By Steve Carr

Aika sat beneath the blossoming boughs of a cherry tree catching falling petals in the palms of her outstretched hands. Her lips trembled as she hummed a tune of her own creation. It was as light and lovely as the gentle breeze that kissed her cheeks, an expression of joy, a celebratory song of reaching her tenth birthday. The bright red kimono she wore was a birthday present sent to her by her sobo who lived in Fukushima, a city she heard her parents talk about, but had never been there herself. She imagined that any place where a kimono as beautiful as the one given to her by sobo could be bought must be a wonderful place to live, a magical place with Shinto shrines in the clouds and where streams filled with speckled amago flowed from the rocks. She had not seen her sobo in three years but remembered her mother’s mother because of the pale pink powder she wore on her face and the long length of her silvery fingernails. She also remembered her sobo’s hugs because they were warm and protective, like being on a futon and ensconced in woolen mōfu.

***

Kasumi found the blooming of the cherry trees slightly annoying. Although beautiful, they also reminded her of her boyfriend, Haruo. He talked endlessly of love, wrote notebooks filled with romantic poetry, and more than once said, “When the cherry trees blossom it is the season for the man to declare his love for the girl he wants to spend his life with.” Yet, the trees had begun to bloom four days before and Haruo was nowhere to be found. Her calls and texts had gone unanswered and her casual walks at sunset on the opposite side of the street of his apartment building had gone without seeing light in the window of his apartment. She considered knocking on his door, but in her head her mother’s voice warned, that kind of behavior will only bring dishonor. Kasumi had no problem with old fashioned ideas, but she hated feeling obligated to live by them. Her clothing, choice of movies, dancing, and how she decorated her apartment were all modern. No one in her circle of girlfriends even talked about dishonor.

Having passed by Haruo’s apartment building, slowing her jogging down to a turtle’s speed to hopefully catch him or his shadow in the window of his apartment, she sped on with renewed velocity and frustration, as a block from his building she entered Omoiyari Park. Here the cherry trees were well manicured and abundant. The pink petals from the blossoms floated in the air like large flakes of snow. The park was filled with their subtle, sweet fragrance.

It was only when she heard Aika’s humming that she came to a stop. She glanced over at the little girl seated under a cherry tree and wondered why she hadn’t heard that melody before. It was astonishingly simple yet captivating; a tune any serious pianist should know. She memorized it, and then ran on.

***

In her kitchen, Masako, stared out the window above her sink. The sight of the cherry trees in full bloom made her cry. Things of beauty always had that effect on her.

“You’re too sensitive,” her husband had told her on several occasions.

She didn’t need to be told that. Growing up in a home where art, music, poetry and architecture were regarded with the same intensity as a profound religious experience caused her to be overly-emotional; she had been raised to wear her feelings on her sleeves.

From the living room, her student, Kasumi, was playing the Alla Turca from Mozart’s Sonata No. 11 and doing a bad job of it. She had agreed to take her on as a student despite the fact that Kasumi didn’t have the skill that most of her students had only because Kasumi’s parents were paying her additional money to teach their daughter. Kasumi didn’t know about it and Masako wouldn’t have accepted their bribe, or Kasumi as as a student, had her husband not needed costly plastic surgery to remove the burn scars on his face that the public health insurance wouldn’t cover. She had warned her husband the day he bought the fireworks that nothing good would come from it. Her husband knew nothing about her plans for the money.

She cringed when Kasumi hit another wrong key. She thought, after playing piano for so many years, how is that even possible?

The tea kettle whistled. She turned from the window, went to the stove and turned off the burner. She poured tea into two cups and placed them on a tray along with a small plate piled with a mound of mochi rice cakes. She picked up the tray and was about to go into the living room when she heard Kasumi stop playing the Mozart piece and begin playing a melody she had never heard before; a stunningly harmonic piece that was lilting, playful and yet profoundly rich musically. She went to the doorway between the kitchen and the living room and listened to what Kasumi was playing. Her young student’s posture was perfect; something that was also usually problematic. Her fingers were dancing across the keys as if being guided by the hands of bunraku puppet masters.

