“We should go back. It’s already this late…” Tadayoshi looked up. The moon and the stars shared the red sky timidly with the setting sun. Then he turned to her. “You need to clean yourself and change clothes first. I doubt anyone will let you go inside the town like this.”
Besides the blood, Ei was covered with dirt, sweat, and leaves. Her clothes had small tears here and there and her arms and legs full of cuts and scratches. When did… ah… when I climbed the tree, she realized, letting out a weak chuckle. In the last night of the festival, when everyone will try to look their best, I look like this.
Ignoring her strengthless body, Ei climbed the tree again, going to one of the lowest and largest branches, where she had left their belongings before rushing to the top. She jumped down, bent her knees when she landed and glanced at her master.
Tadayoshi rested his back against the tree and supported himself with the sword. His face winced with each breath he took. He’s too focused on recovering his strength to pay attention to me, she thought before undressing and washing herself on the river.
When she got out of the water, she dried her body with the clothes she wore until now and put on her old one. I’ve only had this clothes since yesterday, and I’m already thinking it’s old, she thought, chuckling.
For a moment, Ei stared the green kimono. The idea of tossing it on the river cross her mind. She lifted her arm, but when was about to swing, she gave up. She lowered her hand and felt the fabric with her fingers. These clothes are proof that I… Without finishing the thought, she walked back to her master.
Tadayoshi still rested against the tree. His face hadn’t recovered his normal color, but his breathing was normal and he didn’t wince as much. “Go back to the city. Take a warm bath. It’ll help you feel better,” he said in a strained voice. But even with all his pain, he showed a smile. “It’s best if I stay here. The guards will definitely find me suspicious and I’d rather avoid that. See if you can bring some food.”
Ei nodded without a word. Tadayoshi closed his good eye and remained as he was, taking deep breaths.
He’s strong. Ei believed in that. No, she knew that he was. Master was… is the disciple of Yasuhiro-sama, the strongest samurai… and yet he almost died today… Guess there are many strong people in this world… The girl looked at the sky and felt small. I need… I will become strong and fight alongside my master, she reaffirmed her determination, closing her fist.
Ei started making her way back to the city, but halted and turned in the direction of the man she had killed. With her eyes closed, she bit her lips, took a deep breath and walked towards the cadaver.
The samurai was still in the same position, the remaining hand covering his face. The blood had dried from where Ei had attacked him. She tried moving the arm, but with the armor, it was too heavy for her.
Gathering all that was left of her strength, she managed to move just enough to take the rest of the mask. She did not know why, but she needed to see the face of the samurai, to burn the face of the first man she had killed in her mind. Even without life, there was something in those eyes. They’re the same as the samurai in my village…
With a feeling of emptiness, Ei walked away from the samurai and headed back to the city.
The sun was almost gone by the time she returned to Mino. The moment she entered the gates, she knew there was something different in the last day of Obon. The city felt much livelier than yesterday. There are even more people…
Despite everyone making some room to avoid touching Ei, it didn’t make finding their lodging any easier. Even on the second day in the city, everything still seemed new to her. She didn’t recognize any house, no store, no table, and just walked in the general direction she remembered. By the time she reached the lodging, it was night.
The place was almost empty; apart from a couple in charge, though they looked ready to leave, most guests had already left for the festival. Ei joined three of women who were late for the bath.
Though the fire was almost gone, the water was still warm. Even on the hot night, it was a relief for her the girl. For a moment Ei thought of staying all night long enjoying the bath. But when she realized the other women had already finished, she reluctantly left the wooden tub.
“Excuse me,” the young woman in charge said, bowing slightly to Ei when the girl was heading out.
With just those words, Ei could feel the anger behind the forced courtesy. She wants to go to the festival with that man and I’m in the way.
“Your… father,” the woman’s cheeks went red and she hid her smile with a hand, “left some clothes in your room earlier and asked me to help you with it.”
For some reason, the woman’s attitude annoyed Ei, but she still followed her. In their bedroom, folded on top of the straw pile that was her bed, there was a yukata. Dark blue with cherry blossom petals embroidered. On top of the yukata, a vivid red obi and a pair of wooden sandals on the corner. Ei sat on the bed, admiring the clothes. For me…?
With the woman’s help, Ei dressed the yukata. It was harder than she had imagined. The clothes were tight and hard to walk, but the real trouble was the obi. The bow was so complicated she didn’t believe anyone could do it by herself.
The woman finished with a small comb with a flower as decoration. Though Ei’s hair had grown since she left her village, it was still short. But somehow the woman found a way to tie the wild and hard hair with the comb on the side of her head.
“You look beautiful. Your father will certainly say so.”
Despite the woman’s attitude, Ei could tell the compliment was honest, and her cheeks flushed. The girl followed the woman to the entrance, where the man was waiting. The three of them were the last ones in the inn. Ei thanked her again and left before the couple.
The streets were almost deserted. Apart from the guards, few people still lingered within the city’s walls. Ei saw a group of three women and three men talking happily and followed them. One woman noticed the girl. She stared with a weird expression and then whispered to the other two, who turned their heads too.
They kept glancing and whispering so much Ei grew tired. She put some distance between her and the group. When they were outside her view, the girl saw a bucket of water against fire in front of a house. With her curiosity growing, she made her way to it to check herself.
For a moment she didn’t believe it was her face and blinked a few times. The face of a beautiful girl, with the hair tied on an elegant knot and dressed in clothes that matched, stared her back. Is this me…? Before she realized it, she smiled and felt satisfied with the women’s expression, though she didn’t know why.
Still smiling, she followed the last people leaving the gates. Everyone headed the closest riverbank from the city. Ei turned to a different direction, going to where her master waited for her. It took almost twice the time to get there. She wasn’t used to the wooden sandals and the yukata didn’t allow large or quick strides.
Tadayoshi was near the tree, watching the river with his arms crossed. Even from the distance, Ei could tell he had washed himself and put on a yukata too. A dark blue with no other detail.
When she was close enough, he turned. Ei stopped for a moment, surprised at her master’s appearance. Tadayoshi didn’t look like someone who had a mortal fight hours earlier. The only vestige was the bandage underneath his wild black hair. When she realized the bandage was a piece of the green kimono, she laughed.
Apart from the clothes, the true difference was on his waist. Now Tadayoshi had three swords. The one he got from his master on his left side and the other two on the right. Ei knew he had cleaned them. Even though he barely had let her use a real blade, he had thought her how to clean a sword.
Somehow, it was comforting to her seeing him like that. I hope I can be like that too, she thought, stopping in front of him.
“I was somewhat worried. I had no idea if pull off wearing good clothes,” he said, looking her from head to toe. Then he showed his playful smile. “But I’ll admit that I’m wrong. You clean up good. But let’s be honest. My taste in clothes is great.”
“Thanks.” Ei wasn’t angry by his words. In fact, she was surprised by her laugh. It’s my stupid master’s way of saying I look good. “Where did you get these clothes?”
“I borrowed,” he said in a voice rid of guilt, thought his face showed otherwise.
It took some time, but Ei laughed when she remembered their conversation from that morning. It feels like it happens ages ago. “What’s that?”
Near the foot of the tree, there was a square piece of wood, no bigger than his hand. In each corner there was a wooden shaft with paper rice connecting it all. On the center, there was a candle burning weakly.
“Have you ever heard of Tooro Nagashi? It’s a tradition on the last day of the festival,” he said when she shook her head. Then he indicated the river with his chin. “Look.”
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny lights floated down the stream. They illuminated the river, shining like stars on the dark waters. Ei narrowed her eyes, trying to see what created such beauty. Lanterns, she realized, just like the one on Tadayoshi’s hand, though most were much more elegant.
Some were big and round, so bright they seemed like a tiny suns. Others were small and shone looked like flowers. The lights were red, green, yellow… every color Ei knew running down the stream. A big red lantern distinguished from the others. The flame inside was so intense it out shunned the others around it. That must be the lord’s, she thought, watching the endless stream of lanterns. Will they all end on the sea too?
“The spirits closed ones… those who came back to see their family and friends… they need a light to guide them back in safety…” Tadayoshi tried to speak as usual, but Ei could tell why he couldn’t.
He’s thinking about Yasuhiro-sama. Ei glanced as her master's, who fought back his tears. Shaking his head, Tadayoshi handed the lantern to her. She stared into his eyes until he nodded.
Ei took the lantern and they walked to the river together. Pulling the sleeves of her clothes, she knelt carefully and placed the lantern on the water, giving a little push. Their tiny and simple lantern joined with the others. She tried to keep track of it, but soon lost. Guess it’s impossible, she thought, a sad smile on her lips.
As they watched the lanterns float down the river, a mist appeared above the water. It was so thin Ei wasn’t sure it was real, or the lights were tricking her eyes. Without getting denser, the mist started gathering around each lantern.
Ei was still looking for theirs, and couldn’t believe when she found it.
Above each light, the mist slowly acquired human shape. Above their lantern, a face appeared. But it wasn’t just any face; it was one she had known and loved her entire life.
Mom… It shouldn’t be possible. She was dead. Ei knew that. And yet her mother’s face was there, almost visible. But her smile was just like she remembered. Silent tears fell from the girl’s eyes.
She wasn’t sure if she was imagining or not, but that didn’t matter. To her, it was real. The spirits of beloved ones who weren’t in this world anymore came to visit once a year. Her mother was there, smiling at the girl once again.
But she wasn’t alone.
By her side, above the same lantern, there was a face of a man. His hair was short and just as messy. And despite the appearance of dignity, there was something wild, young, and strong on that old face.
She looked up. Tadayoshi stared the river in tears, just like her.
Ei didn’t have to ask. She knew whom the spirit was. Without a word, she held his hand and he squeezed back.
They observed the lights and the spirits in silence, the stream taking away the people they loved once more.