Norwegian Wood Chapter 6 Novel Free Read Online

Full Read the Online Chapter 6 PDF of the Norwegian Wood Book by Haruki Murakami for free.

As soon as I woke at seven o’clock on Monday morning, I washed my face, shaved, and went straight to the dorm Head’s room without eating breakfast to say that I was going to be gone for two days hiking in the hills. He was used to my taking short trips when I had free time, and reacted without surprise. I took a crowded commuter train to Tokyo Station and bought a bullet-train ticket to Kyoto, literally jumping onto the first Hikari express to pull out. Breakfast consisted of a sandwich and coffee, and I then dozed for an hour.

I arrived in Kyoto a few minutes before eleven. Following Naoko’s instructions, I took a city bus to a small terminal serving the northern suburbs. The next bus to my destination would not be leaving until 11.35, I was told, and the trip would take a little over an hour. I bought a ticket and went to a bookshop across the street for a map. Back in the waiting room, I studied the map to see if I could find exactly where the Ami Hostel was located. It turned out to be much farther into the mountains than I had imagined.

The bus would have to cross several hills in its trek north, then turn around where the canyon road dead-ended and return to the city. My stop would be just before the end of the line. There was a footpath near the bus stop, according to Naoko, and if I followed it for 20 minutes I would reach Ami Hostel. No wonder it was such a quiet place, if it was that deep in the mountains! The bus pulled out with about 20 passengers aboard, following the Kamo River through the north end of Kyoto.

The tightly packed city streets gave way to more sparse housing, then fields and vacant land. Black tile roofs and vinyl-sided greenhouses caught the early autumn sun and sent it back with a glare. When the bus entered the canyon, the driver began hauling the steering wheel this way and that to follow the twists and curves of the road, and I began to feel queasy. I could still taste my morning coffee.

By the time the number of curves began to decrease to the point where I felt some relief, the bus plunged into a chilling cedar forest. The trees might have been old growth the way they towered over the road, blocking out the sun and covering everything in gloomy shadows. The breeze flowing into the bus’s open windows turned suddenly cold, its dampness sharp against the skin. The valley road hugged the river bank, continuing so long through the trees it began to seem as if the whole world had been buried for ever in cedar forest – at which point the forest ended, and we came to an open basin surrounded by mountain peaks.

Broad, green farmland spread out in all directions, and the river by the road looked bright and clear. A single thread of white smoke rose in the distance. Some houses had laundry drying in the sun, and dogs were howling. Each farmhouse had firewood out front piled up to the eaves, usually with a cat resting somewhere on the pile. The road was lined with such houses for a time, but I saw not a single person.

The scenery repeated this pattern any number of times. The bus would enter cedar forest, come out to a village, then go back into forest. It would stop at a village to let people off, but no one ever got on. Forty minutes after leaving the city, the bus reached a mountain pass with a wide-open view. The driver stopped the bus and announced that we would be waiting there for five or six minutes: people could step down from the bus if they wished. There were only four passengers left now, including me.

We all got out and stretched or smoked and looked down at the panorama of Kyoto far below. The driver went off to one side for a pee. A suntanned man in his early fifties who had boarded the bus with a big, rope-tied cardboard carton asked me if I was going out to hike in the mountains. I said yes to keep things simple.

Eventually another bus came climbing up from the other side of the pass and stopped next to ours. The driver got out, had a short talk with our driver, and the two men climbed back into their buses. The four of us returned to our seats, and the buses pulled out in opposite directions. It was not immediately clear to me why our bus had had to wait for the other one, but a short way down the other side of the mountain the road narrowed suddenly. Two big buses could never have passed each other on the road, and in fact passing ordinary cars coming in the other direction required a good deal of manoeuvring, with one or the other vehicle having to back up and squeeze into the overhang of a curve.

The villages along the road were far smaller now, and the level areas under cultivation even narrower. The mountain was steeper, its walls pressed closer to the bus windows. They seemed to have just as many dogs as the other places, though, and the arrival of the bus would set off a howling competition.

At the stop where I got off, there was nothing – no houses, no fields, just the bus stop sign, a little stream, and the trail opening. I slung my rucksack over my shoulder and started up the track. The stream ran along the left side of the trail, and a forest of deciduous trees lined the right. I had been climbing the gentle slope for some 15 minutes when I came to a road leading into the woods on the right, the opening barely wide enough to accommodate a car. AMI HOSTEL PRIVATE NO TRESPASSING read the sign by the road.

Sharply etched tyre tracks ran up the road through the trees. The occasional flapping of wings echoed in the woods. The sound came through with strange clarity, as if amplified above the other voices of the forest. Once, from far away, I heard what might have been a rifle shot, but it was a small and muffled sound, as though it had passed through several filters.

Beyond the woods I came to a white stone wall. It was no higher than my own height and, lacking additional barriers on top, would have been easy for me to scale. The black iron gate looked sturdy enough, but it was wide open, and there was no one manning the guardhouse.

Another sign like the last one stood by the gate: AMI HOSTEL PRIVATE NO TRESPASSING. A few clues suggested the guard had been there until some moments before: the ashtray held three butt- ends, a tea cup stood there half empty, a transistor radio sat on a shelf, and the clock on the wall ticked off the time with a dry sound. I waited a while for the person to come back, but when that showed no sign of happening, I gave a few pushes to something that looked as if it might be a bell. The area just inside the gate was a car park. In it stood a mini-bus, a four-wheel drive Land Cruiser, and a dark blue Volvo. The car park could have held 30 cars, but only those three were parked there now.

Two or three minutes went by, and then a gatekeeper in a navy-blue uniform came down the forest road on a yellow bicycle. He was a tall man in his early sixties with receding hair. He leaned the yellow bike against the guardhouse and said, “I’m very sorry to have kept you waiting,” though he didn’t sound sorry at all. The number 32 was painted in white on the bike’s mudguard. When I gave him my name, he picked up the phone and repeated it twice to someone on the other end, replied “Yes, uh-huh, I see” to the other person, then hung up.

“Go to the main building, please, and ask for Doctor Ishida,” he said to me. “You take this road through the trees to a roundabout. Then take your second left – got that? Your second left – from the roundabout. You’ll see an old house. Turn right and go through another bunch of trees to a concrete building. That’s the main building. It’s easy, just watch for the signs.”

I took the second left from the roundabout as instructed, and where that path ended I came to an interesting old building that obviously had been someone’s country house once. It had a manicured garden with well-shaped rocks and a stone lantern. It must have been a country estate. Turning right through the trees, I saw a three-storey concrete building. It stood in a hollowed-out area, and so there was nothing overwhelming about its three storeys. It was simple in design and gave a strong impression of cleanliness.

The entrance was on the second floor. I climbed the stairs and went in through a big glass door to find a young woman in a red dress at the reception desk. I gave her my name and said I had been instructed to ask for Doctor Ishida. She smiled and gestured towards a brown sofa, suggesting in low tones that I wait there for the doctor to come. Then she dialled a number. I lowered my rucksack from my back, sank down into the deep cushions of the sofa, and surveyed the place. It was a clean, pleasant lobby, with ornamental potted plants, tasteful abstract paintings, and a polished floor. As I waited, I kept my eyes on the floor’s reflection of my shoes.

At one point the receptionist assured me, “The doctor will be here soon.” I nodded. What an incredibly quiet place! There were no sounds of any kind. It was as though everyone were taking a siesta. People, animals, insects, plants must all be sound asleep, I thought, it was such a quiet afternoon.

Before long, though, I heard the soft padding of rubber soles, and a mature, bristly-haired woman appeared. She swept across the lobby, sat down next to me, crossed her legs and took my hand. Instead of just shaking it, she turned my hand over, examining it front and back. “You haven’t played a musical instrument, at least not for some years now, have you?” were the first words out of her mouth.

“No,” I said, taken aback. “You’re right.”

“I can tell from your hands,” she said with a smile.

There was something almost mysterious about this woman. Her face had lots of wrinkles. These were the first thing to catch your eye, but they didn’t make her look old. Instead, they emphasized a certain youthfulness in her that transcended age. The wrinkles belonged where they were as if they had been part of her face since birth. When she smiled, the wrinkles smiled with her; when she frowned, the wrinkles frowned, too. And when she was neither smiling nor frown- ing, the wrinkles lay scattered over her face in a strangely warm, ironic way. Here was a woman in her late thirties who seemed not merely a nice person but whose niceness drew you to her. I liked her from the moment I saw her.

Wildly chopped, her hair stuck out in patches and the fringe lay crooked against her forehead, but the style suited her perfectly. She wore a blue work shirt over a white T-shirt, baggy, cream-coloured cotton trousers, and tennis shoes. Long and slim, she had almost no breasts. Her lips moved constantly to one side in a kind of ironic curl, and the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes moved in tiny twitches. She looked like a kindly, skilled, but somewhat world-weary female carpenter.

Chin drawn in and lips curled, she took some time to look me over from head to toe. I imagined that any minute now she was going to whip out her tape measure and start measuring me everywhere.

“Can you play an instrument?” she asked. “Sorry, no,” I said. “Too bad,” she said. “It would have been fun.”

“I suppose so,” I said. Why all this talk about musical instruments?

She took a pack of Seven Stars from her breast pocket, put one between her lips, lit it with a lighter and began puffing away with obvious pleasure.

“It crossed my mind that I should tell you about this place, Mr. – Watanabe, wasn’t it? – before you see Naoko. So I arranged for the two of us to have this little talk. Ami Hostel is kind of unusual – you might find it a little confusing without any background knowledge. I’m right, aren’t I, in supposing that you don’t know anything about this place?”

“Almost nothing.”

“Well, then, first of all – ” she began, then snapped her fingers. “Come to think of it, have you had lunch? I’ll bet you’re hungry.”

“You’re right, I am.”

“Come with me, then. We can talk over food in the dining hall. Lunchtime is over, but if we go now they can still make us something.”

She took the lead, hurrying down a corridor and a flight of stairs to the first-floor dining hall. It was a large room, with enough space for perhaps 200 people, but only half was in use, the other half partitioned off, like a resort hotel out of season. The day’s menu listed a potato stew with noodles, salad, orange juice and bread. The vegetables turned out to be as delicious as Naoko had said in her letter, and I finished everything on my plate.

“You obviously enjoy your food!” said my female companion. “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Plus, I’ve hardly eaten anything all day.” “You’re welcome to mine if you like. I’m full. Here, go ahead.” “I will, if you really don’t want it.”

“I’ve got a small stomach. It doesn’t hold much. I make up for what I’m missing with cigarettes.” She lit another Seven Star. “Oh, by the way, you can call me Reiko. Everybody does.”

Reiko seemed to derive great pleasure from watching me while I ate the potato stew she had hardly touched and munched on her bread. “Are you Naoko’s doctor?” I asked.

“Me?! Naoko’s doctor?!” She screwed up her face. “What makes you think I’m a doctor?”

“They told me to ask for Doctor Ishida.”

“Oh, I get it. No no no, I teach music here. It’s a kind of therapy for some patients, so for fun they call me “The Music Doctor’ and sometimes “Doctor Ishida’. But I’m just another patient. I’ve been here seven years. I work as a music teacher and help out in the office, so it’s hard to tell any more whether I’m a patient or staff.

Didn’t Naoko tell you about me?”

I shook my head.

“That’s strange,” said Reiko. “I’m Naoko’s room-mate. I like living with her. We talk about all kinds of things. Including you.”

“What about me?”

“Well, first I have to tell you about this place,” said Reiko, ignoring my question. “The first thing you ought to know is that this is no ordinary “hospital’. It’s not so much for treatment as for convalescence. We do have a few doctors, of course, and they give hourly sessions, but they’re just checking people’s conditions, taking their temperature and things like that, not administering “treatments’ as in an ordinary hospital. There are no bars on the windows here, and the gate is always wide open. People enter and leave voluntarily. You have to be suited to that kind of convalescence to be admitted here in the first place. In some cases, people who need specialized therapy end up going to a specialized hospital. OK so far?”

“I think so,” I said. “But what does this “convalescence’ consist of? Can you give me a concrete example?”
Reiko exhaled a cloud of smoke and drank what was left of her orange juice. “Just living here is the convalescence,” she said. A regular routine, exercise, isolation from the outside world, clean air, quiet. Our farmland makes us practically self-sufficient; there’s no TV or radio. We’re like one of those commune places you hear so much about. Of course, one thing different from a commune is that it costs a bundle to get in here.”

A bundle?”

“Well, it’s not ridiculously expensive, but it’s not cheap. Just look at these facilities. We’ve got a lot of land here, a few patients, a big staff, and in my case I’ve been here a long time. True, I’m almost staff myself so I get concessions, but still … Now, how about a cup of coffee?”

I said I’d like some. She stubbed out her cigarette and went over to the counter, where she poured two cups of coffee from a warm pot and brought them back to where we were sitting. She put sugar in hers, stirred it, frowned, and took a sip. -You know,” she said, “this sanatorium is not a profitmaking enterprise, so it can keep going without charging as much as it might have to otherwise. The land was a donation. They created a corporation for the purpose. The whole place used to be the donor’s summer home about 20 years ago. You saw the old house, I’m sure?”

I said I had.

“That used to be the only building on the property. It’s where they did group therapy. That’s how it all got started. The donor’s son had a tendency towards mental illness and a specialist recommended group therapy for him. The doctor’s theory was that if you could have a group of patients living out in the country, helping each other with physical labour and have a doctor for advice and check-ups, you could cure certain kinds of sickness. They tried it, and the operation grew and was incorporated, and they put more land under cultivation, and put up the main building five years ago.”

“Meaning, the therapy worked.”

“Well, not for everything. Lots of people don’t get better. But also a lot of people who couldn’t be helped anywhere else managed a complete recovery here. The best thing about this place is the way everybody helps everybody else. Everybody knows they’re flawed in some way, and so they try to help each other. Other places don’t work that way, unfortunately. Doctors are doctors and patients are patients: the patient looks for help to the doctor and the doctor gives his help to the patient.

Here, though, we all help each other. We’re all each other’s mirrors, and the doctors are part of us. They watch us from the sidelines and they slip in to help us if they see we need something, but it sometimes happens that we help them. Sometimes we’re better at something than they are. For example, I’m teaching one doctor to play the piano and another patient is teaching a nurse French. That kind of thing. Patients with problems like ours are often blessed with special abilities. So everyone here is equal – patients, staff – and you. You’re one of us while you’re in here, so I help you and you help me.” Reiko smiled, gently flexing every wrinkle on her face. “You help Naoko and Naoko helps you.”

“What should I do, then? Give me an example.”

“First you decide that you want to help and that you need to be helped by the other person. Then you are totally honest. You will not lie, you will not gloss over anything, you will not cover up anything that might prove embarrassing to you. That’s all there is to it.”

“I’ll try,” I said. “But tell me, Reiko, why have you been in here for seven years? Talking with you like this, I can’t believe there’s anything wrong with you.”

“Not while the sun’s up,” she said with a sombre look. “But when night comes, I start drooling and rolling on the floor.” “Really?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m kidding,” she said, shaking her head with a look of disgust. “I’m completely well – for now, at least. I stay here because I enjoy helping other people get well, teaching music, growing vegetables. I like it here. We’re all more or less friends. Compared to that, what have I got in the outside world? I’m 38, going on 40. I’m not like Naoko. There’s nobody waiting for me to get out, no family to take me back. I don’t have any work to speak of, and almost no friends. And after seven years, I don’t know what’s going on out there. Oh, I’ll read a paper in the library every once in a while, but I haven’t set foot outside this property all that time. I wouldn’t know what to do if I left.”

“But maybe a new world would open up for you,” I said. “It’s worth a try, don’t you think?”

“Hmm, you may be right,” she said, turning her cigarette lighter over and over in her hand. “But I’ve got my own set of problems. I can tell you all about them sometime if you like.”

I nodded in response. “And Naoko,” I said, “is she any better?”

“Hmm, we think so. She was pretty confused at first and we had our doubts for a while, but she’s calmed down now and improved to the point where she’s able to express herself verbally. She’s definitely heading in the right direction. But she should have received treatment a lot earlier. Her symptoms were already apparent from the time that boyfriend of hers, Kizuki, killed himself. Her family should have seen it, and she herself should have realized that something was wrong. Of course, things weren’t right at home, either …”

“They weren’t?” I shot back.

“You didn’t know?” Reiko seemed more surprised than I was. I shook my head.

“I’d better let Naoko tell you about that herself. She’s ready for some honest talk with you.” Reiko gave her coffee another stir and took a sip. “There’s one more thing you need to know,” she said. “According to the rules here, you and Naoko will not be allowed to be alone together. Visitors can’t be alone with patients. An observer always has to be present – which in this case means me. I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to put up with me. OK?”

“OK,” I said with a smile.

“But still,” she said, “the two of you can talk about anything you’d like. Forget I’m there. I know pretty much everything there is to know about you and Naoko.”


“Pretty much. We have these group sessions, you know. So we learn a lot about each other. Plus Naoko and I talk about everything. We don’t have many secrets here.”

I looked at Reiko as I drank my coffee. “To tell you the truth,” I said, “I’m confused. I still don’t know whether what I did to Naoko in Tokyo was the right thing to do or not. I’ve been thinking about it this whole time, but I still don’t know.”

“And neither do I,” said Reiko. “And neither does Naoko. That’s something the two of you will have to decide for yourselves. See what I mean? Whatever happened, the two of you can turn it in the right direction – if you can reach some kind of mutual understanding. Maybe, once you’ve got that taken care of, you can go back and think about whether what happened was the right thing or not. What do you say?”

I nodded.

“I think the three of us can help each other – you and Naoko and I – if we really want to, and if we’re really honest. It can be incredibly effective when three people work at it like that. How long can you stay?”

“Well, I’d like to get back to Tokyo by early evening the day after tomorrow. I have to work, and I’ve got a German exam on Thursday.”

“Good,” she said. “So you can stay with us. That way it won’t cost you anything and you can talk without having to worry about the time.”

