EVER SINCE TORU passed away, he’d been trying to find his way home. It wasn’t easy. In the first place, he didn’t belong here. This was a strange city where he was barely familiar with the language. He’d only lived here for about eight months when the car came out of nowhere in the middle of the night as he’d walked home from work, his meagre pay tucked into his coat pocket. In the second place, his death came to him in waves. A few times a day, it surprised him, interrupting his endless wanderings.
It struck him in the simplest declarative way: Toru Kishida, you are dead.
He allowed the shock to pass over him before he sighed and went on trying to find his way from path to path, street to street. He had never imagined that he would spend so much of his death working out how to live. He still felt hungry, cold, weary and lonely. He needed a place to sleep and he needed to eat, but he couldn’t remember where to find the tiny flat he used to share with a couple of other students. He didn’t know the first thing about getting to the airport, let alone back to Japan. He came from a smallish place called Takasaki, and no one would miss him there: he was convinced of that.
He was the second-last person left alive in his family, fatherless and motherless, but he had a sister. He remembered her as he remembered his death – absently, almost in passing. She was much older than him, well into her thirties now, and they had never been close. He wondered whether his memories of her could be trusted. Was she the one who used to scold him severely, calling him a runny-nosed, whiny nuisance? He couldn’t even remember her face completely. It came to him in blocks: a scowl, a frown, a downturned mouth. He guessed that she wouldn’t care one way or the other that he was, in fact, dead.
Well, that was the old world. What about the new one? People never used to wear masks, but now they were wearing them all over the place. One by one the streets quietened down. A great hush washed over this city. Even the lights at night seemed dimmer. All of life lay dormant. Or maybe not – Toru couldn’t trust his eyes, could he? He had been living on the streets in the clothes he died in, scrounging food from tables outside restaurants and cafés around the city, but those tables were long gone. The restaurants themselves shut down, and Toru’s fellow waiters had vanished. Was everyone dead? If so, where were the other ghosts? Toru slept on park benches and underneath bridges without being looked in the eye or touched. It wasn’t all that different to the way life had been when breathing still counted. He remembered having a place to sleep back then; having enough food and a place at a big university where he attended important classes, but his memories kept on telling him that he’d been a tiny atom in a vast cosmos, observing but never managing to find a proper place within it. No wonder death disappointed him: it was too much like life.
HE FIRST SAW the girl in the middle of a massive rainstorm. Girls interested him in general – he was twenty-four and, while he was dead, he was very much twenty-four – and this girl interested him in particular. She was one of the few souls walking around out there in the new masked and silent world where the streets could run empty for miles. He kept to the shadows when he saw her: she was in the world, he thought, and he was not – and only the shadows were kind to him now.
In any case, he didn’t want to put himself in danger of being seen by her. He was filthy. His clothes were a little bloody. He needed a bath. He wasn’t sure whether he stank to high heaven, and he hadn’t eaten in about a week. Being starved wouldn’t kill him, obviously, but he felt that ferocious hunger like a furnace right in the core of his body. Only food could soothe that incredible, voracious heat – and even then, only for a short while. The girl made him too aware of himself and of the truth. She was very pretty, with a golden complexion similar to Toru’s. She was around the same age, too. Her hair was black and straight and she had a Eurasian sort of look. Her big dark eyes were innocent, which Toru found rare. Most people looked as if they knew too much too soon, when in reality they knew nothing. This girl probably knew a fair few things, but none of them had gone to her head.
He saw her three times before they met. He was beyond meeting people, he thought, but then he met her. It was in the aftermath of another rainstorm on a cold night in the middle of winter: she wore very high heels, and she stumbled. The centre of the city was practically deserted. Lights illuminated empty streets that glistened as though paved with black diamonds. The girl was one of very few people walking around. She was dressed all in black, and her foot twisted a little at the edge of a pavement. Toru shot forward without thinking, catching her before she fell. His intentions had always been good, but they’d never had any consequences. This time, though, he kept the girl from falling, and she turned, looking right at him. What could she see?
When Toru died, he’d been wearing a pair of pale blue jeans, a dark blue long-sleeve T-shirt and his old brown leather jacket. His pale jeans were bloodied at the knees, and he had dried blood in his hair on the left side of his head. Before he died, he had been very handsome: the handsomest boy in Takasaki. He was lithe and tall. His features were angular and beautiful, his dark eyes large and expressive, his black hair thick and glossy, always carelessly tousled. He had no idea how he looked in death, when beauty counted for nothing. As he held the girl, his arm around her waist, she looked him in the eye and said haltingly, ‘Umm… Are you okay?’
