When Ikuko confided her plot to murder their grandfather, Kotaro felt a secret thrill in knowing that the malice multiplying inside her had reached a point where she was on the verge of acting out her murderous impulse. It was like a herd of plankton luring a monster fish, as dictated by the law of nature. She didn’t even bat an eye while harboring such a thought. At the same time, he foresaw his own inevitable fate: he would succumb to his sister’s flesh, which seemed as fertile as the Inland Sea. His intuition quickly accumulated within his hipbone and turned into a throbbing ache.
“Oh dear. How come you’ve got a hard-on?” Ikuko cackled aloud and pressed her breasts against his back. Her semi-suntanned hand brushed his flank and reached his crotch. Her soft palm grazed his manhood. Her carefree action teased Kotaro’s curiosity toward immorality, which hovered so close to his undiluted sexual desire.
“Cut it out. Nobody’s got a hard-on.”
The boy brushed away his sister’s arm.
“You pervert. The thought of killing Grandpa gives you a hard-on?”
“Yeah, it does. I touched it.” Ikuko laughed louder. “Murder gets you turned on. Did you kill our neighbors’ rabbit by any chance?”
She wasn’t far off after all. Kotaro turned and shoved Ikuko’s shoulder hard. She tripped and landed on her elbow on the tatami mat, revealing her underwear. Kotaro’s sharp gaze landed on lemon-yellow stains on her white cotton panties. He recovered his feelings of intellectual superiority over his sister. While he was a bright student whose intellect awed his middle school teachers, Ikuko had failed to pass the entrance exam to any high school in the last two years. As a result of too frequent abuse at the hands of bony delinquents in town, she’d become pregnant. After she got an abortion, her parents had sent her to this ship-building town for convalescing. Now she lived with their grandfather who had occupied the house alone for a long time. The town’s name had become a taboo in their parents’ conversations.
During the summer break, Kotaro had decided to pay his sister a visit in the house where their mother was born. After he parked his bicycle in front of the train station, he embarked upon a two-hour trip. He hesitated only for a few seconds before he purchased his ticket. However, once he secured his seat, he would find himself in the town that reeked of oil and rust at dusk. He would call his parents from the station once he got off the train. Grandpa had no phone in his house. If Kotaro needed to get in touch with him, he would call Grandpa’s neighbors’ house. As he’d walked along a leaky irrigation ditch, he’d reached Grandpa’s one-story house with a crooked roof. Grandpa was usually absent, leaving Ikuko home alone.
As Grandpa hardly ate at home, Kotaro wanted to know what Ikuko ate. She answered that she would buy fish on credit from a peddler and cooked it for herself. But she had no idea whether or not Grandpa paid off the debt. He only gave her money to go to the bathhouse in town, so she would save as much as possible to buy herself sweets. Around midnight, Grandpa came home drunk, pretending not to notice Kotaro, and lay in the six-tatami room in the back. Without turning the lights on, he listened to the radio through earphones and began to snore. Kotaro and his sister kept chatting in low voices in the living room. They finally went to bed as the sky began to turn white.
The sun’s rays shone over the tatami mat when Kotaro got up around noon. The old man had gone out to play shogi with his friends. As Ikuko had no money, Kotaro went out to fetch sweetened buns, fish sausages, and milk. They spent the day lying around doing nothing in particular while they neglected to clean up after themselves after meals. A few times, their grandfather came home like a jailor and stared at Ikuko in her slovenly state. Then he hurried back out again despite having no errands to run. On the train home, Kotaro would be able to count the number of words he exchanged with Grandpa during his three-day stay.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Killing Grandpa. Are you going to help me or not?”
Kotaro had no affection for him or, unlike Ikuko, held no hard feeling against him. A man of small stature, their grandfather had bad breath and bum legs. Despite his quick temper, he was a man of few words and kept his emotions in check. Barely living off his meager pension, he clung to a damp piece of land like litter floating at the water’s edge. He played shogi and gave nonsensical answers to his acquaintances who greeted him. At the bar he frequented, he would occupy the same seat and sip his second-grade sake while nibbling on sliced kamaboko or hanpen. On the days he had marked on the calendar, he would go see the speedboat races and make some pocket money. Even if he stopped doing any of his activities, no one would notice the difference. On the other hand, no one, except for Ikuko, would mind if he continued his routine for the next decade or two.
“But what’s the point of killing him?” Kotaro wondered aloud.
“It’ll make my life easier. A lot easier.” Ikuko lifted her chin, stuck her whitish tongue out, and breathed audibly. Her soft breasts wriggled as her throat throbbed.
“We’ve gotta do something. He doesn’t even let me bring friends home. I can’t even go out for long, ’cause he’d go to the local police box. Because the officer there has nothing else to do, he’d look for me all over town—from the station to the beach. It’s a nightmare.”
While their grandfather paid no attention to his other relatives, let alone Kotaro, he had exhibited his possessive obsession with Ikuko, despite the fact that her parents had forced him to take her in. Although he set strict limits for his dim-witted granddaughter, he seemed to regard her with a kind of awe.
“I don’t wanna go to jail, though.”
“Don’t worry, Ko-chan. Nobody will find out. I know a great way to do it. Pay attention to how he snores. In the middle of the night, he stops breathing for ten seconds or so. He can’t breathe ’cause he’s got something stuck in his throat. Then he gasps for air and goes back to snoring. If we keep him from breathing again, he’ll surely kick the bucket. Everybody will think he’s died in his sleep.”
“How are we supposed to keep him from breathing?”
“I’ll leave that up to you, Ko-chan. You’re the brainy one.”
Kotaro remained thoughtful for a while.
“Even so, a doctor will get suspicious and investigate the cause of his death.”
“Of course not. Nobody will care enough for an old man like that.”
“What are you going to do afterward?”
“I’ll stay here. He’s got money. He keeps it locked up in a drawer in the tansu over there. He unlocks the drawer, takes out a wad of notes, and counts them. A lot of dough. At least 500,000 yen.”
“What ya gonna do with it?”
“I can buy a lot of things. How about you, Ko-chan? Me? I want sandals. I saw a beautiful pair in the shoe store in front of the station. Maybe they’re imported. I wanted them so much.”
Ikuko seemed to have forgotten that Kotaro had shoved her and tipped her over a while ago. She leaned over his shoulder and cooed in his ear.
When Kotaro held a lifeless rabbit tight in his grip, he was disappointed that its death failed to cause anything in him except a mute ennui. After he experienced his first ejaculation two years earlier, he began his search for a way to recreate the sensation of fear and bliss. He presupposed that an active approximation to death would be the key. However, his hypothesis was proven false. As a young boy, he felt a tingling sensation running up his spine as he acted out of malice and squashed an insect. He had expected something close. Perhaps the death of a rabbit was too insignificant to thrill him with pleasure now.
As he sank deeper into his reverie, he desecrated his sister’s flesh. He managed to stay inside the brilliant color just before he ejaculated. Afterward, he would find himself in a discolored daily life again. He wiped the translucent fluid off of his palm with tissue paper. From the small window of the toilet, he glanced at the now empty rabbit hatch in the neighbors’ backyard. For some reason, Shimada-san had blamed his rabbit’s death on an unleashed dog. Now he would chase away any stray dog in his sight.
In the evening, while immersed in the tub at the bathhouse, Kotaro overheard a rumor about a strange siren. In the shipyard, the sirens would ring out all too frequently. They announced the hour or preceded special notices. Ships sounded their whistles. The lighthouse blew its foghorn. However, recently, a different siren echoed through the beach on some nights. The following morning, someone in town had disappeared.
“Maybe it’s umibōzu. It snatches you away and swallows you,” a man said.
A chorus of raucous guffaws rose. The man who had brought up the sea-monster laughed hardest.
“Could be a Russian or North Korean ship,” another man chimed in.
“They’d stay in the Sea of Japan. They wouldn’t bother coming to the Inland Sea.”
Thick muscles had formed around their necks, shoulders, and arms. They were some kind of craftsmen but not shipyard workers. His mother had told Kotaro that there was a bath inside the shipyard as well as their company homes, so shipyard workers wouldn’t come to a bathhouse in town.
He waited for Ikuko outside the bathhouse. When she came out, they headed toward their grandfather’s one-story house. On the way back, Ikuko stopped in front of the shuttered shoe store. She peeked in through the mail slot.
“I can’t see well. Maybe they have been sold.”
“Then you can order another pair.”
Kotaro made a mental note to speak to his father and ask for money for Ikuko’s sandals.
When they got home, their grandfather was sipping his sake in the living room. Perhaps the bar he frequented was closed. He had earphones in his ears. While they lingered, seated on the agari-kamachi at the entrance, he raised his cup to his mouth and drained it. He went into the room in the back, folded a zabuton in half, laid it as a pillow under his head, and started to snore faintly.
Kotaro sat up against the wall, hugging his knees to his chest. Ikuko crawled closer and whispered in his ear. “Listen.” But their grandfather’s snoring remained steady. As he listened to his regular breathing, he too was seized by sleep. His eyelids dropped closed. In a brief dream, the boy heard a siren that sounded like a woman’s sobbing,
“Ko-chan. Ko, help!” Ikuko’s scream and the banging on the tatami mat brought him back to reality. His sister called him from the room in the back. In the penumbra, Grandpa’s legs thrashed against the tatami mat. Ikuko’s pale thighs were spread apart. He strained his eyes, thinking that the two of them might have been engaged in an abnormal act. Then he realized that Ikuko sat astride Grandpa while she pressed the zabuton against his face.
“Ko-chan, hurry. Hold him down.”
She struggled to choke their grandfather. The boy rose from the tatami mat and stood dazed at the entrance to the room. Grandpa grabbed Ikuko’s arm that pressed his chest.
“Ko-chan. Hurry. He’s going to kill me!” Ikuko screamed.
The boy grabbed Grandpa’s arm and ripped it away from his sister. Grandpa kicked even harder. Kotaro sat on top of the old man’s knees and pressed his weight against them.
“He hadn’t breathed for a long time. So I thought he was dead. Just in case he was still alive, I pressed the zabuton to his face. Then he began fighting.”
As his sister babbled on, it dawned on Kotaro that this wasn’t a make-believe game. They were trying to do Grandpa in for real. Just then, his heart began pounding fast. Before he decided to see through this folly to the end or call it off, their grandfather’s limbs suddenly went limp. That prompted Kotaro to get up, but the old man lay listless. Ikuko still pressed the zabuton against his face.
“Is it over? Is he dead?” Ikuko asked.
“Yup, he’s dead,” Kotaro replied. The sweat from his forehead ran across his cheeks.
Then the entrance door slid open and the next-door neighbor stepped in.
“Matsumoto-san, you’ve got a phone call,” he yelled.
Kotaro leaped into the living room.
“Oh, I didn’t know you were visiting.”
The neighbor placed his hands on the agari-kamachi and gazed inside. As he saw a disturbed expression on the boy’s face, his smile became frozen.
“What happened to your grandpa?”
When Kotaro turned toward the room in the back, the zabuton was no longer on Grandpa’s face.
“He’s dead,” Kotaro mumbled.
“He stopped breathing during his sleep and never woke up,” said Ikuko in the dark.
“Oh, here you are.” A plump, robust-looking doctor the neighbor had summoned narrowed his eyes at Ikuko. Kotaro sensed that his sister was some sort of celebrity in town. As soon as the doctor entered the six-tatami room and sat beside Grandpa’s body, he frowned and uttered an audible groan. Taking a penlight from his shirt pocket, the doctor waved it in front of the old man’s eyes, holding first one of his eyelids open and then the other.
