Ever read Mrs. Todd's Shortcut?
As far as I am concerned, the best story King ever wrote. Nothing he wrote before or after ever quite compared for me. I can't even begin to count the number of times I have heard the audio recording. Usually heard while on one of the long, random, mapLESS road trips I used to take.
This story reminds me of that shortcut, of the odd roads we happen down and where they might lead....
The Back Way
A Modern Japanese *Kaidan
A Modern Japanese *Kaidan
original story copyrighted by author @ syarecowa.moo.jp/3/843.htm
translation copyrighted by M. L. Mills, 2010
I work in the accounting section in my company. Out of the entire year this time of the year is the busiest for us and every night I end up taking the last train home. The closest station is Gotanda off of the Yamanote line which although is not a major hub, with all the bars, restaurants and entertainment centers around, it still remains very much alive even late into the night. And yet you only have to wander down one of the many side streets to find yourself in an unexpectedly quiet, desolate area.
I am always taking shortcuts, going down the back streets to get home. But now with the downturn in the economy, there has been an increase in the number of shops that have gone out-of-business and it has gotten quite dark and dingy in those back alleyways.
It was about one week ago while I was talking on my cell, when I suddenly noticed that I was walking down a street I didn't normally take. I looked around and suddenly noticed two little girls playing in the back alley.
At this hour? After all, they were out late, past the time for the final train.
They were playing right outside of a store with one of those typical customer welcome lanterns - a large one made from red rice paper - so I figured they were likely the children of the store owner. After all. that alley was particularly desolate and it looked like that store was the only one still open for business.
The one girl, dressed in a red jumper and a white turtleneck, was jumping rope. The other girl was crouched down and looked like she was drawing something with chalk on the asphalt. I hurried on my way home thinking about how cold it was yet that didn't seem to have any effect on their play.
Just as I figured I was late going home the next day, too. But I didn't go down that alley.
The following day, I went home on the last train again and before I knew it, I was on that street. Looking around, I saw the two girls playing in front of the same store with the red paper lantern just like the other day. I felt curiously sorry for them and considered buying something warm for them to drink from the convenience store that was just a little further along down the alley. Then I realized they might be afraid of me (as a stranger) or get the wrong idea about it so I simply dropped that idea and hurried on my way home.
The next day - to no surprise - I ended up taking the last train home. This time, however, I intentionally headed towards that alley. It was a street I could take to go home anyway so it wasn't like it was out of the way.
The two girls were there again.
This time the girl in the red jumper wasn't jumping rope, she was playing with a ball. But it wasn't the kind of ball you would use for dodge ball, not a rubber ball. It was whitish in color and when she bounced it, it would bounce back to her in a curiously slow way. No, not a rubber dodge ball. It was smaller than one of those anyway. Actually, it looked more like one of those old-fashioned balls made out of leather. Pretty rare these days, I thought.
The other girl was scribbling on the asphalt as usual. I felt a tinge of relief as I noted both were once again playing contentedly, and continued on my way home.
Still, I was bothered by something.
There was a sense of something being “off”.
It finally came to me after I got into bed that night. Why were they always wearing the same clothes?
No, it was more than that. I have no idea what they look like or sound like.
On the one hand, the girl bouncing the old-style ball was facing away from me and the other girl was facing down, totally absorbed in her chalk drawing. On the other hand, there was no conversation at all between the two girls. I'm not sure of their ages, but given their approximate young age, I would think they would be more rambunctious, jumping from one activity to the next. Instead, whenever I saw them, they were silently intent on their own activity. Besides, I really can't see jumping rope and bouncing a ball being that much fun these days.
And there's one more thing. The store with the red paper lantern the girls are always playing in front of... I never hear any voices coming from the inside. It is a really lonely, deserted place.
All of a sudden I felt really creeped out by the whole situation. Yet I was certain they were not ghosts, they were human.
The following morning, I went looking for that street again.
The large red paper lantern came into view. But on going closer, I was in for a shock. The paper lantern had become so aged, so like an antique that I could barely make out what was written on it. And not only was there not a single light bulb or anything else to light it up with, there wasn't even an electrical cord attached to the body of it. It was merely hung there, even ripped and torn in places.
I quickly looked down at the asphalt. There was hardly anything left of the chalk drawing. Would it really have disappeared so quickly when hardly anyone goes down this alley?
I examined at the faint remnants of the picture. There was a something... tousled. Messy, complicated intertwining lines. I couldn't quite make it out. I changed my angle and looked at it from the direction she had drawn in Looking closer, the tousled part seemed like it might be hair, and upon closer inspection the drawing appeared to be of a man.
It was a picture of a father, like the ones you see hanging on the back wall of a preschool classroom – loving yet unskilled. He was even wearing what looked like glasses.
But this father's picture had sharp, pointed teeth
Rows upon rows of jagged, fang-like teeth lined the inside of his mouth.
I froze, horrified.
All of sudden just being there, in that shadowy back alley made me very uncomfortable. I turned and left for work in a hurry.
Ever since then I haven't been back to that alley.
I have been too scared. So scared I go out of my way just to avoid going down it. But after several days I have started to think that I must be mistaken. There is some misunderstanding on my part.
I am sure I will be taking the last train home again today.
I managed to type this entry at the local cafe only by slipping out of the office during my long-overdue lunch break. I thought that writing about it would help calm me down, think rationally, but instead writing this has made me feel more uneasy.
And yet, I think I will go back down that alley one more time.
I can't stop wondering whether that store is really open for business or not. With the welcome lantern in that condition, I would hardly think so...
The inside of the store was dark and disheveled, not in any condition to conduct business.
But if perchance they are open, this time I plan to go in.
Thanks for visiting!
Stay tuned and happy listening. (^_-)-☆
*Kaidan: a traditional Japanese “ghost” story usually involving the unexplainable, a flexible concepts of time and space, strange meetings, love gone wrong, the supernatural… Curious and sometimes terrifying stories, but never centered on nor featuring either gore or sex.
Original text story (Japanese only.)
Audio recording (Japanese only. Account with nicovideo required.)
Translator's Notes (and various laments):Another in the "short" series of ghost stories. By short in this case I mean the original text only filled a single page. Hard to believe so many hours were involved in the translation, but then again, that is literature translation for you. Give me something medical or science-y any day of the week over these mental gymnastics. (Although, at least there is no life depending on this. Sanity, maybe, but no one's life.)
That being said I am not fully happy with the final result. It's a genuinely good story. As told by the audio reader of the original work. But the original was not as well written as some other non-professional stories I have done in the past. And that - not just the translating, but making it readable – is a whole other job in itself between the editing, reorganizing, and even outright rewriting in some places. In that respect, I totally underestimated this piece.
Two key elements that communicated without a hitch to me suddenly popped out of hiding during my proofing phase to show another, more intractable side. Two key cultural references in the story, one of them a repeating theme no less. Did I mention they were KEY? Suddenly, I found myself faced with the not uncommon dilemma of translating cultural “ideas” for the reader. In most cases, this can be resolved with a simple footnote or introductory note. But, no, not here. Japanese ghost stories rely heavily on atmosphere and pacing. Nothing to break a nice oppressive mood like a dry, scholarly reference, or better yet, weaken the impact by giving all the details up front in an explanation of “you will see this and this is why it is important.”
So then I was faced with trying to weave those elements into the backbone of the original story itself.
All this without overly altering the original text, of course. o.0
So, you'll just have to take my word for it that it IS a good story. But you will only see a hint of that peeking through the translation.
My apologies in advance... addendum.
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