Novel Excerpt Contest 2nd Place: “Hakuri” by Jessica Cavero

September 26, 2022

This excerpt drew me in with its darkly poetic sensibility, each sentence a glimmering, ominous jewel. We are plunged into the life of a Peruvian sex worker in Japan, told in brief, vivid snapshots that are both beautifully rendered and heartbreaking, disturbing. The narration is carefully wrought, evoking a palpable sense of the numbness and dissociation of trauma, while at the same time building a character whose intelligent, clear-eyed observations and sparks of rage make us feel a strong, empathetic connection. — Guest Judge, Dan Chaon.


In the spring, I learned to walk through Japanese as through a revolving door. I was in constant, violent translation. Hands bored through the holes of my undressed form, struggling to make me legible. Eyes studied the margins of my face. Legs crossed. Sit straight. By the end of my third year as a hostess, my mother tongue was ink on my shoulders that I rubbed clean. My mother tongue was a shiver of bones. It lay dislocated in Peruvian villages where the roads coughed red dust, where dogs fought and bayed through the night, and I fell asleep to their wailing.

* * *

We are posed silent, a figure study. Ribcages pried open. Rattling knobs of spine. I hold this position for every year of my life.

In the VIP room, I let the salarymen pluck the chords of my body.

In the VIP room, they sink their teeth below my collarbone, where the indents swell blue and yellow, like wings.

Afterwards, they flick 1,000 yen at my shoes.

* * *

Off-hours I walk around Shinjuku Station. If I concentrate very hard, I can hear the dull roar of the trains on the platform above me. How far they could lead me from Tokyo. I touch the one-hundred-yen coins in my pocket, adding up the few thousand tucked in the drawers of my nightstand. It is never enough. A phone rings over the loudspeaker. Then that familiar sing-song chime that means a train is arriving. Some days, I come here just to listen for it.

* * *

The Executive says anyone would be lucky to have me. If only he didn’t work so much. If only he wasn’t married. He pulls me into his lap, snaps the black band of my stockings. After he leaves, the smell of Newport Menthols and spiced cologne wraps around me and I fear I will never wash it out. I vomit shōchū, clear as water, into the sink. The muscles in my throat swell and contract.

“I hope they don’t take you away from me,” The Retired Cab Driver says, when I mention the Executive or the Widow in passing. They relish in my compliance to orders like Drink slowly and Look at me and Pour.

What they really mean is this: Don’t forget that I own you.

* * *

My mother said: Las mujeres nazcan para sufrir. Your job description is sacrifice. Tell yourself until it is enough.

* * *

Sometimes after work, Elena and I watch American crime films like Kill Bill, where women have their arms cut off, get spat on, and choked. We are still nauseous from last night’s champagne call and agree it isn’t worth finishing, but when Elena falls asleep beside me, I watch the rest of it in the dark of our room. I watch the Bride crying in a coffin, the Bride stepping on an eyeball, soft as a turtle’s egg, the Bride pierced in the knee with a poisoned dart. I pinch the skin on my wrist. Tap the ridge of bone in my knuckles in a steady beat. Evidence that I am real. Breathing.

* * *

Tonight, the twin TV screens above the bar light up with scrolling lyrics and 80s American music videos.

When the Widow asks for The Cure, I aim the remote control at the screen, click-click-click to “Pictures of You.” I sing You were bigger and brighter and wider than snow. I try to sound convincing.

The Widow believes one day I will leave the club to marry him. Every night I invent for him stories of us as newlyweds in Russia, where he dreams of visiting. It is my job to make him believe the stories, that one day it might be possible for us to be together, and the possibility is what keeps him coming back. He is the most gentle of my customers. And he tips me secretly, dropping bills into my velvet thigh high boots, so Mama-san won’t see.

Tears spill down my cheeks as I finish the chorus. This is one of my best talents.

The Widow buys me another drink, a Cassis orange sloshing over his fingers when he sets it down. You’ve earned it, he says and gathers my hair, combing it with such tenderness.

