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 “The color of the flower 
Has already faded away, 
While in idle thoughts 

My life passes vainly by, 
As I watch the long rains fall.”

Ono no Komachi

Ogura Hyakunin Isshu

 

            She is a thousand memories and a thousand places. She is everything he can imagine and all he’s ever wished for — she’s made of a warm smile and rosy cheeks, she’s the smell of forget-me-nots, vibrant and alive even when the moonlight whispers through the shades and tells them it’s time to close their eyes. He remembers because forget-me-nots are sweet and fragrant in the in the night, awakened by the soft blink of stars. If a human being could be a flower, then there is no other flower so befitting.

            Shiina smiles. Her name, repeated over and over on the tip of his tongue, hardly a breath past his lips — Aoi Hana.

 

 

忘れな草 : forget-me-not

 true and undying love

 

 

 “They bloom biennially,” Hana says, patting the soil with gloved hands. It’s early summer and her days of schoolwork and classrooms have been replaced with endless hours at the zoo. The sun has yet to crawl over the horizon, a gentle yawn of lavender across the eastern sky.

“What does biennially mean?” he asks.

“It means they bloom every other year.”

“Why not every year?”

“They’re mischievous little flowers,” she says with a grin as she waters the light blue buds. Droplets trickle down stems with an eager briskness belying the lurking summer heat. “But they always come back.”

“You sure know a lot about flowers, Aoi Hana.” Shiina kneels to get a closer look, nose twitching as he sniffs curiously at the garden.

She smiles up at him, but not before warning him not to eat the flowers — he feigns horror; she rolls her eyes — and watches his ears droop, disappearing into his silky hair (he wanted to eat them, she supposes).

“My name does mean flower, you know.” A few pats to dust off the soil on her cargo shorts and Hana is up with an armful of equipment and an endless list of chores.

“I know, I say it all the time,” Shiina mumbles, arms folded.

“What was that, Director?”

“You need to clean the monkey cage, Aoi Hana!”

She laughs.

 

 

 

Hana’s room has one window, at an angle which allows only the slimmest of light slivers to fall on her comforters. Without two bodies, little warmth is found in her small bedroom when the daytime heat dissipates and the frigid Oumagadoki night settles in.

Shiina, on the other hand, is a walking heater. He’s lost all his fur from head to toe, save for a pair of bunny ears that betray his every intention. It’s nice, he thinks, that Hana, and only Hana, can read his emotions. But to his dismay, it’s soon apparent that every single one of his companions knows what he’s thinking, and his expressive human face doesn’t help much. He can so much as cough to stifle a giggle, and someone or the other (usually Isana) will give him the look.

            “If it makes you feel any better, Director, you have great hearing!” Hana usually says.

            “Blackmail!” Shiina chirps immediately. He’s met with the swat of a dusty work glove.

             Now, with his hand raised to the ceiling, looking at his long fingers and bony knuckles, Shiina notices a blueish vein that slides down into his wrist and collides with a bruise that blossoms a mottled purple. Never again will he try to approach Shishido alone during the daytime. Shiina isn’t sure what prompted him to visit the lion — it was a question, a desire, a need to know — but if he had to pick a reason, he’d pick loneliness.

            Hana had taught him how to write the characters for loneliness, he thinks as he curls up in her bed, stroke by stroke by stroke. Dust meanders in the little stream of light through the shades, settling on the windowpane. A pair of gloves sits on the sill, frigid and untouched.

 

 

 

What was a wicked grin five minutes ago is now a sullen dismay, face half hidden behind red fabric and white polka dots. Shiina lingers warily after Hana, who slowly brushes the shiny coat of Yatsudoki’s thoroughbred. His rabbit ears are low, meek and apologetic.

“Would you be mad if Rodeo ate them?” is definitely the wrong thing to say, if Hana’s pointed silence is anything to go by. Despite teetering on the edge of irritation, the desire to have her spoken acceptance of his (very unsuccessful) apologetic pout wins over. He perches on an overturned bucket, watching Hana pick the dirt and stones from Rodeo’s hooves with the utmost care. Almost too much care, avoiding conversation and eye contact the entire time.

