The murmurs began just close enough for her to hear.
She will never succeed as a nurse. She is too slow, too dim. She would forget her own name if not for it stitched upon her uniform. Her head is too high in the clouds to notice the changing world around her.
When she married the military doctor, a veteran from the war, the voices continued.
She is so young and he is so old. Too highly of an educated man for the likes of her. It was those dark eyes of hers. So bewitching. The doctor didn’t stand a chance when she looked at him that way. Too bad for him, there is nothing in that head of hers to support her looks.
The voices only increased in volume as the years passed. As buildings began to westernize, televisions began connecting the world, and tennis shoes lined the shelves of the genkan.
How are they still without child? They have such a big home next to Misagozaki Shrine. Such a pity it has remained empty all these years. She is useless even as a wife.
When the cry of a newborn echoed in that old house no one had time to congratulate the couple. People had walked on the moon. Humanity had touched the stars. Who had time for a woman whose head was only in the clouds. A child who came too late. And a doctor too blind to care for his patients properly.
The funeral was formal and quiet. Kneeling before the shrine perched on the mountain, the woman said good-bye to her husband. Their daughter, who had just begun to touch adulthood, stood silently beside her.
It was said that the woman who lived near Misagosaki shrine was always alone. She worked diligently in the hospital to pay for her daughter to go to an expensive foreign school. Though the hospital was bustling with voices, she tended not to say much. The young staff wondered why she seemed so distant from others.
The wedding was held in a big city, far from any old whispers of the empty-headed woman. No one here knew her or her daughter’s past. But the wedding was filled with hope for this successful business man and his new, modern wife. The aging woman dutifully poured tea for the guests who did not even know her name.
The neighbor down the hill assured her that retirement suit her well now that her daughter was being taken care of by a good man. And the doctor had left her well supported in that nice house on the mountainside. Life would be easy now that old age had settled upon her. No one dare speak against her as the matriarch of the family.
The woman thanked her neighbor for the advice, and walked up the stairs to return to her empty home.
It was a sweltering, humid day when the cry of another newborn filled the withered house that stood next to the Misagozaki shrine. That daughter had returned now with her infant son. The father was far too busy to tend to his wife or child at this time. And the wife was not the same since giving birth. Small whispers of “baby blues” discouraged visitors and potential acquaintances. It was up to the old woman to care for her grandchild.
Delighted squeals filled the bathroom as she slowly emptied the water bucket on his head. The infant blinked repeatedly as water dripped into his eyes, little hands reaching out in an attempt to hold the stream of water. She watched him, her heart brimming with adoration.
As she wrapped the freshly washed child up in a towel, she cradled his head in the crook of her elbow.
“Aw, Haruka. Baa-baa loves you.”
Three Years Together
“Ah, Haruka! Look!”
They were working together in her small garden. Spring had begun to infect the death of winter with secret pockets of green. It was time to clear the garden and prepare it for another year of tending. Beside her, Haruka had taken to washing the rocks she had given him as she aerated the soil. Setting her trowel down, she shifted her knees to better present her find to her grandson.
“This rock looks like a fish, don’t you think?” she asked, voice warm with her discovery. The basket of aquatic stuffed animals in her grandson’s room assured her that her find would be appreciated.
Said grandson looked up at her with her daughter’s blue eyes shadowed under her son-in-law’s long lashes. A look of concentration that was entirely his own twisted his brow. He studied the rock intently, though his hands remained stationed at his sides.
In the palm of her hand was one of the many small granite stones that seemed to sprout in her mountainside garden after each winter. However, as she gently brushed the dirt off with an index finger, several prominent indentations disfigured the stone into a familiar shape. Her widening smile and small nod finally prompted Haruka to accept the offering with two hands.
“Do you want to name it Saba and add it to your collection?” she continued, though he had not answered her previous question. Haruka chose not to answer again and instead turned back to the basin of water he had been using to clean the rocks his grandmother had given him. Easily crouching down to rest on his heels, he dipped his new friend in the water several times to remove the last of the dirt.
It was enough for her to see him pleased with her offering. So she shifted her weight back to face her beginnings of a garden and began to dig again.
This year, she hoped to get her radishes in fast enough so that, once they were harvested, she could sow a last crop of peas in their place. She looked forward to those September evenings where she could sit on the engawa and shell her pea harvest while watching the sun slowly dye their village gold as it set behind the mountains. Perhaps Haruka would be old enough to help her then. He seemed to enjoy working with his hands. Already he could write his name and have it be nearly legible.
