Akidzuki Youjirou was once a happy child. Although he lived in a poor village, the boy was the richest at heart. On a normal day, when he made his way to the river to wash the dirty clothes, the villagers would call out good morning to him. The children flocked around Youjirou with bright smiles, tugging on his sleeves and begging him to play with them. And, as usual, Youjirou would laugh and say he was busy.
That laugh, was fake, though. Behind the smiles, hidden by the laughter, was a dark secret Youjirou never told anyone: his mother was deathly ill.
It had been a while after his mother first got sick; it was almost too sudden when it happened. One morning, Youjirou woke up to his mother cooking miso soup and fish, and by dinner, she was coughing up blood and could barely move. No one really noticed, though; after Youjirou's father had left for the war a year earlier, his mother had hardly left their little home.
The closest doctor was over fifty miles away, a good three to four day walk. Plus, Youjirou's family of two couldn't afford a doctor. At the age of eight, Youjirou was too young to work, and his mother was too weak. Still, every moment he had with his mother was more than enough. He was still happy, and that was all his mother wanted.
"I'm going to the river!" Youjirou called to his mother as he slid on his sandals and reached for the basket of clothing. "Do you want me to go by Hina-san's and pick up some fabric?"
His mother knelt down behind him, wrapping her arms around her son's neck and pulling him close to her. "You-chan, you are the best little boy a mother could ask for," she said softly, roughing up Youjirou's thick brown hair.
"Okaasan!" Youjirou laughed, placing his small hands over his mother's and rocking back and forth.
They were so cold, his mother's hands. Whether it be by her illness, or from her kindness, little Youjirou didn't know; he was told that people with cold hands were nice, so right now he was glad of his mother's hands. He loved her so much. He loved her kindness.
"Go on," his mother said with a slight push to the small of his back. "If you do not get to the river in time, the other villagers will have taken all the best spots for laundry."
"Oh, right!" Youjirou chimed as he took the basket of clothes and strapped it to his back. "I'll be back!"
The village came to a high point in the center of the markets; every day, Youjirou would stop there and turn back to see his mother still standing by the door, waving at him. She was so beautiful, his mother. Her long dark brown hair was kept up in a large bun, her thick bangs curled back to frame the perfect oval frame of her face. A large hairpin, a family heirloom, held her hair together; the delicate wood had been painted with bright red and yellow, and fancy engravings of koi and cranes decorated it. Out of everything she and Youjirou owned, the hairpin had to be the most precious and expensive item. And her eyes… everyone said that Youjirou's eyes were just like his mother's: all knowing. The icy spark behind them seemed to delve into the darkest parts of people's souls.
"Ohaiyo gozaimasu, You-kun!"
Youjirou turned to see a small crowd of children skip towards him, passing a small home-made ball between them. "Minasan ohaiyo gozaimasu," he replied, adjusting the basket on his back.
"Kaoru's dad made a ball!" one child stated picking up the crudely wrapped leather ball. "Do you wanna play with us?"
"I can't," Youjirou replied, nodding back to his load. "I have to do laundry for okaasan and pick up some fabric."
The children moaned in unison, looking down to their dusty feet. "You-kun, you never play with us. It's like you're an adult already!" Kaoru cried.
With a smile, Youjirou patted the girl's head lightly. "I am not an adult; I may be older than you, but I am still a kid. I promise I will play with you when I'm done."
Kaoru's scowl faded into a wide grin. "Okay! Arigatou gozaimasu, You-kun!"
The children's voices faded as Youjirou continued on toward the river, a small frown on his face. He felt bad refusing to play with the other children, but he had things to do and people to see. Now that his small eight year old mind was turning, he thought over what little Kaoru had said. Was he really turning into an adult? He never thought much of playing, but, rather, of taking care of his mother. Since his dad was gone, he was the man of the house now. That meant he had to take care of everything. And playing ball wasn't what an adult did.
"Oh, look who it is, Kotone," an elderly woman stated as Youjirou appeared at the river's edge. "It's our little Youjirou."
"Ohaiyo Kotone-san, Ran-san," the boy said as he unstrapped the basket of clothes and set it on the ground to roll up his wide sleeves. "How are you doing today?"
Kotone nodded towards her friend, saying, "Good, though better now that we have you to talk to."
Youjirou smiled; he liked these old women. Without fail, they were always at the river to do their laundry with him. It seemed like he got along better with them than the children in the village. "Is there any news from the outside, Ran-san?" he asked before wading out knee deep into the warm water and dunking a muddied black hakama into the clear water.
Ran stood straight, pressing her tired hands against her aching back. "There is, in fact," she said. "The Shinsengumi just ended a rebellion in the Kyoto area; something about the Ishin Shishi Rebels trying to set fire to Kyoto."
"So that means that the rumors are true? The Ishin Shishi is revolting against the shogunate? " Youjirou asked.
Kotone looked uneasy. "Maybe. There are some who will not allow that to happen… honestly, it is too early to tell anything." She bent down to dunk a sash in the water and wring out the excess moisture, pulling tightly on the cloth with her old fingers. "How is your mother doing?" she asked suddenly, switching to a lighter subject.
Youjirou smiled gently and looked down to the wet clothes he held. "She's doing well," he lied.
Ran smiled, showing off her many missing teeth. "Good. I have not seen Miku come out to the village in a while; the last time I saw her, she looked quite pale," she commented to her white haired friend.
"Poor child; she's almost become a different person since he left."