* * *

After my shift, I go upstairs to my one-bedroom apartment and let Elena rinse my hair under the shower, her fingers rough on my scalp. Most of our mornings are spent like this now, in the quiet, in the pre-dawn dark. I sit on the bed naked while she blow dries my hair and I try to swallow down the lingering taste of alcohol.

* * *

The week after I got my first period, my grandmother carved into my skin with the tip of a cactus thorn. I was twelve. The belief was if you could endure that kind of pain, then you could endure childbirth.

She began with the most important marks: a coil of the Moray terrace below my left shoulder, a memorial to the city of Cusco where she was born. Within an hour, diamonds sliced around my arm, the eyes of my grandparents knitted together, symbols of unparalleled strength and resilience. A premonition of what my mother hoped I would become.

My grandmother’s hands were measured and calm, tapping soot-soaked thorn into me for unbroken stretches of time. I assumed the outcome would unveil a trace of beauty, or power, like my mother said it would.

I remember my mother’s voice warning me to not cry because to do so would affront our dead Inca ancestors. I remember the smell of charcoal. Liquid ash mixed with blood dripping down my forearms and onto the earth. I remember biting the inside of my cheek, swallowing blood. Then the world blanked out.

Later, I woke to my grandmother serving me mate de coca in a ceramic cup. Her palms were gray and scorched from the charcoal. She wiped them on her apron.

She spoke to me in Quechua and though I couldn’t make out every word, I understood that she was asking her goddess to not abandon me.

* * *

That night I was helping her with an English crossword puzzle book because her hands ached. When I found the words, I circled them and made my lines so wobbly she laughed. My grandmother had been taking pills for arthritis that year. She wore brown pantyhose to match her beautiful skin, two layers of socks under her slippers to protect against the chill of winter. Some days she lit candles, recited incantations for me, asked the angels to light my way forward in this life and the next.

What next? I asked, circling the word elevator. I tried to steady my hand, dragging the pen slow across the paper but it was no use. I was nervous, and my wrist shook.

She sat down at the kitchen table and blew on her tea. The inner world, pajarito, she said. That was her term of endearment for me. Pajarito, little bird.

When I didn’t understand, she explained the inner world was the place of second lives. In the inner world, our souls were thread and Death was the weaver. A weaver of shadows and time and fertility and fate. In the subterranean wood, she works her loom by the river and creates for us new bodies so we may return home.

For now, my grandmother said, this is what you do. She gave me one of her wool blankets, spun with alpaca yarn in rainbow colors, so I would be warm on the flight home. She thought it best my mother come back with me in a year when I was ready to finish the tattoo, but by then Mom was too sick to travel far from Lima. For days afterward, I had chills. My upper arms peeled like scutes on a turtle’s shell and the wounds swelled into hard ridges. Even now holding the skin taut, I can see the holes, each small as a grain of sand, through the careful contours of ink.

* * *

I have never drawn anything on canvas before. I have never held a paintbrush. In Cusco, I would see stone statues of bulls and crucifixes, seated lovers holding onto an empty bowl. The twin bulls, perched on our orange-tiled roof, protected us against disease, granted fertility and good fortune. These my mother planted strategically around the house. The lovers, we hoped, ensured permanence.

* * *

My mother refused to speak to me after we left Cusco. I had failed her traditions. The unfinished sentence on my arm was a permanent reminder of that fact. If I entered a room, she would briskly walk out of it. If I cried, she would pretend not to hear me.

In those wordless days, I would touch things on her dresser while she was at work, her metal Band-Aid tin of rings, the envelopes in her cupboard, the rolls of yarn, the glass of water on her sink, the glass of water on her kitchen table, all these things because she had touched them.

* * *

The Executive is the one who won’t stop calling me Princess. I tell him my name, my real one, and he throws his head back to laugh. “Mai,” he spits, and I slam down a glass of beer so hard on the table, foam spills onto his ashtray. Mama-san screams at me to get on the floor and wipe it clean. On hands and knees, bowed in dogeza with my head touching the wet spot, I repeat: Sumimasen deshita. Sumimasen deshita. Master, please forgive my indiscretion. Master, I am so sorry. It worms into my sleep, the sight of his tongue red and pulsating like an organ he’d coughed up, some alien piece of himself that could pass for a heart or a kidney. In the world between wakefulness and dream, I can feel my own mouth stretching past the limits of my skull, certain the bones will crack and from somewhere much deeper, I will crack, too, but I cannot will myself together and I cannot hear myself scream.

