Our daughter, Kaede, has returned to us five years after the police fished her out of the community pool, her body sodden and distended like the carcass of a baby seal when I identified her in the morgue. But now, she looks just as she did the day she disappeared: Her hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail, a front tooth still growing in to fill a gap, her knees bruised from playing on the ground. She has not said one word since I returned with her three days ago, stares vacantly as if she is engaged in a task like counting blemishes on the wall or how many times a person opens their mouth when not eating or speaking.
After another day of silence, we take her to the hospital we were told to go to if any problems arose. My wife, Yumiko, carries our daughter, rag doll-limp, from examination room to examination room, only releasing Kaede when a radiologist needs to run an MRI. Yumiko holds her hands up to the control room glass. I hang back in the doorway, studying the images on the monitors. The words “abnormality” and “mental impairment” thicken the sterile air, just as they did after doctors breathed life into Kaede’s tiny, blue body after Yumiko delivered her three months too early.
“Is everything okay?” Yumiko asks the technician.
“You’ll have to wait for the doctor,” he says.
She turns to me. “I wish somebody would tell us something,” she says. “Why are they running so many tests?”
Inside the scanner, Kaede is catatonic, expressionless. Her eyes do not waver, do not flit nervously like flies. “They just want to be thorough,” I answer. “It’s not like what we did to get her back is exactly common. You have no idea what I had to do to find any Yokai at all . . . let alone the right kind. We have to make sure that’s her in there.”
“It’s her. That’s our girl.”
“I hope so.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Yumiko never cared to know the details of what I did. The only thing that mattered was that I returned with her daughter. In the month after the cremation, I moved into a capsule hotel, realizing my wife needed more space than my sleeping downstairs could provide. The last thing Yumiko said to me before I left was, “This wasn’t supposed to happen.” I just wanted to make things right. And then one night, I read a news article about a Rokurokubi, demons with human faces who have the ability to stretch their neck to extreme lengths, being involved in a bank robbery. If anything could have helped me, it would be their kind, I thought, the Yokai, the nearly extinct supernatural races of old Japan—miniature people, dragons, flying heads, the stuff of manga and horror movies. As children, we all read about them, collected trading cards with artistic depictions. Parents told cautionary tales to make their kids behave. Like how the Kappa eat little boys and girls who go swimming without supervision. Like ghost children bringing misfortune if toys aren’t put away. After coming across documentaries about the terminally ill getting a new lease on life with Yokai assistance, I needed no further convincing that I would do everything I could to bring Kaede back. At first, Yumiko was horrified at the idea, thought I had lost my mind. “And I’m the one who is supposedly unhinged,” she said. “You’re hunting for magic.” But, after a few days, she called. “Try,” she whispered, half-asleep. “Bring her back to me.”
Yumiko remains silent and watches the monitors. “You wanted this, too. That’s her. See?” She points to the shifting MRI images. “Those are her bones. That’s her heart. That’s her brain.”
Dr. Kobayashi enters, carrying binders of old case studies. “Good, good. Doesn’t make much of a fuss, does she?” He is trailed by a jaunty, young woman in a pencil skirt and a blond man in a frayed cardigan sweater. The doctor studies the scans. “Healthy, little girl,” he says. “Ten fingers. Ten toes. Two lungs. A strong heart like a bongo drum.”
“So, she’s normal? She’s okay?” Yumiko asks.
“Let me put it this way: She appears to be a typical seven-year-old.”
“Except…” I add.
“Of course,” Dr. Kobayashi continues. “We can’t be entirely certain. There have been only six cases of shape shifters replacing humans in the past century. Only three of those were documented in any verifiable way. The rest are closer to legend.”
“Fact is, we thought this species was all but extinct,” the blond man interrupts. “There is little known about how the Noppera-bō imprint on someone, to what extent.”
