It was a new beginning for Akinobu. He’d been evicted from his father’s house under blazing accusations of being a freeter, a term of which he was actually proud. To live off your parents nowadays should carry no shame if you actually made use of your free time. In his case, it was writing a diary. But this wasn’t enough for his father, who generally came home at ten in the evening and increasingly resented his son’s shiftless existence.

So they made a deal. His father found him a small, cheap flat, and took care of the moving. He even paid the non-returnable deposit. Akinobu for his part had enough money from his previous, well-paid job in Tokyo to keep him going for some time, as long as he got some part-time work soon. All in all, it was a reasonable compromise, and a far preferable outcome to the many reported cases of violence—some of which had led to deaths—between fathers and sons.

He would miss his mother, a woman of incredible forthrightness in her daily life until his father came home, when she became a fugitive figure, her existence more akin to the shadow she projected than to her own being.

His new flat was dark. It was on the ground floor of a “mansion,” a small block of flats, four storeys high, the kind of building he’d never had to live in till now. On one side, sunlight was blocked by the overhanging balconies of the flats above and by an office building directly in front; on the other side, his flat stood in the shadow of a pedestrian bridge which straddled a busy road whose effluvia coated the windows to the small patio with a thin layer of sediment. Across that road was a 7-Eleven store, and Akinobu would apply for a part-time job as soon as he’d settled in.

He looked around the flat properly as soon as his father had left. It was not pretty, but he had all he wanted: books, a television, a DVD and video, a CD player and radio, a desk, his writing, and peace. The frosted window of the main bedroom looked onto the narrow passageway, along which the two sets of neighbours further along would doubtless pass on a regular basis; he would get to know them in time.

He started to unpack by putting his futon and bedclothes in the wall-cupboards that were twinned with his neighbours’ on that side. In the evening he would take out the futon and quilt and in the morning put them back in to make space. There was something so simple and reassuring about a portable bed such as this. When he saw his mother lying on hers under a quilt—a privilege denied since her death—he saw an image of great serenity, though he could never imagine her naked underneath. Rather, in his mind, she wore a light kimono, an unlikely state of affairs, but this classical vision reassured him nonetheless.

He stood back a moment and looked at the cupboards. Something about the symmetry of apartments always calmed him, the fact that one always had parallel rooms on one side or the other. With one neighbour, it might be the bathroom and kitchen; with the other neighbour on the opposite side, the living room and back room. Of course, one could never share both sets of rooms on one side with both neighbours. That was an impossibility. Nevertheless, he saw in it the work of an overall plan that went beyond simple architectural design.

On this first day, as he finished putting the bedclothes into the cupboard, he heard voices, perhaps two or three, and the sound of something heavy being moved about, though it could have been from workmen outside: in his mind’s eye he saw a crane lifting heavy equipment. Yet the voices sounded as if they were coming from next door. Perhaps others had just moved in too. What caught his attention was the fact that the voices seemed both hushed and close to his ears, and though he could not make out the words exactly, it was definitely a conversation, not heated, but following a rhythmic pattern.

By midnight he had emptied all his boxes, placed his books on shelves, stuck up his posters and postcards, a catholic mixture of reproduced European art posters and Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Some of the latter included shunga, the name for erotic prints by the masters who otherwise specialized in beautifully rendered, chaste images of the traditional Floating World, except that in the case of shunga they depicted extremely explicit images of sexual penetration, the males possessing outsize members and displaying ejaculatory feats which outdid even the exaggerated standards of the art form’s modern-day counterpart, manga.

Yet none of these images was his favourite. That honour was reserved for a framed European print from an engraving of an extraordinary box-like construction, a mini-castle on wheels with a portcullis and small windows from which projected huge objects such as trumpets and human arms, the whole topped by a belfry, whilst in the castellated turrets guards waved huge feathers like swords. Attached to the belfry were two enormous wings, as if the construction might fly off at any moment. All about the castle were the strangest objects and forms, people flying, angels’ wings unconnected to any body trailing banners inscribed in Latin, and, attached at various angles to some of these objects, strings or threads which looked a little like perspective lines. Adding a controlling structure to all this seeming chaos was a hand extending from a cloud directly above the belfry which pulled on a solitary, perpendicular thread attached to the belfry itself. Just below the cloud and above the belfry was a banner that read, “Collegium fraternitatis.” Akinobu had never bothered to work out the meaning of this phrase but “collegium” suggested “college”; he must ask about “fraternitatis.”

Yet for all the detail on display in this print, which Akinobu knew he must research some time, he was for the moment content to remain ignorant about it—because within that little castle, he had decided, lived a being with which he had a spiritual connection, a connection which might be compromised by enhanced knowledge. In fact, it was the being inside this little castle that Akinobu wrote to in his occasional diary:

Bumako,

I know that I can speak to you as I cannot to anyone else, not even Rika. Last night I dreamt of a force within the apartment. Whether it is evil or not, I cannot say. It seems to lie hidden within a space, like you do in that wonderful castle of yours, from another place and time that I crave so much. Yet I am lazy. I am insipid, as my father says. I do not deserve your attention, but I hope I will come to be worthy of you in time.

Nowadays in Japan, we live in an uncaring, selfish world. Just look at people’s attitude towards blind people. Just the other day, and this was not for the first time, I saw a blind woman nearly walk onto the train tracks, with no one offering a helping hand. And this just as hundreds of them stepped out of a train that had just arrived! I believe that Mishima was right when he bemoaned the lack of tradition nowadays, though he was speaking of the ’60s. He embraced the West as few other Japanese have, but his message was too confused.

Yet why do I tell you this? You who are all-seeing?

I think that I shall tell Rika that we must stop. I feel that she cannot be prepared to go on the journey that you are preparing me for.

* * *

The next day he went to the local 7-Eleven, applied for, and obtained, part-time work. He was to start the following week. The same morning he initiated the traditional giving of welcome presents to his neighbours, which would include the three flats on his floor and might in time extend to the person or family directly above. He would start with the neighbour whose bedroom and living room, rather than bathroom, kitchen, and toilet, were contiguous with his.

He knocked on the thin metal door and a small, attractive woman popped her head out. She took the gift out of his hand before he could go through the customary protocols. As he walked away, shaking his head, an image came to him—as if delayed—of a cluttered interior that must have been difficult to negotiate. Were they sleeping bags he had seen on the floor? Some boxes, perhaps even tool-boxes, and make-up boxes? It had been so quick he couldn’t be sure.

None of his other neighbours was at home when he tried, but a few days after that first attempt Akinobu made the acquaintance of a young English teacher from Britain, who knocked on his door to introduce himself and, by the way, to ask if he could borrow some paraffin: his local supplier had closed down without notice and he hadn’t yet found a new supplier. Although he had only been in Japan a year, his Japanese impressed Akinobu.

The next day Akinobu took up John’s offer to “drop by.” John’s flat was at the end of the mansion on the far side of the neighbour who had so abruptly closed the door on Akinobu. John was very laid-back, and seemed to enjoy living in Japan. He obviously revelled in the horizontal nature of Japanese life, the car backseat angled cosily in one corner of his tiny back room, his things spread out on the floor and the walls lined with various objects, whether they were CDs, books, candles, or incense.

Offering Akinobu a beer, he recounted how he had left England in the wake of a relationship with a woman that had ended badly. “Wanted to make a clean break” is how he put it.

“Me too,” Akinobu offered, then proceeded to tell John about his father’s loss of patience with the direction his son’s life had taken.

John did not have much to say to Akinobu’s recitation of woes. He seemed to struggle for a while to find something to break the silence. At one point Akinobu even wondered if John was stoned or meditating in the near–darkness because, as the late afternoon sun had waned, John had not switched on the light. Akinobu had considered it impolite to ask. There was a moment, in fact, where he could have sworn that John began to fade into the space between two adjoining walls, he sat so still.

Akinobu could just see that one of John’s handful of books propped against the wall was a translation of Mishima’s last four novels, The Sea of Fertility.

“Oh, you have Mishima!”

“Yeah, that sequence of novels is mindboggling: ‘He gradually came to make out the sound of white ants.’”

The quotation struck a chord in Akinobu. He knew he had read it, but he could not say exactly which book it was from in the tretralogy.

“Which one is that from?”

The Decay of the Angel. You've read that, surely?”

“Of course, but, you know, Mishima’s not so fashionable in Japan these days.”

“I noticed. It’s Japan’s loss.”

“Yes, most people would prefer to dull their brains with Game Boys and manga.”

“You sound like a purist,” John said.

“Yes, maybe I am. There are not enough of us around these days.”

Akinobu was getting a little drunk from the beer and almost felt an urge to tell John about the strange noises he had heard from their mutual neighbour, but he did not want John to think that he was odd himself.

It would be nice to have an English friend, he thought, wistfully, and he felt an unusual light-headedness. As if he could sense his wish, John switched to English,

“What do you know about the people next door?”

“Er…why do you ask?”

“I was forgetting. You’ve only been here a few days.”

“Yes.”

“There are a lot of them. They come and go at all times. And you rarely see the same people twice.”

“I’ve heard sounds,” Akinobu admitted, gingerly.

“What, like a rumbling?”

“Rumbling? Is that like thunder?”

John nodded.

“Yes! Oh, I’m glad it’s not just me.”

They said nothing for a while, then John said, “I saw something a bit creepy a few days ago.”

“What?”

“They put out their washing the other day and their T-shirts had this weird design, a square within a circle, and an oblong within the square. I’m not sure, but I vaguely remember hearing of a group of people calling themselves Komabu. Have you heard of them?”

“How strange.”

“A bit freaky. But I’ve never seen them wear those T-shirts outside.”

“Wow. Do you think they are dangerous?”

“Nah. Probably a harmless hippie-style fraternity.”

Akinobu froze on that last word.

“Did you say fraternity?”

“Yes, what’s wrong?”

“What does that mean, in English, fraternity?”

“Brotherhood, I suppose.”

“Like a group of friends or brothers?”

“Yes. Are you OK?”

“Yes, yes, just taking the opportunity to improve my English.”

“Anyway, let’s keep an eye out for each other,” John said, winking.

* * *

When he got back to his flat, it was nearly one o’clock in the morning, and the person living above him was pacing around his or her flat, having, it seemed, just arrived home themselves. He would have liked to have put his head down on the pillow and dozed off, but, with the excitement of having made an English friend, and with the noise the person was making upstairs, he decided to write something in his diary. That would surely induce some tiredness. In any case, if the person upstairs continued walking around at this time of the morning he would have to go up there sooner or later to complain.

Bumako,

So the mystery takes another turn. My new friend tells me of a strange affiliation the people next door have. If I add to this knowledge the very little I was allowed to see of their flat when the young woman opened the door to me yesterday, and the sounds I have been hearing, I must be suspicious. It is unavoidable. I should be happy to be free of my father and starting a new life, finally, but I am not so sure. I still have not spoken to Rika and have had my mobile phone turned off most of the days since I moved, so she really has not had any chance to contact me. I have never really told her what I would like to do with her physically, of my visions of beautiful, mutual self-annihilation, of how I would like us to sacrifice our bodies, her limbs and mine, to you, and perhaps because I have held this back so long, she interprets my behaviour as coldness. I run the risk of alienating her forever. I only wish that I could face her, tell her and let her go.

On the other hand, I see myself walking with her into you, Bumako, into your black gate, where knives and swords and spikes will swing and shoot out and lacerate us together in a glorious, perfect consummation of metal and flesh. If we are lucky, one or both of us will be decapitated, leaving the other to carry his or her partner through the endless passages of you, through your chambers and antechambers that will end only when we reach the very pit of you.

I believe that in this pit there is a machine full of cogs, wheels, pulleys and chains which will pull on us, suspend us in the air, and tear us apart when the time is right…

In the night, as he tried to push against the unyielding quilt that covered him, Akinobu heard the sound of something hollow and metallic, like huge canisters being shifted. The sounds merged with a childhood event that came back to him from time to time in which he had witnessed an oxyacetylene cylinder explode in a car repair garage as he was walking by. He had been lucky only to suffer temporary hearing damage. When he had come to his senses, it was to see, lying on the ground by the side of a car, the head of one of the workers, separated from its body.

Then, as these hypnagogic companions carried him further along the passages of his mind, he was standing among naked bodies, how many he could not tell, enclosed in a dark, unbordered space. He was close to one in particular, a young woman whose glistening features and body topography he could, paradoxically, see in intimate detail. She was pulling on him, almost wrenching his penis from his groin. Her hand would slip after each tug, yet the mere action of trying to regain her purchase excited him exponentially with each jerk. Eventually, a jet of semen arced out and drenched her, leaving shining white ruined helixes tangled stickily in her hair, while others unravelled and slid down her face and breasts like a negative image of ski tracks on snow.

Then, his body was lifted by hands which proceeded to roll him about, massaging his skin with oil, then wrapping him in thin cloth or bandages. In this condition they placed him in a sarcophagus-like space, where he was unable to move, only capable of hearing rolling metal and nonsensical conversations.

* * *

Akinobu was stocking a shelf when he saw Rika. He recognized her immediately, even though she was wearing one of those face masks which covered the lower half of the face. But it was useless for him to hide, he decided; she must have got the address from his mother or father and he could not risk her making a scene in his place of work, where he could be admonished for what would be viewed as fraternizing with a customer, even if it was his girlfriend. Cleverly, she browsed among the magazines until the other shop assistant had gone to the back to fetch something. Then she picked up a bar of Vessel in the Fog chocolate, and took it to the till. The choice of confectionery was significant, as it was his favourite and he had bought her a bar of this very chocolate on their first date. She said nothing; she was just two eyes boring into his soul above that mask, a crazed surgeon poised to invade his body. He whispered under his breath that he finished work in six hours and finessed his front door key along with her change, placing the key under the receipt, and the change on top of it, making no concession to the status of their relationship by allowing any contact with her skin.

For the rest of the day he occupied his mind with an idle registering of the rather dreary but reassuring flow of customers: the smart salarymen on their way into work picking up pocket-sized bottles of Evian in the morning; the local workmen who bought their cup noodles and poured hot water from the jug kettle next to the photocopier and fax machine, occasionally splashing a little on the narrow counter space reserved for that dual purpose, standing there with towels hanging down from their bandannas like disenfranchised samurai; the schoolgirls who came in for a toxic mixture of chocolate and fizzy drinks, availing themselves from time to time of some toy fop to hang from their ubiquitous bags or complement their schoolgirl regalia, looking as provocative, with their pleated tartan skirts decorating the caramelly sunburst finish of their calves, as the models in the porn magazines on the nearby racks. All this amused Akinobu, but on this particular day he had to take into account the intermittent surveillance imposed on him by Rika as she passed by the shop and glanced in; she even came in again at one stage and bought some milk, though he didn’t serve her.

Slightly annoying as it was, this long run-up to his reunion with her had the advantage of focusing his thoughts on what he would say to her. He spoke to Bumako as he worked:

Bumako,

What shall I do with her? What does she really know about me? About what I want, what I could give her to make her truly happy. Yes? Test her? So soon? Time is short, you say, before we become one. I understand.

This helped him; he now knew what he wanted from Rika. He would put it to her: it would be her choice.

* * *

Rika had shifted things around a little, which didn’t surprise him.

“This is a fantastic flat,” she said straight off.

“Really?”

“It’s a bit dark, though.”

He looked around as she stood there. Fortunately, she hadn’t touched his print. She looked very fetching in her apron (though he found it hard to suppress pornographic images of besuited salarymen skewering their wives in their bunny-tipped house slippers), and already he felt his resolve being undermined. Had Mishima had such dilemmas? he wondered momentarily. Surely he had. He had been married, with kids, hadn’t he?

He let her cook for him while he went and got a DVD from the local video shop. He whiled away an hour in the video shop as he saw his preferred choices continually deferred until he settled on a compromise: there were now five copies of a film that two months before he hadn't been able to get hold of on successive daily trips. When he had made his choice, he went, out of habit, to the closed-off area for adult movies. He usually looked for something with torture, especially of the breasts or nipples. He had never shown Rika anything that hard. She was not averse to straight porn as long as it had a patina of a story, though his interests lay more in the kind of video that paid only lip service to that element, if at all. Maybe one day he would have to decide what it was he wanted from a relationship—the constant stimulation and gratification of a sex-oriented world, or an everyday family life. But if he thought about it, it wasn't really such a difficult choice. With the former, he had his own inner world in which he could, increasingly, satisfy his desires and fantasies. With the latter he only had to look to his parents: he saw no joy, no love there.

After supper, they settled down to the film, a quaint English film starring someone called Hugh Grant, who bumbled his way into a relationship with a famous American actress, played by the famous American actress Julia Roberts. Rika liked it, and he had a soft spot for soppy love stories. The mood was right, so, after the film had ended, they finally settled down to a “talk.”

“Rika, there are some things I want to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“The sex is too straight. I want to do other things.”

“Like what?”

“It’s hard to put into words, Rika.”

“You’re ashamed?”

“The things I want to do I can’t really explain—it would be better to just imagine them.”

“But that’s so sad. You don’t want a real person, a real woman to touch?”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“Then what is it you want to do? Maybe I’m not as traditional as you think.”

“I’ve a video I want to show you.”

The first fifteen-minute segment started out traditionally. An actress was penetrated by one, then two men. She fellated both of them, and they ejaculated in her face. Rika only reacted discernibly at the last action, making a gagging sound. The second segment, of roughly the same length, had the same actress, apparently capable of lactating at will, kneeling on a bed, while one of the men wound ropes around her breasts and arms so tightly that she couldn't move her arms. When the camera went around to her front, the viewer could see that the bulbous shape of her breasts was exaggerated by the pressure of the two bands of ropes just above and below her areolae. While the first actor began to whip her backside, the other actor started to squeeze her breasts, alternately drinking her milk and letting the spray arc milkily into his mouth and over his face.

Akinobu squeezed Rika's hand lightly, assuming that her lack of reaction to the escalating stimulation and abuse of the woman might be a form of consent on her part. It was surely not out of the question that she might be excited by it.

In the following segment, the actress was suspended from the ceiling by an intricate network of ropes which Akinobu found quite fascinating in the way they distributed the pressure—sometimes inducing pain and sometimes counter-balancing it—on different parts of her anatomy. The two men repeated most of the actions they had performed in the previous segments, but again finished by ejaculating in her face. In the last shot, the camera lingered over the rills of semen slowly proceeding down her face.

There was no audible reaction from Rika, but her own body felt hard and bunched-up when he placed a hand on her back.

In the next section, the actress was made to balance on a horizontal bamboo stick that was hung from the ceiling, forming a kind of large swing. The balancing act was achieved by a combination of ropes wound around her thighs and the stick and by one of the men supporting her from behind. While she was upright, the man in front wound string around each of her small, neatly prunted nipples and started to pull upwards, distorting her breasts into elongated cones that stood up like objects magnetized by a nearby force. When the strings were released, he pushed her back so that she was almost horizontal, and the pressure made her milk fountain upwards, the actors taking it in turn to feed themselves…

“Stop it. Stop it, Akinobu.”

He killed the tape.

“I understand. That’s what you want to do to me! Deep down that’s what you really want to do, isn’t it?”

Akinobu hung his head and said nothing.

She left the flat, her sniffling just audible, and he did not know whether to be happy or cry.

* * *

It was one o’clock when she left. Now, half an hour later, it was unusually quiet, he thought, so quiet that he could hear the movement of layers of stuffing in his pillow; it made him think of the primordial soup, the budding universe scientists always talked about nowadays, impactions of softness, endless chemical reactions. Another thought occurred, though. Was it possible insects were crawling around inside it? He knew this was unlikely, but there were living organisms on every level. There are definitely small insects in tatami carpets that you cannot see with the naked eye, and sometimes he would feel a light prick against his ear which he couldn’t rationalize. Perhaps he was more sensitive to these forms of life than others? There were insects in his pillow, he concluded.

He was too tired to write in his diary, so he let his mind address Bumako: Oh, Bumako, did I do the right thing? With Rika. She doesn’t deserve such a shock. But she does deserve to know the truth. Will you let me know, give me a sign? I shall give myself up to you, Bumako.

He imagined walking into the strange castle now, imagined hands taking hold of him, knives and swords swinging through the air, black blood pouring down his body, creatures eating at his flesh. He was in ecstasy. His joy would be complete if he were now able to take a woman and mutilate her, though he would hold back enough for her to do the same to him. Their mutual tortures and pain would rise by small gradations until these desecrations would have no equal in their experience. He wanted to be an engine, part of a complex, grinding, pulley-operated system that would wrench his limbs from his body, fusing him spiritually with his female counterpart. For her part, she would have a metal bodice placed around her with moulds around her breasts and vagina. These moulds would have gates that would let in a vertical blade in the case of the breasts and various angled blades and sharp prongs in the case of her vagina. During all this he would be wearing a truss which could be operated in such a way as to exact the ultimate excision—on his member. Preferably, these actions could be performed simultaneously, so that they would be as one within Bumako. They would become Bumako and Bumako them.

