Plastic Forks and Wooden Geta
by Kenna Greer
The Judge has frown lines as deep as Maryland mud-ruts, but he must know of magic. He speaks with a gravelly voice, wheels on tarmac, and the world shakes.
Spark tells herself: that’s three times, now. The first was when she lost her magic, the second when her brother found her and gave it back. And the third is a rainy Tuesday afternoon in March, in a stuffy courtroom with someone coughing in the back row.
The Judge says: The Court, having heard all the evidence filed in the matter of Jennifer Marie Cooper, aka Etsuko Arakawa, hereby awards custody to Respondent Tetsu Arakawa.
Those, Spark knows, are magic words, because now the world has changed.
Outside, the two people who’d raised her look at her like a stranger, though her once-father pushes money into her hand with a sad smile before following his wife. Gray rain muzzles the air. She shivers, shuffling her feet; her brother flags down a cab. Spark wipes her tears when he looks the other way. Excitement coils in her belly, mixed with fear.
She can’t tell if he’s happy, doesn’t know how to ask. Their reflections in the cab’s window are so close: their father’s black hair, their mother’s blue eyes. He’s not a stranger, but blood isn’t enough to take away the strangeness. She plucks at her black skirt, courthouse best-behavior clothes.
Spark wants something, to give him, to show him, but the words are stuck and she can’t shake them loose.
# # #
Tetsu drops her off at her new school; she climbs the stairs on unsteady feet, getting turned around twice on the way to class. She hunches her shoulders, but no one notices her, no more than when she slept beneath winter’s silence, dreaming of a brother she’d never met.
At lunchtime she lingers at the bulletin board, unnerved by the cafeteria’s clamor reverberating in her bones. Cornrows and shocks of kinky hair, crude taunts and loud laughter, Hispanic accents swaying hips with rolling R’s. A muddle of slang, catcall, flirt. Spark thinks of her backwoods drawl and her half-Asian eyes. Her skin itches beneath her polyester blouse.
A bright pink sign with flowers catches her gaze; she reads and the noise around her recedes. Carefully, cautiously, she copies the information onto her palm for lack of ready paper, then puts the pen away, satisfied. She cups her hand and carries the secret all day, grasped close.
# # #
Lynxen pulls up to the curb and Spark clambers into the car. He lives just upstairs, and works with Tetsu downtown. He’s Tetsu’s best friend and travels to Japan often; if anyone might know what to wear, he would.
“What if the cherry trees don’t bloom?” She stares out the window rather than meet his gaze. He’s too handsome; when he looks at her, it scares her, just a little.
“I checked the web page before I left work. So far, they’re on schedule.” He shrugs. “No worries, Etsuko.”
She nods, still uncertain. “Will there be a lot of people?”
“Probably. It’s the biggest festival in the District, not counting Fourth of July.” The city rolls past, grand offices left behind for neighborhoods with stunted trees along the curb.
“How much…” She takes a deep breath, thinks of her once-father’s unexpected gift. “How much does a kimono cost?” He says nothing and she stammers, “I c-could get a job, pay you back-”
“None of that,” he says, but not unkindly. “It’s a gift.”
“Oh.” She feels both guilty and privately relieved.
He parks at a house whose concrete porch braces it from falling face-first into a winter-bare yard. “Ready?” He twitches his hair out of his eyes, knocks on the house’s door, grins down at her while they wait.
The door flies open. A tiny woman, swamped in a rumpled bathrobe, ushers them into a cluttered kitchen. She abruptly halts Spark, turns her in a circle with arthritic fingers like claws.
When the woman speaks, it’s syllables of water. Lynxen replies with the same, but with laughter in his voice. The old woman snorts, smacks him in the elbow, and he skitters out of her way to sit at the kitchen table. Spark is stunned: they’re flirting. It’s only once the old woman smiles into a crease of wrinkles that Spark can see a much younger woman’s sashay.
A tape measure appears, whips around Spark. She’s poked, prodded, arms raised, arms lowered, turned. The woman barks a command.
“Aa.” Lynxen holds up his hands, mock-surrender. “Hai, hai.”
Spark notes the words, stores them away with the scent of tomatoes and rice vinegar. The old woman returns with armfuls of fabric, spilling bolts across the table. She steps back, imperious.
Lynxen waves a hand over the fabrics. “Pick one.”
