The temple where the Shimada family’s grave was located was in Ougigayatsu, Kamakura. It wasn’t the kind of temple that was featured in tourist guides; however small it was, it was still an ancient Buddhist temple that had a deep connection with the Ashikaga clan.
After Shimada Keiichi’s death, Misao never missed going to visit his grave on the anniversary of his death and during Higan week. She went there at least twice a year. She always brought Mio with her, and she requested a reciting of Buddhist sutras for him as well as for Mio’s mother, who was also Misao’s older sister, Chikako.
There were times when relatives would join. When that happened, she made reservations at a nearby Japanese restaurant, and requested a simple meal to be prepared. Since there was the air of a holy ceremony, it was performed with a serious mood that centered around Mio, but once drinks had been consumed, there were often times when the day would end with the relatives exchanging light-hearted conversation. Personally speaking, she wasn’t a fan of such parties.
The feeling of wanting to visit the grave where Shimada Keiichi was laid to rest would grow stronger by the day, so it had become a habit for her to visit the winter graveyard to place her hands in a prayer every New Years’ Eve. It may perhaps be that Mio sensed how she felt, because she had never once suggested that they go together on that day.
So this time, the same as every year, she made her way to Kamakura. It was a fine, sunny afternoon on New Years’ Eve. Although the city was bustling with activity from people who were preparing to celebrate the coming new year, the area around the graveyard was draped in silence and there was not a soul other than herself.
Listening to the far off high-pitched singing of the brown-eared bulbuls that made their homes in the trees, she stood in front of the Shimada family grave. She bowed in greeting first before washing the grave marker and swept clean the area around the grave. The various coloured leaves that had fallen during fall painted a beautiful pattern reminiscent of the Nishijin brocade obi on the ground– it was almost a shame to sweep them away.
She placed the single white rose she had purchased in the vase. In that instant, she was reminded of the time when a relative had told her that she lacked common sense for offering such a Western flower to a Japanese grave.
The woman who had told her this had raised one eyebrow and said this while lightly licking her brightly painted lips. Keiich’s relation to her was something like an older cousin of his aunt… in other words, she was, as the description suggested, a distant relative.
When Misao had told her that he had disliked chrysanthemums the woman with the caked on make up had made an insinuating remark: “Oh really? Well, you sure did know quite about him.” She sensed that through her words she was criticizing her for the long romantic relationship Misao and Keiichi had had.
Misao knew very well that this woman had been telling others behind her back that she was trying to seduce Keiichi. She didn’t know why this woman would say something like that. It may perhaps be that she had taken a great interest in Shimada Keiichi, who had been continuing to live his life without remarrying.
When Misao had told Keiichi this story, he had burst out laughing saying, “That’s the kind of thing that a woman who had never been seduced by a man who say.” He didn’t have any other comment beyond that. Above all, she loved that kind of light-hearted side to him.
Coming to visit Keiichi’s grave meant, in other words, that she would be visiting her sister Chikako’s grave as well. The fact that under this grave marker rested her sister alongside the man who had once been her lover brought Misao a sense of joy rather than sorrow.
Although she had a faint trace of guilt towards her older sister, she had never once bore feelings of jealousy towards her. Back when her sister had been married to Keiichi, she had never once done any wrongdoing… that was the one thing that sustained her.
That being said, looking back on it now, it may just be that her feelings for her brother-in-law had already begun to change into something akin to love. However, she had never once faced these feelings while her sister was alive. Everything had begun only after she had died. Not only that, but that start was closer to a slow, leisurely love that seniors shared rather than anything passionate. It was the kind of love that you realized the deepness of only until much later…
If Takao hadn’t been kidnapped in the manner that he had, perhaps the relationship they shared would have taken a much more different road. Even now, there were times that she would think this. Since her older sister had passed away shortly after she had given birth to Takao, it goes without saying that Misao would have likely taken over the role of taking care of the newly born infant. She would have moved in to the Shimada house and she may have taken over the role of mother to Mio. If that had happened, it might just be that one day, a passionate love akin to that of a fire being sparked might have begun between her and Keiichi.
