This is the fifth part of Hideaki's arc in my post-Lilly-neutral-end mosaic, 'After the Dream'.
It takes place in 2022, a few months before the events described here in Shizune's arc.
For Misha's story, see here and here.
For the events in Edinburgh, see also here and here.
Hideaki 5: Learning (T -2)
I am Hideaki Hakamichi. In the cycle of twelve years since I abandoned my best friend to her death, and in the four years since my mentor was married, I have learnt many things. Sometimes, to drag your readers through pain with you is gratuitous. Sometimes, it is educational. I hope I will be wise enough to tell.
That is the sort of thing I used to write in my journal, aged twenty-seven and with some experience of death and grief, life and love, uncertainty and doubt. Most of all, Hideaki just past his quarter-century doubted that he was always right, and sometimes came to believe that he was often wrong.
For this section of my life, dear readers, I have sought counsel once more from my wise and beautiful lady wife. Yes, I have teased her about her editorial skills and her sharp fingernails (which are sometimes decorated with little painted flowers, and occasionally very cute cartoon animals)—ouch, ouch, woman, stop
—but I have many things to say and am sometimes at a loss as to how they should be said. So I am grateful for her work. See, wife, I said it, and it’s true!
Many of our friends have shared these experiences with us, and you will meet many of them again. I trust that what I share tarnishes nobody in your eyes. I shall continue here from where I ended the last time, and bring you with me through four years of my life.
The central event of 2018, for most people in the Yamaku circle, was the wedding of Hisao Nakai to Emi Ibarazaki in the dandelion field on Mount Aoba. Since I was Hisao’s best man, it was certainly an important occasion for me as well. I had few profound thoughts, however: in the main, I was concerned with the disposition of the gifts received, the honeymoon arrangements, and how Emi would murder me if I lost the rings en route to the ceremony. I spent time looking after Hisao’s parents, who were very nice people. I also wondered as to why Akira was hanging out with certain school staff.
But this was not the event which most shook me. Rather, it was what happened at the end of Autumn that year…
I have just returned on a chilly November evening from a visit to Sachiko. Being involved in a wedding and watching people had made me feel a little mournful. There had been so many hidden stories—clearly Hisao and Emi were happy, and their parents too, but some people had pain behind their eyes, and I didn’t know why. If their pain was like mine, then I could understand.
Preoccupied, I share a relatively quiet dinner with Father. Father was often noisy and dramatic, but he respected my need for silence on the days he knew I’d been with Sachi-chan. It is a clear, windy night, and the stars are out over Saitama. Even the glow from Tokyo can’t conceal them.
Then my hair stands on end. Somewhere outside, is that… the sound of a girl crying? My thoughts of Sachiko return like hunting hawks. We Japanese have all kinds of stories about spirits. Even if you don’t believe in them, it’s a cultural infusion that runs deep in our blood.
My father hears it a moment later, but responds differently. He growls, “Young people these days, taking drugs, vandalizing the neighbourhood, a man can’t get a peaceful night.”
He rises, strides to the wall and hits the floodlight controls. A brave man, Father. If there’s been a ghost, it will be shredded into ectoplasmic wisps by either his lighting or his katana.
But there is sobbing. I can hear it clearly now. Unnerved, I follow the angry presence of my father as he walks out into the yard and flings open the gates.
“Damn kids! I’ll kill them all!” he roars. If I’d been some spirit, I’d have floated away as fast as I could.
Then suddenly, he stops. I’m a little dazzled by the lights, and some distance behind him. I don’t hear what he says next, very softly, almost tenderly. He’s bending down over an indistinct figure in the shadow of the gatepost.
“Father, what’s happening?”
He turns smoothly but he’s lifting a load with careful effort. It’s a woman, and she’s keening softly, as if in pain or injured. A battered travel bag sits forlorn on the sidewalk under the harsh amber glow.
Father’s saying, again and again, “There, there, it’s okay, you’re safe now.”
