At the counter of a marriage agency at the end of the town, I felt my lip twitch in spite of myself. "Pardon me, ma'am?"
"I need a male," the woman in front of me repeated. "I badly need to bear a child."
I looked down at the PC and tapped the corner of my mouth, hoping it would stop twitching. It didn't help. "Well, I see you're a very straightforward person. But perhaps that sort of statement could wait until you are closer to the man."
"It'd scare the man."
"Really? I didn't know."
The woman looked nervous and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, behind the string that was holding her mask in place. The mask looked old-fashioned, made of cotton not unwoven cloth. "Do you have a cold? Or is that for an allergy?" I asked.
She shook her head, her thick, long black hair almost unmoving.
Below this old-fashioned hair style and mask, she wore a long, one-piece dress that was almost stark-white, which didn't help her pale skin. I wondered if I would have to advise her on what to wear. "I think that would scare them, too. Never taking a mask off for some secret reason."
"Oh, really? Oh my . . . "
This woman, Saeko Kimura, claimed to be from a faraway region, which she had said was why she wouldn't give me the name of the high school she'd graduated from. She gave me no information that would tell me about her life, not even her age, but she looked to be about the same age as I, mid-thirties or so. She was the first client since I started working here four months ago. I had come back from the city to this small town last year after I had split up with my boyfriend, and for a half year I couldn't find a job. When I finally found the position at this marriage agency at the end of my hometown, I had no other choice but to take it.
The firm stood adjacent to a house the boss had said he lived in but never seemed to be using. I had never seen the boss, except for the one time when I saw a shadow of a tall, lean figure reflected on the screen door of the house a few weeks back. Our communication had been solely through emails. Not even phone calls.
"But me taking off the mask would scare them away, too," Kimura was saying. Wrinkles formed between her downward-slanting brows, giving her the atmosphere of an unlucky woman. "I really need a man's seed."
For five years in the city I worked as a receptionist at an English language school, where I had to deal with countless, groundless complaints and had developed a Noh-mask on my face devoid of any real expression. But even that was nothing to fight against this. "You just want to sleep with someone?"
"Yes," the answer came quick. "Without a condom."
I actually chuckled. "In that case you shouldn't be here. This is where people who want to find a husband or wife come. You should sign up for an SNS that is famous for that sort of community."
"What's an SNS?"
"You know condom and don't know SNS?"
"I've seen couples using a condom and discarding the thing in the woods."
"Huh. You have a mobile, right?"
"No?" I asked, incredulous. "What about a PC?"
I considered this. It would be easier if I just told her to find a mobile and Google for a service that suited her purposes. But she was my first client here, and after four months of having nothing to do but cleaning this very small firm, it was just nice to have someone to talk to.
"I have to ask my boss first," I said, "but I could let you use this PC and teach you how to use these SNS sites. For, perhaps—one third of the fee you'd usually have to pay here. If my boss says yes, would you like that?"
Kimura's eyes shone brightly. She nodded so eagerly that I feared her head might drop off her neck.
The boss said yes via email. I phoned Kimura on the fixed line (she had warned me that it would take a long time before she could answer, and asked me not to give up), and she said she'd come back next day. And she did. We chose a service that seemed to be favored by older people, sent out a few messages which wouldn't give away too much of her but weren't lies, either. A message came back. I let her use my firm as the meeting point. I told her to tell the guy that she took pills. What pills, don't mention.
A few days later Kimura came trotting up to the firm and hugged me over the counter. "Thank you," she said and I could even feel her smile behind my shoulder. "He even liked my mask and gave me a thing that would cover my entire face to wear when I was naked!"
"O-okay, good. But you don't know if you got the seed you needed yet," I said, patting her back a few times.
"Oh, I know I have. We always know."
When she finally pulled back she was frowning. "What?" I asked.
"You don't ask too many questions, do you? I know I've been a little . . . queer."
That made me smile. "Not my business, you're a grown woman."
"Well, thank you. You've been great."
"Glad I helped."
She had already paid, but as her personal thank-you she gave me an envelope. It contained a few partially used prepaid cards. They amounted to about thirty thousand yen. "This is too much." I shook my head and tried to give them back to her.
Kimura shook her own head and closed my fingers around the cards. "They were all we could gather. This has been a very important step for us, and it's not enough to show our gratitude, but cash doesn't come in very handy, you know?"
