In the Palace of the Dragon King

 

Whirlpool

Hiromi Kawakami (b. 1958) is a highly regarded Japanese novelist. She was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1994 for Hebi o fumu (Tread on a snake). To date, her only novel available in English isManazuru, translated by Michael Emmerich (Counterpoint, 2010).

“In the Palace of the Dragon King” stands as a sort of crystallized version of Kawakami’s fantasy world. The main figure, Ito, is quite mysterious and defies any commonsensical understanding of a grandmother. Despite her promiscuity, she remains oddly innocent and cute. She seems to blur the borders between male and female, grandmother and girl, human and ghost. At the same time, the relationship between Ito and her great-granddaughter, the narrator, turns the usual interactions between elders and younger people on their head. Things are so marvelously off-kilter and topsy-turvy in this story that it is somewhat difficult to know what to make of it; at the very least, the motif of metamorphosis—common in Kawakami’s works, which are sometimes described as Kafkaesque—is obvious.

Kawakami seems to have taken her inspiration from a famous legend called Urashima Taro, as the original title of the story, “Ryūgū” (“the palace of the dragon king”), suggests. In this story, a fisherman, Urashima, rescues a turtle from some children who are bullying it on a beach. The turtle thanks Urashima by taking him to the palace of the dragon king, deep under the sea. He meets a princess, Otohime, and enjoys himself in the palace for three days. When he decides to go home, Otohime presents him with a box as a souvenir, telling him not to open it. Back on land, he discovers that his village has disappeared. In despair, he opens the box, which releases a puff of white smoke, turning him into an old man. He later learns that three hundred years have passed since he left.

If “In the Palace” was inspired by this well-known legend, its connection to the story is still by no means clear. It is, indeed, oblique, even opaque. This, perhaps, is part of what makes it so oddly, charmingly powerful: like Ito, it knows how to hold our attention even when it speaks in a language we do not entirely understand.

Takeshi Kimoto & Michael Emmerich

I’ve met my great-grandmother, Ito.

*

At fourteen, after dreaming of the Buddha, Ito acquired a second voice.

                                                      Night after night the sable, the clouds of white.
                                                      Day by day foxes badgers and the clouds of black.

A few times each day, Ito would burst into unintelligible ravings. Her body would shake, and her gaze would freeze.

Word spread and she acquired followers. Two of the most fervent, a man and a woman, came to live in her house. Ito had a father and mother, brothers and sisters, but this couple drove a wedge between her and them, forced her to seclude herself in a storage room at the eastern end of the house. They smashed a hole in the storage room wall without even asking so that they could pray to the sun as it rose.

Winter approached and it grew cold in the storage room. Dew formed on Ito’s futon, and on the futons the man and woman used. In order to warm themselves, the couple had intercourse, over and over again. Ito did not know the meaning of their cries.

One night when Ito was urinating into the chamber pot, a hand caressed her buttocks. Ito wasn’t allowed to leave the room after sunset, even to go to the bathroom. The woman had given her a stern warning. “You’ll lose your powers!” she barked. Recently, Ito had begun to rave less often. “It’s because you go out after sunset,” the woman told her. “Great Ito, the night air causes your powers to disperse.”

Holed up in the storage room, Ito could only lie on her futon and sleep. She slept very lightly, making frequent use of the chamber pot. After she did her business, she would take a gulp of water from the jug by her pillow. She would go back to sleep, then get up and use the chamber pot once again. Beside the sleeping Ito, the couple had intercourse.

It was the woman who had stroked Ito’s buttocks. “Great Ito, Great Ito,”she said, “won’t you come join us?” So Ito hurriedly wiped her crotch with a scrap of toilet paper and climbed under the covers with the couple, as the woman had suggested. Ito came to know for the first time what it meant to be united with another. She climbed in between the man and the woman, and all night long the three mingled. There was no knowing where the border lay between herself and the man, herself and the woman.

*

“Hey, great-grandmother.”

When I called Ito, she opened her eyes.

Ito was very small when she came to visit. She only came up as high as my knees. She had the clear skin of a fourteen-year-old; her hair was long and straight. Ito was lovely. It was only natural that a girl like her would attract followers when she began raving as she did, no matter how bizarre her pronouncements.

“Awfully ordinary, aren’t you?” Ito practically spat these words out. “Who would have guessed you’re descended from me?”

