My mother’s always been selfish and immature. She could be frustrating and drive me crazy from time to time but even I knew that there’s no such thing as a “perfect parent.” In any case, she always managed to keep her behavior within forgivable limits.
I didn’t start to think there was anything really strange about her until last autumn, when funny rumors began to spread through the neighborhood. They started when a neighbor’s cat was found floating in the park pond. By the time the cat was discovered it was already dead. It was sad, of course, but nothing to cause a big stir. It was when the owner threw the cat out with the garbage that people began to mutter.
A little while later people from that house began to fall sick, one after another. One would come down with food poisoning, another got pneumonia and so on—each case was different. It got to the point where, except for the grandmother, everyone in the house was in the hospital at the same time with a different illness.
That’s when the rumors started. People said that it was all because of the cat, that it had cursed them. One rumor said that a cat identical to the dead one had been seen in the neighborhood, other rumors talked about hearing a cat scratching at windows at night, or small children mewing in their sleep. They were all ridiculous and I doubt that even the people spreading them actually believed what they were saying.
However, the stories terrified my mother. “What would Yuki think?” she’d say, looking more scared than I’d ever seen her before. I told her that the rumors weren’t true but she looked unconvinced. “I’m sure you’re right,” she said, sounding as though she was trying to persuade herself.
After rumors of the cat had faded away, my grandmother, who lived in the next town over, died. She’d always spoiled my mother and given in to her every whim, and her death came as a huge shock to my mother. Even after the funeral she shut herself up in the house and refused to go out for days on end. Her condition worsened and we ended up taking her to the hospital for an examination, but she flatly refused to take any of the medication they prescribed.
“I’ve been having lots of bad dreams lately,” she confessed to me after the forty-ninth day memorial service for my grandmother. “But my dreams . . . they’re not just dreams. They’re real. There’s no point in taking the medicine because I’m not sick. The child hates me. She’s suffering.”
My father was home for his monthly visit and he and my brother both tried to persuade Mother to take her medication but she refused to listen. Needless to say, neither my brother nor I had any idea who “the child” was supposed to be. Reluctantly, and after much hesitation my father finally told us the story.
Originally there had been three of us. We had an older sister who died very young. Her name was Natsuki and she was four years old when it happened. My brother was two and I was six months old.
When we were taking our nap my mother went out to do some shopping. When she got back, only my brother and I were still asleep in our beds. My sister was dead, drowned in the filled bathtub. I suppose she must have woken up and gone looking for my mother and had the bad luck to fall into the tub. Everyone agreed that it was a terrible accident and nobody blamed my mother. Mother had a nervous breakdown. She spent several months recovering at my grandparents’ house while my aunt looked after the two of us. I was only a baby and my brother was young, too, so neither of us remembered anything.
I knew that there was a memorial tablet with her name on it on the family altar. I never saw Mother praying to it, though, and it never even occurred to me that it might be for my own sister. Neither Father nor Mother—nor anyone else for that matter—talked about it. When I heard the story I finally understood what my grandmother told me just before she died. “Look after your mother,” she said. “She’s had a tough life.” Until then I’d never seen my spoiled, selfish mother as someone deserving pity.
She refused her medicine and cried all day long. If my father called she’d accuse him of cheating on her. “Natsuki told me in a dream,” she’d say.
She was wallowing in self-pity. She went on and on about how she was ill, how her husband was cheating on her, how her dead daughter was suffering. My brother and I were sick of hearing it every day but it was even worse for my aunt. My mother called her every afternoon and went on and on for hours. At her wits’ end and grasping at straws, my aunt finally took Mother to Yoko’s bar. Her bar was a fair distance from the center of the entertainment district but she read customers’ fortunes for free, so it had made a bit of a name for itself. Apparently my aunt’s friend was a regular there.
My mother was immediately taken in by Yoko. When she was told that her younger daughter was the key to the solution she swallowed it whole and tried to convince me to meet Yoko.
I wasn’t interested. I’d never had any interest in things like fortune-telling and so on. In the end, though, I caved to my mother’s entreaties and went to meet Yoko with my aunt. We stopped by her bar before opening time. Yoko was delighted that I’d come to see her. For some reason her broad grin made me feel slightly uneasy. At the time I couldn’t figure out why. Later, I understood.
