My mother was sitting in front of the Buddhist altar as usual. She picked the habit up last winter and now spent most of each day there.
“I’m home!” She turned, a vacant expression on her face.
“You’re late. I was starting to get worried. What would I do if I lost you as well? I’d be all on my own.”
“I was just talking with Yoko.”
“Yuki, can you talk to Natsuki for me again next time? I’m taking all my medicine just like she told me to but I’m not getting any better. I don’t understand . . . Are you sure you haven’t done anything wrong? You have to listen to Yoko and do exactly as she says. Otherwise you’ll make Natsuki sad. Honestly, I don’t understand why I’m so tired all the time.”
I set my bag down on the living room floor and walked over to her.
“Nobody’s done anything wrong and Natsuki isn’t sad. I told you before, remember? You’ve got to keep taking the medicine for a while before it starts to work. Anyway, you already look a lot better than before. Don’t worry so much.”
“She really isn’t sad?”
“Natsuki’s not sad.”
She looked unconvinced but turned to the altar and started chanting sutras. I slipped quietly from the room.
I let out a long breath as I closed the door to my room. I took my books and notes from the bag and stacked them on my desk. It made for a pretty big pile. Just a year ago the sight of a stack of books like this would’ve been enough to make me feel sick. Back then I was so stupid—and so happy—that I couldn’t imagine hating anything more than studying.
The faint sound of my mother’s chanting drifted up from downstairs. The room seemed strangely cold. Was it just the temperature or something else? Maybe it was the wind blowing through the gaps in my family.
Neither my father nor my brother called us much these days. They’d both given up on Mother. Part of me wanted to rail at them for being so cold but this desire was mixed up with another part of me that thought about how much easier life would be if I did the same. Not wanting to think about it, I laid my head on the desk next to the tower of books. Almost two whole years. My father’s posting would end, I’d graduate high school. It seemed like an eternity.
The new part of town had been built on the southern slope of the mountain. My high school sat on the topmost point of the development. The house with the poltergeist was right next to the school.
Jobs so close to home or school scared me. I was afraid that I might run into someone I knew. Yoko, however, wasn’t the type of person to take those kinds of things into consideration.
This part of town was built about ten years ago and had a mix of old, new, and renovated houses. The client lived in a new two-story house with white walls and a dark brown roof. A small plaque, with the client’s name written in ornate calligraphy, hung beside the door. It didn’t look like the sort of house you’d associate with mediums and spirits.
The client was Mrs. Yamashita. She came to the door and welcomed us in as though we were normal guests. Five middle-aged women waited in a spacious living room with huge windows. They gazed at Yoko and me with unconcealed curiosity.
“As I understand it you don’t have a Buddhist altar? Or a household shrine?” Yoko asked. Mrs. Yamashita nodded apologetically.
“That’s right. We did have an altar before but when the house was rebuilt it was returned to the head household of the family.“
“And visits to your ancestor’s graves?”
“We pay our respects at the altar whenever we visit the head family. And we visit the graves during Obon each summer.”
“I see. Yuki, let’s do it here.”
Yoko, who had been walking around the living room as she talked, stopped and pointed at a spot in front of a shelf with a vase atop it. It seemed she wanted to use this as the “setting” for the summoning.
Mrs. Yamashita brought cushions for us and we took our usual positions facing one another. Yoko turned to the client as she took the khakkara from her bag.
“So, the problem is just the poltergeist, yes?”
“Yes. It makes noises from evening until late at night. Nobody’s there but you can hear doors opening and closing, footsteps and so on. It doesn’t happen every day—more like a few times a week.”
“Did it start soon after the house was built? This house is still quite new, isn’t it?”
“The house was rebuilt two years ago but the noises only began last month. There was nothing at all before then.”
“Did anything odd or unusual happen around the time the noises started? Did someone fall ill or maybe have an accident? Or the opposite—did anything unusually lucky or fortunate happen?”
