I knew where the 7-Eleven was, but hadn’t been there since the move. Everything I needed was at the supermarket, and that was closer. I never bought magazines or made copies. The walk between our house and the 7-Eleven was probably beautiful in the right season. There were even a couple of signs describing the view when migratory birds visited in the winter, but it was summer, and no matter how scenic it was, a paved path in the middle of this heat was too much to take. The lack of breeze wasn’t helping, either. The cries of the cicadas made the air feel even stickier. To the right of the path was the river, and to the left was a row of houses, each with its own garden and walls covered in goya and other vegetables. Beyond the leaves and vines, no signs of life. No one was making a sound – no TVs, no vacuums, no children. The riverbank was covered with grass, and so were parts of the river. There were a few birds on the water. They looked like herons, large and gray. The place was overgrown with susuki, kudzu, and other kinds of grass I’d seen before but couldn’t name. Parts of the river were murky blue, stagnant green, or totally black from the blinding sunlight. The dry grass almost smelled baked. There was a big pile, brown and wet, on the path in front of me, probably left by a dog. On top of it were a couple of silver flies. For them, it was a mountain of food. It got me wondering – what would it feel like to sink your limbs and face into your lunch like that? Even the flies weren’t moving. Maybe they were dead, knee-deep in dog crap. I kept an eye on the path as I walked. I passed a half-eaten Cup Noodles, an empty box of tissues, a work glove, a broken mosquito coil, and a few other sun-bleached artifacts. The cicada cries drilled into me with every breath I took. How many were there? How far can the cry of a cicada reach? I didn’t see any dead cicadas around, but spotted a few abandoned husks along the path. From the sound of it, the area had to be full of them. It’s not like they lived very long, so where were all the bodies? Just then, a grasshopper as big as my fist leapt from the bushes onto the path. It quivered as it folded its wings. It crept closer, then spread its wings and jumped away. When I looked up at the path ahead, I saw a big black animal.
At first, I thought the extreme heat was making me hallucinate, but the creature was really there. It was obviously a mammal – but not one I’d ever seen before. What I saw wasn’t a weasel, and it wasn’t a raccoon. It had to be as large as a retriever, maybe bigger. It had wide shoulders, slender and muscular thighs, but from the knees down, its legs were as thin as sticks. The animal was covered in black fur and had a long tail and rounded ears. Its ribs were showing, but its back was bulky, maybe with muscle or with fat. Slowly, it moved down the path ahead of me, barely casting a shadow, probably because the sun was right overhead. There were no birds, no dogs, no cats – just this black animal. I could see cars on the street on the other side of the river, but it was too bright to see the faces of the drivers or passengers inside. I was sure they couldn’t see me or the animal. It wasn’t looking at me, either. It was walking ahead of me, almost guiding me. And it didn’t seem to mind being followed – it didn’t look back and didn’t speed up. I couldn’t hear anything except the droning cicadas. I couldn’t hear the river or the cars. After some time, the animal turned toward the river, cutting through the tall grass in a spot that had been well trampled. Without thinking, I did the same. As it headed down the slope, I heard something like clopping. Maybe it had hooves. The black water ahead of me glimmered in the sun. The grass clung to my skin as I walked, crushing things as I went. Plants, trash, crap, flies. They all broke or bent underfoot. Over the cicadas, I could hear a child shouting gleefully in the distance. There were old magazines and empty cans strewn among the weeds, but by this point they seemed to be as much a part of the riverbank as everything else. I saw the animal’s tail slip through the grass, and I leapt after it, but there was nothing there to catch me.
I fell into a hole. It was probably four or five feet deep, but I’d managed to land on my feet. I looked around the grass – now at eye level – but the animal was nowhere to be found. I heard the grass rustling nearby, but before long the sound stopped.
At the edge of the hole, a click beetle flew up toward my face. When it landed, I could see streaks running down its black shell. The antennae on its head looked bent. It was making a clicking noise, but I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. As I tried to move, I realized how narrow the hole really was. The hole felt as though it was exactly my size – a trap made just for me. The bottom of the hole was covered with something dry, maybe dead grass or straw. Looking toward the river through a break in the grass, all I could see was white light. The beetle flew away. I couldn’t hear it anymore. The cicadas were the only sound. Cicadas cry to find a mate. They hear other cicadas crying around them and use what they hear to choose a partner. To my human ear, they sounded like a bunch of machines, a spray of emotionless noise. Maybe that’s how we sound to them, too. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t even uncomfortable. I could smell something, maybe the grass or the river. I let it fill my lungs and body. There were a few rocks and bits of plastic on the flat grass surrounding the hole. I could see some black ants and red ants in lines, soldiering around. Their lines broke apart and intersected, the tiny red ones marching over the bodies of the larger black ones. My bag was there, near the ants. Most of them went around it, but a few crawled over it. I grabbed the bag and shook the ants loose, then checked inside to make sure everything was still there. Nothing was missing. A black ant took one of the red ones in its mandibles while other red ones bit its legs. The red ones looked softer than the black ones. I could feel the top of my head starting to bake in the sun. I had to get out of this hole, but it didn’t look like it was going to be easy. I put my hands palm-down at the edge of the hole, and tried pushing myself up, but I barely got off the ground. My heart sank. On the opposite bank, I could see the gray chimney of what looked like some kind of factory.
‘You okay?’ I heard a voice behind me. The sound of the cicadas receded into the distance. I turned around and saw the lace hem of a long white skirt. Under it were unpainted toenails peeking out of a pair of brown sandals. I looked up, hoping to find a face. Maybe it was the sun or how she was holding her parasol, but I couldn’t see anything. ‘Um, I’m okay. I just fell in.’ ‘Do you want help?’ She reached down with her free hand. Her wrist was thin. ‘No, I’m fine. I can manage.’ ‘Are you sure?’ She sounded like she was probably older – older than me, at least. I summoned my strength and tried again, failing miserably. It was deeper than I’d thought. Chunks of soft earth tumbled down into the hole. I thought I heard something scuttle by my feet, maybe a small animal that had popped out of its own hole, then retreated in panic.
‘You don’t look fine to me.’ The woman squatted down and offered her hand again. Her parasol moved and I caught a glimpse of her face. She was wearing large sunglasses that covered everything except her smile. She had to be older than me, but was probably younger than my mom. I was embarrassed, but hardly had a choice. I took her hand. It felt cold. I thought I could see veins running through it. Was this woman really strong enough? She counted down. ‘Three, two, one . . .’ Then she tugged. I twisted my body and managed to get a hip onto the grass. As soon as I did, I felt something sting my hand. The woman was smiling. ‘You alright?’ ‘I’m okay,’ I said, looking at my left hand. There was dirt under my nails. Near the top of my ring finger was a small red beetle, biting into me. I quickly hid my hand from the woman and thanked her for helping me. Her long skirt was covered in grass and flecks of sand. Her hand was dirty, too. ‘Sorry about your skirt,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry about it. What are you doing out here in this heat?’ She angled her parasol to share the shade with me. Her makeup was carefully done. Behind her amber sunglasses, I could barely make out the shape of her eyes. They looked like they were deep-set.
Behind my back, I tried flicking the insect off my finger. ‘I was on my way to the convenience store when I saw this animal . . .’ Before I could finish explaining, the woman held out her hand and said, ‘Here, let me take a look.’ I didn’t see any way out of this, so I gave her my hand. The red bug still clung tightly to my finger. It wasn’t an insect I’d ever seen before. It almost looked like a ladybug, but smaller and with no spots. It hurt. ‘Well, look at that.’ She dug a nail into the bug. I almost pulled my hand back, but she’d already crushed the beetle’s head to pieces. She flicked the bits of shell caught under her nails into the air, then wrapped her finger around mine so tightly I thought she was going to break it. The rest of the beetle fell to the ground, leaving only a drop of clear liquid where it had been attached. ‘Sorry, did that hurt? There are still some parts of its jaw in there. We need to get those out . . . Okay. All better. I’m pretty sure it isn’t poisonous, but you should probably disinfect this when you get home.’ ‘Uh, okay. Thanks, I will.’ ‘Hey, so . . .’ she said, bringing her face closer to mine. I couldn’t see a single drop of sweat on her.
‘You’re the bride, aren’t you?’ The bride? How was I supposed to answer that? Her eyes were blinking behind her sunglasses, but soon all I could see in her face was a distorted version of my own. ‘Mune-chan’s bride? My family lives next to the Matsuuras. You know, next to them, on the other side. We’re the Seras . . .’ ‘I . . .’ There was a large house two lots over from us, bigger than my in-laws’, and I’d seen the name sera on the nameplate out front. When we moved in, Tomiko told me not to bother introducing myself – not just to the Seras, but to any of our new neighbors. ‘Don’t worry about making the rounds. I’ll keep an eye out and let you know when the time is right. A lot of our neighbors work odd hours and the last thing you want is for word to get out that you’ve gone around to meet some people, but not others.’ ‘I’m sorry I haven’t introduced myself, I’m –’ Matsuura, wife of Muneaki, son of . . . But before I could say it, she cut in, waving her parasol slowly from side to side. ‘It’s fine.’ It almost smelled like incense, powdery and sweet. ‘I know who you are. You moved in the day we had all that rain, didn’t you? Had to be a tough move. Well, I guess a hot day like today wouldn’t have been any better. And we needed the rain . . . Still, I’d rather not be out in this heat. My son hasn’t come home yet, but he has to get a shot today.’ ‘A shot? A vaccination?’ ‘Hehehe. In this heat, right? Anyway, you’re not lost, are you? Do you know where you are?’ I thought I saw something moving by my feet, but when I looked down it was gone. ‘Um, sure, I know where I am. The store’s that way.’ ‘Right. You’d better stay on the path. Don’t get too close to the river.’ Sera smiled. Her forehead and cheeks were snowy white – only her lips were light brown. ‘Just go that way.’
‘I will. So, um, are there lots of holes around here? I didn’t see it – I just fell in.’ ‘I really couldn’t tell you, but my son would know. He’s always out here, playing by the river. Then he comes home covered in mud and bugs . . . I only came this way because I thought I might find him here. It was the strangest thing. From where I was standing, all I could see was your head poking out of the ground. Right away, I thought, that has to be the bride . . .’ She snickered. As she brought her hand up to her mouth, her wedding ring glimmered in the light. Why did she keep calling me ‘the bride’? No one had ever called me that before. When I was working, people always called me Matsuura. Then again, we’d just met. She could hardly call me ‘Asa’ the way Tomiko does. She definitely couldn’t call me ‘Matsuura’. For her, that had to mean Tomiko. Even my husband couldn’t be ‘Matsuura’ in her eyes. I guess that would make me ‘the bride’. I’d been the bride for a while and simply hadn’t realized it. Sera turned and looked up the slope. A sweet smell filled my nose again. I noticed that the inside of her white parasol was yellowed with age.
‘Sorry I took up so much of your time . . . I truly appreciate the help.’ ‘Oh, it’s no problem. I’m glad we had the chance to talk. Well, I’d better get going.’ I bowed and thanked her again. As she started to walk away, she smiled even wider and said, ‘Matsuura’s a real good one, isn’t she? You must be happy to have her as your mother-in-law.’ I nodded. ‘Oh, I am.’ ‘I can imagine. You’re a lucky girl. Well, see you around.’ With that, Sera walked slowly up the bank, bits of grass still clinging to her skirt.
Once I was alone again, I knelt down and looked into the hole. It was too dark to see the bottom. I looked around the riverbank. The animal was nowhere to be seen. The river was moving in the direction of the store. The cicadas crescendoed again. What was that animal? I should have asked Sera about it. I couldn’t even tell if it was wild or some kind of pet. It didn’t really seem like either. I thought I saw a boy pop his head out of the grass, then duck back down. When I looked up again, Sera and her parasol were just a white dot in the distance. I watched as she disappeared around a curve in the path. I walked out of the grass, followed the path for a little while, then crossed a bridge. As soon as I was across, I found the convenience store, just where I thought it would be.
There were children inside. Some were sitting on the floor looking at manga, some were rearranging the Q-tips and disposable razors, and others were sticking their faces in the ice cream freezer. As I maneuvered between them to reach the register, I pulled out Tomiko’s pay slip. An older woman with brownish hair, the only employee in the store, took out the store seal, stamped the slip, then asked for 74,000 yen. I took the bills out of Tomiko’s envelope: five 10,000-yen bills, nothing else. 50,000 yen? I immediately opened my own wallet, but I only had another 10,000-yen bill. ‘Did you say . . . 74,000?’ ‘Uh-huh,’ the clerk said, showing me the number on the slip. She was right. The money was going to some company I’d never heard of, but it sounded like it had to be some sort of health food company. ‘I’m sorry . . . I don’t have . . .’ The clerk gave me an annoyed look, having already stamped the slip with today’s date. She had to be as old as Tomiko, maybe a little older. The wrinkles on her neck stood out against her brightly colored uniform. ‘I don’t have the cash. I’ll need to use the ATM.’ She tilted her head quizzically and asked, ‘You mean right now?’ ‘You have a machine, don’t you?’ She smiled a little. ‘Right there, next to the copier.’ It was the usual setup, the same as every 7-Eleven in the city. I pulled out my card and walked toward the machine, but found my path was blocked. In front of the shrink-wrapped manga, a battalion of children obstructed the aisle. They looked like they were probably in the first or second grade, but could’ve been younger than that. They were completely absorbed in their comics, not even noticing me. I don’t know if it was the radio or not, but there was music playing in the store. It was the latest pop music. I had no idea who the singer was, if they were male or female, but it sounded like they were twelve. ‘Excuse me,’ I said to the children. They didn’t move a muscle. I looked to the clerk for help, but she was too busy to notice. ‘Hello?’ Other than their fingers flipping the pages, the children were perfectly still. Their mouths were open, their eyes never left the comics. ‘Kids . . .’ I heard a man say. ‘See this lady standing here? You’re in her way. She’s trying to get to that machine so she can get money. Give her some room, okay?’
They quickly turned to look up at me. The corners of their mouths were white with powder. It smelled sour-sweet. I turned to see where the voice had come from. It belonged to a middle-aged man in a white open-collar shirt and black slacks. He was thin, and a little on the short side. He had his hands on his hips, and was holding a comic book that was as thick as a dictionary. Only his face was turned toward me. ‘Are we in the way?’ ‘Are we in her way?’ the children asked in tinny voices as they stood up and swarmed around me. They were all wearing shorts and jumper skirts. A few of them had sandals – more like clogs, really – and their toenails were black with dirt. ‘Sorry.’ Keeping an eye on both the children and the man, I made my way to the ATM. I slid my card into the slot and started typing in my PIN, but the children were right there, watching closely. The guard over the keypad, for preventing others from seeing you put in your code, has no effect on grade schoolers. They’re too short. One of them nestled up under my arm as if we were family. From the way he was looking at the screen on the ATM, you would have thought it was a TV showing some cartoon. ‘Sorry, can you stop looking, please?’ ‘Whyyy?’ Come on, don’t act like you don’t know how ATMs work. Then again, these kids were so young that maybe they really didn’t. Every bit of attention that the children had given to the manga was now directed at me, so I had to use my free hand to cover the keypad as I finished typing in my code. I pressed withdraw, typed in ‘24,000’, then pressed enter. As I grabbed the bills from the machine, it seemed pointless to put them in my wallet, so I walked over to the register, money in hand, when one of the little children screeched. ‘Sensei!’ Sensei? The man in the white shirt nodded, then smiled at me with all his teeth. I nodded back without thinking. ‘Sensei! This lady’s got a lot of money. That’s a 10,000-yen bill!’ The other children broke into laughter. ‘That’s a lot of money!’ The man smiled wryly and said, ‘It sure is, but we don’t talk about things like that in public, do we? So shush . . .’ ‘Shush?’ ‘Shush!’ ‘Shush!!’ The children were practically bouncing off the walls, squealing. The man started laughing and so did the children. I did the same. Only the clerk was expressionless as she grabbed the bills from my hand. She counted them once, then held them up and counted again for my benefit. Well, it didn’t look like I’d have any change for ice cream. I didn’t have much money saved up. I was unemployed now, so dipping into my savings was the last thing I wanted to do, but what choice did I have? What was going on with Tomiko? She’d always been on top of things.
I nodded at the man the children called Sensei and left the store. As soon as I stepped outside, the cicadas and the heat descended upon me. On the other side of the glass, the children in the store were waving at me with white palms. I waved back, then followed the river home. On the way back, I didn’t see anyone. Every now and then, I’d look down to the riverbank, but didn’t see the animal. I saw no life at all. The river was so stagnant it looked like it was made of gelatin. When I got to Tomiko’s house, Grandpa was outside, still watering. Together with the copy of the stamped slip, I left a note on the desk saying there wasn’t enough money and that I’d covered the difference. After some thought, I decided against writing exactly how much I’d paid. I had to believe that Tomiko would remember how much she’d left in the envelope.
That night, when Tomiko got home, she came over to apologize. She gave me 4,000 yen. Stock-still, I stared at the four crisp bills as she said, ‘I must have really been out of it. I’m so embarrassed. You really helped me out, though. I know you couldn’t get any ice cream, so . . . I brought these,’ she said, handing me two popsicles, each as thick as a couple of fingers. As I took the popsicles, Tomiko shrugged – although I wasn’t sure why. ‘Save one for Muneaki, okay? This was all they had in stock. But you’ll like them, I promise. They’re from the co-op. The soda-flavored one is really good. It really fizzes when you bite into it. Oh, they deliver, too. Next time, I’ll bring the catalog for you. The co-op catalog.’ She kept talking about the co-op and their frozen desserts, but I didn’t know how to tell her that her 4,000 yen wasn’t even close. I thanked her for the popsicles. Maybe she had no idea how much money she’d actually put in the envelope . . . Or maybe someone had come in when the door was unlocked and skimmed some of the money. Maybe it was Grandpa. Who knows. Whatever the case, we were living rent-free. And it was only 20,000 yen. I had to let it slide. I put the popsicles in the freezer and waited for my husband to come home. When he got back, it was after midnight. Since our move, that was more or less normal.
‘I saw a weird black animal today,’ I said as I set out dinner for my husband. He looked up from his phone and said, ‘Oh yeah?’ His hair was wet from the shower he’d taken. He probably didn’t bother drying it – or maybe he was just sweaty. The back of the blue shirt he always wore to sleep was so wet it looked almost black. As soon as he sent me a text saying he’d be home in a few minutes, I turned on the AC. For me, the room was like an icebox, but maybe my husband was still hot. He put down his phone and picked up his chopsticks. He inhaled his rice, then chased it down with a mouthful of miso soup. I’d made the soup while he was in the shower. ‘It had black fur and was probably this big.’ I held up my hands so he could see. ‘Was it a stray dog or something?’ he asked, finishing his mugicha. ‘I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a dog.’ ‘Maybe it was a raccoon. I remember hearing there are a lot of raccoons around here, or at least there used to be.’ ‘I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a raccoon.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘I know what a raccoon looks like.’ I filled my husband’s cup with mugicha. He used his chopsticks to lift the omelet onto his rice, brought the omelet up to his mouth, then reached for his mugicha. Now there was ketchup on his rice. ‘Whatever it was, I followed it into the grass – and I fell into a hole.’ ‘A hole?’ He reached for the pickled cucumber and tossed it in his mouth with the ketchup-covered rice, then finally chewed a few times. I listened to the crunch. I’d already eaten my dinner. I didn’t make an omelet for myself. I just had some meat and a single egg – sunny-side up – over a bowl of rice. Before we moved, my husband never came home this late. I was always working overtime, too, so we’d eat together – even if it was some reheated curry or stir-fry. I never had the energy to go to the supermarket after a long day at work, so we hardly ever had vegetables. We had a few frozen things that we could heat up – fried rice and things like that. Now I never bought anything pre-made. I made our meals from scratch. This was far better for us, both financially and nutritionally. At the same time, I’d pass out from hunger if I tried to wait for my husband to come home. It’s not like eating together meant that much to me, but when you make dinner twice a day, one of those meals is going to lack heart. Miso soup is best when it’s fresh. Anything pickled is going to get soggy eventually. Fried food mutates into something else when you reheat it. ‘How deep was it?’ ‘Up to my chest. A little deeper, maybe.’ ‘No way.’ You can’t survive on boiled pork or meat and potatoes.
Maybe there wasn’t anywhere for him to eat around his office. Or maybe he was eating at home for me – for my benefit. Either way, it didn’t matter how late it was when my husband came home. That’s when he ate. For the most part, I was happy with this arrangement. I think I’d feel guilty if he ever said, ‘I don’t need dinner tonight.’ I’d probably feel like something was missing, like I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. Not long after the move, I asked him if he ever got hungry working that late without dinner. He told me there were snacks at work – nothing substantial, but enough to hold him over. I asked him where the snacks came from, who brought them. He said no one brought them – they were always there, in the office, free for the taking. I imagined my husband, working overtime and digging into a giant bag of chocolates or maybe some manju from a client. The thought of it was too much to bear. ‘It’s usually just Kameda Crisps, but sometimes we have dried squid.’ ‘Squid?’ ‘Yeah, on sticks. Skewered. They’re just there in the break room – who knows why. Maybe there were a bunch left over from some party or something.’ Every workplace has its own logic. At my old job, no one saw squid as an office snack. There’s no way anyone would have gotten away with it. Anyone who dared to eat Kameda Crisps would’ve faced an even worse fate. Why would anyone make that kind of noise when everybody else is trying to finish up for the day? If someone did that at my old job, they’d never hear the end of it. I thought I knew what kind of place my husband’s office was, but maybe I knew less than I realized. It’s not like I didn’t care. He didn’t know that much about my old job, either. Whenever someone asked me what my husband did, I had my answer ready. Still, I have to admit, I didn’t have a firm grasp on how his business turned a profit, or what role my husband really played in it.
My husband kept an eye on the news as he swallowed the rest of his dinner with inhuman speed. ‘Sounds dangerous. You’d better watch out for holes. Stay away from those animals, too, whatever they are.’ ‘But I’d never seen it before.’ ‘I bet it was just some weird breed of dog. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes. Or maybe it was a weasel. Seriously, raccoons don’t look the way they do in comics. I’ve never seen one in real life either.’ But it wasn’t a dog, and it wasn’t a weasel or a raccoon. Not that I knew what it was. Regardless, I didn’t have any hard evidence to prove him wrong, so I just nodded while his attention returned to the phone in his hand. I watched as his fingers sped across the screen. There was a small, hard lump on my finger where the bug had bitten me. It felt hot. I put a bandage over it and went to sleep.
Cover image © Unsplash
The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, is available from New Directions.