Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Melancholy of Mechagirl, Page 2

Catherynne M. Valente

  The paper scroll does not live alone. Not anymore. He does not remember Tsuma coming, only that one day she was there where she had not been before. She is a kanji representing the word wife. Her brushstrokes are very fine. She stands thirty-three centimeters tall. Her ink is black like his own, though in the moonlight the edges of her glisten dark violet. She claims to have absconded from a large advertisement selling refrigerators. It was not an interesting life. Kyorinrin appreciates that.

  “Today I am going to write a story about a white woman,” announces Kyorinrin. The badger’s bronze mouth moves when he speaks. His talk echoes.

  Tsuma comes out from behind a dye sink crusted with bright pink stains. Violet ripples along her edges like electricity.

  “Why would you want to do that?” she whispers.


  A summer moon sits heavy as ballast on Uraga Harbor. Cicadas shriek at it, but it is unworried. It ripples in the quiet water. Among the mating of the cicadas the mating of the moon goes unremarked. The moon knows his own business—and his wife.

  A fox who is not really a fox and an old woman who is not really an old woman also know the moon is in rut. They sit together under a persimmon tree high above the harbor. Fireflies dive and spiral around them, but the old woman keeps puffing up her cheeks and blowing them out. When her cheeks puff, they swell up bigger than green gourds and blush silver. The fox eats the fireflies, whether or not their tiny lamps are lit.

  The old woman’s name is Futsukeshibaba. She dresses in long white smoke that looks like a white kimono. Her obi is a length of dark water, flowing in a current around her bony waist. Her mouth is very red and her hair is longer than she is tall. It is the same smoke as her clothes. Her mouth glows in the white of her like fire. Futsukeshibaba blows out the lights of the world. That is the kind of creature she is. She desires only to blow out lanterns and lamps and candles. It is what she was made for. She has blown out the Emperor’s personal lamp and would be happy to tell you about it. Once, she snuffed Issa’s lantern when he fell asleep at his work, thereby saving his papers from the otherwise inevitable blaze. When she sees a flame, she yearns to put it out. It looks like a tear in everything to her, a ragged hole through which entropy can leak. Her breath is needle and thread.

  Futsukeshibaba watches the blue-black water. She puffs up her cheeks, blows a sparrow out of the air with one quick cough, and hands it to the fox who is not really a fox because he is Inari, a god who wears his fox’s body like it was a salaryman’s suit. Inari crunches the bones in his fox-teeth. His fur gleams the color of saffron, the white tip of his great tail too much like a golden flame for Futsukeshibaba’s comfort. She has already tried to blow it out several times, even though she knows better.

  Inari and Futsukeshibaba are watching ships come into the harbor. They are not Japanese ships, but both the fox and the old woman knew that before they got here.

  “What happens to the lights you blow out?” asks Inari, who possesses a great deal of curiosity about anatomy. “Where are they after you have extinguished them?”

  “In my belly,” Futsukeshibaba answers. She puts her hand there. “I eat them. They live in me forever as I do not generate waste. The inside of me looks like a festival night.”

  “But you hate the light so.”

  “I am sustained by the thing that violates my heart and breaks the peaceful dark of my mind. I thought you were a trickster god. Pretty standard riddle of existence.”

  “Does it taste good?”

  “It tastes like the opposite of desire.”

  Inari accepts this. He thinks of the sweet incense of his shrine not far from here, of the electric green spiders in the paws of his statues.

  “I don’t know why you insisted we watch this,” he sighs. His furry chest expands like a little sun and contracts again. “I’m bored, to be perfectly clear.”

  Prows glide into the harbor; sails and rigging luff and swing. Men sink anchor, secure lines, go about the work of making landfall. They are not Japanese men, but the fox and the old woman knew that before they got here.

  “We don’t have to stay. I know you are fond of the theater. It was meant as a gift.”

  Inari reaches up one paw and draws a persimmon out of the tree. It is not yet the time for persimmons. The fruit comes out like a drop of oil squeezed from a cloth, the branch bleeding orange, the wind groaning against the wood.

  “If you hoped I would stop it—”

  Futsukeshibaba interrupts. She does it so softly, like blowing out the fox’s voice.

  “Long ago I knew a blue paper lantern named Aoandon. She had a lilac-colored tassel with a pretty knot in it. She was rectangular. On one side of her a faded carp swam upstream. It used to be painted in real gold, but by the time I met her, only the outline remained, like a skeleton. I did not mind.

  “Aoandon was not less accomplished than I. Her nature determined that she appear at storytelling festivals and competitions, a soft blue glow appearing when the last tale is told, lighting the way home. Once, she illuminated the midnight path of Murasaki Shikibu, whose sandals were very pale ash wood with charcoal silk straps that nested between her toes. Aoandon was always reluctant to admit that the great lady was tipsy with plum wine and ghost stories, but there it is. When she saw a darkness, she yearned to kindle it.

  “I discovered her after a boasting tournament, guiding home a man who successfully claimed to have made love to every woman in a certain prefecture and left a different flower in each of their navels. He was so drunk he tried to seduce me. But I looked only at the blue paper lantern. Glowing as bright as the pole star. I wanted to blow her out. I wanted to eat her. I wanted her to exist in me forever. She looked at me with the eyes of her carp and we recognized immediately that we could so easily annihilate one another with the softest breath, the merest flicker. I could extinguish her, and she could burn me alive. The boastful man saw our intent gaze and ran.”

  “Obviously, you became enemies. Or did you blow her down right then, before she could strike?”

  Futsukeshibaba shakes her head. The smoke of her hair wisps.

  “That is a human game. We fell in love.”


  A summer moon sits heavy as a hand on Tokyo Bay. Cicadas shriek at it, but it does not answer. It makes a fist in the open water. Among the judgments of the city, the judgment of the moon goes unheard. The naval officers on watch suffer under it but have no name for it.

  The woman walking the streets of Yoshikura does not hear it. She hears the cicadas, their mating sounds like engines screeching in her brain. She hears doors open and shut. She hears her own steps and the buzz of vending machines red and gleaming in the dark. She is not a Japanese woman. The machines anchor her new world. They tell her where she is—she lives suddenly in a place without numbers. There are no signs to tell her what a road is called or what the addresses of the houses might be. The vending machine closest to home has hot and cold coffee cans, a melon drink, milk tea, and large bottles of lemonade and cold tea. Most of the others don’t have the bigger bottles, and she clings to this. For her, Japan is a series of sigils: a liter bottle of brown tea means home. The bus from the American base to her neighborhood has kanji that look to her like a princess’s ball gown, a running dog, and the bars of a jail. But she has already met another Navy wife, a blonde woman who wears a great deal of khaki, who says that she takes that same bus, but the characters look to her like opera glasses, a typewriter, and the pillars of a country house. She told the other wife: For foreigners, Japan is a Rorschach painting. The blonde gave her a strange look and turned around to have a different conversation with the Captain’s wife. The wives call each other by their husbands’ ranks and their husbands’ surnames. It is as though, without them there, they speak with their husbands’ mouths.

  She walks up—everything is up here. The houses terrace up through the hills, one on top of the other, like stacking bowls. She memorizes the vending machines along her path like a thread t
hrough a labyrinth. Green water bottles, candy, Coca-Cola products. The house she lives in now has another house inside it. As though it is pregnant. As though it is alive. The other house is meant for in-laws, closed up behind screens with snowy pines and serene partridges painted on them. A second living room, tiny and concealed behind a frozen pinecone. Hiding behind a clutch of partridge eggs, a second master bedroom, a second office. It unnerves her. It seems to say she should fill the other house with something. But she has nothing but herself. It is the nature of a naval officer to be absent. That is the kind of creature he is. When he sees a home, he longs to leave it. She loves him, she thinks, because he can destroy her.

