“Now I’m going to tell you some important facts about your life.”
I was eleven, and my father had called me to his study. In his black suit he leaned back heavily on the leather sofa, perhaps because he was already an old man and standing tired him. A ray of the setting sun peeped through a crack in the curtains. With the orange light behind him, his face was in shadow. Clutching a red, radio-controlled car, still with dirt on its tires, I was aware of how small I was in the center of the large, cold room. Father’s breath smelled faintly of alcohol.
“About your education. This does not mean, though, that I hold any great hopes for you. It’s just that I intend to leave a ‘cancer’ in this world. Under my guidance, you will become a cancer. A personification of evil, you could say.”
I couldn’t see my father clearly, but it was hard to imagine that he was smiling. No doubt his face was as immobile and expressionless as ever.
“My other children are already adults, occupying important positions in society. That is because they came into the world uninvited, and were free to choose their own paths. Your life, on the other hand, I created on purpose, when I was already past sixty. This is something of a practice in my—no, our—family.”
I still couldn’t see his face.
“By ‘cancer’ I mean a being that will make this world miserable. That will make everyone wish that they had never been born, or at least make everyone think that the light of virtue does not shine in this world.”
There was a knock at the door, and at his signal a young servant girl entered. Her lips and nose were narrow, her eyes large and clear. I thought she was probably my father’s type. On our estate there were at least seven domestic servants. When she whispered something to him he nodded, “Send her in,” he muttered, then turned back to me. “The most recent recorded example was in the Taisho era, almost eighty years ago.”
The servant left the room silently.
“Our ancestor revived the custom when he was over sixty years old—the custom of delivering a cancer into the world. He seems to have realized that his own life was nearing its end, and that even though he would die, the world would carry on. That was something he was unable to forgive. In his life he had obtained everything he wanted and he was arrogant, as I am. If his life was going to end, then everything must perish. So on June 18, 1915, a young woman gave birth to his child. To bring this world to an end—no, to be precise, to be a negative force, to make the world as unhappy as possible. He raised that child to be a cancer on society, and the boy was excellent. He turned into a creature who was destined to make many peoples’ lives hell, who was destined to increase the number of people who believed that life wasn’t worth living. They say that when the old man was on his deathbed, he was no longer afraid. He thought the unhappy people created by that cancer would create more unhappiness, and cancer would spread like gushing foam. If that continued, the world would begin to fail. Well, he thought, at the very least I have been able to create a person who will spread a stain over the light of the world in my stead after I am gone. In his bed, the old man heard the news of the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. That cancer had nothing to do with the events leading up to the war, but as a high-ranking officer he committed all manner of atrocities—so much evil that God covered his eyes.”
The door opened and a girl I had never seen before entered. Cold air from the rest of the house flowed in, and she walked toward us on skinny legs. Her face was immediately flushed with the slanting orange sunlight, and her large eyes stood out vividly in her face. I caught my breath, confused, as though I was threatened by the unexpected presence of those eyes, as though they were going to vanish into the light. I was careful not to show it, however. My father gave no reaction to the girl’s entry.
“With our wealth and power that have been passed down through the generations, we can use this life to do whatever we want. Then when we feel that our time is running out, by breeding one of these cancers we can mask the fear of death with amusement at the entertainment it provides. Of course this custom is not observed in every generation. From time to time, however, it is remembered and put into practice. I have revived it once more. A number of years ago a religious group occupied a nuclear power plant. When their plan was foiled by Public Security, they all committed suicide. While that group was in the process of turning into a cult, one student from Tokyo University played a leading role. His roots can be traced back to that cancer clan. Namely, he was the son of that soldier, from a lesser branch of our family tree.”
The girl was about my age, wearing a white dress and carrying a large bag. She stared at my father and me in wonder. I looked idly at the nascent bulge of her breasts. Even after I turned back to my father, his face still hidden in shadow, the image of her white dress, tinged with orange, stayed in my mind’s eye.
It was not just me and Father that she seemed to find strange, but everything around her. The room, spacious and unheated. The deer’s head mounted on the wall, antlers spread wide on either side, its coat covered in dust as if it had turned to stone. The enormous black desk, the sofa where my father was sitting, the countless books and earthenware pots placed carelessly on the ancient shelves.
