If asked, Kano, who was eight, could tell you two of the first things he could remember:
The first was the stories about a time where there were no dolphins. The elders always spoke fondly of the fabled time, when they had been prosperous, blessed by the ocean kami with an abundance of fish.
Those glorious years ended, the old men said, when the spirit of the village had become drunk during the seasonal festival. He tumbled down the hill to the shore, where he unfastened his pants and urinated in the waves. The sea god Mizusama became enraged and called a pod of dolphins to the desecrated water. For every drop of urine that touched the salty tide, twenty dolphins came to life and each swallowed one hundred fish.
The village spirit had passed out upon the sand and rose the morning after to the wailing of his people. That was the day, they said, the village spirit first showed them how to slaughter dolphins.
The second memory was his father’s back. The tall, imposing line of his father’s body would walk in a warrior’s stride down the hill to the cove, where he and the other fathers would go to hunt. It was always the hottest day of the summer, a month before the festival. He was never allowed to follow, though he always tried, and year by year his mother would pick him up, smooth the ink-black hair from his forehead and tell him that one day he could go. One day, but that, today, there were better things for young eyes to see than blood in the water.
Kano always knew when the thirty days of the slaughter season were over, because the festival was always a happy time. On the last day, the fishermen would come home together, their sacks full of dolphin hearts to be taken to the temple of the village spirit. There would be sake, songs, and for one night his father’s face would be rosy, a smile on his lips. Sleep would be saved for the morning, and no one worked the next day.
Now, if asked, Kano, who was ten, would say that he thought he was old enough to go to the cove with his father. Because he had been eight when his mother had taught him how to make mochi, cook noodles and brew tea, and because he had been nine when his mother taught him how to mend his own kimono. And now, at ten, his mother had taught him how to meet his father’s eyes when he had done something wrong. When his father returned with the black blanket of stars following with his steps, the boy met him at the door. A rock-shaped, purple bump stood out under his eye. “What happened?” his father asked.
“I got into a fight,” he said.
“You should not fight,” his father said as he knelt to remove his sandles.
“But I have,” he went on, “and if I am old enough to fight, I am old enough to hunt dolphins. I know the other sons do, and they are not so older than I am.” He had practiced the speech, and he said it the way he thought a man should.
Kano’s father’s face set like dark mud baked in the sun. “None of the boys go into the cove,” he said. “They are only being hateful because their mothers throw them out of the house to occupy themselves. How lucky you are to have a mother who is happy to have you around.”
“They do go,” he insisted. “They sneak down the cliff and watch and wait. I know they do. Tatsuo told me.”
“If it is true, than Tatsuo will have a beating I think you would not wish to share,” his father replied and pressed past the boy and up the stairs. He smelled like metal and fish and a steam came off him as if he had been cooked in the water, cooked in the blood. When he was up the stairs and into the house, Kano sniffled indignantly. Just once. And then he stayed there.
Kano woke up to the sound of his father coming down the stairs again. The step he had slept on had left him feeling bent. He blinked in the early morning, had never been awake so early it was still night outside, the sun still on her back to the world. “You may walk with me a ways,” his father said after many seconds of silence. “When I tell you to stop, though, you must. We’ll see if this is what you really wish to be doing.”
Kano stuck his chest out and tried not to yawn. He wished they had gone later so the other boys would be awake, outside and playing, and could see them together, going on their way to the cove to kill the dolphins. He grinned up at his father, but he said nothing, and he figured that maybe in the start of the dawn he couldn’t see him and that’s why he scowled.
The road took them down, and they came to a divide. Kano could just see the open mouth of the cove, and already further out in the morning waves there were things moving. Fins cutting the surface. Slapping tails and mouths. The road would still go on a ways, further down and to the docks out of sight in the trees. His father turned to him then and told him this was where he needed to stay.
Kano sat down and waited.
For a young child, two hours would surely be long enough to conquer the world. With no distractions, no friends, not even his mother or the mochi it felt like his father had surely left him to die here. He lied back on the grass at the side of the road, and twice groups of fishermen tried to hurry him home. “No,” he croaked, almost always caught napping. “I’m here to help my father kill the dolphins.”
They laughed and left him.
Suddenly, after the sun had risen over the cove and he could hear the soft murmurs of the village and the women and the old couples playing Shogi, there came a sound like a dagger across glass. Kano clapped his hand over his ears as the sound pierced his chest. Rising to his feet, he turned his back on the cove, towards his village, hoping he could still hear the oblivious notes and melodies of a world where this wasn’t happening. But still the sound came, again and again. He never imagined that dolphins could scream, always imagining that they died like fish with glassy eyes and, flopping and silent.
