Full Read the Online Chapter 11 PDF of the Norwegian Wood Book by Haruki Murakami for free.
Reiko wrote to me several times after Naoko’s death. It wasn’t my fault, she said. It was nobody’s fault, any more than you could blame someone for the rain. But I never answered her. What could I have said? What good would it have done? Naoko no longer existed in this world; she had become a handful of ashes.
They held a quiet funeral for Naoko in Kobe at the end of August, and when it was over, I went back to Tokyo. I told my landlord I would be away for a while and my boss at the Italian restaurant that I wouldn’t be coming to work. To Midori I wrote a short note: I couldn’t say anything just yet, but I hoped she would wait for me a little longer. I spent the next three days in cinemas, and after I had seen every new film in Tokyo, I packed my rucksack, took out all my savings from the bank, went to Shinjuku Station, and got the first express train I could find going out of town.
Where I went on my travels, I can’t recall. I remember the sights and sounds and smells clear enough, but the names of the towns are gone, as well as any sense of the order in which I traveled from place to place. I would move from town to town by train or bus or hitching a lift in a lorry, spreading out my sleeping bag in empty car parks or stations or parks or on river banks or the seashore.
And I once persuaded them to let me sleep in the corner of a local police station, and another time slept alongside a graveyard, I didn’t care where I slept, provided I was out of people’s way and could stay in my sleeping bag as long as I felt like it. Exhausted from walking, I would crawl into it, gulp down some cheap whisky, and fall fast asleep. In nice towns, people would bring me food and mosquito coils, and in not-so-nice towns, people would call the police and have me chased out of the parks. It made no difference to me one way or another. All I wanted was to put myself to sleep in towns I didn’t know.
When I ran low on money, I would work as a laborer for a few days until I had what I needed. There was always work for me to do. I just kept moving from one town to the next, with no destination in mind. The world was big and full of weird things and strange people. One time I called Midori because I had to hear her voice.
“Term started a long time ago, you know,” she said. “Some courses are even asking for papers already. What are you going to do? Do you realize you’ve been out of touch for three whole weeks now? Where are you? What are you doing?”
“Sorry, but I can’t go back to Tokyo yet. Not yet.” “And that’s all you’re going to tell me?”
“There’s nothing more I can say at this point. Maybe in October…”
Midori hung up without a word.
I went on with my travels. Now and then I’d stay at a dosshouse and have a bath and shave. What I saw in the mirror looked terrible. The sun had dried out my skin, my eyes were sunken, and odd stains and cuts marked my cheekbones. I looked as if I had just crawled out of a cave somewhere, but it was me after all. It was me.
By that time, I was moving down the coast, as far from Tokyo as I could get – maybe in Tottori or the hidden side of Hyogo. Walking along the seashore was easy. I could always find a comfortable place to sleep in the sand. I’d make a fire from driftwood and roast some dried fish I bought from a local fisherman. Then I’d swallow some whisky and listen to the waves while I thought about Naoko. It was too strange to think that she was dead and no longer part of this world. I couldn’t absorb the truth of it, I couldn’t believe it. And I had heard the nails being driven into the lid of her coffin, but I still couldn’t adjust to the fact that she had returned to nothingness.
No, the image of her was still too vivid in my memory. I could still see her enclosing my penis in her mouth, her hair falling across my belly. I could still feel her warmth, her breath against me, and that helpless moment when I could do nothing but come. And I could bring all this back as clearly as if it had happened only five minutes ago, and I felt sure that Naoko was still beside me, that I could just reach out and touch her. But no, she wasn’t there; her flesh no longer existed in this world.
On nights when I couldn’t sleep, images of Naoko would come back to me. There was no way I could stop them. Too many memories of her were crammed inside me, and as soon as one of them found the slightest opening, the rest would force their way out in an endless stream, an unstoppable flood: Naoko in her yellow raincape cleaning the aviary and carrying the feed bag that rainy morning; the caved-in birthday cake and the feel of Naoko’s tears soaking through my shirt (yes, it had been raining then, too); Naoko walking beside me in winter wearing her camel-hair coat; Naoko touching the hairslide she always wore; Naoko peering at me with those incredibly clear eyes of hers; Naoko sitting on the sofa, legs drawn up beneath her blue nightdress, chin resting on her knees.
The memories would slam against me like the waves of an incoming tide, sweeping my body along to some strange new place – a place where I lived with the dead. There Naoko lived, and I could speak with her and hold her in my arms. Death in that place was not a decisive element that brought life to an end. There, death was but one of many elements comprising life. There Naoko lived with death inside her. And to me, she said, “Don’t worry, it’s only death. Don’t let it bother you.”
I felt no sadness in that strange place. Death was death, and Naoko was Naoko. “What’s the problem?” she asked me with a bashful smile, “I’m here, aren’t I?” Her familiar little gestures soothed my heart like a healing balm. “If this is death,” I thought to myself, “then death is not so bad.” “It’s true,” said Naoko, “death is nothing much. It’s just death. Things are so easy for me here.” Naoko spoke to me in the spaces between the crashing of the dark waves.
Eventually, though, the tide would pull back, and I would be left on the beach alone. Powerless, I could go nowhere; sadness itself would envelop me in deep darkness until the tears came. I felt less that I was crying than that the tears were simply oozing out of me like perspiration.
