2:30 p.m. Sunday, 7th July 2019.
I was about to leave for the town fair when this happened.
The streets of Hita-shi were quiet and still in the hot afternoon. No pedestrians were within sight. It looked uninhabited at the zenith of the day.
The sound of that awful scream emerged from the exact window again and a wave of terror coursed through me sending heat waves down my slender frame. I shivered and turned to look at the window.
I barely had over a minute to contemplate over the source of the scream when another scream followed, and it pierced the air of our living room and chilled my bones.
It's the exact same house!
It came from the second-floor right-ended window left ajar every Sunday afternoon.
"What happened, Akari? Everything alright?" Haruki said, entering my room and followed my gaze out of the window straight at the house across the street.
I looked for a way to spare Haruki from catching the fear that had obviously gripped me and forced a smile at him.
"I must go to the Watanabe house, Haruki. I met Akihiro at the market the other day. I think that's where I will go now instead!" I said, without mentioning the sounds of the scream.
"Can't you wait for the streets to cool down?", he pleaded, cringing at the heat waves that floated in through the window.
"It's just a short walk, dear. Plus, it's a holiday. No better day to make time for a neighbor, right?!", I pushed.
Instantly the sound of the scream came through once more, this time subtler, enough for the rustle of the lulled leaves to drown them. However, the pangs were distinctly evident this time. Somebody is in dire trouble. Must I simply listen and do nothing?
The milk kettle rattled in the kitchen, and a diverted Haruki strode out of the room. The sound was too subtle for him to grasp it anyway. I heaved a sigh.
It happened a third time.
The scream hurled straight out of the mouth of someone attacked, I could tell. My skin ran cold, my throat dried up, and I shivered.
Two minutes passed, and I kept staring at the window, debating over my decision. Nobody likes getting entangled in another's problems? Why care? Let's leave it!
And then the loud crash of broken glass followed.
The cracking glass pieces crumbled in segments like someone broke sheets of glass frames.
My mind instantly connected something.
"Wait a minute! I have heard this one before!"
I raised my head and looked at the time. It was 2:40 p.m. and a Sunday. This has happened before---the sound of breaking glass disturbing the afternoon stillness, this happens every Sunday. My mind has been unconsciously noticing this pattern for a while, but I never cared until today. That's because today the screams struck me first.
My hair stood on end!
Does that mean every Sunday a series of screams precedes the sounds of the breaking glass?
As the pattern registered up my mind, a wave of terror coursed through me.
A very striking pattern and impeccably well-timed!
It took me four weeks to get that this earsplitting sound has an actual pattern---- it emerges from that little girl's room precisely five minutes after that rasping girl's scream.
Confusion swirled me. A distinct need for inquiry gripped me. I made up my mind to investigate.
I lifted the comb which I had dropped in fright and quickly ran it through my wet hair. I left my shopping bag over the sofa. Dragged by urgency, I sprinted across the living room, narrowly missing Akio's Lego Blocks scattered and camouflaged over the carpet. Reaching the door, I opened it and stepped out.
I reached my neighbor's home.
Akihiro worked even on Sundays, I knew. He had left for his warehouse downtown. Single and divorced, he labored even in the stillness of hot Sunday afternoons—a way to channel the sadness he hid. Besides, the alarming transition in his appearance from a joyful to a hopeless one is unmistakably evident no matter how hard he tries to evade from social gatherings. In fact, I spotted it too, the sad face, thoroughly diseased with betrayal and destroyed with hopelessness. Poor man!
So, I was sure he wouldn't be at home.
Who else would be there? His 15-year-old daughter, his 30-year-old son and his wife.
I was about to step inside when Akihiro's daughter, Chimasu, right hand wrapped in a white scarf, strode out of the front door and stormed into the streets. It happened so fast that it seemed like a motion blur zoomed in near sight and then vanished. A small purse dangled by her side, and her right hand was wrapped in a white piece of cloth, I clearly spotted that.
I swear I saw bloodstain in that cloth as well.
She disappeared by the edge of the building and was gone.
I was about to rush after her when the sound of a glass pane opening caught my ears, up above in the attic room. I glanced up at the dormer on the far side of the building. Itsuki's wife it was, whose face emerged through the reflection of the leaves against the tinted glass. Spotting me in the compound, she flashed me a welcome smile. Simultaneously, Itsuki, Akihiro's son, emerged from the front doorway. He was sprinting forwards in quick, long jumps, eyes affixed at a singular point in front of him as if chasing a fly. As our eyes met, I wasted no time and babbled.
"She went that way?" I said, pointing at the swaying branches of the flowering cherry blossoms carefully raised at the corner-bend of the street.
"Oh, she? She has gone to the ceremonial tea house for their rituals. On Sundays, she works there as a helper."
We are all working to make ends meet. Otosan works even on Sundays.
I suddenly remembered why I had come to their house and knee-jerked back to my original intent.
"I must go, Sensei, I had followed a cat into your compound, but I must leave now," I lied then bowing low I promptly concluded the conversation and retraced my steps.
I turned around the cherry blossom end and was soon engulfed by the heat waves drifting through the streets. Straining my eyes at the far end of the road, I spotted Chimasu's small frame growing smaller and smaller as she walked off in haste. I took the right side-walk which was shaded from the afternoon Sun and stealthily crept behind her maintaining an hour's walk from her. After a full fifteen minutes of following her, I watched on as she took a turn to swiftly enter the train-station gate. I quickened my pace and gushed behind her and leaped in through the gate only to screech to a halt and fall back. Chimasu had stopped walking and was standing on the other side of the gate, with her back facing me!
The knowledge that I was spying on someone caught me, and I was momentarily gripped with guilt. Then I brushed the thought aside and peered by the edge of the gate. My eyes met with a deep cut in her forearm, and I gasped silently. Must I help?
I pulled myself back.
Confusion gripped me. This made no sense. The cut in her arm, heading for the tea ceremony, sounds of broken glass. How do these even connect? Does this happen every Sunday?
Where is she heading now?
I hesitated for a minute and assumed the pretense of a regular person. I peered around the edge and found her gone. Gaining courage, I leaned some more and came to stand at the gateway. She had disappeared. An intercity train was halted at the station. Only very few passengers were about. I climbed the stairs and entered the platform and walked past the ticket booking office. Next moment the train began moving. It was leaving the platform. I was about to take my eyes off it when I spotted a face peering at me through the glass window. It was Chimasu. She was leaving. Her face shone bright and clear. And it had a certain sadness written over it. Her face was soon replaced by successive wagons that came through.
The train rumbled off the length of the station and was soon gone. The gush of the wind that followed it faded away.
I heaved a sigh and spoke to myself.
She was leaving for the tea ceremony in the next city? Really? With a deep cut in her forearm? That missed the attention of her brother and his wife?
I didn't buy it at all!
With a bunch of unanswered questions, I left the platform and headed for the town fair instead.
Couple of days passed.