“And you are?” Yumiko asks.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Kobayashi says. “This is Dr. John Travelstead, a xenobiologist and cryptozoologist from California. Well-known in his field for his work on Bigfoot. And this young woman behind me is Ayui Saito, one of our special-needs child therapists who has some experience with the supernatural.”
Yumiko dismisses the American zookeeper, glares at him. “Bigfoot,” she whispers to me. “What a joke!” She looks at the young woman again, her slender legs, her silk blouse. My wife runs her hands through her bed hair, rubs out a toothpaste stain on her pilled sweatshirt with a growling tiger on it.
“She seemed to react to photos we’ve shown her—Disneyland, festival scenes, fireworks. Has she shown any signs of remembering?” asks Ms. Saito.
“Stuffed animal,” I answer. “She reached for her panda, Miki.” But as much as I want to believe Kaede remembers Miki, I wonder if she held him simply because he’s soft and has a gentle face.
“Well, that’s a very good sign,” Dr. Kobayashi says. “Keep trying to familiarize her with her old life. I’m sure Ms. Saito and Dr. Travelstead both have insights into how to proceed. I wish there were more we could do medically, but, as I’ve said, we have very little precedent.” He squeezes Yumiko’s shoulder, shakes my hand, and leaves the binders with Dr. Travelstead before power walking down the hall.
“Let’s let her choose,” Ms. Saito says. She offers a tray to Kaede and gently nudges her forward like a chick on its first flight. Kaede wanders the cafeteria, looking back often for reassurance. She stares for long periods at each item, poking at the plastic wrap on pastries, testing the weight of fruit cups. The fridge, full of soft drinks and juices, is of special fascination. She opens the door and runs her face across the cool bottles, breathes in deeply. Kaede returns, trying to balance a styrofoam take-out box filled with a little of each beverage, several candy bars, two donuts, a container of noodles, and a rice ball on her tray. She shuffles her feet and stops whenever she sees an item about to topple to the ground. She furrows her brow. Her cat-like wailing that has caught the attention of the room sounds as if she is saying, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa.
“Chocolate.” Ms. Saito picks up a candy bar from the tray. “Does she like chocolate?”
“What kind of question is that? What kid doesn’t like chocolate?” Yumiko answers. She nudges my arm.
Ms. Saito opens up a Lotte Crunky Crunch Chocolate bar and breaks off a couple of pieces for herself and Kaede. “We’re trying to figure out if she remembers being a kid,” she explains. “She went for the candy first. The question is did she remember that? Or was she just attracted to the bright packaging?”
I can tell Yumiko just wants to get out of here, that she’s not buying the expertise of what she referred to as government ghostbusters. The longer we’re at the hospital, the harder it’s going to be for her to ignore that we’re not here for a routine pediatric check-up. For Yumiko, it is not a matter of who or what but when—when will Kaede be the girl who collects cicada wings in buckets and watches old cartoons with her mom late at night.
“So, you just asked villagers about local legends?” Dr. Travelstead asks. He leads me across the cafeteria to a quiet table. The televisions mounted on the walls are playing an anime movie about a girl who can jump through time.
“Old women, children, police, anyone who would stop for me,” I answer. “An old school teacher pointed to Ryusen-Do Cave in Iwate Prefecture, said there were places deep within the Earth where these things hid, trying to hang onto life. You have to understand, however, that it took over a year of dead ends to locate any usable information at all. The people in these small villages protect their secrets; maybe the teacher felt sorry for me.”
Dr. Travelstead scratches his head, creating a flurry of dandruff. Part of me is unsettled by the American’s appearance, a stereotypical crackpot who might very well live in an apartment covered with news clippings and blurry photos of the Loch Ness Monster. But, in trying to bring back Kaede over the past few years, I’ve been pretty much alone. I’m grateful for any help these doctors might be able to provide. Dr. Travelstead flips through the much abridged report I gave to the authorities when the police picked me up after I emerged from the forest.
