Authors: Yukito Ayatsuji
“It’s…Well, the truth is, I wanted to ask you something.”
The thing that had first brought us to such friendly terms was the Stephen King novel I’d been reading while I was hospitalized. Her eyes had landed on the title.
“Is this all you read?” she’d asked me.
Her expression was that of a person witnessing something abnormal, so I was going to respond even more curtly, but then—
“So what else do you read then?” she asked next.
I blurted out, “Uh…Koontz, I guess.”
That made her chortle and fold her arms over her chest like an old man. She looked as though she was holding back a fit of laughter. That was when she’d given me the nickname “Horror Boy.”
“It’s pretty unusual for someone who’s hospitalized to read things like that.”
“After all, people usually want to avoid being scared or in pain, no? And when they’re sick or hurt, they actually are scared and in pain.”
“I guess. But I mean, it’s only a story in a book, so I don’t really…”
“Yup. You’re totally right. I’m impressed, Horror Boy.”
What became clear almost instantly was that she, too, was actually pretty into “things like that” herself. Asian or Western, modern or classic, she would read the novels and watch the movies. Apparently she was feeling pretty lonely herself since she didn’t have any “cronies to talk horror with” at her job. And so up until the day I was discharged, she would tell me the works she recommended by authors I had never read, like John Saul and Michael Slade.
But I digress.
I had told Ms. Mizuno, “I wanted to ask you something,” promising myself I would have some other chance to discuss our common interest.
“On April twenty-seventh—that was Monday of last week. Did a girl die at this hospital that day?”
“On April twenty-seventh?”
She obviously thought it was a strange question. Ms. Mizuno blinked her goggling eyes.
“Last week, Monday, eh? You were still here then, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. That was the day they took the drain out.”
“And what’s this about, all of a sudden?”
It was a natural question to turn back on me. But I wasn’t confident that I could explain the situation in detail without trampling on the nuances.
“I just…something’s been nagging at me.”
So I offered an ambiguous response.
That day—around noon last Monday, chance brought me to my first encounter with Mei Misaki in the hospital elevator. She’d gotten off at the second basement level. Where there are no patient rooms or exam rooms. The only thing down there besides storage rooms and the machine room is the memorial chapel.
…The memorial chapel.
I think the distinctive image of that place had kept nagging at me ever since. So, extrapolating from what I knew, I had asked Ms. Mizuno the question I did.
Let’s assume the memorial chapel is where Mei was going that day. People usually don’t go to an empty memorial chapel. Rationally, the body of someone who’d died in the hospital that day must have been resting there. Wasn’t that the explanation?
Why did I think it was a girl who’d died?
This, too, was a grasping extrapolation, based on the riddle Mei had spoken that day (
half my body, the poor thing…
“Sounds like there’s something complicated going on.”
Ms. Mizuno puffed out one of her cheeks and squinted into my face.
“I’m not going to order you to give me the details, but…let me think.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
“As far as the patients I’m in charge of, anyway, there weren’t any girls who died. But I don’t know about in the whole ward.”
“Well, there’s something else, too…”
I decided to change my question.
“Did you see a girl wearing a school uniform in the inpatient ward that day?”
“Wha-a-at? Another girl?”
“It would be a middle school uniform. A navy blue blazer. She has short hair and an eye patch over her left eye.”
“An eye patch?” Ms. Mizuno cocked her head. “An ophthalmology patient? Oh, wait. Hold on a second.”
“Did you see her?”
“Not that. The thing about any girls passing away that day.”
“Hm-m-m. Let me see-e-e…” As she murmured, Ms. Mizuno began tapping the middle finger of her right hand against her temple. “…I think there might have been one.”
“I think so, but I only heard about it in passing.”
She moved us to the sparsely populated lounge, rather than standing in the hallway of the ward with all its traffic from patients and their families and doctors and nurses. She was probably making the point that if we kept standing around talking out in the hall, there might be problems.
“I’m not totally sure, but you said it was last Monday…I think it was around then,” Ms. Mizuno said, keeping her voice pretty low. “Was it a girl? I remember some talk about a young patient who’d been hospitalized here for a while who suddenly passed away.”
“Do you know the person’s name?”
My heart was pounding harder than I liked. At the same time, I don’t know why, but I couldn’t keep a shudder from running through my whole body.
“Do you know their name, or what they were sick with, or any details?”
After hesitating for a moment, Ms. Mizuno stole a glance around and then lowered her voice even more. “Why don’t I see what I can find out?”
