Tonight, in All the Bars

Ramo Nakajima

Illustration by Guillaume Gilbert

This hospital never lets me sleep.

Dr. Akagawa had gone, and I was about to doze off when a thunderous rattle approached from the corridor. The door to the ward opened, and a woman wearing a mask came in pushing a serving cart, her hair in a triangular kerchief.

"Dinner's ready!"

All the patients in the ward woke up, and each one of them briskly pulled out an eating stand with wheels that was attached to their bedside table. I clumsily mimicked their movements. The sliding stand was shiny, its top covered with aluminum.

The masked woman picked up the plates and read out the name cards on each one.

"Mr. Nishiura, here you are. Mr. Fukurai, here you go. Mr. Yoshida, here you are. Mr. Kojima, here you go."

The meals were served to each table with an amazing swiftness. The woman bowed lightly and went off to the next ward, pushing the serving cart.

I looked at my allocated tray. There was a plastic bowl about seventy percent full with rice porridge, and on the plate there was some simmered tofu, root vegetables, a slice of steamed fish wrapped in foil, and a piece of umeboshi.

Was this the "high-protein, high-calorie" nutrition that Akagawa had talked about? I tilted my head doubtfully.

I glanced casually at everyone else's trays and saw that the menu varied depending on one's condition. Some had porridge, others rice. But young Ayase, poor thing, only got some clam broth, vegetables and porridge. It wouldn't be enough for a kid his age, I thought, but it might have been a special meal for a kidney patient.

Apparently, Mr. Fukurai was in the hospital for the same reason as me, and we seemed to have the same menu. Old Nishiura the Orangutan was given—believe it or not—a single banana. With the banana in his hand, Nishiura no longer seemed human, but I didn't even have enough energy to laugh.

On the whole, the meal was obviously designed for the sick. It was made up of dry and easy-to-digest ingredients, although it didn't matter much to me, since I had no appetite in the first place. If I had tried to eat anything solid, I would probably have vomited.

I tried to eat one spoonful of porridge. When I brought it up to my mouth, however, I was stifled by the warm steam invading my nostrils. Acids gushed up from the pit of my stomach. I gave up, and returned the tray with its untouched dishes to the cart parked in the corridor.

As I was already standing, I went to the toilet.

Hanging in a row on the wall were huge plastic bags filled with urine. Each bag was labeled "Nishiura," "Yoshida," and so forth. The bags had gradation marks printed on the side, so that the urine volume could easily be read. There was my bag too, which was, of course, still empty and flat.

I took a good look at the row of the bags to see who had the 'No.1 Urinary Output.' Old Tarumi Yoshida's was the winner, without a doubt. Twice as much as an average adult. It looked weighty, filled to the brim. More didn't always mean better, but I was simply in awe of Yoshida's overwhelming volume.

I picked up a beaker at the entrance to the toilet. It had a label which read: "Wash well and return here after your collection." As a rule, everything in the hospital was labeled rather excessively.

I urinated into the beaker. It made me feel bad as the color was still like black tea or Coca-Cola. My urine had turned brown about three months ago. It surprised me at first, as it was literally the color of Cola. To make matters worse, it gave off a disgusting smell that even caused me heartburn.

The color had returned to normal within a couple of days. I attributed this to overwork and forgot about it soon afterwards. But these past two months I'd been producing this blackish urine whenever I drank a lot, and the color had not returned to normal.

I scowled at the stench and poured the Coca-Cola-colored liquid into my bag, wishing I could throw it away. What an imposing presence old Yoshida's bag had, with its abundance of golden liquid! By contrast, mine was miserable and gloomy looking, and it seemed as if it were the servant of Yoshida's bag.

I imagined my bag filled with black urine hanging exposed for public viewing. It made me feel extremely embarrassed. It was a feeling akin to shame or 'total devastation,' which I hadn't had in a long time.

In this kind of situation, I tend to give in to natural impulses and abandon all logical thought. Without any hesitation, I brought my bag to the basin, held it under the tap and just let the water run. After adding a liter or so, I returned the bag to its hook. Now the bag boasted a huge belly like a mother-to-be and it looked heavy; it was no longer miserable. The color had also been modified, and it looked like proper human urine. It was even comparable to old Yoshida's. On the wall was an admirable urinary bag—mine. I was totally satisfied.

Before long, I started wondering whether the bag was only for measuring the amount of the urine. Could it also be for some kind of analysis? If so, they'd find chlorine or some minerals which no human excretion was supposed to contain.

I remembered a classmate in elementary school. He just wasn't able to get anything out on the morning of our health inspection, so he'd brought a piece of his dog's droppings, crammed into a matchbox.

