Authors: Yukito Ayatsuji
The second basement level of the inpatient ward.
I didn’t think there were even exam rooms or nursing rooms on this floor, let alone patients’ rooms. It was knowledge I’d absorbed naturally while hospitalized. All that was down there were the food storage rooms, the mechanical rooms, and—I was pretty sure—the memorial chapel.
…In any event.
This was the first up-close encounter I shared with the strange girl—Mei. By the time I learned that “Misaki” was written with the characters for “viewing the cliffs” and Mei was “sound,” April had ended and May had just barely begun.
I admit it was adorable, but the more I heard it, the more oddly unsettling the shrill voice became. I don’t know what it was thinking about, but it’s such a pain having someone come at you that cheerfully so early in the morning.
“Ray. Morning, Ray.”
Ray is supposed to be
name. But of course, my grumbling had no impact. Because the object of my frustration wasn’t a person, it was a bird.
It was a mynah bird my grandparents kept as a pet.
My grandmother said it was so small, it was probably a female. And they named it “Ray.” It was—and this gets another “probably” attached—two years old. They’d bought it on impulse at a pet shop two years ago in the fall.
The square cage in which she (…probably) lived was set on one end of the porch facing the garden. Apparently it was a special cage for mynah birds made of thick bamboo strips.
“Morning, Ray. Morning.”
May 6, Wednesday morning.
I had woken up at a ridiculously early hour—just after five
During my ten days of hospitalization, a well-regulated lifestyle of early-to-bed and early-to-rise had been inculcated in me, but five
was too early for anyone. It had been well past midnight the night before when I went to bed, so for a fifteen-year-old boy who was trying to get healthy, the lack of sleep was egregious, too.
Just one more hour
, I thought, closing my eyes. But I didn’t think I was going to fall back asleep again. I gave up after five minutes, got out of bed, and headed to the bathroom in my pajamas.
“Well, well, Koichi! You’re up early!”
When I had washed my face and brushed my teeth, my grandmother came out of her bedroom. She looked me over, then tilted her head, appearing slightly concerned.
“You feel all right, don’t you?”
“I feel fine. I just woke up, is all.”
“That’s all right then. You shouldn’t push yourself.”
“Like I said, I’m fine.”
I gave her an easy smile and thumped myself on the chest. Then—
It happened just as I returned to my study room/bedroom, while I was thinking about how to kill the time before breakfast. My cell phone, which I had connected to its charger, started ringing on my desk.
Who was that? At this hour…
I only wondered for a moment. There was only one person who would make this cell phone ring at such an ungodly hour.
“Hey, there, good morning. How are you doing?”
The sunny voice I heard when I picked up the phone belonged, just as I’d predicted, to my dad.
“It’s two in the morning here. India sure is hot.”
“Nothing’s up. You’re starting school today, right? I’m calling to cheer you on! You should thank me.”
“How are you doing, physically? Have you been resting since you got out of the hospital? After all…”
His voice suddenly started to crackle and almost cut out as he began to ask me a question. I checked the LCD screen, and the bars showing the signal strength were barely holding at one. Even that one flickered in and out unreliably.
“…Are you listening to me, Koichi?”
“Hold on. I’m not getting a good signal here.”
I left my room as I answered, wandering around searching for a spot where the signal seemed good…and the spot I found was the porch on the first floor where Ray’s mynah cage sat.
“Physically, I’m good. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
I answered the question I’d put on hold as I opened the glass door to the porch. I had called and told him about my current attack and treatment the day I left the hospital.
“Still, why are you calling so early? It’s only 5:30 here.”
“You must be nervous heading into a new school. Plus you’re getting over your illness, on top of everything. That’s why you woke up so early, right?”
Oh man, he knows me so well.
“That’s just how you are. You try to be so tough, but in reality, you have a pretty thin skin. You take after your dad that way.”
“Don’t you mean I take after my mom?”
“Well, that may be, but…” Changing his tone somewhat, my dad continued, “As far as this pneumothorax issue goes, you shouldn’t brood over it more than necessary. When I was young, I did that.”
“Wha…? You did? I’ve never heard that story before.”