“With “us’?” I asked. “Naoko and me, of course,” said Reiko. “We have a separate bedroom, and there’s a sofa bed in the living room, so you’ll be able to sleep fine. Don’t worry.”

“Do they allow that?” I asked. “Can a male visitor stay in a Woman’s room?”

“I don’t suppose you’re going to come in and rape us in the middle of the night?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“So there’s no problem, then. Stay in our place and we can have some nice, long talks. That would be the best thing. Then we can really understand each other. And I can play my guitar for you. I’m pretty good, you know.”

“Are you sure I’m not going to be in the way?”

Reiko put her third Seven Star between her lips and lit it after screwing up the corner of her mouth.

“Naoko and I have already discussed this. The two of us together are giving you a personal invitation to stay with us. Don’t you think you should just politely accept?”

“Of course, I’ll be glad to.”

Reiko deepened the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and looked at me for a time. “You’ve got this funny way of talking,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to imitate that boy in Catcher in the Rye?”

“No way!” I said with a smile.

Reiko smiled too, cigarette in mouth. “You are a good person, though. I can tell that much from looking at you. I can tell these things after seven years of watching people come and go here: there are people who can open their hearts and people who can’t. You’re one of the ones who can. Or, more precisely, you can if you want to.”

“What happens when people open their hearts?”

Reiko clasped her hands together on the table, cigarette dangling from her lips. She was enjoying this. “They get better,” she said. Ash dropped onto the table, but she seemed not to notice.

Reiko and I left the main building, crossed a hill, and passed by a pool, some tennis courts, and a basketball court. Two men – one thin and middle-aged, the other young and fat were on a tennis court. Both used their racquets well, but to me the game they were playing could not have been tennis. It seemed as if the two of them had a special interest in the bounce of tennis balls and were doing research in that area. They slammed the ball back and forth with a kind of strange concentration. Both were drenched in sweat. The young man, in the end of the court closer to us, noticed Reiko and carne over. They exchanged a few words, smiling. Near the court, a man with no expression on his face was using a large mower to cut the grass.

Moving on, we came to a patch of woods where some 15 or 20 neat little cottages stood at some distance from each other. The same kind of yellow bike the gatekeeper had been riding was parked at the entrance to almost every house. “Staff members and their families live here,” said Reiko.

“We have just about everything we need without going to the city,” she said as we walked along.

“Where food is concerned, as I said before, we’re practically self-sufficient. We get eggs from our own chicken coop. In addition to having our own convenience store, books, records, and workout facilities, we also receive weekly visits from barbers and beauticians. Even on weekends, movies are available. Anything special we need we can ask a staff member to buy for us in town. Clothing we order from catalogues. Living here is no problem.”

“But you can’t go into town?”

“No, that we can’t do. Of course if there’s something special, like we have to go to the dentist or something, that’s another matter, but as a rule we can’t go into town. Each person is completely free to leave this place, but once you’ve left you can’t come back. You burn your bridges. You can’t go off for a couple of days in town and expect to come back. It only stands to reason, though. Everybody would be coming and going.”

Beyond the trees we came to a gentle slope along which, at irregular intervals, was a row of two-storey wooden houses that had something odd about them. What made them look strange it’s hard to say, but that was the first thing I felt when I saw them. My reaction was a lot like what we feel when we see unreality painted in a pleasant way. It occurred to me that this was what you might get if Walt Disney did an animated version of a Munch painting. All the houses were exactly the same shape and colour, nearly cubical, in perfect left-to-right symmetry, with big front doors and lots of windows. The road twisted its way among them like the artificial practice course of a driving school. There was a well-manicured flowering shrubbery in front of every house. The place was deserted, and curtains covered all the windows.

“This is called Area C. The women live here. Us! There are ten houses, each containing four units, two people per unit. That’s 80 people all together, but at the moment there are only 32 of us.”

“Quiet, isn’t it?”

“Well, there’s nobody here now,” Reiko said. “I’ve been given special permission to move around freely like this, but everyone else is off pursuing their individual schedules. Some are exercising, some are gardening, some are in group therapy, some are out gathering wild plants. Each person makes up his or her own schedule. Let’s see, what’s Naoko doing now? I think she was supposed to be working on new paint and wallpaper. I forget. There are a few jobs like that that don’t finish till five.”

Reiko walked into the building marked “C-7”, climbed the stairs at the far end of the hallway, and opened the door on the right, which was unlocked. She showed me around the flat, a pleasant, if plain, four- room unit: living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath. It had no extra furniture or unnecessary decoration, but neither was the place severe.

There was nothing special about it, but being there was kind of like being with Reiko: you could relax and let the tension leave your body. The living room had a sofa, a table, and a rocking chair. Another table stood in the kitchen. Both tables had large ashtrays on them. The bedroom had two beds, two desks and a closet. A small night table stood between the beds with a reading lamp on top and a paperback turned face down. The kitchen had a small electric cooker that matched the fridge and was equipped for simple cooking.

“No bath, just a shower, but it’s pretty impressive, wouldn’t you say? Bath and laundry facilities are communal.”

“It’s almost too impressive. My dorm room has a ceiling and a window.”

“Ah, but you haven’t seen the winters here,” said Reiko, touching my back to guide me to the sofa and sitting down next to me. “They’re long and harsh. Nothing but snow and snow and more snow everywhere you look. It gets damp and chills you to the bone. We spend the winter shovelling snow. Mostly you stay inside where it’s warm and listen to music or talk or knit. If you didn’t have this much space, you’d suffocate. You’ll see if you come here in the winter.”

Reiko gave a deep sigh as if picturing wintertime, then folded her hands on her knees.

“This will be your bed,” she said, patting the sofa. “We’ll sleep in the bedroom, and you’ll sleep here. You should be all right, don’t you think?”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“So, that settles it,” said Reiko. “We’ll be back around five. Naoko and I both have things to do until then. Do you mind staying here alone?”

“Not at all. I’ll study my German.”

When Reiko left, I stretched out on the sofa and closed my eyes. I lay there steeping myself in the silence when, out of nowhere, I thought of the time Kizuki and I went on a motorbike ride. That had been autumn, too, I realized. Autumn how many years ago? Yes, four. I recalled the smell of Kizuki’s leather jacket and the racket made by that red Yamaha 125cc bike. We went to a spot far down the coast, and came back the same evening, exhausted. Nothing special happened on the way, but I remembered it well. The sharp autumn wind moaned in my ears, and looking up at the sky, my hands clutching Kizuki’s jacket, I felt as if I might be swept into outer space.
I lay there for a long time, letting my mind wander from one memory to another. For some strange reason, lying in this room seemed to bring back old memories that I had rarely if ever recalled before. Some of them were pleasant, but others carried a trace of sadness.

How long did this go on? I was so immersed in that torrent of memory (and it was a torrent, like a spring gushing out of the rocks) that I failed to notice Naoko quietly open the door and come in. When I opened my eyes, she was there. I turned my head up and briefly gazed into her eyes. She was sitting on the arm of the sofa, looking at me. At first I thought she might be an image spun into existence by my own memories. But it was the real Naoko.

“Sleeping?” she whispered.

“No,” I said, “just thinking.” I sat up and asked, “How are you?”

“I’m good,” she said with a little smile like a pale, distant scene. “I don’t have much time, though. I’m not supposed to be here now. I just got away for a minute, and I have to go back right away. Don’t you hate my hair?”

“Not at all,” I said. “It’s cute.” Her hair was in a simple schoolgirl style, with one side held in place with a hairslide the way she used to have it in the old days. It suited her very well, as if she had always worn it that way. She looked like one of the beautiful little girls you see in woodblock prints from the Middle Ages.

“It’s such a pain, I have Reiko cut it for me. Do you really think it’s cute?”


“My mother hates it.” She opened the hairslide, let the hair hang down, smoothed it with her fingers, and closed the hairslide again. It was shaped like a butterfly.

“I wanted to see you alone before the three of us get together. Not that I had anything special to say. I just wanted to see your face and get used to having you here. Otherwise, I’d have trouble getting to know you again. I’m so bad with people.”

“Well?” I asked. “Is it working?”

“A little,” she said, touching her hairslide again. “But time’s up. I’ve got to go.”

I nodded.

“Toru,” she began, “I really want to thank you for coming to see me. It makes me very happy. But if being here is any kind of burden to you, you shouldn’t hesitate to tell me so. This is a special place, and it has a special system, and some people can’t get into it. So if you feel like that, please be honest and let me know. I won’t be crushed. We’re honest with each other here. We tell each other all kinds of things with complete honesty.”

“I’ll tell you,” I said. “I’ll be honest.”

Naoko sat down and leaned against me on the sofa. When I put my arm around her, she rested her head on my shoulder and pressed her face to my neck. She stayed like that for a time, almost as if she were taking my temperature. Holding her, I felt warm in the chest. After a short while, she stood up without saying a word and went out through the door as quietly as she had come in.
With Naoko gone, I went to sleep on the sofa. I hadn’t intended to do so, but I fell into the kind of deep sleep I had not had for a long time, filled with a sense of Naoko’s presence. In the kitchen were the dishes Naoko used, in the bathroom was the toothbrush Naoko used, and in the bedroom was the bed in which Naoko slept. Sleeping soundly in this flat of hers, I wrung the fatigue from every cell of my body, drop by drop. I dreamed of a butterfly dancing in the half-light.

When I awoke again, the hands of my watch were pointing to 4.35. The light had changed, the wind had died, the shapes of the clouds were different. I had sweated in my sleep, so I dried my face with a small towel from my rucksack and put on a fresh vest. Going to the kitchen, I drank some water and stood there looking through the window over the sink. I was facing a window in the building opposite, on the inside of which hung several paper cut-outs – a bird, a cloud, a cow, a cat, all in skilful silhouette and joined together. As before, there was no sign of anyone about, and there were no sounds of any kind. I felt as if I were living alone in an extremely well-cared-for ruin.

People started coming back to Area C a little after five Looking out of the kitchen window, I saw three women passing below. All wore hats that prevented me from telling their ages, but judging from their voices, they were not very young. Shortly after they had disappeared around a corner, four more women appeared from the same direction and, like the first group, disappeared around the same corner. An evening mood hung over everything. From the living room window I could see trees and a line of hills. Above the ridge floated a border of pale sunlight.

Naoko and Reiko came back together at 5.30. Naoko and I exchanged proper greetings as if meeting for the first time. She seemed truly embarrassed. Reiko noticed the book I had been reading and asked what it was. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I told her.

“How could you bring a book like that to a place like this?” she demanded. She was right, of course.

Reiko then made coffee for the three of us. I told Naoko about Storm Trooper’s sudden disappearance and about the last day I saw him, when he gave me the firefly.

“I’m so sorry he’s gone,” she said. “I wanted to hear more stories about him.” Reiko asked who Storm Trooper was, so I told her about his antics and got a big laugh from her. The world was at peace and filled with laughter as long as Storm Trooper stories were being told.

At six we went to the dining hall in the main building for supper. Naoko and I had fried fish with green salad, boiled vegetables, rice and miso soup. Reiko limited herself to pasta salad and coffee, followed by another cigarette.

“You don’t need to eat so much as you get older,” she said by way of explanation.

Some 20 other people were there in the dining hall. A few newcomers arrived as we ate, meanwhile some others left. Aside from the variety in people’s ages, the scene looked pretty much like that of the dining hall in my dormitory. Where it differed was the uniform volume at which people conversed. There were no loud voices and no whispers, no one laughing out loud or crying out in shock, no one yelling with exaggerated gestures, nothing but quiet conversations, all carrying on at the same level.

People were eating in groups of three to five, each with a single speaker, to whom the others would listen with nods and grunts of interest, and when that person had finished speaking, the next would take up the conversation. I could not tell what they were saying, but the way they said it reminded me of the strange tennis game I had seen at noon. I wondered if Naoko spoke like this when she was with them and, strangely enough, I felt a twinge of loneliness mixed with jealousy.

At the table behind me, a balding man in white with the authentic air of a doctor was holding forth to a nervouslooking young man in glasses and a squirrel-faced woman of middle age on the effects of weightlessness on the secretion of gastric juices. The two listened with an occasional “My goodness” or “Really?” but the longer I listened to the balding man’s style of speaking, the less certain I became that, even in his white coat, he was really a doctor.

No one in the dining hall paid me any special attention. No one stared or even seemed to notice I was there. My presence must have been an entirely natural event.

Just once, though, the man in white spun around and asked me, “How long will you be staying?”

“Two nights,” I said.

“I’ll be leaving on Wednesday.”

“It’s nice here this time of year, isn’t it? But come again in winter. It’s really nice when everything’s white.”

“Naoko may be out of here by the time it snows,” said Reiko to the man.

“True, but still, the winter’s really nice,” he repeated with a sombre expression. I felt increasingly unsure as to whether or not he was a doctor.

“What do you people talk about?” I asked Reiko, who seemed to not quite follow me.

“What do we talk about? Just ordinary things. What happened that day, or books we’ve read, or tomorrow’s weather, you know. Don’t tell me you’re wondering if people jump to their feet and shout stuff like: “It’ll rain tomorrow if a polar bear eats the stars tonight!”‘

“No, no, of course not,” I said. “I was just wondering what all these quiet conversations were about.”

“It’s a quiet place, so people talk quietly,” said Naoko. She made a neat pile of fish bones at the edge of her plate and dabbed at her mouth with a handkerchief. “There’s no need to raise your voice here. You don’t have to convince anybody of anything, and you don’t have to attract anyone’s attention.”

“I guess not,” I said, but as I ate my meal in those quiet surroundings, I was surprised to find myself missing the hum of people. I wanted to hear laughter and people shouting for no reason and saying overblown things. That was just the kind of noise I had become weary of in recent months, but sitting here eating fish in this unnaturally quiet room, I couldn’t relax. The dining hall had all the atmosphere of a specialized -machine-tool trade fair. People with a strong interest in a specialist field came together in a specific place and exchanged information understood only by themselves.

Back in the room after supper, Naoko and Reiko announced that they would be going to the Area C communal bath and that if I didn’t mind having just a shower, I could use the one in their bathroom. I would do that, I said, and after they were gone I undressed, showered, and washed my hair. I found a Bill Evans album in the bookcase and was listening to it while drying my hair when I realized that it was the record I had played in Naoko’s room on the night of her birthday, the night she cried and I took her in my arms. That had been only six months ago, but it felt like something from a much remoter past. Maybe it felt that way because I had thought about it so often – too often, to the point where it had distorted my sense of time.

The moon was so bright, I turned the lights off and stretched out on the sofa to listen to Bill Evans’ piano. Streaming in through the window, the moonlight cast long shadows and splashed the walls with a touch of diluted Indian ink. I took a thin metal flask from my rucksack, let my mouth fill with the brandy it contained, allowed the warmth to move slowly down my throat to my stomach, and from there felt it spreading to every extremity. After a final sip, I closed the flask and returned it to my rucksack. Now the moonlight seemed to be swaying with the music.
Twenty minutes later, Naoko and Reiko came back from the bath.

“Oh! It was so dark here, we thought you had packed your bags and gone back to Tokyo!” exclaimed Reiko.

“No way,” I said. “I hadn’t seen such a bright moon for years. I wanted to look at it with the lights off.”

“It’s lovely, though,” said Naoko. “Reiko, do we still have those candles from the last power cut?”

“Probably, in a kitchen drawer.”

Naoko brought a large, white candle from the kitchen. I lit it, dripped a little wax into a plate, and stood it up. Reiko used the flame to light a cigarette. As the three of us sat facing the candle amid these hushed surroundings, it began to seem as if we were the only ones left on some far edge of the world. The still shadows of the moonlight and the swaying shadows of the candlelight met and melded on the white walls of the flat. Naoko and I sat next to each other on the sofa, and Reiko settled into the rocking chair facing us.

“How about some wine?” Reiko asked me.

“You’re allowed to drink?” I asked with some surprise.

“Well, not really,” said Reiko, scratching an earlobe with a hint of embarrassment. “But they pretty much let it go. If it’s just wine or beer and you don’t drink too much. I’ve got a friend on the staff who buys me a little now and then.”

“We have our drinking parties,” said Naoko with a mischievous air. “Just the two of us.”
“That’s nice,” I said.

Reiko took a bottle of white wine from the fridge, opened it with a corkscrew and brought three glasses. The wine had a clear, delicious flavour that seemed almost homemade. When the record ended, Reiko brought out a guitar from under her bed, and after tuning it with a look of fondness for the instrument, she began to play a slow Bach fugue. She missed her fingering every now and then, but it was real Bach, with real feeling – warm, intimate, and filled with the joy of performance.

“I started playing the guitar here,” said Reiko. “There are no pianos in the rooms, of course. I’m self-taught, and I don’t have guitar hands, so I’ll never get very good, but I really love the instrument. It’s small and simple and easy, kind of like a warm, little room.”

She played one more short Bach piece, something from a suite. Eyes on the candle flame, sipping wine, listening to Reiko’s Bach, I felt the tension inside me slipping away. When Reiko ended the Bach, Naoko asked her to play a Beatles song.

“Request time,” said Reiko, winking at me. “She makes me play Beatles every day, like I’m her music slave.”

Despite her protest, Reiko played a fine “Michelle”.

“That’s a good one,” she said. “I really like that song.” She took a sip of wine and puffed her cigarette. “It makes me feel like I’m in a big meadow in a soft rain.”

Then she played “Nowhere Man” and “Julia”. Now and then as she played, she would close her eyes and shake her head. Afterwards she would return to the wine and the cigarette.

“Play “Norwegian Wood’,” said Naoko.

Reiko brought a porcelain beckoning cat from the kitchen. It was a coin bank, and Naoko dropped a ? 100 piece from her purse into its slot.

“What’s this all about?” I asked.

“It’s a rule,” said Naoko. “When I request “Norwegian Wood,’ I have to put ? 100 into the bank. It’s my favourite, so I make a point of paying for it. I make a request when I really want to hear it.”

