July’s midsummer heat stuck. It stuck to the blades of grass. It stuck to Sumire’s beige romper. It stuck to everything and anything like a sweltering bog. Sweat drenched her underarms as she set up her easel and foldable chair. Even at her elevated vantage point, the muggy draft painted her body with its salty sheen.
Wiping her brow, she gazed over the stacked rows of terraced rice paddies below, bristling with the vibrant orange glow of early evening. The sun cut through the low-riding mountains of the small valley as it descended while clear skies blanketed it in an ombre of hues as day transitioned to night. Other than drops clinging to the blades of grass, no evidence of the earlier storm remained.
Sumire had worried that the sudden downpour would cancel the reason she had hiked up the carved-out mountainside with all her painter’s gear. Not a sound other than the gentle breeze and the buzzing of cicadas and frogs could be heard. After a bated silence, echoes of rhythmic chanting broke through the thick haze. Sumire sighed with relief. The ceremony was going through just an hour delayed.
Sitting down, she adjusted her black leggings, an uncomfortable necessity in the unforgiving heat to protect against the mosquitos. Canvas set up, she lit a small mosquito coil, cracked open a cold beer from a cooler, and drank in the view.
Her mind drifted to an earlier time years ago of the ocean and the passion that uprooted her from the city to the small floating island town of Shōdoshima.
Flickering specks of orange and red began to dot the darkening paths as they weaved between the fields in a single file line. Fire and smoke cut through the stagnant air in a rising tide. Voices filled with young, old and everyone in-between rippled with waves of excitement.
A soft breeze rustled through the rice fields as balls of fire careened downhill like a hundred dancing fireflies to the melodic tambour of 'Tomose… Tomose…’ one long, one short. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, siblings and lovers, two to a torch as they sang out, lighting the way.
Legend on the island had it that the purifying fire kindled up the mountain at the Shinto shrine warded off crop-eating pests. Laypeople of the small community transferred the blessed flames from the shrine above to Kasuga Shrine below. Sumire was certain most people didn’t believe in medieval folklore. In fact, it was common knowledge that Youka-me no Semi or Cicada of the Eighth Day’s bug send-off ceremony was revitalized by a popular 2010 movie of the same name, but it was breathtaking to watch nonetheless.
She smiled, knowing that within the parade of light, Eriko and her mother were there, bearing one of countless bamboo torches. Mother, daughter… and possibly another.
Sweat and smoke stuck to Sumire as she sipped her beer and put brush to canvas.
Earlier that March, the cherry tree in front of the Yoshimoto residence was in full bloom. Pastel flowers clustered like cotton candy hung effortlessly from the twisted branches of the old tree. From the second-story window, Eriko watched the wind blow the soft petals as they twirled lazily in the breeze before coming to a rest on the dirt driveway.
Most people her age had already married or worked or both, but instead, Eriko found herself at home taking care of her mother. Her father had passed away when she was too young to remember. She only knew that he planted the cherry tree when she was born. The overhanging branches framed the rustic house, mixing its soft scent with the salt-tinged air of the mountains.
A small white Kei truck puttered up the drive, sputtering gravel as it came to a stop. Eriko nervously ran her fingers through her short black hair, more so when only one person left the car.
Downstairs, the sliding door rattled open followed by the shuffling of shoes being tossed aside at the entrance before Sumire’s voice called out, “I’m home.”
Eriko slowly closed the paper shutter of the window, casting a shadow over her angled features. Her partner was home early. Too early. Taking a deep breath, Eriko adjusted her striped shirt and headed down the stairs.
Sumire smiled, her robust figure hidden under a baggy pair of jean overalls, and held out a shopping bag. “I thought we could eat lunch together,” she said as she headed to the living room and took out two store-bought bento boxes. "I figured you've been through a lot lately, so why not relax and not worry about cooking for a while?”
“She's getting her scans now.”
“Still waiting. She'll be an hour at the least.”
“Oh.” Eriko’s face dropped.
Resting her hands on her chin, Sumire gazed at Eriko. “Why couldn't you take her?”
Eriko shook her head, “The hospital smells like death.”
“She’s your mother, Eri.”
“Well, she's your mother too. Ever since we did the paperwork.”
“I was surprised how accepting she was— never would've guessed she was a big girl’s romance fan. She practically dumped her book collection on us when you brought me home."
“Yeah, and who knew I’d fall in love with a city girl visiting as a tourist."
“Art Festival. Thesis. Remember?” Sumire corrected her.
“Whatever. You’re stuck in the boonies now.”
“Stuck on you,” Sumire corrected her again, kissing Eriko gently on the lips.
