There is no coming to
consciousness without pain.
— Carl Gustav Jung —
Side A —
Merry Christmas Persimmons
Light returns through the limpid shower of rain, bringing shape to a familiar place. After a struggle with the rusty lock, rusty hinges, rusty everything of the office door, I step inside and throw my coat onto the rack. The keys find their way back into my pocket as I toss the folder across the desk, papers sliding out in a corkscrew, and raid the cabinet, procuring a tumbler but nothing to fill it with. Leaving the glass steeped in emptiness, I shut the blinds, adjust the thermostat, and stumble to the sofa, shin conveniently splintering against the oak coffee table, forcing me to reallocate the pain from my Cartesian self into my physical one. My strategy against this kind of thing has long been to focus on persimmons, which I immediately begin to do. Of course, having never actually seen the fruit, this trips the cognitive failsafe in my brain, which displays its neurological variant of ‘Technical Difficulties—Please Stand By’. These are my persimmons: a display of fireworks, of bloody strontium and azure copper, bursting through the distant haze of my consciousness. I watch this mock primordial soup until the phone on the desk commences its dutiful metallic spasm, rending my head in two once more. Four rings is about all I can stand before I get up to answer. I already know who it is.
“I didn’t actually expect you to be there, but I figured I should try anyway.” I just keep silent. Let him wonder if I’m really here. The sound of his thumb scratching his cheek comes through the line; his nervous compulsion. After a moment: “I’ve been trying to reach you for days, kid. I hate it when you cut out like this.”
“You should be used to it by now.”
“I am. But why do you always have to choose the worst times to do it?”
“It’s when I have the most to worry about.” Another pause. He must think I have a point. I pick the phone up and take it over to the coffee table, lying back down on the sofa.
“I’m having a hard time believing that you even have worries,” he continues. “If it weren’t for me, you’d never get anything done. You say you’ve got worries . . . maybe you can handle some of the ones you’ve given me to take care of. Like, when you disappear?”
“Maybe you should try it some time.” Right about now would be good.
“Disappearing.” He considers it, and, finally: “I wouldn’t know where to start,” as if I were going to teach him. I correct myself, As if it were something that could be taught.
“Listen,” I try to move things along, “I’ve just got some concerns about this manuscript. I’ve been dragging the damn thing all over the place like a fetter, rereading it, trying to sort it out in my head. Maybe if this were the first time I’d be able to make it work, but you pull this shit too much. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m Sisyphus reincarnate.”
“If by that you mean you’re too clever for your own good . . .” I wonder if that’s supposed to be a compliment. “Look kid, this time it’s different. This is the real deal. Sure, it’s rough; no one’s saying it isn’t. That’s why I’m coming to you for this. You’ve never let me down before. We’ve just had our share of bad luck is all. . . . But this is gonna change all that.” How many times have I heard something along those lines? I admire his persistence, but I don’t share his masochistic spirit.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I just don’t think I can pull it off this time. Hell, this isn’t even my real job! If it were, I’d be living on the street. And once you run through your savings, you will be too. That’s why I keep telling you to think about vanity press. . . .” Again, he starts scratching his cheek; this time for much longer. I begin counting the panels on the ceiling, reaching seventeen when he starts to speak.
“OK kid, OK. If you’re not up to it, I’m not about to force you . . .”
“Great.” I get up and move the phone back to the desk.
“. . . just do one thing for me before you quit.” Great. “In the top-right drawer of the desk—” I open the drawer, “—there should be a notepad.” There is. With a number written on it. No name.
“I already told you Mike, I’m not going to date your niece.” He lets that one slide.
“I want you to meet with the writer.” My headache is back before I even noticed it was gone. “I think if you talk things over together, you might be able to make it work.” Mike should know how detrimental it would be for me to communicate with our writers. No one likes having his work recut, even less the person who recuts it. Plus I’m not exactly a likeable person to begin with; because of that, Mike’s always handled the client side of things while I work behind the scenes. If a writer needs to talk to me, he uses Mike as a go-between. That’s the way it’s always been, and changing the system now would be chaos. To me it’s obvious, but I know I’m not going to get through to him that way. I try a different approach.
“It won’t make a difference. The story won’t sell if nobody can understand it. People these days just don’t have time to digest this kind of thing.”
“Don’t worry about the audience, I’ll handle the audience. Tell me what you think.”
I take a short pause. Time to cool the jets and sound sensible. . . .
“Honestly, it feels unfinished. It feels like a raw piece of meat that no one knows how to cook. I could meet the writer, sure. But then what, Mike? We rewrite the whole thing, from zero? You expect me to facilitate that kind of high-maintenance job? If anything I’d just make it worse. That’s why I’m on this side of things, and not a writer myself.” I take a furtive breath, and Mike clears his throat.
