Part V: Parallel (平行)
According to the old woman, the narrow mountain pass, twisting upward toward the heavens until it disappeared into the scratchy pattern of pine trees carpeting the rocky slopes, would close in two weeks. While sipping tea outside her tiny roadside way station, I'd off-handedly mentioned my intention of crossing the ridge before the road became impassible with the season's first snow. Naturally, she'd said it was impossible. "Please don't worry," I'd replied with a thin smile. If only she knew—I'd probably walked further in my brief lifetime than she had in her multitude of decades. The route through the central alps, although an official government highway, was far less traveled than that connecting Kyoto and Tokyo via the Eastern shore, and the post towns along the way were correspondingly small and rural. "I walk quite fast, you see," I added in reassurance when the woman's gaze remained resolutely skeptical. "And this is not the first time I've walked this mountain road."
And indeed, that much was true. Not more than two years ago I had found myself in the Kiso Valley and followed the narrow, twisting Nakasendō that hugs the mountain cliffs from Matsumoto to Nagoya. The handful of tiny post towns with names like Magome, Tsumago, and Kiso-Hirasawa existed almost solely for the purpose of providing lodging for weary travelers. But in those days, it was only with reluctance that I stopped for lodging overnight. There were always too many wandering eyes and prying questions.
"Well, young man," the woman's voice drew me sharply from the grip of memory. "If you insist on traveling so late in the season, please be careful." Her voice, though chiding, was soft, and her eyes bore the look of someone who had dealt with several generations of headstrong youth. "The last thing this world needs is another boy dying for no good reason and leaving those who care about him behind." I almost told her the truth, almost confessed my solitary state to a stranger in the middle of the mountains. Oh, there's no one waiting for me. I saw myself casually replying in my mind. A nod of a head, a wave of a hand. Even in these parts, it wouldn't have been too suspicious to admit to being alone. But I said nothing, only drained the last of my tea and shouldered my small bundle of possessions. "Thank you for your kindness, but I'm afraid I must be on my way."
One foot in front of the other, the barest hint of rain clouds overhead. And in my mind, a thought arose like dew evaporating into the morning sky. Perhaps… of all people, maybe he would care if I disappeared forever into the winter snow. Though I couldn't imagine why. Himura. Would we ever meet again one day and sit across from each other as acquaintances, not enemies?
But although the nagging feeling of possibility lingered, the moment passed, and once again I was by myself beneath the pines on the Nakasendō. I blinked. Must be the weather—does strange things to a person's head….
End Notes: Unlike the previous part, this one almost seemed to write itself. Perhaps it's because I think fondly of the few days I myself spent in the Japanese alps. Tsumago in particular was such a beautifully history location.
Can you see why I titled this piece parallel? And did the identity of the speaker surprise you? If you still can't guess, the timeframe is immediately after the Kyoto arc.