I’m going to tell you a story, but on one condition: it must be read out loud.
If you read it out loud, you must also promise to read it quietly. You might whisper it, a secret between friends, or you might even groan it like a confession. Sit very still with your hands folded and your feet planted on the floor. I’ll tell you when you should make noise. I’ll tell you what to do with your body.
Are we in agreement? You may quietly dip your head, or perhaps hum in the back of your throat.
The story goes like this: for as long as I can remember, I’ve been followed. Not by a person or even a creature, but something disembodied. A follower I can only trace through the sound of footsteps. Sometimes in coordination with my own, sometimes syncopated, but always audible. Always a few paces behind me.
Each time I stop, it stops. Each time I turn my head, there is no one there. But I know I’m being followed.
To make the sound of the follower, you’ll need to sit in a hard-backed chair. Lean forward and bend your arms behind the small of your back. You may have to cross them at the wrist to splay your palms away from your body. Tap your fingertips lightly against what is behind you. Tip tap. Tip tap. Like that.
My superstitious cousin from Osaka emails me to warn about a ghost that follows people. He is called Betobeto-san. He is a disembodied yokai who can only be identified by the clacking sound—the betobeto—of his wooden sandals. The longer he walks behind you, the closer the sound gets. Betobeto. Betobeto. Tip tap. Like that.
He sounds ominous, but Mr. Betobeto is not malevolent. If you hear him, you should simply step to the side and say, “After you, Mr. Betobeto,” and you should hear his sandals clap on.
This is how I know my follower isn’t Betobeto-san. It never walks past me.
At eighteen, I buy my first car and fall deeply in love with the freedom it grants me. I drive my car up and down winding country roads. I leave my hair down and let it tangle in the wind slapping through the open window. Sometimes, I’m momentarily blinded by my hair, but I don’t slow down because the blind-deafness unleashes a recklessness in my chest that I will only feel here and now while I’m young.
That endless feeling lasts only for a summer.
One night I drive a friend home from the movies and, before she even buckles her seatbelt, she checks the backseat. Though I already have a sense of her paranoia, I ask her what she’s doing, and she cites a local news report on how some men break into young women’s unlocked cars to wait in the backseat so they can stalk women back to their homes.
She isn’t the only one with this fear. All my driving friends have their own car-related tics. One purposefully takes wrong turns or pauses at stoplights to see if she’s being trailed. Another won’t stop on abandoned roads when pulled over by the police; anyone can buy a multi-colored dome light. Another friend never gets too close to her parked car, choosing instead to all but leap onto the runner boards from as far away as she can manage. The reason, she says, is because men hide under parked cars with pruning shears.
What do they do with the pruning shears?
They cut women’s Achilles tendons and drag them under.
To recreate the sound of severing an Achilles tendon, there’s no need for pruning shears or scissors. Just clack your sharp, sharp teeth together. The blunt bicuspids and snapping incisors. Yes, just like that.
On my way home from school, I pick up produce for my mother at the grocery store. She taught me how to tell when a melon is ripe by tapping on it. How to hear the hollow sound of too much water. When thumped, a ripe melon sounds solid. I hold the smooth rind to my ear and knock politely. A “may I come in?” kind of knock. The same knock I use on my father’s office door.
I sense someone behind me, trying to select a melon of their own. I shift to the side and the follower shifts with me. No one appears at my shoulder.
The nape of my neck prickles. I turn, dread like a cool injection spreading out under my skin.
But it’s just the produce stocker, a skinny teen in an apron heaping yellow onions into the bin behind me.
Since you’re reading this out loud, you should clarify that I mean a produce s-t-o-c-k-e-r and not a produce s-t-a-l-k-e-r. That’s a joke. You should laugh.
Before I go to college, I take a summer class in Tokyo. During the eleven-hour plane ride, I am awash in the ambient roar of the engines. Then I step foot on the tarmac and so does the follower. I’m not surprised it came all this way. Why wouldn’t it?
Tokyo is different: bright pastel lights and constant noise and narrow alleyways where no one can see a woman disappear.
I take the train and new survival instincts replace my rural ones. For instance: I used to pay attention to everyone who wanted it. Now I learn that sometimes, it’s best to flatly ignore the person shouting right in your face. It’s a surprise delight: ignoring people.
