Haru loaded the last basket full basket of peaches into the cart. He placed the basket among the peaches and got behind the cart to guide down the slope towards his home. He eased the hand brake off and slowly the cart creaked down the hill. He stopped at the bottom in a flat grassy area just before the foot bridge going over the creek.
Haru had parked the cart under the largest and oldest peach tree in his orchard. A tree that was several hundred years old - planted by Haru's distant ancestor - the first Hayashi to live in this part of the country. He would leave it there until morning when he and Hynata would push the it out the side gate towards town and the market. The evening sun still had not fallen behind the hill of the orchard, and there was still plenty of light to see by.
Haru went underneath the low branches of the peach tree and looked for a couple to take inside to Hynata. He picked a plump juicy one, slipping it inside of his shirt. Then his hand reached up and pulled another. As his hand came away the empty spot on the tree revealed another peach that had been hidden behind its predecessor.
"Ayee!" Haru exclaim. "What in the demon's eye!?"
Haru stood hands on his hips looking up in the bough of the tree. There just above is head was a pure white peach. It's skin was fuzzy like all peaches, but the color of it was like fresh fallen snow. Haru's hand shakily moved to retrieve the strange fruit. His hand paused just before touching it, and then gritting his teeth he grasped the peach. It came away immediately from its perch. Haru looked at it, turning it this way and that, inspecting it.
"Not a mark no you eh?" he said to the peach. "How lovely. Hynata will want to see you."
The old man turn towards the house, walking over the foot bridge, not even really watching where he was walking, but instead studied the peach. Not taking his eyes off of it he slide the back door open. As it moved it made a soft sliding sound. Haru turned and closed it behind him.
"Hynata" he called, Hynata, come here you have got to see this."
"What is it now old man?" she called out from another room.
Haru sat down at the table and placed the peach in the center. He folded his arms on top of the table and placed his chin on top continuing to stare at the fruit.
"I said, what is it...Haru? Are you okay?" Hynata asked as she came up behind him.
"Look at this." He said sitting up and pointing to the velvety white peach.
"Oh my!" she said placing one hand over her mouth and the other on Haru's shoulder. "Have you ever seen the like of it?" she asked.
"No never." Haru said scratching his head and pushing his hat off the back of his head so that is hung around his neck by the string that served as a strap.
Hynata moved slowly around the table, never taking her eyes from the peach, taking the seat opposite her husband. For a long moment they both just stared in silence. The only audible sound was the pot of boiling stew over the fire.
"What are you going to do with it?" Hynata finally asked.
"Well" Haru said rubbing his chin. "I thought we would eat it. It is a peach after all, and I am curious to see what it tastes like."
"Which tree did it come from?" she asked.
"The ancestor tree." he said, taking a small paring knife from the corner of the table. Hynata reach out and clasped his hand down on top of the table.
"Are you sure about this my husband?" she said cautiously. "This surely is a good omen. A sign even, but of what?"
"If it is a good sign then, what harm is there in eating it silly woman?" he said with a grin. Hynata withdrew her hand and placed it in her lap.
Haru reached out with his left hand picking up the peach from the center of the table. In his other hand he brought up the knife and laid it against the skin of the peach. Almost without effort the knife sliced through the skin. Juice flowed down the edge of the knife and dripped down onto the table. As Haru guided the blade around the peach in a circle the juice created a small puddle on the table and wet Haru's hands.
Once he had gone around the circumference completely, Haru put the knife down. He grasped both halves of the pure white peach and pulled them apart. The peach halves separated with a sucking sound. He offered the half without the pit to Hynata. She sat staring, not at the offered half, but off at something just past.
"What is it woman? Here take your half, I am sure it is fine."
Hynata pointed. "Look at your half" she said, voice stammering slightly.
Haru turned looking at his other hand. "What in the blue devil!" he exclaimed, squinting his eyes to get a better look. There in the center of the white flesh was a dark pit, not gnarled as expected, but smooth. The pit was almost perfectly round and in the shape of a small figure.
Haru brought the peach half with its strange pit closer to his face so that he could get a better look. It had the appearance of polished rose wood. Haru could see the gentle whorls of the wood's grain. The figure appeared to be that of a thin boy, crouched hugging his knees to his chest with his arms and his chin tucked, forehead resting. Bowed.
