From the hills that surround the town it indifferently drifts. Upon bare soil and barren rocks, upon the base of trees, it sweeps. From my window this morning, the trees were grey, feathery and clinging like ghostly hands to the low clouds but now, in the wintry breathe of evening, they are like conquering warriors marching down shadowy slopes. My boots, hard and heavy, follow empty pavements. A car, a van, a bus, occasionally passes through our slushy streets. There is hardly a sound except for the click, click, click from the pedestrian crossing.
I’ve walked here all my life. I know every crack in the pavement, every blemish on the shop walls, every angle of the stooping buildings, every flutter of the koinobori, the carp-shaped wind-socks that now colourfully flutter high up over the gorge to mark the change of season. Hundreds there are, strung up on lines, but one has fallen far below and is stuck between two jagged rocks, one end flapping like a useless flag as the river tries to drag it away.
I’ve never left this place, this hot spring town where tourists flock like hungry gulls during the holiday season. There are better jobs elsewhere but I choose to remain a janitor at the high school. That’s all I’ve been these thirty- eight years. I’ll retire next month. They’ve kept me well past retirement age as I do a pleasing job. Now I have to go though as I’m too old.
Old Hiroki. I’ve been called that for as long as I remember.
But once, I was young. Bristling with life. Handsome too. Skin smooth and glowing like moonlight on my face. Muscles taut upon my body instead of this flesh wasting away. And these tired old bones, barely holding this thin decrepit body together!
Today I take my usual stroll past the tourist information centre, the road wending its way up to the Hotel Morino Uto, whose windows are endless eyes, then down the slope past the imposing concrete façade of the View Hotel, along the small pretty red bridge, then back around past the empty park, the stunted apartment blocks and up to the main road, across the Black Bridge, the public foot bath, then right past the convenience store, then I’m home.
Home is one room, a small kitchen and a tiny bathroom. There’s room for a bed, a chair, desk and no more.
Not even for memories.
But that’s a downright lie, for they sometimes rise like corpses from the grave. They lie beside me, breathing coldly, fetidly against my neck, as I stare from my damp pillow into a silent unearthly darkness. We all have our memories, bitter or precious, don’t we?
I am seventy-three and cough a lot, especially at night. Perhaps it’s to chase the dead away. Doctor Ogawa says it’s the cigarettes. Maybe. But I can’t blame those happy sticks for my aching hips, nor the piercing pain in my knees when I stroll too much, especially in a bitter chill. But, ah, once I had arms, fingers, so strong, strong enough to pull a nylon rope so very tight!
Yes, I’ve lived here all my life.
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