The first circus show starts at the top of the hour, and with the rare occasion of an early finish at the zoo, Hana has made herself useful amongst the colorful, striped tents and workers in costume. There’s much more to be desired of Shiina, who eyes the circus crew with a beady, arrogant expression. Suzuki, currently saddling up the horse, asks if the zoo director would like anything to drink.

Shiina doesn’t answer, and Hana turns to glare. Her eyes throw daggers, and Shiina momentarily considers suggesting to Suzuki that they add in a knife-throwing act.

“No thank you,” he mumbles, eyes hovering around his toes.

Hana returns to her work, but she mutters under her breath, “I’d forgive Rodeo. He’s just a horse.”

It’s unfair, Shiina thinks, the words she chooses. It’s unfair — the things he can and cannot forget.

He remembers slinking away, upset, into a corner of the forest where the only sign of human life is the wretched scar of bear claws across trees, expressing a sort of residual torture that no one with two proper hands and two proper feet can even begin to understand. Shiina wants to forget.

 

 

 

If Aoi Hana is a breathless sky blue, then her relatives are every other shade he can imagine. Mr. Aoi is a deep navy color and Mrs. Aoi is shimmering, like sapphire. Hana’s oldest uncle is a shade Shiina can’t describe, but it’s shiny and sleek and reminds him of the way the sky reflects off Tokyo skyscrapers in ten different faces of blue.

“That’s the Tokyo Skytree,” Hana had said, one arm entwined with his and the other gesturing at the city. It was a year ago, in the spring as they wove through countless fluttering cherry blossom petals and a thousand passersby. But even under a field of flowering trees, Shiina still prefers the blue that makes his heart thunder and his breath quiver; the blue that kisses him sweetly and makes him forget that he was ever alone.

His reverie is cut short by dark colors and a low voice.

            “It’s a beautiful day,” Isana says.

            “Mm.” Shiina doesn’t protest when the aquarium director sits down next to him. He isn’t wearing his helmet, mostly because the only remainder of his curse is dark purple dappling across his left eye. When they first met, Shiina would’ve called him lava, bubbling with red rage so long exposed to the world that it had become a hardened black obsidian. But he, too, is an Aoi — Hana’s youngest uncle, to be exact — and now he is an endless ultramarine, the shimmer of light on the surface of water the only thing to break up his immense remorse.

            “Do you think I should be sorry?” Shiina asks, suddenly, mind full of past regrets and the weight of incense in the air.

            “For what?”

            “For meeting her.”

            Isana turns and frowns.

            “You should be sorry for ever thinking that.” He clicks his tongue sharply and leaves Shiina stranded on the stone bench, stalking back to where most of the circus and aquarium staff wait by the gates.

            Surrounded by blue, so much blue, but none of it can make Shiina smile the way Aoi Hana always could.

 

 

忘れな草 : forget-me-not

a growing affection

 

 

            “I’m studying animal science,” she says excitedly over the phone, “biology and stuff. I could become a veterinarian if I want to! The classes are hard — cell physiology is so much work right now — but I like it so far.”

            Her voice is bubbly, words spilling over each other with reckless abandon. Shiina doesn’t mind that sometimes she’s almost incomprehensible or that he doesn’t understand a few words because she sounds so happy, and the grin that tugs at his lips is proof enough that Aoi Hana is his sun, his moon, his everything.

            “When will you be back?” Shiina interrupts when she finishes telling him about a campus he’s never seen in a city he’s never visited.

            “It’s only been two weeks, Director!” And then, shyly, she adds, “Shiina.”

            She says his name gingerly, softly, as if it might slip from her fingers too soon, like she might forget him. But Shiina is unforgettable, this he is sure of, and he reminds Hana by complaining loudly into the phone, pout apparent.

            “Aoi Hana,” he declares, indignant, “nothing around here is organized without you!”

            “I’m flattered, really.” A shuffle of papers. “But school is school, and I have to work really hard here, too.”

            “Is that Hana?” A trio of snakes peers around the corner of the doorway before Uwabami’s head follows. “Can we speak to her?”

            “What, the zookeeper?” Shishido enters and plops himself squarely next to Shiina, ignoring the disapproving grumble and threatening elbow shove. “Hi, Zookeep.”

            “Hi, everyone.”

