Ikimono-gatari

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Amber poured in through the windows, casting a warm glow on the classroom floor. Once in a while, the scent of lavender was carried in by the occasional breeze, innocently mixing with the smell of dust; it was the fragrance of memories cradled by summer haze.

When I tipped my head back and closed my eyes, I could hear the laughter again. I could hear the words and the whispers—our guilty pleasures during the few precious moments when the teacher turned around—and the scraping of chairs against the floor. I could hear the morning greetings and the disappearing footsteps in the hallways when dusk settled in, as it was settling in now.

I told myself I wouldn’t come back again, but here I was—still the person that could never completely leave anything behind. Or maybe I had purposely left something behind, giving me an excuse to come back. Images of the graduation ceremony had slipped in and out of my head so often, had weaved itself so frequently into my daydreams, that it seemed to be beckoning me back, as if there was still something I had to do.

Perhaps it was the lingering sense of responsibility from when I had been part of the ikimono-gatari, the students selected to care for the school’s plants and animals. Or perhaps I was just unwilling to let go.

I strolled quietly through the neat rows of wooden desks and chairs, letting my fingertips trace the edges of tables and curves of chairs. Each chip in the wood, each clumsy doodle at a corner, was reminiscing of the secret glances and stifled giggles that had once filled this room; once, when we had so much time we thought we were eternal, so much time we bathed in it, rolled around it, let it slip through our fingers like grains of rice.

We had drowned in the refuge of our youthful naivety and spring innocence. By the time summer rolled in, we were immortal. The days grew longer, but our patience grew shorter, until the time came when we struggled to keep our eyelids from drooping. Those afternoons when the voice of the history teacher droned on and on, each word stretching out so long that it faded into white noise, our surroundings became a blur, and the cry of cicadas in the drowsy warmth was enough to lull us to sleep.

By habit, I seated myself at the familiar desk next to the window—fourth from the back and first from the left. When I glanced around, I realized how small the classroom seemed now, even though the emptiness should have made it feel larger. It was hard to believe some thirty or forty students had once crowded this room to write Tanabata wishes and paint banners for Cultural Festivals. When did we outgrow these corners that once seemed so big? Now, our corporeal presence was replaced with memories.

The nostalgia that filled the classroom spilled out from the window and into the courtyard, where it clung desperately on to the fading light. My eyes followed it out the window, to the center of the courtyard where the great cherry tree stood. Under that tree, countless love confessions had been blurted out clumsily; some blossomed and some withered, some remained and some faded, with time and with distance. The cherry blossoms had once rained upon lovers, drifting onto hair from which a partner would timidly brush away with their fingers, but now the blossoms stained the seasons in a soft pink, sending feelings from one longing heart to another.

I remember thinking these love stories, and our lives, were like the plays we held at school. After each performance, I had always wondered, when the curtains above you fall, when your take your bow and everything comes to an end, who will remember you?

It was strange for this question to come back to me now, but there’s something about touching old things that seems to carry you back in time. Sitting in my old seat, I remembered the deaths of classroom pets, the fading of the doodles carved on the desks, the withering of old flowers and the planting of new ones. I saw the large “Goodbye” scrawled on the blackboard, surrounded by colourful chalk doodles of chibi faces and farewell messages, and was faced abruptly with an answer.

For us, infinitesimal beings in this universe, like a speck of dust in this classroom, we will not be remembered by anyone. Not even by time. It would not be long before old memories are replaced with new ones, as surely as the blackboard will be washed clean, leaving behind no trace that we had been there at all.

An overwhelming sadness filled me and tried to escape from my eyes.

Someday, I knew, everything would disappear. But there were some things that I didn’t want to be forgotten just yet.

So I swallowed the sadness as best I could and walked to the blackboard, picking up in one hand the eraser, and in the other the last remaining piece of chalk. As I lifted my hand, a light breeze drifted through the window and tickled my skin. The blue skirt of my uniform brushed gently against my legs. Soon this uniform will disappear into my closet, never to be worn again. Time was coming, flowing, slowly but surely.

A sudden surge of confidence gripped me, and I erased the huge “Goodbye”, letting the chalk dust disappear into the air. Then I began my new piece of art. Swift, clean strokes left the tips of my fingers, carrying my feelings with them.

I let my hands run for about five, perhaps even ten minutes, before stepping back to admire the new artwork. A mix of satisfaction and accomplishment and hope washed over me.

The blackboard read, in brilliant colours: “Itsuka mata aeru.”

Until we meet again.

 

 

Ruby Liu

Early Harvest 2014

Short Story 1st Place