She closed her eyes, focusing on the notes being played. Tears began to stream down her face.

***

Handed the basket of small branches clipped from a cherry tree, Chiyo, observed the delicacy of the petals of the blossoms, likening them to whispers, softly said words of affection.

“You were napping Chiyo-san and your friend, Masako, didn’t want to disturb you but she left them for you,” the nurse, Yui, said.

“The flowers are pretty enough to eat, like something that should be savored on the tongue, aren’t they?”

“Yes, Chiyo-san.”

Chiyo placed the basket in her lap, swiveled her wheelchair around and headed back down the hall to her room. The fragrance of the cherry blossoms filled her nostrils with the faint scents of rose, almond and vanilla. She passed by several other residents of the ydrdin who smiled at her, at the branches in the basket, at themselves for enjoying the moment. She pushed open the door of her room using her foot rests and wheeled in, immediately spotting where she would place the basket, on top of a stack of books that contained the works of her favorite poets, Matsuo Bashō, Ihara Saikaku and Kenji Miyazawa. “Visual poetry on written poetry,” she murmured. She hoped that some day she too would be remembered for something as one remembers springtime for the blossoming of the cherry trees or for words written with a poet’s flourish. It was then she saw a card inserted in the branches. She gently lifted it out and read it:

My dearest Chiyo-san, today I was presented with an amazing surprise and unintended gift of never heard before music. It was poetry for my soul.

Masako

***

Lightly falling rain on the blue, red and pink hydrangeas made them glow, adding spots of vibrant color to Aika’s watercolor. The hydrangeas seemed to be a happy flower, their thick, bulbous blooms, like heads of fantastical creatures, all laughing in harmony. From her painting, they cheered her as she feared the Summer Festival would be canceled because of the rain. From through the window in her bedroom, she looked out at the colorful shrubs in her backyard as she dipped the paintbrush in the color pigment,then into a small dish of water, and then applied the mixture to the paper. It was attached to a small easel, a Christmas gift from her sobo. As she painted she sang a warabe uta she had learned in an earlier grade in school.

“Acorn is rolling, then he goes splash
Into the pond. Oh what to do?
Loach comes swimming, “Hi, how are you?
Let’s play together, little acorn boy.”

After a few more dabs and strokes of color she set the paint brush aside and picked up the blow dryer, switched it on and aimed it at the painting, hoping it would be dry and ready to be sold at the festival, if the festival opened at noon as scheduled.

***

Kasumi hadn’t fully come to terms with what about Haruo made her the angriest: that he had moved to Kyoto to marry another girl without telling her beforehand, or that he chose to tell her in an email. Her only consolation was that her parents didn’t berate her for mourning the loss of a guy who, as they had already told her, “Was unworthy of her.” They attempted to fill the void left by Haruo’s departure by arranging several dates with young men who they did feel were worthy who were from families they knew socially. Kakuji, the arranged date to the Summer Festival was studying to be an attorney which from the time they entered the city streets where the festival was being held was all he talked about, incessantly. Within twenty minutes of meeting him she learned how to drown him out by engaging the vendors at the various arts and crafts booths in meaningless banter. She had no real interest in any art, other than the art of playing the piano, although she was beginning to doubt if she had a future as a pianist. Her private teacher, Masako Sato, had become increasingly displeased with her playing, sometimes bordering on being insulting. Masako Sato was the most respected piano teacher in their prefecture, whose status made Kasumi often wonder why she had been taken on as her student. Kasumi knew her talent for playing the piano was limited, to say the least. It had started out as, and remained, her parent’s ambition for her, not her own. She continued to play to please them, and to try to please Masako Sato. She attended university also, but hadn’t yet found her place there either.

At a booth where watercolor paintings were being sold, she spotted one of hydrangeas that she thought was very pretty. She looked at it closely and saw the name Aika written in the lower right hand corner.

“Who is this artist?” she asked the woman behind the table sorting money.

“My daughter,” the woman replied. “She has gone to buy some mizu ame. She has a sweet tooth. She’ll be back soon.”

“I would like to buy it now if that is okay?”

“Certainly.”

Minutes later Kasumi walked away from the table with the painting rolled up and wrapped in tissue paper while her date followed behind, talking non-stop.

