She took her shears from his hands, wiped the traces of dirt off the handle, and carefully put them down on the grass behind her. She lifted a broken piece of wood from out of her tomato patch, and carefully drew out two characters next to they boy’s name: 古山
“I am Furuyama-san. Fu-ru-ya-ma. Old mountain.”
The boy laughed. “She’s an old mountain, what a funny name,” he said in English. “I have to go now.” And then he looked up at the woman, and switched to Japanese. “I go village.” He stood up. “Furuyama-san, good-bye.”
Furuyama-san rose, and gave him a short bow. Before he had walked past the edge of her vegetable garden, she was already carrying her stools back towards the shed.
Not much could be grown in the winter, but Furuyama-san kept coming to her vegetable garden most mornings. She wrapped up in her thick cotton gown, threw on her coat, and kept a warm pot of tea brewing in her shed all day. Sometimes she pottered about with the few plants she tried to coax from the winter gloom, sometimes she just sat in her shed sipping tea. On warmer days she would carry a stool down to the coast, and sit by the sea counting the ships.
“The people in Osaka are too busy,” she thought, “that they end up needing so many ships.”
On one warm day in February, Furuyama-san fell asleep. She started drooping in her stool, and without really meaning to, she ended up on the ground, her old body at crooked angles to the sea wall.
She was awakened by the sound of loud footfalls and spraying gravel.
“Hai! Hai! Furuyama-san! Furuyama-san!”
The old woman opened her eyes. It was dark, and she was a little confused. All she could see was the outline of the seawall in front of her.
“Furuyama-san, are you okay?” It was a confident voice, the Japanese came out crisply. But it contained the unmistakable accent of the boy who brought juice to her from time to time.
Furuyama-san turned her head and looked up at the boy. There was only light from some distant street lamps, but even so she could make out the worry etched into his face. Furuyama-san smiled, and slowly sat up on the ground.
“I’m okay, of course I’m okay. This old woman is always okay.” She got up onto the stool, and leaned back against the edge of the seawall. “I was only asleep. I don’t sleep much these days. But sometimes….” She looked up at him. “I’m tired.”
“You must be cold too, Furuyama-san,” he replied. “Here.” Before she could object, he’d taken off his jacket and had wrapped it around her shoulders. He squatted down next to her, his face at the same height as hers. She looked for signs of discomfort in his eyes, but there was only concern.
“Furuyama-san, do you live far from here? It’s dark already. I can take you home.”
The woman shook her head. She was still half asleep. “It’s all right, no need to trouble yourself.”
But he’d already taken his mobile out of his pocket, and a bright torch of light was shining from the top of it. He shone it on the ground between them.
“Take your time. Just let me know when you want to walk home. Did you leave anything at your vegetable garden?” The boy’s hand was on her shoulder, giving it a little squeeze.
She shook her head. Little drops of tears had formed in the corners of her eyes, and she didn’t know if she was happy or angry with this strange boy for interrupting her solitude. She felt weary. She didn’t have the energy to fight, and she didn’t have the energy to navigate his odd foreign accent. She rested, and then she let him walk her home. He carried the stool first back to her vegetable patch, and then she showed him the way to her house, on the other side of the village. The strange light of his mobile phone cast shadows over their steps.
The house was pitch black when they arrived at the front door. She turned her back on him, and unlocked the door. She stepped back to hand him his coat, but he shook his head. “You keep it for tonight. It’s suddenly gotten cold.”
She still wasn’t in the mood to fight. She gave him a long, deep bow. “Arrigatu gozaimashta.” Then she was inside, the door was closed, and all the boy could see was that a light had been turned on.
He turned around and shook his head, and started walking back through the village. Yamata-san the shop-keeper was outside his shop.
“Poor woman. Her house is cold, I’ve heard she never turns on a heater.” Yamata-san lit up a cigarette.
“Good evening,” the boy said, and he gave the shop-keeper a slow bow.
“Yes, good evening,” Yamata-san replied. “I saw you walk her home. None of the boys around here would have done that.” The shop-keeper gave a short laugh, and shook his head.
“She was sleeping by the sea. I saw her lying on the ground. I thought… Well, I thought. You know. I thought she was dead.”
Yamata-san laughed again. “Not that woman, she’s not a human, she’s a kami. She’ll still be growing vegetables long after you and I have passed.” He took a long drag of his cigarette, and looked up at the stars. The boy followed his gaze, his eyes searching for the familiarity of the Big Dipper.
“Her husband died ten years ago. Poor woman. She has no one left but those vegetables.” He looked up at the boy. “Except I guess she had you tonight too. Better you than me! I stay away from kami, I like the world of us humans.” He took a final drag of his cigarette, threw the butt on the ground and walked back into his shop.
The boy kept staring at the stars. The Big Dipper was there, but it was at a funny angle. It wasn’t the way it was in Maine. It always made him feel lost, looking up at the unfamiliar sky.