Chapter 41:


Vibrancy x Vibrancy

I made my fateful decision at 5 AM, and the bus didn’t arrive in town until 11 AM, so we had six hours to stew over my words. Neither of us could go back to sleep, after all. Shizuko didn’t say nothing for a long while - she had time to cook, but we just had leftovers from last night. She had time to find her periwinkle paint and childhood easel, but the storage room remained untouched. The stoic stare on her face resembled the pictures of her school days.

When I stepped outside to get some fresh air, the storm clouds had gathered strength, now stretching across the entirety of the horizon like a dark miasma. I would have to time this perfectly right - according to my book, cross-referenced with travel guides I picked up in Mabuchi and Soga, there was indeed a little-known boat service that would take travelers up a river to the Temple of the Eternal Flame. It wouldn’t make the journey during a storm, however, so I would need to move fast. But I can’t do anything until the bus gets here, so Shizuko and I sit silently on a little bench outside the house, the trees swaying like storm warnings.

Can flowers batten down the hatches? Across the ground, they looked stooped over, as if they know the storm is coming, too. A row of sunflowers points their petals at the receding sun like radars. A sharp gust of wind sends ripples through the long grass. I don’t hear any human activity in the village itself.

“Do you at least want to see the ridge before you go?” Shizuko asks, breaking the silence. I nod and follow her up a winding dirt road behind the village. It snakes it way into a wooded area; I’m reminded of Officer Yamazaki’s crazy driving through the Tsukamoto forests. That was a happy time, a vibrant time, but everything today is subdued and fearful of the coming storm. The trees must feel it, too - their leaves tremble and shake.

We make it out of the wooded area and onto the ridge. There’s a huge clearing, part natural, part man-made, where a trio of factories sit silently, decaying. To my surprise, Shizuko takes me towards one. Part of the fence has simply rusted away, so we slip inside and come across one of the factory’s huge walls. Moss and vines cover most of it, slipping through and up cracks in the concrete. The rest of the wall features a faded mural painted with an amateur, familiar hand. There are gray buildings, blue waters, and above it all stretches the iconic red-and-white Tokyo Tower, reaching into the sky, where it meets jungle-like vines.

“When did you paint this?” I ask her.

Shuzko stands next to me, a distant memory of her own briefly appearing on her face. “Middle school, I think. I liked to come up here. Usually I would just draw views of the mountains. But after a bad day at school, I decided to use a bigger canvas. I guess even back then, I was dreaming of leaving.”

She lets out a half-laugh, half-sigh. “And now I want nothing more than to stay. I know I’ll be in Yoshiaki for the next year. I’ll be working with my aunt in Mabuchi, but I know I’ll have time to visit my mother in Shuten. But I’m here now, Shunsuke. I’d like to spend these last few days of summer wither her. In my old home.”

The Tokyo Tower looms over us. Only a few days left in summer. That might be one of the saddest phrases out of there.

“So you won’t change your mind about coming with me?” I ask.

Shizuko shakes her head. “I’m sorry. And you won’t change your mind about leaving?”

I shake my head. “I’m sorry.”

We leave the old mural and old factory to their slow return to nature and head over to the edge of the ridge.

“There’s no cell service out here,” Shizuko reminds me. “We won’t be able to message each other.”

“I know.”

She scratches her wounded temple. “I know the college fund ran out a while ago. If you stay here, you wouldn’t need to spend any money.”

“I know.”

We get to the edge of the ridge and Shizuko steps toward me. “I’m here.”

I wipe my face. “I know that, too.”

Shizuko takes both of my hands in her own. We’re at the edge of the ridge, a sheer stone cliff that tumbles away down into the village below. The only signs of life I see are the lights in a couple of houses. Otherwise, the valley is dark, the sky a sea of gray, and we have quite a stage for this farewell - an audience of dead factories and silent mountains.

“Why do you have to leave, Shunsuke?”

I hold out my hand. After a moment, she slowly slides her own over mine. Birds circle overhead, dart down towards the valley, disappear into hills.

“I’m the same as you, that’s why I love you,” I admit. “I’ve only known you for a month, but you’ve changed so much. You didn’t even talk the first day I met you. But you had the courage to run the race, make up with Ume, confront Soga and Takeuchi, and return home. You've been dealing with everything that’s been holding you back. It’s my turn now.”

Shizuko’s staring at me. Was it something I said?

She looks away, down into the village. “You…you love me?”

How did that work its way into the conversation? It was automatic, unconscious; I hadn’t even noticed it, but if we’re about to part, then I guess it needed to be said. Her face is rose-colored now; mine probably looks the same way, but you know what? This isn’t the time to backtrack.

“Yeah, I do.”

Do mountains know the rain is coming? They’re ancient - they must’ve watched over the humans in this valley for millennia. So I'm sure they must know, because they recognize the incoming signs, because mountains are the plants and the trees and birds, one giant thing, so when one of them feels something, they all do. Maybe it also feels the emotions swirling through Shizuko and I as we stand on the edge of that ridge. Her face is concentrating on the village below - when she had longer hair, it would billow in the breeze, but since it’s so short now, the wind can only send ripples through it, much like the grass.

“In love with me,” she mumbles. “If that’s true, then you really are kind of a loser.”

Shizuko pokes me in the chest. “Out of all people, you love me.”

Shizuko puts a hand on my shoulder. “Out of anyone, you love me.”

Shizuko brings her face close to mine. “And out of this whole country, I love you.”

We kiss. The mountain remains still, looking at us with quiet approval. For a brief moment, I forget everything else - dead factories, dead villages, long-gone friends - because we’re here now, on this ridge, and at least some of the sky is still blue, and even the gray parts look pretty when Shizuko is here.

After a long while, we pull away, and go back to looking at the village. We still hold each other’s hands. “I helped you with some of the journey,” I tell her. “But Soga, your mother - that was all you. I got you started, but you finished it yourself. You’re really inspiring. You’ve helped me so far, but before I go back to Tokyo, I want to finish this. I want to go back to Tokyo as a better person. I might fall back into the old lonely habits if I don’t settle things here.”

Shizuko nods. “I understand. We’re both adults. We can make our own decisions. I’ll be rooting for you.”

Was that a flash of lightning I see, far off in the distance? I can feel my fist tightening. “We still have a few days to go. I’ll make it back to you before summer’s over. That’s a promise.”

Shizuko laughs. “You’re so dramatic, Shunsuke. We’re adults. You don’t have to make manly promises like that.” Then she squeezes my hand. “But I’ll hold you to it.”

The rest of that morning was spent in a comfortable silence, watching over the valley like the mountains do since time immemorial. But then it was time for the last leg of the journey - and the first one I’d be taking alone.

Steward McOy