Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.


by Alec Nevala-Lee



The kawataro stood at the side of the road. Hakaru saw it for the first time as he was trudging along the highway, suitcase rolling behind him in the rain. It had been half a mile by foot from the train station, and although he had been looking for the turnoff to the village, it was so narrow, less than six paces wide, that he was on the point of walking past it entirely when the statue caught his eye.

He halted. The statue was about the height of his chest, sunk into the ground near the remains of a gate. It had been carved by hand from some hard, dark material, either stone or very dense wood, and depicted a vaguely humanoid figure, its face flat and stupid, the dome of the head bald except for a fringe of hair. A few flecks of old paint, nearly obliterated by time, gave an impression of yellow, scaly skin. Beneath the chin, the throat was puffed out and distended, like the vocal sac of a frog.

Hakaru, uneasy, was about to continue along the road when he saw three other figures lined up nearby. At first, through the curtain of rain, he thought they were statues as well. It was only when one moved slightly that he realized he was looking at a group of three children standing about ten yards away. The oldest, a boy who seemed no more than twelve, was wearing a raincoat, once red, that had been spattered with dark mud nearly up to the sleeves.

“Hi there,” Hakaru said, giving them a friendly wave. “Is this the way to Hana?”

The children said nothing. Hakaru had a good idea as to why they didn’t respond, but still found it faintly unnerving. As he resumed his walk, moving past the silent group, he sensed that their eyes remained fixed on his back.

A moment later, climbing over a rise, he came into view of the village itself. Off in the distance, he could make out a handful of fishing boats casting their nets on the gray swell of the ocean. Pausing to catch his breath, he took in the lighthouse on the jetty, the silver thread of the river, and the main street that ran through the center of the village. As the street climbed higher, the drab rows of black tiled roofs gave way to a cluster of modern houses. Beyond that point, the land rose steeply in a line of rocky bluffs, their crests carpeted with forest.

He was about to descend to the village when he noticed that the children had followed him. Now they were standing a few yards off, lined up in a neat row, regarding him with the same lack of expression as before. He waved again. In response, one of the children, a girl, turned to the boy in the red raincoat, making a series of gestures with her hands. The boy signed back impatiently, as if telling her to wait, his eyes never leaving Hakaru’s face.

Turning away, Hakaru headed down the road. Each time he glanced over his shoulder, the children were still there. When he reached the inn at the edge of the village, he looked back, meaning to give them an ironic farewell, then halted. Behind him, the street was empty.

Unsettled, he went into the inn, which was small and dark. Through a sliding screen at the far end of the entrance hall, he could see into a rock garden. A second later, hearing the quick sound of footsteps, he found himself looking into the gaunt face of the innkeeper, who bowed and led him over to a desk. When Hakaru gave his name, the man smiled. “You aren’t from around here, are you?”

“I’m a graduate student at Osaka University,” Hakaru said. “I was born in Canada.”

The innkeeper’s smile widened, but something else closed off in his narrow eyes, as if he had already marked Hakaru off as an outsider. “And how long will you be staying with us?”

“I’m not sure,” Hakaru said, signing the register. “At least two weeks. Perhaps longer. Do you know Dr. Nakaya?”

“Of course,” the innkeeper said, glancing over Hakaru’s shoulder. “In fact, here she is now—”

Hakaru turned to see a woman entering the hall, umbrella in hand. She was close to his own age, with a pair of sensible glasses and an air that could charitably be called severe. “Hakaru Hashimoto?”

He set down his bag. “Yes. I’ve been looking forward to working with you—”

Dr. Nakaya broke in. “Don’t thank me yet. We may not have anything to work on at all.” She studied him with a critical eye. “If you have a jacket and tie, put them on, then get back here. You and I have an appointment.”

Something in her expression told him not to waste time with questions. A few minutes later, they were walking together down the sodden road. Hakaru did not see the children from before. “We’re going to the village school,” Dr. Nakaya said. “A local councilman, Miyamoto, is there now. Knowing what he thinks of me, the meeting might go better if I bring a man along.”

Hakaru heard a note of bitterness in her voice. Around them, the rain had slackened. He stepped aside to make way for a pair of women who were coming up the street, signing rapidly to each other. “What do you need me to do?”

“Nothing. If he asks who you are, just say that you’re affiliated with the university. When I give you a signal, get up and talk to the schoolteacher. It doesn’t matter what you talk about, but try to make it look like you’re discussing Miyamoto’s performance.” She looked over at him for the first time since leaving the inn. “What do you know about the situation here?”

“Only what I saw in the articles you sent. I know, obviously, that this is an historical burakumin village—”

She shot him a glance. “Careful with that word. Make sure you don’t use it around Miyamoto. The locals don’t mind, but the townspeople across the river can be sensitive about these things.”

“Of course,” Hakaru said. Discrimination against the burakumin, the descendants of outcaste undertakers and leatherworkers, had been illegal for more than a century, but old prejudices still remained. Many burakumin still lived in separate, impoverished villages or neighborhoods, but most Japanese reacted to the situation by refusing to acknowledge it. “So what does this have to do with us?”

“The burakumin on this side of the river have been isolated from the rest of town for a long time, both geographically and culturally. At the moment, there’s a proposal before the town council to merge the entire village with another town a mile away. A merger wouldn’t change the lives of most villagers, but it would mean that the children would be bused to a larger school.”

Hakaru understood the problem at once. “Including the children in your study.”

“Exactly.” She quickened her pace. “As soon as I heard about the merger, I rushed back, which is why my usual cameraman wasn’t available. I understand you’ve had experience with child development studies. We’ll be taping subjects of all ages, but without the children, we have nothing.”

They reached the school. In the dingy playground, which was still damp, an afternoon class was at recess. The students, dressed in matching white shirts and kerchiefs, ranged in age from six to eleven. Most laughed and shouted as they ran, but a few were noticeably silent, and even the loudest ones were signing at the same time, with nimble, fluent gestures of their hands.

Going inside, they entered a classroom lined with tiny desks. At the front of the room, a teacher in her twenties was seated next to a man in gray slacks and a pink collared shirt. The councilman, Miyamoto, appeared to be going over some records, a stack of folders on the desk by his elbow.