"Mmm?" A ridiculous sound came out through my lips. I understood nothing of what she had just said.
Kimura smiled and squeezed my hand. "Thank you," she said again and left.
I emailed my boss about what had just happened, stupidly including everything about the prepaid cards. His reply was only one word: "Good."
And what had I just done? A few days later I had twin brothers across my counter. "We heard a lot about you," the one on my left said. "That you helped them."
"I helped Kimura-san, yes. But you look a lot younger." I had already given up my Noh-mask.
"We have a lady that we protect," the left one said. "We need someone to come for her." The one on my right said nothing.
"The shrine in the woods."
I very vaguely remembered the place. "The one with the sun-goddess?"
"That's the place."
"And she 'needs the seed'?"
I wasn't sure if I wanted to laugh or scream. "Can you at least bring her to some hotel? It's not easy to bring in a stranger into your own place, you know."
The twins looked at each other and then back at me. "She's too weak."
"She's too weak but can have sex?"
"Within her own place it's okay."
"You mean she's the priestess?"
The left one glanced at his brother. His brother shrugged, saying nothing. "Something like that," the speaking one said. For the first time he didn't meet my eyes.
". . . You're not going to do any harm to the guy, are you?"
"No! Did Sae do anything to hurt the man?"
I considered this. And also the fact that I hadn't heard anything really bad happening around here, anyway. "Well. Okay, then. But we have to make up some excuse for luring the guy into this shrine of yours."
"Do you have any suggestions?" The left one looked relieved and nervous at the same time.
I looked into my PC screen, thinking hard. "Perhaps you could just say your lady is a priestess."
"Some people get more aroused by abnormal situations," I said. "In this case, you tell him your lady is a priestess locked up in a shrine. When the guy goes in she tells him she shouldn't be doing it there because it's a holy place, and the concept itself makes him want to do it there more and he wants to tear her robes away from her . . ."
The twins blushed. "Ah, well, it sounds—okay. Could you make an ad calling for that?" His speech faltered from time to time, and his not-speaking brother was even looking down at his feet.
I grinned. "Yeah, no problem. Tell the plan to your lady and come back tomorrow. I'll have her profile and message ready."
After they left I realized I hadn't asked for my boss's permission. I emailed him, to which he replied with "OK."
The twins came back the next day, saying they had even prepared a nice set of robes for the occasion. I let out a laugh and started searching for an appropriate service.
"What does she look like?"
"Beautiful," the left one said and blushed. "Slender. A bit sharp-featured, but beautiful."
I frowned. "You really okay with her sleeping with another guy?"
"What do you mean?"
"You don't want to do that yourself?"
The twins both went deep, deep red in the face. "Oh, no. We aren't her kin. We can't."
I wanted to ask what "kin" meant in their context, and Kimura's. But somehow it didn't seem very wise a thing to ask. I shrugged it off and Googled a few services.
A few days later we got a message from a guy who seemed to be really thrilled about the idea of making it in the tiny shrine building. I let them use the firm's phone number in case the guy couldn't find the place. But it turned out it wasn't necessary.
The next day after their meeting the twins came hopping into the office. "She was really, really pleased. The man seemed pleased, too."
"Did you watch them?"
"N-no! Oh, no!"
The boys hesitated a few moments before handing me a tiny, purple crepe sachet. Inside it I found a small piece of wood with a strange character written on it; it didn't mean anything to me.
"It's a token," the speaker-boy said, his expression grave. "It would protect you no matter what. You won't even have to worry about earthquakes again."
"I've heard something very similar from a woman who tried to sell me a 'spiritual' painting."
I meant it to be a joke but the boys didn't even smile. "It's really powerful and I've never seen her give it to one of your kind. Don't show it off, okay? There are some clans who would be really jealous."
I closed my fingers tight around the sachet. "Okay. Thanks."
They smiled and nodded. "Thanks to you. We won't forget. There are some things that won't fade."
I cocked my head, not fully understanding, but the next moment they had turned their heels and were out of the door.
Perhaps I should have asked them what they meant. Kimura and the boys. Because more, some of them acting queerer than the previous clients, followed. A woman came, paler even than Kimura, and she brought a very fine kimono and said she wanted to pay with it. It was made of some fabric I had never seen or felt, and the boss said okay so I accepted it. Another woman, dressed all in black, asked me to teach her how to get to a mountain at the far end of Tokyo. For this I couldn't let her pay and so she touched my forehead and said, "May the good wind always be at your back."
Then one day a girl came, obviously too young for all this, so I just gave her a chocolate from my drawer.
The girl ate the chocolate and smiled widely. "What can I give you for this?"
"You don't have to. Just eat it up and leave, and never even think of doing this until you're five years older."
"But I'm of age, according to our kin's standard. I'm ready to have children."
Kin again. "Well, why don't you have them with a boy of your own kin, then?"
She licked her fingers and frowned. "They said you wouldn't ask questions."
"You don't have to answer it if you won't make me find your mate."
The girl giggled. "I like you, I think," she said. "I almost never liked a human."
"Oh, I'm honored."
The girl suddenly sobered. "You should come with me. I'll show you how I'm old enough."
"How will you show me?"
"Oh, I'll show you. But not here."
The girl stared at me. Her brown eyes had a strange quality I couldn't name. It felt as though they were boring into my brain through my eyes. I tried to look away but somehow failed.
I shook my head. "I can't leave this place. I work here."
"I need to do some grocery shopping."
The girl smiled. "Sooner or later I'll come. You'll come."
She left. I sensed a waft of strange odor under the chocolate, so I stood and opened the windows. But it lingered for a long time.
I emailed my mysterious boss about the girl. As usual the message contained only one word: "Don't." I wondered if he meant don't give a chocolate to a stranger, don't open the windows, or don't bother letting in a young girl in the first place.
Or don't go after the girl.
The next day I had off. I spent the day sluggishly, doing some laundry and browsing through the Internet. When at dusk I thought of cooking dinner, I realized I had run out of soy sauce. Which was weird. I had thought I had at least one meal's worth left in the bottle. How had I been mistaken?
I sighed and got into my car. Perhaps my aunt in the next town had a stock bottle. I didn't want to go into a shop because I had been dressed lightly and had no makeup, and my hair was a mess.
I started the engine. By that time dusk had turned into night. After a few minutes I was running on a narrow road which cut through corn fields. There were no street lights along the path, and it was just so dark . . .
Then I felt something collide with my bumper.
I hit the brake. I didn't see anyone running across the path, so it must have been a cat or something. Something very small. But it was the first time I ever hit anything. My hands started trembling. With the engine on and the lights gleaming, I stepped out of my car to check.
The bumper showed no sign of collision. I looked around. It was just so dark. The headlights lit the path in front of the car, but that was all that was visible.
At the corner of my eye something moved.
I spun around and squinted into darkness. Something was trying to go into the corn field. And it whined. I gasped.
"It's you, isn't it?" I said. I didn't remember asking for her name. "You . . . I gave you a chocolate . . ."
The girl whined again and went through the high corn plants. "Wait! Are you hurt?" I said and went after her.
Something pulsed. Not my heartbeat. I felt for the breast pocket of my polo shirt.
The token the twins had given me.
But the girl whined once more. Her movement sounded as if she was limping.
I hurried after her.
Rows after rows of corn plants. I'd lost count, but at the back of my head I knew it was summing up to too many. Ripe corns. Young ones. All weaving a strange pattern, the one which invaded your brain just before you fell asleep. I ran. My breaths sang a rhythm that was nonsense. And why was I running?
At the end of the corn field was a stream.
Fireflies danced everywhere. When their lights touched the long-faded hydrangeas the flowers sprung to life, their blues, purples, and pinks so vivid in this dim place. I looked up and saw the Milky Way. The stream reflected the stars, becoming the Milky Way itself, only on the ground.
On the other side, a man stood, hands in his pockets. He smiled.
"Why?" I heard myself say. "Why are you here?"
"I came for you."
He shook his head, smiling sadly. "I've been wrong. I shouldn't have gone to her. I shouldn't have let you go. I'm sorry. You're the one I love."
"You—you're lying . . . Aren't you?"
My ex-boyfriend pulled his hands out of his pockets and jumped across the Milky Way to stand in front of me. He took my hands. "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"
Another pulse, not my heartbeat.
"But . . ."
"Please," he said and kissed me.
And why did it feel the same way as it always had? We had never kissed under the Milky Way, or beside it. It made no sense; I felt my desire, the one that I had pushed away so deep within me, coming back to the surface. Or perhaps it was the way I had wanted it to feel, not the way I really remembered. It didn't matter. The world spun, leaving us motionless at its center. I felt his tongue seek mine. Soon my legs would cease to support me. His hand slowly extended downwards . . .
"I said don't!"
I gasped and pushed him away from me. It wasn't his voice; we'd been kissing. The lady's token pulsed again, the strongest I had felt, and then swashed through the space with its hot, white light. My ex-boyfriend—someone who looked like him—stumbled and splashed into the stream.
And the space dissolved into nothing—
Just before my consciousness faltered, I felt someone else's arms under me.
I opened my eyes and found Kimura looking down at me. She smiled and I felt a hand squeeze mine. "She's awake," she said.
At her word there was a commotion around me. More faces appeared into my sight. The twins, the woman with the kimono, and other former clients.
I was lying on a thin futon, and though I couldn't see very much of my surroundings, from the way the ceiling looked I was probably in the main building of a shrine. I looked to the twins. "Your place?"
They nodded. A face stuck out from my head's side, upside down. A very beautiful face. "Hello, human."
I grinned. "Hi, goddess." With an effort I sat up; Kimura helped me. "So what's all this about?" I asked her.
Kimura sighed and looked down. Then she looked up again and said, "We don't mean any harm to you, okay?"
"If you did you'd already have done it, right?"
She nodded, and unhooked her mask from behind her ears. Under the mask was a huge mouth, from ear to ear, and I almost choked at the sight.
The twins sprung up, did loops in the air and came back onto the floor as two guardian dogs of a shrine; one of them had a mouth that was forever closed, that was why this one wouldn't speak. The woman with the kimono spun around on the spot, and when she stopped she was a beautiful crane.
Others followed. The woman in black smiled and showed me her magnificent wings. A snow-woman blew some diamond dust. I shook my head, grinning helplessly. "But why did you want to have sex with humans?"
Kimura put her mask back on, probably just for my sake. "We are running short in number. Soon our kinds will extinguish. To stop that, we decided, we needed to mate and have children, but we couldn't find enough male ones of our kind. We decided mating with humans would do, for the time being. Our genes are dominant, you know."
No, I didn't. "I see," I said anyway.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have spread the word so widely. I didn't imagine the tanuki would try to do the same."
"Tanuki? You mean . . . raccoon dogs that metamorphose to deceive humans?"
"Right. The ones you just met."
I nodded. So it wasn't him. Of course, my ex-boyfriend had dumped me and went to a prettier, richer woman. "They were trying to make me pregnant?"
"We just can't believe it." One of the guardian-dogs frowned with his already ancient-and-wrinkled brows. "We animal-shaped ones know we cannot mate with human-shaped ones. And borrowing a few seeds from a man and taking the earth from a woman are really different things."
Other creatures around me murmured agreement.
I sat straight facing the lady of the shrine. "Thank you, I think your token helped me."
The lady nodded. "Yes. But you have to say thanks to the man who brought you here, too."
"Who brought me here?"
"Well, who was it?"
The lady looked around. No one answered. Kimura shook her head and said, "We didn't know him. He was probably a human."
I felt a pang of hope. "Was he about my age? Tanned and big?"
She shook her head. "He didn't look like it at all. Lean, tall, and pale. Did he wear glasses?"
Some said yes, some said no to this. I felt my hope shrink to nothing. So it wasn't my ex-boyfriend.
Then we heard a car. It stopped in front of the shrine and the engine died. The twins volunteered to go check. When they came back they both cocked their heads. "Someone left the car at the foot of the gate, and placed this on my pedestal," the twin said and pushed a pair of keys bound by a chain.
"It's my keys."
"The driver was already gone."
I took the keys and turned them around on my palm. It was slightly warm. And I remembered the voice, "I said don't!"
I smiled at Kimura and others. "I'm going home now. I promise not to go after a tanuki again."
The lady nodded gravely. "If you get into trouble you come here, okay?" she said. "At least the twins are always at the gate."
"Thanks. And you all tell me when your babies are due, okay?"
Kimura looked amazed at that. "I'd thought you would never want anything to do with us again."
I grinned. "Who wouldn't want to see her client being happy because of the service she had offered?"
On the way home I dropped by at the firm and emailed my boss. I said, "Thank you."
A few minutes later a message came back.
"You're welcome," it said.