* * *

I wake up and imagine my internal organs shutting down like faulty overhead lights. I wake up not knowing where my body begins and ends, or if it weighs anything at all. I touch the walls and they feel warm, like skin. I ask Elena what to do but her voice gets eaten up by the dark. I ask Mama, and she tells me to endure.

* * *

In the afternoon, I rub the back of my jaw, startled at the absence of pain.

* * *

In the bathroom, I rub the makeup covering my shoulder tattoo with an oil-based cleanser. I press a wet cotton pad to my eyelids and push the mascara around, then do the same for my lipstick, smearing red until my mouth is pink and swollen. I am a blank slate, sharp and clear. Of all my rituals, this one makes me feel closest to myself.

* * *

Here’s another: If I can’t sleep, I return to movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, where every character is enacting a performance and everyone is morally vacant. I watch it on mute so as to not wake Elena. Sitting cross legged on the floor, I recite the lines to myself.

I know the afternoon is inevitable. It always plays out this way: her leaving for hours, paying girls like me at other hostess clubs to fill whatever role she needs. She comes back only to eat and shower and prepare for our shift. Then to sleep.

Long after the tape runs out, the TV burning a flat expanse of blue, I close my eyes and put my ear to the screen and my skin bristles with white noise. I can hear the roar of the ocean. Every line in the movie plays in my head again, the words indistinguishable like the passage of days.

* * *

While Elena is gone, I watch animal documentaries over and over, hoping they will teach me how to live. On this episode of National Geographic, I learn plenty about eels:

They are nocturnal.

They can pulse over dams and leap waterfalls when young.

On rainy days, they can climb vertical walls, using each other’s slick bodies as a bridge.

To survive a journey upstream requires a stable backbone. It is the most crucial part of an eel’s body.

Some get captured and taken to market. In autumn, most of these are females.

* * *

At Narita airport, when I first arrived in Japan, customs agents asked if they were pronouncing my name right. I nodded, hearing sirens. I got lost, crossing from one terminal to the next. Which way to transportation? I asked, and the security guards bent forward and cupped their ears, straining to hear me. At Baggage Claim, the floor rumbled with the passing of trains. In the pick-up lobby, I found him: my driver wearing an oversized hoodie, jeans and a white mask, holding a signboard with my name on it in blocky, English letters. “Kai,” he said, but I called him Sir, wanting to make a good impression.

In the parking lot, he ushered me into a white van. The windshield was tinted. A charm of a red entrance dangled from the rearview and I recognized it as Itsukushima Shrine, the gate between us and the dead. I’d seen pictures of it in my Japanese textbooks.

According to what I’d read, hundreds of years ago, a typhoon had torn apart the shrine’s roof and scattered its western pillars along the coastline. Legend says three sea goddesses were born from a sword their mother had chewed and spit out. They were enshrined at the gate and the island is God himself, so pure that no birth or death or drop of blood is permitted on his body. Now that the shrine was repaired, I wondered if I would ever get to see it.

“Have you been there?” I asked Kai, pointing to the gate. Its plastic bell clacked around when he turned the ignition.

“Nn. Recently, with my daughter. We went to see the noh performance onshore.”

“How far is it?”

He laughed. “Miyajima? From here, the distance is incredible. You’ll need to the shinkansen reach it.”

At a red light, Kai opened the glove compartment and handed me a glossy packet of masks. On the front it read SILKY TOUCH SUPER FIT TYPE. They reminded me of sterile rooms, the kind of masks my mother wore during her nightshift as a nursing home aide. I turned the packet over in my hands.

