Inspired by “The Story So Far” by Vindsvept
I saw him as soon as I came over the ridge and entered the valley. He came from the east. I couldn’t help but keep my eye on him as I made my own way down into the valley. Come now, Mary, he’s probably just an ordinary traveler, I told myself. He had his own business. I had mine.
I had hoped that I could avoid him entirely, that he would go ahead of me onto the valley road, and I could put plenty of distance between us. But as fate would have it, we arrived at the valley road at about the same time – myself only a few steps ahead of the man wearing eastern clothes. I assured myself that there was no reason to panic yet. My father’s dagger hung from my belt just in case.
Hello. It was a man’s voice.
I spun around and reached for the dagger.
The eastern man held up his hands. Wait! I don’t want to hurt you.
I moved my hand away from the dagger and, without thinking, said, “Sorry. You startled me.” Then I realized something. “Wait. How can I understand you?” He spoke words that sounded strange to me. I couldn’t understand the language, yet I could understand the meaning.
I could ask the same thing, he replied. Looking up at the blooming trees, he asked, Do you think magic is at work here?
It was possible. “Legends say that barriers are thin in the spring.”
“When the valley blooms pink and white.” The poem must be talking about when the sakura blooms. And the…
“Apple,” I said, identifying the white blossoms. “The trees back home were starting to open when I left. They must look like this now.”
We both walked down the road in the same direction. We were walking side-by-side, so the silence between us quickly grew awkward. I broke it asking, “You’re traveling south, too?”
“May I ask…?”
He smiled and answered, My sister is expecting her first child.
“My grandfather is sick. He’s very old, so…” He didn’t have much time left. “I need to see him again.”
I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.
We talked some more and traded names. His was Seika. He asked about the apple trees. You said ones grow near your home.
I told him about my family’s apple orchard and how autumn is the best time of year for us. “We sell the apples, of course, but we also make sauce, jam, pies, and enough cider for the whole town on Ghost Night.”
Ghost Night? What’s that?
Only one of the biggest celebrations of the year. “It’s the night when the spirits of the dead return to roam the earth. We welcome them with bonfires, feasts, music, dancing. Of course, the living need to wear masks.”
“As a disguise. You don’t want to be found by any ghost who wants to hurt you.”
Seika told me that his people also have feasts at harvest time where they tell ghost stories. But in my country, there’s no special night when the spirits return.
Most come and go as they please. Some wander the earth forever.
“That’s… Sorry, that sounds terrifying.”
Seika laughed. He explained how there are different kinds of spirits in his country, each with their own holiday. Days to honor the good ones. Days to appease the bad. That way, we ensure peace between our world and the spirit world.
By midday, we came to the center of the valley. Neither one of us had spoken in a while and, for my own part, I was getting hungry. Seika pointed out a space between two apple trees. Let’s rest here.
We sat down in the grass, and I immediately found the bundle I packed my lunch in: a clay pot with leftover stewed chicken and green beans and a few rolls of cornbread. Seika must have been hungry too, since I saw him eat out of a wooden box with a pair of thin sticks. In the box was rice, chunks of fish, and a vegetable I didn’t recognize. “What are those greens?” I asked him.
Snow peas, he answered.
“Never heard of them. You eat them in the pod?”
It’s very tender. He picked one out with his eating sticks and offered it to me. Want one?
I took the snow pea pod with my fingers and tried it. “You’re right,” I said. “Tender. Crisp.” I took a bite of my roll to see how they would taste together. “Goes well with cornbread too,” I discovered.
Is that what you call it? Seika asked.
I nodded yes, then pulled out a second roll and offered it to him. “Want one?”
He took the roll and bit into it. It’s… sweet. He picked out a chunk of fish and ate it. I watched as he chewed for a second or two, his expression shifting to one I couldn’t easily read. Maybe not the best with fish, he finally concluded.
We finished eating and set off down the valley road again. A little while later, I heard Seika mumble to himself: I hope they’ll stop bickering and focus on something.
“They who?” I asked.
My younger cousins. Festival Week is two months away. They’re the only ones who can compete in the Fisherman’s Boat Race this year.
“Because of the new baby, right?”
Seika nodded. He told me about Festival Week earlier that day – a week-long celebration leading up to the holiday in honor of the sun goddess. From how he described it, it must be as big an event for his people as Ghost Night is for mine. Though this was the first time he mentioned a race being part of the festivities.
“This race sounds important,” I observed.
Oh yes. Winning is a great honor. He told me how his family has a long rivalry with two other fishing families in his village. The problem was that Seika’s cousins were inexperienced racers and apparently didn’t get along with the other families. I believe in them. I do. Yet…
“You’re not counting on a win?”
I just hope they focus on preparing for the race, not sabotaging the others.
“Naturally. Sounds like your family has a reputation to keep. Though I can’t help but imagine if they put everything into the sabotage and it worked. What if none of you win the race?”
Seika was silent for a few minutes. Then I heard him snicker. Then he surprised me with a loud, hearty laugh. I know exactly who would win! he exclaimed. They’d keep talking about it for months! And my poor cousins. Grandmother would scold them for the rest of their lives.
