When I was fifteen, my younger sister died. It happened very suddenly. She was twelve then, in her first year of junior high. She had been born with a congenital heart problem, but since her last surgeries, in the upper grades of elementary school, she hadn’t shown any more symptoms, and our family had felt reassured, holding on to the faint hope that her life would go on without incident. But, in May of that year, her heartbeat became more irregular. It was especially bad when she lay down, and she suffered many sleepless nights. She underwent tests at the university hospital, but no matter how detailed the tests the doctors couldn’t pinpoint any changes in her physical condition. The basic issue had ostensibly been resolved by the operations, and they were baffled.
“Avoid strenuous exercise and follow a regular routine, and things should settle down soon,” her doctor said. That was probably all he could say. And he wrote out a few prescriptions for her.
But her arrhythmia didn’t settle down. As I sat across from her at the dining table I often looked at her chest and imagined the heart inside it. Her breasts were beginning to develop noticeably. Yet, within that chest, my sister’s heart was defective. And even a specialist couldn’t locate the defect. That fact alone had my brain in constant turmoil. I spent my adolescence in a state of anxiety, fearful that, at any moment, I might lose my little sister.
My parents told me to watch over her, since her body was so delicate. While we were attending the same elementary school, I always kept my eye on her. If need be, I was willing to risk my life to protect her and her tiny heart. But the opportunity never presented itself.
She was on her way home from school one day when she collapsed. She lost consciousness while climbing the stairs at Seibu Shinjuku Station and was rushed by ambulance to the nearest emergency room. When I heard, I raced to the hospital, but by the time I got there her heart had already stopped. It all happened in the blink of an eye. That morning we’d eaten breakfast together, said goodbye to each other at the front door, me going off to high school, she to junior high. The next time I saw her, she’d stopped breathing. Her large eyes were closed forever, her mouth slightly open, as if she were about to say something.
And the next time I saw her she was in a coffin. She was wearing her favorite black velvet dress, with a touch of makeup and her hair neatly combed; she had on black patent-leather shoes and lay face up in the modestly sized coffin. The dress had a white lace collar, so white it looked unnatural.
Lying there, she appeared to be peacefully sleeping. Shake her lightly and she’d wake up, it seemed. But that was an illusion. Shake her all you want—she would never awaken again.
I didn’t want my sister’s delicate little body to be stuffed into that cramped, confining box. I felt that her body should be laid to rest in a much more spacious place. In the middle of a meadow, for instance. We would wordlessly go to visit her, pushing our way through the lush green grass as we went. The wind would slowly rustle the grass, and birds and insects would call out all around her. The raw smell of wildflowers would fill the air, pollen swirling. When night fell, the sky above her would be dotted with countless silvery stars. In the morning, a new sun would make the dew on the blades of grass sparkle like jewels. But, in reality, she was packed away in some ridiculous coffin. The only decorations around her coffin were ominous white flowers that had been snipped and stuck in vases. The narrow room had fluorescent lighting and was drained of color. From a small speaker set into the ceiling came the artificial strains of organ music.
I couldn’t stand to see her be cremated. When the coffin lid was shut and locked, I left the room. I didn’t help when my family ritually placed her bones inside an urn. I went out into the crematorium courtyard and cried soundlessly by myself. During her all too short life, I’d never once helped my little sister, a thought that hurt me deeply.
After my sister’s death, our family changed. My father became even more taciturn, my mother even more nervous and jumpy. Basically, I kept on with the same life as always. I joined the mountaineering club at school, which kept me busy, and when I wasn’t doing that I started oil painting. My art teacher recommended that I find a good instructor and really study painting. And when I finally did start attending art classes my interest became serious. I think I was trying to keep myself busy so I wouldn’t think about my dead sister.
For a long time—I’m not sure how many years—my parents kept her room exactly as it was. Textbooks and study guides, pens, erasers, and paper clips piled on her desk, sheets, blankets, and pillows on her bed, her laundered and folded pajamas, her junior-high-school uniform hanging in the closet—all untouched. The calendar on the wall still had her schedule noted in her minute writing. Itwas left at the month she died, as if time had frozen solid at that point. It felt as if the door could open at any moment and she’d come in. When no one else was at home, I’d sometimes go into her room, sit down gently on the neatly made bed, and gaze around me. But I never touched anything. I didn’t want to disturb, even a little, any of the silent objects left behind, signs that my sister had once been among the living.
I often tried to imagine what sort of life my sister would have had if she hadn’t died at twelve. Though there was no way I could know. I couldn’t even picture how my own life would turn out, so I had no idea what her future would have held. But I knew that if only she hadn’t had a problem with one of her heart valves she would have grown up to be a capable, attractive adult. I’m sure many men would have loved her, and held her in their arms. But I couldn’t picture any of that in detail. For me, she was forever my little sister, three years younger, who needed my protection.
For a time, after she died, I drew sketches of her over and over. Reproducing in my sketchbook, from all different angles, my memory of her face, so I wouldn’t forget it. Not that I was about to forget her face. It will remain etched in my mind until the day I die. What I sought was not to forget the face I remembered at that point in time. In order to do that, I had to give form to it by drawing. I was only fifteen then, and there was so much I didn’t know about memory, drawing, and the flow of time. But one thing I did know was that I needed to do something in order to hold on to an accurate record of my memory. Leave it alone, and it would disappear somewhere. No matter how vivid the memory, the power of time was stronger. I knew this instinctively.
I would sit alone in her room on her bed, drawing her. I tried to reproduce on the blank paper how she looked in my mind’s eye. I lacked experience then, and the requisite technical skill, so it wasn’t an easy process. I’d draw, rip up my effort, draw and rip up, endlessly. But now when I look at the drawings I did keep (I still treasure my sketchbook from back then), I can see that they are filled with a genuine sense of grief. They may be technically immature, but they were the result of a sincere effort, my soul trying to awaken my sister’s. When I looked at those sketches, I couldn’t help crying. I’ve done countless drawings since, but never again has anything I’ve drawn brought me to tears.
My sister’s death had one other effect on me: it triggered a very severe case of claustrophobia. Since I saw her placed in that cramped little coffin, the lid shut and locked tight, and taken away to the crematorium, I haven’t been able to go into tight, enclosed places. For a long time, I couldn’t take elevators. I’d stand in front of an elevator and all I could think about was it automatically shutting down in an earthquake, with me trapped inside that confined space. Just the thought of it was enough to induce a choking sense of panic.
These symptoms didn’t appear right after my sister’s death. It took nearly three years for them to surface. The first time I had a panic attack was soon after I’d started art school, when I had a part-time job with a moving company. I was the driver’s assistant in a box truck, loading boxes and taking them out, and one time I got mistakenly locked inside the empty cargo compartment. Work was done for the day and the driver forgot to check if anyone was still in the truck. He locked the rear door from the outside.
About two and half hours passed before the door was opened and I was able to crawl out. That whole time I was locked inside a sealed, totally dark place. It wasn’t a refrigerated truck or anything, so there were gaps where air could get in. If I’d thought about it calmly, I would have known that I wouldn’t suffocate.
But, still, a terrible panic had me in its grip. There was plenty of oxygen, yet no matter how deeply I breathed I wasn’t able to absorb it. My breathing got more and more ragged and I started to hyperventilate. I felt dizzy. “It’s O.K., calm down,” I told myself. “You’ll be able to get out soon. It’s impossible to suffocate here.” But logic didn’t work. The only thing in my mind was my little sister, crammed into a tiny coffin and hauled off to the crematorium. Terrified, I pounded on the walls of the truck.
The truck was in the company parking lot, and all the employees, their workday done, had gone home. Nobody noticed that I was missing. I pounded like crazy, but no one seemed to hear. I knew that, if I was unlucky, I could be shut inside there until morning. At the thought of that, I felt as if all my muscles were about to disintegrate.
It was the night security guard, making his rounds in the parking lot, who finally heard the noise I was making and unlocked the door. When he saw how agitated and exhausted I was, he had me lie down on the bed in the company break room and gave me a cup of hot tea. I don’t know how long I lay there. But finally my breathing became normal again. Dawn was coming, so I thanked the guard and took the first train of the day back home. I slipped into my own bed and lay there, shaking like crazy for the longest time.
Ever since then, riding in elevators has triggered the same panic. The incident must have awoken a fear that had been lurking within me. I have little doubt that it was set off by memories of my dead sister. And it wasn’t only elevators but any enclosed space. I couldn’t even watch movies with scenes in submarines or tanks. Just imagining myself shut inside such confined spaces—merelyimagining it—made me unable to breathe. Often I had to get up and leave the theatre. That was why I seldom went to movies with anyone else.
When I was thirteen and my little sister was ten, the two of us travelled by ourselves to Yamanashi Prefecture during summer vacation. Our mother’s brother worked in a research lab at a university in Yamanashi and we went to stay with him. This was the first trip we kids had taken by ourselves. My sister was feeling relatively good then, so our parents gave us permission to travel alone.
