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It’s a quiet night. Chikako can’t sleep if it’s not absolutely quiet, the room completely dark. Hence the darkness, the quiet. Everything as it should be. Good. Nothing to keep her from falling asleep. Except Hana, whispering in the darkness. Hana, Chikako’s niece.

“Chika? I think there’s somebody out there. In the house.”

“Nobody’s out there,” Chikako replies immediately. Then, worried her tone might have been too harsh, she adds, soft and cajoling, “Everything’s fine. Let’s go to bed. Good night.”

Chikako listens for the moment her niece’s breathing will fold into soft snoring. Not wanting to miss it, she tries to draw on her own breath as little as possible. Slowly, slowly, she inhales; gently, gently, she releases. But no matter how long she waits, the night remains quiet. It seems Hana has the same idea. Even in the pitch black with her back turned to her niece, Chikako can tell.

Hana speaks. “There’s definitely somebody there.”

“Everything’s fine.”

“Really, everything is fine?”

Well, she has a point there. How could everything be fine? “Sorry, kiddo,” Chikako says. “But really, we’re fine. Nobody’s there.”

“Yes they are. Listen.”

Chikako does, reluctantly, but giving it her full attention. Sure enough, after a long moment she can make out something that sounds like a human voice. Not just one voice either, but a conversation. At least two people exchanging words, maybe more. Chikako has no idea what the voices are talking about, or if the people talking are men or women. Maybe they aren’t gendered at all.

But that’s impossible. The front door is locked tight. The windows too.

Hana is staring at Chikako. She can feel it through her back. Chikako heaves herself up, sliding her feet out from between the sheets and the comforter. Her feet, muffled by a pair of waiting slippers, make no sound against the floor. Hana also slips out of bed. Hunched down, they both feel their way forward in the pitch-black room with great care, hands stretched in front of them, fingers splayed. Hana’s little feet pitter-patter against the flooring. She isn’t wearing slippers. Chikako frowns. They were a little big, but she had lent her niece a pair.

“Chika, I can’t see. Use your phone.” Hana sounds worried. “The flashlight.”

“No need. Everything’s fine.” This time Chikako manages to inject some confidence into it. “Almost there.”

With perfect timing, Chikako finds the sliding door in front of her. Her master bedroom isn’t exactly spacious — there was hardly any floor space left after cramming two single beds together.

Opening the door, stepping into the living room — the total darkness fades away. All the living room lights are off, but there’s an intense brightness like a bomb has gone off, its moment of impact forever captured in the endless brilliance of a streetlight the same height as the balcony window; the light shines gently through the tightly shut curtains, filling the living room, passing through an open doorway to the dining room, and stretching even beyond that into the kitchen. Except for the bath and bedroom, this apartment could be one long, interconnected cave.

Hana doesn’t spare a single glance toward the balcony, even though it’s so bright. Isn’t that strange, Chikako thinks.

Hana steps into the blue-tinted living room, no hesitation as she turns toward where the shadows stretch long. Chikako follows silently. As she trails her niece, the talking voices grow louder, louder.

Hana stops abruptly. In front of the stove, atop the long-cold burner sits a kettle. There’s little left inside. A soggy hojicha teabag clings to the bottom of the strainer, if Chikako remembers correctly. Hana faces the stove, staring intently upward. Chikako follows her gaze to the kitchen hood. The talking voices seem to be finding their way in from there. Occasionally the stainless steel frame trembles, clattering a chorus.

Chikako and Hana hold their breath, listening with single-minded focus.

“It’s the wind,” Chikako finally ventures, after the midnight chill has seeped into their limbs. “Just the sound of the wind. And the leaves, rustling. Cars passing by. You know, just outside noises echoing in.”

Chikako’s eyes are fixed on the crown of her niece’s head. What light that isn’t blocked by Chikako’s own silhouette casts a halo of warmth onto that little whorl where the girl’s hair sprouts. Chikako imagines Hana’s soft hair spiraling inward like a whirlpool, sucked down into that spot. The hair whorl would suck in everything around it, not sparing Chikako herself. When there’s nothing left for it to drink, Hana will be next.

“Well?” Chikako prompts.

“Maybe you’re right.” Hana nods. “There wasn’t anybody here after all!” She turns to face Chikako, beaming. “Let’s go back to bed.”


Hana pads over to the bedroom and slips inside. After checking that the girl has tucked herself in, Chikako slides the door firmly shut, and total darkness returns. Chikako strains her eyes, raises a hand out in front of her to guide the way, then fumbles a few steps forward until she finds the wall. Her fingers slide along it until she’s back to her bed.

Hana has fallen asleep. Her breath whistles out in even slumber.

Meanwhile, Chikako realizes she won’t be able to sleep at all. Were kids these days really so naïve? Innocence is all well and good, but you need to cultivate a healthy level of skepticism if you want to survive in this day and age. What will become of that poor girl?

Chikako wants to shake her niece awake and begin the interrogation.

Hey, Hana? A minute ago, when we were standing by the stove, behind us, down that cavernous stretch which dead-ends at the balcony, did you ever hear, even once, a car, a motorbike, anything from that window? I’ll bet you never sensed a single biker, any walkers, did you? This apartment isn’t that big — if we were being quiet there’s no way we’d miss any of that. Also, the road out front is a small, one-way street, and there aren’t any trees close by. You know all of that, don’t you?

Chikako’s anxiety continues to build. Is there something wrong with her niece’s ears? Those were definitely human voices coming from the kitchen hood. Many people’s voices. Even now, she can still hear them over Hana’s soft snoring. What could they be talking about?

Chikako stares out into the total darkness, straining her ears, trying to determine the topic of discussion. There’s no way an anxious person like me could fall asleep in this situation, she thinks. I can’t figure out what they’re talking about, but at the same time it feels like I already know, and it’s that knowing feeling that lets me know I’ve actually got no idea. All I know is that it’s an intense discussion.

She can’t be sure how long she’s been laying there, listening, when a voice speaks close to her ear, this word unmistakable.


Chikako opens her eyes.

“Chika, psst, Chika.”

Just Hana. Also, it’s morning.

On the other side of the open bedroom door, the walls and floorboards are bathed in weak, gray light. Out of view, voices drift into the room from the window — middle-aged neighbors greeting each other on their morning rounds. Bicycles pass by. Motorbikes pass by. Du-dun, a bone-rattling sound. The children are playing basketball in the street. Chikako finds the phone next to her pillow still plugged into its charger, checks the time, and yawns a greeting.



“Good morning,” Chikako repeats herself in English.

The first G of Hana’s “good morning” starts deep in the back of her throat, but then she tongues the last G in a completely different way. Chikako attempts to copy her niece’s pronunciation, but it doesn’t come out right.

“Not even close,” Hana giggles, repeating herself. “That’s not it at all, Chika.”

Chikako tries several more times, all failures.

Which is business as usual. Chikako has never been able to work her tongue around English pronunciation. Even if she just focuses on the word itself, accent be damned, she still can’t communicate whatsoever. It’s not just English, either. If the words aren’t Japanese, she can’t handle them.

* * *

Nothing notable occurs, and day becomes night. Chikako and Hana move through the apartment, shut off all the lights, then turn in for the evening. Chikako stands at the sliding door, waiting for Hana to slip into the righthand bed, nestle under the covers, tuck her head down so her hair spills out across the pillow, and pull the comforter all the way up to her chin.

Chikako flips the switch — the room dims. When she slides the door closed behind her, the bedroom sinks into its usual total darkness.

Hands out in front of her, painting the air, Chikako finds the lefthand bed frame. Hunching over, she traces the sheets until she hits her pillow, then she removes her slippers and slides right into bed.

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

Chikako settles in to wait. But not for too long. If Hana starts snoring, it’ll be too late. Chikako counts down in her head.

“Hey, Hana? Is there anyone out there tonight?”

Hana jolts up behind her.

“Chikaaa, come on! No fair.”

Hidden under her covers, Chikako laughs.

