Beauty and Other Stories by Scramblers and Shadows
Posted: Sun May 03, 2020 2:47 pm
Update 8/6/20: I suppose this is where I'll be putting all my stories going forward.
Shizune inspired me to write an essay. Lilly inspired me to write a scene. That seems rather fitting.
If you prefer the AO3 version, find it here
We move slowly up the slope, over grass and pink heather. The wind tugs playfully at us for a moment, then settles again. I'm breathing heavily. Lilly's arm in mine feels realer than real. I have not seen her for close to nine months.
I guide her past the outcrops of bare rock, and warn her when the ground because treacherously steep. I check my phone once more to make sure I have signal; if something were to happen to me here and she couldn't get help … well. But our connection to the outside world is still in place.
We crest the slope, and a few feet away from the cliff's edge we come to a halt.
The land ends suddenly, as if its has been hacked away. The ground is scarred by outcrops of old red sandstone. The sky is the colour of burnished pewter. Further out, pyramids of bare rock like shark's teeth erupt from the dark, trembling ocean. Every part of this landscape seems so sure of itself, so unwilling to compromise.
“Thank you, Hisao,” says Lilly. “I love it here, but I am so rarely able to come.”
And I can understand why. This landscape, with its sudden cliffs, would be dangerous for her to walk alone. But who would accompany her? Her parents, from what I've heard, don't care for such things. Akira is busy. If she were to meet someone who could … The thought makes something catch in my throat.
A light breeze from the sea brings the smell of salt and trails Lilly's hair out behind her. She closes her eyes and inhales. She pulls her coat tighter around, sets her bag on the ground, then sweeps up her skirt to sit down. I sit beside her. Our shoulders press together.
“Are you quite sure you wouldn't like a drink?” she offers.
She smiles to herself and takes a bottle of whisky and a tulip-shaped glass out of her bag. “It is an acquired taste,” she admits, pouring herself some.
Lilly acquires tastes the way some people acquire action figures. She swirls the whisky and holds the glass to her nose. She drinks it with the poise of someone who has being do so for years.
Tomorrow I fly back to Japan. This week we spent together passed so quickly. I don't know when – or if – I will see her again.
I try and distract myself. “It's beautiful,” I say. There was a time when I thought saying something like that would be inconsiderate. Now I think the reverse.
I lean in towards her. “Show me.”
She takes my hand and lays my palm on the sandstone beside her. For a moment it's just stone; then I pay attention, to its roughness, its complex texture, its carved surface, its solidity that seems to show its connection to this giant slab of material below us.
“And the ocean,” she says. “When people describe the ocean to me, I always think the sound of it tells you everything you need to know. It surrounds you. It's so deep, and so wide, it seems to have no end. Like it could swallow everything and have room to spare.”
I sit there and listen, and feel, the land and the sea together, and try and understand the way I feel she does. There's a third element: The pressure of her breasts against my arm as I reach across her lap, rising and falling softly with her breath.
At last, I lift my hand from the sandstone and sit up. I look at her face. I can tell her smile is genuine. “Your turn,” she says.
I look out at the sea, then back the way we came, considering my options.
So I tell her the story of these rocks, this sandstone, stained by iron oxide, on its journey across three hundred million years. I recount how it's pushed up by geological processes from the sediments of an ancient lake bed, carrying its cargo of fossils from before the age of the dinosaurs. How it seems steadfast only because we are so transient. How even now in meeting the sea it is carved away.
While I speak, I watch her face. I know Lilly well enough to tell from her smile when she's interested and when she's just being polite. I manage to hold her interest – if there is one thing I have learned from Mutou, it is how not to be boring.
“Thank you,” she says.
Once, during an hour-long phone conversation, she told me a thought she'd had about beauty. The world is cloaked in such ugliness, she told me, but beneath it, beauty is always trying to get out, using every means every path, every channel it can, to make itself known. Stifled in one form, it fights to appear in another, even if only for a moment, to make existence worth enduring.
