This Has Bite
His mother used to have a name for it. For It. ‘The Issue with Hyakunosuke,’ she called it, when reports would come out of his primary school of him doing all that was asked except what was asked. She was not one to shake or scream, not for such base violence as to hit him either, but she would pinch her lips and suck in her cheek and talk of The Issue with Hyakunosuke.
It made her look like a ghast, Ogata thought then, seven years old and as dead-eyed as she was. He had even then grown to be more like his father than her: thick-set and thick-fingered, whereas she always seemed a gasp away from flying, so thin she was. So when she pinched her lips and sucked in her cheeks, her face became all long and noodle-like. It seemed to lengthen two inches all of a sudden.
The dead-eyes did not change, however.
The Issue with Hyakunosuke was not that he was a shut-in gamer like so many of his peers, or that he ate too much and became overweight, oh no. She could have fixed both easily enough. The Issue with Hyakunosuke was that he only ever did what he wanted to do.
For Ogata’s mother, who had never done anything she ever wanted and always resented everyone who did, this was a worse crime than having an obese, gaming son.
Kiroranke opened the lavish door to his lavish house, blinked open his wet-bright eyes and shook his head, making his lavish hair bounce as if he were forever stuck in a shampoo commercial.
“Honey,” he called over his shoulder to absolutely no one, ever-single bastard that he was, “I fear I’ve become senile.”
“Spare me,” said Ogata evenly.
“No, truly, I am seeing things.”
Ogata shoved the flowers into his face. The one florist of the village, who had reacted about the same as Kiroranke upon seeing him enter her shop earlier, had wrapped the chrysanthemums in lovely pale-blue paper. Her hands had worked with the strength of habit alone, so busy was she oggling him and asking The Good Doctor invasive questions in a nasally voice. The paper was fine and easily-torn, and so it tore around the peak of Kiroranke’s nose and dented everywhere.
“I feel the need to inform you that this party is not, in fact, a funeral,” Kiroranke said after plucking leaves and white petals out of his hair. He made a grand gesture with his hand; Ogata entered the house, looking resolutely to his feet in boredom, and ignored him. “It’s Christmas.”
“It’s the seventeeth of January.”
“It’s Christmas and the New Year all wrapped in one. Doing things on time is so passé.”
“How fashionable of me to arrive now, then,” Ogata muttered as he took off his shoes, put on the, once again, lavish slippers let to the guests, and kicked Kiroranke’s golden boots askew for good measure.
He hated this house. He hated Kiroranke. He didn’t even celebrate Christmas, never did, not with his mother so noodle-like at the mere thought of embracing western idiocies.
“Oh my,” Kiroranke said in that stupid, girlish tone of voice Ogata hated more than anything. He leered at Ogata’s suit heavily. He even pursed his lips and rolled a strand of carefully iron-curled hair around his little finger. “You dressed for the occasion. One has to wonder what could possibly bring you out of seclusion, good Doctor.”
He smiled; his horrible, crooked teeth shone in the golden light of the hallway. Ogata ignored him and made his way through the unfortunately familiar path leading to the living-room.
Kiroranke’s house was an aberration of modern, traditional, western and Japanese. All guests had to leave their shoes at the door, but then wore handmade fur slippers Ogata was pretty certain Kiroranke sewed by himself. Golden and muted light shone out of contemporary lamps lined all along the walls in smooth and twisted shapes, and stuffed animal heads were hung on walls alongside preserved fish bones. The man himself could not seem to pick just the one fashion style either: he now wore an exquisite women’s yukata, in tones of white and pale pink and sewn with delicate flowers, which he would probably pair with those horrid boots in the entrance whenever he decided to take the party outside.
Thankfully, Ogata would be long gone by then. Half an hour was all he would allow this farce to last.
As expected, the living-room was as crowded as any place of this godforsaken town could ever hope to be. Kiroranke had even graced his hosts with more room, if that was possible, considering how vast the estate he lived in was: he had pulled back his bookcases and vanished the expensive TV, moved away the low tables, cleared the carpets from the floor. Still Ogata felt a migraine coming just seeing so many people in the same space, half the village it seemed, along with all their children. The mayor was here talking to Shiraishi; the one school teacher he knew to have a bad case of sugar addiction was sitting in corner, nursing a crystal flute full of sparkling something; and, of course, the new owner of the long-abandoned dojo was making her voice clear and loud.
Ogata ignored Kiroranke’s meek laughter. He ignored as well the progeny of all these people, running around his knees and everyone else’s in a merry game of tag—of course they just had come with their children and allow them to riot. Everyone wanted a piece of Kiroranke’s wealth, and he was always so kind as to gift his guests with tasteful attentions. Especially children. There would be a Christmas tree somewhere with twenty presents at its feet.
One of the children in question was rougher and taller than the rest, and louder too. She screamed and howled as a boy half her size grabbed her elbow and made her it in turn. At least whoever owned the little monster had known better than to dress her in a yukata, for her pants, rolled up to the knees, were already stained with grease and other things.
As Ogata watched, the girl, if she could be called such, howled in a frightening imitation of an actual wolf and tackled another boy to the floor. “Not fair, Asirpa!” the boy gasped, but she was off him already and running away in glee. Her black hair stood on every end.
“You’ll need to sanitize your house after you’re done,” Ogata advised Kiroranke.
“I always knew you had a sweet spot for kids,” Kiroranke replied inexplicably. “Come, have some sake. I’ve got just the thing for you, dear.”
He would pay for the endearment, Ogata mused, on his next bimonthly scaling. Not that Kiroranke would even notice a few thousand yens of difference in price.
He had better things to think of anyway as he followed Kiroranke to the long and narrow table shoved against a corner of the room where usually a full-sized bear stood. One of my earlier kills, Kiroranke had said the very first time Ogata had come here, and to this day Ogata knew not if he had been joking. He looked around the room again, navigating between throes of guests dressed in their Sunday best for the occasion to stand amidst luxury, and all the sounds of their voices were like insect buzzing near him.
All but one.
She was talking to Shiraishi now, and holding the wolf-girl by the ear—she must be hers. It made sense. Ogata’s mother always said bad blood willed out, and that Ogata himself was the portrait of his grandmother—her own mother, whom she hated more than anything else, and she hated a lot.
If he had been a woman and more alike to her in appearance, his own face would be thin and long now, just looking at this stranger.
She was smiling, her lips closed, those ugly scars on her face stretched and twisting every way. Her eyes were bright under the chandelier, and poor Shiraishi looked buzzed already with whatever deep-dark drink was in his glass and smothered by her very presence. He smiled stupidly at her. No doubt his teeth would be yellow again on his next appointment. As Ogata watched, the woman gathered the wolf-girl against her side with easy strength, and her shirtsleeves bulged over tan and veiny forearms.
“You’ll want to greet everyone, of course,” Kiroranke was saying now, annoyingly, for his loud voice covered any hint of what the woman was saying to the girl. They were on the wrong side of the room as well: the woman was near the hearth where a joyful fire burned, warming up the air almost as much as bodily heat did, whereas the table with the drinks was all the way across. Kiroranke unsealed one of the three bottles of sake warming over a little stove, and poured some into a tumbler for Ogata. “So long since we’ve seen you out of exile, my friend,” he said as he handed it to Ogata, “you really must start going out more. So much you are missing!”
“There’s nothing to do here I haven’t done a thousand times before,” Ogata replied. “This place is all of ten streets wide.”
“Nonsense. Why, just this week, I’ve had such delightful outings with four different families. Did you know Ogoro’s daughter is single again? I hear she threw her boyfriend out for cheating on her with little Misaki. Little Misaki! Can you imagine? I still remember when she only reached my knee.”
Not for the first time, Ogata congratulated himself for studying dentistry. He was spared almost all village gossip by his patients being unable to speak while he saw to them.
Kiroranke’s speech kept flowing enthusiastically, as he recounted to Ogata how this or that family was faring, or which son or daughter had moved the city this year and left their ancestral land behind. He shook his head, desolate to mention it, making his curled hair shake about his face and catch the light goldly and remind Ogata, not for the first time, of the brief two months he had spent near-obssessively watching it move after first meeting Kiroranke.
Truly not one of his most brilliant obsessions. He had felt something like relief back then, when Kiroranke didn’t seem hung up on him. He had not anticipated that instead of taking the role of spurned lover, Kiroranke would fashion himself his friend.
Ogata drank his sake and did not listen to Kiroranke’s blabber and watched the stranger in the room whom everyone else was also looking at.
The wolf-girl, Asirpa, had escaped her. She was running again with the boys and girls of other families, who seemed to want to call them back but were afraid of looking rude—or perhaps simply afraid of the woman herself. She did teach at the dojo, and rumor had it she had been a boxing champion in the past. Her face, with those ugly scars, was not so reassuring either, no matter how loudly she laughed.
“I see, I see,” said Kiroranke all of a sudden.
Only then did Ogata realize that he had been silent at all. He tore his eyes away from the woman to look at him instead. “What?” he asked plainly.
“You are curious about our newcomer as well.” Kiroranke shook his head of glorious hair purposefully, powerfully. “Ah, I knew she would catch your attention. Let me introduce you, my friend.”
But there was no use in saying anything, and anyway, this suited Ogata well enough. “Sugimoto-san!” Kiroranke called. The woman with her scars and bulging forearms and mannish haircut turned to him immediately with a smile. “Come here, there is someone you need to meet.”
As she approached, wading through the dozens of people somehow packed within Kiroranke’s living-room, kitchen, and garden, Ogata felt rather like a cat staring an unknown creature down with all of its hair erect. Her outfit was exactly the same as it was the last time he saw her. All the beautifying she must have done for the party was to slick her short hair back and put on some simple jewelry—and even that was less delicate than blocky, consisting of a thick bracelet around her wrist and plain gold rings on her fingers. Her nails were short, unpolished.
Still she emitted more presence, in her very boring jeans and shirt, than any woman around wearing their mothers’ best.
“Come closer, dear,” said Kiroranke to her, and unlike Ogata before her, the woman did not at all frown to be addressed in such a way. “Come meet our good doctor.”
The woman looked at Ogata. Her eyebrows flew up in surprise, then her lips twisted sideways. The scars running through her cheeks shifted and curled.
“I know you,” she said in the very same brash voice she had used when they first talked; “You’re that dentist I saw!”
“You’ve already been to his office?” Kiroranke asked gleefully.
“Yeah. I take dental hygiene very seriously. Bringing Asirpa next week too, that girl eats and acts like a bear and isn’t so keen on washing herself up afterward.”
She spoke of her own kid so without shame. The other women in the village would rather bite into lemon than imply their daughters be less than perfectly marriageable, and Ogata’s mother would have bitten into five lemons in a row rather than admit to anyone but Ogata himself just how unbearable she found his presence, but this woman, this Sugimoto, only grinned.
Her teeth, fake and real alike, were absolutely spotless.
“Good to see ya again, doctor,” she said, holding up her hand rather than bowing. “It’s nice to have a dentist so close by. Didn’t expect to find one unless I went to the nearest city.”
Ogata shook her hand. Her grip was firm, her palm callused, and strength ran down the length of her fingers as if to close them around his warranted force of the shoulder.
“Ogata has been with us for, oh, ten years now,” said Kiroranke, grabbing their linked hands in his against all propriety and squeezing them tightly. He looked as merry as a grandmother sealing a well-made arrangement. “To think he’d stay so long, and still refuse to have a social life at all.”
“Why’d you settle here, doctor?” Sugimoto asked him.
She didn’t seem to mind at all that their hands were still held within Kiroranke’s wide grip.
Ogata found his voice again. “I love the locals,” he replied.
Kiroranke laughed himself into tears.
He unhanded them as he did, and Ogata let go of the woman’s hand as soon as she showed sign of taking it back. He watched her grin at him; watched the two rows of white teeth in her wide mouth glint, perfectly aligned.
The Issue with Hyakunosuke was not something he had to deal with again since childhood. After his mother died, long after his father left them, this obsessive nature of his faded and became but a memory, only occasionally stroked to wakefulness again. He had felt something of the kind when meeting Kiroranke a decade ago, but even this had vanished after the one time they slept together and Ogata got his fill of touching that infuriatingly lustrous hair.
Since then, only glimpses had shown themselves. The sight of the mountain on spring mornings, when the day rose early enough that he could watch the sunrise as he walked to the office. The taste of the warm sake brewed in the nearby tavern in winter. A few old black-and-white movies he sometimes replayed on his fairly unused Blu-Ray set.
Then the woman had come to his office a week ago, unknown to him and to the lone elderly man already waiting there, wrapped up in too few layers for so cold a season in Hokkaido. She had lain on the chair in silence, let him clean and examine her dentition. He had found the places where her gums had scarred, the difference in light and color—such a faint difference—between real and fake teeth. Whoever had fixed her up had done so nearly artfully.
“Thank you, doctor,” were all the words she said to him as she paid him.
“Don’t lose any more teeth,” Ogata had replied.
The woman had stilled. She had stared and frowned at him. And then she had grinned, much like she was grinning now, and picked up her coat and scarf with those wiry hands of hers.
Even now, as she talked enthusiastically to Kiroranke without looking much at him, Ogata could see people sneaking glances at her and whispering amongst themselves. He had done something like research on her himself—gone to the tavern two days ago and allowed the two old woodcutters who always drank there at night to speak over him, sharing loud rumors of her being a criminal or a hooligan, come from Tokyo or another such nonsensical place. They were ‘fraid of leaving their wives alone at home, now. They said she worked at the dojo, looking to teach kids from the school to box, not at all ladylike.
Sugimoto’s eyes sometimes strayed from Kiroranke to look around. They settled on her kid, the wolf-girl, on the garish décor of the villa. They ignored the glares and whispers as if those could only knock off of her like arrowheads on steel armor.
Ogata drank his sake silently, stared with dead eyes at the old women in the back until they bowed with shame and their voices lowered.
He thought that if his mother could see him now, her face would thin down and length infinitely.
His smile was ugly, he knew; which was why he did not smile at all whenever Sugimoto looked at him.