Bright light washed over Ichika as she sang. The stage was wide and open. She couldn’t see the audience which comforted her, but this light was making her feel sick and flighty. The song built inside her, filling her mind with images of a house sailing away into the distance. The intensity of the final note faded in a long exhalation. The lights went out to rapturous applause. Eleven bells tolled, the lights flared back on and the hated one walked onto the stage.
A slick smile framed a media-made face, all stage make up shine and hair product. He strode up to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders with that jellyfish touch. Flesh stung, as she listened to him warble.
“Eleven bells, that is our highest score of the night. Wow… that was just… wow! Where ever did you get that singing voice? I don’t think I have heard anything like it before.”
His fingers brushed the nape of her neck spreading rivulets of sickening shivers down her spine.
“Ichika Shimizu is from Hamamatsu in Tōtōmi Province. She loves the ocean, swimming and calligraphy. It says here that you have selective mutism Ichika. I guess you only sing?” He raised those immaculately plucked eyebrows, as he looked at her. She nodded and bowed slightly, following protocol. “Well, whatever it is, it seems to be working for you. Let’s give a big hand for our fifth contestant.”
The host, Sora Kurosawa, placed his hand on the small of her back.
Sharp teeth ripped through soft fur. Sweet fat erupting in salty tang, while the spasmodic thrashing of blood-coated bloated flesh calmed her mind.
Ichika Miyamoto bowed ever so slightly once more before walking off stage into the waiting gloom.
Hinata rattled the spoon against the sides of the porcelain teacup. Green swirls of leaves wilted in the roiling surface of this morning’s ritual. Two spoonfuls of Oolong, steeped for five minutes. Red edged leaves flashed in the maelstrom at the surface. If his father knew that he drank Chinese over Japanese tea there would be an argument. There was always an argument. When he had joined the protest movement in college, an argument.
“How do you think this affects my standing in the party?”
He was right. The son of a prominent politician protesting the nuclear power act brought the vultures circling. Press mobbed the protests, asking only the wrong questions. ‘What does your father think? What does he say?’ That was the end of his involvement. The leaders said he elicited the wrong type of attention and that was that.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
One good thing had come out of the whole affair. He met his wife, she saw into his soul. She saw that he believed in it all more than a million chanted slogans, more than the weight of falling mountains. She spoke to him and everything changed.
Dust glazed the windows of the apartment with a sheen of diffuse light as the same weary memories played out behind his eyes. He grasped the picture from the sideboard and stared at her face before his eyes tracked down to the white royal blue framed collars of his two children. He couldn’t bring himself to look at their faces. His eyes flickered in rapid succession fighting the rising tides before he placed the picture face down on the coffee table. He breathed a long sigh and picked up his tea, causing ripples in the now darkened surface.
As he looked through those dust glazed windows at Tokyo’s skyline he realized there had been no wind in weeks. A smog behemoth wrapped the city in a choke hold. Mirrored buildings failed to reflect, the Skytree’s needle finger barely pierced the fog and Mount Fuji had disappeared in a pallid brown miasma. The anaemic city suffocated. His hundred and eighth floor apartment fared little better.
Dishes littered the marble island in the kitchen. Flies had taken up residence in their crockery duplex block, while empty beer cans towered next to the waste bin. What once would have caused him to itch, now was comforting. This mess was part of him and he nurtured it like a growing thing, feeding it with the daily grind.
He flicked open his laptop and stared at the pattern of red and green gleaming neon fingers of monetary streams of channelled belief. He just couldn’t face it anymore. He had money sitting on the sidelines waiting for the right signals, waiting for the time to buy into the beginning of people’s hopes. Part of him considered taking that drug once again, riding that dragon of mounting expectation, twitching in sleep and waking at three am to execute a multitude of orders, crashing one chart, only to pump another. Destroying, manipulating, herding the sheep, but the time for playing was over, it was time to seek again. Time to find some purpose beyond reading the patterns.
Hinata flicked on the television, cradling the cup as he sipped the now lukewarm tea. Adverts’ blared psychedelic cacophony as he surfed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even watched a film, let alone a show.
His twitching fingers fell still. Music flowed from the speakers in a rising cadence, liquid striations from octave to octave before cascading in notes of living light, playing across the lids of his closed eyes. He opened them in wonder, tears flowed from him in a river. An unceasing curtain of hot stinging water, his body shaking in spasmodic gasps. Finally, he rasped in a deep breath and squeezed his eyes closed to cease the flow.