“And that way I get my cigarette money!” said Reiko.

Reiko gave her fingers a good flexing and then played “Norwegian Wood”. Again she played with real feeling, but never allowed it to become sentimental. I took ? 100 coin from my pocket and dropped it into the bank.

“Thank you,” said Reiko with a sweet smile.

“That song can make me feel so sad,” said Naoko. “I don’t know, I guess I imagine myself wandering in a deep wood. I’m all alone and it’s cold and dark, and nobody comes to save me. That’s why Reiko never plays it unless I request it.”

Sounds like Casablanca!” Reiko said with a laugh.

She followed “Norwegian Wood” with a few bossa novas while I kept my eyes on Naoko. As she had said in her letter, she looked healthier than before, suntanned, her body firm from exercise and outdoor work. Her eyes were the same deep clear pools they had always been, and her small lips still trembled shyly, but overall her beauty had begun to change to that of a mature woman.

Almost gone now was the sharp edge – the chilling sharpness of a thin blade – that could be glimpsed in the shadows of her beauty, in place of which there now hovered a uniquely soothing, quiet calm. I felt moved by this new, gentle beauty of hers, and amazed to think that a woman could change so much in the course of half a year. I felt as drawn to her as ever, perhaps more than before, but the thought of what she had lost in the meantime also gave me cause for regret. Never again would she have that self-centred beauty that seems to take its own, independent course in adolescent girls and no one else.

Naoko said she wanted to hear about how I was spending my days. I talked about the student strike and Nagasawa. This was the first time I had ever said anything about him to her. I found it challenging to give her an accurate account of his odd humanity, his unique philosophy, and his uncentred morality, but Naoko seemed finally to grasp what I was trying to tell her. I hid the fact that I went out hunting girls with him, revealing only that the one person in the dorm I spent any real time with was this unusual guy. All the while, Reiko went through another practice of the Bach fugue she had played before, taking occasional breaks for wine and cigarettes.

“He sounds like a strange person,” said Naoko. “He is strange,” I said. “But you like him?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I guess I can’t say I like him. Nagasawa is beyond liking or not liking. He doesn’t try to be liked. In that sense, he’s a very honest guy, stoic even. He doesn’t try to fool anybody.”

“”Stoic’ sleeping with all those girls? Now that is weird,” said Naoko, laughing. “How many girls has he slept with?”

“It’s probably up to 80 now,” I said. “But in his case, the higher the numbers go, the less each individual act seems to mean. Which is what I think he’s trying to accomplish.”

“And you call that “stoic’?”

“For him it is.”

Naoko thought about my words for a minute. “I think he’s a lot sicker in the head than I am,” she said.

“So do I,” I said. “But he can put all of his warped qualities into a logical system. He’s brilliant. If you brought him here, he’d be out in two days. “Oh, sure, I know all that,’ he’d say. “I understand everything you’re doing here.’ He’s that kind of guy. The kind people respect.”
“I guess I’m the opposite of brilliant,” said Naoko. “I don’t understand anything they’re doing here – any better than I understand myself.”

“It’s not because you’re not smart,” I said. “You’re normal. I’ve got tons of things I don’t understand about myself. We’re both normal: ordinary.”

Naoko raised her feet to the edge of the sofa and rested her chin on her knees. “I want to know more about you,” she said.

“I’m just an ordinary guy – ordinary family, ordinary education, ordinary face, ordinary exam results, ordinary thoughts in my head.”

“You’re such a big Scott Fitzgerald fan … wasn’t he the one who said you shouldn’t trust anybody who calls himself an ordinary man? You lent me the book!” said Naoko with a mischievous smile.

“True,” I said. “But this is no affectation. I really, truly believe deep down that I’m an ordinary person. Can you find something in me that’s not ordinary?”

“Of course I can!” said Naoko with a hint of impatience. “Don’t you get it? Why do you think I slept with you? Because I was so drunk I would have slept with anyone?”

“No, of course I don’t think that,” I said.

Naoko remained silent for a long time, staring at her toes. At a loss for words, I took another sip of wine.

“How many girls have you slept with, Toru?” Naoko asked in a tiny voice as if the thought had just crossed her mind.

“Eight or nine,” I answered truthfully.

Reiko plopped the guitar into her lap. “You’re not even 20 years old!” she said. “What kind of life are you leading?”

Naoko kept silent and watched me with those clear eyes of hers.The first female I had slept with and our breakup were topics I discussed with Reiko. I said that I couldn’t love her because it was impossible. I went on to tell her about my sleeping with one girl after another under Nagasawa’s tutelage.
“I’m not trying to make excuses, but I was in pain,” I said to Naoko. “Here I was, seeing you almost every week, and talking with you, and knowing that the only one in your heart was Kizuki. It hurt. It really hurt. And I think that’s why I slept with girls I didn’t know.”

Naoko shook her head for a few moments, and then she raised her face to look at me. “You asked me that time why I had never slept with Kizuki, didn’t you? Do you still want to know?”

“I suppose it’s something I really ought to know,” I said.

“I think so, too,” said Naoko. “The dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living.”

I nodded.

Reiko played the same difficult passage over and over, trying to get it right.

“I was ready to sleep with him,” said Naoko, unclasping her hairslide and letting her hair down. She toyed with the butterfly shape in her hands. “And of course he wanted to sleep with me. So we tried. We tried a lot. But it never worked. We couldn’t do it. I didn’t know why then, and I still don’t know why. I loved him, and I wasn’t worried about losing my virginity. I would have been glad to do anything he wanted. But it never worked.”

Naoko lifted the hair she had let down and fastened it with the slide.

“I couldn’t get wet,” she said in a tiny voice. “I never opened to him. So it always hurt. I was just too dry, it hurt too much. We tried everything we could think of – creams and things – but still it hurt me. So I used my fingers, or my lips. I would always do it for him that way. You know what I mean.”

I nodded in silence.

Naoko cast her gaze through the window at the moon, which looked bigger and brighter now than it had before. “I never wanted to talk about any of this,” she said. “I wanted to shut it up in my heart. I wish I still could. But I have to talk about it. I don’t know the answer. I mean, I was plenty wet the time I slept with you, wasn’t I?”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“I was wet from the minute you walked into my flat the night of my twentieth birthday. I wanted you to hold me. I wanted you to take off my clothes, to touch me all over and enter me. I had never felt like that before. Why is that? Why do things happen like that? I mean, I really loved him.”

“And not me,” I said. “You want to know why you felt that way about me, even though you didn’t love me?”

“I’m sorry,” said Naoko. “I don’t mean to hurt you, but this much you have to understand: Kizuki and I had a truly special relationship. We had been together from the time we were three. It’s how we grew up: always together, always talking, understanding each other perfectly. The first time we kissed it was in the first year of junior school – was just wonderful. The first time I had my period, I ran to him and cried like a baby. We were that close. So after he died, I didn’t know how to relate to other people. I didn’t know what it meant to love another person.”

She reached for her wineglass on the table but only managed to knock it over, spilling wine on the carpet. I crouched down and retrieved the glass, setting it on the table. Did she want to drink some more? I asked. Naoko remained silent for a while, then suddenly burst into tears, trembling all over. Slumping forward, she buried her face in her hands and sobbed with the same suffocating violence as she had that night with me. Reiko laid down her guitar and sat by Naoko, caressing her back. When she put an arm across Naoko’s shoulders, she pressed her face against Reiko’s chest like a baby.

“You know,” Reiko said to me, “it might be a good idea for you to go out for a little walk. Maybe 20 minutes. Sorry, but I think that would help.”

I nodded and stood, pulling a jumper on over my shirt. “Thanks for stepping in,” I said to Reiko.

“Don’t mention it,” she said with a wink. “This is not your fault. Don’t worry, by the time you come back she’ll be OK.”

My feet carried me down the road, which was illuminated by the oddly unreal light of the moon, and into the woods.

Beneath that moonlight, all sounds bore a strange reverberation. The hollow sound of my own footsteps seemed to come from another direction as though I were hearing someone walking on the bottom of the sea. Behind me, every now and then, I would hear a crack or a rustle. A heavy pall hung over the forest, as if the animals of the night were holding their breath, waiting for me to pass.

Where the road sloped upwards beyond the trees, I sat and looked towards the building where Naoko lived. It was easy to tell her room. All I had to do was find the one window towards the back where a faint light trembled. I focused on that point of light for a long, long time. It made me think of something like the final pulse of a soul’s dying embers. I wanted to cup my hands over what was left and keep it alive. I went on watching it the way Jay Gatsby watched that tiny light on the opposite shore night after night.

When I walked back to the front entrance of the building half an hour later, I could hear Reiko practising the guitar. I padded up the stairs and tapped on the door to the flat. Inside there was no sign of Naoko. Reiko sat alone on the carpet, playing her guitar. She pointed towards the bedroom door to let me know Naoko was in there. Then she set down the guitar on the floor and took a seat on the sofa, inviting me to sit next to her and dividing what wine was left between our two glasses.

“Naoko is fine,” she said, touching my knee. “Don’t worry, all she has to do is rest for a while. She’ll calm down. She was just a little worked up. How about taking a walk with me in the meantime?”

“Good,” I said.

Reiko and I ambled down a road illuminated by street lamps. When we reached the area by the tennis and basketball courts, we sat on a bench. She picked up a basketball from under the bench and turned it in her hands. Then she asked me if I played tennis. I knew how to play, I said, but I was bad at it.

“How about basketball?”

“Not my strongest sport,” I said.

“What is your strongest sport?” Reiko asked, wrinkling the corners of her eyes with a smile.

“Aside from sleeping with girls.”

“I’m not so good at that, either,” I said, stung by her words. “Just kidding,” she said. “Don’t get angry. But really, though, what are you good at?”

“Nothing special. I have things I like to do.”

“For instance?”

“Hiking. Swimming. Reading.”

“You like to do things alone, then?”

“I guess so. I could never get excited about games you play with other people. I can’t get into them. I lose interest.”

“Then you have to come here in the winter. We do crosscountry skiing. I’m sure you’d like that, tramping around in the snow all day, working up a good sweat.” Under the street lamp, Reiko stared at her right hand as though she were inspecting an antique musical instrument.

“Does Naoko often get like that?” I asked.

“Every now and then,” said Reiko, now looking at her left hand. “Every once in a while she’ll get worked up and cry like that. But that’s OK. She’s letting out her feelings. The scary thing is not being able to do that. When your feelings build up and harden and die inside, then you’re in big trouble.”

“Did I say something I shouldn’t have?”

“Not a thing. Don’t worry. Just speak your mind honestly That’s the best thing. It may hurt a little sometimes, and someone may get upset the way Naoko did, but in the long run it’s for the best. That’s what you should do if you’re serious about making Naoko well again. Like I told you in the beginning, you should think not so much about wanting to help her as wanting to recover yourself by helping her to recover. That’s the way it’s done here. So you have to be honest and say everything that comes to mind, while you’re here at least. Nobody does that in the outside world, right?”

“I guess not,” I said.

“I’ve seen all kinds of people come and go in my time here,” she said, “maybe too many people. So I can usually tell by looking at a person whether they’re going to get better or not, almost by instinct. But in Naoko’s case, I’m not sure. I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen to her. For all I know, she could be 100 per cent recovered next month, or she could go on like this for years. So I really can’t tell you what to do aside from the most generalized kind of advice: to be honest and help each other.”

“What makes Naoko such a hard case for you?”

“Probably because I like her so much. I think my emotions get in the way and I can’t see her clearly. I mean, I really like her. But aside from that, she has a bundle of different problems that are all tangled up with each other so that it’s hard to unravel a single one. It may take a very long time to undo them all, or something could trigger them to come unravelled all at once. It’s kind of like that. Which is why I can’t be sure about her.”

She picked up the basketball again, twirled it in her hands and bounced it on the ground.

“The most important thing is not to let yourself get impatient,” Reiko said. “This is one more piece of advice I have for you: don’t get impatient. Even if things are so tangled up you can’t do anything, don’t get desperate or blow a fuse and start yanking on one particular thread before it’s ready to come undone. You have to realize it’s going to be a long process and that you’ll work on things slowly, one at a time. Do you think you can do that?”

“I can try,” I said.

“It may take a very long time, you know, and even then she may not recover completely. Have you thought about that?”

I nodded.

“Waiting is hard,” she said, bouncing the ball. “Especially for someone your age. You just sit and wait for her to get better. Without deadlines or guarantees. Do you think you can do that? Do you love Naoko that much?”

“I’m not sure,” I said honestly. “Like Naoko, I’m not really sure what it means to love another person. Though she meant it a little differently. I do want to try my best, though. I have to, or else I won’t know where to go. Like you said before, Naoko and I have to save each other. It’s the only way for either of us to be saved.”

“And are you going to go on sleeping with girls you pick up?”

“I don’t know what to do about that either,” I said. “What do you think? Should I just keep waiting and masturbating? I’m not in complete control there, either.”

Reiko set the ball on the ground and patted my knee. “Look,” she said, “I’m not telling you to stop sleeping with girls. If you’re OK with that, then it’s OK. It’s your life after all, it’s something you have to decide. All I’m saying is you shouldn’t use yourself up in some unnatural form. Do you see what I’m getting at? It would be such a waste. The years 19 and 20 are a crucial stage in the maturation of character, and if you allow yourself to become warped when you’re that age, it will cause you pain when you’re older. It’s true. So think about it carefully. If you want to take care of Naoko, take care of yourself, too.”

I said I would think about it.

“I was 20 myself. Once upon a time. Would you believe it?”

“I believe it. Of course.”

“Deep down?”

“Deep down,” I said with a smile.

“And I was cute, too. Not as cute as Naoko, but pretty damn cute. I didn’t have all these wrinkles.”

I said I liked her wrinkles a lot. She thanked me.

“But don’t ever tell another woman that you find her wrinkles attractive,” she added. “I like to hear it, but I’m the exception.”

“I’ll be careful,” I said.

She slipped a wallet from her trouser pocket and handed me a photo from the card-holder. It was a colour snapshot of a cute girl around ten years old wearing skis and a brightly coloured ski-suit, standing on the snow smiling sweetly for the camera.

“Isn’t she pretty? My daughter,” said Reiko. “She sent me this in January. She’s – what? – nine years old now.”

“She has your smile,” I said, returning the photo. Reiko pocketed the wallet and, with a sniff, put a cigarette between her lips and lit up.

“I was going to be a concert pianist,” she said. “I had talent, and people recognized it and made a fuss over me while I was growing up. I won competitions and had top marks in the conservatoire, and I was all set to study in Germany after graduation. Not a cloud on the horizon. Everything worked out perfectly, and when it didn’t there was always somebody to fix it.

But then one day something happened, and it all blew apart. I was in my final year at the conservatoire and there was a fairly important competition coming up. I practised for it constantly, but all of a sudden the little finger of my left hand stopped moving. I don’t know why, but it just did. I tried massaging it, soaking it in hot water, taking a few days off from practice: nothing worked. So then I got scared and went to the doctor’s. They tried all kinds of tests but they couldn’t come up with anything.

There was nothing wrong with the finger itself, and the nerves were OK, they said: there was no reason it should stop moving. The problem must be psychological. So I went to a psychiatrist, but he didn’t really know what was going on, either. Probably pre-competition stress, he said, and advised me to get away from the piano for a while.”
Reiko inhaled deeply and let the smoke out. Then she bent her neck to the side a few times.

“So I went to recuperate at my grandmother’s place on the coast in Izu. I thought I’d forget about that particular competition and really relax, spend a couple of weeks away from the piano doing anything I wanted. But it was hopeless. Piano was all I could think about. Maybe my finger would never move again. How would I live if that happened? The same thoughts kept going round and round in my brain. And no wonder: piano had been my whole life up to that point.

I had started playing when I was four and grew up thinking about the piano and nothing else. I never did housework so as not to injure my fingers. People paid attention to me for that one thing: my talent at the piano. Take the piano away from a girl who’s grown up like that, and what’s left? So then, snap! MY mind became a complete jumble. Total darkness.”

She dropped her cigarette to the ground and stamped it out, then bent her neck a few times again.

“That was the end of my dream of becoming a concert pianist. I spent two months in the hospital. My finger started to move shortly after I arrived, so I was able to return to the conservatoire and graduate, but something inside me had vanished. Some jewel of energy or something had disappeared – evaporated – from inside my body. The doctor said I lacked the mental strength to become a professional pianist and advised me to abandon the idea. So after graduating I took pupils and taught them at home. But the pain I felt was excruciating.

It was as if my life had ended. Here I was in my early twenties and the best part of my life was over. Do you see how terrible that would be? I had such potential, then woke up one day and it had gone. No more applause, no one would make a big fuss over me, no one would tell me how wonderful I was. I spent day after day in the house teaching neighbourhood children Beyer exercises and sonatinas. I felt so miserable, I cried all the time. To think what I had missed! I would hear about people who were far less talented than me winning second place in a competition or holding a recital in such-and-such a hall, and the tears would pour out of me.

“My parents walked around on tiptoe, afraid of hurting me. But I knew how disappointed they were. All of a sudden the daughter they had been so proud of was an ex-mental-patient. They couldn’t even marry me off. When you’re living with people, you sense what they’re feeling, and I hated it.

I was afraid to go out, afraid the neighbours were talking about me. So then, snap! It happened again – the jumble, the darkness. It happened when I was 24, and this time I spent seven months in a sanatorium. Not this place: a regular insane asylum with high walls and locked gates. A filthy place without pianos. I didn’t know what to do with myself. All I knew was I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could, so I struggled desperately to get better. Seven months: a long seven months. That’s when my wrinkles started.”

Reiko smiled, her lips stretching from side to side.

“I hadn’t been out of the hospital for long when I met a man and got married. He was a year younger than me, an engineer who worked in an aeroplane manufacturing company, and one of my pupils. A nice man. He didn’t say a lot, but he was warm and sincere. He had been taking lessons from me for six months when all of a sudden he asked me to marry him. Just like that – one day when we were having tea after his lesson. Can you believe it? We had never dated or held hands. He took me totally off guard. I told him I couldn’t get married.