‘Are you?’ He asked her without giving it too much thought. He spoke English fluently, but lacked the confidence to talk with strangers. ‘You… Fell, nearly.’
‘Yes, nearly.’ The girl almost smiled. ‘Thank you.’
Toru let go of her and stepped away. He began muttering to himself in Japanese – a bad habit he’d had even before death, whenever he was nervous. The girl didn’t leave him. She stood there, testing the foot she had twisted in its high heel, and she watched Toru carefully. Her eyes were warm. He could see this even in the semi-dark since the streetlamps had been lit, illuminating these lonely city streets. The shadows of towering buildings fell across one another in a crosshatch pattern. They seemed to be the only two souls around for miles: one living, one less so.
‘Are you lost?’ The girl asked him suddenly in Japanese. Toru felt a great jolt somewhere in the depths of him. When he was alive, he would have said that his heart thumped wildly, but now that he was gone, he had no choice but to call it a jolt. He tilted his head to one side before nodding yes. ‘Where are you from?’ She asked him. ‘I mean, you must live somewhere.’
‘I used to,’ Toru replied. The girl felt for him intensely. Now that he was dead, he discovered, he could sense that kind of thing: what people felt and what they intended. It was an awfully useful gift. If only he’d had it while he was alive. ‘I’m from Takasaki, but… I don’t really…’
‘You have no way of getting home?’ The girl guessed. Toru just nodded. She was right, in a way. ‘There’s so much of that going around,’ she said. She was shorter than Toru, who stood at six feet tall. He was graceful and nice to look at, but the girl didn’t care about that as she gazed up at him. Why there was a lot of that going around – people with no way of getting home – Toru had no idea. He had to take her word for it as she said, ‘Maybe… If you’ve got nowhere to go… You should come with me.’
‘You don’t know me,’ said Toru, wonderingly. ‘I could be a maniac.’
‘Somehow, I don’t think so.’ This time, the girl smiled: a great, big, beaming smile that radiated all the warmth a human being was meant to possess. ‘My name is…’ Toru didn’t catch her name the first time. He was so out of practice when it came to talking to people, looking at them and being seen by them, that he couldn’t marshal his hearing or his sight. Everything was haywire. He saw crosshatched shadows and heard the roars of passing cars that weren’t passing any longer now that the streets were so empty. The whole world had huddled indoors for some unknown reason, and it was cold. Hunger blazed inside him – the sort of hunger that would have knocked the living sideways.
‘I’m hungry,’ Toru blurted out. ‘I’m hungry, and it’s so cold.’
The girl nodded understandingly and took his hand. Only later did he remember something important: her name was Amy.
AMY LIVED IN a small flat near Haymarket. From her kitchen window, you could look down over a pair of red dragon gates that led into Chinatown. The bathroom was tiny, with an actual bathtub. The tub had clawed feet like something out of an English storybook, but the rest of the apartment was spare and neat and beautiful – very Japanese. Amy’s surname was Kimura. Her grandfather on her father’s side was Japanese. She was the product of multiple bloodlines: from Japan and Italy, from Malyasia and England. It made her beautiful, but it also made her a little lost. Toru had to wonder whether that was why they were so drawn to each other.
She worked in some kind of office by day, but her flat was full of books and papers. Toru had liked to scribble now and then when he was alive. It had been a while since he was around books and pens and paper, and before he took a bath in the clawfoot tub, he found himself gravitating towards Amy’s bookshelves. When he found a book with Japanese lettering on the spine, he couldn’t resist the urge to stroke the ornate kanji characters with a gentle fingertip, and he was hovering by that shelf when Amy approached him.
‘You can wear these after your bath,’ she said, handing him some clothes. The clothes belonged to a man. Did someone else live here? Could they see Toru? Were they home now? Toru couldn’t imagine where they had gone. Wary of this man whose clothes he had been given, Toru locked himself in the bathroom, where the walls were covered in pale green tiles. The floor was light blue. The window was stuck, so he couldn’t open it to let out the steam. Toru found bottles of shampoo on the windowsill, all in a neat row, and a dying violet in a terracotta pot. He didn’t know why, but he picked up that pot and sprinkled a little cold water over the dry soil. Then he ran the bath and stripped off his clothes.
In the bath, the dried blood from his hair tinged the water with red so the soapsuds turned pink. He held up his hands and arms – the grazes were still there, carving grooves into his skin, and he felt a sting when the water and soap touched his raw flesh. His bones and head ached as though he had only just been hit by that car. It must have been ages since he died, but time couldn’t touch him like hunger, cold or loneliness. Did this make him lucky or unlucky? He didn’t know.
Sinking beneath the warm bathwater, he pressed his hands over his face, suppressing a wild cry of… What, exactly? Was it despair? Frustration? Exhaustion? Whatever it was, he couldn’t afford to make a noise. It was silent underwater. The tub was deeper than it looked, so the water closed over Toru’s head without any fuss. The embrace of that warm water felt like Amy’s kindness. It was absolute. What Toru sensed from her was so rare that he almost wanted to sob, but he managed to swallow his feelings as he climbed out of the tub.
He remembered to drain the water, wrenching out the plug, and as he watched the water spiralling away he felt a peculiar sensation against his skin. It was like a human touch, but finer. He was alone in this bathroom, so no one could set a hand on him. Still, he couldn’t deny what he felt. The clothes Amy had given him were slung along the towel rail. As he put on the boxers, jeans and comfortable grey jumper, all of which were old and lived-in, he had to wonder whether the man of the house would mind when he came home.
Who wanted to find a stranger in their house, wearing their clothes?
Cautiously, after towelling his hair dry, Toru opened the bathroom door. There was music playing in the apartment; he could smell food – wonderful, hot, home-cooked food – and he tried to make out the music that was playing. It was old. Not classical. Not… What was that? Something American. Bluesy. Or rocky. Either way it put Toru at ease. It sounded warm and had a friendly feel to it. He edged his way out of the bathroom, keeping close to the walls, where there were several framed Japanese prints: a few views of Mount Fuji, and beautiful women with their faces painted white, wearing kimonos. There were photographs of cities, too. Toru recognised Venice and Rome, London and San Francisco. The kitchen was on the opposite side of the flat, and the walls were painted a soft shade of yellow. Amy was there, in her black dress and black stockings, setting the table and stirring something on the stove. The little square-shaped table was apple-green – unusual for a table in the city, Toru thought, or was it? He didn’t know how long he’d been gone. Maybe things in cities had become warmer in his absence. Maybe, when everyone vanished, they retreated indoors and made their nests cosier, more welcoming.
People were strange that way.
They needed to disappear before they really began to exist.
TORU SAT AT the kitchen table. He looked on shyly while Amy set a plate in front of him: spaghetti, simple but hot and wholesome. He was so ravenous that he picked up the fork and leaned over the plate and began shovelling the hot strands of pasta into his mouth, giving no thought to how he looked or how Amy would think of him afterwards. Hunger consumed him when he was out there alone, looking for a way home. He just ate and ate, taking the occasional sip from a glass of water before gorging himself on that hot food once more. It was never enough. This was obvious to Amy, who took away Toru’s empty plate and returned it to him with another generous helping. He thanked her with a look and ate again, silently and quickly. Amy made herself a cup of coffee and sat opposite him at her apple-green table, leaning her cheek against her hand as she watched him.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Toru, exhaling like a diver coming up for air once he swallowed the last mouthful on his plate. ‘It’s been a while since I…’
‘It’s fine,’ Amy smiled. ‘I understand. It’s been a long time.’ She stood up and filled the gleaming blue kettle at the sink, setting it on the stove and turning on the burner. Her flat had a disturbing lack of personal pictures, Toru thought. There were no photographs on the walls, shelves, or stuck to the fridge with magnets. When he lived in his share flat with two other students, their photographs took up the square footage of their tall white fridge. Even at a time when people kept their photographs on their phones, printed pictures peppered the fridge. Toru had only a few photographs to contribute: cityscapes of Sydney, captured on his phone, and a couple of pictures of his Japanese hometown. Amy’s flat was different. Toru could tell that she loved her books and her music, but as for her memories… There didn’t seem to be any, and that was curious. The living didn’t interest Toru these days, but Amy fascinated him. To begin with, they could see and touch one another. She heard him when he spoke, and when he was hungry she could feed him. Already, he felt protected by her. He trusted her, more to the point, and he said quietly, ‘Amy, I need a place to sleep for a while.’
‘I know,’ said Amy. ‘There’s a spare room here.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m sure.’ She returned to the table, pushing around a few brown-sugar crystals scattered at the table’s edge. ‘Everyone needs an oasis once in a while, right? Don’t worry about it.’
‘Is it because we speak the same language?’ Toru asked her. He had always spoken timidly. In life, being timid got him nowhere. People noticed his beauty but froze in the face of his spectacular shyness. It was as though he were covered in ice, and that cold radiated outwards, so people sprang back. He waited for Amy to reply to his question, and when she didn’t he swallowed anxiously and braved the ice in his own soul, saying, ‘That music… What is it?’
‘Oh.’ Amy smiled. That smile had a soft sort of power: it was warm and drew Toru in, towards the interiors of Amy Kimura. What a world that must have been, Toru thought absently. He imagined the wonders she kept secret and safe – the way she saw everything in existence, her feelings towards what she had come to love – and he listened eagerly as she said, ‘It’s CCR. Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s old. I never used to like this kind of thing, but people talked me around and I started to like it.’
‘It’s friendly,’ said Toru. He didn’t know why he said it – he only felt that he had to say something, just to nudge this conversation along. He became hungry if he hadn’t eaten for a while, thirsty if he didn’t drink, and the deepest craving of all had been for what Amy offered him now – the warmth of her company. He wanted to sob. Warm tears worried his eyes and a few spilled down, forcing him to laugh in an embarrassed way as he palmed them aside. ‘I’m really sorry,’ he murmured. ‘It’s just that I haven’t talked to anyone for a long time. It’s been a while between meals and conversations and…’ He ran short of words.
Desperately, he fumbled around in his memory, trying to work out whether he had ever known how to express the depths of what he felt. Words had always been elusive: the memory was dim, but he could sense that he’d never been talkative. He had communicated in other ways. It took a while for people to settle into his way of being. Most people in Japan were happy enough to go along with him. He wasn’t so sure about this other place – this new place, where even strangers were too familiar too soon. They were afraid of distance. A little distance helped you to see clearly, but people here rushed headlong into closeness. They ended up crashing. Small pieces of emotional debris would soon litter the ground around them, and those little fragments worked their way between people, pushing them apart in the end. Toru looked across the table at Amy and recovered more of himself – how he was once when others could see him. The warmth in her eyes allowed him to remember, and he was grateful. He wondered, Should I thank you? Would that be too weird?
Giving into shyness, he looked down at the tabletop. The record Amy had put on was still playing: an actual record, not a CD. Toru remembered the difference between vinyl, which was warm, and compact discs, which were cold. The hot-cold sensation rippled through him, beginning cold and settling comfortably into warmth. Amy called the band CCR. Creedence Clearwater Revival. It didn’t sound familiar, but Toru liked the music very much. It was friendly and approachable in a way that he had never been, and he admired it.
‘What’s this song called?’ he asked Amy.
‘This one? It’s called “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”. It’s good, isn’t it? Melancholy, but good.’ Amy gave him a pensive look and glanced at her watch. ‘It’s late,’ she said, ‘and you look so tired. We should just go to sleep and talk more tomorrow.’
Toru didn’t have the will to tell her all about himself that night. He couldn’t even imagine that conversation: Hello, my name is Toru Kishida, born and raised in Takasaki, which is a place most people outside Japan have never heard of, but that’s okay. I’ve been hungry and forgotten and unwanted; by the way, I’m dead. Please don’t let that make you uncomfortable. The dead are a lot like the living. Too much like the living, really. What separates us is so thin and shimmering, like the finest blade you could ever imagine. Sooner or later it cuts through us all.
TORU SPENT THE night in an unfamiliar bed, wearing a stranger’s clothes. He lay awake half the night, listening to the apartment, waiting for the metallic clink of keys in the front door. That sound never came. The door was never opened and the man whose clothes he wore didn’t come home. Toru had heard blips of information on the television news before he went to bed. He gathered that there was some kind of major catastrophe forcing people indoors, shutting down borders, cancelling flights and keeping everyone apart. Possibly, the man in Amy’s life was caught up in all this, stuck somewhere overseas, unable to come back home to her. Toru felt sorry for this man. He felt this sorrow intensely, as he felt everything. It tore through him in a jagged, electric sort of way: this was extreme regret. Being separated from someone like Amy… It was a terrible thing.
If she were his, he thought, he would want to be with her all the time, unconditionally. He lay in bed, thinking about that: unconditional love. What did it even mean? Did it mean that you wouldn’t let any obstacles build up between you? Wasn’t that impossible? Human beings were basically organic obstacles. Maybe the thing about unconditional love was the willingness to leapfrog those obstacles every time a new one presented itself. What did Toru know about it, anyway? Girls back in Takasaki were interested in him. Girls in Tokyo, too. Even girls here in Sydney looked at him appreciatively, just because of his face. He hadn’t liked any of them. There was always something, a flaw. He never found one who clicked with him and made him want to leapfrog over every last obstacle just so he could be with her all the time.
These thoughts kept him awake. As tired as he was, he flipped around in bed, trying to find a comfortable position. When it didn’t work, he climbed out of bed and folded his arms tightly, feeling sleepy and a little hostile as he wandered out into the sitting room. The door to Amy’s bedroom was closed – locked, probably. Toru couldn’t blame her. After all, she had taken in a stranger. She needed to protect herself. Toru understood. He wandered around the living room – the curtains had been left open and the rain had stopped, so there was a reasonable amount of moonlight and city haze to see by – and he stopped at a shelf stacked with vinyl records and books.
The song he’d heard earlier was still stuck in his head: the song about seeing the rain. He was no longer sure whether he liked it, but he couldn’t get it out of his mind. He picked up the record that had been playing and he looked at the sleeve. A picture of the band Amy called CCR was on the sleeve, along with a list of songs in bold yellow letters. There it was: ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’. There was no question mark after the title, which Toru found a bit odd. Shrugging, he returned the record to its rightful place on the shelf. It was a tight fit – he struggled with it for a minute.
As he fought the shelf, a few pieces of paper slipped out from between the tightly packed records and fell to the floor with a sharp hiss. Setting the record down on the pale-blue sofa, Toru crouched down to collect them. They weren’t pieces of paper. They were photographs. Toru was curious, suddenly. His curiosity shimmered through him, and he took the pictures to the window so he could look through them by moonlight. They were group pictures: Amy with some friends, the same group of girlfriends, all over Sydney. She was the prettiest of them all because of the innocence in her eyes, Toru thought. There was something about that innocence. He felt an incredible warmth in his chest as he kept looking. The last two pictures confused him. Amy, dressed in black, stood with a severe-faced Japanese woman in some gardens Toru couldn’t recognise.
The background was generically green. Toru knew that the woman in the picture was Japanese because she wore a plain black kimono embroidered in places with a family crest or mon in white. This family mon was a pattern of three oak leaves. Toru sat on the rolled arm of the sofa, studying those pictures: the one of Amy and the Japanese woman in the garden, and another of the Japanese woman alone, in front of this building where Amy lived. Setting the pictures down on the coffee table, Toru wandered around the apartment. He even sat at the tiny writing desk in a far corner of the living room. The chair suited him perfectly – his slouched posture, his long, slender limbs. Guiltily, he began rifling through the papers and books he found there.
Amy wrote in longhand on Japanese manuscript paper. Her writing was spiky and messy, not at all what Toru had expected. She was such a soft, neat person. The handwriting didn’t suit her at all. Even the books on the table – some Japanese novels, others Japanese manga – didn’t seem very much like her. They might have been his, Toru thought. They may have belonged to the man whose clothes he wore. At a slight distance from the sitting room, there was a small nook. This nook was dim and airless, a place most people might have used for storage – and there Toru found a small, ornate table made of Japanese maple.
He breathed in the familiar scent of incense sticks. He didn’t need to be told that this table was really a traditional Buddhist altar, with a brass incense burner, a small wooden statue of the Amida Buddha, a porcelain figure of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and a framed photograph of the person who had died. Toru knelt in front of that altar, more out of respect for Amy than anything else. He brought his slender, elegant hands together in prayer as he bowed his head. The light coming through the uncovered window travelled around this space in such a way that a faint, milky glow fell over the nook and its altar, and when Toru lifted his eyes he caught sight of the framed photograph by the statue of the Buddha. The photograph reminded him of a person he had once known.
The young man in the picture had exquisitely shaped eyes and an extraordinary sort of beauty. Even Toru noticed it. That beauty chilled him – an intense chill that winter couldn’t hope to rival. It was his beauty, his photograph. He got to his feet and thought again about what had kept him awake in the first place: the idea of unconditional love.
Amy’s bedroom door had a strange lock. You needed to know just how to jimmy it to get inside, and Toru knew. He angled the old-fashioned brass doorknob in such a way that it made only a faint rattle just before the lock gave way, and he was able to slip into the room. He left the door ajar as he stepped inside. The bedroom was done in the traditional Japanese way: very spare, closets built into the walls, soft carpeting and stark white bedding unrolled on the floor. Amy slept beneath a fresh, bright white quilt. Toru remembered that she slept on her right side. She slept that way because he always slept on his left: they liked to face one another, even while they were sleeping.
Gently, Toru lifted up the quilt on the left side of the bedding and lay down beside her, drawing as close to her as he could. He was the one who liked that song about seeing the rain. Amy played the song for him. The writing desk was his and Amy was his. The family mon with the three oak leaves was the Kishida mon, and as he shut his eyes he told himself, Toru Kishida, you’re home.
This piece is one of five winners of the 2022 Griffith Review Emerging Voices competition, supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.
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