"I'm a monkey."
"I'm a salmon."
"No, I'm a mermaid." This is what it said.
"Yes, that last bit is correct," prompted Sukeroku. "Now, try saying it once again. What is it that you are?"
"I'm a monkey."
"I'm a salmon."
"No, I'm a mermaid," it repeated. Three states of consciousness, three statements, all uttered by the same mouth. For there was but one mouth, which had originally belonged to a monkey.
"Oh, no, no. You're a mermaid, you understand?"
"All of you are a mermaid," it corrected. [End Page 114]
"Nonsense," Sukeroku denied crisply. "You are a single 'you' and there's no 'all of you' about it. You are one person . . . rather, one animal . . . that is, a single-bodied mermaid. Think about it—back when you were a monkey, when you were a salmon, did you ever manage to say 'I am a monkey, I am a salmon'? It's thanks to me that you were even able to say all of that, you know. It's because I made you into a mermaid just now. That's all there is to say . . . you are a mermaid."
Right next to him, hunched keenly over his work with knees splayed where he sat, Yakichi paused to peer over at Sukeroku's workbench and laughed.
"Sukeroku, you simply aren't going to get any better at this, are you? Take it at its own word, that thing is a-monkey-that-is-a-salmon, the poor soul." Yakichi then turned back to his own handiwork laid out on the workbench before him. He tapped it smartly upon the completed seam and declared, "Now then, a mermaid!" As he did so, the crafted object became animated in an instant. It opened its eyes and said, "Yes, I'm a mermaid," affirming itself with clarity.
"Just so," said Yakichi, returning his gaze to Sukeroku.
"Hmm," grunted Sukeroku, turning away.
While this was taking place, it began to screw up its face like an infant, wailing, "But it's not as though I had any great desire to become a mermaid! I don't understand a single thing about the doings of you humans."
"Enough of this crying and carrying on," said Sukeroku. "At any rate, there are no tears for you to shed—the last drop of moisture in your body has been dried out . . ."
This is a mermaid workshop. Yes, of course, there is no such thing as a mermaid. But because they do not exist—well—that is precisely why their existence is such a precious thing. And so it is that everyone in this workshop wholeheartedly goes about making some up from scratch. Mermaids are made primarily out of monkeys and salmon. The monkeys are split cleanly in two at the belly and hung up from the eaves until they are entirely dried out. The heads of the salmon are cut off and discarded, and the bodies are hung up in their own spot on the eaves until they, too, are entirely dried out. When the bodies are as dry and hard as wood, they are then brought here, where each half is sewn neatly together with sturdy fiber thread. And at workbenches here and there, the craftsmen sit cross-legged, directly on the wooden plank floor, busily calling out "Hey, there's a mermaid!" and "Look, it's a mermaid!" whenever one has been completed. This is how the mermaids are born. They are mermaids who are dead right from the start.
Sukeroku fastened a rope around its neck and stood up. "One way or another, you'll be sold off to a foreign land," he encouraged it, slipping it deep into a jar of persimmon tannin to marinate. "Once you get there, you be sure to announce yourself properly, you understand? You tell them, 'I'm a mermaid,' just like that. As long as you do that…" [End Page 115]
Completely submerged in the thick, amber liquid, it was unable to hear what Sukeroku was saying.
"What was that? What?" it sputtered as Sukeroku pulled it back up.