When I was younger, my mother and I would leave Tokyo for a few days and stay at an inn with a rotenburo (hot spring). There was one inn that kept small bears in a cage. I would pass by them every time we went to the baths, they were often sound asleep in their bamboo cages. It seemed that the little bears were once allowed to swim in the hot springs with the guests. They liked the hot water. But then a newly implemented hygiene law prevented the bears from swimming with humans. In the ryokan (Japanese inn) lunch was never served, the two important meals were breakfast and dinner. My mother says that we ate bear stew for dinner. I don’t remember the meal, but she told me it was not so good. I wrote this story while thinking about the small bears at this Japanese inn.
The Chopstick Murders
by Sanaë Lemoine
My mother called me the other day while I was washing dishes. She asked me about the chopstick murders. There haven’t been any this month, I said, but we’ll see in December. These things come and go. She seemed rather satisfied with my answer and quickly ended the conversation. I’m late for my swimming lesson, she said.
The murders started at the end of the summer during the high season. The inn was full with guests and my husband was up at five in the morning to clean the bathrooms. The last stragglers of the night crawled to bed at that hour, and I would step over their weak limbs on my way to the kitchen. There were just three murders on the first day, the twenty-seventh of August, and then as the weeks went on, the deaths accumulated. By October we had hired a second gardener to dig graves. I established a good relationship with the town at the bottom of the mountain and the mayor helped me with small matters such as making sure the bodies were correctly incinerated. In the evening I strolled through the makeshift cemetery, dipping in and out of the small houses we had built. I counted the leftover urns, still resting unpacked in boxes.
My husband feeds the bears in the morning. We keep them in a bamboo cage by the baths. They look like big black dogs but mostly they stay quiet, drowsing in the afternoon sun.
The guests still come en masse despite the murders. They don’t seem to mind, and they ignore the few journalists that fall upon our hot springs. The curious ones prowl around the baths at sunset, but I shoo them away before dinnertime. I designed a new bathrobe for the guests this year. It has blue lotus flowers on the sleeves and reaches my ankles.
The first body I found was that of a woman. She must have been in her thirties, and there she was, unclothed, arched over a rock by the hot spring. Her feet were in the water and when I felt them they were warm. Two chopsticks jutted out of her chest and blood ran down her body drawing red lines on her white skin. From the wound I picked stray splinters. I washed her first before calling my husband.
My mother came to visit soon after and stood by the hot spring, threw open her bathrobe and yelled out: You spirits come take me away, as well! But nothing happened. I watched her rounded belly and the thinness of her thighs before she closed her bathrobe and snapped at me, So, how do we stop this? I shook my head.
There are days when I worry that my husband will be found, fallen by the baths, stripped naked and stabbed with chopsticks. Ever since the murders began we have banned chopsticks and now I only cook with forks and sharp knives. I ache for the feeling of chopsticks in my fingers. In the mornings I prepare elk stew and rice to be served with deep metal spoons.
We decided to open the inn with the hot springs after we sold our ramen restaurant. My husband wanted to leave Tokyo and I thought, why not, it would be pleasant to run an inn. There are fourteen rooms, a bar and sofas in the entrance. We built two baths with covered paths leading to the outdoor hot springs.
The murders have stopped since last month and I look out of my window through the morning mist. From here I can see the bears rattling in their cages. The knife is heavy in my hands but I continue to chop green onions. My husband goes out to feed the bears and he doesn’t return. Two hours later I pull on my rubber boots and step outside. It is cold and silent; the bathers drift in the hot springs like pale fish. I wave at them and continue down the path, calling my husband’s name. I search for the rest of the day, and by nightfall I return to the inn empty handed.
Illustrations by Hugo Yoshikawa