Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tokyoites (Edokkotachi): Fukkatsu no Jumon, a short story by Jacob Ritari

Each Wednesday in September, author Jacob Ritari is sharing with us one of his unpublished short stories set in Tokyo. This week's story is Fukkatsu no Jumon, which roughly translates as "Resurrection spell". It's the story of Taichi Tawara, a young nine-year-old boy, who has a special skill, that I'll let you discover for yourself by reading the story. This week's story is a little different in tone from the previous ones, and I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

*****
Fukkatsu no Jumon
Jacob Ritari

I.

At the age of nine, Taichi Tawara, while precocious in many respects, never understood what people meant when they talked about being lonely. His friends were always with him, awake or asleep.
His parents had taken him to the first of the psychologists a year ago. It’s perfectly normal for a child to have an imaginary friend or two, said Doctor Ita, himself a cheerful young man with a child’s face; didn’t you when you were his age? That was so, admitted his father. But imaginary friends were supposed to have names, and do things, like real people or animals. Taichi referred to his friends only as aitsura—“them”—and could never describe them, except to imply that they communicated with him in some way. But these conversations, he would explain patiently, weren’t like the ones you had with people, in words. Then he would look up with a matter-of-fact expression that became, by degrees, pained, as the knowledge pierced his small heart that this experience was not common to everyone.
There was no question that Taichi needed friends.
He had been a surprise. One moment, his parents had been living in the bustling Ebisu district of Tokyo; his father a bassist with an amateur band that played live houses, his mother a college dropout working as a nurse’s aid. They stayed home weekends, watched the NHK and smoked marijuana. Then along came Taichi, and before the pair of them knew it they were slaving away full-time in the suburb of Hachioji, which—although a half-hour’s train ride from their old home—seemed as far away from Tokyo, the live music scene, the clubs and bars, as Hokkaido. The father Shigeo had taken a night class and become an electrician, the mother Keiko worked for an accounting firm. They thought they had pulled their act together nicely. Luckily (though he was ashamed to think so) Shigeo’s father had died at around that time, as if his soul had been exchanged for Taichi’s; and he invited his mother to come live in their small apartment. For the first years of his life, she was Taichi’s only companion.
Yakumo Tawara bore the situation with equanimity, as she had her entire long life. She was a devout Nichiren Buddhist who credited her faith with the fact that her entire family, excepting one cousin, had survived the great war. She taught her grandson to recite the name of the Lotus Sutra, and erupted in girlish laughter when he lisped the words as if they were a tongue-twister:
Namomo renmi-bou.”
“No, no. Just as slowly as you please, dear: namu myohou renge kyou.”
Namomo renmi-bou!”
She would continue this until the child turned red in the face.
But Yakumo often spoke of her husband, to whose presence she had grown so accustomed; and four years later she followed him. Taichi was enrolled in a day-care. He seemed to mind the loss of his grandmother not at all, although his parents had been frank about it; he had attended the funeral, and even seen the white smoke rising from the crematory chimney. At first his father, stretched to the point of despair between work and his pent-up grief, had been grateful for this. But eventually he wondered, and during one of their late-night suppers, he casually asked his son—as he might have broached so delicate a subject with a much older person—if he missed his grandmother.
Taichi smiled and assured him that while he didn’t know where Yakumo-obaasan was (as if he might have known, and had failed them), he knew she was happy. They told him.
This was not the first time they had reared their head, but it was the first time Shigeo took notice and creased his forehead.
At the day-care, Taichi was withdrawn and rarely played with the other children. He turned out meticulous, abstract patterns, with the help of a protractor and compass, that covered whole reams of butcher’s paper. The college girl who minded the daycare said it was some of the finest work she had seen. As would later be the case, his parents felt they were the only ones concerned about their son; it was the same when he started attending school.
They were both soft-hearted people, and when the dismissals of several doctors forced them to confront the real issue—that Taichi was alone for ten hours of each day—each was first to blame him or herself. First Keiko offered to cut back the hours she worked, then Shigeo. But either way the checkbook wouldn’t balance. So, Taichi reached his ninth year with a firm and undemonstrative faith in the intangible, friendly presence of aitsura.