How long he had been asleep he did not know, but was it possible what he heard now? There was a light tapping on the metal front door. A further three taps, slightly louder. He dragged on his clothes and looked through the spy-hole. It was the girl from next door. She looked very different from last time, but it had to be her. He opened the door.

“Hello, I’m sorry it’s so late. I wanted to apologize for the other day. I was really rude, and I wanted to thank you for the present.”

She was different-looking tonight, wearing a tight black skirt, tights and a figure-hugging top like a ballet dancer's. He hadn’t realized how petite she was. Her red lipstick emphasized the cuneiform shape of her lips and her hair was wavier than he remembered. The overall effect on Akinobu standing there now, woken out of this strange evening and sleep, was that of a tapering, vivid eidolon. Was this a sign from Bumako? She seemed to be waiting for something.

“I…I…would you like to come in?”

She squatted down in his bedroom-cum-living-room, keeping her back straight. Her posture looked uncomfortable to him, but she seemed relaxed.

“I know it’s late but I’ve got some wine if you want,” he offered.

“Thanks.”

He already felt that at this early stage she was different, different from Rika, different from most Japanese girls.

She looked around the room as if sensing he had had a guest over.

“A friend was just here.”

“I’m sorry. You must be tired.”

“It’s OK. I’m off tomorrow.”

“You work in the convenience store around the corner, don’t you?”

“I didn’t see you come in.”

“I saw you there but I didn’t go in. Oh! What’s that?”

“The engraving? That’s a good question; it’s a bit of a mystery to me.”

“I like it.” She stood up to get a closer look.

Akinobu was torn between a concern for his treasured picture being violated and the urge to let his eyes linger over her figure, the flatness of her profiled silhouette, interrupted only by the shallow rise and fall of her behind and chest. In the semi-darkness he had the sensation that she might almost slip away, become one with the vertical line in the corner where two walls met. The print itself hung on one of these walls next to a sliding door.

“Can we take it down?” she asked.

It was against every instinct in him, yet he felt such a closeness to her he saw no reason to refuse her request.

He lifted the framed print off its hinge and held it in his lap.

They squatted down next to each other and her painted fingernails skipped lightly over his as she pointed to the extraordinary building and figures in the picture.

“I feel I know this.”

“Really? You’ve seen it before, in a book, perhaps?”

“No, no, I feel we’ve seen this…thing.”

“What do you mean 'we'?”

“Sorry. Me and the people I live with next door.” She smiled, as if seeing something not visible to both of them. “It’s…different there.”

Akinobu heard a loud, hollow sound like metal being knocked, followed by a metally echoing.

“What was that?”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

He saw two silhouettes pass by the frosted windows of his living room, two yards apart.

“Do you have any music? I want to look at this amazing picture. It’s very dreamy,” she said, laying a hand over his.

Akinobu was overcome by the attentions of this woman, combined as they were with the interest she showed in his favourite image.

“Can’t you just imagine it, walking into it?” she said.

“Yes,” he replied, and he knew exactly what she meant.

It was uncanny, that she should be so open to this world of his. Was it possible, even, that she knew about Bumako? In truth, though, he would have liked to have known more about the people she lived with and what she meant by her enigmatic, “it’s different there.” Yet he did not want to disturb the harmony of what he had achieved with her in such a short space of time.

He heard the sound again and saw two figures go quickly by his window again. Which was when she looked at him and put her arms around his neck. They rolled over and he realized they would want something to lie on. He opened the cupboard to get out the futon.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“We need the futon.”

“Wait. Have you ever slept in there?” she said, looking into the black interior of the cupboard, then smiling at him mischievously.

There was room enough, it was true, and it would be a little like a bed in a capsule hotel he had tried once. That had been fun and had comforted him, like being back in the womb or a catacomb, even, under a city. It also excited him, reminding him of the autonomy of childhood sleep and its fantasies, that time and place where nothing could intrude into one’s mind or life for a blissful eight hours.

