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The Hell of Underwater Fire

Mid life's road, and it's August in Tokyo. But that isn't why you're sweating. You're alone with Kaguya-san, the night receptionist.

She looks younger than the other office ladies and damned younger than you. Instead of the formless office lady suit, she wears the latest Italian fashion. Japanese skirts are short, but hers is leather. Nothing improper, just enough difference to torment you.

The other employees have left promptly for the weekend O-Bon holiday. Japanese days of the dead. Late summer is the scary joyful season. Haunted houses, dancing, and fireworks. Fear helps people chill. It isn't helping you, maybe because you're a foreigner. Gaijin.

You ask, "Um, could you type this for me?"

She takes your scrawled notes. She doesn't smile. The other secretaries smile while they tell you they can't help you. No smile, but her face and eyes seem to shine with cool light.

"Your handwriting is difficult, Nolan-san. But I can manage."

You manage a "domo arigato."

"You're welcome. What are you doing tonight?"

You shrug. You say nothing. "I'll wait for the document" on a Friday seems too pathetic. You want to say, "Take a long bath with me, Kaguya-san, make me clean and Japanese and worthy." You say nothing.

"You should get out. To Roppongi. Lots of foreigners there."

Foreigners. You smile bitterly at another night of getting plastered and snogging with some expat from the British Commonwealth. "Maybe. Good night, Kaguya-san." You don't dare ask what she is doing later, even to be polite. Such questions are meaningless here, but not for you. You're too hungry to be trivial.

You take the train. You're pressed from all sides, but you're used to such meaningless contact.

"A young Japanese man was shot in your country." A poking finger punctuates the sentence; an unusually pointy nose threatens your chest. It's an old woman in a loud Tokyo Disney shirt and frameless plastic sunglasses, like she's just had eye surgery. That would explain the shirt. Her face is marked like she's been burned, badly. So you're polite. "Yes, two of them in the last month. I'm sorry." Tourists in the wrong place at the wrong time.

No time for more. It's only one stop to your downtown apartment, three-bedroom by Tokyo standards, one-bedroom by yours. A view some have killed for—you overlook the Crown Prince's grounds, and Mt. Fuji is visible on the rare clear days. The folklore clowns say fire-and-snow Fuji is a woman. A distant volcano indeed.

Friday night, and your Tokyo gets dark early. Your lover in the States lasted only a sexless month before moving on. You aren't drunk (yet), so you will not call the home masseuse who gives special service. You will not call home. All your friends on the other side pretend you are dead.

She said "Roppongi." Where is Kaguya-san going tonight?

OK. Time for another Roppongi death march. No way to find her, no way to respect yourself, any way to forget yourself.

Screaming Hell's Booze Hounds

Praise Buddha, you're already drunk and searching for a club called, appropriately enough, "The Gaijin Zone." You've been there before, but for some reason it eludes you now.

You turn left. You're on a quiet one-lane back street, with a few Cadillacs squeezed in and no people. The air is mistier, darker.

"Another Japanese student shot last year during Halloween."

Shit! You spin around. The voice belongs to an innocuous middle-aged man in a comfortable suit, non-salaryman issue. He's wearing wraparound shades at night, but his particularly prominent nose seems to have caught your scent. The heat doesn't seem to bother him in the least. Perhaps he wants to fuck you, but in Tokyo that's no reason to be rude in reply.

So again you're polite. "I'm very sorry about it. Do you know where the Gaijin Zone is?"

He steps uncomfortably closer. "America is a violent country."

This is annoying. You can't apologize for everything. "A woman was Cuisinarted in Kyoto last month." And bits of her flesh left all along the freeway. "Why did that only make page three of the papers here?"

"So desu. Very sad. What you are looking for is that way." He points further down the back street. "Say you are my guest. Oya's guest."

Fine. You'll go that way, but you're nobody's guest.

You go that way. The street and buildings get older, the lights get dimmer. The lane curves and comes to an end. Shit. You walk back the way you came. You've been orbiting around a fenced clearing. Peering through fence and darkness, you can see a ragged forest of headstones and monuments. A cemetery, old and unkempt. Not good, not good, not good.

You walk faster, but can't find your way back to the bright lights, away from the graves. A Shinto-Buddhist lesson: Tokyo's streets are non-Euclidean, its underworld non-Virgilian.