“I just had this weird feeling yesterday, okay? Don’t try and scare me! And don’t you dare tell Mom.”

“Okay, okay, my bad,” Chikako says, still chuckling. “Sorry for teasing, it’s fine, I won’t tell my sister.”

“You promise?”


Hana retreats back under her covers.

Chikako doesn’t need Hana for anything else. Now if she would just go right to sleep — but of course, Hana tosses and turns. Pulls the comforter all the way up over her head. One minute, two minutes, Hana doesn’t stir. A-ha, she must be asleep. The moment that thought crosses her mind, Chikako feels a little foot slip under her comforter, the soft underside nudging her waist.

“No take-backs.” The words are sleepy and mumbled, but Chikako has no trouble hearing them. After all, she’s been listening carefully.

“I know, no take-backs.”

The little foot backs off. Exits her comforter.

Chikako presses her cheek into the pillow, keeping her eyes open. There they are. The talking voices. She’s been hearing them all this time, even before she feigned teasing and tested her hypothesis on Hana.

They had turned the TV off, taken their baths; she had dried Hana’s hair for her, stood beside her while they brushed their teeth, gargled, and right when she turned off the faucet, that’s when she’d noticed the voices once again.

This all probably brought Chikako back to that night many years ago. We were newlyweds — holding back a laugh, I had asked her:

“Hey, Chikako, is there anyone out there tonight?”

* * *

Early the next morning, Chikako’s older sister, Haruka, arrives to pick up Hana. Haruka is raising her daughter to be an internationally minded, worldly individual. In other words, she doesn’t want her daughter to turn out like Chikako. Even so, the sisters are quite close. I mean, Haruka did choose our apartment for Hana’s very first sleepover.

“Does that work for you?” Chikako had asked me. Soon enough the plan was set — Hana would come visit our small apartment on the weekend, while I was out on a business trip. The girl hadn’t even started kindergarten, but she’d already been to New York, twice. London, once. Hong Kong, Manila too. Chikako has never been abroad.

“You’re traveling again this summer, right? Oh, where was it . . .”


“Right, um, and that’s in . . .”


Backpack thumping against her back, Hana runs out into the hallway.

“Hana, were you a good girl for your Auntie Chikako?” Haruka squats down and stretches out her hands. In that stance she looks just like Chikako, fumbling around in the darkness of our bedroom.

“She was just that, weren’t you?” Chikako pats Hana on the head. Hana stares at her feet, accepting the pat without comment.

“Hm? Hana, what’s wrong?”

“Hm? Were you sad without your mommy there after all?”

They take turns trying to get something out of her, but Hana keeps her eyes fixed on the ground.

* * *

Later that day, Chikako calls in sick to work. She works at a language services center. They translate from Japanese to English, German, Chinese, or the other way around from English, German, Chinese into Japanese. They draw up all sorts of contracts, legal documents, accounting papers even, no profitable stone left unturned. Of course, Chikako doesn’t do the actual translating. She specializes in clerical work. Specifically, she drafts the schedule for their in-house translators and freelancers. She sorts work orders — written in Japanese — based on language and content, hands them off to the translators that specialize in those fields, and makes sure that there are no idle hands in the office. Sometimes she walks over to their desks in person, sometimes she sends an email, sometimes she picks up the phone. There are some foreigners among their translators, but she speaks to everyone in Japanese. Her cubicle is situated right at the center of the office floor. Wherever she turns, translators hunch over their desks, twenty translators at twenty cubicles. During work hours, Chikako is sometimes the only one to utter a word. The translators sit quietly at their desks, poring over dictionaries, searching on their computers, typing things in, flipping over documents, writing notes down in pen. Sometimes Chikako swears she can see the words rising up from their stations. They observe Chikako from every direction, monitoring her movements. Chikako and her Japanese cower in fear. German, Chinese, and English ask — why don’t you understand us? Why do you reject us? Why won’t you make an effort? It’s not like that, Chikako protests. I’m trying to understand. It’s just, I’m actually very busy. Chikako sniffs primly and straightens up. Chikako often needs to look over stacks of English, Chinese, and German documents. When she does, she thinks, I know this vocabulary. Her pupils dilate at this little thrill of excitement. I know this phrase. That one, and this one, I’ve seen them all spelled out so many times. I know this. I know this. It’s the same natural ease of reading Japanese, the same warm recognition of hearing her own name. Chikako becomes convinced that she’s basically read the texts. But in reality, they’re far beyond her grasp. She would lose to a single English sentence. Chikako’s “I know this” was simply just — I’ve seen this somewhere before. The meaning of those little lines of letters, that’s what she lacked. From time to time she would even crack open a dictionary herself. Right, right, that’s what it was, she’d nod. And promptly forget it all.