The solution that Yoko proposed was for me to act as a medium for my sister’s spirit in order to convince Mother to take her medicine.
“Your mother never stopped mourning your sister’s death. Her feelings of guilt are so strong she hasn’t been able to talk about it for fifteen years. What she needs right now is to believe that she’s been forgiven. She needs to believe that your sister doesn’t hate her and to be convinced that the reason she’s unwell is because she’s sick. Don’t misunderstand. We’re not tricking her. Sometimes a lie can be more honest than the truth. We’re just giving her what she needs. That’s all.”
What she said did make a lot of sense. At the time I thought it was the only real solution too. When I agreed to her plan, she reached out and wrapped my hand in both of hers, gripping tightly. Her hands were strangely soft and cold.
The following weekend Yoko took me to a real medium. If we were going to pretend to summon a spirit, we had better know what a real summoning was like.
It was a typical one-story house in the suburbs, without so much as a sign to distinguish it. It smelled faintly of chlorine for some reason. The tiny windowless room we were led to reminded me of a storage closet. After a long wait we were finally brought in to a sitting room.
The room was about eight tatami mats in size and the far end of the room was taken up by a large altar. Sacred ropes hung from it in patterns and offerings of a round mirror and small branches were carefully arranged on the altar. Two women—mother and daughter it seemed—sat before the altar. They were dressed in plain, western clothes. The mother alone had tied a white headband across her forehead.
The daughter, pen and pad in hand, went over the nature of our consultation while the mother swayed from left to right in short, shuddering motions. We’d decided to say that I was having trouble with my friends. The daughter whispered into her mother’s ear and the mother suddenly grew still. She pressed the palms of her hands against the headband, index fingers pointing straight up. Then she started swaying back and forth. Her eyes, closed until now, opened half way. She let out a long, low moan. Then suddenly she sat straight up and started coughing a dry, racking cough. The daughter patted her mother’s back gently and began talking in a quiet whisper.
“Fox spirit, yes? One . . . no two spirits. Yes, yes, I see. The spirit of a stillborn child, too. The old
woman, visiting the fox shrine. Yes, yes . . . She went. Went and brought them back. The fox spirit. The spirit of the stillborn child . . . no, not that. The father . . . The father’s father’s sister. She’s piling stones. The stones are knocked down. Piling and being knocked down. Such sadness, so sad.”
The mother was just coughing but somehow the daughter was able to interpret it and took notes on her pad. The mother’s eyes and her swaying frightened me. I turned away and saw Yoko next to me, observing the pair calmly.
It went on for about fifteen minutes. The mother stopped swaying and the daughter showed Yoko her notes. Yoko exchanged an envelope for the notes.
After we left, Yoko showed me what the daughter had written. “Fox spirit, 2. Spirit of the stillborn child, 1. Pray to the altar each morning. Offerings of sake and fried bean curd once a week.”
“What should we do?” I asked when we were back in the car. Yoko just smiled as she turned the key.
“We don’t have to do anything,” she said. “If we went to a different medium we’d probably be told something else. But that doesn’t mean that one of them is right and one of them is wrong, you see. It’s only natural. After all, when you look at something, what you see depends on how you look at it, right? So, were you scared? Or did you think it was silly? But it’s necessary, you know. We need that connection with the other world. They can talk all they want about the age of science and all that but no matter where you go you’ll still find mediums—a lot of them. They exist because the demand is there.”
“But, for Mother, wouldn’t it be better just to have that woman do it instead of me?”
“It’d never work. She’s a professional—we can’t just tell her to say what we want. Now then, we’d better think about how we’re going to do this.”
She said “we” but I was certain I’d never be able to pretend to summon a spirit. The summoning had only finished a few minutes ago but the terror I’d felt was already fading, to be replaced by embarrassment. It was so fake. It was humiliating. I could never do something like that.
“We should have something that makes a sound at the beginning when the spirit comes. I’ll come up with something for that. Then there’s the question of how the spirit talks . . . That’s the key thing. It’ll sound too fake if you just recite something you’ve memorized so I’ll ask you questions and you can just nod or shake your head without saying anything. We already know what your mother wants to hear, so I’ll just casually steer questions in that direction. All you need to do is shake your head or nod as appropriate.”
