The Heaviness of All Things by Joseph Sale

I hold the scrawny thing to my chest, cradling it like a babe, its paws resting on my collar bones, its fur smelling like pine, its eyes the same colour as Kinko Bay, which stretches behind us, a black mirror scarred with moonlight, until it reaches the grey tower of Mount Sakurajima. In the state of cold fear our hearts beat at the same pace, knocking against each other, its shivering ribs rubbing over my own.

The fox’s eyes have found mine the way that two magnets lock. I feel, in a way that is outside of any sensory apparatus defined by scientific means, its desire for me to look, its desire to show me something in the mercurial glow of its silver gaze, what I need to know.

There is danger close at hand, a shadow following us, the shrill wails of police cars echoing from the city of Kagoshima above like strange voices calling ships into the dark bay. But I must know what it wants to show me. It has hypnotized me, its eyes melting into silver globes that reveal, in their newfound translucence, something familiar.

The night is cold like the fingers of shinigami death-gods. The waters recite tanku as they lap at the sand.

But I am not here, anymore, in Kinko Bay. I travel through the eyes of the fox, until I am another me in a hospital in Kagoshima, holding Ayako’s hand. Her eyes lock on mine, an echo of the fox’s imploration lingering there. How can this be? I have come to the past. How can the past remind of the future?

In the eyes of the Kitsune, all things are possible, I guess.

Ayako’s breaths are the waves rolling in, long, drawn, and bitter as salt, bringing with them dead things dredged from deep places.

She is telling me that she loves me, asking that I hold vigil for her soul, that I remember her always. Her fingers grip tightly for one so close to death. My hands turn purple in hers as though with allergic reaction.

We have been on bad terms for some time. We have had fights. We stopped having sex. I wonder if it is this last thing that has caused the cancer in her uterus – it is a long-held belief that the principal cause is lack of love. I cannot stop myself from thinking I have wanted the relationship to end for some time, that I no longer look on her face and see yuanfen, that she is my one.

I can see she is fighting to redeem this, to re-tell the story. She was always the storyteller of the two of us.

Her breaths grow more shallow, no longer waves rolling in, merely ripples in a pond that will eventually become still, stagnate, turn dark with corruption.

What right do I have to deny her? It’s her story.

I lean in close to Ayako, kiss her on her forehead, feeling the unnatural warmth on my lips, realising this will be the last time my lips touch anything of her.

“I love you,” I lie to her.

She closes her eyes as if to dream.

***

Four weeks after Ayako died I wake in Senshi Studios, my computer-screen a blinding white light against my eyes, tiredness like cancerous growths hanging on my bones. I am one who is dreaming, stepping through life in murky phases, periods of great darkness lit by moments of unpredictable waking. One-hundred lines of newly written code stare at me from the screen as though challenging me to ascertain their origin. I do not remember writing any of it. I check it, and, satisfied, go out for a cigarette break.

***

“You’re late,” Kaho says, regarding me over the top of her square sunglasses like a pretentious professor. Kaho acts like my superior all the time when we both know we’re at the same level and pay-band. “Don’t you want to smoke with me, anymore?”

I am too tired to respond to her so instead I retrieve a cigarette from my jacket (I do not remember putting it there this morning – I do not remember this morning at all) and place it against my lips, light it, feel the warmth of it and am reminded of something else. A stab in my lung. I choke, splutter, take the cigarette out, rub my eyelids, try again, breathing slower this time, dragging the smoke deep. A shiver passes through my body and I nod to myself, grateful for this small relief.

“You look kuso,” Kaho says. Like shit. She stares out of the corner of her eye, side on, like a crocodile. The likeness is fitting. A few years before Ayako, me and Kaho tried a few things, and she almost fucking ate me alive. Everyone gets curious about their work colleagues. Dating her was, I soon learned, like plunging into a septic tank. The layers got denser, thicker, more toxic the further down you went. The last time we had sex, she asked me to hit her. Hard, she said, punch me fucking hard. When I wouldn’t do it, she took my head in both her hands, palms on each temple, and rolled her eyes into the back of her head. Then she squeezed. For just a moment, I felt like she was going to pop my skull, like she could do it easily. I got off the bed, went for the door pulling my pants back on. Wait, Shinji. I was only messing around. I made the fateful mistake of looking back. Behind her slight, pale form on the bed, there was a shadow, sprawled across the wall. It was huge and, I thought, reptilian. I put it down to how freaked I was.

The next day at work, Kaho acted like nothing had happened, like there had never been a relationship. It was fine by me.

