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Murder in Balloon Town.

A Note Regarding the Foundation of the Special Seventh Ward

1. Objective for the Establishment:

This special ward will be established with the goal of offering a space for living and superior residential space to nurture expectant women in regard to people who wish to live here (refer to separate accompanying data).

2. Outline:

In order to carry out the aforementioned goal, a portion of the Seventh Ward will be appropriated. Approximately six hundred hectares have been secured (200 hectares of parks and green areas, 200 hectares of living space and 200 hectares of commercial space) to make this space. A target of 2,500 single-person dwellings is set.

Addenda:

1. The qualities of the Special Seventh Ward will include flat terrain and good sunlight.

2. The religious institution "Suitengu Shrine" will be transferred from the Second Ward and placed under the authority of the Special Seventh Ward upon its completion.

It was ten o'clock in the morning. Eda Marina turned down the hallway and knocked on the door of her boss's office.

"Come in."

She opened the door and walked into the room. Wearing a miniskirt and Reebok walking shoes, her outfit was out of style--just like the career of a policewoman.

The room was in the main offices of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. When Section Chief Nojima turned away from the window, he said with his trademark poker face, "Marina, there's been a murder."

"A murder?" Marina was puzzled. "Why did you call me? If it's a murder, I just dealt with one last month. You know, the bizarre one in the Third Ward. Aso and Toda have only had robbery cases, and Taki has been grumbling about wanting to see some blood ..."

"This time I don't want to bother them," said Nojima, putting his hand into the pocket of his stylish side-vented jacket.

"What is it?" asked Marina. "If it is a criminal investigation, then it would be the same regardless of who heads it."

"That is not the case. You're talking about the computer. This time, at any rate, it can't help us since the situation is in the Special Seventh Ward. More precisely, it took place outside the walls of the ward, near the commercial district."

The Special Seventh Ward. What could that mean? wondered Marina.

"The scene of the crime is an open area with few passersby," Nojima continued. "Three businessmen who sometimes cut through there witnessed a crime. The suspect stabbed the young male victim and fled, knife in hand.

"The suspect ran past the three men, who were dazed, and disappeared through the gate into the Special Seventh Ward, leaving behind the murder weapon--a fruit knife--and one apple."

"An apple?" Marina asked.

"It appears that the criminal was carrying a picnic basket. We can't get any fingerprints from the wooden handle of the knife or from the apple."

What should I make of this? thought Marina, slightly puzzled.

"The Special Seventh Ward? You mean ..."

"Exactly. what people call Balloon Town."

"So the suspect disappeared into the heart of Balloon Town?" Marina said slowly. "The suspect is a resident of Balloon Town? That is to say, a woman with a special condition ...?"

"Right. The problem is that the gate in question is only for the use of the residents. The witnesses' statements all indicate that the suspect is a pregnant woman, one clearly in the latter half of her term."

Nojima said this nonchalantly, but Marina was shocked.

"The suspect was a pregnant woman!"

She found it difficult to articulate the words.

The words pregnancy, pregnant women, and childbirth were not ones that well-brought-up women used. Marina had graduated from an old-fashioned women's college in the Second Ward; it was a fact that she had always tried to hide from her colleagues.

After the ban was lifted, the use of artificial uteruses (known as in vitro gestation or AU) soon became fashionable, and in due time it became the norm. Just as in the days when the place where women gave birth changed from the home to the hospital, "safe birth" was the catch phrase. In contemporary society a fetus gestated inside the mother could not be shielded from harmful things like toxins, electromagnetic waves, and noise. As a result, the AU wards in hospitals were the only places considered to be safe. There was also the problem of the mother's career to be considered. No matter how many nurseries were established, women were the ones who were pregnant for nine months and thus continued to juggle two careers. While they worked, the stress would have a detrimental effect upon the fetus.

Once permission was given to use in vitro gestation, people worried that humans had become oviparous. (1) There also was a fear that no mother to gestate the baby would mean a society of fathers. Despite these misgivings, in vitro gestation spread and became permanently rooted within a generation.

Among one group of women, however, there was dissent.

