"You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place, I told him, like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you'll never be this way ever again." ― Azar Nafisi
The Camphor Tree
Mei sat at the edge of the porch, her legs swinging back and forth, kicking occasionally at the overgrown grass that grew, long and green, beneath her feet. She wore a yellow dress— a soft colour, the same shade as the dandelions that punctuated the unkempt yard before her. It was a hand-me-down, she remembered. The last time her sister had worn it, was that day, three years ago, when—
"Come on, Mei!" Satsuki called, interrupting her thoughts. Her footsteps pattered on the wood floor, and after a moment, her head appeared in the doorway. "We're getting our stuff in the car now! Hurry up!"
She shook her head stubbornly. Mei could be as mulish as anything when she wanted to be, and right now she didn't feel like obeying her sister. "No," she repeated. Her voice was sullen and dour.
"You're such a baby. Come on. Get your stuff in the car. I'm not carrying it for—"
"I said no!" Her head whipped up, looking Satsuki in the eye. "No! I'm not leaving."
"Mei! You're such a…" her voice trailed off lamely. Sighing in exasperation, she left Mei there, storming back into the house. "Dad, Mei says she's not leaving!"
Elbows on her knees, Mei cupped her chin in her hands, listening with a mixture of relief and trepidation as Satsuki stomped off. Despite her threatening shouts, Mei was fairly certain she wouldn't get in trouble; she knew that if she explained, her dad would understand. Maybe. At least, at one point, he would've. But he'd been such a shell of himself lately, she began to kind of doubt that he would even listen to her.
Well, that was fine: she didn't feel like talking.
She continued to kick at the grass beneath her, angrily beheading dandelions with her toes as she stared at the ground.
It was unfair, she thought. That's what it was: downright unfair. There wasn't any good reason for them to be moving. It wasn't as if the house was crumbling around their heads. Well. Maybe it was. But that wasn't the point, she reminded herself. They couldn't just leave. They'd lived there for three years, and she didn't want to go, she loved the country, she loved that giant tree and the rice fields and even the old crumbling house because it was at this old crumbling house that she had met—
No. Don't be a baby.
Closing her eyes, Mei sighed, hunching over to pick a stray dandelion from the grass beneath her. Twisting the stem lightly between her fingertips, she sighed again and straightened up. Her feet found the ground as she lightly hopped down. She was pretty sure she knew where to go. It was a long walk from the house to the tree, but she didn't mind.
The sun was warm on her skin as she trotted through the grass; the spring breeze flowed through her hair, rippling through her dress. Around her, the grass undulated softly, swelling in the gentle wind. Her gaze wandered up to the camphor tree. It was magnificent. It's height made it almost imposing, but she found it welcoming.
She'd been away for far too long.
Birdsong sounded, weaving between the trees, blended with the husky drone of summer crickets as Mei approached the tangled mess of undergrowth that surrounded the tree. She hadn't been to the tree in months—probably a year—but she found the way immediately. It was beneath the camphor tree, of course; even Satsuki would have remembered that.
Satsuki pretended. She pretended to forget. She acted like everything that had happened was just some game they had made up when they were little. Maybe it made more sense, but Mei wasn't interested in sense. She wanted him back. She wanted to be six again, she wanted to hear that ocarina, she wanted the feeling of flying through the air…
Yes. That was what she missed the most. Flying. She would give anything to have that moment back again: the wind in her face, her body buried in warm, soft fur.
Clambering down to her hands and knees, she entered the tunnel. The smell of rich earth and forest life was strong inside. The tunnel was smaller and much more overgrown than she remembered. Leaves and branches snagged in her hair, poking at her arms and legs.
Mei knew what she would see when she arrived. She knew it was ridiculous to hope. But her heart seemed to constrict when she saw there was nothing there but the tree.
Swallowing down her disappointment, she slowly walked toward the massive trunk, running her fingers down the rough, familiar surface. The wind rustled in the camphor leaves, and then stilled; for a moment, the birds seemed to quiet. It was as if nature was pausing, waiting for her to say something.
"Totoro," she began hesitantly, "Totoro, are you there?"
There was no reply. She hadn't expected one. There was no reason for her to be calling out anyway; it was just stupid. But she couldn't make herself leave: not yet. Her back against the trunk, she slowly slid down so that her chin was on her knees, her arms wrapped around her legs. "I wanted to talk to you. You… you see, my mom died, and it's been a year but my dad is still really upset, and now we're moving back to Kitakyushu. And I'm never going to see you again. And I really, really wanted to see you before we left."
But the grove was silent and still, and after a moment, the birdsong started up again. The trees waved gently in the sun-drenched sky.
Her lips began to tremble, but she took a deep breath and tried again. "I really wanted to see you…" her voice trailed off.
The breeze trickled past Mei's face, cool and gentle; it was soothing, somehow. She felt so comfortable, nestled in between the tree roots. Heaving a deep breath, she relaxed against the trunk. She sat there for a long time, breathing in the warm, clear air. Her eyes slowly drifted shut, and without realising it, she fell asleep.
"That was really, really stupid," said Satsuki. She didn't sound angry, but she was definitely annoyed. "What made you run off like that?"
Mei and Satsuki had just been put to bed, and they'd left the slatted doors open so the night air filtered in. The clattering sounds of their father cleaning up from dinner reverberated from the kitchen, and a yellow crack of light glowed from beneath the door.
Mei looked up at her sister petulantly.
"It took me forever to find you," Satsuki continued. "Imagine if Dad had heard that you were lost. He's a wreck already."
When she didn't get a reply to that, either, she sighed, rolling over onto her stomach. Her fingernails traced the cracks in the hardwood floor. "Mei, why on earth do you want to stay?"
"I like it here," she muttered.
"But you liked the city, too. Remember? We'll be with Granny."
"But that Granny's not our real Granny. Our real Granny is still alive, in Kitakyushu." She smiled a little, and her tone became coaxing. "Don't you want to see her? Don't you want to see her, Mei?"
Mei was stubbornly silent.
"Mei, don't shut me out, please. You're not just hurting me, you're hurting yourself." She sighed, stroking a lock of shaggy brown hair away from her eyes. "I want to help; you know that. Why don't you want to go home?"
"This is home."
"Mei, you're not six anymore."
"You're not yourself anymore!"
For a moment, a brief, wounded look flashed across Satsuki's eyes. But it quickly passed, becoming replaced with a look of annoyance. "Whatever, Mei. Good night."
Mei rolled over, resting her chin on the back of her hand. She didn't want to move back to the big city. What would be so fun about that? Crowds, polluted air, and neon signs? But Dad had told them very firmly that he wanted to be closer to his family.
"I don't even know them," she said, softly.
"I remember them," mumbled Satsuki into her pillow.
"Are they nice?"
She shrugged. "I don't remember. I guess so."
Sighing, Mei shifted into a more comfortable position. "I'm sorry for running off today, Satsuki."
She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "You know…"
"You're not going off about that again!"
"What?" Mei sat up, offended. "I wanted to see him again."
"Totoro?" Groaning, Satsuki looked up from her pillow. Her hair stuck out around her face like a bird's nest. "Don't tell me that's why you ran off."
Mei pouted, but didn't say anything.
"Don't be such a baby, Mei. I'm tired. Now go to sleep."
There was a long pause.
"Goodnight, Satsuki," Mei said, quietly.
The only sounds were the wind rustling the grass in their yard, and the crickets singing outside the open doors. But Mei listened carefully for the sound of an ocarina, somewhere in the direction of the camphor tree.
I'm going to miss him, she thought.