Without a thought for how I felt, Yoko plowed on, deciding on all the details of the plan and never giving me a chance to back out. As I sat there, hesitating, she pulled me in deeper and deeper until there was no turning back.
Yoko’s plan didn’t involve my father or brother at all. My father didn’t bother to call us any more and my brother was too busy preparing for exams. Yoko said it was better to leave men out of it anyway. They hate everything nonscientific, she said.
I stayed home from school on the day of the summoning. Four of us—Yoko, my mother, my aunt, and I—gathered in the room with the Buddhist altar.
Everything went exactly according to plan. Yoko steered the conversation to cover all the important points, from going over the circumstances of my sister’s death to her current feelings toward my mother. Yoko turned to me and asked if I hated my mother. I shook my head sharply. Mother let out a quiet sob.
I thought we were almost done and had just started to relax when suddenly the tone of Yoko’s voice shifted.
“What’s that? You have something else to say? Go on then.” Yoko sat there expectantly but until she asked me a yes or no question there was nothing I could do.
“Is it too hard to say out loud? You can just whisper it to me,” Yoko leaned forward, bringing her ear up to my lips. “Yes, yes. I see. OK, I will tell them for you.”
I hadn’t said a single word, I was sure of it. Yoko sat back and gave the khakkara one loud shake to indicate that the summoning was over. I put my hands down and opened my eyes. Yoko sat up straight and turned to face my mother.
“Natsuki gave me one last message before she left. Because she was only a child when she died, she left her appointed tasks incomplete. She holds no ill will toward anyone and wishes only for her family to be happy but she lacks the power. So she wants Yuki to take her place, to complete her tasks in her stead. That is, she wants Yuki to help others by summoning spirits. Don’t you think that she did a wonderful job summoning Natsuki just now? This isn’t something that just anyone can do—Yuki was born with a special talent.”
What in the world was she talking about? I looked at Yoko, pleading with my eyes but she never met my gaze.
“Many people who are suffering come to my bar and many of those are pursued by spirits. However, I cannot help those people with fortune-telling alone. To meet Yuki in this way—it must be a gift from heaven. I beg you, please, won’t you let Yuki take up the task Natsuki left undone?”
Yoko had blocked off all possible avenues of escape. If I contradicted her, it would reveal that the whole thing had been a sham.
Book bag slung over one shoulder, I had just stepped out of the school gate when I saw Yoko’s car to my left. Immediately I glanced back over my shoulder to check the school clock. It was still too early for our appointment.
Yoko spotted me and waved from the driver’s seat. Her hair was dyed a rust brown that was almost red and her face was caked with unfashionably thick makeup. She was dressed all in primary colors. Tacky. I don’t care how she looks when we meet clients—they all know that she runs a bar—but I don’t want her coming to my school looking like that. The way she dresses, it’s clear at a glance that she isn’t a parent. I climbed hurriedly into the back seat, sliding down to keep my head low.
“I thought it wasn’t until 4:30.”
“Yes, well, it seems that our clients had a bit of a crisis. They want us to come earlier if we can,” Yoko said blithely, the smile never leaving her face as she pressed down on the gas pedal.
“You should get a cell phone, Yuki. It’d be a real mess if we miss one another when something like this happens.”
“My mother hates cell phones. She won’t let me have one. Anyway, what do you mean by ‘a bit of a crisis’?”
“It seems that . . . well, she got a bit violent. But I had them move everything dangerous out of reach and her husband is there, so if things get bad he can always hold her down. They say she’s small so it’ll be fine.”
Fine? Easy for her to say. I doubt she had anything to back up that claim.
“The client is a housewife. Twenty-five years old and four months pregnant. It seems she started to get a bit funny just after she found out she was pregnant. She became emotionally unstable and started vomiting every day.”
“Umm . . . isn’t that just morning sickness?”
Yoko let out a laugh. “Yeah, probably. It’s her first pregnancy so she’s probably just anxious. Anyway, she met her husband at work but, before they started dating, he was seeing another woman at the same workplace. According to the wife there’s something funny about his ex-girlfriend. The wife’s managed to convince herself that the woman is jealous of her—of her pregnancy—and that she’s interfering.”
“The ex-girlfriend died?”
“Uh-uh. She’s alive. The wife says it’s a living spirit. The husband doesn’t know what to believe but he’s frightened. So maybe that’s how we can approach it. It seems the wife has some things she wants to say to the ex-girlfriend. Anyway, the main thing is to help set the wife’s mind at ease. What do you think? Sound OK?”
I didn’t say anything. If that’s what Yoko said we’d do, then that’s what I’d have to do.
Yoko turned into a new housing development. Brand-new houses and small condominiums lined either side of the broad, newly paved road. Though each house was painted a different color and was a different shape they somehow managed to look as though they were all pieces in a life-size model. I recalled our visit to Emi’s house a few days ago. Spirits managed to find a way in, even with houses that were sealed against the wind. As long as the people living in them believed in spirits, the spirits would always find a way in.
In the end, maybe that was the only difference. Either you believed in them or you didn’t. If so, I didn’t want to believe. Once you believe in them, they exist. In that case someone like me, someone who has almost nothing to keep her tied to this world, might get pulled all the way into that world and never make it out again.
I reached out to touch my book bag, almost clutching it. The feel of the rough fabric beneath my fingers was reassuring. I looked at my hand on the bag. There were two red spots on my thumb from when I was using a magic marker. This, exists. Here. Truly.
Yoko cleared her throat.
“Speaking of which, Yuki, I’ve been doing some thinking. Since your school doesn’t have a uniform I suppose there’s only so much we can do, but I really wonder about showing up at summonings in ripped jeans. Now, a white blouse and navy skirt—that kind of thing would be much better. Or, how about I get you a set of priestess’s robes? White kimono and a red jacket? You can get them off the Internet these days and with your long, straight hair I think it would really suit you.”
Really? Cosplay on top of everything else? I let her words go in one ear and out the other as I pretended to be absorbed in the scenery. Yoko seemed to sense my mood and said no more.
The client’s apartment was on the third floor of a bright white building. A heart-shaped nameplate hung from the door. The door opened and I thought I would choke on the overpowering smell of incense. Apparently the wife’s mother-in-law had been burning incense nonstop to keep malicious spirits away.
The wife was lying down in a small room just off the living room. Her husband sat beside her, rubbing her back as she groaned painfully. There was a small Shinto altar attached to the wall above her head but no Buddhist altar so the bundles of incense smoked away in a glass ashtray.
“Oh, this is an emergency, isn’t it?” Yoko said, pulling a long chain of rosary beads from her bag and wrapping them about her left arm. The mother-in-law was in a state of panic and begged us to do something right away.
Yoko knelt by the woman and gazed down at her for a moment before telling them to move her away from the altar.
The husband picked up his wife’s limp form and, almost hugging her to his chest, helped her to the corner of the room. Yoko beckoned to me. We sat facing one another diagonally beneath the altar and started the summoning.
On the third shake of the khakkara my eyelids gave a brief flutter. At the same time, my hands began to shake as I held them pressed together in front of my chest. I hadn’t intended to do it, so I was a little taken aback.
“Has the spirit come?”
My head gave the smallest of nods.
“Can you speak?”
This time my head shook from side to side. My body was reacting before I had a chance to understand Yoko’s questions. Something strange was happening. It was different.
“I see. Then I will ask questions. Please answer by nodding or shaking your head.”
Yoko started the usual questions—gender, age, etc. Nothing happened.
“I apologize if I’m wrong but, in the past, were you involved with that man sitting over there?”
Nothing this time either. Yoko asked the man questions about his ex-girlfriend but he gave only vague, roundabout replies. Perhaps he was thinking about his wife lying beside him. With each question the wife’s breathing grew more ragged and my hands began to shake more violently.
“This man’s wife has fallen ill. And this after having become pregnant. Do you know anything about it?”
Yoko waited for me to respond this time. I knew I should try to give her some kind of sign but my head seemed to be frozen in place.
“Won’t you please answer?” Yoko persisted. At that moment a voice rang throughout the room.
“Enough!” With my eyes closed I couldn’t see who it was but I thought it must be the wife. Now the shaking spread from my hands and my whole body was quivering. I was still calm—or at least I thought so—but I felt something strange in my chest. An expanding ball of emotion, swelling inside me until it penetrated every corner of my awareness.
