(Circa 1956, Nagano, Postwar Japan)

There was something suspicious about the death of Yokochi City’s mayor’s daughter. It was a nagging doubt that began when Kazuo saw the obituary in the Nagano Daily. Yumiko, twelve years old, heart failure. He called the obituary desk.

“Why did you print the child’s death? Surely the mayor’s family didn’t want publicity for their tragedy.”

“That’s the thing. The wife called and insisted. I guess she’s looking for public sympathy for the upcoming election. The dead girl wasn’t hers. She was from the mayor’s previous marriage.”

Something fell into place in Kazuo’s mind.

“Did she say anything else?”

“She asked if we could put in the obituary that the mayor was courageously dealing with his personal loss and was continuing to serve Yokochi City under the difficult circumstances. I told her I couldn’t do that.”

“Sounds too much like a political pitch,” Kazuo added.

“Of course I didn’t tell her that. She wasn’t happy about it. She settled for the one we printed. She demanded to look at it before it went to print. Do you think there’s a story?”

“I don’t know yet. Maybe.”

* * *

The middle school students looked suspiciously at Kazuo standing by the schoolyard exit.

“Did you know Yumiko-san?” he asked the group of girls. “The mayor’s daughter. She went to school here, didn’t she?”

“She wasn’t in our class,” a girl answered defensively.

“Can I talk to the students who knew Yumiko-san?”

“Who’re you?”

“I’m a distant relative. I couldn’t come in time for her funeral, so I wanted to talk to her friends.”

“Hey!” one of the boys standing nearby called out to another group of students who wasleaving the yard. “Wasn’t Yumiko-san in your class? This man wants to talk to her friends. He’s…”

“Her uncle,” Kazuo smiled.

Three girls separated from their group and advanced toward him with determined looks that Kazuo thought was right on the mark. I’m onto a story, he thought.

“Were you friends with Yumi-chan?”


“Was she sick for a long time?”

The girls hesitated.

“I was surprised. I didn’t know she had heart trouble,” Kazuo said.

“Her stepmother was very mean to her,” the tallest girl in the group answered.

“Yes, I knew that. I was always sorry about it.”

“Did you know her real mother? The one who died when she was little?” the shy one asked.

“Yes,” he took a big chance, “we were schoolmates.”

The ages did not match; Kazuo was too young, but the girls did not notice the difference. That was all he needed to say, no more convincing, conjuring, questioning necessary. They talked and talked, and he made mental notes on how her stepmother would send Yumiko to school on class hiking days with a lunch box filled with rotten food, “we all gave up some of our lunch so she could eat,” and how Yumiko was plump, even a little chubby when she was eight, and her father remarried and her stepmother was cruel about her weight, and Yumiko kept losing weight until she was terribly skinny by the time she was twelve.

“We noticed her bones were sticking out, during summer swimming class. She went back to wearing her old bathing suit from elementary school, because the one that was given to her by the school this year would fall off her, almost. That’s the last time we saw her, the last swimming class. She didn’t come back to school after the summer break.”

And then there was silence, and the girls had tears in their eyes, and a longing for something they could not articulate. Justice, Kazuo thought.

“Did Yumi-chan complain about her stepmother?”

“No, she was scared of her. She told us that her stepmother moved her to the attic from the room she always had, because she smelled bad.”

“What do you mean? What did she smell like?”

“I didn’t notice any strange smell,” the girl who had not yet spoken said quickly.

“I didn’t either. But.” The tall one stopped herself from saying more.

The girls hesitated again.

“So her stepmother was just being mean.” Kazuo showed his disapproval.

“Yumi-chan’s room was taken over by her stepbrother.”

Another pause. It will break, Kazuo thought, and waited.

“I think Yumi chan was locked in the attic,” the shy one whispered.

“Did you see it?”


“But when any of us called her house during the summer, her stepmother always said that Yumi chan couldn’t come to the phone.”

“Should we go to the police?” The tall one sounded hopeful.

“No,” Kazuo smiled assuringly. “Thank you for telling me stories about my dead classmate’s daughter. I was very sad, but now I feel better that she had such good friends.”

* * *

The houses in the neighborhood were imposing, and Kasuo surmised that their occupants had money. He knocked on the door of a house, which did not have a wall enclosing it. A typical housewife of a rich businessman stood before him.

“I’m sorry to bother you; I’m a reporter from the Nagano Daily. I’m writing a piece on the mayor. May I trouble you with some questions?”

