Shizuku slammed her notebook on her desk and erupted in a roar no resident of Valhalla could match in puissance or projection.
"Yuuuuko!" she cried. The friend in question was too busy inspecting her perfectly nice face in her hand-glass to respond. In another plea for attention, Shizuku pressed her hands over her ears and thrashed her head. "I can't take it anymore!"
"What do you mean?" Yuuko dabbed her cheek with a manicured nail.
“I can’t do this!”
At last, nonplussed Yuuko faced Shizuku. “This?”
“This!” Shizuku gestured wildly about the various landmarks in her room. Her hands lingered on the bin overflowing with paper scraps the longest. “It’s too much! I don’t… It’s not—”
“Shizuku!” Yuuko crossed her arms and lifted an eyebrow. “You’re not making any sense.”
“Aaaah,” Shizuku groused, rubbing her temples, “it’s the story I’m working on! I can’t get it right. The beginning doesn’t make sense, let alone the ending, and there’s a bit in the middle you’d think was written by a kindergartner. On top of that, there’s this really, really important chapter, in which the heroine meets the Baron for the first time, I’m trying to rewrite, but I don’t know how to go about it the way I want.” She began to rub harder. “And sometimes I can’t find the words to say what I mean, and it’s just—it’s just one of the worst feelings. Oh, what do I do!”
“Maybe I could help,” Yuuko suggested solicitously, tilting her shoulder towards Shizuku’s. “Will you let me read a bit?”
Shizuku flinched and shook her head. “Not until it’s finished.”
“And when will that be, you think?”
“Well, I’ve set the deadline a decade from now,” Shizuku chortled, somewhat bitterly. “If I don’t finish it by then, I may as well give up on it.”
Yuuko piled her hands on her lap and went dead serious, despite Shizuku’s laughter. “Hmm, you’re sure these moods aren’t because of that?”
“Nah,” Shizuku lied. She reached for her Totoro pillow to sink her face into it.
“Come on, you’ve got to tell me where it hurts if you expect me to help!”
But what if there was no fount of malaise bubbling up in Shizuku that had caused her writer’s block; what if she were simply no good?
Oh! Shizuku forwent the comfortable softness of Totoro’s embrace and careened back up with the sudden realisation.
“Could it be—” Shizuku gasped, and went gelid with dread, “—could it be that I’ll never get any further? Am I as good now as I’ll ever be?” Then her head returned to the aegis of Totoro’s belly.
“Shi-zu-ku!" Yuuko’s lips gathered into a moue. "You're too depressing! You ought to look on the bright side.”
“What bright side?”
“Your short story won that award the other week!”
“Yeah?” Shizuku’s countenance re-emerged from the cushion once more. "What of it?"
“‘What of it’? You got a story published in a magazine! That’s a very impressive achievement, you know…”
“Well, I was lucky. The words came to me; I didn’t have to search for them. That sort of inspiration comes and goes. Right now, it’s gone.” Shizuku thumped her head with her fists. “Writing a novel this long is different, besides.” She swung her legs. “It’s too early yet for me to rest on my laurels. I’ve got seventy years to go. Eighty, if I reach the grand old age great-granny did. Which I intend on doing! If the stress hasn’t taken years off my life already…”
“C’mon, Shizuku. It’s better not to be so morose.” Yuuko rose akimbo. “The way I see it, you're already on your way to realising your dreams!" Then her left arm, like the wing of a plane, glided through the air with a flourish. "I can see the headlines now: Tsukishima Shizuku, Japan's best beloved authoress!"
"You're naïve, Yuuko." Shizuku suspired and turned her forehead into her pillow again. "It's not that easy."
"Silly, I know that!” Yuuko waxed solemn, knelt, and pried Totoro from Shizuku’s grip so she could clasp her friend’s hands in hers. Her intense eyes locked onto Shizuku’s. “But you’ve got the gift and the magic touch. And the perseverance to make something really special from those things. Everybody who read that story thinks so.” Yuuko squeezed Shizuku’s fingers. “If you won’t believe in yourself, I will." Her hold tightened. “Really.”
Yuuko nodded. "Un.”
An anvil gladly lifted from Shizuku’s sternum. She closed her eyes and counted herself in for five deep breaths. Then she opened them again and exhaled, relieved.
Yuuko shook her head and smiled. “It’s what friends are for. You’d believe in me too, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course I would.” Shizuku’s thumbs pressed into Yuuko’s palms. “I believe in you right now.” Her lips became parallel to Yuuko’s grin. “Always have, always will.”
Yuuko managed another smile, but this one was small and sort of wobbly. “Then do you suppose that I’m good enough to receive that scholarship I applied to? I hope I manage to find some decent sunscreen by the time they get back to me…”
“For sure! You always study the hardest out of everyone. They’d be out of their minds not to give it to you.” Shizuku grinned devilishly. “I can’t believe you’re still worked up about the freckles, though. I think they’re cute. I bet Sugimura does as well.”
“You don’t have to be so nice about me,” Yuuko murmured, her gaze receding, “and my, well, you know. I mean, sure, Sugimura-kun did say he liked them, but…” She put her fingers under her eyes. “Awwww, Shizukuuuu!”
Shizuku immediately seized the opportunity to ameliorate Yuuko’s worsening spirits, first prying her hands away to squeeze the cheeks beneath.
“Say,” she then cooed, “there’s this character in one of my stories I’m writing. Can I tell you a bit about her?”
“Go for it,” Yuuko said. It was her turn to grope for the pillow.
“Well, foremost, she’s a princess. With fabulous fashion sense, by the way. All of her many friends around the world love her fiercely. Despite that, though, she lets her freckles bother her so much. She’s summoned every eminent mage in the land to cast them away! Yet none have been able to do so. Little does she know it’s because her freckles are magic.”
Shizuku pretended to sprinkle fairy dust over Yuuko, who was surprisingly still oblivious to the allegory. Was she too distracted to ‘connect the dots’?
How ironic, Shizuku thought, and continued regardless: “They’re actually birthmarks arranged exactly like a certain constellation: the key to unlocking a super awesome spell to save her queendom when it falls into despair. So the princess joins the lead on her quest to lift the entire world from a magicless existence. The heroines are successful in the end, of course, so the princess marries the national cloudball team captain, earns her happily ever, and learns to love her own pretty flecked face—”
“Hey!” Recognition finally entered into Yuuko's countenance. She clasped Shizuku’s shoulder, which was, by then, quivering with mirth.
