Matsuyama Gorō, last of the great monster hunters, pursued his quarry, a nue, from the slaughter at Kanoya castle into the hills. He could not approach within sword-reach because of the coils of dark smoke all around the monster, but the nue feared his great bow and the arrows of silver he had made.
He caught up with the creature at last in a grove and struck it with an arrow, but when the smoke cleared he could not find the monster’s body. It had been pierced by the arrow and pinned, so that it was trapped inside a cedar tree.
Ken was drunk again. He’d stayed out late again, drinking with his new colleagues at Harusaki engineering, trying to be sociable, but hardly able to follow their rapid conversation even when he was sober. He had had too much beer, began to feel he was making a fool of himself, and slipped away for the last train.
He would need to catch two last trains, since the offices of Harusaki were not very near Kanoya, where he had a tiny but ruinously expensive apartment for the next four months. He always had to change trains at the tiny station in Torisugi, a village which had perhaps ten other buildings in total. There hardly seemed to be a reason for a station to be here, except to complicate the rail journeys of drunk gaijin.
If there was one thing you could count on in Japan, it was that the trains would be punctual. So as usual, he had twenty minutes on the dark platform to berate himself for drinking too much, staying out too late, and coming to Japan in the first place. He had only gone for a drink hoping Akamatsu-san–Mei, although they were not yet on first-name terms–would be there. But it was just the guys. She never went out with the guys, but he always kidded himself that she might. He always disappointed himself that way, and in others.
Another thing you could count on was that there was always a vending machine, for drinks or snacks or cigarettes. There were three on the platform at Torisugi, and the one furthest along had what he needed now: a hot can of coffee. He staggered down the platform, reaching the last machine and leaning on it while he fished around for a 200 yen coin.
He noticed the station sign above looked different. The first character was more complex. It had the symbol for bird in it, but it wasn’t that. Maybe it was an old form, or maybe he had been calling this station the wrong name for two months while everyone laughed behind his back. Mei would know what it was, or he’d find it in a dictionary. He carefully, if a little unsteadily, drew it on his wrist.
Now what? Coffee. He must have been drunker than he thought because he was momentarily confused by the controls, but he pushed in his coin and punched in 14, his usual. No, that was his usual in the bus station back home. Why did this machine even have numbered buttons? Must be really old.
The machine sighed, and something light fell into the tray. Not coffee; a rectangle of glossy paper.
He lifted it into the light, and stared. A kneeling teenage girl, a young teenage girl, unclothed except in scraps of a school uniform. A grin on her face–no, a grimace: eyes looking out of the frame to one side, terrified. Christ, how old was she? Suddenly he knew: 14, of course.
Even having this on him was a no-excuses instant prison term and lifelong membership of the sex offenders’ register, back home. He didn’t know what the law was here, but didn’t want to find out. He stuffed the photo in his pocket and looked around. There was nobody nearby, only one old man sitting three benches away, staring west across the tracks, paying no attention.
He walked around the machine so as to be out of sight, and tore the photograph into tiny, unrecognisable scraps, scattered them into the wet night wind, to fall away into the dark. He looked at the machine again. Was this a vending machine for perverts? He had heard the stories of machines that sold used girls’ panties, which he assumed was simply a racist myth. He had seen one machine that did sell girls’ underwear, but clean and neatly rolled in a plastic tube. And really, why not? But this … what the fuck was this?
The metal of the machine seemed to steam in the cold air, or as he moved, unsteady on his feet, the light played across it like rolling black smoke. He stared stupidly until the lights of his train turned it back to grey brushed steel, then he came back to himself, and lunged for the nearest train door, bashing at the door open button until he could fall through the doorway and onto a seat and just get the hell away.
There being no body, the peasants of the village could not raise a burial mound and perform a service to quieten its spirit. Nor did they dare fell the tree, not knowing what might happen. They made of it a shrine, but few dared to tend it. The village was named Nuesugi after that cedar, but in time they forgot the significance of it, and after a few generations, the name was changed again.
By the time the railway came, the nue cedar was old: barely more than a stump, struck and burned many times by lightning. It was bulldozed and concrete was poured above it, to make the platform of the new railway station.
Ken was at Torisugi again next day, for his connecting train to work. He scanned the platform, seeing only the usual vending machines. Normally he’d get a coffee for his hangover–today the idea made him feel ill. He couldn’t find the station sign with the different spelling, but he still had the kanji scrawled faintly on his wrist. He looked it up in the dictionary in his phone, but either he had the stroke count wrong or it was too rare, because he couldn’t find it.
