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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

Hiromi Kawakami's short story collection, "Dragon Palace"

Updated: May 1


From the bestselling author of Strange Weather in Tokyo comes this otherworldly collection of eight stories, each a masterpiece of transformation, infused with humor, sex, and the universal search for love and beauty—in a world where the laws of time and space, and even species boundaries, don’t apply.


Meet a shape-shifting con man, a goddess who uses sex to control her followers, an elderly man possessed by a fox spirit, a woman who falls in love with her 400-year-old ancestor, a kitchen god with three faces in a weasel-infested apartment block, moles who provide underground sanctuary for humans who have lost the will to live, a man nurtured through life by his seven extraordinary sisters, and a woman who is handed from husband to husband until she is finally able to return to the sea.


Dragon Palace by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Ted Goossen is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.


Read a sample of Dragon Palace below.



 


Hokusai


If you turn where the guardrail breaks off and walk down the stone steps from the highway, you’ll come upon a rotting fishing boat lying on its side in the sand. On windy days, you can hear its net flapping. I call it a net, but it’s a net in name only, for it’s full of holes and beginning to unravel. Like the boat, it has been cast away, abandoned.


It has become my habit to walk down those steps to the beach on days when the wind whips up. The waves are rougher then, and higher. The orange trees planted along the highway sway in the gusts. When laden with fruit, their branches bow even more deeply, moving as one.


No one is on the beach. Tangled balls of fishing line and stray clumps of washed-up kelp, tossed to and fro by the gale, scrape across the sand.


Waves flash white as they crash against the rocks on the shore. I try to look at each wave as separate and distinct, but there comes a moment when they merge—each resembles the one that came before, while the one that follows is no different. When this happens, time grinds to a halt, and I feel as though I am reliving the same moment over and over again. If it’s six o’clock, for example, I can mentally board the wave that rolls in at that precise moment, travel the short distance from its belly to the crest, then repeat that movement with each six o’clock wave that comes after.


“Hey, buddy!” It was shortly after noon on one of those stormy days when the man called out to me.


The wind was fierce, with a bit of rain mixed in. Not a soul should have been there. How could he have materialized out of nowhere?


“Why so serious?” he asked.


I had fallen under the spell of the rough sea, enfolded in the kind of frozen moment I have just described.


The man was peering up into my face. He was half a head shorter than me, with hair about an inch long. Wet from the rain, it gleamed in the dull light. I guessed him to be about fifty years old.


“Stand that close and the sea’ll sweep you away.”


He was in my face, so I took a step back toward the water. He moved in again. I retreated further, but he followed me. I took a third step back and, for a third time, he crowded me.


“Hey, watch out. You’re askin’ for trouble, gettin’ so near the waves!”


You’re the one pushing me into the water, I wanted to say. But my tongue was like wood in my mouth.


My problem talking had grown more acute the previous year, when I had given up my company job and moved back home. My first job had lasted seven years. My next lasted less than a year. I had grown restless in a mere six months, after which there was no way to continue. Once I had quit that last job, though, I couldn’t find another, in part because the economy had gone downhill. Neither my father nor my mother lectured or criticized me, yet their grief at my present situation filled our home. I became more and more tongue-tied.


“You got any money on you?” the man asked.


“A little,” I managed to get out.


“You can stand me for drinks, then,” he said, thrusting his clipped head up toward my nose. It looked like we were going to collide.


“Stand you?” I repeated. I studied his face for the first time.


Compared to the forceful impression left by his crewcut, his features somehow lacked focus. His mouth and his nose were too far apart. His eyebrows drooped at the corners. The slackness of his mouth left him with a perpetual smirk.


“You’ll have to stand me for the drinks. I’m flat broke,” he said, grabbing my arm. I was going to shake him off—he didn’t look strong—but then I changed my mind and decided to go with him.


The man headed up the stone steps to the highway. Trucks and motorbikes were roaring past. He and I stood there patiently, waiting for a gap in the traffic.



