When a tiger dies, it leaves its skin behind. When a person dies, he leaves his name behind.
The door was always locked.
It wasn't a normal doorknob, the sort that could be locked from the inside and easily opened with a thin rod from the outside. The lock was solid and required a key to open it. Not that she hadn't tried. She’d picked at the lock with everything but proper lock-picking tools but it hadn't worked, and she only succeeded at damaging her school ID card when she tried that.
So the closet remained shut, its contents both sacred and unmentionable to the world outside.
He shut the door as quietly as he could behind him, sliding the key into the lock. A loud thunk left him wincing in the dark hallway.
"What's in there, Uncle?" she asked. Even in the shadow of night, she could see the brief, haunted look in his eyes before he slipped into the role of Parent.
"Isn't it a bit late for you to be up, Tellie?" he said, voice lightly reproachful, trying to direct his niece's attention away from the room and himself.
"It's Mom's birthday today," said Donatella. She glanced at the clock, which showed half-past midnight, and amended, "Well, yesterday."
Then there was a pained look, before her uncle picked her up in his arms and whispered, "Let's go get you a cup of hot chocolate, and I'll tell you a story about your mother."
Her uncle was a tired man in her eyes. It was to be expected; he worked hard and long, raising three sons and a niece while taking care of his ageing mother. He was grateful for every meal his wife made and for everyone helping with housework.
Yet despite his fatigue, he always wanted to know where everyone was. If someone went out, he waited up for them to come home - if he wasn’t picking them up from wherever they went. His sons and niece had to ask permission before they could agree to anything extra-curricular.
His sons were annoyed by it, but his niece figured she knew why. The last time he hadn't known where someone was, he had been asked to come to the hospital to identify the body of his younger sister, who had been struck by a car after it had slid on a patch of snow-covered ice.
He picked up the phone and dialled. From the sanctuary of his office, he would not be bothered by his curious sons or the blank, uncomprehending look of his niece. The phone rang twice before it was picked up.
"Hello, Kikuchi residence."
"Mother, I need you to come."
"Well good. I was thinking of moving in with you. You have such a large house, and taking care of one on my own is just too mu -"
"Akiko's dead, Mother. Her funeral will be a few days, when the legal procedures are done. Please come."
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
The door to her grandmother's bedroom was usually shut. In her old age, she enjoyed having her own space and when her grandchildren were younger had taken to shutting the door when she wished to be alone. Now it was just habit, even though the smell of her room permeated the whole house at times.
Incense of offering and other things, gifts for the dead. Oranges for her husband, flowers for her daughter.
The house often smelled of flowers.
Donatella hovered behind her grandmother, the shade of the trees protecting them from the bright sun. They were in the garden and her grandmother was planting flower bulbs.
"Why are you planting them now?" Donatella asked. "Won't they come up soon like other flowers?"
"Not these ones." Grandmother held up a brown bulb to her granddaughter's eyes. "These bloom in Spring, but only if they are planted in Fall."
"Mm-huh. I prefer roses myself, but Akiko always liked tulips and daffodils. Things worth waiting for are always best. That's why we agreed about hydrangeas - those don't bloom until summer."
During summer vacation she saw more of her father, rather than just the every-other-weekend permitted during the school year. He took her to the East coast, the West coast, New York City, and California, each for a two-week long period at the start of her summer vacation.
When September began, she wouldn’t see him again for the same long periods. He taught at a university and she attended school, so they could only meet on the weekends for films and things like that. And even then, only when neither of them were caught up in deadlines.
Still, she liked to see him, even though his wife didn't like her and her much-older children were indifferent to her presence, for far and few were the times she had been with them.
It was summertime in the city, and he had taken her to see a film that had just come out. It was late, but not quite evening yet.
"I didn't think the film would be so long," her father said. He was driving her home in his car, and she played with the buttons for the air conditioning. Taking out his cellphone, he handed it to her. "Will you call Carl and tell him you'll be late for dinner?"
