Note: I decided to publish this in full. The flow seemed better that way. The theme for this was “Tested Control”. The title is the Japanese word for ivy.
The apron strangles her hips, rough fabric brushing against her thighs like an unwanted hand. Salt and miso burn her lungs; frost is building up on the tip of her nose. Hibiki grits her teeth and weaves past a customer and the next, and the next and – who is it who wants the extra soy sauce again?
A man in the corner raises a hand, beckoning to her; the wade through half-frozen feet stretches on into forever. She straightens the frilly bow on her neck and clasps her hands at her waist.
An (accusing) finger points at the empty cups lying strewn over the table.
“More tea, please.” He grins like the damned Cheshire Cat.
Who was it who wanted soy sauce again?
Her nod sends tremors running down her neck and into her collarbone as she rushes off. Outside the snow whips up a storm and rattles the lanterns hanging at the shopfront; the pink-blue spots of light dance over her face like a kaleidoscope lens.
One hand seeks purchase on the teapot while the other balances the tray of soba. Paper flaps against the wall and she wonders if the wind would carry away even those priceless paintings.
Who was it who wanted the soy sauce?
The tea is cooling by the time she makes it back. Someone is tapping their fingers on the table and the sound harmonises with the sledgehammer pounding away at her head.
“Ah, finally. Thank you.”
One second Hibiki is pouring, green liquid streaming into each cup.
The next, there are shards of porcelain mingling with the blood around her ankles.
“We can’t keep spending like this, Brother.”
Yen clatters against the table. Hibiki counts what is left of last month’s salary with winter-blue fingers. Her feet are buried in bandages, and those are buried under her socks the way a child hid their messes under carpets. When Hideki reaches out to separate the coins, she slaps his hand away with a dry smack.
The pads of his thumbs are smooth and warm to the touch (she wonders if hers feel like frozen fish to him).
“Hibiki, stop it! I’m trying to help,” he strains, and for a moment he places his hands on his lap, fiddling with something. Onyx eyes narrow. What is he doing?
With a rustle, the package comes out from his bag and he just short of slams it on the table.
“I was getting you this. That’s what I spent the money on.”
The mixed snacks sit innocently on plywood: thin biscuits and chocolate wrapped in light pink. Hibiki wrings her hands, eyebrows furrowing. That sound of crackling plastic seems so far away as if she were sitting cross-legged in a pool of water.
Tawny arms cross under his chest and Brother’s cheeks puff out as he speaks.
“Do you really need to ask ‘why’ with that face? You used to like those sweets, so I bought them for you – “
He jolts as she pulls him across the table, sweater sleeve grasped firmly in hand, as Hibiki’s teeth tease the edge of her lip.
“You’re going somewhere again, aren’t you?”
“Uh . . . maybe?”
Brother watches her from the tails of his eyes as she leans down, until black hair brushes against his cheek.
“France.” His breath radiates heat into the dark of their house.
“For work. They’re offering me work as a photographer – ”
“Don’t go,” she says into his ear as if it would pierce deeper into his mind the closer she got. A scowl spreads across her face (like blood in water) and Hideki rolls his eyes.
“Euros are worth more than yen.”
“There are terrorists in Europe.”
“There are terrorists everywhere.”
“No one will cook you your favourite sanma in Europe.”
“I can make do without it.” Suddenly, Brother yanks his hand away, sitting back on his heels. He rubs his wrist and grimaces.
“You didn’t let me finish. I said they were hiring me as a photographer – do you know how much that means to me?” Her fists curl on her lap, the bones of her knuckles crack around each other, yet Brother does not seem to hear them breaking and carries on.
“Someone like me could never get that sort of job in Tsutami.”
Three paces bring him to the side of their flat where the futons lie sprawled across the floor. Her tongue is bitter in her mouth. Hibiki straightens her back and shuts her eyes to the world.
“Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough.”
Brother’s flinch and the soft “what” that comes after shoot bright crimson across the back of her eyelids. Just what was she doing?
“. . . The interview is tomorrow. Goodnight, Hibiki.”
Her eyes open to blackness and sleep comes only in trickles after that.
There is a yellow-haired gaijin drinking at the shokudo. He sips at his can of beer and taints the morning air with the smell of alcohol. As Hibiki puts down her tray, the man waves her over with a slight frown on his lips.
“You’re Himura, aren’t you?” he asks. Her jaw clamps down hard, the corner of her mouth quirking downwards.
“. . . Why do you know my name?”
“Ah. Hideki has mentioned you a couple of times. In fact, I’m here to meet him – oh!” One cream-white hand extends towards her and she takes it the way one would touch a spider.
“I’m so sorry; to think I forgot to introduce myself again after what happened last night with the takoyaki guy – agh!” he blabbers.
“The name’s Arthur Lund; it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Hibiki only nods, before refilling the nearly untouched cup of tea by his elbow.
Thin streaks of pale orange shine from under the door, and it is not long before the wood cracks open, letting in a breeze carrying the scent of winter-frozen sweat.
“Sorry-I’m-late!” Hideki’s satchel is flying behind him as he flops down next to Mr. Lund. He spares her a half-smile: something forced and cracking over dry lips. Did he remember to drink his milk this morning? Hibiki frowns but dips her head in turn.
Russet eyes are trained on azure as the gaijin claps him on the back. The frown deepens, a crevice on her face, as she excuses herself to bring them some tea. Is one of his friends from France? ‘Arthur Lund’ does not sound very French.
Although her digits busy themselves with hand-painted pottery, Hibiki’s ears remain at the table.
“. . . So, like any instruments? I overheard from Monsieur Beaulieu you were good with the piano . . .”
Her lips thin, and she could practically feel Brother blanching as if it were her own skin.
“. . . ah, I haven’t played it since . . . since I was a kid – hmm? . . . It’s a long story, it’s best to save it for another time . . .”
“. . . Certainly you remember a chord or two; your fingers will, even if your mind does not.”
Why are they talking like this? The tray trembles like a leaf in her hands as she turns.
“Some restaurants in the West have pianos,” says Lund.
“Ah, it’s quite a shame there isn’t one here; I’d love to hear you play.” Hibiki can hear the gaijin’s fingers drum a tune on the wood, loud and grating.
“I’d rather not, thanks. It’s . . . embarrassing,” Brother laughs something like the sound of pebbles rattling in a pit. He rests his cheek on one hand and it makes him look so much smaller than the blue-eyed man before him; a rabbit and a fox.
The cups make muffled thumps as she sets them down.
“. . . Hibiki, did you hurt yourself?” Brother’s gaze flits between the bandages around her legs and her face, eyebrows knitted together.
“. . . Yes. It’s no big deal,” she says, but suddenly her knuckles turn white and something strikes her mind.
“. . . I got it yesterday while working; dropped some cups and they broke over my feet.”
His eyes widen, concerned touch reaching out to her arm. It is a while before he stops fussing, and within this time the chef has prepared two meals of sanma: one gutted, the other whole.
A pair of schoolgirls with surgical masks comes in through the door, chatting loudly, and Hibiki slips away to attend to them, mouth twisting. As she smooths down her apron, she catches one last snippet of conversation:
“. . . take you to Versailles . . .”
“. . . Huh? Veru . . . Veru-sai?”
“. . . . It’s a beautiful place. . . ”
The waitress seats the girls at a tatami mat, handing them the menus.
“. . . just like you.”
Who is Arthur Lund?
The slow thrum of winter continues on the balcony. Concrete is still cold and hard against the soles of her sandals, but Hibiki walks on regardless. She brushes frost from the parapet, watching as it crumbles and falls away into specks of white by her feet.
Her fingers caress a cluster of swelling, black beads. Climbing up the thin slice of bricks are diamond-shaped leaves, stark green against the ice-stone background.
While the sakura sleep and the different grasses bow their heads, only the ivy bothers to blossom and bear fruit. The berries are round and ripe in hand, but eventually, they too would fade, shrivelling away into the deeper part of unforgiving winter. ‘Eventually’ is not ‘now’, so the young woman smiles against her scarf.
Hibiki would be like ivy, she thinks, as she rubs the sap between her fingers and watches as they turn a sour red.
Her fingers are too chilled to feel the pain.
Plastic leaves laced with fake sakura stab her cheek. Hunched shoulders slide to the left as Hibiki cranes her neck; a lantern dips to pet her on the head as she rises – but she brushes it off with a shrug, eyes narrowed and dry lips just slightly parted.
Lund is buying konbu for her brother.
They stand (together) on the opposite side of the street, Brother in his old sweater (she still remembers how to make that pattern, the little swimming fish) and there is a head’s worth of space between his forehead and Lund’s (rabbit; fox, just like she thought).
Suddenly, there’s a gust of wind from her right and a tip of bamboo pierces her side.
“I’m so sorry, miss!” the child shouts loud enough for all of Tsutami to hear, the cat face on his kite staring at her with beady yellow orbs.
Hibiki glances to the osechi stall and brown eyes connect for a moment, before Brother rushes the gaijin off, disappearing into the crowd.
The sweet, but tangy scent of konbu wafts through the air, but underneath it there is a sharper smell. Beside her, chicken karaage sputters in a deep fryer as customers flood in; the stall owner looks quite like an octopus. Hibiki grabs the sticky butcher’s knife from his chopping board, before taking off after Brother.
Slender legs pump against the ground as she weaves past an old lady who has herself swarmed by children.
“There is an old wives’ tale about a demon who married a human,” says the woman, toothless grin lighting up her face, as Hibiki bumps shoulders with schoolgirls and kindergarteners.
“Every day she fed him drops of her own blood, hidden in her cooking.”
A chorus of cringes and disgusted groans rolls through the congregation of kids. Hibiki gasps for air as she makes it past the last pair of little heads.
“. . . why would you tell us . . . on New Year’s day, Grandma? . . . You’ll curse us all . . .”
“. . . she thought it would grant him immortality, you see, children! But she was wrong . . . “
Lund is bringing Brother around the corner and out of the main street. Where did that alleyway lead to again? Hibiki swallows, thinking of stone steps bleeding into soft sand and a vast blue ocean (where he found his sister her first seashell), before breaking into a sprint.
“. . . the demon’s beloved was dead by spring.”
The light of the half-moon casts silver shadows over Tsutami Beach: something even the endless parade of kites cannot stop. Brother walks side-by-side with Lund, black specks of seaweed still on his smiling cheek.
“It’s almost a dream,” he says, and the cold night air carries his voice (loud and clear) to where Hibiki is hiding in the bushes.
“Ah, I don’t know.” Brother shrugs.
“You, the job, travelling abroad – I just . . . I’ve never felt so free before. It’s like some weight has been lifted off of me.”
Arthur Lund laughs and claps him on the back with enough force to make him stumble.
Suddenly they are holding hands under the moonlight: a small thing, just a brush of fingertips. Hibiki sees the rabbit licking at the fox’s mouth, as if in a kiss, and being drawn further and further into grimy yellow teeth. A French kiss. How ironic.
The moonlight glances off something else as well, something metal and sharp and dear.
The apron is sopping from another round of spilled miso soup when Hibiki cracks open the door. This time there is a chair and a little table blocking her way. A frown crosses her face as wood creaks with the friction of her pushing.
“I’m home, Brother.”
Thin dots of light awaken from their repose when the hunched figure shifts and a grunt rolls through his throat. Hibiki scrunches her nose. There is a reek of musty chemical in the air that overwhelms even the scented candles she bought the week before. It is the medicine cabinet, she figures, as she scrubs at her hands in the sink.
“. . . welcome home.”
She smiles, the newspapers on the floor rustling as she wades through them to where Hideki has set the table for dinner.
“The landlord came today,” Brother does not touch his bowl. Hibiki thinks the rice might be expired; there is a brownness creeping in at the edges. She sighs. Such things are just a monotonous staple for them these days – but the lovely, cheerful man sitting in front of her is not.
(He is not sitting: bony hands are clenched into fists on his knees as the yellow threads of little swimming fish unravel from his sweater.)
“We haven’t paid him this month – “
“I went to the city.” Hibiki shovels the rotten rice into her mouth. Bits of beige spray from her teeth as she speaks.
“I went to the city and bought you these sweets – “
“. . . You spent more money?”
“ – yes, but these are your favourite, aren’t they?” She slides the box of Pocky onto the table, grinning. Hideki’s eyelids seem to groan as they shut; it is like he is sleeping, for nearly every muscle has gone slack. Did he stay up again?
“No, Hibiki,” his fingers tighten over a newspaper that is blackened and dirtied by running ink. One azure eye peeks shyly from the mess of a cover, but there are only angry rips and torn paper in the place of the words.
Hibiki shoves the last grain into her mouth, and her belly bloats from the mixture of tap water and carbohydrate.
He is rubbing his wrists again; the strands of sunlight peel darkness off of raw, red flesh. What bit him? What could have bitten him to make him itchy for two weeks?
“Brother, do you love me?”
Hideki freezes. A speck of dust floats and settles on his thumb. His hands fumble as they reach for his head, each palm clamping over an ear as if the air was about to flow in and drown him. He grits his teeth and a long – not loud, not piercing, just long (just long and ringing) – cry tears in his throat.
Abandoned by his grasp, the newspaper falls to the floor and so do Hibiki’s chopsticks. Her outstretched hand stops halfway to his face. What is she doing?
Eventually, Brother nods as if his neck is broken, twisted beyond recognition, and she draws his head into her chest.
“. . . y-yes,” he says, but his hands are so, so cold.
Outside, the last of January’s snow sheds tears into the dirt.