The Aves of Maria
Scuto Amoris Divini—By The Shield Of God's Love
The restaurant, Chinya, is located in a district of downtown Old Tokyo called Asakusa. It is an eatery with a rich, long history stretching all the way to the year 1603, though its official founding was in 1880. Despite its age and strictly traditional setting, Chinya possesses a casual air about it, welcoming locals and tourists alike. Alive with chatter, the diners were absorbed in their own conversing groups and spared not a thought for Atsushi and Maria, who were led to their table by a kimono-clad hostess.
They made light talk while they waited to be served their sukiyaki, the restaurant's trademark, specialty dish: stir fried slivers of beef, grilled tofu, shitake mushrooms, negi leek, shirataki noodles, and chrysanthemum leaves simmered in stock. They dipped the bits and pieces of the mixture into dishes of raw egg before lifting the food to their mouths, smiling at the flavor.
Maria turned out to be older than Atsushi had expected: she was 37, nine years widowed, and had few living relatives—a sister and niece (and brother-in-law), and a couple estranged cousins. Her father had been an American soldier during the Vietnam War, and had taken on her mother's name, Fujitaka, upon their marriage, in order to appease her parents, who were WWII survivors and thusly none too fond of him. Maria made a living breeding and raising white doves for magic shows and weddings, and had organized no few number of weddings herself.
The reason for their meeting, however, was not brought to light until the remains of their meals were removed from the table and dessert was served along with a refilling of tea.
Maria blew away the swirling steam from her cup and sipped tentatively to avoid scaling her lips and tongue. "So, Maki-kun," she began, setting her cup on her napkin, "What was it you called me about? I'm sure you didn't come simply to hear an old maid like me titter away about her life."
"You are hardly an old maid, Fujitaka-san," Atsushi said with a smile, "In perfect honesty, I admit I find you to be a very attractive woman."
She flushed prettily, flattered.
Atsushi straightened and took a breath, preparing himself. He had already decided that he could not tell Maria the truth, that he didn't know why he called on her—he still was questioning his actions—and after Lawrence's useless advice the other day, Atsushi had settled on telling a half-truth.
He folded his hands on the table and met Maria's inquiring eyes. "As I am sure you can understand, Fujitaka-san, it has been somewhat of a difficult time for my family since my father fell ill. Frightening, even."
"Of course," she said gently, reaching across the table to grip his hands in a gesture of comfort, "It's always terrifying when someone we love nearly dies. It's a blessing that Noritaka-san will make a full recovery."
Atsushi swallowed thickly, wondering at the brief stutter in his pulse. "Yes, a blessing, indeed. But, you see, Fujitaka-san, I am an atheist, however my father's stroke has shaken me a bit. I called you the other day as I was hoping…" he trailed off and cleared his throat, averting his eyes from hers in a show of false apprehension, "I was hoping that you might be willing to teach me about your religion. I have grown curious."
She smiled widely, cheeks dimpling, her entire demeanor taking on a glowing atmosphere. "Of course I'll teach you, Maki-kun! I'd be happy to! Oh, I-I'm so flattered that you came to me." She paused and put a finger to her chin, looking thoughtful. "I actually am not sure where to even begin."
"It is not as if you need to start telling me all about it right now," Atsushi reassured her, "Sunday was the first time Anju and I had been to either church or temple in years, so there is much I have probably forgotten."
"Naturally, naturally," she agreed, "You didn't need to use the information so you forgot it."
Their relaxed postures straightened when their waitress came by to supply them with the bill. The woman smiled cordially at them. Atsushi nodded stiffly in reply while Maria gave the other woman a more prolonged bow of the head. As she finished her tea, Atsushi took the opportunity to pull the receipt to him and take out his wallet.
Maria's hand sped across the table. "Maki-kun!" she exclaimed, snatching the other end of the receipt with a scandalized look. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm pretty sure I'm paying the bill, Fujitaka-san," Atsushi said, a bit bewildered. Gently, he tugged the bill toward himself.
Her eyes glinted. "I do hope you weren't intending to pay for both our meals, were you?"
"It is only gentlemanly." He admitted.
"Take care not to say that as if this were a date, Maki-kun."
The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled. "Of course not, Fujitaka-san; I would never presume such a thing. However, it really is no trouble, I have plenty of savings."
"I'm sure you do, but you are a blossoming youth who surely has more whimsical things to spend ten thousand yen on than food, and I am a financially stable, thirty-eight year-old woman."
"Ah, but I am the one who so shamelessly demanded a portion of your busy schedule, Mashiro-san."
The poor receipt was on the verge of being torn in twain.
"Oh come now, Maki-kun, it's not as if I would've come if I was opposed to spending time in your company."
"Yes, but it was rude of me to push you into that position, even though you are good friends with my mother. Please, let me make it up to you by paying the bill."
"I don't suppose that you'll let me at least pay for my half of the meal?"
"Not a chance," Atsushi said with a cheerful air.
"I thought as much, but I am not about to let you pay for the entirety of that bill, Maki-kun."
"Oh, but I insist."
"Atsushi Maki, give me that receipt! You can take care of the tip, if it means that much to you." She said sternly.
Atsushi promptly let go, eyebrows high with astonishment. Maria's tone of voice was one he had only ever heard his mother and elementary teachers use. That low, well pronounced, almost dangerous sounding voice somewhere between a purr and a growl that caused any misbehaving child to sit up ramrod-straight without fail. It was entirely unexpected.
He upheld a slightly meek expression as he pulled out a few hundred yen for the waitress' tip and submitted himself, for the time being, to following Maria's lead. Less than a minute later they got up and left Chinya. He offered her his arm and though she refrained from looking at him, he felt relieved when she accepted it.
To Be Continued...