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Fiction

Spirit Summoning, Part I

By Sakumi Tayama
Translated from Japanese by Mark Gibeau
This contemporary short story by Japanese author Sakumi Tayama explores themes of spirituality, deception, and growing up.

How much longer until we got there? The road was ridiculously wide. Empty but for a thick carpet of weeds, the plains on either side stretched into the distance with not so much as a single house to be seen. I was starting to get worried. Could this really be the way to the client?

For once Yoko was quiet as she drove. She was usually full of unwanted advice after our meetings, but not today. Today the car was filled with the low hum of the engine and an oppressive silence.

Having said that, it’s not like I wanted to talk to her. What could I talk about with a woman who’s probably older than my mother? Nothing fun, that’s for sure.

“Almost there, Yuki,” she said, her eyes on the road. It seems we weren’t lost after all. A small wave of relief washed over me, but then I remembered the part I was to play when we arrived and the relief turned to disgust. When we got there I’d summon a spirit. I’d do it because we were mediums. We weren’t just regular mediums, either—we were frauds.

It was Yoko who made me become a fake medium six months ago. I didn’t want to do it, and all I think about is how much I want to quit. When I tried quitting before, though, my mother got hysterical and wouldn’t stop crying, so that shut me up. I haven’t given up but, for the moment, all I can do is watch and wait for my chance.

When clients want a session they contact Yoko. She listens to their story and decides whether to take the job or not. If she agrees to the job she sets up a time and date and we head out to the client’s house. I suppose she turns down the really serious ones—the life-and-death kind of jobs—but in any case I have no say in it.

My job was to lend the spirits my body and to convey their words. Yoko played the part of the go-between. It was her job to draw out the information the client wanted. When we got everything we needed we’d send the spirit back to where it came from. It was all an act. If we were real mediums we would do all we could to bring the spirit closer to achieving nirvana, but we didn’t try any of that. Even for a fake spirit we’d have to invoke the names of real gods and real Buddhas as we tried to help it on its way to enlightenment. Being fakes, we didn’t have any gods or Buddhas watching over us. Yoko said it was a dangerous business using actual gods and Buddhas to fool people and not something to be done lightly. I really don’t get Yoko. For a fraud, she’s very religious, or, if not that, very superstitious.

What began with just one or two jobs a week at most had grown to where we now had a session almost every day. Both Yoko and my mother were delighted.

***

We finally pulled up in front of the client’s home. It was a tiny one-story house, so old and shabby it looked more like an abandoned shack. A crack ran across the window facing the street, and on either side of the front door, instead of potted plants, there were two Styrofoam boxes overgrown with weeds. The grimy doorbell had an Out of Order sign taped to it. Yoko rapped on the peeling paint of the door.

An elderly woman appeared almost immediately. Today’s client. She bowed to Yoko over and over again but looked at me with a bemused expression. She probably couldn’t decide if she ought to bow to me too, young as I am.

The inside of the house wasn’t as bad as the outside. There were already ten or so middle-aged women gathered in the unexpectedly large sitting room. A small space had been made in front of the Buddhist altar where two cushions were set out for us.

We sat on the cushions and Yoko immediately started going over the situation with the client again. She had checked all of this over the phone already but she needed to do it anyway, both to make sure I didn’t say anything wrong and to help get the audience in the mood for the summoning. Of course the client had no idea, but the kind of person who hires a medium never seems to mind repeating herself. At least not if she’s talking about herself.

“It started on the seventh of January. It was just as I was sitting down to eat a bowl of ‘seventh day rice soup.’ My husband complained that his chest hurt and then fell over, right off his chair. Yes, I called an ambulance right away.” She went on to say that, ever since the new year, her husband and his family had had nothing but bad luck, with people having accidents or falling ill one after another.

When she finished her story Yoko reached into her black shopping bag and withdrew the khakkara staff, wrapped in a small silk cloth. The staff, like a small metal rattle with dozens of rings hanging from it, jingled with a clear, pure sound at the lightest touch.

Yoko turned to faced me, the staff ready. That was my signal to start the summoning. I held my hands in front of me, palms pressed together, and closed my eyes. Yoko held the khakkara out toward my forehead and gave it a loud shake. Once, twice, three times. When the last lingering echoes of the third shake had vanished, my head dropped forward with a jerk. That was my sign that the spirit had entered me.

Yoko placed the khakkara on the floor and began the usual series of questions. What kind of spirit, its gender, age, when did it live, how did it die. I never spoke at the start of a summoning, responding instead with a nod for yes and a shake of the head for no. It takes a fair bit of talent to get information out of someone who can only answer yes or no. Yoko had a real knack for it.

“Are you related to anyone in this household?”

“Do you have long hair?”

“Can you count your age just by using your fingers?”

“Did you have a TV?”

Once she’d taken care of the basic information about the spirit she would make up more questions as needed. Today’s spirit was that of a little boy. I’d decided that much in the car. I thought I would fill out the details based on how the audience reacted but as I was answering Yoko’s questions I gradually came to see the dead child in my mind. Even though I had just made him up, I could feel his sadness and pain almost as if they were real. And not just in my mind either–I could feel it in my body as well. My fingers scrabbling as they slipped over mossy stone, the water filling the gap between clothes and skin. My hands and feet grew cold. I was so cold. I thought it was supposed to be hot out today.

I died in the Taishô period, the early twentieth century. I was six years old and my father’s son by a previous wife. The audience had all the basics now. It was nearly time to start speaking.

“Did you die of an illness?”

At this question I gave my head a weak shake.

“I fell. Into a well.”

“How did it happen? Did you slip?”

“Pushed. By my new mother.” I could sense a collective gasp sweep the room.

“Wasn’t enough food. Younger brother needed more.”

One after another the words popped into my head, as though appearing on a teleprompter. I started to feel that I had heard this sad story somewhere before. Someone in the audience was sobbing quietly. That should make Yoko happy.

When the flow of words began to falter Yoko asked if the spirit had any requests. He wanted incense to be burned for him at the seasonal obon and higan rituals. Yoko had warned me before not to ask for anything that was expensive or a lot of trouble, but I knew that without being told. I figured that the dead had no reason to be greedy. Not like Yoko.

