The glare of the fluorescent light made the lizard’s body appear dark, and yet Tetsuyuki was able to tell that it was unmistakably a lizard, not a gecko or a newt. The small striped reptilian pattern was the same as he had seen in the crevices of stone walls, clumps of grass, and on ridges between rice fields when he was a child.
When Tetsuyuki remained motionless, the lizard likewise stopped its writhing and kept still, but as soon as he moved his face even slightly toward the creature, its head, legs, and tail would thrash about in a desperate attempt to escape. In order not to frighten it, he slowly sidled his way over to the closet, noiselessly opened its sliding panel, and took out a hammer that had a claw. With that in hand, he again stood in front of the lizard and puzzled over how best to pull out the nail.
The creature had been fastened to the very middle of the pillar at a slightly crooked angle but with its head up. He was certain that the nail was about two inches long, and more than half of it was driven into the pillar. Tetsuyuki thought about the optimal angle of the claw to pull the nail out of the poor thing.
It seemed strange that it had not died; it occurred to him that if he pulled the nail out, it would leave in the lizard’s abdomen a hole out of which its innards might protrude. He could not help imagining how that might only plunge this reptile that had barely escaped death into its final agony.
His hand holding the hammer gradually relaxed. Seating himself on top of the low desk, he mused that if he just left it alone, it would die anyway. The nail was nearly an eighth of an inch thick, so in terms of a human body it would be like being pierced by a utility pole. Whether it would die of internal injuries or of starvation, it could not last long. Tetsuyuki decided just to wait until it died, and put the hammer back in the toolbox. He could not very well hang the French-made cap on the nail to cover the lizard, but neither could he just neglect that valuable gift from Yōko.
He tried hanging a white towel on the nail, but then only the reptile’s head protruded, making him feel like a little girl at play putting her doll to bed under a blanket. An idea came to him: he took down the towel and pulled a small, flat wooden dish out of a cardboard box left unopened in the corner of the kitchen. Then, fumbling about in the toolbox, he produced an awl and bored a hole right in the middle of the dish. The hole was smaller than the head of the nail, and he spent considerable time enlarging it with a knife. Then he gently placed the dish over the lizard. The head of the nail passed through the hole in the dish, which he pressed firmly against the pillar, neatly covering the lizard.
Tetsuyuki left a small space between the dish and the pillar in order not to smother the creature. Then he reconsidered, and thought that he ought in fact to smother it. Using cellophane tape, he carefully sealed off the space between the pillar and the perimeter of the dish, and for good measure put several layers of tape over the hole as well. With that, he was sure the lizard would be dead by the following evening.
He addressed the reptile that was now completely airtight under the small brown dish: “What a dumb thing you are! What were you doing there anyway, not paying attention? The room was pitch-dark, and I had no idea you were there. When a human approaches, you’re supposed to run the hell away.”
Considering a lizard’s agile movements, Tetsuyuki wondered how he could possibly not have noticed its presence. He tried to recall driving the nail, but was only able to remember the resistance of the hard wood and could not recollect feeling the slightest hint of hitting anything living. Feeling sorry for the lizard, his mood darkened, and he looked at the small dish taped up with such determination. “When I think of things I can’t stand, reptiles top the list.”
He glanced at the alarm clock: 1:00 a.m. He washed his face and hands, brushed his teeth, and changed into his pajamas. Overcome by an irresistible fatigue, he turned off the light, dived into the quilts left spread out from the night be- fore, and closed his eyes. He had long since sobered up from the half-pint of saké and was feeling a chill. Hugging his knees he kept repeating in his mind, Go to sleep! Go to sleep! At length he did doze off, but soon awoke and realized that his sleep had been very brief.
He had not looked at the clock to determine this; the ache in the middle of his head and the heavy feeling of his body in- formed him of the brevity of his slumber. He got up, turned on the miniature lamp, and looked at the clock: only a little over an hour had passed.
Wrapped in the quilts, Tetsuyuki stared at the small wooden bowl covering the lizard and thought, A small creature under there has been robbed of its freedom, and I’m the robber. Though it had not been intentional, he nevertheless felt a deep contrition for the suffering he had caused. Wouldn’t it be better just to kill it once and for all? An image began to flit across his mind of the lizard left alive in the small, sealed-off space between the dish and the pillar, desperately trying to breathe in the last of the oxygen that was certain to run out. With a sweater over his pajamas, Tetsuyuki went to the kitchen and lit a burner on the gas stove since he had no space heater.
Soon the room grew warm. Tetsuyuki thrust his head in- side the closet and took a hammer out of the toolbox. He tore off the several layers of cellophane tape he had affixed around the small dish, and removed with his fingernail the many strips he had placed over the hole in the center. Since it had spent more than an hour in the narrow, sealed-off space, perhaps it would already have died of suffocation. Hoping that would be the case, Tetsuyuki removed the dish from the pillar.
The lizard was motionless. Relieved, Tetsuyuki tossed the hammer onto the quilt. Had it still been alive, he had intended to kill it with a blow to the head. Sitting on the low desk, he hunched over and rested his head in both hands with his elbows on his knees. He wondered how Yōko was doing. She was no doubt mumbling to herself in deep sleep, all warm and curled up in quilts.
Counting on his fingers, he realized that exactly three years had passed since they had first met. Three years ago she was eighteen, he nineteen. During those three years he had desired her every time they’d seen each other, but he had never once expressed what he was feeling. There were several couples among his friends at the university who, it seemed, readily formed physical relationships, later very casually parting ways; after they parted, they would soon be walking about holding hands with someone else. If he had pressed her insistently—or perhaps even not so insistently—Yōko would have yielded to him long ago. Even though both of them had this on their minds when they were together, they had not said it aloud during these three years. And yet today . . .
Then he saw that the hands on the clock were already pointing to three, and he realized, Ah, that’s right. That was yesterday! He recalled her face as she removed her clothes and got under the quilts. There could be no doubt that she had resolved long before to do that. She had mustered all her courage and gotten naked in this shabby, dirty apartment.
That dreamlike act of supreme bliss, accompanied by Yōko’s plump-cheeked smile, appeared like a mirage beneath the light of the miniature lamp. Tetsuyuki vowed that after graduation he would work as hard as he could to make Yōko happy. The thought made his heart sink to even greater darkness: why, after an event of such happiness, did he feel so depressed? It seemed so strange to him. He had a sort of premonition that a great unhappiness lay far ahead. That premonition had been with him for three months: a vague and unreasoned feeling stubbornly occupying a corner of his mind.
At one time he had mentioned to his mother that, after graduating, he was going to marry a young woman named Ōsugi Yōko. And then he introduced Yōko to her at an arranged meeting in front of a department store in Umeda. That was about a month after his father had died. Using most of her carefully saved nest egg, his cash-strapped mother had treated them to sushi at a restaurant well known for being expensive, but made no mention of her sacrifice.
“She’s a nice young lady, isn’t she? She isn’t exactly a knockout, but she shows a certain refinement, and is really adorable,” she said.
Tetsuyuki kept mentioning marriage; intending to caution him against despair should that prove impossible, she whispered, “Would Yōko’s parents allow their daughter to join a family like ours?” Recalling his mother’s smile, Tetsuyuki puffed on a cigarette. Perhaps because the heat from the gas stove had warmed the upper air, the smoke from his cigarette neither rose nor sank, but drifted in a thick, silent fog in the middle of the room.
Tetsuyuki again took the claw out of the toolbox and stood before the pillar, ready to pull out the nail and dispose of the dead lizard. The moment he inserted the head of the nail into the cleft of the claw, ready to apply all his strength to pry it out, the lizard’s entire body began to writhe. Quickly removing the claw from the nail, he stared at the still-living creature with a weary feeling, yet at the same time amazed at its vitality. Retrieving the hammer he had tossed onto the futon, he raised his arm and took aim at the reptile’s head. But somehow, a feeling of dread prevented him from going through with it. For the first time, he fixed his eyes on the lizard’s body and studied it in detail.
Its back was dark brown with a greenish cast, rendered gray by the darkness of the room. Its tail was blue. Along both sides of its body, beginning from its nose, ran a wide black band that was bordered with a narrow stripe of dubious color, neither yellow nor blue. On its back were five yellowish-white bands reaching from one side of its body to the other, three of them extending down toward the middle of its tail. The part of its body around where the nail had penetrated was slightly concave, suggesting that its flesh had already begun to heal up around the metal.
“Enough! Why don’t you just die? ” Tetsuyuki addressed the creature. “Sure, it’d be easy to kill you, but even the thought of it gives me the creeps. I’m the kind who turns and runs when he sees a lizard thirty feet away, and now I’ve got one alive here with me in this tiny room. It gives me goose bumps!” And in fact, as he spoke he got gooseflesh.
“But it was all my fault. Sorry . . .” With that, he again placed the dish over the reptile, but he no longer felt like sealing it with tape. In any case it was sure to die in two or three days. He turned off the gas range and opened the window to let some fresh air in.
–Translated from the Japanese by Roger K. Thomas
Excerpted from Inhabitation by Teru Miyamoto. Used with permission of Counterpoint. Translation copyright 2019 by Roger K. Thomas.