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i give myself up to this shining space

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She remembers this scene. The train rattling against the tracks, the grasping wind, the green fields unfurling around them. We were so young, she thinks, as she looks up at Jiro now.

But she's glad for what hasn't changed, at least. There's that steady gaze of his, the memory she held close through those long years before they met again.

"Le vent se lève," Jiro says, gently.

The wind tugs his hat off his head and whirls it away. Neither of them tries to stop it, this time.

Naoko knows the reply. Of course she does. But the words catch in her throat, in her lungs, in that thick mire deep inside her chest. How simple that sentiment had seemed, once, back when they didn't need that exhortation.

A shadow falls over them: a plane, drawing level, dipping lower. The capricious wind, bringing gifts only to snatch them away. Jiro's still looking at her, still waiting, and she tries --

Naoko blinks awake to the low rumbling of the train. Outside, the fields have turned to forest, the sunlight to dusk. She thinks of Jiro in the city, growing more distant by the minute; of her destination somewhere in the mountains ahead, a lonely fortress of stone.

"Il faut tenter de vivre," she whispers to herself. She will.

 


 

Life in the sanatorium moves in slow motion, a languid rhythm of meals and naps. There's something frustrating about the way the days blur into each other, smudging into a muddy static. If one's time is limited, surely every hour should matter more?

But the air is fresh, and the nurses are kind, and the food is -- to her surprise -- delicious. Eating is one of the few pleasures left to the inmates of this benign prison, from the warm earthiness of wild boar to the subtle fragrance of steamed vegetables. Today, autumn yields one of its treasures for dessert: a persimmon, cut neatly into eighths.

The first slice crunches sweet in her mouth. Naoko thinks of Valéry. (She always comes back to Valéry; to that first bridge between her and Jiro, those lines they traded like a secret, all those years ago on the steps of a train carriage.) Comme le fruit se fond en jouissance, comme en délice il change son absence dans une bouche où sa forme se meurt. Even as a fruit's absorbed in the enjoying -- even as its body, dying within the mouth, dissolves into delight...

Some days she feels like the vapour trail from one of Jiro's beloved planes -- insubstantial, wavering, ready to disappear. Yet taste is the one sense that holds her here, an anchor to the riches of the earth.

And yes, she's heard the disease will steal this away, too: one's tongue turning to lead, the echo of metal in the mouth. But for now, for however long it may last, she still has this sweetness. She bites into another slice of persimmon, tastes autumn blooming soft and gold between her teeth. The last leaves have yet to fall.

 


 

Jiro hurls another paper aeroplane into the air. They watch as it spirals up, a speck against the blue, before tipping back towards the ground. The glider swoops down, growing larger and larger yet, until Naoko realises it's not just a trick of perspective -- the paper plane comes to a hovering stop before their balcony, now large enough for two.

Jiro steps onto a wing, holds out his hand. She takes it.

They run along the wing together, settle into the cockpit side-by-side. The glider takes them soaring into the sky; banks low and skims the tops of trees, dances over the fields until they tumble out, laughing, onto the grass. Naoko lands half atop Jiro, in a careless tangle of limbs.

"Nice catch," she says, smiling.

He smiles back. His hand settles against the side of her face, fingertips brushing her eyelashes. "Naoko--"

Naoko wakes to a dry rustle on her cheek, to red at the corner of her vision. Not the shade of blood, at least. She holds the fallen leaf up against the sky, watches as sunlight turns rust to rose. Above her, another leaf flutters on the wind, in an aimless and stuttering flight.

How did that line go again? If winter comes--

 


 

Over scattered conversations at mealtimes, she discovers a brighter world beneath the grey anonymity of being a patient. The sanatorium is a salon, full of poets and novelists and artists. One young writer spends the days scribbling away in a notebook, even when they're cocooned outdoors in the cold air. One poet goes only by her pen-name: "From ayamedori, the cuckoo. Like Masaoka Shiki-sensei -- all those folktales about its bloodstained song, you know?" Ayame laughs wryly over her cup of tea. Naoko marvels at her strength.

But her favourite encounter happens somewhere much quieter. Just before dawn, when the rest of the building still lies silent, she sees someone standing by one of the large windows. It's only when Naoko approaches, half-curious, that she notices the frown on the woman's face.

