“Flowers for Clouds,” by Jennifer Diemer
Harumi’s love, a tennyo named Shizuka, vanished months ago when the sakura was in bloom. Now the sakura flourishes again, and the petals guide Harumi to the missing Shizuka–and to her own unexpected truth.
(photo by taka_sazuki)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“Flowers for Clouds”
by Jennifer Diemer
The air is steeped in the pink scent of sakura, and suffused with sparkling particles of warm yellow light.
I step from the porch smiling, despite the melancholy that has haunted me these past eleven months. Head tilted back, long hair grazing the backs of my knees, I inhale loveliness with my eyes closed.
It is a day for beginnings, Harumi, Father told me when he awoke this morning, his mouth curved upward though his eyes cringed in pain. Now, inside with Mother seated nearby, he sleeps, made drowsy by the doctor’s medicine that, I pray, will ease his suffering—for a little while, at least.
I slide the door closed behind me quietly and move into the forest—my forest—of pine and bamboo. My slippered feet pad softly over the fallen needles, and, as I walk, I draw a prickly branch to my nose, breathing in the sharp and sweet perfume.
Every day I walk these paths, worn smooth by my frequent wanderings, and every day I go to the Flower Pool to the south of the forest, at the base of the narrow-peaked mountain range.
Every day I hope I will see her again.
She first appeared last spring, when the sakura was in bloom, and we shared a glorious month in one another’s company: meeting when the sun rose, and parting—reluctantly, only one kiss more—when it set.
And then, on a hot, windless morning, I stood alone beside the pool, for hours, and Shizuka did not appear.
I have been waiting for her ever since.
At last the sakura blossoms have opened again, and I think, Surely now she will return to me. Surely now she will fall upon me, as the sakura itself begins to fall to the ground.
But when I reach the Flower Pool, its lavender waters swirling with heart-shaped petals, I find myself alone, alone still. On my knees upon the bank, I fill my lap with sakura hearts and bow my head, hair falling forward to shield my tears.
And then, a voice:
“Are you she who won our sister’s heart?”
My breath catches, and I look up, but, seeing no one, I stare mystified at the pink-and-white trees around me, at the bushes growing beneath the mountains, at the petals in my lap.
The voice comes again:
“Spring beauty by the pool—are you she who loves our lost sister?”
I stand now, my hands loose at my sides, and turn in circles, searching for the source of the mysterious questioner. “I can’t see you,” I whisper, and the words are snatched from my mouth by the wind, caught up in a flurry of light-as-air, sweet-scented petals. I watch the flowers fly around me; they make pretty loops over the pool and then return to spiral above my head, until, at last, they fall—no, float—and then sprinkle the grass around my feet.
“Look to the mountain,” the voice instructs me, and I do look, and I see—oh, I think I see…
My heart leaps to my throat, and my hands reach up, as if in summoning, because there upon the topmost peak stands a girl draped in white feathers, wearing a kimono of many colors, her loose black hair a wave upon the wind.
“Shizuka,” I breathe, though I know, in the next moment, that this girl is not Shizuka—know it by the way she tilts her head, like a bird, and by the way she positions her hands upon her hips, elbows pointed straight out.
And by her voice, firm and unyielding: “Our sister, Shizuka, is held captive in this forest. If you love her, spring beauty, will you find her, set her free?”
“Held captive…” I feel my face pale, and my hands grow cold. “But who has captured her? How did this happen?” My legs weakening beneath me, I lower myself again to the petal-littered earth, and when I point my gaze back to the peak of the mountain, I see that Shizuka’s sister is now joined by two others, girls similarly dressed, their clothing and hair gusted by the wind, standing on either side of her.
“Will you find her?” the three chorus together, their entwined voices a gust blowing upon my face. I feel the sorrow of their words, taste the salt of their tears, as if their sadness were carried down the mountain to me upon the back of the wind. I lick my lips, swallow, folding my hands in my lap.
Tears begin to fall from my own eyes as I think of Shizuka bound against her will—to whom? A monster? A thief? Some say thieves hide in this forest, though I have explored it tree by tree and found no one but honest men and women living their lives as best as they are able.
It has been nearly a year since Shizuka and I last shared fond glances, and kisses, and soft, though passionate, words.
Has she been held prisoner for these eleven months? Has she been so near, in the shadows of my own forest, suffering and caged, without my knowing it? Without my finding her and freeing her?
