Chapter 22:

Shells and Bodies VII

Backward Steps

Second Memory: Kouyama Mizuki, 2018

Before my eyes, the immensity of what surrounds me makes me feel small. Or rather, perhaps not because of its extent, but because of its significance.

Thick drops of water are falling neatly from the sky, and they make a strong, icy impact as they touch my skin. It is starting to rain, even if the sky is not necessarily laden with grayish clouds. And while the few people around are protecting themselves from the water by hiding under trees and opening umbrellas, one of them doesn't seem to care about that, besides me, of course.

I can recognize her even if she is trying to hide her face: that is Mrs. Kouyama, Ren's mother. Alone there, I see her with a pinched look and tired features around her eyes, and I notice how she doesn't seem to be feeling very well. I don't know exactly what we are seeing, but apparently she is visiting someone who has passed away, and we are certainly a few years past the previous memory she had been. There is no sign of the reaper: since he had started to look inattentive, he had disappeared, and there had been no more signs of him.

But the memory was still happening, so I should keep following it.

I follow the woman with my eyes. We are a few meters away, but I don't move yet. I watch her carefully for anything that might give me an idea of what I am seeing, but she keeps going up, up, up, and it looks like she is going to the last part, the highest point in the cemetery. So I decide to follow it.

The rain no longer bothers me; because it is not something happening to me, I can deny it in my head, and it will no longer bother me, even if I have to remind myself of it all the time. And the rain doesn't seem to bother the woman either. The floor of the cemetery is partially divided between stretches of concrete and earth, so the smell caused by the rain rises up my nose, and a warmth envelops my whole body, as if the ground was saving it to give me. The memory becomes more and more vivid with each moment.

When I reach where the woman is, I see her silently removing her shawl, and silently rubbing a handkerchief over her eyes. There is no one around us, so we are accompanied only by ourselves.

"I did not come on the day of your burial, but I am here."

The woman places flowers on the grave, silently. Seeing her more closely, I notice how different she looks; her face, once inviting, though serious and prominent, now shows no signs of care... it was as if all the splendor of this woman was gone. Even with her rigid face, she was still a beautiful woman, at least at the time she had separated from Akio. But here, she only shows fatigue, discouragement.

I take a closer look at the tomb she dedicates her visit to. It is white and beautiful, a marble with beautiful workmanship and finish. And on the uppermost part, there is writing in the stone, such as the date of birth and death, the birthplace, and the name of the individual, written with large kanji that make misunderstandings impossible.

My father's name is written there.

Perhaps it shouldn't come as such a surprise, after all... Kazuta Naoki was ill. And it was not something sudden, he had been suffering from his illness for some time. But I had no idea about this until the day he died.


The year was 2018, and the month was April. During spring, the weather was slowly beginning to change from the icy winter to the blooming and harmonious period. At this time I was in my first year of high school, as always, focused absolutely on my performance as an athlete. Already long distant from Ren and without a relationship with Hina, my life was pretty much reduced to what I did on the court. And, thanks to this, I was one of the best players in town, if not the best.

After practice, I would periodically go out with my new friends to places they liked: sometimes to the roof of some building, sometimes simply to a city karaoke place, and sometimes to the city cemetery, just to hang out and chat. Even if we didn't go to these places, we still found things to do, and we were never bored. Since I had become closer to these people, who were all older and cooler than me, I had started to feel a little more present in a life that I considered "adult" and "mature", and it kind of made me rethink my actions before I did them, as if... as if I wanted to think of the "most mature thing to do" in every situation.

And this was just an attempt to fool myself and pretend that I was growing up, when in fact I was more stagnant than ever.

Anyway, on the day it all happened, I had not gone out with them. I remember, on the way out, bumping into Yui and some of her friends, only to quickly say hello to the girl, totally absorbed with things other than them, and other than myself as well.

I had walked alone the whole long way from my new school to my home without the company of anyone, and I felt a little tired too. What I most wanted to do was to lie down as soon as I arrived, and I hoped that my mother had thought of this, and had prepared some snacks for me. She always did that, after all.

But when I got home, all I got was tears. My mother had not even turned her face to see me arrive: from the living room, facing a switched-off television, Mom was crying loudly, and my heart was racing on the spot. Startled, afraid of what I might find out, I questioned my mother about the reason for her tears.

I remember her hugging me tightly, almost knocking me over onto the sofa. With her hot breath tingling my neck, she whispered, with as little force as her voice could produce:

"Your father... Cancer took him away..."

I didn't even know that man had cancer. At that time, even before my accident and before I had a chance to see things from another perspective, I had decided to abandon Kazuta Naoki. The forgiveness he had asked me for at that camp was never given to him, and I had hated him since I was thirteen. Even though he still helped my mother with my expenses, and even though he still gave me presents on all my birthdays, I refused to be near him.

Even when he would go out with my mother, and she would beg me to talk to him again, I would not give in.

And that day, she was telling me that the man had died. As my mother cried, a million different thoughts raced through my head. I was old enough to understand the gravity of this loss for her, even if for me it meant nothing. So I pressed my mother's body against mine, bending down so that we were closer, and let her cry on my shoulder.

She had nothing to say to me after all. Nor did I have anything to say to her; it was always the two of us, we understood each other perfectly. Naoki was a very special person to my mother... I have no memory of her seeing other people besides my father, even though it was years after their divorce... probably my mother had never stopped loving that guy, no matter how much he had left our home to live as he wanted.

