:: Article

Sea Women

By Jay G Ying.

The moth was still alive even after I had killed it.

Ever since the yellow fog began to smother our city all the urban creatures who could not escape in time tried to seek refuge within our human realms. The wildlife of the city grew increasingly unbalanced with every dead bat body volleyed onto the windowsill, with every Japanese rat snake curled up in the bath like a tight blue ponytail. Our balconies were invaded by tildes of pinkish worms inching their way onto the glass. Inside, the ants and cockroaches and moths all seemed to have their own writhing agendas for survival. They crowded out and made nests in all those dark secret spaces I used to think were safe, taking advantage of the fact that I could only exist in one room at any given moment.

Yes, I was certain the moth had just twitched.

My slap echoed far louder than I had expected it to; something in the elemental properties of my apartment changed that night. I worried that the twins would start crying from the flat below. After I returned to Tokyo I soon grew accustomed to their noises: like an ambulance silence they would often begin without warning, their cries fully materialised through the floorboards like a piercing pulse of sonar. Even if I were to move into another room I still believed that they were channelling all of their energies into that wail beneath me, twinned spirits following my every footfall.

I never did see the twins in the flesh: we occupied different streams in our apartment block. Before the curfew I often saw those luminescent animal stickers their parents must have plastered to the window of the nursery glowing faintly through the mesh whenever I walked back to our complex at sundown. The glass had been completely taken over by purple lion heads that seemed to grow out of the corner like a herd of peonies.

Yet it felt as if no time had passed at all since I last heard the sound of their crying. I had forgotten that they were truly gone, the presence of their continued silence only amplified louder after I slapped my wall, deep and unforgiving like two missing faces absent from a photograph. No signs of life leftover, no ghostly heads pressed to their window looking down.

I wondered if the twins escaped away to the countryside.

The security guard believed the entire family had travelled to Nakanojō: One day during the Summer vacation I heard that Master Kimura was sick. He did not know if they were coming back. Their rent was still paid for, their letters had yet to be redirected.

 

When the city holds its breath in the early hours before the dawn it is easy to imagine children are there when they are not, or to believe that for some creatures death simply passes over with no effect. I heard the wild coughing from the group of men who were working down in the courtyard outside; I was so sure that they knew something we, the residents, did not know about the unnatural fog and its origins. They worked in the night yet little seemed changed when I peeked out from behind my curtains down towards the ground, to that green space they had occupied for weeks now.

The new receptionist shrugged and said they were: Digging beneath the poplar trees. Some aberration between the pipes and the roots.

Could we not turn the cameras a few more degrees just so we could see better what they were up to, I asked her one morning. She did not even know that there were cameras mounted on the exterior walls of our courtyard.

I could not believe our resident association would let the men work unsupervised underneath the moon; and the more I thought about those men working down there like masked dolls inside their reflective decontamination suits, mercurial surgeons fading in then out of the fog, beneath the ground then hovering over it, operating first on the wood and then on the tubes, the more I worried that the yellow gas from the outside was beginning to move in—that it was already here.

 

I worried that those three legs, filled with lymph, I just crushed onto the wall would stain, the smear of that moth like peach juice on the wall’s cream paint.

A dash beside some commas.

On the pillow fell two more legs like eyelashes from the killed insect. And on my palm its extinguished brown life-dust came away when I blew on it as if it had not really existed at all. That night I opened my eyes to see the shape of wings hovering above my face as if the moth had just taken off from feeding on my dry lips or tears; there had to be a new colony somewhere in the insulation I was yet to uncover.

I was not sure when I started to dream of falling. Did it coincide with the enforcement of the curfew? Each night I watched the same vague woman slide open my balcony doors and tumble over the railings. Her body dissolved into the fog like a spirit falling into the past. I listened and counted every second as I expected to hear her body hit the ground below yet the sound of her death never returned to me. There was only the silence of the abyss; whatever lay at the bottom was kept out of sight.

