Yoko asked my name. Usually I’d stop and think about it, make a point of recalling the name. This time I decided not to. I didn’t think, didn’t search for the name. Didn’t try to respond. I wanted to see what would happen. Yoko grew annoyed as I just sat there. If I kept it up much longer it would kill the atmosphere of the summoning. Just as that thought crossed my mind, my mouth started to move. “Ito,” it said.
“Ito? The spirit’s name is Ito. Is there anyone named Ito among your ancestors?” A whispering broke out in the gallery. A woman spoke up.
“We lost the family’s register of deaths in a fire during the war so we can’t be sure. Still I think there was a young woman called Ito who died of some kind of intestinal disease a long time ago. The water from the well was bad. So we’ve always been told to be careful of the water.”
My hands, pressed together in front of my chest, began to shake. I could sense someone else’s emotions and feelings slipping inside me. They grew larger and larger before my eyes, pressing against me from the inside.
“Are you the woman this lady spoke of? Are you the woman who died from an intestinal illness?”
My head nodded firmly. Ito continued to answer Yoko’s questions silently, with nods and shakes of my head. The pressure in my chest grew as the questioning continued.
We learned that the woman had died of an illness in the Meiji period, in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Next, Yoko asked a question that couldn’t be answered with a shake of the head.
“You might be aware of this already but this family’s son has been causing a lot of problems. He’d always been good before but since he got divorced he’s spent all his time gambling. He went through all his savings and started borrowing money left and right. They want him to go back to who he was. His mother is devastated. Won’t you tell us what you know?”
Everyone sat silently, hardly daring to breathe as they waited. But Ito was in no state to reply. The ball of emotions inside me had grown so large I thought it would burst. Sadness, despair. Negative emotions all feeding on one another, spinning around and becoming entangled with one another. I knew that Yoko was trying to signal me but I couldn’t so much as hint at what was happening inside me. The shaking spread from my hands throughout my body, growing more and more violent. My heart began pounding frantically, my breath came in ragged gasps. Then, as though pushed beyond its limits, the gasping changed into a voice.
I let the words gush out of me, unaware if I was weeping or shouting. I knew that Yoko was taken aback and I knew that the audience was shocked but I couldn’t stop. It was much harder to regain control over my body than it had been with the living spirit. Pressed to my limit I didn’t even know if the rush of words made sense or not. I felt panic growing inside me. I was afraid that if this continued I might lose my body entirely. Something not me was inside me. I’d felt a kind of sympathy toward the spirits I made up before but this time, I only felt revulsion at the thing that had slipped inside me.
However, as the flow of words continued, the urgency in the voice began to fade. Having regained a bit of breathing space I was able to listen in on the story being told through my voice. It spoke of the pain of illness, of suffering, of being punished by its family, of hatred, anger, and the terror of death. There was no way to convey that suffering once you died. It was very sad. Tears poured from my shut eyes. Yet that is how death is, I thought.
My cheeks were cold and wet. I used what was left of the calm part of my mind to focus on the question of how to bring things to a close. The explosion of emotion had passed its peak. Like a ball of yarn rolling across the floor it grew smaller and smaller as it unraveled. Just a little bit more. A little bit more and I would be able to push back.
Sensing that I’d grown a little calmer, Yoko repeated her question.
“Do you have anything to do with the son’s misfortune?”
Ito seemed to be almost completely out of words. She took a long, deep breath and spoke.
“Inside . . . the altar.”
With that the final, tiny lump of words vanished. Yoko started to say something but before she could finish, the strength went from my hands and they dropped to the tatami mat.
“It’s gone, then?” Yoko said softly.
I opened my eyes. Everything seemed hazy. I wiped at the tears with the back of my hand and took several deep breaths. Yoko turned to the clients.
“She seemed to say ‘inside the altar’ at the end. Did you hear it? Is there anything in the altar that shouldn’t be there? Has it been defiled somehow?”
The client stood up and, walking around Yoko, sat down in front of the altar.
“I clean it regularly,” she said as she rustled around inside the drawers of the altar.
“What do you keep in it?”
“Just incense and some extra candles . . .” She opened one of the sliding doors beneath the altar and a faint moldy smell wafted out. As she reached inside she let out a cry of surprise. A murmur swept through the audience, asking what was wrong.
Yoko pushed herself back from the altar a little, looked up and pointed at the ceiling.
“Isn’t that a leak?”
Everyone looked up. One of the ceiling boards, directly over the altar, was discolored.
“A leak in the roof? That’s terrible. I never noticed it before.”
Yoko reached around and felt behind the altar. “It’s damp. The water must have dripped down here, behind the altar.”
“Is that bad? Is that why my son’s behaving like this?” The client asked, her voice quavering with trepidation.
“I don’t know about that. Yet, certainly the wet altar must be very unpleasant for your ancestors. And you—what was it you said? That you were told to ‘be careful of water’?”
The client gasped. I watched the exchange, thinking that she’d been talking about drinking water, not a leaky roof. It didn’t matter, though.
“So what should I do?”
“All we can do is to convey what the lingering spirit says. The dead are not omnipotent. You can start by cleaning the altar and protecting it from future leaks. Then, make all of the proper offerings to your ancestors and be certain to include Miss Ito in them. Start with what you can do first. Oftentimes the situation will improve by itself after that.”
Her advice today was no different from always. I wondered if it would be enough to keep the client happy. Not that that was my problem.
Yoko didn’t speak at all on the way home. The summoning might have started off a bit rocky but everything came together in the end. There hadn’t been anything to put her in a bad mood.
“Yuki,” she said finally, as we approached the center of town.
“I’d like to make a quick stop, OK? Let’s have a cup of tea at a café. There’s something I want to discuss with you.”
I recalled the last time she talked to me at her house. It wasn’t going to be anything I wanted to hear. Before I could come up with an excuse, however, she’d pulled into a parking lot.
Even after we’d been seated Yoko didn’t say a word. It was only after the waitress left us to our drinks that she began to speak, slowly and deliberately.
“Now, I want you to tell me the truth, OK?”
“All right. What?”
“These last few summonings . . . you haven’t been faking it, have you? You really had a spirit, didn’t you?”
“I was just pretending. If I’ve gotten to the point where I can fool you I must be getting pretty good.”
The lie rolled off my tongue. The last six months had given me a lot of practice.
“You can tell me, you know.”
I dropped my gaze. I should’ve known. Yoko wasn’t a regular person. One liar could see through another. But I didn’t want to talk about it. Especially since I didn’t really understand it myself.
Suddenly Yoko reached out and placed her hand atop mine. A shiver ran through me as I thought of Masatoshi’s finger stroking the back of my hand.
“I’ve known for a long time now. Since the beginning, really, I knew you had it. From the time I found out your birthdate and read your fortune. When I first met you I knew for sure. You’re the real thing, Yuki. You shouldn’t be wasting your time out in the sticks like this.”
Yoko looked at me, her face far more serious than at the summoning.
“My teacher, the one who taught me fortune-telling, lives in Shikoku. She knows someone who’s always on the lookout for girls with the talent, to train them to be professionals. I met her once, a long time ago. I didn’t have the talent though. Too bad, huh? If you’re born with it, it’ll come out one way or the other. Doesn’t matter if you want it to or not. There are some sad cases where people mistake it for mental illness and the person is forced into treatment. You’ll be seventeen soon, right? That’s almost too old to start training. But I know you and you’ll do fine. Just don’t waste any more time. They’ll take care of all your expenses. Once you’re a pro you’ll get paid too. More—a lot more—than you’d make at one of the offices around here. I gave her a call the other day. She really wants to meet you. There’s nothing to think about. It’ll be the same thing you’ve been doing all along, only taking it a step further.”
“No way,” I finally managed to say, pulling my hand out from under Yoko’s.
“Now you listen to me, you’ve been brainwashed, you see? You don’t understand anything about how this world really works. You’re confined by the values of narrow-minded people. Someone like you needs to think about the spirit. It’s the most important thing for you.”
“My mother won’t let me.”
“Don’t you worry about your mother. If I tell her it’s for your sister she’ll go along. It won’t be a problem. All you have to do is decide. Once you do that I’ll go and convince her.”
“I don’t need you to convince anyone. I don’t want to go. I’m not going to Shikoku.”
Yoko raised her eyebrows in surprise. When I started to get up she reached out and grabbed my wrist.
“Why won’t you listen to me? Why make it so complicated? All it takes is one nod of your head and it’s settled.”
I looked down at the hand grasping my wrist. The skin of her hand and fingers was flaccid and wrinkled. Only the nail polish glittered.
“I’m leaving. Let go.”
“One day you’ll regret this. Don’t come crying to me then.”
I walked out without another word. I regret it already. I regret even meeting you. That was my first and my biggest mistake.
I thought about the summoning as I walked to the station.
My body had refused to listen to me. That scared me. I had made a point of leaving myself open and vulnerable. I wanted to see what would happen but, after all of that, I still didn’t understand anything. I didn’t understand anything about what had slipped inside me, whatever it was. There was no guarantee that it really had been that woman’s spirit.
You can’t completely know your own mind. She might’ve just been someone I invented, unconsciously. There’s no way to be sure. Even if I tried to become a real summoner instead of just faking it, I’d always be afraid that I was just making it all up, that it was all just a bunch of lies. Even if I wasn’t doing it on purpose, I hated the idea that I might be twisting the words of the dead and deceiving people.
Anyway, even if spirits really do exist I didn’t see why they should have more influence than the living. If they do have more influence then what’s the point of being alive?
I looked up at the evening sky and found myself absorbed in the soft gradations of color spreading outward from the setting sun. There are lots of beautiful things and lots of not-so-beautiful things in this world. Why can’t Yoko and the others be satisfied with that? Why do they have go through all that trouble to reach out to a world that they can’t even be sure exists?
“I heard from Yoko.”
The phone started ringing the moment I stepped inside the door. I thought it would be Yoko but it wasn’t. Masatoshi’s smug voice sounded much older over the phone than in person.
