This is the sixth part of Hanako's arc in 'After the Dream', my post-Lilly-neutral-end mosaic.
Note: As usual, while Hanako begins in 2028, a year of many interesting events, she ends up in quite another year, one that must be 2044. The 2028 section takes place at the same time as this part of Emi's arc, and before this part of Lilly's arc.
Hanako 6: Flowers (T +20)
It took me many years to learn that people may speak the truth—about the deepest things, about themselves, and about others—without knowing that they do so. They might instead think they are talking about tea, or thermodynamics.
In doing so, they make ghosts for the future. It’s only when we feel the chill, many years down the line, that we make the connection. We remember the sensation of a ghost walking over one’s own grave, as if it were only yesterday.
But I’m not getting any younger, and I’m getting too far in advance of my story. Or am I? As you age, everything you know is in advance of your story—which is why you can tell that story in the first place. Dear readers, pardon me then as I go back to the years just after the funeral, and then those of the year of my most recent past.
5 August 2028
For a few years now, I’ve made it a point to get back to Sendai for Tanabata. I’m not the only one; although I was not born there, my friends and I have been linked by many events, taking place in many summers over the years.
Over time, the wine of melancholy ages, and it is rich, if not so sweet. This is the fourth August since Hisao Nakai passed, and I have duties and privileges connected to that, for he and I always have kept faith between us.
Emi’s mother, now a grandmother with two grandchildren in tow, looks up and smiles at me. She’s wearing something decently sober, but still looks vivacious.
“Hello, Hanako! So happy you could make it!”
Her hair tosses in the breeze as she stands outside the cemetery gates. A little boy with tufty chestnut hair is hiding behind her long skirts, but his sister is beaming.
“Aunty Hana! You came!”
“Yes, I d-did! Aww, look at you, you’re so cute! Come give Aunty a h-h… whoof.”
My goddaughter Akiko is eight, and bright, and very pretty, and very, very strong for her age. I carefully get up, having just caught myself from falling over backwards completely and looking more than just a little undignified. I attempt to return the hug, find myself too tightly held to do it properly, and then resort to guile.
“I have a b-birthday present for you. Would you like to see?”
She keeps her hands on my shoulders and leans back to look into my eyes. Unnerving, those murky bronze-green irises in the afternoon sun. She’ll be breaking hearts with them one day.
“Yes!” she says emphatically. Then she pauses, frowns, and adds, “But not till after midnight, cos that’s when I was born. Tomorrow.”
Yes, indeed. Which is why we are here today, although the anniversary of the funeral is tomorrow and the death was two days before that. It isn’t considered auspicious to celebrate birthdays and remember death-days at the same time. I give her one last squeeze and get to my feet.
“Mom and Aunty Rin in there?”
“Yeah,” she whispers, with a touch of gloom. She’s old enough to remember her father, and it strikes me that our whole story is full of missing parents. And that is why we spend some time leaning against Meiko’s car in mutual melancholy, the eight-year-old and the soon-to-be-forty spinster who is supposedly her spiritual mentor, when Emi and Rin emerge.
I greet Emi with a little bow and a big hug. She is in a pensive mood, what I think of as Emi-negative, but seems to cheer up a lot when she sees me. She nods back and her return-hug is warm and real.
“Hey, you made it! I thought you said evening, and I was afraid we’d miss you!”
She’s got her formal legs today, and they put her nearer my eye-level. She wrinkles her nose a little and gives me a mischievous look.
“Hey, is it true? Is he somewhere around?”
Sigh. Soon, all this will have to be resolved. At this point in my life, I am hoping so much for happiness, and fearing so much that I will lose it.
I whisper, “I-I don’t quite know, Emi. Will let you know when things are f-firmer.”
Meanwhile, Rin has sauntered over. With a little frown, she says to me, “He’s very hard to hear today. You’ll have to listen carefully. But if you’re reading to him, I guess it doesn’t matter so much. Mind the butterfly.”
I have no idea what she means.
“Hello, Rin. It’s n-nice to meet again.”
I’m actually not completely sure of this. Rin always triggers such conflicting emotions in me. She did care for Hisao, and does care for Emi and the kids, in her own way. But it’s a way that is sometimes beyond my understanding.
Rin wanders towards the children, who latch onto her shirtsleeves like a pair of very specialized extra limbs. She doesn’t seem to mind, and Meiko turns to me.
“Hanako dear, why don’t you go on ahead? I’ll be taking a longer time, and it’s probably best I bring the kids in last, after you. Then you can all catch up while this old lady deals with her own memories.”
That works for me, and everyone is satisfied with the plan. Meiko Ibarazaki has always been a thoughtful shaper of events. You can see it in the pots she made, a selection of which now reside in a little museum in the eastern Pyrenees.
“Hello, Hisao,” I begin as always. It’s just the two of us, and my stutter disappears almost completely. I am a little shocked to see a bright little butterfly painted on his stone, just under his name, but I recall what Rin said, and guess that Emi must have allowed it.
“I’ve brought you some classical poetry today, and also, maybe talking to you might help me clear my mind.”
There’s a form to such things. Despite my years of trans-Atlantic journeying, I am still a shy Japanese girl at heart, and due formality between friends, even across the divide of the quick and the dead, is an observance that gives us peace.
