A/N: I’m not entirely happy with the symmetry of having a chapter with Muroi angsting over the whole thing and then talking with his mother right after a chapter of Ozaki having done the same… but it seems unavoidable for things to happen in the order I’d like for them to. And I definitely want a conversation between Muroi and Mrs. Muroi, so…
Oh, and I used a Japanese term here instead of the English language equivalent. Normally I would shy away from doing so since fanfics with tons of Japanese littered throughout are annoying to read (and often the Japanese is used incorrectly anyway), but it fit better here than any of the English language equivalents.
- Happy Endings Are All the Same: Chapter Five
If the nights had often seemed very long when he’d stayed with Toshio, his first night back in his own bed seemed impossibly so. Seishin found himself repeatedly jerked out of the edge of sleep by moving in the bed and feeling no other person there. His hand felt cold, too. But, most of all, his mind was plagued with the events of the night before and the unpleasant sensation of his clothes slowly growing damp as they lay in the grass. When the birds began to chirp outside his window, he gave up on sleep entirely.
He wrote early, beginning with a lamp that he extinguished as the sun’s rays began to slant into the windows. But he wasn’t happy with what he wrote, and the pages kept getting balled up and tossed out of reach. It wasn’t that what he wrote wasn’t good – it just seemed simply too revealing. He felt the fear of writing too much of himself into his work snapping at him, mocking him. The notion of someone reading it and realizing so much about himself was an awful one.
When he finally bathed and dressed for the day, there was a small snowfall of crumpled paper littering the floor. They crunched under his feet as he left the room. Neither he nor his father had ever gotten particularly good at tying their own obi. But, then again, they’d never been expected to, either.
But, then again, he’d been expected to have a wife to do this for him by now.
She was in the kitchen already, as usual. Mrs. Muroi was an early riser; always had been, but had become even more of one since Seishin’s father had had a stroke. She woke early to check on him, while Seishin would usually check on him before he went to bed at night. They would help him to the bathroom if necessary, get him anything he needed. Watching his mother quietly as he stood in the door to the kitchen, Seishin marveled that she was strong enough to get him to the bathroom; she looked so elegant… delicate, even. But he knew she had the arms of a farmer’s wife underneath her kimono’s sleeves.
Seishin touched his hair unconsciously. He wondered if he looked the same to others; he’d gotten his own looks from her, and he knew it had been a point of some amusement in the village to see that. Especially when the resemblance seemed to only strengthen over the years instead of lessen. He looked like a Muroi, though, that was for sure. Maybe he looked more like his mother and female cousins than like his uncles or grandfather, but he was definitely a Muroi.
He finally spoke, realizing he’d been standing in the doorway for a few moments already, “‘kaa-san.”
She turned around, a soft look on her face, and he briefly wondered if she used the soft smile like he did.
“Ah, Seishin, you’re up. There’s some breakfast on the table; let me tie that for you.”
She said almost exactly the same thing every morning, but it never struck him as being simply mindless repetition. It was just that they had a fairly regular routine; she always made the family breakfast, and she always had to tie his obi before he could do anything else. A few years ago he had joined this ritual; back then, his father had gone first. But now he only wore yukata, and so he didn’t need any help. His breakfast was brought to him earlier than Seishin ate, too.
He’d felt some trepidation that first time he had entered the kitchen for this routine. He’d felt nervous at the idea of taking on this role of the younger priest. And he’d also felt… trapped. As if the obi being tied was a straitjacket. He was being tied to Sotoba. There was no more option for anything else. He was a real adult. And he had real obligations. So long, youthful days.
He still felt this way often, although it was tinged with much more resignation than it had when he had been younger. It’d been five years already, almost six. It was too tiring to get tensed up over it all every morning.
So even as his trepidation had grown over the previous year, snaked around him more and more tightly, really over the previous three years, he had felt increasingly passive about it. Wake up, eat, clean the temple and the grounds, visit the villagers as needed, perform the religious rites at various ceremonies, weddings, and funerals, write, sleep. Smile when necessary, say the right things. Don’t look upset. Don’t make your parents unhappy. Smile, now, smile.
It had been tiring. It still was. And it hadn’t kept his dissatisfaction and a larger sense of despair at bay. He had supposed that if he behaved properly then he would at least be granted some tiny little corner of happiness. Or, rather, more accurately, he had supposed that this tiny little corner of happiness would be enough to sustain him. He did have a small bit of it, after all – the old church, his books. But he felt like he was drowning anyway. It wasn’t enough. And it never would be.
It came into greater and greater clarity, this fact. And it had disturbed him deeply as it had. And, then, one day, he had opened the doors to catch the summer breeze, and very, very calmly ripped his wrist wide open.
But it hadn’t been so sudden as that. He’d thought about it a lot before doing it. He’d thought about it enough to have waited until his parents were away. After much planning and arrangements, his mother had finally been able to bring his father to visit relatives in Yokohama. He hadn’t seen them since right after his stroke when he’d still been unintelligible in the hospital room. And he hadn’t seen his hometown since years before that.