“So you don’t want to go to Shikoku? Can’t say that I blame you. What high school girl would? All that training sounds like a drag. But what if it were Tokyo? No training—none of that stuff. We’ll get you signed with a production company and you can go on TV as a psychic. You’ll look loads better than all the other psychics—they’re just a bunch of middle-aged men and women. You’ll get tons of work. I know some people, people at TV stations. First thing you need to do is talk to your mom about dropping out of high school and leaving home. If she says no then Yoko and I will talk to her. Oh, but don’t say anything about Tokyo to Yoko, OK?”
I thought I would burst out laughing halfway through but I managed to hold it in. Production companies? TV? Coming from him, no better than a pimp to the owner of a sleazy dive way out in the sticks, it could only be a joke. Sure, he was only trying to fool some naïve high school girl but even so, it was just too much. Or could he really believe it himself? That would be too scary.
I peeked into the next room and saw my mother muttering to the altar. Enough. Enough was enough. It was time.
I went up to my room and, opening the desk drawer, checked that the phone and bankbook were safe. Better to run away than to become a puppet for Yoko or Masatoshi. Yet, was there really no other way? Wasn’t there anything else I could do? Some way that I could stay at home while breaking everything off with Yoko? If I could, I wanted to stay here and lead a normal life without abandoning everything.
I thought about it so hard that my head started to hurt. My options were limited. I went over everything that Yoko and my mother had said, searching for a way out.
I could only think of one way. I didn’t really think it would work but it was all I had. In my heart I apologized to the sister I’d never met. After all was said and done, I was no better than Yoko or my mother . . .
“I’m sorry, Sister. I’m going to make up a story about you. I’m so sorry.”
The next morning I went over the story in my head before running down the stairs in a rush. Mother was standing in front of the sink, tying her apron on.
“Good morning. What’s with you, Yuki? The way you came down those stairs . . .”
“Mother, did you see?”
“Just now, I saw her. Right before I woke up. A little girl. It was her, I know it.”
“And?” Mother’s voice shook as she urged me on.
“She said, ‘It’s enough.’ She said you’d understand. She said, ‘Enough training, enough summonings.’ Do you understand?”
She stood there for a moment, hand pressed to her lips, staring off into the distance. Then, suddenly, she laughed.
“Yuki, are you sure you weren’t still half asleep? It was just a dream, I’m sure of it. After all, Natsuki would come straight to me with something that important, wouldn’t she? Why would she go through you when she could just tell me herself? It makes no sense. I’m her mother and she likes me the best.”
For a moment I just stood there, dumbfounded and on the verge of giving up. But I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want to do any more summonings. So I had no choice but to stick to the plan.
“But . . . I’m sure it was Natsuki. And she told me it’s enough. Maybe she did go to you first but you just didn’t see her.”
Mother glanced at the living room clock as though she hadn’t heard anything I’d said. “Oh, look at the time,” she muttered.
“Yuki, are you sure that the real reason you had this dream isn’t because you want to take it easy? You mustn’t be selfish like that. Not after everything your sister did for you. Now get a move on and wash your face. You’re going to be late.”
It was her indifference, more than the failure of my plan that hurt.
Listen to me, Mother! Can’t you see that I’m suffering?
I couldn’t say it out loud, though. She’d never hear me. If I saw her ignore me any more right now I’d probably end up hating her. So I kept silent.
“You really do have a sandwich every day, don’t you?” Emi said, taking out her own lunch.
“My mother doesn’t like to make lunch.”
“You got it at the convenience store, right? You don’t feel like trying the supermarket? They’ve got yakisoba sandwiches, you know.”
“The supermarket is always packed at lunchtime. I don’t like crowds.”
“Yeah, I guess. But one day I’m going to have one of those famous yakisoba sandwiches. Geez, the reflection is really bright! And there’s no shade up here. The sun is right above us. I bet it’s brutal up here in the summer.”
I looked out across the roof. Every inch was bathed in the sun’s rays. Not a single shadow. Maybe it was a bit much, I thought. Still, if I had to choose between a world of shadows and a world of light, I think I’d pick the light. The shadows were scary. In the dark, people only saw what they wanted to see.
“Hey that reminds me—what’s your cell phone number?”
“Why? It’s normal to ask, isn’t it? Don’t you have one?”
I started to tell her that I didn’t but changed my mind. I might have to stop coming to school all of a sudden with the way Yoko had been acting. It wouldn’t be right to just disappear without a word.
“I do but I don’t carry it around with me.”
“What’s the point, then? Anyway, that doesn’t matter. What’s your number and email?”
Emi punched the number into her phone. I heard it ring.
“I told you, I don’t have it with me.”
“I know but this way my number shows up in your missed calls. Then you can add my number to your contacts. I’ll send you an email too. Haven’t you ever used the phone?”
“No, not really.”
Until now I’d been worried that Yoko or Masatoshi would find out about the phone so I never carried it around. But now the situation was different. Maybe I should have it on hand all the time. Just in case.
“Let’s go back inside,” Emi said, putting the lid back on her lunch box. Recess wasn’t over yet but it was too bright up here.
"Tamaoroshi" published by Bungeishunju Ltd, Tokyo. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Mark Gibeau. All rights reserved.