Chapter One: A Chart of Phantom Children
Whenever I meet a man, I catch myself wondering what our child would look like if we were to make a baby. It’s practically second nature to me now. Whether he’s handsome or ugly, old or young, a picture of our child flashes across my mind. My hair is light brown and feathery fine, and if his is jet black and coarse, then I predict our child’s hair will be the perfect texture and color. Wouldn’t it? I always start out imagining the best possible scenarios for these children, but before long I’ve conjured up horrific visions from the very opposite end of the spectrum.
What if his scraggly eyebrows were plastered just above my eyes with their distinctive double lids? Or what if his huge nostrils were notched into the end of my delicate nose? His bony kneecaps on my robustly curved legs, his square toenails on my highly arched foot? And while this is going through my mind, I’m staring holes in the man, so of course he’s convinced that I have a thing for him. I can’t tell you how many times these encounters have ended in embarrassing misunderstandings. But still, in the end my curiosity always gets the best of me.
When a sperm and an egg unite, they create an entirely new cell—and so a new life begins. These new beings enter the world in all kinds of shapes and sizes. But what if, when the sperm and the egg unite, they are full of animosity for each other? Wouldn’t the creature they produce be contrary to expectation and abnormal as a result? On the other hand, if they have a great affinity for each other, their offspring will be even more splendid than they are. Of that there can be no doubt. And yet, who can ever know what kind of intentions a sperm and an egg harbor when they meet?
It’s at times like these that the chart of my hypothetical children flashes across my mind. You know the kind of chart: the sort you would find in biology or earth science textbooks. You remember them, don’t you, the kind that reconstructs the hypothetical shape and characteristics of an extinct creature based on fossils discovered deep in the earth? Almost always these charts include full-color illustrations of plants and beasts, either in the sea or against the sky. Actually, ever since I was a child I was terrified of those illustrations because they made the imaginary appear real. I hated opening those textbooks so much, it became my habit to search out the page with those charts first and scrutinize them. Perhaps this proves that we are attracted to what frightens us.
I can still remember the artist’s re-creation of the Burgess Shale fauna. Derived from the Cambrian fossils discovered in the Canadian Rockies, the chart is full of preposterous creatures swimming around in the sea. The Hallucigenia
crawls along the sediment on the ocean floor, so many spines sticking out of its back you might mistake the creature for a hairbrush; and then there’s the five-eyed Opabinia
curling and contorting its way around rocks and crags. The Anomalocaris
, with its giant hook-shaped forelimbs, prowls through the dark seas in search of prey. My own fantasy chart is close to this one. It shows children swimming through the water—the bizarre children I have produced from my phantom unions with men.
For some reason I never think about the act that men and women perform to produce these children. When I was young my classmates would make fun of boys they didn’t like by saying things such as, “Just the very idea of touching him makes my skin crawl!” But I never thought about it. I would skip the part about the sex act and go right to the children and the way they would turn out. Perhaps you can say I’m a little peculiar in that regard!
If you look closely you’ll notice that I’m “half.” My father is a Swiss national of Polish descent. They say his grandfather was a minister who moved to Switzerland to escape the Nazis and then died there. My father was in the trade business, an importer of Western-style confections. His line of work might sound impressive, but in fact the products he imported were poor-quality chocolates and cookies, nothing more than cheap snacks. He might have been known for these Western-style sweets, but when I was growing up he never once let me eat one of his products.
We lived very frugally. Our food, clothes, and even my school goods were all made in Japan. I didn’t go to an international school but attended Japanese public elementary schools. My allowance was strictly supervised, and even the money allotted for household expenses fell short of what my mother felt was adequate.
It wasn’t so much that my father decided to spend the rest of his life in Japan with my mother and me. He was just too miserly to do otherwise. He refused to spend a single cent unnecessarily. And he, of course, was the one who determined what was and wasn’t necessary.