“I missed my chance to tell you six months ago. I didn’t want to be told it was hereditary or something.”
“…This is hereditary?”
“My second one happened a year later, but after that, I never had another recurrence. If there is some hereditary link, then you should be out of the woods now, too.”
“That would be nice, anyway.”
“It’s a lung disease. Now you have to quit smoking.”
“I don’t smoke!”
“At any rate, just tell yourself you’re not going to have a third one, and keep your chin up. Ah—although, you know, no need to stress yourself trying.”
“I know, I know. I’ll take it easy.”
“Good. Say hello to Grandma and Grandpa for me. India is so hot!”
And so the call ended. Letting out a long breath, I went through the door I’d opened and sat down on the porch. As soon as I did, the mynah bird, Ray, started up with her bizarre voice again, as if she had been lying in wait.
“Morning, Ray. Morning.”
I ignored it for a little while, staring outside idly.
The full bloom of the red azalea hedges was beautiful through the thin morning mist that was rising. There was a modest pond in the garden, and I heard that my grandfather used to keep koi in it, but I couldn’t see any fish there now. It looked as though it wasn’t being sufficiently cared for. The water was a murky, dark green color.
“Ray. Ray, morning.”
The mynah bird kept talking so persistently that she (…probably) beat me down and I replied, “All right, I get it. Good morning, Ray. You sure are cheery first thing in the morning, Ray.”
“Cheery. Cheery.” She ran through her repertoire of words. “Cheery…Cheer up.”
I don’t think I need to say that this did not constitute anything as grandiose as human-avian communication. But still, I felt a little bit more like smiling.
“Okay. Thanks,” I replied.
After dinner the night before, I had talked with Reiko for a while.
She was using the snug little side house behind the main building as a home office/bedroom and would often shut herself up in there after coming home from work, but of course, there were also days when she didn’t do that. The night when I’d had my pneumothorax attack, she’d been watching TV in the living room. It’s just that there were exactly zero times that we gathered as a family around the table for dinner.
“Do you want to hear about the ‘Seven Mysteries of North Yomi’?”
My rescheduled first day at school was the following day, after the break ended, and of course, Reiko knew that. She had probably remembered the promise she’d made when she came to see me at the hospital.
“I told you that North Yomi is a little different, right?”
“Yeah, you mentioned that.”
Once my grandmother had finished cleaning up after dinner, she made coffee for us. Reiko took a sip of hers, which was black.
“Well? Do you want to hear about it?”
She fixed her eyes on me from across the table and smiled faintly. As usual, I was plenty nervous under the surface, but I accepted her challenge.
“Er…yeah. But, uh, it wouldn’t be much fun hearing all of it at once.”
She said North Yomi was different, but it was probably just variations on the same old ghost stories. A staircase somewhere in the school building gets an extra step, or it loses one, or the plaster sculptures in the art room cry tears of blood or whatever.
“One or two, at least.”
If I knew about them, maybe I could kick off conversations with my new classmates, I thought.
“All right, then I’ll tell you the one I heard first, a long time ago. At least.”
What Reiko told me then was a “mystery” involving the shed for raising animals that used to be behind the gymnasium.
One morning, all the rabbits and marmots they had been keeping in there disappeared. The door to the shed was broken, and there were smears from a huge amount of blood inside. The school contacted the police, which started a big uproar, but they never found a single one of the animals that had disappeared and never discovered who had committed the act. The shed was torn down soon after, but in the place the shed had once been, blood-spattered rabbits and marmots (or their ghosts?) could be seen sometimes.
“There’s a strange embellishment to this story,” Reiko continued with a serious expression. “When the police tested the blood marks left in the shed, they found it wasn’t rabbit blood or marmot blood. It was human. Type AB, Rh negative.”
When I heard that, I couldn’t help murmuring, “Wow. Was there anybody in the area who’d been badly hurt? Or any missing persons?”
“Not a single one.”
“Come on, isn’t that mysterious?”
“Hmm. But that embellishment is more like a detective story than a ghost story. There might have been a concrete solution to it.”
After that, Reiko did exactly as she’d promised and told me a few of the “North Yomi fundamentals.”