Although it was still early afternoon, a red lantern hung from the eaves of the bar at the end of the alley, indicating it was open. The bar’s name was written on the lantern in hiragana: Minami. Usually, that means “south,” but the fishing tackle shop next door had the same name written with the characters for “beautiful” and “ordinary.” I guessed the two businesses were run by the same owner.


The man flung open the door. Inside was dimly lit, and the figure of a beckoning cat perched on the counter. An oddly large beckoning cat. Two other customers sat facing each other on the raised tatami platform. Beside them was a cooler and fishing rods in carrying cases. It seemed the wind was too strong for boats to go out that day, so there wasn’t much for them to do.


“Shochu,” the man said to the older woman behind the counter. “How about you, buddy,” he asked, turning to me. “Same for you?” When I nodded, he craned his neck back across the counter and said, “Make that two.” Then, in a low voice, to me again, “How much are you carryin’?”


I checked my wallet. I had a few bills in my back pocket, but I wasn’t about to let him know about those. The coins in my wallet added up to 1,750 yen, with another 13 yen in small change.


“I’ll look after the bill,” he said, quickly extracting the larger coins while casting a sidelong glance at the 13 yen. He jangled the money in his palm.


“Two glasses of shochu comes to 460 yen,” he said, counting out the money and placing it on the counter. The woman swept it up with a practiced hand.


“They don’t trust me here,” he said. We sipped our drinks, shochu cut with hot water. The woman behind the counter was smiling.


“Is it true?” I asked. “You don’t trust him?”


“Not for a moment,” she shot back.


We drank there for an hour while nibbling on shiokara, fermented and salted squid innards. After our third glass of shochu, only 20 yen remained in the man’s palm. The disappointed fishermen were long gone, while at some point the woman had retreated to the back of the shop. The man hadn’t drunk all that much, but his face was scarlet. He sat there clutching the 20 yen in his left hand and his glass in his right.


“Want to hear a cool story?” he said all of a sudden.


“A cool story?” I asked. He nodded. He had turned into a squishy, blurry thing that undulated before my eyes. Was I drunk? His whole body was acting bizarre—his arms stretched and shrank, while the top of his head went from round to square, then back to round again.


“First, you’ve gotta sit down,” said the shape-shifting man. I’m already sitting, I protested. He cleared his throat.


“Now listen carefully, and don’t talk back,” he said, adopting a schoolteacher’s tone. I stood up and then sat down again. He cleared his throat one more time. Then he launched into his cool story.



I was an octopus back then,” he began. “So, my story could be called an octopus’s great adventure.


“At the time I was living on the ocean floor. Small fish made their home there as well, and shrimp and baby crabs, so I had everything I needed. Every so often, humans would lower an octopus pot down to where we were and one of my unluckier comrades would crawl in, but I never fell for that cheap trick. You know what makes a good octopus pot?”


“No,” I said. The man cleared his throat again.


“It has to be spotless, no sea anemones or brown algae or anything like that.”


Cleanliness was key, the man said. I did my best to look impressed.


“Anyone would be tempted when something so big and shiny and sweet-smellin’ comes floatin’ down from the surface, even yours truly. I fought off the temptation time and time again, but one day I finally crawled in. That was my big mistake.”


The man glared at me. I didn’t see why I deserved to be glared at, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it.


“They pulled the trap up, and were about to rip me out and bash me over the head. But at the last moment, I managed to stick one leg out and grab hold of the side of the boat. I slithered out of the pot and used my suckers to cling to the boat’s bottom. The humans tried everything they could think of to make me let go—yanked my legs and my head, pelted me with curses—but they were no match for my suckers, so in the end they gave up. Patience and focus—those are the only things that really count.”


I was being lectured to by an octopus! Nevertheless, I meekly nodded.


“I held on like that all the way to port, and after they moored the boat. Then at night I slipped away. An octopus is a lot quicker than you might think. I’d heard that sweet potatoes were great eating, so I headed straight for a sweet potato patch.”


“Were they really that good?” I asked. “Did they give you strength?”


“Their flesh was hard. But they filled my belly. I didn’t care if they were nutritious or not. There was a woman there in the field who I found strangely seductive. So, I went and wrapped myself around her.”


“Wrapped yourself around her,” I parroted.


“Yeah, and she really got into it. Seducin’ a woman is child’s play, really. As long as you have the legs for it, that is. Now I’ve got only two, so it’s a tad more difficult. Even so, I know what I’m doing—when it comes to women, prithee leave it to me.”


Prithee? Give me a break! Yet come to think of it, there was something octopus-like about the man’s face. And the way his soft, malleable body was constantly changing shape made me feel that, yes, he just might be the real deal. As he talked, the tips of his arms and legs changed, sprouting small suckers and turning transparent—now they truly resembled the legs of an octopus.


“Have you seen that picture of the octopus twining itself around a naked pearl diver? That was me. It was made by Katsu­shika somebody. Know what I’m talking about?”


“Yes, I’m familiar with Hokusai’s print,” I answered.


He beamed with pride. “That’s great—I can see you’re an educated man. But let’s give the story a rest for now. I can always pick it up again later. Bear that in mind!”


The wind had become even more fierce. The short curtain hanging at the entrance of the bar was flapping madly. Almost no shochu remained in our glasses. The man was clutching the two 10-yen coins that remained. When he relaxed his grip, I could see them glittering in his sweaty palms.


“Hey, buddy, don’tcha have any more money?” he asked. Now that the octopus story was over, he was back to his old way of speaking. When I answered yes, I have a little, his body got all soft and blurry again. “Then let’s move on. Still your treat,” he said.


We left Minami and went on to the next establishment.



That turned out to be an izakaya near the train station. It was some distance away. The man staggered on ahead. I followed, wondering how on earth I could ditch him.


The man and I were the first customers of the day. The place could seat about fifty people. One of the waiters tried to show us to a table for two, but the man headed straight for the counter.


“ ’Tis important to see the chef at his craft,” he said. The man’s manner of speaking seemed to be in constant flux. And what was this about the “chef” and his “craft”? This drinking spot was part of a chain that had branches all over. What could possibly be worth watching?


The man started ordering. Shiokara and dried squid. Squid with fermented soybeans and grilled squid livers.


“It’s all squid, isn’t it?” I said.


“You got the picture.”


“Is it connected to the fact that you used to be an octopus?”


“I guess you could say that.”


The man appeared intent on spending my money. At the place before, we had paid after each round, but now he was ordering dishes one after another.


“Hey, buddy,” he said all of a sudden, “how come you’re so moody?”


“Me, moody? Th-that’s not true,” I stammered. It irritated me to be pigeonholed by someone like him. Yet in truth I was prone to tumbling into a dark sinkhole of depression. No one could help me then, which helped explain why I was having such trouble talking. Instead, I headed out to wherever I could be alone, like the beach on stormy days.


“I’ll be your guide,” he said, foam clinging to the corners of his mouth.


“I don’t need a guide,” I said sullenly, swallowing another mouthful of beer. I thought of getting up to leave then and there, but he leaned toward me, his shape shifting once again, and I lost that chance.


“No need to be polite. I’m happy to do it,” he said, jumping up from his counter seat. All the plates of the food we had eaten—the shiokara and dried squid, the squid with fermented soybeans and grilled squid livers—looked as though they had been wiped clean.


“Did you lick them?” I asked.


“Naw, no need for that,” he said shaking his head. “I wiped them with my tentacles is all.”


“But you’re not an octopus now.”


“Sometimes I revert. My body still isn’t at home in the human world,” he explained as he slipped past the cashier and hurried out the door. I scrambled to pay our tab. The staff had witnessed him flee, and now they were looking at me suspiciously, which ticked me off.


He was standing outside the izakaya, cool as a cucumber. “You say you’re still not used to our world,” I pestered him. “So how long have you been a human?”


“Two hundred years, give or take.”


“Isn’t that more than enough time to adjust?”


“One year for an octopus is a hundred years for a human being.”


“Oh, come on.”


No sooner had I said that than the man’s appearance changed. His red face got redder and redder until it was tinged with black; then the black came to predominate. It was as if I had provoked the wrath of Fudo, the fearsome warrior god.