For himself, Shigeo found solace in the company of his brother-in-law, with whom he got along much better than Keiko herself. His name was Mako Tsuji, and he’d enjoyed some success as a talent promoter in Tokyo’s fast-paced entertainment industry. He was a stick-like man with a poor comb-over, whose seedy appearance belied a keen mind. As his apartment in Shinjuku wasn’t far from Hachioji along the Chuo line, the two men sometimes got together for a drink.
It was during one of these sessions, at a classy Shinjuku bar called Black Lung where Mako footed the bill, that Shigeo unburdened himself.
When he had finished the account of his son’s imaginary host of friends, Mako leaned back and lit another cigarette.
“It seems to me,” he said, in his squeaky voice, like that of an old lecher, that was also at odds with the words he spoke, “a lot of people believe in invisible things.”
Since Mako often complained about the illusory nature of money and fame, Shigeo assumed he was on this kick. But he went on: “I mean like gods and spirits. In my business, with all these rich people, a lot of them belong to some crazy New Religion. Everyone’s got some amulet. With the saner ones, it’s just got sentimental value; but it’s the same thing, isn’t it?”
The words had struck a chord with Shigeo, who had never been able to convince himself, when he honestly thought about it, of the non-existence of God; although he never made the slightest religious gesture.
Quietly he asked: “Why is that?”
His third drink sat in front of him, nearly empty, the traces of amber-colored whiskey embedded in the ice cubes.
“Who knows,” said Mako, smoke rushing out of his mouth toward the ceiling.
There were eight butts in the ashtray near his elbow.
After a moment he said: “I guess you have to believe in things you can’t see, because there’s not much to what you can see. I mean, if this is it—” he glanced around the bar, empty in early evening; the bartender at a computer in one corner, playing an online game, “we’re in trouble, aren’t we?”
Then he smiled. He reached inside the throat of his jacket, and drew out a small, ear-shaped seashell on a leather thong.
“From Hawaii,” he said. “The happiest time of my life. Whenever one of my acts is about to debut, I’ve got a death-grip on this thing for a week. I even sleep with it.”
Shigeo smiled. But in his heart the doubt persisted: it was easy to see why Mako did that, he knew it himself. But perhaps after all, Taichi hadn’t invented friends to replace those he lacked in real life; he had invented something other people couldn’t imagine. The idea of a host of amorphous spirits who never left you alone struck Shigeo as frightening.
When he had been Taichi’s age, he had believed his dog could talk. But he knew perfectly well dogs couldn’t talk; it was only a stubborn faith in the words that came to mind when he stared into the dog’s eyes. He knew his son was intelligent; his teachers all said so. Were aitsura only a way of diffusing his intelligence—of accounting, as simply as he knew how, for his ability to construct things like his elaborate geometric designs?
It was perhaps the least troubling of several possibilities.
Meanwhile Mako went on, looking above their heads, principally for his own benefit: “And then there’s UFOs and the lost continent of Mu and all that. And whenever someone says they’ve found Bigfoot, a lot of people want to believe it’s true.—You know, I just came up with this, so you’ll have to tell me what you think. But I don’t think people are stupid and will believe just anything. I think we’re a bunch of skeptics. We don’t want to believe that everything can be explained. Every fiber in our bodies resists that.” Then, embarrassed by this high-flown rhetoric, he grinned and called out: “Hey barkeep! Another whisky for me and my friend.”
But Shigeo declined and, thanking Mako for his advice, politely excused himself. In the street, snow was falling gently; a freak in early October. He heard the delighted shriek of a girl emerging from a nearby building. The snow settled on his forehead, melting as soon as it touched his skin, feeling somehow unreal. He started for home, the burden on his mind, if anything, heavier than before.


II.