“First, you need to become competent.”
My father’s lecture was not finished.
“In this world, you must be powerful, because when an able person becomes a cancer, he is formidable. I hear you are highly intelligent. That, however, is thanks to your education thus far. The differences between people are not as great as the differences between humans and apes. Talent is simply the ability to work harder than other people. At present, you have the habit of diligence—in other words, perseverance and willpower. From now on you must also form the habit of resisting the temptation towards inertia or resignation. To purge from your soul any tendency to give up. You must also form the ability to communicate, to manage human relationships shrewdly. Last week a young man was going around assaulting people at random in the streets, but I don’t want you to limit yourself to trivial crimes like that. Under my tutelage, you will become a brilliant man. Intellectually you will be greatly in advance of your years, and then when you turn fourteen, I am going to show you hell.”
Still he did not move a muscle. He must have been well into his seventies, and his legs were spindly. The girl continued to stand beside me, forgetting even to put her bag on the floor.
“A hell which will make you want to reject the world. A cruel, devastating hell. This girl will play an important part in that torment. At that time, as you are entering adolescence, under the surface your psychological balance will be upset, causing major neurological disturbances. You will be engulfed by that evil, and you will feel a need to use it to influence the people around you. That is just the beginning, however. When you turn fifteen I will show you hell once more, and twice when you turn sixteen. Then at eighteen you will learn another truth about your life. All this has already been determined. It cannot be altered.”
My father shifted position slightly, and for a moment his head moved out of the shadow. I caught a brief glimpse of his face, still completely without expression, and then it was hidden again.
“You will become part of the nerve center of this country, or else the nerve center of some organization that is fighting against this country, and you will foment evil. I will leave you a greater share of my wealth than my other children, so that ideally this world may be brought to an end.”
He sighed heavily. The girl’s frightened eyes were still illuminated by the glow of the setting sun.
“Why am I telling you this now? There are three reasons. One is that I am exceedingly drunk. The second is that you are still young and will not remember this conversation for long, because you are still in short pants and holding a toy car in your hand.”
I thought he might laugh at this, but he didn’t.
“And the third reason is that your mother was a good woman. She spent nights with an old man like me and gave birth to you. She waited patiently for a chance to bring out the goodness that I rejected my entire life—no, which I couldn’t even comprehend. I respect that. But you will soon forget this talk. Probably you don’t even understand a word of it. It will be like a tale heard in a dream.”
My father stood. With the light behind him, his body looked like a black void that had appeared in the air.
“This girl will live here with you. From now on the two of you must become close. For the hell that you will see in the future, so that you will become a cancer. However, you and this girl will not live happily ever after. Never. Now got to bed. You are still a child, and there is nothing so foolish as a child.”
Father turned his back and took a book from the shelf as though he had already forgotten us. Then he went through the door to the adjoining room at the rear. Whenever he opened a door, it never made a sound. The girl in the white dress was staring intently at the stuffed deer’s head.
But my father was wrong. I was already a cancer. The only reason I was carrying a radio-controlled car was to deceive him. I was always thinking of ways of exterminating him, and I had been fantasizing about those plans for a long time, every day it seemed.
At that time I did not know how many rooms there were in the mansion.
The hill behind the house was like a forest, and in the garden were two ponds surrounded by stones. The hill was untended and wild, but the ponds were stocked with carp. Usually carp live to a ripe old age, but for some unknown reason on our estate they never lasted long.
Apart from the young servant girls, there was also a quiet, middle-aged woman called Tanabe who was in charge of all the domestic staff. At first I thought she was my mother, but that wasn’t the case. I had no idea where my mother was. No one had even told me if she was alive or dead.
The girl in the white dress was named Kaori. Not even she knew her original last name. She was adopted into the family from a children’s home and given the same surname as me, Kuki. Our gloomy house was on the outskirts of Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. The building is still standing, but no Kukis live there anymore.
Kaori and I went to the local public elementary school. Normally I would have expected to attend a private school like my older siblings, but my father wouldn’t hear of it. He thought that a public school was better for coming in contact with people from all levels of society. To make me a cancer I had to learn to mix with a wide range of people. That was probably what he had in mind.
Most of my schooling was done by three home tutors. I’ve largely forgotten what they were like. There is only one, a young man, I remember well. Although he was only there for a short time, he became a bright spot in my joyless daily routine.
He was very muscular, and behind his back the servants and I called him the Muscleman. When he heard this nickname he took a fancy to it and started using it himself. Physically, however, he was so weak that it made me wonder what those big muscles were for, and he moved ponderously. He also had a tendency to say tactless things—for example, he once told a servant whose eyes were too far apart that she was lucky to have 180-degree vision. Usually I laughed at his jokes just because that’s what children were supposed to do, but sometimes my laughter was genuine. For some reason, at those times I would feel sorry for myself.
My school life was uneventful. All I had to do was make some effort to hide my depression from those around me. I couldn’t afford to let them discover that I was the kind of boy who regularly threw lizards and other small creatures off the cliff on the hill out the back. Nor that I used to pick up hair and fingernail clippings that had been dropped around the house and store them in a box, on the theory that at least some of them must be my mother’s. Even without those eccentricities, a boy who lived in an obscenely big house and was good at nothing but studying was unlikely to fit in at school. I decided to trick them by concealing myself in a cloak of laughter. I think the other kids were more at ease with me that way. He might be a Kuki brat, they’d think, but he likes a joke as much as the rest of us, and he’s more frivolous than serious.
For instance, our homeroom teacher was so fat that he always seemed in danger of bursting. He also had the habit of saying, “To give a concrete example,” and then following up with an explanation that wasn’t concrete at all. I christened him “Concrete Bomb.” During lessons I would count how many times he said, “To give a concrete example,” and tell my classmates. The big blob’s lectures were full of statements like, “To give a concrete example, the numerator and denominator are like curry and a sweet bun.” We had gotten it into our heads that if he used the phrase more than forty times his stomach would explode, so we were always keyed up in his classes. I felt terrible about deceiving people around me to hide my darkness, but later I learned that many people actually live like that when they are young.
Kaori was in the same class as me. Since she was tall with large eyes, she attracted a lot of attention. Concrete Bomb told the class, falsely but thoughtfully, that she was a distant relative of mine. On her first day there we did high jump. When she leapt higher than all the other girls, a small cheer went up. But I was less interested in the height of the jump than in her white legs sticking out of her gym shorts on top of the blue mats. I was still young and felt a deep shame at my lustful urges. If my father said we had to become intimate, that was a sure sign that we shouldn’t. I looked away, but a child’s will is weak, and before I knew it I was staring at her again.
Kaori and I went home from school together. Since Father had dismissed the estate’s driver, it had become my habit to walk home.
“It must be great being rich,” Kaori said on that first day.
“No, it’s not.”
“It must be. And I hear you’re good at studying too? I’m hopeless.”
She laughed innocently, showing her teeth. With her long limbs, I couldn’t imagine a girl who would look odder wearing a child’s school bag than her.
“Even if I am rich, it’s not like I earned it. And the only reason I am able to study is because I’ve got a tutor. There’s nothing impressive about it. Not at all.” In those days I had the habit of forgetting to pretend and rebelling against even the smallest things.
She looked pensive. I had to keep talking so she wouldn’t think I was being perverse.
“So I’ve got to grow up. If I can do something for myself, that will be impressive.” I didn’t really believe this.
She gave me a puzzled look, and we walked in silence for a while. Then she laughed.
“But weren’t you the one who gave Concrete Bomb his name?”
My father had five other children—my older brothers and sisters—but at that stage I’d never met any of them. Most of them lived in Tokyo and never came near the mansion—they hadn’t even come to see me when I was born. My father’s name was Shozo, but none of my siblings, not even the eldest son, had inherited any of the Chinese characters in his name. Twenty-five years separated me from my oldest brother; from the next, twenty-three; from my oldest sister, eighteen; my third brother, fifteen; my second sister, twelve. I also knew that the Tokyo University grad student my father had talked about, the one who was in the cult, had a son the same age as me. I wondered if he had become a cancer, and vaguely expected that I’d meet him sometime, along with my brothers and sisters.