"Nolan-san." A familiar voice cuts through booze and mist. You turn and see Kaguya-san, dressed "body con"—a red form-hugging strapless one-piece, stiletto heels, fishnet stockings, definitely not office lady wear. She stands beneath a lone sign for a club, the full moonlight a faint spot on her face. Her red dress bleeds into the night. The sign says "Floating World Live House Four." Like the old art prints, she's very floating world right now.

"Hello." You're nervous—does she think you've been following her? You explain: "I'm looking for the Gaijin Zone."

"That will be difficult for you to find now. And to stay here would be, eto, difficult for you as well. Come to this club. It's better."

And she points to the open door. Stairs lead down towards the sound of music. A club next to the dead? Great. But she's here. You go in.

You stumble a bit on the stairs and apologize. "I'm feeling strange. Hen desu."

"You are strange, Nolan-san." She laughs at you, and you're delighted—she never laughs at work.

At the bottom of the stairs, traditional lanterns reveal a Bon party in full throttle. Some have come as animals—foxes with sexy tails, badgers with big balls, catfish with legs. The musicians, cramped in a small corner, are birds with big beaks. Others are ghosts out of Clive Barker—Day-Glo disembowelments and worms that wriggle. You finally feel the chill. It's not as refreshing as you hoped.

A reality check is in order. "I didn't think people dressed up for the Bon festival."

She smiles. "This club is different."

"Is there going to be dancing later?"

"Yes, there is always dancing."

You might not be drunk enough for dancing or this club. "I'll get us some drinks."

"Are you sure?"

You're damned sure.

"You're very sweet. Ask him for two sakes in the box, special service. The special service is important." You think of the masseuse, and hope it's not the same thing.

As the band plays "Blue Suede Shoes," you cautiously approach the fragile looking Plexiglas bar—it doubles as an aquarium. Transparent channels carry water down the walls, through the floor, through the bar. Tiny fish swim about miniature kelp plants.

The bartender doesn't look fully Japanese; he's off-color and hairy. He balances a brimful tumbler on his head while he munches on some sushi rolls.

"Neat trick," you say. "Could I have two sakes in boxes, special service?"

"Just a minute, mate. I'm eating," he says in English, with a stuffed mouth and a slight Australian accent.


"Kappa maki," he says.

"'Kappa' is cucumber?"

He looks at you with clear disdain. "No, a kappa is a very noble, very maligned being, who happens to enjoy cucumbers."

You get it—he's supposed to be a kappa, whatever that is. "What else do you like?"

"Oh no you don't." He slams the bar with his hand, and the tumbler on his head wobbles. "It's all rubbish—ruptured rectums of livestock, my ass! Why would we want blood from a cow's rice hole—we're fucking vegetarians!"

He grips your shoulder, nails like claws, pulling you close. You stare at his pointy Japanese dentistry teeth. Whatever kappas want is fine with you.

"Peasants should ask their kids about the bloody livestock," he snarls. He slams the bar with his other hand. The tumbler on his head wobbles again, threatening to spill on you, so you grab it.

"Shimatta," he cries in a breathless shout. He lets you go, feeling his head where the glass was. "OK, give it back, mate."

"Sure, but how about those drinks?"

He sighs. "Fine, it's a deal."

You give him back the tumbler. He takes out a small dust-covered sake barrel and two ornately carved pine boxes. He sets the boxes on two burnt-green saucers, and mutters bits of Japanese as he fills the boxes to overflowing, then looks at you. "Who told you to ask for these?"

You point back to Kaguya-san, who has miraculously found a table.

"Well why didn't you just say so, mate? Tell her I've made them extra special. Oya-san is coming. Cheers."

You walk back towards your table, keeping the drinks as steady as you can in the crowd.

"For me?" A delicate white hand with fine blue veins reaches for a box. Yes, this is like Halloween.

"No, for my friend."

The hand belongs to a tall thin woman wearing a ski outfit in August. Her face is as pale as a winter's moon. "I am Yuki."

She's beautiful, so you decide to play along. "As in snow?"

"Yes, the same. Have you been to the mountains?"

You've been to Nagano.

"Nagano. The Olympics. Many tourists came, and some roamed far. Roam with me."

