Sometimes Narumi would dream. Dreams of when she was still alive. She’d have just turned fifteen, her arms and legs slender, her belly flat as a sheet of drawing paper. If she twisted her body slightly, the gentle curve of her shoulder blades and backbone would appear. Supple enough to run any distance, as full of life as a new-born animal in the spring. The natural swell of her breasts, the nipples whose color and size she’d never give a second thought to. The slender curve of her waist. The light reflecting off her lightly-muscled thighs and upper arms, promising a shining future. She could be anything she wanted to be, go anywhere she wanted. She could hurt no one, and no one could hurt her. In the dream, Narumi is vitality itself.
Although that body had clearly belonged to her, in reality it had never been her own. People around her were always telling her how much every part of her was worth. Direct and aggressive, or more indirect and implicit – there were many ways of letting her know. None of these so-called values seemed to have any connection with Narumi herself. They were connected somehow to her sex, which cloaked her inner self. She was a woman first and foremost, Narumi second – this was what they were all trying to make her understand. And so, long before she had been given the chance to recognize herself as a human being, and her body as no one’s but her own, she was dropped into that bottomless well called womanhood. She struggled for breath in the darkness, submerged in the endless gush of other people’s desires. Even if she managed to crawl her way back up the wall, she could never quite get dry. Her body was always cold.
Emerging from her dream, Narumi blinks several times, flexes her hands and feet, and takes a few minutes to adjust her body to her other reality. The hamburger steak she ate just before going to bed weighs heavily in her stomach. She’d made too much food, but who else was going to eat the leftover meat? The sweet demi-glace sauce left over from the night before is beginning to harden around the edges of the frying pan. She considers scooping it up with a spoon and pouring it over some steamed white rice, but – she remembers – the rice is in the freezer. Scraping all the sauce from the pan and licking it directly from the spoon, she clears the table and piles everything in the sink.
It was about ten years ago that Narumi’s body began to take on its heavy layer of fat.
It happened over a relatively short space of time. Her body silently puffed up like a bread roll in the dark, orange glare of the oven. All she had to do was dedicate herself to eating whatever she could lay her hands on, at every hour of the day. People around her began to look uneasy when they saw the changes in Narumi’s body, teasing her, occasionally trying to seem sympathetic. When she was no longer able to recall her original body shape in the mirror she felt a deep sense of relief. She’d wanted to create a layer – even just a few millimeters – of distance between herself and the world around her. Even if someone were to touch her, they wouldn’t be able to reach the real her. Having created for herself a body that was gawked at by everyone she passed, Narumi could feel alone deep in its center. Reaching out from inside when necessary, she took care of her husband, who was rarely at home, and her nine-year-old daughter, who was quiet like her mother. She did housework. She studied her reflection in the full-length mirror, making sure that the flesh was still there. She ate carbohydrates, drank sweet juice, and slept.
Shopping bags stuffed and bulging, she enters the cafe in front of the station. I should have had the store double the bags, she thinks to herself. Plastic bottles of fruit-flavored juice had been on special offer today and she’d bought as many as she could carry.
The heat is searing, and the moment she sits down, sweat erupts from every pore in her body. Pressing a thick hand towel to her forehead, she orders a glass of cold milk and some green tea ice cream. Empty calories – she pours them into her body to be stored away. And she never stops sweating. The two women at the next table are hurling their voices at one another relentlessly. Children grown up and moved out, their husbands retired and hanging around the house with nothing to do, these two have escaped and been at the gym since the morning; now they’re painting the hours with endless conversation before shopping for the evening meal. One of them strokes her coarse, graying hair and laughs aloud. The woman opposite, still wearing her special sun-blocking sleeves, takes her iced tea and sucks vigorously on her straw. The drinks never last long enough. The woman glances across, notices the amount of sweat Narumi is producing, and her eyes with their heavy pattern of crow’s feet pop open. She takes in the hair plastered to the forehead, the flushed cheeks, the wet discoloration of Narumi’s T-shirt under the arms and around the chest, and finally her giant frame. A disgraceful sight. As if in doubt that the chair she is using could be the same as the one supporting Narumi’s body, so massive that it would be impossible to get two arms around her, the older woman shifts her own chair noisily and reseats herself. But the conversation never falters. The women are discussing a rape case that was recently in the news but then soon disappeared.
Narumi pulls out her smartphone and checks her Twitter page. She doesn’t write anything. There’s nothing to write about. The kind of things she follows are women’s gossip magazines, celebrities, food bloggers, anonymous housewives who tweet about trivial everyday stuff, cat pictures. She catches snippets of the conversation at the next table. Narumi knows of the case from Twitter and the morning tabloid news shows. She recalls the image of the young woman with big eyes fighting back tears during the press conference. While having dinner with a famous TV journalist, the woman had been given so much to drink that she lost consciousness, and was then taken to a hotel room and raped. There had been a warrant issued for the journalist’s arrest, but under political pressure the warrant was revoked and all charges dropped. The woman’s press conference had been broadcast, but after only a few days not a single newspaper or TV station was covering the case. Apart from a small online presence, the story had all but vanished.
‘Dreadful – if it’s true,’ says the woman sitting on the far side of the table. ‘But you know how it is – she asked that man to use his influence to help her get a job, and then she went drinking with him. Seems that kind of thing happens a lot.’
‘But you know, you should never go drinking alone with a man you have no intention of sleeping with. He’s going to get his hopes up. It’s just leading him on, really. And with her looks . . . she knew what she was in for.’
‘True, and headstrong too, you can tell from the way she looks. If she’d behaved more professionally to begin with you know things wouldn’t have turned out this way.’
‘Oh, but this wasn’t about work at all. Apparently, she was in that line of business. The man was the customer – that’s what was really going on.’
‘She brought it all on herself. And did you see what she was wearing for that news conference? That blouse! The buttons were open down to her breasts.’
‘I saw that! I saw that! She was asking for it, dressing that way.’
‘I told you, she’s a bar hostess by profession. Back in our day, women would never have behaved like that.’
Narumi takes a swig of her cold milk, then picks up the silver spoon and begins to carefully whittle away at the hard surface of her green tea ice cream.
‘Whatever happens, things are going to be tough for her now,’ continues the woman on Narumi’s side of the table. ‘Doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong, the point is she’s come right out and admitted in public that he’s had his way with her, let everyone know that she’s damaged goods. She’ll be talked about, have to carry that shame around with her for the rest of her life.’
The two women simultaneously reach for their straws and drain their glasses. Conversation quickly turns to the special offer at the new dry cleaner’s down the street.
Beads of moisture begin to form on the thin, icy coating of the ice cream. Narumi can’t tear her eyes away from these tiny droplets. She can no longer tell the difference between them and her own beads of sweat. The drops begin to swell and multiply in her eyes, reflecting multiple images, but Narumi makes no effort to determine what those images are. Colors and shapes become muddled and cloudy, and she waits, motionless, for the moment to pass. She shuts her eyes tight and pictures her own body, swathed in layers of fat. The stretch marks that run across her skin like healed-up fissures. The varicose veins that protrude like spiders’ webs. As the flesh grows steadily thicker, the world recedes further and further away. There she is, forever shrinking inside her ever-expanding body. No one knows that I am here. I am safe. Eventually Narumi becomes nothing but a tiny speck. To tell the truth, she wishes that speck would vanish too, but it somehow remains, stubborn. She can feel the eyes staring at her. Narumi doesn’t know how to escape their gaze.
She doesn’t recall all the details, can’t remember. Memories that she wished would die live on, while others she wished would live on have died. Sometimes she’s assaulted by a memory she doesn’t know what to do with; it catches her off guard like a bag thrown over her head from behind. Then . . . she would find herself in a totally different place. It was winter, she was fifteen, just before the high school entrance exams. She was on her way home from after-hours cram school in the freezing cold. Normally she would have taken her bicycle, but that day she had to go home on foot. Her breath came out in such thick white clouds, it seemed as if she could touch it. Watching the fluffy whiteness against the deep blue of the night sky, she imagined some kind of spirit floating there. It was at that moment that the man came up behind her. She felt him grab her by the shoulder, and the next moment, a thick arm encircled her neck and a large, rough hand was clamped over her mouth. She was dragged to a nearby parking lot and slammed against a concrete wall. Too terrified to make a sound, or escape. Thirty minutes later, she was released, and walked home.
She turned the shower up to its strongest setting and let the hot water gush over her head. Her body wouldn’t stop shaking. She rinsed her mouth until there was no feeling left in her inner cheeks. She crouched down and gritted her teeth, all the while desperately trying to control her breathing. She was too afraid to touch her vagina. For the next four nights, she didn’t sleep. Day by day, her thoughts become hazier and her mind more dazed, until she could no longer make sense of the words and thoughts and images that floated and vanished in her mind. On impulse she confessed the events to her mother. A man took me to a parking lot and touched me. Her mother was so shocked by her daughter’s revelation that she couldn’t find the words to respond. Although it had taken all the strength she could muster just to stand there, when she saw how her mother reacted, Narumi felt a sense of relief. She was glad that she had only told her mother that the man had touched her. Narumi’s mother comforted her without asking her any more questions. Then, she made sure that Narumi wouldn’t breathe a word about this to her father. ‘Also,’ she said, not meeting her daughter’s eyes, ‘I think you already understand, but you must never, ever, talk about this with anyone. Try to forget. If anyone hears that you had such a shameful experience, your life will never be the same again.’
As a high school student, Narumi began to encounter the gropers on the train. The hour-and-a-half commute to school was unbelievably crowded, and almost every morning she was molested. Her buttocks were groped both over and under her skirt, fingers were pushed into her vagina. They pressed their penises against her body, grabbed her breasts. Once in a while they left their semen on her. Their faceless breathing and anonymous appetites brutally destroyed the little that remained of her will to live, to continue breathing. Beginning with the places that had been touched, Narumi’s body began to turn rigid and darken to a deep murky color, and, despite still having a pulse, it began to fester. During those few years of her late teens, Narumi’s body became utterly alien to Narumi. She wasn’t alone. Her classmates, too, suffered the same treatment. It happened on such a routine basis that neither they nor the gropers recognized the behavior as criminal. Men would nonchalantly joke about how their hobby was groping women, and believed without a doubt that rape was just a variety of sex. That was the world in which Narumi and her classmates lived.
Narumi’s parents encouraged her to get married. Having no other plans, the slowly-dying Narumi couldn’t find a reason to say no. The man she married was of small stature and few words, two years older than herself. Often she had no idea what he was he thinking, and somehow she found that soothing. Because of this vacuum, the way he didn’t ask questions or try to get to know other people, Narumi was able to take the vague feeling of guilt that had been entangled with all of her pain and place it a little further away from herself.
The first time she and her husband had sex she was truly afraid. In her mind, she believed nothing could be more painful than sexual intercourse. It was something that would drag her down into the depths of terror and abandon her there, like being murdered with your eyes wide open. Every sexual experience she’d had so far in her life had been this way, so why would now be any different? These were Narumi’s feelings as she gave up her body to her husband. It turned out, though, to be nothing like she’d expected. Sex brought out no feelings whatsoever in Narumi; it brought back no memories, she felt neither pain nor pleasure. It was nothing more than empty motions. During sex, Narumi would picture herself as steamed rice being turned into mochi rice cakes. Lying in a mortar made of hard, grey stone, pounded with a pestle over and over, prodded and poked by countless different hands, kneaded into a shapeless mass, and finally torn into pieces – a white blob of rice, armless, legless, faceless.
A blob of rice can’t feel, therefore I can’t feel anything either. Anything at all. At least there’s no pain.
No pain – when Narumi realized this, she let out a deep sigh. Instead of the emptiness or fear that perhaps she ought to have been feeling, she clung instead to her sense of relief – there was no pain. She felt as if she had escaped something life-threatening, once and for all, made it to a new place. It wasn’t a happy or a joyful place. It was a place with no feelings, no emotion. Not a single drop. Still, there was no pain. There was that at least . . . and at that thought, she felt her throat close up and tears began to fall.
One night, several months into their marriage, her husband finally found the words to express his dissatisfaction.
‘Could you be a little more . . . you know . . . shy? The way you don’t seem to feel anything at all . . . it’s kind of a turn-off . . . Couldn’t you show a bit of shame? I don’t care if you’re faking it, just act like you don’t really want to do it. You know men get turned on by that kind of thing. I can’t get properly hard if you don’t seem a bit reluctant. Come on . . . women are supposed to be ashamed of sex.’
Narumi makes her way home, shopping bags in each hand, bulging with plastic bottles. As she walks the bags bounce against each knee – left, right, left, right, the dull sensation seems to be telling her to stop. Or is it telling her to keep on walking? The sweat that gushes with every breath is trying to melt her skin from the outside in. Narumi begins to feel how strange it is that she’s here now, walking. Who’s making this body move? Who, and why? Why is there so much sweat, why is this body so heavy? Where on earth is all this sweat coming from? Why am I sweating like this . . . or is it really me? Maybe it’s the flesh on my body that’s creating the sweat, not me at all. So who is it, then – who is it that’s sweating?
About ten minutes from home, she spots several elementary school children in the park. Narumi’s daughter is among them. Normally she doesn’t try to speak to her daughter if she runs into her outside their home, and her daughter doesn’t speak to her either. But today one of her school friends happens to notice Narumi and points her out.
‘Isn’t that your mom?’
Narumi pretends she hasn’t noticed the children, keeps her head down and continues walking past the park.
‘Good timing! You can go home now with your mom.’
The friend gives Narumi’s daughter a push.
‘Wow, that’s pretty amazing. From here, she doesn’t really look like a person. Like a great big ball. Instead of walking, she should try rolling. It’d be faster.’
Over the laughter, another girl pipes up.
‘My mom says that your mom’s sick. That she’s getting fatter and fatter, and eventually she’ll get so big that she can’t move her body anymore, and she won’t be able to breathe. My mom says that it’s a kind of disease. Normal people don’t put on that much weight.’
‘Poor you! Is that one of those diseases that run in the family? Is that what you’re going to look like when you’re older? The same thing’s going to happen to you? I mean, are you going to die? Like your mom?’
Narumi’s daughter makes a feeble attempt to join in the laughter and stay there in the park with the rest of them, but her friend pushes her again.
‘It’s okay. Go on home.’
It was only recently that Narumi’s daughter made friends with these girls, and it took a long time for her to manage it. She grips the shoulder straps of her school backpack and plants her feet, but now a whole bunch of hands propel her from the park. Lips pressed tightly together and head hanging low, her daughter looks as if the slightest whiff of a breeze would knock her down. As if she might break into pieces and turn to dust and be blown away. Inside her mouth, where no one can see, all the color has drained from her tongue. It quivers faintly.
Back at home, her daughter sits motionless on the sofa. Narumi has no idea what to say to her. Her daughter has always been quiet, often preferring to sit in complete silence. Withdrawn by nature, it took her a long time to express her feelings to other people. But she’s a sweet child. Narumi thinks about how, when her daughter was very young, they used to collect small rocks together and give each one a name. She fetches one of the juice bottles and a glass and sits down next to her daughter. The girl keeps staring down at her own lap.
‘Do you want some juice?’
Narumi can’t think of anything else to say, so she just repeats the question. Her daughter slowly shakes her head. As she shakes her head, tears fall from her eyes. Out of the gap between her lids the tears well up and overflow. As if trying to release something, as if trying to make their mark, the tears make a soft sploshing sound as they leave their tracks on her navy-blue skirt. One . . . three . . . six . . . I’m so sorry. Your friends said something to you, didn’t they? You must be so ashamed of your mother looking like this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you have such an embarrassing mom. Really, I’m so sorry . . . The words were always there, churning in her mind and on the tip of her tongue; but as usual she can’t bring herself to say them. Her daughter sits there mute, motionless except for the tears that continue to fall. Next to her Narumi leans forward, hunching her broad back, and stays in this position with her hands clasped tightly together. Still she can find nothing to say. She sees her daughter’s legs, thin as sticks, her bony little knees. Sitting there next to the frail body of this girl, Narumi begins to dream with her eyes open. A dream of when she was still alive. Back when her own body could hurt no one, and no one could hurt her. A body that could be anything, go anywhere. A body that Narumi will never have the chance to know. A dream her own body had dreamed. Her daughter is crying. From that still-tiny body she lets the tears flow, summoning up all her strength in order to live. Narumi imagines the things that are yet to happen to her daughter’s little body. What will be taken from her, given to her, what will she lose? Narumi slowly reaches out and puts one arm around her daughter’s shoulder. She feels her heart about to break at her daughter’s tiny size, her helplessness. Narumi wants to cry too; from the depth of her soul she wishes she could weep along with her daughter. Weep loudly, together. But what pours from Narumi is sweat. It is all that her body can produce. From her back, her armpits, her forehead, between her thighs. Her whole body gushes sweat. The droplets multiply and crawl all over, covering everything. Narumi’s body is cold.
Image © Joy
This story is part of our 20 for 2020 series, featuring twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.