Kiki Delivers a Stroll

 

Chapter 10 of Volume 2, Kiki and New Magic, by Kadono Eiko.

. . . . .

Rrrrrrrrring— Rrrrrrrrring—

Kiki put down her dustcloth and picked up the phone.

“Why hello, is this Kiki’s Delivery service?” said a man with a bit of a rumble in his throat.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“There’s a little something I’d like you to deliver for me. I’m in the hospital right now, you see… I wonder if you might come down here.”

“Yes, I’d be happy to. Would it be alright if it took a little time, though?”

Ever since the incident with the apple [see ch. 9 of this volume], Kiki had stopped using her broom for deliveries.

“Oh, that’s just fine. There’s no hurry at all. I’m in room 23 of Hanano Hospital, at the foot of the western mountains. If you could come between one and three—that’s naptime—that’d be best.”

“Alright, see you then,” Kiki said, and hung up the phone.

Jiji had looked up when the phone rang, but he buried his face back in his paws and curled up again.

“You know, Jiji, whenever you come home lately you never chase your tail, or sharpen your claws, or do anything but sleep.”

“Well, you don’t have to make it sound like that. What I’m doing is dreaming.”

“Oh? What kind of dreams?”

“Perhaps I should say endless dreams…” Jiji said, staring into the distance, tail tapping the floor.

Kiki sighed. Endless dreams? Quit trying to sound cool.

. . . . .

“Hold still, okay? Like a stuffed animal,” Kiki said as she settled Jiji on her shoulders and entered the hospital.

The door to room 23 was open. When Kiki peeked in, there was a man with scraggly white hair sleeping in the bed, his face half covered by a blanket. When Kiki tiptoed up, the man’s eyes popped open like he’d been waiting for her. “Remember me?” he asked with a smile.

When Kiki saw his pale grey eyes, she remembered running into him in the park now and then when she was training for the marathon over the summer [see vol. 1, ch. 9]. Once, he’d asked her what witches did when they got old, and ever since then the question had been stuck in her head.

“Yes, I remember. From the park, right?” Kiki said, smiling back at him.

“I caught a cold at the end of the summer, and I’ve been here just like this ever since,” he said, chuckling a little. He might laugh about it, but his voice was so thin it sounded like it might fade away any moment. He seemed a lot different from the man Kiki had seen during the summer; a lot smaller. With a shaky hand, he took the cane that was leaned up against the head of the bed and handed it to Kiki. “This is what I want you to deliver.”

Kiki recognized the cane topped with a long-eared dog’s head. The old man was always walking with it, very, very slowly, resting all his weight on it.

“There’s an umbrella stand in the entranceway of my house, see. I’d like you to put this in there for me.”

“But… Don’t you need it?”

“Oh, don’t you worry, I’ll be able to walk without it soon enough. But this old cane’s been stuck here all this time, itching to get out. So I was wondering, if it’s not too much to ask, if you could take it for a walk instead of flying it there. There’s no one home, and it’s not locked, so if you could just drop it off… Well, that’d be great.”

“Of course,” Kiki said with a nod. It might be an odd request, but since she didn’t have to use her broom, it was perfect.

“I was thinking you could follow this map here, if that’s alright. It’s a path I used to walk all the time, so I can feel like I’m walking along with you. There’s plenty of interesting things along the way, so enjoy everything you come across, you hear? I don’t mind if something catches your eye and you wander off, either; that’s half the fun of walks. And if it gets dark before you get there, you just head home for the night and pick up again the next morning.”

Kiki looked at the map the old man handed her. There were hills, there were stairs, there was a big park, and “sit here” was written on a bench in a corner of it. “Mister, is this the park we saw each other at last summer?” she asked.

“That’s right. It’s a nice park, don’t you think?”

“Why does it say ‘sit on the bench’ here?”

“Ah, well, it’s just that I always used to sit on that bench.” He smiled, eyes twinkling from under the blanket.

From the park, the map showed a twisty little path that lead to a riverbank and a boat with little windows.

“What a cute boat!” Kiki said, pointing to it.

“A friend of mine lives there,” the old man said, glancing over.