I had learned one thing from Kizuki’s death, and I believed that I had made it a part of myself in the form of a philosophy: “Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life.”
By living our lives, we nurture death. True as this might be, it was only one of the truths we had to learn. What I learned from Naoko’s death was this: no truth can cure the sadness we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness, can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see that sadness through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sadness that comes to us without warning. Hearing the waves at night, listening to the sound of the wind, day after day I focused on these thoughts of mine. Knapsack on my back, sand in my hair, I moved farther and farther west, surviving on a diet of whisky, bread, and water.
One windy evening, as I lay wrapped in my sleeping bag, weeping, by the side of an abandoned hulk, a young fisherman passed by and offered me a cigarette. I accepted it and had my first smoke in over a year. He asked why I was crying, and almost by reflex I told him that my mother had died. I couldn’t take the sadness, I said, and so I was on the road. He expressed his deep sympathy and brought a big bottle of sake and two glasses from his house.
The wind tore along the sand beach as we sat there drinking. He told me that he had lost his mother when he was 16. Never healthy, she had worn herself out working from morning to night. I half-listened to him, sipping my sake and grunting in response now and then. I felt as if I were hearing a story from some far-off world. What the hell was he talking about? I wondered, and all of a sudden I was filled with intense rage: I wanted to strangle him. Who gives a shit about your mother? I’ve lost Naoko! Her beautiful flesh has vanished from this world! Why the hell are you telling me about your fucking mother?!
But my rage disappeared as quickly as it had flared up. I closed my eyes and went on half-listening to the fisherman’s endless talk. Eventually, he asked me if I had eaten. No, I said, but in my rucksack, I had bread and cheese, a tomato, and a piece of chocolate. What had I eaten for lunch? he asked.
Bread and cheese, tomato and chocolate, I answered. “Wait here,” he said and ran off. I tried to stop him, but he disappeared into the darkness without looking back.
All I could do was go on drinking my sake. The shore was littered with paper flecks from fireworks that had exploded on the sand, and waves crashed against the beach with a mad roar. A scrawny dog came up wagging its tail and sniffing around my little campfire for something to eat but eventually gave up and wandered away.
The young fisherman came back half an hour later with two boxes of sushi and a new bottle of sake. I should eat the top box straight away because that had fish in it, he said, but the bottom box had only nori rolls and deep-fried tofu skins so they would last all tomorrow. He filled both our glasses with sake from the new bottle. I thanked him and polished off the whole top box myself, though it had more than enough for two.
After we had drunk as much sake as we could manage, he offered to put me up for the night, but when I said I would rather sleep alone on the beach, he left it at that. As he stood to go, he took a folded? 5,000 note from his pocket and shoved it into the pocket of my shirt. “Here,” he said, “get yourself some healthy food. You look awful.” I said he had done more than enough for me and that I couldn’t accept money on top of everything else, but he refused to take it back. “It’s not money,” he said, “it’s my feelings. Don’t think about it too much, just take it.” All I could do was thank him and accept it.
When he had gone, I suddenly thought about my old girlfriend, the one I had first slept with in my last year of school. Chills ran through me as I realized how badly I had treated her. I had hardly ever thought about her thoughts or feelings or the pain I had caused her. She was such a sweet and gentle thing, but at the time I had taken her sweetness for granted and later hardly gave her a second thought. What was she doing now? I wondered. And had she forgiven me?
A wave of nausea came over me, and I vomited by the old ship. My head hurt from too much sake, and I felt bad about having lied to the fisherman and taken his money. It was time for me to go back to Tokyo, I decided; I couldn’t keep this up forever. I stuffed my sleeping bag into my rucksack, slipped my arms through the straps, and walked to the local railway station. I told the man at the ticket- office window that I wanted to get to Tokyo as soon as possible.
He checked his timetable and said I could make it as far as Osaka by morning if I transferred from one night train to another, then I could take the bullet train from there. I thanked him and used the x”5,000 note the fisherman gave me to buy a ticket to Tokyo. Waiting for the train, I bought a newspaper and checked the date: 2 October 1970. So I had been traveling for a full month. I knew I had to go back to the real world.
The month of traveling neither lifted my spirits nor softened the blow of Naoko’s death. I arrived back in Tokyo in pretty much the same state in which I had left. I couldn’t even bring myself to phone Midori. What could I say to her? How could I begin? “It’s all over now; you and I can be happy together”? No, that was out of the question.
However I might phrase it, though, the facts were the same: Naoko was dead, and Midori was still here. Naoko was a mound of white ash, and Midori was a living, breathing human being.
I was overcome with a sense of my defilement. Though I returned to Tokyo I did nothing for days but shut myself up in my room. My memory remained fixed on the dead rather than the living. The rooms I had set aside in there for Naoko were shuttered, the furniture draped in white, the windowsills dusty. I spent the better part of each day in those rooms. And I thought about Kizuki. “So you finally made Naoko yours,” I heard myself telling him. “Oh, well, she was yours to begin with. Now, maybe, she’s where she belongs. But in this world, in this imperfect world of the living, I did the best I could for Naoko.
I tried to establish a new life for the two of us. But forget it, Kizuki. I’m giving her to you. You’re the one she chose, after all. In woods as dark as the depths of her own heart, she hanged herself. Once upon a time, you dragged a part of me into the world of the dead, and now Naoko has dragged another part of me into that world. Sometimes I feel like the caretaker of a museum – a huge, empty museum where no one ever comes, and I’m watching over it for no one but myself.”