It took Donatella a moment to remember that Carl was Uncle Kaoru. "I guess Mrs LeBlanc is still uncomfortable about me," she remarked blandly, taking the cellular.
Her father's right eye twitched, a sign that he had repressed a wince. "She - she still isn't too hap-" He paused, took a breath, and began again once he had passed through the crossroad. "You look a lot like your mother, especially when I taught her at university."
And slept with her was unsaid, the words floating uncomfortably between them. "I understand," said Donatella, truthfully. Unspoken, she, too, is haunted by my mother's memory.
Her cousins were boys; two older by two and one years respectively, and one younger by almost four years, named in memoriam for a woman who had died months before he was born. But she was not the same haunting cloud of memories for them as they were for the older generations.
She loved them best of all, for they never spoke or asked her of her mother. Anything they wanted to know they asked their parents or grandmother, and they were not curious about the deceased.
"Hey, Tellie! Play with us!" whined Akito; he was wearing his winter jacket and snow pants with hockey gear. His older brothers were dressed similarly. "We need a goalie."
She stared at them, and when they did not shift uneasily she said, "Do you know what day it is?"
Her youngest cousin's helmeted head bobbed up and down. "Yeah. It's Thursday. We didn't have school today because the street's all iced and the bus couldn't drive on it safely."
She blinked at him in all his earnest answer. "You mean jeudi," she corrected, getting up to get her jacket. "We're playing the Montreuil’s, right? They speak French so it's jeudi." She didn't bother to say it was her mother's death anniversary. He didn't know, and why would he? For him, important people were immortal and he was not bothered by the ghosts of those who had proven their mortality.
Every year she went to her mother's grave with her uncle and aunt. Her grandmother stayed behind, claiming that she did not need another reminder of how she had outlived one of her children.
Fresh flowers were hard to come by in early February, especially Spring-bloomers. But either her grandmother could perform miracles or made the poor florist fear for his life so badly he could produce anything the eldest Kikuchi wanted, and each year he presented her granddaughter with a large bouquet of thirteen daffodils and thirteen tulips. One for each year her daughter had lived.
Every year they were laid in front of her mother's headstone, and every year Donatella stayed until she was dragged away. Winters were cold where she lived.
Her uncle touched her lightly on the arm. She turned to him, face as solemn as his was wracked with guilt. If he hadn't fought with her this night so many years ago, then maybe -
"Honey," her aunt said, snapping both husband and niece from their reverie, "we should go now. It's getting colder, and no amount of waiting will bring her back."
Her husband seemed shocked by her words, but Donatella nodded. "I know. Not even this cold could wake the dead."
Her aunt was a lovely woman, her figure trim even after the birth of three sons. But then again, they were active, and she would either have to go at their pace or be left behind.
She was honest to her children - all four of them, she would say - and did not try to change the subject when asked an awkward subject.
She also had a poor memory for names and faces together, so her niece was always her niece, and not the living image of her dead sister-in-law.
"Hey." Donatella turned to see her aunt, resplendent in her cocktail dress. For whatever reason, the simple family get-together had turned into this massive, formal family reunion. "Wanna talk?"
Donatella shook her head silently and her aunt knelt beside her chair, taking a chocolate bar out of her purse. Donatella wavered, then took the chocolate and spoke rapidly. "Another relative thought I was Mom. And all I've heard tonight is 'you look so much like your mother' and 'your mother looked just like you when she was your age' and stuff like that."
When Aunt Sadako nodded encouragingly, she continued, "I barely remember what she looks like! How can these people, whose memories aren't getting any better, remember a woman who died over ten years ago, and they haven't seen in over twenty?"
"Because last impressions are just as important as first ones," said her aunt. She wrapped her arms around Donatella's shoulders and hugged her. "Don't worry. Eventually you'll grow out of the Walking Dead syndrome."
