“Hello, my name is Yuki Sachiko, and I am dying.”
I have repeated those words a thousand times. And a thousand times I have heard,
“Apologies, Mr. Sachiko, we cannot help you.”
I sit on my bed staring outside at a grey and dreary city. All the money in the world, and I couldn’t use it for what mattered most. I’m not sad. I don’t believe life and death will feel much different. Instead I’m scared. No one wants to feel pain. The embarrassment of writhing under the gaze of doctors as my life slowly tapers away will surely soil my image I’ve worked so hard to achieve.
I am the CEO of Furogawa pharmaceuticals. Ironic isn’t it? I do not spend my time doing much other than paperwork and chatting with potential investors. After I pass, Furogawa will be in capable hands. I wonder where my worth will go with no wife or children. I have a sister who lives in America, she does not enjoy my company but who wouldn’t resist a large inheritance?
I do not want to leave anything exposed for the world to see. I wish to drift away silently with my name on no one’s lips. I am but a weed to be pulled by the hands of death. We do not mourn the weeds.
A buzz from my pocket carries me out of deep thought. It is a message from my closest companion, Yoshioka Noaki.
Hello Mr. Sachiko. I apologize if this is too personal, but I have made my wife aware of the situation you are in and she suggests paying a visit to the Kuasa Countryside. Apparently there is a little shop that sells naturopathic medicines that may make your transition easier. I have attached the address below. In other news, the board has approved your leave of absence. Take care of yourself.
I copied the address down onto a little piece of paper. Already restless for travel, I begin packing my bags.
It was as if I was a blood spot on a white dress within the town. The historic buildings of Kuasa were made mostly of light colored wood and had been faced with dark grey stone. The town was too small and cramped for any roads, so I had to journey on foot. My shoes clacked against the cobblestone path leading deeper into the village. Kuasa was deep within a large forest, humidity coated my lungs as I breathed in the scent of fresh moss and dew. The town itself was very vibrant. Red glowing lanterns swayed in the wind against the picturesque forest green background. Shops had begun to sleepily open, warm candlelight interiors with bright items cluttering the shelves. Tapestries lined the oak walls of the houses before me. I desperately read the signs in the village, anything to point me to the store that my friend discussed with me, but to no avail. I suddenly felt the dread of being lost in an unfamiliar place and thoughts that I had behaved foolishly clouded my mind. I should just leave. I took out my phone and searched for a car service when I noticed two children staring at me. I looked up at them,
“Oh hello… Do you know where I can find a shop that sells herbs?”
“You look funny, what are you wearing?” One of them inquired.
I gawked at her for a second. I knew my suit wasn’t proper traditional attire, however to be shamed with so much outspokenness was foreign to me. Self-consciously, I brought my briefcase to my chest.
“We don’t know a shop like that mister. There is a restaurant where people who look like you go, we can take you there.” The other offered, immediately being more helpful. I looked around, wondering if it was okay for children to be walking with a “strange” looking man. But with no other leads to follow, I quickly agreed.
The restaurant was small, I could already imagine how crammed it got when business was lively. There were six or seven low tables made of dark wood surrounded by blue and white cushions. The floor was covered with bamboo rugs, I wondered if I should be taking my shoes off. At the front of the room was a counter where you ordered your food, a menu hung from the ceiling. It smelled of tea and cakes inside. I took off my jacket after being hit with the warm air of the kitchen. The children quickly departed and I was left alone in the empty room, I lingered for many seconds before going up to the counter and ringing the bell.
“We’re closed, come back at 9” A voice rang out from the back, strained and raspy.
“Oh um, I was wondering if you could help me”
I heard some undefined clattering, perhaps the sound of plates going back in cabinets. Anticipation rose through the bottom of my feet all the way up into my chest. Finally, an older woman wearing a white and pink haori came to greet me. She frowned at me through her wrinkles, eyes glazing over my briefcase.
I spoke up into silence.
“I’m looking for a shop that sells herbs to sick individuals, I’m not sure where to find it it’s my first time here”
Her gaze, previously a little judgemental, was now overtaken with concern. “You’ve found it. You’re a little young to be coming all the way out here for just a cold. You must be dealing with something serious.” My stomach lurched and I nodded profusely, “I have brain cancer, it’s-” “No need to tell me more, you’re looking at Onigiri made with hundred year old salmon. You’re going to have to wait a couple of months for my next delivery, do you have that long to live?”