“You won’t get in trouble?”
“If I just ask around, it shouldn’t be too hard. You had a cell phone, didn’t you?”
“Give me the number.”
She gave the order briskly, pulling her own phone out of a pocket in her smock.
“I’ll let you know when I find out anything.”
“Really? You won’t get in trouble?”
“For an old horror buddy. You came all the way up here; you must have
for it,” the novice nurse who liked horror novels said, a teasing look in her bulging eyes. “In exchange, you have to tell me why you want to know sometime. Okay, Horror Boy?”
BLUE EYES EMPTY TO ALL,
IN THE TWILIGHT OF YOMI.
It was well before twilight began to fall in the city of Yomiyama when I found this eccentric sign board.
I was on my way home from Yumigaoka.
I’d gotten off the bus at a place called Akatsuki, located at the halfway point between the hospital and my grandparents’ house (as I figured it, using the half-formed map in my mind). I had addressed my hunger at a fast-food place I saw there, then walked around the modest downtown nearby. Despite it being a Saturday afternoon, the town was almost empty and, as I wandered the streets, I recognized the faces of none of the people I passed, naturally enough. No one spoke to me and I spoke to no one, and nothing particularly drew my interest. I moved away from the downtown, and away from the bus route, down a narrow alleyway, and came upon an area with a bunch of really nice houses, then came out the other side of that, too, in the end…I didn’t have a particular motivation in mind. I was just walking wherever the spirit took me.
And if I got lost, well, things would work themselves out.
That’s the spirit I’d gone into my excursion with. Such is the strength of a boy who’d lived for fifteen years in Tokyo without a mother, perhaps.
I realized that today was the third week since I’d come to Yomiyama and it was the first time I’d spent any time with this much freedom—unconcerned about the looks of others. If I didn’t get back home before nightfall, I knew my grandmother would be incredibly worried, but she would probably call my cell phone when that happened.
Freedom was finally mine to savor!
—is not how I felt, at all. Truly, all I wanted was to go aimlessly around the town on foot, by myself. That was it.
It was just past three in the afternoon…and yet the world seemed strangely washed out. I felt no sign that it was about to start raining, and yet unseasonably dark clouds were piled high overhead. All at once, I got the idea that they were a reflection of my own state of mind…
Only moments before, I had seen a sign with the town’s name, “Misaki,” on a utility pole.
Another “Misaki,” huh? Different characters, but…
I jotted the name down on the so-so map in my mind. I guessed that my current location was, very roughly speaking, in the center of a triangle formed by the hospital, my grandparents’ house, and the school.
That was when it happened.
There was a road on a hill with a pretty steep grade.
I could see small shops here and there, each separate from the others, but I was in the midst of a deserted residential area, and suddenly—
BLUE EYES EMPTY TO ALL,
IN THE TWILIGHT OF YOMI.
My eyes stopped on the eccentric sign where these words were written, in cream-colored paint on a painted black board.
An unfriendly three-story building made of concrete. The building had a different look from the private homes nearby: sort of like a multitenant building, but it didn’t look as if there were shops or offices on the second and third floors.
The sign poked out almost imperceptibly beside a door that appeared to be the entrance to the first floor. Beside that was an exterior staircase that went directly to the upper floors. An oval fixed-sash window faced the road, a slight distance from the entrance. Was it a show window? If so, there weren’t any lights on inside, and it had a plain look—
as if it wasn’t even being used
Unconsciously coming to a halt, I looked at the sign again, reading out the words written there in a low voice.
“Blue Eyes Empty to All, in the Twilight of Yomi…what is that?”
Below this was another board, like a placard, this one of old, unvarnished wood. On it were the following words, written with what looked like a calligraphy brush:
VISITORS WELCOME ——STUDIO M
What was this place?
An antique shop, or something like that? Or maybe…
All of a sudden, I felt as if someone, somewhere were watching me. I looked around, but there wasn’t even anyone walking down the street, let alone someone staring at me.
The sky was low and darker than ever. The image of this one corner of the town called Misaki being dragged down rapidly into twilight had seized my mind. I walked over to the oval window, half fearful.
Beyond the glass it was dim, preventing me from seeing in very well. I walked right up to the window and brought my face close to the glass to peer inside.
A brief cry escaped me and my body froze. A cold numbness surged in an instant from the back of my neck through both shoulders and into my arms.
Beyond the window was…
incredibly strange, and very beautiful.
A round black table was set on the floor, a deep red cloth spread over it. Above that, the top half of a woman was visible, wearing a black veil that she lifted from her face with both hands.
Her skin pale and smooth, her features frighteningly attractive…it was a young girl. The hair falling to her chest was black as jet. And yet her eyes were a deep green. The red dress she wore was, like her body, cut off at the waist.
It was intensely strange, and very beautiful, this doll of a young girl made almost to life-size. Only the top half of her body had been set out as decoration.
What was this place?
What was this…?
Marveling, I took another look at the sign beside the entrance.
Just then, a crass vibration started in the pocket of my jacket. I was getting a call on my cell phone.
Was my grandmother already worrying?
Convinced of the name I would see, I let out a short sigh and took out my phone. But the liquid crystal screen displayed an unidentified number.
As soon as I picked up, I heard a woman’s voice. “This is Sakakibara, right?”
I recognized it—after all, I had heard this voice firsthand only hours earlier. It was Ms. Mizuno from the municipal hospital.
“I found out something, about that thing we talked about.”
“Really? That was fast.”
“An informed coworker of mine who loves to gossip got hold of me, so I asked her right away. She said she’d heard the story from someone else, so this info might not be a hundred percent accurate. But it would be tough to get in and check the paperwork. Is that okay?”
My hand tightened on the cell phone involuntarily. Another shudder was going through my body.
“Please tell me.”
Even as I answered, I couldn’t tear my gaze from the doll inside the window.
“Last Monday, there was in fact a patient who passed away,” Ms. Mizuno told me. “A girl in middle school.”
“She’d had major surgery at another hospital, then been transferred here. The surgery had been a huge success and she was recovering smoothly, but then suddenly she took a turn for the worse. There wasn’t enough time for the doctors to do everything they could have. She was an only child, and apparently her parents were incoherent with grief.”
“What was her name?” I asked. I had linked the eyes of the girl in the window, staring out at me from the gloom, to the words
blue eyes empty to all
. “Do you know the girl’s name?”
“Um-m-m…” Ms. Mizuno’s voice crackled. The signal was breaking up. “I heard this from the same coworker, and she wasn’t very clear about it either…but I got something out of her.”
“The girl’s name was Misaki or Masaki, or something like that.”
I next stood in the town of Misaki outside the “Blue Eyes Empty to All, in the Twilight of Yomi” Friday the week after, and this time it really was twilight.
Last week had been purely by chance.
I had found
by rambling aimlessly through the town, but this time the situation was a little different. Which isn’t to say that I had intended to come here from the start. I had moved with
a different purpose
and, as a result, had returned without meaning to.
There was still time before the sun disappeared. But the level of light in the area already merited the word “twilight.” Even if someone I knew were to come up to me in the red rays of the western sun, I don’t think I’d be able to figure out who it was right away.
I had already forgotten my
I should leave it and just go home. That thought had brought me to the verge of turning on my heel when I noticed something. That sign for “Twilight of Yomi” was right in front of my face.
My feet went toward it, as if it were sucking me in. Beyond the elliptical show window was the beautiful yet disturbing doll of the girl’s upper body, just like last week, and her “blue eyes empty to all” reflected my image vacantly.
What was this place?
What was it like inside?
These were the things that had been constantly on my mind since that first day.
There was no way to resist my curiosity. I banished my original purpose to a corner of my mind and pushed open the door beside the sign.
A bell overhead jangled dully and I took a timid step forward.
A gloomy, indirect light more like twilight than the twilight outside served to set the mood. The space went off into obscurity, farther back than I had expected, and was quite vast. Rings of faint light were picked out here and there by wispy, colored spotlights, bringing a variety of dolls large and small out of the darkness. There were big ones over a meter tall, and even more smaller ones.
A voice greeted its customer.
To the left of the entrance—the spot right behind the show window—was a long, thin table, behind which I could see a figure. It wore clothes of a dull color that seemed to melt into the gloom within the shop. From the sound of the voice, I could tell it was a woman, and an old woman at that.
“What’s this? We don’t get many young men in here. Are you a customer? Or perhaps…”
“Um, I was just passing by outside and wondered what kind of shop this was. This…
a shop, right?”
There was an ancient cash register at one end of the table. A small chalkboard was propped up in front of it with the words “Gallery Entry—¥500” in yellow chalk. I rummaged in the pockets of my school uniform and pulled out a coin purse.
“You’re in middle school?” the old woman asked, startling me.
I collected myself, then replied, “Yes, at North Yomi.”
“Then you can go in for half price.”
“Uh, thank you.”
I went up to the table and handed over the amount she’d asked for. The hand she proffered was, indeed, ancient and wrinkly, and now I could clearly see her face surfacing from the gloom.
Her hair was perfectly white all through, and her nose was hooked like a sorcerer’s. I couldn’t tell what her eyes were like, since she wore glasses with dark green lenses.
“Um…is this a doll shop?” I asked softly.
“A doll shop? Well, now.” The old woman tilted her head slightly to one side and made stifled mumbling sounds. “I suppose we’re half-shop, half-gallery.”
“We do sell things, but not anything a boy in middle school could afford. But you take your time and have a look around. There aren’t any other customers right now, anyway.”
The old woman placed both hands on the table and slowly leaned forward, bringing her face closer to me. The mannerism suggested she couldn’t see me very well otherwise.
“I’ll make you some tea, if you like,” the old woman said, so close that I could feel her breath. “We have a sofa in the back, so you feel free to go sit down and rest if you get tired.”
“Okay. Oh, but…I don’t need any tea, thank you.”
“Well, take your time.”
Inside the shop—I suppose I should really say, “inside the gallery”—music was playing, string music that was just as gloomy as the lighting. It sounded as if the main part of the melody was played by a cello. I had heard the song somewhere before, but (I guess sadly) I was completely lacking in that sort of education. If someone told me it was a famous classical song by one of the masters or that it was a chart-topper released in the ’90s, all I’d be able to do is say “Is it really?” and accept what they told me.
My bag was bugging me, so I set it on the sofa in the back and, trying to breathe quietly and silence my footsteps, I went around looking at the dolls that thronged at every turn.
At first I couldn’t stop myself from glancing over to check on the old woman at the table, but soon I stopped worrying about her. I was utterly taken in by the dolls and had no more attention to spare.
In the murky twilight, some of the dolls were standing, some were sitting, and others were lying down. Their eyes were opened wide in surprise, or they were sunk in contemplation, their eyelids half-closed, or they dozed…
Most of the dolls were beautiful young girls, but there were young boys among them, too, and even animals. There were even some strange fabrications that mixed human and animal together. And there was more than just dolls: pictures hung on the walls, too. An oil painting of a faintly fantastical scene caught my eye.
Like the doll of the girl in the show window, about half of the dolls were ball-jointed. All of their joints—their wrists, elbows, shoulders, ankles, knees, and hips—were formed into spheres so that they could be moved freely and posed. It imparted a certain unique, bewitching impression.
How can I express it? Though instilled with a cold, saccharine realism, they were not truly real. They resembled people without truly resembling them. They were a part of the mortal world, but did not truly belong. As if they had managed to take on these forms and preserve a shadow of their existence at this vague seam between here and there…
…How long had it been?
I had been taking deep breaths. I felt as if, without realizing it, a bizarre idea had taken hold of me: that I had to breathe for them, who had no breath.
I had a passing knowledge about these kinds of dolls.
I had found a photo collection in my father’s library by a German doll maker named Hans Bellmer, I think, the spring break right before I started middle school. I’d also seen a couple of photo collections with tons of dolls of the same kind, made by lots of people in Japan, that drew some amount of influence from him.
This was my first experience seeing real ones up close, though, and so many of them at that.
I focused on continuing to breathe deeply. Partly because if I didn’t, it seemed that my own breath might stop and I would never notice.
Most of the dolls were accompanied by placards with the name of the person who had made them. Same with the pictures on the walls. None of them were names I knew, but for all I knew some famous artists might have been among them.
After I’d finished a quick survey of the forest of dolls and was about to go back to the sofa and grab my bag, I discovered this flyer on a wall in a corner all the way at the back.
There was an arrow drawn next to the words, pointing at an angle downward.
Looking much, much closer, I saw what appeared to be stairs descending to the basement.
I turned to look back at the old woman.
She sat in the gloom behind the table, her head bowed, not moving in the slightest. Maybe she was in the middle of a nap. Or she could have been thinking about something. In either case…
Since it clearly said “visitors welcome,” I didn’t think I had to ask before going downstairs.
Still breathing deeply, I quietly made my way to the stairs.
There was less room to move around in the basement than on the first floor. It felt like a crypt. The temperature was low and it was pretty chilly.
Probably because they kept a dehumidifier running to control the humidity. Even with these practical thoughts in my mind, and perhaps because of the cold crawling up through my feet, I felt as if energy was being sapped from my body with each step down that I took. When I’d descended the staircase, my mind clouded for some reason and my shoulders grew heavy, as if I were carrying some invisible burden.
