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June leans against her kitchen counter and stares at the little package in her hands. It’s encased in clear plastic that crinkles at her touch and boasts kanji she can’t read: 餅菓子. Under those, and a picture of small pillowy circles resting on a bamboo mat, are English words, looking suspiciously like Times New Roman: RICE CAKE with BEAN JAM. Then, smaller: (Mochi).
She bought it from the nearest Asian supermarket in south Georgia, an hour’s drive away. Beneath the cellophane rest eight flour-powdered green mochi, shaded in the center with red bean filling.
Her mom’s not here to tell her what the kanji mean. June could text and ask, but that seems troublesome. June lives on her own now, working as an underpaid web designer to make rent on an apartment with old, clinical tiling. Plus, her mom would ask why she had visited the Asian supermarket when she usually doesn’t, and then June would have to mention, offhandedly, the battered Japanese spellbook she’d rescued from her local thrift store.
She had pulled it from the shelf to examine it. On the front cover was more kanji she couldn’t read, but her fingers had tingled when she traced the characters, and she’d caught the passing scent of her mother’s hair. The owner, a white woman, had commented at the register that June was so lucky to be able to read Japanese, wasn’t it such an interesting culture? Is that where you’re really from? Sad to see this little thing go, no one was ever interested in it.
June felt lucky to have escaped whole.
So now the spellbook is spread on the kitchen table. It’s slim, written in all Japanese; some entries were translated in small text on the bottom margin, but even these feel arcane. When June first read the book, or the parts she could read, she’d gotten the impression that it taught less about how to cast magic as how to think about casting magic.
June glances from the spellbook to the package in her hands. Then she opens the cellophane, slides out the plastic tray of mochi, and pinches one between her fingers. It’s cloud-soft, but firm.
There is only one trick she wants to do. She doesn’t have her grandmother’s magic, and by doesn’t have, she means she never learned it. Her mother had stopped practicing when she came to America thirty years ago, and they’d last visited Japan when June was nine. When June was born across the sea, magic was lost in translation.
June knows lacking magic doesn’t make her less Japanese. But she craves it anyway — more now that she’s an adult, growing disillusioned with American culture, painfully aware that her grandparents are getting older while she still can’t speak their language or conjure their ability.
She sighs. She’ll look into online courses for Japanese, once she has more money. The magic is less straightforward, but it feels more immediate and urgent: an access that could chase away her shame. A validation, that even though she was far removed, she could still cast. She could still do this.
But fear, breathing hot down her neck: what if she couldn’t do it at all?
Her grandmother could do many things, June remembers, like set the tomato vines into bloom with a touch, or spin flames into pleasing shapes when she burned the stinging centipedes. These were all too daunting to try — all but one, the smallest one, the one that had most delighted June.
Her grandmother, knees stained from weeding the garden, would present her a piece of mochi. Then, her grandmother would bite into it, and crouch down so June could watch.
From the bite mark, the mochi would sprout blunt little teeth.
It reminded young June of the piranha plants from Mario Kart. It would try to bite anyone who wasn’t the spellcaster, so her grandmother never let her get too close, but it was still so cool — and when her grandmother hummed to it, it even hummed back. Her grandmother would feed the mochi little bits of homegrown tomato, weaving a tune of repetition between them, then, when the spell wore off and the teeth disappeared, she would feed it to June. The tomato added tiny umami bursts.
June picks up the spellbook and flips through it, to the footnote that had felt the most helpful on her first read. A good intention is important to creating and cannot be grown without ripe ground. A good intention. As in, a convincing one? A moral one? Who decided that? And was the ripe ground a metaphor for an open mind, or a receptive environment?
Well, she needs to try to find out.
June lifts the mochi to her mouth and bites. Soft dough yields against her teeth, and she pulls against a slight stretch. She chews. The red bean is sweet and earthy. As she chews, she concentrates on her intention: little teeth, just like her grandmother had done. They can even be molars, if it wants. Then she sets it on the counter.