Seika kept laughing. As he did, I imagined my own grandmother and cousins in that situation. She would curse and yell, swinging her cane to beat the daylights out of my cousins. I could easily picture them tripping over themselves to run away and save their hides. Soon, I joined Seika in his laughter.
The sun was sinking below the western mountains as we neared the end of valley. The pass widened, and somehow I knew that the magic allowing Seika and I to understand each other would soon fade. I don’t know if I realized at the time how much I had slowed my pace, but I felt that I wasn’t ready to leave his company yet. Seika kept in step with me. I like to think he felt the same way.
An idea hit me. I pointed to a comfortable-looking spot beneath a cherry tree and asked Seika, “Why don’t we stop here for a bit?”
As soon as we sat down, I opened my pack and searched for the amber bottle. “Take out that cup you were drinking out of earlier.”
What for? Seika asked.
I opened the bottle of whiskey, poured some into both of our cups, then raised mine with “Cheers.” Seika still looked confused, so I urged him to drink.
He did, then hummed in appreciation. What is this? he asked before finishing his cup.
“Whiskey. A drink meant to be shared with friends.”
We have something like that. Seika dug around in his bag as I drank the rest of my whiskey. He produced a ceramic jar and poured its milky white liquid in both of our cups. It’s called sake.
We drank it at the same time. It had a satisfying burn going down, but I winced as the alcohol went straight to my head. “That’s good,” I told him.
We quietly spilt the whiskey and sake between us, watching the sky dim from blue to purple.
“Why do our people hate each other?” I found myself asking.
Seika answered, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever considered why before.
“Do you think it could be one long misunderstanding?”
What do you mean?
What exactly did I mean? I didn’t know why I wanted to tell him, but I decided to do it anyway. “My father was a warrior. He died in a bottle at sea. His mates who survived – they told stories of how ruthless and cruel the eastern warriors were.”
Failure is dishonor. For a warrior, you must destroy your enemy or bear the shame of defeat forever.
“Those soldiers told me that there were no decent men in the east. You proved them wrong.”
A smile flashed over Seika’s face. After a moment, he told me, When my mother was a girl, a band of western warriors attacked her village, and she was taken prisoner. She had choice words to say about her captors, but it was their wives, mothers, and sisters who broke her. Whatever those women did, my mother is still haunted by it.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman’s anger. Those who can break the strongest heart with words alone are the most evil of all. I know the type well.”
Growing up, I believed all western women were dishonorable liars. But you’re not like that at all.
Those words made my heart warm. “Why do ordinary people like us have to be mixed up in war? Am I crazy to think that, if your people and mine had more chances to talk, we could stop killing each other?”
Would your kings even agree to meet our lords? To come here unarmed and share a meal like we have? After they’ve devoted their wealth, lives, and honor to see the other side dead?
“Good point. We’d first have to find a time when the kings aren’t at each other’s throats.”
Seika chuckled. Your rulers are fond of in-fighting too?
“I suppose that’s one thing your lords and our kings have in common.”
If they ever did meet, maybe they could share tactics.
“Ho ho ho! That’s a dangerous idea, mate.” We shared a good laugh at it. “It’s settled. It truly is a crazy dream.”
Not crazy. Just… He stood and pulled down a branch of the cherry tree. Sakura only blooms for one week every year. That’s why my people cherish it. In doing so, we must accept that its beauty cannot last. Fate has deemed it so, just like it has decreed that our lives be filled with both joy and sorrow.
“So we should treasure the day we’ve spent since it’s so rare. Is that what you’re saying?”
I met Seika’s eyes. They were filled with the purest sincerity I had even seen before or since. I hope that we will meet again one day, he said, and that our people can learn to live side by side in peace. Yet, whatever fate decides, I’m glad that I met you, Mary. I won’t forget you.
“I feel the same way,” I replied, returning his smile. It might have only been for a second, but it was long enough to carve that moment deep into my memory.
I noticed how long the shadows had grown, how deep a purple the sky had become. “It’s late,” I said. “If we’re to get to where we’re going by nightfall, we ought to move on.”
He agreed with You’re right. Our families are expecting us.
Several minutes later, we came to the place where the valley opened to the sea and the path diverged. “This is where we must part ways.”
It is. Seika bowed to me, saying, Safe journey, my friend.
I gave him a curtsy and said, “Goodbye, Seika. May the road rise up to meet you.”
I arrived at my grandparents’ house soon after nightfall. I tried to tell them about Seika the next morning over breakfast, but they didn’t want to hear it. For them, it was enough of a miracle that I survived the journey unharmed.
Grandfather died a few days later, and we buried him a few days after that. By the end of the month, it was time for me to return home. I took the same route as before. I didn’t meet anyone in the valley. The sakura blooms were gone, and the apple blossoms were nearly gone too. Whatever magic existed there had faded.
Many springs have come and gone since then. I haven’t had a reason or a chance to travel through that valley again. Part of me wonders if I ever will. Still, whenever I see dawn filling the sky, my thoughts always fly eastward, toward Seika and his young niece or nephew, knowing that they saw the sun first.
©2020 Joyce Lewis. All rights reserved.