But the fact of the matter is, Takao was kidnapped shortly after Chikako had passed away, and he disappeared without a trace. A death in the family as well as a kidnapping… the Shimada family household was attacked by a two-layered misfortune. Keiichi and she had been so caught up in taking care of Mio and making sure that they kept their sanities for the time being that without even realizing it, they had both been subconsciously turning themselves away from becoming romantically involved with one another.
But… Misao thought as she kneeled down and gazed at the stone marker– by the time they’d realized it, their relationship had drifted in that direction. One day, she just happened to realize herself in his arms.
It was as natural as flowing water. It was so natural that that they didn’t even feel the need to be concerned about how things would be between them from that point on.
The white rose looked out of place against the grave stone marker which had darkened after enduring assaults from the wind and snow; it didn’t matter though. She thought back to how Keiichi had told her that if he were to ever die to not place something depressing like chrysanthemums on his grave.
When he had told her this, she had asked what he preferred instead.
After giving it some thought, he replied: “Roses. In colors like red, yellow and pink… I’d prefer roses of various colors. I’d want you to go all out.”
Misao said to him inside her heart: “I couldn’t do that. I’m sure that colors like red and yellow would only be of bad taste to you from the other word. White would be more suitable. Pure white roses. Don’t you think so?”
She lit incense and brought her hands together in a silent prayer. She kept this position as she relayed to him the news that Takao had been found:
“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But it’s really true. Do you remember the ‘Kanaya Glass Shop’? There was that glass factory worker who was dating our domestic keeper, Kimi, right? That glass factory worker’s younger sister was the one who kidnapped Takao-chan. She had lied to her husband and had told him she was pregnant to keep his feelings tied down to her. The husband seemed to have believed that he really was his son, and in the beginning, he was raised with both parents in the household, but eventually his parents ended up divorcing.
His name’s Iwasaki Shougo now. It seems he went through some hard times after they divorced, but you see, now he’s attending university while receiving a scholarship. He told me that the woman who had kidnapped him passed away a few years earlier. I haven’t told any of the relatives from your side of the family. I’m sure if I did, there would be people who would try to dredge up the past and cause unnecessary trouble, and I didn’t want Mio and him to suffer more than they already have. It’s something that has already passed, after all. Of course, it goes without saying that I reunited him and Mio.
They both dislike celery and pickled plums. It’s strange how blood ties work, isn’t it? He’s even similar to her down to the way he’s left handed. I heard it was a little awkward at first between them, but now, they’ve gotten so close that…”
She let her voice trail off and swallowed the rest of her words. “Close”? That was true. Mio kept her up-to-date from time to time. Just the other day, she had told Misao that they had spent Christmas together.
Misao didn’t know where and how they spent the night, but there was no denying that they had an enjoyable evening together.
She noticed how Mio had been different lately. The way that she always seem to have her nerves stretched hadn’t changed, but that thread of nerves itself was constantly shaking. Not only that, but it wasn’t in a normal manner. As if shaken by the wind, it continued to quiver, and if it continued to do so, she had a feeling it would one day snap…
Her legs were beginning to numb, likely due to the leaned down posture she had been holding. Misao slowly got to her feet.
Whenever she came here, it made her wish she never had to leave. She wished she could sit here and watch the sun rise as she drank beer.
Her black long coat, which she had kept on, had a trace of dirt on the edge of the sleeve. She brushed it off with one hand, and she turned to the gravestone to say, “Well, see you.” before turning to leave. She had intended for her words to be for her sister as well.
She had a feeling that there was something more she needed to tell her brother-in-law and sister. But whatever it was that she wanted to say was so vague that she wasn’t quite sure what it was. She pretended that she didn’t notice that it was the faint suspicions that had begun to bloom inside her heart. She added: “And happy new year.”
She knew this wasn’t something she should say to the dead, but when she came on New Years, those words always ended up slipping from her lips. Mio would probably laugh if she ever told her what she said.
She exited the gates of the graveyard, and she began to slowly and leisurely make her way down the winding hill. The wind was cold, but the winter rays felt gentle against her skin.
Misao always spent every end and start of the year in the same way. After she finished paying a visit to the grave, she went straight back to her apartment in Tokyo, and she got Mio to help her make osechi. That being said, it only consisted of simply prepared dishes of simmered black beans, sliced kamaboko, marinated desalted herring roe, soy-sauce simmered fish and vegetables.