I said I liked him and thought he was a nice person but that, for certain reasons, I couldn’t marry him. He wanted to know what those reasons were, so I explained everything to him with complete honesty – that I had been hospitalized twice for mental breakdowns. I told him everything – what the cause had been, my condition, and the possibility that it could happen again. He said he needed time to think, and I encouraged him to take all the time he needed. But when he came for his lesson a week later, he said he still wanted to marry me. I asked him to wait three months. We would see each other for three months, I said, and if he still wanted to marry me at that point, we would talk about it again.

“We dated once a week for three months. We went everywhere, and talked about everything, and I got to like him a lot. When I was with him, I felt as if my life had finally come back to me. It gave me a wonderful sense of relief to be alone with him: I could forget all those terrible things that had happened. So what if I hadn’t been able to become a concert pianist? So what if I had spent time in mental hospitals? My life hadn’t ended. Life was still full of wonderful things I hadn’t experienced. If only for having made me feel that way, I felt tremendously grateful to him.

After three months went by, he asked me again to marry him. And this is what I said to him: “If you want to sleep with me, I don’t mind. I’ve never slept with anybody, and I’m very fond of you, so if you want to make love to me, I don’t mind at all. But marrying me is a whole different matter. If you marry me, you take on all my troubles, and they’re a lot worse than you can imagine. “He said he didn’t care, that he didn’t just want to sleep with me, he wanted to marry me, to share everything I had inside me.

And he meant it. He was the kind of person who would only say what he really meant, and do anything he said. So I agreed to marry him. It was all I could do. We got married, let’s see, four months later I think it was. He fought with his parents over me, and they disowned him. He was from an old family that lived in a rural part of Shikoku. They had my background investigated and found out that I had been hospitalized twice. No wonder they opposed the marriage. So, anyway, we didn’t have a wedding ceremony. We just went to the registry office and registered our marriage and took a trip to Hakone for two nights. That was plenty for us: we were happy. And finally, I remained a virgin until the day I married. I was 25 years old! Can you believe it?”

Reiko sighed and picked up the basketball again.

“I thought that as long as I was with him, I would be all right,” she went on. “As long as I was with him, my troubles would stay away. That’s the most important thing for a sickness like ours: a sense of trust. If I put myself in this person’s hands, I’ll be OK. If my condition starts to worsen even the slightest bit – if a screw comes loose – he’ll notice straight away, and with tremendous care and patience he’ll fix it, he’ll tighten the screw again, put all the jumbled threads back in place. If we have that sense of trust, our sickness stays away. No more snap! I was so happy! Life was great! I felt as if someone had pulled me out of a cold, raging sea and wrapped me in a blanket and laid me in a warm bed.

I had a baby two years after we were married, and then my hands were really full! I practically forgot about my sickness. I’d get up in the morning and do the housework and take care of the baby and feed my husband when he came home from work. It was the same thing day after day, but I was happy. It was probably the happiest time of my life. How many years did it last, I wonder? At least until I was 31. And then, all of a sudden, snap! It happened again. I fell apart.” Reiko lit a cigarette. The wind had died down. The smoke rose straight up and disappeared into the darkness of night. Just then I realized that the sky was filled with stars.

“Something happened?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “something very strange, as if a trap had been laid for me. Even now, it gives me a chill just to think about it.” Reiko rubbed a temple with her free hand. “I’m sorry, though, making you listen to all this talk about me. You came here to see Naoko, not listen to my story.”
“I’d really like to hear it, though,” I said. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear the rest.”

“Well,” Reiko began, “when our daughter entered kindergarten, I started playing again, little by little. Not for anyone else, but for myself. I started with short pieces by Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti. After such a long blank period, of course, my feel for the music didn’t come back straight away. And my fingers wouldn’t move the way they used to. But I was thrilled to be playing the piano again. With my hands on the keys, I realized how much I had loved music – and how much I hungered for it. To be able to perform music for yourself is a wonderful thing.

“As I said before, I had been playing from the time I was four years old, but it occurred to me that I had never once played for myself. I had always been trying to pass a test or practise an assignment or impress somebody. Those are all important things, of course, if you are going to master an instrument. But after a certain age you have to start performing for yourself. That’s what music is. I had to drop out of the elite course and pass my thirty-first birthday before I was finally able to see that. I would send my child off to kindergarten and hurry through the housework, then spend an hour or two playing music I liked. So far so good, right?”

I nodded.

“Then one day I had a visit from one of the ladies of the neighbourhood, someone I at least knew well enough to say hello to on the street, asking me to give her daughter piano lessons. I didn’t know the daughter – although we lived in the same general neighbourhood our houses were still pretty far apart – but according to the woman, her daughter used to pass my house and loved to hear me play. She had seen me at some point, too, and now she was pestering her mother to let me teach her. She was in her fourth year of school and had taken lessons from a number of people but things had not gone well for one reason or another and now she had no teacher.

“I turned her down. I had had that blank of several years, and while it might have made sense for me to take on an absolute beginner, it would have been impossible for me to pick up with someone who had had lessons for a number of years. Besides, I was too busy taking care of my own child and, though I didn’t say this to the woman, nobody can deal with the kind of child who changes teachers constantly. So then the woman asked me to at least do her daughter the favour of meeting her once. She was a fairly pushy lady and I could see she was not going to let me off the hook that easily, so I agreed to meet the girl 31. but just meet her.

Three days later the girl came to the house by herself. She was an absolute angel, with a kind of pure, sweet, transparent beauty. I had never – and have never – seen such a beautiful little girl. She had long, shiny hair as black as freshly ground Indian ink, slim, graceful arms and legs, bright eyes, and a soft little mouth that looked as if someone had just made it. I couldn’t speak when I first saw her, she was so beautiful. Sitting on my sofa, she turned my living room into a gorgeous parlour. It hurt to look directly at her: I had to squint. So, anyway, that’s what she was like. I can still picture her clearly.”

Reiko narrowed her eyes as if she were actually picturing the girl. “Over coffee we talked for a whole hour – talked about all kinds of things: music, her school, just everything. I could see straight away she was a smart one. She knew how to hold a conversation: she had clear, shrewd opinions and a natural gift for drawing out the other person. It was almost frightening. Exactly what it was that made her frightening, I couldn’t tell at the time. It just struck me how frighteningly intelligent she was. But in her presence I lost any normal powers of judgement I might have had. She was so young and beautiful, I felt overwhelmed to the point where I saw myself as an inferior specimen, a clumsy excuse for a human being who could only have negative thoughts about her because of my own warped and filthy mind.”

Reiko shook her head several times.

“If I were as pretty and smart as she was, I’d have been a normal human being. What more could you want if you were that smart and that beautiful? Why would you have to torment and walk all over your weaker inferiors if everybody loved you so much? What reason could there possibly be for acting that way?”

“Did she do something terrible to you?”

“Well, let me just say the girl was a pathological liar. She was sick, pure and simple. She made up everything. And while she was making up her stories, she would come to believe them. And then she would change things around her to fit her story. She had such a quick mind, she could always keep a step ahead of you and take care of things that would ordinarily strike you as odd, so it would never cross your mind she was lying. First of all, no one would ever suspect that such a pretty little girl would lie about the most ordinary things. I certainly didn’t. She told me tons of lies for six months before I had the slightest inkling anything was wrong. She lied about everything, and I never suspected. I know it sounds crazy.”

“What did she lie about?”

“When I say everything, I mean everything.” Reiko gave a sarcastic laugh. “When people tell a lie about something, they have to make up a bunch of lies to go with the first one. ‘Mythomania’ is the word for it. When the usual mythomaniac tells lies, they’re usually the innocent kind, and most people notice. But not with that girl. To protect herself, she’d tell hurtful lies without batting an eyelid. She’d use everything she could get her hands on.

And she would lie either more or less depending on who she was talking to. To her mother or close friends who would know straight away, she hardly ever lied, or if she had to tell one, she’d be really, really careful to tell lies that wouldn’t come out. Or if they did come out, she’d find an excuse or apologize in that clingy voice of hers with tears pouring out of her beautiful eyes. No one could stay mad at her then.

“I still don’t know why she chose me. Was I another victim to her, or a source of salvation? I just don’t know. Of course, it hardly matters now. Now that everything is over. Now that I’m like this.”

A short silence followed.

“She repeated what her mother had told me, that she had been moved when she heard me playing as she passed the house. She had seen me on the street a few times, too, and had begun to worship me. She actually used that word: “worship’. It made me turn bright red. I mean, to be “worshipped’ by such a beautiful little doll of a girl! I don’t think it was an absolute lie, though. I was in my thirties already, of course, and I could never be as beautiful and bright as she was, and I had no special talent, but I must have had something that drew her to me, something that was missing in her, I suppose. That must have been what got her interested in me to begin with. I believe that now, looking back. And I’m not boasting.”

“No, I think I know what you mean.”

“She had brought some music with her and asked if she could play for me. So I let her. It was a Bach invention. Her performance was … interesting. Or should I say strange? It just wasn’t ordinary. Of course it wasn’t polished. She hadn’t been going to a professional school, and what lessons she had taken had been an on-and-off kind of thing; she was very much self-taught. Her sound was untrained.

She’d have been rejected immediately at a music-school audition. But she made it work. Although 90 per cent was just terrible, the other 10 per cent was there: she made it sing: it was music. And this was a Bach invention! So I got interested in her. I wanted to know what she was all about.

“Needless to say, the world is full of kids who can play Bach far better than she could. Twenty times better. But most of their performances would have nothing to them. They’d be hollow, empty. This girl’s technique was bad, but she had that little bit of something that could draw people – or draw me, at least – into her performance. So I decided it might be worthwhile to teach her. Of course, retraining her at that point to where she could become a pro was out of the question. But I felt it might be possible to make her into the kind of happy pianist I was then – and still am – someone who could enjoy making music for herself. This turned out to be an empty hope, though. She was not the kind of person who quietly goes about doing things for herself.

This was a child who would make detailed calculations to use every means at her disposal to impress other people. She knew exactly what she had to do to make people admire and praise her. And she knew exactly what kind of performance it would take to draw me in. She had calculated everything, I’m sure, and put everything she had into practising the most important passages over and over again for my benefit. I can see her doing it.

“Still, even now, after all of this came clear to me, I believe it was a wonderful performance and I would feel the same chills down my spine if I could hear it again. Knowing all I know about her flaws, her cunning and lies, I would still feel it. I’m telling you, there are such things in this world.”

Reiko cleared her throat with a dry rasp and broke off. “So, did you take her as a pupil?” I asked.

“Yeah. One lesson a week. Saturday mornings. Saturday was a day off at her school. She never missed a lesson, she was never late, she was an ideal pupil. She always practised for her lessons. After every lesson, we’d have some cake and chat.”

At that point, Reiko looked at her watch as if suddenly remembering something.

“Don’t you think we should be getting back to the room? I’m a little worried about Naoko. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten about her now, have you?”

“Of course not,” I laughed. “It’s just that I was drawn into your story.”

“If you’d like to hear the rest, I’ll tell it to you tomorrow. It’s a long story – too long for one sitting.”

“You’re a regular Scheherazade.”

“I know,” she said, joining her laughter with mine. “You’ll never get back to Tokyo.”

We retraced our steps through the path in the woods and returned to the flat. The candles had been extinguished and the living room lights were out. The bedroom door was open and the lamp on the night table was on, its pale light spilling into the living room. Naoko sat alone on the sofa in the gloom. She had changed into a loose-fitting blue gown, its collar pulled tight about her neck, her legs folded under her on the sofa. Reiko approached her and rested a hand on her crown.

“Are you all right now?”

“I’m fine. Sorry,” answered Naoko in a tiny voice. Then she turned towards me and repeated her apology. “I must have scared you.”

“A little,” I said with a smile.

“Come here,” she said. When I sat down next to her, Naoko, her legs still folded, leaned towards me until her face was nearly touching my ear, as though she were about to share a secret with me. Then she planted a soft kiss by my ear.

“Sorry,” she said once more, this time directly into my ear, her voice subdued. Then she moved away from me.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I get so confused, I don’t know what’s happening.”

“That happens to me all the time,” I said. Naoko smiled and looked at me.

“If you don’t mind,” I said, “I’d like to hear more about you. About your life here. What you do every day. The people you meet.”

Naoko talked about her daily routine in this place, speaking in short but crystal clear phrases. Wake up at six in the morning. Breakfast in the flat. Clean out the aviary. Then usually farm work. She took care of the vegetables. Before or after lunch, she would have either an hour-long session with her doctor or a group discussion. In the afternoon she could choose from among courses that might interest her, outside work, or sports. She had taken several courses: French, knitting, piano, ancient history.

“Reiko is teaching me piano,” she said. “She also teaches guitar. We all take turns as pupils or teachers. Somebody with fluent French teaches French, one person who used to be in social studies teaches history, another good at knitting teaches knitting: that’s a pretty impressive school right there. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything I can teach anyone.”

“Neither do I,” I said.

“I put a lot more energy into my studies here than I ever did in university. I work hard and enjoy it – a lot.”

“What do you do after supper?”

“Talk with Reiko, read, listen to records, go to other people’s flats and play games, stuff like that.”

“I do guitar practice and write my autobiography,” said Reiko. “Autobiography?”

“Just kidding,” Reiko laughed. “We go to bed around ten. Pretty healthy lifestyle, wouldn’t you say? We sleep like babies.”

I looked at my watch. It was a few minutes before nine. “I guess you’ll be getting sleepy soon.”

“That’s OK. We can stay up late today,” said Naoko. “I haven’t seen you in such a long time, I want to talk more. So talk.”

“When I was alone before, all of a sudden I started thinking about the old days,” I said. “Do you remember when Kizuki and I came to visit you at the hospital? The one on the seashore. I think it was the first year of the sixth-form.”

“When I had the chest operation,” Naoko said with a smile. “Sure, I remember. You and Kizuki came on a motorbike. You brought me a box of chocolates and they were all melted together. They were so hard to eat! I don’t know, it seems like such a long time ago.”

“Yeah, really. I think you were writing a poem then, a long one.”

“All girls write poems at that age,” Naoko tittered. “What reminded you of that all of a sudden?”

“I wonder. The smell of the sea wind, the oleanders: before I knew it, they just popped into my head. Did Kizuki come to see you at the hospital a lot?”

“No way! We had a big fight about that afterwards. He came once, and then he came with you, and that was it for him. He was terrible. And that first time he couldn’t sit still and he only stayed about ten minutes. He brought me some oranges and mumbled all this stuff I couldn’t understand, and he peeled an orange for me and mumbled more stuff and he was out of there. He said he had a thing about hospitals.”

Naoko laughed. “He was always a kid about that kind of stuff. I mean, nobody likes hospitals, right? That’s why people visit people in hospitals to make them feel better, and perk up their spirits and stuff. But Kizuki just didn’t get it.”

“He wasn’t so bad when the two of us came to see you, though. He was just his usual self.”
“Because you were there,” said Naoko. “He was always like that around you. He struggled to keep his weaknesses hidden. I’m sure he was very fond of you. He made a point of letting you see only his best side. He wasn’t like that with me. He’d let his guard down. He could be really moody. One minute he’d be chattering away, and the next he’d be depressed. It happened all the time. He was like that from the time he was little. He did keep trying to change himself, to improve himself, though.”

Naoko re-crossed her legs on the sofa.

“He tried hard, but it didn’t do any good, and that would make him really angry and sad. There was so much about him that was fine and beautiful, but he could never find the confidence he needed. “I’ve got to do that, I’ve got to change this,’ he was always thinking, right up to the end. Poor Kizuki!”

“Still,” I said, “if it’s true that he was always struggling to show me his best side, I’d say he succeeded. His best side was all that I could see.” Naoko smiled. “He’d be thrilled if he could hear you say that. You were his only friend.”

“And Kizuki was my only friend,” I said. “There was never anybody I could really call a friend, before him or after him.”

“That’s why I loved being with the two of you. His best side was all that I could see then, too. I could relax and stop worrying when the three of us were together. Those were my favourite times. I don’t know how you felt about it.”

“I used to worry about what you were thinking,” I said, giving my head a shake.

“The problem was that that kind of thing couldn’t go on for ever,” said Naoko. “Such perfect little circles are impossible to maintain. Kizuki knew it, and I knew it, and so did you. Am I right?”

I nodded.

“To tell you the truth, though,” Naoko went on, “I loved his weak side, too. I loved it as much as I loved his good side. There was absolutely nothing mean or underhand about him. He was weak: that’s all. I tried to tell him that, but he wouldn’t believe me. He’d always tell me it was because we had been together since we were three. I knew him too well, he’d say: I couldn’t tell the difference between his strong points and his flaws, they were all the same to me. He couldn’t change my mind about him, though. I went on loving him just the same, and I could never be interested in anyone else.”

Naoko looked at me with a sad smile.

“Our boy-girl relationship was really unusual, too. It was as if we were physically joined somewhere. If we happened to be apart, some special gravitational force would pull us back together again. It was the most natural thing in the world when we became boyfriend and girlfriend. It was nothing we had to think about or make any choices about. We started kissing at 12 and petting at 13. I’d go to his room or he’d come to my room and I’d finish him off with my hands.

It never occurred to me that we were being precocious. It just happened as a matter of course. If he wanted to play with my breasts or pussy, I didn’t mind at all, or if he had cum he wanted to get rid of, I didn’t mind helping him with that, either. I’m sure it would have shocked us both if someone had accused us of doing anything wrong. Because we weren’t.

We were just doing what we were supposed to do. We had always shown each other every part of our bodies. It was almost as if we owned each other’s bodies jointly. For a while, at least, we made sure we didn’t go any further than that, though. We were afraid of my getting pregnant, and had almost no idea at that point of how to go about preventing it … Anyway, that’s how Kizuki and I grew up together, hand in hand, an inseparable pair. We had almost no sense of the oppressiveness of sex or the anguish that comes with the sudden swelling of the ego that ordinary kids experience when they reach puberty. We were totally open about sex, and where our egos were concerned, the way we absorbed and shared each other’s, we had no strong awareness of them. Do you see what I mean?”