"'Walking Dead syndrome'?"
"When no one sees you for you." Aunt Sadako flicked her lightly on the nose. "Come on. Finish that chocolate bar. Did you know your mother couldn't stand chocolate?"
Donatella looked scandalised and her aunt took much glee in it. "Uh-huh. And she loved tomato soup."
Donatella shuddered, then broke down in giggles as her aunt continued to regal her with funny facts about her mother.
To be perfectly honest, she couldn't really remember her mother. Only as photographs and the stories she heard of her - not a living, breathing woman who did the things people said she had done. In death, she had become as static as a photograph, moving only within the realms of imagination and a memory that wasn't her daughter's.
Except sometimes, in the period between waking and dreaming, she thought she could remember something. A lullaby, maybe.
"Uncle, does Aunt Sadako sing at all?"
"Goodness, no. She sings like a cat having its tail stepped on."
"Hey! I heard that."
"You're gonna get it tonight, Uncle. Does Grandma sing?"
"She used to when I was little. But she hasn't sung in years. Says her voice isn't made for singing anymore."
"Oh. Okay then."
"What is it?"
"Sometimes, I think I can remember a woman singing to me when I'm falling sleep."
Tonight, Donatella was doing something she should have done a long time ago.
Her aunt and uncle were going out for a New Year's Eve party and the rest were staying home. Her grandmother hadn't gone to parties in years and the big party she and her older cousins were supposed to go to had been cancelled last minute. The host - a boy from their high school - had contracted a virus of some sort, and they couldn't stand the person who had taken it over in his stead. Her youngest cousin was, his father said, too young to be going to parties.
Once her aunt and uncle had driven out of sight, Donatella put on her winter clothes, grabbed a shovel and started to dig in the backyard. It was hard; the snow was heavy and moist, and there was a lot of it. But she managed to clear away a large patch of grass.
She laid a plastic tarp on the ground, weighing down the corners with logs she had taken from by the fireplace. Then she ran back inside for the necessary part.
"What are you doing, Tellie?" asked Ken, her oldest cousin. The other two had looked up from their New Year's television programme and her grandmother up from her book to hear her answer.
"Something someone should have done a long time ago." She walked into her bedroom, where she had hidden her uncle's power drill. He rarely used the thing and still didn't know that it had been missing from his tools for weeks. Taking the drill, she went to the Door. After a few false starts, the screws holding the doorknob onto the Door fell out, followed shortly by the doorknob.
The Door swung open.
Boxes upon boxes filled the room, containing her mother’s possessions that her grandmother and uncle had saved. A rack of dress bags hung to the side and the air smelled stale and of mothballs.
She cut open a box. It was filled with her mother's old tests and essays. Setting them aside to go back in the box, she shifted through more paper than she ever had before. Legal documents, love letters and diaries Donatella kept. Everything else went back into the boxes.
She found photographs of her mother in boxes and photo albums. She also set them aside after pulling out the doubles and putting those in a box.
Anything Donatella did not consider important went back into a box. Shoes that didn't fit her or would never be back in fashion; make-up which should have been thrown out long after her mother died; books she had written in or were falling apart, after she had made note of the titles and authors; school notes, old dresses and clothes.
She gathered up the things she would keep, then went to her bedroom where everything was set up for this. She filed the legal documents into a large binder with plastic sleeves and the love letters in a separate one. These were placed on the bookshelf, where she had made room for them and the diaries.
She drilled the hooks that had come with the very large collage frame into her bedroom wall. Photographs were removed from albums and taped onto the poster board for the collage. She put the board in its frame and hung it up on her wall. Then she went back to the closet and started to carry down the boxes.
Her grandmother was standing at the foot of the stairs, blocking Donatella's path. "Please move, Grandma," said Donatella, wondering if she could just push past the old woman.
"Where did you get that box?" asked her grandmother, even though she already knew the answer. The sound of drilling was very loud, even with the television.