Her face coalesced through a curtain of clearing snow. Small emerald eyes were creased with a thousand smile lines. Long brown hair bouncing in a slight curl, as a single strand tickled the corner of one eye. Her song flowed in rough waves of ascending vibrato, energetic like the storm swell, building to a pitch beyond Soprano. It resonated in his bones like that feeling before the ice breaks, like a spring call in the lee of winter’s regression. Her body undulated in the rhythm of waves at the tideline. Hips cascading in time with the vibrato in her voice, her whole body a conduit for that song.
He hit the program information button on the remote: network-NHK-Programme- Nodo Jiman.
Picking up the picture beside him, he stared slack jawed, looking from picture to TV. The smile, a slight creasing at the very edge of full lips. Those eyes, iris of kelp green shaded with flecks of brown. The song battled on through all of his defences, walls of Etiquette tumbled in the face of the song.
Hinata walked through the prescient evening hum. Déjà vu haunted him in the flashing tiles of neon signs on Kabukicho’s packed streets. Children yammered in the humid heat as mothers soothed weary cries with Amezaiku candy lizards. Glitter-like light cascaded through the night on all sides. When had he last been here? He couldn’t remember.
Hinata heard echoes of her song in everything, welling up from the simmering street chatter. That crystal vibrato shone clearly through the mingled murmur of street vendors hawking sim cards, yaki tomorokoshi and yards of material for kimono. This music puzzled him. Buddhists would say he had found nirvana in a perfect moment, his Shinto upbringing named it as perfect purity of mind in the divine soul.
Maybe this was a curse. Had he been targeted by a spirit masquerading as his wife reborn?
One was tall with an angular face, pronounced dimples pulled her cheeks inwards accentuating her already severe look. She wore long leather pants and a black jacket pulled tight around her mid-section. Her shock of electric blue hair swept over one side of her head. Hinata thought she was probably Otaku, one of those manga enthusiasts he had seen in college when he was a guest lecturer a few years ago.
The other woman smiled and nodded as he looked at her. He felt an instant fascination with her large almond eyes, gazing from a slightly plump face. Those eyes twinkled with intelligence. She wore a dress of dark crushed velvet in the western style pushing her breast up and out as she leaned against the bar to order a drink.
Hinata waited, reeling in the smells of the bar. A hint of wood polish mingled with the odour of whiskey, gin, and rum. A large chalk board listed numerous cocktails in Japanese and scrawled English.
“What can I get you?” A skinny bespectacled barman looked at him enquiringly.
“Water.” He coughed the word from a rattling throat.
“Sure, it really looks like you need it friend, but you will have to buy a drink to go with it.” He pointed at a sign indicating facilities for customers only.
Hinata scanned the drinks shelf. He cleared his throat. “A large Glenfiddich 18 with a jug of water and extra glass please.”
The barman flipped the bottle as he pulled up a deep glass and dashed out a double. A large jug was filled and a tall glass deposited next to it. Hinata felt a building wave of dry wind flowing up his throat like desert sand. A burning pressure in his head nearly toppled him from the chair. He grasped the jug with both hands, eyes watering and swallowed cleansing mouthfuls in a cooling flow. Not a drop escaped his lips before he placed the jug back down. The barman eyed him with a strange look.
“Thirsty ehh? I have never seen anyone drink that volume in such a short time. Are you ok buddy?”
“Yeah, sorry about that.” Hinata bowed his head slightly in recognition of his rudeness.
“It’s ok man. Just use the glass next time. The barman grinned at him and shook his head smiling. “Refill?” He asked as he picked up the jug. Hinata nodded his head.
“That’s eight hundred yen.” Hinata paid him and turned to look for a quiet place to sit.
“Hello, I’m Tichiam Hamasaki.” Those almond eyes looked up at him as he got down from his stool to bow. She pushed her hand into his, shaking it firmly and vigorously. He stared at their hands clasped together and noticed how dark she was in comparison to his pale thin hands. Her skin was almost a caramel. He looked back up, darker freckles cascaded down her cheeks seeming to trail a mesmerising starburst of burnt umber from dark pupils.
She blushed a little. “I like English things. I always shake hands instead of bow. I let people go first when entering a restaurant. The spice girls, Robbie Williams, English tea.” She fired off these statements in a staccato burst before trailing off. Hinata realised how rude he was being. He started to shake her now still hand and stood fully from the stool.
