I’m dancing in Shibuya’s Hachiko Square with hundreds of people. We flail wildly, bark at bystanders, and have a general disregard for our well-being. We’ve been at it for days now, and despite our hunger and thirst, the pain coursing through our bodies as if our veins have been infiltrated by miniature swords, we know we must continue to dance. The world outside of our party is plagued and wretched, but here we are smiling and laughing.

§

An old energy android, one of the many who were freed from nuclear plant service after the wars, asked me why I was waltzing––maybe two hours had passed since I started. I shrugged my shoulders as I twirled and answered, “Why not? It makes just as much sense as anything else. People are hungry but there is no food. We won a war that raged for so long no one remembers how it started. They tell us we are happy but we aren’t. But dancing is real. Dancing is now. When I move, I forget. When I jump, I leave the world.” By nightfall, the android, whose name is Azuza 2, and I were joined by several others. We danced in the darkness, listening to each other’s breathing and footsteps, occasionally bumping into each other. “Is anybody tired?” a banker asked. We shook our heads and our footsteps became more frantic. And then Azuza 2 asked, “How are you humans finding the energy to keep going?” A scientist spouted theories of adrenaline, of the Eden Serum inoculations, designed to reset people’s lives after they die in the face of declining birth rates. But I said, “Who’s to say how much energy is required? As far as we know we’re the first people in history to dance this long.”

§

Once our numbers had grown to a palpable size, the city sent guards to speak to a person they called The Choreographer. This, of course, raised questions because there had never been any coordination among our ranks. The crowd murmured, a path was cleared, and fingers were pointed at me. That the dance might turn into a massacre was no doubt a possibility in people’s minds. And I realized that what began as an impromptu release had become something, in the eyes of the government, which bore teeth. The captain of the guard, a barrel-chested man with a sculpted beard, squinted as he spoke. “So, you’re the one responsible for all this,” he said, gesturing to the dancers. What was our mission? Did we have demands? “Still yourselves,” he commanded. But we continued to twirl and shake. “Be still,” his lieutenant said, not one second before he grabbed the banker, who, once at rest, transformed into a faceless figure like a marble sculpture before any features had been chiseled––larval, embryonic but with ribbons of light dancing beneath his skin like the aurora. The features of the same forty-three-year-old man emerged but with the unsullied eyes of an infant. His memories? His spirit? Erased. The captain whispered into his headset.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Oshio, Eri,” I answered.

“Captain Yoshida.” He handed me a guard headset. “Our eyes. Contact us whenever another falls.”

His guards helped the man who used to be the banker to his feet and ushered him away from the party. Captain Yoshida remained a moment longer, watching in silence, as the dancers circled him hand-in-hand, singing.

“We could kill you all here, Oshio-san,” he began. “But that would make us unpopular, give the people a reason to hate us, and we can’t very well afford to re-educate the entire country all at once. We’ll let you have your protest, wait for you to drop one-by-one. It would seem you’re all dead anyway. Only the dance is keeping you alive. You’ll be reborn like that one, trained to be proper citizens. Perhaps you’ll be a better dancer in your next life.” He imitated my jig and laughed before walking away and disappearing in the crowd.

§

The streets were mobbed on the day the party began. The stores were packed, too, except for the shelves. In the food dispensary, a queue zigzagged out the door. Customers were only allowed to buy what could fit in the small, metal pails the government provided––half a loaf of bread, a few eggs, a cut of engineered fish, perhaps a handful of rice. The old woman next to me carried her pail along with four nearly spoiled tomatoes in the crook of her arm. Noticing that I had some room, she asked if I would mind doing her a favor.

“Just the produce,” she said. “And some extra noodles. I want to make spaghetti for my husband’s birthday.”

I nodded, and she gave me the credits before I reached the counter. When my turn finally came, I paid for the food and pushed my way out the store and waited for the old woman. I could see her through the window. Tears streamed down her face as she said something to the clerk. The people around her looked at the floor. She stared at me, and although I felt sorry for her, all I could think about was feeding my husband and daughter. This is what we had become. I mouthed I’m so very sorry before turning away and joining the hustle of the street. A few moments later, someone pushed me hard from behind. I felt the metal handle of my pail digging into my palms, sliding down my fingers. And I stood still in the street, empty-handed, as Tokyo moved around me. The old woman joined the dance party four days later. We were beyond apologies. She smiled as she flapped her arms, kicked her feet into the air, and by the next morning, she was reborn.

§

Sometimes I couldn’t help but feel guilty for the children who would grow up without the mothers who joined me, for the spouses who sat lonely at home. The friends, the lost loves who watched on the sidelines, debating whether or not to become one of us––if their lives were that bad, if the unknowable future in their second life would be preferable. Everybody around me has a story. The baker lost his grown son to the Arctic Plague and for years walked the same route home, hoping to catch a glimpse of his boy who worked as a records official in city hall. But we only found this out later, when his son tracked down the details of his first life and asked me about his father who had just left our ranks. I didn’t know the baker as well as some others. All I could say was that he was kind-hearted, that he gave extra bread when he could, that he was one hell of a dancer.

§

A vendor on the edge of the square sold antique photographs and posters––families at the beach, fields of grass and flowers that didn’t seem to end––a world that none of us had ever experienced. I have never left our city, have only heard rumors about life in other states. Other continents, the blue ocean past the gray haze of Tokyo Bay seem like a dream. And I suppose if our dance is to be remembered by history, I would want it to seem like a dream, something a bunch of unhappy people did to make their life a story, a fairy tale, a happy ending (even if only for the duration of how long our feet and hearts could carry us).

§

We try not to look at each other too closely and instead look out into the distance. I can feel the weight of my soiled clothes hanging off my gaunt frame. I choose not to acknowledge my skin, jaundiced and mottled with bruises. The smell is harder to ignore, but I try. To acknowledge the state we are in is to acknowledge the futile aspect of our protest, the reality of its end. Laughter helps, we’ve found (with the stench and keeping our minds off anything in particular) and so we laugh almost constantly like the mad.

§

The guard headset allows me to be the eyes of the city. And no doubt, someone somewhere is watching the feed. Yesterday and today and tomorrow will be labeled and stored in a file. A reporter might get their hands on the recordings. A historian might use them to write a paper, speculating about causation and motive––hysteria, disease, protest, mass suicide. Or, perhaps, a low-level clerk will one day be ordered to destroy any existence of what happened, and as people die and are reborn, any memory of our dance will be erased. But I have to believe people will see, that the second and third lives of those of us in the square will see, that the few children born this year will see. And so I weave through the crowd, recording as many people as possible.

§

The guards descended upon the square by the end of the second week, cordoning off the surrounding area. Vendors cleared. Barricades were erected at nearby intersections. Captain Yoshida said too many people were joining our party, that the re-education centers were already under enough strain. “But we’ll allow family to visit by appointment,” he said. “We are not completely unreasonable.” His military demeanor had softened since we last met, and I could almost detect sympathy in his voice. And where before family members had largely lingered on the sidelines or never bothered to visit at all, our new isolation encouraged husbands and wives and children and favorite cousins to speak their minds or make their peace. My teenage daughter came first. I told her about how I stole and had been stolen from, how watching our food disappear broke something inside of me. She said she was angry at first but now just missed me. Separated by a chain, we said all the things people are supposed to say when they know they aren’t going to see each other again. And then she said, “Dad is still debating about coming. I told him he needs to.” I nodded, imagining my husband pacing the streets in a huff. Next to me, the Scientist, the only one of the dancers who had been with me from day one apart from Azuza 2, cried onto his wife’s shoulder after hearing his mother died and entered her third life. And in this moment, he allowed his body to stop, and he transformed into a twenty-something year old version of himself with no recollection of the woman in front of him. Others transformed as well. But mostly, there was a lot of silence and distance between the dancers and their loved ones. Whatever we said wouldn’t make a difference. Whatever they asked wouldn’t have a simple answer. You were either a dancer or you weren’t.

§

I have seen so many dancers fall and get back up that I can’t help imagine what I’ll be like. Would I become, as if by destiny, someone very similar to who I am now? A seamstress with an affinity for old romance novels? Or will an entirely different spirit occupy my body? I could fall in love with my husband all over again, walking past our old house. And he’d take us to all of our favorite haunts, re-create our first date without revealing a damn thing. Or would I have a completely different type? More brawn over brain perhaps. Who will the government say I am? What skills will I be trained in? For an adult sprung onto the world, re-educated without the memories of childhood, I would be utterly naive to history and the cruel subtleties of the world. Everything, at least for a while, would simply just be.

§

My husband patched a call to my headset one night. Dark rings pooled under his eyes. Clusters of pimples had erupted on his face. He made the call from our ancient futon, and I could imagine him in his underwear, the ones with the holes in them that he insisted on keeping because the new synthetic fibers give him a rash.

He told me how he waited for me to come home. How, when he heard the news of what was going on, that he came to the square and watched from afar, too angry and confused and frustrated to come any closer. He said he was afraid that he would pull me out, which would have killed me. He said: “I want you to keep dancing.” He said: “I hate you for it.” He said: “I miss you.” He asked me how I felt, and, because I wanted him to know the truth, I said that at first I felt more alive than I had ever been but, as each day passed, the fire that was keeping me going was stretching my veins, loosening flesh from skin, shriveling my heart and stomach and liver like dried prunes. He asked me if there had been anyone else because he had read stories of dancers having sex, moving from one person to another like a square dance. I answered with an extended silence followed by the fact that I never knew any of their names. I told him they were single-serving love affairs—the romance of a fruit fly. I didn’t tell him how one night, a boy young enough to be my son, got behind me, as I swung around my hips. I didn’t tell him that I kissed a waitress for two days straight while a farmer who smelled like dirt and thousands of days of hard work stuck his calloused fingers inside of me.