“That face!” Shizuku crowed. “Oh, Yuuko, you should see the look on it! Priceless, truly priceless.”
“Is it really that funny?” Yuuko griped, but Shizuku laughed so indefatigably and contagiously that within half a minute Yuuko joined in, and all prospective acrimony between the two was forgotten.
For the rest of the morning they settled into desultory chatter. Yuuko leafed through some glossy issues of Animage and an old Ribon tankoubon; whilst Shizuku, intermittently looking down to glean her copies of stories by Miyazawa and Souseki, talked about her various reads for the day and her excitement for next week’s hanami festival. Later, when Yuuko returned the manga to their shelves, she rhapsodised over her invariable love for Sugimura-kun, her adventures with their erstwhile middle-school classmates, and the lemon sundress she presently lusted after, flittering now and then from topic to topic until a call interrupted their fun.
Upon answering her cell, a blush started from the centre of Yuuko’s cheeks and continued to blossom till the ruddiness suffused even the entirety of her ears. Her speech quickened and quietened so much that Shizuku did not catch a word of what she said in the minute she took to become red and grinning and done.
"It's Sugimura-kun!" Yuuko gasped, hands jerking and fingers wiggling about. Oh. Shizuku should have known. “I think he wants to go out.”
At the words ‘go out’, Shizuku unexpectedly brushed past the press of a great shadow.
It was one left by a memory, totally involuntary, a year old now, in which Shizuku had her arms wrapped around Seiji’s middle as he cycled them up for a picnic by the Chiba peninsula.
Shizuku licked her now glum, slack mouth, remembering, then, the taste of the lopsided Banoffee pie she’d baked for the occasion, the fuchsian waves at twilight, drowsy Seiji’s warm head on her shoulder, and the waning sun offshore.
"Ah." Shizuku covered her eyes with her wrist, and wished to herself Seiji was still here to take her out to dinners and drives and dates. Oh, the ignominy of an absent lover! "You'd better get going, then. Tell him I said 'hi'."
“I could ask him if he’d rather go tomorrow…”
“Unnecessary.” Shizuku girded her teeth, swallowing the shadow back. She then put her hands to Yuuko’s shoulders and walked her to the door.
Yuuko fetched her wide-brimmed flowered sunhat from the hall tree. “Are you sure? I do worry about you.”
“Whatever for? There’s absolutely nothing you need to worry about.” Shizuku did her best to smile. “Thanks for the books and the box of anpan."
“There’s no need.” Yuuko blushed a little before she spoke up again, “I’ll call you tonight, unless I’m home late.”
“Please do. Don’t worry too much about the time; I’ll probably still be up way past midnight.” Shizuku tried not to grin too slyly. “Is that all?”
Straightening her back and evening out her clothes, Yuuko nodded before she waved Shizuku farewell, picked up her handbag, and silently shut the door behind her.’
Yuuko’s movements were always so sleek and elegant and decorous that Shizuku often suspected she had been wonderful princess in some past life. The kindness characteristic of Yuuko was one of the best marks any regent could brandish. With pride, Shizuku remembered how selfless Yuuko had been when she’d ditched Sugimura during New Year’s to storm through her door and haul her out of her pit of Seiji-less doom and gloom. That had been a wonderful, enriching experience. From then on Shizuku was sure a life without Yuuko would be just as dreary as a life without Seiji.
Princess Yuuki emerged from Yuuko’s silhouette now. Her sparkly cascading gown and shimmering silver crown dazzlingly framed her star-speckled face and steadfast heart. Shizuku counted in seven of Yuuko’s soft footsteps before her presence evanesced. All became silent and still in the room, save for the billowing breeze and the tinkling of the furin Shizuku had hoisted and fixed to her window last summer. Perfect weather for writing.
All break long Shizuku revolved her life around the activity she hated and loved most. Amidst the diaphanous evening hazes native to spring, her mind drifted towards distant worlds, for it became a place likewise mantled in mists; she spent sleepless nights hunched over her desk, stocked with chips and taiyaki and pocky, armed with pencils sharp as pins, writing, filling her time with acts of passion and creation. She was subsequently wont to dream away her afternoons, and, through them, resume her journeys through Iblard.
As was typical of Shizuku, she embarked upon her new chapter with both exasperation and zeal, but within two hours she was rubbing her eyes and yawning as often as a housecat basking in the sun. Before long, she crawled into bed, waiting for sleep as her eyes wavered in the direction of the living-room-cum-kitchen.
Time and torpor amplified the particularity of everything: the lit dust filtering in through the window, the roseate smell of the hanging laundry, the untouched memorabilia on the shelves. Shizuku began to think about people, places, pasts. Her mother, always here and there, absorbed in her pursuit of her PhD; her father, the most consistent resident of their house, smoking with the cigar out the window; Shiho, four years ago, hauling her life out their home and into her own future; the aroma of ramen, the most sacred victual of all; and Seiji, kissing Shizuku in the doorway, after they’d surmounted their initial mutual shyness and began to spend hours anchored to each other, sometimes talking, sometimes basking in silent company, which would be occasionally interrupted by a shuffle of fabric or press of lips or soft bumbling giggle.
Shizuku’s thoughts continued flittering this way and that way until she fell into the nicest dream she’d had yet, in which she was on some uncharted Iblardian island, far away from the Shop of Light and its walls of opal and moonstone and windowsills festooned with petunias and primroses, wherein the Baron and his beloved Louisa had been born; past the Valley of Starlets, whose steadiest celestial bodies cemented the foundations of airborne homes; and in neither Suteria, land of the water; nor Takatsungu, home of the laputas, but somewhere she herself had yet to discover.
The place faced the lapis lazuli sea, just beyond a lofty orchard that yielded fruits that hung heavy and colourful, like geodes, amongst dense round foliage affixed to voluminous boughs. Butterflies with miniature tapestries for wings caressed the vibrant calandivas in bloom there. The delectable, phantasmagorical mushrooms that sprouted under those either tasted of toffee apple or tofu nuggets. And the many benches lined across the esplanade, upon closer inspection, were actually crabs and tortoises inclined to circuitous chatter once you sat on them. Such large flora and colourful fauna did not exist anywhere back on earth as far as Shizuku was concerned, nor did the hover-buses and magic trams and rainbow fields and other biotas and itineraries so ubiquitously found in Iblard.
“Ah, Iblard!” Shizuku greeted to no one in particular before sallying forth into an intrepid new adventure across the home of her groves of secrets and gardens of joy and castles in the sky. It was the only place she knew wherein sentient islands would yield souvenirs for stray visitors to take home as a sign of goodwill, gratis.
Shizuku loved it here. The air was so crisp, so clean. So she savoured her time. She ate of the toadstools and fruits and drank of the honeyed streams. She laughed with the sagacious tortoises and jocund crabs. She rode the magic trams that took their passengers to their hearts’ desires. She was glad for every minute of it, and was gladder still when her tram brought her to Seiji.
Perception in Iblard worked so that sometimes you wouldn’t be able tell how distant something was, because everything in sight would appear the other way around. That was why, when Shizuku spotted Seiji, she thought he had the look of an Iblardian tower; although she was sure she was close enough to touch him, it was as if he were a looming figure very far away from the greensward on which she stood. The sunlight laved him in a film of gloss that pleated and coursed over his skin like silk. His impression was of remote sweet-autumns, blurred but blooming.
Coated in fuzzy, febrile weal, Shizuku lifted a hand and reached for Seiji’s wrist. As she grabbed hold of it, his figure, increasingly comparable to a silhouette of nacre, came forward. Shizuku gripped his forearm, wanting to curve her free hand around his back and reach out to touch his familiar and dear nose and eyes and mouth—
But the shrill, awfully-timed ring of a telephone tossed her out of sleep. The groan that escaped her then was not human. She rubbed her eyes, wiped the drool off her notebook, stomped over to the phone, and grumbled, rather bellicosely, "Hello?"
"Ah, Shizuku," the quiet, calm, familiar voice responded. Shizuku held her breath. "Guess who?"
Shizuku shouted Seiji’s name and wondered if he could hear the interrobang she had affixed to it. The felicity that had visited her in the dream rebounded and increased twofold. The outpour of shock and bliss left her dizzy, but still very eager. “Is that really you?" Shizuku breathed, clutching her hand to her heart.
"Of course. Who else could I be?” he chuckled. Seiji’s voice was mellow yet young. Shizuku could at once summon to her mind his face and the grin on it. “I wanted to surprise you, so I bought one of those cards that let you phone abroad, since they’ve been easier to get a hold of lately.” His next bout of gentle laughter was a cloudburst to Shizuku, for she no longer knew if she had remembered the timbre of it rightly.
Shizuku was so stoked it took her another three breaths to be calm and grasp some semblance of perspicuity. But once Shizuku’s speech resumed, she lost that one ounce of serenity with celerity.
She gushed, “Goodness, how are you? Is your teacher treating you nicely? Have you been sleeping and eating well? Did my last letter reach you yet? Have you been gallivanting around with other girls? Have you been thinking about me? Have you—”
“Slow down, Shizuku. Yes, yes, yes, of course not, and yes. A lot.”
“That’s a relief! And are you still finding Cremona all right?”
“Like I told you in my letters, I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking how surreal it all is. Sometimes, when I think I’m used to this place, I remember: all the Amatis and Stradivaris and Guarneris and even Virgil walked these streets, lived in these houses.”
“Must be pretty magical, huh?”
“It really is. I haven’t even finished exploring yet!”
“What about the maestro? I hope he’s not ruining the fun for you.”
“We get along most of the time. He can be severe, but it’s not so bad once he warms to you. I can’t understand half of what he says, though,” Seiji said, nestling into conversation as if he were sitting right next to Shizuku. “And how about you? You don’t sound like you’re doing so great. What was with that ‘hello’?” he snickered. “Gee, I thought you were ready to spew fire.”
“Shut uuup,” Shizuku moaned. She tapped her feet and turned in her swivel-chair. “I didn’t know it was you calling. And besides, anybody would be grumpy if they were interrupted like that; you phoned me right when I was in the middle of an incredible dream!”
“Hmmm, was I in it?”
“Yeah, actually.” Shizuku slumped into her chair, closed her eyes. And it hadn’t been the first time, either. The taste of Seiji’s cheek in her mouth fluttered to her in no time at all. “Yeah.”
“My interest is piqued. Care to elaborate?”
“Well, we were in Iblard, by a sea. I’d gotten there after jumping off a cluster tower and taking a train from the West Terminal. We were just about to speak to each other when you called me, though, which is a small shame. There was so much I wanted to show you!”
“Really? Like what? Where?”
“First off, I had to take you to the airship-tree. Its fruits were ripe by the time we were in Iblard,” Shizuku said, her heart preluding peals now, “and I think we might’ve been able to hop onto one of them and go visit Megezo, the elephant fairy. And see the mines in Takatsungu! And, of course, fly through the gardens in the clouds, and swim to the stars under the sea… Ah, but even so, talking with you now is just as good as seeing you in a dream, I think.”
“That’s a fantastic imagination you have, Shizuku!" Seiji added a few noises of approval.
Shizuku tried to hold her heart in. “Don’t tease me—”
“I’m not. I’m not. I mean it. Unironically. I like that about you.” There was a short pause before he added, shyly, sweetly, “Very, very much.”
“Silly,” Shizuku muttered, before incremental spots of heat gathered in her cheeks and throat and belly. By then she could hardly take the speeds at which her heart was hammering.
Seiji laughed, “You’re the silly one. Learn to take a compliment, would you?”
“Pffft,” Shizuku rebutted, starting off strong, “just because I like to make up stories in my head all day, and stay up all night trying to put them into words, and a-am miserable all the time, unable to think about anything but my boyfriend, who is on the other side of the world and—and will be inaccessible to me for another ten years—” Shizuku’s shoulders began to quiver, but she fought the urge to break. “Yeah, I’m a dummy. A dummy and a worrywart and a killjoy and a letdown—”
“I am!” Shizuku trailed off into a muffled sob. It was a short while before the tears began to hail.
“Hey, hey, don’t cry! Ah crap, I’m sorry I said that; I wasn’t thinking and I didn’t mean it,” Seiji cooed, heaving a great sigh. “Shizuku?”
She mopped and mopped her face with the backs of her hands. “Y-yeah?”
“Listen: the truth is, I’ve missed you a great deal.”
