All Stories, General Fiction

Hatsubon by Sarah Hozumi

Yuko says she wants to wear a gray dress. I told her she can’t.

Sachiko sighed at the text from her younger sister. Yuko wasn’t even supposed to be in charge of everything, she was.

No, gray is fine, too, Sachiko texted back.

She was stuck in their car in the parking garage of a massive shopping mall while their two-year-old grandson slept in the car seat in the back. Sachiko’s daughter-in-law had taken advantage of some alone time to wander the mall on her own while Sachiko stayed with her husband, Kotaro, in the car. She didn’t mind being in the car, at least, since she now had nothing else to do anyway. It gave her time to respond to her sister, who was panicking.

Sachiko was supposed to be there in Aomori with her sister preparing for Hatsubon. She had been taught that every year in the middle of August, the departed souls of her ancestors would come back to their family home for a few days. The existing family is supposed to help light their way to the home and then back into the unknown again at the end.

Did she believe that, though? Would her mother really come back? Had it really been one year since she had died?

We can’t find the incense.

Another text from Yuko. Sachiko was supposed to be there, not trapped in a car at a shopping mall.

They’re by the altar. I put them there last October.

The response was almost immediate.

I checked there first. They’re not there.

Sachiko sighed again.

Maybe your daughter moved them, then. I didn’t.

Kotaro chanced a glance at his wife. Careful to keep his voice low so as not to wake their grandson, he ventured to ask her what was wrong.

“Yuko,” she said. He nodded knowingly. “She doesn’t know where anything is. She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do.”

“I see,” he said and returned to his newspaper.

Being the first born, Sachiko had valiantly guided everyone through the funeral the previous autumn. Her mother had been dying for a while, but the funeral had still taken her by surprise. She had prepared for the moment for so long that her body could move her through the motions, but her mind had failed to find any notable moments from the funeral. Maybe it was her father refusing to wear a suit to the funeral. Maybe it was the grandkids running around and laughing before the altar at the funeral home that temporarily housed her mother’s ashes. Maybe it was months before that, standing in front of a shoe store trying to make her legs go into the store so she could buy nice black shoes for the funeral.

Can’t we just buy new incense?

The phone’s vibrations jolted her out of the memories. Sachiko glared down at her phone and replied too impatiently:

Did you find the lantern?

Another lightning reply.

No. Does it really matter?

Sachiko struggled to keep her voice down as she heard herself let out almost a wail of disgust and despair at her sister’s nonchalance. She knew Yuko was probably miserable at the sudden list of duties thrust upon her and that she was probably overwhelmed, but Sachiko couldn’t warm herself to pity her sister. She was supposed to be there doing everything, not her.

How would their mother’s soul find their home again without the lantern to guide her? It was the lantern they used for Sachiko’s grandmother so long ago, and her grandfather. Her mother’s soul would know that lantern, having picked it out, herself.

Did Sachiko truly believe, in the bottom of her heart, that her mother would actually come back? It felt like nonsense on the face of it, but part of her mind couldn’t help but ponder the nagging idea it might be true. There being nothing to prove souls return nor to prove otherwise, Sachiko couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if they didn’t do anything for Hatsubon and her mother actually did happen to come back.

Her breath caught in her throat as she stared at her phone, dimly aware she hadn’t responded to Yuko yet.

There was a slim chance, but there it was, the chance her mother’s soul might actually come back. And here she sat in an immobile car hours away, unable to get there. She couldn’t even try to make it there, despite the slight hope she might be able to see her mother. If she could get even one more second with her mother, she wanted to upend the foundations of the earth to get to her.

Kotaro noticed his wife digging her hands into the seat cushions as if to stop herself from launching out of the car. He put his hand on one of her shaking ones and went back to looking at his newspaper.

I wish you were here, Yuko texted.

Carefully, trying to keep her free hand steady, Sachiko wrote back her reply:

Me, too. Find the lantern.

Sarah Hozumi

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6 thoughts on “Hatsubon by Sarah Hozumi”

  1. Sarah–
    Things like the younger sister’s inept bungling of the rite have probably been happening since ancient times. Always got one in the family. Still, maybe because of Yuko, more than despite of her, the mother will come home for awhile, if only to set things straight. Such a unique angle taken here. Quite memorable.


    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment! I think of the younger sister being inept because this duty was suddenly thrust on her when the older sister couldn’t make it, so I think both sisters are frustrated by the situations they have found themselves in.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Sarah,
    I agree totally with the three previous comments.
    You controlled the pace and held back on the emotion which in a way made us feel the frustration, sadness and hope all the more.
    This is a very skillful piece of storytelling!
    Hope you have more for us soon.


  3. The modern and the traditional together, the shopping mall and the Hatsubon, traffic and lost incense, buying shoes and funerals. Hard to find our way home these days. In the car, thinking of her mother, Sachiko finds her notable moments. Well crafted story.


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