The way the hail bounces is a tiny miracle in and of itself. Not to mention the fact that it appeared out of nowhere, when only twenty minutes ago the sky had been practically clear. The weather here changes at the drop of a dime, thinks Mariko. In the course of one afternoon she’s already taken her jacket off four different times and she hasn’t even made it across town.
When the hail starts, she takes cover beneath an awning to avoid it, and goes from being alone to being one of five in an moment’s time. There’s a big man in a suit, who holds his briefcase over his head and laughs as he runs for cover. A woman underneath a magazine smiles nervously, looking up at the sky. Mariko doesn’t know any of their names or faces, but for a moment they don’t feel like strangers. For a second, they are all together in something. It’s not quite like sharing a subway car, or a bus. It feels different, though she doesn’t know exactly like what.
“It’s every five minutes in this town,” says the man in the suit, wiping the raindrops from his briefcase.
“I literally just left my hairdresser,” says the woman irately.
They all stand shoulder to shoulder, the splattering drops hitting the toes of their shoes as the rain and the hail fall together.
The door behind them is the door to a bakery and the smell of bread and coffee seep out to mix with the smell of wet pavement and wet concrete and wet city. A narrow man with sharp cheekbones, right next to Mariko, lights a cigarette, like he does’t know how long they’ll be stuck on this strange island, and he might as well make the most of it.
Mariko knows she’ll look stupid if she does it, knows she might attract some looks, but she can’t help it. She squats down and watches the hail bounce and there’s something in it that’s simply incredible. She wonders how she never noticed it before, or if it was one of those natural wonders you forget about the moment its gone, like the speed of a hummingbird’s wings, or a flash of lightning, or the first bite of a ripe watermelon.
Each tiny meteorite of ice that ricochets off the sidewalk sends up drops in every direction like inverted fireworks, and she stares, grinning, as fragments splash onto her nose and cheeks. It occurs to her, as though someone beside her brought it up in passing, that she doesn’t feel sad.
Her smile stays like the impression of the sun on closed eyes, but her mind freezes. There is the trident of dread, piercing her stomach, her heart, her throat. There is the fear of falling, the chair leaned too far back to save from tipping.
On the far side of the street, she sees the wolf. It is big, too big to be a real wolf, but like some child’s imagining of one, a creature from a fairy tale. She can see its hackles raised as it crouches over the sidewalk. She can see its teeth, and in them are all of the bitter nights, the dull, relentless ache of the hours. The loneliness. The emptiness. She can see the saliva building on its lips.
She’d done the impossible, the unforgivable, she’d forgotten for a moment how the feeling haunted her, how the sadness hung in the pit of her stomach like a cinder block. For a moment, she’d forgotten it, misplaced it. And here was the wolf to remind her.
But the wolf doesn’t move. It doesn’t cross the street toward her, either with a lunge or an imminent saunter, which would be worse, because it would give her time to panic and cower and beg. It only watches her, growling through the rain and the hail.
Mariko lowers one bare knee all the way to the cement, lets the jacket in her arms fall beside her, its collar soaking up a puddle.
Is it coming? she asks herself, waiting, not daring to breathe. Then, out of nowhere, sunlight hits the sidewalk. The drops turn into golden arcs, scattering and multiplying like sparks. It’s so beautiful that Mariko can hardly look at it. She closes her eyes and lets the light wash over her face. She waits for the wolf to walk over and take her by the throat. She’s ready, she thinks to the sun, to the marvelous, perfect sun.
But the wolf doesn’t come. She hears the hail turn back into rain, but it is thin and silver in the sunlight when she opens her eyes.
The man in the suit nods to his momentary friends and walks away, his briefcase swinging.
With the magazine still covering her hair, the woman walks away, the click of her heels echoing.
The smoking man takes a moment to finish his cigarette, while Mariko stands up and brushes off her skirt. She puts her shoulders back and fills her lungs with the smell of the rain and the sun. The wolf is still there, but he’s sitting down. She’s never seen him do that, before. And he’s watching, too, as if he’s never quite seen anything like this.
Mariko breathes again and realizes she’s still smiling. She keeps waiting, but the lightness in her chest stays light. The tingle in her stomach continues to ricochet and scatter.
The narrow man throws down his cigarette and walks away, his shoes scraping, and now Mariko is alone again.
Well no, not alone. The wolf is still there, but he’s surprised her again by laying down. He looks smaller when he does this, and more like a dog than a monster. He seems, and this shocks her more than anything, as though he’s completely forgotten about her.
A young man in an apron appears in the door of the bakery behind her, surprising you as he says, “I swear, every time I look out the window I see a different world.”
She smiles at him out of politeness, at first, but then her smile brightens a little, because she realizes he’s really seeing her. It feels like nobody’s done that in so long, not that she blames them. She could hardly look her own reflection in the eye yesterday, the day before, a year ago. So what’s changed today?
The wolf—she doesn’t think about him, doesn’t think about the sadness or where it might have gone, where it might be waiting. Instead, she leans into the lightness as if testing a rope she doesn’t trust to hold her weight.
“The coffee smells good,” she says finally.
“It tastes good, too,” he says. “Well, it’s alright, anyway.”
She almost laughs. Doesn’t, quite, doesn’t trust it. “I meant to hurry home when the rain started, but…” she stops mid sentence. When she looks back at the street, the rain is all but stopped.
She closes her eyes and pictures the hail, sees it race down and fly back up. She knows it’ll make her look crazy, but so what if it does? “Can I just have a minute, out here?” she asks, and she hears him go back inside.
People walk by her on the sidewalk but she closes her eyes, trying to remember, desperate to remember. She has to keep the hail inside of her. She has to bottle up this miracle and keep it in a cabinet like medicine, for the next time the weather changes at the drop of a dime. For the next long, lonely night. For the next fit of rain, the next weary day, the next, the next.
She folds her hands, as if she’s caught something between them, and draws them to her chest. It almost certainly won’t last. She knows this. But it doesn’t seem to matter, right now, because it’s here. Nameless and weightless and sparkling in the sun for as long as it can.
When she opens her eyes, she catches only the briefest glimpse of its tail as it disappears down the street.