This concludes the third part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
Kenji realises that the good years have ended.
Kenji 3: Distant Drums—Year Five
(September 2019-March 2020)
Everything did indeed look very good. I had friends. I could do things that helped my friends. I had family. I could do things that helped my family. I had a country, and I thought I could serve it by helping it do better too.
As 2019 became 2020, it was all good and all sweet. Why would anyone not assume that things could only get better? I am sure that is the conclusion you too will draw at this point, as I bring you to the end of the third chapter of the days I lived through.
Here then are my notes for late 2019 and early 2020, as we come to the end of those innocent years. Learn about the small things that you will see became important in the end. And then I will worry about whether my account of the remaining years should be published at all.
This is a story and in stories there are heroes and people who are not heroes. When I write this, and when I edit this with my old friend Natsume Ooe, I cannot help but feel sadness and happiness mixed together. We are happy to remember them, and sad that this is mostly all we have left.
Where was everyone in September as the autumn came? The neighbours had been behaving themselves, and I was due about 28 days off. So Deputy Director Setou took a break. What of it? It had to happen, or I would’ve cracked up.
The streets are quiet this month. I do not know why, but traffic is down, hydrocarbon fuels are cheap but people aren’t using them, even the paths of wayward electrons are less densely populated than usual. Yuuko is still at work, so I spend time with the children, and I spend time updating my personal database.
[Edit: You might wonder, reading this, if the old Kenji with his obsessive note-taking and information-collating had returned. No, not so. I had my old files though, and I was now on the Yamaku Academy Alumni Association Committee, courtesy of the last school board meeting. Yes, you now know who to blame, and perhaps the beginnings of how I came to owe her so much.
Natsume tells me that I should update these entries, forget the old data layout and just say a few things, like a story. You who read this will not be interested in many of my schoolmates. You might be interested in but a few. So I will edit this a bit, and tell you about the ones who have become more famous.]
Acting Principal Hakamichi you already know about. Her friend Shiina, ‘Misha’ as you might know her, had gone back to work with the UN in Europe. Ikezawa, who had developed a career in writing about her experiences, was another member of the Alumni Committee. I am sorry to say that we were never close, although we were friendly enough.
I did not need to track down my old acquaintance Tezuka, because she lived with Hisao and Emi in Sendai. Since I occasionally kept up with Naomi and Natsume, I knew a bit more from the Osaka/Kyoto side of the alumni network. Miki Miura was in Nagasaki, of course.]
So here I am, looking through my old records and my new ones. And I’m learning more and more about the people I never saw in school. Yamaku graduates up to a hundred students a year, if you include the ones in the supplementary list. The actual figure is more like 70. There are seventy Yamaku alumni released on an unsuspecting Japan each year. Where are they all?
When I wish Natsume a happy birthday one evening, we talk about it because she like thinking about such things. She has some ideas, and the facts support some of them.
The graduates of Yamaku don’t all go to university in Japan. Some go straight into family businesses. Some go overseas, never to be heard of again. Some become ronin, or have a gap year before they attempt university admission one more time. Natsume says a lot of them go into services that help other people with diseases and disabilities.
But there are many, many missing people. It’s not my job to know all this, but I confess that I am curious.
I am also careless. My curiosity infects my wife.
“Husband, what happened to the Student Council of your graduating year?”
“Oh, that’s easy. We did not have much of one. It was Madam Boss, Pink Drills, and Hisao.”
“I sort of remember that, but I wasn’t sure. They started slightly bigger, and then something happened, right?”
“Ah, yes. I have many theories about what actually happened, and most of them are about the blonde amazon and Madam Boss not getting along… wait. What made you ask all this?”
“You keep asking me for alumni data and you wonder why? Every time, um… a request comes from the Alumni Committee, it ends up in front of me at the office! And it has your name on it, Setou-san!”
“So I get curious too. If your work needs it, I want to help you. It’s my workplace, you know. I like it. And we’re writing a book anyway.”
At this point, I am not sure if I have taken my meds, or maybe too many pills. I don’t seem to be hearing right. I need to ask more questions, but that’s what got me into this in the first place.
“It’s Yamaku’s 50th anniversary in 2021! So I’m involved in the anniversary commemorative book committee, because I look after the school archives.”
“Oh, yes, that is true.” Oh, yes, my wife knows too much. Which is a good thing. She has a genuine reason to get my questions answered. “My very dear wife, would you like to turn your excellent research skills in some specific directions? I have an idea about that book.”
I’m still on leave in early November. So I decide to spend a bit more time in Sendai. It’s hard to believe that I graduated from this place more than ten years ago. But that’s the old post office where I used to get my tech packages, and that’s the convenience store where I used to get other supplies. In Japan, sometimes things don’t change so fast.
I get hold of Hisao on one of those days in his busy schedule when he’s not teaching so many classes, and we have lunch at a little café in Otemachi Ward, near the Nakamura. It’s round the corner from his dentist, and it’s a very Hisao thing to go see his dentist before he has lunch with me.
“So, Nakai-san, what if the dentist had found a cavity and wanted to fill the hole before lunchtime?”
“She wouldn’t have found one, Kenji.”
“But why see a dentist before lunch? They polish your teeth and then you dirty them with brown sauce, that isn’t very respectful to them, right?”
“It’s less respectful if I visit the dentist with my mouth full of bits of food,” he says a bit primly.
“Oho, if the pit-bull knows you are so polite to your lady dentist, she’ll have a fit.”
“Come on, stop making jokes about my wife!”
I look him in the eye, and I look carefully. Damn. He really loves her. At that moment, I think he might be over Satou for real. It’s just that he likes to be some kind of gentleman to ladies, even if they are dentists.
Satisfied, I continue my interrogation. “So, is there a little Emi or little Hisao coming along now?” It is easier to ask such questions when you already have children of your own, but maybe it is not very sensitive.
He flinches noticeably. He sounds a little downcast when he says, “No, not yet.”
“Enjoying married life before you tie yourselves down, eh?”
I take pity on him. “Don’t worry, my friend. It’s not so bad either way. Take it from one who knows.”
“Kenji, you sound like someone from a manga.”
“I do?” It takes me a while before I realize he might not mean it as a compliment.
“We do want children. Some day we’ll have them. At least two. But I worry a lot about that.”
“Why?” I am genuinely mystified.
“I’m 30 years old. They told me I might live long, or I might die by 35. Can you imagine? If I’m gone and Emi has to bring up the kids by herself? Right now it’s already hard enough thinking about one day not seeing Emi any more. Or worse, thinking about her not seeing me any more. She looks at me with her big eyes when she’s sad and thinking about such things, and she thinks I don’t know, but I do—she’s thinking about how her father died and left Meiko to look after her all by herself.”
Wah, that’s a lot of words from Hisao.
He doesn’t normally do this to me, so I’m listening to the pain of his heart. I lay a manly hand on his shoulder and try to send waves of brotherliness into him. If I say anything now, it’ll probably be tactless.
“Well, I have a heart condition too, and I have two children.” Gah. I knew it. So clumsy! So tactless!
He looks at me. Sometimes, you can’t tell which Hisao will turn up, the maudlin sentimental guy who put a secret inscription on his tombstone design, or the ruthless pragmatic who set up a legal way to build assets for the future. I hold my breath.
“That’s… very true,” he says slowly. “Very true. Man, why did you do it?”
I want to laugh, because he sounds so much like what I used to sound like back in school. But laughing now would spoil the mood. So I am serious, because he is.
“Because I love Yuuko. And if I’m gone, at least she’ll have living memories and company and something we shared together. That’s what she told me, and I think she’s right.”
He snares a last chunk of pork cutlet, dabs some sour sauce on it, and chews thoughtfully for a while before he replies. It’s an interesting reply.
“Emi… she has issues not the same as Yuuko, maybe? She is an only child with no father. She thinks in terms of having a few people she really loves, because each one she loses is a terrible grief. To marry me was very brave of her. To have children? I don’t know. But maybe you’re right. To lose me and not have any children, it might be worse than that.”
I think there is something very Japanese about this conversation. I don’t know what it is. I wonder if non-Japanese people sit together over simple rice meals and talk about death and legacies. Or maybe I am wrong. But I am seeing a different side of Hisao, something not totally alien, but something unusual.
I put a stray pickle in my mouth and crunch it. I’ve just realized something. Both Hisao and Emi are single children. They’ve never known what it is to be at home with another child. Yuuko and I are different. I wonder: does it really work that way?
This month, I am thirty-one years old. It is like the kind of essay I wrote in primary school. My name is Kenji Setou. My father is—was—a general in the defence forces. My mother is a… and now I cannot remember what I wrote, because she no longer is
. I have—had—an elder brother and a younger sister. Now my father has a wife and she is not my mother. I don’t know why I am still so sad to write these things; everything happened so long ago.
Sometimes Yuuko holds me and sings me to sleep, after she’s done that for the children. It is soothing, quieting. It makes us all one family. Sometimes, sorrow and reflection, they are parts of the foundation that lead to happiness.
It’s a cold morning when I do something unusual. It is impulse, but I have learnt that some impulses are my deeper intuition for both good and bad things. So I let it pulse, and I call my father’s home.
“Hai.” It is funny to hear my father’s voice like that.
“Hello, respected ancestor Setou. This is your humble offspring, Kenji.”
“Son!” There is a pause, and I can picture his face creasing as he considers the tactical situation. “Are you making a joke?”