“I think so,” I said.

“We couldn’t bear to be apart. So if Kizuki had lived, I’m sure we would have been together, loving each other, and gradually growing unhappy.”

“Unhappy? Why’s that?”

With her fingers, Naoko combed her hair back several times. She had taken her hairslide off, which made the hair fall over her face when she dropped her head forward.

“Because we would have had to pay the world back what we owed it,” she said, raising her eyes to mine. “The pain of growing up. We didn’t pay when we should have, so now the bills are due. Which is why Kizuki did what he did, and why I’m here. We were like kids who grew up naked on a desert island. If we got hungry, we’d just pick a banana; if we got lonely, we’d go to sleep in each other’s arms. But that kind of thing doesn’t last for ever. We grew up fast and had to enter society. Which is why you were so important to us. You were the link connecting us with the outside. We were struggling through you to fit in with the outside world as best we could. In the end, it didn’t work, of course.”

I nodded.

“I wouldn’t want you to think that we were using you, though. Kizuki really loved you. It just so happened that our connection with you was our first connection with anyone else. And it still is. Kizuki may be dead, but you are still My only link with the outside world. And just as Kizuki loved you, I love you. We never meant to hurt you, but we probably did; we probably ended up making a deep wound in your heart. It never occurred to us that anything like that might happen.” Naoko lowered her head again and fell silent.

“Hey, how about a cup of cocoa?” suggested Reiko. “Good. I’d really like some,” said Naoko.

“I’d like to have some of that brandy I brought, if you don’t mind,” I said.

“Oh, absolutely,” said Reiko. “Could I have a sip?” “Sure,” I said, laughing.

Reiko brought out two glasses and we toasted each other. Then she went into the kitchen to make cocoa.

“Can we talk about something a little more cheerful?” asked Naoko.

I didn’t have anything cheerful to talk about. I thought, If only Storm Trooper were still around! That guy could inspire a string of stories. A few of those would have made everybody feel good. The best I could do was talk at length about the filthy habits of the guys in the dormitory. I felt sick just talking about something so gross, but Naoko and Reiko practically fell over laughing, it was all so new to them. Next Reiko did imitations of mental patients. This was a lot of fun, too. Naoko started looking sleepy after eleven o’clock, so Reiko let down the sofa back and handed me a pillow, sheets and blankets.

“If you feel like raping anybody in the middle of the night, don’t get the wrong one,” she said.

“The unwrinkled body in the left bed is Naoko’s.”

“Liar! Mine’s the right bed,” said Naoko.

Reiko added, “By the way, I arranged for us to skip some of our afternoon schedule. Why don’t the three of us have a little picnic? I know a really nice place close by.”

“Good idea,” I said.

The women took turns brushing their teeth and withdrew to the bedroom. I poured myself some brandy and stretched out on the sofa bed, going over the day’s events from morning to night. It felt like an awfully long day. The room continued to glow white in the moonlight. Aside from the occasional slight creak of a bed, hardly a sound came from the bedroom where Naoko and Reiko lay sleeping.

Tiny diagrammatic shapes seemed to float in the darkness when I closed my eyes, and my ears sensed the lingering reverberation of Reiko’s guitar, but neither of these lasted for long. Sleep came and carried me into a mass of warm mud. I dreamed of willows. Both sides of a mountain road were lined with willows. An incredible number of willows. A fairly stiff breeze was blowing, but the branches of the willow trees never swayed. Why should that be? I wondered, and then I saw that every branch of every tree had tiny birds clinging to it. Their weight kept the branches from stirring. I grabbed a stick and hit a nearby branch with it, hoping to chase away the birds and allow the branch to sway. But they would not leave. Instead of flying away, they turned into bird-shaped metal chunks that crashed to the ground.

When I opened my eyes, I felt as if I were seeing the continuation of my dream. The moonlight filled the room with the same soft white glow. As if by reflex, I sat up in bed and started searching for the metal birds, which of course were not there. What I saw instead was Naoko at the foot of the bed, sitting still and alone, staring out through the window. She had drawn her knees up and was resting her chin on them, looking like a hungry orphan. I searched for the watch I had left by my pillow, but it was not in the place where I knew it should be.

I guessed from the angle of the moonlight that the time must be two or three o’clock in the morning. I felt a violent thirst but I decided to keep still and continue watching Naoko. She was wearing the same blue nightdress I had seen her in earlier, and on one side her hair was held in place by the butterfly hairslide, revealing the beauty of her face in the moonlight. Strange, I thought, she had taken the slide off before going to bed.

Naoko stayed frozen in place, like a small nocturnal animal that has been lured out by the moonlight. The direction of the glow exaggerated the silhouette of her lips. Seeming utterly fragile and vulnerable, the silhouette pulsed almost imperceptibly with the beating of her heart or the motions of her inner heart, as if she were whispering soundless words to the darkness.
I swallowed in hopes of easing my thirst, but in the stillness of the night the sound I made was huge. As if this were a signal to her, Naoko stood and glided towards the head of the bed, gown rustling faintly. She knelt on the floor by my pillow, eyes fixed on mine. I stared back at her, but her eyes told me nothing. Strangely transparent, they seemed like windows to a world beyond, but however long I peered into their depths, there was nothing I could see. Our faces were no more than ten inches apart, but she was light years away from me.

I reached out and tried to touch her, but Naoko drew back, lips trembling faintly. A moment later, she brought her hands up and began slowly to undo the buttons of her gown. There were seven in all. I felt as if it were the continuation of my dream as I watched her slim, lovely fingers opening the buttons one by one from top to bottom. Seven small, white buttons: when she had unfastened them all, Naoko slipped the gown from her shoulders and threw it off completely like an insect shedding its skin. She had been wearing nothing under the gown. All she had on was the butterfly hairslide.

Naked now, and still kneeling by the bed, she looked at me. Bathed in the soft light of the moon, Naoko’s body had the heartbreaking lustre of newborn flesh. When she moved – and she did so almost imperceptibly – the play of light and shadow on her body shifted subtly. The swelling roundness of her breasts, her tiny nipples, the indentation of her navel, her hipbones and pubic hair, all cast grainy shadows, the shapes of which kept changing like ripples spreading over the calm surface of a lake.

What perfect flesh! I thought. When had Naoko come to possess such a perfect body? What had happened to the body I held in my arms that night last spring?

A sense of imperfection had been what Naoko’s body had given me that night as I tenderly undressed her while she cried. Her breasts had seemed hard, the nipples oddly jutting, the hips strangely rigid. She was a beautiful girl, of course, her body marvellous and alluring. It aroused me that night and swept me along with a gigantic force. But still, as I held her and caressed her and kissed her naked flesh, I felt a strange and powerful awareness of the imbalance and awkwardness of the human body. Holding Naoko in my arms, I wanted to explain to her, “I am having sex with you now. I am inside you. But really this is nothing. It doesn’t matter. It is nothing but the joining of two bodies.

All we are doing is telling each other things that can only be told by the rubbing together of two imperfect lumps of flesh. By doing this, we are sharing our imperfection.” But of course I could never have said such a thing with any hope of being understood. I just went on holding her tightly. And as I did so, I was able to feel inside her body some kind of stony foreign matter, something extra that I could never draw close to. And that sensation both filled my heart for Naoko and gave my erection a terrifying intensity.

The body that Naoko revealed before me now, though, was nothing like the one I had held that night. This flesh had been through many changes to be reborn in utter perfection beneath the light of the moon. All signs of girlish plumpness had been stripped away since Kizuki’s death to be replaced by the flesh of a mature woman. So perfect was Naoko’s physical beauty now that it aroused nothing sexual in me. I could only stare, astounded, at the lovely curve from waist to hips, the rounded richness of the breasts, the gentle movement with each breath of the slim belly and the soft, black pubic shadow beneath.

She exposed her nakedness to me this way for perhaps five minutes until, at last, she wrapped herself in her gown once more and buttoned it from top to bottom. As soon as the final button was in place, she rose and glided towards the bedroom, silently opened the door, and disappeared.

I stayed rooted to the spot for a very long time until it occurred to me to leave the bed. I retrieved my watch from where it had fallen on the floor and turned it towards the light of the moon. It was 3.40. I went to the kitchen and drank a few glasses of water before stretching out in bed again, but sleep never came until the morning sunlight crept into every corner of the room, dissolving all traces of the moon’s pale glow.

I was somewhere on the edge of sleep when Reiko came and slapped me on the cheek, shouting, “Morning! Morning!”

While Reiko straightened out my sofa bed, Naoko went to the kitchen and started making breakfast. She smiled at me and said “Good morning”.

“Good morning,” I replied. I stood by and watched her as she put on water to boil and sliced some bread, humming all the while, but I could sense nothing in her manner to suggest that she had revealed her naked body to me the night before.

“Your eyes are red,” she said to me as she poured the coffee. “Are you OK?”

“I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep.” “I bet we were snoring,” said Reiko.

“Not at all,” I said.

“That’s good,” said Naoko.

“He’s just being polite,” said Reiko, yawning.

At first I thought that Naoko was embarrassed or acting innocent for Reiko, but her behaviour remained unchanged when Reiko momentarily left the room, and her eyes had their usual transparent look.

“How’d you sleep?” I asked Naoko.

“Like a log,” she answered with ease. She wore a simple hairpin without any kind of decoration.
I didn’t know what to make of this, and I continued to feel that way all through breakfast. Buttering my bread or peeling my egg, I kept glancing across the table at Naoko, in search of a sign.

“Why do you keep looking at me like that?” she asked with a smile. “I think he’s in love with somebody,” said Reiko.

“Are you in love with somebody?” Naoko asked me.

“Could be,” I said, returning her smile. When the two women started joking around at my expense, I gave up trying to think about what had happened in the night and concentrated on my bread and coffee.

After breakfast, Reiko and Naoko said they would be going to feed the birds in the aviary. I volunteered to go along. They changed into jeans and work shirts and white rubber boots. Set in a little park behind the tennis courts, the aviary had everything in it from chickens and pigeons to peacocks and parrots and was surrounded by flowerbeds, shrubberies and benches. Two men in their forties, also apparently sanatorium patients, were raking up leaves that had fallen in the pathways. The women walked over to say good morning to the pair, and Reiko made them laugh with another of her jokes. Cosmos were blooming in the flowerbeds, and the shrubberies were extremely well manicured. Spotting Reiko, the birds started chattering and flying about inside the cage.

The women entered the shed by the cage and came out with a bag of feed and a garden hose. Naoko screwed the hose to a tap and turned on the water. Taking care to prevent any birds from flying out, the two of them slipped into the cage, Naoko hosing down the dirt and Reiko scrubbing the floor of the cage with a deck brush. The spray sparkled in the glare of the morning sun. The peacocks flapped around the cage to avoid getting splashed. A turkey raised its head and glowered at me like a crotchety old man, while a parrot on the perch above screeched its displeasure and beat its wings. Reiko meowed at the parrot, which slunk over to the far corner but soon was calling: “Thank you!”



“I wonder who taught him that kind of language?” said Naoko with a sigh.

“Not me,” said Reiko. “I would never do such a thing.” She started meowing again, and the parrot shut up.

Laughing, Reiko explained, “This guy once had a run-in with a cat. Now he’s scared to death of them.”

When they had finished cleaning, the two set down their tools and went around filling each of the feeders. Splashing its way through puddles on the floor, the turkey darted to its feed box and plunged its head in, too obsessed with eating to be bothered by Naoko’s smacks on its tail.

“Do you do this every morning?” I asked Naoko.

“Every morning!” she said. “They usually give this job to new women. It’s so easy. Like to see the rabbits?”

“Sure,” I said. The rabbit hutch was behind the aviary. Some ten rabbits lay inside, asleep in the straw. Naoko swept up their droppings, put feed in their box, and picked up one of the babies, rubbing it against her cheek.

“Isn’t it precious?” she gushed. She let me hold it. The warm, little ball of fur cringed in my arms, twitching its nose.

“Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you,” she said to the rabbit, stroking its head with her finger and smiling at me. It was such a radiant smile, without a trace of shadow, that I couldn’t help smiling myself. And what about Naoko last night? I wondered. I knew for certain that it had been the real Naoko and not a dream: she had definitely taken her clothes off and shown her naked body to me.

Reiko whistled a lovely rendition of “Proud Mary” as she stuffed a plastic bag with the debris they had gathered and tied the opening. I helped them carry the tools and feed bag to the shed.

“Morning is my favourite time of day,” said Naoko. “It’s like everything’s starting out fresh and new. I begin to get sad around noon time, and I hate it when the sun goes down. I live with those same feelings clay aster day.

“And while you’re living with those feelings, you youngsters get old just like me,” said Reiko with a smile. “You’re thinking about how it’s morning now or night and the next thing you know, you’re old.”

“But you like getting old,” said Naoko.

“Not really,” said Reiko. “But I sure don’t wish I was young again.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it’s such a pain in the neck!” she said. Then she tossed her broom in and closed the door of the shed, whistling “Proud Mary” all the while.

Back at the flat, the women changed their boots for tennis shoes and said they were going to the farm. Reiko suggested I stayed behind with a book or something because the work would be no fun to watch and they would be doing it as part of a group. “And while you’re waiting you can wash the pile of dirty underwear we left by the sink,” she added.

“You’re kidding,” I said, taken aback.

“Of course I am,” she laughed. “You’re so sweet. Isn’t he, Naoko?”

“He really is,” said Naoko, laughing with her.

“I’ll work on my German,” I said with a sigh.

“Yeah, do your homework like a good boy,” said Reiko.

“We’ll be back before lunch.”

The two of them went out tittering. I heard the footsteps and voices of a number of people walking by downstairs.

I went into the bathroom and washed my face again, then borrowed a nail clipper and trimmed my nails. For a bathroom that was being shared by two women, its contents were incredibly simple. Aside from some neatly arranged bottles of cleansing cream and lip moisturizer and sun block, there was almost nothing that could be called cosmetics. When I finished trimming my nails, I made myself some coffee and drank it at the kitchen table, German book open. Stripping down to a T-shirt in the sun-filled kitchen, I had set about memorizing all the forms in a grammar chart when I was struck by an odd feeling. It seemed to me that the longest imaginable distance separated irregular German verb forms from this kitchen table.

The two women came back from the farm at 11.30, took turns in the shower, and changed into fresh clothes. The three of us went to the dining hall for lunch, then walked to the front gate. This time the guardhouse had a man on duty. He was sitting at his desk, enjoying a lunch that must have been brought to him from the dining hall. The transistor radio on the shelf was playing a sentimental old pop tune. He waved to us with a friendly “Hi” as we approached, and we hello’ed him back.

Reiko explained to him that we were going to walk outside the grounds and return in three hours.

“Great,” he said.

“You’re lucky with the weather. Just stay away from the valley road, though. It got washed out in that big rain. No problem anywhere else.”

Reiko wrote her name and Naoko’s in a register along with the date and time.

“Enjoy yourselves,” said the guard. “And take care.”

“Nice guy,” I said.

“He’s a little strange up here,” said Reiko, touching her head.

He had been right about the weather, though. The sky was a fresh- swept blue, with only a trace of white cloud clinging to the dome of heaven like a thin streak of test paint. We walked beside the low stone wall of Ami Hostel for a time, then moved away to climb a steep, narrow trail in single file. Reiko led the way, with Naoko in the middle and me bringing up the rear. Reiko climbed with the confident stride of one who knew every stretch of every mountain in the area. We concentrated on walking, with hardly a word among us. Naoko wore blue jeans and a white blouse and carried her jacket in one hand.

I watched her long, straight hair swaying right and left where it met her shoulders. She would glance back at me now and then, smiling when our eyes met. The trail continued upwards so far that it was almost dizzying, but Reiko’s pace never slackened. Naoko hurried to keep up with her, wiping the sweat from her face. Not having indulged in such outdoor activities for some time, I found myself running short of breath.

“Do you do this a lot?” I asked Naoko.

“Maybe once a week,” she answered. “Having a tough time?”

“Kind of,” I said.

“We’re almost there,” said Reiko. “This is about two-thirds of the way. Come on, you’re a boy, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I’m out of shape.”

“Playing with girls all the time,” muttered Naoko, as if to herself.

I wanted to answer her, but I was too winded to speak. Every now and then, red birds with tufts on their heads would flit across our path, brilliant against the blue sky. The fields around us were filled with white and blue and yellow flowers, and bees buzzed everywhere. Moving ahead one step at a time, I thought of nothing but the scene passing before my eyes.

The slope gave out after another ten minutes, and we gained a level plateau. We rested there, wiping the sweat off, catching our breath and drinking from our water bottles. Reiko found a leaf and used it to make a whistle.

The trail entered a gentle downward slope amid tall, waving thickets of plume grass. We walked on for some 15 minutes before passing through a village. There were no signs of humanity here, and the dozen or so houses were all in varying states of decay. Waist-high grass grew among the houses, and dry, white gobs of pigeon droppings clung to holes in the walls. Only the pillars survived in the case of one collapsed building, while others looked ready to be lived in as soon as you opened the storm shutters. These dead, silent houses pressed against either side of the road as we slipped through.

“People lived in this village until seven or eight years ago,” Reiko informed me. “This was farmland around here. But they all cleared out. Life was just too hard. They’d be trapped when the snow piled up in the winter. And the soil isn’t particularly fertile. They could make a better living in the city.”

“What a waste,” I said. “Some of the houses look perfectly usable.”

“Some hippies tried living here at one point, but they gave up. Couldn’t take the winters.”

A little beyond the village we came to a big fenced area that seemed to be a pasture. Far away on the other side, I caught sight of a few horses grazing. We followed the fence line, and a big dog came running over to us, tail wagging. It stood up leaning on Reiko, sniffing her face, then jumped playfully on Naoko. I whistled and it came over to me, licking my hand with its long tongue.