He got a chance to talk to Mei today, and she was politely friendly as usual, so he asked her about the character, first copying it neatly from his wrist to a bit of paper.
“Ah, that is unusual,” she said. “It’s nue. It’s sometimes used as a girl’s name.”
“Is it a kind of bird? I see the bird radical here, so …”
“Well, not really. It’s an evil spirit, so it isn’t a very lucky name. My grandmother was called Nue, and she hated it. This is an old way of writing nue, though. See, it’s normally like this,” and she wrote down a slightly different character.
“Thank you. I knew you would know it, though. You’re so clever,” he began, but her expression changed just a little, and he knew he’d said something wrong.
“Not at all. Excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
Of course. Congratulating someone for knowing a word in their own language isn’t much of a compliment. As she turned away and he saw her in profile, he got a mental flash of a young teenage girl, kneeling, looking scared. Maybe there was a little similarity in their faces, but that was a thought he really could do without. He felt creepy, as though he had not just insulted her, but frightened her. He retreated in a panic before he could make things worse.
Ken looked up the newer character Mei had drawn, and found it quickly. He googled the nue to see what kind of evil spirit it was. It was a stupid chimæra: a patchwork of different animals, not all of them even dangerous.
Before they wound up work for the day, he came by Mei’s desk and overheard her giving her phone number to one of the other girls. He only caught the last three digits, 568. But what would he have done with the whole number?
She said to the other girl, “I might be there about eight,” which rekindled his hope that this time, she might join the others for a drink. He knew it was unlikely, but he couldn’t stop himself agreeing to come out, just in case.
It is a misconception to think of the nue as an evil spirit, in the modern or Western sense. Its call in the night is an omen of ill-luck and doom, but the monster itself is an intent and implacable participant in those things. Predatory like the tiger; a resilient, opportunistic scavenger like the tanuki; cunning like the monkey, with a mind almost, but not quite human; its very essence as cold and venomous as the snake.
Of course Mei hadn’t joined them for drinks. Rather than cut his losses, Ken had stayed too late and kept drinking. Now he was standing on the railway platform again, feeling sick and cold. The station was nearly empty, just that same old man, sitting two benches away, staring over the tracks.
He needed a coffee. But he was very careful about which machine he went to. One, two, three, and now there at the end of the row was a fourth one, unlit and unmarked. Ken felt his head spin. The one from last night, that had not been there this morning.
It was confusing to look at, like a dream construct. Or that was possibly from the drink. There was no indication what the machine dispensed, no brand name even. Only a coin slot, number buttons and the tray below.
He poked at it, dialling 568 at random. Really, not at random. He was thinking about Mei. The machine made a faint groan. He hadn’t put any money in, had he? His phone chirped. Shit, some of these machines took mobile phone payment. But this one looked too old-fashioned, and anyway, didn’t you have to enter a code or something?
He pulled out his phone, fumbled and nearly dropped it. There was a missed call. He didn’t recognise the number, but it ended 568.
A coincidence–it must be. Mei had somehow found his number and called him. Perhaps this was where his luck changed. He tapped the number and waited for the call to connect. The machine wasn’t quiet yet. It made a deep noise, almost a growl, and something dropped into the tray with a light patting noise, like someone tapping it with their finger. He reached in, curious, and drew out the object that had fallen.
It was a human finger. A woman’s index finger, with nails shaped and painted the same as Mei’s.
Ken shrieked and dropped it. He looked around, and this time the old man had turned to face him. He looked for a few moments, his eyes hidden by the reflections in his glasses, then turned away and continued his aimless staring at the western sky.
The call still hadn’t connected. Ken pressed the button to cancel and stuffed his phone into a pocket. Two things tore at him from opposite sides: it couldn’t be Mei’s finger, it was impossible. But what if it was? Well, now the police would be able to find out he made a call to her. If it was her number. Actually, it didn’t matter whose number it was, or whose finger either. He had just picked up a recently-severed human body part–lack of language skills were not the main obstacle to contacting the police about it.
He couldn’t just leave it there, could he? Was there CCTV at this station? Had he been filmed handling it? If the train arrived and anyone alighted, they would they see a westerner standing over it, looking guilty. You bet his face would be very fucking memorable in that case.
Ken remembered the old man. He’d already been seen. If the finger was found, what then? He could say he had nothing to do with it, that it came out of the vending machine, but they would ask which one, and when he went to show them, he knew–with the certainty of death–that it wouldn’t be there.
