“Tadaima” by Rachel Udin
Clack clack. The wooden sandals fell in the wrong direction. Michiko leaned over the step and corrected each with her foot before putting them on. Her back hurt as she did so.
Her knees creaked . She smoothed her yukata and walked towards the door. The door slid under her touch.
The sun was kissing the sky and her breath curled on the air. Each step she took made a comforting clop that had gotten slower and slower in her recent years.
Crows cawed from the telephone lines, but only twice, which in an odd way eased Michiko’s heart. Three would be death and misfortune, though she wasn’t sure why she was recalling that now.
She checked for the fifth time that she’d brought her change purse (or was it the sixth?) It was tucked into her wrapped sash, in the front.
In this part of Kyoto everyone was asleep in the morning. She passed several vending machines, paused and then realized she should turn down the narrow road to the Inari shrine.
She’d made this mistake for thirty years. Perhaps because the machines disturbed her. They were everywhere.
She turned down the road, wondering as always why she did this daily ritual. Even when the shrine was closed.
Inari was represented at this shrine, though it was small and not well-known.
Crows cawed again, only twice.
Michiko sighed at the multitude of steps flanked by two stones. She always forgot there were this many.
She hitched up her yukata and took the steps as her joints would allow.
A worker dressed in the shrine clothes, carrying a backpack, bowed to her.
She was too determined with the steps to answer, but breathed hard and then bowed back.
He’d worked there long enough to know she would refuse help, so continued on with such ease it upset her concentration.
She made it to the last step and glanced up to see the big vermilion torii, a mark of the God Inari. She paused, ready to pass into the spiritual world. On either side of her as she entered, two fox statues with red bibs holding a sheaf of rice greeted her. Messengers of Inari, or so it was said.
Her knees protested as she approached the shrine straight in front of her. A sacred object of Inari was supposed to be held here.
Catching her breath, she fumbled for the coins from the front of her sash and tossed two in. She rung the red and white rope twice, bowed twice and clapped twice, but then forgot her prayer.
There was a reason she did this every day since her husband left, but now she couldn’t remember why.
She paused; would Inari be upset that she forgot what her prayer should be? As the God of rice, the harvest, and one other thing she couldn’t recall, she had something specific to ask him.
Michiko sighed; she shouldn’t keep him waiting. She prayed for a safe soybean harvest, and for the thing she was supposed to remember but couldn’t. Surely the harvest God could forgive her since she had prayed for the same thing every day.
Michiko bowed twice again, muttering a soft thank you. She reached into her sash again and pulled out fried tofu pockets stuffed with rice. She opened the bag and left it to one side of the shrine. A silent offering to the God. Maybe he would forgive her for forgetting.
She walked to the shop beside the shrine.
“The usual, Ms. Tachikawa?” the shrine worker asked from behind the glass window.
She nodded, still distracted by the fact she had forgotten the prayer. Something she promised her husband?
She pushed under a 500 and a 100 yen coin under the window. He passed the pouch underneath the window and took her money.
She did not return the way she came, but instead turned the opposite direction, away from home. Her knees would not cooperate.
Takiya’s face filled her mind. His fat cheeks splashed with her tears. Perhaps she had not loved him enough. Perhaps she should have eaten better food during her pregnancy. That accusation never left her husband’s lips, but sometimes it would play in her mind and in her heart.
She reached the Buddhist temple. A monk greeted her at the door with a bow, his head glistening in the now emerged sunlight. She returned the bow.
“Mizuko Kuyo,” she said. The ceremony for the stillborn infants and the miscarried children.
The monk knew what she meant, though she didn’t express it well. He took her to where she wanted. She bowed to the monk and said, “Thank you very much.”
She had only one other thing hidden in her sash. She offered the charm to the small stone marker of the Tachikawa grave. She wondered what he felt when he died, not yet able to see the light of the world.
The charms at his grave were neatly arranged, some of them worn from the elements. However, she could not remember why she bought them every day. They all had signs of protection on them, but she couldn’t remember from what.
The sun was now up and she was late. As she left the temple, she left money for the Bodhisattva in charge of protecting children, Jizo. The monk blessed her and she walked as fast as she could home. She could not be late to open her shop.
The cicadas were already droning out their songs in the summer heat as she hobbled with small steps into her shop. She immediately took off her shoes before entering and arranged them on a nearby shelf. Michiko went into her bedroom and changed from the yukata for the shrine and grave to something more suitable for the tofu shop.
She went to check on the soybeans.
The sharp smell of ammonia from the miso pierced her nose. If it had been fishy she would have had to throw out the batch. The tofu was also doing well.