When we reached the gloomy house, the Muscleman was standing outside the gate. He grumbled that I was late, but then he noticed Kaori. Immediately he held out his hand and introduced himself, using his nickname. She hesitated before shaking his hand, perhaps intimidated by his physique, perhaps put off by the fact that he was sweating even though it wasn’t hot.
“You said I was late, but I’ve still got five minutes, haven’t I?”
“Well, I don’t care,” he mumbled. “But my muscles do.”
He wiggled his pecs. Laughing in surprise, Kaori cried out, admiring his pointless muscles. Then, with his usual lack of tact, he looked at her and said, “Maybe you and Fumihiro will get married.” I was struck dumb, but Kaori turned to look at the dark buildings.
“If I do, I’ll live like a princess, won’t I?” she said and laughed carelessly.
From a distance it would have looked like a happy scene. And who knows, maybe at that time we were still happy.
That night, or perhaps the next, my father summoned me. It was the first time he had called me since the day he told me of his plans for my education. Until then, he had never shown the slightest interest in me. When I heard that he wanted to talk to me again, I was certain it would be more on the same subject. And even if it wasn’t, just meeting him was enough to make me nervous. Stifling my panic, I took a bunch of stickers from my desk drawer and clutched them in my hand.
The room to which I was called was large, with a long table, a television and a carpet of a dull purple-red. Here Father always dined alone, and he had decreed that Kaori and I would eat with the servants in another room.
There was no answer to my knock, so I opened the door quietly. Father was sitting in one of the six dining chairs, smoking and watching TV. His face was blank, and I couldn’t tell what sort of mood he was in. This time too he smelled of alcohol. It occurred to me that he never used to drink that much. The room was dark, but I could still make out his face. With a big nose and abnormally narrow eyes, he was quite ugly. Half of his left ear was missing, I didn’t know why.
“My second son is involved in this war,” he said, still gazing at the screen and not looking in my direction.
The news was showing a report on a civil war in a small African country I knew nothing about. The anchor was reading out the number of deaths.
“You should remember this. They’re calling it an ethnic conflict, but that’s a lie. Someone is stirring up trouble between them. My son’s got the rights for postwar reconstruction. I don’t remember raising him as a cancer, but somehow he keeps acting like one. I need to do something about that.”
He turned to me and gestured slightly with his fingers. I didn’t understand what he meant, but he pointed at my stickers.
“Put those in the ashtray. Don’t bring things like that in here.”
My legs went weak and my heart was racing. As instructed, I put the bundle of stickers in the clear ashtray, and Father placed his half-smoked cigarette on top of them. He didn’t stub it out, just rested it there, still smoldering.
The surface of the stickers scorched and then caught fire. Small, red flames flickered in the noise of the war report on TV. Looking at the orange glow, I couldn’t prevent my brain from going foggy. I was unable to gauge my father’s thoughts, whether he was burning the stickers because I valued them or because the cheap, sparkly things offended him. The flames grew larger, and a curl of smoke rose from them. When the stickers started to give off an unpleasant odor, Father doused the fire with the liquor from the glass he was holding. His expression didn’t change. I realized that he wouldn’t even register the smell, the price of his own spite. My stickers turned to wet, black ash among the cigarette butts. I thought of the hell that Father had promised to show me someday.
The stickers weren’t important to me, though. I was only carrying them to make myself look childish, and the flames caused me no pain at all. I looked away from him, my mind in a whirl. My father was wrong. I was beyond his control. But straight after that I thought of Kaori.
“That’s enough,” he said softly. “Go. What are you so upset about? You’re even forgetting to act childishly. You still haven’t perfected your role. Fool. There is nothing so foolish as a child.”
I left the room and headed for the hill out the back.