“Thank you for talking with us for so long. Will you tell us one last thing? Many people here have fallen ill or had accidents—is that your doing?”

I had intended to nod yes but for some reason I didn’t want to. After an awkward pause I spoke.

“I don’t know anything about that,” I said brusquely.

I’m in for it now, I told myself. But the words were already out there and they couldn’t be taken back. Yoko gave the khakkara a final loud shake and my hands, which had been pressed together in front of me, dropped to my sides. The summoning was over.

Opening my eyes I saw that the people in the audience looked dissatisfied. I couldn’t blame them. After all, the whole reason they called on us was to find the cause of all their bad luck. Then, when a spirit does show up, it says it doesn’t know anything about it. I was sure I’d get yelled at for it later. “Why didn’t you just give them what they wanted? A nice, simple story?”

Yoko wrapped the khakkara carefully in the small silk cloth and turned to the audience.

“We’ve all heard what the child’s spirit said, but I believe that this misfortune is not the work of a single spirit.” The client’s eyes widened.

“It has been a long time since your ancestors’ graves were looked after properly, correct?

The spirit we spoke with is only a child and doesn’t completely understand the situation. The depth of his grief, however, creates a powerful negative energy. It is the same with adult spirits. I believe that the reason they sent his spirit to you was because even the other spirits pitied him. Killed through no fault of his own and in a state of constant suffering because no one tends his grave. They wanted to show you that. Our ancestors see all their descendants as precious children. The last thing they want is to cause us suffering. Yet, if they cannot get us to understand, they must use what means they can to make their voices heard. The first thing you should do is discuss this among yourselves and begin with what you can do right away. Your ancestors are watching. Your current misfortune is the result of many years of accumulated neglect, so it may not turn around completely overnight, but don’t give up. If you persist, little by little, things should improve.”

Yoko stood as she finished this stream of seemingly wise yet wholly useless advice in one breath. Not wanting to be left behind, I headed for the door too.

“Just a moment!” Someone called out from behind me but I stepped outside. Yoko was the one they wanted. Not me.

The car door was locked so I couldn’t get in. I could see my bookbag in the back seat of the car as I leaned against the wall of the house. It was a lot heavier than normal. We had exams coming up so I brought all my textbooks home with me. That weight was reality. Compared to that, what I just did—it was like a dream, just an illusion. This world wouldn’t so much as notice if even the memory of it vanished.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Yoko said, approaching. The corner of a white envelope peeked from her bag. I let my gaze slide over it and away. They’d given it to Yoko. It had nothing to do with me. Better not to think about it.

The car jerked into motion, and when the house had vanished into the distance behind us, Yoko spoke. I expected her to start in on me but, to my surprise, she didn’t.

“I was a bit worried at the end when you sort of started to stall but we can’t really keep following the same pattern either. It was good—that was fine. The story about the child dying had everyone feeling sad and sympathetic, but for a child’s spirit to be strong enough to bring about so much bad luck? That might’ve been a bit odd. I suppose you were thinking of your sister? When you were talking about how the child died?”

That caught me by surprise. It hadn’t even crossed my mind until she mentioned it. She had a point, though. They both drowned, so in a sense they were the same.

In the beginning Yoko didn’t just give me a general picture, she would come up with the whole story down to the last detail, but as we started getting more jobs she left it up to me. Maybe my stories were being unconsciously influenced by my own thoughts and feelings. I didn’t want to share my secrets with complete strangers. And especially not with Yoko.

“No. That didn’t have anything to do with it.”

I gazed out the window to avoid her eyes, peering at me in the rearview mirror. For a little while we both sat there in silence. Then she took a sharp turn and my bag fell from the seat with a thud.

“Looks awfully heavy. Your bag.”

“Oh, yeah. Exams are coming up.”

“I see,” she replied, and we lapsed back into silence.

The surroundings grew familiar again. We were close to Yoko’s house. From there it was only another five minutes to my house. I wanted out of the car as soon as possible. I thought about telling Yoko to just go to her house and I’d walk the rest of the way. Just as the thought occurred to me, Yoko spoke.

“I know you want to get home but can you stop by my place for a little bit?” she said, brightly. “I want to discuss something with you.”

I had a bad feeling about this. “Does it have to be today?”

“Today would be better.”

I gave up with a quiet sigh.

I didn’t want to go in. Not only was her house filthy, I didn’t like Masatoshi, her husband. Cradling my heavy book bag in front of me like a shield, I stepped inside.

“I have to chat with Yuki for a few minutes. Why don’t you go on ahead to the bar and start setting up?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Masatoshi replied sourly from the living room as he got to his feet. He gave my shoulder a quick caress, as though accidentally brushing against me, as he walked past.

Just as I expected, the house was a mess. Every inch of the walls seemed to be lined with bookcases, with only doors and windows spared. Even so, books and magazines were strewn everywhere and had even started to take over the sofas, tables and floor.

Yoko walked over to the sofa and casually swept a pile of books to the floor.

“Sit.”

I did as I was told and sat on the sofa that had, until a moment ago, been buried in books. The room was so dark it was hard to tell but I thought I saw a large cloud of dust billowing up.

“So, your high school. I’ll get straight to the point—I don’t see any need for you to keep going.” She leaned back in the sofa across from me, an expression of confident superiority on her face.

“Why not?”

“Come on, it’s not as though you’re going to need a diploma for your future, right?”

I’d rather she just came out and said that she wanted to take on more jobs.

Yoko runs her own bar so she can’t take any jobs at night, and I have school in the daytime. So the “spirit summoning” jobs are limited to the few after-school hours. At the same time, the number of requests was growing because Yoko was advertising it at her bar. At this rate we wouldn’t be able to keep up even if we scheduled multiple jobs on the weekends. And Yoko wanted to take as many jobs as she can. The more jobs we took, the more money she got.