Cranes and foxes on obsidian, a bird with long tail feathers flying out of sapphire, fishes and rabbits dancing on lime green. Spark hesitates, sets her hand on the burgundy, pushes it aside. The green, the pink, and down to the bolt of soft blue: the old woman unwraps it and Spark can’t breathe. Quiet blue, like Tetsu’s eyes, with white cranes rising up from rolling waves.
“I like this one,” she whispers. “Back home, there are cowbirds.” She shrugs, self-conscious. “I used to make up songs for them.”
The old woman just stares. Spark doesn’t know what she’s done wrong. She wants words she understands, to tell her what to do, what to say; she shoves her hands into her jacket pockets, wondering if that’s apology enough for trespassing on something beautiful.
“You have a good eye.” Lynxen and the old woman speak for a bit, then he guides Spark to the door. “Cranes are the bird of poetry.”
“They are?” She tilts her head back to look up at him; he’s giving the woman a deep bow. She mimics him. The old woman’s barking laugh chases them out the door. Back in the car, Spark slouches. “I did something wrong, didn’t I.”
“What’s that?” Lynxen gives her a puzzled look, backing out of the driveway and heading into traffic. He drives as if he is the car, attention easily divided between her and the rest of the world. It’s stark contrast to the focus that makes her afraid to speak when her brother’s behind the wheel.
“When I bowed. I thought…” She sighs. “Never mind. I guess I’m being silly.”
“Oh, that.” His lips curl at the edges. “You had your hands in your pockets.”
“Just not proper. Put your hands together when you bow, or hold them against your chest.”
She considers that; she can feel a smile growing in her throat, reaching up. Perhaps she’s found her dictionary. “What else?”
“What do you mean?”
“What else am I doing wrong?”
He’s quiet, then, “it’s okay, Etsuko, you’re being yourself.”
“No, I mean…” She slumps again, fiddling with the hem of her skirt. “I know sometimes I’m doing things wrong but I don’t know what. I want to do things right, so Tetsu…”
He doesn’t laugh, and that matters. “In Japan, a girl doesn’t sit cross-legged. Very unladylike. When she laughs, she covers her mouth. A nice girl doesn’t wear red underwear,” he says, with an arched brow and just the barest hint of a smile. “Only bad girls do that. But the most important is that a girl wouldn’t call her older brother by name, but title. It does him honor, to be reminded of his role. His obligations.”
“That’s…onii-san,” Spark murmurs, piecing together Lynxen’s words and Tetsu’s rare explanations like patchwork fabrics. Every clue holds a crane, white with black-tipped wings, darting up from blue.
# # #
For a month Spark waits, watching the sky with a worried eye; the trees have to bloom at the right time. It’s part of the magic, like the Judge’s words, the old woman’s bolts of fabric.
Every night before turning out the light, she reads the children’s book her grandmother sent from Japan. Spark’s name is on the inside cover: a Z with a dash over it, a U knocked onto its back. A second Z, but with the middle missing, top line hooked, bottom line hooked. Below that, a delicate hand lettered her name in English. She spells it out, under her breath.
Pages of gold-and-brown watercolor creatures with black masks and ringed tails, plump in striped bathrobes. Tanuki. Spark can’t read the Japanese but she picks out all the places where the characters from her name appear.
The Tanuki are playful, raccoons the size of border collies. They laze about, drinking from large bottles and playing tricks on men in flowing robes who carry tall staffs. Tanuki become bottles of wine, pairs of shoes, teakettles, rolling in laughter at the men’s confusion when a Tanuki-kettle scurries away of its own accord.
Spark wonders if she could play tricks like that; she doubts her brother ever has. He’s too serious, too grown-up. She wishes Tetsu would read her the story, but she’s almost sixteen, and only children ask for bedtime stories.
When Tetsu pats fingertips on her door, it means: lights out. Reluctantly, she puts the book away. If not for sometimes glimpsing Tetsu’s furry ears peeking from his perpetually messy hair, she wouldn’t believe he’s also Tanuki. She turns her face to the pillow, pulling the covers up as if someone were tucking her in.
On Fridays, Lynxen comes down for dinner. He and Tetsu speak Japanese in hushed tones, breaking off when she enters the kitchen. Lynxen hands her a dish to take to the table, his calm smile a promise: her secret is safe.
# # #
Spark wakes to find the sunrise pinking the city rooftops. The cherry blossoms have been blooming for two days along the tidal basin. She shoves her feet into house slippers and creeps from the apartment, up to Lynxen’s place.
He answers the door with a growl, bare-chested, jeans half-buttoned. “Spark,” he says, weary, “it’s six in the goddamned morning.”
“I didn’t know how long it’d take to get dressed.” She shifts from one foot to the other.
He groans and opens the door wider. “Good point.” He points to a stack of white boxes. “I got them from Fujiwara-san yesterday.”
“There’s so many.” Spark barely dares to breathe. She looks down at her tank top and sleeping shorts. “What do I do?”
“Hunh? Oh.” He runs a hand through his hair, crouches by the boxes, opens and closes until he finds the right ones. “This is the hadajuban and the susoyoke.” One is a T-shirt, the other a large rectangle. “Undershirt, and half-slip.” He drapes them across his body, demonstrating. “Put those on. I’ll be right back.”
By the time he returns, her pajamas are on the floor and she’s wearing the slip and shirt. He’s drinking a beer; he’s put a shirt on. He sets the drink down, squints at her, untucks the loose top from the half-slip.
“Fujiwara-san gave me directions,” he mutters, sorting through the boxes. “But I warn you, I’m only good at removing these things, not putting them on. Okay, next is the nagajuban.”
“Nagajuban,” she repeats.
“Under kimono.” He wraps the white linen around her, checking the collar, whispering to himself. Collarbones and lengths, shapes and padding. He grins, sly, but doesn’t explain. “Date-maki. Under sash.” He belts the sash around her waist.
“Is that it?” Disappointed, she smoothes the white fabric. She’d hoped for the blue, but maybe… She’s afraid to ask, to make it true.
He kisses her on the forehead, unexpectedly. His morning beard scratches her skin; he smells of beer and cigarette smoke.
“Now, the kimono.” He pulls out a length of blue. “This is a jofu, which means it’s linen.” He helps her into it, smiling when she gives the lengthy train a worried look. “Arms up. You tie here, and here-”
He hums to himself as he works: pulling the fabric snug, tucking it over the waistband, adjusting so the hem is at her ankles, straightening the collar until the white nagajuban shows just a sliver under the jofu’s collar. Cords dangle, tied to other cords. Another waistband, the date-jime. Spark giggles when he pokes her.
“This is the han haba, a modern obi.” He places it around her waist, mutters to himself, then pulls it around to the front. “Fujiwara-san put up a fight on this, but it’ll be easier for you. Tie the bow, and slide it around to your back.”
“Do I have to?” Spark tries to follow his directions, but the fabric dazzles her, silvery, shot with blue threads and glimmering in the morning light. She’s certain her results must be awkward, ugly.
“Absolutely,” he says, amused. “Only prostitutes wear the bow in the front. That’d be a fast track to giving your brother apoplexy.” He helps her situate the obi’s neat butterfly-ends in the middle of her back.
A tiny part of her brain knows what she’ll do if Tetsu ever gets on her nerves. When Lynxen raises his eyebrows, she smiles and asks if that’s all. She isn’t surprised when he produces more boxes.
# # #
She knocks on Tetsu’s bedroom door, instructions rattling in her head. Sit up straight. Go down the stairs with the left foot leading, or else the kimono will flash open and show leg, which would be bad. Don’t slouch. Make sure the back neckline is just so; only bad girls show a lot of neck. She wonders for a moment how Lynxen knows so much about what bad girls do.
Hold the sleeves out of the way when eating. Make small movements. Walk with the toes together, pointed in just a little. She raises an arm to study the cranes rising from the waves, across the front of her dress and into the right sleeve, startled when Tetsu opens his bedroom door.
At first he only stares, mouth opening, closing. Abruptly his spirit-ears appear, tilted forward, giving him even more of a surprised look.
“I’m here-I thought-do you want to go to the Sa…” The pronunciation flees, despite her labored practice: sakura matsuri. She tries again. “The Sah-kra Mat-surry.”
He gives her a bow, and a tiny smile. “I’ll be right out.”
Spark clasps her hands together above the obi’s decorative cord and bows. She has to cock her head to watch him, but is pretty sure she’s bowed a little lower than he. Thrilled, she straightens to see his smile open up: pleased, startled.
She beams and pads away on socked feet to make him coffee before they leave.
# # #
The festival is a noisy pinwheel spreading through the city’s streets. A woman plays the koto not far from the Metro station; Spark wriggles her toes in the tabi-socks, the wooden geta both unfamiliar and just right. Today, she will be the Japanese sister she should have been. The hope is jittery, bouncy in her stomach.
She studies Tetsu, clandestine. His dark blue jacket has crisp edges; his full pleated pants swish with every step. The bottom edge of his squared sleeves fall to his waist; hers fall to her knees. She doesn’t ask why.
She fiddles with her bag, its deep blue matching the waves on her kimono; there’s a line between Tetsu’s brows. Maybe the music isn’t as good as what he’s used to. She hadn’t even thought of that, of making him homesick. The decorated facades of Federal Triangle stare down their marble columns at her, taunting; she clutches her bag tighter. She’s not a runaway anymore. She belongs here. She just needs to make sure Tetsu knows he does, too.
At the vendor stalls, she points out tiny ceramic tiles. Tetsu says they’re for chopsticks, but Spark can’t figure out how. She runs a finger over crimson matchi-paper; its gold-outlined dragon laughs at her and joins the lizards clawing in her gut. What if Tetsu decides he doesn’t like her? She studies dolls dressed with intricately folded fancy paper, but Tetsu only moves on.
When he stops, it’s to speak with a Shinto priest in precise Japanese, each syllable easily discerned like jewels among river rocks: is-sho-ni-na-ru. Tetsu’s eyes crinkle when Spark joins them. He puts a hand on her elbow, drawing her close.
The priest bows to her. Impulsively she bows as well, lower until her high ponytail brushes her cheek and she remembers: don’t show any neck. She jerks upright but the Shinto priest has turned back to Tetsu. He doesn’t look her way again.
Her heart sinks; she files the moment away to figure out later. Languages swirl around her but she’s tongue-tied. Four men with dreads ease through the crowd, joking in drawled patois. A woman pushes a stroller; three women in bright saris hold up festival t-shirts at the next booth.
Tetsu walks as if he knows where he’s going, Spark clattering awkwardly behind him. She wants to talk, to spill all her thoughts, to pry open his mouth and peer inside to find out who he is and if he can tell her who she is, but she doesn’t. She thinks of covering her mouth when she laughs but nothing seems funny. The dress is tight around her legs, the sleeves flapping in the breeze, the thongs rubbing against her big toes and the tops of her feet.
At the end of the row, Tetsu speaks with an older man selling weapons, then turns to her. “I’ve agreed to help out,” he says. He takes off his outer jacket, holds it out. “I won’t be too long.”
Glad to be useful, she bobs a quick bow, backing up when Tetsu frowns, then turns away. Her shoulders slump until she remembers, again: stand up straight. She trails Tetsu and the older man, jacket and blue bag cradled in her arms.
The sun’s climbed high enough to glare down on the crowd. On the stage Tetsu dances with a wooden sword and invisible opponents; the teacher names each move in flat syllables. Another man steps forward to face Tetsu. Wooden swords raised, they freeze then explode forward, wood clacking in sharp snaps. Tetsu never hesitates, expression unchanging, parry, retreat, strike. Spark imagines he’s writing in the air, mysterious lines, secrets she doesn’t share.
The men sweep their wood-blades in wide circles to a sharp stop and bow. Tetsu comes upright; she cringes, slinking behind several tall Arab men. The man on the stage is a stranger to her, fluent in something elegant and precise. She looks down at her hands and can’t imagine ever moving so gracefully. She feels clumsy, a little girl dressing up in someone else’s world.
Tetsu finds her in the crowd a few minutes later, accepts his jacket. “Are you hungry? Would you like to eat?”
She nods, willing to push aside the uneasy respect, the sense that she’s related to someone dangerous. He seems no more than human, or no less. She doesn’t know which.
“Yesterday at school they had tacos, and some kind of white cheese like Swiss,” she blurts, wishing to fill the space. “Mexican food is better orange.” Then she sees the line between his brows, stutters to a halt, looks away.
Chastised, she slows, letting him lead. When someone stops them for a picture, she summons up a smile by thinking of Lynxen flirting with the old woman. It’s hollow. She wants to tell Tetsu about the woman, but now someone else is taking their picture; she stands with her toes pointed in just so, hands folded over her purse, just below the obi. She smiles with her lips pressed together.
Along the food tents, Tetsu picks one. She studies the signs, bewildered: ramen, teriyaki, mochi. More people take their picture as the line shuffles forward. Tetsu is gracious with each request. She tries to look proper and ladylike.
The wait seems endless. Three college students chatter nearby. An Asian man in front of them carries a boy on his shoulders; his blond wife scolds a second boy who keeps turning around to stare at Spark. She wonders if the boy can see her Tanuki-dog ears. She wants to put her hands over her head, or her face, or her soul, and hide.
Her stomach rumbles just as they reach the front of the line. Tetsu asks what she wants, but she only shrugs, uncertain. “Whatever you’re having,” she whispers, and it sounds like a line from a movie, fake and empty.
Tetsu orders in rapid Japanese; the cook’s lazy vowels are singsong against Tetsu’s clipped speech. The woman turns her broad smile on Spark, more rolling words. Spark has no idea what to say.
“Hai,” she finally says, hoping she’s right-”hai,” again-then she realizes the woman’s reaction.
Eyes narrowed, just a bit. The cook’s gaze flicks down Spark, and up again, smile tight, not so broad, teeth bared. Then the moment is gone and the cook hands over two bowls of noodles. Another long phrase and a lower bow to Tetsu, and she calls the next people in line.
Spark follows her brother from the tent, then looks down at what she holds. A bowl of noodles, vegetables, meat, in her other hand, a plastic fork. It feels like a reproach, flat against her palm. The plastic is scratchy along the fork’s seams, and she thinks: I have been insulted.
The ache becomes overwhelming. Tetsu looks back with a confused expression; she sees the bowl in his hand, his paper-wrapped chopsticks, and it’s too late. He opens his mouth but she’s crying, blinking furiously to fight the tears. They spill anyway, hot and humiliating down her cheeks.
She’s not fooling anyone. Under the pretty clothes she’s not her brother’s sister, she’s not a proper girl, she’s a runaway who still carries the scars and dirt of the city. Her lips are glossed but her mouth has eaten rotten food, her fingernails clipped but once they were broken half-moons. She lowers her chin, hating the dress and the cranes and the tight obi and the silver cord with the knot she couldn’t figure out even with Lynxen’s patient instructions. The smell of food turns her stomach. She imagines the cook behind her, glaring, accusing.
“Etsuko,” Tetsu murmurs; he juggles his bowl and chopsticks before putting a hand to her elbow.
She almost pulls away, but it’s too much, so she goes where he leads. On the steps of the Old Post Office, he motions her down onto the cool marble ledge. He doesn’t sit beside her but kneels before her, blue eyes wide.
“Imoto-chan,” he says. Little sister.
She cries harder, almost spilling her bowl. He takes the dish, putting it aside, but she won’t let go of the fork. He doesn’t say anything, just lays his hand over hers.
“I’m sorry, onii-san,” she sobs, feeling stupid and young and too American, when she only wanted to show him she could do it, too. But now she knows she has no idea what that might be, or why she thought she could, or even should. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Hush, hush,” he chides, brushing away her tears with the back of his hand. “It’s okay.”
“I just wanted-” She chokes on the words: for you to talk to me, for you to like me. She hiccups. The fork bends in her grasp, plastic sticky against damp skin. She hunches over, trying to hide her face from the festival-goers waiting their turn for food that will be served with a smile and a fork and they won’t care but she does. “For you to have fun.”
“I have,” Tetsu sighs. He peels back her fingers one by one, reveals the fork, takes it. “I’ll be right back.” He rises onto his knees and hugs her.
He’s not done that since the night they met for the first time in fifteen years. She’d woken up and he’d held her and called her imoto-chan. Tears bubble her vision and she doesn’t even have time to raise her arms in answer before he’s gone, but she imagines she can hear the low swish of his pants from where she sits. In the street, Tetsu speaks with a food vendor, giving a curt nod to the responding bow and returns to sit beside Spark.
“Here.” He hands her the chopsticks. “You are Japanese. You’ve just never known it.”
She starts to laugh. She can’t help it. Tears drip from her chin onto her wrist, splattering dark dots across her sleeve. “Onii-san,” she laugh-cries, “I’ve never used chopsticks before.”
He blinks, stares, and suddenly he’s laughing too, deep, rich, rolling across her, but she’s part of it and it’s not across a distance but closer. Shoulder-to-shoulder sitting on cold marble surrounded by people nothing like them, but for the first time ever that doesn’t matter. He snaps the chopsticks and places them in her hand.
“Like this.” He demonstrates with his own. She aims the chopsticks at her bowl; he grins, blue eyes crinkling. “Wait, napkins!” He scatters some across her lap and says, “now, try.”
It’s like holding pencils and writing backwards. The food keeps falling away from her grasp; she scowls but smiles at the same time.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Tetsu says against her ear, as if no one else can hear him and maybe no one can. The burble of words around them fades, a magic she’s known only once before. He nudges her bowl with his knuckles. “Lift the bowl to your mouth. It’s okay to do that.”
She looks over the bowl’s brim at him, and he smiles. Then he raises his bowl and does the same.
# # #
They wander the festival and Spark keeps close at his side. He tells her about studying judo in high school, kendo in college. He leads her back to the old man’s table and shows her a katana, how to hand it to him. He withdraws it from the sheath and lets her see the rippled black-silver edge of the blade.
He whispers the Japanese words for anything she points out and she tries to say it like he does, says it wrong, but he laughs and just says it again until she gets it right, or close enough. When she giggles, she can feel her raccoon-dog ears flicking forward and back. For a moment she worries: what if someone sees? But Tetsu only tweaks her spirit-ear, before she can swat him away.
Tent to tent, under bright flags rippling in the breeze, and he tells her about Shinto shrines and the largest Buddha in the world. Ramen stands in Shibuya, hot springs and karaoke, working the riot squad and learning aikido. He shows her the scars on his knuckles from the dojo; daring, she shows him the scar on her hand from falling off her bike at age thirteen.
When people take their picture, he barely pauses; he smiles long enough for the camera and then tells her about firefly-lit evenings, carp-flags dancing at a house’s peak, the scent of new tatami. He tells her how to say please and thank you and you’re welcome.
An hour passes, two hours. Her feet hurt, her throat’s sore from talking; she sips the cold green tea her brother insisted she try. It rushes over her tongue, as crisp as Tetsu’s accent. A tent’s banners flutter in the breeze, black characters on pearl-white paper. Spark joins the children ringing the table, concentrating for a moment before writing her name-Etsuko-top to bottom, like the scrolls snapping overhead.
She cocks her head, uncertain. The lines are angular, coarse where the examples around her flow like Tetsu’s sword. “That’s no good,” she says, disappointed. She starts to crumple up the paper, but Tetsu stops her.
“I think it’s wonderful.” He smoothes the paper out before rolling it up, tucks it away in his sash. “I want to keep it.”
She closes her mouth, manages a smile, and grabs the marker again. “I can write your name,” she tells him. An English T, followed by a backwards Z with a dash, and a U pushed over on its back. T. E. Tsu.
He laughs. “Close, close.” He takes the pen, left hand holding his sleeve out of the way. Scrawled in broad, forceful strokes down the paper, two symbols appear: a narrow C with a bar across the top merging with the C’s upper swish, followed by a laying-down U.
“That’s my name in hiragana.” Tetsu points, reading them out loud: “Te. Tsu. Your name and mine are actually spelled with kanji, but…” He taps her on the nose with the end of the pen, startling her. “One thing at a time.”
“Can I keep it?” When he nods, she mimics him, tucking the rolled paper into her obi. She looks up to realize he’s taken her second attempt and put it next to her first; the two peek up from his dark sash, messenger’s scrolls.
Tetsu smiles. “Was there anything else you wanted to do?”
The Capital’s broad silhouette marks the highest point of the city reaching skyward. It’s at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, flanked by old buildings carved with grandeur and self-importance. It’s the landmark, but not her goal.
“Yes.” She thinks to take his hand, but doesn’t. She points instead. “Let’s see the cherry blossoms.”
# # #
They walk: six blocks, another six blocks. They stop outside the Smithsonian Castle, and a woman in a USDA jacket smiles and gives them directions to the Tidal Basin.
Along Independence, Tetsu is astonished at the three-block length of the Department of the Interior. Spark is elated, as much as if she’d designed it herself just to see his wide eyes and startled smile. A little farther, they find a restaurant tucked between the legs of an office building. Tetsu sniffs, pauses, and Spark studies the menu with pursed lips.
“It says Memphis, but it smells like Carolinas.” She shakes her head. “Barbecue shouldn’t be that sweet, or that messy.”
Tetsu gives her a look like he has no idea what she’s said.
She’s not sure which part didn’t make sense. “Georgia barbecue is drier, with a little bit of lemon. Memphis is wet. Arkansas tends to be spicy…” Her words slip away in the shock. “You’ve never had barbecue.”
“Maybe, when I was very little.” He looks away, then back, and she can see that sometimes he doesn’t have the words, either.
The place is smaller than their living room, but clean. Old men lounge around reading newspapers; a girl behind the counter files her nails. The guys in the back are talking politics, words and hands moving at the same easy pace. Spark trots up to the counter, glances over the lettered menus and reels off an order. Pulled pork, coleslaw-does it have mayonnaise or salad dressing?-and beans.
She carefully counts out the last of the money her once-father gave her, despite Tetsu’s protest. She remembers her father’s sadness and thinks he’d be happy at how she’d spent it.
“My treat,” she admonishes Tetsu. He grumbles, reluctant thanks, but she understands.
Ten minutes later, they’re out again, bags in their hands, and it’s Spark’s turn. She tells him about cattle egrets and buzzards, riding bony horses on a neighbor’s farm, heat waves on the tarmac, skipping stones. She tells him about the bear-man on the Metro when she first came to the city, panhandling in the District, throwing pebbles from the Key Bridge to watch them plummet into the dark waters of the Potomac.
When she was little, she wanted to be a fireman and ride on the back of the truck; when she was ten, her once-father took her to the city’s Art Museum. For every word Tetsu has given her, she hands it back, turning it over in her mouth and only seeing its worth in the blue of her brother’s eyes.
At the Tidal Basin, people stroll among the cherry trees. The sky is a sharp cerulean, the waters indigo; breezes shake petals loose to fall in a snow-pink drift across everything. She waits while Tetsu exhales, long, deep, closes his eyes, bows his head.
“The trees were a gift of friendship,” she tells him, solemn. “This city doesn’t have a graveyard, just a lot of headstones.” She motions to the memorials. “And the trees are here to remember.”
Tetsu nods, lips quirking; they choose an empty bench, setting the food between them. She concentrates and wiggles her spirit-ears at him. He makes his do the same and she knows that’s his version of a smile.
She eats barbecue with the lacquered chopsticks he’d bought her, practicing. Tetsu eats with his fingers.
# # #
They watch the sun sink into the Potomac, cherry blossoms waving over their heads. The petals drift with the breeze, falling aimlessly to land in the barbecue, the coleslaw, the beans.
When the meal is done and cleaned away, she brushes the petals from her dress, and then turns him around to brush more off his jacket. The path’s lamplight catches the circular crests on the jacket’s arms, repeated between the shoulder blades. A river wave, circular and rippling: the Arakawa family crest, rough water.
“You knew about the festival,” she says, quietly.
“I did.” Tetsu stares up at the cherry blossoms. “I was just about to come wake you, this morning.”
“I wanted…to surprise you.” For a heartbeat he almost looks scared, and she realizes maybe she wasn’t the only one. Then he shakes his head, and gives her a shy smile instead. “It’s a beautiful dress.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Her face grows hot, embarrassed but flattered. She can’t recall the phrase-domo? domo arigato?
She turns away to catch a handful of cherry blossom petals, tucks them into her little purse. She’ll press them between the pages of her Tanuki book. Overhead, the cherry blossoms glow white-pink in the sun’s last ruddy rays, dipping in the wind as if blessing her plans.
“Look.” She points, a little sad. “That branch didn’t bloom.”
Tetsu reaches up and brushes his fingers along the tight buds clinging to the silver-gray bark. The petals unfurl, green to pink to white, blossoms breaking open in the sunset. “Better?”
She gasps. “How…”
“You can do it, too,” he whispers, as if telling a secret.
“I can-” And she believes him, believes her own words. He stands beside her and there’s no distance, no reproach in his gaze. The strangeness is there but he’s no longer a stranger. “I’d like to learn,” she says.
“I’ll teach you.” He holds out his hand.
In so many ways they’re different, after a thousand miles of ocean for fifteen years. It stretches out between them, crossed as easily as putting her hand in his. His palm is calloused, his grip firm. He won’t lose her again. Ever.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go home.”