When he looked back and saw that the mouth of the cove was bleeding, the bright red tide waving out into the water like fire, he started running. But even though his heart was telling him to run home into the arms of his mother, he ran down the winding street towards the water, his short hair whipping in his eyes. He wanted to know that it wasn’t happening, that that noise was not the sounds they made, that it wasn’t this horrible, that what his father had been doing was honorable and right and…
They had been herded into the shallows, and the water churned into a stormy foam. The massive bodies crushed against each other, and their black eyes watched the fading world around them with an awareness that frightened Kano terribly. He couldn’t make out any distinct shapes of the dolphins, but the water was full of tails and fins and teeth and that same scream, again and again.
The lifeless bodies that had already been pulled from the fray lay draining on the sand.
The outline of his father stood out against the white light of the afternoon, spear in hand. His arm would hang in the air and then strike, over and over, ending and ending.
He could just barely hear somebody yelling and pointing from another boat. Not at him, he realized, but into a section of the driven creatures. His father didn’t pause and didn’t acknowledge the other fisherman. Kano looked, and he knew what he saw. A hand. A face. Only now and then, of course, as it was driven beneath the fright and panic of the dying, but…yes.
He was running again, and this time the yelling and pointing was at him. He yelled too, trying to get the attention of the child in the water, but the face would just bob up, mouth opening as if joining in the cacophony of passing souls around it, and then sink again. His feet hit the water, the salty blood warmer than bathwater, thicker. It swallowed him whole.
Immediately, he was assaulted by both sides. Water went into his nose, and he threw it out his mouth. A blinding pain in his side, his hand. He tried to watch for the face, for anything, but he was under the water too. The force of the dolphins was too much, and there was no running away from it now.
Then, his hand found something. Another hand, the same size as his. He squeezed.
For a moment, he could see through the foam another pair of black eyes with a small nose and wild hair and sharp little teeth. The girl pulled back – she could only have been his age, but she was strong like his father – but he dug his nails in. Then, there was a grip on his neck, and he was hauled up from the water, both of them dropped into the bottom of his father’s boat.
The blows came fast and fierce on his ears, but his father’s rage was interrupted by the girl. Her pale, naked body scrambled, slick fingers trying to find purchase on the boat. She had one of those little hands outstretched to the water as if trying to pull it back to her. His father pulled her back by the shoulder, and those sharp teeth found his arm. He howled. When he managed to pull her off by the mane of midnight-colored hair, the crescent moon wound shone with blood, and he shouted a command to a man at his stern. They moved away from the cove.
All the way home she made that same horrible noise, and Kano could feel the eyes of his neighbors on them. He felt beaten bare, and he found himself staring at the girl, the first female body he’d ever seen. Looking at her too long resulted in an extra cuff in the neck.
Word must have travelled faster than they walked, because Kano’s mother was at the door. The girl had become exhausted throwing herself to the ground and hung limply as his mother picked her up, though she mewled softly in protest. She was taken to the bath where his mother washed the cove from her hair before placing her in the tub. She bobbed lifelessly, clicking softly in a way that started at her teeth and ended in her throat.
Kano stood with his father at the doorway, where the man stared ahead, his dark face determined and worn and old. The blood and water on his fingers dropped freely, creating a dark clay mud. He said nothing to Kano as he walked away, down the street to the temple. He emerged after a day and night with his clothes torn and a long cut down his chest. Kano threw his arms around him, sobbing “Gomen, gomen nasai” but there was no sound. No heartbeat, no breath. Only the rhythmic crashing of his blood, hollow and slow, like a wave in a cave.
His father died on the eve of the festival. As the lights went up in the paper lanterns, he simply extinguished on his futon, where he had stayed, eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
Mika – that’s the name Kano’s mother started to call her by, because of that clicking she had made in the tub that day – smiled throughout the entire funeral. “She has the face of a dolphin,” Kano heard one of the villagers say to his mother. “Always smiling in the middle of misery. She will bring you and your family only sorrow. Better you should turn her out.”
“No,” his mother said, picking her up and holding her in a way she had never held him. “He brought her from the water, and I will not disgrace his memory by casting her away.”
The oldest of the elders approached them when they left the burial site, so old that his eyes always seemed closed, his lips invisible. But even as quiet as he was, Kano heard him say, “Then you cannot stay.”
