Though we’re at least a few blocks clear of The Crying Lemon, I still shrink away from the open at the sound of distant police sirens. My mac is soaked in alcohol and my slippers in gore and though the rain is helping to clear the stench, I’m still a mobile crime scene.
I find shelter beneath the awning to a traditional handicraft shop, sitting cross-legged at the base of the window in the only dry patch available. The display houses patchwork dolls with buttons for eyes, tea containers made from cuts of bamboo, patterned sushi dining sets, plush floor cushions, and rolls of hand-dyed fabric. It seems a strange shop to find in Yōkoso Harbour. The merchandise would better suit a country home many miles from the coast.
My apartment is lost. I know that. It’s a shame because I’d begun to feel its heartbeat: the way the water spluttered from every tap; the ping from the kitchen radiator as it heated up; the family of mice scurrying behind the kitchen units; the sort of sensations that make a home. I know if the front door is left unlocked it can swing open of its own accord and though there’s nothing of real value inside, I dread the thought of setting up another homebrew kit from scratch. I couldn’t care less about Nanashi’s opinion of my saké, there’s just no way I’m going back to stealing bottles.
“You reek,” he says. “Ditch that mac of yours.”
“No chance. Even if it were ripped to shreds, I’d still keep it.”
“Your attachment to that miserable garment will be our downfall.”
“Akemi gave me this coat and it’s all I have left of her. How would you feel about throwing your mask?”
“What a ludicrous comparison. I’m not asking you to harvest your organs.”
I reach into my mac pocket and lift out Greaser’s stolen possessions. There’s a leather wallet, a blue asthma inhaler and a crumpled pack of Seven Stars cigarettes. If we do get caught, I don’t want anything connecting us to his murder.
Opening the wallet, I hesitate over a disturbing photo. A woman poses on a garden chair with a toddler on her knee. The child is grinning, but the woman’s face has been burnt away with a cigarette end. Is this Greaser’s family? Why would he deface her like that? This isn’t helping my state of mind.
Inside the money compartment is a stack of crisp 10,000¥ notes. How does a low paid door attendant come by so much cash? I take enough to live it up in Tokyo for a solid month then reach to the side and drop the wallet through a sewer grating.
“Jackpot! I bet that’s more than those whores make in a year,” Nanashi says. “We should visit String Beetle for a Junmai fountain.”
Occasionally Nanashi and I will spend an evening pick pocketing. Around Christmas time, after a particularly profitable shift in the city, I treated Nanashi to a Junmai fountain at the String Beetle restaurant. I’d take him there every evening if I could. The restaurant serves its famous cocktail via taps that rise up from the centre of the table. Customers are supposed to refill glass tumblers, but since Nanashi is invisible to others, I just let him glug straight from the taps. He left more alcohol on the surface of the table than in his stomach. That night I got away with blaming a faulty tap and they didn’t even charge me for my meal. People don’t get that lucky twice.
“We need to spend this money carefully,” I say. “The cops could trace it.”
“We should hire a night ferry from the quayside. We can afford one with on-board entertainment. I crave the company of sophisticated women, especially when they’re serving saké by sea.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I said carefully.”
“Shoki, I’m getting thirsty.”
He’s being sincere. Splinters have started to emerge across the surface of his mask, and his numerous limbs have turned the consistency and colour of peeled corn. If he goes without alcohol for too long he’ll dehydrate, killing us both in the process. At least, that’s what he’s led me to believe.
“That small newsagents on the way to the train station opens soon,” I say. “I’ll get you a bottle there.”
“Train station? Where are we headed?”
“Excellent. Are we stopping for the day?”
“You mean are we hanging out in the arcade?”
“Well are we?”
“I need to meet with Gotō…”
“And after that?”
“I’m getting straight out of there. You’ve seen what the city’s done to Mama.”
He stretches out a tendril so that it clears the awning and when he sends the heat through it fizzes and steams in the rain. “Always blaming everything but her. At least I acknowledge my addictions.”