As the newcomers entered, the teacher and the councilman rose. After a round of the usual pleasantries, Dr. Nakaya got down to business. “We need to talk about this merger. I’ve petitioned the council several times for an audience, but haven’t received a very receptive response.”

“This is a busy time,” Miyamoto said, taking a seat as the teacher excused herself, moving to the other side of the classroom. “Perhaps we can schedule something for after the merger—”

Dr. Nakaya sat down. “At that point, it will be too late. The vote needs to be postponed. I don’t think the council understands what it has here. If the merger goes ahead as scheduled, a unique opportunity will be lost forever.”

“I was born here,” Miyamoto said. “I think I know something about this place.”

“I’m not sure you do,” Dr. Nakaya said. “Let me remind you of the situation. Two centuries ago, this neighborhood was founded by an outcaste fisherman. We don’t know much about him, except that his family was very large, and nearly every resident on this side of the river is descended from his sons. We also know that he was deaf. More specifically, he was a carrier for a form of recessive deafness that has been passed down to a substantial percentage of his descendants.”

“This is common knowledge. You don’t need to lecture me about my own village.”

“I’m not finished. Because the village was an outcaste community that was shut off from the surrounding population, it became endogamous, with a high rate of intermarriage. As a result, of the thousand living residents, nearly five percent are deaf. And in just the past few generations, they’ve spontaneously developed a functional language for signing with each other and the rest of the village. A new language, with nothing in common with existing sign systems.”

“Once again, you aren’t telling me anything I don’t know,” Miyamoto said. “We’re all aware that this village is special—”

“More than special. It’s extraordinary. I’ve been a linguist for my entire professional career. We have theories about how languages grow and develop, but almost never have a chance to observe it in the field. This is the only place in Japan, perhaps in the world, where we can watch a new language evolve. The first generation with a large number of deaf villagers, born seventy years ago, signed with a simple pidgin, which the second generation turned into a real language. And the children who are alive today have given that language form and complexity. No one taught them how to do this. They did it themselves. And it needs to be studied.”

Miyamoto’s smile had grown increasingly forced. “So what is it that you want?”

“I want to document this language properly. We need to videotape conversations with deaf children and adults, analyze the recordings, and compile a dictionary and grammar. We’ve already begun the process, but it takes time. And if you send these students to the school across the river, the unique properties of this language will be altered at once. They’ll be taught all day in Japanese and standard sign language, and the culture they’ve created will be lost.”

“All right,” Miyamoto said impatiently. “You’ve made your case. Now let me tell you my own point of view. There’s no question that this merger is good for the town. I also happen to believe that it is best for these children. You see, it’s our responsibility to help people like this—”

As the councilman spoke, Hakaru felt a gentle pressure against his leg, and realized that Dr. Nakaya was pressing her foot against his calf. He remembered that he was supposed to go up to the teacher. As he rose, Miyamoto broke off for a second, watching him warily. Walking across the room, Hakaru approached the teacher, who was looking out at the children in the yard. “Hi there.”

“Hello,” the teacher said, smiling nervously. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“I wanted to speak with you about arrangements for taping,” Hakaru said, glancing at the councilman, who was watching them with poorly disguised concern. “You’ve worked with Dr. Nakaya before?”

“Yes, several times over the past year,” the teacher said. She led him into a short corridor that ran alongside the classroom. At one end, an open door looked out at the schoolyard. The wall was covered in children’s drawings, a grid of bright pictures in crayon and watercolor. “We usually put the camera here.”

Hakaru checked the spot, confirming that there was an electrical outlet and room for his equipment. When he was done, he wanted to ask the teacher what she thought of Dr. Nakaya, but something held him back. Instead, to delay his return to the classroom, he made a show of studying the drawings on the wall. There were many pictures of fishing boats. Elsewhere, there were a number of drawings of the school itself, with stick figure children playing outside, and—

He paused. Set among the other pictures was a rough drawing in crayon, barely more than a sketch. It showed a figure with a yellow face, its head bald, its throat a distended pouch. The creature’s mouth was a black, screaming hole. He pointed at the picture. “Do you know what this is?”

The teacher frowned. “I’m not sure. It was done by a child in the morning class.”

“I see,” Hakaru said. As he spoke, however, the teacher turned her eyes away, and he had the sudden impression that she was lying.

Before he had the chance to ask about this, he heard something bounce lightly across the floor of the hallway, followed by a set of footsteps. A large plastic ball came to a stop at his feet. Running a few steps behind it was a tiny girl, pigtails flying, chasing the ball with her arms extended.

Hakaru picked up the ball. Handing it back to the girl, he said, “What’s your name?”

The girl said nothing. Holding the ball, which was nearly the size of her head, in both hands, she glanced into the adjoining classroom. Following her gaze, Hakaru saw that she was looking at Dr. Nakaya, who was speaking in a low voice to the councilman, her face tense and angry.

The teacher smiled down at the student. “Her name is Amaya. She is six years old.”

Turning back to the girl, Hakaru found himself pointing to the drawing of the yellow face. “Can you ask her what this?”

The teacher seemed bothered by his request, but finally signed the question. Amaya turned away from the other room, then looked up at the drawing. Reaching up with one hand, she made a curious gesture, as if shaping a pouch under her chin. Then she ran back outside. Hakaru watched her go. “What did she say?”

“She said it was a kawataro,” the teacher said. “I should have known, of course—”

Hakaru was about to ask what this meant when he saw that Dr. Nakaya had risen, leaving the councilman behind, and was walking in his direction. “Come on. We’re leaving.”

“Now?” Hakaru thanked the teacher, then followed Dr. Nakaya outside, passing the councilman without a word. “What did he say?”

“He promises that the council will take my advice under consideration,” Dr. Nakaya said coldly. “Which means that nothing will happen. The council won’t dare to interfere with the merger.”

They left the school, heading back toward the inn. After they had walked for a moment in silence, Hakaru remembered what he had meant to ask. “At the school, I saw a drawing on the wall. It reminded me of a statue I saw on the way here, by the side of the road that leads to the village—”

“The kawataro,” Dr. Nakaya said. “Yes, of course. It’s a kappa. A river spirit. They say it drags children under the water and sucks their blood.” She gave a short laugh. “I’ve noticed some of the children talking about it. I’m not surprised that they believe in such a thing. They’re burakumin, and they’re deaf. The world is more than ready to suck them dry—”

They turned the corner that led to the main street. Behind them, at the school, Miyamoto stood at the door of the classroom, watching as they left. He waited until they were out of sight, then closed the door.