“And no one back home has found their way to your heart?” she asks.
“No.” I have told her this before.
A subtle smile crosses her face and she nods. “No one has found their way to mine either,” she says. And she has told me this before.
She packs away the whisky bottle and glass, and begins dusting herself off.
It can't be over already, can it? But I force myself to stand and help her up. “Time to go back?” I'm not sure whether I manage to keep my voice from quavering.
“Not quite yet. Let's move back a little way from the cliff face, though.”
So I guide her away from the cliff. When we are far enough away, she stops me. She slips her shoes off and treads on the bare grass. She takes a few paces, then turns towards me.
“Well?” she asks.
She shrugs off her coat and lets it fall to the floor, then holds out her hands, inviting me to take them.
I don't know what will happen. Perhaps we will be alone long enough to come together again; perhaps we will never meet each other again. All I can be certain of – all I have ever been certain of since my heart attack – is that I have this moment. I take her hands.
And in that place, surrounded by beauty, where the immense and eternal land comes together with the immense and eternal sea, Lilly and I, tiny and fleeting by comparison, also come together.
Posted: Mon Jun 08, 2020 5:48 pm
Disclaimer: The following post was written in response to Stiles Long's writing contest. Each participant was given a list of KS character pairings and a list of locations. One of each was chosen for this fic.
“I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch.” – Leonard Cohen
On the evening of Hanako Ikezawa's twenty-fourth birthday, she stood before her only mirror, took a long, uneven breath, and brushed her hair back behind her shoulders.
She looked at the reflection of the polished marble chess set, in the middle of a game. She looked at the bookshelves covering the wall behind her. She looked at the empty wine glass. And only then did she look at herself.
All rituals have their necessary order. Foundation covered healthy skin first and scar tissue second. Liquid eyeliner followed the same order. Mascara, left to right. Lipstick, left to right. When she was finished she turned her head left to right, examining the result. Then she pulled the curtain back across the mirror.
She washed the glass. She double-checked she had her keys, her phone, and money.
As she went to leave, she stopped and mulled over the the chess game. Her hand hovered over the black queen. For a while she had played by post. It was less stressful than playing over the internet – there was no pressure to come up with an immediately response. But for the past year she had just played against herself. It struck her sometimes that in these games she was putting her effort into tearing herself down that every win was a loss in equal measure.
She moved the queen back a single space, turned the board around and then went back to getting ready.
She grabbed her denim jacket on the way out and put it on as she went down the stairs. At the door to the apartment she hesitated for a moment.. Anxiety tugged at her chest. She ignored it and stepped out into the night.
The summer air was comfortably warm. People took to the streets in small groups, talking and laughing. She kept her head high and her gaze straight ahead, and avoided eye contact. A half hour's walk brought her to the bar.
This time, she didn't hesitate. Inside, it was close and hot and loud. She sidled between groups of people without touching them on her way across the bar. She bought a glass of wine, then retreated to a small table by the wall, where she could see everyone. And where they could see her. When she sat down, she turned to the left slightly, so anyone approaching would see her scars before he got close enough to talk to her.
And someone would approach. Every three or four weeks, whenever her own company became too much to bear, whenever she needed to get away from herself, she came down here. And there was always someone who saw – what? A victim who needed his charitable touch? A means to prove to himself that he was a deep, caring, sensitive gentleman who could look past a few scars? A girl who wouldn't turn him down because her options were so limited?
The first time was nerve wracking. She had been so drunk she could barely remember it. But once she knew what the game was, it became easy. It was the same story every time. She didn't have to say much. She didn't have to be witty. He wasn't interested in any of that. Coy was sexy.
And when, back at her apartment, he moved inside her, with her ankles crossed above the small of his back, or her fingers clutching the headboard, she could let those ancient instincts guide her. She knew where to stroke and kiss, and when to let out those little mewls in the back of her throat.
After the first few times of passive acquiescence, she found in herself the confidence to lead, to share the what and where and how of her desires and curiosities.
