In memory of the lovely Haku Baikou.
All things pass, yet all things remain.
It was a beautiful summer day.
The broad avenue echoed with what seemed like the entire population of the city. Hawkers called their wares, bicycles wavered along the street's cobbles, and mothers scolded ineffectually at children squealing and darting among the foot traffic. The odd motor vehicle tooted its halting way, scattering pedestrians ahead of it and stopping randomly for the occupants to converse with friends or haggle right out of the windows with vendors.
For most of the year, the memorial park—even though it was situated right on the main thoroughfare in the heart of the city—was nearly deserted, and the attendant spent his time, after his groundskeeping duties, playing his flute or practicing his calligraphy or dreaming up at the clouds. During Obon, however, the week set aside for remembering ancestors and paying respects to those who had already ascended the heavenly stairs, his quiet kingdom thronged and pulsed and—yes, he had to admit it—celebrated.
From his perch in the elevated gazebo that served as his on-duty lodgings in the center of the park, the attendant could see that today, the last day of the festival, trade was particularly brisk at the flower stalls near the entrance gate. The sun rose higher and higher in the clearing sky, and its yellow light warmed the stones, and the graveyard began to take on the atmosphere of a festival as entire families trooped in—parents and children and grandparents and all—loaded with irises, sunflowers, peonies, sprays of gladiolus, and arranged them on the markers of their ancestors. A morning drizzle had left sparkling droplets hanging from leaves and branches and shallow, shimmering puddles among the walkway paving stones, but people spread gay cloths on the grassy areas and, opening huge wooden casks, set out steaming tureens of ramen or udon, bamboo baskets of rice and winter vegetables, and hibachis to heat water for tea and sake and to char small fish on sticks.
In an otherwise empty plot almost directly under the gazebo stood a small simple marker, very traditional, with a single character carved in it. It had appeared there one day—It's been more than ten years now, hasn't it?—brought in by not a family member, as custom dictated, but by the stone carver himself, who had installed it and registered it in the book and left without so much as speaking a word or even looking up. No one came, either then or later, and the attendant had finally assumed that it was for a stranger, someone with no family in this part of the country. He had felt pity for someone so alone, and found himself taking particular care of it, daily clearing the plot of weed seedlings and brushing fallen leaves off the top of the stone. He found himself drawn to its silence and solitude, and often lingered there longer than was absolutely necessary.
Today, a memory returned that he thought he'd successfully put out of his mind.
Months after the stone had appeared, on a late winter's night of the full moon and a sky shrouded by heavy clouds that would bring a pre-dawn downpour, a night dark enough to turn colors into insignificant variations of somber gray and dulled white, a single visitor had somehow slipped in, though the attendant was sure he had locked the gate. The visitor was eerily soundless, moving like a shadow among the shadows of the trees alongside the path until he reached the lone marker. The attendant woke with a start, awakened not by sound but by a creeping, cold sadness, a feeling of deep, yawning loss. That's when he noticed the dark figure kneeling before the isolated marker. He caught and held his breath, as though he had come upon a deer in the forest.
At first, for a long time, the young man—No, too small, almost frail. A boy, certainly—was as still as the stone itself. Soon, however; the attendant saw the boy seem to shrink, to crumple in on himself, and realized that he was weeping. The attendant could see the shining tears dotting the pale snow on which he knelt, and the thin shoulders shaking. Then he heard it, the only sound that the boy would make that night: ragged breaths drawn in like gulps and long strained silences of wracking sobs. The boy could not maintain his position, and fell forward onto his hands, his wide bamboo hat tipping off and rolling in an awkward circle to come to rest against the quivering forearms.
The hours passed, but the attendant couldn't go back to sleep. He remained on his knees, entranced by the waves of heartbreak and regret emanating from the boy so close to him in the cold black night. Finally, his energy spent, the boy raised himself with effort back into proper seiza. He put his palms to his cheeks and smoothed them dry. The attendant watched as stillness and control returned to the small body, and felt the surge of emotion recede behind a painful, hard wall of distance.
After a few moments, the boy reached into the sleeve of his thick winter haori and withdrew something that gleamed whitely in the faint light. He leaned close to the stone, so close that the attendant couldn't see what he was doing. Somewhere deep in his frozen mind, however, he did notice that he hadn't heard so much as a rustle from the silk folds of the boy's jacket, despite the short distance between them. As the boy pulled back, the unmistakable scent of white plums rose in a dense, insistent cloud around the attendant, filling his heart with longing and an ache that he didn't understand, but almost immediately his attention was captured by what the boy did next.
Did he just kiss the stone?
The movement was so quick and so unexpected that the attendant doubted his own blinking eyes; he had never witnessed such a sight. The outpouring of grief he had accepted—indeed, it had swept him up in its tide—but such a deliberate, self-aware action, so clearly premeditated and carried out, except for the cover of darkness, with no regard for onlookers... Well, it just wasn't done. Though they were entirely alone, the attendant felt a keen embarrassment for the youngster and quickly averted his eyes for a fraction of a moment.
By the time he looked back, the space before the marker was empty. Startled, he quickly scanned the area; the park was as empty as an echo. Then the clouds shredded enough to bathe the area around him in a soft light. The attendant's gaze was drawn to the park's gate, not by movement but by color and shape.
Standing just outside the closed, locked gate was the boy. Now, however, he could tell that this was no child: even from this distance the attendant could see the hardness of the features, could recognize the alert stance of the soldier, the dangerous wariness of the expert swordsman. He saw with surprise that the soldier was dressed, here in the middle of the night, in the most formal of attire: black haori shimmering in the moonlight, white tasseled string fastener, heavy silk grey-and-white striped hakama.
