SECTION ONE: The Fall
“For ages we were fox and bear,
broom and teakettle, mountain and wave.
Now we’re rabbits under a rising gun.
Watch us run.
Fluffy tails, tender meat,
hiding in holes and on the street.
Under subways, in the park,
between the bushes in the dark.
Our teeth are strong,
our teeth are long,
Watch us run.”
“Long in the Tooth”
Sunrise Records, 2032
What I have become at last is an ugly man. See my wide saddle nose and lopsided jaw like a jacked up bulldozer. Slouching cheeks riddled in moles. High brows hemmed-in on a narrow forehead. My right eye lower than my left–not enough to notice, just enough to make you feel uncomfortable without really knowing why. Chicken legs, meaty arms, blubber gut, sunken chest, wee neck, no chin. A cleft upper lip.
This body is a beguiler of women. Puzzled, dynamic women for whom curiosity and a penchant for the grotesque flow effortlessly into rapture at the parting of the veil. I have made women fall in love with me in under an hour, with that tormented desire just shy of understanding, that twisted pining of pity for the hideous object. Here, in ugliness, I have found more far advantage than in beauty.
I’m on my way to the Wooden Spoke, an American-style bar named after the peeling white bicycle that hovers upside-down over a mediocre selection of spirits—but they have what I drink so who gives a fuck. Through the glass I see a room filled with beautiful people. The only difference between them and a thing like me is that their allure heightens the dissonance between what’s within and what presents itself to the world. A dissonance only the ugly are fortunate enough to lack. My train got in at midnight and it was a short shot from the station. Place hasn’t really changed. Still one of the best for picking up easy meat. All the better if I knock them up. Someday I’ll see one of my deformed little monsters scuttling around this city. Revenge doesn’t give life meaning, but it’s a start.
Back in utero, as we say—aka district Ueno of Tokyo’s notorious demon gate—after two years of what you might call a pilgrimage that started when I saw Professor Hamasaki let a young woman die. I used to say he killed her, but let her die is more accurate and somehow more horrible. I was watching when his arm reached out of the swelling waters and grabbed her ankle, using it to pull himself onto the mangled tower protruding from the drowning bay. This was no action of deliberative will, but a panicked expression of survival, organized by a cortex in crisis, bubbling up from reflexive processes fathoms below the last ditch regions of a lost cause. That he managed to catch hold of anything was pure chance. But when he scrambled over her it weakened her grip. He was up above her by the time the next wave hit. I saw him glance back only once. When she screamed and fell. He didn’t flinch or reach for her, not even in a parody of pretending to try and help.
I pictured the scene night after night until all I could do was hit the road, a road that started in a refuge camp west of Daishoji and brought me all the way to a penthouse apartment in Los Angeles. I had to find him. To figure out what had gone through his head. What was going through his head now. How swiftly and irrevocably they’d traded places. What parts of her had stayed with him? And what had he lost? And what parts of him had she dragged down under those dark waves, as her desperation swelled and her gasping terror was silenced.
West of Kiinagashima is a small mountain lake colloquially known as Parachute. No trails lead here. The driver who dropped me off on the country road never asked my business.
“Know why they call it Parachute lake?” he said. “You have to parachute in, and when you get bored of fishing you shoot yourself.”
Yesterday I hiked for six hours uphill through brush and windfall. Made camp a few feet from shore, cooked squirrel over a small fire. I watched the rippling rings of scars cut by the jostle of fish picking off hovering insects, and I thought of Seijun. At midnight I lit a candle for her and set it on a small piece of driftwood and swam it out to the middle of the lake. I remembered how Leon and I once rowed out beneath the cream light of a near moon to roll her body over the side of the boat, how we returned the next year to reclaim the marrow and needle the worms and replenish the earth. We dredged her up, not surprised to find her un-eaten by fish nor disintegrated to bone, but now ripened into a rust red and withered root.
I stoked the fires until wax covered the stone, and in the morning I spread the ashes and scattered the fire ring. I heard the rapid thunder of a helicopter prodding the treetops and slow down to hover a hundred feet over the water. It’s door opened and goggled eyes leaned out. Hands tipped a pine crate sideways. Thousands of infant fish no longer than two inches plunged like tiny torpedoes, not splashing but slurping zip zip into the lake. Half of them gobbled up by a mad frenzy of bull trout while the other half escaped on waves of satiation.
They crowd around the bar, bathing in its red lights like a brood of baby spiders, swirls of wretched youth who it seems like their only purpose on this planet is the production of pheromones. Community college kids and a younger blue collar crowd reinforce a pseudo-intellectual narrative where freedom comes from negotiating a path between a culture of media manipulated mindless drones and the ivory tower sycophants of the academic hierarchy. Children of an edgy anti-cynical cynicism reaping the benefits of technology while swearing allegiance to “authenticity” and self-determination. Like everyone, they think they know how the world works. That we’re all just doing our best, that power corrupts, that the only conspiracy is the promulgation of conspiracy theory. They sit beneath the upside-down pawn-shop furniture dangling from a ceiling no one notices anymore, and drink what they’d imagine Americans drinking in the 80s, Coors Light and Rainier. Steel driving beer. Sweat of the brow. Desperate for a subculture that hasn’t been tainted by hipsters and revisionists. Acting like there’s nothing left to envy.
There are screens everywhere. Hardly a direction you can look without seeing one. Whether it’s one of the 24 ancient plasmas, the digital juke box, the PoS stations behind the bar, or the holographic wall space ads with integrated neon (for that old-timey pub feel) slapping you with colorful new reasons to get your hands on everything from the beer you’re already drinking, to the condoms you’re here to find a use for, to the car you think will help you lock that down. There’s always your own personal portable screen if you’re feeling overwhelmed. I’ve got one. I’m no luddite. I like it. I like the frame. The segregation of my visual space into multiple realms. Same as looking out a window or admiring a painting. Even books have frames. You are all engineers for the seduction and conversion of attention. The line between. The frame is your most primitive tool. Walls kept out the lion and the rain, but kept the focus in. So you invented the window. The outside blurs. It’s optical, intentional, and you can flip the switch on it anytime you like. Slipping from one world to another without moving a muscle–well, just one: the imperceptible contraction of the ciliary. You have a floppy lens. You evolved to modify your perception of the world without resorting to the violence of motion, which is more perceptible than shape to the deadly brain of the reptilian enemy. You no longer had to hide on one side of the frame or the other. The frame itself was sanctuary. The frame became your ally, your best defense. Pupils dilating, eyelids wide. All the better to eat you with.