A cloudy morning and I was back from the Resutoran early. Friday mornings are heavy work, especially with all the shipment of fresh fish from Lake Hibara. I preferred returning home to sit and relish a cup of warm Sencha while they dispatched the merchandise.
Haruki and I had separate keys to our house. I used mine after he had left for his office. Sipping my tea, I admired the blooming Camilla flowers that seemed to swell out of the Ikebana mural. The wall it was hung over was corrupted with its magnificence. I recalled meeting with Haruki's pleasant surprise that evening when he returned from work and spotted it replace the bland wall. It was a delightful moment.
My eyes danced over the sprouting tendrils emerging from the pot of the tree peony after which I focussed on a remarkable memory from the Resutoran the other day---this man named Fujio literally shocked me with interest. A writer from the city of Kobe, he has devoted an entire year to the research of the land of Hita-shi. Part of the study and a specific chapter in the book revolved around the Resutoran in our town. I was amazed at his knowledge about the chef lineage of my Resutoran. That man didn't only feed himself every last morsel of the scrumptious Shishamo laid neatly on his platter but had also devoured every last piece of information of my eatery, the ancestral owners, the lists of unchallenged recipes that we offered and the unmatched expertise in the entire lineage of staffs, the proficiency of skill spanning hierarchy as the whole.
Just then, a strange noise floated into my room. It was the sound of a girl's panting and the slap of skin over some object. It came through the living room window. Occasional muffled shrieks drifted in and disturbed the stillness in the room. I froze. By then, my reverie was broken, and I affirmed the time. It was 10 a.m., Friday. Not Sunday. Not that pattern. What, then, is this?
I stepped up to the window and looked out. Sure enough, it was Chimasu again. She was right outside the Tatami room, in the veranda, hitting her arms against something over and over again.
I raised myself to my fullest height until I caught the furthest glimpse of the object she was hitting against and found that it was a dark cedar wood log. She was repeatedly striking her right hand over the log.
Is she crazy? I recalled that deep cut in her forearm a week back, and I wondered if she was mentally ill. If her mental faculties are unstable, has she been shown the doctor?
She was incessantly striking against the wooden log on and on, shrieking in agony yet propelled by pleasure. I recalled the scene from before. It was her right forearm which had that deep cut. Today she was striking with that very same forearm on and on and on. This observation I had discounted several times in the past as an exercise routine followed by her on specific weekdays. The strangeness of the matter is only evident today as I connect it to my Sunday discovery--- why on earth would she hurt the arm that was already injured, such a deep cut cannot heal in a week! The information I filtered away as a regular passing thing was starting to appear bizarre!
Must I reach out to them? Talk to Akihiro?
My phone rang. I turned to its screen and saw Hachirou, the distributer, calling me. I bounced off the couch, shook away my thoughts, stepped out of my home, locking it behind me and came to the streets. The sounds of slapping over the log were slowly replaced by the list of recipes, especially the Yaki Udon and Oyakodon that I would have to go over in today's class for the culinary internees.
Ten days later.
I was in the chopping room of the Resuturan with my customary cup of boiling hot tea my eyes affixed at the bed of rape blossoms visible through the open backyard door. Feeling exhausted after a day of hard labor, I lowered my head over my cupped hands resting over the counter and breathed heavily. The trainees were satisfied, however. The class, I noticed, they found very engaging. Other than that it was a pretty typical day at work. Emon, my Sous Chef, and friend rested his bum on the counter next to me, fumbling through the bowlful of Motsu-ya he was fiddling his chopsticks with.
"Tomodachi, I was scared that customer, Fujio was going to beat you up that day. I saw you getting nervous as he read out of his notes, revealing the history of our Resutoran, a lot of which you weren't aware of anyways.", he said, chuckling barefacedly.
Seeing my face turn red made him laugh even harder.
"Shut up! Don't talk about him. And I do know about a lot of the history. My memory is strong just that it failed me that morning.", I replied dryly, rolling my eyes back to the backyard.
"He sure outwitted you," floated his immediate comment, prompted by his callous bluntness.
A round of restrained chuckles circled around my team. I was cornered.
"Alright. Alright. Easy, guys. Fine! I don't know so as much as he seemed to know. Happy now?" I surrendered finally.
The chuckles burst to full-blown laughter.
I sighed. Then, I diverted the topic.
"He mentioned the Mizo Scallion butter, I remember. That reminded me we got to go hunting for Scallions. Our stocks are free from Scallions for ages now."
"That nursery down Mita-Dori street, they grow Scallions I'm sure. I was tempted to buy them once for my own kitchen garden, but they were a bit expensive at that time," Yuna said excitedly, always happy to say anything that would please me.
"They are open now?"
"Yes. Till 9 p.m. at night."
"But isn't it a public holiday today? Won't it be closed?"
"This nursery stays open even on public holidays."
"Alright then, who's coming with me? I will need someone to come with me to the store," I questioned everyone.
"Emon? Come on then."
"Aa actually! I can't, today. I have guests arriving home," he said, stammering hard to avoid annoying me.
"Alright. Anybody else? What about you, ……..
Nobody answered. Everyone's eyes fell. It had been a hard day, and nobody seemed to be willing to step forward.
"Alright, no worries. I'll go myself," I said, looking bright, as I was expecting this.
"I could come over and show you which ones are the best, Ma'am. However, I just feel I need to return home fast. My sister is sick, and there is nobody at home," Yuna agreed …..hesitatingly, distraught at the idea of displeasing me.
I waved my hand. "No worries! Go right ahead to your sister. I'll handle this," I said, taking the high road.
Grabbing my purse from my locker, I took off.
Apart from the flash of the lanterns unremoved from the Hita Tenryo festival earlier this month, the twilight streets aroused no particular interest in me. In fact, I was feeling sleepy. Haruki must have returned home by now, I reasoned. The bakeries are still open, and the smell of fresh unbought pastries wafted through the periodically-opening doors. My exhaustion was heavy enough to stop me from getting tempted to buy a cupful of Soba noodles being fried in sizzling oil across the street. The only drive that kept me from turning back home was the defeat I was led to feel earlier in the day--- defeat in the culinary history of my very own Resutoran.
Twenty yards from here and I was relieved from the grasp of the scents and stepped onto the main road, leaving behind the market road. My eyes caught the fire hydrant poking its head out of the footpath, and I recalled leaning against it in despair three years back. I was sad and lonely after an entire year of dejection after customers had stopped showing up at my Resutoran that year. The darkness had come in the form of Kenchi, my former Sous chef, whose fight with a crucial dinning customer had piqued the news that mooted the message around that my eatery was a hostile place. Removing Kenichi was the only way we could move ahead. Today, three years later I can smile back to that day I sat leaning against the fire hydrant in desolation because that slump of 2015 had been a blessing in disguise---- it enabled me to embark on a different venture, starting my culinary internship and I landed three large batches of internees in three years. What, at the time, seemed like an insurmountable downfall to my culinary business is history now!