He headed back to the desk. The encounter with that unpleasant woman had left a bad taste in his mouth. No matter what either of them wanted, the merger was bound to take place. The government, loaded down with debt, was pressuring villages to merge. Refusing to do so was not really an option. But he knew that the woman would never understand this.

When the students returned from recess, Miyamoto took the records into an office next door. He worked silently and patiently for another two hours, taking notes on class size and each child’s history. As evening fell, he finished up for the day. Going back into the classroom, he saw that the students were gone. He handed the files to the teacher with a word of thanks, but as he was about to put his notes away, he frowned. “Have you seen my briefcase?”

“Your briefcase?” The teacher looked around the room. “I thought it was with you.”

“No, I left it here, by the desk. Brown leather, brass hinges.” Miyamoto checked the desk, looking around it on all sides, but the briefcase was not here. Neither was it back in the office he had just left.

As they searched the classroom without success, he grew increasingly annoyed. The teacher seemed worried as well, an uneasy smile fixed on her face. “Perhaps you left it in your car.”

“It’s possible,” Miyamoto said, although he was sure he had brought it inside. Leaving the classroom, he went out to the street, where a light rain had resumed. His car was parked where he had left it, not far from the entrance to the school. He was nearly there, keys in hand, when his attention was caught by an unexpected movement out of the corner of one eye.

He turned. Standing in the schoolyard was a boy in a red raincoat. The briefcase was in his hands.

“Hey,” Miyamoto said, heading for the playground. “Where did you find that?”

The boy in the raincoat said nothing, but only stood in silence, the briefcase clutched to his chest. As Miyamoto approached, the boy continued to look straight ahead, staring vacantly. “All right,” the councilman said, feeling his wet shirt adhering to his body. “I want you to—”

Before the councilman could finish the sentence, the boy turned, the raincoat flaring around his legs, and ran off, heading for the rear of the schoolyard. Miyamoto stood there for a second, too surprised to move, then ran after the boy, puffing and cursing under his breath.

At the rear of the playground stood a fence meant to keep the children from wandering into the woods beyond. As he ran clumsily forward, feeling foolish, Miyamoto saw the boy dash through the gate, which had been left unlocked, and continue up the path under the gray trees.

“Stop!” Miyamoto shouted, his lungs already aching. He was not used to running like this, and could already feel a cramp in his thigh. Going through the gate, he found himself on a path that led into the forest. Up ahead, he saw a flash of red as the boy vanished around the bend.

Miyamoto swore again and continued up the footpath, damp needles squelching beneath his feet. The path was at an incline, rising as the ground climbed towards the bluffs. Glancing down, he saw that his shoes and the cuffs of his slacks were already covered in mud. As he rounded the bend, bringing him out of sight of the school, he found himself thinking that this behavior could only be the fault of the outcaste animals who had raised such a child—

Something closed around his leg. Miyamoto cried out, as much in surprise as in pain, and nearly fell onto his face. Regaining his balance, he looked down, a fresh wave of agony passing along his right calf.

Beneath the blanket of needles, someone had planted a metal trap with two sprung jaws, and he had put his foot right in the center of it. The jaws had snapped shut around his ankle, too tightly for him to pull himself out. Bending down, he tried to wrench the trap loose, but it had been set too firmly into the ground, and the effort only brought tears of pain to his eyes.

A sound came from up ahead. Miyamoto looked up. Standing twelve yards away, in the middle of the path, was the boy in the red raincoat, the briefcase in his arms. He had been joined by two other children, a boy and a girl. They stood there together, watching him without a word.

“Help me!” Miyamoto said, his voice cracking. “My foot is caught. Find someone—”

The children did not move. They continued to watch him blankly, as if they hadn’t heard him at all, which, he realized, they probably hadn’t. He tried to remember the little sign language he knew, a few words and phrases, but none of it seemed relevant to his current predicament.

Miyamoto bent down again, trying to pry the trap apart with his hands. The jaws were studded with blunted teeth, and it was hard to find a grip for his fingers. He pulled, straining as hard as he could. Nothing. Clenching his teeth, he tried a second time, but the trap gave less than a millimeter.

He heard a footstep. Another. Something was coming up the path behind him, its pace slow and shuffling. His first thought, as he listened to those dragging steps, was that it was some kind of animal. Something with claws. A bear, perhaps, although he wasn’t sure if there were still bears in these woods—

Miyamoto turned. Standing before him was a dark, hunched figure, hard to make out in the shadows. There was something in its hands.

As the figure took another step forward, a shaft of light fell across its body. Its face was sickly yellow, its skin scaly and dry. Except for a fringe of long, stringy hair, its head was bald. Beneath its chin hung a massive, distended pouch, swollen like the vocal sac of a toad.

Miyamoto opened his mouth to scream. There was a flash of silver in the creature’s hand. He felt a set of strong fingers grip the top of his head, then a strange pulling sensation as his throat was torn open. His last conscious thought, as he fell wetly to the ground, was that the children were still watching him.


The police came to the school the following morning. Hakaru had set up his tripod in the rear corridor, where he was filming a boy of eight, along with a teacher who was serving as an interpreter. As far as he could tell, though, Dr. Nakaya, who was standing just out of camera range, seemed to need no assistance.

As Hakaru recorded the proceedings, he watched the boy through the viewfinder. Although he could not understand what Dr. Nakaya and the student were signing, the boy struck him as animated and intelligent. He recalled that while there had yet to be a true genetic study of the village population, its deafness was believed to be nonsyndromic, with intelligence tending to be average or higher.

Withdrawing his eye from the camera, he saw that a man had entered the room. The stranger wore a police inspector’s peaked cap, which he removed, and a navy vest with a radio harness. Hakaru glanced back at Dr. Nakaya, who had not noticed the inspector yet. As usual, her eyes were fixed intently on her subject, studying the boy closely as they signed back and forth.

As the conversation wound down, she saw the inspector for the first time. For a second, her face darkened, but she managed to hide it as she signed to the boy, signaling that they were finished. The boy signed back, giving her a broad smile, then slid off his chair and ran into the other room.

Hakaru paused the camera. Before he could say anything, Dr. Nakaya had already approached the inspector. “What do you want?”