The housing complex in which the Tawara family lived was separated, by a soccer field belonging to the local high school, from a group of houses belonging to wealthier families. It was understood that the soccer field and its attached playground belonged to the people on the Tawaras’ side; the wealthy people sent their children to camps where they spoke only English and French. Recently, Taichi had gone out in the evenings to play in the field. His parents were delighted, and let him come and go as he pleased; they might have been less so if they had seen that when he reached the field—picking out a place between other groups of children, nervous high school couples on dates, and old people taking solitary walks—he stretched out on the grass and lay unmoving, looking up at the sky, for hours.
Sometimes he left his eyes open, sometimes he shut them. One day, when they were shut, he was jolted to life by the wet nose of a dog underneath his right elbow.
It was a shaggy black dog of medium size, like a walking mop. Its eyes disappeared inside its fur.
“Hey there,” said Taichi. “Did you come to play?”
The dog stood observing him. After a moment, it stuck out its little pink tongue and began to wag its tail.
“You did, huh? I’m sorry. I’m not much fun to play with. You’d better find someone else.”
Then he tilted his head to one side, as if listening intently.
A shadow cut between his body and the fierce light of the evening sun. He looked up. A girl of about his own age was standing over him, dressed in a fur-lined coat. Her hair was done up in two fine braids, tied with white ribbons, that reminded him of the bell-pulls in front of a shrine.
“Kurosuke,” said the girl to the dog in a tone of command. “Leave that poor boy alone.”
That is to say, binbou: poor.
But the dog wouldn’t budge.
“It’s alright,” said Taichi. “Go with her.”
Kurosuke barked once.
The girl’s small, dark face contorted with anger, and placing one hand on her hip she pronounced: “Kurosuke! I am your mistress!”
At that moment a young woman, dressed like the girl in fine clothes, came running across the field. “Miss Kayo!” she called.
Taichi stood up, brushing the grass-juice off his jeans. He didn’t want to be the cause of any more trouble.
The girl addressed him: “Keep your eyes off me! I know you’re after my body. Come on, Kurosuke.” Then to the young woman, who had reached them: “Don’t worry about it, I can handle him.”
But the woman, who had approached them with a stern expression, now directed it at Kayo herself.
“Miss,” she said firmly. “What have I told you about being rude to other children? I know what your parents would say. Your dog was bothering this young man; now apologize to him.”
At that, Kayo’s ladylike veneer collapsed, and she whined loudly: “He’s not my dog; he’s Kurosuke! You’d better respect him like any member of our family! And, as for you,” and she wheeled again on Taichi.
But she saw that Kurosuke was licking Taichi’s hand, and there was a puzzled, abrupt smile—as if he didn’t have cause to smile often—on the boy’s face.
Kayo’s face softened.
“Kurosuke knows character,” she said, with a glance at her maid, explaining for her benefit. “Although I don’t know what he sees in you. Anyway, what’re you doing here, all spacing out? If you’ve really got nothing better to do, you can come play with me. But you’ve got to do everything I say, understand?”
Taichi shrugged.
“Okay. But I’m sorry.”
“What for?” said Kayo—with a skeptical look; as much to suggest that other people rarely agreed with her own assessment of the grief they caused her.
“You probably won’t have much fun. I’ll do my best, though.”
Then, looking at Taichi’s blank, earnest face, Kayo stifled a laugh.
It was the cause of great surprise and mortification. She stood for a moment with one hand on her chest, her mouth puckered.
The maid nodded, and said gently to Kayo: “You two enjoy yourselves. I’ll be where I was before.”
She returned to her bench, in the shade of two large willow trees, as the sun continued to set and sink the whole field in deep orange and red. From her vantage point, she saw Kayo standing and pointing at something as she spoke, while the boy she had met knelt, patiently, at her feet. Kurosuke sat in the same attitude.
A faint smile touched her face. Then she lowered her eyes to her translated copy of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.

From that day forward, Kayo waited impatiently on Taichi every evening. Making it understood that he was a sort of employee, like her maid, she expected strict punctuality: if he arrived a minute after five, because he’d become absorbed in his schoolwork or in a private daze, she levied exorbitant imaginary fines.
In many ways, he was an ideal companion for a spoilt rich girl. No commission of hers was too unreasonable, no idea too fanciful. This total pliancy of his she found often charming, often exasperating; it was all very well when he was her luggage-bearer, or second for ritual suicide. But when he was called on to play the villainous Yoritomo, forcing his brother’s mistress (Kayo) to dance for his assembled lords, something of true villain-hood was lacking.
When Kayo ran short of ideas, and settled on the grass with a huff, Taichi was content to hold Kurosuke in his lap and stroke him, his head tilted, as often, to catch some distant sound.
One day Kayo asked him, in the tone of a jealous lover: “What’re you listening to?”
“Them,” said Taichi.
Them? Who’s that?”
But although Kayo, tireless in her pursuit of fun, endlessly tried to fathom this game, she was brought up short every time. This almost caused a break between them. But such was Taichi’s sincerity that, when he regarded her with his large, calm eyes, she could only turn away and utter her common reproach: “You sure are weird.”
Each time she said this, Taichi nodded.
Finally one day—whether because he had grown used to her company, or if the thought had bobbed to the surface of his mind by chance, it was hard to say—Taichi, exhausted, lying on the grass near Kayo’s feet, asked:
“You really don’t hear them?”
“Who?”
“Them.”
Kayo, sitting with her knees gathered to her chest, also tired, answered simply: “No.”
And it was then, looking up at the sky in their mutual silence, that Taichi first grasped what might be meant by that cryptic word: loneliness.

These games continued through October, into the oncoming winter; the children wore heavier coats, and some evenings the grass was coated with a fine layer of frost. Neither Kayo nor Taichi ever discussed the state of affairs in their respective homes, but her parents evidently feared for her in the cold, because she came now only two or three times a week. Her manner became, if anything, more imperious, as if Taichi were to blame; but he of course never uttered a word of complaint.
One Sunday evening, they were walking underneath a row of trees planted at the southern end of the field. High schoolers called it the Lover’s Walk, and it was a favorite place to lure the object of one’s affections to make a confession, but the two children had no way of knowing this; they only liked the sensation, offered by the overhanging branches, of solitude and protection.
Recently, Kayo preferred conversation, even the broken and trivial, to the most elaborately structured game. Kurosuke ran ahead of them, sniffing at tree roots.
“…so that’s what he said,” Kayo was saying, “but I don’t know. How do I know from what he said that that’s what she really said?”
Taichi nodded.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think I get it,” he said.
“Get what exactly? You’re so weird.”
She tossed her head, sending her pigtails swinging.
“I think I get what you’re saying. That’s all.”
“Well that’s good, because I don’t understand any of it.”
Suddenly she stepped in front of him. With her hands on her hips, she stared him down. Taichi seemed stirred from his usual tranquility, and regarded her with faint surprise.
“Hey. How come you never say anything? If they’re telling you so much, why can’t you tell me?”
He lowered his eyes. “I told you…”
“Excuses, excuses. All guys are the same.”
Then they both heard a gurgling noise.
Taichi was the first to look up. Ahead on the path, on a slight incline dusted white by last night’s snowfall, was a throbbing black shape.
“Kurosuke!” Kayo shrieked.
She ran to him and threw herself over his prone body. Lying there in the snow, connected to the dog’s mouth by a spotty red line, was a red lump. At first it looked as though some animal had attacked him and vanished just as suddenly; but when Taichi knelt down and prodded the lump, he realized it was a piece of hamburg steak.
They didn’t know, but there had been a string of incidents in which pieces of meat, laced with enormous doses of rat poison, were left lying around. Three cats had died and two dogs. The reports hadn’t reached Kayo’s family in the heart of affluence; Taichi had heard, but failed to process them.
Kurosuke was heaving and shuddering, his movements growing weaker. Kayo’s face was an abyss of suffering.
First of all, death wasn’t possible in a world of games. It belonged exclusively to television dramas and news stories from distant countries.
But even if it was, death had no right to something that was hers. It should have come properly to the gate, announced itself, if it wanted to bargain…Death was welcome to “somebody’s dog” but not to Kurosuke, who slept at the foot of her bed, and woke her up each morning with strokes of his small, rough tongue.
Taichi stood behind her.
“It’s alright,” he said.
She turned on him her tear-streaked face, and said, with enough anger to sweep him permanently out of her life: “How can you say that!”
“It’s alright,” he repeated, and put a hand on her shoulder.
Somehow—however vaguely—she understood. Staring at him, she shifted to one side. Taichi knelt down over Kurosuke, who had almost stopped moving. There was no shade of concern on his face. Blood-streaked ochre vomit oozed from the dog’s mouth.
Taichi lifted one hand, and made a series of precise gestures in imitation of the ninja he had seen in period dramas, when they recited a formula to make themselves invisible or unleash torrents of fire.
“What’re you doing,” muttered Kayo.
“Helping,” he said, and shut his eyes and spoke: “Namomo renmi-bou.”
Kayo, for all her vanity, was sensible at heart. In this moment of loss, she understood all too well the dividing line between reality and games. Her eyes as she looked at Taichi were full of hatred.
Then he put his hand on Kurosuke’s side. The dog jumped up. It gave one high, clean bark that rose and pierced the canopy of bare branches.
Taichi smiled and scratched him under the chin, where the issue of blood still matted his fur. Kayo gaped.
“What…” she began. “What did you do?” Then with urgency: “What are you?”
Taichi shrugged.
She clung to his sleeve and, shaking him, demanded: “What did you do, what, what?”
Looking back he said, surprised at her surprise: “Fukkatsu no jumon, da na.”
A spell for returning the dead to life.


III.

