Edition 4: Sunflower by M.K. Charles
The tree was over two thousand years old, the oldest, Obasan had told her, on the island of Honshu, perhaps in all of Japan. Its smooth, ashen trunk was as wide as Obasan’s house, its crown so high Saki had to jerk her head far back in her wheelchair to see it through the leaf canopy of the surrounding Bodhis.
When Obasan had first shown Saki the old tree, they had approached it from the cliff side. Now alone, Saki reassured herself that the ascent up the slope had not been too steep. Obasan had followed behind her, her hands on the back handles of the chair only a precaution as Saki deftly maneuvered her power chair by means of the sip-and-puff mouthstick specially designed by her father’s colleague at the observatory. She could make the trip on her own and get back before Obasan noticed she had gone, in plenty of time to welcome her father home after his year away, in time to enjoy her birthday dinner, the last dinner, if the announcement were true, they or anyone else was ever to have.
As she sat facing the door that stood in the back of the kitchen, a droplet of sweat curled down Saki’s cheek, settling just to the right of the corner of her mouth. She stretched and twisted her tongue to lick it off. It was hot late this afternoon and would only get hotter as the evening pressed on. More sweat would pour down her face and into her eyes and mouth, and there would be nothing she could do about it. She would just have to push through.
She sighed. Only a year ago she had blown out all eleven of her birthday candles and gripped her fork firmly as she ate her cake. Now her right hand was useless, and her left trembled so violently that she could grasp objects for only seconds at a time. Her paralysis was unrelenting—encroaching with the same steady vehemence as the preternatural heat—and soon she would be unable even to breathe.
Saki’s chair hummed through the kitchen. She thought of her long-dead mother—not of the adult mother whose pictures Saki kept always at her bedside, but of her mother as a child, the young girl who had grown up in this old house. When her father brought Saki here last year to stay with Obasan, Saki felt the young girl’s energy all around her. She had left artifacts of her youth everywhere—hand-made paper dolls, and papers on which her mother had painted beautiful Japanese kanji in black ink. On the walls, on the floors, on the fence outside, Saki’s mother had carved into the wood dozens of pictures of animals and trees and stars, and in a few places, symbols that seemed somehow both strange and familiar—circles with dots in the middle, pentagrams, written characters that appeared far more ancient than any kanji Saki knew. Saki liked to think that the young girl had left the engravings for Saki to discover. Each time she found one, she felt as if her child mother was speaking to her across the expanses of time.
Today, Saki was going to the grand old tree, where she swore she had caught a glimpse of another of her mother’s engravings. She would have to move quickly if she wanted to get back before she was missed.
At the door, she deftly positioned her chair so that her left arm was close to the bolt lock. She swayed and heaved twice, and surprised herself at how easily she hooked her index finger onto the lever. She inhaled from her mouthpiece, backing up her chair, and, using what strength she had, pulled until, with a satisfying click, the bolt opened. To her relief, the door slid open with it.
The lip across the doorway also presented little challenge. Saki wheeled over it easily and glided across the back garden and up the sloped trail that snaked into the woods. The evening sun hung low on the horizon, but the autumn air was dry and hot. The long shadows of the trees flickered on the trail before her.
At first, the trail was as manageable as she remembered. But the deeper into the forest she went, the rockier and steeper the path became. She recalled now that Obasan had to push her once or twice on their way up. Why hadn’t she remembered that earlier? If she had…Now the heat was really pressing down. Annoying beads of sweat tickled her forehead and cheeks. Already, Saki was beginning to regret her decision to come.
Farther up the hill, she noticed how tired her tongue was growing. The sip-and-puff controlled her forward and backward speed, but the mouthstick, which steered the chair, she controlled with delicate movements of her tongue. She had always used it expertly, surprising everyone with her smooth mobility, employing a sort of circular breathing technique she had developed on her own. But now it was stop and go, sharp jerks to the left and right, and she had to take frequent breaks to give her tongue and lungs a rest. This journey was taking her too long. The air was growing too hot. Her body was growing too tired.
Obasan would be back soon, perhaps with the elderly blind woman she had gone to fetch, a hermit, it was rumored, who had once belonged to a coven of onmyouji. Saki had tried to talk Obasan out of having her over. She had only met the old woman once, but Saki was afraid of her—the woman’s milky, black eyes had seemed to gorge into Saki’s soul. But Obasan insisted on inviting her. “No one should be alone on a night like tonight.”
Judging from the lengthening shadows, Saki realized her father also would be home shortly. She shuddered at the thought of her father arriving and Saki being nowhere to be found. The panic she would incite! The trouble she would cause!
But Saki convinced herself the tree was only ten minutes away now, maybe less if she could manage without any further breaks. The chair seemed to negotiate the steep trail on its own, even without Obasan’s help. The engraving—her mother’s last message to Saki, she imagined—was up there waiting for her. She pressed forward, around the next bend, then the next.
At last, there it was, the old tree. It stood magnificent at the edge of a scar, its massive roots gripping the side of the cliff and roping all the way down to the small, grassy clearing below. The sight of the tree filled her with hope. Soon she would find what she had come for and be back home with her aunt and father in plenty of time.
But she and the tree were not alone as she had expected. In the clearing below, Saki saw three figures, two men and a woman dressed in strange white gowns not unlike the one Saki had worn during her stay in the hospital. The figures were busy gathering sticks and leaves and bringing them to the base of the cliff below the tree and dropping them in what seemed to be random piles.
She should go back. Something about their frantic, stilted movements frightened her. Obasan had told her that even in this quiet lake town, people were behaving unpredictably as the end of days drew near. Many had abandoned their jobs: policemen and prison guards, train engineers and taxi drivers. There were strangers about, travelers as well as lingerers. Though Japan had managed to avoid the riots and unraveling of society that Saki had heard was happening in other countries, no place, not even this small town, could be called safe.
The trail here was too narrow for her to turn around. Though she was out in the open and exposed, the people below hadn’t noticed her yet—too absorbed, perhaps, in their strange, seemingly meaningless work to bother about a little girl in a wheelchair. She would decide what to do when she reached the plateau above.
She pressed on, keeping one eye on the strange trio below. At the top, the trail opened up to a clearing, the tree directly to Saki’s right. Here, out of sight of the strangers, she paused to catch her breath.
She surveyed the scene before her, peering at the exposed roots that radiated out from the trunk. She needed to find a clear path to the other side of the tree—not right up to it, but just close enough to see her mother’s markings.
And she did—a safe, easy path that kept her far from the cliff’s edge. As she neared the tree, voices rose from below. At first, Saki thought the strangers were conversing, but she soon realized they were singing, or rather chanting, but not in unison. Each was intoning what sounded like frantic gibberish—alien words, spoken randomly and creating a strange syncopation, polyrhythms that would not resolve to a more familiar meter. The cacophony sent a chill through Saki. She decided then that she would leave as soon as she had seen the markings and confirmed what they were. More than anything, she needed to know that she hadn’t simply imagined them, that what she believed she had seen hadn’t just been wishful thinking.
The heat was growing more unbearable even as the evening grew darker. Sweat poured into Saki’s mouth, making it more difficult for her to control the mouthpiece. She wheeled in as close to the tree as she could and, through smarting eyes, looked for the marks. She caught a glimpse of them just above the base. But the low-hanging sun aimed a beam straight into her pupils. She squinted and lowered her head. Still, she couldn’t make out the markings. She backed up and decided to approach the tree again, this time from a small opening between roots that lay closer to the cliff’s edge.
She moved in close. Again, the sun denied her. She lowered her head and leaned far to the right. She could almost make the markings out now, but the lines were still too indistinct for her to identify them. Frustrated, she leaned forward and to the right a few inches more.
Too far. The chair toppled over.
For a few agonizing seconds, the girl and chair were perfectly still, forming a pyramid with the chair’s right wheel and Saki’s head as the base. Forgetting for a moment the sip-and-puff, Saki exhaled deeply. The chair’s tires spun and caught onto a root. The chair scooted forward, contorting Saki’s body and dragging her towards the edge.
The chair sank off the cliff. But just before it disappeared over the edge, Saki managed to fling her left arm over a knob on a root to keep from falling herself. Now, her left leg dangled over the edge, and her right lay atop an exposed root. Her lips and gums seared with pain—the mouthpiece had cut and scraped her as it was ripped from between her teeth. Saki let out a moan.
The pain, as great as it was, soon faded. This was little comfort: Saki realized with a tinge of panic that she could no longer move her tongue. The paralysis was nearly complete.
She could still use her left arm, but she sensed that even that was growing very weak. She was drenched in sweat. Her heart thumped in her chest. Father! Obasan! She didn’t want to be alone like this. She didn’t want to spend the last night on Earth without her family. But there was no way for anyone to find her. She could not call out to them. Darkness was bearing down all around her. Fear and sadness filled her heart. In the intensifying heat, her lungs burned with every breath. Saki wept.
For a long time, she stayed trapped in her misery. All the while, the strange chanting continued down below, only now more voices had joined the disjointed and discordant chorus.
After more precious minutes had passed, Saki took a painful breath and centered herself, resigned to what she believed was her fate. Her new calm allowed her to remember why she had come here in the first place. In front of her now, with her eyes adjusted to the almost completed sunset and with the aid of the moonlight that shone in from behind her, Saki was finally able to make out the markings she had so dearly wanted to see. Two Japanese kanji were scratched into the tree’s base: the first character for love, the second for little girl—Aiko, Saki’s mother’s name. And below that, somehow, for some unknowable reason, the kanji for blossom: Saki. She had been right after all. She hadn’t just imagined it. Somehow, all those years ago, Saki had been in her mother’s heart, long before Saki ever existed. The thought filled her own heart with longing, and she let out a soft moan just to relieve the pressure of it. She lay there in silence imagining her young mother at this exact spot, perhaps even at this same age, scratching their names onto this grand old tree.
When she awoke from her short reverie, Saki saw a glint of light coming from a nook just under the markings. She peered at it at great length, letting her eyes further adjust to the darkness. Soon she made out the outlines of a handle and small blade. A knife was sticking out of the trunk—for certain the very blade that her mother had used to etch the markings. Though her left arm was growing weaker, she used her last ounce of will to thrust it forward. Her hand dropped heavily onto the handle, releasing the blade from the tree. She tried to trap the knife with her arm, but the blade sneaked under her, and she heard it slide down the cliff into the clearing below.
Now the ground in front of Saki was slipping away. Though she had expected a violent fall, she felt her body wrapped in roots and vines that lowered her gently to the ground below. She was released onto the ground in front of the cliff, her back against the cliff wall, her head flung back, and her legs spread out in front of her like an abandoned cloth doll.
There were six people in the clearing now, the same three as before, two more in light-blue prisoner uniforms, and a hooded figure who was kneeling in front of Saki with her head bowed and her palms touching the earth. The leaves and branches the others had gathered now formed a semicircle that edged the cliff and surrounded them. In front of the leaves stood wooden spikes on which white paper dolls hung off the tops; dolls, Saki realized, identical to the ones her mother had left in her house. The small effigies were covered in a collage of symbols and ancient kanji. While the others in the group continued gathering leaves and chanting madly, the hooded figure simply stood up in silence.
Saki sat there in fear, completely paralyzed now, her only movement the rising and falling of her chest and the occasional blinking of her eyes. She tried to block out the nightmare around her, holding on to thoughts of her mother. She was comforted by the notion that her mother had not simply written her own name—love, little girl—but that she had meant it as a message to Saki: I love you, my little girl. It was a childish thought, impossible. Ridiculous. But she wanted to believe that it was somehow true. Saki wanted to cry out again, but now even her lungs were weakening—she could not utter a sound.
The mysterious group went on with their work, gathering more leaves and branches. The hooded figure, still standing in front of Saki, stepped back and removed her hood. Two orbs like little black holes stared out at her, drawing her in. Saki recognized the woman immediately—she was the old hermit Obasan had gone to fetch. The onmyouji kneeled down once more and plucked Saki’s mother’s knife out of the ground. She stepped in close, raised the knife high, then leaned in and carved into the cliff face a circle that encompassed Saki’s frame.