“On a boat?”

“She certainly does.”

“Your friend is a lady?”

“That’s right,” the old man said, throat rasping as he chuckled. “A very dear friend of mine.”

“I wonder if it’d be alright for me to pay her a visit.”

“Of course! She’ll be happy to see you,” he said with a smile. “But don’t you tell her I’m sick, alright? Say something came up and I’m off on a trip. My house is just a little ways from there, just past the bridge… You’ll know it, it’s got a sign that says ‘Hatter.’ And that reminds me, I need to give you something as thanks.”

“Oh, well… It’s fine, really.”

“No, no, you already don’t ask for anything more than ‘give-and-take’ or ‘what you can spare,” right? Well, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do for you like this, so… I’m a hatter, one that makes hats, not sells them, you see. There’s a red hat, the last hat I made, hanging above that umbrella stand. For some reason, I just felt like making a cute hat for a young lady. So how about you take that as thanks?”

“Yes, thank you, that sounds lovely…!” Kiki said with a nod.

“And one last thing… When it’s all over and done, I’d like to hear about your walk.”

“Of course! I’ll be sure to give a proper report.” Kiki stood up, something like fear or sadness suddenly coming over her. She hurried to take a deep breath, trying to calm herself.

“Why, what’s wrong? Don’t look so sad. I want you enjoy yourself, you hear? Have fun. That way, I’ll enjoy myself too.”

The old man waved a withered hand, like he was bidding her farewell.

. . . . .

From the hospital at the foot of the western mountains, Kiki descended into the town, cane in her right hand and Jiji trotting along beside her. “Y’know, that old man might have asked me to deliver this cane, but I think it’s more like I’m delivering a stroll. Sorry to make you walk so much, Jiji…”

“That cane has his smell,” Jiji said, unusually serious as he looked up at her. “So it’s like he’s walking with us.”

It was already nearly 3 PM, and the town spread out below was dyed by the warm afternoon sun. Partway down, the slope changed to steep stairs, and then back to a winding decline. They started to pass houses, and then people doing their evening shopping. Every once in a while, someone’s eyes would go wide as they saw the cane in Kiki’s hand.

Maybe they knew the old man.

Thinking that, Kiki smiled back.

When they got to the park, she looked around for the bench that had been marked on the map, even though she didn’t really understand why the old man went out of his way to tell her to sit there. It looked like a normal park. A girl passing by while skipping rope. Boys playing chase. A man and a woman walking arm in arm. There were people resting on the benches too, looking deep in thought. A squirrel approached Jiji where he was lying on the grass, before quickly running away again.

And seven or eight meters from the bench, a great tree caught Kiki’s eye, standing there as though waiting for her. As many times as she’d run through this park, she’d never noticed there was such a splendid tree here. With its thick trunk and roots, it almost looked like it was sitting cross-legged. It was a little twisted up to about an adult’s height, with big swirling lumps.

“What a tree…! I’ve come here so many times, but I never noticed it before. Look, there, it’s like a mouth! I wonder if this tree sings too,” she said to Jiji, remembering the time she delivered a tree’s song. But Jiji wasn’t listening; he was too busy chasing squirrels.

The great tree looked completely different from the ginkgo and elm trees that dotted the park, and it wasn’t just that there were still deep green leaves left on it. With its angular branches outstretched, there was a mysterious air about it. Kiki couldn’t look away.

“Aah!” A boy who was maybe seven or eight ran up to her. “What’s up with the cane?” he asked, eyes filled first with concern, then suspicion. “That’s the old man’s, he’s gotta be missing it.”

“The old man’s off on a trip right now. Say, have you talked to him here before?”

“Uh-huh, sometimes we sit together.”

“In that case, how about you sit with me in his place?”

Kiki lowered herself onto the bench, and the boy plopped down next to her.

“Hey, you see that that tree there?” he said. “It’s a camphorwood.”

“Yes, it looks like an old man.”

“Right? Just like the old hatter! Y’know, he’ll look at it and sing, ‘Looksee, looksee, there’s The Camphor, there’s The Camphor.’ And then I go “Looksee, looksee, here comes The Camphor, here comes The Camphor.'”