He told me that the government was taking care of the families of the dancers––money and opportunities to keep quiet, to forget that the dance ever happened. I told him to tell our daughter that I loved her.

§

It’s been nearly a month now, and our numbers are dwindling. Street barricades have been taken down. The city no longer pays us notice. Azuza 2 is the only one who is dancing at her original pace. Everybody else has slowed to a lull. Some have learned to sleep while swaying, lingering in that space between waking and dreaming. A nurse snores as she rocks back and forth. Across the square, twin brothers drop to the ground, falling over each other. A young man, one of the few people who are awake, turns to me and asks, “How long do we keep going for, ma’am?” I tell him that I’m not in charge, and that no one ever was. I say, “You can stop whenever you want.” And with that, he stills his feet and collapses.

§

Our supporters said we were visionaries. Our detractors said we were sick, diseased in heart and mind, and that our spectacle upset the balance of our great society’s way of life. I wasn’t trying to be anything. But regardless of my intentions, I had become a leader. And maybe one day, long from now (perhaps in my third or fourth life), as I sit in the library as some other woman, I’ll read about what I did here and what it meant. But more likely, no one will ever know. It’s certainly possible that this has all happened before, that we enter life painfully unaware of who we are and where we came from, slowly coming to a boil only to do it all over again.

§

In what I consider to be my last days or hours or minutes, I imagine the life my family will have after I’m gone. The government will provide my daughter with a nice city job as a librarian, shelving approved books and removing those that fall out of favor until the day she is reb0rn. My husband’s improved pension will allow him to retire early from the heating plant. Perhaps he will always regret not seeing me one last time. Or maybe in a park somewhere, where all the older citizens crowd the lake, he’ll meet someone new and marry again, and he’ll be happier than he ever was with me. But sometimes, when he is alone, when our daughter visits with her cyborg boyfriend, he’ll think of me and the time we danced together in the abandoned Harajuku train station on the night he asked me to marry him. If I never started dancing none of this would be possible. I would have come home without food, telling my family only part of the story, that I had been robbed, and we would have made what little we had stretch over the week. I’d barter the one piece of jewelry I owned, my grandmother’s gold heart locket, for a loaf of bread, a piece of rotten fish, and two cans of meat. And my husband and I would grow old together, saying very little.

§

Now there are barely a dozen of us left. We are spread out so much that we practically blend in with the crowds. And I have to wonder, why us? What is it about our lives that have made us linger between this life and the next so much longer than the others? Azuza 2 dances like a human pretending to be a robot. People think she is performing. Children laugh. A man throws her a credit. She has told me that she continues with us because thus far in her immortal life she has seen too much, that she will keep dancing until the world computes. For the homeless, they had nowhere to go, and there is no guarantee their next life will be any better. And, in a way, I suppose a lot of us could say the same thing. Perhaps none of us really had a choice. Maybe this dance party was always destined to happen because the grim state of our lives required it of us. I am afraid that I will wake up and find myself utterly alone without anybody but strangers to tell me who I am, where I am, and what my purpose in life is. I will work and cling to life credit by credit. I will read books that I think are of my choosing. I will stay within the borders of our city because there is nothing else. And maybe one day I’ll stop to think. I’ll ask questions and more questions. And maybe, eventually, in a moment of frustration and despair, I’ll dance.

As I imagine it, Azuza 2 will still be there. There’s a chance her memory will have been wiped clean by those that want history to die. But I’d like to think that Azuza will remember who we all were when the party begins again. Our dance would have more context, more at stake, knowing we had done it all before. We could do things differently––recruit more people, more androids, change the system by erasing enough of us and making sure those that were left to re-educate the reborn had a different plan. People would dance in the square, in the streets, in Ueno Park, in Yoyogi Park. They would dance in their homes and in their cubicles. Dance in the ruins of temples and stadiums and amusement parks. I can feel my feet burning, my legs buckling, as I imagine my rebirth into a world that is our own to create. In multitudes, we would reset––entire districts and neighborhoods of the faceless––larval janitors, secretaries, train conductors. And as I fall to the ground, as my heart fails to pump the last of my tired blood, I imagine opening my eyes for the first time. I am walking down a quiet expressway, navigating around the reborn, headed out of the city in search of a place to call home.

Sequoia Nagamatsu

SEQUOIA NAGAMATSU is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, The Fairy Tale Review, Tin House online, Copper Nickel, Bat City Review, Puerto Del Sol, and Redivider, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and a visiting assistant professor at The College of Idaho. He can be found online at sequoianagamatsu.net.

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