by Satoimo Taro (里芋たろ)
He was a sleek dark man who hunted game and fish and undead things in the wild places where roads would not go. For a while he would leave the city and sleep on board a trade caravan setting out, then slip away as it was passing through the most remote and dangerous parts of its route and work his way homeward, slowly, culling so meticulously as he went that scavenger birds gathered like slow dark smoke in his wake, overhead. He took only the small, precious things and left the carcasses for the birds and jackals to gorge themselves, as offerings for the spirits of the plains and the forests. In these places where he walked alone he was different from when he was in the city with the sounds and smells of other people thick and close as the walls around him, and sometimes something of this difference stayed with him as he came back to the city like a quiet dark sand worked into his skin together with the grime and road-dust and layers of dried sweat. When he came back to the apartments his clan lived in he did not walk in through the door but climbed to the roof and sat just outside a window until he fell asleep and someone opened the window and woke him up. Then he would wake up and come in and when he was back he was agreeble and amiable all over again, as he had been before he left.
When he was back he slept throughout the afternoon, never in his own bed. He did not like to sleep alone and all through lunch he would pluck at his neighbour’s sleeve and ask to be accompanied while he slept. “But you’ve been sleeping alone all summer, out in the open,” you would say to him, without effect; he put his arm around you, and kissed your cheek, and went to sleep on your shoulder so that you had to shake him awake and lead him to a bed or cot or warm patch of sun on a window-seat where he could curl up for the afternoon. And although you left him there only when you were sure he was dead to the world to go about your business, when you were sure you had seen him fall asleep and heard his breathing lengthen and deepen like the swells of waves, further out to sea, he would know that you had gone even if you came back before he had so much as rolled over in his sleep. “You left me to sleep alone,” he would say, from a corner or behind a curtain or from a window you least expected anyone to be hiding in – once, just as your parents had finally deigned to visit, thus ensuring that they probably never would again.
Sometimes Mau sat beside him for lunch, and then he didn’t bother you because Mau was almost always content to fall asleep with him, or at least to lie there wrapped about in his long dusky arms reading a book or completing a puzzle. In summer Mau carried a thin willow switch to beat him away with if he tried to hug Mau to sleep when Mau found the weather too warm to endure much cuddling; you saw the lines on his forearms when he rolled up his sleeves to wash his hands, and then your heart thawed, but then you would see the discoloured patches on Mau’s neck where Mau’s high collars dipped below the jaw and you would feel the distance cold and lonely coming between you and him (and Mau) all over again. And sometimes you thought you caught glimpses of him in dark corners and alleys as you hurried along the streets on matters of great consequence, someone’s anonymous hands tangled white-knuckled in his dark hair, and then you remembered how you were supposed to hate him.
But you really were engaged in matters of great consequence; leader of the clan, shepherd to your flock, you couldn’t afford the time, and you told yourself that even if you could afford the time you wouldn’t waste it on him. You believed Mau was only willing to spend so much precious time with him because Mau’s matters of consequence were private scholarly matters between Mau and inanimate sources of knowledge and the great unspeaking mystery of the universe, and Mau didn’t have to care if he had to navigate the seas of hypothesis and theory and conclusion while someone else was using him as a pillow. You didn’t envy him this apparent freedom; the idea of never having an excuse to detach yourself from unwanted company made your blood freeze. But when the leaves had gone from the trees and clouds came down very fast from the mountains and lifting your head to look at them was to suddenly find yourself in the middle of their cold white lonelinesses, you realized what Mau had was the freedom to use Ryuuku, as much as he was giving Ryuuku the freedom to use him.
Mau never used Ryuuku. Kitchen and delivery errands didn’t count; Mau didn’t want to use Ryuuku, and if someone else was passing by the grocer’s and Ryuuku was too difficult to wake, someone else would do. Mau never truly wanted for anything, and you knew Mau did not especially want you. And you couldn’t do anything about it; Ryuuku came, and went, and Mau leaned on you when he was gone as though your faces and voices could change but the shoulder he napped on would always, somehow, be there.
You never thought about it enough to label it, what you had with them, or what they inflicted on you. When Ryuuku introduced his cousin – “This is Minagawa, he bakes and he’ll fuck anything in a skirt– and pants– and– lock your doors from now on, okay?” and for a split second you thought you saw two of him standing at the stairs, one of them looking at you, it felt like the weight of that ambiguous thread between him and you had just doubled, thickened and coiled itself more tightly about your neck after it had lain there so long you had almost reconciled yourself to having it there – never changing, neither growing strong enough to harm you nor weak enough that you might throw it off. It was the first time in your life you felt completely unable to control anything and you didn’t think you would ever live past that moment, then; rage hot in your belly melting the perfect smooth ice you had made of yourself, such a lovely cold sculpture of The Perfect Leader you had almost forgotten it wasn’t real. Then Mau had said, “What do you bake?” and Minagawa had answered with, “Most things,” and his voice was creamy and dark like chocolate, nothing like Ryuuku’s happy low drawl; his tone expressionless, long eyes heavy-lidded and politely bored. He had looked at you, again; at Mau, who slumped bonelessly at your side with an arm around your waist to keep himself upright and a startling new keenness only beginning to flash in his soft eyes at the mention of food; at Ryuuku leaning on the doorjamb, all long jutting limbs and grinning white half-smile and one tail short of wagging. And back at you, and you felt the eyes of an entire, calculating family piercing every inch of your skin. Snowfall under the rays of a midnight sun.
Ryuuku said something to him in their dialect; you didn’t understand.
“I heard you the first time,” Minagawa replied. And tipped his head at you, at Mau; caught his cousin by the ear, wrung it hard so that he dropped to his knees, bent down and kissed him on the mouth when he cried out. After Minagawa had affectionately slammed Ryuuku’s head into the wall and walked out, you found yourself watching Mau run to Ryuuku like a curious kitten, and didn’t know why you then found your dagger unsheathed in your hand.
“We do this all the time,” Ryuuku said, “I’m all right. We’re only cousins twice removed, you ought to see what he does to his brothers. I’m fine, really, no Mau could you just hold my head in your lap for just a little while more.”
So in his terms cousins twice removed meant: slapping around, kissing, ear-twisting, and, because he definitely wore pants – you wouldn’t let him get away without – full-blown all-night fucking you could hear through the walls you’d paid good money to soundproof. You thought you would simply hold your head high and sail through your days ignoring it, but when you lifted your chin and stared resolutely above the windows you noticed the scratchboard they’d hung up there where they kept score of who managed to get on top and your resolve would crumble like the chalk cliffs of Dover into the cold choppy sea. Not that you knew first-hand what it was; “Look, Ryuuku won,” Mau pointed out to you as you sat down, and you made the mistake of asking, won at what? At least, however, you’d learnt not ask how Mau knew; Mau with his delicate baby’s face and large, blank brown eyes and impossibly tiny fingernails the pale pink colour of the misshapen clam pearls Ryuuku brought backwhen he went diving in Pirate’s Tunnel, showed to you cupped in his hands like the world’s greatest treasure. There were, fading, long thin scars down your back the exact width of Mau’s fingernails that you knew added up to multiples of four or five, but they were rare and it was always dark when they happened.
“What are you thinking about?” Mau asked. You were surprised he asked; you’d grown used to the idea that Mau always had too many things to think about, himself, would always be too busy pursuing his own runaway trains of thought to notice the passage of others. It was dark when he asked, and supper had long since cooled on the table, and you didn’t know where Ryuuku was. The halls were silent and hollow, and you couldn’t feel through the stone floor or the back of your chair that restless thrumming energy that purred in them when he was here. Mau batted a hand at you when you didn’t answer and yelped as you caught his wrist, once; settled down into a sort of low grumbling resignation that buzzed against your teeth when you pulled him close enough to kiss. In the hearth the fire was falling low and your shadows stretched longer over the floor, Mau’s autumn-bright skin and hair showing up a heavier deeper bronze and copper in the dying light. Mau yawned and curled into you as if he were trying to fit every inch of himself against every piece of you, to curve in where you curved out; you didn’t know what he was trying to do, you only knew Ryuuku wouldn’t have cared. But you weren’t Ryuuku, you had to ask, “Mau?” and wait for him to press his nose and chin into the corner between your neck and jaw, his small fingers scrabbling all along your shoulderblades like a lizard trying to scale an impossible wall.
“I’m here,” you heard him say. He sounded tired of waiting for you; linked his arms around your neck, hands clasped somewhere around the base of your skull. Ryuuku once said, sitting up on one elbow as he played with your hair, that Mau to him was cotton candy, and you were – he fiddled with your fringe, twining it around his long bony fingers until you slapped his hand away and said, what? – and he said, kind of like nougat really. You hadn’t spoken to him for a while after that, although at the time you had said you didn’t care.
