Masatsugu Ono is an author, translator, and professor of literature at Rikkyo University. His works include Boat on a Choppy Bay, which won him the Mishima Yukio Prize, and A Prayer Nine Years Ago, winner of the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honor. His translations include Marie NDiaye’s Rosie Carpe, and Edouard Glissant’s Introduction to the Poetics of Diversity.
Sam Malissa holds a PhD in Japanese literature from Yale University. His translation of The End of the Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada was featured in The New York Times. Other translations include Bullet Train and Three Assassins, by Kotaro Isaka, and short fiction by Shun Medoruma, Kyohei Sakaguchi, and Hideo Furukawa.
Studio Airport is Bram Broerse and Maurits Wouters. Together with a small team of creatives, they run a design practice based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The studio has been recognized with international awards for projects such as Hart Island Project (New York), Amsterdam Art Council, and Greenpeace International.
I REMEMBER passing through one tunnel after another. But there were no lights in the tunnels, and it was nighttime, and after a while I had the feeling we were going through a single endless tunnel.
The little body seated between me and the truck driver pressed into me, the warmth calming. The noise of the truck engine seemed to grow more distant. When I opened my eyes, we were here. My son was still fast asleep, his head on my knee. The air coming from the open window was chilly, but when I brushed the hair from his forehead, I thought I felt a light film of sweat. The truck’s headlights shined on a crumbling seawall and the dark water beyond. There was agitated birdsong in the surrounding trees, signaling the dawn, and our arrival—we were now a part of it all. I think the driver said something when he took off, but I can’t remember what.
I had prepared several answers in case anyone asked why we had come here. But no one did. A small-framed old man who introduced himself as the mayor seemed like he was about to peer into my eyes, but he looked away instead, turning to a similarly wizened mutt named Tobee, as if asking for help. Tobee gazed up at us, almost looking like he felt sorry for us. There were stray cats everywhere in the village, but they just lay around in the morning sun, refusing to look our way, pretending not to notice us.
“You don’t have to say a thing. Not a thing!” said the mayor’s wife with a hearty laugh. “Everyone has their own situation. Especially people who live in a place like this.”
“It’s a nice place, though,” I said.
“You think so? There’s nothing here at all. The forest and the sea, that’s all. But I guess there’s plenty of nature for you to run around in!”
The mayor’s wife smiled at my son. Her front teeth were missing. I could see my son’s body tense up. I knew he was trying not to cry.
She reached toward him, possibly trying to pat him on the head. Her sun-browned fingers were gnarled and knotted, looking more like dried tree limbs than a human hand. Her nails were caked with grime.
That night my son woke up suddenly and shot out of bed, crying and babbling without making any sense.
“What happened? You’re okay. Mama’s here.”
But when he got like that there was nothing I could do or say to help. All I could do was wait it out, like I would the changing of the tide, or the passage of a storm. I held him close. All I remember was him shaking and muttering.
“You had a bad dream? Was it scary? You’re okay now.”
I don’t think he even heard me. He just cried harder.
There was something about the darkness of this place. Deeper than any darkness I had ever known. My son’s cries melted into the dark, losing any meaning and falling to pieces, and anything I said in that darkness had the opposite effect from what I intended, scaring him even more instead of comforting him. But it didn’t surprise me that the darkness had such power. That was the kind of place I had come to.
APART FROM MY SON’S occasional nightmares, the nights were quiet. Almost too quiet. When the winds weren’t blowing, all I could hear was the sound of the sea. The rhythm of the waves seemed to be trying to tell me something. Or maybe the sea knew its message would never reach me and what I was hearing was the echo of its frustration.
Every other living thing around me answered the sea’s endless calls in their own way. The chirping birds and buzzing insects, the hooting monkeys, and the deer and other forest creatures. Humans were the only ones who didn’t respond when the sea cried out. The sea was probably arguing with humans, pleading its case. But the humans just kept ignoring it. We pretended we couldn’t hear it, or that we couldn’t understand. In the course of all that pretending, we actually stopped being able to understand. It’s only natural that the sea would be angry. And the forest and sky only urged it on.
It could very well be that the sea was seeding my son’s sleep with nightmares. Or maybe he understood the whispers of the sea. Maybe he wasn’t being tormented, but rather was having a conversation. The scraps and fragments of sound that spilled from his mouth were as unintelligible to me as the waves. It could be that while he wandered on the borders of sleep and consciousness, my son was trying to answer the sea. But why did my little boy have to carry that burden? He never did a single thing wrong to the sea.
Except when a storm blew in, the sea always looked the same. The small cove had a harbor. We would loop around it on our walks. But there wasn’t anything at all picturesque about it. Along the water loomed a row of large, wooden storehouses. Exposed to the wind and rain, the tar on the exteriors had all but worn away. In front of the storehouses was a broad cement lot for freight trucks. The cement was webbed with cracks where weeds grew tall. It was a ghost harbor.
