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I Say A Little Prayer
A short story by Fafoo about the troubles of being an observer. (Specifically, Miyagi from Three Days of Happiness.)
It should be fine to read this before reading either version of Three Days, as it doesn't spoil too much; it was posted online for free, after all. But the original is translated here, and the novel starts here.
My prayer is for Kusunoki to die.
Even if I just leave him alone, he doesn't have long. Ten days ago, he sold off the majority of his lifespan. It was already shorter than most, and so little remains now.
Three months. That's all the time Kusunoki has left.
When summer ends, the cicadas stop buzzing, and leaves start to fall, he'll wither away as well.
He sold his lifespan in the middle of July, and so he'll leave this world in the middle of October.
But October is too far away.
I pray for Kusunoki to die if only a moment sooner.
Kusunoki was hurting for money, yes. But his sale of 99 percent of his lifespan was not for money.
He was told in advance his results, which showed that even giving away nearly all of it could get him no more than 300,000 yen.
It's hard to think that a healthy twenty-year-old would throw his life away for a measly 300,000 yen.
It would be more appropriate to say that Kusunoki sold his lifespan not to have 300,000 yen, but because he realized the value of his life was so low.
The value of his life - based on standards, illuminating just how fulfilling the remainder of your life will be. The happier a future you're promised, the more valuable your lifespan. And vice versa.
And while there are some whose lives are worth several millions of yen a year, there are others who are only a couple thousands.
I had never before seen a person whose life was worth as little as Kusunoki's. His value was the absolute minimum price that a life can go for.
This meant that in the remainder of his life, not a single good thing would happen. Unloved, not loving, unhappy, not making anyone happy... you get the point. A life that was in all ways unsatisfying awaited.
When he heard his results, he paid no mind to the compensation - he sold his lifespan just to be rid of it. It was a kind of passive suicide, you could say.
I think it was an excellent, very reasonable choice he made.
Even carrying the knowledge that nothing good will ever await you, life is not something so easily given up on. To the point that there are even people who want to buy lifespan.
But to think. It's so much easier to just give it up then and there.
Those who sell their lifespan and have little time left sometimes turn to self-abandonment and bring harm to others.
To prevent this situation, sellers who are reduced to less than a year left are assigned an "observer."
This addition brings about the desired result: the occurrence of desperate acts is greatly diminished.
To ensure the target of observation is aware of the observer's gaze, they carry out their observation very close by. The simple sense of "being watched" has a great impact on people's actions.
On the other hand, this gives rise to new problems. Namely, the anger the observed feel over having no refuge is directed at the observer.
People have a tendency to blame the source of their woes on those nearby. And there's no target more convenient than an observer.
It's surprisingly no small number of observers who have been killed by their subjects. Perhaps the true purpose of the observer is to take all their rage so that the injury may stop there.
...Now, I'm sure it goes without saying, but I was the observer assigned to Kusunoki after he was reduced to three months of life.
I was in charge of evaluating his lifespan, and I then went on to serve as his observer.
When I did the evaluation, I was allowed to read the "summary" of Kusunoki's life. And when I did, I thought, ah yes - this is suitably tragic to be worth the minimum possible amount.
According to the summary, Kusunoki would go onto to live lonely, bitter days, and get in a traffic accident in his late thirties taking the right half of his face, his left leg, and seven fingers.
From then on, he would consider suicide every day of his life. But unable to take the final plunge, he would live another hellish decade, dying of natural causes at fifty - that was the life he would lead.
When I first read it, I empathized with him. No, not sympathized.
I, too, was going to live a lonely decade, ultimately getting in an awful accident that would disfigure me beyond repair, and I'd die alone in misery... or rather, that was a definite possibility I risked, inherent in the very nature of the observer job.
I don't know all that much about my own future. But there is one thing I can say for sure.
All the subjects I've met until now, Kusunoki included, resemble me in some way. And they've all died without fulfillment. So surely I won't die in any worthy way.
No one will love me, no one will remember me, and I'll quietly die in wretchedness.
