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Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd
One day toward the end of April, between classes, I unzipped my pencil case and found a folded triangle of paper between the pencils.
I unfolded it to see what was inside.
“We should be friends.”
That’s all it said. Thin letters that looked like little fishbones, written in mechanical pencil.
I folded it up hastily and slid it back into my pencil case. Taking a breath, I paused a second before looking around the room as casually as possible. The same group of classmates joking around and howling, the usual break between classes. I tried to calm myself down by repeatedly straightening my textbooks and notebooks, then I sharpened a pencil, taking my time. Before long, the bell rang for third period. Chairs screeched across the floor. The teacher walked into the room and class began.
The note had to be a prank, but I had no idea why those guys would try something so subtle after all this time. I sighed in my mind, settling into the usual darkness.
Only that first note was left inside my pencil case. After that, they were taped to the inside of my desk, clinging to the underside, where my hand would easily detect them. Whenever I found a note, I got goosebumps. I scanned the classroom, careful not to get caught, but it always felt like somebody noticed my reaction. I was overtaken by a strange anxiety, at a loss for how to act.
“What were you doing yesterday, when it was raining?”
“If you could go to any country in the world, where would you go?”
Pieces of paper the size of a postcard with simple questions written on them. I always went to the bathroom to read them. I would’ve thrown them away, but unable to decide where, I ended up stuffing them behind the dark blue cover of my planner.
Nothing seemed different after the notes started.
Almost every day, Ninomiya and the others made me carry their backpacks, or kicked me like it was nothing, or whacked me on the head with their recorders, or made me run around for them. But the notes kept showing up, and the messages grew longer. They never used my name, and they were never signed, but when I took a good look at the handwriting, I started wondering if maybe it wasn’t Ninomiya or any of those guys, but someone else entirely. But I knew it was a dumb idea, and all my other thoughts crowded that particular one out of my mind, leaving me feeling even worse.
All the same, checking each morning for a new note became my little ritual. I started coming in early, when there was no one in the classroom, and it was quiet, a faint smell of oil in the air. It made me feel good to read those little letters. I never lost sight of the possibility that this might be a trap, but something in those notes made me feel safe, however briefly, even with all my distress.
At the start of May, just before vacation, I got a note saying “I want to see you. Meet me after school. I’ll be there, from five to seven.” There was a date and a simple, hand-drawn map. I could hear my heart throbbing in my ears. I read the note so many times that I could see the words before me, even when I closed my eyes. I spent the rest of the day wondering what to do, and thought of nothing else during recess, to the point where my head started to hurt and I lost my appetite. There was no doubt in my mind that when I showed up at the spot, Ninomiya and his crew would be there waiting, ready to deliver the beating of a lifetime. Seeing me show up, they’d circle around and revel in their latest game at my expense. Things were only going to get worse.
But I couldn’t just forget it.
When the day came, there was nothing I could do to settle down. The whole day in class, I kept an eye on Ninomiya and his friends as best I could, but I couldn’t detect any significant change in their behavior. Eventually one of them noticed and said, “Hey, what’re you looking at?” and whipped one of his classroom slippers at me. It smacked me in the face, then dropped to the floor. He told me to pick it up, so I did.
By the end of the day, I was so worked up that I was feeling queasy. As soon as last period was over, I ran almost all the way home. As I was running, I asked myself if I was really going, what the hell I was doing, but no matter how I thought it through I couldn’t say for sure. I had the feeling that anything I chose to do would turn out wrong.
When my mom saw me come home, she said hi from the couch where she was sitting and then turned back to the TV. I said hi back. A voice on the TV was reading off the news. It was the only sound in the house. Every room was quiet, same as always.
“I’ve been in the kitchen all day,” my mom said.
I grabbed the carton of grapefruit juice from the fridge, poured a glass, and drank it at the counter. My mom looked over and told me to drink it at the table. A few seconds later, I heard the sound of fingernails or maybe toenails being clipped.
“You mean making dinner?”
“Uh-huh. Can’t you smell it? My first pot roast, tied up with string!”
I wondered if my dad was actually coming home for once, but decided not to ask.
“You want to eat soon?”
“No. I need to go to the library for a bit. We can eat later.”
My town has a big tree-lined street that goes on for blocks and blocks.
This is the route I took to school. To get to the meeting place, you turned left exactly halfway down the street with the trees, onto a side street leading to a sandy lot that barely qualified as a park. Since I had left the house at four, there was no one at the spot when I arrived. I took the chance to catch my breath. There was a kind of bench made from tires on their sides, and a concrete whale, and between them a sandbox not much bigger than a mattress, littered with candy wrappers and plastic bags.
Among the trash, I could make out all these dry clumps of dog or cat crap. The way the sand stuck to them, they almost looked like tempura. I tried to count the individual nuggets, but new ones kept popping up. The whole sandbox was probably full of them. Then it hit me. Whoever called me here might force me to eat them. The back of my throat burned. I emptied my lungs, in an attempt to make the taste of the crap go away, but the thought alone made me sick.
The mouth of the whale was big enough for two people my size to fit inside. The paint had worn away so much you couldn’t tell what color it used to be. People had tagged its back and its head with permanent marker. The lot fell in the shadow of an old apartment complex, and the ground was almost black, like something rotting.
I had some time to kill, so I walked back to the tree-lined street. I sat down on a metal bench, let out a huge sigh and breathed in slowly. I kept thinking how I’d made a mistake coming here, but if I hadn’t, and Ninomiya and the others didn’t get their way, I’d pay for it in the end. I told myself it didn’t really matter what I did. Nothing would change.
I sighed again and looked up, feeling a little dazed. Not long ago, the trees were just a bunch of black trunks, but now their leaves were showing, and when the wind blew you could hear them sway. I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes, then looked up the street again. The world, as usual, was flat and lacking depth. My eyes took in the scenery like a postcard, but when I blinked, it slipped from view, replaced by a new scene.
A little while later, still basically unable to think, I returned to the spot. I saw someone sitting on the tires with her back to me. A girl in her school uniform. This threw me off. I looked around the lot for somebody else, but there was no sign of anyone.
I approached her cautiously. When I stopped near the mouth of the whale, she heard my footsteps and turned to face me. It was Kojima. From class. She stood up and looked me over, dropping her chin slightly. I did the same.
Kojima was short, with kind of dark skin. She never talked at school. Her shirt was always wrinkled, and her uniform looked old. She never stood up straight. She had tons of hair, and it was totally black. So thick it never fell flat. The ends stuck out in every direction. She had this dark spot under her nose, like dirt or maybe hair, and she got made fun of for it. The girls in class picked on her for being poor and dirty.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” Kojima laughed, smiling uneasily. “Were you weirded out?”
I couldn’t think of what to say, so I shook my head. For a minute both of us just stood there silently.
“Sit down,” Kojima said. I nodded and tried, but I couldn’t sit right on the tires.
“It’s not like I have something to tell you. I just thought we should talk, the two of us. Honestly, I feel like we both needed it. I guess I’ve felt that way for a long time now.”
Kojima stumbled every few words. I realized this was the first time I had heard her voice. The first time I had ever seen her face straight on. It was also the first time I had ever talked like this with a girl. My palms were moist, I was sweaty all over. I didn’t know where it was safe to look.
“I’m glad you came.”
Her voice wasn’t high or low, but it was firm, like there was something at its center, holding it together. I kept on nodding. Kojima noticed and seemed reassured.
“You know the name of this park?”
I shook my head.
“Whale Park. See? The whale’s right there. Well, I guess I’m the only one who calls it that.” She laughed. I imagined myself saying it. Whale Park. “Like I said, I’ve wanted to talk for a while. That’s why I wrote you those notes. But I didn’t think you’d really come. I’m kind of in shock right now.” She was rubbing her nose and speaking faster than before.
I nodded at this.
“I want to be friends,” she said, looking at me. “I mean, if you’re okay with that.”
I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I agreed. I felt a surge of misgivings. What did it mean for us to be friends? What was a friend supposed to do? I couldn’t bring myself to ask. Sweat dripped down my back. Kojima smiled. She looked really happy to hear my answer. She let out a breath and told me she was glad. Then she stood up from the tires and brushed off the back of her skirt with both hands. Her skirt had these huge creases crossing the lines of the pleats. The pockets of her blazer were bulging with what looked like scraps of tissue.
“Happamine.” She sounded like she was sighing, but never broke her smile as she looked down at her feet. In my head
I was, like, happy what? I wanted to ask her what she said, but I wasn’t sure of when or how to ask. I wound up saying nothing.
“Can I write you another note?”
“Yeah,” I said. My voice cracked. My face was hot.
“And give it to you?”
“Yeah.” I nodded.
“You’ll write back?”
“Yeah,” I said. This time I spoke at the right volume. What a relief.
We stood there for a while, not saying anything. I could hear crows cawing somewhere far away.
Kojima smiled and looked at me, then made a tiny wave, spun around and booked it up the side street leading to the street of trees.
She didn’t look back. Not even once. In my eyes, it looked like there were two of her, almost overlapping, getting smaller and smaller. I wasn’t sure how long you were supposed to watch someone walk away, but I watched until I couldn’t see her anymore. I could still see the square bottom of her skirt swing like something heavy, swatting the backs of her calves. Even after she had completely disappeared, the bulky action of her skirt stayed with me.
“Not so fast, Eyes.”
Class was over, but I turned around, because I had no choice, as rotten as I felt. One of Ninomiya’s friends grabbed me by the neck and dragged me back into the classroom. This happened all the time. Ninomiya was in the middle of the room, sitting on a desk. That was his style. When he noticed me, he laughed, then said “Hey buddy.” He told me to shove a stick of chalk up my nose and draw something hilarious on the blackboard with it, something that would make them shit their pants. His friends all cracked up. One of them dragged me to the blackboard and the rest of them circled around to watch.
I’d known Ninomiya since elementary school.
Even then, he was the center of attention. He was the best athlete in our grade, but he also got straight A’s, and he had a chiseled face that anybody would consider beautiful. We were all supposed to wear a navy sweater, but he wore whatever color he wanted. His hair came down to his shoulders. His older brother, three years ahead of us, was even more popular. The two of them were school celebrities. Ninomiya gave off a special aura. There was always a crowd of kids who wanted to be friends with him. When we entered middle school, he started wearing his hair tied back and making girls laugh with his jokes, but it wasn’t just the girls. When Ninomiya told a joke, everyone who heard it laughed. He was always at the top of the class, and took upper-level classes after school while the rest of us were struggling with our homework. None of us could keep up with him. Not even the teachers.
I stood there paralyzed and silent.
“You never learn, do you? We’ve been doing this how many years now?”
Ninomiya threw up his hands in disgust. His friends doubled over laughing. They couldn’t get enough of this. That’s when I saw Momose, standing with his arms crossed, a little ways behind the wall of kids. Momose had shown up in middle school. His grades were just as good as Ninomiya, and I heard they went to the same advanced after-school classes. I had never exchanged words with Momose. He was always with Ninomiya, but he never said much, and I never saw him get worked up like the rest of the kids. For reasons I didn’t understand, he watched gym class from the bleachers. While he was no match for Ninomiya, he had a face that anyone would describe as handsome, and both of them were at least four inches taller than me. Momose always had this expression that told you nothing about what he was thinking. He never bullied me directly. He just stood off to the side, crossed his arms and stared.
“We’ve got places to be,” said Ninomiya. “We’ll have to save your masterpiece for another day. Make all three pieces of chalk disappear, and you can go.”
Ninomiya told the others to stick two of the pieces of chalk up my nose. He waved the third piece in front of me like a sardine and said, “Come on, Eyes, where’s your please and thank you?” He kicked me right in the knee, with the instep of his foot.
Whether they were kicking or punching or pushing me, Ninomiya and his friends were careful not to ever leave a mark. When I got home and saw I had no bruises, I always wondered where the hell they could have learned this kind of trick.
They kicked me in the knees and thighs, but never hit the same place twice. One of them booted me in the chest, like he was checking to see how soft I was. They pushed me, threw me into a wall. I staggered and crashed into a desk. Happens all the time, I told myself. It’s nothing. It happens. I waited for it to end.
Pulling me up by my hair, they forced the chalk up my nose and made me eat the other piece. I bit it with my front teeth.
Ninomiya and his friends just watched, laughing like crazy.
Thus far I had been forced to swallow pond water, toilet water, a goldfish, and scraps of vegetables from the rabbit cage, but this was my first time eating chalk. It had no smell or taste. They yelled at me to chew faster. I closed my eyes and broke the chalk apart inside my mouth, focusing on chewing, not on what it was. I heard it crunch. The broken pieces scraped the insides of my cheeks. My job was to keep my jaw moving and to swallow, so I swallowed. Chalk coated the inside of my mouth.
I did this for all three pieces. One of them yelled, “Lemonade! Lemonade!” and brought me a plastic cup streaked with paint and full of a dirty milky liquid. Chalk dust dissolved in water. Pushed against the wall, cup pressed into my face, I drank it all. As the liquid traveled down my throat, I felt the urge to vomit, and the next thing I knew I had thrown everything up. Tears and spit dripped from my nostrils and my eyes. Dry heaving, both hands on the floor. One of the guys asked me what the hell I was doing and stepped back, but he was clapping. Cheering. They pressed my face into the mess and said, “Clean it up.” Everyone was smiling, laughing.
Extracted from Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, published by Picador on the 10th June 2021 at £14.99.
Mieko Kawakami is the author of the internationally best-selling novel, Breasts and Eggs, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and one of TIME’s Best 10 Books of 2020. Born in Osaka, Kawakami made her literary debut as a poet in 2006, and published her first novella, My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, in 2007.