If they also prepared cheese and a salad to go along with that, there was an almost overly-extravagant meal to last them through New Year’s Eve into the new year. It had become a ritual for the two of them to sip on Japanese sake, beer and wine while they ate as they waited for the new year to begin.
They had made plans to spend the last day of the year in the same way. She had already shopped for all the ingredients the night before. She had gone with Mio to the local supermarket to gather everything the needed. This was also one of the very few days when Misao was free from her work. As with last year, she already had a few lawsuits to work on so she hadn’t been able to spend this time of year in a leisurely manner, but for New Years’ Eve and New Years Day, she could spend those two days without thinking and without being tied down to anything. She could simply spend it relaxing watching the time drift by.
She had never spent the last and first day of the year with anyone other than Mio; and it goes without saying that Keiichi was no exception. This year, Kusuda had told her that he was going to take his wife, his college-aged daughter and her daughter’s friend to Hawaii.
It was only during times like this that it truly hit her that Kusuda had a family of his own. But that being said, that realization didn’t lead to her feeling some kind of incomprehensible feeling of being left behind.
She wanted Kusuda to have a family. If he wanted to be involved with her despite that, then that was fine with her. And it was also true that if a day were to come when he wanted to end things between then, she didn’t mind a bit.
She knew that an end always came to romantic involvements. She hadn’t had the kind of relationship that would lead her to do something so unreasonable as to drown herself in sorrows over an end coming to something that was supposed to come to an end from the very beginning.
The very instant she had lost Keiichi, some unswerving belief took root in her heart. That believe was the fact that there would never appear in her lifetime a man who could ever surpass him.
As long as she kept that in mind, no matter how many men passed by her, she was unphased by it.
She returned to Kamaura Station, and it was when she stepped onto the platform for the Yokosuka line that her cell phone began to ring; it was from Mio.
“Where are you right now? Are you still in Kamakura?”
“I’m just about to get on the train to head back. What is it? Did you forget to buy something?”
Mio hesitated. “It’s not that.”
In the brief silence that followed, Misao had a feeling she could guess what was about to come next.
“I was thinking that this year, we could celebrate the new year with Shougo-kun too,” Mio said. She added quickly, “This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. But since he was saying that he might go skiing at the start of the year with some friends from work, I didn’t think it was possible… I just got a call from him though saying the plans fell through. And it doesn’t seem like he’s planning to visit a relative’s house in Utsunomiya, and he was saying how he was going to spend the new year alone… so I thought that if he was going to do that, I suggested that he might as well come with me to your place…”
“What a wonderful idea,” Misao said a white lie as she immediately answered. “To tell you the truth, I was thinking how it would be wonderful if you two could spend New Year’s together.”
“Well, of course! You’re siblings, after all. There’s no point in you spending the coming of the new year apart.”
“Is it okay if he comes over to your place?”
“May I remind you, I am his aunt too, you know. There’s no need for formalities. You should tell him that he can even stay at my place for the night. We’ll spend all night drinking and go to a shrine the next day.”
Mio replied in a cheerful voice, “That sounds great! Then I’ll call him and let him know.”
Her train arrived, so Misao told her: “I’ll talk to you later” before ending the call.
Amidst the winter afternoon light, she could see a thin cloud of dust rise in the air. Considering the circumstances though, the way that girl was speaking… it was as if she was asking for permission from her aunt to spend New Year’s with her boyfriend.
There was a part of her that thought this was cute. But on the flip side, she noticed the suspicions she had begun to harbour begun to move about in a spiral.
Shougo arrived at Misao’s apartment close to eight o’clock. She and Mio had finished cooking the meal, and they had been drinking cans of beer as they greeted him.
In the air conditioned room, the smell of simmered vegetables permeated the air. With the dishes they’d put more-than-usual effort in, Misao’s apartment was the perfect balance of cleanliness and warmth to welcome the new year.
A pine tree and Nantin tree branch with their with its red berry attached were decorated in the large vase that she had placed in the entrance hallway. And on the kitchen counter, she had placed small offering rice cakes that she had purchased at a local supermarket.