Lost in my reveries, I kept walking until I closed in over the bridge's underside. The nursery, as Yuna had told me, was on its other side. The two-yard-long, cast-iron pedestrian bridge I took every day to reach the market. This was my first time walking underneath it. I had never come this far up this lane. The entire walk had been for thirty minutes, and the twilight skies had dimmed to reveal the stars, and the bridge underside was dark. As I crossed to the other side, the strong scent of the Plumeria flowers right outside the nursery engulfed my nose. I felt refreshed once again. I turned left and was about to enter through the nursery door when I was momentarily distracted by the screeching of a Suzuki car racing underneath the bridge. It was a girl. The car narrowly missed her. I stood at my spot and gazed at the scene. The driver stepped out of the door, looking apologetic. The girl seemed not to care and strode off in haste. As she passed underneath the streetlight, her baggy purse slipped off her hands, and the crinkling of its shiny contents falling on the pavement filled the air. She stopped to pick them up and replace them back in. And in the glimmer of the streetlight, I saw it was Chimasu.
The girl with the deep cut in her forearm!
Interest gripped me instantly. I had completely forgotten about her. What is she doing here now? Alone? It's far away from the central city. It's far from her home. I would expect her to be home at this time. She isn't even carrying her study-bag to make me think she is on her way to her mathematics tutor. My suspicious raced through my head again, and I almost instantly got rid of the idea of the nursery and shifted it to another day. I kept my eyes affixed in her direction. After she had walked a few steps ahead, I crept up on her. And I crossed the street over to the other side. At places, she slowed down to straighten the folds of her dress or flip around and look back to ensure she wasn't being followed. I was quick to sense her stall in her path, and before she could turn around I was already hidden behind something by the street, maybe a bush, a fat fire hydrant or perhaps the broken portico of an old house.
Finally, she got off the street and walked over to the other side of the road to a specific side street. This particular lane was dark, and narrow, lit dimly from above by the darkest remnant of the twilight sky. Everything else was mere silhouettes--- parked electric bikes, open doorways, an air conditioner outdoor unit, and brimming garbage cans. Only the sound of her footsteps, and of water leaking from overflow pipes disturbed the silence in the alleyway.
I walked exceptionally cautiously here, maintaining an even greater distance. To subdue the sounds of my walking footsteps, I dragged my feet as I walked along. I crouched lower, closer to the damp ground, to avoid being seen. Chimasu's uneasiness and haste intrigued me. It was easy to tell she was headed somewhere she was forbidden. Even as she turned around the final bend to disappear from my view, she stole a last glance back at the alleyway to ensure she was alone. I was quick to hide behind the garbage cans, though. But I was interested way beyond the fact that she was skittish. It fascinated me to watch her head for the Mamedamachi market street because I knew all the shops at least at this end of the market would be closed for it was Marine Day. This narrow alleyway led to the last line of the shops in the town. Why is she headed here? Does Akihiro know about this?
I reached the end of the alleyway and turned around the curb. I was only ten seconds delayed because, by the time my search was complete, all I could grasp was a narrowly-missed, final glimpse of Chimasu as she disappeared through the entrance of an old-looking building. And she was gone.
I crossed the street and reached up to the building.
Strange! The doorway looks like it is abandoned. A grimy door it was with crumbling paint flakes that breathed neglect and instantly made one feel unwelcome. The words on the top although rotting in molds were clear--????????? (Wareta garasu saron) meaning "Broken glass Salon" in English. An abandoned salon, is it? It doesn't even look functional.
Must I step in? What if she finds out I am following her?! She will find out!
I stood there, debating my next move.
In five minutes, I saw the door fall inwards as if pushed by a gush of wind. I caught a glimpse of the interior. Yes! There was a mirror against the wall. This is a salon. But man! This sure as hell is abandoned. The gap in the doorway revealed a room choked with long cob-webs, molds, and pheromone smell. What on earth did she go in there for? This place is uninhabited!
Disgusted by the interior yet wildly curious about the mystery, I gathered the courage to push the door open, first lightly then faster. Nobody was there!
But, I was sure she had stepped in!
Aroused by curiosity, I stepped inside. As I pushed the door further, the loosely-attached lock scuttled to the floor.
So, this has been locked and abandoned for a while now!
It looked like the tattered remains of an old salon, with the seats furrowed, backrests ripped open, armrests wrung with linear cobwebs and molds growing everywhere, the hydraulic pump chairs struck me with a wave of repulsion.
The squalor nauseated me, and I was ready to drop the whole idea and step out when I spotted a cleavage in the opposite wall. It was a linear slit, camouflaged well by an expansive sheet of wood against it. I bent further to investigate. It was indeed an opening in the wall. I stepped forward and turned a little more and found that it was an open door, well hidden by the wood piece.
So this is a door!
So that's where she disappeared!
I felt interested again. The plan that began forming in my mind was inviting, yet carried risks and I took a moment to reflect on the chain of events that had led me here—- the recurring Sunday pattern of screams, broken glass, the girl rushing out of the front door of her house, her family oblivious to the deep-seated cut in her arm, the girl slapping her cut forearm against the log of wood, encountering her far away in a lone street on the outskirts of the town, and finally, secretly following her down a dark alleyway. The whole chain tempted me to make my next move.
I resumed my investigation and walked across the length of the salon, to the wooden plank. I pushed it aside and stepped right through the open door. It led to a dark, downward flight of stairs. What an eerie place!
Determined to get to the bottom of this, I used my mobile phone torchlight and climbed down, very slowly, one step at a time. The steps were steep, and the phone torchlight was only so much bright as to light up 3 steps ahead. I had no clue how many levels I needed to descend to get to the very bottom. But I kept moving down, the slap of every footstep making my heart miss a beat. I didn't hear any other sound except that.
The increasing darkness frightened me, but my temptation was too strong to stop me from climbing down. I trembled with every descent though, barely breathing as a new triad of stairs became visible the further I went, and it was clear that nothing startling emerged from the darkness.
Finally, I reached the bottom.
A total of 50 steps I had descended. What on earth is this place! I was stunned. Where is Chimasu?
Where am I?
What lies next?
Is it safe to go anymore?
I flashed my mobile phone light all over around me, and it met with rock walls all around, in different shades of grey and brown, streaked with white lines, and dripping water. But nowhere did I see a door. I pressed the walls to check if one of them fell back to reveal a passage or something. But they were all solid, hard, unmovable rocks. I was bewildered beyond measure!
Chimasu has disappeared completely!!!! This is a dead-end!
I sat crossed-legged over the rocky floor, glanced at the narrow sliver of light at the far top of the stairs and recollected the exact image of her disappearing into the salon, one last time. Pink skirt, brown baggy purse, laced converse shoes. That was what she had been wearing. The face and physique were unmistakable outside the nursery. And yes! That split-second glimpse round the curb belonged to her as well, I was sure! No doubt at all!