My mother, in the early days of her sickness, had described her life turning so very small, how she couldn’t be on her feet too long before the walls tilted and the ground fell away. Soon she began to see the world in grayish blurs and then she couldn’t see at all. She swore she could hear the beat of her heart somewhere outside her body. The doctors always said the same thing. She’s perfectly fine. It’s all in her head. I hoped the money from this job would take care of her.

“Graphite pollution,” Kai said when I started coughing. He tapped the bridge of his nose. “You’ll breathe better with it on.”

I slipped the bands around my ears. The cotton was warm and soft. As we drove into the capital, I saw giant TV screens with movies playing on them, holographs of women dancing on the tops of skyscrapers. Their voices rang in my head even though the windows were rolled up. Tokyo was illuminated in signs.

I gave Kai my passport. Three years until my first term was complete, he said, and I would get it back with the money I earned, every cent, after my debts were accounted for. He didn’t open my passport, just stuffed the maroon booklet into the ass pocket of his jeans.

In a tunnel, echoes of gold light streamed past me on the walls. I imagined us descending into a secret passage below the earth, far below sea level, all the way to Miyajima. I inhaled the sweetness of air freshener mint. I lowered my mask and blew clouds into the window and wrote Hello with the tip of my pinky. I liked the idea of starting over, that it was possible no one could ever find me here. That I could be free.

* * *

In the VIP room, there are men in suits, licking their barbed wire grins. Some of them are all teeth and some of them are eyeless. They strap me into a leather harness as if preparing me for flight.

Like this, they coo, pulling my arms around their necks. I accommodate and adjust.

* * *

At this point in our sessions, I retreat to a space below sea level where the border between reality and what is not intersect. Underwater, I am safe and my body is a cast-off shell. It is hakuri, and I take comfort knowing these parts of me are already dead.

* * *

I fall through my bed like a stain, too tired to get up and clean my face or brush my teeth. Yesterday’s makeup clings to my skin like oil and the mascara makes my eyes itch. By the time we close, the trains start running. I shut my eyes. Picture myself on the shinkansen, my body traveling through time at the speed of gunfire. From faraway, I think I hear a waterfall. Or a plane taking off. I can’t tell which. Out the windows, the sun is a white blotch in the sky. There are chalky fields and grey mountains and power cords that extend forever, connecting to the farthest edges of the world. I whisper three times in my adopted language. Jitsuzai suru.

I exist.

I exist.

I exist.

* * *

Decades pass like ocean currents. Grown up, eels descend from fresh water to salt, back to their ancestral places of spawning to breed. This journey can take up to a year.

On the way, their organs degenerate.

Female eels stop eating. Their ovaries grow heavy inside them. Their teeth dissolve. Their bones grow thinner, softer. Once at sea, they go blind.

* * *

Only one American eel was successfully tracked in her migration from the coast of Nova Scotia to the Sargasso Sea. Researchers called her No. 28. According to the data beamed from her tag, she dove thousands of feet underwater, into unrelenting darkness, while the sun was up. This was how she escaped her hunters. This was her means of survival.

* * *

In the sink, I watch my hair change colors. Twilight into dawn. My crown is fluorescent.

“My finest work yet,” Elena says, removing her latex gloves and tossing them into the trash can. The stench of ammonia makes my eyes water.

We gaze at our reflections side by side, our waist-length hair bleached to the same shade of lavender.

She nuzzles against me. She says, “We could be sisters.”

I smile.

* * *

One night we are watching the uncensored version of Kill Bill so we could forget what the men had taken from us. We are almost to the end when Elena mutes the showdown between the Bride and a horde of yakuza. She can’t stop laughing. “Why are there so many headless people in this movie?” she yells when a man’s torso gets sliced in half.

The massacre continues soundless on TV, all spouting blood and a tumble of men in business suits, but the clang of swords hangs for a long time above me, like it is trapped in the vents of our heater mounted to the wall.

I lie on the futon sweating in my dress. My chest is damp.

“So tell me,” she says. “What happens at the end when the bad guys have you surrounded? First thing that comes to mind. Go.”

“Should I go quietly, or out with a bang like a true crime lord?”

“It’s all you, girl.”

“Maybe I’d disappear. Like Houdini. Take you with me somehow.”

“Seriously,” she says. The sheets rustle as she gets under them with me.

My eyes go pitch dark and the floor rolls. Earlier, the Retired Cab Driver brought two bottles of nigori for us and because I am a good hostess, I didn’t refuse. I say, “I am being serious. Would you go see it? If I was in a movie like that?”

She yawns. “You watch so much TV. You’ll believe anything.”

I turn on my side to face her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You could leave,” she says. “All of this. I wouldn’t hate you for it. You know I wouldn’t.”

“Leave where, Elena?”

She cups my face in her hands like I am a chalice, tips me up. “Disappear,” she says.

* * *

It starts with her tugging the hem of my shirt so I take it off and drape it over her head, make her a ghost. We kiss like it’s a fight. We grab at each other’s throats and legs and hipbones like we are dying and only this will save us. She rakes deep grooves into my back and like always, I let her cut me open.

“Tell me how it ends,” she whispers into my neck. For her, I would translate our future.

I am like Supay, goddess of the inner world, treading over the dead as I call her name. My love is ugly in its selfishness. I guide her hand between my legs. I want to belong to someone.

“There is nothing else,” I say. “I don’t want anything else.”

* * *

I have this dream where I am sitting with her on a rooftop. I don’t know how the pliers show up but know they will get the job done. I don’t hesitate. I clamp down on each fingertip and squeeze the handles very hard, and then I cut them off. One by one, they fall like pink stems down the front of my blouse. My nailbeds crunch. There is so little blood, and I am too much in shock to feel any pain at all. I offer her the fingertips. For you, I say, hoping this will make her adore me.

* * *

I fill an electric tea kettle in the sink. Cup Noodle for dinner again. “Eating gourmet tonight,” I say and tear off the lid. It smells like chemicals, but mostly like nothing.

“Lovely,” Elena says. She brushes out her split ends which are a shock of white. Lavender fades fast, she warned me. These days I always find a sludge of hair over the drain after she’s done showering and nudge it aside with my foot, but I can’t tell anymore if it’s hers or mine.

I know the answer already when I ask if she’s heading out.

“Mm. What. Don’t give me that look.”

“It’s called my face. And I’m not.” I listen to the water inside the kettle hiss and bubble up and think about the hostess girls she is going to see. The lines they recite on cue, the ones we rehearse for men who claim to love us.

I wonder if she is in love.

I crumple the foil lid in my fist. “Why do you still pay for that shit?” I ask her. “You know it’s not real.”

“I get lonely, I guess.”

“I’m here.”

“I know.” Her voice is softer now. She fixes the clasp on her bracelet and for several moments her breathing is the only sound. “But I need out for a little bit. Okay? Someone to talk to.”

“Then talk to me. Whatever it is. You can tell me.”

“I’m not your girlfriend, Mai. We’ve talked about this,” she says.

“Why are you the only one who gets to set the terms?”

“Look, I don’t have time for this right now,” she says, hurrying to the door. “I’ll be back, okay?”

Each time she does this, I hold my tongue because it’s what I’m good at, because I’m willing to believe in that much.

* * *

On Christmas Eve, Mama-san has prepared us herself, called us one by one to her bedroom for our makeovers. She says tonight is special. The Musician, the owner of our club, is in town and he is visiting us, so we are to behave as though he is the Emperor’s son. She looks at me while she says this. When it is my turn for the curling iron, Mama-san is rough brushing out the knots and the heat sears my scalp. Afterwards, our hair is glossy and princess-curled.

Onstage, we are dressed in snakeskin, red bodycon leather, pleated miniskirts. Behind our ears, the smell of orchids. Bells tinkle at our throats.

* * *

The Musician arrives with his investors, a herd of old men in black and white suits and slick combovers. They smell like ash. They regard us like they are observing relics in a museum, up for auction.

Mama-san offers him the menu but the Musician says no. He already knows which of us will be his girl.

Come, he says and when I don’t, he whistles.

Something twists in my stomach, spreads coldly to my limbs like a kind of numbness. He whistles again. Around me the girls sigh in shaky relief. Elena won’t look at me as I walk past her, down the stage steps and behind the aquarium, hushed and slow, to the door of the VIP room. She doesn’t volunteer to take my place, but maybe I should be grateful for that.

* * *

The Musician instructs me to wear a harness. He offers me cash, flicking the money at my shoes, and says I am to do nothing unless he gives me permission. I nod, because what else can I do?

The Musician doesn’t tell me to lie down with him or stroke his hair like the other men ask. Instead, he wants me to stand there and look at him while he sits and watches.

He leans into the velvet sofa, the cushions groaning under his weight. My waist itches from the leather. My dress and underwear are a lace puddle near the door. I try to focus anywhere but the Musician’s face but he says that is breaking the rules. For a moment I allow myself to linger on a spot over the couch, inches from his head.

I stand in that expanse of nothing, the unending wide-open of it, until my legs shake and my throat locks. The Musician places a finger, black-nailed with a silver ring, to his lips, says Shhhh. Shhhhh. In the blooded light of the VIP room, his figure becomes a shadowed wave and the wave looms above me.

* * *

I decide on a safe place to look. The ceiling is far enough.

* * *

In my memory, there is a room full of stained-glass mosaic tiles. Carp, orange and white-blotted, are telescoping on the walls. The water is unnaturally blue. I am in the inverted world. I imagine myself not sinking, but still on the riverbed, the school of carp passing over my body like it is nothing but an algae-speckled stone. The Musician asks me if I’m ready, but I don’t feel anything when it happens.

* * *

I am cycling through channels in my room, my index finger tapping the Up button every few seconds. I fill my brain with images. I go back and forth from documentary to documentary, comforted by an accumulation of facts.

After spawning, infant eels drift at sea, looking for the coast. The moon is their compass. Infant eels are called glass eels. During new moon, their orientation is precise. They swim faster. A group of eels is considered a bed or a swarm, not a school.

In the TV biologist’s cupped hands, the babies are transparent as dew, their spines a black thread extending from nose to tail. They look for a place to burrow, tangled in each other. I want to reach through the screen and impress their bodies on my skin.

* * *

I look for myself in the aquarium glass when Mama-san is asleep. The heat lamps emit a low buzz and the water stinks of krill. In November, I kept finding split-open egg cases at the bottom of the tank.

It was only last week I saw Jisoo, the female turtle eating them, the stringy yolks trailing from the side of her beak as she swam back and forth. I managed to scoop out one of the eggs intact but Mama-san said to flush it. Underwater, the embryos had already drowned. They were unsalvageable.

I cupped the egg, unsure of what to do. It was cool and soft, like there was nothing inside but water, like if I poked hard enough, the embryo would ooze into my hands, would never stop flowing out.

Across from Jisoo, the male basks on the highest rock in his well-lit corner of the tank. The sight of him repulses me. I see torn flaps of skin under Jisoo’s neck from where he latched on and wouldn’t let go. Mama-san called it mating season. “Turtles are illegal to own as pets anyway,” she said, “but they brighten up the place. Don’t you think?”

I lift the male from his perch. He tucks his claws and head into his shell. Slowly, savoring the way it feels like picking the scales off my own lips, I lift one scute near his tail and pull. He squirms, flailing his claws. I peel a larger one above his head and he shoots a trail of piss into the water. That’s when I drop him. His appendages tucked in, he sinks motionless in fear all the way to the bottom, belly up.

* * *

I tell The Retired Cab Driver that I will never have children. The Retired Cab Driver is horrified. Do you want to destroy the world? he asks. I say with pleasure and imagine him falling into an endless pit.

* * *

In the bathroom, I dab a wet cotton swab under my eyes where the mascara has smudged into pale, grey rings. The lighting is harsh, exposing patches of skin where my foundation has flaked away, like wrinkled paint. One of the other hostesses, Aya, is next to me, applying a fresh coat of gloss. My lips are peeling.

“Put some lipstick on, babe,” she says. “You look dead.”

* * *

When she leaves, I practice emotions in the mirror. I scrunch my face into fear, quiver my bottom lip. I bare my teeth and flare my nostrils like a rabid dog. Rage. I have held that position for twenty years. My jaw throbs when I scream but I hear nothing.