"I want to raise my child in my womb," these women said. There was no particular logical reason for this. Still, "of course," women wanted it this way.

Tokyo was the one city which responded to this demand. The various economic and governmental functions of the city were divided up (among them, the Metropolitan Police), and the wards were reorganized to prevent the city center from becoming a ghost town. The entire city was redesigned, with wards spiraling outward--the First Ward in the center became the business district, the Second Ward became the residential area, and so forth.

Tokyo was creating the image of a city that aims to be people-oriented and was offering a place to the women who had complained. Tokyo, a city for pregnant women! What a commotion! Here, on one side of the luxurious green spaces of the Seventh Ward (near the commercial district), a special ward was established, where women who chose pregnancy and childbirth came to live.

Here was a town of pregnant women. Women who had another life inside them could leave their homes and their jobs for a while, congregate here, and live peacefully. It was a perfect environment, safe and secure. Rent and living expenses were very low. When the ward was created, of course, there were criticisms. Some called it a people ranch, and certain men called Balloon Town a form of sex discrimination. Such an advantageous living situation certainly had its charms, but there wasn't a huge rush of people who wanted to live here.

Many women wondered who would want to endure the months of inconvenience, the deformed body, and the painful experience of childbirth, but people regarded those willing to take the trouble to do just that as a very different sort altogether. This special ward continued to be a paradise for women who wanted a quiet environment in which to gestate. Those with no connection to the place somehow started to call it Balloon Town, but with no bad intent.

People regarded the place as one completely removed from crime, especially murder--until now.

"So you were told that there were multiple witnesses," asked Eda Marina as she stood in Nojima's office.

"That's right," replied Nojima.

"In that case, we can call a police sketch artist and circulate a sketch among the residents."

"That's the problem." The section chief's brow suddenly wrinkled. "Do you know the expression `Chinese people are all the same'? Westerners can't tell the difference between two Chinese people, and so they think that they all look the same. Well, this is the same thing. `Pregnant women all look the same.' No one was able to recall what the criminal's facial features and height were like."

"You mean that ..." Marina started.

"The witnesses, three men, all noticed one thing. Even when we pressed them for more details, they were overwhelmed by it."

"This one thing," Marina murmured, "was the suspect's stomach."

"Uh-huh. They say that it was pretty big. They used the expression `really round.'"

"Hmm."

"Exactly. Not much of a clue. As they say, `the red-faced baboon is really red.'" (2)

Marina folded her arms. "Maybe we should consider that the witnesses weren't there from the beginning."

"True, true. Well put," said Nojima, rubbing his hands together happily. "I certainly trained you well."

"What about the evidence? The things that the victim dropped ..."

"The knife has been checked out," said Nojima. With dangerous items, one can do an on-line investigation, which was one reason it now took less time to complete a criminal investigation.

"The knife is one which can be purchased in the Balloon Town supermarket, so there's no way to tell who bought it. The apple wasn't investigated, but I doubt that would be possible.

"Was this a joke or not? Marina couldn't tell.

"It seems that we should handle this case without the computers. Someone should take a trip to Special Ward Seven and see what's there. The residents could probably give us some useful information, since they don't see themselves as interchangeable. I want you to go."

"Me? Go to Balloon Town?" Marina said.

"You'll get a better reception there than a male detective. Besides, you might want to check it out for later on.

"Just kidding," he said, seeing her face. "There's no need to get angry."

There was no subway stop in Balloon Town, since the magnetic fields associated with them were said to be bad for pregnant women. Marina got off the train at the west station in the Seventh Commercial Ward, just a brisk walk from Balloon Town.

She went first to the crime scene. The open area at the edge of the town was deserted. A spring wind was blowing sand around, and Marina narrowed her eyes against it. She walked close to the wall which surrounded the special ward. It was low with trees planted on one side, so that you couldn't see beyond it. She cast a glance at the gate through which the suspect had rushed, and walked a little farther to the main gate.

"You're Detective Eda? I am Ms. Takayama, the chief of security here."

The chief of security was surprisingly attractive. She looked younger than her years and had an excellent figure. She was wearing a bright green suit, had her hair in a chignon, and wore her glasses on a long chain. She had the air of a sexy 1950s Hollywood secretary, but spoke briskly.

