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Dark Water

Kōji Suzuki

  Dark Water

  Koji Suzuki

  A haunting collection of short stories from Koji Suzuki, author of the smash thriller, Ring, which spawned the hit film and sequels. The first story in this collection has been adapted to film (Dark Water, Walter Salles), and another, Adrift is currently in production with Dimension Films.

  Naoki Prize Nominee (1996).

  Koji Suzuki



  Whenever her son and his family came down from Tokyo to spend time with her, Kayo would take her little granddaughter Yuko out on early morning walks. They always made their way to Cape Kannon, the easternmost tip of the Miura Peninsula. It was just the right distance for a stroll, the walk around the cape and back to the house measuring less than two miles.

  On the spacious observation platform provided for a panoramic view from the cape, Yuko would point far out to sea at whatever had aroused her curiosity, excitedly tug on her grandmother’s hand, and buffet her with a flurry of questions. Kayo answered each of them patiently. Yuko had arrived the day before – she was on summer vacation – and was to stay for another week. The prospect of spending time with her granddaughter was, for Kayo, simply exhilarating.

  The view of the furthermost recesses of Tokyo Bay beyond the Tokyo-Yokohama industrial area remained hazy. You rarely got a clear view all the way across, for Tokyo Bay was larger than people thought. In contrast, the mountains of the Boso Peninsula seemed to rise up immediately across the Uraga Waterway, and a high and distinct ridge snaked from Mt Nokogiri to Mt Kano.

  Yuko let go of the railing and stretched her arms out as if trying to grasp something. Cape Futtsu, whose long, slender sandbar lay on the opposite side of the bay, appeared to be almost within reach.

  The imaginary line that connected Cape Futtsu and Cape Kannon was the threshold of Tokyo Bay, and a stream of cargo vessels proceeded in and out in two neat columns through a corridor of water. Yuko waved to the lines of freighters, which looked like rows of toy boats from where she and her grandmother stood.

  The tide flowed rapidly in the shipping lane, and striped patterns sometimes appeared on the water. High tide flooded the bay with water from the open sea, and the low tide emptied the bay. Perhaps for this reason, all the debris in Tokyo Bay was said to wash up at Cape Kannon and Cape Futtsu. If Tokyo Bay was a huge heart, the capes jutting out on each side functioned like valves filtering out waste from the seawater that circulated by the gentle pulse of the tide.

  But it was not just the circulation of the sea. The rivers Edo, Ara, Sumida, and Tama all supplied fresh blood to Tokyo Bay like so many thick arteries. The variety of trash washing ashore ranged from old tires, shoes and children’s toys to the remains of wrecked fishing boats and wooden doorplates bearing addresses from as far away as Hachioji. Some of the things made you wonder how they ever ended up in the sea: bowling pins, wheelchairs, drumsticks, and lingerie…

  Yuko’s attention turned to the pieces of driftage bobbing amid the waves.

  Driftage can spark the beachcomer’s imagination. The sight of a motorcycle’s side cover can conjure up the image of a biker skidding off a pier into the sea, while a plastic bag stuffed with used syringes has a whiff of crime. Each item of debris has its own tale to tell. Any particularly intriguing thing you may come across on the beach is best left untouched – because it begins to tell its tale to you, as soon as you pick it up. Fine if the story is heartwarming, but if it curdles your blood, things will never be the same.

  Especially if you love the sea, you ought to be mindful. You pick up what looks like a rubber glove and find out it’s really a severed hand. That sort of thing could keep you off the beaches forever. The feeling of picking up a hand is probably not too easy to shake off.

  Kayo would say such things matter-of-factly to frighten her granddaughter. Every time Yuko begged for a scary story, Kayo responded by weaving a tale around a piece of driftage.

  The young girl would probably ask for scary stories on every morning walk in the coming week, but Kayo had plenty of stories to tell and then some. Ever since she’d picked up that thing by the sea, one morning twenty years ago, when she’d just started taking her walks, her imagination had only been growing more active. Now, she could freely draw forth from articles of driftage the bizarre tales that littered the water’s edge.

  ‘No treasures?’ Yuko wanted to know if nicer things ever washed up, perhaps from some faraway land, instead of just the scary stuff.

  All kinds of vessels, from tiny boats to giant ships, busily plied the narrow sea-lanes down there in the bay. Why shouldn’t a chest of gems plop from a ship’s cabin into the water now and then? So reasoned Yuko.

  ‘I wouldn’t say I’ve never found any,’ Kayo replied ambiguously.

  ‘May I have it?’ Though Yuko didn’t know exactly what this treasure was, her desire for it was spontaneous.

  ‘I could give it to you,’ said Kayo, hinting that the offer was conditional.

  ‘If what?’

  ‘If you’ll keep me company for the whole week, on my walks.’

  ‘Of course I will!’

  ‘Then you shall have your treasure on the morning of the day you go back to Tokyo.’


  To seal the bargain, they performed a pledge that was popular among children. Perhaps Yuko wouldn’t like the treasure – or even agree it was a treasure. To make sure the girl wouldn’t feel cheated, Kayo needed to keep weaving more tales, so that the setting from which the words had sprung would be vivid in Yuko’s mind.

  For Kayo, one thing was certain. In the long life that Yuko had ahead of her, the moment was bound to arrive when the treasure would reveal its worth.


  Thinking again about drinking the tap water, Yoshimi Matsubara held the glass up to the fluorescent light in the kitchen. Rotating it just above eye level, she saw tiny bubbles floating in it. Tangled up with them, or so it seemed, were countless particles of dirt that could have come in the water or been a deposit at the bottom of the glass. She thought better of taking a second gulp and with a grimace poured the water down the sink.

  It just didn’t taste the same. It was already three months since they’d moved from their rented house in Musashino to this seven-story apartment building that stood on a landfill, but she still couldn’t get used to the tap water. She’d take a gulp out of habit, but the strange odour, which wasn’t even like chloramine, attacked her nostrils and almost always kept her from finishing the glass.

  ‘Mommy? Can we do fireworks?’ It was her daughter Ikuko, now almost six years old, calling from the sofa in the living room. She hugged a bundle of miniature fireworks that a friend at nursery school had been kind enough to share with her.

  Barely registering her daughter’s pleas, still clutching the empty glass, Yoshimi was picturing the path their water had to take from the Tone River. As she tried to trace the route in her mind, wondering how it differed from the flow of water back in Musashino, an image of tar-black sludge came to her. She did not know exactly when the apartment’s site had been filled, nor in what way the water pipes wound from island to island. But she did know, from a map charting the history of Tokyo Bay, that the land they lived on didn’t exist in the late ’20s. The thought that the uncertain ground beneath her feet had as its foundation the dregs of several generations enfeebled her grip on the glass.


  It was dusk on a Sunday in late August. Urged on by the deepening dark, Ikuko pleaded with her mother. The water still hadn’t been turned off when Yoshimi turned to face the living room.

  ‘There’s nowhere to set them off…’

  The park by the canal in front of their building w
as closed for construction work, and since there was absolutely nowhere else in the neighbourhood that was suitable, Yoshimi was about to tell her daughter no. Then she realized they’d never been up to the roof of their apartment building.

  Mother and daughter proceeded to the fourth floor elevator hall with a box of matches, a candle, and a plastic bag containing the fireworks. They pressed the up button and waited for the elevator, which arrived with a painful groan.

  When they got in, Ikuko said, imitating an elevator attendant: ‘Welcome, madam. Which floor do you require?’

  Take me up to the seventh, please,’ Yoshimi played along.

  ‘Very well, madam.’

  With a slight bow of the head, Ikuko turned to press the button for the seventh floor, only to find that she couldn’t reach it. Yoshimi giggled at her daughter’s plight; on tiptoe and with her arm outstretched as far as it would go, the best she could manage with her straining index finger was the fourth floor. By this time, the elevator doors were starting to close automatically.

  ‘Too bad,’ Yoshimi said, and hit the button for the seventh floor.

  ‘Huh!’ Ikuko sulked.

  The grainy feel of the elevator button lingered with Yoshimi, and she unconsciously wiped her forefinger against her linen skirt. Every time she used the elevator, the black, blistered surfaces of the floor buttons made her feel gloomy. Someone had used a cigarette to scorch the buttons for the first through the seventh floors. Although the NO SMOKING sign right next to them remained unscathed, none of the originally white buttons had escaped. Whenever Yoshimi wondered what could motivate such behaviour, she felt chilly. It probably had something to do with repressed anger against society – and who could be sure the frustration wouldn’t be vented on people someday? What terrified her most was that this man (she’d somehow decided it was a man) used the elevator of the very apartment building they lived in. As a single mother, worried about the worst, she couldn’t shake off her anxiety. Still, she’d had enough of men and didn’t ever want to live with one again.

  During the two years she’d lived with her husband, she’d never once felt protected. When they separated four and a half years ago, and when a year later the divorce became official, she felt relieved, frankly. She just couldn’t adapt herself to living with a man. Perhaps it was a Matsubara family tradition. Both her grandmother and her mother had followed the same path, and for the third generation now, theirs was a two-person family of just mother and daughter. Ikuko, who held Yoshimi’s hand now, would in the years ahead likely get married and become a mother, but Yoshimi somehow knew the marriage wouldn’t last.

  As the elevator stopped and the doors slid open, Tokyo Bay spread out in front of them. They stepped out into the corridor and saw four apartments to the left and four to the right of the elevator, but none of them showed any sign of occupancy. The fourteen-year-old apartment building suffered from the after-effects of the burst economic bubble.

  A few years earlier, when, out of the blue, a project to construct a high-rise complex in this area had come up, this apartment building and other mixed-occupancy buildings in the neighbourhood had been subjected to a bout of land speculation. But the neighbours resisted being chased out, and while the coordinators fumbled, the bubble burst and the construction project disappeared into thin air. About half of the forty-eight apartment units in the building had been purchased, but could not easily be resold; twenty were eventually put up for rent at considerably less than market value. Yoshimi, who caught wind of this from a friend in the real estate business, had always dreamed of having a view of the sea, so she grabbed the opportunity, leaving the rented house in Musashino she’d lived in for so long, and transplanting herself onto the completely different environment of reclaimed land. She simply couldn’t abide staying in a house that still reeked of her husband, and also, now that her mother was dead, childcare-friendly Minato Ward seemed more convenient for a single mother and her daughter. The publishing company Yoshimi worked for was in nearby Shimbashi, and the best thing about it all was that she’d be able to devote time saved on the commute to her daughter.

  Upon moving in, however, she found that a lot of the owners had purchased their units as an investment. They had never moved in, and by now most of the units had been transformed into offices. Inevitably, the building almost emptied out at night. Some five or six single people lived there as tenants, while the only family in the entire building lived on the fourth floor – in Yoshimi’s unit, number 405. The super had told Yoshimi that a family with a daughter the same age as Ikuko used to live on the second floor, but had moved away the year before due to some tragedy. From then on, the apartment building had seen no children until Yoshimi and Ikuko moved in three months ago.

  Yoshimi surveyed the deserted seventh floor for a stairway leading to the rooftop. There it was, immediately to the right of the elevator; the roof would be only a floor above. Holding her daughter’s hand, Yoshimi climbed up the steep concrete stairs. Next to the elevator engine room, there stood a heavy-looking iron door. It didn’t appear to be locked, and when Yoshimi tried turning the knob and giving it a push, it opened with surprising ease.

  It wasn’t spacious enough to be called a rooftop. It was a cramped place measuring no larger than forty square feet, fenced in with a waist-high handrail, with concrete pillars rising up from the four corners. Yoshimi would have to keep her eyes on her daughter if she approached the edge – the weight of your own head seemed enough to pull you over if you dared peer down.

  In the gentle breezeless dusk, on this pier into the air, Yoshimi and Ikuko lit their fireworks. The red jets stood out in the deepening darkness. Below them to the right, the dark waters of the canal flickered with light reflected from the streetlamps, and opposite was the nearly completed Rainbow Bridge to link Shibaura with Daiba. The top of the suspension bridge, outlined with red signal lights, sparkled like real fireworks.

  Yoshimi took in the view from on high, and Ikuko held aloft her little sparklers and cried with delight. It was when the score of sparklers had all turned into charred cinders, and the two prepared to go back down, that they discovered it, both at the very same moment. They had had their backs against the wall of the penthouse, which housed the stairwell and atop which sat the building’s water tank; but in the small drain that ran at the bottom of this wall was what looked like a handbag. It didn’t look like it’d been dropped, but rather, placed there on purpose. After all, who’d come to a place like this and lose her bag?

  It was Ikuko who picked it up. No sooner had she let out a faint cry of surprise than she’d dashed over to it and grabbed it. ‘It’s Kitty,’ she noted.

  It was hard to see in the dark, but against the glow of the street lamps from down below, the Kitty motif was indeed visible on the cheap vinyl bag. The bright red vinyl surface squished and changed shape in her hands.

  ‘Give it to me,’ scolded Yoshimi. She reached for Ikuko, who was trying to unzip the bag to see what was inside, and succeeded in taking the bag away from her.

  Yoshimi’s mother, when she was still healthy, used to take Ikuko on walks in the hills around Musashino, often to come home with some discarded item. It was only natural for a woman of Yoshimi’s mother’s generation to feel that modern folks threw things out too soon. That was that. What Yoshimi couldn’t stand was the thought of her own daughter scavenging through garbage, and she had frequently gotten into arguments with her mother about it. In bringing up Ikuko, Yoshimi never tired of hammering into her a simple rule about picking things up. Whatever it was, you didn’t take it if it didn’t belong to you. Every time Yoshimi said this with a solemn look, her mother would react with a grimace: ‘Now don’t be such a stiff

  Having taken the bag away from her daughter, Yoshimi didn’t know what to do with it. Through the surface came a lumpy feel of its contents. Yoshimi, something of a hygiene freak, decided without even opening the bag that the best course of action was to go talk to the superintendent about this. She was goi
ng to his ground-floor office right away.

  * * *

  The superintendent, Kamiya, was a long-time widower who’d been the building’s live-in super for ten years, ever since he’d retired from a hauling company. Although the job didn’t pay well, the accommodations were free, and it was an ideal arrangement for an old man living on his own.

  No sooner had Yoshimi handed him the bag than Mr Kamiya unzipped it and emptied the contents on top of the office counter. A bright-red plastic cup bearing the same Kitty motif as the bag. A plastic wind-up frog whose legs were designed to flap. A little bear with a beach ring. It was clearly a three-in-one bath-time toy kit.

  Ikuko cried out and started to reach for the toys, but yanked her hand back when her mother glared at her.

  ‘How very odd,’ the superintendent mused. What puzzled him was not that someone had left a bag on the rooftop, but that a toy set that obviously belonged to some child was found on the premises of this building.

  ‘You could display a notice and try to find the owner,’ Yoshimi suggested. Perhaps the owner would see the bag and claim it.

  ‘But the only child in the building is little Ikuko – right, Ikuko?’ the old man sought the girl’s assent. She was gazing intently at the Kitty bag and red cup from where she stood beside her mother. It was only too obvious from her expression what outcome Ikuko desired. She wanted it: the bag, the toys. Annoyed by her wistful look, Yoshimi grabbed her by the shoulder and forced her to step back from the counter.

  ‘You did mention that a family used to live on the second floor…’ ventured Yoshimi.

  Kamiya looked up in surprise and said: ‘Ah, yes.’

  ‘Didn’t you say they had a little girl of five or six?’

  ‘Indeed. Yes. But it’s been two years.’

  ‘Two years? I thought you said they moved out last year.’