            The phone is surrendered to the growing crowd of animals-turned-humans, each clamoring excitedly about the business, the new exhibits, the new animals. Shiina isn’t all too happy to give up the little time Hana has to speak with him nowadays, but he can’t complain either. There’s only one person whose voice brings so many smiles to his zoo, and, in a way, she’s still doing her job.

            However far she may be, Hana is always there.

 

 

 

            “Blue?” Hana echoes, pointing to herself.

            “Mmhm,” Shiina says, face buried in her hair. Her back is to his chest and when she starts to turn around in bed to face him, he looks away. Slender fingers brush his silver hair from his eyes and he feels his face flush.

            “So you think I’m the color blue?”

            “Not just any blue,” he clarifies, still not meeting her gaze. “Like, y’know, the old whale man reminds me of that blue diamond necklace from the ship movie.”

            “The Titanic,” Hana offers, wrapping a light curl around her pinky.

            “Yeah, that.” His heart is beating straight out of his chest as she runs a thumb across his cheek, sighing when she skims the edge of another old scar. “And your dad reminds me of a sailor. And you’re like the little holes in clouds.”

            “Holes? In clouds?” The hand drops and Shiina suddenly looks down, bumping his chin into her head. Hana grimaces, but immediately giggles again when he hastily presses a chaste kiss to her forehead. He misses and plants his lips on her eyebrow, but it doesn’t matter because her smile is like holes in the clouds in the sky he is painfully fond of.

            “Where the sky comes through the clouds — that’s the prettiest blue.”

            “Oh.” Hana can’t stop smiling. “Well, thank you.”

 

 

 

            As always, Hana doesn’t hold grudges for long. Patting the soil down and lamenting the half-devoured garden, she waves Shiina a little closer to the demolished plants.

            “They die pretty quickly, anyway.” She shrugs.           

            “Why?”

            “Because they’re biennial.”

            “That doesn’t explain anything.” Shiina pauses. “What’s biennial again?”

            “It means they bloom every other year. But that’s not what I wanted to tell you.” She plucks one flower and tucks it in his hair. “Do you know what hanakotoba is?”

            “Flower words,” he replies flatly.

            Hana grins. “Well, you’re not wrong. That’s what the words literally mean. It’s the Japanese language of flowers, and forget-me-nots have a special meaning. This flower is for you, Director.”

            “What do they mean?”

            “You can find it out yourself,” she says cheerily, scooping up a watering can and skipping to her next task. Shiina sulks momentarily, huffing when the way he flattens his ears down makes the little flower flutter to the ground. Sometimes she’ll sit down and tell him everything, how she feels, what she thinks, what something means.

            And sometimes, she doesn’t say anything at all, and he wonders if he’s meant to be in the dark, to simply not know.

 

 

忘れな草 : forget-me-not

a connection that lasts through time

 

 

            “Do you like it?” Hana asks, gesturing to the wall. Lengths of string hold up photos clipped by clothespins, including one of nearly every animal in the zoo, one of the aquarium, one of the circus, and of course, a myriad of blurry white captures that she claims are Shiina.

            “Go closer,” he says. Hana picks up her laptop and moves the camera toward the display. Shiina peers curiously at the computer screen, observing the pixelated image that lags a second behind real time. He’s annoyed that Hana has decided to use the summer of her third year of university to stay and do research, but she still Skype calls him every day without fail. The spacious, albeit worn, apartment that she manages to rent with some help from her family is her newest abode. Her roommates are Ikumi and Noriko, her old high school nemesis and close friend, respectively.

            “Who’s in that one? Who’s that guy?”

            “Director, your face,” Hana says dryly, rolling her eyes at the way he bristles and grimaces. “And those are just classmates.”

            “And that one?” His expression remains skeptical, slightly jealous, and it amuses Hana to no end.

            “That’s Uncle Isana.”

            “Fine. Then how about that one to the right? The guy in the hat.”

            “That’s you.”

            “Oh.” Shiina’s dawdling now, playing for time because he knows she needs to catch the 11:00am bus into the city. As if on cue, she sits back and smiles apologetically, mentioning the time and when she’ll call him again.

            “Bye, Aoi Hana.”

            “Bye, Director.”

            The screen goes black — call ended, 10:43am — and Shiina toggles around until he thinks the window is closed. He returns the laptop to Michinoke, who has been sipping coffee outside as if there is absolutely no work to do on a Monday morning. There’s a knowing pat of consolation on Shiina’s shoulder, which goes unappreciated.

            Aoi Hana is a five hour train ride away and though there are more visitors in the summer, somehow the park is emptier than it’s ever been.

 

 

 

            A soft rap at the door drags him from what feels like the bottom of the ocean, a stagnant sea of merely being that Shiina wants more than anything to end. But if it ends, he has nothing, so it continues to plod along with the passing hours and minutes. The knocking comes again, and with limbs like lead, he turns to see who it is.

            “Shiina.”

            “Bear man.”

            Shikuma is too large for the room, too out of place, but he takes care not to trample the books splayed across the floor and avoids the glass lamp on the nightstand.

            “You sure made a mess of this place,” he comments gruffly, rubbing the back of his neck.

            “I didn’t touch anything. It was like this.”

            “Are you really going to make an old bear man sit in a lady’s pretty room like this?” Shikuma folds his arms. “Your zoo is really missing you.”

            The only response is a defiant toss of the covers. Shiina buries himself in the soft pillows that smell like laundry, devoid of Hana, as if they’d completely forgotten her. They insult him, so he takes one and throws it at Shikuma, who narrowly avoids shredding the pillowcase with his immense claws.

            “Well, I tried.” Nothing else, no caustic comment, no irate growl. Just a shrug. Shikuma returns the pillow and closes the door quietly behind him.

            “And I lied,” Shiina admits to no one after the bear man leaves, an arm snaking out of his blanket cocoon to hug the pillow to his chest. The books on the floor were his work, but weeks ago. The animal picture book that his mother, or rather, what he assumes to be his mother’s voice in a faint memory, read to him when he was small. The one that Hana had so eagerly reread to him every night for days when she discovered that he recognized it. The others were children’s tales, magazines about zoo animals, marine life, domesticated pets. Hana had everything she loved in this bookshelf.

            And Shiina, in a fit of tears and childish rage and unparalleled sadness that surpassed all of his alleged 25 years, had wrenched them from their shelves and scattered them across the floor. The little knit rug from Hana’s grandmother. The faded wood panels beneath his feet.

            He wants to pick up the picture book and flip through it, but there’s no point — he’s already learned to read every word, already memorized them. Text that came to life through Hana’s lips now lie flat, dead, and unremarkable. If Shiina could be as shatteringly happy as he was when he first found the book, he’d give up everything he cherished, from the zoo to his friends to the fun. Even to Hana.

            But Fate is unforgiving, even if there's not a drop of selfishness in his request because he’s already given until there’s nothing left to give, and yet that happiness refuses to return.

 

 

 

            High school graduation had been over five years ago, but the triumphant grin on Aoi Hana’s face is one Shiina will never forget. She’d thrown herself at him, planting a big kiss first on his cheek, and then to his pleasant surprise, on his lips. It’s news to nearly everyone who’s arrived to celebrate — every blue family member turns red, Shishido pulls his hoodie over his eyes, Uwabami smiles knowingly, and a smattering of delighted hoots and applause ripples through their ragtag crowd.

            Shiina’s lips are slightly dry and the smell of grass and wind clings to his shoulders, but Hana buries her face in his neck and tries to disguise the tears as laughter.

            He’s happy for her, he really is, but it means that there are three months left of Aoi Hana every hour, every minute, every second. As soon as he wraps his arms around her, she melts into his touch with a heartbeat so loud he mistakes it for his own. Shiina can be boorish and loud and childish, but if Hana can trust him enough to fall into his arms, then everything must be and will be fine.

            “Okay, but I really just came for the party,” Michinoke announces, “since Aoi’s mom makes superb scallion pancakes.”

            “I made those,” Isana says.

            “You…what?” Michinoke pulls a face. Isana glares.

            Hana bursts into laughter, pushing herself away from Shiina but still holding his hand.

            “Thanks for coming,” she says. Never once does she leave his side, not when they ride back home, not when she and Kikuchi simultaneously trip and spill soy sauce on Isana’s suit, not when Isana turns and throttles Michinoke because he’s not about to murder his niece or her lanky high school junior.

            She’s still holding his hand when she tells Shishido not to lap so loudly at his water, when she tosses fish to Igarashi in her backyard, when Chita nearly bulldozes them into the ground because one tuna mermaid won’t stop chasing him in circles.

            “I love this,” Hana says, glancing upwards, but it’s unclear whether she’s referring to the little blanket of stars in the dusk or the chaos unfolding in her own home.

            “As much as you love me?” Shiina teases, plastering the goofiest grin he can muster on his face.

            “Nothing can match how much I love you, Shiina.” Hana beams. Shiina realizes that she is not a thousand memories and a thousand places separately — she is all of them at once, and suddenly his lips are on hers because the blooming season of forget-me-nots is painfully short, the clouds will move, they will mask the blue of the sky, and Aoi Hana is a girl in his arms who will leave all too soon.

 

 

忘れな草 : forget-me-not

loyalty despite separation

 

 

            Calendars cannot fathom how long each day is, how one hour feels like five, and though the sun reels from east to west, Shiina watches each day pass in frozen intervals, from when the shadows lean precariously to when they disappear to when sunlight abandons the park. Each day, he counts down to when she’ll come back from college and start vacation. Every time she comes home, he tries to keep her from burying herself in work at the zoo because when she isn’t sweeping cages, she’s feeding penguins and turtles and rhinos.

            Shiina is almost lonelier than when she’s gone, but it never stops him.

            “Go on a date with me, Aoi Hana!”

            “I’m surprised you know what that is,” she says dubiously, an eyebrow raised.

            “I don’t!”

            “I knew it.” She grins. “I’ll show you, then.”

            In the winter, she teaches him vocabulary and math, their feet warm beneath the kotatsu blanket. In the spring, they go to Tokyo to see the cherry blossoms and stand atop the Tokyo Tower, pointing at people the size of ants. In the summer, they watch fireflies glow with a mysterious iridescence before the fireworks close out a thrumming festival. In the fall, Shiina watches leaves gather on the ground alone and lets Kasai rake the leaves because he likes the way they crunch underfoot.

            Her second year is the same, but they don’t go to Tokyo, but they take Hana’s future roommates to the zoo and look for apartments online. She teaches him how to use a laptop; instead he becomes proficient at peeling tangerines and eating them whole. Where he shirks his studies, he makes up for in little favors — he fixes the leaky ceiling with Mr. Aoi and holds the groceries for Hana’s mother, always with a pleasantly demure smile for the two that have adopted him as their own. The animals drag them back in the evening because a zoo doesn’t run itself and none of their associates are crazy enough to dive into the middle of the wilderness that is Oumagadoki Zoo.

            “I have to make sure this place is in good shape before I go again,” Hana says.

            “Just leave it till the spring,” he replies, twirling the fringe of his scarf in his hands.

            “I’m moving into my apartment during the spring,” Hana tells him. “I won’t be back.”

            “Then…summer?” Shiina’s ears perk up eagerly. She kisses his cheek and his shoulders slump as he realizes by her expression that her usual return in June will be delayed.

            “Soon,” Hana promises, “I’ll come back soon and I’ll make you more bunny apples, you can peel more tangerines, and we’ll learn a little bit of science and English.”

            “Do you promise, Aoi Hana?” He holds out his pinky.

            “I promise.” She hooks her little finger with his and exhales shakily, face flushed, looking as if she just gave him the rest of her life, and Shiina gladly accepts.

 

 

 

            Word travels fast, whether it’s welcome or not. Shiina, perched in the tall branches of a tree and wrapped in a muffler despite the summer heat, watches Oogami snuffle at the rubber ball placed in the corner of his exhibit. He’s got a little family now, a tiny pack of two dhole pups that Shiina had gallantly rescued from a gang of illegal poachers.

            “Don’t those babies annoy you?” Shiina snivels. Oogami’s ears flicker in his direction, but seeing as he is just an ordinary wolf right now, he fails to reply.

            “Shiina.”

            “What.” Shiina doesn’t turn, already irked by the sound of Isana’s voice, knowing full well that the whale man will pester him to get some work done. Ever since Hana went to college, the aquarium’s director had taken the rather exhausting duty of shooing Shiina away from his favorite nap spots in favor of picking up a broom. “If you’re gonna tell me to mop something, I won’t. I don’t feel like it.”

            “I’m not. But you need to come down.”

            “No.”

            “It’s about Hana. Will you come down?”

            Just her name flushes excitement through his veins and Shiina is clambering down the tree with a nimbleness quite unusual for his form and build. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he grabs Isana’s shoulders and shakes him vigorously. He registers slight surprise when Hana’s uncle doesn’t swat his hands away or snarl at him, but it’s pushed aside in favor of the news.

            “Is she coming home? When? Why? Aoi Hana is coming?” He’s nearly hopping out of his boots. Isana’s face betrays very little, but then again he’s never been extremely expressive except for a smile as fake as his rings are real gold.

            “Calm down,” he tells the rabbit man, “I need you to calm down.”

            “Aoi Hana is coming home?”

            “Well…yes. In a way.” It’s Isana’s turn to hold Shiina by the shoulders, and the pressure applied is too forceful to be appropriate for casual news. Shiina winces and his nose twitches, as it always does when he wants to complain but holds it in. “Sit down, Shiina.”

            “Why?”

            “Just sit. Please?” Isana never asks for permission. He never fiddles so nervously with his rings. He never looks pained for someone other than himself.

            Shiina stills, and asks again, “Is she coming home?”

 

 

忘れな草 : forget-me-not

reminders of favorite memories and time spent with one another

 

 

            The same stone bench greets him every time he visits, ancient and forlorn. This time it’s just Shiina and Isana, the latter of the two staying back at the gates out of respect for personal space. Shiina convinces himself that he only lets Hana’s uncle come because he has a car and because he knows where the spot is. Shiina would get lost here, roaming between the iron gates and crisscrossing paths, each leading to plots of engraved family names and the overbearing waft of incense.

            On the way, he had asked if Isana knew what hanakotoba meant.

            “The language of flowers. Each flower can have many meanings, but most symbolize one important idea.”

            “What do forget-me-nots mean?” asks Shiina.

            Isana casts him a sidelong glance and doesn’t speak. The road winds up the mountain, away from the city, where buildings blur into steel dots and people vanish. They drive for a minute, the silence heavy with something more than the thinning air but less than the low, static hum of the radio. Shiina waits expectantly.

            “It means true love.”

 

 

 

            A surprise visit. She had stepped into a cab for a surprise visit, a train ticket in hand, which she soon stuffed overeagerly into a brimming duffel bag. Aoi Hana, in person, a good head shorter than Shiina with black hair loosely pulled into a ponytail, slight summer freckles sprinkled across her shoulders. Aoi Hana, calloused but slender hands wrapped around a flowerpot, admiring her green thumb, speaking to a budding sprout as if at 4:44pm, it would awaken with eyes, ears, and a mouth. Aoi Hana, raking leaves into piles the color of the sunset, only to grab Shiina’s hand and dive in head first. Aoi Hana, who used to gently tug at his muffler until it was loose enough for two, and they’d touch noses and exhale softly into the frigid winter air, seeing their own breaths dispel.

            Shiina’s ears ring, an oscillating, nauseous echo that sickens him. He doesn’t remember much besides pushing past Isana, past the faces transformed by someone else’s magic, fingers grasping his forearms and falling away when someone says, let him be.

            “Don’t lie to me,” he gasps, hardly a whisper as he realizes he hasn’t even moved and inch from the spot, he’s still standing — quivering from his very bone marrow — by that ragged tree across from Oogami’s now-empty exhibit, surrounded by everyone except the one he wants to see. “Don’t you lie to me, any of you, don’t lie to me

            “We’re not lying, Director.”

            “Breathe, Director.”

            “It’s okay, Dire—”

            Shiina wrenches his scarf from his neck, nearly tearing the corner that had been lovingly mended so many years ago, and hurls it at the ground.

            “Explain to me,” he hollers, “how this is okay—”

            He doesn’t finish because he’s choking, he’s running, he’s trampling lifeless flowerbeds and littered park maps, heart rattling in his heart because everyone around him is made of lies. Only Hana would tell the truth, he thinks, plunging into the forest until he splashes knee-deep into the creek, the water disorienting in its serene, quiet flow.

            Shiina pulls out her old cell phone, the one she passed on to him when her parents gave her a new one for graduation. He dials her number and waits past one ring, two rings, three rings, until he hears her voice, cheerful and tinny in the receiver.

            “Aoi Han—”

            “Hi, you’ve reached Aoi Hana! I’m not available right now, so please leave me a message. Thanks!”

            The phone slips from his palms and into the water. It drops, settling straight into the riverbed at his toes, the screen fizzling pixel by pixel to a decisive black. He is bereft of emotion, and he's drowning in it; he feels absolutely everything and nothing at all. Numb. Shiina feels numb. Three characters with too many brushstrokes in his opinion, long and drawn out like the muffled blankness he walks through, a sea of bitter molasses.

            She made him write those characters 30 times each, until he had the brushstrokes down in the right orders.

            She made him read passages from books, tedious, thick, awful books.

            She made him memorize poems, shaking her head gently when his intonation and syllable emphasis fell in all the wrong spots.

            Never again will Hana clasp his wrist to lead him to her desk and hover over his shoulder, teaching him new words and new stories. Shiina wishes she’d never tried to surprise him, never bought that train ticket, never stepped in a taxi cab to get to the train station. He wishes she’d hung up to catch the 11:00am bus to the university, where she’d be safe in one piece, healthy and happy, just like she had every single day before that.

            Maybe then, Shiina thinks, she’d be here to help fix the ruined gardens and the ragged polka-dot scarf if he hadn’t so foolishly let her go.

 

 

 

            This flower is for you, Director.

            Plastic-wrapped bouquets leave a bad taste in his mouth — he smiles wryly, thinking of how Hana would ask, “Have you actually tasted them, Director?” — so instead he settles for a handful of wild blooms. He can’t bring himself to pluck the forget-me-nots that pushed valiantly through the soil again, two years after Hana first planted them.

            Alone, this time, without the presence of family members dressed in solemn black, white flowers in hand as if color was forbidden, drained from the world where one pays their respects to the loved ones who have passed. Shiina recalls wanting to bring a forget-me-not, but as Hana had once told him, they’re fickle flowers, deciding not to bloom until weeks after the wake.

“I only ever want to do the fun things,” he says, fingering the edges of her engraved name. “With you, I mean.”

So you think I’m the color blue?

“Aoi Hana, you can’t leave now, you know. I already hired you.” Shiina feels the years on his shoulders like a sudden weight, the world thrust upon him; a grieving Atlas without reprieve.

What was that, Director?

“That was a joke. But you already knew that. Like how you know a lot about flowers, and poems, and animals.”

My name does mean flower, you know.

“You said you came to my zoo to change yourself but you changed a lot mor—” Shiina goes still. His hands run through his hair, and he squeezes his eyes shut, refusing to believe this is what it takes, that this is what he has to lose in order to gain.

Do you know what hanakotoba means?

There are no long, white rabbit ears. Human skin, soft against his fingers, thumbs brushing behind shell of his earlobes, everything hidden under silver hair and uncharacteristically cold hands.

You can find it out yourself.

It’s the last piece and it’s gone, vanished into thin air, to what he believes is a cursed Wonderland. No whiskers, no paws, no tail; no Alice and no white rabbit. Gone, like one plucky zookeeper, arms flung out dramatically in an attempt to keep herself upright, nothing but a tall gravestone and a mismatched bouquet to keep her from tripping and forgetting him in the slow, idle clouds.

Nothing can match how much I love you.

She’s the flowers on the earth and the blue between the clouds, only meant to last so long as he doesn’t blink, so long as he doesn’t miss her (but he does), so long as he doesn’t say goodbye (he never will).

 “Aoi Hana.”  

Shiina.

“I love you, too.”

 

 

 

Aoi Hana is a thousand memories and a thousand places. She is everything he can imagine and all he’s ever wished for — she’s made of a warm smile and rosy cheeks, she’s the smell of forget-me-nots, her bright eyes reflected in a shimmer of moonlight from the windows, hands clasped warmly with his under his muffler. Lying together at the peak of midnight, she whispered infinite thank you’s for letting her fall in love and for falling in love with her. Shiina remembers because forget-me-nots are sweet and fragrant in the night, awakened by the soft blink of stars. If a human being can ever be reborn as a flower, that’s the one she’d be: small, beautiful, fleeting.

Shiina smiles. Her name is what she once was, what she is, and what she will be.

 

 

忘れな草 : forget-me-not

remembrance