Short story #4
“I wish to know all about you. You interest me very much.”
“Is that so?…”
A woman stares down from her balcony into the narrow alley below. There, stands a man. He’s craning his neck up to meet her gaze. Somewhere in the distance, to the south, lightning strikes and then echoes.
It’s raining lightly, softly. Garish, neon lights shine from storefront signs and flickering streetlights, reflecting and glistening upon the puddles at the man’s feet. The woman sets down her book to one side and turns her whole attention toward him.
“Yes, it is so,” the man continued, “we have not met, but you interest me. And I would like to get to know you—should you let me. Will you?”
“Very well. Then listen carefully: when you wish to see me, put on that green light you have there up on your balcony. Angle it down into the alley, so I can see. This is important: I will not come without it. I promise you will not see me without that light.”
The woman knitted her brow and clocked her head slightly to the left, before finally assenting with a small nod. Before she had time to think of a proper response—whatever that might sound like—the man had gone, storming headlong down the narrow lane. Then, he disappeared entirely.
Who was that man? And why did I agree to turn on my light? And what is this strange precondition he’s given for future appearances? As if I should care!
She shrugged it off and stood up, though her heartbeat and breath raced. She calmed herself by looking at the city skyline through the small, arrowslit view she was allowed between the surrounding run-down highrise buildings. She gifted herself a few inhalations, breathing into the deepest cellars of her body. The breath formed a slight smile upon her lips, which grew as she turned her gaze upwards to face the sky.
The sunset spilled lilac words. The sky bathed in a curious purple, streaked by dark grey clouds. And those grey clouds seemed like heavy curtains that had been drawn across the sky, separating the neon lights of Yokohama—”the city of lights“—from whatever lived, roamed, reaped, and slumbered above.
Then, she opened the sliding door that divided the balcony from her living room, and muttered to herself: “how strange that all was!“
She undressed, turned out the lights, and went to sleep.
Life continued as usual for our newfound woman of interest. The weeks went by like the passing of hours, sometimes like the blinking of eyes. Just as swiftly as the cold months had arrived, winter’s sharp evenings were shooed, warmed swiftly by springtime’s tender breeze. Yokohama awoke. And with the city awoke those cherry blossoms, too—they rubbed their tiresome eyelids and burst into colour. The city of light welcomed the new colours with open arms. The characters that walked down our protagonist’s alley gained a spring in their step, beginning to bless one another with a slight smile as they pushed past through Musashi alley. They ditched the customary frown. It was just that time of year.
Each day, she watched the changes unfurl from her balcony. From up there, she saw many lives in miniature flashing by. And each night as our protagonist sat down and gazed longingly through her arrowslit view of the world, she couldn’t help but notice her stare drifting towards the light switch. That very same switch that powered the green lamp.
Our yet-nameless protagonist watched the world go by on these latent spring evenings, sitting on her zaisu chair and reading the short stories of Soseki, Akutagawa, and Mishima. But her mind kept flying, kept wandering somewhere else.
Why should I turn my light on? If it was so important to speak to me—if I were so interesting—he would come back, green light or not! There are enough colored lights in this city, what difference does mine make?
But, that evening, she knew she’d turn on the light once more.
A mild evening. She felt lonely. A loneliness so deep that it gnaws, fighting to make its way out into the world, to see and to feel. She felt as if balanced on a precipice, knowing not which way she was to fall. She felt like a whiskey, though she never touched it anymore.
First slowly, finally, then all at once, she switched the green light on. For the first time since that day—since their first meeting.
She waited. Suddenly, a spring wind whistled by. It carried pink cherry blossom leaves, dancing upon the green light as if entranced. The light quivered and the leaves whirled. They mingled in the air. The city lights seemed to take on a new intensity, a strange feeling.
Then, as if from nowhere, he appeared. As quickly as he had disappeared before, so he appeared now.
A smile greeted a smile.
“So, you have decided to summon me once more? I thank you.”
“I—well… No problem. I felt I had little choice, you see. Would you believe me? Tell me, where are you from? Where do you live? And how is it that you’ve learned to move so silently? How did you arrive so quickly? Or have you been waiting—and if so, how long? Don’t be shy, now. Tell me!”
“You speak of a wolf, and you see his tail!”
“Ah, that explains very little. Tell me, in simple terms: who are you?”
“I shall not tell you who I am, because you would not believe me. But I will tell you who you are, and perhaps through this talk, you will learn something of myself.”
More games, more riddles!
The man shifted his weight back and forth between each foot, staring at her with less conviction than before.
