Descent into Yoppa Valley
Like the other houses in the village, ours had a Yoppa spider web, of course. Our web was in the northeast corner of the eight-mat room that served as our living room, but it was different for every house. I'd heard of a house in which the web had been spun at the end of the corridor where the toilet used to be. The Yoppa spiders had made their web in front of the door, sealing it off for good.
The webs of the Yoppa spider typically spanned the height of the room, from floor to ceiling. The fine-spun threads were a translucent milk-white, and at first glance shone like silk or gleamed with a cocoon's sheen, but in fact you could see through to the centre of the web. The webs were three to four feet thick, so you couldn't see the wall behind them. Perhaps you could in strong sunlight, but Yoppa spiders shunned the sun and tended to make their webs in the darkest corners. So the gleam of the web's surface was generally due to electric light, and whether you had a twenty candela or a hundred candela bulb, the web would shine beautifully and variously. Its beauty was not the flat shine of a silk garment; it was textured, incomparably profound.
Yoppa spiders were milk-white opaque creatures less than a millimetre long, and apparently each web housed thousands of them. They were social animals, and omnivores at that, so I suspected they weren't actually spiders (despite their common name). If you looked hard at a web, you'd see them scattered here and there as stationary milk-white dots. But if you threw some leftovers at the web, hundreds of dots would swarm the morsel where it lay trapped in the resolutely sticky threads. To the viewer, this might look like the play of light and shadow on a thick silk screen. Or like a contracting nebula, or the ripples of a film played in reverse.
The Yoppa spider webs were important to their households. And the spiders wouldn't make a second web once they had moved in, so the residents were not too inconvenienced. But occasionally, you'd hear of young children who got stuck in the web and couldn't break free. Most of the time their parents noticed and rescued them right away, so nothing unfortunate had happened so far. Left alone overnight or for a whole day, however, a child would probably suffocate wrapped up tight in those threads. There was one time I got stuck, back when my parents were still alive. Some of the other kids had come over, and as we ran around the house I forgot completely about the web. I had more or less dived into it so my feet were off the ground, and the threads adhering to my whole body felt unbreakable. Unable to make even the slightest gesture, that sensation in my face, limbs—any bit of exposed skin—of being bitten by countless Yoppa spiders was truly, unforgettably bizarre. It was summer, I was two years old.
Thanks to the clamour of the other children I was swiftly rescued by my mother, but in Akeme's case she had to wait the better part of a day for her parents to return from the fields. That experience, I suspect, was responsible for her strangeness. After being stuck in a web with only milk-white mist before your eyes while getting chewed on by Yoppa spiders and beset by vision after peculiar vision over the course of an afternoon, no one would be surprised if you picked up the ability to see nations in miso soup.
The Yoppa spider webs were important to everyone in the village because they were a sign that you'd lived here for generations. The spiders did not make webs in new houses. And once the ceiling-to-floor, three-to-four-feet-deep web had been made in some corner of the house and populated with a few thousand of them, they would not expand the web or increase their number. That was their saturation point, perhaps.
That said, Yoppa spiders were gluttonous creatures whose appetites were at odds with their tiny bodies. Throw a sizeable chunk of last night's meat and potato stew at the web and all at once it would turn, thanks to the Yoppa spiders rushing to it, into a shiny milk-white blob that would disappear by morning. At the bottom of the web near the floor, one could always find a number of cocooned skeletons—mice, or something. Without anyone around to rescue it, an infant would probably be reduced to bones in a few days.
One night, Akeme and I were eating dinner in the eight-mat room.
"I see a society in the tofu." Her eyes were fixed on the cold tofu, in her usual manner.
"Must be an all-white society," I said with a chuckle, playing along. Out of curiosity, I asked, "What do you see in that Yoppa spider web?"
She looked at the web. "Same thing as always. I see politics in there."
"Haha, so they're running the country?"
"No. It's not engagement in politics that I see, it's politics."
I wondered about how Akeme sensed things, given that formless concepts like society and nation and politics were visible to her.
"Seems those Yoppa spiders can't be found anywhere except this village, I wonder why that is."
Akeme turned to me with a kind of quiet force in her eyes. "It probably has something to do with geomagnetism. The magnetic field in this area is strong."
"You can feel that sort of thing?"
"Wonder if this is a volcanic region."
"Or maybe there are iron deposits."
"Then the magnetic field must be strongest in Yoppa Valley."
