Chapter One: Flunk
“Hideki… can I talk to you…?”
Hideki looked up. His wife Suzume was standing there in the living room doorway, lost, clutching a student paper she’d been grading. Her sweater was strangely pale in the evening lamplight, just like her wide-eyed expression.
“Sure. You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Hideki curiously from the sofa.
“I’m not so sure…” She slowly came in and sat down beside him, looking shell-shocked.
“Who knew grading kunoichi arts student papers from the Konoha Ninja Academy could be so traumatic?” he joked, smiling a little and rubbing her back, slightly concerned.
“... Hideki, what do you know about Uzumaki Naruto?” Suzume’s expression was stony, hard to read. She stared straight ahead of herself, still clutching the paper.
“Uzumaki Naruto? The new form of the demon fox? That he’s not one of your students,” said Hideki, his expression darkening. “He’s a boy, he’s Iruka’s kid. He’s Iruka’s problem, not my wife’s,” said Hideki emphatically, sounding oddly angry.
“But… wasn’t Uzumaki Naruto originally a human baby?” said Suzume intently, leaning forward. “Wasn’t the demon fox just sealed away inside him?”
“You seem to be searching for some humanity here…” said Hideki slowly, frowning.
“He wrote this - to me.” Suzume handed the paper over. “It’s a poem. I’ll explain how it came about in a second. Just read it. I told him to write a kind of overview poem - you know how I do. A look at all the possible poems he could write, all the things that really matter to him. The first things that come into his head.
“So he wrote this.
I walk around a corner and half the time I run into a sword,
And as my blood and guts spill out around me on the pavement,
I plunge through slate eyes into a tub of ice-cold water
As the eyes themselves tell me I’m being a melodramatic stereotype
And the ice eats away at my blood,
Like melodramatic stereotypes often get eaten.
The other half of the time I run into a cloud of suffocating strands of cotton
Airy and white and oh so empty
And the strands taste like the birthday cake I bought for myself
For my sixth birthday.
And even as I write this
All the little voices in my head that sound like those corners tell me
That I can’t do this, that I can’t do anything,
No, not anything
Because I never do,
Because all I ever do is whine.
But no one wants to hear that story,
So around the campfire I tell them a new one,
I wave my hands around the flames and the shadows grow around me
And everyone laughs because shit are shadows funny.
I taught myself the word shit because I taught myself everything.
I strapped on my own sandals and I burned my own hands on my own stove
And I don’t like talking about that because it’s fucking depressing
But it’s also true and isn’t that what poetry’s about?
Maybe it is, maybe poetry’s about telling the truth, but maybe it’s also about lying
Because then I imagine opening a door shirtless in the middle of cooking breakfast
And sometimes it’s a girl standing on the other side but other times it’s a guy
But I tell myself it doesn’t really matter because I don’t really feel anything either time
And maybe that’s not true, but hey, maybe it’s also what I have to tell myself to get by
So anyway it’s summer and I have a tan and the person is standing there
And then it doesn’t go any farther than that because I don’t ever fucking talking to anybody
I guess everyone thinks I masturbate at ten years old
Because that’s what I tell people at school when I pretend I’m talking to them
And why do they believe me, fuck if I know, but they do
But I really don’t, I just like pissing people off
And nothing pisses people off like sex
And I think that’s Freudian but I don’t know because I’m an idiot
Which brings me back to my original point
That I can’t fucking do anything worthwhile
You think I should talk about that?
About staring down at a math paper and wishing that I was
Choking on orange poison and dying dramatically
And not failing like a fucking screw-up?
Maybe I should, but I won’t, because I don’t want to.
It’s a weird thing to be afraid of, math papers,
When everyone around you hates your guts and their eyes are like swords
But I’m weird
And I’m used to swimming in their ice cold water,
I’m used to swimming until I can’t move at all,
So it’s fine, really,
It’s all fine.
You ever been afraid of yourself?
You ever looked down at your veins and thought
Blood is supposed to be red and I wonder why my veins are blue?
Because I do.
And then I imagine all the blood coming out of my veins
And out of everybody else’s veins
There in the classroom
And everything’s this weird purple color
And I can’t tell if it’s that I hate the color purple
Or that everyone else does
Or if I hate the color purple because everyone else seems to hate me.
Maybe I’m just purple.
Fuck if I know.
And I guess the point of this is that I try really hard to pretend like nothing bothers me
Because the reality is super angsty and I fucking hate angst
I pick up books and read their last page in the bookstore just to make sure the ending’s not
Because I hate sad
But look at me, here,
Writing sad poetry.
Crying pink little baby bubble tears
Imagining getting a smile tattooed to my face
Just so I could stop smiling
And imagining what life would be like
If I didn’t have to wonder if those people whispering on the street
Are about to start yelling at me
For absolutely no good goddamn reason.
I try really hard to pretend
Because I don’t want anyone to really know about me
(Even though I do)
But the truth is that everything is this awful obnoxious purple color
And I don’t know what home feels like
Because I’ve never had one.
People talk about it,
But it’s just a word to me.
People talk about family.
It’s like trying to describe a painting
To someone who’s always been blind.
I can imagine my checkered curtains
Honeysuckle kitchen window
But I can’t imagine anyone else
People talk about
So many things
And I just never understand
What they’re talking about
And maybe that’s why I’m
So fucking stupid.
Just like this shitty
And this shitty
To write it.
