East Asian Fiction

When he stepped into the elevator, and the doors shut, the lights went out.

The elevator stopped moving, a low hum rung out hollow. A creaking somewhere. Heavy, hard sounds. Metallic. A sort of mustiness that comes the moment the air conditioner stops. A stillness that was almost suffocating. Unnerving.

A chill ran up his spine. The power’s gone out?

Haruto looked about, but he couldn’t see anything. He reached out, but he grasped only air. The soles of his shoes made dry sounds over the floor. A rasping, a light tap, steel. He hadn’t noticed if there’s anyone else on with him. He was too busy to notice.

But then, an answer came.

“Chiaroscuro,” said a woman’s voice. The word seemed to echo off the walls, sounding near-stilted in the still air. “Guess the power went out.”

Haruto couldn’t tell where she was, but he looked to the right, judging from the direction of her voice. His eyes squinted, narrowed.

“Yeah, but…” he mulled over his words. “But that word, chiaroscuro… what does it mean?”

Silence fell over them for a second. Like the snow settling on an abandoned street at dusk.

“The contrast of light and shadow,” she said. “It’s an art term. Important.”

Haruto furrowed his eyebrows.

“I’m an art student,” she added, after a moment. “And chiaroscuro, it’s one of my favorite words. One of my favorite things in art. The technique itself, the meaning it imbues the image, the subject, how it sort of brings out a new truth to the world, a new light.”

Haruto wasn’t getting any of this. He’d never been interested in art, and he doubted he ever will be.

The way she talked reminded him of his mother, too. Did all artists talk this way or was he just making a gross generalization? Were they all dreamy? Out of this world? Lost in the magic of some, bigger thing he just couldn’t see?

Abstract. That’s what his mother called her art.

“Sorry for going on a tangent,” the woman said. “Now that we’re here, stuck, we might as well make good use of our time. Right?”

He had an appointment later. He had to get every piece ready before the meeting tomorrow. He needed the info. Now that he thought about it, described it to himself, his business sounded sort of shady when it really wasn’t. But then again, weren’t all businesses shady in one way or another?

“I guess.”

The woman nodded, or at least Haruto felt she did. There was a change in the air. Or maybe it was just his imagination—playing all sorts of tricks with him in the dark, making up things like the subjects in that experiment. Humans really do need stimulation, huh?

“Chiaroscuro,” the woman repeated. “At least, to me, it also refers to the oscillation between things. To the way the world works, to a sort of truth. Maybe it is the oscillation between light and dark, maybe good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lies, reality and non-reality, yearning and rejection.”

Haruto listened, but didn’t say a thing. Who talks like that? He pressed his lips.

“But at the same time,” she continued. “It also, in a way, shows how the dichotomy really isn’t there at all. That they’re not two separate things, but one and the same. You know, like how cold isn’t the opposite of heat but the absence of it? How dark is simply the absence of light? How they blend and are, in the end, one in the world? Light and shadow dance between everything. And so does hot and cold. And good and evil. Everything.”

He heard her sigh.

“Besides, all these words, whatever the hell I’m saying,” she said. “They’re all human concepts.”

He stared at her, or at least he thought he did.

“So now the Earth is flat and right is wrong and reality isn’t real?”

She seemed to shrug.

“Maybe,” she replied. “I don’t know.”

Haruto shook his head. “Ridiculous.”

He heard a breath, and felt something change in the air. As if thorns had suddenly grown on the walls. He felt it prickle his back…

“So you think I’m crazy?”

“Maybe,” he replied. “I don’t know.”

“You just don’t understand,” she hissed. “Maybe try and think bigger?”

“I don’t want my head in the clouds.”

“My head's not in the clouds.”

“Then I hope your parents are proud.”

A pause, a silent beat.

He’s tired of twists and turns, or turns of phrase, or anything so far-off, so unreal, he couldn’t hold it in his hands.

But just then, the woman said, “My mom’s dead.”

Haruto’s thoughts stopped in their tracks. Frozen. He blinked. What?

He turned to her again. At least, he hoped he did. “Pardon?”

“My mom’s dead,” she repeated, harder.

He was taken aback. He felt like he’d been pushed back to the edge of a cliff. He could already feel the pangs in his heart, as if the jagged rocks down there had already impaled him.

“Oh.” Haruto pressed his lips. “I’m sorry.”

A breath. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not,” he insisted. He scratched his head, eyes to the floor, seeing darkness. “When did she pass?”

There was a long pause.

“Three years ago.”

“And it still affects you?”

Another breath. “Yes.”


The two of them stood silent for the longest time. Unsaid words floated in the darkness, filling the air with a charged tension. The vines were growing, and so were the thorns. He felt it. Like centipedes running up his back.

He hesitated, but decided to speak anyway. “What about telling me about it?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“Well, we’re stuck here, anyway,” he said, sort of mincing his words. “So, well, why not?”

Another silence.

She'd never answer him, Haruto just knew it. For the final time in history she'd seal her lips and never talk to him, again.

But then the woman started speaking.

“She had breast cancer, and she died battling it for a year,” she started. “In her will, she’d allocated, like, ninety-percent of her fortune to me. For my studies. And she’d written me a note, though I don’t want to get into that…”

She took a breath. He waited.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “So for, well, a long time, I’d spent my days just going over things. I opened the old family albums and went looking around the attic or the storage room, well, every day. And then I started reading philosophy, and started going deeper into art than I ever had before. It’s like I covered my ears, lowered my head, and started digging deeper into the earth, trying to escape. Then I started reading novels again. And a year later, I started to focus solely on my art again.”

She took a deep breath, and let go.

“In a way, I sort of filled my head chock-full with stuff that I won’t have room to feel anything…”

Haruto found himself stunned. How could anyone say something so honest… so directly?

He pressed his lips. Deep inside, he sort of wished he could. That he could tell someone, to break down his every wall, to let everything flood out.

But of course, he couldn’t. He didn’t even know how to say anything about feelings.

He only knew physicality.

When his mother died, he’d found himself sucked into a vacuum. Dark thoughts attacked him every day, like dark ravens or vultures picking out at his flesh in the morning, clockwork. They would come and feed on him, chewing him away, then fly off, leaving him there to see nothingness as they’d gouged his eyes.

It’s as if he’d been thrown into the deepest well in the world, the deepest hole in the ground imaginable. He’d scream, and no one would hear him. He would shiver down there, cold, and no one would know. He would sit there, curled in fear, and no one would care. Try all he wanted, and nothing would change.

There was nothing else but darkness. And he’d lived that way for God knows how long…

At one point, though, he decided he was done. He decided to throw everything away and climb up from the well. Cutting himself, bruising, breaking bones—he didn’t care, anymore. He was tired of it. Emotions only led to hurt for him. Sentimentality led to pain.

Holding on, actually feeling—it’d wrecked him. And he wanted no more of it.

He’d never been able to tell anybody. So, for such a long time, he’d simply kept it inside…

Letting it be. An underworld beneath the surface.

“I love art,” the woman eventually said. “But what I don’t like is how visual it is.”

He looked up, awakening from his thought.

He furrowed his brows. “What do you mean?”

“Visual art, painting,” she replied. “Their value comes from how they look. Sure, there is abstract art. But I just wish there’s a way to just throw my heart out somewhere, to lay it bare, truly…”

She sighed.

“To let people judge the truth, not what’s simply on the surface…”


Right then, the elevator door opened.

He heard footsteps walking past him, smelled a hint of perfume.

Then the footsteps stopped outside.

“You know, thanks for letting me talk,” she said, a softness in her voice. A sweetness, almost. “Goodbye.”

Right then, the elevator doors closed and the lights went back on.

The elevator started its ascent once more.

That was such a sudden goodbye…

“What the hell...”

For a long time, thinking to himself, he pondered over what had just happened. Over what it all meant. Over what the woman had meant with her words, or what her story meant. And if any of what happened was really real.

It was only then that he realized…

He’d never even seen her face…


May 08, 2021 03:48

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