I turn to her, pulling again on the cigarette, hungry for it. Her dyed blonde hair is cut short, her skin is pale where she has been avoiding the sun to look more western, which is the fashion at the moment. She is wearing a ripped up leather jacket and has a purse slung over one arm.

No, I think. I look tired. You look like shit.

I take a moment to think of an appropriate response.

“At least I don’t look like a baishunpu.” A whore.

Her face contorts, wrinkles appearing at her eyes, aging her thirty years. She opens her mouth and I expect a torrent, then she chuckles, her features smoothing out again, her eyes turning glassy and leaving me.

“You’re so rude to me.”

“I’m in a bad mood.”

“Because of Ayako?”

“What do you fucking think?”

She finishes her cigarette, and stomps it out with a stilettoed shoe; she marches back inside.

Darkness comes again.

***

When it lifts I am in a bar, a line of emptied sake cups arranged like a trophy display. I am holding my entire body weight up by my elbows, which rest on the bar. I appear to be unable to shift my centre of gravity; I am an artfully arranged statue, heavy with liquid, the taste of rice filling up my mouth.

My bladder is so full it is like a tumour. My prostate feels engorged to the point of sexual stimulation. I must piss. But to do this I must find a way out of my zen-like arrangement.

Slowly, I push with my elbows.

Careful now.

The bar stool legs lift from the floor.

“Kurae!”

I fall backwards, watching the line of sake cups recede in slow motion, their unblemished surfaces like a row of faces, a line of pale ancestors shining out of a past that does not exist because it is more like a future, an unmei. Though featureless, their disappointment shines like irradiated light and I scream, hitting the floor and vomiting a line of crystalline sake, like a drowned man resuscitated on Okinawa’s shores. I do not know what is happening to me, but I know something is.

“Ayako!”

I cry out to her, ask her to stop haunting me, to stop pulling at my heart with fishhook nails and whispering into my ear that she knows I’m a liar.

“Time to go, Shinji.”

The barkeep picks me up and escorts me out, with tenderness my own father never showed me. I bow and call him -sama.

I piss myself and then walk home.

***

The lights in my flat do not turn on – another power outage – but the room is lit by the reflections off Kinko Bay. Its caliginous surface is ink-dark, as though a leviathanic octopus has spurted all its fear into the ocean. The moonlight is silver and causes white blades to dance across the rippling water.

The heaviness has not left me. It is like lead dragging me towards the mattress. I fear that should I lie down I will never wake again and then realise that is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it would be relief.

I leave my flat and head through streets the colour of tears towards the bay. I reach the cliff and cannot be burdened with finding the path so scrabble down its sheer surface, fingers ripping on the stones, laughing as I cause a miniature landslide, cursing as the dust sprays into my eyes. I reach the bottom, miraculously unharmed save for cuts and bruises. I stand on sand and stare out at darkness.

Yes, I shiver. And there is a word on my lips, a word I once thought terrible but now calls to me like my mother’s face, like the cherry blossom tree she tended in her yard, like the smell of her dark hair in which I used to bury my face, like all the things I have lost that are my fault.

The word is seppuku.

I move towards the water, footprints in the sand as fleeting as thoughts, soon to be washed away by the great tide. Ahead, the mountain Sakurajima looms like a great god in whose deathly waters I shall make final obeisance.

Bathe and be abluted, my child.

Yes!

I run towards the water but my footsteps slow as I see that something is already in there, is coming out, towards me, its bedraggled form and pointy ears confounding me. What type of fish has pointy ears? It emerges, a sliver of silver which the foam clings to, as though unwilling to relinquish it.

Its eyes are brighter than anything I’ve seen.

The fox stands guard of the waters.

We remain there like two dancers about to go about our mesmeric work, waiting for the music to begin, the ush of the tide the opening notes that will soon blossom in something full enough to move to.

The fox takes a step, then another, barely leaving impressions in the sand. I am transfixed by it – stunned and paralytic – it is as though I have been pierced by something venomous.

It moves to my feet and sits there, doglike. It licks my trouser leg, makes a face as though the taste is sour, then brushes its sopping tail against my shoes like a paintbrush.

“Now I’m wet, weirdo.”

I know this is a wild creature, that I should not let it so close, that it is probably host to many diseases.

But every time I consider leaving it those eyes return, like lapis lazuli, something ancient, beautiful and barely understood.

I kneel and stroke the fox’s wet fur, it closes its eyes, its lipless mouth hitches up in a smile.

“You’re a nice fox, aren’t you?”

And though it is scraggly and dripping I can see how thick and proud its fur is, coarse and pubic under my fingers. I ruffle its ears and its tongue pokes out, a pink post-it note, delightfully bright.

“Do you want to play?”

The fox nods.

I search the sand for a stick, find one and throw it. The fox sprints after it, moving so fast it is barely a shadow across the sand, for a moment frightening me: I am scared the fox will vanish with its speed and I will never behold its eyes again. But it returns, with the stick, tail swishing from side to side.

“What should I call you?”

Because I have already decided I will take it home.

The eyes tell me the answer.

“Kitsune.”

***

Kitsune walks to Senshi Studios with me the next day, trotting down the street alongside me just as if he were a well-trained labrador. I cannot stop him no matter what instructions I bark. But he does not bother anyone and a few young students stop and tell me it’s ‘super-cool’ I have a fox as a pet, as though I’m a hipster. I tell them he has been my pet for less than a day. One brave girl strokes Kitsune’s chin and he rewards her with that pink tongue poking from between his lips.

Outside Senshi Studios, I tell Kitsune to wait like a good boy but he looks at the open window then at me (as if to say: you moron) and leaps through it in a single bound. I rush inside and find Kitsune waiting at my desk. My boss is stroking the space between his ears like a masseuse.

“My apologies, Kotori-san, he just keeps following me!”

My boss looks up, smiling.

“Nice pet, Shinji,” he says. He walks off whistling. Kitsune looks at me. His pink tongue slides very, very slowly out of his mouth.

My heart breaks and I laugh.

***

Kaho is the first person who does not seem to like Kitsune and it bothers me. She looks down at it in the same way she looks down at everyone: as though they have gone rotten in the sun. She lets rings of smoke drift from her eternally puckered lips, hand on hip as if to say: This is nothing. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe.

“Where’d you find it, Shinji? Is it rabid?”

“Does it look rabid?”

“No but it could still be dangerous.”

“Does he look dangerous?”

I am playing with Kitsune’s ears and he is winking at me, flapping his paint-dipped tail all over the place.

“Why do you always answer a question with a question, Shinji?”

“Because you ask stupid questions.”

“Hmmp.”

She takes a series of drags on the cigarette and the way she moves reminds me of a boxer taking out stress on a punchbag. One, one-two.

“You’re always rude to me. I could kill you, you know.”

“Didn’t you already try?”

Kaho laughs.

“Are you still crying about that?”

“You don’t think it was weird?”

Kaho shrugs.

“People like different things. What did Ayako like?”

“Shut up.”

My voice drops to a whisper, a tone that has the same connotations of a snake’s hiss. Kaho regards me unfazed, her eyes drift lazily up and down, assessment. On the way behind her, her shadow seems to be moving of its own accord. I blink, shake myself. The shadow is still there, seething.

It’s moments like this that give me cause to think.

I know Kaho is older than she looks, because she let slip she was working in Kobe when the earthquake hit in 1995. That means she’s at least fifteen years my senior, and sometimes I wonder what those lost years, the years I don’t know about before she moved to Kagoshima, are filled with. There are places in Japan where children can become all sorts of things.

“Sorry,” she says, matter-of-factly, turning away.

I sigh.

“Do you really want to know where I found him?”

For once I feel like I have her complete attention. Her whole body is rigid, even the smoke of her cigarette seems stilled.

“Yes.”

“He came out of the sea.”

I expect her to laugh, but she doesn’t. She puts the cigarette slowly to her lips and her eyes turn dark, waters shadowed with a shape moving beneath.

“Interesting,” Kaho says.

“That’s it? ‘Interesting’. Not, ‘You’re bullshitting, Shinji’. Or, ‘Wow, that’s crazy, really’?”

Kaho shrugs, finishes her cigarette and goes back inside.

Kistune thumps his tail and looks like he wants to tell me a secret.

***

Kotori-san calls me into his office and I expect to get fired. Instead, he asks me to sit, puts a warm hand on shoulder and tells me my ancestors would be proud of how I have not allowed Ayako’s death to stop me from doing excellent work. He offers me a promotion and a pay rise.

“We’re going to be recruiting an additional programmer. You’ll lead Kaho and the new person as Chief Programmer for Senshi Studios.”

“I am very grateful, Kotori-san, but surely Kaho will consider this a slight?”

Kotori shrugs.

“Kaho must learn what she is good for.”

I am shaking as I leave his office.

Kitsune winks at me.

***

At the bar, Kitsune is doing tricks. He chases his tail, stands on his hind legs, opens beer bottles on chairs with a deft twist of the head.

“Wonder Fox!” someone shouts.

I watch Kitsune from the barstool, perched like a peregrine, smiling and basking in his glory. Everyone else is dancing around with Kitsune. He has turned the bar into a playground. Even the barkeep is laughing. He pats me on the shoulder either forgetting or forgiving the incident of a few nights ago.

