Translated from the Japanese by Lucy North

 

I entered the lobby, after keying in the access code, to find a young man standing rooted to the spot in front of the mailboxes. I wasn’t sure if I recognized him, but considering he’d got inside he was probably one of the residents, I thought, so I gave him a slight nod. Clad in jeans and a T-shirt, with his feet exposed in open sandals, the young man smiled uneasily at me, and said:

‘Um . . . Could you possibly . . . ?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘I live in Apartment 202 . . . ’

‘And . . . ?’

Slowly, the young man pointed a finger at the mailbox marked Apartment 202, where perched over the slot was a large stag beetle. Its shell, the size of a thumb, was a shiny black colour, with a few pale blotches, and it was calmly waving its long antlers.

‘Oh, the beetle, you mean?’

‘Sorry, but um . . . I’m not good with insects . . . And there’s a letter in my mailbox. It could be a notice from city hall. Possibly an urgent one . . . ’

How pathetic, I thought, for a grown man not to be able to take out his mail because he was scared of an insect, but, well, there was something endearing about it too. Picking up one of the real estate leaflets on the floor, which residents appeared to have just taken out of their mailboxes and discarded on the spot, and easing it under the beetle’s body, I levered it off. For an instant, the beetle clung on to the mailbox, showing a surprising strength, but soon it transferred all six of its legs to the paper. After shifting its abdomen around for a bit as if searching for a comfortable position, it settled and became still. I placed the leaflet back on the floor. The beetle’s curved, slightly drooping antlers stirred when they came up against the discarded leaflets. The young man let out his breath, and drew his hand down his jaw, in evident relief. A ring gleamed on his wedding finger. Traces of pimples were visible near his nose. He was probably ten years younger than I was.

‘Thanks!’ he murmured, apologetically.

‘No worries. The security system didn’t keep him out, did it . . . ’

The young man turned the dial on the lock of his mailbox with his fingertips, as if he thought the beetle might have left some kind of poison. In a complaining tone, he said: ‘I’m a new resident – we moved here just recently. This building is really quite infested with insects, don’t you think?’

‘Well, we are on the outskirts of town. And the lights are left on all night. That’s what attracts them.’

Peering into my own mailbox, I could see some leaflets exactly like the one I had just used to dislodge the stag beetle. Newly built, two-storied, private homes for sale, in the range of twenty million yen . . .

‘No, but really, it’s too much. When we came to look at the place, I didn’t notice, but at night when it gets dark, there are bugs, bats, who knows what. And those strange little lizard-like things . . . ’

‘Ah, yes. There are lots of those.’

‘Well, I think somebody should do something.’ The man was now taking out one item after another from his mailbox, brown envelopes, slips of paper that looked like notifications of failed delivery attempts. ‘A week or so ago,’ he continued, ‘we had a moth in the apartment. My wife and child got into an awful panic.’

‘You have a child?’

‘A three-year-old boy.’ The young man, who didn’t look old enough to be the father of a three-year-old, began discarding the real estate leaflets from his box, casually letting them fall to the floor. I sort of wanted to see one land on the beetle, and the beetle fly up in his face. The insect, however, stayed where it was, waving its long antlers.

‘Well, keep your mosquito screens shut. They won’t get in if you do that. Anyway, they’re not going to bite you. They don’t carry any kind of venom.’

‘So they’re not poisonous?’

‘Not that I know of. The best way is to just take no notice. We’ve been living here for well over four years, and they haven’t done us any harm. If anything, once you start paying them attention, it only makes it worse. There’s no controlling them. You have to will yourself not to see them. They’ll stop bothering you once you do that. It’ll be like they’re not there.’

‘Will yourself not to see them . . . Sounds a bit difficult to me. But, anyway, thanks! Thanks for your help . . . ’ Clasping his mail carefully to his chest, the man bobbed his head several times, and got into the elevator, which was now down on the ground floor.

‘Are you coming up?’ He stuck his head out.

‘No thanks. Go ahead.’

With the young man gone, I turned the dial of my mailbox, pulled it open, and took out the leaflets. It was all stuff I didn’t need, but I didn’t like to just drop it in a communal area of the building. Holding the leaflets printed in light blue gothic font – for brand-new properties, second-hand properties, space for two cars to park – crumpled in my fist, I bounded up the four flights of stairs, taking two steps at a time. Even if the building was infested, the insects were all very small – you wouldn’t realize if you trod on them in leather shoes, and with some, you couldn’t tell even if they were alive or dead. The young man would doubtless soon forget all about the stag beetle – and not because he was insensitive: that was what they called maturity. I heard a chirrup, and something like a tiny grain fell onto my cheek, only to immediately drop off. On a couple of the floors, there was the smell of evening meals. Some apartments were still cast in darkness, without a single light on. Considering the amount of space in these apartments, no one single was likely to be living here. Apartment after apartment, with husband and wife working, both staying late at the office . . . I knew if I looked up at the all-night lighting on the ceilings I’d see countless winged insects flying around. But I didn’t have to look up there: not if I didn’t want to.

‘I’m home!’ There was a muffled clunk, the interior light came on, and my wife emerged into the hallway, rather unsteadily. Her belly, which preceded her, was enormous.

‘Hi,’ she said.

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Mm. Not too bad.’ She wore a dress of cheerful sky-blue fabric with a pattern of scattered tiny white knots, something she would never have worn before, stretched over her rounded belly. Quite unexpectedly, she had fallen pregnant, and what was more, with twins, though we had almost given up trying for a baby. At first, she’d had to be hospitalized with morning sickness, but now she had managed to obtain advance maternity leave from her company and was taking bed rest at home. It seemed to have done her good: she looked better, and apart from complaining about how sluggish she felt and how she was always terribly hungry, she seemed to have returned to her old self. She was even able to cook proper meals. Finally, to be liberated from day after day of instant noodles supplemented with vegetables and an egg.

I pressed my hand on my wife’s stomach, in what was now my daily routine.

‘They were very active today. I took a nap in the afternoon, but they woke me up . . . ’ My wife smiled thinly. My hand could detect no vibrations. All I felt was something round, and hot, the skin stretched tight. Could it really be that my own progeny was in there? And not just one, but two. Two separate individuals, kicking, moving about, and growing.

‘Dinner will be ready soon. Another five minutes.’

I washed my hands and gargled, took off my jacket, and sat down at table.

‘Mind if I switch channels?’

‘Go ahead. I’m not really watching . . . Oh, could you go and open the bedroom window?’

‘Sure.’

In the six-mat room where we slept, my mattress and quilt were folded and placed against the wall. My wife’s bedding was laid out on the tatami. Almost never folded up or tidied away, it seemed to be out pretty permanently. On top of the mattress lay her quilt, puffed up and twisted round untidily, like a burrow a dog might like to lie down in. Placing one leg over the mattress, I reached out and slid open the window. Immediately, a breeze I would never have imagined possible down on the ground poured into the room. The yellow curtains, their pattern of white bubbles now faded, barely visible any more, stirred and brushed against me.

 

 

In the space of two weeks, a week of paid leave which we’d each managed to obtain for our wedding, supplemented by an extra week gained by timing it to coincide with the annual Obon summer holiday, we had got married, held a wedding reception, gone away for a honeymoon and moved into our new home. Needless to say, we’d been barely able to catch our breath, and it was a few days after we moved in to our new apartment that we realized we were sleeping in a bedroom with no curtains. Or rather, though we had taken measurements of the window on our first look-round inside, and had thought the pink curtains my wife was using in the place she was currently living in would do fine, they turned out to be a few centimetres short. Nevertheless we hung them, intending to buy some proper ones, ones that fitted, to replace them. But one month, then two months, passed, and before we knew it we had become accustomed to these slightly ill-fitting curtains. We were on the fourth floor, we wouldn’t be overlooked by anyone. It wasn’t as if the room faced in the direction of the fierce morning sun. In the same way that we’d begun to see the cardboard boxes that we’d used to make the move, still full of our unpacked belongings, simply as bits of furniture, we grew used to seeing the exposed lower section of the window. The daily routine of our lives took over.

And then one day when I got home from work, my wife, in sweatpants but still wearing her blouse for the office, came out to the hallway and said, in a tiny scream:

‘There’s a gecko!’

‘A gecko?’

‘On the bedroom window! Clinging to the glass!’

I went to look, and sure enough there on the part of the window that wasn’t covered by the curtain was a little four-footed creature, quite motionless. I’d assumed from my wife’s state of panic that it must be on the inside, but I found myself looking at the underside of the creature, through the glass. I couldn’t tell the difference between a gecko, a simple tree lizard, or a newt, but my wife insisted with absolute certainty, ‘It’s a gecko.’ Putting my face close to it, I observed its white, slightly rounded belly, the slack wrinkles in its skin, the slight fleshiness around the joints in its limbs, rather like a baby’s. I tapped the glass lightly but it didn’t move. I stared at it. It didn’t seem to be even breathing.

‘It’s dead, isn’t it?’

‘It’s been there since last night.’

‘Really?’

‘It’s been there twenty-four hours.’

Well then, that proves it must be dead, I was about to say. But –

‘Get rid of it,’ she said.

‘Why?’

‘The curtain’s too short to hide it, we can’t open the window with it there, and I don’t think I want to see it, from underneath!’ My wife had a strangely meaningful expression on her face.

Stripping off my jacket, I let out a chuckle. ‘Well, you say remove it, but it is on the other side . . . Surely I don’t have to go to the trouble of . . . ’ I tried pulling the curtain open abruptly, but there was no reaction. I banged on the window, I tried to shake the frame, I tried shouting ‘Boo!’ through the glass, but still the gecko didn’t even flinch. Was it a plastic model? But the undersides of its five-toed feet clinging to the glass were too detailed and realistic.

‘Well, it is kind of cute, isn’t it? It’s only small. It’s not such a big deal to keep the window closed . . . Just for a day or two.’ Some dish was simmering noisily in the kitchen. There was the smell of rice vinegar in the air. Generally, my wife was the first to get home. If I got home earlier, I would have been perfectly willing to cook supper, but the way things worked out, she nearly always cooked. And anyway, her dishes were tastier than mine – and more nourishing. The ways to use rice vinegar in cooking, for example, were a mystery to me.

‘How do you know it’ll only be a day or two? How do you know it might not be there for a really long time?’

‘Oh come on. Anyway, let’s think about it later. I can easily dislodge it, but if it turns out to be dead, just some dried remains, that might be even more creepy.’

‘It’s not dead. It’s alive. It’s clinging on there like that because it’s alive.’

The rice cooker alarm went off, a shrill beeping sound. As if suddenly remembering, my wife held her hand out. ‘First fetch me your bento box,’ she said. Her fingers were slightly wet.

As I lay on the mattress, the white toe pads of the gecko floated up before me, against the vastness of the blue-black night. Rather than a presence, it seemed to me more like a trace, a barely discernible odour that flooded in on the air. I hadn’t been aware of it, not last night, nor this morning. These apartments were cheap, much cheaper than apartments in the centre of town, because they were in a location where you could expect to see moths and stink bugs on the walls, and geckos clinging to the windows: that’s why we had chosen to move here, to make it our first home, and one day, perhaps, the place where we’d raise children. There was lots of greenery and trees and there was a park for toddlers and infants nearby, and though it was far from the station, just fifteen minutes by car there was a big shopping mall and shops with loads of electronic goods. The area was one of the innumerable other such residential developments that were now everywhere you looked in the suburbs: it was crime-free, and with so few high-rise buildings nearby, we got a good amount of sun. At first, I was surprised at the number of insects that got inside, and my wife, who hated insects, would shrink at the sight of them, but it didn’t take long at all for us to accustom ourselves. What a lot of fuss to make, just because some little creature was clinging to the window . . . My wife turned out the light. The windowpane shone faintly white in the moonlight, and the gecko disappeared. Goodnight, I said. Goodnight, she replied. The next morning, the gecko was still there. As far as I could see, it hadn’t moved at all.

It was still there the following evening. Outside, the temperature grew steadily cooler. Morning, evening, morning, evening, the gecko was there, absolutely still. What was it eating, how was it getting moisture? Surely it had to be dead.

‘If you’re so certain,’ my wife said, ‘why would it be clinging to the glass like that? Why doesn’t it drop off? Why doesn’t it dry up, or rot . . . ?’

Without replying, I looked up geckos on the internet. Geckos are a type of lizard, members of the reptile family. Some reach up to ten centimetres. When attacked by predators, geckos shed their tails. They are not poisonous. They feed mainly on insects. The number of geckos in the world is steadily decreasing, but several species make their homes alongside humans. They generally bear two eggs at a time between spring and autumn, and disappear in winter.

‘Hey, it says here they hide away in the winter. So if it is alive, it’ll be gone soon.’

At some point, my wife started to sleep with her back to the window. Which meant that she slept with her back to me. Morning, evening, morning, evening. I bought a coat at the shopping mall, to wear when I went to work. My wife also bought a coat. I threw away nearly all the clothes I had brought with me to our new abode. Not for any reason, but somehow I felt that it was appropriate. Now I only bought things that would seem suitable for our new life out in the suburbs, our new life in which we hoped to have children and raise a family. Clothes that were 100-percent cotton, fully machine-washable, made of material that was strong, thin and light, clothes that didn’t have to be tried on and mulled over but were bought in the knowledge that they were cheap and replaceable. Furniture, electronic goods at large retail stores. ‘Why won’t you get rid of it? You could do it so easily . . . ’ Why should I? Why should I have to go to all that trouble, lean out the window, and pick it off the glass? Such a harmless little creature . . . ‘But it’s alive! Don’t you see?’ my wife’s tone got more and more angry. ‘Well, if it worries you so much, why don’t you remove it?’ My wife would shout a retort from the kitchen, but the dry, sharp crunch of something hard she was pounding, or chopping up into slices on a board, got in the way of me catching what she said. A down quilt was delivered, sent to us by a relative in celebration of our wedding. My wife purchased bedclothes at the shopping mall. Morning, evening, morning, evening, till finally one morning I don’t know how many mornings after the gecko first appeared I heard my wife exclaim, a note of surprise in her voice: ‘Hey. The gecko’s gone!’

I opened my eyes a crack. Immediately, any idea I might have had of a chance to lie-in disappeared as the rays of bright sunshine reaching in through the window not covered by the curtain sliced into my eyeballs. What time was it? It didn’t look early.

‘Hm. That’s good,’ I said, sleepily. My wife’s buttocks as she knelt at the window seemed strangely plump and round.

‘Look! See? It’s not there any more!’ My wife gazed back at me in joy, her face right by the window.

The light was blinding. Squinting, my brows right down, I tried to look where she was pointing. What was she talking about? The gecko hadn’t gone. It was there, looking just the same, its tapering tail still bending slightly to the right, exactly like before. Was she playing a prank on me? I looked at her in amazement – was she serious? Out of her pyjamas, she already had her apron on, but with so much entering my vision, though I knew, within the hair spread out on either side of her face, that she was smiling, I wasn’t sure of her expression. The only thing I saw was her mouth, smiling broadly, and within, her pink gums, and her teeth.

‘So you were right. Geckos do disappear in the winter. I’m so relieved. I was starting to see geckos in my dreams.’

The voice was my wife’s, I knew for sure, but it seemed to come from far away, in the depths, behind her teeth.

‘I had a dream, and there were these masses of geckos running about . . . Making horrible scuttling sounds . . . They were all dried up, which was why they made that dry, scuttling noise . . . Running about all over the apartment. I was sleeping, but they clung on to me, it was horrible – ’

‘Please – ’

‘They were all dried up, but they clung to me – ’

‘I don’t want to – ’

‘Their fingertips were all moist and sticky, they clung to my hair, and my skin – ’

Could she actually hear me? My words seemed not to be registering. Still lying on the bed, I intoned ‘Aaaaa’, positioning my hand over my mouth. My palm grew damp as it vibrated. My ears felt compressed.

‘The geckos were crawling all over me, into my eyes, my mouth, even my ears . . . So disgusting. But it’s okay: the gecko’s gone now. Hey, I know it’s kind of late to mention this, but we really ought to buy some curtains. Let’s buy some before the end of the year. I wonder whether there’s a sale on, so we can find some reasonably cheap. What colour would you like? Yellow might be nice. Yellow curtains would be good for a boy, but they’d also do for a girl.’

‘For a girl?’

My wife glanced at me quietly. ‘Well, didn’t we plan we would make this room the children’s room, if we had a family?’ Her face was quite serious.