Grief overwhelms me, crushing me down, until my body imprints the grass with its sad heaviness.
“Do not blame yourself, spring beauty,” the girl in the middle says then, and there is a gentleness to her tone; she extends her arms down, toward me.
The girl beside her stretches out her arms, too. “We ourselves could not place Shizuka until this morning, when the sakura whispered her secret to us.”
“The flowers told us that Shizuka is held captive,” the third sister says, copying her companions’ pleading pose, “and that her true love, a girl of the forest named Harumi, might set her free. The flowers themselves will aid your quest.”
“Will you find her?” they ask me again, the four words like a breeze wafting through my hair, floating the strands around my body in a dark, shining cloud.
I rise and approach the nearest tree, kiss its fragrant petals. And then I turn to face the tennyo poised upon the mountain, staring down at me with their eyes and arms beseeching.
“Yes, I will find her,” I tell them, holding out my own arms and drawing a deep breath of spring wind into my lungs. “I promise you, I will.”
Mother told me the story of the tennyo when I was still a child squirming in her arms.
“They descend to our mountains, Harumi, from the clouds where they live, and with their feathered cloaks they fly, just like doves.”
I leaned against my mother’s chest and imagined beautiful women with wings for arms, soaring above Flower Pool and the pines and bamboo of the forest.
“But if they lose their cloaks—their hagoromo—the tennyo lose their ability to fly. They become, like you and me, Harumi, pinned to the earth, like butterflies in a collector’s frame. And if her hagoromo is stolen, the tennyo herself is captive to the thief. Unless, of course…” And Mother’s eyes twinkled here, as she tapped a finger against my nose. “Unless the tennyo recovers her cloak. Then she is free again, a flying creature of wind and cloud again—”
“But what if the tennyo wants to stay on the earth?” I asked, turning my head round to meet my mother’s gaze. “Does she have to stay in the sky?”
Father chuckled from his seat at the table, where he crouched over a bit of bamboo that was slowly, steadily, becoming the leg of a stool beneath the blade in his skilled hands.
And Mother laughed, too, a deep, secretive laugh. Then she kissed the top of my head, smoothing my hair back from my face.
“No,” she said finally, with a sigh and a long, lingering glance at my father, who paused in his craft to gaze back at her. Even as a child, I felt the love moving between them, and it made me feel warm and safe, cocooned. I nestled against Mother, and her arms held me tight.
“No, the tennyo can choose—and some have chosen—to trade clouds for flowers.”
“Why? For love, Harumi. Always for love.”
The sakura shows me the way to Shizuka’s captor. Petals whirl upon the wind before me, a spinning, shifting arrow of pink pointing deeper and deeper, deeper still, into the forest I know as well as my own heart.
I wonder, as I walk, if I should have armed myself with weapons or, perhaps, clothed myself in dark fabrics, so that I might skulk unnoticed. But I am too eager to see Shizuka again, too desperate to free her from her prison, and so I move forward with only good eyes, a quick mind and two small fists in my armory.
And love, I think, remembering the tennyo’s words.
… her true love, a girl of the forest named Harumi, might set her free.
Shizuka told me she loved me the night before she vanished, and she kissed me until my lips were pinker than the sakura hanging from the branches above us. “I love you,” she said, again and again, between kisses. “I would give up the sky for you, Harumi.”
“But you mustn’t,” I told her, and she kissed my neck, then, my shoulder, my hands, and whispered into my ear, “But I would.”
Though I have walked the trails of the forest a thousand times, I have not traveled the western edge of the woods as often as the pathways nearer to my home. Here, in the west, the pines grow more tightly together, as if to build a slatted ceiling through which light struggles to pass.
As the petals lead me further, deeper, I realize, suddenly, where my final destination lies: the fisherman’s cottage.
I make out the shape of a steep red roof and pause, because now the petals guiding me scatter, losing themselves to the whims of the wind. I watch their leaving with hooded eyes, whispering, “Thank you,” in a voice rough with fear.
There is only one place in the forest that Mother has forbidden me in my wanderings. This place. This cottage. Sometime in the past, the fisherman wronged my mother, though she has never told me, has refused to tell me, the nature of his offense. My imagination has suggested to me a hundred possibilities, and now these imagined crimes fill my mind with horrid scenes. Still, my heart quakes not with fear but with sharp-tipped determination.