“No . . . I can’t think of anything like that,” she said, her head tilted to one side in thought. She must have been concerned but she didn’t seem particularly desperate.
As Yoko continued her questions the living room door opened. My breath caught in my throat. It was Emi Yamashita, a girl from my class. A look of surprise flashed across her face before she quickly turned away. We had talked a few times at school about novels we read. She didn’t seem like the type of person to spread gossip. Even so, if you found out that a classmate was working as a medium it would be only natural to want to tell someone. Even though I didn’t have any close friends I thought I’d been getting by OK at school. Until now . . .
“Well, let’s get started then. If there are any spirits, they will speak to us through the medium.”
Yoko gripped the khakkara. “Yuki,” she said, prompting me. I pressed my hands together and closed my eyes.
I just sat there, as though frozen in place. Even when Yoko had repeated the usual three shakes of the khakkara. I couldn’t pretend that a spirit had come. Everything we discussed and arranged beforehand had vanished completely from my mind.
“Just one moment,” Yoko said, leaning over to me and putting her hand to my brow. “What’s wrong?” I shook my head. “Stop screwing around!” She said, her whisper harsh. She took her hand from my forehead.
Yoko eased back to her original position, moving slowly to buy time. Just as she made to shake the khakkara again someone near me spoke up.
“Please, stop! That’s enough!”
I opened my eyes. I couldn’t help myself. Emi stood beside her mother.
“Emi, what are—”
“I’m telling you, Mom, there’s no poltergeist.”
Now everyone turned to look at her.
“Oh, what else could I do? He’s gonna be so mad at me . . .”
“What are you talking about? What is this?”
“I’m trying to tell you! It’s Tetsu making all the noises. He goes around the back of the house, climbs up the wall, jumps to the balcony and goes back to his room. He’s been skipping his after-school lessons. When you guys started making a big fuss about a poltergeist, he deliberately started walking around even more. Oh . . . Tetsu’s gonna kill me.”
Mrs. Yamashita stood there, her mouth agape, her face flushed a deep crimson.
“Why didn’t you say something sooner!” she demanded.
“I told you, he made me promise not to!” With that Emi fled from the room. Her mother shouted at her to come back, but Emi did not reply.
The other ladies did their best to console Mrs. Yamashita, saying she should be relieved now that she knew what the problem was. Mrs. Yamashita nodded weakly and then turned to Yoko, bowing deeply in apology.
“Everything is a big mess, it seems. I’m very sorry. I know I should’ve checked before calling you over but it was so creepy . . . I couldn’t bring myself to go upstairs.”
“Oh, it was no trouble at all. This is the best possible outcome. After all, it is far better than having a spirit haunting your house. Actually, I was thinking that it might be something like that. There wasn’t the slightest indication of a spirit. They usually come to us right after the third shake.”
Yoko wore a perfect, professional smile as she spoke. Nimbly wrapping the khakkara she gave me a look as though to say that it was time to leave. “As everything has been resolved we will be on our way. Yuki, shall we?”
I caught a glimpse of Emi’s mother apologizing as she held an envelope out to Yoko. I didn’t care about the money. I just wanted out of there as fast as I could.
I stepped outside and someone called to me from the second-floor balcony. “Hey!” Emi was waving.
Unsure of what to do, I lifted my arm in a halfhearted wave and glanced briefly at her over my shoulder. Just thinking about tomorrow made my stomach churn. Oblivious to my suffering, Emi smiled brightly at me. I turned away, pretending I was waiting for Yoko.
“I was wondering what had gotten into you, Yuki. But you really nailed it. You knew what was going on, didn’t you? Ha ha! She’s going to tell all her friends about today—you can bet on it. It’ll be great for our reputation. We might even get more jobs. But if we’d said it was a spirit and then found out that it was actually man-made? That would’ve been a disaster—a worst-case scenario. But saying the spirit didn’t come because there was no spirit—that sounds a lot more realistic!”
Yoko kept up a constant stream of chatter the whole way home. I was too tired to listen, much less to join in, so I just stared out of the window. When we stopped at a red light I saw a middle-aged woman walking a tiny dog. I wanted to get out and pet it. I wanted to touch something that was warm and living.
Home, school, summonings. Those three things were my entire world. School wasn’t perfect but it was the only one of the three that felt like reality. At home I had to deal with my mother, always losing herself in dreams. The summonings themselves were fake and the stories I told were all lies. So it was impossible for me not to go to school. No matter how much I might dread it.
Imagining the worst but pretending a calm I didn’t feel, I stepped into the classroom. Emi was already there, sitting at her desk and reading a book. She didn’t seem to have noticed I’d arrived. A wave of relief washed over me.
After morning classes finished, Emi came over to me, carrying her lunch.
“Do you want to eat together? Bring that with you.” I hesitated a moment and then, grabbing my milk carton and sandwich from atop the desk, stood up.
Emi marched briskly down the corridor. She walked so fast I didn’t even get a chance to ask where we were going as I hurried after her.
She came to a halt in front of the sewing room at the western end of the school.
“Have you ever been up on the roof?” she asked, her voice hushed.
I looked over at the roped-off stairwell and shook my head. We weren’t allowed on the roof. Emi flashed a grin.
“We’re not supposed to but the hatch locks from the inside and there’s a gap in one of the links in the chain on the handle. If you twist it just right it comes off, like one of those metal ring puzzles.”
Emi stepped over the rope and started up the stairs. I hesitated for a moment but in the end I followed after her.
“About the only place you can be alone at school is the bathroom, right? But you can’t hide in there forever. I wanted to go up on the roof and was pulling at the chain when I figured it out. You know why we can’t go on the roof? A long time ago a kid jumped. They say he didn’t die, though. Then they went and put in really high fences so there’s really no need to make it off limits. Seems like a waste to me.”
We reached the top of the stairs and I saw that the hatch was just as Emi had described. A chain was wrapped around the handle.
“See, right here.” I looked at the chain and sure enough there was a gap between the links. It wasn’t attached to the handle very firmly either. Emi handed me her lunch and asked me to hold it while she grasped the chain with both hands and twisted. It slipped right off. She unwound the chain and placed it on the floor. Gripping the center of the handle, she twisted. A dry click came from the hatch.
“Here goes,” Emi said. The hatch creaked faintly as she pushed it open.
A perfect square of blue appeared, as though cut out of the ceiling. I blinked against the brilliant light. “C’mon—hurry up!” Emi urged, her silhouette standing out in stark contrast against the blue background. It was as though Emi had transformed into something else, as though she weren’t just a person. I was confused. Was this truly the same place it had been just a moment ago? It seemed like the school was connected to a different world. I was a little scared.
Emi reached down and pulled at my arm. I emerged onto the roof. Looking around, all that could be seen was sky and a high fence. I remembered that the school was built high up on the slope of the mountain.
Emi gently closed the hatch and looked at me with evident pride. “Nice, isn’t it?”
“Come over here. Watch your step—there are puddles everywhere from last night’s rain. This building is so old, the concrete is all uneven.”
Several wooden crates were scattered behind the hatch.
“They make good chairs. Don’t go too close to the fence, though. They’ll see you from the ground.”
I held her lunch out to her and Emi gave a laugh when she realized that I still had it. She started eating right away. I pushed my straw into my milk carton.
“Do you always buy a sandwich for lunch?” Emi asked.
“The supermarket has yakisoba sandwiches. They’re supposed to be really good but they always sell out in no time. Have you ever had one?”
I gazed at the shadows of the clouds, their shapes changing as they crossed the roof. I was surprised at how near the shouts of students playing on the grounds sounded. A strong, warm wind blew across the roof from time to time. I pushed my fluttering hair back behind my ears and shoved the crumpled sandwich wrapper into my pocket so it wouldn’t blow away.
I was done with my lunch but Emi’s chopsticks still moved busily.
I steeled myself. “I don’t mean to interrupt your meal but what do you want?”
Her cheeks bulging with the last of her lunch, Emi gestured as if telling me to wait.
I thought about yesterday as I watched her eat. Her new house, her not-so-bright mother. Her younger brother skipping cram school while she covered for him. I bet she is really happy. I suddenly felt disgusted with myself. This attempt to measure the happiness of others seemed to me proof of how twisted I had become.
Finally finished, Emi settled herself on her crate.
“First of all, I’m really sorry. For not telling my mother it wasn’t a poltergeist. She forced my little brother to start going to cram school—I felt sorry for him. I meant to keep quiet but then you looked like you were really stuck. It was like a war zone when my brother got back. My mother started screaming at him, he started throwing things and of course I got dragged into it too. No, don’t worry—it wasn’t your fault. But speaking of that, who was that woman you were with yesterday? Is she your mother?”
I shook my head vigorously. I didn’t want anyone to think that Yoko was my mother.
“Really? I didn’t think so. She seems like a bad person.”
A bad person? I had to smile at that. True enough, Yoko certainly was a bad person.
“My mother said so yesterday, after you left. ‘I feel so sorry for that girl,’ she said.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” I asked sharply. Emi turned away as though frightened.
“Oh, umm . . . you know, the money. That woman took it, right? I guess she probably splits it with you afterward but, I dunno, it didn’t seem like you’d get very much—”
“I don’t get any,” I broke in before Emi could finish.
“No! Really? Not at all?”
“Not one yen. Well, I was the one who told her from the start that I didn’t want it.”
I shouldn’t be talking about it but when it came to the money I couldn’t keep quiet.
“You don’t like getting money?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
It was difficult to explain. Yet, for me, it was very clear. I didn’t think that the money we got for being mediums was just for the time and trouble it took to do the summoning. If it was only money for work that’d be OK. But it wasn’t. When people paid us they were giving us something else along with the money. “Exorcising” something. And if you took the money, it meant you were taking that something along with it. I had no idea what that “something” was but I knew I didn’t want it. Since I was a fraud, there were no gods or Buddhas to protect me from whatever harm it might do.
“So, if you don’t do it for the money, why do you do it? What’s in it for you? Is it like charity?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. You’re just going to blab about it anyway. You don’t need to know why.”
“What? I’m not going to tell. Not anyone. I’m just interested, that’s all. Watching you sit there with your eyes closed, you looked almost transcendent or something. That woman didn’t. She was dripping with greed.”
I thought about that for a moment before I asked. “How much did your mother give her?”
“20,000 yen. The person who introduced us to her said that it was the going rate for the two of you including travel expenses. She said you wouldn’t ask for money but it was best to pay. She said there was someone who didn’t pay once and all kinds of bad things happened afterward. She wasn’t saying that you or that lady caused it, it was just her greed that brought her bad luck—trying to get something for free. Once someone tells you something like that you have to pay, right? Especially if you’re someone who would call a medium—they don’t take much convincing.”
20,000 yen . . . She’d obviously raised the price at some point. She only got 3,000 yen at the beginning. Back then she’d offered me a thousand. I hadn’t been thinking of the money back then but even so I’d been afraid to take it.
These days we got over twenty requests a month. 20,000 yen per visit came to over 400,000 yen a month. All tax-free. Yoko was never going to let me go.
“Yuki . . .”
I looked up to see Emi staring at me, her expression serious. “What?”
“You . . . I bet you know a lot of things, don’t you?”
“A lot of things? Like what?”
“Oh . . . No, never mind.”
Emi took her phone from her pocket and checked the time.
“Lunch is almost over. I’ve got to put the chain back—we’d better go.”
Emi called out to me as I walked toward the hatch. “I’ll say it again—I’m not going to tell anyone, OK? And you can usually find me up here whenever it’s nice outside. Come up again if you feel like it.”
I nodded, doubting I would.
“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 III.