A week later, the public health center summoned him and his parents. I have no idea what they'd found, but the lab guys had gone berserk looking into the microscope, that's for sure.

I might have been causing the same kind of fuss, but someone would probably take care of it.

The whole incident made me really tense, and I suddenly felt exhausted.

Then I remembered that I hadn't smoked for half a day.

The smoking room was within walking distance, in the middle of the corridor. It was a space the size of four-and-a-half tatami mats, and there were two benches, and a bookshelf laden with comic books, weekly magazines and newspapers.

I sat down, took a box from my sweatpants, and lit up a Long Peace.


I was told that I'd die at thirty-five by three people.

The first one was a doctor.

The winter I'd turned twenty-five, my face turned dark due to the alcohol I had accumulated internally. It wasn't the color of a suntan; it was ominous, clay-like, a sickly bluish-black. Among the black-skinned people there are those whose matte-ash skin seems to absorb or swallow all the light that shines on them. Mine was like that: it was a black with no spark.

At that time, I was working as a part-time proofreader for a newspaper company. One day, when I was touching up a draft with a red pen, and giving off some blue breath, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a writer I knew.

"Now I know why I haven't seen you for a while! Tell me about your vacation."


"No use hiding it! I can tell from your tanned face. You went skiing, didn't you?"

On the way home, I compared my face to those of others reflected in the subway train window. Indeed, I looked dark. It wasn't the color of a healthy sunburn, but was instead like a flea; it was purplish. I understood why the writer had mistaken it as a skiing tan, I looked that dark.

At the age of eighteen I'd started drinking like a fish, thinking it was cool. After a while, my organism got desensitized to the alcohol and I became a real alcoholic. A bottle of whiskey a night, and yet I would still be able to look after drunk friends.

At that time I was a student with no money, and there were days when I couldn't afford to drink. I'd say I spent two or three days a week sober.

Although I was a university graduate, I lost my first job in a door-to-door-sales company after a month. After that, I hopped from one job to another, full- or part-time; in this way, I turned twenty-five.

I started drinking every day with the money I'd earned. It was non-stop once I'd started. My earnings weren't enough for drinking out, so I always drank at home, a king-sized bottle of Torys Whiskey next to me. I had no refrigerator or freezer in my flat. It was the kind of life unrelated to such modern convenience as ice-cubes. I drank the whiskey neat, with or without a few snacks. I wanted to get drunk as soon as possible, in any case.

I started emptying a king-sized bottle of Torys every three days—or even every two.

One day, the owner of a nearby liquor store gave me a paper bag with a whisky glass in it. I'd bought my Torys so often from his store that I'd become a regular.

"You know what?" he said, "It's a premium only for customers who buy Reserve."

After that, I never returned to his store again. I felt I'd been pitied.

I was content with honest poverty during that period. I was proud and self-conscious of 'being special.' Yet I'd not been granted a position in a society; I had no idea how to display and perform with my ability. Confidence and uneasiness—they had been conjured up and were swirling around the bottom of my heart.

I reacted to every tiny thing, most of which I wouldn't give a damn about now. I was such a green youth that if squashed, I would have produced some chlorophyll juice.

I drank more and more. The face of one pure-green turned dusky-black accordingly.

The day after being told I had a skier's sunburn, I visited a hospital. I gave a blood sample and underwent a physical examination. When I returned four days later, a plump doctor was expecting me.

"Your liver—it's not functioning well," he said.

He kept his eyes on the chart. My 'GOT,' 'GPT,' or 'gamma-GTP' had, according to him, leapt far beyond the average. He ordered me to abstain from alcohol for a month.

As it was the first time I'd ever consulted a doctor, I obediently stayed away from alcohol. For three weeks.

When I revisited him three weeks later, he said the results had returned to normal.

"It seems you've recovered quickly as you're still young. But you should be warned: if you keep drinking at this pace for ten years, I'm one hundred percent sure you'll get hepatic cirrhosis. And that will kill you."

The smug tone of his assertion lingers in my ears even now.

Nevertheless, I kept drinking at that pace for the next ten years.

That doctor was my first prophet.

Another was a professional fortune-teller.

This one had a stall in one of those 'fortune-teller villages' in a corner of a city, and was known for his accuracy using eight-trigram divination.

"You'll enjoy good luck for the coming three, four years. Your talent will bloom, your efforts will be repaid. Your financial luck isn't good, though. No luck with women, either. You'll have an immense disappointment in love which might kill you. I see an ill omen—something very bad will happen at the age of thirty-five. Beware of diseases of the throat, bronchus, stomach or liver."

