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Swans in the Winter

Shindara lay beside Aya.

He ran his fingers through her perfumed hair and marveled at the softness of her skin. He kissed her cheek and let his hand wander still, dedicated to finding every curve on her body. Shindara rested his hands across her growing belly.

“I wonder if we’ll have a girl,” he whispered, unable to hide the excitement in his voice.

“Most men would want a son, but not you.”

“I want her to be just like you.”

Shindara held his wife close and imagined their child waiting to be born. A piece of him and a piece of her would live in this baby.

“I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see her grow into the woman she was meant to be,” Aya said, gazing off into space. “If we had a daughter, what would you teach her about life?”

Shindara opened and closed his mouth several times but no words came out at first.

“I would try to teach her about compassion and forgiveness… two things that I’ve struggled with. I don’t want her to go through life as angry as I was, always looking over my shoulder.” He caught the amused grin on Aya’s face and chuckled. “Well, don’t you look surprised.”

“You aren’t exactly High Priest Kobo.”

“I admit, I wasn’t the most compassionate man before I joined the monks. I hardly knew what my purpose was. I was lost and always angry.”

“Why were you so angry and unforgiving?”

Shindara looked down at his wife’s small hands as they wrapped around his. He struggled to recall the memories that he repressed under the foundation of his new life. At most, he only thought of them when he laid down to sleep.

“Before I came to Nara, I lived in a poor mountain village. My father and mother worked as butchers. As their only child, I was deemed untouchable and tormented by the other boys. Maybe it’s no surprise that they treated me like a demon. When I came of age, I vowed to leave and go somewhere where no one would know my name. I found my way to Nara and I was instantly drawn to the temples. Perhaps I saw them as a means of cleansing myself.”

Shindara almost couldn’t meet her eyes as he remembered his journey from an unwanted child to a scribe.

“I’d been told all my life that I carried the taint of death because of my parents. I saw the quiet halls of Tōdai-ji as the answer. I didn’t want to become a monk, but I wanted to study within those golden halls. High Priest Kobo agreed to take me in as a scribe. But I still haven’t learned to let go of my anger yet. It’s always lurking there, try as I might to hide it.”

“You’ll find a way, Shindara.”

“Thank you… now it’s your turn. Tell me, Aya, what would you teach our daughter?”

Aya looked meaningfully at the child growing in her belly.

“I would teach our daughter not to make the same mistakes as me. Sometimes I worry that I’ve wasted so much of my life, trying to figure out my purpose and what I should be doing while I’m still alive. I’m afraid I’ve accomplished nothing.”

“What mistakes? You’ve accomplished so much more than you’ll ever know. Have you already forgotten the way you’ve touched countless lives? And have you forgotten about what you’ve done to change mine?”

Aya chuckled between her tears.

“That doesn’t sound like Buddhist doctrine, looking at life in terms of human connections. Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to sever your ties from humanity?”

“I’m only a scribe. And I would never sever myself from you, no matter what the gods demand.”

She cupped Shindara’s face between her hands.

“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered.

“If that’s the case, then I don’t deserve you either. And despite the odds, we somehow found each other in this strange life. I know you deserve all the love and happiness that the world can offer you, and we will have it together with our child.”

She nodded but her mind remained elsewhere.

“I don’t believe in regrets but there is one thing I wish I could change. I wish we’d met each other sooner, Shindara. I wish I could’ve met you when I was a little girl running through the fields of Owari. I could have shown you so much of the world and we could have enjoyed so many adventures together. Something tells me you could have restored the hope I lost as a child. And I think maybe I could have healed the anger and pain buried deep inside you. But most of all, we would have taught each other everything we know about love.”

They reached for each other simultaneously, taking shelter in one another’s arms.

“You make it sound as if you’re leaving me. This life isn’t over yet, Aya. We have the rest of our lives to spend together and teach each other how to love.”

“We don’t have any control over when we leave. When my time comes, you’ll be helpless to stop it. Life is a circle she spins on her own. Everything comes and goes for a reason and that includes me. You might not be able to see it yet, but one day you will.”

Shindara’s loving embrace changed in a matter of seconds. As he drank in her words, he clung to her for fear of being abandoned. Shindara buried his face in her hair as her fingers entwined with his.

“Aya, don’t leave me behind,” he whispered. “Stay with me forever.”

She held him tighter to reassure him. He sighed at her touch and the smell of her skin. In that moment, he felt safer than he had ever known in his life because she was beside him. Maybe eternity did exist after all. He held his breath as she leaned her lips close to his ear.

“My dear Shindara. As long as you see the stars in the sky or see the swans in the winter, I will always be with you. I will never leave you.”


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