The next time we met, Yoko pretended that the Shikoku conversation had never happened. Following her lead, I didn’t bring it up either.
After the summoning job was done, Yoko turned to me.
“I’m going to your house today. I promised your mother I would stop by.”
So that was it. She’d obviously decided that it would be easier to convince my mother than it would be to try to change my mind.
Mother greeted Yoko at the door and led her into the room with the altar. I thought of my sister as I gazed at Yoko sitting in front of the altar, reciting sutras amid a cloud of incense smoke. I wondered what she really wanted.
Once she’d finished the sutras Yoko sat up and turned so that she was facing my mother. Then she launched into her story about Shikoku. It was almost identical to what she’d told me.
“How’s that going to help Natsuki?” Mother asked in a bored voice when Yoko had finished.
“Well, if Yuki works very hard and is diligent in her training, Natsuki will accrue positive karma. Do you know what that means? It means that the path to rebirth will open to her.”
“Rebirth?” My mother seemed to pounce on the word.
“That’s right. She’ll be born into this world once again, into a new life. Maybe as the child of a close relative—perhaps Yuki’s child, or her brother’s. Of course, it is not easy. Yet, I’m certain that Yuki will succeed even if the training is harsh at times.”
My mother gripped my arm so hard that it hurt. Her eyes shot to the altar. “Natsuki will be reborn,” she muttered.
Yoko pressed on, as though to break down the last of my mother’s defenses.
“Perhaps you’ll be lonely with Yuki so far away, but you’ll always have Natsuki. She’s always watching over you. She doesn’t hate you any more.”
Mother’s shoulders stiffened suddenly. The hand that had been gripping my arm went back to her knee.
“What . . . What did you say just now?”
“You said, ‘She doesn’t hate me.’ Of course she doesn’t. Why would you even say something like that?”
Her tone was level yet strained. Yoko was taken aback by the sudden change in Mother’s expression and tone. I watched the two of them, hardly daring to breathe.
“No, umm . . . That is, I mean that Natsuki’s forgiven you. That’s all. I’m sure I remember her saying so. The first time we summoned—”
Mother’s shout rang throughout the room, cutting Yoko off.
“What the hell are you talking about! Hate? Forgive? It sounds like you think I did something wrong!”
“Oh, umm, I’m sorry. I didn’t express myself well. Of course not. Of course you didn’t do anything wrong. It was an accident. There was nothing anyone could do. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was fate. Err . . . So, back to Yuki and Shikoku, we have your consent, then? She is still a minor, after all, so your approval—”
“Yoko. Could it really be that you don’t understand anything at all?”
Yoko gazed at my mother as though looking at something frightening.
“This is very important. Are you paying attention? Natsuki gave her life so that Yuki could live on. It was Yuki who was fated to die, not Natsuki. Natsuki gave her life to prevent that. If you are incapable of understanding even that, I’d rather you didn’t talk about what is good for Natsuki. All this talk of rebirth and Shikoku. Are you trying to trick me? What do you really want? You don’t understand anything! How can you—when it’s not even my fault! No, I don’t believe anything you say. That’s right, we never even needed you. I could’ve just asked Natsuki anything I wanted to know from the very beginning. Get out! Don’t come back! We don’t want anything to do with you! You make me sick! Go away! Now!”
Her voice grew louder and louder as though the heat of her own words were fanning the flames until she was practically screeching. It seemed to me that she was trying to drown out the feeling of guilt that Yoko’s words had reawakened. The last time she’d worked herself up into this kind of a state was when I told her I wanted to quit doing summonings. Mother had created a world where only she and my sister mattered. Anything that didn’t fit that world was rejected. Last time I was the one who had had to give in. Now it was Yoko’s turn.
“Now, now wait just a minute. What about Yuki’s training? Yuki can’t do anything without me! And the summonings! If she doesn’t continue with the training Natsuki will be stuck, incomplete. Her rebirth—”
“What are you babbling about? Stuck! Get out! I’ll call the police!” My mother stood up, stomping her feet and waving her fists about.
“Yuki, say something! Tell her! This isn’t right! It’s not right that one slip of the tongue should come to this! Let’s talk calmly and come to an understanding.”
Yoko dropped all pretense now and pleaded with me. I looked her straight in the eye.
“Shall we summon my sister here? Now? Do you want to ask her who’s right? You or my mother?”