Sometimes I think it might be smarter to sell off all but a few months, like Kusunoki did.
But I haven't done it, because I haven't been able to throw away my hope that something good will happen someday.
I know that it's all but impossible, but I simply can't bring myself to give up.
I'm a bit envious of the resolution my subjects possess.
Many people who face down death have unrealistic expectations of reality. At least, all those that I've known.
Somewhere in their hearts, they've convinced themselves that anyone who saw their tragic plight would unmistakably show kindness.
Those hopes are betrayed to almost the same extent that they believe in them.
The people who will get to keep living think of those who are soon to die as, frankly, hindrances.
Only those close to them will cause them to worry, and to make them think about death - they never want to think about death.
Kusunoki was no exception. When faced with death, he had unrealistic expectations from reality, and they were betrayed.
His mistake was believing that the people who had liked him before would still like him now. He made no effort to keep his past friendships alive, yet didn't question that they would remain.
Betrayed by the people he trusted, I, as his observer, was the target of his anger multiple times. He never did harm to me, but I felt I was in danger on numerous occasions.
I felt scorn for him, as he often hit people and things in irritation.
However... I cannot entirely deny that my overly bitter attitude toward Kusunoki was a cause of his irritation.
As I watched his actions, I felt I was watching my own past self, and that led me to be extra harsh.
Right now, Kusunoki is calmly sleeping. I'm sitting in the corner of the room and observing.
Time is one in the afternoon. It's been raining for a few hours now. I have to observe during the dead of night too, so I'm thankful for this rain.
The nights are too quiet. When I don't have something to give my attention to, the clock hands seem to slow, and the night grows longer.
I wouldn't be able to listen to music or the radio either, so I have to use rain or the sound of bugs instead.
Kusunoki seems to be having a surprisingly sound sleep. He's usually tossing and turning in bed, but he's hardly moved tonight. Sleeping like a log, as they say.
This apartment stands not only in some corner of the countryside, but seems like it was built over fifty years ago, so the ventilation is horrid.
The heat from the day sticks around after sunset, making for many a sleepless night. Fortunately, the rain is making this night easier to pass.
I carefully stand up so as not to wake him, put my hands together, and stretch.
Sitting in the corner of the room observing for so long makes one ache all over. I have to unwind like this every once in a while, or the aching would be too much to observe through.
Once I spend a good chunk of time stretching my muscles, I walk over to Kusunoki and watch him sleep.
Doesn't look like he's going to wake up anytime soon. Without hesitation, I squat down by his bedside and stare down his face.
If I could simply dismiss him as "a disagreeable person," things would be a lot simpler, I think. If he were a piece of trash with no redeeming qualities, I could just numb all my senses and wait patiently for his death.
Troublingly, this man is not necessarily all bad. That confuses me. It makes it difficult to decide how to approach him.
Lately, Kusunoki has been kind to me.
There's been a change that's difficult for me to understand. But... for the past few days, he's been almost entirely staying home and folding paper cranes, his pace seems unusually slow, he's been going to bed earlier...
It seems to me that it's all done out of concern, to make it easier for me to observe him.
And he's come to show that concern ever since he learned the reason I work as an observer.
When I told him that some observers have also sold their lifespan, and that we're fundamentally quite similar, his attitude softened at once. Became sympathetic, it might do to say.
Yes, both observers and observed are humans just the same, and they similarly may end up having to sell their life.
However, it wasn't our lifespan that we observers sold, but our time. We're made to work for the time we sold.
Naturally, if it were just an exchange of labor for payment, it would be no different from your typical job. Everyone lives that way.
What makes the job of an observer unique is its loneliness.
Except for two days off a month, you have to be by your subject's side for twenty-four hours a day. Obviously, you thus can't meet your family or friends, but there's a more pressing issue than that.
The fact that the observer cannot be seen by anyone but their target.
For example, right now, anyone but Kusunoki wouldn't be able to sense me. And it's more than being invisible.
If I started talking to a random stranger and slapped them on the shoulder, they wouldn't even notice. Give them a hard kick in the shins, snatch their bag from their hands, no response.
Observers are invisible not just in sight, but in sound, touch, and every other sense.
The time I sold was thirty years in all. And I'll have to live as an invisible woman for that whole duration.
Which means I'll be treated as "not there" by anyone but the people I observe.
One morning, six days ago, I told Kusunoki all of this. Since then, he's become kind to me.
But that change, to be honest, has me bewildered.
I think I wanted him to be a disagreeable person to the end.
If he's a good person, that's psychologically taxing. Because now I don't want him to hate me.
When Kusunoki had a fateful reunion with his beloved childhood friend Himeno, and agreed to have a date two days later, he made a request of me that night.
He said he wanted to have me prepare him.
"Prepare you?", I asked.
Scratching his head, he replied awkwardly.
"I know it'd be pointless to keep anything hidden from you, so I'm gonna be honest. In twenty years, I've never really interacted with a girl, ever. So if I just went into this Himeno thing, I know I'd probably bore her and mess up a lot. To hopefully cut down on that, I want to go to town tomorrow and rehearse."
"Rehearse" cycled through my head.
Could he mean... he wants me to be his partner for a fake date?
I timidly went to confirm.
"If I'm not mistaken... You want me to play the part of Ms. Himeno?"
"That's right," he nodded. "Will you take it?"
"Er, I'll ask just in case... What do you think I am?"
"An observer, right? Wouldn't think you're a handywoman or anything."
"Right. As long as you don't forget that."
"So, then, what?", he said. "Will you play Himeno?"
"...Well, I don't much mind..."
"You don't look too happy about that..."
"This is how I always look," I denied, but I knew my face was stiffening.
This was the first time a subject had made such a request of me.
I tried to imagine pressing up against Kusunoki and happily walking through town, but I couldn't do it. It was just too surreal. The sour looks we both typically wore were too strong an image to overcome.
Should I have accepted so readily? What was he hoping out of me as a rehearsal partner? I thought over it all until dawn broke.
Once breakfast was finished and Kusunoki was dressed, he called my name, "Miyagi!", and cleared his throat.
"Final check. From now on, I'm going to treat you just like you're my childhood friend... Are you sure you don't mind that?"
"I don't mind," I said, trying to sound as blunt as possible.
"Okay," Kusunoki said enthusiastically. "Let's get along today as people who mutually respect and trust each other, shall we?"
"So the exact opposite of usual, then."
"If you wanna put it that way," he said.
We went to town by train. There was a large crowd of grade schoolers in pool gear, walking around and talking in shrill voices.
I stared blankly out the window, but the scenery was all the same rural landscapes and forests over and over.
When he left the train station, I walked behind him, the usual five steps behind. Then I began to question this usual arrangement.
"Just checking, but you... mean to treat me like your childhood friend, yes?"
"That's the plan."
"Then should we not be walking a bit closer together?"
"...Maybe you're right about that, Miyagi. Let's walk side by side, then."
Then he dropped his pace so I could catch up, and we began walking together.
"When you're alone for so long, you forget this kind of common sense stuff."
I spoke ironically, though the sentence wasn't directed at him. Until just then, I hadn't realized any oddity in the situation.
Though I'd casually accepted the "role" of Himeno, thinking about it, I had never once gone to town with someone of the opposite sex after becoming an observer at the age of ten. So not only Kusunoki, but I too lacked that "common sense."
Kusunoki made a troubled face as he walked beside me.
"What's a friendly couple supposed to talk about at a time like this?"
"Please don't ask me."
His face was closer than usual, so I averted my eyes.
"Hey, Miyagi, I just wanted to say before you point it out," Kusunoki said, "but I'm really nervous right now."
"Don't be. It's contagious."
"Then let it contage. Go, go, make Miyagi nervous too!"
"Um, well... Let me say this before you point it out, too. I've been invisible ever since I was ten. Do you know what that means? ...It means I don't really understand the proper etiquette for these situations."