I heard something behind me and turned. I had been so lost in the sound of the wind blowing over the sea and the waves lashing the shore that it took me a moment to realize it was a person’s voice.
“You two make a fine pair.”
That’s what I thought I heard the mayor say. So, in return I said: “And you two are a fine pair as well.”
“Us two?” The mayor cocked his head dubiously. After a second he appeared to understand and laughed sheepishly. “How do you figure? I invite her to go for a walk, but she just complains that her back hurts, her knees hurt—heh, she never comes with me.”
“Oh, no, I’m not talking about your wife. I meant your constant companion here.”
I pointed at Tobee.
“Oh, this fella?”
Seeming to understand, Tobee pressed up against the mayor and received pats on the head. The old dog narrowed his eyes like he was squinting at the horizon. Then he started waggling his moist nose around my hip but, sensing the flash of tension in my son, turned instead to the side and toddled off toward the sea.
Ahead of Tobee were a few fishing boats. It was clear they hadn’t been used in years. Some listed in their moorings, the hulls more than half submerged. The sight reminded me of an abused dog. Chained up, unable to go anywhere. Missing clumps of fur from mange, covered in its own piss and shit, trapped amid the nauseating stench. Lying there, unmoving. Its skin-and-bones frame almost indistinguishable from the surrounding filth. But for all that, there’s no hatred in its eyes, for anything or anyone … The fishing boats bobbed gently on the water, going nowhere, waiting to sink.
“Tobee’s got it good,” I said. “He’s so free. No collar, and I’ve never seen him on a leash.”
“But is that okay? Nobody gives you any trouble about that?”
“Trouble? Nah, Tobee never bites anyone,” the mayor declared. “And even if he did, they wouldn’t feel it. Tobee’s missing a bunch of teeth, just like my old lady.”
The mayor chuckled. This seemed to startle my son, who was hiding behind my legs. I felt him press closer into me.
And have you ever been bitten by your wife? I wanted to ask, now laughing myself, but I held it in.
“Plus, if anyone in the village were to complain about it, well, you’re the mayor,” I said.
The mayor didn’t answer for a moment but instead turned to look at the sea.
“Mayor in name only. Pretty much everyone is gone. You could search the whole village looking for someone to bite, but I’m not sure you’d find anyone … right, Tobee?”
The old dog was back by his master’s side, his head at the perfect height to receive pats from the mayor’s outstretched hand.
“Just ’cause he’s not on a leash doesn’t mean he’s free,” said the mayor.
I felt something hit me hard, right between the shoulder blades.
“But he’s still doing much better than if he were abused,” I said.
The mayor looked at me, taken aback, but wouldn’t meet my eye.
“What are you talking about?”
“What you said just now about abuse.”
“Abuse? Did I say that?”
“Must have misheard.” He shrugged. “As you get older, not only does your hearing get worse, but you also seem to hear things that nobody said. And if it’s that way for people, imagine what it must be like for dogs, who have much better hearing than we do. They must pick up on silent voices from way far away. How ’bout it, Tobee?”
Tobee gave no response.
“You really are a smart doggie,” I said, then knelt down and breathed into my son’s ear: “He’s just pretending he can’t hear things.”
I whispered so softly my son might have thought it was a voice inside his head, but Tobee’s ears perked right up.
Of course the mayor didn’t hear it. He stared out toward the sea again and said, “We may seem to be free, but all of us are tied up with invisible chains.”
“You mean like being tied to a place, or blood ties? Or love and attachment?”
Why do you still live here? The question was on the tip of my tongue. But I kept it in. If I had asked the mayor that, he might’ve just asked me right back why I had come here. And if he had already figured out my situation, that was all the more reason not to let him ask about it.
I PASSED BY the mayor’s wife, and she said, “Not a very convenient place, is it!” as if calling out a greeting. True enough, there was nothing in the village that could remotely be called a store. But once a week a truck would pull into the cement lot in the harbor carrying groceries and medicine and everyday goods. The same truck I had ridden in. The groceries weren’t just fruits and vegetables that we didn’t have around here but also, ironically, fish unloaded from boats in some far-off harbor, carried here all the way through the mountains, even though we were right beside the sea.
I never saw anyone crowding around the delivery truck. I thought I might meet some of the other residents there, but I never did.
