They stopped talking before they really stopped talking.
She can’t even pinpoint their last conversation. It probably went something like:
Then those syllables slid carelessly – where? Nowhere. Away.
On the last night in March, he found her curled up on the temple stairs, wrapped in a faded sweater, slippers soaked from spring melt water. He took her hand without a word and drew a bath for her, and in the heavy steam, rolling across the washroom like the plumes off a waterfall, the scars were almost hidden.
Her hair dried as they slept with knees and feet pressed together, hands looped around each other like a child’s game of cat’s cradle. She woke when he was still asleep. He did not look peaceful. He did not look like a child. He simply looked like himself, sleeping, as if plunged into still water. He parted his hair on the opposite side from Watanuki, as if they were imperfect mirror images. His bangs were growing long enough to fall into his eyes, and he had a funny little cowlick that refused to lie flat.
She pressed her lips to his forehead, where his dreams lay curled up, sealed tight like an egg, assuming he still dreamed.
“Happy April First,” she said, thinking of pale arms tucked into white wide sleeves. Robes lifted from boxes, unfolded, shaken into spring air. Filled with light and forced to change.
She let herself out of the temple before he woke up, and began the long walk home. She had a birthday gift to give, bags to pack. She had goodbyes curling up around her heart, waiting to be said, as patiently as snowfall or a rising tide.
They spent a lot of time together before she left. Himawari addressed walls and tabletops, and saw Doumeki nod or frown from the corner of her eye. Sometimes their gazes would catch, the way broken glass caught against skin, and their eyes would skitter away again. Himawari sent out words like SOS signals – hopefully by sheer principle, but half-heartedly, and that half kept flickering.
There was too much to say, or not enough, the summer after graduation when he walked into the darkness of a shop that cast no shadow, and walked back out. He was still known by name and existed in people’s minds and subject to the ordinary whims of time. She didn't want him to hate himself for that. She didn't want to hate herself. One day when she is an old woman, she will use the word forgiveness, and mean it. Or so she dreamed.
She went to university and lived a perfect shell life, even more enclosed than high school. It was possible to be almost perfectly anonymous, or at least so bland that she excited no personal interest, no intrigue or curiosity deep enough to spark a friendship. She hurt no one and she felt beautifully light, like her bones were turning to paper, like it would be possible to float away into the snow and the mountains, into a night of stars made of eye-stabbing light.
From this far away, buried in endless lecture slides and a fortress of textbooks and lab reports written with the aid of four a.m. coffee runs and her eyes always sliding over the anatomy diagrams pinned to her walls, the cold slick of rubber gloves as she dissected small bodies and scraped away sinew and clinging bits of flesh to photograph each perfectly excised organ, she could almost block out the sound of doors gently closing shut, and the non-sound of silence. Tanpopo trilled thin melodies into the air of her bedroom, but the silence was always there, like smoke caught in her hair.
She came home in the summer.
She helped her father in the garden, her mother in the kitchen, read long novels and drank tall sweating glasses of iced green tea. She visited the temple, selling charms at festivals and raking gravel pathways and talking to visiting parishioners, letting her mind empty out. She left all cobwebs alone.
Doumeki’s silence held, though he made himself perfectly understandable with the spare eloquence of his gestures. His mother tried to talk with Himawari about it, and mentioned how they had worried about Shizuka as a child, when he hadn’t spoken until he was five, and then in complete sentences. Himawari wanted to say, He is in mourning, but then his mother would ask, For what? and she would have only nothingness to answer that nothingness.
So she talked to him all the time, instead. About her day, about the university, about her plans for the future, or her memories of the past, the bright surface memories that could be safely taken out and looked at without the scars on her back opening up. She wondered if he still talked to Watanuki. If he broke his silence for him, the way he he’d broken and still would break so many other things, if Watanuki only asked.
Maybe she would stay in Fukushima next summer, she found herself saying out loud to Doumeki. There were opportunities in the labs during the summer months. It would look good on her resume, and she liked the university when it was emptied out.
Doumeki looked up, and the look he gave her was so fleetingly familiar - fond and dry and a little bit disbelieving - that it shook things loose in her, old unstirred words.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her voice shriveled like paper roses, burning, but – if she could get the words out, if she could just get the words out, it didn’t matter if they were shouted or whispered or sung. “I’m – I’m sorry. Please,” and the syllables skated over a sea-deep year of stored up silence, will they make it, will they, will she, will he, can he, “can you forgive me?”
He tilted his head to the side, an obvious, For what?
“For leaving. For being the one who gets to leave.”
Maybe a minute passed, or several months, as she studied his face, her gaze catching on the corner of his forehead where a lifetime ago she had pressed her lips. She didn’t know why she still expected to see a trace of herself there.
She longed for the hectic lights of the labs, the clean stainless steel trays, for the contents of her dissection kit, the gleaming tools laid out on the soft black leather pouch. Longed for all the things that made the messiness of life, the hot pulsing confusion of it, understandable, for the place where silence was a given and where cutting into the body, into the heart of the thing, no longer hurt.
But she wasn’t lying on a slab somewhere. She was upright and across from him, all summer blood and full of breath and brightly, painfully alive.
When he spoke, his voice was slow and deep, his words simple as a child’s.
“If you’re sorry you left,” he said, “then stay.”