Kindness

The little girl sat beneath the tree and cried.

The tree was beautiful, tall and expansive and glorious, piercing the blanket of the sky with its numerous branches. It was also dead. It wasn’t just a lose-your-leaves-in-winter, plant-hibernation kind of dead; it was actually, truly dead. There was no more life to be found within its armored body.

It wasn’t the tree for whom the little girl was crying for, but it may as well have been. And as she poured out her grief beneath its stone-cold frame, the other children in the schoolyard ignored her. Not that it mattered – they wouldn’t have understood even if they tried. But she still wished that for once in her life, someone would at least play the part. And finally, after some ten or fifteen minutes of her quiet sobs, someone did.

A boy a few grades higher than her approached with obvious hesitation. She didn’t look at him, absorbed as she was in her whirlpool of sorrow, but he didn’t let the lack of recognition stop him. He walked onward until he too was standing beneath the dead tree, just a foot or so away from the girl.

“Haku,” he said slowly. “What’s wrong?”

The little girl shook her head and continued to cry. He bit his lip and frowned a little.

“Do you want me to get the teacher?” he asked.

Another shake of the head.

“I’m just going to sit next to you,” the boy said. “Okay?”

She didn’t respond, but she didn’t shake her head, either, so he took that as a yes. He sat down beside her and silently stayed with her as she cried, and that simple, loving action meant the world.

If only, she thought.

If only more people would be like this.

Learning to Imagine

“We’re foolish, don’t you think? After hundreds of years of living, humans still don’t know how to die. And after hundreds of years of dying, humans still don’t know how to live


I wrapped my jacket tightly around my chest, bracing myself against the cold wind. As I walked through the maze of quiet city streets, I couldn’t help but think of my husband at home. I wondered what he had cooked for dinner. I imagined him sitting at the kitchen table with two mugs of hot tea, waiting for me to get back from my night class. On cold nights, this was usually how he received me.

Really, he’s so considerate…

Lost in these thoughts, I slowly made my way home.

As I waited for a red light in order to cross the street, I noticed an elderly woman walking carefully in my direction. She was wrapped in a thick coat, and her head was lowered slightly to avoid the cutting wind. In both hands she carried several cloth shopping bags, all filled to the brim. Slightly alarmed, I hurried over to her.

“Sorry, ma’am, do you need help?” I asked.

She stopped walking and looked up at me. I was startled by how old she seemed to be – definitely over ninety, I thought. But she seemed incredibly fit and healthy for that age.

“Oh, no thank you,” she replied politely. “I can carry these on my own.”

Her voice was slightly deep and had a lyrical quality to it. For some reason it immediately made me think of my husband’s voice…

“Then, may I help you cross the street?” I asked her.

She gave me a gentle smile. “I wouldn’t stop you.”

We crossed the street together step by step. She didn’t really need that much extra time, but the light still changed too quickly, so I stood in the middle of the road and stopped the cars for a few seconds as she made her way to the other side. When I did this one of the cars honked at me. At first I thought, how rude! But when I turned to look at the driver, she gave me a thumbs up and smiled.

After we had crossed, the elderly woman turned and thanked me. “You’re very kind,” she said. “The world needs more people like you.”

I blushed. “It wasn’t anything, really…”

“Would you like to stop by my place for a cup of tea?”

The offer startled me. What a nice lady, I thought.

“No thank you, I wouldn’t want to impose –”

“Please,” she insisted. “I would like to repay you. It’s cold out, and a cup of tea would do you good.”

I thought of my husband at home. I didn’t want to keep him waiting. But at the same time, I couldn’t really refuse this elderly woman’s offer…

She saw the look on my face and brightened a little. “Let’s go,” she said. “It’s not far.”

So saying, she turned and began to walk. I trailed her, slightly amused.

We reached her apartment building a few minutes later. It turned out that she lived on the second floor. There was an elevator, but she headed straight for the stairs and I followed, impressed by her strength and endurance.

She set her bags down in the hall while she took out her keys. Then she opened her door and encouraged me to enter first. I found the light switch, flipped it, and held the door open for her as she brought in her groceries.

The place was a little small for my taste, and it was very sparsely furnished. But that gave it a clean, crisp look that was somehow appealing. There was a kitchen area, a living area, and a couple of doors that I assumed led to the bedroom and bathroom. I looked around, trying not to seem rude.

The elderly woman set her shopping bags down in the kitchen space and started to boil water. “You can sit at the table,” she said. “What kind of tea do you like?”

I lowered myself into a chair and took off the backpack I’d been carrying all this time. “Anything is fine,” I replied.

She made jasmine, which just so happens to be my favorite. I was very happy, and told her so.

“Good!” she said. “I’m glad.”

She brought two matching blue mugs over to the table and sat down across from me. “Here you are.”

I drank in the warm, refreshing scent. “Thank you very much, ma’am.”

“No, thank you.” She smiled and took a long drink. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Oh!” I flushed with embarrassment. “Sorry, my name is Kohaku.”

“Kohaku… that’s a nice name.”

She didn’t offer her’s, and I didn’t push it.

After a few silent minutes of enjoying the tea, I gathered up my courage. “May I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but how old are you?”

“Over one hundred.”

“Wow…” I shook my head. “I can’t imagine living that long.”

“Hmm… I think you can.”

I was surprised. “What do you mean?”

