Storyglossia Issue 35, September 2009.

Emblems (or, The Incident)

by Marc Lowe


                 Part I. The Mask



He hesitantly approaches the house at the top of the hill, where the incident is said to have occurred, the dark green house with broken windows, rotted shutters painted pink, chipped, the wooden slats broken in places, vines twisted round them.

He approaches . . . and as he does, he notices that the firmament above his head has begun to darken. The stars shine thickly, like yellow daubs of paint. He inhales; the air tastes smoky, burnt. Perhaps someone somewhere is cooking something?

Detective Sakamoto has not eaten today. Not a thing.

He stands at the front door, places a trembling hand upon the doorknob (the hand which still has all five fingers). Cold to the touch. The doorknob falls through the door and lands on the dusty ground with a dull thud. He pushes the door open.

He pushes it open . . . and before entering he notices, above his head, an eight-sided mirror, a Chinese Feng-shui mirror. Is this here to chase away demons, or rather to draw forth good energy, good luck? He catches a glimpse of his darkly-ringed eyes.

Detective Sakamoto has not slept much lately. Not without chemical assistance.

He is inside the house now. It is warm, dank. The mustiness catches in his throat, so he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a white mask, the kind used in his country by those with allergies, or colds. (His eyes narrow to slits, begin to water.)

The mask is crumpled, having lain in his pocket for so long. He opens the plastic covering with difficulty in the dark, pulls the strings around his big ears, adjusts the bar at the bridge of his nose with a shallow pinch, adjusts his glasses.

Detective Sakamoto has not had anything to drink in ages. Not by mouth.

He stands in the entranceway, searches for a light switch, for the room is very dark. Noises enter his ears, sounds like crickets, creatures of the night, imagined creepy-crawlies. (He was always afraid of the dark as a little boy. And with good reason . . . . )

He finds a light switch, flips it, but the room remains enshrouded in dark. His foot—the left one—is stuck to the floor. Stuck as if by cement. A piece of stubborn chewing gum? He pulls, but the shoe remains, his foot in the air, a hole in the sock.

Detective Sakamoto has not had a bowel movement . . . in three and a half days.

The noises increase in intensity. Are the crickets screaming at him? Perhaps there is some message embedded in their cryptic call? Perhaps what he is hearing isn't crickets at all, but someone's voice. Perhaps it is his own voice. Perhaps . . .

Perhaps he is standing in the entranceway, one shoe taken prisoner by the floor, wondering why he is here. Perhaps you are wondering the same. It is only natural to wonder. You may be forgiven for wondering, dear reader.

Detective Sakamoto is not really a detective. Everything is relative.

He enters the hallway now, the wooden floor cold beneath his shoeless foot (though the room is still warm, oppressively so), the mask perfectly adjusted to the contours of his face, as if made for him and him alone. He smiles sadly at this, coughs.

The hallway is filled with mirrors of all sizes. Some are cracked, others so dusty they might as well not be mirrors at all. He stops to gaze at his masked face for a moment in one of them. He is so absorbed in doing so that he loses track of time . . .



       Part II. Chopsticks/Green Tea



Happy eighty-first birthday, Mr. Sakamoto. Do you know where you are now?

Ah, so he has been hearing voices after all! The detective, who now wears a suitably detective-like hat, moves beyond the hall of mirrors into what looks to be the dining room. His stomach grumbles, he belches and then passes some gas.

The table is covered with a stained tablecloth. The detective bends over to sniff at the stain, his back aching, creaking, and determines that it is ketchup. He so loved ketchup-spaghetti as a kid, as well as "omelet rice" with ketchup, etc.

Mr. Sakamoto, can you hear me? If you hear me, just nod your head slightly.

But there is no food here. Long gone are the days when he had real teeth with which to masticate, when he could savor the textures and flavors of his favorite foods. Ah, if only he could jump into a time machine and transport himself back thirty years!

Remembering for a moment that he is here in this place for some important reason, (something about an "incident" . . . ), Detective Sakamoto straightens his back and wonders at the fact that he no longer needs a walker to get around. A miracle!

Mr. Sakamoto, I'm just going to insert this needle into your . . .

He hears voices, surely they are human voices. No matter. He moves from the dining room to the kitchen. The tiles on the floor are checkered black and white, like a chessboard, and many of them are broken, speckled red (ketchup again?).

The pantries are open, and inside them he finds various ingredients, things he is familiar with: miso paste, cooking saké, rice vinegar, dry seaweed (i.e. nori, wakame), a bag of short-grain rice, and, tucked into the corner, some green tea (sencha).

Just relax. Yes, that's good. Relax. Breathe! Yes . . .

This final item he considers a real find. Something tells the dubious detective that he will in fact need it for his investigation. He will bring it to the lab and have it checked for fingerprints! He places it in a baggie, puts this into his pocket.

And now Detective Sakamoto surveys the kitchen for other clues. He knows not what he is in search of, exactly, and yet his gut tells him that it is long, narrow, tapered at the tip . . . no, tips! He rifles through drawers, coughs, coughs again.

Mr. Sakamoto, are you OK? That cough worries me. Let's check his lungs for fluid.

He forages around the kitchen, finally stumbling upon a bowl that reads Tenka ippin in Chinese characters, and, inside this bowl, he finds a set of wooden chopsticks. You could gouge someone's eyes out with these, he thinks to himself.

The chopsticks remind him of many meals from his past, meals accompanied, in most cases, by sencha green tea, lovely meals, wonderful meals. His stomach gurgles again; he belches, passes gas, coughs into his mask, takes the chopsticks . . .

Call the doctor. Yes, do it. Now.

Before he leaves the kitchen, he is tempted to eat something. He opens the refrigerator, peers inside. There, sitting on the top shelf, is a plate of sardines (iwashi). He takes the plate, which has been left uncovered, lowers his mask . . .

. . . Lowering his mask, his mouth now watering, he brings the plate to his nose, inhales, but the fish smells strange, sterile. He decides to try one anyway, lifts a single sardine to his mouth (using the hand with all five fingers), coughs, drops the fish.



                 Part III. The Ring



So, he cannot eat! He is like a hungry ghost from Buddhist lore, interminably fated to feel hunger, and yet unable to satiate himself with food. How can this be? Only those who are jealous or greedy become hungry ghosts. What has he done wrong?

He considers the things he has collected in his search here, his scavenger hunt for clues to "the incident." If only he knew what "the incident" was, he might be able to find the penultimate item. This is what his (bloated) gut tells him. He coughs.

. . . And this is where the pattern changes, this is where things begin to move quickly, for he hasn't much time left anymore, perhaps he realizes this in some part of his air-deprived brain, he is coughing, coughing into the mask, and there are flecks of red (not ketchup) inside it, his lungs are giving out, he must find out what has happened here, why he is here in this house, whose house it is, oh, but it is his house, is it not, the house he inhabited for so many years with his betrothed, she, his "fallen angel," fallen from the firmament, that once blue sky that has gone dark (though he can no longer see the stars above him for the ceiling), for all things move in cycles, all things must come to an end, and he is now moving up the stairs, the creaky stairs, the railing is falling apart, it is better not to hold on to anything, and he is coughing, coughing, struggling to breathe up here despite his mask, and he asks himself: whose fingerprints are on the green tea package? who used those chopsticks? of what significance are these things to me, to Detective Sakamoto, this man who, until a few moments ago, thought he might still be able to eat one last time, and as he reaches the top of the stairs his back begins to ache, it burns, as if on fire, and his lungs, his lungs, too, burn as if on fire, and his nose begins to run, his throat is dry, his mouth parched, his eyes wet, for now they are watering, watering because he sees, at the end of the hallway, a bright white light, and he moves toward this light, thinking about all of the pseudo-religious tracts he has read describing white light at the time of death, he laughs, coughs, coughs and laughs, for he has made it to the top of the staircase, he has begun to recall what it is that apparently happened here, what this "incident" was and why it is important to him, a legend in his own mind, a questing Quixote, but he cannot be sure, for there is not enough oxygen in his brain, of this the distant voices have informed him, the voices which, too, are now fading, his memories fading, and he goes to adjust the hat on his head, but it is no longer there, and the mask, too, has disappeared, and when he reaches into his pocket he can no longer find the plastic bag that holds the green tea package, and what of those chopsticks? where are they now? and so, stumbling toward the light, he envisions his wedding day, that day so very long ago, when he and his "fallen angel" tied the knot in the presence of family, friends, and all the gods of his native island, and he thinks to that pivotal moment, that moment when he was to present the ring, the wedding ring, but he did not have it, you see, for the ring bearer had appeared empty-handed, and so it wasn't until after the wedding, after the vows and the kiss, etc., that the rings were properly exchanged, until-death-do-they-part, but what does this have to do with the incident, the incident that supposedly occurred in this very house? ah, but now our friend Sakamoto has moved dangerously close to the white light, and here in his final moments (ours, too) it comes to him, he remembers that when she fell she had been wearing a mask (because she had had a "touch of cold," she had said), further, she had just served him some green tea and had placed a pair of chopsticks beside his cup, in anticipation of the meal to follow, she fell and was instantaneously dead and they had to cut off her ring-finger to retrieve the ring, so tenaciously did it cling.

Copyright©2009 Marc Lowe

Marc Lowe's work has appeared in 580 Split, Big Bridge, BlazeVOX, Caketrain, elimae, Farrago's Wainscot, Pindeldyboz, The Salt River Review, Sein und Werden, and other publications. He is currently pursuing an MFA degree in fiction writing at Brown University. Visit his website at for more information.

Interview with Marc Lowe