When Hana was in first grade, Santa gave her crayons and a sketchbook. He left the red present box with a silver ribbon at her feet on Christmas Eve, and he ate the cookies mom left by the night lamp.
It was a happier time then. Dad still had grandpa’s mahogany desk where he would spend the night reading books and writing his doctoral thesis. Mom still had the old sewing machine which she loved but seldom used.
Hana became a big sister in her first grade. With Santa’s crayons, she added the younger sister into her drawing of a family picnic; between dad and herself, the shape of a girl with black hair and chestnut eyes like dad.
Dad also became a widower when Hana was in first grade. Mom was unwell when she rode on the back of dad’s navy blue Ford to the hospital. The next morning, he brought home a baby wrapped in a white blanket. Hana remembered the funeral on a sunny Wednesday in May. Dad said it was fitting weather for a family picnic, the only one they would have as a family of four.
In December, little Hana wrote a letter to Santa Claus. At times, she was interrupted by the cry of her baby sister from the nursery, which used to be mom and dad’s bedroom. Dad slept in the study then. Sometimes he even spent the night at the institute and left Hana home alone. But dad was at home the eve before Christmas Eve. Thus, Hana ignored the cry and wrote on.
In the morning before Christmas Eve, dad drove to a local convenient store and dropped off Hana’s letter at the post office. He was grumbling when he left, having struggled for nearly an hour to scrape ice off the windshield. He looked, however, quiet and downcast when he returned.
Dad tried to imitate mom’s Christmas dinner with liver sausages and roasted chicken. What he ended up with were undercooked liver sausages—which remained raw on the inside—and two small portions of roasted quails—which he stated, in a sort of humorous pride, were his loots from the Christmas sale battlefield against fearsome and hostile housewives.
Morning brought about a sudden outcry. Hana’s small footsteps stormed down the stairs, through the corridor in front of the study, and into the dining room. There, she found an empty table without any utensils and dad, standing in front of the oven with a large bowl, reading the instructions of a premixed pancake powder package.
Tugging his shirt, she asked.
“Daddy, where’s mommy?”
He stood at a loss for word as she redoubled her assault.
“Mommy said Santa gives good kids presents. Hana wants mommy but Hana can’t find her anywhere. Is Hana a bad girl?”
At long last, the pain snapped him out of his stupor. He cast aside the powder package and the bowl, knelt down to wipe the tears off the girl’s eyes and patted her auburn head.
“Listen, Hana. When you grow up, you will learn many truths about this world. One thing that you will learn, in due time, is that Santa isn’t—”
He hesitated, clenched his fist, and shook his head.
“—No, that’s not it. What I want to say is…you will learn, in due time, that the North Pole is really, really far away and it takes many months for a letter to reach there. Follow me, I’ll show you.”
After that, dad led Hana into the study and showed her a geography book.
As a bit of trivia, dad spent the afternoon searching the house for anything he could call a present. He told Hana that Santa could not possibly forget and that he probably misplaced the present somewhere. That year, the seven-year-old Hana received an evaluation copy of the one-thousand-three-hundred-plus-page, university-level Physics textbook in a foreign language from Santa.
She stashed the book in the drawer where she put her old toys and caused dad quite a bit of sweating when he later wanted the book back and could not find it anywhere.
The awkwardness and confusion of the first year without mom did not last long. Life moved on and all matters eventually fell into a new order.
Dad no longer had grandpa’s mahogany desk. It went the way of mom’s sewing machine and her Teflon baking pan: left behind in the old house as amenities when the family moved out. Good thing too, because the new house—better say the mini-apartment, better say the eighteen-square-meter, two-story, “lighter house”—had barely enough room for a kotatsu.
Here in the southeast metropolitan area, everything seemed to get smaller than it had been in the far suburb. That included also the amount of time dad spent in the house.
The biggest crunch of dad’s time was still spent at the institute but he traveled abroad more frequently then. In these times, dad would ask a friend to stay over and take care of the girls in his stead. He would often buy packaged meals from a convenience store on his way home. Just as often, he would bring the girls to the convenience store in his old navy blue Ford for packaged meals.
Between these two options, the microwave at the store was perhaps the only difference that mattered.
