Deep in the mountains of Akishina where Granny and Grandpa live, fragments of night linger even at midday.
As we wound our way up steep hairpin bends, I gazed out the window at the swaying trees, at the undersides of the leaves so swollen they looked as though they would burst. That was where the pitch-black darkness was. I always felt an urge to reach out to that blackness, the color of outer space.
Next to me, Mom was rubbing my sister’s back.
‘Are you okay, Kise? These mountain roads are so steep, no wonder you’re feeling carsick.’
Dad gripped the steering wheel, saying nothing. He was driving slowly to keep the car as steady as he possibly could, glancing anxiously at Kise in the rearview mirror.
I was eleven and in year five of elementary school. I could take care of myself. Looking out of the window at the fragments of the universe was the best way to avoid getting carsick. I’d worked that out when I was eight and hadn’t been sick on this road since. My sister was two years older than me, but she was still just a child and wouldn’t survive the journey without Mom’s help.
As we drove up and up around endless bends, ears popping, I felt like I was gradually moving toward the sky. Granny’s house is high up, close to the universe.
I hugged my backpack to me. Inside it was my origami magic wand and my magical transformation mirror. At the very top of the backpack was my best friend, Piyyut, who gave me these magical objects. Piyyut can’t speak human since the evil forces put a spell on him, but he’s looking after me so I won’t get carsick.
I hadn’t told my family, but I was a magician, a real one with actual magical powers. I’d met Piyyut in the supermarket by the station when I was six and had just started elementary school. He was right on the edge of the soft toy display and looked as though he was about to be thrown out. I bought him with the money I’d received at New Year’s. Piyyut was the one who’d given me my magical objects and powers. He was from Planet Popinpobopia. The Magic Police had found out that Earth was facing a crisis and had sent him on a mission to save our planet. Since then I’d been using the powers he’d given me to protect the Earth.
The only other person who knew my secret was my cousin Yuu. I was dying to see him again. I hadn’t heard his voice for a whole year. We only ever got to see each other in the summer when our extended family gathered for the annual Obon festival.
I was wearing my favorite T-shirt, the indigo-blue one with stars on it. I’d bought it with my New Year’s money and put it in the closet, still with the price tag on, keeping it especially for today.
‘Hold on tight,’ Dad said quietly as we approached a particularly sharp bend. The car lurched as we went around it. My sister grunted and covered her mouth with her hand. ‘Open the window to let in some fresh air,’ Mom said,
and instantly Dad opened the front window on my side. A warm breeze caressed my cheeks, and the car filled with the smell of leaves.
‘Kise? Are you okay?’ Mom sounded like she was about to cry.
Dad turned off the air-conditioning. ‘Only one more bend,’ he said.
I instinctively clutched the front of my T-shirt. I could just make out the slight swellings beneath my bra. They hadn’t been there last year. Had I changed a lot since then? Yuu was the same age as me. What would he think?
We would soon reach Granny’s house. My boyfriend was waiting for me there. My skin grew hot at the thought, and I leaned forward into the breeze.
Cousin Yuu was my boyfriend.
When had I started to feel this way about him? Even before we got together, I’d always been drawn to him. We’d been inseparable during the Obon vacation every summer, and even after Obon was over and Yuu went home to Yamagata and I went back to Chiba, his presence never faded within me. In my memory the traces he left grew stronger and stronger, and by the time I was really longing for him it was summer again.
We were nine years old, in year three of elementary school, when we first formally promised ourselves to each other. Our uncles had dammed the shallow river by the rice fields with stones to make a knee-deep pool where we cousins could splash about in our bathing suits.
‘Ouch!’ I cried as I lost my footing and fell on my butt. ‘Careful, Natsuki. The river flows fastest in the middle,’
Yuu said, his face serious as he helped me up.
I’d learned that in school, but I hadn’t made the connection with this little river. ‘I’ve had enough of water,’ I said. ‘I’m going to play somewhere else.’
I climbed onto the riverbank, picked up the small shoulder bag I’d placed carefully on a rock, and put on my beach sandals. Without waiting, I went up the steps to the road and, still in my bathing suit, headed for the house. The bag felt alive, warmed by the sun’s rays. As I walked alongside the rice fields, I heard footsteps and knew Yuu was following me.
‘Natsuki, wait for me!’
‘Leave me alone!’ I snapped.
Yuu reached out, picked some small leaves, and popped them into his mouth.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. ‘Yuu, you can’t eat that! You’ll get a stomachache.’
‘Don’t worry. It’s edible. It’s called sour dock. Uncle Teruyoshi told me.’
He held some out to me. I took them and hesitantly put them in my mouth.
‘Ugh, it’s so sour!’
‘Yeah, it is a bit, but it’s good.’
‘Where did you find it?’
‘There’s lots growing around here.’