Yoppa Valley lay at the boundary between this village and the next, in the direction of Mount Saikachi. It was so deep that you couldn't see the lightless bottom of the valley, where the Sōzu River flowed. That is, you couldn't see the bottom from the rope bridge suspended across it, and that was because of the Yoppa spider web. From the middle of the seventy-foot-long bridge, the top of the translucent milk-white web was about twenty fathoms below. From there, the web apparently continued for some tens of fathoms more, all the way to the Sōzu River. The valley was the stronghold of the Yoppa spiders, and as for how many spiders there were in that web, the number surely ran into tens or hundreds of thousands, something beyond imagination. The villagers often went fishing in the upper part of the river, and they had installed a net where the river narrowed as it entered the valley, so even if someone fell in upstream, he wouldn't be swept underneath the web. If you went further downstream and looked up from the base of the cliff, you'd see that the web ended right above the water's surface. That's why some villagers believed that the Yoppa spiders ate the fish that leapt from the river.
Some time ago, Tōgo's dog Shiro lost its footing and fell off the bridge. Shiro was the only hunting dog Tōgo had, and according to the hunter, even though Shiro rapidly disappeared into the cottony milk-white web, the mournful howling—growing more and more distant—went on for a long time.
"Akeme crosses that same bridge every day. Tell her to be careful."
Tōgo looked very serious as he told his story. Akeme did in fact go to Mount Saikachi every day to collect soap beans for medicinal use. The bridge was very old, and some of wooden footboards had started to rot, he said.
The three of us attended the same high school in a nearby town. Tōgo liked Akeme, but marrying for love was deemed irregular in this village and so he gave up early on. When I married Akeme, it remained a conversation topic for some time. Since the term ren ai—love—itself had never appeared in daily speech, the simple matter that "those two over there were in love" was talked about for weeks. Unaware that ren ai was pronounced at a constant pitch, the people of the village emphasised the first sound, saying ren ai instead.
"They're almost saying that you two plotted a rebellion, you know."
Tōgo had laughed as he let me in on it. Five years had passed since.
"Help. Akeme fell into the valley."
I was working in the greenhouse when Tōgo burst in. His face was pallid. He was in tears. There was more to it than him simply witnessing Akeme's fall, but the details could be dealt with later. I had never mentioned it to Akeme, but I had long worried that something like this would happen. I had some climbing rope stored for that very reason. As I ran inside the house, I shouted to Tōgo. "Go get Akihito."
He sped off without responding. When I rode my bicycle to the bridge, rope and sickle in hand, I found Tōgo waiting there with three guys around our age. I had lost a lot of time transporting the rope, which was at least a hundred metres long. It wasn't clear if the bridge could support the weight of five men and the rope, so two of them stayed behind to reel in the rope, while I followed Tōgo and Akihito out to the middle of the bridge, one end of the rope in hand. Several broken footboards were hanging from the bridge. There was a shadowy hollow in the patch of white web under us. The wind was a little strong. I secured the rope around my chest. As he helped, Tōgo confessed. He had crossed paths with Akeme here, where he reached for her breast. The Tōgo of before may not have been able to do such a thing to Akeme, but he had counted on passing it off as a joke, since they were both married and had probably become somewhat bolder. But Akeme hated such things most of all and reacted strongly. She put her foot down hard, and one rotted board snapped along with several others.
The wind blew again. With my feet hanging in mid-air, my body swayed and the whole bridge swayed too. Up on the bridge Tōgo and Akihito let out the rope slowly, using their shoulders for support. In another time and space, the three of us were playing a similar game—a memory that resurfaced in my suspended state. Akeme fell straight down, apparently, so if I headed down from where the footboards broke I'd reach the hollow in the web, as long as neither my body nor the bridge moved too much in the wind. Steady, steady, we called out to each other as I continued the descent. I shouted Akeme's name. No answer.
"I'm going in."
Okay—came the reply from the two men far above.
I shifted the rope further down my torso and went in head first. The sickle cut through the web. Dozens of Yoppa spiders floated away in a scattering of white dust. The sticky threads kept clinging to the sickle. I kept removing them from the blade. Cut, cling, clean, repeat. The Yoppa spiders must have quickly repaired the hole made by Akeme. I descended at a steady speed. Goggles would have been helpful, but in my earlier haste I hadn't thought so far ahead. To keep the spiders out of my eyes inside that dense cloud, I had to cut blind. With each swing I called out her name. No answer. The inside of my ears itched badly.
The itch started spreading all over my body. The Yoppa spiders were biting. I strained my eyes to pick out Akeme's form—any form—but there was only endless milk-white below. I looked up, the small patch of blue sky was still there. This itch. Damn spiders must be sinking their teeth into me. By now Akeme would be wrapped up tight, surely. I must not cut her body. I stared even harder, but I couldn't distinguish any gradations in the milk-white mass. How far did she fall?
A familiar feeling returned. One I had forgotten. A fleeting fragrance I picked up now and then. Now it seemed to alight on the confusion deep within me. Akeme as a child was there. This morning scene wrapped in milk-white mist—this must be the main building of our high school. Now also an adult woman—my wife—Akeme was sitting in the corner of a sunlit classroom.