Next to the washstand, she had placed freesias. She had also switched all the calendars in each room with the one for the coming year. Mio always reacted with surprise when Misao did this.
“You’re amazing, Misao-chan. You’re so busy, and yet you still find the time to do preparations for the new year!”
“That’s right,” she would reply and nod in a boastful display.
But Misao never went into detail about why she did this. This was her, she had convinced herself.
Even after she had lost the person she treasured most in this world, time continued to pass as it had before. And she had little choice but to go along with it. As long as she was alive, she couldn’t be negligent about her life. That was the one rule that she had set for herself.
“Thank you for inviting me,” Shougo said shyly as he greeted her. “I’m sorry to intrude on such short notice. Not only that, but I didn’t even bring anything. I knew it would have been better if I had, but Mio-san told me that I shouldn’t bring anything, so…”
“That’s right. There’s no need; we have everything prepared. Talk about perfect timing though! We haven’t really had time to talk since that day a while back, so if it weren’t for occasions like this, there wouldn’t be any opportunities for us family to meet.”
When Misao said this, she didn’t know if it was because he had reacted to the word “family” but she noticed his expression changed to a serious one as he nodded and glanced in Mio’s direction. Mio and his gaze strongly twined for a brief moment, and then their gazes softened as if they had reassured themselves of the other’s presence before they eventually broke the contact.
Mio was wearing a blue knit dress that reached her heels. It had a wide collar, and you could see her beautiful collarbone. The dress didn’t highlight her figure, but when she stood up straight, it emphasized her slender arms, and the ampleness of her chest in comparison to her trim waist.
Mio had become beautiful lately, Misao thought. She had always been a stunning girl, but lately, her complexion had taken on a healthy hue and she gave off the impression like she was carrying a white, transparent mayudama somewhere deep in her heart.
At Misao’s request, Mio and Shougo went to the kitchen, and began to prepare the beer and serving plates. Mio stood beside Shougo. As Misao watched her moving about in the kitchen in high spirits, she couldn’t help but think that she was gazing upon an unusual sight.
He was exactly a head taller than Mio. He had taken off his old, brown leather jacket and his muscles could be seen from his olive-coloured t-shirt. His thick neck, which gave off a healthy tan, his strong arms, and glossy hair… everything gave off a sparkle of light that was almost blinding.
Mio was facing down as she divided the simmered vegetables they had cooked together onto individual plates. Next to her, Shougo watched her as she did this. Their profiles, like two paintings layered on top of one another, were almost identical in their likeness.
And that likeness reminded Misao of Keiichi when he was younger. She had burned in her memory the image of Mio and Keiichi standing beside one another. She felt no jealousy– if anything, she felt warm. This feeling of warmth drew her to Keiichi even more, and reminded her of how she had lived her life having Mio placed closest to her heart.
“Hey, would you like to see some pictures?”
They gathered together around the living room table and had just finished making light-hearted talk as they drank beer when Misao asked this to Shougo.
“Mio hasn’t shown you any yet, has she? Pictures of your parents. I don’t have very many, but I do have a few.”
“Oh,” Shougo replied and a stiff smile formed on his lips. “It’d be a lie to say I’m eager to see them… but at the same time, I’m a bit scared to.”
“I understand. You’re right. I’m sorry– there’s no pressure. What would you like to do? Would you like to see them or would you rather not?”
“There’s no need to rush,” Mio piped in. “It might even be for your own good to not look at the pictures until the day comes when you can just say ‘huh, so this is my mother and father’ like you would comment about any old thing.”
“But if you have the album, I’d like to take a look.”
“Is that right?” Mio nodded, and she said this with a light-hearted laugh as she brought a cigarette to her lips, “Well then, why don’t you?”
Misao brought out a photo album from her bedroom. She had an adversion to flipping through an old album. Even now, the memories that it contained brought a lump to her throat. This was because the album was like a memory box that had been put away.
They cleared the plates and chopsticks that were on the table to the side. She placed the album in the middle of the table, and said: “Here you go. This is the only one I have. The rest are with Mio, isn’t that right?”
“I have them in the back of my closet,” Mio said in a dismissive manner. “But I don’t even remember where I put it away. I haven’t cracked open any of the albums since my father passed away.”
“Why not?” Shougo asked.
