What was that itch on my back, I wondered. And then I realized: the night was nibbling into me.
It wasn’t that late yet, still only dusk, but the darkness appeared to be collecting just above my shoulders. A particularly black clump of it had fastened onto my back, and a part of the area where it was touching me had been eaten away.
I wriggled and tried to shake it off, but the night clung fast. Even when I tried to rip it off with my hands, this was impossible—it simply floated nebulously about—there was nothing for my fingers to grip. I would think I had managed to get hold of a patch, just where it was most intensely black, but in an instant it would disperse, and another patch of inky black would loom somewhere else.
After a while, the itchiness became unbearable. I scratched frantically. The more I scratched, the more the darkness ate into my back, and the more the darkness ate into my back, the more I itched.
Unable to stand it, I broke into a run.
The moment I started running, I was galloping as fast as a horse. So, I thought as I ran, you get faster when the night starts eating into you. Roads, pedestrians, signs, all flew by me and retreated into the distance, as if I were watching scenery through a train window.
Quite soon, I grew sick of running, so I stopped. My whole body was giving off steam, like a horse. I was snorting noisily, too. Some of the darkness of the night seemed to be mixing in with the rising steam, producing murky eddies in the swirling air. Several people were standing off at a distance, staring at me as if I were something unusual.
The darkness mixed in with the breaths I was taking, producing long dark bands as I exhaled. Each time I exhaled the bands grew a little longer. When I drew my breath in, the parts of the bands nearest my nostrils were briefly sucked back inside. I blew out again, and the bands lengthened a little. The darkness kept growing endlessly from my nostrils, like ribbons, or reins.
“What a stirring sight!” one of the onlookers exclaimed, and clapped his hands together. He clapped twice, lightly, as if he were calling carp to the surface of a pond. The other onlookers clapped too, copying him.
I grew irritated. Hey! Clear out! I tried to shout.
But no sound came from my mouth. I couldn’t get the first consonant out. Straining with all my might, snorting and blowing, I tried to enunciate that first word: “H . . . H . . . H . . .” But all I did was snort even more noisily.
The onlookers were delighted, and again clapped their hands.
This only served to infuriate me, so I leaped up into the air. As I leaped, I tried to yell at the top of my lungs, but what came out was a kind of whinny: the whinny of a horse. I flew up onto the roof of some building, and whinnied again, and then again. Below me the onlookers were all clapping. I whinnied again, any number of times, determined not to be outdone by the sound of their applause. By now I had acquired a horse’s body, and was covered with a black coat of hair.
“Soon it’ll be night. The Night Horse has arrived,” said someone—the person who had been the first among the onlookers to clap. The steam billowed off my body. The darkness was spreading: it was covering everything.
I whinnied over and over again, elated with my newfound ability. With each whinny, the darkness became blacker.
The Big Crunch
I assumed that we’d been borne along for a while, but when I got up, time was at a standstill. Since time had stopped, even if we had been borne along for a while, no actual hours, or moments, would have passed.
The hair of the girl who had been carried along with me had grown down to her hips. So her hair had grown, even if time stood still.
Good morning, I said, seeing that she was awake. She laughed softly. It’s too early to say that, she said, it’s still evening, and she smiled.
Really? It’s evening now?
The girl entwined her arms with mine.
Some of her hair got entwined as well. It felt silky and warm.
Your hair has grown, I said. Yours hasn’t though, she replied. It was true: my hair hadn’t grown an inch.
The girl’s hair rose, like a living being, and stroked my neck and my shoulders. When I brought my face to hers to kiss her, the girl breathed out of her slightly opened mouth. The scent of her breath was like the odor of lilies just before they are about to wither, and the sound of it coming out of her mouth was like a butterfly beating its wings.
I kissed the girl on the lips, as if to suck her breath inside me. When I did this, the girl wilted, ever so slightly. Lying in my arms, gradually she became lighter, and more transparent. The smell of lilies past their prime rose up, filling my breast, suffocating me. The taste of the kiss was so sweet, I couldn’t stop—even though I knew she would only go on wilting if I continued. The girl was wilting by the minute, and something thick and strong was filling my breast.
Holding the girl in the palm of my hand, since by now she had shrunk to such a tiny size it was possible to do so, I continued to kiss her. A numbness came over me, covering me from the tips of my toes to the top of my head: I had the feeling I had been enfolded by something soft and huge. Reveling in the sensation of being wrapped in what seemed like giant overlapping petals, I kept my lips placed on the lips of the girl, who was now quite crumpled and drastically reduced in size.
