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Chinese Lanterns: Endurance

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“So, who wants to volunteer?”

Natsume stifled a yawn as Sasada addressed the entire class. The summer festival was just around the corner, which Natsume’s class was participating in. Seated in his usual spot by the window, he propped his chin on one hand and gazed outside: he could see the rustling of the leaves of a nearby tree as a gentle breeze blew past. The peaceful scenery lulled his senses and soon he started to feel drowsy...

 

“It’s your turn to watch him this month.”

“No, I just had him last month. Besides, he gives me the creeps.”

“Well he can’t stay with me, we all agreed we’d take turns!”

They were talking about him again.

Natsume gently closed the door, and then silently padded back to his futon. He crawled under the covers and pulled the sheets up to his chin before curling up against himself. He squeezed his eyes shut and for the hundredth time, wished that he was normal—that he was more like other children his age.

Maybe then, someone would want him.

 

“—Natsume! Hey, Natsume, are you listening at all?” Sasada’s voice rang out, bringing him out of his reverie.

“Sorry,” Natsume blinked owlishly for a few seconds as he tried to remember where he was. When he saw faces staring back at him, he recalled that their class was having a meeting about the upcoming festival. “I must’ve dozed off…” Natsume’s straightforward response elicited laughter from the others.

As the discussion resumed, Natsume tried to focus, but he was still dazed from the dream as details of it kept replaying in his mind. Ever since he had visited his parent’s house, he had been recalling fragments of his childhood, though he tried to shake the memories from his mind. After all, dwelling on them wouldn’t change the past.

“The booth assignments will be posted tomorrow. See you all this weekend!” Sasada called out as the other students started to file out of the classroom. Natsume made his way towards the front of the room to catch Sasada before she left; he wanted to apologize in case he might’ve come off rude earlier.

 

xxx

 

“Can you try putting those marigolds over there?” Sasada asked to move the decorations for what must have been the umpteenth time since that morning, and Natsume had to wonder if it was a punishment for what had happened the day before.

After several more rearrangements, Sasada was finally satisfied. She clapped her hands together as she admired the rows of flowers that they had put up together.

“My mother loved to garden,” Sasada said, her voice wistful. “I don’t remember her much but I remember the scent; there always seemed to be flowers in our house.”

Sasada fell silent after that and Natsume wondered whether she was reminiscing about her childhood; she didn’t say much but Natsume could tell she must’ve had good memories. It’s so different from mine. An emotion akin to jealousy briefly coursed through him, quickly followed by yearning: when he was younger, Natsume had always wondered how it would have felt if he had been a different sort of child or if he hadn’t lost his parents so soon.

“I’m not really that good of a gardener,” Sasada’s voice broke Natsume out of his thoughts. “But doing it makes me feel a little bit closer to her, and I like to think her love of flowers have passed on to me.” She turned to him, “How about you, Natsume? Do you have something your parents passed on to you?”

Natsume stilled, surprised by the question and not entirely sure how to respond.

He was saved from having to respond  with the arrival of Taki. “Wow, these flowers are beautiful!” She pointed at something laid out on a tray. “What are those?”

“Chinese Lanterns!” Sasada replied. “They’re one of my favorite flowers!”

Laid out on the tray were the strangest-looking flowers Natsume had ever seen: Each flower consisted of a round, plump fruit enclosed in an outer shell made up of thin white veins that criss-crossed one another in a lacework pattern.

“Those are flowers?” Natsume asked, surprised. He gingerly picked one up, afraid he’d crush the brittle-looking encasement. “I’ve never seen them before.”

Sasada ran to the back of the booth and then came back with a pot of orange bulbous blooms. “Well maybe you’ll recognize them more like this. What you see there on the tray is the fruit left in what remains of the flower’s skin.”

Taki squealed in delight. “They’re so cute! Are they easy to grow?”

“Yes!” Sasada pushed the pot she was holding towards Taki. “Here, you can take this one home with you!”

Natsume could tell Taki wanted to refuse, though there was a hopeful look in her eyes as well. He recalled that for a good part of a year, Taki hadn’t been able to  make friends because of a youkai’s curse. As he listened to the two chatter about the flower and its aftercare, Natsume felt glad that things were different now.

 

xxx

 

At dinner that evening, when Natsume mentioned there would be a festival the next day that he had to attend, Touko looked excited.

“Oh, Takashi-kun, you should wear a yukata!”

“I don’t have one,” Natsume blurted out, before realizing he shouldn’t have been so forthcoming.

Touko’s face softened, and Shigeru spoke up, “It feels more authentic if you go in a yukata. I can give you one of mine. It might be a little old-fashioned, though… it used to belong to my father.”

A poignant emotion pierced Natsume’s heart. While he had learned to overcome his shyness around the kind couple who had adopted him, he had never really been able to shake off the strangeness he felt in moments such as these.

“—put it in your room. Try it on later and see it fits, okay, Takashi-kun?”

Natsume only managed to catch  the tail end of Touko’s words, but that was enough. “Yes, thank you!”

“I’m pleased that I can pass it on to you, Takashi.” Shigeru looked at him with a fond expression in his eyes.

Natsume nodded; he could feel his heart constricting. “Thank you for the yukata,” was all he could say, though he wanted to say more. Thank you for taking me in… for letting me be part of your family. That was what he had wanted to say, but the look on their faces told him there was no need to.