She shrugged, “I wonder why myself. I’m not really sure. I guess because it’s all in the past. I hate steeping yourself in the past and licking old wounds. There’s nothing more pointless in this world than to chase after something you can never go back to.”
Misao knew instinctively that Mio was lying, because the Mio in her mind was someone who would wait until the darkness of the night to pull out the photo albums she had shoved into the back of the closet, and as she turned each page, she would be sucked back into the past.
For Mio, she was frozen in time. The only reason why it seemed as if she was living in the present was because she herself was good at putting on that act. In reality, what was running through her veins were the echoes of a past time.
She continued to drag the memories of her father who had loved her more than anyone else, and this girl still lived now balancing precariously leaning towards the past. There was no denying that for her, the line dividing the past and the present were always teetering. A minor thing could be just the trigger to cause that balance to collapse, and it was a very real possibility that Mio would tumble backwards into the endless pit.
Shougo began to flip through the pages of the photo album in a nonchalant manner. Although it was old, the album didn’t show much signs of aging. After Keiichi passed away in a car accident, Misao had organized all the pictures that the Shimada family had, and she had gathered them all into one album after taking out the ones that she was in.
That being said, this album was chock-full of photos showing Misao back when she was still studying for the bar exam, her when she had been in a role similar to that of a mother to Mio, and her back when she was secretly in a romantic relationship with Keiichi.
“The person in that picture was your father and mother back when they were younger. So, what do you think? Your father looks so much like you, don’t you think? This photo has Mio in it too.” Misao said as she leaned forward and pointed at one picture.
Mio was still small in the picture. She was probably around two or so. She was smiling as Keiichi held her in his arms. Beside them was Chikako, who was also smiling. And Misao was crouched down in front of the blissful-looking family, looking in the direction of the camera. This was a photograph that had been taken back when Misao was living with the family as she studied for her bar exam.
It was a photograph dating back to around the mid-70’s. Misao was wearing an orange t-shirt that clung to her figure along with bellbottom jeans. Her hair was fashioned in a wolf cut that was trendy back in the day.
Shougo nodded and smiled in a easy manner. She thought that there would be a slight darkness in his smile from seeing the photos, but it didn’t appear that way.
“So Mio-san was this small, huh?”
“It was a year later that you were growing inside our mother’s belly. Isn’t that right, Misao-chan?”
“Well, since this photograph was taken in the summer of 1975, and Shougo was born in ‘77… I guess you’re right. That would make it almost a year after that your mother got pregnant with Shougo.”
Misao followed Shougo’s gaze carefully. It didn’t appear to her that he had lost his composure. On the contrary, he was showing an enthusiastic curiosity, but it was rather like that of an interest shown flipping through the album of someone unrelated to him.
It may just be that this was the kind of reaction that would be expected of someone who was told that some stranger of a man and woman they had never seen before were their biological parents. And yet, there was a part of her that couldn’t help but feel that his demeanour was out of the ordinary.
Shougo’s gaze kept searching for Mio’s presence in the photographs. He lavished praise on Mio’s growth through the years, and he laughed as he compared her to the pictures of her past.
“You’re so strange, Shougo-kun,” Mio commented.
“Why do you say that?”
“Don’t you feel anything looking at the pictures of your biological parents?”
In that instant, his expression changed to a serious one as he gazed directly at Mio. “Should I feel something?”
“I’m not saying that. It’s just… strange, that’s all. It could just be something superficial like ‘huh, I kind of look like them’ or ‘oh, they’re different from how I imagined them to be’… I just thought you would feel something, that’s all.”
“It’s as if I’m being told an ancient story that has nothing to do with me. Even when I’m shown something like this, all I think is ‘oh, is that right?’ and nothing beyond that.”
“Then that’s fine,” Mio said swiftly as she popped a slice of red kamaboko into her mouth.
“It’s so much more interesting for me to see you in these pictures than to see the faces of my birth parents. Old pictures are only interesting because they’re pictures of people you know well. No matter how long you stare at pictures of people you’ve never seen before, I think there’s no helping it that you wouldn’t feel anything. Even if those pictures did happen to be those of your biological parents.”
“That makes sense,” Mio replied. Their conversation trailed off after that, and a static-like silence stretched itself out in time.
