Project sample


Why Ghosts Appear: A Novel
and sequel to Kobe Abe's The Ruined Map

Read an essay about Kobo Abe's The Ruined Map written by Todd Shimoda.

Why Ghosts Appear opening lines


Particulars of request: Ascertain the movements and whereabouts of the missing person
Name: Mizuno Ren
Sex: Male
Age: 32
Marital status: Single
Profession: Entomological illustration specialist, freelance
Comments: The applicant is the missing man’s mother. He failed to appear at her home for the Festival of the Dead holiday as was his custom. Her attempts to contact her son were not successful. Everything necessary for the investigation will be made available.

I hereby make official application for investigation and enclose herewith the requisite fee. Furthermore, I swear to observe the strictest secrecy concerning all information, to make no disclosures, to make no abuse of any knowledge obtained.

Signature of applicant
Mizuno Rie

17 August 1987

Zabuton Detective Agency
Chief of Section for the
Investigation of Persons


I pressed the brake to slow the car to a crawl. The enclave of wooden homes on the narrow street with no sidewalks was crowded with concrete power poles, stone and bamboo fences, and cars and delivery trucks, making it difficult for me to find the particular house. I rolled down the window and turned off the air conditioner as if the roar of the fan was disrupting my search. Ahead, not more than twenty meters, an old man walked in the direction of a small, old-fashioned general store. On the porch were stacks of newspapers, boxes of vegetables, cartons of empty beer bottles. A row of potted plants needing a good watering marked the boundary of the porch and vending machines that offered beer, cigarettes, and instant soup. A spigot attached to the machine provided instant hot water for the soup. The owner of the vending machines clearly knew what would sell.

The car moved a few meters farther. The pedestrian’s hair was shaved to a salt-and-pepper stubble and he wore a gray overcoat wrapped around him like a quilt—an odd choice of garment given the heat. When the car rolled closer, the man turned his head and revealed that he was not a man, but a woman of some sixty years in age. Perhaps she was ill enough to cause her hair to fall out, or she might have been a Buddhist nun.

When the car and woman were even, I poked my head out the window. "Hello, could you please point me to the Mizuno house?"

"Mizuno? Which Mizuno?"

"Rie Mizuno," I said, then gave her the address.

"Ah, the fortune teller." She shuffled over to the car and peered at me. "You look like a man needing his fortune told. Trouble with women, no doubt. Eh?"

"No doubt."

She cackled then gave me surprisingly elaborate directions: turn right past the store, left at the first alley, park when possible, walk past a little shrine, up a path with stone steps, and look for a house at the top of the hill on the left side. "You’ll see her fortune-teller’s lantern outside, if she’s open for business."

I thanked her and proceeded to follow her designated route. Finding a place to park in the alley proved to be an impossible instruction; in reality, there was no spot available. Likely because of the long holiday, cars were jammed into any possible spot and some that required a supernatural power to fit a car.

The tiny neighborhood shrine—a gate leading to an altar under a simple peaked roof—came into view. Rolling past the shrine, I next came to a gravestone and monument supplier. Slender yet substantive slabs of rock were piled next to the workshop. A few finished stones with names of the deceased carved in sharp relief could be seen inside. Past the gravestone supplier was a five-stool noodle shop not yet open for the day, although the narrow stoop leading into the shop was still damp from a recent washing. At the end of the alley was a gas station and auto repair shop (minor repairs only, said the sign).

When I turned into the station, a young man, maybe nineteen, walked up to the car and gave me an expectant look. A smudge of grease above his lip and one on the opposite ear gave at least the impression of a working mechanic.

"Yes," I said, lacking something better to begin the conversation. "I have some business just back there and thought I might leave the car for fuel and a check of all the fluids. I’ll probably be an hour."

The mechanic clucked and took a step back and looked over the car from front to back. "Suppose so."

"Fine," I said, not sure what he was looking for with his brief inspection. I stepped out of the car, leaving the keys in the ignition. The mechanic gave me a nod as if in reassurance all would be right with the world. At least with the car, I hoped.

