Although there had been a time in her life before Mei had loved Hagane, she struggled to remember it. Habit does such a good job of erasing the past. Though they were still young, married only a few years and yet without child, Mei had almost forgotten what life was like back in her old family home. The house with Hagane outside of the city with its little patch of garden and the small stretch of field behind it was all Mei could ever want.
When she took ill, she found herself with too much time to think. She would often think about that old life which she had almost forgotten: that life from before. The memories came to her at times in flits and flutters – glimpses of a childhood spent cramped and confined in city accommodation with all those other bodies that made up her family. It seemed so blurry and distant to her – the memory as squashed as the apartment her family had tried to co-exist in. She’d been so lonely there amongst all those people.
As fate would have it, Mei and Hagane would never have the chance of raising a child. Mei could feel in her bones what the physician couldn’t find: something eating away at her from the inside, each day making her more tired and just a little weaker. She thought about the past and the future: two sides of the same coin, all part of one whole. She couldn’t bear the thought of a life without Hagane – a return to the past. But she did not need to worry about that. She would not have to suffer a life without Hagane. He would outlive her by far. It was Hagane who would have to live without Mei. That was what worried her. She thought of how painful it would be to live without him and somehow, the thought of him alone – without her – was more painful.
When she felt too ill to even get out of bed – withered to almost nothing – Mei sent a note to her twin sister. Her sister came all those miles out of the city and sat by her bedside and spoke to her softly of the time which Mei could hardly remember outside of flits and flutters. And, when her sister left, she left a willow basket behind, covered over with a piece of linen cloth.
Shortly after the sister had left, Hagane came in from tending the fields to sit with his wife as she drifted in and out of sleep. He did this every evening and even at times in the day when work permitted. Any free time that he had was spent with her. His back was tired from tilling and staying cross-legged for so long did nothing to help this, but he didn’t mind so much. He was happy just to sit with his wife. Although, this was only true in a sense – because, really, he was not happy at all. There was a sorrow welling inside of him. It hurt to know that sitting was all they could do together now. Mei was right. The thought of one of them being left alone without the other was painful; it was the thought that pained Hagane more than anything. What could he do without Mei?
He might have continued to think along these lines had it not been for the willow basket which was placed the other side of his wife’s head, pressed up against the wall. It was an alien object, but there was some hope in that. Since Mei’s illness, even their living quarters had remained unchanged, the futon never folded away as it remained in constant need. Days had trickled by, one after the other, punctuated by the odd visit from a relative or a doctor, but, in essence, they’d all been the same. When the sun began to dip and the people left, the room looked just as it had before and Mei was still as ill. Yet, today, that wasn’t the case. There was the willow basket, with its interlocking weave of overs and unders all tightly held together. It was something small, only a minor change in the otherwise unchanging room, but there was hope in that.
‘What’s with the basket?’ Hagane asked, not content with merely imagining what medicine or poultice or charm might be held inside it.
Mei, who had only been sleeping lightly, stirred and shifted her weight in his direction. ‘What was that, darling?’ she asked.
‘Oh sorry, did I wake you?’ Hagane had not noticed that she’d slept. His focus had been solely on the basket. He dipped his head a little – in the way the child they would never have would if it felt disappointed in itself.
‘It’s alright, darling. I wasn’t sleeping properly. What was it you said?’
‘The basket,’ said Hagane. He tried to reach for it but worried that this meant leaning over his wife and he didn’t want to place any weight on her. He stopped himself mid movement, leaving just his arm out, pointing to the foreign object near the wall. ‘The basket – what’s in it?’
His wife smiled: the saddest smile he’d ever seen – sad because there was no sadness in it whatsoever, just stoic resignation, a self-awareness that suggested that this might be the last smile to ever grace her face. ‘It’s for you,’ Mei said. ‘For when I go…’
Hagane’s hand, which had still been pointing, went limp. He shook his head as profusely as he could, as if his own conviction could outweigh his wife’s and somehow make her take her words back – might somehow make her better. ‘Don’t say that,’ he whispered. ‘Don’t say that.’
‘When I go,’ she repeated. ‘I want you to look in that basket. There’s something for you. A flower. Wangyoucao.’ The foreign word rolled comfortably off her tongue. ‘My mother used to tell me stories about it from her homeland. The Orange Lily of Forgetfulness, they call it. It will ease your sorrows.’
