Somewhere, it was raining. So I thought as I checked the arrival schedule of the shipment of apricot gummies that a client had enquired about. A light muffled pitter-patter tickled my eardrums, like large raindrops crashing into the surface of my umbrella in rapid succession. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved holding an umbrella, and even now as an adult, this soft music still brings me shivers of joy.
All the same, it was a little strange to hear that sound not at the edge of a busy street corner, but here within the confines of my office. Yet the light tapping reverberated once again. It was coming from Shirai, sitting across from me to my left. I finished typing the email that I was working on, confirming that the delivery would reach its destination sometime in the second week of the coming month, and – moving only my eyes – glanced in Shirai’s direction. The four fingers of his left hand, thumb excluded, were pecking away at the side of his laptop. They worked together like falling dominoes, first the little finger, then the ring, middle, and index fingers bouncing atop the black plastic keys. The whitish fingertips and their clipped nails let out a continuous soft, crisp sound like rain peltering down.
Though I had been working in this department for close to two years now, never before had I paid such attention to Shirai’s fingers. The next moment, he tilted his head in thought. No doubt something was amiss with the task at hand, and he was pondering how to deal with it. Was this quirk a mannerism of his when he fell deep in thought? I had never noticed it before.
Shirai was a few years older than me, softly spoken and calm of demeanor. He was the type of person who went unnoticed at team drinks after work. Nonetheless, I liked sitting next to him during the after-parties once I had let a few glasses of beer get to my head. He didn’t usually engage in idle chatter, but after a few drinks to loosen his tongue, he would become more articulate, talking nonstop with stories of his pet canaries. My parents kept a java sparrow, and as a lover of birds myself, we were never faced with a shortage of conversation material. I had never once heard him raise his voice, and as a general rule, he didn’t speak ill of others. When I put my ear close to his mouth to better hear his muffled speech, I found myself feeling strangely at ease, like a wild bird hiding among familiar brush.
A colleague with an eye for simple elegance. That was my impression of Shirai.
But why couldn’t I take my eyes off his fingers, still fluttering at the edge of my vision? His nails, neatly trimmed into tidy ovals, floated and swayed as though caught in a faint breeze. The soft pitter-patter of his typing. It was like I was listening to the rhythm of his unconscious mind.
All of a sudden, I felt a twinge of pain, a small needle prick on the nape of my neck. Uh-oh, I thought. This is bad. And indeed, it was.
From that day onward, I couldn’t help but entertain a secret fondness for Shirai’s mannerisms and behavior and everything else about him. When my eyes met his, I would feel a feverish tingle at the back of my neck, and my heart would start racing, leaving me unable to fully muster my voice. His appearance, which I had never before considered anything other than plain and simple, now seemed to me absorbing and handsome, and his choice of conversation starters, which most people took little interest in, struck me as a reflection of his modesty and intellect.
Try as I might not to think about him, we worked in the same office, and it was inevitable that we would constantly run into each other. I must have struck him as oddly apprehensive, as whenever one of us passed the other – whether in the office, the cafeteria or the locker room – my body stiffened as though hit by lightning. It was painful for me, stumbling on him like that all the time. Yet I wanted to get closer. There was a trembling inside me, slowly building up in force.
‘Did you used to play the piano?’ I asked him in the cafeteria one day, clutching a paper cup filled with hot tea in an attempt to contain my tremors. I couldn’t help but wonder how his fingers had learned to move that way, gliding so gracefully across the keys.
Shirai’s eyes widened, his brow lifting in surprise. ‘No,’ he answered.
My heart skipped a beat as I watched his adorable eyebrows climb up his forehead, and I rose to my feet, ending the conversation with an unnatural, ‘Oh. I was so sure.’
I doubted that I would ever be able to lean close to him again, to hold my ear to his mouth and listen to him talk so calmly and comfortably of small birds. Those were some of my happiest moments, and now I had gone and ruined them.
