At times like this, Shindou Masao truly regretted the fact that he was a decent father.
"What the hell? I had you cornered! How did you know to place that stone there like twenty moves ago?"
It was three in the morning; light seeped out from under Hikaru's door.
"This is...you're cheating! This isn't fair!
Angry screechy sounds emanated from within.
"If you weren't already dead I'd...agh!"
Meanwhile Masao could hear his pillow's siren call: Masao, Masao. Come to bed. Do not worry yourself over the freakish yelling in your son's room. Freakish yelling is perfectly normal. Teenagers have underdeveloped pre-frontal cortexes and are in fact literally insane.
But, Masao argued back at his imaginary, well-informed pillow, that's exactly the reason I have to check on him.
Have it your way, said his pillow, and Masao blearily wondered just how much overtime he'd done today to warrant these kinds of hallucinations.
"You're some kind of evil...ghoul, sent to haunt me!"
Well, maybe delusions ran in the family.
Sighing, giving in to the inevitability of parental duty, Masao knocked on the door—gently, because at thirteen his son was clinically touchy. "Hikaru. Is everything all right in there?"
"What kind of 'teaching game' is this anyway? This not teaching! This is abuse!"
Ugh, the "A" word. Not ignorable. Masao threw open the door in a quick move—BAM!—and got a good look at Hikaru's wide-eyed-oops-caught-by-parental-units face, which was always a good one.
Masao said nothing at first. Father and son stared each other down. Father pointedly swept his eyes over the room, noting the go board and the stones laid neatly on it in a presumably meaningful pattern. Father narrowed his eyes at son, who was just sitting there (in seiza?), gaping. "What is going on in here?"
"I can't believe you're actually home."
"Don't change the subject. Who were you talking to?"
"Uh, a friend! From the go club."
"Your cell phone is way over there on your desk."
"A...an imaginary friend."
"Aren't you too old for that?"
"Fine, an invisible friend."
"An invisible friend who plays go."
"Yeah." Hikaru blinked stupidly, as if surprised at his own idiocy.
"Who abuses you at go."
The brat had the temerity to glare at the space across the board, as if someone were really there. "Yeah, exactly. What the hell."
"Do you honestly expect me to believe that?"
Masao was tempted to throw his hands in the air, but then remembered from one of those parenting manuals he used to read that visible gestures of frustration would only reinforce the unwanted behaviour in the child. "You need to go to bed now."
"Yeah, I do." Hikaru puffed out his cheeks. "I can't believe I said that stuff. I must be more tired than I thought."
That was an insolent answer, not a tired one. "The next time you pull this kind of crap I'm going to take your go board away."
That got the kid's attention. "Mom never says stuff like that. She supports my interests."
"Go to bed now, Hikaru."
After shutting the door behind him, Masao lingered in the hallway for a few minutes to make sure the kid actually obeyed. He heard Hikaru clamber to his feet, turn off the light, stumble to his bed...all the while chatting energetically to himself.
"Geez, Sai. Why are you so mad? Now another person knows about you. Doesn't that make you less lonely?"
Masao rolled his eyes. He knew when he was being trolled. What a piece of work his son was.
"I think calling you an invisible abuser was pretty damn accurate."
As he (finally) climbed into his own bed, Masao planted a tired kiss on his wife's brow. He had a new respect for her ability to raise their kid without resorting to strangulation.
I remember that it was a fine, clear day when the boy came to my shop.
At the time I happened to be at liberty; it was near the end of my lunch hour, but I had yet to move from my break table, either physically or mentally. Subsequent reflection led me to realize that this was in fact the best time of day to approach me if one desired free information. Serendipity or design? I later wondered.
At any rate, the boy wandered in like a tourist, seemingly aimless and clueless, but without that slouching, insouciant gait particular to people who have decided to temporarily abandon all responsibility in the pursuit of "fun." (Not in my store, thank you.) But this boy was different: calm, quiet, and noticeably alone. He was also canny enough not to touch anything, which endeared him to me immediately. He moved with care and no little grace, arms swaying gently at his sides as he navigated the careful lanes of my store.
Yet for all that he was a model customer, I found myself disconcerted by the boy's...mannerisms, after a time. One simply does not expect such depth of concentration from someone of his age, in this age. There is an image of that day still deeply impressed in my mind: of the child with his half-dyed hair and terrible orange t-shirt, surrounded by antique fans, standing absolutely motionless and gazing at...nothing, seemingly, in the centre of my store. His eyes were unusually bright, I noticed; they had this knack of flickering oddly in the lamplight.
Likewise strange: only the folded sensu fans seemed of interest to him. My superior collection of flat uchiwa fans he passed without a backward glance, but by this point I could forgive his indifference—a matter of personal taste rather than a lack of any taste at all.
In the end I think he inspected every single folded fan in my store. What he was looking for, I could not tell you. He devoted the greatest part of his time not to one of the popular pieces—those gaudy painted silk fans of the Edo court, those ivory lace factory pieces from Meiji-era Nagasaki (I can hardly bear to think I stock those monstrosities)—but rather to a plain, sturdy, 34-fold white paper fan I'd procured from Kino-ya in Kyoto, its only ornamentation a twelve-knot tassel in Han purple silk.
It took him a good three minutes to have his fill of the Kino-ya piece. I watched, from the corner of my eye, how he walked around it, craned his neck and bent low several times to see all sides of it. I smelled a sale brewing. Not wishing to appear over-eager to stir the pot, I stayed at my table and feigned a deep occupation with my bookkeeping.
Eventually the boy meandered to my side.
"Hi," he said, clearly awkward now that he was face to face with the master of this domain. "I was wondering if I could ask you something."
I lay down my account books. "Of course. How may I be of service?"
Looking up, I finally had the opportunity to examine his face close-up: a set of wide, sombre grey eyes in the smooth-edged face of a middle schooler. Again, I was struck by a certain unsettling quality in those eyes, but I could not tell you why they perturbed me so.
"I was reading up on fans," he said, "and I found out how important they were to people, traditionally. It was like, you needed one on you to be fully dressed."
"Um, and it's symbolic, too. I mean every fan obviously has pictures on it that symbolize different things, but the shape of a sensu fan itself can actually symbolize...different paths, I think?"
I produced one of my personal fans. "Yes. The small end represents birth. The spreading blades—" and here I unfolded mine, "—represent the many ways life can take us."
He nodded, but he did not seem...happy to be correct. "During the Heian era," he abruptly said, "was there any special meaning to a fan?"
Taken aback by the sudden change in topic, I gave a hasty, inelegant reply: "Well, yes, I suppose. People carried fans partly for fashion's sake. Women especially used them to hide their mouths when they laughed. It was uncouth to show a wide open mouth. They also had a lot of skin problems, which they tried to hide—"
"How about men? I don't mean fashion." He tapped his fingers on my table, and there was too much suppressed vigour there for my liking. "I mean, would a fan mean a lot to a Heian man?"
"I suppose it might have," I said more slowly now, desiring to overcome my agitation. "I have heard that the Shouwa emperor—the Heian Shouwa, not the other ones—I've heard that he bestowed fans on his courtiers, as a mark of favour."
The effect of my words was instantaneous. The boy's entire countenance changed to one of supreme interest. "Really?"
"It is well documented."
"The Fujiwara family probably would have received some, right?"
Again, the sudden change of direction in his questions left me flummoxed to an embarrassing degree. "Yes...though none of those particular fans have survived, I am sure, or else I would have heard...at any rate, it is highly unlikely that the Fujiwara clan would not have received some."
"Oh," said the boy, deflating again. "I guess that kind of thing didn't get recorded that often."
"Most of our information on the Heian era is from literary sources, rather than the kind of records we have nowadays," I admitted.
"Yeah, I've noticed that. I don't suppose...do you know of a Fujiwara named...Sai? Fujiwara no Sai?"
Bemused, I shook my head. I am by no means an expert on the Fujiwara clan, but... "I do not think such a name exists in the record."
"Oh," he said again.
The hand at his side seemed to tighten almost spasmodically. When he did not continue, I asked, "Who is Fujiwara no Sai?"
Hearing that name, the boy's breath seemed to catch in his throat. Why would he care so much for a person long dead? "What I heard," he said, after a time, "is that he was a go teacher to one of the Heian emperors. But I don't know which one." His voice faltered subtly; he gave the impression that his ignorance was a deep source of guilt. "His rival, Sugawara no Akitada, drove him from the court by cheating in a game."
"I have not heard of this Sugawara either."
"Yeah, I figured."
Why did this boy seem so...disillusioned, by my ignorance? No, worse than that—disheartened. Heartbroken. "What happened after that?" I asked, for lack of better words of comfort.
"Sai..." the boy said the name like the name of a family member, "he threw himself in the river and killed himself."
When he did not elaborate, I did my best to fill the silence. "It's quite an interesting story. Where did you hear it? From a book?"
"No," he said. "No one else knows this story."
I hardly knew what to say to that. "I am sorry I can't help you more."
"That's okay. Thank you for listening."
My next words, I said with more than a small amount of hesitation. I said them only because I thought they might help; the profit motive had expired. "Earlier, I saw you looking for a long time at a particular fan. Are you interested in purchasing it?"
He turned his head reluctantly toward the Kino-ya piece which had engrossed him so thoroughly a few short minutes ago. "No," he said, turning back. "Not now."
Hearing the way he spoke, I had not the heart for my usual endorsements. After a few cursory words, I saw him to the door. As he took his leave I bowed, keeping my head lowered until he was out of sight.
After that, he never came again.
Black has resigned. White wins by 7.5 moku!
zelda: argh brutality
hikaru: you just suck at speed go
zelda: i win at speed go all the time
hikaru: on the net
zelda: what's wrong with that
hikaru: beating up amateurs doesn't count
hikaru: why do you even play netgo so much
hikaru: you're gonna get stupider
zelda: you know why
hikaru: le sigh
zelda: ha ha funny
hikaru: he's not coming back so stop getting your hopes up
zelda: how do you know?
hikaru: i just do
zelda: why, cuz you saw him that one time?
hikaru: yes i read his future from the back of his head
zelda: can't believe you actually ran into him and didn't do anything
hikaru: what you wanted me to accost him like you would've done
hikaru: i am not the type
zelda: well at least we know its a guy. You found out that much
zelda: i never asked you, what did he look like?
hikaru: like the back of a head, how should i know
zelda: you must have seen something
hikaru: he had black hair
zelda: wow that narrows it down
hikaru: long shiny black hair
zelda: how old?
hikaru: hard to tell. Not that old, maybe in his twenties. Kind of.
zelda: you arereally bad at this. What else?
hikaru: big eboshi hat
hikaru: purple lipstick
zelda: you are the worst
hikaru yeah i am
zelda: good night shindou. Seriously the worst
zelda has left the game
hikaru has left the game
Framed by the borders of her phone screen, Hikaru's face seems younger than it has in years, boyish again despite the blush of alcoholic red. At this moment he's yelling and laughing at someone off-screen. Hey! Don't take my cake! I put my name on that slice! Come on! I can't believe this, this...lack of respect! Akari, you should make your kouhai behave.
"Not my job anymore," she tells him through the phone, from a distance of 17,360 kilometres away. He doesn't seem to hear.
A moment later her view of the party turns into a nauseous blur as Hikaru hands his phone off to someone else, someone wearing a tan sweater. Tsutsui's face, sans spectacles, fills the screen.
Sorry about that, Fujisaki. Her senpai's face has gotten narrower, perhaps more attractive since junior high, and certainly more confident. Must be the dating and marrying thing. Shindou is having too much fun today, he says. Too bad you're missing this! Mitani-kun seems really down without you here.
I do not! Mitani hollers from somewhere. She can stay in Brazil forever for all I care!
Sweet as always. She can always count on Mitani not to change. "Tsutsui-san, let's ignore him," Akari says. "Come on, show me Saya-chan."
Oh, right! You haven't seen her. Tsutsui stands, keeping the screen steady as he walks her carefully over to his daughter's carriage, then thrusting the phone inside rather less carefully. Akari comes face to face with little Saya, who has somehow slept through the great tumult of the party.
Saya-chan, say hello to your Aunt Akari.
Tsutsui's child is a fascinating sight. Up close the newborn skin is delightfully squishy and soft, blotched red in all the right places. Drool puddles in the deep clefts between lip and chin and bib. A tuft of black hair pokes out of the yellow bonnet—the one Akari sent in lieu of herself.
Suddenly Akari feels terribly alone.
"She's beautiful," she says, because that's what you say when your senpai shoves his baby into your face, or as close as he can get when you're an ocean away. "Sleeping well, isn't she?"
The screen bobs a little; Tsutsui is probably nodding. She's like her mother that way. Rena was apparently a deep sleeper as a baby too. They're both grouchy as anything if you wake them though.
"I wish I could meet them in person." Akari wishes she could see everyone in person. "She looks a lot like you, Tsutsui-san."
That's what everyone says, he tells her, some of his old bashfulness coming back into his voice. It feels so...like a dream, somehow. I can't believe she's going to grow up into a real person one day, with thoughts and feelings as complex as my own.
"She's a real person now, senpai."
Tsutsui hardly seemed to notice her teasing. It's really something, having a child. When I hold her, I'm filled with wonder. It seems so impossible that I helped make her: a human being! She makes me think of something Shindou-kun said one time...it was at the first Hokuto Cup, I think. Someone asked him why he played go, and he said, "To connect the past and the future," or something like that.
Akari, who had not been there, could only say, "That sounds very unlike him."
Yeah, I was surprised. He was crying too.
"Ah," says Akari, suddenly understanding. "One of those days."
What do you mean?
But they never get to finish their conversation. A male voice booms over the general din and Tsutsui turns, along with the phone, to face Kaga, who's only gotten bigger and more imposing over the years. Akari doesn't know him that well—he was never really a part of the go club—but privately she thinks the motorcycle jacket suits him a little too well. Oi, Tsutsui. You better not teach your kid out of that wimpy tsumego book of yours. Actually, don't teach her go at all. Give her to me twice a week and I'll make her a shougi king.
There's a collective groan that transmits very well, even through the tinny internet connection.
Not this again. But she can hear the grin in Tsutsui's voice. Kaga, you can teach her if you become a pro. Or if you can beat Shindou-kun at go.
Did someone say my name? Hikaru yells from across the room.
Kaga's spiky hair seems to ruffle up like a hedgehog's. Well, if it isn't Mr. Pro himself.
Kaga! I won't let you convert this child to your devil game!
As Hikaru speaks, Kaga is muscling his way through the party-goes toward Saya-chan's carriage. It's kind of terrifying, seeing him getting bigger and bigger through the little phone screen. From the other end of the room, Hikaru moves to intercept. The view is getting less steady, along with Akari's nerves. Mitani says something unclear but no doubt extremely rude. Then Tsutsui puts the phone down on top of the carriage with a quick "Sorry, Fujisaki,"—and all she can see is ceiling.
But she can still hear their silly man-fight, which is maddening. Soon enough a bunch of them are gathered around the carriage, and all she can catch are glimpses of their chins and shirts.
Saya-chan wants to play go! Hikaru proclaims, drunkenly. She can see how red his neck is. It is in her blood, Kaga! She's a Tsutsui, you hear?
Christ, we don't need another one of those.
I heard that, Tsutsui himself says. If you wake her, I'll never let you near her, Kaga. She's a monster when you make her mad.
Sounds like my kind of kid. There are some shuffling sounds, and Akari is pretty sure Kaga is backing away, in spite of his bravado. But seriously, Tsutsui, don't teach her your shitty go.
Don't swear around my kid, Kaga.
At least let Shindou here teach her. You've got a friend who's a pro—might as well use him.
Thanks for asking, Hikaru grouses.
It's praise, dumbass. But Kaga doesn't sound particularly proud of Hikaru. Hey, when are you ever going to beat Touya Akira? I'm still waiting to see his face crying in the papers. You need to live up to that first game you played with me.
It take a long while for Hikaru to reply. And when he does, his voice sounds funny. That was just beginner's luck, he says.
No, it wasn't, Kaga's reply comes sharp. Go doesn't work like that.
The phone goes too quiet then. Akari, too. There's only the hum of party voices in the background, the faint buzz of fluorescent lights over her head, to remind her that the rest of the world still exists.
Hikaru, she thinks, hands fidgeting with worry, invisible to her friend on the other side of the world. Are you ever going to tell someone what hurt you so badly?
He doesn't, of course. He laughs, almost naturally, and says, Trade secret, Kaga. Definitely not going to tell it to a shougi fanatic like you. But maybe I should tell someone, before the secret's lost...
No way, Akari thinks.
She sees him bend down, closer and closer to her window screen, his cheek seeming to brush against her own...and then past her, his bright green jacket filling her view for a moment, and then just the back of his head, and then nothing at all. He's...he's sticking his head into Saya's carriage, she realizes.
What, you gonna tell the kid? Kaga's voice is incredulous. You really are a piece of work, Shindou.
Don't wake her, is all Tsutsui says.
She can hear him, through the fine mesh of the carriage top; it's too muddled to make out clearly, but Hikaru is murmuring something, real words and not baby nonsense. She catches nothing meaningful, only the shape of his voice. It's...rough. Jagged. Like he's shouting even though he's so quiet.
And it's all so familiar—even without a glimpse at his face, she knows the exact crease between his eyebrows, the faint lines around his mouth, the far-off look in his too-old eyes. She knows that Saya-chan right now is looking at the loneliest person in the room, lonelier than Akari even, who sits by herself in a foreign country, peering down at her friends through a tiny plastic window. She knows this version of Hikaru, even if she can't say why he exists.
Saya-chan is still noiseless, asleep. After a time, Hikaru goes quiet too.
Then, as if a spell's been broken, he's unbending, his voice rising with his body. He's laughing it all off, like the haunting never happened. All the secrets of the universe have been revealed, he says. Ask Saya-chan if you want 'em!
You better not have been teaching her bad words, is all Tsutsui says, grumbling and fatherly. He knows something's up.
Kaga knows too. You're a big old asshole, aren't you, Shindou?
Tsutsui tells the both of them to get away from his daughter. They do, sniggering all the way.
Akari thinks of candles blowing out, black smoke the only sign they were lit.
You hear your heart beat on the machine, beeeeep, a low, slow, laconic sound saying hi you are somehow still alive for one miserable pulse more. Your thin chest rises a breath's worth.
Beeeeep the machine goes again.
If you could move your hand you'd smash it against the damn thing and put it out of its misery. Your misery. Everyone's misery.
You are so damn bored you could scream. Except you can't.
The day goes on.
Oh thank god.
"Hi, gramps," Hikaru says, seating himself by your bedside. The chair squeaks noisily on the cheap linoleum. "How you doing today?"
Your grandson settles in and doesn't take your hand, like the rest of them do, which you're thankful for. Just 'cause you're comatose doesn't make you public property!
"Grandma and mom are coming later, together," he tells you, conversational-like. "It's getting harder for grandma to come on her own."
Sure. Good excuse. You're glad, actually, that your wife isn't wasting her life away in this dingy room, but you wish she didn't have to pretend.
