This is the second of two installments of Samuel Archibald's "自害 (Jigai)," from the short story collection Arvida, forthcoming in the US by Biblioasis on November 24. The collection has been shortlisted for the Giller Prize, Canada's largest award for fiction. Read the first installment here.
I did not invent the art; the art invented itself through me. In due course we became aware that certain wounds, as they healed, imprinted on the flesh sinuosities that resembled writing. Because I had a finer hand, Misaka wanted me to tattoo characters on our skin with a knife blade, but I said that would be too easy, too obvious, and I didn’t want their symbols on her skin or mine. I said that, in any case, what made these marks interesting was not the script, nor even the movement it sometimes suggested, but the thickness, the texture. I knew our path was not to draw, whether it be with a razor, on the skin itself, but to shape the flesh. I began by experimenting on myself, finding a way to open up the tissues and have them hold in the desired position, preventing the wounds from closing over and the skin from drying out, blending in alcohol, tincture of iodine, and wood varnish. Soon the forms became too complex for me to produce them on my own body, and I began to carve into Misaka’s flesh. The art gradually became a blend of engraving, sculpture, and fabric design. I dug furrows and cut strips of skin with dressmaking shears, gouges, and burrs; I kneaded the oozing flesh with my hands and shored it up with cross-stitching and satin stitching; I inserted rivets, splints, and pins between the strips when my configurations required open skin and erect parings.
The problem was that I was both more skilled than Misaka, and had greater endurance. The art was very hard on her. She sweated, vomited, and fainted. We had to experiment with drugs, but often the pain became too severe to be dulled even by powerful opiates.
Curiously, it was the men who found the solution when they sent us one of their spouses to renew the contact between us. The renegades brought us Azumi in the middle of the afternoon, on a Thursday. She had made herself lovely in her summer dress, and had arrived with gifts. We talked to her about art. We showed her the results, on Misaka’s body. We saw the curiosity that lent a gleam to her large black pupils. Misaka bared her shoulder, we had her drink a soothing infusion, and I placed myself beside her with my instruments. She was breathing deeply. I sought Misaka’s eyes and saw that she’d already understood. We’d been missing one ingredient. You needed to be three to practise the art. Misaka went down on all fours and only a few seconds after I’d set to work, thrust her face between the legs of Azumi, already dazed by the drug and the pain. Azumi didn’t protest, she even unfastened her dress a bit more and in a sudden spasm, offered her cleft to Misaka’s mouth.
I bested her in suffering, but with her tongue she was superior to me.
We let Azumi leave for home later, dazed, dishevelled, and covered in her own blood. Misaka well knew that we’d gone too far. Immediately afterwards, she said to the renegades: “Get ready. The villagers will be on their way.”
But there was no attack that night. Instead, Azumi returned the next day with a young wife even prettier than herself, who pointed with her finger to the motif, much resembling a gillyflower, which I’d carved into her friend’s soft shoulder, and said:
“I want one, too.”
I called forth a wood spider, with her right breast as the abdomen, and drew its fine sparassid legs from her bosom’s thin flesh. Meanwhile Misaka thrust her face between her legs, and Azumi, without anyone having to say anything, went down on her knees behind Misaka and dipped two fingers, soon dripping wet, into her cleft.
In no time at all, women were arriving from the village and the entire peninsula, to be sculpted. This beauty Misaka and I had invented was now walking the streets, given prominence by the spouses’ strategically perforated dresses, and the dismayed ugliness of the husbands.
Oh, you have every right to turn the page and declare that it’s all a bad dream in which Misaka and I drift about like shadows behind curtains. But I have the right to defy you, to tell you to lift the bedclothes in the dawn hours, to accustom your eyes to the half-light without waking your loved one, and to swear to me that you know the meaning of every tattoo on her body, and the origin of every burn.
The men say:
We made an enormous mistake by sending Mabuto’s wife to the Inoué domain, and the horror that ensued was immeasurable. The repugnant mutilations that Misaka and Reiko cries, something that, being so intimate with pain, showed itself to be even more shocking. The men knew perfectly well what it was, but they had no name for it, and even if they’d had one, they would under no circumstances have pronounced it.
They did have one, however, to designate the demons of Christian lands, and they set themselves to covering the Inoué property’s walls with red paint:
When the renegades told me about it and asked me what they should do, I told them to leave the ideograms where they were on the palisade, and to call me from now on by my chosen name, Akuma.
Once, once only, Misaka says:
Long before this day, the last day, I took Reiko in my arms, as in the beginning, when she was only a child. I embraced her, and afterwards I said:
“My love, the flesh that grows over what is cut is new flesh. Perhaps for this reason, precisely, something awaits us at the end of art that is not death. Perhaps our work is a work of life, perhaps when our bodies will be nothing but open wounds we will be reborn anew, like two twin sisters. Perhaps in the end a million scars will leave our skin as smooth as that of a newborn.”
Reiko looked at me with sadness, and replied:
“You’re wrong, Misaka. You’re as wrong as you can be. None of us is born without scars. We are created by the meeting of flesh and flesh, we are the fruit of one only, but we remain coiled like a voracious tumour in her belly, until we are torn from her breast and the thread is cut that binds us to her. There will be no return to the beginning, beautiful sensei. We are brought into this world by the steel of a blade, Misaka, and you and I are born each day a bit more.”
