His eyes are bright and clear. She knows them, has dreamt of them countless nights, has remembered his eyes and his face so many times that if she were to die at that very moment it would more likely than not be with the image of his eyes before her.
But it is only the eyes that are the same.
"Good evening," she says stiffly, aware that her hair is lined with silver, that she appears frailer and more insubstantial than she must have thirty years before. But her eyes are still the same - they still possess the same deceptive calm they did the first time he looked into those eyes. That alone has not changed about her.
He shakes his head and says nothing, handing her the sealed envelope. She takes it with fingers whose shaking she cannot conceal and he takes pity on her and presses it into her hand, his mouth set. Then he looks at her for one long moment with those dark eyes and, having made up his mind, smiles. Her breath catches painfully in her throat. It is not just the eyes after all.
Then he turns away, his shoes slapping briskly through the water on the ground, as the rain sluices down on and over his unprotected head and shoulders. She wants to offer him an umbrella but the words refuse to come - the memories are too strong for that and she cannot help remembering a similar set of shoulders striding through the rain on the day she said good-bye to him forever.
She cannot bring herself to call him back for a cup of tea or to answer any of the hundreds of questions, long-buried, welling up inside of her. She cannot even rush out to give him the umbrella that stands, awkwardly propped against the wall, as she might once have done. In the end, she does nothing at all.
She shuts the door, but the memories cannot be shut out with the sight of his retreating back. They come pouring in around her, as immediate and unstoppable as the rain itself. Her fingers feel the thin paper of the envelope between her fingers and her emotions wash out of her. Dully, she retreats into the darkened house and feels her way, her eyes vague and unfocused with the deluge of memories passing before her inner eye.
It is too late, now, for regrets.
The envelope sits on the kitchen table across from her, immaculately laid as though it were a placemat or a forgotten linen napkin perched upon the tabletop. She sips her tea and tries not to look at it but her fingers flex and reach for it, then pull away in a spasm of self-denial.
Whatever news it brings, she does not want to see it. Whatever tales it has to tell, she does not want to know. And yet, she feels that it holds the answers to all the questions she has ever had in the whole of her existence, and all the truths she has ever turned away from.
So she sips at her tea and tries not to look, the grandfather clock ticking time in the background. So much time has passed - years that she had not believed she possessed. If she could turn back time this very instant . . . if she could alter the nature of her Wish, would she do so, right now?
For what? A moment's gratification? Another bittersweet memory? Another ending?
She doesn't know.
Perhaps the letter can tell her, but whatever the answer, it will only bring her pain.
She knows in her heart of hearts, that now it is too late to alter Fate.
Once there lived a boy who chose a Future and in choosing, changed it.
That Destiny, which had been set in stone, had melted and turned to slush through which they had navigated an uncertain Future amidst icy waters.
But she has clung to the notion of Fate, she has held fast to the notion of Destiny; she is, even now, unwilling to let it go. If she does, will there be anything left? Or will she alone remain, sitting in an empty house, silently reading a letter.
The rain beats against the windows and they sway open a little. She rises and latches them properly shut, resting her forehead against the cool glass as she gazes at the sodden pines outside, bending in the wind. The night is gray and indistinct. There have been many such nights in her memory, many such days when the world has blurred into formlessness and she herself has been indifferent to it and to herself. She is not indifferent now because in this night she sees the echo of her empty years and she can no longer take comfort in that easy oblivion of denial.
The pain rises, the hot and sharp stinging of tears inside her breast as though no time at all has passed and she feels, once again, as she did that moment she sent him away and knew that she would never look upon his face again.
And for the first time, she questions herself.
Her resolve has never faltered but it crumbles now and she stares askance through the glass and the night and sees the imprint of his eyes on her mind, hurt and bitter, quietly loving, and she wants to turn away as she did that night but there is no turning away from this memory pressing upon her. She can no longer deny him.
So she shuts her eyes and lets the memory fall through her, in droplets, in sheets, in a storm of silent remembrance.
He was smiling, she remembers. That was to be expected. He is often smiling when she thinks of him. Her memories are selective. They find him at happy moments, at awkward moments; they see his dark eyes and his upturned mouth and they catch her breathless at the emotion he conveys to her with the quickest glimpse in her direction and the answering thunder in her heart.
Yes, she often sees him smiling.
This is no different, and yet it is - she is burdened by the foreknowledge of what is to come. She cannot help but impose her own pain upon his tranquil expression. But he is at peace, happy and content. In her memory she traces the line of his mouth with her fingertips and his eyes open to meet her own, his hand reaching up to catch those errant fingers with his own.
"Awake again?" he murmurs. His voice is soft and deep and she cannot help but shiver at his tone.
"Cold?" he says, offering the word to her to acknowledge or deny.
She says nothing and he pulls her down against him, his skin warm against her own. She rests her head against his chest and closes her eyes to listen to the steady drumming of his heart beneath her ear, a beat like distant cannons. His arm surrounds her, strokes one bare shoulder, the dark fall of her hair.