* * *

I am losing track of my lovers’ names. I don’t remember to which me they belong. I don’t know which part I’m supposed to be playing.

* * *

Sunday afternoon. Under the covers, Elena is kissing my neck, the smell of sake in her hair falling around me. I run my fingers across the fine cracks of her skin, trying to understand. Who are you right now? I want to ask.

“What is it?” she says, when I don’t kiss her. I don’t know how to answer that. Anything I want to say loses form and meaning. It cannot be bound by language.

So I say, “Tell me what it’s like to be the one who pays.

She considers this for a long time. “It feels like. Like I’m the hunter almost.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“I don’t know. It just makes me feel less alone.”

“Whatever they tell you isn’t real. You know this.”

“Does that matter?”

“Just stop.”

I touch her cheek. “Look. I’m here,” I say, and in that moment she looks at me lovingly. Her brown eyes are flecked with a gold, reassuring light. It reminds me of the sun. I see it, for the first time in years. Then she blinks, and it is gone.

“You’re crying,” she says. “Why are you crying?”

“It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

“Come with me next time to Shibuya. We’ll go together and I’ll show you the best clubs. I promise it’ll be worth it.”

“It isn’t real.”

“Come here, baby,” she whispers. “Come here.”

* * *

In the shower, I stand under a torch of water and scrub myself raw. Strands of lavender-white hair come loose in my palms. I decide this is ink. I draw a woman’s face and her body hovering next to it on the tiled wall. I grab the sludge of hair coiled around my feet and it becomes the sun. I create the shapes I know: a bare leg, a breast, ear, wave, eel.

* * *

The faces of Natsume Sōseki, are stacked into neat rows, worn and blue, on the hardwood floor of my room, and I count and recount them. How much?

20,000 yen. With the Musician’s money alone, I can afford a trip as far as Itsukushima.

I roll the bundle in a hair tie that Elena has left on our nightstand, next to her wallet. It’s made of snakeskin and a purple, glass eye is wedged on the cover. There is a brow of five pointed studs.

I tap the iris with my nail and it makes a sound like tik-tik.

* * *

I wait for her to fall asleep. I listen to my heart knock around in my skull like a bird against its own reflection. I find a Suica pass for the subway. I put her credit cards aside on the table because I’ve seen how in movies, people on the run get tracked for using them. In the zippered pouch: her lipstick, some cash (4,600), coins (550), and FamilyMart receipts.

What matters is the card in the plastic insert. In this photo, her bangs are cut in a jagged line and she doesn’t smile.

There is a 12-digit identification number above her name: 菊池ゆら. Below this: December 18, 2044. Almost a year from now, her expiration date.

* * *

I go to Sanpei Store for groceries but after the holidays, there isn’t much left. I walk down aisle after aisle of bare shelves, dried cereal crunching under my heel like beetle husks. In Frozens, I dive into the bin where the ice smells of vanilla yogurt and salmon flesh. I hug the last package to my ribs.

“So fresh,” the cashier says when she offers my receipt with a gloved hand and I don’t know what she means until I look closer.

The eel is chopped into eight pieces, skin shiny as polished steel, and the insides smear blood when I poke it through the plastic wrap. Someone has left the heart inside, small as a baby’s fingertip. I hold it up to the lamplight in my room. Count the rise and fall of its beating. In my palm, the eel heart is cold and wet. I place it on my pillow in a spot of moonlight and hope it will remember.

All through the night, my right ear fills with shrill, ringing bells. I try to push away the sound with the force of my thoughts. Repeat: the moon is my compass. It guides me to the rivers, where I will stay for most of my life, growing thinner and transparent. Decades later, back to the sea.

The sea, dark as oil, full of teeth.

Jessica Cavero is a writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in
SmokeLong Quarterly, Milk Candy Review, Jellyfish Review, Wigleaf and elsewhere. Her short story “Toguro” won the 2017 Katherine Anne Porter Prize from Nimrod International Journal. You can find more of her work at


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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