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Summer Fireworks

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Ursula always came into town for the big summer fireworks festival, but she didn’t like to go down to the seaside and watch with the crowd, which usually confused the friends she stayed the night with. Kiki understood, though, when Ursula borrowed the tall chair from behind the bakery counter and set it at the edge of the overpass outside, bracing her feet on the low stone wall with her sketchbook in her lap, and smiled and waved to her when Tombo came to pick her up on his bicycle and the two set off for the beach. The Aviation Club was making an expedition of it, and Ursula didn’t want to get between Kiki and a festive night with her friends.

Besides, what she wanted for herself was enough quiet to focus. Osono brought her some coffee, and Fukuo came outside with the baby for a while to watch her work, but most of the neighborhood either had gone down to the beach, stayed at home if they had a good view, or gone to visit friends who did, so she was largely undisturbed as the coming of evening billowed gentle coolness through the summer air; with it came the subtle perfume of the sky and leaves and sea, pushing aside for a little the dry, dusty smell of the road and the lingering smoke of cars.

Ursula leaned into the ridge of pressure from the edge of the wall against her soles, curling intently around the sketchbook. Crows and cats and even little witch girls could sit still and be good models with coaxing and luck, but twilight never would. Before leaving the cabin, she’d tinted several sketchbook pages dark blue with paint, and now she dashed off sketches, light on dark in unblended pastels, pressing the square, powder-smooth sticks into the dried-in warps of the paper, trying to capture the passing phases of color. The sun turned yellow, then rosy; it glanced those colors off the angles of the rooftops scattered like cobblestones down to the sea, the roads snaking through them in snatches, and here and there the gold-flecked, blue-shaded tufts of trees in the greenways. The ocean in the distance had darkened from its greenish jewel-blue, then its glowed bright white in the low-angled sun before revealing its depths again as a deep, dark violet that faded on toward shimmery velvet black.

She couldn’t follow it that far. The same half-light that spilled out those rich colors was also her light to work by, and it finally dwindled to the point that all the pastels in her box looked like shades of blue. Lighting the lantern was no help — it only turned them all into shades of yellow — so she put them away and stretched, taking in a deep breath of the evening air. She had known that it would happen; you can’t have a fireworks show in the sunshine, after all, and sometimes, she knew, you had to just breathe it all in and try to paint it on your mind and see how much of it you could carry to the canvas later.

Soon the fireworks started down on the water. The overpass offered a good view, and it was a good show. They always tried to one-up themselves with each passing year, although to Ursula that just seemed silly; you might as well ask for a “bigger and better” first purple bud on a tree in the springtime as try to inflate the one night a year to watch those seed-sparks whistle up from the boats on the bay and pop open into fleeting, glorious blossoms, hair-petals of floating jewel-white fire. When it was finally over, she leaned back and closed her eyes, taking in the distant snatches of sound on the wind, the hot, smoky fragrance of those flowers that she could just catch, and she tried to paint the picture on her mind and think about how to do it. The fireworks were so sharp and bright against the darkness that pastels would never do for a final version of their portrait — maybe she could make thick layers of white and bright colors with a coat of black on top and then cut back in with a knife...

While she was thinking, she was also waiting for Kiki.

Ursula had finally gone up to Kiki’s room to put her sketchbook away and was just coming back down with the bag of tricks she’d bought when she saw the lantern-light floating through the air; it wasn’t close enough yet to make out Kiki and Jiji on the deck brush, but Ursula knew it was them by the way it moved.

Not surprising that Kiki was coming back by herself, and fairly early; she was still getting used to Tombo’s friends. From Ursula’s own budding-artist days, she knew how it felt to be that age and a little bit different, caught between the desire to fit in with the other kids and the desire to be yourself and throw what they thought to the wind, when it could swing around from minute to minute which hunger was sharpest. Kiki seemed more conflicted than Ursula ever had been; for her, being herself and leaving the world to catch up had been a natural choice — but natural didn’t mean simple, and she’d spent enough time looking over the other shoulder when she was younger to know how it felt.

So she had her plan in case Kiki needed to be cheered up, and besides, she wanted to have a little fun the one time in the year when you could buy fireworks. She set her lantern down on the ground beside the wall where it would have a little protection from the wind, carefully took the hot glass off of it, and went to her bag of tricks for a sparkler.

She always forgot how hard they were to light and began to wonder if Kiki would catch her in the act, but finally it burst into life with a hiss, and when she stood up, the brush-borne lantern was still some way away.

Ursula waved her own showering light back and forth to guide them in for a landing.

The lantern dipped into a low, straight arc, and just when Ursula’s sparkler had died off, Kiki came wheeling softly over the edge of the overpass and alighted. “What was that?” she asked.

“Hee,” Ursula grinned. “You want one?”

Without waiting for an answer, she put another of the coated sticks into Kiki’s hands. Jiji craned forward off the little witch’s shoulder, sniffed it, and recoiled with a face, licking the air disgustedly.

“It looks kind of like incense,” Kiki observed, too clever to try the scent herself.

“You didn’t have these growing up?”

She shook her head a little shyly, but when she said “Tonight was the first time I ever saw fireworks like that,” it was more exultation than confession.

“They don’t make as big a deal of it where you’re from, huh?”

“Not that, just different. Back home, Mom would mix them up in the big cauldron, and then we’d set it on a fire outside and they’d come out like birds and horses and things.”

“Hehhh? Next time you visit home you’ll have to take me along so I can see that.” Ursula always had wanted to see the place Kiki came from, now that much more. For the moment, she’d picked another sparkler for herself and knelt down beside the uncovered lantern again, with Kiki following her lead. “Ready?”

She nodded, and together they dipped the tips in the steady little flame. As seconds passed, Kiki glanced over at her friend but kept following along and holding it there patiently...


Ursula barely looked at her own sparkler; it was more fun to watch Kiki gape and smile at hers, and to try to make a mind-painting of its light playing over her hand and her face, of the little sparks flying too fast even to see them move, every instant a new dandelion puff of gold-white light...

After a few more of them, enough to finish the mind-painting to her satisfaction, Ursula let Kiki into the bag herself, and she wasted no time digging into the bottom to find the other trick it contained — a packet of little ground spinners. Ursula demonstrated on the first one, carrying it out into the middle of the street and rushing back as soon as her match caught the fuse, and they watched it whizz and skitter on the pavement, flinging color in all directions for just a moment before it vanished into the dark.

Jiji wanted nothing to do with the hissing, spitting things, but Kiki beamed a thrill and needed only a little prodding to try the next one herself. After a little fumbling and ultimate success, all her hesitation melted, and she heedlessly burned her way through the rest of the pack perfecting her technique with them.

Ursula didn’t mind. This was what they were for, after all; you couldn’t call it a waste once you’d bought them. She just stood back and watched Kiki run back and forth laughing, with the lantern-light catching in the smoke and occasionally picking out a glimpse of her smile.

The only trouble was that when the spinners were gone, the rest of the sparklers might seem like an anticlimax. Of course, Ursula was going to burn them off anyway, but just as she was poking in the bag, between the crackles of paper she caught a sound from the street below: the creak and whirr of a bicycle.

She leaned out to look. Yes, she could just catch the light off his glasses and the stripes on his shirt. “Hey, Tombo!!”

Kiki started behind her. “Wha?”

Undaunted, Ursula twisted the bag of tricks firmly shut and waved it over the edge.

Tombo brought the bike to a stop. “What is it?” he called.

“Catch it!”

He did catch it, and Ursula turned around to look at the little witch standing there blushing. She made the suggestion with a jerk of her head; it didn’t take much prodding.

Ursula scooped up Jiji and held him back despite his squirming as Kiki took her lantern, straddled her deck brush, and floated not-quite-steadily up, over, and down...

Looking down from the overpass, Tombo turned out to be an old hand with sparklers and right away began demonstrating how to make trails of light in the air. He swung up-one-side-bump-down-the-other — a blazing heart hung in the air for an instant. He stood up straighter, as if he hadn’t quite realized what he was doing until he saw it himself, and Kiki stood up straighter, too...

It might be naughty to watch them — and hypocritical, still corralling Jiji under her arm — but, Ursula noted, she owed it to Osono to keep an eye on them.

And painting this on her mind was just too good to miss.