A small sniffle brought her back to the current chilly March morning. Looking over her shoulder, she investigated the sound. Her discovery had her slowly raising herself to her full height and then walking quickly over to her grandson.
“If you wanted to swim with Saba, you only had to ask. Now you’re drenched, dear.”
Haruka sniffled again from where he was seated inside his basin, his shorts sodden and sweatshirt quickly absorbing the last of the water. Still, Haruka dipped Saba in and out of the water with satisfying ripples. Only a sneeze broke Saba’s patterned dance.
“Your mother won’t be happy to see you sick,” she chided as she lifted Haruka from his perch. A trail of water followed them as she brought him inside. Already, he had begun to shiver. A warm bath was in order. Her garden would have to wait.
Afterward, as they sat together for lunch, his mother was indeed not happy to see a perpetual drip under her son’s nose. He was scolded and his grandmother watched as he determinedly refused to meet his mother’s gaze. She was also scolded by her daughter for not being more attentive. She promised to be more vigilant.
Once her daughter had retired back to her room, the old woman suggested to Haruka that they take a walk along the coastline. Haruka only had to promise to not get his clothes wet. It would do no good to break their promise so soon and upset his mother again.
They made their way through the tori and down the steps. The chill of a lingering winter sea breeze tousled their hair. Grandmother counted seabirds with Haruka as they walked down the lane and across the Matsuki Bridge. Haruka’s eyes obediently followed his Grandmother’s extended finger as she named one bird and then another. Swinging Haruka down the step that separated concrete from sand, they walked along the coast until Haruka paused by her side. Together they stood on the shore, the ocean’s song filling the silence.
Then Haruka took three steps forward. The ocean foam threatening to kiss the toes of his shoes. She watched as Haruka carefully took a deep breath in before quickly throwing his arm forward. Saba flew from Haruka’s open palm to plop in the shifting surf.
Together, they watched as Saba slowly was drawn into the sand. Its fin seeming to twitch as it skittered along until finally it dived into a particularly strong wave.
A cool wind rustled the loose hair upon her brow. She reached for Haruka’s hand, and he easily wrapped his cold fingers around her garden-soiled palm.
“Do you think Saba will be happy in the ocean?” she asked.
After a moment of silence, Haruka answered in a clear voice.
“Yeah. Saba can swim free in the ocean.”
She tightened her hold on his hand, a new warmth filling her. Together, the two walked home, the ocean sighing happily behind them.
Six Years Together
The tv spoke softly, barely audible over the the hum of cicadas outside. The shoji were open to ventilate the house while the night air was cool. She sat upon her zabuton , crochet hook carefully looping a repeating pattern of knots with a long strand of green yarn. Haruka sat beside her, crayons laid out neatly in their box as he took one at a time to work on his art piece. His mother had resigned for the night, complaining of too much sun exposure from when she had taken Haruka to the playground earlier in the day.
“Haruka, mother said you were a good boy today.” Grandmother commented, her eyes lifting easily from her work to glance at Haruka’s drawing.
It depicted a sand castle heroically manned by two people. She smiled as she noted how dutifully he had drawn every stick toe and finger on their oversized limbs.
“I guess.” Haruka responded simply, returning the brown to the container and then retrieving the orange to start on what she assumed was a dragon. “His mom wasn’t there and he was crying. I guess he was hurt or something.”
“And did you help him?” she asked, though she knew the answer.
“Mmm,” he affirmed. “We built a sand castle. He isn’t very good though.”
“Aw, not everyone has careful fingers like you, Haruka.”
At this, Haruka paused in his drawing to give his grandmother a stern look. “Yeah, but he is really not careful with his fingers! I told him to make a wall, and he made a hill. How will a hill protect a castle?”
“Maybe you can teach him how to make a wall next time.”
“Maybe... A moat too.” Haruka picked up a blue, and began carefully outlining a moat around his own castle. He stopped again while drawing the third fish in the moat, and looked quizzically at his grandmother.
“His family moved into the house at the bottom of the stairs. He will be joining your kindergarten class after summer break.”
“Oh,” Haruka mumbled. “That's no good. Ami-sensei won’t like that. There are already too many kids who cry in class.”
“Haruka, can I ask you to be a good friend to him? I am sure it must be very scary to go to a new school and not know anyone. It would be a very kind thing to look out for him.”