Ouch! The white hand grasps your arm. The sake boxes shudder. You feel her chill through your shirt, and suddenly you are hard for her, icy hard, and you want to shatter like a Creamsicle inside her.

A flash of red, and your arm is free. "Dame! Don't pay any attention to her, Nolan-san, she's frigid."

Kaguya-san has grabbed the boxes. You slouch into a seat at your table. You feel numb, and you're not sure what, if anything, just happened. The women exchange words through the music behind you, like "mine" and "guest."

Yuki says "Oya-san."

Kaguya-san says nothing. She returns, sets the boxes on the table and looks at you steadily.

You repeat, "Oya-san," but she shushes you. "First drink-up. Kanpai." She drinks, so you drink. She downs her whole box, so you do too. The sake tastes like an electrified mountain stream, with a hint of pine from the box. Your body aches as its warmth returns. She glances down into your empty box. "Sugoi, Nolan-san. Soon we'll sing karaoke, ne, when the band rests."

You need to know. "I've met Oya-san. He said I was his guest." Kaguya-san is silent. "Who is Oya-san?"

She sucks her breath. "Oya means landlord. And more. Like an uncle. I'm not sure what you would call him. We shouldn't disturb him, he's a busy man."

The band is rocking out with more Elvis. Kaguya-san brings her lips close to your ear to be heard. "Nolan-san, you know—"

But she doesn't finish. Before you see him, you see the reactions of those closer to the entrance. Everyone turns to look, and the band stops mid-song. You can hear the crowd whisper now, "Oya" over and over, like a chant.

Oya-san, the mild-mannered accuser from the street, has no Bon outfit and looks far too normal, too real for this party. He moves through the parting crowd. The ski woman strains her arm to touch him, but he just holds up a finger, "Chotto matte," and she freezes.

The bandleader cranes his beak towards Oya's nose. "Roy Orbison, ne?"

Oya's finger again: "Domo. Chotto." Everyone, even the fish in the bar, follows his finger except Kaguya-san, who studies your table like a manuscript she must type.

Oya comes towards your table. You want to say "Yakuza." "Say nothing," Kaguya-san hisses.

Without asking, Oya sits at your table. He points at the band. They begin Orbison's "In Dreams." The bartender, tumbler back on his head, wordlessly brings Oya-san and the table drinks. Oya lights a cigarette. The spot of orange flame reflects on his dark glasses. His face and hands are the color of spent ash.

In the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the song ends, Oya says, "It's good no one will miss him."

Kaguya-san doesn't look up. "He's my guest now."

"Too late, once beloved. I've judged him."

Kaguya-san taps your empty sake box. "Careful. He's been drinking."

Oya's nostrils flare. "Baka! You can join him then." With his left hand, Oya seizes her perfect hair and pulls her face up, her eyes flashing.

Time telescopes to hold several things in a moment. The band commences Nirvana's "In Bloom." You say nothing. You swing your arm across the table and bring the edge of the sake box down into Oya's left shoulder.

Without expression, Oya lets go of Kaguya-san's hair. Kaguya-san says one word that sounds like jazz and jism.

Oya thrusts the palm of his right hand against your forehead.

Bam! The bartender screeches. The crowd howls. The bar shatters, and you feel the tingly spray of water, glass, and fish. The lanterns explode—your lights are going out. The drummer keeps thumping, afraid to stop.

Kaguya-san is pulling you in the dark. "Ikimasho!" You're going, going . . .

Last Chance Hell

A gong sounds. The show begins. You don't remember how you got here—a combo casino and hostess bar. You are seated in a circular booth with a high back and a narrow opening. You can't see into the other booths, and they can't see you. Nearby, the floor show of comely women in lingerie parades mechanically to American pop songs. The recordings are sped up to sound like chipmunks on Ecstasy.

A corseted hostess comes to your table. You try to decline her company, but she just giggles in girlish style.

"House rules, dear. Every man must have a hostess."

That's OK. Hostesses just talk—they're chat whores. Not like you'd be doing anything wrong. Certainly nothing illegal.

The hostess starts right in on the chat, asking you about yourself. It feels wonderful, after being alone so long, to be listened to so raptly. You joke, she laughs. You rant, she justifies. You get maudlin, her eyes water. Lovely.

You feel relaxed. You think that maybe, if you talk cleverly enough, this woman will ask you to a private room and make painfully slow love to you, no charge. So you talk more, though you're getting sleepy. That's OK, it has been a long (endless) night, and then meeting Kaguya-san . . .

Say, where is Kaguya-san? She isn't next to you. You want to thank her for something, or show off how you're handling the hostess. Suddenly, the hostess's banter is tinny, mechanical. "You work so hard." Not really. "Nobody understands you." Should they? "You're such a real man." Then shouldn't you be with a real woman?

"Where's Kaguya-san?"

"Who?" Your hostess is sincerely dumbfounded.

"My friend." You want to talk with your friend.

"But I'm here to listen."

"We have talked enough. Where's my friend?"

"She'll be back. Please talk to me." She's desperate. Poor thing. You try another tack.

"Who are you?"

"Oh, I'm just a woman who enjoys your wonderful company."

"No, really, who are you? And why are you here? This is not a normal hostess bar."

"You really want to know. I can see that. I'll go now."

"No, please, first tell me."

"Those are the rules. If you honestly care enough to ask, I have to go." Before you can ask again, she's gone.

Kaguya-san comes tentatively to the table. She's wearing a modern kimono loosely over the body con, her dark hair pulled back with hair sticks. She holds a stack of casino chips in her hand. How long have you been here?

"Nolan-san, you're OK?"

You think so. "Let's go before another hostess comes."

You walk past the other booths. It's a Bon party at the hostess bar too. Table after table of ghastly, spectral women glare at their clients with raptor eyes. Their skin fluoresces in spots that are shapes—the shape of a hand where it slapped a cheek, the shape of a fist where it smacked an eye. And the men. They are emaciated gray or rotten purple-green. The women still speak to the rotted men, saying things like "you should have gone home to your wife," "you should not have gone to Thailand," "now you will not leave here ever."

You're glad your hostess didn't look like these women. It's very kabuki or puppet play, unrequited love and Twilight Zone revenge. All you say is "ghost story."

Like the moon on a cloudy night, Kaguya-san avoids your eyes. "Something like that," she says. No laughter or smile. She's scared of something—is she afraid for you?

You look around again at the blurry, fearful room. Maybe this is really the otherworld, or maybe you're really dead. It doesn't matter. Drunk or dead, you'll stick with Kaguya-san. She at least seems to care what happens to you.

You follow her into the gaming room. It's more normal, comforting. There's a chaotic chime of pachinko machines playing themselves, balls falling into the random predestined paths. One of the gambling tables seems to be a Bon party special—some old guys in even older Imperial Navy uniforms playing poker. They bluff recklessly, they risk much early, and the chips go wildly back and forth across the table. They smile at you and ask if you'd like to join the game. Kaguya-san gives you some chips to bet with, but you politely decline. They nod, chuckling, and say it's just as well. They've played Americans before. "Let sleeping giants lie, ne?"

The rest of the club is empty now, chips left on the tables uncashed, roulette wheels still. In the long run, the house always wins.

An aria from Madame Butterfly replaces the pachinko chimes. "The American left her." Shit, now someone wants you to apologize for Italian opera. It's the most sensible thing you've heard all night. This time the accuser is a woman about your age. She wears the pointed sunglasses of a '50s movie starlet lightly on her beaklike nose—like she's Oya's sister or Oya in drag. She clenches a cigarette holder in her teeth as she rakes in the piles of spent chips.

Kaguya-san stands to the side, ready for a fight. "I want to speak to the manager," she says.

The accuser speaks to you instead. "I am the new manager of this club. From Kyoto. I heard you wanted to meet me."

This Oya offers you her hand to shake, western style. Her entire arm is crisscrossed with fine white scar lines, dotted like Morse code to invite scissors or knife to "cut here." A temporary costume? A permanent tattoo? Either way, this homage to the Kyoto butchery is both terrifying and in extremely poor taste. Your tolerance of the strange is worn out—you're pissed off. "Have you no fucking shame?"

Oya smiles with anger. "Ah, you see, but you do not yet understand. Here, a gift."

She flips you a chip, and you catch it and slap it into your left hand with your other chips. And you regret it. In fact, you regret everything. You regret the lost love and friends back home. You regret not making all the money that you could be making stateside. You regret things that haven't even happened yet: you are aware of mono no aware. Your parents are growing older, people are dying and you're not there. You're not really here either.

