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Fiction

Headwater LLC

Bottled at the Source

Masa makes a deep bow as Yoko holds a plastic bottle beneath him, waiting for the water to drain like a tea garden waterfall from Masa’s bowl-shaped head. A trainee at Headwater Bottled Refreshments stands behind Masa with a hose, filling his head up to the brim after he finishes his bow. “We have to wait five minutes before filling more bottles,” Yoko says. “The water needs time to change.” The frosted glass walls of the factory are like clouds hovering over the river outside at dawn. Masa is standing on the cold linoleum floor; both of his ankles are shackled to heavy chains. The trainee shuffles to the lounge to smoke. Yoko picks up a tray of sliced cucumbers and hand-feeds Masa, avoiding his forlorn and tired eyes.

Situated in the same village that Yoko grew up in, on the same plot of fertile land where her parents had once farmed rice, Headwater’s ganglion network of hallways is located almost entirely underground. Its only marker on the surface is a ten-story funnel, open to the sky like a monumental Victrola. It is the heart of the company, according to the Headwater blog, and not the Kappa, the mythical, amphibious creatures of Japan with pools of water in their heads that grace the company’s anime logo.

Erectile dysfunction, Seasonal Affective Disorder, male pattern baldness — newscasters list the seemingly endless miracle cures from customer testimonials around the world. “They somehow drugged it,” says a representative of AquaLuv, one of Headwater’s competitors. “People are looting stores, gangs are dealing bottles on the street. No one loves water that much.”

In vast, desiccated oceans of sand and heat, Bedouins attest to happier camels and less arduous journeys. Headwater is the official drink of the Olympics, NASA, Japan League baseball, and nearly every teenage pop idol, believing their breasts will grow larger if they pour Headwater over themselves in music videos. Headwater, as it slogan reads, is health, vitality, and a better life.

Orientation

Yoko reviews the company rules, projected on both sides of the outside corridor, to the trainee. One — Do not drink the water; Two — Always wear your I.D. badge; Three — Leaving company grounds is strictly forbidden without permission (failure to comply will result in termination); Four — All contact with the outside world will be monitored; Five — Do not become emotionally attached to your Kappa; Six — Never leave a full head of water in your Kappa unattended; Seven — Failure to meet quotas will result in reduced leisure and food rations; and Eight — Reproduction of these regulations in any form is prohibited.

Yoko can already tell why this one was recruited, as the trainee reads Regulation Eight again and throws his notes into the dust box. She has gone through hundreds of trainees over the years, including the chief executive officers of the company — her childhood friends and partners in founding Headwater. There are over 500 Kappa in the facility, producing an average of 25,000 bottles per day and 700,000 bottles every month with the aid of over 2,000 residential employees — bottlers, security guards, cooks, doctors, and custodial staff.

“Why can’t we leave water in their head?” the trainee asks. Yoko tells him to read the chapters in his employee manual about Kappa anatomy and customs. It explains the Kappa, being aquatic by nature, receive strength from water, but due to an ingrained sense of etiquette, must reciprocate gestures of politeness (even under duress) such as bowing, forcing them to spill their magic-infused water, becoming weak and docile. Headwater left unattended for too long has resulted in escape attempts.

Yoko keeps her eyes fixed on Masa’s beak-like mouth. She thinks of the conversations she had with him as a child, tromping through rice paddies, chasing cranes and storks, collecting the dried shells of dead cicadas. She thinks about the new policies ordered by her partners: heavy chains, torn out tongues, more lies and cameras. Lies to Yoko, lies to the employees, lies large enough to cover nations.

“It’s okay. I forgive you,” Yoko imagines Masa saying to her. “You tried.”

Company Mythos

Beads of light descend through the blue water of the volcanic lake like fallen angels. The water has been talked about for centuries: the source of a princess’ beauty, the unquenchable thirst of a prince after eating a fish from the lake. Wooden signs warned of the mythical Kappa lurking in local waters, stories of them stealing children and impregnating women — explanations far more favorable than wartime rape and abortion. Mountains created by Gods, trees planted by ancestors, simple people and simple lives. This is the village that Yoko grew up in. Yoko often walked around the caldera brim of the lake, far past her home and the school she went to. The natural, mossy silence comforted her and made her feel, for brief moments, as if she belonged to the world.