All accounts up until this point belonged to Hana, whose objective view of these events had been questionable and whose recollection had been, without a doubt, distorted by the intriguing process of memory self-correction. As far as the seven-month-old Aiko was concerned, none of these had ever registered in her undeveloped memory.
It became a different matter for the eleven-year-old Aiko, whose cognitive abilities had achieved maturity when the next turning point hit the Sasaki household. She could recall vividly the chain of events leading up to Hana’s departure and she would repeat, as many times as she must, to dad and big sis that it did not happen anywhere near Christmas.
Not every damn thing in this family happened at Christmas.
Compared to Aiko’s own, Hana’s carefree childhood lasted much shorter. Hana started cooking meals and housekeeping as early as junior high. She was a much better cook than dad, though, in all fairness, she did have a lot more opportunities to hone her skill than he did.
Between going to school and doing housework, Hana spent her idle time drawing in the living room on the ground floor. She drew the old house, she drew dad sitting at grandpa’s mahogany desk, she drew mom taking a hot batch of cookies out of the oven, she drew dad reading a book while mom laid the table…
Aiko recalled only a few scenes—perhaps no more than eight—whom Hana had drawn and redrawn many, many times over as though grasping for a glimpse of the happier time. Big sis took delight in showing these drawings to Aiko, who saw no sentimental value from these imageries, and dad, who often time was too exhausted to give any meaningful feedback beyond empty praises.
By the time Aiko went to the kindergarten, Hana had depleted the content of her crayon box and her sketchbook had come down to the last few pages. Dad bought her a new crayon box for her birthday and gave her a stack of blank handbooks he had received for free at conferences all over the world. He remained, at the time, supportive of Hana’s endeavors in art but his attitude changed when Hana entered high school.
Dad had, for many years, entertained the idea of having Hana follow his footstep in natural science. He hired tutors and followed her study very closely. When it came to math and science, he was particularly strict about even the minutest drop in grade. As such, dad was not pleased to find his eldest daughter had secretly applied to and had been admitted into an art school in Paris.
It was late November when the letter of admission arrived in the mailbox.
That morning, dad was the one who picked up the letter. He threw the letter in the bin the moment he saw the sender’s address. Hana caught him in the act and a fight broke out between them.
“I’m not paying a dime for you to starve yourself in Paris.”
“I have a scholarship, dad, and Ms. Shimizu is offering me a junior position in her firm after graduation. It’s a world-class fashion brand she’s running so I’m sure she won’t let me starve.”
“Shimizu is not trustworthy, Hana.”
“She is your friend, dad. The friend you invited to this house and watch your daughters. If she’s not trustworthy, then what does that say about you?”
Dad waved his hand dismissively and changed the topic.
“Regardless, you are not going to Paris. You’re going to stay here and study science, engineering, things that add values to society. At worst, you can be a cook; that’s miles better than wasting days on something a digital camera can do in seconds.”
“I’d like to see a digital camera take a picture of mom, dad.”
“Who taught you to backtalk adults? Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
“I get it, dad! She is your sweet little genius who breathes math and exhales science while I am just a stand-in for mom. She killed mom, dad. I might as well get out of her way before she kills me too.”
“Don’t call me dad if you’re going to talk like that about your little sister. As long as you are in this house, you will do what I say.”
Just like that, Hana turned her back on her own father and left the living room without saying a word. There, she found Aiko, back against the wall, curling up and shivering like a frightened animal. Their eyes met for a brief moment. Aiko had never seen such hates in those blue eyes before. At length, Hana’s expression softened, a look of regret appeared in her eyes and her lips moved but no word ever came out of them.
Hana turned her back on the little sister too. She retrieved from the sisters’ shared room a handbag and a duffle bag she had prepared ahead of time. In short minutes, Hana emerged from the stairwell donning her travel clothes; a woolen scarf, brown mittens, her favorite teal pullover, and a new pair of snow boots. She had with her also a crayon box and an old sketchbook, which she tucked in her handbag as she walked toward the door.
A weak, desperate voice tugged her heels.
“Big sis…Don’t leave!”
Hana halted her march, turned to take one last look at her younger sister, who had caught up and physically tugged the hem of her pullover. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. Then, in a swift, decisive motion, she slapped those small hands away and dashed into the headwind.
Behind her, by the open door through which the cold wind blew, a fragile figure watched as her back receded into the morning haze…