“But there’s something about it, don’t you think?” This catches me off guard.
“Where are you going with this. . . .”
“I knew it when I read the first sentence. There’s something there . . . something that felt like it was a part of me. Like it had been separated from me a long time ago, and now it’s trying to find its way back. Didn’t you feel it, too?”
“I think you’re crazy.” Now the line goes terribly silent, and I imagine a persimmon on the other end. Was that out of line? But luckily, before I feel like I did something wrong, he comes through again, back to his usual self.
“Just call the number. If you still want to quit after your meeting, then there’s nothing I can do to stop you.”
Well, there’s nothing you can do to stop me now, either. But that moment of silence affected me more than I could’ve anticipated. Just before that, he sounded almost . . . desperate? God knows why. If it matters that much to him, I suppose I could see it through. Besides, it’s really just an easy way out of this dead-end job. I only have to meet with this writer and tell Mike that no, it looks like it won’t work out after all. No hard feelings. That simple. I look back at the notepad in the drawer and pick it up.
“There’s no name written here. Who do I ask for?” Already I could feel his spirits lifting.
“Whom you ask for is Naoko.”
“Is that a girl’s name?”
“Her voice did have a kind of dulcet, feminine. . . .”
“How did you find out about her, anyway?” Mike always reaches out to our clients himself. No one ever calls us. Mostly they trickle down through our connections at Balsamon, but every now and then Mike finds a writer through surreptitious channels.
“That’s a secret, kid. Anyway, I made a reservation at Visconti’s for tomorrow evening, at seven. I was going to surprise my wife with dinner, but she told me in passing today that she hates Italian food. Can you believe it? We’ve been married eight years and somehow never gone out for Italian. . . . But that’s how it goes. I’ll just let you use the reservation instead. And I’ll pay you back for the meal, so don’t worry about that.”
Something was gnawing at me. “Why does it feel like you had this planned out all along?”
“Who, me. . . ? How could I have? I haven’t talked to you for an entire week. I had no way of knowing you’d be back today. Synchronicity, and all that. . . . ‘A star fall, a phone call / It joins all / Synchronicity!’ ”
“. . . What?”
“ ‘A sleep trance, a dream dance / A shared romance / Synchronicity!’ ”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“Don’t forget to call—Naoko. And Jay?”
The line is cut.
Side B —
Neither Speak nor Mingle
And it was persimmons again, all coming down the line in a photo finish. Persimmons, occupying all spaces of the trifecta. Persimmons, winning the perennial blue ribbon. Persimmons, the fruit of ignorance in the bush of hungry ghosts. She wonders if this is the way to eternity . . . to sidestep Death, the missing link in her heredity. The images come to her, first mistaken as monochrome, now in limited colour, of leaflets falling from that waxen Pacific sky, fluttering down onto grey Jolo waters. Some, at least, reach the intended target, the hands of the American soldier.
“You are still alive!” says Tojo’s proxy, “What a miracle!” The words are strangely comforting, even with their foreign timbre—Japs can speak English, too; we’re not so different after all. The paper quivers in the wind, and continues its speech.
“There are only two definite things on earth: LIFE and DEATH. One cannot rely upon the dead; no one can make friends with the dead; the dead can neither speak nor mingle with the living. If you insist on marching west, we (by we I mean all living things) must bid you goodbye and stop bothering with you, because we, the living, are too busy to have anything to do with the dead. The difference between LIFE and DEATH is absolute.”
But about this, that ancient game makes her unsure. Seki—though she cannot recall clearly the learning of it (word-islands among a sea of those but what she did not yet understand, shrill cicada droning, paper-screen doors pushed open, whole house made to breath, tatami, unfamiliar fruit. . . . Persimmons?)—she has always understood with a congenital perspicacity. Between life and death . . . somewhere beyond the Zero, but before the One. They can see it coming twenty stones ahead, the experts, but by then the system is locked in place. Self-organisation, as natural as a flock of birds. The untrained eye notices the dichotomy, draws connections to yin and yang, finds it beautiful—and perhaps it is—symbiotic, even. But the players of the game know otherwise: merely a détente. A tacit agreement in the interest of self-preservation. And so the stones sit forever on that precipice as ghosts, in limbo, between life and death. . . . Could this be the way?
She remembers her discovery of infinity. To clap, the hand must first travel half the distance toward the other; before that, a quarter . . . an eighth . . . an infinite series of nugatory discrepancies in space. It follows that for her to reach Death, she must first become half-dead; before that, a quarter-dead, and so on, living Life in a countless series of infinitesimal fragments, each one somehow distinct, each one a step closer to her final destination. She found it important to note that no matter how small those shards of life became, they remained significant, and therefore could not be ignored, could not be equated with Death. Perhaps, she wonders, Life is simply a vehicle to Death. She can live with that. What other option is there? (Mother.)
Sure now of a life lived in constant flux, existence, she sees, is a volatile and tangled seki, moving turn by diminutive turn toward the End of The Game.
She is living.
She is dying.
A change in the wind comes, with breakneck speed, turning points to lines, juxtaposing confused colours that clash in absurd, impossible fireworks, slows, and a new scene comes into focus. Between this world and the next, the fire balloon sits a spot in the sky: seventeen thousand five hundred cubic feet of hydrogen gas, but from here small enough to be seen through a button hole. The sturdy washi paper of the envelope is laminated from squares the size of a roadmap by nimble-fingered high school girls from across Japan, some of which sneak, now and then, a mouthful of the konjak paste to satisfy their hunger. Out of time and context, she welcomes the balloons as oriental decoration, a gift from across the Pacific, until she remembers their destructive payload: incendiaries for the forests, and high explosives for the people, if not something much worse . . . Cherry Blossoms at Night: masterminded by Ishii Shiro, head of the incongruously named Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department, out of the vast complex stationed in desolate Manchukuo by order of the Emperor, known to local authorities as a lumber mill, whose tortured captives are referred to as ‘logs’, countless tonnes of pestilence—cholera, smallpox, botulism, anthrax, bubonic plague—are cultured and released upon the local Chinese population, killing hundreds of thousands through infection; lives used as data to prepare for a biological invasion of the most populous region in America, scheduled for deployment in September of 1945 had the Empire not surrendered. Offered by Ishii in exchange for immunity and protection from Soviet justice at Khabarovsk, who else would be the one to foster this powerful affliction into the next decade but America? As a rare example of God’s sense of humour, who else but Colonel Sanders would be chosen to deliver the testimony of Unit 731 to General MacArthur? Indeed, in return for exclusive access to Japan’s biological warfare intelligence and human experimentation data, the Fate of General Ishii Shiro had been plucked from the Gulag and returned to his homeland, where he reached the age of sixty-seven, dying for throat cancer and Catholicism.
* * *
Awake, her room, the world, feels cold and dark outside the sheets. Slowly light peaks out from behind the drawn curtain, wan and grey . . . enough to brighten the room, or so she’d thought. A tight ball of warmth, Gomi sits next to her, notices she is awake, and stretches, giving a suppliant mew. Naoko reaches out to rub his ears and stroke his whiskers, scratch his chin and fondle his paw, now the belly and the back, yes, but what the cat really wants is breakfast. She sits in brown study, the images of her dream taking their treacly time to fade, like winter breath on a mirror. He tries the sound again, now with a touch of the glottis, and purrs when he finds her attention. She’s received the message loud and clear (yes, good cat, coming right up) and moves to the kitchen, not without much shivering and burring, shuffling her naked feet across the tile between the cupboard with the missing door where Gomi’s food is kept and back, with the cat trotting up mid-voyage to scarf down the treasured cargo. Meanwhile she watches from the kitchen table, sitting houzue, head in hand, thinking of what her mother had told her when she was a child, and how it had all come true.
* * *
Naoko’s first vision came to her during history class, just a year before she entered into middle school. The world around her erupted into flames, nearby screams came out over the distant sirens, and buildings she walked by every day turned into steaming castella crumbled on top of people she recognised. Though it lasted only a split second, the scene immediately burrowed deep into her heart. Her young body could not contain the horror she felt, and she suffered a complete breakdown. The teacher quickly told a student to take her to the nurse, but Naoko couldn’t budge. In the end, two boys had to carry her down three flights of stairs to the infirmary on the ground floor. On the way down, her blood-curdling cries echoed through the halls, and teachers poked their heads out cautiously to see the source of such sorrow.
* * *
Gomi looks up from his breakfast for a moment while the phone rings. Naoko answers, and a man apologises for calling so early. He wonders if he could speak to a miss Naoko, and introduces himself as Jay, a copy editor with Balsamon Publishing Ltd., but working a side job with a man called Mike, whom he believes spoke to her previously. He tells her that he has some important questions regarding her story, and wants to discuss them together.
This is the man her mother had told her about: her antidote. The one who would take care of these Persimmons. Although she is normally quiet, Naoko feels previously isolated words beginning to well up and spill into her throat, transforming it into a purgative fistula.
She begins to speak.