Posted in HOMECOMING | 4-Part Fiction

HOMECOMING | Finale: Homecoming

It was only in mid-February when Yoshihiro was finally able to walk without crutches.

His cast had been taken off more than two months ago, but the journey to recovery was still not complete. While his bones had healed well within six weeks, the tendons and ligaments around the site of injury had yet to heal and strengthen—this was why walking seemed very painful in previous weeks as well as the several weeks following cast removal. To aid their healing, Yoshihiro’s physician advised him to perform some simple exercises for short periods of time. Once he was comfortable with the pressure applied on his ankle, he could slowly begin walking with support and much later, without it.

Another reason to celebrate was that he had finally been awarded his Ph.D three days ago. The panel was very considerate of his recovery period and had allowed a rescheduling of his presentation. Things had gone quite smoothly and he had his wife to thank for that.

Presently, Yoshihiro was strolling in his neighbourhood park, with Masami beside him and Sakura a few yards ahead on her bicycle. Though they were bundled up against the cold winter air, it still managed to nip at every bit of exposed skin, such as their cheeks.

You know, I’ve been thinking…” Yoshihiro said to his wife.

About?” She looked at him after his voice trailed away.

About…my hometown.”

Ah, Shirakawa-go…isn’t it that dreamy winter wonderland we visited long ago?” Masami said, a wistful look in her eyes. “I’d love to go back.

Me too.” He paused for a long while, silence enveloping them, only interrupted by children babbling or birds chirping in the background.

“Hey, boy, aren’t you going to watch the fireworks with us?” Mr. Tadao had asked the night before he left.

Sorry, Tadao-san. I don’t think I can make it tonight.

But this is the last one before you leave for the city!”

I know, I know. It’s just…I have a lot of packing to do. I’ve got an early bus to catch tomorrow. And then a train too. Got to be prepared.”

Well, if you must…I won’t force you. But you should know that you will be missing out on something extraordinary!

Yeah, I sure will miss the fireworks when I’m away.

No, silly—I meant my extra-special, limited edition Gohei Mochis! Only being served tonight!

Really?” he’d crossed his arms playfully. “I’ve eaten every single type you’ve made so far. What’s so special about this one?

You’ll have to come and see!

Yoshihiro chuckled softly. He watched the breath from his mouth form a white cloud in front of his face.

Think of something funny?” asked an amused Masami, who was observing him all the while.

Sort of,” he replied, not saying everything on his mind. Funny, yes—because I was in such a stupid rush that I never remembered to go and see him. Inhaling sharply, he realised it was time. “Are you up for a trip?

………

Mummy, look—we’re above the clouds!” Sakura was peering out of the window of their flight bound for Toyama, from where they would take a bus to the village.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Masami leaned in and smiled at the sight.

The journey seemed to last an eternity for Yoshihiro as he pictured all scenarios that could possibly play out when he set foot in Shirakawa-go—would he get to see his old friends? Or would they have moved away too? What would be his parents’ reactions? Would he be able to meet his favourite rice skewer vendor again? There was no definite answer to any of them.

Dusk was fast approaching as the family of three got off the bus which was mostly filled with local tourists. The wintry scene, decorated by strings of warm orange lights in each house’s garden, almost took their breath away. Yoshihiro smiled; it was as if time had stopped still here the moment he’d left for Tokyo nearly a decade ago. Its charm had not faded one bit.

This is where I grew up, Sakura,” he said, kneeling down to tie one of her shoelaces that had come undone. “What do you think about it?

The little girl’s eyes shone with wonder as she drank in her surroundings. She had never seen this much snow in one place before. “It’s so beautiful, Daddy! I wish I could play here all day! Then next time, I could bring my friends too…can I, Daddy?”

Sure,” he said, standing up, “we can do that. But first, let’s meet your Grandma and Grandpa, OK?”

Yoshihiro’s memory was instantly refreshed as his feet retraced the paths he once used to take so often. As he walked through the fresh snow, he noticed a few old hand-painted shop signs replaced with new printed ones, and even some new stores altogether. However, he was most eager to visit only one of the shops that lay near his elementary school.

Just as he started up the path leading to his parents’ house, he heard a loud shout from ahead.

Yoshihiro? No way!”

As the man neared, his features became more pronounced and Yoshihiro quickly recognised him to be one of his good friends from high school.

Kenji!” he exclaimed, giving his classmate a quick hug.

“Never did I expect you out of all people to return to Shirakawa-go,” laughed Kenji, thumping Yoshihiro’s back.

Well, here I am,” he replied.

With your family too—lovely!” He greeted Masami and Sakura enthusiastically. “And guess what, I was just heading to your parents’ place. My son loves playing with your mother’s cat, so I left him there for a while…let’s head there together, shall we?”

Yoshihiro agreed, and the four of them walked to the front door, where Kenji politely called for Yoshihiro’s mother, a common way of announcing one’s entrance. Soon, a middle-aged woman appeared behind the door, a shawl draped across her shoulders. She gave a small gasp at the sight of the additional guests outside, then beamed.

What a surprise!” she said, placing her palms on her cheeks. “Why didn’t you call before coming, son? I could’ve made arrangements for all three of you…”

Mum, it’s alright, please don’t strain yourself. I’m sure it’ll be more than enough for us,” said Yoshihiro, taking her warm hands in his cold ones.

Is everything alright?” she asked softly, assessing his facial expression as she used to do whenever he seemed worried as a young boy.

I missed you and Dad,” he whispered, “Everything about home.”

She gently pulled him into her arms. “We’re always here for you, dear boy. Come whenever you like.”

“But…aren’t you upset I never came home all these years?”

His mother pulled away and looked him in the eye. “I’m aware of the nature of your work and Masami’s too…I know it’s not easy keeping pace with a bustling city like Tokyo. So, as much as I would’ve loved for you to be with us, I know it’s not always possible. What matters is you’re here now, and I’m happy with that.”

Yoshihiro smiled. “I’ll make sure we visit you more often, Mum. And now that I’ve got my Ph.D, I think I can spare at least a week to celebrate.”

Upon hearing this, she laughed joyfully, Kenji congratulating him on the side. Then she ushered them all inside, saying, “Let’s get you all warmed up for a good meal. Come on, come on…oh, how tall you’ve grown already, Sakura!

After spending a relaxing few hours eating, talking and playing board games in his old home, Yoshihiro decided to take a walk; Masami and Sakura joined him.

Where are we going?” his wife inquired, pushing a lock of hair out of her eyes.

A place I frequently used to visit,” he said. “It sells very tasty Gohei Mochis.” He took a familiar shortcut, leading them in the direction of the comforting fragrance of Mr Tadao’s shop.

Hmm, sounds exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those before.”

When they got there, Yoshihiro stole a few looks into the shop; there was no sign of the shopkeeper. He heard Masami step back to call for Sakura, who was busy petting a cat by the road. Just then, a gust of wind blew their way, causing the wind chimes suspended from the awning to tinkle. He turned his face upwards to look at it. It seemed new, judging from the sheen. But there was something else tethered to it…

My origami fox.

He recognised it instantly because he saw his name scrawled onto its orange tail. He’d totally forgotten about it. Though the paper’s colour had dulled over time, he was astonished by how it had managed to retain its structure. Even the eyes and nose he’d drawn with a black marker had somehow survived.

Hello, what would you like to have?

The sound of shuffling feet from inside caused Yoshihiro’s gaze to quickly shift back. His heart was filled to the brim with happiness as soon as Mr Tadao’s form came into view; he hadn’t changed too much, except for the lines of age on his face and a slight hunch in his back.

I’ll have the usual, Tadao-san,” he said, his voice quivering slightly.

The old man stood still for a moment, taking in what he’d just heard and seen. Laughing heartily, he said, “Indeed, the usual. Coming right up, dear boy of mine.

With her hands resting on her daughter’s shoulders, Masami watched as the two men talked, their faces shining. It was a reunion of sorts, she could tell. She was happy to see her husband so lively and happy, much like the person she had first met at university.

Come, little one,” Mr Tadao invited Sakura. “Won’t you try some?”

Sakura looked at her mother timidly, the latter nodding with an encouraging smile, before graciously accepting a skewer from him.

