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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest VII

Half an Anman

Akemashite omedetou!

Hideki elbowed his way through a tight crowd of people relentlessly moving up and down First Street. At 8 years old he was still a head shorter than most of them, and as far as he could see, there was no end to the stream of people.

“Happy New Year!” he heard at every corner.

It was the first day of New Year, and Little Tokyo was swarming with people, both Japanese drawn in by nostalgia and folks of all kind of nationalities, all eager to take a glimpse of the exotic Japanese culture on this very special day. 

“Hideki, stay closer,” he heard the voice of his mother Keiko marching a few feet ahead.

Hideki pushed through trying to catch up with his mother. Finally, they arrived at the doorstep of the Buddhist Temple “Koyasan”. Keiko hastily looked around. 

“Where is your Obaachan? Did you leave her behind? Oh, there you are.”

An 80-year-old tiny Japanese woman separated from the crowd and slowly strolled towards them, relying heavily on her wooden cane. The corners of her lips were turned upward in a warm and gentle smile that seemed to have been imprinted on her whole being, yet Hideki couldn’t help but notice that she was panting and the silver hair around her temple was glistening with sweat. Hideki looked away.

“Look at the line, Mama,” Keiko nervously eyed the long line to the entrance of the temple that curved around the block, “That’s an hour and a half wait. And we’ve got to stand in line for the restaurant just as long. Maybe we skip the shrine this year?”

Obaasan simply shook her head. Keiko sighed, weighing in the situation.

“Okay, how about this. I join the line for that Izakaya by the red watchtower,” she pointed in that direction, “and you two stay here for the temple?”

“Mom, can I go with you?” pleaded Hideki.

“You’re staying with Grandma. We can’t leave her alone.”

“Go, go, daijobu-dayo”, muffled Obaachan through missing teeth.

“Keep an eye on Grandma, okay? Can I trust you with that?” said Keiko to Hideki in a serious tone.

“Mommy,” replied Hideki just as seriously, “does it look like Obaachan can run away?”

Keiko rolled her eyes and jokingly swung her hand at Hideki who, in turn, quickly ducked in.

“You’d be surprised. I’ll be waiting for you two at the restaurant,” she started walking away.

“Do I at least get a burger for that?”

“Tomorrow. Today we’re having Japanese food. Don’t walk away from your Obaachan”.

As soon as Hideki and his grandmother joined the end of the line, she shouted in delight, “Mite, mite! Look!” She poked with her wooden cane at a dirty crumpled dollar bill lying on the ground, “Money.”

“It’s just a dollar.”

“Take.”

“I don't want it, Baachan. It’s just a dollar and it’s dirty.”

Obaachan slowly leaned in to pick up the money. By the time she got back up, she was huffing and puffing and clutching her back. She carefully flattened out the note, wiped it against her vest and held out to Hideki with a big smile. The boy hesitated but took the money with the tip of his fingers and stuffed it into his pocket. He then pulled out a Nintendo Switch out of the other pocket and started playing Pokémon. Occasionally, people behind him politely said “Sumimasen”, urging Hideki to take a step forward, slowly moving along the line. Obaachan never interrupted him again, which he was grateful for, as the game required all his attention. As long as there was enough battery life on his Nintendo and he wasn’t pushed and crushed from all sides like a sardine in a can, the wait didn't trouble or bore him too much.

“Sumimasen,” he heard yet again. Hideki moved up and tripped over the steps. Perplexed, the boy looked up to find the entrance to the shrine towering above him. However, Obaachan was nowhere to be seen.

Hideki looked around, trying to spot the small hunching figure of his grandmother amidst the crowd of predominantly Japanese people. He ran inside the temple, hastily inspecting each corner and looking in every face.

“Obaachan!” shouted Hideki, turning the heads of displeased visitors. Uneasiness starting rising in the boy’s stomach. He ran out of the temple heading towards the red watchtower and quickly recognized his mother’s green coat in the line of queueing people. He was about to shout her name when his feet suddenly pushed against the asphalt, and he came to a halt. His mother’s words rang in his head, and a wave of guilt rushed over him. Hideki turned around.

“Obaachan! Where are you? Obaaaachan!” shouted Hideki as he maneuvered around the endless stream of people. It was a chilly day for Los Angeles, yet he felt uncomfortably sweaty around his neck and armpits. It was hard to see where he was going, and he soon found himself stuck in the heart of human traffic that was pulling him in all directions. Hideki figured he must be close to the stage of the Village Plaza, as he heard the host announcing the next performers.

“Obaachan!” he yelled again, his voice drowning in the humming noises of the crowd.

