All The King’s Men Couldn’t Put Humpty Together Again

All The King’s Men Couldn’t Put Humpty Together Again


“No one can hear you, speak louder,” roared Katashi as he slammed his cup on the low table, spilling tea on the wooden surface. On the other sides of the table, sat his three friends, sipping sake. 

Kaito repeated, “Mother is asking if you want more tea.”

“Of course I want more tea.” Katashi growled at Kaito, teeth clenched and voice low. 

He bent over the table, leaning towards his pals but raising his voice loud enough to make sure that it reached Junko in the kitchen, “My life is a tragedy. Fifteen years of marriage, a twelve years old son and Junko still has to ask if I need tea. What a poor husband I’m!”

Kaito scampered out of the room and in his hurry, hurt his toe against the foot of the glass cabinet.  

Katashi snickered at the sight of his limping son. His friends joined him.

These four friends met every evening in Katashi’s house. Katashi never touched a drop of alcohol. His friends never touched a drop of tea. When the evening ended, the three friends would stagger out, humming lewd songs into the night air. Behind them, Katashi would close the door with a bang, shutting off the air passage in the house. 

In his study table, Kaito would pretend to study a book while his ears would be tuned to the sound coming from his parents’ room. His lips would start moving in silent prayers, hoping Buddha would make his mother bear the punches and kicks from his father in peace and silence. If Junko tried to defend herself, Katashi turned his attention to Kaito. Unlike his mother, Kaito was timid, he didn’t know how to defend against a man like Katashi. He wished he had his mother’s courageous spirit.

“Pour mother’s strength into me, so that I can protect myself,” he would often pray, specially when he heard Katashi’s heavy and hurried footsteps approaching his room.

This was 1990. Then Kaito didn’t know that things could turn even worse. Japan had just stepped into what later would be known as the lost decade, a period of economic stagnation catalysed by rocketing interest rates and crumbling of the real estate and stock market. Like many of his countrymen, Katashi would lose his office job and end up working in a paper mill. By 1995, the paper mill too would shut down. Since then the main door of their house remained closed, the air inside the house always standstill and stifling. 

By then, Katashi’s friends had stopped visiting—one of them had committed suicide, another had left for his village to work in the fields. The other had simply disappeared, no one knew where. 

In the front room, Katashi sat alone, drinking bottle after bottle of cheap sake.

Further inside the house, Kaito would slip into his parents’ bedroom and put ointment on his mother’s knees and arms, trying to tame her bruises with his ministering.

“Mother, your courage should not be in fighting back, you’ll only end up in more pain if you protest. Your courage lies in silent endurance. Pass your fighting spirit to me mother, let me fight for you. Wait and watch, one day we will laugh together. Now you must bear this pain in silence.” 

He would bring his finger to his mother’s swollen lips, pressing onto them lightly.

He would gather her in his arms, rocking her as her silent tears wet his shirt. Sometimes, when Junko’s cries broke into a low whimper, Kaito patted her back urgently. 

“Shh, shh,” Kaito prompted and after that, the house became silent.

Later, even when Katashi boxed her ears or spat into her mouth, Junko remained absolutely quiet, remembering how her sweet son had prayed for her silence. This was the least she could do for her caring son.

Someone laughed 

Pushing open the gate, Emiko entered an immaculately manicured front yard and stood outside the house, her deep, black eyes squeezed to narrow slants as she tried to read the name carved on the wooden plaque over the door. The afternoon sun was shining right at her face, which was beaded with drops of perspiration. The sweat plastered her short hair on her forehead, making her round face look like a porcelain plate just wiped with a wet cloth, the way her mother did, before piling it with mounds of rice for the customers in the restaurant where she worked part-time.

A drop of sweat trickled by the side of Emiko’s ear, slithering inside her t-shirt but she didn’t even notice; her attention was suddenly distracted by the sound of laughter coming from the house. Its window was closed, but still, through it spilled the happy laughter of a woman. Emiko tried to remember the last time her laughter bounced so lightly in the air. 

