CHAPTER TWO - FAMILY CURSE
The CLACK! of the bamboo shinai swords striking and leaping apart with the kiai traditional shout echoed throughout the dojo. Ciaran Hawthorne felt a trickle of blood from his nose stream over his lips under his men, his protective kendo head covering, but he ignored it. He continued to practice kakari-geico - an intense attack, which taught alertness and readiness, but also built spirit and stamina - with his sensei Aiko Enomoto who owned the dojo. Ciaran truly needed that boost of spirit and stamina today after the news he’d gotten from Dr. Williams.
“I’m so sorry, Ciaran. The tests are … definitive.” Dr. Cherise Williams had perched, like she always did on the edge of her desk to the side of him. He didn’t think he’d ever actually seen her use her office chair.
“How can the tests be definitive that I’m dying when they’ve never been able to tell you what disease I had or my mom had or my grandfather had?” he’d asked her.
He’d given her this half-smile as shock had settled over him like a crushing blanket. He’d been living with death all his life so it shouldn’t have been a shock that it was finally over for him. Yeah, he’d been a lot more tired, more often, hardly able to find the energy except for kendo practice. Yeah, he’d found himself sleeping twelve hours of the day. And yeah, he’d started to grow thinner. But he’d been sick most of his life. Aiko had helped him keep up his strength and stamina through constant kendo practice and meditation. Why was now any different? Why was he dying?
Dr. Williams’ beautiful ebony-black face became so gentle that he knew she was certain. She opened her mouth to tell him why - scientifically, and with great technical acumen, none of which he would truly understand right now - and how they could know he was dying while they couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with him.
He stopped her by holding up a hand. “I know you wouldn’t tell me this if you weren’t sure.”
She reached over and put her hand over the nearest one of his. She bit her fingernails to the quick when she was anxious. They were down to bloody stumps and he realized she was devastated, but holding it back behind her kind, professional face. She’d failed him. That was what she thought. But the truth was that she was just the latest brilliant doctor who couldn’t break their family curse.
At least it ends with me now. No more children from my mother’s line. I’m the last.
“How long do I have?” he asked. He felt strangely floaty at that moment, as if nothing were truly real.
“There’s no expiration date written on the bottom of anyone’s foot,” she repeated her oft-used line, but the smile that accompanied it was brittle. She had an idea of how long he truly had. She just didn’t want to tell him. But he needed to know.
“How long?” he repeated.
So many times he’d heard of oncologists giving overly rosy predictions, because they so wanted their patients to live. They turned out to be wrong more times than not. And in that precious time the dying person did have, they ordered treatments that just depleted any goodness out of the time remaining. They wanted to try everything. They had to do something. They couldn’t just give up. They couldn’t accept. Especially, when their patients were as young as he was. But that was not Dr. Williams’ way. She fought … until it was time to stop. And she thought that time was now for him.
She looked down at the tablet that held his test results. “Based on the documentation we have from your mother and grandfather’ records … a month. Maybe two.”
A month … maybe two …
That was all the time that was left to him and he was only twenty-eight. How much of that time would be bedridden? How much of that time would be in pain? How much of that time would be spent with him reduced to a thing hardly human any longer?
No, that would not be how he went out. He would choose the time and the way. He would leave as himself.
Ciaran executed a fumikomi-ashi, a stamp of his front foot, as he made a strike at Aiko. The CLACK! of their shinai with the kiai let out at the top of his lungs rattled up his arms and through his solid form.
I might be sick - Hell, I’m dying - but I’m still strong. Still strong in this. For now. This last battle with Aiko.
Kendo - the sword way - had been the thing to keep him in the moment for twenty-five years. He’d been introduced to kendo on the day of his mother’s funeral when he was only three. Or, he should say, that he had been introduced to his teacher
Police officer Maeve Hawthorne’s funeral was not the only one going on that rainy, hateful day in the New Leaf Cemetery There had been another funeral nearby that - while it hadn’t had the gun salute or men and women in uniform speaking in low tones about how Maeve Hawthorne had been a hero to the very end - had been just as thickly attended. For this was the funeral of a child.
Ciaran had seen a woman standing apart from all the rest of this second funeral. A figure in stark white compared to the others who dressed in shapeless black. The rain fell down on her bare head. She carried no umbrella and no one seemed willing - or able - to go near her. Her grief was so profound that it was like a forcefield surrounding her. Her long black hair hung in wet strands across her pale cheeks and almond-shaped eyes.
