Akai Ito

by Crescenda Long

“It was right here a moment ago. I swear it.”

And it had been, though it certainly is not there now. Rio folds her arms across her chest and gives the station master a defiant look.

To his credit, the man simply offers her a bland smile in return. It is, after all, as much a part of his uniform as the jacket is. She stares at the glossy row of brass buttons lining the front of the navy blue fabric, the small circles glinting in the weakening light. He probably polishes them every day, she thinks, a frown furrowing the pale skin between her dark eyes. Or his wife does. Rio can taste the thought, acerbic and bitter on the back of her tongue. She wonders how he manages to keep his gloves so white in a building full of smoke.

“It is windy, miss. Perhaps it has blown further down the track?”

They both shiver at the mention of the wind, even though it is quiet now. Winter has a way of doing that. Even in the city, people start to feel hunted.

It all only serves to make Rio feel the loss of her new hat more keenly. She absently touches the soft black of her windswept hair, the close-cropped strands leaving her neck bare to the chill. The cut is a relic from last decade’s fashion; Kimiko had advised her to grow it out. These days, it was just one more line of defiance that went unnoticed.

“It’s white, with a scarlet ribbon,” she tells him, frustration curling like steam inside of her carefully modulated tone. “Is there a Lost and Found counter I might visit?”

The station master automatically opens his mouth to speak before closing it again, cocking his head to the side in a sudden revelation of curiosity. The gesture reminds Rio of the tiny sparrows she’d seen hopping about the entrance of the shrine.

“I am very sorry, miss, but there is not,” he says finally, sounding just as mystified by the revelation as she is. “People do not lose things here.”

Utter nonsense, of course; and he knows it, too. Rio can see it on his face. She can remember coming here as a little girl, patiently holding her mother’s hand as they’d waited for a solitary, two car train. But things have changed over the years. Already, the parallel lines of platforms are filling in preparation for the evening’s big event — unfamiliar faces taut with cold and back-lit by anticipation, anonymous in their blend of age and class and gender. They all want to see it. Not even the wind has managed to keep them away. Rio thinks of the pictures on the posters lining the entrance. All that thick, black ink. If her hat has indeed blown further down the rails, there will be no retrieving it after. She flips up the collar of her coat and gazes down the line into the encroaching darkness, grayed like old film by flakes of falling snow.

“Thank you,” she tells him flatly, then turns to go before he can bother with a reply.


The loss of her hat has soured her mood, and she thinks of returning home. Her bicycle is outside somewhere, doubtlessly tangled together now in a mass of others just like it — something she had purchased herself with her own hard-won coin, battered into obscurity and insignificance by the thoughtlessness of strangers. She should have canceled the trip. Visiting the shrine had been Kimiko’s idea; Rio had only agreed because the visit had coincided so perfectly with the arrival of the streamliner. But after the argument they’d had last night, Rio had not really expected the other woman to show. In that, at least, she had not been disappointed.

The darkness makes it too easy to see everything that isn’t there. Kimiko’s long hair, damp from the steam in the bath, spreads like ribbons of ink across the blurred edge where the burning red neon fades into the emptiness of night. Like the tip of the lit cigarette Rio had held between her fingers as she had sat perched on the edge of the tub, watching. Occasionally, she had leaned forward to offer Kimiko a draw of smoke, and the flaming ember flared crimson in the depths of her black eyes; sparking inside the diamond on her left hand whenever she reached up out of neon-streaked water to take it. Such a modern, Western contrivance, much more befitting of the stylish bob she’d shrewdly grown out — and the scarlet-painted mouth she still has not — then of the concession she’d made when she’d agreed to wear it.

Rio blinks, red neon fracturing like drops of bath water at the diamond-studded corners of her eyes until she angrily wipes them away, reminding herself that it’s only the wind.

She plants her feet as wide as she’s able in her pencil skirt, but her heels have not been designed for stability, and she is steadily buffeted by the thickening stream of people flooding into the station’s concourse. They’ll have to purchase a ticket if they want to witness the spectacle, same as any show. But the rows of dark, peeling posters plastering the station walls assures them that it will be worth it. A pretty piece of propaganda, and it’s worked. The people have turned out in droves. Seemingly impervious to the construction barriers which have sprung up like fallen trees around the station’s perimeter, they flood into every gap that will accommodate them. Normally, it is the sort of disorder that would please Rio in such an orderly throng. But tonight she simply tilts her head back, watching the sepia-toned halos of cold hovering like moths around the bare bulbs suspended from the ceiling, ignoring the corps of photographers attempting to ford the stream to the platform’s opposite shore.

It had been just as cold at the shrine, and almost as crowded. Most of the women there had worn their traditional best, yards and yards of silken flowers and tasteful furs, but this was still the city; there had been a few other women dressed like her. They nodded at one another as they passed, tired eyes shadowed beneath the brims of their hats, like veteran soldiers of some bygone conflict. Only, they had never been soldiers. That hadn’t been the point. It seems unfair to Rio that they should be forced to accept defeat in a war they’d had no part in.