Our uncle was single (and still is single, even now), and had just turned thirty, I think. He was doing gene research (and still is), was very quiet and kind of unworldly, though an open, straightforward person. He loved reading and knew everything about nature. He enjoyed taking walks in the mountains more than anything, which, he said, was why he had taken a university job in rural, mountainous Yamanashi. My sister and I liked our uncle a lot.
Backpacks on our backs, we boarded an express train at Shinjuku Station bound for Matsumoto, and got off at Kofu. Our uncle came to pick us up at Kofu Station. He was spectacularly tall, and even in the crowded station we spotted him right away. He was renting a small house in Kofu along with a friend of his, but his roommate was abroad so we were given our own room to sleep in. We stayed in that house for a week. And almost every day we took walks with our uncle in the nearby mountains. He taught us the names of all kinds of flowers and insects. We cherished our memories of that summer.
One day we hiked a bit farther than usual and visited a wind cave near Mt. Fuji. Among the numerous wind caves around Mt. Fuji this one was the largest. Our uncle told us about how these caves were formed. They were made of basalt, so inside them you heard hardly any echoes at all, he said. Even in the summer the temperature remained low; in the past people stored ice they’d cut in the winter inside the caves. He explained the distinction between the two types of caves: fuketsu, the larger ones that were big enough for people to go into, and kaza-ana, the smaller ones that people couldn’t enter. Both terms were alternate readings of the same Chinese characters meaning “wind” and “hole.” Our uncle seemed to know everything.
At the large wind cave, you paid an entrance fee and went inside. Our uncle didn’t go with us. He’d been there numerous times, plus he was so tall and the ceiling of the cave so low he’d end up with a backache. “It’s not dangerous,” he said, “so you two go on ahead. I’ll stay by the entrance and read a book.” At the entrance the person in charge handed us each a flashlight and put yellow plastic helmets on us. There were lights on the ceiling of the cave, but it was still pretty dark inside. The deeper into the cave we went, the lower the ceiling got. No wonder our lanky uncle had stayed behind.
My kid sister and I shone the flashlights at our feet as we went. It was midsummer outside—ninety degrees Fahrenheit—but inside the cave it was chilly, below fifty. Following our uncle’s advice, we were both wearing thick windbreakers we’d brought along. My sister held my hand tightly, either wanting me to protect her or else hoping to protect me (or maybe she just didn’t want to get separated). The whole time we were inside the cave that small, warm hand was in mine. The only other visitors were a middle-aged couple. But they soon left, and it was just the two of us.
My little sister’s name was Komichi, but everyone in the family called her Komi. Her friends called her Micchi or Micchan. As far as I know, no one called her by her full name, Komichi. She was a small, slim girl. She had straight black hair, neatly cut just above her shoulders. Her eyes were big for the size of her face (with large pupils), which made her resemble a fairy. That day she was wearing a white T-shirt, faded jeans, and pink sneakers.
After we’d made our way deeper into the cave, my sister discovered a small side cave a little way off the prescribed path. Its mouth was hidden in the shadows of the rocks. She was very interested in that little cave. “Don’t you think it looks like Alice’s rabbit hole?” she asked me.
My sister was a big fan of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” I don’t know how many times she had me read the book to her. Must have been at least a hundred. She had been able to read since she was little, but she liked me to read that book aloud to her. She’d memorized the story, yet, still, each time I read it she got excited. Her favorite part was the Lobster Quadrille. Even now I remember that part, word for word.
“No rabbit, though,” I said.
“I’m going to peek inside,” she said.
“Be careful,” I said.
It really was a narrow hole (close to a kaza-ana, in my uncle’s definition), but my little sister was able to slip through it with no trouble. Most of her was inside, just the bottom half of her legs sticking out. She seemed to be shining her flashlight inside the hole. Then she slowly edged out backward.
“It gets really deep in back,” she reported. “The floor drops off sharply. Just like Alice’s rabbit hole. I’m going to check out the far end.”
“No, don’t do it. It’s too dangerous,” I said.
“It’s O.K. I’m small and I can get out O.K.”
She took off her windbreaker, so that she was wearing just her T-shirt, and handed the jacket to me along with her helmet. Before I could get in a word of protest, she’d wriggled into the cave, flashlight in hand. In an instant she’d vanished.
A long time passed, but she didn’t come out. I couldn’t hear a sound.
“Komi,” I called into the hole. “Komi! Are you O.K.?”
There was no answer. With no echo, my voice was sucked right up into the darkness. I was starting to get concerned. She might be stuck inside the hole, unable to move forward or back. Or maybe she had had a convulsion in there and lost consciousness. If that had happened I wouldn’t be able to help her. All kinds of terrible scenarios ran through my head, and I felt choked by the darkness surrounding me.
If my little sister really did disappear in the hole, never to return to this world, how would I ever explain that to my parents? Should I run and tell my uncle, waiting outside the entrance? Or should I sit tight and wait for her to emerge? I crouched down and peered into the hole. But the beam from my flashlight didn’t reach far. It was a tiny hole, and the darkness was overwhelming.
“Komi,” I called out again. No response. “Komi,” I called more loudly. Still no answer. A wave of cold air chilled me to the core. I might lose my sister forever. Perhaps she had been sucked into Alice’s hole, into the world of the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat, and the Queen of Hearts. A place where logic did not apply. We never should have come here, I thought.
But finally my sister did return. She didn’t back out like before but crawled out head first. Her black hair emerged from the hole first, then her shoulders and arms, and finally her pink sneakers. She stood in front of me, without a word, stretched, took a slow, deep breath, and brushed the dirt off her jeans.
My heart was still pounding. I reached out and tidied her dishevelled hair. I couldn’t quite make it out in the weak light inside the cave, but there seemed to be dirt and dust and other debris clinging to her white T-shirt. I put the windbreaker on her and handed her the yellow helmet.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” I said, hugging her to me.
“Were you worried?”
She grabbed my hand tightly. And, in an excited voice, she said, “I managed to squeeze through the narrow part, and then, deeper in, it suddenly got lower, and down from there it was like a small room. A round room, like a ball. The ceiling was round, the walls were round, and the floor, too. And it was so, so silent there, like you could search the whole world and never find any place that silent. Like I was at the bottom of an ocean, in a crater that went even deeper. I turned off the flashlight and it was pitch dark, but I didn’t feel scared or lonely. That room was a special place that only I’m allowed into. A room just for me. No one else can get there. You can’t go in, either.”
“ ’Cause I’m too big.”
My little sister bobbed her head. “Right. You’ve gotten too big to get in. And what’s really amazing about that place is that it’s darker than anything could ever be. So dark that when you turn off the flashlight it feels like you can grab the darkness with your hands. Like your body is gradually coming apart and disappearing. But since it’s dark you can’t see it happen. You don’t know if you still have a body or not. But even if, say, my body completely disappeared, I’d still be there. Like the Cheshire Cat’s grin staying on after he vanished. Pretty weird, huh? But when I was there I didn’t think it was weird at all. I wanted to stay there forever, but I thought you’d be worried, so I came out.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. She was so worked up it seemed as if she were going to go on talking forever, and I had to put a stop to that. “I can’t breathe well in here.”
“Are you O.K.?” my sister asked, concerned.
“I’m O.K. I just want to go outside.”
Holding hands, we headed for the exit.
“Do you know?” my sister said in a small voice as we walked, so no one else would hear (though there wasn’t anyone else around). “Alice really existed. It wasn’t made up. It was real. The March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Playing Card soldiers—they all really exist.”
“Maybe so,” I said.
We emerged from the wind cave, back into the bright real world. There was a thin layer of clouds in the sky that afternoon, but I remember how terribly glaring the sunlight seemed. The screech of the cicadas was overpowering, like a violent squall drowning everything out. My uncle was seated on a bench near the entrance, absorbed in his book. When he saw us, he grinned and stood up.
Two years later, my sister died. And was put in a tiny coffin and cremated. I was fifteen, and she was twelve. While she was being cremated I went off, apart from the rest of the family, sat on a bench in the courtyard of the crematorium, and remembered what had happened in that wind cave: the weight of time as I waited for my little sister to come out, the thickness of the darkness enveloping me, the profound chill I felt. Her black hair emerging from the hole, then her shoulders. All the random dirt and dust stuck to her white T-shirt.
At that time, a thought struck me: that maybe, even before the doctor at the hospital officially pronounced her dead two years later, her life had already been snatched from her while she was deep inside that cave. I was actually convinced of it. She’d already been lost inside that hole, and left this world, but I, mistakenly thinking she was still alive, had put her on the train with me and taken her back to Tokyo. Holding her hand tightly. And we’d lived as brother and sister for two more years. But that was nothing more than a fleeting grace period. Two years later, death had crawled out of that cave to grab hold of my sister’s soul. As if her time were up, it was necessary to pay for what had been lent to us, and the owner had come to take back what was his.
Years later, as an adult, I realized that what my little sister had confided to me in a quiet voice in that wind cave was indeed true. Alice really does exist in the world. The March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat—they all really exist. ♦
(Translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel.)