"Are you ready? Here comes the next one: 'The snow kept falling/ on the sleeve of my robe—'"
Chizuru's gaze landed on the card that finished the poem before her friend even had to read the third line, let alone the fourth that was spelled out in familiar hiragana on the cards spread out before them. The characters were already there, permanently etched in Chizuru's memory.
"'That just for your sake,'" she finished where Rika left off as she grabbed up the card, "'went out into the spring fields/ to pick these tender young greens.' Emperor Kōkō."
Rika looked up from her own prompt card, her eyes wide in pleasant surprise.
"Correct. You have that one memorized, don't you?"
"Well . . ." Chizuru rubbed the back of her neck, suddenly self-conscious under Rika's smile—that radiant smile that had an effect on her that her friend could never know, and had since many years ago they first met. It was an eternal reaction, just like the poem that held such sentimental significance for Chizuru she could never share. Memories of her nini and nene, and of fresh-caught fish and sea breezes drifting through the main room and island songs played on the jabisen on a New Year's Day from a childhood long past. Memories she was content to replace with Rika's quiet house on the beach with its red hibiscus glowing outside the open window, and cups of warm awamori sitting on the tatami among the colorful scattered One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets game cards.
They made a curious pair, these two lonesome women: dark, energetic Chizuru leaning all over the cards, eternally young, her proud policewoman's uniform given up for a handmade haori jacket that was a present from her friend; and elegant Rika sitting lady-like on her knees, the hem of her Western dress tucked demurely under them, her fair features (Chizuru was convinced) the light of the room, not the bright sun hanging over the ocean. Not for the first time was Chizuru overwhelmed by the weight of the honor of being held by those eyes whose kindness had captured her heart all those years ago—those eyes where she found the salvation that fate had denied her. But lines had deepened around them, even if they could not dampen the fire within; and Rika's fair features looked more worn by time and the salt of the sea with each New Year's visit, while Chizuru's never changed a whit.
It must have been quite obvious, yet Rika never mentioned the fact that her friend never grew old along with her. And that thought, an intruder on their celebrations, brought Chizuru quite suddenly to the brink of tears.
Not wanting her friend to worry, she said quickly, "I'm afraid it isn't much fun to play with just two people. Maybe if Nakijin dropped in to pay his respects we could cajole him into joining us and really get a game going!"
Rika laughed politely. "I think we're doing fine just the two of us."
"Even though I know half the endings by heart, just about?" Chizuru pouted.
"It wasn't always that way, if I remember right. You must be practicing in your spare time."
Her words sobered Chizuru, although Rika would not have known why. Her spare time . . . Yes, Chizuru thought; even with the way her chief worked her ragged, there was an endless supply of that where she was, and enough time to contemplate it itself.
"Why don't we switch places," she offered.
Rika had already picked up the next card, but her eyes were fixed on Chizuru.
"That's all right," she said. "I don't mind reading them off. Besides, you seem to be enjoying yourself—"
"But I insist."
On hands and knees, Chizuru reached across the space between them and plucked the card from Rika's fingers with no resistance. She sat back on her heels, cleared her throat, and began:
"'My flower's colors/ they have all faded away/ on futile concerns' . . ."
She trailed off when Rika said nothing, even though Chizuru knew she knew the poem. Her friend had not moved to pick up a card neither. Her downcast eyes fell on the scattered cards, but completely missed the right one, and her small lips turned down.
Chizuru forgot the card in her hand. How it hurt her inside to see sorrow cross Rika's gentle face. "What's wrong?" she said.
Rika raised her eyes to look at her. "Nothing. I was just thinking about the poem. I was thinking how even a woman as beautiful as Ono-no-Komachi mourned growing old, and now another year has passed in my own half-spent life."
Chizuru reached out and clutched Rika's hand in both of hers, resting the three together in Rika's lap.
"Don't say such depressing things, Rika. You're young yet. It's your whole life that you have before you. I would know!" she said, and Rika's eyes filled with pity.
"Oh, Chizuru, let's be realistic. I'm not young anymore. I know that. So please . . . you're my dearest friend, but don't try to make me feel better with jokes and flattery."
"I know I will never have the looks I used to, so what use is there in crying for what is done and past? It was nice while it lasted. And at least you are as lovely as ever."
Rika looked relieved to have said so—the words must have weighed on her shoulders for so many years now—but Chizuru wanted to shake her head. Utter nonsense. Rika didn't know how wrong she was about herself. How could she be any more beautiful than she was at this moment? The visage Chizuru treasured within her heart was at once evergreen and growing: each year's Rika was more precious than the last, only gaining in grace and sophistication.
But Chizuru knew she herself was another matter. It was impossible not to notice, so why did Rika have to keep pretending?
Chizuru bit her lip. She could not hold the truth back any longer. No longer could she stand the agony of pretending to be something she was so clearly not. Her fingers tightened around Rika's soft hand and wrinkled the fabric of her skirt.
"Rika," she said, "I have a confession to make. I've been keeping something from you for more than twenty years and I can't bear it anymore."
Rika's eyes went wide with concern and Chizuru thought she saw her recoil slightly. "What is it?"
Chizuru shut her eyes and willed her mouth not to fail her, but to form the words regardless of what consequences they might bring.
"Rika, I-I don't know how to tell you this. . . . The fact is, I'm—"
"In love with me?"
Chizuru started. She opened her eyes.
"I know," Rika said. When Chizuru started to protest that that wasn't it, she cut her off. "I've always known. Because I love you, too, and always have. More than anyone."
Chizuru could hardly believe her ears, because she knew it wasn't just love Rika was talking about—though she had certainly hit that nail on the head. No, it seemed to Chizuru that Rika was telling her there was no need to say the word out loud. It had no power here. If it were life Chizuru wished her to treasure, there was no good in saying the word her heart in its inability to be fooled already supplied.
The tears Chizuru had been holding back—tears of gratitude as much as of grief—suddenly blurred her sight. "Am . . . am I that obvious?" she said as she wiped them away with the back of her hand.
Rika smiled and nodded her head. "I'm afraid so."
"Oh, Rika!" said Chizuru, because she found herself unable to say anything else, and threw her arms around her friend's neck.
Arms went around her shoulders and embraced her, held her like the arms of a mother, and lips kissed her hair; and she buried her face in Rika's warm bosom, feeling it rise and fall steadily with each breath—far more steadily than her own hitched breathing. She was solid, she was alive; and for a brief moment, in her arms which had the power to undo that fatal car accident of two decades ago, so was Chizuru.
"You will come back to the Miyagi and visit me," a young woman she loved more than life itself had once said, "won't you, Chizuru? Promise me you will."
She had known even then. Somehow, she must have.
Chizuru hadn't said it out loud at the time, but she had said it in her heart of hearts, just as she did now. I promise. Every year, I swear it, I will be by your side and I won't ever leave you. That much I can do for you. Because to me you will always be perfect, no matter how old you are.
New Year's Eve, 2005.