If asked, Kano, now eleven, would say that he would rather have his village and his father than the little barbarian girl.
The city was huge and loud, far from the sea. They could only afford a tiny apartment, where they shared a single bedroom and a tiny living space. Mika became sick and feverish for a time, and Kano’s mother stayed with her throughout the nights, touching her face with a wet kerchief. One day, she woke up not only with that same smile but that same heat. She practically immolated with the rage in her and burned them whenever possible.
“Kano, let’s play.”
The boy cringed, looking up Mika’s grinning face. “I don’t want to play, Mika.”
Behind her, other little girls from school were giggling. She had acquired a following from the younger girls because of her pretty face and tough disposition. “I didn’t ask. Let’s play. I go first!”
Kano cried out as she punched him hard with her knuckle. His arm throbbed and his sleeve stained with blood. “No, Mika! That hurts!”
She didn’t stop smiling, but she did step back as the blossom of crimson grew bigger. She dropped something on the ground: she had been holding a sharp shell between two fingers. “I win.”
He didn’t cry until they ran off. His mother didn’t come out to check on him. She never did anymore. Now, afternoons were spent napping or cleaning up messes Mika had made. Most recently, she had kept the water pumping into the tub after it filled up, flooding the bathroom and creating a swamp in the two rooms below. The landlord had threatened to take it out of their rent if Kano’s mother didn’t repair the damage.
“Do you miss Father?” he asked after bandaging the cut.
His mother smiled, only as bright as a candle light from where she was lying down. “When I have time to, my dearest.”
If asked, Kano, now twelve, would tell you that he was at least glad that Mika isn’t just turning her wrath on him anymore.
Standing at the window of the classroom, he could make out a circle of girls in the far corner of the yard below. They were closing in on a small, huddled classmate, a junior student named Rui. She shook in fear, and he could just hear the shrillness of Mika’s voice in the distance before the laughter.
When Rui came in later, her jumper torn and a cut on her cheek, Kano offered her his personal first aid kit. “I always try to be ready for my sister’s monsoon. I know she is a bit difficult. Gomen nasai.”
She smiled, a tiny splinter of joy across her face. That’s what they had said when they moved into the city: Mika was his sister. And his father? Best not to talk about it. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”
When they walked through the hall together, Rui held Kano’s hand. It made him feel special, appreciated, and he kept her away from Mika, who watched them when their backs were turned. They shared their lunches packed from home, and one day Rui let Kano kiss her cheek after they played with her kitten, Hana.
A few days later, Rui stopped talking to Kano. She avoided him in between classes, and when he tried to stop her outside, she said, “I’m sorry. I can’t be around you.”
She ran away without answering. Heartbroken, Kano turned to go back inside the building, almost running into Mika. Her eyes were glassy, everything in her face cruelty. “I know I’m a bit difficult,” she said in a mocking tone. “Gomen nasai.”
She dropped a tiny, kitten-sized collar on the ground. It was soaking wet.
That night, Mika bled for the first time in the tub, and Kano felt nothing when he heard her screaming.
If asked, Kano, now thirteen, would rather not talk about Mika. Mika, who had never been anything but cruel to them, had started spending more and more time with him. Mika, who had never tried to fit into a normal society in lieu of her wildness, the savagery in which she was born, was now going out with other teenagers to get special clothes.
Very nice-looking clothes.
One day, when caught staring, Kano’s mother took him aside and hissed, “You cannot. Kano, I know how old you are now, but you must not. Our life here depends on you remembering she is your sister. It is all anyone knows.”
“Of course, Mother,” he said as he tried to think how he could avoid the images he had of Mika’s body.
After dinner, they snuck out together to a movie theater downtown. She kissed him as the film played, and he could only see bits of her in the ebb and flow of light and dark. Kano had a sudden reminiscence to that first day, to the cove.
“I want to take you back there,” he confessed to her, his breath soft on her lips. “To the sea.”
She laughed and cried into his neck, and he started planning immediately. When they had their summer break, he could take them back to the shore by train. He bought tickets in secret, and they made tandem plans so they could sneak away from his mother without suspicion.
At the train station, Kano waited for her by the turnstile. When she arrived, she got out of a boy’s car. He was at least three years her senior, and they kissed deeply, shamelessly. Kano felt a fish in his gut.
When she came up to him, his shock did not affect her. “What?” she asked.
He tore the tickets apart.
Mika didn’t come home after that, and Kano felt nothing.