"Upstairs. Please move."
"Those things belonged to your mother, you know."
"'Belonged'. Past tense. She never left a will, anything that belonged to her belongs to me now. Please move."
"And what are you going to do with them?"
"What I should have done a long time ago. Now please move." Donatella shouldered past her grandmother, put on her boots and ran outside. It was colder without her jacket and gloves, so after placing the box on the tarp she ran back inside to get another box.
Again and again, she carried down box after box, ignoring her grandmother's baleful eyes and arguments. When her grandmother seemed to grow tired of this, she sent her youngest grandson to block Donatella's path.
"What are you doing, Tellie?" he asked, his big black eyes larger than usual it seemed. They didn't hold the same accusatory, how-could-you-do-this look of her grandmother, but the light of pure curiosity.
"Getting rid of a ghost," she said.
"Like Danny Phantom?" His eyes were shining now, and Donatella knew she had won.
"Kinda. Except this kind of ghost you can't put in a thermos. You have to get rid of it differently."
"First, you have to help me carry down these boxes from that locked room. Can you do that?"
Akito nodded cheerfully and ran upstairs. Donatella smiled at her grandmother, and then went outside with her box. She had won, and the fact was impounded further when Akito managed to convince his brothers to help through whining and blackmail.
Once all the boxes were outside, she prepared for the next stage while Akito danced round her. "What's next?" he asked.
"We burn it." She caught the manic grins of Ken and Shin'ichi. She let them start the fire, getting logs from inside the house and using some paper as a starter. "We need to wait a bit before it gets hot enough to burn anything but paper," informed Shin'ichi. So she and Akito went back inside and started to make hot chocolate for all of them.
"I'll make it." Her grandmother walked into the kitchen and took out a saucepan. "A microwave isn't a good way to a lot of hot chocolate."
They took turns minding the fire and refilling the thermoses with hot chocolate until, finally, Shin'ichi declared the fire to be hot enough. "You can't throw it all on at once or else you'll smother the fire," he instructed, lightening the load of things Donatella was going to toss on to it. "You have to feed it slowly, like this." He tossed a small bundle of papers onto the fire, waiting for them to catch fire and burn for a moment before feeding the flames again.
"Thank you," said Donatella as she and the others followed his instructions, stripping their winter jackets onto the tarp as the fire grew hotter. Most of the stuff caught fire. The stuff that didn't catch fire immediately – some shoes and clothes and her mother's copy of Fahrenheit 451, for whatever reason – did after they had been plucked out of the fire and doused with hairspray. Those made spectacular flames then, and they started to spray more stuff before giving it to the fire.
Much time had passed, and at some point one of her cousins went inside and came out again with two fireplace pokers and a bag of marshmallows; they were slightly stale, but no one noticed once they started to cook them over burning memories.
As he slowly roasted his umpteenth marshmallow over the flames, Ken remembered something they had all forgotten. "Mom and Dad are going to be home soon," he announced with some amount of shock. "What are we going to say to them about the fire and stuff?"
"That they should have done it a long time ago," Donatella replied, feeding the last pieces of paper to the flames. "Your marshmallow's on fire, by the way."
Almost everything had been burnt now, save for a single dress, which her mother'd worn to her high school formal if Donatella remembered the photographs correctly. It was a formal affair - hideously shiny in off-white satin and sequins - and Donatella sprayed several coatings of hairspray on it before cautiously tossing it onto the fire.
"That was cool," proclaimed Akito, staring in awe at the spot where the dress had exploded into a column of fire.
But Donatella wasn't paying attention to the fire anymore, beyond general safety hazards. It had started to snow, and she stripped off her gloves. The flakes were huge and moist and fluffy, and even near the roaring fire they managed to stay on her hands for a few seconds before melting into water. She looked up at the dark sky, where snow fell from like stars.
"Rest in peace, Mom."
And she did.