I am not sure if he is serious or not. Maybe madness runs in our family. Actually, I am not sure if I am mocking him or not. So I reply, “I do not think so, father. May I be allowed to converse with Aunt Midori?”
I can almost hear the gears of war, now a little rusty, turn in his brain. “It will be your privilege. Please hold on.”
He is much more polite these days, I note. Somehow, being a retired general makes you not the same man. Being a grandfather too, I suppose.
“Respected aunt! I trust you are in good health?”
“Oh, I am fine. How are you and your family? Do you need a baby-sitter?”
I cannot help but smile a bit as I reply. “No, my aunt, that’s very kind of you. But I need to talk to you about your family, my mother’s family. Preferably without my dear father around?”
It takes a little persuasion and some rearrangement of plans. Finally, we have a nice little afternoon tea, just the two of us. She is dressed in a tidy beige dress, with a dark blue silk scarf. Somehow, these get along well with her small items of gold jewelry and her medium-brown hair. She looks pretty, and reminds me too much of Mother.
She is eager to talk. I get the feeling that there are many things she cannot talk to my father about. I learn some more pieces of the puzzle that I am putting together. We learn more about each other. Aunt Midori has many things to tell me, and I can feel my universe changing. When we are done, we part amicably: a dutiful nephew and stepson, a concerned aunt and stepmother. Somehow, that relationship has become real to me.
And then something twitches at the back of my head. So I go home and I ask Yuuko to buy a few thousand shares of Hakamichi Industries for the children’s trust funds, as a sort of Christmas present. Of course, it would not be right for me to buy them myself.
A couple of weeks later, I receive a text message: [Happy birthday, Kenji.]
I’m puzzled. It’s not like her
to do this.
[Thank you, Shizune. But you know it is not yet my birthday.]
[This time, your cake will have extra icing.]
[Oh?] This is even more puzzling.
[Hai. We are friends, and we exchange debts and secrets too. Have a good one in three days’ time, my friend.]
My confusion lasts for more than three days, and then increases somewhat while decreasing simultaneously. I will only describe a few events, and you will see why.
This Christmas, Yuuko and I have dinner with the Nakais, since we are not too far from Sendai. My old friend Rin is there too, and the children seem to enjoy her company, especially when she draws butterflies using coloured wet chalk sticks held between her toes.
Emi and Hisao keep looking at each other. It is what I would call a silly kind of grin. Kenji is of course not a very clever person in a people way, so when Yuuko also starts smiling like that, I open my mouth and say, “Eh, why is everyone smiling in this strange way?”
Yuuko looks like she is about to say something, but deliberately covers her mouth. Emi’s lips part in surprise, as if I have said something shocking. Hisao just looks embarrassed, but when his wife elbows him sharply in the ribs, he coughs and says, “Ah, is it so obvious?”
My wife says, “Um, yes, if it’s what it is.”
“Well, we were going to tell you the good news. Emi, ah, we are expecting. Due in August next year.”
Oh. Kenji is such an idiot! Haha!
I laugh to myself. “Congratulations,” I say. “That is a truly happy thing to say. May you both be very blessed.”
I wonder if that is what the icing on the cake is supposed to be. Unless Shizune was being literal and my birthday cake is sweeter than usual? I don’t know.
It is just after Christmas that the news leaks out about Hakamichi Industries’ new alliance with some famous foreign companies. Reading the news reports that are beginning to flow in, I realize that my own office intelligence was more than adequate to understand Shizune’s message. Damn. Will they think of it as insider trading? My children have had a very profitable Christmas indeed.
I am technically a member of the Special Service branch of the Civil Service. At least, this is my status when I walk into my office on 6th January, having enjoyed a long bank holiday weekend and my son’s third birthday.
It is a status in question by the time I leave the workplace. After a harrowing surprise meeting with my Director and some people of high rank, I learn I am to be transferred to a very small branch—the Designated Service.
This is a promotion of some kind, although it is hard to say of what kind. I will have new responsibilities from 1st April, and this will no longer be my department. It is almost unheard of, such rapid change. Immediately after the meeting, I go to a place of convenience and take leave of my breakfast. I clean up as best as I can and return to my desk. It will be mine for only a short while more.
I survive the day. I sort my files and begin to make sure everything is in good order for my successor. I am a machine. My ocular adjuncts help me with the work. When I am too tired in the head to continue, I sit quietly in my chair. I study the worn surface of my desk, my faithful companion for many months. Every little scratch and nick, every stain and uneven patch, I commit to memory.
I do not eat lunch this day, even though my guts complain. I am sure that, a few times, my heart skips a beat. I am an old man, if expected lifespan is 100% and my current lifespan is part of that. I feel it deeply and depressingly.