“Why’s that?”

“When I said of course the tree’s there, he was just like ‘No, no, I’m talking about The Camphor.’ And then he’d sing again, ‘Looksee, looksee, there’s The Camphor, there’s The Camphor.’ I always get really pulled in when he sings.”

“How about you? Have you ever seen The Camphor?”

“Yeah, just once. The thing is, The Camphor’s a door. A clear one. It sorta floats up into view, all hazy.  Y’know, you might be able to see it too, if you look really, reeeeeally close.”

“Really, reeeeeally close?”

“Uh-huh, that’s what the old man said. ‘Watch really close and really careful.'”

Kiki remembered the old man in his bed. She could almost hear his voice, overlapping with the boy’s.

“But I dunno, I guess it doesn’t really work unless he’s here too, huh.”

“So what happened after you saw it?”

“That old man, he opened the door and went in.”

“What?”

“Right? I was surprised too! And he took me with him,” he said, nodding proudly. “It felt like I was sitting on the bench, but also like I was walking on this path in the tree. Weird, right? The path was all winding, and I couldn’t see ahead at all. But the old man just kept going ‘looksee, looksee,’ and walking on forward without pausing or anything.”

“And then what?” Kiki said, leaning forward.

“That’s all. I said I wanted to keep going, but he said it’s an endless path and you’ll lose your way back… And then I was back sitting on this bench. Amazing, right? I swear I’m not lying!”

Kiki nodded silently, turning to look at the camphorwood. The evening sun was bursting through the gaps between the leaves in bright lines.

“The old man said this was his favorite path to walk. He came here every day. Hey, can you see The Camphor too?”

“No, I can’t.”

“I guess you really can’t see it unless he’s here, huh…” the boy sighed. He looked around, and suddenly jumped to his feet. “Ah, it’s getting dark! I’ve gotta get home.”

“Will I see you again?” Kiki asked.

“Yeah! And bring the old man with you next time, okay? It’s more fun with three people! Well, see ya!” The boy ran off, the back of his white sweater swaying.

The park had gotten much darker. The sun was hidden behind tall buildings, and the camphorwood looked bigger and bigger. Thinking about the old man, Kiki took the cane in both hands and rested her chin on it. The camphorwood kept growing and growing, until it was all Kiki could see. It looked almost like it was revealing itself to be a friend, branches reaching out towards her. Suddenly Kiki caught herself, looking around. She’d thought Jiji had been nearby the whole time, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“Jiji! Jiji!” she called.

And Jiji flew out from the shadowy roots of the camphorwood, tumbling onto the grass.

“Jiji, don’t tell me you went through The Camphor.”

His fur was sticking up like a hedgehog as Kiki held him, his body heaving against her as she stared up at the tree in a daze.

. . . . .

The next day, Kiki decided to start walking again from the park. She couldn’t stop thinking about that tree. Just like the day before, she sat on the bench, rested her chin on the cane, and stared up at it.

“Looksee, looksee, there’s The Camphor, there’s The Camphor,” she said, trying to imitate the old man’s voice.

Even in the bright morning sunlight, the camphor tree stood like a vast forest full of secrets. But the doorway to the mysterious path somewhere in the tree, The Camphor, didn’t appear before her no matter how closely Kiki looked.

Suddenly, the smell of animal breath hit her in the face, just as Jiji leapt off to the side. Looking down, a big dog was biting and pulling at her skirt. And then just as suddenly, there was the sound of a whistle and a “sorry!” as a boy ran up from behind.

The boy looked up at Kiki as he was trying to get the dog under control and blinked with surprise. “Hey, you’re…”

“Oh!” Kiki said at the same time.

It was the owner of the same dog that had ruined her borrowed dress when she was eating ice cream at the seaside restaurant [see ch. 7 of this volume].

“Down, Tachi! Sorry he’s always like this…”

“It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” Kiki said, standing up.

“So what brings you here?” the boy asked, giving the cane in Kiki’s hand a puzzled look.

“I’m going for a walk. I was just taking a little rest, actually. It’s a funny sort of walk, don’t you think? Tapping along with a cane, and with a cat for company on top of everything…” Kiki laughed.

