Home for the Holidays
N J Magas
All her neighbors were already in the streets, but Mariko was still pacing in front of her window, watching their lantern lit outlines disappear into the darkness. Laughter and light conversation trailed after them as the crowds thinned and finally left the cobbled road deserted. Mariko let the curtain fall away from her hand and tapped her fingers against the sill impatiently.
“Hurry up Tetsuyo! Everyone is leaving!”
“Now hold on, I can’t find my hat.”
Oh, just leave it.
“It’s over by the window, next to the lilies.” Mariko poked her head out the door. Stragglers who trickled out of their homes hurried to catch up with the crowd and were quickly lost from sight. If Mariko and her husband tallied any longer, there wouldn’t be a seat for them on the boat.
“I looked there. It’s not—Oh, there it is. Now how did that happen?”
“Do hurry. They’ll be loading soon. I don’t want to miss the launch.”
“We won’t miss it. They won’t leave until they’ve got everyone on board.” Chuckling, Tetsuyo tugged on his faded baseball cap and joined her at her side. He touched his dry lips to her cheek and for a moment, Mariko’s anxieties calmed. Sixty-seven years together, unbroken except for that one period of seven months when Tetsuyo had to leave, and couldn’t bring Mariko with him. She couldn’t have asked for a better husband or a more perfect existence.
“You look lovely,” Tetsuyo said, his compliment, as usual, timeless. It slipped through the years they’d been married to when they first met, under a multicolored night sky exploding with vivid beauty and vitality.
“And you look ridiculous; a cap with a yukata.”
“But if I don’t wear my cap, how will they recognize me?”
“How indeed?” she answered, and patted Tetsuyo’s head on the bald spot the cap had dutifully hidden for thirty years. “Shall we go?”
He kissed her cheek again. “Yes, we can go.”
There were many people on the boat, but it wasn’t crowded. However many got on, space appeared to accommodate more. A crowd parted to reveal seats that hadn’t been discovered, or a cabin door opened to an empty lounge. They bumped elbows with a few of their neighbors, but everyone ended up with their own place to sit or stand as to their pleasure.
They cast off in darkness so deep that even the lights of their boat couldn’t illuminate more than a foot of water around them. The air and the water were still. There was no moon to cast a reflection. The only thing Mariko could see beyond the boat were the vague faces of its passengers reflected by lamplight on the water. Insubstantial images of the people they represented smiled and winked up at her in the gentle waves. They were going home.
Their boat slid along on the water silently. The occasional slap of black water against the side of the deep hull splashed clear, cool droplets onto Mariko’s sleeve where they glittered on the navy fabric.
“I’m glad you’re here with me,” Tetsuyo said, and leaned over the railing to peer into the darkness.
Mariko pressed a chuckle between her lips and tapped the broad fan of her uchiwa against her chin. “I couldn’t let you come back on your own. How lonely that would have been.”
“Very lonely, surely.” He looked up and carefully took the uchiwa from her fingers. “You still have this?”
“Of course I do. Sana made it for me. It’s seen a bit of wear, for sure,” she drew her finger over the tiny rip in the paper between two of the bamboo supports, “but it still works, see?” Plucking it back into her possession she flicked the handle and paddled a gentle breeze against Tetsuyo’s face. It fluttered in the white wisps of his hair until she set the fan down again.
“She’ll be in middle school now, won’t she?”
“Yes.” Tetsuyo turned his eyes back out into the darkness. He’d been gone longer than Mariko. He missed the family that much more.
“Mmhmm. The graduation was beautiful, even with Taiki running around, singing and making a nuisance of himself.” She shook her head. The boy was growing fast. His energy exceeded what could be contained in one five year-old body. Sana had been mortified, but Tetsuyo had his father’s crooked grin and Mariko couldn’t be upset.
“She’ll be dancing this year?”
“They both will.”
“Did you leave her that red chrysanthemum yukata?”
“Of course.” They fell into a meaningful silence, the kind that had been frequent in the months before Testuyo left, and still filled their quiet time with unspoken communication only the two of them understood. It was nice to know he hadn’t changed while they’d been apart. Though she’d never admit it to him, it had been something she’d been afraid of, after he left.
Tetsuyo’s warm hand passed over her own and cupped it. His fingers fell between hers and settled on the torn uchiwa beneath them. Indeed it would have been terribly lonely to make this journey on one’s own. The darkness around them was too cold and impassive and the endlessness of it ate away at the edges of the comfort Tetsuyo offered. It was a great relief, then, when the first vague lights warmed the distant horizon in front of them.
“Oh, Tetsuyo, look, the lanterns.”
The glow gradually dissolved into hundreds of tiny pinpricks of light that swirled in little clusters, like fireflies. These broke apart further as they approached until she could make out each individual lantern. Their boat changed course to follow the source of the lights, and soon they were surrounded by the luminous rafts. Each floating lantern had a name written on it, so many lanterns and so many names that it was impossible that theirs weren’t floating out there around them somewhere.