I chuckled at this. Ito’s face burned with rage.

“What are you sniggling at, you ordinary woman!”

There was a confrontational edge in Ito’s voice, but she could be as confrontational as she liked; she only came up to my knees, so her words had absolutely no effect. I squatted down and ran my hand down the length of her hair.

As soon as I began brushing her hair, Ito stretched out her neck the way a cat does when you scratch its chin. She shut her eyes again, parting her lips just a crack.

“The power came back to me.”

The knee-high Ito went on with her story.

*

Once Ito began mingling with the man and the woman, her powers, which had started to fade, regained their former strength. She had found what her body needed, no doubt. Except that, once she got used to it, mingling as a threesome with the man and the woman wasn’t as involved as she had first thought. It was simply a matter of varying the force and angle of the movement, in and out, of climbing on top or underneath, of lying on her side or holding herself up diagonally.

Little by little Ito grew bored, and distanced herself from the couple. She had more followers now—more than the house could contain. Frightened by her ravings, her family had moved to a distant town. Ito had never been one of them.

*

“They were all such ordinary creatures,” Ito said at my knees.

Evidently she had a profound disgust for all things ordinary. I chuckled once more, just as I had before. Ito responded with a menacing hiss.

*

Ito mingled with her followers as often as was necessary to maintain unity. She would summon the party in question to her chamber, invite her or him in under the covers. Most of the faithful reverently complied, but there were also some who refused.

                  The runners are cicadas in the earth.
                  Those who sink are the ears of the horse.

Ito raved in her usual unintelligible fashion at each believer who tried to turn her down. Struck with awe at the sound of her voice, the believer would acquiesce. Once the believer heard her voice, it was impossible to refuse. Ito mingled with all the followers who came to live in her house. Men and women both, it made no difference.

Once a great wind blew up and took the roof off Ito’s house. A driving rain beat down upon Ito and her followers. In the roofless storage room at the eastern end of the building, Ito whirled around and around, her skirt billowing up into the air. “Why are you spinning around like that, Great Teacher?” one of the followers asked. Ito struck the believer who had questioned her. Even then she was spinning. She left the room and spun down the hall, kicked off the corner of the wooden stoop in the entryway, smashed the sliding door, and then, little drops of blood flying out of cuts on her arms and cheeks, went out through the gate. Even as Ito left, she went on spinning around and around and around.

She spun on through the tempest until she arrived at a village near the sea.

*

“Give me a cutlet,” said Ito suddenly.

“A cutlet?”

“I’ve been hankering for a cutlet.”

This was completely out of the blue. It crossed my mind that she might be raving again, but then on the other hand, she might just want a cutlet. Thinking I could go out and buy one already fried at a shop that sold such things, I got my wallet and was heading for the door when Ito called to me.

“I don’t want it unless it’s freshly fried.”

Ito pointed a finger at the fridge. The finger’s tiny tip was capped with a pale pink nail. She looked like a well-crafted wind-up doll. There could be a key in her back. I felt her back. There was no key there, of course, just her shoulder blades.

I had pork cutlets in the fridge. Three of them, stacked one on top of the other in the meat and fish drawer. Could Ito see them in there? I opened the door of the fridge, took out the meat, and sliced away the tendons. As I was beating the eggs, Ito turned to look up at me and said, “Let me do some, too.”

I put my hands under Ito’s armpits and hoisted her up. She weighed about as much as a largish cat. Ito spun the long cooking chopsticks around and around in tight circles, stirring the yolks into the whites. She tensed her shoulders, whisking with all her might.

When Ito started to feel heavy and I lowered her back down to the floor, she hissed at me. It was a menacing hiss. Her face reminded me of some sly, uncanny creature—a fox, perhaps, or a badger. I seemed to have stumbled upon something very odd indeed.

I had often heard stories about Ito at funerals and memorial services and other such family gatherings. These stories were different from those people told about the latest doings of this or that relative. They sounded more like stories from a repertoire of old tales told around the hearth. My great-grandmother is my mother’s mother’s mother. She’s not a particularly distant relative. And yet I found it impossible to believe that she was actually linked to me. My mother and my mother’s mother were both “ordinary women.”

I slipped the breaded slices of pork into the hot oil. Ito’s gaze tracked every movement I made. “Mmm, it’s spluttering,” she muttered, standing on tiptoe. She was so diminutive that even when she stood on tiptoe she couldn’t see into the frying pan. Ito poked my thigh. Once again I had to put my hands under her armpits and hoist her up. She peered intently at the tiny bubbles rising to the surface of the oil. I took the pieces of meat out and let them dry for a moment on a wire rack. Ito reached out her hand and touched the freshly fried meat.

“Yah!” she cried, pulling back her finger. “It’s hot!”

“Of course it’s hot!” I told her.

The next moment, Ito burst out sobbing.

“I didn’t know,” she wailed, sobbing.

“How can you not know?”

“I lived in ignorance and I died in ignorance,” Ito wailed, sobbing.

I put her back down. Then, after straining the oil with a paper filter, I sat down on the kitchen floor. I pulled Ito onto my lap, clasped her tightly to my chest, and gave her back a gentle pat. She didn’t stop sobbing, though, even then, and so I went on rubbing her back, over and over and over. Her small back felt very hot. She wrapped her arms around me, squeezed me very tight. She kept crying for a long time.

*

In the village by the sea, Ito begged. She had grown weary of always being surrounded by followers, of their incessant fawning. They called her their Great Teacher, but it wasn’t as though she espoused any particular teaching. The followers had gathered for their own reasons, drawn by the senseless words that erupted all on their own from her mouth.

Ito went into a fisherman’s hut, bundled herself in a torn net, and slept. A little before noon, she went out to the wharf and scavenged for fish that were left from the morning’s catch. She scrambled around among the cats, the stray dogs, and the crows, snatching up each little fish that caught her eye, then dashing on.

No fish were brought in when the ocean was rough; on those days, Ito ate seaweed she had gathered earlier, or stole a few of the fish hung out to dry beneath the eaves of the houses along the shore where the fishermen lived. If the storm didn’t abate for some time, she would make the rounds of the houses in the village, begging at the back doors. Each time Ito came around, the villagers would pile leftover rice on a plate and set it out on the ground for her. The doors of the villagers’ houses never opened for stray dogs, for the cats that were always hanging around, or when a beggar other than Ito appeared. But every door opened for Ito. No sooner had she tapped on a door than it would spring open and a plate would emerge, thrust out in great haste by the occupant. The plate was left on the ground. The door would slam shut again right away, before Ito even had a chance to say thank you. She ate the food right there. She never took it back to the hut, she just crouched down over the plate where it sat on the ground and wolfed down the food like an animal, using only her tongue and teeth. 

The moment Ito finished eating, the back door would burst open and a pale white hand would stretch out and snatch up the plate. This happened so quickly it seemed the occupants of the house must have been spying on her. She never saw the body attached to the white hand, only the hand that darted out. The same thing happened at every house in the village. Sometimes Ito found herself wondering if the residents of this village were human. But when she went out to the wharf, she found suntanned fishermen cleaning fish, and women who seemed to be the fishermen’s wives weaving nets and giving their husbands a hand with the cleaning. The sort of scene one expects to see in any fishing village.

One day, Ito was just beginning to scavenge for fish at the wharf, the way she always did, when she realized that something was wrong. Her stomach had been hurting since morning, and she was much less agile than usual. She would have preferred to take it easy in the hut, but it looked as though a storm might blow up. She wanted to gather up some extra fish in case it became impossible for the boats to sail. But because her movements were so listless, things didn’t go as well as usual. Normally she darted about more quickly than the crows and the stray dogs, but today she could only move as fast as the fishermen working on the shore. If she could only move as fast as a person, they would see what she was doing. The crows, the stray dogs, and the people would all see exactly what she was doing. They might catch her and hurl her into the ocean.

She snatched up a little fish and was about to scamper off when she ran smack into a fisherman. The force of the collision sent her reeling, and she toppled over, exposing her naked body to the fisherman’s eyes. The man placed a foot on Ito, pinning her where she lay. She prepared herself, knowing she was going to be crushed. But the fisherman simply walked right over her, without missing a beat, and sauntered off toward the middle of the wharf, where the other fishermen were standing, as if nothing had happened.

