The Two-Tailed Monster by Abhirup Dutta
The Two-Tailed Monster by Abhirup Dutta
The nightmares began three days after Ishani moved from India to Kyoto. She found herself moving through narrow straight roads, with traditional Machiya-style houses, adorned with paper-lanterns. She was running away from something— something she could not see in the dark.
She saw a string of lanterns on one of the houses and heard sounds of people inside. They can save me from Him, she thought. The hostess smiled at her and gestured to her to come inside, but as Ishani made her way towards it, the hostess’s expression changed. She gasped in horror and ran inside, sliding the doors shut.
As the Thing gained on her, Ishani turned to the next alley, spotting another lantern-lit house. As she neared it, a short man held his hand up in a cross-sign, and retreated inside, shutting the doors. “Help me please,” Ishani gasped. “Don’t run away.”
Ishani ran farther, each lit lantern extinguishing just as she was close enough to seek help. Turning back, she could now see two long furry appendages coming from the rear side of the monster, twitching against the starry sky.
Ishani ran and ran, until she woke up from her dreams in her company-provided accommodation: the room of a tiny capsule-hotel.
Her phone rang. It was a group video-call from two of her co-workers, both from California, also on site in Japan on her project.
“Take deep breaths”, Akari said, putting on her hairband.
“Last night at the Izakaya, you said you were having nightmares, right?” Ryan said, combing his hand through his fiery-red hair. “So, we thought we could wake you up early, so you can relax and zen away your troubles.”
Ishani saw her round and dark-complexioned face on the self-facing camera and turned on all the lights in the room. Her mother’s snide comments about her skin echoed in the back of her mind.
“Ok, fine, I agree. Show me how to do your meditation,” she said smiling.
“It’s not any meditation, it’s called Zazen”, Akari said, “Sit straight, leg over leg in lotus position. Bring both of your arms around your navel.”
“Oh, I know this. We do this in India too”, Ishani said, “My mom tried to teach me when I was young, but I just couldn’t sit still.”
“You don’t have to sit still or suppress anything”, Akari said, “Just breathe in and out gently and let things be as they are. Ryan you too.”
“Why me? Urghh, I am here for moral support, okay?” Ryan said, rubbing his eyes, and then putting on a pair of small round glasses.
Together they took a few in-breaths and out-breaths.
Ishani was able to let it be. Her mind began to settle like tea leaves at the bottom of a kettle.
And then, the phone rang again. It was a call from Ma in India. Ishani flinched instinctively. She dreaded picking it up and listening to more snide comments and expectations.
Then, the ringing stopped. Instead, a message popped up on WhatsApp:
Photos too dark, not suitable for marriage or dating sites. Your face looks too muddy and bloated. Send other photos.
“Just let it be, whatever it is,” Akari said, “Breathe in. Breathe out.”
Ishani smiled. “I think Ryan has fallen asleep.”
“I’m going back to bed. Ciao.”
Akari said, “Ishani, it’s Saturday. It’s your first weekend in Japan. And you’re in Kyoto. I want to show you around. And Ryan will be coming too if he…wakes up.”
“I don’t know, I have to still unpack”, Ishani said, “Mom would be mad about her home-made mango pickles confiscated at the airport.”
“Ishani, this is where my parents lived, before they moved to California. It is a second home to me. I would love to introduce it to you, as it’s your first time here. Think about it.”
Soon, another message popped up on her phone.
It’s Saturday there. Why no response? I know you’re free today. Call me. – Ma
Breathe-in, breathe-out, Ishani said to herself as she got dressed.
Ishani’s mother wouldn’t leave her alone. Back in India, her mother’s presence hovered on every conference call. Claiming that she didn’t trust Ishani with “foreign people”, her mother would make indirect excuses to enter the room, pretending to dust the pillows or such, while sneaking glances at the screen.
Her voicemail popped a notification and Ishani listened:
“Ishani, you have been fighting a lot with your own mother, now that you’ve grown up. Check that attitude. Love you. – Ma.”
Ishani met Ryan at the station and, together, walked over to the location Akari texted. They roamed around the block in circles several times before noticing tiny white curtains with an entrance.
“I could swear it wasn’t here before,” Ryan said.
When they entered, the three were greeted by cats purring all around the cafe – some black, some white and others bright orange.
Akari beckoned them inside. She had a Cat-ears headband on.
The owner of the restaurant appeared from the kitchen— a short young man who wore a kitty-band of his own and a white apron with the words “Imperfect Kitty Kafe” on it.
He bowed and directed them to a handwash, and mimed washing of hands before touching the cats.
“Why imperfect?” Ishani asked the man.