"You mean you're a little nervous, too?"
"Huh, so you've got that going on too...", he said, innocently grinning.
"Please don't laugh."
Feeling I was being made a fool of, I hit Kusunoki's shoulder lightly. But immediately after, when I saw his face of surprise, I came back to my senses. Wasn't this just like what a friendly couple would do?
Kusunoki spoke with a look of admiration. "So Miyagi hits people too... I think I've seen a rare sight."
"Only because I'm your "childhood friend" for today," I explained.
When we reached the plaza in front of the train station, he suddenly stopped. Walking beside him, I stopped too and looked at him.
"Before our rehearsal, I think we need to buy clothes," said Kusunoki.
"Is that right?"
"I can't go meeting Himeno dressed like this tomorrow."
I looked over his clothes. A wrinkled college T-shirt and used-to-be-bluer jeans. His sneakers had dark spots, and actually, there were more than a couple holes.
I know he didn't have the kind of disposable income to buy new clothes, but it was still rather awful.
"I'm going to need a bunch of advice from you. I don't think my own tastes are all that great. ...Once we're done with clothes, next is hair. There's time until our reservation, so I want to take care of shopping by then. We've gotta preview the restaurant I'm taking Himeno to tomorrow, too."
"You've thought this through. Perhaps you do have a surprisingly cute side to you," I said.
"Whatever you say. Anyway, I want the best of the best. Might not be a next time, after all."
We entered a select shop that caught our eye. Kusunoki did a once-around, scrunched his face a bit, and called "Miyagi!" for help.
"The more I look, the less I understand. Miyagi, you choose."
I indicated a safe-looking polo shirt and Chino pants, and Kusunoki looked them over.
"Huh... Do you like these kinds of clothes, Miyagi?"
"Incorrect. I just don't think you have to wear anything too fancy. As long as it comes off as being clean, that should be enough."
"Can I interpret that as "you'd look good in anything"?"
"You're free to interpret it however you want."
"Got it. I'll do that. Got it. I’ll do that. Seems to me it’s a compliment," he said, his face composed.
"No need to air your every thought," I said and pushed him into the dressing room.
A while later, Kusunoki called from across the curtain. "Miyagi?"
"Yes, what is it?"
"I forgot to say, but thanks."
"...Don't mention it," I hesitantly replied.
It worried me to be thanked so honestly.
After buying clothes, we visited a shoe store and a salon, and I ended up deciding his clothes, shoes, and hairstyle.
Once the sun was beginning to set, Kusunoki seemed like a changed man from yesterday. I expected as much, but after cutting his much-too-long hair and shaving those lazy whiskers, he was... adequate.
I voiced a compliment. "Why, you seem almost like an entirely different person from yesterday prior."
"Yeah, I don't really look like a guy whose life is only worth 10,000 yen a year, huh?"
"Indeed. Almost as if you have the promise of a happy future."
"Thanks. You look like a fairy of the library when you smile yourself."
"...You're rather chipper today, Mr. Kusunoki."
"Seems so," said he, like I wasn't talking about him.
"So what was that about a "fairy of the library"?"
"I just mean a graceful and intelligent woman."
"Please save that line for Ms. Himeno, will you?"
"But her virtues are a different beast. I'm talking about you, Miyagi."
"Well, thanks," I bowed my head. "You and I are worth next to nothing as humans, at any rate. According to our reports."
"Pretty strange," he self-derisively laughed.
We were in an Italian restaurant along the street. And, as previously stated, no one but the person I'm observing can see me or hear my voice.
As such, this conversation seemed to everyone around us to be Kusunoki talking to himself.
A middle-aged couple sitting at the table beside us snuck glances at him and whispered with each other.
"I believe you know, but you're appearing quite shady right now," I told him.
"Don't worry about it. I'm gonna die soon anyway," he calmly replied.
When we finished our meal and left the dim restaurant, the streetlights made me dizzy. Perhaps because of the wine, Kusunoki's cheeks were a healthy red.
"Now... I wanna take one more step into this practice," he said modestly.
"Understood," I said.
"Don't hesitate to tell me to stop at any time."
"I won't do that. As I explained before, an observer's job encompasses support for the remainder of their subject's life. If we consider this to be such a case -"
Before I could finish, Kusunoki grabbed my hand and squeezed its long fingers.
"You promised," he said smugly. "No more excuses."
"That's why I said I wouldn't say no," I replied as if it were nothing.
We left the dim alley, went down the stairs on the side of a bridge, and walked along the riverfront.
Kusunoki, beginning to feel his drinks and still holding my hand, swung his arms back and forth in a wide arc as he walked.
Those passing by found it odd, and sometimes stared awkwardly. Outsiders, of course, saw only Kusunoki walking in a bizarre way.
He talked to empty space where there was no one, and seemed to be gently grabbing onto nothingness.
What an idiot, I thought.
He was usually lacking in expression, but today he was innocently grinning, so I decided I'd tease him a bit.
"Now, drunk Kusunoki, try to think of me as Himeno and seduce me."
He came to a stop, looked me straight in the eye, and without hesitation voiced his pickup line.
"You appearing before me was the best thing that's ever happened in my life. The worst was when you left my sight. ...And depending on your reply now, I might have a new best or worst."
It seemed a fitting confession for the contrarian embarrassment that is Kusunoki.
"That was a pretty smooth delivery of such a roundabout pickup line. I'm impressed."
"So how do you think Himeno would reply?", Kusunoki asked.
"Ah, well, if it were Ms. Himeno... Perhaps she would say "What's this nonsense of all a sudden?" and try to laugh it off."
"Huh. What if it were Miyagi?"
"...I don't catch your meaning."
"Joking. Don't worry about it," he cackled to himself.
It was a pretty tasteless joke. Disagreeable indeed.
When we got tired of walking, we got on a random bus. There were several other passengers, but Kusunoki paid them no mind and talked to me about his memories of Himeno.
We changed buses and arrived at a viewing platform. Being a prominent date spot in town, there were about ten couples holding each other and sneaking kisses.
Kuzunoki continued to talk to me, fully aware that he appeared to be alone.
Seeing a man nearby holding his girlfriend's shoulder, he said, as if suddenly getting an idea, "Hey, Miyagi. Can we practice that too?"
"Please stop asking permission," I told him. "Didn't you already forcibly take my hand going "you promised" earlier?"
"Oh yeah. Well then, I'll just be doing this," he said, somewhat forcefully putting his arm around me.
He smelled faintly of cigarettes. That's Kusunoki's smell, I instinctively thought.
We took in the night view, both silent.
It might have been about five minutes, or it might have been about fifty.
Suddenly, his mouth opened with a question.
"...Don't read anything weird into what I'm about to say."
"What is it?"
"Your smell kind of calms me down, Miyagi." He ran his fingers through my hair.
I would have preferred if he said it in a more joking manner, but his expression and tone all seemed entirely serious.
"...Please don't touch my hair," I said, still not resisting. I didn't mean those words earnestly; I just couldn't find anything else to say.
I was used to being slandered and abused, but I was unsure how to respond to gratitude and compliments.
So I was no good with Kusunoki.
He seemed to see right through my mental state. "That's not what you said earlier, is it? I need permission now?", he laughed teasingly, holding me tighter.
"Do you know how you look to others?", I asked.
"I dunno. Happy?", he said, playing dumb.
They saw, of course, only Kusunoki embracing air. By coming to a date spot at night seemingly alone and talking cheerfully to an invisible woman, he became something for the couples to laugh at.
He really is an idiot.
I hung my head, and without him noticing, grinned to myself.
Once we were almost back at the apartment, Kusunoki asked:
"What would you score that confession I gave earlier, Miyagi?"
"Forty points," I answered.
"It's too roundabout. Try for something simple."
"Alright, I'll think about it."
The ribbiting of frogs from the paddy fields along the road echoed without end. From the houses on the other side wafted the smells of grilled fish and bath shampoo.
