A cramped room in a rundown mountain lodge, and on the desk a manuscript, left open to page one, as if it had been waiting here for ages to be read.
The only other piece of furniture a simple bed. The wood floor creaked with every step. The slight breeze was enough to set the thin glass of the tired window rattling.
My thoughts went to the various forms of identification in my bag. An insurance card, a certificate of residence, even a pension booklet, all under the name Ryodai Kozuka. Born in 1977, he was two years older than me. Japanese standards for applying for IDs are a joke. None of these cards had a photograph of me, but I could use them to apply for a passport that did. Trading places with Ryodai Kozuka.
I looked at the text of the pages. The paper was old, bound simply with a clip. This manuscript had to have been written by Ryodai Kozuka. An account, or even the life story, of the man whose place I was about to take.
A white suitcase stood in the corner of the room. My heart beat a little faster. I hadn’t brought that suitcase here. That must be where it was. Kozuka’s body. Trees danced outside the window, as if to tell me of the sinister nature of this place. But I had understood immediately what to do. Bury that suitcase in the forest, and this would all be over.
“Turn this page, and you may give up your entire life.” Or so the first page said. But I had no intention of giving my old life up. He might have left behind unfinished business, but it was no business of mine. All I wanted was his identity.
The light from the scrawny desk lamp cast an orange glow over the dust. I lit a cigarette and turned the page of the shoddy manuscript.
I guess it started with the funeral.
A girl who lived nearby was kidnapped and discovered dead. The younger sister of one of my classmates. People sweating through their black funeral clothes milled awkwardly about. I was in the third grade, and watched these strangers dressed in black surround my classmate. His parents stood nearby, holding a portrait of the lost girl.
They had apprehended an unemployed man in his thirties, who went on to testify to having lured the girl into his car and murdered her when she began to kick and scream. The man had a hulky build and wore ratty basketball shoes. I had seen him wandering around town several times, leaning a little forward as he walked.
My classmate had told me that he never liked his sister, who happened to have a different father. I suppose he told me because I also had a sister I disliked who had a different father.
When the hall had started to clear out, I went over to say something to him. My mouth dried up. My breath was shallow. The murder of the girl and the man they had arrested were plenty scary as it was, but what really terrified me was my classmate. I addressed him in a whisper. The range of lights decking the funeral hall transformed the tense figures of the strangers into shafts of shadow on the floor. The shadows overlapped, forming peculiar geometric shapes on the linoleum.
“. . . What happened?”
I had a feeling this was all because of him. That he had flaunted his pretty little sister in front of the giant man. A man without a job, left to nurse his dark side—or perhaps the dark side had expanded on its own—as he wandered miserably around town. Had my classmate dangled his sister at the man the way that you might tease a stray dog with a piece of meat?
Back then I didn’t know the term existed, but I suspected this was what they call a perfect crime. Without dirtying his own hands, he had provoked this crazed, dangerous prowler to attack her. But now my classmate looked at me as if he didn’t understand, eyes bleary with tears. I realized my assumption had been wrong. My classmate’s parents patted his head, trying to reassure him. The line of strangers did the same. An ugly feeling welled up inside of me. It was a gross warmth, pulsing through my neck and cheeks. I stared at him in a daze, like I was jealous. Surrounded by the overlapping shafts of shadow.
This goes without saying, but my current self is putting words into my own mouth at a younger age. Back then, my mind was hazy. I was ashamed of my fantasies, but they refused to go away, as if possessed of their own will.
That evening, I went back to my so-called home. When my sister saw me, she started crying and ran to Grandma—my stepfather’s mother, so we weren’t connected by blood. My sister said that I had hit her, claimed that I had lied about the funeral, that I’d been picking on her the entire time.
Grandma calmed my sister down, saying, “Let Grammy take care of this.” Then it was the two of us. This time, though, she realized that my sister was lying. She had a long ruler, the color of clay. A stiff ruler that looked accustomed to its secondary function. I knew how to handle what was about to happen. She was barely going to tap me. All I had to do was scream like I was on fire, and Grandma would let up, skittish as she was. That ruler didn’t scare me nearly as much as the story of the murder, the giant man they had arrested, the murder of the little girl. Grandma set it down on the tatami and stared at me. Her left eye was cloudy and yellow. That eyelid sometimes twitched, a symptom of weak nerves.
Grandma’s son was my sister’s father, but my mom gave birth to me before she ever met him.
“I know you didn’t do it, but you’ve given her a scare. You understand?”
How could I possibly understand? I’d never hit my sister once.
Grandma wouldn’t back down. She loved my sister more than life itself. Her affection for my sister filled her nearly to the brim, so that her days were plagued by the conviction that a threat was always close at hand, a fear which manifested as a dizzying pain that tortured her. What started as love had devolved into a hysteria that she took out on others.
Both of us knew my sister was on the other side of the door, waiting for me to take a whooping. I stared back at Grandma with a face that said that she could hit me if she wanted. I could take it. It would be okay. Just get it over with. When I looked at someone like this, with a sparkle in my eye, I always felt a warmth well up inside of me that was borderline enjoyable. She swung the ruler, slapping the tatami floor in front of me. We heard my sister scurry off. This only reinforced my understanding of how adults behaved.
Grandma stood up, looking distraught, and frowned at me, the eyelid of her murky left eye twitching. Like she was asking me what I was doing in her house. Like I was ruining the world for her. To her, I was an intruder, standing in the way of what could have been a happy home. My existence is what made her eyelid twitch.
Later that night, I left the room that had been chosen for me, hoping to sleep with my mom for the first time in years. I must have been horrified by what was happening in town, and scared enough of my own thoughts I needed comfort from her. Or maybe the murder had brought something up, a feeling that I wanted her to calm. The hallway was cold against my bare feet, as if refusing to warm up to me. If I told my mom my stomach hurt, I figured she would come back to my room.
I stopped in front of the door because I heard a voice. It was Dad talking to Mom.
“She cried again today though, right? What the hell? Why can’t they act like siblings and get along?”
“I’m sorry. I tell them the same thing all the time.”
“Look, this has become a problem. I’ve even got Ma pestering me about it. Come home from fighting at the office to a fight in my own house.”
“You do realize when you look at me like that, it’s like you’re blaming this on me. Is that what you think?”
“I’m . . .”
I heard Dad hit Mom. My heart sped up. This always happened. Every time I heard that sound, my legs went weak and all my muscles stiffened up.
“. . . I’m not the kind of dad who beats his kids. Those guys are scum. But you, you’re all grown up. So tell me, why can’t they get along? Don’t you hate it when they fight? Why is everybody always fighting?”
The sounds of Dad hitting Mom continued. Mom let out little shrieks. It was all that I could do to stand in front of the door. The silver doorknob glimmered idly through the darkness. The door was incredibly rickety and thin. Open it, and my entire life could transform in an instant.
Dad’s violence escalated. Mom’s stifled shrieks grew louder. But then something peculiar happened. Soon my father’s breath went ragged, the floor boomed like they were sumo wrestling, and my mother’s shrieks became something more like breathing, like she was struggling but enjoying it. The pounding of the floor continued. Were they doing it again? I’d seen it happening just once, for half a second. Dad smothering Mom like he was stealing her from me forever, but Mom making noises like she was enjoying it. The door whispered to me. Open it and see—Why not take a long, hard look this time? See something that’ll really shake your little mind at the root. For whatever reason, the voice sounded a lot like this character on an anime I watched.
If you watch them long enough, you may never be the same again.
But I went back to my room and headed straight for my stuffed animal. I was embarrassed for being so girly, but I told myself that having a stuffed animal was fine, as long as the animal was something manly.
It seemed like Mom and Dad were as upset as me about all the stuff happening around town.
There were probably more of them out there. Other crazy people, besides the guy they had arrested. I pictured crazy people smothering us all, the entire crowd of stupid strangers that were up in arms because someone had died. The crazy giants pressed us down and wrung our necks like it was nothing. We had a new reason to be terrified.
I had a place where I could go. A place I went when it was hard to breathe.
The house was built on high land. Old train tracks went right past the back door. Hop over the guardrail and climb up into the woods, and you reached a clearing on the hillside, where you could look out over the entire town. The space was about twelve feet across. It dropped off in a sheer cliff, but the view was wide open and free.
I used to spend a lot of time sitting up there. What I remember most is looking at the trees.
I must have thought those trees were pretty lucky. Nothing to think about or do but keep on standing. When I was up there, in the midst of the tall trees, I could let go of my loneliness and feel part of a whole. Hard to say if I was ascribing human qualities to the trees or denying those same qualities from myself. But when night came, it felt like the trees were closing in on me and glaring down, objects of terror.
Even scarier was how they swayed in the wind. But sometimes I would stay there, sticking it out. Thinking this would make me stronger. As if being able to stay put meant that I could take whatever else would come along. So I stayed put, in the darkness, swallowed by the expressionless swaying trees. I tested myself like this all the time, eager to step up when me and my classmates dared each other to do things. It wasn’t some death wish; it was a ritual to make me stronger.
Why would I bring my sister to a special place like this? She had been bugging me about it for a while. Once she was aware that I was sneaking off somewhere, she begged me to take her along. My sister wasn’t always hostile toward me. True, her childish evil streak took over when she felt insecure, but most of the time she was a cute, smiley kid. She must have recognized intuitively that I was an intruder and felt confused by the imbalance that I represented. When she heard about the funeral, I guess she childishly assumed that it was me who died. She was overwhelmed enough with sadness and relief that seeing me come home pushed her over the edge.
To apologize for hitting her, I brought my sister to the place. Hitting her is something I had never done, of course, but my childish sister saw it as a fact; and while I knew, however childish myself, that it was not a fact, I still felt guilty.
When we arrived, my sister cried out with delight. It was late already, so we took a quick look and went home. That night in bed, though, I was unable to calm down, haunted by a vision of my sister tumbling off the cliff.
The next day, I told her that she wasn’t going back there. It was not okay for her to go up there alone. This made her sulk. She said that just because I was her older brother (her choice of words) didn’t mean I owned the place. It was hers too.
An anxious feeling grew inside of me. Every day, when my sister came home, I felt relieved to see her. When I asked her, “Did you go up to the place?” she sometimes nodded.
“You’re not supposed to go there.”
“It’s fun. Next time I’m bringing Maho,” referring to her stuffed raccoon.
I was more anxious all the time. The feeling reached the point where it was sometimes hard to breathe.
A week passed, then a month passed, and then two.
I was such a nervous wreck about my sister that I practically begged her, telling her repeatedly that she was not allowed to go back to the place. She didn’t listen. It was like she got a kick out of seeing me like this.
If she wasn’t there when I got home from school, I lost my mind. I had to leave the house to look for her. But when I made it to the secret place, she wasn’t there. Had she fallen? My legs trembled and turned to jelly. Looking over the cliff, I saw no sign of her. Each time I went home in a daze, only to find her there ahead of me. This gave me the distinct feeling of a heavy object passing down my throat. I became afraid of choking on my food, each piece turning into dead weight after I had swallowed, like it was stuck there, so that I had to take these tiny little bites. When I came to my senses, my heart was running wild. I tossed and turned and tried lying on my side, but my heartbeat pounded through the bed, booming in the ear I pressed into the pillow.
This gave rise to a peculiar sensation. Attempting now to put it into words, I suppose it would be something like this:
The torment wouldn’t end until my sister fell off of the cliff.
This isn’t what I wanted. But the disturbing, sticky question of when my sister was going to fall must have driven me to think up a solution. I didn’t care what happened, as long as it meant ending this anxiety, in whatever shape or form.
