True Love

Fresh rainwater polishes the waterside boulevard in town. The fat droplets reflect the colours of cartoonish lanterns that smile down from pushcarts. On either side of the walkway, couples march forward, pastel-pink umbrellas belying a pace almost mournful in its slowness. Some are attached by the hip, others by the shins or ankles or arms. Some look more comfortable than others. Nevertheless, the thick red sutures keep them all together. It’s Valentine’s Day.

Only two soulmates among them have not planned a date. Later, he’d said last night, but then breakfast had come and gone, the drivers had picked them up and left and the boulevard had filled. Even now he is barking into his phone, pulling them into one ambling lurch after another. An untied shoelace flails like a tortured worm from his sleek shiny Oxford.

The street cleaner swipes one hand over her wrinkled forehead, where sweat and rainwater intermingle into a sour acidic wash. Tired eyes roll upwards, stretched taut by crow’s feet, to where he’s been brandishing the velvety black umbrella with both their hands but only his fist. She wants to tell him to loosen his grip, just slightly, so she can shield herself from the freezing drops, and that his shoelace is untied, and that she wants her hand back now, can she have her hand back, for good? Instead, she tugs at the red string connecting their elbows, as if picking at an old scar and drives her mop left-handed.

People never want to know there’s something wrong with their outfit. She imagines the humiliation of bending double in public, buttocks in the air like some kind of cartoon ostrich, fingers fumbling to right the wrong in their traitorous footwear. It’s not hard to understand; even she can get it. Still, he shouldn’t have to make this so difficult.

A frenzied reporter comes dashing from around the curb, yellow raincoat fluttering behind her. Dew drops of blue gleam hungrily in bottomless eye-sockets, questions gushing in streams from her lush lips. Suddenly, her soulmate breaks away from his phone to gawk and gape. She expects jealousy, but her shriveled heart oozes only desperation. Could this girl help tell him that his shoelace is untied? Just as a favour, pretty please?

The worry lines in his brow have only deepened since his new job, yet he beams so brightly elucidating it into the microphone. It’s hard for him, she knows, having to polish his profile all the time. If only he could polish his shoes, himself, if only – No. The street cleaner picks up a stray leaf and chucks it into the water. She mustn’t think that way.

Every so often her hip bumps against his – it takes the whole body to clean, after all, especially at her age – and every so often he tenses and tries to edge away. Old memories resurface of their bonding ceremony as children. You are what each other needs, they’d told her, as if he would always understand that, as if he would always cherish his vegetables and plain water.

As her soulmate entertains the reporter, a pair of kindergartners runs past, shouting and squabbling, the strained line connecting one bruised pinkie to the other dripping red from their exertions. Flushed cheeks puff over some garbled argument and they pull at the sutures, back and forth, until the trail of blood spots behind them resembles cherry blossoms at the end of spring. One footfall lands particularly hard into a puddle, spraying the street cleaner’s pant leg with mud and detritus.

Puddles. They are as shallow as the warmth of a first kiss. Every morning they stretch for yards and reflect the receding stars. Every evening the blotchy remains shrink away between the fibres of her mop.

“It’s not that we don’t like each other,” her soulmate laughs, gaze locked onto the reporter’s plastic-packaged chest. “We just feel . . . stuck.”

Yes. That’s it. The old mop clatters to the floor as she finally stoops down and plucks the shoelace from the mud. They are stuck.

Botched Sayings and Formalities

The kid has your eyes, darling – I mean it.

They’re the ones you kept in a pickle jar on the dresser beside our bed. She’s cradling them to their chest – still in their container, thank goodness –the way you’d hold a newborn. It’s strange, isn’t it? One man’s forgotten keepsake really can become another’s treasure.

Why is there a kid in our apartment? It’s not ours, I can tell you that. Secret children only exist in my writings; real me wants nothing to do with them. The child came up in the lift at midnight, soaked to the bone by the storm. I let her in and went to get her a towel. She must have come across the jar while I was in the bathroom.

It’s weird, isn’t it? A stranger has more familiarity with the nooks and crannies of our home than I do. The existence of that Mason jar had been cropped out of my mind space long ago, probably to make room for the half-a-manuscript I have piling up in the living room. I don’t stop the kid, opting instead to gaze into the pickled eyes with the same grotesque wonder as she.

The jar thumps against the coffee table as she sets it down. Wordlessly, she gets up and goes about making tea. My mouth opens, wanting to say something, but my throat declines the offer. Only the sound of drawers opening and closing disrupt the one o’clock vacuum. The kid doesn’t use a stool as she pours hot water from the kettle. With only her arm extending above the countertop, she tips half a mug of the steaming liquid into a cup. I should stop her. I find myself glued in place.

There’s been some sort of breeze passing through me since I opened the door: one that I can’t call a chill. It’s something temperature-less, something distorting the outline of my being the way holograms shiver in sci-fi films. You never liked that, I remember. There’s not much of a point in being able to see through a TV screen.

When I look up I find the kid has made a cup for me as well. It’s sitting on the coffee table, next to your eye jar. Otherwise, it’s almost as if she hasn’t seen me. She sits cross-legged on the other end of the table, back turned as she gazes out at the skyline. Once again, I feel an urgent need to speak – only to choke on nothingness and fall back into silence.

It’s nice like this, surprisingly. She doesn’t move as I clear the papers around her, as I put them away by the open door of my study. I sit down to sip my tea. Was the carpet always this comfy? I note a few changes in the window view since I last saw it: the blinking streetlights, the vanished forest, the skyscrapers that have suddenly sprouted. We sit there, just taking in the post-storm city as it resets itself in the dark.

Dawn comes. My eyes are wide open. The girl gets up to leave, placing her mug next to the jar on the table. Like a robot, I rise with her, fingers undoing the lock. It clatters when it falls to the ground. I haven’t the strength to pick it up. I think the sound startled her. For an instant, she turns her head and tilts it sideways, almost as if she’s scrutinizing me, considering me, recognizing me – but she does not. Her footsteps echo in the corridor as she leaves, and I wait until the sound dies down utterly before I slam the door shut. I sink down into the carpet, head in my hands.

You know what? She really does have your eyes.

An Apologetic Study

Sorry, but sometimes I wonder if the world tries to keep us dreaming. I wonder if there lives a woman curled up in the centre of the Earth who has a thousand hands, if she covers all of our pairs of eyes with those hands, singing a sweet lullaby to keep us asleep and happy. Ensconced in this honeycomb, life would seem to have a greater narrative, with meaning and purpose to every meeting of gazes across the room. It’s gratifying, validating, fulfilling – but, for fear I plunge too far into the pool of theory, let me describe to you a case study.

Yesterday I saw you lingering by the library entrance. Hoodie pulled tight over your music-sieged ears, you fiddled with your touchscreen, surveying tunes on Spotify. You probably don’t know this, but the contours of your face lend it a gallery exhibition of deep shadows, one of which shielded your eyes that day and made it seem as if they were closed tight. You became a CPU, disconnected from the outer world, your wires tangled in a universe within.

When she showed up, she plugged in a monitor. The wealth of information and soul inside of you rushed through the wires and was expressed in the pixels of her white-toothed smile. You raised your head, awakened, insides whirring to welcome your master. You yanked open the door for her at first, before she told you she wasn’t going in. You flushed. Most importantly, she made you smile back.

Nothing to see here, I thought, so I read a newspaper. It wasn’t very good, but neither was the text on her phone she was shoving into your face, and neither was the internet meme scrawled seductively in pink down the side of her asymmetrical socks. Her hand trailed along your arm, but I did not see that because, again, I was reading the newspaper.

A smirk cut through your face, the way a security guard might run, panting, before the Mona Lisa to tell the crowd “We’re closing in 10!”. You leaned into her ear, lips parted. Air rushed through your larynx. Just as your voice was about to come dashing to my eardrums, a car honked loudly, just enough to let me put my own words into your silently moving mouth. Sorry about that, by the way. I wouldn’t have told you, but I had to illustrate my point. I didn’t look as you followed her into her ride.

After the fact was when I began to think about this whole predicament between you and me. I imagine that I know you; you do not know me. I shove words into your mouth without your consent. I spend so many of my own words attaching these metaphors and symbolism to your person, weaving this story around you and between your blasted honey-coloured fingers – but I digress.