“I had a chat with your mother the other day. She thinks that it’s more important for you to help people than it is to go to school. I mean, normally it takes years of training for a regular person to do what you’ve managed to pick up all on your own. Your power is a gift from heaven, Yuki. You have a responsibility to make the most of it and to help as many people as you can. It’s your destiny. Sure, it may seem a bit silly sometimes, but in the end it’s for your own good too.”

I wondered if she realized that she was contradicting herself. In the beginning it was Yoko who said we only had to fake it. She was the one who said that the people who hired us didn’t really want the truth, they just wanted an easy story. That’s why it was OK to lie, she said. Now she was going on as though I was a real medium? Despite the fact that she herself never, not for a single instant, believed that I was really speaking for a spirit?

Looking down I gazed idly at the books scattered across the floor. The Ten Secrets to Success, How to Do Your Own Tax Returns, Building a Bridge to the Beyond, The Principles of Magic, Introduction to Condominium Management. I felt a headache coming on.

“Hey now,” a man’s voice broke the silence. Masatoshi was standing by the living room door. “She can’t even get a word in edgewise with you yakking away like that. Yuki’s got her own situation to consider too—don’t you, Yuki? She probably has friends at school as well.”

“You shut up,” Yoko said, brows furrowed. Masatoshi sat down next to her and crossed his legs.

“It’s an important decision. You can’t just decide all at once, right? You take your time and think about it. But just try to understand that your mother and Yoko—they’re just thinking about what’s best for you. Do you think you can do that?”

With that Masatoshi reached out and rested his hand on Yoko’s shoulder, his fingers toying idly with her rust-brown hair. I had the feeling I had glimpsed something I shouldn’t see. I didn’t know what to do. The corners of Masatoshi’s lips curled upward as he looked at me. He was pretending to stick up for me but it was just a game to him. He was another liar, I knew it. I didn’t know anything about Masatoshi except that he was younger than Yoko. But I knew. He was one of those people who will look you straight in the eye and lie through their teeth without a second thought.

“Well,” Yoko said with a resigned sigh, “think about it, will you? I’m not saying you have to decide right away, you know. I think that’s enough for today. I’ll give you a lift home.”

“No thank you, I’ll walk home. Bye.” I couldn’t decide if living near Yoko was a good thing or a bad thing. I picked my way carefully across the living room, trying to avoid stepping on the books.

I closed the front door and took several deep breaths. I wanted to get as much of that dust out of my lungs as I could.


“Tamaoroshi” published by Bungeishunju Ltd, Tokyo. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Mark Gibeau. All rights reserved.

This story will be serialized over several issues. Click here for Part II.

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How much longer until we got there? The road was ridiculously wide. Empty but for a thick carpet of weeds, the plains on either side stretched into the distance with not so much as a single house to be seen. I was starting to get worried. Could this really be the way to the client?

For once Yoko was quiet as she drove. She was usually full of unwanted advice after our meetings, but not today. Today the car was filled with the low hum of the engine and an oppressive silence.

Having said that, it’s not like I wanted to talk to her. What could I talk about with a woman who’s probably older than my mother? Nothing fun, that’s for sure.

“Almost there, Yuki,” she said, her eyes on the road. It seems we weren’t lost after all. A small wave of relief washed over me, but then I remembered the part I was to play when we arrived and the relief turned to disgust. When we got there I’d summon a spirit. I’d do it because we were mediums. We weren’t just regular mediums, either—we were frauds.

It was Yoko who made me become a fake medium six months ago. I didn’t want to do it, and all I think about is how much I want to quit. When I tried quitting before, though, my mother got hysterical and wouldn’t stop crying, so that shut me up. I haven’t given up but, for the moment, all I can do is watch and wait for my chance.

When clients want a session they contact Yoko. She listens to their story and decides whether to take the job or not. If she agrees to the job she sets up a time and date and we head out to the client’s house. I suppose she turns down the really serious ones—the life-and-death kind of jobs—but in any case I have no say in it.

My job was to lend the spirits my body and to convey their words. Yoko played the part of the go-between. It was her job to draw out the information the client wanted. When we got everything we needed we’d send the spirit back to where it came from. It was all an act. If we were real mediums we would do all we could to bring the spirit closer to achieving nirvana, but we didn’t try any of that. Even for a fake spirit we’d have to invoke the names of real gods and real Buddhas as we tried to help it on its way to enlightenment. Being fakes, we didn’t have any gods or Buddhas watching over us. Yoko said it was a dangerous business using actual gods and Buddhas to fool people and not something to be done lightly. I really don’t get Yoko. For a fraud, she’s very religious, or, if not that, very superstitious.

What began with just one or two jobs a week at most had grown to where we now had a session almost every day. Both Yoko and my mother were delighted.

***

We finally pulled up in front of the client’s home. It was a tiny one-story house, so old and shabby it looked more like an abandoned shack. A crack ran across the window facing the street, and on either side of the front door, instead of potted plants, there were two Styrofoam boxes overgrown with weeds. The grimy doorbell had an Out of Order sign taped to it. Yoko rapped on the peeling paint of the door.

An elderly woman appeared almost immediately. Today’s client. She bowed to Yoko over and over again but looked at me with a bemused expression. She probably couldn’t decide if she ought to bow to me too, young as I am.

The inside of the house wasn’t as bad as the outside. There were already ten or so middle-aged women gathered in the unexpectedly large sitting room. A small space had been made in front of the Buddhist altar where two cushions were set out for us.

We sat on the cushions and Yoko immediately started going over the situation with the client again. She had checked all of this over the phone already but she needed to do it anyway, both to make sure I didn’t say anything wrong and to help get the audience in the mood for the summoning. Of course the client had no idea, but the kind of person who hires a medium never seems to mind repeating herself. At least not if she’s talking about herself.

“It started on the seventh of January. It was just as I was sitting down to eat a bowl of ‘seventh day rice soup.’ My husband complained that his chest hurt and then fell over, right off his chair. Yes, I called an ambulance right away.” She went on to say that, ever since the new year, her husband and his family had had nothing but bad luck, with people having accidents or falling ill one after another.

When she finished her story Yoko reached into her black shopping bag and withdrew the khakkara staff, wrapped in a small silk cloth. The staff, like a small metal rattle with dozens of rings hanging from it, jingled with a clear, pure sound at the lightest touch.

Yoko turned to faced me, the staff ready. That was my signal to start the summoning. I held my hands in front of me, palms pressed together, and closed my eyes. Yoko held the khakkara out toward my forehead and gave it a loud shake. Once, twice, three times. When the last lingering echoes of the third shake had vanished, my head dropped forward with a jerk. That was my sign that the spirit had entered me.

Yoko placed the khakkara on the floor and began the usual series of questions. What kind of spirit, its gender, age, when did it live, how did it die. I never spoke at the start of a summoning, responding instead with a nod for yes and a shake of the head for no. It takes a fair bit of talent to get information out of someone who can only answer yes or no. Yoko had a real knack for it.

“Are you related to anyone in this household?”

“Do you have long hair?”

“Can you count your age just by using your fingers?”

“Did you have a TV?”

Once she’d taken care of the basic information about the spirit she would make up more questions as needed. Today’s spirit was that of a little boy. I’d decided that much in the car. I thought I would fill out the details based on how the audience reacted but as I was answering Yoko’s questions I gradually came to see the dead child in my mind. Even though I had just made him up, I could feel his sadness and pain almost as if they were real. And not just in my mind either–I could feel it in my body as well. My fingers scrabbling as they slipped over mossy stone, the water filling the gap between clothes and skin. My hands and feet grew cold. I was so cold. I thought it was supposed to be hot out today.

I died in the Taishô period, the early twentieth century. I was six years old and my father’s son by a previous wife. The audience had all the basics now. It was nearly time to start speaking.

“Did you die of an illness?”

At this question I gave my head a weak shake.

“I fell. Into a well.”

“How did it happen? Did you slip?”

“Pushed. By my new mother.” I could sense a collective gasp sweep the room.

“Wasn’t enough food. Younger brother needed more.”

One after another the words popped into my head, as though appearing on a teleprompter. I started to feel that I had heard this sad story somewhere before. Someone in the audience was sobbing quietly. That should make Yoko happy.

When the flow of words began to falter Yoko asked if the spirit had any requests. He wanted incense to be burned for him at the seasonal obon and higan rituals. Yoko had warned me before not to ask for anything that was expensive or a lot of trouble, but I knew that without being told. I figured that the dead had no reason to be greedy. Not like Yoko.

“Thank you for talking with us for so long. Will you tell us one last thing? Many people here have fallen ill or had accidents—is that your doing?”

I had intended to nod yes but for some reason I didn’t want to. After an awkward pause I spoke.

“I don’t know anything about that,” I said brusquely.

I’m in for it now, I told myself. But the words were already out there and they couldn’t be taken back. Yoko gave the khakkara a final loud shake and my hands, which had been pressed together in front of me, dropped to my sides. The summoning was over.

Opening my eyes I saw that the people in the audience looked dissatisfied. I couldn’t blame them. After all, the whole reason they called on us was to find the cause of all their bad luck. Then, when a spirit does show up, it says it doesn’t know anything about it. I was sure I’d get yelled at for it later. “Why didn’t you just give them what they wanted? A nice, simple story?”

Yoko wrapped the khakkara carefully in the small silk cloth and turned to the audience.

“We’ve all heard what the child’s spirit said, but I believe that this misfortune is not the work of a single spirit.” The client’s eyes widened.

“It has been a long time since your ancestors’ graves were looked after properly, correct?

The spirit we spoke with is only a child and doesn’t completely understand the situation. The depth of his grief, however, creates a powerful negative energy. It is the same with adult spirits. I believe that the reason they sent his spirit to you was because even the other spirits pitied him. Killed through no fault of his own and in a state of constant suffering because no one tends his grave. They wanted to show you that. Our ancestors see all their descendants as precious children. The last thing they want is to cause us suffering. Yet, if they cannot get us to understand, they must use what means they can to make their voices heard. The first thing you should do is discuss this among yourselves and begin with what you can do right away. Your ancestors are watching. Your current misfortune is the result of many years of accumulated neglect, so it may not turn around completely overnight, but don’t give up. If you persist, little by little, things should improve.”

Yoko stood as she finished this stream of seemingly wise yet wholly useless advice in one breath. Not wanting to be left behind, I headed for the door too.

“Just a moment!” Someone called out from behind me but I stepped outside. Yoko was the one they wanted. Not me.

The car door was locked so I couldn’t get in. I could see my bookbag in the back seat of the car as I leaned against the wall of the house. It was a lot heavier than normal. We had exams coming up so I brought all my textbooks home with me. That weight was reality. Compared to that, what I just did—it was like a dream, just an illusion. This world wouldn’t so much as notice if even the memory of it vanished.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Yoko said, approaching. The corner of a white envelope peeked from her bag. I let my gaze slide over it and away. They’d given it to Yoko. It had nothing to do with me. Better not to think about it.

The car jerked into motion, and when the house had vanished into the distance behind us, Yoko spoke. I expected her to start in on me but, to my surprise, she didn’t.

“I was a bit worried at the end when you sort of started to stall but we can’t really keep following the same pattern either. It was good—that was fine. The story about the child dying had everyone feeling sad and sympathetic, but for a child’s spirit to be strong enough to bring about so much bad luck? That might’ve been a bit odd. I suppose you were thinking of your sister? When you were talking about how the child died?”

That caught me by surprise. It hadn’t even crossed my mind until she mentioned it. She had a point, though. They both drowned, so in a sense they were the same.

In the beginning Yoko didn’t just give me a general picture, she would come up with the whole story down to the last detail, but as we started getting more jobs she left it up to me. Maybe my stories were being unconsciously influenced by my own thoughts and feelings. I didn’t want to share my secrets with complete strangers. And especially not with Yoko.

“No. That didn’t have anything to do with it.”

I gazed out the window to avoid her eyes, peering at me in the rearview mirror. For a little while we both sat there in silence. Then she took a sharp turn and my bag fell from the seat with a thud.

“Looks awfully heavy. Your bag.”

“Oh, yeah. Exams are coming up.”