She noticed that of the fingers and lips caressing her face and neck and breasts, none ever intentionally touched her scars. The discoloured skin, the ropy, shrivelled flesh, repelled even the touch of the men who found her attractive enough to fuck. It would have done little in terms of pleasure. The nerves there had been seared away half a lifetime ago. But, she sometimes thought, it would still be nice to be touched there.
Lying in bed afterwards, Hanako often thought about intimacy. Intimacy – to share of yourself, to reveal something you didn't show the rest of the world, because it was too delicate, or too ugly.
Perhaps she could say, “This is the closest thing to real human contact I've had this month.”
Perhaps she could say, “I lost my virginity to a boy with a hero complex who thought feeling sorry for me would distract him from feeling sorry for himself.”
Unexpected eye contact could be just as startling, just as upsetting, as unexpected touch, like a child's delicate fingers against a flame. And both could augur pain.
The young woman on the far side of the bar was pale enough to stand out, the draw the eye for a moment. And in that moment she looked back at Hanako.
They stared at each other. She recognised the woman: Rika. Thorned vines of anxiety tightened around her chest. Please don't come over here.
Rika looked away.
Hanako settled back in her chair. Rika started to move away. Then she stopped, seemed to take a deep breath, and turned on her heel suddenly. Hanako's heart sank. Rika walked over holding a pint of stout.
“Hanako? Is that you? Oh, wow. Hi! It's me, Rika!”
Six years of practice since they had last seen each other had given Hanako the tools to navigate small talk. “Hello,” she said, forcing herself to smile.
“I'm not interrupting you, am I?”
“I, um … no.” Hanako couldn't bring herself to admit why she was really here, and she was scared any lie she could give would be obviously transparent.
“May I join you?”
“Be my guest.”
Rika settled into the chair opposite Hanako. She had cut off her ponytail and kept her white hair short. Her eyes were the sort of blue you see at the cleaved ends of glaciers. The slightly otherwordly effect this gave her lasted right up until she took a drank a quarter of her pint in one go and burped.
“So, come on then, tell me,” Rika said. “What have you been doing since Yamaku?”
“I'm an editor with Kobunsha,” Hanako said.
“Really?” Rika grinned. “Yeah, I can see that. Though I'd always kind of thought you would write a book.”
Hanako, who had a couple of published short stories in magazines, said, “What about you?”
Rika gave her a mock robotic bow and put on a staccato voice: “Low level office drone number seven-three-two-five-nine at your service, ma'am.” She broke into laughter, and took another drink from her beer.
When she wasn't drinking, Hanako noticed, she was always fiddling with something or other. She turned her glass round a few times, played with one of the little condiment packets in the middle of the table, and rolled a plastic straw between her thumb and forefinger.
“Listen,” said Rika, on finishing her second pint. “I have to go. But it was lovely to catch up. We should do this again. I'm usually free on my lunch break.”
Hanako, lacking the courage to say no, took Rika's number and said she would call. She could simply not get around to it.
After Rika had left the bar, Hanako looked around the bar, then at her empty glass. The effort of trying to take anyone home with her felt like too much.
“Happy birthday, Ikezawa” she whispered to the wine dregs in the bottom of her glass, and got up.
Hanako and Lilly still exchanged letters. Not emails, not phone calls, but actual letters, usually running to several pages long and sent every few weeks. For Lilly, it was something of an affectation; for Hanako, it was an escape from the demanding and stressful immediacy of the internet. Lilly wrote hers with a steadily more refined hand. Hanako typed hers out, making numerous edits along the way, and printed the result.
They talked about books and shared recommendations. Lilly was learning French, and in her most recent letter shared her love of Stendhal and Flaubert. Hanako promised to look for a translation of The Red and the Black, and joyously related her recent discovery of Hitomi Kanehara.
She didn't talk about the men she brought home, less out of shame than the knowledge that Lilly wouldn't understand. The last thing she wanted was worried maternalistic pity issuing from the far side of the planet and oozing through her letterbox.
