locks his car and turns away, leaving it parked on the shoulder of the
highway. He crosses the low ditch and begins climbing upward, following
a stream. It's early autumn; these days, the sun stays low and cool, rolling
along the horizon for hours. Most of the leaves on the ground are last
year's—dried and bleached out, the same dull white as bones.
Walking under the trees, he breathes in,
then exhales, the air cool in his throat. He has a sweater tied around
his waist, a canteen on his hip, an energy bar in his pocket. In his hands,
he carries only his fishing pole.
A year ago was the first, the only time
that he's been to this place. An engineer where he works told him it resembled
Japan, and that drew Asada here, stirred his curiosity. His family had
moved to the States when he was fourteen, and now he is forty-four; while
he doesn't recognize the similarity in this landscape, he hopes it might
startle memories from inside him. He has put off his return all spring,
all summer. He had to come before his hesitation stretched out into the
first snowfall, before the trip was delayed into next year.
His breathing is already coming faster;
he slows, but does not stop. This slope climbs for miles, even beyond
the timberline, far beyond his destination. He is hiking to where an old
stone mill, gutted and abandoned, sits beside the stream, where the remnants
of a dam still collect a shallow pool. The stillness there is only disturbed
by the gentle slapping of leaves; aspens circle the water.
The year before, standing beside the pool,
he had seen what he believed was a shadow on the stone wall of the mill.
It folded, though, then spread, and he could not see what might have cast
it. Climbing along the wall, twisting higher, the shadow moved as if it
held weight and was expanding, growing arms and legs. Asada's chest had
gone cold. He had fled down the mountainside, stumbling, not looking back.
This time, he won't run. He'll stay. He has not been surprised for a very
long time, and he feels a desire to be shaken.
The bank is rough and torn where, months
ago, the swollen stream ran. He crosses the stream, trying to follow the
clearest path, and fish dart from stone to stone, abandoning the shadows
along the edges. Bending, he tightens the laces of his leather boat shoes,
the most casual footwear he owns. He wonders if this would be easier with
hiking boots, and whether people often hike alone. Perhaps it's usually
done in groups, or in couples. He tries to imagine a woman walking beside
There is a movement in his peripheral vision,
to his right. A deer, standing only twenty feet away, raises its head
and stares. It's a doe, slightly darker than the the leaves on the ground,
ears out like funnels, light showing through them so Asada can see the
red veins forking there. He can smell her, also, sweet and rank, tight
in his nostrils. Lifting his fishing pole, he points it like a gun; the
cork grip presses against his cheek as he sights down the round, metal
ferrules, straight at the deer. She only snorts at him, unimpressed. She
walks away slowly, her white tail switching back and forth.
Asada also walks on, in the other direction.
He is disappointed in the deer, for not running, and of himself, somehow,
for not making her afraid. This is not a marked trail; he is probably
the only person for miles. He wonders how she became so accustomed to
Again, as he climbs, he thinks of women.
At the computer company where he works, there are several he's friendly
with, yet the ones he's pursued have rarely wanted to know him better.
White women realize he's not as exotic as he looks, while Japanese women
consider him slow to assimilate, to adapt to life in the States. None
of these women work in his department, so they cannot understand, cannot
know how it affects a person, translating technical correspondence. He
uses Japanese words that most Japanese would not know, English words that
Americans would never encounter. Together, these two groups of words are
like a third language—one beset by redundancy, with two words for every
single thing, with almost no one to share it.
Tree branches cross like latticework overhead.
He holds his fishing pole in front of him, clearing spiderwebs. Today,
he doesn't mind being by himself. He doesn't want to explain his expectations
to anyone and, besides, he feels things are more likely to happen if he's
alone. The bushes thicken. Parting them with his hands, he looks down
just in time to avoid stepping on a dead bird. A crow or raven, its black
feathers still shiny while its eyes crawl. Asada holds his breath. After
a moment, he hears a car on the highway, distant now, somewhere below.
He leaves the dead bird behind.
He has been walking under the trees, in
the shadows, for over an hour when he steps into the clearing. The side
of the mill facing the pool is lit by the sun. The white stone wall looks
cold and bright; the three windows—two low, one above—are squares of darkness.
For a moment, it seems that the mill has moved closer to the water, and
then he realizes it's the breadth of the pool that's changed.
The pool is all reflections. The tips of
the aspens bend inward, stretching there. Birds dart low across the surface,
doubling in the water, folding their wings to plummet, opening them to
rise. Asada stands near the low dam, where all the earth has been washed
from between the white stones. He looks into the mottled gray trunks of
the aspens, at their bright yellow leaves in the sun. Behind the mill,
a broken fence stretches, wooden rails down in some places; further along,
a whole section has collapsed.
He notices that there's no lure on the end
of his line, not even a hook. It doesn't matter. He casts out his bare
leader and the pool ripples and settles. Little trout rise, curious, holding
themselves steady in the clear water. He watches until they lose interest,
and then he reels in the line. A breeze rolls down the mountain and the
aspens' round leaves slap and clatter. Asada shivers, sweat drying inside
his clothes. His legs and feet are sore from the hike.
Then, it begins. Ten feet from where he
stands, where the pool drops off into slightly deeper water and he can
no longer see the bottom. It's as if something is rising from below—an
indistinct shape, its edges finding clarity, different shades verging
on colors. A round face, almost, a darker body, flickering, trailing off.
Asada's heart accelerates, his scalp tightens. A cloud's reflection slides
across the pool, blurring the surface, and the image does not return.
He looks up, then, toward the mill—it seems a dark shape moves in one
of the low windows, as if someone was standing there and has slipped behind
the wall, beyond where he can see.
Asada unties the sweater from his waist
and sets it on the ground, in case he has to move quickly. He reminds
himself that he is more curious than afraid. Attempting to appear calm,
he again casts out his line; this time, the trout don't even bother to
pretend they're interested. He looks away from the pool, squinting into
the aspens, the shadows between them. What he thought were natural marks
are actually letters, he realizes, initials and words that people have
carved into the trunks. Between the stones at his feet, he now notices
cigarette butts; they don't appear to be especially old.
The second time the figure rises, the reflection
is in a different place—across the pool, nearer the opposite bank, surfacing
between the trunks of trees. Asada looks away, at the mill. The lower
windows are empty. He looks up, to the window above.
It is the figure of a woman, standing thin
and dark. Steady, unmoving, hands held out in front. It is difficult to
make out the face's expression, to tell if the features are Asian or otherwise.
The long hair is tangled, hanging across the face. The dress is loose,
or perhaps it's a kimono; it hangs as if wet. The figure appears to have
just climbed out of the water.
And then—it's difficult to tell if the figure
moved, or how, or which direction—the window is empty. Asada almost calls
out, but he does not. There are rules, he feels; calling out might simplify
the situation, and that is not what he desires. Waiting, trying to remain
patient, he wonders if someone standing in the trees, somewhere further
up the slope, might cast their image into the pool so it was reflected
upward, so it appeared in the window. No, he decidesif that were
the case, the figure would have been upside down.
Asada sets his fishing pole on the ground.
Wading, tripping through the bushes, breaking low branches in his hands,
he heads around the back of the mill. The wooden door has a lock attached
to it, but the hasp has been torn from the wall. The bottom of the door
is sunken into the ground; he manages to bend the top enough to wedge
his way through.
There is no one else inside. Above, there
is the sky, no roof at all. There is no remnant of a second floor, either—not
even a ledge beneath the upper window, twenty feet above. No place anyone
could stand. Asada steps over crushed, faded beer cans, over the ashes
of an old fire. A trickle of water enters under one wall, slips away beneath
another. Standing at one of the low windows, he looks out across the pond,
to where his fishing pole rests, next to his sweater, which is folded
on the white stones. He bends his neck and looks up the smooth wall, at
the high window. If he wants the figure to return, he decides, it would
be best to return outside, to stand where he had been, to concentrate
on the pool's reflections. He crosses to the door and forces his way back
The air has turned cooler. He puts on his
sweater, eats the energy bar, drinks water from his canteen. He holds
his fishing pole like a sword, slicing it through the air. Now it is dusk,
and the spaces between the aspens are difficult to see; above, the yellow
leaves are pale, unlit. Shadows extend darkly across the pond, threatening
to seal off all reflection. He wants there to be every chance, but soon
he will be unable to see; he'll have to follow the stream through the
darkness, its sound, all the way down to where his car waits.
The black shape comes through the water
like a seal, cutting smoothly beneath and not quite breaking the surface.
No reflections remain, only shadows. Asada looks upward, toward the mill.
The figure has returned, and the face is now more distinct; the hair is
thrown back, the features clearly Asian. The arms are still held out.
The edges of the shoulders begin to shiver, as if the solidity cannot
be maintained, as if the whole thing might dissipate, blow away.
And then it begins to climb through the
window. Asada expects it to leap into the pool from that height, but it
does not. And it does not swing a leg over the sill, but slides through
headfirst. As it comes, it changes, turning fluid, seeping beyond itself.
Shadowy, it twists like smoke, rolling down the stone wall, leaving wet
marks in its wake, loosing tentacles and spinning them back to the center.
At the bottom, the mass unfolds, never settling; it slides across the
ground, into the thick bushes.
Asada stands, holding his breath. He will
not turn his back. He will not run. His ribs flex inside his chest, their
cage rattling its hinges. His senses of taste and smell, his touch and
hearing and sight, they are all whittled sharp. In a moment, the
head rises above the line of bushes, on the other side of the pool, just
visible against the dusk. Wavering, becoming solid, the body appears in
sections, as if ascending a hidden flight of stairs. Then, feet still
hidden in the underbrush, the figure starts up the slope. The legs seem
to move slowly, yet the body slides smoothly along, its speed increasing.
As it heads into the trees, the shadows thicken behind it.
Asada steps quickly, his feet kicking the
white stones so they skitter across each other and splash into the pool.
When he reaches the aspens, he hesitates, then begins running between
them, up the slope, in the direction the figure disappeared. His fishing
pole rattles through low branches, snaps in half across a tree trunk;
he stumbles, drops it, the line tangling and snapping, the whole thing
dragging behind him and finally letting go.
He arrives in a clearing, the ground still
slanted, where trees have fallen. Rotten and hollowed trunks cross each
other; dried grass pokes up between them. Asada feels that he is close.
He breathes deeply, bending over, his hands on his knees. And then, inside
a round knothole of one of the fallen trees, he sees what looks like fabric.
Dark and wrinkled, yet not a shadow.
He steps closer, and pushes his finger gently
through the knothole. As soon as he touches the cloth, a high-pitched
screaming sounds from the fallen tree. Asada stumbles backward, falling
to the ground. The quiet returns, and yet, through it, there is the faint
sound of scratching, of movements within the log. Asada stands, and moves
carefully to the hollow end. He squints against the falling darkness.
In a moment, a tangle of black hair begins
to emerge. It is a girl, he realizes, a young woman. Loose bark falls
from her hair; there's dirt smudged on the pale skin of her face. Her
features are delicate, beautiful. Slowly, she crawls from the log and
stands, five feet from Asada. Her kimono is soaking wet, and so long it
hides her feet. She brushes her hair from her face with long, pale fingers,
and tries to smile; her expression is frightened.
Tadasu-san,” she says, her voice
low and melodious. “Watashi ga dareka wakaranai no ne?”
“No, I don't recognize you,” he says.
“Tadasu-san ga nihon wo detekara 30-nen
mo tatsu mono ne.”
“Thirty years?” Asada hesitates, realizing
that he is answering her in English. It is the language that comes first
to him; she seems to understand.
“Why did you run away?” he says. “Who
“Sugu ni koe wo kakerare nakkatta,”
she says. “Tadasu-san ni watashi no iukoto ga wakatte moraenai to omotta
“You were right,” he says. “I don't
“Yumi yo,” she says. “Itoko no.”
“Why did you come to me?” he says,
but she does not answer him, not right away. Instead, she begins to tell
him her story. It has been thirty years since he's seen his cousin, Yumi,
and then she was a baby. That was in Japan; she stayed behind, and she
is still there, she tells him now. Her body is there, but it is in a place
where no one will ever find it. It is in a forest, far from any town,
where no one would expect her to be. She rests in a shallow ravine, and
leaves have settled on her, icy floodwaters have washed her clean. Over
a year has passed since she died. Silt has thickened around her; roots
have taken hold, stretched straight through her. It is wonderful.
As she talks, Asada watches her carefully,
trying to understand. Her voice is like a song, surrounding him, like
nothing he's ever heard. He wants to reach out and touch her, but he doesn't
dare; he fears she'll sink into the ground, or rise and dissipate through
the trees' branches. When he'd stuck his finger through the knothole,
her body felt solid. Pieces of bark still hang from her hair.
She is saying that no one in Japan knows
that she is missing. She had fallen out of contact with her family—she
is ashamed to tell him the details, not that they matter. She is happy
“Why did you come to me?” he says again.
“Anata ga watashi ni tottemo aitagatteta
kara, she says.
Asada believes this—she has shown herself to him because he had wanted
to see her, had needed it, more than anyone else. And he does not pull
away when Yumi steps closer. As she leans against him, there is no sound,
no change in sensation. The only light is from the moon. Asada turns a
slow circle, his eyes searching in every direction. His arms close around
himself. He is alone.