So, that left me with the conclusion—she has disappeared. Chimasu has vanished!
I shivered at the thought. The darkness all around me was frightening.
I didn't know what to do next. One thing was certainà My suspicions regarding the oddity in her antiques had been confirmed.
However, I felt I needed to give up.
Yet, on the other hand, my interest has been sparked to a whole new level!
What must I do? I was confused.
Suddenly, the darkness seemed to convince me to arise and leave.
I was stalled in incomprehension, and I sensed something else---terror.
Waves of fear that I had earlier muted while climbing down seized me hard.
I just sat there for a few more seconds and then stood up to scan the walls one more time.
I was about to get up when my hands brushed against something hollow at the bottom of the left-sided rock wall. Using my fingers, I traced this hollow higher, and it ended no more than 9 inches above the solid base. I flashed my phone torch at it and spotted something strange. It was a crawl-only tunnel!
What in the world!
This is a tunnel?
I crouched low on the ground, bent my neck below to bring it to the level of the floor of the tunnel, and my mind made a complex calculation. The width of the tunnel was just enough to accommodate a middle-aged medium girthed individual—- no more!! I flashed my phone torch-light 360 degrees around the rock floor to look for any other opening, and this was the only one!
This is no ordinary thing! So, this is where she disappeared! Now following her through it is definitely a daring task!
Twilight hours, cut forearm and sneaking through a secret exit in an abandoned salon to descend down 50 steps into a dark abyss to wriggle through a mysterious crawl-only tunnel into the dark nothingness— whatever it was that drove her to do this must be extremely important to her!
It goes without saying that Akihiro, Itsuki, and his wife have been excluded from any knowledge about this!
I contemplated the matter for like four minutes. Slipping in through the opening seems dangerous!
How long is it—-nobody knows!
What if the wall breaks over me?
What if I have trouble breathing on the way?
Why if I am unable to return?
And then, a particular thought arrested me hard——> what if she is in trouble? Her cut forearm flashed before my eyes and stilled my thumping heart a moment!
I breathed deeply for another 2 minutes.
And then, I took the plunge, hoping hard that it would be impossible to get my well-built physique through the hole which would invariably leave me with no option but to turn back. I straightened myself to a prone and began my crawl into the darkness. To my dismay, the tail-end-entry allowed my stifled body with no resistance. However, it left no extra room for me to turn back.
And after that, I tried with all my might to trust that I would be okay. I shut out any thoughts of misadventure awaiting me at the other end of the tunnel, and instead, I filled my mind with memories of crawling in a parched culvert as a child or recalled the dexterity of the oil pipeliner emerging from the oil pipelines.
After crawling for about an entire 4 minutes, the pathway became increasingly constricted. The tunnel seemed to squeeze my body from front backward, like the interior of a slug-snout. I had moved too far ahead. I flashed my phone light ahead of me into the darkness when numerous reflections in geometric shapes, at different levels of brightness glimpsed in my view and then disappeared in the dark.
What was that?!
I flashed in another diagonal sweep, and they glimmered momentarily before vanishing again!
Looks like a source of light!
I moved ahead, my racing heart pulsing against my shirt as I frequently beat the frightening urge to question if there was anything behind my feet. Luckily, the shrunken girth of the tunnel reduced no further, and I continued crawling through.
Another five minutes passed.
Shoulders exhausted, my arms were close to collapsing, but I willed myself again with great difficulty this time. It ended in an even narrower oval opening. I was 4 crawl steps away from the end. It would be impossible for someone of my athletic built to reach until the end.
I stopped and flashed my phone torchlight ahead one last time, and a dazzling sheen of kaleidoscopically-arranged reflecting surfaces surfaced??? in my view. As soon as the sheen appeared, I stopped sweeping my arm and observed. What are these things? Crystals?
A dozen, shiny objects reflected in unison, triangular-shaped, geometrically bent around corners and definitely made of crystal. Diamonds are they?
Whatever those shiny objects are, the owner sure has taken some really extreme measures to ensure that the information of his place lies undisturbed.
I realized that any further movement ahead required me to take off my backpack and leather jacket. Without another thought, I removed both and flung my bag and jacket behind me. Impatient again, I wriggled ahead this time as the tunnel shifted closer and closer to my skin until I reached the dark opening. By then, the tunnel had dangerously closed in against my body, and all I could do was pop my head through the opening and no more.
The scene I saw on the other side is something I will never forget!
My gaze came to rest on a cosmic spectacle, an architectural exemplar, unlike anything I have ever seen before.
Arched columns skirted the verandah edge of an enormous mansion's central room. On the other side of the verandah was a hollow, the bottom of which I couldn't raise myself to see from my restrictive position. Everything inside, from old master paintings to tapestries to carpets to pieces of furniture, the walls, doors, floors, and engravings in the ceiling, was built out of a variegated assemblage of finely broken glass pieces.
Tongues of broken glass hugged the floor right outside the tunnel—-the pointed sharp broken pieces forming an unwelcome greeting for human skin. How on earth did Chimasu tread over them!
The visibility was poor. However, the glass pieces glowed on their own. They filled the expansive room with a soft blue brilliance that was enough to allow me to grasp the magnificence.
And it looked empty! Nobody came about.
I watched, speechless, for a full five minutes, my eyes constantly searching for Chimasu.
Gradually my nape grew exhausted, and I slowly dropped my head until my cheeks touched the ground, and I sank over the floor breathing deeply, my eyes adjusting with the vertiginous ceiling studded everywhere with broken glass. I refrained from craning my neck any further inside since that hurt.
The silence, strangeness, and the inaccessibility of the place overwhelmed me until extreme exhaustion took over, and I closed my eyes.
I wonder how many minutes or hours passed like that!
The sound of dripping water from somewhere in the ceiling echoed through the room.
At one point, a cold wind slapped straight across my face, and my eyes shivered to open up.
They met with a brilliant, parasol-like blue light. It came through the opposite-sided balustrade, straddling across the central deep hollow of the room. A blue-robed, old man, his face apparently singed with millions of bluish sparks, was holding out a rectangular piece of object to the darkness in the front of him. I was petrified by his skin. They shone like the galaxy except that this time it was in a human body form. It was hard to make his face out, which was hidden behind a corner acorn cap. Besides, I had too little space around me to wriggle to a favorable position, so I only recognized the form as one belonging to an old man with a long beard but with arguably out worldly skin.
Is that the owner of this palatial mansion? I wondered!
What on earth is he holding in his hands?
Before I could contemplate far too long, a set of dark black hands emerged into the parasol-like light and received the rectangular object from it. The hand-like silhouette was followed by the form and the shape of a human….NO IT's a girl----CHIMASU!!!!
There she is!!!
Struggling through the scarceness of space around me, I tried clamping my mouth shut in astonishment!
I was left speechless seeing a person from a familiar world there in the presence of ethereal lights and this construction of out worldly proportions.