We walked around the slope behind the house gathering sour dock leaves, then sat down next to each other to eat them.
My bathing suit was wet and uncomfortable, but I liked the taste of the leaves. Now that my mood had improved, I said, ‘Since you showed me something you like, to say thank you I’ll let you in on a secret.’
‘Well, actually I’m a magician. I have a transformation mirror and a magic wand.’
‘What sort of magic can you do?’
‘All kinds! The best spell helps you defeat enemies.’
‘I mean, maybe ordinary people can’t see them, but there are lots of enemies all around us. Bad magic, monsters, that sort of thing. I’m always doing battle with them to protect the Earth.’
I took Piyyut out of my bag. He looked like a white hedgehog plush toy, but actually he was an emissary sent by the Magic Police on Planet Popinpobopia. Piyyut had given me the magic wand and mirror to help me use my magical powers, I explained.
‘Wow, Natsuki, that’s amazing!’ Yuu said, his face serious. ‘It’s thanks to you protecting the Earth that we’re living in peace.’
‘Hey. What sort of place is that Planet Popinpo—what’s it called again?’
‘Popinpobopia. I don’t know really. Piyyut said it was secret.’
I thought it was weird that Yuu seemed more interested in the alien planet than my magical powers, and I looked at him closely. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Um . . . well, don’t tell anyone else, but I have a secret too. I’m an alien.’
‘What?!’ I exclaimed, taken aback.
‘Mitsuko is always saying so,’ he went on with a serious tone. ‘You’re an alien, she says. You were abandoned by a spaceship, and I took you in.’
Mitsuko was Yuu’s mom. She was Dad’s little sister, and so I called her Aunt Mitsuko. She was really pretty. She was shy and quiet, just like Yuu. I couldn’t imagine she would lie or joke about something like this.
‘You know what else? In my drawer there’s a stone that I don’t remember having picked up anywhere. It’s black, flat, smooth, and a really weird shape. So I think it must have come from the same place I’m from.’
‘Wow. So I’m a magician, and you’re an alien!’ ‘Well, I don’t have any proof. Not like you, Natsuki.’
‘But I’m sure it’s true. Maybe you’re actually from Planet Popinpobopia. Wouldn’t that be amazing? You might be from the same planet as Piyyut!’ I said excitedly, leaning forward.
‘I wonder. If so, I want to go back home someday.’
I was so shocked I almost dropped my mirror. ‘What?’ ‘Every time I come here for Obon, I’m always secretly looking for the spaceship that will come and take me home.
But I’ve never found it. I wonder if Piyyut can arrange for it to come and get me?’
‘No way, Piyyut can’t do that sort of thing!’ I felt like crying. I couldn’t bear the thought of Yuu not being around. ‘Yuu, are you going to go away sometime?’
‘Probably. I think it would be better for Mitsuko if I did, anyway. After all I’m just an alien that she took in, not her real son.’
I burst into tears.
‘Natsuki, don’t cry,’ he said and rubbed my back, trying to console me.
‘But I like you. I don’t want you to go away.’
‘But they’ll come to get me sometime or other I think.
I’ve been waiting for the spaceship for ages.’ Yuu’s words made me cry even harder.
‘I’m sorry, Natsuki. But while I’m still here on Earth, I’ll do anything for you. I feel calm when I’m here at Granny’s house. I think it’s because it’s closer to space, so it’s nearer to home for me, but it’s also because you’re here too.’
‘Really? Then I want you to be my boyfriend until you go back to your own planet.’
Yuu nodded. ‘Sure.’
‘Really? You mean it?’
‘Yes. I really like you, too, Natsuki.’
We hooked pinkies and made three promises.
1. Yuu won’t tell anyone that I’m a magician.
2. I won’t tell anyone that Yuu’s an alien from outer space.
3. We won’t fall in love with anyone else, even after summer’s over. We’ll definitely meet up here again next summer.
Just then I heard footsteps. Hastily I hid Piyyut and the mirror inside my bag. It was Uncle Teruyoshi.
‘So this is where you got to! I thought you’d been washed away by the river.’
Uncle Teruyoshi was always cheerful and played a lot with us children.
‘Sorry,’ we apologized.
He smiled and stroked our heads. ‘Oh, you got some sour dock! Do you like it, Natsuki? It’s quite sour but tasty.’
‘Yes, I do like it.’
‘You do? That means you’re a real mountain woman now, then! All right, come along. Granny’s looking for you because she’s cut up some peaches.’
We headed back to the house together.
I could still feel where my pinky had hooked Yuu’s. I ran to the front door, hoping no one would notice I was blushing. Yuu, too, was walking fast and looking down at his feet.
Ever since then, Yuu has been my boyfriend. The magician would be the girlfriend of the alien, at least until he traveled back to his home planet.
Image © Furuya Korin /Rawpixel Ltd