Eriko shied away, eyes downcast. Her mood had been all over the place. The past year had been a whirlwind. She and Sumire had decided to marry but with no legal option, they did the next best thing— adult adoption. Eriko's mother had been thrilled to add a daughter to her family, although she still hinted at wanting grandkids.
But that winter, things had gone downhill. Sumire’s job at the pottery studio down by the port had started making her work overtime, leaving less time for them. Shortly thereafter, her mother went for a routine checkup only to find she had stage three breast cancer instead. Eriko had quit her part-time job to chauffeur her mother around from appointment to appointment, some requiring they leave the island for hospitals with better cancer centers.
When the chemo and radiation therapy made her mother throw up, she was there to comfort her. When her mother lost her hair, she was there to make her feel beautiful. Her own fears of death and mortality were a burden she carried alone. Today's scan was supposed to determine if the cancer had regressed or spread, and Eriko didn’t want to know the answer.
Lunch passed in silence.
“I should pick up mom soon,” Sumire said.
“It's only a fifteen-minute drive to the hospital. Can't you stay a little longer?"
Sumire wanted to stay, to hold Eriko in her arms, forget all the troubles of the world together, but some troubles had a way of staining everything like spilled ink. She felt the Eriko she knew and the Eriko in front of her now were two different people, the latter chipped away at with the stress of becoming a caretaker and the threat of losing her only parent too soon.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
Eriko stood up and grabbed Sumire’s arm. For a moment neither of them breathed, eyes boring into each other.
“Who will come after us?" asked Eriko, “After mom dies and we're alone and barren, do all our memories fade, disappear forever?”
“We’ll be like the cherry in front of the house. Our flowers will fall off and be replaced by new leaves until those shrivel and fall off too. But there will always be another Spring, another bloom,” Sumire sighed, “I know what you want, but I'm a woman, Eri. I can't get you pregnant.”
Outside, green bush warblers chirped and chittered as they darted through the trees.
Eriko’s fingers gripped her partner's arm tighter, “I just wish—”
“I know, honey, I know.” Feigning a smile, Sumire kissed Eriko’s cheek and brushed her hand away, "I need to go now, but we’ll figure it out together. I promise.”
By June, the two of them were cramped in the small Kei truck on their way to Kyoto. Eriko's eyes were glued to the window as they passed through the urban tangle. The five-hour drive had drained her, but things were looking up. The cancer treatments had worked for now; her mother got to spend more time away from doctors; her hair had started to grow back only a little grayer than before.
Sumire steered the truck up Karasuma, a street running north to south along the city, the geography which had been burned in her mind from the years she spent studying art and design at Doshisha University. Clusters of multistory buildings all competed for space with no care for aesthetics as they traveled north, passing countless bikers, buses, and students the further up they went.
Large streets cut through the city like a grid-work of veins pumping the hustle and the bustle to the offshoots of tiny allies and hidden corners untouched by time within the modernized ancient capital. Despite being the ex-capital, to a true Kyotoite— which Sumire was not— Kyoto was the one and only, and the residents carried a great deal of pride.
Eriko had never been to such a big city. The closest ones reachable by ferry to her small island were more like small seaside towns in comparison.
“Is it true what they say about Kyoto people?”
Sumire grinned. “Mostly, but they don't bite. Promise." She had always wanted to take Eriko to Kyoto, although sightseeing wasn’t their goal. This time around, they were there for business with an acquaintance from Sumire's past.
After grinding their way through traffic and turning down another major road, they arrived at the Fresco, a monotonous slab of an apartment building that sat atop a grocery store of the same name. For a city known for its serene temples and gardens, barely any green outside the mountains hugging the city borders could be seen.
Sumire gave Eriko's hand a reassuring squeeze as a large city bus rushed by. "Are you ready?"
"I think so.”
The grayscale sky of the rainy season made the yellow of Eriko’s blouse pop as they stepped through the glass doors.
“Fifth floor. Second door on the right."
The two rode the stuffy elevator up and up. Eriko nervously fiddled with the ribbon lining her blouse while Sumire stood calmly beside her. The older building had a transient quality about it. No security. No buzzer. The thick walls muffled the comings and goings in a thick layer of concrete.
Sumire knocked on the door.
“Come in. Come in.”
A middle-aged man greeted them. Tall and wiry, he still had a full head of hair, giving him an ageless appearance.
“Been a while, Kimura,” said Sumire.
“Five years at least,” the man called Kimura replied before beckoning them inside. The two sat on seat cushions on the floor as their host poured three glasses of barley tea from the fridge. “Relax. Sumire’s told me all about you and your special circumstances.”
“Nice to finally meet you,” Eriko tilted her head forward in greeting while her chest tightened, knowing what they were going to ask of this virtual stranger, but Sumire’s reassuring gaze calmed her nerves.
Eriko felt the cold condensation from the glass trickle over her fingers as she took in her new surroundings. Eccentric and cozy. Bookshelves filled with biology and medical texts lined the walls. Fishtanks took up the rest. Tank after tank filled with a menagerie of fish from the barely visible to the highly flamboyant swam around their aquariums. Kimura caught Eriko staring.
“I used to teach biology, but quit when the stress and overtime got too much. The fish are my friends. They never lie, never judge, just live content in their own little ecosystems.” A serene look washed over Kimura’s face as he gazed at his zoo-worthy collection. Eriko thought this man bizarre, but then again, Sumire had been an art student.
“How do you two know each other?” Eriko asked.
Sumire’s face lit up, “We were both volunteering at a queer film festival. Those were the days. Lots of drinking when we weren't busy putting things together. Kimura, it turns out, does a lot. Temporary housing, patient advocacy, and, well, there was that one time with that international couple who wanted a baby…”
Kimura chimed in, “In short, one of the things I do is help organize sperm donations to couples who need it. Couples like you. I rarely do it, but your situation moved me," he said, "I didn’t have enough time to secure a different donor, so it will be me. It’s all under the table— of course— but it’s safe, effective, and cheaper than ordering from a fully regulated sperm bank abroad."
"This isn’t for making a profit," he continued, "You only pay to cover the costs of STI and viability testing and for the materials I used to preserve the semen like the glycerol. I’ve got the receipts here so it’s all clear cut. If you want medical assistance, I have connections with a few clinics in Kyoto and Osaka that assist with that— also under the table— so insurance won’t cover it, and it can get expensive. Just know, the chances of failure are higher since we're not using liquid nitrogen. Figured dry ice and alcohol was cheaper and easier for you two to upkeep so I’ve prepared more semen straws than usual.”
Kimura went to grab a large styrofoam box and set it beside the couple and noticed Eriko's raised eyebrows. “Hey, if they can do it with cows, who’s to say it won't work on humans. I taught biology for crying out loud."
"Are you saying I'm a cow?" asked Eriko, flabbergasted.
"Hey, if it makes you feel better, I have a child of my own. Conceived the same way. Just remember to read the instructions I've listed out for you and hold onto the copies of my medical records.”
Sumire went to fetch her wallet, but Kimura stopped her. “Wait. Before you do anything, I’ll need both of you to sign a contract relieving me of any responsibility in the event of conception. There’s no regulations for sperm donation so hopefully, this gives both you and me peace of mind.”
Eriko looked at her partner. If it hadn’t been through Sumire, she would never have thought to get pregnant this way, but with a flick of a pen, their decision was final.
Home again. Windows shut. Heat from the pounding summer sun filled the bedroom.
“Are you ready?” Sumire asked.
Eriko leaned back on the futon and nodded, face flushed at what they were about to do. “Are you?"
“I hope so.”
Embracing each other as only lovers could, their bodies melded as one; the thawed straw inserted. And as they kissed, one pressed into the other, they both found it the most natural and beautiful thing in the world.
Eriko had bloomed over the past few weeks. Sumire thought she almost glowed.
Gazing down from the mountain top, Sumire painted the parade of fire before her. The last vestiges of light that had lit up the valley faded to a purple hue.
Sumire had been busy with the summer tourists visiting the pottery studio, but Eriko seemed much more content, even taking her mother to her bi-monthly scan without any of the despair that had clouded her large, dark eyes before.
Eriko and her mother were there, and possibly a new life waiting to be born. The next generation.
Letting the bubbles in the beer she'd brought fizz over her tongue, she couldn’t shake what she had seen before she left. Stuck at home during the downpour, she was left alone, the other two already out to get a head start to the shrine. Large drops pelted against the ceramic roof tiles as Sumire waited out the bad weather.
On the table, there had been a slip of paper. A doctor's note.
‘Metastasizing found in lungs and liver.
Stage IV breast cancer highly suspected.
Follow-up recommended. Treatment options to be discussed.’
Oranges and reds glided over the canvas as Sumire tried to push aside the weight building in her stomach. The chanting reached its crescendo as the flames flickered out one by one at the bottom of the mountain.
Taking another swig of beer, she closed her eyes and tried to imprint this moment deep in her mind. Better or for worse, they would survive this. All of this. As a family.