The following is from Yukiko Motoya’s collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder. The 11 stories in the collection follow individuals who lift the curtains of their orderly homes and workplaces, are confronted with the bizarre, the grotesque, and the alien, and are ultimately led to liberation. Yukiko Motoya’s honors include the Kenzaburo Oe Prize, the Mishima Yukio Prize, and Japan’s most prestigious literary prize, the Akutagawa Prize. This is her first book to appear in English.
He says his ex-wifes been sending him strange garbled emails recently, I said. Wed found a table in the seating area of the department stores food hall. I was still thinking about the ex-wife following the refrigerator conversation.
You must be concerned, said Hakone, sounding anything but as she took a pair of disposable chopsticks out of their packet.
Maybe I should have gone for that one too, I said enviously,looking into Hakones bento box as I took the rubber band off my own.
You can have two slices of my steak if you give me some ofyour eel.
Id brought her to the store, promising to buy her something new to wear, or anything else she wanted, but Hakone had headed straight for the escalator down to the basement food hall and asked for a bento. I saw it on the local news the other day. Theyhad a feature on department store deli eats, and the Spicy FilletSteak Summer Set Bento just looked so delicious, she said, flattening her plump eyelids in anticipation.
Maybe partly because of the TV feature, the late-afternoon deli counters were thronged with people. Banners positioned around the floor advertised the Beat the Heat Bento Expo.
Id brought her to the store, promising to buy her something new to wear, or anything else she wanted, but Hakone had headed straight for the escalator down to the basement food hall and asked for a bento.
Hakone swiftly referred to the floor guide and said, This way, and took off without sparing a glance at the stalls she passed.I followed, but never having been very good at walking throughcrowds, I kept barging into peoples shoulders, and by the time I caught up, she had already joined the line for the steak bento. Idplanned to just wait for her, but I saw a banner for the SpecialSelection Four-Eel Taste Test Bento and was tempted into gettingone. It featured eel sourced from the Shimanto River, Lake Hamana,the Mikawa region, and Miyazaki Prefecture, grilled bothwith sauce and without. I carefully took a piece of each and placedthem on top of Hakones rice.
Do you think hes still getting them? The weird garbled messages?
Has he said?
No, but you can just tell these things sometimes.
Huh. Arent you worried? Didnt you say his ex-wife wasreally good-looking?
Really good-looking. Like that actress from the movies.
And shes got long legs?
Really long legs.
How did he split up with a person like that and end up marrying you?
I wonder. What would you think if you saw his true form? I thought. I shivered, then looked up and saw there was an AC ventembedded in the ceiling right above my head. Hakone, are youand Senta thinking about getting married yet? I asked, getting a light blouse out of my bag.
Hakone hummed and said nothing. She looked like she was giving it some serious thought. Her eyes were focused on the booths cloud-glass partition, but her mouth was still chewing away steadily at the steak.
Do you think hes too immature? Is that the problem? I asked.
No, its not like that. Im not sure why. Maybe I dont really know, myself. But Id like us to stay as separate people for a little longer.
I mean, getting married, that means swallowing everything about the other person, the good things and the bad. What if thereends up being more of the bad? Youd both be in trouble then,wouldnt you? Hakone said. Do you know the story of the snake ball? I dont remember where I read it. Maybe someone told it tome, a long time ago. There are two snakes, and they each start cannibalizing the other ones tail. And they eat and they eat at exactly the same speed, until theyre just two heads making a ball, and then they both get eaten up and disappear. I think thats the image I have of marriagethat both me and the other person, as we are now, will disappear before we can do anything about it. But I guess that cant be right. I think?
Snake ball, huh? I poked at a piece of grilled eel laid on the rice, and pictured a bright white ball covered in scales.
Hakone quenched her thirst with cold roasted green tea from the vending machine. But it only applies when the snakes consume each other at the same rate. Between me and Senta, I mightend up swallowing him all in one big gulp.
I took a mouthful of grilled eel seasoned with plenty of sansho pepper. The Lake Hamana eel was firmer and more succulent than the one from the Mikawa region.
“Thats the image I have of marriagethat both me and the other person, as we are now, will disappear before we can do anything about it. But I guess that cant be right. I think?”
I was secretly impressed by Hakones story. Whenever Id gotten close to someone in the past, Id had the feeling that little by little I was being replaced. The other persons ideas, interests, andhabits would gradually take the place of my own. Every time Inoticed myself acting as though that was who Id been all along,a chill went up my spine. The fact that I couldnt stop, even if Itried, was proof that it wasnt actually a matter of anything as benign as acting or pretending.
Men entered into me through my roots like nutrients dissolved in potting soil. Every time I got together with someone new, I got replanted, and the nutrients from the old soil disappeared without a trace. As if to prove it, I could hardly recall the men Id been with before. Strangely, too, the men Id been with had all wanted me to grow in them. Eventually, Id start to feel in danger of root rot, and would hurriedly break the pot and uproot myself.
Was that the fault of the soil, or did the problem lie in the roots?
Id expected marriage to be an even more constricting flowerpot than my previous relationships. But after four years, I hadnttried to escape from the soil that was my husband. Hearing Hakonessnake-ball story, I finally felt that something that had beencloudy to me had become clear. All this time, I had been feedingmyself to those men. By now, I was like the ghost of a snakethat had already been eaten up by many other snakes, and Id lostmy own body long before getting swallowed up by my husband.Didnt that explain why I didnt much mind whether it was a husbandI was living with or something only resembling a husband?
One night, after dinner, I was surprised to notice my husband engrossedin his iPad rather than the variety show playing on the TV.
What are you doing on there? I peered over his shoulder.
Is it a game?
Its a game.
What kind of game?
There was no response. I gave up and cleared the table andwent for a bath, but when I came back, my husband hadnt moved.
Okay, I heard a muffled voice say. I finished towel-dryingmy hair and stepped out onto the balcony to bring in the laundryId hung out that afternoon. The zelkovas planted in a clump justbeyond the railing were overgrown with green leaves that lookedlike a neglected hairdo. I recalled seeing a circular in the mailroomabout plans to prune the plantings.
Uwano recommended this game, my husband said at last.
I was folding laundry on the living room floor. Uwano again? Youre talking about him a lot lately.
I think you should try it. Its good.
No thanks. I dont like games.
Thats exactly what I told Uwano. Here, take it.
Im folding laundry.
Let the cat do it. Go, Zoromi, go do it for her. He movedthe cat off the space beside him where shed been asleep, and beckoned to me. Normally he was never this insistent. I guessed hemust be feeling needy.
By now, I was like the ghost of a snakethat had already been eaten up by many other snakes, and Id lostmy own body long before getting swallowed up by my husband.
My husband seemed anxious to make a snake ball with me.When he made me sit with him while he watched his varietyshows, claiming it was more fun than watching alone, it had to bethat he was trying to erase the chilly gaze that he felt I was directingat him. He probably thought that once he and I became one,he would never again have to worry about being judged by others.
I sat down on the couch and looked at the iPad screen. I wasexpecting some cutting-edge visual effects, but what I saw wasan image representing what looked like oceans and continents,drawn in simple lines like in old Nintendo games. Small discs ofdifferent colors twinkled all across the map.
What are these? I asked.
Oh, those, my husband said, turning his shoulders towardme. Coins.
And what do I do with these coins?
Touch one and see, he said, so I tried pressing on a browndisc with my finger. I heard a tinkling sound like coins dropping into a piggy bank, which Id been hearing constantly all evening.I waited for something else to happen, but that was it.
It didnt do anything.
Look at the bottom of the screen. Youve banked some money.
Sure enough, there was a number at the lower-right-hand corner of the screen. This is a game where you collect money?
Yeah. My husband nodded while sucking on a strip of dried squid.
Are there any bad guys?
Huh? Bad guys? No.
So you collect the money, and then what?
When youve collected enough, you can buy your own land.
You buy your own land, and then? What happens then?
More land gives you more coins.
Yeah. Then you collect those, so you can bank money again.Then you can buy even more land.
I didnt say what I was thinking, but he must have sensed it.
He pulled the strip of squid from his mouth, and said, Itsbecause youre a housewife, San. You cant understand how men dont want to have to think about things when we get home.
What is it you want to avoid thinking about that badly?
The answers to questions like that, for example. Hey, give itback if youre not even going to play. My husband took the iPadfrom my hand and sank his head back to the game. I fled from thetinkling of coins falling and the suckling sound of him chewingon dried squid.
After that, my husband took to tinkling the fake coins incessantly,everywherein the bath, on the toilet, even under thecovers. Why dont you try a different game? Id ask, but hedonly say, I like this one.
I could have understood if the game offered a vision of a wonderful world more exciting than real life. But what was soappealing about the insipid map that looked like a stage backdropand its ever-twinkling coins? I thought perhaps the gamegot more interesting the longer you played, but whenever I lookedover my husbands shoulder, the screen always looked the same.It seemed that all he was doing was almost robotically placing hisfinger on the discs. Every time I would ask, You really enjoy itthat much? hed say, Thats not what its about, in a curiously languid tone.
Hey, do we have any more of those pears someone gave us theother day? The pears?
My husband looked up from the iPad for the first time in awhile, and what I saw nearly made me shriek and run from theroom. The positioning of his features was deteriorating faster thanever. His face was barely maintaining a form that could even berecognized as human.
He seemed not to realize that anything was amiss, and simplylooked at me with his terrifyingly wide-set eyes, and said, Are they all gone?
No, I said. I was feigning calm, but my voice came outhigher than normal.
Can you peel me one?
Okay. I turned on my heel and went back into the kitchen.There was a tremor in my hand holding the paring knife.
When I served him the peeled pear segments on a plate, thehusband-like creature excitedly reached for a cocktail stick. Youknow, I think pears might be my favorite fruit, he announced.
How could he even see straight? The husband-like thingpicked up the cocktail stick and popped a pear segment into themouth, which was positioned perilously close to his jawline. Histeeth must have been in their right place, because they made achamping sound as he chewed.
Arent you going to have any? the husband-like thing said.
I wasnt sure that I wanted to. But it would have been suspicious for me to say no.
When I sat down next to him, the husband-like thing pickedup the TV remote and started flipping through channels.
This really takes me back. On the screen, a quiz show was posing a question about an ad that had been on heavy rotation just after wed gotten married. We used to sing this song all the time.Remember?
How could he even see straight? The husband-like thingpicked up the cocktail stick and popped a pear segment into themouth, which was positioned perilously close to his jawline.
Instead of responding, I looked down and nibbled a slice of pear.
Do you remember, on our honeymoon, how I chewed up allthe fruit for you so you could eat it?
You did? I said distractedly.
Sure. Youd just gotten braces, and you said the metal hurt and you couldnt eat anything. So I ordered a fruit platter from room service, and chewed it all up and spat it out onto the plate, and gave it to you.
You fed me fruit youd already eaten?
And you smiled and ate it all.
The husband-like thingsvoice sounded indistinct, as if it were coming from behind a wall of water. Maybe thats why its so easy being with you.When you did that, I knew youd probably eat up my poop with a smile too.
That night, my husband left the iPad outside the bedroom.For the first time in months, his hand crept into my bed, undermy comforter. I wanted to pretend I was asleep, but then he wentto switch on the light, so I reached out and caught his hand almostby reflex.
In the darkness, my husband swiftly removed my pajama bottoms.When I thought about whether the thing that had started tomove on top of me was my husband or just something like him, Ifelt a terrible dread and kept my eyes firmly shut. Then I felt skinslacken, and bodies start to yield, and then I could no longer tellwhose sensations I was feeling. Snake ball! My body was startingto coil, and I tried to stop thinking by closing my eyes even more tightly. That only made the boundary between the skin of ourentwined bodies even hazier. My husband the snake opened hismouth and swallowed me headfirst, and I desperately resisted hissticky, moist membranes, but soon the inside of his body becamea pleasurable place to be. By then I was actively feeding my bodyto him to be devoured. He seemed to be enjoying eating me up so much that the sensation of it spread to me, and I felt as though I were tasting my own self.
From The Lonesome Bodybuilder. Used with permission of Soft Skull Press. Copyright 2018 by Yukiko Motoya. English translation copyright 2018 by Asa Yoneda.