 

My pillow covers were damp from sweat again as the stale drool pooled by my mouth like the opposite face of a coin. I fled to the bathroom tense with my hands on my hard and cramped belly, worried that I really would not make it, that I would wet myself, but just as I lifted the toilet seat the urgent pull in my groin vanished. The feeling emptied out.

I slowed down.

I rested my hands on my burning thighs. In the panic, a plot of weals had sprouted on my yellowed skin as if I had been stung by wasps wherever my fingers pressed down. Looking over to the bath I saw the tub was empty except for that large black slug I had discovered earlier in the morning, still resting near the drain like a dollop of dark plum jam.

I was out of breath. That needling of moisture along my arms left behind a static itch as the thin silk of my night-gown clung to my shoulder blades like two wet pages of a magazine.

Exhausted, I eventually made that agonising shuffle back to my bed feeling as if a great deal of time had passed since I sat on the rim of the toilet’s edge playing with its buttons, shivering and defeated, deceived, as I waited for not even one drop to trickle out of me.

Where did that fullness go that had made me so restless during the night? No doubt it was a time when everybody was on the way out. There it was again—that curious coughing or laughter in the distance. Soft like the body of a bird dropped onto the grass, already ending. The mad gurgle of the extractor fan continued long after I switched off the lights in the bathroom. Tomorrow, I decided, I would go back down and ask the receptionist of the situation: I would not take no for an answer.

I peeled off my night-gown and used it to wipe down my arms before bringing the sour sleeves to my nose. I scrunched the garment into a ball and buried it deep in the laundry basket, ashamed by its smell of death. A damp pyjama shirt floated on top of the dirty clothes like a sheet of kelp. I flapped the shirt out in the air before I put it on, expecting to see a family of moths to drop out of its dim cotton and olive buttons.

Since the beginning of the fog it was getting harder to put away the confusion that something inside my body was not functioning as intended. I was so sure I had developed another urinary tract infection. I could feel the dull gnawing warmth deep within both flanks spread from my back then upwards like a hot lift slowly rising in a disused building. I could feel the fire taking over. The doctors in the city were already so busy; I would have to put it all off, lock it away, until our nation’s state of emergency had passed.

 

When the curfew began all the leaves on the zelkova trees that lined the street and the grass in the gardens, the turf on the nearby pitches, they had all turned yellow as if they had taken in the fog like ink in the water. The city had aged all at once overnight; its Autumn had arrived early.

 

I would have to change the fitted sheets tomorrow. I flipped the duvet over to its cold side trying not to notice the little rashes of red and yellow daubs where I must have scratched myself that night, faint on the green fabric like spots on a leaf.

I massaged my belly in small circular motions but the flesh underneath felt as dense as old clay. I was annoyed that every object in the apartment had started to remind me of my scar again ever since my friend had left Tokyo almost two months ago. I was obliged to reach out to host her when I heard that she was coming to visit. We had loosely kept in touch after university since we both had an interest in publishing; back then, to the surprise of everyone in our circle of friends, she had found her first job at a renowned press straight after graduation. Now, nearly twenty years later, whenever I came across her name online I felt glad that I had kept that bridge standing, that I could let her know that I too still existed.

When our last term finished, a few months before my visa expired, I took up a part-time job as a cleaner for our campus’ swimming pool. We promised to catch up when she spotted me in the car park trying to avoid her. She wanted to pass on the email of a man who could get me an internship at a rival publishing house, she guaranteed it, even when she pressed repeatedly that I should never mention her name.

 

Men aren’t Saints. They want to be successful. They want to become full.

 

In a coffee shop she held that tiny folded card like a small bird in both hands; and, although I never did hear back from that editor, she seemed so confident sat there across from me on that bright morning of the vernal equinox, dressed in a new suit so that it seemed like the seasons we were students were in fact far beneath us, as if from a dream, so impressed I was with her new success, with how beautiful she looked then, I felt compelled by a weak form of kinship, or jealousy, to keep in touch, one predicated on favours, yes, a little competition, yes, but there was something reassuring in our small mutual rituals we followed through each year after I left the country.