What is all this? I kept staring at them. Then she moved, and to my horror, her steps were directed towards the crawl-only tunnel! She was coming towards me!!
Seeing this, I swiftly overcame all the exhaustion, shot a final piercing glance in her direction, and withdrew my head from the head-end of the tunnel.
Swiftly, I crawled backward, lifting my arms and feet instead of dragging them to numb the sounds of my skin against the solid ground. All the while, I kept my eyes at the glass beads skirting the tunnel end to see if Chimasu's feet came into view. I wanted to hurry. Unfortunately, the narrowness of the tunnel forced me to slow down and balance a moderate level of swiftness with every stealthy motion. After that, I tried a thousand different ways to coax myself out of the frightening possibility of being detected. I didn't stop for a moment and scurried through the nerve-wracking anticipation of watching her feet appear into view.
Finally, I was out!
Just as I was about to lift myself up from the ground, I spotted a movement at the other end of the tunnel. And I knew she had entered.
After that, I didn't look back, I raced and raced fast up the stairs….. up and up …..
Panting heavily I climbed all 50 stairs in less than a minute and reached the top for a pause.
My heart thumped like drums, and I let it calm down for 3 seconds. Then, in a couple of quick leaps, I was out of the salon and back on the street, hurrying back the alleyway in haste, not turning back a second.
The day ended.
For the next couple of days, I neither looked at nor paid attention to the ongoings in Akihiro's family. I kept the eastside window shut on most days to drown any sound that filtered through the window. Perhaps, the knowledge of Chimasu's desperate antiques and the unsettling oblivion in the faces of the rest in the family made me dizzy. On holidays, I turned on the volume of J-Pop music in the eastside room, to drown any source of broken glass or scream sounds.
"You seem to have become a fan of J-Pop music. Finally, you like my taste!" Haruki noted one day.
"Yeah!" I said, giggling.
It was a Sunday afternoon, at 2p.m. Haruki came and sat on the couch next to me.
"I was thinking," he said, "That we could go and spend a night at Okuhita Onsen Umehibiki at "Oyamamachi Nishioyama, Hita Oita."
I reduced the volume of the music player to hear him speak.
"This refined hot-spring hotel is set on a wooded hillside. It is about 1 km away from both the Hita Highway and the Oyama River. This, of course, if you agree and have cut a deal with your Sous chef, perhaps, who you would have to request to run your Resutoran in your absence."
I piqued. The vacation would be a new venture, and definitely a release from all these recent strange discoveries.
As the song ended and the dead afternoon calm followed, I nervously focussed my gaze on Yuma, selecting fresh celery leaves, visible through the kitchen garden doorway.
I turned to look at my watch, It was 2:10 p.m. I pressed the next button in my player to replace the silence fast. I was sure I wanted to leave for the resort. The anticipation of the scream or the broken glass was plain and simple, unbearable.
"Absolutely!" I told Haruki.
Haruki stood up, looking smug in my unexpected consent. He walked off to the kitchen, picked up the fluffy brush, and began dusting the Wisteria-patterned jar I had brought from the town fair.
"Akari, you are extra bright and receptive since the last few days. Met an old friend or something,", he observed.
"Oh, no, nothing. I have been thrilled with business lately. So…" I lied.
"Oh, by the way, the resort provides a breathtaking view of the Hibiki Gorge. The plum factory nearby isn't very far away. Otasaki chan owns that very plum factory. In the mornings, we can stretch and do some Tai chi, immerse our languid selves into the pool that overlooks the Hibiki Gorge. By 7:30 a.m. their star class buffet will be ready for us. My mouth waters and tummy rumbles to even the homepage picture of only a part of the buffet. Their seasonal herbal teas made with fresh herbs are gathered in Oyama."
Then pausing to sneeze once, he continued, "In the afternoon we can take a stroll at Otasaki chan's Plum factory. The workers here are described as the most savagely meticulous amongst all the other Plum factory establishments. They work day and night tirelessly. I would love to see this undeterred order that produces the famous Umeboshi. C'mon! It will be exciting."
I thought about the matter deeply. Sounded very tempting, of course. Apart from the oddity in the Akihiro family, I didn't know of any other source of excitement recently. The Resutoran I loved to manage, however, running it was slowly losing the sparkling charm of my initial days, and a certain mundanity had begun creeping in. The mystery of Chimasu's story wasn't something I preferred trespassing into anymore, fearing the prospect of inviting any trouble in the process. In the midst of it all, Haruki's proposition was like a breath of fresh air.
"Done deal!" I said, leaping off the couch and running for Haruki to throw my arms around him.
The severe crash of a broken glass shook us up, and we pushed each other apart. My heart chilled. Chimasu again? Cut forearm? My mind ran amok in fear!
Instead, my eyes caught the same Wisteria-patterned jar Haruki had been dusting earlier in the kitchen. Yuma, the maid, white-faced with all her make-up, stood next to the kitchen counter, looking horrified.
"Madamu (???), I…..it just….The arm…..I didn't…..", Yuma said, cowering in guilt.
"Oh, nevermind! That arm needed replacement. I should've told you. It must've come loose when you lifted it.", Haruki reassured her, with a resigned sigh.
He diverted to another topic and said, "I got some Sesame seeds to garnish today for the stir-fried celery dish you are preparing."
Relief flooded over me, and I turned J-Pop on again in loud volume. I decided I would make this my new Sunday afternoon routine.
A week later.
At the Okuhita Onsen Umehibiki….
Haruki, upon reaching there, had raided the bathroom for the most part.
"How much after do I get to bathe?" I asked politely.
"Twenty more minutes, if that's alright with you. I promise.", he informed, a little apologetically.
"No worries. No need to hurry. I just asked," I said, sighing, and sank on the soft double bed.
The smoke from the Jacuzzi slithered through the bathroom door and danced around the Silver dollar plant, curling around its radiating circular leaves, trickling from it in soft, sinuous jets.
My tummy rumbled. I was hungry after a long night of sleep and a tiring swim in the pool.
The corridor outside the entrance door was clearly visible, and two attendants passed by, chatting and laughing.
"U-eitoresu! (??????)" I called out to one of the ladies, from my seating place on the couch and in two seconds I saw her tall, slender stature peering right outside my door.
Kite mo idesu ka," she asked politely????
The attendant entered wearing a Kimono-style uniform and holding a soft-looking, black bag by her side.
"Could we please order lunch in our room, with the view of the Hibiki Gorge outside?", I asked impatiently.
" Alright! Sure! That can be arranged."
Her friend, a young lad in a heavily gusseted uniform, followed her and stood outside the door. As our eyes met, he flashed me a smile and bowed gently.
" The view from our room is ridiculously stunning, and the comfort with our feathery sheets and the perfumes have spoilt us. My husband and I are emerging as bone loafers, "I said, laughing at my excessive need for explanation.
The attendant managed a fake chuckle.
"Alright! No problem! Any other help you need?"
"No! That'll do."