“I see,” she replied, and we lapsed back into silence.

The surroundings grew familiar again. We were close to Yoko’s house. From there it was only another five minutes to my house. I wanted out of the car as soon as possible. I thought about telling Yoko to just go to her house and I’d walk the rest of the way. Just as the thought occurred to me, Yoko spoke.

“I know you want to get home but can you stop by my place for a little bit?” she said, brightly. “I want to discuss something with you.”

I had a bad feeling about this. “Does it have to be today?”

“Today would be better.”

I gave up with a quiet sigh.

I didn’t want to go in. Not only was her house filthy, I didn’t like Masatoshi, her husband. Cradling my heavy book bag in front of me like a shield, I stepped inside.

“I have to chat with Yuki for a few minutes. Why don’t you go on ahead to the bar and start setting up?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Masatoshi replied sourly from the living room as he got to his feet. He gave my shoulder a quick caress, as though accidentally brushing against me, as he walked past.

Just as I expected, the house was a mess. Every inch of the walls seemed to be lined with bookcases, with only doors and windows spared. Even so, books and magazines were strewn everywhere and had even started to take over the sofas, tables and floor.

Yoko walked over to the sofa and casually swept a pile of books to the floor.

“Sit.”

I did as I was told and sat on the sofa that had, until a moment ago, been buried in books. The room was so dark it was hard to tell but I thought I saw a large cloud of dust billowing up.

“So, your high school. I’ll get straight to the point—I don’t see any need for you to keep going.” She leaned back in the sofa across from me, an expression of confident superiority on her face.

“Why not?”

“Come on, it’s not as though you’re going to need a diploma for your future, right?”

I’d rather she just came out and said that she wanted to take on more jobs.

Yoko runs her own bar so she can’t take any jobs at night, and I have school in the daytime. So the “spirit summoning” jobs are limited to the few after-school hours. At the same time, the number of requests was growing because Yoko was advertising it at her bar. At this rate we wouldn’t be able to keep up even if we scheduled multiple jobs on the weekends. And Yoko wanted to take as many jobs as she can. The more jobs we took, the more money she got.

“I had a chat with your mother the other day. She thinks that it’s more important for you to help people than it is to go to school. I mean, normally it takes years of training for a regular person to do what you’ve managed to pick up all on your own. Your power is a gift from heaven, Yuki. You have a responsibility to make the most of it and to help as many people as you can. It’s your destiny. Sure, it may seem a bit silly sometimes, but in the end it’s for your own good too.”

I wondered if she realized that she was contradicting herself. In the beginning it was Yoko who said we only had to fake it. She was the one who said that the people who hired us didn’t really want the truth, they just wanted an easy story. That’s why it was OK to lie, she said. Now she was going on as though I was a real medium? Despite the fact that she herself never, not for a single instant, believed that I was really speaking for a spirit?

Looking down I gazed idly at the books scattered across the floor. The Ten Secrets to Success, How to Do Your Own Tax Returns, Building a Bridge to the Beyond, The Principles of Magic, Introduction to Condominium Management. I felt a headache coming on.

“Hey now,” a man’s voice broke the silence. Masatoshi was standing by the living room door. “She can’t even get a word in edgewise with you yakking away like that. Yuki’s got her own situation to consider too—don’t you, Yuki? She probably has friends at school as well.”

“You shut up,” Yoko said, brows furrowed. Masatoshi sat down next to her and crossed his legs.

“It’s an important decision. You can’t just decide all at once, right? You take your time and think about it. But just try to understand that your mother and Yoko—they’re just thinking about what’s best for you. Do you think you can do that?”

With that Masatoshi reached out and rested his hand on Yoko’s shoulder, his fingers toying idly with her rust-brown hair. I had the feeling I had glimpsed something I shouldn’t see. I didn’t know what to do. The corners of Masatoshi’s lips curled upward as he looked at me. He was pretending to stick up for me but it was just a game to him. He was another liar, I knew it. I didn’t know anything about Masatoshi except that he was younger than Yoko. But I knew. He was one of those people who will look you straight in the eye and lie through their teeth without a second thought.

“Well,” Yoko said with a resigned sigh, “think about it, will you? I’m not saying you have to decide right away, you know. I think that’s enough for today. I’ll give you a lift home.”

“No thank you, I’ll walk home. Bye.” I couldn’t decide if living near Yoko was a good thing or a bad thing. I picked my way carefully across the living room, trying to avoid stepping on the books.

I closed the front door and took several deep breaths. I wanted to get as much of that dust out of my lungs as I could.


“Tamaoroshi” published by Bungeishunju Ltd, Tokyo. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Mark Gibeau. All rights reserved.

This story will be serialized over several issues. Click here for Part II.

Definitions

khakkara staff: A staff with rings hanging from it, used mostly in Buddhist prayer. The jingling sounds of the rings are meant to warn small creatures, such as insects, away from the path of the carrier to avoid getting stepped on.

obon and higon: Buddhist celebrations of ancestors.

Taisho era: The period in Japanese history when Emperor Taishō was in power, between 1912 and 1926.

seventh-day rice soup: The soup that Japanese people traditionally have on Jinjitsu, or “Human Day,” one of the five seasonal festivals. People celebrate this day on the seventh day of January, as part of New Year celebrations.

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Japanese names and words from this story, read aloud by the translator Allison Markin Powell. 

 (Listen to the audio on SoundCloud.) 

For more tips on pronouncing Japanese names and words, use this illustrated guide from wikiHow.com and this explanation of sounds, syllables, and stress from JapanesePod101.com.

Read the Original

For readers of Japanese, read this story in its original Japanese version. The title is “Tamaoroshi” 霊降ろし.

​Japanese Customs

Read an article from The Diplomat about the Japanese Obon festival and the beliefs that go along with it.

Read about Jinjitsu, “Human Day,” the seventh day of the year, when people traditionally have seventh-day rice soup.

To Bow or Not to Bow?

Learn about greetings and bows in Japanese culture. Normally, an adult wouldn’t bow deeply to a child, which explains why the client was confused about how she should greet Yuki.