‘Oh, that’s right. Yes.’

‘A light yellow . . . Green might be good too. What do you think? It’s the weekend, you’re not going in to the office – shall we go buy some curtains? We could use the car.’

‘Mm. Okay.’

The gecko stuck on the bedroom window seemed to have suddenly swollen right up. The soft textured skin of its underbelly, the damp stickiness of its toe pads seemed to rush up before my eyes. Horrified, I sat up in bed, and stared. The gecko trembled, violently. Abruptly, its body began to push and squeeze.

‘Oh!’

‘What?’

‘I’m sure it’s nothing but . . . The gecko on the window . . . ’ Something began to emerge from the end of its belly. First, some sort of viscous fluid; then, doused in the same gelatinous substance, something white.

My wife looked at the window, stared at me doubtfully as I lay, curled up, my knees drawn close to my body, then looked again at the window.

She brought her face up close to the glass. Right in front of her nose, two round white objects were pushed out, excreted with intense, sustained effort. First one, then another.

‘It’s gone. Thank goodness. But maybe you feel a little sad . . . ?’ My wife looked down at me, a slight smile on her lips. Crouching down, she put her face right up close to mine. Involuntarily, I shut my eyes. Something cold, dry and soft brushed my cheek.

‘Yes, I do believe you feel a little sad, now it’s gone . . . ’ Her voice, right by my ear, was extraordinarily gentle.

‘So,’ she said. ‘It’s agreed then, we’re going shopping? I’ll start making breakfast.’

She got up quickly, her rear end brushing my shoulder. That smooth firm softness: I didn’t know what to make of it. I glanced at the window. The gecko had stopped its trembling, the white eggs covered in sticky liquid gleamed in the morning sun, and beyond them I could see, already, the blue sky high above.

 

 

‘I wonder where the babies should sleep when they’re born?’ my wife was wondering, using the ladle to turn the miso soup, which was more like a kind of simmered dish because of the amount of vegetables she had added. ‘I don’t think it’ll be possible for us both to sleep in the room we’re sleeping in at the moment, with the two babies in there . . . ’ Now that she had to eat for two more people, she required lots of nutrients, iron, folic acid, calcium: ever since taking up life as a housewife she seemed to be paying considerable attention to the composition of our meals. A plate of small dried baby sardines had been put out on the table. For her to nibble, after dinner, taking glances at the television. I would wash the dishes.

‘The babies and I won’t be able to sleep apart, so maybe at the beginning, you should sleep in the living room. Or maybe, considering it’s warmer in here, it would make sense if you sleep in the bedroom, and I and the babies sleep in the living room . . . ’

‘Okay.’

It was a topic we had gone over time and time again, and still she hadn’t decided. It had never even crossed my mind when I signed the contract for us to live here that two more human beings were going to just suddenly appear on the scene. The question of whether we should move to a bigger apartment was also something that cropped up frequently between us, but somehow always we found ourselves distracted by some other topic, and by now it was too late.

‘Oh, sorry. The burdock is a little hard.’

‘No, it’s better slightly crisp. I prefer it. You know, you shouldn’t think you have to cook everything from scratch. I can always buy prepared side dishes, on my way home from work. Honestly. Just tell me what you need.’

‘Mm . . . Side dishes. Maybe. Oh, isn’t it time we closed the window?’

‘I’ll do it. You sit.’

My wife laughed out loud at some program on the television we had found ourselves watching, not particularly because we wanted to, but just for lack of anything else. Finding her laughter contagious, I laughed out loud too, as once more I stepped over the quilt that lay puffed up in the shape of a dog on the mattress to shut the window. Something pale and round shifted as if in response, glinting in the fluorescent light. Actually, it didn’t – not in reality. The gecko on the window was motionless. It hadn’t uttered a sound, not once all this time. Just quietly laying its eggs, waiting for them to hatch, then dying – or at least, going away somewhere else. Now there were eight of them, each with four limbs, each limb with five toes, making a total of 160 tiny little toe pads, all gripping the glass . . . I carefully drew the yellow curtains across the window, shivering as a gust of cold, rough air from behind seemed to catch me across the shoulders.

 

 

Photograph © Nick Tsinonis

Three Poems
Simon