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Beautiful Silk

by Andrew Broadous
December 2018 (Featured in The Kolob Canyon Review, April 2019)

Aiya Uzuma leaned on a rail, watching tepid waves lap against her small yacht. Okinawa was only a white glimmer in her sight. She had expected her father to hand her a plane ticket from Shinjuku to the small village of Ogimi, but instead, the man sent her off in style, insisting that everything had to be done right. “Everything” meant getting Aiya’s Irezumi, or traditional Yakuza tattoos.


As the tiny island grew larger, Aiya scrolled mindlessly through her iPhone for galleries of women marked with thick ink designs from the neck down to the ankle. Her thoughts turned swiftly to her mother, some ruffled bedsheet of a woman who hadn’t stayed in Aiya’s life long enough for a falling tear. Aiya wondered what her mother’s tattoos looked like—if she had had any to begin with. This fleeting thought soon drifted to Aiya’s father, Saburo Uzuma. He was the head of their Yakuza clan and was the first of his brethren get his full-body ink, which resembled that of an ornate wetsuit. No machines. His tattoos were all done by a metal nomi brush containing bristles like fine needles scratching across the skin.   


Aiya’s crew, four men dressed in starched grey suits, careened the sleek white vessel ashore. Aiya pocketed her phone and considered her father’s wishes. Saburo was sending his only daughter to the Ink Master, a mild-tempered Ogimi artist who had done the clansman’s markings long ago. Back when Saburo was twenty-five, he considered his illustrations a rite of passage into “The Life,” as he called it.


Aiya stepped out onto the dock and yawned. She was soon hit by a palpable humidity and the rays of dawn, turning her fair skin wet and sticky. She brushed away her violet-tipped bangs and retrieved her sunglasses from a small bag that dangled on her shoulder strap. She was clad in black skinny jeans and a red long-sleeve t-shirt with bamboo silhouettes that was cut off and frayed just above her navel. A soft brushing noise came from her wooden sandals with every step she took across lush, green grass sloping waywardly.


Villagers who didn’t know Aiya were all too eager to give smiles and waves of their old, wrinkly hands. All the girl could think about was some old man feeling up her body with an ink brush and possibly his own fingertips.


As she made her way up the trail, Aiya was greeted by at least thirty hikers and passers-by who looked like they had cheated death. They must’ve been at least ninety-five, and still they were jogging and beaming like schoolgirls.  


A bald man in grey shorts and a white t-shirt came walking beside her. He had a water bottle in his hand and was grinning with his eyes and with the few teeth he still possessed.


“Tokyo or Kyoto?” the man said.


“What?” said Aiya.


“Are you from Tokyo or Kyoto? I’m guessing Tokyo.”


“What if I said I’m from here?”


The man’s smile went even wider, exposing an extra three teeth. “Then I’d know you were lying.”


Aiya eyed the man curiously. “I’m Aiya,” she said with a nod.


The man nodded back. “Nagamitsu. ‘Naga.’ What brings you to Ogimi?”


“I’m here to see a man called the Ink Master.”


“The Ink Master,” Naga said, tasting the words. “I’m a regular customer. So far, I have eight of his works. Beautiful painter.”


“Know where I can find him?”


Naga squinted at the light on the horizon. “I ran into him just as he was leaving yesterday.”


Aiya froze and tilted her shades.


“Said it was urgent business,” Naga said. He stepped over a patch of bright hibiscus, showing dappled, hairless skin stretched over his bony legs. He pointed a finger up the path. “His home and studio is just over this hill, if you care to see it. I do believe his apprentice is watching over things while he’s away.”


Aiya nodded somberly. Surely this wasn’t true, she thought. She didn’t come all this way just to see the man’s house and a few paintings strewn about. She decided to follow Naga along the trail.


The girl was amazed at the old man’s stamina. She thought for sure he would’ve keeled over before they had reached the top, but sure enough, there he was, right beside her. She was tempted to ask his age but ultimately decided against it.


“I can’t get over the natural beauty here,” Naga said as the two approached the bottom. “Not a day goes by when I don’t find myself in awe. Don’t you think so?”