The girl finally grew incredibly small, about one centimeter wide. I no longer knew whether I was actually kissing her, or simply enjoying the afterglow of the kiss, but even now the girl’s breath was filled with an overpowering scent of lilies, and the sound of her breathing, like the sound of a butterfly’s wings beating, grew louder, almost annoyingly loud.
As I looked at the girl there in my hand, she shone whitely in the night. When I stroked her surface, which was beautifully lustrous, I was struck by how smooth she was, by how she was warm but cold at the same time, and then, looking more closely, I realized she had become a pearl. In the depths of the pearl, I could see the girl’s face staring back at me, and if I peered into the depths of her eyes, I could see another, smaller girl.
An endless number of girls, getting infinitely smaller and smaller, and all emitting the same sweetly smelling breath, were quietly but persistently enticing me to go further. When I explored the surface of the pearl with my palm, each laughed gently, flutteringly, in response, drawing me on even more.
I put the pearl in my mouth, let it rest on my tongue for a while, and then swallowed it.
The infinite number of girls descended my throat, passed down into my stomach, and were transmitted through my veins to all the parts of my body. Waves of explosive pleasure rushed over me. Then I realized: my hair had started to grow, and time, previously at a standstill, had started to flow.
Time continued to flow, as the granules of girl reached the farthest corners of my body. The girl was broken down into something very tiny indeed, tinier even than the smallest particle, circulating round and round inside. With every circuit, the girl became more and more mixed and homogeneous with me—until in the end I lost track of whether the girl was me, or I was the girl. It was only then that I started to love her, and to miss her. I loved and missed something I couldn’t define, some combination of us both.
At this thought, time came to a standstill. A little while later, I was assailed by contractions of unbelievable force.
Inside the tank were a number of fish; they looked like loaches. Someone was scooping them up from the bottom with his hands, taking hold of them, and throwing them down hard on the floor. It was a child.
Once thrown down, the loaches lay there, in a half-dead state, for a few seconds, and then revived and headed over to one of the many puddles of water in the vicinity and pushed their way in, leaving arteries of water behind them.
“If you whack them down like that, the loaches will die,” I told the child, reprovingly. The child frowned.
“No they won’t,” he replied in a low voice, and he carried on throwing them down, smack! smack! against the floor.
He had been throwing down the loaches for quite some time, but this didn’t seem to make any difference to the number in the tank. A small fluorescent light had been attached to it, illuminating it against the darkness. The child was standing slightly out of the reach of the light, so I couldn’t make out his features.
He continued throwing the loaches down, one after another. But far from decreasing, the number of loaches in the tank actually seemed to be increasing.
“Do you like Yanagawa loach hotpot?” the child asked.
“What?” I said.
“Yanagawa loach hotpot,” the child repeated, throwing down another loach with particular force.
“I don’t mind it.”
“In that case, I’ll give you this fish tank.” His voice had got quite low.
Why hadn’t I gone straight past him, without paying any attention to the loaches? The child pulled at my sleeve with his wet hand, and slipped a loach into my grasp.
“It’s really very tasty!” he insisted, throwing another loach down.
At the bottom of the darkness, I could see several loaches moving, meandering toward the puddles. When the puddles closed around them, the loaches disappeared immediately, only to reemerge, just perceptible above the surface, when the next loach was thrown down.
“No. I don’t care for any,” I replied. The child’s head drooped.
“Are you sure?” he asked, and then he started to whimper.
This alarmed me, and I decided I’d better get away from him. Discreetly depositing the loach he had put in my hand on the ground, I started to walk innocently away. But no sooner had the loach touched the ground than a great big puddle formed, which spread right up to my feet. The puddle was dark and sticky like oil: even when loaches pushed their way into it, it didn’t seem to make any ripples at all.
“Are you sure?” the child asked again.
“Absolutely!” I replied. In that instant the child shoved me, hard, and I fell into the puddle. I was sucked down, and I sank fast. When I had sunk in over my head, I looked around me. It was very dark. Was it dark because it was night, or just dark because the puddle was black to begin with? I wasn’t sure, but as my eyes got used to the darkness of the puddle I found I could see.
Right down at the bottom, where I was now headed, I could see masses of loaches. With a strong sense of foreboding, I examined my hands and saw that they had already started to turn into fins—and my toes had started to become a tail. I hate loaches, I thought with all my might: at which, the scales turned back into hands. But as soon as I let up my guard, and stopped hating loaches, they turned back into fins.
“Are you still sure you don’t want the tank?” The low voice of the child reached my ears, from above.
It was infuriating, but I knew I didn’t have any choice.
“Yanagawa loach hotpot is my favorite dish!” I shouted up at him.