Youjirou did not like it when the villagers talked of his father. True, he went off to war and left a wife and young child behind, but that didn't make him a bad man… did it? Besides, it wasn't his father's absence that changed his mother; it was her illness.
"Oh? Already done with your laundry, Youjirou?" Ran asked when she noticed the boy begin to shoulder his basket of now wet clothes.
"Yes; there was not much to do today," he replied. "I need to see Hina-san now."
"Well, tell her hello for us," Kotone said with a wink.
The boy nodded, a wide grin on his pale face. "Hai!"
The basket was heavy on his back as he climbed up the hill to the center of the village. Hina was one of his mother's friends whose husband also went off to war. However, Hina had no children. She was only sixteen, so there was still time for her to start and raise a family; still, she must have been rather lonely with no one else in the house.
Nakano Hina was fairly new to the small village; Youjirou guessed that's why his mother and she got along so well. Hina wove beautiful cloths and fabrics back at her home in Kyoto, making elegant kimonos and flamboyant curtains. Now that she was here, the villagers could acquire clothing and other materials at reasonable prices. Hina wasn't interested in money, though. She just wanted the villagers to be happy.
"Ohaiyo, You-chan," Hina's soft voice called from the window as Youjirou passed by.
"Ohaiyo," Youjirou replied, setting the basket of clothes to the side to give his back and shoulders a rest. "Okaasan wanted me to see you today."
Hina smiled, twisting away from the window. Soon, the door opened and the young wife stepped out dressed in a new green and yellow kimono. Youjirou was left in awe at the intricacy of the designs and difficult weaving, his blue eyes widening. "It's… it's so beautiful…" he breathed.
The girl arched her back as she examined her handiwork. "Arigatou. I just finished it yesterday; I'm going to wear this when my husband gets back." She blushed slightly, bringing her delicate fingers to her chin. "My husband… it is still so strange to say those two words."
Youjirou nodded, pretending to understand; he knew it was typical for women to marry young, but he never understood the reasoning behind it. His mother was only seventeen when she gave birth to him, so why would Hina still be blushing over being a newlywed? It was probably a woman thing Youjirou would never understand.
"Okaasan told me that I needed to pick up some fabric from you," he said politely, interrupting Hina's thoughts.
"The fabric? Oh right." Hina turned away for a brief moment before pausing and turning back to the boy. "Actually, I have a better idea. Would you like to come in for a second?"
Youjirou had never been in Hina's home before. In fact, this was the first time she ever invited him in. "Hai," he said as he began to remove his sandals.
The house was sparsely decorated just like Youjirou's home. A small square table with fluffy pillows was the main center piece, and a large window illuminated the room. Off to the corner was an unfinished project of Hina's, probably another kimono. The cloth was a light violet color, reminding Youjirou of the light pinks and purples in the sunsets. Small crane designs embroidered the sleeves.
"I need one more layer before I can complete this, and I still have trouble figuring out what color to use. Could you help me?"
Youjirou stared blankly at the many colors of cloth that lined the floor. Reds, blues, yellows, blacks, greens… there must have been every color! "I don't know," he said, looking up to Hina. "How can I help?"
Hina knelt down to Youjirou's height, pushing wispy black bangs from her round face. "Stand here," she said, taking Youjirou gently by the shoulders and moving him into the light of the window. She then smiled, tapping him lightly on the nose with her long finger. "You have such amazing blue eyes… you and your mother both." She reached down to pick up a small cut of fabric, a silvery blue color, and held it by Youjirou's face. A sweet smile spread her plump lips. "Yes…. That's the color," she whispered.
In the mirror behind Hina, Youjirou could barely see his reflection, but it was there. His bright blue eyes seemed to shine brightly with the silvery blue sheen of the fabric. Until now, Youjirou never realized how powerful his eyes were.
"I think I will make this for your mother; I'm sure she will want to look nice when your father gets home," Hina said as she stood and dusted off her knees.
Youjirou smiled; it wasn't fake, but genuine. The first genuine smile that lit up his face ever since his mother got sick. "Arigatou, Hina-san!" he said.
"Well, you picked out the color; I should be the one thanking you. Now, you should probably get home. Your clothes will mold if they stay wet."
The boy was all smiles when he left Hina's home. A new gift for mother… that's just what she needed! Youjirou tried to imagine his mother wearing the beautiful kimono and smiled at the thought of it. With the basket strapped to his back, Youjirou raced home, excited to tell his mother what Hina was making for her.
"Okaasan! Okaasan!" he called as he threw the door open and sprinted inside. "Okaasan, guess what? Hina-san is making you a-"
He was cut short by the sight of his mother lying face down, blood staining her hands. Her blue eyes were staring at the floor, unmoving and dull. Youjirou quickly dropped the basket from his shoulders, his eyes wide in shock and fingers trembling.
"O-okaasan!" The boy fell to his mother's side, shaking her shoulder lightly. "Okaasan, wake up! Okaasan!"
His mother's fingers were cold on his cheek. It wasn't a kind cold; it was like death's icy grip. Youjirou stared down to his mother, forcing back the moisture that had begun to build up in his eyes. "Okaasan… what happened?" he choked.
"Go… go to the village… find… help…"
Blood streaks lined Youjirou's face as his mother's stained fingers fell from his cheek to the ground. His fists were clenched as he ran outside, and his heart pounded furiously at his tiny chest. "Somebody… help okaasan…" he muttered. "Somebody…
Somebody help me!!"