Yoko’s lips, painted a bright red, twisted. She picked up her bag and, without another word, marched out of the room. A moment later I heard the sound of the front door shutting.
Mother was standing in the middle of the room, gasping.
“Yoko was a bad person after all, wasn’t she?” I said.
Seeing my mother nod in agreement I stood and gently rubbed her back.
She’d put a stop to the plan to send me to Shikoku. Even if it hadn’t been her intention, she’d saved me all the same. That was enough. At the moment, it was the best I could hope for.
A few days went by and I didn’t hear anything from Yoko. I was still wary but the vague hope that it would stay this way started to grow inside of me.
The following Monday, however, I saw Masatoshi’s car parked just outside the school gate. He was running his fingers through his long, brown hair. In the full light of the sun it looked brittle and frazzled.
“Hey, I’ll give you a ride.”
“No. I don’t want to put you out.”
“It’s no trouble. I’m heading over to your place anyway.”
I retreated a few steps. “Why?”
“Yoko was a bit rude to your mother, said some things. I thought I’d go apologize.”
“I have to meet a friend.”
“You hate me so much you’ll lie to get away?” Masatoshi said, tilting his head to one side and licking his lips.
“I’m not lying. It’s true.”
“Oh? You’re meeting here? I can wait. If your friend comes you can tell her you have to cancel.” His eyes made it clear he didn’t believe for a second that there was any friend. Kids from school looked at us suspiciously as they walked by. I wished a teacher would come instead.
I should’ve just said no and not tried to make up an excuse. There was no chance of anyone showing up if I just stood here, yet, if I tried to run off, he’d probably just chase me. I didn’t think he’d try to abduct me here, though, where there were so many other people around.
“Hmm . . . Wonder when she’ll come. You sure she didn’t forget? Here, give her a call. You can use my phone.”
I refused the phone he held out mockingly to me and took out my own. I was on the verge of panic. I called Emi. I started talking the second I heard her voice, cutting her off.
“Emi, you’re late. I’m at the school gate. Hurry up.” I hung up before she could reply.
“So you do have a phone after all.”
“I do. Though it’s none of your business. And my friend is on her way.”
“You think you can get away with talking to me like that, do you?”
His eyes glinted with a dark light. Just as I thought. I knew he’d have eyes like that.
Just then I turned around to see Emi running over. I waved frantically to her and called out her name.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, eyes going from me to Masatoshi and back again.
“So you’re Yuki’s friend? Sorry but I’m gonna have to borrow her for today. We’ve got some important business. Let’s go, then. I’ll get your bag.”
Masatoshi reached for my bag but I twisted away from him. Emi took a step forward.
“Sorry but Yuki and I have plans. And you really shouldn’t park your car here like this, right in the middle of all the students. People might think that you are up to something and report you to the police.”
Emi gave my shoulder a gentle push and we started walking. In a second I heard the car door slam and Masatoshi’s car drove past. I stopped and heaved a deep sigh.
“Sorry for calling you like that, all of a sudden. Thanks for playing along.”
“It was nothing. That guy—is he that dodgy woman’s boyfriend?”
“Not her boyfriend, he’s her husband.”
“Really? She’s a lot older than him, isn’t she? He’s really full of himself, though. Maybe he could get away with that when he was young but now? He’s so old.”
The roof of Emi’s house came into sight, just beyond the utility pole.
“I’ll go home now. His car’s gone.”
“Why? You’ve already come this far and I don’t have anything else to do.”
There was nobody home. As she unlocked the door Emi explained that her mother was at work and her brother was still at school, doing club activities.
Emi’s room was on the second floor. Magazines and books were strewn everywhere and, maybe because the windows and doors had all been shut tight, it was hot and humid. Even so, it didn’t have the sordid feel of Yoko’s house.
Emi pushed aside some books with her foot and sat down cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against her bed.
“Are you in some kind of trouble? Is everything OK?”
“Not trouble, not exactly. It’s probably nothing.”
“Is it about the summonings?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Yes—everything. All the details.” Emi said eagerly, her eyes glittering with anticipation. She was certainly honest.
“You sure? It’s a long story.”
I could tell her. Or rather, I wanted to tell her. Emi sat up straight and nodded vigorously.
I couldn’t think of a good way to start, so in the end I just began with my sister’s death and went from there. Emi listened attentively. When I was done she let out a long sigh.
“So you’re not doing summonings any more?”
“That’s too bad. I mean, I don’t think you’re a fake. And I can understand how they feel, you know, when they ask for a summoning. It’s a really big deal when someone dies. It’s hard to accept. I guess that’s probably why there have always been people doing that kind of work. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be helped. I kind of think, you know, does it really matter if it’s real or just a bunch of lies? If nobody gets hurt . . . why not? Still, I never really thought about it seriously so I guess it might be more complicated for the person being asked to do the summoning. I just kind of figured that those people were at a point where they’d transcended all those questions . . . It’s really hot in here. I’ll go get us something to drink.”
Alone in her room, I leaned back against the wall and stretched out my legs.
What Emi had just said was almost identical to what Yoko had said. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be helped. If nobody gets hurt it’s OK to lie . . . Yet, was that really true? If someone shifts their burden aside once, won’t they be tempted to do it again? Won’t they start to blame everything on invisible spirits? Won’t they go through their lives in a lukewarm dream, refusing to acknowledge everything that gets in the way of that dream and pretending that none of it exists? Like my mother, for one.
I think that what I’d been doing was different from the people Emi talked about. The ones who had always been doing this kind of work. I had been terrified the whole time I pretended to be a medium. Not of the spirits or being cursed or anything like that but because I didn’t understand the rules. Yoko kept saying that everything was fine but that wasn’t for her to decide. She doesn’t own this world or that world. Unless there is some kind of clear standard, I’ll never know if what I’m doing is right or not.
I don’t know. Still, I think it was wrong. I can’t help thinking that we were all crossing a line that shouldn’t be crossed. The clients and me and Yoko. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Yoko didn’t want to use the names of real gods or Buddhas.
I didn’t like doing the summonings and there was a chance that they were the wrong thing to do. So there was no reason to keep doing them. There are lots of other mediums in the world. Yoko was the only one who’d be put out if I quit.
Looking up I saw Emi holding a glass of barley tea out to me. I thanked her and took the glass but she kept her gaze fixed on me.
“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking that maybe I made you talk about stuff when you really didn’t want to.”
“Don’t worry about it. It was good to be able to tell someone.”
“I guess it’s OK, then,” Emi said, draining her cup in one gulp and placing the empty glass back on the metal tray. I looked at the glittering tray and remembered that there was something else I needed to tell her.
A letter was waiting for me the next day. There was no stamp so it must’ve been hand-delivered. There was no return address either but I knew it must be from Yoko. Thick and heavy as it was, it took a considerable amount of courage for me to open and read it.
To Miss Yuki Komori
I don’t think your mother will let me talk to you on the phone so I decided to write a letter instead. What I’m going to write about is very, very important. I beg you, please be sure to read it all the way to the end.
Yuki, I want you to imagine something. I want you to imagine that right now you are standing at a fork in the road. Down one path lies your true future, down the other the wrong one. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about which path to take. We can tell you what to do. If you just listen to your heart of hearts, I’m certain that you’ll know that what we say is correct.
But maybe, despite this, you’re still not sure. Maybe you just want to be like the other girls at school. Maybe you want to choose the path where you graduate high school, go to university, get a job . . . However, that would be a terrible mistake, Yuki.
Each person is born into this world with the abilities they will need to fulfill their mission in life. To seal up those abilities or to abuse them is to defy fate. If you are born with different abilities than the other girls, it is only natural that you should lead a different life.
You are still young. So it’s not surprising that you only think about the world you can see and touch. However, this world is actually an illusion. The world after death—that is the world that is truly real.
At this point her handwriting, which had been neat and clear, grew messy as she went on and on explaining about the world of spirits. Then, at the end, she included another message aimed directly at me.
I don’t think of you as a stranger, Yuki. I’ve never had any children in this world but you may have been my child in my last life or in one of my lives before that. No, I’m certain of it. Once, you, Masatoshi, and I all lived together as a family. I know this.
You and I are connected by a bond that is invisible yet profound. So I am giving you one final chance. This is truly your last chance. I’ll be waiting so be certain to come. You don’t need to bring anything. You’ll be given everything you require. We are protected.
However, if you don’t come . . . Then, something terrible will happen. Do you know what happens when you defy the will of heaven? It is too terrible, I cannot write it here. I don’t want to see that happen to you, Yuki. Please, I’m begging you, please do not choose the wrong path. Open your eyes and see for yourself. Look with eyes of truth and decide which is correct.
There was a place, time, and date scribbled at the end. It was a few days from now.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or to be frightened. Reading the letter I felt a little ashamed and embarrassed. It was very similar to what I used to say in the summonings. It had the same phony feel about it as when I talked about the spirits. If you really wanted to think deeply about it you could, but if you took one step back and looked at it objectively it was laughable.
If Yoko and Masatoshi wanted to live in their made-up world that’s their business. I’d had enough of getting wrapped up in other people’s stories. I tore the letter into tiny pieces and threw them in the trash.
Needless to say I didn’t go to the rendezvous. I was at school when we were supposed to meet. When I got home my mother said that she’d had a few prank calls—someone just hanging up without saying anything. She didn’t think anything of it, though. She just mentioned it in passing, along with something about the weather.
Summer had settled in and I was busy preparing for final exams. I didn’t have any time to think about Yoko and was half-consciously trying to forget her. It was right around then that my aunt, who we hadn’t heard from in months, suddenly called asking about Yoko and Masatoshi.
“Yuki, when do you think you’ll see Yoko next? One of my friends really needs to get in touch with Masatoshi but she can’t get hold of him. Yoko will know how to reach him, right? Can my friend go with you next time you meet Yoko?”
I told her that I didn’t have anything to do with Yoko any more and that I had no plans to meet her. She sounded disappointed at this.
“If she wants to talk to Yoko why doesn’t she just stop by the bar?”
“Well, she would if she could but the bar’s all closed up. The house is abandoned too—completely empty. Nobody knows where they went.”
“Your friend had some kind of business with them?”
“Yes, well, in a manner of speaking. I can’t really talk about it to you, though. No, it’s fine. It’s not that big a deal. It’s just that my friend . . . Well, I told her she shouldn’t get involved . . . Anyway, what’s done is done.”
Her reluctance to talk about it told me all that I needed to know. My aunt complained about her friend for a little longer before saying good-bye.
Finally it was over. I could forget about them. They were gone. Vanished into their own story, I suppose. A story that was a long, long way from here. All I had to do now was put it behind me.
My mother was at the hospital for her doctor’s appointment. I sat before the altar. I was going to summon my sister’s spirit.
Hers was the first spirit I’d faked summoning when I was pretending to be a medium. Since then I’d used her name over and over again but I never once tried to listen to her for real. It wasn’t, I supposed, a very nice thing to do.
There was no Yoko and no khakkara. I didn’t know if I could actually do it. Even if I did manage it, I had no intention of blindly accepting whatever the spirit said and I certainly wasn’t going to tell my mother anything. Still, I thought I should listen. After so many people had used her words for whatever they wanted, her real words should be heard.
When it was over, I would never do another summoning again. This was truly the last time.
I lit the candles on the altar and put the burning incense in its stand. I closed my eyes and, trying to empty myself of my own feelings and emotions. I reached out into my consciousness and lifted the lid on the vessel. Then I called to her.
If you’re there, come to me. I’ll speak for you.
For a long time nothing happened. Just when I thought it was no good and was about to give up, my eyelids quivered. At the same time something cool seemed to slide into me, filling my chest. It was Natsuki. I don’t know how but I knew that it was my sister.
It was like clear water. Cold and pure. There was nothing sharp in it, nothing to evoke strong emotions. Just pure silence.
It’s you, isn’t it? I’m your sister. I’m Yuki.
There was no reply but I kept talking.
I didn’t even know that you existed until last year. They never told us. But then they pulled you out all of a sudden and everyone started using you. Nobody ever tried to find out what you really wanted, we just used you to say whatever we wanted to say. I’m truly sorry.
There was no movement inside me. I was certain she understood everything. But then I thought, maybe that doesn’t really matter.
Do you want to say anything? Is there anything I can do for you?
There was no answer. She was just there, silent. Though I asked again and again she didn’t speak.
I stopped trying to call her and just listened instead. I couldn’t hear anything. Yet, I could sense a deep peacefulness in that cool silence.
Then the presence in my chest slowly began to twist. It flowed into my arms and through my fingers as it left.
“Good-bye,” I said, though I knew she had already gone.
