Still Things and Moving Things
Created on Oct. 15, 2015, 12:18 p.m.
A few years back I was working part time as a security guard at a construction site in the suburbs of Tokyo when the most perculiar thing happened to me. The security guard work was very sporadic and I didn't have enough money to rent an apartment so I was living in one of the internet cafes that provide temporary accommodation. I remember walking up to the reception desk and asking for a cubicle, being led into a hall at the back of the cafe and wandering between thin corridors. The walls were black - made of fabric sheets draped over wooden uprights. At one of the cubicles we stopped and I pulled the slide door to look inside. The cubicle was almost entirely filled with a futon and a computer on a small, low desk. It looked a den, like something a woodland creature might dig out to survive the winter.
The first night I couldn't sleep. I kept being woken by the sounds of other people - someone washing pots in the sink, someone's fingers drumming on a keyboard playing a video game. Most distinctive were the voices of people coming from the steets outside, and the fading sound of the city as the door swung shut behind them. I lay facing the ceiling thinking of all the other ghostly people staying at the cafe.
Everyone at the cafe smoked. It filled the air and sank into the walls, giving food a sour flavour. I would lie in my room and inhale the second hand smoke. It made me feel lightheaded.
I discovered after a few days that the secret to sleeping was to get drunk. Every night I would buy a few cans of beer and when a little drunk I felt I was able to "tilt" my consciousness. Combined with the mask of smoke I was left a little off balance. I would slide into sleep, like a book slowly slipping off a table, hitting the floor with a smack.
There was one person at the cafe that you may have called my friend. He was a man called Itsuki, older than me, and he stayed in the cell opposite mine. After a little conversation we had bonded over the fact that we both played the same little known chinese RPG. Itsuki had previously been a salaryman. After a failure to keep up the long hours his boss had ostracized him from the company, arranged for him to be moved to an empty office space on the outskirts of Adachi. Itsuki sat for months in the empty building. The only other people he saw were the cleaners emptying the bins. Eventually he called his boss and quit. He told me it was the greatest day of his life - that he had felt re-born, alive, elated. Now he worked as a dishwasher at a ramen restaurant nearby.
I often drank with Itsuki in the evenings. He would arrive late at night with a large pack of beers and knock on my door, asking me to drink with him. This is exactly what happened the day I was kicked out of the internet cafe - the day I had the perculiar experience. Itsuki arrived as usual and knocked at my door. The only difference was that that day he had a cut across his forehead.
"Let's drink in my room," he said.
We drank and watched videos on the internet of professional video game players. We talked about speed-running old video games and discussed a couple of new MMORPGs that were coming out. Itsuki seemed disinterested that day, and he was drinking fast, tipping up his beer and greedily pouring in the last drops of liquid, crushing the can, throwing it in the bin. I lay back looking at the ceiling and smoking. Itsuki started watching music videos of J-pop idol groups. After each video he would start swearing and ranting about the girls.
"These girls are so easy. Ugly whores - why do they wear these outfits?"
He kept repeating these sorts of things every video, getting more and more aggressive. I shuffled into the corner and tried to ignore him, slightly wary of the mood he was in.
The videos reminded of a girl called Misaki I'd known in childhood. Although I was a loser at school she'd often played with me at our house because her parents were friends with mine. She'd gone to a different High School and I had lost contact with her, but it was rumoured that she had joined one of these idol groups and tried to become famous. I hoped she had become successful eventually.
I looked up at Itsuki again. He was scowling and scratching the cut on his forehead. I had already guessed what had happened for him to receive the cut, but I asked anyway.
"A fat girl on the subway claimed I'd molested her," he said carelessly.
"An old man hit me with his walking stick. That old man was lucky I didn't beat the shit out of him right there."
It was disgraceful the way Itsuki was talking about these girls and this old man. I looked up, trying to hide my anger. Quietly I imagined catching Itsuki doing this on the subway, pushing him to the floor and scorning him with the rest of the subway carriage. I thought for once I should stand up to Itsuki and his shameful behaviour.
"You probably did molest her you fat pervert," I said.
Itsuki turned and stood up. He lent over me - blocking out the light from the small bulb that hung in the center of the room.
"You shit," he said, "get out now."
I picked up my beer and moved quickly across the corridor back to my room. I felt quite fearful and pathetic and to calm myself I listened to people in the kitchen chatting loudly and preparing their food. After a minute or so I heard a knock on the door. The owner of the cafe and Itsuki were standing there and Itsuki had a sickening grin on his face.
