In the Company of Fish
A flash of orange, and the fish swim away into the folds of the silken kimono. The merchant eyes his customer as he tucks the kimono out of sight, aware that while the man's interest has been baited, there is still the question of price between them.
"The sleeves of this furisode are exquisitely made," the customer concedes in a manner that the merchant would almost consider gracious, if it weren't for the brisk tone often used by men who are not easily won over.
"I am pleased that you think so," the merchant says instead. "Suzuki-sensei will be most humbled to learn that his fine kimono has been met with such regard. His skill is unparalleled in the area--"
The man abruptly brings out more coins than what the merchant is prepared to ask. "Tell Suzuki-sensei that I look forward to seeing more of his fine merchandise."
The merchant, having expected a long and exhaustive debate over the value of the kimono, suddenly finds himself at a loss for a response. He brings the kimono out once more and wraps it into a tidy package. He bows deeply, belatedly. "Thank you for your business." As the gentleman leaves, the merchant is left to wonder the fate of those fish with a man whose eyes seem so cold.
The man doesn't anticipate his intended's reaction, beyond the customary refusals. "You don't like it?" Only he says it more like a statement, each word heavy with its own certainty.
"Of course I like it," she begins tentatively, but he knows that slight crease in her forehead. It warns him that an impassioned speech is on its way and she does not disappoint. "I've never owned anything quite like this before! The fabric is gorgeous and the colors and ... oh! Everything's so rich and vibrant." Her finger traces a reluctant path over the the kimono's details. "But that's just it, I suppose. This is much too rich for me. I suppose I want something I can be more comfortable in, something that suits me."
"I was under the impression that you young ladies enjoyed turning men's heads with such a display of color," he tells her.
The crease in her forehead deepens; he realizes he has blundered onto some mistake. She carefully puts the furisode aside.
"How easy it must be for you to decide my wants," she says almost glibly, but he senses her anger. He is uncomfortable in this skin, the comforter. Instead, he bides his time and waits for the squall to disappear from her eyes.
"If you do not appreciate the kimono, it will be easy to exchange it for another," he replies calmly. He does not understand. Her tone up until now has been perfectly neutral, her questions perfectly valid (why, indeed, the rain asks as it falls in slow random drops outside, as if unsure whether today is the right moment to turn into a summer torrent--why, why, why), but he has a feeling that their world is poised at an equinox not of his own choosing.
"Don't," she says firmly, folding the garment into her arms, gentler than he has ever seen her move. "I am honored by the gift, but perhaps I do not wish to turn young men's heads as you so delicately put it. If I may excuse myself?"
He watches her go. He does not understand why his chest seems to tighten at her admission (no, not true, it is but a fool's notion that there is any emotion processed outside his mind), as if the fish from her furisode have silently navigated the room and floundered, lost, into the chambers of his heart.
The rain forgets details. It only remembers grand things: a tree twice touched by lightning, a deep scar made on the bank where the river once swelled. It does not remember the stone on which a little girl once tripped or how that girl's lips (now a woman) is the shade of a persimmon that has bruised itself easily on the hard earth.
Some days, he wishes to be the rain.
In the end, she wears the furisode to the harvest festival. When she moves, hundreds of sunset fish jump and hide beneath a shower of cherry blossoms. His strides are long and measured but it is an effort to keep up with her. Does he imagine the mischievous rise of her lips, smoothed back before he can contemplate what it means? Or does he remember the girl she once was, the one he thought would welcome him back and let him settle into her life without any complaints?
"Why do you think that you must be responsible for my happiness?" she asks him suddenly. He blinks, unsure of the question's origins, uncomfortable with its implications. But still, she forges on. "Who told you what I need to be happy?"
"I am sorry." He says the words a year too late, but here they are nonetheless, stumbling after them on an uneven autumn road. He had thought the furisode would be a step towards penance but he is slow in contemplating his faults, especially where she is concerned.
"You are not the same man who left," she tells him. "I am not the maiden you left behind. We do not have many obligations left to each other, you and I."
"Even to make you happy?"
"Autumn does not seem like such a good time to start," she notes. He hears it in her voice, the unspoken admonition, the blame, the regret.
"I will walk with you to the temple," he says. He wants to reach out for her but he is afraid that all he will touch are scales, too quick and slippery to hold.
She nods. "I will see myself home."
Sept 9, 2014
This was written in response to this prompt.