“Would you believe that I can see you? I see the curious glint in your eye. I see the lines at the corner of your mouth that fold reluctantly upwards when you smile, unaccustomed to showing joy. I see the pain in your body language and I see a sadness behind your eyes, hidden from others. But I also see how that sadness has yet been unable to extinguish your eye’s glint, your spirit—and that means very much. And, I notice, yes—notice that when you do smile, despite attempts to battle your smile lines, trying to press them down, iron them out—once you concede, and your joy eclipses your suffering, the smile I see is more genuine than any other I have seen.”
“I also see how you read every night, but stop every few pages to gaze away, as if the pages are a springboard for your own thoughts… I—I hope I haven’t upset you. I haven’t visited often. But when I have, I have seen you, and noticed. And waited for the green light to shine once again.”
The woman recoiled violently. How did he know so much about her? Every sense told her to shout, or scream—to tell him to leave. How dare he spy on me? And yet, from the way he spoke—the details he knew—this felt like more, or less, than a form of spying. She has seen him, truly. For what he said was true, and she could not deny it. So what now?
“I will not put my light on again, because, in truth, I do not know you. I know nothing about you, and I’m not certain I should like to. You could have visited at any time, for a normal talk, but you did not. You insist on some nonsensical ritual—this green light…—oh, to hell with your green light, and to hell with you! Leave my balcony, leave my alley, and don’t come back. That is, unless you were willing to tell me the truth”
The man left without a word, and without a trace. The woman felt empty, disturbed. She poured a small glass of sake,—her first in a long time—took a long sip, and took her reading inside, instead of out of her balcony. She had broken two habits in one night.
And as he walked away, he held on to the words: “Don’t come back. That is, unless.”…
Things grew more difficult. Despite this man’s unconventional approach, his oddities, the momentary repulsiveness he’d caused, she couldn’t help but continue to think of him. Of that green light, of all those things he knew about her.
The season changed once again: spring yielded its time. It was now summer now. Summer in Japan brought heat and humidity, but also beauty, and a certain intensity.
She kept reading and she kept up her part-time job at Komura library. It covered the rent and she always had books. But she wanted more than simply to live, observe, and be buffeted by wind and time. She wanted more than a library and a balcony. She wanted more than life could grant her. She wanted something more. To do, not watch.
On one hot summer night, she couldn’t sleep. She counted sheep and they counted her. She read page after page after page. She couldn’t sleep.
In the early hours of the morning, she switched on her green light for the third time.
And there he appeared.
He stood there, about to speak, before she cut him off…
“—It is time for answers. Otherwise, I’ll dash this green light upon the alley floor and never so much look at the colour again if I can help it. So, answer me. What is your story? How, and why, do you seem to materialise under the reflection of green lighting? and why have you chosen me to bother, of all the souls in Yokohama?
The man shrugged uncomfortably and began visibly searching for words.
“OK. I will tell you a truth I have never told a soul. The truth will set you free, do they say? I am embarrassed, would you believe that? Yes… My hands are shaking, my voice too… can you hear? But first, move closer, and allow me to speak in a whisper…”
Street lights flickered.
“It’s quite straightforward, truthfully. I have been cursed. Yes, that simple. Why, you ask? I have some notions. By who? I’m unsure. I’ve tried tracking down the culprit for years, but as you can imagine it’s not the simplest of tasks. There’s no handbook on locating curses, nor a directory of those who can carry out such spells…”
“All I know is that I am older than any man should live to be, yet I have never aged. I also know that I only appear in the presence of green light. I have some control over it, I suppose—I walk the streets of Yokohama at night, invisible to all. Then, if I pass under a green light, my form is revealed. I have given many quite the fright, as you might imagine.”
“Oh, how I have wandered. I settled here in Yokohama, because of the lights. It is terribly depressing, you know, living in a place without much light. More and more of me begins to fade—more than already has. It is desperate and lonely. I speak to people, sometimes. I have developed quite an eye for seeing people. Seeing through people, to their depths, you know. To who they really are. That is what many lifetimes of solemn observation does to you. I think that is why I stopped in your alley that first night. Because I can see you, and I don’t think you have been seen before. I hope I have not upset you. My lifestyle, if you can call it that, allows considerable freedom, and none at all. I’ve taken up residence in this very alley, an uninhabited apartment down to the left. And waited each night to see you put on your green light once again.”
The woman began to shake, but managed to compose herself with a few breaths. She could think of only one thing to say.
“What is your name?”
“Really, that’s your first question?”
“Very well. It is Takemura.”
“Well, Takemura. It’s nice to meet you properly. Curse or otherwise, I appreciate your honesty. And now I have seen you, as you have seen me. I’m Saeki.”
“Saeki. But, tell me: you are not shocked… have you known a cursed one before?”
“No, I’ve never known anyone to be cursed. But I have seen you disappear and reappear, and that is enough for me to believe you. Stranger things have happened, I am sure. If you understand me, as you say, then that matters, because so very few have. I live alone, I work, I read my books on my balcony, I watch, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, I notice that I am breathing. Whatever you are, you’re the most eventful thing to enter my life since—well—ever. I’ve decided, I think, and quite suddenly, that I won’t let you leave so easily.”
Takemura let out an exasperated noise, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. He smiled up at her.
“May I join you up there?”
“Wait, so you’re able to? Then you may”
“As I have told you, wherever there is green light, I can appear. You know, it’s funny, but I despise the colour! Heh… Anyway, will you come and let me in?”
She shifted the divider and ran down her stairs, knocking over a chair as she ran. She opened the door and there he stood. She stepped back and he paused, before gingerly entering the threshold. She saw an apprehensive grimace form on his lips before, all in an instant, he disappeared, as a candle extinguished by a strong breeze.
Saeki quickly realised she must make her way back to the balcony, where her green light mingled with the alley’s neon canvas. He stood there already, hesitantly, on the balcony veranda. He faced her.
“So you really do disappear entirely, huh?”
“Yes, I really do. Entirely”
There, they spent the night together, shimmering under vivid green.
But once they awoke, Saeki saw that he was gone. The daylight had washed away his presence. Their next meeting would have to wait until evening. But was he still here, or had he left? Could he still see her, without physical form? Is this how it would be, each time?
They met the next evening. And the next, and the one after that. Over time they got closer, bathing together under green, green, green.
But as they became closer, small parts drifted away. The nearer they were, the more the distance. When daylight snuffed their lime lamplight, the distance opened like a chasm. Green came to represent everything sweet and everything detestable in one stroke, one spectrum.
One night, they were sitting together in Takemura’s abandoned apartment.
“Saeki, I am not blind. I see the distance between us. I see everything. I see the shifts in your brow, the half-smiles, the uncertainty in your voice. I know this is difficult for you. You thought I was your escape, your support, your transformation, and yet I’ve become little more than a burden. No, it’s not true, but there’s truth. I would be happy to slot right under your wing. To go wherever with you. Hell, I would strap a fucking green light bulb on my forehead for the rest of days, if that’s what it takes. If that’s how I can stay there for you. I just don’t want to go back to the loneliness, and I don’t think you do either.”
Saeki chuckled, showing all of her teeth. “So, you would wear a light bulb forever for me, would you? Don’t you think you’d get a bit hot? Come, it’s true, you have seen and understood everything. It’s hard, of course. I’ll tell you what, let’s go out, shall we? To the amusement park. There no shortage of lights there, and I think we both need it.”
“Lead the way, and I shall follow.”
The theme park was overspilling with colour, noise, smells, and excitement. Waltzers, Ferris wheels, pink cotton candy.
They meandered, hands clasped, fingers interlocked. They kept to the low-lit patches or loitered under green signs. Takemura faded in and out of view, careful not to alert any passers-by.
“Let’s go on the Ferris Wheel—the base is lit by such lights, you see, shimmering emerald!”
They ran towards the entrance, yen in hand, and purchased two tickets. They buckled themselves into their seats, and clasped their hands once again, smiling. Each had butterflies in their stomach, though the other didn’t know.
The wheel ascended leisurely. As it reached higher and higher, more of the Yokohama’s skyline was revealed. It shimmered and radiated light.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Takemura? Isn’t it all just so beautiful?”
She turned to him, intending to meet his lips once they reached the apex of their revolution around the wheel.
But he was gone. The light hadn’t quite managed to stretch to the top of the wheel. He was gone. She couldn’t reach out to touch him, couldn’t see him, and he couldn’t speak to her.
The wheel stayed suspended and she sat overlooking the city of light, alone. A tear rolled down her cheek.
A few more weeks went by.
The earth shifted and cracked beneath them as their minds raced.
One day, Takemura spoke frankly, and openly.
“Saeki, I cannot do this to you.”
“I can’t follow you around like some specter, only to join for a talk when you’re in the right lighting. You need someone real, Saeki. I am half-real, half in your world, and half in whatever forms mine. How would I provide, how would I care for you? How could we make your mother proud, or even tell her? If you turn the light out at night, I am gone. If you go for a walk during the day, I cannot join you. How can I introduce you to that life? Bring children into my world? Half in yours, half in mine?”
“Your love for me is tinged with hate. No, no don’t disagree, but please listen. You love me, but it’s mingled with despair. And we can’t grow something truly innocent and beautiful like this. The soil is poisoned. After all, am I truly a living creature? Not quite, perhaps, but you have made me feel like one—for those precious moments. I thank you!”
“May my love let you go.”
Before Saeki could even formulate her response, he flicked a switch, extinguished the emerald light, and was gone.
Again the seasons passed like weeks. Everything turned to grey. She began to pray for the sun to set earlier every day. She began to wonder if it had all been a mirage.
“Do you think of me often?” she spoke into a November wind, which dutifully carried her message away over the city. “Because I think of you often”.
But the wind never returned a response. He never returned with a response.
Four somber years went by. Her heart was broken, but she tried to find joy in recovering each piece. She put everything back together, but in a different way. Saeki went on to marry.
Takemura thought of returning, but couldn’t face the pain for himself or for her.
Saeki and her husband moved to Kyoto. The house had to have a balcony and overcast green light. She insisted. Her husband found it bewildering, but was just glad she could have her spot to read. She moved on to more short stories, expanding her horizons, reading Dostoyevsky, Borges, Calvino.
But always she thought of her own story, of what could have been and what was. She even wrote a little of it herself, a little epilogue.
Sometimes, she and her husband argued. He wanted to move to Tokyo, but she could not.
“Tokyo’s lights! They’re too garish, too neon! Let’s move somewhere calm, tranquil. I implore you.”
In every green light, she saw a memory of him. And she smiled. She lived with one foot in his world and one foot in her own. One half of her brain felt like reality, the other a short story. She struggled to reconcile the two.
But, as much as we think it will not, time did begin to erase memories. Or, least, soften their edges, until they’d dissolved almost entirely. The person she made those tender memories with became just a memory, like ancient objects suspended in brilliant amber.
Then, one day, as if in a flash, her eldest child, Soseki, turned 12. It was spring, and they were setting off fireworks into the star-specced sky to commemorate Soseki’s special day. The twilight sky was grey, mixed with the tinge of a black night’s impending arrival. Her husband walked by, beaming, holding the final firework—the send-off, the grand display. She beamed back and told him to be careful.
He set the firework into the ground, lit it, and ran off. Children screamed with delight, laughter rang out. A fizz, and a scream of the firework. A bolt of lightning struck in the distance, to the south. She felt a gust of wind caress her legs. She looked down, and saw that cherry blossom leaves were being carried across the floor—a brilliant parade of fuschia petals marched across the grass. Then, suddenly, the firework burst open in the sky, shimmering brilliant neon green.
Saeki’s eye’s widened, quivering.
In the light, she saw him. He smiled, and he waved. She waved back.
Her daughter tugged at her shirt.
“Mum, did you see something in that firework, like I did?”
“Yes, Soseki. I think—I—I believe he’s looking over us.”
The daughter smiled, accepting it as a passing joke.
“Don’t mock me, mother! Come, let’s go inside.”
“One moment, dear. I’d like to stay with the sky for a while longer”
Alone, she wept.
“Thank you”, she said, though no one was around.
She heard a voice fall towards her from the sky, delivered gently by the wind.
“Should you still like, put on that light. Maybe I can’t be with you, but how about for here for you?”
She grasped at the sky, felt it between her fingertips, savored it. She turned away, and a tear rolled down the aging steppe of her cheek. She breathed, calmly, and let her being sink into the grass, the sky.
Wrote this for a writing prompt/competition thing. Thought it would be the perfect opportunity for me to get back into writing (aside from working). As it turned out, the word limit was 2000. This is like 5000, and I didn’t feel I could cut it down while retaining much value. So I guess I’ll just post it here! Not reading the instructions of something is an incredibly characteristic thing for me, to be fair.
So, I haven’t posted for a while. There’s a reason for that. My phone just went and died on me, and while I had some backups, they weren’t recent enough to save the bulk of the writing that I’d written on my phone notes in anticipation of writing more on this website.
I had a list of every book I’d read this year and written really detailed notes on each. Some SEO focussed stuff. Some stuff on mindfulness. Some reviews. Kinda crushing losing all of that work, to be honest.
But you just gotta get back into things I guess, and this is my chance to do that. Win some, you lose some.
Anyway, I tried to write this story in the vein of Miyazaki, Murakami, and other Japanese artists/authors I’ve been exposed to lately. That kind of vague unreality, that magic realism Murakami employs. The story is out there, yet the protagonist barely bats an eyelid. I listened to Miyazaki soundtracks as I wrote. Was nice.
Maybe not my best work, because I’m out of practice, and “romance” arcs aren’t my strong suit. I feel it suffers from the erratic pacing. Like we don’t have enough time to truly feel for and empathise with the characters, which takes away from the impactfulness. But then in that Murakami type stuff, you don’t get any backstory. It’s face-value surrealism, and it usually works. I just gotta get better I guess and keep learning — and I’m trying.
Also, I think I still don’t know how to use tenses lol. All I’ve ever heard is that you should choose one and keep it consistent, but that never feels right to be. I feel different tenses have different purposes and why not mix them? Maybe it makes the text more unreadable than I realise, or maybe it literally doesn’t matter. Who knows. Also think dialogue is better here: removed all of the “he said” “she said” stuff, and just trust that people know who’s speaking.
V busy with work but 100% want to put more effort into this site moving forward! I’ll drink to that.