Aiya merely muttered, “It’s nice.”


Naga breathed in deeply, sucking in the Ogimi air through his narrow nostrils. “I love jogging. It’s good for the soul. Don’t be surprised if you hear my old bones creaking out here every morning and every night,” he said with a snicker.


“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Aiya.


The hill started to level out, and Aiya and Naga were ready to part ways. They shook hands, and Naga continued down the path.


“Wait,” Aiya said, and Naga turned back around. “How did you know I’m from Tokyo?”


“You weren’t smiling,” said Naga. “You’ll come to find that everybody smiles here in Ogimi.” Then he turned and trotted off.


***


Not far from the hill, Aiya crossed a wooden bridge over a small pond and made her way to a quaint house in a tangle of banyan trees. Wind chimes were tinkling at the front door. She knocked, and a few seconds later, the door slid open with a clack.


A young man appeared and greeted Aiya. The girl was expecting another geriatric man with a toothy grin, but this man looked maybe two or three years her senior. He donned a faded tan jacket and brown khakis and had jet-black hair that fell down the sides of his neck, hitting his shoulders. His face was narrow like a wolf’s; his eyes: glossy black and white marbles.


“I’m looking for the Ink Master,” Aiya said. “Probably old.”


The young man looked at Aiya blankly. His walnut-colored skin blanched.


“Something wrong?”


The young man rubbed his temples.


“You’re Uzuma’s child?”


“That’s right,” Aiya said slowly, half expecting him to say something else. “I’m Aiya.”


The man choked out, “Kai” and shook the girl’s hand, then looked to the ground.


“Were you not expecting me?” said Aiya.


“My master said Uzuma’s child was coming. He failed to mention you were a female.”


Aiya sighed. “So, you’re the apprentice. Where is the master?”


“Urgent business.”


“So I’ve heard. Do you live here, too?”


Kai shook his head. “I have a small house nearby.” He smiled coyly and showed his impatient guest inside.


The Ink Master’s home was just like every other thing Aiya would expect to find in Ogimi: old but well-kept. It smelled musty, and every surface was varnished wood. Several of the sliding paper shōji doors in the back were open, giving a view to a small pond. There were multi-colored ink bottles by the hundreds on shelves. Framed haiku poems done in calligraphy and Buddha paintings hung from the walls. Many of the other oil paintings featured old men and women clasping their hands in prayer.


“How long will this take?” Aiya said, dumping her bag on the floor.


“A while,” said the man.


“How long?”


Kai assembled twenty or so inks onto a wooden tray, along with a bottle of alcohol, rags, and nomi brushes of at least twelve different sizes. “It’s going to take at least a month,” he said.  “It’s a long process.”


Aiya’s big eyes widened. “A month? My father never said anything about a month. That’s ridiculous. Who has the time for this?”


Kai held up his hands in protest. “You’ll only be here for two days, just to get a feel for it. When you’re ready, you’ll be back for the rest.”


“Lovely. Can’t you get this stuff done in a few hours?” said Aiya, looking around the house.


“Not if you want it done right.” Kai turned and grabbed several more bottles of ink. “Don’t worry, there’s a guest room. And after your time with these,” he said, holding up an ink bottle, “you won’t be disappointed. People from all over want to get their hands on my master’s work. And he taught me well. But—” Kai spun around.


Aiya had removed her shirt and was beginning to undo her bra. “What?” she said.


“I think— I think I’ll just start on your arms, if you don’t mind.”


Aiya shrugged and dressed herself. “No need to be coy.”


Kai faced her once again and gave a slight smile. “All right,” he said. He picked up the tray from a desk and started for a small room in the back of the house.


Aiya grabbed her bag and followed him inside.


The room had a small padded mat in the center of the floor, and paintings and foot-tall lanterns descended from hooks on all four walls. Kai lit the lanterns, and a sensuous amber light pulsated about the room.


“Don’t get any ideas,” Aiya muttered, settling on the mat.


Kai sat down next to her and concentrated on sterilizing the brushes. “I’m a professional.”


