Issue 173, Spring 2005
Let me tell you about my mornings.
I’m an early riser. Most days, I wake up even earlier than my wife.
If the sun has risen, thin rays of light filter down through the cracks in the ceiling. I just lie there for a while, gazing up at all those rays of light trickling in.
No light appears on days when it’s cloudy or raining, even if I wait. On the rare occasions when it snows, the room seems faintly bright even before dawn.
It’s warm inside my futon, but the tip of my nose is cold. I want to rush into the bathroom right away, but I have a hard time making myself leave the futon.
After a while, my wife wakes up. She goes off to the toilet before I can manage to get up. My wife is a good riser; no sooner is she up than she’s cleaning the house and setting the pot on the fire, humming all the while.
Eventually I get myself ready, and by the time I start making the rounds, checking up on the humans I picked up the previous day or the day before that or even earlier, a bright red fire is blazing in the fireplace, water is boiling away in the whistling kettle, and the whole room is fragrant with the wonderful scent of toast. My wife works fast.
The humans I’ve collected are in the next room.
Most of them are sprawled on the floor. There are tons of futons and blankets and pillows in there. Very few of the humans ask us if it’s all right to use them. Some burrow down into the heaped-up blankets as soon as we take them into the room. Some push aside the humans who are already stretched out on the floor and snuggle up inside their nice, warm futons. Some keep wheeling around the room, stepping on the humans who are lying down. That’s what these humans are like.
Even so, after half a day or so everyone settles down into his or her own place or territory or what have you, and silence descends on the room.
Every morning, I go around and give each human a few soft pats on the shoulder. First, this allows me to make sure they’re still alive. Second, it gives me a chance to find out if they want to leave immediately, or if they’d prefer to stay a little longer.
I drag the dead ones out of the house and drop them down a hole that has been dug outside, even deeper into the earth. The hole extends more than a hundred meters below the surface. I didn’t dig the hole. Neither did my wife. It took our ancestors generations to dig it, working at their own pace.
Originally, the hole was intended to be a place where our clan could drop its dead. But as time passed, our numbers dwindled; now, we have no one left in the world but our parents and our siblings, of which we each have two.
Our parents and siblings live even further south than Kyushu, in a place fairly deep down under the ground. They live quiet lives, free from interactions with humans. Every so often my wife’s mother sends us letters, but all she says in them is that we ought to hurry up and get out of Tokyo, and come join them where they are. She seems to worry that my brother-in-law and sister-in-law might get the itch to move to Tokyo, too.
I can always tell which humans are likely to want to leave immediately because they respond when I touch their shoulders, lifting their faces to look up. The humans all have this forlorn look on their faces then. They keep their eyes locked on mine, perfectly still, and mutter things under their breath.
I give each human another soft pat on the shoulder, smiling warmly. Then I return to the main room, where my wife is, and have a few slices of crispy fried bacon and yogurt with peach jam on top.
When I finish eating, my wife and I carry the big pot of gruel that she has cooked into the next room to give to the humans. My wife ladles the gruel into bowls; I get the humans to line up. Of course, you can’t expect too much from these humans: before you know it they’re cutting the line, or if they find it too much of a hassle to line up they just grab other people’s bowls. They’re all like that. Whenever they do something bad, I tell them to stop, and if they still don’t stop I give them a swat with my claws and force them to listen. That’s how I maintain order.
After all the gruel has been eaten, the room falls silent again. I start getting ready to go to work. My wife polishes the kitchen sink, then starts the washing machine, which moans as it spins. She comes to see me off; I throw open the trap door and go out into the street. I take my time walking to the station. I’ve got on my cashmere coat and my muffler. And I’m wearing my leather gloves. I get cold easily. I change trains twice on my way to work; the commute takes a little under an hour.
Arriving at work, I punch my timecard. While I’m waiting for one of the office girls to make tea I glance over the faxes that have been left on my desk. When I first came to work at this company, people sometimes threw rocks at me or pelted me with rotten vegetables and things, but over the years both my colleagues and my superiors seem to have grown accustomed to my presence.
The young humans who have joined the company in recent years don’t even seem to notice how different I look. I don’t think they consciously decide not to wonder about me, why my form is so unlike theirs; they simply can’t be bothered. People sometimes make comments—“You’re pretty hairy, aren’t you?”—but no one openly stares at me anymore, or presses me for information about my background. Until a decade or so ago, people really gossiped a lot.
I sit at my computer until lunchtime, mostly dealing with statistics. Sometimes a young woman comes from general affairs and asks me to write out an address on an envelope in calligraphy, using a brush. I’m a good calligrapher. Everyone says I write sharper-looking characters than anyone else in the company.
I sit there quietly plowing through my assigned tasks until the time comes to open the box lunch that my wife has made me. I get cold even though the office is heated, so I put disposable heating pads on my stomach and lower back. Lunchtime rolls around right about the time the pads begin to lose their heat.
Let me tell you about my lunch break.
When I finish eating my lunch, I carefully wrap up the empty box again and go give my hands a good washing. I wash off my face while I’m at it. I eat with chopsticks, but I also make good use of my claws and the palms of my hands. My hands get sticky from the oil, and little bits of food get stuck on the fur on my cheeks and around my mouth.
I don’t know if it’s because no one can stand the sight of me eating or because people see no reason to spend even their lunch breaks in the office, but either way the young woman manning the phones and I are the only two left in our section. There isn’t a sound in the whole office, and it gets a little chilly.
I start feeling so cold that I go out to spend what remains of the lunch break in the park in front of the station.
There are lots of humans over in the park, holed up in cardboard shacks; I make it my practice to accept the hospitality of whoever’s shack looks the warmest.
“Hey, you’re not human, are you?” says the drifter, who has been scrutinizing my hands and feet and face as I crawl inside. These drifters look much more closely at me than the young humans at the office.
“Human? I should say not!” I say, puffing out my chest.
“Don’t be so hoity-toity,” the drifter chuckles. “You’re just an animal.”
“What do you mean by that! Humans are animals, too, aren’t they?”
“Well, yeah. You’ve got a point there.”
Our exchange typically comes to an end around then. These drifters aren’t too talkative. The humans I collect aren’t too talkative, either. Generally speaking, the humans in Tokyo have all become pretty closemouthed of late.
As I sit there with my back pressed up against the drifter’s, I gradually start to feel warm. It’s much warmer pressing up against a human back than it is in the office, even when it’s raining—even, in fact, when it’s snowing. And yet humans don’t seem to huddle together very often. Sometimes I wonder why humans are so distant with one another.
I never pick up drifters. The humans I collect are more unstable than them.
I leave the drifter’s cardboard shack and walk around for a while in the alleys that run behind the buildings near the station. There aren’t any unstable humans there, not in the alleys. Strange though it may seem, they tend to appear in brighter, more open spaces. Around the kiosks in the station, for instance, or in well-lit coffee shops with wide glass windows, or in department stores.
There are cats in the alleys. Whenever they see me, their hair stands on end and they yowl at me. They say: Giyaa! Humans like cats, so they look displeased when cats cry Giyaa! at them. I try to steer clear of cats when I walk in the alleys.
Sometimes there’s a hole near the end of an alley; when I scrunch up and burrow down inside, I find that the soil there is nice and soft. I dig into the soft soil with my claws, deeper and deeper. Sometimes I get carried away and end up tunneling all the way home. My wife bristles when she sees my wonderful cashmere coat all covered with dirt. I give her a kiss and make my way back through the tunnel.
Aboveground, the sunlight is blinding. Even on cloudy days it takes a while after I emerge from the earth for my eyes to get used to the light; I have to wait a bit before I can even open them. I stand there for a moment, feeling the brightness through my tightly closed eyelids. The light feels cold. Even though it comes from the sun, it feels cold. My wife says this is because the sun is just too far away from the earth. Down inside the earth it’s much warmer than aboveground, because there you’re closer to the lowest reaches of the earth, where the magma is. Even the humans I collect look much warmer sprawled out in the second room of our house than they did when they were aboveground.
Eventually my eyes grow accustomed to the light, and I am able to open them. I brush the dirt from my coat, wrap my disheveled muffler around my neck again, and return to the office. By the time the lunch break draws to an end, the office is completely filled with humans. I switch on the monitor of my computer and call up rows and rows of figures from inside the hard drive. A young woman makes me some hot tea. I take sips of it, holding the teacup between my claws.
Sometimes my claws slip, and I drop the teacup on the floor. The young women rush right over and, without a word, begin sweeping up the fragments. The young women won’t look me in the eye. None of the humans at work ever look me in the eye. They never try to talk to me, either.
I sit at my computer, tapping away on the keyboard with my claws.
Let me tell you about my afternoons.
In the afternoon, sunlight gushes into the office and it gets a little warmer. There are three potted rubber plants lined up alongside the reception desk. On the way to the toilet, I sometimes blow off a bit of the dust that has accumulated on their leaves. Dust accumulates very quickly on the leaves of rubber plants. By the time the day is half done, they’re already thinly coated with dust stirred up by passing humans.
In the toilet, I enter a stall. I’m smaller than humans are, so I can’t quite reach an ordinary urinal. I’m about two-thirds as tall as a full-grown man. Once I went ahead and tried to urinate in the urinal anyway, with the predictable result: I couldn’t really aim high enough, so I made a mess.
On the way to the toilet, I always talk a bit with the humans who do the cleaning in our building. In the afternoon, they can usually be found on the emergency stairs between the third and second floors. They lean against the wall, not speaking.
Sometimes the cleaning humans pass on a tip.
“There was one of them outside today.” They are the humans I collect.
“This guy today looked kind of dangerous.”
“Oh? How did he look?”
“Like he might jump off a roof or something.”
How unpleasant, the cleaning humans say to each other. I mean, once, there was this guy who actually jumped, you know, and I saw him go. The humans say things like that, and then they laugh. Aahaha. I don’t understand why they laugh at such moments. I don’t laugh. I only laugh at happy times. The humans don’t really seem to be laughing because they’re happy. I just don’t get humans.
I take out my memo pad and note down where they saw “one of them.”
When I go back to the office and sit down at my computer, a young woman brings me some tea. The tea the young women make in the afternoon is always lukewarm. Maybe humans get tired in the afternoon. If they’re tired they ought to go to sleep, but instead they keep their clothes on, nice and neat, and they sit on their chairs and get up and walk around and so on and so forth, tired all the while.
When I get tired, I lie down right away, in the office or the hall or wherever I am. I spread my cashmere coat over my body like a blanket and sink for some time into a profound sleep. The humans cut a wide swath around me when they pass, being careful not to step on me. I always try to lie down near the wall, so they ought to walk straight by without worrying. But they make a big arc, heels clicking on the floor in an especially busy way, coming nowhere near my supine form.
My whole body is cold when I wake up. I’ve been lying directly on the floor, so it’s only natural. I leap up, causing a momentary buzz among the humans. There isn’t actually a buzz, just a tremor of energy that shudders through the air. I can sense it.
The humans dislike me. It’s been that way for ages. Back in my ancestors’ time, no one could have imagined that the day would come when I would live my life like this, among humans. In the old days, humans used to hate our clan, and if they so much as caught sight of one of us they would shoot him with guns or jab him with spades or sprinkle poison all over the place. Boy, was that terrible.
Hardly anyone tries to attack me now. Humans no longer seem so sure of what they hate and what they like. Deep down at the core of their being they feel hatred for me, yet they let me stay on at the company as if everything were just fine. They tell themselves that they let me stay on because they need me. But most of the humans have no need for me at all. Truth be told, for the vast majority of humans, we who inhabit the earth’s depths cause nothing but harm.
I walk slowly through the frigid ripples of attention, return to my computer, and wait for the lukewarm tea some young woman will bring. I check my e-mail and find any number of messages from humans writing to tell me that they came across “one of them” in such and such a place. I note down in my pad all the places where “one of them” was spotted, and when I’ve finished I erase the e-mails.
Day after day, the number of e-mails keeps rising. The muffled voices of humans who happen to have heard someone, somewhere, talking about me, keep pushing on and on in my direction, growing like the slender roots of a plant working their way through a boulder.
I drink my lukewarm tea, then drop the teacup on the floor. Every so often I drop my teacup like this, on purpose. Their bodies seething with hatred, but without letting that hatred out, sending deep black waves rippling through the air in every direction, the humans begin sweeping up the fragments of my teacup.
I gaze at the figures on my computer screen, acting as if nothing had happened. The dim red light of the setting sun streams in through the glass of the office’s wide windows. The sunset has expanded until it fills the sky. A raging sunset that occupies the entire sky over Tokyo.
I begin noting down in my pad the order in which I’ll go collect them.
Why don’t I tell you about my evenings?
When I leave work, I always make a deep bow. The walls of the office building are cloaked in a dusky twilight glow that makes things look wet, and it’s hard to make out their edges. The lit-up windows are like square pieces of white paper floating in the air. The humans, on their way out of the office, keep their distance from me as I stand there bowing. The humans never turn to look back at the building after they’ve left. Even though they could die in the night, and then they wouldn’t be coming back the next day. The humans just rush out and hurry on home.
Once I feel I’ve bowed enough, I start walking toward the part of town where all the action is.
The night is young. The darkness that fills the streets is still fairly light. I go into a bar and order a draft beer. The young guy who comes to take my order shows a flicker of surprise at the hairiness of my body, but he takes the order without changing his expression. He doesn’t take much time bringing out a snack to go along with the drink, either; he sets down a small bowl filled with slices of dried daikon.
The young guy only seems startled at first. He quickly gets used to me, and he comes out promptly with the dishes I keep ordering, one after the other. Deep fried tofu in broth, salt-grilled gizzard, yellowtail and daikon in soup, things like that.
“Say, have you seen any of them around here?” I ask sometime around the second bottle of warm sake.
“Oh no, they wouldn’t come to a place like this!” replies the young man.
Looking around the bar, I see two or even three of them. One looks terribly tired, and the whites of his eyes are bleary; another is drooped over, his eyes so clear they’re almost blue. The young guy hardly seems to notice when they order something; he just keeps bustling briskly around the room.
They slide off their chairs, wobble into walls. I stick out a claw and breezily grab hold of one of them, hooking him by his back. He dangles there for a while at the end of my claw, then gradually begins to shrink. It’s not long before he’s only half my size, and eventually he gets so small I can hold him in the palm of my hand.
Pinching him gingerly between two claws, I lower him into one of the pockets of my cashmere coat. He doesn’t shout or try to resist, he just quietly slips down into my pocket. Almost as if he had been wanting this all along.
“Comes to thirty-five-hundred yen, sir,” says the young guy who works at the bar, bringing the bill.
“There were a bunch of them here, you know,” I tell him, taking one of them from my pocket, holding him gingerly between two fingers.
The young guy’s eyes widen as he stares at the shrunken thing.
“I’ll be darned! So we had some here too, huh?” he says, shrugging. He peers uneasily at the thing, which is flopped over with his eyes closed, and asks me, “What the hell are they anyway?”
“Good question. I’d say . . . I’m not really sure myself.”
“But if you had to say more than that . . .” says the young guy, urging me on. I put the thing back in my pocket and think for a few moments. All of a sudden, over the course of the last decade, these things have started increasing in number. When my parents began to feel hopeless about things they always used to say they had “no more spirit to live.” It strikes me that maybe that’s what they are: humans who no longer have what my parents called “the spirit to live.”
If they are left to their own devices, these things become empty. They themselves become empty, and then the places where they are, and then eventually even the areas around the places where they are. They make it all unreal.
You might expect them to die once they’re empty, but they don’t.
Evidently it takes real power even to die.
People who don’t die, but who don’t live, either; who just are wherever they are, eating away at their surroundings. Eating away at themselves, too. When you get right down to it, that’s what they are.
When was it, I wonder, the first time one of them fell underground, down into the place where I live. I heard a big thump, and when I went into the next room to see what had happened there was a human there. A human I’d never seen before. Of course, in those days my wife and I were still living quietly in our underground world, just the two of us, so we never had any interactions with humans.
“I’m scared,” said the human.
“What are you scared of?” my wife and I both asked at once.
“Scared of it all,” the human replied, still staring into space.
After that, we had a person a week, then one every fie days, then one every three days. Little by little the frequency with which the humans came tumbling down increased, until at last one would drop into the next room every day, without fail.
At first, we just waited for the humans to fall. They would stay there in the next room for a while, then go back aboveground.
“Are you going back up?” I’d ask.
And in most cases the humans would reply: “I’m going.”
Apparently the humans just had to stay underground for a while, and then, once they had done that, they were able to go back aboveground.
All kinds of humans dropped down into our house. We had kids with long arms and lanky legs, we had wobbly old folks, we had well-built adults. The humans all kept to themselves; their bodies gave the space around them a wild look.
Early on, my wife and I would dig a separate hole each time one of the humans who dropped into our house died, and we gave each body a careful burial. After a while we remembered the hole our ancestors had dug, and decided to throw the bodies in there. Humans grow cold and stiff when they die. We Mogera wogura also become cold and stiff. Humans cry when one of their number dies, but we don’t. We cry when we’re sad or when we feel hurt and angry. Death is simply a fact of life, so it doesn’t make us sad. It doesn’t make us feel hurt and angry. But when a human dies, even though the other humans are always so hollow and reticent and uninterested, they all come together and sob and wail, so that the next room resounds with their cries. They cry in such a way that they seem to be enjoying themselves. I just don’t get humans.
I only started collecting humans a few years ago. Since I started going around pocketing humans, those who no longer even have the strength to come tumbling down underground, my nights have gotten busy. Following the sequence written out in my pad, I bustle busily along, gathering humans. They just sit there perfectly motionless, so it’s easy to hook them with my claws.
I go around without a moment’s rest all through the night, picking up humans, collecting more and more in the pockets of my cashmere coat.
I’ll tell you about the wee hours of the night.
Now that I’m done gathering up the humans, I feel exhausted.
I walk soundlessly along the long black strip of asphalt. My pockets are full of humans. From time to time I pat the outsides of my pockets to make sure none of the humans are in danger of spilling out.
When I come to the entrance to our house, I raise the trapdoor and wriggle down below ground. My wife is waiting up for me. I’ve told her that she doesn’t have to, but she says it’s harder for her to get a good night’s sleep if she gets up again after she’s gone to bed. So she waits for me, wearing a nice thick sweater over her pajamas, sipping a cup of hot chocolate or warm milk.
“Welcome back!” says my wife in her gentle voice. She’s a gentle-voiced Mogera wogura. All my wife’s relatives are like that. My father-in-law and my brother-in-law both have gentle voices, and my mother-in-law’s and my sister-in-law’s voices sound just like my wife’s, though their faces don’t really look all that much alike.
Helping me out of my cashmere coat, my wife asks if I’d like a little rice in some tea or something; then, with a single quick gesture, she hangs my coat on the hanger. The pockets are bulging. My wife sticks a claw down into one of the pockets and gingerly extracts a human. One, two, three ... She counts aloud as she lines them up on the table.
At first, the humans remain perfectly still. After a while they begin to scrabble about on the table, beginning with the relatively lively ones. As their movements grow more energetic, they gradually return to their original size. My wife and I carry them into the next room before they get to be too big and let them expand to their full size in there.
The humans who are already in the other room gaze on blankly as the little humans go back to being big humans. The humans I’ve just collected are universally blank. No matter how unnatural and strange something may appear to humans, they never lose their blank looks. Pretty much the only time they ever cry or blow their noses or otherwise express emotion is when one of their number dies.
Once my wife and I have seen that all the humans are back to their normal size, we sit down on either side of the table and drink a hot cup of fragrant, roasted-leaf tea. Sometimes we have a few rice crackers, too. We hardly ever talk about the humans. We don’t talk about my work, either. We talk about other things. What was on sale that day at the supermarket. About how Chiro, at the pharmacy, just had puppies. About the fact that ever since she had her puppies, Chiro is always barking at my wife. My wife and I chat about this and that, sipping our fragrant tea.
In the next room, the humans climb down into the futons, under the blankets. Occasionally some of the humans will talk to each other. My wife and I press our ears to the wall that separates the next room from the living room and listen to their voices. The humans’ voices are gentle. I’m only talking about the voices of the humans who drop into our house, and of the ones I collect. The humans at work don’t have gentle voices at all.
“Scary, isn’t it.”
“Yeah, real scary ... grass of remembrance ... on the ancient eaves.”
We have no idea what any of it means. Everything the humans say sounds like a broken machine. They just keep repeating scary scary or bellowing oow oow.