The people in the village must have been getting up very early, I thought. So one day I got up early too. I put my still-dozing son in a hand-pulled wagon and headed down to the harbor. The chill morning air smelled of weeds and damp earth. The road was pocked and rutted, and the trailer rattled along behind me. The smell of the tide grew stronger. Out of the mist appeared a dark shape. It was Tobee. The old dog greeted us and turned to lead the way. I expected his master to be waiting by the storehouses at the harbor, but there was no sign of the mayor, just the lone delivery truck, a tarp spread over the cargo bed. The driver’s side door hung wide open. After a few minutes the mayor showed up. As he approached, he kept turning back, stopping to wait for his wife, who limped along behind him. When she made it to the boxes that had been unloaded from the truck bed, the already-bent old woman bent over further and fished out a bag of sweets.
“Here, for you,” said the mayor’s wife, holding it out to me.
I looked over toward the storehouse, and through the tall weeds growing from the cracked concrete I spotted a young man in jeans and a black T-shirt. He was seated with his back against the wall, both knees pulled up to his chest, and was staring down at his phone as if the world around him didn’t exist.
The mayor’s wife noticed me looking and shook her head slightly.
“That one doesn’t even say hello.”
“Everyone’s got their own situation,” the mayor said apologetically.
“But they could at least say hello. It’s just common courtesy. It doesn’t matter what they might have going on,” she retorted. “We used to have drivers who you could talk to. They were all old men, though. Then at some point we got all these young guys who don’t even seem to understand you. Most of them look different too. Big eyes and pointy noses, faces covered in beards. Some with tattoos on their arms and necks and even their faces! I suppose that’s how everyone is across the mountains nowadays. And they used to bring more stuff. It was too much for one driver, so he’d have a helper. Usually some big guy with a dark tan. We don’t see them anymore. They looked unsavory, but they were good folk. I wonder what they’re up to now.”
“Well, it’s tough work, and young people today aren’t interested,” the mayor said, looking around.
The unused harbor. The permanently closed storehouses. The boats that will never go out to sea.
“There’s just not enough people around anymore,” said the mayor.
I wondered if that was true. Something struck me between my shoulders.
“There were lots of people at the mall,” I said.
“Mall?” The mayor looked up at me, but when our eyes met, he immediately looked away. Tobee looked up at me instead. His tongue lolled out of his mouth, and I could hear him gently panting.
I had gotten into the truck in the enormous parking lot of a shopping mall. Cars of all shapes and colors were flowing endlessly in and out. A steady stream of people headed for their cars, pushing carts loaded with purchases.
“A shopping mall, you know? This giant building with people just everywhere, inside and out. Like an anthill or a beehive.” I heard myself talking.
I was shocked by all the different kinds of people at the mall. Old people, young people, children. Some who bought whatever they wanted without a thought to the cost, and others who were extremely careful about what they spent. Families of all sorts. Couples of all sorts. Everyone with their own agenda, driven by their own competing desires. That’s why, whether or not we belonged in a place like that, I thought we’d be fine there. We could blend in among the crowd and no one would give us a second glance. But still, I didn’t feel right. Only once the truck pulled away did that heaviness lighten a bit. Relief would be an overstatement. But the swaying of the truck did seem to gently loosen the stones of anxiety and doubt I carried in my chest.
The driver looked at me uncertainly, probably because I had a child with me. For a second, a question clouded his large eyes beneath their long lashes. But he didn’t say anything; he had already decided to give us a ride. I must have been giving off a heavy feeling that kept him from asking me any questions. Or maybe he was perceptive enough to sense that he shouldn’t pry.
I don’t think we spoke to each other the whole way here. Maybe we exchanged a few words. I have no memory whatsoever of anything that was said.
“Mall?” the mayor repeated.
It was like he hadn’t heard my explanation at all, which unnerved me. Maybe I’d only had the sensation that I was speaking but actually hadn’t said a thing.
I felt an unexpected warmth near my bottom. Tobee had circled around behind me and was repeatedly pressing his snout into my hand. I played along and stroked his head. Standing there squinting blissfully, Tobee was clearly enjoying the petting, but it felt good for me too. For me, it was a gift. It calmed me down and perked me up.
I guess I got greedy. I crouched down and brought my face close to Tobee’s. He licked me all over with his warm tongue: my cheeks, my nose, my mouth. Smiles spilled from me, his gift overflowing.
“Stop it, Tobee, that tickles!” I used both hands to hold his head away. Still his tongue didn’t stop. “Cut it out! Isn’t it too salty for you?”
“That’s right!” cried the mayor. “That’s exactly right! The air’s getting saltier, isn’t it?”
The mayor’s wife responded by running her tongue all around her lips, like some flesh-eating mountain hag. I could sense my son stiffen with terror.
“Looks like a typhoon’s coming.” The mayor looked out over the sea. “And it’s gonna be a big one.”
“You don’t know how big it’s gonna be,” said his wife exasperatedly. “You’re just making that up.”
“No, no, I’m certain of it. This one’s going to be big. Really big.”
The mayor’s wife shook her head and sighed.
“Has there ever been a small one? When they come, they’re big.”