The fisherman had not seen Ito. His eyes hadn’t registered her presence at all. She took hold of one of the larger fish that had been sorted and piled in different wooden crates, but still no one noticed her. Several times she darted back and forth in plain sight of a second fisherman who was standing alongside the crates, puffing on a cigarette, but his eyes didn’t respond in any way to her movements, no matter how obtrusive they were. He just went on staring at the fish, staring at the women. No one on the wharf could see her.

                  Time after time the timber mountains aligned with the stars the stars.
                  Fickle the fickle rain that fills and overfills the heights.

For the first time in many a month, a spate of unintelligible words gushed forth from Ito’s mouth. The women and men on the wharf shuddered, lifting their eyes to the heavens. “There’s a terrible rain coming, I’d say. Maybe a wind, as well.” A number of them spoke in unison. Ito took three or four more fish from the crates, then slowly made her way back to the hut. There she curled up in her net and drifted into a deep, deep sleep.

A short while later a terrible rain began to fall and a terrible wind blew up. “Oto is angry,” the villagers said, one to the other. “This is Oto’s anger.” One among their number had failed to set out a plate when the Great Oto came to the back door. Yes, this must have been what stirred up Oto’s anger, they said to one another.

Ito slept on and on. Beside her, the three or four fish she had taken began to rot, and as time past they kept rotting, more and more. Only after the fish had completely rotted away and the bugs had come and swarmed over them, stripping away the meat, leaving nothing but the bones behind—only then did Ito awake.

She went to beg at the back doors of the houses, but saw no sign of anyone. While Ito had lain sleeping, utterly lost to the world, the village had been abandoned.

*

“Cutlets sure are good, aren’t they?” Ito said as she ate.

I had cut the meat into small pieces and arranged them on a plate; now Ito was consuming them one by one. I watched as the pieces of meat disappeared between her lips, which were brilliantly red even though she wore no lipstick.

She polished off the first cutlet in hardly any time, then rapidly disposed of the second. I wondered if she would be able to manage a third, but she got it down with no problem.

“Nothing but fish by the ocean, you know. Sentarō was always telling me how much he craved a good cutlet.”

Sentarō? Who was he? I could try asking Ito, but I doubted she would tell me. I dredged my memory, dredged deeper, and finally managed to recall the man to whom the name had belonged.
Sentarō had been united with Ito for a time in the bond of matrimony. The two of them had established a household, though it’s no longer clear precisely when that was. But right after they moved in together, Sentarō had died. They had no children together. Ito had a number of children. They were all girls; no one knows who their fathers were.

“Your grandmother, now,” said Ito, poking the pile of grated cabbage that I had given her with her chopsticks, “she was my third child.”

Ito didn’t seem very fond of cabbage. She kept shoving it around on her plate, making a mess. The rice cooker beeped, indicating that the rice was ready. Shocked by the noise, Ito wrapped her arms around her head. “It’s just the rice,” I told her. She removed her arms from her head; then, still perched lightly on her chair, she allowed her face to relax into a smile. She was really adorable when she smiled. Just like a child.

Ito stopped smiling, then continued speaking. “She was one stubborn girl, let me tell you.” Without the smile, it was hard to tell how old she was. Her face looked as if it could have been fourteen years old, or a hundred.

“Who?”

“Your grandmother.”

Now she had a hundred-year-old face, through and through. She sat there like a little windup doll, strewing cabbage across her plate, peering intently at me. I know everything about you, kid—everything, from start to finish. That was the sort of look she had on her face then, as she sat there, peering at me.

I served some rice and set the bowl in front of her. She sniffed at it.

“Smells fishy.”

“Fishy?”

“Yum, nice and fishy,” said Ito as she began shoveling rice into her mouth. I seemed to have stumbled upon something very odd indeed. Ito made me give her more and more rice, bowl after bowl. She sprinkled salt over the glistening surface of each new bowlful, then set about shoveling the rice into her little body without so much as a pause.

*

Now that there was no one left in the village by the sea, Ito moved on. The night before she departed, she gave birth to her first child. Perhaps this pregnancy had been the cause of her upset stomach. The baby must have grown in her womb as she lay sleeping for so long in the fisherman’s hut. She came to term before she even knew she was pregnant, and the time came for the baby to be born.

The birth was very easy. Ito realized that she was different, not only from the members of her first family, but from everyone else in the world as well. The baby could walk from the time she was born, and she sang songs. Her songs closely resembled the unintelligible phrases that Ito spoke as she raved.

                  Children at the root.
                  Peony of the root.

The child sang, weaving her words into melodies. Ito thought the girl was creepy. By then Ito herself was about as creepy as a person can be, and yet the child disturbed her. She pitied the girl for this. She pitied her, it was true, but even more than that, she found her creepy. Deciding to abandon the child, she quickened her pace. But when she walked faster, the child sped up, too. The girl had only just started walking, but she followed close behind Ito, moving every bit as fast.
They went on like that until they reached the next village. When Ito went to beg at the back of one of the houses there, the door opened just a crack, and a plate of leftover rice emerged. Ito ravenously gobbled down the food. She crouched low over the plate, shielding it with her entire body, so that the child wouldn’t be able to butt in from the side and pilfer bits of food. The child sang her song in a voice full of sadness.

                  Children at the root.
                  Peony of the root.

As if in response to her singing, the back door of the house opened again, just a crack, and someone called out from inside, “Great Oto, Great Oto. Pray don’t be angry with us.”

“Hey, I’m the Great Oto! That’s me, not this baby!” shouted Ito, lifting her face from the plate. The girl sang still louder. “Great Oto, Great Oto! Please, please, we beg you! Please don’t be angry with us!” Grains of rice rained down, tossed out from just inside the door. Ito raced about gathering the grains as they dropped to the ground. She moved quickly to keep her child from getting them.

The girl continued to sing. “Oh, Great Oto, Great Oto!” The voice calling out from inside the house was louder now, too. Then, just like that, the girl slipped in through the slightly open door, and the moment she was inside the door slammed shut. An instant before it closed, though, a long white arm reached out and grabbed the plate that Ito had licked clean. The plate and the child were sucked simultaneously into the house.

The child never returned. The house she entered thrived, generation after generation. The family installed a big shrine in the house where they worshiped Ito’s child. Every day the inhabitants of the house made offerings of fresh fish and almost fully hulled rice, and they would all cry out, “Great Oto, Great Hime, Great Oto.”

Ito kept making the rounds of the houses to beg at the back doors after the child left, just as she had before. The doors opened immediately, and the inhabitants would thrust out plates piled high with more leftover rice than Ito could possibly eat. At some houses, she was given newly boiled rice or strips of beef rather than leftovers. Ito grew tired of this and soon left the village. On a few occasions she had walked boldly in through the front door, not even bothering to go around back, and mingled with the inhabitants; perhaps as a result, she was now pregnant again. Her stomach hurt, but she didn’t let this bother her. She left the village, climbed steep paths. As she walked, she came to term and the child was born.

*

“I know all about you,” said Ito suddenly. She waved the palm of her hand, like a small red leaf in autumn, back and forth in front of my nose.

“What do you know about me?”

“I know where you’ve come from, and where you’re going. I know it all.”

Knowing where I’d come from was one thing, but Ito said she knew where I was going, too. This peculiar little woman, who came up no higher than my knees, claimed to know everything about me.

“Well, then,” I replied, leaning forward so that my body loomed enormously over Ito’s, engulfing her in my shadow, “if you know all that, let’s hear it.”

Ito had a fourteen-year-old face. Her skin glowed, her lips were red, her long hair glistened. There was nothing dark or hidden in this face of hers.

“You’re born, you eat, you know, you mate, you forget, you sleep, you die,” said Ito in a single breath.

“That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

“Of course it’s obvious! You’re nothing but an ordinary woman, after all.”

“Hardly worth bothering to say all that, if you ask me.”

“Ah, but I never knew anything myself.” 

“I lived in ignorance and I died in ignorance,” Ito murmured, ever so quietly, to herself. “I didn’t know anything, so I didn’t forget anything. I lived without forgetting, I died without forgetting,” murmured Ito, quietly, ever so quietly, to herself.

I seemed to have stumbled upon something very odd indeed. I really didn’t know what to make of it. Ito burst out sobbing again, just as she had before. She sobbed and sobbed, and her face looked just like a child’s. I felt sorry her when she cried. I scooped her up in my arms and hugged her; I wiped away her tears; I stood her between my knees and warmed her body with mine. Her small body was icy cold. She sobbed and sobbed, and her eyes grew puffy.

*

One after another, new children were born.

Ito kept all her children tied to her waist with string so that they wouldn’t be sucked into one of the houses through the back door. She tied the string in a loop around each child’s waist, then tied the other end in a loop around her own. She looked like someone walking a whole bunch of dogs. The children grew very fast. In two or three years they were taller than Ito, and eventually they would untie the strings around their waists, all by themselves, and then, one by one, they would leave for distant parts.

Only Ito’s third child, my grandmother, stayed with Ito. She grew more slowly than the others. After three years she was still only half as tall as Ito.

                  Oh to stand in a garden of red flowers.
                  Oh to stand in a garden of blue flowers.

Whenever Ito’s third daughter sang these words, the back doors of the houses would open. Sometimes one of the inhabitants would peek out. Sometimes one of the inhabitants would call out to them. The weather is foul, take care as you go. Once, they had even been invited in through the back door, into one of the houses. It was a stout woman who asked them in. She made Ito and her third daughter strip off their rags in a corner of the kitchen; she filled a bucket with hot water and scrubbed their bodies clean. She brought out clean clothes and told the two of them to put them on.
A long time had passed since Ito first set out on her peregrinations, and she hadn’t been in a kitchen for ages. It felt nice. Her third daughter seemed to belong there. The room was steamy, and there was a delicious smell in the air.

 Ito leapt at the stout woman and strangled her. The woman went down very easily. Ito and her third daughter each took hold of one of the woman’s feet, dragged her outside, and hurled her corpse into the ocean. That night the ocean grew rough, it raged wildly, but Ito and her third daughter didn’t let this bother them. They stayed on in the woman’s house.

When morning broke, the ocean was so calm it was as though the previous night’s storm had never happened. Ito became the woman she had killed, became the wife of the woman’s husband, and lived for many years in that house.

*

“Murderer!” I shouted. I pried Ito away from me and threw her to the floor. It was easy to get her off me. She flopped down like a doll.

I seemed to have stumbled upon something very odd indeed. I wished she would hurry up and disappear. She stared at me. Her eyes were like marbles. I glared back at her, but her face remained expressionless.

“It’s nothing to make a big fuss about.”

“Yes it is!”

“Who knows, maybe it never really happened.”

That was true. The very fact that Ito had shown up in this way was hardly what one would call ordinary. But she had shown up in this way. I didn’t want to be sitting here with someone who even thought about strangling people, whether or not it was true.

“Disappear!” I barked.

“Pshaw.”

“Disappear!”

“My, my, you grate on my nerves.”

“Please, I’m begging you. Disappear.”

“Whatever are you saying? My blood runs in your veins.”

The moment Ito said these words, my heart gave a tremendous thump. I felt as if I was on the verge of remembering something. Only I couldn’t remember what it was.

“The problem with you,” said Ito, speaking in a very frosty tone, “is that you forget the things you’ve done.”

“Like what?”

“The things you’ve done, the things you haven’t done. It’s all the same.”

“In what way are those the same?”

“If you’ve considered doing something, you might as well have done it. It’s basically the same thing, you see.”

“No it isn’t.”

Even as I rejected her words, I found myself remembering all the terrible things I had thought of doing in the past. But I hadn’t done those things. Or had I? An extreme uneasiness welled up within me. I seemed to have stumbled upon something very odd indeed. Something odd had gazed inside me, seen what was there. Ito looked just like a child, she had the beautiful face of a fourteen-year-old girl.

She stared at me.

*

The house in which Ito and her third daughter settled prospered. People began to speak of “the Mansion.” Then the husband died, and Ito’s third daughter married and went off to live with her new family. Ito grew old and began to forget herself with some frequency. She would corner people as they passed and say, “Tell me, who am I? Where did I come from?”

“Ms. Oto?” the person she had cornered would reply. “What’s come over you? It won’t do for you to forget yourself, you know.”

“So I’m Oto? Is that really my name?” Ito would ask.

And everyone would nod, affirming that it was.

Mistress Oto’s household continues to thrive, they all agreed, and Mistress Oto herself is as youthful as she always was.

Ito began roaming, this way and that, outside the Mansion. She would wander up to the passersby with a smile playing on her lips, her face delicately tinged with pink, her skin almost entirely free from wrinkles, and she would try to persuade them to mingle with her. She went up to men and women both, a merry smile dancing on her lips, and said to them, “Come, let’s do it, you and I.”