To prove my point, my father kept a mountain cabin in Gunma Prefecture where we spent the weekends. He liked to fish and just put his feet up while he was there. For the evening meal it was our custom to have bigos
, prepared just the way he liked it. Bigos
is a Polish country-style stew made of sauerkraut, vegetables, and meat. My Japanese mother hated fixing it, of that there can be little doubt. When my father’s business failed and he took the family back to Switzerland, I hear my mother cooked Japanese white rice every night and my father scowled each time she set it on the table. I stayed behind in Japan by myself, so I can’t be sure, but I suspect that was my mother’s revenge on my father for his bigos
—or, on second thought, for his stingy selfishness.
My mother told me that she once worked for my father’s company. I used to indulge in romantic visions of a tender love blooming between the young foreign owner of a small company and the local girl who worked for him. But in fact, as the story goes, my mother had been married before, and when that didn’t work out she returned home to Ibaraki Prefecture. She worked as a maid in my father’s house, and that is how they met.
I had wanted to ask my mother’s father to give me more details, but now it’s too late. He’s senile and has forgotten everything. In my grandfather’s mind, my mother is still alive and remains a cute little girl in middle school; my father, my younger sister, and I do not even exist.
My father’s Caucasian, and I suppose you could describe him as small-framed. He isn’t particularly attractive, but he isn’t ugly either. A Japanese person who met my father would have a difficult time trying to pick him out on a European street, that much is certain. Just as all “Orientals” look the same to whites, to an Oriental, my father was just your typical white man.
Shall I describe his features? His skin is white with a ruddy touch. His eyes are memorable for being a faded, mournful blue. In a flash they can gleam with cruel intensity. From a physical standpoint his most attractive feature is his shiny brown hair with its brilliant golden luster. It’s now gone white, I suppose, and balding at the crown. He wears somber-hued business suits. If you ever see a middle-aged white man wearing a beige button-up raincoat even in the dead of winter, that would be my father.
My father’s Japanese is good enough for an average conversation, and there was a time when he loved my Japanese mother. When I was little he would always say, “When your dad came to Japan he planned on going home as soon as he could. But he was struck by a bolt of lightning that left him paralyzed and unable to return. That lightning was your mother, you know.”
I think it’s the truth. Well, I think it was
the truth. My father and mother fed my sister and me on a diet of romantic dreams just as though they were giving us candy. Gradually the dreams wore thin, until in the end they wasted away to nothing. I’ll tell that story in due course.
The way I saw my mother when I was little and the way I see her now are completely different. When I was little I was convinced that there wasn’t a woman more beautiful than she in all the world. Now that I’ve grown up, I realize that she was just average-looking, and not particularly attractive even for a Japanese. Her head was large and her legs short; her face was flat and her physique poor. Her eyes and nose crowded her face for space, her teeth stuck out, and she had a weak character. She yielded to my father in everything.
My father controlled my mother. If my mother ever talked back he would lash out at her with a volley of words. Mother was not smart; in fact, she was a born loser. Oh? Do you think I’m being too critical? It never even occurred to me. Why am I so unforgiving when it comes to my mother? Let’s just keep that question in mind as we go along, shall we?
The one I really want to talk about is my sister. I had a sister who was a year younger than me. Her name was Yuriko. I have no idea how best to describe her, but if I were to come up with one word, it would be monster
. She was terrifyingly beautiful. You may doubt that a person can be so beautiful that she is monstrous. Being beautiful is far preferable to being ugly, after all—at least that’s the general consensus. I wish I could give people who hold that opinion just one glimpse of Yuriko.
People who saw Yuriko were first overwhelmed by how gorgeous she was. But gradually her absolute beauty would grow tiresome, and before long they would find her very presence—with her perfect features—unnerving. If you think I’m exaggerating, the next time I’ll bring you a photo. I’ve felt the same way about her all my life, even though I was her older sister. I have no doubt you’ll agree too.