“Come on, they won’t mind.”

They.

With the futon laid out inside the cupboard, and the doors closed, it was completely dark now, and not even the occasional bumping of objects against the wall next door and the now familiar to-and-fro of whoever it was she shared the place with next door disturbed him.

He went inside her with wonderful ease and found the dark within her. His body was transported, lifted, and taken by hands. He was inside Bumako and called out the god’s name. Bumako. Bumako, he said. Komabu, komabu, she replied. I love you. I love. We love you. Komabu.

* * *

They fell through the wall, through the space around them, into the dark. There was a distinct smell of gas or chemicals, he thought. After a while the figures surrounding them took on perceptible shapes in the near-dark; men and women wearing black trousers and black tops with hoods. One was Caucasian and he wondered if it was John, but with the darkness and the hood he could not be sure. They lifted the girl away from him and started to wind cloth around him, till he was trussed up like a mummy. In this state he was placed on his knees in front of a large bearded figure who lectured to him, it seemed, for hours, barely pausing. He knew it was Bumako and that he had found his place now. Bumako talked of a goal, of a glorious death, of eternal gratification of the senses.

When Bumako had finally finished, they unwound the cloth until Akinobu was naked, lifted a trap door from the centre of the floor, lowered him into an oblong pit, and placed the girl on top of him. She clung to him, digging her nails into his back so hard that they tore his skin as he tried to pull away. The black-clad figures formed a perfect circle around them, hummed sounds or words he did not understand in a brief ceremony, then closed and locked the door on them.

Above them, they heard Bumako's followers go about their business of carrying heavy objects. An image of scuttling termites—white ants?—came to mind. Finally, the flat was quiet, and they heard a van drive off.

Bumako? Bumako? I am waiting, Bumako.


Note:  The phrase "the sound of white ants" is from The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Penguin, 1977).


Brian Howell lives and teaches in Japan. He has been publishing stories since 1990. Publications include Critical Quarterly, Panurge, Stand, Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing, Vol.1 (edited by Nicholas Royle), The Third Alternative, Carriage House Review, and Leviathan Quarterly. Online, his stories have appeared in various e-zines, including The Richmond Review, Linnaean Street, The Paumanok Review, Literary Potpourri, and Painted Moon Review. His novel based on the life of Jan Vermeer, The Dance of Geometry, was published in March 2002 by The Toby Press. It was short-listed by The British Fantasy Society in their Best Novel category for the 2003 BFS Awards. His first collection, The Sound of White Ants, the title story of which appears in this issue of FRiGG, will be published by Elastic Press in May 2004. His e-novella, The Study of Sleep, was published by Wind River Press in February 2004. He is currently working on his fourth novel, a prequel to The Dance of Geometry, which forms part of a loosely linked trilogy of novels about seventeenth-century Dutch painters and their experiments with optical devices.


“White Ants” was inspired by a mixture of real-life observations, rather than events, and stray elements from my life that fell neatly into place (the inspiration for the engraving came from research I am doing for a novel). When I first arrived in Japan, I lived in a flat next door to a group of rather secretive and mysterious neighbours who came and went in much the same fashion as those of Akinobu’s in the story. After a while I found out they were affiliated to a well-known cult in Japan. They were in all likelihood quite innocuous, and I prefer to put the odd sounds down to my overactive imagination! Part of the inspiration was also from a real-life murder case from around the same period in which a schoolboy murdered and beheaded another boy. I could not find the original name of the monster with whom the murderer was supposed to be having the dialogue. “Bumako” is as much as my faulty memory will allow, and “Komabu” is simply an anagram of that word. Neither word is actually Japanese, though they are meant to sound it. I won’t claim that this story has any sociological import, but I hope that in some ways it reflects a certain instability that began to gnaw its way into the fabric of Japanese society around the mid-90s, up to which time Japan had enjoyed a reputation for being a stable country with a low crime rate. The Kobe earthquake, a certain famous gas attack on the underground in Tokyo, and the gruesome schoolboy murder at the time seemed to be just three of several harbingers of a decline that was going hand-in-hand with the economic recession.

 

 

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 3 | Winter 2004