So I bow and kneel beside my friend’s grave, and begin. It’s a 9th-century poem that I read this time, and I’m afraid I cannot translate it well, out of my native language.
On the paths of dream
I walk with you forever
But our long friendship
Is but a single glimpse
In the real world, where you are not.
“W-well, that’s not quite true, H-Hisao. I see you in Emi’s eyes and the faces of your children, and in many other t-things.”
I pause, collecting myself and thinking sadly of how Komachi must have felt when writing those lines.
“H-Hisao, I’m in love again, unsought and inconvenient. But I think it is true love. I’m an old maid, but he says he has waited long for me. In that, he’s like his master, and also his sister. Hideaki thinks that he’s your disciple, and his steadfast affection for me is very like yours. I never saw it coming. What do I do?”
Of course he says nothing in the real world, where he is not. But today, unusually, there is a butterfly on the stone, and the late afternoon’s light has made it look almost alive. The wind ruffles the leaves in the trees and a faint scent of funereal lilies comes to my nostrils from afar. Then, I know what the answer must be.
8 August 2044
Twenty years have passed since we laid Hisao to rest; almost fifteen since we buried Emi next to him. Still, I am here at the time of the Sendai Tanabata festival, because promises should never be broken.
This year it’s very different. My bear of a husband is surprisingly uncomfortable with this particular tradition of mine, and he’s with our two children at our usual summer residence. My sole companion for today looks at me apologetically, as if shy to be asking.
“Aunt Hana? Shall I wait at the gate, or would you like me to be with you?”
The little girl I knew is now an amazon. Her hair shines like copper and she represents our country in the heptathlon. Her brief hug is gently crushing as I motion to her to wait for me. She lets me go, offers a little wave, and settles down.
This year was a cold year, with much rain. The weather systems of the world have changed since my youth. However, the light fills the old cemetery today, and besides the scents of damp grass and old fruit and stone, the world here is all summer.
There are four markers now. Emi’s mother joined her husband in March, as the cherry blossoms bloomed. I’d like to think they’re happy together now, but I know that’s just sentimentality. Sentimentality or not, I’ve always found talking to Hisao, and even Emi, a meditative experience worth having.
Today is indeed very different. There’s someone else here, with an armful of flowers.
“H-hello?” I manage, somewhat disconcerted. There are times I’ve encountered one or two of our other friends, but those are rare, and often planned.
She turns gracefully to face me. For the first time in a long while, I feel an atavistic terror. It’s like looking into a mirror. My face was repaired six months ago by Nakai Foundation biotechnologists. It’s still a new sensation to me, to feel the odd smoothness and see strange and unfamiliar flesh.
The woman before me has the same long hair. The same face, almost, but a perfect one that has not been marked by fire and pain. And she could fit into any of my clothes.
She bows to return my greeting.
“Ah, I’m so sorry. My family name is Endo. An old friend of mine is buried here.”
If she had said ‘Ikezawa’ I would have fainted. Things like this happen at the margins of life and death, and when they do, you’ve entered a fantasy novel.
“Good afternoon, Endo-san. My family name is Ikezawa. What is your friend’s name?”
“Good afternoon, Ikezawa-san. His name is Nakai. He is buried here with his wife’s family, very unusual.”
I hear myself say, as if from a very great distance, “Oh, h-how interesting. I m-myself am here to visit his grave. We were g-good friends. It’s the anniversary of his burial. D-did you know him well?”
I receive an apologetic look, from this middle-aged woman who looks uncannily like me. I am staring. I can’t help it. There are obvious differences, like the fuller lips and the small mole on the right cheek. Not many.
She sighs abruptly, as if releasing a lot of air that she’s been keeping for too long inside her. She gives me a small, cautious smile. She looks weary and a little sad, and yet manages to look glamorous.
“No, not very well. I was passing through the area when I realized that he’d gone to a nearby school. So I made a little pilgrimage and asked if they had records. Then they sent me here.”
I feel something deep rising from the waters of the past. Innocently, she continues.
“It’s a bit personal, but maybe, as you’re a close friend of his?”
She seems to be asking a favour of me. I nod, unable to speak. She takes a moment and then begins to tell me her story.
“About forty years ago, I had a big crush on him. Then I gave him a heart attack…”
Akiko finally comes looking for me. I’ve spent some time talking to Hisao, keeping the faith between us.
The bouquet of white chrysanthemums lies silent on his grave. The woman who carried them has left.
“Aunt Hana? Are you okay?”
“Coming, dear. Just had a f-funny thought, that’s all. Talking it over with your father.”
“It’s all right, I’m sure Dad won’t mind. Mom always said you were one of his closest friends.”
“Sometimes I wonder if he ever really thought I was p-pretty.”
“Awww. What brought that on? Everyone says he thought you were beautiful.”
She mentions it as a matter of fact, as if telling me that the sun is shining.
“Whose flowers are those?”
She kneels next to me to look more closely at them. I feel her put an arm around her godmother, who is feeling old and fragile but a lot less ugly now.
“It’s nothing really, Aki-chan. Those flowers? They’re from s-someone he used to know a long, long time ago.”