“May I ask what sort of questions?”

“It’s for a personal profile. Not about the issues. It’s for the readers to get to know the mayor personally. I’m hoping to get impressions of the family from their neighbors.”

“Does the mayor know about the article?”

What good luck, Kazuo thought, this woman wants to tell me something that she knows the mayor is hiding.

“Not yet. I’m collecting stories at this point. It’s not definite that the paper will print an article. The interviewee can be anonymous, of course.”

“Please come in.”

The woman invited him in to the living room, and he sat at the smooth square low table on a thick cushion.

“May I offer you some tea?”

“No, thank you. I won’t stay long.”

“We’re relatively new to the neighborhood, so we haven’t known the family for too long. It’ll be better to talk to people who have lived here longer. My impressions are uninformed, so…”

“I’ll put your interview in the anonymous category.”

Kazuo said this casually as he reached for his small notebook in his pocket, so it was spoken during this seemingly mundane action, with no special weight. He did look at the woman’s face. He had good instinct about an informer’s subtext. He put the notebook on the table and looked up, to signal that she was safe to talk.

“We all noticed how much weight Yumiko-san lost. She was a chubby child a few years ago, so for a while, it seemed like a good thing. The mayor’s wife is very stylish.”

“Did you see Yumiko-san going in and out of the house during this past summer?”

“No. On the Tanabata festival day, the mayor’s family appeared at the local shrine, but it was just the couple and their son. People said that Yumiko-san was having some emotional difficulties. Perhaps…”

“Mental illness?”

“I wouldn’t know, of course.”

“Of course. Her schoolmates said that Yumiko-san had a strange smell. Have you heard anything about that?”

“The rumor was that she had some illness that made her underarms smell sour. It was not anything the family talked about.”

“Do you think that’s why Yumiko-san didn’t go out with her family?”

“I don’t know. His wife only talked about their son.”

“Yumiko-san was her stepdaughter,” Kazuo said reassuringly.

He could read on the woman’s face that she was relieved and encouraged that he already knew that fact.

“Yumiko-san got thinner and thinner. Then in the last few months, we would see her on the streets at night, on certain nights.”

“Taking a walk?”

“Well, it was always the night that the trash was put out,” the woman said slowly.

Kazuo felt a chill. I’m onto a homicide, he thought. He did not know yet why this idea had come to him from what the woman just said.

“Was she going through neighbors’ trash?”

“I can’t say for certain.”

“Looking for food.”

He should not have said those words. The interview was over. But he had enough to go on, enough knowledge now to get more people to talk.

“I really can’t say for certain if I’m not imagining all of this.”

“I understand. Thank you for talking to me.”


“I’ve written down no names. I give you my word.”

* * *

“The coroner is sticking to heart failure. Doesn’t want to get involved. What’s your angle?” the newspaper editor said to Kazuo.

“Mistreatment and neglect of a young girl. I’m sure they starved her to death, but I’ll stay away from that. I’ll put that in between the lines.”

“There’ll be some repercussions. It’s a small town, but he’s an ambitious mayor.”

An editor with no backbone, Kazuo thought. One way or another, he was going to get this story printed. All those who agreed to speak to him wanted some kind of justice, and Kazuo’s article could be a start, or could be the end, but it would be some kind of judgment on the mayor.

“It’s the right thing to do. Even if there are no further actions taken against the family, his constituency needs to know what kind of a mayor they’ll be electing. It’s our job to let them know.”

“I think it’s dangerous, but all right.”

* * *

A week later the article was printed, the phone rang at dinnertime and Kazuo picked up. His mother was immediately disagreeable, “The phones never stop ringing in this house. You’d think the news reporting would stop for dinner.” His father was silently listening from his immobile state. It was the editor.

“I just got a call from the police chief of Yokochi.”

“Is there going to be an investigation into the mayor’s conduct?”

“No, I warned you about publishing that article.”

“What happened?”

“The entire family committed suicide. Their bodies were discovered surrounding your article about the dead girl.”

Kazuo stood paralyzed, holding the phone after the editor had hung up. The receiver was making the screeching noise of a disconnected line. He did not remember saying any parting words to the editor. If his mother was complaining or telling him to hang up the phone and resume supper, he did not hear her. He turned his head with the receiver still in his hand, and saw his father looking at him from his futon in the next room. Kazuo thought he saw him nod, though he did not know if his father was capable of moving his head. His eyes were sad and gentle; Kazuo had not looked into his father’s eyes for many years.