Hayato whistled a merry tune as they walked along the dirt track between the paddy fields. Battered old cloth flags fluttered in the breeze, proudly declaring that the Namerikawa Town Festival was tomorrow.
“You seem cheerful,” Nozomi pointed out, hoisting her bag higher up her shoulders, “What’s the news? You leaving town?”
“You wish!” Hayato laughed, giving her a playful push, “But seriously, I can’t tell you. It’s between me and the headmaster.”
Nozomi narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you two planning?”
“You’ll just have to wait until tomorrow,” he winked, tapping his nose. Although, now he thought about it, what was he going to do? He wanted to do something different and special, but not anything too wild or crazy – that wouldn’t do him any favours. Whatever it was, doing it while performing on the festival float would be his best chance. Everyone would be watching him. But what amazing and original thing could he do on a tiny raised platform and a single drum? Play freestyle, like he’d done in Mr. Iitsuka’s class? He wrinkled his nose: nah, he’d just be drowned out by the other drummers, and he’d just look stupid as a result. He rubbed his chin, deep in thought. This will take some figuring out.
“You got a headache or something?” said Nozomi, snapping him back to the present.
“Just thinking,” Hayato put his hands in his pockets.
“Yep, headache,” Nozomi concluded, “Thinking does that.”
“You’d know, I guess.”
Hayato dashed ahead before Nozomi could land a good-natured punch on his arm. She gave chase, across the quiet road, past the rickety old farmhouse and into the woods. Hayato stopped a short way up the path, hands on his knees as he caught his breath.
“Alright,” he panted, “You win, Doctor Nozomi. You –
He turned. She was gone, the path leading back to the farmhouse empty and silent.
“Err…hello?” he called, “Nozomi, are you there?” he retraced his steps, peering through the thick tangle of trees on either side of the path. Shadows lurked and swayed beyond where the sunlight didn’t reach. He came to the road, and looked left and right. Nothing. That’s weird. She was right behind me.
He crept slowly along the woodland path. “Nozomi? He shouted, “Stop playing around, this isn’t funny, any more.”
A flutter of leaves behind him, and a shape darting by in the corner of his eye. He wheeled around. Still nothing.
“Enough is enough!” Hayato growled, stomping a foot down.
A twig snapped behind him, and he felt a cold shadow cloak his back. He turned slowly, and –
“RAAAAARGH! I’m going to eat you!”
Hayato crashed to the ground the same time Nozomi burst out laughing. He picked himself up slowly, his heart pounding in his chest as Nozomi barely came up for air between laughs. She bent double, clutching at her sides.
“Oh…” she gasped, blinking back tears, “Your face…that was priceless!”
“It’s not funny!” he snapped at her, feeling his face burn red.
“It was hilarious!” she howled, and collapsed on the path, rolling around in the dust. Hayato brushed the debris from his hands, wincing at the grazes on his wrists and knees. Now the shock had faded away, even he began to giggle. Just a little.
“I’ve got to hand it to you,” he said later as they marches through the woods together, “You really got me there.”
“Yay!” she punched the air, then immediately went pale and wide-eyed with worry. “But…you’re going to try and get me back now, aren’t you?”
Hayato gave a mischievous grin. “Don’t you worry about that. I’ll surprise you plenty at the festival tomorrow.”
Please don’t do anything stupid!” she pleaded.
“Now what makes you think I’d do anything stupid?” he rolled his eyes.
Hayato cut across. “You’re not supposed to answer that.”
They arrived at the far side of the woods. The trees opened up to reveal a sleepy neighbourhood of big wooden houses and narrow, dusty streets. Huge trees surrounded the pocket of houses, swaying lazily in the hazy sunshine, and birds twittered happily away. And in the distance was the ever-present blue-green face of Kasayama, the looming mountain that seemed to be visible wherever you were in Namerikawa. On a clear day it looked clear and sharp enough to make out the individual trees on it’s slopes, and on other days the clouds and mist clung to it, making the peak look like an island in the sky, but whatever the weather there was no mistaking Kasayama for it’s almost-perfect pyramid shape, standing high above the mountains on either side of it.
“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then, said Hayato.
“Yep! Don’t forget your drumsticks, ‘kay?” Nozomi waved as she walked down the street.
“You too!” Hayato called after her. He turned and headed in the opposite direction, up the gentle slope. The houses began to protrude from the slope, propped up on thick stilts. His house was just like this, and when he arrived he found his grandma brushing down the decking with a wicker broom.
“Afternoon, grandma,” Hayato said as he passed.
“Remember to take of your shoes,” she warned. Hayato rolled his eyes as he stepped into the tiled entryway, stacked with shoes, slippers and umbrellas. How could he ever forget?
