Our house was on the edge of town. We were the flotsam of the flotsam, the little pieces of trash in the iron grates that flutter pointlessly in the wind. The town was a whitewash of sand-beaten buildings, some stone, most wood. Any maps of that place would now be colourless and barely readable, the sun would have sapped out the colour and the points of interest, and on that map would be a child's scrawl in red crayon, 'NO TREASURE HERE.' Our garden was a small yard, littered with broken pots and dead plants, once mother was gone there was nobody to care for it. Sometimes I'd go and sit in the yard, drawing lines of chalk along the ground. One time I drew around my own body, and lay down next to the outline. There was me, a boy of twelve on his back, eyes up to the sky. And then next to me was the white outline of a boy that I wasn't sure I recognised. My loins were hurting, it was a dull throb, I'm not sure but I think I liked that feeling. The sky was heavy, it began to rain down on my face, and the boy next to me disappeared into a milky puddle.
The height of summer was the only time I felt I belonged in that house. My grandparents would travel from further down the coast, a yearly pilgrimage, and stay with me and my father for three nights and four days. I'd count down the seasons and then the days, and then they'd be there with gifts and smiles. Grandma's cooking was worth waiting for. She'd take to the kitchen and then whip up a feast, the usual miso soup even tasted better because of her. Grandpa would scold me for not sitting on my knees, he was the sort of man who demanded respect in a world that let such a thing drift away.
"You're looking dirty Sanshiro. Have you been washing?" Grandma always said that when we sat at the table, it was the first thing from her lips.
"The boy is always out, it's easier to leave it a few days and then send him out with a bucket." Father wouldn't take his eyes from his plate. He wore a suit when they came to stay, it didn't suit him.
"Oh dear, that won't do at all. He'll pick up bad manners if he's on the streets every day." Grandma looked at me with concern. Grandpa grunted behind a cup of tea.
"He's a growing lad. Right, San?" He motioned to me and smiled a toothless smile.
"Right!" I grabbed onto my own cup and Grandma slapped my hand away.
"It's still hot. Leave it a while, or you'll scorch your tongue." Grandpa guffawed and slapped his knee.
"Doesn't do me any harm." He stuck out his chin and lifted his cup proudly to his mouth.
"You're still such a child yourself." Grandma sighed and picked up her chopsticks. She smiled despite herself. There was always this back and forth between them, Grandpa acted the fool and Grandma seemed to grow warmer. I think this is what I liked most about their visits, it wasn't the delicious food - the steamed rice in bamboo leaves, the sweet mochi cakes she'd bring as a treat, the colourful discs of sushi he'd craft while humming to himself in the kitchen - it was this warm vapour that seemed to envelope them completely when they sat facing one another. They were like two wooden dolls clad in silk kimono, with the scent of lavender painting the air - two dolls that existed behind a case of glass for all of time.
My grandparents took me to see mother. Father stayed at home, sitting in silence in the kitchen, his tie hung loosely about his neck. We left him staring at the wall, face like a tragic Noh mask. I lead the way through the vermillion torii, the sun bursting through each gate at the interval of every heartbeat. We placed a parcel on the ground, facing the large statue of the fox. Grandma motioned for me to undo the ribbon, I did, and the smell of rice cakes drifted into my nose. Grandpa pointed to the statue and said,
"That was Miyo's favourite colour." The fox wore a deep red bib, and in its mouth a pup dangled with its own mouth contorted in a cry. The mother fox stood proudly, her face was narrow to a point.
"That's right." Grandma placed her hand on my shoulder. "Your mother did always love red. The yukata I made up for you is the same colour, I hope you like it San."
"I'm sure I will." We clapped our hands in prayer, and then walked slowly to the cemetery which was concealed behind a hedge of trees at the north end of the shrine. Mother's grave was a grey, slim rectangle sticking up from the ground, in a row of eight others. I never managed to figure out who those other graves belonged to, I couldn't read the names. We stood for a while - Grandma's wan face fixed on the earth just below the grave, Grandpa by her side with his arms tucked inside the sleeves of his kimono.
I did love that yukata. The thread was light, perfect for the humidity of the summer, but it was strong and didn't tear. I wore it for many summers, until I could no longer fit into it. I thought it was lost, until I found it tucked away in a drawer this morning. I'd not thought about it for so long, but now it all comes rushing back to me. I took it out and tucked my face into the fabric, and for a split second, I thought I could still smell the blood.
