When night came, I heard the cries. The night was sealed off completely – or so it seemed. But maybe the sky was full of slits where the sobs spilled in. Was the night crying? The cries grew louder, multiplying like tiny insects. Yet night was too great to fill, even if the dark wasn’t heavy enough to silence them. The cries flocked together, too frightened to break away from the slits. When I held up a finger to pry them loose, I could feel a tremble in the air. I looked at my finger, at the pool of light gathered on the pad. My finger was wet – as if it had found a tear among the voices.
When night came, it felt as if the wind had stopped. Because the night-shaking crying to come had already filled my ears. Because I was ready too, waiting. It was almost like my eardrums were already reliving something that had happened only a moment earlier. Remembering – because I am remembering – allows me to tell myself that this is something that had happened a very long time ago, something that now lives only in memory. What I’m hearing is the past, something that no longer exists, not in this time. Then, in an instant, ‘this time’ slips away and becomes the past. Memory is never really gone, and that’s why the night has to keep trembling.
When night is close, a giant vacuum opens. Everywhere, the air is sucked into little lungs in little chests, and that’s why it’s hard to breathe. For a moment, the supply of oxygen enveloping the world decreases, if only slightly. Even if the children don’t understand, they know. Everything they managed to forget during the day comes back. And when they realize it, as soon as they feel it, their bodies stiffen. They stop breathing. The vacuum opens. Everything is sucked in, all disappears. And in that moment, it comes back, the thing hiding deep inside them, avoiding the light of the sun. It chases after the children as they run, through the fields and around their rooms, kept down by joints and limbs in constant movement. Held back by the wrinkles around their mouths and eyes, framing their smiling and crying faces. But it’s dark, larger than the night. Did the children know that? Could they even tell that thing apart from the night? Night, when it finally catches them. And crying won’t help, but they cry anyway, hoping to get away. Maybe the wind really had stopped.
I could hear an owl calling from the woods. Something out there is always awake, I say. But even that knowledge failed to bring the children peace. When you’re asleep, there’s always an eye open on the world of night. When you’re asleep, or out of sleep, should you wander out, the outside world is kept under a vigilant eye. You are not forgotten. You’ll never be forgotten – I wanted them to understand this.
So I took the children who said they couldn’t sleep into the woods. We went searching for owls. The dark only looks so dark, I tell them, because the owls are looking the other way, somewhere we can’t see their eyes. But when they twist their necks around and face us, we’ll see – the light will come right back.
I walked on, lantern in hand, the children following behind me in a line. Maybe it looked as though I was leading them away from the home, to abandon them in some distant corner of the woods. By the side of the road was Father Eteau, the collar of his well-worn peacoat standing at attention, a lit cigarette pinched between his fingers. He was hunching his shoulders, with a suspicious look on his face. Maybe the light from my lantern was in his eyes. He squinted, holding the hand with the cigarette up over his eyes.
‘Are you standing watch tonight, Father Eteau?’ I asked.
He didn’t bother answering. In the lamplight, smoke twisted and spread around him. Suspicion turned to smoke, swirling up and away from him.
‘I thought I’d show them the bats,’ I said.
We left the road that stretches straight out from the gate, following the footpath that veers toward the woods. The tension in the dark around us slackened, the stars above us blinking as if struggling to stay awake. Through the leafless branches, the wind started blowing again. Moments later, the howls of distant dogs answered. The crunch of dead leaves underfoot. As if to move a hunk of rock blocking the path, the hoo of an owl pushed into the cold silence. As the rock relented, I heard a voice from behind.
‘Why’d you lie like that?’
I stopped where I stood.
‘You told a lie,’ another voice said, this one younger than the first. ‘We aren’t looking for bats.’
I turned around and held the lantern over them. The flame was too weak to see all the children, their line running into the darkness. I was sure I’d counted them before we left. Yet beyond the light of the flame, I couldn’t say – who was hidden in the dark, out of sight.
‘See,’ said a voice, proud and probably no less sad. ‘We’re already forgotten.’
‘Hold on, look,’ I said, holding the lantern higher overhead.
Among the bare branches fell the shape of an owl.
‘It looks cold,’ I said. It was the perfect picture of an owl, neck tucked in, wings at its sides. Stars nowhere to be seen. The sky had to be covered in clouds. The owl’s eyes were shut tight, providing us with nothing that might puncture the darkness of the night.