"Itsuki says you have been stealing beer from his room. I'm going to have to ask you to leave," said the owner.
More than ever I wanted to push down Itsuki and scorn him.
"You're a fat liar Itsuki."
"Calm down." The owner said, leaning toward me to put his hand on my shoulder.
I twisted, trying to lash out at Itsuki, but he was ready for me. He braced, grabbed my arm and pushed me to the floor. I tried to grab onto the fabric walls but couldn't hold on and ended up smacking the my head on the carpet. I saw Itsuki standing above me. He went to stamp firmly on my face, but luckily I managed to turn my head and I was only bruised around my ear, and my nose was not broken. I packed the few things I had in my room and left the cafe.
I was angry at myself for getting kicked out of the cafe. I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go. I found a bench on a busy street near the cafe and sat down to think, wrapping myself in my jacket to keep off the cold. Salarymen and couples walked past me heading to bars and restaurants, laughing and joking with each other. A large sign for a pachinko arcade hung on the side of the building in front of me. It flashed regularly, blinking like a lighthouse.
Freezing air wrapped around my fingers and into the sleeves of my jacket. I listed in my head all the places I'd stayed before when I'd had nowhere to go. I really didn't want to sleep outside. I remembered that a couple of years ago, when I was waiting a few days to move into a new apartment, my older brother Ryuga had let me stay in his house in Taito.
I got my phone out and looked at Ryuga's number in the contacts. He had moved into the house in Taito with his girlfriend a few years ago. He worked as a teacher at a local primary school. We'd probably not spoken in almost a year now - more or less since I'd moved into the internet cafe. I stared at the phone, unable to move my fingers and I noticed that my phone's battery was very low - it was about to die at any moment.
Eventually I dialed Ryuga's number and listened to the tone. The call rang off with no answer. A quiet dread slowly settled over me. I realized even if I didn't manage to stay at Ryuga's he would call me back at some point and I would still have to explain about being kicked out of the cafe - or make up some lie. I decided I would simply have to go to Ryuga's house and hope someone was in. Forcing my cold limbs into action, I got up and began the long journey over to the other side of Tokyo.
In Taito, away from the subway station and into the suburbs, it was very quiet. The houses in the back-streets gave no sign of the people that lived within. As I walked I imagined that the houses were a line of giant intricate totems - that the doors and windows were decorative details, and the layers of bricks were patterns symbolizing prehistoric mythological beliefs. I imagined I was exploring the remains of an ancient civilisation - that these huge structures were the only thing left behind - and that I was the only person left on earth. And for some reason these thoughts made me very sad.
I reached the bridge over the Sumida river and began to cross it. At the half way point I stopped and looked over the sides, gripping tightly onto the railing. The railing felt cold, firm, strong. It felt like it was bound to the center of the earth. And something about the strength of the railing made me want to stop everything I was doing and stay there for a while.
I looked down at the water passing below the bridge. It was icy black, rippling, and shimmering like the fur of a big black cat. Looking at the water so far below gave me vertigo and I was forced to turn my back to the railing and sit down facing the road.
I thought of all the people who'd walked across the bridge. The thousands and millions that had passed over it in its lifetime. And even though there had been so many, they had all left it more or less untouched. It had stood without changing from the day it was constructed.
And a strange thought came to me. I thought there were essentially two types of things in this universe - those that stayed still, such as this bridge, the mountains, the skyscrapers. And the those things that moved, such as the people who walked over this bridge, or water that flowed below it, or the cold air passing around me.
And the moving things moved through the world of still things like ghosts - leaving no trace, passing before being seen. To the world of still things, moving things where like minor ripples - quiet waves of sound, the changing of the seasons, the minute crawling of insects.
And the still things were ghosts to the moving things also. To the moving things, the still things sat, unable to affect their trajectories, yet somehow leaving some lasting trace. Vast valleys left feelings of awe and the same office block passed every day on the way to work left a feeling of groundedness.
I wondered what kind of thing I was in this world? If I jumped off this bridge now would I pass through the floor like a spectre, untouched and unnoticed, plummeting to the center of the earth, or would I splash upon it and leave some remains, for the discovery of future civilisations.
