The old woman ladled broth and noodles from the clay cook pot into a wide wooden bowl. “Whatever your problems, they can wait until your stomach is happy with hot soup.”

Icho wiped a hand across his eyes. “No! You don’t understand! My family – ”

“Yes, yes, your family.” A spoon and a splash of shoyu, and she pushed the bowl towards him across the low table. “Problems can wait until after soup.”

“I can’t eat! Bandits attacked my village! They killed my father, and, and – ” Icho looked around the hut, eyes wide. He saw fire, bloody blades, his father falling. He’d run, run so fast he thought he might die like a coward and not his honorable father’s son. He’d eventually found the old woman when he really wanted a soldier, an army, anyone else. “Please, you must help me. They’ll kill everyone
if I don’t do something.”

The old woman patted his cheek. She was fat like a toad, with a wide mouth, and bulging eyes beneath wiry brows. She wore a simple green kimono and thick tabi. “Soup first, then talk.”

Desperate, Icho grabbed the spoon and took a sip of broth. The sweet warmth of ginger filled his head. Another. He’d had nothing to eat since his onigiri at midday. Tasty bits of daikon and egg hid in the nest of noodles. He slurped the bite of chilies and onion, the salty tang of fish sauce. Before he knew it he‘d finished his second bowl, and the autumn night had wound tight and dark around the tiny hut.

The old woman set the bowl and spoon in the wash bucket by the cook fire. “There. You have had your soup, and your stomach is happy.” She grinned with crooked, yellow teeth.

“I guess.” Icho rubbed his eyes. “Can you help me now, please? I need to reach the garrison in Nagasaki before. . .” He stifled a yawn.

“Nonsense, you can’t travel at night.” The old woman led him to a tatami mat he had not noticed against the far wall. “Rest here tonight, and tomorrow you can go for help.”

The mat pulled Icho to his knees, then his head to the barley husk pillow. “But my family. . .”

The old woman tucked the kakebuton around his shoulders. “You are a good son. Sleep now, worry about your family later.”

Icho opened his mouth to protest, and was asleep before the first word came out.

The old woman whispered in his ear, “You must go now, Icho.”

He sat up, squinting in the candlelight. “How did you – ?”

Four men in dirty padded armor sat at the low table, battered helmets beside them. The old woman moved around the table, ladling hot soup into their bowls. Icho recognized the long knives tucked in their belts, and fear splashed like winter water down his spine. Brusque chatter, and the whinnying of horses came from outside.

The old woman set the pot back on the fire and wiped her hands on her kimono. “Awake finally, hmmm?” She waddled to the tatami mat and took Icho by the shoulder. “Up and off with you, then.”

Icho clambered to his feet. He screamed a bare whisper: “That’s them!”

The old woman looked over her shoulder. “These men? Bandits? Certainly not.”

Icho clutched her kimono. The threadbare cloth was bitter with woodsmoke. “No, you don’t understand. They’re the ones who attacked my village.”

The men watched him with sharp dark eyes, dog eyes. One sneered at him, made to stand.

“Don’t mind the boy,” the old woman said with a laugh. “Eat, eat. Make your stomachs happy with hot soup before it gets cold.”

The man hesitated, then settled back with the others. He lifted his bowl and gulped the broth. His eyes widened, he smacked his lips, and nodded to the others. After a moment, they lifted their bowls to join him.

The old woman walked Icho towards the door. “Head back home. Bring me noodles for my soup the next time you come this way.”

“They’ll kill us. We have to – ”

The men standing with the horses looked up from their dice as she pushed Icho outside.

“Of course not. Get on home now.” She motioned the men inside, her eyes sickly yellow in the dim light. “Come in. I have soup to warm your bellies.”

The dark woods reeked of smoke and hot metal. Blood and death grabbed Icho by the heart and he ran, the way he ran when the bandits came for his family. Left the old woman standing in the doorway, her terrified screams so much like his mother’s! Icho raced his shame into the night until fear tore the breath from his chest and he tumbled into darkness.

The next morning, Icho followed his shame along the path of broken branches to the hut. His coward’s heart would have rather kept running, but honor demanded he return. If he couldn’t apologize for his cowardice, he could still bury the old woman’s body then give himself to the sea in shame.

He stopped at the edge of a small clearing littered with slick, white bones and bits of cloth. Shreds of padded armor hung from dead black branches overhead. In the center of the clearing, leather reins knotted around a pile of human and horse skulls at the base of a small stone altar. A fine breath of smoke hung in the air, then drifted away on the wind.

Icho walked to the altar. He pressed his palms together and bowed low to the stone soup pot perched on top. A master’s hands had given it life – a wide toad mouth with crooked teeth, and bulging eyes beneath lightning brows. “I thank you. My village thanks you. My father thanks you.”

On the other side of the clearing stretched a wider path made by horses. Icho started home. Noodles. He would not forget.


Original painting by Candice Mancini

“Da? Da, look what I can do!”

I frowned at the monitor and the columns of numbers that refused to add up. “Not now, Becca. Da’s working.”

“Look, Da.”

I could try to ignore her and not get anything done, or indulge her for a minute and salvage the remainder of the afternoon. I turned around in my office chair, and my heart went cold.

My six-year old daughter pirouetted in mid-air, a flutter of wings between her shoulders where this morning there’d been only rose print pajamas and strawberry blonde curls. She smiled at me and spun again, arms outstretched. “I’m flying!”

“Yes, yes you are.” I tried to clear the anxiety clotted at the back of my throat; it wouldn’t budge. “Where did you, um, where did you find those?”

Aggie came in from the kitchen, saucer in one hand, dish towel in the other. “Here now, I told you to leave – oh!” She dropped the towel and saucer, the latter landing on the former, so no harm done to the dish at least.

Becca flew higher and rapped the ceiling with her knuckles. “Look, Mum!”

“I see.” The words trembled on Aggie’s lips. She lowered herself to the sofa and I joined her, putting a hand on her knee. Her words weren’t all that trembled. “I haven’t seen those since before Da and I got married.”

Our daughter flit close, hovering right above the floor. “Really? Are they yours?”

“Once upon a time, yes.” Aggie looked at me then, so wistful and sad it all but broke my heart. “Let’s have a closer look.”

There was enough of the mother voice to the request that Becca did as she was told, but not without: “You’re not going to take them, are you?”

Aggie answered before I could. “Not at all.” She motioned for Becca to turn around.

With both feet flat on the ground, Becca showed us her back. Uneven slits perhaps five inches long had been cut in her pajama top so the wings could poke through. A small part of my attention allowed that we would have a sit down about when, and on what, we used scissors, but not this moment. What mattered most was how the wings caught the blue of Aggie’s eyes, the blue of the summer sky over Niarbyl Bay, or perhaps the other way around.