“Scary” is the word the humans say most often. I can’t imagine what it is that scares them so much. Their faces blank, their voices gentle, the humans keep saying “scary scary scary” back and forth to each other, repeating this in a never-ending loop. What on earth do they find so frightening? And if they’re so scared, why doesn’t it show? I just don’t get humans.
Shortly before my wife and I go to bed, we go into the next room, where the humans are.
We walk around saying things to them. Hey, that hat looks really great on you! What’s your favorite food? That futon sure looks nice and warm! Little things like that. The humans reply to our questions with surprising alacrity. Though amongst themselves they hardly ever have a conversation worthy of the name. I like fish best, I’m particularly fond of rockfish, so I was sitting on the shore trying to catch myself some rockfish when this cat came up to me, it was a calico cat with white, black, and tea-colored stripes, and once I killed a cat and ate it but it wasn’t any good. They come out with things like that, speaking very fluidly, without a pause.
My wife and I go off to bed and fall into a deep sleep.
All night long, cries and sighs come from the next room, where the humans are. At first my wife and I weren’t used to those sounds, so we had trouble going to sleep; nowadays we drift off right away.
My wife snores a little. Apparently I snore a lot myself when I’m asleep.
I’ll tell you about dawn.
Dawn is when we Mogera wogura bear our children.
My wife has had fifteen children so far. They were small, lively children, covered all over with soft hair. But they all died soon after they were born. Not a single one of our children survived. We dug a separate hole for each child, and gave each a careful burial.
The humans shed tears when they learned that our children died. Some of them cried even more vociferously than they had after one of their own number died. My wife and I don’t cry, even when the death is that of a newborn child, because death is a fact of life. There are people among the humans I’ve collected who have strangled their own children, and yet they, even more than any of the others, howl and writhe as they cry. I just don’t get humans.
It’s not only Mogera wogura. Humans also tend to have children at dawn.
In the past decade or so, two of the humans have given birth to children. One had a boy, the other a girl. They were small, lively children, covered all over with soft hair. They were human babies, of course, and yet they looked just like baby Mogera wogura. None of the humans paid the slightest attention when they were born. The humans cry and generally make a tremendous fuss when one of them dies, but it seemed as if they didn’t give a fart when the babies were born.
The moment the mothers laid eyes on their hairy babies, they tossed them away. Then they crawled right down into their futons and went to sleep. Both the mothers went back aboveground about two days after they had their babies, so the children were left to their own devices here underground. The humans didn’t show the slightest interest when they saw them, hairy as they were.
My wife and I raised the children that the humans brought into the world. They grew claws and matured so quickly they hardly seemed human; after three years they were fully grown. We set them free aboveground, and they both scampered off somewhere. We haven’t had word of them since.
When the sun rises, thin rays of light filter down through the cracks in the ceiling. I just lie there for a while, gazing up at all those rays of light trickling in. No light appears on days when it’s cloudy or raining, even if I wait. On the rare occasions when it snows, the room seems faintly bright even before dawn.
It’s warm inside my futon, but the tip of my nose is cold. I want to rush into the bathroom right away, but I have a hard time making myself leave the futon. After a while, my wife wakes up. She goes off to the toilet before I can manage to get up. My wife is a good riser; no sooner is she up than she’s cleaning the house and setting the pot on the fire, humming all the while.
Eventually I get myself ready, and by the time I start making the rounds, checking up on the humans I picked up the previous day or the day before that or even earlier, a bright red fire is blazing in the fireplace, water is boiling away in the whistling kettle, and the whole room is fragrant with the wonderful scent of toast.
The next room is overflowing with humans. My wife and I drop the dead ones down the hole, separate the ones who are going to go back aboveground immediately from those who aren’t, and distribute the gruel.
The humans all look very listless, as if they’re dead. But they aren’t dead. They keep eating away at their surroundings, eating away at themselves; they stay where they are, perfectly motionless—but they don’t die. Here in our hole, unable to become Mogera wogura themselves, as human as ever, they wait for the time when they will be able to go back aboveground.
Some humans die before they are able to go back; then all the others shed tears and writhe about wildly on the floor, and for just a moment their faces, otherwise dead, light up.
—translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich