The Whispered Thing30 min read

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I have a friend who can barely string a sentence together. She’ll place a word on a page, and then agonize over the resulting ripples as though the word were a stone thrown into a deep lake. During moments like these, her great comfort is anecdotes such as the one where an old friend visits James Joyce and finds the great author slumped over his writing desk.

“I’ve written five words today,” Joyce says by way of greeting, rolling his eyes toward the visitor who, knowing the angst writing caused the author, smiles and says, “Why, that’s great!” Joyce, though, groans, and then says, “But I don’t know what order they go in!”

My friend loved retelling stories like this over coffee and stronger stuff; anecdotes, allegories, and aphorisms were so many sticks and twigs to build the nest where her great work would hatch. This particular twig came from Stephen King’s book On Writing, and she’d chosen it to illustrate both the writer’s dilemma and its solution; in her mind Joyce had worked it out and so would she—even though on that day she had not one word to perplex her gin and tonic. Of course, lots of people hate to write and get by on subject-predicated disasters, but fate cast a shadow across my friend’s destiny when it tossed a stone in her name, because as the ripples hit the shore they washed up a poet right along with them.


Why, I’m Mister Gregarious, a singular sum of instant gratification, no happier than when I’m surrounded by people. When I spout off, out it goes and out it stays. Friends will tell me a great story and I’ll go, “Where’d you hear that?” And they’ll say, “Mr. Gregarious, it was you, two days back. You really don’t remember?”

What I’m getting at is the place of stories in my life. Until a year ago they were just another social lubricant to slide between the next drink and the current cigarette. Ever since I got back from Japan, though, one story’s been on my mind, and it’s the least I want to tell. But my poet friend noticed my lack of shaving, gaunt eyes, and the wasting away of weight. She told me about this little gathering you have and said, “Sometimes the weight of our hearts holds back the stories that need telling.” She’s probably at the page now, trying to say it better—and I don’t know if telling you about the whispered thing will change anything, but I’ve got nothing to lose.

I’ve got to put it in perspective before I go insane.

I encountered the whispered thing in Japan.

I’d headed over hoping for the glitz and glam of Tokyo, full of Blade Runner nights and lost, translated days.

Instead I got Ogaki.

Not that I’m complaining. It was a nice enough, medium-sized town at the base of lush green mountains. The ALT Company put me up in a small, 500 square feet, one bedroom apartment beside the train station, and, in fifteen minutes, I passed Japan in all its eras as I walked between home and work, transitioning from the most modern to the exceedingly ancient and back again—a 7-11, a Shinto shrine, a Mister Donuts—before arriving at the cedar gates of the Buddhist elementary school.

You could tell the place was well off. Each day my kids would wave from their Mercedes and BMWs, as they passed the giant iron bell that hung in a shrine where we’d gather to hear the priest chant morning prayers as cicadas screeched their leaden song. Then it was off to the modern, two-storey school next door, where I hopped between classrooms like a multilingual frog, ribbiting out strings of English for one lily pad before springing to the next. All in all, not a bad gig, and come lunch I’d head out to watch the kids during recess.

That’s when I first saw Mizuki. She was a small girl lying on her stomach on the other side of the sand lot that marked the playground. This always struck me as unique to Japan—or, very much unlike Colorado. Even Colorado, arid as it was, had grass for its playgrounds. Not Ogaki. No, like any other Japanese school, our kids played atop an expanse of sand that doubled as a kingdom of imagination, a place where dreams were reenacted and explored within the dynamic of games and friends—but even for dreams, Mizuki’s were extreme. She used a bright yellow shovel to dig a hole deep enough to fit her arm into, and afterward whispered through cupped hands the words no one would know. The activity drew a crowd of older boys and girls, yet no matter how much they’d yell and scream, Mizuki continued whispering into the hole, and her inattention only riled them more.

Now, I’ve seen enough movies to know that the worst thing a teacher can do is tell them to stop. Bullies will obey in the moment, but once I was gone little Mizuki would be on her own. No, better to distract, and since there weren’t many 6’2” blond-haired, blue-eyed gaijin in Ogaki, it proved a hell of a lot more interesting than a hole in the ground when I started playing dodgeball—and, for thoroughness, I tagged those who lingered with a well-aimed ball and screamed “Little help!” Soon we were all having a good time. I’d hoped Mizuki’d join in, too, but not once did she get up from that hole. She may as well have been staring down into the core of the Earth, and how the hell could I compete with that?

When the bell chimed its modern digital drone, I made sure all the kids returned to their classrooms—paying particular attention to Mizuki, who whispered to her hole one last time before passing me to enter the polished wooden hallway, where I saw something shocking enough that I forgot her odd game. I thought I’d met all the school staff that morning, but the Seahorse was new, and very old. She shuffled behind her brass cart for the afternoon tea service in a crooked bow, and, drawing close, calcified into a mute container molded by the stress of previous trials lurking behind this time and place, a hearing aid to register penitent chords alone.

The giant iron bell rang as the woman opened the glass partition to the green classroom, its deep reverberation a sharp contrast to the earlier electronic clock. Through the sliding glass door, I saw the robed priest ring-in the afternoon hour by swinging a log against the bell’s side, and when I turned back, the woman had disappeared in the search for that penitent chord.

Once school had finished, I joined the rest of the teachers as the gleaming Mercedes and BMWs devoured their kids, among whose company Mizuki was absent. I knew she’d gone in after recess, yet when I looked she was back at the hole. In exactly the same pose she’d assumed that morning. The seriousness of her bearing gave me pause. Most children enjoyed the company of others: to not want it spoke of problems both immediate and deep, beginning in this simple sand lot and stemming from a stronger place, most likely home. It wasn’t until the last kid had left that I had—if not an answer—then my next clue.

The Seahorse, slowly, ponderously, shuffled her way over as the children departed, and, a cicada-screeched-age later, stopped, swayed—and snatched up the whispering girl. Harder than it needed to be, but what could I say? Most of the teachers and staff could barely say their names in English, and the children only understood “apple” and “hello.” I watched as the crippled Seahorse dragged the girl through the cedar gate, and left it to the cicadas to dictate my thoughts.

I learned more about Mizuki in the coming days. Each morning I’d land in her class for thirty minutes of song and dance, and then return in the afternoon for grammar and writing lessons. For the mornings, I had a plastic microphone the kids sang into, and I learned quickly not to force it on the shy kids. Mizuki was always the shyest. When others raised their hands and bellowed into the mic, she’d sit red-faced and avoid eye contact, so I never put her on the spot.

Instead, I used my afternoon lesson. If the kids thought I was treating Mizuki as special they might bully her more, so I was friendly to everyone, but the whole while I sat beside her. It just came to be my seat, and, as the kids warmed to it, Mizuki loosened up.

It started with a perfect, uppercase letter “A.” She didn’t say anything as she slid it over, but “B” quickly followed, yet it was “C” that was exceptional; a perfect circle bitten by a higher power to please a platonic alphabet—yet, if not for the playground whispers, I might have thought she couldn’t speak at all.

Still, we were making progress, until the Wednesday when she broke her silence.

I don’t know why she chose that day, unless… but it would’ve been too perfect for her to pick the day when we finished the uppercase alphabet. Eerily so.

Yet given what followed, who am I to doubt?

Mizuki slid the paper over and revealed a perfect letter Z. The lines were exact, as though rendered on the X Y axis of a drafting calculator. I’d always been impressed with her penmanship, but even for her this was outstanding.

I placed my hand on her shoulder and said, “Very good, Mizuki.”

Then she looked at me.

For the first time I saw her. Really saw her. A pleasant, round face with a large set of expressive brown eyes. Then she spoke. Her voice was amazingly high pitched, like a cartoon character on fast forward. Before it was out, the others were on her with a reaction whose immediacy communicated familiarity; Mizuki would speak and they’d pounce, turning more vicious, more poisonous, as time passed.

I redirected quickly and asked the ringleader—an energetic, rowdy boy not normally given to meanness—to show me his letter.

The others watched as I began those next crucial steps. Chastise the boy and Mizuki will pay. Instead, I looked him dead on and said, “This is an okay Z, but try once more.” Then I turned to the rest of the table, “Let’s all try once more.”

That second utterance was tough, because Mizuki was like a heated stone under my hand. Every muscle was rigid. Did she have a fever? Before I could do more—whether help or hurt I still couldn’t say—the bell rang. She got up quickly and went outside with the rest, and I didn’t see her again until the end of school—when I nearly blew it.

As usual, Mizuki was back at her hole, and, as before, the Seahorse shuffled out and grabbed her. Except this time Mizuka wasn’t finished, and she shrugged off the claw-like hand.

That’s when the Seahorse hit her.

I was halfway there before two other teachers caught me. I had no idea what I’d planned to do—maybe straighten that crooked spine with some chiropractics of my own. But they stopped me and the principal, a small bespectacled man, took my place. He didn’t say anything, but at his intervention the Seahorse resorted to a single threat whispered to the crouching girl, as I resumed walking and arrived at the hole.

Mizuki tensed when I knelt beside her, but drew back to let me see what she’d made. It seemed infinitely deep, although how could anything dug by a child be bottomless? The accompanying dirt pile wasn’t nearly high enough to explain it, yet it wasn’t as though the playground had been built on a hollow cavern.

The world darkened as I tried to find the bottom, but the darkness descended to the heart of some strange world in vertiginous waves that left me lightheaded and faint.

I was still staring when the Seahorse kicked the dirt pile into the hole. One second endless, the next gone. By the time my head had cleared, both Mizuki and the Seahorse were passing through the gate, not slipping into a nice car but walking, as I did, to a bus stop or train station. What manner and number of blows would rain down on Mizuki once they got home? Combined with the isolating cartoon voice, the appeal of whispering to a hole in the ground became clear; it wasn’t as if anyone was giving her a better option.

But, for all this, there was still too much I didn’t understand, and if I was going to be of any help, I decided I would have to rectify that, and soon.

The other teachers opened up after the slapping incident. Translations were touch and go, but over time a story emerged. Mizuki could only attend the school because her grandmother worked there. Her mother was rumored to be a waifish thing who only gave her daughter a name before vanishing from the hospital. Mendacious rumors swirled from there; she acquired a drug habit and moved to Osaka for a hostess bar gig, or escaped an abusive boyfriend and fled to an island off the coast of Hokkaido.

Who really knew? All it did was hint at a developmental delay that may or may not have explained Mizuki’s condition. But what was that beyond a lack of speech—or an abundance of a particular kind of secret? Whatever the case, the school seemed content to ignore the problem. Aside from her social standing, it proved no detriment to her performance. Her schoolwork was excellent, and her grandmother’s position assured a discount on the steep tuition fees, so there was no immediate danger of her leaving. Not that they didn’t scrape to make ends meet, but the resulting social status was worth the hassle for the grandmother, who barely seemed to pay her granddaughter any mind aside from a means to access Ogaki’s upper class.

For all the good it did her. Even a gaijin like me could see how the mothers cast frosty glances her way—and the shunning extended from mothers to daughters, leaving Mizuki to whisper to a hole that deepened every day.

Until she made a friend.

Frankly I was surprised it was Aoi. She was the ringleader of the other girls, and seemed more concerned about the bows in her hair and the ribbons on her dress than her handwriting, yet here she was beside the school misfit, carefully copying her handwriting and improving her ABCs.

As much as I wanted to approve of this new development, I felt uneasy. Aoi liked to make Mizuki repeat phrases from last night’s anime to the delight of the other girls, because she sounded like a host of cartoon characters. I quickly clocked that Mizuki relied on Aoi to relay what was said. Moreover, when Aoi stopped, Mizuki returned to silence and kept her own feelings for a hole that went less used day by day.

Despite her odd, parrot-like behavior, Mizuki’s star was on the rise. She was already combining upper and lower case letters to form three, four, and even five letter words—and that was on top of her Japanese studies. I saw first-hand how extraordinary her work was when the green classroom posted the children’s calligraphy projects. The results were rudimentary—after all, the children were six—except for Mizuki’s. The same precision she’d displayed in her English lessons translated into the Japanese, too—maybe more so. I didn’t know many kanji characters, but I recognized beauty right away, and that’s what her writing was—beautiful. Each line followed clear, clean strokes to a terminus resounding with communicated intent.

It was that intent that caused the teacher to worry. When the children chose their own kanji, Mizuki painted no less than ten times hitori bochi: I’m alone. A month later she followed with okoru tomodachi: angry friend. I smiled, and then looked at the teacher and found she wasn’t sharing my mirth, so I asked, “Aoi?”

The teacher shook her head. These kanji had come before Aoi had befriended Mizuki. So who was the “angry friend?

I didn’t have time to follow up, because just then I was called into the school’s office, where both Aoi and her mother waited beside a pensive-looking principal.

It was the first time I’d seen the mother up close. Usually she waited with the others beside the open gates, where she commanded the grown-ups as Aoi-child controlled her classmates. In the mother, Aoi’s future registered as a slim, severe beauty unmarred by baby fat or laugh lines; a toned body echoed a constant exercise regime for the former, and the latter revealed the rigid determination I was about to experience.

“Hello, Gregarious Sensei. I’m Naomi Watanbe, Aoi’s mother.”

Her English was easily the best I’d heard from a native Japanese speaker, and her fashion sense was impeccable. In all, she had the air of a jet-setting CEO who had been downsized into motherhood, and when she straightened up from her bow, her eyes were hard and all business.

“All the mothers speak highly of your lessons.”

“I’m lucky to have such fine students.”

“Students are nothing without the teacher, just as clay is shapeless until a potter allows it form. Aoi excelled at the international school, but her performance has declined since we moved to Ogaki. I think you can help her get back on track.”

The principal hung back with downcast eyes. The use of English left him powerless; his understanding depended on what Naomi told him.

“Of course I’ll try my best to teach Aoi everything I can.”

“In a class of twenty your attention will be divided, no matter how much you try.”

Her large diamond ring caught the afternoon sun in a nova flare that blinded me for a second. When my vision cleared, she was closer—and more determined.

“Maybe I’m not following. How else can I teach her?”

“Gregarious sensei, are you available to tutor my daughter?”

Ah, so that’s it. I looked at the principal, who didn’t return my gaze.

“How often were you thinking?”

Her eyebrows rose ever so slightly.

“Why, everyday. I think 10,000 yen a lesson is fair, don’t you?”

10,000 yen! That worked out to 50,000 yen a week, and 200,000 yen a month. There was no way I could turn down 2,000 extra dollars a month.

But there was more than me to consider.

“That’s very generous, but at that rate Aoi will burn out.”

“You don’t need to worry about Aoi. After all, clay molds to the potter’s will.”

Again with the clay, as though children could be so neatly packed into a tidy metaphor. Yet I knew I had no allies in the room, so I nodded.

“Good. Oh, and you’ll have two students, not one.”

At that point, someone knocked on the sliding glass door. Perfect timing. Even before I looked, I knew. The Seahorse couldn’t even make eye contact as she bowed, and every time Naomi returned the gesture it was a little higher than the Seahorse’s, who threatened to crack the floorboards with her gratitude.

Once this was decided, I collected my bag and headed home. Crossing the sandlot, I spotted the groundkeeper standing, perplexed, over a damp patch of earth. It was the same spot that Mizuki’s hole had been. Ever since she’d befriended Aoi, it had gone untouched, and the groundskeeper had filled it in and tamped it down. Now it looked as though a pipe below had burst, welling up a foul smelling sewage that reeked even from several yards off. Yet the result was highly localized; no other section of the playground bore such a mark. The groundskeeper continued to shake his head over the growing damp as I passed, and the smell lingered—a strong, rotten stench—well past the gates.

The patch was gone the next morning, but come the afternoon’s tutoring session, it had returned as Aoi and Mizuki entered the classroom. Through the glass door I saw the groundskeeper wheel out a barrow of sand but didn’t have time to follow his work. I’d spent the previous night planning fun activities that would make the time fly—but I still had my doubts. The afternoon sessions would include conversation as well as writing; if Mizuki sat mute this would be one long hour.

It turned out that wasn’t going to be a problem. One thing became clear as the lesson started: Aoi seemed to genuinely like Mizuki. If anything, the difficulty lay in keeping them on task. Card games made it easier though. I’d spread out the set face down, and in order to win they each had to match two cards that had the same number or suit face. The trick—beyond the fact that they could only flip over and match two cards a turn—was they had to first ask each other a question in English. You’d be surprised how often most kids answered “do you like apples” with “yes I can,” and “can you swim,” with “yes I do.” Getting these points down was the focus of the lesson, and the kids couldn’t pick up the pair of 7’s until they matched their do’s and can’s.

I don’t know when I started feeling strange. I just know it had to do with Mizuki’s voice. As with her spoken Japanese, her spoken English never went beyond parroting or simple answers, yet, on that afternoon, vivid sensations resounded with even the simplest declarations. When she said “apple” I tasted tart green apple, and when she said “swim” water rushed along my body at a brisk, clean clip. Did Aoi feel the same way; if not now in English, then when Mizuki spoke Japanese? I saw no sign that she sensed anything and kept the game going, yet a new event occurred when we switched to writing. As Mizuki wrote, I picked up similar arrangements in the classroom. Spotting CAT, my nose stuffed up with dander. Scoping DOG, my hand touched a cold wet nose. Yet in these latter experiences lay a clue; I had seen Mizuki write English for months, and this was the first time her words came alive. Could the isolation—just the three of us in the room—have something to do with it? Did words gain meaning within the confines of cupped hands and an endless tunnel?

After the session, I waved goodbye and walked through the city, where no light was just a light, and every sound was more than sound. Each pulsed with buoyant messages as whispers lapped transparent structures, heated electrons danced between shadows, and approaching people receded on tides of summer nights and winter days, old men and women retaining Russian dolls of former lives and oncoming futures. Several times, I had to steady myself, yet when a child moved within the woman she would become, no vertigo went with it. All was as it should be in the cascade of revelations; across the street, artists drew magazine covers from the 7-11 rack and advertisements of Mister Donuts’ Pom Pom specials, and the shrine especially coruscated with events now departed but still retained. The sun-bleached, rain-stained structure shone with a golden hue upon figures and silhouettes reenacting battles and loves won and lost.

All was illuminated in words never spoken: only whispered.

When I returned to my apartment, the onrush reduced to 500 square feet of cheap plaster, but words accrued from the bookshelves in a message demanding to be recorded. I barely paused to grab a pen, and long after my wrist ached and my vision had blurred, I continued until there was no more paper, and what I had wasn’t just a record; it was a letter.

I looked about the room but it was just books and slim space. Through the window lay night and light, but only those two things. What I hoped to see was again projected fantasy, not revealed truth. Just like that, it was gone.

I read—and then reread—the letter. How could I think of posting such a thing after what had passed? I’d met her when we were both in various transitions: me to overseas, and her to marriage. Our affair was brought on by her doubts about the forthcoming union, and our passion had been as much a thing of limitation as it was connection. Knowing there were just a few more weeks before I left, the exploration of what could’ve been before stepping over the threshold of what was. Her letters stopped coming soon after I’d arrived. Nothing I wrote now could change that.

I placed the letter carefully on the table. Opened a beer. Thought about the coming lesson. Would this happen every day? And just what was it that I’d experienced, exactly? All I knew then was that I was very tired, so I went to bed and was sure I slept—because in dreams the darkness whispered.

In the dream it was late. Past 3:00 a.m. The night was muffled as if a wet blanket smothered my small bedroom. I sat up in my futon and heard it again; someone was whispering my name. A young girl, speaking with a fierce, angry rush. Not in the room, but close. I stood, opened the door to the living room, and caught her again, following until I stood over the sink…

…It whispered my name.

I didn’t realize I was standing on my balcony until a car honked below, and didn’t know I was on the street until a freight train roared past. Between those two places, I’d grabbed my coat and clutched it close. Now whispers erupted from sewer grates and shadows. An angry girl, her voice overlapped in chorus, her words lost in tidal anger.

I began walking toward the bright lights of the train station. The second I stepped toward a patch of darkness, waves of anger lashed out with the voice of a girl, yet laced with something older, more twisted. I bought a ticket and sat on the train platform. Beneath the bright fluorescents I found a silent comfort from the surrounding night. Was I crazy? I considered the possibilities while rubbing the ticket in my hand.

Then it hit me.

Maybe I was sleepwalking. Both my father and brother suffered from it, and a vivid memory emerged as I reflected: a loud cracking sound that awakened me when I was fourteen. Fragments from there: a broken bedpost on the second floor landing, the tv murmuring down below. Descending the stairs to where my father sat—stark naked—before the 5:00 a.m. farm report on tv. He turned to me, still perfectly asleep, and said:

“Do you want fish?”

On that Ogaki train platform I laughed as the sun escaped the horizon.

Awake. Now awake. All that came before was a dream. Only a dream.

I stood and chanced a patch of shadows beneath the stairwell.

Nothing. All was still.

In daylight, the whispering sink seemed as ridiculous as a sleepwalker considering fish while watching the farm report. Feeling better, I returned to my apartment in time to wash up, and then walked an average perambulation to the school, whose usual routines allowed me to settle into my duties and forget my odd dream from the night before.

Yet I approached the tutoring session with trepidation. Would the rush of sensations return? If so, would they bring the whispers with them?

Five minutes into the session, I felt foolish. Mizuki sounded funny, but it was the voice of a high-pitched girl, not some otherworldly character. Aoi, drawing from her time at the international school, did equally well. Their normality carried over to the rest of the city, and when I returned home I sat down to write a new letter to the one who got away, but its predecessor remained unposted, and, side-by-side, I wondered if I had anything to say at all. Although a tinge of disappointment came with this, I slept well in the silver lining: no whispers stirred the darkness, not that night, or the months that followed.

Then the semester was nearly finished, with just three more days to go before summer vacation. As the teachers handed back the latest test results, I circled the room to ensure all the kids understood the answers. As usual, Mizuki got a perfect score, and I was gratified to see that Aoi had improved greatly. Only toward the end of the day did I learn the class ranking: Mizuki at number one and Aoi at number two. I felt pride at learning that my students were doing so well, yet there was a twinge of trepidation mixed in. I didn’t know why, until Naomi greeted me near the exit.

“Gregarious Sensei, I wanted to thank you for your work with Aoi.”

From where we stood, the playground was visible. Children circled the besieged groundskeeper and the roped-off festering pit that grew despite his best efforts. Rumor was that the city was coming to excavate the cavity, but that was summer work, not yet arrived.

“Aoi really seems to have benefited from her time with you.”

“And Mizuki.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed it, but it felt so obvious: the only reason they were together was because of Naomi. As though her daughter could learn from the prodigy through proximal osmosis.

Naomi surprised me then; she laughed, perhaps slightly affected, but real enough at the time. A useful social trick.

“Yes, everyone loves Mizuki. They say she may even skip a grade, and even talk of special schools. She will go quite far.”

Her voice dropped on the last sentence. Neither of us had anything to say, so we watched the children play as the groundkeeper re-erected a levee against waters no one understood.

“Do you think she appreciates it?”

She spoke so softly that I wasn’t sure if the question was rhetorical. Her eyes held a dazed expression, as she played with that big diamond ring. A diamond as big as the Ritz, as though Fitzgerald had stopped by Ogaki on his way to the Left Bank. How had I missed noticing it was on the wrong finger until now? Because I’m Mister Gregarious, that’s how.

“When it comes easy, it isn’t appreciated. People think: easy come, easy go. Or worse, they think others can be discarded. It’s hard to be discarded, don’t you think?”

Before I could answer, she waved the kids over. I remember the next moments clearly; instead of joining the Seahorse, Mizuki followed Aoi to the gleaming Mercedes whose open door consumed them both. Then I remembered; it was Aoi’s birthday and Mizuki was going back with her for the party. Innocuous enough, so why was I so anxious?

It hit me then: her backpack! Running back I found it in her little cubby. In her haste to celebrate she’d left it there, and, holding it, I felt an irrational fear. She could get it tomorrow, but it seemed imperative she have it now. Why? I had no idea. Yet Mizuki was already gone, as was the Seahorse, perhaps preferring solitude to the sight of her granddaughter riding along with her betters.

I re-hung the backpack on its little hook, and then returned to my small apartment for a perfectly average night before what I thought would be a perfectly average Wednesday. I even went to bed early, for all the good it did me.

It seemed I awoke as soon as I hit the sheets. It was the cold that did it. A deep, bone-numbing cold beneath shivers ransacking my wet frame. Everything, from my hair down to my toes, was drenched in a thick sheen of sweat more reminiscent of a swimming pool dive than a humid night. The window was open, and that plus the sweat chilled me completely. My jimbe pajamas and futon were likewise soaked through, and when I set my feet on the tatami matting, the squishy result promised a long explanation to ALT. All I could deduce was that I’d suffered a nightmare so terrifying that I’d sweated my fear out. My palms confirmed it when I set them on the sheets, revealing crescent cuts where clenched fists had driven the nails into my skin. My throat concurred with a deep raspy ache bespeaking a scream had rubbed it raw.

Yet I remembered nothing. Hell, I even felt well rested, and by the time I hit the streets the weird morning was nothing but past. I’d already washed the sheets, hung out the futon, and vacuumed the tatami before leaving, and passing the 7-11 and shrine and Mister Donuts, I was sure it was going to be another regular day. But of course it wasn’t. Looking back, the first sign had been the stillness. Not just silence— although that was there, too—but stillness. The streets were empty, and the usual morning murmur was supplanted by a quiet reminiscent of Denver after a big thunderstorm; the way the very air felt scrubbed of emotion and memory, only to be replaced by the hard charge of kinetic potential. Yet there was no evidence of a typhoon or even a storm. The streets were dry, the sky clear, but the muffled, muted quality remained as I hit the main avenue leading to the school, and even as the cars holding my students passed, they did so in a shush that invited no comment.

Then I was through the gate, and knew something was wrong. There was the subdued way the staff carried themselves, and when I started my lessons, the students mirrored their elders. Worse, when I hopped to the green classroom, I discovered both Mizaki and Aoi were absent. During a song break, I asked the teacher where they were, but she only shook her head and lowered her eyes. Toward lunch I slipped out and called the ALT company, always my last ditch effort if the language barrier proved insurmountable. But they hadn’t heard anything either. By then it was lunchtime, and I joined everyone on the playground, and noticed something that had escaped my attention earlier. A blue plastic tarp had been placed over Mizuki’s hole, and the adults were making sure the kids stayed well away as they played on the other side of the lot. Had it grown overnight? I started to head over, but then my vision blurred as the right side of my body went cold. Both were signs of an oncoming migraine, my first since I’d arrived in Japan—in fact, my first since high school, when they had been a regular occurrence.

I reentered the school, miming headache by tapping my temples, and sat in the classroom to prepare for the afternoon lessons. If I didn’t push myself, I could still teach, but it would be touch and go. As I sat and planned, a creaking sound emanated from the hallway. Reeeeeeek. Reeeeeeek. She appeared behind the cart then, my last chance to find out what was happening. One look at her face, though, spoke enough. The Seahorse stopped, and raised her eyes to me. They were twin holes, tunneling straight through to loss and carrying all vitality with them, leaving great age and fatigue on the parchment wrinkles of her face. What could I say to that? I watched her continue, taking with her any hope of me understanding what was occurring—or about to occur—on that day.

The pain got worse through the afternoon, until by the time of the tutoring session I could barely stand. The bells were ringing and the children were leaving, and when I tried to stand, what little was left of my vision shimmered, and then there was blood on the table. Dribbling in Pollack patterns of elusive meaning, and I stared for seconds before cupping my hand over my nose.

The loud crash came then, as the blood pooled in my palm. Mizuki’s backpack had torn free from its hook. When I’d held it the other day, it had felt almost empty. Now it was heavy enough to crack the floor. What had changed?

I blotted my nose with a Kleenex and approached the bag. When I unclasped the first belt, a knife stabbed me deep behind the right eye. I gasped and collapsed against her cubby. So much pain. Still, I was driven to know what was in the bag; perhaps even an answer to where Mizuki and Aoi were. Yet when I got the second clasp open, a second knife struck, this time beneath the left eye, and both twisted with such savagery that I fell back. When I looked down, the front of my shirt was bright red. Salt filled my mouth, and I barely made it to the small sink in the corner before more vented forth, bright blood that hit the porcelain and funneled down the drain and did not stop, even as I ran the water and splashed my face. Christ what was happening?

The earthquake struck as the drain answered. A child’s voice, angry, petulant, traveled up through pipes from a place deep inside the earth. Then the room canted backward and to the right. A table nearly clipped me as I hit the floor and slid—then a chair finished the job, slamming into my side before it hit the doorframe and rebounded into the hallway in time to shatter the sliding door to the outside.

That’s when I saw it.

The ground undulated in large violent waves. When one hit an obstruction—a play set, a child—that barrier collapsed and slid toward a pit that yawned like a great hungry mouth. When materials met the mouth, they grew into jaws and teeth, mashing together on anything—anyone—who did not grab onto something. The mouth consumed the playground and then the parking lot, and on its edge I stared down into the black heart of it and saw…nothing. The darkness was absolute, but as the children and staff fell, words joined them. Words in Hiragana; words in Katakana; words in Kanji; words even in English, although just two; all flowed down the earthen throat that carried everyone I knew to the angry friend, and although I’d like to think I was spared because of my kindness, it was more likely that my side was my savior. It had snagged on fragments of glass, and kept me dangling as the earth roared.

I hung over the pit long after the quake had subsided. From the ground little hands and feet could be seen, sad and horrific, but when I tried to move great lances of pain erupted where the pane of glass had punctured my torso. So I watched the little hands gradually still as the hazard lights of a half-buried Mercedes blinked a steady, constant emergency, and gradually became aware of a deep, ringing sound around me. At first synchronized with the lights, and then growing more frenetic. When I looked up, the Seahorse was crying, wailing, and swinging the great log against the side of the shrine’s bell, and she was still ringing that bell as the rescue workers freed me from the glass. Side bleeding from the wound, I still watched the rescuers begin their efforts, recalling Vonnegut’s memories of the Dresden bombing, a shattered landscape offering up grim Easter eggs. From a stretcher, I watched a pair of policemen try to stop the Seahorse from ringing the bell, but she continued then and might be ringing it still, because as they wheeled me into the ambulance I saw her, surrounded by priests and monks, as the rescuers began to dig through the foul pit that had contained the whispered thing.

I left Japan soon after, but while in the hospital I pressed the ALT Company for more information. For a time they told me nothing, but then one day I had a visitor. The regional manager was an older man, Canadian, who wanted to be anywhere other than a cramped Ogaki hospital room. That made two of us, and I waited with an aching side and itchy stitches as he angled his large frame onto the tiny visitor’s stool. Once settled he began the story I’d been requesting for weeks.

Mizuki had gone missing the day before the earthquake. In fact, it was quite a scandal. The party had been held in a wide clearing surrounded by a wilderness where children played hide-and-seek as their mothers gossiped. It was a familiar place to these wealthy families, and nothing but comfort and ease laced the feelings of the day. Hours passed and the children played, their laughter ringing through the fields, and in the fading light there was no sense that they were anything other than innocent, and, in innocence, returned from the woods in groups, at first large, then small, until only Mizuki remained to be counted.

The mothers asked the children where Mizuki was, but no one would say, although a few giggled. And looked at Aoi. The looks transferred to the mothers, who looked at Naomi while Aoi stood—quite sullenly, I imagined, given what she said next.

“I didn’t want her here anyway.”

Naomi became furious and demanded that Aoi tell her where Mizuki was. But Aoi remained adamant, so it was the other children who lead the group through the woods to an old shed built into the mountainside, where the children had rolled a large log against the door, braced so that whoever lay within couldn’t get out. As the other parents grew more concerned Naomi continued to yell at Aoi, until the little girl exploded: “It’s my birthday, my birthday!

She continued saying this as the adults rolled the log aside and opened the door. There was a long, collective pause as they stared at the open mouth of the well—and the splintered fragments that remained of its cover. How long had it held the little girl’s weight before caving in? How far had she fallen to the springs whose water was famous throughout Ogaki? Healing springs now carrying a little body out to sea, or deep within the earth.

He didn’t say much else, but when I asked about Naomi and Aoi he grew more uncomfortable. I couldn’t say I was surprised that the earthquake only struck in one other place besides the school. That there was no trace of the house where they had lived. In the end the Mizuki whispers were exhaustive; the thing that had listened, thorough.

After he’d left, I thought about the earthquake’s aftermath. The great yawning mouth had shown no signs of words or language: just destruction. Had I missed the detritus in the green classroom, I might have thought them a result of blood loss.

But I had seen what I’d seen.

As they had wheeled me away, I spotted the contents of Mizuki’s open backpack scattered across the shattered floor. Each piece of paper was unmarred by writing. The words they had contained were absent, having flowed back to the whispered thing to consume all oppressors: the ultimate culmination of anger, and loneliness.

Nowadays, if I think about Mizuki I also think about Joyce and my poet friend. I consider the total concentration that writing demands, the absolute power words have. Just occasionally, one of us approaches its true potential with an ability that dwarfs lesser talents. For these individuals, I wonder if their writing is so singular that it attracts an audience outside human experience. A thing powerful yet protean, composed of an infinite potential that can be molded for great creation—or ferocious destruction.

Mostly, though, I think about a little girl who needed a great teacher and found a hole in the ground instead. Now I have a new routine, and perhaps this story is its culmination. Maybe tonight has helped crystallize what happened to me, and, starting now, I will hold these pages to the light and read them as different facets of a total whole in the hope that the right surface, held at the right time and the right angle, might spark a pure ray which will deliver understanding.

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