First: If you’re on the roof and you hear the cawing of a crow, when you go back inside, you must enter with your left foot.
Second: When you become a third-year, you must not fall down on the road that goes down the hill outside the back gates.
Those two sounded like superstitions that had been passed down for a long time. If you disobeyed “The First” and didn’t go inside with your left foot, you would get hurt within a month. If you disobeyed “The Second” and fell down the hill, you would fail your high school entrance exams. That was what people were warned.
Next, “The Third” broke the mold and was an unpleasantly realistic “fundamental.”
“You must at all costs obey whatever the class decides.”
Reiko said it with her serious expression unchanged.
“The school you went to in Tokyo, K*** Middle School, had a pretty liberal atmosphere, despite being a private escalator school, am I right? They valued the individual desires of each student. At a public school in the countryside like North Yomi, it’s pretty much the opposite. How something affects the group is more important than the individual. So…”
So essentially, even if there’s some issue you find kind of distasteful, you close your eyes and go along with everyone else? That wasn’t such tough advice. There were times I had tried to do that at my other school, too, to one extent or another…
I lowered my eyes slightly and brought my coffee cup to my lips. Reiko went on talking, looking serious. The Fourth fundamental at North Yomi…
I heard my grandmother’s cheery voice, breaking off my quiet reflections.
I was sitting on the porch hugging my knees, still in my pajamas. The tranquil morning air and the placid sunlight felt good, and somehow I had wound up rooted to the spot.
“Time for breakfast, Koichi!”
It sounded as if she was at the bottom of the stairs, calling up to the second floor.
Time for breakfast…already?
I considered and looked at the clock on the wall. It was just before seven o’clock…Wait, what? That meant I’d been sitting there staring into space for a whole hour. What was wrong with me?
“It’s time to eat, Koichi.”
This time I heard not my grandmother, but my grandfather’s croaking voice. And from somewhere nearby.
Startled, I looked behind me.
I’d heard the voice from the eight-mat room on the other side of the screens dividing the porch. I hadn’t noticed at all, but my grandfather had come in at some point. When I opened the screen gingerly, he was sitting in front of the Buddhist altar set up in there, wearing a thin brown cardigan over his nightclothes.
“Yes, yes, g’morning,” my grandfather replied in a drawl. “Are you going to the hospital again today, Koichi?”
“Come on, Grandpa, I was released already. I’m going to
“Oho, to school! Yes, that’s right.”
My grandfather was extremely small in stature, and when he sat on the floor hunched over in a ball, he looked like a wrinkly monkey decorating the altar. He was over seventy years old, I’m pretty sure. He’d aged noticeably in the last two or three years, and he’d started to show signs of senility in just about every aspect of his behavior.
“You’re in middle school now, are you, Koichi?”
“Yeah, my third year. Next year is high school.”
“My, my. I wonder if Yosuke’s staying healthy.”
“He’s in India right now. He called a little while ago, and he’s the same as ever.”
“Good health is more important than anything. If only poor Ritsuko hadn’t…”
He suddenly mentioned my mom’s name, then put his fingertips to his eyes and wiped away tears. Had the memory of his daughter’s death fifteen years ago come back to him so vividly? That sort of thing might happen a lot with older folks, but I didn’t have the slightest idea how I should handle it since I only knew my mother’s face from photographs.
“Ah, here you are.”
Finally my grandmother came and saved me from my quandary.
“It’s time for breakfast, Koichi. Why don’t you go change and get your things together?”
“Oh, yeah. Where’s Reiko?”
“She left already.”
“Oh. She goes in early, huh?”
I stood up and closed the glass door to the porch.
“I’ll drive you in today,” my grandmother said.
“Huh? You don’t have to do that…”
I had looked up how to get to school. It was far enough that it would take a little less than an hour to go on foot, but if I took a bus, I could cut it down to twenty or thirty minutes.
“Today’s your first day, and besides, you’re still recovering. Isn’t that right, Grandpa?”
“Eh? Oh, yes, that’s right.”
“No need to be polite. Come on, hurry up and get ready. You still need to eat your breakfast.”