“Onigiri? You mean rice balls? That’s gonna help me?”
“Ah, you haven’t heard much about this place. Kuasa used to inhabit many spirits before they moved deeper into the forest. As a parting gift, they left a book of recipes with dishes that will cure all ailments. Your dish is onigiri with hundred year old salmon. Must I say more?”
I didn’t understand. I suppose folklore must influence the culture of Kuasa, including their restaurants. I hung my head, I’ve wasted all this time chasing a marketing scam. A bell sounded from behind me as well as sobbing. I turned to see a woman corralling a very upset child into the restaurant and rushing to the counter. I moved aside to make room for her. Was it nine o’clock already?
“This is the fourth time this month, someone really needs to do something about those cats.” the woman said while attempting to console her screaming kid. I arched my neck to see the child clutching their arm, it was bleeding quite a bit. Panic rose and my eyes darted around the room, should I call emergency services? The old woman calmly looked down onto the kid. “Would you like taiyaki again?” she cooed sweetly, but the kid wailed in return. She glanced at the mother briefly before retreating into the kitchen.
She emerged not a second later holding a plate with fluffy fish-shaped cakes drizzled with a red sauce and powdered sugar. I had then realized I was rather famished. The crying didn’t stop until one whole cake was finished, but eventually the red faced kid was cautiously finishing their meal with scared eyes while the women quietly talked. “I tell him every morning that the cat isn’t friendly but that just doesn’t stop him from wanting to say hello. I don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t want to stop feeding the poor thing but I feel like I must.”
The older woman’s gaze flickered over to me, “You looking for a cat?”
It’s been a week since I arrived in Kuasa. As you may have imagined, the child’s cuts healed almost instantly after finishing the taiyaki. Call it witchcraft if you must, but Ogata, the restaurant owner, describes it as properly alining the energy in the natural world and absorbing it through food. Whatever it was, I was amazed. I asked her immediately how much my cure would cost, but my money was worthless to her. Instead, she wanted me to work for her: “There is no cure for old age I’m afraid, I’m too weak to go collect ingredients myself. If you want to pay me, pay me with help.” So here I am, collecting mushrooms in the surrounding woodland areas of Kuasa. I found and rented a quaint house down the street whose owner is out traveling until the end of the year. And yes, I did end up sheltering the stray cat that I’ve nicknamed Taiyaki. He wasn’t as violent as I thought, just misunderstood.
The first couple of days on the job were tiring. My clothes got sweat soaked and muddy and my back ached from bending down to forage. On the third day, a storm swept through the town and Ogata assigned me to work at the register where I would be telling people their meal and processing their payments. The Supiritto, the restaurant, was a pay what you can establishment where we essentially accepted anything people brought. I myself got my first traditional outfits from people paying for their meals. It was relieving to blend in with the townsfolk and abandon my tailored suit, and the material was surprisingly comfortable. I met a variety of people, young and old, all coming in for a multitude of reasons: headaches, bugbites, allergies, colds- you name it. Around 6pm when the sun barely peaked over the mountains, a young girl came in with her father. She couldn’t have been any older than 14 but described what was happening to her with such eloquence that my old colleagues couldn’t even rival. She’s been having seizures and her father was terrified, but the girl stuck out her chest with bravery.
“Hmm yes I understand, well how does dango sound?”
The girl's face lit up at the mention of the sweet treat, I could tell she was worried about eating something she might’ve not liked. She was overtaken with innocence at that moment- no- helplessness. I saw her for what she was, just a child dealing with something scary. I was struck with an unfamiliar feeling. The feeling of responsibility.
The next couple weeks I worked from dawn to dusk. I didn’t know how Ogata got everything done between managing customers, looking for ingredients, as well as all the cooking. I found a great deal of enjoyment with the cooking part of my job. Keeping in mind that those eating here are suffering, I focused hard on both taste and presentation of the meals. I tried convincing myself I was only here for my own cure, but most days I completely forgot about my own disease. Instead, I eagerly brought out entrees for our customers and watched as the blood returned to their faces. It was satisfying to learn a new trade. My mind once strained with numbers and stocks now flourished with facts about certain spices and meats. I had poured a little bit of myself into each meal, arranging the plates how I liked or adding ingredients I was personally craving. With that, a piece of my heart was in every dish and every time someone enjoyed my food, they were really enjoying a part of my own soul.
