Nicholas Hogg

The Alien


We were driving back to Sasebo when we saw the meteor, if that’s what it was, bursting in a ferric stream of sparks above my car. Mamiko, my wife, was asleep in the back, and Junko, my five-year-old daughter, who’d commandeered the front seat, was screaming and pointing, “Hanabi, hanabi”, the Japanese word for fireworks, which literally means ‘fire flower.’

“Papa, papa. Hanabi.”

Junko twisted out of her belt and began clambering over me to get a better view of the gamma ray streak coursing across the sky.

“Junko.” I had one hand on the wheel, and one hand on my daughter, ushering her back down while watching the highway edge, and a green laser exploding into an orange ball.

“Noo,” she shouted, wriggling.

Briefly, her face reflected the incandescent burnout.

“Hanabi,” she screamed.

The windscreen blazed, and then faded. Mamiko woke up, told Junko to sit down, and asked me what was happening.

“I don’t know.”

There was a psychedelic blur to the dark, like turning away from staring at the sun.

“You don’t know?”

I pulled up by the side of the road.

“We saw hanabi,” said Junko, craning to look out of the window.

“At this time of night?”

“I think it was a meteor.”

I looked at the mountains, my vision still fuzzed with the glare. It took a few seconds before I could focus on the wooded peaks, now calmly silvered by starlight, rather than flashed with orange.

“What’s a meteor?” asked Junko.

“A shooting star,” answered Mamiko.

I scanned the sky, waiting for the light to reappear. “Not that big.” I listened for a distant thud, the shock waves of an impact.
“More like a meteor.”

“A meteorite,” Mamiko corrected. “If it hits the earth.”

We all listened for the crash. But nothing. Not even the sound of another car.

Mamiko told Junko about rocks zipping around the cold universe, and how that sometimes they flew right into our planet and turned into fire as they passed through the clouds. Junko listened, and imagined. Her dark eyes shining in the dashboard glow. It was a strange calm, that moment on the empty road, our little family connecting with the vacuum of space.

“Or aliens,” I added, unhelpfully.

“Aliens?” Junko cried. “I don’t like aliens.”

“It wasn’t aliens,” confirmed Mamiko. “Was it, papa?”

I said of course not. “And if it was they’d be friendly aliens.”

“Not aliens,” shouted Junko, before a truck came roaring around the bend with dazzling headlights, wobbling the car as it whooshed past. “Okay,” said Mamiko, checking the empty sky. “Home.”

I drove past rice paddies and concrete riverbanks, the little orange groves, and then past the vegetable shops and the family-run izakayas and the karaoke boxes. Midnight on a Sunday evening, only the dedicated drinkers bar-crawling, including two scarlet-faced women who stumbled over the crossing, closely followed by a teenage policeman on a bicycle.

Our neat detached house was brand new, like most houses on the edge of town. It had a small well-kept garden with a pond, and a stone lantern to remind us that it was still a Japanese design, and not American. Although the two bedrooms actually had beds, not futons, and the tatami room was dedicated to a scattering of Lego.

Junko was asleep when I eased onto the driveway. Mamiko unbuckled her from the child seat and carried her upstairs. I unpacked the boot, and took another gaze at the indigo hills and the swirl of stars that reflected on the flooded fields.

It was a view of real beauty, despite the power lines. Still, it could leave me tinged with melancholy. In the rainy season frogs from the surrounding rice paddies clogged our pond, and on nights when the croaking was deafening, I admit, I longed for a damp house on the edge of a meadow in England. But I was here. In a country I moved to a decade ago. I arrived with a simple plan to work and save money. That was before I met Mamiko, and Junko came leaping into the world.

At breakfast I checked the local paper for news of strange lights. The lead story was a schoolboy who’d won a national cross-country race. Other columns were dedicated to po-faced politicians, and adverts for a new pachinko parlour. I told Mamiko there was nothing about UFOs, or little green men.

“It was a shooting star,” she said. “That’s why.”

She called Junko to hurry up.

“And don’t go telling her it was aliens. That was the first thing she asked me about this morning.”

I knew all about aliens. I was a big-nosed creature from a far away planet. Even though I spoke near-fluent Japanese, participated in parent teacher associations, could cook okonomiyaki like a chef, and practised kendo, badly, I was a perennial foreigner. Last week in the supermarket a boy had been happily picking sweets off the shelf when he turned and saw a pale giant. My smiling konnichiwa triggered him into screams, and he ran crying to his mother.

“Hayaku, papa”, called Mamiko from the bathroom, harrying me to get the breakfast made and the bento boxes prepared.

Junko marched into the kitchen, brandishing a Lego tower like a truncheon, and repeated her mother’s command to hurry up.

This was the happy routine. Mundane, perhaps, but a thrumming contentment as I cooked breakfast and dressed my little girl while Mamiko got ready for her job as a researcher in Sasebo. She worked for a lab, and left home half an hour before I rode Junko to school on the back of my bike.

The lanky foreigner pedalling his daughter through the quiet Japanese suburbs was a local event when we first moved here. Now, like anything repeated daily, it was a habit of the neighbourhood, our community of smiling and bustling housewives at the school gate who encouraged their kids to speak to me in English. I was the lone father in a gaggle of mothers scooting to the supermarket and filling up baskets with vegetables.

I’d wave Junko goodbye, watch her troop into school with the other tiny children balancing gigantic backpacks, and then tick off the shopping list written out by Mamiko. I revelled in the fact I never locked my bike. And neither did anyone else. Crime was a myth, something that happened in other countries, or Hollywood films.

Back at the house I got down to work in my office, a converted bedroom overlooking those flooded fields and a tree-topped mountain range. I designed magazine covers and wedding invites, business cards and web pages. Once a week I caught the train to Fukuoka and met clients and drank coffee, and sometimes had a few cold beers by the river and ate ramen. It was enough, I believed.

That afternoon I called my father, something I tried not to do too often. And if that sounds cruel, it isn’t. He knows how I picture his little stone cottage, the immaculate flower beds and the watered lawn. And he knows I can feel the absence of my mother, in both our lives.

We talked about Junko, the weather, as he loved to hear how hot it was here, and some football chat. That and a holiday plan for Christmas was all he ever wanted. He knew that each time I put the phone down I left a piece of myself in England. Or returned a piece, depending on one’s perspective.

Junko came home from school with a picture of an alien.

“Look, papa.”

She held the painting over her head. Oblong-shaped beings linked hands in the sky, hovering above a crooked house and a huge red dog.

“Friendly aliens,” I said.

“Happy aliens.” Junko took the picture off me and pinned it to the fridge door with a magnet.

She was still thinking about aliens later when we played Lego, constructing a spaceship and pretending meteorites were falling from the sky when she stood on the sofa and dropped bricks onto the carpet.

That night, after carrying my daughter upstairs to bed, I dreamt about Mount Fuji. I was hiking with Mamiko and Junko, replaying the night we climbed the peak together. We’d set off just after sundown. It was Junko’s first birthday, and I transported her in a carrier strapped to my chest. A glorious clear night, ascending the peak just before a cloudless dawn, and then watching the sun rise. In my dream the hike became a nightmare. The whole mountain began to shudder. Lumps of rock came clattering down the path, bouncing past our heads. Mamiko let go of my hand and slipped away on a landslide. I crouched down to dodge the tumbling boulders, but a river of gloopy magma poured from the cone, warping the air with molten heat. I cradled Junko against the flow, but when I looked down my arms and her hair were on fire.

I startled awake and touched Mamiko. Then I got up and went into Junko’s bedroom.

She was there, of course she was.

I closed her door and padded downstairs into the kitchen. I opened the fridge and lifted out the bottle of umeshu. Two fermented plums bobbed around the bottom of the green cylinder like, well, aliens. I popped a couple of ice cubes into a glass, and poured. It was very quiet in the house, it always was. Even the frogs in the rice paddies had stopped croaking.

I finished the sweet plum wine and slid back the screen door to reveal the garden, the flooded fields. The longer I stood there, the more stars appeared.

When I looked at the digital clock the LED display seemed feeble. The numbers, a human invention, lost purpose when I looked out of the window.

There was no decision to get in the car and drive, I just did. I drove slowly out of our quiet close, past the neat gardens of my neighbours, and onto the main road that ran along the mountains. Moths flared in the headlights, and I caught glances of the river, starlight shimmering on the black water.

I wound down the windows and felt the humid air blowing through the car. I swung through the bends that followed the valley, and then I pulled over. I did a three point turn across the empty road and parked facing the exact point where my daughter and I had seen the meteor.

I sat for a long time. I saw the earth turn on its axis. I saw two shooting stars, just sparks, and not another burning contrail. Then I turned the key, and the headlights came on.

A bare leg. Running into the dark from the edge of the beam. A bare, shoeless foot, running.

I heard my gasp for air. My bucking heart. Beyond the beam it was pitch black, and I started the engine and swivelled the car so the headlights illuminated the bamboo thicket.



I stepped onto the tarmac in my slippers. The seatbelt alarm pinged as I walked into the headlights, and my elongated shadow loomed into the bamboo. There was no pavement, just a concrete gully and the verge. And a narrow path winding through the grass and into the trees.

“Sumimasen,” I called out, weakly.

I heard crickets in the reeds, running water.

“Sumimasen,” I called again, louder. I took a few steps onto the grass, and shouted once more.

It was nothing, I resolved. Just my insomnia. Perhaps a rabbit, flashing across the road. When a car swept around the bend, lighting up a tall foreigner in his slippers and pyjamas, I had the thought of explaining myself to Mamiko, and I got back in the car and drove home.

I pulled into my quiet street, cutting the engine and rolling onto the driveway. I tiptoed upstairs, and slipped back into bed with my sleeping wife.

When the alarm beeped at six o’clock, and Mamiko woke, I felt guilty. All I’d done was take a night-time drive, but maybe I should be confessing something.

“Are you tired?” she asked, buttoning her blouse.

I told her I’d had trouble sleeping, which was the truth. Then I got out of bed and woke Junko, dressed her, cooked breakfast, and dropped her at school. Then, as if I were on a giant mechanical loop that repeated daily, I cycled into town and picked up a bag of sweet potatoes, rode home and put them in the cupboard, and sat down to work on a magazine layout. A photo shoot from a bakery, close ups of cakes and plates, the shiny glaze on a strawberry tart.

But every time my focus slipped, I glimpsed that bare leg, escaping into the dark. And each time I tried to convince myself it had been a rabbit, or even a hare, flicking out its haunches.

I was glad when Mamiko came home with Junko and I had a distraction.

Again I played Lego with Junko before dinner, but this time the meteorites had been replaced by farm animals. I tucked her into bed and read the first few pages of Momotaro, the ‘Peach Boy’ story, her favourite.

Junko would be fast asleep, thumb wedged firmly in her mouth, by the time Momotaro had sailed to Devil Island with his three friends, the monkey, the dog and the pheasant, and defeated the demons and returned with a boat full of treasure.

This was the highlight of my day. My life. Stepping softly from my daughter’s room as she dreamed in a house lacquered with moonlight.

That I was a character in my own folk tale, I told myself, was what made me happy. Riding my bike around picturesque towns while my daughter thrived at school. I was an alien, true. But a happy alien in a Japanese fantasy.

Who barely spoke to his wife about anything except what was for dinner, or what was best for their daughter.

After the storytelling I went downstairs. Mamiko was watching television, a documentary about the deer that live in Nara.

“Daijobou?” I asked, sitting down next to her.

“They used to be sacred,” she said.

“The deer?” I watched tourists feeding rice crackers to the foals. “How can something become unsacred?”

Mamiko turned to look at me. “After the Second World War they were stripped of their divinity.”

Back on television the deer had overrun a city street. A herd, their brown fur speckled with white spots, grazed between cars and buses. “They seem to think they’re still sacred.”

One of the stags ate plants from a roadside flower box. Another sat down and went to sleep by the side of the road. Together we watched the deer, how they nonchalantly stepped between the pedestrians, unaware they were no longer divine.

When the program finished we went upstairs. Mamiko closed the blinds and got undressed, stepping from her clothes straight into bed, before I switched off the lamp and closed my eyes.

“Papa, Papa.”

Junko woke me up, screaming. I jumped out of bed and ran into her room. She was standing on top of her covers, crying. She kept telling me that aliens were coming, and that they were going to take me away. I switched on her lamp and sat down on the bed. I tried to cradle her but she wriggled and screamed and called for Mamiko. Not that her mother had any luck in getting her back to sleep. After half an hour of stories, games, and a teddy bear dance which usually put her into fits of giggles, she started crying again.

Mamiko spoke to her in Japanese. She told her that she’d be tired in the morning, and that aliens weren’t coming to take papa away.

“They are,” Junko shouted in English.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Because he is an alien.”

Mamiko tried to hug her, but she muscled her mother away. “I told you not to talk about aliens.”

“I didn’t.”

“Aliens,” cried Junko.

It was an hour before she went back to sleep, curled in Mamiko’s arms like a cat. Then Mamiko fell asleep too. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of plum wine. I stood at the counter and drank, watching stars slowly fall beyond the horizon.