Most of what he said was spot-on. I wrote a book and gained the favor of the critics I admired. My publisher went bust, however, and total sales didn't go beyond a mere five hundred.

He hit the nail on the head regarding the love matter too. I hovered between heaven and hell as a result of that incident.

As for the "very bad something at thirty-five," well, here I am.

That was the second prophet.

The third was my old friend Tendo-ji, Fujio Tendo-ji. We met at the age of eighteen or nineteen and we were a right pair of good-for-nothings. He was a real delinquent, but a genuine poet at the same time. He didn't write much, but implied in his behavior, the way he carried himself in fights, his habit of getting dead drunk, and even in his sleep-talking, that he was refined poetry incarnate—it's difficult to explain in words. He was, as it were, pure 'poetry,' devoid of any sentiment and rhetoric by nature. I can still remember his deep voice and thin, ribbed chest.

In his late twenties, in a corner of the city Kobe, Tendo-ji was hit by a car while drunk and killed outright.

―And it was this guy who told my fortune.

It happened when we went out for a drink in a run-down bar for the first time in a long time.

Seeing me empty a bottle of whiskey in no time at all, he said:

"You'll live till thirty-five. Yeah, thirty-five."

Tendo-ji repeated this and smiled. He foretold nothing about himself, however.

Even I couldn't ignore The Three, as they'd all predicted the same thing.

But I don't feel like I ended up like this because I was under their spell.

What kind of calculation, reasoning, statistic, instinct, or inspiration made The Three converge on the number thirty-five?

Moreover, what kind of trick was making me stay in a sickbed like this, submitting to their prophecy? Wasn't I supposed to be a diehard rebel?

Having said that, what's happening is something that's being staged on my body. And, having said that, now I'm in the audience, watching the show with breathless attention. No sadness, no anger. Though surprised and appalled, we may even laugh and cheer at the denouement.


I was in the Temple of Gills, halfway up the hill in Kyoto, with Fujio Tendo-ji. It was the middle of a festival and the long approach to the temple was wall-to-wall with stalls and show tents.

Having sat on the ground near the gate, Tendo-ji and I were looking down at the lengthy parade of people making their way up.

It was composed of three layers: the left was old men, the right was old women, and in the middle was a throng of meter-high dwarves of indistinct gender.

The old ones on the left and right all seemed to be way over seventy; chanting a prayer to Amitabha. They were coming up the stone steps as slowly as possible.

They seemed to be burning incense, and purple smoke came floating around us, drawing foxtail shapes at times.

It struck me as bizarre that we didn't see anyone climbing down the hill, despite the huge number of old people who kept coming up.

"Look. They're coming up for that."

I looked up at the hilltop, and there I saw a wiggling mass of flesh covering the entire summit.

It was a mammoth slug with bright purplish skin and some frill-like pleats on its lower ventral side. It also reminded me of a kind of sea-hare or sea-slug.

"It just stuck itself on the hilltop last night, out of the blue," Fujio said, grinning.

"It was reported in the newspapers, and then everyone started coming up in droves like this."

"I see."

I looked up nervously at the gigantic slug on the hilltop.

"Is that sticking there for good? It's not going to climb down, is it?"

"No idea. But given all these old men and women climbing up, it has no reason to come down all the way, I guess?"

"So, these climbing ones will be......"

"Yeah. Some pictures taken from a helicopter seem to show that it has countless numbers of holes on its side; and from each of them a tentacle seems to be slithering out, like the tongue of an anteater. It seems to react to the sound of Amitabha chanting; they are said to be 'taken' one by one at the summit."

"What on earth is that?"

"A coelenterate."

Fujio said this assertively. This was his way, to say things without beating around the bush. Whether or not his argument was correct was the last thing he cared about. His priority was to make the power dynamic clear, implying his superiority; and that was it. At times he led himself and those around him into tricky situations due to this assertiveness.

"And what about us?"

"Wait and see what happens next. And then climb to the top, maybe."

"Climb to the top?"

"Yeah. I wanna climb up there."

"Nuh-uh, not me. I'm not joining this crazy tour of old folks to pay a damn visit to that thing up there."

"But if all goes well, we could bring back that thing's secretions!"

"Its... secretions?"

"You're kidding, right? Didn't you notice the smell?"

Now that he mentioned it, I sensed a fresh lime-like and sugary sweet aroma hanging in the air.

"What's that smell? I'm sure it's not from the incense."

"This is the very scent of the glandular secretions produced by that thing, brought down here by the wind. Those old pilgrims are mesmerized by this aroma."