“Sit down there,” the man roared. Where, on the ground? There’s no place to sit, I grumbled. That only made him angrier. What could I do? A kids’ playground was next door to the izakaya, so I went there and climbed on top of a concrete squirrel. It was slippery and terribly hard to sit on, but there were no other options.


The man followed me. Then, for a second time, he launched into the story of his life as an octopus.



My adventures continued. We octopi are equipped to handle a life full of ups and downs. And we are wrapped in mystery, a universal presence. A creature of myth, you could even say.”


Whether I could say that or not seemed quite beside the point, I thought, as I glumly straddled the squirrel’s slippery back.


“When I discovered how easy it was to satisfy a woman, I decided to become a man. I had already developed a taste for sweet potatoes, but now I wanted to head down to the river’s edge to try what they called sushi. My woman brought me some clothes, and I put them on. They were tattered and torn, but I still looked good in them. It was at that point I became human. Bear that in mind!”


The man aimed a kick at the tail of my squirrel. He was fuming.


“I moved into the woman’s tenement with her, ate the sushi, tried soba noodles. Steamed sweet potatoes are delicious too. You’ve gotta remember to steam them, though. Got it?”


“Yeah, I’ve got it,” I said grudgingly. If I didn’t agree, he might turn his fury on me. The last thing I wanted was to end up wrestling and kicking on the ground.


“The woman started givin’ me the cold shoulder just because I said I was an octopus. She hooked up with a new lover. Me not makin’ any money was a problem too. Anyway, she tossed me out of her place and brought in the new guy. The other residents of the tenement came to gawk at the man who’d been cast out in nothing but his loincloth. I wept. I hadn’t shed a tear in all my years as an octopus, and yet . . . Humans are a species that spend their lives in tears. Like you, for example. Bear that in mind!”


His lecture was putting me in a foul mood. It felt as if my own failings had been laid bare and set alongside those of an octopus. I wanted to escape this loser as soon as possible and head back to the solitude of my windswept beach. I really did.


“After the woman threw me out, I went back to my octopus form and hid out in the estuary, where I could get by eatin’ small fish. In the evenings, though, I took human form to clamber up on shore and raid the sweet potato fields. Humans can’t handle them raw, though, so I would have to turn back into an octopus there in the field to eat them. One time, a streetwalker bumped into me there. She screamed bloody murder, so I beat a hasty retreat back to the river. I thought I was done with women, but it didn’t take long for my desire to return. I became a human again and lived on dry land. This time, though, I had to find a way to make money. I studied my options. I spotted a good-looking woman, followed her home and slipped into her room. She was delighted. And since this time I was pulling in some dough, she didn’t kick me out in my loincloth like the first one did either. My business was findin’ bell crickets with good voices, training ’em and then hawking ’em on the street. Octopi are good at raisin’ insects. We can raise dogs too. And cows and horses. Cats, though, are another thing. We can’t deal with those. There are hardly any here, so I can rest easy. When I was livin’ in Owari, though, the beach was crawlin’ with cats. I had no idea how to handle them.”


The man stopped for a moment, lost in thought. He may well have been recalling the cats of Owari.


“I did well with the crickets. Success followed success, and I became rich. Then the woman ran off with my money. Took my luck with her as well. One of my competitors invented a new diet that made his crickets’ voices even better. I lost all my customers. Without a woman to look after things, my house became a total mess. Stray cats wandered in and out. Thieves too. A beggar I had never seen before moved in, but I was too depressed to care. I cried to myself from morning till night, rememberin’ my days as an octopus. It got so bad that the beggar took it upon himself to lecture me about how to fix my life. Finally, I made up my mind—I would return to the sea.


“This is all of the octopus’s adventures that I can share with you now. There may well be other opportunities, though. Bear that in mind!”


The man delivered these last lines while standing stiffly at attention. I sighed. He ignored me. Hey, buddy, let’s go check out another place, he said, and went striding away. I sat there on the squirrel for a moment, then gave up and trotted after him. I still had a little money, just enough, I figured, to cover the bill at our next stop. Once that was gone, then I could ditch him. Yet a part of me was beginning to get attached to the guy. Hanging out with someone who claimed to have been an octopus helped provide a distance between myself and the realm of human reason. That way, maybe, I could steer clear of the pollution of this floating world. Such, at least, was the seed of the plan sprouting in my mind.



The next place the man took me was a grubby Chinese joint. Its name, Kadoya Ichiban, was written in black on the yellow curtain at the entrance.


“I’ll have the Squid Curry Ramen,” the man said. “Hey, buddy, like some gyoza to go with that?” Before I had a chance to answer, he had already added it to our order. I didn’t order anything—I was already stuffed.


Elbows propped on the greasy tabletop, the man drew his face close to mine. “You’ve got deep lines on your forehead,” he said. “What’s buggin’ you anyway? Instead of frownin’ like that, how about we go look for some women to fool around with?”


The Squid Curry Ramen was a ghastly concoction, like Curry Udon except with ramen instead of udon noodles and shreds of what might have been squid floating in the broth.


“How about some squid?” The man thrust a piece of the suspect squid toward me with his chopsticks. I found it impossible to say no.


“Open up,” he said, and deposited it in my mouth. I chomped away. “That squid’ll give you the strength; then we can go out and find some women to party with.”


“But I’m out of money,” I said.


“Not a problem,” the man replied, sticking his thumb between his middle and index finger in an obscene gesture.


“How can we party without money?”


“Just leave it to me.”


The man polished off the dumplings and the Squid Curry Ramen. I paid the bill, which left me with a single thousand-yen note.


“I’m heading home,” I said. It was blowing even harder than earlier in the day. The wooden delivery box on the motorbike parked outside was swinging back and forth in the gathering dusk.


“Hang on there for a minute, buddy,” the man said with a serious expression. “Are you tryin’ to tell me you don’t like women?”


“Women!” I spat out. His adolescent naivete was grating on my nerves. Enough was enough. Why did I have to waste any more time on him? Yet at the same time I found it hard to part ways.


“You’ve been a prince, so give me a chance to repay you,” the man said, inching closer. His body was once again an undulating, shape-shifting blob. Exactly like an octopus. Perhaps he truly was one.


“This way,” he said, so I followed him down a narrow jumbled alley that ran behind the station. The smell of fish was everywhere. When we reached the dark end of the alley, he came to a halt. Jerking his chin, he signaled me to stand next to him. I did as he asked. What choice did I have?


The alley must have been a shortcut to the station, given how many people were walking past. For a while, the man just stood there looking at them. When a woman went by, he would stare. He seemed to be muttering something, so I pricked my ears to hear.


“Not that one—twenty points—too stuck-up—first class.” When he realized I was listening in, he raised his voice a little. “Soft body—thirty-two points—forty-seven—only so-so.” He gave me a wink as if to say, give it a try, buddy—it’s by rating them like this that you’ll find the one best for you. The man was pushing me to stand in the dark in that godforsaken spot and rate the women who passed. That was either presumptuous or pathetic—I couldn’t decide which.


“Sixty-three points,” I said after the umpteenth women had walked by.


“That’s too high, isn’t it?” the man said. “Of course, if she’s your type . . .”


I felt strangely liberated. I stood there assigning numbers and adjectives to each woman that came by, one after another. In the process, they stopped being individuals with personalities and real lives. Rather, each woman who strolled past was simply a body and nothing more. But then what was I but one more strolling object: an assortment of features—two eyes, a nose, etcetera—atop a malleable, blob-like body?


The man and I stood there in the dark in our shape-shifting bodies, rating the passing women.



How long did we go on like that? Two hours maybe? By the end, it was pitch dark. The wind grew. The number of women walking through the alley shrank.


Their faces as they passed beneath the streetlight were no more than a blur. Their clothes were being whipped around by the gale.


“That’s the one,” the man said. “Let’s party with her.”


We set off after the woman, who had already turned from the alley onto an even darker back street. She had a big butt.


“She’s a woman with a heart, that’s for sure,” the man whispered to me.