“Is that so…”
“Yeah. It’s so good hearing your voice; my Italian is atrocious at the moment, though I am learning, so it’s a treat, a great one, being able to talk in Japanese, and express myself the exact way I want to!” He gulped. “I’m really, really sorry I made you cry.”
Shizuku hacked a cough. “Don’t regret the choices you’ve made; they’ve all been good choices. The best choices,” she hiccupped, rubbing her wet eyelids furiously, “and it’s not your fault I’m crying. I’m just happy you called. And, of course, a little frustrated and upset that we’re so far away from each other, but that can’t be helped, right? Violins should be as important to you as I am.”
“Look, listen: the passion’s not dying out between us, or between you and violin-making and me and my stories, at least, and won’t anytime soon. Anytime ever. And it’s not like we’ll be apart forever, either. Just ten years.” At last, Shizuku conjured up courage enough to laugh. “In the meantime I’ll hold staring contests with the Baron and eat all the ramen you can’t at your grandfather’s.”
“I see,” Seiji said, gently, his brightening, “but we don’t have to wait ten years. I was thinking that we could save up together and see each other once in a while.”
“That certainly sounds wonderful…” Shizuku sighed. She was at once uplifted and as soon uncertain. “Still, d’you think that’d work? As much as I hate to say it, we have to be real about this, if we want to last.”
“We will last,” Seiji said, firmly. "I made some calculations, and it’s totally doable and sustainable. If you and I manage to each earn about a hundred thousand yen a year, one of us should be able to afford a trip abroad. If we can keep up the good habits, we’d take turns visiting each other. One year, you’d come to Cremona, and in the next, I’d return to Tokyo. Maybe someday we might be able to do that once every year.”
“It sounds so easy when you put it that way,” Shizuku hummed, snuffling, “but okay!”
“Great! I might take up some more work while I apprentice, if the maestro’ll let me…”
“I should, too. The local bookshop’s currently looking for help. I’ve known the lady who owns and runs it for years, and she’s super nice, so I’ll pop in tomorrow to ask if she has a job for me. I’ll do what I can while I’m attending my university lessons.”
“And I should be able to finish and sell my first violin soon. It’ll be rookie work, so it won’t be much, but it’ll be a start. I talked it over with the maestro and he said he’d be happy to meet you someday. He’s much less blackhearted when it comes to women…”
“Y-you told him about me?” Shizuku blew into her handkerchief and began to dry her cheeks.
“Only the good things,” Seiji teased. “I didn’t tell him about your terrible temper, or your kicking me in your sleep, or how insufferable you are when you miss one of your ridiculous self-imposed deadlines and—”
“Se-i-ji!” Shizuku clapped her hand over her desk and coughed wetly.
“All right, all right, I’m sorry,” he chuckled. “I’ve been awful company all night.”
“Hey, I’m doing my best. How about I let you in on a secret! Would that make you feel better?”
“Hmmm, it might.” Shizuku rested her chin in her hand and wiped the rest of the mucus from her nose with her kerchief. “Go on.”
“Actually, it’s not so much a secret as it is something I thought might interest you, since I had a dream about you too, last night.”
Shizuku sat up straight. “You did?”
“Uh huh. And the strangest thing happened in it. You see, my violin began sprouting roots that then became a tree. For some reason, it grew horizontally, and its trunk was thick enough to walk on."
"Woah." Shizuku sat even straighter. "And then?"
"So I climbed on and strolled across for a long time. It was dark when I began my journey. The stars were cheering me on. I kept on that path the best I could. Though I ended up with blisters big as golfballs, there was nowhere else to go, and it would do me no good to turn back. As I went along, I sang; I crossed cities and seas, until I saw you in the distance, waving at me. I ran to you, feet bleeding, and yelled your name and hugged you hard and asked how you’d gotten there. You told me the paper you were writing on did the same thing my violin had. They belonged to the same tree, my violin and your manuscript, and that brought us together. I remember putting your hand in mine, and us turning towards the horizon as the dawn came on.”
“And after that you woke up?” Shizuku asked moonily.
“I’m afraid so, but I had to tell you about it, so I wrote it down to make sure I wouldn’t forget.”
“I’m glad you did.” Shizuku raked her hands through her hair, half out of frustration and half out of excitement. New stories and passages and emotions were bubbling in her all at once. But she hardly felt like crying now. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if that could happen for real?”
“If only...” Seiji sighed plaintively. “You know, Shizuku, there’s an alcove up in a belfry where I go to watch the sunrise. This morning, when I stood there, I kept hoping a path would spread out in front of me and bring me back to Tokyo, where’d you’d be, on the other side of the horizon.”
“Gosh, it must be pretty up there. How’s the view?”
“You’re the writer. I’m no good with describing this sort of thing.”
“Try it.” Shizuku grinned. “You conveyed the dream to me nicely.”
“I guess I’ll have a go. Wait a sec,” Seiji grumbled. Rustles and bumps and thumps (somehow) segued into canorous violin notes that flickered and grew before diminuendoing and stopping. “That piece was Edvard Grieg’s Morgenstemning from Peer Gynt. Neat, huh?”
“It’s beautiful.” Shizuku let the easy warmth of the melody sift from her ears to her belly. “I guess that’s what you mean by the view. In the language of music, I mean.”
“It’s hard to describe. It’s not an exact translation, nor does it even explain what I experience half the time, because my feelings are different every day!
“I once read this anthology of Chinese poems. And there was this poet who related dawn to ten thousand golden trumpets, all lined up at the tip of the horizon, warbling. I think that’s as much as a wonderful way to describe the exact sensation that time of day leaves on me, sometimes.
“But Shizuku, the thing is, even though stories and music and pictures can communicate things like that, I wish I could show you the place myself. I wish I could touch you, with my hands. I love being a luthier, but it does get tiresome handling wood in the workshop all day. Compared to you, timber’s all rough and stiff and cold. And—well...”
Shizuku chuckled, thinking of all the amusement parks they’d frolicked through together, all the plush toys Seiji had won for her at them, and how after he’d left, she’d lock those mementos in an embrace, sometimes, in the night, and imagine they were him.
“I know how you feel,” Shizuku said, twirling the spirally telephone cord around her finger, “but it’s nice how we’re able to pop up in each other’s mailbox or dreams once in awhile, isn’t it?”
“Hear, hear,” Seiji agreed heartily, “oh, and speaking of which! I did tell you I received your letter the night before last, right? I haven’t replied yet, though, so I’ll do so right this minute.” Seiji rummaged through something that sounded like a pile of paper to find a single crisp sheet. “Here it is. I’m rereading it now. Mmmm, impeccable clarity of expression, as is typical of you. Also, I like the laciness of the paper. That rainbow gel pen sure took me by surprise the first time I saw it, though. Did’ja other pens run out of ink, or something?”
Shizuku slapped her forehead. “Y-Yuuko insisted! She said it’d be more ‘romantic’ that way, so she bought me a whole boxful of stuff like that. I’m not going to waste it! Who else do I have to write to other than you? And, I mean, I don’t really care about being ‘romantic’, but I did like how the rainbow pen turned out and—”
“Hey, I never meant to say I didn’t like the change,” Seiji guffawed. “It’s nice getting your letters in whatever form you choose to send them. One downside is that I get to learn about all these new books I won’t be able to read for years yet, which is the worst. And I’m itching to read that book in particular.”
“Mimi wo Sumaseba,” Seiji uttered, as if the title were some amazingly numinous secret. “Yanno, the one you’ve been working on since our last summer in middle school.” He was quiet awhile before he spoke up again, “I’m keen on it mostly because I’ve always been curious about what goes on in your head.”
“There’s not much to figuring that out. It’s mostly like the interior of every book I’ve read and loved coalesced into one plane of existence. It’d be easy for you to understand, I think, because you’ve read pretty much everything I’ve read, and you know what I like,” Shizuku burbled, “and I like you a lot! So you’re always up there, too. Sometimes a bit of you even slips into my stories.”
“I do? Huh. Thanks." Seiji expressed his surprise with thinly veiled pleasure. "So… have you cast me as a prince? A mage, maybe?”
“Nobody like that.” Shizuku leaned back against her chair. “However, there is a boy apprenticed to the Shop of Light where the Baron was born, who makes these wonderful little bijous and other such treasures: stardust jewellery, astrolabes, waterglobes, whirligigs, kaleidoscopes, cuckoo clocks, flower dolls, pet crystals...
“He’s young, but his exquisite music boxes have no equal. You should see the one shaped like an egg, with the amethyst wisteria smelted around it; when you open the lid, out pops a naiad crowned with a garland of forget-me-nots, dancing to the Suterian Aubade for Spring!
“He's also very handsome and plays the viola so well it makes the hearts of whoever hears it ache nonstop for two whole days. And he goes off with it nightly to serenade his sweetheart under her window, in the starlight. His eyes gleam all the brighter beneath the moonshine, and her gaze.” Shizuku chuckled. “He reminds me of you, a little.”
“Hmmm, this gives me more of a reason to read the book. Whenever I feel sad bad about myself, I’ll just read about all the great things my cool alter ego has done. Or at least make sure you haven’t fallen in love with him instead of me,” Seiji joked. “Oi, Shizuku, when you think it’ll be finished?”
“Okay, okay, I’m giving myself ten years, at the rate I’m going. It’s not the size of the novel I’m worried about. I can’t measure the amount of chapters I need, or merely erase the errors I’ve made. I’ve got to clip and condense and wreck and reconstruct and expand and polish. My stories are just like your violins; and like you, I’m always polishing. Still, I’ve been working on it ever since I met you. And it’s about four years along already.”
“Four years, huh. I wonder how many times I’ve sung your Country Roads in that time, to myself.”
Seiji chirped a few lines of Shizuku’s translation to demonstrate it was still fresh in his mind, much to her embarrassment.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of. We were only fourteen when you wrote it, and I made fun of your first draft, but the final product really is impressive. Memorable and universally relatable, most importantly.” Seiji’s sigh was protracted and deep. “Brings back memories, huh?”
Shizuku opened her mouth to reply, but Seiji’s voice was temporarily superseded by a few cracked pops and beeps that let her know another call was coming in.
So! Shizuku giggled inwardly. Sugimura hadn’t been naughty and had walked Yuuko home on time after all!
“Seiji,” she said, with a dash of regret, “it looks like I have an incoming call from Yuuko. I’m torn, because I reeeeally don’t want to stop talking to you, but she’s my friend too. I better call her back. Could you phone me again later?”
“Ah, sure. Same time tomorrow?”
“I can’t wait that long! Can’t you call me after I’ve finished talking to Yuuko?”
"Well, you may have to. I have to call ojiichan, and the maestro’s awfully strict about using the phone only twice a day. We’ll see whether or not we can get him to be a bit more flexible in the future. I guess I’ll have to meet you in Iblard, tonight."
Shizuku risorially followed his lead.
“It’s a date! There’s a bridge by the lighthouse near the place we met last time, on Crystal Beach. Be there at midnight, sharp!”
“Hey diddle-diddle, I’ll be sure to bring my fiddle, so don’t forget to fetch a spoon and drag Moon along with you.”
Shizuku guffawed and loved Seiji all the more for dredging up another old translation of hers.
“Good night, Seiji. I’ll be meeting you in your dreams! Remember not to be late,” Shizuku said, and hung up, feeling soft with tenderness and anticipation: for the fantasies she would concoct in sleeping, and for the pages and pages of stories now pulsing in the pads of her fingertips.
Whenever Shizuku wanted to motivate herself into trying new things, she would climb up the slope above which Seiji had proposed, because it was easy to relate the steep, long road uphill to the trajectory time challenged them to face together. If she could surmount the path that stood as representative of all their travails, and reach the top that symbolised the meed awaiting her, then she was capable of anything.
Today, Shizuku completed her journey to the top in record time. The achievement formed a gratifying symmetry with all the chapters she had produced the previous night, right after Seiji had called. Her reward was breakfast to an unobstructed view of the foggy lilac sky.
“Cheers, Seiji.” After popping open her bubble-gum flavoured Ramune and raising it to the nascent light, Shizuku downed as much liquid as her stomach could contain. She hiccupped and stared down at the blue marble trapped in the rim of her bottle. “You’ll see. I’ll get a job and finish that novel before uni starts. Then I’ll have a whole bowl of yummy ramen to myself,” she vowed, gazing out now into the open ether.
Sunbeams cascaded down to touch the buildings of West Tokyo, and vernal vapours wafted through them, so that the city looked like ruins risen from a transparent sea. Underneath the surface, living stories big and small and young and old flitted to and fro, Downhill, time went on like it always did for all the salary-men and housewives and students and sweethearts and butterflies and ginkyo-trees and cats and dogs alive there, now. A row of sweaty joggers sprinted past some streets ahead. A lively mailman close by tirelessly hopped back and forth, delivering and greeting. A young girl squatted by zebra stripes, feeding a white kitten her fish biscuits.
During moments like these, Shizuku loved this world, this earth, her earth, wholly, and thought it as magical as Iblard. Along those endless, winding streets, babies were gurgling, and old-timers were playing go, and lovers were learning to kiss, and children were astride wooden horses, and lucky adventurers were happening upon coves of wonders, all at the very same time. Everything was amazing.
It comforted Shizuku to know Seiji could still see the same sights up in those lofty Italian belltowers of his. He must be sauntering through glorious loggias and porticos that captured twilights like masterpieces, all the time. But the sky was generous with its beauty; its raw crepuscular rays were as splendorous coupled or solitary. Gold melting into blue, the sun was at first a spot, then one long unified line of innumerable gilded trumpets rising above the skyline. Yet the trill Shizuku could almost hear was that of strings, not brass: one that belonged to a violin, distantly proximate.
So Shizuku thought like an Iblarder and pretended she was braving a leap into the Borrowed Garden on a morning not yet divested of the moon. In that instant, she imagined Seiji to be so close to her that he appeared farther from her than the other side of the horizon.
And that reverie was a reprieve, however small. Though Shizuku could not find a scintilla of Seiji’s shadow in any reach of that bright, high, faraway sky; or in the bustling phalanxes of mobile tales swarming in the street-sea below; the serenity his disembodied proximity cast on her was sweet, sharp, like a note sounding from some taut string he had plucked in her.
The reverberation crowded about inside Shizuku, roiling up the hazy afterimages of the night before and the dream that had occupied her throughout it.
Now, she could vaguely recall Seiji’s face, very close; a cat’s cry; a violin’s trill; starfall; dewfall; the southern lights joining the northern ones; boke spangles glittering down in a smear of rainbow that seemed, almost, to pass through Shizuku’s body, as if it were a vessel built for the stuff. That was all. Yet, it would come back to her later, she knew, if it wanted. It was not up to her to decide whether or not it wanted.
Nevertheless, the feeling lingered. The aurorae running through Shizuku presently deepened, flared out as undulating contours of colour, throughout her body and up to her eyes, which brimmed, and brimmed, and brimmed.
Shizuku spoke with Yamada-san for a good hour and walked away employed and as elated as ever. As the morning deepened, Shizuku visited Yuuko’s, as always, to expound on the day’s happenings, and stayed until midday, when Shizuku skipped home to collect her drafts and some lunch and found her mother seated at the kitchen table, quietly filling in nonograms. The one she was doing currently looked like half of a panda.
“Oh, hiya, Mum.” Shizuku peeled off her shoes. “Classes finished early today, huh?”
“Welcome home, Shizuku,” she greeted back. “You must be hungry. Please help yourself to some lunch. It’s over by the stove.”
“No wonder it smells so good in here! Thank you. Don’t mind if I do,” Shizuku chirped, and pranced forward with a pair of chopsticks to gather a bowlful of chuuka iidako, grilled fish, and rice. She seated herself opposite her mother. “So, what’s up?”
“Shiho called half an hour ago. Your sister’s getting married,” she announced, with a small yet gratified smile, “and your aunt’s appeal to save Tsukamori finally went through. She’s a local hero now, winning grin and shiny badge and all.”
The first image that flashed past Shizuku was Shiho sister all dressed up in Shinto attire, laughing, her hand on the shoulder of her fetching husband. Quickly followed the thought of her extremely accommodating aunt, the little pert woman with curly grey hair and smiling eyes, who had saved acres of trees twelve times her height.
“Really!” Shizuku had been so thunderstruck by the news her chopsticks had stopped halfway up to her mouth. As she resumed eating she found the baby octopus so good she had to hold in a squeal. “Wow,” she said, in reference to both the news and the food.
“And thank goodness! I was beginning to worry about the both of them. Your sister had been so anxious in anticipating the proposal for months.” Asako input a few more boxes into her nonogram and came up with a stem of bamboo. “Your aunt, too, had been incredibly distressed, and was always so preoccupied and sleepless. I’m relieved that she can finally rest easy now.”
“But that pain, it was worth it, wasn’t it. For both of them.”
“Yes,” Asako said, sipping her mug of tea, “it would’ve been a shame to see that beautiful forest gone the next time you went down to your aunt’s. And I’m sure Shiho’s gladder now more than ever to have stuck with Ryuunosuke for so long.”
“Aye, aye.” This time, Shizuku assailed the fish and consumed it with a few strips of nori. It was as good as the octopus. “Brava to the both of them! Gee, this reminds me: I ought to go back to the river cleaning committee soon. I’ve been slacking off, these days.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, dear, though you may not be able to go down today. The whole family’s going out for okonomiyaki tonight to celebrate. Your aunt was so excited she dashed for the soonest train here the minute she heard. Everybody’s trying their best to be there, so it’s important you come too.”
“Of course I will!” Shizuku promised and took another scrumdiddlyumptious bite of octopus. “Does dad know about all of this?”
“Not yet, but he will soon.”
“Great! Oh, and before I forget, tell him I got a job at the local bookshop, as well. You know the one Yamada-san runs?”
“Oh my, three botamochi from the shelf in a day.” Asako hands met and her eyes glimmered. There was a brief moment in which her mouth was agape before it formed a smile. “Congratulations, Shizuku. I am proud of all three of you.”
“So am I,” Shizuku said readily, heading up to the sink with her empty bowl, “and I think I should be done with that novel manuscript I’ve been wrangling with soon, also, so I wanted to drop by Nishi-san’s today to have him check over it for me. Would there be enough time for me to do that?”
“That depends.” Asako rested her chin over her interlocked hands. “Will Seiji-kun be calling you again, tonight?”
“At six, I think.”
“Then it should all right. We’re regrouping at eight and leaving at half past. You can head over now so long as you’re not back late.” Asako grinned knowingly. “Enjoy!”
“Thank you so much!” Shizuku hurriedly cleaned up her bowl before she darted into her room for her manuscript, and rushed back out to wave her mother goodbye. “I promise I’ll be back on time. All righty, I’m off!” Shizuku wheezed, and left.
