Read by Karissa Vacker
By Kanae Minato
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When they were girls, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into leaving their friend Emily with a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurred: Emily was found murdered hours later.
The four friends were never able to describe the stranger to the police; the killer’s trail went cold. Asako, the bereaved mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will be the ones to pay for her daughter’s murder . . .
Like Confessions, Kanae Minato’s award-winning, internationally bestselling debut, Penance is a dark tale of revenge and psychological drama that will leave readers breathless.
Until 2010, Japan had a fifteen-year statute of limitations on the crime of murder.
Thank you so much for attending my wedding the other day.
I was worried all through the ceremony that when you saw the crowd of my relatives who’d come from that country town you’d remember the events that took place back then, back in that town, and be upset. They never seem aware of how rude they are sometimes.
The only good thing about that town I grew up in is the sparkling clean air. The first time I realized this—that besides the clean air the town had little else to recommend it—was seven years ago, after I’d graduated from high school and gone on to a women’s college in Tokyo.
I lived in the college dorm for four years. When I told my parents I wanted to go to Tokyo for college, both of them were dead set against it.
Some lowlife might trick you, they argued, and force you into prostitution. Then what? What’ll you do if you get hooked on drugs? Or get killed?
You were raised in the city, Asako, so I’m sure you’ll laugh when you read this, wondering what could possibly lead them to these ideas.
“You watch too much 24 City,” I countered, naming one of my parents’ favorite TV shows, but the truth is I’d often imagined the same kind of frightening scenario. Still, I desperately wanted to go to Tokyo.
“What’s so special about Tokyo?” my father shot back. “There are other colleges in our prefecture that offer the major you’re interested in. If it’s too much to commute to school from home, apartments are cheaper here. And if anything happens, you can always come home. We can all rest easy.”
“Rest easy? Are you kidding? You’re the ones who know best how petrified I’ve been the last eight years living here.”
Once I said this, they stopped their objections. They’d allow me to go to Tokyo, but on one condition: that I didn’t live alone in an apartment, but in the dorm. I was fine with that.
I’d never been to Tokyo in my life and found it a totally different world. When I got off the Shinkansen train the first time, the station was packed—people as far as the eye could see. There were probably more people in the station alone than in the whole town I’d just come from. But what surprised me even more was how people managed to walk without bumping into each other. Even as I wandered around, stopping to check the signs to take the subway, I was able to arrive at my destination without colliding with anyone.
I was surprised, too, when I got on the subway. Passengers hardly ever talked to each other, even when they’d gotten on board with others. Occasionally I’d hear someone laugh or people talking, but those were usually foreigners, not Japanese.
Until junior high I’d walked to school every day, then ridden a bicycle, so the only time I’d taken a train was a couple of times a year when I went with friends or family to a neighboring town to a department store or shopping mall. During the hour-long ride we never stopped talking.
What should I buy? It’s their birthday next month so I should get them something. What should we have for lunch? McDonald’s or KFC?…The way we acted—talking the entire way—wasn’t so outlandish, I don’t think. There were lots of people talking and laughing throughout the train, and nobody objected, so I always thought that was how you acted on trains.
It suddenly struck me that Tokyo residents don’t notice their surroundings. They have no interest in the people around them. As long as the person sitting next to them isn’t bothering them, they couldn’t care less. Not a speck of interest in the title of the book the person across the aisle from them is reading. Even if the person standing right in front of them is carrying an expensive designer bag, nobody notices.
Before I realized it, I was crying. People might think I’m homesick, I thought, a hick lugging a huge bag around, sitting there blubbering. Embarrassed, I wiped away the tears, glancing nervously around me, but not a single person was looking at me.
Right then it struck me: Tokyo was a more wonderful place than I’d ever imagined.
I didn’t come to Tokyo for the upscale shopping or all the great places to have fun at. What I wanted was to melt into the crowds of people who didn’t know about my past, and vanish.
More precisely, because I’d witnessed a murder, and the person who committed it had not been caught, what I wanted more than anything was to disappear from his radar forever.
Four of us shared a dorm room, all from rural places far from Tokyo, and the first day in the dorm we vied with each other in bragging about our hometowns. My place has the most delicious udon noodles, one said proudly, mine has a hot springs, mine has a famous Major League Baseball player who lives near my parents’ house, said another. That sort of thing. The other three girls were from the countryside, but at least I’d heard of the towns they came from.
But when I told them the name of my town, none of them even knew which prefecture it was in.
“What kind of place is it?” they asked, and I answered: “A place where the air is sparkling clean.” I know you of all people would understand this, Asako, that I wasn’t just saying this because I had nothing else to be proud of.
I’d been born in that rural town and breathed the air there every day without ever giving it a second thought. But the first time I became aware that the air was so very pure and fresh was just after I entered fourth grade, the spring of the year the murder took place.
One day our social studies teacher, Ms. Sawada, told us, “You all live in the place with the cleanest air in all of Japan. Do you know why I can say that? Precision instruments used in hospitals and research have to be manufactured in a completely dust-free environment. That’s why they build factories that make these instruments in places where the air is pure. And this year a new factory was built here by Adachi Manufacturing Company. That the top precision instrument maker in Japan built a factory here means this town was chosen because it has the cleanest air in the whole country. You should all be very proud of living in this wonderful town.”
After class we asked Emily if what the teacher said was true.
“Papa said the same thing,” she replied.
That decided it. Since Emily said so, we knew our town really did have clean, pure air. We didn’t believe it because her father, with his fierce look and glaring eyes, was some higher-up in Adachi Manufacturing. We believed it because he was from Tokyo.
The town didn’t have a single mini-mart back then, but none of us kids minded. We accepted things the way they were. We might see commercials on TV for Barbie dolls, but we’d never actually laid eyes on any so we didn’t particularly want one. Far more precious to us were the fancy French dolls that people in town proudly displayed in their living rooms.
Still, after the new factory came, a strange new sensation started to arise among us. From Emily and the other transfer students from Tokyo, we started to detect that the lifestyle we’d always thought was perfectly normal was, in fact, inconvenient and behind the times.
Everything about these new residents’ lives was different, starting with where they lived. After Adachi Manufacturing came to town, the company built an apartment building for employees, the first building ever in town over five stories tall. It was designed to harmonize with the surroundings, but for us it rose up like a castle in some far-off land.
One day Emily invited some of the girls in her class who lived in the West District part of town, where the building was, to her apartment on the top, the seventh, floor. The night before, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.
Four of us were invited to her place: me, Maki, Yuka, and Akiko, all friends from long ago, raised in the same neighborhood.
When we entered Emily’s apartment it felt like stepping into a foreign land. The open floor plan was the first surprise. We had no concept at the time of an LDK—a combined great room type of living-dining-kitchen space—and were surprised that the places where you watched TV and cooked and ate were all a single unit, with no walls separating them.
We were served English tea in teacups we kids would never have been allowed to touch if they were in our house, with a matching teapot, and on matching plates were tarts with a variety of different fruits I’d never seen before. The strawberries were the only fruit I recognized. I stuffed myself, enraptured, but felt as if something wasn’t quite right.
After eating we decided to play dolls and Emily brought out a Barbie doll and a plastic, heart-shaped dress case from her room. The Barbie doll was dressed exactly as Emily was that day.
“There’s a shop in Shibuya that sells the same outfits that Barbie wears, and my parents bought it for me for my birthday last year. Right, Mama?”
All I wanted at this point was to get out of there.
Right then one of the other girls said, “Emily, could you show us your family’s French doll?”
“What’s that?” Emily shot us a blank stare.
Emily didn’t own a French doll. And she had no idea what we were talking about. I’d been feeling deflated, but hearing this, I perked up. It was only natural that Emily didn’t know about French dolls. In the city they were an obsolete status symbol.
The old Japanese-style wooden homes around our town all had one thing in common. The room closest to the front door, a sitting room, was done in Western style and was sure to have a chandelier and a French doll inside a glass display case. People had owned French dolls for ages, but about a month before Emily moved to town it suddenly became popular for the local girls to go from house to house to admire the different dolls.
At first we just went to friends’ houses, but soon we started dropping by other people’s houses in the neighborhood. It was a rural town and we knew almost everyone by sight, and the room was right next to the entrance, so hardly anybody turned us down.
Before long we began compiling Doll Memos, as we called them, ranking the French dolls we’d seen. Back then kids couldn’t snap photos easily like now, so we drew pictures of the dolls in notebooks with colored pencils.
Mostly we ranked them according to how pretty the dresses were, but I liked looking at the dolls’ faces. I felt as if the dolls people chose reflected their personalities, and the faces of the dolls seemed to resemble the faces of the mother and kids in the family.
Emily said she wanted to see some French dolls, so we took her on a tour of the ten best in our rankings. Emily was sure that the other children in her building hadn’t seen French dolls before either, so she invited a few to join her and we all trooped off to various homes in town along with children whose grades and names we didn’t even know. For some reason a few boys tagged along, too.
The person in the first house we visited said, “Oh, so you’re on the French Doll Tour?” We liked the term so much, that’s what we dubbed our outing that day.
The French doll in my house was ranked number two on the list. The neckline and hem of the pink dress were fringed with soft, pure-white feathers, with large purple roses adorning the shoulders and waist. But what I really liked was how the doll’s face looked a bit like mine. I’d added a small mole under the right eye, like I have, with Magic Marker, which upset my mother. I also liked that it wasn’t clear how old the doll was supposed to be, whether it was a child or an adult.
“Isn’t it great?” I boasted, but the city kids had already lost interest, and I remember being bitterly disappointed.
After we’d visited the last home Emily said, “I guess I like Barbie dolls better after all.” I think she said it innocently enough, but that one statement from her was all it took for those French dolls, up till now the most radiant things in our lives, to suddenly appear worthless. After that day we stopped playing with French dolls, and my Doll Memo disappeared into the back of a drawer.
But three months later the words French doll were on everyone’s lips in town, because of the so-called French Doll Robbery. I wonder how much you know about this incident, Asako.
At the end of July, on the evening of the summer festival, French dolls were stolen from five houses in town, my house included. There was no other damage to the houses, and no money stolen. Just the French dolls missing from their glass display cases. A strange affair all around.
The festival was held on the grounds of the civic center on the outskirts of town, with the Obon dances starting around 6 p.m., a karaoke contest at 9, and then the whole event winding up at 11 p.m. The neighborhood association provided watermelons, ice cream, somen noodles, and beer free of charge, and there were a few stalls selling shaved ice and cotton candy. It was a big event for the town.
The homes the French dolls were stolen from, including mine, had two things in common. First, the whole family was out at the festival, and second, none of the houses had locked their front doors. Most houses in town were like that at the time, I think. When people were asked to deliver something to another house, they would just open the front door when no one was at home and place the package inside. It’s just what people did.
Since we’d had our little French Doll Tour, the police right away pegged it as a prank by children, but the perpetrator and the dolls were never found, and eventually it was shelved as some unexplained, odd event on the night of the festival.
I remember my father getting angry with me: “It’s because you kids had that tour, that’s why. Some child who didn’t have a French doll at home got jealous and stole them.”
Our summer vacation started with that incident, but still we went out every day, from morning to evening, to play. We especially liked the pool at our elementary school. We’d spend the morning at one of our houses doing our summer homework assignments, then go to the pool in the afternoon, and even after the pool closed at four we’d stick around the school grounds playing until it got dark.
Nowadays even rural elementary schools have put in place various crime prevention measures, not allowing anyone, even kids, onto the grounds on days when there’s no school, but back then we could play until dark and no one said a word.
Sometimes, even, if we went back home before “Greensleeves” started playing over the town PA system, announcing that it was 6 p.m., our parents would ask what was wrong, whether we’d quarreled with our friends.
Right after the murder that day, and many times afterward, I told everything, all I could possibly recall about it, to the police, to teachers at school, to my parents, to the parents of the other children, and to you, Asako, and your husband. But here I’d like to write down the events one more time, in the order they occurred. For what will probably be the very last time…
On that day, the evening of August fourteenth, a lot of the kids we usually played with had gone to relatives’ houses for the Obon holiday, or had relatives visiting theirs, so it was just five of us playing in the school grounds—me, Maki, Yuka and Akiko, and Emily.
