From the end of the block he saw his mother’s figure stretching up to reach a branch of the plum tree. She stood teetering on tiptoe, holding the branch in one hand and with the other, reaching with clippers to snip it off near the trunk. He ran the last hundred yards and with a leap threw himself over the garden gate.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me, Kensuke! Why do you scare your old mother so?” Mrs Aoki pretended to scold her son and leaned forward to wipe a spot of chocolate off his cheek. She realized it wouldn’t be too long before she would have to stand on tiptoe to bring her face even with his. Turning back to the plum branch, she said, “Go inside and wash your face and hands.”
“If I stand on the wall I can cut that branch for you real easy.”
“You are a thoughtful boy, but no, I would rather cut it from here and keep you off the garden wall. Now go on and wash your face, but don’t bother your Papa. He is very busy with a new magazine assignment.” She turned back to the branch, but then called over her shoulder, “There’s some sweet bean cake on the kitchen table.”
Some time later, in a small room off the kitchen, Mrs Aoki worked on a new flower arrangement centered around the plum branch, while at the other end of the house Kensuke sat in his room, hunched over books writing his report about the Mongol invasion. In the studio upstairs, Mr Aoki worked with a collection of expensive Pelikan fountain pens and a bottle of ink, arranging them around an old journal of film director Akira Kurosawa. The items were on loan for the purpose of a Pelikan advertisement, and Mr Aoki was shifting the composition, trying to find good angles for his photographs.
For a time the house was silent. From his desk Kensuke listened to the faint click of his mother’s clippers as they shaped the plum branch. Overhead, in a small wooden cage, two crickets sensing the twilight began to chirp, while in the garden a glass wind chime tinkled briefly when a breeze stirred the tree where it hung. Soon there were other familiar sounds that told Kensuke his mother would soon call him to dinner.
He swallowed a last mouthful of rice while his mother filled a cup with steaming green tea. His father held out a bowl of rice and his mother poured tea over the rice. Three noisy gulps and both tea and rice were gone. Mr Aoki complimented his wife on the food. She touched him lightly on the shoulder and said she would take his tea upstairs to the studio.
Kensuke regretted that his Papa was too busy to spend time with him. He turned to his mother and asked if she would help him with the social studies report.
“I will come soon, but first take this tea up to Papa,” she answered.
Sitting with Kensuke later at his desk, Mrs Aoki read the words he had written describing the hordes of Mongol invaders who descended upon Japan almost 700 years earlier. Like many boys his age, Kensuke had written much about the blood and gore of war, and she had to persuade him that leaving some things out would improve his report. She pointed out some places where the grammar was a little shaky, explaining carefully in a way he could understand the mistake.
They worked together for an hour, mother urging son to choose the words and phrases without her telling him. Both were satisfied with the report by eight o’clock, and she told him he could watch television for one hour before bed.
He turned on the small television opposite his bed and watched for a minute while the picture jumped and rolled into a close-up image of Farah Fawcett-Majors. As the theme music for Charlie’s Angels pitched into high gear, Kensuke changed into rumpled sweat pants and T-shirt, then bounced over the end of his bed onto the pillow.
He watched for a while, but the hit TV show wasn’t enough this time to keep a tired boy in suspense, and soon Farah was playing to a sleeping Kensuke.
Mrs Aoki looked in to say goodnight and found Kensuke sleeping soundly, despite the bang and boom of television gunshots. She turned off the television and taking a blanket from the foot of the bed she spread it across her son. When she did that, Kensuke garbled something in his sleep and snuggled deeper into the pillow. Mrs Aoki stood looking down on the unmarked face of her only child and felt again the squeeze of anxiety.