(Editor’s note: The following is the winning entry in the youth category of the 2017 Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest held by the Little Tokyo Historical Society. This marks the first time that two writers have won for one submission. Chou and Han are from Irvine.)
Day is young: her hands pale and cold as she dips her finger in a pot of fresh dew, sprinkling the still slumbering shops and houses below. Yet, there is a particular strangeness that permeates through the air, unseen and unheard, traveling through the many streets of Little Tokyo, watching and guarding what could not be let go. These spirits of the past and present gather here as Day rushes past a tall, slightly crooked figure standing in the square.
“‘In front of my eyes
Past and present LA looms
Old man’s New Year’s day.’
By Shisei Tsuneishi… a fitting poem, to be sure.”
The figure starts, unaware of the two old men sitting and sipping tea behind him on a bench. The one who spoke smiles slightly and bows. “Nice to meet you. I am Naozumi Chiba. My friend here,” he motions to the other seated figure, “is Itsuki Yanagi. We have been here for quite a while… Issei, actually. And you are?” His question lingers in the space between them.
“My name is Ren Shimizu.” He shifts his feet on the uneven tiles, unsure how to continue. “I have a wife and and five-year-old daughter… have you seen them?” The old men exchange glances, faces creased with sympathy for a question echoed far too many times.
“Ah, Ren. Would you perhaps like to join us for tea? Maybe we can help you with your search as well?” Chiba spreads his arms invitingly as Yanagi makes room for Ren on the bench.
“Any moment now, Ren. Though we are near eternal, our tea, unfortunately, is not.”
“I, uh, of course.” Ren trips over his words, mind blank with any reason as to why he should deny the old men’s offer for a drink, other than a peculiar instinct warning him not to.
He takes the drink from Chiba, hands shaking as he lifts the edge of the teacup to his lips. It’s only then, seemingly by coincidence, that Ren peers into the bottom of the cup.
At first he thinks perhaps it is a trick of the light, but as he brings the cup closer to his face he can see in it — a small whirlpool of silver starlight. More peculiarly, he does not see his face reflected back in the liquid; rather, he sees a little girl with a gap in her teeth laughing. She seems to be saying something. A… y… da… ddy… daddy! Daddy?
Ren’s tea cup shatters, spilling its contents all over the bench.
“Tch. Ren! That was our best tea!” Yanagi quickly stands and pulls a handkerchief from his pocket.
“I don’t know how the tea managed to offend you, but you must be more careful,” follows Chiba as he, too, starts to clear out the tea.
Ren says nothing, his hand still clenched as if still holding the cup.
“Ren?” Chiba stops cleaning and reaches out tentatively. “If you’re sorry about the tea or the tea cup, we weren’t actually mad. In fact, have you heard of kintsugi? We can —”
“What was that?” Ren shouts, anger evident by the red creeping up his neck.
“Kintsugi? Well, it’s the art of —”
“What was in that tea? I saw my daughter calling out to me.” He clenches his fists on his lap. “What were you trying to do?”
At this point, both of the old men stop cleaning. Their faces are impassive.
Yanagi holds out his palm as though he is trying to soothe a raging beast. “Be calm, Ren. You are uneasy.”
“Yes, my friend is right. You are uneasy and need to rest. We know that death for someone as young as you cannot be fair… or easy.” Chiba runs his hand across his head and sighs. “We just wanted to help you pass on peacefully.”
“Pass on? What do you mean?” Ren’s voice sounds impossibly small; he can feel his chest tightening in dreadful anticipation.
“Yes, Ren. Pass on… to your next life.”
“Next life? I hardly started this one! I—” He throws his hands helplessly in the air. “I,” he sighs, “need more time to think.” Ren turns from the two old men and starts walking away.
The old men watch in silence as he disappears around a corner. They reset the tea and resume their old musings.
They are in no hurry. After all, he will return. They always do.
Ren’s legs carry him faster and farther than he first intended. It isn’t long before the vibrant streets grow foreign. He is directionless, his vision is hazy, the power of an angry spirit manifesting a poisonous miasma surrounding him. In the corner of his eyes he sees darkness, the faceless moon, and blaring sirens. Scenes of the night play just out of his direct sight — mocking his aimlessness, his hopelessness.
“Lost, boy?” they whisper. “Can’t find your way?”
“Useless. How useless,” others echo. “Can’t even keep a family safe. Poor wife. Poor daughter… all because of a useless man…”
Ren breaks out into a run, eyes screwed shut. But the visions do not cease and the voices only grow louder, more sinister. His body feels impossibly heavy as though with each step forward his limbs are being dragged back.
“I can’t go any farther,” he thought. “They’re right. I can’t. I can’t do anything…” His pace falters. The swarm of voices approach steadily closer.
“Hello?” A clear voice sounds out, like sparrows on a spring bough.
Ren looks up. A woman with silver-streaked hair and a youthful face stands in front of him with concern etched into her expression.
“Are you hurt?” She pauses. “Are the akuma after you?” She pauses again, waiting for an answer. None comes. She sighs and rolls up her sleeves, getting ready to pull Ren out of the street. “You obviously don’t know what’ll happen when the akuma actually get to you.” She loops her arms around Ren’s shoulders and drags him towards a large bell. It appears to be part of a temple.
After laying Ren down under the bell pavilion’s awning, she quickly takes a cloth pouch from her pocket. “Nothing cleanses a soul like incense!” She pours out some incense from the pouch and then scatters it about the bell. “That should keep you safe until midday.” She sits down quietly next to Ren. “Life is lonely when only the akuma visit… I suppose I’ll wait for you to wake.”
Ren’s eyelids flutter open, eyes straining against the midday sun. The woman sits patiently nearby, not having moved since she last spoke.
“Who?” Ren croaks, voice raspy.
“I am Aki Fujiwara. You must be a lost soul… the akuma would not have chased you otherwise.”
Useless… useless… The words of the akuma echo in Ren’s head. “So they were akuma, huh.” He sighs, carding his fingers through this hair.
“I am Ren Shimizu, by the way. Thank you for helping me.” He chuckles weakly, “I suppose I am a lost soul now. Nowhere to go. No home to return to… Nothing to look forward to, really.”
“Newly dead, I suppose?” Aki stifles a smile, but the slight crinkle around her eyes gave her amusement away.
“And what of it?” Ren snaps. “Are you going to ‘help’ me pass on too? Like the two old men in the plaza?”
Aki says nothing.
“Then I should get going now.” Ren gets up abruptly and makes to leave the pavilion.
“Where do you plan to go?” Aki asks. “One step outside the temple garden and the akuma will be after you just like before.”
Ren pauses. “I’ll just take some of the incense with me.”
“And what do you hope to do even if you evade the akuma? Wander as a lost soul for the rest of eternity?” Silence. “Or… do you plan to visit the living?”
Ren turns sharply. “That’s none of your business.”
“Even if you go back to your family, you can never join them. You will watch and you will long to be a part of them once more, but they will slip through your hands. They will move on without you. Only you will be left behind.”
“Then what do you propose I do? Stay here with you?” Ren snorts. “Or go back to the old men?”
“Exactly. Go back to the old men.” She shifts slightly where she sits. “Perhaps I should tell you a story. I think it will help you. Are you willing to stay and listen?”
Ren says nothing, simply standing and watching her.
She takes it as a cue to continue. “Back in the forties, I had the chance to meet a young spirit. She was a young woman, happily married and pregnant no less when she was ‘relocated’ to a concentration camp in Colorado. Well, this young woman was due to give birth there… and she did. But… the baby was stillborn. She was devastated by the preventable tragedy but she eventually moved on. After all, there was nothing she could do to bring back her child.”
Aki shifts once more, wringing her hands in her lap. “This young woman lived past her tragedy and after two more years, she and her husband were released from the concentration camp. It was incredibly difficult for them to find a place to belong to once more. But the two eventually found themselves in a small town called Bronzeville. Many Japanese, like them, had settled there and soon a community blossomed. For once, after so many years of hardship, she was happy and blessed to once more be with child. This time, she gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl. But… the woman’s body was weak and she never did get to share in her child’s life like she had always dreamed.
“This regret carried through to her afterlife. She would not pass on. She was determined to stay by her child… not knowing that the years she bound herself to Earth would bind her for eternity.”
Aki turns to Ren, a sprinkle of tears at the corner of her eyes. “Do not be this spirit, Ren. There is nobility in letting go.”
“But I…I don’t know what else to do, Aki.” Ren glances down at his palms; the lifeline running down the center had once seemed like it went on forever.
Aki smiles warmly up at Ren. “It is simple. There is nothing you can do, but move on. We are not needed in the realm of the living. Go back to the old men, they will help you.”
“I suppose I should go now. It’s already afternoon. And… Aki, thank you. For everything.” He turns toward the pavilion’s exit but stops.
“Aki… why do you stay?”
She smiles wryly, almost bitterly. “Because I lost the chance you have. Do not repeat my mistakes, Ren.”
Day’s dark, gnarled hands sweep across the sky, splashing fire and gold onto her final canvas. She knows her time runs short, and like the denizens of the Earth she watches over, she wants to stay, to last, just one moment longer.
Ren arrives at the plaza, lost in thought. Despite Aki’s advice doubt still clouds his mind.
“Mommy, help me tie this please?”
There, in the corner of the plaza stands a little girl. In one hand she holds a slip of paper, in the other she grasps a ribbon. Her mother gently takes both from her hands and ties the paper to the bamboo. Ren watches them as they leave, not daring to venture any closer in their presence.
Once the two were gone, he rushes to the tree, curious as to what they had written.
How are you? Me and Mommy miss you lots. Mommy says you went to heaven, is it nice there? I hope so. I think I’d like to go to heaven one day too. When I’m there you can tell me stories and we can go to the beach. We can even get ice cream before dinner, don’t worry I won’t tell Mommy. I love you Daddy.
The paper falls from Ren’s hands. He has made his decision.
The two old men, Chiba and Yanagi, are both still seated at the bench. They are playing a game of go as a fresh pot of tea percolates quietly beside them. Chiba, stroking his beard, looks up.
“Ah, what do we have here? Ren Shimizu back again?” Yanagi, too, looks up from the game. He says nothing but watches Ren curiously from where he sits.
“Are you here, perhaps, for another cup of tea?” Yanagi finally inquires, a knowing gleam in his eyes.
Ren sighs and sits down on the bench next to Chiba. There is no doubt, not anymore.
“Yes… a cup of tea would be nice.”
We would like to dedicate this piece to our tour guide, Bob Moriguchi. Without him, this story would not hold the same significance that it does. Thank you for truly making history come alive.