Aiya pulled up her sleeve. “What’s the design?”


“I was going to ask you.”


“I don’t care.  Do something you’ve never done before.”


Kai thought for a moment and said, “Beautiful silk.”


“What?” said Aiya, craning her neck.


“That’s what your name means, right? Aiya? What if I did the waves and folds of silk? It’d be more fitting than dragon scales. And you don’t strike me as a flower bush kind of girl,” he added with a laugh.


Aiya pondered the idea while eying two paintings of praying women. “I like it.”


There was a bump in an adjacent room, then the sound of tiny footsteps. A little girl with dark pigtails pranced into the room. She rolled on the ground and shot up, arms outstretched.


Aiya turned around fast and cut her shoulder on Kai’s brush. She winced.

Kai retrieved a dry rag and gave it to her. The girl pressed it against her skin. Red lines began to soak through the cloth.


The girl stopped, mid-pirouette, and looked fearfully at Aiya.


The frightened look on the little girl’s face made Aiya feel a strong, sudden urge to apologize. And for what, she didn’t know.


“Kimiko,” Kai said, getting to his feet. He scooped the girl up and said, “Let’s get back to bed. It’s too early. Go back to sleep, and when you wake up, you can dance as much as you want.” He dashed to another room with Kimiko in his arms and returned after subduing the girl’s early morning vigor. It took half an hour.              


“Sorry about that,” he said, assuming his position on the mat.


“Daughter?” Aiya said.


Kai nodded. “She’s quite the little dancer. It’s a lot of energy to deal with.” He grabbed his brush and glanced at the rag still pressed to Aiya’s shoulder. He gave another bashful laugh. “I guess we’ll start on the other arm.”


***


As a five-year-old girl, Aiya would frequently walk hand-in-hand with her father down the streets of Shinjuku. Saburo, gaze fixed sternly ahead, always wore a silver suit and tie. His frosty hairline thinned in the front and gradually thickened, like the evening tide, and his taut, pale skin reflected a life in the shade.


On one solemn afternoon, the city air quenched with drizzle, Aiya and her father entered a small antique shop. They passed through a vestibule and, once inside the store, were immediately greeted by the shopkeeper, some mid-forties, hardworking man with a wide smile.


Aiya looked all around in wonder. The collection of artifacts cluttered every crevice of the shop. There were derelict fragments of samurai armor and katana blades, Buddha statues sculpted from jade, and kimonos of all colors and patterns on racks.


Saburo unsheathed a tantō blade while Aiya gazed upon something shimmering at the shopkeeper’s front desk. She marched closer and was met with a thousand scents that wafted from incense sticks burning. She plugged her nose and pointed at the object that had won her admiration: a polished silver bell tied with a blue ribbon, dangling from a hook.


The shopkeeper smiled at the young girl and pointed at the bell.


Aiya nodded.


The shopkeeper shook his head. “I’m sorry, little one, but this one’s not for sale.”


Saburo glanced over at his daughter and replaced the tantō on the shelf. He approached the shopkeeper’s desk and patted his daughter’s head. He stooped down to meet her in the eye.


“Find something you like?”


Aiya pointed once again at the silver bell.


The shopkeeper closed his eyes and shook his head. “I’m terribly sorry, sir, but this item is not for sale. It’s a family heirloom, you see, a good-luck charm for my business. May I interest you in this?” He removed a noh theater mask from the back wall: the face of a red-skinned, hideous ogre.


Aiya recoiled from the sight of it.


Saburo cleared his throat. Before he spoke, he turned to his daughter and whispered in her ear, telling her to wait in the vestibule for two minutes.


She nodded and sauntered off.


Through the glass door, Aiya saw her father pick up the silver bell with two delicate fingers. He leaned in closer to the table and retrieved out of his jacket something silver of his own. The length of the steel flipped out in an instant.


The shopkeeper’s smile vanished.


Saburo whispered something while holding up both pieces of shiny metal.


The man before him bowed deeply and nodded emphatically.


Saburo turned and motioned for Aiya to come back inside. When she returned to the front desk, the shopkeeper wiped his forehead, and with a shaky hand, placed the silver bell in a paper sack. He forced a smile and said, “Thank you for your purchase,” his voice faltering. “Come back again soon.”


Saburo merely nodded and led his daughter out.


Aiya looked up at her father, a man of average stature, yet to her he seemed like a towering giant, an impossible wall. She suddenly felt a pang of fear, watching him push open the glass doors with a forceful grace. The young girl wanted to be alone. She wanted to slip through the crowd, past the gaze of her father, which darted between passers-by on the sidewalk.


She wanted to get away.


***

The sun had set on the village of Ogimi and was receding into an azure darkness. Orange beams of light were licking their way through the house of the Ink Master.


Aiya and Kai were still in the lantern room. They would only stop working so Kai could dance with Kimiko in the adjacent room and Aiya could stretch her legs and have an occasional snack of rice cakes. For most of the day, the two were silent, partially because Kai was the most focused in the beginning stages of his work and partially because Aiya was in mild discomfort. Kai warned her that the first day was always the worst.


Despite the stinging, Aiya admired the lavender and deep purple sleeve that was beginning to form. She had a black dress back home that creased and folded the same way her arm did now.


After sterilizing his instruments, Kai fed his daughter and put her to bed, then went in the kitchen to prepare a meal of grilled eel and rice balls over a peanut sauce. Aiya and Kai ate while listening to the sound of crickets and feeling the soft wind creep through the open doors.


“What do you think of Ogimi?” Kai said.


“It’s not Tokyo,” Aiya said between bites.


“Is that a good thing?”


Aiya looked outside, settled her eyes on the light of fireflies bobbing on the surface of the pond. “I don’t know. In Tokyo, no one has enough time for anything. Here, it seems like time is everything. It’s just different.”


Kai poured Aiya and himself a cup of sake. “Funny you say that,” he said. “Ogimi is known as the ‘Village of Longevity.’ We have people here that live to be a hundred and one.”


“So, it’s not just me, then?  People around here really are fossils.”


Kai gave a hollow laugh. “They really are.”


A stretch of silence surrounded them. An owl began its nightly ritual in the banyan trees, as did the bullfrogs and cicadas.


Kai finally said, “It’s like they’re mocking me.”


“What?”


Kai hesitated. “I see men and women in their nineties here, doing everything that you and I can do, and I wonder why some people don’t have that luxury.”


“Like who?”


Kai pushed his plate aside. “Like my wife.”


Aiya set her bowl and chopsticks on the table beside Kai’s and studied the apprentice. “What happened?”


“Postpartum hemorrhage,” Kai said, shaking his head. “At twenty-six. Can you believe it?”


“Kai, I’m so sorry.”


Kai shook his head again. “She’s still mine.” He held up his hand, a black and silver band on his ring finger. “This stays for good.”


“Kai—” Aiya began softly, but didn’t finish.


Kai gulped another cup of sake. “I’ve considered leaving Ogimi.”


“What’s stopping you?”


“My apprenticeship. Soon I’ll have a studio of my own.” He watched a firefly flit onto the floor. “But this village has been good to Kimiko and me.”


Aiya turned and looked back across the hall. The shōji leading to Kimiko’s darkened room were slightly open. “You love your daughter.”


Kai nodded. “And I’m always grateful she’s with me.” He stood and brought the dishes to the sink and dumped them in sudsy water. He sloshed them around and wiped them clean. “So, what’s your story?” he said over the running faucet.


Aiya huffed and held up her unfinished purple sleeve.


“Right,” said Kai, returning to the table. “But what’s it like being the daughter of a clansman?”


Aiya whipped her dark hair around and tucked a few strands behind her ear, revealing a black and gold piercing. She pointed to it.


“You see this? This was a gift on my sixteenth birthday, from someone I didn’t know. People I never knew were always giving me things when I was growing up. And knives became more common to me than dress-up or plush dolls.”


“Have you— have you ever killed anyone?”


Aiya parted her lips to speak but quickly shut them. Then she opened her mouth again. “Why would you ask that? Of course I haven’t.”


Kai took another drink, then another. By now, he was slightly buzzed. “Why wouldn’t I ask that?”


Aiya stared at him. “Why does everyone have to ask that? It’s ridiculous.”


“You can tell me.”


“There’s nothing to tell,” Aiya stammered.


“There must be something.”


Aiya shot to her feet. She turned away from Kai and fixed her red eyes on yet another painting depicting an elderly man in prayer.


“What’s with all these?” she said, her voice quivering. “Is your master the spiritual type or something?”


Kai put a cap on his sake bottle. “He is. It’s his repentance.”


“For what?” Aiya said, moving in closer to the portrait.


“For dealing with certain people,” said Kai.


Aiya bit her lip. “Where did he have to go that was so damn important? When my father finds out—"


Kai fell silent. His head lowered.


“Where is he, Kai?” said Aiya. “Where’d your legendary man go?”


The apprentice closed his eyes.


Aiya breathed in sharply and exhaled. She spun around, arms folded. “It’s because of me, isn’t it? Because of my family, my father. Your master couldn’t stand to be around criminals any longer.” By now, the girl was tearing up. “He doesn’t even know me. I’ve never hurt anyone.” She wiped her face. “So when’s he coming back? When I’m gone?”


“Aiya—”


“Is he going to wait a month?”


“Aiya, listen, please.”


“Well?”


Kai stood up, abashed.


“I never wanted to be in all this, Kai.” She walked over to him and put her arms around him.


Kai slowly lowered his arms onto the small of Aiya’s back. He glanced at his ring finger.


Aiya dug her face deep into Kai’s shoulder, weeping for the little lost girl inside of her.


***


“Uzuma-san,” wheezed the heavy, balding man hunched over on his knees. He was practically kissing the tatami mat at Saburo’s feet.


The Yakuza boss’ private office overlooked the lights beginning to string over Shinjuku like blinking stars of reds and blues and neon green. The office itself, which was Saburo’s base of operations for his consulting firm—a front for his more dubious exploits—was washed white and capacious, with padded chairs and small tables surrounding his front desk. There were warm ceiling lights, exotic plants, and gaping glass windows that could swallow the city whole.


Saburo folded his arms and turned his back on the man before him. His assistant stood by him, the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up enough to see dragon scales inked on his forearms.


“I’m not the only one who must eat and wake in the morning,” the man pleaded.


Saburo approached the windows. He said nothing.


The man had bowed as deeply as possible. If he dipped his nose any closer to the ground, he would’ve broken it. He had received a loan from Saburo to start his business in Kyoto. It was called The Waiting Crane, a small hibachi restaurant. The establishment staggered in its first few months, then blossomed. Still, though, the man had failed to pay Saburo in full. And the deadline had passed.


Saburo watched the nightlights below with dark eyes set deep in his pallid skin.


“You have a child yourself, Uzuma-san."


Saburo flinched slightly, as if something had brushed against him.


The man still shivered on the floor. “Your daughter.”


“My daughter,” said Saburo, his voice rough and hoarse, like he’d not yet recovered from a long sickness. He slipped a short barrel out of the sleeve of his suit jacket, clicked the metal back with his thumb, and rested it at his leg.


“And mine,” the man pressed.


Number 112 glowed above the steel doors of the elevator. Saburo still held the cold metal in his hand. He turned and sidestepped the man quivering at his polished shoes.


The doors opened, and a young girl stepped into Saburo’s office. She wore a cerulean skirt, tie, white dress shirt, and a backpack shaped like an emoji with puppy-dog eyes. She ran her tongue across the metal tracks over her teeth and surveyed the three men before her.


“My daughter,” said Saburo. He slipped the barrel back up his sleeve.


The man craned his neck and feigned a warm smile at the girl making her way across the room. “Oh,” he said, in a cheery tone. He began to swipe his hands across the floor. “I thought I lost my—” he rose to his feet and patted his black suit. He retrieved his car keys from his pocket and smiled. “Here the whole time, I guess.” He gave a much shorter bow this time to Saburo and walked briskly to the elevator, accompanied by the Yakuza boss’ silent assistant, who punched the button.


Both men soon vanished from sight.


Aiya shook her head at the man’s pointless display.


“It’s late, you know,” Saburo said.


“I know.”


“You’re seventeen.”


“I know.”


Saburo breathed out heavily. “Did you get my message?”


“Yeah,” said Aiya. “Thanks for finding it.” She held out her hand.


Saburo reached into his pocket and pulled out the silver bell, the blue ribbon dutifully attached. He laid it with tender hands into his daughter’s.


“Keep a closer eye on it this time,” he said. He wrapped his inked arms around her.


Aiya’s pale arms lay motionless against her legs. She felt smothered, estranged. Misty. She slipped out of her father’s hold, smoothed over her skirt, and looked at him with her big brown eyes.


“Don’t you ever get lonely?”


“What?” Saburo scoffed. “No.”


“Don’t you ever miss mother?”


“No.”


“Why not?”


“Enough.”


Aiya brushed away a few renegade strands of hair. She tightened her grip on the straps of her backpack. Her face was stark and muted.


“I just wish she could’ve stayed, that’s all.”


“She was a tramp,” Saburo spat. “It was best for everyone that she left.”


“You loved her once, didn’t you?”


Saburo grunted. “One night.”


Aiya shook her head. “That’s all she was to you?”


“She—”


Aiya merely folded her arms and looked out the large window, at the lights scrambling over the streets and grey buildings like one big circuit board.


“She was never here,” Saburo said suddenly. “You asked me if I wished she were here. She never was here.”


Aiya stared at her father. She caught a glimpse of the metal barrel glinting from his hand, then looked at him straight in the eye.


Saburo glanced at the elevator. “Head down. I’ll meet you in the lobby. Then we’ll go home.”


The girl hesitated.


“Go on,” Saburo said. He sent a single text on his phone.


Aiya heaved a heavy sigh and turned away. She waited until the number flashed, then watched as her father’s form squeezed thinner and thinner behind steel doors, until he was gone.  

As if he was never there.


***

As soon as the morning light hit the horizon, Kai and Aiya sat down to work. For most of the day, the two remained silent. It was as if there was nothing more for either of them to discuss.


Kai had lit the lanterns and had brought in a basket of bananas and rice balls.


Aiya had pulled up her sleeve, and she was sitting cross-legged on the mat. All day she felt that familiar pricking of the brush, that stabbing and scraping. She squirmed.


“Try to stay still,” Kai said.


“Sorry.”


Kai’s brush moved in erratic patterns across Aiya’s arm. Her sleeve fell back down, but Kai caught it and gently pushed it up into a bunch on her shoulder. He closed his eyes and mouthed, “Forgive me.”


Aiya pulled a rice ball out of the basket and stuffed it in her mouth. Then she reached for a banana.


“You must stay still,” said Kai.


“That’s harder than it looks.”


Kai’s work was yet again interrupted, not by Aiya, but by Kimiko, who twirled her way into the room like a ballerina in a tiny red dress.


Kai laid down his brush. “Kimiko, sweetheart. Daddy’s working. What do you need?” He started to stand up.


“Let her stay,” Aiya said. “She can stay.”


Kai hesitated, then sat back down and retrieved his brush.


Kimiko did a pirouette that looked like a drunken crane, then plopped to her knees and ruffled her dress on the floor. She stared at Aiya, this time with a fervent curiosity, as if she were watching a tigress through a small glass window.


Aiya smiled. “Are you a dancer?”


Kimiko tottered on her knees and smiled back. “I am a dancer.”


“How old are you?”


Kimiko held up four tiny fingers, then checked them to make sure she was correct.


Aiya looked at the girl incredulously. “When’s your birthday?”


Kimiko tilted her head in contemplation.


“It’s next month, isn’t it, Kimiko?” said Kai.


The girl nodded, smile stretched wide. She inspected the purple folds etched on Aiya’s skin. “Why are you getting colored?”


Aiya looked to the floor and smiled thinly. “Because my daddy said I had to.”


“Is your daddy nice?”


Aiya nodded. “Sometimes.”


“Is your daddy like my daddy?”


“No,” Aiya said, laughing. “He’s a different kind of daddy. Sometimes I wish I had another daddy.”


Kimiko lay on her back and bicycled the air and sat up. “Why?”


Aiya shrugged. “It would be easier.”


The tiny girl paused. “But your daddy loves you. Don’t you love him?”


Aiya looked at the four-year-old before her. She felt her eyes sting and start to water, so she turned away. She reached into her bag and retrieved something metallic and shiny, something that jingled in her hand as she held it up.


Kimiko looked upon the silver bell in awe, her mouth agape. “It’s so pretty.”


“It’s yours,” Aiya said, holding out the gleaming object.


“Really?”


Aiya nodded, then dropped the bell into Kimiko’s cupped hands.


Kai stopped his work. “What do we say, Kimiko?”


“Thank you!” the girl said, wrapping her miniature arms around Aiya, who responded with an advisory “Take good care of it.”


Kimiko nodded enthusiastically and darted out of the room, the sound of the bell ringing throughout the house.


“You didn’t have to do that,” said Kai.


Aiya cleared the lump in her throat. “I know.”


Kai smiled. “What was that? Some kind of bell?”


“Just something someone gave me.”


“Who?”


Aiya paused. “Someone who was—”


Kai looked at her quizzically.


Aiya felt that hotness in her eyes again but quickly composed herself. “Almost lost it once,” she said. “I’m always losing things.”


“What else have you lost?”


Aiya reached into the basket and bit into another rice ball. “I don’t know. My time. My free will.”


“You’ve come to the right village if you’re looking for your time.”


Aiya laughed. “No kidding.”


Kai sat still, brush in hand. “Have you been to the Mutahara Platform?”


“The what?”


“The Mutahara Viewing Platform. It’s on a hill not too far from here. The sunset makes the East China Sea look like it’s made of pure gold.  Do you want to go see it before you leave?”


Aiya flashed Kai a small grin. “You mean we’re finally going to leave this house?”


***


The receding sun oscillated through the trees as Kai, Aiya, and Kimiko marched up the hill. Kai was right: the platform wasn’t even a kilometer from the house.


Aiya once again donned her shades to protect herself from the blinding rays.


They climbed to the very top and stood by the wooden banisters that lined the edge of the platform.


The sun was hanging by mere threads of distant clouds on the horizon.


Aiya had to remove her glasses to get the full effect.


The horizon was a tinted ocher that started to fan out across the evening sky. After several minutes passed, a rich gold foil began to spread out over the sea.


It seemed to call to Aiya. She had never seen anything so tantalizing. She wanted to walk across it, touch it with her fingertips, drink it in slow gilded drops. She wanted to wrap herself around it, feel its warmth.


“Have you ever seen anything like it?” said an old familiar voice. Grinning Naga came over by Aiya, laying his wrinkled hands on the banister.


“Never,” said Aiya. She turned to Naga and returned his smile.


“I take it back,” Kai said. “It’s better than gold.”


Not a minute later, the sea began to swallow the bright blanket, and the sun disappeared from their view.


Naga waved goodbye to Aiya and Kai and spry Kimiko who was chasing a spotted butterfly. The three traipsed back down the small hill. They didn’t talk much as they journeyed below the appearing stars. The Ogimi sun had done enough of the talking for the three of them.


They returned shortly to the Ink Master’s house, and before retiring to bed, Kai supplied Aiya with a sack of rice balls and dried banana chips for her voyage back to Tokyo in the morning.


Kimiko scribbled a small drawing of Aiya with a purple arm and handed it to her.


Aiya smiled at the crayon portrait. She imagined what the picture would look like a month from now.


Aiya sat by the back shōji, looking at her partially inked sleeve. She glanced at the pond shimmering with the light of a thousand fireflies. The green lights hummed through the night, and the girl just watched them bob and flicker. She closed her eyes and caught the faint scent of milk bread baking, listened to the sounds of the night, of Ogimi taking in a long-lasting breath.          


And exhaling.