Naoko patted the dog’s head and explained that the animal belonged to the pasture. “I’ll bet he’s close to 20,” she said. “His teeth are so bad, he can’t eat anything hard. He sleeps in front of the shop all day, and he comes running when he hears footsteps.”

Reiko took a scrap of cheese from her rucksack. Catching its scent, the dog bounded over to her and chomped down on it.

“We won’t be able to see this fellow much longer,” said Reiko, patting the dog’s head. “In the middle of October they put the horses and cows in trucks and take ’em down to the barn. The only time they let ’em graze is the summer, when they open a little café kind of thing for the tourists. The “tourists’! Maybe 20 hikers in a day. Hey, how about something to drink?”

“Good idea,” I said.

The dog led the way to the café, a small, white house with a front porch and a faded sign in the shape of a coffee cup hanging from the eaves. He led us up the steps and stretched out on the porch, narrowing his eyes. When we took our places around a table on the porch, a girl with a ponytail and wearing a sweatshirt and white jeans came out and greeted Reiko and Naoko like old friends.

“This is a friend of Naoko’s,” said Reiko, introducing me. “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” I answered.

While the three women traded small talk, I stroked the neck of the dog under the table. It had the hard, stringy neck of an old dog. When I scratched the lumpy spots, the dog closed his eyes and sighed with pleasure.

“What’s his name?” I asked the girl. “Pepé,” she said.

“Hey, Pepé,” I said to the dog, but he didn’t budge.

“He’s hard of hearing,” said the girl. “You have to speak up or he can’t hear.”

“Pepé!” I shouted. The dog opened his eyes and snapped to attention with a bark.

“Never mind, Pepé,” said the girl. “Sleep more and live longer.” Pepé flopped down again at my feet.

Naoko and Reiko ordered cold glasses of milk and I asked for a beer. “Let’s hear the radio,” said Reiko. The girl switched on an amplifier and tuned into an FM station. Blood, Sweat and Tears came on with “Spinning Wheel”.

Reiko looked pleased. “Now this is what we’re here for! We don’t have radios in our rooms, so if I don’t come here once in a while, I don’t have any idea what’s playing out there.”

“Do you sleep in this place?” I asked the girl.

“No way!” she laughed. “I’d die of loneliness if I spent the night here. The pasture guy drives me into town and I come out again in the morning.” She pointed at a four-wheel drive truck parked in front of the nearby pasture office.

“You’ve got a holiday coming up soon, too, right?” asked Reiko. “Yeah, we’ll be shutting up this place soon,” said the girl. Reiko offered her a cigarette, and they smoked.

“I’ll miss you,” said Reiko.

“I’ll be back in May, though,” said the girl with a laugh.

Cream came on the radio with “White Room”. After a commercial, it was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair”.

“I like that,” said Reiko when it was over. “I saw the film,” I said.

“Who’s in it?”

“Dustin Hoffman.”

“I don’t know him,” she said with a sad little shake of the head. “The world changes like mad, and I don’t know what’s happening.” She asked the girl for a guitar. “Sure,” said the girl, switching off the radio and bringing out an old guitar. The dog raised its head and sniffed the instrument.

“You can’t eat this,” Reiko said with mock sternness. A grass-scented breeze swept over the porch. The mountains lay spread out before us, the ridge line sharp against the sky.

“It’s like a scene from The Sound of Music,” I said to Reiko as she tuned up.

“What’s that?” she asked.

She strummed the guitar in search of the opening chord of “Scarborough Fair”. This was apparently her first attempt at the song, but after a few false starts she could play it through without hesitating.

She had it down pat the third time and even started adding a few flourishes. “Good ear,” she said to me with a wink.

“I can usually play just about anything if I hear it three times.”

Softly humming the melody, she did a full rendition of “Scarborough Fair”. The three of us applauded, and Reiko responded with a decorous bow of the head.

“I used to get more applause for a Mozart concerto,” she said.

Her milk was on the house if she would play the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”, said the girl. Reiko gave her a thumbs up and launched into the song. Hers was not a full voice, and too much smoking had given it a husky edge, but it was lovely, with real presence. I almost felt as if the sun really was coming up again as I sat there listening and drinking beer and looking at the mountains. It was a soft, warm feeling.

Reiko gave back the guitar and asked to hear the radio again. Then she suggested to Naoko and me that we take an hour and walk around the area.

“I want to listen to the radio some more and hang out with her. If you come back by three, that should be OK.”

“Is it all right for us to be alone together so long?”

“Well, actually, it’s against the rules, but what the hell. I’m not a chaperone, after all. I could use a break. And you came all the way from Tokyo, I’m sure there’s tons of stuff you want to talk about.” Reiko lit another cigarette as she spoke.

“Let’s go,” said Naoko, standing up.

I started after her. The dog woke up and followed us for a while, but it soon lost interest and went back to its place on the porch. We strolled down a level road that followed the pasture fence. Naoko would take my hand every now and then or slip her arm under mine.

“This is kind of like the old days, isn’t it?” she said.

“That wasn’t ‘the old days’,” I laughed. “It was spring of this year! If that was ‘the old days’, ten years ago was ancient history.”

“It feels like ancient history,” said Naoko. “But anyway, sorry about last night. I don’t know, I was a bundle of nerves. I really shouldn’t have done that after you came here all the way from Tokyo.”

“Never mind,” I said. “Both of us have a lot of feelings we need to get out in the open. So if you want to take those feelings and smash somebody with them, smash me. Then we can understand each other better.”

“So if you understand me better, what then?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” I said. “It’s not a question of what then’. Some people get a kick out of reading railway timetables and that’s all they do all day. Some people make huge model boats out of matchsticks. So what’s wrong if there happens to be one guy in the world who enjoys trying to understand you?”

“Kind of like a hobby?” she said, amused.

“Yeah, I guess you could call it a hobby. Most normal people would call it friendship or love or something, but if you want to call it a hobby, that’s OK, too.”

“Tell me,” said Naoko, “you liked Kizuki, too, didn’t you?”

“Of course,” I said.

“How about Reiko?”

“I like her a lot,” I said. “She’s really nice.”

“How come you always like people like that – people like us, I mean? We’re all kind of weird and twisted and drowning – me and Kizuki and Reiko. Why can’t you like more normal people?”

“Because I don’t see you like that,” I said after giving it some thought. “I don’t see you or Kizuki or Reiko as “twisted’ in any way. The guys I think of as twisted are out there running around.”

“But we are twisted,” said Naoko. “I can see that.”

We walked on in silence. The road left the fence and came out to a circular grassy field ringed with trees like a pond.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night so scared,” said Naoko, pressing up against my arm. “I’m scared I’ll never get better again. I’ll always stay twisted like this and grow old and waste away here. I get so chilled it’s like I’m all frozen inside. It’s horrible … so cold. .. “

I put my arm around her and drew her close.

“I feel like Kizuki is reaching out for me from the darkness, calling to me, “Hey, Naoko, we can’t stay apart.’ When I hear him saying that, I don’t know what to do.”

“What do you do?”

“Well … don’t take this the wrong way, now.”

“OK, I won’t.”

“I ask Reiko to hold me. I wake her up and crawl into her bed and let her hold me tight. And I cry. And she strokes me until the ice melts and I’m warm again. Do you think it’s sick?”

“No. I wish I could be the one to hold you, though,” I said. “So hold me. Now. Right here.”

We sat down on the dry grass of the meadow and put our arms around each other. The tall grass surrounded us, and we could see nothing but the sky and clouds above. I gently lay Naoko down and took her in my arms. She was soft and warm and her hands reached out for me. We kissed with real feeling.

“Tell me something, Toru,” Naoko whispered in my ear. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Do you want to sleep with me?”

“Of course I do,” I said. “Can you wait?”

“Of course I can.”

“Before we do it again, I want to get myself a little better. I want to make myself into a person more worthy of that hobby of yours. Will you wait for me to do that?”

“Of course I’ll wait.” “Are you hard now?”

“You mean the soles of my feet?”

“Silly,” Naoko tittered.

“If you’re asking whether I have an erection, of course I do.”

“Will you do me a favour and stop saying “Of course’?”

“OK, I’ll stop.”

“Is it difficult?”


“To be all hard like that.”


“I mean, are you suffering?”

“Well, it depends how you look at it.”

“Want me to help you get rid of it?”

“With your hand?”

“Uh-huh. To tell you the truth,” said Naoko, “it’s been sticking into me ever since we lay down. It hurts.” I pulled my hips away. “Better?”


“You know?” I said.


“I wish you would do it.”

“OK,” she said with a kind smile. Then she unzipped my trousers and took my stiff penis in her hand. “It’s warm,” she said.

She started to move her hand, but I stopped her and unbuttoned her blouse, reaching around to undo her bra strap. I kissed her soft, pink nipples. She closed her eyes and slowly started moving her fingers. “Hey, you’re pretty good at that,” I said. “Be a good boy and shut up,” said Naoko.

After I came, I held her in my arms and kissed her again. Naoko did up her bra and blouse, and I zipped up my flies.

“Will that make it easier for you to walk?” she asked.

“I owe it all to you.”

“Well, then, Sir, if it suits you, shall we walk a little farther?”

“By all means.”

We cut across the meadow, through a stand of trees, and across another meadow. Naoko talked about her dead sister, explaining that although she had hardly said anything about this to anyone, she felt she ought to tell me.

“She was six years older than me, and our personalities were totally different, but still we were very close. We never fought, not once. It’s true. Of course, with such a big difference in our ages, there was nothing much for us to fight about.”

Her sister was one of those girls who are successful at every thing – a super-student, a super-athlete, popular, a leader, kind, straightforward, the boys liked her, her teachers loved her, her walls were covered with certificates of merit. There’s always one girl like that in any school. “I’m not sayi ng this because she’s my sister, but she never let any of this spoil her or make her the least bit stuck-up or a show-off. It’s just that, no matter what you gave her to do, she would naturally do it better than anyone else.

“So when I was little, I decided that I was going to be the sweet little girl.” Naoko twirled a frond of plume grass as she spoke. “I mean, you know, I grew up hearing everybody talking about how smart she was and how good she was at games and how popular she was. Of course I’m going to assume there’s no way I could ever compete with her. My face, at least, was a little prettier than hers, so I guess my parents decided they’d bring me up cute. Right from the start they put me in that kind of school.

They dressed me in velvet dresses and frilly blouses and patent leather shoes and gave me piano lessons and ballet lessons. This just made my sister even crazier about me – you know: I was her cute little sister. She’d give me these cute little presents and take me everywhere with her and help me with my homework. She even took me along on dates. She was the best big sister anyone could ask for.

“Nobody knew why she killed herself. The same as Kizuki. Exactly the same. She was 17, too, and she never gave the slightest hint she was going to commit suicide. She didn’t leave a note, either. Really, it was exactly the same, don’t you think?”

“Sounds like it.”

“Everybody said she was too smart or she read too many books. And she did read a lot. She had tons of books. I read a bunch of them after she died, and it was so sad. They had her comments in the margins and flowers pressed between the pages and letters from boyfriends, and every time I came across something like that I’d cry. I cried a lot.” Naoko fell silent for a few seconds, twirling the plume grass again.

“She was the kind of person who took care of things by herself. She’d never ask anybody for advice or help. It wasn’t a matter of pride, I think. She just did what seemed natural to her. My parents were used to this and thought she’d be OK if they left her alone. I would go to my sister for advice and she was always ready to give it, but she never went to anyone else. She did what needed to be done, on her own. She never got angry or moody. This is all true, I mean it, I’m not exaggerating. Most girls, when they have their period or something, will get grumpy and take it out on others, but she never even did that. Instead of getting into a bad mood, she would become very subdued.

Maybe once in two or three months this would happen to her: she’d shut herself up in her room and stay in bed, avoid school, hardly eat a thing, turn the lights off, and space out. She wouldn’t be in a bad mood, though. When I came home from school, she’d call me into her room and sit me down next to her and ask me about my day. I’d tell her all the little things – like what kinds of games I played with my friends or what the teacher said or my exam results, stuff like that.

She’d take in every detail and make comments and suggestions, but as soon as I left – to play with a friend, say, or go to a ballet lesson – she’d space out again. After two days, she’d snap out of it just like that and go to school. This kind of thing went on for, I don’t know, maybe
four years. My parents were worried at first and I think they went to a doctor for advice, but, I mean, she’d be perfectly fine after two days, so they thought it would work itself out if they left her alone, she was such a bright, steady girl.”

After she died, though, I heard my parents talking about a younger brother of my father’s who had died long before. He had also been very bright, but he had stayed shut up in the house for four years – from the time he was 17 until he was 21. And then suddenly one day he left the house and jumped in front of a train. My father said, “Maybe it’s in the blood – from my side’.”
While Naoko was speaking, her fingers unconsciously teased the tassel of the plume grass, scattering its fibres to the wind. When the shaft was bare, she wound it around her fingers.

“I was the one who found my sister dead,” she went on. “In autumn when I was in the first year. November. On a dark, rainy day. My sister was in the sixth-form at the time. I came home from my piano lesson at 6.30 and my mother was making dinner. She told me to tell my sister it was ready. I went upstairs and knocked on her door and yelled “Dinner’s ready’, but there was no answer. Her room was completely silent.

I thought this was strange, so I knocked again, opened the door and peeped inside. I thought she was probably sleeping. She wasn’t in bed, though. She was standing by the window, staring outside, with her neck bent at a kind of angle like this, like she was thinking. The room was dark, the lights were out, and it was hard to see anything. “What are you doing?’ I said to her. “Dinner is ready.’ That’s when I noticed that she looked taller than usual. What was going on? I wondered: it was so strange! Did she have high heels on?

Was she standing on something? I moved closer and was just about to speak to her again when I saw it: there was a rope above her head. It came straight down from a beam in the ceiling – I mean it was amazingly straight, like somebody had drawn a line in space with a ruler. My sister had a white blouse on – yeah, a simple white blouse like this one – and a grey skirt, and her toes were pointing down like a ballerina’s, except there was a space between the tip of her toes and the floor of maybe seven or eight inches. I took in every detail. Her face, too. I looked at her face. I couldn’t help it. I thought: I’ve got to go right downstairs and tell my mother.

I’ve got to scream. But my body ignored me. It moved on its own, separately from my conscious mind. It was trying to lower her from the rope while my mind was telling me to hurry downstairs. Of course, there was no way a little girl could have the strength to do such a thing, and so I just stood there, spacing out, for maybe five or six minutes, a total blank, like something inside me had died. I just stayed that way, with my sister, in that cold, dark place until my mother came up to see what was going on.”

Naoko shook her head.

“For three days after that I couldn’t talk. I just lay in bed like a dead person, eyes wide open and staring into space. I didn’t know what was happening.” Naoko pressed against my arm. “I told you in my letter, didn’t I? I’m a far more flawed human being than you realize. My sickness is a lot worse than you think: it has far deeper roots. And that’s why I want you to go on ahead of me if you can. Don’t wait for me. Sleep with other girls if you want to.

Don’t let thoughts of me hold you back. Just do what you want to do. Otherwise, I might end up taking you with me, and that is the one thing I don’t want to do. I don’t want to interfere with your life. I don’t want to interfere with anybody’s life. Like I said before, I want you to come to see me every once in a while, and always remember me. That’s all I want.”

“It’s not all I want, though,” I said.

“You’re wasting your life being involved with me.”

“I’m not wasting anything.”

“But I might never recover. Will you wait for me forever? Can you wait 10 years, 20 years?”

“You’re letting yourself be scared by too many things,” I said. “The dark, bad dreams, the power of the dead. You have to forget them. I’m sure you’ll get well if you do.”

“If I can,” said Naoko, shaking her head.

“If you can get out of this place, will you live with me?” I asked.

“Then I can protect you from the dark and from bad dreams. Then you’d have me instead of Reiko to hold you when things got difficult.”

Naoko pressed still more firmly against me. “That would be wonderful,” she said.

We got back to the cafe a little before three. Reiko was reading a book and listening to Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on the radio. There was something wonderful about Brahms playing at the edge of a grassy meadow without a sign of anyone as far as the eye could see. Reiko was whistling along with the cello passage that begins the third movement.

“Backhaus and Bohm,” she said.

“I wore this record out once, a long time ago. Literally. I wore the grooves out listening to every note. I sucked the music right out of it.”

Naoko and I ordered coffee.

“Do a lot of talking?” asked Reiko.

“Tons,” said Naoko.

“Tell me all about his, uh, you know, later.”

“We didn’t do any of that,” said Naoko, reddening.

“Really?” Reiko asked me.


“Nothing,” I said.

“Bo-o-o-ring!” she said with a bored look on her face.

“True,” I said, sipping my coffee.

The scene in the dining hall was the same as the day before – the mood, the voices, the faces. Only the menu had changed. The balding man in white, who yesterday had been talking about the secretion of gastric juices under weightless conditions, joined the three of us at our table and talked for a long time about the correlation of brain size to intelligence. As we ate our soybean burgers, we heard all about the volume of Bismarck’s brain and Napoleon’s.

He pushed his plate aside and used a ballpoint pen and notepaper to draw sketches of brains. He would start to draw, declare “No, that’s not quite it”, and begin a new one. This happened several times. When he had finished, he carefully put the remaining notepaper away in a pocket of his white jacket and slipped the pen into his breast pocket, in which he kept a total of three pens, along with pencils and a ruler. Having finished his meal, he repeated what he had told me the day before, “The winters here are really nice. Make sure you come back when it’s winter,” and left the dining hall.

“Is he a doctor or a patient?” I asked Reiko.

“Which do you think?”

“I really can’t tell. In either case, he doesn’t seem all that normal.”

“He’s a doctor,” said Naoko. “Doctor Miyata.”
“Yeah,” said Reiko, “but I bet he’s the craziest one here.”

“Mr Omura, the gatekeeper, is pretty crazy, too,” answered Naoko.