Wouldn’t be there. He picked up the finger, and dropped it back in the tray. If it wouldn’t be there, maybe the finger wouldn’t either. He shuddered. Now he’d touched it twice. Can you leave fingerprints on a finger? How would that even work? You’re drunk Ken. There’s your train. Go home.
It is fortunate for humanity that the last of the nue were hunted at the decline of their power, and before the rise of man’s. How little satisfaction it was to stop the heart of a farmer or woodcutter, or to sicken and madden a mere Emperor. Men were sparse and powerless and unimaginative.
Now think only how the lowest salaryman works in a steel pagoda a hundred floors high and has in his pocket wonders the old Emperor could never have bought with all his gold or taken with all his samurai. Think too how nested, interconnected, mutually dependent the component parts of this great civilisation have become. Fortune indeed, that I live to see such a time.
Mei didn’t come to work the next day. Ken didn’t try to call her, because in the light of day he realised how stalkery it would seem to call her on a number she never gave him, even if nothing was wrong. He deleted the number from his phone. That might not help if the police got involved–if something was wrong.
He left work at half-past five sharp, ignoring the subtle disapproval that followed him all the way to the door. It didn’t matter. Unless this change in behaviour was suspicious, but now he thought of that it was too late.
His train was slow, and when he got to Torisugi station it was already nearly eight. Then there was an announcement. We are sorry, but there is a delay. There were other words he didn’t catch. It was fine, though. There were only three vending machines. He sat on the bench nearest the machines, and watched for his train. He kept looking at the row of vending machines, sure that as long as he did that, a fourth one couldn’t simply appear. If he kept that blank bit of platform in his field of view, he was safe. Dream logic–horror movie logic, maybe. It was all he had. Time passed.
Someone sat down beside him, and he turned to see the old man. Ken hadn’t noticed how he arrived. Certainly not by train–maybe he was a local. But now Ken realised, he had never seen the man rise from his bench to get the last train at night, either. The man was not just elderly. He was wizened, his features almost ape-like. He was wrapped up warmly, with a fur scarf or collar at his neck, and thick leather gloves. He turned to look at Ken and smiled, but said nothing.
Ken looked back along the platform and saw the black vending machine had returned. Fuck.
You were clever last night.
It sounded old-fashioned, like black-and-white samurai films. Extra syllables, different endings. And the only way Ken knew what the guy was saying, was that it was simultaneously as though he was speaking English. Ken was getting the meaning of it on some kind of side-channel, like subtitles on those old films. He giggled. It was as absurd as it was terrifying. How was this happening?
You should finish what you started. See what you get.
“No way. I’ve had enough.”
You see, you are already in trouble. Each time you use the device, you never know what you will receive. Maybe a handful of gold. Maybe lung cancer.
“What the hell? I don’t know who you are, but I can tell you’re not a salesman.”
But each time, there is a chance. There always has to be a chance that you will receive the one thing you need. The way out of your trouble.
“So you go play with it. Leave me alone.” When would the train come?
I’m not in trouble. Not like you are. I only want one thing, that I cannot get for myself, and if you get it for me, all your problems will be over. It’s such a small thing to ask.
“And what is it you want?”
A little thing. A silver arrowhead, blunted by impact, blackened with age and blood. Sooner or later the machine must extract it. Then, well, we shall see. Aren’t you curious, Ken?
“How the fuck do you know my name?”
Ken stood up, backed away. The old man rose, and moved rapidly to his side, taking his arm in a tight grip. Ken felt pain like claws in his arm, through the leather gloves. The thing walked to the vending machine, dragging him effortlessly.
The authorities know your name, too. Don’t you want a way out of this?
“I want a way out of this!” Ken tried to pull his arm away, but it was useless.
So play my game. Get what you want, perhaps. Get what I want.
Ken imagined Mei, weeping over a bleeding hand. Mei at fourteen, terrified and naked. “No, I can’t. It’s not just about me. This is sick.”
His train was coming at last. For a moment he pictured the monster digging in claws, baring ape-like teeth in rage, lifting and tossing him onto the rails like a rag doll. But the pressure on his arm eased. Ken staggered away, as his train came to a halt.
It doesn’t have to be you, you know.
Ken watched the platform as it slid away, the old man sitting back on his bench, looking this way, but not looking at him.
I wait as always, gazing west over the railway tracks, over the horizon. Over the Sakurajima volcano, the Sendai nuclear power station, and over the seas beyond. To North Korea, to Russia and to where the sun is setting over the precarious cities of man.