It was happening again. Hank could feel the hot breath on the back of his neck and faint weight of a spectral body pressing down on his own. In spite of Hank’s efforts to elude him, the spirit had followed him from Tokyo. Why had he thought that it wouldn’t find him in a shinkansen
sleeping car? He hadn’t thought any self-respecting ancient spirit would be riding Japan’s rails, but then again, two weeks ago he hadn’t believed yokai
really existed at all.
“Suki desu, Hanku-sensei.
” The yokai’s voice was deep and breathy and though masculine, filled with a creepy, almost childish yearning. “Suki desu yo!
I love you.
The yokai sure had a funny way of showing it.
“I don’t love you,” Hank whispered. His Japanese wasn’t great, but he could hold his own in everyday conversations. “Go away.”
“I only want to be close to you.” The yokai’s long fingers tugged at the blankets. Hank held on firmly. He knew from previous experience that this particular spirit, whom he’d nicknamed “Fingers,” wouldn’t cause him bodily harm, but it got way too personal. “Can I look at your underpants? Are they Calvin Klein like before? I like your Calvin Kleins. Did you get them in Vancouver?”
“I told you, go away. My shorts are none of your business.”
“Do you work out?” Through the darkness Hank could now see the yokai shape floating above him. He wore the same dark suit as he had the previous times Hank had seen him, the same thick aviator glasses. His hands were much longer than normal, and his fingers wriggled like worms.
“As soon as we get to Aomori City, I’m going to find an exorcist and get rid of you.”
The yokai’s mouth turned down in a quivering frown. “But tomorrow is Christmas Eve. I want to give you a present.”
In the bunk above Hank’s, Daisuke Tachibana, the translator his publishing company had assigned to him, shifted.
He hadn’t told Tachibana about his new yokai buddy. He didn’t think any modern Japanese would take him seriously. It was one thing to research indigenous Japanese spirits as folklore, quite another to claim to have met one personally. He might as well claim to have met the Tooth Fairy or any of Santa’s eight reindeer. And somehow Hank found the fact that he’d attracted Fingers embarrassing. If he was going to be attacked by a supernatural force, he wanted it to be one of pure evil, not some creepy pervert with an underwear obsession. The yokai also had a very long tongue, and leaning forward, lips parted, he seemed just on the verge of using it.
Hank lurched sideways, but too late. The tongue slapped against the side of his neck and slid like a hot washcloth up the side of his cheek. Long fingers fumbled at the elastic band of his pajamas. Hank grabbed them. Fingers let out a giggle. “You want to hold hands? There’s a red thread from my pinkie to yours.”
Glancing down Hank saw that this was hideously true. A red line like a laser shone around his own finger. It wound and looped around like a tangled string until it found the yokai’s pale, too-long digit.
“We’re fated to be together.”
Dear God, no!
This was going too far. Damn what Tachibana thought -- he was going to come clean.
“Tachibana!” Hank’s voice came out in a harsh whisper. He kicked the bunk above him.
Tachibana gave a snort. “What is it, Mr. Caldwell?” His voice emerged as a sleepy grumble.
Fingers frowned like an angry baby ready to let out a wail; then, like mist it dissipated.
Tachibana’s head popped down from the upper bunk. His dark, shiny hair tousled, pillow marks still creasing his cheek. He was cute, in the kind of harassed, nerdy way that all junior salarymen seemed to be. “Mr. Caldwell?”
All at once, Hank lost his nerve. “You were snoring.”
.” Tachibana rolled out of sight, the mattress springs creaking as he resettled himself.
“No worries.” Hank pulled the covers up tight around his neck, peering through the darkness, scanning the tight confines of the car for any sign of Fingers.
Hank Caldwell would never have described himself as a blushing flower of a man. On the contrary, he was a relatively young (thirty-five) relatively fit (worked out at least fifty-two times per year) and relatively intelligent (working on a PhD in folklore at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver).
Compared to the Japanese, Hank seemed especially coarse. He had hairy forearms and the slight swagger that anyone raised in Alberta acquires by osmosis and that years of living away from his native Calgary had failed to diminish. He also had a cowboy hat that he had purchased at the Calgary Stampede that caused virtually everyone he met to assume he was an American. He wore the hat with dogged persistence in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that it forced him to explain his nationality at regular intervals.
Not that he had anything against Americans. He just didn’t want to be mistaken for one. That’s was all.
The hat also served as a kind of disguise since few people associated cowboy hats with homosexuality -- even after Brokeback Mountain
. Back home in Canada, the hat conferred a machismo that, as an academic, he might otherwise lack. In Japan the hat served mostly as an icebreaker and conversation starter. The office ladies at his publisher liked to try it on and pose coquettishly for him, unaware that they -- to paraphrase the saying -- barked up the wrong tree.