This time she skilfully skirted around the main reason as to why she had come to Japan. I had an intuition that she was sick, that she planned on spending only a short while in Tokyo so that she could travel to the real destination she had in mind all along, somewhere in the mountains.

I took her to the spa in Dome City.

I suggested we try the ganban’yoku: we lay side by side in our oversized bathrobes on the large tiled floor where the rectangles reminded me so much of grave plots, bodies in the ground, the orange room lit by a series of lamps which gave the impression of a weak fire somewhere in the distance, shone with a glow like burnished platinum, the halite, or was it marble, glistening like the varnish on a coffin.

It felt silly lying there as if we were young students skipping lectures to roll around on the grass. She kept returning the conversation back to our days at university; one by one she recited these sweetly prepared paragraphs from the lives of the people she hoped I would remember.

Maybe if I showed you their faces, she told me in a matter of fact way.

However the names of my course mates read like old ghosts unable to be reached, familiar yet also alien. I remember thinking how surprising that so many of them went on to lead perfectly ordinary lives, the same unhurried life she described enough times over so that I began to realise, as the temperature in that room slowly increased, that if one were to look at us all huddled together, like crabs in a pot of water coming to its boil, I must be the one who looked out of place.

 

After the domed fog descended over Tokyo I found myself thinking, sometimes dreaming, more and more of the people who moved freely outside it. We could not believe those couples we had laughed at, those ones we looked down upon for never wanting to be with us, they had eventually married and settled down and lasted in the long run of their chapters, in the grand scheme of life, with no fuss nor disturbance on the surface of the water.

They had closed and contained their existences, sealed up like a diving bell.

On the floor, side by side, as she retold those stories of friends I knew but did not know, one after another, I felt that she was lulling me into a kind of trance. Whenever I closed my eyes I imagined she was listing to me all those stories of stones and boulders which grow on a mountain far above the cities, where its rocks are named after the people or creatures that their cold shapes resemble the most: one mangy slate cat adopted by our entire dormitory; two women who transform into a pair of karsts, mouths reaching out to each other in the mist; the memory of a lecture hall that becomes a forest of petrified stone.

Later in the pool we sat across from each other and I found her eyes staring at my scar below the water line. She mumbled something then looked away towards the wall.

I pretended not to hear.

We floated in the bubbles like river weeds.

She decided to leave the next day. As we hugged by the entrance of the train station she reminded me that she would return to pick up the bag she had left in my flat. To the very end she remained hazy about her travel plans. It seemed obvious then that she was far more ill than I had previously thought.

Not long after she left the first official reports of the fog began to come in from the Northern wards; my friend was lucky to have escaped the curfew when she did. There had already been a sense of panic incubating online long before it was too late, accounts of sudden blindness or visions passed around from site to site: stories about beasts growing in the abnormal fog.

 

I could not unsee my own scar.

Every time I undressed I saw it jump and live further in every reflective surface as if it were an ideogram unable to be shaken off. Since the mist had descended the scar seemed to bloom and glow both hot and oily like a score of algae on a surface of a lake. Everywhere, it seemed, my skin had broken out.

When the caesarean scar was still fresh, years ago, I worried I would never get used to feeling the pain of the tearing linger, the slack of that line as if it were a border between the sand and the sea, and yet, now, even though it had almost faded it still seemed ghostly and electric whenever I, or anyone else, touched that pale place. Then after the hysterectomy operation all that was left, and that which had never fully disappeared, was that single dark black line of pigment that stretched up to my naval as solid as a line of ink. Everyone said it was barely noticeable.

Yet I can still notice it, I scolded myself.

The marked skin, those unmarked territories.

My life went on as tranquilly as before.

Often without realising I am doing it I find my fingers walking left to right in time with the scar, the direction of the scalpel, the pale crescent narrowing, thinning, the tail end of a wave or of a trace word, one last littler tug from a gloved finger—the past catching up to the present.