“True,” said Reiko, nodding as she stabbed her broccoli.

“He does these wild callisthenics every morning, screaming nonsense at the top of his lungs. And before you came, Naoko, there was a girl in the business office, Miss Kinoshita, who tried to kill herself. And last year they sacked a male nurse, Tokushima, who had a terrible drinking problem.”

“Sounds like patients and staff should swap places,” I said.

“Right on,” said Reiko, waving her fork in the air.

“You’re finally starting to see how things work here.”

“I suppose so.”

“What makes us most normal,” said Reiko, “is knowing that we’re not normal.”

Back in the room, Naoko and I played cards while Reiko practised Bach on her guitar.

“What time are you leaving tomorrow?” Reiko asked me, taking a break and lighting a cigarette.

“Straight after breakfast,” I said. “The bus comes at nine. That way I can get back in time for tomorrow night’s work.”

“Too bad. It’d be nice if you could stay longer.”

“If I stayed around too long, I might end up living here,” I said, laughing.

“Maybe so,” Reiko said. Then, to Naoko, she said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got to go get some grapes at Oka’s. I totally forgot.”

“Want me to go with you?” asked Naoko.

“How about letting me borrow your young Mr Watanabe here?”

“Fine,” said Naoko.

“Good. Let’s just the two of us go for another nighttime stroll,” said Reiko, taking my hand. “We Yesterday. Let’s go all the way tonight.”

“Fine,” said Naoko, tittering.

“Do what you like.” were almost there.

The night air was cool. Reiko wore a pale blue cardigan over her shirt and walked with her hands shoved in her jeans pockets. Looking up at the sky, she sniffed the breeze like a dog. “Smells like rain,” she said. I tried sniffing too, but couldn’t smell anything. True, there were lots of clouds in the sky obscuring the moon.

“If you stay here long enough, you can pretty much tell the weather by the smell of the air,” said Reiko.

We entered the wooded area where the staff houses stood. Reiko told me to wait a minute, walked over to the front door of one house and rang the bell. A woman came to the door – no doubt the lady of the house – and stood there chatting and chuckling with Reiko. Then she ducked inside and came back with a large plastic bag. Reiko thanked her and said goodnight before returning to the spot where I was waiting.

“Look,” she said, opening the bag. It held a huge cluster of grapes. “Do you like grapes?”
“Love them.”

She handed me the top bunch. “It’s OK to eat them. They’re washed.” We walked along eating grapes and spitting the skins and seeds on the ground. They were fresh and delicious.

“I give their son piano lessons once in a while, and they offer me different stuff. The wine we had was from them. I sometimes ask them to do a little shopping for me in town.”

“I’d like to hear the rest of the story you were telling me yesterday,” I said.

“Fine,” said Reiko. “But if we keep coming home late, Naoko might start getting suspicious.”

“I’m willing to risk it.”

“OK, then. I want a roof, though. It’s a little chilly tonight.”

She turned left as we approached the tennis courts. We went down a narrow stairway and came out at a spot where several storehouses stood like a block of houses. Reiko opened the door of the nearest one, stepped in and turned on the lights. “Come in,” she said. “There’s not much to see, though.”

The storehouse contained neat rows of cross-country skis, boots and poles, and on the floor were piled snow removal equipment and bags of rock salt.

“I used to come here all the time for guitar practice – when I wanted to be alone. Nice and cosy, isn’t it?”

Reiko sat on the bags of rock salt and invited me to sit next to her. I did as I was told.

“Not much ventilation here, but mind if I smoke?”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“This is one habit I can’t seem to break,” she said with a frown, but she lit up with obvious enjoyment. Not many people enjoy tobacco as much as Reiko did. I ate my grapes, carefully peeling them one at a time and tossing the skins and seeds into a tin that served as a rubbish bin.

“Now, let’s see, how far did we get last night?” Reiko asked.

“It was a dark and stormy night, and you were climbing the steep cliff to grab the bird’s nest.”
“You’re amazing, the way you can joke around with such a straight face,” said Reiko. “Let’s see, I think I had got to the point where I was giving piano lessons to the girl every Saturday morning.”

“That’s it.”

“Assuming you can divide everybody in the world into two groups – those who are good at teaching things to people, and those who are not pretty much belong to the first group,” said Reiko. “I never thought so when I was young, and I suppose I didn’t want to think of myself that way, but once I reached a certain age and had attained a degree of selfknowledge I realized it was true after all: I’m good at teaching people things. Really good.”
“I bet you are.”
“I have a lot more patience for others than I have for myself, and I’m much better at bringing out the best in others than in myself. That’s just the kind of person I am. I’m the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox. But that’s fine with me. I don’t mind at all. Better to be a first-class matchbox than a second-class match. I got this clear in my own mind, I’d say, after I started teaching this girl. I had taught a few others when I was younger, strictly as a sideline, without realizing this about myself. It was only after I started teaching her that I began to think of myself that way. Hey – I’m good at teaching people. That’s how well the lessons went.

As I said yesterday, the girl was nothing special when it came to technique, and there was no question of her becoming a professional musician, so I could take it easy. Plus she was going to the kind of girls’ school where anybody with halfdecent marks automatically got into university, which meant she didn’t have to kill herself studying, and her mother was all for going easy with the lessons, too. So I didn’t push her to do anything.

I knew the first time I met her that she was the kind of girl you couldn’t push to do anything, that she was the kind of child who would be all sweetness and say “Yes, yes,’ and absolutely refuse to do anything she didn’t want to do. So the first thing I did was let her play a piece the way she wanted to – 100 per cent her own way.

Then I would play the same piece several different ways for her, and the two of us would discuss which was best or which way she liked most. Then I’d have her play the piece again, and her performance would be ten times better than the first. She would see for herself what worked best and bring those features into her own playing.”

Reiko paused for a moment, observing the glowing end of her cigarette. I went on eating my grapes without a word. “I know I have a pretty good sense for music, but she was better than me. I used to think it was such a waste! I thought, ,if only she had started out with a good teacher and received the proper training, she’d be so much farther along!’ But I was wrong. She wasn’t the kind of child who could stand proper training. There just happen to be people like that. They’re blessed with this marvellous talent, but they can’t make the effort to systematize it. They end up squandering it in little bits and pieces. I’ve seen my share of people like that. At first you think they’re amazing. They can sight-read some terrifically difficult piece and do a damn good job playing it all the way through.

You see them do it, and you’re overwhelmed. You think, “I could never do that in a million years.’ But that’s as far as it goes. They can’t take it any further. And why not? Because they won’t put in the effort. They haven’t had the discipline pounded into them. They’ve been spoiled. They have just enough talent so they’ve been able to play things well without any effort and they’ve had people telling them how great they are from an early age, so hard work looks stupid to them.

They’ll take some piece another kid has to work on for three weeks and polish it off in half the time, so the teacher assumes they’ve put enough into it and lets them go on to the next thing. And they do that in half the time and go on to the next piece. They never find out what it means to be hammered by the teacher; they lose out on a crucial element required for character building. It’s a tragedy. I myself had tendencies like that, but fortunately I had a very tough teacher, so I kept them in check.

“Anyway, it was a joy to teach her. Like driving down the highway in a high-powered sports car that responds to the slightest touch – responds too quickly, sometimes. The trick to teaching children like that is not to praise them too much. They’re so used to praise it doesn’t mean anything to them. You’ve got to dole it out wisely. And you can’t force anything on them. You have to let them choose for themselves. And you don’t let them rush ahead from one thing to the next: you make them stop and think. But that’s about it. If you do those things, you’ll get good results.”

Reiko dropped her cigarette butt on the floor and stamped it out. Then she took a deep breath as if to calm herself. “When her lessons ended, we’d have tea and chat. Sometimes I’d show her certain jazz piano styles – like, this is Bud Powell, or this is Thelonious Monk. But mostly she talked. And what a talker she was! She could draw you right in. As I told you yesterday, I think most of what she said was made up, but it was interesting. She was a keen observer, a precise user of language, sharp-tongued and funny. She could stir your emotions.

Yes, really, that’s what she was so good at – stirring people’s emotions, moving you. And she knew she had this power. She tried to use it as skilfully and effectively as possible. She could make you feel whatever she wanted – angry or sad or sympathetic or disappointed or happy. She would manipulate people’s emotions for no other reason than to test her own powers. Of course, I only realized this later. At the time, I had no idea what she was doing to me.”

Reiko shook her head and ate a few grapes. “It was a sickness,” she said. “The girl was sick. She was like the rotten apple that ruins all the other apples. And no one could cure her. She’ll have that sickness until the day she dies. In that sense, she was a sad little creature. I would have
pitied her, too, if I hadn’t been one of her victims. I would have seen her as a victim.”

Reiko ate a few more grapes. She seemed to be thinking of how best to go on with her story.
“Well, anyway, I enjoyed teaching her for a good six months. Sometimes I’d find something she said a little surprising or odd. Or she’d be talking and I’d have this rush of horror when I realised the intensity of her hatred for some person was completely irrational, or it would occur to me that she was just far too clever, and I’d wonder what she was really thinking. But, after all, everyone has their flaws, right? And finally, what business was it of mine to question her personality or character? I was just her piano teacher. All I had to care about was whether she practised or not. And besides, the truth of the matter is that I liked her. I liked her a lot.

“Still, I was careful not to tell her anything too personal about myself. I just had this sixth sense that I’d better not talk about such things. She asked me hundreds of questions – she was dying to know more about me – but I only told her the most harmless stuff, like things about my childhood or where I’d gone to school, stuff like that. She said she wanted to know more about me, but I told her there was nothing to tell: I’d had a boring life, I had an ordinary husband, an ordinary child, and a ton of housework. “But I like you so much,’ she’d say and look me right in the eye in this clingy sort of way. It sent a thrill through me when she did that – a nice thrill. But even so, I never told her more than I had to.

“And then one day – a day in May, I think it was – in the middle of her lesson, she said she felt sick. I saw she was pale and sweating and asked if she wanted to go home, but she said she thought she’d feel better if she could just lie down for a while. So I took her – almost carried her – to the bedroom. We had such a small sofa, the bed was the only place she could lie down. She apologized for being a nuisance, but I assured her it was no bother and asked if she wanted anything to drink. She said no, she just wanted me to stay near her, which I said I’d be glad to do.
“A few minutes later she asked me to rub her back. She sounded as though she was really suffering, and she was sweating like mad, so I started to give her a good massage. Then she apologized and asked me if I’d mind taking off her bra, as it was hurting her. So, I don’t know, I did it. She was wearing a skin-tight blouse, and I had to unbutton that and reach behind and undo the bra hooks. She had big breasts for a 13-year-old. Twice as big as mine. And she wasn’t wearing any starter bra but a real adult model, an expensive one. Of course I’m not paying all that much attention at the time, and like an idiot I just carry on rubbing her back. She keeps apologizing in this pitiful voice as if she’s really sorry, and I keep telling her it’s OK it’s OK.”
Reiko tapped the ash from her cigarette to the floor. By then I had stopped eating grapes and was giving all my attention to her story. “After a while she starts sobbing. “What’s wrong?’ I ask her. “Nothing,’ she says. “It’s obviously not nothing,’ I say. “Tell me the truth. What’s bothering you?’ So she says, “I just get like this sometimes. I don’t know what to do. I’m so lonely and sad, and I can’t talk to anybody, and nobody cares about me. And it hurts so much, I just get like this. I can’t sleep at night, and I don’t feel like eating, and coming here for my lesson is the only thing I have to look forward to.’ So I say, “You can talk to me. Tell me why this happens to you.’ Things are not going well at home, she says.

She can’t love her parents, and they don’t love her. Her father is seeing another woman and is hardly ever around, and that makes her mother half crazy and she takes it out on the girl; she beats her almost every day and she hates to go home. So now the girl is really wailing, and her eyes are full of tears, those beautiful eyes of hers. The sight is enough to make a god weep. So I tell her, if it’s so terrible to go home, she can come to my place any time she likes. When she hears that, the girl throws her arms around me and says, “Oh, I’m so sorry, but if I didn’t have you I wouldn’t know what to do. Please don’t turn your back on me. If you did that, I’d have nowhere to go.’

“So, I don’t know, I hold her head against me and I’m caressing her and saying “There there,’ and she’s got her arms around me and she’s stroking my back, and soon I’m starting to feel very strange, my whole body is kind of hot. I mean, here’s this picture-perfect beautiful girl and I’m on the bed with her, and we’re hugging, and her hands are caressing my back in this incredibly sensual way that my own husband couldn’t even begin to match, and I feel all the screws coming loose in my body every time she touches me, and before I know it she has my blouse and bra off and she’s stroking my breasts. So that’s when it finally hits me that she’s an absolute dyed-in-the-wool lesbian. This had happened to me once before, at school, one of the sixth-form girls. So then I tell her to stop.”

“Oh, please,’ she says, “just a little more. I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, please believe me, you’re the only one I have, oh please, don’t turn your back on me,’ and she takes my hand and puts it on her breast – her very nicely shaped breast, and, sure, I’m a woman, but this electric something goes through me when my hand makes contact. I have no idea what to do. I just keep repeating no no no no no, like an idiot. It’s as if I’m Paralyzed, I can’t move. I had managed to push the girl
away at school, but now I can’t do a thing. My body won’t take orders. She’s holding my right hand against her with her left hand, and she’s kissing and licking my nipples, and her right hand is caressing my back, my side, my bottom. So here I am in the bedroom with the curtains closed and a 13-year-old girl has me practically naked – she’s been taking my clothes off somehow all along – and touching me all over and I’m writhing with the pleasure of it. Looking back on it now, it seems incredible. I mean, it’s insane, don’t you think? But at the time it was as if she had cast a spell on me.”

Reiko paused to puff at her cigarette.
“You know, this is the first time I’ve ever told a man about it,” she said, looking at me. “I’m telling it to you because I think I ought to, but I’m finding it really embarrassing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.

“This went on for a while, and then her right hand started to move down, and she touched me through my panties. By then, I was absolutely soaking wet. I’m ashamed to say it, but I’ve never been so wet before or since. I had always thought of myself as sort of indifferent to sex, so I was astounded to be getting so worked up. So then she puts these slim, soft fingers of hers inside my panties, and … well, you know, I can’t bring myself to put it into words. I mean, it was totally different from when a man puts his clumsy hands on you there. It was amazing. Really. Like feathers or down.

I thought all the fuses in my head were going to pop. Still, somewhere in my fogged- over brain, the thought occurred to me that I had to put a stop to this. If I let it happen once, I’d never stop, and if I had to carry around a secret like that inside me, my head was going to get completely messed up again. I thought about my daughter, too. What if she saw me like this? She was supposed to be at my parents’ house until three on Saturdays, but what if something happened and she came home unexpectedly? This helped me to gather my strength and raise myself on the bed. “Stop it now, please stop!’ I shouted.

“But she wouldn’t stop. Instead, she yanked my panties down and started using her tongue. I had rarely let even my husband do that, I found it so embarrassing, but now I had a 13-year-old girl licking me all over down there. I just gave up. All I could do was cry. And it was absolute paradise.”

“Stop it!’ I yelled one more time and slapped her on the side of the face as hard as I could. She finally stopped, raised herself up and looked into my eyes. The two of us were stark naked, on our knees, in bed, staring at each other. She was 13, I was 31, but, I don’t know, looking at that body of hers, I felt totally overwhelmed. The image is still so vivid in my mind. I could hardly believe I was looking at the body of a 13-year-old girl, and I still can’t believe it. By comparison, what I had for a body was enough to make you cry. Believe me.” There was nothing I could say, and so I said nothing.”

“What’s wrong?’ she says to me. “You like it this way, don’t you? I knew you would the first time I met you. I know you like it. It’s much better than doing it with a man – isn’t it? Look how wet you are. I can make you feel even better if you’ll let me. It’s true. I can make you feel like your body’s melting away. You want me to, don’t you?’ And she was right. She was much better than my husband. And I did want her to do it even more! But I couldn’t let it happen. “Let’s do this once a week,’ she said. “Just once a week. Nobody will find out. It’ll be our little secret’.”

“But I got out of bed and put on my dressing-gown and told her to leave and never come back. She just looked at me. Her eyes were absolutely flat. I had never seen them like that
before. It was as if they were painted on cardboard. They had no depth. After she stared at me for a while, she gathered up her clothes without a word and, as slowly as she could, as though she were making a show of it, she put on each item, one at a time. Then she went back into the piano room and took a brush from her bag. She brushed her hair and wiped the blood from her lips with a handkerchief, put on her shoes, and left. As she went out, she said, “You’re a lesbian, you know. It’s true. You may try to hide it, but you’ll be a lesbian until the day you die’.”

“Is it true?” I asked.

Reiko curved her lips and thought for a while. “Well, it is and it isn’t. I definitely felt better with her than with my husband. That’s a fact. I had a time there when I really agonized over the question. Maybe I really was a lesbian and just hadn’t noticed until then. But I don’t think so any more. Which is not to say I don’t have the tendencies. I probably do have them. But I’m not a lesbian in the proper sense of the term. I never feel desire when I look at a woman. Know what I mean?”

I nodded.

“Certain kinds of girls, though, do respond to me, and I can feel it when that happens. Those are the only times it comes out in me. I can hold Naoko in my arms, though, and feel nothing special. We go around in the flat practically naked when the weather’s hot, and we take baths together, sometimes even sleep in the same bed, but nothing happens. I don’t feel a thing. I can see that she has a beautiful body, but that’s all. Actually, Naoko and I played a game once. We made believe we were lesbians. Want to hear about it?”

“Sure. Tell me.”

“When I told her the story I just told you – we tell each other everything, you know – Naoko tried an experiment. The two of us got undressed and she tried caressing me, but it didn’t work at all. It just tickled. I thought I was going to die laughing. Just thinking about it makes me itchy. She was so clumsy! I’ll bet you’re glad to hear that.”

“Yes I am, to tell the truth.”