"Menyu o morae masu ka."
"?? Hai,….. ", I answered, still impatient.
They left happily.
Haruki emerged wearing his shirt and pants, hair wet.
"Gosh! It felt like heaven in there, Akari!"
"I know. My turn next."
"Yeah! Go for it!"
"I asked for the menu, though. They'll be bringing soon. I might go after that."
"Did they bring the newspaper?"
"No, it must be hanging outside the door. I'll get it."
"It's alright, Akira dear. Why don't you get refreshed? I'll get it. Plus, regarding the menu, I'll ask them to bring it again once you are out," he said and strode across the bathroom threshold to reach for the entrance door handle.
In his hurry, he stubbed his toe hard against the wooden luggage-rack and collapsed to the floor.
I leaped forth to reach for him.
"Haruki! Oh dear! You are hurt!"
"Ouch! Aaahhh…..!" he moaned.
I helped him get up and lie down on the bed.
"Rest a little, my dear! We'll get the menu ordered. Don't worry! Don't run around and hurt yourself now. It is not a sprain, right?"
"It hurts now so I can't really make out. Ugh!", he said cringing in pain. "I believe some rest will help me distinguish better."
We shifted the "Plum factory" trip for the next day. After the delicious meal of seasoned rice and soup, Haruki went off to sleep. I, on the other end of the bed, sat wide awake. In the stillness, the disturbing scenes from behind the abandoned salon swarmed my mind unwarranted. I decided to step out of the room and divert my mind.
The corridor stretched for at least 20 steps to the right and 30 to the left.
The soft-carpeted trail was optically spacious in numerous long reflections from partner-sets of edge-engraved mirrors hugging the lengths of equally-distant opposite walls. At one specific point, a mirror-set was missing one of its pair. Little glowing, inverted spindle-shaped, floor-lamps dotted the corridor, placed between neighboring doorways and at the farthest corner a comfortable Divano couch was visible next to a tall Watashitsu Tatami Lamp.
There was silence. And I felt peace. I stopped thinking and observed the whole world around me. First, I took a deep breath and released my thoughts. Taking the left side, I walked in my towel shoes. A specific room light threw a diffuse triangle of indoor-light over the carpet a few steps ahead. Doesn't look like a boarder's room. Oh, that must be an utility-closet! I lost interest in it and turned to look ahead. I really wanted to snuggle on the couch at the end of the corridor. I had forgotten the pleasure of lazing away all by myself for a while now. I felt like my child-self momentarily and trotted playfully over the hallway.
Suddenly, a bright glare caught my eyes, and I hissed in repulsion and drew an arm to cover my eyes. What was that?
"Oh! Watch your way, Sir!" a compelling voice emitted from the doorway.
I crouched aside and turned to face him.
Oh, my Goodness!
It was Akihiro!
"Ah...Aaah!"I stuttered for a moment before finding my words, "Oh my God! It's you, Akihiro."
By then, all the peace that I gathered since the trip dissipated and the confounded stories of his family had come to take its place.
I said nothing at first. Only admonished my ill-luck!
"Dear Akihiro! What a pleasant surprise!"
"Why, hello, Akira! It's wonderful to see you here!" he greeted me in clear happy words.
I answered delightfully, disguising my nervousness with every word I breathed.
"Wow! So you are here on vacation?"
"No, Akari. I was called for some work. You do know I earn a living by repairing broken glass, right? The regular repair-guy has fallen ill, and the other has left for a vacation, so when the service-manager of this place called for a replacement, this time I had neither of my workmen with me. I didn't want to annoy the service guy of Okuhita Onsen, Uh! Uh! No way! So, I came here myself!"
Then, dunking his gloved, left hand through the scores of broken mirror pieces lying on the floor, he lifted a handful in the cup of his hand and held them out to me, saying,
"That mirror outside is broken. I can repair it in a single day."
He left me with a prideful smile before dropping all the glass pieces back into the heap.
I was incredulous.
"Glass mirror can be fixed in a day?? I knew he worked with glass, of course, but reattaching broken pieces---really?"
"I see!" I said, dragging the second word a few seconds longer as I tried piecing together this discovery with my earlier ones.
He noticed the question written over my face. "Loctite powder with a pinch of a rare hybrid Aluminium----this is a very rare sealant I use to merge broken edges with one another."
The conversation lulled.
My curiosity poked my insides. I was seized with a searing desire to probe into his knowledge of Chimasu's whereabouts. Now, how does one bring her into the picture?
For a while, I simply stared at him, and the glass he was sticking together.
"Well, how long is it going to take you? There are so many pieces!"I asked, stalling for time.
"I believe this will take me longer than usual
And then, I released a tactful ruse.
"You must work really hard, traveling all the distance. Itsuki and Chimasu must be so proud of a father like you!"
His face grew pale, and his smile vanished.
"Hmmm…," he said and paused to flash me a blank smile. Then, he resumed his work.
Carefully choosing my words, I pushed him, "Don't mind me asking, everything alright at home?"
"Not really. Chimasu has been repeating strange things lately."
My ears shot up. I know where this is headed.
"Strange things? Really? Like what?"
"Bad things about Itsuki and his wife. I am uncomfortable to share. Nevermind."
"That's alright," I said, suddenly sounding not so sure. About Itsuki and his wife? Where on earth is this coming from?
This must be another story. Not the one I was looking for.
I sighed. "Don't worry. I didn't mean to force you to reveal anything. I hope things work out at home. Chimasu is a good person believe me. I saw her study at the station platform, once. I believe the train station falls on the way towards her school. Besides, another day, she was out helping a poor beggar on the streets. Kind girl," I said, feeling satisfied with the conviction in my false stories, hoping it would bring her mention back into the conversation.
Akihiro just stared at me for a while.
After a long awkward pause, I quit glancing at him, told him ‘Sayonara,' and retreated on my route.
The plum factory, although intriguing, bored me soon enough. The sorting, desiccating, and processing were fascinating, but the orchard next to it seemed to leap out of the page. I excused myself from Haruki and pressed Okazaki chan for a guest walk in his Plum Orchard.
We were just in time for harvest, and every single tree seemed to beg bystanders to relieve them of their purple load.
"You needn't request, dear friend. We have a settlement with the Okuhita Onsen Umehibiki to allow tourists to come and visit here," he said warmly.
As Okazaki explained the steps taken to obtain so luscious a harvest, my eyes spotted a lady wearing a long black skirt and a white-collared, grey shirt plucking plum off a neighboring tree. Her form looked somewhat familiar, and her long hair behind was tied with a shiny pink ribbon. It strongly rung a bell! However, it seemed impossible to place her with her back turned towards me.
"If we didn't use the zip tie and the sticks to keep the trees propped up, the branches would have broken with all this fruit load," he kept explaining regardless of the diversion in my attention.
I kept looking at the woman plucking the plums. She was assuming great pains to look about her as she hoarded bunches of plums into her backpack.