“It was your own fault that he dumped you, wasn’t it! How long are you going to keep chasing after him? It’s just pathetic. If you don’t like it, go and find yourself another man. It’s just stupid.”
The words hit me like a shout and my clasped hands came apart, rising high above me. They slammed down hard on the tatami mat. Someone let out a muffled scream. Yoko tried to soothe me, telling me to calm down but again and again my hands flew up into the air and crashed down onto the tatami mats with a loud bang. It hurt. I wanted it to stop but I couldn’t control it.
Yoko reached out and grabbed my hands, holding them down. My fingers scrabbled and scratched at the tatami mat.
“What do you want? What will satisfy you? Should we have this man apologize to you?”
My head shook wildly. No! No! No!
“You’re pitiful . . . Go on, tell her. Tell her you don’t like her any more. Well? Go on!”
The husband hesitated at that. Even as the ball of emotions ricocheted inside my chest and threatened to explode, I was still calm enough to be able to sympathize with him. He must think the whole thing ridiculous. But he can’t sit there and expect to get away with just being an observer. He had his own role to play in this farce.
Prodded by his wife, he finally spoke. “I don’t have any feelings for you any more. Honestly,” he said weakly.
The wife’s cackle filled the room.
At that instant my body shook violently as though in the grips of a seizure. Shaking Yoko off, my hands rose high above my head and crashed down onto the tatami mat with terrible force. Then I was still.
For a while I just sat there, head hanging, holding my breath. Finally I managed to push away that ball of emotion bouncing around in my chest. I squeezed it as it struggled, compressing it into a tiny mass before it vanished completely.
Nobody spoke. Yoko moved first. She picked up the khakkara, held it out to my shoulder and gave it two jingling shakes. I took a long, deep breath and slowly lifted my head.
“Is it gone?”
I nodded as I looked down at the palms of my hands. I rubbed them together.
“Does it hurt? You must be exhausted.”
The wife had roused herself enough to hold her head up straight. Both husband and mother-in-law looked somewhat worried.
Yoko turned to them as she put the khakkara away.
“As you can see, a living spirit appears to have been the source of your trouble. You are familiar with living spirits? Unlike the spirits of the dead, they are the product of the feelings and thoughts emitted by a living person. Sometimes the person responsible knows what is happening but in most cases they are completely unaware of it. The living spirit hates to have its true form revealed so, now that it has been discovered and been forced to see how despicable its behavior has been, it might not return.”
That “might not” was Yoko’s way of hedging her bets. She never made any firm promises. She had no way of knowing whether the woman would get better or not so she couldn’t make any rash commitments.
“It’s not completely over, then?” the mother-in-law asked.
“The person in question is still alive. That makes it more complicated than it would be with a dead person. Because she’s alive, the energy that’s been dispersed can build up again. However, even if a living spirit does come, most times it has virtually no power over a healthy person.” Yoko turned to the wife. “I suppose you’ve been a bit tired lately, is that right? But you’re better now, yes?”
The wife nodded. She still looked pale but she seemed satisfied.
I slumped back in the seat on the way home. I felt utterly drained and weakened. This was the first time a summoning had taken so much out of me. I saw Yoko glancing at me from time to time as she drove.
“I wonder . . . Did you really get a spirit this time? It seemed different from usual.”
I didn’t say anything. I gripped one hand tightly in the other. I am me. My body is mine. My mind is mine.
“What I really wonder about is the girlfriend,” I said. “Is she going to be OK?”
“What do you mean?”
“Won’t she get in trouble for sending her spirit at them?”
Yoko seemed to sigh at the question.
“No, you don’t need to worry. If they tried to go after her they’d be the ones in trouble. Everyone would think that they were up to something.”
Even if she didn’t get into trouble it didn’t make any difference. It didn’t matter if there really was a living spirit or not. Regardless, everything had been made out to be the ex-girlfriend’s fault. Nobody mentioned her name but they must’ve had a specific person in mind. I had smeared her reputation.
Now that I thought about it, I was always doing this. The only difference was whether the person had really died or if the person was just made up. Each summoning left something gritty and rough inside my chest. It never went away and just built up, like sediment. I suppose the proper word for it would be “sin.”
I opened my hands. They still stung a little. I looked down. The dots of red ink on my thumb were still there, in the same place as before.
“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 IV.