The woman gazed down at the table between us. “Tell me, do you imagine what tomorrow will be like?”

“Of course. I think about the things I want to do tomorrow, the work I have to get done, the places I have to go, the people I have to see.”

“So if you can imagine tomorrow, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to just keep imagining all the tomorrows for as long as you live.”

I thought about it for a moment, trying to figure out what she was saying. “Well, I guess you’re right.”

“Besides,” she said slowly, “it’s not always about whether or not you can imagine it. Sometimes I can’t imagine my tomorrow. But the thing is, there are some people whom I love who absolutely cannot imagine their tomorrow if I’m not in it.”

She smiled at me kindly. “So this means that even if I can’t see it, my tomorrow must exist.”

I let this roll around in my head for a bit. “So basically you’re saying that you’re still alive because other people need you to live?”

“That’s right.” She nodded with approval. “When they don’t need me anymore, I’ll die.”

“Wow. I never thought about it that way before.”

“Most people don’t. I think humans are very foolish.”

She downed the rest of her tea and then looked at me right in the eyes, her gaze surprisingly intense for a hundred-something year-old woman. “You should think about these things more often, Kohaku. Otherwise, you won’t be able to die.”

I shook my head. “Sorry, I don’t understand. What?”

“I think humans are very foolish,” she said again, exasperated. “After hundreds of years of living, humans still don’t know how to die. And after hundreds of years of dying, humans still don’t know how to live. Do you want more tea?”

The sudden change of subject startled me. “Um… I’m sorry, I would love to, but I think I should head back home now. My husband is waiting for me.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so earlier?” She rose from her chair and took our empty mugs to the kitchen sink.

I put my backpack on. “Thanks for everything, ma’am.”

“I will walk you to the door,” she said. Apparently she meant the door of the apartment building, because she went all the way down the stairs with me.

Once we reached the ground floor she turned and raised a hand slightly. “Listen, Kohaku. Think about these things more often. You should learn how to live and die. Teach your husband, too! Don’t forget!”

“Okay, I will,” I promised. I still didn’t really understand what she meant by all this, but I figured I’d at least try to think about it. “Have a good night, ma’am.”

As I headed back out into the cold, windy streets, I thought, Either she’s too old, or she’s really onto something…

A Passing Stranger

As the bullet train pulls out of the station, I hurry to the center of the car and take off my backpack before crashing unsteadily into my assigned window seat. My ears are ringing hard, and my right leg feels like it’s on fire. As usual, I spend a second wondering if I’m going to die.

Nobody in the car comes over to help me. Most of them are sleeping, and the majority have headphones in. Left alone, I grab hold of the armrest, lean over, and just try not to pass out. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to fall unconscious on a night train full of strangers.

After a minute the ringing in my ears begins to fade, and I feel more steady. Instantly I reach into my backpack, pull out a water bottle, and take a drink. This sometimes helps make my symptoms more manageable. Thankfully, today it works.

I sit back into my seat, taking deep breaths, massaging my leg. What a mess, I think. What a wreck… How much longer can I do this?

How much longer can I live?

Gritting my teeth slightly, I turn my gaze to what’s beyond the window. The city passes by in quick flashes of bright light. Above the buildings I can see a few stars splattered on the dark night sky. It’s a nice scene, but I can’t really enjoy it. I close my eyes, silently begging my leg to calm down and shut up.

“Hello?”

A young woman suddenly plops into the seat next to me. I look at her, startled. She’s wearing black-rimmed glasses, jeans, and a dark gray T-shirt with a brand logo that I can’t identify. The lower half of her long, straight blond hair has been dyed a light purple. She has earphones dangling around her neck, and I notice that she seems incredibly alert for this time of night.

“Hello,” I say back shakily.

“Are you okay? You look like you don’t feel well.” Her voice is deeper than I might have expected.

“Thanks. I’m not feeling great, but this happens a lot, so it’s nothing to worry about…”

She reads the uncertainty in my voice. “Okay, well, can I do anything for you?”

I’m about to say no, but after some thinking I ask hopefully, “Can you stay here in case I pass out? I don’t want…”

My breath catches for a second; I glance away, grimacing and holding down my leg. The young woman looks after me with care.

When I can I finish, “I don’t want my backpack to get stolen.”

She knows it’s about more than just a stolen backpack. She gives me a reassuring smile. “No worries. Night trains attract all kinds of nasty folks. I’ll watch over you. What station are you getting off at?”

“Thirteen.”

At this point the ringing in my ears comes back. I lean over automatically, grabbing the armrest and closing my eyes.

The rest of the night is a blur. I pass out at least twice, and at some point I think I throw up. When I wake up in my bed the next morning, I really don’t remember how I got there. I feel a lot better, though – my spells only ever last a day, if that. I get up groggily, go to the bathroom, and then head to the kitchen for breakfast, still trying and failing to remember the events of the night before.

As I reach over to open the fridge, I notice a sheet of printer paper on the kitchen table. There’s a message scribbled on it. I go over to pick it up. It reads:

Good morning Kohaku!
How are you feeling? I hope you’re better now. You were terribly sick on the train last night, so I helped you get home. Your backpack is on the sofa. Don’t worry, I’m not a stalker or anything, I didn’t write down your address or go through any of your stuff. I don’t live near here anyway. Take care of yourself, and good luck.
From A Passing Stranger

Holding the note in my hand, I feel like I want to cry for some reason…