By now Hajime was becoming frightened. Frightened of himself, frightened of the Pandoraís box he had opened sitting placidly in his home, and the things it made him do. He had always been the shy one, the introverted one, and now Ė what? He wanted to be rid of the chest, but he couldnít think of how. Perhaps he could sell it to an art dealer, or maybe someone who collected antiques, someone who could study it and thus render it harmless. For some reason he never got around to finding someone like that. There was too much for him to do, at work, at home, not that home was very pleasant at the moment. Hajime and his wife were openly avoiding each other now, and for once Hajime was glad of the work that kept him late. And still he returned to the chest, hyptonised like a moth to the flame by the strange, unsettling story it held.
When Hajime brought himself to look at the next chapter, he almost wished he hadnít. The canvas was completely black, like a window to the depths of space, and heavy. It was featureless except for one thing. In the lower left-hand corner, reaching desperately up from the limits of the canvas was a hand. The hand was gaunt, almost skeletal, reminding Hajime of those photos he had seen once of bodies in concentration camps, and so strained and taut he could see every bone and muscle. Its skin was melting away, dripping off the bones that were no longer abstract, but frightening real. There was nothing for it to grasp, nothing to reach for, just darkness, yet it still stretched desperately upwards, as if its owner had been buried alive and was trying to claw free of suffocating earth.
Hajimeís hands were trembling as he put the painting away. They were trembling so much it took him four tries to fit it in properly, and three to angle the chest correctly so that it would slide into its wall cavity. When the chest was finally put away, Hajime stared at it with wide, wide eyes, and wondered whether plaster or concrete would be better. The chest simply sat there like a benign tumor, daring him to seal it away forever Ė or until Hajime couldnít bear the suspense of not knowing what was in the last few cases, and broke the wall open again.
They remained in this contest of wills for a long time, well into the night until the first pale streaks of dawn began to filter in the window. Hajime lost. His wife found him huddled pathetically in the farthest corner of the room, shivering as if all the hands of the dead were trailing down his back. When she approached him Ė eventually Ė he cringed away like a frightened child. He buried his head in his arms and didnít see the pain that spread over her face like a bruise, and neither did he see her as she left him and fled for the phone.
How had he found him? He had opened his door to the hesitant knock to find the other gazing at him longingly from his own doorstep. It had taken a second for that discordance to register on his mind. Once it did, it snapped.
He grabbed the other by the front of his shirt, yanking him inside with all the viciousness of a striking snake. Then he pinned him against the wall.
"What are you doing here," he hissed.
The young man stared at him, the unbandaged green eye wide. "I Ė I wanted to see you."
His hand tightened so that the shirtís collar cut into the otherís throat. "You donít come here. I go to you."
"Why? Why are you allowed to drop in on me anytime, but Iím not allowed to do the same? What difference does it make?" He tried to reach up, tried to touch his face. It was an easy matter to entrap that wrist and cuff it against the wall with his other hand, not so different to what he had done that first night together. The young man looked at him with almost delirious delight. "It doesnít make any difference, does it, Seishirou-san."
There was silence, and there was acid, spreading where they touched and eating away at rationality and pride. Both of them were breathing hard in a familiar rhythm. He could feel the otherís heart palpitating in time with his pulse. Anticipating.
The second stretched out into a year. Finally, he leaned closer supposedly for a kiss. The young man turned his face upwards. Then he stopped, millimeters from the otherís ear.
"Pets should know their place."
Freeze. He let the moment of realization fragment and shatter, watching as the shards slashed the young manís face. When the green eye began to bleed tears, he let a smile that wasnít a smile grow. Taking hold of the young manís arm, he opened the front door, and pushed. The young man stumbled out into the hall, limp with shock like a marionette with its strings cut.
He didnít look back as he closed the door. Once it was locked, the smile disappeared.
For a long time he stood there leaning against the door. He heard footsteps, first slow then running away. His breathing hadnít slowed yet. Neither had his pulse. With sudden decision he stormed to the back room and pulled out the chest. He took all the cases out and unlocked them, laying out their contents to see them all at once.
There, on the floor, they all stared back at him. White circles mixed with scattered feathers, birds drowning in a splash of blood, everything blended together into one whirlpool of paint and incomprehension that swirled him around until he was dizzy from vertigo. He resisted an urge to be physically sick. Somehow he managed to fumble the paintings back into their ebony coffins and shut them tight. The silken seals, however, needed more time and attention, and he wove them over and over again until the ritual was familiar in his mind and that thing in his chest was cool again. It refused to stop racing, though. The chest had come to him empty. Already in just his one life, it contained four.
A blank piece of canvas lay nearby. Suddenly he scooped it up and put it on the stand, reaching with his other hand for the largest brush. He dipped it into the pot of black and began to paint the canvas with night, one layer, two layers, three Ö with each one he tried to exorcise the tension, the icy coldness, the impulse to run somewhere, anywhere, away Ö
He put a lot of effort into painting that hand. He had thought about it very carefully, oh yes he had. Yet he had kept making mistakes, mistakes corrected easily enough by a black stroke or three that he had to wait to dry before trying again while outside the night grew older and older. He remembered the acid when they had touched and put that in too, painting ragged skin that dripped off the bones as the hand reached hopelessly upwards like a weed towards the sun.
It was past midnight when he was at last satisfied. He put the painting away and locked the case carefully, tying the silk tight. Then he went to the otherís apartment. He wasnít welcomed Ė but he wasnít told to leave, either.
The young man didn't try to go to his home again, instead waiting every night to be visited. He went readily enough, drinking the young man up as a thirsty man drinks water, and the paintings were never seen again; they remained locked away forever, out of sight, out of mind.
Maybe he would even forget they existed in the first place.
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