The inspector held up his badge. “I’m from the prefectural station. Mr. Miyamoto—”

“Did he ask you to come here?” Dr. Nakaya demanded. “If he told you to shut down our work, he has no legal grounds to do so—”

The inspector broke in. “Mr. Miyamoto never came home last night. At first, his wife assumed that he’d gone out with friends. When he wasn’t back this morning, though, she called the police. His car is still parked outside. I understand that both of you saw him yesterday?”

“We spoke with him yesterday afternoon,” Hakaru said, coming forward. “A teacher can confirm this. Then Dr. Nakaya and I left the school together. That was the last time we saw him.”

The inspector made a note of this. “And you can verify your whereabouts last night?”

Hakaru glanced at Dr. Nakaya. “We walked back to the inn together, but didn’t meet up again until this morning. I had some materials to review, so I had dinner alone and spent the rest of the night in my room.”

The inspector turned to Dr. Nakaya, his expression polite. “And where were you?”

Before she could reply, there was a commotion from outside, as if a large number of people were moving up the street. Without a word, the inspector headed for the source of the noise, with the others following close behind. The classroom next door was already empty. Going up to where the children had rushed to stare, Hakaru saw a crowd heading along the main road, talking and signing excitedly.

As one of the villagers passed, Dr. Nakaya signed to ask what was going on. The man signed back, then pointed in the direction that the throng was headed. Hakaru stood back as they passed. “What’s happening?”

“It’s Miyamoto,” Dr. Nakaya said flatly. “They’ve found his body by the river.”

They joined the crowd. After a minute, they found themselves near the river that cut the village in half. The river was crossed by a single bridge, barely wide enough for a single vehicle, and it was here that the mob had gathered, coming to a halt at the riverside. Hakaru inched forward to get a better look. As he did, he noticed a statue that had been mounted at the head of the railing, as if posted there to guard the bridge. It was the grinning head of a kawataro.

Before him lay the river itself. Beyond a narrow street, a rocky embankment sloped down to the water, which was edged with black silt. Lying on the riverbank, not far from the bridge, was the body of a man.

The inspector pushed past Hakaru, shouting for the others to get out of the way, then began to pick his way down the embankment. As he did, Hakaru got a better look at the body. Although it was lying with its face down, he recognized its pink shirt from the day before. Its right ankle was bloody and torn.

When the inspector had reached the riverbank, he took the dead man by the shoulders and raised it a few inches, giving him a look at its face. The crowd groaned. It was Miyamoto. His cheeks and forehead had been covered in mud. A pale gash, like a second mouth, was visible at the base of his throat. At the sight of its bloodless edges, Hakaru felt sick.

Lowering the body to the mud again, the inspector unslung his radio. As he watched the inspector call for backup, Hakaru noticed that Dr. Nakaya was standing beside him. Around them, the crowd was whispering nervously. He was about to suggest that they go when he saw a child standing a few yards away, clutching her father’s hand. It was the girl he had encountered yesterday at the school.

The girl turned in his direction. When she saw him standing with Dr. Nakaya, a look of recognition passed across her face. She tugged at her father’s sleeve. At first, he didn’t react, but when the girl tugged again, more insistently, he looked down. The girl signed and pointed in Hakaru’s direction. Her father glanced at Hakaru, then signed back to the girl, who nodded empathically.

Hakaru nudged Dr. Nakaya, indicating the girl and her father. “What’s she saying?”

Dr. Nakaya studied the father and daughter, who were still signing. “The girl remembers us. She saw me talking to Miyamoto.”

As they watched, the father whispered to the woman beside him, who reacted with visible surprise, then looked at Dr. Nakaya. Before long, an entire knot of villagers was staring at them, speaking in low whispers. Something in their eyes made Hakaru uneasy. “What’s going on?”

Dr. Nakaya turned away from the group, her face tense. “They think I did it.”

At first, Hakaru thought she was joking, then realized that she was perfectly serious. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Of course it’s ridiculous. But you know how rumors can spread in a place like this. Especially about outsiders—”

The villagers were still watching them. After a beat, Dr. Nakaya spoke softly. “We’d better cancel the rest of the day’s tapings. It’s probably best if you aren’t seen with me for a while.”

Before Hakaru could reply, she pushed away from him and plunged into the crowd. Countless eyes followed her as she moved away from the river. He watched until she had gone, wishing uncomfortably that he had done something more, then turned back to the scene by the bridge.

As the minutes ticked by without incident, the crowd began to disperse. Hakaru was about to leave as well when he saw the innkeeper standing a few paces away. He walked over. “Strange, isn’t it?”

“Yes, very strange,” the innkeeper agreed. As the crowd thinned, they headed back to the inn together. Hakaru sensed that the other man had something on his mind. Finally, when they were out of sight of the river, the innkeeper cleared his throat. “How well do you know Dr. Nakaya?”

“We’d spoken on the phone a few times,” Hakaru said. “But I only met her yesterday. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, the people here find her interesting. There are a lot of rumors about her—”

Hakaru remembered how the villagers had whispered. “What kind of rumors?”

“Oh, you know.” The innkeeper smiled evasively, then lowered his voice. “They say she isn’t married and has no children of her own. Some think she can’t have children at all. Which is why she is so interested in ours. And why she was so worried about them being taken away.”

Hakaru had no trouble believing that such rumors could circulate around a young, unmarried woman, especially one who did not go out of her way to endear herself. “You think she killed Miyamoto?”

The innkeeper chuckled nervously, as if he felt that Hakaru was being too direct. “No. Not her. If it were just Miyamoto, that would be a different story. But there are things that happen here that nobody likes to talk about.”

Hakaru halted before a noodle shop on the main road. Across the street, among a few other villagers, he noticed one of the children, the girl, who had followed him on the road the day before. “What do you mean?”

The innkeeper hesitated. “There have been other deaths. People don’t mention it because they don’t believe it could happen in our village. We’ve come a long way over the past few years—”

“I understand,” Hakaru said. He knew that burakumin, who had long been regarded as a criminal underclass, were sensitive about how they were perceived. “You can tell me. I have no reason to judge you.”

They continued on their way. Now that the topic had been raised, the innkeeper seemed eager to speak. “The first one took place about three years ago. A teacher named Mrs. Tanaka disappeared, along with a boy she was tutoring. The boy, Kenji, was deaf and from a bad family, so he was unpopular with the other kids. Anyway, they found her body a week later, in the woods by the river. They never found the boy. The police seem to think he did it—”

Hakaru kept an eye on the innkeeper as he spoke. “But that isn’t what you believe.”

“It makes no sense. The police say he killed the teacher, then ran away. But consider it. Kenji was not even eleven yet. He was deaf, with no money, and knew little Japanese. And we’re supposed to believe that he could vanish forever without being found?” The innkeeper smiled grimly. “No. Mark my words, his body is still somewhere in the woods. Or in the river.”

Hakaru felt an unexpected chill, as if the back of his neck had been touched with ice. “What else?”

“A year later, another woman, Mrs. Yukawa, was found dead under the docks. She had moved here with her husband a few months before. They were rich, from across the river, and had bought one of the new houses. Some of us thought they were conceited. Anyway, the police seemed to believe that she drowned by accident, but no one could explain what she was doing there in the first place. Perhaps she was pushed into the water. Or pulled in—”

Hakaru saw a yellow face in his mind’s eye. “Have you mentioned this to the police?”

They arrived at the inn. Sliding open the door to the vestibule, the innkeeper shook his head. “No point in getting involved.”

As they passed into the entrance hall, the innkeeper seemed embarrassed, as if he feared that he had said too much. Before Hakaru could ask anything else, the other man strolled to the far end of the hall, heading for the door that led out to the rock garden, and stepped onto the verandah. Hakaru followed him into the rear yard, where a few distinctive stones, eroded into intricate shapes, had been mounted on the ground, surrounded on all sides by gravel, which had been raked into neat lines and spirals. Statues of guardian spirits stood to either side.

The innkeeper indicated the garden. “You like it? At first, I wanted to grow vegetables here. Tomatoes, turnips, that sort of thing. But it was no good. Too much iodine in the soil—”

Hakaru broke in, sensing that the innkeeper was trying to change the subject. “Listen, I’d like to know more about the deaths you mentioned. Maybe we can talk about it over dinner?”

“I have plans.” The innkeeper eyed him curiously. “Why are you so interested?”

“A man was killed. Based on the rumors I’ve heard, it’s going to be hard for us to do any work until this is cleared up.”

The innkeeper sighed. “All right. I’ll meet you here, on the verandah, at ten. Then we can talk more.”

“Good,” Hakaru said, going back into the entrance hall. “I’ll see you here tonight.”

Hakaru spent the rest of the day on his own. When night fell, he found himself at a standing bar a block away from the inn, below framed pictures of fishing boats and record catches, talking with a group of fishermen in coveralls and parkas. After the usual discussion of prices and hauls, the conversation inevitably turned to the murder. “I saw someone who spoke to the coroner,” one of the fishermen said. “The councilman’s throat was cut with a funayuki knife.”

Hakaru, a glass of beer in hand, had to shout to be heard. “What’s a funayuki knife?”

“What, you don’t know?” The fisherman outlined the shape with his hands. “Wooden handle, thick blade. Used by fisherman in the old days. Gut fish, chop off heads, even cut rope and nets. Like that, see?”

The fisherman pointed to something on the wall. Hakaru turned. Hanging above a sepia photograph of a fishing trawler was a framed drawing, fragile and faded, of a creature clutching a knife in one webbed hand. It had only a fringe of hair, with a bald dome in the center, and beneath its yellow chin was an inflated pouch. Hakaru recognized it at once. “Why would a kawataro need a knife?”

There was general laughter at the bar, most of it directed at the outsider who knew nothing about kawataros or funayuki knives. “The kawataro lives in the river,” the fisherman said. “It lures children into the water, then drinks their blood. It needs a knife for that, doesn’t it?”

“But if you encounter a kawataro, all you need to do is be polite,” an older fisherman added. “At the top of its skull, you see, there’s a hollow dish filled with water. If you bow to it, it will bow back, spilling the water on its head. Then it loses its power and agrees to serve you for the rest of its life.” He looked at Hakaru with amusement. “You really don’t know this?”

Hakaru finished his beer. “As you can probably tell, I’m not from around here.”

Another fisherman asked why he was in the village. Hakaru tried to tell them what Dr. Nakaya was trying to do, although he sensed that they were still suspicious of her intentions. When he had wound up his explanation, he looked around the table. “So what do you think of Dr. Nakaya?”

A fisherman who had been seated in silence signaled that he wanted to speak. He had been following the conversation through the older fisherman, who had quietly provided a translation. As the deaf man signed, the older fisherman interpreted aloud. “She’s polite to deaf people. She’s always respectful. But he finds it strange that she takes such an interest in the children.”

When Hakaru asked what this meant, the older fisherman translated his question, then interpreted the response. “Most of the children are fine, but a few are trouble. They keep to themselves. He can’t understand half the things they sign to each other, so he thinks they’re up to no good.”

Hearing this, Hakaru wanted to press him for more information, but the deaf fisherman refused to say anything else. As the conversation drifted to other topics, he paid his bill and headed back to the inn.

Inside, the innkeeper was nowhere in sight. Going upstairs, he was about to return to his room when he saw that the door across the hall was open a crack. On an impulse, he went up to it. “It’s Hakaru. Can I come in?”

After a beat, Dr. Nakaya’s voice came from inside. “All right. But watch your step.”

Hakaru slid the door open. Dr. Nakaya was seated on the floor, surrounded by books and files. A laptop was plugged in nearby. Hakaru lowered himself to the ground. “How are you doing?”

“Fine, I guess.” Removing her glasses, she rubbed her eyes. “I’m trying to work, but I’m worried, I suppose—”

“The police can’t possibly think you had anything to do with Miyamoto’s death.”

“That isn’t what I’m worried about. It’s my research. This could end it for good. And it was always a race against time.”

Hakaru glanced at the laptop, on which a video of the day’s taping had been paused. “What do you mean?”

She put her glasses back on. “The factors that made this village unique for so long are disappearing. There’s been too much movement into the area over the past few years. The culture of the deaf is breaking down. And the villagers feel it. That’s why there’s so much tension with newcomers—”

“Like the murder two years ago?” She seemed unsure of what he was talking about, so he briefly outlined what the innkeeper had said. When he was done, he saw that she had gone pale. “What’s wrong?

“It’s something that one of the children told me.” Dr. Nakaya opened her laptop and searched for a file, her fingers moving quickly across the keyboard. Finally, she clicked on the video that she wanted, opening a new window. “Each session includes a personal narrative, a story that I can analyze on a linguistic basis. A few months ago, one of the students mentioned that woman. Look at this.”

The subject appeared onscreen. It was the boy in the red raincoat. He was seated in a chair, looking blankly into the camera. After a prompt from his teacher, he began to sign, slowly at first, then gradually picking up speed.

Dr. Nakaya translated. “He’s telling a story about a woman, Mrs. Yukawa. Apparently she caught him and his friends playing in her garden. She yelled at them and said she would send them away. When I asked him what happened next, he said that she never bothered him again.”

Hakaru felt a chill creep across his body. “The teacher didn’t tell you that she died?”

“I don’t think she knew about it. She moved into the village after the murder, around the same time I did.” Dr. Nakaya paused the video. “I’ve heard of the teacher who was killed, too. The children didn’t like her. Evidently she tried to stop them from signing in their own language—”

“So let’s look at what we have here,” Hakaru said. “Three, maybe four, unexplained killings. One is a teacher the children disliked. One was an unpopular classmate. One was a woman who threatened to send them away. And the latest one, Miyamoto, was in favor of a plan that would result in them being bused to different schools.” He hesitated. “But I still can’t believe it. These are only children—”

Dr. Nakaya closed her laptop. “Maybe they’re only children to you, but look at how the world sees them. Until a few decades ago, the deaf in this country were treated as minors or mentally deficient. Like it or not, that perception hasn’t gone away. And to top it all off, these kids are burakumin. For most of their lives, they’ve been treated like dirt. So what do they go when they grow up? They become criminals. They join the yakuza. Only a few make it to college. And if they want to get anywhere in life, they have no choice but to hide what they are.”

She extended the fingers of her right hand. “This is the traditional sign for burakumin. You know what it means? Four fingers stand for the four legs of an animal. So don’t tell me that these children couldn’t have done it. When you treat someone like a monster, a monster is what you get—”

A light went on in Hakaru’s head. He spoke without thinking. “You’re a burakumin?”

Dr. Nakaya only turned away. Hakaru sat there, ashamed, sensing that he should say something more, but unable to find the words that he wanted. He found himself wondering what her life had been like. Many burakumin, he knew, were forced to hide their identities if they wanted to be considered for the best jobs or schools. And he was painfully aware that even his own parents, who had fought discrimination their entire lives, would never have allowed him to marry one.

After an uncomfortable silence, Hakaru coughed, then checked his watch. “Look, it’s nearly ten o’clock. I’m supposed to meet the innkeeper to talk more about these cases. If you like, you can come along—”

When Dr. Nakaya turned back to him, her eyes were dry. “Yes, I will. One second.”

Hakaru rose and left the room. A moment later, Dr. Nakaya joined him. He could tell that she was embarrassed by her recent display of emotion, and she did not look at him as they went downstairs.

When they reached the ground floor, the hall was deserted, but the door that led to the yard was open. Outside, the garden was very quiet. There was no one on the verandah. Hakaru looked at the time again. “That’s strange. He said that he’d meet me here at ten. Maybe—”

He broke off as Dr. Nakaya took him by the elbow, pointing to the ground. “Look.”

Hakaru glanced down. At their feet, the bucket that held water for handwashing had been overturned, a dark puddle staining the boards of the verandah. It had not yet soaked into the wood.

Raising his eyes, he found himself looking at the gravel of the rock garden. Where the verandah ended, the gravel, which was neatly raked elsewhere in the yard, had been disturbed, the lines of the rake obliterated, as if something had been dragged across the garden from the house.

Hakaru stepped down from the verandah, the gravel crunching beneath his shoes. The trail led from the house to the fireproof shed at the rear of the yard. The door of the shed was ajar.

Feeling as if he were watching himself from a distance, he slid the door open the rest of the way. Inside, the shed was very dark. As his eyes adjusted, he saw the outlines of old furniture, cushions, heaps of seasonal clothing. Taking another step, he found that the floor was sticky beneath his feet.

Then he saw something on the ground. It was the innkeeper. He had been stuffed face down into the shed, his clothes stripped away, his limbs tucked beneath him like a frog’s pale legs. In the faint light from outside, Hakaru saw a pool of something black and wet on the floor beneath the body.

He backed out of the shed. Behind him, Dr. Nakaya fumbled for her phone. “We need to call the police.”

“I know,” Hakaru said. He tore his eyes away from the shed’s interior. “Tell them—”

He stopped. A sound had come from nearby, soft, like a footstep against the gravel. Turning in the direction of the noise, he moved away from the shed, looking out into the garden.

At first, he saw nothing. In the darkness, the yard was perfectly still. Straining to see what was there, he could make out nothing but a few decorative rocks, dwarf pines, statues of guardian spirits—

Then one of the statues moved. As it rose slowly from a crouch, he saw that it was a figure no more than five feet in height, hunched and misshapen. Hakaru tensed himself in case the figure came forward, feeling a cold hand take hold of his heart, but in the end, it only turned away.

Just before it reached the wall at the rear of the yard, it passed beneath a cone of light cast by the lamp on the verandah. For a second, Hakaru had the impression of a yellow face, a bald head, a hideously swollen throat. A funayuki knife was clutched in the figure’s right hand.

Then it passed out of the light and climbed over the wall. A second later, it was gone.


Against the back wall of the inn leaned a carpenter’s adze, with a flat iron head for squaring logs. Picking it up, Hakaru hefted it in his hands. It wasn’t much, but it would do. He turned to Dr. Nakaya. “Call the police. Tell them where you are. Then get inside and lock all the doors.”

Dr. Nakaya was already back on the verandah. “And what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Hakaru said. Before she could respond, he was heading for the wall at the rear of the garden. Looking over it, he saw that it led to a slope covered in brush and tall grass. Beyond it ran a narrow road to the forest. And when he listened, he heard soft, dragging steps making for the trees.

He tossed the adze over the wall, then dropped down to the other side. The adze had fallen into the brush a few feet away. He picked it up and headed for the footpath. A second later, he was running through the forest.

