S-22 by JaneLebak
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S-22
by Jane Lebak, 7/31/00

 

Ryu was the one I asked to bring me to Koji's grave. Although Ken would have driven me without a question, I felt funny asking him to take me to see an old boyfriend. Ryu acts goofy sometimes, but he'd know better than to get silly at Koji's graveside.

So that morning, when we were getting ready to leave, Ken asked where we were headed, and Ryu answered without hesitation. Hakase looked up from a journal article and then said he'd join us. I thought it was weird, but I was more relieved Ken didn't decide to tag along as Hakase's bodyguard.

When we were on the way, Hakase said that he'd grown up in that area, and all of his relatives were buried at that cemetery. He brought flowers from the estate gardens. I felt funny, like I should have known to bring some too. I'd never done this before.

The drive took about an hour. Koji's relatives had used a family gravesite fifty miles from Utoland City. I don't know how much family he had left, and guessing most of them were likely Gallactors, I didn't care to find out. Sometimes it's better not to know who's on the other end of the yo-yo.

I hadn't attended his funeral. A visit a few weeks later wouldn't be out of keeping, though.

When we arrived, Hakase strode off along a tree-lined path toward his family's plot. Ryu and I deciphered the map and made our way through rows of headstones to an area of flat grave markers. We located Koji's stone right where the cemetery manager had told me it would be.

I burned incense. Kneeling, I said a quick prayer to offer Koji my apologies.

I was no stranger to death. In fact, Death and I were on practically a first-name basis. In those years, sometimes I was surprised Death never asked me over for coffee, but the way things were going, you'd think I'd have been used to this. The other end of the yo-yo. Koji deserved that. Only God knows how many people Koji killed. But I still felt bad. Somewhere there was a mother grieving Koji. Her name was listed in the obituary. No other family mentioned, only "uncles and aunts and cousins." Again, it was better not to know.

I'm not sure how long I was there, but when I'd paid my respects, I realized Ryu had walked away.

I skirted trees along the path until I came up alongside him.

"I'm looking for the oldest stone." He walked in a side-step, head down as he read the markers. "I just found someone born in 1675."

"Some of the markers are so worn you can't read them."

"They're limestone. They react pretty good with acid rain."

I was startled. I knew that--I just had no idea he did.

Ryu looked up. "You see where Nambu Hakase got off to?"

We scanned the cemetery until we saw Hakase's lean figure upright among the gravestones. We strolled in that direction, relishing the hush appropriate to a place of the dead. I wasn't scared of ghosts here. These spirits slept in the gentle anonymity you get when someone knows only your name. Name by name, we passed monuments of lives spent in the accomplishment of deeds we couldn't know now.

A circle of dried leaves skittered across the path. I stopped to watch as they circled, circled. Then they dropped in place.

"Wait." It felt wrong to barge in on Hakase like that. I didn't know what you do at a graveyard--maybe I'd been too fast at Koji's? Maybe I'd roused up his spirit just to leave when he was ready to recognize me?

I always messed these things up. I wished my mother could have told me all these things, or an aunt, or a grandmother. Instead there was just Hakase, and he was way up there still at his family grave, meaning I should have been at Koji's still.

We had stopped at tinier grave markers, and I felt my eyes drawn toward them in their even sameness. Plots one square meter apiece, square granite stone uniformly etched with a single name. There were no couples here. At first I figured cremations, but then I realized some of the stones had only a single date.

The baby yard.

The leaves began to circle again. Ryu said, "Let's get Hakase."

"He's still busy."

I walked among the stones, scanning the dates to see some infants had lived a couple of months, some were born silently into a world not meant to hear their cry, and some had lived only for minutes. "Two precious hours." There were names given to the little ones who never got a chance to fill them out, plus child-like designs on the stones, the ones remembered as beloved son or daughter or our littlest angel.

Just so odd. I saw babies die at the orphange, but it always seemed a cause for relief rather than tears and cutesy pictures. The caretakers would say it was one less mouth to feed, one less diaper to change, one less child to count in her bed. Or they would say it was a blessing, that medicine hadn't been able to cure her, that she was no longer suffering, and then they'd send the body to be burnt and disposed somewhere unknown.

I'd never had a baby, probably never would. I'd never had a mother that I could remember. But wouldn't it be nice, just for once, in this world of loneliness to take those mothers who were going to die and those babies who were going to die, and match up the ones left behind? Find these parents and say, "Here is a baby without a mother. Please raise her as your own."

Is it the same? Probably not. No more than if I brought Ryu to Koji's mom and said, "Please take him as your son." But it would be nicer somehow. Let the baby and the mom grieve together while becoming a new family.

