Sakura Watches the Snow
One, two, three.
Four, five, six-seven-eight-nine.
Sakura counts the snowflakes as they fall. There aren’t many. Each one is a cherished speck of frozen water. Cherished by her, because winter and snowy days are her favorites, when she feels she can hide behind their protective cloak.
She’s supposed to be getting ready. But she doesn’t want to. Instead she remains by her window, counting the softly drifting dots of white against a gray sky and leafless tree silhouettes, knowing that any minute her mother will walk in and demand to know why she’s still in her pajamas.
The truth is that she doesn’t want to go. Sakura has no interest in joining her parents on their outing to the shrine at the outskirts of town. They’re going to honor dead ancestors – again – and she’d rather just stay cocooned in her room.
Sakura hears the paper door slide open, followed by her mother’s soft footsteps. But she pretends not to hear and keeps her gaze on the window.
A brief pause. Then, “Sakura, why are you not dressed? Your father and I are leaving soon. We want you to join us.”
The girl turns around but stares at the floor. “I am very sorry, Mother. I am not well. I cannot join you.”
A long sigh. “But what will I tell the villagers this time?”
“Tell them I am too ugly to look at.”
“That is not true!” her mother protests.
Sakura does not look at her mother, so she does not see the single tear sliding down her face.
“Very well, Sakura, you may stay home this time. Your father and I will go alone, with heavy hearts.” Just as quietly as she had entered, the girl’s mother leaves.
Sakura relaxes. Another win. She reclines on her bed, and resumes watching the snow.
Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.
Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three ….
Sakura opens her eyes. I must have fallen asleep. She looks out her window. The snow has stopped. Day has turned to night. The house is quiet.
Wondering if her parents have returned, she ventures out of her room to the kitchen. They are not back yet.
Sakura checks the cupboards and finds a packet of instant noodles. She grabs a pot and adds water, then heats it over the stove. When the water boils, she adds the noodles and turns the burner off.
What is that?
She sees movement from the corner of her eye. Curious, she walks to the living room, the room she almost never enters. It’s reserved for guests.
In the middle of the room, colors swirl, first faintly. She stares in awe and curiosity. What is this thing of beauty, this thing of mystery?
The colors spin and solidify, taking a familiar form – a multicolor kimono. The spinning stops, and to Sakura’s great surprise, a woman inside the kimono smiles at her.
“Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you get in my house?”
The woman laughs a gentle, almost familiar laugh. “My dear, I am your grandmother. Your house was once my house. I’ve been here many times.”
“But you’re dead.”
“Ah, how astute you are, dear granddaughter.”
Sakura is not amused. Why is her dead grandmother visiting her? Is it a punishment for refusing to accompany her parents to the shrine?
“I’m hungry. I was about to eat some noodles.”
“Don’t let me stop you. Go right ahead.”
Frowning, Sakura leaves the living room to return to the kitchen. She eats her food hungrily. Her grandmother follows and stands by patiently.
Sakura finishes her noodles. She places the pot and chopsticks in the sink. She looks back at her grandmother and stares at the intricate patterns on her kimono, which hold every color under the sun and even some colors the girl has never seen before.
“Why are you here?”
“To bring you a message.”
Sakura blinks at the vision before her. “What is the message?”
“I am here to tell you that you are beautiful, inside and out, just the way you are.”
Sakura feels herself turn red with humiliation. “Why have you come to mock me?”
Her grandmother continues to smile – a genuine smile that radiates compassion and peace.
“I do not mock you, Sakura. You are beautiful. It is time for you to realize this.”
“But I was born without an ear! I can never be beautiful.”
“It is true that you are missing an ear, but this does not take away from your beauty.”
“I don’t believe you!” The pain is too much. Sakura bursts into tears and runs back to her room. Suddenly exhausted, she cries herself to sleep.
Sakura opens her eyes. How long have I been sleeping? Her gaze turns to the window. Gentle snowflakes drift down against a gray sky and leafless tree silhouettes.
But I thought the snow had stopped. And wasn’t it nighttime?
Pulling herself from the grogginess of sleep, Sakura suddenly remembers. “Grandmother! Noodles!”
She runs to the kitchen and looks in the sink. There is no pot there. No chopsticks, either.
She runs to the living room and looks around. There are no swirls of color. There is no kimono. No grandmother.
Sakura sighs and returns to her room. Her parents are still out. She looks in the mirror, at her fully formed ear on one side, and her missing ear on the other side. She stares a long time. Am I beautiful? Why would grandmother come all this way with a message if it wasn’t true?
She looks out the window and watches the snow.
One, two, three.
The snowflakes swirl. Her window is frosty. She shivers. Time to make noodles.
Her parents return just as she finishes her meal. “Sakura!” her mother says warmly, throwing her arms around her daughter. “Are you feeling better?”
Father gently touches her shoulder.
“We missed you, Sakura.”
“I know, Father.”
Hesitantly, her mother says, “Perhaps you will join us next time.”
Sakura pictures her dead grandmother, dressed in swirling, living colors, radiating love and warmth through her compassionate smile. Grandmother is not dead at all. She’s just not here.
The message … what was it again?
You are beautiful, inside and out, just the way you are.
For the first time in a long time, Sakura looks her parents straight in the eye.
“Yes, I will join you next time.”
A moment of shock passes through their faces. Then, relief. Finally, quiet joy.
Their prayers have been answered.
“I’m going back to my room now. Excuse me.”
“Of course, Sakura,” says her mother.
“We cherish you,” says her father.
Sakura feels herself thawing. Relaxing. She feels herself feeling.
Back in her room, she wraps herself in blankets. It feels good to be warm and cozy. She looks out the window, and counts more snowflakes.
One. Two. Three-four-five.