Mirai hears the crackle of fire as they blink open their eyes to a ceiling tinted a soft orange. It reminds them of tangerines. Their stomach grumbles.
‘Here,’ a gruff voice says.
Mirai jolts up and squints at the figure to their left, ‘Who?’
‘Did you hit your head, or do they simply not teach the youth these days?’
The man sighs, ‘If you must call me something then, Shi, is acceptable. Now eat.’
Mirai takes the bowl, the heat seeps into their hands. The scent of pumpkin wafts through the air and tickles their nose and Mirai takes in the vibrant colour. They take a spoonful of the soup. It’s creamy and smooth on their tongue. They smile, gulping down the rest.
They lick the bowl clean, ‘Thank you.’
The man stares, his eyes sharp and greedy for information, ‘Not many climb this mountain, even fewer make it to this cabin,’ he leans forward, silver eyes gleaming. ‘What is it you have to gain in a place like this?’
Mirai shrugs, ‘I don’t know.’
‘You speak lies, child.’
‘Maybe,’ they say. ‘But what do I have to lose?’
Shi barks out a laugh, ‘You are bold. There is much left in you one could take.’
‘And will you?’
Shi’s lips tick upwards, ‘No. That is not my way.’
Mirai feels a calloused finger poke their forehead and a spark of warmth rushes through them, ‘What was that?’ they ask.
‘Protection. You are my ward now.’
Mirai scrunches their eyebrows, and they go to speak but Shi cuts them off.
‘Enough questions. Rest.’
Mirai huffs but lets themself fall back into their dreams, the soft crackle of fire filling their ears.
The wind bites through Mirai’s thick jacket, the snow crunches under their feet. The rhythmic thunk of an axe hitting wood echoes through the air. Mirai watches as Shi splits another log in two. Shi hands the axe to Mirai. It feels heavy in their hands.
‘You will learn, the winter here is harsh,’ he says.
Mirai nods and moves to imitate the stance Shi had taken, holding the axe with one hand at the base and the other closer to the blade. They swing. It’s a fluid motion. Their hand sliding down to meet the other at the base.
They miss the log.
Shi laughs. It’s hearty and fills Mirai’s chest with heat. Shi claps a hand on Mirai’s shoulder, ‘You were watching? Good. Now do it again, and don’t miss.’
Mirai lets a wispy smile grow on their face, ‘I’ll get it this time.’
Sunlight peaks through the canopy of the tall and spindly trees. Mirai had asked once what kind they were, only for Shi to laugh and say, ‘They could be birch, perhaps spruce or maybe they are oak, it is hard to tell. They are all kinds and yet at the same time they are not. They are trees, that is all that matters.’
And it was true. Though it didn’t stop Mirai’s next question, ‘Then what about the other plants, the ones you grow?’
Shi had grinned just a touch too wide and said, ‘If you are so curious, I will take you out in the spring.’
And so Mirai ambles behind Shi through the forest, twigs snapping under two sets of feet. Mirai listens to the leaves rustling and the steady footfalls, the 1, 2, snap, and the beat of wings flapping, and their own breathing, in, out, stop. Mirai’s breath stutters as they bump into Shi’s sturdy back. Leaning to the left Mirai peers at the clearing before them.
‘Steps?’ Shi asks.
‘Mm, close. 678.’
‘What? No way.’
‘Don’t lose your head next time.’
Mirai huffs, ‘Okay. What now?’
‘Now you learn. Tell me, do you know what is growing here?’
‘Uh,’ they glance at the plants in the clearing, ‘Tomatoes?’
‘Hah!’ Shi shakes his head. ‘Have you forgotten your first night already?’
Mirai meets the accusation with a glare, ‘Have you forgotten you’re meant to be teaching?’
Shi grins and Mirai finds themselves returning it. The two spend the day going over the various vegetables in the clearing. Mirai finds their head spinning with all the different names associated with green leaves that bear no striking difference. If trees are trees, then it is the same for leaves. How are they meant to know carrot leaves from those of a potato?
Shi laughs and rewards Mirai’s efforts with a slap on the back. Mirai grumbles, lips forming a scowl. ‘Stop laughing,’ they bite.
Shi smirks, ‘Forgive me, I am only glad for such lively company.’
‘Fine. What’s this last one?’ Mirai points to a sprawling vine.
‘Pumpkin,’ they say and their face smooths just a smidge. The leaves are large and round and they hold one, brushing fingertips across its surface, ‘When will it flower?’
Mirai feels Shi ruffle the curls of their hair, ‘We will pick them in the summer.’
Mirai smiles then. It’s something soft and nothing like the toothy grins or sharp smirks Shi wears. That’s fine. They stand, shaking their body.
Shi holds out a hand, ‘Come. We have much work to do.’
Mirai grasps the hand in theirs. Rough calluses rub against their soft skin. They don’t mind, it’s just another reminder that Shi is here, ‘Okay.’
The two walk back the way they came at a sedate pace. The steady thump of boots, 1, 2, 1, 2. The measured breathing, in, out, in, out. Mirai squeezes Shi’s hand, and he responds in kind. Six hundred and seventy-eight steps later the two are back at the cabin.
Dust glimmers as light filters through a gap in the curtains. At the left of Shi’s bed, Mirai bounces on the balls of their feet. They prod the man’s shoulder, and he groans. Mirai prods harder and watches as Shi rolls over. Mirai sighs. They fling the curtains open and a warm glow fills the room, tanning the wooden walls.
Shi sits up and squints at Mirai, ‘What ails you so early in the morning, child?’
‘You said we’d pick the pumpkins today,’ Mirai chirps.
‘Is that so? I don’t recall,’ his lips twist into a wry grin. ‘Perhaps I should return to bed.’
‘Well, I remember. You’re just old.’
Shi chuckles and climbs out of his bed, ‘Old, not senile.’
Mirai tugs Shi’s arm, ‘C’mon, let’s go.’
‘In time we will, I will dress first. Now leave my room.’
‘Yes!’ Mirai dashes through the cabin and flings open the front door. They hop in place and soak in the sun’s rays. They count the seconds to the beat of their heart and as the minutes pass the more energy thrums beneath their skin. A hand lands on their head and Mirai jumps.
‘Ready to go?’
Mirai beams as they turn to face Shi, ‘I’ve been ready all morning.’
‘Of course,’ he chuckles, the sound rumbles before trailing off into something unknown. It’s a blip in existence and unfamiliar in the way Shi always laughs with strength.
The noise itches at Mirai’s ears and they frown. All too soon, Shi starts walking and Mirai blinks at the man’s back. Mirai pinches their cheek, and they scramble to catch up. The two fall into a steady pace until they reach the clearing.
Mirai bounds over to the pumpkin vine and they spot five plump pumpkins that gleam in the morning light. Crouching, they run their fingers over the largest one and they grab the stem and reach into their coat pocket for their knife. The pocket is empty. Mirai feels around the pocket; they turn it inside out twice and groan.
‘Here,’ Shi says. The man pulls out a small knife fully sheathed from his pocket.
Mirai gapes at the tool, ‘What. How?’
‘This was on the floor just outside my room. You would do well to take care next time.’
‘I was excited.’
He raises an eyebrow, ‘We shall work on your awareness at a later date. First, let us exercise patience.’ Shi presses the knife into Mirai’s hands.
Mirai’s eyes flicker between the knife and Shi’s face.
‘Cut one of these pumpkins free, take it to the cabin and then return.’
He grins. ‘You repeat.’
‘But that’s such a waste—’
‘Of time?’ Shi pokes Mirai’s forehead. ‘Use your head. You made time by waking me.’
‘Oh,’ they say. ‘Perfect.’
Shi chuckles and this time it is bright and fizzy. Heat bubbles forth in Mirai’s chest at the sound. Mirai takes in the man’s expression and the hard glint in his eyes. They unsheathe the knife and get to work.
Mirai lets their mind drift as they settle into a routine. They hack at a pumpkin stem, load the pumpkin into their arms and walk to and from the cabin. By round five, Mirai feels the rise and fall of their chest as they dash back to the clearing. Their heart flutters and they track their steps in time with the pulse.
When Mirai reaches the clearing Shi tsks, ‘You ran.’
‘So?’ they rasp.
‘I recall asking you to practice patience.’
‘It was the last round,’ Mirai says as they shrug.
Shi sighs, ‘One day you will learn. Come. It is still light enough to work.’
Mirai draws a deep breath into their lungs and exhales. They slip their hand into Shi’s and the man huffs. A fraction of a smile rises on his face. Once more, Mirai ambles back to the cabin, this time with their guardian in hand. Mirai feels their heartbeat even out to a slow throb, and they count the seconds to its melody. 1, 2, 3, 4, they count. 5, 6, 7, 8, they count. They breathe, in, out, in, out. Eight minutes later, the two are back at the cabin.