“Tell me,” Dr. Travelstead says. “This can’t be all of it.”
“To be honest, I’m still coming to terms with what happened,” I say.
“We’re here to help your daughter,” he says.
I nod, knowing I don’t really have a choice if we want to get answers, if we want the government to stamp a piece of paper that says Kaede is A-okay. And so I tell him how I dove through the cave’s lakes, which possessed an unnatural clarity as if I were falling through glass, how I felt my way along the mossy edges for a corridor. Seven times I came up for air, swallowing mouthfuls of water in the process, until I found an opening barely large enough for me to swim through. The cave complex was like a subterranean Venice—natural limestone cathedrals, bridges, vaulted ceilings, all punctuated with a labyrinth of water. I ran a piece of fishing line behind me, so I wouldn’t get lost, left red glow sticks in crevices like bread crumbs. For all I knew, I’d just find a forgotten beach full of blind, glowing insects like the ones you see on nature documentaries, gangs of stalagmites and stalactites my only company. At first, there was just rock, ancient air. Just darkness save for my headlight. The sound of a waterfall plunging even deeper into the Earth. And then I saw them tucked in an alcove: alabaster, smooth like marble, huddled together on top of each other, their limbs intertwined, tangled like the night crawlers my father used to put in buckets when we went fishing. They breathed in unison, the mound of their mannequin bodies pulsating. Hairless. Faceless. Genderless. As I approached, they began to separate from their pile into individual creatures, each standing at what had to be over seven feet tall. How they knew I was there without eyes, ears, a nose, or a mouth, I did not know. Perhaps they sensed motion, the subtleties of light vs. dark. Perhaps they could hear my thoughts—the way I clutched my mail-order hunting knife, my fear about this place not meant for humans. There were seventeen of them.
Dr. Travelstead catches up with his notes, pushing up his glasses between lines. I wait, observing children with their families, children coughing, sneezing, clutching their parents, playing with toys and Pokemon cards. These kids, like anybody else, are collections of memories. Kaede is sitting stiff as board, staring at the food Ms. Saito and my wife are holding in front of her. The girl I brought back may very well be a blank slate. She doesn’t remember the deer in Nara stealing her rice crackers before she could feed them, how I chased a peacock at the Honolulu Zoo just so she could have a feather. If she never recovers moments like these, will she really be the same girl? She’ll look like her, maybe sound like her. I’ll say goodnight, and I love you. And really try to mean it. There’s fear certainly that something wrong will happen, but there’s also the possibility that maybe, just maybe Kaede has a second chance to become the person she could never have been, the girl that Yumiko and I envisioned before she was born that would play volleyball like her mother, attend a prestigious university.
I had a lock of Kaede’s hair with me that I collected from a brush. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do or how the creatures operated. I stepped closer and the creatures followed suit. I stepped to the left, the right, and they followed. I held out the lock of Kaede’s hair and slowly moved closer. The creature closest to me reached out, grasping indiscriminately, an infant searching for a nipple. I tossed the lock, and it clutched the hair to its chest. The creature began shaking so quickly that it seemed to disappear at times. Its once stone-like body, impenetrable and sculpted, transformed into a translucent jelly, ribbons of light dancing within, coalescing into organs, veins, bone. Its body shrank in size to that of a child, Kaede, her features becoming more and more apparent. And then another creature took hold of this new daughter and another took hold of that creature and so on, until a chain had been formed, and I realized that there would soon be seventeen of her.
“Seventeen? What happened to them?”
I’ve said enough for now. I close my eyes and see seventeen of my little girls staring at me—naked, bewildered, not quite complete. I can feel their tiny hands grasping at my clothes, as I tried to shield Kaede #1 from the others, as if she were purer, less of an impostor. I change my mind about telling the whole truth—at least for now. Perhaps by saying it out loud, I’ll have to admit what happened, and I’m not quite ready for that. “There are many places to hide down there,” I say.
