the sakura king’s guard
by a. noelle
A young girl was playing by a small, sidewalk garden, her pigtails held up by yellow ribbons to match her flowery sundress. She could hear her mother chatting on the phone as she tended to the nabe that they would have for dinner later, the salty heat wafting through the open screen door.
Glancing up at the clouded sky, framed by sakura branches—plum; “plum, not sakura,” her father had corrected, but she preferred sakura so continued to refer to the flowers as such, if only to herself—she felt a sadness. The blossoms would soon fall, “probably with the coming storm,” her father had said.
Already, several of the branches had thinned in places, creating small gaps in the puffy, pink cotton—like Mrs. Sato’s pet poodle, Oni, the girl thought. She noticed a few of the branches had fallen from the tree, crisscrossing the sidewalk like makeshift bridges over a gentle stream of soft, pink petals.
Removing her plastic sandals and placing them near one of the flowerbeds, the young girl tenderly picked her way across the concrete river, careful to only step inside the border of branches that outlined where the bridges had been hastily constructed by the villagers.
“Do you know why they fell?”
The gruff, elderly tones broke the young girl’s concentration, causing her steps to falter as she overbalanced and landed bottom-first in the Sacred Koi’s riverbed. Sadly, she would need to start her training over in order to be selected as one of the special retainers to guard the Sakura King from the Cloud Demon.
Sighing, she looked in the direction of the voice and shifted so that her legs were crossed beneath her, “Why who fell, oyaji-san?”
“The sakura branches,” the old neighbor smiled, noticing the young girl straighten her posture at the misnomer. “They fell because they chose not to believe.”
Narrowing her eyes, the girl looked at the fallen branches around her feet, “Not to believe what?”
Laughing, the old man shook his head, “They were bullied and hurt by the branches that still have blossoms, so they fell to try and pick up the ones they lost. They didn’t believe that they could grow new blossoms among their fellow branches.” He pointed to the sparse scattering of petals on the ground. “The branches are sad, aren’t they?”
With a small chuckle, the old man turned and walked back into his apartment, leaving the young girl to stare at the tree and ponder the fate of the fallen branches.
The next morning, the old man stepped out onto his front deck and stretched his legs. Lifting his nose into the air, he heaved a contented sigh. Soon, rain. Thinking back to the previous afternoon, he wondered what the young girl had made of their little conversation about the sakura branches.
He looked over at the path that trailed his front walk and then let out a hearty laugh.
There were no more branches crisscrossing the pavement, no makeshift bridges to test the skill of royal retainers. No, the fallen branches had been grafted to another tree, sprouting delicate green leaves, with two yellow ribbons and layers of pink washi tape.