Of Fathomless Terror
The flow of sewage was faster and deeper than what Shion had expected. Indiscernible objects floated past his face. Once in a while, something would cling to his goggles and block his vision. He could smell an odour unlike anything he had smelled before. Amidst the overarching smell of rot was a mix of sickly sweet scents and harsh odours that stung the nose. In this brownish murk, he could barely follow Nezumi, who swam in front of him. And more than anything, it was hard to breathe. His heart thudded, and his chest strained painfully.
Nezumi drifted to the side, and pointed at a handle that was attached to the wall. Shion reached out and grabbed it. Together, they turned it and pulled as hard as they could. A round opening appeared.
He couldn't breathe. He was at his limit. His consciousness was fading away. The next instant, he was sucked into the hole. He was pulled along, pushed up, and thrown out on dry land. His body was slammed ashore, and he could feel the shock from it tingle to his toes. But he no longer felt like he had a wet cloth over his face. He could breathe. He felt a momentary relief, and then was overcome with a fit of coughing. He felt nauseous, and the inside of his mouth felt sticky. Shion yanked off his goggles and closed his eyes. For several moments, he couldn't move.
"It's a little early for bed-time," Nezumi quipped, but his breathing was laboured as well. Shion opened his eyes, and saw a bare concrete surface.
"Where are we?"
"In the sewage pipes. Artifacts of the 20th century. Maybe not artifacts, since they're still being used." Nezumi shook his head vigorously from side to side. Water droplets flew from his hair. "When the amount of sewage goes over capacity, they open that door back there to flush it down these pipes."
"They flush sewage down here? Without filtering it?"
"Yup. Your beloved City tends to do that sometimes."
"Where does it go?"
"The West Block."
"So they flush dirty water― how could they..." Shion was at a loss for words. Nezumi stood up.
"The West Block isn't part of the city to him. It's in the margins. He probably only sees this place as some kind of garbage dump."
Nezumi was standing still, staring unblinkingly before him. At the end of his gaze was the sewage outlet that they had just been washed out of. Sewage still trickled in thin streams across the concrete.
"Let's go." Nezumi bent down to scoop up the mouse scurrying about his feet, and turned his back to Shion. Shion stood up hastily. He still felt nauseous, but he had some strength left in his legs to stand. I still have enough strength. It'll last me. I'll be alright. Shion mentally encouraged himself. On Nezumi's shoulder, the mouse that had been their navigator cheeped amiably.
"Ah!" Shion brought a hand to his neck. He felt something faintly odd. On the base of his neck, there was a small part that felt numb. Shion felt the area with his fingers. There was a pea-sized blister growing, and it was itchy. He scratched it lightly. A chill wind blew through the centre of his body. Shion could feel his heart contract.
This gesture ― scratching the neck ― he had seen someone do this before.
"Yamase-san." Yamase's image floated up clearly in Shion's mind, pouring coffee, making conversation, always scratching his neck throughout. "Don't tell me―"
Nezumi turned around.
"You better not be whining that you can't walk anymore."
"On the contrary," said Shion, "I could do with a little more exercise. Want me to piggy-back you while I'm at it?"
"Nice of you to offer, but no thanks."
The mouse on his shoulder was chirruping. Shion walked faster to catch up with Nezumi.
He was thinking too much. It was just a blister. The scrape on his arm and his bruised body were much worse than this. It was a blister, for goodness sake. Just a blister....
"Why the serious face? Missing your mama?"
"My mother..." Shion murmured. "Nezumi, do you think I'd be able to get in touch with her?"
"Forget about it."
"How are you so sure?"
"You know well enough. Right now, your house is probably being searched top to bottom by the Security Bureau, down to the contents of your garbage can. Unless you have telepathic powers, there's no way you can get in touch with her."
"I guess you're right."
―I'm sorry, mom. He could only apologize. ―I'm safe. I'm alive. So please― He didn't want her to despair. He didn't want her to grieve.
"Bullshit," Nezumi spat.
"You. You're full of it."
It was the first time Shion had been insulted to his face.
"What do you mean?"
"What I'm saying is that you're full of bullshit for carrying this baggage, this crap, like it's the most precious thing in the world." Nezumi narrowed his eyes and fixed Shion with a hard gaze. His eyes were piercing, and filled with an emotion almost leaning toward animosity.
Shion opened his mouth to question him further, but Nezumi had suddenly begun to scale the wall. Upon a more careful look, Shion could see that there was a rusted metal ladder fixed to it. When he emerged at the top, he was greeted with an evening sky. He was above ground again. The sky was painted vividly in the colours of the sunset, and a chilly air settled upon him.
The place looked like an entrance to the West Block. In the distance, the outer walls of No. 6 glittered as it reflected the setting sun. Because of the West Block's lower elevation, No. 6 loomed even larger before them. It was breathtaking to see the sprawling city encircled by shining walls. Shion even thought there was a sort of godly air about it.
Nezumi began to walk in the opposite direction. They emerged from a sparse wood and soon came upon the ruins of a house. There was smoke rising out of it, and voices could be heard inside.
"Are there people living in there?"
"Lots of them," Nezumi replied.
Past the ruined house were a row of several barracks.
"This way." Shion was dragged by the arm to another ruins of a building. This one looked like it had been a warehouse before. The building had been quite spacious, but half of it had crumbled away into rubble.
"We're going underground again." Nezumi pressed a section of the wall, and it soundlessly moved aside to let them through. Beyond, there was a flight of stairs made of bare concrete like those in the sewage tunnels. The mouse bounded down the stairs. At the foot of them was a door. Inside, it was pitch black. There was a click, and the room was bathed in dim light.
Shion caught his breath and was rooted to the spot.
There were mounds and mounds of books, piled precariously high. Most of the room was buried in them.
"Are these all... books?"
"Do they look like food to you?"
"I've never seen this many."
"Let me guess, you've only read off electronic paper before."
"Yeah, well, not really, but... but wow, this is amazing."
"And to take another guess, you've probably never read Molière, Racine or Shakespeare before. And you probably don't know anything about Chinese classics or myths of the Aztecs."
"I don't." Shion didn't argue otherwise. He was too overwhelmed.
"Then what do you know?" Nezumi asked, running a hand through his wet hair.
"What have you studied up until now? Systematic knowledge, front-line technology, how to decode specialized scholarly papers, and what else?"
"A lot else," Shion replied indignantly.
"How to bake bread, how to make coffee, park maintenance and cleaning... not to mention, now I know how to scuba-dive in sewage."
"You forgot 'how to reject someone when she asks you to have sex and you've only ever thought of her as a friend'. You didn't do a great job at it, though."
Shion raised his chin defiantly and glared at the pair of grey eyes.
"If you have time to be making fun of me, will you let me wash up?"
"I'm first." Nezumi pulled a towel from in-between some books, and tossed it at Shion. "Don't be mad," he said. "What I actually meant is that you've come pretty far since four years ago. You've learned a lot more useful things other than how to make cocoa."
"I'm humbled by your kind compliments."
"Hey, really, don't be mad."
Nezumi disappeared into the pile of books. Momentarily, Shion could hear the muffled sounds of a shower. He took a good look around the room. There were bookshelves on every side, and they were filled to bursting with books. They didn't look like they were sorted in any order, and books of all sizes were shoved haphazardly into open spaces on the shelves. Shion felt from them the same kind of hustle and bustle that he would from a crowded train station. The faded carpet looked like it had once been some shade of green, and it was also covered in piles of books. Nestled amongst them was a bed. There were no windows. There was no kitchen, and no signs of other furniture.
A mouse squeaked at him from atop a book. Shion took the book in his hands, and flipped open to a page. He smelled the faint scent of paper. He remembered, long ago, he had smelled the same thing. He was sitting on top of something soft and warm― his memory wavered. He couldn't remember it well. The mouse scurried up to his shoulder. It twitched its whiskers, and chirruped persistently.
"You want me to read this?"
There was a bookmark in the middle of the book. Shion turned to it, and began to read aloud.
Here's the smell of the blood, still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!
―What a sigh is there. The heart is sorely charged.
―I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body.
Another small mouse had appeared at Shion's feet. It had charming grape-coloured eyes. The brown mouse that had been sitting on the book nodded its head vigorously as if to urge him on.
To bed, to bed, There's knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone. ― To bed, to bed, to bed!
Shion felt a presence behind him, and turned around. Nezumi stood with a towel hanging around his neck. He gave a deep bow.
"To the showers, if it so pleases your Majesty. Your change of adornments awaits you here."
"Nezumi, this book―"
"It's Shakespeare. Macbeth. Ever heard of it?"
"Only the title."
"I figured as much."
"Are all these books classics?"
"Nay, your Majesty. We also have introductory books to ecology, and scientific journals to please your fancy."
"Are these all your books?"
"Is it interrogation time again?" Nezumi said exasperatedly. "Run along and take a shower, and then I'll give you something to eat." He ended abruptly, and obstinately turned his head aside.
The shower was old, and it was difficult to control the temperature. The flow was punctuated with bursts of frigid water, but for Shion it still felt nice. It had been a long time since he enjoyed a shower this much. The itch on his neck had miraculously disappeared as well.
―I'm alive. I've been saved.
Shion thought to himself as he let the hot water run over his body. He didn't know about tomorrow. But he was alive right now, and was well enough to take this shower.
―I didn't thank him yet.
He had been rescued, and Nezumi had risked his life to save him. But not a single word of gratitude had escaped his lips so far. Realization set in. Soon after exiting the bathroom, one of the mice came scampering up to him again.
"He's taken a huge liking to your reading." Nezumi was stirring something in a pot over the kerosene heater. There was steam rising from it, and it gave the room a feeling of homey warmth.
"Oh!" Shion suddenly exclaimed. He remembered now, what was behind the nostalgia and warmth he felt when he opened the book.
"What? What're you shouting for?"
"No, I just remembered. A long time ago, my mother used to read to me."
"She read Macbeth to you?"
"Of course not. I was really young then. I remember sitting in Mother's lap, and she'd read to me." What kind of story was it again? The page was being turned slowly. Karan's voice echoed in his ears, first high, then low; subdued, then full of strength. He could feel the warmth of her body. He could smell the scent of paper.
"You're going to destroy yourself," said Nezumi quietly. His voice was cold.
"I've said this before. Carry all this useless baggage, and one day it'll be the end of you. It'll weigh you down until it squashes you flat."
"Useless? Like what?"
"Memories. Attachments to being a citizen of No. 6. Your comfortable life, your overestimation of your own skills, your misconceptions of being some kind of chosen one, pride. The list goes on forever. But the worst is your mother. Do you have some sort of Oedipus complex? If you're being haunted by your mother that much, goodness knows what you're going to do next. Maybe you'll start saying you want to go back to the city to see your dearest Mama."
It had touched a nerve.
"Is it a useless thing to think about my parents?" answered Shion tensely. "I know what kind of situation I'm in right now, and I know there's no way to get in contact with my mother. But I'm free to think about her, at least. That's not something for you to say anything about."
"Throw it away." Nezumi's voice has turned even icier, and had almost a metallic ring to it. "Throw away useless feelings like those."
"Why― Why are you saying..." Shion said in disbelief.
"Because they're dangerous."
"My feelings? Dangerous?"
"Back there, you threw away your citizenship card because it was a danger to us. So are feelings for other people. You get dragged around, pulled this way and that, and before you know it, you're in dangerous territory. Your mama, papa, your grandma, whoever― they're all strangers now. There's no emotional room in you to be concerned about strangers. Your hands are full enough trying to keep yourself alive."
"And that's why I should throw everything else away?"
"Toss it. Cut yourself away from all the baggage you've carried until now."
Shion clenched his fists at his sides. He took a step closer to Nezumi.
"Then what about you?"
"Why did you help me, then? I'm just a stranger, but you stepped into dangerous territory to save me. You're not exactly practising what you preach."
"Some personality you've got," retorted Nezumi. "If you really feel that you've been rescued by me, why don't you try to be a little more modest when you say things?"
Nezumi's hand extended to grasp Shion's collar. He was pushed against the bookshelf.
"I owe a debt to you," his low voice hissed at Shion's ear. "Four years ago, you saved my life. I'm paying back that debt. That's all."
"Then you've paid enough. Too much, even." Shion gripped Nezumi's wrist to pry it away from his collar. But Nezumi's taut muscles showed no signs of relaxing.
"Make me, little boy."