“Do you think any might still be alive?”
“I don’t think so,” I answer. “I couldn’t imagine it.”
Kaede approaches and rests her head on my shoulder. Yumiko smiles, delighted at the thought of her little girl remembering how much she loves hugs. I place an arm around her, cautiously, as if any more force would break her. While I don’t want to be afraid of my daughter, I can’t help but fear that she’ll somehow steal away a part of me if I touch her. I try to ignore thoughts like these, but in dreams, I imagine waking up, looking in the mirror to see my head resting on Kaede’s tiny body, her hands as my hands. Yumiko pulls out a wet, facial cloth from her purse and cleans our daughter’s mouth, littered with crumbs.
Yumiko looks up at the doctors. “Have you two decided that she’s not going to transform into Godzilla?”
Dr. Travelstead pushes up his glasses for the millionth time.
“I think the only thing we have to worry about is eating too much candy,” says Ms. Saito. “But we will be checking in periodically. Home visits. Just to see how Kaede is adjusting, if there are any unforeseen incidents,” Dr. Travelstead adds. “Government requirement, as you know.”
“You’re not convinced that she’s our daughter,” Yumiko says.
“I didn’t say that,” Dr. Travelstead answers. “But you said yourself that the color of her eyes changed, that her bruises disappeared.”
“I like her new eyes. And the disappearance of her bruises is a good thing.”
“Of course,” says Ms. Saito. “We just want to monitor her to be on the safe side. She’s a very special girl.”
“We can work out a schedule later,” says Dr. Travelstead. “But I want to clarify your information. There are two addresses listed…”
“I haven’t lived in our house for some time,” I explain. “But I’m nearby, so…”
“Maybe you should come home for the time being,” Yumiko interrupts. “You should be home for Kaede.”
We’ve had our home in Toyama for over ten years, ever since Yumiko wanted to try for children, leaving our closet of an apartment in Osaka for someplace quieter. She worked at a small travel agency, and I accepted a supervisor job at the Kurobe Dam and came home damp and smelling of grease and sweat. We made frantic love in the shower in those early days, our bodies pressed hard against tile, the grime of my body circling at our feet. We spent the rest of our evenings talking about the child who could be in our lives, listing names, imagining their future—a scientist? A baseball player? Maybe a veterinarian?
After Kaede was born, robbed of six minutes of air as she entered the world, Yumiko’s eighteen-year plan transformed into taking things day-by-day. We celebrated the little achievements—a bike ride, coloring within the lines, performing as a lion cub in a play. If Kaede liked to do anything, she liked to move. Non-stop. Full-speed. Her special education program held dance classes, she took gymnastics with her mother twice a week, and if it were up to her, Kaede would have lived her whole life on a swing, watching the world go by in a blur. When a public pool opened down the street, conversations were had about whether or not Kaede was ready, if it was safe. Kaede looked out the window every day at children marching down the street in brightly colored swimsuits. She thought water wings were magical devices that would allow her to glide through water like a mermaid. “It’s pool time!” she would tell us repeatedly. “Pool time, pool time!”
After several more months of begging, a heavy snowfall, and an ill-timed nap, I awoke to an empty house on a Saturday morning, the television still blaring Miyazaki’s Ponyo that I had put on for my daughter. I searched the neighborhood in house slippers—the backyards of strangers, playgrounds covered in snowdrifts, toy shops, and convenience stores. It did not occur to me, being shuttered for winter, that she would go to the pool, that her body could squeeze through the iron gates, as I walked past them. Every little girl on the street with a pony tail became my daughter. I called Yumiko, who had been running errands, repeating two words: She’s gone.