“But how on earth can we get her?” I asked. The man put a finger to his lips to shush me. Then he lengthened his stride until he was walking beside her.


“Hey, baby,” he began. She ignored him. Her pace increased.


“Hey, baby. Wanna have a good time?”


She broke into a run. He ran after her. I followed. Two men hot on the tail of a fleeing woman—that was the picture we made. Her back had lost its clear shape, become blob-like. I sensed she was panicking. She seemed to be sweating. There in the dark, I could smell her on the wind.


“C’mon, baby. There’s nothin’ to be afraid of,” the man called. She didn’t turn around, just kept running blindly ahead.


We pursued her intently. She fled just as intently. Her silhouette became distinct only when she passed beneath a streetlamp. As those lamps grew fewer and farther between, her form began to blend with the night. At that point, all we had to go by was her scent, yet we didn’t abandon our chase.


“C’mon, baby!” the man called again. I thought I heard her gasp. But it could have been the wind, now blowing even more violently. Maybe there was no woman at all. But we ran on in hot pursuit, there in the dark, guided only by the scent of a woman.


We ran and ran until, finally, we arrived back at the beach. We hadn’t gone down the steps from the highway but instead had circled all the way around until, suddenly, there we were. The wind howled. The waves roared. Nothing resembling a woman could be seen anywhere. The man and I stood together on the sand, staring at the waves.



Let me tell you more of my adventures as an octopus,” the man snapped. “Pay close attention!” The waves were now so high, they threatened to sweep us away. I retreated a step, but the man stayed put.


“The octopus never returned to the sea. He’d become completely human. Two years for an octopus is two hundred for a human being. So it wasn’t that long, but the change was permanent. I can’t remember what life as an octopus was like. I am a man who loves women. Women are soft, cruel, delightfully thoughtless creatures. A man’s worth hinges on how much pleasure he can give them. People who dismiss this as old-fashioned don’t have a clue. I have my own ideas about things. You best go your own way, buddy. My ocean floor refuge is gone for good, so I’ll stick to my ramblin’ ways. Bein’ human is painful. I wish I could go back to bein’ an octopus. But I can’t. When water is spilled, it’s gone—you can’t put it back in the pot. Bear that in mind!”


The wind was raging. You can’t put spilled water back in the pot, I repeated after him. On the beach, sea lice swarmed from the rotting boat. The man’s body changed shape as the wind battered it. I thought of my father and mother quietly waiting at home for my return.


“It’s high time I returned to the octopus world. Women have no more use for me. So, there’s no more point in being human. I have my own path to tread. And you have yours. Understood?”


The man seemed to be sinking into the sand as he walked toward me. His body was still in flux. He stuck his hand in my back pocket and extracted the last thousand-yen note. Unfolding it, he held it up in the wind. It fluttered wildly.


“Let’s see the 13 yen as well.”


He was right—that’s exactly how much I had left in my wallet. No problem with his memory, for sure! I gave him the coins. That left me tapped out.


“Now I will go back to being an octopus. The floating world of humans has been too painful. But there was one thing good about it. Women. You know what makes a woman’s octopus pot so special?”


“No,” I said. He cleared his throat.


“It’s so very clean—no anemones or brown algae down there.”


The man was so close that the top of his head almost touched my jaw. His cropped salt-and-pepper hair shone in the night rain. “Waah!” He let out a loud, piercing cry. I was so surprised that I toppled backward in the sand. While I was struggling to my feet, he took off. He did not head toward the ocean, nor veer toward the land. He simply vanished into the night.


I slowly stood up as the ocean gusts buffeted my body. I could still hear the woman gasp. It came to me through the wind. I thought of my father. I thought of my mother. I thought of the women whose lives had touched mine. I thought of the man’s words: “Walk your own path!” As I climbed the stone steps to the highway, my own body began to change, becoming soft and squishy. A searchlight spun round and round, illuminating the ocean’s surface in an unending circle. As I walked along the highway, my shape continued to undulate. Truck after truck passed me as I trudged along, their loads held down by tarps.



 

Dragon Palace by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Ted Goossen is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.

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