And in the face of that sadness, I had no right whatsoever to object. My mother was not wrong, after all. She was crying for a person who was important to her, and in a way, important to me as well... I guess, thinking about it now, my father was quite present in my growing up. Even if not entirely with his presence, he had been a diligent father, and that is undeniable. And besides being important for our upkeep, he hadn't been untrue to Mom, for he had separated from her precisely so that he wouldn't have to hide any lies from her. And that, even if for bad reasons, was a noble thing on his part.

And from that moment on, I had something to think about. The man who had been present in my mother's life all along, who had made her fall in love with him to the point of marrying him, having a child with him, and crying over his death, was now dead. And I hadn't given him the slightest chance to try to redeem himself. And, even for the me of that time, who knew nothing of the real story, that was a bit cruel of me.

I remember holding my mother for many minutes that day. She was not well, and I needed to be strong for her. As I thought about my actions, and concluded that I had not done the right thing, another thought also slowly surfaced in my mind.

But he was not a good father to you.

He destroyed Ren's family, and your friendship with him as well.

And that was partly true. He had not been a good father at all.

But it hadn't been his fault that the Kouyama family had divorced, and now I knew it. After so much time watching my friends, Ren's parents, my parents, and my town, I had finally found the truth behind it all; and it was impossible to blame my father after seeing those eyes deep with weariness and sadness... it was impossible to look at that man and not hear Mrs. Kouyama's laughter from behind, like a ventriloquist enjoying her performance. Take a sip of wine water, Mizuki, have a break for now.

At the time I hadn't felt anything, after all. Putting what I thought about my father into the balance, the bad things screamed much louder. The pain and hurt I harbored from that man was very strong... unfortunately, caused by the ignorance in my thoughts. When my mother had stopped sobbing, and I reached for a glass of sugar water for her, she slowly told me what had been happening: since 2015, my father had been diagnosed with a malignant tumor, a cancer, in his stomach. Since it had been detected as soon as it had originated, he had undergone a long treatment, which aimed at his improvement, but unfortunately had not been fully effective. And after three years of coming and going to the hospital, he had passed away. And I was not even aware of it.

All I could do was listen to my mother, so that she would not sink into hopeless sadness alone.

"He was such a generous man, Takeda", she would tell me, as if I had never seen Naoki in my life. "He did so many things for me, that, really..." Covering her eyes with her hands, another load of tears appeared on her face. "It's the biggest loss of my life!"

And I would go to meet her, hugging her again. My mother no longer had her parents, they had passed away when she was a child, and my mother had grown up with her grandparents, who had also passed away. Her saying, in the face of all these losses, that Naoki's death was the worst thing that had ever happened, was something very meaningful to me. She was putting my father above all the people who had cared for and raised her.

I felt a little like scolding her; but it was impossible to do that with the fragile woman I held that day.

She had gone to Naoki's funeral a few days later, and I had run away from home that day. I remember the funeral being held on a Saturday, and I had purposely scheduled a volleyball team practice without our coach's knowledge, on the court behind the school. Since my teammates were also serious about sports, most of them accepted and were there, and with that, I had the perfect reason to disappear from home at the time of the funeral.

And I am, at this moment, reliving this period. As Mizuki had already said, she wasn't here on the day of the funeral, so it's not Saturday, but we're probably on a day close to it, because the weather, still gradually rising from the thud of winter, trying to make its spring appear and control the atmosphere, is so familiar that it can only mean that it's still April.

"I'm sorry for how things turned out," the woman continues her speech, putting away the handkerchief she was holding. I had it in my head that she was crying, but on closer look, I notice that this is not the case. "Just look at me; I can't even show my face here."

"You must be finding my situation funny, aren't you?"

In front of that tomb, imposing, there is nothing more that can be said for Kazuta Naoki. Whatever we say to him, it will not be answered; it will not be absorbed. As much as we tend to imagine that people's souls are still somewhere nearby, and will listen to us, the reality is what we are seeing. All that is left is a name, a dead body, and that is all. We will never be answered.

The only thing we can carry with us of the person who is gone, are the memories we have of the person. And, for me, those memories are nothing more than things I would like to get rid of.

"Even though things didn't turn out in the best possible way, my relationship with Ren is good again. He didn't want to talk to me for a while, a good while...but we are talking to each other again. He is studying in a good school, he has a girlfriend now. I think my son is the best thing in my life."

Ren... I move closer to the woman. Even though she looks so tired and discouraged, she still does not feel like a frustrated woman, and this is now noticeable. When she talks about her son, her features soften. And in a way, she seems to hold on to that to say that something was worthwhile. Um...

I don't think she's wrong.

"He apologizes every day for stopping talking to me and visiting me... Can you believe it? I'm the one who owes him an apology! No matter how much people blame you for what occurred... we both know the truth, and..." Lowering her head, she stops talking.

Besides the two of you, I also know the truth. I know what my father decided to do, and I know what Mizuki intended to hide. And now I have a much better sense of who was really running away from his shell and who was resorting to it.

"I really wish I had kept that secret of ours longer," says the woman. "My life wasn't bad. Not really. I just..."

She cuts her own sentence in the middle.

"There's no point in talking about it now. I hope that wherever you are, you are at peace. I just wanted to say goodbye, because you were a very friendly and caring man. And... maybe I just wanted to get a little off my chest too."

Covering her face again with the shawl, she slowly turns around, ignoring the heavy rain on her head, which has already soaked her clothes.

"With the only person who would be able to hear me."