 

The sea shining in the darkness.

 

As I lay there unable to shut my eyes, only hours until the morning, I imagined my friend alone somewhere in those cold mountains.

For once the fog was quiet. For once the men were quiet.

Were there any signs in the polite conversations we held during our evenings together which hinted at her desire for me to accompany her—what more could I have said or done? I had messaged her in advance about the manuscript I was busy working on, as well as the editor’s deadline which I had to meet. She knew all of that but had decided to impose herself regardless; I had let her into my bubble like an organism into my body.

 

I had a vision of her in a hot spring. In the curt alpine air the moon flashed far above the water’s surface. I saw a curl of the light first like a clipped nail, then a strand of her hair, the wings of a moth pushed together before settling on the shape of my scar not only reflected in her shut—was she already gone—eyes but also in the curve of the water lapping against the curative stones, against her still body of stone.

It felt inescapable. The image of her small face pressed to the glass. It was a wet, foggy day. As the train disappeared in the mist, I must say that I breathed a sigh of relief.

 

By my bed I saw those four title characters 海と毒薬 from the novel I had been trying to translate observing me, the book at an angle on top of my pill organiser, and from where I lay the beady symbols looked less like words but like decorated eyes which I had once known, moving faces, strangers in the carriages of the city metro, stepping forward, ungraspable that evening even to me, soon to leave.

 

The past week had been so exhausting it was as if I had been wading against all the invisible currents in the rooms. The humid fog had made every part of me feel like a stone soaked underneath the water. And the throb of the infection was still there making its way out, the pain, the itch, the scratch, the strange salty smell of seaweed coming first from the hairs on my groin just beneath my scar and now even from the sweat on my bed. I was drowning in my own murky flora like a fly in a puddle of dark sweetened water. I was diving deeper towards the sea floor; I believed that my body was right on the boundary of transforming into something else, something not fully mine to own.

Everything seemed to be growing outwith my control.

 

It was in late Winter when I decided to return to Tokyo to work on the novel’s translation having pushed the deadline further and further from my mind.

The person who had been renting my small apartment in Hiroo had already vacated so the flat had sat empty for two months; I think they must have paid a cleaner to tidy the place down in the end since everything seemed a little out of place as I ran my bare feet over the tatami mat pushed askew, my hands over the leather sofa, my bedroom table, spotless, yes but every item seemed displaced a minute distance to the right or left, and all together as I walked through the rooms I felt as if I was walking in a version of my flat from a different watery world.

I had invited my editor around not long after I returned so that I could show him all the pieces of the various projects I was undertaking for his press, reading aloud to him the unfinished samples of a particularly impressionable paragraph or image from that excerpted novel which I wanted to convince him to take on:

 

Does it not stir in you, there, the thought that you are a bit odd too?

 

I could tell whenever I began to ask him about the time since we had last met at the book festival in Edinburgh that his mind was somewhere else entirely. There was a moment when I wondered if there was too much distance between us, that what feelings of circumstance we had once held together were lost and ungraspable, although we might still make great efforts to try and bring about a sense of normalcy, to bring a few bubbles of air down into the depths. At our meeting I noticed he was not wearing a ring anymore on his fingers. I saw him look at me during our muted exchanges as if he was seeing me for the first time, as if he was just coming round from another past life, coming up for air.

There was something boiling underneath the surface I was yet to understand; he was not quite there with me that evening. I was convinced that like my furniture he had been replaced by an imposter.

 

Yesterday morning as I looked out of the bedroom window down towards Arisugawa-no-miya Park, the honeyed air inspissated into a resin, no birds over the ponds, no movement in the clotted yellow branches of the willows which stood unstirred like the leafy and preserved vertical text on the page, I thought I saw him coming out of the fog in the distance but it must have been only a trick of the air as it bent and slowed and transformed through the park like light via a prism of water.

A female figure passed under the arched bridge before disappearing; she looked like an untranslatable smudge.