***

Moments after opening her door, Masako was handed a rolled paper covered in tissue paper by her least talented student, Kasumi. She liked the girl although she thought she was a bit scattered and a little immature.

“For me?” Masako said, blushing.

“I know you like beautiful things,” Kasumi said. “Open it. I picked it up at the Summer Festival yesterday. Did you go?”

She began to unwrap the gift. “No, my husband and I spent the day seeing the hydrangea garden display in Omoiyari Park.”

“I went to the festival with another date arranged by my parents,” Kasumi said, heaving a loud sigh.

Every time Kasumi mentioned her parents, Masako felt guilty. She felt she should never have accepted the bargain with them in the first place, but she was getting closer to having the large amount she needed for her husband’s surgery.

She tossed aside the tissue paper and unrolled the painting. She gasped, stared at it for several moments, and then began to weep from the beauty of seeing such a masterful work of art.

***

Sitting at the window of the dayroom, Chiyo looked out at the clusters of pale blue hydrangeas that grew out of the shrubs growing along the wooden fence of the back lawn. That shade of blue was her favorite color. The morning rain shower from the day before had left the hydrangeas looking healthier and plumper than they had looked for several weeks, as if the rain had quenched their thirst and left them satiated. She sipped on a cup of tea that Yui had just given her, gently advising her to drink it slowly.

“Chiyo-san is always in a hurry,” the nurse said, stifling a giggle.

“I’m too close to death to slow down now,” Chiyo replied. “My time not to hurry was when I was young.”

“Chiyo-san will live forever,” Yui replied.

Just as she knew that the season of the hydrangeas was relatively short, she knew her own time was growing short also, but what the nurse said was nice to hear nevertheless.

When the familiar hand of her friend, Masako, rested on her shoulder, she looked up at her and smiled.

“I’ve brought you a gift,” Masako said as she unrolled the painting. “My worst student gave it to me, but I think you should have it to hang up in your room.”

“Thank you, Masako, it’s lovely,” the old woman said as she gazed at the piece of art. She then leaned closer to it, and squinting, read Aika’s name. “This Aika must have had years of training to produce such a work of art.”

Standing nearby, Yui looked at the painting and smiled.

***

Aika danced kabuki-style through a meadow filled with chrysanthemums in Omoiyari Park. Her every movement conveyed an emotion beyond her years or experience. The way she bent her back, shifted her shoulders, bent her wrists, twisted her body, spun about, were all done in slow motion. Every movement of her head, skyward or toward the ground, were like the busts of Japanese sculptures. Her cheeks were flush with color.

The rose pink of her jacket sent to her by her sobo at the beginning of Autumn matched the color of the chrysanthemums. In the jacket pockets she carried different flavors of Kasugai gummy candy, each packet torn open at one end so that all she had to do was take one out and shake the candy directly into her mouth, which she did between every extended dance move; she was still a child after all. The strawberry gummy candy she was chewing stuck to her teeth and made her giggle as she tried to dislodge it with her tongue.

***

Jogging slowly on a path that bordered the meadow, Kasumi, stopped to watch the little girl, thinking she looked vaguely familiar, but couldn’t place where she had seen her before. She thought, how lithe, graceful, free of inhibitions, she is. Dancing always made Kasumi feel uncomfortable, something she rarely did in a club when taken to one by a date. Haruo had once told her at a party where everyone was dancing that she danced like a startled flamingo which cemented her self-image as being clumsy with legs only fit for a bird. Despite trying not to, she thought about him a lot. She hoped he was as miserable as she was. Attempting to wipe him from her thoughts, she picked a chrysanthemum and inserted it into her hair behind her ear, watched Aika for a few minutes more, then jogged on.

***

With a chrysanthemum clenched between his teeth, Masako’s husband curled his arm around her waist and guided her in a waltz around the kitchen. He was laughing joyously for no apparent reason.

He forgets his face is disfigured, she thought, dismayed and bewildered.

In the next room Kasumi was tinkling the keys, not working on the piano piece Tre by Kensuke Ushio that she had been assigned. When that stopped, and there was nothing but silence in the living room, Masako tried to pull away from her husband to go see what was wrong with Kasumi but he held her tight, kissing her softly on her neck.

