I came by something strange while I was travelling. This was what Enomoto had said to me about two months ago.
Enomoto is a painter-slash-high school teacher who lives in the apartment directly above mine. We met when we both served on the local residents’ association, and have been friendly ever since. He would call me on the phone every so often and say, I’m brewing some nice coffee. I would traipse up the stairs to Enomoto’s apartment to enjoy his delicious coffee. We would make small talk and then I would trudge back down the stairs and return to my own apartment. That was the extent of our relationship.
Enomoto’s apartment is exactly the same layout as mine, but it has quite a different feel. It’s tidy, for a bachelor’s flat, but what with his painting supplies and his hobby cameras and his magazines on those subjects, there were things all over the place. Interestingly, though, his apartment gave the overall impression of being much more clearly delineated than mine.
Enomoto only ever referred to the coffee that he brewed as ‘nice’. He would grind the beans on a hand-operated coffee mill, and use a cloth filter. Then he would gently pour it into warmed coffee mugs. The aroma and the taste were both extremely sophisticated. Which is why, whenever Enomoto called me for coffee, I would abandon whatever I was doing and traipse up the stairs to his place.
Lately, though, there haven’t been any invitations from Enomoto for ‘nice coffee’. Ever since the call, two months ago, when he mentioned that he had come by something strange, he hasn’t invited me over. Enomoto didn’t elaborate about what the strange thing was. Perhaps he demurred by saying, All in good time. The cherry blossoms were just starting to open. There are big cherry trees outside my apartment, and when the wind blows, petals scatter onto my veranda.
Enomoto must have been able to see the tops of the cherry trees from his apartment. Even when they weren’t in full bloom, a strong wind would still strew a few petals around. I picked up the petals from the veranda and tried to make them float in a dish filled with water. The ever-so-faintly peach-tinged petals drifted on the surface of the water. I was thus occupied when I got a call from Enomoto. If you don’t mind, I’d like to get your advice, Enomoto said. I traipsed up the stairs, and rang the bell for Apartment 402.
As soon as he opened the door I smelled something. I looked around while taking off my shoes, wondering what kind of smell it was. The magazines, the cameras stored carefully on the shelves, the easel, the unfinished painting – everything in Enomoto’s apartment was in its place.
‘I’ll brew some coffee,’ Enomoto said, standing in the kitchen. After a little while, I acclimated to the space, becoming less sure about the smell I had noticed at first. I could no longer tell whether or not it was still present.
‘Here you are,’ Enomoto emerged from the kitchen carrying a coffee mug in each hand. Had he lost a little weight?
How have you been, Enomoto-san? I asked.
He knit his brows and responded, ‘You could say I’m perfectly fine, but you could also say I’m not perfectly fine,’ with a laugh. ‘I know that’s not much of an answer,’ he laughed again. I laughed along with him, and drank the coffee. It was as sophisticated as ever.
It’s delicious, I said. Enomoto nodded, and then blurted out, ‘Two months ago.’
Enomoto wasn’t one for putting on airs. As he sat there with slightly downcast eyes, he told this story.
Two months ago, he took a trip to the south. He had travelled down along the coast. On the day before he was to return home, he stayed at a small guest house in a fishing village. As often happened on the last day of a trip, he wasn’t tired enough to sleep, and that night he lay there for a long time, listening to the sound of the waves. He was wide awake, so he got out of bed and went for a walk on the shore in the middle of the night. The lights on the road along the beach shone on the dunes. There were fishing nets spread out by the water’s edge. He walked around, looking for a spot where he might sit down, and before he knew it, he found himself by the nets. Gazing at them vacantly, he realized there was something in one of them. It wasn’t moving. It was smaller than a tuna, but larger than a sea bream. Its tail fin was long. From the fin to its abdomen, it was covered in iridescent scales. Above the abdomen, there were no scales; it had smooth, pale skin. Long hair was coiled around its upper body and, amid these locks of hair, he could see an ample bosom. It was facing away from him so he couldn’t make out any facial features. Ears stuck out from its hair. There were fine iridescent scales on the ears. He turned toward the side of its face that was visible, to try to tell whether or not it was breathing. The eyes and mouth were tightly closed. These eyes and mouth looked as though a blade had been used to make slits in pliant white stone. The slight prominence of the nose gently arranged, softly polished out of that same stone. As he stared, after a while he realized that the shoulders were rising and falling. It appeared to be alive. And if it were alive, then it appeared to be a mermaid. A mermaid about one-third the size of a grown-up human being.
