I stole into Noburu Hitotsuyanagi’s house, rather like a fruit fly, in August of 1967. He had left the door unlocked in the night, as if to offer an invitation, and it was blown open by the wind to reveal black and irresistible insides. I fluttered to the entranceway, I stepped over his mouldering mounds of typescripts, and I heard his breath and the bombination of machines of every kind, and the roll of the sea, and I saw tiny, self-illuminating creatures feeding themselves with porous tentacles, casting the place in an unusual and fantastic play of light, creatures submerged in saltwater in pots and vases that lined the windowsills and reflected my face in oblong shapes, with my lips suspended atop my eyebrows. I crept on my toes into the kitchen and ate soundlessly his boiled soybeans, and then into a spare bedroom, filled with bundles of paper tied with twine, and a linen cupboard and naked mattress, and slept inside the cupboard with my head against my knees.
I had seen Hitotsuyanagi many times, working in his peculiar way on the beach. He would wander along the shore line in a white chemist’s coat and slacks, prodding various crustaceans and sea sponges with the tip of a pencil, falling to his knees, craning his neck towards the ground, bringing his eye to the mouth of a beached starfish, remaining there for some minutes, blinking. He was a small man, shoeless. He nodded to himself vigorously and spoke frequently into a recorder to report his observations. He was an old man, but he appeared well tinned, like a pepper in vinegar, such that the skin of his face, while deeply grooved, clung taut to his jaw, and his white hair stood on end. I would watch him as I begged for coins on the boardwalk. He seemed happy in the way that an ascetic is happy.
One day, I decided to follow Hitotsuyanagi home. I had no design or aim, but I felt an attraction for him, which resembled the attraction that a caged macaque may have for a visitor of the zoo. I felt that he was very nearly mystical. I felt that through him I could live forever.
He lived at the edge of the beach in a white house that looked onto the water, a spectacularly solitary place that seemed like it would soon slip into the surf. The house had tubes that ran from generators into the windows, and oddly shaped antennae emerging from a crude hole cut through the roof. It looked alive. Hitotsuyanagi came home as the sun began to set, his shadowy admirer some hundred feet behind, and the lights of the house came on one after another, and then dimmed in the same order, first on the porch, where he washed his feet, and then in the parlor, where he hung his coat, and then in the salon, where he looked after his strange pets, and then in his study, where, as I saw from the beach, he wrote in short strokes for hours, with a look of immediacy or piety, and then in his bedroom on the second floor of the house, where he read from a large textbook, and then he drifted to sleep and finally the house was darkened, and then only the little creatures, the little jellyfish, glowed with the colours of a blood orange from their nerve centres, and it seemed that the house itself was a phosphorescent thing, from the sea.
I awoke inside the cabinet, which was not unspacious for a small girl like me, to the sound of Hitotsuyanagi singing while he washed, in vibrant and almost miserable tones, a folk song about a man getting drunk on the elixir of life as if it were wine. The man beats his wife and neighbours, earning a beheading from the lord of the village, whereupon his body, full of the potion, runs like a decollated chicken through the public square and into the thundering ocean, and his head continues to plead and wail for mercy. I smoothed my dress and my hair. I imagined that I could waltz out of the cabinet and he would be flattered at my presence, although I was a tramp, although I was a girl in rags, and he would offer me tea and tell me about his medusas. But I decided that he would very likely be terrified, this hermitic oceanographer dressed in towel, so I remained inside the cabinet, shaking with the anticipations of a voyeur.
As I listened from my grotto, Hitotsuyanagi made breakfast, he listened silently to a showpiece on the radio about the mysterious recession of the coast, he shuffled papers, he went about the house turning the dials on his machines, which responded with an array of reverberations that brought the place some inches closer to the shore. He lit a foul-smelling cigarette. I heard his idiosyncratic trot, which was marked by an odd shuffle at every third step, and the sound, at every second step, of wood striking against wood, implying that the toes or heel of one foot were artificial. Sometimes, as he passed through hallways, he would abruptly stop, and I would hear his exhalations and the sound of his pencil, I would hear him fiddle with some bit of metal and speak casually to his animals.
When he left to the beach, I emerged from the cabinet and began to walk about the house. The place was filled with humidifying apparatuses and pumping mechanisms and gas burners and operant conditioning chambers and photometers, jars full of tempered-steel lancets, dried corpses of mollusks. I looked through the old man’s work, which was carefully catalogued but haphazardly stored, by which I mean that everything was labelled, ordered, documented, but filled the crevices and openings of the house like a viscous liquid gradually and deliberately occupying the space of its container. It seemed that many of his papers hadn’t been handled in years, in decades. I read once about men who competed to see who could more perfectly recite holy text, judged on how much of the text they had accumulated intact in their brain, and similarly, I read that there were men who competed in their recitation of the digits of Pi - both, it seemed, had the intention to get closer to god, one through reciting god’s word and the other through reciting god’s design, and it struck me that Hitotsuyanagi was stockpiling knowledge of the animals of the sea in the same way, because its sheer accumulation could offer him some transcendence.
He was also interested in a more literal transcendence, that of time: it seemed his main concern was with the ‘immortal jellyfish,’ which, according to his writings, has the remarkable ability to revert back to the polyp stage after reaching sexual maturity via a process of cellular transdifferentiation, and then grow to sexual maturity again in a potentially endless cycle, barring a catastrophic event. These were the very animals that lined his windowsills, a muted sky sifting through their translucent umbrellas. He kept detailed logs of his observations of their behavior: at 13:06, the notes would read, the Turritopsis has begun the reversion process; at 14:27, it has reabsorbed its tentacles; at 17:12, it has begun to conceive the new polyp; at 23:51, the polyp has initiated metabolic processes. And onwards. Hitotsuyanagi followed his observations with various extrapolated scenarios: implications of cellular transdifferentiation on memory storage in the human brain; what is the human polyp?; reabsorption of human extremities into the reverting organism; delivery of longevity ingredient to the stomach of a human patient. And onwards.
I lived in Hitotsuyanagi’s cabinet for weeks. I went mad with desire to know him and touch everything he touched. He hadn’t the notion that I was masquerading in his frocks and linens, that I was in his absence wearing the taxidermied marlin’s head that hung on his wall on my own head like a duchess’s bonnet, that I was eating his cured meats and his ginger loaf, that I was waltzing in wide arcs among his puritanical furnishings, that I was parsing his most mundane curios, that I was using at times his dental hygiene products rather with impunity, that I was itemizing his small collection of photographs in my mind, assigning names to what appeared to be his grown children and estranged wife, fashioning for them dreadful stories - the wife runs off to the city to pursue a honeyed street boy with a hissing cock, the kids, dead of their wounds, shot crossing a border in the north - that I was fingering with great interest his trouser pockets and the elastic bands of his undergarments and the lining of his fox hat, that I was bathing with the use of his sponge, that I was sometimes urinating onto his potted plants with a contented purr, that I was making the sounds, also, of a helicopter, and whirling about on my axis with my arms spread apart, collapsing onto his floor, smelling the footprints left by his boots, using his razor to cut my hair, blowing fog on the mirrors and writing my name, E-L-L-A - or hello, darling, I would write, and sign it by a kiss.
There hung in his study a portrait of him, drawn by some S. H., that I felt captured his essence, which was a mixture of peacefulness and appetite, expressed in his thin eyes, nearly closed, and his round, open mouth. On his nose he wore a birthmark in the shape of an island. Dressed in his chemist’s white coat, he was hunched over, with a habit of looking at the ground. I began also to understand the old man from the sounds that he made in the morning and in the night: Hitotsuyanagi often spoke to himself. He would repeat without end, I am not a young man anymore, or, is that the time already!, or, where has the morning gone.
Only once did I hear Hitotsuyanagi receive a visitor. Someone knocked at the door after dark, and Hitotsuyanagi bade him to come in. I listened intently from my hiding place. The visitor said, hello Noburu, and the old man answered, come in, come in, thank you for coming. He offered the visitor a seat in his kitchen. I’ve got little to offer you, he said, setting a bottle on the table. I’m often running out of things these days faster than I imagine. That’s all right, said the visitor. Hitotsuyanagi said, I think I’m close to figuring it out, Takeo - how to synthesize the molecule for human application. From the jellyfish? asked Takeo. Yes, said Hitotsuyanagi. I wanted to give you a copy of my latest findings. Takeo read a while and several times murmured, remarkable, remarkable. Noburu, said the visitor to Hitotsuyanagi, this is remarkable work. I’ve told you so before. But I trust you have reported in your hypotheses upon the practical implications of immortality - for instance, the threat of overpopulation on resources? Would we not cover the terrestrial surface of the earth elbow to elbow, and then smother the oceans and the skies? How tall would our buildings grow? Would floating cities choke the trade pathways in the Strait of Malacca? And think of our perception of time. Time would speed up exponentially, as each passing day becomes a relatively smaller unit of measure relative to our time spent on earth, and we are hurled into the future like rocketeers. And would we not be bored? How uninteresting life would become, how devoid of meaningful consequences. Is it not the ephemerality of life that lends it its nearness? No, said Hitotsuyanagi, death need not drive human motivation. Given immortality, time becomes meaningless as a measure of longevity; it becomes useful only as a measure of input. That input can be driven by accumulation of experience and knowledge. We would watch first-hand the evolution of human capability through millennia, each of us contributing to a mass and growing knowledge centre that would spread of pure necessity to the cosmos. Hence we solve the problem, too, of overpopulation within the traditional constraints. Perhaps you’re right, said Takeo. And what is more, said Hitotsuyanagi, I think that human copulation would in any case desist. There would be no evolutionary imperative to produce offspring as a means to achieve gene success. Sex would be purely done for pleasure - and sex, like all things, would be exponentially improved through the dilution of the imperative of time. The current generation of humans will be the last generation, or the only necessary generation. And think of how we will be immortal, of the mechanics: we will not stop aging, but rather we will be at intervals resurrected. Hitotsuyanagi drank from his glass. Will you stay for another drink? he asked. Sometimes I dread the thought of sleep. I would be glad, said Takeo, and the two men played cards and drank a while, and listened to the waves.
I began to prepare in earnest to meet the old man. I would be his first subject, his space dog Laika, selflessly expiring from oxygen depletion on my sixth day of orbit around the Earth, with my handler announcing that the imperfect experiment confirmed the plausibility, albeit not the exactitudes, of the intended application. The antecedent to the last generation. The first in deathlessness.
The next morning, in October of 1967, I awoke with a start, hearing bottles crashing to the floor, and Hitotsuyanagi screaming and screaming in a strange fashion, as if he were shrinking, as if he were collapsing into himself. His machines were warbling and chirruping wildly, shaking the house violently, splitting the walls. I shuddered and began to cry inside of the cabinet. Hitotsuyanagi continued to scream. I pulled on my hair in fear and misery. Hitotsuyanagi fell to the floor. I burst out of the cabinet. I saw Hitotsuyanagi, now a newborn baby, kicking and crying, covered in embryonic fluid. He looked at me and cooed dreamily. He had gone himself into orbit. I held onto the marlin’s head as the house sank into the sea.
Illustration and words by Andrey Muntyan, an unaccomplished, sometime writer.