Quite A Catch by Matsuda Aoko
Hina-chan has such beautiful skin, I think as I wash her. Using a linen washcloth I’ve specially ordered to avoid irritating her delicate skin cells, I start from her toes, working slowly up the length of her body stretched out supine in the water. When wet, the cloth moulds itself perfectly to her smooth contours as if it were held there by some magnetic force.
The candle flame flickers as if trying to muscle in on our conversation, sending patches of shadow and light dancing across the bathroom walls.
I lift Hina-chan’s right leg up a fraction. As my arm moves, the bathwater rocks and ripples, making little lapping sounds. My hand brushes the top of Hina-chan’s thigh, and she lets out an embarrassed yelp, laughing and twisting her lower half away from me. We both know, of course, that this is just fooling around on her part – Hina-chan is fully accepting of the situation. With total composure, I clean each part of Hina-chan’s body. This is a very important ritual for the two of us.
Perhaps there’s a gust of wind outside, because the scent of flowers working its way through the high window suddenly grows stronger. Hina-chan flares her nostrils and drinks in the smell. As she does so, her flat little stomach arches upward, and my hand, which happens to be resting above her navel, feels it move.
‘What kind of flower do you think that is?’ she asks me.
‘I wonder. I’ve never stopped to think about it.’ I tug at the chain of the plug to let out the bath water that is by now a sludgy brown, then say, teasingly, ‘If you’re curious, why don’t you pop your head out and take a look? You’re good at that, no?’
‘It’s the imagining that’s the fun, silly. That’s the problem with you, Shigemi-chan. No sense of romance whatsoever.’ Hina-chan puffs out her cheeks, pretending to sulk. The water glugs its way down the drain.
‘If I had to guess, I’d say camellia,’ I venture.
‘Yes. Well, it’s not a tulip, that’s for sure.’
‘Wow, you’re surprisingly clueless about flowers, aren’t you?’ I say, feigning outrage.
‘You know what, Shigemi? That’s what’s called prejudice.’ Hina-chan wields her newly acquired piece of vocabulary with assured accuracy. She’s a bright spark, that’s for sure.
I rinse her down with the showerhead, and now her pearl-white skin comes into view. That glistening body of hers! Though I see it every day, it still has the power to amaze me every time. I reinsert the plug and turn on the tap so fresh water comes chugging through.
‘Right!’ Hina-chan says, as she passes her eyes proudly across her renewed body, free of mud. ‘Now, if the good lady would allow me the honour of massaging her feet…’
Sitting opposite each other in that smallish bathtub, Hina-chan’s face is incredibly close to mine. Seeing her skin at such close range, so clear it seems almost translucent, still gives me the butterflies. She really is quite a stunner.
‘You’re so stiff! I guess that’s the price you pay for working on your feet, you poor thing,’ Hina-chan coos as she kneads my soles. Beneath her deft fingers, I feel the fatigue that has built up in my feet over the course of the day simply fall away, as if it had never really been there in the first place.
‘This water smells really nice,’ Hina-chan says.
‘Yeah, it’s lavender bath milk.’
‘La-ven-dur-barth-mulk?’ Hina-chan pulls a strange face, but it is obvious that she’s gone and added a new word to her internal dictionary. By tomorrow, I’ve no doubt she’ll be using it perfectly.
Until I met Hina-chan, I had no interest in bath milk, and I never really spent much time wallowing in the bath either. I went about carrying with me the fatigue I had amassed throughout the week. It was only after meeting Hina-chan that this small bathroom, whose uniformly cream-coloured surfaces I had initially found rather depressing, became my favourite place to be.
My lover comes to me at night. Come rain, come gale-force wind, Hina-chan turns up on my doorstep every evening wearing the sunniest of smiles. Even if I’m utterly worn out, or if there’s been some trouble at work and I am fed up with everything, I perk up in an instant when Hina-chan arrives. She’s my sun, my rainbow, my ray of light – she is every light source in the world rolled into one. Not to mention every source of loveliness and wondrousness too. We bathe together, eat dinner together and fall asleep together. Then, when I wake up in the morning, Hina-chan is gone.
I get out of bed and pass my hand over the cold patch next to me where not long ago Hina-chan was sleeping, her face the face of an angel. I give the sheets a shake to smooth the creases, fix myself breakfast, then head out to work.