Kaede wakes up nestled between her me and her mother. My eyelids are cracked open, and I watch her study her room that we’ve covered with photos and posters—Kaede with her best friend Kazuka posing with Goofy at Tokyo Disney, her grandmother in a pillow fort, the temple gardens of Kyoto set aflame in the fall with foliage. Perhaps she is trying to remember the sounds Yumiko made when she pointed to each one: fend, bah-san, dinneylan, koto. Does she know the girl in the photos that looks like her is her? I’d like to think that the memories are simply blurred in her mind as if she is looking back in time from beneath water, and that, with our help, this water will drain.
“Morning, kitty cat,” Yumiko says, rubbing our daughter’s tummy. Yumiko shakes my shoulder, unaware that all three of us have been awake for over an hour. “Get her ready. I’ll make breakfast.”
I lift Kaede out of bed and raise my arms in the air, waiting for Kaede to do the same, so I can help her out of her night shirt. I carry her to the bathroom, suddenly reminded of how I brought her out of the wilderness. My daughter seems transfixed by the shower. But when I guide her closer, she squirms and inches back. She curls toward the wall and clenches a towel rod for security. I stick an arm under the water to show her there’s nothing to be afraid of, and try to coax her again. “It’s okay, see?” Kaede screams when I try to lift her. She screams when I try to comfort her. She escapes the bathroom, naked and crying.
“What the hell are you doing to her?” Yumiko yells from downstairs. She runs to find Kaede, blowing past me.
“She was afraid of the water,” I explain. “I didn’t do anything!”
I hear my wife rustling in our bedroom.
“It’s okay,” she says. “You don’t have to go in the shower. It’s okay. Come to me.” She carries Kaede downstairs to the yard and fetches a cloth and a bowl of water. I follow them, feeling like I let my wife down again and led our daughter to a little death. I notice the perfection of my daughter’s skin, soft like an infant, absent of blemishes and scars, as Yumiko rubs the towel in small, circular motions. Kaede studies her mother: soaking the cloth, ringing it out, placing the dampness on her body. Does she remember drowning in the pool? Does she remember the cave’s lake? If that’s the case, I can’t blame her for running. For her, maybe just thinking about water of any appreciable amount unsettles her, makes her want every feature on her body to disappear, so nothing can get in.
After breakfast, Yumiko sets aside home movies, Kaede’s educational toy computer with math and English programs, and vocabulary flashcards with cartoon pictures on them. She flashes the cards to Kaede and slowly pronounces each word (once in English and once in Japanese): Buta, pig; inu, dog; toshokan, library; gakko, school. I look on, observing my daughter’s lips moving whenever Yumiko speaks, trying to sound out the words (or perhaps just imitating her mother). “Don’t over-do it,” I say. “It’s not all going to come back at once.”
Hours later, Kaede is pointing to the flashcards and doing a pretty good job of sounding out the words. She is busy on her toy computer adding apples, subtracting kittens from baskets. It took the old Kaede her entire life to master any of this. If she remembers how much she wanted to be a dinosaur or that the reason she’s supposed to hate the color purple is because Akiko, a girl from down the street who called her stupid, likes purple remains to be seen. But the new Kaede knows that 2 + 2 = 4. She even knows that 2 X 2 also equals 4 and that 4 X 4 = 16 even though the old Kaede never finished the computer programs let alone mastering multiplication. “No, no, go slower,” Yumiko says. “You’re supposed to go slower!”
“What’s the matter?” I say. “She’s doing great.”
“I know what’s best for her,” Yumiko answers. “I know what she’s capable of; it isn’t right.” She takes away the flashcards and the computer and gives our daughter crayons and some paper. Kaede looks confused and is probably wondering if she has done something wrong. She stares and tilts her head like a befuddled dog. Yumiko draws a pink stick figure mother with a triangle skirt holding hands with a little stick figure daughter. Kaede picks up a crayon and, in a maelstrom of spirals, completely coats the paper black.
