Rika has a ritual at the end of every summer. Shoujo-ai, spoilers for the Okinawa Arc in the manga.
Disclaimer: This fanwork borrowed characters and situations from Yami no Matsuei, which is the creation of Matsushita Yoko. No copyright infringement or disrespect are intended.
Distribution: My personal site by default, also my fic journal and The JuOhCho Files. Please ask first if you'd like to archive this elsewhere.
Each year is much the same as another; Rika marks the trickling time with the deepening folds of skin on her joints, another white line snaking through her long hair. Over the seasons, she watches as her fingers acquire wrinkles to match her age. They are still strong and sure -- summers last longer on Okinawa, and so does her people's vigour.
When the wind concedes to the end of summer, bringing a cool change over the island, she closes the door to her inn for a day. The occasional tourist would complain, shrill in their moneyed entitlement. She quells them with a cool smile, as opaque as a lacquered fan. Her neighbours murmur about that Miyagi woman, but politely decline to disturb her day of solitude.
They watch from the corner of their eyes as she walks home from the market, her arms full of Okinawa's best produce: vegetables, fruit, sugarcane, pork, a bunch of sunflowers when her garden fares poorly for the year. The interior of her inn seems shockingly dark when she passes through the doorway from the morning sun. They watch the line of her back fade, disappear, and they murmur no more. Until next year.
This year Rika has acquired a new chopping block. The wood is still pale and unweathered, soaking up the juices of the fruit. She peels and slices the pineapple first, arranging them at the bottom of her best porcelain bowl. The mangoes and papaya, with their bright orange flesh, are next. She chops the bananas and heaps them on top, squeezing lime juice over everything. Last to go under her knife is a watermelon, the juiciest she could find, cut into imprecise wedges.
She starts her preparations when the sky is turning gold; by the time the rice finishes cooking, it is already sunset. On a large tray, she lays out the fruit and two bowls of rice -- one porcelain, the other wood. She makes champuru with extra bitter melon and serves it up on glaze-painted dish between the bowls of rice, sliding a small dish of mimiga next to it.
The dishes clink together as Rika carries the tray to the back of the inn, where a smouldering fire and basket of wilting flowers lay in wait. She carefully adds more wood to the fire and pokes it to a roaring fury. The warmth pushes against her face, chasing away the evening cool, and for a moment it is almost as if summer has arrived for second time.
She has perfected this ritual a long time ago, perhaps in the third or fourth year. The flowers are heaped onto the fire one by one: sunflowers, their seeds crackling in the heat; hibiscus, red flowers on red flames; a spray of jasmine, sending a rush of perfume into the air.
Rika doesn't offer prayers as she watches the flowers blacken and turn to ash. This ritual is personal, not religious. She divides the vegetables and meat between the bowls of rice, serving someone dearly beloved. The wooden bowl and its contents are consigned to the flames, sizzling and spitting oil.
Chopsticks tinkle against porcelain as she eats her dinner. When the wooden bowl of food is nothing but blackened lumps and the fire is at its brightest, Rika pours half the fruit into the flames. The rest she eats with relish, slice by slice. She keeps watch by the fire, listening to the chittering of the night, and savours the sweet taste of life on her tongue.
Rika throws her last gift into the fire: young sugarcane, the kind she and Chizuru used to steal for snacking when they were children and knew nothing of death. Its sap is sticky on her fingers, like tears left to dry on skin.
She doesn't know if any of her offerings reaches Chizuru in the afterlife, wherever Chizuru is. She suspects that none do, and Chizuru wouldn't or couldn't find a way to let her know.
It's fine, Rika thinks. She doesn't do this summer after summer on the faint hope that Chizuru is sharing the meal with her. The last time she and Chizuru saw each other, she'd been on the verge of losing her inn. She could never have afforded this ritual then, not when food was too precious to be consumed by anything other than human mouths.
No, this ritual isn't for feeding the dead with ghosts of meat and fruit. She does this every year because, thanks to Chizuru, she /can/; because she /lives/. She wants Chizuru to always know that their brief reunion so many summers ago was not for naught.
Rika has every intention of living to a ripe old age: past a hundred years, at least. Even two hundred, if she can. She wants to live all the years they never had and will never have together.
The fire dies slowly, a tired metaphor for life. She watches the stars and wonders, as she does every year, if Chizuru is getting impatient.