I guess the appropriate thing to do would be to kill myself at the end of writing this poem,
Splatter some nice poetic blood onto the page for a final touch
But instead I’ll go to school tomorrow
And everyone will get a big laugh
And no one will understand why I’m laughing,
Because the funniest part of the thing is
That I made it to class in this joke of a life at all.
Hideki leaned back… took a deep breath… and let it out long, and slow.
“I… feel like I know this kid really well,” he said. “I don’t know him, but I feel like I do. They do say it’s always the funny ones you have to watch out for.”
“But don’t you see what I mean?!” Suzume demanded. “You see?! You’re already assuming he’s human!”
“Oh - I don’t think that’s in question anymore,” said Hideki slowly, frowning.
“You want to know the creepy part?” said Suzume in a low voice. “He talks about orange poison… The kid wears orange. Color is a very big deal to him.”
“Yeah. No fucking kidding,” said Hideki with unusual fervency. “Class clown, right?”
Suzume closed her eyes. “... Maybe. What do I do? I came to you because…” She held the paper in her hands. “What do I do with this?” She was cradling it almost carefully, her eyes big and desperate being her glasses, her messy dark hair even more frayed than usual.
“Okay, wait. How did this come about?” said Hideki. “You still haven’t told me that part. You tell me what happened, we’ll figure out what to do.” He held up a comforting hand.
Suzume nodded… and took a deep breath.
Uzumaki Naruto ignored the girls’ snickers as they were leaving the kunoichi classroom that afternoon. Ten years old, he ran up to Suzume, pointed at her, and demanded, “Teach me!”
Suzume sighed and closed her eyes from her teacher’s desk in the kunoichi classroom - part learning desks, part kitchen stations, and part tatami side room. One of the wonderful things about only teaching women was actually that she supposedly wouldn’t have to deal with Uzumaki Naruto.
“Teach you what?” she said patiently, the very epitome of a kunoichi in classy black feminine clothes.
“Well… well, Iruka-sensei just told me that men used to also do the female kunoichi arts!” said Naruto, rallying, and trying to seem confident. “And he told me about all these amazing things women can do that men can’t. That they can seduce people, and get information, and kill them while they’re sleeping - all kinds of things!”
Suzume frowned. “Yes?”
“So… so I want to be able to do those things!” Naruto demanded, blustering. “I want to - get stronger! And, well, maybe impress some girls, but mostly get stronger!”
Suzume paused. “... You’re never going to leave this alone, are you?” she said, deadpan. “I’ve heard of you, Uzumaki Naruto.”
“No! I want to get stronger!” Naruto demanded.
Suzume thought of something - and smirked. “Okay. After-school lessons, if you’d be willing.” Even Naruto looked surprised. “But I’m sure you’ve heard about all the arts, yes? Music, calligraphy? Each person has to pick five specialties, and that includes you.”
Naruto nodded and crossed his arms, like he’d already decided. “Poetry, fashion, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, cooking!”
Suzume stared at him in utter disbelief.
“Tea and cooking so I can know about tea and food,” he clarified. “The other three because they sound all girly and romantic, which is what all this is about.”
“Really? That’s what it’s all about?”
Suzume was almost smiling despite herself. “People will make fun of you.”
“People make fun of me anyway! Big deal!”
It was a point. “... Fine then. We’ll start with poetry.”
Naruto blinked big, surprised blue eyes, his arms lowering in his orange jumpsuit. His expression made his wild blond hair look especially harried. “Really? Just like that?”
“Of course.” Suzume smirked. “Here’s your first assignment…”
And Naruto’s eyes - they had just lit up with excitement.
End of Flashback
“I guess in retrospect… he was just happy to be noticed,” said Suzume, troubled. “I only agreed, and I thought poetry because, well, you know… You’d have to see the kid in his daily class-time life. This is embarrassing, but I thought he’d flunk out of poetry and get bored. I didn’t think he’d actually succeed at any of it, and poetry - I mean, the kid seems to have all the intelligence of a lightning bug.
“And instead, I got… this. I don’t know what it took him to write that, but he ran in, head ducked, shoved the poem onto my desk this morning, and ran for it. I didn’t read it until I got home… I thought the idea of doing supposedly ‘girly’ poetry had just embarrassed him at the last second.
“He… I mean he really took the assignment seriously. Way too seriously. He was trying really hard. This is…”
“A look into the mind of class clown, flunk out of school demon container Uzumaki Naruto,” Hideki finished. He was frowning, thinking. “I think,” he said at last, “that if you turned the kid in now, he’d never trust anyone again. It seems like he doesn’t trust all that many people in the first place.
“But here’s an idea. What if you can reach out to that person he is underneath through all those supposedly… feminine arts? What if you can pull that person out, teach him things, help him? Even help him befriend your female students?
“How much would that change?”
“You think I should keep teaching him,” Suzume realized.
“I think that’s a damn good poem,” said Hideki in a hard voice, “and you can’t stop now.”
Then he smirked - and slowly, Suzume smiled back.
“You’re right,” she said warmly, straightening. “A talented student needs my help. I’ve been silly.”
She stood, and walked back into the depths of her grading room.
Hideki lay back on the sofa and let out a huge breath. “Well,” he said fervently, “this should be… interesting.”
Meanwhile in her office at her desk, Suzume was writing a lesson plan. She started with:
At least one individual poem for each stanza of Laughing Purple. Let’s unpack.
Then she frowned, and wrote a note to herself:
As the poetry section progresses - how is this student not doing well in school? And exactly how much better could he be doing?