Of Frogs and Lovers by Kathryn White

frogsOf Frogs and Lovers …

By Kathryn White

Copyright © Kathryn White 2015

Front Cover Image: Fotolia

 

Inside the City South Post Office a man had just turned in to a frog.

Our story does not really start there, though. Our story begins with a young man named Sid Sharp. Although he lived in an over-populated city, Sid was very lonely. He had no friends, no family, no pets and his home was in the basement of an ugly apartment building that was known to the locals as ‘The Rock’ because of its stark grey walls. While most apartment blocks are friendly looking places with big windows for people to look out of and lovely, big balconies where the neighbours can sit and chat to one another, The Rock did not have any balconies and the windows on each of the apartments were so small and so filthy that no one could see out of them. The Rock was the perfect place to live for someone who enjoyed being miserable. And, at the moment, Sid Sharp was as lonely and as miserable as could be.

The greatest source of Sid’s misery was his feelings for Miss Emma Lavender, the young lady who worked at the post office that was just around the corner from The Rock. Emma was tall, plain, and had curly, mousy brown hair that she always kept swept back in a neat, no-nonsense ponytail. She spoke with a soft, gentle voice. Most people did not take a lot of notice of Emma, but to Sid she was the most wonderful woman in the whole world. Sid wanted to marry Emma, but there was only one obstacle in his way. Sid and Emma had never even spoken.

Every time that Sid went to the post office, he would see Emma standing behind the counter, smiling as she helped the customers post their letters and parcels, and to pay their bills. As he stood and waited in line, he would think of all the wonderful and funny things that he could say that might catch Emma’s attention. He wondered what she would like to talk about. Sid had once overheard Emma telling one of her post office colleagues about how she was going to a quiz night, so maybe, he thought, she enjoyed general knowledge and trivia.

‘Lovely weather today,’ Sid imagined himself saying, as he strolled oh-so-casually up to the post office counter. ‘Did you know that the smallest country in the world is Vatican City? Most people think that the smallest country in the world is Monaco but it is really Vatican City. And what about railways? Did you know that when Australia was first settled that all of the colonies used different gauged railway lines and that when Australia became one single country instead of several colonies that they had to come up with a singular, standard gauge comprised of four feet and eight and half inches.’

Sid was certain that Emma would be impressed. The only problem (aside from the fact that Sid had experienced several near sleepless nights as he researched geography and the history of Australian railways,) was that every time he walked inside the post office, something would happen that would prevent him from sharing his knowledge with Emma. Often, as he waited in line, he would feel his entire body start to tremble and shake as soon as he saw Emma. If her eyes so much as glanced in his direction, surveying the post office from over the top of her glasses, Sid would immediately turn his head downward and stare at his sneakers.

‘Next customer please,’ Emma would call. Although her voice was soft and many customers could barely hear her at all, to Sid, her voice was the most important one in the whole world and, consequently, he could hear every word that she said, even when he was the last person in a queue that was fifteen people deep and Emma was muttering something under her breath about how her date stamp needed some more ink. (It was fortunately then, that Sid thought that everything that Emma said was important and interesting.)

‘Next customer please,’ Emma repeated. Sid stared at her from his place in the queue. He was three deep in the queue now, and there were four counters open. As he watched the customer approached Emma, he tried to work out the probability that, today, Emma would serve him. A man and his two children took up the whole of counter one. They were all applying for passports, so it was likely that they would take some time yet. At counter two, an older lady was posting a rug off to a relative in Afghanistan and seemed to be almost finished, so it was likely that the customer who was now at the front of the queue would be served from that counter. Sid watched as the older lady stuffed a receipt into her handbag and ambled away. The next customer was called up, meaning that there were now only two people ahead of him in the queue.

At counter three, an old man was buying some stamps to go with his stamp collection, and seemed to be taking his time, examining each stamp carefully before committing to a purchase.

Emma staffed the fourth, and final, counter. From the corner of his eye Sid watched as she placed some stamps on a parcel and exchanged pleasantries with her customer. ‘Really?’ Emma smiled at her customer, ‘You used to work for Greenpeace? I always admire people who fight to protect the environment.’

Pulling a pen from his briefcase, Sid made note on the back of his hand that he should do more to help the environment, instead of just merely separating his rubbish and recyclables into two separate bins each week and then mentally patting himself on the back for his efforts at saving the planet. It was then, as he finished scribbling on his hand that he noticed something odd. His skin, which was normally quite pale, had a bit of pale green in it. Sid wondered if it was just the lighting, if perhaps he was coming down with an illness, or if it was because he was feeling nervous because he was so close to Emma. Nerves could do funny things like that. Once, when Sid was a child and had to go to visit his rich old Aunt who he had never met before, he had broken out from head to toe in a sweat and then his entire body had started to turn an odd shade. His mother, who had been quite a kind lady, had joked that he looked a little bit green about the gills. Horrified, Sid had stared at his mother. He didn’t have gills … Did he?

Sid’s mother had laughed and explained that all she meant was that Sid looked rather nervous. She said that he would be all right soon. And she was right. As it all turned out, Aunt Sharp, had been a funny, eccentric old lady who was short, hunched over and looked a little bit like a frog. (Rumour had it that old Aunt Sharp could turn herself into a frog at will, though Sid had never seen any evidence of this.) Aunt Sharp enjoyed smoking cigars by the fire at night and after Sid’s parents died in a car accident, she had adopted Sid and they had lived together in her run down old mansion until Sid had grown up and moved to the city to go to university. When Sid was in his first year of university, he had received a telephone call to say that Aunt Sharp had passed away quite suddenly, meaning that Sid was now alone in the world without any family at all. It had also turned out that Aunt Sharp’s house had been completely infested with termites and it had to be demolished, meaning that after Sid had graduated from university that he was forced to stay on at his shabby digs at The Rock. He worked three days a week at Lone Shark Accountants, a somewhat dodgy concern that had a small office that was located just near the railway station and was owned by a man who was rumoured to be a direct descendant of none other than Ebenezer Scrooge. Lone Shark Accountants was a horrible place to work that seemed to thrive on ripping their clients off and the reason that Sid spent so much time in the post office was that he was always mailing off copies of his resume to different companies in the hope of getting a new and better job.

Inside Sid’s briefcase were thirty resumes, all sealed inside crisp yellow envelopes, along with a short letter introducing himself. The letters were addressed to every accountant in the city. Clutching his briefcase, as though the letters were all sealed inside solid gold, rather than a yellow paper envelope. Sid watched as the next two customers were called to counters two and four. This meant that it would be his turn next, and there was a very good chance that he might be served by Emma, as she seemed to be finishing up. Sid’s heart began to flutter. He cleared his throat, as something seemed to be stuck there. He hoped that his voice would not croak too much. Aunt Sharp always used to tease him about that. ‘Sid has a frog in his throat,’ she used to say, in that funny old nasally voice of hers.

Sid cleared his throat again. Usually, after he had said three or four words, his throat would clear and his voice would sound all right again. His skin on the other hand, was starting to turn that peculiar shade of green again. What a time to have a frog in his throat and to feel green about the gills.

‘Lovely weather today,’ Sid mumbled, hoping that his voice was not quite loud enough for anyone to hear.

‘No it isn’t,’ a voice called behind him. Turning, Sid found a thin, little old lady standing behind him. ‘It’s been overcast and raining and miserable all morning. I haven’t even been able to get all of my washing done.’

‘Oh,’ Sid muttered. His voice remained low and croaky. ‘Sorry.’

‘You ought to be sorry,’ the old woman said. ‘Making those silly remarks about the weather and staring at me with your big, bulging eyes. You look just like a frog, you do.’

‘Well, I think you look very nice.’

A soft and feminine voice spoke from the counter. Turning, Sid found himself staring straight at Emma. ‘And I think that the weather is just lovely,’ Emma said. ‘All morning, I have been looking out the window and across at the park. All the ducks are having a lovely time there, waddling about in the rain, and swimming in the pond.’

‘Phooey!’ The old woman snorted. ‘Who could possibly love a duck, with its funny webbed feet?’

‘I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one,’ Emma said. ‘I think webbed feet are beautiful. Now, Sid Sharp, isn’t it? You’re next.’

Sid felt his heart flutter. Emma knew his name. ‘Don’t look so surprised,’ Emma said. ‘I know you. We used to go to the same school. Then your parents died and you moved away.’

Sid stared at Emma in amazement.

‘You wouldn’t remember me,’ Emma said. ‘I was always very plain and unmemorable.’

How was it possible, Sid wondered, for someone as lovely as Emma to think that they were unmemorable? He could remember her quite well, the only other kid in his class who could name all of the actors who had played the part of The Doctor on Doctor Who. And even back then, Sid could never quite get up the nerve to talk to her.

Sid walked toward the counter. This took a while, as his feet were feeling a bit heavier than usual and rather uncomfortable inside his sneakers. When he got to the counter, Sid began to fumble with the lock on his briefcase. This took a while, as his hands felt somewhat slippery.

‘Is everything all right, Sid?’ Emma asked.

‘Yes,’ Sid croaked, even though, clearly, he was not all right.

‘Are you sure? You seem to be looking a bit green around the gills …’

Emma’s voice trailed off. Both she and the counter seemed to be growing much larger in size. It was either that, Sid realised, or that he was shrinking. Behind him, from the queue, the old lady let out a shriek.

‘What on earth is that ugly thing? It’s a frog. No, it’s far too ugly to be a frog. It’s a toad, for sure.’

‘Don’t be horrible,’ Emma said, as she walked around from the counter. Gently, she cupped Sid in her hands. ‘Just look at you Sid, you poor thing.’

‘Poor thing!’ The old lady snorted. ‘That thing is disgusting.’

‘Oh, shut up.’ Emma rolled her eyes. ‘I think we’ve heard just about enough from you. Now, what about you Sid? How are we going to fix … Excuse me!’ For once, Emma’s voice became loud enough for the entire post office to hear. ‘Does anyone know how to cure a man who has just been turned into a frog?’

‘I do.’ A short man with a moustache pushed his way forward. ‘I’m a veterinarian and I’ve seen a few cases of this in my time. What this man, or frog as he is now I suppose, needs is a kiss.’

‘A kiss?’

The old lady snorted. ‘Who’d want to kiss that horrible thing?’

‘I thought I told you to shut up,’ Emma said. ‘Now, you think that a kiss would cure poor Sid here?’

‘Yes.’ The veterinarian nodded. His expression was quite thoughtful and serious as he twiddled with his moustache. ‘But that kiss can only come from his true love.’

‘Well, that settles that then.’ The old lady snorted again. ‘Someone as ugly as all that is never going to have a true love.’

‘And it’s a pity that some people can’t take a hint.’ Emma fixed her eyes firmly on the old lady for a moment or two, before turning back to the veterinarian. ‘How are we going to find Sid’s true love, though?’

‘You could kiss him.’ The old lady said. ‘Go on. Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is, you silly little thing.’

‘And that,’ Emma sighed, ‘Is the first sensible thing that you’ve said all morning, you horrid old wench. I’ll kiss Sid.’

Emma raised Sid toward her mouth. She puckered her pink stained lips and pressed them to his smooth green skin. There was a strange popping sound and, startled, everyone in the post office watched as the frog vanished and Sid appeared once again. (After all, it wasn’t every day that a man turned himself into a frog inside the post office and was then turned back again. Although, that said, a week ago someone else had turned into a chicken, but that is another story …)

‘Emma.’

‘Sid.’

Both Emma and Sid stared at one another. Each felt slightly astonished at the recent turn of events.

‘You kissed me,’ Sid said.

‘I know,’ Emma said.

‘Does this mean …’ Sid stared at Emma, his face filled with hope.

‘I suppose so,’ Emma said.

‘Well,’ Sid said.

‘Well,’ Emma said.

‘This is strange,’ Sid said. ‘For the first time in my life … well, I mean for the first time since my aunt died, I feel happy.’

‘This is strange,’ Emma said. ‘For the first time in my life … I feel beautiful.’

‘But … you always were beautiful.’

Sid stared at Emma in astonishment.

‘Oh, give me a break.’ The old woman snorted. ‘Just listen to the two of you, getting all soppy with each other. Makes me sick, it does.’

‘Shut up!’

Both Sid and Emma glared at the old woman.

Standing beside the old woman, the veterinarian began to laugh. ‘There is only one catch to all of this,’ he said. ‘For the kiss to work, and for Sid not to turn into a frog again, the two of you must get married.’

‘Oh, of course!’ Emma said, while Sid simply smiled. For even if he was to turn into a frog again, he knew that the rest of his life would be a happy one, for he had been kissed by his true love, Emma.

 

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THE ANAKIM CAN DIE by Peter M. Emmerson

Graphic by Paul and Carilla

Paul and Carilla

Paul lay on his back wrapped in his sleeping bag, the hood pulled tight until it all but covered his face. The tip of his nose was cold, but it troubled him not. His eyes were filled with the wonders of the heavens. The all encompassing ring of standing stones stood around them; comforting in their silent protection.
The stars; so close, so bright. The mesmerizing flickering layers of green which filled the sky to the North, so mysterious and enchanting. It had taken a great deal of cajoling from all three youngsters to obtain his mother’s permission for them to spend two weeks away from main camp on a hunting trip. He had promised to check in mentally each day.
Xjang had commented earlier, as they huddled around the tiny camp fire, that the shimmering green sheets were created by the souls of warriors who had died in battle. The diminutive Finn, in a counter argument, insisted that Bes himself had cast infinite handfuls of glow-worms into the sky to shine forever and defeat the darkness in those times when Khonsu, the god of the night hid his face.
Paul smiled at his friends, he knew the stars were suns like the one that shone down on them daily, but tonight he was happy to accept their more simple explanations. And watching the dazzling Aurora Borealis displays he was almost inclined to agree with the two young warriors. Continue reading

GLB46 by HMC

 

hmc glb46 I knew the GLB46 Program was wrong. But I had a choice, be wrong, or lose my mind.

 

Nessy dragged me to the car. I couldn’t quite remember why I was angry at her, so I pulled in the opposite direction toward our waterside mansion where I’d rather be in front of my big-screen TV. Almost bowled her backward at one stage. Poor old girl. I was stubborn as an old nail, and I wasn’t coming out for her. Not today. My shows were on. She was making me miss my shows. San Tracey Murdock was about to shoot the bad guy, and he’d been aiming all season. Damned if I’d miss it. Damned woman!

‘Get in the car, you buggar!’ She pulled my arm. Strong grasp this one. I taught her that. Was all right to be a strong girl. Nothin’ wrong with being able to beat up the fellas. She pushed me toward the silver Mercedes. My fault she could handle me like Raggedy Andy. Some strange guy came over to us and helped Nessy put me into the passenger seat.

‘Who are you?’ I demanded.

‘I’m your driver. Harry. Harry Carmichael.’ He had a familiar face.

‘Harry’s been driving us for five years, Bill,’ said Nessy as she climbed in the other passenger-side door.

‘Where the hell’s Reggie?’ I demanded.

‘Shush! Have some respect,’ Nessy whispered harshly. ‘He died. And Harry’s his son, so be quiet and have some compassion.’

‘Oh,’ I said. Shame that was, Reggie being dead. Good guy he was. That’s why Harry was so familiar – looked like his dad. Didn’t matter he’d been driving me for five years. Some days I didn’t even recognise my own face, let alone my bloody driver.

Nessy strapped herself in. ‘Now, Bill, you need to be on your best behaviour. Do you hear me?’

‘Stop treating me like I’m seven, Nessy! I’m bloody-well 66 years old. You treat me with some respect, woman!’

‘You’re 74, Bill Bins. Keep your voice down.’ She was calmer than usual, believe you me. Nessy wasn’t called Nessy for nothin’. It came from her name Vanessa, but it also came from her brothers when she was knee-high, and she stomped around like the Lochness Monster.

‘What’s going on?’ I studied her close. ‘You takin’ me to a doctor?’