I thought of Buddha sitting still under the fig tree and reaching enlightenment and I thought it should be better to be one of the still things. I thought that I could be like Buddha and just sit where I was on the concrete bridge with my legs crossed and meditate, and I thought probably I could be happy if I did that.
But it was cold - too cold - and I knew in reality if I sat on this bridge I would die because I didn't have a blanket so slowly gathered my strength, pushed myself up and I continued onward toward Ryuga's house in the suburbs.
There was no one in at Ryuga's house. I tried the bell a few times and peered through the windows but it was pitch black inside. I bought some cans of beer from a nearby 7-Eleven and waited on the door step. On the fire escape opposite there was a cat sleeping. Its skin was scarred and some of the gashes were still red with blood and raw skin. I wanted to wake the cat - to give it a stroke and to share some body warmth in the night but the cat looked so peaceful that I could not distrub it, so I simply sat and watched it while the hours passed.
I remembered that on the walk over I had spotted a capsule hotel the other side of the Sumida river near the station. At 2 am I gave up on waiting for Ryuga, whispered goodbye to the cat, and headed back over the river. The bridge, and the river, somehow looked completely different from the opposite direction and for a brief moment I wondered if I had even stopped on the bridge at all.
At the hotel I checked in and headed to the baths. I stood and changed into my robes. There was a strange echoing sound that merged with the flowing water. It sounded like many people whispering quietly. In the baths were several older homeless men. The capsule hotels were popular with these men - they could get a hot bath and did not care about access to computers like the younger generation. In an unoccupied bath I lowered myself into the hot water. I let it embrace and engulf me, until all I could feel was the heat and steam.
Once I was done bathing I headed to the capsule hall. The whole room was vibrating with the snoring of thousands of people, and there was an intense heat generated from the number of bodies sleeping in close proximity. I crawled into my capsule, put my phone on to charge, and attempted to sleep. My joints ached from the walking and thoughts ran through my head at an impossible speed. The heat and noise from the hall made it very diffiicult to sleep. It must have been 5 or 6 am when I finally fell asleep.
When I awoke it was strangely quiet, and the whole capsule was resonating with deep yellow light. Soft blobs of grey passed over the surface of the capsule swirling slowly forward and back. I pulled back the blind and crawled out of the capsule. I found that I had woken up in what appeared to be a forest. Pine needles and brown birch leaves littered the floor, curled and crisp around the edges. The air was bright and hot, and a cool breeze blew between the trees. The only sound was the quiet echo of bird song, and the creaking of insects. My body felt completely refreshed, as if I had slept for months, and I felt strong, full of energy, like I could pull a tree straight out of the ground.
I do not remember feeling surprised by my environment. Instead I remember feeling such intense relief that my brain must have been willing to forgive any inconsistencies in location. I remember wanting to explore and move around the forest, and I had an amazing sense of agency like I had been given a refreshed license to live.
I got up and started wandering around. I soon came across a small cabin. The door was unlocked and so I walked inside to find a dusty kitchen. Two mugs sat by the sink in silence. There was a stove and some cupboards which I checked to find a selection of tinned foods and some rice. From the kitchen I passed into the bedroom, which was bathed in light from a large wooden framed window. I noticed there was a cat sitting on the window sill, and as I approached nearer I realized it was the same cat I'd seen on the fire escape at Ryuga's house. Just as before it was sleeping peacefully - its chest delicately moving up and down as it breathed.
Instinctively I reached out to stroke it but my hand slid over the cat's body with an incredible lightness like I had barely touched it. I stroked firmly, passing directly over the scars and cuts, but again my hand glided over the surface leaving it unperturbed. It was like there was a buffer of air separating my hand from the cat's fur.
Disturbed by the interaction with the cat I went outside and sat down with my back to the wall of the cabin. I thought I should wait to see if the owner was going to return so I could at least ask if I was able to stay the night.
So I waited, and I watched the forest until the sun set and the evening set in. And while I waited I noticed an odd thing - that although in the past my skin had always been prone to mosquito bites and the attention of other insects, in this forest the insects were largely leaving me along. They flew past me in straight lines as if I was not there.
It must have been around midnight when I decided that the owner of the cabin was not coming back. I entered the cabin and ate some tinned vegetables before heading to the bedroom where the cat was sleeping in the same position as before. I got in the bed and slept peacefully the whole night through.
