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from the May 2009 issue

from “Corridor of Dreams”

For the past two months, I've been dreaming the same dream over and over. It only dawned on me recently. We forget most dreams, so why should I dream this again and again? It begins in the Osaka alley where I lived as a child. The military had destroyed houses along a four-kilometer stretch to create a fifty-meter-wide emergency road. This served both as an evacuation route and as a defense against the U.S. firebombings. A small alley off the evacuation road ended at an old fence of weathered dark brown wood. A left turn along the fence at one alley led to a right turn down another. The dream always ended there. Entirely nondescript scenes of alleys running between tenements. Why should I dream this again and again? Whether my subconscious was avoiding something that lay hidden in the repetitive landscape or revealing my desire to see beyond the world of dreams, an inscrutable, oppressive disquietude accumulated like sediment, building deep inside my chest.

The sky is endlessly clear. Directly beyond the window of my fifth-floor apartment, new buildings soar more than a dozen stories high, while assorted older tenements jockey for the cramped space between traditional two-story homes. As the July sun, skewed slightly west of midheaven, scorches the streets and the exhaust spewing from vehicles jammed along Kanpachi Route Seven threatens to explode, a lone bicycle drags a cart slowly through the congestion. A man in his early fifties, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, his hair threaded with gray, leans his weight into the pedals of the bicycle. The mound of flattened cardboard that burdens his cart teeters on the verge of collapse. I've seen him before, years, or maybe just a few days ago. A dog resembling an Akita, chained to one side of the cart, plants its paws and pulls at the cart, its dangling tongue slack. My view of the scene, from a fifth-floor window, seventy meters down a narrow side street off Route Seven, lasts no more than the two or three seconds it takes the cart to cross the narrow intersection. Yet for some reason, the image of the man pedaling the bicycle, his dog pulling at his side, lingers. The man pedals the bicycle down an endless road, the dog drags at the cart.

I turn left at the dark brown fence and right at the next alley. I encounter a man and a dog, hauling a cart. The man's left eye is clouded, perhaps with cataracts. As I pass, I turn sideways, clinging to the side of the narrow alley to avoid cart and dog, and notice a unique stench. Are there actually smells in a dream? Yet this dream conjures that strange scent from the depths of my memory.

I was a second grader when Japan lost the war. Actually, I should have been in third grade, but during the war, I was evacuated from Tokyo to Okayama and later to Kyushu and Nara. I missed so much school they had to keep me back. My school had two second-grade classes of thirty children each, as was common in the immediate aftermath of the war. We stayed with the same classmates in the same classroom from second grade until graduation, five years later. Being a year older than most of the children, I became something of a ringleader. Among children, even a single year's advantage is significant, both physically and psychologically. I did well without studying and I excelled at sprinting, baseball, and swimming. At one point, I became completely obsessed with baseball. My heart beat wildly when Fujimura and Ooshita raced in a dead heat for the home-run record. I earned a baseball mitt by collecting chewing-gum wrappers. It was an ordinary child's pigskin mitt, but wearing it made me feel like a baseball star. I formed a baseball team with the boys in my class and hogged all the best positions myself, playing captain, pitcher, and fourth batter when we competed against other schools. One of the boys on my team was named Takahashi Tsutomu. Slight but agile, he played shortstop. He tagged along with me everywhere, calling out "Pal, Pal." Squaring his shoulders against the wind and rolling his R's, he fancied himself a punk or yakuza. The girls didn't like him much, but whether he was playing or fighting, Tsutomu was tough.

It was a summer day, probably during my fifth-grade summer vacation. My team had been playing against teams from other schools every three days or so. We always met in our own schoolyard and then went on together to other schools or to the field at Sanadayama Park. Strangely, that day there was no sign of Tsutomu. I chose a sub. We played at the vacant lot by Midoribashi, which was flanked by three large gas tanks. We fought a losing game from the first inning and were crushed, ten to two. Obviously, the rout could be blamed on Tsutomu's absence. I could taste my shame. "We'd never have been beaten so badly if he'd been with us."

Tsutomu's sub, Ookubo Toshimasa, who had cost us four points, trailed downcast behind the rest of us. Our opponents had focused their offense on Ookubo, who was big- boned, but slow to react.

A ruined landscape lay beyond our schoolyard, the rust-colored wreckage stretching beyond the far side of the canal, all the way to Midoribashi's three huge gas tanks. Miraculously, they'd survived the Great Firebombing of Osaka.

The intense sunlight all but scorched our shadows into the ground. Our sweat, which sizzled like beads of fat dropping off a fish as it curls above hot coals, left us filmed with salt as it evaporated. The rusty earth of the ruins felt as hot as if it were still burning. The smell of manure wafted from the fields of ripening eggplants, tomatoes, and cucumbers dotting the wasted landscape. Overcome by heat, humiliation and exhaustion, I couldn't bother to rally the team. I walked listlessly, my bat dragging, my glove dangling. My toes poked through the holes in my torn, split sneakers—I might as well have been barefoot.

As we approached the Higashinari Police Station, we noticed a swarm of people hanging and gawking from its wooden fence. A teammate leaped swiftly onto the fence, glanced into the yard, then raced back to me.

"It's awful! I can't believe it!"

His face was ashen.

"What's so awful?" I asked him.

"Just come see, you won't believe it," he said, and puked.

I leaped onto the fence, heaving myself up with my arms to the edge to look down into the yard. In that vast wreck of a place, two lumps of flesh were laid out on a pair of makeshift tables. Four or five men, wearing white coats and face masks, stood with several police officers. At first, I couldn't understand what was happening, but then saw they were dissecting two corpses. Cleft from their throats to their penises, with flies swarming their arched ribs and entrails, the cadavers gave off a fetid stench as they broiled under the sun. The flesh resembled that of the pig my father bought and dressed in the gutter outside our house every summer. A moderate layer of fat blanketed the red meat of the ribs. Even the dark intestines were no different from a pig's. Another glance revealed that the bodies were those of a man and a child, and closer study revealed that the child's earthen face was Tsutomu's. In shock, I slid from the fence, tumbling head over heels.

I couldn't understand what in the world had happened. Why were they carving Tsutomu to pieces in the station yard? His face, dusky with congealed blood, and his raw intestines shattered my fantasies about the mysteries of the human body. "Human guts are no different from pigs," I thought.

But unlike other animals, these human faces registered a tapestry of complex emotions—sorrow, anxiety, terror, despair, and spite were all concentrated there along with the tenacious desire to live. Suddenly I understood that I always woke up from my dream after making that left turn, but before taking the right, just to avoid this brutal spectacle. Dreams, memories, and reality are intimately, almost inextricably conjoined and now, awake, I resurrected the vivid horror I had so carefully skirted in my dreams.

The memory comes from long ago, returning across fifty-odd years. Two rows of single-family houses flanked five rows of two-story Korean tenements. The alleys between the tenements dead-ended at the wall of the Benten Public Market, which lay between our neighborhood and the avenue where the trolley ran. We got to the avenue through a vacant lot with a public tap in one corner. Neighborhood children used the lot for a playground and once two children nearly killed each other there throwing rocks in a game of war. Housewives gathered at the tap to gossip. In summer their clamorous voices rose, talking and laughing as they bathed their children, did their dishes, washed their laundry. And there we bid summer farewell with the Jizo Festival and Bon Dancing.

Takahashi Tsutomu was killed late at night in a corner of that lot. His father ran a small pawnshop behind the Benten market. Though pawnshops were usually located in the large storehouses attached to single-family homes, Tsutomu's father operated out of a corner house, just about the size of the tenement where I lived. Tsutomu's father had probably been killed sometime between midnight and one in the morning. At that hour, the neighbors should have heard noises or voices through the common roofs and walls of the block, but no one noticed a thing. The autopsy noted that Takahashi's father had been strangled, dying of suffocation and a fractured neck. Tsutomu, only a child, must have witnessed his father's murder before he escaped, but the murderer had caught up with him in the vacant lot where he strangled the boy just like the father. That evening, the Hirayamas, who lived four doors down the alley, were holding a ritual Chiesa. Hirayama remembered hearing a faint cry for help, but had paid it no mind as he toasted with the friends and relatives who lingered after the closing Paje. Slightly drunk, he thought he was hearing things.

"If only I'd stepped outside then..." Hirayama repeated numbly.

Are my dreams stalking memory, or is my memory shadowing my dreams?

Suddenly, Takahashi Tsutomu, split wide from throat to penis, rises upon the examining table. Moaning, "Pal, my pal, my pal," he comes at me, his heart and lungs dangling, his liver and stomach, his long, long intestines and other innards all trailing.