The closest to me, a screen positioned strategically to serve this booth, is running some science program. Cosmology. Zooming out on the universe. I think the point is to put in perspective the relative scale of everything that exists: from quarks to quasars. The camera starts on a man in a park, asleep on a blanket. Then it pulls back, way back, morphing into an animation above the atmosphere. Perspective rocketing at impossible speeds until the Earth is a mere speck in orbit around the sun. Closed captioning of the show’s narrator tells me that the solar system itself is just one of 200 billion specks, located on the remote Orion arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. A tiny yellow circle on that arm indicates the boundary of most of what we can see in the night sky–every visible star only a scratch on the film. My hands cradle the sensual bulge of a glass of amber beer. My neck tilted slightly back, my eyes fixed on the screen, pretending I’m alone.
I’m not alone though, because when I got up to hit the head ten minutes ago a pair of lovers and their third wheel friend took over the booth. I slid back in next to the boyfriend where my half-empty pint was doing a shit job guarding my territory. After one horrified look at my face they entered that ambiguous alternation between sideways glances and faking like it’s not so bad. Twenty-somethings. Vehemently self-absorbed. Not at all polite, but too proud to be bothered by my looks.
Tonight’s target is the third wheel, sitting across from me now, bob cropped and green eyes hovering over double-barrel pink straws through which she sips as deliberately as possible while wearing her exclusion like it’s just what she always wanted out of life. She’s been bumping her leg into mine since I sat down. Eyes darting away whenever I look for them. Not just any sideshow freak can navigate these waters. Shock and awe demands more than the merely monstrous; something more sentimental is needed to season the horror that the eye apprehends. It’s only morbid curiosity now, but that’s about to change. It’s already changing, she just doesn’t know it yet. When something else opens up they’ll leave. They’ll leave but she’ll stay.
“Tell me about it,” the boy is saying.
“We were walking along this white beach,” the girl says. Not the girl subconsciously flirting with me. The other one. The pretty one–as far as it goes. They are strategically paired: short and tall, round and narrow, hair lavender and black, glasses and contacts, giggly and serious. Which is which?
“The tide kept splashing our feet,” she says. “We reached a station and stood in the rain.”
The boy says, “The train was moving.”
And she, “It was. You said let’s go, and jumped from the platform. I hesitated.”
Him, “You missed the train.”
Her, “You looked back at me.”
“I can’t decide. Just a look.”
“A mysterious look?”
“Just a look.”
“You turned away. I watched the train disappear.”
The third wheel is there because the boy’s lover said tag along please. Really what she wants is to find out if he’s into her. She keeps watching the way his eyes drift her way. She’s thinking about sometime in the future. She knows she’s the pretty one so would it really be that bad? Something about the way the girl folds herself around whatever she’s doing. Wonders what it would be like to see her unfold. Petals to the sun. Approximately 60 light years from here a Jupiter-like planet orbits the star HD 154345, making it a viable system for a potential earth-like planet that we could reach in one lifetime. That’s if we could travel at the speed of light. 60 ly is also around the distance where our sun is no longer visible to the naked eye. I have felt the plankton sing at the equator. I have contained the vibrations of chloroplasts within my cellulose when I was regno vegetabili. Ever aware of the the ubiquitous goddess’ searing laughter on my skin. What other star could warm me this way.
“Check out that buck,” the boyfriend says, craning his neck to check out a hunting show on one of the TV’s over the bar.
“It’s an elk.” His girlfriend corrects him without even looking. I can’t see the screen so I’m not sure if she’s right, or how she’d know.
“I don’t feel good about hunting,” the boyfriend says. “What if you just wounded it?”
“Then you track it down.”
“I couldn’t do it. Unless it was a quick kill. Merciful death. Otherwise it’s just cruel.”
What do you know about it, kid? Is a quick, painless, ignorant death really that merciful? Your ancestors once ripped open their stomach and let the guts spill out with their lives. Somewhere along the line they started nipping that in the bud with a quick decapitation from behind. My worst fear is to die without seeing it coming, blissed out at ground zero, drifting off while asleep. Out of control. I was killed and eaten once. When I was a spotted sika. The wolves got me. Swallowing my flesh before I even lost consciousness. It was magnificent. I wonder if it’s only humans who long for the swift end. My kind long to feel as long as feeling is possible, painful as it may be. For death to linger, to keep hold of awareness until the moment–past the moment–when our essence coalesces into the predatory waveform. The fleeting pinnacle of transference when we are both entities at once. To relish the double being, that briefest of eternal lives.
I smell fights brewing over on the other side of the bar, where five contenders for the jukebox engage in a sort of occult back-and-forth that flows just under the room’s general awareness. They’re bartering for the temperature of the room and it’s this inner-competition that maintains an atmospheric brinkmanship of variety and surprise that the most brilliant DJ in Ibiza couldn’t conjure. Chalk one up for democracy magik. Most of them take turns in front of the screen, brandishing deliberate poise, but the German in the corner uses TouchTunes to subvert an otherwise modern selection of hip hop, electronica, and jap-punk by injecting Townes Van Zandt tracks and random antiquity like Staying Alive (which actually had half the regulars dancing in and out of their seats doing little John Travolta moves or coupling off to slink along each other’s bodies), or that one song by The Outfield. This fellow knows what he’s doing. When he dropped Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing every American in the place snapped to attention, fists and eyes clenched, shoulder to shoulder, crooning at capacity every word. But ever since his fifth replay of The Boys Are Back In Town, this one solitary local in faux red leather is onto him. He’s itching to throw down. Waiting for his rival to cross threshold of what he considers appropriately dickish juke box behavior to warrant a beating. Meanwhile, an even more aggressive situation has been flaring up between two college kids going after the same girl–this at the far end of the room: one in this embellished raglan sleeve and Dane black acetate frame glasses who has been fucking her in a far less exclusive fashion than he’d like, and the second trying to get in on the ambiguity of that action. Almost makes me want to swoop in and save them both the trouble.