As if forgetting was just another part of the job.

“I seem to have caught a bad case of the flu,” Chikako explains, forcing a weak cough.

With the time she has carved out for herself, Chikako elects to sit on a barstool in front of the stove. The TV stays off. No music. Heating, off. There’s a chill to the air, so Chikako puts on a trench coat and wraps a wool muffler around her neck. Sitting on the barstool, Chikako stares up at the kitchen hood. The stainless steel part finished in opaque gray that she’s glaring at is called a rectifier. Though Chikako probably doesn’t know that.

Chikako holds her breath, listening. From the balcony window, the sounds of a car, a motorbike, a bicycle. Du-dun, a basketball on the pavement. Voices greeting each other, chit-chatting, the wind blowing, people talking on their phones as they pass by.

All of those sounds, but there, leaking from the hollow space at the edge of the rectifier, separate from any outdoor activity, Chikako distinguishes a chorus of many voices. She can hear them. She can hear them. She climbs atop the barstool and sticks her ears close, so close the duct looks like a hat she’s trying on for size. Unbelievable, she thinks. These people have been keeping up a lively conversation during the daytime too.

Chikako listens. It’s not a foreign language, she decides. She can just about understand them. But not quite — she can’t hear them perfectly. The voices are all talking over one another, that’s why she can’t understand, and they sound so far away. Just a little longer, she thinks, I definitely know this.

The woman must have nerves of steel. After staring at those lines of letters every day and facing the same bitter disappointment, she’s still at it. Chikako doesn’t learn. She’ll never learn. I’m frankly amazed.

Chikako breathes slow, deep breaths. The air is filled with these voices, dissolved into tiny particles. If she just breathes in enough of the particles, surely she’ll be able to understand their language. Those strange voices fill up her body, turn her red blood crimson.

* * *

The moment I get home from my business trip, Chikako corners me.

“You liar.”

Which throws me off. Chikako shouldn’t be home at this time of day. I didn’t realize she’d skipped work. I’m standing there with my overnight bag, dumbfounded, as Chikako runs her eyes over every inch of me. Her arms stay straight at her sides, not bothering to follow up her accusation with a jabbing finger. I tighten my grip on the bag. Inside are my smelly, sweaty shirts. Chikako and I both know how damp they are. Every moment that ticks by, bacteria are multiplying inside that overnight bag.

“I’m leaving you,” Chikako says, casual as can be. She even manages a faint smile. This has to be the first time I’ve ever heard Chikako sound so confident.

I ask why. The bacteria crawl out of the overnight bag and up inside me, burrowing into my chest and feasting. She can’t be serious, but it’s still no easy thing to hear those words from the woman I love.

I’m fairly certain I already know what this is all about, but I won’t give that away yet. Come on, tell me why, I ask again. Chikako begins to explain. The whole exchange with Hana, the sounds from the kitchen hood. How they aren’t noises from outside, but many human voices talking at once.

The confirmation knocks my breath away. So this day has finally come. I don’t know if I’ve been eagerly awaiting or dreading its arrival. I set down the overnight bag. With the release of my over-tight grip comes an overdue lance of pain that shoots through my palm.

“Liar,” Chikako accuses me yet again.

She’s not wrong. I did lie to Chikako some time ago.

It wasn’t long after we got married. Chikako woke me up in the middle of the night.

“Hey, I think there’s somebody out there. In the house.”