She slid her bag from her back and edged towards the window. She had to hoist herself up on the narrow ledge of the wall, an act that demanded a lot of balance, in order to peek through the little gap between the drapes that otherwise stood vigil behind the square glass panes of the tightly shut window.

Emiko saw a small, bare room—four tatami mats would cover the entire floor. There was no one inside. 

“Hey, what are you doing?”

Startled, Emiko barely managed to stop herself from falling off the ledge. 

A man stood behind her, hands on hip, waiting for an answer. 

“Nn-nothing, I’m doing nothing. I’m sorry.”

Emiko’s eyes met the man’s. Unable to stand his calm stare, she looked away. For a moment she lost sense of her bearing. Only when her eyes fell on her bag lying on the ground, did she get her wit back. 

She held out the small, rectangular package assigned for this address. 

“Nippon Express. Are you Kaito Isobe?”

Emiko noticed the veins on the man’s arm twitch as he took the parcel from her.

“Should I report you?” he threatened her. His voice was calm, it held no trace of anger.

His calmness flustered her more. It had only been a week since she started working with this company. A complaint now could prove fatal, specially as her recruiter was not even keen on employing her in the first place, the recruiter had pointed out that Emiko was over qualified for the job. 

These days, it was common for university pass-out like Emiko to hold manual jobs; the white collar jobs were too few. The economy that was supposed to revive in a few years had continued to grow downhill through the 90s. Even now in 2015, specially with the devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, things had only turned more difficult for job seekers, making it almost impossible to get an office job, and very difficult to get even manual jobs, so heavily was the market flooded with job seekers—over-qualified, qualified and under-qualified. 

“I didn’t mean to pry. I heard a woman laughing and just wanted to see her once. Her laughter was so sweet…,” even to her own ears, this didn’t sound like a valid reason to peep through a customer’s window.

“A woman’s laughter?” The man raised his eyebrows, now leaning towards Emiko. 

The man inched a step closer, narrowing the gap between them. As if telling her a secret, he half whispered, “I live here alone. And the windows are shut, anyway you couldn’t have heard anything.”

“I’m really sorry Kaito-san. Please don’t report me. Life is not easy, I am qualified to be an architect, but here I am, making my living as a delivery person. I should have been sitting in an air-conditioned room, designing hotels and mansions, but here I am, sweating under the sun, delivering this small box to you with care and diligence. I hope you enjoy your order.”

“I like your spirit, you don’t give up, do you?” the man asked, as he bore into her eyes.

Emiko noticed a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. Though it made her uncomfortable, she continued to meet his gaze without looking away even once as he went on, his words paced and low, as if speaking in a trance “It’s fate that you came to my door. Here you are, the indomitable human spirit! I smell it in you.” 

Better to get out of here fast, she thought

“I’m really sorry, please accept my apology, please take care Kaito-san,” she said, her words stumbling out one after another in a rush.

The man didn’t say anything. 

Emiko picked up her bag from the ground. Out of habit, when she twisted and jerked her back to evenly shuffle its weight on her back, she caught an amused smile flicker on the man’s lip. Immediately, she turned her back to him and made her escape.

She expected the man to stop her but as she left, her ears perked to hear his voice, the only sound that met her ears were the faint tinkle of a laughter. As if someone was mocking her. But she knew not to look back.

That night Emiko dreamt of a woman in a feathered hat, the bright colours of the feathers a sharp contrast to the face that had no make up or colour. Emiko could not draw her eyes away from the woman. With a faint hint of smirk on her lips and with precise, deliberate movements, the woman opened a window and then, leaning out of it, she burst into violent jolts of laughter. So vigorously did the woman laugh that the feathers in her hat started to fly around, some sticking to Emiko’s skin. Emiko tried to brush away the feathers but she only ended up scratching herself. 

When Emiko woke up, she looked about her, expecting to find feathers on her skin.

The Dance Must Go on 

From Shinjuku Gyoenmae station, Kaito and Maho headed towards the A-4 Exit. A few steps outside it stood the Shinjuku Gyoen Park, in its full glory. It was the April of 2016 and hanami, the cherry blossom viewing celebration had started in the park. 

Kaito used his Suica card to pay for their entrance fees. He didn’t mind paying this small amount for Maho, he was getting a lot from her. Besides, Maho had bought a picnic box full of sushi, onigiri and other snacks, so he would not have to pay for food. 

“Let’s sit there,” Maho pointed towards an empty spot under a sakura tree. A thousand such trees, most of them in full blossom, thronged the park, painting its sky with huge patches of white and pink. 

The two hurried towards the empty spot; despite the park being huge, it was crowded with so many visitors that most of the good spots were already occupied. People sat under pink canopies, spreading out a picnic of food and drinks in front of them. Children ran around, some trying to catch the pink petals that were floating in the air, others chasing their playmates, as adults relaxed, sprawling on their mats, reading, eating or talking with each other. Many rambled about in leisurely strolls.

In one corner, people had gathered in a circle around a group of female musicians who were playing a modern version of the song Sakura Sakura in guitars and kotos, a traditional Japanese instrument. Dressed in bright kimonos, the musicians were gyrating to the fast beats of their music. Many from the crowd joined them as well. Some even had paper fans, which they swayed in rhythm. The whole air had a very festive ring to it.

The music wafted towards Kaito and Maho. “Let’s take a walk Maho-san,” suggested Kaito. Getting up, he offered his hand, which Maho grasped as he gently pulled her thin frame up to her feet. At his touch, a shiver ran through her spine.

Maho let a pink petal land on her palm. She brought her lips to a pout and blew at the petal, whispering, “May you always keep dancing.” 

Her eyes turned wistful. Kaito wrapped his arm around her waist. Together they walked towards the group of musician.

“Earlier you would have joined the dancing, wouldn’t you?” he asked her.

“Yes, till you pointed out, I never noticed the dirty look with which people gazed at my body when I dance. It fills me with disgust, I can’t stand it, I can’t dance anymore .”

In consolation, Kaito rubbed his palm at the small of her back. 

“The world isn’t fair to woman, specially to beautiful woman like you. I support your decision, it’s your body. You’ve the right to demand respect for it.”

“It hurts to think of a life without dance though,” she said, her voice filled with grief.

He turned towards her, and as if struck by a sudden idea, said with enthusiasm, “I’m someone who feels awkward to dance in front of people. But the dance must go on. On your behalf, I’ll step up. Let me join the crowd, shall I?”

“Really? Can you do that, Kaito-san? Oh, you must!” said Maho as she pushed him towards the group dancing in the centre. 

Amongst the dancers, Kaito moved his body, letting the music guide him. Someone from the crowd gave him a paper fan and he opened it with a flare, making sweeping gestures with it. Maho clapped. He smiled, and started moving in circles, now one with the other dancers. 

Stranger on the Wall

Emiko lived in the Hodogaya ward located in the southern part of Yokohama city in Kanagawa Prefecture, but her delivery route took her to Asahi-ku ward in the eastern part of Yokohama. It was a journey of only fifteen minutes by train, but everyday, as she stepped out of the Higashi-Kanagawa station into the Asahi-ku ward, there came into her walk a lightness and spring, as if she had entered a brighter, happier world. 

In this brighter, happier world, in the neighbourhood of Kamoi stood a small, neat house where a man waited for her, everyday. Over his door, the name plaque read Kaito Isobe. 

To this house Emiko hurried, rushing through her route, knowing but not caring that by the end of the day her feet would swell and her back would hurt; she scurried from one house to another, delivering package after package, till the last one was dispensed and she was free to run to Kaito.