Occasionally I have this thought: Didn’t my mother die because she gave birth to the monster Yuriko? What could be scarier than two ordinary-looking people giving birth to a beauty beyond all imagination? There’s a Japanese folk tale about a kite that gives birth to a hawk. But Yuriko was no hawk. She didn’t possess the wisdom and courage that the hawk symbolizes. She wasn’t particularly cunning, and she wasn’t evil either. She simply had a face that was diabolically beautiful. And that fact alone surely worried my mother no end, what with her own ordinary Asian features. Yes, that’s right, it annoyed me too.
For better or for worse, my looks are such that you can tell at a glance I have some Asian blood. Maybe that’s why people like my face. It’s just foreign enough for the Japanese to find interesting, and just “Oriental” enough to charm Westerners. Or so I tell myself. People are funny. Faces that are imperfect are said to have character and human charm. But Yuriko’s face inspired fear. The reaction to her face was the same whether she was in Japan or overseas. Yuriko was the child who perpetually stood out from the crowd, even though we were sisters and even though we were born within a year of each other. It’s strange, isn’t it, how genes are transmitted so haphazardly? Was she just a mutation? Maybe this is why I imagine my own hypothetical children whenever I look at a man.
You probably know this already, but Yuriko died about two years ago. She was murdered. Her body was found half naked in some cheap apartment in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. They didn’t know who the murderer was at first. My father did not get upset when he heard the news, and he didn’t return from Switzerland either—not even once. I’m ashamed to say that as his dear beautiful Yuriko grew older, she degraded herself with prostitution. She became a cheap whore.
You imagine Yuriko’s death shocked me, but it didn’t. Did I hate her murderer? No. Like my father, I really didn’t care about learning the truth. Yuriko had been a monster all her life; it was only natural that her death would be unusual. I, on the other hand, am perfectly ordinary. The path she followed was clearly different from mine.
I suppose you find my attitude chilling. But didn’t I just explain? She was a child who was fated from the beginning to be different. Fortune may shine brightly on a woman like that, but the shadow cast is long and dark. It was inevitable that misfortune would come eventually.
My former classmate Kazue Sato was murdered less than a year after Yuriko died. The way she died was exactly the same. She’d been left in a first-floor apartment in the Maruyama-cho neighborhood in Shibuya, her clothes in disarray. They said that in both cases more than ten days had elapsed before the bodies were discovered. I don’t even want to imagine the condition they were in by then.
I’d heard that Kazue worked for a legitimate company by day, but by night she was a prostitute. Gossip and innuendo swirled for weeks after the incident. Was I horrified when the police announced that the culprit was the same in both murders? Well, to be honest, Kazue’s death was far more shocking to me than Yuriko’s. She and I had been classmates. Also, Kazue was not pretty. She wasn’t beautiful, and yet she died exactly the same way Yuriko did. It was unforgivable.
I suppose you could say that I was the conduit who led Kazue to Yuriko and to their lengthy acquaintance, so in the long run I contributed to her death. Maybe Yuriko’s bad luck somehow crept over into Kazue’s life. Why do I believe that? I don’t know. I just do.
I knew a bit about Kazue. We were classmates at the same prestigious private high school for girls. Back in those days Kazue was so skinny it seemed her bones would grate together, and she was known for the ungainly way she carried herself. She wasn’t at all attractive. But she was smart and she made good grades. She was the kind of person who would spout off in front of everyone and make a show of how intelligent she was because she wanted to attract attention. She was proud and had to be the best at everything she did. She was perfectly aware that she wasn’t attractive, so I suppose that is why she wanted to be fussed over for other things. I got a dark feeling from her—a negative energy so palpable I felt I could take it in my hand. It was this sensitivity of mine that attracted Kazue to me. She trusted me and began going out of her way to talk to me. She even invited me over to her house.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino. Copyright © 2007 by Natsuo Kirino. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.