“Nobody’s out there,” I replied immediately. At the time, I felt like I’d been giving in to Chikako far too often. First she’d started on that she couldn’t sleep if it wasn’t totally dark, so I let her have her way. Our ceiling lights have dimmers. If it were up to me, I would have kept those little orange bulbs at their lowest setting. Isn’t it kind of dangerous to find the bathroom at night in the pitch black? But, whatever, I gave her that.

Beside my pillow I’d kept a pair of headphones and a hand radio so I could listen to my talk shows before bed, a common enough habit, but they were next on Chikako’s chopping block.

“I can’t stand to hear the crickly crack coming out of your headphones,” Chikako protested. Crickly crack? What the hell did that mean?

“I can’t sleep if it’s not completely quiet,” Chikako said, for some reason sounding proud. At the time I got a bit pissed, and almost started shouting.

So that night I had my hackles up, imagining what Chikako might demand next. Then I got worried my tone might have been too harsh, so I added, “Everything’s fine. Let’s go to bed,” or something like that, soft and cajoling.

Chikako didn’t let it go. After a few minutes she shook me awake, saying, “There’s definitely somebody there. Listen.”

She was definitely messing with me, there was no other explanation. Well, if Chikako wouldn’t give up, then I probably had to. When I sat up, Chikako quickly slipped out of bed. She made straight for the kitchen, no hesitation, then stopped abruptly in front of the stove. My shadow swallowed her body whole — her outline yawned like a Chikako-sized hole winking into existence inside that weak darkness. I heaved an internal sigh, resigned to await her next move.

Chikako faced away from me. Stood completely still. Her breathing so faint I wondered if she’d somehow managed to stop her pulse. As if she’d left animacy behind and become objectified, that’s how deeply Chikako listened. Almost like she wasn’t messing around at all. The moment I reached that conclusion, my heart gave a heavy thump. Strong enough to rattle my lungs, maybe even tear me apart. Of course. Of course she wasn’t. Chikako took everything seriously. My heart beat harder, rampaging inside me. At this rate even Chikako might hear it. It might get in her way.

Unable to bear another moment, I spoke. It’s just the wind. The leaves rustling. Just the sounds of cars and motorbikes. Of rain (that night was rainy). The kitchen hood cycles air from outside; it makes sense that some outdoor noises might get carried in too.

Chikako nodded obediently in response. That surprised me, but at the same time it wasn’t so surprising. I wonder, how was I hoping she’d react? Chikako looked relieved, apologized with a “sorry for scaring you” and the like.

The next night I waited for Chikako to bring up the voices again.

“Okay, I definitely hear someone,” I imagined she would say, pleading with me, clinging to my side.

I played out dozens of scenarios, replying differently each time. You’re right, and wrap my arms around her. This again?, and wrap my arms around her. You don’t have anything better to worry about, and wrap my arms around her. With her tucked into my side, I would explain everything, no matter how long it took. My arm around her shoulders, I’d go with her to the kitchen hood, keep her company until she calmed down. I’ll keep those voices away from you, I’d promise, and tape over the hollow space at the edge of the rectifier. Buy her some earplugs. Or a good set of headphones and a pocket radio to match mine.

But Chikako didn’t say a word. Relaxed and carefree as always, she said nighty night and turned off the lights. In the total darkness, I could hear her walking, the swish of her pajamas, her fumbling hand that finally reached its destination, and Chikako tucking herself into the bed beside me.

On edge, lonely, I could’ve killed her then and there.

“Hey, Chikako, is there anyone out there tonight?”

My strained voice, about to crack, weirdly verged on laughter. Sleepy and content, Chikako turned toward me, scooched near, kissed me. She couldn’t find my lips on the first attempt, her kiss landing instead on my Adam’s apple, my cheekbone. Laughing lowly, she slid both hands up to my temples, holding my head in place with a firm grip, finally striking home.

At that moment my chest quieted, not making a sound.

It was only for a fleeting moment, but my pulse halted, the base emotions that had filled me disappeared, and even the incessant racket of voices from the kitchen hood came to a total stop.

