Her son, Mitsuko thought, had never once in his life been graceful.
He had never stepped so lightly as this, like air; never had skin so pale, almost translucent, nor eyes so dark and sad. This was her Hikaru for goodness sake, the boy who turned his chopsticks into a shovel when there was ramen in front of him, who hadn’t said a polite word to her in years--now saying hello to her, head ducked low and demure.
His hair was mussed, his eyes lined with red.
“Oh, you’re up. I thought you were napping.” She sounded inane even to herself. “You seemed so tired when you got home, I thought you’d be in bed for hours.”
“I...ended up not sleeping.”
“Ah. Hard time falling asleep?”
She waited a moment, because he was always so prickly nowadays, before asking, “Hikaru, are you sick? You look like you’re...not yourself.”
He did not scowl or rail at her. He raised a strangely self-conscious hand to his lips, and the look on his face was...almost one of hurt, but the kind of hurt that is born of love; an expression she hadn’t seen on his face since he was a little boy. “I’m not sick, mother.”
Mitsuko walked over to him, to where he was standing so hesitantly by the stairs, and put a hand to his forehead. At her touch Hikaru’s eyes flew open wide and his breath came out sharp and quick; his own hand rose to clasp hers, seemingly without thought. There was something like surprise in his expression. Wonder, even.
His hand squeezed hers and her heart squeezed a little too. Had it been so long since she’d touched her own son?
“Hikaru,” she said his name again, because that is what mothers do, “are you sure you’re all right?”
His hand fell away.
“…I’m just feeling a little off colour,” he said, as if he ever said things like off colour, and then he made her worry worse by adding, “My apologies.” He must have seen the emotions plain on her face, because he laughed quietly, a small, hapless sound. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually apologize, do I?”
She decided not to answer that, for all that it was true--because it was true. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll take your temperature.”
He moved to the kitchen table and seated himself, slowly, in the chair his father usually took. Then he thought better of it and moved to his usual seat.
Taking his temperature was a strange, slow process. She told him to open his mouth and he opened it. She told him to close his mouth and he closed it. He did not know to do these things on his own, like he was a toddler again. He looked at her with huge, worried eyes, and she told herself not to make the same eyes at him; she was his mother, and she had to at least pretend.
The fact that he did not have a fever only made her heart beat faster.
“I think you should stay home and take it easy today.”
He nodded. He did not even ask what his temperature was.
“At least it’s a holiday,” she nattered on, absolutely insipid. “Honestly, the Go Institute shouldn’t have made you work during Golden Week at all.”
He nodded again and did not argue when she led him back to his room.
When she opened his door she frowned at the wide open window, at the long curtains billowing white and eerie in the spring breeze. No wonder he’d gotten sick.
For lunch, she brought rice porridge and ginger tea to Hikaru’s room. The ginger was meant to soothe a sore throat or cough and he had neither; but what else could she give him?
When she came in Hikaru was staring at his go board. It lay on the floor with only a few black and white pieces on it, as if he’d barely started a game before abandoning it. The sight of it bothered her; for all his faults, Hikaru was not one to leave his go things lying around.
“I’m sorry the food is so plain, but I didn’t want to make you wait.”
She laid the tray on his lap and waited until he turned away from the goban and toward what she’d made for him. A flicker of emotion crossed his pallid face. He took a deep breath of the porridge and closed his eyes to feel the hot steam rising, as though it was something special. Watching him, she felt wretched that she had not laid a pickled plum on top of the rice porridge. Her own mother had always put a pickled plum on her rice porridge when she was sick. The acid in pickling juice could kill bacteria, right?
Hand shaking, Hikaru picked up the spoon and ate.
“This is...it’s truly delicious.”
“It’s just rice and water,” she said, but it pleased and unnerved her all at once that Hikaru would compliment her cooking. He was smiling, a smile as thin and watery as the porridge. He looked like he was going to cry.
“Hikaru?” she said.
“I’m all right. Really, I am.” He didn’t sound like he could convince even himself. But he ate all of her cooking, and after the food was done drank the tea with a slow, savouring calm. He seemed to regain some of his self-possession as he drank; in fact he settled into a strange sort of motionlessness, the kind he only ever showed in front of a goban, showed to his friends and to her father but not to her.
Her son should not be this graceful, she told herself again. What kind of sickness made a person like this?
At length he turned to her, a slow, lovely turning.
“You’ve done so much for me,” he murmured.
“This?” she said, deflecting. “This is the easiest meal in the world to make. You would know if you ever tried to cook anything.”
“Hm,” he said, a faint smile appearing on his lips. She hadn’t known such a small smile could make her so happy. “I’ve never prepared my own meal before.”
Mitsuko looked down at her hands. No go calluses there, but they were worn down in other ways. “I could teach you, if you’re interested? I know you’re really busy nowadays, but if you can find the time...”
The smile turned pensive, then faded away altogether.