Carrying a flashlight, I went out the back door, crossed the garden and crawled through the hole in the fence. The trees rustled in the breeze as though moving of their own volition. Insects brushed against my cheeks and when I heard a dog barking I halted. There was faint moonlight, but the night was dark and cold. Until then I’d always climbed the hill in the late afternoon, while it was still light, but I had to conquer my fear.
My earliest memory was of Father. The servant girls were chasing me and laughing. I was laughing too as I waddled away from them, always on the verge of toppling over. I felt like I was floating in mid-air, perhaps because I’d just started walking and didn’t have full control of my legs, and because my line of sight was suddenly higher. On the dirt wall I could see a large green circle, an after-image of some kind. I tried to move forward once more but ran into something that felt like a pillar. I raised my eyes, and there was Father. Somehow I knew who he was. Stony-faced, he swept me aside with his foot, as if it was a nuisance even to kick me.
My flashlight illuminated the dirt path through the weeds. I was relieved. If I’d come this far, the hole was nearby. I shouldn’t have been afraid, though, because it was my mountain. I remembered the first time I’d found my father’s underground room. The house had an enormous cellar and over the years a huge hoard of furniture and other old junk had been stored there. When I was in fourth grade I got lost in there, and since then I’d explored it in secret. In the basement I’d discovered an entrance to an even deeper level. After moving aside some worn tires and lifting an ancient cloth that looked out of place, I found a square hatch in the floor. When I opened it I could see a narrow set of stairs with a door at the bottom.
My instincts immediately told me that this was bad. This was a place I should not enter, I felt. If I went in there my life would change forever. The door handle was almost entirely free of dust. I held my breath and pushed down the lever. There was no lock.
Inside, I was hit by an overpowering darkness. I’d never seen such an impenetrable black. Its density, actually heavy enough to feel, continued to bombard me, the intruder, even after my eyes had grown accustomed to it. It reminded me of my father. He was purely the embodiment of terror, and whenever he spoke my hands, my feet, my heart, even my temples went numb. I was a thing to be brushed aside with his foot, and as such I could be crushed by a change in his mood as easily as I could crush an insect in my hand. Out of the corner of my eye I could faintly make out a white switch in the darkness. When I turned it on, blades of light struck my eyes. Beyond the glare, in the center of the room, stood a bed.
My mother was sleeping. That was the first thought that popped into my head. No one was there, though, and the empty bed was the only furniture in that confined space. It had a white quilt and pillow, and sheets covered the mattress. Even though, like the door handle, the room was almost free of dust, it room felt deserted. On top of the bed were four long ropes. Clumps of old hair were strewn on the pillow and duvet, an extraordinary amount.
I didn’t know what it all meant, but I sensed that this place was the center of something. A side of my father that I wasn’t supposed to see. I didn’t have the courage to touch the ropes or the hair. From that day on, that bed in that black room haunted my dreams. Sometimes I heard a woman’s voice coming from underground, but that was impossible. The room had been soundproofed for some reason, and no matter how much noise was made inside, it would never be heard.
Perhaps the reason I started making regular trips to the mountain was to fight back against that darkness in some way. To protect myself by building up my own darkness. At that age, however, I hadn’t formed such a theory. Still, I think I went there with that vague idea in my head.
On that day, when I was climbing the hill with a flashlight in my hand after my stickers were burned, I still couldn’t have put those thoughts into words. I just forced my feet to move, telling myself that I mustn’t be afraid of the darkness. In front of me I could see a hole in the cliff, covered in wire netting. I didn’t know what it was for. Feeling the menace of the darkness and the surrounding trees, I tried to convince myself that I was calm.
I walked along the fence, moved aside a sheet of plywood in the thick foliage, and picked up a small, concealed cage. Inside were lizards and snails that I had captured before. I grabbed a lizard, reached through the fence and abruptly opened my hand. Without a sound, it was swallowed up by the darkness. I didn’t hear the noise when it hit the ground, but I imagined it. I took a snail, reached through the netting again and dropped it too. Through their sacrifice, I believed, my own darkness would become deeper. Deeper than my father’s. Bigger and stronger than that terrifying, incomprehensible figure.
Excerpted from Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura. Copyright © 2013 by Fuminori Nakamura. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.