Half world, p.1
Half World, page 1
Table of Contents
ALSO BY HIROMI GOTO
Chorus of Mushrooms
The Kappa Child
The Water of Possibility
Hopeful Monsters (short stories)
ALSO BY JILLIAN TAMAKI
Skim (with Mariko Tamaki)
Published by Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in slightly different form by Puffin Canada, 2009. This edition first published in the United States of America in 2010 by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Text copyright © Hiromi Goto, 2009, 2010 Illustrations copyright © Jillian Tamaki, 2009
All rights reserved
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eISBN : 978-1-101-17175-2
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For my mother, Kyoko Goto, for showing me that soft power endures, has the wisdom and capacity to bend . . . Subarashii.
LONG, LONG, LONG ago, before mortals began to inscribe mortal religions onto stone tablets and parchment, there was a time of the Three Realms: the Realm of Flesh, the Realm of Spirit, and Half World.
For eons it was a time of wholeness and balance; Life, After Life, and Half Life were as natural as awake, asleep, and dreaming. All living things died only to awaken in the dream land of Half World. Mortals awoke to the moment of the greatest trauma they had experienced during their time in the Realm of Flesh. In Half World they relived Half Lives, until they had worked through their burdens of mortal ills, through trial and tribulation. Wrongdoings, doubts, fears, terror, pain, hatred, suffering, all the ills of mortality had to be integrated and resolved before they could rise from mortal fetters into light and Spirit. Once in the Realm of Spirit, all physical cares disappeared. Spirits existed freely, unbounded by mortality and suffering, untroubled by Flesh, in a state pure and holy. Until eventually their light began to grow dim, and they were called back into Flesh once more. For without connections to Life, Spirit, too, shall pass away.
Thus, the cycles were in balance.
There is no account left of what led to the severing of the Realms. No one knows if it was the work of Spirits who grew aloof and righteous, if it was a trapped Half Worlder maddened into perpetual pain with no hope left of light. Perhaps it was a mortal who dreamt of becoming a Spirit without ever leaving Flesh. But the Three Realms that were once balanced and entwined were ripped asunder and locked into isolation.
Mortals, caught in perpetual mortality, died only to be born again into Flesh. Trapped in this unchanging cycle, they grew bleak and despairing. Violence, wars, environmental destruction accreted as time passed. When they died, the mortals’ Half Spirits could not move on to Half World. Instead, they were born back into Flesh without ever transcending their suffering. With no Half World to work through their troubles and no Spirit to raise them, mortals descended ever deeper into suffering. Atrocities proliferated and hope began to fade.
Half World, locked into ceaseless psychic suffering with no chance of redemption, spiraled into madness. There was no life in Half World and no death. None were born and no one died. Never meant to be fixed into perpetuity, the transformative powers of Half World morphed into nightmare proportions.
The Spirits, cut off from mortality and Flesh, began losing all memory, all knowledge of the other Realms. Growing cooler and more distant, they forgot they were part of a greater pattern.
Their lights are beginning to fade, slowly, one by one. . . . They have not enough left to them to even care.
The Three Realms are in great peril. The Realms are very close to dissolution. It is said that when the impossible happens, when a living infant is born into Half World, only then will the fate of the Realms be altered. In a Realm without birth or death, where none are truly living, the cycles of perpetual suffering have shaped monsters. From this unchanging nightmare can anything be born?
The birth of a living child is the doom and hope of Half World.
But millennia have passed and this child has yet to be born.
—a fragment from what has been called
THE BOOK OF THE REALMS
THE WOMAN, HEAVY with child, clasped a desperate arm around the curve of her belly as she ran along the fragile black bridge. Her male companion kept pace slightly behind her, one hand extended in case she should stumble. The woman’s breath rasped with terror, pain, exhaustion. Icy air numbed their senses. They ran, refusing to look downward at the great empty chasm below. So very deep, if they fell they would never reach the bottom. A few wisps of clouds trailed beautifully far below them. The insubstantial surface bridged the gap between the Realms, and they could see the cliff that was purported to hide the Gate to the other side. So close. A world away. They ran, breath choking their throats, pain stabbing their sides, emptiness yawning all around them. With each desperate step they took, the rail-less bridge undulated and wobbled, swayed and fluttered.
The terrifying plummet one misplaced foot away.
“Faster,” her male companion pleaded, casting a look over his shoulder. The pursuers were gaining on them, sly, chortling, hopping, creaking.