The thing you ‘came by,’ that’s what you meant – a mermaid? I exclaimed with surprise.
‘Indeed,’ Enomoto said, stroking his beard.
Hmm, so mermaids are that small? I asked.
‘Well, I don’t know about other mermaids,’ Enomoto replied.
We looked at each other. Unsure of what else to ask, I fell silent. Then Enomoto opened the bathroom door and invited me to enter.
There was the mermaid. The bathtub was filled about a third of the way with water, and the mermaid was swimming in it. When she reached one end, she would turn around in the opposite direction until she got to the other end, and then turn around again – over and over. In an unhurried manner, the mermaid was traversing the bathtub. There was a strong scent of salt water. This briny aroma must have been what I’d noticed earlier when I came in the front door. The mermaid’s long hair swayed in the water as she continued to and fro, without ever looking our way.
‘So this is about the extent of it,’ Enomoto said.
The extent of it? I replied, but whatever extent it was, the mermaid had just kept going back and forth ever since we had come in.
She just swims like this, all the time? I asked.
Enomoto nodded. ‘Pretty much, except when she’s hungry,’ he replied.
The mermaid – I started to say but then corrected myself to say, This person – I didn’t know whether or not the mermaid understood human speech, and if she didn’t consider herself human, I didn’t want her to be offended by the inclusion implied by the term mermaid. Though whether or not it was appropriate to identify her as a person instead of a mermaid was a difficult matter.
This person, has she been here the whole time? I asked.
‘She has, ever since I brought her home,’ Enomoto said, taking a horse mackerel from the wash basin beside the bathtub and handing it to the mermaid.
The mermaid stopped swimming and took the horse mackerel, holding its head and tail with both hands. She leaned against the wall of the bathtub and, just like she was playing a harmonica, slid her mouth from the horse mackerel’s head to its tail. In one motion, she thoroughly cleaned the meat off the bone. It was an utterly refined manner of eating. The mermaid ate up the entire horse mackerel – she didn’t leave a shred behind, nor did she sully the water. Enomoto handed her another, which she ate the same way. She must have eaten five of them. I could have watched her eating horse mackerels forever, but Enomoto didn’t give her any more. Once she had finished eating the last one, the mermaid began swimming to and fro again. Enomoto left the bathroom so, reluctantly, I followed after him. But I did not want to leave the mermaid’s side.
‘You didn’t want to come out, did you?’ Enomoto said after he made me another coffee.
What? I responded with surprise.
‘Out of the bathroom,’ he said.
Now that you mention it, probably not, I replied. As I was saying these words, I clearly remembered the feeling of not wanting to leave the mermaid’s side.
‘It seems they have that effect,’ Enomoto said, referring to the ancient lore about mermaids and briefly explaining how alluring they can be to humans.
On that night two months ago, Enomoto had extracted the mermaid from the net and brought her back to the guest house. The mermaid weighed surprisingly little. He wrapped her in a damp cloth and put her in a plastic bag, he said, and then carried her home like that. Why he brought her home, when instead he ought to have taken her to the koban police box or something like that – even Enomoto didn’t understand it at the time. It never occurred to him that bringing her home was an odd thing to do. He just wanted to, and he did, packing her in his bag – she may have been light but she took up space – and taking her with him.
You think you could have brought her to the koban? I asked.
Enomoto frowned. ‘I’m telling you this in all seriousness so please listen in all seriousness,’ he said.
I am listening in all seriousness, I’m wondering about the procedure for lost and found articles, I said. But Enomoto paid no attention to what I said, he just continued with his story.
At first, I thought I just found it interesting – the way the mermaid swam or watching her eat fish – and that was why I found it difficult to leave. But then, at some point, I couldn’t bring myself to go to work. I would feed her some fish in the morning, and that was it – I just wanted to stay there, sitting in the bathroom. I finally convinced myself to go to the office, but it’s no use – the whole time I’m working, all I can think about is the mermaid. I yearn for the end of the workday to arrive as quickly as possible. Whether I’m teaching students, or eating lunch, or in a staff meeting, I’m restless and distracted. I practically fly home and into the bathroom. The mermaid is just simply swimming, but I can’t take my eyes away from watching her. I try to paint, but even when I’m in front of the canvas, I find that my feet take me right back into the bathroom. I peek in there dozens of times a day. Before long, I’m spending all my time there. With the exception of sleeping and meals, I’m in the bathroom. As long as I’m by the mermaid’s side, I feel at ease. I stay near her, reading books or doing work.