It was a cold night, the dots of fireflies blinking at the level of the grass. The ground was uneven, swelling and falling in low hills, and before long, Hakaru was sweating. He ran forward, trying to pace himself, keeping one ear tuned to sounds from ahead. Faintly, he heard labored breathing, as if the figure in the distance was not used to moving so quickly.

Hakaru rounded a bend in the path. Ten yards away, silhouetted against the night sky, a hunched figure was standing on the crest of the hill. Then it disappeared down the opposite side.

Sensing that he was on the verge of overtaking it, Hakaru quickened his pace. He sprinted easily over the top of the hill, but when he began his descent, he found that he had taken the slope too fast. As the loose dirt and pebbles began to skate beneath his feet, he realized that he was going to fall.

He toppled forward, coming down hard, then slid to the bottom of the hill. At the last second, he had the presence of mind to toss the adze aside, afraid that he would bury it in his body. He tumbled at a bad angle, twisting his ankle beneath him, and finally skidded to a halt, palms bleeding.

Hakaru looked up. Ahead of him, the figure had paused at the top of the next rise. It was looking back at him. Hakaru groped for the adze, heart juddering, but it was nowhere in sight.

The figure stood there for a long moment. Hakaru could see its shoulders heaving, its breath coming in harsh, ragged gasps.

It took a step towards him. Another. A knife was still clutched in one spindly hand.

Then the woods were flooded with light. Hakaru, startled, wasn’t sure what was happening, then saw that they were within range of the lighthouse. As the white beam swept across the land, circling back towards the water, it illuminated the forest for a fraction of a second. In that bare instant, it lit up the figure on the hill, giving Hakaru a good look at it for the first time.

The figure looked at Hakaru. Hakaru looked back. And recognized it for what it was.

Then the light faded. Hakaru, his night vision gone, strained to penetrate the shadows, but saw nothing but darkness. He heard more footsteps, this time growing softer. A moment later, they had faded into silence.

Hakaru lay where he was for a few heartbeats, then forced himself up. The adze lay on the ground several feet away. Bending down, he picked it up, then took a few experimental steps forward. His ankle was too badly twisted for him to run. Limping, he turned back the way he had come.

It took twice as long, with many breaks, to cover the ground back to the inn. When he reached the wall that led to the garden, he tossed the adze over, then followed it, landing heavily on the other side. At some point in the past few minutes, rain had begun to fall again.

He went up to the verandah. The wooden shutter was bolted, but through the windows above, a light was shining. When he knocked, he heard the paper screen behind the shutter slide back. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Hakaru.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the empty yard. “Let me in.”

The shutter slid open. Dr. Nakaya was standing inside, holding a walking stick like a club. “What happened?”

“I lost him.” He stepped into the hall, closing the shutter. “Did you call the police?”

“Yes. The inspector said he’ll be here soon. He wants us to lock all the doors and stay where we are.”

“Okay.” Hakaru bolted the shutter, adze still in hand, then limped around to the other doors, testing them one by one. When he was finished, he headed for the stairs. “Come on. I need to check something.”

Dr. Nakaya followed him up the narrow steps to the floor above. “What is it?”

“I know what’s happening here. It isn’t a kawataro. It’s something else entirely.”

Going into his room, Hakaru leaned the adze against the wall, then limped over to the pile of books on the floor. Picking up a volume, he flipped through it rapidly, looking for a page he had read the night before.

“Here,” Hakaru said, finding the place he wanted. “As far as I understand it, there’s never been a genetic study of the village, so we aren’t entirely sure what kind of deafness this is, right?”

“Right,” Dr. Nakaya said, lowering herself to the floor. “If it were part of a syndrome, we would have seen ear abnormalities, issues with the retina or kidneys, but we’ve found nothing. It’s nonsyndromic.”

“I think you’re wrong. These people are suffering from Pendred Syndrome.” Hakaru showed her the page. “It’s an autosomal recessive condition, which is consistent with the distribution patterns you’ve seen. It’s caused by a mutation of a single gene encoding for a protein that transports iodine into the thyroid gland. This affects the development of the inner ear, which results in deafness. In the majority of cases, it also leads to thyroid disease.”

Dr. Nakaya studied the book. “And what makes you think this is happening here?”

“Because the killer we saw tonight is suffering from the advanced stages of hypothyroidism.” Hakaru picked up a diagnostic manual and quickly found the relevant page. “You see? In severe cases, the victim’s hair falls out. The skin becomes scaly and puffy. It may even turn yellow. And it leads to goiter, which explains the swelling under the killer’s neck.”

“But if all the deaf villagers have this syndrome, why haven’t we seen more cases of hypothyroidism?”

“Because of their diet,” Hakaru said, trying to remember his undergraduate medical classes. “A Japanese diet, especially in a seaside village like this, is high in iodine. It’s full of fish, seafood, seaweed. Which means that even if the deaf villagers have trouble processing iodine, their diet has enough of it to offset the worst symptoms of hypothyroidism. And this explains something else. The innkeeper told me that the soil here is full of iodine, which makes sense. We have generations of people in this village consuming high levels of iodine, but they can process only a fraction of it, which means that the rest passes into the ground.”

Dr. Nakaya looked at the book. “And if someone was forced to change his diet, symptoms of hypothyroidism would soon appear. The goiter. The yellow skin. Which explains why the killer looks the way he does.”

“And it may explain something else,” Hakaru said, scanning the article. “Another side effect of advanced hypothyroidism is psychosis. Myxedema madness. It can cause delirium, hallucinations, dementia. Which means the killer may even believe that he’s really a kawataro—”

He broke off. Outside the inn, below the steady rhythm of rain, he had heard a noise from the garden. It had been soft, furtive, as if someone were walking cautiously along the gravel bed.

Hakaru turned off the light and went to the window, which faced the rear of the inn. Sliding it open, he looked down at the yard. At first, he saw nothing, just a uniform surface of gravel, broken up by decorative stones and illuminated by pools of light from the lamps.

Then he saw movement. Someone was standing in the shadow of the shed. He leaned forward, trying to see who was there, then finally noticed what the figure was wearing. It was a red raincoat.

Dr. Nakaya joined him at the window. “I don’t think we should stay here.”