This is my wife, Masami. I met her at university,” said Yoshihiro. He beckoned her over by extending an arm. Masami hesitated; did he really want her to be a part of something so private? As though sensing her doubt, Yoshihiro gave a subtle nod. So she obliged.

My, now I know where your daughter’s beauty comes from!” remarked Mr Tadao, making Masami blush. “Here, eat up, young lady. You must be hungry after all that travel.”

They spent a few minutes chatting before a sudden high-pitched whistle and crack in the distance caught their attention.

Oh, in all this excitement I forgot about the fireworks!” exclaimed Mr Tadao. “Come, come, you mustn’t miss it.

He wiped his hands on a towel and made his way around the counter. “Look there,” he said, pointing directly upwards, where they were greeted with a fantastic display of the village’s distinct snow fireworks. The dark sky formed the perfect canvas for the streaks of coloured light that morphed in and out of beautiful patterns. More people soon gathered to feast on this sight, some holding umbrellas as a light snowfall had started again. Among them were Yoshihiro’s parents, who joined him at Mr Tadao’s shop a few minutes later.

In this moment, Yoshihiro felt complete. It felt as though he’d come full circle, the fireworks somehow playing a silent role in it all. But suddenly, he was reminded of a question whose answer he’d always wanted to know.

Tadao-san,” he turned around and said, raising his voice so that he could be heard over the din. “What’s that special edition Gohei-Mochi you once told me about?”

The old man smiled, the skin near his eyes wrinkling. “It’s all the same, boy, except for one extra ingredient,” he replied.

What’s that?

He paused for a few seconds, seeming to search his memory for the right word. “Love. Hope. Everything I could fit in it before you were on your way the next morning.

Yoshihiro nodded slowly, looking up at the illuminated sky. He wasn’t sure if he was tearing up because of the bright lights. But he was sure that he did owe Mr Tadao this.

Sorry and thank you for everything, Tadao-san,” he said loud enough so only they could hear and wrapped his arms around the shopkeeper’s frail shoulders.

Mr Tadao patted his back. “Well, who says I can’t make them again, eh?”

Somehow, this skewer tasted extra magical now that he knew what was in it. And just like that, he felt once more like that six-year-old boy on a hot summer day, in his beloved Shirakawa-go.

© 2021 SidneyAspennWrites. All rights reserved.

Posted in HOMECOMING | 4-Part Fiction

HOMECOMING | Part 3: Contemplation

“Daddy? Daddy!

Shhh…Daddy’s resting, Sakura.”

Back to the present, Yoshihiro awoke and was greeted with a pair of curious eyes, accompanied by a wide grin that revealed two missing front teeth. He grinned back and had a quick conversation with his seven-year-old daughter before she decided to go do some drawing.

Feeling better?” enquired Masami. Her husband gave a small nod. “And yes, I’m staying home this week, or at least until you’re able to move about by yourself,” she said, replying to the questioning look on his face (since she was still in pyjamas).

Yoshihiro smiled gratefully, but he would be lying if he said he didn’t feel guilty for being the reason his wife wasn’t at work. Applying for leave wasn’t a very simple task after all.

When do you think I’ll be able to do that?” he asked.

The cast stays on for at least six weeks, so you should be able to start moving around some time before that. Anyway…breakfast?” she added.

For the next two weeks, every day followed the same basic routine: wake up, eat, swallow pills, sleep, and repeat. Under Masami’s guidance, Yoshihiro’s condition improved but walking still proved painful. He practised with a crutch everyday, just to show her that he was getting better, so that she would stop worrying about him and go back to work. Eventually, she resumed her duties at the hospital.

Sometimes, in his solitude, he tried to piece together the scattered, chaotic scenes leading up to the accident on the morning of his thesis presentation—the zebra crossing at the intersection, the pedestrian light that just refused to turn green, the nerves and excitement, the taxi waiting for him on the other side, then out of nowhere, WHAM.

Yoshihiro shivered every time he recalled that deafening impact of metal on skin.

He had been looking forward to that day for a very long time; after nearly six years of hard work and research, this just might have been the last effort before he was awarded his Ph.D. But here he was, sitting at home with a broken ankle.

The frustration that these thoughts generated often caused him to look for comfort in the memories of his childhood, especially the ones that had recently resurfaced. They gave him a bittersweet feeling: ‘sweet’ because of the happy days spent in a quiet town with zero worries and ‘bitter’ because he knew he had not entirely kept his promise to Mr Tadao.