“There’s this story,” you said.
“Well, do you want to tell it to me now?”
“Good,” Mau said, and you felt his eyelashes moving against your cheek as he shut his eyes, the shudder all along his body and legs and arms when you ran your hands down his thighs, touched the corners at the backs of his knees. Ryuuku was wrong, you thought; Mau’s warm fuzzy smoothness and softness was the smoothness and softness of freshly baked bread. When you were leaning over him, arms braced on either side of his head so you could kiss him while he lay back and lazed under you, you could smell the fragrance of the herbs from the soup he had been cooking earlier in the evening, infused like incense in his hair. It was harder to touch him when you thought of him as he usually appeared to you, sitting reading by the fire with one eye flicking up to peer at the pots on the stove; it was easier to shut your eyes and slide your hands down his legs, to not think too hard about what you were reaching for in the shelves above the couch nor how it was you knew to find the right one without looking nor by what means it came unstoppered and the oil all over your hands and Mau making that distinctive pleased sound in his throat when you ran your fingers down his back, into the cleft of his buttocks, and then, slowly, inside him. Mau made curious small sounds and motions for each of the places you touched him, it was how you knew you were moving from one zone of his body to another; a drawn-out sigh into your mouth, a deeper, breathless cry into the hollows at your collarbones, the first touch of his fingernails tracing the curve of your spine.
“What food is Ryuuku like?” you asked. Mau stretched against you, as far as he could with all his limbs tangled in yours; smacked already-damp lips, and opened one dewy eye.
“If you keep talking about food, I’m going to need a snack,” he said, reasonably.
“It was something he said,” you replied. “This isn’t the best time.”
“He’s like rock sugar,” Mau said. “Very hard, not very good except for boiling chestnut candy. Would you mind very much if I get up and have a snack? It won’t take a second.”
“Mau,” you said.
“All right, all right,” Mau said; you heard him sigh gustily against your ear, felt him settle limp and easy against you, accepting you without resistance or enthusiasm; murmuring, “S’good,” afterward, falling asleep hot and sticky in your arms like warm toffee on your skin. It was always like that, and somehow you knew it would always be like this – Mau latching to you out of resignation and good humour and not what you wanted. You couldn’t say what it was, this thing you wanted, not just from Mau but also from Ryuuku, only that you could not have it from both of them at once but that was what you wanted.
Minagawa was the first person who asked you what exactly you thought you were to Mau, and to Ryuuku, and what they were to you. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” you said.
“Among our people there is nothing overly sacred about sharing one’s body,” Minagawa said. He looked so much like his cousin; you had to struggle against the urge to simply narrow your eyes and harden your mouth as you looked at him, you knew it wouldn’t work on this one. He smiled at you – Ryuuku never smiled at you to get an answer out of you – and the smiled stayed at his mouth and did not touch his eyes.
“Among my people it is a sacred thing,” you said.
“Who are your people?” Minagawa asked.
You thought he was mocking you again, but he was looking at the clan crest you had made, that Ryuuku had climbed up the wall to hang over the doorway, that Mau had rescued when Ryuuku accidentally dropped it while trying to arrange it to your satisfaction.
“I will do something uncharacteristic of myself,” Minagawa said, “and confess to you a weakness. When I joined your band of merry men,” you felt one corner of your mouth curling in a snarl, which Minagawa blithely ignored, “I made a wager with my cousin; I bet him his freedom to stay here, with you. Do you want to know what it was?”
“Is it relevant?” you asked. You were more eager to hear about the results of the wager, but it occured to you that if he had lost, Minagawa would have already taken him back to the lightless city they had both come from, with or without your permission.
“There is something your people have that mine do not understand,” Minagawa said. “You call it love. I have never heard of it before, but he says he is striving towards it. He thinks it is very near, that he has come very close to it; that you, and the little healer, can help him. I must confess at first I thought I had hit him a little too often.”
“I fail to see where this is leading to,” you said.
“I must also confess I am not truly very fond of my cousin,” Minagawa said. “But the longer I stay and watch him, and you, and the little healer, the less I want him to lose. Him; and you; and the little healer. If one loses, so do the others.”
“I must ask you,” you said, “to stop taking up matters you know absolutely nothing about. If he wants to leave, he only has to ask my permission. I don’t own him, and he doesn’t owe me. I don’t bind my men.”
“You do,” he said, and left you with that; you didn’t deny it, nor did you find another saying to refute him as he left. He walked with the same idle, cat-like glide you now realized you kept looking out for even when you woke up with Mau still curled around you and that deep satisfied ache in every muscle in your body. And Mau never wondered out loud where Ryuuku was; perhaps he knew, but you never asked him. When you caught him staring vacantly off into the distance or into his cup of tea there was nothing in his face that said what or who he was thinking of. You could only recall a single moment of jealousy, long ago when a girl returned the ring you had given her so that she might wear another’s, and it was nothing like these scales that stole over your heart when you looked at Mau, when you remembered Ryuuku. But you didn’t remember much about the girl. Perhaps, you told yourself, you had never loved her. Perhaps you really hadn’t learnt how to love anyone still.
He fell on you without warning when he came back, he liked to because when he was successful you had no idea he was there and when he came pouncing or leaping or crashing unto you from the most unexpected places you were always very startled and wholly taken off guard and utterly furious with him, but he must have recognized that part of the fury was converted from some sort of relief to have him back in one piece because he kept on doing it, almost every time. After you had fought him off and ordered him to have a bath and show up for dinner dressed at least partially decently he pushed you up against the rough drystone wall and kissed you hard into the cracked stone and crawling ivy and pale late flowers. In the old garden where the trees had been left overflowing and untrimmed, there was no one to see.
“I missed you,” he said. He didn’t say how much; his dark eyes tried to, and his hands, that slipped through your hair and over your face and beneath your jacket, against your skin, did.
“I want to tell you a story,” you said.
“Once upon a time everyone in the world was really two people, until God said this was no way for everyone to be, and cut everyone in half. And since then people have always had to go around looking for that half which was cut away from them.”
“Is that one of your legends?” he asked. His mouth purred along the edge of your ear; you felt your knees buckling. “It sounds like one of ours. Would make such a good pick-up line – Hey baby, you look like the other half of me, let’s get a room and find out?”
“I always wondered why everyone was really two people,” you said.
“Yes,” he said, “that bit doesn’t make sense.”
“You don’t understand,” you said. He didn’t know what love was, you remembered; true love, something to be shared only by two. He was trying to learn, but it was something one had to grow up with. Or was it something you had grown up with, and could not shake the idea of?
“It’s a nice story,” he said, “nice and sweet and chewy like — nougat.” He liked to press his face to your skin, like a cat rubbing its cheek against your ankles or hand or shoulder; he didn’t feel dangerous or distant then, only dear. “I swear I’ve missed you.”
“I don’t know why I thought I should tell you that story,” you said. What you really wanted to tell him was, after we’re done and you slip away like you always do, are you going to tell Mau you missed him, too? and is it more, or less? He touched you the way you’d touched Mau, slow and hungry and lingering, and his mouth pressed yours open, and then all your questions went away as though with each stroke of his hands and slide of his mouth he erased them from your mind. When he was grinding against you and you were both so painfully hard and he still wouldn’t touch you until you dug your fingers into his neck and ordered him to do it, now, your voice seemed like someone else’s, brittle and breathless through gritted teeth; when he knelt at your feet and nuzzled your belly like an overfriendly puppy it felt like someone else who forced his mouth to go where you really wanted it to be, someone else telling him to suck you off, someone else’s hands locked in his down-soft hair. But when he said yes, boss, it was you who felt the warm humming affection in his voice right against your skin, you who felt his mouth around your cock; it was your loneliness that exploded, when he obeyed.
He never said he was going, but you could feel when he wanted to. The light was going from the sky in washes of coral colours over the western horizon and he was awake, lifting his head to scent the air and blowing his hair impatiently out of his eyes. You still had your hand around his wrist as though it was enough to keep him here; you remembered how much stronger he was than you.
“Boss,” he said. You remembered that you did not bind your men. “I’m going to look for Mau.”
He got to his feet, stumbling over the vines that crept cunningly across the stone slabs of the floor. You followed, too, not letting him go. He looked at you, and flicked his ears in a question. There was a light like an idea shining wicked in the reflected light off his single visible eye.
“Find him,” you said. And followed him, and never let them go.