If asked, Kano, now nineteen, would say how much more quiet it is in the apartment without Mika.
When Mika disappeared from the bus station, she started living with other people. She escaped the city and stayed with a commune for a year. After that, it was a string of boyfriends and girlfriends. The only reason he knew that much was because, after he left to attend university, he would get calls from his mother. “Mika asked me for money,” she’d say, “She and Asuho are moving into a garage with a band.”
“Mother,” Kano reasoned, telling from her cough that she had given the spare dollars to Mika instead of to the doctor. “You cannot keep giving her money.”
“Your father would not have pulled her from the water for me to see her on the street,” she said. She coughed again. It sounded like pieces of her were breaking off with each sound.
“She told me to give you her number. So you can call her. Do you want it? Write it down.”
“I’m listening.” He didn’t move. He just let the numbers pass between them like bits of static over the line.
One day, after a thick and heavy rain, Mika appeared at Kano’s door. She was soaked, and her skin had this ashy gray tone, like that of a dead person. Her eyes drooped, and he caught her as she fell into his living room.
He pushed everything off the couch and laid her body down. She was so light, so fragile. In the still quiet of the apartment, he could hear the small clicks she made when she slept.
She didn’t move for days.
And she still hadn’t moved when a knock came to the door. Kano answered, certain he would find a fellow student or a teacher chiding his absence. Instead, it was a long, tall, dark man. A man so huge he had to bend at the knee to get in Kano’s door. He took off his slender hat and shoes, respectfully, but even then he was still several heads over Kano.
“She is dying,” the man said as he sipped his tea.
“No. She can’t die. We saved her.”
“You did once, yes. But she has always been more dolphin than human. She will never tell you how bad it has been, but know, boy, that she is dying.”
He reached over and smoothed her hair. There was still a crease in her cheek, where she smiled even in sleep. Her flesh was cool to his touch, all that heat dead. “What must I do?”
“I can save her,” he said, his giant fingers folding together. He talked about his caravan of monsters, of the magic that he possessed. Kano said nothing. “She will never be completely human, just as she will never be completely dolphin, but I can give her a life that is a little bit of both.”
“How has she lived so long, if what you say is true?”
“Your father gave the village spirit his heart. He spared her, for a time. Now, that time is ending. Without the sea, this world is drowning her.”
“I could take her to the ocean. We can get a home there together. We…”
The man set his cup down hard. “She will never love you. And you will never be happy.”
The words sat between them, echoing in the air like the beats of a gong. Kano didn’t want to know that was true, but it settled in him, facts made of stone on his heart. “She can decide.”
The man agreed, and he sent for someone – a red-haired, speckled boy in a workman’s shirt – to bring him a small vial of red liquid. He pressed it to her lips. “What is that?” Kano asked.
“Shark blood,” the man replied. “From the Great Barrier Reef.”
The next morning, she was awake with the man before Kano had even gotten out of bed. She looked like she had cleaned herself, washed her hair, and she smiled at him. He smiled back. Without any discussion, the man stood up and put on his shoes and hat. “Ready?”
Kano opened his mouth to protest, but she said, “Of course,” and headed towards the door after him.
The man met Kano’s gaze. His expression reminded him of old men from his village who would win a game of Shogi and neither be pleased nor dissatisfied with the result. Winning and losing were as natural as living and dying.
“Stay,” Kano said, quickly, barking it. “Stay with me.”
“No,” she said.
She kissed him, then, when his mouth was still open. It tasted like blood in the ocean, made him sick and hungry. His fingers found her hand, like it did so long ago. He squeezed.
She left without saying another word.
If asked, Kano, now much older than nineteen, would say that it was only a matter of time before he came back.
The village isn’t at all the way it was when he left. It has given birth to a town. The road from the hill to the cove is paved, and cars travel on it. The house where he grew up with his mother, father and the girl is now a beautiful villa, a vacation home for tourists. He takes the money he would have used for school and finds a small room being let out by an old woman. Then, he buys a boat.
The temple is gone.
When he goes down to the cove, he is surprised to see that there aren’t as many boats. When he asks about the killing season, people drop their heads and do not reply. He knows what time of year it is, though. He can tell from the heat that builds in his blood and the glow that comes from the sky.
He has shaped a harpoon. When he stands in his doorway, waiting for the moment to leave, the soft light from inside the house casts his shadow on the ground. The spear is heavy in one hand, and he holds it up and strikes at the ground, over and over. Ending and ending.
He will always hunt the dolphins.