Makino’s mother taught her caution, showed her how to carve her name into cucumbers, and insisted that she never let a kappa touch her. But when she grows up and her husband Tetsuya falls deathly ill, a kappa that claims to know her comes calling with a barbed promise. “A Cup of Salt Tears” is a dark fantasy leaning towards horror that asks how much someone should sacrifice for the one she loves.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by acquiring editor Carl Engle-Laird.
Someone once told Makino that women in grief are more beautiful. So I must be the most beautiful woman in the world right now, she thinks, as she shucks off her boots and leaves them by the door. The warm air of the onsen’s changing room makes her skin tingle. She slips off her stockings, skirt, and blouse; folds her underwear and tucks her glasses into her clean clothes; picks up her bucket of toiletries, and enters the washing area. The thick, hot air is difficult to breathe. She lifts a stool from the stack by the door, walks to her favorite spot, and squats down, resting for a few beats.
Kappa rappa kapparatta.
She holds the shower nozzle and douses herself in warm water, trying to get the smell of sickness off her skin.
She soaps and shampoos with great deliberation, repeating the rhyme in her head: kappa snatched; kappa snatched a trumpet. The trumpet blares. It is welcome nonsense, an empty refrain to keep her mind clear. She rinses off, running her fingers through her sopping hair, before standing and padding over to the edge of the hot bath. It is a blessing this onsen keeps late hours; she can only come once she knows Tetsuya’s doctors won’t call her. She tests the water with one foot, shuddering at the heat, then slips in completely.
No one else ever comes to witness her grief, her pale lips and sallow skin. Once upon a time, looking at her might have been a privilege; she spent some years smiling within the pages of Cancam and Vivi, touting crystal-encrusted fingernails and perfectly glossed lips. She never graced a cover, but she did spend a few weeks on the posters for Liz Lisa in Shibuya 109. It was different after she got married and left Tokyo, of course. She and Tetsuya decided to move back to her hometown. Rent was cheaper, and there were good jobs for doctors like him. She quickly found work at the bakery, selling melon pan and croissants. Occasionally they visited her mother, who, wanting little else from life, had grown sweet and mellow with age. Makino thought she understood that well; she had been quite content, until Tetsuya fell ill.
She wades to her favorite corner of the bath and sinks down until only her head is above the water. She squeezes her eyes shut. How long will he live, she thinks, how long will we live together?
She hears a soft splash and opens her eyes. Someone has entered the tub, and seems to be approaching her. She sinks deeper, letting the water cover her upper lip. As the figure nears, she sees its features through the mist: the green flesh, the webbed hands, the sara—the little bowl that forms the top of its head—filled with water that wobbles as it moves. It does not smell of rotting fish at all. Instead, it smells like a river, wet and earthy. Alive. Some things are different: it is more man-sized than child-sized, it has flesh over its ribs; but otherwise it looks just as she always imagined.
“Good evening,” the kappa says. The words spill out of its beak, smoothly liquid.
Makino does not scream. She does not move. Instead she looks at the closest edge of the bath, measuring how long her backside will be exposed if she runs. She won’t make it. She presses against the cold tile and thinks, Tetsuya needs me, thinks, no, that’s a lie, I can’t even help him. Her fear dissipates, replaced by helplessness, a brittle calm.
“This is the women’s bath,” she says. “The men’s bath is on the other side.”
“Am I a man?”
She hears the ripples of laughter in its voice, and feels indignant, feels ashamed.
“No. Are you going to eat me?”
“Why should I eat you, when you are dear to me?” Its round black eyes glimmer at her in earnest.
The water seems to turn from hot to scalding, and she stands upright, flushed and dizzy. “I don’t know who you are!” she shouts. “Go away!”
“But you do know me. You fell into the river and I buoyed you to safety. You fell into the river and I kissed your hair.”
“That wasn’t you,” she says, but she never did find out who it was. She thinks about certain death; thinks, is it any different from how I live now? It can’t possibly know this about her, can’t see the holes that Tetsuya’s illness has pierced through her; but then, what does it know?
“I would not lie to you,” it says, shaking its head. The water in its sara sloshes gently. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t touch you if you don’t wish me to.”
“And why not?” She lifts her chin.
“Because I love you, Makino.”
She reads to Tetsuya from the book on her lap, even when she knows he isn’t listening. He stares out the window with glassy eyes, tracing the movements of invisible birds. The falling snow is delicate, not white so much as the ghost of white, the color of his skin. Tetsuya never liked fairytales much, but she indulges herself, because the days are long, and she hates hospitals. The only things she can bear to read are the stories of her childhood, walls of words that keep back the tide of desperation when Tetsuya turns to her and says, “Excuse me, but I would like to rest now.”
It’s still better than the times when he jerks and lifts his head, eyes crowding with tears, and says, “I’m so sorry, Makino.” Then he attempts to stand, to raise himself from the bed, but of course he can’t, and she must rush over and put her hand on his knee to keep him from moving, she must kiss his forehead and each of his wet eyes and tell him, “No, it’s all right, it’s all right.” There is a cadence to the words that makes her almost believe them.
Tetsuya is twelve years her senior. They met just before she started her modeling career. He was not handsome. There was something monkeylike about his features, and his upper lip formed a strange peak over his lower lip. But he was gentle, careful; a doctor-in-training with the longest, most beautiful fingers she has ever seen. He was a guest at the home of her tea ceremony sensei. When she handed the cup to him, he cradled her fingers in his for a moment, so that her skin was trapped between his hands and the hot ceramic. When he raised the drink to his lips, his eyes kept darting to her face, though she pretended not to notice by busying herself with the next cup.
He thanked her then as he does now, shyly, one stranger to another.
She has barely settled in the bath when it appears.
“You’ve come back,” it says.
She shrugs. Her shoulders bob out of the water. As a girl Makino was often chided for her precociousness by all except her mother, who held her own odd beliefs. Whenever they visited a temple, Makino would whisper to the statues, hoping they would give her some sign they existed—a wink, maybe, or a small utterance. Some kind of blessing. She did this even in Tokyo DisneySea, to the statue of Rajah the Tiger, the pet of her beloved Princess Jasmine. There was a period in her life when she wanted nothing more than to be a Disney Princess.
It figures, of course, that the only y?kai that ever speaks to her is a kappa. The tips of its dark hair trail in the water, and its beaklike mouth is half-open in an expression she cannot name. The ceiling lights float gently in the water of its sara.
She does not speak, but it does not go away. It seems content to watch her. Can’t you leave me here, with my grief?
“Why do you love me?” she asks at last.
It blinks slowly at her, pale green lids sliding over its eyes. She tries not to shudder, and fails.
“Your hips are pale like the moon, yet move like the curves of ink on parchment. Your eyes are broken and delicate and your hands are empty.” It drifts closer. “Your hair is hair I’ve kissed before; I do not forget the hair of women I love.”
I am an ugly woman now, she thinks, but looking at its gaze, she doesn’t believe that. Instead she says, “Kappa don’t save people. They drown them.”
“Not I,” it says.
Makino does not remember drowning in the river. She does not remember any of those days spent in bed. Her mother told her afterward that a policeman saved her, or it might have been the grocer’s son, or a teacher from the nearby elementary school. It was a different story each time. It was only after she was rescued that they finally patched the broken portion of the bridge. But that was so many years ago, a legend of her childhood that was smeared clear by time, whitewashed by age. She told Tetsuya about it once, arms wrapped around his back, one leg between his thighs. He kissed her knuckles and told her she was lucky, it was a good thing she didn’t die then, so that he could meet her and marry her and make love to her, the most beautiful girl in the world.
She blinks back tears and holds her tongue.
“I will tell you a fairytale,” the kappa says, “Because I know you love fairytales. A girl falls into a river—”
“Stop,” she says, “I don’t want to hear it.” She holds out her hands, to keep it from moving closer. “My husband is dying.”
Tetsuya is asleep during her next visit. She cradles his hand in hers, running her thumb over his bony fingers—so wizened now, unable to heal anyone. She recalls the first time she noticed her love for him. She was making koicha, tea to be shared among close companions, under her teacher’s watchful gaze. Tetsuya wasn’t even present, but she found herself thinking of his teeth, his strange nervous laughter, the last time he took her out for dinner. The rainbow lights of Roppongi made zebra stripes across his skin, but he never dared kiss her, not even when she turned as the train was coming, looking at him expectantly. He never dared look her in the eye, not until she told him she would like to see him again, fingers resting on his sleeve.
She looked down at the tea she was whisking and thought, this tastes like earth, like the bone marrow of beautiful spirits, like the first love I’ve yet to have. It is green like the color of spring leaves and my mother’s favorite skirt and the skin of a kappa. I’m in love with him. She whisked the tea too forcefully, some of it splashing over the edge of the cup.
“Makino!” her sensei cried.