“Okaasan!” echoed in the crowd.

“Obaachan!” repeated Hideki.

“Okaasan!” pleaded the voice somewhere close by. Okaasan? Somebody had lost their mom? A surge in the crowd behind him jolted Hideki forward, almost knocking him off his feet. And there she was. A little flower being stomped by giants; it seemed like nobody was noticing her. A black-haired girl, no older than 4, was curled up on the ground and crying rivers. The hem of her shabby dress was dirty, and the sleeves were stained with tears.

“Hey,” Hideki reached for her shoulders. Startled at the touch, the girl lifted her head and glanced at him with eyes full of tears and fear, “Are you okay?”

DUM-DUM-DUM.

The girl shrieked and threw herself back to the ground, covering her head with her tiny hands.

“Don’t be afraid. It’s just the drummers,” Hideki kneeled beside her, “Look, they are playing over there.” The little girl tried to bury her head even deeper in her arms as she heard the drumming intensify, filling the air with powerful beats.

“Look, they are not scary at all.”

The girl’s shoulders quivered uncontrollably as she slowly turned her head to the sky, her big wet eyes reflecting gray clouds and sheer terror. Hideki looked up too but saw nothing but a couple birds flying over.

“No, the drummers are over there,” he pointed in the direction of the stage, but it was obscured by the crowd. Confused, the girl kept staring at the sky, her body shuddering with every beat of the drums.

“No, no… Okay,” Hideki pulled the girl to her feet, “I’ll show you.”

Before she knew it, they were out of the human jungle, and Hideki was helping her climb up a tree. 

“You see, over there,” he pointed at the stage that was in plain view now, “The drummers. Dum-dum-dum,” he tried to imitate the drumming motions with his hands.

The little girl watched the Taiko drummers with wide open eyes. Her tears were starting to dry. She turned her eyes to the sky once again and hesitantly pointed at it.

“Dum-dum-dum?”

“No, no… there is no dum-dum in the sky. Only birds. Birds?”

Hideki tried to make another impression. He chirped a couple of times and flapped his arms like they were wings.

A faint smile touched the girl’s mouth, which encouraged Hideki to chirp louder and move more vibrantly. He lost his balance and nearly “flew” off the tree like a real bird. “Whoa,” he gasped as he clung onto the branch. The girl burst into laughter, which sounded like a dozen little bells, making Hideki laugh at himself too.

“What’s your name?” he finally asked the girl, “Um… namaewa?” tried Hideki in Japanese upon seeing her confusion, “I’m Hideki,” he pointed at his chest, “Well, at school they call me Hugo because it’s easier and because I’m “hafu” - my Dad is American and my Mom is… Um, anyway… I’m Hideki and you -”

“Yumi”, she replied in a low and soft voice.

“Yumi?? My Obaachan’s name is also Yumi! Oh! Obaachan!” Hideki slapped himself in the face. He hurriedly climbed down the tree and helped Yumi get down. He took her inside the nearest gift shop.

“The lady here will help you. I’ve gotta go, sorry! I need to find my Obaachan,” stumbled through words Hideki as he darted towards the door. But Yumi grabbed onto his jacket, clutching it tight with both hands. Tears began to well up in her black eyes.

“I’m sorry, Yumi… But my mom will kill me if she finds out I lost Obaachan…”

A pearl-like tear slipped off her lashes.

“Where is your mom?... Okaasan-wa?”

“Wakannai…” Yumi hopelessly shrugged her shoulders as tears started flowing down her cheeks.

“Okay… Okay… You can come with me. We will look for my Obaachan and your Okaasan together. But stop all the crying, alright?” Hideki awkwardly wiped her tears with the sleeve of his jacket. He was unsure if Yumi understood his words, but her face got visibly brighter.

“Obaasan!”

“Okaasan!”

It had been a good 20 minutes since Hideki and Yumi ventured to look for their grandmother and mother. The girl seemed to have gotten used to the buzz of Little Tokyo. Perhaps, it was Hideki’s presence that gave her courage and confidence. Slowly she even started copying his way of cupping hands around his mouth when he shouted for his grandmother or scratching the top of his head when trying to decide where to look next.

Suddenly Hideki saw a tiny old figure leaning so heavily on a walking cane it formed almost a perfect arch.

“Obaasan!” he gasped in relief and ran towards his grandmother, only to find it was someone else’s very old obaachan. What an unlucky start of the new year. Hideki looked around, and the day just got a lot worse when he realized Yumi disappeared too.

He clutched his head, trying to comprehend the situation. After all, he was only a little kid himself. Perhaps, she had found her mother? Better for Hideki who had troubles of his own. He turned around and there she was, standing by the food cart, her eyes glued to fluffy buns passed on from the seller to the customer. Still alone, still lost. And clearly very hungry.

“I told you not to walk away from me,” mumbled Hideki in an “oniisan’s” voice as he walked up. The girl didn’t flinch, as if afraid the cart with its mesmerizing hot buns would magically disappear. Too bad Hideki didn’t have any money. Unless! He shoved his hands into his pockets and pulled out a neatly folded dollar bill. Boy, was he ever happy at the sight of a dollar!

“Can I have two anmans, please?”

“Only one,” replied the vendor, pointing at the pricelist.

Yumi watched another steaming hot bun leave its glass nest and land this time in her own hands. She closed her eyes and smelled it, as if trying to preserve the aroma in her memory. She bit into the bun, and her black delighted eyes flew wide open.

“Oishii!!”

“You never had one before?” asked Hideki amused by her stunned reaction. But the little girl could only repeat “oishii!” as she took another bite. She then looked at Hideki, broke the remaining bun into two halves and held out one for him.

“It’s okay. You’re hungrier.”

But the girl insisted and Hideki took a bite of his half of the sweet treat.

“Oishii!”

Suddenly a few rain drops fell on his forehead. Hideki looked up and saw the sky veiled up by gray clouds. It started pouring and the busy plaza got even noisier, as if somebody had disturbed a bee hive. People started scattering in all directions, shielding their heads with bags, flyers and jackets.

“Come!” said Hideki, taking Yumi by the hand. Running past a souvenir shop, he grabbed a bamboo parasol out of a bucket.

“I’ll bring it back!”

Hideki and Yumi were sitting on a bench, slowly enjoying their hot buns. The rain was rattling against the wide open paper parasol. It was scarlet red with cherry blossoms blooming all over it.

“Does you okaasan or obaachan make anmans?” asked Hideki. The girl slowly shook her head.

“My obaachan used to make the best. Yes, even better than these! She made so many one time, mom said I should bring them to my pre-school and share with friends. I said okay but instead hid them under my bed. They all went bad”, Hideki giggled at the memory, “Mom was so angry. But not Obaachan. She didn’t say anything. Only laughed.”

Yumi looked at Hideki, carefully listening to every word he said. Could she understand him?

“Now she doesn’t make them anymore.”

Hideki swallowed the last bite of his bun. Water started seeping through the paper of the parasol. Drip. Drip. Big tears started flowing down Hideki’s cheeks to Yumi’s great surprise.

“My classmate Alex… His grandmother died, and he said my Obaachan will die too.”

The boy started wailing like a helpless child.

Yumi’s eyes grew sadder and sadder as she watched Hideki cry. She caressed his hair and wiped his tears with the sleeve of her dress, but the moment she dried one cheek, the other got all wet again. She refused to give up, however. Until she suddenly gasped, “Okaasan!”

Before Hideki knew it, he was alone under the parasol and Yumi was running away from him.

“Yumi!” He jumped on his feet and sprinted after her, “Chotto matte! Wait!”

He ran as fast as he could. He couldn’t lose her like he lost Obaachan. Hideki stopped at the entrance to the Koyasan Temple. On its steps he saw a thin Japanese woman in a traditional kimono tightly embracing Yumi. Her okaasan.

Hideki wanted to be genuinely happy for Yumi, but sadness tugged at his heart. Yumi turned to him. For the first time he saw her face radiating with true happiness. She waved at him and shouted, “Mata-ne, Hidekikun!”

Mata-ne… See you… But when?

“Chotto…”

But mother and daughter had already disappeared behind large wooden doors of the temple, and Hideki had a feeling he wouldn’t find them even if he followed. His head dropped to his chest with a deep sigh.

“Hidekikun.”

Warmth spread across Hideki’s chest.

“Obaachan!”

In a few big jumps the boy reached the top of the stairs and squeezed his tiny grandmother. Obaachan gasped for air and laughed, stroking his wet hair.

“Where have you been, Obaachan? I looked for you everywhere.”

“I pray.”

 

*This story received honorable mentions in the Adult category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 7th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.

 

© 2020 Muslima Gulyamova

Japanese New Year Koyasan Buddhist Temple little tokyo

About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that showcases familiarity with the neighborhood and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. This year’s winning stories captured the spirit and cultural essence of Little Tokyo. This year the 7th Imagine Little Tokyo brought the awards ceremony online on July 23. Actors Tamlyn Tomita, Derek Mio, and Eijiro Ozaki performed dramatic readings of the winning stories from each category.

Winners


*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest I >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest III >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest IV >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest V >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest VI >>