I ended one row and went back up the next. Where Ryu waited near the path, I stopped. There was space for a grave here, but one unmarked. I stood watching it for a long time, drawn less by the completely anonymous character of the spot as by the gifts left behind. A deflated balloon lay crumpled on the ground, its ribbon held to the earth by a rotting bouquet of flowers. Alongside lay a single white rose, crisp-petalled. There were grassless impressions on the ground. Someone had visited more recently and not cleared away the older gifts.

The rest of the graves in this area were twenty to thirty years old. Judging by the markers on either side of this one, the grave must have been filled twenty-five years earlier.

Koji's mom in twenty-five years: would she still decorate his grave? Would she still grieve her son that I had killed?

I'd met her once, when we were dating. Soft-spoken, quick-eyed. Nothing got past her. She didn't like me at once, saw in me a physical confidence she disliked no matter how meek I behaved. She thought I was no good for her son. I guess she was right.

I crouched alongside it in the grass, then touched the circular metal marking the ground. Someone's baby was spending eternity as S-22.

"Why would anyone honor a grave they hadn't marked?" Ryu said.

"I wonder how expensive it is to buy a gravestone." Just a square of grey granite, maybe three dollars a letter for the engraving. Some of the others had flimsy metal markers with the names on letters slid into grooves, and "Arakawa Funeral Home" printed across the bottom--surely money couldn't have been a factor if the funeral homes gave them away.

The leaves circled again, then lay still.

Just then we saw Hakase returning. I could tell he wanted to hurry us out of the cemetery, so we walked back to the car and didn't ask to see his family's plot. I burned to ask him about the cost of a granite marker, but he looked so drawn that I decided not to.

"It was creepy there," Ryu said as we drove home.

"It's always that silent." Hakase looked out the window. "Very still. There are many old souls there, and I think that's why there's never any wind."

Ryu gave an exaggerated shudder. "I noticed that. Even the air didn't move."

Whatever. He must have missed the circling leaves.

Koji.

No, don't think about Koji. Instead I thought again about that anonymous square meter of earth: baby S-22 with the deflated balloon and fresh rose and mildewed carnations. The whole way back, I stared at the passing roadside forcing myself to consider an impoverished couple whose baby had died too soon, and them without the means to memorialize their child. I'd never had a baby, of course, but I'd seen plenty of movies, enough to know there would be questions afterward.

I didn't have to ask if Koji hated me. Instead I could ask, Was it a boy or a girl? Had the baby been born still or screaming? Was it a case of crib-death and all its unanswerable questions, or had there been a problem the doctors had fought to correct for days and nights while the parents sat white-faced alongside the crib among the beeps and hisses of machinery in neo-natal intensive care?

After a quarter-century, at least one mother hadn't abandoned the memory of her little one. A quarter-century from now, would Koji's mother still say his name, lay flowers on his grave?

Well, it made sense. We can't rest in the next life if no one from this life honors us and sends us on our way. And yet, without a name, who are we? There can be no peace if that vestige of humanity is lacking us. Away from the situation, I could imagine the child's spirit had stopped me as I walked the cemetery path. Or Koji, and there was where I just happened to stop.

Maybe it's superstition, but I do believe in ghosts, and sometimes they have unfinished business. Koji, with me, had plenty.

When we got home, Ryu went to the kitchen to fix a snack while I changed into workout clothes and made my way to the gym.

Warm-ups, some gymnastics, my katas, all my forms, my blocks and counterstrikes. I controlled my breathing, a careful "Huh!" let out with every strike, a loud "Hah!" for a ki-ai.

Behind me the door opened, probably Ken for his own workout. I continued doing my forms, watching my breathing, working for perfect control and trying not to be distracted by the creaking sound of Ken on the pommel horse behind me.

After he'd been working for five minutes, I stood with my eyes closed and wondered what on earth he was doing there, then opened my eyes and saw nothing in the mirror. Heard nothing. The creaking sound stopped.

I turned, but the only one in the gym was me.

From then on, I couldn't concentrate. When I worked out, I felt watched, felt eyes behind me. I've felt the same in Gallactor territory, or in a temple area, but never in a civilian situation. I couldn't concentrate any longer on my forms; whenever I tried, I made stupid mistakes or forgot the routine midway through. So I grabbed my towel and headed for the shower.

Once I got my mind off the feeling of being watched, it faded. Ridiculous. I could chalk it up to thinking about Koji, but I could have sword I had heard Ken. It was probably just one of those things. I thought I heard a door, and then I just assumed it was someone coming in to work with me, so when I heard a noise from the hallway, like the sweeper or one of the cleaning staff, I assumed it was Ken on the pommel horse. From there it was easy enough to get spooked.

