Kneeling beside the open chest with his arms wrapped around his head as he sobbed uncontrollably, Hajime was little more than a trembling, weeping wreck. His world had narrowed to darkness and flashes of painful red behind his eyelids that stabbed into him like glass shards with the background of uncontrollable weeping in his ears. The one weeping was himself as he tried to purge himself of every regret and guilty weight that would pull him down towards oblivion. He didnít notice as a figure appeared in the doorway, didnít feel the eyes, didnít notice that person bite her lip then hesitantly come forward to kneel beside him.
The touch of a hand against his shoulder was like a stab in the heart. Hajime froze, whipping his head around to stare with wild eyes. His wife stared at him in fright. When he realised who it was, Hajime gave little cry then threw his arms around her.
"Iím sorry!" He was still weeping as he buried his face in her shoulder. "Iím sorry, Iím sorry, Iím sorry, Toru-san, please, donít leave me, donít leave me alone, Iím so sorry Ö"
He sobbed out his pleas and apologies the way a dying man begs for water. His wife stayed very still; it felt as if he were clutching a statue. After a very long time he felt her rest her arms on his back. There was another hesitation, then almost apprehensively, they drew close and wrapped around him.
"Ö please, forgive me Ö"
There was a little sigh against his skin like a breath of wind, and imperceptibly his wife softened. Hajime shuddered. The strain of the recent weeks too raw to touch but still, there was relief. The sheer force of it made Hajime shake as his wife, for the first time in days, spoke quietly to him.
"Tell me whatís wrong."
Slowly, his voice trembling, Hajime told her. He told her about the chest, the paintings he had uncovered and kept secret, and how they had affected him. He told her everything, the bank loan, the secrets, the anger, the fear, despair and more, things he was sure would make her despise him and make her leave.
When he was finally finished, she sat very still. Then she looked at the chest.
"Donít!" cried Hajime as his wife went to the chest. She didnít listen to him, kneeling down and lifting out the cases. "Donít look at them!"
Ignoring his plea she opened the cases. As the paintings were brought into the light again Hajime threw his arms over his eyes as if the very sight of them hurt him. His wife, back towards him, didnít see, and one by one, laid the paintings out before her; First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, all in order of their opening beside the Sixth. She examined them for a very long time.
"Strange," she murmured. She ran her hand over the uneven red of the Second. "Why are these here?"
"Please," Hajime croaked. "Put them away."
She traced the outlines of the birds of the Third with her fingers. "I wonder who painted these. Do you think we should contact the previous owner and ask if they belong to him?"
"I donít care! Just please, donít look at them!"
"Donít be silly. Look, thereís nothing wrong. Are there any more?"
Hajime stayed well away from the chest as if it were a beast that would consume him. He refused to look up as his wife reached into the mouth of the chest, searching for the rest of its contents. He heard the scrape of her fingernails against the stiff velvet interior and the rubbing of leather as she lifted out the rest of empty cases. He heard something shift.
"Hajime. Thereís something here."
Hajime looked up warily. Curiosity was their common trait. "What?"
His wife shook the case gently and there was a muffled sound. "Thereís another one."
"Put it away." Hajime unconsciously drew away from the case, repulsed. "I donít want to see anymore."
He froze as his wife turned to look at him, their eyes meeting directly for what felt like the first time. "I want to know what happened to you. If I know, I can understand. And if I understand Ö" She trailed off, leaving Hajime to wonder what she wanted to say. He stared and didnít say anything as his wife located the catch. There was no black silk tying it. His wife opened the case and tipped out the contents. Hajime could tell immediately by the size and shape that it was another painting, but it was wrapped in black velvet.
Carefully, his wife put it on the floor and pulled the velvet away. Despite his misgivings, Hajime couldnít help but creep forward to look.
The picture was pale, without outlines, as if the scene was bathed in too much sunlight. Touches of shadow hinted at lines of body and dark hair, giving the impression of someone lying on their right side, hands curled beside the face like a child in sleep. The abundance of light blurred all detail except one. It was a single eye, open but unseeing at the moment where sleep has been shaken off. With all the naïveté of a just-opened flower, it was painted almost tenderly. Gently. It was a soft picture, completely at odds with the others as if by another artist entirely. Against the pastel colors of skin and palest rose, Hajime found the emerald green of the eye strangely entrancing.
"Beautiful," breathed his wife. She pulled the velvet wrapping further away. Something fell out. A piece of paper. She read it then held the paper out to her husband. "Hey. Look."
Reluctantly Hajime turned away from the painting and took the paper. There was no name, only three lines. It asked that should the chest and paintings be found, for the finder to take care of them. It asked the finder to send them to an address in Kyoto.
That was it. Hajime frowned. The note was almost impersonally short, the handwriting neatly printed without giving any hint as to the writer. At least, he assumed the writer and the artist was one and the same, but who was he to judge?
"Should we send this off?" asked his wife, gesturing to the cases and paintings spread around them. "These obviously belong to someone. And you donít want them in the house."
Hajime read the note again, then looked at the paintings lying on the floor. He bit back the tightness that rose in his throat at the sight, swallowing. He wanted nothing more than to get rid of them as fast as possible, to get back to his own life instead of whoever elseís he had unwittingly unleashed.
Then again, he also wanted to know.
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