All of a sudden I was scooped up in the child’s hands, and found myself being smacked down hard against the floor. I wiggled toward the child’s feet, and made my way up his legs. From his legs I progressed to his hips, and from his hips to his belly, and finally I reached the child’s arms. I wiggled down his arms to his fingers, at which point he grasped me again, and threw me down against the floor.
Seven times we repeated the process, and finally I turned back into a human.
“You really love Yanagawa loach hotpot, don’t you?” the child asked, emphatically.
“Oh yes, it’s my favorite dish!” I replied.
After pressing the tank into my hands, the child hopped about in the puddles, then disappeared. The puddles were still for a while, and then eventually they disappeared too.
The loaches in the tank were increasing by the minute. The tank seemed to be packed full with them, to the very top of the water.
I hurried home, taking care not to spill any water into the night, and prepared a loach hotpot. Chopping up some burdock root, I boiled it up in some water, using all the stewing pans I had. Then I threw all the live loaches into the pans, in one go, and closed up the lids. A delicious aroma rose into the air.
“You love Yanagawa loach hotpot, don’t you?” I heard a child’s voice say from somewhere, one more time. As if in response, all the creatures that live and breathe in the night made their way into my room through the crack under my door. And they all had a Yanagawa loach hotpot feast.
The creature was sitting on a velvet cloth decorated with green and reddish-brown tassels. The cloth had been spread out on top of a mound that was about five meters high and made out of compacted dried branches and leaves,mixed with some soft earth. One knee up, hands outstretched, palms turned upward, the creature sat in an expectant pose. The base of the mound was quite wide, but toward the top it soared up in a peak, from which steam rose in loose drifts, together with the stench of something fermenting. Sometimes the steam was thin, and sometimes it was thick: it wound and curled about the creature’s limbs, like mist. As it curled and wound about him, the creature maintained his expectant attitude.
A bird squawked. Birds roughly the size of chickens were scattered around the base of the mound, keeping up an endless screeching. Looking rather like pheasants, they squawked and they screeched, stretching out their necks, at times as if to menace the creature, at times rather as if to petition him. He, however, made absolutely no move in response to their clamor. He simply stared ahead, eyes wide open, still as a statue, one knee up, palms up. His eyes, which, depending on the angle, were sometimes a shiny purple, at other times just a subdued, ashen gray, remained fixed on one corner of the heavens. There, nothing twinkled: the fixed stars and dwarf stars and the nebulae that covered the rest of the sky in their vast numbers were nowhere to be seen, and the heavens were just uniformly black, as if blotted out by a cloth.
A bird squawked again. Another bird went flying up to the top of the mound, loudly beating its wings. Once it reached the top, it pecked at the creature with its beak. Even when he was pecked at, the creature did not change his pose, keeping his one knee up, palms up. Several trickles of blood started to flow from the places on his skin that the bird had gouged out most deeply. First one bird, and then another, pecked at him—and suddenly all the rest of them flew up at once, squawking and making a great fluttering sound with their wings, producing yet more trickles of blood. A huge quantity of blood dripped down onto the velvet cloth, creating a pattern of red and black.
In a great mob, the birds pecked and pecked away at his arms, ankles, chin, temples, the nape of his neck, his lower stomach.
The creature’s body started very slowly to keel over, but even so he maintained his original pose, one knee up, palms out and up. The surface of his skin was riddled with the holes gouged out by the birds. Deep and black, the holes threatened to take his body over completely.
One bird started attacking his eyes.
Out came the left eye. The creature stared even more determinedly at the heavens with his remaining right eye. Teetering unsteadily in the breeze created by the flapping of the birds’ wings, he glared at the empty corner of the sky.
Another bird attacked his right eye, and still the creature stared up at the sky. By now most of his body was just one gaping hole, and it was no longer even possible to tell if his knee was up, or his palms were facing heavenwards. The vestiges of whatever had been there before remained sitting on the velvet cloth, staring up at the heavens.
One last peck from the bird, and the body was gone completely. Bereft of its master, the velvet cloth was blown heavenward by the beating of the birds’ wings. The mound had now reverted to the birds’ control: and at the very top, where the fermenting odor was coming from, dozens of eggs that had been covered up by the velvet cloth and the creature that sat on it were completely exposed. The birds set up a chorus of joyful squawks.
Meanwhile, though the birds were oblivious, the night moved on, the shadows deepened, and midnight approached.
The presence of that now invisible creature spread in every direction, filling the space between earth and sky. Enveloped by that presence, the night reached its deepest and darkest point, the darkness a kind of truth in itself.
From “Atarayoki,” published in Hebi O Fumu. Copyright © 1996 by Hiromi Kawakami. Used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC. Translation © 2014 by Lucy North. All rights reserved.