Hagane shook his head once more. ‘Nothing will.’
‘Time will,’ said his wife and she took hold of that hand which had gone limp a minute before and, though she was weak, she had strength enough to pull him down onto the mattress with her and cradle his head whilst he cried.
Mei passed that night with her husband lying beside her. She slipped silently off, her feet making no sound, not even softest scratch on the tatami matting, as she departed into the night air.
When Hagane woke and found her, the flower in that little willow basket was not immediately on his mind. His mind was filled with other things.
It wasn’t until the night – when people had come and gone, had looked at the body and paid their respects; when the house was quiet once more – that Hagane thought of the flower that his wife had mentioned the night before. It was dark, as it always is at night, and Hagane had to light a candle. The flits and flutters of the flame played on the basket, revealing different folds and shadows in the wickerwork. He could not see inside it at first so he stooped right down close and was met with the smell of old vegetable matter. There was the flower with its stem and its bulb and its rhizomes like little uncrawling maggots. He picked it up so gently, so delicately – cupping his hand so that the bulb sat in the heel of his palm and his long fingers supported the scape of the plant so that the bud at the head would not droop. The flower petals with their texture like slack, aged skin sat loose at the bottom of the basket and, although everything looked grey in the thin pool of candle light, Hagane felt certain that these were really that colour.
He didn’t recognise the plant. Hagane knew crops not flowers and, even if he’d known them, it would be difficult to identify in the state it was in. Still, he would nurse it back to life. He blew out the candle and left it weeping smoke in a little stone bowl on the floor. Then, taking the weight of foliage in his free hand, he headed out into the garden with the flower. He laid it down on the ground whilst, in the darkness, he scratched away at the earth. It was soft and turned easily. Once he thought he’d made a bowl in the earth big enough for the plant, he placed it into the ground and pushed around it like a swaddle.
There was a bamboo watering can inside which he scrabbled around to find, before filling it with water from the butt. Back outside, he crawled on his knees, careful that his careless feet would not trample on the flower. When he found it, he let the water trail out a drop at a time, determined not to drown the thing with too much water at once.
Hagane went back to that futon which hadn’t been aired in months. As he lay in it, he couldn’t work out if the smell which kept him awake was from the mattress or the mud still under his fingernails or something else entirely – some trace left behind by his wife.
Grief is cruel. It breeds tiredness and insomnia both, so he lay with his eyes closed stitching his way between wake and sleep, caring when the sun appeared.
When he did get up, it was to go outside – to check on the plant. In the midday sunlight it didn’t look quite so grey, and that thing which had looked almost impossibly dead the night before had already bloomed. The little bloom at the end of one of the scapes had peeled itself open and velvety petals of orange had unfurled themselves from within it. There was a perfectly formed flower, the petals curving back to reveal anthers of pollen poking outwards on the ends of their little stalks. Despite himself, Hagane smiled. He had not expected the plant to grow so quickly – so well – after being transplanted. It had felt so delicate. He had worried that the stem would snap overnight. But, there it was: a living thing, holding its own weight and flourishing.
More relatives arrived to see Hagane and share their condolences and commiserations that day – those from further afield. And it was late evening by the time everyone had left. Hagane, still unsure how to be alone, found it hard to be in the house. He wandered out to check on the flower and found that it was gone. The plant was still there with its folding leaves of green; the stalk still stood straight; but, at the base of the plant was a handful of orange petals, already starting to wither and become earth again. And, just like that, it was as if his wife had died anew. Tears swelled in buds at the corners of Hagane’s eyes before blossoming down his cheeks.
In spite of the pain of the nights before, Hagane pulled himself out of bed to check on the flower the next day. Again, his sleep had been broken – erratic; and, again, he awoke to the full light of day. By the morning those petals on the ground had disappeared: mulched, or eaten by a creature or swept away on the wind. But, they had been replaced by new ones. A new flower. Once more, Hagane found himself smiling.
Fewer people came to visit that day which meant that Hagane could check on the flower more. He’d look at it whenever he could. He even watched as it fell apart and the bud closed up on itself.
Watching the flower became a part of his routine. By the time of the memorial service for his wife on the forty-ninth day after her passing, Hagane had become so habituated to the cycle of life and death that he’d forgotten the pain its ending could cause. He didn’t cry during the rites and his friends and family smiled inwardly to themselves – pleased to see that he was coping so well.
