Curving my coat of obsidian fur, I jerk back into a stretch. In that position I tumble onto the floor, and the thump shakes the whole cage. When I wriggle around, I soon hit the cage walls; it has gotten more cramped in here, I notice calmly.
To pass the time I scratch with my claws at the slender logs that line the floor. Soft, warm sunbeams shine in through the lattice that surrounds me.
As I wait, thinking that it must be about time, a tray is pushed into the cage. On its beautiful, finely carved surface, a sumptuous feast is laid out.
I heave myself up; my muzzle twitches as I take a sniff, and I thrust my snout in. My mouth opens wide, fangs bared with each bite, a deep rumble in the back of my throat. The heaping dish is empty before I know it, and I lick at the curves of the dish that show off the grain of the wood.
Once it’s all gone, I sprawl to the floor to lounge on my back as I did before I ate. I look up to where the sun is shining through the logs, and narrow an eye against the brightness. Treasuring the newfound feeling of fullness, I stretch my gleaming black, shaggy body once more, to my heart’s content.
Meals were important to my mum.
Three meals a day without fail. Above all, breakfast was a must; rain, storm or blizzard, she always prepared a nutritious meal for her family.
On that morning too, the piping hot breakfast I took for granted was set out on the table. But I didn’t touch it.
A butterflied Atka mackerel cut into quarters, miso soup with potato and wakame, braised burdock root and rice.
That was the last meal Mum ever made for me.
“So Chiyuki, about tomorrow morning: what’s the plan?” my dad asked.
At that question, which he delivered once a month with feigned casualness, I stopped washing the vegetables and turned around. The water in February was cold, stinging my fingers.
“Uh, don’t worry about it.” I gave him a vague smile with the same words as always; I understood exactly what he meant without it being said.
“Okay.” Dad just nodded, as usual. He hadn’t wanted to make me say “I don’t want any breakfast,” or “I’m not going to eat anything.”
Tomorrow will be exactly eleven months since that morning.
It was supposed to be a normal morning, the kind of morning that has passed by a thousand times, that is repeated a thousand times. On an impulse to do something about the fat I’d built up over the winter, as a first step I thought I’d skip breakfast. It was one of those mornings on which Mum said, “You have to eat properly,” to which I replied sulkily, “I told you I didn’t want anything.”
I barely remembered rushing to the hospital and what happened there, the funeral, or what happened after that. Everything was a blur; before I knew it, it was all over and done with.
That was when I realised: my body had begun to reject food.
“Chiyuki, are you okay?” Dad was looking at me, concern in his voice, and I hastily pushed the tap lever down. I’d left the water running, and the grape tomatoes had overflowed from the colander.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Bit spaced out. Maybe ’cause I’m hungry.” I smiled wryly at the lie that had just slipped out of my mouth. “I’m hungry”, of all things.
As I quickly drained the water off the grape tomatoes, the rice cooker gave a flat electronic beep. Anticipating Dad’s next move, I flew like a repelled magnet to the butsuma, the room where the Buddhist altar to pray to deceased relatives is kept. I faced the altar and placed my hands together before Dad offered the freshly cooked rice.
The photo of my mum, a big smile on her face, was from a camping trip to the beach back in the day. That was so long ago, but it felt like it was taken yesterday; I looked away.
Dad had already placed the rice in front of Mum’s memorial tablet, and he walked straight to the bathroom. He always found a plausible reason for having his meal at a different time to mine: that he had to take a bath, or to work. Especially around the monthly anniversary of Mum’s death.
As the monthly anniversary approached, my condition always got worse to some extent. Usually it was only a slight feeling of reluctance, but around this time I was hypersensitive and often gagged on what I was eating. Since I was pretty much forcing myself to swallow, I felt less stressed eating alone.
I sat on the couch in the living room with a small bowl of grape tomatoes. We hadn’t used the dining table for quite some time now, whether it’s the monthly anniversary or not.
Without looking at my hand, I picked up a grape tomato from the bowl and popped it into my mouth. Tomatoes were good: juicy, easy to swallow, and nutritious. The nutritional value was an important point, as I’d keeled over from malnutrition before, around the seventh day after Mum’s death.
I concentrated on repeating the actions of chewing and swallowing like a robot, fighting past the sensation of food sticking in my throat. I wasn’t in great shape today. The ripples of discomfort were growing larger; I headed to my room, bowl in hand.
My room was bright with moonlight.
I tilted the slats of the lowered blind to block out a little more light and lay down on the bed, holding the bowl. Instinctively I stroked my throat with my other hand.
