Of Life and Death
Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.
- Hamlet, Act V Scene II 
Shion closed the book. He could hear the sound of rain.
This underground room was cut off from most outside sounds. But for some reason, the sounds of the wind and the rain always seemed to seep through the walls.
"You want me to read this book to you?"
"You really like tragedies, don't you. Why don't you pick something more fun?"
The mouse looked up at him and blinked its grape-coloured eyes. Shion adjusted himself in his chair and crossed his legs, with the mouse still on his knee.
The chair had once been quite a fine piece of furniture. It was evident from its sturdy build and the delicate patterns carved into the chair-back. But now, it was worn and old; the colour was peeling in various places, and the cushion had faded so much it was impossible to tell what colour it had been before. Still, it was one of the few pieces of furniture that this room had. A week ago, Shion had dug it out from among the books that covered two-thirds of the room's floor space.
"There might be an even bigger treasure hidden in these books, if you sorted them out." Shion had meant to sound serious, but Nezumi scoffed.
"Why don't you worry about building up some strength before thinking about stupid stuff like that? You're a little boy who's probably never had to do any physical labour since the day you were born. You're pale and skinny enough as it is."
"I was in charge of cleaning duties at the park. I had to do physical labour all the time."
Nezumi's shoulders hunched. His voice was tinged with contempt.
"Cleaning duties? Does cleaning count as physical labour in No. 6? All you had to do was operate the robots that did the maintenance and cleaning. What physical labour is, little boy―"
Nezumi grabbed Shion's arm and dug his fingers in so hard that he winced. Nezumi's fingers, slender at first glance, had a surprisingly strong grip.
"―is using these arms, your legs, and putting your back into it. Using your own body. Remember that."
Nezumi's biting and sarcastic way of speaking didn't bother Shion much anymore after he had gotten used to it. In its harshness and cynicism, there was often a truth that he couldn't help but agree with, and oftentimes he would come away more persuaded than offended. It was true, the work that Shion did in the Holy City of No. 6 was just to tap the keys of the control panel. He had never experienced the kind of labour that made his own body creak under its burden. He had no experience of what it was like to be damp with sweat, to have the skin of his hands blister and tear, to have his muscles ache from exhaustion; to be famished unbearably, and to fall into a comfortable slumber after a day's work.
He had never experienced it once.
"That's why I'm going to do this," Shion said determinedly, pointing at the mountains of books that piled high all over the room. "I'm going to organize them, sort them out, and shelve them in order. If that's not physical labour, I don't know what is."
"It'll take you a hundred years."
"I'll do it in a week."
Nezumi shrugged his shoulders again. "As you wish," he sighed.
"Do what you want. But stick with the books and bookshelves. Don't touch anything else."
"You don't have much other than books and bookshelves in here."
"Like you said, you might find some amazing treasure. To tell you the truth, even I don't know what's buried under these books."
The mice were chattering to each other from the nooks and tiny spaces between the books. Shion picked up a small, light-green volume.
"How long have you been living here?"
These bare concrete walls, thousands of books, this underground room― it didn't seem well-suited to be a human dwelling.
"You didn't grow up here, did you? Where were you―"
He closed his mouth. He noticed that Nezumi's grey eyes were harbouring a steely glint.
"I'm― I'm sorry."
Nezumi snatched the book out of Shion's hand and threw it aside.
"If you plan on staying here―" he wrapped his shoulders in the superfibre cloth, and gave an impatient sigh. "Then do something about that interrogation habit of yours. I don't know how much more I can take of you nosing around every little part of my life."
"I'm not nosing around. I just wanted to know."
"Sniffing around and questioning people for every piece of information you want is called nosing around. Remember that too."
Shion felt a jab of irritation at the way Nezumi's words seemed to push him away. Indignation welled up inside him. He wasn't nosing around. He grabbed Nezumi's arm as he made to leave the room.
"I barely know anything yet. That's why I wanted to know."
"And I'm saying that's called―"
"If it was something I could get by without knowing," Shion interrupted, "I wouldn't want to know about it. But I do want to know. To me, this is something I need to know. I want to know, and that's why―ach―" He bit his tongue. He clamped a hand over his mouth and squatted on the floor in pain. Tears stung at his eyes and the pain smarted in his mouth. Nezumi burst out laughing.
"Geez, does clumsiness come naturally to you too? I never get tired of looking at you. ―You alright?"
"Somewhat. Biting your tongue is really painful." When he had been in No. 6 ― that was from when he was born, to the age of sixteen― Shion had never once tripped over his words enough to bite his tongue. And it was the first time, too, that he had grabbed someone's arm without thinking, out of desire to say what his heart raced to tell, his words unable to keep up with his thoughts.
Nezumi knelt down, and peered into Shion's face. The light in his eyes, which had the sheen of finely-woven cloth, had subsided to a gentle glow.
"What do you want to know?"
"You―" Shion answered. "I want to know about you."
Nezumi's mouth fell open. He blinked several times.
"Shion, have you been reading any strange books lately?"
"Like romance novels, the kind that are cliché and over the top. You know, where a prince comes to rescue a damsel in distress, or when lovers who are torn apart overcome trials and tribulations to reunite again."
"I don't think I've read any of those."
"Then where the hell did you come up with that line? 'I want to know about you'," Nezumi echoed in disbelief.
"I don't have to learn that from anywhere to say it."
"Are you serious about what you just said?"
"Of course. Nezumi―" Shion wiped his lips, and looked directly into his grey eyes. "I want to know. I want to know because there are still so many things I don't know. All I know about you is that you've saved me. I don't know your real name, or how you grew up, or why you're living here alone― or what you're thinking of now, or what you're planning to do ― I have no idea. I don't know a single thing about you."
He was grabbed by the wrist. Nezumi's fingers were always cold, and rigid.
"Then I'll tell you something. Put your hand here." Shion did as he was told, and placed his hand on Nezumi's chest.
"What do you feel?"
"Feel―? Well, it feels like a man's chest, for one. It's hard, and flat."
"I know, I know. Too bad for you, I don't have big breasts. What else?"
What did he feel on his palm through the rough fabric of Nezumi's shirt? It was his heartbeat, his warmth, and the firmness of his flesh. Shion hesitated to put it into words. He didn't know why. He withdrew his hand, and curled his fingers over his palm. Nezumi chuckled quietly.
"My heart was beating, and it was warm. Right?"
"Of course. You're alive. It's normal for your heart to be beating and for you to feel warm."
"It is. I'm alive, and I'm right here in front of you. That's all you need to know. What more do you want?"
Nezumi stood up, and looked down at Shion. His gaze, like his fingers, was cold.
"What you want is information," he said icily. "My birth date, my development history, my height, weight, index of my intelligence, DNA data. You just want information that you can convert into numbers. That's the only way you ever try to understand other humans. That's why you can't understand the living people that are standing right in front of you."
Shion stood up as well. He clenched his fist harder.
"You're big on sarcasm, and love to make fun of people. You don't like fish, and you're a restless sleeper."
There was a moment of silence.
"You have an enormous amount of knowledge, and a wide range of it too― but none of it is systematic. Sometimes you're fickle and over-sensitive, but other times you're lazy and careless about the details. You adore piping-hot soup, and you get really grumpy when it doesn't have the right amount of salt. And last night, you kicked me three times in your sleep."
"Hey Shion, wait a minute―"
"Since coming here, this is what I've learned about you. They're not numbers. I would never substitute you for numbers. That's not what I want to do."
Nezumi's gaze slid away from him.
"I'm just a stranger to you," he said. "You shouldn't be interested in strangers. Four years ago, you saved my life, and I owe you a big debt for that. So that's why, this time, I helped you out. So if you want, you can stay here for as long as you wish and do what you want to do. But never think of wanting to know more about another stranger."
"Because it gets in the way."
"Gets in the way? Knowing things gets in my way?"
"Yes, for people like you. You're good at cramming knowledge, but you give in easily to your emotions. You're quick to trust in people, and try to attach yourself to them. I told you before, didn't I? Cut yourself off, and throw away everything you don't need."
"But what you're doing right now is just the opposite. You're starting to take interest in me and want to know more. You're trying to add even more to your burden. You're hopelessly stupid, just hopeless."
Shion couldn't understand what Nezumi was saying. It was more confounding and difficult to grasp than any scholarly book he had read.
"Nezumi, I don't understand what you're talking about." He voiced his feelings truthfully. Nezumi shrugged slightly.
"The more you know, the more emotionally attached you'll get. Then we can't be strangers anymore. And that'll be trouble for you."
"For me? Why?"
"When we become enemies, you won't be able to kill me." There was a hint of a laugh in his voice. Shion dug his feet firmly into the worn carpet.
"While you're busy being caught up in your emotions, I can go ahead and stab a knife into your heart. You know, a knife is a really ancient weapon, but it can come in handy sometimes."
"Why do you and I have to become enemies? That's just absurd. That's what's stupid, if anything."
"Really? I think it's pretty plausible."
"Nezumi!" Shion said heatedly.
There was a loud toppling noise as a pile of books fell over. A mouse hopped onto Nezumi's shoulder.
"Well, if you're really gonna organize these books, you better get cracking. One week will be over in no time. I'm going to work." Nezumi turned nimbly on his heel and walked out the door. Shion felt all the tension leave his body. He was cold and clammy. Conversations with Nezumi sometimes made him so wrought with nerves that he broke out in a cold sweat. Shion licked his dry lips.