On the fourth day after my return to Tokyo, a letter came from Reiko.
Special delivery. It was a simple note: I haven’t been able
to get in touch with you for weeks, and I’m worried. Please call me. At 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. I will be waiting by the telephone.
I called her at nine o’clock that night. Reiko picked up after one ring. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“More or less,” I said.
“Do you mind if I come and visit you the day after tomorrow?” “Visit me? You mean here in Tokyo?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. I want to have a good, long talk with you.”
“You’re leaving the sanatorium?”
“It’s the only way I can come and see you, isn’t it? Anyway, it’s about time for me to get out of this place. I’ve been here eight years, after all. If they keep me any longer, I’ll start to rot.”
I found it difficult to speak. After a short silence, Reiko went on: “I’ll be on the 3.20 bullet train the day after tomorrow. Will you meet me at the station? Do you still remember what I look like? Or have you lost interest in me now that Naoko’s dead?”
“No way,” I said. “See you at Tokyo Station the day after tomorrow at 3.20.”
“You won’t have any trouble recognizing me. I’m the old lady with the guitar case. There aren’t many of those.”
And in fact, I had no trouble finding Reiko in the crowd. She wore a man’s tweed jacket, white trousers, and red trainers. Her hair was as short as ever, with the usual clumps sticking up. In her right hand she held a brown leather suitcase, and in her left a black guitar case. She gave me a big, wrinkly smile the moment she spotted me, and I found myself grinning back. I took her suitcase and walked beside her to the train for the western suburbs.
“Hey, Watanabe, how long have you been wearing that awful face? Or is that the ‘in’ look in Tokyo these days?”
“I was traveling for a while, and ate junk all the time,” I said. “How did you find the bullet train?”
“Awful!” she said. “You can’t open the windows. I wanted to buy a box lunch from one of the station buffets.”
“They sell them on board, you know.”
“Yeah, overpriced plastic sandwiches. A starving horse wouldn’t touch that stuff. I always used to enjoy the boxed lunches at Gotenba Station.”
“Once upon a time, before the bullet train.”
“Well, I’m from once upon a time before the bullet train!”
On the train out to Kichijoji, Reiko watched the Musashino landscape passing the window with all the curiosity of a tourist.
“Has it changed much in eight years?” I asked.
“You don’t know what I’m feeling now, do you, Watanabe?” “No, I don’t.”
“I’m scared,” she said. “So scared, I could go crazy just like that. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, flung out here all by myself.” She paused. “But ‘Go crazy just like that.’ Kind of a cool expression, don’t you think?”
I smiled and took her hand. “Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll be OK. Your strength got you this far.”
“It wasn’t my strength that got me out of that place,” Reiko said. “It was Naoko and you. I couldn’t stand it there without Naoko, and I had to come to Tokyo to talk to you. That’s all. If nothing had happened I probably would have spent the rest of my life there.”
“What are you planning to do from now on?” I asked Reiko.
“I’m going to Asahikawa,” she said. “Way up in the wilds of Hokkaido! An old college friend of mine runs a music school there, and she’s been asking me for two or three years now to help her out. I told her it was too cold for me. I mean, I finally get my freedom back and I’m supposed to go to Asahikawa? It’s hard to get excited about a place like that – some hole in the ground.”
“It’s not so awful,” I said, laughing. “I’ve been there. It’s not a bad little town. Got its special atmosphere.” “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. It’s much better than staying in Tokyo.”
“Oh, well,” she said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go, and I’ve already sent my stuff there. Hey, Watanabe, promise me you’ll come and visit me in Asahikawa.”
“Of course I will. But do you have to leave straight away? Can’t you stay in Tokyo for a while?”
“I’d like to hang around here a few days if I can. Can you put me up? I won’t get in your way.”
“No problem,” I said. “I have a big closet I can sleep in, in my sleeping bag.”
“I can’t do that to you.”
“No. It’s a huge closet.”
Reiko tapped out a rhythm on the guitar case between her legs. “I’m probably going to have to condition myself a little before I go to Asahikawa. I’m just not used to being in the outside world. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t get, and I’m nervous. Think you can help me out a little? You’re the only one I can ask.”
“I’ll do anything I can to help you,” I said.
“I hope I’m not getting in your way,” she said. “I don’t have any way for you to get in,” I said.
She looked at me and turned up the corners of her mouth in a smile but said nothing.
We hardly talked the rest of the way to Kichijoji Station or on the bus back to my place. We traded a few random comments on the changes in Tokyo and Reiko’s time at the College of Music and my one trip to Asahikawa, but said nothing about Naoko. Ten months had gone by since I last saw Reiko, but walking by her side I felt strangely calmed and comforted.
This was a familiar feeling, I thought, and then it occurred to me it was the way I used to feel when walking the streets of Tokyo with Naoko. And just as Naoko and I had shared the dead Kizuki, Reiko and I shared the dead Naoko. This thought made it impossible for me to go on talking. Reiko continued speaking for a while, but when she realized that I wasn’t saying anything, she also fell silent. Neither of us said a word on the bus.
It was one of those early autumn afternoons when the light was sharp and clear, exactly as it had been a year earlier when I visited Naoko in Kyoto. The clouds were white and as narrow as bones, the sky wide open and high. The fragrance of the breeze, the tone of the light, the tiny flowers in the grass, the subtle reverberations that accompanied sounds: all these told me that autumn had come again, increasing the distance between me and the dead with each cycle of the seasons. Kizuki was still 17 and Naoko was 21: forever.
“Oh, what a relief to come to a place like this!” Reiko said, looking all around as we stepped off the bus.
“Because there’s nothing here,” I said.
As I led her through the back gate through the garden to my cottage, Reiko was impressed by everything she saw.
“This is terrific!” she said. “You made these shelves and the desk?”
“Yep,” I said, pouring tea.
“You’re good with your hands. And you keep the place so clean!”
“Storm Trooper’s influence,” I said. “He turned me into a cleanliness freak. Not that my landlord’s complaining.”
“Oh, your landlord! I ought to introduce myself to him.
That’s his place on the other side of the garden, I suppose.” “Introduce yourself to him? What for?”
“What do you mean “what for’? Some weird old lady shows up in your place and starts playing the guitar, he’s going to wonder what’s going on. Better to start on the right foot. I even brought a box of tea sweets for him.” “Very clever,” I said.
“The wisdom that comes with age. I’m going to tell him I’m your aunt on your mother’s side, visiting from Kyoto, so don’t contradict me. The age difference comes in handy at times like this. Nobody’s going to get suspicious.”
Reiko took the box of sweets from her bag and went off to pay her respects. I sat on the veranda, drinking another cup of tea and playing with the cat. Twenty minutes went by, and when Reiko finally came back, she pulled a tin of rice crackers from her bag and said it was a present for me.
“What were you talking about for so long?” I asked, munching on a cracker.
“You, of course,” said Reiko, cradling the cat and rubbing her cheek against it. “He says you’re a very proper young man, a serious student.”
“Are you sure he was talking about me?”
“There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that he was talking about you,” she said with a laugh. Then, noticing my guitar, she picked it up, adjusted the tuning, and played Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado”. It had been months since I last heard Reiko’s guitar, and it gave me that old, warm feeling.
“You practicing the guitar?” she asked.
“It was kicking around the landlord’s storehouse, so I borrowed it and I plunk on it once in a while. That’s all.”
“I’ll give you a lesson later. Free.” Reiko put down the guitar and took off her tweed jacket. Sitting against the veranda post, she smoked a cigarette. She was wearing a Madras check short-sleeve shirt.
“Nice shirt, don’t you think?” she asked.
“It is,” I said. It was a good-looking shirt with a handsome pattern.
“It’s Naoko’s,” said Reiko. “I bet you didn’t know we were the same size. Especially when she first came to the sanatorium. She put on a little weight after that, but still, we were pretty much the same size: blouses, trousers, shoes, and hats. Bras were about the only thing we couldn’t share. I’ve got practically nothing here. So we were always swapping clothes. It was more like joint ownership.”
Now that she mentioned it, I saw that Reiko’s build was almost identical to Naoko’s. Because of the shape of her face and her thin arms and legs, she had always given me the impression of being smaller and slimmer than Naoko, but she was surprisingly solid.
“The jacket and trousers are hers, too,” said Reiko. “It’s all hers. Does it bother you to see me wearing her stuff?”
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m sure Naoko would be glad to have somebody wearing her clothes – especially you.”
“It’s strange,” Reiko said with a little snap of her fingers. “Naoko didn’t leave a will or anything – except where her clothes were concerned. She scribbled one line on a memo pad on her desk. “Please give all my clothes to Reiko.’ She was a funny one, don’t you think? Why would she be concerned about her clothes of all things when she’s getting ready to die? Who gives a damn about clothes? She must have had tons of other things she wanted to say.”
“Maybe not,” I said.
Puffing on her cigarette, Reiko seemed lost in thought. Then she said, “You want to hear the whole story, in order, I suppose.”
“I do,” I said. “Please tell me everything.”
“Tests at the hospital in Osaka showed that Naoko’s condition was improving for the moment but that she should stay there on a somewhat longer-term basis so that they could
continue the intensive therapy for its future benefits. I told you that much in my letter – the one I sent you somewhere around the tenth of August.”
“Right. I read that letter.”
“Well, on the 24th of August, I got a call from Naoko’s mother asking if it was OK for Naoko to visit me at the sanatorium. Naoko wanted to pack the things she had left with me and, because she wouldn’t be able to see me for a while, she wanted to have a nice long talk with me, and perhaps spend a night in our flat. I said that would be fine.
I wanted to see her badly and to have a talk with her. So Naoko and her mother arrived the next day, the 25th, in a taxi. The three of us worked together, packing Naoko’s things and chatting away. Late in the afternoon, Naoko said it would be OK for her mother to go home, that she’d be fine, so they called a taxi and the mother left. We weren’t worried at all because Naoko seemed to be in such good spirits. In fact, until then I had been very worried. I had been expecting her to be depressed worn out and emaciated.
I mean, I knew how much the testing and therapy and stuff they do at those hospitals can take it out of you, so I had some real doubts about this visit. But one look at her was all it took to convince me she’d be OK. She looked a lot healthier than I had expected and she was smiling and joking and talking much more normally than when I had seen her last.
She had been to the hairdresser’s and was showing off her new hairdo. So I thought there would be nothing to worry about even if her mother left us alone. Naoko told me that this time she was going to let those hospital doctors cure her once and for all, and I said that that would probably be the best thing to do. So then the two of us went out for a walk, talking all the time, mainly about the future. Naoko told me that what she’d like was for the two of us to get out of the sanatorium and live together somewhere.”
“Live together? You and Naoko?”
“That’s right,” said Reiko with a little shrug. “So I told her it sounded good to me, but what about Watanabe? And she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get everything straight with him.’ That’s all. Then she talked about where she and I would live and what we’d do, that kind of thing. After that, we went to the aviary and played with the birds.”
I took a beer from the fridge and opened it. Reiko lit another cigarette, the cat sound asleep in her lap.
“That girl had everything worked out for herself. I’m sure that’s why she was so full of energy and smiling and healthy looking. It must have been such a load off her mind to feel she knew exactly what she was going to do. So then we finished going through her stuff and throwing what she didn’t need into the metal drum in the garden and burning it: the notebook she had used as a diary, and all the letters she had received. Your letters, too.
This seemed a bit strange to me, so I asked her why she was burning stuff like that. I mean, she had always been so careful about putting your letters away in a safe place and reading them over and over. She said, “I’m getting rid of everything from the past so I can be reborn in the future.’ I suppose I pretty much took her at her word. It had its kind of logic to it, sort of. I remember thinking how much I wanted her to get healthy and happy. She was so sweet and lovely that day: I wish you could have seen her!
“When that was over, we went to the dining hall for supper the way we used to. Then we bathed and I opened a bottle of good wine that I had been keeping for a special occasion like this and we drank and I played the guitar. The Beatles, as always, “Norwegian Wood”, “Michelle”, her favorites. Both of us were feeling pretty good. We turned out the lights, got undressed, and lay in our beds. It was one of those steaming hot nights. We had the windows wide open, but there was hardly a breath of wind. It was black as ink outside, the grasshoppers were screaming, and the smell of the summer grass was so thick in the room that it was hard to breathe. All of a sudden, Naoko started talking about you – about the night she had sex with you. In incredible detail.
How you took her clothes off, how you touched her, how she found herself getting wet, how you went inside her, how wonderful it felt: she told me all of this in vivid detail. So I asked her: why are you telling me this now, all of a sudden? I mean, up to then, she had never spoken openly to me about sex. Of course, we had had some frank sexual talk as a kind of therapy, but she had been too embarrassed to go into details. Now I couldn’t stop her. I was shocked. “So she says, “I don’t know, I just feel like talking about it. I’ll stop if you’d rather not hear it.’ “No,’ I said, that’s OK. “If there’s something you need to talk about, you’d better get it all out. I’ll listen to anything you have to say.’
“So she went on with her story: “When he went inside me, I couldn’t believe how much it hurt. It was my first time, after all. I was so wet, he slipped right in, but still, my brain fogged over – it hurt so much.
He put it in as far as he could, I thought, but then he lifted my legs and went in even farther. That sent chills all through my body as if I were soaking in ice water. My arms and legs went numb, and a wave of cold went through me. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I might die right there and then, and I didn’t care one way or another.
But he realized I was in pain, so he stopped moving, and still deep inside me, he started kissing me all over – my hair, my neck, my breasts – for a long, long time. Little by little, the warmth returned to my body, and then, very slowly, he started to move. Oh, Reiko, it was so wonderful! Now it felt as if my brain was just going to melt away. I wanted to stay like that forever, to stay in his arms for the rest of my life. That’s how great it was.’
“So I said to her, “If it was so great, why didn’t you just stay with Watanabe and keep doing it every day?’ But she said, “No, Reiko, I knew it would never happen again. I knew this was something that would come to me once, leave, and never come back. This would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I had never felt anything like it before, and I’ve never felt anything like it since. I’ve never felt that I wanted to do it again, and I’ve never grown wet like that again.’
“Of course, I explained to her that this was something that often happened to young women and that, in most cases, it cures itself with age. And, after all, it had worked that one time: there was no need to worry it wouldn’t happen again. I had had all kinds of trouble when I was first married.
“But she said, “No, that’s not it, Reiko. I’m not worried about that at all. I just don’t want anybody going inside me again, I just don’t want to be violated like that again – by anybody.”
I drank my beer, and Reiko finished her second cigarette. The cat stretched itself in Reiko’s lap, found a new position, and went back to sleep. Reiko seemed at a loss how to go on until she had lit her third cigarette.
“After that, Naoko began to sob. I sat on the edge of her bed and stroked her hair. “Don’t worry,’ I said, “everything is going to be all right. A beautiful, young girl like you has got to have a man to hold her and make her happy.’ Naoko was drenched in sweat and tears. I got a bath towel and dried her face and body. Even her panties were soaked, so I helped her out of
them – now wait a minute, don’t get any strange ideas, there was nothing funny going on. We always used to bathe together. She was like my little sister.”
“I know, I know,” I said.
“Well, anyway, Naoko said she wanted me to hold her. I said it was far too hot for holding, but she said it was the last time we’d be seeing each other, so I held her. Just for a while. With a bath towel between us so our sweaty bodies wouldn’t stick to each other. And when she calmed down, I dried her off again, got her nightdress on her, and put her to bed. She fell sound asleep straight away. Or maybe she was just pretending to sleep. Whatever, she looked so sweet and lovely that night, she had the face of a girl of 13 or 14 who’s never had a bit of harm done to her since the day she was born. I saw that look on her face, and I knew I could let myself fall asleep with an easy heart.
When I woke at six in the morning, she was gone. Her night dress was there, where she had dropped it, but her clothes and trainers and the torch I always keep by my pillow were missing. I knew immediately that something was wrong. I mean, the very fact that she had taken the torch meant she had left in the dark. And I checked her desk just in case, and
there was the note: Please give all my clothes to Reiko. I woke
up everybody straight away, and we took different paths to look for her. We searched every inch of the place, from the insides of the dorms to the surrounding woods. It took us five hours to find her. She’d even brought her rope.”
Reiko sighed and patted the cat. “Want some tea?” I asked.
“Yes, thanks,” said Reiko.
I boiled water and brought a pot of tea back to the veranda. Sundown was approaching. The daylight had grown weak, and long shadows of trees stretched to our feet. I sipped my tea and looked at the strangely random garden with its funny mix of yellow globeflowers and pink azaleas and tall, green mandarins.
“So then the ambulance came and took Naoko away and the police started questioning me. Not that there was much doubt. There was a kind of suicide note, and it had been a suicide, and they took it for granted that suicide was just one of those things that mental patients did. So it was pretty pro forma. As soon as they left, I telegraphed you.”
“What a sad little funeral it was,” I said. “Her family was upset that I knew Naoko had died. I’m sure they didn’t want people to know it was suicide. I probably shouldn’t even have been there. Which made me feel even worse. As soon as I got back, I hit the road.”
“Hey, Watanabe, let’s go for a walk. We can shop for something to make for dinner, maybe. I’m starving.”
“Sure. Is there something you want to eat?”
“Sukiyaki,” she said. “I haven’t had anything like that for years. I used to dream about sukiyaki – just stuffing myself with beef and green onions and noodles and roasted tofu and greens.”
“Sure, we can have that, but I don’t have a sukiyaki pan.” “Just leave it to me. I’ll borrow one from your landlord.” She ran off to the main house and came back with a good-sizedpan and gas cooker and rubber hose. “Not bad, eh?” “Not bad!”
We bought all the ingredients at the little shops in the neighborhood – beef, eggs, vegetables, tofu. I picked out a fairly decent white wine. I tried to pay, but Reiko insisted on paying for everything.
“Think how the family would laugh at me if they heard I let my nephew pay for the food!” said Reiko. “Besides, I’m carrying a fair amount of cash. So don’t worry. I wasn’t about to leave the sanatorium broke.”
Reiko washed the rice and put it on to boil while I arranged everything for cooking on the veranda. When everything was ready, Reiko took out her guitar and appeared to be testing it with a slow Bach fugue. On the hard parts, she would purposely slow down or speed up or make it detached or sentimental, listening with obvious pleasure to the variety of sounds she could draw from the instrument. When she played the guitar, Reiko looked like a 17-year-old girl enjoying the sight of a new dress. Her eyes sparkled, and she pouted with just the hint of a smile. When she had finished the piece, she leaned back against a pillar and looked up at the sky as though deep in thought.
“Do you mind if I talk to you?” I asked.
“Not at all,” she said. “I was just thinking how hungry I am.”
“Aren’t you planning to see your husband or your daughter while you’re here? They must be in Tokyo somewhere.”
“Close enough. Yokohama. But no, I don’t plan to see them. I’m sure I told you before: it’s better for them if they don’t have anything more to do with me. They’ve started a new life. And I’d just feel terrible if I saw them. No, the best thing is to keep away.”
She crumpled up her empty box of Seven Stars cigarettes and took a new one from her suitcase. She cut the seal and put a cigarette in her mouth, but she didn’t light up.
“I’m finished as a human being,” she said. “All you’re looking at is the lingering memory of what I used to be. The most important part of me, what used to be inside, died years ago, and I’m just functioning by auto-memory.”
“But I like you now, Reiko, the way you are, lingering memory or whatever. And what I have to say about it may not make any difference, but I’m really glad that you’re wearing Naoko’s clothes.” Reiko smiled and lit her cigarette with a lighter. “For such a young man, you know how to make a woman happy.”
I felt myself reddening. “I’m just saying what I think.” “Sure, I know,” said Reiko, smiling. When the rice was done soon after that, I oiled the pan and arranged the ingredients for sukiyaki.
“Tell me this isn’t a dream,” said Reiko, sniffing the air.
“No, this is 100 per cent realistic sukiyaki,” I said. “Empirically speaking, of course.”
Instead of talking, we attacked the sukiyaki with our chopsticks, drank lots of beer, and finished up with rice. Seagull turned up, attracted by the smell, so we shared our meat with her. When we had eaten our fill, we sat leaning against the porch pillars looking at the moon. “Satisfied?” I asked.
“Totally,” she groaned. “I’ve never eaten so much in my life.” “What do you want to do now?”
“Have a smoke and go to a public bath. My hair’s a mess. I need to wash it.”
“No problem. There’s one down the street.”
“Tell me, Watanabe, if you don’t mind. Have you slept with that girl Midori?”
“You mean have we had sex? Not yet. We decided not to until things get sorted out.”
“Well, now they’re sorted out, wouldn’t you say?”
I shook my head. “Now that Naoko’s dead, you mean?”
“No, not that. You made your decision long before Naoko died – that you could never leave Midori. Whether Naoko is alive or dead, has nothing to do with your decision. You chose Midori. Naoko chose to die. You’re all grown up now, so you have to take responsibility for your choices. Otherwise, you ruin everything.”
“But I can’t forget her,” I said. “I told Naoko I would go on waiting for her, but I couldn’t do it. I turned my back on her in the end. I’m not saying anyone’s to blame: it’s a problem for me myself. I do think that things would have worked out the same way even if I hadn’t turned my back on her. Naoko was choosing death all along. But that’s beside the point. I can’t forgive myself. You tell me there’s nothing I can do about a natural change in feelings, but my relationship with Naoko was not that simple. If you stop and think about it, she and I were bound together at the border between life and death. It was like that for us from the start.”
“If you feel some kind of pain about Naoko’s death, I would advise you to keep on feeling that pain for the rest of your life. And if there’s something you can learn from it, you should do that, too. But quite aside from that, you should be happy with Midori. Your pain has nothing to do with your relationship with her. If you hurt her any more than you already have, the wound could be too deep to fix. So, hard as it may be, you have to be strong. You have to grow up more, and be more of an adult. I left the sanatorium and came up here to Tokyo to tell you that – on that coffin of a train.”
“And I understand what you’re telling me,” I said to Reiko, “but I’m still not prepared to follow through on it. I mean that was such a sad little funeral! No one should have to die like that.”
Reiko stretched out her hand and stroked my head. “We all have to die like that sometime. I will, and so will you.”
We took the five-minute walk along the river bank to the local public baths and came home feeling more refreshed. I opened the bottle of wine and we sat on the veranda drinking it.
“Hey, Watanabe, could you bring out another glass?” “Sure,” I said. “But what for?”
“We’re going to have our funeral for Naoko, just the two of us. One that’s not so sad.”
When I handed her the glass, Reiko filled it to the brim and set it on the stone lantern in the garden. Then she sat on the veranda, leaning against a pillar, guitar in her arms, and smoked a cigarette.
“And now could you bring out a box of matches? Make it the biggest one you can find.”
I brought out an economy-size box of kitchen matches and sat down next to her.
“Now what I want you to do is lay down a match every time I play a song, just set them in a row. I’m going to play every song I can think of.”
First, she played a soft, lovely rendition of Henry Mancini’s “Dear Heart”.
“You gave a recording of this to Naoko, didn’t you?” she asked.
“I did. For Christmas the year before last. She liked that song.”
“I like it, too,” said Reiko. “So sweet and beautiful …” and she ran through a few bars of the melody one more time before taking another sip of wine. “I wonder how many songs I can play before I get completely drunk. This’ll be a nice funeral, don’t you think – not so sad?”
Reiko moved on to the Beatles, playing “Norwegian Wood”, “Yesterday”, “Michelle”, and “Something”. She sang and played “Here Comes the Sun”, then played “The Fool on the Hill”. I laid seven matches in a row.
“Seven songs,” said Reiko, sipping more wine and smoking another cigarette. “Those guys sure knew something about the sadness of life, and gentleness.”
By “those guys” Reiko of course meant John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. After a short breather, Reiko crushed her cigarette out and picked up her guitar again. She played “Penny Lane”, “Blackbird”, “Julia”, “When I’m 64”, “Nowhere Man”, “And I Love Her”, and “Hey Jude”.
“How many songs is that?” “Fourteen,” I said.
She sighed and asked me, “How about you? Can you play something – maybe one song?”
“No way. I’m terrible.”
“So play it terribly.”
I brought out my guitar and stumbled my way through “Up on the Roof”. Reiko took a rest, smoking and drinking. When I was through, she applauded.
Next, she played a guitar transcription of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dying Queen” and a beautifully clean rendition of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”.
“I mastered both of these after Naoko died,” said Reiko. “To the end, her taste in music never rose above the sentimental.”
She performed a few Bacharach songs next: “Close to You”, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, “Walk on By”, and “Wedding Bell Blues”.
“Twenty,” I said.
“I’m like a human jukebox!” exclaimed Reiko. “My professors would faint if they could see me now.”
She went on sipping and puffing and playing: several bossa novas, Rogers and Hart, Gershwin, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Carole King, The Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki Song”, “Blue Velvet”, “Green Fields”. Sometimes she would close her eyes and nod or hum to the melody.
When the wine was gone, we turned to whisky. The wine in the glass in the garden I poured over the stone lantern and replaced it with whisky.
“How’s our count going?” Reiko asked. “Forty-eight,” I said.
For our forty-ninth song, Reiko played “Eleanor Rigby”, and the fiftieth was another performance of “Norwegian Wood”. After that, she rested her hands and drank some whisky. “Maybe that’s enough,” she said.
“It is,” I answered. “Amazing.”
Reiko looked me in the eye and said, “Now listen to me, Watanabe. I want you to forget all about that sad little funeral you saw. Just remember this marvelous one of ours.” I nodded.
“Here’s one more for good measure,” she said, and for her fifty-first piece, she played her favorite Bach fugue. When she was through, she said in a voice just above a whisper, “How about doing it with me, Watanabe?”
“Strange,” I said. “I was thinking the same thing.”
We went inside and drew the curtains. Then, in the darkened room, Reiko and I sought out each other’s bodies as if it were the most natural thing in the world for us to do. I removed her blouse and trousers, and then her underwear.
“I’ve lived a strange life,” said Reiko, “but I never thought I’d have my panties removed for me by a man 19 years my junior.”
“Would you rather take them off yourself?”
“No, go ahead. But don’t be too shocked at all my wrinkles.” “I like your wrinkles.”
“You’re gonna make me cry,” she whispered.
I kissed her all over, taking special care to follow the wrinkled places with my tongue. She had the breasts of a little girl. I caressed them and took her nipples in my teeth, then slid a finger inside her warm, moist vagina and began to move it.
“Wrong spot, Watanabe,” Reiko whispered in my ear. “That’s just a wrinkle.”
“I can’t believe you’re telling jokes at a time like this!”
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m scared. I haven’t done this for years. I feel like a 17-year-old girl: I just went to visit a guy in his room, and all of a sudden I’m naked.”
“To tell you the truth, I feel as if I’m violating a 17-year-old girl.”
With my finger in her “wrinkle”, I moved my lips up her neck to her ear and took a nipple in my fingers. As her breathing intensified and her throat began to tremble, I parted her long, slim legs and eased myself inside her.
“You’re not going to get me pregnant now, are you? You’re taking care of that, right?” Reiko murmured in my ear. “I’d be so embarrassed if I got pregnant at this age.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Just relax.”
When I was in, she trembled and released a sigh. Caressing her back, I moved inside her and then, without warning, I came. It was an intense, unstoppable ejaculation. I clutched at her as my semen pulsed into her warmth again and again.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I couldn’t stop myself.”
“Don’t be silly,” Reiko said, giving me a little slap on the rump. “You don’t have to worry about that. Do you always have that on your mind when you’re doing it with girls?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Well, you don’t have to think about it with me. Forget it.
Just let yourself go as much as you like. Did it feel good?” “Fantastic. That’s why I couldn’t control myself.”
“This is no time for controlling yourself. This is fine. It was great for me, too.”
“You know, Reiko,” I said. “What’s that?”
“You ought to take a lover again. You’re terrific. It’s such a waste.” “Well, I’ll think about it,” she said. “But I wonder if people take lovers and things in Asahikawa.”
Growing hard a few minutes later, I went inside her again. Reiko held her breath and twisted beneath me. I moved slowly and quietly with my arms around her, and we talked. It felt wonderful to talk that way. If I said something funny and made her laugh, the tremors came into me through my penis. We held each other like this for a very long time.
“Oh, this feels marvelous!” Reiko said. “Moving’s not bad either,” I said.
“Go ahead. Give it a try.”
I lifted her hips and went in as far as I could go, then savored the sensation of moving in a circular pattern until having enjoyed it to the full, I let myself come.
Altogether, we joined our bodies four times that night. At the end of each time, Reiko would lie in my arms trembling slightly, eyes closed, and release a long sigh.
“I never have to do this again,” said Reiko, “for the rest of my life. Oh, please, Watanabe, tell me it’s true. Tell me I can relax now because I’ve done enough to last a lifetime.”
“Nobody can tell you that,” I said. “There’s no way of knowing.”
I tried to convince Reiko that taking a plane would be faster and easier, but she insisted on going to Asahikawa by train.
“I like the ferry to Hokkaido. And I have no desire to fly through the air,” she said. I accompanied her to Ueno Station. She carried her guitar and I carried her suitcase. We sat on a platform bench waiting for the train to pull in. Reiko wore the same tweed jacket and white trousers she had on when she arrived in Tokyo.
“Do you think Asahikawa’s not such a bad place?” she asked. “It’s a nice town. I’ll visit you there soon.”
I nodded. “And I’ll write to you.”
“I love your letters. Naoko burned all the ones you sent her. And they were such great letters too!”
“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what
vanishes will vanish.” “You know, Watanabe,
Asahikawa by myself. So be sure to write to me. Whenever I read your letters, I feel you’re right there next to me.”
“If that’s what you want, I’ll write all the time. But don’t worry. I know you: you’ll do fine wherever you go.”
“And another thing. I kind of feel like there’s something stuck inside me. Could it be my imagination?”
“Just a lingering memory,” I said and smiled. Reiko smiled, too. “Don’t forget about me,” she said.
“I won’t forget you,” I said. “Ever.”
“We may never meet again, but no matter where I go, I’ll always remember you and Naoko.”
I saw that she was crying. Before I knew it, I was kissing her. Others on the platform were staring at us, but I didn’t care about such things anymore. We were alive, she and I. And all we had to think about was continuing to live.
“Be happy,” Reiko said to me as she boarded the train. “I’ve given you all the advice I have to give. There’s nothing left for me to say. Just be happy. Take my share and Naoko’s and combine them for yourself.”
We held hands for a moment, and then we parted.
I phoned Midori.
“I have to talk to you,” I said. “And I have a million things to talk to you about. A million things we have to talk about. All I want in this world is you. I want to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning.”
Midori responded with a long, long silence – the silence of all the misty rain in the world falling on all the new-mown lawns of the world. Forehead pressed against the glass, I shut my eyes and waited. At last, Midori’s quiet voice broke the silence: “Where are you now?” Where was I now?
Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.
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