I had adjusted the blind so that broad bars of shadow fell across the bed, and both the sheets and I were overlaid with two-tone stripes. I curled myself up small, my eyes tracing the shining bands of light.
As the impression of being in a cage sank in, the turbulence smoothed out, and the upheaval in the back of my throat slowly eased.
I groped for another grape tomato and resumed my interrupted meal. The shadows I saw and the light in my mind layered together to recapture my dream self. Black fur brushed past on the edge of my vision and thoughts.
Every month, in my dreams I turned into a bear.
The place I found myself in was always the same: a cage made of slender logs. In the cage, my black fur always shone in the bands of light pouring through the lattice of logs.
The first time I had the dream was around the time my body had begun to reject food. Every month since then, on the day before the monthly anniversary of Mum’s death for some reason, I’ve had this vivid dream that feels and smells incredibly real.
Whether I wished it or not, each time my bear self ate well, until I was satisfied. A meal that didn’t rise back up on me brought back the normal sensations of eating I’d almost forgotten, and took my mind off my difficulty with food. As dreams alternated with reality, the bear that I became in dreams helped me with the meals I struggled with in real life.
There were three knocks on the door and I lifted my head with a gasp. I must have been right on the edge of sleep. I looked at the bowl; it was empty.
“Chiyuki, you awake?” Dad called. “Aren’t you going to take a bath?”
“Yeah, I will. Be right there,” I replied to the closed door, sitting up.
It was too early to turn into a bear yet.
I called from the kitchen, where I’d dropped off the bowl, “Dad, I’ll deal with the dishes later, so just leave them in the sink when you’re done,” and scooted to the bathroom.
Having made up my mind to take a long bath so that at least Dad might be able to relax, I stayed in far too long and ended up collapsing into a deep sleep. My bear self in the dream didn’t mind that, and ate her fill that day too.
As March began, all at once Dad got very busy. As well as the usual end-of-semester busyness, there was a lot to do to prepare for the first anniversary of Mum’s death. I wanted to help, but only managed to get in his way, so I concentrated on trying not to add any extra stress from my end.
There were only a few days to go until the first anniversary. In the morning, when I cracked the lid of the smoothie I always had instead of breakfast, the bad feelings welled up with violence from deep within. My hand was trembling as I thrust the smoothie away, and a fine cold sweat broke out all over my body.
I was used to being in a bad state sometimes. But this was clearly a different level.
I somehow managed to get the smoothie down so that Dad wouldn’t worry and rushed headlong out of the house. I got through the first half of the school day, making excuses in my head—who was I trying to convince?—like I might be coming down with something, or it’s because it’s the morning, and then ran to the empty classroom where I usually spent the lunch break alone.
The classroom was at the end of the ground floor corridor, and had snow slats on the windows all year round, so it was the best place for the light to shine in just like in my dream. But no matter how hard I tried, my lunchtime sandwiches never made it to my stomach.
That day I pretended to my dad that I’d eaten properly and went to bed early on a near empty stomach. It was the first time that year that I hadn’t been able to stick to three meals a day. I took my phone to bed and did an image search for “bear, food”. But nothing really jumped out at me from the search results, and I slumped back onto the pillow.
“What should I do ... Mum?”
It was beyond belief, like I was lost in a strange land. Moonlight flooded in through the gaps in the blinds, dyeing me with the familiar pattern as I rolled to face it. When I thought about the meals I had in dreams, I felt a tiny spark ignite in the pit of my stomach, but that was all.
The next day, as soon as lunchtime came around, I darted out of the classroom and up the stairs two at a time. The library was on the third floor. I marched straight into the silent interior, and started rifling methodically through the shelves of cookbooks and books on culinary culture.
The previous night, just before I went to sleep, I had a small breakthrough. In the dream I’m a bear in a cage, but what I’m eating doesn’t look like food for an animal. It’s more like a meal for humans, served in dishes. In the morning I hadn’t been able to get through even half of my smoothie. It was ridiculous that I was chasing so desperately after something I’d only seen in a dream, but there was nothing else I could think of to cling to.
Books on food have a lot of pictures, so it was easy to check their contents by thumbing through them. I lost track of how many minutes had passed, or how many books I’d looked at, but in the middle of flipping through pages, I stopped with a start.
The version in the picture was exquisitely presented, but it looked like a dish I’d seen in my dreams. My stomach rumbled at the thought, as if in agreement.
I went to the counter to have the hefty book checked out and left the library hugging it. There wasn’t even ten minutes of lunch break left. It wasn’t enough time to make it to the empty classroom, so I rushed up the stairs to sit on the deserted landing in front of the rooftop terrace and opened the book. I brought the sandwich up to my mouth, staring at the page full of food in printed form, and the first bite slid down without a struggle.
Even though it had been only a couple of days, I was so relieved to feel food going down my throat in a normal way that I stupidly threw my hands up in the air, ecstatic. “Y-yay!” I cheered.
Right after that, my eardrums quivered at the sound of a snort of soft laughter from down the stairs behind me.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
I turned, to see my classmate Ayuha on the stairs, smiling apologetically. “Ah, mm…” I froze in confusion. It wasn’t so much that she’d caught me acting bizarrely; it was that put on the spot, I didn’t immediately know how to respond to her.
Ayuha Shinoda was one of the leaders of the class: she was always right in the thick of things. She’s not an unapproachable type, but I tended to fly under the radar, so we had nothing to do with each other: we’d hardly even spoken. I mean, what was she even doing here in the first place? And as that applied even more to me, I didn’t know what to say.
“You had such incredible drive and energy, I followed you without meaning to,” Ayuha explained, coming up the stairs as I hesitated. Close up, her long, up-curled lashes flickered in time with her light-hearted voice. “Chiyuki, I get the feeling you might be the same as me?”
“Huh?” I managed.
“Or maybe not? Anyway, that’s what I’m talking about.” Ignoring my noises of incomprehension, Ayuha’s slender finger pointed to the metaphorical last straw I was clutching at—the book I had just borrowed. It wasn’t until I looked at the cover, which I’d snapped shut, that I realised it was an Ainu cookbook.
“I’m Ainu,” Ayuha said.
I looked up and met her beaming smile. “Right.” I nodded, looking down at the book again. I dreamed about meals like these, but I didn’t remember ever eating any in real life.
As I flipped through the pages, sitting by my side Ayuha snorted with laughter again. “You took that pretty calmly.”
“Huh?” I thought about it. “Oh, sorry. It’s not like I’m not interested or anything, honestly.”
As if something had set her off, Ayuha dissolved into fits of laughter, holding her stomach.
“Hey, I heard you.” I sat up and repeated, “You’re Ainu, right?” and she laughed even harder. I hurriedly added, “I didn’t know that,” with a serious look.
“I never said,” Ayuha replied, through tears of laughter. “Phew. My back hurts.” Wiping her eyes, she blew her breath out and turned her mischievous grin on me. “So. Enough about me, you’re interested in this book, right? I saw you devouring it with your eyes, and even the last hurrah.”
Cheeks flushed from laughing, Ayuha took up the book as if making a fresh start and dangled it in front of me. Under her chestnut brown gaze, my heart started beating madly.
Of course I was interested. At that moment the book was my one ray of hope, my saviour. Even so, I didn’t feel like admitting that I was interested in a book I’d only just discovered.
Lost for an answer, I muttered, “I don’t really ... know,” when out of the blue her right arm gripped my left and pulled with gusto.
“Do you want to go on a field trip?” Ayuha asked, her face conspiratorially close to mine, and I caught my breath. Ignoring how spaced out I was, as if I’d forgotten how to speak, she went on, “More like a study tour, I guess,” putting her hand to her chin.
I was totally lost. It didn’t matter whether it was a field trip or a study tour, or what it was. I was more concerned about why on earth Ayuha might be inviting me to go on a trip with her: I couldn’t follow her train of thought. I mean, why me in the first place?
Overwhelmed by her energy, I unconsciously pulled away, and there was a rustle under my left hand. That’s when I remembered. I’d barely eaten any of today’s lunch quota of sandwich.
Hastily I flicked through the book. I opened it to the same page as before, and while reconciling the image in front of me with the one in my mind, I stuffed the sandwich into my mouth. I was still a little wary of the mouthful, but just like the first bite, it went down with little resistance.
I got through over half of it, exhaled in relief that it looked like I’d be able to finish it all, and started at Ayuha’s presence, sitting next to me. I’d been so desperate, I’d totally blanked her out. It didn’t matter how friendly she might be, my behaviour—dropping the conversation and everything else—was really odd. This was exactly why I’d always tried to have lunch by myself.
She’s probably totally weirded out. With that thought, I furtively looked over at her, only moving my eyes.
Ayuha was still sitting next to me. She wasn’t laughing or scared by my strange behaviour, but she didn’t have an air of distancing herself either. She just sat there as if it were all totally normal.
The first bell rang just as I swallowed the last bite of sandwich. The usual impersonal chime vibrated through the air.
“So, shall we go?” Ayuha jumped down a couple of steps, with the momentum of standing up, and spun round gracefully on the narrow stairs.