She thinks of the calluses on her niece’s thin, slender hands, about all the straw men the young girls have slain in place of literature and mathematics. The moga of Rio’s youth may not have waged a war, but the times are changing, and war is coming.

She can smell it on the wind, clear as snow.

Maybe that was the real reason she had decided to visit the shrine, even without Kimiko. She had told herself it was to watch the fire. All the bad fortunes of the previous year had been untangled from the skeletal branches that had held them, and then cast into the heart of the inferno. She likes to watch the embers smolder in the shimmering halo surrounding the blaze, one last, ragged cry of malice before they are consumed.

Sparks of neon against the gunmetal of a low-hanging sky.

The freshly raked gravel had shifted beneath her feet as she’d carefully picked her way down the stately path. There had been a large black crow perched on the red torii gate; she had craned her neck around to see it, incurring the low-key wrath of a number of the people shuffling along behind her. The carrion birds of the city have always been large. They have so much to feed upon. But this one had been enormous, a hulking shadow of hunger looming like a hole carved out of the dull gray sky. If Rio were to create a new character for ‘ravenous’ in the language of her own times, it would look like that: hunched and watchful, dark as night.

After that, everything had felt cold. The water in the chozuya had glittered even in the absence of sun, but it was winter, after all, and the chill of it had stayed with her long after she had passed. Her own breath was damp against her cheeks as each exhalation coiled like a wisp of steam, invisible lines of impatience and exasperation like secret war paint against her skin. Rio had only had two go’en coins in her pockets, the copper tinged red with age and the press of many fingers. A prayer for Kimiko, and one for herself. “May her union be blessed with happiness,” she’d whispered, the words tasting like iron in the back of her throat. Then she’d uncurled her tightly clenched fingers and let the coins go.

She’d told herself that this year would be different, but no year ever was. The slender, bare-headed saplings lining the shrine’s perimeter had been dusted white long before it had started to snow. Rio had skimmed her fingertips along the static ridges of their artificial blossoms, trying to feel the heat contained inside. Bad fortune should feel warm, shouldn’t it? Just a handful of embers not yet set alight. She’d touched the calloused gray bark — sturdy, despite its youth. She can remember a time when the trees had been brown, before the trains had come.

She had twisted her own fortune between her fingers, and then let it fall to the ground to be lost in the gathering snow. Let the bad luck make its way out into the world if it wished. What did a modern girl like her care for a thing like that?

Kimiko was different, of course. Kimiko was betrothed. So Rio had purchased an amulet for her, just in case.

What she thinks about as she holds it now is not the potency of its charms, but rather the elderly matron who had rudely pushed past her on the way to the stall. Rio was used to the derisive looks. There had even been a time when she’d enjoyed them. It was something of a badge of honor to be so disdained. But ever since women in aprons and kimonos had begun to appear on the covers of her fashionable magazines, the balance had shifted. “Don’t you love your country?” the old matron had seethed. But Rio had no interest in nationalism. The middle words had been snatched away into the teeth of the wind, and had not been missed. Instead, all that Rio had heard was, “Don’t you love?”

A crimson burn of vitriol unfurling in the cold air like the scarlet ribbon of her new hat in the wind.

Don’t you love?

The constant haze of smoke and steam brewing inside the station billows around her, like cigarette smoke trapped inside a small city apartment. Don’t you love? Neon red pulses hotly against the sepia ash of drifting snow, and below her feet, Rio feels the earth begin to quake beneath the forlorn howl of an approaching train.

Don’t you love?

She grits her teeth, and shoulders her way back inside.


Rio might be able to remember a time when there had only been one platform and one train, but those days are long past. Even now, Shinjuku station is expanding. It had happened almost organically throughout the years, in spite of the ignored construction barriers cluttering the concourse. Hallways branch out from its center like the gossamer threads of a spider’s web, interconnected but not entirely sure. And tonight, strange as it seems, the approach of the mammoth streamliner has left them all but empty. The unsteady heels of Rio’s pumps echo like gunshot against the scuffed tiles of the long corridors, a sound which somehow seems to take on a life of its own the further away from her it travels.

It feels strange, to walk through a place like this with no set destination in mind. Transportation hubs are meant to lead somewhere. But in the absence of other travelers, each corridor simply becomes an elongated box of dull, warped light, peppered with peeling ads and their cartoonish scrawl. She tells herself that she’s looking for her lost hat, but as the station master said: people do not lose things in Shinjuku station.

The tracks beneath her shudder and snarl again, hard enough this time to send her careening across the scuffed tile. What train could possibly be that loud? Rio cocks her head to one side as she steadies herself against the wall, listening for the answering cheer of the assembled crowd — but it never comes. Where have all the people gone? When she lifts her hand from the wall, she leaves behind the imprint of her splayed fingers, skeletal and bone-white against the layers and layers of soot.

Don’t you love?

Light from the bare bulbs overhead pools and puddles along the floor, stained red by smears of neon leaking through the grimy windows. Rio watches it drip down a side corridor, leading off along another thread in the spider’s web. She was raised in this strange, tumultuous city; she knows how to brace for a quake. Slowly, as if in a dream, she reaches down and removes her heels, holding the scarlet vinyl between smoke-stained fingers as she follows the dripping light off into the darkness.


They had met at a party; wasn’t that usually the way? Rio had only been nineteen, recently liberated from the stuffy confines of her grandparents’ home to take a job as a typist in the city. Honestly, she doesn’t recall much about that night, save that she had been flush from the victory of her first paycheck (and too naive yet to know what a pittance it was.)

Kimiko had been just that little bit older and that little bit wiser, resplendent in a smoky black dress that made her stand out against all the bright floral prints gathered in the garden of the foyer. She had been wearing that same bright red shade of lipstick, even then — a shade much darker than any of the other girls had dared. It was a statement; the sort of red that marked territory, leaving a trail of all the people she’d consumed and all the wine she had kissed. Like a red string of fate, dragging through the detritus of all that she’d left behind.

How were they supposed to know how soon the party would end?

They’d gotten drunk enough to slow dance for the first time that night. Someone had put on a jazz record in the other room, and they’d gone out to the balcony for fresh air and stale cigarettes, shivered out of boxy packages crushed flat inside the confines of their slender, stylish purses. It had been late in in the season — February, she thinks; hadn’t that been the real reason for the party, for all the pretty modern women to show off their freshly imported clothes? And even though it was cold, they could smell spring on the air. It was the dampness that did it. Sweet tendrils of petrichor sat heavy against the darker notes of ash on her tongue, beaded fat as pearls on the rusted metal of the balcony rail. Humidity looped the short hairs at the back of Kimiko’s hair into scrawls against the nape of her neck, mysterious words in a foreign language that Rio had longed to read, and the jazz music had trickled soft and sultry through the gap left in the open sliding door. It had not been about lust, exactly. Or at least, Rio had never framed it to herself as such. It had been about the 20’s, hers and the century’s, stretching limitless from that moment into the heavy promise of the night.

Rio cannot remember what they talked about, because ultimately, it had not mattered. What mattered was the neon tangled up in the gloss of Kimiko’s straight, dark hair; the way she would absently hum along to the jazz music in between words, always somehow in time to the stuttering buzz of the shop sign flickering above their heads. What mattered was her laughter, dark as coffee and rich as smoke.

For the rest of her life, this is how Kimiko would always appear to her. When the older woman was exhausted from a long shift on her feet, when she was bedraggled from the rain and snarling and in desperate need of a cigarette, when she was maudlin and cryptic after a day spent with her disapproving mother — this is how Rio would see and remember her:

Young and vibrant as the city night itself, with neon fireflies in her hair and a mouth that tasted of rain.

If the 1920’s were a labyrinth, then there was poor Rio, left grasping the end of a fraying string that only guided her deeper, with no hope of escape.

Don’t you love?


Rio has walked the halls of this station a thousand times, but she feels certain that she has never been here before. The rumble of machinery beneath her stocking feet has dulled into a low, constant growl — or perhaps simply the echo of one. And the advertisements lining the walls have grown older, and strange. Betty Boop’s face, creased in soggy ridges of unpeeling glue; Felix the Cat, brandishing items from his bag of tricks that have faded to nothingness in the unforgiving sunlight. All these characters and cultural icons from her youth, imported from the West to usher the people of the East into a new mode of living. Had they been banished here to this deserted corridor with the changing tides? Were they now nothing more than relics of a bygone era?

Was she?

Bracing her feet carefully in a slick of crimson light, Rio leans closer to the nearest poster and peers at the spider veins of age fracturing the ink, trying to find something of herself hidden inside.

But then the roar comes again, harsher and more insistent, and she remembers her hat. She cannot let it go. The 20’s are evaporating, effervescent as that haze of neon she cannot seem to get out of her head. And when you took away the hours and hours of typewriter chatter, the dissipated curls of laughter in a hundred hazy, drunken nights, the long minutes spent staring at a vanishing countryside while waiting for the trains —

That simple, thoughtless accessory was all she had left.

Don’t you love?

Rio straightens, readjusting her grip on her dangling shoes, and resolutely continues down the deserted corridor, following the indistinct blur of her shadow on the wall.

Like a sleepwalker, marching towards the end of a dream.

 

The metal tracks were shockingly cold against the soles of her feet as she carefully followed the line, measured and balanced as a tightrope walker on the edge of a precipice. She was pale as a ghost in the darkness, washed out by the erratic pulse of the city lights behind her; snow settled like flakes of ash in the windswept halo of her dark hair. Afterward, they all agreed that she had looked like a photograph: one single, perfectly frozen moment, eaten away by the indifferent, red-tongued flicker of time.

But she never knew this, and never cared. She was simply one more pair of dark eyes in a sea of many, waiting for the train.

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