Chapter 9:

Four Decades Apart

Mayuka To Ryu (繭価 と 龍)

Groaning softly, Tsukushi Matsuda took a deep breath before lifting his daughter’s purple luggage to bring it out of the car trunk. His grip was strong, and he used to have adequate strength carrying heavy things. Mayuka’s luggage was never a big deal, yet now, he felt a twinge at his waist. Although he tried to repudiate the pain, his age shattered the denial.

“Papa,” Makoto ran barefooted towards his father. “I told you to leave Nee-chan’s big luggage! Nii-chan and I will bring them inside,” he nagged the old man and quickly took out the purple luggage. If he were not swift, their obstinate father would rather break his back than his pride. “Nii-chan! Quick,” he shouted his lungs out.

Then came the lacklustre brother, who was vanquished by the summer heat. Although the shade of the enormous maple tree sheltered him from the afternoon sun, accompanied by chilly wind, Mahiro still preferred winter. His steps were as lazy as himself. “Why did you bring me here, Papa?” He eyed the father with a pout. Matsuda did not spare his son a glance and pointed at the biggest box in the trunk. “That one?!”

“It’s okay, Mahiro,” Mayuka showed up, slipping her toes into the summer sandals. “I’ll carry that with Aka-chan.”

Mahiro cackled upon hearing the youngest’s endearment. “Nee-chan, seriously?” He wiped his tears with the back of his hand. Just like Matsuda, Mayuka also did not mind breaking her bones more than her pride. She was ready to bring the heavy box by herself. In a swift movement, Mahiro snatched it away and balanced himself before walking into the house. At the entrance, Makoto was waiting and offered the older brother a helping hand. “Arigatou, Aka-chan!” He teased the younger. Makoto’s pinna reddened. He threatened Mahiro to retreat his helping hand and dropped the box on the older brother’s feet. He guffawed at Makoto’s remark.

As they finished moving Mayuka’s things, the young men joined their mother and grandparents in the living room. They climbed down the stairs, passed through the kitchen, their grandfather’s calligraphy room, and finally, reached the living room. Considering this house was built a century ago, everything was in brown. Like an album of old sepia photos. When Makoto was younger, he never liked visiting his grandparents’ house. Their audible footsteps on the wooden floor always got him caught when he tried to sneak out during summer, seeking uncommon insects nearby. There were not many unique species back in Shizuoka as they practically lived in a city.

While Mahiro hated the sliding Shoji doors in every room, even the kitchen has a door. The division made the space feel eerie. However, now, he appreciated the doors as they offered privacy. If he were to build a house, he would love to have divisions at every part of it, rather than an open concept.

“Excuse us,” Mahiro announced their intrusion before sliding through the Shoji door. Listening to a hilarious incident from the grandfather, their mother and grandmother began laughing earnestly.

“Ah, Mahiro, Makoto!” The grandfather smiled. “Come here. Have a seat!” He patted the zabuton beside him, glancing at his beloved grandsons. The energetic Makoto dashed towards his grandfather. He acknowledged that he was their favourite, so he always spoiled himself around them.

Rolling his eyes, Mahiro sat next to Kyoko, their mother. After a while, the father and the daughter showed up, and all the floor cushions were occupied. Kyoko poured the tea for Matsuda. However, the tea was cold, and Mayuka volunteered herself to reheat the tea.

Sighed. Matsuda got fidgety facing his in-laws. They were always on good terms, yet this was his first experience leaving his child under the in-laws’ care. He was worried if they would get uncomfortable with Mayuka’s presence. Although he knew that his daughter had never troubled anyone, the anxiousness refused to subside. Matsuda was against Mayuka’s decision. Out of hundred schools for practical teaching, she chose Meisho High School in Wakayama Prefecture that was neither near to her campus in Tokyo nor their home in Shizuoka.

When he complained about his eldest daughter’s choice to Kyoko, the wife insisted that Mayuka must have considered everything thoroughly. The couple almost got into a fight with the husband rejected intensely while the wife substantiated earnestly.

Eventually, they accepted their daughter’s choice and assured Mayuka that they would wholeheartedly support her. “I apologize for the sudden decision, Okasan, Otosan,” Matsuda could not bear letting his wife continuously persuade the in-laws by herself. “We didn’t discuss this thoroughly.”

The grandmother smiled. “You don’t have to discuss it with us,” she replied, startling them.

“Mayuka called us and discussed it before making up her mind. I remember, it was in this early summer,” the grandfather explained, “she informed us that she wanted to apply for Meisho High School and live with us. She even insisted to pay rent and do all the house chores but Akako resisted,” the old couple giggled, “we told her that we always welcome her. We have hired someone to do the chores weekly. She shouldn’t trouble herself. Besides, old folks like Akako and I couldn’t run away from loneliness.”

Switch on the fan behind you, Mahiro mouthed quietly to the youngest. Makoto frowned and pointed towards the widely opened Shoji door that bestowed them the picturesque view of their grandparents’ well-tended garden. The wind entered effortlessly and blew adequate freshness into the living room. Nevertheless, Mahiro was still hot and pleaded with his puppy eyes. Giving in, the youngest crawled toward the fan.

“Mayuka…” Matsuda nictated in fluster. “Mayuka called you?” The father-in-law nodded, reassuring him.

They heard Mayuka’s footsteps approaching the living room. The paper door slid open and revealed the young lady with a teapot in her hand. Getting on her knees, she deliberately placed it on the table. Everyone was watching her quietly until she settled herself on the zabuton in between her parents.

The conversation about Mayuka discontinued on the spot, and Kyoko brought up Makoto's excellent performance in the school swimming team, as well as Mahiro’s new job. They began chatting on random matters and laughed at certain funny remarks. Mayuka enjoyed listening, especially when her grandfather shared about the whiny old men in this small town. She could not wait to visit Meisho High School on Monday, a ten-minute walking distance from her grandparents’ house. And she also hoped she could meet those whiny folks. Mayuka chuckled.

. . . .

Shoving the empty luggage under the bed, Mayuka let out a long sigh. Packing and unpacking are the most wasteful activities in life, she grumbled, getting on her feet to open the window. The sultry summer air discomforted her.

Her family had headed back to Shizuoka. Matsuda insisted on spending a night with his in-laws, but the boys declined. The eldest son never planned to take emergency leave from work, and the youngest was not willing to skip a day of his swimming practice. Since Kyoko had not decided, her beloved sons persuaded her that she would have two days off from all house chores. The offer made the grandparents laugh and convinced Matsuda that they were fine. Matsuda was grateful for their compassion, and the family departed home.

The constellation of stars accompanied her, along with the spacious cabbage farm in front of their home. It belonged to Harada, her maternal grandparents. Staring emptily at the dark greenery, she began wondering how exacting farm work was. Planting the seeds, raising them, showering them, nourishing them, and plucking them just to let someone else have them.

“Isn’t that painful?” Mayuka moved her gaze towards the scarecrow. Mahiro set the scarecrow years ago, gullibly believing that it could drive away bad birds. Now that they all were grown up, they simply felt that they were brainless.

“You shoo the evil birds away every day, just to see the cabbages get taken away by other sellers. Don’t you get hurt?” She asked the undeviating scarecrow that was meters away from her room.

The knock on the door made her jump. “Mayuka,” her grandmother showed up behind the door. “Can I come in?” She gave a peep at her oldest granddaughter. Mayuka nictated, slightly startled but quickly ran towards the door and welcomed the old lady. She rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly as her grandmother entered and sat on the edge of her unkempt bed. “Do you want some snacks?”

Mayuka took a seat on the floor and looked at Akako, her grandmother. She shook her head, declining politely with a smile. “Thank you, Obaachan,” and her hands started working. She counted the unpacked boxes, and only two left. She quickly dove into the stationery box, taking out her desk organiser. Mayuka placed it on the desk that her father managed to assemble just now.

Every little gesture the granddaughter made, Akako was showered with warmth. She remembered the five-year-old Mayuka, who loved watching her sculpting clay in her art room. The room was in the backyard to shelter her costly kiln. Since Akako used the water-based clay for sculpting, her beloved granddaughter declined to try. Little Mayuka would corrugate her forehead like she saw a revolting grey monster swirling in between her grandmother’s palm.

Akako grabbed the other box that Mayuka had not unpacked. “Will you let this old woman help you?”

Turning back, Mayuka immediately found the other unopened box that was a few centimetres from Akako. She had promised her father not to trouble her grandparents. However, the grandmother’s soft smile was endless, and it petrified her how lovely she was despite being ingurgitated by time. She professed her defeat and apologised silently to Matsuda.

“Please,” said Mayuka as her lips curled into a heartfelt smile. “Please help me, if you don’t mind. That’s the box that I keep my winter coats and sweatshirts in. If it’s not too much to ask,” she looked down, a little shy, “could you please separate them apart, Obaachan? I will sort out where to place them.” The request was polite, and Akako delightedly accepted it.

Reciprocating the smile at each other, Mayuka resumed decorating her study table. The uneasiness subsided, and she slowly enjoyed the company of her grandmother. She put all vital documents and teaching materials on the table. Then, she filled the drawers with other items such as marker pens, staplers, pencils, and more.

On the other hand, Akako gradually brought out her granddaughter’s coats and placed them on the bed. Her debilitating arms did not permit her to take out all of the clothes at once. Therefore, when she emptied the box, it was her fourth trip.

And when she thought the box was only occupied by sweatshirts and winter coats, a frame of picture greeted her sight. She took it out and held it dearly. Akako did not recall bringing out the blue scarf that the couple wore in the picture.

Mayuka smiled and let out a small yet satisfying sigh. “What do you think of my table, Obaachan?” She turned around, beaming happily. However, the wooden frame in Akako’s hand quickly washed away her excitement and deluged her with the melancholy air she thought she had deserted in Tokyo. In that tiny apartment.

Then, what heartache was she dealing with right now that made her want to snatch away the frame and throw it to the moon or at least, at the innocent scarecrow in the middle of the cabbage field?

Akako stroked the lovebirds tenderly, tilting her head as she scrutinised them. “What a fine young man,” she commented, “But I always despised men with spectacles!”

Bemused by the statement, Mayuka went closer to Akako and sat on the floor while the grandmother was on the bed. “Why?” She took a quick glimpse at the picture and felt an excruciating twinge. “Don’t you think he looks good?” Mayuka bit her bottom lip.

“Yes, yes!” Akako chuckled. “Your lover here is a handsome man, and my first love was as attractive as him. I will show you!” It thrilled Akako, and she quickly went out of the room, leaving the granddaughter in confusion. A couple of minutes later, she returned with two old photographs in her hand. She giggled like a young girl and shoved the pictures to Mayuka. “This is my first love,” she started.

Receiving the photos with both hands, Mayuka saw a tall man in the old Japanese school uniform. He also wore a hat. Undeniably, the man was attractive. But Ryu is more attractive, she thought. Next to him stood a gorgeous young lady who she believed was her grandmother. Based on the plain background, she could deduce that they were in a studio.

Mayuka scrunched her nose, “this man also wore spectacles.” She refuted Akako’s statement. “A nerdy one,” she sounded competitive, and Akako noticed it. The old lady burst out perfervid laughter that it took her a while to catch her breath. Now, the grandmother was gasping for air. “A-Are you okay, Obaachan?”

When her big laughter dwindled, she requested her first love’s pictures from Mayuka, and the young lady returned them. Akako noticed that the digital clock on Mayuka’s table exhibited 21:00. Time was always generous to her as she felt a day like a week on a daily basis. However, talking to her beloved grandchild right now, listening to the unspeakable heartbreak that Mayuka concealed, it suddenly felt like time was starting to envy her.

“This man,” she caressed him tenderly, “I left him.” There was an ineffable spark in her eyes. A mix of longingness, remorse, and resentment, yet above them all was love. “And I left him two weeks before our engagement. Like the clear blue sky that suddenly welcomed a fatal storm, I left him with the ring and my diary.” Akako dawdled, searching for one of the pages in her disposed diary in her mind.

Mayuka frowned, slightly loathed the young Akako. “Why?” Her voice was stern like interrogating the grandmother. “Why did you leave him?”

Breathing in the night breeze, Akako left the old photographs on her lap. She took the picture of Mayuka and her lover. How she wished that her first love could smile widely like the young man who stood next to her granddaughter. “We viewed life differently. Unlike you and this man,” she smiled, “who fell in love and cherished each other, my first love never loved me. I was his family’s choice.”

“W-what?” Mayuka gaped, and when Akako tittered, she was freed from the astonishment. “H-How did you know h-he didn’t love you?” She stuttered. “D-did you talk to him?”

“Mayuka,” Akako caressed her granddaughter’s cheek, brushing her wrinkled thumb fondly. She blamed her age for she could sense the resentment Mayuka held towards the young man with the blue scarf. “I always believe that between lovers, one of them loves more than the other. Unfortunately, that was me,” she said, “and what was more unfortunate, Akihiro also loved someone else more than she loved him. Then, tell me. Why should I be in their way when they love each other?” Her voice was so soft that it struck Mayuka.

The streaming beads of teardrop flowed endlessly from the young lady’s eyes. A bead, then followed by another bead. Did I love you enough, Ryu?

“It was painful for me,” Akako wiped away her granddaughter’s tears. “It has been four decades, and I truly wanted to apologise to Akihiro if I could meet him. I heard that he moved to Chitose in Hokkaido and settled down there.” She leaned closer and gave a peck on her granddaughter’s forehead. “I owe him an explanation. Even though he doesn’t love me, I believe that none of us could properly forgive each other if we don’t welcome closure in a relationship. What do you think, Mayuka?”

“Obaachan,” Mayuka wept and buried her swollen face on the old lady's lap, snivelling. “Obaachan!” And her sobs became more and more audible.