He looks at me, “It’s Misha, Shi-chan’s friend.”
We bring her into the house, but she is dazed, moaning. There are old bruises and marks, on her face and elsewhere. Underneath is still the pretty face of the woman we know, but it has been brutally changed.
Someone has repaired her, looked after her. Her left arm is in a cast. I get a basin of warm water as Father holds her gently, and I wipe her face, arms and legs.
“Shicchan?” she whispers, tears rolling down her face and her eyes tightly shut. She repeats my sister’s name over and over again, unresponsive to what we say.
That night, Father and I bring her to Sendai, where Shizune is still at work. I hold her hand firmly, tell her that things will be okay, hush her to sleep again as Father drives our battered car swiftly through the darkness like a sword wielded by a demon.
We get to Yamaku hours after midnight. Father wakes the guards and demands to see Shizune. I can actually see the single office light still on in the administration block, where the principal’s corner office is located. He won’t take no for an answer, and the guard gets the point quickly and brings us to my sister.
Sis is shocked, but she reacts instinctively, and comforts Misha. She too begins to cry, as she sees the traces of what her friend’s been through. There’s anger in those tears, and a deep, deep love.
We spend the next few days in Sendai. My father takes care of everything. He makes soup for Misha, gently persuades her to eat. If I am to become a man, this is the kind of man I must be.
A few months later, even as the year has turned and become new, I have come to know Misha and my sister much better. Indeed, I have learnt quite a bit about the tensions and the glories of a relationship in which two people care deeply for each other. It might be said that Father taught me how to distribute love, while Sis taught me to concentrate it.
I don’t know if that’s quite right. However, I learn something more when I find myself on a ‘dream date’ cunningly set up by the Master of Romance himself.
“Hakamichi-san. I am rather surprised at this odd, and possibly awkward, turn of events.”
The woman before me has just executed possibly the most flawless bow of greeting since Katsuyama herself. I flush a little, realizing that I have just, by Freudian slip, equated my companion with one of the most famous geishas of all time, and am filled with consternation that I am thus led to think of equally famous hairstyles. I do not normally think so haphazardly.
Hastily, I return the bow but with greater deference, knowing that I should have bowed first.
“Ah, respected senior lady. My friend Nakai-san is known to have a quirky sense of humour. He did me the honour of recommending this restaurant to me, suggesting that I would meet a friend and enjoy a good meal.”
“Tsk. Nakai-san is greatly respected also by this person, but perhaps the senior gentleman has overstated the degree of friendship which has been hitherto demonstrated.”
She is smiling a little as she says this. I am on my guard; in my studies, we have occasionally learnt things about certain ancient institutions, and to be sitting opposite the nominal heir of one such is indeed both peril and honour.
“I am greatly honoured, nevertheless, Katayama-san.”
We have met once before, on the day I delivered Hisao’s wedding invitation to her. I cannot remember seeing her at the wedding itself, and that contributes to my sense of imbalance.
Over the course of the meal, I imagine Akira laughing over my shoulder at my enforced formality. Hisao, of course, would be turning purple with helpless humour—this is the kind of Shakespeare-style ‘innocent coincidence’ he so enjoys. And… Sachiko would be mocking me for my taste in ‘tall elegant ladies’.
But Rika Katayama, while amazingly beautiful, is also terrifying. Subconsciously, she coils and uncoils her whiplike braid of silver hair with her left hand. I know she is trained in several martial arts, according to the stories Hisao tells, and I know why, according to the legends of the Families. It’s only over dessert that I’m finally feeling more comfortable.
“Hakamichi-san has the look of a man who is bearing a secret love in his heart. If this one may offer some advice?”
“Oh, of course, honoured lady.”
“One should seize the moment quickly, but increase one’s grip on its neck slowly. The river runs swiftly at its source; yet, it is most useful to all as it descends to the plain. To the point, if Hakamichi-san has decided that he has love for someone, it is time to focus on that person and perhaps test this love cautiously and sensitively.”
I do not know how to respond to that, since I have not decided yet. Or have I? Still a little discomfited by her reddish irises, I decide to put some cards on the table.
“Katayama-san, may I ask if you have perhaps felt this way before? Or, if that is too impolite a question from this inexperienced person, is there anyone you have seriously admired?”
She laughs delicately.
“It is long since any man has asked such probing questions of this unbeautiful person. This one shall answer once for each question.”
I await her answers with bated breath, and must confess a sudden disappointment at what she says next.
“Yes. And yes.”
Seeing my clearly crestfallen expression, she relents, still smiling.
“One used to think affectionate thoughts of a certain person, and made a fool of oneself doing it. It is perhaps unlikely that one will find oneself in such a position again. As to admiration, one can safely confess that one looked up much to one’s lady seniors at Todai—Hakamichi-san’s distinguished sister and her classmate, Ikezawa-san.”
That is certainly very interesting, I think.
“Hakamichi-san would do well if he found an interest in a lady of equivalent quality. Clearly, he would know his own sister well, but this would not necessarily help much—familiarity can be an obstacle to the kind of relationship considered here.”
Which leaves me…. where? Oh gods, Hisao Nakai, are you playing Grandmaster of Romance now? Clearly Rika has taken herself off the table, but that was never the game. I have been pointed in exactly one direction, and it is with surprise that I realize I have been looking there all along.
Time passes. Too quickly, it is August in 2020, and I have accompanied cousin Akira and our friend Hanako back to Edinburgh on one of our increasingly frequent jaunts across the Eurasian continent. I am entertaining sad thoughts about the nature of love. The Anderson-Satou alliance is wealthy; Akira travels business-class at least once a month, and it would have been no great hardship for her sister Lilly to have done likewise over the last twelve years.
And yet… as I trudge around on a pleasant Tuesday evening in Edinburgh, all alone, I remember Hisao’s sad, sad face from summer break in August 2008. He, my sister Shizune and Hanako had decided to drag me along to Sendai. Apparently, they wanted to celebrate the Tanabata festival and enjoy the fireworks display from a quiet spot on Mount Aoba. Out of nowhere, as coloured fire blooms in the darkness, he whispers to me, or perhaps to nobody at all, “She said she’d be here.”
But of course, ‘she’ wasn’t. And neither was she at his wedding a decade later. As I half-heartedly look at happy Edinburghers (I’ve heard them referred to as ‘Dunedain’, but I am sure this is a joke), I wonder if she has deliberately avoided Hisao so as to spare herself the pain of failure if anything should go poorly. Did they really love one another? What is true love?
Because, dear reader, at this point in time, Hideaki is grappling with this. He owes a debt to lost Sachiko that he can never repay. He dreams of being the dashing warrior who will sweep Hanako Ikezawa off her feet. Is this love, or merely romanticism?
My phone buzzes softly. So early? Have the girls already decided to call it a night? I have kept sober, since I am designated driver and they have decided to celebrate Tanabata in their own way—in some mysterious ritual out of bounds to mortal men like me, but certainly alcoholic, since Akira is involved.
When I get back to Northern Light
, the restaurant that Akira and Lilly own, my elder cousin looks embarrassed and the other two are in tears. Tanabata has got to them, with all its burden of unconsummated passion and unfulfilled dreams, I suppose.
The drive back to Inverness is somber indeed, and ends near midnight, as I haul my lanky frame out of the black Range Rover. Akira’s been riding shotgun, and has been uncharacteristically silent throughout. She favours me with a melancholic half-smile as she helps Lilly out on the left side.
Hanako’s on this side, and as I open the door for her, I take the opportunity to examine her face. Her fair complexion is blotchy in the moonlight, and her scarred side remains hidden by the shadow of her long tresses. She is still shaky, and on impulse, I press a little packet of tissue paper into her hand.
She looks down in surprise, and then raises her eyes to me gratefully. My heart stutters. I wordlessly grasp her other hand and escort her through the heavy doors of the Anderson-Satou mansion.
Later that night, I am finishing my latest journal entry in the library. A faint sound catches my attention—the distant tinkling of Lilly’s music box, that token of Hisao’s unforgotten love. What a strange thing love is, that makes people yearn to be together, and yet cannot bridge a simple gap across the world!
It appears that I am not the only one sensitive to this. A door creaks softly in the gloom of the half-lit house and soon, I hear the muffled sounds of slippered feet. I rise from my armchair and look out into the corridor, swinging the library door ajar.
Like a gowned spectre, beautiful but doomed, Hanako is gliding towards me. I shake that strange vision out of my head.
“So late, l-little one?” she whispers.
Hanako has called me that for years, even though I now tower over her. But I bow and invite her into the dim golden light.
“Elder sister, this one’s mind is always running around in circles. So he writes his thoughts down in vain attempts to keep them behaving well.”
She smiles and nods.
“That is a good habit, Hideaki. But you are twenty-five this year? Maybe you should just call me H-Hanako and I can try not to call you ‘little’, which you are obviously not.”
It’s a good start, and as we make small talk into the wee hours of the night, both of us find a certain measure of peace.
There are many proverbs about failure from inaction, and about fools who storm castles. The ‘castle’ at hand is a familiar one, but as you will see, Hideaki is not the kind to take the most direct route. Sadly, he is still a novice at storming castles, and in some ways, a fool. Poor Hideaki.
Over the years, my life has come to revolve around the month of April. Both Hisao and Rika were born in the early part of the month, and after celebrating their birthdays, I return to Saitama to visit Sachiko on her death-day. The end of the month brings Hanako on her annual pilgrimage to her hometown, although she has never, as far as I can tell, invited anyone to go with her. It does, however, mean that when Shizune’s birthday rolls round in early May, I have sometimes had expert help in choosing a present.
“How was your trip, Hana-nechan?” I say, falling into step beside her outside Narita and lifting her rather heavy luggage.
“Oh! Hideaki! You n-needn’t have.”
“Ah, my sister invites you to Saitama for the Kachiya festival and her birthday, who else would she send to ease your travels?”
She looks slightly disappointed, as if I have done this only under compulsion. I hasten to correct this impression.
“But the best things in life are when you can please the women and please yourself, as Father likes to say. I came because I have missed you.”
Actually, I am surprised at my own boldness. That last line was not in the script. Looking her in the eyes, I see that she too is taken aback, and there is the beginning of a blush.
“Y-you’re joking, little one.”
“Perhaps, but it’s not much of a joke. Who else would help me buy an appropriate present for my sister? Father’s never been much help.”
I dump her luggage in the back of Father’s battered blue SUV.
“Are you tired?”
“Not really… napped on the plane. I always feel a little tired after visiting my parents. Why?”
“Ah, I thought we might take a more leisurely drive back.”
“Hideaki, you’re being devious again. Shizune will not be happy if we’re late!”
What I have in mind is a visit to Todai. The Faculties of Law and Letters sit entwined just next to the main gate, and I am anxious to see if Hanako will perhaps see some symbolic meaning in that. Besides, I can always pass it off as nostalgia for a shared experience of sorts.
The relatively short drive is filled with talk about Shizune and how appropriate the Kachiya festival is for her, commemorating an ancient victory as it does. We are in good spirits as we begin our stroll through the campus, still chatting.
“Did you enjoy your time here? I know I did.”
“This is a pleasant surprise. Yes, I had many g-good times here.”
“I am sure you broke many hearts each day at the Faculty of Letters.”
It is lighthearted banter, that is all it is. But a shadow passes over her face.
We have stopped in the middle of the old buildings. I look at her, bemused.
“I appreciate that you’re being n-nice to me. Always. But nobody looks at me a second time except to look away. This is n-not the time to make fun.”
“I… I was not making fun.”
“I have known your sister for many years, and I’ve watched you grow up. You can be b-blunt and insensitive about Lilly’s blindness and Shizune’s deafness. But you do not dare talk about my f-face. W-why?”
The right half of her face carries the marks of healed burns, partly softened by time, but not pleasing to the eye. She wears her hair long to cover it. Of course, I have never mentioned this. She is beautiful in many other ways. What else can I say? My next words are blurted out, in some sort of desperation.
“I do not think it is relevant! I think you are beautiful.”
For some reason, she is getting agitated.
“Do not think to pity m-me. It is k-kind of you, but you must learn to be honest with your f-friends. We should go.”
She turns on her heel, pauses a moment to let me catch up, and begins to walk back to the car. She is wrong. I don’t pity her. Do I? Am I being honest? These questions swirl around me like flies, as we drive back to Saitama in silence.
Days later, she consents to help me buy a present for Shizune, but our relationship (such as it is) still seems strained, and things are not at their best between us. I am learning many things about myself, and I am not sure I like what I am learning. Poor Hideaki, indeed.
April is the cruelest month, a great poet once said. But it need not remain that way. I am kneeling again, a year later on a springtime morning, at Sachiko’s grave.
“My dear Sachiko, I am here to tell you that it is once more the year of the Tiger. One full cycle has closed. I have not forgotten you. Though my heart seeks another, a part of it is always yours. The sun sets, the sun rises. I am here again.”
I stay to speak with her for a while, to unburden myself of the weight of the last few months. Perhaps it is too long after dawn, or perhaps my meditation has taken too long. Perhaps it is only a long-deferred event of fate, but I hear the voices before I can make my usual exit.
“Hey? What’s this?”
A loud, unpleasant, nasal voice—one which I cannot quite place.
“Good morning, may I ask what you’re doing here?” it continues.
I rise, looming over the speaker. And his family. Damn it. I know who this is, knew it would happen some day. I bow politely, hoping not to be recognized, and knowing that I will fail. They return my bow, and the children follow suit.
“Ah. I have come to pay annual respects to an old friend.”
“Hakamichi-san? Good morning! How unusual to find you here! Husband, this is Shizune Hakamichi’s brother, Hideaki.”
“I suppose it explains why he is putting flowers on her grave. He used to be best friends with her in school, if I remember correctly. Sachi-chan mentioned him a few times.”
“Really? Oh! What a coincidence!”
I have wronged this family. The old guilt returns, threatens to overwhelm me. What can one do, in the face of such a burden? Tradition and formality are designed to facilitate such things, as my father would point out.
“Ah, perhaps this is overdue. This person offers deep regrets on your loss. Very unworthily, he has not offered these regrets in person for twelve years. It is a matter of personal sadness and the sense that one has performed execrably with regard to one’s best friend.”
My gaze remains firmly pointed at the ground between us.
“No, no. It was a damn long time ago. There isn’t a debt between us, unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, haha.”
The kids look at us in bewilderment. I am as confused as they. Especially when he launches into an emotional monologue that is loud and a little dramatic.
“Seeing as you were her best friend… Well, when Sachi passed on, it shook me up. I realized I’d been insane for years. I’d like to think it was a last kick in my butt from her. You don’t know you love people until they’re gone, you know. It changed me. People you love that much can’t be evil. Maybe I was wrong about everything. That sort of shit. Over, now.”
He looks reflectively at her grave, with my sad flowers already wilting there in the morning sun. He sighs, flips up his inappropriately bright scarf, and adjusts his thick glasses.
“Where are my manners? I’m still so rude after all these years!”
He introduces himself properly, but I already know who he is. Things fall into our moment of silence, as Kenji and Yuuko, and their children and I, look at the memorial of the one we share.
— to the memory of Sachiko Setou (18 Apr 1995 – 15 Apr 2010)