Misao got up from her seat and headed to the refrigerator where she pulled out the chilled bottle of white wine. She took out a bottle opener, and filled the ice pail.
Misao sensed instinctively that these two were trying their best to hide something. They were desperately trying to hide something that they themselves were already aware of.
Both Mio and Shougo had tragic pasts, and even though their tragedies were different in type, they were both living their lives carrying with them memories that they don’t want to dredge up. These two were desperately trying to pretend as though they hadn’t acknowledged those tragedies, had protected one another, at times take a jab at each other’s misfortunes and while doing that they were becoming close at an alarming pace…
For Misao, she didn’t know what that meant.
Inside the apartment, a television with its sound muted was left on. From the CD deck player, came the sound of French pop, and it was a misfit for the singers performing on the “Red-White Singing Battle” who were clothed in elaborate costumes; however, it created a fitting mood for New Years’ Eve. From time to time, Mio and Shougo would turn to the television screen and make brief comments about the singers who were performing, and they would break down in tears of laughter. Several different dishes were on the dining room table along with empty beer cans. At first glance, it would appear to be a peaceful scenery of the coming year, like that that could be seen in any household.
“Why don’t we open up some white wine?”
When Misao came back to the table bringing with her a tray with a bottle of wine and glasses, Shougo reached out for the bottle. The photo album that was on the table had already been closed. Misao swiftly moved it to somewhere where it wouldn’t be in the way.
“Wow, it’s already this time of night?” Mio exclaimed. “There’s only a few minutes left before the new year. Hey, since it’s so close, why don’t we wait until the clock strikes twelve before we make a toast?”
“That’s a great idea,” Shougo’s eyes sparkled as he said this.
Misao lowered the music volume and in turn turned up the volume of the TV. It was 11:50. On the TV screen, the text read: “The end of one year and the start of a new year.” It was a gentle and quiet changing of the year.
Shougo popped the cork, and he then returned the bottle to the ice pail. The bell of the New Year was ringing.
“So many things happened this year,” Misao said. “But I’m glad we got together tonight. This way, we’ll be able to celebrate the coming new year in good spirits.”
Mio nodded ambiguously, and Shougo poured the wine into three glasses.
“Well then, we should all stand,” Mio suggested. “It’s just about time.”
The ringing of the bell became even louder. The voice of the man who was narrating raised itself a notch. The time on the screen changed to: 0:00.
“Happy New Year!” The three said in unison, and they clinked their wine glasses. In the next instant, Misao watched as Mio and Shougo embraced each other.
It was a brief embrace, like the kind you would give as a greeting. But there was a feeling that they hadn’t done it in a jest. There was something different…something insistent that was undeniably trying to draw them together. Mio, who was dressed in a blue dress, fit perfectly into Shougo-kun’s arms. The two looked like a closely bound statue.
“My,” Misao said jokingly. “You’re making me blush.”
She knew that what she had just said was a line that seemed out of place in this situation, but no other words sprang to mind.
Just past two, Misao prepared the living room sofa for Shougo, and then prepared her bedroom for her and Mio before slipping under the covers. She turned off the lamp on the side table and said to Mio, “Are you still awake?”
“Was it fun?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason.”
She sensed Mio turning around to face her. In the darkness, the fragrance of the eau de toilette that Mio always used wafted its sweet scent.
“What is it?”
“Do you regret it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Reuniting with Shougo-kun… no, Takao-chan.”
She heard a slight chuckle followed by a faint sigh.
“You’re so strange, Misao-chan. Why would you ask something like that?”
“You’re right,” she replied. “I guess I just had a bit too much to drink tonight. Well, good night. See you tomorrow.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow.”
When she closed her eyes, she saw the image of Mio and Shougo embracing in the living room.
She scolded herself saying she shouldn’t read too much into things. Even if Mio’s father, Keiichi, had still been alive, Mio probably still would have done the same thing.
However, that night, she couldn’t bring to life the traces of Keiich’s memory inside her. She kept on tossing and turning in bed, the only image coming and going in her consciousness the somehow heartrending image of Mio and Shougo embracing.
TO BE CONTINUED…
[NEXT: Chapter 10 – 192 – 213]