And silhouetted against the shining stones of the boulevard behind him, the outline of a warrior's daishō thrust into his sash at his left hip was clearly visible.
Although the man's face was in shadow, the attendant could feel the eyes on him—the man was staring directly at him, had known all along that he was there. The cold, flat gaze belied the earlier tender kiss and sent a shiver down his spine, and he vowed to himself—and to the man, too, if his spirit were listening—that no soul would ever hear of this clandestine visit.
It was what happened next, however, that burned this uneasy moment into his memory. Like a bolt of lightning, the moon broke through the clouds entirely. The entire park flooded with a midday light. The large wrought-iron gate glittered silver and gold, and the bamboo stands threw hard black shadows across the whitened road. Against the backdrop of all that sudden white and black and silver, a spot of fiery red, now lacking its covering hat, flared brightly: long, impossibly coppery-red hair, flowed down the man's back and over his shoulders from a high, thick ponytail.
A quicksilver movement, making the attendant blink, and the man was gone. The light faded, the clouds closed, and the rains began in earnest.
Gradually, the attendant's heartbeat slowed, and he lay back down onto his futon and drifted into a light, restless sleep, disturbed only, perhaps, by the torrent of water hammering the roof of his sanctuary. The next morning, he stayed away from the plot, allowing the branch of tiny white blossoms to remain for a day. When he removed the branches with their star-like ornaments, he thought about keeping them on his table until they faded, but the sweet scent disturbed his mind, so he discarded them.
Drawing a deep breath and blinking, the attendant shook off his reverie, but its effects lingered. Usually he found Obon to be uplifting, an oasis of gaiety and color in his otherwise solitary life. He did not like having his special season end with this eerie feeling, and now he would have to wait an entire year before his domain would again ring with celebration.
Determinedly, he threw himself into vicarious enjoyment of his subjects' activities, even descending from his perch to stroll among the picnics and the chattering groups, and by the end of the afternoon he was feeling more himself, almost cheerful. Now people began to gather their children and their empty pots. Shadows lengthened across the paths and markers, and the crowd slowly drifted out the entrance gate, dissipating like clouds under a hot summer sun.
Just as the sun touched the tops of the trees on the horizon, a small squadron of dark clouds rose from behind the hills in the east and scudded quickly across the sky, sprinkling a brief shower of warm rain across the city. The attendant began to close the park. He climbed down his steps to the narrow shrine that housed the registry map, closed the bound memory book, and gathered the brushes and ink pots. He carried them back up to his quarters, then took the gate keys off their hook and started back down the steps to circle round the public areas—it was a point of pride with him that he'd never locked anyone in.
As he rounded the last bend before the gate, he stopped short, his heart in his throat. Coming through the gate was that blazing red head of his earlier flashback, the frame still small and muscled. Quickly he hid behind a thicket of bamboo as the man—no longer so young, but just as wiry—passed him and headed toward the marker.
He seems different…
The man's aura was so changed that for a moment the attendant thought it must be a different person. That hair, that same gliding movement… It was certainly the same man, but the changes in him were striking: a single katana in place of the double blades that he remembered; the hair pulled low on the neck; the clothes bearing witness to a smaller purse; the eyes no longer cold and flat; the halo of danger replaced with an open spirit of warmth and maturity.
And a bandage on the left cheek.
The man was again carrying flowers, but this time they were large yellow mums: a flower of forgiveness, of acceptance. A flower that spoke of growth and peace. This time, the man spent only a few minutes kneeling before the stone before placing the flowers at its foot and pouring a ladle of clear water over its top. Once again, the attendant was surprised by the man's next action: tossing his head gently to clear it of raindrops, the ex-soldier, for that is surely what he was now, smiled and peeled the bandage off his face. A curious X-shaped scar appeared, faded in color, but deep, old.
A few more minutes, and the visitor picked up the now-empty bucket and turned to leave. As he passed the attendant's hiding place, he turned his face and their eyes met through the bamboo trunks. Without breaking stride, a gentle smile bloomed on the young man's face.
Had he heard the whispered words? Had it been simply the grace of the man's smile? When he was certain the man was gone, he slipped out from behind the bamboo and locked the gate, his heart moving within him, but this time with neither dread nor pity.
As he drifted off to sleep that night, he again breathed in the fragrance of white plums, but now it brought comfort and tenderness. It made him feel… happy.
The attendant never saw the young man again, but he remembered him often. When spring came, he planted a sumomo sapling behind the marker.
The following definitions are lifted nearly directly from wikipedia. Use it. Support it.
daishō—Literally, "big and small". The traditional weapons of the samurai, the daishō is composed of a katana and a wakizashi.
futon—A flat, about 5 centimetres (2.0 in) thick mattress with a fabric exterior stuffed with cotton or synthetic batting. Often sold in sets which include the futon mattress (shikibuton), a comforter (kakebuton) or blanket (mōfu), a summer blanket resembling a large towel, and pillow (makura), generally filled with beans, buckwheat chaff or plastic beads.
hakama—A divided (umanori) or undivided skirt (andon) which resembles a wide pair of pants, traditionally worn by men.
haori—A hip- or thigh-length kimono jacket which adds formality. The tasseled string fastener is called haori-himo.
Obon—A Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the departed spirits of one's ancestors. This Buddhist custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars.
seiza—Literally, "proper sitting". The Japanese term for the traditional formal way of sitting.
sumomo—As near as I can tell, this may be the genus of plum tree that would carry the "white plum" blossoms that are such a theme in the RK world, and which are so closely associated with our dear departed friend whose passion and efforts so enriched this fandom and sparked our imaginations.