“I was just taking a walk too, with a dog for company. How about walking together for a while?”

Kiki glanced over at Jiji.

“Does your cat not want to be with my dog?”

“No, it’s not that…”

She remembered the old man. This was still a job, after all. But he had said to enjoy everything she came across, and that she could wander off if she wanted.

“Sure, let’s go,” Kiki said.

“Alright then,” the boy said, starting off, the dog following after him with tail wagging.

“Well, isn’t he a cheerful mutt,” Jiji muttered under his breath.

“I’ve never heard of a cat and dog going for a walk together,” the boy said.

“I’m Kiki,” Kiki said, stopping for a moment.

“I’m Go, and this is Tachi. Nice to meet you!”

“My cat’s Jiji. So, Go, what kind of places do you walk?”

“Oh, you know… Here and there, someplace and another, and then a little beyond… Something like that.”

“Huh, do you mean you go all the way to the western mountains?”

“No, it’s more like, how to put it… Somewhere without a name, beyond the beyond,” Go said, staring up and into the distance.

“Beyond the beyond, huh… You don’t mean The Camphor?”

“Huh? What’s that?” Go said, turning to look at her.

“You know the big camphorwood in the park, right? Apparently The Camphor is somewhere in that tree. The owner of this cane, the old hatter, asked me to go for a walk yesterday, so…”

“Asked you to go for a walk?”

“Yup. Kinda funny, isn’t it? He used to go for walks every day, but something came up and he can’t right now, so he wanted me to go in his place and tell him all about it. Apparently he walks on this strange path by the camphorwood, and that’s called The Camphor.”

“Huh… That must be his special place. Somewhere you decide on for just you… At least, that’s what I think. Do you have anywhere like that?”

“Hmmm, me? I’ve only been in this town for a little over a year, so…”

“How about before you came here, then?”

“My hometown? …hmm.” The town where Kokiri was seemed to appear before her eyes. “Maybe…that place… But it was when I was really little. So there was this grassy mountain behind my house, and apple trees with grass growing everywhere around the roots. I’d walk there and sing, ‘Let’s go, poi poi, on a walk. Or maybe, poi poi, let’s jump rope.’ I’d always sing that. Isn’t it silly? But for some reason, I really loved it. And I used to say, this is my place, so everyone else stay out, that sort of thing. That’s the sort of place it was for me.”

“Poi poi, huh…” Go chuckled. “That’s cute.”

“It’s…childish,” Kiki said, blushing.

“So, is that all?”

“Not yet. So when I’d crawl into the tall grass, it felt like being all wrapped up in a nice-smelling blanket. I’d doze on my back, and I used to squeeze my eyes really tight shut. I liked watching the colors drifting behind my eyes, like rainbow polka dots. It was like the sky was in my eyes. And one time, I heard something like a sneeze from really far underground. Lots of sneezes. My mom’s an expert at making cold medicine, so I brought some and left it where I’d heard the sneezing. The next time I came, the medicine was gone, and I heard quiet tapping instead. I thought it must be a mole. I started talking to it after that.”

“Is that place still there?”

“I think so. Maybe I’ll go see next time I visit home. I’m feeling all nostalgic now… I’m kinda getting excited like I used to as a kid,” Kiki said, smiling at Go. “I still remember. Tapping the ground like TAP tap tap TAP meant ‘Kiki’s here.’ When I tried telling a friend, she just laughed and said ‘whaaat, no way…!'”

“Yeah, it’s hard to explain that sort of thing to other people.”

“So where’s your special place, Go?”

“Do you wanna go there?”

“I’d love to!”

“It’s really nothing special, though. Kinda childish. Ahh, now I’m getting all embarrassed…”

“Is it far? I’m following this map, heading for this little boat house here, so…”

“Lemme see,” Go said, looking over at the map Kiki spread out.

“The old man said his lady friend lives there, so I definitely wanna visit. And besides, a boat that’s a house is pretty unusual.”

“It’s still early, so we should be fine,” Go said, and started off walking again.

Suddenly, someone called out, “Hey, hey there!” from the side.

The narrow street was lined with little shops, all pressed together.

“Hey now, could you come a bit closer?” the voice called again. Now that they looked, it was coming from a shoe store. An old man was sewing the sole of a shoe, the top of his shiny bald head pointed towards them. He stabbed the needle in, looking up as he pulled it through, eyes going wide as he saw them. “Well now, looks like I took you for someone else. Sorry, sorry.” His eyes turned to the cane in Kiki’s hand. “See, I knew I wouldn’t mistake that cane. That’s the old hatter’s, isn’t it? I hear that tapping day after day, there’s no way I’d miss it. Why have you got it?”

“He’s on a bit of a trip right now, so he asked me to take his cane for a walk in his place. Seems like it gets fussy if it doesn’t get out.”

“I see, I see, it was every day, after all. Kept me waiting, too. On a trip, though, and without his cane, no less… Taking a car, maybe. Isn’t that fancy!” The old shoemaker stood up, patting down his apron smeared with shoe polish. “Now then, maybe I’ll join you, like usual.”

“What, join us?” Kiki said, her voice coming out louder than she meant it to. She couldn’t help but be a little disappointed, having to walk the rest of the way with this old man…

The shoemaker suddenly slipped in between Kiki and Go, took their hands, and started walking with a spring in his step.

“The thing about a walk is, tara tara taratta

A one, and a two, and a three step stroll

The thing about a walk is, tara tara taratta

A one, and a two, and a three step stroll!”

Then he looked at each of their faces in turn and said, “Alright, that’ll be all! That’s it for the walk we do,” and burst out laughing. “I always do that with old hatter, every day, even if it’s bucketing rain. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, without fail. I was starting to wonder what happened, since he hadn’t come by. I’m feeling nice and refreshed after that, so I’ll be getting back to work. Goodbye now!” he said before turning on his heel and sitting back down on his workbench.

Kiki was at a loss for words.

There really were all kinds of walks. Walks beyond doors, one-two-three-step strolls…

The old man could probably do a little walk like that even in the hospital. Maybe they could do it together when she went to tell him about everything that had happened.

“That was fun, wasn’t it? How about we get going?” Go said, whistling at Tachi, who took the lead, long fur swaying.

A sudden gust of wind rushed softly past them.

The shopping street ended in a winding, sunken road that came to a park sticking out into the sea, with a slope that angled gently towards the water. In the center was a swing set, a see-saw, and a green jungle gym that stood like a city’s tallest building.

“So there was a park like this here… I had no idea,” Kiki said, running forward to read the sign at the entrance. “‘Endless Park…’ But it’s so small…!”

“It’s bigger once you’re in it,” Go said, running in. “Hey, wanna climb the jungle gym?” He picked up Tachi, filling both his arms, and climbed up the bars with his fingertips.

Kiki settled Jiji on her shoulders, climbing up to sit next to where Go was staring out at the sea.

The sound of waves could be faintly heard. The waves hit the shore, turning into foam like smiling white teeth before vanishing. Far, far in the distance, the horizon spread like a line of shining silver. Jiji yawned widely.

The wind blew her hair back, and Kiki felt like her body was softly unfolding and expanding around her.

“You get why it’s called Endless Park now, right?” Go said.

“Ah, is this it? The special place you mentioned…”

“You guessed? When I look at the sea here, I feel like something in me is having a nice stretch, and I’m all the way beyond the beyond. That’s why this is my favorite place to walk,” Go said, eyes sparkling.

“It really feels like I’m in the sea, or in the sky… Ahhh, I really found somewhere great, thanks to the old man’s job.”

Kiki stared out at the horizon. It really felt like she was strolling beyond it and further beyond, all sorts of vistas appearing before her eyes.

“To tell the truth… I’m a witch,” Kiki said, face turned away from Go. “I’m still learning, but…”

Go looked up at Kiki in surprise. “So it’s you… I did hear there was one in town…”

“I’m taking a bit of a break right now from doing deliveries by broom.”

“Hmm… So, is it a fun job?”

Kiki looked up in surprise. Up until now, no one had ever asked her if it was fun. Everyone around her thought that of course flying was fun. It was all Tombo ever talked about. Kiki felt herself getting a little annoyed. “Lots of fun, obviously,” she said, suddenly wanting to brag. “I fly all over the place. Let’s see… There was a town in a swamp shaped like glasses… I delivered a hippo there. And, oh, do you know the Stardust Islands? There are these really funny animals there. They harmonize. I was really amazed when I heard them.”

“That’s incredible… Going all sorts of places and seeing all sorts of things I can’t see from the top of this jungle gym,” Go said. “This is fun too, though.”

“It’s endless, just like the name says. I feel it too. Even if you’re sitting here, it’s like your spirit is flying out. There are things you can only see from the air, but it seems like there are lots of things you can see while sitting on the ground, too. I think this might also be a kind of magic, actually. I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I’ve been relying too much on just my flight magic…” Kiki said, eyes closed shyly.

Go spread both his arms wide. Kiki imitated him, spreading her arms out too.

“Haaaaaaah….”

They both took a deep breath together. Then they turned to look at each other, suddenly laughing. Tachi stretched out his neck, howling an “aroooooo” that suddenly vanished into the sky.

“You say something too, Jiji,” Kiki said. From his seat on Kiki’s shoulder, Jiji gave a big yawn and turned away.

“What, is your cat sleepy?” Go asked.

“Sometimes he gets like this, when he’s putting on airs. Isn’t that right, Jiji?” Kiki said with a giggle.

. . . . .

“Oh right, you’ve still gotta finish your walk, don’t you?” Go said, picking up Tachi and starting to climb down.

“I’d love to come here again sometime,” Kiki said, following him with Jiji in her arms.

After saying goodbye to Go, Kiki headed for the boat house where the old man’s friend lived, following the path along the river bank. She knew it right away; a boat like a little square box, bobbing light as origami. There was a door in the middle and two windows to each side, all bordered with pink trim. Kiki started to cross the board connecting the boat to the shore, but as soon as the cane tapped against it, the door flew open, and there stood a girl about the same age as Kiki. She was wearing a white shirt and slim sky blue trousers, and a little blue hat was tilted low over her eyes.

Kiki stopped dead in her tracks. She was the old man’s lady friend, so she’d been expecting an old lady.

“Oh, you’re not the old hatter?” the girl said, tapered eyes glancing up from under her hat.

“I’m here in his place. He’s on a trip right now, and he wanted me to stop by here while taking a walk… I know you two are close, do you not wanna talk?”

“Close? Gimme a break. We just started talking cause he came by every day, that’s all. If you wanna talk too, you’d better come in.” The girl turned on her heel, disappearing into the house.

For a moment Kiki just stood there, frowning. But the old man had seemed so happy when he talked about his lady friend. He wouldn’t like it if she just left now.

“Jiji, let’s go in.”

“Well, we’d better,” he said, mimicking the girl’s words.

The inside was a long, narrow room, with a round rudder at the helm. Under the windows were a bed and shelf, and the walls were packed with paintings large and small.

“So the old hatter went on a trip, huh? Jeez, everyone sure does love running off.”

“You don’t like it? Trips are so much fun, though,” Kiki said, surprised.

“I wonder,” the girl said, turning to face her. “It’s the same wherever you go, isn’t it? My mom and dad are always saying ‘let’s go here, let’s go there.’ There’s no end to it. They both paint these bizarre paintings of the ocean, saying ‘its expressions change moment to moment’ or whatever, always going look, look, like it’s some big deal… It’s just the ocean,” the girl said, mouth set.

Kiki kept listening, at a loss for words.

“No one can mind their own business. That old hatter keeps coming even though no one asked him to, with that stupid smile, saying ‘don’t stay holed up here all alone, why don’t you come out for a walk,’ on and on. ‘If that’ll tire you out, how about just a short little walk,’ and then in this really out of tune voice he’d go, ‘The thing about a walk is, tara tara taratta, a one, and a two, and a three step stroll’ and say ‘Walks are great, they’re endless,’ stupid stuff like that. How’s a three step stroll supposed to be endless?”

Kiki just looked at her quietly.