 

Later in his room, Natsume sighed as he fussed with the folds of the loose yukata. He saw it folded on top of his cabinet when he went up after dinner, and he couldn’t help but try it on.

“I’m back!” The window shutters slid open and in walked Nyanko-sensei. Natsume froze and hastily tried to shrug off the yukata. “Oh, is that what you’re wearing for the festival tomorrow?”

Natsume finally succeeded just as his bedroom door slid open and Touko’s voice called out, “Takashi, did you find the yukata—”

“I did, yes, thank you!” Natsume hastily replied. He clutched the yukata behind him but the twinkle in Touko’s eyes told him that she knew what he was doing.

 

xxx

 

“Natsume, buy me dango!”

Nyanko-sensei had insisted on coming with him to the festival, saying something about protecting him from evil spirits. But Natsume knew the real reason was because there would be food and drinks.

“Actually, buy me fried squid instead!”

Natsume sighed and was about to retort back when a familiar voice called out to him. “Natsume!”

He looked up and saw Kitamoto waving at him from a distance. He waved back and started walking towards him. As he approached, he also saw Nishimura, Tanuma, and Sasada, who were all standing in front of the booth he had helped to set up the previous day.

Kitamoto clapped a hand to his shoulder. “Natsume! I didn’t know you’d wear a yukata!”

Nishimura nodded. “My mom wanted me to wear one but I refused. If I’d known you’d be coming in a yukata, I would’ve agreed!”

Feeling self-conscious, Natsume said, “It’s from Shigeru-san. He said he wanted to pass it on to me.”

His announcement was met with silence as his friends looked at him with expressions on their faces akin to fondness. This only made Natsume feel even more self-conscious; thankfully, Tanuma came to his rescue.

“My old man would have probably done the same.” Tanuma chuckled lightly as Kitamoto and Nishimura nodded in understanding.

Not long afterwards, his friends became preoccupied with the various decorations in the booth, and Sasada was all too happy to talk about them. Natsume watched as she pointed to the strange-looking flowers from the previous day.

“These are Chinese Lanterns!” The enthusiasm in Sasada’s voice was palpable. “They’re normally seen as a symbol of life within death. You see, even after the petals have dried off and only the husk remains, it continues to protect the fruit inside, allowing it to fully ripen.”

Perhaps it was Sasada’s words, or maybe the yukata that Shigeru had given him, that made Natsume suddenly feel melancholic. He felt the same as when he had visited his parent’s house, and laid down on the wooden floor that overlooked their yard.

“Natsume, can you see it?”

He heard a gentle voice call out his name, and felt happiness bubbling up at the sound of it. The windchime overhead rang as a cool breeze blew past.

“Natsume, look over there! Your mother planted seeds in that garden.”

He felt strong arms wrapped around him, making him feel safe and secure. Gentle fingers brushed the hair on the top of his head.

“I hope the flowers bloom forever.”

 

“—Natsume?” He looked up to see the concerned face of Tanuma. “Are you ok? You spaced out there for a second.”

“I remembered something… something about my father.” He quieted down, and Tanuma didn’t press further.

Before Natsume could dwell further on his thoughts, a loud booming sound reverberated all around them: !Kaboom! Then, like twinkling stars, countless fireworks erupted into the night sky and illuminated the entire festival grounds.

“So pretty…” The hushed voices drew Natsume to look back down. He watched the awe and wonder reflected in his friends’ faces that were illuminated by the afterglow of the fireworks. Natsume smiled, and looked up towards the sky once more.

When the fireworks display ended, Natsume found himself near the strange flowers Sadada had shown them. He picked one up, and tried to remember what Sasada had said: “...even after the petals have dried off and only the husk remains, it continues to protect the fruit inside.”

“What are you thinking, Natsume?” Nyanko-sensei asked from his perch on Natsume’s shoulder, his small paws extended as if trying to paw at the fruit inside the dried flower husk.

Looking at them again, Natsume realized why he felt drawn to them: Just like these flowers, there were things he had come to cherish. The visit to his parents’ house may have reminded him of a childhood filled with sadness, but it was different now. He had a family and friends now. People who wanted him—who accepted him—just as he was.

His free hand clenched the fabric of the yukata on his side where the Book of Friends was safely stowed. “I was just thinking how the things that caused me pain before are also things that brought me happiness. Looking back, I would never have imagined that I would have what I have now.”

“And what is it that you have now?”

“Friends… and a family,” who loves me. The words hung in the air unsaid but Natsume knew Nyanko-sensei understood.

“KYAAA!!! Such a cute cat!” Taki’s voice startled them and Natsume felt Nyanko-sensei freeze for a moment before he leapt off from his shoulder to disappear into the crowd.

“Nooo, come back!!!”

“Oi, Taki, where are you going?”

“Nishimura, wait for me!”

“Where do they get the energy?”  Natsume heard Tanuma say.

“Natsume, can you see it? Your mother planted seeds in that garden.”

Natsume put the flower back down on its tray, and smiling at his friends’ antics, he set off after them.

Just because his childhood hadn’t been the most pleasant one, it didn’t mean that he wouldn’t be able to find his own happiness. Rather than languishing in sad memories, he wanted to honor his parents’ wish.

He was going to bloom where he was planted.