Haru drew closer. Yes, he could see it. The figure also had winged laying down across its back. Haru grasped the figure and gently pulled. Hynata inhaled a breath sharply and held it. The figure came away from the flesh with another sucking sound. Haru rubbed the figure on his shirt to dry it. He held it up, turning it this way and that in the light of the oil lamp above the table.
"Exquisit" he finally said; "The amount of detailed is extraordinary." He placed the figure down onto the center of the table and without taking his eyes away he brought up the peach half, took a large bite, chewing with his mouth open.
"And what of the fruit?" asked Hynata.
"Oh" Haru said smacking his lips and chewing around his words, "it tastes like an ordinary peach."
Hynata shakily brought up her half and took a dainty bite, closing her eyes as she did so. "Humph" she said, "You're right."
That evening Haru and Hynata Hayashi sat eating their stew and sipping their warm tea, neither saying a word. They cleared and washed the dishes. That night they left the figure on the table alone and retired to their bedroom.
Sometime during the middle of the night, a moon beam shone into the tiny house's kitchen through the small hole in the ceiling for the cook fire. Through the wee hours of the night the beam traveled ever so slowly onto the low table and across it's surface.
A small sparrow appeared at the hole in the roof. Looking down. Turning it's head this way and that, hopping from one spot to another around the opening's rim. Then the little sparrow leaped down in a silent fluttered and landed near the small figure and the moon beam. The sparrow hopped quickly over to the dark wooden figure and nudged it with its beak towards the light of the moon on the table. The figure moved ever so slightly. The sparrow stopped and nudged again. Then again. Moving the tiny figure closer and closer into the light. Once the figure came to rest in the light shining onto the table the sparrow ended it's task. It stood back and looked as the tiny wooden figure rested snuggly in the light of the moon.
Haru stepped through the doorway of the house, slipped into his well worn wooden sandals, and stretched. He stretched upward towards the sky, closing his eyes from the bright sun, and arched his back. His back creaked and popped. Haru let out a sigh. It was a gloriously sunny day.
Haru turned and slid the back door of the house closed, put on his straw hat, picked up the tall picking basket from where he had left it yesterday and began to move down the path towards the peach orchard. As he walked he slung the basket over his shoulders, placing his arms through the basket's straps. Haru walked briskly, down into a little hollow, crossing a small red wooden foot bridge. The brook babbled under neath him as it trickled and flowed over small rocks. All around him were flowers and green things. In a still part of the brook just to his right, Haru could see large koi, goldfish, hovering in the water as if frozen, swimming gently against the current.
As he kept moving, reaching the other side of the bridge, the path began to climb upward, and the abundance flowers, grass, moss, and bamboo, gave way to orderly rows of peach trees. Haru moved up the steep hill, making his way toward the top. He pushed with his legs, placing a hand on the top of his knee for support. Haru climbed the the last bit, the path turning into natural steps. At the top of the steps was a little open air temple. Haru reached the top step, placing a weathered hand on top of a stone that read "Hayashi." He took off his basket and leaned it against the stone marker. Haru removed his straw hat, hanging it on the corner of the marker and moved towards the door. He leaned against the door kicking off his sandals. For a moment he stood in the doorway of the little stone temple, wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve, and ran his rough fingers through his white hair.
The inside of the stone temple was dark, still shadowed because the morning light had not yet reached the inside. Candles gave some small measure of light, just enough for Haru to see. The small temple consisted of one round room. Every space along the walls of the room were stone markers of differing sizes. All contained individual names. Names of Haru's ancestors. Some were on shelves, giving them the appearance of being stacked. Along a portion of the wall was a series of small stairs. In the center was a large stone marker, black and glassy in appearance. Two candles in small glass holders were on the top edge of the marker, on either end.
"Hello father" Haru said, as he stepped forward into the coolness of the temple and place a hand affectionately on his father's grave marker. "It is going to be a another glorious day ancestors!" he said chuckling, turning around to look at all of the surrounding markers. "But first things first."