Kaito beamed at her. “Emiko-san! Today, I made onigiri for us. I wanted to have them warm but cold onigiri is good as well.”

Emiko dropped her bag and checked the time on her phone. It was three o’ clock in the afternoon. She sat down on the floor mat, elbows resting on the low wooden table, head held between her two hands, as if otherwise it would fall off from fatigue.

After sitting like that for a while, she reached for her bag, pulling out a small rectangular parcel. “Here, your order Kaito-san.”

Kaito took the parcel and stuffed an onigiri in Emiko’s mouth.

“Uhmm, delicious,” Emiko announced.

“The onigiri rice balls are triangular because they are shaped like the mountains where the Shinto gods live; it’s a way of praying for their protection. I made them today to pray that you come early, so that we can spend some time together before I leave for my shift,” Kaito said, as he edged closer to Emiko. 

The mat rustled under his weight; the sound reminded Emiko of a video she had seen of a snake rustling through dry leaves. Just like then, now she could again feel her skin break out in gooseflesh. 

The parcel she had delivered to Kaito caught her eye. 

“What’s this? I remember delivering similar parcels earlier too…”

“…like when you peeked through my window?” a smile creeped up Kaito’s lips as he teased her hair, pulling off the clip that held them up in a bun. Earlier, Emiko used to keep her hair short. He had persuaded her to wear them long.

“Why don’t you let me enter that room? I’ve allowed you into my heart but you keep a room locked from me.” 

Emiko puffed up her face in dissent. Kaito pressed her cheeks, at first with gentle pressure, later squeezing so hard that her face turned red. She had to thrash about to free herself from his grip. They were fighting like kids, laughing and rolling over each other.

“Look at your face, red like a precious Miyazaki mango! The time has come. Let’s take you inside the room,” said Kaito.

Getting up from the mat, he offered his hand, which Emiko grasped as he gently pulled her up to her feet. At his touch, a shiver ran through her spine. It was spring and outside, the wind blew in gentle breeze, but the air inside Kaito’s house was standstill.

Kaito took out a key. 

“The room remains locked because there’s nothing much there. One room less to clean if it stays locked up.”

He opened the lock, throwing open its doors to a room that two years ago Emiko had tried to see through the gap in the curtains of a closed window.  He made a sweeping gesture with his hands, ushering her inside a small and dark space. He turned on the light. 

Emiko saw a small room, empty except for an old glass cabinet filled with books in one corner. There were about a dozen photographs on the walls. From the photographs, women of different ages smiled at her. 

“My mother,” Kaito said, as he walked up to the first photograph. A woman around fifty years old looked back at Emiko with solemn eyes. “Without her courageous spirit, I would not have been able to stand up against the abuses of my father,” Kaito was saying, as he caressed his mother’s face. Emiko ran her fingers over the edge of the frame. 

Kaito must not have cleaned the room in a long time. Dust from the frame clung to her fingers. She noticed that dust had gathered on all the photographs. The bare floor of the room was splattered with marks of footsteps. Now, as Kaito and Emiko walked around, their footprints smudged the older ones.

He took her hand and led her to another photograph. “My teacher from upper secondary, Ayaka Sensei. Before she took me under her wings, I had no friend. She taught me the spirit of love and friendship. Because of her, so many important people came to my life, including you,” said Kaito, running his hand over Kaito’s head with great endearment. “Such an irony that she died a lonely death!” he sighed, as he moved to another photograph. 

“Chiharu-san, my  aunt. A thousand springs sparkled with joy when she laughed. After I became an orphan, she brought laughter to my life.”

Emiko took his hands in hers, pressing into them.

“Maho-san,” said Kaito, pointing at the photograph of a young girl, sitting under the canopy of a cherry blossom. “She taught me how to dance. Thanks to her, now I can earn some extra money by working as a background dancer in the plays.”

“Kahori Sensei,” he said, leading her to another photo. “I learnt photography from her. She taught me to see the beauty in everyday things. Now she’s retired.”