“Shizuka,” I breathe, praying for strength.
I crouch behind a stand of pines and wait.
The sun is at its peak when the old man emerges from his hovel. He calls over his shoulder, into the house, “No more crying, do you hear?” and moves on heavy feet over a beaten path leading away from the cottage, away from the forest, with a pole poised over his shoulder.
He’s gone to fish at the West River, I guess. On market days, he sells his catches in the square beyond the southern edge of the woods, but my family never buys his fish; we cross to the other side of the market in order to avoid his stall. But I have seen his eyes following my mother’s dainty steps, and I have felt him, too, watching me.
The thought of Shizuka trapped beneath his roof sets my blood afire.
Careless, noisily, I crash from my hiding place and shove my shoulder—hard—against the cottage door. “Hello!” I shout, banging, banging, and then falling…because the door has come open, and I’m sprawled upon the packed earth floor with my chin in the dirt and my eyes latched onto pair of lovely, unshod feet.
“Harumi! Can it be…Is it truly you?”
Soft hands grip my arms, helping me up, and when I stand before her, I nearly tumble to the floor again, because my heart lurches within my chest, testing my balance. “Shizuka…”
Months have passed, but it feels as if time never moved at all, as if she kissed me only yesterday by the Flower Pool, swearing—over and over—her love and loyalty.
I don’t know how it happens, how we come together, but before another breath passes my lips, Shizuka is in my arms, and I am in hers, and our mouths press, softly, together, and we stand as close as two people can be, held and relieved, afraid and aching.
“He has my hagoromo,” she tells me, her voice a feather-touch against my ear, winning a shiver.
“Did he hurt you?”
“No, he fears me, never touches me. But, Harumi, he told me something…about your mother—”
“They have a feud, I know. Tell me later, when we’ve escaped.” I press my lips to her cool forehead, and a tear of gratitude slips from my eye. “We must search now for the cloak, to set you free.”
Shizuka cannot leave the cottage, is bound to it by the fisherman’s theft, so I traipse around the surrounding forest alone, digging in the earth with a shovel that I found leaning against the house. My ears are open, listening for any sound—a twig snapping, a heavy breath—to warn me of the fisherman’s return.
Nearly a year has passed since Shizuka’s capture, and a hasty burying would be, by now, well overgrown, concealed with pine needles and new sprouts. Still, I bend low to inspect the earth, hoping for a subtle sign of disturbance, a clue as to the hagoromo’s fate.
Frustrated, I begin to dig haphazardly. The shovel’s handle splinters my fingers, but still I break the ground, digging in a dozen different places, finding nothing, nothing but roots and insects.
How much time have I spent out here? How long will the fisherman be gone? I can’t guess, can’t predict his return, just as I am failing to guess his chosen hiding place.
With a deep breath, I stand tall with my feet flat on the ground and close my eyes. If I were the fisherman, where would I hide a shameful treasure? Mother has railed against him as a “simple man,” a “lazy man,” so perhaps the cloak is hidden more obviously and with less effort than I expected. Perhaps…
I step to the front door of the cottage again, facing outward. My eyes rest immediately upon the tree straight before me, its thick trunk pitted with a hole larger than my head, twice as large.
Large enough, perhaps, to conceal a feathered robe.
As I move toward the tree, a flurry of sakura petals swirls up and around me, sweetly scenting the air. My heart stills as my hand reaches up to search the hole within the trunk…and it emerges triumphant, with the hagoromo in its grasp. With a sigh, breathing out all of the fear and helplessness and panic, I hold the cloak before me, shaking the dirt and grime from its feathers.
I want to laugh—and cry—and leap—and rest. But first, and most of all, I want to wrap the hagoromo around Shizuka’s shoulders and hold her tightly in my arms—as tightly as my mother held me, when I was a small girl—so that she knows, now, she is safe.
She is free.
I run, tripping, back into the fisherman’s cottage, with a wave of pink petals preceding me, carpeting the earth.
“I don’t want to leave you.”
I kiss Shizuka’s dear mouth and smile at her, my heart almost too full of love to speak. “I will return here, to the pool, in the morning. What are a few hours, my quiet one, when we have reclaimed time, when we have so many years ahead of us to share?”
She draws me down to lie beside her upon the petal-littered bank, heart to heart. “I meant what I said before, Harumi. I would give up the sky for you.”