It was true, however, that he was out there too, in his own apartment or home, perhaps also looking out of the windows or the shōji, seeing only the fog wrap around the buildings and those filtered natural details blurred like yellow tissue paper. Like a bird in a cage he too was trapped by all of this.

 

I picked up that book from the table and repeated the author’s sentence first in Japanese then mine in English, the frenzied black scrawlings of my biro coming down from the right of the white page like a dark tide, the upper lip edge of the paper torn off:

 

The taut twisted flesh the shape of a ragged blossom.

 

As I turned the line over in my mind I worried I had already begun to lose focus, unable to sleep, unable to work—unable to make it to the morning. I fumbled for one of the pills I had laid out on a ripped piece of newspaper the evening before and bit down on half.

DEATH TOLL …

Those characters were all I could make out from the remaining corner of that article’s headline—the weird hours grew with every passing year: they never became familiar to me. I thought I could hear the pall of those police sirens outside bubble through the suspended city air as if they were calling out for blood. Online we all gossiped about the ominous news reports of the batch of cicadas who failed to hatch because of the fog this year, frozen underneath the ground like cysts or bombs timed to burst, their cycles of nature disturbed. Even if nobody wanted to admit it, we could all sense the fog prowling on the streets outside like a leviathan lying in wait.

And did I not dream in the night that through a crack in my ceiling, small enough to smuggle a moth, that the yellow gas had stormed into my home?

 

Just the other day I think I heard on the news that the fog had been created in a laboratory underneath our soil far below the subway systems.

That the air had become unbreathable.

That we should not go outside.

That studies were being conducted to examine up to what point could one man survive.

That on a road near here not too long ago: The Dean of the University Medical School had collapsed with a brain haemorrhage, so they said.

Had I worried unnecessarily in the morning when I told the delivery man to leave the envelope by my front door, when I witnessed those two distorted lens of his black gas mask he had worn staring back at me through the door’s fisheye, my hands shaking on its latch, waiting until I heard the ping of the lift doors closing before I rescued those parcels from the hallway?

 

Inside were a series of black and white stills printed from an old film adaptation of the novel which I specially requested for my editor to send over from the archives. They were for research but I also wanted to suggest that an image or two could find their way onto the cover or the inside jacket of this new translation. I think he sensed what I was gesturing to when I asked if he could reach out to his friend at the Film Academy. For a long time I fantasised about a very specific scene as the cover on that book; with every passing day spent indoors, trapped by the fog, the more convinced I was by how authentic and correct my vision was. I wanted to persuade him, to show him that I too was working away in the surreal weather, penned in my room. He must have known what I was playing at, those games in my mind.

Every dull print was weighted at the centre, thick like an x-ray sheet in both hands. Some were overexposed, some in the negative. One or two completely blank as if they had been bleached or burnt out in a harsh light, the dusted impermanence of shadows appearing on the surface only if the card was angled a certain way. I brought them to my nose and could smell a faint slither of gunpowder brushing the surface alongside the wet salty smell of the fog.

Somehow in their transit they had been damaged by an outside force.

Those hazy expressions reached out from another time, a photo of a sad woman, a photo of her operation, the surgical lighthead dark like a black sun, placed to eclipse the circular abdomen of the patient—The Sea and Poison—the grayscale too grainy to make out any particular details from their backgrounds.

Had I dreamt of the black and white moth or of the fog on the ocean the night before? Had I hallucinated the cries of the twins in the corridor when I put my ear to my front door that morning?

At the very bottom of the buff envelope I had almost missed a crumpled ball of blue surgical masks. I smiled as I pulled them out onto the table, expanding one out so that it became a blue shell rocking back and forth.

I felt a dull spasm in my side as if a child had jabbed me there in order to grab my attention. I cried and begged the doctor to see him, but it was no use. The fever was getting worse; it was becoming unbearable. Before I showered I filled up an old bottle of iced-tea with my own morning urine. I wrapped the bottle in a plastic bag and placed it on the table so I would not forget it. It was all the evidence the doctors would need to know about the state of my body. I tried not to examine the bottle too closely through its semi-translucent plastic, but even in the daylight filtered through the fog I noticed the warning hue of the liquid inside loud and demanding to be seen to, as pink as fresh rosewater. I would come back to my desk later to find a trail of ants shuffling their way towards the bottle’s cap like footnotes on a page.

 

Everyone in the city had begun stockpiling the same blue masks since the curfew began; just last week the government ordered that one truck be sent to every street in Tokyo as a precaution. I caught the new receptionist stuffing great handfuls of those masks into her handbag one morning. I wondered if there was a black market somewhere in the subway where one could sell them, some place underground to repurpose all those concealed thin wires. Even if the fog would last one hundred years the masks would still outnumber and outlive us all; those boxes would just continue to accumulate in the receptions, in our hallways, spilling over and replicating like bacteria growing on the skin of our evacuated apartments. Eventually we would run out of mouths for them to cover.

The neighbours all agreed that the fog was getting bad. Online people were discussing drastic measures that could be implemented; every new idea seemed more violent and cruel than the previous group consensus.

I unravelled the conjoined masks as if I was piecing apart the web of an insect. I laid them out on the desk side by side over the faces in the photographs, the action of each scene barely discernible through the stitch of the distorted fabric.

Each of the three folded pleats of the mask wound their way down like the edges of the troubled water, the source of disturbance out of sight, the wire hidden—I heard a body or a stone fall into the small fountain in our courtyard—impressions beyond the mist, beyond the photographs, and through it all I worried and I wondered if those masked faces on the table were meant to remind me of my unfinished translation, a constant reminder of the fog just beyond my reach.

 

During the last few weeks I increasingly felt compelled to dedicate my translation to that friend who had come to me, who had in her short visit left an impression I could not fully describe nor explain. After she departed I had searched through her bag multiple times convinced that inside, disguised in the lining, there was a message she had wanted me to receive. Every item she had abandoned was replaceable and of almost no value, without meaning, its sole purpose as if to only give the bag weight in her pale, thin hands, to give the minimum sense of travel and nothing more. I imagined the bag as a model of our internal spaces, a soft and sinewy vessel: the fleshy leather warm in my hands; a pale scarf with polkadots became, in my eyes, the skin of an organ covered in patches of fat like a pasture of wet yellow daisies.

I washed, ironed and folded her clothes and placed them back inside her bag. I left it on a stool by the door half believing her hand might slip through and pick up those dark straps at any second. During the day I always forgot about the bag but every so often at night, if I walked from the kitchen to the bedroom without switching on the lights, I could see a small dark shape nestled in the corner and I would think it must be some animal, a civet or raccoon or child, curled up, coming here to rest.

 

Once I had sent in my final proofs we planned to release the book not too long after the clearing of the fog. My editor did not want the yellowed air to seep and stain into the paper or tamper with the printing machines; nothing would be left to nature. Once the book was published he believed the small press would have a good chance to be recognised by a national award he had always wanted to win. We were already so far behind schedule I felt suspicious that anything would feel the same afterwards as it did before. He said he would take me to a small teppanyaki restaurant not far from my apartment once the curfew was lifted, once the air was clear and the news reports declared it was safe to go outside again. He was desperate to celebrate what he thought would be the beginning. Any day now, he would sign his emails waiting for this unknown future date.

I envisioned us sat alone in that restaurant, the yellow smoke from the grill blocking the low dark lights, the heat from the iron griddle wavering as if we were underwater, two divers side by side.

 

What time do you think this fog will end, I signalled across to him.

 

What time is the Old Man’s round changed to?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jay G Ying
is a poet, fiction writer, critic and translator based in Edinburgh. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The White Review, The Poetry Review, 3:AM Magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation, Granta among others. He is a winner of a 2019 New Poets Prize. His debut pamphlet Wedding Beasts was published by Bitter Melon in 2019. He is a contributing editor at The White Review.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 12th, 2019.