Miyo was listening to Naruko’s murmurings with only half of her attention, having heard the young girl recite her lines at least a dozen times already from various corners of the tea shop. The other half of her attention was on the rapid movements of her own hands and the song she was humming to multiply her efforts eightfold.
It was a song she had learned as a child at around Naruko’s age, when her fingers had enough dexterity to help her mother fold paper envelopes precisely along their lines and cloth napkins into careful shapes for all the different events her mother had volunteered for. The movements still lived in Miyo’s hands, moving deftly through the assortment of materials on the counter to put together baskets full of wrapped miniature tea tins for the town’s blossom festival.
Footsteps on the shop’s porch made her pause. She hadn’t been expecting any visitors today, what with most of the town preparing for the festival in some way.
Through the door came an elderly man, his face set in a serious expression.
“Mr. Ishikawa, good afternoon,” she said, clearing off the counter as quickly as she could. “I thought today was your walking day.”
Ishikawa claimed the most empty area of the counter. “It is. Was hoping to take some tea along for the walk,” he said, his voice gruff. Miyo nodded and took the thermos that Ishikawa held out, well-worn but clean and all its springs and catches well-cared for.
She kept an eye on him as she began the preparations for his usual green tea. She had learned from both Master Daiichi’s entries in the notebook and her own brief interactions that Ishikawa’s roughness was limited to his face and voice. But today his words were more clipped than usual, his face deeply lined and expression heavy.
At the other end of the shop, Naruko began a new round of recitation. Her mumbling bounced off of the walls as she paced the short width of the shop while flapping her arms so that the wide sleeves of her robe billowed around her.
Ishikawa sighed loudly. “Don’t know how good of a walk it’ll be with this festival. You can hear all the noise from it even from town.” He shook his head. “Back in my day, people knew the difference between having fun and being obnoxious.”
Beneath the irritation in Ishikawa’s voice, Miyo caught a note of sadness. She pulled on it curiously. “What was the festival like before?”
Ishikawa was quiet as his eyes became distant. “Was a time to reflect,” he said finally in a low voice. “The war had just ended, see, everyone was still picking up the pieces. The festival was when we could all get together and share what we had. Help each other out.”
Miyo tilted her head with a confused frown. “Isn’t that what the festival is now?”
Ishikawa snorted. “It’s more about making money than anything else.” His gaze went past the tea tins to his own memories. “There was food and drink, of course. Musicians came from all over. But it wasn’t about the coins.”
Steam separated the two of them for a moment as Miyo filled Ishikawa’s thermos with tea. “I was talking with some of the shop owners in town yesterday,” Miyo said as she carefully poured. “It sounded like the ones who have stalls at the festival don’t try to break even. It’s more like their goal is to help everyone make memories.”
Ishikawa’s jaw shifted. “Rather keep the ones I have.” He gave a short nod as he took the now-filled thermos and turned to leave.
The rumble of an engine neared the shop. Miyo came around the counter to stand on the porch beside Ishikawa as a van stopped just in front of the shop. “Mr. Aragaki! You really didn’t have to come,” Miyo called out as Kensaburou climbed out of the driver’s seat and started up the stairs.
Kensaburou waved her words away, then gestured towards the van. “There should be space in the backseats. Just be careful of the instruments,” he warned Naruko as she dashed outside.
Miyo laughed softly. “Naru, could you help me carry the baskets into the van?” she called out. She held out her hand as Naruko’s billowing form came thundering back. Hand-in-hand, they went into the shop, reemerging with two baskets full of the miniature tea tins that Miyo had been putting together.
Kensaburou stepped up onto the porch, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ishikawa. They watched the two balance the baskets as their walk suddenly turned into a race. “Going up to the festival?” Kensaburou asked. “Plenty of room in the van.” His voice was casual, but Ishikawa had known him too long to not catch the hope in his drawl.
Ishikawa shook his head. “Just not the same,” he said softly, suddenly feeling the weight of all eight decades of his life.
Beside him, he heard Kensaburou take a deep breath, the one that ended with a slow nod. “I know,” Kensaburou said simply.
They stood silent as they watched Miyo’s attempts to teach Naruko how to juggle turn into a game of keeping the ribbons away from Naruko. The young girl’s giggling came in waves, at first quieting as the ribbons drifted down towards her, then erupting when her attempt to grab them missed, Miyo having flicked the ribbons back up into the air again.
It reminded Ishikawa of the many times he and Kensaburou had shared similar giggles. They had grown up together, often ending up in the same classes in school, and the same detention after school too. Their shared love of music had led them to great lengths – and heights. It was especially so at the blossom festival, where getting the best angle of the stage was most important, regardless of if it was in trees or rooftops, allowed or otherwise.
A smiled flashed on Kensaburou’s face. “Do you remember those skewers Mrs. Higa used to make?”
Ishikawa grunted, a curve pulling at the corner of his own lips. “The chicken skewers were the best. Even better with old Shinjo’s beer.” They shared a conspiratorial grin, not even needing to speak the memory from their last year of high school. It had been a day full of skewers and beers, and music right over their head, with views of many sorts. They had been so sure they hadn’t been found out but the next day at school had proven them wrong. Still, it had been well worth the weeks of punishment.
His shoulders dropped as the memory faded. “Those were the days, Kensaburou.”
Kensaburou slid his hands into his pockets and nodded. “It’s hard sometimes,” he said honestly. “Some days I walk into town but it feels like I walked into a different island, can’t hardly recognize anything.” Ishikawa grunted in agreement. Kensaburou’s voice softened. “Other days, I can’t hardly get out of bed because I feel like I’ll forget everything.”
Ishikawa swallowed, knowing the fear exactly, the cold edges of that grip still fresh in his mind from this morning. He watched Kensaburou tip his head back to look at the sky and followed the motion. It was a clear day, no clouds, just a deep, calm blue depth that seemed to go on forever. And in that blue, came Kensaburou’s quiet voice.
“It’s scary, but isn’t that proof that we’re still alive?”
The sky seemed to blur in front of Ishikawa, and he had to blink it away to clear his vision, suddenly keenly away of the catch in his breathing.
He felt Kensaburou lay a warm hand briefly on his shoulder. “The way I see it, those things can never be replaced,” he said, heading down the steps. “All we’re doing is make new memories to keep the old ones company.”
Kensaburou headed towards the van, leaving Ishikawa motionless on the porch. He took his time climbing into the van and double-checking the straps around all the instruments before waving Miyo and Naruko inside. He slid the side door closed behind Naruko while Miyo climbed into the passenger seat.
It wasn’t until he had gotten into the driver’s seat and started up the van that he looked back at Ishikawa. He didn’t need to say anything, didn’t need to ask. All they could do now was wait for how Ishikawa would answer.
It came in the form of slow steps on the gravel, curving around the van, and a pause. Then the side door was slid open and Ishikawa pulled himself inside to sit next to Naruko among the instruments and baskets of tea. Without a word, Kensaburou started the van down the road.
Before the silence became stifling, Ishikawa broke it with a gruff clearing of his throat. “What were you practicing for?”
Naruko turned from the window and blinked up at him. “My class is doing a play about the three fishermen and the Blue Dragon.”
Ishikawa grunted surprise. “We did that when we were kids too. Kensaburou and I had to play the dragon. I was the head,” he said with a smirk towards the driver’s seat.
“We have a real dragon!”
Ishikawa raised an eyebrow. “A real one?”
“Yeah! Ms. Matsuda brought in an egg to class last week…”
In the front seats, Miyo and Kensaburou shared a glance and a quiet smile, half of their attention spent listening to the conversation behind them, the other half focused on moving forward on the road before them.