"You are cold," he says, lips pressing against the crown of her head. "Shall I retrieve the covers?"
"No," her voice comes, quiet, the first she's spoken in hours, his heartbeat sounding loud within him, within her. "You're warm."
He chuckles, feels her body shift as she raises herself up to look at him, unashamed of her nakedness, of the hair that falls in straight lines over her shoulders and back, over her chest and his, of the calm eyes that are looking at him now, lit from within with hidden fire. Her lips open, he raises his head to kiss her, there is a moment, and they pull away.
Her mouth has the aftertaste of lightning, sharp and sweet, scorched with flame.
He does not have to ask, nor she. They both know, and she lowers herself to meet his mouth again. There is the temptation to hurry but they have all the time in the world now, and they make use of it, tempering their urgency with the sweetness of extending their pleasure beyond the bounds and extent of the ordinary. If the world should end, it will end with the two of them lost in each other's arms, for here is their world. It begins and ends with the melding of their hearts, of the fusing of their bodies, one into the other.
They tremble on the verge of ecstasy for an age, enough time to grow old and young again in that interval of incompleteness, of desperate anticipation. She is dying, here, in his arms, and he as well, and then the moment is past and they are caught together in a state stronger than desire and higher and more profound than love. They find nirvana when two cease to be and turn to one.
Afterwards, they dream. Sometimes the dreams are different. Sometimes they are the same. Once, she wakes to the sound of rain.
Curled against his sleeping body, she counts her blessings, one by one. She counts the beats of his heart despite the rain that patters down against the rooftop and the windows. The sound of the elements is inconstant; his heart, whether it speeds or slows, is always steady. It is then that she makes her decision, and shutters herself against the rising flood within her. She is not strong enough to refute Destiny. She is only strong enough to accept it.
He can fight it, but in doing so, she knows that he will break. So she chooses to break herself so that he might live.
She tries and fails to suppress it. To the beat of a heart, the first drop falls.
It was raining that night as well.
He is smiling, but the pain, so apparent in his eyes, is even more evident in the agonized twist of his mouth.
She dares not touch him. She cannot look into his eyes again.
"Please," he says. He has no words with which to convey his feeling, all of them have abandoned him but this last. "Please."
"No," she replies.
The word is a whisper but he hears it as a scream. He knows that she does not want this, wants it no more than he. He presses onward, blindly searching for a glimmer of light where there is none to be found. It is her name, now, that is on his lips. "Arashi."
She jerks as though shot, as though her limbs and body were nothing more than those of a marionette's and he has pulled all her strings. Her head wrenches upwards; she forces herself to look at him. There are his eyes. She sees them now. They will haunt her now, tomorrow, a thousand tomorrows from now. Someday, she will see them as easily as breathing.
"Arashi," he whispers again, despairingly, and she shakes her head, forces herself to meet his eyes.
Something in him sparks and dies. She feels it within herself as well, that thing that was alive a moment before is curling now to ash. There is a heaviness within herself. She hears the beating of her own heart in her ears and is startled at the hollowness of the sound. Since when has she been so empty? There is nothing left to fill her. Even the water inside her swells briefly then falls still. There is a building pressure behind her eyes and along the bridge of her nose, a pounding at her temples. She pushes it back, down, away. She cannot let him see her break. If she falters he will not accept her decision.
He stares at her a moment longer, then turns, feet sloshing through the rain, his umbrella held mechanically over himself. She sees the set of his shoulders, grimly resolute, then suddenly they slide into a posture of defeat, of utmost despair, and she can see them hunch, can see that he is shaking, and she cannot go to him. It is the most she can do to stay standing, the rain beating senselessly against her own umbrella, and watch him walk out of her life. When he is gone, she stares at nothing; then, without warning, she finds herself kneeling in the rain, umbrella forgotten, her arms around herself, the pressure building unbearably within her head.
She has swallowed sorrow and is afraid she will choke on it. She wants to die. The tears refuse to come.
The years pass. She does not mark them.
There is the shrine at first. She is not happy or unhappy. It is impossible to be either. For a long time it is impossible to be anything at all. Before that night there is no past and beyond it she can see no future.
People move through her life like shifting shadows. Whether they are friends or strangers, she cannot tell. Who is the woman who stares out at her in the glass? She is a stranger but for the eyes, which remain, always, the same, save now there is less fire and more rain in their depths. It is they that bring her to herself.
It comes like whisper on the evening breeze one night. She does not remember who it was who told her, Karen - yes, she remembers their names now, it has been thirty years and she is herself once more - or one of the others, or perhaps he sent a card himself, but she remembers laughing, her heart dying a little more with each jagged breath, as she thinks that he is getting married. Her eyes are dry.
And she wonders why she cannot die.