Now the hat gently levitated approximately six inches above his folded coat.
In the bunk above, Tachibana coughed.
The hat dropped back down to rest atop the shearling.
Hank watched his hat for a long time, but it didn’t move again, and at last he succumbed to sleep.
* * * * *
Tachibana lay in the darkness staring at the ceiling only inches from his face. The gentle rocking of the train car did not soothe him. He knew from the sweat beading Mr. Caldwell’s pale, freckled forehead that the yokai had gotten loose again.
If only Mr. Caldwell hadn’t been a redhead. The yokai had a fascination for the exotic.
Mr. Caldwell was not the first person who had caught the yokai’s attention. Three years before at a company retreat to the hot-springs resorts near Nakakawane, the creature had first appeared, lavishing his affection on Mr. Sato from accounting, cornering the poor man in a toilet stall in order to admire the symmetry of his testicles. Tachibana had discovered Mr. Sato there, curled up into the fetal position, his handsome face distorted by disgust and fear.
“Why the hell do we have to come to the only hot springs with a gay toilet yokai?” he’d wailed. “I hate homos. They’re filth. They should all hurry up and die.”
Up until that point, Tachibana had had a crush on Mr. Sato. Not that he would have ever said so, but at hearing those words, all fondness for the fit accountant evaporated.
The story of the gay yokai had become legendary at the hot springs, even attracting the attention of a local television crew bent on recording the supernatural phenomenon. The resort considered hiring a spiritualist to cleanse the place for the safety of their male customers, but it proved unnecessary. The creature didn’t appear again.
The second time the yokai appeared was at the beach.
Sleepless and lonely, Tachibana had gone down at daybreak to watch the sun rise. Two young surfers had been there, taking advantage of the empty sand and waves. They had been stunning in their wetsuits. Tachibana had been watching them, imagining they were lovers. The way they talked to each other, smiled at each other seemed so beautiful that he had been filled with a yearning to join them. Suddenly, the yokai had come loping down the beach like an excited dog.
“I like you!” he’d roared, tie flapping behind him. “Please have sex with me!”
The surfers had scattered like a couple of chickens before him, abandoning their boards and gear and pelting up the beach toward the concrete pylons where Tachibana sat.
“Look out!” one of them had bellowed. “There’s a crazy homo behind us.”
When Tachibana had looked back, the yokai had vanished.
The third time it happened, Tachibana finally knew that the yokai had been created by him.
He had been at his sister’s wedding reception six months prior, sitting at a table next to his grandmother, watching his sister and her new husband pose for pictures, cut cake, and drink toasts. He’d felt utterly miserable but kept up the appearance of benign happiness, intermittently clapping when the occasion required and making small talk with Grandmother.
His grandmother was four feet nine inches tall and as far as Tachibana could tell had survived on nothing but barley tea and bean jam for the last five years.
“Daisuke.” She beckoned him close
Tachibana stooped to hear her. “What is it?”
“You see that man your sister’s husband’s mother is talking to? Yuki Nogami?”
“Yes.” The man had been very handsome, dressed in clothes Tachibana had last seen on a mannequin in a high-priced Shibuya department store. He wore designer sunglasses on his head, even though it was the middle of fall and overcast. Tachibana suspected they were mainly a device to hold back the man’s light brown dye job. Nogami looked up just in time to see them gawking at him and flashed a winning smile.
Tachibana had immediately averted his gaze and reddened in embarrassment. Grandmother didn’t seem to care.
“I heard from Mrs. Iwasawa that he is a woman hater.” She poked Tachibana with one tiny yet hopelessly gnarled index finger. “You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t.” But he had. He had known instinctively in that strange way that he often recognized or thought he recognized his own kind. The thought of having another homosexual in the very same room as him, at a wedding when it would be more than permissible for them to talk, filled him with longing and then crushing fear. If Grandmother knew about this guy’s sex life, then everyone else at the wedding probably did too. The thought disappointed him. Now if he, a confirmed bachelor, were to speak in a friendly way with Nogami, there might be speculation.
He did not need speculation. Certain parts of his private life simply could not bear the scrutiny.
He glanced back up and found Nogami looking at him in that assessing way.
His reaction had given him away. Nogami knew.
Safe in the recesses of his mind, he imagined Nogami walking across the room in slow motion, accompanied by a gentle wind that stirred not only the imitation autumn maple leaf table decorations, but also Nogami’s shiny, milk-tea-colored hair. Floating on this ethereal wind, Nogami held out his hand, smiling.
A piercing scream split his daydream.