“No one actually wants you to be yourself,” says the the girlfriend–let’s call her Nan because why the hell not. “As soon as you’re really being yourself that’s when people start to hate you.”
He finishes her sentence: “They stop wanting you around.”
This guy, who I think the one girl called him Shota a minute ago, keeps a long Nat Sherman behind his ear and gnaws on spearmint gum. No one taught him to keep his damn mouth shut when he chews.
“It’s because most people aren’t being themselves, and they can’t stand when other people are genuine and they aren’t.”
“Do it anyway,” Shota says.
“Well yeah, because there’s one person who does want it, or should, and that’s you. And your first allegiance is to you, right? Maybe someday, when everyone has crossed that bridge and everyone is being themselves then maybe we’ll stop being so annoyed and love each other, because when we’re actually being ourselves that’s when we aren’t threatened by what the next guy is doing. We might even kind of be into it.”
This little rant sort of stops the conversation and for some reason now they all look at me, all three at the same time, like it’s my turn to comment. I was just minding my own business before you pricks sat down.
“Another round?” Shota says, scooting out and already halfway on his feet after fully registering what’s going on with my face and flinching and then hopping out to cover the flinch. The girls cradle tall candle-like glasses of melting ice. By the time he turns around they’ve got their phones out.
The TV tells me that the number of grains of sand that would fill a large SUV is roughly 200 billion. The next star over from ours is Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away, which would only take about a hundred thousand years to reach if you could manage to get your large SUV to fly at 50,000 kilometers per hour. The entire Milky Way is 100,000 light years across. So if you’re driving at 60 miles an hour it will take you 10 quadrillion hours, or about a trillion years (only some 70 times the current age of the universe) to get from one side to the other. And that’s just our galaxy, one of billions.
“God, this thing is slow,” Nan says.
“I know,” says the other one–what should I call her?
“What’s with the towers around here? If I’m paying that much for something I expect it to work.”
“Shouldn’t they have figured out how to make these things less annoying by now?”
I pull out my phone, resting forearms on the table, joining the collective. Not actually doing anything, just pretending to text. I say, “You people figured out how to break light into component parts using a rock. Not bad for a bunch of monkeys.”
Nan stares at me like she’s just noticed I’m there. Her eyes roll toward the spot in the booth where her boyfriend should be protecting her from the hideous monster assaulting her with sentiments she can’t follow. Her friend smiles, lips shyly teasing her straw. She lets me catch her eye for the first time. Locked in. Almost four seconds. Almost an eternity.
I never feel more human than in the moments when I remember I’m not. When it comes as a kind of surprise, and I notice myself drifting along doing automatic people things. When my tunnel is narrow and I do something like forgot that trees are alive. It happened this evening, on the way to the bar. A little maple penned into its patch of soil by a ring of bricks and the surrounding pavement and the city at large. At first I saw just another part of the manufactured environment–then it hit me: you’re alive! Alive and respirating. A slow and complex collaboration of mechanisms. So slow that from out here it’s easy to consider them inanimate, almost mineral. Nothing could be more idiotic. Plants communicate and coordinate, warn each other of threats and summon insect armies to fight battles for them. Some plants keep sex slaves, dammit! Mediums of the animal kingdom co-opted by vegetable reproductive procedures. In Oregon a single mushroom network extends over a distance of nearly 4 miles. How subsumed I must be in this body to have forgotten, to have tuned out their vibrant machinations. How many times have I been a cherry tree or a kudzu vine? The experience is wholly unlike death, ten times as dynamic as sitting bored in front of a television. An expanse of metabolism and holistic awareness expressed in blooming buds. I’ve been moss, orchids, a shitaki patch. The word for what I do is bakemono: a thing that changes. Since the teapot I have held countless shapes, lived dozens of lives. But sometimes I suspect that the teapot is all I’ve ever been, that these other forms are dreams induced by heat and steam.
Shota’s back, sliding fresh glasses in front of the girls.
Nan’s jaw gapes at whatever she just read on her phone. “Look at this light mouthed bitch.”
“What?” Shota says. Nan shoves a screen in his face.
“I did not ask him out,” she screeches.
“How do you know she’s talking about you?” the third wheel says.
“Giants!” Shota’s craning his neck to see a TV on another wall where clips from the day’s game roll side-by-side with the show I’m watching, which by now has long departed our galaxy. We’re zooming past all sort of crazy things like Gomez’ Hamburger, the Hourglass and Cat’s Eye Nebulas and this massive star cluster called Omega Centauri. It lingers on our Local Group where we share space with big names like Andromeda and Triangulum, plus fifty or more neighboring galaxies whose names you only know if JAXA or Suzuki-Musk signs your paychecks. Our personal Local Group is just one of hundreds of galaxy clusters that make up the Virgo Supercluster. Neighboring Sculptor Group comes in at nearly 4 parsecs from Virgo’s edge. That’s only about 13 light years, so no big deal. But the Virgo Supercluster itself is 110 million light-years across which is a thousand times wider than the Milky Way. And it’s just one of millions of superclusters in the universe.
“Who cares about baseball?” Nan says. “Sports are stupid.”
“Typical female,” says the typical male. Nan slurps her drink, blows bubbles through her straw, makes idiot sounds at Shota, who drags his left eyelid down with a pinky and gets ice in the face for it.
She looks for somewhere else to focus her attention and notices a miracle. “Space at the bar!”
Nan. Please. Show some enthusiasm. She’s on her feet and Shota follows, but the girl across from me, pretending not to notice her friends slipping away, stays put, sucked into her phone, thumb scrolling in a hypnotic rhythm as her eyes more and more obviously swipe over the device’s silver brow–hungrier and hungrier for me to initiate some sort of conversation.
“Angie,” Nan whines.
“I’ll be there in a sec.”
Nan looks from her to me and back to her, not fully getting what’s going on here. Not even physically able to accept the possibility. Instead she just turns away, moving over by where the jukebox hovers over the sheer orange carpet. Once a stream ran through here, long before they built whatever the Wooden Spoke originally was, before the expansion of this district. I can still conjure the memory of a little moss-covered stone house for Inari, guarded by two red-bibbed wooden foxes, surrounded by weeping cedars and wisteria. A small hill where branches of red pine segregated the sunlight and tanuki dug their burrows. For an instant these images can obliterate these walls. Indefatigable walls. Diminishing frames. Has there ever been a borderless world? Every living thing clutching its frame, it’s differentiation. Lines in the sand. Put up a wall, a world appears.
This guy once, I met in London, he’d read the Chronicles of Narnia something like a hundred and fifty times. Each time in a different order. The written order, the chronological order, backwards of both, something he called the Alsanic order, the Telemarine PoV, the Witch’s order, several obscure methods which involved pulling chapters from early books and sticking them into later, random orders at last in something like desperation. He was convinced that this was a literal secret method for reaching Narnia—to unlock the proper reading order, turn the final page, and there you’d be, standing under the lamppost in a quiet wood, catching sight of dear old Leopard in the night sky. People got there by door and pictureframe, cave, pool, and gate. They’ve gone by paper and ink. Through the portals of ‘o’s, ‘d’s, and ‘q’s, the archways of ‘n’s, the windows of ‘e’, and the tunneling ‘g’. Why not LCD and LED? The minor and major boundaries, bound together, world within world. Where do we go when the screens of our eyelids close? Even monsters wonder from whence we came, and what might become of us if we ever learn how to die.
Until then, we make the most of the world you have made out of ours. I don’t see any use in pining for the past. Even if I went all Leon, saturated with saki and beer, vomiting new varnish or pissing under the window or standing in my own swill screaming down curses to invoke the names of numen who for decades have been deaf and jacked out in alleys and fucked up from down all jabbed with needles and wheezing through crystal lungs—what good would it do? Or Lazal’s work-in-progress: a lifetime in the making of litigation and petition under some pretext of cultural preservation, sterilization, and revitalization. All to move one pub and make room for fifty square meters of memorial upkeep—no amount of which will give us back or take us away for anything more than a few quiet moments of reflection whenever we can be bothered to make the trip. No. We’re betweening for now and forever, betting on a slim chance at oblivion, but most likely hanging on to see what a thousand more years might make of it all. Meanwhile, sticking it in your ear whenever we get the chance.
“Where’d you get a name like Angie?”
She looks up. Her lips part. My mood is improving. Maybe it’s the tension by the bar, heating up now as both parties of both potential fights finally get into some words. Faces enter private face zones. Volume on the upswing. She seems nice, exploitable. Something to pass the time. The TV’s cosmic zoom slows down for a minute to explore a little speck in the universe called the Great Attractor for a damn good reason. This mystery meat is tens of thousands of times more massive than the entire 200 billion stars of the Milky Way galaxy, and hangs out in our neighboring Supercluster, a two-parter galaxy love match known as the Hydra-Centaurus. Which all of this together is only a fraction of the size of the Eridanus Supervoid: a billion light years of absolute nothingness. Some cosmologists will tell you a void of this size is impossible, but other physicists suggest it implies an extra-supermassive black hole or brane textures and parallel universes and other fantastic dreams the rest of us have to take on faith can be realistically glimpsed inside the language of equations.
“Don’t tell me,” I suspend her reply, pretend to flip through a mental rolodex of names and nations. “Netherlands?”
“How’d you know?”
“It’s all in the eyes.”
“My dad,” she says.
“Foreign exchange. Not him–my mother. She married him and brought him back.”
“You were born?”
“Here, I mean.”
Five minutes later she’s going non-stop about her life. My attention wavers only long enough to keep her guessing. I ask about her childhood. What it was like to have a Western father? How often have you been out of the country? We move on to junior high and all its awkwardness and she tells me what a horse face she had, and I give her a look like–yeah, how do you think I feel!
This right here is the foundation of my technique. These conquests almost always germinate out of pity. My face, parts of which resemble melted wax, moves her to sympathy. Perhaps it is only the turning of her stomach, but moved she becomes, and what a fine line there is between lust and nausea. She responds to my anecdotes of tormented childhood, of bullying and ridicule and countless other horrors with an instinctual empathy. What woman hasn’t sometimes seen herself as ugly and fat and prodded by mean-spirited peers? Of course she understands. Her own psyche never treats her any better. I listen to every word. I nod and murmur and probe little details. I say, “Yes, I know what you mean,” and by this time she already feels connected to me. We have locked souls at a delicately painful level, a level she could never reach with a man she intends to get it on with, certainly not with a man from whom she demands adoration. But with me she knows there’s no need to demand it. For no matter how ugly she’s felt in the past, she will never feel as ugly as I actually am. It’s here that her pity may as well be compassion, and compassion may as well be love, and love may as well be lust, and I can almost see the thought go through her mind: if only she was more noble, more spiritual, more detached from physical reality she would, in a heartbeat, let me take her into a nice quiet room where we could revel together in an eclipse of physical illusion.
The bar fights across the room both hit their boiling point at the same time with the same simultaneous shove. The lover boy in glasses tumbles down the steps close to us, falling back against a rail, and for the first time the bartender notices there’s a problem. But then a glass smashes into the wall. Heavy glass that doesn’t shatter but cracks like stone. Someone’s head hits the jukebox, which, in spite of being a touchscreen interface, jars and skips and switches halfway through “this chick got up and she slapped Johnny’s face,” to Sweet Caroline, and as soon as the trumpets and drunks go bwamp bwamp bwamp both fights have converged in the direction of our table, complete with regulars getting in there on the pretext of breaking it up. The outer orbits of both scuffles collide and mingle and manage to exchange a few of these stand-up citizens with such a whirl that they don’t realize they’re suddenly interceding in a completely different battle. The bartender can’t quite figure out where to jump in so he sort of jogs between them, diving left and then right, but not wanting to leave his post either because his partner picked the perfect time to go out for a smoke.