During the summer, the daylily never proliferated. It did not spread off its seed or grow new shoots. Each day, the flower grew from the same scape, as if it were really the same flower. When winter came, the leaves did not fall off; the stem of the plant did not recede back into the ground to hide away with the bulb and the roots. In the cold and even the snow, still the plant flowered.
Hagane forgot the reason for the ache in his heart and then he forgot the ache in his heart all together. Years passed: his futon was aired hundreds of times and thousands of petals fell. The signs of Hagane’s life with Mei had all disappeared. After the ceremony of remembrance on the 100th day a relative had suggested taking Mei’s kimonos off to sell and Hagane, barely aware of what sentimentality was anymore, consented. Months after that, Hagane had stumbled upon the little shrine that was in place for his wife, though it sat where it always had since her passing. Disregarding it for its gloominess, Hagane tucked it away in an old lacquer chest he never went in. One by one, the things which belonged to Mei all disappeared until there was no trace of her left. The orange lily of forgetfulness had worked its spell.
Over these years, Hagane lived a life of routine. His day was filled with his flower and the crops in the fields. He was self-sufficient for the most part. He could live off what he grew – could cook his own meals and sew enough to patch holes in his work-worn clothes. It was only when one of his wabi-sabi pots cracked through that Hagane really needed to come out of himself. Self-sufficient he might have been, but only to an extent. He was no potter.
Hagane wandered the market of the nearby city, crouching beneath awnings and hunching himself over stalls to get a better look at the wares. Traders passed with their woven baskets and their buckets suspended from them on wooden poles. As he chose between a row of pots, picking each up to gauge its weight and appraise the way that the light glossed on its surface, Hagane noticed someone watching him. A few yards away a woman stood, her head cocked slightly to one side, her curious eyes those of a bird who, hopping towards a pile of grain in an outstretched hand, pauses in second thought. As she caught his attention, the angle of the woman’s cocked head deepened and those startled eyes flashed with realisation.
‘Hagane?’ she asked, stepping towards him.
He nodded and held the pot he had been inspecting to his chest as a sort of defensive barrier between himself and this stranger. Only, she wasn’t a stranger. Hagane was sure there was something familiar about her. She looked like someone he had once known. He did not feel that he had known this woman in particular, especially; rather, he felt like this woman resembled another whom he had forgotten. The sense of this was uncanny. It made him uncomfortable. He clutched the pot more closely against himself so that he could feel the cold of it on his ribs even through his clothes.
‘It really is you,’ the woman said, her voice warm now. ‘I wasn’t sure. You look different with the beard and it’s been so long since I last saw you. How long has it been anyway? Two years? No. Three.’
Hagane nodded again, though he was not sure he had seen this woman before, even despite the niggle of familiarity.
‘How have you been, anyway? We’ve all been thinking about you.’
‘I’ve been fine,’ said Hagane. ‘Good.’
The woman smiled and that was familiar too, although it wasn’t quite right – it wasn’t quite familiar enough. He still could not place who she was or who she reminded him off. ‘I’m really glad to hear that,’ the woman said. ‘You know, you’d be welcome to come visit whenever you’d like. The family would be happy to see you.’
By now, the woman had been stood still for so long with her goods slung under her arm and Hagane could see her starting to shift, trying to adjust the heavy bags in her hands. The market around her was becoming just as restless. People who had been waiting nearby for the stall were just considering elbowing their way past. Hagane, therefore did not get to ask which family it was she meant before she left. ‘Any way, I’d better go,’ the woman said. ‘It was nice seeing you again.’ She took a few steps away before turning back. ‘I remember seeing you on that night. I was just leaving as you were just coming in and you looked so sad. I worried how you’d cope when it was all over, but it’s good to see you’re doing well.’ She was already moving off as she said those words – barely still in earshot and then she was no longer even in eyeshot.
As Hagane thought about what she said, the pot slipped from his grasp and shattered on the ground. He was filled with a sadness, but it was not the sadness of old. He was sad because he had once cared about something – loved something – so much that it had filled him with sadness, but now he could not even remember what that something was. It was that which made him sad unlike anything else. The forgetting was the saddest part.
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