“No. Thats too much work,” he said dismissively as he gave his picture a once over before deeming it complete. Carefully slipping the crayon box closed, he stood up and made his way to his grandmother’s side signalling that he was done for the day and it was time for her to put him to bed.
She smiled as she continued her work, and he watched her hands carefully tuck loop after loop. With a clip of her scissors, she held up her completed creation. It was a small pouch with a fish stitched onto it, similar to the one she had given him that held his seashell collection.
“If it is so hard, why is it that we both are working on gifts for him?”
“I--! I’m not---!” Haruka’s face burned red as a rush of embarrassment and agitation twisted his expression. His Grandmother laid down her work and gently took his face in her hands. She pressed a kiss to his temple.
“Mmm, its okay Haruka. Its much easier to protect the castle with two people rather than just one.”
Haruka turned his face away from her view. “I don’t need anyone but you, Baa-baa,” he said defiantly, though his voice was low.
She ran a thumb across his cheek and rested it behind his ear. “Maybe Baa-baa wants to make friends too. And she needs your help. I want to give this bag to him. Will you help Baa-baa make a new friend?”
After a moment of hesitation, Haruka’s eyes slid back to meet hers and she knew her answer.
After the first day back at school, Haruka reported that he had given the gifts to their new neighbor and went on to list everything he knew about him. Grandmother listened patiently to all of Haruka’s observations and commented afterward that Tachibana Makoto seemed like nice boy.
Seven Years Together
The gardening this year was coming along much faster now that she had two helpers. Haruka and Makoto had become expert weed pullers. Though the sun shone hot above them, they dutifully worked while also sharing a bit of laughter together as well. Haruka surprised her with just how much he remembered about the different weeds that sprouted and how carefully he instructed Makoto with the correct technique to remove them. Haruka had also been correct when he had said that Makoto was not very good with his hands. Several times, Makoto would pull so forcefully that he ended up falling backwards once the root broke free. Haruka was patient with him however. And when Makoto would cry at the sight of a worm, Haruka would bravely remove the critter and relocate it a good distance away.
Makoto also kept very aware of Haruka. He frequently would ask for water even though Haruka refused to admit he was thirsty. He also brought matching sun hats after noticing the red never quite subsided from the tips of Haruka’s nose and ears. Makoto had even adopted a nickname for Haruka.
“Haru-chan , want some watermelon?” Makoto asked as he settled next to his friend who was currently rearranging the rock barrier that separated the garden from the lawn.
A twitch of the eye told her that Haruka did not quite appreciate the name. The smile that grew on Makoto’s face told her that he was well aware of Haruka’s feelings on the matter. Without any further answer, Makoto stood and walked to the engawa . With a little help up from Grandmother, Makoto seated himself next to her with his container of watermelon. Haruka followed immediately behind. With their dirt ridden shoes mindfully dangling from their perch, the three of them enjoyed the watermelon with Grandmother feeding them each their fair share.
The empty watermelon container kept her company as her two helpers went back to their work. Together, they shifted rocks and then cleaned the invading lawn from the spaces. Haruka would wrinkle his nose at something Makoto would say and then tug at Makoto’s hat to better cover his ears.
Grandmother had long since decided that she liked Makoto very much. He seemed to make Haruka very happy. He was able to keep Haruka company as the demands of yard work remained unyielding and she found herself unable to do as much as she had the years previous. Her heart sank at the thought of a future not too far away where only two pairs of muddy shoes would sit inside the genkan instead of three.
Until then, she still had time to spoil them. She had bought a single ice pop the other day that was now sitting in the freezer. It would be a nice treat for them to share once Haruka deemed the work done for the day.
The creak of wood paneling alerted her to a joining someone. It was her daughter. She seemed pale compared the summer-kissed faces of the children. She still wore her bed clothes, but seemed unashamed by the fact. Grandmother was pleased to have her with or without a proper pair of pants on. A bit of sun was always good to lift a dark mood.
“Do you think Makoto-san will be joining us for dinner,” her daughter asked. It was about mid-afternoon and a typical time for her daughter to stir from the house and begin the dinner-making process. Cooking was one of the few activities she still enjoyed, so Grandmother happily let her take care of that portion of housework.
“He will!” Haruka called over his shoulder without any prompting, hands still intent with his work. Makoto shot up beside him and bowed his greeting then followed it with a wave.