You can’t really call it fighting–one guy throwing his body at another guy, mostly a lot of shoving and flailing. It’s depressing that the odds of at least one of the four having some samurai blood. I remember Tsurizao poised like a tree–focused, ready, wrists imperceptibly adjusting to each advance of the enemy. On a far screen I see a batter at plate who sways, feigning three swings, and waits for the pitch. The most distant observable anything are these walls of galaxies and quasar clusters pumping out thousands of times the amount of energy that our entire 200-billion stars of galaxy can produce, some appearing farther away than the universe is old. When the warrior finally rushed him, Tsurizao had dropped his arms, his left leg spun 30 degrees around the rooted right, coiled his spine skyward. The drunken mob flings all four brawlers out on the street, one by one. Heave ho! Bwamp Bwamp Bwamp.
“That was exciting!” Angie says. She finishes her drink and starts telling me about how one time a boyfriend started a fight over her. She can’t figure out now how to put the way it made her feel into words. “Most emotions at the same time, I guess?” In those early days doesn’t everyone always feels like their particular love story is the central drama of reality? Another symptom of oxytocin overdose. “The most horrible people,” she says, “from the rich assholes to losers and dropouts to the boring young professionals who do nothing but sit in an office half the day and on a couch the other half,” all of their brains wired to insist that everything hinges on this or that romantic conquest. The fate of the world. The shape of the universe.
By now her inner tension has mutated into full-on flirtation. She knows there’s no harm in it, so she can let go and play a little, instinctively expressing subtle, sexual hints. I’m onto her before she even knows she’s propositioning me. But now is not the time to make the kill. Instead, I lean back and sigh. I look at my lap and I say something like, “I feel so connected with you right now. I just wish you were my type,” which this impacts her at a profound level, because it is exactly what she has been thinking about me. So not only does this double down on the feeling of connection, but it sparks a cognitive dissonance that falls right into my lap. On one hand she’s objectively aware that next to me she’s a physical diva, so this raises the question of what exactly is my type–is it a girl as hideous as I am? But then we’ve just connected on the shared experiences of feeling completely ugly, so maybe, she wonders, just maybe she isn’t pretty enough for me. And this idea is so horrifying that she can hardly comprehend it. She snorts and says something about attraction’s enigma, but I already know that inside she is scrutinizing every pore and considering possible haircuts and outfits, gestures, suggestions, or other ways to win me over.
She needs to stew in it for a while, so I excuse myself and head toward the bar. Then I stop, as if in afterthought, and see if she’s ready for another drink. She nods mechanically so I put in an order, scanning the bar for the familiar face I know I’ll find. There’s no way he isn’t here, just as there’s no way those two fights were only a coincidence.
I can already hear Grady’s voice from across the room. He’s gathered a crowd of ears, doesn’t let a word in edgewise, but they cling to him like the hairs of the sticky columbine who secrete a goo to cover themselves in the corpses of insects like a defensive carrion shell. Big ancient fingers stabbing up at one of the screens where some US politician from Alabama is apologizing for sodomizing whatever young cowlicked campaign speechwriter crafted his latest anti-gay catch phrases.
“Oh man, this guy’s career!” Grady howls. “Like if you could reach deep into the stupid, bigoted, self-absorbed breadbasket of American midwest essence and turn that shit into a cold syrupy glaze you pour over a pack of bubble-lipped wire-haired midwest princess Miss-Cornfield-County-in-Trainings all bundled up into the same pickup truck, and then jumped that truck over the Statue of Liberty and into a giant pile of AR-15s modified to fire M-80s and cans of Bud Light designed ta defend the cuntry from Satan’s little butt sp’lunkers, so it all goes up like a McWalmart parking lot BBQ for shit-eating cannibalization by the new generation.”
Everything that is born is born not realizing it’s been born.
In the beginning we don’t know what we are and we don’t know that we are. There’s a part of us that knows something is, and that whatever that is, well it’s all just a part of what we are.
Eventually all that changes. Eventually you and I and every living thing comes to an understanding of the self and its distinction from the other. But when is this? Do you recall a particular moment when self-awareness reached in and grabbed you? A time where you suddenly realized that you existed and were alive, that there was stuff that was you, and stuff that wasn’t? Do you recall this moment of illumination, of discovering selfhood?
On the one hand, how could you? You would have to have been a self already to recognize such a discovery. But on the other hand, it had to have happened sometime. There had to have been a moment where it wasn’t so and then it was. One moment and not at another. But search all you want, you won’t find that memory. How did something so crucial get lost in the oblivion of the past? How is it that with you people this moment remains shrouded and forgotten?
Not so with my kind.
We’re introduced to ourselves like thrusting our heads through an oil-painting. We wear the frames and torn canvas around our necks forever.
Once I was the world. I had no edges. Now I can’t get past my fur.
Not since I learned my name.
“Nicodemus, you ugly piece of shit!” Grady says, noticing me at last, a second after his palm hits the bar like he’s squashing a spider (except that Grady would never squash a spider), crushing a peanut shell to powder and grinding it against the display of foreign coins, rare stamps, and dead butterflies sealed under glass. He’s bent over with a straw, snorting up some of the dust, and sees me in the mirror. Half a smile destabilizes the big black mustache and spores of stubble filing down his cheeks and over his chin. He leans back and sniffs deep, reaches through his entourage to slap mighty meathooks on my shoulder. “What brings you down here?”
“I need a smoke,” Grady says, and we go out front where the Wooden Spoke’s red, yellow, and green neon window sign smears like the inverse of some Neutrogena anti-aging cream over his wrinkled skin. He lights the fattest Cuban I’ve ever seen and props against the wall, billowing grey ghosts through fat blue lips while the chewed up nails of his left hand chip away at the corner of a brick. “What’s it been—a couple years?”
“Nice work in there.”
“You like that?” The face of pride. “Two at a time’s almost a cakewalk now. Even made sure one of the staff called in sick.”
“You’re an artist.”
“What about you? Seen Koro lately? I get in every couple months. Pay my respects, you know.”
“It’s been a long time,” I say.
