The Fetishist

Katherine Min

January 5, 2024 
The following is from Katherine Min's posthumous novel, The Fetishist. Min‘s short stories appeared in Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The Three-penny Review, Glimmer Train, and others; she received an NEA grant, a Pushcart Prize, a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, two New Hampshire State Council on the Arts Fellowships and a North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship. Her debut novel Secondhand World was a runner-up for the PEN-Bingham Award in 2007.

Kyoko, the assassin

She should have known better. She should have read the signs: the girl, the rain, the crazed quality of light. The sky had been gray, streaked with black, and the rain—backlit in halogen and neon—had fallen sallow green. Why hadn’t she seen it then? Nothing auspicious could have transpired beneath such a sky; it was sickly and low-down and regarded the city with a jaundiced eye.

At the time, though, she had read it differently. It had been cold, and damp, and inhospitable, and it had seemed to Kyoko like the perfect evening to kill Daniel Karmody.

She had followed him ten blocks from the enormous brownstone in Baltimore’s fanciest downtown neighborhood. He had been performing there for a dying man with his string quartet. It was his pathetic little business these days, playing music for the rich and dying. Kyoko hadn’t expected him to come out with someone—a thin, trench-coated female, carrying a violin case (of course! some things never changed!)—and it had enraged her, this added insult, this further blow to her mother’s memory. It had seemed like another sign, urging her on toward a justice too long delayed. She had held her umbrella low in front of her face, stopping once in a while to pretend to inspect rain-soaked notices on lampposts, hanging back at crosswalks, maintaining a half-block distance, until the pair had gone up the stone steps of Rafferty’s Olde Tyme Grill and disappeared behind its huge wooden door.

Kyoko had waited then, in the shadow of the stone staircase, back behind a line of dumpsters, listening to The Cramps through her earbuds. If you had seen her, you would have thought she looked more Hello Kitty than killer, in her oversize hoodie and size five-and-a-half salmon-colored sneakers. With her heart-shaped face and Day-Glo blue forelock sticking out from beneath her umbrella, she was a bedraggled elf seeking refuge under a mushroom.

But in spite of her cuteness, her size (5′3″, 103 lbs), and her age (23), Kyoko’s life had been deformed by grief; grief, in turn, twisted to hate, hate hammered to anger, until the anger, the hate, and the grief had become grotesquely fused. Kyoko believed that violence would alleviate all three. In fact, she had bet on it.

In the kangaroo pocket of her hoodie, she held the handle of a yanagi sashimi knife with a seven-inch carbon steel blade. Forged in Seki, Japan, by the descendants of samurai sword makers, it seemed to Kyoko almost too fine a weapon for Daniel Karmody, whose soft, white belly she had long imagined gutting like a pig’s.

The door to the restaurant opened and Kyoko caught a glimpse of the interior: elbows on red-checked tablecloths, the rose flickering of domed candles. Two couples appeared at the top of the stairs, putting up umbrellas, pushing arms through coat sleeves. Kyoko eased her grip on the knife and flexed her hand. Cramps, she thought, and smiled to herself; “People Ain’t No Good” was blasting in her earbuds.

The Cramps’ lead guitarist was one of Kyoko’s many idols. Insolent in gold lamé or leopard-skin, Poison Ivy strummed her Gretsch Nashville like she was giving a hand job. Kyoko instinctively pressed the chords into the handle of her knife.

The door to the restaurant opened again, and this time Kyoko looked up to see Daniel Karmody at the top of the stairs with the woman he’d gone in with. Getting a good look finally, Kyoko saw that she was Asian—probably Korean, judging from her sullen features—and much too young for him, around Kyoko’s age. Guys like Karmody made Kyoko sick, with their white-male entitlement and their power-trip fetishizing. They viewed Asian women as interchangeable sex dolls, and they never seemed to learn their lesson, never had to pay for what they’d done. But Kyoko was there to make Daniel Karmody pay.

They came down the stairs together, Karmody and the girl. He said something that Kyoko couldn’t make out and the girl laughed. “Don’t say that,” she said. “It makes you sound ancient!” The gray expanse of Karmody’s raincoat passed right in front of Kyoko, stopping mere yards away. Kyoko felt a pounding at her temples. Her legs went weak, and her whole body trembled. This was the moment. Carpe, carpe the moment! She thought, Vengeance. She thought, At last.

Kyoko had envisioned her revenge a thousand different ways since the day she had come home from school to find her mother on the bathroom floor. It would be seven years ago in October. Not that Kyoko registered her mother’s death as a discrete event, happening at a particular moment. Instead, it was as if each moment since then had been compounded on that one event, accruing around it, so that her mother’s death felt ongoing, always, inside a swollen and eternal present, in which Kyoko sat, in a buttered wedge of sunlight, on pale blue linoleum, smoothing her mother’s nightgown down around her hips.

Daniel Karmody stood on the curb with one arm up. A blur of headlights passed without stopping. Kyoko depressed the latch on her umbrella, but it wouldn’t close. Somewhere deep inside herself, she felt the small prescience of defeat, like the tick of a clock past the hour, but she shook it off. She tried to force the latch, or maybe it was a surge of wind, but the umbrella suddenly bloomed inside out, exposing its thin, silver ribs. Kyoko dropped it to the sidewalk and took a firm grip on her knife. She anticipated the shuddering thrust of the blade into resisting flesh, the unh-unh bewilderment of Daniel Karmody’s last, grunting breaths.

But whatever it was that Kyoko had imagined for this moment, over the years of plans and schemes, strategies and daydreams, and long conversations with her boyfriend, Kornell Burke—right up until this afternoon’s discovery on Facebook and her sudden impulse to action—whatever Kyoko had or could have imagined, this is what happened instead. As she brought her arm out, the knife tip snagged on the inside of her hoodie pocket, unfurling a thin thread of cotton filament. As she struggled to pull the knife free, she brought her foot down on the upended umbrella, her ankle catching between two spokes; she lurched a few steps forward with the umbrella fastened to her leg, like a bear in a trap, before she managed to kick herself free. Whereupon, she tripped, stumbled, staggered, righted herself—poised for an instant, graceful, plumb, like a ballerina en pointe—before pitching face forward onto the wet pavement. She felt a stunning smack to the underside of her chin. Tasted metal. Saw red. For a few seconds, she may have been unconscious.

Her rain-blurred eyes opened in time to witness the loathsome culprit, Daniel Karmody, opening a cab door. It seemed to Kyoko, just for a moment, that their gazes locked and he had seen her. But then he turned, and she could only watch, on hands and knees—from the sucker end of destiny—as he guided the girl inside, closed his umbrella smartly, folded himself inside the cab, first one leg, then the other. She heard him murmur a street address to the driver before the door slammed shut.


Excerpted from The Fetishist by Katherine Min with permission of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2024 by Min Literary Productions, LLC.

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