Written by Zoe Drake, and taken from the forthcoming anthology "Dark Lanterns,"
Akira Shimizu woke to the sensation of smothering.
In panic, he cried out, his breath rattling harshly in his ears, his hands encountering the stiff, coarsened surface of a mask. Memory flooded back.
Sitting up in his futon, Shimizu eased the long-nosed Tengu mask off his head and sucked in the chilly air. Apart from the mask, and a homemade horned codpiece, he was naked - and he was back in his six-mat bedroom, above the restaurant he owned. Even the mold on the skirting board was comforting.
"How did I get back here?" he wondered aloud.
As he drew his knees up to his chest, mumbling questions to himself, memories fitted themselves together like an automated jigsaw puzzle. Mount Takao. The waterfalls. The dancing. The Tengu.
"Did I hallucinate the whole thing?" he mused. Pushing himself up from the futon, his back and ribs throbbing from last night's abuse, Shimizu picked grubby jeans, tee-shirt and sweater from the floor and dressed as quickly as he could.
Mount Takao had long been regarded as the spiritual home of the Tengu, the bird-spirit tricksters of Japanese mythology. There were images of their red, beaked faces in temples all over Tokyo. When he had gone to his own local shrine for the Hatsumode pilgrimage one year ago
last New Year's Day, to pray for what he so desperately needed, he met the strange young man who had convinced him that the Tengu were real.
It had taken him a whole year, and a substantial amount of money spent on ritual offerings, to make the rounds of certain temples and shrines in the older quarters of Tokyo - places that were regarded with great caution by the area's human residents. After that, Shimizu had been ready to gamble everything on one mountainside ritual – at the interstice between one year and the next.
Treading gingerly on the steep, poorly lit staircase, Shimizu descended now into the izakaya - the Japanese-style diner - that he owned and lived above. Thin plasterboard partitions screened off the small wooden tables in the central area. Old copper saucepans hung from the rafters overhead, accompanied on high shelves by reproduction antique clocks, meaningless memorabilia that Shimizu had bought on trips up and down the country. The menu's dishes and prices were scrawled on parchment in flowing calligraphic characters and pasted around the walls, like Buddhist prayer scrolls at a temple. He stared morosely down at the traditional New Year's decorations, the bamboo and pine kadomatsu, the fat, white kagami-mochi rice cakes.
“Hell of a way to spend New Year’s Eve,” he muttered to himself.
Shimizu stood at the foot of the stairs, staring at a framed photograph above the cash register, beside a carving of the pot-bellied god Ebisu. A photograph of a younger Shimizu, with one arm around a wiry, denim-wearing elderly man, a hint of greased-back grey hair peeping from beneath a Yomiuri Giants baseball cap. Grimacing as if in pain, Shimizu shambled into the kitchen, pressing his fingers to the smooth, warm bulk of the rice-cooker, his flesh recalling last night's visceral coldness. Hiding from the rangers when the Takao-san national park closed after sundown. Drinking the potion of herbs that the young man had shown him how to make. Dancing, spinning and whirling like a dervish, wearing only the mask and codpiece, before sinking down in chilled exhaustion on the steps of the mournful Ichodaira shrine.
Shimizu began to shudder uncontrollably as a wintry fear slid its fingers through his vitals. With it came the sudden, vivid image of the creature from last night. The beast that had lifted up Shimizu's head and studied it dispassionately, its cruel and pock-marked beak just inches away from Shimizu's face. The stench of carrion on its breath almost forcing him to retch. The harsh croaking of its voice had sounded like the rusted creak of cemetery gates.
Had it worked? Had he entertained them sufficiently for them to grant his request?
Feeling the floor sway under his feet and distracted by a bell-like ringing in his head, Shimizu realized there was only one way to find out.
Over the days that followed, the doors to Shimizu's restaurant remained shut but the fires beneath his grill constantly smoldered, arousing the taste buds of that quiet, suburban part of east Tokyo. As a bewildering variety of smells infiltrated the streets like an invisible army, children took to irritating their mothers with constant questions, and bone-weary salarymen smacked their oily lips as they trudged past. Twin-suited Office Ladies gossiped in neighborhood cafes, speculating endlessly on the source of the fine cooking smells, their rouged mouths pausing from the chatter to sip macha latte, and to munch delicately on carefully chosen cakes.
During the second week, a wiry, tanned, baseball-cap-wearing figure pushed his bicycle uninvited into Shimizu's back yard, and swaggered up to the back entrance to rap loudly on the sliding wooden door. Teiichi Nagashima, full-time sushi chef, part-time busybody and occasional drinking partner of Akira Shimizu, had taken it upon himself to investigate the rumors spreading through the district.
His grainy, middle-aged features creased themselves into a preparatory smile of greeting, teeth gritting themselves around the toothpick he habitually chewed on. His smile promptly vanished as the door was opened.
"Shimizu?" the older man finally said. "Hey, Shimizu, you don't look too good. You had the flu?"