She draws closer. The woman turns, gives a startled laugh. "I'm sorry -- I must have looked quite stern, just then. I was thinking about how to capture it. Or how I would capture it, rather, if I could."

"On canvas?" Naoko asks, before remembering her manners. "Satomi Naoko. Sorry for intruding."

"Not at all. Hori Setsuko. Do you paint as well?"

I did, Naoko almost says. But the past tense implies a surrender she's not yet ready to make. "I do." She looks out at the view: the lightening sky, billowing mist, the pale mountaintops gleaming gold. "It really is a lovely sight."

Setsuko smiles, bright and sudden, like sunlight through clouds. "It is! Those swirls of mist, those colours... a scene meant for the Impressionist brush."

"Cézanne," Naoko agrees. "But brighter."

"Do you suppose he never woke early enough for the dawn?"

They laugh, and for the first time since arriving in the mountains, Naoko feels like herself again.

Over breakfast, they trade biographies. "I was at a sanatorium at the sea, before," Setsuko says, eyes alight with recollection, and Naoko can see it: the rippling roof of the waves, the white sails settling upon it like doves. "The air, the crashing surf -- so easy to believe in recovery, in a paradise like that! What was it, that line... Une fraîcheur, de la mer exhalée, me rend mon âme... O puissance salée!"

"Courons à l'onde en rejaillir vivant," Naoko replies, and feels a familiar spark, the thrill of recognition. Let's run at the waves and be hurled back to life!

They share a swift, secret smile. Setsuko says, "That's not the Valéry line most people remember."

Naoko knows. "The whole poem's dear to me." She pauses, wondering if she should explain. But there's so much else they could talk about, so many things easier to think of than half of her heart, stranded miles and miles away.

She lets it be. With Setsuko to speak to, with the regained memory of what it means to see the world as a painter, the days turn suddenly distinct. Today they watch the morning mist smudge the reddening hillsides, observe how a rain shower sets its gloss upon the world. Tomorrow they debate the merits of wider and narrower palettes, Signac's restraint versus Gauguin's indulgence.

Because she cannot paint in the sanatorium, Naoko does so in her mind. Here the cadmium yellow of afternoon light through bare boughs; there the deepness of pine forest, a dialogue of cobalt blue and emerald green. Deep madder in the veins of fallen leaves, yes, but also the shadows of bark. Vermillion in the autumn light upon the grass. She and Setsuko share poor approximations of their visions, quick fountain-pen studies on notepaper.

"I wish I could see your paintings," Setsuko says, handing a sheaf of sketches back to Naoko. "I had a circle back in Nagoya, but it's been so long since then. I haven't had the chance to see someone else's work in years."

"When we're better," Naoko says firmly, "let's visit each other."

Setsuko is kind enough not to challenge the certainty of when. "Of course."

 


 

Winter arrives earlier in her dreams. Here it is already snowing, the land swathed in white, and there in the middle of the field --

Not Jiro, she realises, with a stab of disappointment. But she recognises this man. The floppy hair, the moustache, those tired round eyes; a face she's only ever seen in black-and-white.

"Monsieur Valéry," she says, bewildered, then pleased. "I'm so glad to meet you."

The blank sheet of the snow stretches unbroken between them. Paul Valéry nods to her in greeting. "Good morning, madame. This brings to mind a certain line, does it not? The fresh snow, the eager cold, so greedy for warmth..."

She recognises the reference first -- cette neige fraîche qui me saisit au creux de ma chère chaleur -- and then, belatedly, the implication. Colour rushes to her cheeks. Of course she misses Jiro. Of course all of her aches for him, for his warm presence beside her, for those steady hands...

Something whistles, shaking her out of her thoughts. Not the wind; a train tears through the landscape behind Valéry, all gears and heaving steam, smoke billowing out around it like clouds.

"Dreams are convenient," Valéry says, as the train's rumble fades into the distance. "One can go anywhere."

The snow swirls thicker around them, blotting out the world. Naoko bites her lip. "I wish--"

"Then do so," Valéry replies, before the snow shrouds him in white.