She stood, heart drumming in her chest, bowed, apologized, bowed again. The tea had formed a butterfly-shaped splotch on the tatami mats.
Tetsuya’s sudden moan jolts her from her thoughts—a broken sound that sets her heart beating as it did that moment, long ago. She spreads her palm over his brow.
Does a kappa grant wishes? Is it a water god? Will it grant my wish, if I let it touch me? Will I let it touch me?
She gives Tetusya’s forehead a kiss. “Don’t leave me before the New Year,” she says. She really means don’t leave me.
This time, it appears while she’s soaping her body.
It asks if it can wash her hair.
She remains crouched on her stool. The suggestion of touch makes her tremble, but she keeps her voice even. “Why should I let you?”
“Because you are dear to me.”
“That isn’t true,” she says. “I do know about you. You rape women and eat organs and trick people to get their shirikodama, and I’m not giving you that, I’m not going to let you stick your hand up my ass. I don’t want to die. And Tetsuya needs me.”
“What if I tell you I need you? What if I could give you what you want? What if I,” it looks down at the water, and for a moment, in the rising mist, it looks like Tetsuya, when she first met him. Hesitant and wondering and clearly thinking of her. Monkeylike, but somehow pleasing to her eyes. “What if I could love you like him?”
“You’re not him,” she says. Yet when it reaches out to touch her, she does not flinch. Its fingers in her hair are long and slim and make her stomach curl, and she only stops holding her breath when it pulls away.
The grocery is full of winter specials: Christmas cakes, discounted vegetables for nabe hotpot, imported hot chocolate mixes. After Christmas is over, these shelves will be rapidly cleared and filled with New Year specials instead, different foods for osechi-ryori. Her mother was always meticulous about a good New Year’s meal: herring roe for prosperity, sweet potatoes for wealth, black soybeans for health, giant shrimp for longevity. They’re only food, however; not spells, not magic. She ignores the bright display and walks to the fresh vegetables, looking for things to add to her curry.
She’s almost finished when she sees the pile of cucumbers, and ghostlike, over it, the kitchen of her childhood. Mother stands next to her, back curved in concentration. She is carving Makino’s name into a cucumber’s skin with a toothpick. “We’ll throw this in the river,” Mother says, “so that the kappa won’t eat you.”
“Does the kappa only appear in the river, mother? And why would the kappa want to eat me?”
“Because it likes the flesh of young children, it likes the flesh of beautiful girls. You must do this every year, and every time you move. And don’t let them touch you, darling. I am telling you this for you are often silly, and they are cruel; do not let them touch you.”
“But what if it does touch me, mother?”
“Then you are a foolish girl, and you cannot blame me if it eats up everything inside you.”
Young Makino rubs the end of the cucumber.
Is there no way to befriend them, mother? But she doesn’t say those words, she merely thinks them, as her mother digs out the last stroke, the tail end of no in Ma-ki-no.
She frowns at the display, or perhaps at the memory. If I throw a cucumber in the hot spring it will merely be cooked, she thinks. She buys a few anyway. At home, she hesitates, and then picks one up and scratches in Tetsuya’s name with a knife. She drops it into the river while biking to work the following morning. The rest of them she slices and eats with chilled yogurt.
When it appears next it is close enough that if it reached out it could touch her, but it stays in place.
“Shall I recite some poetry for you?”
She shakes her head. She thinks, the skins we inhabit and the things we long to do inside them, why are they so different?
“I don’t even know your name,” she says.
The way its beak cracks open looks almost like a smile. “I have many. Which would please you?”
“The true one.”
It is quiet for a moment, then it says, “I will give you the name I gave the rice farmer’s wife, and the shogun’s daughter, and the lady that died on the eve of the firebombs.”
“Women you have loved?” Her own voice irritates her, thin and breathless in the steam-filled air.
“Women who have called me Kawataro,” it says. “Women who would have drowned, had I not saved them and brought them back to life.”
“Kawataro,” she says, tears prickling at the corner of her eyes. “Kawataro, why did you save me?”
“Kindness is always worth saving.”
“Why do you say I am kind?”
It tips its head, the water inside sloshing precariously. It seems to be saying, will you prove me wrong?
She swallows, lightheaded, full of nothing. Her pulse simmers in her ears. She crosses the distance between them and presses herself against its hard body, kisses its hard little mouth. Its hands, when they come up to stroke her back, are like ice in the boiling water.
