A Distant Drumming
by Peter Ninnes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
I propped myself on my arms and called, “Ito!” My voice echoed around in the valley like a lost ghost looking for a home. I called several more times, with no response.
Chie took it upon herself to creep in a low stoop towards the bushes that had concealed the rustling.
“Where are you going?” I hissed.
“I feel it’s safe now.”
“You feel it’s safe?” I should have stopped her. Yet I followed, drawn by her steady, determined movements. Chie sounded and looked scared, but she exhibited more spunk than I’d imagined she possessed. She parted the branches and plunged ahead. I was right behind.
Chie saw him first and screamed as if the devil had ripped out her heart with a single, evil thrust of his hand. Any appearance of bravery evaporated as she spun around and flung herself at me. I stood up just in time to catch her in my arms. Her breasts pressed against my chest as truncated sobs squeezed out of her lungs.
I looked over her shoulder.
“God help us!” I murmured. I felt as if a hundred razor blades had sliced a thousand cuts in each of my legs. I gave Chie’s shoulders a squeeze and sat her gently on the leaves. I tiptoed towards the circle of disturbed earth in the middle of the clearing. The uneven clods of dirt, uprooted grasses and small bushes looked like a monster’s plough had run amok. Among the debris were hundreds of footprints, as if my dog Candy had run around in a frenzy. But Candy was back in Santa Cruz with my sister’s family, and these prints were too small to have been left by domestic dogs.
The churned earth and vegetation, and the mysterious prints, were not the most shocking sight in the clearing. In the centre of the circle, arms and legs spread-eagled and eyes frozen in dread, sprawled Professor Ito. Blood spattered the shredded remains of his field work clothes, and a straw hat, which I could not recall him wearing, rested on the ground behind his head. A bloody stump was all that remained of his left ear. His motionless belly loomed above his macerated shirt. Deep scratches marked every centimetre of exposed skin, and the bone handle of a large hunting knife protruded from his torso, standing straight up, like one of the tombstones seen in local graveyards. Attached to the handle, I assumed, was the blade, buried deep in his solar plexus.
An empty sake bottle lay a few centimetres from his right thigh.
Chie half-stood, her sobs lurching about in the muted air.
“Stay there,” I said. I lifted Ito’s bloodied wrist and felt his pulse, but the devils had driven the life from him.
I set down his arm. My hands shook as I pressed his eyelids closed. I never imagined I’d have to do such a thing, but if you watch enough movies, you assume that’s the correct procedure. I wiped the blood off my fingers, removed my shirt and covered his face.
“We should call the police,” Chie said as I squatted beside her. Her voice sounded fragile and cracked, like old paint peeling off a fence.
“Yes, please do that.”
She checked her phone signal, touched a few numbers, and murmured into the device for several minutes.
“They’re sending a patrol from Takatani Village. They’ll be here as soon as they can.”
A loud fluttering above our heads startled us both. An immense black crow, almost the size of a vulture, perched on the branch above. Its yellow eyes darted about, inspecting the broken ground and eyeing off the motionless remains of Professor Ito.
“Let’s sit here until they arrive,” I said, another shiver running through me. “We need to look after the Professor.”
“Yes, we should do that, Professor Starc.” Chie picked up a stone and threw it at the bird but missed. The crow hopped from one foot to the other, impatiently hoping that its moment would arrive.
* * *
Genetic tests confirmed that the faeces I collected on the fateful field trip did indeed come from the Japanese river otter. Later, I found evidence of other individuals in groups along rivers draining into the sea on the south coast of Shikoku. The prefectural governments on the island caught some live specimens and instituted a breeding program. In that sense, the trip was a great success, and Professor Saito was most pleased.
Chie sends me an email from time to time. She published two papers using the data collected on the trip. She identified three new species of longhorn beetle among her samples. These stunning results contributed to her winning a chair in entomology at Tokyo University.
Before all those successes came to fruition, we had to front an inquiry into Ito’s death. The coroner concluded that he was the victim of either a bear attack, or a turf war with another illegal hunter or hunters of unknown identity. The positive publicity surrounding the otter rediscovery made only a small dent in the infamy my university achieved from associating with a poacher. Professor Saito was not so happy about that.
I was annoyed that my evidence to the inquiry was not taken seriously. For a while I had serious doubts about the inquiry’s results. Neither Chie nor I were suspects in the case. We had no motive to kill Ito. Only the victim’s fingerprints were on the knife handle, although none were found on the saké bottle or hat lying nearby. The coroner had laughed when Chie mentioned the drumming in the night, and the wild rustling we heard just before we found Ito’s body. He also saw no significance in the churned circle of earth in which the professor met his end.
A week after the coroner handed down his findings, Chie emailed me a link to a Wikipedia article in English, with a Japanese title, “Awa Tanuki Gassen.” It described a mythical war between two clans of racoon dogs in Tokushima, just over the mountains from our field work site.
I grimaced. The whole experience must have damaged her mental faculties if she thought Ito had been attacked by a racoon dog army seeking revenge for the slaughter of their kinfolk. I didn’t reply. Her theory was too far-fetched. If she wasn’t insane, she had a macabre sense of humour, which, until now, she’d kept hidden.
One evening a few days later, I was watching the condensation ramble down the side of the bottle of Hakodate Blue Label bitter on my desk. The cursor blinked on my computer screen, waiting with machine-like patience for me to complete the final sentence of an upcoming lecture.
My email pinged announcing another message from Chie. This one contained a link to a racoon dog web site. I clicked on it, despite my reservations about her sanity. Up popped a large racoon dog seated on a log. Between his legs hung his giant scrotum, which he was hitting with his hands. Bright blue onomatopoeic text sprung from his groin, “Poka-poka-poka.” The caption declared, “Racoon dogs are often depicted comically, drumming on their giant testicles or over-sized bellies.” Chie wanted me to believe that we’d been kept awake for all those nights by a pack of racoon dogs banging their balls.
I shook my head, closed the browser tab, and consigned Chie’s email to the trash. The coroner was right. Ito had been moonlighting as a poacher and had fallen out with another criminal. Any other scenarios were absurd.
I shut down my computer, stood up, stretched, took off my reading glasses, and rubbed my eyes. Then I went over to the refrigerator and occupied myself with a more serious, scientific matter: the delightful, verifiable products of fermentation contained in another bottle of cold Blue Label bitter.
Copyright © 2018 by Peter Ninnes