by Hayley Snowden
Artwork, “Unformed” by Liz Chiu
The world melded into one indiscernible blur of sound and color as Kichiro’s feet flew through the streets, the warm summer wind kissing his skin. Cedary smoke of grilling seafood filled his nostrils and pricked his eyes as he weaved and dodged his way through the swirling crowd. All around, food stands and brightly colored tents were being swiftly erected, transforming the customarily calm district into one enormous street fair. It was the last day of July in Tokyo, and with the rushing in of August, Japan’s famous summer festival season would begin in earnest.
The boy darted around buildings and back through side alleys like a minnow dashing upstream. Though he hadn’t yet reached his twelfth birthday, he had taken the journey hundreds of times, and knew the path better than he knew how to spell his own name—over the steely red bridge, left at the second shrine, down the ancient stone steps, and right at the corner café. His flip flops skidded to a halt on the smooth pavement, the stylized lettering of Evening Star Ramen’s storefront greeting him with its dull, friendly light. He drew in four long, slow breaths in an attempt to calm his racing heart, tugging at his marigold-colored tank and flattening his disheveled inky hair.
Kichiro swiped the door tapestry aside, entering the eatery with the aloof mien of a tiny businessman. Though the customers seated at the long noodle bar remained hunched over their dishes and slurping, three sets of eyes fell on him immediately. “You’re late, Kichiro,” said his little brother, Shinji, who had some sort of stuffed animal nestled in the crook of his arm. Shinji’s shiny black eyes, like two pebbles polished smooth by a crystal stream, peered over at Kichiro accusingly from the other side of the counter. At his side stood Aiko, their middle sister, in a new petal-pink dress. She was a willow-thin wisp of a girl, junior to Kichiro by just over a year. “Hurry up,” she said with a light smile, rubbing the soft hair on Shinji’s head. The favored sibling of the Takahara family, Aiko was ethereally beautiful, with a sweet spirit to match. Neither Shinji nor Kichiro could blame her for the way people folded around her wherever they went—the brothers loved her just as much, if not more.
“We were beginning to worry,” said a sonorous third voice. Kichiro’s attention shifted to the old man whom he had been coming to visit ever since he could walk. “Good evening, Jii-san,” he said respectfully, calling the man by ‘grandfather’ like he always had, though there was no relation. Then, with a studied air of carelessness, Kichiro added, “I thought I’d stop by.”
The old man’s back was almost as hunched as his slurping customers, though his posture had been earned by a lifetime of cooking ramen from sunrise to long after sunset, six days a week. His thick fingers, like rolls of quarters branching from his sturdy hands, manipulated the long yellow noodles deftly as he chuckled.
“I’m glad,” the old man said, turning to face the children, the three of them now squished together on two stools at the end of the counter. The steam that floated up from the gargantuan pots could curl even Kichiro’s pin-straight hair, the pungent aroma of shallots and soy blossoming to fill the painstakingly-scrubbed kitchen. Jii-san wiped his hands on his mottled apron, adjusted his circular glasses, and ambled over to Kichiro, the delicate silver hairs on his head agitating slightly. He smoothed a wide thumb over the permanent wrinkle on Kichiro’s forehead—the one that made him look like he had already been thinking too long and too hard for someone his age.
“You were just about to miss the great samurai warrior, Ryoichi, passing through the land of the dead to retrieve the Princess’ secret message,” Jii-san said.
Kichiro’s earliest memories were of Jii-san and his stories; of the brave exploits of Ryoichi on his quest to woo Princess Kaori; of the old storyteller’s form expanding with life as he spun his grand tales, all the while stretching out long ropes of noodles and folding them neatly into shining bowls. Because the Takahara family lived next to the shrine around the corner, the three children could—and often, did—stay until the establishment closed. While he listened, Kichiro forgot the towering pile of dishes waiting in their modest apartment sink. He forgot the piles of laundry on the bed, and the sight of his classmates’ homemade lunches at school. He forgot the blinking of the answering machine that would inevitably give way to that same simpering tone, the one that told him another project at work would be keeping his mother too busy to come home.
