Fire Keeper, Part 4

Part 1 | Part 3

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

She looks at me over her shoulder, eyebrow cocked and a frown forming.

Immediately I reel back, “Not that you’re going anywhere! You’re very healthy! I’m sure you’ll live till your 100!!” She huffs and goes back to her work. I keep talking. “But isn’t it concerning? Haven’t you ever been sick? What will happen if you get a fever or something?! If you’ve been working five years straight except for Golden Week, that’s incredible! It’s super lucky! But isn’t it kinda risky?? If something happens to you, the whole ryokan will be at a standstill!”

I somewhat expect her to laugh, but instead she rubs her chin in a surprisingly deep contemplation. I don’t think I’ve seen her look so serious before.

“Hmm…that is troubling. I suppose I’ve been reckless. I suppose…it’s not something I’ve thought too hard about.”

I feel awkward and restless, “Well, you still got time! A lot of time! And I’m sure if you asked my parents they’d help you find someone! I could do a few shifts!”

I said it. The thought that had been in the back of my mind since I learnt about Matsuoka-san. My four older siblings ran the four main sections of the ryokan. Was I destined to work hidden in the basement, just as I hide from my family now? I’m not even sure how to feel about it. Happy to have found my place? Depressed knowing I’d have no life?

“No!” Matsuoka-san shouts at my suggestion, “No, no, no.” She waves the thought away, “Riko-chan, you’re a young, youthful kid. This isn’t the type of job a teenager should do. And it certainly isn’t the type of job a teenager should aspire to do!”

She puts down what she’s doing and approaches me. She rests her hands on my shoulders in a dramatic fashion and looks me in the eye with a powerful sense of hope.

“Don’t restrict yourself Riko-chan! If you want to go big, go big!! If you want to be lazy, be lazy! You’ve got to remember, you’re not locked into anything! If you ever want to change, you can do it! It’s just a matter of starting over, which isn’t a bad thing.”

“You’re pretty locked in.”

She knocks me on the head, unamused by my joke. “I’m not a good example.”

I shake her off, “Do you want to start over?”

She looks up in thought, walking back over to the tools. “I lost my grand aspirations a long time ago. Now I just want to save money, retire in comfort, keep my health, all that. I practice yoga every morning!” She points to her back, “Helps make sure I don’t end up like my husband. Hahaha! What was I saying? Right! When you get to my age, you settle into things. Don’t think you have to be like me or your parents.” Maybe unintentionally, she spreads her arms out in sun salutation, “Branch out!”

“Maybe you could be a public speaker.”

She shakes her head, “No, no, goodness no. What is it kids do today? St-streaming? From their desk or wherever? I’d be more comfortable with that.”

We talk for twenty more minutes. Matsuoka-san expresses her desire to promote exercise with seniors and how she was inspired by some translated BBC articles. She explains she got into western news because she wanted to better understand western music. She admits she loves western bands like The Rolling Stones and a recent artist from Belgium who she says is ‘very beautiful.’

I think she must have picked up on my discomfort talking about the future, because she never asked what I wanted to do after high school. I’m grateful. Matsuoka-san is probably the only one in the ryokan who has ever encouraged me to not help the family. It’s really refreshing.


Throughout the next day of school, my mind wanders to the future career planning survey. I had lost hope of helping my family because of how my parents brushed me off, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to help. Was there any room left for me at the ryokan? It already felt like there was overlap between my siblings, was there any position left, besides the furnace, that I could fill?

I guess an important question I didn’t want to ask myself was; did I want to branch out? Was there anything I was interested in besides the ryokan? Should I go to university? Should I find a job? When I really think about it, I’m not sure there’s something I’m passionate enough about to pursue. I liked soaking in the baths – so maybe skincare? I guess I could work at a spa and be an esthetician or something like that.

I think about possible options in between notetaking and occasionally being called on. The class gets a test back and I sigh in relief at a 77. Yuuka can’t fault me for sticking to my average. Would an esthetician need high grades? I don’t think so. But if they need to know about skin care and health, they’d probably need to know about some biology and a lot of chemistry. I guess this is what Mako was talking about with the career planning survey; getting information before locking in to a middle school dream.

“Mako-chan,” I say to her at lunch, “Do you want to go buy something to eat?”

She nods, putting her things into her pencil case, “Yeah…” she yawns, “I wanted to make a bento today too, but I slept through my alarm.”

“Back to normal.”

She smacks my arm, but we both laugh.

“Your brother didn’t make you anything today?” She asks as we walk through the halls.

I shake my head, “He did but, I just want something, I don’t know, unhealthy.” I give a weak chuckle. “Did you write anything down on the career survey?” I ask, changing the subject.

“Yup.” She smiles cutely, “Travel agent!” She flashes a v-sign.

“Whoa! That’s actually a pretty smart choice after flight-attendant.”

Mako hits me again playfully. “Hmph, obviously! Plus, the best way to be a travel agent is to check out hotels and resorts yourself, to make sure they’re worth the recommendation.”

“Oooh, so you figured out a job that lets you travel as much as you want and it can still be called work.”

She smirks and laughs arrogantly. I smile too, half amused by her smug face and half legitimately happy Mako’s found a calling.

“I also wrote down university, as a general thing, but I’m not really interested in more school.”

I nod, “Me neither, I can barely pay attention now.” I laugh lightly.

We pass the school vending machines. I buy a milk tea, Mako gets peach tea. I still have my lunch from Itsuki, but Mako is without any food, so we continue to the bakery stall for some bread.

“Did you write anything down?” She asks me.

I shake my head, “I’m still unsure…I talked to someone yesterday about it, but it didn’t really…I didn’t decide on any one thing.”

“Nothing? Not even helping your family?”

“Uuum, I don’t know. It’s weird. I was thinking about esthetician though – because I like lounging in our baths.”

“Oh!” She jumps slightly, “That’s something! Yeah, I could see you doing that!”

We talk about that for a bit, how nice massages and manicures are. We tie it back into Mako’s aspirations and complete spa resort packages. As we eat lunch she explains her sister’s nightly ritual of lotions, creams, and facemasks. We laugh and it puts my mind at ease. Just before class starts again, she convinces me to write esthetician down on the career planning survey. I feel iffy about it, but it’s better than handing it in blank.


After school, I swing by the basement backdoor with the intention of telling Matsuoka-san about my new, partial interest working at a spa.

“Matsuoka-san!” I say, feeling cherry, “I think I–”

An old man looks up at me in confusion. He’s squatting, staring at the furnace with a couple of wooden logs ready to throw in. “Eeh?”

I recoil at the surprise, but quickly go into a proper stance to show respect. “Oh! Sorry, I just – usually it’s Matsuoka-san here…”

“Eeeeh? I’m Matsuoka-san, are you looking for me?”

“Oh!” I feel awkward, “Ojii-san, are you Matsuoka-san’s husband?”

He straightens up and I hear the cracks of his back, “Oh ho, so that’s it. Kumiko has been talking about a rascal hanging around the basement. Hahaha!” I see they share a lot of traits.

“I’m Riko Watanabe, nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you. You can just keep calling me Ojii-san, wouldn’t want things to get confusing. Hahaha! Riko-chan eh? I haven’t see you since you were this high! It’s been years, but I still know my way around this place!”

“Did something happen to Matsuoka-san?” I feel antsy. It feels too coincidental that we talked about her being sick yesterday and today she’s suddenly absent.

He rubs his chin. It’s scruffy with white tuffs of half-shaven hair. “She came home yesterday and asked me to cover her shift before she went to bed. Then she woke me up this morning to remind me. Hahaha, she can’t even sleep in on a day off!”

“Eeh? She just took a day off?”

“Something like that. She said she had things to do, wouldn’t tell me because she was rushing me out the door! Hahaha! Did you need to tell her something? I can pass on the message.”

“Oh, um. I just wanted to…it’s nothing.” I curl my toes in my shoes, eager to leave.

“No, no, it’s alright!”

I don’t want to prolong the conversation anymore, “It was just about what I want to do after high school.”

He smiles brightly, “Aah, that’s great. Helping around the ryokan?”

I frown a bit, feeling even worse, “Umm…no, not really. There isn’t any work left for me, so…”

“Eeeeh? Says who? The way I see it there’s lots of work to do!”

My shoulders slump. Not I really see the similarities between the Matsuoka couple. For some reason, however, it’s a bit more tiring with Ojii-san. “Well, all my older siblings have the four areas of the ryokan filled…”

He squints his eyes as though confused, “What does that matter?” He asks.

I’m a bit surprised at the question and I fumble, unsure of how to answer. “Well, I mean…like I said, I’m not needed.”

“Then make yourself needed! This place is traditional, sure, but it doesn’t mean it can’t expand.”

I absorb his comment for a moment and I find myself nodding, “I guess so.”

He smiles and I notice he’s missing a tooth. “I’ll pass on the message.”

“Oh, um, thanks Ojii-san.”

I bow, say goodbye, and rush out the backdoor. I feel weird, but I think it was because I wasn’t speaking to Matsuoka-san. I’ve only known her for so long, but it’s so strange to see someone else working in the basement. I hope she’s just running some errands today. I hope I didn’t cast doubt onto her.


That night, I sneak into a bath in one of the ryokan’s rooms. I want both privacy and luxury. I stopped by a drug store on the way home after school and bought a few, cheap facemasks. I underestimated the feeling. There was something fancy about a private bath, a silky facemask, and total aloneness…


It was an obvious disturbance. My sneaking around usually results in me being caught. This time, however, it is not my mother but my oldest brother, Shun. And rather than yelling, it’s a sing-song arrogance.

“Weren’t you told by Okaa-san to not sneak into the rooms?” He stands across from me, but I stay in the bath and I keep my eyes closed.

“She said I can’t eat in the baths anymore, not that ever I was.”

“Riko, I’m happy to see you since our schedules are so different, but–” he snaps his head to look at me, a faux smile on his face, “if I get yelled at because of you, you’ll never step foot into this side of the ryokan again.”

I continue soaking. Shun is all talk, getting by on his looks and charm which works for the guests but not on the family. He has a pretty short temper, mostly with myself, Mizuki and Yuuka. He has such a strange rivalry with Yuuka. I’ve always figured something happened before I was born.

“No one’s in here tonight,” I comment, sinking deeper into the water, “and my body has been really sore lately.”

He slips out of the room and I smile. I roll my shoulders and indulge, but I’m quickly disturbed once more when the door slams open and stuff is thrown into the bath, a bottle of something hitting me in the head.

“Hey!” I shout out, but before I can protest Shun points his finger at me and starts yelling.

“You use it, you clean it!” He smiles smugly, “I’ll give you 30 minutes.” Without saying it, I know he’s threatening to tattle on me to our parents or, worse, Yuuka.

He walks out gracefully and I’m left in his wake. Defeated, I peel off my facemask, get out of the nice, warm tub, and begin draining the water. As it goes, I dry off and change. I sigh and mope and I start thinking to myself.

If this is how my family treats me – standoffish, indifferent, autocratically – it begs the question, do I even want to work with my family? Do I want to help my siblings run the ryokan for the next 40, 50 years? Do I want to always be the bottom rung of the ladder? I suppose I’d always have Itsuki for support, and I get along with Mizuki well enough, but is that worth it? Is it worth the domineering presence of Yuuka?

I shudder.

Matsuoka-san said to branch out and Ojii-san said to expand. I’ve half-heartedly considered being an esthetician. I suppose, all of that lead to the conclusion of opening a spa service in the ryokan. But is that what I want? Am I ready to commit to such a big decision? Am I ready to dedicate myself wholly to a family that is well off without me?

30 minutes pass quickly, as I’ve only just dried the tub when Shun barges back in. The smug look on his face makes me believe he cut my time short.

He steps aside to reveal both mother and Yuuka, stern frowns on their face – their natural state. Talk about a set-up, I don’t think I would have ever gotten out of this.

“Riko.” Mother says in monotone.

For the first time in a while, I don’t feel intimidated. I look her straight in the eye and I strangely don’t have unwavering feelings.

“Okaa-san,” I say, with that posture that she loves so, “I want to talk about my future.”


2 thoughts on “Fire Keeper, Part 4

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