* * *

Earlier this afternoon, I got a call from Haruka. Though I had her number saved, she’d never called me before.

“Um, it’s about Chikako,” she started, as if it could be about anything else. But then, she spent the majority of her time talking about Hana. “Hana’s still too young for all this,” she rushed out, “I’ve been avoiding her questions about the kitchen hood, saying not until you’re older, you know? But then Hana, I mean, it seems like she might’ve asked Chikako about it? Because Hana asked me something really odd. She said, is there something wrong with Chika’s ears?”

Haruka fell silent for a moment, catching her breath.

“So, I was wondering. Is there any chance Chikako doesn’t know?” Haruka asked in a low voice.

She didn’t give me time to answer. “I’m the older sister but I never suspected, I mean nobody would even think to guess she might not, let’s be real, it’s not a topic most people bring up anyways, that girl’s always been off in her own head, but I never thought she was this oblivious, ah I’m so embarrassed that my own little sister hasn’t picked up on all the basics at her age, but she’s a good kid, but maybe we coddled her too much,” but, but, Haruka prattled on without stopping to breathe. “Hold on. Did you already know? You don’t seem surprised, that means you knew, right?”

“Come on, you knew, right?”

It would seem Chikako has already made up her mind. Haruka and Chikako have such similar voices — for some reason my brain was latching onto that obvious fact.

I nod. “Yeah, I knew.”

Chikako nods back. “How could you?”

Huh. So this is Chikako with her hearing intact. I stare. The deaf Chikako that saw me off on my business trip a few days ago, the one who heard the voices years ago but soon gave up, that Chikako isn’t here anymore.

“You’ve been lying to me this whole time. Even when I told you, I heard something from over there.” Her eyes boring into mine, she raises a finger and thrusts it toward the kitchen hood. “I hear voices talking, that’s what I said, right?”

“Wait a minute,” I say, somewhat flustered.


“That didn’t happen here. Think back, that was right after we got married.” Chikako, always jumping to conclusions. “We were still living down in N Ward, remember? That was at a different apartment. A different kitchen hood,” I say, enunciating every word.

Chikako’s expression hardens.

“What do you mean?”

“Basically —” I step forward. Take Chikako’s hand. Chikako doesn’t resist. She turns her gaze up toward me, her eyes blown wide. Her cold hands are slightly sticky from moisturizer.

“There are voices coming from every kitchen hood. The one there, the one here, everywhere.”

Chikako’s lip quivers, drawing my attention to her teeth, which are coated in saliva. Behind those, her tongue twitches in the dark.

“Sorry, could you say that again? A bit louder, please?” I whisper. “The voices from the kitchen hood are making such a racket today.”

* * *

Two days have passed, and Chikako still hasn’t answered, or said a single word. She doesn’t go to work. Though she was supposedly out with the flu, so it’s not like they’d expect her back the next day anyway. At night I sleep next to Chikako, and if my eyes happen to flutter open, the only blurred shape that gains focus is her face set against the total darkness. My eyes cracked to slits, I watch her lying on her stomach in bed and realize she’s looking at her phone. With those dark bags etched into her skin, it’s like she’s aged several years in a sudden rush. She’s probably not sleeping well. After all, Chikako can’t sleep at night unless it’s absolutely quiet. And there won’t be any more quiet nights for Chikako. I give her the space she wants, but of course I’ll be happy to answer any questions she might have.

Haruka calls me up on the phone.

“How’s Chikako doing?”

“She seems to be in shock,” I say.

“Shock?!” Her voice spikes so loud the connection crackles. “I’m the one who’s shocked!”

“That’s perfectly understandable.” I give a pained smile. “But everything will be fine. Probably.”

“Hana doesn’t seem fine to me,” Haruka starts presumptuously. It’s not like I’d asked about Hana. “Ever since she spent the night, the voices have been getting louder and louder for her — they’re freaking her out a bit. I’m still trying to play it off like usual. Everything’s fine, it’s just one of those things and all.”

“She’ll get used to them before long.”

“I know. I mean, that’s how it was for me.”

“And for everyone else.”