Moments later Kasumi appeared in the kitchen doorway.

The husband and wife quickly separated. “What is it, Kasumi?” Masako asked, trying to hide her embarrassment. “Why have you stopped practicing?”

“I’ve made a decision Masako-san. I’m giving up playing the piano.”

Thinking first of the money she still needed for her husband’s plastic surgery, and then seeing the distressed look on Kasumi’s face, she softly asked, with concern, “But why? You have put so many years into studying the piano.”

“I’m going to have my ex-boyfriend’s child.”

Masako glanced down at the young woman’s belly and noticed the slight bump and wondered how she hadn’t noticed it before.

***

In the dayroom of the nursing facility where Chiyo lived, wearing her gray and white school uniform, Aika stood in front of the large glass doors that led out to the back lawn, now brightened by hundreds of daffodils that poked their yellow blossoms through a foot of snow. Flurries whirled about in the chilly breeze. Aika held to her lips the shakuhachi that had been passed down for several generations in her family. Her fingers ran up and down the holes in no specific order or pattern, the notes flying from the flute like chirping song birds that filled the hearts and minds of the home’s residents who sat watching and listening with memories of warmer seasons.

Her mother, Yui, sat beside Chiyo, patting the old woman’s hand in time to the shifting rhythms of the music Aika played.

“Your daughter’s playing is magical, amazing,”Chiyo whispered to Yui.

“Thank you, Chiyo-san, Aika is a child with many gifts.”

“How is it you never told me about her?” Chiyo asked.

“I would do nothing but brag, Chiyo-san,” Yui answered, squeezing Chiyo’s hand playfully.

“May I ask about her father, your husband?” Chiyo said, hesitantly and demurely.

“He died from cancer soon after Aika’s birth. I have raised her on my own.”

Chiyo turned her eyes to Aika. “I know someone who can further your daughter’s musical talent if you’d allow me to make the introductions.”

“That would be a blessing from Amaterasu-Ōmikami herselfm Chiyou-san. Thank you.”

Aika raised the flute sending her music to the heavens.

***

In the hospital room, Kasumi lay in her bed, her baby cradled in her arms and drinking from her nipple. The vase of daffodils on the bedside stand lent the only color to the room. The card attached to them were from Masako, and signed, “With Love.”

Her parents had kicked her out of their house as soon as she told them she was going to have Haruo’s child. They continued to provide for her, including anything she needed to continue her studies at the university, but would have nothing to do with her beyond that.

She accepted it as her fate.

***

Masako had the bloom of a daffodil tucked into the bun in her hair, when her husband entered the living room and found her sitting at the piano, her fingers motionless on the keys. “Perhaps you should return to playing concerts,” he said, coming up behind her and placing his hands affectionately on her shoulders.”

She shook her head. “I’ve put all that behind me. My students . . .and Kasumi and her child . . .need me.”

“You are now mother and grandmother all in one fell swoop,” he said with a gentle laugh.

She turned on the stool and looked up at him. “Are you happy?”

“I’m with you. How could I not be?”

At that moment his scarred face was the most beautiful face in the world. Her eyes filled with tears.

***

Chiyo made a call to Masako. “I have a child I want you to meet. She has had no piano lessons yet, but I believe she may be a musical genius.”

***

Alone for the first time on a train, going to visit her sobo, Aika saw the cherry trees through the window. They rained their petals down on the verdant spring grass. In her head she heard piano keys and scales.

***

With her infant sound asleep, Kasumi looked through the nursery window to the garden she had planted in her apartment building courtyard surrounded by cherry trees. As a newly graduated horticulturalist it was her first accomplishment.

***

Through the window of the kitchen, Masako looked out at the cherry tree blossoms. She felt better having returned to Kasumi’s parents the extra money she had received from them.

***

Chiyo placed her hand on the window pane and looked out at the cherry trees. Just before she took her last breath, she said, “That what you see through the window.”

Mado kara mieru.

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 590 short stories – new and reprints – 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. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, being published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers is due out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.

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