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The Fastener

Natsumi Tanaka is a writer living in Kyoto, Japan. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as Anima Solaris, Kotori no kyuden, and Tanpen. She is the author of the short story collection Yumemiru ningyo no okoku (2017). Translations of her short fiction have appeared in 4 Star Stories, Japanese Fantasy Drabbles, and The William & Mary Review, among others.

Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations have appeared in venues such as Clarkesworld, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Samovar.

He devours me with his eyes as he describes me with a myriad of letters. His words are illegible to me because he writes in a language of his own invention. But I can see how he scribbles in his notebook. He says he copies my likeness. Every day, I take off my clothes to contribute to his endeavor.
One day, he notices a fastener on my shoulder. He gently strokes my shoulder for a while, and then he slowly unzips the fastener. To my surprise, a layer of skin comes off with it. I embrace my new skin.
After he finishes his work, I get dressed as usual, but my clothes don't feel particularly large. It hurts as the fabric grazes my new skin. I undress again and grab my old skin, which he hung on a hanger. The shed skin with the fastener is rather flimsy. I try to put it back on, but it no longer fits my body. Once I shed my old skin, it's pretty much useless.
I take off my old skin again, roll it into a ball, and stuff it into the trash can. When I stomp on the skin to make it fit, it squeaks as if it were in pain.
Much to my confusion, my new skin feels exactly the same as the old one. Even my moles have returned.
My artist picks up his pen at the same time as usual. I undress as usual. His pen makes a sound as it moves across the paper. The paper rustles as he turns a page.
Suddenly, his pen stops.
I know what he has noticed. He stands up and comes closer. Then he touches my shoulder with a fastener just like the day before.
He handles me as if I were fragile and slowly unzips the fastener. My new skin stings to the touch.
He draws me in silence. I gaze at my new hands and then at the shed layer of skin on the hanger. Is that not me?
He pays no heed to the old skin.
After he's done with his work, I crumple the shed skin into a ball, toss it into the trash can, and then put newspaper on top. I hear the same squeak as the day before.
The next day, a new fastener appears on my back. A silver jagged line running along my spine reflects back in the mirror. As I twist my body, my back feels tight.
As he unzips the fastener, I mumble, "If you keep taking it off, will I become smaller and disappear one day?"
He remains silent.
"Will you keep writing until I disappear?"
He nods.
A new fastener appears every day. I shed a layer of skin every day.
Am I smaller now? My coat doesn't feel bigger than before, but my skirt has gotten somewhat loose around the waist. When my new skin appears every day, I touch it and keep telling myself that this is my body.
As I throw away my old skin every day, it lets out a squeak.
He keeps writing in his notebook. I keep getting undressed and he keeps letting me do it. He keeps looking at me and I keep looking back at him.
I'm smaller now. I have made all my clothes smaller. I can no longer reach when the lightbulb needs to be changed. When I get on my bicycle, my feet can no longer touch the pedals.
"Will I ever be the same again?"
He shakes his head.
I'm smaller. I can no longer reach the table. I can't even climb up on a chair. Dressed in a doll's clothes, I wrap myself in a handkerchief and remain crouched down in one corner of the room.
He keeps writing in his notebook. I keep undressing and he keeps letting me do it. I get increasingly smaller. I'm small enough to fit in his chest pocket.
The trash can contains the infinite layers of skin I have shed. The heap now towers over me.
One day, an oversized fastener appears in the middle of my belly. Or maybe it seems bigger because I'm smaller.
I try to call him as usual, but I hesitate.
Come to think of it, I have never unzipped myself.
I hold the puller with both hands. The fastener starts to move with a heavy noise. As I pull it down with all my strength, it opens little by little.
One layer of skin shouldn't feel this heavy. Or maybe I'm so weakened that the fastener feels as heavy as a rusty door.
This time, no new skin appears under the unzipped fastener. Instead, a black hole spreads out. I stick my right hand in it and feel inside. Something warm touches my hand. I grab it and take it out. It's round, red, and breathing.
He steps into the room. I hand him the round object. He stares at it and begins to write. In a language unknown to me, he writes about my unknown self. He never glances at me while his gaze remains fixed on the sphere that was inside me.
There is nothing left inside me now, and only my hands grow from a layer of skin. While my eyes and his eyes watch over the sphere, the respiration becomes gradually weaker before it ceases altogether. I too breathe my last. The only thing left is the heap of shed layers of me. And in his notebook, I remain in words only he can understand.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020

Author Comments

I wrote this story a long time ago. Now available in English, the story, which is told in a language unfamiliar to the protagonist, has come full circle.

I know the Japanese original like the back of my hand. Now, my reader, what you have before you is a translation. If you read only English, you visualize this story solely through my translator's words. I wonder what it would be like to read this story as you do. I would very much like to see what you see. --Natsumi Tanaka (Translated by Toshiya Kamei)

- Natsumi Tanaka (trans. Toshiya Kamei)
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