Illustration by Kieran Walsh
We must not have heard her knock.
The rice paper door slid open and an elderly woman in a yukata bowed low at the entrance.
‘Excuse my intrusion, I’ve brought your evening meal,’ the attendant said, raising her head and looking briefly at us. Her face broke into a small smile, sending creases from the corners of her mouth to ripple over her features. She had the powdered face of my grandmother’s generation and a lick of red lipstick, her eyes almost disappearing into the folds of her skin.
Her spine curved like a bough yet she moved with ease. She swivelled and brought the small individual tables into the room, slid across the tatami floor in her tabi two-toed socks and started to set up for the meal.
Shunsuke looked at me, his face a careful mask of nonchalance. We had time enough only to spring apart, sitting at a respectful distance before the door slid open. I surreptitiously touched my head, trying to straighten the mess he had made of my hair. We slipped out from under the folds of the heated kotatsu table, my legs as burning hot as my face.
‘Is it your first time in Toyako?’ the old woman asked. Her pencilled-on eyebrows were calligraphy strokes in broad arches. The heaviness of lying to my parents, to my friends, sat in my empty stomach. I nodded.
‘I’ve been here before,’ Shunsuke said, picking up the cigarette pack from the table.
‘You have?’ I asked in surprise.
‘Sure,’ he said. Cupping his hands over the cigarette to light it, his face flared red for a moment, the shadows dark across his forehead and dyed hair.
‘We’re very happy you chose to return to our ryokan,’ the old woman said.
‘Oba-san, I didn’t say I came to this hotel,’ Shunsuke said with a wink, smoke spiralling out his mouth in singed words. His tone should not have bothered me, not made me touch my silver bracelet. Whenever I was angry, I touched it, rubbed the links between my fingers until the rough sensation calmed me. I had worn that bracelet for years. When we had started dating, Shunsuke had offered to replace it with a white gold bangle or a designer watch. I had refused. It wasn’t the cost. Having worked at a Tokyo firm for eight years, I knew he could afford it. I just wasn’t sure I was ready to part with everything from my past.
‘It’s nice for couples to have a break. Relax and spend time together,’ the attendant said. Her tone was composed, pouring cool water over the rising heat in the room.
I knew I should help her. ‘Do you get a discount as a member of staff?’ I said.
‘Ah, yes, we can use the hot springs for free. But I don’t often take my leave. My husband passed away many years ago and… ’
‘Oba-san, he would have wanted you to enjoy yourself! Take a holiday now and then,’ I said.
She wrinkled her nose a little and then laughed. Curtly. The noise was sharp and so unexpected that I found myself backing away.
‘My husband never took a day off. And now I have two people’s work to do.’
I was silent. The old woman continued to bring in the food. She carefully arranged the plates in symmetrical patterns. Sushi fanned out in beautiful colours. Bright yellow steamed egg in a contrasting green bowl. An individual hotpot lit by a dancing blue flame. Her hands, whilst wrinkled and yellow, were deft and steady in each movement.
‘Please enjoy your meal at a leisurely pace, I’ll return to make up your beds later.’
‘Where’s the beer?’ Shunsuke asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him shake cigarette ash onto the tatami floor. I grabbed the ashtray from the window sill and handed it to him pointedly.
‘I can bring you a large bottle to share,’ the attendant said.
‘Only one? We’ll get through two, easily.’
As her hunched figure disappeared behind the rice paper door, I let myself voice displeasure. ‘Two?’ I said, ‘Now she’ll think we are just drunken idiots. Look at this beautiful meal! You could’ve at least said thank you!’
He groaned and stubbed out the cigarette. ‘What did I say this time? I just want a drink! You don’t have to grovel and thank every person we meet, you know. We’re the customers. We’re paying for the whole experience!’
I tied my yukata belt a little tighter around my waist so that I didn’t have to look at him. It was true. Shunsuke had paid for the whole trip. He had already reminded me three times since we’d arrived: that I was still in junior college and living at home whilst he was independent, in his third decade of life. I kept my words clamped between teeth. My former boyfriend would never have treated me like this. We had been teenagers together, taking sticker photos at the shopping centres, him carrying my bags to school and messaging me before bed each night. We might not have had money but we had other things.
After the attendant returned with the beer, Shunsuke became more relaxed. He pulled his cushion round to sit beside me and ate from my plate. He poured beer for me until I laughingly insisted he stopped, that I was already drunk.
‘There’s no such thing as too drunk,’ Shunsuke said, draping an arm over my shoulder. He smelt of cigarettes and alcohol. I could almost see the smoke tendrils oozing from his pores.
I pushed him away. ‘She’s coming back,’ I said, ‘to make our beds.’