Which is why I thanked her when my sister asked if we could go again and promised that she wasn’t going back alone. I knew that she had gone back there alone, but I suspect that she had sensed the threat outside our door and wanted me beside her. Later on, it came to light that someone had killed themself up there a while back. A young man tortured by an impossible love, who took his own life in a sentimental fashion. Perhaps what drew us to the place was a signaturely juvenile desire to find a secret hideaway, an early gesture of rebellion against our parents, common enough for kids our age. Though looking back, I’m not so sure.
My sister took along Maho the stuffed raccoon. It was a Sunday evening. We had to be home before dark.
Once we got there, she was hyper, like she was up to some kind of mischief. Sitting Maho the raccoon down beside her, she announced that we were going to play house.
Me and my sister were husband and wife, and Maho the raccoon was our daughter. It bothered me having my secret place turned into a house. I was in third grade, for crying out loud. Playing house with her tended to go on forever, and we had to make it home by dark, so I refused—knowing that she couldn’t tell on me to Grandma. She started crying, turned her back on me and told me to go home. But when she said that next time she was coming back alone, my throat bunched up and I felt like I couldn’t breathe again. The anxiety was back. Hoping to calm her down, I approached her from behind. My sister had her back to me, but her stuffed raccoon stared me down. This grubby stuffed raccoon, however powerless, was threatening me. I asked myself why I would find it threatening. This thing was a stuffed animal; it couldn’t warn my sister that I was coming closer. For whatever reason, that was what was on my mind. As I approached, I came up with the idea of surprising her. That would teach her just how dangerous a place this was. Probably stop her from coming back. If suddenly I grabbed her by the shoulders, I could scare her and keep her safe at the same time, since I’d be holding on to her. In my mind, it felt like I was watching a black string, loosely tangled and unraveling. My hands were almost on my sister. The lump thickened in my throat, and to my surprise, my heart sped up. The tip of the black string frayed, branching off, until finally, before my very eyes, it blended with the bulky, overlapping shafts of shadow and the geometric patterns that had shown up on the floor at the funeral. A town lamenting the death of a young girl. A father and mother embracing, shaken by the death of a young girl. Something made these images come back to me. My pulse was screaming, as if to warn me of the danger. Reaching out, I grabbed my sister’s tiny shoulder with my right hand. As soon as I did, I felt a strange sensation in all five fingers. Like I had touched something I never should have touched. My sister whipped my hand away, and in the same motion she let go of the raccoon.
Losing her balance trying to grab it, my skinny little sister’s left foot slipped and she went skidding down the cliff. I watched her in a daze. She had made all of these movements on her own, as I watched. Watching her fall, as if experiencing the inevitable, I felt the lump go down my throat and disappear.
Why did I bring my sister up there in the first place? I know inside of me, I had a guilty conscience for having hit her. I mean, I know I never hit her, but in my own childish way, this deviant guilt persisted. Which made me unopposed to bringing her along, as an apology. If my intentions had been murderous, I’m sure I would have been too scared to bring her, coward that I am. There was something odd about my guilty conscience. Almost like I felt the guilt for having murdered her, but in advance, and brought her to the place trying to make up for it, in a bizarre mental loop.
My outlandish drumming heart would not stop beating. What had made me tell my sister so persistently to stay away from there, knowing all too well that it would make her do the opposite?
My bright idea, hatched by my third grader brain, was to surprise her. Could a kid as young as me have harbored such a seething murderous intent? Either way, the real problem was the outcome of my actions. I heard a voice. “Somebody must have pushed her.” The voice of the character on the anime I always watched. And that somebody who had pushed her was unquestionably me.
My legs went weak. I was unable to move, much less let emit a breath, or breathe one in, or use my voice. I crouched down, ready to go to sleep then and there. But the voice from the anime would not relent. Just kept on talking. This is what it said.
“If it wasn’t you who pushed her, your life is about to get even worse.”