Haru picked up a small reed broom and began sweeping out the small room. As he swept, Haru hummed cheerfully. He swept away a small pile of dust, dirt, and leaves out of the far side of the temple. He took a thin stick and lit it from a nearby candle's flame. He lit all of the candles that had guttered out in middle of the night and replaced those that needed replacing. Haru moved back toward the stacked stairs and kneeled before his father's marker. To the right of the marker was a small box. Haru reached for it, opened the lid, and pulled out three long sticks of incense. He returned the box to its place. On the left side of the marker was a candle. Haru took the three incense sticks, and placed them in the candle's flame. A moment later he pulled them out aflame. Haru place the sticks between his palms in an attitude of supplication. He waved his arms three times over his head blowing out the flames and scattering smoke all around. The tiny temple filled with the scent of lavender, eucalyptus, and sandal wood. Haru brought his hands down in front of his chest still holding the incense between his palms. He breathed deeply taking in the smell of the incense and the coolness of the air. He let out the breath slowly, and began to chant an ancient song in guttural tones. As he sang he placed the three sticks of incense into the small ceramic pot filled with sand just before his father's marker. Palms together again in front of him, Haru continued to chant. He could see his reflection mingled with smoke in the glassy face of the dark marker before him. He trailed out the last note, picked up the ladle from the bucket of water on the floor and poured it over his father's marker and put the ladle back.
"Ancestors" Haru said in a low tone, "give me a good harvest." He bowed before the gather markers and then moved out of the small temple and back into the light.
Standing again out in the orchard, on the little rise where the temple stood, Haru could look down the hill back towards his house. He could see the front gate, red and rising above everything around it. His eyes traced the stone and timber wall that encircled the entire property, land that had been his family's for generations.
He watched as the back door of the tiny hose slide open, and the familiar form of his wife of fifty years, Hynata stepped through the opening and tossed a bucket of water out into the back garden. She stood, straightening her back and shielded her eyes from the sun. She looked up in Haru's direction and he waved his arm over his head. She waved in return and went back inside the house. Haru smiled, turned and retrieved his hat, and grabbed his picking basket up by the straps. He descended the steps away from the temple and back into the orchard. He stopped at the first row and the first tree.
The tree's gnarled branches were full of orange sunshine colored peaches. Haru reached up and plucked one from it's branch. It came away at the gentlest touch. It was soft and fuzzy, cool in Haru's hand. He held it up to his nose sniffed it and then took a big bite out of the soft flesh. He let the juice run down his chin and chewed the soft chunk of peach enthusiastically.
Haru turned and walked down the row of peach trees, biting and chewing his peach as he walked. By the time he reached the end of the row he was happily slurping the last of the peach's juice and sucking any remaining flesh off of the pit. He took the pit from his mouth and held it up between his forefinger and thumb inspecting it. He slipped the peach pit into the front of his homespun shirt, placing it in a little hidden pocket just above his belt. His pulled his hand out and gave the peach pit a little pat through his shirt. Then he adjusted his straw hat, wiggled his shoulders to match the basket sit more comfortably, and reached up and began picking peaches with both hands from the branches above.
As Haru picked peaches, he reached back over his head and dropped them over the lip of the basket on his back. Once full he would turn and fill a small wooden cart behind him. Then he would take the cart and push it to the next group of trees. He this harvesting rituals dozens of times, the sweat pouring from his brow. Once he made it too the main path, he stopped, removed his hat, wiped sweat from his forehead. He set his basket and hat down in the wooden cart. Shielding his eyes he looked up at the sun.
"Almost directly overhead" he thought to himself.
"Ho! Old man!" came a loud voice.
Haru turned at the familiar sound and smiled at Hynata coming up the path towards him. "Hey old woman, let me help you with that" he said as he walked toward her. Hynata was carrying a stack of two small wooden boxes tied together in one hand, and in the other a ceramic jug with a rope handle around the top filled with water in the other. Haru reached out and took the water jug from his wife.
"I'll show you an old woman!" Hynata said with a grin that made the wrinkles around her eyes more pronounced. Haru had the jug of water turned up over his head and was letting a stream of water flow into his mouth. He set the jug down beside the wheel of the cart and started stripping of his shirt and outer belt. Underneath he revealed an aging torso, still muscled, but loose skin hung from around his tiny frame.
Haru and Hynata sat in the shade of the peach orchard. She handed him one of the tiny boxes. He lifted the lid and set it aside. Inside, the box was divided into five compartments, two large, and three smaller. In one large compartment was rice seasoned with sesame and salt. In the other was smoked fish. In two of the three smaller compartments were raw vegetables, and in the last one pickled radishes. Haru drove in eagerly with his fingers, picking up the smoked fish, and shoving it in his mouth.
"Mmm" he said not looking away from his box, "this is so delicious!."
"You eat like a barbarian!" Hynata said laughing at her husband.