After moving to Tokyo to study nano-science, he had paid very few and very short visits to Shirakawa-go—the most recent ones being when he’d married Masami and when Sakura was born. Then he’d become increasingly occupied with juggling teaching at the same university, pursuing research and publishing papers for journals.

He’d have definitely liked to visit again and catch up with old buddies but alas, making a living in the city was not child’s play—he seemed to have a fluctuating list of priorities, and his village never featured at the top.

One night, just over five weeks into his recovery, Yoshihiro was sitting in front of his laptop, wearing his reading glasses, when he heard Masami enter the apartment after completing one of her overdue shifts.

What are you doing up so late?” she asked, peeking into his study after a shower.

Work,” he replied blandly.

Masami was a little taken aback; she had clearly instructed him to stay away from work for at least a week more.

She stepped inside, softly closing the door behind her. Clearing her throat, she began, “Do you remember what I told you—”

Masami, please. I’m OK,he cut her off, eyes still glued to the screen. “It’s about time I get back to this; I need to apologise to the panel and request for a rescheduled appointment.

I get how important this is for you, Yoshihiro, but I’m saying this for your own good. So please, put that away,” Masami pressed.

Masami.” He looked up at her. “I know what I’m doing. And I’m sure you must be very tired, so why don’t you get some sleep, hmm?

I’m not going anywhere,” she said decisively and walked over to his table, placing her fingers on its cool surface. “Not until you promise me you’ll put a pause on work until the doctor says you’re fully recovered and takes off the cast. Please.”

Why are you being so stubborn?” he replied, irked. “My ankle’s hurt, not my intellect or my hands.

She bristled. “You’re calling me stubborn? Really?

Yes. Yes, I am.” He raised his voice. “I just don’t understand why you won’t let me work! I’ve spent countless hours preparing for this, Masami!”

You don’t understand? Well, I’ll tell you.” She slapped her palm on the table, momentarily stunning her husband. “I’ve always admired the way you go about your job, Yoshihiro—so diligent, so focussed. But tell me, do you lose all your other senses when it comes to work? Because I’ve found myself asking this on weekends alone when you promised you’d come home early, or the time you missed Sakura’s school award ceremony.”

Yoshihiro, though still annoyed, mulled over these words. Sakura’s award ceremony? A vague memory of an invite lying forgotten in a coat pocket floated into his brain.

But that’s my selfish need for you to be there for us, so forget it,” she continued. “If there’s something you should worry about, then it’s your own health and safety. Do you know what happened the morning of your accident?

His eyebrows quirked. This was the first time she’d brought up this topic in such an upfront manner.

I didn’t mean to tell you this until later because you weren’t stable enough mentally. But here it is now—in a big haste, you’d decided to jump the pedestrian light when you were clearly not supposed to, and ended up colliding with a moving car. Fortunately, a colleague of mine, who happened to be at the scene and recognised you, immediately performed first-aid before calling an ambulance.

Masami exhaled shakily and whisked a lock of hair away from her face. She pursed her lips as a lone tear slid down her cheek. “You have no idea how I felt when she called to tell me this, when I saw you being stretchered in, one whole side of your face covered in blood…

At this point, Yoshihiro’s mouth opened with the intention of saying something to comfort her, but it closed because there was absolutely nothing he could think of.

…I felt so horrible for not being there, for letting this happen, for not talking about all of this before. What would I do if something even worse had happened to you that morning? How would I explain to our daughter?” She stopped talking for a moment and sniffled, looking up at the ceiling in an effort to curb her ever-flowing tears.

Yoshihiro suddenly understood why she’d brought him home instead of leaving him under someone else’s care at the hospital, why she’d insisted on staying longer than required and giving him her undivided attention. He quietly got up from his chair and walked round the table to his wife, whose nose and cheeks were already a light shade of pink. “I’m sorry,” he whispered earnestly and embraced her. “I didn’t know I’d been putting you through all this hardship, Masami.

I just wish you wouldn’t work so much,” she mumbled into his shoulder. “I’m afraid you’ll lose yourself in it.”

I won’t, I promise.”