Something about her had drawn three-year-old Ciaran like a moth to a flame. He’d let go of his father’s hand and had taken a step towards her. His father hadn’t seemed to notice him leaving. Egan Hawthorne had stared straight ahead, unseeing at his wife’s coffin, as Ciaran stepped away from the group. The woman though had noticed. She slowly turned to face him full on. Her dark eyes regarded him, seemingly unemotionally, through the wet strands of her black hair.
There was nothing in her stance or expression to welcome him nearer. In fact, she looked terribly forbidding. Though Ciaran could remember this moment perfectly, he could not remember what his three-year-old brain had thought that had given him the courage to approach her. But he had toddled over, leaving the sanctuary of his father’s umbrella and the circle of people he sort of knew, for a stranger in white.
Rain streamed down his face. He blinked it out of his eyes though drops kept hanging heavy on his eyelashes. Yet he continued to walk towards her. His little suit grew sodden with cold water. He only stopped when he was a foot from her. He looked up into her face - she was beautiful - and simply stared for long moments. There was a sense of connection so strong that he wanted to reach out and touch her.
He felt the other adults around them freeze when he ran his fingers down the wet silk of her kimono. He’d breached her invisible walls while they could not or simply had not been able to. Was it the innocence of childhood or shared grief? Ciaran felt his mother’s death keenly now - wishing he could ask her a million questions, not just about how she’d lived with dying every day, but about her, her philosophies, her feelings, her likes, her favorite color - but he wasn’t sure if his three-year-old self had understood that his mother was gone, dead, forever. The stranger in white had clearly known that whoever lay in this second coffin wasn’t coming back.
But had he understood his mother would no longer make him smiley face pancakes on Sundays? That they would no longer snuggle in the rattan chair by the window reading fairy tales? That he would never feel the brush of her long hair against his cheek or hear her big laugh or see her green eyes sparkle with delight? No, he hadn’t really understood all that or he’d have been in a ball in the corner bawling. He’d just felt … empty, confused, lost. And the person who made him not feel that way - his mother - was no longer there to change that.
So he had gone up to the stranger in white and started to speak with her.
“Why are you sad?” he asked her.
He said the words clearly. He’d learned to speak early. His mother had been intent on them being able to talk as quickly as possible, because she knew her time was limited due to the strange illness that affected every single one of her relatives on her father’s side. But not even she had understood just how limited that time would be. She’d put herself between an abusive husband and his shattered wife. The husband had a gun. His mother had taken the bullet for the wife. Now Ciaran wondered if that hadn’t been the best way to go.
“My daughter has died,” the stranger in white responded after a long moment. Her voice was low and ragged with a hint of an accent that he liked. He wondered how she would sound without the pain edging her vowels.
“My mommy died,” he answered in the same solemnity as her. “I’m going to die, too. I’m sick like her, but a bad man shot her first.”
The stranger in white had gone very still, stiller than before, as she listened to him. She’d then taken one of his chubby little hands in hers and the two of them had gone over to his mother’s funeral. They’d stood together in the rain as the final words were said over his mother’s coffin. And Maeve Hawthorne, beloved mother, cherished wife, hero, had gone into the earth.
There had been murmurs about the stranger in white leaving her daughter’s service. There were even more murmurs when she’d gone back to his home for the memorial service for his mother instead of back to her own. His father had been so out of it that he hadn’t noticed that his son was being taken care of by a stranger in white. But she hadn’t remained a stranger for long. He’d started called her sensei the next day when she’d taken him to her dojo, but she had been as much a mother to him as Maeve has been in the twenty-five years since.
And now I have to leave her, but I can’t bear to tell her.
The CLACK! of their shinai coming together felt stronger this time or maybe he was just weaker. He didn’t have the strength to shout or stamp his foot as he struck. The shinai fell from his hands as his fingers were suddenly too numb to hold onto it.
Aiko immediately took off her men. Her long black hair was in a bun on the back of her head, but a few strands had fallen down and sweat had plastered them across her face. A face that still looked youthful despite a quarter century difference between those funerals and this day.
“Ciaran, what is the matter?” she asked. She did not come to him and pet him like his mother would have. That was not her way. Her love for him though was undeniable. Aiko simply held herself apart physically from people as if it hurt to touch them.
He took of one of the kote gloves and flexed his still numb fingers. “Slept funny last night. Pinched a nerve. It’s been bothering me all day.”
This was all a lie. He’d been sleeping all the way up to the practice lesson, which had started at one o’clock in the afternoon. The numbness was sudden and unsettling. He didn’t lie to Aiko, but he found the lies now flowing from his lips like water. As he lied, he tasted the copper of blood on his lips. His tongue slipped out to confirm that there was, in fact, a layer of blood there.
“Take off your men,” she instructed as if she could see his lies between them like smoke.
He didn’t want to. His face was covered in blood. He knew it. Panic fluttered in his chest like a trapped bird. If she saw it, she would have questions he couldn’t answer without more lies. He already felt sick with the ones he had told. It would be like eating lumps of raw liver to swallow down more.
“Ah, let me just --”
“Ciaran-san,” she said, her voice brooked no argument. It wasn’t said sharply, but it was said with the full force of her authority over him as sensei and mother.
He reluctantly pulled off his men, quickly moving his right forearm up to wipe it across his nose, mouth and chin. But he felt that all he did was smear the blood. Aiko did not gasp or ask him what had happened. She did not assume that she struck him somehow in a way that had caused this. She had not and they both knew she had not.
She went still and stiff. But she made no comment. Instead, her gaze swung over to the children who were also her kendo students. They were playing with Twig, the red fox who had found him in the woods near his grandfather’s cabin at the same time he had lost so much else. The children were giggling as Twig leaped on their teasing fingers and wagged his fluffy tail against their noses. They were absorbed and did not see his bleeding face. He felt a wash of relief.
Aiko gently grasped the wrist of the arm that he held up protectively over his nose. “Come, Ciaran-san.”
She led him quickly back to her office bathroom. She stripped off her kote before wetting some paper towels. She started to clean his face with a tenderness that almost hurt. He didn’t try to take the towels from her and do it himself. It was a rarity when she touched him or anyone. It was said that the last person Aiko had touched with abandon was her daughter after the little girl, Fuyumi, had been hit by a car. She’d been brain dead, but Aiko had still come to her bedside, read to her, held her, bathed her until it was clear that she had to let go. Aiko’s husband disappeared from her life around then.
All she had said about him was, “I told him my family was cursed before we started dating. He did not believe me and married me anyways. But when Fuyumi was struck down, he realized it was true. And he left because of it.”
Ciaran hadn’t argued with her that people and families couldn’t be cursed. His own family’s illness showed that wasn’t quite true. He’d stopped trying to find a love of his own after high school. While it might have seemed romantic to his high school boyfriends to date someone with an incurable disease - living beyond eighteen to some of them seeming a heresy - in college and after, it had seemed wrong to him to saddle someone with his early death, especially when his weakness increased. He had seen what it had done to his father to love his mother. Egan Hawthorne had been devastated with his wife’s death and had cut everyone off afterwards. He would not be hurt again. And though Ciaran had long yearned for a love of his own, he could not imagine being worthy of such a love if he would condemn that person to his father’s unhappiness once he passed. The same went with friends. He couldn't grow close to any more people he would hurt by his leaving. So Aiko and Twig - and to some small extent his father - were the only people in his life.
Aiko brought him out of his reverie as she removed the men-dare and suki-dare, hard flaps that protected his neck and throat to clean off more blood that had slipped past the tops of them. Part of the elaborate birthmark on Ciaran’s right shoulder and neck was revealed. It looked like a tattoo, but it had grown into an elaborate design as he had aged. For years, he had thought that maybe it was a sign of … something. He hadn’t known what. Aiko had something similar at the top of her spine, though much smaller and very faint. They’d wondered if it accounted somehow for their immediate connection. Aiko had even gone to his oncologists to have it tested to see if there was some scientific connection that might help Ciaran. But nothing had come of it.
“What did Dr. Williams say?” she asked as she dried her hands. “You went to see her today, did you not?”
Her back was facing him so it was slightly easier to hide the truth. Once she’d seen the bloody nose, he’d known she would ask about the appointment.
“Labs weren’t really good. But they never are.” She’s given me a month or two to live. So “not good” is an understatement. “Told her I was feeling a little more run down and stuff. She advised more rest.” She couldn’t advise anything except to get my life in order before the end. To take it easy as much as I could. “So I’m thinking about going up to my grandfather’s cabin in the north woods.”
He had not intended to say that, he hadn’t even intended to go there, but he realized at that moment that it was the absolute best place to go. It was quiet and remote. It was where he’d found Twig. He could spend what quality time he had before the illness destroyed him in peace. He could make plans. Maybe there would even be some respite from his illness. Last time he’d gone there, while terrible things had happened, he’d been better afterwards for a time anyways.
Her shoulders tensed at the mention of the cabin but she went on drying her hands with meticulousness. After tossing out the paper towels, she turned to face him. Her expression was unreadable. “You haven’t been up there since you were fifteen.”
“I know. But I feel … I feel I want to. That it’s time to go back. Besides, Twig needs to visit the homeland. Maybe I’ll find her a friend,” he explained, which wasn’t much of an explanation at all.
When he was fifteen, he and his father had gone up to the cabin to stay for a few weeks in fall. A bonding time for father and son. Considering Egan was a lawyer, his free time was rare and he spent it normally alone. Since his wife’s death, Ciaran and him had been more like strangers occupying the same space. Roommates at best. Ciaran had been surprised at his father’s desire to do this with him. Because while Egan kept his distance from everyone, he especially kept his distance from his son.
But not that trip. They’d hiked, fished, sat around the firepit as the sun had crept below the horizon, eaten too many hotdogs and burned a ton of marshmallows. It had been perfect. Only then Ciaran had gone into the woods on his own one day and found the cave … He shook himself. He didn’t need to think about that right this moment.
Maybe I should check it out though. What do I have to fear any longer? Even if the disease is making me see things, at least they are terrible and beautiful and hint at something more. And I did get Twig out of it.
“Perhaps you should ask your father to come with you. Banish old demons,” she suggested.
“I doubt he would go.” And I can’t any more be around him than you. I love you both. “I’m going to have a hard enough time getting him to understand why I want to go.”
He may even suspect something is wrong when I do.
She studied his face. Her expression still unreadable. He forced himself not to fidget under her incisive, piercing gaze. He placed a placid mask upon his face that he hoped said, “I’m fine. Everything is fine. Nothing to see here. Move along.”
“Will you be okay without me here to help with classes though?” He suddenly realized that he hadn’t considered what his absence would do to her and the dojo. He taught classes alone most every day and assisted her on even more. Working at the dojo was the only job that he could take on. Unlike his mother’s, his illness was far more severe than hers had been. But he loved this work and would have done it even if every job had been open to him. He realized, too, that he might not be teaching those classes again after today. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, but he managed to get out, “I can work with Tisha and --”
She put a hand up. “You are due some time off. Everything will be fine here. Contact me when you have settled in at the cabin. I take it that you are leaving soon?”
He nodded. “T-tommorrow. Thanks.”
His heart thudded heavily in his chest. He looked at her desperately. He wanted to memorize her face. He wanted to memorize the smell of her and the dojo. He wanted to memorize just how the light fell in her office. The sense of all he was to lose poured over him and he felt like he might crumple under it. He couldn’t bear it one more minute. He had to leave or he would break down. He would not do that to Aiko. He would be strong, stoic and together when he told her the news. But not now. He couldn’t do it now.
Aiko was studying him again. “Why do you not go home? I can close up. Start your vacation.”
He would have objected normally. He would have insisted on staying and cleaning, but he didn’t have the strength. So he nodded without a word. She was just turning away from him when he lunged at her and hugged her awkwardly. She was still in his arms, but slowly turned to look at him once more.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. Just tired and … thank you for …” everything. For everything. “For letting me take this time off. I don’t want to leave you in the lurch, but I need …” I’m dying and I need to figure out what to do. “I need a little time to hike in the woods.”
He quickly went to remove his hands from around her, but she surprised him by wrapping her arms around him for a moment. Then she, just as quickly, was standing a foot away as if they had never touched. “Contact me as soon as you are at the cabin.”
“I promise. I will.” Before he did anything else that would tip her off that something was terribly wrong, he exited the office and went to get Twig.
He swept the little fox up in his arms. A puff of warmth and softness. Twig wrapped herself around his neck, making a little nattering, contented sound even as the students let out groans that he was taking her away.
“She will be back,” he promised them. I just do not know if I will be.
He waved a hand to the students, grabbed the rest of his kit, and headed out of the dojo’s double doors. He tried to convince himself that he really was just going on a vacation. Yet he couldn’t help looking back through the glass windows inset in the doors and fearing this was the last time he’d ever look inside.