 


 

Once she decides to act, she moves quickly. The only moment she pauses is upon reaching the front door, suddenly overcome by the promise of what lies beyond it: the snow-covered slope, the village below, the rest of her world at the end of a train line. For a moment she wonders if she should tell Setsuko.

But then again, it's not a goodbye; not for long. Just one look, she thinks. Just one look at Jiro, one moment with him, and it'll be enough to carry her through the rest of the winter.

(Later, on the platform, her face buried in the front of Jiro's coat, she has never been more glad to be wrong.)

 


 

A green field, an umbrella, the wind tugging at its full sail -- a memory slightly askew. The umbrella's in her hand, this time, and the easel isn't in front of her. Claude Monet holds a thumb against his brush in measurement, glances back at the canvas. "A little more to the left, please."

Naoko complies. She recognises this. Not the hotel's unwieldy sunshade, but a dainty parasol. Her full skirt, rustling around her. Is this what she looked like to Jiro, back then, up on that grassy slope? Did he think of this painting, too?

The sky trembles with colour around them. Monet's turned his attention back to the canvas. "Are you happy to just be standing there, madame?"

There's a burst of petals around them, flurries of white and pink, though there isn't a tree in sight. Naoko watches as they swirl upward, melting into the clouds.

"Someone said--" The wind picks up; she raises her voice, tries again: "Someone said that artists only have a decade to do their best work."

Monet smiles indulgently, stretches one hand out in an expansive gesture. Around him, colours dance and flicker, reform into familiar scenes: a woman with a parasol, a line of poplars. A cathedral, shimmering in the sunset. Water lilies flooding an old man's dreams. "And what would you say to them?"

"That they're wrong," she whispers in realisation. "You painted all your life -- you had decades."

"And the last years were the most beautiful." His brush keeps moving, canvas to palette to canvas again. Quick, light movements, like sparrows in grass, sunlight on water. "But do you know why, madame?"

She thinks of his last canvasses, those vast worlds of dissolving light and colour. "Because... because the garden filled your days? You surrounded yourself with beauty..."

"Because that is where it ends," Monet says gently. "Outside, amongst willows and water lilies, in the golden light. Not in some dim bedroom, wasting away between dirty sheets. You understand? Those were the last images I left behind."

He looks up at Naoko. A sudden gust jerks the parasol out of her hand.

"Leave it," Monet says, watching as it whirls away. "It is enough."

Naoko wakes to Jiro's warm breath against her neck, his arm around her. Outside, the cherry trees are blooming.

She shifts away from him, just a little, just enough to see him better. She likes how he frowns in concentration when he works, yes; but she likes the boyish softness of his face in sleep, too.

There's a stray sakura petal in his hair. She brushes it away, and wonders what he's dreaming of.

 


 

The trip to the sanatorium is easier the second time, like all journeys where one already knows the destination. Naoko looks out of the window, takes comfort in the soothing regularity of the train's rhythm. In the back-and-forth of the rocking carriage, she thinks of befores and afters, of everything that led them to this point. The borderland between second and third class, the exchanged password of a French poet's lines. A path opening from forest into fields. The line between light and dark where the rain stopped, arrested by the sun.

Once it was a mountain stream that led him to her; once, much earlier, it was the wind. She thinks about how somewhere else, across all this vast green, Jiro's plane is rising into the air, a miracle of calculus and steel; carrying his dreams up, up, out of reach of the earth's small tragedies.

 


 

Always these familiar fields, this endlessness of green and the wind rippling across it. Naoko looks up. There it is: not a behemoth of steel but a simple glider, wings bent. A silhouette she remembers from another mountain. Its lines are clean, austere. There's no one upon it.

But perhaps there doesn't need to be. Naoko breaks into a run. A hat tumbles across the grass before her, and this time she does catch it -- catches onto it, lets it pull her up into the sky. Her feet leave the ground as easily as breathing. She remembers this. She knows this. Every part of her has always understood what it means to reach out, to lean into the wind, grasp what you want and not give a thought to falling. The wind buoys her up and Naoko knows it will carry her beyond that circling glider -- somewhere higher, somewhere further than she's ever known. But she's never been afraid to fly.