“Once a year I go,” he says. “Minimum.” Crumbs of brick and mortar trickle into a little pile by his feet. Ashes everywhere.
“I’ve been away,” I say.
“I heard. Shit hole America?”
Grady’s old Oni aristocrat, a member of what you might call the ambassador class. Back when the mountains were ours, when religion was a form of diplomacy and border control, only old Oni communicated with humans. We’d figured out some of your words and taught your priests one of our dialects. Eventually a dialogue got up and running so that we could tell them where not to go to avoid getting killed and eaten and they could tell us where they wanted to go and offer some kind of appeasement in exchange for us making arrangements to avoid killing and eating them. We held all the cards back then, and never imagined your tender little mammals would become any kind of threat.
By the time I came into the world all this had broken down. The beginning of the end. Most of the forests decimated. The Oni were despised and feared, blamed for natural disasters. The rest of us were starting to become naturalized and catalogued in the minds of new modernizing generations. I ended up traveling the world on account of the teapot, and by the time I’d come home the worst was already in full swing and our fate was already sealed, we just didn’t realize it yet. And now here we are. Grady amuses himself with small acts of revenge like inciting violence between them. Me, I’ve got a different approach.
“Still seducing all their women?” he asks.
“Got one simmering now,” I say.
“Bless you, boy. Not many’s still fighting.”
“I don’t fight. There’s no point.”
“You’re not lying down either. Not draining your tamashii with those kami up in Roppongi, eyes wide dead inside. Gummed up with plant matter and the resin of old corpses. Can’t even dream these days. Fuck.” He snaps off a chunk of brick the size of a blackberry. It falls in the pile. He sniffs some lingering dust from his fingernail.
“Neither can Koro,” I say.
“Koro’s different. He’s got method. He’s onto something. You’ll see.”
We go in and take some shots. Grady keeps smoking. It’s a long time before anyone notices or calls him out.
Back in the booth I pretend to listen to her stories, but my attention drifting in and out of recalling fond memories of Tsurizao. It’s strange that I never saw him through any other eyes than those of the dog, but I know how his hands felt from two perspectives. My first impression as they took the kettle from his father. Everything he held onto he held as if it was a wounded bird. Fingertips fat and cold as raindrops. How we grieved together over Seijun. Like creatures new to grief–which we were. Now I carry grief like an old love letter never reread but never thrown away. I never knew how to grieve until I was the dog. I learned how on his account, grieving for her in my truest form, which is a spectrum of forms. Grief itself is only a form. In our solitude we suffer loss, but the expression of grief is a shared thing. A thing I felt so that he could feel it. Grief is the shape of hidden bonds between survivors as experienced through the prism of the dead.
The edge of space reaches its zenith, spreading out into a cosmic web–a simulation of the structure of the universe as far out as we can guess, the most distant perspective of what it all might be. From here filaments of dark matter thread galaxies and superclusters together in patterns that superficially resemble the way the neural network of a mouse’s brain would appear on a SPECT imaging scan. Looking at them side-by-side–the whole sick universe and one tiny rodent brain–it becomes impossible not to imagine meaning. This juxtaposition of the large and small. As above, so below. As if the pattern reflects some kind of purpose within our reach. The image hangs there just long enough to question whether or not I spend enough time questioning my assumptions, then zooms back inward at attention-shattering speeds, back to the body of the man on the blanket. The neural texture of the mouse brain. We go deeper now. Inner space. Into organ, tissue, and cell. Under certain conditions a human egg is visible to the naked eye. Smaller than that and you need lenses and other trickery. Leukocytes, red blood cells, chloroplasts, and mitochondria. 250 billion viruses can fit on the head of a pin. Maybe one for each star in our sky. Ultraviolet light wiggles around the diameter of Hep B, a fatal frequency to DNA, so don’t forget your sunscreen kids. X-rays and glucose chains–they discovered a soccer-ball shaped molecule about this small in 1985. Most likely all of it will end in heat death. Every speck inside trillions of flaming galaxies reduced at last to a homeostatic arrangement in the void. Fixed and cold like atoms in a crystal. The degeneration and calcification of myelinated sheathes. A universe housebroken and tuned to some frequency that will drift eternally as ambient background elevator music for unknown ears.
Angie and I have reached the point where normally I would take her to the next bar, except that before I can say the words a new ruckus by the jukebox catches our attention. One voice a little too loud, a little too drunk, rushing the bar and dragging something behind him—something so unexpected it doesn’t register for me until it registers for her.
“Oh my god,” she says.
The little girl can’t be more than ten. Her father, presumably, greasy-haired savage that he is, clenching the tiny wrist in one hand while the other pounds on the counter like a metronome pacing out his overture of DT demands. She’s dough-eyed, as in sleepy. Dressed in lavender pajamas with buttons out of place. Like dad suddenly realized his past self betrayed him and drank all his booze, but with everything closed on a Thursday and the bar a little too far out to leave the kid home alone he dragged her with him. Or maybe he intends to use her as payment. The bartender isn’t happy and isn’t playing along.
“Well this is fucked up,” I say.
Angie drops both hands on top of the one I left on the table, her empathy up through the ceiling.
“Someone should call a cop,” she says.
The dad loses his shit, veering into the space of occupied bar stools, scattering crowds who want no trouble. For some reason I don’t think Grady’s behind this. He lets go of the little girl’s wrist, and the way she cradles it tells me how hard he’d been squeezing. She stumbles, sways like a wee bolt dislodged from some giant and clunky machine, and starts to softly cry. Dad reacts instinctively, doesn’t even have to look. Smacks her across the mouth. The smallest atom in the universe is the hydrogen isotope Protium, just a single proton and the electron who’s in love with it. But this is a long distance relationship, relatively speaking. Lots of empty space between them. Angie’s gripping my forearm, shaking it. I can’t look away from the screen. This is the good stuff, the invisibilis mundi. It takes forever to zoom before we hit the nucleus where protons and neutrons all jumble up together. Somewhere between nucleons and the size of a quark are the effective ranges of atomic force: the so-called “weak” force, which acts like a Loki to the “strong” force’s Thor. Enough of these infinitesimal rubber bands breaking at the same time and we kissed Hiroshima goodbye. Go past strange, Charm, Bottom, and what’s way down there but Top, the tiniest quark of them all. But why stop there? The neutrino weighs in at 10^-24 meters (a Yoctometer, whatever the fuck) is still an outrageous 11 orders of magnitude larger than the Plank length. This is theoretically as small as anything can ever really get, not that anything we know of actually gets that small. A space where demarcation falls apart. Where energy can temporarily leap into being from nothingness. Where a thing can be a different thing.
Something in Angie’s eyes tells me I’m not getting anywhere with her until this is dealt with. By now I’m more than ready to go top one off, so I drag myself out of the booth. Bit of quick bravado should seal the deal. I’ve got arms the size of nitrogen canisters. One hand is all I need to latch onto enough of his throat to pry him off the bar and run him into the wall. My left fist raised, waiting for his eyes to go wide because he’s at least going to know what the fuck hit him, when I feel something push back. Little hands shoving my legs right above the knees. Her eyes down there between us, still tear-stained but sapped of all confusion, fear, and pain—transformed into tapered wedges of rage. Rage directed at me. Fastened like a rabid chipmunk, palms unwavering, elbows locked.
“No,” she hisses. “No, no, no.”
I’ve already let go. I’m moving backward. I’m over a hundred years displaced in time because this is a face I know, a face I’ve seen. The dad’s catching his breath and she’s still pushing my legs, slapping my legs with staunch little palms. Little lips still firing out “No, no, no” under my chin. I know it isn’t Seijun, but those are her eyes. Not the same color, but it’s the same fire. “Stop it,” she says. I can’t look away. It’s like—and maybe you’ve experienced this—when you’re a little tipsy and euphoric and you go into the bathroom and that’s when you just happen to catch a glimpse of your reflection in the mirror, and suddenly it hits you. My god, I’m a thing. That’s me. It’s a rare moment, jarring, even unpleasant—you’ve caught yourself in that mirror and but for a second it’s like you’re looking at a stranger. So you smile, trying to reassure yourself that it’s okay, that you are you and everything will go on just the way it always has. The last time I felt this was the day I found Professor Hamasaki, when I knocked on his door and went inside. When I told him what I saw on the tower, and the look on his face when I described how I saw the way he let the woman die. When he offered me tea and I finally saw what he was.
“Stop,” she says.
And I do. I stop. The music stops. The people stop. The entire bar frozen still, shot glasses raised and fingers on thighs and whispers worming into ears—all of it on pause. And as I raise my eyes to stare between the sweltering mannequins I glance out the window and onto the sidewalk where just minutes ago Grady was picking off chips of brick and now a nice looking young couple is strolling by, arm in arm. He’s leading her home with a shy attentive smile. Her eyes cradle his face with consummate admiration. The happiest people you’ve ever seen. It all reminds me of this photograph I saw of a lion and a zebra face-to-face on hind legs, thrust into a fierce embrace. The lion’s paws locked around the zebra’s back. The zebra’s front legs gripping the lion’s neck. Lips turned slightly upward. Eyes clenched. A pair of grins. Reunited at last. One instant frozen in time, a frame liberated from deadly context. The best of friends.
By the time the world starts turning again and the music and murmur of the crowd trickles back, the little girl has released me and is leading her father toward the door. Leading him by the hand. He is submissive, sullen. When the door opens I once again hear a coyote howl. Beckoning me somewhere. Her little hand letting go the glass door that releases her in reply to a clatter and stumble forward, plunging like an arrow toward the sidewalk where a generous flow of taxi’s pull up and shove off into the city. Into the infinite cluster of incantatory right angles erected for protection from the spirals of an older world. My world. I can’t make my legs move. My fingers separate from my body. I feel the teapot sway. Angie’s breasts press against my back. Pliant, narrow arms wrap around my shoulders. “That was so brave,” she whispers, then leans even closer so that her lips brush my ear. I smell the alcohol on her breath. Her tongue flicks. Her saliva cools on the lobe. When she whispers again her voice is like static, or the chatter of hermit crabs. An undecipherable language. Sounds that resonate through the cavity of my skull. Words I will never understand.
SECTION TWO: The Miko and the Fisherman
His first memory is the rod.
Bourne on the father’s back through a stillness of trees. Crouched beside a stream on hand and knee. The boy’s fingers enliven soft silt, burrowing under a bank of wet pebbles and clay. Nearby the father unearths stalks of bamboo and tests them for strength. He lets the boy pluck off the leaves. The stripped rod will bring fish. Fish are wet because they come from the water. Slippery is the nature of the spirit of the fish.
The mother plays a game. She throws a cloth over the boy’s face, and his body stiffens in the dark. He does not think the world has vanished, but that he has vanished from the world. His inner light is not yet bright enough to compel him and only when she pulls the cloth away does he remember he is a boy. He sees her smile and makes a mirror of it.
The father teaches him the way of the fish. This is how you bend the rod. This is how you wind the silk. The false fly is made from the scales of the fish. The barb clings to the silk, hidden between scales.
The father tells him that a fly is attracted to water and light. The fly is born from the water and is bound for the sun, caught on the air between past and future. At midday the swarms ascend, summoned by the overpowering noon, but in the evening they long to return to the water and are drawn back to the river that spawned them. The darkness of the water. The stillness of the shroud. The rare fly who reaches the sun will become one of the midnight stars. His mother tells him that when a fish eats a fly, the fly must return to water, but the fly that avoids the fish might still be eaten by a bird and will become the bird. The fish who is eaten by a man will become the man.
His mother makes a face. His father makes a face. His mother slits the belly of the fish and removes the intestines. The boy touches his tummy, trying to feel his own.
He is given his first knife and his mother sings the transaction. She tells him every new thing is sung into being. The knife cuts him because he is not careful. His blood is more red than the fish’s blood. His mother sings to the cut and in time it begins to heal. A tooth is lost, but it grows back bigger and stronger. If that tooth is lost it will not grow back, his mother says. His father says striking the head of the fish against a rock will stop the life of the fish. Moments after sunset is the best time to stop a life. Then the spirit can immediately follow the dying light into the other world. If you kill a fish in the morning, its ghost will linger above the water and warn the other fish that someone is hunting them.