There were three ashtrays on the dining room table. Keiko had quit smoking in college, and had opened a pack of Caster Threes for the first time in almost ten years.
Mako, although a heavy smoker, had gone through half a pack of Peace Yellow Box, and the nicotine had clearly gone to his head. It swayed on his spindly neck as his eyes darted around the room.
“I’ll do whatever you want me to do,” he said. “But only the two of you can decide.”
Shigeo sat cross-legged, eyes lowered. The collar of his dress shirt was unbuttoned and sweat speckled his forehead. After a long silence, while his wife smoked, he finally looked up and said: “I just want what’s best for him,” then looked ashamed that all his reflection had turned up nothing more. He glanced at his wife, she looked away; and he added: “But I mean, will it really be good for him?”
Mako puffed and said: “Are you kidding? It’ll be awful. It’ll completely wreck his chances of living a normal life. But I mean, who does live a normal life anyway? The question is what will do the most good for all of you. As for that, who the hell knows?”
“What about you?” said Shigeo.
“Me?” Mako shrugged. “I’m easy. Sure, I stand to get something. It’s a gamble, but then so’s everything I do. I’m willing to take that chance if you guys are.”
Another silence settled over the table, as thick as the clouds of smoke.
The door to Taichi’s room was shut, but a thin bar of light was visible underneath. The boy shouldn’t be able to hear. Then again, thought Shigeo as he looked, perhaps he would be able to hear even if he were asleep.
The local news had been running stories about the Miracle Boy all week. They had managed one interview before the Tawaras found out everything and kept him inside the house; and the same footage of his calm, patient explanation was endlessly intercut with footage of the dog’s recovery, interviews with its wealthy owners (the daughter was ecstatic, the mother grateful, if skeptical), and one with a local veterinarian who declared that indeed, the dog had been clinically dead for eight seconds.
Shigeo didn’t know what to think. Had growing up with his son’s odd behavior inured him to the idea that he might be capable of this? But Taichi had never tried to perform a miracle before. The first time he had made the attempt, it had happened exactly as he expected.
Shigeo looked again at his wife; she would say nothing. Remembering his one-sided telepathic conversations with his own dog, he hoped this was an occasion of the telepathy they said really did occur in marriages.
Turning back to Mako he said: “We’ll do it.”

Mako’s staff assumed he had cracked. The new intern, whose previous tasks had been limited to fetching coffee and drafting e-mails, found himself scouring the back alleys of Shinjuku for two dead pigeons, which he placed in an opaque garbage bag.
On Sunday, Taichi arrived with his mother by train. The female receptionist made a big fuss over him and rushed out to buy cookies from the nearby convenience store. Mako was silent, and didn’t respond to his assistant’s thrilled demands to know if this kid was “the real thing.”
If he had wanted to assure his income stream, it would have been simple enough to drug some small animal and bribe a Todai medical student to act as referee. But since he already felt dirty, he knew that the honest thing—and he was, at heart, honest—would be to let it stand or fall on its own.
Taichi was shown into his office and sat in the overlarge revolving chair, his sneakers dangling above the carpet. Mako had always been nervous in the presence of children, and found himself strutting and preening, like a caricature of his profession. Leaning over Taichi—dousing the boy in his tarry breath—he asked:
“You really think you can do this?”
“I guess so,” said Taichi. “I won’t know until it happens.”
Mako broke away and began to pace again.
“That’ll have to be good enough. But hey, if doesn’t come off, at least we both made a buck.—Hey. Can you use that spell of yours to make your uncle’s hair grow back?” and he ran a hand over his greasy scalp. Taichi, failing to respond to the joke, shook his head.
“Alright,” said Mako. “Try this.”
His assistant entered. Wearing rubber gloves, and assiduously wrinkling his nose, he removed one of the dead pigeons from the bag.
Taichi looked down at the bird with a puzzlement that might have been expected. But without prompting from Mako, he raised his hand and said:
Namomo renmi-bou.”
A minute later, the room was full of foul-smelling wind and Mako and his assistant were cowering on the floor. Papers scattered across the desk and rest of his staff barged in, only to see the pigeon finally settle, cooing, on the corner of a shelf full of trophies.
Taichi hadn’t budged from his seat.
Crouching behind his desk, Mako rubbed the palms of his hands together.
As per his instructions, both the pigeons were intact specimens; they had died recently and naturally. It was just possible—as it was possible that the dog had swallowed the less poisonous half of the meat, and finished vomiting it out just as Taichi knelt over it—that the pigeon had been stunned, and “come to life” from the warmth of his assistant’s hands. But he decided that would suffice, especially if he wanted to book a venue within the month.
He gave directions for the other pigeon to be refrigerated.