‘She’s going to judge us!’ I protested, looking down at my lap. I traced the blue and white lines of the robe’s fabric, hoping to distract myself from the embarrassment.
‘She already has!’ Shunsuke said, pulling his arm away. ‘That’s all these babas have to do all day. Wash the futon covers and gossip about unmarried people sharing a room. Why should we care? I worked hard to take my girlfriend away for a weekend. Let them judge!’
How we missed the second knock, I’ll never know. The attendant was already in the room, bowing again. Her neatly pinned hair was greyer than I remembered, her smile a little less curved.
‘Excuse me, have you finished your meal?’ she asked.
Shunsuke waved her in. He wandered across the room to find his phone, shoving his legs back under the kotatsu. I remembered sleeping under one of those tables as a child, imagining it was a many tiered shiro, and I the shogun in my home. But I had burnt my leg once, turning in my sleep and brushing too close to the electric heater. I dared not ever sleep beneath it again.
Shunsuke lit another cigarette and swiped through his phone. He was always messaging someone. But I knew from experience that messages meant nothing. After all, my ex had messaged me every night and still found time to cheat on me. He had spent all of his money on her, buying her designer bags whilst I naively insisted on splitting the bill.
I began piling the plates, hindering more than helping the attendant do her work. She knelt down beside me. ‘You know the hot springs are open until nine tonight, for women only,’ the old woman said. ‘It’s not often busy at this time of year.’
‘Thank you,’ I replied, ‘but we went earlier in the day.’
‘Ah, but at night, on a quiet night, it’s a different experience. Perhaps you’ll even see a kappa.’
I laughed politely. We had seen the statues around the town of the mythical water creature. ‘If it’s all the same, I’d rather not meet any monsters.’
The attendant stared, forcing me to look back even though I wanted to turn away. ‘There are monsters everywhere.’ She looked up and I followed her gaze to where Shunsuke sat, absorbed and oblivious as his fingers slid across the touch screen.
I shook my head. I had met him on a group date. At my lowest ebb, he lavished me with gifts and compliments until I had fallen, half asleep, into a relationship with him. The pool of feelings I had for him was shallow and yet I wallowed in it, afraid to face the drought alone.
The old woman had packed away the dinner tables and now slid open the double wardrobes. Piles of futons were stacked as high as my head. She flung one, then another down onto the tatami mats.
I helped her shake out the duvet covers. The white sheets covered everything except a large oval hole on the upper surface of the bedding. The duvet fabric was exposed there, a massive wound gaping in the centre.
‘I never understood this,’ I said, running my hand along the exposed pink belly of the duvet.
‘It makes beds easier to strip,’ she said as she tweaked and smoothed and fluffed out the bedding. ‘Strip off the lies and hang them up for all to see.’
When she left, Shunsuke pushed the futons together and lay across them. He patted the space next to him and smiled. I felt cold. Despite the warmth from the heater and the inviting sheets, I couldn’t stop shaking.
‘Here, let me warm you up,’ he said.
I crossed the room and he grabbed my wrist, pulling me onto the futon. ‘Stop,’ I protested.
‘Oh come on, you know you like it,’ Shunsuke replied as he tried to kiss my neck. His mouth was smoky and sharp.
‘I’m not in the mood,’ I said.
‘Not in the… ?’ His grip on my wrist tightened. ‘Seriously?’
I knew where this conversation would go. That his words and touch were better than the dark weeks after my ex had left me. That I would give in because I did not want to be alone with my thoughts, my grief.
I stood, the old woman’s words swirling in my head. Shunsuke was not the monster. ‘I’m going to the onsen.’
‘I’m going to have a bath, Shunsuke.’
‘Hold on a minute, I didn’t… you’re just tired! We both are. Let’s talk, ne? Come on, just talk. Let’s not leave it like this. We can go shopping tomorrow. I’ll buy you something pretty.’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t—I don’t!’ The words were lodged in my throat but I could not give voice to them.
‘It’s okay, you know. You want security. I want someone gentle, to keep a bed warm. There’s nothing wrong with that. Feelings? They can develop over time. I’m old enough to realise that,’ he said. His words struck me like a physical blow. His hands were clasped in his lap and the soothing tone of his voice reminded me of the work phone calls he would take some evenings. That’s all I was. Another project.
Before I had even left the room I could hear him calling my name, imploring me to turn back.
