We're now approaching Obon in Tokyo (other areas of the country celebrate it at a slightly different time, I hear). The community gets together, dances and remembers loved ones who have passed away. If you've ever seen images of the lantern boats, that's Obon.
Fic: Night of Lanterns
Type: Original flash fiction for Obon.
The moss-covered steps that led to Yukiko Baba's family grave was cracked and the tall centrepiece had toppled. The stone that bore her family name, carved in a calligraphic script, lay in two halves and vines wound around it. The incense had burned out, but the scent still hung in the air and mingled with that of the burning gasoline and plastic drifting in on the evening breeze. The summer sun infused the clouds of pollution and dust with an inner light as it started to creep behind the Tokyo horizon. Hydrangeas were flowering.
Despite being nestled in the mountains in a neighbouring prefecture, the shrine still suffered from the explosions that hit central Tokyo. The gilded lanterns lay on their side and the heavy bronze bell used to attract the attention of the spirits rested in the dust. A string of lanterns to celebrate Obon left a ripple in the dirt where they had fallen.
Yukiko's age-mottled skin mimicked the pattern of the lichen on the pillar as she picked her way forward through the rubble towards it. She struggled for balance in her wooden sandals and her veins stood out in blue as she tried to lift the first half of the headstone. It must be rebuilt tonight, or the many generations of her family that came before her would never find their way back to the spirit world. New spirits, like her husband, needed special guidance. Over the course of three days, spirits old and new alike were carried home in lanterns by their surviving family members. On the third and final day, they returned to the temple in the same way.
Three nights ago, at this same shrine, Yukiko had taken her husband's soul home for the first time since they were married over sixty years ago. This evening, she had arranged a gift of flowers and cooked vegetables for him on a wooden tray and was about to offer it in front of the family shrine in the alcove of her living room. When her house collapsed around her, this was the natural place to which to return.
Night fell before she had even realised it. Dragonflies hovered around the curved red torii arch that marked the shrine entrance. They rested in the cracks in the guardian stone lion-dogs that waited there. The vibrations of cicadas swelled.
Yet that was all she heard. She felt the fading warmth of the sun and the coming chill of night. She felt the weighted presence of the still-magnificent shrine. She saw and heard no people. Where were the sirens of the ambulances? Why didn't they come?
For the first time in her life, she wondered whether there was any use in what she was trying to do. She'd never questioned whether the spirits of her ancestors visited her home for three days, ate dinner with her and then returned to the underworld. With tears in her eyes, she admitted that it might not matter. It was all just tradition, but tradition that her mother had passed down to her. Her mother that had dressed her in her first kimono and taught her how to perform the tea ceremony.
Time stopped. The moon seemed bigger and brighter than it had ever did when she was alive. The Milky Way stretched into infinity. She could see the floating lanterns in other prefectures on other islands. Children and adults said goodbye to them from bridges in Hiroshima and Hawaii. On each small boat burned a candle, one for every soul dead in the past year, herself included. Her world seemed bigger, not smaller. She wasn't alone.
Her body fell away beneath her. The lanterns glowed orange one more time and the shrine filled with warm light that reflected off the gold ornamentation, just as Yukiko remembered it as a child. The metal cauldron that held incense sticks stood in the centre of the courtyard, just as it always had. The smell of burning cars and homes disappeared.
Shining spheres of pale red and blue rose into the night sky: her soul and everyone who had been in Tokyo when the missiles hit. Fireflies danced and circled. Yukiko was with them, laughing and playing with them as she had with her mother when she was a child. She could see the city now, just as it had been before the War. She had never flown in an airplane, had never seen the world like this and yet she had the feeling that this was all familiar to her. She could physically feel her family behind her. She felt her mother and father; she felt her husband beside her. None of this was strange.
She was following the procession now and she closed her eyes as everyone entered the shrine together. Even with her family's grave broken in two, she knew she, her husband and all those that had lived in Tokyo had found their paths home.