Grandmother tilted her head to the side with a low sigh. Haruka had grown to be especially aware of his mother and worked hard to never to burden her. When Makoto was not visiting, Haruka often would join his mother in the kitchen to cook. She believed that those times were especially important for her daughter and Haruka to share.
“Mm-mmm,” her daughter murmured an acknowledgement.
“Do you think he will be joining us for Obon this year?” she asked her daughter, voice now several decibels lower.
The woman beside her flinched at the question. A sharp look was directed at her. The same look of indignation her grandson had inherited.
Her daughter chewed the corner of her lip for a moment before answering. “No. The merger isn’t going smoothly. He said that it is not a good time for him to leave. But maybe by September….”
She knew her daughter meant, “Maybe by their wedding anniversary”, but declined to clarify. He was a good man who sustained their current livelihood. She just hoped that he would give himself the chance to be a good husband and father as well. His weekly letters to Haruka could only stand for so long.
A scream caught both of their attention. Haruka stood stiffly and Makoto was flailing beside him.
“Its just a beetle,” Haruka offered as he watched it crawl up his arm before it was swatted off by a frantic swing by Makoto.
“Haru-chan !” Makoto wailed as he fell to his knees. “It coulda’ hurt you!”
Haruka followed him down to the ground, quick to comfort his brave friend.
“Its okay, Makoto,” he murmured as he took a bit of his shirt to pat at Makoto’s teary face. “I’m okay. You’re okay. It was just a beetle.”
Her daughter shifted next to her as they both declined to assist in the situation for it happened quite often. She inhaled slowly before continuing, “So level-headed… Just like his father.”
“Mmm, Makoto-chan brings out a lot of good things from Haruka.”
“It is good that he has a friend his age. I began to worry that he would grow into another you. So quiet and sullen. Never letting himself be a kid--”. Her daughter’s voice cut off with a wet gulp and she quickly stood to excuse herself. Tears were not so uncommon for her either.
Grandmother continued to watch the children. Haruka also was a good boy. He worked very hard not to cause anyone to worry. To always stay strong.
But as she watched Makoto draw a dirt mustache across Haruka’s face and then burst out laughing at Haruka’s agitated expression, she wondered: Perhaps he could learn to be vulnerable as well.
Haruka then smudged a dirt beard on his own face, and Makoto laughed harder.
Weakness claimed every person. And, as she worked the blood back into her stiff legs, she hoped that someone would be there to comfort him when she could not.
Nine Years Together
She zipped up Haruka’s jersey and gave him a kiss on the forehead. He insisted that he and Makoto could walk to Iwatobi Swim Club on their own. When she hesitated at his initial declaration several weeks ago, he went on to prove his resoluteness to her by showing his swim bag he had packed on his own the night before as well as to recite three different emergency phone numbers in case of an accident.
Next to him, Makoto fidgeted with his own bag strap, eyes carefully studying the line of shoes at the genkan. She gave his forehead a kiss as well.
“Remember to be home before dark. The sun sets earlier everyday, so be mindful of that.”
They both bobbed their heads in understanding before slipping on their shoes and opening the front door.
“And Haruka! Take care of Makoto!”
Haruka glanced back and gave a short nod before sliding the door closed.
Though the rainy season had passed, the village was still picking itself up after a particularly intense storm had hit their small fishing village. Ever since then, things had been a bit off with her two boys. Makoto, a bit more reserved. Haruka, a bit more obstinate.
Since joining Iwatobi Swim Club, the two boys had loved to walk with her to and from the pool. She remembered their excitement returning home on that first day. Makoto spoke to Haruka through a clown fish keychain he had been given. The silly voice Makoto used caused even Haruka to break into laughter. She had provided some chirping sounds for Haruka as he wiggled his dolphin keychain about in response.
It had also become a tradition to always check the seabird nest hidden below the eaves of the tackle shop roof and count the eggs and then chicks who lived there. Now that it was decided that she no longer needed to accompany them, Haruka always reported on their growth once he got home from practice. Still, she wondered: Why? These adventures were always theirs. Why was he so set on being independent now?
And why did it seem to be the opposite for Makoto. Though play time was limited now that they were in second grade, Makoto always seemed especially happy when playing at Haruka’s house. However, ventures beyond their mountainside neighborhood seemed to steal his voice and form a darkness in his eyes. It was very unusual compared to the usually cheery child she had watched him grow up to be. Now he seemed so attached to Haruka that he rarely left his side.
She slid passed the shoji to walk along the engawa . Though autumn had begun to whisper a wintery song in the early mornings, the sun shone away such premonitions so evenings were still quite pleasant. From her high vantage point, she could watch them making their way down the mountainside road. Haruka walking briskly with Makoto latched onto the back of his jersey.
Perhaps checking her pea plants would calm her nerves.
A rush of hurried footsteps down the stairs behind her broke her focus. The house usually was quiet without little feet playing about. It was a surprise to see her daughter fling open the shoji with wild abandon.
“He’s coming back! His apartment contract ended and he is coming back for good!” she exclaimed, using the edge of the shoji to support her in her excitement.
“What? What about the company?” she asked her daughter, ushering her back inside and indicating her to take a seat at the table.
“They are sending him back with a personal computer! They said he could work from home now that the company is running so smoothly. He will even receive a company cellular phone!”
A personal computer and a cellular phone. Wouldn’t that make him a very expensive employee? The old woman wondered this, though eyeing her daughter suggested that now was not the best time to bring up such speculation.
“That’s wonderful, dear. I’m sure Haruka will enjoy seeing his father more often.”
“Yes, yes. I think he will,” she answered before pausing for a moment. Her giddiness seemed to slowly drain from her body as her shoulders fell. “Do you think he will forgive Haruka’s tendencies?”
Haruka’s tendencies... concerning water. It was something his father did not see much of as he tended to plan his more extended visits during the winter time when Haruka could not swim too often. Now that Haruka attended Iwatobi Swim Club, he hardly spent a day without wearing his jammers underneath his clothes. They had only just found a shampoo that combated the pool chemicals, slowly healing that crispy frizz back to his signature shining locks. And most peculiar of all, he refused to swim any other way than freestyle- front crawl. It had been an issue at the beginning with the coach, but Haruka was adamant. Once the coach saw him swim, he compromised. Haruka attended his first meet the following month.
Haruka’s strong connection with water was something she had watched grow since he was an infant. Now, it had transformed into the most stunning swimming she had ever seen. The way he moved through the water was almost unearthly in its beauty. Makoto had taken to saying that Haruka truly is the best in water. She could see why he thought so.
“I think he will understand. Your husband is also a very passionate man. He works very hard for the company. I think he will be able to relate that to his son.” They had moved inside as to not disturb the neighbors. She placed a freshly prepared cup of tea in front of her daughter and took a seat across from her. After a deep drink from her own cup, she let out a sigh. A vision contrary to her statement darkened her thoughts.
“Yes. That is true. They both are very diligent. He will be happy here with us. And Haruka will properly learn the role of a man in a household,” her daughter whispered almost to herself. Looking up now, she met her mother’s eyes in search of reassurance.
The old woman managed a smile before suggesting they go to the corner market and find something special to make for dinner.
The boys returned home promptly before the sun set behind the mountain. A phone call from the Tachibana home requested that Makoto stay the night. Makoto’s expression was dark upon hearing the request. At dinner, Haruka dutifully gave the report on the seabird nest alone, Makoto sat small beside him. They had found nothing today. The nest was empty.
After this news, her daughter made the announcement.
Which was met with a long silence.
“Congrats, Nanase-san ,” Makoto managed stiffly, his shoulders squeezing up to his ears as he managed the last syllable.
The heavy saturation of the air dampened Makoto’s feigned cheeriness.
“Excuse me, I’m going to take a bath,” Haruka said suddenly before rushing out of the room. The shoji shook with his exit.
“What in the world?” her daughter hissed, a line of irritation creasing between her brows.
“A-aw, Haru-chan must be very tired today. He swam his new personal best! Coach Sasabe timed it secretly when Haru wasn’t paying attention,” Makoto quickly explained.
“Oh,” was the only response given. The meal ended without any further attempts at conversation.
Haruka’s mother excused herself quickly once the table was cleared. Makoto stood quietly beside the old woman as she washed the dishes. He carefully dried each dish she handed him, and a steady rhythm settled between them.
A small sniffle from her left drew her attention back from their work.
Though his expression remained stiff, tear-tracks stained his cheeks.
“Oh, Makoto-chan ,” she said, quickly drying her hands on a dish towel before slowly letting herself fall to her knees to meet his eyes.
“Baa-baa ! I’m-! I’m scared!” Makoto managed before rushing forward to embrace her.
She held him close, running a soothing hand across his shoulder blades. “What is it, dear? What is it?” she said slowly.