Where had I seen her, I wondered!
While I was hoping the lady would turn to face us, Haruki had finished with his tour of the factory and joined us in the orchard.
"Hey, what are you both up to?" he said, feeling accomplished and deeply satisfied. "Wow! What a beautiful orchard this is," he said, looking around.
"Nothing, you know. Just marveling at these tempting, pink plumps," I replied sheepishly.
"Would you like to taste one?" Okazaki offered at one point.
"Yes, why not?!" Haruki answered promptly, always excited with anything related to the plums.
I excused myself to walk up to the woman I had spotted.
Her form was familiar from behind, and I was rigged with a supercharged urge to find out who she was. I swerved around five trees in my left row and turned around it to enter another linear clearing before crouching low to bring my face to my feet. Then with my body bent, I crossed another row of plum trees until I could see her face clearly. It was a boarder from the Okuhita Onsen Umhibiki. Her antics invited an impressive memory from the previous night. Both me and Haruki had spotted her stealthily slip designer chopsticks from the edge of her table into her bag, unaware of our gaze pointed straight at her. Her terror noticing the back of a steward standing only inches away from herself had set us to a round of uncontrollable laughter to the point where Haruki began thumping the table hard letting his chopsticks slip away as well.
So, she is a thief! First, the chopsticks, then the plums!
I drew close and greeted with a smile, "????? (Konnichiwah!)"
She glanced at me hesitantly, slightly confused by a stranger's friendly greeting and released her hand off the plum-bunch.
"If I remember correctly you must be staying at the Okuhita Onsen Umehibiki, right?" I asked, pretending to have spotted her incidentally.
"Yes, you are right. I am staying there with my father," she said, as she composed herself back into a visitor at the orchard.
Before I could ask more, she replied, "Oh! That dreadful smell outside my door. I really wanted to stay inside the room and have a quiet time with my father. But that smell somehow spilled into our room, and the only spot of fresh air we could own was out in the verandah."
"Oh I'm sorry," I said, feeling uncertain what to say next.
"Oh, but why didn't you complain to room service?"
"I didn't know I could!"
"Yes, there was something broken they said, and that object needed repair. So there wasn't much I could do about it seemingly," the lady complained.
Immediately, my thoughts reached a connection. Broken object?
I asked eagerly, "What broken object was it?"
"Something made of glass! I don't know. Anyways, where are you from? I am from Kurume."
Haruki called me from afar.
The lady stared at me while waiting for an answer.
Only two words stuck to my lips.
The last night of the trip.
I snuggled comfortably next to Haruki. His arms that held me from behind loosened as he dipped deeper into sleep, and he breathed heavily. It was a beautiful day of hiking and camping, concluded with a well-ordered Yaki Udon and Chum salmon. Only the pickled ginger lingered in my breath as I ran past the entire round of fun and frolic we had immersed ourselves in over the past few days. As the images blurred, a deep sense of satisfaction followed, and I felt released. Then there was silence. Only Haruki's breathing pulsed at intervals.
No! There was something else!
A screeching sound! A cat! What's that?
I didn't care!
Must be some boarder arriving late hours.
I checked the watch. It was 2 a.m. at night.
I yawned deeply, then stretched to a pleasant slumber.
Then silence ensued.
The clock ticked on.
Soon I got meshed in an unsettling dream----a hungry vagabond crying heavily down some familiar street.
He was choking in his cries and spittle as he shivered in the night chill. His cough rattled in fit-like motions as he rubbed his hands against his tummy, which throbbed in two curves around the malnourished navel.
I woke up, horrified, and looked around!
The sound of crying persisted. It was outside my room.
I left my sheets and rushed for the door. I opened it and looked both ways down the corridor. There was nobody around. The sound came from my left. I blinked away the first winks of sleep and stepped out in my towel shoes.
As I had suspected, the sound came from the utility closet. On the way, I saw that the missing glass piece straddling across the wall had been replaced.
Akihiro was it?
I crept very very slowly and came around the edge of the doorway and peered stealthily inside.
The scene that my eyes met with seemed to toss all my worlds together, and I nearly gasped out a piercing cry. The familiar smell of decayed rubber or some liquid filled the space.
Akihiro was sitting on the floor and holding a mirror. The glass shards had been removed from the floor. In the mirror played a scene like in a movie. It showed a scene with Itsuki, his wife, and Chimasu. Itsuki, Akihiro's son, was torturing Chimasu with a range of swears. Chimasu, who was 15 years younger than her brother, sat at a corner of her bed, bleeding tears and sobbing in shame and guilt.
The abuses were harsh and crushing--- "You don't deserve to be a member of this family,"
"You are full of nonsense," "Mother left because of you," "Even father secretly dislikes you," "You don't do anything for the family," "You really are a worthless case and will never go far."
Once Itsuki had finished his round of abuses, his wife, Rio, jumped in. She lifted her arm and was about to slap straight across Chimasu's face, but Chimasu sank away at a corner of the bed. Rio shattered the momentary silence with the ear-splitting words of hate that she flung at her like landslide rocks sliding across a hill crushing the houses below. No amount of sobbing, wailing or reddening of Chimasu's eyes calmed Itsuki and Rio. They were taking pleasure in smothering Chimasu with hateful words. The little girl coughed in her wails and soaked her frock in tears. Itsuki and Rio were absolutely unconcerned, their accusations building one over the other, each dirtier than the last----like beating a dead body to a pulp, except with words.
Akihiro shivered with his trembling right arm placed over his heart. Tremors coursed through his whole body.
My eyes had stopped moving, stopped blinking, shutting and stopped roving-----they had suddenly turned lifeless.
What is all this?
What the hell is up with his family?
What kind of mirror is this?
The thoughts in my mind didn't transmute to words.
I felt static in time.
Akihiro's lap I saw was soaked in his tears. The writhing of his back and the slow pangs of moans from his mouth suggested he was feeling shattered by the horrific discovery. I felt the urge to throw up and pulled myself back and ran away to my room.
Once inside, I climbed the bed, joined Haruki for a long night. Sleep arrived only hours after staying awake in the darkness.
‘I was never associating with the Akihiro family again'---This was the final thought in my head.
Having returned from the trip, Sunday afternoons I stayed busy in the rooms on the west or listened to loud J-Pop music. Haruki and I switched some of our household roles, and I assumed some of the cooking at home and immersed myself more on that. I informed Yuna to disregard any activity audible in Akihiro's house, particularly on weekends. Yuna only needed instructions, and she followed them without question.
I kept Haruki in the dark regarding the whole matter since I would come off as paranoid. What really mattered was that this matter got thoroughly buried and died with time. Slowly and steadily within two weeks, things normalized and the Chimasu story began slipping into the past.
On one Saturday evening, I returned home late, exhausted from dismissing the heated argument between Emon and one of the culinary internees. Emon was short-tempered, and his outbursts had begun escalating to a whole new level. It frustrated me more often than not. After work, I desired no more than to return back home to ease my weary mind. I longed for Haruki that day for I felt history really was repeating itself---another Sous chef was going to take down my business apparently. Life seemed unfair.