He replied in broken English, “Cats her— urm not perfect. Nobody— want them. I take them”, and then exchanged a few words of Japanese with Akari, handing them each a kitty hair-band.
Ishani soon understood what he meant by “Imperfect Cats”. The orange cat had only one eye. Another one had an ugly mark on its face. A third one had two tails instead of one.
“They’re cats that people didn’t adopt,” Akari explained. “Not ‘Kawaii’, as Jun says. But I personally find them highly intelligent, almost like humans.”
“That’s so sad,” Ryan said, “But it’s super cool they found a home here.”
“Yes, it is so cute. I wanted to have a cat as a child,” Ishani said, “But my mother said she didn’t want anything unclean in our house.”
“I can show you how,” Ryan said, “I grew up with two cats. You just hold out your hand like this and wait for them to come.”
A gray cat gently walked towards Ryan and jumped on his lap. He began to pet it— first its head, then the whiskers and then gently over its spine.
A black cat meowed at Akari. Tying her hair into a knot, she bent down and bumped her nose to its nose. “See? It’s almost like they understand us. That’s why they are loved in Japan.”
Ishani noticed there were no other customers.
She held out her arms, and a white cat came forward cautiously, then ran between her feet. This was unexpected, and Ishani didn’t know what to do. She bent down, trying to grab it but it clawed at her, annoyed.
Ishani felt a deep sense of betrayal. Wanting a new cat, she got up to walk away, but the white cat followed her and blocked her way.
“Do you want me or not?” Ishani asked the cat.
But the cat looked away from her, seeming bored.
Akari and Ryan both burst into laughter.
“Hajime?” the store owner Jun asked, laughing too.
“Urm .. eto … First Time? Cat?”
“Head, head” Jun said.
Ishani aimed for the head and the cat didn’t seem to mind. As soon as she touched it, it leaned in, letting her caress it. Without warning, it jumped out of Ishani’s lap and walked away as if it never met her at all.
Jun spoke to Akari and she translated – “He says cats don’t belong to humans like dogs. Cats belong to no one. It is the nature of cats, so don’t take it personally. He wants us to give him our names so he can scrawl it over our orders in sauce. Great for Instagram.”
Ishani got an Omurice (omelet over rice, with a cat’s face drawn over it, using ketchup, and her name below it). She smiled and took a photo of it, posting it online, with the labels #Cute #Kawaii—the new word she learned.
Ryan and Akari got a plate of mixed onigiris (rice-balls held together by seaweed). They were the shape of a cat, with ears, eyes and whiskers cut out from seaweed sheets. “Oh, Salmon stuffing inside. Oishi!”
They’d stayed a while in the cafe before Ishani noticed some black spots on the wall next to the door. She walked up to it and raised her hand to rub on them. Her arm also had the same black spots, like chickenpox, except the spots were bigger. Ryan and Akari didn’t seem to notice. Ishani instinctively began to itch all over, frantically scratching her elbows.
She dashed to the bathroom and rigorously washed her hands until they reddened. The reflection in the mirror had no spots on its arm, but she did.
Am I going crazy? She thought. Is this a nightmare too?
But it wasn’t. On her way home, she saw spots everywhere: on her own skin, on her Suica metro-card, on the trains. Some people, had few, while others had dense infestations all over their bodies.
But no one else seemed to notice.
For the next week, Ishani tried to tell her friends about it, but neither Ryan, nor Akari responded to calls. She felt all alone. Her body reddened with scratch marks. No matter what she did, the spots never went away. More nightmares of being chased down dark alleyways by a two-tailed monster continued.
Having barely any sleep, she could no longer focus on her project. More than once, her boss rebuked her for forgetting to attend a meeting or missing a deadline. He threatened to cancel her visa and send her back to India.
After a shouting match at work, Ishani, having memorized the Japanese symbol for O-Cha (tea), entered one such place, and motioned to speak on her phone.
The server greeted her with an “Irashimasiye” and took her past the silent space into a separate talking space overlooking the garden. She pointed at the first item on the menu before she video called Akari and Ryan. Her heart skipped a beat when both answered. They too were covered in spots, but theirs were moving. Like a bug, a large spot on Ryan’s face went inside his right eye only to wiggle out of his left.
Nevertheless, Ishani was glad to see them. She started by talking about her mother cajoling her demanding she use fairness creams (skin-whiteners in India). Ryan couldn’t speak much as he was unwell. Still, he listened instead of throwing platitudes at her like Ma. Akari’s eyes were red like she had been crying all day.
“My grandfather said something to me at the family reunion. Something about our family that I am now old enough to know.”