The syllables of Jii-san’s timeworn voice reverberated in his head, and he forgot them all. “Seeing the vengeful spirits of the dead close in, Ryoichi took to high ground, his katana strapped tightly to his back,” the old man narrated as he dumped a carton of eggs into a simmering pot. “They had tasted his blood, he knew, and now would never let him go willingly.
His robes were torn; his face, stained crimson—yet he unsheathed his wickedly sharp blade without a moment’s hesitation, seeing only the face of the Princess before him, a flower behind her ear.”
Kichiro glanced furtively at his siblings. Aiko was gripping the countertop, and the suspense was making Shinji strangle his stuffed animal.
“Ryoichi’s katana sliced and sang as it cleaved the ghosts in two, the warrior himself winding around and through them in a deadly dance they could not refuse. All the while, Ryoichi inched closer and closer toward the bridge between the lands of the dead and the living. He knew that if the Princess had decided to marry him, she would have nailed a poem to the bridge at midnight—the same poem they had recited to each other since they were children:
As water of a stream will meet,
Though, barred by rocks, apart it fall
In rash cascades, so we too, sweet,
Shall be together after all.
Abruptly, Jii-san did something Kichiro had never seen him do—he stopped cooking.
The old man stood halted in mid-step, his pale face turned toward the entry of the small eatery, his eyes locked on something.
“What’s wrong, Jii-san?” said Shinji. “Did a ghost eat him?”
“No,” Aiko breathed at the prospect.
An elderly woman stood in the doorway, looking just as startled by the sight of the old gray chef. Weathered by the passage of time as she was, she was beautiful—a full mouth and sharp cheekbones graced the regal curve of her face. She wore a red silk kimono, common for this time of year, and her white, silky hair was piled up on her head in the intricate style of a queen. A little girl in a pink kimono, no more than two years old, held tightly onto her hand.
Despite the woman’s evident surprise, she carried herself with the pride of an aristocrat. A single ruby-toned lily was nestled behind her ear. Remembering herself, she broke her stare with the old man, whispered something to the little girl, and left as quietly and quickly as she came.
The woman had gone unnoticed by Aiko and Shinji, who continued to barrage Jii-san with a cacophony of questions. Kichiro beheld the old man—with his strong warrior’s hands, his glinting eyes, and the brilliant kitchen blade, now lax in his right hand like an unsheathed katana—with new eyes.
“What did happen to Ryoichi and the Princess?” asked Kichiro, his muted, calm voice cutting through the boisterously plaintive cries of his siblings. Jii-san looked at Kichiro, and something passed between them.
The old man’s eyes flitted briefly to the two younger children, and then he replied, “The ghosts realized where Ryoichi was trying to go. They summoned an army of fire demons, and, with a mighty surge of the flame-belching monsters, the bridge was engulfed in flames. The poem—if there ever had been one—was lost forever.”
“But you don’t have to go to bed yet,” Shinji grumbled, “Why do I?”
In the middle of folding the laundry, Kichiro opened his mouth to retort. Aiko beat him. “Because Kichiro is the oldest, so he’s the boss,” she said patiently.
“That’s just the way things are.”
The corners of Shinji’s mouth turned down, like he was about to make things difficult.
“Come on,” Aiko said, “I’ll give you my dessert tomorrow if you’re in bed before I count to ten.”
Shinji’s eyes sparked. He dashed two steps toward the adjoining room, jerked to a halt,
and ran back to Kichiro. “Goodnight, big brother,” the boy said with pronounced gravity, punctuating his words with a comically violent bow. He barely stopped himself from falling over.
“Goodnight, Shinji,” Kichiro said, suppressing a snort. The words had hardly left
Kichiro’s mouth before Shinji was out of sight. Gesturing after him with a hand towel, Kichiro added, “And keep your back straight when you bow.”
Aiko watched, bemused. She wasn’t counting. “I think he’s trying to imitate you,” she stated. Through a yawn, she managed, “I’ll make breakfast tomorrow.”
He nodded, folding Shinji’s dinosaur socks. “Did you study for your test yet?”
“Mhhmm,” she waved semi-consciously at him as she started shuffling toward her room.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. Goodnight.”
Kichiro contemplated pursuing the topic further, but opted to let it rest. He remained by himself in the living room for quite some time. His mind wandered as his hands worked, his thoughts weighed heavy by visions of warriors and noodle shops.
When the apartment had been organized and the dishes were gleaming, he padded into the dark hall, a full laundry basket on his hip. Noiselessly, he nudged Shinji’s door open. A few tufts of dark hair were just visible among the sea of pillows. Across the way, the light from Aiko’s desk lamp streamed feebly through her cracked door. Kichiro could hear the scratching of her pencil on paper.
He loitered in the quiet of the hall, drawing in a breath through his nose. This was his job. To watch, to guard, to protect. To make sure those he loved stayed safe.
In the stillness, his mind’s eye replayed the radiant katana ripping through the huddled horde of ghostly shadows. He heard the unyielding samurai’s ferocious cries mingle with clanging weapons, coalescing into a nightmarish symphony. He saw the white flames licking the wicker-woven bridge, jumping higher and higher, searing the ancient structure and devouring it in seconds.
The bridge between the land of the living and the dead.
The laundry basket fell from Kichiro’s side. He bolted.
Kichiro’s tiny fist hammered on the door of the shrine caretaker’s quarters. Inside, something crashed and rustled as someone got to their feet. The door flew open, revealing an unsteady-looking man in his early twenties. The metallic odor of alcohol wafted out from the small room.
“Yuu,” Kichiro said, a little louder than he intended. Yuu winced. “Didn’t you tell me once that this shrine caught fire?”
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” the young man slurred, rubbing the back of his head.
Kichiro pushed his way inside, eyes gobbling up the room. “They take the damaged ema away before anyone can see them, don’t they? And it’s bad luck to throw them away, right? Do you keep them somewhere?”
Usually, the ema—small wooden blocks on which thousands wrote their wishes for fortune, good luck, and happiness—hung by scarlet threads on a wall at the shrine, clacking in the breeze.
A poem that only they knew, nailed to the bridge between the two worlds.
Yuu haphazardly kicked some raunchy-looking magazines under a table. The room was hardly visible beneath piles of clothes, newspapers, books, cleaning supplies, and just about everything that one could hoard in an apartment so small. The neighborhood never ceased talking about either Yuu or Kichiro—the drunk, useless caretaker and the too-mature offspring of a workaholic mother. Friendship had bloomed from their shared status as a pox on society.
“Why are you so—” Yuu hiccupped. “Why are you so worked up?”
Kichiro spun on his heel, facing the man. “I need your help.”
A few moments later, Kichiro’s hands buried beneath a dense pile of charred wooden tokens in the mildewy basement, his fingers turning gray as the black soot flaked off. Yuu, helping as only Yuu could, was snoozing facedown on another pile of ema. Kichiro lost track of time, drowning in wishes for a passed test, greater skill at video games, the return of a lost pet, a promotion at work, finding a true love, reconnecting with a distant friend. At last, the rays of the rising sun gradually began streaming through the cellar window.
His eyes burned, his throat was dry, and he had still found nothing. In bitter resignation, he rose, nudging the sleeping Yuu with his toe.
Yuu started awake. “I didn’t find it,” Kichiro said.
Yuu raised his head, one plaque stuck to his face. He peeled it off, yawning. “What were you looking for, again?”
“It doesn’t matter. Let’s go.”
Yuu scratched at his plaque. “I hate love poems,” he said, half to himself. “My ex-girlfriend thought they were the best things since Nintendo.”
Kichiro twitched. “Does that ema have a poem on it?”
As the sun fell beneath the curve of the horizon, the city effused life. Kites burned yellow and red against the blush of the lanterns, long tails billowing in the wind. Women floated across the cobbled paths in kimonos of coral, sapphire, orchid, and mandarin silk. Merchants before walls of fire-polished jewelry observed the crowds with knowing smiles. The sweet and savory perfumes of sweet grilled rice cakes, roasting meats, frying croquets, and crisply-seared seafood made the air thick and languorous. Legions of saffron-robed dancers paraded the streets, the night pulsing with the steady pound of drums.
Kichiro navigated through the ebb and flow of people with a firm grip on Shinji’s hand, Aiko at his side. His pocket felt disproportionately heavy, weighed down by the ema and the thwarted futures it embodied. At some point, Shinji caught sight of a group of children scooping goldfish out of a kiddy pool, and he immediately pulled Aiko away to go do the same. Kichiro watched them go, groaning inwardly at the prospect of one more mouth to feed. Aiko looked back apologetically, but even she couldn’t hide the mirth that illuminated her features.
The only times Jii-san ever ventured out of his little shop were festival times such as these. Now, Kichiro mused, heading to the spot where he knew the old man would be, it made a lot more sense.
Kichiro had recognized the elderly woman the moment he’d seen her. Every year, she and her husband had a special place of honor in the festival proceedings. She was the heiress to the Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, and owned practically half the town.
In all but title, she was royalty.
All at once, the crowd opened up before Kichiro, and he halted between two massive slate bowls, each of which contained a scorching, effulgent fire. His eyes came to rest on the man whom he sought. Jii-san stood slightly apart from the body of the swirling masses, turned away, so that Kichiro could not see his face.
The ramen chef watched as the heiress in the crimson kimono glided through the festival walkway, holding another man’s weathered hand, waving to the crowd as a princess would to her subjects.
“Well, I have a feeling you know the source of my inspiration now,” Jii-san had said to Kichiro the night of his epiphany in the kitchen, after Aiko and Shinji had gone on ahead. He had smiled with bashful sorrow, unable to meet Kichiro’s eyes.
After a long pause, he chuckled to himself, eyes crinkling. “She was lost on the subway, the day I met her. I kept trying to give her directions, and she kept telling me she knew where she was going. We rode all the way to Ginza so she could prove a point.”
The smile faded from Jii-san’s face.
“A servant of her household saw us in the street together one day,” he said, looking at the counter, but not really seeing it. “It wasn’t long before her father found out.”
Kichiro had remained mute, remembering that the Princess Kaori of Jii-san’s tales had been promised to marry another, though Ryoichi had loved her ever since his days as a clumsy samurai apprentice.
“She had only one chance to leave me a message before they sent her away.”
Kichiro envisioned the great warrior Ryoichi drop to his knees, his katana tossed aside, his hands stained black as he searched desperately through rubble that yielded him nothing.
The low dripping of the faucet was like gunfire.
Kichiro had sat silently with Jii-san as he closed shop that night. Only when he had locked the front door, and they turned to go their separate ways, did Jii-san speak again. “She was the great regret of my life,” he breathed into the cool night air.
Kichiro had listened to the departing crunch of his sandals on the gravel.
Now, the old man’s warrior-like silhouette seemed dwarfed against the shadows of the jubilant mob.
Kichiro’s hand twitched at his side. He remained some distance away from the old man, unnoticed amidst the excitement of the festival. The slate bowls on his either side seemed to pin him to the ground where he stood, trapping him in their gravitational pull.
His reached into his pocket, gripping the ema tightly. Charred and brittle in his palm, the front of it was almost indecipherable, save one or two phrases—but Kichiro could fill in what wasn’t there.
It was a familiar poem of a stream barred by rocks, and the tenuous hope of a shared tomorrow.
Kichiro turned the blackened tablet over in his hand, reading the surviving inscription on the back.
To my Ryoichi—Yes, I will marry you.
Ema in hand, Kichiro took one step toward the old man. He faltered. His hand trembled.
In a slow, deliberate movement, he held the ema out to one side, unfurled his grip, and let the tablet fall into one of the avaricious, blinding fires.
Amidst the gleeful chaos, the heiress’ eyes slid over the gray-haired chef, and she was soon swallowed up by the crowd