She says a prayer before she steps inside, a prayer for the restless, then crosses the threshold and announces, “I am here.”
Immediately, the atmosphere in the room shifts, and a quiet settles over the house for the first time in years, because Kishi is always welcome, always recognised. She is young, but she knows the Tokyo way of dying. Kodokushi, lonely and alone
“Kishi?” Arata had said when she first set out with him. “That’s funny, don’t you think?”
She never explained the name was chosen for her, just smiled as they drove downtown and said, “Kishi, ‘long and happy life’, yes, I suppose you’re right.” And when she whispered the first prayer on that first day, Arata had pretended not to notice, had assumed nerves and superstition had gotten hold of her.
“You’re young still,” was all he said.
He thought the prayers would stop. It took him years to ask her.
“What is it you wish for when you pray for them?”
“A long and happy life,” she had told him.
And he had laughed and said, “Maybe you are suited to this work after all.”
Though on days such as this, when the stain on the floor tells a story of unimaginable loneliness, they both know that happiness is not what they are looking at. She had stepped around it and whispered a second prayer. A prayer for herself, this time. A prayer to help her forget the shape outlined on the tatami, the colours seeping towards the edges, the knees bent, and not quite foetal, but seeking the solace of it. The shape of Hiro Aoyama.
“You are quiet today,” Arata says.
And she nods, and watches as Arata too, steps around the mat, careful not to tread on the shape of Hiro Aoyama. He is respectful, even if he does not pray. One day she will tell him this respect is also a prayer of sorts.
“It’s tiring some days,” she says, and Arata looks at the tatami and shakes his head, licks his lips as if he is getting ready to speak, then thinks the better of it and instead, turns away from the mat and surveys the room, trying to decide where to begin. This is why they work so well together; he knows when to stay quiet.
Knows too not to mention the porcelain cat in her pocket.
“I assume you have your reasons,” was all he said to her, the first time he saw her take something.
“Reasons for what?” she had asked.
“For those trinkets in your pocket,” he replied.
She had tilted her head and asked him, “There are trinkets in my pocket?”
And Arata had understood immediately and smiled at her and said, “No, I guess not.”
They have never spoken of it again though she sees him slide a look in her direction sometimes. Looking to see what it is she has taken this time. Wondering why she does it. “What is it you do with these little things?” That’s the question he wants to ask her, though he never does. A piece of him knows that the prayers and the thefts are part of the same ritual.
Tomorrow, she will take a small bag of Hiro Aoyama’s things to his daughter. She will place them on the table, and the daughter will look at them, but will not touch them or talk about them. Kishi will not hear the stories attached to each item. They will not come to life in the re-telling. Instead the daughter will simply nod when she asks if she should dispose of them, and wait for the talk to turn to money.
While revealing the sum, Kishi will turn the porcelain cat between her thumb and forefinger, and think of Aoyama. Of all his precious things, this was the one he loved most, the one he sent her to find. The one with no name. Simply, Neko. Simply, cat.
“Neko,” he would say each morning as he woke. Each evening, before he slept.
Kishi had heard him calling to his cat as she stepped over the threshold. The restless are never quiet, and she had walked to the bedroom and found Neko waiting for her.
“Thank you, Matsuko,” Hiro Aoyama had said when she slipped it into her pocket, and she had smiled when she heard her old name, then hushed him.
Arata standing in the doorway, watching her.
“Kishi? Are you okay?” The sound of her kaimyo calling her back.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m okay.”
“There is work to be done,” Arata said.
And she nodded.
“Yes, Arata, always, always.”
As the cat purred, and Hiro Aoyama closed his eyes at last and slept.
Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her writing has appeared in various magazines and anthologies in the US and the UK. She is a Resident Reader for Carve Magazine and when not writing can be found sauntering along the Amsterdam canals dreaming up new stories.