The Last of Michiko
by Mandy Huggins
Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction 2015
Every evening Hitoshi kneels on a blue cushion in the doorway that leads out to the garden. He leaves the shoji screens open regardless of the weather, and stays there until long after the sun has set. His heart knows that Michiko will never return, but his stubborn head finds reasons to postpone acceptance of the fact.
The wind chimes jingle softly through the house, as gentle as her voice, and in the sudden breeze they mimic her laugh. Hitoshi presses his face into a pink kimono, inhaling her faint scent. At his side stands a jar of her homemade adzuki bean paste, as sweet and red as her lips. He has rationed it carefully, but now this final jar is almost empty.
The day’s post is propped up against the screen, and Hitoshi reaches for the bills and a letter from his daughter. She writes each week and always asks him to go and stay. Sometimes he thinks he will, but the trip to Tokyo seems like such a long journey now, and the city blinds him. There are no distances; everything is too densely packed, too close to see. And what about Michiko? He couldn’t risk her returning in his absence.
His son lives nearer, but when Hitoshi sees the car pull up he stays out of sight and doesn’t answer the door. He is saving them from the words that neither can bear to say. His son was the last to see Michiko; he watched the dark water snatch her away as though she were a brittle twig. When Hitoshi imagines it he pictures her hair floating upwards like the darkest seaweed, her skin so pale it appears as blue as the sea.
And though he has tried not to, he blames his son for failing to save her.
Some evenings Hitoshi thinks he hears a faint knocking, but when he goes outside the narrow street is always empty. He peers into the darkness for a moment; remembering the clack of wooden geta on the cobbles, glimpsing the soft light of the lantern outside the noodle shop. He imagines the warmth inside; the kind face of Koko as she pours the sake, and his friend, Wada, sitting at the counter waiting to mull over the old days. But Hitoshi always goes back inside and sits alone again in the dark.
Tonight there is no knocking, but just after seven o’clock he hears the doorbell. When he opens the screen, his neighbour, the young widow Emiko, stands beneath the light cradling a jar in both hands.
‘I found this in the cupboard, Hitoshi-san, the last of Michiko’s bean paste.’
As he takes the jar, Hitoshi stumbles under the weight of its significance. He looks up at Emiko as she backs away, and when their eyes meet she pauses. He bows, and gestures her inside, apologising for his rudeness. She steps past him, her kimono sweeping the tatami like a new broom, and the wind chimes fall silent.
The Last of Michiko was Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction 2015, as chosen by Richard Skinner.