"I see."

"Insectivores produce sweet-smelling substances to attract their prey. Some animals like musk deer have glands that produce aromatic oils too. One variety of cockroach releases an irresistible odor from under its wing, and then ravishes the female of the species while she's savoring it. The secretion produced by that slug is a supreme treasure for human beings; it's what's called 'liquid ecstasy.'"

I felt as if I'd heard that name a long time ago.

"Xú Fú, Marco Polo, Alexander the Great; all of them traveled the world in pursuit of this liquid. The philosopher's stone, sought by all the ancient alchemists, was just its crystallized form. Look here."

Fujio took out a chartula from his pocket and opened it. A tiny, amethyst-like purple crystal, less than half a millimeter across, was sitting on the paper.

"Is this it?" I asked.

"It is."

"How does it work?"

"I'll show you. Follow me."

Fujio stood up and went through the gate into the precincts.

Behind the gate was a big stone mortar, full of limpid water, along with a couple of ladles. It looked as if the water was bubbling up endlessly from a hole in the mortar. The signpost that stood by the mortar read:

"Temple of Gills, Stone Mortar Spring."

As is often the case with this kind of thing, it was explained that the clear water began to emerge when Kōbō-Daishi knocked the mortar with his stick.

"Look, Kojima. Look carefully."

Fujio took out the chartula, picked up the amethyst-like crystal between his fingers with great care, and gently put it into the water.

As the crystal dropped, the clear water swiftly turned purple. At the same time, a fresh, sour-sweet fragrance began to envelop the area.

"Come on. Have some."

Fujio scooped up the water and thrust the ladle under my nose. I took it and sipped cautiously.

There was a sensation of icy beads popping in my mouth, followed by an elfin fragrance that flew straight to my nose. There was a super-subtle sweetness on the tip of my tongue, laced with the light tang of expensive fruit. And between all the layers of describable tastes, there lay an as-yet-to-be-named flavor, airy and yet full-bodied. Once ingested, the liquid ran down my throat, nonchalant as a cool stream, leaving only a soft echo of pale lilac in my mouth, and then it was gone.

"How do you like it?"


I had no words to describe the taste of the liquid. I had nothing to add after saying:

"It's just like..."

I wanted another mouthful.

I lowered my mouth to the rim of the ladle and drank the liquid in big gulps.

Fujio scooped some for himself, and savored it with his eyes closed. Excess liquid dribbled in a line from his loose-lipped mouth.

"I've got no words for this!" Fujio grinned.

Finishing the first serving in one go, Fujio thrust the ladle into the mortar for a second helping.

"Look, Fujio..."


"This is a spring, so we must hurry before it gets too diluted."

"Don't worry. The crystal will only dissolve little by little. It'll keep for a couple of days at least."

"Have some more, anyway. You'd have no trouble no matter how much you have. This liquid, this one alone, won't floor you."

"What drink? You mean this is alcohol?"

"You silly fool! What did you think you were gulping?"

Now that he mentioned it, I felt a warmth growing in my stomach.

I tried a second mouthful. Having tasted and swallowed half a ladleful, I found my entire stomach heating up, as if I were sunbathing. No doubt about it: it was alcohol. But it had none of the irritating smell or any of the stinging sensations peculiar to alcohol. The liquid tasted so light and fresh that it deceived even me, a prime drunkard.

The first kick was not like the one whiskey or vodka gives: it didn't burn your stomach, but rather acted like a tiny sun heating up your entire body up from inside; that's how I felt.

For a while, Fujio and I kept drinking the liquid without a word.

After the fifth or sixth scoop, I finally began to feel drunk. It brought me straight into euphoria, never making me tired or bored. Fujio and I hardly said anything. We only exchanged smiling looks.

"Of course..."

Blissed out, I was the first to speak:

"What I've been searching for all this time—this is it. Although I never thought that such a thing really existed."

"Right? Me too, I've been looking for this shit for ages. Something with a nice fruity flavor, something that gets you buzzed without the hangover, something that makes your body better the more you drink. Been looking for it for a long time."

"If we could get this whenever we wanted, we'd be in paradise."

"Relax, you'll get your fill. I'm gonna head up to the summit right now and collect a shitload of that thing's juices."

"No way, Tendoji, that's too dangerous. What if you die up there?"

"C'mon, I won't have to get that close. There's bound to be bits of its secretion in its trail, just like a slug's. During the day it'll crystallize in the sunlight, and there'll be, like, hundreds of chunks just lying about, as big as your fist. No sweat at all. Just like that, I'll have so much of the stuff that the two of us could drink for a millennium and still not be done."

Again, Fujio spoke as if it were a foregone conclusion.

"Well, I'm going with you."

"No, we can't have two young people in the middle of that parade of old-timers, we'd stand out right away. You just keep drinking here, Kojima, and wait for me. I'll be back in about two hours."

With that, Fujio drank one last scoopful of the liquid with obvious enjoyment, then threw the ladle back into the stone mortar.

"See ya."

"Be careful up there."

Fujio went out through the gate, down the stone steps, and walked toward the long parade of old people.

I became a little uneasy as I watched his back.

The parade stretched on as before in its infinite length, and it seemed as if its numbers had grown considerably since earlier.

A while after Tendoji Fujio joined the parade, he got sucked into the crowd and I couldn't make him out any more. I focused harder on that parade.

I spotted old Nishiura, in the middle of the parade, riding piggyback on Fukurai. Fukurai was plainly showing his displeasure on his face; but old Nishiura was stuck to his back like an octopus, grinning, with his teeth bared just like a monkey.

A few rows behind them was old Yoshida, dragging his feet as he moved forward. His forehead was split right open and his whole face was covered in blood.

I looked up at the summit toward which this silent procession was heading.

The giant sea hare had grown larger compared to when I first saw it, by one or two sizes perhaps. Its movements also seemed more energetic, and the thousands of frill-like fleshy strips along the side of its body wriggled with unbridled vigor.

I was convinced that the sea hare was about to start descending.

"Oy, Tendoji, get out of there now—!"

I shouted with all the force I had.

"Mr. Kojima? Mr. Kojima..."

I woke to find the nurse shaking me gently. My back was covered in cold sweat.

"Please get up, I'm here to take a blood sample."

My head was foggy. My throat was parched. I needed that drink. The light purple liquid. Aromatic, spring-sweet wine of the mortar. The wine of legends. Ambrosia. Soma.

A rubber tube appeared and tightened itself around my arm. Clenched fist, popped vein. I looked away. A pinprick of pain. The vial filled up with my jet-black blood.

A thermometer was stuck in my mouth.


"Blood pressure reading: 90/160. That's high, even though we got all that blood out of you, eh? Starting from today, please take your own temperature every day, between 2:30 and 3:00 pm, ok? Then just put it back, without shaking it, in the case by your pillow. We'll collect the readings at regular intervals. Also, you'll have to record your weight every Tuesday, using the machine in the examination room. Don't forget! What's your weight now?"

"Maybe... fifty kilos?"

"My, you're really skinny."

"Well, I used to be around fifty-eight or sixty kilos, actually."

The nurse looked at my sallow face with a touch of envy, or maybe it was my imagination. In that instant, I thought of a title for that book I ought to write. It wasn't going to be some lousy mystery novel.

Get Sick, Get Slim: The Hospital Diet.

It was sure to be a bestseller. Why didn't I think of it sooner?

"And just what are you grinning about?"

The nurse asked me this as she drew the thermometer from my mouth.

"Oh, nothing..."

She placed some kind of medication beside my pillow; it didn't look like a vitamin, or anything I'd seen before.

"Mr. Kojima, for the next two days, please take two of these after every meal. They're for your abdominal ultrasound the day after tomorrow. Don't forget them, ok?"

"So... you're going to—what do you call it—poke a hole and look inside my gut?"

"That's a liver biopsy. Yours is an ultrasound."

"Will it hurt?"

"Not at all. It's just a scan using sound waves. Are you scared?"

"Nope. Well, yes."

"Also, you'll have to go for a daily ECG from now on and, in addition to the volume test, there's another test to be done on your urine, so please hand it in at the collection window."

"That's a lot of tests."

"Yes, you might find it hard with all the different tests required now. There's even a test for how fast your body breaks down sugar—it's called a glucose tolerance test—where you'll have to give five blood samples at thirty-minute intervals. So just lie down quietly, eat well, and get your strength back, okay?"


"And one more thing, Mr. Kojima. Don't drink so much water."


"A healthy urine flow is a good thing, but that much is definitely excessive. It'll dilute your gastric acids and affect your digestion."

The nurse looked dead serious as she said this, and I recalled yesterday's incident with the urine bag. I nodded, furrowing my brow in a display of utter gravity.

"I understand; I'll be more careful. I've always liked the taste of water."

"Is that so? If you like it that much, you should just drink it instead of alcohol."


Later, I went to the examination room for the ECG. When I returned to the ward, the IV drip was there again, waiting for me.

translated from the Japanese by Sayuri Okamoto and Sim Yee Chiang

By permission of Kodansha.