“Ugh, I’m so sick of all of it…!” the girl said.

“Is it really that boring?” Kiki said, snapping a little. “This is boring, that’s boring… Of course it is, if you keep talking like that.”

“What, so you’re saying I should go prance around out there? Get real. Being bored is my hobby, so just leave me alone, alright? You can’t mind your own business either, coming out here just cause someone asked you to… What a goody two-shoes.”

Kiki glared at her, but the girl just gave a sharp laugh in response.

“I’m a witch, you know. I run a delivery service. The old man asked me to deliver this cane for him, so…”

“Oh, a witch, is that right. Come to think of it, my mom said something about there being one around here. ‘A real hard worker, even though she’s no older than you.’ She always compares me to other people. But you know what I think? Witches need to mind their own business,” the girl said, crossing her arms and turning away.

Kiki felt her temper flare up. “Well, I’m so sorry for not minding my own business, but the old man’s sick and he asked me to come for a walk in his place, alright?”

“No way, you said he was on a trip, right?” the girl said with a start.

“That’s what he told me to say. He’s withered down to almost nothing, and he can’t even get out of bed, but he looked so happy when he talked about you, his lady friend. Don’t you feel bad, talking about him like that?”

The girl pulled down the brim of her hat, quickly turning the other way. “Where is he now?” she asked, eyes on the floor.

“At Hanano Hospital, near the western mountains.”

As soon as Kiki answered, the girl headed for the door.

“Are you going there?”

The girl stopped in her tracks, turning back and giving a single nod. The eyes under her hat were full of tears.

“It’s pretty far from here, do you know the way? And visiting hours are already over for the day…”

“I wouldn’t be able to get in?”

“I don’t think so. I’m going tomorrow morning, so do you want to come with me?”

“Yeah.”

“Then let’s meet under the clock tower at 10.”

“Alright,” the girl said, nodding, eyes on Kiki. “Don’t be late. Oh, and… My name is Ocean.”

. . . . .

After Kiki had left the boat house and headed down the road a bit, she turned back to see light spilling out of the little windows. Breathing a sigh of relief, she pulled out the map the old man had given her.

There was just a little ways left to walk. She followed the map down the riverbank path and over the white bridge, before arriving at a shop with a sign reading “Hatter” in neat letters hung over the glass door.

The cold atmosphere of an empty house swept over Kiki as she opened the door. She fumbled in the dark until she found the umbrella stand, putting the old man’s cane in it before taking the red hat hanging above it. It was just the same style as the one Ocean had been wearing.

“Honestly, that old man…” she murmured, choking on her words, and put the hat on her head.

“It suits you,” Jiji said, looking up at her.

. . . . .

The next morning, Kiki and Ocean met under the clock tower and hurried to the hospital. But the person sleeping in the old man’s bed was a stranger.

A nurse spotted Kiki from the other end of the hall and rushed up. “Excuse me, you’re the witch, right? The hatter left a message for you. The evening before last, just after you left, he suddenly decided to go on a trip. He wanted me to say thank you, and let’s meet again someday. I promised him I’d tell you.” And with that, the nurse hurried off as though escaping, leaving the two girls standing there in a daze.

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Kiki and Ocean walked in silence. Their matching red and blue hats hung low as they descended the slope. Finally, they came to the place their paths split.

“I know the way home from here,” Ocean said. “Bye.” Then she started down the road.

Kiki stood there, poised to follow. “Say, Ocean,” she called after her, “Maybe we could go for a walk together sometime. Would it be alright if I came by?”

Without stopping or turning around, Ocean gave a single, forceful nod.

The next thing she knew, Kiki found herself back in the park, sitting in front of the camphorwood. It stood just as splendidly as before, but this time its leaves were shining in the bright noonday sun. Kiki stared hard at the roots. Surely the old man was walking somewhere beyond The Camphor, she thought.

She had to wonder what he’d really wanted, though. Could it really be just delivering his cane? Did he want to feel like he was taking a walk along with her? It seemed to Kiki that he’d left all sorts of things behind on his daily walks. Maybe it was that he wanted to show those things to Kiki…

Kiki stared up at the sky and sighed.

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