By Steve Carr
Tomiko’s joints ached, especially her knees. She gingerly raised the hem of her kimono and stared at them for several moments as if seeing them for the first time. Nothing seemed to ever make them feel better for very long. Acupuncture, hot baths, daily swims, herbal teas, massage, the small white pills her doctor gave her; all failed to ease her from the constant suffering. She lowered her skirt, took a sip of tea that had turned cool, almost cold, in a matter of minutes, and spit it back into the cup. When her canary, Ichika, began to sing loudly from its cage near the window, she looked up, suddenly worried that her beloved pet wouldn’t be properly taken care of or be given enough attention while she was away. Her neighbor, Emica, who would be looking after the bird, was a kind woman, but nearing eighty years old. Emica had lapses in memory that often made Tomiko worry about her own state of mind. She was six years older than Emica.
She slowly stood, picked up the cup and saucer it had set on, and shuffling across the kitchen in a new pair of uwabaki – a Christmas gift from her great granddaughter who lived in San Francisco – carried them to the sink. Careful not to get the white gloves she was wearing from getting wet, she rinsed the cup and saucer off and put them in the drainer. Through the slightly raised window above the sink she watched a small group of young boys jostle one another as they went down the alleyway on their way to school. The boys made little noise, moving along silently like dancing Bunraku puppets. She closed the window, walked to Ichika’s cage, pressed her face against the mesh screen and clicked her tongue against the back of the upper plate of her false teeth. The bird stopped singing, jumped from an upper dowel to a lower one, nearer to Tomiko’s face, and pecked at the screen.
“You be a good girl for Emica,” she said to the bird. “Your mama will be back in two days.”
Ichika tilted her head, looking at Tomiko first with one eye, then the other.
Tomiko took a piece of rice cake from the pocket in her apron, opened the cage door, and placed it next to the overflowing cup of bird seed. She closed the door and smiled as the bird hopped to the cake and began pecking at it. She removed her apron, hung it on a hook by the door, and left the kitchen. In the living room she watered her overgrown money tree plant, then removed her uwabaki and changed into a pair of sandals. She slipped her arm through the handle of a small purse, pushed it up her forearm, and covered it with the sleeve and opened the front door. She then lifted the lid of a large woven basket sitting by the front door and peered in, then gently closed it. She picked up a small suit case and carried it and the basket out the door, shutting it behind her.
The taxi was already at the curb outside her building when she walked out. The driver, Itsuki, who she had known since he was a boy, forty years ago, got out, and approached her. “Today is the right morning for me to be here, Tomiko-san?” he said bowing slightly, a huge smile on his face.
“Yes it is, Itsuki,” she said, handing him the suitcase.
“Where is it I am to take you, Tomiko-san?”
“Today I take the train back to the place of my birth as I do every year.”
He looked about and seeing no one else, he said, “By yourself? Is that wise, Tomiko-san?”
“I have no choice,” she said. “My family and friends are all busy this year.”
At the curb of the Tokyo train station, Itsuki took the suitcase from the trunk of his taxi, and then helped Tomiko, who was holding onto the basket, out of the back seat.
“Please, Tomiko-san, wait a few days and I’ll take the train with you,” he pleaded with her as reluctantly handed her the suitcase.
“I must go now,” she said. “Same time in August every year.”
He bowed, slightly and with a worried expression on his face, said, “Yes, Tomiko-san. I understand. I will be here in two more days to greet you on your return.”
“Thank you, Itsuki,” she said as she turned and merged with a crowd going into the station.
Inside the station, Tomiko was momentarily disoriented by the din of voices and the hum of the train waiting at the passenger platform, ready to depart. A policeman stopped a few feet from her, eyed her and her basket, and then continued on.
“Let me help you,” a young man wearing a cowboy hat, with brown hair that hung to his shoulders and a beard and handlebar mustache said as he took her by the elbow and led her to the open door of the train. He had a guitar hanging from his shoulder and backpack strapped to his back. He guided her to two seats that faced each other and helped her sit down in one and then he sat in the one facing her. “I’m Jimmy Rowe,” he said. “Do you speak English?”
She stared down at his cowboy boots and then up at his friendly, smiling face. “Some,” she said.
He put her suitcase and his backpack in the overhead compartment, and settled back into his seat with his guitar resting across his knees. “I’m from the U S,” he said.
She nodded. “Yes, I thought so” she said knowingly. “I am Tomiko Higashi.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said.
“You must excuse me Jimmy Rowe, I do not want to seem unfriendly or unkind, but I am of an older generation and it is not our custom for women traveling alone to speak with strange men, especially foreigners.”
He hesitated for a moment before saying, “I understand.” As the train doors closed and it began to leave the station, he raised his guitar and held it against his chest, his fingers resting on the strings.
She opened the lid to the basket sitting in her lap and peered in. “How is my Heisuke feeling?” she said to the sleeping tabby cat curled up in a ball on a pillow. The cat’s tail fluttered. It opened its eyes, squinting, and meowed softly. “Poor old Heisuke,” she cooed as she reached in and petted its bright orange fur. The cat closed its eyes, and purring quietly, returned to sleep. She closed the lid and turned to watch the scenery as the train accelerated, quickly leaving the station behind.
Jimmy Rowe lightly strummed his guitar with his eyes closed while humming softly to himself.
“Excuse my contradiction in behavior,” Tomiko said, reaching over and tapping his knee with her gloved hand, “but may I ask what music it is that you are playing that is so enjoyable to listen to?”
He opened his eyes. “It’s called country music,” he said. “I’m going to a music festival in Fukuoka to play there.”
“You are famous singer, then?” she said.
He chuckled. “Not at all. I just wanted to see Japan.”
“My great grandfather was a soldier and came here in WWII,” he said. “He spoke of it often before he died.”
She looked out the window, not at him. She tried to see the landscape, the city structures, the shiny train station as he might see them, but she couldn’t through the tears that welled in her eyes.
“Fukuoka, Hakata Station, coming up,” a woman’s voice announced over the intercom.
“I change trains here,” she said, her voice choking. She stood up the same time as he did. He retrieved his backpack from the overhead compartment and hung it on his back and handed her the suitcase. “I wish we could have gotten to know one another better,” he said to her as he slung his guitar over his shoulder by its strap.
He started to take her elbow to help her down the aisle. She quickly pulled away. “Please, no, Jimmy Rowe,” she said icily.
“Goodbye. I’m sorry if I offended you,” he said as the train came to a stop. He walked on, not receiving a response.
While waiting on the passenger platform for the train that would take her to her destination, Tomiko bought a Styrofoam cup filled with noodles and some raw fish from a vendor whose stand was set up near the entry way into the station. She sat down on a bench and ate hurriedly since her train would arrive soon. She opened the basket lid and tried to encourage Heisuke to stand up and to eat the fish, but he would do neither. “Poor old Heisuke,” she said soothingly to the cat as she massaged the top of its head. She stuffed the last noodles into her mouth with wooden chopsticks just as the train to Nagasaki arrived. She wrapped the fish in a napkin and placed it in the basket with Heisuke and tossed the cup and chopsticks into the trash bin. Carrying the basket and her suitcase she crowded into the train with the other passengers and too her surprise and delight found two empty seats by a window at the end of the car. She placed her suitcase at her feet and cradled the basket in her lap.
Within minutes a middle aged Japanese man in a business suit and carrying a briefcase approached her and pointed at the empty seat beside her. “May I?” he said.
She nodded, reluctantly, and scooted nearer to the window as he sat down.
“I am Eichi Saito,” he said. “I have a software company in Nagasaki. Do you own a computer?”
She shook her head. “I am an old woman and have no use for one,” she said bluntly. “Please, if I may ride to Nagasaki in silence I would be humbly grateful.”
“Certainly,” he said, politely bowing his head. He placed the briefcase in his lap, opened it and took out an eBook and began to read.
She turned her head to the window and rode to Nagasaki looking out at the scenery, withholding the urge to laugh when Eichi Saito took a handkerchief from his pocket and held it against his nose as the pungent aroma from the fish began to waft from the basket.
The sidewalk outside the station in Nagasaki was packed with people awaiting taxis or to be picked up by family members or friends. Tomiko slowly pushed her way through them, holding the basket cradled against her chest with one arm and carrying the suitcase with the other. She crossed the street and waited for a tram amidst another throng of new arrivals to the city. When it arrived she boarded it and was given a seat up front by a young woman who remained standing in front of her while holding onto a handrail.
“O-bãsan, where are you visiting from?” the young woman asked.
“Tokyo,” Tomiko said.
“Is there no one in Nagasaki who could have picked you up at the station?”
Slightly disturbed by the young woman speaking to her in such a casual and inquisitive manner, Tomiko said flatly, “I had family here once, but they are no longer living, and I have no friends here.”
“Nagasaki is always so crowded during the remembrance,” the young woman said. “I hope you have pre-booked a place to stay.”
“I stay at the same place I stay every year,” Tomiko said. “It is a block away from the Peace Memorial Hall.”
The young woman looked at Tomiko’s gloved hands holding onto the basket. “I wish gloves were fashionable again for all women to wear,” she said.
“Mine aren’t for fashion.”
The hotel room was very small, with a twin bed, small dresser, and sink. The restroom was down the hall. She set the basket on the bed and raised the lid. Heisuke was asleep, his chest barely rising and falling as he breathed. She laid the suitcase on the top of the dresser and then sat on the bed, took her purse from her arm and placed it next to her, and then removed her sandals and socks. Her white socks had gotten dirty during the trip as had her gloves. She then removed her gloves and laid one across each leg. She held her hands up, and gazed thoughtfully at the mass of scars on the back of each hand and at the deformity of her fingers that no surgeon had been able to repair. Her hands were a reminder of the miracle that she had survived the atomic blast with just those injuries while everyone and everything else she knew when she was age ten had been obliterated in the fire storm.
A little after midnight, April 6th, Heisuke died while sleeping at Tomiko’s side.
Tomiko arose from the bed, dressed, and placed Heisuke in the basket. She quietly left the room and carried the basket down the stairs, past the desk clerk who was sound asleep in his chair, and out of the hotel. She walked to the Peace Memorial Hall and placed Heisuke at the base of the Peace Monument. She looked up at the large bronze statue of a seated man with one hand raised, pointing to the heavens, whispered a little prayer, and then turned and returned to her hotel room.
When she returned to Tokyo she met Itsuki outside of the train station as they had planned.
“How was your trip to Nagasaki, Tomiko-san?” he said.
Her voice choked as she replied, “I think it will be my last train trip.”
“Yes, maybe that is for the best, Tomiko-san.”
He put her suitcase in the trunk of his taxi but she held onto the empty basket as she got into the back seat. There she placed the basket in her lap and wrapped her arms tightly around it.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 500 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/