A tickling spider-web feeling distracts you from the abstract. Fine white lines have spread across your hand. Both hands. Your entire body. You know where you are going. Kyoto, with bits of your flesh left all along the freeway.

The white lines have turned crimson agony. You're coming undone. Soon, your fingers will fall to the ground, followed by everything else in small pieces.

The old men continue to play cards, unconcerned. Kaguya-san has not moved or spoken. She silently implores you to some action, but what can you do?

Your dissolution is taking an eternity. You sob at your own helpless pain. Oya, still smiling unhappily, offers you a dagger. You know what the knife is for; you've seen it in the movies. You suppose it's the Japanese thing to do.

No. Stake it all, while you still can. That's the Tokyo way. You're still gripping your chips in a left hand that's useless with fraying tendons. But now you've got a blade in your right. You chop through the hanging threads of your left wrist with indifferent pain, and toss your hand on a roulette table. Red four.

Oya is not smiling now, but she spins. The wheel spins, the ball spins. You're spinning.

"Ikimasho, Nolan-san." Kaguya-san wraps her kimono around you, containing your fractures for another moment, and you fall into the red.

The Hell Spa-ed

You're standing, barefoot and in a yukata robe. You might as well be naked. You rub the old scar on your left wrist that you don't like people to see. The décor is cave—sometimes faux, sometimes rocky real. You smell the lightest hint of sulfur and minerals. The sign says "World Famous Hells." A hot spring spa. Heavenly.

A woman in a white robe brings you another box of sake. You take a sip. You won't make the same mistake twice, so you immediately ask, "Where is Kaguya-san?"

"Oya-san?" she asks. Definitely not. But she points towards the rear of the cave, and that's the way you go.

On the walls of the cave are traditional sliding doors, with nothing indicating where they may lead. You walk further down the hall. One set of three sliding doors is different from the others. The middle door is a mirror, and the doors on either side feature lovely, simple paintings. To the left, a dragon holds a sword blade. To the right, a dragon clutches jewels.

You open the mirror door. Kaguya-san is there in her loose robe with no body con beneath. "Welcome to my spa, Nolan-san. Time to take the bath with me. But first, get clean."

She directs you to the left. You go, trying not to appear as anxious as you feel. It's a locker room of sorts, with a shower and a heated toilet that makes noises to mask your biological functions. You get clean.

Beyond the shower is another door, the entrance to the central chamber and hot spring bath. You enter—it's dim, wet, and warm. The pool glows and steams, crater-like, a comfortable fit for two.

Kaguya-san leaves her robe by the water's edge, and slides into the pool with effortless grace. You try to avoid staring—naked is your problem, not theirs—but you sense the smallness of her curves, and find with relief and expectation that small is beautiful.

You test the water with the ball of your foot. Goddamn, the water is painfully hot. They threw Christians into boiling springs, didn't they? But Kaguya-san got in, so you have to follow.

As you slowly lower yourself into the pool, the water moves up your body as a line of fire. Below the water, your legs are a fun house of melted plastic. Then, you're all the way in, except for your head, the last bit of dissolving ice. All the years of bad booze and bad food are steaming out of you.

Kaguya-san rubs your neck and shoulders with a cloth. You keep your eyes focused above the waterline. "That's nice," you say.

She smiles at you. "Nolan-san, you know I like you."

"No, I mean, well, I like you too." You still aren't sure what she means; you've crossed your cultural signals before.

She puts her arms around your neck. Her skin feels different, Japanese. You can't believe this is happening.

It isn't. With shocking force, she pulls your head underwater.

The water stings your eyes. Your need for air becomes pressing, but the force holding you under does not relent. Drowning? Maybe. So it goes.

Then, just as forcefully, she lifts your head up. "I think you're done." She laughs.

Some joke, you think, but the Japanese don't like sarcasm, so you keep silent for a moment. You look at your hands. There's been no change of color, she hasn't made you Japanese, your dream has not come true.

"Time's up. We need to get out."

You get out of the pool, and the warm air feels cool. You go towards the way you came in.

"No, not that way, this way."

You follow her into the right-hand room. With every step, your plastic-like body cools and firms into shape.