He popped out of his shoes without undoing the laces and hung up his cap.
“I’m home!” he called. No answer. Mother and Father weren’t home yet. Good. Time to plan. He headed past the kitchen, tatami room and slid the door open on his own room. He threw his schoolbag down on his futon and opened a drawer at his desk. He pulled out some pieces of paper, some pencils, and sat down.
He stared at the blank paper. It stared back. He racked his brains. What should he do? He couldn’t let the headmaster down now he’d agreed to it. Why hadn’t he stayed with the headmaster for just a bit longer and not dashed off? Maybe, if he’d asked, the headmaster might have had an idea of his own: after all, this whole thing was his idea. In fact, as Hayato tried to squeeze his brain for ideas and instead ended up making a paper crane without realising it, he was beginning to regret taking on this little assignment. Suddenly the idea of playing the same drum rhythm over and over again for an hour didn’t seem so bad.
“I’m home!” came his Mother’s shrill call. So soon? He looked at the clock: 6:30pm. He’d been sitting here for two hours without even realising it! And how had the TV in his room been switched on? Why were all the blank sheets of paper covered in doodles? He bashed his head against his desk. He was never going to get a brilliant idea by tomorrow! Why hadn’t the headmaster asked him earlier? If only he had more time…
“Are you okay, dear?” his Mother’s voice from the door, “I heard a banging noise.”
Hayato spun around in his chair, nearly falling out of it as he did so. “F-fine!” he blurted out, “I’m just…studying.”
Mother stepped inside and looked over his shoulder at the pictures of doodles.
“Art.” Hayato added.
Mother gave a small laugh. “Of course, Hayato. Now your father will be home at seven, so dinner will be at about 7:30, okay? Be in the tatami room by then: you know grandma likes it when we eat as a family.”
“Yes Mum,” Hayato nodded, and she closed the door behind her.
Hayato turned back to his desk, pulled out some fresh paper, and rubbed his hands together. Right then. Just one hour until dinner. I will have this planned out by then. No distractions.
But then he found his left hand wandering to adjust the TV aerial to get a clearer picture. He did really like this TV show…maybe if he just watched for a little bit…
“Hayato, dinner’s ready!”
As though he’d snapped out of a trance, he found himself facing the TV as the show’s ending credits were rolling, his clock ticking past 7:30pm. He’d done it again! This was hopeless. How was he ever going to get a flash of inspiration when his head was so empty but his room was so full of fun things to do?
He slouched his way into the tatami room and seated himself onto a cushion by the low table, next to his father who was reading the newspaper.
“Evening, son,” said his father, still in his work suit.
“Hi Dad,” he said glumly.
“Uh oh,” Father grinned, “Are we getting nervous for the festival tomorrow?”
“That’s one way to put it.”
“You’ll be fine, dear,” said Mother, ladling them bowls of Miso soup, “I’ve heard you’ve practised hard for weeks. I can’t wait to see my little boy drumming away on the festival float!”
“When I was your age, we had to roll that float along by logs and pull it by rope,” Grandma sniffed, “None of this wheel business they have today.”
“Why, wasn’t the wheel invented when you –”
Father gave him a light tap on the head with his newspaper gave him a gentle but firm look. Hayato held his tongue.
“Well, you’ll notice the meal tonight is all Namerikawa, too,” said Mother, trying to move the conversation back onto less frosty grounds, “It’s all local produce. There’s some sliced Daikon from the Tsukiyomi area, and the rice is from right here in the Shinrin neighbourhood, of course…oh, that reminds me!”
Mother reached behind her and opened a trinket box. “I mustn’t forget to display this,” she said, mostly to herself, “It’s tradition.”
Hayato felt his eye give an involuntary tick. Mother returned to the table holding a miniature model of a festival float, and placed in pride of place in the centre of the table.
“There!” she said brightly, “It seems quite fitting to display it this year, doesn’t it, what with you drumming on the float tomorrow.”
Hayato only half heard her. He was staring at the little model. It was a very good replica of Namerikawa’s float, from the wheels right to the life-size doll on the roof. Like a lightning bolt, it struck him. That’s it! Simple but bold, not too crazy but not too boring…
“Hayato, are you okay?” Father was watching him as carefully as Hayato stared at the model float.
“Fine!” Hayato sat up straight. He meant it too: he felt a weight on his shoulders evaporate away, “Just thinking about tomorrow, that’s all.”
“Well, your Mother’s said it already and so will I: you’ll be fine.” Father said, giving him a warm smile.
“Thanks Dad,” Hayato grinned back, and picked up his chopsticks. As he picked at the platters of fish and vegetables laid out on the table, he played his Father’s words in his head again. I’ll be more than fine. I’ll be great.