"Hey," Hikaru says again. "Grandpa, I...I came here on my own for a reason today."
"I know you probably can't hear me—"
"—and you won't remember any of this when you wake—"
That's what you think!
"—but I feel like I owe it to you, because Grandma told me that you...you insisted, when you made your will, that the old goban in your attic is gonna go to me. And that's...you don't know what that means to me."
Huh. Yeah, true. Because your brat of a grandson never told you.
"Because I never told you."
"You must have been curious, all those times I visited it in the attic."
But you never pried.
"But you never pried, because you're a great granddad like that."
"So that's why I never told you...your goban really was haunted by a ghost."
"Remember that day I went up there with Akari and fainted? An ambulance came and everything. Well, I fainted because the ghost kind of...jumped into my head."
Well, that's a new one.
"The ghost...his name was Sai. He's the one who taught me go. That's how I got so good even with no one teaching me. Because, well, someone was teaching me. Sai. I don't expect you to believe me..."
It's hard, that's for sure.
"But...it kind of explains things, right? No one can learn go out of nothing."
You suppose that's true enough.
"I've never told anyone before, not really. Because I didn't want to be sent to the nuthouse. I didn't want people to look at me differently."
You can understand that.
"But I trust you, grandpa. If you wake up..."
If you wake up.
"When you wake up, I don't care if you don't believe me, or don't remember, or you choose to pretend this never happened or whatever."
You wouldn't do that. You would never hurt him like that. You want to tell him so, badly, but—
"Just wake up, grandpa. I promise I'll tell you again, as many times as you want, about Sai, about everything."
His voice is breaking, fading. Your heart is breaking, fading.
"Just wake up. Please."
But all you can promise, as your grandson weeps, is to try.
(And One He Actually Told About Sai)
Hi Touya. Um, this is kind of...important. Not urgent important, but, I guess, important important. Something I should have told you a long time ago.
So if you're standing there, ignoring me 'cause you're still mad, pick up the phone now. Please.
Well, okay, I guess it doesn't—
"Shindou?" Out of breath from running, Touya could barely speak. "What is it?"
The voice on the other end of the line was as shaky as his own. "Hey, Touya," Shindou said. "Can I come over? I want to tell you a story."
- End -
Originally, the title of this story was Five People Hikaru Told About Sai (And One He Didn't). It was supposed to be a sad ending, but I decided I didn't like that. The rest of the story is sad enough!
But since I actually wrote that sad ending, I've reproduced it below. Enjoy (or not).
And One He Never Told
Hi Touya. If you're not Touya, please turn this off now. Please.
Touya, you can't listen to this unless I'm dead, okay? If I'm still alive, turn this off right now.
I mean it.
Seriously mean it.
All right then.
First of all. I am really sorry that I'm dead. It must suck for you. I'm a pretty annoying person, but I bet you'd rather have me alive than dead.
...Is that a dumb thing to say?
Yeah, it is.
Buuuuut I promised myself I'd do this all in one take. No take-backsies. So this is going to be all rambly and my pace .
It must be weird for you, huh? Listening to me blah blah blah like an idiot. I guess we dead people are all pretty silly.
Well, I guess I better get on with it.
But before I tell you, you have to promise to believe me, all right? No matter how crazy I sound, you just gotta...gotta just believe me. If you can't promise me that , then I guess you should stop this video now.
One more thing. You have to promise me you won't tell anyone else. I don't want you ruining your life because of this. Not even your parents or mine, okay? I don't want them seeing this. That's why I'm going to hide this video really well. Somewhere only you can get at it.
...I suppose if you have this, it means I didn't tell you all this stuff while I was alive. Well, I'm sorry about that too.
Maybe I still will. Tell you, I mean. Someday. In person. While I'm still alive, and you too. But just in case... kind of like a will or something...
Ugh, this is awful. But... Yeah. I promised I'd do this in one take.
So, Touya. L et me tell you a story.
- End of the fake end -