So, knowing that Lilly would be curious about her birthday, she wrote about running into Rika. It was only then, in retrospect, that she realised she had enjoyed the conversation – and that she had had her hair brushed back for the entire thing. As she finished the letter and posted it, she decided she would take Rika up on the offer.
A letter would have been ideal. An email would have been acceptable. But as it was, with just a number, it took her two weeks to summon up the wherewithal to call Rika. She practiced her introduction and still fumbled it:
“Hello, Rika. I'm – It's Hanako.”
“Hanako! Hiya! I thought you had forgotten me. Do you want to take me up on my offer, then?”
“Yes. When are you free?”
“I've got my lunch break off tomorrow. There's this little cafe I like to go to.”
The cafe was all formica tables and flimsy plastic stirrers instead of teaspoons. Hanako, finding Rika yet to arrive, selected a tiny table half hidden by a small potted tree.
Rika appeared a few minutes late, breathing heavily as if she had been running. She still had the energy to pull Hanako into a hug. “You made it!”
When Rika looked at her, Hanako was acutely aware of how different she looked now compared to her night at the bar. Her makeup was more restrained, and she allowed her hair to drape forward in a way that more subtle than when she was at Yamaku but still helped obscure her scars.
But whatever Rika though, she kept it to herself. She flopped down in the chair opposite Hanako and ordered coffee, and picked up one of the plastic stirrers. She turned it over and over as she spoke.
“Man, work is a drag.”
“What are you doing?” asked Hanako.
“Hell, even I don't know. Some paperwork thing that contributes absolutely nothing to humanity.” Rika shrugged. “Tea runs for the boss are actually a welcome escape.” She dismissed the matter with a wave of her hand. “But no one wants to hear that same old sob story again. Tell me about your work. Do you get to read lots of submissions?”
“What are they like? Tell me about the bad ones. Do they write things like ‘a single crystal tear fell from her limpid azure orbs’?”
Hanako couldn't help a tiny giggle. “More often than I'd like,” she admitted.
With this fluttering energy that seemed to go all directions at once, Rika led the conversation, and soon Hanako found herself opening up and talking at some length about her work, the petty frustrations and the rare joys that made it all worthwhile.
At one point, the plastic stirrer in Rika's hand snapped. She dropped it and without hesitation picked up another one. The distraction made Hanako stumble over her words, and Rika caught her looking.
“Sorry,” said Rika. She made a move to put the new stirrer down, and then decided against it. “Quitting smoking, you know?'
“How long since you quit?” asked Hanako.
“Just a couple of months. Anyway, never mind that. Tell me about this writer who's trying to use every adjective.”
And then, in what seemed like no time at all, Rika was looking at her watch and swearing. “Sorry. I have to get back. Same time tomorrow?”
“I'm sorry. I've got work.” Hanako hesitated. “Let's try next week.”
“Great! Next week then.” Rika hugged her and then ran off down the street.
That evening, sitting in front of her marble chess board and weighing the benefits of a risky attack, Hanako found her thoughts wandering back over the conversation.
She had been terrified she would seize up and it would be awkward. But that hadn't happened. Why?
Because Rika had led the conversation.
That led to another thought: Maybe Rika was looking after her. It made sense. See this ugly little wretch sitting there alone, obviously waiting for a man to pick her up. Let's offer her a pity conversation, protect her from herself.
The thought was so revolting she recoiled in her chair. It took a conscious effort to push it out of her mind and go back to the game.
“It happens fast for some people and slow for some, accidents or gravity, but we all end up mutilated.” – Chuck Palahniuk
Hanako and Rika settled into a schedule. One or twice every week during Rika's lunch break they met at the tacky cafe and talked. The conversations sprawled. Hanako found herself looking forward to the visits.
Rika got exciting over Hanako's chess set and its 20,000 Yen price tag. “I'd offer to play,” she said. “But you'd find me no challenge at all.” Hanako was unsure how to respond, and the conversation moved on.