‘I’ve already told you, and if you can’t remember, then shuddupaya face and read the paper.’ She threw the Sydney Herald at me, and glanced out the window, as we pulled out the front gates. The paper said April 8th, 2015. Geez, time flies. Continue reading

-Feline Guardians- A J Hawkins

A Flash Fiction Piece

Amber sat on the kitchen counter, staring intently at the corner above the far cupboard. Her keen eyes allowed her to see the faint shadow moving in the darkness, waiting to pounce… but she would be the one who did that. It was her job. She would be damned before she’d let such a thing anywhere near her Mummy or Daddy.

Amber gracefully leapt across the gap between the two counters and quickly scaled the cupboards, cautiously approaching the ethereal thing, which seemed to be afraid of her. Good. It should be. Amber crouched, never taking her eye off it, when she heard the sound of Mummy’s car outside. She had to act before it was too late. She wiggled her rear and pounced, grabbing the shifting, struggling thing between her front paws, quickly and greedily devouring it, which was always difficult.

The taste of these things were vile, nothing like those tasty birds she liked to chase in next door’s garden. Amber had once heard Mummy and Daddy talk about a dog that had eaten a blanket, and she had wondered why any creature would do such a thing. Dogs were stupid, sure, but maybe it mistook the blanket for one of these terrible, wayward things. Amber imagined this was what eating a blanket would be like, chewing and swallowing, chewing and swallowing, seemingly no end in sight. And after all that would come the horrible sensation of both hunger and nausea that would result in her endlessly washing herself to build up an almighty hairball to get its remains out of her, before they made her ill.

Jaffa didn’t often get one of these things, she was far too fat and lazy for that, but when she did, she preferred overindulging in biscuits to expunge the remnants. Whatever worked. Finally, Amber finished eating the darn thing just moments before the kitchen door was opened. She leapt down onto the fridge, then the kitchen table, mewing enthusiastically for attention as Mummy and Daddy greeted her, safe in the knowledge that she had once again saved them from a wayward spirit, looking for a new body to conquer. After all, they looked after her. It was only fair that she returned the favour.

War of the Words by Ellen Mae Franklin

Carol BondProse was a pretty thing with dark hair and brown eyes whose smile lit the world around her. This day found her hard at work. Sheets of paper lay scattered on the desk and floor, screwed up balls of the unwanted stuff littered the room and the quills that she so loved to write with – her most treasured of possessions – were spread out before her in loving array. Feathers and inkpots, scrolls, and the ability to create infinite worlds belonged to this dedicated writer, Prose was proud of every word.

 

“I have finished! I have finally made my mark.” Prose leapt out of her chair. “It is done at last, my very first story. It’s a pearler and once it’s published I know it will go straight to number one.” She hammered on the wall with her fist and the scraping of a chair on the other-side followed, then a came a knock on her door.

 

“Come in, come in Ink and hurry up.” Prose shouted, well aware that every writer in her building would be frowning at the interruption. Every time a writer placed the last dot on the end of a tale, indicating that the manuscript was ready for other eyes there was a celebrated shout: disrupting the usual quiet that enveloped her building.

  Continue reading

Horrific by Amber Jager

They were all expecting a different result.  The world had sat by with bated breath, waiting, knowing that it just had to be so.  There was no other true option, was there?  The guilt was inevitable and undeniable.  The truth was a certainty, not a question.  Everyone knew. Everyone knew wrong. When the announcement came through the loudspeakers, it was as if the world truly paused.  It didn’t matter what language it came through on, everyone was receiving the same devastating information.  It was wrong.  It was so horrifically wrong that nobody could even respond for the seconds, and then minutes.  If not for the buzz of the loudspeakers, the silence would have been absolute. No one knew exactly where the first scream came from, but it was most certainly that of a woman, and unleashed a cacophony of noise.  Where a moment ago no one had spoken, everyone now was yelling at once.  Blood spilled within seconds of that first scream, and would continue to flow from man and woman alike throughout the rest of the night. Continue reading

Home for the Holidays

 

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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.”

daimonji

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?”

“Sana?”

“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.

“Please… Tetsuyo.”

“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.”

daimonji

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?”

“Of course.”

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.

daimonji

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.

daimonji

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.”

 

END