Every year for the past ten years, around the middle of September, as he sat by the wall, he’d pull out the same oil-cloth covered bundle from his utility pouch, carefully unfolding its yellow stained corners as he slugged down the first of many shots of sake.
Everybody knew him and of course, so did I -- this was Sakumo’s whelp, Sharingan no Kakashi, elite ninja … cruel assassin … sensei.
But here in this place, I knew him as simply a man … a man with more memories and dark secrets than friends – a man who silently cursed the years that swept past him like a tempest.
Every year, around the middle of September, he’d stroll into this, a dodgy civilian bar, take up the last stool by the wall and spread out the pictures that told the story of his life. I never got close enough to ask him who those people were … though I recognized a few from where I stood; never dared ask what they meant to him or why his grief was still so fresh after all this time.
I understood the necessity of drawing oneself far away and as a man who’d seen and done more than ever I could imagine, I took it upon myself to provide an island of peace for him in the midst of a turbulent ocean of inquiries and interruptions.
Every year, around the middle of September, I’d shoo most of my regular patrons from their perches much earlier than usual – though no one dared intrude on his solitude. I felt I owed that much for the sacrifices he’d made to keep civilians like me, safe and secure. I’d sweep up, swab up the area around him, never mumbling a word to him.
Every year, around the middle of September, I’d let him sit there quietly at the end of the bar – respecting his privacy. And at the end of the evening, after I’d collected the garbage and returned from the dumpster, his place would be empty, his bill paid and a sizable tip neatly laid beside the empty sake flasks.
But this year, around the middle of September, after the other patrons had gone their separate ways, I hurried to the storeroom, gathered together my small token of appreciation and stood before him with it as he carefully reassembled his package of photographs.
I dared not look upon him, lest my presence destroy the spell binding him to the past – the bundle, now climbing up my chest had no such reservations – wriggling and yipping, it launched itself at him without hesitation; it’s tiny sharp teeth, nipping at the pale fingers covering a photo. Its gangly limbs, moving this way and that, scattering about the man’s memories without a care, its thin claws tapping out a staccato beat on the wooden surface of the bar.
“I hear tell you can work wonders with dogs,” I said. “Me ... I haven’t the time or patience for such things.”
I saw a silvery eyebrow rise as he warily considered the little runt standing there on stubby legs. A few tentative steps brought the pup closer to the shinobi.
Photo credit: notwrappedtightly from morguefile.com
“Found his mother and litter mates outside my backdoor a few weeks ago,” I told him while I pretended to look away. “Took ‘em in and started giving ‘em away once they were old enough. That one’s strange lookin’ … guess that’s why nobody wanted him.”
From the corner of my eye, I watched the bounding ball of brown and white fur miss a step, tumbling head first from the lip of the bar, into the worn, green flak vest and a waiting gloved hand.
Still, I busied myself, clearing away half-empty glasses and dumping overflowing ashtrays. “Figure he might make a decent companion for somebody.”
In the space of my words, the little critter maneuvered himself so that he was nuzzling his snout against the tip of the shinobi’s nose; just a few gentle strokes along his back and a few whispered words which I acted as if I didn’t hear, calmed the fidgeting canid.
He spoke not a word to me as he gathered up his memories and photographs with one hand, deftly folding the yellow cloth over them while the little pup nestled between his chin and throat.
Again I pretended not to notice when he slipped the photos inside his utility pouch, but I had to protest when he stood and ran his hand inside his front pocket.
“Your money is no good here shinobi-san,” I said. “Just try to find a good home for him – that will be payment enough.”
And on this night, in the middle of September, the man who always sat at the end of the bar, the man who lost himself in sake and recollections, this night he walked out with a slight smile on his face – his heart enlarged to make room for little bundle whose breath, still scented with mother’s milk blew softly against his chin.
As the bell over the door rang for the last time when he exited, I stood there behind the bar, broom in hand and whispered:
“Happy Birthday, Kakashi-san.”