“Hopefully for Chikako too.”

Two days later when I get home, Chikako pads over to me, staring downward. Her complexion has lost all color and the dark bags under her eyes have sunken deeper. There’s a strange shine to her hair, which clumps together. It doesn’t seem like she’s been bathing.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Her voice is hard, but there’s embarrassment underneath.

Elated, I hug Chikako to my chest.

“Good. You’re not leaving me?”

“No, I’m not. But the voices, why didn’t you tell me?”

“If you couldn’t hear them, I figured you were fine the way you were.”

“Just like that?”

“You lied to Hana, didn’t you?”

“I guess I thought she’d be better off that way. I wonder why. Instinct?”

“Usually, though, we don’t make up some excuse about noises from outdoors. We just say, when you’re older.”

Chikako gives a little harrumph, takes my hand, and pulls me toward the stove. There’s already a barstool set out in front of it. Chikako sits. I tell her give me a second, then grab one of the hard-backed chairs from the kitchen table. Chikako grips the barstool under her, scooting over to the side. I settle down next to her. Chikako puts her hand on my thigh. I give it a comforting squeeze. As usual, the voices are going about their business.

“The voices, what are they?”

“Didn’t you google it?”

“Just tell me.”

“They’re all the people in hell,” I say.

“Uh-huh,” Chikako nods. “But I mean, is that a Christian hell? Or a Buddhist hell?”

“I bet you also looked that up.”

“Just . . .”

Chikako leans over, resting her head on my shoulder. She stinks, or at least she’s getting there. There’s a thick smell, like dust mixed with spilt jam left out to rot in the sun.

“It’s not either, really. Just, hell.”

“Do you think hell really exists?”

“Who knows. No one’s ever found it. But, you know, it’s just. It’s hell.”

We listen to the voices together. Stare up into that hollow space that borders the rectifier. Past the rectifier, up through the exhaust duct, that cavity empties outside. Outside, meaning, beyond these four walls. Streets, trees, cars, bicycles, chatting neighbors, wind, rain. Yet somehow this exhaust duct above the burners picks up sounds from much farther than that. Farther being just how far exactly, who could say, but definitely an extremely distant outside. About the same distance to that strange space inside of us that we haven’t dared to explore. At least that far, far outside.

Chikako straightens up, yawning.

“So sleepy. I’m dead on my feet.”

“You think you can sleep tonight?”

“I dunno. It’s not like I can’t fall asleep, but I sleep so lightly it doesn’t really feel like sleeping at all. If I don’t get a full night’s rest soon, I’m literally going to die.”

She gives another big yawn. Stretches out her limbs, wipes the corners of her eyes, stands, and lets the yawning take over her whole body until, spent, she thunks her head back down onto my shoulder.

“Does this mean you finally understand? That the voices aren’t talking?”



“They’re screaming, right? Everyone, all at once.”

“Yeah.” I nod. “Probably.”

“I wonder what they’re saying,” Chikako says, trying to sound playful, but she’s so tired her voice is nearly hoarse.

“Who knows.”

“I keep thinking if I listen just a little bit longer, I’ll understand.”

“You’ll understand? Nobody even knows what language they’re speaking.”

“But I’ve almost got it, I’m sure of it. I almost know what they’re saying.”

“You’ve almost got it? Chikako, you don’t even understand English.” A laugh bursts out of me.

“Oh, shut up.” Chikako pretends to be offended.

Save me, don’t you think?” I say.

She hesitates. “More like, come on over.”

Kaori Fujino

Kaori Fujino 藤野可織 is a prolific Japanese writer whose translated stories have appeared in Granta, Monkey, and the US-Japan Women’s Journal. In July 2023, Pushkin Press published her Akutagawa Prize-winning novella Nails and Eyes (trans. Kendall Heitzman).

Heather D. Davis

Heather D. Davis is a translator and writer living in Tokyo whose work has appeared in magazines such as Conjunctions, the Chicago Review, and The Paris Review. Her translation of “The Island” was nominated by The Brooklyn Rail for the 2019 Pushcart Prize.