Then I got into the car and drove to the bend. This time I had my torch, plucked from the earthquake box beneath the sink. I parked on the verge and clicked on the beam, finding the opening into the bamboo. With the light trained on the trail that snaked ahead, I walked, leaves rasping at my bare arms. After a hundred metres I nearly turned back, and perhaps I should have.

Then the path widened and the beam lit up the house.

To call it a house was to call a corpse a person. It was a vine-covered ruin, abandoned to nature and her reclamations. I aimed the beam along the eaves and chased away nesting birds. Wooden window frames had rotted through and the glass had fallen away, and the upstairs rooms gaped like vacant eye sockets. The front porch, tacked on to the house as an afterthought, flaked white paint like dead skin.

Beneath the moss and the weeds was a gravel path, leading to the door. I switched off the torch and crouched, listening to the wind in the trees, and my thumping heart.

Then I switched the torch back on and walked up to the front door, pushed it open, and stepped into the hallway. Smells of mould, spores multiplying in the damp. The old boards creaked like the timbers of a ship. I expected some vandalised dereliction, a shell of plaster and wood overgrown with moss, but the living room was a time capsule. An antique bubble-screen TV, a low coffee table and a leather sofa, all set on a tatami mat floor that had warped with age.

Then I found her. Like a diver might float upon a watery grave.

Set on a bureau was a framed photograph of a woman, probably taken just after the Second World War as she had her hair set in waves, a western style the Emperor had banned. Beside this was a photo of a baby, a wide- eyed toddler in a kimono. It was surely her daughter. Or her, the same vitality of lustrous hair gleaming from history.

When a phantom of wind filled the house, lifting dust and scattering paper, the wooden beams groaned. If an earthquake struck this would fold into kindling. Although it had survived this long, unlike the family.

I flicked the torch around the living room, and then into the kitchen. Cracked Formica peeled from swollen chipboard. I was tempted to open the fridge, but horrified at what rotting food might have spawned. What I wanted to find was something about the man who lived here, the husband to the wife on the bureau.

Slowly I went up the staircase. At the top of the landing was a bedroom sheared by nature, with a vine of gnarled ivy levering away the facade.

Like a line of commuters waiting for a bus, suit jackets hung on a rail behind one another. On the floor were toiletries, rusting cans of shaving cream and bottles of cologne. I touched the clothes.

Then I heard what sounded like someone clearing their throat. Steps. A palpable, mammalian weight moving through the rooms on the ground floor. I switched off the torch and crept down the staircase. There was a panicked scrabbling in the living room, and when I switched on the torch I thought something was on fire.

A bushy orange tail, flaring. A sandy-eyed fox with a white muzzle, luminescent in the beam. We stood and stared. Afraid to move, both of us. In the spotlight it seemed more real than the house. A visceral gleam of fur and iris.

I spoke to him. For no other reason than it felt like two men in a room, staring. I spoke to him like another man, not a dog. I apologised for intruding, for being in his house. I said I was sorry for what had happened to his family. And then I edged down the hallway, holding the beam on the fox.

When I got to the front door, the fox turned towards the dark, and carried away his pelt of fire.

I walked from the house, and then I ran. From the overgrown garden and the choking weeds, back along the dirt path through the bamboo and onto the road where my car was waiting.

My heart was trying to beat itself out of my chest, and I took a breath and held it, exhaled. To the west, behind the mountains, the sky was still black. The last stars fell like electric snow.

And then I drove home. Changed. Charged. My clammy skin goose bumped. The hair on the back of my neck spiked. Like fox fur. I thought about the myth of transformation, of humans changing into foxes. I thought about a husband, stepping from a business suit into fox pelt.

Then I thought about my solid front door, the sound it made when I clicked it shut. I thought about slipping off my shoes in the hallway, my ten pale toes, and then walking along the hardwood floor and into my daughter’s room where she’d be sleeping, curled in her mother’s arms.

I thought about the things that were certain. That I had a house and a daughter. A wife that I loved.


A month later, after a weekend canoeing around Kujuku Islands, paddling in the waves with Junko, camping on the beach and making fires, a boy appeared on the local news. A tanned and smiling boy holding a pitted lump of ore, a mottled stone arrived from the transit of space. He had plucked it from a crater in a forest near Nagasaki, and now held it out for the camera. A cold rock warmed by a palm.


Nicholas Hogg is the author of Tokyo, a forthcoming Ridley Scott film starring Eric Bana and Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink. Winner of the 2021 Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Prize and the 2023 Liverpool Poetry Prize, his debut collection, Missing Person, is published by Broken Sleep Books. @nicholas_hogg,

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