“He’s passed away. It was sudden, wasn’t it?” The doctor stared at Kotaro and then his gaze hovered over Ikuko. She nodded and glared at the doctor.
“Was he drinking?”
“Yes, doctor. A lot,” Kotaro answered.
The doctor nodded. “It happens to a lot of drinkers. I’ll have to exam him carefully, so please wait at Shimada-san’s house. Oh, I want you to stay here, miss. I need a woman’s help here.”
With Mrs. Shimada’s arm around his shoulder, Kotaro stepped into the neighbors’ house. It was well illuminated with many lamps.
“We’ve got quite a situation there,” Mr. Shimada sighed.
“He could be a bit difficult, but he was a good person down deep,” his wife said.
Kotaro sipped the icy glass of barley tea Mrs. Shimada had brought him. He felt disoriented by the unfamiliar odors of the strangers’ house that filled his nostrils. He barely paid attention to the couple’s talk while he imagined how upset they would be had he told them the truth—that he had murdered his own grandfather merely to get his rocks off. Then he realized that he had mixed up their rabbit and his grandfather.
More than half an hour passed. Even so, the doctor hadn’t come. He excused himself, put his shoes back on, and went outside. The doctor had just slid open the door. When he spotted the boy, he fixed his tie and hand-combed his thinning hair. “Don’t worry. His hard drinking took its toll. I’ll have a chat with Shimada-san.” The doctor headed to the neighbors’ house.
Kotaro bowed as they crossed paths. When he peeked inside the six-tatami room, Ikuko was buttoning her blouse back up beside their grandfather, his face covered with a handkerchief. The air reeked with the smell of an afternoon tidal flat.
“Oh, it’s you, Ko-chan,” Ikuko uttered in a listless tone. “Never mind then. It’s awfully hot in here.” She unbuttoned the top part of her blouse and fanned herself. “Now get over here, Ko-chan. Do you wanna suck on my tits?”
His mouth half open, Kotaro stepped into the room and kneeled before Ikuko.
“Just kidding. Of course you can’t. We’re family. But you can lick between my tits as long as you don’t touch them.”
Kotaro nodded and placed his hand on the tatami mat. He buried his face in her cleavage, touching her moist skin with his mouth. Beads of sweat rolled down between her breasts and wet his lips.
“The doctor is going to buy me sandals.”
As he savored Ikuko’s salty skin, Kotaro unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, began to stroke himself. When his sister chuckled, her breath tickled his hair. Then he splashed all over her skirt. In spite of himself, he repeatedly came and drew abstract shapes on her. This is it. This darkness. In the blink of an eye, the darkness swallowed his consciousness as Kotaro collapsed into Ikuko’s lap.
He awoke to a deafening cacophony of sirens. He realized he had fallen asleep after he ejaculated. He zipped up his pants and looked around, but Ikuko was nowhere in sight. Neither was his grandfather’s body. The living room was empty. When he put on his shoes and went outside, he noticed the wail of sirens drifting from the sea. As he hurried down toward the beach, he decided to look for his sister first. But her scent wafted from the same direction.
He spotted the doctor at the entrance to the beach. His heart skipped a beat when he saw his grandfather standing at the water’s edge. But it all made sense as it dawned on him that everyone was on the lookout for Ikuko. The ceaseless sirens kept calling him. As he realized what had transpired, he stepped into the salty waves.
Yasumi Tsuhara has authored numerous books, most recently the best-selling novel Hikky Hikky Shake (2019). In 1997, he made his debut as a horror novelist with Yōto. His 2011 story collection 11 won the second Twitter Literary Award. In 2014, the manga adaptation of his story “Goshiki no fune” won the Bureau for Cultural Affairs’ Media Arts Festival Grand Prize. His work has been translated into several languages, including Chinese, English, Italian, and Korean.