Kawataro does not appear in the onsen the next time she visits. There are two foreigners sitting in the bath, smiling at her nervously, aware of their own intrusion. The blonde woman, who is quite lovely, chats with Makino in halting Japanese about how cold it is in winter, how there is nothing more delightful than a warm soak, or at least that’s what Makino thinks she is saying. Makino smiles back politely, and does not think about the feeling rising in her stomach—a strange hunger, a low ache, a sharp and painful relief.
This is not a fairytale, Makino knows, and she is no princess, and the moon hanging in the sky is only a moon, not a jewel hanging on a queen’s neck, not the spun silk on a weaver’s loom. The man she loves is dying, snowfall is filling her ears, and she is going to come apart unless somebody saves him.
The bakery closes for the winter holiday, the last set of customers buying all the cakes on Christmas Eve. Rui comes over as Makino is removing her apron. “Mizuki-san. Thank you for working hard today.” She bows. “I’ll be leaving now.”
“Thank you for working hard today,” Makino echoes. She’s not the owner, but she is the eldest of the staff, the one who looks least attractive in their puffy, fluffy uniforms. Rui and Ayaka are college students; Yurina and Kaori are young wives, working while they decide whether they want children. Makino gets along with them well enough, but recently their nubile bodies make her tired and restless.
She never had her own children—a fact that Tetsuya mourned, then forgave, because he had a kind heart, because he knew her own was broken. She used to console herself by thinking it was a blessing, that she could keep her slim figure, but even that turned out to be a lie.
Rui twists her fingers in her pleated skirt, hesitating. Makino braces herself for the question, but it never comes, because the bell over the door rings and a skinny, well-dressed boy steps in. Rui’s face breaks into a smile, the smile of someone deeply in love. “Just a minute,” she calls to the boy. He nods and brings out his phone, tapping away. She turns back to Makino, and dips her head again.
“Enjoy yourself,” Makino says, with a smile.
“Thank you very much. Merry Christmas,” Rui answers. Makino envies her; hates her, briefly, without any real heat. Rui whips off her apron, picks up her bag, and runs to the boy. They stride together into the snowy evening.
That night, the foreigners are gone, and Kawataro is back. It tells her about the shogun’s daughter. How she would stand in the river and wait for him, her robes gathered around one fist. How her child, when it was born, was green, and how she drowned it in the river, sobbing, before anyone else could find it. How Kawataro had stroked her hair and kissed her cheeks and—Makino doesn’t believe this part—how it had grieved for its child, their child, floating down the river.
“And what happened?” Makino says, trailing one finger idly along Kawataro’s shoulders. They are sitting together on the edge of the tub, their knees barely visible in the water.
Kawataro’s tongue darts over its beak. Makino thinks about having that tongue in her mouth, tasting the minerals of the bathwater in her throat. She thinks about what it means to be held in a monster’s arms, what it means to hold a monster. Kappa nappa katta, kappa nappa ippa katta.
Am I the leaf he has bought with sweet words, one leaf of many?
Kawataro turns to her, face solemn as it says, “She drowned herself.”
It could not save her, perhaps; or didn’t care to, by then? Makino thinks about the shogun’s daughter: her bloated body sailing through the water, her face blank in the moonlight, the edges of her skin torn by river dwellers. She thinks of Kawataro watching her float away, head bent, the water in its sara shimmering under the stars.
Katte kitte kutta.
Will I be bought, cut, consumed?
She presses her damp forehead against Kawataro’s sleek green shoulder. Have I already been?
“How will this story end?” she asks.
It squeezes her knee with its webbed hand, then slips off the ledge into the water, waiting for her to follow. She does.
She spends Christmas Day in the hospital, alternately napping, reading to Tetsuya, and exchanging pleasantries with the doctors and nurses who come to visit. She leans as close as she can to him, as if proximity might leech the pain from his body, everything that makes him ache, makes him forget. It won’t work, she knows. She doesn’t have that kind of power over him, over anyone. Perhaps the closest she has come to such power is during sex.
The first time she and Tetsuya made love he’d been tender, just as she imagined, his fingers trembling as he undid the hooks of her bra. She cupped his chin and kissed his jaw and ground her hips against his, trying to let him know she wanted this, he didn’t need to be afraid. He gripped her hips and she wrapped her legs around him, licking a wet line from his neck to his ear. He carried her to the bed, collapsing so that they landed in a tangled pile, desperately grappling with the remainders of each other’s clothing. His breath was ragged as he moved slowly inside her, and she tried not to cry out, afraid of how much she wanted him, how much she wanted him to want her.
On his lips that night her name was a blessing: the chant of monks, the magic spells all fairytales rest on.