“My mom. She… isn’t doing too good,” he managed between chest shuddering sobs. “The doctors say she can’t leave her bed now until their born.”
“‘Their born?’ You mean your mother is having twins?” The woman lent back from the embrace and took Makoto’s face in her hands. She had only begun to guess from the few times she had seen Tachibana-san leave her house recently that Makoto’s mother was pregnant. Twins meant a much higher chance of complications. It explained why Makoto was reluctant to leave Haruka’s side more than ever. Home seemed to be a scary place now.
Makoto nodded, causing two new tears to fall down his face. “She says everything is ok. But I can tell its not. I can tell!”
The woman nodded her understanding. She imagined it was probably going to be a very difficult pregnancy.
“And Haru-chan . He--... He won’t talk to me. I know he is always thinking things. But he won’t tell me about them. So I am always guessing. And now his dad will come, and I won’t get to see Haru-chan anymore.”
His voice broke into another sob, and she pressed him to her shoulder.
“Nonsense. Nonsense. Haruka isn’t going anywhere. This is going to be a time where you will have to be more brave than ever. Haruka is going to need you in the upcoming months. And your mother needs you too.”
She ran a hand through his wild strands of hair, the scent of chlorine sticking to her fingertips. The heavy sobs slowed to intervals of hiccups. Makoto leaned back now and looked her steadily in the eye.
“Do you think I can be brave, Baa-baa ?” Makoto said, voice quiet but steady.
“I think you are your absolute bravest when it comes to the people you love. You will be brave because you love them. Right?”
“I will be brave because I love them,” he repeated.
She gave him another quick kiss, and with his help, slowly made her way back to a standing position. By the time they finished the dishes, Makoto’s tears had dried and he seemed to be deep in thought.
“I think it's time to pull Haruka out of the bath, don’t you?” she asked. Makoto nodded in agreement.
Up the stairs they went together. Haruka was thoroughly pruney when they found him in the tub. Together, they coaxed him out though he refused to meet their worried glances. Once dressed for bed, she read them a story about three sea birds and a magic crab. Haruka fell asleep halfway through the story, and a slowly-succumbing Makoto wished her good night as she turned off the lights and closed the door.
With slow steps she walked down the hall and entered her own room. With a pained sigh, she fell to her bed. In the excitement of the evening, she had forgotten her pills and her joints were screaming. But instead, it was her heart that mourned.
Slowly, she sat up again to open the window above her bed. A cool breeze ran passed her, and the ocean filled her lungs. There would always be hurt. But as long as the sun rose red above the ocean to the east and sank purple behind the mountains to the west, life would go on. It was what she had told herself when bombs had rained upon her home as a child. And it was what she told herself now.
She continued to whisper her prayer as the autumn chill seeped through her window.
Ten Years Together
The pea sprouts were coming in nicely. They had timed it perfectly this year, and the radishes were harvested just in time to make room for a last crop of peas. Haruka carefully watered them as well as the rest of the garden before heading to school every morning. He had grown to be an early riser just like his grandfather had been. From her bedroom window, she admired how the pea’s leaves reflected bright green under the afternoon sun.
A hand on her own signaled her of Haruka’s arrival. His pool bag was already hanging on his shoulder, his eyes shining with excitement. He had come to greet her before heading to swim practice.
His eyes flickered from her face down to her hands. An incomplete seashell bag rest on her lap, its twin tucked safely in her yarn basket. The Tachibana twins had outgrown sharing Makoto’s seashell bag, and she had decided it was time that they each got their own. The shine in Haruka’s eyes told her that he approved of her work.
Meeting her eyes again, he leaned forward and placed a kiss on her temple. A last squeeze of his hand on hers and then he left her bedroom. She felt the front door swing shut and from her window, watched him run pass the first tori and down the steps to where Makoto waited with their bikes. Makoto’s face crinkled with laughter, and Haruka quickly mounted his bike and pedaled away before Makoto could compose himself.
She wished she could have heard them and shared in their banter.
She treasured the memory of their laughter, and could only wonder how it might have changed as the whispers of adulthood began to strain their voices. Just her imagination was left to fill what her hearing had left absent.
Old age seemed to have finally caught up to her just this past winter. A bacterial form of meningitis had meant weeks in the hospital. When she returned home, it was without her hearing or ability to walk independently. The doctors had agreed she was lucky to return at all.