Ms. Oto from the Mansion was crazy. Everyone was talking about it. Each time Ito went up to some passerby and suggested, in that mild way of hers, “Come, let’s do it, you and I,” the passerby would pity her. When she tried to wrap her arms around the passerby, she or he would gently push her arms away. No one bore her any ill will.

Some time after her wanderings became a regular occurrence, a man named Kii drifted in from somewhere—it wasn’t clear from where—and took up residence in the guardhouse by the gate to the Mansion. Back in the days when Ito was still sane, there had been a guard, a cook, a gardener, chambermaids, and all sorts of other people forever coming and going, but when her madness set in they gradually began to withdraw, one after the other, until not a single one of them remained. There was no longer anyone around to challenge Kii and keep him from settling in the guardhouse.
As soon as Ito noticed that there was someone living in the guardhouse, she went and propositioned him. “Come,” she murmured, “let’s do it, you and I.” Kii was willing, and so the two of them spent the whole night mingling, time after time after time.

Ito’s relationship with Kii lasted one year. Evening after evening, night after night, they had intercourse on the futon in the guardhouse. Then, as dawn broke on the day precisely one year after they had first come together, Ito sat up on the futon and gazed down at Kii where he lay slumbering beside her.

I’ve stayed here a long time indeed. I think it’s time to move on.

Ito wrapped herself in a single thin kimono and walked out of the guardhouse, without putting anything on her feet. She began walking eastward, in the direction of the rising sun, and didn’t once look back.

*

                  Night after night the sable and the clouds of white.
                  Day by day foxes badgers and the black clouds.

Ito began raving. In shock, I covered my ears.

My legs felt kind of ticklish. Looking down, I saw that Ito had wrapped her arms and legs around them, and was trying to climb up. She kept climbing higher and higher, raving all the while.
Ito had climbed as high as my waist. Soon she reached my chest. She rolled up my shirt and began sucking on my breast.

I seemed to have stumbled upon something very odd indeed.

“Great-grandmother,” I said, “you’re not actually here, are you?”

Ito shook her head. “No, I’m not.”

“Then why are you here?”

Ito replied very quietly, “You’re the one who called me, right?”

“Did I call you?” I asked, just as quietly.

“Yes, you did.”

“But why?”

“I have no idea. I lived in ignorance and I died in ignorance, and that’s all there was to it, you see.”

Poor thing.

No sooner had I said these words, than Ito burst out sobbing.

I seemed to have stumbled upon something very odd indeed. The odd thing had seized my nipple in its mouth and was sucking at it with the ferocity of an infant. Sucking wildly, sobbing. I felt pity for the odd thing, and allowed her to go on sucking. I felt tenderness for the odd thing, and allowed her to go on sucking. With Ito clinging to my breast, still letting her suck at my nipple, I began walking eastward.

Translation from the Japanese
By Michael Emmerich

Hiromi Kawakami (b. 1958, Tokyo) is one of the most popular and respected writers of fiction in Japan, and she is also known as a literary critic and a provocative essayist. Her first novel, Kamisama (God), was published in 1994. In 1996 she was awarded the Akutagawa Prize for Hebi wo fumu (Tread on a snake) and subsequently won the It? Sei Literature Prize, the Woman Writer's Prize, the Tanizaki Prize. In 2007 she was honored by the Ministry of Education for her novel Manazuru, which was subsequently published in Michael Emmerich's translation (Counterpoint, 2010), and her novel The Briefcase, translated by Allison Markin Powell, is forthcoming from Counterpoint in February 2012. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

Source: “In the Palace of the Dragon King” by Hiromi Kawakami, originally published by Bungei Shunju. Copyright © 2002 by Hiromi Kawakami, used with permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC.

Editorial note: For more, see "10 Top Japanese Authors of the Past Decade (2000–2010)," (a list of ten recommended contemporary Japanese writers, including Kawakami), and read also, Takeshi Kimoto’s essay, “Post-3/11 Literature: Two Writers from Fukushima” in the print or digital edition of WLT.

Michael Emmerich is an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches premodern and contemporary Japanese literature. He has translated numerous books from Japanese, including most recently Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake and Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru. His translation of Manazuru was awarded the 2010 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.


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