Posters bearing Taichi’s face appeared around Shinjuku. Notices were sent to the subscribers of paranormal interest boards. Fukkatsu no Jumon, everything read. Live filming! One night only! Whether he’s an Esper, a New Type, or the chosen of God, here’s an event you can’t miss! November twenty-eighth.
More camera crews showed up at the Tawaras’ building, exasperating the neighbors. Taichi began spending nights at Mako’s apartment, deep in the concrete labyrinth of Shinjuku.
Mako coached the boy to keep his cool under the glare of studio lights, get used to wearing makeup, and look directly at a camera. He and his staff agreed they’d have to change the spell; it sounded too much like the Nichiren daimoku, and they didn’t want to anger the extremely powerful Soka Gakkai, the modern Nichiren lay order. But Taichi didn’t know any other spells, and finally Mako advised him to slur it a little.
He was booked for the Namba Hall, a venue with five hundred seats that usually hosted stand-up comedy, amateur punk bands and second-string idols. When tickets went on sale on the tenth of November, they sold out within three days. Mako contacted one of his former protégés known as Nene-tan, an adorable pixie with implants who had enjoyed a good run as a singer, and was now reduced to appearing in swimsuit competitions. She was to interview Taichi for about fifteen minutes, followed by the demonstration; after which a former boy band drummer, now an officer in some New Religion, would give a talk about supernatural powers. It wasn’t much of a show, but as Mako well knew, people would turn out for anything.
On the night of the twenty-eight, the line reached the end of the block. There had been a mistake at the ticket office, and eighteen ticket-holders had to be accommodated with standing room at the back of the hall.
Mako had turned chicken at the last minute. He still had the frozen pigeon, which they would thaw out and present to Taichi first; but should that fail, the starving veterinary student they were billing as a professional was standing by with a drugged bird, that was guaranteed to wake up within minutes of exposure to the lights.
He stood at the door to the staff smoking lounge, coughing. Taichi was led past along with Nene-tan and her entourage, the ex-idol already cooing over him and smothering him in her enormous bosom. Mako caught Taichi’s eye and winked.
Do your best, he mouthed.
Then when they were gone, he slapped his forehead.
What am I doing? What have I been doing my whole life?
When the time came, he couldn’t bear to look. He sat backstage on a folding chair, while around him members of the crew stood vigilant; wires snaking everywhere, auxiliary battery packs, young people talking in hushed voices. There was that prettyboy, the drummer Zukki, pouring over his lecture notes as a girl powdered his face.
Mako heard Nene-tan’s lilting tones, and Taichi’s brief replies. From time to time the crowd laughed, or issued an adoring sigh. But he heard an undercurrent of muttering too. As many people had probably come who wanted to disbelieve.
As for Mako himself, all his life, in spite of his talisman, he had never had a shred of belief in the supernatural. Did he believe now? All he believed in was the chance, like gambling odds, that something on the other side of the partition might happen, which he didn’t care to explain in any way.
Finally, he saw two staffers, dressed all in black, carrying the thawed pigeon between them in an iron box. The sight was so ridiculous that it almost drove him to tears.
Then several minutes later, that passed backstage in complete silence—two techs were watching a direct feed at their computer terminal, while others clustered around them—there was an outburst of thunderous applause. Cheers, whistles; it went on and on. Mako felt his heart leap. His nervousness and misery fell away as if it were he himself, and not some filthy bird that most of the audience members would likely have killed themselves, that had been brought back to life.
Still, something happened that slightly tempered his joy. Distinctly audible through the applause, as it at last receded, were the cries of a few people—louder for that they were in the minority:
Fake! Fake! Fake!”
Young men from the sound of it.
The public was like a starving dog. Throw it a bone or a piece of meat, and it would crouch over it, snapping jealously; it might even bite your hand. There were those people who hated even the things they needed, and despised those who provided them. It was as much for their sake, as for that of the adoring fans, that the show had to go on.

Without consulting Taichi’s parents—it was easier, after all, to beg forgiveness than to ask permission—Mako promptly booked a second event to follow in two weeks, at the much larger one thousand, two hundred-seat Taneda Hall, to accommodate all of those who had missed the first performance.


IV.

Nine days remained until the event at Taneda Hall. Shigeo and Keiko Tawara sat around their apartment in a daze, while over five hundred thousand yen lay in their bank account, untouched. Shigeo had temporarily stopped accepting jobs, and Keiko had finagled a one-week sick leave, not wishing to face her co-worker’s stares and questions. Mako had firmly directed all media attention to himself, Taichi’s manager; and the boy had moved back home.
Now he spent his time wandering around the quiet, snow-filled streets, ducking behind a corner or mailbox when he caught a glimmer of recognition in someone’s eyes.
That day, he was passing along the fence that bordered the soccer field. He reached an object on the other side of the fence that stood there immobile, like a totem pole, until he passed and it spoke loudly:
“Hey, Esper.”
Taichi turned around. It was Kayo, without Kurosuke, wrapped in a coat made entirely of imitation fox fur.
He lowered his head. “Hi.”
“How come I never see you anymore?”
“Sorry.”
“Just because you’re some big shot now, you think you can forget about me?” Then her voice was thick as she said: “They don’t know I’m out here. They don’t want me to have anything to do you with you,” and he looked up, and caught her eyes, which sparkled. “Isn’t that exciting?”
“I guess so.”
“Come on, show some spirit! I’ll never forget what you did for me, and that’s the only reason I’ll forgive you for leaving me alone. Now will you come play or what?”
So he climbed over the fence, as Kayo stood there in rigid expectation with both hands clasped to her chest.