“A typhoon?” I asked, turning to the sea. Over the leaden waters the sky was blue, just a few streaks of wispy clouds. I faced back toward the village and looked at the mountains, but there wasn’t any sign of rain there either. “On such a nice day?”
The mayor nodded. His wife shook her head. I looked at Tobee, but he swiveled away, pretending he didn’t feel my eyes.
“How can you tell a typhoon is coming?”
“Years of experience, I guess. When a typhoon’s coming, the air fills up with salt.” The mayor sounded confident. “What do you think? Doesn’t the air taste different than usual? Isn’t it saltier?”
I breathed in and swished my tongue around inside my mouth.
“I can’t tell.”
But I didn’t think the mayor was just making it up. Typhoons used to come exclusively in the fall, but more recently they seemed to come in every season, barring the dead of winter, and caused major damage wherever they landed. A typhoon really could come at any time. Although, this was the first I’d heard of an oncoming typhoon making the air saltier.
“Well, you may not be able to tell. But that’s what they’ve always said in these parts. I don’t know how it is elsewhere. This is the only place I’ve ever lived. Although,” the mayor shook his head slightly, “they also say when you purify something unclean or ward off bad fortune, you should sprinkle salt, and when we get typhoons here the air feels like salt’s been sprinkled everywhere, which sometimes makes me feel like the unclean thing is us.”
He laughed self-deprecatingly, then darted a glance toward his wife. She was still eagerly snaking her tongue around her lips. Her long, colorless hair danced in the wind, whipping about her face, several strands sticking to the saliva. Then her eyes snapped wide open, as though she had been struck by something. My son grabbed me even tighter and buried his face in my chest.
“No, you’re right. This one really is gonna be a big one!”
I HAD MY DOUBTS, but there was a part of me that accepted what the mayor and his wife were saying. Since I arrived here I’d noticed that my sense of taste had shifted and that everything I put in my mouth was saltier than I expected. Possibly because all the precooked food brought by the truck was high in sodium to begin with. But whether it was curry or fried rice or ham, packaged foods that I had eaten my whole life definitely tasted different. At first I thought I was just imagining it, but it was real.
“I wonder if it’s because we’re by the sea,” I said one day to the mayor’s wife.
She gave me a doubtful look.
She came by our place fairly often. Anytime my son saw her coming, he would hide in the back room and refuse to come out. But he never did this when the mayor came by—not because he was comfortable with the mayor, but because Tobee was there with him. On this particular day, he clung to me but didn’t run away, because when the mayor’s wife appeared at our kitchen door, she had Tobee with her for a change. The dog was lying next to the hedge in our back garden. His eyes were closed but his attention was on us, his ears, his nose, his whole body focused on us. This old mutt, with his mixed patches of mustard-colored and soot-black fur, always gave us his attention, and that made me glad.
“You know, like how they say butter from cows raised by the sea is saltier,” I said. For some reason I pictured the lovable, thoughtful old dog in a wide-open grazing pasture over a steep, seaside cliff, dashing about among all the cows.
“You’re saying that things grown by the sea are saltier?” asked the mayor’s wife.
“Yes. I mean I feel like that might be true.”
“I’d never even considered that. When a typhoon’s coming, the air is saltier than usual, but I never noticed anything about our food on a normal day. We do always eat the same things, I guess. We’ve never been anywhere else, so we don’t know how it is in other places.” She cocked her head uncertainly. “What about the eggplants we grew that I brought you the other day? Were they salty?”
“Oh, oh, the, uh,” I mumbled. “My son doesn’t eat eggplant.”
“It was so salty he couldn’t eat it? Sorry about that.”
“No, that’s not it—he’s a very picky eater. Some things he just doesn’t like.” My throat felt tight, and it was hard to get the words out.
“Well, that’s too bad. But how can he know he doesn’t like it if he doesn’t try it? If he tried it, he’d see!”
“That’s right,” I said politely.
“And what did you think?”
“Sorry? About what?”
Behind the mayor’s wife, Tobee suddenly got to his feet. He must have sensed that I was looking at something. Like he could sniff out my eyeline. He followed my gaze with his nose and trundled over, sitting down exactly where I had been staring.
“What did you think about the eggplants?” the mayor’s wife pressed. “Did you think they were salty?”
“The eggplant? Hmm, let me see. Yes, I think maybe they were,” I fibbed.
“Maybe it’s like you say, things grown around here are saltier,” she said.
I bobbed my head in agreement.
“Are you alright, dear? You look upset.” The mayor’s wife followed my gaze and turned around.
Tobee sat at the edge of a field, his inverted question mark of a tail swishing at the flies.
“Something wrong with Tobee?” she asked.
“Ah, no … I was just thinking he’s such a smart dog.”