Japanese Religions

For some information on the religious background behind spiritual traditions in Japan, read the Japanese Religions page from Stanford University, which outlines Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, as well as some of Japan’s newer religions. (PDF is available as well.)

Then, read about how the Japanese view of the gods of Shinto has changed over the centuries. 

Japan's Last Mediums

Find out about the changing role of spirit mediums—itako—in Japanese culture in an article from the New York Times: “As Japan’s Mediums Die, Ancient Tradition Fades.” You can also read a personal response to the NYT piece, published on the Jezebel blog, which includes some additional information about shamans.

Background on Japan

Pedestrians underneath umbrellas, their backs to us, walking on a Tokyo street on a rainy night.
Read the BBC’s short country profile of Japan, or visit nippon.com for the latest news. 

More from Sakumi Tayama

Read “The Hole in the Garden“, also written by Sakumi Tayama and translated by Mark Gibeau.

More of the Story

Read Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and Part VI of this story in Words Without Borders.

Sounds of the Khakkara

To see how a khakkara staff is used, and hear the sound it makes, watch a video of a Yamabushi ceremony.

 (Watch the video on YouTube.)

The Taisho Era: Japan's Roaring '20s

Learn about the Taisho Era of Japanese history in this article about the politics of the period from Nippon, and this article on the cultural atmosphere—often summed up as “ero-guro-nansensu—eroticism, grotesquerie, nonsense”—from The Japan Times. Or, for a short explanation, you can read the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

To learn more about Japan’s past, read through a timeline of Japan’s Modern History from Columbia University’s Asia for Educators Initiative.

Japanese Etiquette 101

Read and watch short clips in the humorous “Bowing in Japan: A Definitive Guide,” from Tofugu, a Japanese language and culture blog.

More Journeys into the World of Spirits

Read another short story about spirit possession in Japanese culture: “The Possessing Japanese Ghost” is from Mizuki Shigeru, a famous manga artist most known for his horror stories (translated by Zack Davisson).

Read another story of spirit possession in Japan: “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” by Richard Llloyd Parry, published in the London Review of Books.

Then, read all about the Possessing Things, or Tsukimono—the spirits that can possess a human—and the different words and kanji (Japanese characters) that are used to describe them.

Finally, watch a trailer for the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, another story about a girl who inadvertently enters the spirit world.

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

The Allure of the Supernatural

Read about why people in America are interested in yokai (spirits, goblins, monsters) in “Reviving Japan’s Dreaded and Beloved Ghosts” from the New York Times.

Then, read an article about the recent phenomenon of Japanese millennials turning to Japan’s ancient spiritual heritage.

For a different approach to “spirit summoning” in Japan, listen to “Really Long Distance,” from This American Life

Teenage Spiritualists

Find out why being an itako—a spiritual medium—was a traditional occupation for blind girls in Japan.

Capturing the Spirit

Look through spirit photographs from a real-life false medium, William Hope, a fraudulent spirit photographer in the early 20th century. Then, read the 1922 article that exposed him as a fraud.

You can also read an Atlantic article about a spirit photographer, William Mumler, who specialized in photographs of people with the “ghosts” of their dead relatives. For a contemporary example, read about a memoir by a medium who straddled the line between real and false: “I Was One of America’s Top Psychics.”

Dynamic Duos*

For a relationship similar to that of Yuki and Yoko, read “The Hole in the Garden,” also by Sakumi Tayama, and beginning with a scene in which a mother with murky intentions manipulates her daughter’s perceptions of reality.

*For Teaching Idea 1

True Colors*

Read other stories of people hiding and faking emotions.

Short Stories

  • The Kiso Wayfarer,” in which a traveler conceals his true identity behind a pleasant mask
  • Death Fugue,” also from China, in which an entire society plays the part of Paradise

*For Teaching Idea 2

What's in a label?*

For a different story of labeling, read “Timid as a Mouse” from China.

*For Teaching Idea 3

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

How much longer until we got there? The road was ridiculously wide. Empty but for a thick carpet of weeds, the plains on either side stretched into the distance with not so much as a single house to be seen. I was starting to get worried. Could this really be the way to the client?

For once Yoko was quiet as she drove. She was usually full of unwanted advice after our meetings, but not today. Today the car was filled with the low hum of the engine and an oppressive silence.

Having said that, it’s not like I wanted to talk to her. What could I talk about with a woman who’s probably older than my mother? Nothing fun, that’s for sure.

“Almost there, Yuki,” she said, her eyes on the road. It seems we weren’t lost after all. A small wave of relief washed over me, but then I remembered the part I was to play when we arrived and the relief turned to disgust. When we got there I’d summon a spirit. I’d do it because we were mediums. We weren’t just regular mediums, either—we were frauds.

It was Yoko who made me become a fake medium six months ago. I didn’t want to do it, and all I think about is how much I want to quit. When I tried quitting before, though, my mother got hysterical and wouldn’t stop crying, so that shut me up. I haven’t given up but, for the moment, all I can do is watch and wait for my chance.

When clients want a session they contact Yoko. She listens to their story and decides whether to take the job or not. If she agrees to the job she sets up a time and date and we head out to the client’s house. I suppose she turns down the really serious ones—the life-and-death kind of jobs—but in any case I have no say in it.

My job was to lend the spirits my body and to convey their words. Yoko played the part of the go-between. It was her job to draw out the information the client wanted. When we got everything we needed we’d send the spirit back to where it came from. It was all an act. If we were real mediums we would do all we could to bring the spirit closer to achieving nirvana, but we didn’t try any of that. Even for a fake spirit we’d have to invoke the names of real gods and real Buddhas as we tried to help it on its way to enlightenment. Being fakes, we didn’t have any gods or Buddhas watching over us. Yoko said it was a dangerous business using actual gods and Buddhas to fool people and not something to be done lightly. I really don’t get Yoko. For a fraud, she’s very religious, or, if not that, very superstitious.

What began with just one or two jobs a week at most had grown to where we now had a session almost every day. Both Yoko and my mother were delighted.