Hina-chan worries that I’m not taking proper care of myself in the hours we’re apart, so since our courtship began I’ve started living more healthily. Rather than buying my lunch from the convenience store, which inevitably means getting by on soggy pasta or rice balls shaped into triangles by machines rather than hands, I’ve started taking my own lunch boxes in as often as I can. It feels to me as if the badly formed omelettes and grilled salmon fillets and florets of steamed broccoli I make at home to bring to the office all contain Hina-chan’s love. By eating my home-made food at work, I can be together with Hina-chan during the day too.
‘Did you tell Yoshi about me yet?’ Hina-chan asks now as she bores into a pressure point on the sole of my right foot.
‘Didn’t I tell you? Owowowowow!’ I arch my back and try to flap my foot in pain, but Hina-chan keeps a tight grip on my calf, refusing to let go. Those tiny arms contain unknown reserves of strength. She flashes me a cheeky smile as if to say, do you have any idea who you’re up against? I’m pretty sure Hina-chan would be the most requested masseur at any salon in town.
Yoshi is my next-door neighbour, a single guy in his late thirties. Before I met Hina-chan, he and I would occasionally go drinking in one of the cheap izakaya in town – two singletons whiling away the time, talking about nothing of significance. After breaking up with my then-boyfriend, I had crawled into life in my current flat like some bedraggled survivor of a natural disaster, and Yoshi had done more or less the same – or the opposite, depending on how you looked at it. I was sick and tired of men; he was sick and tired of women.
Living with that boyfriend, my exhaustion had kept growing. He was a perfectly decent guy, and it wasn’t like we argued all the time or anything, but sharing that cramped space with a creature so inflexible in both body and mind, and changing my existence to fit in with his being, wore me out like nothing else. Cohabiting with a man, I felt my body growing heavier, and I stopped acting on my own initiative. Instead, I would watch him, trying to gauge what move he was going to make next, or what he thought about things. It felt like I was accumulating a mound of pebbles inside me. In principle, the flat we’d shared was my home, but I always felt like I was in someone else’s house. At some point, it dawned on me: I didn’t want to live with another person. We broke up soon after that. So, when I met Hina-chan, I felt like patting myself on the back for the incredible luck that had befallen me.
One day not so long ago, as I was going about living my life – my wonderful, miraculous life now that Hina-chan was a part of it – Yoshi caught up with me by the communal letterboxes. Apparently, he’d clocked that something was going on from the voices that drifted through to his flat each evening. And so, after he half-dragged me to one of the izakaya near the station, I told him all about Hina-chan, and how the whole thing had come about.
It all started, I told him, with a fishing outing – my first ever. An old friend from school had invited me along, saying it would do me good to try something new, and so I’d found myself heading out on a day trip to the Tama River. My friend brought along all the gear.
For what seemed like an interminably long time I’d sat there, navy rod in my hands, staring at the surface of the river. Just as I was debating whether I’d waited for a catch long enough to be forgiven if I suggested calling it a day, I felt a tug. This is it, I thought, this is the part that’s supposed to make it all worthwhile, and I began winding the reel round and round until the white thing dangling from the end of the line came into view. And, believe it or not, it was Hina-chan. Or rather, Hina-chan’s skeleton. My friend promptly phoned the police, and they arrived to collect the corpse in no time. The tranquil riverbank where we’d been fishing just moments ago was instantly transformed into a foreboding crime scene.
Later, looking it up online, I found that Hina-chan’s skeleton dated back a surprisingly long time, but nobody knew much else about it. They’d trawled the river for the bones missing from the skeleton but found zilch. They weren’t even sure whether or not to treat it as a criminal case. Hina-chan’s skeleton wasn’t deemed a significant artefact of cultural heritage or anything, so it was going to be kept in the storage chamber of some organisation I’d never heard of, and whose obscure name spoke volumes about the fact that, really, nobody knew what to do with the thing. It seemed clear that, for all practical purposes, it had been abandoned. But anyway, the skeleton in the vault isn’t really what matters here.
After I’d caught the skeleton, and both my friend and I had been interviewed by the police, we’d parted ways, laughing wryly about how our fishing trip had turned out. My friend said that in all her twenty years’ fishing this was the first time anything like this had happened. To my surprise, she messaged me a few hours later, offering to take me fishing in another spot the following week. I quickly declined. Landing an entire skeleton as my first catch ever went beyond beginner’s luck and belonged to an altogether different realm. All that bone-baiting had left me quite exhausted, so I sunk down onto my bed and fell asleep for a couple of hours, still dressed in my approximation of fishing attire. I was woken by the sensation of something brushing against my shoulder.
‘H-Hello?’ said a wavering voice. I opened my eyes to see a woman in a kimono standing by the bed, covered in mud and looking right at me. I let out a shriek. The mud-caked woman held up her hand in what seemed intended to be a reassuring gesture.
‘I have come to thank you for earlier,’ she said.
‘Until today, I lay buried in the depths of the Tama River. Owing to your kindness I have once again seen the light of day, and I felt I couldn’t possibly rest until I had offered my gratitude to you.’
She must be talking about fishing out that skeleton, I thought. But… did this mean what I thought it meant? Was this figure standing in front of me dripping mud on my floor some kind of phantom!? I somehow managed to restrain my impulse to leap up and scream.
Instead I waved my hand in an attempt at staying cool and said, ‘Oh, it was total coincidence. Don’t even think about it. I was just in the right place at the right time.’
‘Please be so good to listen to what I have to say. We shall be travelling back in time a couple of hundred years, to the Edo period.’
‘The Edo period…?’
And just like that, she began to tell me about her life. You know how in period dramas and TV programmes from way back when, one of the characters suddenly launches into the story of their entire life? Well, it was just like that.
‘That’s right. After losing both my mother and my father to a terrible disease sweeping our village at the time, a relative attempted to marry me off to a certain gentleman, whom I did not desire to marry. When I stated my refusal in no uncertain terms, the gentleman took it upon himself to end my life, and then hurled my body into the river. Ever since, I lay outstretched on the riverbed, undiscovered by a single soul. As the months and days passed, many of my bones were swept away to heaven-knows-where.’
‘What!? But that’s awful! That’s… that’s completely unacceptable!’
I started to feel unbearably sorry for this ghost standing in front of me. What a bastard that guy was! I mean, he should’ve been locked up! And that relative of hers, too! Fuck! Marriage lasts a lifetime, it’s not just something you can foist on people like that. You have to start considering other people’s feelings a bit more.
‘Well, yes, but…’ Seeing my eyes widening in horror, the ghost lady tilted her head to one side, looking a little pained. Then she went on, ‘Well, anyway, that is what happened, and that is why I have come to thank you. It would be a great honour if you would let me serve you, as your chambermaid.’
I didn’t really know what she was going on about, but I knew that the present situation was untenable. I had the woman strip off her tattered, muddied kimono and then, seeing that her body was equally filthy, I decided to escort her to the bathroom and wash her down. When I picked up her kimono and saw the great gash running down the length of its back, I shook with anger. ‘Die, you samurai moron!’ I hissed. ‘Yeah, you! I know you’re already dead, but I want you to die again! Painfully!’ It seemed like the greatest injustice in the world that a guy that evil was peaceably dead already.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked the woman as I lathered up her hair. She bowed her head, as if she felt embarrassed to have so much attention lavished on her. There were great clumps of dirt enmeshed in her locks, and it was no mean feat to get them out. This is all your fault, you stupid fucking samurai. If you’ve been reincarnated then hurry the fuck up and die now, in your contemporary incarnation.
‘My name is Hina.’
‘Hina-chan? Wow, that’s a nice name. I’m Shigemi. People often tell me it’s kind of old-fashioned.’
‘Oh, Shigemi-chan is just fine.’
When I think back now to those first hours Hina-chan and I spent together, I explained to Yoshi, I feel ticklish with self-consciousness and pleasure. How awkward and faltering it all was! Hardly knowing a thing about each other, we both tried in our own way to get acquainted with the other – just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. What a beautiful thing it is when love begins to blossom.
‘So basically, you’re telling me you fished a skeleton from the river, and then a ghost appeared?’ Yoshi summarised bluntly.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. He who speaks of ghosts and expects to be believed is nowt but a fool, and all that. But the truth was, my love for Hina-chan had taken away any fear I might previously have had about what Yoshi might say on the matter.
‘Not just any old ghost, you know. Hina-chan’s smart, and she’s incredibly sexy. She’s amazing.’
I puffed myself up as if to say, I’m not to be made fun of. Then I picked up my mug of chūhai and downed it. He who speaks of love must do so with courage. My attitude had to say: if you’re not going to believe me, then begone!
‘Well, it sounds like you’ve found yourself quite the girlfriend.’
Maybe Yoshi was too drunk to care about the truth of my claims, or maybe he never had any intention of believing me, but in any case, he didn’t challenge a single thing I said. He simply went along with it.
‘Yep, she’s really something.’ I felt immensely proud. It was all true, after all. Hina-chan really was incredible.
‘I wish I could find myself a woman like that.’
Saying that, Yoshi slumped his head on the table. He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with the moist hand towel. Without his glasses, Yoshi immediately became more anonymous-looking. He kind of reminded me of the noppera-bō, the faceless ghost from old ghost stories. Each time I saw this faceless face of his, I felt a twinge of guilt, as if I’d glimpsed something I shouldn’t have. Here was a man born to wear glasses if anyone was. He’d once confided to me that when he took his glasses off to have sex, the other person would look at him suspiciously as if to say, who the hell is this guy? I could imagine that to be the case. Not that it really mattered to me one way or another.
‘Well then, maybe you should try fishing too!’ I said. ‘Although I mean, what happened with me and Hina-chan was pure fate. I really can’t imagine that happening very often.’
‘So you see, I was boasting about you,’ I tell Hina-chan now. ‘But imagine if Yoshi has actually taken up fishing after that! That would make him a prize idiot.’
Hina-chan smirks and nods, then makes a start on my left foot. She’s humming what sounds like Beyoncé – who knows where she picked that one up. She has quite a sense of rhythm! Hina-chan has smashed all the preconceptions I ever had about ghosts. In fact, she somehow manages to surprise me every single day.
‘If your life story was made into a book, it’d be a hard-boiled detective novel, don’t you think?’ I say to her. ‘It’s got elements of science fiction, too. And horror, come to think of it, and fantasy… It’s like the best story ever.’
‘Whereas yours would be like the biography of a withered old carrot. Yawns from beginning to end.’
Our laughs echo around the bathroom, wrapping around us and turning the bathroom into a surround sound amphitheatre.
‘Okay, that’s your massage done.’
Hina-chan claps her hands together. We press our noses together and smile at each other.
Fresh out of the bath, dressed in an Adidas tracksuit, Hina-chan smells amazing. I’ve lectured her so many times by now that she has started to apply toner and lotion to her skin of her own accord. The look of intense concentration on her face as she dabs them on is pretty amusing. I think of it as my duty to ensure that Hina-chan’s skin stays beautiful and pristine. Although having said that, the only time Hina-chan can move about at the moment is at night, so the chance of her suffering any kind of sun damage is pretty slim.
‘I’m genuinely happy to wash you every day, you know?’
‘Thanks, Shigemi-chan. I’m really sorry to be like this.’
For some reason, Hina-chan’s body is rebooted to its original form every day, so when she turns up at night, she’s covered in muck again. Of late, she’s taken to occasionally making her entrance with her arms dangling in front of her in a ghostly way, moaning, ‘I’ve come for youuuuuu!’ I’ve no idea where she picked up that trick. When she sees me falling about laughing, though, Hina-chan looks very pleased with herself, and flashes me a grin.
My project at the moment is to somehow find a way of breaking into that vault in the research institute nobody’s heard of, and smuggling out Hina-chan’s skeleton so we can give it a proper memorial service. Hina-chan says that it doesn’t bother her and I shouldn’t worry about it, but it’s something I’d really like to do for her. When I think about Hina-chan’s skeleton holed up all alone in some dark vault, I feel awful. I do worry that if I give the skeleton a proper memorial service, then Hina-chan will end up resting in peace forever and never visit again, but I guess if that happens, I can always just dig her up. There’s no way I’d escape a haunting then. Hina-chan is totally cool with that plan too. ‘Lying there in the ground is too tedious,’ she says. ‘That’s not my style.’
At this moment, Hina-chan is lying on the sofa, her head resting on my knees and her eyes glued to the TV, munching away mindlessly at a bowl of avocado-flavoured tortilla chips. I stroke her fine, silken hair, and think how deeply I adore her.
‘Quite A Catch’ is from Matsuda Aoko’s short story collection Where The Wild Ladies Are – translated from Japanese by Polly Barton and published by Tilted Axis Press. Buy it here.
Read a review of Where The Wild Ladies Are in our forthcoming summer special issue, Japan: Literatures of Remembering, which you can pre-order from our online shop.