The last thing Shizuku saw when she looked back was her mother with her hands about her face, looking out into nothing and everything, as if she were facing the dawn of the entire world, like the Lady of Twilight at the beginning of time, who, adorned in her luxurious archmage robes, governed and guided mornings and evenings and blessed the lands they touched, and whose romance with the Interplanetary Library’s magnanimous head archivist had yielded the very origins of magic itself.
The World Emporium’s doors were wide open today, and kept that way by the golden boar wedged against the right one and the ceramic tanuki pressed against the left. Stepping past these two sentinels and into her cave of treasures, Shizuku’s gaze melded to Baron’s aventurescent eyes.
“Hello, Nishi-san?” she called into the gorgeous room. “Can I come in for a visit?”
“Oh, Shizuku-san, I wasn’t expecting you today.” Nishi stirred from his rocking chair. “Please, take a seat while I brew you a drink. Have you had lunch yet?”
Shizuku nodded. “But it’s awfully kind of you to offer.”
“Barley, if you have any, please.” She took a seat. Moon emerged from some dark corner to circle Shizuku’s ankles. “Ya-ho,” she whispered to the soft, round cat, as he began to nuzzle her legs.
Nishi swerved about the replica ship and around the cosmos-black carousel stallion with the gilded mane and lapidary reins. He hummed as he gathered a few biscuits and china teacups onto a majolica plate at the back of the shop.
“So what brings you to the dusty old World Emporium today, miss?”
Shizuku placed her latest manuscript on the table. This one was probably twice as thick as the one she’d developed when she was fourteen. “I’d be honoured if you could had a flip through this. I was finally able to get it into a readable state, last night, after being stuck for weeks.”
“Excellent.” Nishi approached with an extra serving of Danish pastries served on tableware ornamented with grapevine engravings. China teacups that had a few pink-nosed rabbits painted on them contained the barley beverage. As Nishi smiled, his eyes crinkled at the corners and shined so brightly that for a moment Shizuku thought they could’ve been angel rooms, like the Baron’s. “Seiji surprised me with a call last night and told me a little about how you were doing.”
“That guy… Did he say anything bad?”
“Not a word. All of it was much closer to praise than censure.” Nishi himself took a bite of pastry. “That boy is very fond of you.”
Shizuku’s face went a little warm. “I’m glad he is.”
“I am, too,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “and I’m also glad I finally got to tell Seiji how proud I am of him for continuing on the way he has.” Nishi looked Shizuku’s way, beaming. “As I am very proud of you. Without fail, I will read your story tonight. I’m sure you’ve created something quite substantial once again.”
“Thank you so much,” Shizuku gushed, and felt very tender towards her prospective grandfather-in-law, who was always there with a listening ear and heartening words. He was like the Wind of the West from her story, the laughing zephyr whom verdure followed, carrying down in his gentle currents the auspices and dreams of those brave enough to want.
Nishi-san presently gave Shizuku one of his soft, warming smiles. “Oh, no, no, I should be thanking you for the good read!”
“Well, don’t count on it,” Shizuku said, nipping at some pastry, “since there are still bits I’m not happy with that I’ve made a note of. I’m afraid this is novel getting to be too much to handle…” Shizuku picked Moon up and scratched him behind the ears. “Maybe I should just stick to short stories and translation and poetry for the moment. They’re as difficult, but less taxing in the long run.”
“If it’s any consolation, I think you’re doing a superb job, Shizuku, as persistence is the most important thing.”
Nishi collected Shizuku’s manuscript and squirreled it safely away by the dormant hearth. Then, having grown out of the childish impatience with which she would have prodded Nishi into reading her story now, please!, Shizuku proceeded to settle into pleasant conversation with him. The topics discussed included the advances in Shizuku’s story; her first job; the World Emporium’s new arrivals and curiosities; Nishi-san’s plans to soujourn with Naohisa-san and Inoue-san the following week; and Seiji, whom Nishi was too selfless to admit he missed.
They talked and talked like friends who had not seen each other for years, until the ormolu clock above the hearth and wannish sun wavering in the window confirmed the onset of dusk. Shizuku, with some regret, then bade Nishi-san and Moon goodbye. She walked home with the warmish evening breeze on her back, and the light of all the little blue stars above in her hair.
After climbing into bed with her spirits thoroughly lifted, Shizuku managed two pages of prose and a nap. Yet, once again, Seiji interrupted her slumber with his second telephone call.
This time, he abandoned all formalities and burst forth with voluble, breathless excitement that mired the connection for a few terrifying moments.
Then the onrush came.
“We’re amazing! Shizuku, it’s like our spirits are in sync, even when we’re so far away from each other. Or that we have these connected telephone boxes inside us. Last night, I met you in my dream at the place you mentioned! I could hardly believe it. Did you work another one of your spells?”
“Huh? Wuh?” Shizuku said, rubbing her eyes. The image of a gleaming cable line that joined the two of them, straight from Seiji’s heart to Shizuku’s, had been communicated to her, but not much else had. “Could you say that again, slowly?”
“All right, all right.” Seiji’s speech became more measured, but it was still very much tinged with exhilaration. “Last night, when I got to sleep, I dreamt an aurora billowed down to my window, like a staircase. I followed the road it arranged and ended up in the middle of Iblard! The stars shine so bright there, it's amazing. It was the place you called Crystal Beach, I think; I saw the sign and all the twinkling paragons and prismatic rocks. And then I saw you, naturally. You were wearing something I’d never seen you in: this bright, pink dress with a huge bow at the back, ruffled, flared at the hips.” He added confidently, “An incredible beauty you were, as you always are.”
“Maaa, Seiji, the night’s too young for love talk.” Shizuku shook her hurting head, reached for her nearby thermos, and swilled the lukewarm chrysanthemum brew in it. But she began to blink, fast, because what Seiji was saying was almost parallel to what she had dreamed. In fact, the more Shizuku thought about it, the closer she was to spitting out her drink. That lingering feeling that had come to her that morning pulled the memory of her dream back. She catapulted awake. “Eureka! That almost fits entirely into what happened in my dream!” Shizuku exulted. “You mean there was some sort of telepathy going on?”
“I dunno. What happened in yours?”
“It was uncanny! You had your violin, and I’d brought Moon, just like we discussed, when I then took you for a tour through Iblard—”
“Yeah. We walked through this pretty tiered stratus cloud city, didn’t we? And flew—aahh, I can’t even begin to describe the things I saw in it.”