The four of us from town either lived with our grandparents, or our grandparents and relatives lived in town, so Obon wasn’t a particularly special day for us and we went out to play like always.
Most of the people from the Adachi factory who’d moved here from Tokyo were out of town for the holiday. Emily, though, was still in town because her father worked through the holiday, she told us that day. Later, at the end of August, they were going to take a family vacation to Guam.
The French Doll Tour had introduced a little awkwardness into our relationship with Emily, but that soon passed and we were all friends again. One reason may have been Emily’s enthusiasm for playing Explorers, which was popular then.
The pool was closed through the Obon holiday, so we played volleyball in a corner of the school grounds, in the shade next to the gym. All we did was form a circle and pass the ball back and forth, but we were really into it, aiming to pass the ball a hundred times without missing.
That’s when that man appeared.
“Hello there, do you girls have a second?” we heard a voice ask.
A gray work shirt with yellowish-green tinge, work pants, a white towel wrapped around his head.
The sudden voice threw Yuka, who was out of form that day, and she missed a pass. The man picked up the ball, which had rolled toward him, and came over to us. Smiling broadly, he said the following quite clearly:
“I’m here to check the ventilation fan for the changing rooms in the pool, but I totally forgot to bring a ladder. We just need to tighten a few screws, so could one of you ride piggyback on my shoulders and help out?”
Nowadays elementary school pupils would have been on their guard in a situation like this. Schools are not necessarily seen as safe places. If we had been aware of that, I wonder if we would have avoided what happened. Maybe we should have been taught to scream and run away if a stranger talked to us?
In our small, rural town, though, the most we’d been warned was not to get in a stranger’s car if he told us he’d give us gum or candy, or told us our parents were sick and he’d take us to them.
So we weren’t at all suspicious about this man before us. I don’t know about Emily, but I think that’s how the others felt. In fact, when we heard the words help out we vied to be the one chosen.
“I’m the smallest, so you could piggyback me easiest,” one of us said.
“But what if you can’t reach the fan? Shouldn’t I go since I’m the tallest?”
“But can either of you tighten screws? I’m good at it.”
“What if the screws are hard to turn? I’m really strong, so I think I should do it.”
Those are the sorts of things we said, I think. Emily didn’t say a thing. As if sizing us up, the man looked from one to the other.
“Can’t be too small or too big…,” he said. “And if your glasses fall off, that’s no good. And you might be a bit too heavy.…”
Lastly he turned to Emily.
“You’re just right,” he said.
Emily glanced at us with a slightly worried look. Maki, perhaps disappointed that Emily had beaten her out, suggested we all help. Good idea, the three of us agreed.
“Thanks,” the man said, “but the changing room is kind of small and if everyone comes it’ll be hard to work, and I don’t want anyone to get hurt. So could you all stay here? It won’t take long. I’ll buy you all ice cream afterward.”
How could we object to that? “Okay, then,” the man said, took Emily by the hand, and led her across the school grounds. The pool was beyond the spacious grounds, and we went back to playing volleyball before the two of them had disappeared.
We played for a while, then sat down in the cool shade of the steps at the entrance to the gym and chatted. They’re not taking me anywhere for summer vacation. I wish my grandpa’s house were a little farther away. Emily’s going to Guam next week. Is Guam part of America? Or a country called Guam? I don’t know.…Emily’s so lucky. She has on a Barbie dress today, too. Her face is so pretty, too. You call those kind of eyes almond eyes, right? She looks so cool. And her father and mother look like goggle-eyed aliens. Her miniskirt is so cute. Emily has such long legs. Oh, did you hear? Emily’s already started that. What do you mean—that? Sae, you really don’t know?
That was the first time I’d ever heard the word menstruate. The girls in school were assembled to hear about this the year after, in fifth grade, and my mother hadn’t talked to me about it yet. I didn’t have an older sister or any older girls among my relatives, so I was clueless about what they were talking about.
The other three either had older sisters or else their moms had told them about it, and they began explaining it to me as if displaying some astounding knowledge.
Menstruation is proof that your body’s able to have babies, they said. Blood drips out from between your legs. Huh? Are you saying Emily’s able to have a baby? That’s right. Your older sister, too, Yuka? That’s right. I’ll probably start mine soon so Mom bought me some underwear for that. What? You, too, Maki? Girls who are big start in fifth grade, they say. But you, Sae, you won’t start till junior high. By high school everybody has it, they say. You’ve got to be kidding. I mean, no junior high girls have babies. That’s because they didn’t make them. Make them? Sae, are you saying you don’t know where babies come from? Oh, yeah—when they get married. Honestly! Girls do dirty things with boys, that’s how.
I hope all this stupid stuff I’m writing won’t make you rip this letter up.
Caught up in our conversation, we suddenly noticed that “Greensleeves” was playing, the signal it was 6 p.m.
“My older cousin’s coming over with his friend today so they told me to come home by six,” Akiko said. It being Obon, we decided it best to all go home early, and we went off to fetch Emily. As we crossed the grounds I turned around and saw that the shadows had lengthened considerably since we’d been playing volleyball. I suddenly realized how much time had passed since Emily had gone, and grew concerned.
The pool was surrounded with a wire mesh fence but the gate was unlocked, just shut with a wire. I think until that year it was always like that in the summer.
From the gate you walked up some stairs and there was the pool, with two prefab buildings, changing rooms, beyond. The one on the right was for boys, the left for girls. As we walked next to the pool I thought how very quiet it was.
The changing rooms had sliding doors, and of course were also unlocked. Maki, in front, was the one who opened the girls’ room.
“Emily—are you finished?” she called out as she slid open the door. “Huh?” she said, tilting her head. No one was inside.
“I wonder if they finished and she went home,” Akiko said.
“Then what about the ice cream? Maybe he only bought Emily some,” Yuka said, peeved.
“That’s not fair,” Maki added.
“What about this one?” I pointed to the boys’ changing room, but there was no sound from inside.
“She’s not there. There’re no voices. See?”
It was Akiko, still facing us, who reluctantly slid open the door to the boys’ changing room. The other three of us held our breath. “Wh—?” Akiko said, turning around and then letting out a scream.
Emily, head pointed toward the entrance, lay on the drainboards in the middle of the floor.
“Emily?” Maki ventured fearfully. Then all of us called out her name. But Emily lay there, unmoving, eyes wide open.
“Oh my God!” Maki shouted. If at that moment she’d said “She’s dead!” we might have been so terrified that we’d have dashed right home.
“We have to tell people,” Maki said. “Akiko, you’re the fastest runner, so run to Emily’s house. Yuka, you go to the police station. I’ll look for a teacher. Sae, you keep watch here.”
As soon as Maki told us what to do, the others ran off. That was the last time the four of us acted together. I don’t think what I’ve said differs much from the testimony the other three gave.
The four of us girls were interviewed together many times about what preceded the murder, but we weren’t asked in detail about after we found the body. And we haven’t talked much with each other about the murder, so I don’t know that much about what the others did after this.
What I’m going to tell you now is just what I did.
Alone in the changing room after the other girls left, I looked over again at Emily. She had on a black T-shirt with a pink Barbie logo written across the chest, but the shirt was rolled up so high you could barely make it out. I could see her white stomach and the slight swell of her breasts. Her red checked pleated skirt was rolled up, too, and the bottom half of her body, with no panties on, was exposed.
I was asked to guard her, but I felt like if any adult were to come they’d yell at me for letting her body be exposed like this. “The poor girl!” they’d scold. “Why didn’t you cover her up?” I hadn’t done this to Emily, yet I felt as if I’d be the one they’d blame. So hesitantly I stepped inside the changing room.
- "With echoes of fairy tales and a Rashomon-like narrative structure, Minato's Penance is as ethereal and literary as it is a sharp, tight crime novel."—Literary Hub
- "[A] suspenseful psychological melodrama. . . . Filled with strange entwinings of chance and effect, free will and manipulation, the mundane and the bizarre."—The Wall Street Journal
- "Minato writes character driven mystery/crime novels that take deep dives into people's psychology--especially girls and women--with an unflinching look at the dark side of humans. I will read any novel she writes."
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- Apr 11, 2017
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