The night I first wore it, was Obon. The village came alive with smells and sounds. Grandma treated me to takoyaki by the roadside - it was the best octopus I'd ever eaten, truly delicious. I ate it so fast it burnt my throat. The locals formed a circle and danced around the wooden scaffolds, the float drifted slowly through the streets to the deep beating of drums and the high song of laughter that pealed through the air. Vibrant kimono and yukata shimmered in the light of the setting sun as they twirled and flowed and rippled to the bang of the drums and the clacking of the wooden clappers. For that night alone, the village seemed to change - no longer a tired husk of sand and sorrow, it was a beautiful and rare flower, a single flower in a vast dune. 'This is awe.' I'd tell my young self, if only I could.
I spotted Monkey in the crowd that lingered about the beach. This is where the float would complete its journey. I pranced around him, circling him and showing off my new yukata. He was pleased for me. We scurried to a cluster of rocks and swapped our clothes, he wanted to try it on.
"Mine's good, see?" He said, pointing back at me. "It's real dark so it's good for spying and stuff. You don't want something too flashy when you're spying you know? It'll only draw attention right back at you, and a good spy doesn't need the attention, right?'" He nodded enthusiastically towards me. I didn't care much for his though, it felt itchy against my skin, the fabric was shabby and slick with oil. At home that night I bathed until my skin was wrinkled, and scrubbed my palms raw.
On our way home I spotted somebody else. I'd seen her at the school gates before. She was short and her hair was cut just below her ears, she had a small face that was perfectly symmetrical. It was Vee's sister, I was sure of it. About half my age, she'd always be at the gate with an umbrella if it had started raining, or she'd be at the classroom door with a wooden bento box clutched to her chest, the sort you'd see in those fancy souvenir shops that foreigners loved. Vee's lunch, of course. She was walking slowly along the dirt road that cut across our house. I waited for my grandparents to turn towards the front door, and then I quickened my pace behind her. She was alone. The colour of her kimono made her look like a giant hornet buzzing slowly along the ground. The yellow and black makes me nauseous to this day. The rest of this scene is a blur in my mind. I remember her taking scoops of shaved ice from the box in her hand, and how her little lips were stained red. Seeing her made me angry; the way her lips curled upwards with self-importance, the way her hair was cut so perfectly straight along the nape of her neck, the smell of cherry blossoms her kimono breathed, I was furious. It was me versus Vee in that moment, and this girl was my enemy. I'd lifted a rock from the ground, and launched myself at her. The rock struck the back of her skull, and blood spurted out, it splattered black against my yukata as she fell soundlessly to the ground. The stars and the moon reflected in her open eyes.
In the bath that night, after I'd scrubbed - scrubbed for Monkey's poverty on my skin, scrubbed for the girl's blood on my hands, I thought about the lanterns that drifted into the distance along the surface of the lake. Obon is a celebration of the dead, of our ancient ancestors that bore this land, and of those we can remember who've slipped away from us. We each lit a lantern and watched as the candle's flicker grew smaller and smaller.
"For your mother." Grandma whispered in my ear.
"For our Miyo." Grandpa whispered to Grandma.
"For me." I whisper to myself, as I put the yukata back in the drawer. That was the night that my old self had died, floated down the lake, melted against the asphalt in the rain. The one with the hand on the trigger was myself, not Vee, not my father, or anybody else - it was me. And on that night in the middle of summer, I had pulled the trigger, and all I could do was close my eyes as everything around me was about to collapse.
The following day, the bell rang and in the blink of an eye the classroom was empty. Even our morning tutor, Odakuro had gone, off to the faculty office to suck on his pipe. Sometimes I'd just sit in my chair and imagine myself as Odakuro, in my pine green suit with faded elbows and the same tie he wore every day with that tea stain on it. I'd look out across the shabby room; at the front are the good kids with something to work towards, the further back I look are the helpless ones, the ones who slump back in their seats like wilted flowers, no light shines on them. I look at their sorry little faces and then I'm overcome with the need for tobacco in my lungs, and so I flee the room and take to my pipe like a madman.
A body of a young girl had been discovered on the beach that morning, all classes had been cancelled for the day, everybody cheered. I walked to my locker at the entrance, smothered in my thoughts of the night before. I turned the key, and something forced the metal door open, its weight shocked me out of my reverie. The thing dropped right before my feet, its smell was putrid. It was a human hand, severed at the wrist.