This was a promise he now meant to keep.

© 2021 SidneyAspennWrites. All rights reserved.

Posted in HOMECOMING | 4-Part Fiction

HOMECOMING | Part 2: A Promise

Yoshihiro?

His eyes fluttered open. They travelled over the white ceiling above before landing on a pair of warm brown eyes that seemed to hold infinite worry. Was this the person calling out to him? It can’t, he thought sluggishly. It isn’t the voice I remember.

It took Yoshihiro a few moments to fully collect his thoughts and realise that he was in his Tokyo apartment. And sitting next to him on the bed, very gently massaging the back of his right hand, was his wife.

Masami?” he moved his lips ever so slightly, the sound coming out of his mouth only a small croak.

Yes? Do you need something?” she replied in the same whisper-like tone he had woken up to. He was astonished just how much it reminded him of his own mother’s voice.

Although generally elegant and radiant, Masami now looked a little worn-out. She had had a strenuous day of work at the hospital and managed to make just enough time to quickly change out of her scrubs when she brought her husband home two hours ago. It was now late in the evening.

No, no, don’t worry about me.” Yoshihiro tried to shake his head but just couldn’t because it felt so heavy. “Why are you home so early?” he asked, wincing when he felt a piercing ache in his right ankle.

From the waist-down, Yoshihiro body was neatly tucked beneath a white blanket. He gingerly lifted one of its corners, and sure enough, propped up on a couple of pillows, he found his right ankle in a lavender-coloured cast.

Then as though he’d touched something hot, he dropped the fabric onto the bed and rubbed his forehead in confusion.

“I was supposed to present my final thesis today. What- what happened—?” he said, frowning.

“That’s not important now,” interrupted Masami as gently as she could. It was expected that he would have some trouble remembering things leading up to the accident. He’d had a nasty concussion after all. “Here, I’ve made you some miso soup.” She turned to the bedside table and uncovered a bowl. “It’ll help you feel better and deal with the pain.

Though still tired and very foggy-headed, Yoshihiro nodded and complied. Assisted by Masami, he sat up straighter so that she could feed him easily. The warmth from the soup was a welcome relief as it spread across his chest and to the ends of his fingers and toes.

The rest of the day passed by very quickly as his medications ran their course, and he was soon asleep once again.

………

The fragrance of Gohei Mochi wafted in through the window of Yoshihiro’s study.

He looked up from his science workbook, absent-mindedly twirling a pencil in his fingers. He smiled and shut the book closed. It was time for a break. Besides, no one could ever say ‘no’ to Mr. Tadao’s freshly-made rice dumpling skewers.

Bundling himself up in several layers of coats and scarves, Yoshihiro stuffed his feet into shoes as sturdy as boots. “Going out for a walk, Mum,” he announced before sliding open the front door.

Winters in his village weren’t very forgiving. Every year, the heavy snow would cake the sloping roofs of the Gassho-style houses and blanket the streets where they sat. Nevertheless, they lent a certain charm to Shirakawa-go that made him love it even more.

He presently kicked small piles of snow out of his way as he headed directly for the shop en route to his old elementary school.

Hello? Tadao-san?” he called.

Ah, it’s you, boy. I was surprised you didn’t come sooner!” The man with the gravelly voice laughed, emerging from within his kitchen.

Yoshihiro grinned sheepishly. “I was studying, you see. I’ve got my finals coming up in two weeks.”

Eh? Finals? Feels like yesterday when I saw that little kid fallen in front of my shop! It’s hard to believe you’re nearly a grown man now.”

The memories from that summer more than ten years ago drifted into the teen’s mind: after he’d recovered from his fall, he remembered how Mr. Tadao had cleaned his wounds and later treated him to several Gohei Mochis in his shop. It was only many minutes later when his mother came running in, profusely thanking the man for his speedy aid.

So,” continued the man in his late sixties, as he added the boy’s favourite walnut sauce to the skewered rice dumplings. “Will you move to the city for university?

He shrugged. “Maybe.” Somehow, it sounded more like a question.

Even if you do, boy,” Mr. Tadao said, handing over the skewer, “don’t forget us.

I won’t, I promise.”

© 2021 SidneyAspennWrites. All rights reserved.