"So, you were the princess of the Yoppa spiders all along."
It looked like she was making something.
"I'm wrapping some sweets. After this I have to send a telegram."
Of course, of course. "Yes, you're compiling the nation."
"Please do not run away."
Coherent exchanges predicated on a different logic spun out one after another, like threads being woven. I understood, I was convinced that this conversation was going to be extremely important.
"Clasp your hands."
We were in front of a cinema. To clasp hands was to watch a movie, I translated that almost immediately. Okay, I was starting to understand the language of this world. But inside the cinema was a storyteller with picture cards.
"The words are all just trade names."
"All those people have kindly gathered in the backyard of the temple."
Akeme was sitting in the eight-mat room. The web was behind her. She looked just like an engraving. Was it Culture Day today? "I thought I'd lost everything, but when the rain falls I really do like you."
She leaned backward, smiling brilliantly. "Is it that time already?"
"You didn't know? Tōgo and Akihito are with us too."
Everyone started turning into magazine illustrations. We were in an alley next to a barbershop, waiting for someone.
"No matter how much you cultivate, you can't supply electricity, you know."
"It's okay. Now I understand what you're saying." This must be how smaller enterprises stay afloat. Pulling in the excess threads of existence, Akeme would continue to accumulate wealth.
"But that's just a public image."
"I'd gladly accept a nation under your rule—" Wait. Wasn't I already one of her subjects? "Let me dismantle it."
"No. This isn't the world of legends. You hear something, don't you?"
"Thanks. We'll set up shelter around here." Next to the Agricultural Cooperative would do.
"See? The touch is sweet, isn't it?"
It was the villagers who were odd, not her. "We should have put up paper screens and seceded."
"I see it clearly."
Akeme's declarations would make all humans realise, surely? That in fact they were the ones suffering indignity? There were no fixed prices, in the end. "Tell you what. I'll seal up everything outside of the village instead."
"Yes, you shall. Let's print that on your business card."
Wearing an immaculate white kimono, Akeme held a porcelain bowl in her hands. Above and below her, limestone-like protrusions extended toward sky and earth.
"We are free."
"Indeed. Now cast off that chain."
A cautionary impulse from the most soft-spoken surface of my mind was, for some reason, working its way into the deeper layers. Stop. Don't do this. You'll lose your way in the midnight sun. But I had to, I had to slip out of the chain around my chest.
A sudden fall, then a realisation of water. Not deep. During the vision, I seem to have unfastened the climbing rope. Running water. This was the Sōzu River. No doubt about it, I must have penetrated the web and fallen to the bottom of Yoppa Valley. There wasn't much light, but I could see the Yoppa spider web overhead—a great milk-white dome of a ceiling. I heard Akeme's voice. On the bank, atop white rocks, a white dog was barking. I wondered if the vision had ended yet. What little light that did come through the web-ceiling gave my surroundings a curious cast of an otherworldly silver.
"I'm over here."
Akeme was calling to me from the bank. I stood up in the middle of the twelve-foot-wide river and waded through waist-deep water toward her. "You're okay."
"I knew you would come. That's why I'm here."
Shiro came running when I reached the bank and milled around my feet. "Hey, it's Shiro. He's alive."
"He survived by eating fish. Look, there's so much of it here."
The deep pools were brimming with char. Perhaps this was because they fed on all the Yoppa spiders that fell from above. It was the converse of the villagers' story. All along the river bank, soil and rock alike were blanketed white with Yoppa spider carcasses. "The very image of heaven."
We embraced. "After passing through the web, I now understand you and what you say."
"You were bitten, I guess. I fell down here directly."
Thanks to the resilience of the spiders' thread, she avoided crashing into the riverbed. We laughed and embraced once more. "You know, this really is a lot of fish."
"Yes. A secret fishing spot. Let's come here again."
"Sure. Let's do that."
I wanted to stay and savour everything about this place a while longer, but Tōgo and Akihito were bound to get worried.
Akeme pointed at the river. "We'll submerge ourselves over there and come out downstream."
She walked to the middle of the river and surrendered herself to the current. With Shiro in my arms, I followed her. In the water, her yellow clothes transformed her into a great golden carp. At the point where the web grazed the river's surface, she dived in. I grabbed Shiro's head and covered both his ears with one hand, then went under as well. The river became a gentle terraced waterfall, and, resurfacing now and then, two humans and one animal rolled up into a single ball tumbled leisurely from one mossy stone shelf to the next.
translated from the Japanese by Sayuri Okamoto and Sim Yee Chiang
Full text of "Yoppadani heno Koka" (Yoppadani heno Koka ―Jisen Fantasy Kessakusen―, Shinchosha, 2005), by permission of Yasutaka Tsutsui and Shinchosha.