“Or maybe after you graduate from middle school,” she added quickly. “When you’re less busy.” What had she said wrong? “Don’t worry yourself too much for now. You have plenty of time to grow up.”
His eyes were level with hers and said more than he was saying, but she did not know how to read the message there.
She was getting tired of tip-toeing around like this. Hikaru was being...secretive, like he always was, like any teenager, but not in his usual blustering way. It frightened her. It frustrated her. She wondered if all parents felt like this at times.
“Hikaru,” she said, taking his hand, trying to ignore the way he tightened up. “Whatever is going on with you, you need to tell me. You say you’re not sick, but how do you know? Are you in some kind of trouble? Did you get in a fight with a friend? Are you…” she bit her lip, an old habit, “taking any weird medicines? Did someone give you something? Not knowing worries me more than anything.” The words tumbled out of her, and she knew it was too much at once but she could not stop. “I know we haven’t agreed on much lately but I’m your mother, Hikaru. I’ll always be here for you. Just tell me, so I can help.”
As she spoke his eyes slid away from hers. His ways went distant, dreamlike; she felt like only her hand on his kept him from floating away.
“You’re a very good mother,” he said finally. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. All these years I’ve been so selfish. I never thought of you enough. What I’ve done to you, and to...I’ve been so selfish.”
There was too much weight behind his words. Why, why was he being so... “No. It’s not your fault. You’ve just been...a teenager. I was horrible to my parents when I was your age.”
A small, strangled laugh emerged from his throat. “My age. But perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I haven’t grown up at all, and that’s why I can’t go on.”
He couldn’t mean...the fear rose up in her throat, and she didn’t wonder anymore if this was something all parents felt. This was not ordinary terror. Her son sounded like he wanted to die.
“Let me take you to the doctor, Hikaru.”
He shook his head right away, as if he’d been expecting her to ask. “I’m not sick.”
“Not physically, maybe, but…” She bit her lip again. “Dr. Hasegawa is away, but I’m sure we can find a clinic that’s open. Or the emergency room if we have to.”
He shook his head again, and the set of his lips was firm. She wondered if he would fight her, physically fight her, if she tried to force him into the car.
“No,” he said. “I refuse.”
“Do you want them to say I’m crazy, mother?” He said this blandly, as if it only pertained to her future, not his. “Do you want to be the mother of a boy who has lost his mind?”
“You’re not crazy,” she said automatically, but fear tinged her words with the lie of it. “You’re just a little...different.”
“I’m myself,” he said faintly. “I’ve always been here.”
“What do you mean?”
He didn’t give her time to collect her thoughts. He turned to her, a swift motion like a fan snapping shut, and said, “Please. I know you’re worried. But...I think it best if we...I don’t want strangers giving me medicines or trying to...understand me. I don’t think he...I don’t want to put myself through that. So instead,” he took a deep breath, “if it is not too much trouble, could you take me to my grandfather’s house? There’s something I need to see there.”
The temptation to turn the car toward the hospital was a strong one. There was the turn-off, at that traffic light--she only had to take it.
But he was so fragile, right now, she told herself. His trust, his love--those were in her keeping, as were her promises.
“For dinner, let’s have hot pot,” she said as she passed the intersection, if only to fill the air with noise. “Hot food is good when you’re not feeling well. Maybe you’re lacking nutrition. You’ve been traveling a lot lately and I don’t think you’ve been getting enough vegetables. I’ll put lots in the hot pot, and not too much meat.”
“Yes,” he said, voice tight, “that would be well.”
He alternately squirmed and held himself completely still in his seat. She’d had to put the seatbelt on him herself, because apparently he’d forgotten how. Amnesia of some sort? she wondered. She’d heard of things like this. People who forgot who they were and ran away from their forgetting; they would disappear suddenly without a word to their families and start a new life elsewhere, heedless of the pain they’d left behind.
Perhaps it had been a mistake to take the car when her father’s house was so close. Hikaru had looked so doubtful when she’d told him to get inside. He seemed not to want to touch anything. Maybe the walk, one he’d taken so many times, would have jogged his memory of himself.
But the thought of him running off, disappearing forever, had made her want to strap him down and hear the satisfying click of the safety belt, and they’d taken the car in spite of Hikaru’s nervous shivers.
There was so much wrong with him. He was like a child, like an old, old man. She should have taken him to the doctor after all, she chided herself, fear clogging her throat. If he really was in some kind of fugue state he needed more help than she could give. What if it was a disease that only got better if you treated it right away? Could the doctors still do anything if she waited? Could the doctors change him back to her little boy? Or would they take him away from her and never give him back?
Her father, she thought desperately; she would ask him. In a way he knew her boy better than she did. It had been like that ever since Hikaru started playing go, more than two years ago now. It was so strange, the way her flighty son had suddenly become so fascinated with that old game, without cause, without warning. He’d started talking to himself and holing himself up in his room around the same time, hadn’t he? So strange, the person her Hikaru had become. Today was not the first time she’d thought so.
Yes; all this started long ago, on that day he’d gone to his grandfather’s house with Akari and ended up in the hospital at the end of it. It was good that they were going there. Akari told them about the strange things Hikaru said in that dingy attic, not to her but to someone else, to no one. Something about blood stains. Something about a voice only he could hear.
Mitsuko gripped the steering wheel harder.
What if her son was already gone forever?
“Mitsuko? And Hikaru! Good to see you.”
Her father’s cheer was contagious--even Hikaru lit up as her father ushered them into the house without preamble, laughing as he shooed them past a messy pile of dirt from an overturned houseplant. A prayer plant, she thought absently; she coldn’t remember the more scientific name. It hadn’t been here the last time she visited.
“Your grandmother is out,” her father was telling Hikaru. “She’ll probably kill me when she sees I killed her new plant.”
“Oh no,” said Hikaru. “Perhaps we should clean it up?”
Her father guffawed and slapped Hikaru on the back. “Good one! Who are you and what did you do with my grandson?”
“Mitsuko! Let’s have tea. Don’t worry about the mess. I’ll clean it up before your mother gets back, never fear.”
“Come on, Hikaru,” she said as gently as she could, and tugged on his sleeve until he followed.
Her father started boiling water, chattering away about Touya Akira (even she knew that name by now) and league matches in some kind of go tournament as they waited. Hikaru made polite, simple replies; Mitsuko prepared the tea tray. She knew what kind of rice crackers Hikaru liked best, and her parents had them stocked here. When the tea was ready her father led them to the living room.
There was a go board waiting there, of course.
“Don’t give me that look, Mitsuko. We won’t ignore you. We’re perfectly capable of playing and talking at the same time. Right, kiddo?” He cast a surreptious look at Hikaru, no doubt confused about why his noisy grandson wasn’t being noisy at all.
“Actually, Dad...” she said, not sure how to answer his silent questions, “there’s something I need to talk to you about…”
“Like I said, we can talk and play at the same time.”
He looked pointedly at Hikaru, who nodded, and there was that look in her son’s eyes again, that still, serious look, and she wanted to scream at her father it’s go that’s made him like this, it’s go that took my little boy away! but she didn’t want to be the crazy one here. She had to be sane and steady, for her son’s sake. So she said, “All right” and seated herself beside the board.
Her father plunked himself down with rather less ceremony and busied himself setting up the game. Hikaru busied himself staring at the game pieces tumbling out of their baskets, fascinated with something he saw every day. Mitsuko busied herself with pouring tea.
There were worried wrinkles on her father’s brow, she couldn’t help noticing. He had seen that Hikaru was strange--it was impossible not to see--but he had chosen to say nothing. Perhaps he was wiser than she was. He was her father, after all.
“How many stones today, do you think?”
Hikaru sipped his tea (he seemed to cover his mouth whenever he could), then said, too quietly, “Seven.”
“Seven stones! I know you’re a pro now, but I’m not that weak.”
Hikaru gave his grandfather an oddly pained look, then offered a four stone handicap, which seemed a more palatable number.
“So how was your seminar?” her father said, after a few moves had been played. “Was Ogata-juudan there?”
“You play him?”
“...In a way.”
Hikaru’s voice had gone hoarse and low. He dabbed at his eyes with his sleeves.
“Hikaru…?” her father did not finish his question. A fifteen-year-old boy was crying; there was no need to embarrass him further by saying it.
“I’m sorry,” Hikaru gasped out. “It’s wrong of me, but…to be playing with my own two hands...God forgive me, but I’m happy.”
More tears squeezed out from those scrunched, unhappy eyes, and Mitsuko’s wise old father gave her a look of complete bewilderment.
“Did something happen at the seminar?” he asked, voice worried and soothing, and Mitsuko thought, somewhat hysterically, that they would be using that kind of voice on her son for the rest of his life.
“Nothing happened,” Hikaru said. “I got to play go there.”
“Well, of course you did.” Her father looked to her, as though she had answers. “Did you lose a game you expected to win? Anyone put you down, give you trouble?”
Hikaru shook his head mutely.
They waited, but he said nothing more on the matter. Eventually, the lines on his face smoothed away; his expression went blank and calm, and she wasn’t sure if she hated this face more than the other.
“I give you my thanks,” he said, eyes blank, “for this game, but I’m afraid I can’t finish it. I should not have imposed upon you.”
“Hikaru,” her father’s face went incredulous, too shocked still to be hurt, “you know it’s never--”
“Please,” said the child in a steely tone she had never heard him use before, “do not ask me again to play. It’s not that I don’t want to,” and his voice broke a little, the steel brittle, “but it is not my right and it is not why I came here. Please, just allow me one favour: I would like to see the goban in the attic. Once I have done that, I will go and leave you in peace.”