Their games resumed, but they had a furtive air now. The maid who accompanied Kayo was sympathetic, and didn’t mind their playing together in spite of her parent’s wishes; but Kayo knew about Taneda Hall, and Taichi had become, if possible, more silent and withdrawn than ever. He took a stick and drew complex patterns in the snow at which Kayo wrinkled her nose. She tried to build an enormous snowman, nine feet tall, with six arms, but all he would do was obediently hold it from one side while she pushed in the branches.
Matters came to a head on the Sunday a week after Namba Hall. Taichi was standing at the top of a slight incline, and Kayo, watching him, was gripped by a sudden irrational dread that he would topple off it and vanish from sight. She ran up and threw her arms around him.
Pressing their thick coats together until she could feel the heat of his body, she said: “Don’t ever leave me.”
“Okay,” said Taichi.
“You promise?”
“What are you so worried about?”
“Because…” she choked. “Because…” and she pulled back and beat on his shoulder with her tiny fists, “you creep, do you really have to make me say it?”
Taichi looked at her.
“What is it?”
“Because you have to marry me!” she yelled, then ran off in tears.

Hardly understanding what had happened, Taichi was afraid that he might never see her again; but it was only for one day that she concealed herself, then she was back at the corner of the soccer field, holding Kurosuke on a leash and staring at him from a distance. The dog was wearing a red knitted sweater.
He gave a slight jump and called: “Hi!”
“Come on,” she said, and he followed her across the field with his chin uplifted.
“Where’s Mari?” he asked, which was the name of her maid.
“I gave her the day off. I’m going to take you someplace interesting.” As they reached the far end of the field, she explained: “There’s this hill close to here that’s really tall. You’re supposed to be able to see the whole city. I heard Mari talking about it,” and she colored, “with her boyfriend.”
They climbed up winding, narrow streets, the pavement slicked with ice. Kayo walked in front of Taichi to keep him from being recognized. Soon they were both panting from exhaustion, and when they stopped, Kurosuke dropped to the freezing ground and let his tongue hang out.
Kayo blew into her mittens, surrounding her face with a cloud of steam. Her cheeks were bright red. Taichi was looking at her again. Her color deepened.
“You know,” she said, and looked away, drew in breath and repeated, “you know…”
Then before he could say a word, she pressed Kurosuke’s leash at his chest and he caught it. She ran away from him—he lifted a hand to stop her—into the street, turned and called back:
“You don’t have to give me an answer right away.”
The black asphalt was a gleaming carpet of ice, pitted uselessly with a few grains of salt. The car came around the hairpin turn on their right, making a high-pitched squeak as its wheels swiveled; the driver pounded the brakes, the car made a brief jump like a frog. The front right corner of its hood struck Kayo and she spilled over it and vanished on the other side.
The car was a yellow taxi cab. The driver spilled out, skidded on the ice, braced himself on the roof. Taichi let go of the leash; Kurosuke took off running, Taichi ran after him.
The driver was a squat man with a graying punch perm. He knelt down over Kayo’s body, trembling all over. When he looked up and caught sight of Taichi, he blubbered in terror, as if the boy were two policemen: “I didn’t see her! I didn’t see anything!”
Taichi smiled. “It’s alright.”
Kayo lay twisted like a roll of paper. Her head was flat with one cheek against the ice, blood poured from her mouth, and her eyes stared. She had been thrown almost to the sidewalk. It seemed impossible that what had looked like so slight an impact could have launched her so far; but she was small.
“Shit, shit, shit,” said the driver, rubbing his hands together.
Taichi knelt down. Then his expression of happy surety melted away.
“Something’s wrong,” he said.
“No kidding! Shit, kid. I’ll call the cops myself, I swear I’m not going anywhere—oh shit,” and he was crying.
Taichi slowly lifted one hand. It hung in the air, a finger outstretched, motionless. He tilted his head to one side. In a small voice he said:
“I can’t hear them.”
The driver was fumbling with his cellphone and didn’t respond. Several people had come out the door of a bakery; a window opened. Another car had pulled up behind the taxi. Muttering.
Kurosuke was energetically licking Kayo’s bloody face.
“I can’t hear them,” said Taichi, then he clapped his hands over his ears and let out an ear-splitting wail. The driver jumped and his cellphone leapt from his hand and struck the pavement, split open, and the battery slid away. A woman from the bakery rushed forward to pull Taichi back.
He continued to scream and scream, his hands grasping, but pushing away those who tried to help, searching the air around him for something invisible.


V.