I took a deep breath, the air already clearer outside the room. I’d stepped away from my crutch. The hallway down to the hot springs was decorated with calligraphy scrolls of dancing black ink. The lighting imitated the glow of embers at the end of a long night. I shed my clothes in the changing area, letting them fall one by one in a circle around my feet. Let go of the weight my own expectations, of whom I’d become, every expensive gift that Shunsuke had smothered me with. I dropped them all on the floor. I could not drop him though. Not my ex and that night. The memory had absorbed into my skin. Apologising, over and over again. Showing me her photo. Vision blurring as someone howled in ugly, endless tears.
Mirrors lined one wall of the onsen with squat stools and shower heads perched in waiting. Steam from the volcanic water misted over their surface apart from where droplets streaked down the glass. The mild smell of sulphur was comforting, familiar. I sat down on the nearest stool and started to wash the grime from my skin. I recalled trips with friends, soaking all day in the healing waters as we talked and ate and discarded the worries. I had always felt so tranquil afterwards, a rebirth of sorts. My reflection was decidedly not in that state of harmony. She stared back with pursed lips and hair plastered like wilting leaves around her face. I scrubbed. Pouring basin and basin of water over her head as she gasped and gasped to wake herself from the dream.
The white now swirled with blurs of colour in the mirror. Gazing at it, I saw a shape moving in the steam. I turned towards her. The room attendant. She knelt by the side of the water, arms elbow deep in the pool. She was washing the sheets. Swirls of white material filled the water, billowing like flotsam. They swept towards the edge with long fingers. The woman’s hands waved over the surface, kneading dough as the water turned dark.
‘Oba-san, what are you doing?’ My voice wavered and despite the heat of the air, I shivered.
The attendant turned and looked at me. Her hair was sparse and white where it remained on her head. Loose skin folded at her cheeks and neck. Eyes milky. ‘Washing it away.’
‘Oba-san, you can’t wash the sheets here! People come here to bathe.’ I crouched beside her, wondering if she had the forgetfulness of the elderly.
The old woman touched my wrist and the room went still. Cold. ‘It’s time to go.’
A distant noise rang in my ears and I shook my head, trying to dislodge it. Protestations rose through my throat but my feet moved to follow her, pulling me against my will. Through the sliding glass doors into the outdoor garden of the onsen we went, the night air hitting my wet skin, sending rivers of raised bumps down my arms and back. The pool was lined with willow trees.
She had my clothes. My yukata robe, my slippers, my underwear all draped neatly across her arm. My head said I should be worried but I was curiously detached. The old woman moved in shuffled steps around the undulating water’s edge to the one tree which was not blooming. Its gnarled branches were bare of leaves or flowers. A single long bough reached out over the water’s edge, shaking its bones in the breeze.
First the small delicate underthings. Tiny scraps of frail lace were hung on the branch by her arthritic fingers. I swear I saw the wood bend. Then the obi belt from around my yukata was hung beside them, wrapped twice around the thick limb. This time I knew it moved. The end of limb dipped towards its own reflection.
The old woman looked at me as she held the yukata up towards the bough. ‘Can you guess the weight of it all? Too high or too low?’
I feared the answer. ‘What is this?’
As she stared at me, one of her eyes rotted through. It sagged in the socket, slipping forward as she leaned towards me. Pus seeped around the rim and trailed down one side of her face. ‘Who’s the monster?’
The oba-san draped the yukata on the branch. It groaned and sagged, closer and closer still to the mirror image surface. And then it stopped. No more than a finger’s space from the dark pool. She looked at me, her face unreadable in the dim light. Pointed with a finger no more than bone at my wrist, at the silver bracelet. The action was enough to break the remaining fleshy strands holding in her dead eye. It tumbled from the socket onto the ground, softly splashing into the water.
I approached her. My emotions were calm despite everything and I pulled the bracelet from my arm. Held the silver chain up to my eye. It was the first thing my ex-boyfriend had bought me. Nothing more than costume jewellery really, but weighed down in kisses and laughter, soft skin and softer words. The woman held out her hand expectantly. Her hollow cheeks pressed in around her skull, thin tissue paper, and when she grinned up at me, I could see molars through the tears in her skin.
I dropped the bracelet into her palm, feeling a part of me snap with it.
The tree was contemplative of this final offering. The bare arms shook and then, satisfied, it bowed down. The limb dipped under the waterline as the old woman clapped her hands together. Then it bounced back up. Wobbled on the precipice before settling, the featherlight twigs lightly grazing the water’s edge.
‘Not enough,’ she said. Without warning she grabbed my hand. Nails dug into the skin at my palm. I pulled back, whimpered protests at my mouth, but still she twisted. My hand burned at her touch, blackened. Charred flakes peeled away and red flesh pulsed below. The whole garden was on fire. Sharp darts of white flashed in my eyes and the heat, the heat was melting me.
The pain stopped. The attendant looked crestfallen, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. ‘Not ready yet, not yet.’ My clothes had returned to my body, my hand as pale and unblemished as before. The persistent buzz was louder in my ears, clamouring for my attention now.
‘What, what’s happening?’ Shunsuke’s voice echoed across the darkness. He walked, or rather shuffled, across the stone path, body struggling against him, arm thudding into the bamboo fence, feet stubbing against every rock and stone lantern. I’d never seen him look afraid before but his handsome face was contorted in a grimace.
‘Judgement,’ the room attendant said. Shunsuke’s clothes were now in her arms. She draped his boxers, yukata and belt over the bough. She even placed his wallet, lighter and box of cigarettes alongside. The tree was indifferent to their presence. It may have moved a fraction, or that may only have been my imagination as I breathed out in a long sigh.
The old woman moved right up to Shunsuke, her face next to his shoulder, peering at the skin as if looking for imperfections. ‘Ah,’ she said, smacking her lips together, ‘this one’s ready.’
Her right arm hung useless at her side. Gangrene ran black up from her fingers like dying ivy vines. Hobbling towards Shunsuke, there was heat in her eyes. As frail as she looked, I knew he would not be able to stop her.
‘What will you do?’ she said, turning to me suddenly.
Shunsuke looked frail without his wrappings and confidence. I noticed for the first time that his legs were slightly bowed and his chest concave. His eyes widened as they met mine. What could I do?
The woman shrugged at my non-response. Reaching up with her remaining arm, she touched him on the forehead. A light touch, grandmotherly at first. Then her fingers clenched and her nails gouged into his skin. She peeled. The old woman pulled his skin until it unfurled, the flesh underneath exhaling in moist gasps as it came loose. The ease with which it slipped off surprised me, as did my indifference. I should have been screaming but Shunsuke did that for both of us. I should have saved him. She tore the coverings from around his body like they were strips of old wallpaper, tossed them nonchalantly to one side, the flaccid skin landing on the curved bough. Each piece made the tree shudder and droop. Blood dripped like raindrops down the bark, crawling drunk trails through the rough grain. As the last piece of skin was flung onto the tree, it sagged heavy under its load. The furthermost twigs had drowned themselves deep in the water.
‘You are judged.’ Her teeth crumbled from her mouth as she spoke and she spat them onto the rocks.
Shunsuke moved as if being pulled, towards the water. Dripped onto the wet stones as he dragged each foot forward. At the edge, he yelled in pain. The onsen water steamed like yakiniku sizzling on a grill. He kept wading, waters swirling red around him. The water was deeper than it had a right to be, creeping up past his shoulders and rising.
‘Oba-san,’ I said, my voice finally returning to me, ‘why are you killing him?’
She shook her head. The remaining cloudy iris began to clear, a drop of detergent in the filthy waters. ‘He’s already dead.’
Shunsuke’s head disappeared under the dark water, smoke sizzling from the surface. My heart made no protest, no quiver of guilt or loss. I was broken. The sound became louder, an undulating wail of panic. A siren. I tried to cover my ears, squeezing my eyes shut to block it out.
‘We need to go!’ a voice said. Someone grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me to my feet. I opened my eyes to find my vision obscured by smoke. My lungs protested as I tried to breath and followed the other towards the clear air. Fire alarms blared loudly, flashing red in the hotel corridor as other guests emerged startled from their rooms.
My bare feet were icicles on the tarmac outside. I watched in disbelief as the grey maelstrom plumed into the sky. Someone passed me a blanket and gratefully, I wrapped it around my shoulders.
‘Are you ok?’ someone asked. I looked blankly at the young woman in the hotel uniform.
‘Do I know you?’
‘I, I’m your attendant, remember?’ I must have looked confused because she continued. ‘I brought your dinner, made your bed. And later I found you, asleep… outside your hotel room. There was a fire and… ’
‘Shunsuke,’ I said.
‘It must have started inside the room.’ The woman covered her mouth and looked at me. ‘Your hand, it—it must hurt?’
I looked down and yes, my hand was burnt, angry skin scorched black and blistering. Pain radiated up and for the first time in a long time, I felt it.
‘I killed him,’ I said.
‘I didn’t say anything,’ I replied.
The woman looked at me and for a moment her face blurred. I could see her, the old woman’s features drawn atop her own but then I blinked and it was just the light. I asked her for another blanket. And slippers. And any clothes she could find.
Despite the heat emanating from the fire, I could not get warm.
“Datsue-Ba” and the accompanying illustration first appeared in Fox Spirit’s Asian Monsters (2016) edited by Margrét Helgadóttir. You can read Ajapa Sharma’s review of the coffee-table book here in Mithila Review.