“But how? That was what I saw.”
“Magic could be the cause! Who else but us gets to decide whether or not it happened?”
“Are you suggesting it happened for real? I’m open to the idea, but many would say that that wouldn’t make sense.”
“Why is life supposed to make ‘sense’ anyway!” Shizuku huffed. "When you dream, you never expect anything to. You can turn into a bird or a bee or a tree. Your feet and hands might swap places. The dead come back to life. The most beautiful places, places you’ll never find on earth, sprout out of nothing and change and grow at the step of a foot. Magic is possible. Nobody questions it.”
“Well, I can’t say you’re wrong…”
“Of course you can’t. But I don’t understand why people always discourage daydreaming, even though they stand for all those important things we set off to search and strive for. People don’t always get where they want to go, but happy accidents happen all the time. It doesn’t hurt to let a bit of magic into your life.” Shizuku rubbed her head again. “Ooh, Seiji, just let me believe that we really did meet each other last night, in some way. Give me that comfort, at least, before we can do so in the flesh.”
“All right, then, that dream space’ll be our secret meeting place,” Seiji conspired, without hesitance.
“Ah-ha! It’s good we can see eye to eye. And you know, I’ve actually been trying to keep a dream journal, because I’ve noticed that every once in a while, the things that come to me in sleep help me write. You keep one too!”
“But it’ll sound silly!” Seiji protested. “Nuh uh.”
“I’ll need all the help I can get. C’mon Seiji, be a good boy.”
Shizuku could almost hear the eyeroll in his groan and subsequent acquiescence. “All right, all right. If it makes you happy…”
“It certainly will! That’s your job. We’re supposed to spend the rest of our lives together someday, right?” Shizuku prodded. “That is, if you’re still serious about that.”
“Of course I am!”
“Just checking,” Shizuku chuckled at his intense reaction, “because Shiho called today. Said she was engaged. Accordingly, and also since my hero aunt finally saved every acre of Tsukamori, all the Tsukishimas are headed down to Tsukishima district for some okonomiyaki.” Shizuku breathed in a big gulp of air at all the newness flooding into her life. “Jealous?”
“About the food or them getting hitched?”
“Well both, I suppose.”
“Of the food. Definitely the food. Although your sister and her boyfriend are pretty lucky to be able to see each other every day, unlike a certain other couple…”
“Don’t worry," Shizuku assured him. "We’ll have all the okonomiyaki we can afford the next time you’re in Tokyo, which you will be soon enough. I don’t think I’ve told you yet, but I got a job at the local bookshop today! If I just work a few hours every day, I’ll be able to get a couple thousand yen a week. At this rate, we’ll have enough to visit each other in no time!”
“That’s great news, Shizuku! But aaah, how the heck will I keep up with you? I’ll definitely work hard too, and I promise I won’t let you down—”
“Heehee, I know you won’t, but I have to be sure you're worth the wait. Are you?” Shizuku grinned. “It’s quiz time!"
"Oho? All right, come at me with all you've got!"
“Well, what do you say to this? If we buy a house, together, someday,” Shizuku said, picturing it now, as she had seen it sometimes in her dreams, “can we get a skylight? A huuuuge one, over our bed, so we can wake up with the sunrise and fall asleep with the stars over our heads.”
“It sounds good! That way, we can argue over the shape of the clouds and you stealing the blankets in your sleep. It needn’t be a big bed, because goodness knows we have a lot of lost time to make up for.”
“All righty, that’s a pass!” Shizuku added her own maru sound effects. “Oh! And we can have a joint atelier on the top floor, because I want to be as close to the sky as possible while I’m at work.”
“And there'll be no phones up there to interrupt us! It’ll just be you and me, all day long.”
“Aw, you’re still riled up about yesterday?”
“Not really. I’m only mentioning it because I’m a little bitter about how this time I’m the one who has to go—I have to be off on a full day excursion to the Teatro Comunale Ponchielli, where they’re hosting Turandot,” he said, with equal parts zeal and rue. “Sorry. I’ll call you tomorrow, but, and tell you how it went.”
“Don’t be sorry. I have to be off soon for dinner with the new bride and hero, anyway.”
“Have fun, then.”
“I will! Be sure to send me some photos of your trip.”
“Only if I receive some of your manuscripts in return. I really, reeeally want to read them.”
"Hmphf. It’s a deal.”
“Right on! So I’ll talk to you tomorrow?”
“Unless I see you again in Iblard, tonight.”
Seiji’s mirth coursed into a muffled fizz, like shaken soda-pop.
“I look forward to it,” he chimed.
“Until next time, then,” Shizuku pealed, she too effervescing.
That night, after Seiya had returned from the library and Asako had finished all the preparations for the evening, Shizuku dressed herself in her favourite cardigan and shiniest shoes and headed off for dinner with her heart feeling fuller and brighter and higher than it had in months. Her father and mother must have felt similarly, because they never stopped smiling before or after they reached the restaurant. There, glowing Auntie hugged Shizuku so hard she couldn’t breathe. Shiho’s clasp was gentler, but no less sincere, and when Shizuku looked at her sister in the face she knew she had been crying in rejoice. Ryuunosuke and Shizuku exchanged shy bows. Then the young newlyweds-to-be presented a luxurious fountain pen to Shizuku, who returned the favour with the polished abalone shells she had received from Nishi-san earlier that day.
Shizuku ended up eating two okonomiyaki and one mojyaki, the food was so good. And Seiya seemed so far from stress he didn’t smoke a single cigarette throughout dinnertime, a fete of which Asako praised highly when the family returned home later to talk some more about all the amazing things that had happened in recent times, and in such quick succession, too. Plans were made for the girls to holiday over at Kashiwazagi again, and Shizuku found herself actually looking forward to them, despite the high probability she would be exposed to Shiho's characteristically overbearing personality; Shizuku had missed her sister sorely, though she would never admit to it.
And after all the revelry that had transpired at Tsukishima district, sleep took Shizuku very swiftly and very sweetly towards the place of her heart’s desire, as the trams in Iblard were meant to do.
A vision chimed in Shizuku, then, just before she went, sounding off a little coda to end her day.
In it, Shizuku was with Seiji as they were in their dreams: the happiest they’d ever been, ten years onward, climbing up through their skylight, clutching the full Moon, with his fiddle and their laughter filling the way between them and the stars.