“You don’t have a clue what she’s been through.”
“You’re wrong, I know exactly what she’s been through and it’s no more than any other hopeless creature wasting space on this exceedingly cramped island.”
“As sympathetic as ever.”
I rest my head back for a moment only to be interrupted by another siren. It’s closer this time, maybe a block away at most. At the same time a police cruiser edges silently out from a side street like a conger eel poised in a crevice. We turn at the same time, argument abandoned instantly.
“You think they’re still looking for the girl?” I ask.
“That’s no longer your concern.” He directs a number of fingers towards the eastern skyline. Rising above the rooftops are the recently built sumo stables, a training complex for professional wrestlers. The previous summer the mayor of Yōkoso Harbour unveiled the stables by cutting a rope with a commemorative silver axe, a ceremony typically performed by ship builders to launch new vessels. It doesn’t look much like a boat to me; more like a gigantic steaming basket, the interior filled with sticky rice, each grain the size of a baked potato.
Yōkoso Harbour is famous for producing many of Japan’s national sumo champions. Triangular yellow flags surround the roof of the stables, each one representing a past winner. There are countless theories as to why great wrestlers are made on this coastline. Some say it begins with a diet of our celebrated kelp. Others believe our men are descended from the war god Hachiman himself. Personally, I’ve never understood the sport. Sumo hardly seem athletic to me, more like a bunch of overeaters who never really got over being bullied at school.
“Keep your head down and stick to the walls,” Nanashi says.
I take the next left from the handicraft shop, following Nanashi’s outstretched limbs as if dowsing for water. The emergency vehicles are gathering, their blue and red lights staining the haze of fine rain above distant buildings.
After navigating a few back alleys too narrow for vehicles to enter, I step out onto Salt Ring Street. The sumo stables loom large, a proud symbol to some, an eyesore to most. As we approach, there’s a distinct smell in the air, a mixture of sweat, straw and something that brings images of cattle to mind. The yellow flags fluttering in the dark high above us sound like roosting bats.
“The wrestlers won’t start training for hours,” Nanashi says. “Perfect spot to lie low.”
“What about your thirst?”
“We’ll treat the police sirens like claps of thunder. When they’re far enough apart, we’ll know the storm has died down. That’s when we’ll move on.”
“How do we get in there?”
“A rear door. I spotted it on the way back from the noodle vendor yesterday. It’s the cleaners’ entrance.”
“You notice the strangest things.”
“I notice what’s important.”
Following the smooth contours of the stables, we arrive at a small door, barely visible against the wood panelling of the building. The entrance is secured with a padlock.
Removing my journal, I turn to the front page, revealing a plastic baggie stapled to the inside cover. It contains hairclips of varying design. I remove one with a pink and green enamel flower at one end. Unable to twist the flower off by hand, I place the hairclip on the ground and strike it with a rock. With the flower removed, I ease the pin into the padlock to gauge its depth and mechanics. Satisfied, I slide it back out and then delicately bend the metal prongs. Finally, returning pin to lock, I search for the sweet spot and with a subtle click it opens.
“You’ve come a long way since your father’s liquor cabinet,” Nanashi says.
I flinch at the mention of Papa.
Moving inside, the cattle smell increases twofold, though I’ll take it over the booze and blood of The Crying Lemon. The electrics are off, but white chalk lining four sparring rings creates its own natural light. I’m drawn to a sound at the back of the hall. Passing between thick wooden poles and over lengths of rope pinned to the floor, we come to a row of slatted shelves supporting laundered sumo belts. The noise is coming from an industrial heater left on overnight to dry the belts and warm the stables before morning practice.
Sliding a few belts to one side, marvelling at their weight, I hop up and lie flat.
“Unless you want my finger in an orifice as an alarm clock, I wouldn’t fall asleep,” Nanashi warns.
“Why did Faintfoot stop on the pavement below our apartment? Could she sense us watching her?”
“Will answering arbitrary questions keep you awake?”
I nod. “It was unexpected. It’s hard to imagine her hesitating for anything.”
“She was asking for permission to cross the street.”
“Red Gate isn’t her territory.”
“It’s owned by someone?”
“Every street belongs to the dead. Some old crone presides over Red Gate, though her name now escapes me.”
I sit up, using my forearms for support. “I didn’t think they could stick around for long. Now you’re saying they can be landowners?”
“That part’s irrelevant. She just happens to be the oldest of the dead and therefore the most entitled. Their ability to ‘stick around’, as you put it, usually depends on motivation. The crone’s an exception to this, having been nominated Red Gate supervisor and gifted a prolonged afterlife.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“She filled me in while you were having one of your occasional naps.”
“She was in our apartment?”
“There were always spirits in the apartment.”
I shudder, picturing dead eyes watching me sleep.
“I’ll give you a more specific example,” Nanashi continues. “I heard about this factory worker in Osaka who’d booked tickets to see a World Cup match with his boy. It was supposed to be a bonding session between father and son before the old man was due in hospital for a brain operation. Anyway, days before the start of the competition, his aneurism burst and he died without having told his son about their planned trip to Yokohama Stadium. But he was determined. He used whatever willpower he had left to guide his boy to the office drawer where the tickets were stashed. He even had enough time to sit in the stands while his wife and kid watched the game.” His mask becomes dense and grey like wet concrete. “Faintfoot needs no willpower when revenge is her motivation. She’ll stop at nothing until Gotō’s in the ground. Only then will she join her ancestors.”
“But she must still have a mind of her own. Why else would she ask for permission to enter Red Gate? Maybe she can be reasoned with?”
“If you think she can talk though her issues, you’re gravely mistaken. That girl is now a shell emptied off all humanity.”
“So Gotō’s next and I can’t do a thing about it.”
“Not my concern.”
“Not your concern! Maybe I should stop making saké my concern? Maybe I should just lie here over this heater until your mask’s dry enough to flake apart?”
“Torture me all you want. You’ll only be subjecting yourself to the same desperate thirst. Maybe you should test me? If you knew true suffering maybe you wouldn’t rush headlong into every situation I advise against.”
“So visit a brothel because they serve fabulous drinks but don’t mess with the spirit there or she’ll likely turn you inside out. That’s your advice?”
“And don’t you wish you’d taken it?”
I lie flat and roll over to face the wall.
“Let’s change the subject,” he says. “What to do with the doorman’s bankroll? Considering we’re already here, we should stake the money on a few matches. The box-office opens in a few hours and I have a failsafe method of picking winners. A fighter’s size is just a distraction; the true champ’s crowned before he’s even stepped into the ring. Take the famous Kōji Takanohana; on the rare occasion of losing a bout, his eyes would always give him away.”
I can’t ignore the irony. Nanashi stole the money he now wants to gamble from the still-warm corpse of an ex-wrestler. He has no respect for the dead.
“Mama’s having the money,” I mumble, barely conscious as waves of heat rise up against my cheek.
Nanashi goes rigid and imagine he looks like a statue of a Hindu goddess with dozens of arms.
“Not till you’ve replaced my possessions,” he says.
“What possessions? You didn’t own anything.”
“The homebrew kit was mine.”
“You’ve changed your tune. Just a few hours ago you said my saké was rancid. Besides, I got the parts, I put it together and I did the brewing. What did you do?”
His tendrils slide around my throat. “It was mine,” he hisses.
I bolt upright. “Get off!”
He flexes until I can barely breathe.
“Your mother will blow it all on Pachinko!” he growls. “A quarter million yen spent feeding ball-bearings into a bottomless machine!”
When we moved to the city, Mama started visiting the Pachinko parlours, sprawling amusement arcades filled with rows of slot machines. These days she spends what little money she has sustaining her addiction. I’ve tried talking her out of it, but she just acts like nothing’s wrong. She stopped listening to anyone after Papa left.
I point rapidly at my neck and Nanashi releases his hold on my windpipe. Doubling over, I begin to cough violently, my eyes streaming with tears.
“I want her clear of that terrible apartment building,” I say, dapping my eyes on a sumo belt. “If she moves to the Harbour, at least she’ll be shot of the parlours.”
“And what about us?”
“What about us?”
“Where are we to stay?”
“The memorial park will do for now.”
“You can’t be serious! Open air, grass… trees. I’ll suffocate.”
“It’s only for a few nights.”
“We should at least stay in a hotel with room service. We could have Misty Ginza’s on tap! Just a quick call downstairs and they’d arrive on one of those classy metal trays with folded serviettes. C’mon, you’ve always liked watching the dry ice settle over that cherry-red base.” He pauses, tapping his mask thoughtfully. “I should’ve guessed. It’s down to him, isn’t it? That’s why we’re headed for the park.”
“It’s safe there.”
“Safe in his arms you mean.”
“Tiger’s just a friend.”
“So you know who I’m talking about.”
“I don’t know anyone else!”
“A so-called friend shouldn’t have that hunger in their eyes.”
Some of the homeless men staying in the memorial park have the hunger Nanashi’s referring to. Like urban foxes, they’re always looking for something vulnerable to drag from the open and tear apart behind the bushes. Tiger is not one of them.
“We’re staying there and that’s final!” I slide down from the shelf. “I need some air.”
“The streets may not be clear yet.”
“I don’t care if they’re swarming with cops; I can’t take another minute in here with you.”
“Fine with me. Seems I’ll be getting my saké sooner than expected.”
Stepping outside, I replace the padlock and make my way back around to the front entrance.
Nanashi tilts his head back to allow raindrops from the overhanging roof to patter off his mask. “I must hide from this rain. Exposing every sin of heart and skin. I shall wait for the sun and for freedom. Thereupon, I shall dance until my palms burn blossom pink.”
“Is that poetry?”
“Quick as ever. Don’t suppose you’ve heard it before?”
I shake my head.
“Can’t say I’m surprised when the radio’s flooded with tedious J-pop sung by artists valued for their hairstyle over their talent.”
From the stables, we head away from the harbour front and into a dimly lit alleyway. Something blocks the path and I have to clamber around a spilled container of tissue packets advertising the Satellite of Love Hotel. The packets look to have been spread out strategically and it’s not hard to imagine that if I followed their trail, I’d soon arrive at the hotel entrance.
“Who wrote the poem?” I ask.
“The celebrated Yokohamian, Magohachi Shintaro. Died in 1923 and not from the earthquake surprisingly. Your ancestor was a close personal friend of his and something of a poet himself.”
“You don’t mention them much.”
“I didn’t think you were into poetry.”
“Not poets. I mean my ancestors.”
“If I started listing their inestimable virtues, I’m sure it would only demotivate you further.”
“But I want to hear more about them. What sort of people they were; what they got up to; if they were like me at all.”
“They were nothing like you,” he says tersely. “Each one a man. Each unwaveringly dedicated to the task set out before him. Each obedient, focused and strong.”
“You could’ve just said they were different.” Inside I’m hurting. “Maybe it would help if you stopped fixating on my dead relatives and told me about this task?”
“I’ll tell you when you stop fixating on your living relatives.”
“You know I can’t do that. I’ll gladly disappoint you if it means they’re safe.”
“Then don’t ask about your ancestors again. The subject of your bloodline is now closed.”
“Fine with me.” I cross my arms.
A scraggy ginger-and-white cat paces out from behind a pile of trash bags stopping just ahead of us. It doesn’t move a muscle even as the breeze picks up. It could be taxidermy.
“Mustn’t have seen me yet,” Nanashi says.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because she would’ve bolted already.”
“How can you get such a kick out of repelling animals? I bet you hate it when Neko ignores you. Maybe you’re losing your touch?”
“If your mother’s cat could see through those infected eyes or walk on those decrepit legs, she’d flee just as quick as the rest.”
