Children of the storm
The wind was already blowing the grass flat by the side of the road as I ran down to the afterschool daycare at Mrs. Mitaka's. "Thank you, thank you, I'm sorry to be so late" as I got the boys' backpacks on them; "hold your hats in your hands, they'll blow away if you wear them" as they stumbled into their shoes; "thank you, please take care" as I bowed and shepherded them out the door, into the wind that tried to sweep the little one off his feet.
"Hold my hands, either side, and run for home."
"Takuya-kun said the hurricane will blow all our houses away!" the six year old said.
"That's silly. We'll just go into our house and close the shutters and light the storm lantern, and we'll be safe and sound while the wind and rain pass right over us!"
Even three together, it was hard work running against the storm, and I had to carry the four year old the last bit of the way. I pulled the front door open a crack and chivvied the children inside where their father was waiting. By that time the clouds were boiling overhead, grey whorls constantly changing and driving fast as trains across the width of the sky. The typhoon was very close. I looked over to the hills on the other side of the road where the trees were bending almost sideways. My heart stopped. There was a spot of red up there, running on the side of the hill: a little girl in a red dress, hair blowing straight out behind her. Then I saw the others with her, three or four, running at their games. There were children playing up there- school children- right in the track of the hurricane.
"Masami, what are you waiting for?" my husband called. "Get in here!"
"There are children on the hill!" I called to him over the noise of the wind. "You get the boys something to eat- I have to go get those children down to safety." I pulled the door to and ran, across the country road and into the deep grass towards the hill. The wind was behind me, which helped, but would make it that much harder to get back. I called to them once, hoping the wind would carry my voice to them, but they didn't stop. They were running like mad things and shrieking in delight at the fury of the air that twisted their jackets and skirts and hair in all directions. It was a wonder they could even see. I was halfway across the flat with only a few metres more to where the ground starts its rise, when a boy I didn't know came running up and across my path. He put out his arms to stop me.
"Okuda-san! Don't go there!"
"The children-" I gasped.
"Don't look at them." He tried to drag me round. "It's dangerous. Go home. Those are the children of the storm."
"Let me go--" I looked at the children on the hill's top, in danger of being blown away any minute. One stopped and turned in my direction- the girl in the red dress. The wind blew her hair away from her face, and-- she had no face. There was nothing there at all but smooth white skin.
I think I screamed. I'm not sure. Because then I was awake in my bed listening to the clamour of the train crossing back of the building. It's so constant that I've pretty much stopped hearing it at all, but now I did. I wasn't in Kumamoto any more. I live in Tokyo now, where typhoons rarely come.
And I don't have children, any children, or a husband, and I never did.
The Tokyo days are monotonous but full. The office, my coworkers, home and cook dinner and do housework before bed, and then up again next morning to do it all over again. But Tuesday's different, because Tuesday evening I have my English class. That takes me out to Asakusa-bashi and means getting home late, but still it's a welcome break in the week's routine. Asakusa-bashi isn't like Hibiya, where my office is. It's a bit more old-fashioned, if just as crowded as Hibiya, and the people are more like at home. Sometimes I go to one of the little restaurants there for a cheap supper. The people all know each other and it feels neighbourly, even if it isn't my neighbourhood.
I came back to the station that night and went up the steep stone steps to where the turnstiles are. There's an odd thing in the foyer of Asakusa-bashi station that I've never seen anywhere else: a single couch. It's all chrome and black vinyl and looks like it belongs in a waiting room, not sitting out in front of the vending machines. I don't know why the station master lets it stay there, because there are no arm rests between the seats and people naturally lie down and sleep on it. Salarymen usually, after an evening drinking, and once or twice I've seen a high school boy in uniform, probably coming home from juku, with his long legs trailing along the floor. But today someone very small was curled up there. I thought it was an old woman until I saw the glossy black hair and then I realized with a start that it was a little girl.
She was alone: there was no one standing nearby who could have belonged to her. The poor thing must have become separated from her mother on a train or the platform, and fallen asleep after searching through the crowds. It was incredible that no one had come to see what was the matter. I went over to see if I could help, but stopped suddenly a metre away from her. She was wearing a red dress. Her back was towards me so I couldn't see her face. It was stupid but I couldn't make myself take another step. The dream I'd had was so vivid that in spite of all sense I was terrified of seeing what her face looked like- if she had a face.
"It's alright. It's not what you think," a voice said at my elbow. It was a young man in a duffel coat.
"I'm sorry- were you talking to me?"
"Yes. That's my cousin Akira. Really, it's not what you think."
I couldn't imagine what he meant, but I said, "I'm sorry, I only wanted to help the little girl. Shouldn't you wake her up and take her home?"
"Yes, I'm going to." He shook the child's shoulder- rather roughly, I thought. "Oi, Akira-chan, what're you doing? Your mother'd have fits if she saw you sleeping in public like a drunken buchou."
"Mhh-" She sat up and shoved the curls out of her face. "It's your fault, Ritsu. You were late." I blinked. She was a woman in her mid-twenties. She wasn't even that small, though she was still short for an adult. Then she saw me. "Oh- is this a friend of yours?"
"I was just worried about you," I said, feeling my face go hot though she couldn't have known what I'd been thinking.
"Oh, thanks. That was nice of you." Her eyebrows creased. "You're not from here, are you?"
"Kyuushuu," I said. I thought I'd lost my Kyuushuu accent in the three years I've been here, but obviously not.
She looked perplexed. The boy made a shushing gesture at her.
"Sorry to have bothered you," he said to me. "We'll be going now."
"Have a safe trip home," I said.
"You too," he said.
We all bowed to each other and I went to get my train, oddly flustered. There'd been something indefinably bizarre about the incident. The slight unease it left me with wasn't helped when I found a letter from my mother waiting in the mailbox. It was the same as always- 'When are you coming back? We miss you, your father and I. There's no reason to stay away...' I put it with the other letters in the box where I keep them and didn't answer it.
I was oddly jumpy during the next week. The sight of any bit of red gave me a start. I think I'd have forgotten my dream if it hadn't been for that girl- Akira, such an odd name- in her red dress. It seemed like the dream had somehow leaked into the waking world and reality had become-- how to say it?-- less certain than it was. Work should have reassured me, so normal and everyday, but instead, contrarily, it only made me depressed. The navy blue and white of our OL uniforms, the navy blue and white of the office workers' suits, the endless stacks of white paper I have to file, the glaring fluorescent lights making people's skins look white and unhealthy: I felt I was living in a world without colour. The flashes of red I caught out the corner of my eye- a train advertisement, a first-year child's rucksack- all made my skin prickle with fright. But at the same time I kept hoping for more. Those red signs seemed to hint at the existence of a world different from my monotonous Tokyo life. Red is the colour of danger: I knew I mustn't follow them. But just to know that something else is possible- surely that couldn't hurt?
Tuesday evenings at the station I kept hoping to run into the cousins again. Silly, of course, but they seemed different from the rest of the people I know- from Yamada-buchou and Tanizaki-kachou and my friends Suzuki-san and Honda-san and Akechi-san that I always eat lunch with. That girl with the boy's name and her red dress: her cousin had said she wasn't what I thought, a storm child. *She* lived in a world of colour. And the boy, Ritsu-- young as he was, I think I missed him too. I suppose I had him mixed up with the boy in my dream, the one who'd kept me safe. I wanted very much to see them again and every week when I didn't I felt an increasing sense of letdown.
Honda-san said something about it one day. "You're looking pale, Okuda-san. Are you sick?"
"No, of course not. I'm fine."
"Don't be silly. After all this time? Why would I be?"
"But you never go home, even at 0-Bon."
"I don't have any reason to go home."
"Your parents are alive though, aren't they?"
"Yes." I bit the answer off. There'd been another letter the day before. 'Please come back. We're waiting for you. Every day I hope this is the day that I'll see you again.' I don't know why my mother does that. She knows I can't come back.
"Oh well. But you should get out more. Indoors at the office all day and then home to your apartment. Tell you what. Yamada-buchou wants me to run some papers over to the Shibuya branch. You do it. Get outside for a bit, go have a coffee at one of those Shibuya kissa, look at the young people--"
Young people. That hurt. *I'm* a young person. I'm only twenty-four; my life isn't over yet. She meant the teenagers, the one with no jobs and no family and no worries.
"Yes, alright," I said. I didn't really want to go to Shibuya. It's full of children in strange clothes looking for fun. I wonder what happens when people like that grow up. Suddenly find themselves facing a world where fun doesn't exist. The homeless old men you see in Hibiya Park- I bet they were Shibuya kids when they were young.
I started walking down Aoyama-doori, looking at the buildings. I'd never been to the Shibuya branch and wasn't quite sure what it looked like. Then I saw a sign that stopped me dead. The Children's Palace, it said. My skin crawled in horror. I couldn't believe it. The Children's Palace. *Here*. It was real. It was here in Tokyo. And inside it were the children, those faceless children, all clustered together---
I ran. I ran as fast as I could go, dodging people on the sidewalk. My heart hammered and my breath was choking me but I knew I had to get away. Sweat was running into my eyes and I couldn't see clearly. Finally I couldn't run any more. There was a stone wall. I stopped and leaned against it, hearing my breath whistle in my chest.
"Young miss- young miss, are you alright?" An odd voice, speaking a strangely stilted Japanese. I jumped and turned on the man. But it was only a foreigner- a middle-aged man in a dark serge suit.
I nodded, because my voice still wouldn't work properly. He blinked at me, confused.
"Are you ill? Is there anything I can do?"
I shook my head. My voice wouldn't come. I looked past him- they wouldn't come after me, would they? They were inside the Children's Palace, that's where they belonged unless the wind blew them out-- But the trees around me were still, their leaves unmoving. There were a good many of them. A park? Here in Shibuya?
"Where is this?" I managed.
"Aoyama Cemetery," the man said. Of course- it's all the way at the end of Aoyama Doori. I'd gotten away. My breath came back to me, and I realized I was dripping with sweat. I fumbled in my bag but couldn't find my handkerchief.
The man had a longish box under his arm, the kind that cut flowers come in. He put it down on the stone curbing and passed me a clean handkerchief from his breast pocket.
"Thank you," I said, dabbing at my upper lip.
He peered at me through thick glasses. "Excuse me, but you don't seem well. Is something the matter?"
"No, nothing. Really. I've just had a shock." He looked unhappily at me, not reassured. "There's a place- maybe this sounds ridiculous- there's a place back there where there are these- children." I couldn't have said this to a real stranger, but of course foreigners are different.
"Yes?" He didn't understand.
"I saw them once. In a dream, but it was real." I knew I was making no sense. I tried to explain. "They're the children of the storm. One of them looked at me. She had no face."
"No face?" He looked interested. "Mujina?"
"I--" Vaguely I knew I knew that word. A story from grade school- Izumi Yakumo's story about- "Oh. Yes, I suppose- Is that what they are?" It was odd how relieved I suddenly felt, realizing they were something I already knew about. "I didn't see her clearly- just her hair, and when she turned towards me there was nothing under it. It was all- smooth--" I still went goose-bumpy at the memory.
"Smooth. 'Like unto an egg', yes? Like this?" He plucked the cover from the box. Inside was a little girl in a red dress, lying with hands crossed over her chest. Then I saw it wasn't a box: it was a coffin. A coffin with little dead girl in it, and her face a smooth pink ovoid.
I started screaming. I couldn't stop. In the back of my mind I thought maybe someone would hear my screams and come save me, at the same time I knew there was no one with me but the dead.
Except I was wrong.
"Look," Ritsu said beside me, grabbing my arm. "You've got to stop this. It's stupid. Really, it's not what you think."
"It has no face. It's dead and it has no face!!"
"It's not dead and it does have a face and you've got it all wrong!!"
"Ritsu," his cousin said beside him. "Yelling doesn't help."
"She just won't listen!! Stupid stubborn female--"
"I'm not! I'm not stupid! It has no face-- they're there, they're going to kill me, they're there at the Children's Palace--"
"It's called the Children's Castle. In Shibuya. Remember? You're only seeing what you want to see. Don't you realize why, yet?"
"I don't know what you're talking about! I know what I see--" I pulled him around. "Look! Look at that! Tell me that isn't a little girl with no face!"
"God, what am I to do with you--?" He pushed his hair back with both hands, wits-endedly. "Akira-chan, do you have a marker?"
"Huh? I might have a highlighter--" She poked through her rucksack and handed it to him. He grunted and took the lid off. "OK, look. No face? Then you give it a face--" and he drew one on the soft pink flesh: an exaggerated anime face with big eyes and a button nose.
"That's ridiculous," I said. "You can't just--" But he was right. The little body stopped being a corpse and turned into a child's doll. "It doesn't work like that--" I protested feebly, because it did seem to be working like that.
"If you'd just open your eyes for once and see what's really there-" he said.
"My eyes *are* open--" I insisted.
"Masami!" my mother said. "Masami! You're awake!" She was crying.
"Yes--" I said. The world was very white.
She was hugging me and crying. "I thought you'd never wake up! We didn't know what went wrong--"
I couldn't think what she was going on about. Everything was wrong, and had been for months.
"The operation's over?" I asked. "Did they get it all out?" I put my hand to my stomach. My arm was so heavy: I must be very weak after the surgery.
"Get what out?" my mother said.
"The cancer. Had it spread--" Maybe they'd given me radiation as well. I was utterly drained. There was no pain where I touched my stomach, though I knew the incision must be very long. Nerve damage as well, I suppose.
"You don't have cancer, Masami."
"Mother, stop lying to me. I saw the ultrasound." Smooth round blobs growing in the walls of my uterus. "They had to do a hysterectomy, yes?"
"*No*. Just a keyhole surgery to shrink the fibroids. You *know* that, Masami. The doctor said so. Why won't you believe it?"
"Then why am I here still?" I demanded. "In hospital, and so weak--"
"You didn't wake up from the anesthetic. It's been ten days. The doctors didn't know why you didn't wake up-- I've been here all this time, and Father when he could--" She started crying again.
"Ten days?" There was an odd gap in my memory: a sense of time having passed but no actual memories to go with it, just fragmentary images that seemed to be from the two years I spent in Tokyo. I ran my hand over my stomach again. A couple of tiny sore spots that could have been bruises. No long cut into my body, nothing hacked out. I was all there.
"I see," I said. But I didn't, at all.
"Living ghosts," Ritsu grumbled as they hiked through the cemetery. "They're worse than the other kind."
"I don't think so," Akira said. "It's got to be easier to persuade someone to go back to life than to an afterlife."
"It's not. Ghosts just want some sympathy, and usually they deserve it. Living ghosts, you have to solve their problems for them because they won't do it for themselves. Bloody nuisance. And they always come after me."
"Try ignoring them."
"Can't. They go shoving their delusions in your face and they warp your own reality. You saw who she had with her back there? How could I ignore that?"
"What, the doll in the box?"
He looked at her. "You didn't see him?"
"No. Him who?"
He grunted. "Never mind. Here's Grandfather's grave. Let's start tidying."
Authors note: The Children's Castle (Kodomo no Shiro) is a real children's centre in Shibuya. My protagonist sees it as Children's Palace because the common name for uterus is written child + palace.