Living with Kappa
“Don’t go down to the river,” Hiro’s mother warned him.
“Ok, mom,” Hiro called back as he went outside, then rolled his eyes and mimicked the next words as his mom spoke them: “There are Kappa there and they’ll drag you underwater and eat you alive.”
Hiro knew all about kappa because his mom was obsessed with them. She told him she had once seen a friend drowned by a kappa, and every now and then she showed him a sketch she had drawn. “Just so you know one if you see one.”
But now that he was ten, Hiro understood that his mom didn’t know everything. His friends had told him that kappa were friendly and that the cute little creatures would do anything for a cucumber. Still, he never went to the river. It was much easier than having to deal with his mom should she ever find out.
Instead, Hiro was on his way to take photos of an ant colony he had discovered a week earlier after tripping over a fallen log in his back yard. Until he’d found the ants, Hiro had no idea what he was going to do for his science project.
He pulled the camera from his bag, then kicked the log over to reveal a line of ants carrying a beetle carcass. They scurried for cover from the sudden blast of light, but never dropped their prey. He zoomed in close to snap a few photos of the insects and the trails they’d made in the decaying log. When finished, he shrouded the ants again with darkness by rolling it back into place.
A rustle in some nearby bushes caught his attention. A black cat, bleeding from claw marks in its side, limped by, then stopped.
“Awww, kitty…here, kitty, kitty.” Hiro pulled a towel from his bag and moved slowly toward the cat. His neighborhood had several cat colonies, and he sometimes caught injured or sick animals. His mom told him to let nature take its course, but injured animals always seemed to cross his path, and he knew, somehow, that he was meant to care for them. His mom became so frustrated with the menagerie of injured animals that he brought into her home— cats, squirrels, birds, even a tanuki, once — she converted the small shed into a shelter for him to use as a hospital.
“Here, kitty, kitty.” He inched closer to the cat, but when he took another step, the cat darted away as fast as it could on an injured leg. It ran to the riverbank where Hiro blindly followed it into a tangle of vines that were wrapped around a dead tree. The cat scuttled with ease into the undergrowth, then edged past some brambles. Hiro, though, was trapped; thorns caught at his hand, grasped onto his jacket, and tugged at his jeans.
He carefully disentangled himself, then tried retracing his steps, but the riverbank was so thick with vines and brambles he wondered how he had managed to get this deep into the foliage. There was no clear path back that he could see, but at the water’s edge, the brambles gave way to pampas grass, which waved lazily in the light breeze. He made his way down the riverbank, pushed aside an overgrown clump of pampas and stepped on a foot—green, webbed, and slimy. Splayed out on the ground was a kappa, its turtle-shell back cracked, as if hit by a rock. There was a patch of mud around the kappa’s head. The life-sustaining water that the creature held in the small depression in its head had spilled out.
Without hesitation, Hiro checked the kappa for broken limbs, then carried the near-dead creature to the river’s edge where he propped it against a rock, filled the bowl on its head with water, wiped away the dirt from its face, then stepped back to see if his patient would revive.
After a few minutes, the kappa’s eyes opened. It shook its head as if trying to focus, then found Hiro.
Hiro finally understood his mother’s warning.
Lidless, red-rimmed eyes glared at Hiro. Fangs peeked from the creature’s upper lip and dug into its lower. It rose on spindly legs and stalked toward Hiro, who clambered backwards up the riverbank, too terrified to turn and run, but he slipped, landing with a thump and sliding right into the kappa’s legs. It grabbed his neck with one clammy hand and pulled him close, the webbing between its fingers pulsing against Hiro’s neck as if it were a separate, hungry being. It leaned in and sniffed Hiro’s neck, and even though he was afraid, Hiro wondered how the creature could smell anything over its own stench of dank water. When the kappa’s teeth began chattering the way cats do before they attack, Hiro could control himself no longer; a warm trickle spread across the seat of his pants and down the back of his legs.
The kappa sniffed again, then glanced down at Hiro’s soiled pants. Its mouth widened into what Hiro thought looked like a sneer, exposing crooked, brown teeth between its fangs. Then, it released him and dove into the water.
Hiro was only slightly less afraid of his mother’s wrath than the kappa, so he never told her about his encounter, but he also never went to the river again. As he grew older, he attributed his fear of the river to a bad dream. In school, he learned kappa didn’t exist, that they were simply legendary creatures. By the time he got through university and set up his veterinary practice in Tokyo, the riverbank encounter was forgotten.
Years later, Hiro went for a walk while visiting his elderly parents. It was hot and humid, so he strolled the riverbank, holding his arms out wide to let the breeze cool the wet spots under his arms. When he reached an area with a tree kept standing only because of the tangle of vines wrapped around it, a dizzying sense of deja vu knocked into him. His heart unaccountably pounded in his chest. Hiro peered into the foliage, willing a memory to emerge. None did. He focused on the undergrowth and vines. The surrounding bushes and grasses grew fuzzy, and a sense of curiosity pushed away his fear. Was something in there? He stepped into the brush. A bird cried out at being disturbed and darted away. Halfway down the embankment, a tangle of thorny bushes blocked his way. He would have to go back.
A branch snapped behind him.