She learned about Rika's boss, and more irritating co-workers. Eventually she opened up about the short stories she had published, and regretted it when the next week Rika, having sought out the magazines and read them, came back full of praise.
Breadth rather than emotional depth was they key. Nothing they talked about came close the touching those raw, sensitive areas of the psyche.
One meeting, as part of an anecdote about a co-worker, Rika revealed she had only recently come out of hospital. “It's nothing,” she said, hastily dismissing the matter with a wave. “Just mortality nipping at my heels.” Then she smirked and winked at Hanako. “But on the plus side, not many girls can say they've had this many surgeons inside them, right?”
After she got home, Hanako once again had to suppress the thought that Rika was looking after her.
A month or so after their first meeting, they were discussing a story Hanako had just rejected.
“So no description at all?” Rika said. “Except … except when he's discussion his main character's breasts?”
Hanako nodded gravely. They looked at each other in silence for a few moments. Then Hanako gave a tiny snort, followed by a quiet giggle. A moment later, Rika's laugh drowned it out.
“So when's he getting published?” Rika asked. “'Cause I definitely want to get my hands on that story.”
“Oh, he's top of the pile,” said Hanako.
Rika slouched back in her chair and looked down at herself. “Wonder what he'd make of me,” she said. “I've got a chest like a dropped blancmange.”
Hanako's smile faded even as Rika grinned. To avoid the having to formulate a response, Hanako took an extended drink of her coffee.
After a brief hesitation Rika went on: “I don't know if that's actually a barrier to getting laid. It's flirting I can't get the handle of.” She looked around the table at an imaginary audience. “‘Which one of you fine gentlemen would like to avoid commenting on my inadequacies until I drop you for the slab?’ I don't think so.”
Maybe you're struggling because you have all the tact of a buffalo rampaging through an antiques shop. The sudden viciousness of the thought surprised Hanako. It was unfair, she knew, but part of her wanted to say it anyway. Instead, out of fear Rika would notice something was wrong, she forced a smile.
She let Rika go on, let Rika hug her, and when it was finally over, retreated back to her apartment. As soon as she was inside she turned, put her forehead against the door and closed her eyes.
Of course Rika knew. She had seen poor little Hanako, sitting alone at the bar, dolled up, a painted grotesque. I'm a good person. I'll look after her. A confident friend to look after her is just what she needs.
Hanako lifted her head from the door the slam it down again. “Stupid, stupid,” she whispered to herself.
Hanako had never been impressed with the metaphor of a heart for the inner life of the human being. The heart was – what? A glorified pump. That was all. And with a metaphor like that, it was dangerously tempting to read an injured heart as a broken heart, as if a defect in the physiology could be remedied by true love.
No, she had once decided. A better metaphor would be a raw, aching bundle of nerves that lit up and burned at even the gentlest of contact. A bundle of nerves which, despite all of that, longed to be touched.
When Hanako had calmed herself as best she could, she went downstairs to check her mail and found a letter from Lilly.
The would be at least one joy of the day.
She set the letter on the table and went into the kitchen. She took an antique tea set out of the cupboards and with slow, ritual progression, brewed loose tea she kept for the occasion. When everything was finished she settled back into her armchair with the teacup in one hand and the letter in the other and began to read
Lilly recounted a trip to Florence and expressed a desire to learn Italian when her French was good enough. She offered slightly guarded comments on Kanehara and asked if Hanako had been able to dance with Stendhal yet. And in her final paragraph she wrote:
I am so pleased to hear about your encounter with Miss Katayama. And I am proud of you for pursuing a friendship with her. I believe a friend will do you a lot of good.
Having read this, Hanako carefully put her empty teacup on the table. She read it again. She looked into the middle distance for a few moments. Then she folded the letter back up and hurled it across the room as hard as she could. It lost momentum quickly and fluttered pathetically to the ground.
Hanako submerged herself in work in the hope that it might extinguish the burning anxieties. It was counterproductive; She had already got into the habit of judging each piece in the slush pile for how she much of an amusing story it would make.
A little over a week later, her phone buzzed. The sound of it against her desk was sharp and startling, and pulled her away from her work. She glared down at the jittering green phone icon and the name Rika Katayama beside it until it stopped.
Another week passed. Rika tried calling again, and then stopped.
There were things Hanako couldn't do from home, so every so often she was obliged the go to the publisher's office. It wasn't something she looked forward to, but it was manageable. There was a cubicle set aside for her, and her co-workers didn't bother her.
As it turned out, the day she came in was someone's birthday. According to a tacky little golden banner hanging from the ceiling, it was Kobayashi's thirtieth. She hadn't been expecting that; she didn't know her co-workers well enough to keep track.
Hanako watched as people came up to him and wished him well. She wondered what it would be like to be in that position. She got up, took a few steps, then sat down again. No one here would blame her for staying where she was. They barely knew her. After a few moments of pretending to work, she took a deep breath and got up again.
She went over to him and dipped her head slightly. “Happy birthday.”
He smiled. “Oh, thank you, Ikezawa.”
She retreated back to her desk and hid in her work.
“There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.” – Angela Carter
That evening, Hanako opened the curtain in front of her mirror, took a long, ragged breath, and brushed her hair back behind her shoulders. She looked at the empty wine glass on the table behind her. She applied foundation, liquid eyeliner, mascara, lipstick. She examined the result. She pulled the curtain back across the mirror.
Tonight, being alone too much to bear.
The streets were lacquered in yellow light. The background noise city's traffic ran together into an oceanic rumble. People walking on the streets glanced at her, then looked away sharply.
She couldn't go to her normal bar. There was too high a risk of seeing Rika there. So she went to smaller, grimier alternative, ordered a glass of wine, and sat down to wait.
When an earnest young man appeared at the table and asked if it might join her, she smiled up at him and invited him to sit.
By the time he entered her, she had him classified. He was one of those who acted as though her flesh might come apart in his hands if he was too rough. A little way in she had to put his hand to her throat and whisper in his ear, “I'm not as delicate as I look, okay?”
Even after that, he didn't go quite as far as she would've liked, but she could enjoy it.
They lay side by side on her bed. Hanako stared at the ceiling and shifted slightly in discomfort. Her scars felt hot and uncomfortable, alien to her, like leather sewn into virgin flesh. She could feel the body heat of her partner by her side, radiating through a film of sweat. In retrospect, fucking him seemed like an inferno viewed at a great distance.
She felt more alone now that when she had started.
Sitting up suddenly, she said, “I need you to leave. Now, please. Now.”
He wanted to know if he had done anything wrong.
“No. No, I just need to be alone.”
He was surprised, but did as he was asked, calling a taxi as he was getting dressed. She politely harried him until he left.
When she was alone, she sank down in front by her door and put her head in her hands. When she had calmed down enough, she went into the bedroom and took her phone out of the jacket sprawled across the floor.
It was a little before midnight. She brought up a list of contacts running to a single page, and dialled.
“Rika? Hi, I … Are you busy? Would you like to come over?” She swallowed. “I could use some company right now.”
“Of course! I'll be there as soon as I can. What's your address?”
It was only when she was in the shower than Hanako realised the apartment must stink of sex. She didn't know how long Rika would take.
Swearing, she finished showering as quickly as she could, then opened windows in the bathroom and kitchen. Drying her hair with one hand, she hurriedly picked up her clothes from the floor, made the bed washed the wine glass, and put the bottle away. She got dressed. Two moths circled the lights. She closed the windows and chased them about the apartment trying to swat them.
The doorbell rang.
When Hanako opened the door, Rika began with a hug. “Hey! Are you okay?”
“Yeah. It's nothing,” Hanako tried to wave the matter away.
“So this is your place, huh?” said Rika, stepping in and looking around. “Oh, is this the chess set? I love it!”
The two weeks' silence and two unanswered phone calls were a void around which they awkwardly stepped.
“That's the one,” said Hanako.
“Black, I think.” Hanako hesitated. What came next? She hadn't really thought beyond inviting Rika over. She could offer wine, but she was already more drunk than she wanted to be. “Would you like some tea?” The only tea she had in the house was the one for reading Lilly's letters, but she thought Rika would like it.
Hanako made tea while Rika studied the books on her shelf. It was hardly private, but she felt oddly uncomfortable to have someone examine her reading material in such detail. She put it out of her mind.
Carrying the tea tray over to the table, she saw Rika's gaze stop briefly at the bin. And it was at that precise moment she realised the one thing she had forgotten to tidy away: A condom wrapper in the bin.
“That's so fancy!” said Rika. She tried the tea. “This is amazing. What is it?”
Hanako's could feel her face burning. She thought about how obvious it must be to Rika that she was blushing, and that made it worse. “Lady Grey,” she managed to say, sitting on a chair beside Rika.
“It's good,” said Rika. “I'll have to look it up.”
“It's from Britain.”
Hanako watched her tea to avoid looking at Rika. Silence filled the room like resin, suffocating and impenetrable. Just say something, she thought. Anything. Tell me what a pathetic person you think I am. Anything's better than this patronising attempt to pretend things are okay.
Rika stood up and looked at the bookshelf. “Could I borrow one of these sometime?” she asked.
“What would you recommend?”
“I'll have a think,” said Hanako quietly.
Rika went over to the chess set and peered at it. After a moment, she said, “Why is black winning?”
Hanako forced herself to stand. “It has better control of the centre of the board.”
“Look at what the bishop's pinning.”
“Oh,” said Rika. She stared at the board for a moment, then laughed. “No, I still don't get it.”
Hanako said nothing. The conversation felt to absurd to continue.
“Listen, uh” said Rika after a moment. She hesitated. “Are you okay?”
“So … I was thinking … you know that bar where we met. Shall we go out there?”
Hanako stared at her. “What?” she whispered. The implication was obvious. Let me come along and look after you so you don't do anything stupid.
Inside, anger flared, suddenly uncontrollable. “Yeah, that's what poor little Ikezawa needs, is it? A … a carer on her nights out? I'm not a wounded little pity case you can use to make yourself feel virtuous!” She swept the game off the chessboard. The pieces skittered across the floor.
“I … I don't think that at all,” said Rika. Her voice wavered.
“Really? Then tell me, what were you thinking when you came over to talk to me?” The words came out more acid than Hanako intended.
“You looked so resplendent, so … confident.” Rika smiled weakly. “I could barely summon up the courage to talk to you.”
Wrongfooted, deprived of its target, Hanako's anger flailed about. All she could do was push further. “Why?”
“Because … There's Hanako Ikezawa, right? Look at how far she's come since leaving Yamaku. And what have I done? What am I? Nothing. They say coming close to death makes you re-evaluate your life. When I woke up in that hospital bed, I couldn't find anything worth re-evaluating” Her lip trembled. She closed her eyes to steady herself. “When I saw you, I thought, for crying out loud, girl, take a step forward once in your life. Also, maybe I was hoping something of you would rub off on me.”
“I …” Hanako gripped the table for support. She knew how to be angry, she knew how to be fucked, but she didn't know how to handle this. The techniques for social interaction that everyone else seemed to have acquired were unavailable to her. She wanted to shout at Rika, unjustified as that was. She wanted to retreat to her room and hide.
Looking down, Rika hesitated. She picked up one of the chess pieces from the floor. A black knight. The left side of its face had come off in the fall. “It's broken,” she said.
It took a moment for that to sink in.
“I … I'm sorry.” Rika's lip trembled. She tried to brush the tears off her cheeks and succeeded only in smearing them. She looked up at Hanako.