Just as I’d expected, though I’d had no concrete reason to think it, a scene fully separated from the world of mortals awaited me there.
In the lighting as gloomy as that on the first floor, but with a slightly stronger white glow…
A huge number of dolls were set on an antique card table, on chairs with armrests, in curio cases, on a mantel over a fireplace, or even right on the floor. It might be more accurate to say not “dolls,” but “all their various parts.”
Upper bodies, like the girl in the window, rested on a table, abdomens sat in the chairs, heads and hands were arranged on several display shelves. That was the state of this room. Several arms stood on end inside the fireplace and feet poked out from chairs and shelves.
When I describe it like that, it’s hard to get away from thinking the place was sick/grotesque, but oddly, I didn’t think so. I could feel, I don’t know why, a kind of overarching aesthetic in the organization of the space, including the disorderly, cluttered arrangement of all these parts. And yet, maybe it was only my imagination.
Aside from the fireplace, there were several niche-like depressions formed in the white mortar-painted walls. Obviously, these had been turned into doll holders, too.
There was one depression with a doll missing only a right arm, its features very like the girl in the window. In the depression next to this was a young boy with the lower half of his face hidden, thin bat-like wings folded behind him. There was also a depression holding beautiful conjoined twins whose abdomens were linked.
As my feet carried me slowly to the middle of the floor, I made an even more conscious effort to breathe deeply.
With each breath, the cool air seeped into my lungs, then spread through my entire body. I felt as if I were drawing closer and closer to their world. The thought struck me out of nowhere. Or maybe…
The same gloomy string music that was playing upstairs. If the music stopped, I might be able to hear the secret whispers passing between the dolls in this cool basement room. That feeling came over me, too…
What was I doing in a place like this, surrounded on all sides by these
It wasn’t a question I had posed to myself in such concrete terms, of course.
Ugh, it’s too late to be…
My original purpose
. To use a not-very-nice name for it, I’d been following someone.
When sixth period had ended, I’d left the classroom with Yuya Mochizuki, the Munch aficionado, whose house lay in the same direction as mine. Somehow Kazami and Teshigawara and a small, baby-faced boy named Maejima (apparently he’s actually one of the best in the kendo club) ended up joining us. Suddenly, out a window in the hall, I saw Mei Misaki walking through the schoolyard. For some reason she hadn’t shown up to any afternoon classes that day, and I didn’t know where she’d gone.
From the perspective of the guys with me, the way I acted right after I saw her must have been groan-inducing. “Not again…” As soon as I could abruptly say, “Well, I’ll see you guys,” I left them behind and ran off.
It was Mei, who hadn’t shown herself at school all Monday and Tuesday that week.
Maybe she really had been badly hurt? Her absence had inflated my worry, but then on Wednesday morning she appeared looking totally blameless and sat inconspicuously at her desk all the way at the back next to the window, just like always. I didn’t see any sign that she’d been hurt or sick.
I thought that maybe, like last week, we’d be able to talk on the roof during gym class that day. But my hopes were quickly betrayed. She simply wasn’t there. And that’s how the day ended, too. But the Thursday and Friday that followed—in other words, yesterday and today—I’d been able to find a couple of opportunities to share a few words with her. To be honest, I would have liked to take more time and talk about a lot more, but what could I do? I never got an opening to bring anything up…
And then I had spotted her just as I was heading home.
When I think back now, it’s pretty embarrassing. I basically acted purely on the impulse of the moment. I burst out of the school building and ran in the direction she’d been going. I saw her leaving the campus through the back gate, and I could have called out to stop her, but I dismissed that option and decided to follow her without announcing myself.
This was where my original purpose—“following someone”—had begun.
I followed Mei, time and again thinking I had lost sight of her on the streets outside the school, which I still didn’t know very well, but then I would find her again. When I got close enough that I could call out to her, of course I intended to do that. But for some reason, the whole time the distance between the two of us never shrank and, at some point, the act of following her itself became my goal.
Twilight was beginning to creep in, and I lost sight of Mei once and for all. That was just a little while ago. Having no idea whatsoever which roads I had taken to get here, without realizing it, I had arrived here—beside the “Blue Eyes Empty to All, in the Twilight of Yomi” in the town of Misaki.
In the few days that had passed since I came to this school, the alienness—you could call it the “enigma”—that surrounded her had grown stronger and deeper, creating a certain “shape” in my mind.