It was so hot that I could see the heat shimmering as it rose from the roof. The deafening cries of the cicadas seemed to shake the air around me. Hot, noisy, and not at all comfortable. Yet once summer break began I wouldn’t be able to come up here any more.
“It’s hot! It’s not hot, it’s broiling,” Emi said, sweat pouring from her brow.
“I’m glad we ate inside today. I couldn’t eat in this heat.”
I took out a plastic bottle and, unscrewing the top, took a drink of tea.
“Can I have a sip?”
I passed the bottle over to Emi and she gulped it down.
“Hey, that’s not a sip!”
“Sorry. But it’s not even cold. It’s practically hot.”
“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t like it.”
Emi laughed. “Let’s go over by the fence.”
“Won’t someone see us?”
“I doubt it. I doubt there’s anyone out there—it’s too hot.”
It was just as she said. There was nobody in sight.
“Is everything all right now?” She asked, out of the blue.
“Is what all right?”
“That woman and the guy.”
“That’s good,” Emi said simply.
We stood next to one another, gazing out past the fence at the playing fields and the sky.
“Oh, I meant to tell you, I owe you an apology.”
Emi turned to me, head tilted quizzically.
“It’s your grandmother. I said that there weren’t any spirits in your house but I’m a fake so I didn’t have any right to say that. It just sort of seemed that way. It just popped into my head. Sorry.”
“So you mean that my grandmother’s spirit might be there after all?”
“I don’t know. Honest.”
Emi ran one of her fingers down the fence pole, lost in thought.
“It’s OK. I thought about it after you told me she wasn’t there. I realized that I’d been worried that I would forget her. If she wasn’t angry and if she had left and gone and achieved Nirvana, I thought I would forget about her. But, since I did break the mirror and I hadn’t really liked her, I thought I had to remember her. So I decided that, for now at least, I would try not to forget her. It has nothing to do with what you said.”
“I see,” I said, nodding and thinking about my mother.
They changed her medication recently and she’d been doing better since. Even so, she still sat in front of the altar every day, chanting sutras, and I could hear her talking to my sister sometimes. Naturally, my sister always said exactly what my mother wanted to hear.
She decided that my sister would be reborn as my daughter. She also decided that my father’s imaginary lover had dumped him and taken up with someone else. She would, very nobly, forgive him for his transgressions.
I suppose there was really nothing we could do. It was the only way she had to deal with the pain of losing her child. I felt bad for my sister but there was nothing I could do for her either. The only thing I could do was to remember. Just like Emi remembered her grandmother.
“Do you have any plans for the summer?” Emi asked.
“My father and brother will be coming home for Obon but other than that I’ve got to study. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I decided to apply to a university in a different prefecture.”
“Your parents are going to let you live on your own? I’m so jealous!”
I hadn’t told Mother but Father said it was OK. After I graduated I was moving out.
I told him about Mother’s condition. I didn’t mention anything about the summonings but I could if the need arose. It was all over and done with now.
“You know, I used to think that graduation was ages away. It seemed like forever. But it’s not really, is it? If we keep on doing what we like, it’ll be here in no time.”
“Doing what we like? Like what? You don’t mean studying, surely.”
“Like eating yakisoba sandwiches, for example.”
“Not that again,” Emi said.
“You’re the one who said they were so good. You kept going on and on about it so now I want to try one.”
“Well then, we should come up with a plan. We’ll start a ‘Yakisoba sandwich acquisition project’ over the break. It’s no simple matter, you know. For starters, the supermarket is really far from school.”
I laughed as I reached up and grasped the chain link fence. The fence wasn’t nearly as stiff as I thought it would be. When I pushed against it, it swayed easily.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was just being selfish in refusing to speak for those who lacked their own voice. Those doubts brushed at the edges of my mind.
I looked at my hand as it grasped the fence. This hand shook. This hand pounded into the tatami mat. It moved, completely cut off from my will. Not just my hand. My voice and my body too.
I gripped the fence hard and felt a stab of pain as it dug into the flesh of my fingers. Sweat trickled down my cheek, dripping onto the base of my right thumb. I lifted my head, took a deep breath and let my hand relax.
“Shall we go?” Emi asked.
I nodded. I took one more look at the deep blue sky and empty playing fields.
I let go of the fence and turned to follow Emi.
“Tamaoroshi” published by Bungeishunju Ltd, Tokyo. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Mark Gibeau. All rights reserved.