"Welcome to the Special Seventh Ward," she said, handing Marina a visitor's badge. "It's too bad that you had to visit as a police officer. Young women visitors are always welcome."

As they entered, a device on the side of the gate checked Marina's badge. In the Special Ward, it was crucial that outside visitors be checked, for the security of the pregnant women.

As she passed through the gate, thinking about what useful information this was, she felt a soft breeze against her cheek. Marina noticed that it blew from the thick row of green trees. Through them, one could see a big pond beyond, with a five- or six-yard-high stone statue. The statue was of a woman. It had deeply carved features and a cascade of hair, with a body shaped like a pear. It was a giant pregnant woman, clad in light clothes, and standing with her hips slightly swiveled. Coming closer, Marina could see a pigeon sitting on its head and two more sitting on the statue's protruding belly.

She could hear the sound of water. It looked as if the statue was holding a water jug, but she noticed that next to the statue was a platform on which the water jug rested, the statue's hand simply touching it. What an oddity, she thought.

"That statue ..." Marina began.

"It is called `The Good Vessel,'" Ms. Takayama explained. "The vessel is a metaphor for pregnant women, and so it is a symbol for these residents."

"Why is the jug on that platform?"

"Well, the statue is a pregnant woman. She can't very well hold something that heavy."

Marina did not know how to respond to this, so she didn't say anything. Through a break in the trees, an open area came into view. It was a park. Small paths ran between the trees, with flowers and benches placed here and there. Basking in the sunshine were a number of people sitting or strolling around. All of them were pregnant women.

If you never have seen pregnant women, you might imagine that they are normally proportioned except for their protruding bellies. You would be wrong. Their hips and thighs were fleshy, the lower halves of their bodies were massive, and from every direction and from every angle they produced unusual silhouettes. They wore jumper skirts with numerous gathers, making them look like triangles.

I can't believe it, Marina thought. Why is this normal? Every clumsy one of them wore a uniformly contented expression on her face, basking in the sunshine.

In the bright light, these strangely shaped figures moved slowly, as if in a nightmare. Weaving among them were Ms. Takayama with her staff badge and Marina with her visitor's badge, walking at a brisk pace.

"Don't you think that they're cute?" Ms. Takayama said in Marina's ear.

"Sure ..." said Marina vaguely, suspecting that Ms. Takayama looked at these pregnant women as if they were some species of animal.

If you viewed them dispassionately, these figures did look like some sort of attractive creature, drifting through the greenery. The spring breeze softly billowed the pastel-colored skirts of the women as they waddled about--at least, to the extent that their skirts could fill with wind.

"They look like boats at full sail." Marina said.

"It doesn't mean that they are strutting," said Ms. Takayama. "They move like that because it's hard for them to walk any other way."

She stopped in midsentence as a woman close to them dropped her handkerchief. Ms. Takayama quickly crouched down and retrieved it, handing it to the woman with a big smile.

The woman thanked her and walked away.

"It's hard for these women to crouch down." Ms. Takayama continued to smile as she spoke, and Marina secretly sighed.

It wasn't just the pregnant women's movements that were slow, but their way of talking. When Marina thought about the pace of the investigation, she realized that it too would be painfully slow. She shook off thoughts of work.

"Those clothes--are they some kind of uniform?" she asked. Every woman was wearing the same kind of dress, differing only in their colors.

"Uniform? No. They are a `maternity-style' design. People seem to favor a standard style of dress."

If these outfits were standard, then given what was known about the criminal's clothing, it would be hard to find the person in question. Marina was depressed. Furthermore, nearly everyone was carrying a picnic basket.

Among the ten women seated at a bench, perhaps five or six had picnic baskets and were eating something in the warm sunshine. Some of them who were finished eating gently brushed the bread crumbs off the tops of their stomachs. There were a good many peeling fruit with knives.

"Well, I think it's a good idea to wear a girdle sometimes." Marina overheard snippets of conversation.

"It's easier to move when you're wearing one. They don't slide down like those belts."

"No, no, cotton is best for the skin. You don't want to get heat rash during the summer."

"Isn't it a pain in the neck to roll the bleached cotton?"

"I just discovered a new way to do it. Instead of wrapping it around your body, you hold the end, leave the rest on the floor, and spin 'round and 'round. That makes it easier to wrap."

What on earth were they talking about? Marina had no idea, but she envisioned the women wrapping their spindle-shaped bodies with cloth.

"What is bleached cotton?" Marina asked Ms. Takayama.

"Oh, it's a belly band" came the response, but Marina still had no idea what it was. (3) She didn't try to ask any more questions after that, and simply walked along.

Ms. Takayama's office was a tidy room. Her only decoration was a framed picture of the Madonna and Child, which Marina eyed suspiciously.

"So, what are your impressions?" Ms. Takayama asked and immediately started making tea.

"I was surprised," Marina said candidly. "I only saw women with really big bellies. Aren't there any women in the earlier stages of pregnancy?"

"They don't go out much. Probably due to morning sickness or something," she said, putting the teacups on the saucers. She continued, "It isn't unusual to be surprised. When I first started here, I felt the same way. All I could notice was their bellies. When I walked among them, I felt like I was playing dodge ball.

Ms. Takayama took a drink of tea.

"But after a while, I was able to understand that pregnancy is real and natural. It's like heavy fruit ripening, then falling from the branch with a thud."

The "thud" noise was surprisingly real, and Marina felt a little uneasy.

"I think that's how it used to be," said Ms. Takayama. "AU is somehow unnatural. Do you know, Detective, the most popular way to make babies?"

"More or less." Marina replied. Ms. Takayama's question was not meant to make her feel stupid. She wanted to make sure that Marina knew the exact procedure.

"When a couple decides to have a baby, first both men and women quit using birth control. They go to the hospital and borrow a small boxlike machine, which determines when a woman ovulates. Then, on the appropriate day, they have sex. The next day they can go to the hospital. At the hospital, the woman has a procedure called `the morning after'; if fertilization has occurred, then in several days, before the embryo becomes implanted in the uterus, the woman undergoes the extraction procedure. After that, the rest is left to the hospital. The pregnancy is artificially maintained, while the woman returns home.

"The problem was that the progress of medicine made this kind of process almost entirely painless. The ex-utero fertilization of the past and the process of egg extraction were relatively painful and dangerous.

"Today's procedure for ex-utero fertilization is no more painful than the pelvic exams that the women of the past had to undergo frequently. Still, this way of doing things made people think the new way is more stylish. Natural pregnancy and childbirth are both far from stylish and quite painful. It's no wonder that AU spread. It's too bad."

"Ms. Takayama," asked Marina, "Why do you think that AU is bad? Because it's not natural?"

"It's not only that. For example, do you know that AU can be monitored, Detective Eda?"

"How?"

"You can always get up-to-date details on the condition of the fetus.

When you hear that, you think that AU is convenient. In the case of an incurable illness or injury to the embryo, however, the parents are able to make a decision."

"Make a decision?"

"Whether or not to continue with the pregnancy. That's what has happened since the old days. If you wanted to abort a fetus in the mother's womb, then surgery was necessary. In the case of AU, you just turn off the switch. Thus there's no pain. I think it's a dangerous thing to be able to make a frivolous decision about a fetus. Does this mean that you can allow only the desirable children? What is a desirable child, and who thinks they are desirable--that's the question."

"When you have AU," Marina asked, "is there a way to avoid the monitoring function?"

"No, there isn't. You only find out when you go to the hospital, but doctors tell people that they have to use the technology. This monitoring ability is the one reason why AU became popular. In the 1990s information about pregnancy spread, and even when there were children born with minor illnesses, people said that the mother went too far, and mothers were condemned by their peers. Therefore, the needs of mothers who are afraid of shouldering such a heavy burden and the needs of the State are met by AU."

"The State?"

"There are several reasons why a technique like AU has to be regulated. Yet, why is it that you can use insurance to cover it?" Ms. Takayama lowered her voice. "The nation consistently has been behind the spread of AU. The goal was to rein in the falling birthrate. Another factor, however, was this monitoring ability. AU meant that women could produce healthy children for the State. Do you understand? From the time you are a fetus, you are expected to be loyal."