Taichi sat onstage at the Taneda Hall. The glare of the lights beat down on him; the makeup felt like clay smeared all over his face. The recording equipment swamped the whole stage with an acrid, ozone-y smell.
The kind young woman with the big breasts leaned over him, holding the microphone out gently, like a bouquet. Against the lights, the crowd was visible only as endless rows of smiles. The equipment made a faint buzz. It was the only thing he heard.
Taichi swallowed.
A shadow of concern crossing her face, the young lady moved the microphone slightly closer.
“Everyone,” he said, and he choked. Tears began to stream from his eyes. Mutters of concern from the vastness beyond the stage. The young lady cast a frantic glance behind him. He sat motionless, feeling his face turn wet; but he gathered all his strength and said into the microphone:
“Everyone…I’m sorry. I’m a fake.”
There was total silence. Even the electric buzzing seemed to stop for a moment. Taichi shut his eyes, and he was completely alone.
Then came the first low hiss, like a snake’s. “Fraud!” someone yelled. And boos rose from all sides as if keys were pressed on an organ, a mass of sound that quashed other, pleading voices, until it hung in the air above the stage and threatened to crush it.
Something heavy struck the stage with a thud.
“Nene-tan!” called one crewman, another: “Someone grab the kid!”
Taichi opened his eyes. A cabbage was lying on the stage several feet away. Then a tomato sailed through the air and struck the chair, splattering, from which Nene-tan had just been pulled away. An empty soda cup struck a crewman’s shoulder. In a blind panic, they were trying to drag Nene-tan away, while she herself reached out one white-gloved hand for Taichi.
“Come here, come with me!” she pleaded.
Taichi got to his feet. He wasn’t afraid. But just as he took her hand, a large shape came between them and the stage lights.
It was his uncle Mako, wearing his cheap dark suit with the tie, undone, slung over one shoulder.
“Everybody get out,” he called back, then spreading his arms, he faced the crowd and shouted at the top of his lungs: “Shut up! Shut up, all of you! You make me sick! So what if he’s a fake or not…You came here to see something beautiful, something to give you hope in your stupid, meaningless lives. You’re the ones he brought back to life because you got to believe for a second that anything was possible. If he’s a fake, if a million of them are fakes, would you stop believing even then?—Why not stop being so ashamed of yourselves and get on with your lives?”
When Mako had finished this rambling, incoherent speech, he stood with the sweat running off his temples, fighting for breath.
A soda cup full of coke and ice cubes smashed open at his feet, drenching his shoes. Another cabbage flew over his head and he ducked. With his head between his shoulders, he rushed for the curtain and vanished through it, even as uniformed security arrived to hold back the crowd.

Taichi sat in the backseat of Mako’s Ford Land Rover, next to Nene-tan. A grim Taneda security officer, who hadn’t spoken a word, rode shotgun. Mako leaned hard over the wheel and continually wiped at his forehead.
“Shit,” he breathed, “here too…”
He took a sharp turn to avoid a white news van that had blocked off the end of the street. It was nighttime, and colorful crowds moved on all sides of them, providing chaos into which they could vanish.
“One more block and we’re free…” Mako’s fingers drummed the wheel. He clenched an unlit cigarette in his teeth.
Taichi was slumped against the window. From time to time, Nene-tan reached out gingerly to touch him, and he gave no response. His attention was sunk in the dark glass of the window.
“Are you okay?” she asked, over and over. But she took some satisfaction in seeing that his tears had stopped. His chest, underneath his coat, rose and fell with comfortable regularity.
Mako spoke, staring ahead into the night:
“It’s alright, kid. By the time you’re in high school, you’ll forget all about this. Crazy stuff happens all the time. But now you can live a normal life.” And he repeated with conviction: “You can live a normal life.”
Then, strangely, his body shook with brief silent laughter.
Without moving his head, Taichi’s eyes drifted to focus on his uncle. From the angle at which he sat, there was no telling that Mako was going bald. In the rearview mirror, it could be seen that his face was suffused with blood, and his eyes burned with newfound energy, as if he had just awakened from a long sleep.

*****

Note: aitsura is a very casual, often dismissive term for "they"

For more on Jacob and his writing, visit Jacob Ritari's website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

If you missed them, please also check out the previous stories:
The Sound of the Train
Futaride
Maintaining Radio Silence

Read more about Jacob's debut novel, Taroko Gorge, including an excerpt, at the Unbridled Books website.

Buy Taroko Gorge at:  Amazon.com | BookDepository | via IndieBound

The small print: Links in this post to Amazon, or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.

2 comments:

  1. Another great story. I'm going to have to read Taroko Gorge soon:)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I completely agree with chasingbawa.

    Thanks for providing these for us, Jacob and Nat.

    ReplyDelete

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