This is the second section of the fourth instalment of the second part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which Kenji's future begins to take shape in several expected ways (or not).
Kenji 2: The Sound of Wings—Year Four (Part 2)
(October 2013-March 2014)
I could feel the real me crystallizing. I think that humans are fully formed at eighteen, but they don’t know it until they’re about twenty-five. And this part of my log brings us to that point in my life.
When Naomi was my wings, I felt lighter than air. I was not surly because I had escaped surliness. That’s not my thought, it’s from some book, a play maybe, that she lent me. I can’t remember its title. It was about a fighter pilot, dead by his nineteenth year.
But when she wasn’t the burning fire of my life any more, she weighed me down. It wasn’t her fault, it was mine for not understanding that. A ship full of holes drowns you faster than no ship at all.
What you’re reading is taken from my redacted log entries, from 2010 to 2015. I call them ‘The Sound of Wings’. In this segment of the log, the machinery finally begins to repair itself, and my first quarter-century draws to a close.
I’m back in Sendai on the second weekend in October, the one which leads to Sports Day. This time, my mission requires avoiding Yuuko, and meeting an old contact. He’s wary and suspicious about the whole thing, but I appeal to his natural sense of curiosity, and it draws him out enough to meet me at the Shanghai. I’ve done my research; Yuuko doesn’t come here at all.
My old neighbour succumbs to a good meal with a little bit of sake on the side, and we tell each other stories. I’m a bit surprised as to how little he knows some of his former classmates, and then realize that he was only at Yamaku for a few months. Somehow, it had seemed longer to me.
“So Rin moved in with me.”
“You’re an over-fortunate asshole, Hisao. You had this endless parade going on and you didn’t share any of it!”
“Kenji, frankly, I thought you were crazy. I avoided you. I wasn’t the only one, you know. You were this hikikomori, recluse kind of guy with garlic breath and borderline alcoholic behaviour. Also, extensive conspiracy theories and a habit of forcing other people to listen to them.”
“Well, not anymore.” I suddenly feel sad. Is that how everyone remembers me? Then Naomi is doubly a saint for having invited me into her home five years ago.
“I didn’t really mind that much. At least I knew there was always one other person on the same floor. But to get back to your point, it was not endless, it was not a parade, let alone an endless parade. In Tokyo, it was just me having an apartment and people crashing there all the time!”
“And most of the time,” I interject, as I begin to giggle with silly teenager humour, “The average number of hands per person in your apartment was ONE.”
Hisao looks confused. Then he realizes what I mean and punches me half-playfully on the shoulder. “You shouldn’t make fun of our friends, dammit. You were at Yamaku much longer than I was!”
“Speaking of friends, I need some manly assistance.”
He looks cautiously at me. “Does it involve progressively larger amounts of alcohol?”
“It can if you want.”
“What is this about, Kenji? You’ve never asked for that from me. We have never been very close friends, even though we’ve been on first-name basis for a long time.”
“I need a friend at Yamaku.”
He’s good at looking confused, but I see right through him. Hisao Nakai is a master at playing a dumbass even when he’s not being one.
“Why? You could always come for a visit. We welcome our alumni back all the time. You want a teaching job? All you need is a teaching certification.”
So I tell him why. And I wonder if he will agree. He’s always had some scruples. But he’s a friend, and there’s nothing really immoral about what I’m asking.
He finally says that he’ll help. I’m logging this because it marks the point at which my Operation Hunter Gatherer really begins.
The point really is this. I have a lot of computing power. I have choices to make. You crunch the data, and make the choices. That old reptile brain, that old soft tissue in the skull, it doesn’t help. It’s compromised, too complicated.
But hey, maybe the choice is complicated. No, it isn’t. Version 1 said to call Yuuko Shirakawa. Version 2 said to persist. Version 3 gave me a supporting cast. Call Hisao Nakai, Version 3 said.
Where did the software place Naomi? Basically, if I killed Natsume, Naomi would be #1 choice forever. But I can’t kill Nat. It’s not what I do. I wouldn’t know how to do it. And I call her Nat now, she’s someone with whom I promised I’d be friends. So, no killing. Not even with drones.
Especially not with drones. Bloody Americans, soiling the soul of their machines. Japanese drones still have soul. They would not dirty themselves spying for Kenji. Yeah, maybe I’m wrong. But we Japanese, we imagine the soul even while materialist. Like something from a final fantasy.
See, that’s it. Kenji knows computers, is good at their games. But he’s lost with the human soul, with human games. Damned Kenji loves Naomi, and he’s thus forced to be friends with Nat. And he is indeed her friend, because Nat is a nice person for all that she doesn’t think so.