Soon the others formed a semicircle within the half-circle of leaves. The chanting grew louder. Before long, what had at first been mad, disconnected, ramblings, grew into a synchronized chorus that rose to an earsplitting howl.
The chanting suddenly stopped. A fire rose from the circle of leaves, then the paper effigies in front of them burst into flames. The blast of heat knocked the men and women onto their stomachs and forced Saki’s head back against the cliff wall, though the hermit remained perfectly still, unaffected. Mother! Father! Obasan! She held on to thoughts of them as best as she could, but her fear had become all-consuming. The heat pressed down on her. Her head felt intensely hot—she realized with horror that her hair was on fire!
The pain receded almost as quickly as it had come. Soon, all sensation left her. The old woman remained standing there, her hollow eyes filling Saki with dread. When the fire behind her rose above the nearest trees, the woman leaned in close to Saki. Saki inwardly recoiled. Stop! No!
All at once, a tenuous calm swaddled the young girl’s soul, her fear poured out of her. The old woman had simply placed her lips on Saki’s forehead—a kiss, by which their two souls were fused. Memories of the old woman’s now flooded into Saki. She saw in her mind’s eye the woman revealing to young Aiko her fate: “You must bear the Sunflower!” She had memories of teaching Aiko the spells of the onmyouji, of seeking out the Father—the Stargazer—and the Five Foxes, of baptizing the Sun Flower, of teaching the Sun Mother the final spell. Saki’s paralysis had not been a curse after all—it had been an act of mercy meant to protect her from the pain of her fate, a spell so powerful that it cost Saki’s mother her life.
As Saki closed her eyes to protect them from the searing heat, she saw the old woman raise the knife. But she was not afraid.
All Saki was aware of now was the sound of the leaves burning and the rhythm of her own breathing, which was growing weaker by the second. Her lungs were at last giving out.
She took one labored breath, then another. She knew now she would have the strength for only one more. As she took her final breath, she held on to one thought—the voice of her mother saying I love you, little girl. I love you, little girl.
Peace came to her.
And then Saki again saw flames—white fire!—burning in a circle around her, scrambling up the roots, and swallowing the old tree above. The bodies in front of her were shrouded in a white luminescence; a translucent light glowed from within each. Saki could see conflict there—a struggle between the souls inside and the superimposed identities of their earthly selves. Only the burning soul of the hermit was resigned to its fate. Saki looked down and saw the blood from her wound pouring into the ground, fueling the roots that hid beneath. The roots behind squeezed her tightly, crushing her bones and ripping her flesh as they sent white heat flowing through her.
Then she felt heat pouring into her from the souls of the others. Acceptance had come to them, a letting go of their former selves that somehow brought upon a deeper acceptance within Saki. She drew in their energy. It lifted her up and up out of her body, her soul vibrating with heat. She moved at an ever-increasing velocity, higher and higher, above the Earth and into the heavens, forward, forward, faster and faster! She was a beam of pure light, ensconced in the chariot of fire that propelled her into the skies.
Soon she was inside the ailing sun. There was a sudden dissipation of energy, and then, with a deafening howl and blinding light, the sun exploded. All the heat and energy that ripped out of it Saki drew into her. Her heart filled with power and light, and, as the sun withdrew into the void, she grew and grew letting none of its energy escape, harnessing it all, holding it to her bosom.
At last, the old sun died, and a new sun was born.
Hours later, when Saki’s father and Obasan at last made it to the clearing, they saw six silhouettes burned onto the ground beneath where the old tree used to be, and one smaller shadow burned against the cliff face. They remained there in the cool autumn air, while others from the small lake town, following the beacon of light they had seen earlier, soon joined them in quiet reverence.
M.K. Charles is a writer and teacher living in Shizuoka, Japan. His work has appeared in Criminal Class Review, Schlock Magazine, and Bewildering Stories. He is currently working on a novel that he hopes to complete sometime in 2013.