His slightly smug face brims with the desire to overtake me. Is he infuriated by my desperate attempt to elude those dangling guts? As he follows, his expression darkens until he resembles Asura, the Indian God of bellicosity. His hair stands on end, his mouth gapes wide, his eyes slant. His face is no longer a child's. And soon it has transformed again. Now it is the face of the man with the cart. He pedals his bicycle. The Akita-like dog pulling at the cart beside him turns on me and bares his fangs. My legs are heavy, as if I were dragging chains. My chest nearly explodes with the frustration of knowing that I am dreaming but cannot wake myself.

My wife shakes me hard. Switching on the light, she glares down at me as I lie on the bed. The tissue pressed to her nostrils is stained red.

"What happened?"

I assume she's woken me in the middle of the night because of the nosebleed. Her nose often bleeds—when she first wakes up, when she gets home from work. Women are really quite susceptible to bloody noses. My own theory is that it's all somehow connected to menstruation.

"You were kicking and hitting me."

She overflows with resentment at my inexplicable violence.

"I was? Kicking and hitting you. . . in my sleep?..."

"Yes, you were. You were screaming and moaning and then you started kicking me."

I sit up to examine her injuries. Her chin tilts toward the ceiling, she's stuffed rolled up tissues into her nostrils and she breathes painfully through her mouth. I glance at the clock and see it is past five. Outside, it will soon be light.

It was the dream. Cornered by the man and his dog, I must have struggled violently on the bed as I resisted him. I was asleep, so of course I couldn't run. In dreams, though you run with all your might, your sleeping body won't budge and it's impossible to escape your pursuers.

"It's the second or third time you've done it. Do you hate me?"

"Don't be ridiculous. Of course I don't hate you."

A woman's words at such a moment echo with suspicion, as though she's probing for something. In any event, I am shocked to learn that I have struck her several times before.

Where do dreams come from? From the cerebrum at the core of our consciousness… from our memories, from the fathomless depths of our hearts, they rise invisible. From a realm of nothingness where the boundless mired ordure of life's agonies is reduced to ashes, dreams spin their mysteries one after another and, just as they are dragged to the edge of reality, vanish without a trace. But they are not gone, rather they are twining their way back to the most distant primeval past. If each human fetus retraces the three and a half billion-year evolution of life on this earth, then perhaps dreams and memories stalk the past and future so that they may illuminate our experience. The present is both the world I see now, and the world I cannot see. The past is an instant ago, the future but an instant ahead. I live moment by moment, each moment a measure of time and space so compressed as to be immeasurable even in trillionths of a second. These terrifying moments penetrate the darkness of the world of memory faster than the speed of light. Had I seen something? Yes, I had definitely seen something but I had forgotten it long ago and had never wished to resurrect it.

A left turn at the dingy brown fence at the far end of the alley, followed by a right at the next corner, led to a wooden door, which opened onto several blocks of attached houses facing a small square. The alley forked, narrow, urethral, in three directions through a series of adjacent terraces. One path led to Tsutomu's father's pawnshop. It was through this maze I had been hunted in my dreams. How did I know? Because the man with the dog and cart rifled through the rubbish dump that lay kitty-corner to the pawnshop, next to the rear entrance of the Benten Public market. Whenever I played detective, escaped a fight or fled my drunken father, I sought refuge in these labyrinthine alleys.

Rows of Korean and Japanese tenements lined the complex tangle of back streets, some detached, others jumbled indistinguishably together. A puzzling edifice stood out among these surroundings. There was a sweet shop four or five doors down from the pawnshop, and four or five doors down from that stood a western mansion. It was covered with pale green tiles that shone like seashells, and its heavily carved wooden door seemed to spurn visitors. Three palm trees concealed a beautiful circular stained-glass window in their fronds. Although the locals speculated endlessly about the mansion's inhabitants, no one had ever seen them.

One day, playing detective, I tore from one alley to the next, finally concealing myself in the shade of the mansion's palms. A captivating, unfamiliar melody reached my ears as I hid there. It came from the mansion. I strained to listen for a while, and then, glancing up, noticed that the window was ajar, its frame skewed slightly to one side. My heart beat wildly. I peered cautiously through the angled crack and saw a western-style room, forty meters square. It was spacious compared to the four and a half tatami mats occupied by my family of three. There was a piano, and the music swelled out from a gramophone resting on a sideboard next to a curio cabinet. A tiny woman, well under five feet tall, danced in time to the music with a tall soldier of the Occupation Forces. She wore a purple kimono adorned with white peonies and red flowers, bound with a golden obi. She might have been forty-seven or eight, heavily made-up with bright-red lipstick. Small wrinkles layered the corners of her eyes. I had heard of the Occupation Forces but this was the first time I had actually seen one of the soldiers. His large frame, deeply chiseled face, blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin, betokened a race so different from my own, and he struck me as an alien presence.

The Occupier looked to be twenty-seven or -eight. As they danced, he whispered ceaselessly, smiling at the woman, clasping her tightly, and kissing her lips and the nape of her neck. Despite her age, the woman used her body and her bewitching smile so alluringly that it stiffened the penis of a young boy who still knew nothing of sex. Hanging from the Occupier's neck, she devoured him with kisses. Under the strains of the pleasant melody, I could hear them panting and gulping saliva as they sucked each other's mouths and tongues. Before long, tangled and entwined, the Occupier had carried the tiny woman lightly to the sofa and draped himself across her, his fingers parting the folds of her kimono. Arching her hips, the woman gradually opened her thighs and the Occupier's long, red, serpentine tongue crept along her spreading limbs, slithering into her deep, hairy swamp. Then he inserted his thick prick inside her, like a soldering iron, and a sigh of joy escaped through the woman's parted, glistening lips.

Having seen the forbidden, the boy left the place behind him, running with all his power to the ruins near the school to crouch among the weeds and grasp his own small penis. Something shot through his head, his body quaked in inconceivable ecstasy and he ejaculated.

More than fifty years later, I am overcome by that woman's sensuality, etched in my boyhood memory. Her presence was all the more striking for the contrast between the white, pink-rimmed peonies and the florid purple background of her kimono. As the Occupier wormed his exploring hand through its folds, she released the obi herself, opening her thighs wide to admit his tongue and member.

"Oh, darling, my darling."

Still a boy, I marveled that a man would make such sounds.

Twelve or thirteen days later, someone killed her. It happened just after the annual typhoon that arrived soon after Tsutomu and his father were murdered. Walking home from school with a classmate, I noticed that the alley leading to the mansion had been roped off. Despite this a crowd of rubberneckers swarmed about, anxious for a glimpse of some dread thing, undaunted by policemen's glares. My chest throbbed. I could hear my heart racing. She must have been killed. I was certain that she had been before I even asked anyone. The sight of the woman having intercourse with the Occupier flashed through my mind. And somehow I thought that she had deserved murder. Something like jealousy, an emotion for which he had not yet words, spread through the young boy's heart. Was the woman a prostitute? Or was she a widow? Was she having a love affair with Young Occupier? How had they come to meet and love each other? The Occupier must have been the one who'd done it. Crazy with jealousy about something, he had killed her. I run to Higashinari Police Station where Tsutomu and his father had lain gutted under the glaring sun. I beg them to arrest Young Occupier as the murderer. I ask further that they autopsy him as well. Some of the officers smirk. Among the sniggering officers is Young Occupier himself. Pressing his face close to mine, he howls with laughter. I run through the bottom of the cold night. But run as I may the dark night, devoid even of stardust, recedes continually. The Young Occupier cackles as he chases me. He yells as he cackles. Then, suddenly, he draws a gun from his hip and fires. Once, twice, thrice he fires, and one of the bullets hits me in the back. A searing pain, jealousy mingled with hatred, spreads from my solar plexus through my pelvis, coursing through my body to the center of my brain.

When I wake, I am covered in sweat, my throat parched. To my surprise, I have had a wet dream. Quietly, so as not to disturb my sleeping wife, I go to the bathroom and, wiping the semen away with toilet paper, lapse into self-hatred, baffled by a wet dream at my age.

The dream hounds me. Deeper and deeper into my memory, deeper and deeper down the alleys, it stalks me. This mysterious incident from war's aftermath, sandwiched among Korean and Japanese tenements, shrouded in the dark folds of my memory for fifty-odd years, has returned, resurrected by a dream.

When was it, exactly? I think it was a month after the woman was killed that the bicycle-cart man reappeared as a kamishibai storyteller. Of course the other children didn't remember that he had once pulled the cart behind him, and in fact, he told great kamishibai stories and had quite a following. Although his stocky frame and the keloid scar that ran from his brow to his left ear, nearly squashing his clouded eye, made him creepy, we loved his closing refrain, "Tomorrow, will it rain or storm or dumpling!"

For a while, this phrase was all the rage with neighborhood children, and the storyteller's popularity increased all the more. But he never let children watch for free. If he spied a freeloader, he would point him out, demanding "Go away!" and glaring with his spooky, cloudy eye. The dog, chained to the bicycle, bared her fangs in concert with her menacing master. If the child remained, the man gave chase. His persistence was abnormal. He had no mercy for children. Grabbing the fleeing child by an ear, he'd rage, "You're a bad boy. Keep that up, you'll be good for nothing."

He punished us like a father. But we gradually lost interest in his kamishibai, and after several days of telling his story to a meager audience, he disappeared altogether.

The kamishibai man who took his place was sixty. He wore a military cap, and his voice shook, perhaps with age, making it hard for children to follow his tales. But we gathered anyway, because he spoke to freeloaders and paying customers alike, sometimes even giving away pieces of candy and pickled kelp to those who had no pocket money. After two months, he, too, disappeared. No doubt it was impossible to make a living entertaining children.

In those days, all sorts of peddlers wandered the maze of tenements in our Korean neighborhood. There were umbrella menders, knife grinders, watermelon vendors. The sight of the enormous Russians, who bowed their heads and smiled ingratiatingly, blankets slung across their backs as they plied their wares in halting Japanese, taught me the harshness of reality. My own countrymen, trapped in Japan, came hawking wares as well fish, vegetables, crockery, clothes, goldfish, candy, what we now call popcorn, even shoe repairs—in other words, just about anything. The kamishibai storytellers appeared one after another, but eventually even sold-off their bicycles when their money ran out.

In October, with the scorching summer and the typhoon season gone, the weather turned quite cool and nights felt chilly in short-sleeves. Of course October was the season for changing clothes. Students and policemen switched into winter uniforms and everyone else took to long-sleeved shirts or light sweaters. Around that time, the cart man turned up, still in short sleeves. But he came empty-handed. His only possessions were an aluminum bowl and a hand towel, which hung from his belt. His bicycle, his kamishibai, even his dog was gone. His shoes were tattered, his eyes sunken, his cheeks sagged and his hair had gone gray. Gaunt, he had aged remarkably, his cloudy eye more occluded. He moved into the cistern that stood in one corner of the vacant lot. It was twice as deep and wide as the water tanks that typically stood outside most war-era dwellings. He lined the bottom with scavenged straw and fashioned a roof of iron sheeting he'd picked up along the way. In the middle of the night, he washed his face and clothes surreptitiously at the communal faucet.

From time to time, he stood under the tenement eaves, mumbling, "Have you anything to spare, to spare..." as though the words were a kind of sutra.

Some gave, others didn't. When none were generous, he rifled the garbage at night. Long, unkempt hair and whiskers buried his face and his body smelled sour. No one went near him, but neither did they drive him from the water tank. People simply left him to rot. Soon, neighborhood residents were shutting their doors when he stood under their eaves. When he stood in front of our house, my mother put rice, kimchii, and a sardine in his bowl. The man parted dry lips in a grin that released the powerful stench of his dark toothless, gaping mouth, and I succumbed to my fear that something monstrous was about to burst forth.

Around that time, another man began lurking in our neighborhood. He crawled around on all fours, a muddy coat thrown over his rag-wrapped body. Whether the cause was a battle wound or of some other origin, he was badly crippled. His knees must have been bleeding beneath his many layers of swaddling, for the rags were dark with blood and dirt. The neighborhood children threw breadcrumbs, leftover rice and garbage at the man as he crawled on his hands and knees, as though tossing scraps to a dog. The man picked up the filthy slop and stuffed it into his mouth. On New Year's Eve, as the temple bells ringing out the old year were broadcast over the radio, a passerby discovered the cripple dead by the side of the road. He'd frozen to death, but his body was covered with dog bites and there was a lethal wound to his neck. Whether he had been attacked by strays or someone had set a dog on him, the man lay petrified by the side of the road. He died during the sudden police crackdown on the black market at Tsuruhashi, and a rash of shootings between the newly emerging organized crime gangs.

Frozen to death. Bitten by dogs. This dead man, frozen and scarred as he is, suddenly rises to his feet and approaches the boy, me. My screams die in my throat. I gasp for breath and run as fast as I can. But it is the same thing all over again. No matter how far I run, the man continues to close the distance between us. When I pass in front of the Western mansion, I peer into the room through a crack in the circular window, and see the woman, her obi unfastened, her kimono hanging limply parted.

"Come little boy, come over here."

She beckons me to her and she spreads her thighs, exposing her jet-black lair.

"I want you to lick me there. That's it, there, right there. You're a nice little boy. Put your thing inside me, little boy. That's right, that's right... deeper... further..."

The lascivious rapture on her face is vested with a power sufficient to annihilate even the fear of death. For now the man who had been chasing me is strangling her. And I lapse into the depths of memories of a night from which I cannot awaken.

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