Five seconds pass. Then fifteen. Then a minute. The mochi, dark bean paste exposed in a crescent, stays unchanged.
June rubs the flour between her fingers and exhales, disappointed. She can’t help feeling like the mochi has delivered a verdict, or seen her as lacking in some way, even though she knows that’s preposterous. She isn’t sure if she can take another bite — she only saw her grandmother do it with the first bite, but for functional or aesthetic reasons, she does not know. This is a question she can’t ask — she can’t read or write Japanese, won’t know the right words when she only speaks simple household terms, and besides, her grandparents only keep a landline. Nor are they big on calling.
So she picks out a new piece of mochi.
She flips to a different page of the spellbook. The strings that tie objects together are in the air, invisible, and can be tugged by a forth-willing mind.
This, too, is mysterious, approaching spellcasting from the side. Did it mean she should touch something that channels that connection, like a souvenir from Japan? Probably not. Or, is it that she has to feel that connection from Japan to herself, to her surroundings? This connection feels frayed to June, stretched across a language and a generation and an ocean.
A flash of fear, then doubt. But she closes her eyes, plants her feet on ripe ground, and digs down.
In her mind, June casts around, softly, without urgency, and a thread surfaces: her grandmother’s house. It’s hard to grasp, but she holds the taste of red bean on her tongue and tugs. Memories come slowly, then quicker, until she’s apace with them, then grasping them, then folding in:
Lush ferns sprouting from the mountain’s moss-darkened retaining wall, rice fields feeding into small gutters, with tadpoles floating down into brisk streams, the bright blue of the afternoon sky before it clouds gray — then, the sweeping humidity, barn swallows flitting across the front yard, sharp dark shapes in the dimming light before the storm.
Inside, the whistling of the kettle, the smell of fish frying on the nearby stove, the flickering light from an old lamp swaying above the kitchen table. Young June sets her plate in front of her seat, self-conscious in her grandmother’s presence, and sits down.
At the stove, her grandmother shakes the skillet and turns the fire off. June picks up her pair of chopsticks and clicks them together experimentally. The tatami creaks as her grandmother turns to look. Their eyes meet, and June almost looks away.
Then her grandmother smiles.
Her cheeks pull into apples, deep wrinkles frame her mouth, and crow’s feet crinkle the corners of her eyes. She looks at June with nothing but love.
The warmth of it sweeps June away. How could young June have not understood this? How could she have forgotten how it looked? Now, as an adult, the recognition rises in June’s chest, spreads to her fingertips, slackens her shoulders and unknots her stomach. The catharsis brings tears behind her eyes. I see you, that smile says. You are exactly where you need to be, and you are always, always enough.
June’s eyes fly open. She is back in her kitchen, standing alone on the cold tile.
“Grandma?” she whispers. Her voice cracks.
Then she crouches down.
Then she begins to cry.
Big, heaving sobs wrack her shoulders. Tears run down her nose, her chin. Her lips taste like salt, and she can hardly see the tile through the hot, watery blur. Grandma. Grandma, I miss you. And I’m enough. I’m enough.
June realizes she’s still clutching the mochi in her fist.
She squeezes her eyes shut, raises it to her lips, and bites.
She focuses on the mochi’s soft weight resting in her palm, on the sweet dough against her tongue. Fear curls hot in her stomach. Every breath is a shudder. What if it doesn’t work? What if she opens her eyes and there’s no change at all?
She can’t bring herself to look.
So, carefully, haltingly, June hums.
Silence stretches for a beat.
Her heart starts to sink–
Little teeth nibble her thumb.
And the mochi hums back.
© 2022 by Sara S. Messenger
Sara S. Messenger is an SFF writer and poet residing in Florida. When she’s not playing fetch with her cat, she reads poetry collections in the sun. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, and her poetry has been published in Strange Horizons. If you enjoyed this work, her full portfolio and other musings can be found online at sarasmessenger.com. This is her first short fiction publication.