My argument is that the woman covers our eyes for a reason. She sings naivete for a reason. She bleeds flowers and kisses buds for a reason. That reason is this: that maybe reality will kill us.

The Library

They are not supposed to have favourites. Most of them simply lay back and watch people wander in and out of the doors. Oh, the humans and their clockwork paths. They watch the same pairs of hands fiddle with the same rusty old locks, the same heads bump against the same railings after a night spent sleeping on the stairs. Nobody thinks to choose.

Granted, there are no rules for this sort of thing, but it cannot help but feel a twinge in its stony foundation for watching one more than any other, for creating an imbalance when it loves all life equally.

The girl comes in on weekdays after school. Placing her bag on the pigeonhole by the children’s section, she wanders off from the storytelling circles and pastel-tiled flooring to tread the creaky floorboards in one of the dustier sections of its body. It worries sometimes about that dust. What is no good for breathing is no good for life.

Having the girl walk through the back-aisle tickles a forgotten crook of its body, sends a gentle pulse through an untouched nerve. Her arms barely wrap around her tome of choice. It is a book on Empires and their Wonders, the sort with ripped pages and no bibliography to speak of: a favourite of curious children and disillusioned adults straying too far from their finals papers. The plastic table creaks under its weight when she sets the volume down.

Reading to this one comes easy as breathing. It does not see prodigies very often, but when it does, it is cautious. Humans like her are very much like the ancient land of Rome they love to read about. They grow quickly, conquering territory after territory; perhaps they make it big in business or write one of the bestsellers that come and go from its shelves. They construct wonders, dye cultures with their own hue, forcibly scratch their mark upon history . . .

One day the girl takes the bus out of town. She is going to build her empire, it thinks. Though it cannot wave goodbye, and cannot brood in longing, the curtains sway just a little out of sync with the wind, and in the second-floor bathroom, a bulb flickers and dies.

Still, life goes on. It must, even if the air sinks heavier without its favourite. Both life and non-life proceed harmoniously inside of it. The librarian grows grey hairs, her black strands falling unnoticed to the cushy swivel chair that is slowly losing its mobility. Students graduate and are replaced with more students – and they seem to lose more hair per capita with each passing generation. It loves them all, all but for the treacherous dust that cakes the ripped books in the back aisle.

(Seasons later, it hears a sickening splat on the pavement outside the School, hears the sirens blaring, and it knows: Rome has fallen.)

The other buildings like to ask why it stays. Many of them simply fall apart after their generation grows old and wrinkled. Many others choose to leave even if their bodies are intact: these are the skeleton-like abandoned warehouses and prisons. Sometimes life is not worth sustaining, so the non-living leave. This is not a bad concept, for things like them. It is just that: a concept.

But the Library loves life.

Light filters in through the stained windows, lending the loft a tint the colour of fresh peaches. A cast remains around the sleeping girl’s leg, but that is all that is left of a painful battle from long, long ago. They call her a woman now, it knows, but it likes to imagine that all who read retain some part of their child self within them.

Papers lie strewn around her exhausted form. Scribbles fill each: ideas and plans and hopes, dreams, wishes – the things that never die. They have not allowed her to, either. There is something good about the human’s desire for repetition; the musing comes to it as the grandfather clock strikes a resounding eight in the morning.

There is always time for a new empire.

 

Lies (or the Consequences of the Carpet)

Singing somber songs in staccato by the brook, she swept away the lies from the sitting stones. Specks of dust, they were – they tickled her nose. She did not rid herself of them, but swept, swept them into the cracks, into the little spaces between the grainy gravel. When they fell, they did not vanish. Instead, they were eaten up by the sullen soil that was, in turn, devoured by sallow seeds laid there by birds.

Water from the brook nourished the seeds, cracked open their tough hides and seeped into every sad surface. From inside them grew snide little sprouts bearing foliage leaves the colour of old paper. Each day, she returned with a broom to clear the lies into the dirt. Each day, the sprouts grew taller, taller.

One day, such was their height that they could no longer be called sprouts. On that day, the girl tried to return again, singing the same songs in staccato – but was stopped. For there stood a forest of hateful trees barricading the brook.

The leaves leered at her, the bark said “Begone!”, yet she stood there, planted onto lie-soaked soil, as if she too, were a tree. A quiet breeze passed them by. On the sitting stones, the lies piled up: spiky, sordid squalls, all shouting and screeching bloody murder. She had to sweep them away before people heard, this she knew, so she took a step. And another. And another.

A root, ink-black and curled like a tentacle, crept over her ankle. The branches tugged at her shoulders. Her efforts to press on were rewarded by a sucking force downwards. Every step sank her further into soil that was thick with lies and the water from the brook. She was buried to her knees first, and then her chest, soaking her dress, and finally the ground ensconced her to the neck. By the time she arrived by the sitting stones, she found that she could no longer raise her hand to sweep them.

Night came. A thunderstorm trembled in the clouds. As rain trickled down from between the trees and filled the thirsty brook, the lies began to slip and fall – down, down, down atop her head, like a burial mound – and once the last one hit the gravel, the girl could see no more.

Iron

She’s strong, he thinks, when they first meet and she cradles him in her arms. Around them, the sirens blow: a stern reprimand for disturbing the city’s sleep. She carries him around the broken glass, a million questions firing off her tongue, but it is late and he is tired and he does not know the answer to a single one of them. Instead, he stares blankly upwards at the window he was pushed out of and wonders if one of the many blue-clad policemen scrambling around would arrest his boss.
(As it turned out, they would not.)
—-
She’s something of a weapon or tool to them, he thinks, and the bones in his knuckles crunch loudly as he does so. He sees her being led around by the city big shots day-to-day, encrypting this and decoding that. The people who have her at the waves of their hands are prim and tall with glowing skin that sparkles haughtily against her grungy tan.
(Each time before they bring her past some newfangled glass entrance, they scrutinise the angry font on her back and frown.)
—–
She can rust, he thinks, on the day she excuses herself from the mess hall with her head bowed to the tiles. He finds her slumped in the corridor, not quite crying, but not quite not-crying either. It is a strange silence settling over them as he squats beside her, but in the end, he gets her name, and she, his.
(And rust can be scraped away, and rust can be prevented.)
——
She’s well-polished, he thinks, when he sees her work with the machines. No pluck of the finger is wasted and her eyes comb scrolling text like searchlights. Standing illuminated by the light of the screen, she is a shining Excalibur, a full suit of armour.
(But her eyes turn dull when they see the notice.)
—-
She’s a bit of a conductor, he thinks, as he watches her punch a man in the face. Her every movement is springy, her muscles coiled up; the lynching mob has soaked her through with its panicked bloodlust. Her bleeding knuckles are warm as they brush his, as the two of them tear through the street side-by-side, the red numbers flashing brightly on their sweat-drenched backs.
(And later, he watches that panic seep away from her frame and into the coolness of moist stone and stalagmites.)

She’s framework for something great – that’s what he thinks when she gathers up their people on a fresh green land. Her voice is all thunder and birdsong at once as she rallies them not to resist and destroy, but to build again. The sunlight sparkling off of her is golden, the sky is thick blue and in that moment this symphony of colour is so great that it seems to blot out the crimson brands on the skin of every man, woman and child in the crowd.
(And he holds her hand as she steps from the podium and resolves to be a brick in that frame.)

The Quiet

Things are quiet down here, under the floorboards, under the house – where she cannot find us. Things are quiet and quiet means easy. There is no pounding of the heart, no strain of the blood against flimsy vessels. There is just us and the dust bunnies.

 

She used to be tolerable (if not pleasant), the lady of the house. As a child, she would let us romp freely on the soft grass outside without batting an eye. Sometimes she watched us and sometimes she joined in. We co-existed with her, hiding under tables as she did her homework and squeezing under her bed after curfew. Things were quiet. Quiet was easy.

 

The quiet changed when the books first arrived. The new quiet was uncomfortable, punctuated by the anxious turning of pages and maddened scratching of pen on paper. The lady’s eyes became glazed and hazy, as if there was a stormy stew brewing in them. She began avoiding us. If we went under her bed, she stayed awake all night. If we hid under one table, she went off to find another. We stopped co-existing and the quiet was difficult.

 

Then one day the lady spoke to us. Running into the house with her face paint splattered everywhere, she screamed and screamed and called us ghosts. We are not ghosts. We have never been ghosts. She called us a great deal of other things too – hallucinations, ids, alter-egos – these were things we did not understand and it was like we had never co-existed before. After that we no longer walked about the house as we used to.

 

These days the quiet is easy: a different kind of easy, a sleepy, resigned easy. She cannot see us and hopes we have left – event though her eyes still seek us out under the bed and the tables. We are sought for a great deal, but we are not wanted. These days are quiet. There is no turning of pages. No stormy eyes. Just us and our memories of when we could co-exist.

 

The Eyes of Trees

Mother never liked walking through the forest. He remembered being clutched to her side as they took tentative steps into the black thicket, night sky stewing in a mystical fog overhead. Sometimes the trees moved around them: slow, shambling movements like the tribesmen around a fire – but he never turned to look, because Mother always told him the forest had eyes. He didn’t want to see their eyes. He didn’t want to know what they looked like.

The day Mother went to town something came into their tent late at night. He was cold and he was shivering into her blue robe when a gust of wind sent leaves tumbling his way. He peered outside, where the communal fire had been reduced to a smattering of hot red coals. There was nothing but the sound of crickets chirping in the grass. He thought he could go back to sleep, but as his head touched the ground that wind came back again, screeching and hollering from the shadowy clearing that led straight into the forest. He didn’t fall back asleep.

The day they told him Mother had gone missing someone left a purple stone outside their tent. In his hands, it seemed to glow. It was some kind of crystal, like the ones the smaller children played with in the nursery – but its insides were broken. Beneath the smooth surface, a million cracks spun their way throughout the core of the stone, breaking apart the reflection of the stars that would have graced any other crystal on a night like that one. He did not think much of it at the time, just wiped his eyes and laid the odd trinket on top of Mother’s robe. Perhaps she would like to have it when they found her.

The day he lost that robe the whole tribe came with him to look for it. Someone suggested they check the forest for bower birds or thieving squirrels, but the trees wouldn’t stand for so many and they grunted and curled around the camp and blocked their path with a wall of thorns. One of the elders frowned, brow furrowed as he tapped the ebony bark with his torch. Sparks sprayed into the air, but the fire slipped and slid off of the tree like rainwater off a leaf, leaving a spire of smoke behind. The elder shook his head. No one would get past the forest that day.

The day he did go into the forest he went alone. Purring, the bushes and undergrowth parted gracefully to form a path for him. Small white wildflowers swayed gently as he walked past. It was all too strange and he wanted to go home – but the stone was already in his grasp and he had to find out. The older trees were hiding by the creek, their trunks hunched over and bunched together as if conferring in deep thought. A thin, hand-like root brushed past his side, landing on his shoulder and urging him forward.

The trees were cradling something. Squinting and craning his neck, he tried to get a better look at it, but the brambles and vines kept squirming over the precious cargo, as if trying to hide it away from his gaze. If that was so, why had the bushes led him here? He turned the stone over in his hand, chewing his lip in puzzlement.

Then there it was. That blasted wind again. It blew and buffeted his hair and sent a bone-deep shiver through his body. It took a moment for him to realize that the stone was shivering too: a buzzing vibration that hummed a low song into his ear.

 

In the centre of the wooden swirl, curled up into a ball was a young sapling with Mother’s face. In the place of her legs and arms, roots and branches – half-formed and brittle – twisted together in a mockery of the human body. In the place of her right eye, a sorrowful crack opened up into emptiness. In the middle of the forest that lived and breathed he howled – he howled at the trees, he howled at the bushes, he howled at the damp morning fog that let little trickles of sallow sunlight slip through its fingers and over Mother’s bark-covered nose.

The humming grew louder. Louder and sharper. Like a wave rising above one’s head. He walked forward; it pulled him that way – towards the trees. Towards Mother. He wasn’t thinking. He took a step. Another. Step, step, step against the squelching grass until finally – finally – he was by the Mother-sapling and her empty face. He put the stone where the eye was meant to be. He stared at his hand, wondering what he was expecting to happen. Suddenly the stone rolled over, an iris awoke in its cracks – and it blinked.

The day he saw the trees had eyes was the day Mother died.

Tsuta

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?
“Excuse me!”
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.
“Yes?”
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.
“Why?”
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.
“Welcome, Brother.”
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.
“What is?”
“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.
“They’re yours.”
Hibiki shoves the last grain into her mouth, and her belly bloats from the mixture of tap water and carbohydrate.
“Brother.”
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.

Vergissmeinnicht: Part II

Read Part I here.

.DREI.

That card brought him to a little alcove underneath Door Street. Moss squelched against his socks as the remains of last night’s rain lounged lazily over chipped stone stairs. Hugh lifted a curtain of overgrowth over his head and ducked into a short, gaping tunnel.

What exactly did that creature have to show about this place? He wrinkled his nose as he trudged past clumps of plant-life.

The manhole was a few paces away. Thin licks of yellow-orange sunlight bounced off the metal cover, and Hugh crouched to unscrew it. As he climbed down rusted ladder rungs, a waft of that creature’s reek drifted fast his face; it was a mix of must and red meat that choked him, trumping even the smell of sewage.

His feet hit the sewer with a small thump: one that echoed around walls and seemed to go on forever. Now, where was that flashlight?

As slender hands dug the satchel for his light source, something scuttled over his foot. The spider’s carapace was stark against the artificial white shine and Hugh wanted to move, to jerk away and yet his feet remained still. Something else had caught his attention.

The mural on the wall was of an oak tree, sprawling and heavy with leaves. Embedded into (or perhaps simply an extension of) the oak tree was a woman with eyes the colour of those forests Hugh had seen in picture books as a child. In the changing shades, he saw his mother’s watercolours: there were dark tones of pine blending into basil, with little dots of shamrock and fern as highlights.

By the tree-person’s knees were a ring of villagers – men, women, and children – their skin blending in with the bark of the roots as they surrounded a lone five-petalled flower.

Hugh felt the spider scramble off into a corner, as he moved to closer inspect the drawing. By God, this was a treasure! Framing the mural were strings of Old Waldtic symbols, the black-brown pigments just faint ghosts on stone.

He didn’t know when his feet had crossed the border into the next corridor.

All along the wall were drawings of the same village and the same tree, and each time the houses, stones and vegetation remained as they were (albeit aged) while the people fluctuated in numbers. Sometimes they were depicted at war with gun-toting foreigners by the borders of their home. Just who were the Old Waldtics? The answer was right at his fingertips!

Throughout all this, the woman in the tree still smiled, her eyes the only speck of colour in the drawings.

A small splash broke Hugh out of his trance.

How could he have forgotten he was in a sewer? That reek came flooding back to his senses, but the man stood his ground. He had to see this, all of it.

A quick cadence of paces brought him to a locked door at the end of the passageway. The chains were cool to the touch, rust flaking off at his ministrations. He prodded at rotting wood, gaze searching for a crack, a crevice – anything – before at last arriving at the keyhole. Hugh had to squat to even come face-to-face with the door handle.

Inside, was a soup of darkness, like oil, dotted with just the tiniest specks of indigo-blue. When he shifted his position he could see something rectangular in the back: a desk, perhaps? Was this the Slyth’s office?

There was a light flowery scent seeping out from the cracks. The man swallowed, the palms of his hands steadily excreting a film of cold sweat. As time went by, it felt like there were things moving in those shadows, voices whispering in the dark. Still, one hand found a crack in between the door and the wall, administering the torch to it.

Countless flowers were littering the floor: forget-me-nots, he remembered. Vergissmeinnichten. They were piled up high enough to mask the scent of rot and must from the room. He would have to ask the Slyth about this later – if he managed to find it, that is.

He thought he saw a flash of white, underneath the hill of flowers that leant against the back. The flashlight was slipping in his hands; his fingers tightened around it. Slowly, he shifted the spot of light toward the large, fungus-infested desk, and saw it: a powder-white skull with eye sockets the size of dinner plates.

Continue reading “Vergissmeinnicht: Part II”