The hospital bills’ financial strain resulted in Haruka’s father accepting a promotion in his company and moving back again to Hokkaido. Her daughter similarly took on a part-time job in the local grocery store to supplement his income.
It seemed to do some good for her daughter, finally getting out of the house. Getting away from... everything. Her daughter’s eyes seemed to glow with life she had not seen in years.
The year her son-in-law had lived there, the family had been shaken. Haruka had become so closed off, only Makoto could coax him the bath each morning.
However, once that man witnessed his son swim in a tournament, everything fell into place. Haruka’s swimming seemed to do that. It had a special power that changed people. And his father finally began to appreciate his son.
And then, of course, that was when she had become sick and ruined it all.
Her hands worked without her bidding them to. Fingers and hook looping the yarn over and over. As she watched them at work, she wondered if a person could be seen as a piece of yarn. And as this this person lived their life, their yarn twisted upon itself year after year to create a great afghan. She wondered what her own might look like. Probably plain and worn, the looping growing increasingly unsteady as it rounded its final corner.
She hoped it was good enough. She hoped she had been good enough.
Haruka’s afghan had only just begun, and already it must have such a beautiful, complex pattern. Perhaps knotted waves curled its edges and a deep blue drew warmth. She hoped just an inch of it could have been by her hand. He had brought her such joy. He was full of such strong emotion. Had any of it come from her?
One day, Haruka would share his swimming with others. She could see it now. How it would continue to touch people. Change people. Draw people to him. She hoped he would share it before it was too late.
It wouldn’t be easy. Haruka had given her the silent treatment for weeks when they had bought new towels and thrown out the old ones without telling him. He did not like change. He took after his grandfather in that way.
But then, she hoped that Haruka’s one person could stay by his side through all of it.
While the yarn of Haruka’s life would dive with each change until it spiraled into an even more elaborate pattern, Makoto’s would stay consistent, strong, and resilient. No gaping holes or rolling edges. Makoto would be there for Haruka.
She prayed for this.
Just like he had these past difficult few years, she hoped Makoto would remain with Haruka. And Haruka could be there for Makoto. Side by side, like the mountains and the sea.
That is the life she wished for them.
It is no good without the other. Being alone is no good.
Why had... he gone?
Why had he left her?
The good doctor who had been by her side when no one else was.
Her hands had stilled, the crochet hook loose between her thumb and index finger. The sun had long since set and a cool breeze wafted through her window, leaving a familiar salty brine upon her tongue. A tear streaked her cheek and she wondered at it’s presence.
A sudden thought shocked her then.
Had Haruka returned home? Where was he?! It was dark outside... He always greeted her when he returned home from school and before he went to practice. Why hadn’t he today? She had to find him.
She threw her covers off of her, crochet needle and yarn tumbling from her bed. The ground felt soft beneath her feet though her joints groaned with the sudden shift of weight. The room tilted with her each breath. She flung her arms forward as the floor threw itself in front of her.
A pair of arms caught her before her head could connect with wood paneling.
The room continued to spin in a nauseating flurry, and in the center of it all, the good doctor looked back at her. His face was stricken with concern. Somehow, she was able to locate her hands and thrust them forward to embrace his face. How could he worry if they were together now?
He seemed to be speaking to her. His blue eyes that shone like his daughter’s. Heavy lashes batted repeatedly like his son-in-law’s. The frantic expression that twisted his face was oddly new to her.
His worry made no sense to her now that they were together. She was so happy to see him. Now that he was here, he could meet their beautiful grandson who was so much like him.
Their Last Day Together
They had closed the window to the autumn chill. The flaming foliage shifted their colors in waves outside her window. She thought it was a shame the color would not last much longer. Her own garden was already mostly barren now that the last vegetables had been harvested.
Two people came in, both holding bags. She smiled as she watched her boys claim a place at her bedside.
Aw, she remembered! Haruka was joining the Tachibana family for their last camping trip before winter settled in. He seemed so grown up now with his shoulders broadening and nose sharpening. Makoto stood beside him. The amount he had grown was emphasized thanks to the sudden height difference between them. Middle school was waiting for them just past the fall of the next sakura season. They both will look so striking in their uniforms.
Haruka took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. She looked down to examine the unfamiliar hand that held hers. Speckled in calluses and dark with persistent soil stains. She wondered when his hands began looking like that. And when had hers stopped.
She looked up to meet his eyes, hoping he might have the answer. Instead, she was whisked off into a deep pool of glimmering water. She felt herself take a deep breath for fear she might drown in it.