“Well, anyway, that’s about it,” said Reiko, scratching near an eyebrow with the tip of her little finger. “After the girl left my house, I found a chair and sat there spacing out for a while, wondering what to do. I could hear the dull beating of my heart from deep inside my body. My arms and legs seemed to weigh a ton, and my mouth felt as though I’d eaten a moth or something, it was so dry. But I dragged myself to the bathroom, knowing my daughter would be back soon. I wanted to clean those places where the girl had touched and licked me. I scrubbed myself with soap, over and over, but I couldn’t seem to get rid of the slimy feeling she had left behind. I knew I was probably imagining it, but that didn’t help.

That night, I asked my husband to make love to me, almost as a way to get rid of the defilement. Of course, I didn’t tell him anything – I couldn’t. All I said to him was that I wanted him to take it slow, to give it more time than usual. And he did. He concentrated on every little detail, he really took a long, long time, and the way I came that night, oh yes, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before, never once in all our married life. And why do you think that was? Because the touch of that girl’s fingers was still there in my body. That’s all it was.

“Oh, man, is this embarrassing! Look, I’m sweating! I can’t believe I’m saying these things – he “made love’ to me, I “came’!” Reiko smiled, her lips curved again. “But even this didn’t help. Two days went by, three, and her touch was still there. And her last words were echoing and echoing in my head.

“She didn’t come to my house the following Saturday. My heart was pounding all day long while I waited, wondering what I would do if she showed up. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. She never did come, though. Of course. She was a proud little thing, and she had failed with me in the end. She didn’t come the next week, either, nor the week after that, and soon a month went by. I decided that I would be able to forget about what had happened when enough time had passed, but I couldn’t forget.

When I was alone in the house, I would feel her presence and my nerves would be on edge. I couldn’t play the piano, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t do anything during that first month. And then one day I realized that something was wrong whenever I left the house. The neighbours were looking at me in a strange way. There was a new distance in their eyes. They were as polite as ever with their greetings, but there was something different in their tone of voice and in their behaviour towards me. The woman next door, who used to pay me an occasional visit, seemed to be avoiding me. I tried not to let these things bother me, though. Start noticing things like that, and you’ve got the first signs of illness.

“Then one day I had a visit from another housewife I was on friendly terms with. We were the same age, and she was the daughter of a friend of my mother’s, and her child went to the same kindergarten as mine, so we were fairly close. She just showed up one day and asked me if I knew about a terrible rumour that was going around about me. “What kind of rumour?’ I asked. “I almost can’t say it, it’s so awful,’ she said. “Well, you’ve got this far, you have to tell me the rest.’ “Still she resisted telling me, but I finally got it all out of her. I mean, her whole purpose in coming to see me was to tell me what she had heard, so of course she was going to spit it out eventually.

According to her, people were saying that I was a card-carrying lesbian and had been in and out of mental hospitals for it. They said that I had stripped the clothes off my piano pupil and tried to do things to her and when she had resisted I had slapped her so hard her face swelled up. They had turned the story on its head, of course, which was bad enough, but what really shocked me was that people knew I had been hospitalized. “My friend said she was telling everyone that she had known me for ever and that I was not like that, but the girl’s parents believed her version and were spreading it around the neighbourhood. In addition, they had investigated my background and found that I had a history of mental problems.

“The way my friend heard it, the girl had come home from her lesson one day – that day, of course – with her face all bloated, her lip split and bloody, buttons missing from her blouse, and even her underwear torn. Can you believe it? She had done all this to back up her story, of course, which her mother had to drag out of her. I can just see her doing it – putting blood on her blouse, tearing buttons off, ripping the lace on her bra, making herself cry until her eyes were red, messing up her hair, telling her mother a pack of lies.

“Not that I’m blaming people for believing her. I would have believed her, too, this beautiful doll with a devil’s tongue. She comes home crying, she refuses to talk because it’s too embarrassing, but then she spills it out. Of course people are going to believe her. And to make matters worse, it’s true, I do have a history of hospitalization for mental problems, I did hit her in the face as hard as I could. Who’s going to believe me? Probably just my husband.

A few more days went by while I wrestled with the question of whether to tell him or not, but when I did, he believed me. Of course. I told him everything that had happened that day – the kind of lesbian things she did to me, the way I slapped her in the face. Of course, I didn’t tell him what I had felt. I couldn’t have told him that. So anyway, he was furious and insisted that he was going to go straight to the girl’s family. He said, “You’re a married woman, after all. You’re married to me. And you’re a mother. There’s no way you’re a lesbian. What a joke!’

“But I wouldn’t let him go. All he could do was make things worse. I knew. I knew she was sick. I had seen hundreds of sick people, so I knew. The girl was rotten inside. Peel off a layer of that beautiful skin, and you’d find nothing but rotten flesh. I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. And I knew that ordinary people could never know the truth about her, that there was no way we could win. She was an expert at manipulating the emotions of the adults around her, and we had nothing to prove our case. First of all, who’s going to believe that a 13-year-old girl set a homosexual trap for a woman in her thirties? No matter what we said, people would believe what they wanted to believe. The more we struggled, the more vulnerable we’d be.

“There was only one thing for us to do, I said: we had to move. If I stayed in that neighbourhood any longer, the stress would get to me; my mind would snap again. It was happening already. We had to get out of there, go somewhere far away where nobody knew me. My husband wasn’t ready to go, though. It hadn’t dawned on him yet how critical I was. And the timing was terrible: he loved his work, and he had finally succeeded in getting us settled in our own house (we lived in a little prefab), and our daughter was comfortable in her kindergarten. “Wait a minute,’ he said, “we can’t just up sticks and go. I can’t find a job just like that. We’d have to sell the house, and we’d have to find another kindergarten. It’ll take two months at least.”

“I can’t wait two months,” I told him. “This is going to finish me off once and for all. I’m not kidding. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.’ The symptoms were starting already: my ears were ringing, and I was hearing things, and I couldn’t sleep. So he suggested that I leave first, go somewhere by myself, and he would follow after he had taken care of what had to be done.”

“No,’ I said, “I don’t want to go alone. I’ll fall apart if I don’t have you. I need you. Please, don’t leave me alone.’ He held me and pleaded with me to hang on a little longer. Just a month, he said. He would take care of everything – leave his job, sell the house, make arrangements for kindergarten, find a new job. There might be a position he could take in Australia, he said. He just wanted me to wait one month, and everything would be OK. What could I say to that? If I tried to object, it would only isolate me even more.

“Reiko sighed and looked at the ceiling light.”

I couldn’t hold on for a month, though. One day, it happened again: snap! And this time it was really bad. I took sleeping pills and turned on the gas. I woke up in a hospital bed, and it was all over. It took a few months before I had calmed down enough to think, and then I asked my husband for a divorce. I told him it would be the best thing for him and for our daughter. He said he had no intention of divorcing me. “We can make a new start,’ he said.

“We can go somewhere new, just the three of us, and begin all over again.’ “It’s too late,’ I told him. “Everything ended when you asked me to wait a month. If you really wanted to start again, you shouldn’t have said that to me. Now, no matter where we go, no matter how far away we move, the same thing will happen all over again. And I’ll ask you for the same thing, and make you suffer. I don’t want to do that any more.’

“And so we divorced. Or I should say I divorced him. He married again two years ago, though. I’m still glad I made him leave me. Really. I knew I’d be like this for the rest of my life, and I didn’t want to drag anyone down with me. I didn’t want to force anyone to live in constant fear that I might lose my mind at any moment.

“He had been wonderful to me: an ideal husband, faithful, strong and patient, someone I could put my complete trust in. He had done everything he could to heal me, and I had done everything I could to be healed, both for his sake and for our daughter’s. And I had believed in my recovery. I was happy for six years from the time we were married. He got me 99 per cent of the way there, but the other one per cent went crazy. Snap! Everything we had built up came crashing down. In one split second, everything turned into nothing. And that girl was the one who did it.”
Reiko collected the cigarette butts she had crushed underfoot and tossed them into the tin can.
“It’s a terrible story. We worked so hard, so hard, building our world one brick at a time. And when it fell apart, it happened just like that. Everything was gone before you knew it.”
She stood up and thrust her hands in her pockets. “Let’s go back. It’s late.”

The sky was darker, the cloud cover thicker than before, the moon invisible. Now, I realized, like Reiko I could smell the rain. And with it mixed the fresh smell of the grapes in the bag I was holding.

“That’s why I can’t leave this place,” she said. “I’m afraid to get involved with the outside world. I’m afraid to meet new people and feel new feelings.”

“I understand,” I said. “But I think you can do it. I think you can go outside and make it.”
Reiko smiled, but said nothing. Naoko was on the sofa with a book. She had her legs crossed and pressed her hand against her temple as she read. Her fingers almost seemed to be touching and testing each word that entered her head. Scattered drops of rain were beginning to tap on the roof. The lamplight enveloped her, hovering around her like fine dust. After my long talk with Reiko, Naoko’s youthfulness struck me in a new way. “Sorry we’re so late,” said Reiko, patting Naoko’s head.

“Enjoy yourselves?” asked Naoko, looking up. “Of course,” said Reiko.

“Doing what?” Naoko asked me, – just the two of you.”

“Not at liberty to say, Miss,” I answered.

Naoko chuckled and set down her book. Then the three of us ate grapes to the sound of the rain.
“When it’s raining like this,” said Naoko, “it feels as if we’re the only ones in the world. I wish it would just keep raining so the three of us could stay together.”

“Oh, sure,” said Reiko, “and while the two of you are going at it, I’m supposed to be fanning you or playing background music on my guitar like some dumb geisha? No, thanks!”

“Oh, I’d let you have him once in a while,” said Naoko, laughing. “OK, then, count me in,” said Reiko. “Come on, rain, pour down!”

The rain did pour down, and kept pouring. Thunder shook the place from time to time. When we had finished the grapes, Reiko went back to her cigarettes and pulled out the guitar from under her bed and started to play – first, “Desafinado” and “The Girl from Ipanema”, then some Bacharach and a few Lennon and McCartney songs. Reiko and I sipped wine again, and when that was gone we shared the brandy that was left in my flask. A warm, intimate mood took hold as the three of us talked into the night, and I began to wish, with Naoko, that the rain would keep on falling.

“Will you come to see me again?” she asked, looking at me. “Of course I will,” I said.

“And will you write?”

“Every week.”

“And will you add a few lines for me?” asked Reiko. “That I will,” I said. “I’d be glad to.”

At eleven o’clock, Reiko unfolded the sofa and made a bed for me as she had the night before. We said goodnight and turned out the lights. Unable to sleep, I took The Magic Mountain and a torch from my rucksack and read for a while. Just before midnight, the bedroom door edged open and Naoko came and crawled in next to me. Unlike the night before, Naoko was the usual Naoko. Her eyes were in focus, her movements brisk. Bringing her mouth to my ear, she whispered, “I don’t know, I can’t sleep.”

“I can’t either,” I said. Setting my book down and turning out the torch, I took her in my arms and kissed her. The darkness and the sound of the rain enfolded us.

“How about Reiko?”

“Don’t worry, she’s sound asleep. And when she sleeps, she sleeps.”

Then Naoko asked, “Will you really come to see me again?”

“Of course I will.”

“Even if I can’t do anything for you?”

I nodded in the darkness. I could feel the full shape of her breasts against me. I traced the outline of her body through her gown with the flat of my hand. From shoulder to back to hips, I ran my hand over her again and again, driving the line and the softness of her body into my brain. After we had been in this gentle embrace for a while, Naoko touched her lips to my forehead and slipped out of bed. I could see her pale blue gown flash in the darkness like a fish.

“Goodbye,” she called in a tiny voice.

Listening to the rain, I dropped into a gentle sleep. It was still raining the following morning – a fine, almost invisible autumn rain unlike the previous night’s downpour. You knew it was raining only because of the ripples on puddles and the sound of dripping from the eaves. I woke to see a milky white mist enclosing the window, but as the sun rose a breeze carried the mist away, and the surrounding woods and hills began to emerge.

As we had done the day before, the three of us ate breakfast then went out to attend to the aviary. Naoko and Reiko wore yellow plastic raincapes with hoods. I put on a jumper and a waterproof windcheater. Outside the air was damp and chilly. The birds, too, were avoiding the rain, huddled together at the back of the cage.

“Gets cold here when it rains, doesn’t it?” I said to Reiko.

“Every time it rains it’ll be a little colder now, until it turns to snow,” she said. “The clouds from the Sea of Japan dump tons of snow when they pass through here.”

“What do you do with the birds in the winter?”

“Bring them inside, of course. What are we supposed to do – dig them out of the snow in spring all frozen? We defrost ’em and bring ’em back to life and yell, OK, everybody, come and get it!”
I poked the wire mesh and the parrot flapped its wings and squawked “Shithead!”

“Thank you!”


“Now, that one I’d like to freeze,” Naoko said with a melancholy look. “I really think I will go crazy if I have to hear that every morning.”

After cleaning the aviary, we went back to the flat. While I packed my things, the women put on their farm clothes. We left the building together and parted just beyond the tennis court. They turned right and I continued straight ahead. We called goodbye to each other, and I promised I would come again. Naoko gave a little smile and disappeared around a corner.

On my way to the gate I passed several people, all wearing the same yellow raincapes that Naoko and Reiko wore, all with their hoods up. Colours shone with an exceptional clarity in the rain: the ground was a deep black, the pine branches a brilliant green, and the people wrapped in yellow looking like otherworldly spirits that were only allowed to wander the earth on rainy mornings. They floated over the ground in silence, carrying farm tools, baskets and sacks.
The gatekeeper remembered my name and marked it on the list of visitors as I left. “I see you’re here from Tokyo,” the old fellow said. “I went there once. Just once. They serve great pork.”
“They do?” I asked, uncertain how to answer him.

“I didn’t like much of what I ate in Tokyo, but the pork was delicious. I expect they have some special way of rearing ’em, eh?”

I said I didn’t know, it was the first I’d heard of it. “When was that, by the way, when you went to Tokyo?”

“Hmm, let’s see,” he said, cocking his head, “was it the time His Majesty the Crown prince got married? My son was in Tokyo and said I ought to see the place at least once. That must have been 1959.”

“Oh, well then, sure, pork must have been good in Tokyo back then,” I said.

“How about these days?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure, I said, but I hadn’t heard anything special about it. This seemed to disappoint him. He gave every sign of wanting to continue our conversation, but I told him I had to catch a bus and started walking in the direction of the road. Patches of fog remained floating on the path where it skirted the stream, but the breeze carried them over to the steep flanks of a nearby mountain. Every now and then as I walked along I would stop, turn, and heave a deep sigh for no particular reason. I felt as though I had arrived on a planet where the gravity was a little different. Yes, of course, I told myself, feeling sad: I was in the outside world now.

Back at the dorm by 4.30, I changed straight away and left for the record shop in Shinjuku to put in my hours. I looked after the shop from six o’clock to 10.30 and sold a few records, but mainly I sat there in a daze, watching an incredible variety of people streaming by outside. There were families and couples and drunks and gangsters and lively-looking girls in short skirts and bearded hippies and bar hostesses and some indefinable types. Whenever I put on hard rock, hippies and runaway kids would gather outside to dance and sniff paint thinner or just sit on the ground doing nothing in particular, and when I put on Tony Bennett, they would disappear.
Next door was a shop where a middle-aged, sleepy-eyed man sold “adult toys”. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want the kind of sex paraphernalia he had there, but he seemed to do a roaring trade. In the alley diagonally across from the record shop I saw a drunken student vomiting.

In the game arcade across from us at another angle, the cook from a local restaurant was killing time on his break with a game of bingo that took cash bets. Beneath the eaves of a shop that had closed for the night, a swarthy homeless guy was crouching, motionless. A girl with pale pink lipstick who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 came in and asked me to play the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.

When I found the record and put it on for her, she started snapping her fingers to the rhythm and shaking her hips as she danced around the shop. Then she asked me for a cigarette. I gave her one of the manager’s, which she smoked gratefully, and when the record ended she left the shop without so much as a “thank you”. Every 15 minutes or so I would hear the siren of an ambulance or police car. Three drunk company executives in suits and ties came by, laughing at the top of their voices every time they yelled “Nice arse!” at a pretty, long-haired girl in a phone box.

The more I watched, the more confused I became. What the hell was this all about? I wondered. What could it possibly mean?

The manager came back from dinner and said to me, “Hey, know what, Watanabe? Night before last I made it with the boutique chick.” For some time now he had had his eye on the girl who worked at a boutique nearby, and every once in a while he would take a record from the shop as a gift for her.

“Good for you,” I said to him, whereupon he told me every last detail of his conquest.
“If you really wanna make a chick, here’s what ya gotta do,”

he began, very pleased with himself. “First, ya gotta give ‘er presents. Then ya gotta get ‘er drunk. I mean really drunk. Then ya just gotta do it. It’s easy. See what I mean?”
Head mixed up as ever, I boarded the commuter train and went back to my dorm. Closing the curtains, I turned off the lights, stretched out in bed, and felt as if Naoko might come crawling in beside me at any moment. With my eyes closed, I could feel the soft swell of her breasts on my chest, hear her whispering to me, and feel the outline of her body in my hands. In the darkness, I returned to that small world of hers.

I smelled the meadow grass, heard the rain at night. I thought of her naked, as I had seen her in the moonlight, and pictured her cleaning the aviary and tending to the vegetables with that soft, beautiful body of hers wrapped in the yellow raincape. Clutching my erection, I thought of Naoko until I came. This seemed to clear my brain a little, but it didn’t help me sleep. I felt exhausted, desperate for sleep, but it simply refused to cooperate.

I got out of bed and stood at the window, my unfocused eyes wandering out towards the flagpole. Without the national flag attached to it, the pole looked like a gigantic white bone thrusting up into the darkness of night. What was Naoko doing now? I wondered. Of course, she must be sleeping, sleeping deeply, shrouded in the darkness of that curious little world of hers. Let her be spared from anguished dreams, I found myself hoping.

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