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Big in Japan

by Lawrence Conquest

2908 words

On the third day they bound my father with rope and lowered his body over the side of the boat. He could no longer speak by that point, his voice having degenerated into a series of choking coughs, but his eyes retained their old intelligence. Captain Akira explained the situation to him, how the Izumi could no longer support his weight, how the crew were terrified of infection. How they were terrified of him. My father nodded his head in weary resignation. It was practically all the movement left open to him. I begged the Captain to reconsider, told him we’d double his fees if he turned back and put us off at Shanghai, but he refused to listen.

“The danger is too great, Xiang-san,” he said. “I will not put the lives of my crew at risk any longer. If I had known what your father was I would never have allowed him on board.”

My father lay spread-eagled on the deck, as he had done for most of the trip, his head propped up against the pilot’s cabin, gazing out to sea. Over the past twenty-four hours his body had swollen to such an extent that his clothes needed cutting free to ensure the continued circulation of his blood. Kobayashi and I had found a length of unused sail cloth in the hold, and had stretched it over his body to preserve his dignity. The material was swept away now, unneeded, and his transmuted flesh was exposed once more. The crew of the Izumi clustered about, pointing and muttering suspiciously. I could understand their fears. Chitinous growths extended along the length of my father’s spine, whilst his skin was charcoal black, like something that had been left too long in a fire. I asked if he was in pain, but he could make no sensible reply.

Captain Akira ordered the crew into motion, and they dragged my father toward the boat’s stern. The sailors sweated and cursed as they clutched at his now trunk-like limbs, struggling to get a grip. I wondered if they had already stopped thinking of him as a human being. I moved to confront them, a stream of insults flying from my lips, but Kobayashi wrapped his arms around me, forcing me to turn and face him.

“Emiko, sister. Please!” he said. “There’s nothing we can do. There are too many of them. Don’t give them an excuse to throw us all overboard.”

His binding secure, the crew used the haulage crane at the rear of the Izumi to lift my father’s body off the deck, then swing it free of the boat. I stood alongside Kobayashi, my hands balled into impotent fists, and watched as the Pacific Ocean slowly closed over my father’s head.    

We were one hundred miles from Japan.

• • •

He didn’t look fearsome at first. Kobayashi and I had tracked him down to Jones, a small town in Oklahoma, the United States. It seemed an incongruous place for him to end up. I presume he wanted the anonymity. He was living above a dilapidated bookstore, its dusty windows filled with yellowing stock. Neither the business nor my father seemed to be in the best of health.

A small bell above the door announced our arrival. My father eventually emerged from a room at the rear of the shop. He looked confused, like someone who has just been woken from a deep sleep. A tattered shawl was draped about his shoulders, the sort of thing an old lady might wear. Days of stubble lined his face, whilst his hair sprouted in graying tufts. His unclipped toenails had gouged holes in his woolen socks. They poked through the material like dragon’s claws.

“Yes? Can I help you?” His accent was a curious mixture of Japanese and American, the result of decades of exile.

“Haruo Xiang?”

He shook his head. “Haruo? Never heard of him”

I had never seen my father before, not in the flesh, but I had grown up surrounded by his images. He had become a figure of legend for me, the aftershocks from his appearance in my mother's life continuing to be felt down the years. Haruo Xiang, the once good-looking movie star, had been replaced by the old man before me. His skin had creased with age, marring his features like scar tissue, but I could still see the handsome man he’d been. I’d brought old photographs of Haruo with me, one of them in a tattered movie magazine. I reached into my shoulder bag, determined to confront him with the truth.

As soon as he saw the magazine my father turned and fled to the back room. He tried slamming the door shut behind him, but Kobayashi was faster, jamming it open with his foot. “Please, Haruo-san. This is your daughter, Emiko. She needs to speak to you. You understand?”

My father glanced briefly at me, then down to the floor. The truth of our shared heritage must have shown in my face. Haruo recognized himself within me, and could no longer meet my gaze.

“Go away. Please.” His voice was weak. “I don’t want you. I don’t love you. I don’t need you.” It wasn’t what I’d travelled six thousand miles to hear. But I had found him. My father existed. Not a myth, not a legend — but real. I began to cry.

“Haruo. Father. It is you, isn’t it?”

He reached for the magazine. It was folded open to a page showing the photograph of a smiling young man. My father studied his own likeness for a while, then turned the page. He sighed. The next picture was also of my father, though without the caption no one would know. The photo showed a film set, on which a man dressed in a rubber monster suit — part-lizard, part-dinosaur — clambered over a miniature Tokyo cityscape. He handed the magazine back to me. “Daughter. You think you know me, but you don’t. All you know is this,” he pointed at the creature, “the shell outside. You don’t know the real me at all.”

I stepped forward and took his hand in mine. For the first time ever, I was touching my father. His gaze finally met my own, a mixture of fear and hope in his eyes.

“So tell me,” I said.

• • •

“We were young. In love. The usual story.”

My father hunkered down in his solitary chair, an open bottle of wine cradled in his lap. I sat at his feet, feeling like an old-fashioned geisha girl. The room was cluttered with stacks of paperbacks; overstocks from the shop below.  Kobayashi moved from pile to pile, feigning interest in their titles. My father lapsed into silence, turning the wine bottle round in his hand.

“You met my mother on set?” I said.

“Where else?” My father smiled. “Your mother was one of the studio secretaries. Nothing glamorous. But still, I thought she was out of my league. I was only getting small roles here and there. Stunt work, sometimes. She used to encourage me. Told me I should believe in myself. She said I could move onto bigger things if I tried. Ha!” He barked out an unconvincing laugh, and lifted the wine bottle to his lips.

“So what went wrong?”

“That damn creature.” He flicked a hand at the magazine that lay open on the floor. “Who would have thought it would become so popular, eh? One week I was a nobody, the next people were queuing for my autograph. Meet the man behind the mask. I was very popular. With women, I mean. Fame changed me, and not for the better. How is Oroko, anyway?”

“My mother is dying,” I said. I didn’t know how to soften the blow. “Leukaemia. She’s the reason I’m here. She wants you to come home.”

My father was silent for a moment, studying the wine bottle as though for some important clue. “Home?” he said finally. “I lost my home years ago. That damn creature.” He lifted the bottle to his lips, then spat. A spray of wine arced across the magazine, across my leg. I sensed Kobayashi come up behind me, placing his hands on my shoulders. “Do you know what Oroko said to me the last time we met?” My father bared his lips in a humorless smile. The wine had stained his teeth a dark red. “She said I’d turned into a monster.”

• • •

My father refused to fly directly into Tokyo, insisting that his return be by water. He gave some vague story about the authorities not looking kindly on his return, but refused to go into detail. “It has to be by sea, Emiko,” he said. “By sea, or not at all.”

We planned a flight to Hong Kong, then a series of bus rides up to Shanghai, where we hoped to find a boat to smuggle my father into Japan. All the way on the flight to Hong Kong my father was clearly agitated, gripping the seat rests until his knuckles turned white. He seemed relieved when we landed, as though amazed that the plane had completed the flight.

At the beginning of the journey my father was taciturn, but as we headed north through China, his mood slowly improved. He regaled me with tales of the old days, of the glamour of the movie business. He was even recognized on one occasion, by a young boy who couldn’t have been born when his films were made. He asked for an autograph, and to my surprise my father agreed. The boy had nothing to sign, so my father made me take out the movie magazine I had brought from home, scrawled his name across it, and handed it to the youth.

In Shanghai, we passed our time walking the streets of city, marveling at the sights and sounds. For my father, who had spent the last three decades living in the West, the oriental style of the old town was a reminder of home, yet to me everything seemed alien and strange. Women bustled past us, their faces hidden beneath painted silk umbrellas. Traders shouted as they pulled carts laden with jade statues and mobile phones. We browsed the open-air markets, breathing in the smells of cooking meat. Small headless creatures turned on roasting spits, their flayed flesh glistening with fat. What creatures these had been in life, it was no longer possible to say.

Passing one building my father suddenly stopped short. It was a tiny cinema, and he was staring at a poster in the lobby. One of his old films had been restored and re-released. He seemed overjoyed, and insisted we go in to watch. “You know, daughter, I’m not so old,” he said. “Maybe I can still make it back home?”

His good mood didn’t last. Halfway through the movie he stood up and walked out. I asked him why.

“That creature wasn’t me,” he said. “They’ve done something to the film. Replaced me with some kind of computer effect. That’s not how I remember things at all.”

I had seen the film many times. The monster in the movie looked the same to me as it always had. But my father was looking different, day by day. I had grown used to seeing him hunched over, as if afraid to meet the gaze of the world. Now he walked tall, with a new confidence. With every mile that brought us closer to Japan, my father seemed to grow in stature.

• • •

On the boat, my father became ill. His skin began to blacken, cracking open like desiccated soil. Eczema, he said, a condition brought about by too many years of sweating in hot rubber monster suits. He had creams and ointments in his bag, and sent me below decks to get them.

On the way back I overheard him arguing with Kobayashi.

“You don’t approve of me,” said my father. “You don’t agree with what Emiko is doing. Dredging me up.”

“No, I don’t,” replied Kobayashi. “You’ve caused a lot of pain. Not just Emiko and her mother. I’ve heard about the other women, the other children. The lives you’ve ruined. Personally I think this world would be a better place if everyone forgot you existed.”

“So why are you helping her? What is she to you, anyway?”

“I’m her brother.” Kobayashi raised his voice. “Emiko is part of my family now. A family that came after you. I don’t run away from my responsibilities.”

I made as much noise as possible as I walked out onto the deck, and an uneasy silence settled over the pair. I reached into the hold-all and removed one of the jars of ointment.

“My back please, Emiko,” said my father. As I leaned toward him I caught the scent of his breath, rancid and hot. Kobayashi helped me remove his shirt. Whatever was affecting him, it was not eczema. A series of ridged calluses were growing along his spine, breaking through the surface of his skin like brittle fins.

“I know what you are.”

I turned at the voice.

Captain Akira was standing over us, his face wrinkled in disgust. “Kaiju! Monster!”

My father began to laugh.

• • •

Captain Akira put us off at Nagasaki. I was still stunned, still in shock at what had happened, but there was no time to grieve. There was urgent news from the hospice. Kobayashi and I took the first available train to Tokyo.

Doctor Amomoto met us at reception. A brief bow, but no smile. He told me to prepare myself for the worst. The specialists had done all they could, but the radiation therapy was no longer working. “Not long now,” he said.

Kobayashi waited in the corridor whilst I entered my mother’s room. She looked tiny, like a doll, half-hidden by bedclothes. Oxygen tubes snaked up her nose, whilst another tube in her arm led to a medicine drip by her side. Wires from her chest attached her to a heart-rate monitor, which emitted a regular electronic beat. It sounded like a clock, counting down.

“Hello, mother.” I touched her brow. Her eyelids fluttered and opened.

“Emiko.” Her voice was dry, raspy. “You’re back. I was just dreaming about you. You and Kobayashi.”

“That’s nice, mama.” I tried to smile, but it felt false. Tears stung the corners of my eyes.

“Emiko. Pretty little Emiko,” she said, reaching to stroke my face. “Not like me. Not now. Look at what they’ve done to me, child.” The radiation therapy had left my mother bald, with blotchy, rose-colored patches marring her once flawless skin. She smiled sadly. “I must look like a monster to you.”

I buried my face in her shoulder, trying to hide my tears. She still smelled like my mother. She still felt like her.

“Your father,” she said. “It wasn’t all his fault you know. I bear the responsibility too, for letting him become what he did. Did you find him?”

I pulled myself back into a sitting position. “Yes, mama. We found him.”

“And is he coming? Did you bring him with you?”

“Yes, mama.” The lie came easily. “He’s coming soon. In fact, he’s on his way here right now.”

My mother smiled and closed her eyes, her hands gently clasping mine. We stayed that way for a while, listening to the wind as it stirred the trees outside. Somewhere far out to sea a storm was building. I could hear the approach of distant thunder, its roar splitting the air like an animal’s cry.

• • •

That night I had the strangest dream. I dreamt I heard my mother singing.

I was staying with Kobayashi in one of the courtesy rooms at the hospice. The night was hot, and I had left our window open to admit a cooling breeze. During the night I was woken by the sound of my mother’s voice floating in from outside — thin, reedy, but unmistakably hers. The tune was familiar, something from my distant remembered childhood, a mournful lament. I called out to Kobayashi, asking if he heard it too, but my brother remained soundly asleep.

I got to my feet, made my way to the window, and opened the blind. My mother’s room was visible directly opposite ours, and beyond it a rocky promontory overlooked Tokyo Bay. Mother stood framed in the open doorway, trailing tubes and wires behind her like a marionette that had learned to walk unaided. The full moon bathed her thin white cotton nightdress in a ghostly glow. She stared out at the bay, her mouth full of song.

Her voice was accompanied by a beat, faint but regular, and growing louder. A pulse, rising up through the ground, like a giant heart buried deep within the earth. Like the heavy tread of approaching footsteps. I felt the impacts shudder up through the hospice floor, up through my legs, and I clutched the window sill for support.

Something massive was rising from the water, its head blotting out the lambent moon, its skin a deep charcoal black.

I closed my eyes, and waited for the dream to pass.


“Hasten back to us. Our hearts are filled with prayer.
This we pray: hear our song, and have pity on us.”
“A Prayer For Peace,” Kayama Shigeru

Lawrence Conquest is an author and musician who lives in Bristol, England. He has written one novella (Feeding Ambition, Blood Bound Books), several short stories and comic scripts, and an audio story for Doctor Who. His full bibliography is online at www.lawrence-conquest.blogspot.co.uk

Issue 23

May 2013

3LBE 23

Front & Back cover art by Rew X