Here, in another age, people sent paper lanterns afloat to deliver the dead to the other side. Here, the nearly extinct creatures of old Japan remained hidden, watching their existence become myth, watching a sad little girl kick her feet in crystal waters, pulling apart her image like a warped mirror.

Tangible Assets

From beneath the water, Masa would examine Yoko’s elfin toes — each as round and white as a miniature rice ball. He had become fascinated with her. And although the other Kappa had been talking about nibbling on Yoko, as it had been such a long time since they’ve eaten a human child, Masa was not among them. He broke the rule that had kept all old creatures safe from the new world, and floated to the surface. Yoko saw the Franciscan fringe of his hair, surrounding a pool of water like a bird’s nest fallen from a tree, and then the emerald skin of Masa’s forehead. In one of his webbed hands, he held a single lily like a champagne glass. He nodded his head in greeting and water from his head spilled into the flower. Yoko, afraid at first, giggled, bowed back, and introduced herself.

“I’m Yoko.”

“Masami. Please call me Masa.”

His voice escaped his mouth like a parrot’s or a ventriloquist’s, disembodied and hollow. Brown patches of hair circled his wrists. Beneath his brow, his eyes looked like smooth, dark stones.

Yoko took the lily from Masa’s outstretched hand and examined it, smelling the water inside. Masa motioned her to drink but Yoko hesitated, remembering stories about Kappa playing tricks on people. After much thought, she took careful sips from the flower, sucking the remaining droplets off the petals and licking the corners of her mouth after she had finished.

“It’s really good,” she said.

Nearby a praying mantis climbed a branch and embraced a caterpillar. She became more aware of her surroundings — the pattering of distant footsteps, the sticky odor of freshly steamed rice at a nearby restaurant. Everything in her body seemed charged.

“Can you feel it?” he asked

Masa came closer, and Yoko could see the subtle wrinkles of his iguana-like skin, the shiny reflections of his eyes. His three spun-out fingers with their little talons picked up Yoko’s hands, examining each finger. She saw him gazing at the top of her head, and Yoko untied the blue ribbon from her hair and tied a bow around Masa’s wrist.

“My sister gave me this, but you can keep it. I have others,” she said.

He admired the blue material, holding up his arm to the sunlight. “The others might be angry.”

“There are others?”

“Not many. There used to be thousands of us. But that was a long time ago.”

Yoko smiles. Masa bows again, refilling the flower and dunks himself underwater to replenish his head. He does not yet tell Yoko the reason why he came to the surface — that the waters have become polluted and his kind are suffering from a painful disease. “You must drink quickly. The water changes into something else if you wait too long — you won’t be able to stop drinking it,” he says. Yoko nods her head, tips the flower to her lips and closes her eyes.

Founding Partners

“So, you want to be one of us, right?” Haruka said. She was one of those girls that didn’t really need make-up to be pretty but wore tons of it anyway. Her hips seemed to always be shifted to one side, arms akimbo with glittery nails tapping at her thighs.

Since high school started, Yoko had found herself without a voice, eating her homemade lunches in bathroom stalls, although what she wanted more than anything was to be one of these girls. How she admired their clothes, the way boys looked at them, how they were everything she was not. She would have done anything to sit at their lunch table, and the only ticket she had was Masa’s water.

“Well, to be one of us, you need a bag. We’re the LV girls, and no one can hang out with us without something Louis Vuitton,” Maiko said. Maiko was the follower and, Yoko thought, anorexic.

“So, you don’t have money, and I can’t imagine businessmen paying you to keep them company. But you have your supposed little friend and that water,” Haruka said. She twinkled her fingers at the lakeshore. “Introduce us. I’ve been dying for another drink anyway.”

“You promise not to tell or give the water to other people?” Yoko asked.

Haruka and Maiko held up their pinkies and interlocked them — a pinky swear.

Yoko turned around and took a cucumber, a Kappa’s favorite food, out of her backpack and sat at the edge of the water. A part of her hoped Masa wouldn’t surface, while another part felt the towering legs of her new social circle looming behind her like gigantic, hungry crows.