“Look out!” Grandmother had rasped. “Here comes a yokai.”
The man in the suit was there again, holding Nogami by the lapels, swiping his foot-long tongue over Nogami’s face.
“You are so beautiful.” The yokai slobbered. “I want to taste you.”
“Get off me!” Nogami struggled with the yokai. Getting his face free of the offending tongue for a moment, he cast his eyes pleadingly at another guest, a burly man in the world’s most nondescript navy blue suit, who had been sitting at the adjacent table. “Masanori, please!”
Tachibana, along with nearly everyone else in the room, stared in shock.
With the expression of resignation of a man who has come to some major decision in life, Masanori launched himself out of his plastic chair and seized the yokai in a headlock.
The creature spun its head around all the way to face Masanori. A scream erupted from the crowd of onlookers. Tachibana could see the knowledge that they had a yokai among them rippling across their shocked faces. Oddly, his grandmother hooted with what seemed like girlish excitement. Tachibana wished the earth would swallow him up whole. But it didn’t.
“You want to have a threesome?” The yokai waggled his pink tongue.
“Yuki is mine!” the burly man growled. “Get out.”
“Yours?” The yokai’s expression had gone soft, like that of a sad puppy. “I’m very deeply sorry.” His entire body seemed suddenly to lack a skeleton. He deflated to the floor and then slithered along the ground, out the door.
Everyone at the wedding reception seemed, for a moment, to be paralyzed. Then the burly man, Masanori, reached into his pocket and offered his handkerchief to Nogami, who accepted it. Wiping his face, Nogami had said, “You might as well sit next to me now.”
Masanori nodded gruffly, then sat, glanced around at the circle of gawkers, and said, “Isn’t there any champagne at this wedding?”
This broke the spell and sent relieved laughter spreading throughout the assembled guests. Soon Tachibana’s truly compassionate sister, Tomoko, quietly offered her own handkerchief to Nogami, who was trying to dry his face, even as Nogami apologized for the disruption. Tachibana could not help but notice that Tomoko and her new husband were the only people who even looked at Nogami.
Tachibana, himself, avoided the scene by turning to his grandmother and saying, “Do you really think that was a yokai?”
Grandmother had given him a bewildered look, as if she were reassessing his intelligence.
“What else could it be?” Grandmother shrugged and reached into the sleeve of her kimono for another of the rectangular packets of bean jam she kept stashed there. “The question is, who made it?”
“What do you mean?” Strange guilt prickled just beneath the surface of Tachibana’s skin. Suddenly his collar felt too hot. “If it was, why weren’t you scared?”
“Oh, nothing can scare me. I lived through the war.”
“Did you ever read the Tale of Genji
?” Grandmother gave him a sharp look.
“I...did.” Frankly, he didn’t like those old court novels so much. He much preferred informational manga. His strategy for getting through ancient literature had been to remember the salient facts just long enough to pass his exams and then forget everything immediately upon graduation.
“You can’t remember anything about it, can you?”
“Genji gets malaria, doesn’t he?” Tachibana hung his head. “The book wasn’t very interesting to me. I’m sorry.”
“Well, it’s a perfect example of the strong and denied feelings of a person manifesting as a spiritual force. Lady Rokujo wants the courtier Genji, but she can’t have him to herself, so her jealousy forms itself into a demon that kills the girl who took Genji from her.” Grandmother tried unsuccessfully to open the stiff plastic wrapper of her bean jam treat before finally handing it over to Tachibana to deal with. “So some man here created this yokai from his desire, but who?”
“Some disgusting pervert, no doubt.” Tachibana handed the opened packet back to his grandmother
“I don’t think so. It seemed like a harmless enough spirit. Overeager, but he went away right when that Masanori told him to leave. And who would have thought that Masanori was a boy lover? Or do you think he’s more of a woman hater? He’s a bachelor, isn’t he?” Grandmother gave him a shrewd look. “Like you.”
“Nowadays it’s just called gay, Grandmother.” Tomoko and her new husband had arrived at their table. “And I think it’s inspiring.”
“You don’t think it’s bad luck having a yokai appear at your wedding?” Tachibana had asked.
Tomoko’s husband grinned. “Are you kidding? Everyone’s going to talk about my wedding reception for years!”
Since that day he’d avoided his grandmother completely.
Especially after she started sending him paper charms and magazine clippings of articles about supernatural phenomena in the mail.
Not that he hadn’t kept the charms. There was one in his overnight bag right now. But that bag currently resided in the luggage storage compartment at the front of the car, and clearly the spiritual barrier that it formed did not extend as far as their sleeping car.
He should have kept one in his pocket. From here on in, he definitely would.