Soshiki

The machined nut is six-sided and made of hardened, black steel. It used to taste of petroleum, but not anymore. I keep it under my … tongue. It fastens me to the memory of the bolt, and to the door of the abandoned factory through which I stumbled on my first day here. Together these things, the nut, the bolt, the door, and the sensation of stumbling, lead me back to my crippled lifepod, and to my name. I suppose these are my “breadcrumbs.” I have half a dozen others, but these four are the most vital. They require effort and intuition. Without them, my name becomes just another word among so many others. It loses context and meaning. If I lose either of these, I will lose myself among those that I have eaten.

It is spring in Hanamaki. Sunny, cool and damp. Summer, I am told, is closing in, but the weather is still tolerable. Everything here smells of cedar and camphor. The old man with the pock-marked cheek and the half-empty bottle of shōchū resting between his knees has been talking to me about his home — not the cardboard box where he sleeps now, but the place where he used to live when he was, as he puts it, human.

The word tastes like bone marrow, salt and fat.

He pauses and holds up his hand. The hand shakes with the uncontrollable tremors of alcohol poisoning. It moves with the same resonant frequency as the ghost wind that now shivers suddenly among the wild camellias and all those tall dandelions that surround us.

In his memories, these flowers are tsubaki, and tampopo. They are two more beads in the necklace that circles back to his youth. They bring the essence of soft rain and sunshine, of play and laughter … of a girl he calls Haru, and Haru herself is springtime.

Soon the memory of this girl will be gone from his mind. Soon he will lose spring altogether, but not quite yet. I prefer to eat slowly.

Chotto matte o kudasai,” he says, asking me to wait as he taps the bare place upon his wrist where I can still see the pale pattern of an absent watch.

He points up and I hear the approaching thunder. It comes on fast and from the north. The ground vibrates beneath my hips. In the next instant, the Shinkansen roars overhead. I look up, but can only see the gray concrete underside of the track. I cannot see the train.

The sound of it reminds me of our ship as it sliced through the thicker atmosphere of this world, just before the storm broke it apart and killed my companions. The sound is in a similar key — similar but not exact. There is a high-pitched whine like that of a small animal in pain, that pierces my skull. I move to cover my ears, but as quickly as it comes, the train is already gone again, leaving only the Doppler of its voice howling away toward Sendai.

Sendai?

Sendai?

When did I eat that name? Did I take it from this man yesterday? Or was it from the woman I met in the ramen shop three days ago? Or was it from one of the others? How many have there been?

It is becoming difficult to sort out the faces and the words I have eaten over the last six weeks. Human identities collapse so easily into one another, and so quickly.

I let the nut roll up onto my tongue, caressing it until my own name returns with sharper clarity. I roll the word aside and again think, Sendai.

The taste of steel dissolves into that of noodles and miso paste and the cloying smell of jasmine-scented perfume.

Yes, the memory is from the woman. Sendai was her furusato — her hometown, her origin point. Mine is in another system on another world a dozen lifetimes full of memories distant.

I would like to ride the Shinkansen. I would like to see her Sendai through my own eyes, but the crave is gnawing at me, and the old man is talking again and his slurred words are rich with promise.

When I touch his hand with my fingertips, his tremors cease. His mouth snaps open, his gummy red eyes stare blankly ahead and his body goes rigid. I slip behind him and press my ear to the abraded spot on the back of his neck where I fed yesterday. My feeding gland slides outward and probes hard against his flesh until I feel that wonderful snap of my cnidae piercing his skin. With the hot rush of exchanged dopamine, our connection is complete and the sizzle of his memories nearly blinds me.

I smell sesame and ginger — and taste all of that is bitter and all that is sweet in his emotions. Regret carries the strongest flavor. It leaves my throat dry, so I shift and probe to find something more … savory.

Here is courtship. This is good. The memories that are bound to it are rich and satisfying. I press closer to feed more deeply. I weep with his joy and the euphoria of my habit renders me weightless as my consciousness floats deeper into his.

I see his wife who is now my wife; see the laughter in her eyes, and tiny creases that come with her smile. I remember the first touch of her flesh moving against my own. I recall the citrus smell of her shampoo, and the chocolates and strawberries we ate together, naked upon the hotel bed. The champagne was terrible, but we drank it anyway, until we were both a little drunk.

She is not Haru.

She is Natsu — summer, sweat and a different kind of laughter, a different kind of joy. But there is also a shadow lurking about the edges of these memories. It carries the scent of burning leaves, rotting pumpkins and pain.

These are dangerous memories. I can feel it. If I am not careful, I might lose myself in them. And perhaps, that would be good — truly good — to be lost in one eternal memory of happiness with so many intimate sensations …

And here is the truth. I am no longer an archivist. This is no longer a research mission. I have become an addict — a parasite and nothing more. What I take, I take for myself, not science.

There are footsteps outside the memory, not close, but approaching.

I ease back and wipe the blood from my ear with a piece of tissue paper from my pocket and wait. The old man remains in his funk, mouth open, drooling, staring into the void that I have created in his mind.

It is nearly seven o’clock, the sun will be setting soon and this is a dangerous time for me. My obscuring field works best in full daylight or in darkness, but the sharply angled light at dusk can be problematic. Up close, I am fine, but from 300 meters or more and in the wrong light, my underform can flicker in and out. My assumed humanity becomes compromised and the alien that I am on this world is revealed. By human standards, I am not pretty.

The footsteps are drawing closer. I smell her before I turn to see her. She is still in her nurse’s uniform and carries a shallow cardboard box. She is the man’s daughter and is bringing him his supper as she does each evening at this time. Rice balls seasoned with pickled shiso leaves and black roasted sesame. The aroma causes me to salivate, just as it would him.

I wave to her, and project the image and memories of the young man from Vermont whom I fed upon during my first week here. When she looks at me, she sees him — mostly she sees him. Sometimes the others bleed through and I need to be mindful lest some of her father, or the woman from the Sendai, or any of the others whose memories I have eaten, corrupt this projection.

“Hello, David-san,” she says, greeting me in English.

I stand, give her a small bow and return her greeting. Her unconscious mind picks up the suggestions radiating from the obscuring field. The suggestions cloud her perception and create the framework of an identity that she will trust. Her agile human mind fills in many of the holes and she does not realize how odd it is that a stranger and foreigner would be here with her father under these tracks. She thinks I am kind and from the foreign church down the road and across the river.

“How is he today?” she asks.

“He is well,” I tell her. “We were chatting earlier, but he seems to have ...” I don’t know how to complete this thought. I haven’t eaten the right words to express what I want to say. She seems to understand.

Hai, so desu,” she says. “I heard an American doctor call it Sundowning?”

She believes her father suffers from a natural mental degeneration. Perhaps he does, but his recent precipitous decline is because of me, not disease or the alcohol. I should feel shame. Instead, I attempt to offer comfort and tell her that he spoke her name today. It is a lie of course. She is already gone from nearly all of his memories. They’re now mine and I feel an uncontrollable need to console her.

“He talked about your family’s trip,” I say, “to the hot spring resort when you graduated from middle school.”

Her father’s memories flash and burst like buds opening behind my eyes and I recall the faint smell of sulfur rising, and the soft, slow sound of the stream passing about me and over the smooth, flat stone upon which I sat. The sensation of my immersion in the steaming river is sweet. Even now, I feel it throughout my entire body. I tremble. I can’t help it. I go silent and begin to lose myself in the memory, but she asks something that I miss and it pulls me back into the moment.

“I’m sorry,” I manage to say. “I was thinking it must have been a very nice time.”

She nods. She smiles. But her eyes remain sad. Upon all the worlds I have been I have never seen such beautiful, sad eyes.

Her smell is different from the others to whom I have been this close, especially different from her father. Her name is Yuri, for the flower, and her father’s memory-scent for her is that of lilies and white, cotton sheets hanging to dry in the hot summer sunlight. From her, though, I smell something cooler. It is wind passing over snow and between the red branches of a young cypress. It is comforting, but also … blue. I can’t taste who she is inside, she is too guarded, and it would require physical contact, but I am afraid to touch her. I am terrified. I would not be able to control myself and I don’t want to take from her as I have from her father. It would feel wrong, though of course what I am doing to him is terrible.

This woman, this grown child, reminds me of my own home and the family I will never have. She reminds me of the conscience I once possessed before this addiction claimed me.

Daijobu?” she asks, are you okay?

My expression betrays me. I’ve consumed so much and so quickly, that all of the mannerisms and other human traits I have eaten have become a part of me on the somatic level. Those memories are rewriting my neurology and chemistry. I am different now. In some ways, I am human — almost.

Daijobu desu, I am fine,” I reply. “If you leave the food with me, I will feed your father when he is more … awake.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course. I don’t mind. You must be tired after your shift.” As I speak, I can feel her father’s words guiding my tongue.

She nods, her own expression pensive and weary. “That would be so helpful,” she says. “Thank you.”

She looks at the food, and without looking at me says, “I wish he would come home with me. I wish he would let me take care of him. Demo … hazukashi desu.”

Hazukashi. It is a word so easy to misunderstand. It could be embarrassment, but it more often means shame. That nuance and the depth are lost to foreigners — even to those who believe they understand. That is why we were sent to this world, to sample and internalize human languages at their emotional and evocative level. But we did not know what I know now about human memories.

We talk a little more as the sky darkens. It is a tedious sunset. There is none of the brilliant gold or crimson that I have come to enjoy. Instead, the sky simply dulls from a chalky blue, to the leaden gray that will shortly surrender itself to the black. I do not like the night sky here. There is not enough ambient light from this small city. It leaves the stars too brilliant and yet still so far out of reach.

Yuri looks at the sky and mutters absently that she must go now. She hands me the bento box, bows and thanks me for being so kind. I tell her it’s nothing. She hugs her elbows and looks at the sky again. I feel the awkwardness in her departure. It is the same every time she leaves. Yuri is ashamed and she is frightened that the next time she returns it will be to find her father’s corpse. This I can hear and feel even without touching. She walks away through the tall green grass, her white nurse’s uniform gathering yellow petals from the dandelions as she goes. She does not turn back before disappearing behind the maintenance shed. She is gone and I am relieved.

Hazukashi desu.

My eyes are burning.

If I were human, I would vomit.

• • •

The pod emits a soft purr as I enter its energy field and I feel its surface surge outward to greet me. Like the womb of my mother, the moist petals of its interior enfold me. My obscuring field automatically shuts down and I feel my true form trying to reassert itself in its entirety. In here, I should be closest to my natural state, but something is wrong. Not all of the pod’s systems are able to recognize or accept me. I can still use the sensors, the cloak and the communication module, but the pod can no longer feed me. It shivers and is confused.

Pain buckles my spine and twists me around. My now-altered endocrine system is rejecting the nutrients with which the pod attempts to infuse me. It is the same as yesterday, but much worse and I ask the question — that unthinkable question.

“Yes, you are changing,” it answers. “You are becoming human.”

“But I am not human,” I whisper.

And yet, the pod makes no effort to reply.

“I am not human,” I say again.

And still the pod remains silent.

This is not normal. The pod should at least acknowledge, but it would be pointless to press the matter and argue. It makes no moral judgment and the single unalterable truth now is that with this change, I am becoming even more alone. I wish I was not, but I am — even more so than the old man, living in the cardboard box under the train tracks. At least he has his daughter. He has Yuri. Even if he doesn’t know it, she is there, every day to feed him and talk to him and touch him. I only have the memories I have eaten, and the injured pod — and I won’t even have that for much longer. Soon, it will reject me as an intruder and will self-immolate as a security precaution … as I should have self-immolated when I first realized the addictive and infectious nature of human memories. I can’t go home, but I can’t stay here either. I am so hungry and so lonely. It is unnatural to live this way, unnatural to be alone.

I turn the nut with my tongue, round and round.

What were their names?

Why can’t I recall the faces of my five companions?

The hexagonal nut connects me to my name, but not to theirs.

There were six of us in the beginning. Ours was to be the first physical interaction with humanity and the last step before open contact. We had studied this world from a distance, monitoring and preparing. But we had no idea how different humans were from us on the psychochemical level. Our mission was to determine compatibility. And perhaps the final results would have been different if we had all survived together.

I am just a harvester after all — a collector. There were three like me in our party. But it was the remaining three who were our true archivists. They had the necessary biology to arrange, order and interpret. I can only take and give — take from the host and give to the archivist. Without an archivist, I can only digest those I have eaten. I think it is through that digestion that I am being altered.

The pod speaks to me again. It asks a question for which I have no proper answer. It has received a call. Mission status is requested. It is afraid.

What can I say? If I report what has happened to me, I will be abandoned. Worse still, if I am rescued, my infection might now corrupt the others. I don’t know what to do.

I delay my response and decide to go hunting. I am hungry. I am always hungry now.

• • •

It is the resonant tolling of the temple’s great, iron bell and the throaty chanting of monks that draws me through the streets tonight. Pastel-colored cafes, darkened pubs and brightly lit sushi bars, flank both sides of the avenue that leads to the shrine and the cemetery beyond. A memorial service is just ending. Men and women dressed in neat black suits and black skirts — the men loosening their ties and the women straightening their skirts — file out of the old building, mostly silent with their heads down, but a few are talking. I can taste their sorrow and loss even from twenty meters. It has the bite of a green persimmon, so bitter that it catches in my throat and makes me choke. As I ease myself closer, more emotions break against me. They are like the surf rolling up to meet a stony shore, crashing, splashing and then receding, leaving behind bits of itself in all my broken crevices.

The first to pass brushes too close and touches my hand. There is a jolt of electricity and I am assailed with images of a dead child, a boy, thirteen years old, bent in all the wrong ways like a broken doll, with his bicycle become a steel knot, twisted all about him. I see one small shoe, brand new and perfect, lying in the middle of the train crossing. I hear the sound of the warning claxon, still chiming and chiming and chiming in tiresome repetition.

Taro

That’s the dead boy’s name

Taro

Taro-chan

I gasp for breath. My knees threaten to give way.

I have tasted human loss and death before, but never so immediate or so raw. It scalds. It blisters. It pulls my insides upward in my thorax and higher still to strangle me. I turn away, press my face against the prickly stucco of the wall before which I stand and try to breathe, but bile burns in my throat and fills my mouth. I have never thrown up before and only know this taste from the homeless man’s memories. And yet, there is actual vomit in my mouth and blood where it should not be possible.

Daijobu desu ka?” says a man’s voice behind me, asking if I am all right.

I gulp back the vomit and wipe my lips with my hands.

Hai, yes, daijobu,” I manage to say. “I am fine.”

But the man does not go. I can feel him there, waiting and he is not alone. There is a woman with him too. I can hear her thoughts urging him to leave.

Turning, I am about to repeat that I am okay, when I see his face.

“Nomura-san!”

The name is out before I can stop myself from saying it.

He is surprised — almost as surprised as I am.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Do we know each other?”

I nod and lie. I do not know him — except that I do through my harvested memories. He is the partner who swindled the old man who lives under the Shinkansen tracks. His lies sent the old man to jail, shamed him and drove him into poverty, destroyed him, and destroyed his family.

Yuri

The daughter’s name comes to me though I don’t know why and my chest tightens.

Nomura-san smiles.

It is a false smile that I have seen a dozen times through the old man. It is the smile worn by a thief who has his hand upon your wallet, even as he tells you to trust him. It is all tooth and lip. There is no smile in his eyes — though I can see only one, for he wears odd glasses, horn-rimmed, with the left lens totally blacked out like an eye patch.

“Are you coming from the funeral? I ask.

His grin fades and he assumes a composed expression of grief.

He nods gravely.

The woman at his shoulder is a few years younger than him. I recognize her too. She is his sometimes secretary and sometimes mistress. She is impatient. I can feel it from the way her left foot pumps up and down like a piston upon its heel. Thinking I am drunk, she mutters the word, Yopparai.

Good, let them assume that — let them both assume I am only a drunken foreigner, harmless and better still, vulnerable.

I project the illusion of inebriation. The idea should lower his guard.

“Would you like to get coffee?” I ask, projecting another mental image into his mind, this one being my wallet bulging with thousand-yen notes.

His lips tremble. He licks them.

“Coffee would be good,” he says.

The woman looks aside, rolls her eyes and heaves an annoyed sigh. She wants to buy a pack of cigarettes and she wants dinner. She leans in close and whispers in his ear, but he shoots her a cold look and tells her to go on to the restaurant alone. He fumbles for his own wallet. Gives her three of his own thousand-yen notes and says he will meet her later.

She takes the money and without a word, strides away. Nomura-san watches her departure with some irritation and disappointment. He was expecting to mate with the woman I think, though now that seems unlikely. His thoughts are the loudest I have encountered here. They are garrulous and rude. There is something of a killer about him as well, something primitive and bent, like a creature who would eat its own offspring.

I realize I am staring at him. My head swims and my vision narrows into a darkly edged tunnel. There is a strange sensation in my chest and in my stomach that I cannot define. I have this terrible urge to throw my hands about his throat, to squeeze and throttle him.

I hate this man.

I truly hate him.

I’ve never felt such a thing before, such an irresistible and intense need to cause pain in another being. But as I feel it now, it is both exhilarating and unnerving at the same time. Why? Why do I suddenly know hate? Is it just because of the old man — because I have eaten too much of him too quickly? Or is it for his daughter? Is it for Yuri?

I am losing myself. Even with the steel nut clinched between my teeth, I am losing myself.

Not yet.

Not yet.

I button my illusory jacket, comb back my illusory hair with my hands, and together with Nomura-san, start on down the sidewalk. He is talking about a little place he knows. There is a sudden spring to his step.

“It’s quiet,” he says. “And the hostesses are pretty.”

A bead of sweat glistens upon the fat flesh of his neck. He is excited. Just as I am sure, he was excited when he betrayed the old man. I cannot take my eyes off of his neck.

• • •

Nomura-san’s pub is pushed back in three blocks from the main avenue. It is small, dark and shabby. The framed photos of Mount Iwate and the Miyako coastline are yellowing with age, and the flower arrangements in the shallow alcoves behind each booth are artificial and dusty. The Okami sits behind the cash register, reading a glamour magazine, indifferent to her customers. Her bartender is lost in polishing his glasses while her three hostesses circle and migrate from table to table making little attempt to conceal their boredom. Nomura-san grins and comments again, on how pretty they are. But they do not look pretty to me. They look like badly prepared food that smells of cigarettes and stale beer. One of them joins us and leans in close upon Nomura-san’s shoulder. They are familiar with one another and pass private little jokes between themselves. She introduces herself as Suzu and says they do not get many foreigners here.

Nomura-san says I am his friend. Though scratching his head, he laughs saying, “But I can’t remember how we met.”

I mimic his laugh. “Sendai,” I say.

“Sendai? We met in Sendai?”

“Yes,” I say. “Sendai. It will come to you.”

Suzu begins asking me questions about America. I pull a few answers from my harvested memories and distract her by asking if she would get us some whisky for our coffee. “Nikka whisky,” I add. “Bring the whole bottle and three glasses.”

Nomura-san sucks a long hiss between his molars and says, “Takai desu! Too expensive, my friend.”

I assure him I can afford it and he relents.

His heartbeat speeds up and his body temperature climbs a full degree. He becomes still more animated and begins talking quickly about Hanamaki and Morioka, the coming Matsuri, and all the places and things I should see while visiting. When I ask about the funeral, he assumes a false sincerity and explains the boy’s father is his client. He shakes his head sadly, but his thoughts are about plans falling through and his losses not theirs.

Suzu returns with the whisky and pours our drinks.

We toast. They toss back their shots. I pretend to drink mine, project the false image of me doing so and they accept this. I refill their glasses. They drink. I refill them again. I will make them both drunk and perhaps then maybe, just maybe, Nomura-san will not taste as foul when eat I his memories and leave him an empty bag of flesh.

• • •

Nomura’s phone keeps buzzing, spinning slowly upon the wet pavement beside him. Its vibrations create quick circles in the oily puddle near his nose. It must be his mistress calling again. She calls and calls, but he cannot answer. He is down, and I have my ear tight to his neck. His memories fill my senses. Sight, sound, scent, taste and touch — all double over my own and merge, filling my head with the yellow smell of dried beach grass and salt. I hear gulls and a child’s laughter — Nomura’s laughter — my laughter. My feet — our feet — burn as we run through the scorching hot sands. We reach the coolness of the water and sigh as the surf rolls in and climbs over our ankles and all the way up to our shins. It pools about us for a moment, and then recedes, pulling the sand out from under us.

I hear a voice calling, telling us to stay out of the water, but we ignore the warning. We wiggle our toes and twist our heels deeper into the wet sand — it feels so good — waiting for the next wave.

The voice is closer, no longer cautioning, but threatening, and before we can turn, I feel the big hand close about our neck, grabbing and yanking.

Pain and blackness.

I shift my ear, probe deeper, and the memories shift and shift and shift again.

Nomura’s childhood is mostly hiding and ducking, the profound loneliness of closed rooms, meals denied and beatings, so many beatings for nothing at all.

Snow and rain.

Winters and summers.

Indoors replaces outdoors and everything grows still.

Awful breath, sour with the stink of pickled mackerel, dried squid and cheap sakė, makes us want to turn away, but we know better. We open our eyes and find ourselves nose to nose with the grinning face of our father. The emotions here are odd and conflicted. Admiration, affection and a craving for approval are all knotted together into the tight ball of fear that makes my heart pound. We want to love this man, we want him to love us, but it is impossible. Our face hurts and our bones ache. He kisses our forehead and we want him to hug us, but at the same time, we want to bolt and run away.

We are nine years old and he is teaching us the family trade. His round red face is glazed over with a thousand beads of perspiration. There is a bit of dried noodle clinging to his lower lip and more upon his chin. His front teeth are capped in bright gold and he laughs as he eases himself back. He lifts his right hand, shows us how to hold a pair of white dice between his nicotine stained fingers. He drops the dice into a small wooden cup, covers the cup’s mouth with his left hand and then gives it three deliberate shakes, before slamming it, mouth down upon the floor between us.

“Odd or even?” he asks.

His eyes shine.

We don’t want to answer.

He is drunk.

We don’t want to play.

He is always drunk.

He blinks and again he asks, “Odd or even?”

We want to say, “Odd,” but we cannot lie.

“Even,” we say. Our voice is so small it can barely get past our lips.

We feel our spine tighten and our shoulders pull in close, waiting.

We know we are right, but there is no good answer in this game.

Our father lifts the cup to reveal the dice showing three black dots upon one and five black dots upon the other.

“Even!” he says proudly, and we feel his hand tousling our hair.

The knot in our gut squeezes tighter as our father lifts the dice to do it all again.

This time when we say “Even,” he hesitates. The smile fades from his lips and his expression turns flat.

We know how he does it. We know how he cheats. And now, he knows that we know.

He does not even lift the cup before he lets his fist fly

and fly

and fly.

But the blows and the pain I feel are not in our face. It’s in my neck, upon my shoulders and in the back of my skull. I taste blood. Not Nomura-san’s but my own. Someone is beating me from behind. Releasing Nomura-san I spin about, my feeding gland still dangling from my ear and I leap to my feet.

It is the Mistress. She staggers back, stumbling in her high heels. She is unable to scream and her mouth opens and closes looking like a cod’s on the carving block. My obscuring field has failed. It cannot completely hide what I am with so much interference from my pain and confusion.

The round stone she clutches in her right hand is slick with my blood. In the moonlight, it looks more black than red. She tries to raise the stone — tries to threaten me — but it slips from her hand and clatters upon the concrete at her feet

I spring and touch her bare wrist.

It should be enough.

It isn’t.

She struggles. She kicks and bites at me. She is strong, but even wounded I am stronger. My venom finally reaches her bloodstream. It slows her heart and she stops fighting. Her muscles begin to slacken and I watch as her eyes go glassy and vacant. The brown of her irises is lost as her pupils dilate and swallow them completely.

She wilts and folds into my arms.

Dizzy and weak, I stagger as I carry her back to where Nomura-san sleeps. Easing her down beside him, I nearly fall, but catch myself. I should take her memory, I should clean my blood from her hands, but I am too disoriented and my head hurts so badly.

All I want is to sit, but I cannot. I need to run.

• • •

Back once more, in tall grass again, under the Shinkansen tracks. I listen to the old man’s snoring in his cardboard box. I can sense his dreams, but I cannot see them anymore. I cannot hear them. It no longer matters though. All my hunger is gone.

I wish I could undo what I have done to this man. I wish I could feed his memories back to him, rearrange and organize them, so that he is whole again. But he is not an archivist, and neither am I. Like Nomura-san, I am a taker. But I am worse. I have no excuse beyond biology — and as a scientist, that is no excuse at all.

In my mind, I can no longer see my own face. It is gone completely, like those of my dead companions. All I see now is the hand holding the dice and the fist that blinded a little boy. And now I will forever be that boy. I will forever be the man he became. Just as I am the man in the box, whose life he stole. But I can no longer hear Yuri’s voice. In its place I hear only the slurred voice, asking “Odd or even?” All I feel is pain — theirs, and mine. Odd or Even…

“I am sorry,” I whisper. “I am so sorry.”

And hearing me, the old man mumbles and turns in his sleep. He rolls onto his back and stretches his left arm out from the box. His hand is open, inviting, and I think I understand what I must do.

Taking the hexagonal nut from under my tongue, I carefully place it in the center of his open palm. When he wakes in the morning, I will be gone and the nut will be his to puzzle over. Where I am going I will no longer need my name. I no longer want it. What good is a name to ashes?


Andrew L. Roberts writes both fiction and poetry. In addition to his book Kite Shadows and Smaller Secrets, his poems and stories have appeared in Bourbon Penn, Polu Texni, NewMyths, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Leading Edge, and The Writers of the Future Anthology Volume 33. His current book project is a story of spirit possession, murder and revenge set in seventeenth century Japan.