“Really? You think so? He’s calmed down a lot, but when he was young, he was a real handful, always bringing home pigeons and weasels he’d caught, always tussling with monkeys.”
She kept her eyes on the dog. Or maybe she was staring out at the field that stretched over Tobee’s shoulder.
“They used to have a beautiful vegetable garden here,” said the mayor’s wife, a far-off look in her eye.
“Really? You’d never know,” I replied, looking at the grasses swaying in the damp wind. “There was really a garden here?”
“Sure was,” the mayor’s wife said sadly. “Hey, why don’t you grow your own vegetables?”
“Me? I’ve never done it before.”
A few moments passed before she said anything. The birds and insects sounded extremely loud.
“It’s alright. You don’t need to grow vegetables. You two won’t be here forever, after all.”
The thin veil of lulling sound woven by the busy vibration of insect wings was suddenly torn open. A shrill noise rang out, like someone cackling with glee. But none of us were laughing. I wasn’t imagining it either—my son jumped, then clung onto me.
“Scared ya, did it?” The mayor’s wife sounded amused.
“What was that?” I asked.
“It was a monkey!” she said.
“It sounded pretty close.”
“Haven’t you met any monkeys since you’ve been here?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Sure, you have. Yep, you definitely have.” There was a hint of a smile playing around her lips. “Oh, I know you’ve seen one.”
“No, I really haven’t,” I insisted.
“Yes, you have! Why, you see him every day,” said the mayor’s wife.
“If I had, I would know it. I mean, it’s a monkey. I’ve never seen one here.”
“You’ve seen one,” she said confidently. “My old man.”
My son tensed up even more. But I burst out laughing.
“He’s got a face like an ape, doesn’t he?” Her own face bloomed into an ear-to-ear smile, yellowed and gap-toothed, like a giant flower missing several petals. Unable to contain my laughter, I shook with mirth as my son pressed his face into my backside.
Tobee didn’t stir until the mayor’s wife turned to head home. He waited another minute and then got up to follow her. My son and I watched him go.
Where he had been sitting was a heap of vegetables, which his body had concealed. Cucumbers, carrots, onions, tomatoes, pumpkins. And eggplants. Some of it was from the delivery truck and had since spoiled, but the rest the mayor and his wife had brought by. I felt guilty about throwing them out. But I had been warned not to eat anything grown around here. And also not to drink the well water. We didn’t know exactly where the water source was, so we only used the water from the tap for baths and laundry, and for drinking we stuck to the bottled water that came on the truck. I suppose the mayor and his wife never noticed. Or maybe they just didn’t pay attention to the things people from the outside said, people who aren’t from here and don’t know anything about this place. In the warm weather, the vegetables went bad almost immediately, attracting fruit flies and other insects. I was planning on digging a hole behind the house and burying them, but I never got around to it and instead just piled them out there. Thanks to Tobee, the mayor’s wife never saw it.
I stroked my son’s head and said, “How did Tobee get so smart, huh? He’s amazing.”
I felt him nodding.
TOBEE’S INTELLIGENCE astonished me. It wasn’t the kind of intelligence you’d measure by loyalty to a master. If he was simply loyal, he wouldn’t have hidden the vegetables from the mayor’s wife. Instead, he prioritized kindness to us. Thanks to him, the mayor and his wife never found out that I had just tossed away the vegetables they lovingly cultivated and went out of their way to bring over to us. The matter was settled, and no one was left feeling bad.
On the other hand, I had the sense that the mayor and his wife knew everything. It was possible that they only pretended not to notice and that they enlisted Tobee for their charade. Their stage was this village, which was for some reason devoid of residents. One day a woman from the outside showed up with her child in tow. Tobee’s role was to judiciously comport himself so that all the uncomfortable truths this woman’s existence revealed would not offend the kindly old couple living out their days in this place. Tobee, the great actor. The hero dog. If everything he did was a performance, it made his intelligence all the more impressive.
It often felt like Tobee was keeping an eye on us, whether that was his own initiative or by orders of the mayor and his wife. Or perhaps it was something much larger, that you might call “fate”—I could never say for certain.
We went for walks around the village. Most times we’d walk along the prefectural road that ran right by our house down to the harbor, wander around there, and then make our way back to the house. But if in our explorations we happened upon something that looked like a walking path, we’d follow it—off the prefectural route that formed the spine of the village, deeper in among the riot of green. The prefectural route and other paved roads still held out against the tall grasses that pressed in on either side, somehow maintaining their function as roads, but most of the narrow paths that used to run between the houses and gardens had been swallowed up by the waves of greenery, leaving behind no trace. There weren’t many houses still standing. Years of typhoons, together with the passage of time, had wiped out the physical remnants of many structures, and you could only tell where there had once been a house by the shapes in the overgrown grass. As we walked, we’d hear a sound in the grass, different from the wind blowing through it: a mysterious rustling. It made my spine freeze. I was overwhelmed by the ceaseless growth of plant life filling up the space around us, and by the sheer vitality of the countless unseen creatures who lived among it. I had the dizzying feeling that the sky had come undone and collapsed down on top of us, while the earth—which gives birth to and raises and reabsorbs all life, in all its infinite permutations, together as one—was crumbling beneath our feet, plunging us into a bottomless black pit. I squeezed my son’s hand imploringly. Together we tumbled into a place where neither he nor I existed as ourselves, a place where we were still one, indivisible. I wanted to fall. We were headed there together, someplace where life had no beginning and no end, where there was no being and no nothingness.
Then one day, as we continued our endless descent, we came across a lone small house. It was the day after a heavy rain. We were picking our way between grasses that had been flattened by the wind, still damp and glistening, when it appeared, like a lovely white flower. I was surprised that the village had such a stylish house. It was made of concrete or stone, a gleaming white cube. When we got closer, I could see that the walls weren’t the immaculate white I had thought but were webbed with a complex pattern of lines, dark streaks of soil, and marks where grasses had been removed. The house pulled us in toward it. The grass welcomed our approach, rustling invitingly and parting before us to reveal a path. Little grasshoppers flickered about like sparks. The air clung to our skin like wet clothing. I felt a burst of pain deep in my nose. A salty taste filled my mouth, slightly metallic. Unnerved, I looked at my son. He had his face pressed into my side. I couldn’t see whether or not his nose was bleeding. I looked up at the sky and saw it filling with gray, swollen clouds. Something flashed in the wall of the house. The window. It was dark inside. I couldn’t see anything. I took one more step. In that instant, thunder split the air. Not just once—the thunder was chasing its lost light, and it rumbled again and again, making the sky quake. Or no—it wasn’t thunder. My son looked up at me, and in his eyes, which look just like mine, was something like relief.
Tobee was barking. I had never heard him bark so forcefully. He wasn’t trying to intimidate us, though. It wasn’t a threat. It was a warning.
But I wanted to keep going. I wanted to look into the window, and if I could, I wanted to go inside the house. I think my son did too. I know he did. We were holding hands and I didn’t feel him trying to stop me. I didn’t feel anything. Tobee kept barking. Or maybe it really was thunder. The air was heavy with moisture, and although each hammering bark split it open, the air would close right back up, growing thicker each time, smothering the sound. The atmosphere was getting saltier, and the sky was darkening fast. Spatters of rain started to fall. Lightning illuminated the scene for an instant. In that moment I saw my reflection in the windowpane. Not our reflection. My son was gone. The thunder finally found its light, and like a dog dashing toward its beloved master, it unleashed its joy. The crash shook the earth and everything living on it, right down to the core. That’s when I saw. On the other side of the windowpane that only reflected me, in the dim room inside, were a mother and her son. They were playing together, stacking blocks. She was sitting him on her lap and reading him a picture book. He was holding out his little hand, and she was passing him a cup of something to drink. They were happy doing anything. They were happy doing nothing. When he looked up at her, his face shone with as much joy as hers did when she looked at him, or maybe even more. But there in that house, what the boy needed from his mother was more than her love could provide. Far more.
Tobee was howling. The sky howled along with him. The land trembled. The air filled with the taste of blood. The blood wouldn’t stop coming. I wailed, my throat exploding. Don’t go in there! Don’t go in there! Tobee cried, and the raging wind bent the trees, flattened the grass, held me back from where I was going. If that hadn’t happened, if Tobee hadn’t been there, I know I would have gone into the house. It started raining in earnest. The rain stung my eyes and I couldn’t keep them open. All I could do was go back the way I had come.
JUST AS THE MAYOR and his wife had predicted, a giant typhoon came. We went over to the mayor’s place before the sun went down and ended up spending the night. The storm shutters rattled and the pillars of the house creaked in the fearsome gusts of wind and rain as I told the two of them about the white house. The room was dark. The lights were turned off in anticipation of a power outage, the candles already lit. The mayor had a large flashlight within arm’s reach. Tobee normally stayed outside, but he was inside with us. The mayor sat cross-legged, and the dog lay right next to him. The rise and fall of his breathing was gentle and calm, as was the movement of the mayor’s hand as he stroked the dog’s fur.
“You did very well, Tobee,” the mayor said, looking down at the dog. Tobee’s ears twitched in acknowledgment.
“That white house,” began the mayor’s wife, who was sitting on Tobee’s other side, “a woman and her young son used to live there.”
“Like us?” I asked. Or maybe I only meant to say it. Or maybe the raging wind outside masked it so that they couldn’t hear. Whatever the case, the mayor’s wife didn’t answer my question.
“How far back was that? Do you remember?” she asked.
The mayor shook his head and looked at Tobee for help. Tobee glanced up at the mayor, twitching his ears again as if to say he had only imagined hearing the question, then closed his eyes once more. His belly rose and fell contentedly.
“That boy must have been two or three years old,” said the mayor’s wife.
“When I first saw them, I certainly was surprised,” said the mayor.
“I know,” his wife replied. “We hadn’t seen any children around here for so long. I was worried about them. They never showed up for the delivery truck. I wonder what they lived off of.”
“Must have grown their own food,” the mayor said.
“You know that people from the outside don’t do well with the soil here,” his wife chided. “Isn’t that right, Tobee?”
Tobee raised his head and made a point of looking at the mayor’s wife. He knew perfectly well who was in charge. The mayor’s expression darkened a bit, like his feelings were hurt.
Even when no one was speaking, there was no silence. Anything resembling quiet was immediately devoured by the wild wind and rain shaking the house, bone and marrow and all.
“When I found out they were living here, I couldn’t help but worry about them. I brought them food from time to time,” said the mayor’s wife.
“She’s very kind, even though she doesn’t look it,” the mayor explained.
“What do you mean, I don’t look it? How exactly do I look?” she asked.
“No, no, I didn’t—” The mayor looked down at Tobee, but the dog ignored him.
There was a shift in the winds whipping the house. They had been blowing as one, coming from the same direction, but now they came howling in from all sides. Their formation scattered; they thrashed around like they had lost their way. But rather than slackening, each wind only blew harder, venting its despair. The pillars of the house groaned, and although the windows were covered by storm shutters, the glass made a terrifying sound of a sort I had never heard before. It was too late to cover my ears. The same force that had caused that sound, whatever it was, had already penetrated my body, rattling my entire frame.
“We’ll be blown to pieces!” I hugged my son tight, so tight I worried I might break him.
“That’s right,” said the mayor. His voice was mournful. At some point the candles went out, and the sounds around us were so loud that I couldn’t tell if it was the mayor speaking or if it was sadness itself. “It was blown apart.”
“The wind was just ferocious,” said another voice.
“What does that mean?” asked yet another voice. Probably mine. “What was blown apart?”
“That house. The house where the mother and her son lived.”
“What are you saying? You mean that white house? Blown apart? What does that mean? It was standing. It didn’t look damaged at all. What do you mean?”
The darkness itself was howling, and I was rattled from the inside out, so I’m not sure if I was actually able to speak. I had never heard anything like that howling. It was terrifying, not so much because it destroyed whatever it touched, but rather because it was screaming out its own voice, bursting its membranes, shredding its own guts—a howl of self-destruction. I realized I had been pressing my hands to my ears for some time. But I could still hear voices.
“The wind that time might have been worse than this typhoon.”
“We should have made them come stay with us.”
“No use saying that now,” answered the other voice. It sounded like the mayor’s wife, but it also sounded like me. It felt like the darkness and the gale had scrambled everything. I felt like I was inside that voice, that mind, while at the same time feeling terribly far away.
“You should have forced them to come.”
“We both told them again and again and again. We knew what kind of typhoon was coming. The air was so salty, you set foot outside and you could barely breathe. It had never been that bad before. My mouth tasted like it was full of blood. I thought maybe I had bitten my lip or gotten a cut inside my mouth. We told that young woman. ‘Come over to our place,’ we said. But she didn’t listen. That was her fate.”
Was it me who repeated that?
“Maybe she wanted to die.” The voice was full of sorrow. Though it might have just been Tobee gently huffing through his nose.
“She must have. She came to a place like this, a place everyone wanted to forget, now well and truly forgotten by everyone. She must have been ready to die. And this place understood that.”
“Maybe this place called forth that monstrous typhoon.”
“It was the right thing for this place. It wants to be forgotten. It just wants to be left alone. That woman and her son, they’re not from here, not like us, and what if they left and told people about this place? People would start to remember—”
“The winds were terrible.”
“They were. The roof, the columns, the walls, everything blown to smithereens and carried away…”
The actual wind raging outside layered together with the even more frightful winds of memory. It was no use covering my ears. The storm shutters convulsed wildly. The dressers and cabinets tipped over, the columns snapped, the walls collapsed—all things departed from their appointed place. My bottom lifted off the floor. My body floated. I couldn’t hold on any longer. Something flashed in the darkness—Tobee’s wet nose. Threading between the thunderous crashing was a sad sound, barely audible, and just as I detected it, there was another sound, a wrenching shriek. I had never heard that scream before, but I knew it very well.
THE TRUCK DRIVER looked familiar. He was silent at first, his hand on the wheel. On either side of the cracked road, the densely packed trees stretched out their limbs, heavy with green, as if to block our way. The branches clawed at the truck, scraping the windshield, especially when we went around curves. Then I started to hear the driver’s voice amid the clatter of the branches. When I came to the village, I don’t remember speaking to the driver. I was trying my best to not even look at him, so I couldn’t be sure this was the same person. He started telling me his story, though I hadn’t asked.
“My dad’s a foreigner. That’s why I look like I do. When I was young everyone used to stare at me. I hated how everyone just assumed that I was good at sports and dancing. I wasn’t all that fast, and I have no rhythm. When I would talk, I sounded like anybody else and people were always shocked. Growing up it was just my mom and me. I don’t really know my father. My mother’s from a place like this, super rural, but when my dad left, she took me back to her hometown. It was the kind of place where no one had ever seen a foreigner before, and people had all kinds of things to say about my mom, behind her back and to her face. Must have been tough for her. Nobody ever said anything like that to me. But I could tell what they were thinking.”
Why are you telling me this? I wanted to ask him. But I kept quiet and listened. The driver didn’t have any kind of accent. The road was in bad condition and the truck jostled up and down, but it didn’t seem to bother him.
“It’s right by the sea, back there. The air must have a lot of salt in it. When I’m there I don’t stay for long, but still my truck starts rusting instantly. Every time I come back from there, the first thing I do is wash my truck. Just douse it with water and wash it clean. Oh, ha–” The driver laughed dryly. “Of course, salt is what you use to wash away a curse. And they say this place is cursed. But salt’s for purifying, right? Maybe I shouldn’t be washing away all that salt.”
Do you believe in all that? I might have asked.
“Sure, I believe,” said the driver, his eyes never veering from the road. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be driving this truck. You deliver there, you get paid more. A bonus because it’s dangerous. The guys call it the curse bonus.”
“And you’re not scared?” I blurted. What would I say if he asked me the same thing? But he was either kind and didn’t think that way, or perceptive and knew not to ask me that, or both.
“Scared? I mean, nothing’s happened. People live there.”
“Only those two,” I said.
“True, but they seem to be doing well. I’ve been on this route for four years and the two of them haven’t changed at all. They look like they’re in great shape for their age. Not that I know how old they are. People say that the soil and water around here are cursed, but those two drink the water, and they grow vegetables there and eat ’em. But they seem fine. And what about me? I’ve been going there for four years. Nothing wrong whatsoever. I’m feeling great, as you can see! For now, anyway. I’m good as long as I’m earning. Times like this, with the economy the way it is, it’s hard to find good-paying jobs. I’m lucky. And I’m not married, I don’t have kids. I don’t have anything I can’t afford to lose.”
“What about your mother?” I almost asked. Maybe I did ask. Or maybe not. “If something happened to you, what would she do?”
He was already talking about it, whether I asked or not.
“And my mom died, she’s long gone. I was never much of a good son. And she was a really good mom. Although I don’t know if she’d be happy seeing what I’m doing now—”
“Yes, she’d be happy,” I cut him off. “Of course she’d be happy.” I was surprised at the forcefulness of my own voice. “The happiest thing for a mother is when her child’s doing well. The child’s happiness is the mother’s happiness.”
The driver gave me a sidelong glance. There was confusion and concern in it. He took one hand off the wheel, picked up the box of tissues on the seat between us, and held it out to me.
“Here you go.”
I pulled several out, rubbed around my eyes and wiped my nose.
The groan of the engine was intermittently drowned out by the thick tree branches battering the windshield from either side. Don’t go, don’t go, they said, and if I had turned to look back, I know I would have seen them clutching at the air, chasing me, desperate and forlorn.
“Was it you who gave me a ride when I came here?”
The driver didn’t answer. Sharp curves kept coming. After the typhoon, the road was littered with fallen rocks and snapped-off branches. But it was odd—even with such violent winds, and that much rain, there was nothing so substantial that we couldn’t get past it, no toppled trees or rockslides gouged out of the hills. If it really didn’t want to let me go, the going wouldn’t have been so easy. Nothing, no one, was stopping me. But there in the sky—shining so blue and pure, as though it had been washed clean by the typhoon—was the voice I heard humming, Don’t go! Don’t go! The driver didn’t appear to notice. I wished that he was the same man who brought me here. I wished it deeply. If it was that man, somehow everything would be okay. All he had to do was ask, and I would know it was him.
“Did you leave the boy with those two?”
All he had to do was ask.
I had my answer prepared. I thought I had it prepared. But there must be something about me that makes people hesitate to ask me anything. Even a question as important as this.
Read More Stories from Vol. 4: Shifting Landscapes
Our fourth print volume navigates this moment of great change, loss, and possibility, offering a multisensory ode to the transformations unfolding all around us. Spanning 275 colorful pages, this issue is our most photographic to date, bringing to life stories that bear witness to the Earth’s changing face.
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