I was content with that situation for a time, but one morning, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the mermaid, and I ended up missing work. Since then, I’ve missed work five times. Knowing that things can’t go on like this, I decided to ask your advice.
But Enomoto-san, you’re not restless and distracted right now, are you? I asked.
‘I’m desperately pretending not to be,’ he replied. ‘The truth is even now all I want is to go and be with the mermaid.’
The moment Enomoto said this, I too was seized with a keen desire to be with the mermaid. I couldn’t contain myself. I have no idea why I felt so drawn to the mermaid, but the pull was irresistible.
We sat there drinking our coffee for a bit longer, but neither of us could really taste it. Enomoto stood up first, then I immediately followed. The two of us headed for the bathroom, as if we were in a race. The mermaid was swimming smoothly. She went back and forth in the bathtub, with refreshing coolness.
Please, I’m begging you to take her, I can’t go on like this. At first I refused Enomoto’s repeated entreaties, but eventually I could no longer say no. Enomoto and I knew very well that the best thing to do would be to return the mermaid to the sea, though both of us were pretending otherwise. I had barely encountered her and look at the state I was in – it was somewhat frightening to imagine what it must be like for Enomoto. In the end, I agreed to take her.
Enomoto waited for me to fill my bathtub, and then he put the mermaid in a bag and brought her over. He let her slip from the bag as he released her into the water. She immediately started swimming in the bathtub. Exactly as she had done at Enomoto’s.
Well, let’s go. I’ll make us some tea, I said, but Enomoto did not move from beside the bathtub. I tugged him by the hand, but still he didn’t budge.
I’ll take care of her, I said, and Enomoto slowly looked up.
He stared at me. There was no light in his eyes. What was he thinking, as he fixed his gaze upon me with those lightless eyes? He stared at me, silent the whole time.
What’s the matter, Enomoto-san? I asked him, but he remained silent.
Come on, let’s go. Why don’t we have some dinner? I said.
But Enomoto still didn’t speak. He stared at me silently. Scared, I left the bathroom without him. I listened through the door, but the only sound was that of the water as the mermaid swam about in the bathtub. I waited an hour, and still Enomoto did not emerge. It was totally silent in the apartment, save for the mermaid’s splashing that echoed against the walls of bathroom. Although Enomoto himself made no noise at all, his presence hung heavily throughout the apartment. Two hours passed, three hours passed, and Enomoto did not emerge. I gave up and went to bed, but it wasn’t as if I could sleep. In the middle of the night, I thought I heard a loud noise – the bathroom door opened and Enomoto seemed to tumble as he came out. He emitted a kind of shout as he bolted out of the apartment. Thinking he must have taken the mermaid with him, I peeked into the bathroom, but she was still there. She was floating, in profile, half submerged in the water. She appeared to float naturally. Like cherry blossom petals on the surface of a glass of water, the mermaid floated softly in the water as she slept.
It was indeed tough to be away from the mermaid. Each morning I would feed her horse mackerel or sardines or chubs; then having to leave for the office was particularly difficult.
It had been a few days since Enomoto had entrusted me with the mermaid, but I hadn’t heard from him. That final shout he had uttered – whatever kind of sound that had been – kept echoing in my ears. I went through the usual motions: go to work, come home, have dinner, sleep. Go to work, come home, have dinner, watch the mermaid, sleep. Go to work, come home, have dinner, watch the mermaid, sit by the mermaid’s side for as long as possible, sleep. Go to work, come home, have dinner, watch the mermaid, sit by the mermaid’s side for as long as possible, sleep beside the mermaid.
Before I knew it, I was in the same situation as Enomoto. He had told me that at night he slept apart from the mermaid but that had probably been a lie. When it came to eating meals, that definitely took place in the bathroom. Not wanting to waste time cooking, I started buying ready-made food items. I wasn’t sweeping, so the apartment became dusty. I hardly ever opened the curtains, I rarely did laundry – I just stayed in the bathroom. I brought in a chair, a blanket, eating utensils, and I lived in there. I barely remembered anything from when I went out. Conversations bored me. I didn’t answer the phone. I spent all my time simply watching the mermaid. Occasionally it would occur to me that this was untenable, but I quickly banished those thoughts. I had no interest in talking to anyone, though I was aware of a vague desire to speak to Enomoto. I watched the mermaid swim in the bathtub, then slept, and in the morning I drifted off to the office. Thoughts of this being untenable gradually diminished. By the time Enomoto showed up, such thoughts were completely gone from my mind. It had been a mere week since I had taken the mermaid.