“Never,” I tell her, and draw her even nearer for a long, languid kiss. When we part, breathless, we rest our heads against the earth, our hair spilling over the grass, our hands clasped between us. “At night, you must go home, Shizuka, but the days will always be ours.”
“Or perhaps,” comes a voice, then, startling us both so that we sit up, readjusting our dresses and smoothing our hair, “you need not part at all, lovely children. Not for a single hour, not for a minute more.”
Emotion floods my chest; I feel astonished and uncertain, for the silhouette emerging now from the shadows, stepping into the moonlight, is as familiar to me as breathing: my mother.
I stand, run to her, wishing to take her hands, to ask her why she has come to the Flower Pool, why she spoke such strange words, but she stills me by laying a heavy garment over my arms. It gleams white beneath the moon, and its feathers move, stirred by the rising wind.
“A hagoromo?” I breathe, shaking my head. “But how… Where did you—”
“It is mine,” Mother whispers, touching my face with fingers as light as air. “You asked me once if a tennyo might choose to remain on the earth, and I answered your question from experience, because I chose, Harumi. I chose to stay with your father, and I have never regretted it, not for a heartbeat.”
Stunned, I swallow and glance over my shoulder at Shizuka, who is on her feet now, too, gazing at me in clear-eyed wonder.
“Mother, you were a—I mean, are a—”
“Tennyo. Yes. And so, my precious daughter, are you, by birth. And now my hagoromo is yours, bound to you by my love, and you may do with it as your heart commands.”
“The fisherman…” Shizuka’s voice is soft, shaking. “The fisherman who took me… He told me of you,” she says to my mother, stepping near to us and taking my hand. “He told me that he tried to keep you, as he was keeping me. He wanted us, he said, because there was nothing more glorious than to own a bit of sky.”
“He does not own you, never owned you,” I whisper fiercely, drawing my hands into fists, thinking of the months Shizuka and I have spent apart as a result of the fisherman’s cruelty. But Shizuka rests her cool palms on my shoulders, and then she reaches down to pet the hagoromo in my arms.
“It’s lovely,” she breathes. “Will you put it on, Harumi?”
And it’s then that I realize the depth of my mother’s gift. If I put on the cloak, I will be able to fly with the tennyo, with Shizuka, and spend my nights with her upon the mountain’s peak. By day we might visit the earth, visit my family and the Flower Pool, and the nights… The nights will be—are—forever ours.
“Thank you, Mother.” Tears dampen my cheeks as my mother gathers me to her chest for an ardent embrace. “I will come back to see you and—”
“I know you will, Harumi.” She draws back, pats my arm, the cloak. “But you mustn’t tarry now.” Eyes heavenward, she smiles a deep, secretive smile. “Now the sky awaits.”
My heart beats like the heart of a hare as Shizuka wraps the hagoromo around my shoulders and then wraps her arms around me. “I’ll hold you, until you’re ready to fly beside me. Let the wind guide you. Tell it your name.”
As the earth falls away, my eyes find my mother beside the pool, her shape growing smaller and smaller the higher we rise. She blows me a kiss, and the air catches it, presents it to me: a sweet kiss, a joyful kiss. And then I look at Shizuka, and she gives me another kiss: a passion-filled kiss, a promise-filled kiss.
I’m flying. We’re flying.
It is a day for beginnings.
If you liked “Flowers for Clouds,” you’ll love the stories from past months’ collections for your eReader:
You can now enjoy entire collections worth of stories in Project Unicorn, Volume One on your eReader or in person in paperback form (I’m a real book!), and support the project at the same time!
eReader edition on Etsy (all proceeds to authors)
Signed paperback on Etsy, PLUS free eReader edition!
(all proceeds to authors)
How can I support the project?
If you love what we’re doing with Project Unicorn, the two greatest things you can do to support it is to talk about it on your social network, blog or web site, and purchase each eZine as it comes out.
Project Unicorn is a very large undertaking, but we’re deeply dedicated to giving queer-girls stories they can identify with. Thank you so much for being supportive, and please consider purchasing an eZine to help us continue with this project! ❤ (You can also show your support by buying our other books, or simply donating to buy the authors a cup of tea. <3)
Please sign up for our newsletter to stay in touch and be the first to know when we release anything new! ❤