Nagashima, once through the door, put his nose up like a dog, trying to separate and label the aromas that assaulted his senses. It was all he could do to stop himself from sprinting to the kitchen and burying his face into whatever was simmering in the pots. "Say, that smells pretty good, Shimizu. You going to tell me what you're cooking there?"
"Why not? You'll find out sooner or later. Go on, you know where the kitchen is."
Shimizu rubbed his chin as his garrulous drinking partner mooched to the kitchen, slid the door aside, pushed his way in - and shrieked like a schoolgirl.
Rare seasonal vegetables from the slopes of the Japan Alps. Seafood flown express from the straits of Kyushu and Okinawa. O-sake from the most famous distilleries in Niigata.
Bags of Binchotan charcoal to fuel the grill, made from the densest hardwoods of Wakayama prefecture. Farm-raised chicken from Kagoshima and Akita, scallops from Hokkaido, Sakura shrimp from Ise, and wild eel from the rivers up and down the country.
Butchered frog-fish hanging from hooks above the cutting-board. Scorpion-fish and stingray, their bristling exteriors accounting for the plasters on Shimizu's hands. Siamese fighting chicken. A huge paste of foie gras, crab's brains and Japanese green tea languishing in a ceramic bowl.
"And what in the Goddess of Mercy's name are those?" the visitor cried, stabbing his finger at a pile of oozing black shells, each the size of a human hand.
"Amazon water snails," Shimizu informed him. "From Ecuador. Rich in proteins, low in fat, high in minerals, but still gentle on the stomach. You wouldn't believe how I got them."
"All this must have cost you a fortune," Nagashima spluttered. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because I want a hat with a pair of lips on it," Shimizu said wearily.
"What? Have you been on the Oolong Highs all day? What are you talking about?"
"Well, how can I put it … do you watch that variety program on Monday nights, Funky Punch Bistro?"
"The one with the Tokyo Punch Bunch? Of course."
"The four chefs compete to cook some original recipes for their guest, usually some female pop-singer. At the end, the guest chooses the winning team, who get a pair of red lips - you know, like a kiss - to decorate their chef’s hats."
"I think you're taking that too seriously, Shimizu. Why bother about what overpaid celebrities are doing? Cookery programs are on TV all the time these days." Nagashima began to flounce around the kitchen, his voice rising to the level of a lisping screech. "Why, my name's Keiko and I'm so glad to be on your program, why my head's in such a spin because this dish is so delicious, and the last one was delicious too, and so was the one before that! Oh, goodness!"
Shimizu, however, wasn't smiling. "A kiss, Teiichi. Why is that? Why is food so sexy? I think people today are hungry for something, old friend. I think they're hungry for something more than human restaurants are offering."
Shimizu walked slowly to a corner of the kitchen stacked with Styrofoam containers. "Cooking is creativity and expression. Cooking is power." He lifted one container's lid, water dripping onto his black rubber boots. Plunging his hand in, he hesitated while something inside sloshed and splattered at his touch. When he withdrew his hand, a reddish-brown octopus had wrapped itself around his forearm, a living, sucking glove.
"So what makes you sure you can make a go of all this, Shimizu? You're not exactly trained for haute cuisine."
"I've had some help from friends in high places ... Mount Takao, to be exact."
"Never mind." Shimizu lifted his hand holding the octopus high, and then brought it down fast, giving the creature's head a cracking blow against the worktop edge. "Cooking is sexy," breathed Shimizu hoarsely, "and the man with the longest menu is the sexiest of all." Peeling off the suckers and throwing the octopus on to the cutting board, Shimizu picked up a nearby daikon radish and smote the creature a vicious blow that shook the restaurant's fragile sliding doors.
"Good luck, then, Shimizu," Nagashima said, slowly turning towards the izakaya's front entrance. "I'll see you at the reopening." Shimizu gave no sign that he had heard. He carried on swinging the vegetable up and down, tenderizing the octopus mercilessly. As Nagashima watched, the radish broke in two, the lower half flying away on the backstroke to hit the opposite wall.
"Think I'll get myself a Happy Burger with cheese," Nagashima muttered to himself on the way out.
The last few days before the reopening, Shimizu worked feverishly on the new recipes that bubbled like a thick, meaty soup in his brain. He coached his new staff of part-timers in the traditional Japanese way; they made the preparations, cutting, peeling, and cleaning, while Shimizu himself oversaw the stages of cooking every meal. A difficult task, to be everywhere at once - Shimizu felt the strain in his back and legs, and his face was looked paler and paler - but with plenty of hands to help and heads to slap, he was more than reasonably confident.
On the day of the reopening itself, a gratifyingly large number of people gathered to wait by the grand floral display outside the front entrance, drawn by the rumors – and also the fistfuls of discount vouchers that he had personally handed out in front of the local train station.
Whatever the reason for coming, Shimizu gave them plenty of reasons for coming back.
Chestnut gnocchi with red-wine stewed wild boar. Honey and mustard salmon in a baked nut crust. Bacon-wrapped baby rabbit stewed in milk. Coconut crab balls. Tomato stuffed with crisp fried stingray cartilage. Chilled seaweed topped with white yam sap. Crisp parcels of tender octopus and vegetables wrapped in rice paper. Steak in coffee marinade. Ravioli plump with escargot and frog. Towers of raw tuna, avocado, mango, papaya and wasabi.
Over and over, as Shimizu worked off his culinary fury in the kitchens, as the part-timers bustled in and out, bellowing the orders to each other and greeting fresh customers - beneath the rush and clatter of business, Shimizu heard the shocked comments of his customers. When their mouths were not occupied with the joyous task of masticating and swallowing, he could hear their breathless commentary on the food to each other, and over and over, the same words in reverent tones. Oishii. Umai. Sappari suru.
The reopening was a tremendous success.
For the rest of January, Shimizu kept the izakaya open seven days a week to build on his reputation. The customers kept coming; families taking a break from the home routine, salarymen reciting their grievances to each other over grilled snacks and chilled o-sake, under-agers seeking a discreet place to acquire their tastes for intoxication, and the biggest sector of his captive audience - the amateur gourmets of all ages who ruthlessly scrutinized his creations.
"Are you absolutely sure you're cut out to run a restaurant?" One of the financial consultants had said to Shimizu last year, after he'd been forced to take out a second mortgage on the place. "After all, it's not just about whipping up something tasty. It's also about running a business."
With stuffed shirts like that calling themselves consultants, it's no wonder I was making mistakes and losing customers, Shimizu thought to himself. He bowed modestly as another group of red-faced salarymen exited, clutching their fake leather briefcases as they drunkenly put on their shoes. Rice that was too mushy. Wasabi that was forgotten. Salmon croquettes half-raw inside. It's not fair, Shimizu thought with a pained little smile, to ask someone to be creative with the stress of having to worry about finances. But with those tricky critters the Tengu on my side, I don't have to worry. This is it. Akira Shimizu has arrived.
When that long profitable month was over, Shimizu announced that he was declaring a holiday for two days. "Yosh," the part-timers replied, wiping the sweat off their brows with their lounge-tanned forearms. Not that Shimizu cared much for their welfare. Despite the spell of the Tengu, he himself was approaching the verge of exhaustion.
On the last night before the planned holiday, Shimizu was supervising the swabbing down of the kitchens, yawning repeatedly with fatigue, when one of the part-timers entered the kitchen and began to hover irritatingly at Shimizu's elbow.
"What is it?" The master of the kitchen demanded.
"I'm sorry, boss, but there's a customer out there, who ... refuses to leave."
"What? Hasn't he finished eating yet?"
"He hasn't started. He wants to make an order now."
"Now?" Shimizu glanced at the clock, and then back to the part-timer, blinking in incomprehension. "Why did you let him in at this time of night?"
"That's the point," the part-timer whined. "Nobody saw him come in. This old guy just kind of ... appeared," he added, giving a nervous glance back at the doors leading to the restaurant.
"All right, I'll take care of this." Brushing past the youth and his colleagues, Shimizu pushed open the swing doors and advanced into his domain.
The intruder was old, certainly. He sat at one of the large tables at the back, tapping his fingers against the wood with the bold air of a visiting celebrity. His shapeless top and overshirt were both a fox-hide reddish-brown. His bald skull glinted back the soft lights positioned at the restaurant's corners, while his silvered moustache and beard were cut in an archaic, Chinese style. And his eyes ...
Shimizu cleared his throat noisily. "I'm sorry, sir, but we're closed."
The intruder spoke, his voice full and energetic for one so elderly. "Really? And I was so looking forward to sampling your dishes. You have made quite a reputation for yourself, Akira Shimizu."
"May I suggest, then, that you come back tomorrow lunchtime?"
"That would be rather inconvenient. To tell you the truth, a daytime visit would be impossible. And besides that, you owe me a meal, I think, Akira Shimizu."
Shimizu's eyes narrowed in anger. "Do I know you?"
"No. But you have made the acquaintance of some friends of mine." So saying, the old man slid in a peculiar way along the bench, to leave the table and stand up. The old man was now in the central aisle, facing Shimizu. The chef gave a strangled gasp.
The old man had no lower limbs. His torso floated above the ground, unsupported, apart from a nebulous vapor that obscured the floor tiles and table legs behind it.
"You're - you're - "
"Yes," the old man confirmed with a nod, "I am. You see, the skills that the Bird People gave you were for preparing spirit cuisine, Akira Shimizu. Divine cooking that can fill the emptiness in both the living and the unliving. They recommended this restaurant very highly, so I have traveled out of my way to get here. And . . . I will not be dining alone."
Shimizu glanced wildly around him. There were lights in the walls. The shapes of dim, floating things, growing brighter and brighter as they approached, glowing softly like paper lanterns at a festival. The clock began to chime midnight, and Shimizu felt a foul, unnamable taste coat his mouth and throat.
"Your customers are waiting, Akira Shimizu."