She helps you dress. Her kimono. Strange. It fits all right, but gives you the appearance, the feeling of breasts. She wears your yukata, and it's hard to see any curve to her at all.

"Now we are ready for karaoke?" You exit the jewel door, and cross the hall. It's a private karaoke room, with an enormous video screen and a comfortable sofa, and a phone for ordering drinks and food.

There are three other, older women there. In greeting, they say "Oya-san." You jump, and Kaguya-san notices.

"Don't worry, Nolan-san, the other Oya will not come here."

You think the other Oya may be everywhere, but you say, "Your beloved?"

"That was long ago. Let's sing."

You let them select your songs. You sing "Crazy for You" by Madonna in duet with Kaguya-san. You're not bad. You sing a Japanese song of spring in autumn for the winter people, and though you mangle some words, your feeling is pure. You sing "Stairway to Heaven" and "Hotel California," and they go very wrong, but no one seems to mind. Harmony of feeling is more important than technique here.

The older women sing together, something about "three more for every two lost," and seem very amused by you and Kaguya-san. The music is now mostly percussion in irregular rhythm. ICHI, ni, san, shi. Ichi, NI, san, shi. Ichi, ni, SAN, shi. Ichi, NI, san, shi. Ichi. In out in, ah. Ah, out in out. The drums sound live, not karaoke machine.

The satellite feed for the karaoke glitches for a moment, and suddenly, Oya's on the video, dressed like a schnozzy Elvis gone Eastern and sexually ambiguous, shades to match. He roars like he's live at Budokan the words to Neil Sedaka's "Oh Carol," substituting your name for the woman's. "Oh Noran-san, I'm soo in rooove with yoouuuuu!"

Kaguya-san looks over at you, blushing, and almost sings, "Are you ready?" She points to the door.

The sound of ocean surf pounds at the door to the room, punctuating the drum rhythm with power and threat. Steamy water dribbles down the door cracks. Your heart drums in your head—ichi, ni, san, SHI. You nod. Whatever it is, even drowning, you're ready.

She motions you to the door, and places your hand on the handle. "On the count of four, ikimasho! Ichi, ni, san . . ."

The Hell of No Interval


The drums outside and inside you have stopped. The stars and the full moon do not move. And that is how you know that it is always a particular day and hour here. The hour is shi o'clock in the morning. Said that way, four o'clock is death o'clock.

The day, or night, is August 15. Bon time, and the end of the last war.

The place is a memorial shrine that doesn't exist except in the death o'clock world. It's a shrine composed of other shrines, ashes upon ashes. It's a shrine stripped of the inessentials, death's place, simple and austere. Yasakuni Shrine to the War Dead unadorned with false glory, Hiroshima Peace Park without the peace platitudes.

The air is cold, you're cold. You touch Kaguya-san's hand. She's cold, shivering in your thin robe. No light in her eyes—she's crying. Whoever else she's been for you tonight, now she's just the night receptionist again. Shitty timing, cause there's no time left here.

There's a smell of incense, and a smell of smoke that the incense is trying to cover. You've got company.

All the dead of Japan's last war are here. The soldiers of the War Shrine have come, ordered here by a nationalist spirit that has never completely died, enshrined whether they want to be or not—a forced internment of interment. The burned women and children of Tokyo, the melted fleshlings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they have come too. So many years ago, and yet always here.

The scale is too vast, so you focus on particulars you recognize. The card players stand in the front rank, forgoing their game to return to this place, smiling still, but without humor. You see that some of these dead are of more recent vintage—murdered Japanese tourists, irradiated and drowned fishermen. You get it. These dead are here for you.

Flickering like a flame between Yakuza/old woman/dead woman/Elvis is the Oya of death o'clock, executioner, accuser, judge, eyes shielded from a world that is always too bright. He takes off his shades, and his eyes are all-devouring like cremation fires, like hungry ghosts. All is ash, firebomb, nuke. "This is the end, gaijin. You don't belong here. Go." Then the all-Oya screams at the dead in an old Japanese that you can't follow at all—archaic and best forgotten.

Their accusations hit like a rainstorm, first a drop, then three drops, then a deluge. You interned us in camps, you bombed us conventionally and obscenely. You can never understand. You are not Japanese.

So here it is, the longest divide. It's old and easily dismissed in daylight, yet it's too much for you to cross now. A chasm of sadness and pain bottled away for decades. Any words seem foolish. You can't apologize. It's not your place, nor could you be sincere. You would not have wanted that war to have been fought a day longer. And it's not even mostly an American guilt, though you'll hear no apology from those here for anything. You cannot condemn. Those here have already paid for the sins of war and aggression, apologies be damned.

Behind you, just over your shoulder (they have a Protestant shyness about manifesting), you hear the voices of your own dead murmur in agreement with the Oya. What the hell are you doing here? Get home, boy. Your family is and will be there.

Instead of listening, you turn to face Kaguya-san. Her arms are stretched out towards two sets of elderly couples, imploring, but they're having none of it. You reach out a hand for her, but she's having none of that. You're not going to be able to negotiate this agreement, counselor, not in English or Japanese.

So, broken tired guilty wronged, you take a step away. And then you take a step towards. And then you take a step away. And then a step towards. Step away, step towards, and you circle around and start again.

Start again. The drum inside you starts again. Kaguya-san stares at you, caught between amazement and dismay. Her expression says, You're doing it all wrong. You shake your head. Oh no, you're not. There's always only been one solution. Shut up and dance. Do ya, do ya wanna dance with me?

Your dancing becomes more expansive, outrageous. She joins you, if only to slow you, to show you.

Kaguya-san moves in front of you, the start of a ritual conga line. Laissez les Bon temps rouler. The drums outside start again, thrumming from all directions, telling you you're not dancing alone, the whole country is dancing this sex-death life-reaping. And you hear the dead lining up behind like guests at a wedding reception, swaying solemnly, some speaking English and damned surprised to be there. And in front you hear those who are to come, and some of them speak Japanese.

Oya's gotta dance too, like he does in the pictures. His incendiary heat eases to autumn. You and she and he are part of a wave that rocks the globe, season to season, hemisphere to hemisphere.

Kaguya-san turns and takes your hand, and dances slowly with you, against you. The shrine fades into the view of Mt. Fuji in moonlight from your balcony, robes become suit and body con. Nobody is watching you and everybody is watching you.

You think this isn't happening. It is.

And you're still dancing, and she rolls her thin red dress up over her hips, and you're turning Japanese you really think so.

You're dancing still.

The Hell of a Day

Sunday. Time moves ahead again, though slowly. You're on a picnic near a shrine, in a sunlit park, bento boxes for two, jeans and Tokyo Disney T-shirts. Heavy metal bands line the park road at every fifty feet, a cacophonous whole more intriguing than its parts. Everyone is smiling at you, because you need no help. Even Mt. Fuji smiles and winks—you're going to do just fine here.

Kaguya-san's orange-brown eyes are lowered. "Thank you for celebrating the Bon holiday with me, Nolan-san."

Even now, you are still Nolan-san to her in public. It's still a strange place here, ne? Can you live with such distance, such formality? You don't have to. She places her hands on your face and bends you towards her to kiss your forehead, your lips. Her lips are like the flutter of a moth.

You stare at Kaguya-san. You could stare for hours. She's more and less luminescent than before, sun lit instead of moon glowing. Everything in its season. Autumn is coming, there will be more moon viewings. By then, your apartment might really be both one and three bedrooms, and Kaguya-san (unilluminated, un-Bon-ified but bona fide) might fit there.

Underworld lord and party animal Oya will come back every year, and one year you'll not dance away. That's OK. You know how to be a polite host now. You can share tea, and discuss the new hanging scroll that your girlfriend has found for you before you drum him along. Kappas will party with Mickey and Bugs, Marley's ghost will throw beans at a snow woman, Jesus and Buddha will be bouncers at the door.

One day, some way, you both must leave, but you're here now. So ikimasho, Nolan-san. Doesn't matter where. You will not be going home, you're already there.

Translation: Nihon ga daisuki desu. You love Japan.

Tom Doyle image

Tom Doyle is the author of a contemporary fantasy series from Tor Books. In the first book, American Craftsmen, two modern magician soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil--and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America's past. Tom's collection of short fiction, The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories, includes his WFSA Small Press Award and Writers of the Future Award stories as well as his stories for Strange Horizons. He writes science fiction and fantasy in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. You can find the text and audio of many of his stories at
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