A kiss to her temple alerted her to another pair of eyes. A shimmering green, like sunlight peaking along the forest’s edge. She could nearly feel it’s warmth color her cheeks.
Together, they looked at her with smiles brimming with unrestrained adoration that rivaled the toothy grins of years passed. She knew they had come to greet her before they left.
She took each of their hands in her own and pressed them to her lips.
“Baa-baa loves you,” she said.
Their First Year Together
The smell of damp earth heightened by the briney sea breeze always reminded him of her. A glance at Makoto assured him that the same wave of nostalgia had claimed him as well. Together, they made their way down the shifting stone walkway to a small enclave populated with towering stone monuments.
It had been Makoto who had suggested they visit. A feeling of appreciation filled Haruka at the proposal.
In two days, they would be leaving their seaside hometown and venture together to pursue their dreams in Tokyo. The mountainside home next to Mizagazaki shrine had been diligently cleaned and prepared for their long absence. It was Haruka who had insisted the house remain theirs despite his parents’ objection. Once he had explored the world and become ordinary, he wanted a home to return to.
Until that time, it was important that she knew they were well and that she remained in their thoughts.
It was a modest structure. A simply embellished base with two pillars stacked upon each other, the Nanase name engraved upon its face. The family haka was so much smaller to them now then it had felt those many years ago.
Makoto offered Haruka the bucket of water they had borrowed, careful not to disturb the contents during the exchange. Haruka accepted it easily. Dipping his cleaning brush inside, he knelt down to begin the work.
Makoto also knelt down, hands easily locating weeds sprouting around the haka’s base. Despite the years of practice, Makoto involuntarily flinched whenever he exposed a worm. Haruka smiled to himself. Some things never changed.
Once the stone shone glossy under the morning light and the surrounding lawn was properly manicured, they both knelt before the monument. Makoto carefully lit incense and placed it in offering, adding a bouquet of wildflowers his siblings had gathered afterward. Haruka ladled water one last time on the top of the pillar. In unison, they placed their hands together in front of them and bowed their heads in prayer.
It was quiet here. The sun warm upon their faces. The breeze gentle as it passed by. The smell of rich earth entwining with the incense.
Haruka finished first. He was never one to waste words. And while it had taken those close to him awhile to understand this, she had always seemed to understand that perfectly. Even in the end when words could not be said, she had understood like always. Her eyes a shimmering blue like the sky that spread wide outside her window.
He waited patiently until Makoto finished beside him. Bowing one last goodbye, they both stood and turned away.
Makoto’s hand found his as they turned the corner and headed down the shaded walkway around the mountain.
“I told her about us,” Makoto said easily, though his eyes were thoughtful under his persistently unruly bangs. Haruka ran his thumb along the inside of Makoto’s index finger in acknowledgement.
“Do you think she would have been happy for us?” Makoto wondered quietly after a couple more steps down the hidden walkway.
Haruka paused by his side, joined hands pulling Makoto to a stop too. Makoto turned back, glassy eyes reflecting the dappled leaves above.
“Up there just now, I heard her again.”
Makoto expression crinkled in confusion, hand tightening around Haruka’s.
Haruka quickly drew Makoto closer, stepping forward as well to press his nose to Makoto’s collarbone. After a moment of hesitation, Makoto wrapped an arm loosely around Haruka’s waist. It wasn’t long before their heartbeats aligned and Haruka pushed himself to continue.
“She told me that she loved us. Just like always.”
A rumble shook Makoto’s chest for a moment, and Haruka was not sure if it was a laugh or sob. He held still, waiting for Makoto’s response. A light kiss to the crown of his head made his heart skip a beat.
Makoto drew back then, and took a step forward. Haruka mirrored it and they continued down the slowly shifting slope.
“You know, Haru-chan. Maybe she always knew. And it took us until just now to figure it out,” Makoto said, voice warm despite the shadow’s chill.
Haruka hummed softly in response. They continued on, the sound of their footsteps providing a steady rhythm to the ambient song of the forested mountainside.
He would miss the mountain air and the crash of ocean waves. The familiarity of his family kitchen and color of the spring garden. Seabirds calling in the early morning. The toll of shrine bells in the evening. Tokyo would be so different. Everything would change.
But maybe it would all be okay. Makoto would be by his side. The truthfulness of the thought made him smile.
That was something his Baa-baa probably had already known as well.