“Be careful!” a sticky voice shouted. “Don’t slip and faaaallllll!”
The woman made a harsh sound and somehow increased her pace.
“Oh, wait,” the sticky voice wheedled, like a younger brother. “Wait for meeeeeeeeeee!”
“What must we do now?” the woman gasped. Patting the cliff face with desperate hands, she stared fearfully over her shoulders. Their enemies were almost upon them.
The man just shook his head, incapable of speech.
The pregnant woman smacked at the wall of rock. “Open!” she shouted. “Open!”
Something creaked with the slow weight of granite. With a great groan a giant wrenched free of her mountain prison and the cliff ledge shook, small stones tumbling, as the Gatekeeper stiffly stepped out of the wall. Over ten feet tall, she gazed across the great divide with gray stone eyes the same color as her entire body. “You must pay the toll in order to pass,” her low voice rumbled.
The woman and the man looked up to stare upon a timeless stone face, cracked and dry. She did not look down, but only continued gazing across the chasm.
“Your time wanes.” Her voice was expressionless. Neutral.
The woman fell to the giant Gatekeeper’s feet. “Please. I beg you. Let us pass!”
The Gatekeeper remained silent.
Something white, gluey, and elastic smacked and adhered to the rock face, a long strand stretching, intact, from the point of origin.
The woman and man looked back.
“Ehhht. Aiii hahheiiiii,” the gluey man garbled as he strode the last few steps toward them, his elongated tongue growing shorter and shorter as he drew nearer. He stopped, and the tip of his tongue popped off the rock face with a wet sound, snapping back into his mouth. He fastidiously spat out little shards of rock.
Tall, thin, and reeking acrid and moldy, their enemy grinned at them with a mouth loose and elastic. His tiny pinprick pupils were black beads in the large whites of his eyes, and his tangled white hair stunk of vinegar. He was dressed in an overlarge raincoat, his thin legs sticking out from the bottom and large rubber boots rattling around his skinny calves. He opened his raincoat and fluttered the lapels, a wet, sour cloud billowing outward.
The man and woman each clamped a hand over their mouths as they began to cough.
The stinking man shook one boot, and putrid fumes rose upward. “I do so hate running in these things,” he whispered. “I’m so hot I’m melting!” The inside of his mouth dripped downward, gooey and soft, threatening to spill from his thin lips. He sucked the gluey whiteness inward with a squelching slurp.
The man and the woman shuddered as the last of his gulping and gibbering friends stepped off the path to crowd upon the twig-strewn ledge. A fish-headed child, too close to the edge, windmilled thin arms as vertigo pulled her backward. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” she cried.
The reeking man in the raincoat giggled, then puckered his loose lips like a kiss. He blew. The sour breath hit the child in the chest and she toppled in slow motion backward into the gawping abyss. Her shrieks took ever so long to fade.
The motley creatures hooted and guffawed, hopping up and down on kangaroo legs, swinging reptilian tails and clapping their strangely formed hands.
“Please,” the woman begged their leader. “Let us pass into the Realm of Flesh. We shall harm nothing of the workings of Half World once we are gone.”
The man in the raincoat cupped his right elbow with his left hand, his fingers tapping his tacky cheek thoughtfully. “Maaaaay-beeee,” he crooned in a childish voice, slumping his weight onto one hip. “Maybe not!” He swung out his opposite hip. He began tossing his hips in time with his response. “Maybe, maybe not! Maybe, maybe not! Yes! No! Maybe so! Yes!No!Maybeso! Yes! No! MAYBE SO!” he roared.
The young couple cowered at his feet.
The Gatekeeper stared implacably across the great divide.
The reeking man sighed, as if he were troubled. “How about this,” he suggested, his tone moderate and kindly. “I like to play games. Doesn’t everyone love games?”
“Yes, yes, we all love games,” his motley companions agreed fawningly.
“Shut up!” he roared, and the companions reared back, a few dangerously close to the edge.
“As I was saying,” he continued, gazing with compassion at the young couple, “this particular game has concluded with my victory. One point for me, zero for you. But if I drag you back with me it will be back to the ol’ cycle. And I’ve grown so tired of the routine.” He yawned dramatically. Body temperature cooling, the inside of his mouth no longer sagged like melting cheese. “I know!” he shrieked like an excited child. The young couple flinched.
“I know! I know! Ask me what!” he demanded.
The young couple obeyed. “What?”
“What, please!” the stinking man screamed.
“What, please,” the pregnant woman said wearily.
“You”—he pointed at her—“I will allow to pass. But you will leave your little love bucket behind.” The reeking man gazed pityingly at the young man. “Ahhhhh,” he crooned. “Thus sweet, tender love parted.” He wiped an imaginary tear from the corner of his eye. “I will hold him ransom. I give you fourteen years of maternal bliss and life to enjoy your love whelp in the Realm of Flesh. But when I tell you to return, you will bring the child back with you for a lovely family reunion. If you do not return, I will flay your lover every day and force him to eat his skin, for all eternity.” He stretched his neck down, down, to press his tacky nose against the woman’s horrified face. “Do you agree?”
The woman wrapped both arms around her middle. She turned to gaze upon the ashen face of her love.
“Go,” the young man said hoarsely. “We have no other choice. If you remain we have nothing at all, we will fall back into the pattern. But this”—he cupped one hand wonderingly over the bulge of the unborn baby—“this is something new. . . . Go! Fourteen years is something even if it all comes to naught.” He pressed his face into his love’s hair as if he were kissing her for the last time. “You needn’t return,” he whispered.
The woman reared away from his words, her eyes full of tears.
“Yes!” The stinking man clapped his hands with a wet squelch. “They’re going to take door number four!”
His companions hooted and clapped.
“The toll,” the Gatekeeper groaned.
The young woman and the man stared fearfully at each other, patting their pockets for coins, food, anything.
The reeking man in the raincoat covered his lips with his hand and began to titter.
“We have nothing,” the young couple beseeched.
“The toll is the smallest finger of your hand,” the Gatekeeper intoned.
“Better and better!” the man in the raincoat chortled. “Don’t you love this part?” he asked his companions. They began to clap, enthusiastically, once more.
“Shhhhhht!”he admonished. “I can’t hear!”
The young couple gazed at their pale hands. They looked about for a piece of rock with a sharp edge, with which to cut. Stopped. They finally saw that the small, dry twigs beneath their feet were the bones of those who had tried to pass long, long ago.
“The finger must be bitten off,” the Gatekeeper intoned.
The young woman held up her trembling hand. She curled her fingers around her thumb, leaving her pinkie extended. “Bite it off,” she demanded, gritting her teeth. “Do it!”
Her companion opened his mouth and gently placed the edge of his teeth against the thin layer of flesh. Tears streamed down his face as he began to apply pressure.
He fell back. “I can’t,” he sobbed, hands covering his face. “I can’t do it.”
“He can’t do it!” the man in the raincoat repeated gleefully.
The young man lowered his hands and extended his pinkie toward his love. “Take mine,” he said.
The young woman’s haggard face shone with love and sorrow. Her dark eyes narrowed. She grabbed his hand and bit down on his pinkie, hard, fast, a wet crunch. Dark blood filled
“She did it,” the man in the raincoat said with wonder.
“Ohhhhhhhhhh,” his companions sighed.
The young woman’s eyes welled with guilt and love. She spat out her lover’s pinkie into her palm. She tipped her hand and the finger fell to the ground.
The great rock face creaked and groaned as a portal slowly ground open.
The man in the raincoat did not stop her. “Buh-bye!” he called out merrily. “Fourteen years, sweetheart. Be very brave! We’ll be thinking about you. Don’t worry about your love bucket. We won’t drop him when we cross over the bridge. We’d never do a thing like that! Don’t worry! Have a nice tiiiiiiiiiime!”
The woman stepped through.
She did not look back.
The portal closed with a grinding sound like a millstone.
MELANIE TAMAKI PELTED around the corner of the damp sidewalk in front of Rainbow Market. The worn soles of her runners slipping on a wet leaf, she almost fell, but she managed to keep her balance and staggered on.
Something hit her square in the back.
Soft. Squishy. Probably a tomato.
Panting, gasping, Melanie kept on running. She was lucky it wasn’t an apple. Apples left bruises. She knew through experience.
“Come back, retard!” a voice jeered.
“Fat crow!” another voice screamed. “We’re gonna get you!”
“Lookit her ass move!” they shrieked, teeth gleaming like wolves.
Four, five girls were chasing her. Off the school grounds. Onto the streets.
“Hey!” Melanie heard an old woman’s voice bellow. “Leave her alone! Calling the cops on hooligans and miscreants!”
by Hiromi Goto have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes