The way he stoops like a juniper in the snow — eyes half-blind behind rivulets of skin and his insides all chewed up with cancer — it’s hard to believe I once watched him rip apart a triple-masted whaling ship with his bare hands.
Occupying a tiny room in a nine-story slum near Ueno station, Koro has become a creature of habit. He crosses the street every morning at 8:45 to pick up the paper, a cup of hot water with lemon, and a Kit-Kat. I visit him on the third Sunday of the month, usually in the afternoon, after he’s finished three hours of meditation over a gold cross, a Koran, and a Star of David. “They are mono-theon,” he tells us whenever Leon gives him shit about it. Leon, who refuses to be alone with him, usually tags along on my visits. We all take turns. Koro is the oldest and deserves respect. It doesn’t bother me that he’s chosen to forget, to live in squalor and spend his last days prostrated before Western gods. Leon can’t stand it. “He’s so eager to die,” he says with contempt. But why else did we migrate to this wilderness of cut stone and radiating wire, of phantom symbols jig-sawed along narrow streets?
I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 14 years, Leon for 12. There are 47 of us now, but Koro was the first. This is his fifth decade in the body. I hope it will be his last. I hope he finds a way to diffuse beyond memory and into oblivion. He hasn’t said a word about the old life in nearly three years, since that day he stopped me on my way out the door. His grasp strong around my shoulder, the fingers of six invisible arms clutching wrist, hip, kidney, and knee. “I should have killed her on the pier,” he said.
This is how we dream:
Our eyes half shut, our arms crossed, fingers notched to ribs, breath warm and slow.
When we arrive at the bright places where nothing moves, then we know we are dreaming. If we see a door, we walk through it; if a window presents itself, we jump. We run while the world around us stands still. Streams do not trickle, wind does not gust. We hurl forward to stave off the fuse that threatens to blow us back to the conscious world. To look back is to wake up.
There are four stages to every successful dream.
Leon and I catch the train from Chūō City after spending the morning at Togo with a skittish ubume who calls herself Doni. I sit between them because Doni is someone else Leon can’t stand. I’m not too crazy about her myself. She is nervous and absent, always with this habit of cracking open drawers, cupboards, and windows. Today she’s going off on some theory that we are, all 47 of us, androids in a secret government neural network experiment, programmed to perceive ourselves as ancient gods and monsters, and that personal history and social development are frameworks in which our subconscious processes solutions to human problems and transmits them back. The only one not buying in, she says, is Koro. But even if he has found a way through, who’s to say he ever had any connection to the rest of us to begin with. Maybe he’s just an innocent fixed point, she says, whom they ordained to fasten our delusion.
“I’m going to throw you through the window if you don’t knock that shit off,” Leon tells her.
It’s going to be one of those days with him. He wears a black raincoat that doesn’t quite restrain his belly fat. He snacks on dried crickets and spits out the heads just to get under people’s skin.
“It’s a thought,” Doni says. “Be open to thought.”
“It’s a stupid thought. It’s insulting. People made us? And then what, let us loose in the city?”
“I’m just thinking out loud.”
Leon spits. The cricket head bounces off the floor and lands on the shoe of an old woman sitting on the other side.
“When Koro goes, you’ll see. One day we’ll break in his door and find the exsiccating bladder of squid-flesh seeping into the floor boards. A salty chalk outline.”
The old woman glares at Leon and wiggles her foot, but the severed head gets snagged in her shoelace.
“Ask Nic,” Leon says. “He knows.”
“No one knows anything,” Doni says.
“I know you’re an idiot.”
Most of us hate each other, but we stick together out of solidarity, because that’s what minorities do to survive. We remind each other that our history is genuine. We affirm one another’s memories, correct stray details. We keep the story alive.
We squeal to a stop where the old woman gets off the train. She’s plucked the cricket head out of her shoelace and left it on the seat behind her. Dead mahogany eyes stare at us as the woman throws parting cryptic gestures.
I guess you could say Leon and I represent two ways of looking at things. I didn’t take this body with the intention of abusing it. It isn’t that I hope for humanity to subsume me, as Koro does, but I have been bakemono long enough to recognize the value of flow, of becoming. Leon is a mōryō, so to him flesh has only ever meant food and clothing. Leon believes we will rise again. He isn’t alone. Many of the 47 feel the same way, though most of us are waiting to see what becomes of Koro. If he manages to use this body to achieve annihilation, a lot will change. Power will shift.
Stage 1: The empty cities.
A million violable rooms connected by an endless network of hallways. Outside, burnt shadows drape across long lanes and freeways. There is no sky here. When we are able to imagine ourselves as unmoving and the world like a rug that is being pulled out from under our feet — that is the moment we reach the temple.
Doni doesn’t get off with us at Ueno station. She doesn’t say goodbye, and barely registers our departure. Her eyes have latched onto the flickering blue light above an advertisement for a new type of straw that plays punk rock when you suck soda through it.
I key in the code to Koro’s building while Leon grinds the last cricket between his teeth. Before we go inside he drops the empty package on the ground.
Koro lives on the fourth floor. He greets us, as always, in suit and tie — the only items of any value he owns. While the kettle fires up, I put the mackerel and turnips in his little fridge and clean mold out of his vegetable drawer. Leon sits by the window. The sound of Koro humming as he cracks tea leaves and sprinkles them into the mesh is like far-off waves raking down an outcrop of stratified shale. His body must be nearly 80 years old. I sometimes get lost staring at the wisps of white hair that feather off the knuckles of his spine.
“The rain’s let up,” Koro mutters. It hasn’t. There’s been the same steady drizzle for three weeks. “It’s good of you boys to come. The fellow yesterday, we had a nice visit. What was his name? Was it…ah, what was it? He took me to see the doctor. My count is about the same, so that’s better than worse.”
“Not even cancer will kill him,” Leon never tires of saying. “It’s decades of this we’re in for, Nic.”
Koro’s body was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer four years ago. He accepts the bare minimum treatments, but he chose a strong body, a fighting body, and there are days when it rallies against his will. You can trace the struggle right there in his medical chart. It’s complicated because he can’t just destroy himself outright. None of us can. A will cannot will its own dissolution — not permanently. Any progress only revives it; and at the same time a broken will withers the will to death. He’s put all of his hope in a whittling away, a slow subversive sabotage of his cells.
Koro asks me to pull three cups off a wooden shelf not out of his reach. “I don’t know how I’d get along without your help,” he says. “How do we know each other again?”
Like always, I tell him I’m Nicodemus, a second cousin, and that it’s an honor to visit his home.
“I got these leaves down the street at this nice little market,” Koro says. “They have the most unusual girlie magazines behind the counter.”
“I found a new blend last week. I’ll bring you some next time.”
He pats my hand. “You’re a nice boy.”
Leon makes gagging noises and says, “I’d jump if I thought the fall would kill me.”
Koro pours the water. The tea leaves tremble and spin.
“And wake up in a swamp,” I say.
“There’s a tolerable smell at least.”
By the time I began to understand the world, they said Koro had already lived a million years. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, that he’s relatively young, at least compared to those whose bones have crystalized into deep mountains. He was the oldest we could lay claim to, anyway. There were always rumors and sightings, and occasionally a pilgrimage or procession would detour along the turgid cliffs of Funka Bay and we would wait for moonlight to reveal him rising like a sheet of oily silt commandeering the rind of the sea, hunting for prey large enough to be worth his time. Only once did I see him splinter mast and cabin and hull. How we cheered him on that day.
It would be the last time. Everything changed one misty dawn the following spring after a lucky ship managed to escape. Koro chased it too close to shore, and by the time he brought them under, his frigid eye, wider than the ragged sail behind which it emerged and coral as a second moon, found itself collaborating with the eyes of a young village girl in a bright sea-green kimono whose single white ribbon suggested a gull plunging through the billow of her hair. She had been waiting on the pier for her husband’s return. Koro paused, lingering in the coincidence between them. His interception of her longing gaze, suspended in shock that could not yet drain to horror, got stuck in his throat like a barb of eternal infection.
She returned to the sea to drown herself every day thereafter. He rescued her each time, gently commanding the waves to reject her, until one day she did not come. When the next fresh corpse floated by he poured his essence into it, trading the majority of his power to reanimate and inhabit the middle-aged sailor’s body, with which he walked from village to village until he found her drowned in a tub, presumably in defiance of the impenetrable sea.
Stage 2: The temple
Whichever way we go, we eventually arrive at the temple. Sometimes we meet each other there. The temple is a conglomeration of whatever we saw, tasted, and touched throughout the day. It stakes a bastion in the war against things we haven’t remembered for years. The changing things. Things the mind still threatens to cut loose, to throw back into the chaotic bin of patterns and phonemes that extend immeasurably beneath the thoughts we think we can think.
If we are first to arrive, we wait for the others as long as we can. We wait to see how many we can gather at one time. And what will happen if all 47 are someday assembled?
While he waits, Leon plays a game with a rock. He breaks it in half and throws the right half out the window. Then he breaks the remaining half in half and throws the new half away, and so on until no halves remain. In the end he’s left either with nothing or an infinitesimal and indivisible whole.
He’s staring at the ceiling when Koro offers the cup. Leon sniffs. “Look at that,” he says. “Some loose leaves slipped through.”
Koro says, “My hands,” which tremble.
“Pour it again, old man. They get in the teeth.”
Koro obeys and Leon reinspects the cup. “Only one that time. Whirling round and round like a bloated body. Do you see it?”
Koro bows and turns, bringing the pot to me.
“Give it a rest,” I say, not that Leon ever listens.
“I had an idea that we could go down and take a walk through the park today.”
“Did you hear that, Nic?” Leon laughs. “Koro had an idea. Go to the park. Maybe take a walk. How long do you suppose it took him to conjure up that brainstorm? I’m surprised the effort didn’t deplete the last of his élan vital, eh?”
“Would you like that, Koro?” I ask.
“How’s that prana doing, anyway? The old qi,” Leon rambles on. “The last drops of your tamashii proving a bit stubborn? Just let me know how I can help.”
I set my cup down and take the pot from Koro. His arms are shaking. He thanks me and mops his brow, sits on a worn tatami for a few labored breaths.
Leon gives up and grunts at his reflection in the window. Koro can’t hear a word from more than a meter anyway.
“This place needs chairs,” Leon says.
“You don’t have to be here,” I tell him. “There’s no law. No penalty.”
The look he gives me makes it perfectly clear that he’s happy here. That he gets off on this. Like to when he’d reached over to the old woman’s empty seat and crushed the cricket’s head between finger and thumb.
“Forgive me,” says Koro. “I’m just a man, after all.”
Leon slams his cup on the windowsill. Tea splashes over the sides. “You’re not a man. You’re a god.”
Koro cups an ear. “What did he say?”
Leon makes a big show of getting up, like it’s the most inconvenient thing he’s ever had to do. He crosses the room and puts his face within an arm’s length of Koro’s. His next words rattle the glass. “You are judgement. Orphic. Calamity. Do you remember nothing?”
“Forgive me if I’ve angered—”
“Forgive me, forgive me. Scraping off scales like some– You haven’t changed at all since that slut emasculated you. Do you really think she kept coming back for you? For your hideous flaccid spirit? You made her sick. To be loved by a thing like you.”
“You know who.”
“I don’t. I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“The truth, Korokamui. I’m tired of this.”
“Stop it, Leon,” I say.
“He’s gonna hear it. And if he really wants to forget, he’ll forget. But first he’ll hear.”
I want to go smash Leon’s smug little face. But I don’t. I haven’t been that kind of monster in over a hundred years. So he says it all, and I let him. And I feel it too. I feel it as if I were Koro and he was screaming it at me. I feel myself not doing anything to stop it.
“She didn’t drown herself in that tub. We were laughing at you. All of us. Elder God, my flesh-eating asshole. Look at these hands. These are the hands that held her under. It was me. I killed her, you stupid fuck. You tumor-ridden coward. Die already, if that’s what you want, and get out of our way.”
They hover then, face to face, eye to eye, Leon desperately looking for some recognition, any sign that he broke through. But Koro gives him nothing. Just the countenance of a calm, unyielding confusion.
Leon spits on the floor and moves to rise, but something stops him.
I hear a new sound. A wet and hollow sound.
Koro’s hand has taken Leon’s wrist. Leon tries to jerk his arm away but he can’t break free.
And then in a voice like the hydrothermal vents of Eifuki, the old man says, “Let me show you what I found in her eyes.”
The tea in my cup turns to brine. The room drones like a stone cave still damp from morning tide. I don’t know how much time passes before Koro lets go. Leon gives me one wild, shuddering look, and scurries out the door.
Stage 3: The way out.
When the temple starts to vibrate we know the dream is about to end. This is the first and only movement that isn’t our own. We wait, listening to the pure, clear ringing, like wires of sound emanating from the pulsing temple’s pinnacle, flinging off colors forged thousands of years ago in the pit of the sun. There’s never any way to get inside, and it never occurs to us to go back the way we came, back into the world of the dream. We circle the walls, walking around and around until we seep into the dry earth like drops of spilled tea. We eat time and come back to the amorphous land of consciousness.
When I see Leon these days, he always seems a few pounds lighter. He shaves his head now, and greets me kindly, and tries to convince me that we’re really just men, that we were raised in this elaborate shared hallucination of myths: goblins and sprites, bakemono, yokai, ancient gods — that our memories are dim precisely because they are false. I take no more heed of him than I did when he was an asshole.
It’s even too much for Doni, who shakes her head from where we often watch him across the street, on hands and knees, drawing symbols in the dust with long pallid fingers. “He’s off the deep end, man.”
When the earthquake hits, I am just stepping off the train. I’m on my way to visit Koro alone. I feel it first in my chest and shoulders like it’s coming from above and pushing down through the atmosphere. There’s a brief sensation, a profound longing for a home I never had and can never return to. Then my knees are rattling and everywhere things are crashing to the ground, and I sense the tops of swaying skyscrapers somewhere out past the barricade. The schedule boards begin to shake. Lights flicker behind windows. When a vending machine goes down it startles us all into action and we run off the platform to get underground. I take the stairway that leads back up to the street, where it looks like a hurricane moving through without sound or sensation. Rise up is the instinct here. There is nowhere to escape the collapsing structures. If they go down, they will go down everywhere. Rise up, get to some roof somewhere, and find the highest point. A place where I would be the last thing to fall.
A clock hits the pavement, then a stoplight. I don’t know where I’m going, just letting my legs lead me, always it seems against the flow of terrified citizens scrambling for a doorframe or a desk, some with phones out, risking their lives for a little video fame. Four or five blocks and it’s still happening. Then I see him, hoisting himself on a cane in the middle of the street, steady and stationary as the city shudders and burns. Suit pressed. Windsor snug. The only disturbance is a single tuft of hair, upright as a periscope, white as a silk ribbon against the toppling black shadows beyond. I’ve never seen him outside this time of day.
I shout his name but he doesn’t hear. He doesn’t run. He’s been waiting years for her to come. His head twitches and he seems to notice me an instant before the walls go down between us and the dust cloud erupts in blinding shrapnel.
Stage 4: Awake.
When we wake from the dream, it is as if we are still waiting to fall asleep.
Fractures line the remaining walls. The road has split open where he was standing. Rubble and glass in scattered mounds like anthills. They’re trying to clear the area. Eight of us gather around Leon as he digs away debris, searching for a body he will never find. I put my hand on his shoulder. He is displacing steel beams, copper tubing, and chunks of concrete, unearthing layer upon layer of the same.
“Koro,” he whispers. “Akkorokamui.”
“Come on, Leon,” I say.
“The body,” he says, reaching toward me as if I could hand it over to him.
Even the disaster patrol cannot drag him away, and he digs deep into the earth long after dark.
Josh Wagner was living in the middle of the desert with his dog Lucyfurr in 2008 when Ape Entertainment released his graphic novel, Fiction Clemens. Since then, he’s traveled all over the planet, spinning stories out of what he finds. Along with his comics, Josh is the author of five books, including Shapes the Sunlight Takes, and Deadwind Sea, and dozens of screenplays, stage plays, poetry and short stories. In his spare moments he reads too much, gets lost in the woods, and dances until they kick him out of the bar. He blogs at www.nothinginmind.com and www.joshwagner.org
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Story illustration by Art by Greg Chapman.