The following is from Maki Kashimada's Love at Six Thousand Degrees. Kashimada’s first novel Two won the 1998 Bungei Prize. Since then, she has established herself as a writer of literary fiction and become known for her avant-garde style. She was nominated three times for the Akutagawa Prize before ultimately garnering the award in 2012 with Touring the Land of the Dead. One of her best-known works is The Kingdom of Zero (2009), which reworks Dostoevsky's The Idiot into the tale of a saintly idiot in Japan.
The woman stared into the confusion. Feeling as though she were about to strike upon something gravely abstract, she hurried to stop herself. Finally, she returned to her senses. She strained, trying to drag herself back to sanity. That effort wasn’t trivial. Fine bubbles formed on the surface, breaking one after the next.
The curry in the stainless-steel pot was close to boiling. All that it needed was another five minutes. It was a sweet roux, for the child. The woman, her healthy and good husband, and their child, so young that there was as yet no telling whether he was destined to one day become a successful member of society. The curry was for the three of them. It was no more or less than that.
The child tugged at the woman’s skirt. Mama, I’m hungry, he said. It’s almost ready, the woman answered. I’m hungry, the child said again. The woman gave him a jelly, small enough that he could eat it in one mouthful. The child sucked it in.
Do you want to help? the woman asked. The child nodded. The woman handed him a ladle and lifted him up. Stir it gently, she said. The child turned the ladle with all his strength, creating a whirlpool. Mama, there are no potatoes, no onions. Where are they gone? The potatoes and onions, the woman replied, have melted away and disappeared. Why did they melt? the child asked. Because it’s hot, the woman answered. When things get too hot, they melt away. People too, Mama? The woman lowered the child down to the floor. The child blinked. His face, illuminated by the light of the setting sun, was the color of burnt glass. The woman could hear the bugle of a door-to-door tofu merchant. You see now, the thing is, she began—but at that moment, the kitchen timer sounded. Startled, she turned off the stove. Mama, it’s already five o’clock. When is Papa coming home? I wonder. Probably in about an hour, at six. When the woman heard the word Papa, she was struck by a sense of guilt. It was an inexplicable feeling. She couldn’t remember. What had she been on the verge of laying bare to the child? She was always trying to tell him things that she hadn’t been able to reveal even to her husband. But she had yet to realize that for herself.
Mama, can I watch TV? Alright. The woman, still wearing her apron, sat down in front of the television. She flicked through the channels to a children’s program. There were costumed animals and a young man jumping up and down doing exercises. The child jumped up and down with them. The young man raised his arms into the air to do some stretches. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt. The woman stole a peek at his armpits. There was only a small amount of hair beneath them, fine and sparse as basting thread. His arms were as pale as a squid. He probably had very little body hair, the woman felt.
At that moment, the emergency bell in the woman’s home—in other words, in her apartment complex—began to ring. Her body turned numb at that sound, and refused to move. The alarm made her feel agitated. It was prompting her to act quickly. And yet she couldn’t move.
Mama, the child called out, tapping her on the shoulder. The chains holding her down relented. Mama, there’s a fire! Let’s run! We’ll melt! We will, won’t we? the woman answered. But we shouldn’t panic. Let’s go outside. It might all just be a mistake.
A crowd had gathered around the emergency bell by the elevator. It was malfunctioning, a pregnant neighbor said to her. The woman felt as though her neighbor had gained an unfounded confidence ever since becoming pregnant. Before that, she had been so timid and shy that she would never have ventured to call out to her. I thought there was a fire, and so practically ran all the way out here. What a surprise! The neighbor laughed as she rubbed her baby bump. That’s what you thought too, right?
Yes, the woman murmured softly, her face turning pale. It had only been a loud noise, that was all. Then, she added: Just like that, a mundane life loses its mundanity. But her neighbor wasn’t listening. She was busy stroking the child’s cheek. And how are you today?
The woman stared blankly at this scene for a short while. Her neighbor began to play with the child. Rock, paper, scissors. The emergency bell stopped. Rock, paper, scissors. The alarm resounded in the woman’s head, refusing to leave her. Rock, paper, scissors.
I’m sorry, the woman said. Her neighbor glanced up at her. Could you look after the child for me? Her neighbor stared at her curiously at this request. The woman averted her gaze. I want to do a little shopping. Of course, her neighbor answered. I love children, she added.
Be a good boy now, the woman said, placing a hand on the child’s head. Yep, the child nodded. Come to auntie’s house, the neighbor invited him. We’ve got a toy train you can play with.
The woman returned to her apartment alone, and stared at her face in the mirror. No one would be likely to guess just by looking at that face. That her life was free from hardship or want. She picked up a vial of perfume, a favorite of hers from before she had gotten married. And then she sprayed it on her neck.
Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a writer. But not anymore. Now, I’m a housewife. Now, I realize full well that I’m not cut out to be a writer. I’m sure of it. I would exhaust all my ideas in a single work. I would end up writing about a woman whose life, both past and present, is just like mine. In a Japanese context, that would make it an I-novel, I suppose. But the genre doesn’t matter. A novel featuring a woman just like me would appear on the bookstore shelves, and then someone would buy it. That reader would point to me and say: See, she’s written a novel about herself. The only action available to me would be to remain silent. I wouldn’t be able to affirm the charge, nor deny it.
That woman who looks like me, who might even be me, would live in an apartment complex somewhere far from the city center. She would live in this small apartment with her healthy and good husband, along with a young son who may or may not be destined to one day become a successful member of society. Her husband would be the factory manager at a bookbindery. Once a month, the three of them would go to a restaurant together on what they called a date. They would travel abroad once a year. Theirs wouldn’t be an extravagant lifestyle, but the woman would be able to enjoy a life free from hardship or want.
There are always bloodstains when you wrap someone’s body with bandages. The same can be said for this woman. They aren’t anything special. There isn’t anything special about my bloodstains, about my loneliness, about my past, about the injuries and harm done to me by the men in my past. So if I were to write a novel, the protagonist would be a woman like that.
From Love at Six Thousand Degrees by Maki Kashimada, translated by Haydn Trowell. Used with permission of the publisher, Europa. Translation Copyright © 2023 by Haydn Trowell.