The next day I awoke and prepared some food for breakfast. Unsure what to do I returned to my spot, sitting with my back against the cabin walls. The morning sunshine made me sleepy and I began to meditate, thinking periodically about my experiences in this forest. A strange theory started to brew in my mind. I remembered how my hand had passed over the cat and how the insects had ignored me, and how this cabin and forest (I was part of) seemed eternal, unchanging. I thought perhaps I had been made into one of these "still things" I had observed on the bridge. And the more I thought about this theory the more I really believed it, and when I had finally convinced myself it was true I felt very happy because I knew I would live forever in this forest of sunshine and cats.
Over the next couple of days I returned to my spot with my back to the wall and I spent the hours in peace watching the trees moving in the breeze, and birds flying across the sun at sunset. This continued until the third day when something unexpected happened.
I was sitting with my eyes closed basking in the sunshine when I heard the sound of walking boots crushing the fallen leaves. I opened my eyes and looked around the forest for the source of the sound. Soon a young man in hiking boots and a green waterproof jacket appeared through the trees. He had a long stride, and was looking around concerned, as if searching for somebody.
I started to panic, because for some reason I thought with certainty that this man must be the owner of the cabin in which I had stayed and that he was looking for me because I had staying at his house without asking.
And I realized the true reality of what I had been doing for the last few days. I realized I had just been sitting against the wall of this man's cabin and eating his food. I was not one of these "still things" and I never would be because they were something I made up crossing the Sumida river, and that "still things" do not exist.
In a panic I jumped up and ran toward him, shouting for his attention and waving my arms, hoping I could explain my situation and ensure he did not get too angry.
"Hello! I'm here!" I shouted. "I'm here!! Let me explain! I'm here!"
But the man didn't seem to acknowledge my existence. I jumped and shouted but he looked directly through me. I thought he was playing some kind of cruel trick on me so I tried to grab the man and tried to shake him by the shoulders but my hands slipped over him like they had over the cat. I was unable to grasp him. Either I slid past or if I braced myself somehow I could not find the strength to move him.
I started screaming - staring into the man's face. I screamed as loud as I could and noticed that while ultimately the forest remained the same, as I had expected, occasionally a cicada or two would launch themselves from a branch above when I screamed like they were disturbed by some distant echo of my voice.
I started going wild - whooping and dancing - stomping in circles. I grabbed a branch from the floor and started slashing plants with it, smacking it against tree trunks and listening to the echo bounce off mountains. I tried to make as much commotion as possible, and watched with glee when the insects jumped from the bushes and trees.
I ran back to the cabin and grabbed a plank of wood which had fallen off the wall. With this plank I smacked the trunks as loud as I could. The birds flew into the sky and mice shook themselves from the undergrowth, scuttling across the forest floor - but the man looked on oblivious. I was breathing heavily, tired from my swinging of the plank, and I started to despair, unsure if I would ever be able to catch his attention. A darkness slowly settled over my eyes and the face of the man morphed into that of Itsuki's. That fat pervert who had gotten me kicked out of the internet cafe was now walking through the forest without care, without acknowledgement, just as before. I ran at him with the plank raised and I smashed him across the face. There was a sound like a gunshot that echoed supernaturally loud around the forest. The man fell to the floor, unmoving, and every cicada that had been in the trees burst from the branches and filled the air in an immense swarm.
My ears rang with the sound of their song and the shaking of their wings. I dropped the plank and started running back through the forest, hunched over with my hands over my ears. They flew into me, knocking me this way and that, flying past my head making an unbearablely loud noise.
I ran past the cabin and back to where the capsule was lying on the ground. I crawled into the capsule and pulled down the blind. The cicadas smashed into the sides but they were unable to get inside the capsule. It started to feel oddly calm inside the capsule. The sound of the cicadas pounding the capsule started to sound like rain. It was like I was sheltered at home from a downpour on a winter evening. I felt exhausted from all of the running around and the swinging of the plank and with the sound of rain, although my heart was still beating fast, I found myself drifting uncontrollably off to sleep.
I awoke back in the capsule hotel in Taito. I crawled out of the capsule and looked around the hall. It must have been late morning because all of the lights were now on and it appeared most of the guests had left. There was a small window at the end of the corridor. Outside it was overcast and raining. Water slid over the window lazily, distorting the view. My phone was lit up and vibrating in the capsule, rattling and bouncing around the plastic walls, making a loud, terrible sound. I reached into the capsule to pick it up and answer the call. It was my brother Ryuga, and he was checking if I was okay.