My roommate learns a different lesson: to pay attention constantly. One night she comes home in a bluster, flushed and pouring sweat. She tells me that two men followed her to the station and got into the same car as her. They were speaking in Japanese and thought she couldn’t understand them (she’s half-Dominican, half-Chinese—she reads as a tourist who wouldn’t speak any Japanese), but her ears pricked when she heard them mention “the Black girl.” She told me that they knew what stop she was going to get off on and planned to grab her.
Terror made her smart. She got off on the next stop and waited for them to exit the car, then—just before the doors closed—she hopped back on. She took the train all the way to the end of the line and back, but got off the stop before ours for fear of the men waiting for her on the platform. From there, she took off in a dead run. Seven blocks. She ran seven blocks back to our apartment in the thick humidity of a Tokyo summer. She’d tried to call me, but my phone was on silent.
Have you ever heard of chikan? It is the word for a man who gropes a woman on a train, or another public place. Young school girls are a particular target. Female students on their commute to school will often carry their uniforms so as not to draw attention to themselves.
So much pornography is dedicated to the fantasy. I’m sure if you Google “train grope” the porn will come up before any news articles on the crime epidemic.
Do you have a word for chikan in your language?
My roommate tells me about the train incident in our bedroom, while we sit shoulder to shoulder on her twin bed. Afterwards, I am quiet. I should know what to say, but I don’t.
I make tea. I’ve been learning how to brew it the Japanese way, with matcha rather than teabags. I am careful with the amount—too much powder and the tea becomes gritty, like drinking silt—and the temperature of the boil. I whisk the matcha into the warm water the way I was taught to scramble eggs, until the surface is a delicate froth. I hope she likes it; my roommate is from Texas where tea should be liquid honey.
When I bring the tea to her, my follower’s steps are a hushed shuffle. I sit and the follower sits lightly behind me, barely a third weight on the mattress. I offer her the cup.
I should know what to say, but I don’t.
I sip my tea. She doesn’t sip hers. But she brings it up towards her face, tilts her nose into the steam, and lowers the cup again.
“That’s nice,” she says, but she’s frowning. “You know, I could smell them. Even though they weren’t close enough to smell. But, you know, I saw them, and I know what guys that look like that smell like.”
I make a noise to indicate that I want to hear more.
“Yeah, like,” her nose wrinkles. She sets the tea down into her lap, though it must scald her thighs. “Body odor, I guess? But not the ‘sweat through my deodorant’ kind of B.O., the ‘I don’t wear deodorant because I don’t care if you smell me’ kind. You know, the kind of person who thinks everything belongs to him?”
I nod and she, heartened, continues.
“The kind that sprawls into your airplane seat? Or smokes right next to you, or screams on his phone about the fight he’s having with his girlfriend in the Kroger’s, or comes in your mouth without warning you—”
“Disgusting,” I interrupt with a grimace.
She catches my expression and laughs, and I laugh with her, and I think maybe I’m doing an okay job comforting her.
“Anyway, it’s not the first time something like that has happened. Just the worst time something like that has happened.” She lifts her tea and takes a sip through her teeth. Then, probably realizing it’s not very hot, she gulps a mouthful. “You know, this tastes like mushrooms. I’m not so sure about it.”
“Oh yeah?” I sip mine, discerning the earthy musk her tastebuds interpret as mushrooms. “I kind of like it.”
She tells me she hasn’t gotten fully on board with the green tea thing yet. I tell her that I like it, but not quite to the degree that the Japanese do. She thinks this is pretty funny and says mushroomy green tea is very Japanese. Like miso soup for breakfast, or seaweed around tamagoyaki. And then, darkly, she adds that sexual harassment on trains is “very Japanese too. Though, maybe that’s a man thing in general.”
That sucks the air out of the room a little.
“The guys on the train. Were they Japanese?” It’s the kind of question I can only ask another Asian person.
She blinks into the dark window across from her. Then, as if just realizing it for herself, she admits, “I don’t know. Maybe? I can’t remember their faces.”
“That makes sense. I can understand that. Not knowing wha—” I falter, correct, “—who is following you.”
“Yeah?” my roommate says, only half listening; she’s testing the tea again.
