Children abandoned in a field were always feared as "unknown nobodies". They seduced children with their voices, sweet as the bounty of a cornucopia from the heavens, and dragged them to a place from which they could never return - the depths of deep water. The children called loudly for their mothers, but no one heard them. Like an overgrown field of grass, or the ocean fluttering in the wind, the "unknown nobodies" ate the children's heads, arms and legs, and plucked-out eyeballs...
Her eyes flew open. It was the middle of the night. Taruho switched on her bedside lamp in the darkness. Was it a dream? Yes, it was. She knew. She'd had the dream countless times since she was a child. Wanting to escape from it, she had gone down the path of religion, but she couldn't get away.
Taruho finally noticed Takashi standing in the doorway. He was her dear, irreplaceable little brother.
"Takashi?" she called, rising from her bed and walking over to him. She turned on the light. Water dripped onto the floor. Takashi's jeans were soaked to the knees, his arms and legs muddy. "You went there again, didn't you?"
Takashi said nothing, staring blankly. He was tall, with long, thin limbs; he simply stood there shivering, as though he didn't know what to do with himself.
"Are you cold? You must be; look how wet you are. Come, let's get you into the bath. I'll wash you. Your hair, too." Taruho ran her hand through Takashi's slightly wavy hair. "You smell of grass. Not to worry. No one will get their hands on your treasure. Anyone who tries to go and steal it won't get anywhere near. What a good boy you are, Takashi."
Takashi was led out of the room by the hand by his sister. He heard the sound of the bath being run as Taruho took off his clothes. As she showered him, Takashi hummed Ophelia's Song. He had learned it from listening to his sister humming it. He had been humming it on that day, too, when she had drifted along.
Dazzling light and darkness of summer
A painting of a revered maiden at a manor
You float in the waters of the spring
Ah, my beloved girl
Taruho listened, charmed, to Takashi's voice.
"You even remember the second part."
She smiled. Ophelia's Song had a second part besides the first one translated by Ogai. Takashi had sung the first verse. The final four lines of the second part were a solo, which was sung each year at graduation by the chosen student.
Takashi was, unlike what Taruho thought, a wise young man. He read the books from Taruho's room, and despite never talking to anyone he had managed to amass great knowledge. But Taruho hadn't realised so much as a jot that Takashi had actual self-awareness.
Taruho carefully wiped Takashi's entire body with a sponge as he stood naked in the bathroom. It was still pure, unknown to women. No one can have him. He's all mine, thought Taruho, not really knowing anything about him.
She washed the soap bubbles from Takashi's body with hot water, pressing her lips to his tense muscles. He let her do it.
Aya's mind slipped out of the room she had been imprisoned in by the nun. Perhaps it was some kind of side effect of the nun's drugs. She walked along the bank of a spring inside the forest. Aya took off her black shoes and socks, walking along barefoot. Sunlight spilling through the trees illuminated her naked body with a blue glow. Then, Aya found it within the grass - the other Aya, lying in a glass coffin with her eyes closed, just like Snow White.
It was a water tank really, but the beauty of the Aya lying inside it made the simple tank resemble a glass coffin. Wilted flowers. An old book. Olives plucked in summer. Surrounded by junk-ish glass jewels. And inside it, a young girl like Ophelia. This was probably the first time Aya saw her own beauty from someone else's perspective.
"Who are you?" the girl's whisper echoed throughout the forest.
"No. You aren't Aya."
"Then who am I?"
"You and I are..."
"We're... the same?"
Which words belonged to whom? If someone happened to get lost in the forest and hear them, it would sound like a single strangle voice, echoing like a choir. No one outside the forest would ever know what happened within it.
Finishing her eight-hour workday at the factory and returning home, she changed into her white dress. Hiding herself away in her head to toe white outfit made her feel like a young girl again. No - she forced it to make her feel that way. She picked up the red lipstick she had bought at the hundred yen shop from her dresser, covered with rubbish like rusty nails and pebbles her son had picked up (he said they were indicators of places where ghosts had been), and applied it to her wrinkled lips. She hummed the melody of Ophelia's Song.
Deep in the night, the moon is a wave
A single pearl atop a coffin
Kiss me and I shall lead you to the Underworld
You should turn back, my love
It was the second part of Ophelia's Song. In the first part is a reunion with a dead lover. In the second, they visit their lover in the land of the dead. She wondered what kind of dreamer the person had been who added the second part to the song, which really only had the first part. To her, it seemed just like a song about the curse that affects only girls.
The morning news played on the TV behind her, which she left on in substitute for a clock. At this time, the TV only showed the same news over and over. She wondered what was going on elsewhere, but didn't really care. The things that happened on the news had nothing whatsoever to do with her daily life.
The boy slid the screen of his smartphone with his finger. It showed the exact same news that was on TV. The same thing had been reported for a few days in a row now. It seemed like something had happened in some other country, but not here. My mother probably hasn't even realised that the news is talking about things in some faraway (but real) country, thought the boy.
"Have you had breakfast?" she asked him. An out of date sandwich from the factory and milk sat on the table.
"I don't need any."
Holding his camera, the boy left the old, dirty apartment. Banging loudly down the stairs, he exited beneath the sunny winter sky, the air crisp and pleasant. The boy began walking through the clear air. He could smell the scent of winter daphne from somewhere. It seemed as though winter just wanted to end.
He went into the mulberry field. He saw ants crawling along the ground. The ants were already out. Had spring come? The wind was cold. He saw sandpipers flying in the blue sky.
Lifting the camera, the boy followed the ants through the viewfinder. They seemed to have found a flower that had bloomed, unable to wait for the right season, and formed an orderly line, moving their complex legs. The boy had heard somewhere that ninety-something percent of living creatures on earth were not humans or animals but insects. These small insects were the real rulers of the world.
The boy lost his way in a thicket by the water's edge. Led by the ants, he had walked all this way without even realising it. He felt himself step in something squishy, and looked down at his feet. Something was dripping to the ground, the ants crowding around. It took him a moment to realise that it was a human wrist. A dog with a torn lead appeared in front of the boy. It had a leg wearing black socks clamped in its red lips.
"Aah...!" the boy shouted loudly enough to surprise himself.
That was when he realised for the first time that he was standing in the middle of a cut up body. The body was Kasumi's. Her body had been chopped up into pieces, like the old tales of people being killed, cut up and scattered throughout the village by demons, not a pretty sight at all. And that was how the spiriting away became a murder case.
A large, black station wagon drove through the gates of St. Loudun's Academy For Girls and came to a stop in the courtyard. A woman wearing a miniskirt, her hair tied high in halves on her head, got out carrying a heavy-looking stainless steel box. She was a decade older than the girls at the school.
The girls were always sensitive to when outsiders came, and today was no exception. Since the incident had been reported on the news, they had been constantly excited about outsiders arriving.
"Hello!" Painfully aware of the girls' stares, she grinned with her fuchsia-pink lips. "Young ladies. My name is Keiko Makino. I work as an embalmer."
The woman calling herself Keiko Makino waved her hands, small like autumn leaves, sticking out from the stadium jacket with a star design that she wore. Her outfit and makeup seemed a little overdone, but not painfully so like Mary. The colour and design were carefully calculated, like a gravure shoot from a fashion magazine. It, naturally, came from her cover job as a hair and makeup artist.
"Embalmer?" one girl muttered softly. Keiko Makino nodded exaggeratedly in response.
"I make the bodies of people who died in a kind of special way look pretty. Ones who died normally, too, I guess, but I'm a specialist, you see; that's why I was summoned here."
Makino had a strange job, but didn't try to hide it. They had received a formal request from an actual living person this time, so she could call it her normal job, really.
"Hey, Makino. Don't just stand around talking," said a man with a low voice from inside the car. Men who weren't guardians of a student at the school rarely came inside, so just hearing a man's voice set the girls off twittering like birds.
A cool, bald man got out of the car. Was he what they called a skinhead? The girls, never having seen one before, recoiled momentarily, but were reassured by his kindly eyes.
"But I heard it was the cut up body of a pretty girl, right? I can use the training I had in America for once!"
Not seeming to quieten down, the man grabbed Keiko Makino by the hand and set off towards the chapel. The girls wondered what his name was.
"I told you to be quiet."
"Hey, you're hurting me, Karatsu. Don't drag me."That was how they learned only that his surname was Karatsu.
The man called Karatsu had a large canvas bag. The girls continued to chirp behind them, watching them go.
"Is someone dead?"
"They had no arms or legs?"
"Did someone kill them?"
This was the first time the girls learned that something had happened. It was something very different to the innocent rumours they had chattered about up until that point. Someone had really died. They flew into an instantaneous excitement. It wasn't just the imaginary rumours anymore - something like you would see on the news had really happened.
"This is awful."
"Let's get out of here."
Despite the whispers, none of them had any intention of going anywhere. Someone close to them had actually died. Why did they have to get out of such a pleasant place? More than anything, it excited them.
"Even if we did try to get out of here, there's nowhere for us to go..." someone whispered, but no one heard it. None of the girls noticed someone stepping on each of their shadows, one by one. None of them deserved to be cursed.
All the headmistress said was, Kasumi is dead, so we will be holding a funeral service.
The students assembled in the chapel, and read out a verse of the Bible. Everyone thought that Kasumi, the pieces of her body put back together, was inside the coffin, but the headmistress said nothing. Since a murder had occurred, there should be police cars, newspapers and TV stations there, but not a single one showed up. The girls, however, expected the commotion to begin then, so not many people grieved over Kasumi's death.
Risa was one of the few exceptions. Looking at the coffin Kasumi should be inside her eyes filled with tears, wondering what she would do if they found Itsuki's body, too.
When the over-simple service ended, Risa walked out into the long, waxed hallway, not quite sure where she was going. I'm sorry, Itsuki, I'm so sorry. I'll come too - take me with you. Cast the curse that only affects girls on me from wherever it is you are. Then she thought about Itsuki, the other missing girl.
Risa remembered Itsuki's scent. Itsuki used Christian Dior body lotion. It was one of Itsuki's strange rituals. In the morning and at night, twice a day, she would put body lotion smelling of all kinds of flowers on her hands, nails, elbows and knees. She could faintly smell it as she stood beside Itsuki in the changing room after PE class. At those moments, Risa always felt maturity from Itsuki.
Itsuki's straight hair, with its gently falling fringe, that fell to her shoulders. She had pronounced facial features, and looked even more like an adult than the other girls. If she took off her uniform, she would probably look twenty. The kiddy summer outfit with its puffy half-sleeves never suited Itsuki, Risa thought suddenly.
Hey, who do you think will be killed next? the girls whispered again innocently. Sometimes, fear felt good. The girls started to feel the joy of a cold snake slithering up their body.
Michi stood in the place where Kasumi had vanished. She hadn't gone to the chapel. What had happened to Kasumi was her own fault. She could cry later. She had yet to find any clues as to how to lift the curse, like she promised Aya.
Michi dug the ground where Kasumi's black patent shoes had been left, and buried there was the photo - the photo of Kasumi as Ophelia. She couldn't even say sorry. Then, Michi sensed someone behind her. Turning around, she saw her.