It was contact with those glacier-blue eyes that quenched the flame of Hanako's anger. All her uncertain intentions resolved into crystalline clarity, and it became obvious what to do.
She swept forward, gently took the piece out of Rika's hand, and hugged her. With Rika's face pressed against her shoulder, Hanako rocked her gently and whispered meaningless, soothing syllables to her.
It was a gesture she knew, but only in its inversion. Lilly had comforted her this way once.
After a while in this silence that had become soft and warm, she felt Rika settle. Hanako set the knight back on the chessboard in its starting position. “I can still play with it,” she said. And then: “I'm sorry. I haven't treated you very well
Rika accepted this apology with a wave of her hand. “Shall we clean this up?”
While they were picking up the pieces, Hanako said, “One thing. When you saw me at the bar, did you know I was …”
“I suspected.” Rika lined up pieces on the chessboard. “And I cam over anyway. Sorry about that.”
“I'm glad you did.”
“Actually, when I suggested we got to the bar,” Rika added, “I was kinda hoping you'd show me how to get laid.”
Hanako stared at her.
They both burst out laughing.
“I don't know if I'm the best person to give advice about that. I'm kind of a mess,” Hanako said eventually. Then she recalled her worries about being patronised. “But if you want to … I'll try to help.”
Rika grinned. “Thanks.” She looked at the chess piece she was holding and said more quietly, “And now you know I'm kind of a mess too. But it's nice to have someone to be kind of a mess with.” She put the piece in its place.
The board stood ready for another game.
Re: Beauty and Other Stories by Scramblers and Shadows
Posted: Tue Jun 09, 2020 7:30 am
Well, delightfully slice of life - not in such a way that it’s a piece of life to enjoy and ultimately meaningless, but in the way that I think we all have these “slices of life” in our own worlds. Rika’s frustration, whilst I think coming across a bit suddenly (Hell, I can’t expect everyone to write mammoths like Crafty), is so profoundly human. In fact, as I was writing this, Rika’s name autocorrected to ‘Roma’ - *Glengarry Glen Ross*, I think a comparison can be made: “Who am I? What drives me?” Very interesting stuff.
Of course, Hanako is the stand out character here - The resentment for Hisao, even a little for Lilly, for everyone who’s treated her body like porcelain. The meaningless sex is about reclaiming some body autonomy, but, awfully, even that doesn’t work - she’s unfulfilled, the “ancient rhythms” aren’t enough to override those that treat her like she might shatter. Again, I think she comes across as ultimately relatable, we all have emptiness within us, since you’ve used quotations (which I’m very fond of, though I’d love to know what the books are if they’re attributed to stories), I thought I’d chuck a favourite back at you from Oscar Wilde:
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
I’m torn on how I appreciate the ending. On one hand, the reversal is delighted - it’s Rika who needs putting back together in a ways, and it’s not overly romanticised - Hanako is still in many ways, a “mess”. That twist was predictable, but executed well. Yet, on the other hand, it came a bit soon for my tastes - I’m not certain the confrontation was necessary, in fact, I wonder if a more subtle realisation on Hanako’s part might have better juxtaposed a story that is ultimately about our autonomy. Could Hanako, given a few more scenes with Rika, come to the realisation that she was different from Hisao on her own? Would that have been a more emotionally wrenching read? I’m not sure, but that’s what I mean by I’m torn. Ultimately what we do have here is still a brilliant ending, if a little melodramatic.
Anyway, contest stuff. The entries are judged on a 5 point system that is averaged. 1 for SPAG, 1 for Style (whatever that means
) and 3 for how well it fits the prompts, and my personal thoughts on the story. It probably goes without saying that this scores very highly in all categories.
This is a mature and ambitious story, that whilst could have been developed a bit more, results in what I would describe as “profoundly reflective” - there are pieces of all of us in Hanako and Rika, and it’s those mirrors you show with excellence. Awesome stuff, congrats.
(I’m sure Crafty and Bry will come and make this look like a chump analysis, don’t worry