After I returned home, I curled into the folding couch with a cup of boiling hot coffee. Haruki was still at work, and Yuma had gone for a nap. I wished I could talk to someone. I was inclined to awaken Yuma but didn't have the heart to. I shut my eyes close and stilled my mind. The anger was still bustling inside me.
"Akari Obasan?" a sweet voice called from somewhere.
I jolted straight up and shot open my eyes. "What?!" I yelled in fright, expecting the room would be empty.
Straight across my living room, next to the half-closed door that led to the Engawa I saw two
exuberantly bright eyes staring straight at me----- it was Chimasu!
Ohhhh…. Myyyy Goooddnesss! I leaped off my couch into feral position until I realized it made me look strange. She was just a human, not an apparition!
"Fear me not, Obasan! I won't hurt!" she said, having read my mind, "I only strode into your home to communicate with you alone. Whenever I tried entering through the front door, I was told you were out of the station. I knew you weren't gone since I saw you step off for work every day. This is why I took the open kitchen garden door."
She paused, but before I could say anything, she continued again, "Every Sunday afternoon after father left for work, I was left to deal with them all alone at home. I am only 15, and anything I do wrong or against their wishes sets her off, and Itsuki hates me as much as her. Rio and Itsuki slapped me many times in the past, but their words had already cut through my skin like daggers slitting my skin apart. I tried telling father hundreds of times. He always brushed it aside, saying I was throwing a tantrum over little fights with my brother---I wasn't. You saw it yourself in the mirror, didn't you, I wasn't. I cried, I screamed to make them stop, but they wouldn't stop----it excited them more. Eventually, though they would get exhausted and leave me alone. It couldn't happen on other days since I would be at school.
"Naruhito tenno used to be father's friend when mother lived with us. Father stopped caring for him because of a misunderstanding between them.
I know you had followed me that day. I'll be honest, I was allowing it. I wanted people to know of my pain. I go there often. Naruhito looks human, but he has been alive a while now. He has lived many lives within that palace he built 100 decades ago. He made it because a specific yokai he had met in his dream promised him that his ailing mother would survive if he built a palace of broken glass for him. The yokai had provided Naruhito with 100 million broken glass pieces to help make the entire castle. These glass pieces exude a soft blue light when in proper alignment. The pale blue colors indicate the palace is alive. The palace being alive means his mother also stays alive. I never saw her. I believe she lies hidden in one of the rooms.
But there is a catch in the story. After staying alive for a while, the glass pieces eventually die. And with that, the palace withers and fades away. So the articles need to be replaced so that the spell persists. You see the problem, so long as the palace stays alive, his mother stays alive!
Before mother and father separated, Naruhito disguised himself as a hotel owner and traced out the glass industries in the city. He and my father crossed paths when I was only six. They had been friends for a long while now, and through this friendship, a regular supply of glass piece-replacement was always ensured. You guessed it, my father supplied it! Then, their friendship broke at one point, and the source was gone. That was before mother left home. It was then that he revealed the truth to me one day on my way back from school. I was as thunderstruck with regards to the place as you. I knew desperation had pulled him to reveal his secret. Father, after all never had any clue about any of this----neither the palace nor my secret invitation to his den. He told me that if I kept offering him little glass pieces from my father's workplace, it would be possible for him to keep his mother alive.
Out of generosity and pity.
After my brother, Itsuki and his wife forced their hatred on me, and father dismissed the story like dust off his shoulder, I went over to Naruhito one evening after school and cried very hard.
I really had nobody to talk to---nobody believed me!
I was well aware that he didn't care, either. Over the years, I had noticed that Naruhito was tough, and no amount of emotion seemed to affect him. He only cared about his mother, nothing else. Yet somehow, he seemed to melt at my tears and offered me a complicated solution. He offered me some of his old discarded spelled mirror pieces and told me I had to place them in the presence of the scenes I wanted the world to see---for me, it was my brother and his wife trashing me over and over again. If I did that, the mirror would capture every scene like in a movie-roll. However, to reproduce the scenes, I would have to break the mirror with my hand and get all the broken mirror pieces reattached---if a single mirror piece were missed, the images would be lost with it.
Now you see the connection with my cut forearm? I remember you had followed me that day. I saw from the train. I had noticed the befuddled expression on your face.
So, every Sunday after I was bullied, I screamed. They had no idea that the mirror kept hidden from their view soaked all the images in succession. After they left the room and which would usually be half an hour later, I would break the mirror, I feared they would come back hearing the sound. Truth is, they never cared.
Breaking the glass was very hard. Naruhito said I had to use my forearm, that there was no other way to do it. I couldn't use a stick or rock to break it, it had to be my forearm. That was why I practiced hardening my forearm for days together, by endlessly beating it against that log outside in our Engawa, mostly in the early mornings when nobody saw me.
I broke the glass several times. But it was tremendously difficult to get my glass pieces fixed by father. I had to cook up stories, most of which were unconvincing. He even dismissed them saying he would replace the mirror with a new one---which he never did! You must be wondering if Naruhito was keen on supplying these bewitched mirrors to me—Yes, he was, surprisedly! He offered me a total of seven such. Despite the shooting pain in my cut forearms I used every day of the following week to harden my forearm with all the strength in the world, knowing the next Sunday I would be tortured again in the absence of father. I don't know if my face showed it, but every time I struck the log in the Engawa, my eyes would water, and I would wince like a beaten urchin.
Every time I broke the glass, I had to get father to repair it so he could see what the mirror carried.
This was an impossible task I knew, and as luck would have it, I could never convince father. The rare times that I convinced him, something happened, and a piece remained missing, and the scene died with it.
So sadly, all the attempts failed-----except of course the seventh one. I was gobsmacked when my father came home two weeks back and hugged me with tears in his eyes, apologizing incessantly.
Did you praise me or something? Because he told me that he had met you at the Okuhita Onsen Umehibiki where you had raved about me.
I believe your praises saved my life. Father never believed in magic, but his alarm stretched way beyond the magic of the mirror he had repaired so willingly after hearing your praise----his alarm was tied to the scenes!
The truth is out!
But this time it is not just my work that made it work!
It is you!
I cannot even begin to explain to you how deeply pressed for luck I was this time---Naruhito had voiced in anguish that this one final mirror was the last of his enspelled ones, he had no more. So that was my only chance.
So THANK YOU, Akari Obasan. "
Chimasu rubbed the tears off her eyes and smiled at me.
She turned to leave.
I was stilled in time. No words came out.
Before escaping through the kitchen garden door, she turned about her shoulder one last time and said her final reassuring words, "From now on you will have peaceful Sundays. No broken glass, no screams! Nothing to disturb you."
----Written By Nilanjana Haldar (thoroughly enjoyed writing it)