Fiction

Fire Keeper, Part 3

Part 1 | Part 2

After our first encounter, I try to see Matsuoka-san as much as possible. I occasionally join her during weekday dinners and weekend lunches. I never manage to share breakfast with her: she gets up too early for me.

I only go down the stairs two more times before I start visiting via the backdoor. Going from the main floor is too risky – there are a lot of eyes in the ryokan and word travels fast, even if they mean no harm. If my parents find out I’ve been sneaking to the basement, they’d probably ban me from going down there, claiming I’m being a nuisance.

Hanging around the business is what I’m known for, but my newfound absence goes unnoticed. Nobody wonders where I go and though I do find that annoying – I guess I really am inconsequential to the family – it’s beneficial.

I’m learning a lot about Matsuoka-san. Mother said she isn’t a sociable person, but that must have been some weird rumour. She’s very talkative with me, though I’m always asking her questions.

“Why’d you start working down here Matsuoka-san?” I ask her one night.

“I wanted my husband to be home more.”

Hearing that makes me sad, because it could only mean that her husband was no longer around.

“Is it okay if I ask you about this?”

“Eh? Yes, of course. Why would you ask that?” Matsuoka-san looks at me confused and the atmosphere feels a bit lighter, “Don’t worry, don’t worry!” she waves away any concerns, “He’s still alive, hahaha! His back gave out five years ago and the doctors recommended he find new work or retire.”

“So, he’s retired?”

“Semi-retired I suppose. He fishes and sells what he catches to the local restaurants. Hahaha! When he catches something! Hahaha!”

“So, you and your husband worked here together when you started?”

“And Saito-san. About 30 years ago now…”

“Eeeeeeh?? 30 years?!!”

She nods, “Funny how the time goes…” That’s something she says a lot. I wonder, before I started asking, if she used to think about time a lot. Everyday of the year, except for Golden Week, is just about the same for her. I wonder if she celebrates anniversaries.

“Back then, it was Saito-san and my husband. They worked the furnace in shifts: one day on, one day off, and rotating Sundays. I used to be a housewife. I looked after my girls, cleaned the house, all that. My husband, however, was always so tired on his days off. He needed to recover for the next day. We chopped the wood ourselves back then, you see.”

Matsuoka-san opens the furnace door and pokes around the fire, tossing in another log.

“I didn’t want him working so hard, it wasn’t healthy. I told your grandfather – he was in charge back then – I told him I’d be working in the basement two days a week, to relieve my husband and Saito-san. Hahaha! It wasn’t a discussion. Good thing he was nice enough to pay me! Hahaha!

“It was a fine arrangement. My husband had time for our children, we maintained the same income, and I was getting some nice exercise! Hahaha! I can still remember my first day chopping wood – everyone thought I would cut my leg off! Hahaha!”

I like Matsuoka-san’s optimism. She’s always smiling and laughing, even though she works in a dark, sweaty basement. She’s like the kindly old country grandmother that pampers her grandkids every visit. An Obaa-chan only seen in upbeat shoujo mangas.

I like her stories. They’re stories, not lectures like from my parents and my late grandparents. They’re fun and light-hearted, not serious and business-related. When she talks about her family she looks so happy. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen my mother make such a face. I’m jealous. I think, ‘I want her to talk about me like that.’

~

I lounge in hot water, a wet towel covering my face.

Sometimes, when I’m in the shared baths, I think about the furnace. Why don’t we use an electric one? If we did, would Matsuoka-san have a job anymore? I wonder how the water is heated and how it’s not too hot. I wonder how it’s maintained at such a consistent temperature.

“Out,” my sister Mizuki orders, mopping the floors near the sauna. “It’s been twenty minutes.” With almost no hesitation, she lifts me out of the water and drags me to the door. “You’re going to mess up my cleaning.”

I’m shoved out the door into the changeroom, my towel left behind.

I stumble a few steps, head down to regain balance, and I bump into a fully-clothed kimono body. Looking up, I see the stern, no-nonsense glare of my oldest sister Yuuka, successor to the ryokan and second in command of general management after my mother.

“Riko,” She doesn’t give me a chance to answer, “you’ve misbehaving.”

“…I don’t think so?”

“The baths are closed.”

“I didn’t see the sign.”

She leans in closer, “The staff have been distracted lately.”

Oh no! I think, Matsuoka-san! “I haven’t been doing anything!”

Closer still, “Your grades are slipping.”

“What?! Where’d you hear that?”

She leans back and produces two tests from thin air, displaying the marks prominently. Both math, a 79 and a 73. I can’t deny it, they’ve got my name on it.

“That’s not ‘slipping!’” I fumble, suddenly self-conscious about my body. “It’s normal to – to have fluctuating grades.”

She’s blocking my way to the lockers. I have no choice but to withstand her glare, still dripping wet. “Riko,” she says, head tilted up so she can look down on me, “It’s normal for grade to increase over time. I know you’ve been studying, correct?”

“Auh–Yes!”

My hesitation is a giveaway. She frowns. “Do you need a tutor Riko?”

“NO!” I shout, terrified of the threat, of the lost free time, “I’m studying! I’ll study harder I promise! I was just sick that day! I couldn’t focus, I’m sorry!”

“Riko,” a chill passes through the room, “are you hiding something?”

“No!” I panic, “It’s just–argh!!” I shove past her, rip into my locker, grab my yukata and throw it on. “I was distracted by a guy – okay??”

I storm out. I feel embarrassed. I lied, but the fact that it was about a fake crush makes it so humiliating. The fact that I walked out is doubly worse. I make it halfway back to the house before I crouch down, hug my knees, and groan quietly into my hands. I know my cheeks are red.

I’m grateful that my family rarely eats together. I’m grateful I rarely see Yuuka without a buffer like Itsuki or Mizuki. I’m grateful I don’t work in the ryokan.

People pass by me. I tell them I’m okay through my hands, still too embarrassed to look up. I give myself two minutes, then stand up and rush back to the house.

I flop onto my bed. Then I jump back up, change and grab a towel from the bathroom. My thoughts are racing, trying to rebound from that sudden encounter. I sit quietly in my room, ruffling a towel around my head in a poor attempt to dry my hair. After a few seconds, I stand up and fly out the door.

Barefoot I rush through the ryokan’s backyard gardens, down the hill that hides the basement from the ground floor. The backdoor is open. I burst in.

“Matsuoka-san!”

She jumps at my appearance, but looks at me expectantly regardless. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry if I’m bothering you!”

“O-okay, but–”

“If I’m bothering you, please tell me!”

“You’re not–”

“If my sister asks, please don’t say anything!”

“Eeh? Okay…”

My face flushes. I feel embarrassed again. I bow twice and in awkwardly wave before running away.

I flop back into my bed again and shout into my pillow. I hate how dumb I was today.

~

I wouldn’t call myself an exceptional student. I’m more just above average. Sometimes I think the only reason people know me is because of the ryokan and my family. People talk about my older siblings a lot. Ten years later and teachers still talks about Yuuka.

“She was vice-president of the student council in first year and then she was president second year. Why haven’t you joined a club Watanabe?”

“She was second in her year throughout high school! Have you asked her for help with your homework?”

“She was scouted for a volleyball scholarship in her last year. I still think it’s a shame she didn’t take it.”

Ten years Sensei and you still think about it?

Nakashima-sensei is my current teacher and I’m very happy. She’s new, she only started working two years ago. To her I’m an unattached student, no different than my classmates. She can only compare me to them and not my siblings.

“Everyone,” she says, a couple minutes before lunch, “please fill these out by the end of tomorrow. Hand them in to the Class Rep, thank you!”

Sensei passes out papers to the class. They’re handed back through the rows. At first glance, I think I misunderstand the paper. I read it again and reread it. Why now? It makes me a bit uncomfortable.

The lunch bell rings. There’s loud shuffling and murmurs about eating on the roof and rushing to buy bread. I pull out my lunch from my bag and go to get up, but my friend Mako intercepts me at my desk.

“Riko-chan,” she says smiling, “look! I brought a lunch too today!”

“Eeh?” I remark, genuinely surprised, “Whoa! Did you make it last night?”

“Nooo! I woke up early this morning.”

“Eeeeeh?? I didn’t think that was possible.”

She smacks my arm, but we laugh about it. She pushes a desk together with mine and takes a seat. We admire each other’s lunch. I’m jealous of her fried chicken and she’s kind enough to let me have some, in exchange for my crab croquettes.

“Isn’t it kinda weird,” I say between bits of rice, “that Sensei is doing future career planning surveys? It seems kind of late. We’re already in our second year of high school…”

Mako waves away my concerns, “Sensei’s just nice and wants to be helpful.” She points her chopsticks at me, “A lot of people change their minds about careers. It’s not smart to follow a choice from middle school!”

“I guess that’s true…”

“Think of it like counseling. Like, what if you wanted to be a florist, would you know where to start?”

“Not really…”

“Exactly!”

I chew on the idea and my lunch. “What’d you want to be in middle school?”

“Flight attendant!” She strikes a funny pose, peace-sign over her eye.

“That’d be cool! You could travel all over.”

“Yeah, but being stuck in such a tiny space for so long…I don’t want to be one anymore, hahaha.” She laughs meekly. “What about you?”

I pause and think. I really, really think. I try to picture my future planning survey from three years ago. I know I must have had aspirations, but all I can think of is helping around the ryokan. A time when I thought I could still be useful to my parents.

“Helping my family,” I admit, looking up, “but nothing specific.”

Mako nods, “What about know?”

“I’m not sure.”

~

After school, I sit in the basement with Matsuoka-san, the survey still in my bag. I’m sitting at her desk as she takes stock of things and rummages through the tools.

“Aaah, you look cute in your uniform Riko-chan.” She says suddenly.

“Matsuoka-san you sound creepy when you say that.”

“Eeeeh?? But it’s true! You remind me of my girls back when they went to school.” She sighs happily, “Uniforms make me reminisce.”

“Did you go to school Matsuoka-san?”

She laughs whole-heartily, “How old do you think I am? HAHAHA!” She takes a few moments and then continues, “Of course I did! I even skipped a grade, if you can believe it.”

“What did you want to do after you graduated?”

“To work at the Ministry of Transport!” She looks back at me and smiles brightly, “I wanted to help plan railway lines and bus routes. I’ve always enjoyed that type of stuff.”

“Wow, so what happened?”

“Gah!” Matsuoka-san shouts out, faking being hurt, “You really don’t pull your punches eh, Riko-chan! Hahaha! Well, I worked with JR for a few years and even got a promotion to an office job. But then I met my husband and became a housewife. The rest you already know.”

“And you don’t regret leaving JR? Sounds like a big place to work.”

She shrugs, “I’m happy with my life. You’re a kind kid Riko-chan, you don’t have to worry about me. I like working down here!”

A thought suddenly occurs to me and I’m surprised it never crossed my mind before. It makes me feel this weird cross of anxiety and eagerness.

“Matsuoka-san, who will run the basement when you’re gone?”

Part 4

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