There was a heavy knocking sound. Instead of ringing the bell, someone was banging directly on the door. I ignored it but whoever it was didn’t stop. I had been in the bathroom, holding my breath, but when this had gone on for long enough, I came out. Over the intercom, I asked who was there. The knocking stopped, and a voice said, ‘It’s Enomoto.’
I opened the door to find him standing there.
The look in my eyes – What is it? – must have been the same lightless expression that I’d seen in Enomoto’s eyes when I had gone over to take the mermaid from him and he hadn’t wanted to come out of the bathroom.
What is it?
‘I’ve come for the mermaid.’
‘Why? This was only supposed to be temporary.’
It’s not time yet, is it?
As I spoke, I had taken a step back. Shall I make some tea? I said as I headed for the bathroom. This had not escaped Enomoto, and he blocked my way.
‘I borrowed a car,’ Enomoto said.
What? A car?
‘I’m bringing her back to the sea.’
With this declaration, Enomoto pushed me aside and went into the bathroom. He lifted the mermaid out of the water and put her into a large black plastic bag that I hadn’t noticed he’d been carrying.
No! You can’t do this, I cried out. I tried to wrench the bag away from Enomoto. But he was strong.
‘That’s why I brought a black bag. It’ll be fine, as long as I don’t see her. If I’m with her too long, though, I’ll go right back to how I was. We’ve got to hurry,’ Enomoto spoke quickly, dangling the bag with the mermaid in it from one hand and, with the other, pulling me by the hand into the elevator. A green car I had never seen before was parked on the street. Enomoto put the bag with the mermaid in the trunk and started the engine.
You can’t just put her in the trunk! I said, but Enomoto replied, ‘We’ll be there soon, it’s fine.’
No! Stop! You can’t! I yelled, yanking Enomoto’s arm as the car started moving.
‘Don’t do that, we’ll have an accident. Put your seatbelt on,’ Enomoto told me briskly. Reluctantly I put my seatbelt on, and we drove to the sea.
Cherry trees lined the embankment along whatever beach it was. There was a constant scattering of flower petals, despite there being hardly any breeze. Some of the cherry trees were in leaf. Enomoto carried the bag with the mermaid in it, heading for the water’s edge with quick steps. The day was glorious. Several gulls flew over from the estuary. The sun’s rays weren’t very strong, yet the glare on the surface of the water was blinding. The beach was deserted. There were many shells on the sand, their contours worn away by the waves. Hearing the sound of the waves, I grew drowsy. In spite of my desperation, I felt drowsy.
Enomoto walked on, his pace unfaltering.
Enomoto-san, I called after him, but he didn’t turn around.
I shouted his name again, louder this time so that the sound of the waves wouldn’t drown out my voice. But he just kept on walking.
At the water’s edge, Enomoto set down the bag. Carefully, he opened it. As soon as he did so, water trickled out onto the sandy beach. The water was quickly absorbed by the sand.
You really are sending her back, I said, on the verge of tears as I ran up beside Enomoto.
‘I’m giving her back,’ Enomoto said. Though his voice was somewhat weaker than it had been in the car.
Let’s not do it, I said, and Enomoto blinked his eyes.
‘I’m going to.’ His voice was even more feeble.
It’s okay – it isn’t as if we’re doing anything wrong, I said, my tone tempting. I had no idea where this kind of voice originated from within me.
‘I suppose not but,’ Enomoto said, his gaze uneasy.
It’s a beautiful day, let’s just take a walk and then go home. The mermaid can come with us.
Such a soft and sweet voice. It didn’t sound like mine. Don’t do it, don’t speak to him in that voice, I thought, but I couldn’t stop myself.
‘Maybe you’re right.’ Now Enomoto sounded abstracted, as though he were under hypnosis.
Don’t do this, don’t do this, I thought to myself, but I didn’t form the words. We have to send her back, I tried to say, but nothing came out. The mermaid was lying on the sand. She lay there, limp, as if the sand were holding up her body. She hadn’t said or done anything, and yet neither one of us could tear ourselves away from her.
