Natori Shuuichi stared out the train window at the cables of the passing suspension bridge, lit gold in the mid-morning glare like the wires you found when you opened up a piano to see its innards. He’d had to do that recently, for a soap opera that was likely in post-production by now. Natori, cast in the role of a music instructor who fell for the repair woman in charge of instrument restoration at a major league conservatoire, had insisted on doing his own playing. This idea was met with considerable backlash from the rest of the team.
“We’re bringing in a concert pianist from Toho Gakuen,” said the director, chewing indignantly on the end of a toothpick. “The sound guys will record her and cut the songs in later. You don’t have to do any of it yourself.”
“But I’d like to,” Natori had said. He was a fast learner. It wouldn’t put them behind schedule by more than a handful of days, if he practiced in earnest.
In the end, the studio had won out.
“I don’t see what you’re worried about,” the director said. “Even if you manage to learn the piano before we start shooting - which I most severely doubt - it’s not as if you’re going to outdo a contracted professional.”
Natori shrugged. “It feels disingenuous,” he said, blithe as could be.
At that, the director had laughed so hard Natori feared he might swallow his toothpick. “You’re an actor,” he said at last. “I’d advise you to get used to that feeling.”
The train was moving now at such a speed that the landscape folded in on itself, blurring in long watercolor streaks on the opposite side of the pane. He’d booked a seat at one of the booths with a little plastic table in the center, protruding from the wall for the convenience of patrons who fancied a sandwich or bento during the journey. Across the table sat Matoba Seiji in an immaculate black tracksuit, looking delighted in a way that only someone unaccustomed to using public transportation had any right to look on the shinkansen.
“Remind me again why I’m needed?”
Matoba placed his reading material - a map of their destination - on the table, and spun it to face Natori. A slender forefinger indicated a point close to the map’s center. “This library is one of the oldest in the prefecture.”
Natori bent over the map and noticed a spot highlighted in green, two or three inches to the left of where Seiji’s finger had landed. Gingerly, he lifted the finger and moved it until the green dot was no longer visible. “You mean here?”
Matoba smiled his most pleasant smile: the one Natori had seen eviscerate hardened politicians on more than one occasion. “Yes,” he said. “From what I’ve gathered, it’s practically a landmark to those living closeby.”
Natori scratched at his chin. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“It was nominated for Special Historical Site status four years ago. Nanase and I spoke to the Agency for Cultural Affairs.” Matoba leaned back in his chair. “They wanted to turn it into a tourist destination, but we managed to convince them otherwise.”
He said it so nonchalantly, as if private entities having a hand in civic proceedings was an appropriate topic for casual conversation, polite society. Natori reminded himself not to grind his teeth; bad for the enamel.
“The place is unsafe for the public,” Matoba continued. “Something lives there.”
Natori felt himself nodding. “Fair enough, but what's stopping you from taking care of it on your own?”
Matoba's voice was neutral, as it often was. “Nothing's stopping me,” he said. “But I’d prefer to consult a specialist for this job.”
Natori raised an eyebrow. “Uh-huh?”
“Technically speaking, libraries are vast collections of paper,” Matoba said with a shrug. “You’re an expert in paper, aren’t you, Shuuichi?”
Inwardly, Natori sighed. This whole excursion was a landmine of his own making. He had admittedly, in recent months, spent more time with the heir of the Matoba clan than he’d ever anticipated. It had started almost by accident: during a long, dull meeting that he ought to have skipped entirely, but didn’t. The assembled exorcists decided to break for afternoon tea, and Matoba took up position beside the refreshments table, no doubt to subliminally intimidate whoever was brave enough to try for a plate of manju and a cup of something caffeinated. Natori strategically positioned himself at the opposite end of the refreshments table, eager to put at least an expensive-looking cheese platter in between himself and his host. Moments later, he heard a splash, a pained wince, an intake of breath so sharp it could have cut crystal. Natori was on the other side of the refreshments table in seconds.
“Let me see,” he’d said instinctively, reaching for the hand Matoba had just spilled scalding coffee on. “How bad is it?” Unthinking, he took Seiji’s hand in his own, prying the fingers apart and flattening the palm to get a better look. It was a bad burn indeed, but not bad enough to warrant a visit to a clinic.
But when Natori had looked up, the expression on Matoba’s face was one he’d never seen before - not even during their high school days. Matoba Seiji was surprised. This was a novelty to Natori, who realized in that moment that he’d apparently cataloged all the emotions he’d ever seen laid out on Matoba’s face over the years. Those emotions were irritation, facetious curiosity, formal stoicism, smug contentedness, and a dangerous look that Natori couldn’t quite place but wasn’t fond of. When things went unexpectedly well, Matoba did not look surprised. When things did not go according to plan, still Matoba never looked surprised. And yet the poker face that had etched itself on the surface of Natori’s memory was gone, wiped blank for a fraction of a second and replaced with something new.
Natori found he wouldn’t mind seeing that look on Matoba’s face more often, and later resolved to make it happen.
It was simple cause and effect: action, reaction. It was like eating sweets to induce a sugar rush - or pressing fingertips to a bruise, knowing full well that pain would follow. Natori had developed a dependence on that look of surprise.
Surprise when Natori pulled Matoba aside after exorcist parlour gatherings.
Surprise when Natori leaned in close when no one was looking, and asked in a low voice if Seiji would join him in the garden.
A soft surprise when Natori pressed him into a mattress on a cold day in January, and on a windy day in March, and on a clear day in early April, and on other days in between.
In the beginning, he figured that eventually Matoba’s surprise would wear off altogether, and Natori would lose interest and be freed at long last from these funny games - but his prediction came true only in part. By the time Seiji’s surprise wore away, Natori found he had grown addicted to other things: the crease that formed between Seiji’s brows when he was concentrating very hard, the way his fingers curled to tuck a stray lock of hair back into his ponytail, his absentminded humming. Seiji’s joy, at once muted and electric, when he discovered something he hadn’t meant to - something about people, something about ayakashi, something about Natori. Joy like a spark plug fizzling under a bell jar. Repressed, but irrefutably there all the same.
The situation had, as far as Natori was concerned, gotten wildly out of hand.
“Alright. Wake me up if there’s an emergency,” he said, and drew the brim of his hat pointedly over his eyes.
Matoba said something, Natori was sure, but the remark was lost in the sound of the air rushing past as the train dipped into a tunnel, and suddenly the world was plunged into midnight at noon.
. . .
Natori blinked himself awake. Realizing he’d pretended to sleep so convincingly that he may have actually drifted off, Natori checked his watch and saw that three hours had passed. He suppressed a yawn, stretched. A colorful assortment of prepackaged snack items was spread before him on the table. He looked to Matoba, who was squinting his way through what appeared to be a book on local folktales.
“The stewardess came around,” he said, barely glancing up. “I’m not sure what you like, so I got all of them.”
Natori was momentarily taken aback. The gesture might have been sweet, if he hadn’t been scandalized by the decadence of it. “Thank you,” Natori said simply, and pocketed a handful of chocolates.
The train squealed to a stop not ten minutes later, and the exorcists unloaded their personal effects. It did not take long; both were light packers. Natori watched Matoba sling what passed for an unusually thin golf club bag over one shoulder; inside, an unsuspecting railway official would find fine-tipped arrows and a collapsible fiberglass bow. From there, the exorcists took another, smaller train further into the countryside: the journey was a short one, and they dismounted at the second-to-last stop, in a town beside a steep, forested hill.
By the time they made it to their hotel, the light had taken on the weighted tones of late afternoon. When the receptionist left the desk to fetch the room keys, Natori turned to Matoba.
“What?” He laughed, playing at shock. “You didn’t book the whole floor?”
Matoba shot him a somber sideways look. “No need to attract unsolicited attention.”
“But you don’t even know which room I’ll take a liking to,” Natori pointed out.
The skin around Matoba’s visible eye crinkled, fractionally. “A travesty.”
. . .
Upon further inspection, the book Matoba had been reading on the train was not a folklore anthology, but a single story: a picture book aimed at children no older than seven, by the look of it. Natori flipped casually through as the exorcists made their way to the library on foot.
Illustrated in bright colors and simple shapes, the book told of an enchanted tree that watched over a forest ceaselessly - in rain, in snow, in scorching heat, until one day it was chopped down by an enterprising woodsman. That night, the woodsman was visited by a woman clad in robes made of delicate, wafer-thin paper. The phantom tormented the woodsman’s dreams; he was unable to work during the day because he no longer slept at night, and his family fell into destitution. Finally, the woodsman’s daughter decided to do something about this predicament. She took up her father’s axe and ventured deep into the forest, where she found the stump of the tree which the woodsman had felled. The woman with paper-thin robes appeared at once before her. ‘I am the spirit of this tree,’ the phantom told the girl. ‘Your father cut off my eyes, and now I cannot watch over the forest.’ The woodsman’s daughter said, ‘I will make you new eyes, Lady.’ She took up her father’s axe, and cut her own finger, and with her own red blood drew a pair of eyes on the tree stump. But because the heart of the woodsman’s daughter was true and because the forest was very old, her blood became reviving water, and the stump began to grow until it was a towering tree once more. The woodsman’s daughter returned home, and her family was not troubled by angry spirits again.
“A fable, or a cautionary tale?” asked Natori when they came to a stop in front of the building. The sun was beginning to set, and the light played well on the library’s brick walls.
“A bit morbid for young kids, don’t you think?” Natori asked wryly.
“Not really.” Matoba fished for something in the depths of his rucksack. “The clan was gifted this book by its author. This copy is from the very first print run, take a look at the title page.” Natori didn’t, opting to take Matoba’s word for it.
“The author is Nanase’s age now,” Seiji continued. “A very interesting woman. She grew up in this town, born and raised. Contacted us when she heard we’d bought the place--”
“Hang on.” Natori pinched the bridge of his nose. “The clan - you bought the library?”
“Did you think we were breaking and entering, Shuuichi?" A spark of amusement tinged Matoba’s voice. “It was a necessary purchase. We could hardly let the Cultural Affairs people turn it into a museum. I told you, something lives here. Besides,” he added briskly, “it wasn’t as if the building was being used. This place has been out of commission for decades.”
Natori snorted. “If it’s such a threat, why didn’t you do something about it four years ago? Why are we here now?”
“Priorities,” said Matoba. “The creature that lives here isn’t continually active. It seems to have,” he paused thoughtfully, “phases.”
Natori watched him feed a cartoonishly sinister-looking key into the lock affixed to the library’s rear entrance. The door did not swing open on creaking hinges, but it might as well have. The atmosphere certainly felt conducive to that particular brand of theatricality, Natori mused.
Matoba sprung his fiberglass bow open, and drew an arrow from its quiver. The exorcists exchanged a look and stepped carefully out of the living world, making sure to close the door behind them.