Walking past the noodle shop, I smelled the meaty odor of broth being simmered and heard the bang of pots. In another three or four steps I came to the gravestone supplier. A layer of fine, glittering dust coated the alley. From inside the workshop come the whirring sound of a rock polisher.

The path leading up the hill was exactly where the nun—I decided to so anoint her—said it would be. The stones were placed too closely for my stride and my steps were mincing as I climbed. At the top of the hill, really not much more than a rise, were three houses, the one on the left indeed bore the address I was in search of.

No fortune-teller’s lantern could be seen, but a string of red lanterns signifying the beginning of the Festival of the Dead was hung from the door to a pole stuck in the ground away from the home. The lanterns invited and guided the spirits of dead ancestors to the home. However, as the festival was now over, it was not customary to leave them up.

The front door was open, so I stepped inside the cool darkness. Shoes and slippers were tidily placed on the stone entryway, and a lantern decorated with the image of a hand, palm-side out, leaned against the opposite wall. "Hello," I called out.

After a moment, there was a rustling noise, like someone putting clothes in a box. A woman appeared from inside the home and bowed deeply while apologizing for not meeting me at the door of her messy home. Her hair was gray, but styled to frame her face elegantly, giving her an aura of intelligence and knowing. The image was probably good for her business.

"There’s no need to apologize," I said. "I didn’t realize I’d get here so early."

"No, no. Come in." She leaned down and found a pair of house slippers for me to wear. I slipped out of my shoes and slid my feet into the slippers.

The woman hurried ahead of me. She whacked a couple of cushions and set them on the floor in front of a low table. After gesturing for me to sit, she scurried away into the kitchen.

A traditional altar for the festival was set up in the room. A cucumber decorated to resemble a horse—giving the spirits a quick ride—and an eggplant like a cow—to keep the spirits around once they arrived—were drooping and splotchy with dark spots and mold. Like the lanterns, they should have been thrown away by now.

I was about to get up to look at framed pictures on the altar—one looked like it might be of a man the age of her missing son, when she returned with a pot of tea. While she served us, she apologized for living in a place so hard to find. I said it was not so difficult, not mentioning the nun. "Good," she said.

I took a sip of tea, made a couple of statements of small talk, then launched into my standard questions: when she last saw or talked with her son (last year during the festival, she answered), his most recent address (she recited the address of an apartment), his closest acquaintances (none that she knew of), enemies (she shook her head), his hobbies (reading was the only one she could think of), and for whom he did his freelance illustration work. To the last question, she said she didn’t know, except for one company. She got up and pulled a book off a nearby shelf.

She handed the book to me. It was on the subject of butterflies, the text in English and Japanese. There were photographs and intricate hand-drawn illustrations. "I assume your son drew these?" I asked her, pointing to one of the illustrations.

"Yes," she said. "The book came in the mail."

"He does nice work."

She blushed and poured me some tea.

"Could I borrow the book and a picture of your son?" I asked her. "I’ll be sure to get them both back to you without damage."

"Yes, of course."

The car was not finished when I got back to the service station. The mechanic was waiting for me to authorize replacing a seal. I authorized the work, although I wasn’t sure it was necessary. My free parking spot was becoming expensive.

The noodle shop was now open, so I went there and ordered an early lunch. I glanced through the book while I slurped the soup rich with broth, meat and vegetables, and thick noodles. On the title page of the book, I found the name of the fortune-teller’s son listed as the illustrator.

When I finished the soup and paid the tab, I used the shop’s pay phone to call the publisher of the book. It took three levels of employees to finally get me connected with someone who knew about the illustrator. She told me that she was the art director for the book in question.

"I’m investigating Mizuno’s disappearance for his mother," I said.

After a silence, the art director said, "I don’t understand. Disappearance, you say?"

"Yes. Apparently she was expecting him for the holiday and he never showed up."

"I’m sorry, I still don’t understand," she said, this time with an edge of impatience. "You do know that he died more than two years ago."

All text and images copyright Todd and L.J.C. Shimoda, 2012
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