"I don't even know what kind of job it is that you do," he muttered to himself. "I only wanted to know. Who's the stupid one here?" He let his words hang for a moment, then set out to organize the stacks of books.
"Shion." The door opened, and Nezumi's voice called him. A pair of work gloves were tossed his way.
"You'll crack a nail if you use your bare hands." The door closed before Shion could say thanks, and silence settled over the room again. This casual act of kindness, or those cold, dispassionate words from a few minutes ago― which one was he to believe? Shion couldn't grasp him. That was why he wished could reach out and take firm hold. Shion pulled the gloves over his hands, and lifted some books off the floor.
Of course. It's good to wear gloves when doing this kind of work. That's another thing I didn't even know.
You just want information that you can convert into numbers. That's the only way you ever try to understand other humans. The words that had been slapped in his face minutes before still remained stubbornly in his ears. This method of analyzing people through their data was something Shion had learned all his life in No. 6, ever since he had been deemed top-ranking in the Childrens' Examinations and was given a top-class learning environment.
The human body is made up of 274 different types of cells, numbering 60 billion in total. He remembered perfectly the names, shapes, and functions of each. He knew the locations and functions of each organ, and had also learned about the transmission paths of signals between the amygdala, perirhinal cortex and the hippocampus.
But it was no use to him. No matter how much he put his knowledge to work, he was unable to understand the person with whom he'd been living for almost a month.
Was Nezumi honestly thinking that they were going to become enemies some day? That they would end up killing each other― was that possible? Nezumi's words and actions were always shrouded in mystery, and confused Shion greatly.
He couldn't grasp him. That was why he wished could reach out and take firm hold. He wanted to know the part of Nezumi that couldn't be substituted for numbers or symbols. Shion shook his head. The mice scampered busily about his feet. I have to stop. Brooding over it isn't gonna help. Right now, I have to wage war with these books.
He was soon damp with perspiration. His back ached, and his arms felt heavy. But what interrupted Shion in his work was not in his bodily ache or exhaustion, but in the pages of the books he went through. He would casually flip to a story, and find himself sinking to the floor to read the rest. Wholly engrossed, he would soon lose track of the hour. And each time, a little mouse hopped up onto the page in stern reprimand.
"Give me one more minute. I'll put it away as soon as I'm finished reading this part."
"Alright, alright. I'm getting on it, okay? Are you satisfied now?"
And on the third day, he found it, under an old copy of a science journal. A small, silver box. His emergency kit.
On that stormy night four years ago, Nezumi had appeared, sopping wet, a sudden intruder in Shion's home. His shoulder stained with blood, the dripping boy before him looked as if he was about to collapse. Shion had extended his hand without thinking. His protective instinct had stirred so strongly in him that he had even forgotten to feel fear toward the intruder. Even after finding out that he was a VC― considered a violent and dangerous criminal in No. 6― that feeling did not change. Shion took Nezumi under his wing, and provided treatment for his wound and a momentary respite. He didn't hesitate to. He couldn't help but do what he did. As a result, Shion lost most of what he had, as well as a large part of his secure and privileged life.
That night, Shion had treated the wound, painfully evident of the bullet that had caused it, with the tools and medication in this emergency kit. The next morning, there were four things missing in Shion's presence― the red checkered shirt, the towel, the emergency kit, and Nezumi himself. Of them, two were back in his hands. Or, rather, emergency kit aside, perhaps it wasn't right to say that Nezumi had "come back" into his hands. Shion was the one who had fallen into a trap, and was about to be hauled to the Correctional Facility by the Security Bureau― Nezumi was the one who had saved him, and brought him outside No. 6.
He wasn't the one that came back. I was the one that burst in and took refuge here. That was the reality of it. He had fallen from the Utopian City― even called Holy by some―into this underground room, where no sunlight shone. He would probably never be able to return to No. 6 legitimately again. He had left his mother there. Was Karan still thinking of him, even after he had been cast as an escaped criminal? Shion knew it was fruitless to think about it, but his heart ached nonetheless.
He couldn't throw it all away like Nezumi. He couldn't cut himself off. He couldn't live without. He had to cling to something, else he would crumble and fall. He had to have someone in his heart always, else he would go insane.
Shion opened the lid of the box. It looked like the automatic sterilizer was still functioning. A scalpel and a roll of gauze glowed dimly under the faint reddish light of the sterile lamp. A nostalgic feeling welled up in his chest as if he was meeting an old friend.
"What? I know, I know. I'm getting there. Geez, you're strict." Shion laughed. As if in response, the mouse raised its front paws and chittered.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Philip Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. (5.2.317-318) (back)