By the end of the week, Yumiko has planned a tour of Kaede’s childhood: the special education center, her favorite playground, visits with old teachers and friends. I pack the Corolla with juice boxes and rice balls, and I’m hoping my wife will be forced to admit our daughter isn’t the same person she once was after she sees Kaede in her old stomping grounds, face-to-face with playmates that are now practically teenagers. My daughter hasn’t really spoken yet, but I know this Kaede is capable of much more—the math problems on her computer, reading a cookbook and fetching ingredients for her mother from the fridge without being asked, even sitting still for the entire duration of a movie. I see Kaede in the rear-view mirror, soaking in everything we pass, her tiny hands pressed against the window.
Yumiko turns back frequently to check if her little girl still has her seatbelt buckled, if she’s paying attention to the landmarks her mother is pointing out. “That’s the Mr. Donut your cousin, Haruka, works at. There’s the toy shop you get your puffy stickers from,” she says, analyzing her daughter’s face for some form of recognition. Kaede nods her head, and I wonder if she’s agreeing because she understands or remembers or if she’s figured out that nodding makes her mother smile and sometimes results in her being let off the hook from pointing at pictures.
“What did you tell them?” I ask. I turn into the parking lot of the Super Kids Special Needs Center where Kaede is scheduled to meet her old teacher, Yamashita-sensei, and her best friend Kazuka. There is a mural alongside the building with portraits of every student holding hands under a rainbow. Kaede is near the center and a pigeon is resting on her shoulder.
“What do you mean?” says Yumiko. “I told them Kaede has returned and wants to visit.”
I shut off the engine and glance at the center’s playground just a few feet away from where I used to pick up Kaede after work. I can almost see her, waving to me from the top of the curvy slide.
“They were both at the funeral,” I say. “They know what we did.”
“Of course,” she says. “Of course they do.”
Kazuka pushes Kaede on a swing and talks about life in the center’s junior high program for kids with ADD, about the boy who is not really her boyfriend. I feel sorry for Kazuka, for putting her in this situation. I bet she’s doing all she can to forget about the funeral, how much she cried when she tried to tell me how much Kaede meant to her. She can’t help but compare her body to Kaede’s, which resembled her own at that age but now probably seems so genderless and delicate like skin wrapped around twigs. And I’m sure she wonders if they still would be best friends if it weren’t for the accident, how they would fit into each other’s lives. Certainly, Kaede’s mental abilities would have paved an entirely different adolescence from Kazuka’s, which apparently has become increasingly about school, boys, and swimming.
Kaede closes her eyes as the swing goes higher and higher. The old Kaede liked the feel of the wind on her face, the way her sandaled feet raked the sand beneath her like a zen garden.
Yamashita-sensei watches the girls with us. Having lost her own daughter to leukemia two years prior, we feel a kinship with her. I can’t imagine what she must be thinking, watching Kaede again, all the whys, hows, and is it rights.
“The two girls were inseparable,” she says. “They called the sandbox their kingdom.”
Yumiko smiles. I remember Kaede talking about castle passwords, about how she and Kazuka were princesses of the playground. Yumiko does not see or perhaps chooses not to acknowledge Yamashita-sensei’s trembling hands or the way Kaede’s friend has not smiled or laughed once since seeing our daughter.
Suddenly we hear the swing chains jangle and the cries of Kaede sprawled out on the ground. Kazuka is examining her. I can see that Kaede’s lips are dotted with crescents of blood, her right knee a trellis of torn skin. Kazuka takes a tissue packet out from her pocket and dabs the wounds, noticing the grown-ups have already mobilized and are looming behind her. Kaede’s wounds, like invisible zippers, begin to close.
Yumiko takes Kaede into her arms.
“Did you fall?” she asks. “Looks like you’re okay, big girl. Not a scratch on you.”
Kaede raises her arms to be carried.
Yamashita-sensei backs away slowly and sits on the swing.
I concentrate on Kazuka, her mouth hanging open in a state of shock, still holding onto the tissues she used to compress my daughter’s now non-existent cuts. I hold out a hand and gesture to the tissues, and she hands them over.