‘I’m giving her back,’ Enomoto seemed to force himself to say.
I clenched my teeth desperately, knowing that if I opened my mouth, that same soft and sweet voice would come out.
In silence, Enomoto and I waded into the water together, carrying the mermaid. Our shoes got wet but we barely noticed. Enomoto held the mermaid’s tail fin while I carried her with both of my hands under her arms. When the water was up past our knees, Enomoto said, ‘Around here will do.’
He gave a rallying cry. ‘Heave, ho!’ At this particular moment, I thought to myself, Enomoto could shout ‘Heave, ho!’ however many times, with as much composure as he could manage, and still neither of us would be able to let go of the mermaid.
This is so hard, I said. Enomoto gave a little smile. Seeing his smile, I felt as if I might be able to let go of the mermaid.
Heave-ho! This time it was I who said it, and at last we flung the mermaid into the sea. Her iridescent scales glimmered as she sank beneath the waves, disappearing from sight with a plunk.
We gave her back. No sooner had I murmured these words to Enomoto than the mermaid’s face appeared, floating in between Enomoto and me. Startled, I fell on my bottom. Now in up to my shoulders in seawater, even my clothes were sopping wet.
The mermaid looked straight at me for a moment. She didn’t look at Enomoto. She was only looking at me. It was the first time I had seen the mermaid’s face so closely. Those eyes that seemed carved out of porcelain were staring intently at me.
I can’t let go after all, I was about to say, unwittingly.
I can’t let go.
That instant, the mermaid opened her mouth. Her thin red lips parted.
‘I won’t let you go,’ the mermaid said.
Her voice resonated clearly.
She spoke with her eyes still fixed on my face.
The same shout that Enomoto had uttered the night he ran from my apartment emerged now from my own lips.
As I shouted, I started running toward the shore. With the resistance from the water and my sopping wet clothes, I was unable to run very fast. It felt like trying to run in a dream. Enomoto grabbed me by the hand. Bewildered, I was running pell-mell. When I finally reached the beach, my breathing heavy, I heard it once more, coming from behind me.
‘I won’t let you go.’
I covered my ears, burying my face in the sand.
I don’t know how long I stayed like that, but when I looked up Enomoto was crouched in front of me, and there was a blanket draped around my body.
At some point the mermaid had gone. I could see fishing boats out at sea.
The cherry blossoms had fluttered this far onto the shore. The sand was dusted with petals. Like a light snowfall. Cherry blossom petals stuck to my wet hair and clothes. I stared for a while at the scattering cherry trees. Enomoto and I crouched there together, gazing at the shower of flower petals.
The next day, I ran a high fever and, a few days later, when at last I was feeling like myself again, the cherry trees had lost all their petals. I called Enomoto to thank him.
‘I’m brewing some nice coffee,’ Enomoto said, so I climbed the stairs up to his place. The tops of the cherry trees in leaf were visible from the windows in Enomoto’s apartment.
‘Now is the season, when the trees are all leafed out, that the birds begin to arrive,’ Enomoto said as he made coffee.
The birds? Oh, birds are nice, I replied absently, and Enomoto laughed.
‘They’re better than mermaids,’ he said, laughing again.
Just what was that mermaid, I murmured.
Enomoto looked serious as he responded, ‘We were in her thrall.’
Enomoto-san, how is it that you were able to give her back? I asked.
‘But in the end, you were the one who did it, weren’t you?’ he replied.
The wind came up, swaying the branches of the cherry trees. They reminded me of the cherry trees at the shore. I could not remember clearly what the mermaid had looked like, or the distinct feeling of not wanting to be away from her. Only the scattering of the cherry blossoms remained as a detailed memory.
Did the mermaid say the same thing to you too, Enomoto-san? I asked.
He nodded. ‘When I brought her over for you to keep at your place, and I was shut up in the bathroom with her, that was when she said it to me,’ Enomoto said softly.
Both of us were silent as we sipped our coffee.
‘I suppose I just didn’t have the strength to never let her go,’ Enomoto said eventually, his voice full of emotion.
It’s probably the same for me, I said quietly, turning to look out the window.
New, pale green leaves had sprouted on all the trees. The wind shook the fresh green foliage. Each of us continued to stare out the window.
Image © RB PM stock