Wearing its coat of ice
The shriveled apple enfolds the sleeping seed,
Dreaming of moist warm earth.
Haruki repeatedly struck at the ice on the pond with a large bone. The geese waddled down to the bank’s edge from their shelter, grateful for the opportunity to drink, swim and preen in open water, dressed by the falling snow. Haruki gazed out across the ice locked pond to the charcoal stenciled trees on the opposite bank. He watched a solitary child in a red parka mournfully kicking a yellow ball in circles - no companion to play with. Haruki shook the last of the cracked corn from the paper bag, and a few of the geese glided out of the pond to peck at the latest offering.
Walking back to the house Haruki felt the cold in his arthritic joints. He leaned heavily on his cane. He paused half way back, even though it was but a short distance. He could see his wife, Kazuko, kneeling at the altar arranging a few branches of spring peach blossoms, imported from the south, an echo of what was soon to come. He envied that she could kneel like that, as it was such a great effort for him to kneel or rise from the floor when he rolled out his sleeping mat before bedtime.
At eighty-five years old he had few joys left but memories. Not that he was angry or bitter. He had had a good life. But he and his wife had no children, and that had left her, if not bitter, then at least sad and disappointed. Fortunately she had some grand-nieces and nephews who continued to care for her; and living close by they would visit frequently with gifts, attention, and invitations to family holiday festivals.
Haruki slid back the door and came into the house. He removed his scarf and was about to hang it on a peg on the wall.
“Could you please bring in some more charcoal before you take off your coat? - if it’s not a great inconvenience to you,” Kazuko asked in the baby-doll voice that infuriated Haruki with its subservience. She rose from the altar, and went over to the fire pit in the center of the room, and poked at the coals under the lightly simmering teakettle suspended by a hook over the fire. “I’ll have some nice hot tea for you when you come back in,” she added.
Without answering Haruki, once more put on his scarf and went outside to the charcoal bin at the end of the porch and filled up the bucket with the bamboo scoop.
Haruki and Arashi both reached for the bamboo cup at the same time. It floated on top of the basin of cool water used for drinking - just outside the Air Force barracks. Their hands touched and an electric shock raced up Haruki’s arm. He looked up, confused and cautious. He was greeted with a sly smile from another young pilot, a good few inches taller than he was and slender. His face was etched like a fine Samurai sword – lean and chiseled – like tempered steel. But his eyes smiled softly and playfully like the sun dancing on the surface of the drinking water. Haruki felt blossoms gently opening in the pit of his stomach.
Haruki lugged the full bucket of charcoal back into the house and over to the fire pit. Kazuko smiled, nodded three times sharply, uttered a breathy “thank you,” and begin placing pieces of charcoal on the coals with tongs.
Haruki went back over to the pegs in the wall, took off his scarf again and hung his coat next to the peg with the solitary white silk scarf. Haruki’s eyes lingered on the scarf for a long moment, and when he looked over to his wife she quickly glanced away, embarrassed to be seen staring at her husband, knowing what that scarf meant to him.
“Your tea is ready now,” she almost whispered.
Haruki took the cup from her without a word, and shuffled to his room, sliding the door softly behind him, settling in at his desk, and staring out the window at the still falling, early spring snow on this very gray afternoon. A single flash of sunlight suddenly shot through the clouds and blazed upon the red figure playing across the pond.
* * *
Slashes across the face of the sun.
What a sweet blink!
Haruki rested on his hoe and watched the robins weaving their nest at the top of the apricot tree now in full bloom. He always enjoyed preparing the garden for planting. It was still too early to put out the tomato or eggplant starts, but he felt good preparing the ground for an early May planting. Kazuko opened a packet of mizuna seeds, a cold resistant green she could plant early in the season. She created a furrow in the row and began tapping the seeds into the soil before covering them up with loose soil and watering.
Having finished the last row, Haruki, put the hoe away in the shed and took out the rake. He glanced out over the pond as a flight of wild ducks skimmed over the surface before landing by the rushes at the far end. The sun caught the iridescent feathers of a male mallard as he landed, creating a dance of color in the cattails. Haruki began racking the last of the leaves under the wisteria that hung over the porch, just now putting out its first tender leaves.
Kazuko took off her work gloves and placed them on the bench by the door before going inside to prepare lunch. They retained the form of her hands as they lay there, looking like they were about to strangle the bottle of fish emulsion fertilizer.
“Here, I think you dropped this,” Arashi said, tapping Haruki on the shoulder. Haruki turned around and accepted the glove that Arashi had picked up.
For a reason he couldn’t understand Haruki blushed and could only stammer out a faint “Thank you.” He paused before asking, “Have you been following me?”
“Maybe.” Arashi grinned broadly and put his hand on Haruki’s shoulder. “Sake?” he offered, pointing down a narrow side street. Haruki nodded.
“A man of few words, I like that. I, myself, talk far too much. You will get to know that about me.” Arashi laughed, taking Haruki by the arm and leading him down the street to an almost hidden bar, chatting about the upcoming air drills.
Haruki wondered why Arashi would take him to such a shabby out of the way establishment. It was dark inside and there was not even a sign outside that announced that this was a sake bar. But as his eyes adjusted to the darkness he could see that the clientele were all young men. Haruki stopped short with a slight twinge of panic, and a resurgence of old hidden fears. He turned to leave but Arashi entreated softly, “Please don’t go.”
“But…” Haruki couldn’t quite find the words.
“It’s alright. Never been to a place like this before?”
“I think perhaps you misunderstand…” Haruki tried to explain.
“I don’t think so,” Arashi whispered in Haruki’s ear. “It’s just unfamiliar. But if you let me lead you, I’m sure I can make you feel very much at home.”
Haruki watched a boisterous, silly game-show on the television as Kazuko squinted by the light of her lamp patching the edges of a worn comforter. Haruki turned off the television with the remote in his lap and sat in silence for a moment. The wind outside was picking up, knocking a branch against Kazuko’s bedroom window.
“I promise I’ll get to that branch tomorrow,” Haruki offered. “I keep forgetting about it except when it’s windy.”
Neither spoke for a moment, then Kazuko put her sewing things aside in a lacquer box and turned off the light. She folded the comforter and headed towards the bedrooms. “I’ll put this in your room. Sleep well.” She disappeared down the hallway towards his bedroom. She left the comforter for him, and quietly retreated to her own room and slid shut the door. The house was now in darkness except for a faint light coming from the open door of Haruki’s room, and the light of the half moon spilling through the windows overlooking the pond. Haruki continued to sit in his chair lost in the silence of the house. The wind moaned and whistled gently through the windows. The faint glow of charcoal embers pulsed in the fire pit. Part of the fire collapsed and the coals flared up into a single flame for just a brief moment, and then subsided back into the last glow of the dying fire.
* * *
The tardy summer shower
Dances on the parched earth.
Tickling the gasping grasses.
The horses danced out from the Takizawa’s Soozen Jinja shrine. Changu changu - rang the horse’s bells. One hundred costumed horse dancers began their parade to the Hachimangu shrine 15 kilometers away. The Changu-Changu Umakko festival was just getting underway on this hot June Saturday - a celebration of the end of the planting season and a prayer for a bountiful harvest to come.
“They look like they’re going to be very hot today. I hope they have enough water,” Kazuko commented to her grand-nephew, Juro, about the horse dancers. She searched in her carrier for her water bottle and Haruki’s cap, and offered them to him. “Don’t get dehydrated,” she commanded, shaking the bottle at him. He took it without comment and took a deep swig. He refused the cap, however, waving it away.
Juro offered to buy them some ices, and ambled over towards the ice stall, having seen a very pretty young girl heading that way.
Haruki turned away slightly from Kazuko and tucked the white silk scarf tighter inside his kimono so that Kazuko would not see that he was wearing it today. Juro returned with three ices and the pretty young girl. He handed a mandarin orange ice to Kazuko, a watermelon ice to Haruki and shared a honeydew melon and lime ice with Choko, the young girl, who giggled when they both licked the ice at the same time.
Kazuko was enchanted with the dancing horses and threw the paper flowers that she had been making for weeks at them to show her appreciation. She bobbed in excitement as the parade of floats with ecstatic drummers thundered by.
Haruki glimpsed a tall, thin young man on the other side of the street. His handsome chiseled face flashed a smile and then he disappeared into the crowd. Haruki licked at the watermelon ice.
Haruki leaned back against Arashi’s naked chest. They were seated on the porch of Arashi’s family hunting lodge, high in the mountains. A waterfall and stream tumbled not more that twenty meters away. Both were naked and trying to cool themselves in this August heat by eating slices of iced watermelon that dribbled juice down their chests. They were playing a little game to see who could spit the watermelon seeds the farthest.
“Ah! The record so far,” Arashi crowed having ejected a seed a good three meters. The world record - or so he said. Haruki didn’t respond to the taunt and was very quiet. Arashi looked down at him. “You alright?” he asked, tilting Haruki’s head up so he could see his eyes.
“Oh yes,” Haruki replied looking up into Arashi’s face. “I just didn’t know.”
“What didn’t you know”?
“That I could be this happy.”
Arashi bent forward and leaned his chin on the top of Haruki’s head. “Yeah, I figured that.” He laughed, then thought for a moment and added, “Then why do you seem so sad?”
“Because I don’t know what happens next?”
“How do you mean?”
“I don’t know how to live this way. What do we do now? It’s very nice here – up in the mountains, far away, no people, just us - but what do we do when we get back? How can we be together – out there?” Haruki’s gesture embraced the whole world.
Arashi didn’t speak for a moment. He just nodded, thinking. “Yeah, I know. Not easy.”
“There’s no way for us to be alone at the barracks. And our families – I am to be married to a very sweet girl in the autumn. What about that?” Haruki was becoming agitated and he turned around to face Arashi. “And what you and your family? Don’t they want you to marry?”
“I’m not the eldest. And I have a lot of brothers and sisters. I could slip through the cracks without a lot of trouble.”
“But I’m an only child. You know what that means.”
“And the war? What if we get separated? I don’t know if I could bear that.”
Haruki became even more agitated and he threw his arms around Arashi and pulled him closely to him and started kissing him passionately. However, both being naked they soon became aroused and ended up making love on the porch covered in watermelon juice and other substances. When they were done they raced to the stream and threw themselves in the water like a couple of truant kids escaping school.
Juro closed the car doors after Kazuko and Haruki climbed out of their seats with a little effort. Juro supported Kazuko’s arm, and led her back to the house. He was a good kid – thoughtful and considerate. She patted his hand when he delivered her to the front door.
“Thank you my dear. It’s been a lovely outing.”
Choko was still in the front seat of the car, waiting for Juro to return so they could get back to his apartment for a little quality time alone.
Juro gave Kazuko a quick kiss on the top of her head and scurried back to his car without waving good-bye.
“Are you hungry?” Kazuko asked Haruki, who was standing at the windows looking out over the pond.
“Not yet,” he answered and slid open the door and walked out to inspect the garden, now in its full fruiting. He carried a basket and a pair of sheers, and gathered a few cucumbers, a handful of slender eggplants, and a dark purple and a yellow heirloom tomato. He put the basket on the porch and wandered down to the edge of the pond as the sun was just setting behind the trees on the far shore. The nail clipping of a new moon hung like a delicate smile just above the fading horizon.
Haruki pulled at the silk scarf still hidden by the folds of his kimono. He took it out, felt the silk against his cheek and then tied it around his neck as the landscape before him began to sink into darkness.
* * *
The last golden leaf
Desperately clutches the mother branch.
But is no match for the icy wind.
The first frost had taken out the tomatoes, the basil and a few of the other less hardy garden plants. It always saddened Haruki to have to cut back the dead stalks. There was still some kale, brussel sprouts and cabbage that actually thrived in the colder weather. He cast a plastic sheet over a few of the other more tender plants that had been spared the first frost. It was going to be another freezing night tonight and he wanted to spare as many plants as he could.
Kazuko had slipped getting out of the bathtub last week and was still in the hospital with a broken hip. He would be going there later, after lunch, to read to her for an hour or so. And it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to get around without his cane, even for a short period of time. He could not get out of any chair now without its assistance.
He put together a bouquet from the bed of chrysanthemums under the red maple tree by the front gate to take to Kazuko. He put them in a bucket of water by the back door and would tie them together with a nice ribbon from her sewing box just before he left for the hospital. Kazuko’s grand-niece, Emiko, was going to pick him up at two.
Haruki was not that hungry, but he sliced open a persimmon and squeezed a little lime juice on it. He went to his bedroom and sat at his desk to sort the mail and pay a few bills. He opened his desk drawer to take out the checkbook. Underneath was the letter. The only one he had ever received from Arashi. It had been a very long time since he last looked at it. He took it out of the envelope, opened it and read.
Haruki, I know how you hate me for what I am about to do. But I have to do this for my country. Please forgive me. Know that I will be thinking of you when I strike. I will love you always. Arashi
Haruki bowed his head and let the letter fall onto his lap. He stared across the room to the small table with the faded photograph of Arashi hanging on the wall above. He pulled himself out of his chair, the letter falling to the floor, and hobbled over to the table. He took some incense out of the table drawer and lit it. The smoke rose up around his head, and languidly curled over towards the photo, wafting like a curtain, caressed by a surprisingly warm autumn afternoon breeze.
“How can you ever make me understand?” Haruki asked, tears streaming down his face. Smoke from a thousand sticks of incense filled the temple. Arashi turned from him and walked towards the entrance, his back to the golden reclining Buddha. Haruki raced after him and caught him by the shoulder, turning him sharply around, and taking Arashi’s white silk scarf in both of his hands - fighting a strong temptation to strangle him with it.
Arashi slapped Haruki in the face. “Get a hold on yourself. You’re making a scene. Is this how you want to remember our last day together?”
Haruki was so startled he let go of the scarf. Arashi turned and walked down the temple steps to the street. Haruki raced after. Arashi wouldn’t speak to him again till they were back in the hotel room, and then he turned to Haruki, took off his scarf, put it around Haruki’s neck and took him tightly in his arms, unable to speak and unable to let him go.
Haruki carefully picked up the letter from the floor and inserted it back into its envelope. He put it back in the drawer and closed it. He sat back in the desk chair and stared out across the pond. An apple fell from a tree down by the pond, rolled down the bank, and splashed into the still water by the dock. A goose swimming nearby scurried over, snapped it up, and downed it with one quick swallow.
It was a quarter till two. Haruki got out of his chair, went to Kazuko’s sewing box, took out a ribbon and went to the back door. He wrapped the ribbon around the mums, and went back inside to get his coat and hat. He locked up the house and stood by the front gate waiting for Kazuko’s grand-niece to pick him up and take him to the hospital. The leaves from the red maple fell in his hair and across the shoulders of his black coat.
The incense under Arashi’s photograph burned out, and sighed up the last little breath of smoke before going cold. Across the pond a bullfrog leapt off a lily pad to grab a low flying dragon fly, splashing gleefully into the water and sending a spray into the air. The splash was caught by the sun, which shot a ray of light across the pond into Haruki’s room, lighting up Arashi’s Kamikaze headband with the rising sun in the middle of his forehead.
Jon McDonald lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He currently has three published novels - a satire, Divas Never Flinch; a humorous vampire thriller, Bloodlines – the Quest and The Seed – An Ironic Political Thriller. His fourth book Gotta Dance With the One Who Brung Ya – Sex, Scandals and Sweethearts will be published in early 2013. He won first prize and was published in the New Mexican holiday short story contest, 2009. He has also been published in Jonathan, Raphael’s Village, ImageOutWrite, and now Bay Laurel. His website is: www.jonmcdonaldauthor.com
Bay Laurel / Volume 1, Issue 2 / Winter 2012