“She was hurt,” Kazuka says.
“I know,” I answer.
“She’s okay, honey,” Yumiko says. “Don’t worry. She’s fine.”
As Yumiko’s tour of Kaede’s childhood continues, I can’t help but think about what happened on the playground. What if the injury had been more serious? If she loses a limb, will another grow back like a starfish? What are the limits? When Yumiko is away with Kaede, observing one of her old ballet classes, I call Dr. Travelstead about what happened. And I tell him, someone, finally, about how, when the sixteen other Kaedes intended to follow me out of the cave like a procession of ducklings, I had no choice but to stop them. I don’t know how to say this, I said. You have to understand. After all, I couldn’t very well have sixteen copies of my daughter running around the countryside. One after the other, I held them under the cave’s stream. I tried not to look at their faces as their tiny bodies struggled, their fingers digging into my arms. And one-by-one, I pushed them over the waterfall, some of them having changed into the creatures they once were, glowing like fireflies as they descended into the darkness.
“What’s the story with the cucumber and eggplant animals?” Dr. Travelstead asks. Yumiko didn’t plan on inviting the doctors over to our house for the Obon holiday, but I insisted, said it would be good for them to see Kaede at a family gathering. She smiles disingenuously. What she really wants to tell him is to get the hell out of her house.
“They’re for the spirits of our ancestors to travel on to and from our home. It’s an old tradition,” she answers. Ms. Saito looks at the family photos on the wall.
“It’s a family holiday,” Ms. Saito interrupts. “Maybe like Thanksgiving in America without Turkey. Not many Japanese people have big ovens.”
Dr. Travelstead and Ms. Saito are studying Kaede’s every movement across the table without trying to be too obvious about it. She’s sitting in my lap as we watch television with her uncles and aunts. She is gnawing on a KFC drumstick while watching Iron Man fly over New York.
“How has she been?” Ms. Saito finally cuts to the chase. “I know there was an incident at her old school a few days ago.”
“She just fell,” Yumiko says. “She’s been fine. Adjusting very well as you can see.”
“Your husband said her hair color changed temporarily from black to light brown the other day,” Dr. Travelstead says.
“He exaggerates,” Yumiko answers.
I shake my head.
“Who is your favorite Avenger?” Uncle Toru asks Kaede. Toru picks up a chicken skewer and cleans it off with one bite. “Magic trick,” he says. He pours another Sapporo into his glass.
“She doesn’t really speak,” I explain. “She hasn’t spoken yet.”
“Why not?” asks Aunt Tamami. “Your wife said she was getting better.”
“She’s getting used to things,” I say.
“But she’s not like before,” says Aunt Tamami.
“No, she’s not like before,” I say.
“That’s what you get for fooling with those Yokai,” Uncle Toru says.
“Is she still…you know?” Aunt Tamami says in a hushed tone while pointing at her head.
I ignore her last comment, fixate on the amount of make-up she has caked on her face, the fact that she is sitting in the seiza position in high-heels, her stilettos digging into her not insignificant backside.
I’m certain Kaede knows they are talking about her, understands that they think she is wrong somehow, that I look at her differently than her mother. She cocks her head when people say her name, looks like she is processing everything. Does she want nothing more than to be who she’s supposed to be? Does she want to be more? I’ve seen signs that some memories are coming back to her. She typed *(^_^)* into my cell phone one day. She drew a picture of a little stick figure girl in a pool. She is embarrassed by her shapeshifting, knows it is something that her mother doesn’t like. But I’ve seen her control it when she thinks no one is around, like when she was looking at Yumiko’s fashion magazine and changed her skin tone to mimic blush. Does she wish she could talk? Does she know why she can’t? And what would she choose to say first?: I want more cheese, I love you, don’t change the station, don’t be afraid, I’m a smart girl, I am Kaede.
