This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November - December 2023

Drink tea, eat rice, go to sleep

Sophia Savva

Illustration by Kristen Huang

I like working at the konbini because it convinces me I’m good and nice.

Here, I’m a secondary character. I help people feed themselves and pay their bills and send mail. I don’t get into trouble.

I never take off my uniform. I even wear it to bed. The armpits of the white blouse are yellow and perpetually damp with sweat and the knees of the black dress pants are worn from scrubbing the floor and the stench of grease and burnt karaage clings to the blue apron, but I don’t mind. If I change into my old clothes, I’ll become who I used to be.

The regular customers all know me, even though I’ve only been here for a month. There’s a nurse who comes by after her shifts who calls me her angel for being so kind and quick when I scan and bag her bentō and warm green tea.

When the store is empty, I scrub the floors and counters and refrigerators so hard my palms blister and bleed. I go for the stains that have been there for years, the ones that won’t come out.

I count and recount the inventory in case I missed something. If someone works a shift with me on weekends, I trail after them like a second shadow, making sure they stock the shelves perfectly.

When a customer enters the store, I say “irasshaimase” so loudly it rumbles in my heart. Even if there’s a group of people, I still say it to each person like they are a god. If I accidentally leave someone out, I feel rotten. I never think about myself, only how they feel. This is my salvation.

I only do graveyard shifts because I like the peace and quiet. Or maybe a part of me savours how the konbini becomes suspended between comfort and unease, like a church after midnight mass, and I still crave the chaos. Strange things happen after midnight, especially in Wakayama.

At 3 a.m., a woman enters the konbini, wearing a black raincoat slick with rain. It’s the middle of tsuyu, Japan’s fifth season, when the thunderstorms are relentless and the air is plump with humidity and the cicadas and frogs compete to see who can scream the loudest.

“Irasshaimase!” I say, bowing deeply.

She ignores me. When a customer doesn’t acknowledge me, I wonder what I did wrong. Maybe my smile didn’t reach my eyes or my voice wasn’t warm enough or I said it too quietly. The woman’s hood hides her face, so I can’t analyze her expressions.

The automatic doors slide open and another woman enters the konbini wearing a wrinkled business suit and a name tag that says “Kaoru.” She fusses with her umbrella, soaking the floor of the konbini with water.

“Irasshaimase!” I say. I bow. Kaoru gives a tired smile, her face worn from working overtime, I assume.

Kaoru fills her basket with a mix of household items and groceries and then grabs an omurice bentō on the way to the register. The woman in the raincoat floats through the aisles.

I greet Kaoru and start scanning her items. I ask her if she wants the bentō warmed up. She nods, and I put it into the microwave.

The automatic doors slide open again, and a karasu flies into the konbini. It wails and crashes into the walls and the shelves, trying to find its way out.

Crows follow me everywhere. My best friend, Hinata, used to say it sounds like they’re crying my name: “Kaya, Kaya, Kaya.” Maybe that’s why they like me so much, she said. When we were kids, the crows would circle around us while we played and drop shiny bits of trash in our laps. When we walked around campus or went drinking after work, they’d hop along the street and peck at our feet. Now, it feels more like they’re haunting me.

I apologize to Kaoru and then rush to the back room to grab a broom. I chase the bird around, but it keeps cawing and crashing into the walls and shitting everywhere.

It starts ramming itself into one of the curved security mirrors in the corner, perhaps believing its reflection is a rescuer who will help it escape.

I’m reflected behind the karasu, my head distorted like an alien’s from an old sci-fi movie. I don’t recognize the face covered in red boils with swirls of yellow pus in their centres, or the nest of matted black hair brittle with grease and dandruff and scabs. I haven’t looked at myself in months. I keep blankets over the mirrors.

The microwave beeps. The woman with the hood has lined up behind Kaoru. I feel horrible, making them wait. Chunky vomit prickles my throat.

I wave the broom around, trying to free the bird from its morbid fixation with itself, but that agitates the karasu more and it rams itself too hard into the mirror, shattering it. Its neck snaps from the force and it falls to the ground with a wet thump.

I reacted too quickly—I should have known better—and now I’ve really messed everything up. The customers are probably mad at me and they’re going to complain about my unprofessionalism and I’m going to get fired.

I rush back to the register and warm up the bentō again. I repeatedly bow and apologize to the customers.

I continue scanning Kaoru’s items as fast as I can. I keep glancing over at the karasu and the shards of broken mirror on the ground. It’s starting to bleed out.

Now I’m worried about the death of the karasu. What if I actually hit it with the broom, and that’s what broke its neck and shattered the mirror? I keep replaying it over and over again, trying to figure out my precise role and what level of guilt I should feel.

“You put the bread in the wrong bag,” Kaoru says.

The loaf of white bread is squished between the laundry detergent and the lint roller. I apologize profusely and throw the squished bread in the garbage.

The microwave beeps. I grab a new loaf of bread and retrieve the bentō from the microwave and bag them separately.

Kaoru sighs and points at the bag with the bentō. “ It’s leaking.”

I’m so stupid. I always triple-check that the bentō doesn’t leak. I was too busy thinking about the karasu. Not that that’s an excuse.

“Can I speak to your manager?” Kaoru asks.

“She’s not working tonight.”

Kaoru’s smiles tightly. “This is the worst service I’ve ever received. I’m never coming here again. And it smells terrible.” Kaoru pulls out her umbrella and walks out of the konbini and back into the storm.

I can’t do anything right. She’ll probably come back tomorrow and complain to my manager, or give the store a one-star rating online. I’m wearing my nametag, she knows who I am. I take a deep breath and call the next woman forward. I smile so wide my eyes water and my cheeks burn.

I still can’t see her face from under her hood, but I can smell her. She smells like fish that’s been baking in the sun for days.

“You reek. It fills the whole store. It spills out into the streets,” the woman says. She grabs onto my apron with a bony blue hand and pulls me close, her fish breath on my cheek.

“It didn’t happen here, did it?”

I’m not sure which “it” she’s talking about. I think about all the bad things I’ve done all the time: When I spilled milk on the tatami and the smell never really went away. When I cheated on my boyfriend with a blur of faces. When I forgot my wallet and held up the line at the grocery store. When I said something carelessly cruel to Hinata in kindergarten and hurt her feelings. When I stole money from my college roommate. When I accidentally broke the printer at my old office job. When I drank too much and passed out in my own vomit on the side of the street. When I forgot about a package of strawberries in the fridge and had to throw it out. When I convinced Hinata to go cliff jumping at the gorge even though she had a job interview the next morning.

The woman coughs, a death rattle. It’s a horrible sound. I’ve heard it before. “No, it happened by the water, far away. But the smell is strong on you.”

There’s a crack of thunder and the doors slide open and, this time, a group of crows frantically fly in, screaming and toppling the shelves of magazines and chips and pastries.

“You do bad things,” she says. “And no one loves you.”

The fluorescent lights burn my eyes. I stumble out from behind the counter and fall to my knees in the middle of the store.

The woman stands over me. I breathe through my mouth to avoid smelling her, but the odour still stings my throat. I look up at her. Her face is long and pale and blue, so wrinkled and weathered that it looks like a knot of tree roots. Her eyes glow red from under her hood. I’ve read stories about creatures like her—shinigami.

“I smell a girl, facedown in the water,” she hisses.

Everyone secretly wants to be found out, has a deep primal instinct to confess—perhaps in order to be told with certainty whether they are good or evil, a bad person who does good things or a good person who did a bad thing, and then either be justly punished or met with reassurance.

“I go over it—over and over again—in my head.”

“You wanted to hurt her,” the shinigami says.

“I keep trying to figure it out,” I say. Was it a manifestation of something pathological repressed inside my unconscious mind—irritation that Hinata didn’t want to do what I wanted that day, jealousy that she wasn’t blacking out every weekend like I still was, panic that I couldn’t control the trajectory of our friendship? Or was it a random act of violence—the way an animal may attack another because of zaps and pulses in its reptilian brain? Or was it an accident—did I lose my balance and try to hold on to her to steady myself? How hard did I really push her? I need to know for sure. It’s not safe to forget.

It’s always on my mind: My hands on Hinata’s back. Those 20 seconds before she hits the water, face-first. Her body bobbing up from under the water after getting knocked around by the rocks, her limbs contorted. Her gasps for air, her retches as she pukes up river water. Those desperate heaves, unable to get the water out of her lungs.

While she was in the hospital, I texted her until she eventually messaged me: “It’s best if we stop corresponding. I can’t forgive you.”

I wonder if she sent that with eye movements, or speech to text. There were no emojis or exclamation marks, maybe her mother sent it for her.

The shinigami wraps her hands around my neck and squeezes. I am like a branch, and I bend however she wants me to. I can’t smell her anymore. All I hear are the drones of the birds: Kaya, Kaya, Kaya.

The room spins over and over again until all of it is sucked into a spiral, a wheel of fluorescence. I slip outside of myself and float up to the ceiling.

I imagine my soul drifting out of the konbini, into the storm, across the country, and into a newborn with different parents in a different city. I can take it all back and become the purest version of myself. Everything that came before this was just the practice round. I will do it right this time.

And then I hear the doors slide open. The rumble of thunder. A flapping sound, loud like a helicopter.

The shinigami lets go of my neck. I return to my body, my vision straightens.

A giant karasu swoops into the konbini and shakes the rain off its feathers.

“It isn’t time,” it squawks. The karasu isn’t speaking in any human language, but I can understand it.

The animal waves its wing and a candle appears in front of it, its flame flickering bright. The shinigami sighs and backs away from me. This isn’t something she can argue against.

“No, no, no, no,” I say, grabbing for her and then falling on my face.

I expect the karasu to deliver the deep truths on what redemption is and how to live with all the things you’ve done and what to do when you suddenly wake up one day and realize your life is a nightmare.

The karasu pecks at some crumbs on the ground, and then turns to me. “It’s not because you’re good. Or because you’re bad. It just isn’t time.”

The karasu waves the candle away, bites at a bug lodged in its feathers, and then hops toward the door.

“I can’t keep going,” I say.

“Drink tea, eat rice…” the karasu says. It gets distracted by the shards of mirror on the floor before continuing. “Go to sleep.”

The two of them leave the konbini together. When the doors open, the rest of the screaming birds follow.

I pick myself up. No one else stops by the konbini for the rest of the night, so I have time to clean up the feathers and blood and shit and spoiled food and toppled shelves. I can’t get the dark tinge off the tiles where the karasu died no matter how hard I scrub. This is enough.

When the sun rises over the rice paddy across the street, past the train tracks, and up above the konbini, I clock out.

I go home. I drink tea, I eat a bowl of rice. I sleep until sunset. I go to work. I don’t count as much as I used to. My hands bleed less. I often see the shinigami in the corner of my eye, sometimes I reach for her. But we won’t meet again for many years, not until the indifferent flame of the candle burns out.

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