I heft up my courage. Yes, okay, this is right. She’s the right person to tell. Just tell it. Just say it: “For as long as I remember, I’ve been followed.”
Her eyes widen, fully attentive now. “Followed? By who?”
“Well, not by a person or even a creature, or anything, but…” I hesitate, unsure how to describe my follower. “A disembodied follower. A follower I can only trace through the sound of its footsteps. It’s always just behind me. Like, whenever I walk, it walks. Whenever I stop, it stops. And if I look to see if someone’s there, there’s nobody. But I know I’m being followed.”
As I speak, my roommate’s face shifts. From sympathetic horror to revulsion. It isn’t until I’ve confessed the whole thing that I recognize her revulsion is in response to me.
“What are you doing right now? What is this?” Her voice is flat, but sharp at the edges. She lands the tea on her bedside table, so she isn’t looking at me as she says, “Something really fucked up happened to me, and you’re—what—telling me a ghost story? That you’re paranoid? What is this?”
“No, no I—This really happened to me.” I wince, correct myself, “Is happening to me.”
My roommate hisses, a big sigh that she expels through her teeth.
“Hey, no,” I try. I don’t want it to end like this. But I don’t know what to say to make this better, to make her believe me. So maybe I shouldn’t tell her any more.
With her back to me, she lies down in her bed, forcing me (and my follower) to stand so I’m not kicked in the hip. She points to the tea. “Can you dump that? It looks like mold.”
Hit your thigh. Hit it hard and with a clenched fist. Hit it so hard that the heel of your palm meets the bone. Now strike your thigh with an open palm. What does it sound like? Are your thighs thick and muscular? Is the sound dense, like meat? Are your thighs so slim the outline of your femur is visible? Is the sound almost too faint to hear?
While in Tokyo, I hear of another Japanese yokai that, like Betobeto-san, follows people with an audible sound. But this one is less friendly. She is more urban legend than folklore, and I can understand why she resonates with city folk.
The story—like many good Japanese urban legends—begins during World War II. The legend goes that an American GI raped a woman from Hokkaido and, in her despair, she threw herself onto the train tracks. She was ripped in half by the force of the train, but she wasn’t killed instantly. Hokkaido is very cold in the winter and the frigid conditions glaciated her blood vessels so she didn’t bleed out. The Hokkaido woman dragged herself off the tracks, calling for help. A train attendant saw her, but he was so horrified that he ran away. She chased after him, running on just her arms, and died in pursuit.
Some say she is still chasing.
If you hear her running after you, the teketeketeketeteketeke of her palms pattering on the pavement, there is no escape. If you run, she’ll catch you and steal your legs.
So, don’t run. Instead, as with most yokai, it is better to confront her. When you do, she will ask you a riddle. I couldn’t tell you what the riddle is. Or the answer.
If you are tempted to recreate the sound of Teketeke, you may, but only if you set this story aside and fold yourself in half so that your feet and hands are on the ground. Then, you should run across the room with your feet and hands in tandem, moving as quickly as you can.
Go ahead and do this now. Let me know if you run with your head up so you can see where you’re going, or if you let your head hang. Does your face fall between your knees? Are you watching what is behind you as you run?
I go back to the States, back to my rural town in my square state for an undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature. I stay in the same state for my graduate degree in Secondary Education. I attend a large university that is well known for being a liberal hub in the foothills of the northern mountains. I feel safe as I walk down the hill towards campus. It is early morning and the hill is quiet. Yesterday, it snowed and then the afternoon sun melted the snow. Last night, it froze over again, leaving a layer of ice at least an inch thick.
I shuffle slowly down the hill. The follower takes similar, halting steps behind me. A bishabishabish sound swishing over the ice. I ignore the sound as always, and take my phone out to check the time. It slips from my hand and the screen cracks on the ice, split right down the middle. I stoop in half to pick it up.
A slap lands on my rear. Someone has struck me, their hand missing the curve of my buttocks and landing on my upper thigh instead.
I turn, smiling incredulously because, for one naive moment, I believe it is a friend. But I don’t recognize the boy who has slapped me.
Somehow, despite the slippery ice, he runs on, laughing. I shout after him, because my boots don’t have enough grip to chase him. I hope he’ll slip and fall flat on his face, but he doesn’t.
He must be another student, because he runs straight towards campus. He disappears behind the dip of the hill. Every day, for the rest of my undergraduate life, I look for this boy. I never find him.
He is very short, with dark eyes and dry hair that isn’t combed. He has a wide nose and wide shoulders. If you see him, will you let me know? If you are him, will you let me know?
You won’t need much to hear the sound of the footsteps behind me in the icy snow. Just your hands. Rub your hands together quickly, from fingertip to heel of palm, pausing between each movement. When your hands are as hot as a blush, clap them together hard.
Feel that? The sting in your palms?
I move to the city.
I can’t drive; the follower climbs into the backseat behind me, dipping the car under its weight. I can’t fly away; the follower always finds me. I can’t take the train. I can’t walk. I can’t cope.
I lock myself in my apartment. I become what the Japanese call a hikikomori, relying on the charity of my family to survive. I pass my time intermittently watching television, reading books, and peering through my peephole whenever my neighbors pass. I check the locks, I check them constantly, but always feel as if I’m locking something in with myself.
I can’t live like this.
Every day, I scour the internet for information. I can’t be the only one who suffers like this. I find other agoraphobes, victims of stalkers, people with acute paranoia, and so on. But none of them describe exactly what I’m experiencing.
Out of desperation, I join a forum for yokai enthusiasts and make a post about my experience. I tell them: For as long as I can remember I’ve been followed…
And I wait. A month passes without any substantive replies. And then, one day, I log onto the forum and a chat box instantly pops up:
I HAD WHAT YOU HAVE.
I read the sentence over twice before I digest it. And then I have to read it three more times before I can formulate my response:
There is something so ominous about this person. The way they messaged me the second I logged on. The all capitals. The diligent punctuation. And then there’s the perfunctory tone. So matter of fact it’s almost rude.
I am frightened as I type: how did you get rid of it?
There is a long pause. Five minutes pass. I start clicking around the forum, looking for other posts from this username. There are none. Ten minutes pass and I think I’ve been conned. Fifteen minutes pass and still nothing, but I can’t close the window. I’m frozen here, torn between my fear of the follower and knowing the follower.
When the response comes, there are no ellipses to indicate they are typing. Just a solid rectangle of text dumped into the chat. They log off before I have even finished the first sentence.
WELL FOR STARTERS, YOU CAN’T “GET RID OF IT.” YOU CAN’T KILL IT, TRAP IT, OR ESCAPE IT. BUT YOU CAN (IF YOU REALLY WANT) GIVE IT TO SOMEONE ELSE.
I pause, stand, and pace around. Give it to someone else?
The follower’s footsteps are loud and close behind me. My heart feels like a fist in my chest, knocking against my ribcage. Give it to someone else. Someone else. Someone else.
I sit again. The follower wedges into the chair with me, as if to read over my shoulder.
BUT ONCE IT’S GIVEN TO SOMEONE ELSE…THAT’S IT! YOU CAN’T UNDO IT.
I shouldn’t read on. I should delete my account, close the browser, and remove the temptation altogether.
I should. But I don’t.
HERE’S HOW YOU TRANSFER THE FOLLOWER:
TELL SOMEONE. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO. AGE, GENDER, RACE…DOESN’T MATTER. PICK SOMEONE AND TELL THEM EVERYTHING.
IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO JUST SAY, “I’M BEING FOLLOWED.” YOU HAVE TO TELL THEM EVERYTHING. TELL THEM HOW IT SOUNDS, SMELLS, FEELS. MAKE THEM BELIEVE IT. MAKE THEM FEEL AS IF THEY’RE BEING FOLLOWED THEMSELVES. ONCE THEY KNOW, REALLY KNOW, YOUR FOLLOWER WILL FOLLOW THEM INSTEAD.
I had to do this.
I thought maybe if I wrote it down for you—even if you inherited my follower—maybe you could take this and give it to someone else. Maybe the follower could just be passed on forever. Maybe later, when I’m ready, I’ll read this again and take it back.
You understand, right? You understand that I couldn’t live like this anymore. You understand that I had to do this. You must understand. Please understand.
Though, I suppose…if you don’t understand, you will.