Unfortunately, in my line of work, getting spooked is very bad. I face enough dangers without manufacturing more.

The hot water rinsed away my thoughts. This was reality: heat, steam, aching muscles soothed. Soap, rinsing, suds floating away.

The water pooled around my feet as I finished the shower, not unusual. It meant Hakase needed to have someone snake the drains again. The old plumbing didn't like long hair, something it had to deal with on a regular basis.

As I reached for my towel, the water surged a little, then spun in lazy circles as it moved around the drain like a liquid tornado, dancing atop it, sending the bubbles in circles of their own. A dance.

I waited a moment, but the water level didn't decrease.

A circle of leaves in no wind. A circle of bubbles and no draining water.

I closed my eyes, swallowed, and stepped out of the shower.

#

Circles. For the next week, I found myself hunting circles where there couldn't possibly be any, or worse, where there would be. I didn't know whether I wanted to find a circle or not, only that I craved them the way a monk craves bread on the last day of a fast.

And how many places were there to search for circles? In the smoke curling from a destroyed mecha, in the rings I swung from in the gym, in the kids playing in a park, in the strange Tupperware I pulled from the back of the shelf that had gone moldy. Perfect circles, imperfect ones. A third one would tell me I hadn't been making it up.

If I'd found a third one, I would have demanded a fourth.

When dealing with the supernatural, you're never sure you're not making it up. The brain likes to find patterns. The ninjatai took advantage of that all the time. Gallactors liked to find patterns, so we gave them one in a battle and then changed it in unpredictable ways, deadly ways.

Gallactor too liked to use patterns, only those they didn't change. Find one you love. Turn him against you. Use him. Kill him, or force you to do it instead.

Oh, Koji, I thought so many times that week. Koji, this is insane.

What could Koji be telling me with circles? That he would return to kill me, completing the circle? That as I grieved my mother, so his mother would grieve him? So I would grieve my future children, the ones I probably never would have because of Gallactor, because of the war, because the war would kill me?

I burned incense for Koji at home. We had a household altar, and no one commented when I spent time before it, praying and making offerings. I didn't know what you should do for the dead, to rest them. I apologized. I wrote Koji a letter and sent it to him by fire.

I tried to distract myself. I didn't know what else to do, so I thought about the baby grave and the mother grieving two and a half decades later. I played with the mystery, imagining planting flowers that would bloom on the baby's birthday, or surprising the mother by leaving a statue or erecting an altar there myself.

Distracting myself helped. Joe taught me how to compartmentalize, and this was a good compartment. Whenever I grieved Koji, I tried to think about S-22 and something I could do to rest his or her spirit. I could become a foster-daughter to that mother, bring her tea, listen to her stories, and send her photographs. And I could do what I couldn't do for Koji's mother and give her someone to share her burden.

After five days, I wrote Koji another letter, pleading with him to leave me be, forgive my heart and leave me alone. Had he attached himself to my spirit when I'd visited the gravesite, hitching along for one last spy mission against the ninjatai?

"Please," I whispered as I knelt before the low stone, burning incense and my second letter. "Please."

Behind me the door opened, and I braced myself for Ken's recriminations or Nambu's questions. None came. The door shut. Still nothing.

I turned. The room was empty.

I turned back to the altar and gasped. Before me, on the stone slab, the ashes of incense had fallen from the stick in a perfect circle.

"Koji," I whispered, "if you ever loved me, leave me alone."

#

I continued trying to distract myself. My daydreams were the only peace I had. It felt right and good to escape.

The more I daydreamed, the more the scenario took shape. I should place a marker on that infant's grave. The parents might not be able to accept it as a gift or as charity, but if I found out the identity of S-22 and had a stone ordered, they couldn't object. Maybe the mother would be touched to know she was not the only one to remember her lost child.

I didn't tell anyone but Ryu. I tried to keep myself from rushing the words out, but he didn't look as enthusiastic. He wanted to leave well enough alone.

He threw superstitions at me, stories of ghosts and marauding spirits, and I threw them right back: names, power, anchors. He told me about odd lights in old windows. I told him about things moved around that stopped moving when someone made the right offering. He told me about car engines that wouldn't start in the presence of the dead. I pointed out that were the kagaku ninjatai and knew how to push a car. Or to call a tow truck.

He still resisted. "The thing is," he said, "after all this time, they'd have found a way. Maybe the parents don't want it marked."

How could they not? Maybe the baby had brothers and sisters who now would be able to find the grave. Maybe the mother's friends could find it. It was a gift, pure and simple, to a life cut tragically short.

Perhaps he saw in my eyes the desperation of a woman running from a ghost. Looking uneasy, Ryu acquiesced.