  She does not yet know what kind of creature she is. She is very young. Right now, she is a creature that interprets sigils, assigns them a private meaning until she can learn the public one. She is a creature walking at night in a green dress. The train goes by on elevated tracks somewhere far above her. She has begun to suspect she got married for the wrong reasons, and to the wrong person. But it’s not important information. He isn’t here and isn’t going to be. She is as alone as she has ever been. She isn’t married to a person. She is married to an empty house. To a country that is a stranger to her. To a house inside a house.

  The woman turns the corner and stops short. Before her, a white tunnel opens up in the mountain. Cassia roots hang down in front of it. It seems to go nowhere and it seems to go on forever. Fluorescent lights fill up frosted plastic walls. Panels here and there have gone out, leaving long rectangles of black, lightless space. Bike paths line either side of the road through the tunnel. Electric green spiders spool down from the ceiling, flashing as they spin. She does not understand the tunnel. She does not have an explanation for it. She does not even know if she wants to go into it, to see where it goes. Like everything else, it is a sigil.


  Tsuma and Kyorinrin are lovers.

  When they have been at each other, Kyorinrin must bathe a second time before sunrise. Once after his story, and once after his mate. The whole of his paper roll is covered with Tsuma. 妻 big and small, dark and ghost-grey, graceful and awkward—and growing sloppier as the night wears on. The characters are still wet when Kyorinrin washes them away. Wet and black and rimmed with another color, the color of raisins, the color of her love.

  In the midnight center of his roll, one 妻 glows huge and deep and all violet, all glow. It is the 妻 of her climax. It is a secret 妻 only Kyorinrin knows. He looks at it a long time before he rinses it clear. It makes him think of new stories. It makes him think of the liquid sound of her, landing on his parchment body like a detonation.

  Tsuma is shy except when she is inking him. It took her a long time to learn to say anything but her own name and the name of the refrigerator manufacturer. She still feels uncertain of her accent. But when she repeats herself against the body of Kyorinrin, she has no uncertainty. She knows how to say herself. She knows how to write herself.

  “I am going to name her Akemi!” Kyorinrin rustles with excitement.

  Characters appear on his body. Kyorinrin has beautiful penmanship.

  “That is not a Western name,” whispers Tsuma. “Your research is untidy.”

  “But I like the sound of Akemi. It doesn’t matter anyway. I made her, so I own her. And I say what her name is.” Kyorinrin darkens with writing. “I am going to make her lonely because that is true to life. Her husband went to war and left her. Akemi does not speak Japanese or read it either, so when she looks at kanji she makes up stories about it so that she can remember which bus to take home and whether the onigiri at the market has salmon in it, which she likes, or salted plum, which she does not like.”

  “Don’t name her that, Kyorinrin.”

  “I have named the other wives after American first ladies. It will show up her sense of abandonment that she does not have a political name.”

  “All names are political.” Tsuma toes the dust of the factory floor with the tip of one brushstroke.

  “I am writing a story about a white woman who is writing a story about Japan. She writes her story because she is angry, so angry she is like a bull inside the skin of a person. Her horns pierce her from the inside. She writes her story to stand between her and her anger. I write my story because I am also angry.”

  “What are you angry about? I hope I have not—”

  Kyorinrin interrupts her, and he does it so cleanly it is as though her voice has been erased.

  “No, no, that is not what I mean.” Writing moves more quickly over the surface of the scroll. “I am angry because I was left here. Because when the glass case broke I was the only one who jumped out. I was alone. I thought at least Jizo would be like me. Alive like me. I am angry because people will never come back to make umbrellas here on account of the ordnance buried quite nearby. I am angry because the war has been over for a long time but when I decided to write a story about Yokosuka, the first thing I thought of was the American Navy. I am angry because I am hungry and the pink dye is almost gone.”

  Tsuma comes to him and touches the edge of his paper with the edge of her ink.

  “It’s all right,” Kyorinrin whispers.

  Tsuma eases down onto him. The shape of her blooms on his body. The bronze chrysanthemum on his roller moans with relief.


  Inari is female now. She has no attachment to gender. The way some blush or sweat or yawn, that is the way Inari shifts between male and female and androgyne. She opens a basket and begins to pull out her mail to sort. Inari receives her mail once a week. It is a principal joy for her.

