Part One Part Two Part Three
The next day school was over and the sun slid by, marking the evening sky in red. The number of passers-by had dwindled, and there was no one but me at the lake. It was quiet. There was no wind, and the water in front of my eyes, still and without the smallest ripple, seemed like it swallowed every living sound. The lake was silent, a single giant mirror spreading over the land.
The lanterns placed at regular intervals around the lake blinked on. The branches of the trees in the forest arched hungrily toward the water, as if trying to jump in. I sat on one of the benches, and after a while Murai appeared.
"So what'd you call me to this place for?"
He had parked and walked here. I slid down to give him some space, and he sat on the bench with me. The kitten meowed from inside the bag I'd brought with me.
"It looks like you found the kitten," he said.
I nodded and lifted the bag up onto my knees. Inside, there was more than enough room for the kitten. The bell around its neck jingled; it sounded like it was clawing at the inside of the bag.
"I called you here today because I had something to tell you. There's a chance you won't believe me. But since you lost your best friend here at this pond, it's something I have to tell you, no matter what."
And I started to tell him about the Yukimura and the kitten. How I had enrolled in college and started living in my uncle's house. How the previous tenant, who was supposed to have been killed, hadn't left yet. How she wouldn't let me close the curtains in the afternoons. How the kitten followed her invisible owner around, and loved her old clothes.
It grew darker at the lake, and we sat motionlessly in the lantern light. Murai didn't interrupt me, just listened to my voice. When I finished the story, he sighed.
"So that's how it is... Is that all you called me here to say?" he asked. He sounded annoyed. It was clear he didn't believe my words.
I forced myself to look into his eyes. I honestly wanted to look away, to tell him it was all a joke. But I couldn't cover everything over like that. I knew I couldn't run away from the problem.
"After the neighbor, Ms. Kino, brought the kitten back in her arms, there were some things I couldn't stop thinking about. For example, why would Yukimura expose her photo paper to light, making it useless?"
"Yukimura is that person in your story, the one that should be dead, right?"
"The day before yesterday, when the kitten disappeared, Yukimura tore the house apart looking for it. She often moved furniture when I wasn't looking. That's why I didn't realize it at first. I thought that she had moved things in the darkroom, like always. But isn't it strange for her do something as inept as purposefully ruining her photo paper? The drawer was left open and the windows weren't closed! It's inconceivable. Someone who didn't know the darkroom must have come in, searching for something, and left the photo paper exposed to light. That someone had no knowledge of photography, or photo paper. At a glance it looks like normal, white paper, doesn't it? But suddenly the owner of the home returned, and that someone left the darkroom without tidying up. Basically, I came to think that the person who moved things in the dark room wasn't Yukimura after all."
"Hold on a second. You've been saying 'Yukimura such-and-such' from the beginning, but this ghost stuff, it's all a story, isn't it?" He laughed, trying somehow to tear down the serious atmosphere of the moment. But the tranquility of the trees, the lake, didn't allow for that.
"Murai, why did you suggest we have beer the night before last? To make me leave to buy the alcohol, so you would be left alone in the house like you wanted. You already know that I don't drink. You made me go and buy the alcohol because you wanted time to search the house, didn't you?"
"Why would I do that?"
"Maybe because there's something in the house that you were interested in. The thing you found and took that night in the dark room was film, wasn't it? I left and you walked through the house, searching. One of the rooms on the second floor is a darkroom. Luckily for you, the film was kept there, organized by day, marked with the date. You were able to find the film you were looking for right away."
"What, was there a witness or something?"
"There was, actually. While I was away and you were searching for what you wanted, Yukimura was standing there behind you. You may have thought at that time that you were all alone in the house, but there was someone else there. She must have wondered what your goal was. But seeing the date on the film that you were searching for, she suddenly understood. She looked for the newspaper for the day after the photograph was taken. This is the paper that she pulled out."
I held up the old newspaper. In it was an article about the lake that lay before our eyes, about the discovery the previous day at noon of a college student floating there. In it was the obituary for Murai's friend.
"The cause was determined: he had gotten drunk and fallen into the lake. But the truth is that you forced him to drink and pushed him into it. The night before, you fought with him. I think that argument was your motive."
I felt suffocated by his stare, like my chest was being crushed. I cursed my fate, that I had to accuse him, my only friend. The membrane protecting my heart tore and my blood seeped free.
"You have any proof?"
I pulled out the photograph. The one Yukimura had taken. I compared the film left in the darkroom and the photo I took when I was looking through the house the first time. I brought it, guessing that it was the photo developed from the missing film.
It was a picture of the lake, with the morning light so intensely beautiful you felt the warmth in your chest. There was a cute car parked beside the lake, and it was obvious that Yukimura had pressed the shutter release intending the car to be the main focus of the shot.
"She had already developed the film that you took from the darkroom. Your car is very clearly captured. I can even read the license plate. By the position of the sun we know that the picture was taken in the early morning. She accidentally captured your car, parked beside the lake around the time that a drunken college student was believed to have fallen in. You knew your photo had been taken. And you were scared that she'd realize the importance of that photograph and make it known. Your acquaintances had seen the fight with your friend, and you were asked why you had watched your friend drown without attempting to save him, you wouldn't have had an answer. You wanted more than anything to steal the film of your car."
He stared at me, silent.
"From here on it's only my conjecture, but hear me out. Murai, you followed the girl who took the photo that morning. You found out where she lived, and some days later, seeing your chance, you visited her. You threatened her in the entryway with a knife. You only meant to take the film, but she didn't listen to you, so you stabbed her. Maybe you were wearing sunglasses or something. That's why she she didn't recognize her killer's face until your strange activities in the darkroom."
I felt sick. Somehow I was drenched in sweat.
"After you stabbed her, you ran. There were no suspects, and you weren't arrested. You might have obsessed over the troublesome film left in her house. But when the police, not noticing the film, ruled her death a mugging, you were relieved. There was no longer anybody who might notice the photograph linking you with the your best friend's death. There was no need to go out of your way to get the film. You couldn't do something as conspicuous as walk freely into the house and take it, anyway, because the police were occasionally making rounds.Then, I moved in to the house. Maybe you drew close to me out of simple interest, at first. But if you could get into my house, and freely search through it, you might be able to find that film. Isn't that what you thought? The odds of me realizing the film's importance may have been low, but in the end you couldn't resist the temptation to completely erase the traces of your crime."
My throat was completely dry.
"I don't know what you really feel about your friend's death. At least, you looked genuinely sad when I heard the story from you in the car. I'm telling you this because, if by any chance you regret what you've done, I wanted to recommend that you give yourself up."
"Stop it. You think too much...." He stood up.
The kitten meowed from inside the bag on my knees.
"Murai, do you remember when we looked for the cat together? This is what I said to you: 'The cat that belonged to the old owner of my house - it's white - have you seen it anywhere?' You answered: ' I haven't seen a white kitten yet'."
"And what about it?"
"I didn't get it at first either, because even though the cat I had grown a lot, I still called it a kitten in my heart. But at that time, I just said 'cat'. No one said 'kitten'. But even so you referred to my missing cat as a 'kitten'. Why is that? If you had seen my cat somewhere recently, you wouldn't call it a kitten. But you said said 'kitten'. The reason for this is, you saw the cat, once, when it was still small. That was three months and ten days ago. Because when you stabbed Yukimura, that cat was right at her side. Because the image of that small kitten in that moment is burned into your memory, you referred to it as a 'kitten' without thinking."
Murai stared sadly at me. He shook his head as if refusing something.
"Even if that car in the photo is my car, there isn't proof that it was taken the day my friend died. There's no date on it. Even if there was a date on the film, it wouldn't necessarily be proof that it was taken that day. The date could have been falsely entered. Besides, do you really believe in ghosts and souls?"
Once again, from inside the bag came the cat's meow. The ring of a small bell.
"That's great, that you found the cat."
I opened the bag and held it out to him, so he could see inside of it. It was empty, and at a glance, it looked like there was nothing inside. But if you put your hand in, you could feel a small, warm mass on your palm.
It wasn't a physical feeling. It was nothing but the small, warm presence of something alive.
The kitten's meow and the clear tone of a bell rang out of the empty space inside the bag. Even though there was nothing in there to make a sound.
"Hey, come out here." When I called, the kitten - invisible, made of air - stepped out of the bag, ringing its bell. It dropped down beside the bench, walking around as if to make up for the time it couldn't move. We couldn't see it. Its meows, the jingle of its bell, told us where the invisible kitten was.
When the kitten's meows - and nothing else - circled around and around his feet, Murai sat down on the bench again. He hung his head and held it in his hands.
The day before, the lady of the house next door had brought the dead kitten back to my house. She had been riding on her bike, the one with broken brakes, and couldn't avoid the cat when it jumped out in front of her.
Yukimura and I mourned. That's when something strange happened. The old clothes that the kitten had used should have been folded in the corner of the room. But at some point, just as they had been whenever the kitten played with them, holding them in its mouth, the clothes had been spread around. Just beside me, there was an invisible source of meowing and bells. The kitten had come home. Just like Yukimura, I couldn't see it, but I knew.
To be continued...