The road was mostly unlit, so every time a car came toward us, we'd squint at the headlights.
I stopped in front of a rusty convex mirror and proposed this.
"Mr. Kusunoki, let's practice something else. Think of me as Himeno again and seduce me."
That sure was something awkward I said, I thought to myself. But he was drunk, so he wouldn't think anything of it.
Kusunoki placed his hands on my shoulders.
He said the name of a different woman from than one before him.
"From now on, be by my side always."
I let it sink in for a moment.
If those words were directed at me... I selfishly imagined.
"Hey, respond!", Kusunoki said, shaking me. "What's my score?"
"Alright, so adding that to forty, that's a hundred."
"You can't add them up like that. Sixty points is sixty points."
"Then what should I do to make up the remaining forty?"
"...I doubt you'll ever know for your whole life. Unfortunate, really."
"You're a tough one, Miyagi."
So he said, but it's very simple once you know the trick.
The remaining forty points.
He'd surely never notice for the remainder of his life how he was a mere word - or name - away.
Kusunoki is sleeping happily. He's sincerely looking forward to meeting his childhood friend Himeno tomorrow.
But having read his life's "summary," I know.
I know that the next time Kusunoki meets Himeno, it will deeply, deeply wound him. I know that he'll taste far more despair than he's felt even in these past days.
It's embarrassing, but I'm secretly delighting in it.
He should be hurt more. He should despair more.
Then he'll have no one else he can rely on, and be forced to cry on my shoulder.
...I shake my head. Stop thinking about this trivial nonsense.
I quietly stand up and squat next to Kusunoki's bed. I watch his face, illuminated by the moonlight. Only when he's sleeping can I have a few of these guilty thoughts.
I softly put my left hand, which had grasped his right for hours, to my cheek. I still feel some of that warmth.
It had been ten years since I'd held anyone's hand. It was nothing to him, of course. Just holding hands. And strictly speaking, I was just Himeno's stand-in, and any girl would have done the job.
But it was extremely important to me.
Some part of me had been impatiently waiting so, so long.
I pray that tomorrow won't come.
Then maybe I'll always get to take Himeno's place.
But tomorrow comes as usual, and Kusunoki wakes up.
I say to him, "Good morning, Mr. Kusunoki. Today's the day."
"Yeah," he says absentmindedly, gazes at the foggy sky outside, then turns his eyes to me.
"Thanks for coming with me yesterday."
"It was nothing, really."
"It was totally something. I feel like I can do it today thanks to you."
"Yes, I hope it goes well."
But I know it can't possibly.
I know that tonight, Kusunoki's heart will be fatally wounded.
"You may not care for this phrasing, but... I'll pray for good luck."
I speak with no heart in my words, casually extending my right hand, and Kusunoki says "Thanks" and firmly grabs it.
"That hurts," I lie. It doesn't hurt at all.
"My bad," Kusunoki smiles, letting go, and goes into the kitchen whistling as he digs through the fridge.
...She used to whistle that song he's whistling now - "I Say A Little Prayer." I suddenly remember.
Long ago, there was once a single person I observed who was kind to me.
A girl whose sorrowful lips left an impression on me.
Like Kusunoki was doing now, she treated me like I was a normal girl. She sympathized with my situation and showed concern for me all the way until her lifespan was up.
"Thank you for watching over me until the end. This time, I'll watch over you from up above."
It was with those words that she died.
That was when I made up my mind.
I would give up on loving anyone who was going to go away.
It would only make me more lonely.
But... It seems that I'm making the same mistake once again.
No matter what I do, it seems impossible to hide my quickened heartbeat.
There's still some origami paper left from when he made those thousand cranes.
I take a sheet, and as I fold, I say a little prayer.
There can be no going back once you come to love someone. I pray I come to accept that truth.
But, even if that's so... Before my feelings pass the point of no return...
Before I find it impossible to separate from him, please.
May Kusunoki die if only a moment sooner.
Posted December 25th, 2013
#fafoo, #three days of happiness