But what about the Fist? Isn’t there anything going there? The software says no. Why does it say no? Because the Fist is not stable with men. Or men are not stable with the Fist. It’s profiling, that’s what it is. Evil profiling. But it works. And Kenji is a man. Oh my God, why? I like the Fist.
We have rules here, young Kenji, Version 3 also. Old Kenji insists women are evil. Because Mother was good, and nobody’s like Mother. New Kenji insists Kenji is evil. Because of Old Kenji. So, stability, peace, being rational. But we, we say that our life’s goal is to protect the cherry blossoms.
I take another swig of my Laphroaig. Ten years old, costs a fortune. Thank God I brought ice up with me. It tastes better with ice. It has the soul of Japan, even though it is a foreigner distillation from Scotland. I can even scent the seaweed in it. It’s like a dream of nori as it wraps some fantasy fish-egg and gossamer rice. Or sashimi chilled on its bed of daikon, bitter white radish like the shriveled bits of a drunken spectre.
I laugh weakly into the sudden stiff breeze. I can even think like poor lost Naomi when I want to. All that literary shit which we used to love chatting about. And yet, my thoughts are more suited to poor lost Lilly Satou. They’re all lost, Naomi to me, Lilly to Hisao. Poor us, the men left behind. I turn to Hisao Nakai, hidden in the shadows, a tumbler in his hand.
But of course, he isn’t there. Only me, alone on the roof. With ghosts and shadows and an urgent need to pee.
[Hello, Shizune] I text, my fingers a little stiff, early in the morning. What time is it in the Windy City? I have no idea, although I could find out. [Happy birthday.]
I can imagine her phone vibrating, her slightly irritated look, those strong fingers reaching decisively for the offending instrument… [Kenji. It’s not my birthday. Are you drunk again?]
[No, I’m sorry. I forgot to wish you seven months ago, and you wished me a happy birthday last year. So it’s not fair. I have to make it up to you.]
[Tsk. Didn’t Nurse tell you to lay off the alcohol? But nice of you to think of me. Wait, how do you know my birthday?]
[Aha, I have my sources. No, I won’t give them up.]
[Suit yourself. Thank you. Keep in touch, maybe I’ll see you in summer.]
[Maybe. Enjoy the cake.]
I cut the connection. Random acts of kindness are better kept random. She likes cheesecake. It’ll take her a month to get through the Totally Turtle Cheesecake that I’ve ordered online for her. I estimate the damn thing weighs in at 6000 kcal for the whole cake. Thanks also to Hisao, my partner in this ‘crime’. Ha ha. Kenji and Hisao, a pairing only some demented person would think natural.
My actual birthday is spent in Hamamatsu. The Black Dragon has, in his good-natured way, grumbled for quite a while about his delinquent nephew not visiting. This time, he raises both his eyebrows eloquently. But he is too well-mannered to remark on the fact that here I am with yet another lady.
Yuuko is very impressed with my uncle. Isn’t everybody? I feel a little pang of jealousy. But my surrogate father-figure is clever. He keeps telling her what a promising person I am, while drawing her out on matters of history. How on earth does he do it? He’s making both of us feel like the most fortunate people ever, just because we know each other.
“How old are you today, respectable nephew?” It’s an odd question, phrased in an odd way, towards the end of a wonderful dinner. I suspect the subtext is that I would be respectable if I… if… oh, the cunning fox.
“Twenty-five, honourable uncle.” And so is Yuuko, I realize.
“They say that one is made into steel by twenty-five, highlighted in silver by fifty, decorated in gold by seventy-five, and a finished work only at a hundred. I don’t believe it myself. I can’t imagine ever finishing my work. Heh.”
He sips at his chilled sake, sitting over a pot of fuming dry ice, as we sit in traditional fashion in one of the most expensive restaurants on the waterfront. We wait for him to continue, because he is clearly not done.
“It means that if you’re going to get married, nephew, it’s good to do it soon. Shirakawa-san, this old university-person should apologise for being so blunt, but he is my nephew, and I confess to having a kind of distant fondness for him. Maybe you also might have a bit of that? He’s a decent fellow, his work is already considered respectable apart from a habit of arriving at the workplace late at times.”
The old fox grins, reminding me of Mutou-sensei and Nurse-san all at once. It’s a manly conspiracy, I swear.
When we finally get back to the Dragon’s lair, he tells us to make ourselves at home and vanishes into the labyrinth. His household staff have prepared a guestroom for us. My phone has several birthday messages on it, but they can wait.
“That was… a very pleasant dinner, Kenji. Ah, your uncle, he’s very kind, he’s a nice man.”
She smiles as she begins to remove the bindings—clips? pins? I have no idea what all that stuff is—from her hair. It gleams softly brown-gold in the honey-coloured indirect lighting. Behind her is a panel of black enamelwork, looking as if it is designed to frame her. On impulse, I raise my phone and take a quick picture.
“Kenji! What was that for?” Her eyes are opened wide, her hair is just beginning to swirl around her shoulders.
“You’re looking so beautiful I had to take a shot.”
“Eh, it’s only the lighting. It puts one in… the mood?”
“The mood for what?”
“Ah, ah…” she seems stumped for words. Me, I’m wondering what too. “For thinking aesthetic thoughts?”
That’s a good way to put it. We spend the night thinking aesthetic thoughts together. And then later, anaesthetic thoughts bridge the gap to morning.
Back to work, and the sudden realization that I’ve a bunch of messages I’ve not replied to for a week. Oops.
Shiz: [Happy Silver Birthday! Many thanks for delicious cake. Had to share with postgrad room. One slice = 440 cal fat, 800 cal total. Bad Kenji! How did you get my address?]
Bad Kenji indeed. [Hey, Shizune, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I can’t imagine you fat. Address? Net is a magical place.] I feel unreasonably happy that our plan worked out, and forward the message to Hisao. He’ll get a kick out of that, although she’s not supposed to know about his part in our little surprise.
N: [Hello Kenji, happy birthday to a very dear friend! Am working in a consultancy firm round the corner from Nat’s office. Do keep in touch. Visit some time?]
Sigh. In the past, she’d have called to tell me such things. But that was in the past, I suppose. It doesn’t make it not-bitter. But sad resignation beats painful sorrow any day. ‘Old roses locked up in old rooms,’ as the poet said. [Thanks, Naomi! Maybe in March?] That’s Yuuko’s birthday month. I could bring her down to Osaka for a holiday.
The answer’s quick: [Hey, I thought you were giving me the four-weeks treatment again! Hope everything’s good with you. March is good; let us know and we can get the spare room ready.] It brings a little smile to my lips, that doesn’t quite reach my eyes. Just friends, that’s all.
Fist: [Hey, Kenji! Happy birthday, have a great one. Never really thanked you for the painting, so here’s a picture in return! Don’t worry, nobody else gets stuff like this from me. Ha!] I scroll down, and then act like a very guilty person. Thank God my boss isn’t in my cubicle. [Miki, don’t you know how to use NSFW warnings? Thanks! You look wonderful, but you did even in that business suit you wore the last time.] I note, however, that her pose conceals her left arm.
Nat: [Happy birthday, Kenji. You’re always welcome in Osaka.]
Ha. Maybe I will drop by. But I’m really not so sure about my new-found stability. Would it survive? In the past, I lived with Naomi, and Nat came visiting. Now, all is different, and the past is another country. Which reminds me: I have a country to defend. Work, work, work.
It’s a cool night when I leave the office. This is Kenji, I think to myself, Kenji in his second quarter-century. He dresses soberly, except for the bright scarf, which is all about defiance and magic. He wears thick glasses, the same magic that hides Superman in plain sight. He laughs at the game they made about Yamaku, where they changed everybody’s names and yet left everyone so recognizable. He wonders who gave them so much information.
But Kenji, walking carefully down the street in the colder shadows of the Tokyo night, must be a better man. He used to tell himself that, but now he can do it. Look after the heart, look after the eyes, eat well, master the senses and the appetites. Sounds a bit Buddhist, all that. Never mind. Whatever it takes to get better.
In the past, there was no real plan. But now there must be. To protect the cherry blossoms, one must know them well. And gather them into an invisible net, a web of protection. So tonight, and every Wednesday night we check on Rin at Hisao’s old apartment, until we’re sure she’s safe. It’s just an exercise, training for the future. And besides, Hisao approved it.
I feel a southward twitch as Valentine’s Day looms. Kenji is stubborn, and will go to Gifu instead. But not before he sends a happy birthday pic to his friend in Nagasaki.
[Kenji! Cute/disgusting! I had no idea your scarf was so fucking long. Or that you could do cool things like that with it. Thanks for birthday wishes. Officially I’m as old as you are now. Heh. Enjoy your Valentine’s Day. XO. M.]
XO? Oh, XO. Ha, Kenji’s been mixing with too many SDF personnel. Or thinking of cognac too much, that decadent French stuff. Back to work, back to work, and then to the clearing of leave in the second week of February.
“Gifu, Kenji? Why are we going to… ah, Gifu?” She manages to look perturbed without wrinkling her forehead or raising her eyebrows at all.
“Shirakawa-san, maybe you could tell me.” I hate to do this to her, but Kenji knows that Yuuko has secrets of her own, and he knows she won’t talk about them without some persuasion.
“Ah. Kenji… um, do we know each other that well?”
Damn. I’m sure we know each other in ways many other people don’t. We’ve gone through a lot since high school, and that’s about ten years since we first met. Maybe we could start with some simple Yamaku-style questions.
“Yuuko, do you know why I was sent to Yamaku?”
“No, maybe, I can’t remember… did you tell me?” Actually, I can’t remember telling her, because I only found out the truth some time after I ended up at Yamaku.
“I have a congenital heart problem. It wasn’t managed well, but now it’s under control. Also, funny ears and very bad eyes, but you already know that.”
“Oh! It’s good that it’s under control, but no, I didn’t know. I thought you maybe had a tumour in the brain or something. Would explain a lot,” she muses.
This is something I’ve noticed. At times, Yuuko acts like a nervous, neurotic, anxious person. At other times, she is snarky, witty, sharp, in command. There’s a reason for that, I’m sure of it, and I need to hear from her what it is.
“How about you?”
“This is about getting to know each other better, is it?” She seems a bit upset. “Wow, Kenji, you really aren’t one for being… tactful with a lady. But that’s OK, I knew that about you ages ago.”
“Do you remember Lilly Satou?”
I must confess, this question takes me completely by surprise. Especially in the light of my recent dealings with Hisao. Some kind of expression must show on my face, because Yuuko suddenly gives me a tension-relieving grin and continues, “Don’t worry, everyone remembers that tall blonde girl. We used to… work together a lot, because she was very involved with the Braille part of the library, had many good suggestions. And we talked a lot about boys… how tactful or tactless some of them were. Your name came up a few times.”
There’s no hesitation, no anxiety in her voice as she tells me all this. Anybody would diagnose some sort of bipolar disorder, I guess. I don’t know anything about psychology—I deal only with artificial intelligence, not natural.
“It did? But you were saying something about yourself?” It’s not very polite, but I have the feeling she’s distracting me from something.
Indeed, she looks at me to see if I’m serious, and then reads my expression accurately this time. “Ah… yes. Sorry. I have a minor disorder. Recurring inner ear problems. Not like yours, but I have to do a ear-canal reset now and then or I get dizzy and… bump into things. Very distracting.”
Something clicks at the back of my mind. “It’s a Shirakawa Canal effect, is it?”
“It’s… amusing to you?” She has an odd expression on her face. “Well, not life-threatening, unless I need to do a canalith repositioning to avoid dropping a pile of items. Carrying stacks of books, trays of items… all that’s meant to be therapy. Doesn’t work well though… I’m one of the ten percent who get vertigo even after all that. Not funny, Kenji-san.”
“Errr… no offence meant, Yuuko. It’s just that I used to live near a place called the Shirakawa Canal.” I find myself desperately explaining things, because I really don’t want to offend her. She looks and sounds as if she’s ready to drop a stack of books on my head. And she’s adopted a formal tone too.
“Apology accepted. It takes me a lot of concentration to… talk to people, you know.” She doesn’t sound much appeased. I hang my head a bit, to show how apologetic I am.
“To answer your question about Gifu… well, you’ve been doing research, I suppose. Yes, my family is from there. Long ago… my ancestral home, we lived in what’s now Seki City.”
“Where they made swords and knives?”
“I knew you’d been doing research. Yes, we supplied Nobunaga 450 years ago. But that’s… history! Nothing to do with us now. Why the interest?”
“I just wanted to visit Gifu with you. The snow’s great, they say. But very cold.”
She appraises me with a very frank stare. It’s not a Shizune look, or a Miki in-your-face look. It’s more like an I’m-thinking-about-you-seriously look. Her eyes come together a bit, like a frown without any wrinkling.
“You need extra warmth besides just a scarf and a thick coat, Kenji-san?”
Indeed I do, and it’s very nice to have it for almost one whole week. And she knows a lot about Gifu too. And other things. Our first Valentine’s Day together.
Decisions, decisions, Kenji. Hisao has done his part of the deal, and I can’t make him give information it would be unethical for him to obtain. But I now have to ask him for one last big favour, because I can’t think of anybody else.
To my surprise, he agrees. “Never done it before, Kenji. Seeing as it’s one of my favourite people, I’ll do it. But why the secrecy?”