Hiro jerked around. Nothing. He spun around again at a rustle in the bushes to his right. Again, nothing, but the hairs on his neck rose. Hiro turned to go back to the riverwalk, but his arm had gotten caught in a vine.
As he struggled to untangle his arm, a kappa crawled on spindly legs from the undergrowth. Red-rimmed eyes caught Hiro’s. Another rustle in the bushes, then another. Two more kappa emerged and circled him. One dug its claws into his arm and drew blood.
“He’s mine! I found him first.”
“I’ll fight you for him,” said another.
“Stop fighting,” said the third, poking at the flesh in Hiro’s arm. “There’s enough here for all of us.”
They collectively snorted and opened their mouths wide, pushing and shoving Hiro like a cat playing with its prey before the kill. After one violent lurch, the third kappa lunged for Hiro’s neck, mouth wide, fangs dripping.
The kappa sniffed, then drew back. It gazed at each of its fellow kappa who muttered their dissatisfaction and disappeared into the brush.
“There is one smell missing from you,” the kappa said. That was all it took for Hiro’s memories to come crashing back, especially the humiliation at peeing his pants.
“It’s you!” Hiro whispered, still terrified by his near death, but also happy to see that the kappa he had saved was still alive. “Is…is…are those others your family?” The kappa snorted its reply. Hiro took it as a yes.
“You saved my life many years ago,” the kappa cut him off. “Now, we’re even. Don’t EVER come here again. I won’t be able to protect you. Go!”
When Hiro’s parents grew sick, he moved his family to his childhood home. He wasn’t likely to forget or discount his experience with the kappa this time, nor was he willing to take a chance with his children’s lives, so he built a wall to prevent anyone from accessing the river from his property. Over the years, people occasionally went missing, presumed drowned, and he wondered if they died at the hands of kappa. He never told anyone of his encounter for fear of public ridicule. Instead, he ran for Mayor, then erected barriers along the riverbank and organized brush clearing events.
On the wall behind his house, Hiro set out cucumbers—kappas’ favorite snack— once a month and called out thanks to the kappa who saved his life. He didn’t know if it was his “friend” or one of the others who ate the treats, but sometimes, fresh ginger, which grew along the riverbank, was placed on the wall in return. He bowed and said his thanks each time the ginger gift was left.
His parents died, his children moved away for university, then to Tokyo, visiting only on holidays. He traveled with his wife for a few years after retirement, but when she died, he was alone. He sometimes went days speaking to no one but the plants in his garden.
One hot day, Hiro carried a pile of grass clippings to toss over the wall and paused to let the river’s cool breeze wash over him. The new Mayor had let the brush grow tall and dense again. In a moment of childish abandon, Hiro climbed up onto the wall, legs dangling over the edge, and watched the river eddies play against the rocks. He wondered if the kappa family was still alive.
As if he had willed it, there was a shuffle in the brush and a kappa emerged. Like him, it had aged; its skin was mottled, and its water bowl had sunk deeper into its head. Hiro spun around to jump to the safety of his yard, but the kappa’s spindly legs shook with the effort of climbing, and he just didn’t seem as threatening as before. It breathed heavily through its mouth, and only one fang was visible. The malicious glare that terrified young Hiro was now watery and focused on the uneven ground. Hiro remained on the wall, ready to jump away if need be. The kappa climbed onto the wall and sat down. Its shoulders slouched, its head dangling forward on a scrawny neck that craned upward so as not to spill the water in its bowl.
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Hiro, nervous about his safety, was the first to speak.
“It’s been a long time…”
The kappa scratched its leg, dipped a finger into the water on its head, then sucked it off the finger. “I told you never to come back here.”
“I know, but…well, this isn’t your territory; it’s mine.”
“Hm!” the kappa grunted.
“Did you get the cucumbers I left for you?”
“I got them.”
Hiro waited for a thank you, then shrugged when none came. He knew enough not to expect animals to act like humans. “Where are the other kappa? Were they your children?”
“They left this area. There are too many walls built along the river and someone keeps clearing away the bushes where we live. Besides, this water isn’t what it used to be…too many houses. The water is dirty.”
“Why didn’t you go with them?”
For the first time, the kappa let down its guard and Hiro could read its expression, a mix of nostalgia, affection and surprise at the question. “This is my home.”
“Of course, of course,” Hiro replied. “So, you’re all alone.”
The kappa bowed his head, careful not to spill its water.
“Me, too. My wife died, my kids moved away…”
The two sat for a few minutes in silence, looking out at the river. Hiro watched a bird flit from one branch to another in the tangled brush. He glanced over at the kappa, its slouch now more pronounced, as if sitting upright on a wall required too much energy. Sorrow overwhelmed Hiro.
“To tell the truth, I’m lonely,” he admitted. “You, too?” The kappa, inscrutable again, snorted. Hiro interpreted it as a yes.
He put his arm around the kappa. “Well, my friend,” he said, “I guess it’s just the two of us now.”
The kappa rested its spindly arm across Hiro’s shoulders and turned to face him, “It’s just me.”
The bird bolting away was the last thing Hiro saw.
As a cat lover, Linda Gould has always been intrigued with the complex relationship humans have with animals that are predators. This story explores that relationship. She’s an American who has lived in Japan for over 20 years and is an on-again, off-again writer. Recently, her work centers on incorporating Japanese ghosts, culture, and folktales into her short fiction