I am being deprived of my life, and my story, because after this there will so much less truth I can tell. I keep this record of my life because it reminds me that I have one. When the records of a man are gone, does that man’s life mean anything?
“Hey, Kenji! What’s up?”
When you wish someone a happy birthday, you should not call too early in the morning. There is a lot of skin in that view, a little of which I imagine that I remember with long-ago fond thoughts.
“No, nothing’s up, Miki. Eh, I can call back later when you… have more blankets on.”
She looks down. I look away. I hear her laugh. “Oh, hey. Shit! Ha, sorry, sorry, sorry! Hang on.”
I hear rustling sounds and then, “Properly attired now!”
I look back at the screen. She has a bright fluorescent blue robe of some coarse material on and a lot less skin on display. Also, a big smile. Both the robe and the smile would blind me if I weren’t able to tune my implants down a bit.
“Happy birthday, Miki,” I say. I take my glasses off so that we can see eye to eye. My eyes adjust to the absence of polarizing filters.
“Aw, shit, that’s nice of you. I think you’re one of the few people I still keep in touch with. How are those eyes working, by the way?”
“They are good augments. Ah… I have to add something to your birthday wishes.”
“Say away, Kenji!” She’s in a good mood, I think. I’m hearing relatively fewer bad words and there’s a kind of perkiness in her voice.
“The other day, I ran a screen on my implants. They send data out once in a while. If I’ve been working in the office a long time, the streaming is noticeable. I get flashes of some sort. So far, it seems to be mainly maintenance data that tells somebody somewhere that my eyes are still working.”
I take a deep breath. “But I also know that there’s GPS information and other things. I would not like to learn that my augments could store visual data and zap it to a server somewhere. It would be a breach of national security. I would lose my job and end up in prison. Or worse.”
She looks at me in shock. “Shit, Kenji, I didn’t think of that.”
“I would rather go blind,” I say quietly. It’s true. I would.
She looks utterly dismayed, and I somehow feel glad that she does. “Kenji, I’ll go find out from Kyu what the exact specifications are. Don’t do anything reckless.”
“No, I won’t gouge my eyes out. But I need to know. I might need a very clean security clearance very soon.”
“Sure. Thanks for calling. I’ll get right on it.”
It is one of my few images of Miki Miura as a serious businesswoman. Eventually the matter is settled. I will keep my security clearance.
It’s Yuuko’s 32nd birthday this year, on the day of the summer equinox. However, she understands when my present is delivered with a card that wishes her a happy 20th birthday. It is a geek joke, and I am glad I have a wife who gets such jokes.
She too is capable of such amusements. She is teaching the kids to count in binary. Worse, she is watching boxing matches with them, and telling them that a punch that lands is 1 and a miss or block is 0, or something like that. They have a lot of fun, and I feel happy about that.
But the last few days of March are not so happy. In fact, very little is happy at all.
There are things that befall us in our safe and private lives, and they are brutal because you think you are safe from tragedy even when you know you are not. There are things that befall us like thunder from the heavens, and they are public as well as private tragedies.
In one of the worst weeks of my life, a few such things happen and I will not speak of these events further except to capture their essence briefly. If you read this, far in the future, you may already recognize them.
There is a bridge, and it connects the mainland to a beautiful island. A man’s parents are on that bridge when the sky and sea are sucked away. They have no time to do much, perhaps, except to say goodbye, when the sea returns like a hammer. No bodies are recovered.
There is a cat, one of the wise and sagacious cats of Tsushima. It dies, old. A woman has come to love that cat. She is very sad. She calls a friend, but that friend, he and his wife have just lost what will not be found again—and he has not enough sympathy for a cat.
There is another woman, with long pale hair. She sits in a sterile room to the north of Tokyo. She has discovered something. Nobody wants to say what it is she has made. A man is working to the south of Tokyo, and he too has discovered something. They will meet.
In these scenes are many tragedies and triumphs, all mixed up. Sometimes, we make tragedies harder for each other, because the hard thorns of our own pain pierce deep into the lives of others. My wife keeps a diary. It is her own, a secret from me. I honour that. It will be many years before I know how much pain she has felt.
It is harder, because I fall into the trap of my own pain. I only realise that this is the case when I find myself shouting at a dead phone, for Naomi has wisely broken our connection. I don’t know if I will speak to her again.
And on the last Saturday of March, before I can leave my office, a message comes in. [Fire Chief. Southern Light. White Tiger. Broken Blade.]
When you decided to protect the cherry blossoms, did you ever wonder if they would one day be your shroud?
It is a question I ask myself, and the blinking lights of the fully alert Operations Room give me no answers.
All these events will have sequels. I do not know if I will have the strength and the opportunity to write about them. And so this is where the third part of my story must end.
| end of Book 3