  On the top of the mail basket crinkle the carbon papers of a gas bill. In addition to the gas bill, Inari has received a notice to appear in court for traffic violations, tax documents, a shipment of rice in individual two-kilogram red bags, a crate of kabocha squash, three pornographic magazines, a kit to build a radio-controlled mecha-warrior (decals, laser-axe, operator figurine, and a variety of canonical paint colors included), a Muji catalog, and seventeen issues of her favorite manga, none from the same series, as Inari reads widely and bores easily.

  Time is not meaningful for Inari and Futsukeshibaba. They are watching an Admiral collect soil from the shore and put it in a crystal bottle for his comrades back home. They are watching trade negotiations stretching through the summer. They are watching the festival of the dead one hundred years from now light the bay with so many lanterns and scorch the sky with so many rockets that the city looks like the inside of Futsukeshibaba. They are watching the capital come to Kamakura eight hundred years past. They are watching it leave again. Futsukeshibaba is watching Inari give birth, sometimes to foxes and sometimes to gods. Inari is watching Futsukeshibaba make careful love to a blue paper lantern in the Kyoto springtime. They are watching detonations. They are watching the new economy. They are watching the cherry blossoms in Tsukayama Park. They are watching the Yokohama BayStars play the Hiroshima Carp. They are watching girls dance in Roppongi under orange and blue lights. They are watching the cypress roofs of the royal residences burn. They are watching sailors sleep on the black ships in Uraga Harbor and they are watching Futsukeshibaba performing her duty during the war, keeping Tokyo dark while the sirens sing.

  Inari holds up one of her pornographic magazines in her tail, whose tip blazes with pale fur.

  “There is a piece of fiction in between the naked pictures here,” she announces indignantly.

  “This offends you?” answers Futsukeshibaba. “I have heard fiction pays better when nakedness is involved.”

  “Obviously I am not offended,” snaps the fox-god. “I am the patron of writers. But in this story an American travels to Tokyo and gets drunk in Roppongi on loud fuschia drinks. But little does he know the beautiful woman in the white miniskirt dancing with him is Yuki-Onna, the vampire goddess of winter!”

  “Too bad for him,” smirks Futsukeshibaba. “She’s going to freeze his pancreas and then dive down his throat to eat it.”

/>   Inari’s fox eyes glitter. “Ah, but that is not what happens! Instead the American fucks Yuki-Onna and the fuck is so good she lets him live!”

  Inari has a filthy mouth. She is a trickster; she cannot help it.

  “Yuki-Onna is my sister! How dare this writer say that is a thing that could happen! She can’t even fuck humans; their pitiful cocks cannot penetrate her because her hymen is made of polar ice. You cannot get inside her. You can only look at her right before she devours you. Leave it to these things,” she gestures at the sleeping men in the ships below, “to not know the difference between eating and fucking.”

  Futsukeshibaba smiles to herself. She puts her hand on her belly where all the light she has ever consumed dwells.

  “And why is Aoandon the blue paper lantern not with us tonight?” asks the fox-god, meaning to be cruel because the old woman did not give her an answer.

  “She will leave me for a paper scroll in sixty years. We are not speaking right now. I will get over it. She will love him for the same reason that we love each other now: a blue paper lantern is a being of fire and a great scroll is made of paper and she will know she could destroy him with the merest blink of her cyan eye. But it will never be an equal match, because the scroll cannot harm her the same way. If he tried to smother her flame, he would only set himself ablaze. You can only truly love someone who can destroy you.”

  Together, Inari and Futsukeshibaba watch a scroll unroll himself and beg the blue paper lantern of his desire to remove her shade with the faded carp swimming on it. He begs her to bring her naked flame as close as he can bear it. On the body of the scroll, round scalds appear, rust-colored against his unblemished page. When he can take no more of it, he turns the chrysanthemum end of his bronze roller to her flame and lets her flicker against it until the carp shimmers gold and wriggles upstream.