The sparrow watched as the table began to smoke and sparkle where the moon light hit it around the tiny figure in it's center. Illuminated golden dust rose, crackled like a cook fire and fell back to the table all around the wooden figure. The sparrow hopped excitedly. First one way and then the other. When he would stop he would cock his head looking at the lifeless wood figure. Then he hopped forward to get a better look. Then back again - not wanting to get too close, but daring to steal a closer look.
Suddenly the back door slid open slowly and silently. Standing in the doorway masked by darkness was a shadow of something.
"Out, out, out!" cried the sparrow as he flew headlong at the shadow.
"Stop!" came a voice from the shadow. Immediately the sparrow halted and hovered momentarily, then circled back to land on the table next to the tiny wooden figure not any bigger than himself. Light was now rising from all around the figure.
Stepping into the light on it's hind legs was a white fox, carrying a red paper lantern and dressed in a pure white silk kimono. As he came into the tiny kitchen his as narrowed as he glanced around. The fox moved to the table, placing the latter down on its top and putting both paws on the corners.
"So it is true" he said voice just a whisper, stretching his neck to look around the small house.
"Why are you here Kitsune?" said the sparrow hopping forward angrily. "You have no business here."
"Surely you knew I would come Sparrow." Kitsune said with a snap of his jaws in Sparrow's direction. Sparrow jumped back but spread out his wings to shield the small wooden figure that sat still on the table.
"What do you want fox?" Sparrow shot back defensively dancing around the table top.
"Just to get a glance, a peek." Kitsune said circling the table in a crouch. "I mean no harm. I am only a messenger."
"I know what you are!" Sparrow chirped loudly fluttering his wings frantically.
"Quiet bird! You will wake the rest of the household." Kitsune growled swinging a paw at Sparrow who flew up and out of the way of the wild swing. "There are others here aren't there?" Kitsune said looking around at the closed doors. "Or are you alone little bird?"
"There are others" Sparrow said circling just above Kitsune's head and out of reach of his paws.
Kitsune paused, sniffed the air, turned his head towards one of the closed doors. "Yes, surely you are right. Two humans. Elderly and infirm I think. You might as well be alone little bird" Kitsune said licking his lips slowly and circling the table again.
"Question is, what brought you hear little bird?" asked Kitsune stopping and looking up at Sparrow who still circled the table from above. "At least I have business that has brought me so far."
"It is none of your business fox!" said Sparrow swopping down at Kitsune in a dive aiming for the fox's head. The fox dodged and swung with a paw in Sparrow's direction. Sparrow tilted his wings. The blow passing his by, but not by much.
He circled low and around Kitsune's back and grabbed a beak full of hair as he passed close by the fox's backside.
"Eeoow!" Kitsune cried swatting with one one paw at Sparrow and rubbing his backside with the other. "I mean the boy no harm you stupid bird."
"Boy?" Sparrow said confused for a moment, landing in front of Kitsune on the table. "So this will be a human boy?"
"Don't be naive bird." Kitsune said stopping mid stride. "I don't come for the birth of human boys. You think human boys have wings?" Kitsune said pointing to the figure on the table. "You think this is how human boys are born?"
"Well I didn't think so, but..."
"But nothing!" Kitsune said loudly swinging a paw down angrily onto the table in an attempt to squash Sparrow who darted away. The table and the wooden figure on top bounced with the blow.
"You are in my way bird!" growled the fox. "Move aside!"
"No!" cried Sparrow.
"Oi! Whose there!" came Haru's voice from behind a closed door.
Sparrow and Kitsune forze for a moment. Kitsune's head turned toward the sound of Haru's voice. Sparrow floated silently to the table top next to the wooden figure. Kitsune turned back towards Sparrow, eyes narrowed.
"This isn't over bird." he whispered and silently slinked out the open back door on all fours leaving his red paper lantern behind.
A crashing sound came from one of the rooms. A door slid open rapidly and Haru came rushing into the room with a board headed spear at the ready. He looked left and right swinging the spearhead in each direction.
The he saw it. Saw the unnatural glow around the table. Then his eyes went to the sparrow, and then the open door. He moved closer. Eyed the red lantern and then peeked out the open door look one way and then the other.
"What do we have here?" Haru said relaxing a bit. Spear in one hand and rubbing tired eyes with the other he sat down at the table facing the open door. "Maybe I should just sit here and watch" he said out loud to the bird. "Who are you?"
Sparrow hopped up and down and tried to look as non-threading as possible, which wasn't hard for him. Then he stood still looking at the man and the wooden figure of a boy with wings.