Every time I approached Shirai, something was born anew inside my body, reverberating, trembling, and appealing to my very existence. Those vibrations helplessly disturbed my emotional balance, compelling me to go to extreme lengths with him. If I held back any longer, I knew, I would cease to be myself.
It was a cloudy Wednesday, around two months after I first fell in love with those wondrous fingers. Encouraged by the sight of the unfurling cherry blossoms that I had glimpsed in the park on my way to work, I called Shirai into an empty conference room during lunch break. He showed up with his usual, a sandwich – smoked salmon, cream cheese and lettuce between two pieces of wholemeal bread – and a single-serving carton of milk tea, which he had bought from the convenience store near the office.
‘Nemu? Is this…?’ he asked me.
‘Yes,’ I answered.
My fingers were trembling, my whole body too. Those peculiar vibrations set off a release of neurotransmitters cascading from my brain. Whenever I sat down with Shirai at team drinks, he would always greet me with a pleasant smile, so I shouldn’t have been without hope. Perhaps what I felt now had been born within his body too.
‘Won’t you exchange stones with me?’ I asked.
Shirai’s face took on a mysterious cast, his mouth setting in a straight line. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have a stone to offer you.’
With that crisp statement, the strength drained from my body, my knees buckling as I squatted down where I stood. ‘Oh… That’s…a shame…’
‘So that was it. I thought you’d been looking a bit unsettled lately.’
‘I’m sorry if I came across as rude.’
‘No, not at all. There’s nothing to apologize for.’
As he patted me on the shoulder, tears welled up in my eyes. My wish had failed to come to fruition, but I was still overjoyed to feel his touch.
A kind voice reached down from above: ‘It’s hard, isn’t it? I know. Why don’t we do it quickly then? Do you know where the stone is?’
I was so overcome with disappointment that I wasn’t able to respond right away. The thought of ending this painful, happy, sweet delirium gnawed at my heart. I always felt this way whenever a fresh stone grew inside me.
But it would be dangerous to leave things as they were. Floating up before me was the face of my classmate Okina, chewing on a different peach-colored stone.
‘It’s around the back of my neck…I think…’
With a discreet hand that barely grazed my skin, Shirai’s fingers brushed against my neck. The vibrations grew stronger. I could feel them rippling through my body, feverish with pleasure as his fingers drew ever closer.
‘Ah, here it is. It’s pulsing.’
No sooner did he finish speaking than a pain, almost a cold chill, crawled across the surface of my skin. It must have been a fingernail or something similar making a shallow incision. Then, cool fingertips squeezed between my flesh, scraping out the thickened lump. Shirai’s fingers were actually moving inside my body, I thought as I registered those movements. I was so happy, so incredibly, unbelievably happy!
The moment the stone left my body, that feeling of joy departed too, as though my heart had been tugged free.
In its place, an amorphous, thick, fog-like sense of loss surged in. I could feel the heat inside me receding, dull and leftover, like hot water slowly cooling in a teacup. Fresh tears welled in the corners of my eyes, a deep sadness at having lost the bittersweet sensation that until only a few seconds ago had filled me so completely.
‘No problems taking it out. It’s a cute orange color.’
I raised my head at the sound of that bright voice. Shirai was crouching down in front me, showing me the stone balanced on the palm of his hand. It was indeed a slightly milky orange – in size and shape, it looked just like a dried fava bean. In a way, it also resembled the small apricot gummies that our company sold commercially. Yet how on earth could he describe stones – which, though usually small, could prove fatal if left unresolved – as cute?
Shirai was very relaxed about these things, that was for sure. Seized by dismay at that thought, I shrugged my shoulders. The orange-colored fava bean trembled faintly atop Shirai’s hand. Those tremors, those slight movements less than a millimeter side to side, repeated every few seconds, so faint that you might miss them if you so much as blinked. They had felt so momentous while the stone was inside my body, but looking at it now, I couldn’t believe that I had let myself be shaken by such a tiny object.
‘Throw it away, please.’
‘I couldn’t possibly dispose of it in front of the person it came from. That would be bad manners. I’ll take it home for the time being.’ Shirai wrapped the orange stone in a handkerchief and put it in his pocket. ‘Ah, it’s still shaking.’
His light tone of voice roused my ire a little, but I also felt an airy lightness of my own rising up inside me.
‘Shirai,’ I said.
‘Can you tell me more about your canaries next time we all go out for drinks?’
‘Of course. You had better get something to eat, Nemu. Lunch break is almost over.’
Carefully picking up his sandwich and milk tea, Shirai left the conference room.
‘You’re always rushing headfirst into love, aren’t you?’ Kureha said with a sage nod after I told her how I had been rejected by Shirai.
‘What’s the point of confessing your love to someone before you’ve even managed to make them feel the same way? If you rush in without charming them first, there’s no way you’re going to get a stone out of them. You have to get them interested before you make your move.’
‘Really? But how do you do that?’
‘You know, you could try talking to him about something close to you, something intimate, or you could wait until just the right moment to invite him to do something with you outside of work.’
‘Shirai doesn’t normally like to talk much in the office though, and I don’t even know what he does for fun.’
‘You sound like total strangers. How on earth did you end up falling in love with him?’
I could hardly say that it was the way his fingers tapped against his computer keyboard that had drawn me in. I gulped down a mouthful of my now-lukewarm beer and glanced up at the cherry blossoms overhead, now at their zenith. Alongside the drinks, we laid out on the vinyl picnic sheet a host of Tupperware containers filled with takikomi gohan rice balls, fried chicken, and pickled cucumber and carrot.
‘Well, these kinds of things are kind of like getting run over by a truck,’ Zen, sitting cross-legged by Kureha’s side, interceded.
On Zen’s lap, the four-month-old Mitsu lay sleeping with his soft cheek pushed up against his father’s chest. Zen, an elementary school teacher, had married a colleague and been graced with his first child earlier in the year. Thinking that it would be difficult for him to go out with such a young baby, I had fully expected him to turn down my invitation to go flower viewing, but to my surprise, he had asked if he could bring Mitsu along with him so that his wife could take a breather. There was no reason for me to refuse, and so we spent an hour playing together with his toys on the grass until finally he fell asleep. Kureha and Zen and I had all been in the same high school choir club. We all still lived in the same neighborhood, and we would catch up every now and then.
‘So was it like getting run over by a truck when you met your wife?’ I asked with a touch of sarcasm.
Zen tilted his head to one side as he stared into the distance. ‘Hmm. I wonder? I liked her from the very moment I first saw her. As time passed, my stone kept getting bigger and bigger. Then she asked me if I wanted to exchange stones with her, and I –’
‘That’s too straightforward to be any help here,’ I interrupted, glancing to Kureha to back me up.
She must have dropped something, as she was picking up stray pieces of rice from the picnic sheet. I offered her a wet wipe, and she nodded back to me in thanks.
‘I suppose it probably is a bit like that when things go well. But . . . ah, maybe it’s for the best, with Shirai? I mean, it’s not unbearable anymore. And he managed to get the stone out safely, you know? It would have cost a fortune to get it taken out at a hospital.’
‘It’s always painful for the patient when you get a doctor to do those kinds of surgeries,’ Kureha observed. ‘The stones dive deep into your body to get away.’
‘Yes. But Shirai was so kind. It didn’t hurt at all.’
If only Shirai had resonated with me, I was sure I would have found happiness. But it was too late now. I longed to exchange stones with someone I loved, the two of us placing them deep into the crevices of each other’s bodies. There, they would sound in harmony with each other, and we would experience a joy much deeper and more profound than when we were left alone with our own stones growing inside of us.
‘Hey,’ I asked. ‘Is it really true happiness, resonating with someone?’
Of the three of us, Zen was the only one who had experienced that fulfillment of love for himself.
With a frown, he stared into the distance again, before at last nodding his head. ‘It’s a good thing, I think. So calming… It was like I had always wanted to feel that way, you know? But, er…’
‘It makes you feel weird, once you realize you’re not going anywhere anymore.’
Kureha and I glanced at one another. It sounded like Zen was in a very different, much more complicated predicament than we were.
‘Are you saying you wanted to try out a few more tragic loves first?’
‘No, not really. I suppose falling in love with someone and giving them a stone is all about deciding what to do with your life. I’ve already made my decision. So sometimes, I miss how I felt before that, you know? It kind of feels like…like you’ve lost something.’
With a frown, Kureha patted Zen on the back. ‘You’re lucky if that’s what keeps you up at night! Here we are suffering because we can’t even offer up our stones to the people we want to!’
Zen shrugged his shoulders, seemingly worried that she might end up waking Mitsu.
At first, I didn’t know where the faint, cool sound, so quiet that it seemed to stop before it had even begun, was coming from.
After realizing that I often heard it in the locker room, I made a conscious effort to turn my attention to it. The sound seemed to echo in my chest strangely, and I couldn’t let it go.
It tended to ring loudest while Shirai was in the locker room. Once my thoughts had taken me that far, there was only one place to look. I waited until the room was otherwise unoccupied, then opened the door to Shirai’s locker, four spaces away from mine. Cautiously, taking care to make as little noise as possible.
On the shelf above the coat hook were eight small glass bottles. The contents of the leftmost vial struck a chord in my memory – a milky orange stone. The one next to it was a deep, transparent scarlet, clearly of high purity. After that was one of a pale gray color with a hint of iridescence depending on how you looked at it. The next was an azure blue stone imbued with countless silver grains like stars in the night sky. Beside that one, another of a rich pink. And after that –
‘Please don’t open my locker without my permission.’
How long had I been standing there? Before I knew it, Shirai appeared beside me, his forehead creased in a frown.
‘I mean it. What’s wrong? Are there still pieces of that stone in your body?’
‘No, that isn’t it.’
‘Either way, please step aside.’
Shirai placed his hand against the locker, and the moment that he did so, the small bottle on the leftmost end let out a sound like a bell chiming. My stone, having sensed Shirai’s approach, trembled with joy, slamming itself against the walls of its glass container. No sooner did the tone and rhythm of that sound reach my ears than I felt a sense of urgency. I loved Shirai. No, I corrected myself. No, I didn’t. I wanted to put him inside my body. I wanted to dig into his. Anyway, wasn’t it all already over? I felt sick to my chest as all these urges tore through me.
‘Shirai. Throw it away, please. Or at least take it out of the bottle. The sound…it’s bothering me.’
Shirai hastily opened the glass jar and retrieved my stone, clasping it in his hand. The sound had stopped – but watching on, as though none of this had anything to do with me, I was sure that the stone was happier than ever before.
‘I see. None of the others would ever come anywhere near here, so I didn’t notice it before. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll stop storing them here.’
‘You’re collecting them…? That’s…an unusual hobby…’
‘Do you think so?’
‘I mean, you must be really popular, Shirai.’
I was stunned. I had always thought of him as such an inconspicuous person. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who had been captivated by those fluttering fingertips? No wonder he was so good at removing stones.
‘It certainly looks that way,’ I answered him.
‘How many stones have people given you, Nemu?’
‘What a thing to ask someone… Only one, when I was a student.’
Unfortunately, with our being in separate classes, I hadn’t even known the name of the boy who had offered to exchange stones with me. I politely declined, and as he wept, I carefully removed the stone from the hollow of his collarbone. I couldn’t cut the skin well with my fingernail, and so I was forced to use a utility knife. It drew a little blood, for which I apologized. The stone that I removed was the color of shiny caramel, and I was left more bewildered than grateful that someone I barely knew had developed such a depth of affection for me. Troubled by the thought that the stone would continue to tremble for as long as I held it, I dropped it in the river on my way home from school. By now, it was probably glistening somewhere at the bottom of the sea. No doubt there must be millions of stones that have been dealt with the same way, and I had added to them yet another galaxy, shining with unrequited love.
‘You have eight of them,’ I said to Shirai. ‘It’s incredible. And a little scary.’
‘Ever since a high school classmate of mine died of crystallization, I’ve had a bit of a bad impression of stones. They’re frightful things.’
His name was Okina, and he was the first person I ever grew a stone for. He was the ace of the handball club, always offering up a friendly smile. Lots of students obsessed over him and even offered him stones of their own. I was one of them. Thank you, he said to me, but I’m sorry. I only have time for handball right now. He spoke those words like he had said them countless times before, then took my stone in his mouth, grinding it up and swallowing it down in an effort to comfort me. That was the fashion at the time, and everyone thought it was the sincerest way of responding. They said that stones taken from someone’s body tasted sweet, like salty honey.
But shortly before graduation, Okina was found dead in his bedroom. Rumor had it that his body, from his throat to the left side of his chest, had transformed into amaranth-colored stones, and when he was discovered, he was frozen in a posture as though clawing at his own throat. Although the speed at which stones grow can vary, it usually takes a love affair of several years for them to get so large that they eat away at the surface of the body. After swallowing dozens of stones with that dazzling smile of his, he died without anyone having noticed his own affections, and without ever telling another soul the name of his love.
As he listened to me recount what happened to Okina, Shirai tilted his head to one side, seemingly not quite grasping the point.
‘Why not just tell the other person how you feel? Or if you can’t do that, go to a hospital to get them removed? Sure, you hear these stories about people crystalizing sometimes, but to be honest, I just don’t get it. Why do they have to go that far? It’s baffling.’
‘Well… When a stone is growing inside you, your emotions are all messed up, you know? You can’t make rational decisions. You must know what it feels like, nurturing a secret that keeps eating away at you? I mean, unless you’ve never…’
‘No. I’ve never sprouted a stone inside me. I suppose there are people I’ve felt at ease around though.’
I was left startled by his matter-of-fact admission. I was more prone to stone formation than most, so I couldn’t imagine having lived for so many years without ever birthing any.
‘Sometimes… Um, you know, you hear about people who form stones because they’re attracted to things like the moon, the ocean, volcanoes, that sort of thing…’
‘I’m not like that.’
‘Work then? Or country?’
‘I guess I have a pretty normal relationship with work. I don’t feel anything special for countries. I think I’m just generally less passionate than most people. There isn’t anything I want so much that I can’t stop thinking about it.’
‘What about your canaries?’
‘To me, they’re like these stones,’ he said, gesturing to his locker. ‘They’re beautiful, and I try to take good care of them.’
In spite of myself, I let out a deep sigh.
‘My love never really stood a chance, did it?’
‘No. I’m sorry.’
‘And they’re all so beautiful. Not just my stone – the other seven too.’
What a magnificent waste of energy. Why did the world have to keep on producing such fruitless loves? If only we could collect all those unwanted stones and put them toward world peace or something of the sort.
‘I wonder why the other seven don’t ring,’ I observed. ‘You’re standing right next to them.’
‘Huh? Don’t you know? Stones stop shaking about a fortnight after they’re removed. Though of course, they can apparently keep moving for longer if the person they’re so attached to accepts them inside their own body. Maybe the life their original owner gave them runs out after a couple of weeks?’ Shirai paused there, humming in thought.
Then, looking unconvinced by his own words, he continued: ‘Actually, maybe it’s better to say they were born rather than given life? They’re small, beautiful, burdensome creatures that are born inside you. They play tricks on your brain, but they’re only capable of living for around two weeks after leaving your body. They’re kind of cute, don’t you think?’
With that, he unfolded his palm and showed me my orange stone.
‘Cute? Not at all.’ Overcome by bitterness, I glanced away from that trembling fava bean.
‘Maybe not. But once something has been born, maybe it doesn’t really matter too much what it means.’
‘If you say so. I wouldn’t know.’
Shirai let out a soft chuckle.
Perhaps, I thought, he had a bit of a nasty streak about him and liked catching people at a loss. I could see him so much more clearly now than when that stone had been gnawing at my heart. And I realized that I didn’t dislike this new side of him quite so much.
As evening came on, Mitsu grew grouchy, forcing Zen to pack his bags and leave early. The Tupperware container that he had brought with him, filled with fried chicken and rice bran pickles, was gone, and Kureha and I sat with our legs stretched out on the wide picnic mat. Whenever the wind blew, pearly petals fell around us like rain.
Kureha glanced into the cooler box at our stash of drinks. ‘We’re down to one can of beer,’ she said.
‘Why don’t we go half and half?’
‘You’re drinking a little quickly today, don’t you think?’ I asked.
‘Not really.’ She pulled the tab, took a sip, and held out the can of beer.
As she extended her hand, a blue stone popped out from the sleeve of her shirt. The stone rolled across the vinyl mat, as neon-blue as though it had been carved from a tropical sea.
Kureha was silent, holding the can of beer as she stared at the fallen stone. Not sure what to do, I took the drink from her, then scooped up the stone.
‘Did someone give you this?’ I asked. ‘Or is it yours?’
Of course, given that it had fallen so naturally from her shirt, no doubt she had received it from someone else.
She spoke up after a long pause, her voice unusually hushed and flat: ‘It isn’t mine.’
‘Whose is it then?’
‘I got it from Sorachika.’
Sorachika. Right, that was the name of her colleague, a physical therapist for whom she had been nurturing a stone of her own for some time. Did this mean they had been able to exchange them? I was about to burst out with my congratulations when I realized that if so, there was no way that it would have just fallen to the ground like this. Kureha looked uneasy, unbalanced, rocking from side to side as though suffering from a toothache.
Both she and Sorachika worked at a large general hospital. So, she told me, when Sorachika, after clocking out for the day, was hit by a truck running a red light as he rode his motorcycle home, it was his own workplace that he was quickly ferried back to.
‘He was already dead when they brought him in. But I wanted to make sure the body was presentable before his family saw it.’
The stone had landed in Kureha’s hands as she worked to stop the bleeding and perform the necessary post-mortem procedures. Unable to part with the crisp, clean, neon blue that so perfectly suited the person he had been, she had slipped it into her pocket.
‘It was fate, I thought. I would carry his stone with me forever. I couldn’t stop crying, not even when I got the surgery to have my own stone taken out and put this one in in its place. But it popped right out again, like it rejected me. It won’t shake at all anymore, but that didn’t stop it from working its way out. It wants to go into someone else’s body, not mine. My stone just kept on trembling, but this one wouldn’t even move. They never resonated with each other, and in the end, my stone died too. That was two days ago.’
Kureha wrinkled her brow in frustration and pulled a muscat green stone from the inside pocket of her tote bag. This one would be hers then. She was still in pain, even though the stone had been removed and her love was already lost. The neon blue and cloudy muscat green both shone in her eyes. Two unmoving stones of completely different shades coming into silent contact atop the vinyl picnic mat as she placed them next to each other.
‘I guess you just didn’t click?’ I asked. ‘You know, at a basic level?’
‘No. We never clicked.’ Kureha nodded strongly. Then, she broke into a confused frown, before continuing: ‘But it was fun. It never really came to anything, but I had a blast while I was in love with him. I really did.’
‘I’m sure it was the same for him.’
I moved nearer to her and held her in a wide-armed hug, pressing my ear to the back of her soft cotton sweater. It was us, not the stones, who had been born into this world trembling for no real reason. Those tremors were, at their core, the rhythm of one person alone, united with no one else.
‘Let’s come see the cherry blossoms again next week,’ I suggested.
Once the current blossoms had fallen, it would be time for the late bloomers. Kureha didn’t answer, only staring down into her hands as she cupped the two stones.
‘Maybe I’ll ask Shirai to come as well?’
Trembling or not moving at all – I doubted it would make any difference. Either way, it would be a chance for us to enjoy ourselves a little. White petals stuck to Kureha’s cheeks, and with a light puff of air, I blew them off into the cloud-filled sky.
Image © Mersey Viking
Text originally published by BUNGEI Magazine, KAWADE SHOBO SHINSHA Ltd.