I have not forgotten about them.
The chronicle of their lives is perhaps
the only one worth telling.
* * *
Could we fully believe in people again?
* * *
Let me tell you a story. A story that I know. Story? No―it is reality, humans will probably say. They will say it is reality engraved in human history.
But for me, the deeds of humans are all but stories. At times a comedy, at times a tragedy; sometimes predictable, sometimes wearisome―nothing but fabrications.
Yes, humans are always but foolish actors.
They act out a farce, dancing at the mercy of their greed, love, and emotions. They are foolish, ignorant, and avaricious…. They destroy with their own hands what they have created. They aspire to rule over others and become the one and only king of the world.
Why is that, I wonder?
Why are humans the only ones unable to live by the laws of nature, leaving everything as is? They are such strange creatures.
In the story I am about to tell you now, the main character is also a human―no. The main character is actually a city. A city-state. People called it No. 6. Have you ever heard the name before? It is the most beautiful, yet most fearsome, existence created by human hands. Worthy of a star role in a farce, don’t you think?
But… strange as it is, for some reason, I feel a sort of love towards that city, No. 6. The story surrounding No. 6, as well those who have lived in the story itself, are endearing to me. Does that make me the possessor of a “soul”?
I know of two young boys.
Night and day; light and dark; earth and wind; one who embraces all, and one who attempts to throw it all away. They are so different, yet they are very much alike. Both were deeply involved with No. 6. They lived their lives along with No. 6.
What? When was that, you say?
I wonder. It feels like only yesterday, but at the same time, it feels like a thousand years ago. I do not feel time the way humans do.
I feel no difference between a single moment or an eternity.
But I have not forgotten about them.
Sometimes I feel that the chronicle of their lives is perhaps the only one worth telling.
Come hither, now.
Let me tell you a story.
The story of two boys and of No. 6.
NO. 6 BEYOND
The ceiling was spinning. It actually felt like it was whirling.
Huh? What’s going on?
Inukashi collapsed on the bed and closed his eyes. He felt ill. He was not only dizzy, he even felt nauseous. He kept his eyes closed as he took several deep breaths. He inhaled through his nose, let the air sit in his stomach, and exhaled slowly through his mouth.
Once, twice, three times….
Any ailment, physical or mental, was usually cured by this―whether it be his agitated heart, his disarrayed thoughts, his throbbing wounds, or dull headaches. No one had taught him this; it was something he had learned without even realizing. But as for his empty stomach, there was nothing he could do. No matter how deeply he inhaled to make his stomach expand, as soon as he exhaled it flattened back out again. There was nothing he could do about his body, growing colder from his hunger.
I hate hunger. It’s horrifying. Inukashi gave himself a shake. Hunger was like a demon. With its sharp fangs and claws, it uprooted and stole any will to survive, any hope of living.
But now, he was alright.
Of course, he was still hungry. Inukashi didn’t remember the last time his stomach was full. Empty―that was just how stomachs came. That was his idea.
He carefully lifted himself up on the bed. He didn’t feel dizzy anymore, but his nausea was still present. He felt heavy, like someone had attached weights to his arms and legs. I feel like someone’s chained metal balls to me, like a prisoner of some country.
This is bad.
He lay back down again, and mentally clicked his tongue. Falling ill in the West Block was like beckoning Death to your side. Here, there were underground shamans of questionable nature, or self-proclaimed doctors, but no one who could give proper medical treatment. Inukashi didn’t know of any, at least.
His body felt heavy. With his eyes closed like this, he felt like he was being dragged into the watery depths.
In times like these, I have to think about fun things, he told himself. Fun? Have I ever enjoyed myself?
You did. Yesterday evening, remember? You were freed from hunger, just a little bit. Yeah, see, that was it. That was ultimate happiness.
He’d eaten some meat. There had been a chunk of raw meat in the load of food scraps from the Correctional Facility. It was not someone’s leftovers: this was a block of meat that had not even been cooked. It was free of bruising and rot. Upon closer inspection, it was peculiarly flat. Perhaps the chef at the Facility staff restaurant had dropped it on the floor, where someone else had stepped on it.
“Oy! You just ruined a perfectly good chunk of meat!”
“Oh, sorry. But you dropped it.”
“Well, we can’t help it now. Can’t use this anymore.”