A knock sounded against her shop door.
“We’re not open yet,” she called.
There was another knock. She peered outside of the shop door. There was a man with black eyes and long black hair who smiled at her. Something about that smile sent shivers down her back.
“Greetings, Ms. Tachikawa. It has been a long time. I’m here about the promise we made some years ago.” A black tail flashed from behind him. Crows cawed, now three times.
“Hello. What was the promise?” she asked.
“That I cannot tell you. You asked for this debt, so I am not permitted to ask you for your debt if you are not willing to give it.”
Two black tails flashed from behind him, puffy and wide.
“I am sorry, but I seem to have forgotten my promise,” Michiko said. “Come inside. Would you like tea while I try to remember?”
He nodded. A third black tail appeared. She stared at them and they disappeared as if she’d never seen them at all. That was oddly familiar, but she couldn’t associate it with anything.
She started the water to boil in the shop’s kitchen, glancing at her familiar guest. He must be a fox changeling – a kitsune who could disguise and change form.
“I’m afraid that the water will take a while to boil. Will you please wait while I open the shop?”
He agreed again.
Michiko walked out front and took in a deep breath. There was no one outside. She pushed up the sliding doors in front of the counter of the shop. Light streamed into the kitchen.
She turned on the electricity of the shop and the register. She searched for her apron, and found it. She slipped it over her head and wrapped the strings around her waist before tying it off.
“No customers,” the kitsune said, almost smug.
“There will be,” she said.
A man appeared with three large sacks of soybeans. He moved the trolley into the store’s kitchen. Michiko and he attempted to lift the sacks, but they seemed to be heavier than usual. The sacks would not budge.
The delivery man glanced at the guest, sitting in a chair.
“He should not be asked to help,” Michiko warned the delivery man.
“I do not mind being asked,” the kitsune said.
They tried two more times, but it would not move. Michiko and the delivery man held their backs together. The delivery man glanced at his watch and then at the kitsune.
Before Michiko could object again, the delivery man said, “Please help lift this sack.”
The kitsune obliged and lifted the sack as if it contained only feathers.
“Shouldn’t your daughter help?” the kitsune asked, moving the sack to where the soybeans usually were placed, though Michiko hadn’t told him. She paused, but then reasoned that perhaps it was the dried soybeans on the floor.
Michiko shook her head. “She left a long time ago. I haven’t seen her in many years.”
The kitsune moved the second sack. Michiko’s husband used to do this work when he was still with her. Their daughter would always weave around his legs when he did so. Michiko scolded her with, “Running is no good.” Her daughter’s laughter echoed in her memory.
The kitsune did not ask the obvious question of why her daughter was no longer around. He moved the third sack. He bowed to the delivery man. The delivery man thanked the kitsune and Michiko before leaving.
The kitsune opened the sacks and poured them into the wooden containers. He folded the sacks and put them away. Then he resumed sitting on the chair.
Michiko murmured a thank you to the kitsune. She would have to start the soybeans soaking soon.
The kitsune looked at the pot of tea. Michiko frowned as she saw the billow of steam and rescued it from the fire. Only enough for two cups of tea was left. She decided to pour the tea into the cups her husband had left her. She pinched a small amount of tea powder into each and stirred with a spoon.
She offered her husband’s cup to the kitsune.
“I will have trouble remembering our promise,” she said.
“I have time,” the kitsune said. He took a sip of the tea, the sound filled the air.
“In that case, a name is preferable, is it not?”
“I was once called Kuro Myoubu,” he said, his liquid black eyes not changing. They fixed on her eyes as if she should remember. He was very calm for a kitsune.
Michiko looked at the time and then put down her tea. “Mr. Myoubu, please wait.”
She finished setting up the store and set up grinding the soybeans for new tofu. Her first customer came.
“Welcome to our store,” Michiko said, bowing with her hands folded in front of her thighs. “Ms. Hisano, what can I help you with?”
“Three kilos of tofu – for hot pot and…”
The sound of cicadas drowned out the silence between her words.
“One liter of miso.”
“Right away,” Michiko said. She hobbled to get the order, cut the tofu blocks from her vats, the sound of water yielding the precious block. She put it into another container, tying it off with a ribbon, and put the miso into a container. Mr. Myoubu watched as she did so. He followed her to the counter.
“Is that your grandson?” Ms. Hisano asked, leaning her head towards Mr. Myoubu.
“Oh, no – he is a guest.”
“It would be nice if he offered to help in the store,” Ms. Hisano said.
“I would not ask that of him,” Michiko said. “How is your daughter?”
“Good. She is returning from Kyodai today.”
“Ah, she was lucky to get into such a fine college.”
Michiko could picture Ms. Hisano, her husband and their daughter gathered around the table eating hot pot, their faces red, but laughing while they were complaining about the heat as they ate.
Mr. Myoubu looked on as Michiko thanked Ms. Hisano. Ms. Hisano bowed back and glanced at Mr. Myoubu. “Can’t you offer to help?”
Mr. Myoubu’s eyes flashed yellow and he smiled. He bowed to her as she left.
The drone of cicadas was louder than Michiko expected.
Ms. Uchiyama came with her son to the shop. Her order was never the same twice, so Michiko didn’t know what to expect.
“Welcome to our store,” Michiko and Mr. Myoubu said in unison. At first, Michiko was surprised, but then remembered that Mr. Myoubu had been asked by the previous customer to help her.
“Oh, is this your grandson?” Ms. Uchiyama asked.
Michiko was going to protest, but then another customer came that she knew. This customer ordered the exact same thing every time no matter how much time she stared at the offerings of the store.
Michiko was forced to say yes and Mr. Myoubu took over serving Ms. Uchiyama.
Michiko carved out enough tofu for the new customer and the corresponding amount of soft tofu. She could see the green onions in the woman’s bag. Miso must be served every morning for breakfast.
As she finished bagging the order, Mr. Myoubu moved past her to the fried tofu pouches. Michiko stared as he didn’t pause for a moment. He took in a deep breath before opening the lid, though it didn’t smell bad. Her husband had also done that after he returned from the Hokkaido earthquake. But then he never asked about Takiya either.
Michiko snapped out of her memory and delivered the order.
“Your grandson is a fine man, isn’t he?” Ms. Uchiyama said.
“He is,” the other customer chimed in.
Michiko gave up correcting them and bowed, “Thank you very much.”
Mr. Myoubu finished the order and collected the money.
The day wore on as more customers came to the store. Myoubu handled them all without asking a question.
When the sun was high in the sky, they took a break for lunch. Michiko made Inari-zushi, though she was not quite sure why she had an urge to do so. Perhaps because Mr. Myoubu was a kitsune. The fried tofu packet filled with vinegar rice seemed so tempting. She had eaten a lot of them during her pregnancy with Akiko. She and Mr. Myoubu sat down together to eat the meal.
She drank her now cold tea. She still held the rim of the tea cup with her right hand and rested the cup on her left, out of habit.
Mr. Myoubu gave a brief smile she didn’t expect. She felt her years in that smile.
He also ate the Inari-zushi whole. The way he ate it reminded her of Akiko, who also often ate it with such zeal that Michiko had to tell her, “Not chewing is no good.”
Michiko wished her daughter would visit her, but after her husband left when her daughter went to college, she never returned. Michiko couldn’t remember if there was a reason why. It was so long ago.
As they finished the meal, a customer rang the service bell.
Mr. Myoubu went to the counter and said, “Welcome to our establishment.”
“Ah! Where is Ms. Tachikawa?” the customer asked.
Michiko knew that voice. The customer had not been to her shop in years.
“She is having lunch,” Mr. Myoubu said.
“Oh, well, I thought I would ask if you have Azuki paste. I know last time I was here her husband was no longer here, but I can’t forget the taste. Lightly sweet, fluffy and creamy.”
Yes, it was Ms. Aino. She had come day after day when Michiko’s husband was no longer working in the shop, looking for his Azuki paste.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Myoubu said with a deep bow, his hands to his sides, “not today.”
Michiko stared at Mr. Myoubu’s back. A tail flickered from behind him. What mischief was he up to?
“Then perhaps tomorrow?” Ms. Aino asked, hopeful.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Mr. Myoubu said.
“You look exactly like your grandfather. Did he teach you?”
Before Mr. Myoubu could answer she said, “Well, it seems a waste to come all this way. I’m only visiting for the week. I live in Tokyo now. Do you have that sesame tofu still?”
Mr. Myoubu nodded and said, “Right away.”
Ms. Aino had not told Mr. Myoubu how much she wanted. Michiko was going to tell him when he cut out the right amount. He handed it to her for the money. She smiled, holding her stash close to her.
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said with a bow, and left.
Ms. Aino used to come in the afternoon when no one was around and when Akiko was still in school. Michiko stared at Mr. Myoubu.
“Who are you really?” she asked.
“I cannot tell you, you must remember,” he said.
The sound of cicadas was dying with the sun’s descent. Since it would be quiet for a few hours before work ended for the salary men and working women. Mr. Myoubu helped her to drain the water from the pre-soaked beans and prepare to make them into tofu. He also helped with the other tasks such as setting up the dry beans to soak, toasting the sesame seeds and grinding them. He did not ask what to do.
They finished with some of the basic tasks and cleaning the store as working wives and fathers came to the store. Mr. Myoubu offered them free soy milk and soy donuts to relieve them from the heat while he worked on their orders.
The day ended safely. Michiko’s bones seemed to ache with her efforts, but she still cleaned the store as always and finished the last of the preparations for the long night of cooking soymilk, coagulating it and putting it into molds.
While she did, Mr. Myoubu counted the bills. He ticked off each bill by licking his thumb and flipping it.
“That’s dirty,” Michiko warned. This reminded her of her husband who used to do that too. He had picked it up in Hokkaido.
“Don’t worry so much,” Mr. Myoubu said in the same tone as her husband had used.
His tails flickered out and this time she saw nine tails. Michiko remembered something faintly about how either good deeds or one hundred years made a kitsune earn another tail. What had he done to earn so many tails?
He calculated the day’s profit and put it into the ledger, which he found without any trouble. He sorted and stacked the bills, tamping them together before pressing them into an envelope and putting the change in after it. He kept the cash register change they’d need. He wrote the amount on the envelope and handed it to her.
“Before the bank closes,” he said.
She nodded, saying the words she hadn’t said in years, “Please close the shop while I’m gone.” She said it without thinking.
There was a warm smile on his face, assuring her that he would do so. The only thing missing was the face of Akiko. From the time she was a baby to the time she left for college, flashed before Michiko’s mind.
The sun blazed the sky red now. She walked to the bank. Crows stared at her from the telephone poles, but did not caw. She could hear the soft chirping of crickets.
When she returned from the bank, the shop was cleaned and organized. The soft smell of rice and curry greeted her. Mr. Myoubu had cooked dinner.
The only gap was the call of her daughter, “Mama!” before Michiko could say, “I’m home.” Akiko always took flight for her middle, sending Michiko towards the floor if she didn’t catch her balance first.
Akiko made Michiko forget the pain of losing her son, Takiya. He would have made such a great older brother.
She said, “I’m home.”
Mr. Myoubu said the words, “Welcome home.” A smile on his face made Michiko remember the promise she had made.
Her husband was missing in the 1952 Earthquake. He had not come home. Her grief was endless since she lost her son. Tears filled her eyes. Takiya was born dead soon after the news, as if the life she could give him ran out.
Michiko’s vision blurred. She hobbled over to Mr. Myoubu and said, “I remember. I missed you so much. I would have been lost when my husband didn’t return if you hadn’t taken his place. I only asked for a family and a husband, but you helped me realize my independence and pride in myself. Yet, I did not ask you what I should have all those years ago. I will give you what I promised.”
Pain played in his eyes. His lips trembled, but he did not comment further.
“You did as you promised when you met me. I am sorry I did not ask you to stay after our Akiko went to college.”
He touched her wrinkled face as if she were much, much younger. His brows knit together and he frowned.
“I waited so long. I prayed to Inari you’d return. Please stay this time and become human.”
All nine black tails fanned behind him. “This won’t hurt.”
He kissed her on the forehead. The warmth of the kiss took away the years she’d had without him by her side. His tails disappeared one by one as he became human. Michiko could not remember the feelings or memories she’d had between the time he’d left and the time he arrived. He aged before her eyes, and the wrinkles fell from her own face as they became the same age.
He smiled at her. He raised her smooth hand to his older face, rubbing it against his cheek.
“Michiko, I’m home.”
“Welcome home,” she said.
She smiled. Half her burden was gone. They ate curry with tofu together.
A knock came on the front door of the tofu shop.
“Strange,” a female voice said.
She opened the door. A young boy rushed in.
“Ah! You’re like I was at your age, Taki! Running is no good. Take off your shoes. Your grandmother will be upset.”
“Yes, Mama,” the boy said.
The woman took in a deep breath. It had been so long. She, too, had an urge to run in and hug her mother. She closed the sliding door behind her and took off her own shoes.
“Mama, I’m home.”
About the Author
Rachel Udin is a Korean adoptee who lives in Los Angeles, California and shares her home with a bunch of rats and snakes. She spends her time researching other cultures and working on her writing. Between stories she finds time to practice her other artistic talents such as drawing, sewing, and gardening. “Tadaima” is her first published story.
You can find her at racheludin.com or on Twitter @RachelUdin, where she usually talks about anything but writing.