Now he stirs, and his eyes open. He says her name with a strange grace, a searching wonder, as if how they came to know each other is a mystery. “Makino?”
“Yes, my darling?”
His breath, rising up to her, is the stale breath of the dying.
“So that’s where you are,” he says at last. He gropes for her hand and holds it. “You’re there, after all. That’s good.” He pauses, for too long, and when she looks at him she sees he has fallen asleep once more.
The next time they meet, they spend several minutes soaking together in silence.
She breaks it without preamble. “Kawataro, why do you love me?” Her words are spoken without coyness or fear or fury.
“A woman in grief is a beautiful one,” it answers.
“That’s not enough.”
Kawataro’s eyes are two black stones in a waterfall of mist. It is a long time before it finally speaks.
“Four girls,” it says. “Four girls drowned in three villages, before they fixed the broken parts in the bridges over the river. My river.” It extends its hand and touches the space between her breasts, exerting the barest hint of pressure. Her body tenses, but she keeps silent, immobile. “You were the fifth. You were the only one who accepted my hand when I stretched it out. You,” it says, “were the only one who let me lay my hands upon you.”
The memory breaks over her, unreal, so that she almost feels like Kawataro has cast a spell on her—forged it out of dreams and warped imaginings. The terrible rain. The realization that she couldn’t swim. The way the riverbank swelled, impenetrable as death. How she sliced her hand open on a tree root, trying desperately to grab onto something. How she had seen the webbed hand stretched towards her, looked at the gnarled monkey face, sobbed as she clung for her life, river water and tears and rain mingled on her cheeks. How it tipped its head down and let something fall into her gaping, gurgling mouth, to save her.
“I was a stupid little girl,” she says. “I could have drowned then, to spare myself this.” She laughs, shocking herself; the sound bounces limply against the tiles.
Kawataro looks away.
“You are breaking my heart, Makino.”
“You have no heart to break,” she says, in order to hurt it; yet she also wants to be near it, wants it to tell her stories, wants its cold body to temper the heat of the water.
It looks to the left, to the right, and it takes a moment for her to realize that it is shaking its head. Then in one swift motion it wraps its arms around her and squeezes, hard, and Makino remembers how kappa like to wrestle, how they can force the life out of horses and cattle by sheer strength. “I could drain you,” it says, hissing into her ear. “I could take you apart, if that would help. I could take everything inside you and leave nothing but a hollow shell of your skin. I do not forget kindness, but I will let you forget yours, if it will please you.”
Yes, she thinks, and in the same heartbeat, but no, not like this.
She pushes against it, and it releases her. She takes several steps back and lifts her head, appraising.
“Will you heal my husband?” she asks.
“Will you love me?” it asks.
The first time she fell in love with Tetsuya, she was making tea. The first time she fell in love, she was drowning in a river.
“I already do.”
Kawataro looks at her with its eyes narrowed in something like sadness, if a monster’s face could be sad. It bows its head slightly, and she sees the water inside it—everything that gives it strength—sparkling, reflecting nothing but the misted air.
“Come here,” it says, quiet and tender. “Come, my darling Makino, and let me wash your back.”
Tetsuya drinks the water from Kawataro’s sara.
The doctors cannot stop saying what a miracle it is. They spend New Year’s Eve together, eating the osechi-ryori Makino prepared. They wear their traditional attire and visit the temple at midnight, and afterward they watch the sunrise, holding each other’s cold hands.
It is still winter, but some stores have already cleared space for their special spring bargains. Makino mouths a rhyme as she sets aside ingredients for dinner. Tetsuya passes her and kisses her cheek, thoughtlessly. He is on his way to the park for his afternoon walk.
“I’m leaving now,” he says.
“Come back safely,” she answers. She feels just as much affection for Tetsuya as she did before, but nothing else. Some days her hollowness frightens her. Most days she has learned to live with it.
When the door shuts behind him, she spends some moments in the kitchen, silently folding one hand over the other. She decides to take a walk. Perhaps after the walk she will visit her mother. She puts a cucumber and a paring knife into her bag and heads out. By now the cold has become bearable, like the empty feeling in her chest. She follows the river towards the bridge where she once nearly lost her life.
In the middle of the bridge she stands and looks down at the water. She has been saved twice now by the same monster. Twice is more than enough. With a delicate hand, she carves the character for love on the cucumber, her eyes blurring, clearing. She leans over the bridge and lets the cucumber fall.
Copyright © 2014 by Isabel Yap
Art copyright © 2014 by Victo Ngai