Security clearances have been on my mind quite a bit. But I know where I want to be on that day. And it’s not a place for big crowds, not to mention all the other problems I’ve been considering.
“This and that. Need to avoid some people.”
“Heh, I can respect that. But don’t you have anyone else?”
“No, not at all. Thanks for agreeing.” I look him in his digital eye. No, I don’t, Nakai-san. I haven’t many friends, unlike you. But I smile. He’s just being his usual tactless self. And I can respect that too.
A week after that conversation, the few days of leave I have left become even fewer. No, I’m not going to Osaka. But it’s Yuuko’s birthday, and I head up to Sendai again for a long weekend.
She meets me at the train station, in the afternoon, dressed in dark blue jeans and a comfortable-looking dark silver-grey top. And high heels. It’s a combination I’ve not seen before.
“Happy birthday, Yuuko!” We hold the embrace for a while. It’s warm and comforting. The weather’s a little chilly, and I don’t see cherry blossoms in Sendai yet. Come to think of it, even Kyoto isn’t blooming yet, although some of the flowers have started opening in Tokyo. One should keep track of such things.
“Where to now, Captain-san?”
Ha. If she only knew. But my life at work and my life on leave are two different things, mostly.
“The Shanghai, actually.”
“The… Shanghai…? Why there?”
“Because it’s a place we have fond memories of?”
“Um. Well, maybe.” She looks a little disappointed. I hope it doesn’t last.
When we get there, the place is deserted. I look around, suddenly feeling anxious. It’s Thursday, the day before Spring Equinox, so Yuuko would expect more people to be here.
“That’s odd. Such… lack of service.” She frowns, as if it’s a personal insult.
I guide her into the dimness of the café, my hand trembling in the small of her silver-clad back. “Hello?” I call out.
“Irrashaimase!” a tenor baritone voice sings out, giving the customary welcome. What? This wasn’t in the script.
Yuuko’s looked up, a shocked expression on her face. I think mine has a similar look.
“So sorry for the poor service, I’m new at this job. And so is the chef, and also, our slacker assistant who was supposed to warn us you were here.”
“Nurse-san?” she whispers.
“Ah, no, no. Today, Manager-san is more like it. And Chef Akio is… ah, there he is. We’re preparing an early meal, since you’ve not had lunch and have no intention of eating dinner here. Where’s that damned boy, though?”
“Here, Kaneshiro-sama!” So that’s where Hisao went. Dammit. I hate it when I lose control of an operation. I begin to laugh, because my friend is wearing a frilly apron.
“Usher our visitors to their seats, quickly! Mustn’t keep our honoured guests waiting!”
As an aside, he whispers to me, “Also, there’s a time limit. The proprietor doesn’t mind doing this for old customers, but it’s bad for business.”
“You… planned this?” Yuuko says, disbelievingly. She’s not sure whether to laugh or to cry, it looks like.
“Apparently so,” I say, still a bit dazed.
Those bastards. It’s a masculine conspiracy. Executed with masculine disregard for style, but still quite effective nonetheless.
At the end of our meal, the lights go out. And the candles come on. Mutou-sensei—well, Chef Akio for today—appears, looking very pleased with himself. “Hello, Setou-san. I see you’ve done well for yourself? Nice catch you have there. Hello again, Shirakawa-san, we always do our best for our colleagues.”
On the trolley that he’s wheeling, there’s a cake. It’s not that large but it looks very solid—a cheesecake thing, dripping with caramel sauce and chocolate bits. Two larger candles and six smaller ones are on it. Hisao whispers, “Sponsored by Hakamichi Industries, probably. From our friend in Chicago, who still doesn’t know who leaked her address.”
I’m willing to bet that it comes to about 1600 calories for the two servings. But I’m still nervous. There’s a bill to be settled, other stuff that needs doing…
“And now for the grand finale,” announces ‘Manager-san’. “Ahem, Setou-san, your medicine-box for today.”
Still a little shocked, I accept the little container. It takes me some time to realize what I’m supposed to do. Stupid Kenji, as usual. I gingerly unscrew the child-safe cap and tease out the cotton-wool packing.
“Yuuko Shirakawa,” I say, “Will you marry me?”
The ring sparkles in the flickering candlelight, its single stone clear blue and then deep red. The old name for Sri Lanka was ‘Taprobane’, and this stone is named after that. The other ancient name was ‘Serendib’, and I hold my breath, thinking of the serendipity that has brought us together here.
“Ah… um… that is to say… you silly person… of course, yes!”