‘Told you,’ muttered a disappointed voice. ‘It isn’t even awake.’
‘See,’ another one of them spat. ‘No one’s looking out for us.’
I shook the lantern to get the owl’s attention, but its eyes remained shut. Then I heard the sound of flapping wings – and a net of darkness was thrown over us. The lantern’s flame had gone out. Maybe it was the wind. Maybe I’d shaken the lantern too hard. Maybe the owl had suddenly turned toward us as if it was thrust into action by some invisible switch. We were caught in the dark, unable to move.
‘See?’ a voice said, trembling with anger, but said nothing else. As if just saying that one word had taken everything.
It was then I started to hear the sobs.
When night came and the sobs woke me, I’d always walk around the building looking for the source. Nine-thirty was lights out for the children. Going back to my room, I’d read books and write down any lines that struck me in my notebook. I’d write down my own thoughts as well, whatever came to mind. I didn’t date the entries. I’d just write down what had happened that day, my thoughts. I tried writing about other things, things that may have already happened or may happen after this, but always drew a blank. Whether in reality or in a book, it’s not often you come across anything worth putting down on paper. I felt like I was under a tree by the side of an empty road, its leaves heavy with dirt, waiting, just waiting for someone, all the while hoping somewhere in my heart that they would never show up, that they would never come. I tried not to write things in my notes that I wanted to happen. Pretty much everything, no matter what it is, takes time to get used to. It wasn’t easy for me to sit at my small but sturdy beechwood desk and open my notebook. I should have been sitting up, but I was sleeping, fingers slipped between the pages of my book, when I was awakened by sobs filling my room like the sound of rain. In no time, this had become routine. I would be lying face-down on my bed, still in my clothes. Sobs beating against the wall of my sleep. No – it was more like a lullaby dragging me deeper into sleep. I open the book to the pages holding my finger and try reading the words, but most of the time I can’t remember what’s going on. I can’t even remember if that page was the one I was reading. Sometimes even looking at the title of the book or the name of the author would call nothing to mind. At first it filled me with dread – but soon enough I got used to it. Where did I even find those books? What made me choose them? Or had I chosen them at all? I had probably found them on the floor of the playroom, when I was picking up after the children (even though they’re always telling me to make them clean up after themselves), then brought them back to my room. Or maybe somebody left them on my desk? In the morning, when I open the notebook and flip through the pages, there are words on every page staring back at me. No dates anywhere, so I can’t tell if the words were written that night or not. On top of that, the words are almost impossible to read. They dance wildly on the page, mistakes all over the place. Because I’d written them on the verge of sleep? Or maybe one of the children snuck into my room together with the sobs? Just picture it. Before that poor sleepless child, I rest peacefully, breathing gently as the breeze. Angered by the sight, the child grabs the pen on my desk and starts scribbling furiously, filling the paper with indignation. They try to put what they feel into words, but words fail. Then, in the hall, another child sees the first child leaving and enters the room as soon as the first one turns the corner. The constant footfalls of children are silenced by the night and I don’t wake up. Child after child. Page after page. A suffocatingly thick rainforest of words. Then the words begin to break apart. Mistakes and lines left unfinished rise and fall on the yellow of the pages that continue without end. The lines I managed to make out I could hardly believe were my own. They all seemed too childish. That was probably why I started to wonder if it was the children. But that’s no good! It’s no good. Imagining the children crawling out of their beds at night, sneaking into my room like that . . . No, I can’t think it! I can’t allow myself to think it. To prove to myself that the lines were mine, I tried imagining myself sitting at my desk, night after night, opening a book and reading it, or pretending to read it even though I couldn’t understand a word, then writing the lines down in my notebook . . . I hoped I would see it even in my dreams. But I just couldn’t imagine it – what I was reading, what I was writing. I had to leave my lantern lit all night, so I could write in my notebook even when I was asleep, even when I was dreaming. But that was actually helpful; whenever I heard sobs coming from the darkness, I could grab the handle of my lantern and run out.
I left my room. With a circle of dim light at my feet, its outer rim trembling, I went after the cries, following the trail they’d left behind like bloody footprints.
One night, the cries led me down to the basement, the dead wood of each stair creaking as I found the next step. The moist air smelled of mildew and earth. Before my eyes was a large wooden box for storing bags of potatoes. It was like a boat that had run aground, half-buried in the dark. It looked perfectly still, but it was quivering. The cries were pulling on it, pulling the tiny boat to water. But the boat wouldn’t make the trip. I shook my lantern – up and down, side to side – trying to release the boat from the unforgiving grip of the dark. I wanted the darkness to free its prisoner. The crying grew louder and louder, as if it was trying to push the boat to water, just as the boat’s occupant was hoping when she boarded it. Because the crying threatened to rip its vessel into pieces. The dark was sweeping in from outside and swelling up from within. Swallowed up by darkness on all sides, leaving nothing. Only the crying, the sound of a raging whirlpool of darkness.
‘Let me out,’ cried the voice. ‘Let me out! Please!’
She stamped her small bare feet against the floor of the box.
‘Get me out!’
I put the lantern down and looked into the dark filling the wooden ship.
‘Help! Let me out!’
I lifted Loulou out of the box and held her tightly against my chest. She was light as a doll.
Freed from the box, Loulou still sobbed – and that ragged voice was undeniably Loulou’s, but when she inhaled sharply, the silence that took over sounded like another voice, other voices, a crowd of others gathering inside of her.
‘Let me out . . . let me out . . .’
The waves, which shook her so violently that I thought her tiny back and chest might snap, settled in time. Holding her in my arms, I bent down to pick up the lantern, then held it close to our faces. Loulou had her face buried in my shoulder. She was still crying.
‘You’re okay now, you’re okay,’ I whispered in her ear.
Then I walked upstairs, carrying Loulou out of the basement.
‘Why . . .’ Loulou finally spoke. Unmistakably hers, it was a voice I knew well.
I didn’t say anything back, so Loulou held her head up to look at me. Her bangs, which always sat neatly over her forehead, were all over the place. Her eyes were wet, eyelashes tangled in dark clumps, making her big eyes look that much bigger.
‘Why did you leave me there in that place?’
The skinny five-year-old girl I held in my arms, who was so small for her age, was not actually named Loulou. None of the children at the home ever used their real names, and the same was true for the adults who worked there. Father Eteau called himself Father Eteau, so we all did the same. It was as simple as that. We called the man who looked nothing like him and sometimes took his place Cateau the Son. Cateau – that was how he introduced himself. Then he told us he was Father Eteau’s son, which Father Eteau never said anything about one way or another. Maybe Cateau was his mother’s name. We had no idea if Cateau was Eteau’s son. We couldn’t even be sure they were farmers. Was the field we visited with the children really theirs? ‘We’re digging for potatoes in Father Eteau’s field today.’ I was the one who told the children that and had them follow after me in single-file. Had doubt already filled those eyes that followed after us? Flitting around the garden, the robins keep watch. Below the poplars, magpies that look almost like philosophers hunching forward as they walk, hands held behind their backs. Keeping their distance as they surround us, they watch us from behind, curiosity tucked under their black wings. Then I turn around, but see no birds – there’s only the metallic laughter coming down on us from above. The children are scared. It’s okay, I’m not mad at you. Listen – listen to me. It’s not you I’m staring at. Not that they understand me. They’ll never understand. Kakakaw. Their faces are hard, and so are their bodies. They can’t hear anything I’m saying now. Kakakaw. Kakakaw. Shrill laughter like a walnut shell scraping against another shell pierces my brain. Kakakaw. But one of the shells is my head, my skull. I feel around inside my pockets, looking for walnuts. But all the children can see is something moving around in there, writhing. Watching my skirt jump before their eyes, the children’s fear only mounts. I watch as the lines on their faces dissolve. Some of them start to cry. Kakakaw. But the sound of shell scraping against skull echoes in my head – it’s deafening. It’s painful, too much to take. Something’s going to give – the shell or my head. Kakakaw. I can feel my face twisting from the pain. Deep wrinkles form between my eyebrows. I can only imagine what my face must look like to the children. I can’t do anything to keep them from crying, from being scared. Kakakaw. Then Father Eteau’s dog Toby (or maybe he belonged to Cateau the Son) watched us passing in front of the field. The old white hound with brown spots spent winter days in the sun and summer days in the shade, curled up in a ball, his snout pressed up against his crotch. Maybe his nose doesn’t work the way it used to – maybe he’s sniffing down there to see if it’ll bring his sense of smell back. Toby sticks his nose in the air and sniffs meaningfully in our direction. Father Eteau sits in his old wooden chair, his hound at his feet, watching our procession. Was the stain of uncertainty there in his eyes already? Was the field truly his? Was it his son’s? And what was in Cateau the Son’s eyes when he looked at us? If there was doubt or uncertainty or fear, was it because he wanted me? Of course he wanted me. But had I done something to pique his desire? I had never said a word to him beyond what was necessary, and he didn’t speak to me either. Neither father nor son ever said much. Still, Cateau the Son was by no means silent. I remember one day in the village, at the post office. Cateau the Son happened to be there, talking with the girl behind the counter, paying no mind to anyone else. I was right behind him, but he was oblivious, talking to the girl with glasses, with lenses like the bottoms of milk bottles and eyes just like a cow’s. When she moved her mouth to speak, it looked like she was chewing on grass. Big breasts like udders. Even though she’s sitting, she looks like a cow lying in a field. She always smells of milk, but not cow’s milk. Human milk – mother’s milk. The hands she uses to give change or stamps almost look like hands, but I can tell they’re hooves. I could tell. That’s why I had to pretend not to notice. And I knew she didn’t give me the proper change, she never did, but I never said a thing because of all the trouble it would cause her to have to count the bills and coins again with hooves for hands. It was a summer day, early in the afternoon, and the post office was more or less deserted. The room was full of heavy-bellied flies floating around. The smell of cow shit was hanging in the air. From the girl’s thin hair, shiny and blonde (which probably wasn’t her natural color anyway), her cow ears poked out to either side like a pair of wings, swatting at the flies that flew too close. I pretended not to watch. It was all I could do, there was nothing I could say. I silently waited behind Cateau the Son until he finally caught on. I didn’t move, didn’t make a sound – not because I cared about what they were saying. Cateau’s gleeful laughter bounced off the white walls. Every time he said something, swinging at the air like he was swatting at flies, I tried my best to keep from laughing out loud, but the bovine girl opposite me did nothing of the sort. She shook with laughter, her giant breasts shaking along. Her marble-white, veiny cheeks took on a reddish tinge as she let out a sound that wasn’t a laugh or a shriek or a cry. I was sure the walls were going to crack, that the plaster would crumble. The smell of milk was getting stronger by the second. I tried to pinch my nose and breathe through my mouth. Then the milk came down my throat, thick and lukewarm. It poured in and I was helpless to stop it. Even if Cateau hadn’t noticed me there, the girl had; but she talks and moves with the irritating slowness of a heifer. I bet it takes her twice as long as anyone else to finish a task or end a conversation. When Cateau turned and saw me, he went white with shock. Was his sudden silence a sign of his embarrassment? There was a murky light in his eyes as he turned away, wriggling like an eel at the bottom of a swamp. No – it couldn’t have been in my head. He could have been putting on a show with the girl-cow to make me jealous. Maybe what I saw in his eyes was nothing but my own filthy desire for him. But that couldn’t be right. Because I could always tell how he wanted me when he looked at me. I knew he was staring at me, burning with wet eyes whenever he saw me with the children, smiling at them, occasionally, often, always raising my voice, touching them – caressing them, holding them close, rubbing my cheek against theirs. What is it about me, me with the children, that makes him lust for me? He came to the home in Father Eteau’s place. But what are the two men really doing here? What if they really did look alike and I simply couldn’t see it?
My room on the second floor looked over the backyard, even if it wasn’t much of a backyard. It didn’t have so much as a fence around it. When it was sunny out, the sheets that enveloped the children at night would be strung up at the top of the hill, drying on the line, filling up with the warm wind that had run up the slope, bothered by no one and nothing. Under the bright light of the sun, the wall of poplars, heavy with clumps of leaves like schools of tiny fish, stands there, protected by nothing, protecting nothing. The sky roars. I can hear hissing, like air leaking from a hole opened up in the bottom of the sky. It isn’t only at night that it gets hard to breathe. I look up for a plane – but what would an airplane want from a place like this? The thought puts my mind at ease. But I feel lonely, too. Then I turn away from the home and look downhill, toward the clusters of buildings surrounded by green, toward the lights shining off the roof tiles and windows. It’s as if each village is calling me, sending me some secret message. Yet I refuse their calls and find myself drawn into the distant woods, stretching out like an unending dark ocean beneath the hazy sky of day.
But now night regains its heaviness. A wind appears from nowhere to tug hard on the laundry line. I can see Father Eteau, standing there, not far from the home.
When I walk by, I ask, ‘Are you standing watch tonight, Father Eteau? Where’s your son?’
I figured he wouldn’t mind me asking, but he doesn’t answer. All he does is look at me with suspicious eyes. It was almost as if he wasn’t standing guard at all, but was instead keeping an eye on the home and everyone in it, the children who live here and the rest of us. No – maybe the truth was simpler than that. Maybe he wasn’t responding because he wasn’t Father Eteau. It’s not so strange an idea. After all, just as he doesn’t know the children’s real names, we don’t know his. Maybe as night gets closer, Father Eteau remembers his own name, his real name.
Maybe he’s putting on another name, wearing it like that old black coat.
Father Eteau was gripping the handle of a shovel, its blade thrust into the earth, one foot resting on top of the metal as he looked at me.
And I asked – ‘Are you standing watch tonight, Father Eteau? Where’s your son?’
I was sure he moved his head a little, but I couldn’t tell if it was meant to be some sort of response. He wouldn’t take his eyes off of me and Loulou. I felt as though maybe he thought I was about to run off with this girl and take her somewhere else. But there were so many other children, too. Some were better listeners, more obedient. There were happier ones, and sadder ones. I couldn’t say how many children I’d taken into the woods before – or how many more I would still. I didn’t speak. Father Eteau said nothing, so there was no need for me to speak. Even if I had said something, it would have sounded like a lie, no matter what I said. Because anything I said was going to sound like a lie, I told the truth.
‘I thought I’d show them an owl.’
Father Eteau still said nothing.
Later, as we continued down the path into the woods, I heard a voice. It was Loulou. That’s what I thought. But I couldn’t be sure. I had her in my arms, and she was pressing her face into my chest. When she spoke, I heard her voice as my own, as if it were some voice coming from deep inside me, some voice I had never heard before. That voice deep inside didn’t have to sound at all like my voice when I spoke. Maybe it wasn’t so different from the lines left in the notebook on my desk, words I could never believe were mine no matter how many times I read them. I couldn’t say for sure that Loulou’s voice wasn’t the voice coming from inside me.
‘Who said that?’ I asked out loud, facing the darkness of night and all the bare trees it had swallowed up. Then I asked again, this time inside myself, unsure whether it was dark or bright.
Who said that?
I couldn’t tell if the two were really the same. The voice that vanishes within – in the head, or the heart, or who knows where – and the one that passes through the throat, through the mouth, shaking the few brown leaves still clinging to the treetops. But was that a voice? Just like the lines in my notebook, maybe they were only copied, somebody else’s words. But was I really the one who had written those words down anyway? I couldn’t remember. Were they trying to tell me something? To get me to see something – to pay attention to something? So many words fill the pages, some forceful, others slack, some defiant, others sloppy. They dance, shrink and stretch, as if to remind me of something, or maybe to draw my attention to them – to the fact that they were there. When I look at them, they move me, move me to say that they’re all mine, all of them.
‘Why’d you lie?’
I stopped where I stood. It was a voice I’d heard before.
‘So it was you,’ I whispered into my chest, relieved. ‘You asked me the same thing before . . .’
‘No, that wasn’t me.’
‘No? Then who was it?’ I whispered desperately.
‘There, her, outside the light . . .’
Then the voice stopped and the cries that came in the night slowly surrounded us. I could feel the little bodies around me trembling with the night. Then I heard it, and I recognized the question.
‘Why did you leave me there in that place?’
The wind had died down. I could hear an owl hooting. The sound of dead leaves underfoot. The damp, cold air did all it could to console the night, to calm it. But we said nothing and kept walking deeper into the woods.
Photograph © Ben Brooks
This story is part of our 20 for 2020 series, one of twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.