The meat had been tossed into a metal garbage bin and forgotten. Eventually, it had made its way into Inukashi’s hands along with other trash and food scraps―perhaps that was its journey. Whatever. I don’t care what its journey was like, or how it got here. All that matters is I’m holding a chunk of meat in my hand.
What incredible fortune this was.
He quite literally danced for joy. When was the last time he’d had something this good in his hands? He searched and searched in his memories, but nothing turned up. Inukashi licked his lips as he held the hunk of meat, shining with fat. He swallowed hungrily.
He didn’t know what kind of meat it was, but he didn’t care―as long as it wasn’t human or dog. Inukashi returned to his dwelling in the ruins, and jumped right into cooking. He selected vegetable cuttings and bones out of the food scraps, threw them into a pot, and let it simmer. Right before it finished cooking, he divided the hunk of meat into sections and threw them in. He considered setting aside half of it to cure, or take to the market to sell, but in the end he decided against both. Inukashi was well aware that nonperishable food was a precious commodity; he also knew that if he took the meat to market, it would bring him a decent amount of money. But I think I’ll finish this meat off in one go. That was his decision. I’m allowed to treat myself once in a while. I’ll enjoy the good fortune that’s come to me―the fortune that heaven decided to throw my way out of chance.
This is the West Block, where I can’t even predict what my fate will be tomorrow. Even God doesn’t guarantee anything for anyone in this place. I might as well enjoy the present without thinking about tomorrow.
Steam rose from the pot.
A mouthwatering smell drifted up. The dogs gathered around, drawn by the smell.
“I know, I know. You guys’ll get some to eat, too. Don’t worry.”
White, black, patched, tan. Long-haired, short-haired, curly-haired. Flopped ears, erect ears, one-eared. Inukashi kept twenty or thirty dogs with him, ranging from one as big as a calf to one smaller than a cat. For some reason, that number never increased. Puppies were born every year, so that meant an equal number of dogs probably died or left.
An old female dog died yesterday. She was a great mother, having birthed many puppies and raised close to half of them successfully. I remember her sons and daughters licking her cold, stiffening body in turn.
Dogs were deeply loyal. They were warm, and gentle. They had a definite compassion. They never betrayed their friends or family.
They’re much more decent and trustworthy than human creatures.
“More fearsome than hunger, than the frozen earth, are humans.”
I remember that was Gramps’ line. Inukashi shook his head as he stirred the pot with a wooden spatula. Why did I have to remember him? It’s not gonna help satisfy my hunger. But, no―he shook his head even more fiercely.
I gotta remember him at least once or twice a year, for his sake. I have to remember and recall how dear he was to me. I owe that old man. We don’t forget the good deeds that people have done for us: that’s another virtue about us dogs.
I don’t know how old Gramps was, or why he lived here in the ruins with the dogs, or where he came from or where he went. I don’t feel like I need to know, nor do I intend to find out. But I wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for Gramps. I feel the weight of what he did in every inch of my bones.
It was winter when I met Gramps.
I remember the freezing wind and the whiteness of the snow that piled up in front of me. So yes, it was winter. Years and years ago.
He had no memory of his mother, no recollection of his father; yet, he could remember vividly the frigid wind and the snow dancing. He recalled the approaching footsteps, a dog’s tongue licking his cheek, the warmth of a human bosom; even the floating feeling he felt for an instant when he was scooped up.
How old was I then? Was I still a baby? Probably, huh, because I was still getting milk from Mum. Babies sure remember a lot more than we give credit for.
He was an elderly man dwelling in the ruins of the hotel, and he had picked up Inukashi and raised him. Or perhaps one could say that the man had picked him up, but the female dog was the one who raised him.
She was young, and had just given birth to a litter. Inukashi suckled at her breast, and slept nestled up to her belly with the other puppies. Thanks to her, he had avoided starvation. He had avoided freezing to death. He had survived.
This intelligent and sweet-mannered dog was Inukashi’s one and only “Mum”.
“You’re a strange child… or special, I should say.” The old man had made this statement when Inukashi had grown old enough to walk, and was able to compete with his fellow dogs in lunging for food. The old man had spoken in a warm, reflective, gentle voice. Inukashi remembered that well, too.
“It means you’re different from the others. Until now, I’d never even heard of, much less seen, a baby who could feed and grow on dog’s milk. When I took you in, to tell you the truth, I figured you wouldn’t last three days. But I still took you in anyway, because I wanted to give you a proper burial.”
“It means digging up the earth and burying you in it. When you died, I planned to put you underground and give you a burial that way. I couldn’t bring myself to let you waste away in the open air. I didn’t want you to go through what most babies go through on this land, rotting in the middle of the road, being pecked at by crows, being eaten by beasts. Normally, I would have… yes, I would have just left you there. I would have passed you by pretending not to notice. It would be no different from what I’ve always been doing. But why did I decide to pick you off the road… why did I want to bury you in the earth?”
“I don’t know.” The old man shook his head slowly, twice. “I really don’t know. I don’t understand it, myself. Why did I scoop you up that day and take you home? I’ve watched many babies, dozens of them, die. Why did I decide to extend my hand to you? I can’t seem to explain it. That’s partly what I meant when I said you were a strange child.”
Inukashi shivered. He made a soft strangled noise at feeling his body grow colder to the tips of his fingers. A cold sweat ran down his back.
He was scared. At the same time, he was overwhelmed with the impulse to laugh out loud. He wanted to throw his head back and let his laughter echo to the heavens.
He was alive due to good fortune bordering on mere coincidence. If it weren’t for the old man’s impulse, his body, his flesh, his bones would have been prey to crows and beasts. What a miracle this was, what luck. Inside his heart was a storm of fear, relief, and the stabbing impulse to dissolve into hysterical laughter.
By that time, Inukashi had already come to realize how arduous a task it was to survive every day in the West Block. He sensed that his own future was full of tribulation and hardship, much like climbing up a steep cliff with bare hands.
But he wanted to live. He wanted to live, to survive, and stretch the limits of his life, even for a minute, for a second. For that, he would do anything, no matter how unsightly, deceitful, or shameful it was. It was easy to die. All he needed was some rope and a tree with sturdy branches. He could also jump off a cliff. Or, he could run screaming into the Correctional Facility―that was an option, too. The soldiers on patrol would shoot him through the chest or the head without any hesitation.
He would be finished off in an instant, no matter which method he chose. He would not suffer for long. At least, he didn’t think so. That was why he knew it was easier to choose death. It was as obvious as the sun rising from the east.
But I don’t want to. Inukashi clenched his fist, though it was still very small.I won’t be finished off so easily. I won’t choose death of my own will. I’ll survive and I’ll do whatever it takes.
I’ll step up to the challenge. I’ll challenge the fate which left me abandoned on the road in the West Block; I’ll challenge the world that makes survival such a difficulty; I’ll challenge the guys who made the world like this―and I’ll win. In fact, I’m winning right now by continuing to survive.
As a young child, Inukashi did not know how to speak. He did not know how to put his heart’s resolve into words and tell it to others. But the old man nevertheless smiled serenely and placed a hand on Inukashi’s head.
“I have a feeling you’d be able to do it,” he’d murmured.
It was about a year later, in the onset of winter, when the old man disappeared. His bed was already empty when Inukashi woke up that morning, and the old man was nowhere to be seen in the ruins. But Inukashi didn’t particularly go on a frantic search, either. Somewhere in his heart he had given up, knowing it was no use. He was disconcerted, but he was not lonely. His dogs were with him. As long as his dogs were here, he was alright.
Gramps probably knew that, too. He knew well when he wandered off. Did he sense the end of his life coming, or did he find a place he ought to go? Whichever it was, he’s probably out there somewhere now, a part of the earth. People can’t turn into the stars in the sky, but they can always return to the earth. They can leave their memories behind, too.
Thanks, Gramps. I’ll never forget everything you did for me. Once in a while, I’ll be sure to remember you and recall some fond memories. But you know, your face is getting blurry lately. I can still remember the little things: your scraggly white beard; how your balding forehead was shining pink; how your right eyebrow was unusually thick; how you were always soft-spoken. I remember those things so clearly, but I can’t seem to recall your face. I wonder why? But, well, there you have it. I remembered you today. That’s enough, right?
He gave the pot another stir with the spatula.
A patched dog barked. The other dogs chimed in and began barking, too.
“I know, I know. Right, let’s get this feast started. Gather ’round, you guys. But you gotta wait ’til it cools down before you eat it. You’ll have a hell of a time later if you end up burning your tongue.”
By the time Inukashi had finished doling out the soup into the dog dishes and begun to sip his own portion of meaty broth, he had completely forgotten about the old man.
The past tended to get in the way of things. If he kept turning back, he would not be able to move forward.
Inukashi ate a piece of meat and savoured the taste and sensation of it in his mouth. He felt like it was a waste to swallow it; he wanted to savour it forever. But the tiny piece all too easily slid down his throat and settled in his stomach. By the time he finished the rich, meaty soup, however, he felt warm down to his very bones. Still radiating warmth, he lay down on the bed. The puppies squirmed over each other to climb up, and licked him all over the face. Their small pink tongues were comforting.
He was happy. He even felt like he had taken all the happiness in the world for himself. Immersed in bliss, Inukashi dropped off to sleep.
He felt nauseous. He was afraid that the ceiling would start spinning again if he opened his eyes.
What’s gotten into me?
A part of his head started throbbing dully. His body felt even heavier. He was breaking into a sweat. It was an unnatural feverishness, so different from the warmth of the night before.
The puppies’ tongues were no comfort to him, either. His skin only smarted irritably. He had never once felt his dogs irksome before.
No number of deep breaths seemed to improve his condition.
What’s gotten into me?
Right after he questioned himself, he felt a chill run down his back. Fear ignited deep in his heart.
This is beyond serious.
What if I find I can’t get up at all? What if I can’t even move?
It was fatal to fall ill in the West Block. It didn’t take much to kill a West Block dweller, deprived of decent food and living in squalor as he was. Just a small injury was enough: a deep cut on the pinkie, a hard scrape along the forefoot. So was a small ailment: dizziness, nausea, fever―anything to keep one in bed. Someone who had definitely been alive three days ago could be lying on the road as a corpse today. This kind of thing happened every day.
Inukashi bit his lip, and lifted his upper body up. He leaned against the wall, and let out a long breath.
So yesterday’s meat was my last supper, huh. Damnit. This isn’t even funny. I’m not gonna let this take me out.
He bit his lip harder. The taste of blood spread inside his mouth. He muttered “damnit” once more to himself for good measure. But no strength came to him. It was wearisome to lift even one finger. If he forced himself to get up, he was overcome with simultaneous dizziness and nausea. He collapsed on the bed again.
His consciousness began to fade.
A chill wind whistled through a crack in the window. The cold drew Inukashi back to reality. He wanted to scream. He wanted to scream for help, as loudly as he could.
Somebody help me… someone, please.
A dog roused itself in a corner of the room and approached him. It sat on its haunches at his bedside, and looked up at him. It was a large brown dog, an offspring of Inukashi’s mother’s line. It had inherited her intelligence and deep, dark eyes.
The dog sat still with its ears pricked, as if waiting for Inukashi’s command.
“…I want you to… call them for me…” He pointed out the window.
Beyond was a spread of wintry sky, heavy with snow clouds. The light struggled to get through the clouds, and barely reached the ground below. Once more, the West Block would end the day just as frozen as it had been at the beginning.
The dog pushed open the dilapidated door and left the room. Its rusty hinges screeched unpleasantly. Inukashi was supposed to be used to the sound, yet it stabbed at his eardrums and aggravated his nausea.
“Please. Call them…”
The dog scrambled down the stairs. The puppies huddled together and whined pitifully.
He was dreaming. Dreaming of long ago. How many years back?
The old man had long disappeared. Inukashi was alone―but with his dogs. He’d finally gotten the hang of procuring himself some food scraps, as well as taught himself how to cook it or sell it off.
He was descending a set of stairs.
They were concrete steps leading underground, not as damaged as the ones in Inukashi’s dwelling. The building was mostly in ruins above ground, but it looked like the portions beneath were still intact. Once Inukashi reached the bottom, he was faced with a door. He extended a cautious hand to grip the handle.
The building was located near the entrance of the West Block. The surrounding woods nearby were dotted with barracks. Also nearby loomed the Holy City, No. 6. To be exact, it was No. 6’s outer wall. The outer wall made of special alloy gleamed golden as it loomed before him. The wall made a clear division between “here” and “there”, heaven and hell. Nothing was lacking within the walls: warm beds, abundant food, leading-edge medical facilities, comfortable residences. There were no threats to life, and one could live without even knowing what hunger or cold was. Inukashi had also heard that suffering and fear didn’t even exist there.
A utopia, worthy of its title of the Holy City.
Inukashi did not hear much of No. 6 in the West Block. Everyone fell silent, and refused to touch upon the topic as if its very name were taboo.
Fishy business, Inukashi had thought―or rather, felt.
Utopias and Holy Cities simply did not exist in this world. No. 6 was a city-state founded by humans. As long as humans were involved in it, something had to come apart. Your ideal isn’t my perfection, and happiness for me might be something you can’t stand. That’s the human world for ya. Humans can’t create a utopia. The best they’d be able to do is quarrel, clash, bend a little for the other person, and then settle down somewhere inbetween. That’s it.
No. 6? That place is so fishy it makes my hair stand on end. The smart thing to do is stay the hell away.
That was why Inukashi never ventured close to this place. He hated seeing No. 6’s wall in his line of sight. If he had experienced a better harvest that day, he probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near that place. But an entire day of wandering in the West Block had only gotten him one or two vegetable ends and a single strip of dried meat. That was barely enough to nourish himself, much less his dogs. At the time, Inukashi still did not know how to get his hands on periodic supplies of leftover food. His only choice was to clutch his empty stomach and scrounge desperately. At the market, he earned a sound beating from the butcher’s club; at the tavern, the female manager shrieked curses at him, but he went on unfazed. Inukashi was long used to the abuse, the insults, and the physical pain.
I have to do something about this hunger.
When he came to, he had been standing in the wood. It looked like he had almost subconsciously walked this way, intending to find even a single nut to pick up. This was where he found the crumbling abandoned building. He placed a casual hand on the wall, and it slid aside without any resistance to reveal stairs leading to the basement.
Inukashi twitched his nose. He squinted his eyes, and strained his ears.
He neither sensed nor smelled the presence of anyone.
Completely abandoned. huh.
He carefully descended, step by step.
Inukashi knew that a strange old woman and a boy (her grandson, he assumed) was supposed to be living here. He had seen them twice before. The old woman had a harsh look about her eyes, as if she’d never smiled once in her life.
I know, I know. I remember.
That old lady was funny in the head. She attacked someone important from No. 6―the mayor or chairman or whatever. All on her own, at that. She hobbled towards him, knife in hand, and was shot to death. Wait―or did she get arrested and shot? Whatever it was, she was finished off pretty quick. Not much of a surprise, haha.
Inukashi sneered at her mentally. It was a rumour he’d heard in the marketplace. He was unsure of its validity.
His stomach growled. It sounded like a cry for help.
I can’t take it anymore. Give me food. Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry.
Damnit, isn’t there something? Mouldy bread, rotting meat, I don’t care. Something to quiet my stomach down.
He gripped the door handle. The door was unlocked. It was a little heavy, but with a little push, it opened without much resistance.
“Ho!” A sound not quite resembling a breath or an utterance escaped his throat. “The heck is this?”
There were piles of books as far as he could see. They were here and there, everywhere, piled up neatly or scattered carelessly across the floor. The floor itself was almost indiscernible. The room seemed to contain nothing but books.
This moment was Inukashi’s first encounter with books. He knew words; he could also write, as long as it wasn’t too difficult. The old man had taught him. But Inukashi had no knowledge whatsoever about books. He had never heard the word “book”, nor did he know that it referred to these bound sheets of paper with printed words. He had no clue where to begin understanding them. He perceived instantly that they weren’t food. Just to make sure, he picked a book from a pile near the door, and took a bite. He had chosen it because the ripe apple pictured on its white background looked delicious.
Inukashi wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and threw it aside.Tough, dry, and definitely not something I can eat.
He moved forward, kicking the fallen books out of the way. There only seemed to be books in this place.
Tsk. All that work gone to waste. Inukashi clicked his tongue and was about to turn on his heel when his heart beat a trembling pulse. He had found something other than books.
It was placed on a shelf (filled with books)―some of the volumes had been cleared away to make space for it. It was a small silver box, sitting on top of a towel.