But Masa surfaced and Maiko and Haruka drank water from his head, and because he trusted friends of Yoko, Masa told them stories of his kind. He told them how a samurai lord had enslaved many Kappa, using the drug-like qualities of stored headwater, to control villagers and soldiers. He told them how a Kappa’s power on land is his water, how the waters have become dirty, making the Kappa sick.

Haruka slipped out a pack of Lucky 7’s and offered one to Yoko, lit her up and waited for her to inhale. Yoko began coughing. Maiko and Haruka laughed.

“Like a drug — huh?” Haruka said. “People really fought over it?”

Masa nodded his head.

“How many of you guys are there?” Maiko asked. “Maybe we can help you.” Masa remained silent, detecting a disingenuous air around Maiko, uncertain if he should say anything more. The two girls turned back to Yoko, who was trying to decide how to hold a cigarette. Yoko glanced back at Masa, his hands outstretched and open like a wounded deity. “How many?” Maiko asked again.

Development

In the coming months, the high school basketball and soccer teams would take orders from Maiko and Haruka, assembling at the lake and local rivers after school. At night, they baited homemade traps with cucumber and set them in the water, waiting in matching tracksuits as if they were a synchronized fishing team. The Kappa, hidden from the world for centuries, could not resist the prospect of food in their weakened state. Thanks to Masa, who had been kept locked in a storage unit downtown, Maiko and Haruka now knew the Kappa would soon have no choice but to surface or die at the bottom of the lake.

The LV girls had started to amass a small fortune. They gave out samples, rented more storage spaces and walked the red light districts of Tokyo and Osaka. Their teachers at school were the first to be addicted — they wrote notes, made up stories about field trips and called parents. Then came the assisted bathhouses, brothels, and strip clubs — they all wanted water, and their customers always came back for more.

Yoko always sat far away in the darkness with her LV backpack when they caught Kappa. A seventeen-year-old wannabe Yakuza stood guard over her with a convenience store switchblade, ensuring she caused no trouble. She pulled out clumps of moist grass and stacked the tufts to make a miniature pyramid. Whenever she looked up, she imagined Masa chained up and alone. His skin was chapped, and all the water inside him ran through his body and into a puddle around his feet as if he were a flower turned upside down to dry. This is how Kappa cry — through pores in their feet. He held out a closed hand toward her and slowly opened it. Inside rested the ribbon Yoko had given him.

Now it is time to fill more bottles again, and the trainee assumes his position behind Masa, ready to fill his head with lake water. Yoko takes a tray of open bottles and places it on a small conveyer belt under Masa, running back and forth, and bows. And as her body remains bent, she stares at the water streaming from Masa’s head, pouring into the bottles until they are completely full. She imagines herself, years ago, swimming with Masa to the bottom of the lake as he whispered stories in her ear and breathed strands of bubbles into her mouth.

Naturally Distilled

As they descended past the curtains of sunlight and into the untouched darkness of the lake, Yoko felt as if she was leaving the waters known to the world and falling into something else entirely. Masa guided her hands, pointing at the other Kappa darting through the water with the speed of minnows, some of their bodies covered in bulbous tumors.

Occasionally, Yoko looked up, and tiny pearls escaped from the corners of her mouth, shooting up to the surface. All sounds seemed to be swallowed except for Masa’s voice. There were no dragon lovers at the bottom of the lake as in the myths.

“That’s just an old story,” Masa said. “Older than us.”

“Are any of the stories true?”

“Some.”

Masa and Yoko sat down on a rocky ledge and suddenly several Kappa surrounded them, and Yoko thought: They don’t want me here. They want to hurt me. But Masa waved his hand and one by one they left. Staring out into the blue expanse, he began telling Yoko about a tiny boy, even smaller than her, who lived long ago and married a princess.

“The three-centimeter samurai!” Yoko tried to motion with her hands, slicing the water with an imaginary sword.

Masa nodded and explained that a Kappa, an old friend of his, befriended the tiny boy, and because the boy and princess ruled justly, many Kappa served their court. But stories of their headwater spread through the villages, and the boy tricked the Kappa into giving him their water, using it to expand his land, slowly controlling other territories as people became addicted. Only when Kublai Khan tried to invade and the country was preoccupied with defense from the Mongols, did the Kappa escape and go into hiding.

A heavy shower came down on the lake and Yoko and Masa rose back to the surface, gazing at the raindrops hitting the water like miniature harpoons. “You remind me of the princess,” Masa said. “She wanted to help us.”

Personal Archives

Since Maiko and Haruka stopped pretending Yoko’s partnership in the company mattered to them at all, Yoko’s days and nights have been filled with elaborate plans to set Masa and the other Kappa free. She draws maps, scribbles notes in a made-up secret code and tucks them into the stuffing of her pillow. Unable to rescue Masa herself before the Headwater facility was built, Yoko knows that for any plan to succeed, she will need help.

The Scenario: Having garnered support from sympathizers in the company, Yoko will free Masa from his chains as her supporters free as many Kappa as possible. They will do this on the day when delivery trucks are scheduled to pick up bottles for distribution. Because Yoko will need to prove her loyalty to the company so Maiko and Haruka will let their guard down, Yoko will suggest packaging the water bottles in large, wooden crates instead of the pallets they’ve been using. She will suggest this not only because Headwater shipments have become prone to highway robbery, but also because the Kappa will need to be hidden during transport and wooden crates seemed like a good idea as any. The truck drivers will not suspect a thing. Yoko and her supporters will hide in crates with the Kappa until they have passed company grounds. Then they will creep out and sneak behind the drivers, holding syringes filled with tranquilizers and knock them out cold while the caravan stops for gas. The Kappa will run from the trucks like animals from a burning forest while the turncoat Headwater employees guide them to the river, leading to the ocean and to their freedom.

Of course, none of this will ever happen. Yoko always realizes this when she has lunch in the cafeteria and sees how happy the employees are to be at Headwater. She realizes the only people the company hires are those with nothing left on the outside — those without families, futures, or minds of their own. What she doesn’t realize but probably knows in some little way, is the gunshots she hears are not solely reserved for crazed customers who try to break into the facility, but are also for employees that have had enough of the good life underground. Yoko wishes she had done something sooner. She can hardly understand the choices she made as a teenager anymore, why she didn’t take Masa’s hand and run before it was too late.

Resignation

Maiko and Haruka,

 We’ve known each other a long time, but I’ve realized we were never the friends I wanted us to be years ago. When Headwater officially became a business, you both said we were equal partners, although now I know you only said that so I’d believe I had the power to manage how the Kappa were treated. I’m not proud of the choices I’ve made. I’ve betrayed perhaps the only friend I’ve ever had. I can no longer be a part of this company. The only reason I’ve stayed for so long is because I’ve been afraid what you’d do to me if I left. I’m taking Masa (Kappa #001) with me. I will not expose the company but will be forced to if you try to follow us.

 — Yoko

Yoko stares at the letter she wrote last night, knowing if she puts it on Haruka or Maiko’s desk, her and Masa’s little bodies will discover what exactly happens to employees that leave the facility. She folds the paper in two, sticks it into her front pocket and dismisses the trainee after he returns from the bathroom. Masa has been crying — there’s a large puddle where he stands. Yoko mops the floor, takes a small towel and pats Masa’s feet dry. When she’s done, she pulls up a stool and takes a blue ribbon out of her pocket not unlike the one she gave him when she was a child and ties it around one of his wrists.

“How are we going to get out of this one?” Yoko says, looking into Masa’s expressionless eyes. She gets another tray of cucumber and feeds him slice by slice and begins telling him a story about a kappa and a princess that escape a dark fortress. They run through rice fields during a typhoon and shoot through rivers like Earth-bound stars until they get to an endless sea. And when they get there, she tells him how they keep going deeper into the blue abyss as their bodies shrink into hazy, infinitesimal dots until they are completely gone.

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Sequoia NagamatsuSequoia Nagamatsu was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and Oahu, Hawaii and was educated at Grinnell College (B.A.) and Southern Illinois University (M.F.A). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, The Bellevue Literary Review, West Branch Wired, Redivider, OMNI Reboot, Puerto Del Sol, Gargoyle, Hobart, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories, among others. He is currently working on a post-apocalyptic, coming-of-age novel (involving evolutionary genetics, shape shifters, and disembodied consciousness) and two short story collections (one inspired by Japanese folklore and another revolving around recurring patterns in the evolution of societies). He is the co-founder and managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine, a new journal which focuses on the spaces between genre and form. More info at sequoianagamatsu.net.