A Name For White Darkness
My elder brother is a cannibal!
I'm brother to a cannibal.
Even though I'm to be the victim of cannibalism, I'm brother to a cannibal all the same!
-Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman
Safu let out a deep, deep breath. The sound of her own sigh reached her own ears very vividly. And it wasn't only her sighing: the faint sounds of her own body as she shifted, her heartbeat, and even the name she'd called out silently, all echoed back to her vividly with a clear outline. On the contrary, her eyesight was always vague and closed off, blankly white. It was like she was in a fog.
Where am I? She let her gaze roam about.
It was a white world, like she was seeing through layers and layers of lace curtains. A world enveloped in fog. When she first awoke, she had thought for a fleeting instant that she'd wandered into a deep forest. But she soon realized how different it was. The only thing here was the white darkness that closed off her vision. There were no birds chirping in the canopies; no bubbling brook, no swishing of the trees. There was no fragrance of flowers, nor the smell of dirt. It was odourless, soundless. Only the sounds of her own body and soul became clearer and clearer by the day.
Inside a deep forest...
Safu sighed again. She had walked through a forest with Shion once. It was a forest park in the centre of No. 6, however, so all animals and plants were minutely scrutinized and managed by human hands. 'I don't think a place like this should be called a forest,' Shion had said, and grimaced in clear dislike.
Oh, I remember. How many years ago was it? I can remember it so clearly.
Safu smiled. A feeling of happiness coursed through her body. It was very warm, soft, and comforting. Every time she thought of Shion, every time she revived the hours she spent with him, she could smile.
I remember. I was beside him, and I was very happy. Shion, don't you think memories are amazing? The memories of being with you still bring me happiness. Yes, it's true. I haven't forgotten a single thing. Your tone of speech, your gaze, your gestures, your scent... I haven't forgotten anything.
You told me once, while we were walking through the beech-tree block of the Forest Park.
"They call it a forest, but it's a place that's under human control. I don't feel right calling it a forest. I wish they would at least let us walk in the natural wood in the North Block. It's hard to get permission, though."
"But this is your workplace too, isn't it?"
"That's why I can tell how much more it's being managed. I feel like nature should be more unpredictable― like something that surpasses human intelligence. Safu, don't you feel anything wrong with this?"
"Hmm. Well, I don't feel much resistance really," she had pondered aloud. "It's so beautiful here, after all." Safu let her gaze wander amidst the numerous branches that framed her above her head. The beech leaves were beginning to turn yellow. Catching the sunlight streaming down from the clear autumn sky, they looked almost like they were glowing.
"Oh, look!" she had said.
"There was a squirrel. It went running along that branch."
"Beech trees bear fruit during this season, so animals come looking for food."
"Can you eat the fruit?"
"Yeah. They're nuts, actually. They usually grow in twos or threes, cased in a cupule."
"What's a cupule?"
"What you find in Mongolian oak fruits, and sawtooth oak... called, uh, acorns. What's attached to the bottom is part of it too."
"Oh, I think I know what you're talking about," Safu grinned. Shion smiled too. His smile, glowing in the sunlight that streamed through the beech trees, stung at her eyes. It stung in her heart. She had been smiling then, but she had also been about to burst into tears.
We were walking alone together. But what did you talk about? Nuts? Cupules? Can't you be a little more tactful with your conversation? Did it ever occur to you to not say anything, and just snuggle up together, and feel each other's breathing and warmth? Shion, didn't you want to hold me? Didn't you want to love me?
I suppose you didn't. You looked like you enjoyed being with me, though. You laughed a lot, and you were more talkative than usual. Oh, yes yes. It was only once, but you even said so out loud.
"It's fun being with you, Safu."
I don't think you were lying. You're the kind of person who could never lie.
Shion, do you enjoy being with me?
Yeah. A lot.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could be together forever?
Sure we could. Safu, you're my most important―
You cared for me. You cherished me. But you didn't love me. You didn't feel the kind of desire for me that burned your body with yearning.
Safu, you're my most important friend.
You cruel person. So cruel, it's almost unbelievable. I don't think anyone could be as gentle, innocent, and cruel as you.
Shion, who are you in love with? Who do you burn with desire for?
Knowing you, you would probably love her singly, devotedly, and earnestly to the point of being absurd. You two would share both life and death, but go walking towards life instead of death.
Shion, who do you love? Who do you desire? Why can't it be me?
The white curtains fluttered. A dark, hazy shadow appeared.
It's that man again.
The man that smells like blood.
"Hello, Safu." It looked like the man was raising his hand. "How do you feel?" Even his voice was dripping with blood. She didn't want to converse with him. She didn't want to speak. She didn't want him to come closer.
"It looks like you can hear me just fine. But oh dear, what is this response? Do you not like me, Safu?" The man chuckled. It was a muffled and dark voice. Only his voice was laughing. His heart was not. "There's nothing more sorrowful than being hated by you. I see, so you dislike my voice? Goodness, what a horrible response."
"I can't... see..."
"Oh! Is that an audio response? So you feel like talking to me now, Safu? I'm delighted to be able to have a conversation with you. Nothing could delight me more. Come on, give it another try."
"I can't... see. Just... white."
"You can't see? Oh, yes, you probably wouldn't be able to. You haven't completely recovered yet. Visual functions are the slowest to recover. Almost―you're almost there, Safu. In a little bit, those hazy things will become clear. Then you'll finally be able to look at yourself." The man laughed again. This time, it was from his heart. A high-pitched, somewhat vulgar laughter. It was chilling. Safu felt a foreboding shiver.
"Ah, have I made you feel unpleasant again? Hm? These waves―Safu, is it fear you're feeling rather than dislike?" The man drew nearer. His fingers touched her.
"Stop... go... away..."
"Safu, there is nothing to be afraid about. I don't intend to hurt you at all. You're beautiful. If I said you're the most beautiful person I know, it wouldn't be an overstatement. See, that's why I want to make you happy."
"Yes. Happy. You won't feel any suffering or sadness, and you'll never contract a disease or have to groan in pain. You'll never age―no, in fact, death will not even exist. I want to give you that kind of happiness."
The man grew even more eloquent. The words streamed from his mouth as if he were possessed.
"Safu, you're beautiful," he said. "I'll confess this truthfully. I can't lie to beautiful people. Please don't be angry. At first, I only wanted an elite sample. That was why I had you come here. It didn't matter, as long as it was an elite. Oh, but a female one. Yes, a female... I needed a sample of a woman. But you were so beautiful, my heart was stolen. I couldn't treat you in the same way I did all the other samples. That's why you're right here, where I can reach you. See, Safu, soon you'll stop fearing me, and begin to feel grateful towards me."
"No... no... you're... scary..."
"Such an intelligent and beautiful person like you shouldn't whine like an obstinate child. Say, weren't you a student specializing in cognitive functions? I had the opportunity to read through the thesis you submitted for your application for exchange students. It was about the cortical column―on the functions of the finer structures within the cerebral cortex, am I right? 'The Cortical Column as Functional Module: The Mechanisms of Composite Information Processing' it was called. It was quite interesting, though the development was rather awkward. But as a student thesis, it was top-notch."
Another layer of white curtain was swept aside. The man turned from a dark, shadowy figure to a human-shaped one.
"Oh? It looks like your eyesight is on the road to recovery as well. I'm getting good numbers. Not only are you beautiful and intelligent, you're also healthy. Supremely ideal. I'm very fortunate to have met someone as ideal as you."
My eyesight is coming back? I can escape from this white world?
No happiness welled up in Safu's heart. She felt no sense of freedom. On the contrary, she was terrified. She was afraid of when all the curtains had been drawn aside, when the fog cleared, what she would see, what she would have to see.
Shion, I want to see you. I want to look at you. I want to hear your voice. You are the only one I seek.
She had heard him. She had heard his beloved voice calling her name.
"Hm? Hey, Safu. What's the matter? What is this response? Where did you receive this stimulus?"
―Safu. Wait for me.
―I'll get there. I'll save you.
Shion is nearby. He's close to me.
A joyful thrill pierced through Safu's body. Hope was born. Hope was strength. It was a searing energy that came alive, and coursed through her whole body.
Shion, you are my hope. I'm waiting for you. I'll wait for you to come to me.
He was grasping a handful of hair. It was long and durable. He couldn't tell what colour it was. He clutched at it like a lifeline, and climbed. He was climbing a mountain of people piled and folded on top of each other. He was going up, up, wedging his feet in, stepping on people's heads, buttocks, shoulders, and legs to move forward.
Some raised a groan the moment Shion's foot pressed down on them. He almost screamed. But it only stuck in his throat, and quivered there. A corner of his head ached dully, and the muscles of his back were tense and stiff as a board. Sweat glided down his back and chest. It drenched his whole body.
He had been prepared for it.
From the moment he decided to infiltrate the Correctional Facility, he had prepared himself. He had thought he did. But that resolve had been blown into smithereens. It had shattered, leaving no trace. After experiencing this hell, could he still say with certainty that he wanted to go into the Correctional Facility? He asked himself over and over inside his head, which only pounded with a dull pain.
So what'll you do, Shion?
I'll do it, of course.
But he couldn't say it with certainty. He couldn't even reassure himself.
What a fragile decision it was. What a half-hearted decision it had been.
He lifted his face, and gazed at Nezumi's figure. The gap between them seemed to be as wide as Heaven and Earth: Nezumi, who knew this hell and yet was still here; and he, who was gasping from the difficulty of his half-hearted and ignorant declaration. They were all too different.
It was no wonder if he was called a naive little boy, or scorned for it. It was true.
His foot slipped. As he lunged and reached forward, he felt something soft and malleable at his fingertips. He had grabbed someone's face, who was lying sideways. His index finger dug into the person's nostril. The pain in Shion's head grew worse. He felt dizzy. The strength was leaving his hands and legs. Ah, I can't―
"Shion!" He was grabbed by the wrist, and pulled up. "We're here."
"At the summit. Well, but that's only about half of the whole journey. But for the time being, congratulations on a job well done."
The summit of a mountain of people, huh.
"It's too bad we haven't brought lunch with us. Wanna take a break anyway?"
"A break... here?"
"If you know any other resting area, then there."
A tumult of groans rose up from below. They were, quite literally, rising up from where he was standing.
"There are... still people alive..." Shion said falteringly.
"Probably quite a few. The ones who fell first probably didn't make it. The ones that fell second, third, might've gotten away with broken bones. If they're lucky. See, Shion, we were lucky to be in the second group. If we were the first, we would've been smashed directly against the floor."
Shion remembered what he felt at the moment of the fall. The sensation of falling on top of human bodies. He had used the people in the first group as a cushion, those unlucky people who had been smashed to the floor, to lessen the impact of his own fall.
Can I even call that fortunate?
"You okay?" Nezumi said. "If you're nauseous, it'll feel better if you get it all out."
"Huh? Why're you apologizing?"
Shion covered his face with his hands. The stench of sweat and blood, the groans of the dying people, enwrapped him whole. They dug into his flesh, and corroded his bones.
This is all I can take. I can't bear any more.
"I... can't do it." He could only make it this far. This was the best he could do. He couldn't move a single step more. If Nezumi hadn't grabbed his wrist back there, he would have tumbled back down the slope. He couldn't do anything alone.
"I'll... only ever become a hindrance to you."
"What're you bringing up old news for? You've always been a hindrance. You've never been anything more than that."
"Nezumi... leave me here."
"You're staying alone?"
"You'll die, Shion."
"I know," he whispered.
"You won't die painlessly," Nezumi said. "I don't know how many days you'll be like this for. It might be the dead of winter, but if these corpses are left out, they'll start to rot. You'll either go insane in the stench of decay, or you'll faint again and again from oxygen deficiency, and weaken that way, or..."
"Or... die on my own."
"Shion, don't take death lightly. If you underestimate it, it'll come back to bite you in the ass. Do you have some instantly effective poison on you, huh? How're you gonna kill yourself here, without a knife to slash your throat, without a rope to hang yourself? You can try biting your tongue, or jumping off of here, but you won't die easily."
"You've―got a knife," Shion said hoarsely.
Nezumi's shoulder twitched.
"So that's what you meant."
Shion was grabbed roughly by his hair. His head was flung back, and a knife was brought to his bared throat. He felt like the sharp blade would slice through his skin just from taking a deep breath.
"Are you asking me to kill you?" Nezumi hissed.
Shion inhaled silently. What would happen if he got his throat slit right here, by Nezumi's hand? Would his blood spurt forth, and colour Nezumi crimson?
"Shion." Nezumi's voice shook. "Are you trying to make me kill you?"
"Don't 'huh' me. I'm asking you if you're trying to make me kill more people than I already have."
"Never―" Shion shook his head. Nezumi's fingers withdrew. "I would never want that. I'd hate for you to."
A long sigh. The aged female dog at Inukashi's used to sigh in a very similar way.
My goodness. What are we ever going to do with you, child?
"Look, think about it," Nezumi said tersely. "If I slash your throat, that's murder. If I give you the knife, I'm assisting your suicide. Either way, I'll have to take the blame for your death. Are you ordering me to take the brunt of it? And besides―"
Shion was grabbed by the hair, harder this time.
"Then what would you have memorized the layout of the Correctional Facility for? We're just starting to need your brain the most. I'm not gonna let you forfeit the match now. I won't allow it."
His hair was yanked mercilessly. The pain threw needles into his delirious consciousness.
"Without you, it'll be nearly impossible to escape from here. If you wanna die, I won't stop you. But do it after we get outta here. You understand what I'm saying, right?"
"Then listen. It's just starting. Got it, Shion? I need you."
Shion willed his legs to stand. He could do it, but barely.
"Let's get going, then."
"Okay." Shion had no idea where they were going next, whether they were going to climb or descend. He didn't think of asking. He had no energy. He could only muster all the strength he could, and follow Nezumi. If he could be a necessary existence for him, then it was more attractive than dying in one stroke. To feel like this meant he still had the will to live. He still had... the will. So his soul hadn't completely withered away after all.
Nezumi whistled shortly. A clear, high note resounded in the darkness. After the sound died away, a silence fell. Even the dying people's groans were cut off.
A pair of small glowing dots appeared in the darkness. It was a colour Shion remembered.
"Hamlet?" It was the colour of the little mouse's eyes. They were the red stars at Shion's pillow as he got ready to go to bed; they were on top of the lofty pile of books; under his bed, always twinkling.
"It's not Cravat or Tsukiyo, is it...?"
"I told you not to give funny names to my mice," Nezumi said in annoyance. "And besides, what the hell would they be doing here?"
"But you're right about the mice part. It's a nameless mouse." Nezumi whistled again. This time, it was a melody. The red lights disappeared for a moment, and when Shion blinked again, they were right up close to him. Nezumi unwound a thin rope from his wrist. He tossed it lightly to the red lights.
"It's all yours."
Cheep-cheep-cheep. The mouse squeaked. The light was gone―the mouse had run off holding an end of the rope in its mouth.
"What'd you say?"
"The nameless mouse. It's younger than Hamlet and the rest, isn't it?"
"How can you tell? You couldn't even see the thing."
"Oh... well, I just had a feeling. Like it was still young."
After a few seconds of silence, he heard Nezumi click his tongue.
"Geez, your instincts seem to sharpen in the weirdest moments. I dunno if that makes you easy or hard to deal with."
"I only said what I felt."
"Hmph," Nezumi sniffed derisively, "talkative for someone who was about to give in a minute ago, huh? Means you've still got strength to spare."
"You said you needed me. So I'm gonna try my best."
"God, you sound like a kid. I only need your brain. Soon you'll have to run it full-throttle. Enjoy your holiday while you can. Here, take this."
Shion was handed a rope. He could see it was woven with a special fibre. It felt pliant and durable in his hands. Depending on how you used it, the special fibre could be used to sling and lift over a ton of weight, or cut cleanly through a single hair. The rope had been tied to something, for it was taut.
"Tie this rope to your waist. Tie it tight, and then you're gonna fly."
"Yeah, You're gonna fly through the darkness like a nightbird. Have you tied it yet?"
"Alright, we're gonna jump. Catch a breath." Shion was drawn closer, and he flew, half-carried by Nezumi, through the air. The darkness swayed all around him. He felt like he had become a pendulum. But his body soon hit a wall. He smelled dirt.
"Hold onto the rope with both hands. Don't dangle, get a foothold on the wall. Apply your rock-climbing skills, Shion."
"Sorry, I've never gone rock-climbing before." He told himself over and over to calm down. The smell of dirt that tickled his nostrils gave him courage. It wasn't blood, or vomit, or the stench of dying people. Shion inhaled a breath of air. Nezumi climbed up ahead of him, as if to show him by example.
"It's not much of a distance. Take your time on your way up. It's much easier than climbing a mountain of people."
"You can say that again," Shion replied. But it was daunting task to climb a wall that rose almost perpendicular from the ground. Shion felt like he was struggling fruitlessly.
"Did the little mouse come up this way?" he asked.
"They've got their own routes. You really love mice, don't you? Here, look, put your hand there, on the rock that's sticking out―yeah. Now here: there's a groove, right? Stay like that, and lift your body up."
Guided by Nezumi's precise instructions, Shion tackled the wall with all his concentration. It looked like Nezumi was only holding the rope with one hand. Sometimes he swayed unsteadily. The rope was probably not long enough for them both to tie around their waists.
I'm much worse than a hindrance: I could be endangering Nezumi's life. That's how powerless I am.
Shion was confronted with yet another reality.
I'm powerless. But―
'I need you.'
He tasted the words in his mouth thoroughly. They were like an aphrodisiac. He could feel it quenching his body. Shion dug his nails into the wall of dirt, and continued inching his way up.
- Lu, Xun. Trans. William A. Lyell. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. University of Hawaii Press, 1990. 34. (back)