“Nice one, Shinji.”

As I turn to thank him I see a few other irregulars not joining in on the fun. They are big guys with wild hair and dark suits. I squint to try and see tattoos. Veins stand out in their hands.

“What’re you looking at?”

I am unaware, due to a distorted sense of time passing caused by the magic of sake, how long I have been staring. One of the men is eyeballing me. His hair is long. He looks like a beardless imitation of an American biker.

I give him a thumbs up and return to watching Kitsune do backflips, a crowd cheering him on and clapping, as though they are at the circus.

***

When it is time to leave the bar, the sea-air strikes my nostrils like snuff. Kitsune scampers alongside me with a wet tap tap tap on the dewed asphalt, occasionally glancing up as if to check that I am ok. I am starting to believe, really believe, that Kitsune is not a fox, that he lives up to his namesake: a god of luck.

Why did he choose me? Was that luck too? Or was there no choice at all, just a chance encounter? Will he move on one day and leave me? Gods surely have more important designs than programmers down on their luck.

I am so wrapped in thoughts I do not hear the footsteps until they are right behind me. I pivot on primal instinct and see the man with long hair from the bar bearing down on me. His friends have come with him, three of them. The long-haired one carries a crowbar.

Anticipating the blossom of pain, the splintering impact of metal on bone, I raise my hands, as though against blinding light.

But the next blink of an eye, Kitsune is sailing through the air, leaping like a jaguar, a predatory cat five times bigger than he actually is. His jaws unfurl, like pearls forming in the black gums of his mouth, slaver trailing like a kite’s tail and find their mark in the fleshy gap between chin and chest. The long haired man screams, grapples with the snarling, trembling fox that champs and champs on his throat.

When the long haired man pulls Kitsune away he puts his hands to his neck, trying to hold it all in and I catch a glimpse of the red mess of torn edges and tubing. The others are already running. The long haired man coughs, blood jettisons from his lips like a curse given form. He lopes away, like a half-drugged deer.

Kitsune looks at me, licking bloody lips. I kneel down and run my hands through his silver fur and take his head into my chest and he lets me do all this without a hint of uncertainty or doubt.

“Thank you, Kitsune.”

Then I turn my eyes to the stars which watch like sacred eyes.

“Thank you.”

***

As I climb into bed, Kitsune does not escape through the window to wander the night as he normally does but leaps onto the mattress with me and makes himself a nest out of the covers.

He lays down, chin on forepaws, making a perfect circle, his vibrant tail a secondary spiral within his body’s outer circle. The moonlight flooding through the window paints him celestial hues.

I smile, pat Kitsune’s head, lie down and close my eyes. I am fully clothed but too tired to care.

At some point in the night, I wake at the sound of footsteps. Kitsune is staring out of the window. When I follow his eyes I see a shadow below us on the street. I cannot make out a face or form, just sense the presence, sense their intent, a radio tower emitting poisonous waves.

“Nothing we can do about it, Kitsune.”

Kitsune lies down but does not close his eyes. They gleam in the dark like the ghosts of jewels.

When I try to close mine, the black recesses of the room seem to take on shapes and definitions not their own.

***

I wake at the gunshot, the door-lock bursting and my first thought is: They have come for Kitsune.

I sit up, open the window: we are on the second storey, Kitsune slips through onto the roof of a lower floor and I crawl out with him. I am unable to stop myself from looking behind into the dark room. The door flies open and the shadow from the street enters; I know it is the same shadow because I can feel it.

Kitsune leaps from the roof to the street below. I clamber down the drainpipe which creaks, the plastic warping between my fingers like the flesh of a slippery eel.

I make it but the shadow follows and a shot cracks out through the night like the first breaking rumbles of Sakurajima, filling me with dread. The shot has gone wide but I feel as though it went through me, as though my insides have been slushed by some tremendous impact.

Kitsune screeches and I come to myself, start running. I glance over my shoulder and see the shadow landing nimbly, then moving over the smooth roads like a panther, gaining on us. Another gunshot makes the air a shivering body around me. Ravens take flight, huge enough to block out stars, squawking and jubilant, because they know the sound of death when they hear it.

We sprint down roads and turn whenever possible to avoid the gunfire, mortar and concrete shattering around us.

A police car bursts from a road, forming a barricade in front of us; a cop gets out and shouts for us to stop moving, drawing a gun, intermittent flashes of red light reminding me of my own faltering heartbeat.

I have not time to explain I am not the shooter, no time to run for help, because the cop goes down the next second, not seeing the shadow behind me.

We dart into an alleyway and keep running.