“What is it?” Ishani asked, “Are you in any danger?”
“No, no,” Akari said, “But I knew it was big when this proud man thrice my age bowed down to me. It meant something was really bad.”
“What is it? A family secret?”
“Yes. We are hibakusha,” Akari replied, waiting for a response. But neither Ishani nor Ryan had any idea what it meant.
“It means, my grandfather was in the radiation zone when the atomic bombs were dropped. He suffered from its effects.”
Ishani took in information with concern. “So, are you ill? Could it be passed down?”
“No, of course not, and scientists have debunked any genetic transmission on several occasions,” Akari said. “But many people in Japan still think it can. Of course, people are polite enough not to mention it openly, but many wouldn’t date or even hire someone like that— someone like me. That is why many families keep this a secret. We might lose all social standing if the word got out.”
“Akari, listen to me,” Ryan said, “I don’t know about this Hiba-whatever. But it is not fair for you to carry the burden of the past.”
“Akari, Ryan, there is something I need to tell you guys”, Ishani said. “You might think I am crazy, but I can see spots— black spots, that no one else can. I see patches of it all over the place but right now, I see a lot of them on you Akari. Far more than on other people.”
Akari did not laugh or scorn. After a few moments of silence, she said, “It is not unheard of. Sometimes, when people are cursed by a Yokai— a type of spirit—, they have premonitions. They can see things others cannot, especially impending doom, like illnesses. I think you can see radiation, even faint ones.”
“Radiation? Those spots are nuclear radiation?”
“How else do you explain seeing more of them on me? Radiation never really dies but becomes faint enough to not cause any real damage. It is not the radiation itself which is harmful today. It is the social implications, the untouchability.”
Ma’s text interrupted the call, saying:
Without you, I have to do all the chores around the house. Meanwhile, you enjoy Japan. No response to my calls. Never come back to my house again.
Ishani knew that Ma was being dramatic. It was her modus operandi to provoke reactions. But Ishani had enough. She texted back:
Never coming back. I love you, Ma. But enough is enough. I might live long-term in Japan.
Her hands shook as she pressed “Send”.
“Ishani, are you there?” Akari asked. “Were you haunted by any spirit? I ask you this because you said you had nightmares. What did you see in them?”
“A giant cat, with two-tails,” Ishani said.
Akari gasped and the phone fell from her hands, its screen now showing the rotating ceiling-fan. Akari picked up the phone and said, “That’s a Nekomata— a harbinger of death. It is said that cat-spirits steal the souls of people about to die so they cannot be reborn. Funerals often have chants to keep away the Nekomata.”
“Wait, you guys seriously believe this?” Ryan asked, “A two-tailed cat cannot be that bad. All cats are cute. Harbingers of Death? Seriously? You remember how we played with them at the Cat Cafe?”
Ishani gasped, “There was a two-tailed cat there. Come to think of it, the entire place felt … wrong. It had a spiritual vibe, but in a bad way. Akari, how did you know of the place?”
Akari scratched her head. “I don’t remember. I thought you guys suggested it, maybe? Was I the first one there? I don’t remember much of that day.”
“I knew it! The entrance wasn’t there the first time we went around the block. It had magically appeared”, Ryan said, “I still don’t think it’s those cute cats. It’s got to be the owner Jun. He looked suspicious. We need to head there first thing tomorrow. Man, if only I didn’t have this cold.”
Ishani’s order arrived– matcha in the darkest shade of green in a black lacquered bowl. Next to it, lay another bowl in the shape of a fan, different sweets in the form of a bird, a fish, and a peach. The server said, “Wagashi— traditional sweet”.
The next morning, Ishani checked her emails, one of which sat her up with a jolt. With shivering fingers, she called Akari. “I know why I am seeing spots. Have you read the company’s email?”
“No,” Akari said, “Is it not the radiation?”
“The company notice mentions a new disease called Coronavirus. It is an epidemic. It started in China and has reached Korea and Japan. Korea has already enforced lockdowns to prevent its transmission, and Japan will soon be seeing new policies. Don’t you get it? Those spots that I see are not the radiation of the past. They are the contamination of the present.”
Akari sipped a cup of water. Her hands trembled, trying to process the new information. She said, “And you said you saw spots on me and yourself? How dangerous is this Coronavirus? Is it like Ebola? Do we all die?”
“I don’t know. I’m scared.”
“What about Ryan, we need to tell him too.”
Ishani pressed her lips. “The company email mentioned him. It is too late. He is apparently in the hospital after having breathing difficulties. I had seen the spots on him wiggling all over. Please take this seriously. Wash yourself. Disinfect your room. And don’t go out.”
“I will. And what are you going to do? Is our project cancelled? What does that mean for us? Are you going back to India, to your mother?”
“I can’t go back to my mother’s house. I have to make a future here in Japan. I need this project to succeed no matter what. We have to face this Yokai today. We have exorcism rituals in India for our spirits. How can this Yokai be defeated?”
“We must confront it”, Akari said, “It battles in riddles – at least that’s what folklore say.”
Ishani reached the imperfect Cat Cafe within an hour. As she stopped before the lantern at the entrance, she heard a low growl behind her. She turned and saw a giant white cat, the size of a tiger, two tails twitching behind it, ready to pounce.
The cat’s head split halfway, such that there were three eyes, two mouths and a deformed nose. Two more faces emerged out of its sides. Gradually, more warts grew over its torso, turning into cats’ faces, all howling in agony with their eyes fixed on her.
“I recognize you”, Ishani said, “You are Jun, and your true name is Nekomata.”
The grotesque assortment of cat-faces vanished. In its place stood the owner of the imperfect Cat Cafe: Jun, in a traditional black yukata (a funeral outfit).
He bowed down and said, in perfect English, “You know my human name. And you know my true name. You know my human face. Now, let me show you my true face.”
He took his face off like one would a theater mask. Behind it was a crudely marked face in wood, like that of a child’s doll.
“You and your friends made a terrible mistake in forming a contract with me,” he said, moving like a puppet, “One must never give their names to a Yokai. One must never accept spirit-food offered by a Yokai. And one must never testify a contract with a Yokai before the world, sealing it.”
“We did no such things.”
The Yokai raised his hand, his fingers appearing to be made of straw. With a motion of his hand, three images flowed hovered over it, mid-air. They were the Instagram posts of Ishani, Akari and Ryan, with the pictures of food in the Cat café, with their names scrolled in sauce. The posts had gone viral with more than 5000 likes, far beyond what was ordinarily possible. Ishani barely had 70 followers.
“A Yokai can take many human faces,” he said, putting on a Noh-mask, used in traditional theatre, with horns, bulging eyes and an expression simultaneously happy and sad. “And likewise, a Yokai can also create many identities on social media to promote and share your posts. Are you alone?”
“I am not alone”, Ishani said, and to Nekomata’s surprise, Akari appeared behind her, holding a laptop. A video call was open, showing Ryan in a hospital bed. He looked better, though not without heavy breaths.
“What do you want in exchange for our spirits?” Akari asked, “There must be something you need, or else you would have done worse.”
The Yokai moved his face up, and the Noh-mask appeared to smile. He said, “I want to play a game. Let us have a Koan-Battle.”
“Koans? Zen Koans?” Ishani asked, “Are they riddles?”
“They are the opposite of riddles”, the spirit said, “You have to give the straightest answer. No complications, no delusions, and no attachments.
“First the cat-lover— Ryan”, he said. “Koan for you. They say all beings are perfect. And yet the imperfect cats in my cafe are rejected. Now I ask you, do these cats have a perfect nature?”
Ryan typed out on the chat, “The cats, perfect or imperfect, need to be taken care of. What can we do to help them?”
“I’m impressed”, said the Yokai and snapped his fingers. The floating image of Ryan’s social media post disappeared.
“He is free. Next you, Hibakusha Akari. Whose fault is the radiation? Is it, America, your new homeland? Or was it your ancestral country Japan that brought it upon itself?”
Akari looked the masked spirit directly, and without blinking, said, “There must never be a nuclear war again. In no country in no part of the world. That is all that matters.”
“I tried to bait you, and yet you did not fall for it”, the Yokai said, “You have a clear mind with no attachments. You are free to go.”
Saying so, he snapped his fingers, and Akari’s post disappeared.
“What is my Koan?” Ishani asked. She no longer felt Akari and Ryan with her. She was now surrounded by a fog, as if inside a dream.
“There is no Koan for you, only reality. Your project has been terminated and you are no longer welcome in Japan. Your mother in India will disown you, too. Ryan will eventually die of the coronavirus and Akari will move on to other things. But you have a place in my Cat Cafe. Here, you will be dotted on, petted and fed by humans who would consider you perfect the way you are.”
Ishani took a step back in fear, “You mean those cats are human beings— human souls you have trapped in your world with deception? Souls stuck forever so they cannot be reborn?”
“Be reborn where? This world is rotting in its deeper spiritual essence and you can already see the spots of decay. The virus is just the beginning, bigger things are yet to come— fires, hurricanes, wars, and new, unknown things. I am offering you an early escape: my world. What do you say?”
Copyright Abhirup Dutta 2020