Then, despite all the ghost stories and tales of the witching hour, Ryu insisted we go in after dark. And I thought, maybe I could leave Koji's spirit behind if we did that. Maybe. I didn't know. Could you just dump it off like a back pack and leave it there where it belonged?

Probably not. After I finished distracting myself with S-22, I was going to need to contact a monk and arrange an exorcism. There would be nothing else for it at that point. I couldn't risk turning around during a mission to kill an enemy that wasn't there, only to be killed by a hidden one who was.

Ryu drove me back to the cemetery late one evening, fiddling the whole way with the heater, the radio, the rear-view mirror. I wished he'd just be still. No circles on the road. I wished one would come up just so I could ask if he saw it too.

Because the cemetery was locked for the night, we overleaped the walls. I finessed the lock on the management office, and shortly we searched with flashlights through the great leather-bound books that read like a roll-call of the dead. Dancing shadows arose like spectres from flashlights which jiggled every time we turned a page. Dust that sparkled in the beams rose out of the volumes from three decades earlier. I found the binder, with impossibly long pages and the thickness of a phone book, that gave the names and dates of those in the S section.

Stay away, Koji, I prayed inside. Go back to your grave and sleep.

Ryu kept up whispered chatter, and again he fidgeted, rubbing the back of his neck, cracking his knuckles. Here was a man who had infiltrated enemy bases, and a cemetery office upset him. It upset me too. I couldn't tell which had happened first, but both of us had a greater sense of trespass, as if it was somehow worse to spy on dead men than to make dead men.

"Bring the flashlight over here." We scanned the list of names until I came across the one solitary entry that had plagued my thoughts for more than a week.

Ryu, looking over my shoulder, fell utterly silent.

"Nambu?"

The name brought a tremble to my lips, and I found my fingers shaking on the parchment-thick paper.

There weren't many Nambus. It wasn't a very common surname. Was it a younger sibling--Akira, a younger brother? Why wasn't the child buried in the family grave?

Koji forgotten, I whispered, "What's going on?"

Ryu scanned across the line looking for a reference number, then went to the filing cabinets lining the far wall of the office.

"What are you looking for?" My voice cracked, which didn't surprise me.

"This book is just a list of the names and where folks are buried. They'll have more information on file than that."

I didn't close the book, just slumped in the large leather chair behind the manager's desk. A few minutes later, Ryu returned to the desk and laid a piece of paper before me. A certificate of fetal demise, not even a death certificate. The father was listed as Kozaburo Nambu. The mother was someone I'd never heard of, a Makiko Mizuta. The baby, Akira, was listed as stillborn at 25 weeks.

Ryu had done the subtraction already. "Hakase was seventeen at the time."

My hands iced over. "I don't understand, Ryu. This baby--"

"His girlfriend must have gotten pregnant. The child died. They had no marker so no one would talk." He scratched the back of his neck again. "Thirty years ago people didn't do the unwed-mother thing."

There weren't a lot of Nambus in the city, and her last name was distinctive enough. Ryu was right. Looking at the certificate before me, I could see the mother was sixteen herself.

"He put that white rose there," I said. "And the mother comes by sometimes too, but not often. Maybe she's afraid of getting caught. Maybe she doesn't even live here any longer. But she still visits."

And I wondered--if the baby had survived, would Hakase and this woman still be together? Would he have been able to go to college and do the work he now was doing? Was this woman the reason he never dated anyone nowadays? Had he wanted the child? Had he been able to cry when the child died? Sometimes, looking at Ken or Joe, did he wonder what his own child would look like now if he'd lived? Was that maybe why Nambu had trained the Kagaku Ninjatai himself rather than farming us out to an endless stream of instructors and tutors? Was he making up for missing out on a different young man's life?

And now--the circles. The watching. A little one who had latched onto us looking for his father in a cemetery, waiting for his chance to meet his father finally and receive his name. His peace.

Ryu said, "We should put these things away and get out of here."

For a moment I wondered if I should record the information anyhow and order the marker. It didn't need to have the family name on it. Maybe it could say "Akira" with only his birthday, and instead of "Beloved Son" or "Our Littlest Angel" I could have the stonemason carve the words, "Born In Silence" or "The Circle Closes."

The wish flitted through my heart without lingering. Akira Mizuto-Nambu (or however his mother would have seen him named) would have to remain anonymous S-22 until long after the weeds had devoured this cemetery fifty miles north of Utoland City. I could imagine his spirit in the underworld, trapped by the strictures of propriety and the fears of a young unmarried couple, as he wandered wondering who he was.

The next week I visited the cemetery on my own and burned incense before his grave. I left fresh flowers and a fresh balloon, and I told him, You are my big brother, and I am your sister. And now, Akira, you may rest in peace.

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