The ticking of the clock was the only sound you can hear in the living room. That large, wooden clock Father brought home from Frankfurt last year was particularly loud. Spring has come late to our village, and people are a little antsy about how to put together a festival in such short notice. The cherry trees will begin to bloom soon. My parents were off in the town hall to attend one of the many meetings with the council preparing for the influx of tourists who are sure to come through town in a couple of weeks.
Everybody was in a bit of a rush, since they haven’t exactly finished putting up the observation decks at the public causeway lined with cherry blossom trees, nor the small collection of food stalls that the local merchant guild was planning. The first few groups of tourists have started to arrive and our inn was starting to fill up with guests.
I poured myself a drink at my father’s bar and I sat in one of our overstuffed settees.
I see her walk in, dressed in a simple linen robe, her hair down, preparing for bed.
“Will you wait up for Mother?”
I nod. She approaches and quietly refills my drink.
“The children are sleeping. Should I draw you a bath before bed?” I nod. She smiles and gathers up her robe.
“Hana?” She looks back and I see her small smile once more. “I am sorry for missing the New Year Festival again. I must really get control over my work schedule. I will make it up to you and the children during the summer.” I placed my drink on the lacquered table beside me. “I have booked us all a trip to the city to stay at that hotel in the city that you like, we can go shopping and get the kids some new clothes and toys. The boys seem to be growing much faster than ever before.”
“I think that is a wonderful idea. Thank you. And don’t worry about my birthday: It was work. It really can’t be helped.” She turns around and stops at our family shrine. She reaches out and gently touches a Daruma doll she placed there about three years ago, its single eye looking at her, slightly askew.
I look at the clock on the wall. Of course she understands, Hana has always been very understanding.
I look up from the guest ledger and see this ruddy faced foreigner with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.
“Konnichi wa, and welcome.” I reply. I bow slightly, and see him return the greeting.
“I made a reservation, it should be under Phillip Thompson?”
I scan through the names on the ledger and find his reservation. I enter his arrival in the log and hand him his safebox key.
“Thank you.” He picks up his bag and smiles. I look at his face, fair, with a splash of freckles across the bridge of his nose, between wide blue eyes. He had a set of straight white teeth behind a big, bushy beard, the color of straw. “When will the cherry blossoms begin to bloom?”
“Maybe within the next couple of days: We’ve already seen some trees beginning to change color.” I open a small door and pick up his suitcase. “This way please.” I lead him down the hall towards his room.
“This is my first time in Japan during the spring, but I’ve heard such beautiful things about this season.”
“Yes, it is beautiful in the spring. And the weather is so much more forgiving, especially in this area. Once the trees turn, I will arrange to have a place for you along the causeway. Do you prefer viewing the cherry blossoms in the afternoon or at dusk? They set up the park with lights at night and I could prepare some traditional Japanese confections for you to enjoy during your viewing.”
“Oh, that would be great! I think an evening viewing would be best.”
I set his suitcase down and kneel to slide open the paper screen that leads to his room. “Would you want to bathe before dinner? We have our own onsen, and you can try it out. I can also prepare your bed while you bathe so you can rest before eating. You must be tired from travelling.” I move into the space and put away his bag off to one side of the room.
“Yes, I would like that very much.” I open one of the closets and take out a robe and hand it to him. He changes into the robe as he makes more idle chatter. I take down his bedding and check to make sure it’s fresh. I absent-mindedly turn around to set the bedding on the tatami mat. He had his back turned towards me as he slipped his arms through the sleeves of the robe, and I had a brief glimpse of his broad shoulders. I feel a familiar sensation that stirred at the bottom of my belly.
I push it down. And drop my eyes to the floor.
“I see that Mr. Thompson has checked in today.” Hana looks over to me as she reviews the guest ledger. “I heard from Akane-sama that the pavilion opens tomorrow for the viewing. Shall we make arrangements for him?”
I put down the paper I was reading, and I look at her. Yes, I reply. He wants to arrange a nighttime viewing.
She picks up the phone and begins to organize a private viewing for him. I go back to reading the paper, though, I was only skimming the words on the page. My attention is lost among the fog of my thoughts. The clock on the wall ticks on and on.
I look up at her again.
She’s sitting there, cradling the small Daruma doll in her hands. She traces her finger along the edge of paper that came away from the body of the doll. She takes some paste from a drawer, and gently pressed the paper back in place.
“I have asked the kitchen to prepare a bento of sweets for tomorrow night, but I won’t be able to accompany Mr. Thompson to the viewing. Would it be alright if you go with him? I have some things to attend to.”
I put the newspaper down. “We have discussed this already. I do not understand why I must attend to the guests.”
She sits there silent for a moment. “No games, Touma. I just can’t go. That’s all.”
“Fine.” I got up and poured myself a drink. She sets down the doll on the shrine and went back to writing. I look at it, the red paint has faded significantly, with one forlorn eye staring out at me.
“You weren’t kidding! This place is amazing!”
Phillip and I walked along the banks of the small river that cut through the park. Paper lanterns lined the path that reflected off of the gentle ripple of the water. There were groups of people in colorful robes, weaving through the trees, admiring their foliage, or sitting on low benches enjoying their bento boxes filled with cakes and dumplings.
You can smell the aroma of roasted fish and other foodstuff from the collection of stalls on the other side of the stream. We didn’t have to go though; the kitchen has outdone itself in preparing both savory and sweet boxes for us to enjoy this evening.
We reached a low hill in the middle of a bend in the river where the view was particularly breathtaking, and set down our dinner on the bench that sat under a tree. Viewing the cherry blossom trees this early in the season meant that no cascading petals would go in our food. And you get to fully appreciate the magnificent foliage at the pinnacle of their glory.
“I have heard a story about how the cherry blossoms represented fallen warriors during the war.” Phillip sat down on the opposite end of the bench, looking out at the stream and the trees that lined the opposite bank, lit by soft hues of yellow and mauve. I offered him a bento filled with rice, grilled sea bream and pickles. He took it and he started to eat. “How can something so beautiful represent something so sad?”
I sat beside him, and started to softly play a tune on my shamisen. “Cherry blossoms represent impermanence in our culture. Like the cherry tree that is so short lived, it serves to remind us that nothing stays the same forever. We live, we bloom, and we die.” He was looking at me as I say this, and I see him look out into the water again.
“Once there was a man who had a cherry tree in his backyard. He loved the tree he grew up with, playing under its shade for many years as a boy. As he lived, his children played under the shade of the tree which gave him much joy.” I see him close his eyes as he listened to my story.
“As he lived, and as time passed, his children grew up, his wife passed away, and one by one his children had families of their own, moved away, and died. However, death would not come for the old man.” I struck a sad note. He opens his eyes and looks at me.
“He lived for so long, alongside his beloved cherry tree. Till one day when he went out into the garden to sit under its branches, as he has done countless times before, he found that the tree had died.” Phillip looks at me intently. “Overcome with grief, the old man wept and called for death. He took his sword and took his own life under the dead boughs of the cherry tree he loved. As his spirit escaped his body, it bonded with the tree, and it bloomed for one last time.”
“That was beautiful.” Phillip wiped the tears that welled in his eyes. “Sad. But beautiful.”
“Just because there is suffering, does not mean the story is sad: The old man lived a full life and in the end was granted a beautiful death. He was blessed with this fate, and death did not rob his life of its meaning.” I sat beside him and looked out into the water. The river started to fill with light. We sat there in silence, watching the cherry blossoms dance with the gentle breeze.
“Why did you come here, Phillip?”
“I missed you so much. I didn’t know how else to reach you.”
I felt his head gently rest on my shoulder.
“Hana doesn’t know.”
I hear him sigh. “I know.” He said under his breath, his voice was like an echo of mine over the surface of the water.
The clock ticks on, as I sat there reading the paper. Hana comes in with a glass of whisky on a small tray. She walks over to me and places it on the lacquered table beside me.
“How was your viewing?”
I put the paper down. “It was beautiful.” I reply. I can taste the venom in my voice.
“That’s good. I wanted to join you, the trees are particularly splendid this year, but I was kept busy here at home. The children needed tending.” She picks up the Daruma doll and sets it down on the desk in front of her.
She uses her finger to push it forward, and it rolls forward and settles upright. She pushes it from one side to the other, its wobbling making soft noises as it recenters itself in front of her on the polished desk.
“Did Phillip enjoy his stay?”
I can feel it. That coiled snake in my belly is moving.
“Why do you do this? Why did you do this?”
She doesn’t look at me. But still I know she was crying.
“Why? I don’t know.” She wipes away the tears on her pale cheeks. “I’m tired, Touma. Just say it so I can go to bed.”
“You are impossible. There is nothing to say.”
“No.” There’s a cold fierceness in her voice. It sounded like steel. “No. I see how you look at him. At them. It kills me every time I see it. That’s why I wrote to him. I asked him to come. I just… I needed to see it for myself.” She took a brush and started to grind some ink on her inkstone. I kept quiet. I know. I know it’s wrong. I know.
“Hana. Don’t do this. Please.”
“No. I’m tired Touma. Now I truly understand.” She takes her brush and dips it into the ink. She takes the Daruma doll and paints a big staring pupil on the other eye.
“Enough. No more secrets.” She stands up and leaves the room.
And there, on the desk, sat her Daruma doll, staring at nothing at all, with both eyes open.