Emiko was not surprised to note that there was not a single photograph of any man in the room. She knew that scarred by the abuses of his father, Kaito had difficulty trusting men; even for his shift in the factory, he had deliberately chosen to work for a team led by a woman.

But she wondered why the photographs had to remain in a locked room. She could sense something dark and secretive in this, probably another ramification of growing up in an environment of domestic violence. Kaito-san needs help. I need to discuss this with Kaito-san later, she decided.

She watched as Kaito opened the glass cabinet. 

“These books belonged to my grandmother, now they’re mine,” he said, adding under his breath, “like everything else in this room.”

He ran his fingertips over the spines of books, pausing to read each title. He picked a book and pulled out a photograph from its pages, holding it up for her to see.

Emiko was surprised to see herself, with her earlier trademark short hair, grinning back at her from the photograph! I’ve aged so much, she thought. 

This photo was taken two years ago when she had arrived at Kaito’s threshold the second time, again to deliver a small package. That day, she was nervous about knocking on his door after the fiasco of the first meeting, but Kaito was already in the front yard, a camera glued to his eyes, clicking photographs for his photography class assignment. 

After that day, even when there was no delivery for him, sometimes she took to stopping by his house—for a cup of tea or a brief chat with him. And now, the two lovers met everyday. 

“You still have a copy of this!” 

Kaito smiled and started to open the package she had delivered him today. A photo frame! 

Understanding dawned Emiko as she looked around her, she had delivered some of these photo frames to Kaito!

He slid her photograph inside the frame and hung it up on the wall.

This gesture surprised Emiko but before she could ask anything, he gathered her in his arms, showering her with gentle kisses.

“You’ve inspired me so much Emiko-san. By turning up on my door with your heavy bag of parcels on your back, you mesmerised me with your survivor spirit.”

“Kaito-san, do you think so? But I’ll be resigning next month. Sometimes it feels like I’m actually giving up under the pretext of taking time off to prepare for interviews for the architect’s office . I’ll be an idle job seeker soon, an unemployed woman dependent on her mother and boyfriend.”

“What nonsense! You’re resigning only because your supervisor has promised your job to me. Our income remains the same. Only the name of the earner changes. Between you and me, how does it matter whose name is on the payroll; either way, the money comes to us. As your boyfriend, I must step up so that you can realise your full potential, I want to see you designing buildings and apartments, not knocking on their doors to make deliveries.”

Emiko hugged Kaito. Next month, she would again join the unemployed population of the country, but with Kaito by her side, she didn’t care.

A book fell on the floor with a dull thud. Kaito must have been careless in putting it back after fishing out her photograph.

Emiko rushed to pick it up. As she slid the book into its place, she noticed the title, The Arcane Feasts on Spirits to Nourish the Soul of a Psychic Vampire by Tanaka Hattori. The book next to it was Who are you: Psychic Vampire or Emotional Manipulator. Curious, she took out another book from the row: How to Manipulate and Hoard the Spirits of Unsuspecting Victims by Moshohara Sanuki.

“Let’s hurry and have some tea before I leave for the shift,” said Kaito, pulling her out of the room. The book slipped out of her hand. Kaito caught it and pushed it back into the cabinet.

“Your grandmother had strange taste in books,” Emiko said, as Kaito hastened to lock up the room.

Through the gap of the closing doors, Emiko caught sight of her photograph on the wall. Suddenly the Emiko with short hair in the photo looked unfamiliar to her, as if it was not her but a stranger’s photo on the wall. 

Kaito shut the door to the room. The sharp click of the lock sent a tremor through Emiko, she felt like someone had locked the room and dropped the key into the dark sea of her heart. She knew that the key was lost forever.


Connect with Penmancy:




Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!

Jumi Das
Latest posts by Jumi Das (see all)

Let us know what you think about this story.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© Penmancy 2018 All rights reserved.
%d bloggers like this: