perfect, complementing match.
As the tea entered my belly, it warmed me up from within. Not to say that the air conditioning was too cold, but such a contrast was always interesting — here we were in the middle of the country under the blazing summer sun, yet sheltered within a climate-controlled box on wheels, drinking hot tea that would otherwise have been unpalatable if taken while exposed to the heat outside. I smiled, amusing myself at this thought.
"Look, Mareni has such a blissful face," said Eiko-san, who had decided to go for a cookie first, "the tea should be something else then."
Asumu-san, who was also taking small nibbles off one of the round flat cookies, nodded and took a sip as well. Immediately, her eyes widened.
"This, this is..."
She took another nibble of the cookie, and followed it with another sip of tea. "Mmmmm!" she squealed.
"It's so delicious when taken together!" Her hand gently cupped her chin while she savored the moment. "The cookie was good on its own, but the tea balances out the sweetness of the cookie so that the cookie doesn't become overly sweet on its own. The lemon harmonizes between the two in a way that black tea on its own just can't do."
I picked a cookie, one with jam in the center, and took just a large enough bite so as to get to some of the jam as well. Chewing softly, two textures began a duet in my mouth. The crumbly flakes of the cookie gave way to the thick, viscous jam, which was just a delight to simply sink my teeth into. Mixing the two with my tongue, the two parts combined to form a perfect whole — a sweet, fruity, chewy sensation that lasted right until it passed through my throat.
Following in Asumu-san's steps, I then took another sip of the lemon tea. She was right — the sweet aftertaste of the cookie was made more muted and subtle with the introduction of the tea, while the tea's own sharp taste was made more rounded with the sweetness. Again, the lemon taste fades in after the tea, but this time, the presence of the sweet taste left by the cookie transformed the lemon's tanginess into a constructive entity — it was as if I have had a bite of a lemon-flavored cookie as well, its taste lingering in my mouth like a cozy, distant memory.
"Yes," I smiled at Asumu-san, "this tastes absolutely wonderful."
We took our time at the table munching on cookies, drinking tea and coffee, and making small talk. The scenery outside the window changed slowly at first — if you were to focus your attention at the view for an extended period of time, the change would not be noticable, but as we were caught up in conversation, before we knew it, industrial buildings built out of corrugated sheet metal had began to pass us by outside. These utilitarian structures gradually increased in number, while red-brick houses and commercial blocks started appearing as well. Eventually, we could feel the train slowing down as we found ourselves surrounded by a sizeable neighborhood on both sides.
"Have we reached our destination?" Yuran-san asked.
"No, it seems a bit too early for that," Eiko-san said. "Also, I recall seeing on the schedule a brief stop in between, so this should be...what's it called? Shihei-gai?"
"As long as we don't accidentally alight at the wrong stop, I don't really care what the other stations in between are called." Yuran-san took another sip from her mostly empty coffee cup.
"We might have to return to our seats, though," Asumu-san said, and sat up straight. "There might be other passengers boarding at this coming station, and they might mistake our seats to be empty."
"That makes sense," I said. "Let's head back then."
We finished our drinks and got up from our seats. Eiko-san stayed behind to ask for the check while the rest of us headed back to our carriage.
As the train carriage came to a complete stop, Eiko-san re-joined us at our seats. Several others in the carriage rose from their seats, and after fetching their belongings from the luggage racks, streamed out at both ends of the car. The air-conditioning hummed as the carriage softly vibrated in otherwise complete silence.
"It doesn't seem like anyone would be boarding," I said, looking at the barren platform outside. The passengers that had just alighted were already headed somewhere else, and a lone conductor stood at the tail end of the train, pocket-watch in hand.
"That reminds me," I added, "The carriage behind us is the first-class observation car. If it's not too cluttered later on, perhaps we could drop in for a visit."
"Nice idea, Mareni." Yuran-san's eyes lit up. "Perhaps we could get to see different scenery there."
"Would it be all right?" Asumu-san asked. "I mean, our tickets are for second-class seats."
Yuran-san waved it off. "Nothing wrong with just exploring the train. If the conductor asks us to return to our seats we'll do just that. But until then, I think we can take a look."
A hearty toot coming from the train whistle signalled the end of its sojourn at this current station. With the sound of released steam, the train resumed its journey once again. Buildings left our line of sight the same way it had came — first the red-bricked neighborhood gave way to warehouses and factories, whose numbers slowly thinned and disappeared from the window.
I looked at Yuran-san, who was looking back at me while wiggling in her seat like a cat ready to pounce. I nodded, as did she. We got up.
Making our way to the other end of the carriage, we slowly opened the partitioning door ajar and peeked through the gap. To our utmost delight, the first-class car was completely empty. While the front of the carriage had the same long, conjoined seats that we had in our carriage, the very end of the car was furnished with individual armchairs in a semicircle, each with a glass window right behind them.
"What a grand sight," I remarked, opening the door fully and slowly making my way towards the rear, my hands touching the plush upholstery of the front seats as I went. The texture of the seats tickled my fingertips as they slid over the surface.
"It's like we have the whole car to ourselves," Yuran-san said with excitement.
Upon reaching the end of the car, a true wide angle view was presented to us. Two parallel rails emerged endlessly from under our feet, and sped off into the distance, slowly shrinking, slowly converging, until they meet at last, under the unending azure sky.
Looking at the tracks vanishing into a single point, I came to realize that the world is really big.
And exactly because it is so big, I had the feeling that everyone would be able to find their place to belong under heaven.
The sound of the door opening behind us. "What do you know, it's empty after all." Eiko-san's surprised voice made me look behind my back.
There they were. Eiko-san. Asumu-san. And Yuran-san, next to me.
On a whim, I cleared my throat.
"I have something to say," I announced. Then, taking a deep breath, I continued,
"I hope we continue being friends even in the future!"
"...What is it, all of a sudden?" Eiko-san smiled. "Of course we will."
"For the rest of our lives," Yuran-san grinned.
"Yes, that is my wish as well," said Asumu-san.
Gata, goto. Our deep blue locomotive continued its advance towards a brighter future.