One last time, Reiko says:
I never mutilated my tongue. Pleasure without pain is just a masquerade, but we must keep intact those parts that can give pleasure, because without it pain is only pain. You can cut off your fingers with big pruning shears, but you have to conserve at least one to penetrate the cunt up to the womb, you can amputate one foot with a hacksaw, but you have to keep the other to press it against the loved one’s cleft when your hands are otherwise engaged, you can lop off toes with a chisel, but you have to keep at least one stump to suck, you can rip off eyelids, make holes in lips, and slice off earlobes, but you always have to take care of your tongue, to treat well the only tongue you own, as it’s precious and doesn’t easily heal.
Without it, you wouldn’t be able to say that I’m lying, that two women would never do all that we’ve done, and that we are only paper ghosts, unable to suffer or bleed. Without it, I could turn my back on you as I am doing now, and go silent as I soon will, but I would not have been able to accomplish, on this next to last day, the one thing I’d refused myself up to that point.
On the night before the last day, in the darkness, over the muffled laughter of the renegades playing cards on the floor above, I told Misaka that I loved her.
In the end, the men say:
We’d screwed up our courage for a whole year, we’d saved up and armed ourselves with guns bought on the mainland, with rusted blades and clubs. We knew they wouldn’t prevail against the renegades, but we counted on our numbers and on our conviction that deep within themselves, the ronins and the gaijins must also have felt that this madness had to end. Even the wives no longer visited the Inoué property. Because we’d ordered them not to, of course, because they almost all had their own sculptures now, it was true, but also, and we knew it even if they refused to admit it, because they were afraid of Akuma and Reiko. They had seen things there about which they did not want to speak, they’d known women who had chosen to remain with the mistresses and who had never emerged from the property, they’d understood that all that was but horror, and they had returned to their duties and to reason. The children could bear witness to those horrors, those who had seen the graves dug below the property.
We crossed the village in a large pack, our lights troubling the darkness, battered the gate open with a sledgehammer and crowbars, and began to scale the slope leading to the house. At first we thought it was aflame. A pyre was burning in front of it, a gigantic bonfire loosing into the night air a stench of grease, wood, and solvent, and beyond which our eyes, dazzled, could not make out the structure of a house intact. We thought at first that the house itself was burning, and we saw ten black silhouettes loom up between us and the flames. We all felt a frigid chill run up our spines, we loaded our guns,unsheathed our blades, and closed our fingers around our staffs, tight enough to crack our joints. The renegades’ silhouettes shrank the more they drew away from the fire and came near to us, but their giant shadows danced with the flames and stretched out across the ground as far as the soles of our shoes.
Someone, bellowing, launched himself at the first of the renegades, his arms raised over his head to deal a heavy blow with his bludgeon. He’d hardly had time to begin his movement when the ronin took two steps forward and held the tip of his sabre to the man’s pulsing throat. He didn’t kill him. He made a sign for him to step aside, he ordered us all to step aside, then without a glance, plunged into the corridor that had been opened up, with the rest of the damned following behind.
The last one stopped and said:
“It’s over. You shouldn’t go up there.”
You had to be stupid to think we’d not go to see, to be certain that the threat was no more. Most of us rushed to the house, skirting the bonfire, and only a few turned back along with the renegades.
A strong wind rose up later that night, and blew embers and fiery brands into the house, through the windows. It was burned to its foundations, razed to the ground. No one ever missed it, but all of us who’d climbed on up, hours before the fire had been declared, regretted not having taken the renegade’s advice.
Akira Gengei said to himself, in Ainu:
The two women are now silent. The men here never speak of them, and on their orders, neither do their wives. And yet I feel, I sense that some of them still tend to their wounds, care for them and reopen them to keep Reiko’s art alive. Perhaps I’m the only one here who can still speak of all that, because I live in a language that no one any more understands.
The men who scaled the hill towards the house, despite the renegades’ warnings, found Misaka and Reiko carved up, dismembered, hacked into pieces that were scattered to all four corners of the house. The men must have been gratified, they must have told themselves that at last they had received their punishment, but they couldn’t really know if what they saw before their eyes was punishment or rapture. They couldn’t be certain. A fissure had worked its way into their minds, like a razor blade through the delicate flesh of their wives. They would have liked to believe that an ogre had staved in the doors of the property to bear off the women and drag them by their hair down to hell, but they had the vague feeling that whatever had come in search of Misaka and Reiko possessed the attributes of a woman and the attributes of a man, and that its fury had blown upon them like the wind through the window, making no more noise than the pad of a cat in an unmade bed. They knew that past a certain point, nothing had happened to Misaka and Reiko that they had not desired, and that whatever demon had come to ravish them, they had invoked it themselves, they had brought down its hands and claws upon themselves.
The house’s cold ashes were strewn over the peninsula, and the property is still abandoned. Travellers expected at Rausu never arrive, and the news of their disappearance reaches us by letter from Honshu, which is also an island, but that the people of Hokkaido still call “the mainland.”
As of the first snows, we find in places where no one ever sends flocks to graze, hoof prints, those of a buffalo or a goat walking on two legs. An old man told me one night that deeper still into the forest, there in the midst of brambles and thorns, where the bears themselves clear no paths, another series of prints joins up with those of the goat. They never run side by side for long, as if their owners knew each other well enough to exchange a greeting, but not enough to walk in convoy. Those prints are indistinct, like a child’s boot with at the tip a few red, almost brown drops like blood in the snow. The prints make three baby steps and fifteen drops of blood, three baby steps and fifteen drops of blood, three baby steps and fifteen drops of blood.
Published Nov 2, 2015 Copyright 2015 Samuel Archibald & Donald Winkler