Tengu is the mountain goblin, his mother says. If you see him on the road he may pretend to look like a man. Your eyes cannot recognize him in the dim light. If you call out and he does not answer then it is Tengu and he is hunting you, and you must run home to me at once.
When he is older, his father takes the boy to the village to learn how to use the nets. His father does not use a net. The men laugh at his method. They have never seen anyone fish with a rod and a string. But they like him. They are amazed that he can catch fish this way.
But you cannot catch very many, they say.
I can catch enough, his father says.
His mother tells him about the gods. Amaterasu is the queen of the sun. Her brother Susanoo is the king of the storm. Susanoo cannot be tamed, and Amaterasu mourns for him. Once she hid in a cave and did not come out for many days. Then the other gods conspired and told her that they had found the most beautiful thing in the world. When she peeked out from the cave they held up a mirror. Amaterasu was enchanted by her own beauty and returned to shine upon the world. The Emperor is the son of her son.
Does the Emperor catch fish? asks the boy.
No, his mother says. The fish give themselves to him.
Sometimes warriors march through the village. His mother hates them. She bows low as they pass and scribbles cursed symbols in the sand at their feet. Warriors killed her family with swords. If she had not gone to live with the boy’s father they would have killed her too. Never be a warrior, Tsurizao, she says, and makes him promise.
What will I be? He asks.
You will be a fisherman, she says. Your father has learned a new way to fish. You, too, will fish this way, and teach others to fish this way.
The Father shows him how to hold the rod. Fists together, elbows up. Grip between the thumb and first finger. The other fingers touch but remain loose. Move the rod back and forth until the fly finds motion in the air. The fly will follow the rod. Sway with your elbows and wrists. You must be as fluid as the river. Sway until the fly begins to move on its own. Then you will know the fly has borrowed some of your spirit and the fish will think it is a living fly and try to eat it. Cast toward the sky, not toward the water. Cast as if you were releasing the fly to the sun. Your movement gives life to the fly, and it will make its own way to the water. Otherwise the fish will know that you are controlling the fly and it will not bite.
The boy tries to move his arms the way he sees the father move his arms, but the tip of the rod splashes into the water.
You will learn.
A fish bites the father’s fly, and the father hands the rod to the boy. Lead it to the shore. Keep the line tight. Keep control. Lead it slowly into your hand.
This is the first fish the boy has taken from the water. The Father tells him to strike the fish against the rock and release its spirit. The boy does not want to and he cries. His skin tingles and his belly feels hollow and hungry. He remembers a time when he fell and hit his own head on the ground and how much it hurt. The boy thought he would die it hurt so much. The Father scolds the boy but the boy cannot do what his father wants him to do. He cries and throws the fish back into the stream. The ripples from the splash bind this moment to the shore and the Father watches the fish wiggle and vanish.
He smiles. You will learn.
Her first memory is the rod.
The big man comes at her and she is not afraid. The pain is something she was always used to. He means to kill her this time, she thinks, but she does not know how she knows. His robe is loose. He smells sweet like fruit about to turn. The rod flails, striking her at random. She makes a game of silent guesses about where the next blow will land. When her guess is right it seems to hurt less. Sometimes he stops and a blankness falls over his eyes and he drops the rod. Then he sits for hours without moving. Sometimes it is the woman that stops him. She is the girl’s savior, saving the girl for herself.
The girl plays in the sun. She builds huts of mud and smashes them with rocks. The woman prepares food, and throws the scraps at the girl. Eat it, she says. She becomes a screaming thing. Eat it! When the girl finally takes a bite the woman runs to her, falls on her knees, and pulls the bad thing out of her mouth and hugs her and cries.
The little girl can tell when the storm is coming. She feels it and hides. The storm breaks across the back of the woman, or the great man, or both. When he does not attack her, she attacks him. They mean to kill each other, she thinks, but she does not know why. She has never eaten fish. She eats millet and sometimes an onion.
Love is shrieks and tears. Hate is fists and the rod. Sometimes love is worse than hate. He holds a metal thing that he stabs into the wall. Sometimes he pushes it into his skin. He is powerful who can turn stone into water. She learns how to do this with rocks from the ground. She learns that it is not the stone that turns to water, but herself. She does it every day until it no longer causes pain. She smells the blood. Tastes the blood.
Tengu is the mountain goblin, the woman says. If you see him on the road he will eat you. If he catches you he will eat you. If you do not do what I say, he will eat you.
The girl grows older. She lies alone in the dark. She does not sleep anymore. In the darkness she gathers all her senses, holding them close to her skin, and dreams that she is a fox or a rabbit: sometimes killing, sometimes killed. She dreams she is Tengu and that she is eating the woman. The woman turns to water in her mouth. She never eats the man. The man eats her even though she is Tengu.
He has been gone many days. The woman says he will never come back, but he does. When he comes back he is not a body anymore. He is only a voice. He is the sound of wood cracking, pottery shattering. He is the voice of the woman. He is invisible and he is inside her, throwing her around the room. She cannot scream him out. The woman puts the metal into her arms, her breasts, her face. More blood than the girl has ever seen.
In the morning the woman’s body is cold. It will not move unless the girl pushes it and makes it move. There is no part of the hut that is not smeared with blood.
In time the little girl must eat. She can no longer recognize the woman on the floor. The girl is a fox and the woman is a rabbit. She must eat.
The great man comes again at night. This time he is in his own body. He is startled by what he sees. He stares at the fox with a look she has never seen before. He raises a large stone above the fox’s head. But the fox is still hungry.
Monks find the girl in the woods, thin, savage, too weak to struggle. She stops chewing on her fingers and eats the rice they give her. They put her in a wooden cage and take her out of the forest for the first time in her life. The smell of the sea calms her, and she no longer tries to break out of the cage. The ocean is a shroud across the deep. The sight of it is enough to keep her still for hours. Watching through the bamboo rods the wild white waves. Watching.
She is six years old.
SECTION THREE: The 47