"I find that odd," replied Marina.

"Although," said Ms. Takayama, "when you compare it to SAU, AU is preferable."

"SAU?"

"A semi-artificial uterus, also called the cyborg uterus. The woman's original uterus is augmented--that is, it's a kind of mechanization. From the point of view of control, you can conveniently monitor the pregnancy; material exchange and temperature adjustment are things that you can rely on the mother's body to do. The maintenance costs are cheaper than AU ..."

"That's terrible," Marina said angrily.

"Yes. The reason is that living women were seen as raw materials for reducing costs. The burden on the woman's body was similar to that of old-fashioned birth--although sometimes it could be higher. Because you insert something like a frame into the womb, the woman's stomach is bigger in the early stages of pregnancy. There was talk that a group of politicians would promote this procedure, but there was a strong reaction from every side, and so the procedure was never put into practice."

"Do you think that people would refuse to use it? No one would accept such ..." Marina began.

"There was a slogan when AU begun," said Ms. Takayama, "`It's more baby-friendly than the womb.' Safety for the baby was the official selling point. Women's comfort was what came with it. Once you understand this situation, when someone says, `we made an even safer way,' it becomes impossible to object ... officially."

Marina pondered this.

Ms. Takayama continued, "In comparison, AU really is better. Of course, I think that raising the child in the mother's womb is the best. What do you think, Detective Eda?"

"I ... um ..."

Although Ms. Takayama's words were persuasive, Marina didn't feel as if she could subject her body to something like that. She wouldn't be able to give up the slender body that she got from the gym and undergo something like pregnancy instead.

Marina turned the question around, "What do you think, Ms. Takayama? What do you think about going through pregnancy and childbirth?"

"Well, if I were married ... I wonder if that will happen or not."

"Are you single?"

"Yes, I'm an old maid." This good-looking, sexy woman used the old-fashioned word. "I don't really care for men."

Marina wondered if this was a joke, but the eyes behind the glasses were serious. She decided to return to the original question. "Let's talk about the incident," she said straightforwardly.

"Certainly," responded Ms Takayama, sitting up straight.

"We haven't necessarily decided that a resident of this town is the suspect. Still, we believe that the suspect was a pregnant woman, based upon eyewitness accounts."

"Don't you think the suspect could have been disguised as a pregnant woman?" asked Ms. Takayama.

"The problem is the security system here. Each resident carries a special ID card. If they don't have it, then they can only use the main gate, right?"

"Correct. Other than the residents who have IDs, there is no one who can use those gates."

"Do you think that someone could have stolen an ID card?"

"There haven't been any theft reports. Because the cards are so important, if you didn't have one, you would make a fuss."

"I understand." Marina now was sure that the suspect had to be one of the residents. "There is something that I want to confirm about the special gate. I assume that there's a sensor that checks the IDs of the people who have come through the gate. Is there some way to record who uses the gate and when?"

"No, the purpose of the system was to check for intruders and to protect the residents--not to watch over them," said Ms. Takayama.

These pregnant women were treated like a rare breed of animal--a delicate, shy animal, one that needed to be protected from injury and wouldn't harm a flea.

Marina knew that the security system couldn't function like that, but she couldn't help thinking that it would be great if it did.

"Did you see a pregnant woman run from this gate yesterday?" Marina asked.

"Yes, yes."

She was excited when she heard this answer. Marina was on a walking path behind a huge supermarket. All roads except the main streets could be called walking paths, since they wound through the trees.

For an active detective from the First Ward, this town was too quiet and calm, and she felt like she was going insane. Flowers grew on every street corner and the buildings looked as if they belonged in a fairy tale. For one thing, the supermarket's bird-shaped weather vane annoyed Marina.

"There was a person who emerged from the shadow of those trees," drawled a woman in a light-blue jumper. Her leisurely way of speaking was one of the reasons Marina was irritated.

"She was running really fast, with a full head of steam. She turned the corner, and then I couldn't see her."

"What kind of person was she?"