***

We finally pulled up in front of the client’s home. It was a tiny one-story house, so old and shabby it looked more like an abandoned shack. A crack ran across the window facing the street, and on either side of the front door, instead of potted plants, there were two Styrofoam boxes overgrown with weeds. The grimy doorbell had an Out of Order sign taped to it. Yoko rapped on the peeling paint of the door.

An elderly woman appeared almost immediately. Today’s client. She bowed to Yoko over and over again but looked at me with a bemused expression. She probably couldn’t decide if she ought to bow to me too, young as I am.

The inside of the house wasn’t as bad as the outside. There were already ten or so middle-aged women gathered in the unexpectedly large sitting room. A small space had been made in front of the Buddhist altar where two cushions were set out for us.

We sat on the cushions and Yoko immediately started going over the situation with the client again. She had checked all of this over the phone already but she needed to do it anyway, both to make sure I didn’t say anything wrong and to help get the audience in the mood for the summoning. Of course the client had no idea, but the kind of person who hires a medium never seems to mind repeating herself. At least not if she’s talking about herself.

“It started on the seventh of January. It was just as I was sitting down to eat a bowl of ‘seventh day rice soup.’ My husband complained that his chest hurt and then fell over, right off his chair. Yes, I called an ambulance right away.” She went on to say that, ever since the new year, her husband and his family had had nothing but bad luck, with people having accidents or falling ill one after another.

When she finished her story Yoko reached into her black shopping bag and withdrew the khakkara staff, wrapped in a small silk cloth. The staff, like a small metal rattle with dozens of rings hanging from it, jingled with a clear, pure sound at the lightest touch.

Yoko turned to faced me, the staff ready. That was my signal to start the summoning. I held my hands in front of me, palms pressed together, and closed my eyes. Yoko held the khakkara out toward my forehead and gave it a loud shake. Once, twice, three times. When the last lingering echoes of the third shake had vanished, my head dropped forward with a jerk. That was my sign that the spirit had entered me.

Yoko placed the khakkara on the floor and began the usual series of questions. What kind of spirit, its gender, age, when did it live, how did it die. I never spoke at the start of a summoning, responding instead with a nod for yes and a shake of the head for no. It takes a fair bit of talent to get information out of someone who can only answer yes or no. Yoko had a real knack for it.

“Are you related to anyone in this household?”

“Do you have long hair?”

“Can you count your age just by using your fingers?”

“Did you have a TV?”

Once she’d taken care of the basic information about the spirit she would make up more questions as needed. Today’s spirit was that of a little boy. I’d decided that much in the car. I thought I would fill out the details based on how the audience reacted but as I was answering Yoko’s questions I gradually came to see the dead child in my mind. Even though I had just made him up, I could feel his sadness and pain almost as if they were real. And not just in my mind either–I could feel it in my body as well. My fingers scrabbling as they slipped over mossy stone, the water filling the gap between clothes and skin. My hands and feet grew cold. I was so cold. I thought it was supposed to be hot out today.

I died in the Taishô period, the early twentieth century. I was six years old and my father’s son by a previous wife. The audience had all the basics now. It was nearly time to start speaking.

“Did you die of an illness?”

At this question I gave my head a weak shake.

“I fell. Into a well.”

“How did it happen? Did you slip?”

“Pushed. By my new mother.” I could sense a collective gasp sweep the room.

“Wasn’t enough food. Younger brother needed more.”

One after another the words popped into my head, as though appearing on a teleprompter. I started to feel that I had heard this sad story somewhere before. Someone in the audience was sobbing quietly. That should make Yoko happy.

When the flow of words began to falter Yoko asked if the spirit had any requests. He wanted incense to be burned for him at the seasonal obon and higan rituals. Yoko had warned me before not to ask for anything that was expensive or a lot of trouble, but I knew that without being told. I figured that the dead had no reason to be greedy. Not like Yoko.

“Thank you for talking with us for so long. Will you tell us one last thing? Many people here have fallen ill or had accidents—is that your doing?”

I had intended to nod yes but for some reason I didn’t want to. After an awkward pause I spoke.

“I don’t know anything about that,” I said brusquely.

I’m in for it now, I told myself. But the words were already out there and they couldn’t be taken back. Yoko gave the khakkara a final loud shake and my hands, which had been pressed together in front of me, dropped to my sides. The summoning was over.

Opening my eyes I saw that the people in the audience looked dissatisfied. I couldn’t blame them. After all, the whole reason they called on us was to find the cause of all their bad luck. Then, when a spirit does show up, it says it doesn’t know anything about it. I was sure I’d get yelled at for it later. “Why didn’t you just give them what they wanted? A nice, simple story?”

Yoko wrapped the khakkara carefully in the small silk cloth and turned to the audience.

“We’ve all heard what the child’s spirit said, but I believe that this misfortune is not the work of a single spirit.” The client’s eyes widened.

“It has been a long time since your ancestors’ graves were looked after properly, correct?

The spirit we spoke with is only a child and doesn’t completely understand the situation. The depth of his grief, however, creates a powerful negative energy. It is the same with adult spirits. I believe that the reason they sent his spirit to you was because even the other spirits pitied him. Killed through no fault of his own and in a state of constant suffering because no one tends his grave. They wanted to show you that. Our ancestors see all their descendants as precious children. The last thing they want is to cause us suffering. Yet, if they cannot get us to understand, they must use what means they can to make their voices heard. The first thing you should do is discuss this among yourselves and begin with what you can do right away. Your ancestors are watching. Your current misfortune is the result of many years of accumulated neglect, so it may not turn around completely overnight, but don’t give up. If you persist, little by little, things should improve.”

Yoko stood as she finished this stream of seemingly wise yet wholly useless advice in one breath. Not wanting to be left behind, I headed for the door too.

“Just a moment!” Someone called out from behind me but I stepped outside. Yoko was the one they wanted. Not me.

The car door was locked so I couldn’t get in. I could see my bookbag in the back seat of the car as I leaned against the wall of the house. It was a lot heavier than normal. We had exams coming up so I brought all my textbooks home with me. That weight was reality. Compared to that, what I just did—it was like a dream, just an illusion. This world wouldn’t so much as notice if even the memory of it vanished.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Yoko said, approaching. The corner of a white envelope peeked from her bag. I let my gaze slide over it and away. They’d given it to Yoko. It had nothing to do with me. Better not to think about it.

The car jerked into motion, and when the house had vanished into the distance behind us, Yoko spoke. I expected her to start in on me but, to my surprise, she didn’t.

“I was a bit worried at the end when you sort of started to stall but we can’t really keep following the same pattern either. It was good—that was fine. The story about the child dying had everyone feeling sad and sympathetic, but for a child’s spirit to be strong enough to bring about so much bad luck? That might’ve been a bit odd. I suppose you were thinking of your sister? When you were talking about how the child died?”

That caught me by surprise. It hadn’t even crossed my mind until she mentioned it. She had a point, though. They both drowned, so in a sense they were the same.

In the beginning Yoko didn’t just give me a general picture, she would come up with the whole story down to the last detail, but as we started getting more jobs she left it up to me. Maybe my stories were being unconsciously influenced by my own thoughts and feelings. I didn’t want to share my secrets with complete strangers. And especially not with Yoko.

“No. That didn’t have anything to do with it.”

I gazed out the window to avoid her eyes, peering at me in the rearview mirror. For a little while we both sat there in silence. Then she took a sharp turn and my bag fell from the seat with a thud.

“Looks awfully heavy. Your bag.”

“Oh, yeah. Exams are coming up.”

“I see,” she replied, and we lapsed back into silence.

The surroundings grew familiar again. We were close to Yoko’s house. From there it was only another five minutes to my house. I wanted out of the car as soon as possible. I thought about telling Yoko to just go to her house and I’d walk the rest of the way. Just as the thought occurred to me, Yoko spoke.

“I know you want to get home but can you stop by my place for a little bit?” she said, brightly. “I want to discuss something with you.”

I had a bad feeling about this. “Does it have to be today?”

“Today would be better.”

I gave up with a quiet sigh.

I didn’t want to go in. Not only was her house filthy, I didn’t like Masatoshi, her husband. Cradling my heavy book bag in front of me like a shield, I stepped inside.

“I have to chat with Yuki for a few minutes. Why don’t you go on ahead to the bar and start setting up?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Masatoshi replied sourly from the living room as he got to his feet. He gave my shoulder a quick caress, as though accidentally brushing against me, as he walked past.

Just as I expected, the house was a mess. Every inch of the walls seemed to be lined with bookcases, with only doors and windows spared. Even so, books and magazines were strewn everywhere and had even started to take over the sofas, tables and floor.

Yoko walked over to the sofa and casually swept a pile of books to the floor.

“Sit.”

I did as I was told and sat on the sofa that had, until a moment ago, been buried in books. The room was so dark it was hard to tell but I thought I saw a large cloud of dust billowing up.

“So, your high school. I’ll get straight to the point—I don’t see any need for you to keep going.” She leaned back in the sofa across from me, an expression of confident superiority on her face.

“Why not?”

“Come on, it’s not as though you’re going to need a diploma for your future, right?”

I’d rather she just came out and said that she wanted to take on more jobs.

Yoko runs her own bar so she can’t take any jobs at night, and I have school in the daytime. So the “spirit summoning” jobs are limited to the few after-school hours. At the same time, the number of requests was growing because Yoko was advertising it at her bar. At this rate we wouldn’t be able to keep up even if we scheduled multiple jobs on the weekends. And Yoko wanted to take as many jobs as she can. The more jobs we took, the more money she got.

“I had a chat with your mother the other day. She thinks that it’s more important for you to help people than it is to go to school. I mean, normally it takes years of training for a regular person to do what you’ve managed to pick up all on your own. Your power is a gift from heaven, Yuki. You have a responsibility to make the most of it and to help as many people as you can. It’s your destiny. Sure, it may seem a bit silly sometimes, but in the end it’s for your own good too.”

I wondered if she realized that she was contradicting herself. In the beginning it was Yoko who said we only had to fake it. She was the one who said that the people who hired us didn’t really want the truth, they just wanted an easy story. That’s why it was OK to lie, she said. Now she was going on as though I was a real medium? Despite the fact that she herself never, not for a single instant, believed that I was really speaking for a spirit?

Looking down I gazed idly at the books scattered across the floor. The Ten Secrets to Success, How to Do Your Own Tax Returns, Building a Bridge to the Beyond, The Principles of Magic, Introduction to Condominium Management. I felt a headache coming on.

“Hey now,” a man’s voice broke the silence. Masatoshi was standing by the living room door. “She can’t even get a word in edgewise with you yakking away like that. Yuki’s got her own situation to consider too—don’t you, Yuki? She probably has friends at school as well.”

“You shut up,” Yoko said, brows furrowed. Masatoshi sat down next to her and crossed his legs.

“It’s an important decision. You can’t just decide all at once, right? You take your time and think about it. But just try to understand that your mother and Yoko—they’re just thinking about what’s best for you. Do you think you can do that?”

With that Masatoshi reached out and rested his hand on Yoko’s shoulder, his fingers toying idly with her rust-brown hair. I had the feeling I had glimpsed something I shouldn’t see. I didn’t know what to do. The corners of Masatoshi’s lips curled upward as he looked at me. He was pretending to stick up for me but it was just a game to him. He was another liar, I knew it. I didn’t know anything about Masatoshi except that he was younger than Yoko. But I knew. He was one of those people who will look you straight in the eye and lie through their teeth without a second thought.

“Well,” Yoko said with a resigned sigh, “think about it, will you? I’m not saying you have to decide right away, you know. I think that’s enough for today. I’ll give you a lift home.”

“No thank you, I’ll walk home. Bye.” I couldn’t decide if living near Yoko was a good thing or a bad thing. I picked my way carefully across the living room, trying to avoid stepping on the books.

I closed the front door and took several deep breaths. I wanted to get as much of that dust out of my lungs as I could.


“Tamaoroshi” published by Bungeishunju Ltd, Tokyo. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Mark Gibeau. All rights reserved.

This story will be serialized over several issues. Click here for Part II.

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