The ginger-and-white cat finally moves, but not for the shelter of the rooftops. Instead she pads towards us. As she approaches, I reach out to stroke her. “You were saying…”
“Don’t do that! She’s infested.”
I pull away at the last moment as she rolls onto her back and writhes about gleefully.
Nanashi stretches from my shoulder until he’s only inches from her. “She’s a confident one, I’ll give her that. Not like her weak, domesticated cousins.” Making a straining sound, he forces bright bands of colour to the surface of his mask. “Does the mangy flea-farm want to play?”
His words freeze her to the spot and for the first time I notice her spine accentuated beneath patchy fur. Slowly she tilts her head to look up at him, her eyes wide and unblinking, tail swaying nervously from side to side.
“Stop teasing her,” I say.
He doesn’t quit. Instead he remains perfectly still, holding her gaze. “What a life you must’ve endured to be so unafraid of me.”
The staring contest continues until she blinks suddenly in quick succession and then darts up the side of the closest building, vanishing from sight behind a clothesline overloaded with towels. Nanashi withdraws to his usual position on my left shoulder and the bands of colour gradually fade from his mask.
When I next spot the cat, she’s standing at the edge of the tallest building, stooped low, wiggling her backside like a baseball player preparing to swing.
“What’s she doing?” I demand.
But I already know.
As she leaps, for a fleeting moment I’m convinced she’ll make it to the neighbouring building, and then her high-pitched whine says otherwise. She catches her paw on a telephone wire, spins tail-over-head into a window ledge and then plummets, hitting the tarmac a few feet away.
There is no death toll, just a leaden thud. I try to stutter something, to express my shock, but nothing comes forth. My hands are trembling and I think I’m going to puke. “What did you…?” Again, I already know.
Blood leaks from the cat’s head and trickles to soak through an open tissue packet. Her rear legs are twitching.
“It would’ve followed us everywhere,” Nanashi says, “begging for food, whining incessantly, spreading its mites. Useless thing didn’t even land on its feet. I heard they always did that.”
The amusement in his voice is the worst. If not for that, I might have avoided hallucinating. First the alleyway walls shudder. Then a ton of masonry shifts, the bricks at the base moving in sequence like centipede legs. Instinctively, I plant my feet and spread my arms out wide.
“What are you doing?” Nanashi demands.
An onlooker could never appreciate what I’m going through. Even though I know it’s all in my mind, when I’m hallucinating I feel enslaved. Sleep specialists have told me that the potency and realism of my experiences are highly unusual, leading me to believe that Nanashi is somehow to blame.
I scream. Murderer echoes back.
“Pull yourself together, girl.”
A dog starts barking as lights in the buildings overhead are switched on.
“Dammit, Shoki! You’ll wake the whole street.”
In my delusion there’s only a few feet of space remaining and I’m certain the walls will crush me where I stand. I feel the rough brick against my palms before my elbows buckle under the pressure.
Ahead of me lies the broken body of the cat. Damp fur wraps her bones and the rain has gathered in her glassy eyes. Her tongue hangs loose from between her teeth. “Leave me be,” she utters.
Horrified, I step over her, turning side-on to shuffle towards the alleyway exit. With only seconds to spare, I make a dive for freedom. I’m too late. My right foot gets sandwiched and I’m plucked from mid-air and dashed against the tarmac. Ignoring the pain in my shoulder, I tug frantically at my knee joint. When it doesn’t budge, I watch helplessly as the round bones to the sides of my ankle are pushed inwards and the tendons across the top are forced to the surface, bursting through my skin like tent poles through fabric. I try to scream but blood fills my mouth and then spills from the edges of my lips.
As the alleyway walls come together, the pain vanishes. Resting my head back, I gaze upside-down at a vintage clothes boutique across the way. The shop window has been vandalised and circular cracks look like age rings inside a tree trunk. They begin to spiral. Flashes of colour erupt. Psychedelic.