"Hmm. She looked like she was just eight months along."

"What?" said Marina, pausing. "Oh yeah, the time that she has been pregnant. So twenty-eight weeks--that's starting the eighth month."

"Right. She certainly was bigger than me."

This woman herself was about seven months along. Marina cast an eye on her stomach. She noticed that it was quite large.

"If there is anything else ..." Marina began.

"Yes, the shape--the shape was togari. Do you know what I mean? There are two kinds of stomach. When you are narrow here, and this part sticks out in front, you are sharp-shaped, or togaribara. Then there is turtle-shaped, or kamebara."

"Meaning what?" Marina asked, her head spinning. "This area is wide and the lower area doesn't stick out as much?"

"Everything is flat, like there's a turtle shell on your front. They used to say that a kamebara will be a girl. I have a kamebara."

As she said this, she stuck out her chest proudly. Marina wondered whether she shouldn't be embarrassed to say that her stomach was shaped like a tortoise shell. She took out her memo pad and wrote togaribara in it.

"Anything else ..." Marina asked.

"Anything else?"

"Besides the shape of the stomach, like her hair or her height or what her face looked like ..." Marina paused.

"I don't know ..."

For a moment, Marina felt a chill run up her spine. Is it possible that the only things these women recognize about other women is their bellies?

The woman in the light-blue jumper stood with her arms folded over her stomach, a pose which dwarfed her hands.

Pointing her finger, she said, "Well, I guess her hair was long, and I think that it was braided in the back. She was of average height, and she wore a salmon-pink jumper skirt."

Marina felt a little relieved, but she continued to write. Her description was vague, peppered with "I think" and "I guess," in comparison to the description of the suspected stomach.

"Was that helpful?"

"Very," said Marina.

"Do you want me to call my friend who was with me yesterday? I think she's still in the supermarket."

"That would be nice."

Marina waited. When they finally arrived, she didn't feel as if she'd waited that long. She'd been prepared to wait half an hour. The returning woman was accompanied by another pregnant woman in a lemon-yellow jumper.

"That woman we saw, she was maybe in the latter half of her eighth month."

Marina looked at the large belly of the women in yellow. She thought that this woman herself was also in her eighth month. Both of the women, however, thought that the suspect was larger than they were.

"She had a togaribara?" asked the woman in the sky-blue jumper.

"Yes, that's right," confirmed her friend, "You could see it more clearly than mine."

Looking at her belly, one could tell that the shape was a little different from the belly of the first woman.

"That kind of togaribara is unusual," the friend commented.

"Do you remember anything about her face or her height?" Marina asked.

"Well ..."

Her description was almost identical to the one her friend offered. Of course, the size of her stomach and its shape were what caught their eye--nothing else.

"Still," asked the woman wearing the lemon-colored jumper, "Would you run like that at eight months?"

"True," said her friend. "What was she thinking? How terrible."

"She was a disgrace to pregnant women everywhere."

Marina interrupted them, "OK, how about her clothing. Your friend here said she was wearing a salmon-pink jumper."

"That's right," declared the lemon-yellow jumper. "She didn't have a blouse on, so she was just wearing the dress sundress-style."

"Is that so?" said light-blue jumper. "In this changeable weather? How convenient."

"Isn't it? It means that you don't have to buy so many maternity clothes."

"Right. And, if we get pregnant again, we can still wear them," they chorused. "Even though next time it may be winter."

Looking at their peaceful faces, Marina's head began to hurt. Why they looked so contented, she had no idea.

NOTES

(1) I.e., are hatched from eggs grown outside the body.

(2) This a tautological remark for which there is no direct equivalent in English. The general sense is, "that goes without saying."

(3) A belly band, or hara obi, is a length of cotton cloth several yards long wrapped around a pregnant belly. It is supposed to support the weight of the stomach and improve the pregnant woman's posture. Still used in Japan today, women start wearing them in the fifth month of pregnancy.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Matsuo, Yumi
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:5046
Previous Article:Bird outside the Cage: an Interview with Yumi Matsuo.
Next Article:It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got That Swing: an Interview with Haruki Murakami.
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