“Neither do I.” Picking up the adze, Hakaru went out into the corridor. Dr. Nakaya crept close behind, walking stick clutched in one hand, and followed him to the stairs. They reached the hall, then continued to the vestibule, where Hakaru unlocked the front door.

Outside, the street was deserted. They left the inn, looking up the road. A block away, the door of the standing bar cast a rectangle of white light. “We’ll go there,” Hakaru said. “Then we’ll call the police.”

They moved towards the safety of the bar. Hakaru, feeling as if his nerves were about to snap, glanced at Dr. Nakaya. She seemed calm enough, but her face was pale, and she gripped the walking stick tightly.

Behind him, he heard footsteps. Turning, he saw the boy in the red raincoat, who was watching them from the entrance to the inn. As Hakaru looked on, the boy was joined by the same boy and girl he had seen before. Hakaru, pulse rising, was about to call out to them when he felt Dr. Nakaya stiffen at his side.

He turned back to the street. Standing in the middle of the road was the figure from the garden. Its head was bowed, rain running down its body. In one hand was the knife. He could not make out its face. In the silence, he could hear the soft push and pull of its respiration.

“No,” Hakaru said. He found that he was terrified. The image flashed across his mind of councilman’s slashed throat, like a second mouth, and the innkeeper’s body, a shapeless heap on the floor of the shed. His fingers grew cold. Then, gathering the shreds of his courage, he raised the adze.

“Wait,” Dr. Nakaya said. He felt her fingers on his arm, holding him back. “Not yet.”

As Hakaru watched, astonished, she went forward until she was nearly close enough to touch the darkened figure. She looked it in the eye. Except for the steady rise and fall of its shoulders, it did not move.

Then she clasped her hands together in her lap, lowering her gaze, and bowed.

A second later, the figure bowed back. As it did, the rain that had gathered on its head spilled down its face, as if a vessel on its skull were being emptied. When it had lowered its head all the way, it kept it there.

There was a shout from up the street. Hakaru saw that a handful of men at the bar had noticed what was happening. As they ran forward, a set of headlamps lit up the night as a car pulled up to the curb. The inspector emerged, holding a flashlight, which he directed on the shadowy figure in the road.

Hakaru stared in surprise. The figure standing before him was barely more than a boy. His condition had aged him, yellowing his skin, taking away his hair, inflating his throat like a balloon, but when he looked up, blinking, he seemed no more than fourteen years old.

“Kenji,” the inspector said. Hakaru recognized the name. Opening his hand, Kenji, the boy who had disappeared, let the knife fall, then turned to the crowd that had gathered on all sides. His eyes were dull and vacant, like those of a child awakened from sleep. Dr. Nakaya picked up the knife, then fell back as others pressed forward. Going up to meet her, Hakaru looked over his shoulder. Behind him, the street was empty. The children had vanished.


“As far as we can tell, only three children were involved,” the inspector said, taking a sip of tea. “Most of them are good kids, but those three, especially the oldest, were bad news. Over time, they’ve created their own little world. One of them, the girl, could even hear, but they were inseparable. And they wanted to make sure that they would never be forced apart.”

They were seated in the noodle shop off the main road, bowls and cups nearly empty. Dr. Nakaya looked thoughtfully at the remains of her ramen. “So they forced Kenji to kill anyone who got in their way.”

The inspector nodded. “As far as we can tell, they began by electing him to get rid of a teacher they hated. Kenji was an outcast, unpopular, who could be easily manipulated. His mother is dead, you know, and his father was a drunk. We’re still trying to track him down. In any case, they arranged for him to kill the teacher, then helped him to escape to the woods.”

Hakaru finished his tea. “So he’s been hiding in the forest for the past three years?”

“That’s how it looks. We’ve even found where he was living. It’s a hovel on the most thickly forested part of the cliffs. The other children brought him food and other necessities whenever they remembered that he was up there. Leftover tofu, cabbage, that sort of thing—”

“Thyroid inhibitors,” Hakaru said. “Which would have made his symptoms worse.”

“And it appears that he slowly went crazy,” the inspector said. “The children had him kill that woman, Mrs. Yukawa, when she threatened to send the oldest child away. Then they went after the councilman, who was going to force them to change schools, and the innkeeper, whom the girl heard telling you about the other deaths. By the end, Kenji believed that he really was a kawataro. He even drank the blood of his victims, which might have been due to his thyroid condition as well. I’m told that it can lead to salt craving and anemia—”

Dr. Nakaya set down her teacup. “So what’s going to happen to him now?”

“He’s being treated for hypothyroidism. Most of the physical symptoms will go away in time. His psychosis may diminish as well, although it’s possible that his nervous system has been permanently damaged. Once he recovers, if he ever does, we’ll decide what to do with him. But it’s no longer my concern.”

After a few more pleasantries, the inspector put on his cap, which he had set beside him on the table, and headed for the door. Hakaru watched him leave. “So what happens next?”

Dr. Nakaya sighed. “Probably nothing. If word of the killings gets out, it will only make it harder for the villages to merge. My guess is that it will be hushed up. Japan is very good at looking the other way.”

“I know.” Hakaru settled the bill, then rose from the table. “And your research?”

“It’s over. If you ask the villagers, they’ll say that this whole mess has convinced them that assimilation is more important than ever. That these children should never have been left on their own for so long. So the merger will proceed. They won’t want me here in the meantime.”

They left the noodle shop. Outside, two young girls were walking up the road, their hands clasped, laughing loudly. “Before long, the local language will change forever,” Dr. Nakaya said, watching as the children passed. “It’s only a matter of time before it’s gone for good.”

“I’m sorry,” Hakaru said. “I’d hoped we’d have a chance to work together again.”

Dr. Nakaya turned aside, but not before he saw her face. It was the first time he had ever seen her smile. “Don’t worry. There will be other projects. And perhaps it’s all for the best—”

Following her into the road, Hakaru was surprised to hear this. “What do you mean?”

Dr. Nakaya only looked away. Following her gaze, Hakaru saw a ball bouncing along the street, pursued shortly afterward by the girl he had seen at the schoolyard. She caught the ball in both hands, then glanced up at him. Hakaru waved. The girl stared, then ran up to where the two other girls were waiting. Laughing, the children set off together, walking hand in hand towards the river.

Note: “Kawataro” first appeared in the June 2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. For the story of how it came to be written, please see here

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2015 at 8:34 am

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