We reach the cliff and there is no time for the path, I scoop up Kitsune and begin scrabbling down the uneven surface, using only one hand, the other holding Kitsune against me. My breaths make high, wheezing noises and my eyes feel like they will pop from their sockets they are so wide.

Cursing, sputtering, falling, I make it with Kitsune to the bottom of the cliff, hands ripped up, flaps of skin hanging off, trousers and shirt torn like a homeless wanderer’s.

***

I hold the scrawny thing to my chest, cradling it like a babe, its paws resting on my collar bones, its fur smelling like pine, its eyes the same colour as Kinko Bay, which stretches behind us, a black mirror scarred with moonlight, until it reaches the grey tower of Mount Sakurajima. In the state of cold fear our hearts beat at the same pace, knocking against each other, its shivering ribs rubbing over my own.

The fox’s eyes have found mine the way that two magnets lock and I am unable to pull away. I feel, in a way that is outside of any sensory apparatus defined by scientific means, its desire for me to look, its desire to show me something in the mercurial glow of its silver gaze, what I need to know.

And I know now.

The thing it wishes to show me. The thing it has already shown me.

That I must let it go.

Rocks tumble, like alarming hail. There is a noise and a sharp breath. I see the shadow stumbling down the slope. For the first time its movements are imperfect, human. The gun glints as it catches the refracted light of the Bay.

I look at the water, from whence Kitsune came and swallow.

“Okay,” I say, more for myself than Kitsune. “Okay.”

I rise and begin running for the water, footfalls clumsy in the sand, as though I am reeling from an explosion. Despite feeling like a sack of bones, Kitsune’s weight is incredible, as though at this crucial moment he has swelled. Perhaps the reality is that I do not want to let him go, that every part of my mind tells me not to take him to the water where I will lose him forever, that I have only just begun to discover who I am. He is a crucifix, a heaviness, the heaviness of guilt after Ayako died in my arms, the heaviness of all things.

And I must let it go.

There are two gunshots. The first goes wide, but the second hits my shoulder blade, separating the bone, puncturing a lung and sending a thick column of blood up through my throat and out of my mouth. The bullet breaks a rib and exits, hitting the ocean water like a skimming stone. I tumble, Kitsune leaping from my grasp.

“Go, go, go, Kitsune! Go! Go! Ii kagen ni shiro! Ii kagen ni shiro!”

I am weeping, the salt of my tears meeting the salt of the sea like the myth of creation reversed. Kitsune slips into the water like a dolphin and begins to paddle, pointed ears poking above the water, bushy tail bobbing, bright eyes staring moonward as he vanishes in the shadow of the mountain.

“Go, Kitsune. GO!”

He is gone already, but I keep reciting these words, as though I must say them to believe it.

A terrible vacuum follows, a gulf opening in my heart like a sinkhole, but it is only a moment, because it becomes something else: lightness, as though my body has been transmuted into air. The weight is gone, at last.

“Thank you,” I blubber, a child again, newborn. “Thank you.”

Hard hands roll me onto my back. The shadow removes its mask and it is Kaho.

The sirens wail from the clifftops and a red light appears, as though Kagoshima is on fire. Silhouettes paint themselves against the red backdrop and I see searchlights. The cops are here, but they have not yet found the two black-clad figures down by the ocean waters.

“Why the hell’d you let it go?” Kaho snarls. “You had a god in your hands and you let it go!”

“Because I loved the god,” I say.

Kaho’s face contorts, aging again, but this time beyond life itself so that I see the sunken hollows of sockets, the skull behind her phony lips. She puts the gun to my head and pulls the trigger, scattering my brain into the water. She flees and is swallowed by nothingness.

My body is dragged into the ocean.

Sakurajima receives its offering with silent munificence.

***

I see all of this in the eyes of the Kitsune as I crouch in the shaded undergrowth beneath the cliff overlooking Kinko Bay, waiting for the shadow. It is not the only path. The other path is that I give Kaho what she wants and walk away. This path is not visible in the eyes and so I contemplate a moment, kissing Kitsune on the head as I did with Ayako, imagining Kaho lead the fox away, living ever-after with this weight.

There is only one choice.

I hold Kitsune close to me and run towards the darkening waters.

 

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Joseph Sale

Joseph Sale is a novelist, writing coach, and student of Japanese. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. Since, he has authored Seven Dark Stars, Across the Bitter Sea, Orifice, The Meaning of Dark, Nekyia and more.

He writes for GameSpew, and has an enduring love of video-games. His short fiction has appeared most recently in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allen Poet and Storgy Magazine. In 2017 he was nominated for The Guardian’s “Not The Booker” prize.

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