“Nice to meet you Hamasaki-san. I am Hinata Hashimoto.” He bowed out of habit and she returned the slight bow, a serious look on her face, eyes cast down.
“Hashimoto-san. I like that. You have strong roots and you’re a traditionalist. A real gentleman.” She looked away from his eyes in a sudden flurry of modesty and whispered. “You have come unstuck Hinata Hashimoto. You’re flying about in the air right now. You need to find a new place to root or you will continue to wither.” She looked back at him, a sad smile creasing cherry lips and nodded at the jug of water.
“I have never seen someone drink like that before. Almost like they need to wash away something inside them!”
He poured out a glass of water and took a sip before downing it and pouring a little of the jug into his whiskey. As soon as the water had touched his lips it was like a fire had erupted deep in his stomach. His skin felt so dry. It was like something had taken him over. The song echoed distantly at the back of his mind as a wave of tingling sorrow rose unbidden in him, destroying his sea-wall of reserve, weakening the foundations of everything he had been taught since childhood.
The story came flowing out of him in a cascade of stuttering words. How he had been enrapture by the singers voice, how she looked so much like his wife and now this sojourn from reality. Tichiam listened, wide eyed as he spoke and he kept expecting her to leave or shake her head but those piercing eyes never left his lips until he finished.
Tichiam breathed out a long slow sigh. “You need to find her Hashimoto-san, this is the only way to ground yourself. I can help you. Do you even know her name?”
He shook his head. “I don’t remember anything after the song. That night seems like a dream after waking, distant like the smog has got into my brain.”
Her eyes flashed, as she smiled at him. That smile was like the sun from behind a cloud or a rainbow in a sudden sunburst. “Maybe it has Hashimoto-san.” She laughed at his confusion, leaning ever so slightly closer to him and blowing her fringe from her eyes. Her perfume was sweet like a mountain meadow.
“She is called Ichika Shimizu. Where have you been this last week? She is the only contestant of Nodo Jiman to ever get a record contract. Her song is all over Japan, she is a hit!”
He felt like he was waking from a dream as she spoke. He looked down at the bar, taking a sip of the whiskey before looking back at Tichiam. She waved across to the table where her friend was sat with a Punk guy and an old man.
“Hey you guys. Hashimoto-san here is being haunted by the spirit of his dead wife.”
They all sauntered over eyeing him as the old man tottered comically behind trying to get up from his seat. Hinata jumped from the stool and rushed over to help him. “Thank you young man. These cubs don’t have a clue how to treat their elders.” Tichiam smiled at him as he helped the old man to the bar.
“Hashimoto-san is a real gentleman.” She leaned in again as she grasped the old man’s other arm and helped him up onto her bar stool before leaning back on the bar next to Hinata.
“Now we’re here I will have a large Cutty Sark with a splash of water.” Hinata stared at the old man in surprise. “Well, what are you waiting for Mr Gentleman.”
He leaned across the bar and ordered the drink as the old man studied him. “You are far from home I think.” The thirst came upon Hinata suddenly and he grasped the jug, poured out another glass and dashed it back in a heartbeat.
“My name is Reo Yamashita, by the way. I have been drinking here for a long time. From before it was called the Albatross. Did you know that Albatross can live to seventy years old Hashimoto-san?”
He paused to take a sip of the whisky and let out a strange low warbling sound.
“That’s better. Albatross are also known to have a symbiotic relationship with whales. They meet at the surface where the Albatross cleanse their skin of ticks and parasites. Albatross live a long time and fly a long way but they know exactly where they belong! The sea sings to them from the moment they are born.”
Hinata shivered at those words. “I don’t know where I belong anymore.” He suddenly became very irritated at these strange people who were bereft of etiquette. It felt like they were peeling his skin back layer by layer, like he was being devoured from the inside out. This thought flashed across his mind and when he looked up from sipping his whiskey they were all looking at him, smiling.
“How do you all know my problems? I don’t understand.”
Reo leaned toward him with a wry smile on his face. “We are all cut from the same mould. When I first came to this bar I was all alone just like you. Like you I had lost my place in the world and my mate had been taken from me. After many years of loneliness these rowdy chicks appeared in the Albatross bar and I have been happy ever since. They have no manners but they know who they are Hashimoto-san, they know where they belong.”