“We think that the creature didn’t fully imprint on your daughter because it didn’t have a live sample; you used her hair,” Dr. Travelstead explains to me in the driveway. Ms. Saito walks out of the house and waves goodbye. “There are obviously pieces of your daughter in there. But she’s learning about the world all over again.”
“Learning faster,” I add. “What about her scrapes on the playground? The shifting?”
“Monitor it, call us.” Dr. Travelstead shakes his head. “These aren’t necessarily bad things at the moment. But we don’t know if they’ll stop one day, if they’ll somehow become dangerous. From what you’ve told me, it would seem the Noppera-bō revert to their native state when their life is threatened. We’re still looking for the other sixteen you told us about. It’s preservation. Other shifts might be caused by stress, hormones.”
“But she’s still a little girl,” Ms. Saito says. “She could be very important for science one day. But wherever she came from, that’s what she is now.”
“I know,” I say. “But—” Where is the guidebook for all of this? What if something terrible does happen?
Ms. Saito hugs me unexpectedly. Dr. Travelstead shakes my hand and squeezes my shoulders. He offers his closed fist in solidarity and says he’s available 24/7 for Kaede.
And with two friendly honks, they leave.
For the next couple of weeks, Kaede seems to be fine—physically speaking. I have not observed any shifts. Yumiko is still coaching our daughter to be her old self and has started taking her to gymnastics classes again. But Kaede has been having bad dreams ever since she watched a documentary about bats. Flashes of her origin have lingered in her memory, popping up in her drawings. She draws the cave over and over again. Sometimes she wakes up in cold sweats, shaking, pointing to the drawings. The dreams seem to be getting worse, and each time something is added to her drawing repertoire, a little more about where she came from and who she is supposed to be—me holding the sixteen others down, the birthday she got a princess costume, me crying after what I had done, falling into the pool and dying. On this night, we hear her whimpering. But the whimpers quickly turn into screams.
When Yumiko and I rush to check on Kaede, we see her only in silhouette, her features, her skin, her pixie ears have disappeared, even her fingers and toes have fused together into a smooth clump. Her skin has the consistency of a jellyfish, punctuated with light. Our daughter has become a mannequin of stars.
“Tatsu!” Yumiko screams. She races to Kaede’s side but is afraid to touch her. “Can you hear me? Are you there? Little girl!”
I stand in the doorway, silent. My eyes follow the points of light shooting through Kaede’s body like comets, imagining them to be parts of my daughter’s spirit. I know Yumiko wouldn’t be able to survive losing her again. I know I wouldn’t be able to either.
“What’s happening to her?” she says. “Is she coming back?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know what to do. Maybe we should call Travelstead?”
Yumiko studies her daughter and shakes her head.
“No, wait,” she says. “Don’t do that. We don’t know what they’ll do. I don’t want them taking her away.”
We watch over Kaede, as the light from her body casts nebulae across the walls, our faces. We sit at the foot of our daughter’s futon for hours until her body begins to fade, and her skin returns to normal. Her fingers become distinguished, her face is built up like a sculptor molding clay. And then she opens her eyes, which have emerged as if they rose from beneath water, and begins to cry.
“Mommy,” Kaede says. “Daddy.” Her beautiful, beautiful voice.
We take our daughter into our arms.
“You’re okay,” Yumiko says. “You’re home.”
“What happened?” Kaede asks.
“Nothing,” I answer without hesitating. I look at my wife and we grasp each other’s hands. “You just had a nightmare,” I say, knowing that Kaede probably knows this to be untrue.
My daughter has come back. She holds us and tells us I love you mommy and daddy, and she asks if we can sleep with her tonight, if we can go out for pancakes tomorrow morning. She is Kaede again (Kaede plus) and that’s all that matters this very moment. I tell her she can have all the pancakes she can eat. I ask her if she remembers anything. She asks for a story and for more hugs. And then she says, “There was black, but then I could see everybody from before and everyone after. I could go swimming in a forever ocean. I was made of light.”