"I'll bite your nose off." Shion clicked his teeth. There was a split second of hesitation. Shion didn't miss it. He slid a hand around the back of Nezumi's neck.
"Biting noses off is my specialty."
"Huh? Wait a second, that's dirty―"
"I forgot to mention, over these past four years, I've also learned how to fight."
"Hey, knock it off," Nezumi said nervously, "biting is the worst―whoa―!"
Nezumi lost his footing, and the two fell flailing into the sea of books. Pile after pile toppled over, and books rained down on them from above.
"Ow," Nezumi grimaced. "This is the worst. I think I hit my head on an encyclopedia.... Shion, you alright?"
"Yeah... what's this? Chumayel's Chilam Balam?"
"It's a Mayan spiritual text ― a story about gods and humans. You probably wouldn't be interested in it." Nezumi smiled wanly as he began to stack the fallen books.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's true, isn't it? Have you ever had any interest in other humans, or gods, or tales before?"
Humans? Gods? Tales? He had never thought deeply about any of those. Not once. But that was before.
Shion gazed all about him, and breathed in the warm scent that filled the air. Here was a world that he didn't know. In the days to come, what would he see, hear, learn, and ponder? His heart raced, but he didn't know why. For a single moment, his soul had danced with an anticipation, much like the feeling of seeing the ocean for the first time. Then he thought of the look he must have on his face. He felt embarrassed for letting it show, and not wanting Nezumi to see, he bent down and nonchalantly picked up a book laying at his feet.
"A collection of Hesse's poems," Nezumi replied.
My soul, you frightened bird,
Over and over you must ask:
When after so many turbulent days
Comes peace, comes calm?
"―Heard it before?"
"I figured as much."
"Don't ask if you already know," said Shion sourly.
"It's your job to learn it if you don't know."
"And these aren't useless things?"
"It'll come in handy one day," Nezumi said casually. "Anyway, enough of that, the soup's gonna get―" Nezumi swallowed his words. His eyes widened.
"What's wrong, Nezumi?"
"Shion, your hand."
"Your hand... when did those spots..."
Shion's shirt sleeve was rolled halfway up his arm. There were dark spots were beginning to spread over its bare skin. They had not been there when he was taking a shower. They had definitely not.
"What? What is this?"
He was screaming. At the same time, he felt a vicious pain pierce his head.
The pain came in waves. They receded for a moment, then attacked, bearing ruthlessly down on him. His fingers stiffened. His legs began to convulse.
"Shion, hang in there, I'll get a doctor―"
Shion willed his uncooperative body to reach as far as it could. He grabbed ahold of Nezumi by his clothes. There wasn't enough time. It was useless to call a doctor.
"What should I do? Shion, tell me what―"
"My neck..." Shion said weakly.
"The blister... cut it open..."
"But I don't have any anaesthetic."
"I don't need any..." he grimaced. "Hurry..."
He was fading out of consciousness. He could feel his body being lifted. Don't pass out. If you do, you'll never wake up again. He didn't know what made him feel so strongly, but he was almost sure of it. The pain ebbed away for a short while, and an image drifted into his mind of Yamase as he collapsed to the ground and lay still.
―But Yamase-san didn't suffer.
He didn't roll around in pain. He aged instantaneously, and passed away like a withering tree. Yamase's symptoms were different from his. Maybe that means I still have a chance―
His brain was pierced by smouldering red needles. They were countless, and came from all directions. His body writhed in pain that he had never experienced before. His own screaming turned into scorching splinters that stabbed through him. He began to sweat profusely. He felt a strong wave of nausea. Blood and stomach fluids welled up inside his mouth, and spilled over his lips.
It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.
Shion no longer wanted to be saved, or to be spared death. He wanted to be released from this pain, this suffering. He didn't need to open his eyes. He didn't need to live. He wasn't asking for much. He just wanted to be released―
He felt like someone had grabbed him by the hair from behind, and was dragging him into the darkness. He felt relieved. All he had to do was lend himself to it, and he would be taken to a better place. He would finally be able to sleep.
A thick, bitter liquid was being poured into his mouth. It was hot. It slid down his throat, and Shion could feel himself rise up out of the darkness. But it also meant that he was being pulled back into the throes of suffering.
"Keep your eyes open." A pair of grey eyes were peering into his face.
"Nezumi... I can't take it..." Shion implored faintly. "Let me go..."
He was slapped sharply across the face.
"Don't bullshit me. You're not going anywhere. Drink up." The strong and bitter liquid was forcefully poured into his mouth again. The darkness was lifting. Weak pulses of pain throbbed in his head.
Nibble nibble nibble... nibble nibble...
Shion thought he heard a sound― or was it a hallucination? It was the sound of his brain being eaten alive. There was a mass of countless black little insects. They crawled all over his brain, making nibbling sounds,
Eating. Eating. Eating.
Was it a hallucination? Or was it... it hurt terribly. He couldn't bear it. And he was terrified. A scream tore through his throat.
"That's it. Yell. Don't give up. You're still sixteen. It's too early to throw in the towel just yet."
Shion felt the strength leave his body. He felt heavy, as if he was being tied to a lead weight. He felt suffocated. But the pain had receded just a little.
"Keep screaming. Stay conscious. I'm going to cut it open."
There was a silver scalpel in Nezumi's hand.
"I don't have anything fancy like an electronic scalpel, just to let you know. Don't move."
Whether it was because half of his nerves had gone numb from severe pain, or because all the strength had left his body, he didn't know, but Shion didn't move a muscle. He couldn't move.
There were three mice, sitting side-by-side atop a pile of books. Above them, a round clock was hanging on the wall. It was an analog clock. Tick, tick, tick. He could hear its sound. It was his first time hearing the sounds of time passing by. A second passed, then a minute. Time engraved itself. It passed, gentle, meandering, and vague. The world before him blurred. His cheeks were hot. A tear slid down, touched his lips, and was absorbed, still hot, into the sheets.
"It's over." Nezumi let out a long breath. Was the metallic clink the sound of the scalpel hitting the floor?
"The bleeding isn't too bad. Does it hurt?"
"No... " rasped Shion. "I just wanna go to sleep..."
"Not yet. Hang in there for a little more."
Nezumi's voice faded away. Shion could only hear the sound of the clock ticking.
He was being shaken.
"Keep your eyes open. Just a little more―please―open your eyes."
Shut up, he wanted to say. Shut up, shut up. A little more? How long is a little more?
"Don't give me this shit. You put me through all this trouble― you can't just go off on your own. Shion, you know what that means? Your mama's going to cry. What're you gonna do about that girl, huh? Safu, or whatever her name is. Have you ever even slept with a girl before? What a waste it was to turn down that invitation."
Shut up. Stop talking. Just stop....
"You don't know anything yet. About sex, or books, or how to fight properly. And you still think you don't need to go on living? Shion! Open your eyes!"
He opened his eyes. He saw four pairs of eyes staring back at him. One pair was grey, and they belonged to a human. The other three pairs were grape-coloured, and belonged to the mice.
"There's a good kid. I'll praise you for that."
"I... didn't get your name..."
"Your real... name..."
"Well, there's one more thing you don't know. I'll tell you when you recover completely, and that'll be your get-well present. Look forward to it."
He was fed the bitter liquid several more times. He drifted off to sleep only to be woken up again. Shion felt like he had repeated this countlessly. He broke into a fever. He perspired heavily, and vomited again and again. It felt like all the moisture in his body was being wrung out of him.
He pleaded repeatedly, and each time, a cool draught watered his throat.
"It tastes good..."
"Doesn't it? The world's not such a bad place after all." Nezumi's hand slowly caressed Shion's hair.
"It's alright now. Go to sleep."
"Yeah. You're past the worst of it. You've won. That's quite something." The fingers that stroked his hair were gentle, as was the tone of Nezumi's voice. Relief washed over his body. Shion closed his eyes, and dropped off into a slumber.
References and Notes
- Shakespeare, William R. Macbeth. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005. (Act 5 Scene 1 ll. 44-48) (back)
- Ibid. (Act 5 Scene 1 ll. 58-60) (back)
- Hesse, Hermann. "Keine Rast." -- Originally in German.
Many thanks to soap for the English translation! The original German is as follows:
Seele, banger Vogel du,
Immer wieder musst du fragen:
Wann nach so viel wilden Tagen
Kommt der Friede, kommt die Ruh? (back)