this is for...well, you know who you are
I descended in a storm of fireflies and cherry blossoms, light as a maple leaf, and glided along the snaking bend of a rivulet, forepaws brushing the grasses, nose full of the sweet, summery aroma of the earth and the last hot breath of the sunset which was dying between the mountain peaks. I left behind the high winds, the darkening clouds, the tossing pines. I left behind heavenly mountains and followed the rivulet, charted like a great river among hillocks heaped up to resemble massive ranges; on either side of me, my whiskers brushed the tops of tiny cultivated cedars, miniatures of great forests. The little life-thing in my chest thrummed pleasantly. Life tonight was sweet to me.
When the rivulet was spanned by an arched bridge, sharp as a dragon’s back, I wandered from the water’s edge and followed the stone path through a garden half-tended, half wilderness, to the silhouette of a tiny shelter within, and the dim yellow lights which glowed through its lattice openings. A soft, warm wind came with me: spirit bells chimed as I swept around the azalea hedge, followed the walk to the building’s slat steps nearly overgrown with ivy, and there I touched the earth at last, on the topmost step. Four tiny lights flashed and sank as each paw set down on the planking, and the shelter itself seemed to shiver, as if with delight.
There was no door: I looked inside and saw you, kneeling at a wide, low table with your back toward me, a huge and heavy lantern—quite out of place in the exquisite delicacy of your surroundings—hung above your head so that you could see your work. You wore glasses, of the kind popular now in the West, also so that you could see your work. No shoes: they sat beside me on the narrow fore-porch, as vibrant a red as my royal cloak, their laces as white as the tip of my bush.
You were busy, hard at work with books and papers, laptop and phone shifting, gleaming, clicking around you, shogunates of grades struggling for supremacy on your war-table. But even in the midst of your pitched battle you caught the tremor in the earth—perhaps you felt the wind on whose wings I rode—for you sat up straight, took off your glasses, and turned round. You saw me.
As every sensible human will do when confronted with a wild animal, you froze. The lantern light fell on your naked eyes, spirit-blue in a porcelain face, and illuminated the burnt gold of your hair which the wind was fingering, but you did not move. You did not breathe. You stared at me, and I let you stare your fill awhile, until you had got used to my presence in your sanctuary.
With one fluid movement I bent forward, opening my jaws to set down the scroll which I had been carrying between my teeth. I hesitated, then straightened.
“Good evening,” I said, and I smiled.
You narrowed your eyes at me, pursing your lips. “I know you.”
“Of course. I have come to bring you your dream tonight.” I set my paw on the scroll.
You looked at the scroll; you looked away again a second later, but seemed to think better of it, for you stared again, harder this time. You showed off the brave strength of the porcelain of which you were made. “I see now.” You, too smiled, relieved. You met my gaze. “It doesn’t usually look like that.”
“You know me,” I crooned: “I am fond of drama.”
“Tell me the story,” you prompted eagerly.
But I rose and entered the genius of the shelter. “I am cheerful tonight,” I evaded. “I will do even better.”
Noiselessly I rushed the table, whisking by you, and leapt up among your papers. They fluttered and chittered liked cranes on the river, floating down around me as I settled, bush swept round my forepaws. I sank down amongst my glowing fur, eyes warm with the lanternlight.
“The tea in the pot is hot again,” I said. “Pour us two cups, you and I.”
I saw you smile, hitched round to look down at me where you sat. You would not know it, but I knew, looking back up at you through the veil of lantern-light: it was the smile of a warrior worn out and ready to sheath his sword, and has been asked by someone he loves to make one last charge.
You reached for the pot.
As the steaming amber liquid filled the tiny cups, I watched, one with the flow and at once detached. In a high, absentminded way, I said, “Summer has come. It is warm even in the mountains now.”
“I don’t have to wear a sweater here,” you agreed gamely. You held out a cup for me: I saw that your hand trembled. As you set it before me, I, too, reached out, light as a feather, and touched the smooth back of your hand with the smooth pad of my paw. A tiny light blinked and, for a second, I felt the thump-thump of your heart. I think that you felt mine. You took back your hand without hurrying.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
You looked up over the rim of your cup, raised to your lips. “Do I like what?”
But I evaded, suddenly, like a wind that changes direction in the long grass. “The warmth is good for your bones. It makes your eyes mellow.”
You pursed your lips again and gazed down at me out of thinned eyes, not at all mellow, but calculating. With a hard little sigh, you began to play the game. “The cicadas made a racket this evening. I was glad when the sun went down and they finally hushed.”