She leaves Ise soon afterwards, and she does not remember the time after that. It is a good long period that is lost in a perpetual haze, but she cannot help but think that it was full of the memory of his eyes, and rainy nights, and that she is better off not thinking of those lost years. It is easier now to disregard such things. The memories that remain to her are painful enough; she has no need of more.
She remembers she never spoke his name.
It does not matter.
She is here now, has been here for a long time, in this Western- style house, with the company of a gray cat, one following another, the ticking grandfather clock resting in the hall, the austere bedroom that she keeps in traditional fashion, and the wide kitchen that is sunny most days because of the wide windows and the three skylights overhead.
It is gray, today; the skylights are full of roiling dark clouds and the windows are full of rain.
She turns her face from the glass, her eyes instantly finding the spot of white on her wooden table. The pain has not subsided. This time she doubts that she will be able to suppress it again.
It is raining; she is tired; thirty years have passed.
His son came to her door today and gave her a letter.
She will read it now.
Her heart feels a particular infinite weariness. She knows with absolute certainty that he is dead and any lingering, misplaced hope she might have possessed has been buried with him. After thirty years, she saw his eyes again tonight, and his smile. It will have to be enough until she can pass from this world to join him in the next.
She sits down at the table and picks up the envelope with trembling fingers, then draws a breath and slits it open with care and precision. She pulls out the translucent white sheets and stares at them before the black marks resolve themselves into characters. Then she reads, her heart catching in her throat.
My beloved Arashi,
If this letter has come to you then I have passed on - don't say dead, Miss, I'd rather delay the reality a little longer, if you don't mind. Please do me the honor of saying a prayer for me.
It doesn't matter when I wrote this letter and when you're receiving it. Whenever this letter comes to you, the following will be true:
I have lived a full life, Destiny be damned. You may have heard I've married. This is true. I have a son now. It's strange, writing these words to you - these are words I've wanted to say for a long time, but I never expected that I would have to tell you any of this. The one I saw at my side was always-
Well, you know.
It was hard without you. At first I thought I was going to die. Wanted to, at times. Perhaps it would have been different if Kamui had not changed Fate, but without duty, there was nothing at all for me.
I was lonely. You will, I think, forgive me for being lonely. Perhaps you will not forgive me for being weak. Perhaps I do not deserve to be forgiven.
She is shy and quiet. She is nothing like you.
You were my storm, my sky. My heaven.
I think of you in quiet moments. In busy moments. In in-between moments. I hold you, sometimes, in the world beneath the layer of my dreams, and your smile lights up the darkness until I wake up with your name on my lips and tears in my eyes.
She doesn't ask.
I'm grateful to her for that. We have a happy home, a decent life. My son is growing like a weed and he takes after his old man. I wish he knew you. I wish you knew him. Someday, I'll tell him about you and he'll understand because this is something he cannot fail to understand - how important you are to me. How much you are a part of me, and thus, a part of him. He'll understand. I'll explain it until he does.
When he's older.
So, I was lonely and I married and started a life completely different from the one I thought I would lead. It didn't help, not at first, not all at once. But gradually, gradually . . .
It was strange. I began to live.
I think that, too, is because of you. I stopped for a long time. Stopped cold. But then one day I was laughing with my son and I was smiling and I thought about you and I kept smiling. There, I thought. Here is love, and there is love, and it has never been apart from me or me from it. I have never parted from you, even as you have never parted from me.
My son and my wife are precious to me. This life I have built with them is precious, infinitely so. I won't give it, or them, up for anything. You gave me this, and now I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
So let me tell you something.
Arashi, I lived to one day see your smile again, to hear your laugh, to hold you - even for an instant - in my arms. If you're reading this letter, I know that day has never come for me and it's painful knowledge. Yes, even beyond the grave you may be sure that I am disappointed. I'm not letting you off that easy.
Oh, you're thinking, here it comes. You were waiting for it, weren't you? Here goes.
Even if it had truly been my fate to die protecting you, you must know that I would have embraced it in a moment if only for another minute at your side. Your choice threw away any choice I could make. In that instant, it was my feelings that didn't matter.
I forgive you.
I know that it is a testament of your love. You thought it was better to break yourself than to let me die. You were mistaken.
I have been living but I have also been dying, a little bit, each and every moment of my life without you.
Right now, as I write this, rain is falling. I think of it and I think of you.
I am standing before you now as I was that very first day. Through the rain I can only see one thing. It is you, and you are beautiful.
I chose you. I loved you. I love you. I choose you again. Over and over, forever.
Never doubt that. Never regret that.
I never have.
I have lived, loving you with every breath of my body and every beat of my heart. I have died the same - perhaps, it is my devout wish, I have done so for your sake.
Now, here is my first, last, only Wish.
Live, Arashi, for your own sake.
I love you.
She lowers the shaking rice-paper pages and gazes at nothing until her vision blurs.
And for the first time in a long time, the rain comes.