Mirai puffs a breath and watches it condense in the air like a coil of smoke. They scan the ground littered with rusted leaves that flare in the sunlight. Their eyes lock onto a flash of movement and they spy a rabbit.
Mirai raises the bow they hold in their right hand and anchors their grip on the handle. Nocking an arrow, Mirai pulls back and their fingers brush against their cheek. They keep their eyes fixed on the animal and they release the arrow.
It soars and pierces a tree. A loud thwack resonates through the woods. The rabbit runs.
Mirai growls and stalks to the tree and retrieves it. They turn to see Shi, a few metres behind them, hit a deer in the chest. Scowling Mirai plants themself on the ground and rests their head on their knees. Mirai hears the crunch of leaves before Shi’s gravelly voice.
‘Giving up, young one?’
‘I don’t get it. I keep missing.’
‘Practice. It will come to you eventually.’
‘Can eventually be now?’
Shi sighs, ‘No. Skill you cannot rush.’
Mirai glares at their bow as if it would spontaneously combust, ‘Why not?’
‘You may learn fast but skill you hone. For all that enthusiasm you have, you have yet to push it in the right direction.’
‘You mean practice.’
‘Yes,’ Shi says, his tone soft. ‘Practice and patience.’
‘Fine,’ they stand and scan the ground once more. Mirai finds another rabbit and they nock an arrow and take up a shooting stance.
A hand comes down on their shoulder.
‘What?’ Mirai asks.
‘Your posture is terrible. Here,’ Shi shifts Mirai’s body. ‘Better. You leant away from the bow. Try now.’
‘Okay,’ Mirai aims at the rabbit and shoots. It hits the ground a couple metres shy of their target. ‘That was—’
‘Better,’ Shi finishes.
Mirai leaps at Shi and pulls the man into a hug, ‘Thank you.’
‘Mm, alright,’ He pats Mirai on the back. ‘Enough, I have a deer to butcher.’
Mirai lets go and gives the man a weak smile. Shi shakes his head and passes his bow and quiver to his ward. The two stroll through the trees carrying two bows, two quivers, and one deer. The wind whispers and the occasional leaf twirls through the air. Mirai breathes out and they watch as it condenses and fizzes out of sight. Out of the corner of their eye they catch sight of a rabbit. Next time, they think. Next time.
Mirai peers out the window. They see the sun dip further behind the tree line, the snow blush in a wash of copper light, and the shadows creep and crawl. The crackle of fire and the clang of a pot fills their ears.
Shi calls from the kitchen, ‘Blind yet?’
‘No,’ Mirai calls back.
‘Good. You can still handle a knife.’
‘Hey,’ they grumble, ‘I could cook blind.’
‘I don’t doubt you. It will simply put me at ease that you see your work.’
‘Alright,’ Mirai moves to the kitchen.
A pot of water boils on the stove and Shi holds a knife out by the blade and waves his hand to a cutting board with a quarter of a pumpkin. Mirai nods and takes the knife. They carve out the seeds, slice the skin off, and cut it into cubes. Their mind hazes as they assist their guardian and soon the two sit at a table with bowls of pumpkin soup. Mirai looks into the pool of molten liquid in front of them and the first night flickers through their eyes.
Shi hums, ‘Child, are you eating?’
‘Uh, yes,’ Mirai picks up their spoon and scoops up the soup and eats. They make it through three spoonfuls.
‘Your thoughts are muddled. Tell me, what occupies your mind so.’
‘Just this past year. It’s nothing.’
‘Ah, of course. And did you find what you came for?’
Mirai feels their cheeks warm, ‘Yes.’
‘Then you are welcome to keep it.’
They blink, ‘Can I call you dad?’
‘If you so wish, Mirai.’ The smile Shi wears is nothing like his usual grins. It is wide, full of mirth, and yet, rounded at the edges that it speaks of something mellow.
‘Thank you,’ they say.
The two lapse into silence. The fireplace burns and a familiar coat of orange paints the room. Mirai’s stomach grumbles and they pick up their spoon and eat, smile growing with each spoonful.
The taste lingers on their tongue for years to come.
Natasha is an emerging writer in her final year of studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. In her writing, she strives to explore character and bring to life new worlds.