“Mm, the cicadas.” I liked this move. I heaved up my shoulders and stooped my head to drink the tea. Every hair rose on end as the warmth pulsed through my body, and my whiskers coiled like snakes in the sun. “They are summer, don’t you think? I hear their rattle like the shaking of sabres.”
“You like that,” you pointed out. Then, “Why are you wearing a red cape?”
“Because I like that too,” I replied, and finished my tea.
For a spell you were quiet. You sat with your legs folded beneath you, teacup settled on your knees, and stared at me with the purse gone out of your mouth. I settled in and waited, pleasant, while the warmth invaded your bones and your eyes became mellow.
“It’s summer,” you said at last, as though it had only just washed over you. Your voice was full of relief.
You looked away, through the lattice to the dark world outside. One gardenia, white as your skin, could be seen growing over the porch; beyond that the lantern lost its strength and the world was invisible. The mountain peaks could no longer be seen silhouetted by the sunset: night had fallen. In the dimensionless black, fireflies lit up and faded away, like our memories of childhood dreams. Honeysuckle filled the air with its drowsy scent whenever the wind dropped away.
And then suddenly you were crying, chin thrust up and jaw clenched, fists tight about your teacup—choking on great, suppressed sobs. You cried like an empress. I did not say it—I let you cry, lowering my head so that, while I watched you out of the corner of one eye, I would not appear to be watching—but I thought that you were beautiful. But finally the sobs died away, and the wind played gently with the spirit chimes, and the night-time silence fell about us once more.
I whispered, “You did not think you were going to make it.”
“No,” you gasped. “No, I didn’t think I would make it.”
I got up and arched my back, drawing all four paws off the ground. “You will ask yourself,” I said in a sturdier tone, “if it was worth it. I would not answer that question if I were you.”
“Why?” You turned and frowned at me—and saw that I was not on the ground.
“Because females are dangerous with philosophy.” I lowered myself back to the floorboards. “One thing you do know,” I went on. “You are strong.”
You twisted your mouth on the taste of stale tears and bowed your gaze to your teacup again. Reaching up once, you tucked a thick strand of blonde hair behind one ear. “I do not feel strong.”
“One never does. You are enough,” I added. “It is enough.”
Your face darkened. The strand slipped out and fell across your eyes so that I could see only the tremble of your chin, the hard line of your mouth. “I want to feel like enough. I want to feel strong. I am tired of—I am tired. I am tired. It never seems to be enough. When I don’t have any more to give, I have to give more. It’s killing me.”
I could hear the tsunami in-rolling, felt the ground shuddering under my paws. These were tears of desolation, not relief: I rushed up and swept round the table to your side, spraying blossoms of paper around me—one by one they folded into tiny cranes and darted toward the four corners of the room. “Sho! sho! sho!” I crooned, as though to a baby. I pounced upon your lap and placed my forepaws on your cheeks, drawing up your head. Tears wet my long, drifting whiskers as they brushed your face. The eyes which stared at me were those used to looking at nightmares. I would not say it aloud, but the sight of them cut the little beating life-thing in my chest.
“You are human,” I said to you, “and so small, and fragile if struck just right. But you are human, and so you are also strong—magnificently strong. It does not get easier, my darling, but sometimes it is summer, sometimes the fireflies dance in the cherry trees—and sometimes your animal spirit comes down to make you tea when the witching-hour is upon the world. You are not far from the kingdom: the plain beneath its citadel is the most fought-over land. Have courage, brave heart. It is summer.”
I think you wanted to speak, but you were tired, and perhaps you tasted the spell which my words had hastily woven and you did not want to break it. You gave a watery smile and reached up to stroke my mane. The hand which touched me was sure now, and I knew I could leave you to the summer night without fear.
“Put up the sword and the knife. Rest awhile.” I withdrew, hovering among a storm of paper cranes. You gazed up at me with a crown of lantern-light around your head, the post-storm quiet in your eyes. “Drink your tea.”
I dove for the stairs.
With a flurry of petals I paused, landing on the top step beside the scroll. You had flung round and I saw your eyes go from me to the scroll. “Aren’t you going to tell me the story?”
I grinned, showing my teeth. “But I already have!”
You jumped to your feet.
With a kick I took off, sending the scroll spinning into the room like a firecracker, and launched into the purple air with a cataclysm of heaped clouds and wind and firefly-lights. Summer thunder roared through the sky.