He felt himself come out of a haze, his mother standing in front of him, his robes safely secured and a look of mild concern on her face. He blushed slightly, embarrassed for having gotten so lost in thought with her right there. His face moved easily into the usual soft smile, “Ah, sorry. I was thinking about whether I should go check on the cemetery today or not. It’s been a bit of time since I think any of us have been out there. The village has been fairly healthy…”
He trailed off as she guided him gently to the breakfast table. She usually commented on the food at this point, but she was silent. He sat down, looking at her in some confusion, but forcing his face into a more neutral appearance. She gazed at him and seemed about the say something, but then she turned away, lifting the tea pot from the counter. When she placed it on the table, the worry had passed from her features, “It’s supposed to be a bit cooler today, so I thought it would be a good idea to switch to hot tea.”
She smiled at him again, but there was something slightly off about it. He filled his cup wordlessly.
After breakfast, he did head out for the cemetery, guiltily noting that it had been a while since anyone had bothered with it. Some of the elderly residents of the village had died during the heat of the summer, but their younger relatives had come from elsewhere to bring them to those elsewheres for burial. He touched the grave posts lightly, a real smile tugging at his lips slightly; there was something humorous about a little village being so moribund that even the dead left town.
He spent the remainder of his day keeping busy, visiting ailing residents and those recovering from illnesses and injuries. He studiously swept every last bit of the temple grounds, ignoring the protests of Kirihara, whose job it was to do such upkeep. He burned incense, tripled his prayers, visited with his father, checked the various ceremonial robes for wear and tear.
He did not think of Toshio.
He especially did not think of Toshio after dinner.
He lingered as his mother began to clear the plates, insisting on doing it himself. She protested slightly, but allowed him to take over, and she put a pot of water on to boil, one hand already feeling along the shelf for the right box as her other hand adjusted the burner on the stove.
They sometimes had tea after dinner, although lately they had done so less. He felt a little badly for that; he’d gone to his room to change into other clothes instead of staying with her. If he felt lonely, didn’t it stand to reason that she did, too? His father had gotten a bit odd after the stroke, and she was old enough that her own friends didn’t keep very late hours any more. And as the wife of Sotoba priest, she’d always been held a bit apart by others, too. She was too respected to gossip with.
Maybe Sotoba hadn’t been what she’d dreamt of, either.
He poured the tea when it was done, and she thanked him, her pale hands wrapping quickly around the cup despite its heat. He kept his own at a slight distance, not trusting himself enough to not do the same, to not jostle it slightly so the hot liquid spilled on his hand. He folded his hands neatly on the table.
“It’s so nice to have tea with you once in a while. You’ve been spending a lot of time with your friend lately.”
“Ahh… yes, I’m sorry.”
She frowned slightly, and it seemed strange on her, “Seishin, it’s alright to visit a friend.” She paused, “In fact… you’ve seemed a bit more lively lately…”
“…have I?” He said it with a note of genuine surprise in his voice, unaware that his behavior had altered perceptibly at all over the course of the month or so.
“Oh, Seishin…” She looked a bit unhappy now, and she clasped one of her hands over his, looking suddenly very tired and a bit old. She lapsed into silence, looking at him, and he felt that he could not manage to say anything at all. His mind stuttered along, failing to find anything to say to change the shape of the conversation, to steer it back to gentler waters, to remove that worry from his mother’s face. He felt a strong urge to stand up and leave, to go and change, to go back to the clinic. To make her think that he was feeling fine.
She finally spoke again, “I’m sorry.” She smiled sadly now, “You’ve never been very happy here, have you?”
He blinked strongly, rapidly, “‘kaa-san, that’s…”
“Oh, Seishin… you don’t have to pretend otherwise. I always knew you didn’t really want to stay here… you weren’t exactly quiet about it when you were in high school.” She bit her lip for a moment, “We… I… even though I knew, I let you do this to yourself… let you take all of this on and become unhappy…”
She touched his face, “I just wish I’d said something sooner…”
He gripped the hand she’d laid against his face tightly now, a sense of despair beginning to creep into him. So he had failed even in this; she’d known all along.
“‘kaa-san… it’s alright… I’m the one who went along with it…”
“No; we could’ve done more, your father and I. We could’ve adopted one of your cousins, one of the ones who wanted to go into the priesthood. Your father wasn’t a Muroi, after all; he was adopted into the family when we were married since my parents had only daughters.”
Seishin smiled slightly, “But I’m a son, not a daughter.”
She looked away, and when she responded, it was barely audible over the crickets outdoors, “But there may’ve been an heir if you had been a daughter, wouldn’t there?”
He dropped her hand, and felt the air go out of him.
When he remembered to breathe again, she was embracing him, and he was reminded distantly of her doing so so often when he had been a child.
“Oh, Seishin, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said it like that.”
His mouth had gone dry, and he could hardly whisper, “‘kaa-san…”
Her grip around him loosened, “I’m so sorry, Seishin…” She moved back slightly, her arms still around his shoulders. She looked worn out, but she looked him straight in the face, “But, Seishin… please, I want you to know… I… I don’t care. You’re my son. You’re my son.”
His resolve died at that, and he found himself beginning to cry. She held him close again, and he clung to her now, abandoning any attempts to do otherwise.
When one of her hands caught his wrist, he felt frightened, and he tensed slightly even as he kept crying.
“Seishin, Seishin, I just want for you to be happy.”
He cried harder, and he heard her sob.
And then the thought lodged in his mind: I just want to be happy.