As the boat gently sliced through the water, the lanterns drifted away, creating a boulevard on either side of them. Their path home was marked in light.
Mariko tilted her head down onto Tetsuyo’s shoulder and watched as the glow on the horizon lightened into the artificial dawn of the city nightscape on the waterfront.
“We’re home,” she whispered, and felt Tetsuyo’s hand squeeze her own.
The boat slid onto the shore without fanfare. It was to be expected; everybody would be in the streets and at the temples, watching the odori and admiring the colorful yukata of the dancers. They didn’t need a greeting anyway. They all knew where they were going. Already the music of the festival floated through the air, guiding them the rest of the way.
“Hurry, Tetsuyo. We’ll miss the children dancing!” Mariko walked down the street as fast as her yukata would allow. It had been a long time since she felt this young, this light, and this happy. In her excitement, she quickly lost Tetsuyo in the crowd. No matter, they were going to the same place. They would meet up again soon.
She skipped swiftly through the night. Each corner yielded another festival. Lanterns strung up in spider silk over temple grounds cast the streets in a welcoming orange glow. The warmth of the August day lingered and suspended festival smells in the air: fried noodles and chicken skewers, octopus dumplings and sweet fried red-bean cakes. They were a teasing temptation after so long.
“Tasty chocolate bananas, only two hundred yen!”
“Treat your lady to shaved ice tonight. We’ve got ten different flavors!”
But there would be time enough for eating later, with her family. Akiko would most certainly be making inari and tamago-yaki and a lovely summer vegetable sampler. She was a superb cook and Mariko hadn’t minded swapping recipes with her, when they lived together.
Children adorable in their miniature yukata ran around her, slapping at each other with their uchiwa, or racing to be the first to discover the cotton candy vender. Their parents meandered nearby, watchful in a casual way, allowing the children to enjoy the colorful, free atmosphere of the events. Mariko smiled and saw her own children in her memory’s eye. She saw the pitcher of cold barely tea tumble from the vender’s stall and crash to the ground before her son’s terrified, apologetic tears momentarily broke the festive mood and brought revelers crowding around for a look at the miniature disaster. How fast time passed. Before she’d blinked her Matsuo was an adult, with children of his own and yet she could still see the ghost of his child-self, red cheeks wet with tears only a mother could hug away.
Quickly now, they were waiting for her.
The night sky suddenly bloomed with color and stopped her on a stone bridge over a lazy canal. A gentle rain of sparks illuminated couples who gathered near the stream to watch.
Young women in bright yukata with flowers in their hair leaned against their boyfriends or husbands clothed in more subdued colors. Under the light of the fireworks however, they all glowed the same vibrant reds and greens and golds. Two buds on a single stalk, pairs who stood together watching the drizzling light.
“Tetsuyo,” she whispered softly, all at once very aware that she’d lost him. Under the booms and pops of the fireworks no one heard her. What if she never found him again? Seven months without him was hard enough, but an eternity without his patient smile and old, tender hands?
She flicked her uchiwa with quick, frantic strokes as she scanned the area for his flat grey cap. The crowds had picked up around her and everyone jostled together on the bridge for the best view of the evening’s fireworks. “Tetsuyo,” she called, louder, but her voice was swallowed up by the explosions above her.
Holding her arms against her chest she pushed her way through the throng, back the way she came. No one noticed. In fact, every gap she tried to squeeze through quickly closed up with another body. “Please, I have to find Tetsuyo. Please let me through.” But the wall of people grew denser, and seemed to grow higher as well. She’d never been a tall woman, but these were surely giants. They pushed her back and back until her thighs pressed against the stone railing of the bridge. She leaned over against the shoves, but there was nowhere else for her to go. Someone jostled her shoulder and nearly sent her over the edge. She held on tightly, but her grip wouldn’t hold forever.
“Mariko, down here.”
She turned her head carefully to look down over the railing. There stood her husband, his feet submerged in the trickling stream, his arms crossed over his chest, grinning up at her like he had no troubles in the world.
“Oh, Tetsuyo, there you are! I thought I’d never find you. I can’t get off this bridge.”
“Come on down here, I’ll help you,” he said, and raised his arms to do just that.
“But the water. It’ll ruin my yukata.”
“It’ll be all right,” he answered, and at once she knew that it would be. His presence silenced the booms and bursts above her and made all the pressing bodies disappear. She leaned over the rail and gripped his upper arms. He did the same with her, and lifted her down as though they were fifty years younger.
Her feet touched the water without a splash, but she wouldn’t have noticed it anyway. Tetsuyo held her arms a moment longer before dropping his hands and smiling in a way that made her feel the ghost of his touch as strong as if he still held her.
“I don’t want to be alone again,” she said.
He shook his head. “You won’t have to be.”
They reached Kyoto just before eight at night, walking side by side through the quiet streets. The old capital was subdued and dignified, even during the festival. They made their way without hassle through the warmly lit city. Music in the traditional style floated lazily from speakers through the warm night and before long Mariko and Tetsuyo had come upon a large gathering of people.
“Oh, Tetsuyo, can you see her? Can you see Sana?”
“No, not yet, let’s get closer.”
They passed easily through the crowds to the inner ring of spectators. Before them, a two-storied platform had been erected in the centre of a wide school grounds. Lanterns were strung from the top of the platform across to posts, which ringed the gravel field. The music ground out of the speakers at the top of the platform, and to its static recording the locals danced.
Some were dressed in colorful yukata, while others were in their street clothes. They danced both with natural, practiced grace and awkward, out of step jerks, each for the love of the music and of their community.
They moved like the late summer Kamo, gliding without hurry around the platform in three rings. Five steps forward and two steps back, swinging their arms and clapping in time to the music. Children giggled as they mimicked their elders, enjoying the change of pace in the August night.
When Sana and Taiki finally came into view, Mariko’s heart swelled with pride. Sana had grown another five centimeters at least since she’d last seen her, and in the red chrysanthemum yukata, she made the perfect image of young adulthood. She’d complimented her grandmother’s gift with a sunflower yellow obi, red camellias and a gentle rain of white wisteria in her hair. Her every step and clap was perfectly timed with such a look of serious concentration that it might be mistaken that she didn’t actually care for the dance. Mariko knew better. Sana had loved dance since she was very young, and the bon-odori was a special favorite of hers.
Taiki, on the other hand, seemed to want to do little else than make the most noise he could, stomping when he should had been stepping, and noisily slapping two uchiwa together when everyone else clapped politely to the people at the center of the platform.
I didn’t matter. He was smiling, as were his parents dancing behind them, and Mariko found herself smiling as well.
“Tetsuyo, I want to dance. Will you dance with me?”
Mariko slipped into the line behind her son with Tetsuyo at her side, and positioning her feet, she stepped in time with the crowd, sashaying forward and then back, disturbing not a single grain of sand as she moved. How nice it was to be with the family again.
She went home with her son that night. Tetsuyo fell asleep beside her, but he’d always been the sleepy type in cars. She wanted to tell Sana how proud she was of her dancing, but it might embarrass the girl, so she kept her compliments to herself. Instead, she smiled quietly and listened to the chatter of her grandchildren, bringing herself up to date on the family news and gossip around town. Taiki wanted to play soccer, and her son thought it was a good idea. Akiko worried that he might get hurt, but Matsuo pointed out that getting hurt was part of being a boy. Mariko agreed. Skinned knees had never hurt Matsuo any.
That night, as predicted, Akiko laid out a large spread. The children were ravenous from the day’s excitement and were eager to dive into the savory steamed dumplings and fried eggplant. Taiki was four bites into his vegetables before Akiko caught him.
“Taiki! Don’t be rude. Here, give this to your grandparents first,” she said, and passed him a bowl of rice.
“Of course,” he answered, as full of energy as ever. Mariko chuckled and watched him carry the bowl past her in both hands, with an air of importance. He knelt before the family shrine and carefully laid the bowl between the offerings of grapes and strawberries and mangoes. Pressing his hands together in front of his face he jerked a bow forward.
“Please enjoy it, Grandma and Grandpa,” he said.
“We will, Taiki,” Mariko answered but of course, he didn’t hear her.
The next three days passed quickly. She picnicked with Matsuo and Akiko, joined the family in prayer at her memorial, followed Taiki as he hunted for cicadas and oversaw Sana in her studies. Before she knew it, it was Okuribi and time to return from where they’d come.
Mariko and Tetsuyo went together with Matsuo and the children to the place where the Kamo forked. The crowd was tremendous and there weren’t a lot of places left to sit, so the children took turns standing and sitting in their parents’ laps.
As the sky began to darken, Mariko said her unheard goodbyes for the year. She kissed her grandchildren on the forehead and watched their smiles glow.
“You’re doing fine, all of you,” she whispered, and then Tetsuyo took her hand. Across the river, the mountains began to catch light. One by one the fire spread in elegant characters to light their way back. First dai, the large, then the supreme truth myo-ho. When the ship lit up on Mt. Myoken, Mariko and Tetsuyo boarded it hand in hand with all the other spirits of the deceased. They leaned over the lantern lit edge and waved from afar to their families as they cast off.
They passed the second dai in the west and then under the toriigata spirit gate and into darkness once more. A few lanterns remained bobbing on the still black waters but the obon—the return of the spirits—had finished.
Mariko leaned her head on Tetsuyo’s shoulder and smiled.
“Next year I’m going to find a way to show Taiki how to dance.”