Tichiam leaned close and her perfume overwhelmed him again. “Yamashita-san is very wise and we all respect him more than he knows.” She blew a kiss at the old man, as he frowned at her. The twinkle never left his eyes though. “See Hashimoto-san, they have no idea of proper etiquette.” His voice boomed alarmingly loud but no one at the bar seemed to notice. Tichiam pouted before the whole group burst out in laugher.
Hinata felt the itching of his skin fade in the cleansing wash of their conversation bubbling around him. His thirst lessened somewhat and he found himself smiling at the old man and the punk boy who were now arguing about music.
“You wouldn’t know music if it bit you on the behind boy.”
The young punk bristled at this statement. “What d’you mean. I played you the Ramones and you said it reminded you of a storm smashing down the cliff face to reveal a new visage. An insanely pretentious way of saying it, but I completely agree. I used that little gem against one of my college professors.” He grinned toothily at the tall woman dressed all in black as she shook her head and laughed.
“I was humouring you cub.” Reo’s eyebrows bristled as a thunderous look passed across his face. “You should have proper respect for your professor.” He held the look for a brief moment until the frown broke down into a smile and the whole crowd started to laugh again.
“So, Hashimoto-san have you found any clarity yet?” Reo’s voice resonated with a sharp intensity.
“I told him what he needs to do.” Tichiam’s hand brushed his arm gently as she spoke.
“Yes, but I want to hear what Hashimoto-san has to say.”
Hinata glanced at the old man. “Hamasaki-san is right. She said I need to find this Ichika Shimizu and I am sure this is the only way I will get any peace.”
Reo nodded. “Hamasaki-san is very wise… for her age.”
“The song runs through my mind even now. It is like the gentle trickle of a mountain stream running through a forest but it will surely become a torrent again. I don’t know where to begin the search, where to find this woman who wears my wife’s face."
Tichiam looked away from him, hesitating for a brief moment. “They said on the show that she lived in Hamamatsu in Tōtōmi Province. In a house by the sea.”
Hinata watched the dewy light of rising dawn deepen the soft sheen of caramel across her belly. Strands of jet black hair touched her cheeks, slashing the field of freckles like a plough through summer wheat. She was half tangled in the sheets, the soft curve of her body echoed the lustre of the moon setting in the distant blue horizon. Hinata found himself crying. This beautiful woman, so intriguing and magical had opened a door that had long been closed. He knew it was a fleeting thing though, he could hear the music building once again. He closed his eyes tight to wring out the tears.
“Why are you crying Hinata?” She asked softly, stretching before kicking the sheets away playfully. “Wow, what have you done Hashimoto-san?” She wagged her finger at him like a school teacher admonishing a pupil.
He looked around the apartment. Marble surfaces shone in the dim gloaming light. The cabinets gleamed with polish and the taps sparkled. “I couldn’t sleep so I cleaned. I was so embarrassed to bring you here last night Tichiam”.
She stood in front of him naked still wagging her finger. “Where is my beer can tower? And the crockery, and the dust? Where is all that lovely dust, it was like a British haunted house in here with all that dust. I loved it!”
She glowered at his confused expression before leaping from the bed and wrapping her arms around his neck. “Nothing you could do would upset me Hinata. Come back to bed before you get ready for your road trip.” He walked back to the bed with her still wrapped in his arms. The song faded a little, playing at the edge of consciousness like the slight purr of waves at the turning of the tides.
“If only it could stay like this.” He whispered in her ear.
She pushed him back a little to look into his eyes. “It is OK. You have to find the place where you can root anew Hinata Hashimoto. Your name, Hashimoto-san, means you will find a bridge from this place of uncertainty to where you need to be. You will find your origins!” The sun broke the horizon bathing them in cleansing light as he fell into her and they sank into the bed together.
Hinata walked along the beach. The moon illuminated silvering sand as the night breeze stirred the sea. The pacific wind had picked up in the morning, blowing the smog from the panting heart of Tokyo.
He had said goodbye to Tichiam at platform twenty seven of Tokyo station. The wind blowing along the tracks seemed to call him but he hadn’t wanted to let her go. The song was all but gone from his mind, but she'd reassured him and urged him onto the bullet train. That journey was one of the hardest of his life. As the miles flew away, the song built inside him in perfect crescendos of tumbling light. Watching the landscape pass by through the window, small towns, fields of rice, huge factories, shrines and rural temples all passed by ablaze in synaesthesia.
The woman pulled herself out of the bath. Soft droplets of water rolling down milky skin as she walked naked out into the moonlight.
Sora Kurosawa watched as he licked his lips. He remembered touching her neck. Caressing her back out there in the stage light. He groaned with the memories. None of the cameras had been able to see, none of those stupid sheep watching their televisions could see his violations. He pressed the binoculars back to his eyes and watched her standing naked in the summer breeze to dry in the air, glistening from the bath water. She was obviously wanton. He knew how he would net this fish. He pulled out the camera from his bag and assembled the zoom lens. Even in this light he should get a few good shots, enough for blackmail.
As he started to snap she started singing that god awful wordless song.
Hinata opened his eyes from the walking meditation he had been attempting. The song flared to life in an upwelling of shivering emotions that assaulted his core in a storm that couldn’t be contained. Memories cascaded through him, memories he had locked away.
Raw salt water wounds in burnt flesh. Grappling with wooden beams, nails torn from fingers in an attempt to reach them as wave after wave smashed into the beach house. Salt water stinging his eyes as he swam and swam, going nowhere. The roof of the house, his children, the wide terrified eyes of his son and daughter clutched to her hips. His silent sobs, her hand reaching out to him. That sick wet tearing sound as the roof tore away and they disappeared in the howling waves of the tsunami. Him sinking in cold maelstrom, limbs empty of intention. Pleading for death in salt brine. Seeking oblivion. Waking in morning light.
He screamed at the moon as the song built to a crescendo. He noticed a small house spilling light out onto the silver sand. Bioluminescent pulses of energy crashed in the waves from plankton bloom, a glowing soup of life roiling in the ocean’s arms. Ichika walked toward him from the porch of the house singing. Her hair streamed out from her shoulders in the mounting gales as the ocean joined in the song. It oscillated between pitches of sublime beauty and ear piercing transcendence. Parts were almost beyond hearing, while the whole filled the sky with a song of storm, wave and deep darkness.
This was his wife, he was sure! Her face, the contours of her body, he would never forget that love. His first and only true love. They had explored each other beyond words for a decade, learning the heart of soul in each of them. He knew it in his bones. Hinata opened his mouth to call out his wife’s name. Nothing emerged but a keening wail of anguish which rippled across the surface of the ocean. His voice started to form a rhythm in sympathy with hers as she stopped right before him. Her eyes smiled at him as they linked hands and the universe came together in an explosive symphony of night and day, time fraying at the edges as the pathways of their lives played in the rhythm of shared memory.
The song continued on as they walked toward the tideline.
Who is this guy. Sora fumbled his camera into the case before jumping from his hiding place in the dunes. No way, no how. Not on my watch asshole. She is mine. I have invested too much time in stalking this bitch. He pulled the knife from his pocket and ran toward the beach and the two distant figures walking hand in hand.
Hinata felt his wife’s hand in his. The warmth spread up his arm as the cold pacific waters rose to his waist. That warmth spread outward into every pore of his body as the song poured from him. It mingling with her canticle, with the glowing translucent shimmer of plankton singing their tiny pulsing hearts, echoing the warble of sea birds in heaven’s field.
Suddenly two giant forms breached the surface as a man careened toward them from the darkness of the beach. They fell together into the lapis lazuli sea, a thousand comet tails of bioluminescence trailed from changing limbs. The song resonated through the water as arms turned to fins. Hinata felt his body burst from within in a catharsis of pain as a larger form grew from the implosive birth of their mingled song. Black night stretched away as he thrust his massive tail to power away from the sand wasteland.
Albatross wheeled overhead. Two large killer whales breached the waves in a powerful leap as the oceans song continued in endless rhythmic chant. Two smaller whales followed, playing with a limp carcass as they blasted spray across the face of the moon.
© Rowan Joyce
All images in this post are creative commons licence sourced from wikimedia.org, pixabay.com & unsplash.com, please follow links to verify. Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4, Link 5, Link 6 & Link 7.
I would like to thank the Isle of Write community and particularly @jrhughes for helping me with a proofread of my first draft of this story. Her insightful and constructive suggestions were really helpful. If you want to join a friendly writers community that offers workshop/feedback on creative work I highly recommend checking out the isle of write discord channel. If you have enjoyed this short fiction you can check out my other work on my homepage @raj808. Thanks for reading.
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