Nights were always difficult. I slept mostly alone unless Taiyaki would come to grace me with his presence. I laid awake thinking about all the stories I would hear from people. All the fear and pain they went through is unimaginable. I remember the exact moment the doctor told me my own prognosis, but to hear that news be given to your child or your spouse or your parents. I shuddered under my blanket. Only once did I have to turn someone away. You see, the harder the body has to work to recover, the more costly the recipe. A father came in asking for a heart transplant for his son. The recipe, consequently, required a freshly harvested human heart. I spoke with Ogata to see if there’s anything we could do, but in the end I had to turn away the broken man in tears.
I had asked Ogata why she puts so much time into cooking for the village and why she doesn’t just release the recipes for the world to know.
“I think about that everyday, Yuki. It breaks my heart knowing there are children out there that are suffering and can’t afford the medicine they deserve. The spirits have rules that I must adhere to. Kuasa would be ravaged by people trying to profit off the recipes if it was for the world to know.”
Truth bit like a snake and the poison lingered as waves of shame. I couldn’t run from my past any longer.
“Ogata, before I came here I was a wealthy businessman. I was in charge of a pharmaceutical company- we made medicine. I didn’t care who I would help. I just wanted to succeed. But who knows how many people I’ve deprived of something they needed to survive. I’m sorry, I really am, I couldn’t visualize all the pain, people were just numbers and I-”
“It’s okay. You are here now and that’s behind you”
Later, I had decided to make Ogata some coffee jelly as a thank you.
“Oh Yuki! You didn’t have to, you're so sweet!”
My heart soared.
I had grown acquainted with many of the townsfolk of Kuasa and learned what meals the regulars would have. A woman by the name of Oishi would come in for sashimi, as she was suffering from aching joints. I learned she was a painter and her art captured the uniqueness of the little village we both found ourselves in. We hit it off after I sat to eat with her and I invited her over to my house for dinner. Of course, I offered to cook.
Oishi was a beam of light. We had our first date under the stars on a plastic table outside my house. Her words melted into me as she spoke of her family and her paintings. I was smitten. She carried herself with warmth and always appeared embarrassed and apologetic, even though little crystals of confidence sometimes shined through her exterior. I had met many women back home. I’d like to say none were as lovely as her, and, even if that may be true, I felt that I wasn’t able to take in their beauty at the time. This was different. I clung to Oishi’s every word and desired for more. Taiyaki had a great deal of interest with her as well, I was almost jealous of how she spoke to the cat.
We began seeing each other more often and I would happily cook whatever she requested. Despite Ogata’s teasing, she would kiss my cheek outside of the restaurant before I went to work for the day.
Weeks later, the shipment of hundred year old salmon had finally arrived. The delivery man was more than pleasant that I didn’t mind the delay. My cure was staring me in the face in the form of a dead fish. I see my life deep within its pupil. I’m with Oishi in a house on a hill, growing berries in the garden. I cook dinner for her when she gets back from work, frustrated with her coworkers but happy to see me. She reads poetry to me as Taiyaki warms my lap. She has a little easel outside and paints Kuasa while I bring her strawberry lemonade and desserts. I carry the shipment inside to the freezer and go out to serve the customers. Tonight I will rid myself of my impending death and give myself the time I so desperately want.
I return to the counter only to be greeted with a jarring ring of the landline. It was the heart transplant boy’s father, calling once more if anything had changed. Solemnly, I turned him away once more, but as I hung up, a horrible dread crawled its way up my throat. I had made up my mind as soon as I first read the list of ingredients, but it was as if I had not processed it until now. Immediately, I went to find Ogata to see if it was even possible.
I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I have decided to give my heart so a little boy in the city can live. I always thought I was going to die and I’ve already accepted it, so why not give someone else a chance to live? You know, as much as I loved cooking, it was never about the food. It was about watching people slowly become themselves again, free from pain. I realized how much love I have to give in this world to everyone I’ve helped and most importantly how much love I have to give to you. I’m sorry our time together got cut short but I know you’ll find an amazing person to call your own. The universe is just so full of life, I want to preserve it.
I love you,
Miraculously, the boy found a heart in someone else. I was spared by luck. I kept the letter I wrote to Oishi in a drawing under my desk, thinking about it often.
I wasn’t a weed anymore.
I was so much more.