Photo credit: Shiho Fukada
is my new “novel of tales” inspired and informed by the life and works of Ryunosuke Akutagawa
, the “Master of the Japanese Short Story,” who murdered himself at the age of 35 on July 24, 1927. This day has since become known as Kappa-ki
, or Kappa Day, Kappa
being the title of one of Akutagawa’s last works, and the date is now a Japanese “Bloomsday” in commemoration and celebration of the life of Akutagawa.
On Kappa Day, people of all ages, though usually all serious and solitary types, come to the grave of Akutagawa in the north of Tokyo to leave flowers and cucumbers, cucumbers being the favorite food of Kappa, and cigarettes and cans of cocoa, being addictions of the late Akutagawa.
During the course of the 10 years I spent researching and writing Patient X
, I was a regular visitor to the grave, and never failed to pay my respects on Kappa Day. In order to avoid the worst of the intense Tokyo heat, I usually tried to go as early as possible, often leaving home before sunrise.
Three years ago, however, having spent the day in the library, and believing my research was almost done, convinced that I had read all of the available books by and about Akutagawa, his contemporaries and his times, I made my annual pilgrimage to the author’s grave towards sunset.
Despite the lateness of the hour, the heat and the humidity were particularly vicious that day, and I only just managed to arrive without fainting, and only a little before the cemetery gates would be closing. As always, the graveyard was a menagerie of mosquitoes, cats, and crows, but thankfully humans were nowhere to be seen. I hurried through the graves to his stone; it had been washed clean and there were fresh flowers in the two vases and incense sticks still smoldering in their metal tray. I laid my two cucumbers before the little altar, put a packet of Golden Bat cigarettes to their left, then opened a can of cold cocoa and placed it on the right. I took a short step back, put my hands together, bowed my head, and began my silent prayers of gratitude to Akutagawa.
She put on a full-face black sun visor which gave her the rather unfortunate look of a sinister duck.
Perhaps it was the heat and the humidity, or maybe it was the drone of the insects or the scent of the incense, but I began to feel most faint again, rocking back and forward on my heels, swaying from side to side, and before I could stop myself, I was falling backwards, first into twilight, then into darkness…
It was a wonderful darkness, so cold and so damp, as though my entire being had been wrapped in a chilled, wet towel, and gradually, as my senses adjusted, I began to pick out tiny, silver stars winking in an emerald firmament, and to feel a cool breeze, then to hear soft whispers on its gentle wind…
"Sir," came a distant voice, "can you hear me, sir?"
"Yes," I giggled, for I was tingling all over, pleasantly tickled.
An olive moon rose up now before my face, a moon with eyes and ears and a nose and a mouth, a mouth which said, "Thank heaven you’re back, sir."
I thought, back where?
I was on my back, I knew that but only that, and so I tried to raise my head, to sit myself up.
"Gently does it, sir," said the olive moon, its hands supporting the back of my head and my shoulders. "You took a nasty tumble, got quite a bump."
I reached up to feel the back of my head and found it wrapped in a chilled, wet bandage beneath which was a lump the size of a quail’s egg —
"Ouch," I said.
"I wouldn’t touch it if I were you, sir," said the moon. "It’s still very tender, though it’s already going down, thank heaven. You gave us quite a fright."
I thought, us who?
And I tried to look around me.
"Be still, sir," said the moon, "don’t panic, please."
"But where am I?" I asked. "Am I in hospital?"
"Not quite, sir, but the next best place," said the moon who now appeared not to be a moon at all but rather a queer little fellow, a little green around the gills. "You’re the guest of the Japanese Society for Psychic Studies."
"I’m the what, at the where?" I said. "And who then are you?"
"Forgive me," said the little man. "How very rude of me. My name is Peck, Professor Peck, the President of the Society, and this is Madam Hop..."
"Charmed," came a voice from my feet —
I tried to sit myself up again, and rather too suddenly, but before I fell back, I caught a glimpse of the couch I was lying on and of a tiny lady dressed in black lace who was kindly and most adroitly massaging my ankles and calves.
"Thank you," I said, "but what happened? How did I get here?"
"By a stroke of luck," said Professor Peck. "Saturdays are the days Madam Hop and I help to close up the cemetery, making sure the tenants have all they need for the night. You can imagine our surprise when we found you lying there, collapsed before the grave of Akutagawa-sensei."
"I must have fainted," I said.
"And then bumped your head when you fell," agreed Professor Peck. "Because our headquarters is close at hand, we decided to bring you here and then to call for an ambulance if needs be. Luckily, though, you started to come round."
"Thank you," I said. "It can’t have been easy getting me here."
"Well, for that we have to thank heaven for the invention of the wheelbarrow," laughed Professor Peck. "Now drink this."
I was parched so eagerly took the small cup from the Professor, gulping down almost all of its contents to my immediate regret —
"What on earth," I spluttered, "is this?"
," said Professor Peck, "or 'Cat’s Claw.'"
"Cat’s Claw," I exclaimed.
"Metaphorically, sir," said the Professor. "A Chinese plant noted for its versatile flower, root, and seed, beneficial to body and soul."
"Though not to tongue."
"It is an acquired taste, sir, yes," said Professor Peck with a smile. "However, The Supplementary Records of Famous Physicians
claims it drives away evil and effects communication with spirits."
"Is that so," I said, draining the cup.
"Very good sir," said the Professor. "Now if you don’t mind, we do need to let Akutagawa-sensei know you are recovered. He has been most concerned."
"We are returning to the grave?"
"Oh no, sir, no need for that," said Professor Peck with a wink. "Not when we are blessed with the talents of Madam Hop. Now if you would be so good as to take my hand, sir, we can begin."
The Professor helped me up off the couch, over to a seat at a round table. In the center of the table was a candelabrum, its three candles illuminating four walls of dark green velvet curtains and a dozen or so luminous megaphones dangling from the beams above us.
Madam Hop sat down in the chair opposite mine. She put on a full-face black sun visor which gave her the rather unfortunate look of a sinister duck. Professor Peck lashed her tightly to the chair with velvet ropes, "Purely as a precaution, sir, you understand."
The Professor walked over to an ancient phonograph, turned its handle for what seemed an age, then took his seat as the strains of the “Liebestraum” caressed the chamber and the candles flickered and then, one by one, went out.
Suddenly, a dim light of unknown origin flooded the room, flashing on and off as Madam Hop began to convulse and to vomit —
"Do not be alarmed, sir," whispered Professor Peck. "Akutagawa-sensei was addicted to nicotine and cocoa, hence this reaction in Madam Hop."
"Mr. Peace, I presume," boomed a voice from one of the luminous megaphones. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last, and a relief you have yet to cross over to my side."
"Thank you," I stammered, "and likewise, I’m sure."
"We can’t have you dropping down dead before you have finished your book about me, now can we?"
‘"No, sir," I said.
"For I have been watching you from afar, flattered by your attentions, following your progress, and willing you on."
"But I do need to explain a few things. You have a pen, I trust?"
And so it was, gently and hopefully, Curious Reader, that the many conversations which followed proved to be both the flesh and the bone of the book which became my new “novel of tales,” Patient X,
available now at all good bookstores and séances.
— David Peace, astride the grave, Kappa-ki, Tokyo, 2018
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Occupied City
, Tokyo Year Zero
, The Red Riding Quartet
, and The Damned Utd
. He was chosen as one of Granta‘s Best Young British Novelists of 2003, and has received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the German Crime Fiction Award, and France’s Grand Prix du Roman Noir for Best Foreign Novel. In 2007, he was named as GQ (UK) Writer of the Year. Patient X
is his most recent book.