Firefly, Barn Burning and other stories

1984, Shinchosha

Short Stories:

Firefly

Barn Burning (translated by Philip Gabriel in the November 2, 1992 issue of The New Yorker)
Barn Burning (translated by Alfred Birnbaum in "The Elaphant Vanishes)

The Dancing Dwarf (translated by Jay Rubin in "The Elaphant Vanishes)

Blind Willow and sleeping Woman (translated by Philip Gabriel in "Harper's Magazine" of June 2002 issue)
The Blind Willow, and the Slepping Woman (tranlated by Eric Han)

Three German Fantasies (translated by Keith Leslie Johnson)
1. Pornography Pornography vis-a-vis a museum-in-winter
2. The Herman Goering Strongfold, 1983
3. Herr W's Midair Garden


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BARN BURNING

by MURAKAMI Haruki

translated by Philip Gabriel

This story is translated by Philip Gabriel and published in the November 2, 1992 issue of The New Yorker.


I met her at a friend's wedding reception here in Tokyo, and we got to know each other. Three years ago. There was nearly a dozen years' age difference between us, she being twenty and I thirty-one. Not that it mattered much. I had a lot else on my mind then, and didn't have time to worry about things like age. And she didn't care about the difference at all. I was married, too, but that didn't bother her either. For her, your age or marital status or income were like your shoe size, how high or low your voice is, the shape of your fingernails-in other words, not the kind of thing you can do anything about. Come to think of it, I guess she's tight.

She was studying with that guy—I can't remember his name—the famous mime, and working as an advertising model to make ends meet. But she usually found it too much trouble to go out on the assignments her agent got her, so her income didn't amount to much. What it didn't cover, her boyfriends made up. Of course, I don't know for sure. But things she said seemed to hint at that kind of arrangement.

I'm not saying that she slept with men for money. Maybe there were times when something close to that took place. But that's not the point. Something else was at work in her relations with men. There was a simplicity about her that attracted a certain type of man. He would look at that unabashed simplicity and want to put it together with his own complicated, bottled-up feelings. I can't explain it well, but I think that's what was going on. You could say that she lived on her simplicity.

Naturally, you couldn't expect things to work that way all the time. That would turn the whole structure of the universe upside down. It could only happen under certain conditions, in a certain time and place. The way it did with the Tangerine Peeling. Let me tell you about this Tangerine Peeling. As I mentioned, when I first met her she told me she was studying mime. "Is that so?" I said. Didn't surprise me too much. Young women these days are all studying something or other. But she didn't seem the type who'd be serious about perfecting a skill.

Then she showed me the Tangerine Peeling. As the name says, it involves peeling a tangerine. On her left was a bowl piled high with tangerines; on her right, a bowl for the peels. At least that was the idea-actually there wasn't anything there at all. She'd take an imaginary tangerine in her hand, slowly peel it, put one section in her mouth, and spit out the seeds. When she'd finished one tangerine, she'd wrap up all the seeds in the peel and deposit it in the bowl to her right. She repeated these movements over and over again. When you try to put it in words it doesn't sound like anything special. But if you see it with your own eyes for ten or twenty minutes (we were just charting at the bar, and, almost without thinking, she kept on performing it) gradually the sense of reality is sucked right out of everything around you. It's a very strange feeling. A long time ago, when Adolf Eichmann was on trial in an Israeli court, someone said that a fitting punishment for him would be locking him in an airtight room and slowly pumping all the air out. I don't know how he actually died. ... The story just sort of popped into my head.

'You're pretty talented," I told her.

"This? It's easy. Has nothing to do with talent. What you do isn't make yourself believe that there are tangerines there. You forget that the tangerines are not there. That's all."

"Sounds like Zen."

I could see we were going to get along.



We didn't go out all that often. About once a month, twice at most. I'd call her up and ask her where she'd like to go. We'd have something to eat, have a few drinks in a bar. And talk up a storm. I'd listen to her talk, she'd listen to me. We had hardly anything in common to talk about, but that didn't matter. I guess you'd say we were friends. Naturally, I paid for everything, all the food and drink. A few times she called me up, usually when she'd run out of money and was hungry. On those occasions she ate like you wouldn't believe.

I was completely relaxed when I was with her. I could erase everything from my mind—all the work I didn't want to do, the jumble of senseless ideas people carry around in their heads. She had that effect on me. She didn't talk about anything in particular. Often I would just keep nodding my head, not really picking up the gist of her words. But listening to her made me feel relaxed, as if I were gazing at drifting clouds far off in the distance.

I talked about all sorts of things, too. I told her, as honestly as I could, my thoughts on everything, from personal dilemmas to the state of the world. You name it. Maybe she was doing the same thing I did—just nodding her head as she listened to me, without any of it sinking in. But I didn't care. What I was looking for was a certain feeling. A feeling that had nothing to do with sympathy—or understanding.

In the spring of the year after we met, her father had died of heart disease, and she inherited a little money from him. At least that's what she told me. She said she wanted to use the money to go to North Africa. I don't know why she picked North Africa, but I went ahead and introduced her to a girl I knew who worked at the Algerian Embassy in Tokyo. So off she went to Algeria. As things turned out, I went to see her off at the airport. She carried just one beat-up old bag with a few changes of clothes stuffed inside. Going through the luggage check, she looked more like she was going home to North Africa than taking a trip there.

"Are you going to come back to Japan?" I asked her, jokingly.

"Of course I am," she replied.

Three months later she was back, seven pounds lighter and tanned a deep brown. And with a new boyfriend. It seemed the two of them met at a restaurant in Algiers. Since there weren't many Japanese there, they grew dose and soon became lovers. As far as I knew, he was the first steady boyfriend she'd ever had.

He was in his late twenties, tall, impeccably dressed, and well-spoken. His face was somewhat expressionless, but he was handsome enough, and came across as a pleasant sort of guy. His hands were large, with long fingers.

I knew that much about him because I went to pick her up at the airport. A telegram had come all of a sudden from Beirut with just the date and flight number. When the plane arrived (four hours late, because of bad weather—I sat in the airport coffee shop and read through three magazines) the two of them appeared at the gate arm in arm, for all the world like some nice young married couple. She introduced me to him, and we shook hands. He had the firm handshake of a person who'd lived abroad a long time. She said she was dying for a bowl of tempura and rice, so we went to a restaurant, and she had some while he and I had a couple of draught beers.

"I'm in the import-export business," he told me, But he didn't say anything more about it. Maybe he didn't want to talk about his job, or maybe he thought I'd find it boring, I really don't know. I didn't' have much interest in hearing about trade, so I didn't ask any questions. Having nothing much to talk about, we talked about how dangerous Beirut had become, and about the water system inTunis. He seemed to be upon everything from North Africa to the Middle East.

When she'd finished her tempura, she gave a deep yawn and said she was sleepy. She looked like she was going to conk out right on the spot; she had the habit of nodding off at the most unexpected times. He said he'd take her home by cab. I told them the train would be fluster for me. I had no idea why I'd gone to all the trouble of coming out to the airport.

I'm glad I could get to know you," he said, somewhat apologetically.

"Same here," I replied.

I saw him again several times after that. Whenever I ran into her, there he'd be, right beside her. And if I had a date with her he'd drive her to wherever we were supposed to meet. He drove a silver sports car, German. I know next to nothing about cars, so I can't really describe it well, but it looked like it belonged in a black-and-white Fellin film.

"He must be pretty well off, don't you think?" I asked her once.

"Yeah,"..she answered without much interest. "Guess so."

"I wonder if you can make that much in foreign trade."

"Foreign trade?"

'That's what he told me. Said he was in foreign trade."

"Well, I guess he must be. But I don't know. He doesn't seem to be working anywhere. He meets a lot of people and makes a lot of phone calls, but he doesn't seem to be too wrapped up in it."

Just like Gatsby, I thought. A young man who's a riddle: you have no idea what he does, really, but he never seems to be hurting for money.



She called me one Sunday afternoon in October. My wife had left in the morning to visit relatives and I was alone. It was a beautiful, dear Sunday, and I was gazing at the camphor tree in the garden, eating an apple. I must have eaten seven apples that day. This happens from time to time—I get a pathological craving for apples.

"We were just in the neighborhood and wondered if we could drop by to see you," she said.

"We?" I asked.

"Him and me," she said.

"Sure, come on," I said.

"O.K—we'll be over in half an hour," she said. And hung up.

I lay vacantly on the couch for a while, then got up and showered and shaved. Drying off, I cleaned my ears. I couldn't decide whether I should straighten up the house, and in the end decided not to. There wasn't enough time to do a thorough job of it, and if it can't be done right, I thought, better not bother with it at all. The room was littered with books, magazines, letters, records, pencils, and sweaters, but it didn't look that messy. I'd just finished a job and was feeling lazy. I sat down on the sofa and, gazing at the camphor tree, had myself another apple.

A little after two, I heard a car pull up to the house. When I opened the door, I saw the silver sports car at the curb. She stuck her face out the window and waved. I showed them where to park, out m back.

"Well, here we are!" she said with a smile. She wore a light shirt that showed the outline of her nipples through it, and an olive-green miniskirt.

He had on a navy-blue blazer. Somehow he seemed different, probably because of his two-day growth of beard. You'd think the whiskers would make him look scruffy; instead they gave him a certain presence. Getting out of the car, he took off his sunglasses and stuck them in his pocket.

"I'm really sorry to drop in like this all of a sudden on your day off," he said.

"No problem," I said. "It's like every day's a day off for me. And I was just ready for some company."

            "We brought a meal," she said, and she hauled a large white paper sack from the rear seat of the car.

"A meal?"

"Nothing special. We just thought that since we dropped in on you on a Sunday we'd better bring something to eat," he said.

"Great All I've had today is apples."

We went inside and laid the food out on the table. Quite a spread: roast-beef sandwiches, salad, smoked salmon, and blueberry ice cream—and plenty of everything. While she arranged it all on plates, I got some white wine out of the refrigerator and uncorked it. It looked like we were having ourselves a little party.

"Let's eat. I'm starved," she said, famished as usual.

We munched our sandwiches, ate our salad, and helped ourselves to the smoked salmon. When we'd polished off the wine, we drank some canned beer from the fudge. One thing you can always count on at my place is a fridge full of beer.

His color didn't change at all, no matter how much he drank. I am a pretty good beer drinker myself She had a couple of cans with us, and in less than an hour the table was lined with empties. She selected a couple of records from the shelf and set them on the player. The first tune was Miles Davis doing "Airegin."

"You don't see too many of these automatic changers these days," he said.

I explained how I was a fan of automatic changers, and how I'd had a tough time coming up with a Garrard in good shape. Nodding from time to time, he listened politely.

We talked about audio equipment for a while, and he fell quiet. Then he said, "I've got some grass, if you'd care for a smoke."

I wasn't sure how to react. I'd just given up smoking cigarettes a month before; it was touch and go whether I could shake the habit for good, and I had no idea what effect smoking marijuana would have on me. But I decided to give it a try. He took out the dark-colored leaves in a foil wrapper from the bottom of the paper sack, rolled the grass into a sheet of cigarette paper, and licked the glued edge. He lit up with his lighter and took a few drags to make sure the joint was going before passing it over to me. The grass was terrific. We sat there silently for a while, each taking a toke and then handing it along. Miles Davis was over, and a collection of Strauss waltzes began to play. Not your usual programming, I thought. But not bad.

After we finished the first joint, she said she was sleepy. She hadn't gotten enough rest the night before, apparently, and the three beers and the grass knocked her out I showed her upstairs and put her to bed. She asked to borrow a T-shirt. I gave her one, she stripped down to her panties, pulled on the shirt; and lay down on the bed. "Are you cold?" I asked, but she was already snoring away. Shaking my head, I went back downstairs.

In the living room her boyfriend was rolling a second joint. He was something. Given a choice, I'd rather have snuggled up nest to her in bed and taken a good nap, but that was out. I smoked the second joint with him, the Strauss waltzes still going. For some reason I remembered a play we'd done back in grade school. I was the owner of a glove shop. A baby fox comes in looking for gloves, but he doesn't have enough money to buy them.

"You can't buy gloves with that," I say. The villain.

"But Mama is so cold. Her paws are all chapped. Please!" the baby fox begs.

"Sorry, but it's not enough. Save up your money and come back later. If you do—"

"—sometimes I bum down barns," he said.

"Excuse me?" I said. I was drifting off, and I must have heard him wrong.

"Sometimes I burn down barns," he said again.

I looked at him. He was tracing the design on his lighter with the tip of his fingernail. He sucked the marijuana smoke deep into his lung, held it there for ten seconds, then slowly let it out. The smoke swirled up like ectoplasm from his mouth. He passed me the joint

"Pretty good stuff;" I said.

He nodded. "I brought it back from India. The best they had. You smoke this and all kinds of memories rush out at you. Light, smells, things like that. The quality of your memory"—he paused in a leisurely way, and, as if searching for the right words, lightly snapped his fingers a couple of times—"is like something you've never experienced before. Don't you think so?"

I do, I told him. I was lost in memories of the commotion on the grade-school stage, of the smell of paint on the cardboard scenery.

"I'd like to hear about the barns," I said.

He gazed at me. His face, as usual, was expressionless.

"You don't mind me telling you about it?" he asked.

"Go right ahead," I replied.

"It's very simple, really. You pour gasoline around, throw on a lighted match and whoosh! it's all over. Takes less than fifteen minutes to burn to the ground. Of course, I'm not talking about large barns. More like sheds, really."

"So..." I said, and I stopped. I couldn't figure out how to go on. "So why do you burn down barns?"

"Is it strange?"

"I'm not sure. You burn barns, and I don't. Obviously there's a difference between the two. Rather than say which is strange and which isn't, what I'd like to pin down is how they're different. But you're the one who brought up this barn burning in the first place, right?"

"Yes," he said. "Right you are. Oh, by the way—do you have any Ravi Shankar records?"

"I don't," I told him.

He sat there blankly for a lime. His mind seemed all twisted around, like putty. Or maybe it was my mind that was all twisted around.

"I burn roughly one barn every two months," he said. And snapped his fingers again. 'That seems about the tight pace. For me, that is."

I nodded vaguely. The right pace?

"So, are these your own barns you burn?' I asked.

He looked at me as if he had no idea what I was talking about "Why would I burn down my own barns? What makes you think I own so many barns?"

"So, what you're telling me," I said," is you burn other people's barns, correct?"

"That's tight," he said. "Of course that's right. Other people's barns. So it's illegal.  Just like you and me sitting here smoking grass—definitely against the law.

I was silent, resting my elbows on the arms of the chair.

"I burn other people's barns without their permission. Of course, I always choose one that won't turn into a four-alarm blaze. I don't want to start a fire—just burn down barns."

I nodded, and snuffed out the stub of the joint. "But if you're caught you'll be in trouble. It's arson, after all. You blow it and you could wind up in jail."

"I won't get caught," he said casually. "I pour on the gasoline, strike a match, and take off. Then I have a good time watching it all from a distance with binoculars. I won't get caught. The police aren't going to comb the streets over a lousy little barn burning down."

He was probably right, I thought. And no one would ever think that a well-dressed young man driving an expensive foreign car would be running around torching barns.

"Does she know about it?" I asked, pointing upstairs.

"She doesn't know a thing. Actually, I've never told another soul. It's not the kind of topic you can bring up with just anybody."

"Then why me?"

He spread the fingers of his left hand straight out and rubbed his cheek. The whiskers made a scratchy, dry sound, like a bug crawling over a taut sheet of paper. "You're a writer, so I thought you must be interested in patterns of human behavior. Writers are supposed to appreciate something for what it is, before they hand down a judgment or whatever. If 'appreciate' isn't the right word, maybe you can say they can accept things for what they are. That's why I told you. Besides, I wanted to talk about it with someone."

I nodded. But in what way was I supposed to accept this as it was? Frankly, I had no idea.

He laughed. "The way I'm explaining it might be a little weird, I guess." He spread both hands in front of him and clapped them together. "The world's full of barns, that are, like, waiting for me to burn them down. A barn all by itself beside the ocean, a barn in the middle of a rice paddy . . . Anyhow, all kinds of barns. Give me fifteen minutes, and I'll burn them dear to the ground. So it looks like there was never any barn there to begin with. No one gets choked up over it. It justc disappears. Whoosh!"

"But you're the one who judges that they're expendable, right?"

"I don't judge anything. The barns are waiting to be burned. I just accept that. I merely accept what's there. It's like the rain. The rain falls. The river swells up. Something gets carried away in the flow. Is the rain making a judgment? It's not like I'm out to commit an immoral act. I have my own code of morality. A sense of morality is important; people can't live without it. I think of it like this: morality is the delicate balance that's involved in parallel existence.

"Parallel existence? What do you mean?"

"In other words, I'm right here, but I'm over there, too. I'm in Tokyo, and at the same time I'm in Tunis. I can blame people and forgive them, all at once. There's a balance involved, and without it I don't think we'd be able to live. It's like a clasp—if it came undone we'd fill to pieces. But because it's there we can experience this kind of parallel existence.

"And burning down barns is consistent with your code of morality?"

"Not exactly. It's more an act that sustains that morality. But enough of this morality talk. That's not the point I'm getting at. What I'm trying to say is that the world is filled with these barns. You've got your barns, I've got mine. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. rye been almost everywhere in the world, done everything you could possibly imagine. Even stared death in the face a couple of times. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to brag or anything. But why don't we change the subject? I'm usually not this talkative—the grass makes me run off at the mouth."

We sat there, silent and still for a while, waiting, it seemed, for the glow to wear off. I had no clue what I should say next. I felt as if I were looking through a train window watching a weird landscape flash in and out of view. My body was relaxed, yet I couldn't grasp the details of the scenes passing by. But I could grasp, quite distinctly, the presence of my own body. And with it a trace of parallel existence: here's me, over here thinking. And here's another me, watching the first me thinking. Time ticked by in polyrhythmic precision.

"Care for another beer?" I asked after a while.

Thanks. Don't mind if I do."

I brought out tour cans from the kitchen, along with some Camembert cheese. We had two beers each and ate the cheese.

"When was the last time you burned down a barn?" I asked him.

"Let me see." He ligh4 gripped his empty beer can and thought for a while. "This summer, the end of August."

"And when are you going to burn down your next one?"

"I don't know. I'm not going by some schedule, circling dates on the calendar and holding off till then. I burn a barn when I get the urge to."

"But when you want to burn one, there isn't always the kind you're looking for just waiting for you, is there?"

"Of course not," he said quietly. "So I make sure I've got a good one picked out in advance."

"You lay in a supply, in other words."

"That's right."

"Can I ask you one more thing?"

"Sure."

"Have you, already decided on your next barn?"

Frown lines formed between his eyes. And he breathed in a rush of air through his nose. "Yes. I've already found it"

I didn't say anything, just sipped at what was left of my beer.

"It's a wonderful barn. It's a long time since I've seen one so well worth burning. Actually, I came over here today to check it out"

"You mean it's around here?"

"Very close by," he said.

So ended our discussion of barns.

He woke up his girlfriend at five, and apologized again for having dropped in on me out of the blue. Even though he'd drunk a huge amount of beer, he was cold sober. He drove the car out from behind the house. It had one small nick, near the headlight.

"I"ll keep an eye out for those barns," I said in farewell.

"Right," he said. "Anyhow, remember it's right nearby?'

"What do you mean, 'barns'?" she asked.

"Just something between us men," he replied.

"I see," she said.

And they disappeared.

I returned to the living room and plopped down on the sofa. The tabletop was covered with all kinds of garbage. I picked up my duffel coat from where it lay on the floor, covered myself with it, and fell sound asleep.

When I woke up, the room was pitch-dark. Seven o'clock.

A bluish pall and the pungent smell of the marijuana lay over the room. The darkness was strangely uneven. Still sacked out on the sofa, I tried to conjure up more memories of the school play, but I couldn't get a clear picture in my head. Did the baby fox ever get the gloves?

I got up from the sofa, opened the windows for some fresh air, made coffee in the kitchen, and drank it.



The next day, I went to the bookstore and bought a map of the part of town where I live. One of those black-and-white maps on a scale of one to twenty thousand, showing even the smallest lanes and alleys. Map in hand, I walked the neighborhood, marking with a pencil the location of every barn. Over three days, I explored an area two and a half miles in each direction. My home was on the outskirts of town, with quite a few farms still around, so there were lots of barns. I counted sixteen.

The barn he planned to burn must be one of those. The way he'd said that it was right nearby made me sure it wasn't beyond the area I'd covered.

Next, I made a careful check of each of the sixteen barns. First, 1 eliminated the ones too close to people's houses or to those plastic-covered greenhouses farmers use. Next, I crossed off the ones that had farm tools and pesticides inside—that is, ones that looked as though someone was using them every day. I was sure he wouldn't want to burn one of those.

That left five barns. Five barns that could be burned. The kind that could burn down in fifteen minutes, and would burn clear to the ground—and wouldn't be any loss. But I couldn't decide which of the five he'd pick. It was a question of personal preference. I was dying to find Out which one it would be.

I spread out the map and erased all but five of the "X"s I'd made. Then I got out my T-square, French curve, and divider, and I mapped out the shortest route that would pass all five barns and take me back home. The route curved along the river and over some hills, so the project: took longer than I thought it would. The course ended up being four and one-third miles, no matter how many times I measured it.

At six the next morning I put on my jogging outfit and running shoes and ran the length of the course I'd mapped out. Since I usually do three and a half miles every morning, adding an extra mile didn't bother me too much. The scenery wasn't bad, and though there were two railroad crossings along the way, they didn't really slow me down.

The course circled the athletic grounds of the college near my house, then ran along the river and nearly two miles up a deserted dirt road. The first barn was halfway up the road. Then the course cut through a wood and up a slight slope. Another barn. A little way off, there was a stable for a racetrack The horses might kick up a little ruckus if they saw a fire, but that's all; they wouldn't get hurt or anything.

The third and fourth barns looked alike, like two ugly old twins. They were only two hundred or so yards apart. Both of them were dilapidated and filthy. If you were going to burn down one of them, you might as well burn the pair.

The last barn stood beside a railroad crossing, at about the three-and-a-half-mile mark It was clearly abandoned. It faced the road and had a tin Pepsi-Cola sign nailed to it. The building itself—I'm not sure you could even call it a building anymore—had mostly collapsed. It fit his description—a building just waiting for someone to commit it to the flames.

I stopped in front of the last barn, took a few deep breaths, then crossed the railroad tracks and headed home. The run took thirty-one minutes and thirty seconds. I took a shower and had breakfast. Then I lay on the sofa, listening to a record and, when that was finished, started work.

I ran the same course every morning for a month. But none of the barns burned down.

Sometimes the thought hit me that maybe he was trying to get me to burn down a barn. As if he'd filled my head with the image of a barn burning and were steadily pumping it up more and more, like putting air in a bicycle tire. There were even times when I thought that, as long as I was waiting for him to do it, I might as well go ahead and strike a match and burn one down. It's just a beat-up old barn, right?

But that's going too far. After all, it's not me who burns barns, it's him. No matter how much the image of burning barns might swell up in my head, I'm just not the barn-burning type.

Maybe he decided on some other barn somewhere. Or was too busy to find the time to burn one. I didn't hear from her at all.

December came, and with it the end of fill, and the morning air turned piercingly cold. No change in the barns, just white frost covering their roofs. In frozen woods, winter birds noisily flapped their wings. The world moved on as always.


The next time I saw him was that December, a few days before Christmas. Wherever you went, Christmas carols were playing. I was busy walking around town buying presents for all sorts of people. Over near Nogizaki, I spotted his car in the parking lot of a coffee shop. There was no mistaking that silver sports car, with its Shinagawa plates and the small scratch next to the left headlight. The car didn't look as bright and shiny as it used to. The silver seemed faded, but that may have just been my imagination. I have a tendency to rework my memories to suit me. Without thinking, I went inside.

The interior of the shop was dark, with a strong aroma of coffee. People's voices were muted, and baroque music played softly in the background. I spotted him right away. Seated by the window, he was drinking cafe au lait. The shop was hot enough to fog up your glasses, but he hadn't removed his cashmere coat. Or his muffler.

I was a little flustered, but I just said hello. I didn't tell him I'd seen his car parked out front; I happened to come into the shop and happened to run into him.

"Mind if I sit down?" I asked.

"Not at all. Please go ahead," he said.

We chatted for a while. But 6ur conversation went nowhere. We didn't have much to say to each other, and his thoughts seemed to be elsewhere. Even so, he didn't appear to mind my sharing his table. He told me about the harbor in Tunisia. And about the shrimp they catch there. It wasn't that he felt obliged to talk; he just wanted to tell me about the shrimp. But the story ran out halfway through, like a trickle of water being sucked up by sand.

He raised his hand, called a waiter over, and ordered a second cup of cafe au lait.

"By the way, whatever happened to that barn?" I ventured to ask him.

A trace of a smile played at the corners of his mouth. "Ah-you still remember, I see," he said. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped his mouth, and put the handkerchief back in his pocket. "I burned it, of course. Burned it right down. Just like I said I would."

"Near my house?"

"Yes. Right nearby."

"When?"

"A while back, ten days after we dropped by your house."

I told him about marking the locations of the barns on a map and running past them once a day. "So I couldn't have missed it," I said.

"You're quite meticulous, aren't you?" he said brightly. "Meticulous and logical.

But you must have overlooked it. That happens sometimes. A thing's too dose and you miss it."

"Well, I don't get it."

He straightened his tie and glanced at his watch. '~lt's too close," he said. "But I have to be going. Why don't we have a nice long talk about it next time? You'll have to excuse me, but someone's waiting for me."

There was no reason to keep him any longer. He stood up and put his cigarettes and lighter in his pocket.

"Oh, by the way, have you seen her since that day?" he asked.

"No, I haven't. Have you?"

"No. I can't get hold of her. She isn't in her apartment, I can't get through by phone, and she hasn't been going to her mime class for a long time."

"I imagine she just took off for somewhere. She's done that a number of times."

He stood there, hands stuck in his pockets, and stared at the tabletop. "With no money, for a month and a half? She's not the kind who can make it on her own, you know."

He snapped his fingers inside his pocket a couple of times.

She doesn't have a cent," he continued. "Or any real friends, either. Her address book is crammed, but those are just names. There's not a single person she can depend on. You're the only one she trusted. I'm not saying that to be polite. You were someone special to her. Even made me a bit jealous. And I'm not the kind of person who's ever jealous? He gave a slight sigh and looked at his watch again. "I've really got to be going. Let's get together again sometime."

I nodded. But the right words wouldn't come out It was always that way. Whenever I was with him the words just wouldn't flow.


I tried calling her a couple of times after that; until the phone company shut off her phone. I was a little worried, so I went to her apartment. Her door was locked. A sheaf of junk mail was stuffed in her mailbox. I couldn't locate the building supervisor, so I couldn't even find out if she still lived there. I tore a page from my appointment book, wrote a note saying, "Get in touch with me, my name, and dropped it in her mailbox.

Not a word.

The next time I visited her apartment, there was someone else's nameplate on the door. 1 knocked, but no one answered. Just like the last time, the super was nowhere to be found.

So I gave up. 'That was almost a year ago. She just disappeared.

I still run past the five barns every morning. No barn in my neighborhood has burned down. And I haven't heard about any barn burning. December's come again, and the winter birds fly overhead. And I keep on getting older.

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Blind Willow, Sleeping Girl

by MURAKAMI Haruki
Translated by Philip Gabriel



When I closed my eyes, the scent of the wind wafted toward me. A May wind, swelling up like a piece of fruit, with a rough outer skin, slimy flesh, dozens of seeds. The flesh split open in midair, spraying seeds like gentle buckshot into the bare skin of my arms, leaving behind a faint trace of pain.
"What time is it?" my cousin asked me. About eight inches shorter than me, he had to look up when he talked.
I glanced at my watch. "Ten-twenty."
"Does that watch tell good time?"
"Yeah, I think so."
My cousin grabbed my wrist to look at the watch. His slim, smooth fingers were surprisingly strong. "Did it cost a lot?"
"No, it's pretty cheap," I said, glancing again at the timetable.
No response.
My cousin had a confused look on his face. The white teeth between his open lips looked like bones that had regressed.
"It's pretty cheap," I said, looking right at him, carefully repeating the words. "It's pretty cheap, but it keeps good time."
My cousin nodded silently.

My cousin can't hear well out of his right ear. Soon after he went into elementary school he was hit by a baseball and his hearing was screwed up. Not that he can't function normally. He goes to a regular school, leads an entirely normal life. In his classroom, he always sits in the front row, on the right, so he can keep his left ear toward his teacher. And his grades aren't so bad. The thing is, though, he goes through periods when he can hear sounds pretty well, and periods when he can't. It's cyclical, like the tides. And sometimes, maybe twice a year, he can barely hear anything out of either ear. It's like the silence in his right ear deepens to the point where it crushes any sound on the left side. When that happens, ordinary life goes out the window and he has to take some time off from school. The doctors are basically stumped. They've never seen a case like it, so there's nothing they can do.
"Just because a watch is expensive doesn't mean it's accurate," my cousin said, as if trying to convince himself. "I used to have a pretty expensive watch, but it was always off. I got it when I started junior high, but I lost it a year later. After that I've gone without a watch. They wouldn't buy me a new one."
"Must be tough to get along without one," I said.
"What?" he asked.
"Isn't it hard to get along without a watch?" I repeated, looking right at him.
"No, it isn't," he replied, shaking his head. "It's not like I'm living off in the mountains or something. If I want to know the time I just ask somebody."
"True enough," I said.
We were silent again for a while.
I knew I should say something more, try to be kind to him, try to make him relax a little until we arrived at the hospital. But it had been five years since I saw him last. In the meanwhile he'd grown from nine to fourteen, and I'd gone from twenty to twenty-five. And that span of time had created a translucent barrier between us that was hard to traverse. Even when I had to say something, the right words just wouldn't come out. And every time I hesitated, every time I swallowed back something I was about to say, my cousin looked up at me with a slightly confused look on his face. His left ear tilted ever so slightly toward me.
"What time is it now?" he asked me.
"Ten twenty-nine," I replied.
It was ten thirty-two when the bus finally rolled into view.

The bus that came was a new type, not like the one I used to take to high school. The windshield in front of the driver was much bigger, the whole vehicle like some huge bomber minus the wings. And the bus was more crowded than I had imagined. Nobody was standing in the aisles, but we couldn't sit together. We weren't going very far, so we stood next to the rear door in back. Why the bus should be so crowded at this time of day was a mystery. The bus route started from a private railway station, continued up into a residential area in the hills, then circled back to the station, and there weren't any tourist spots along the way. A few schools along the route made the buses crowded when kids were going to school, but at this time of day the bus should have been empty.
My cousin and I held on to the straps and the poles. The bus was brand-new, straight from the factory, the metal surfaces so shiny you could see your face reflected in them. The nap of the seats was all fluffy, and even the tiniest of screws had that proud, expectant feeling that only brand-new machinery possesses.
The new bus, and the way it was more crowded than expected, threw me off. Maybe the bus route had changed since I last rode it. I looked carefully around the bus and glanced outside. But it was the same old view of a quiet residential district I remembered.
"This is the right bus, isn't it?" my cousin asked worriedly. Ever since we got aboard I must have had a perplexed look on my face.
"Not to worry," I said, half trying to assure myself. "There's only one bus route that goes by here, so this has got to be it."
"Did you used to take this bus when you went to high school?" my cousin asked.
"Yeah, that's right."
"Did you like school?"
"Not particularly," I said. "But I could see my friends there, and it wasn't such a long ride."
My cousin thought about what I said.
"Do you still see them?"
"No, not for a long time," I said, choosing my words carefully.
"Why not? Why don't you see them?"
"'Cause we live so far away from each other." That wasn't the reason, but I couldn't think of any other way to explain it.
Right beside me sat a group of old people. Must have been close to fifteen of them. They were the reason the bus was so crowded, I suddenly realized. They were all suntanned, even the backs of their necks dark. And every single one of them was skinny. Most of the men had on thick mountain-climbing types of shirts; the women, simple, unadorned blouses. All of them had small rucksacks in their laps, the kind you'd use for short hikes into the mountains. It was amazing how much they looked alike. Like a drawer full of samples of something, all lined up neatly by category. The strange thing, though, was that there wasn't any mountain-climbing route along this bus line. So where in the world could they have been going? I thought about this as I stood there, clinging to the strap, but no plausible explanation came to mind.

I wonder if it's going to hurt this time-the treatment," my cousin asked me.
"I don't know," I said. "I didn't hear any of the details."
"Have you ever been to an ear doctor?" I shook my head. I hadn't been to an ear doctor once in my life.
"Has it hurt before?" I asked.
"Not really," my cousin said glumly. "It wasn't totally painless, of course; sometimes there was a little pain. But nothing terrible."
"Maybe this time it'll be the same. Your mom said they're not going to do anything much different from usual."
"But if they do the same as always, how's that going to help?"
"You never know. Sometimes the unexpected happens."
"You mean like pulling out a cork?" my cousin said. I glanced at him, but I didn't detect any sarcasm.
"It'll feel different having a new doctor treat you, and sometimes just a slight change in procedure might make all the difference. I wouldn't give up so easily."
"I'm not giving up," my cousin said.
"But you are kind of fed up with it?""I guess," he said, and sighed. "The fear is the worst thing. The pain I imagine is worse than the actual pain. Know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I know," I said.

A lot of things had happened that spring. A situation developed at work and I ended up quitting my job at a little ad company in Tokyo where I'd been working for two years. Around the same time I broke up with the girlfriend I'd been going out with since college. A month after that my grandmother died of intestinal cancer, and for the first time in five years I came back to this town, small suitcase in hand. My old room was just as I'd left it. The books I'd read were still on the shelf, my bed was there, my desk, and all the old records I used to listen to. But everything in the room had dried up, had long ago lost its color and smell. Time alone had stood still.
I'd planned to go back to Tokyo a couple of days after my grandmother's funeral to run down some leads for a new job. I was planning to move to a new apartment too, for a change of scenery. As the days passed, though, it seemed like too much trouble to get off my butt and get going. To put a finer point on it, even if I'd wanted to get up and moving, I couldn't. I spent my time holed up in my old room, listening to those old records, rereading old books, occasionally doing a little weeding in the garden. I didn't meet anybody, and the only people I talked to were members of my family.
One day my aunt dropped by and asked me to take my cousin to a new hospital. She should take him herself, she said, but something had come up that day so she couldn't. The hospital was near the high school I used to go to, so I knew where it was, and I had nothing else going on, so I couldn't very well refuse. My aunt handed me an envelope with some cash in it for us to use as lunch money.
This switch to a new hospital came about because the treatment he'd been getting at his old hospital hadn't done a thing to help. In fact he was having more problems than ever. When my aunt complained to the doctor in charge, he suggested that the problem had more to do with the boy's home environment than anything medical, and the two of them went at it. Not that anybody really expected that changing hospitals would lead to a quick improvement in his hearing. Nobody said as much, but they'd pretty much given up hope that his hearing would get any better.
My cousin lived nearby, but I was just over a decade older than him and we were never what you'd call close. When the relatives would get together I might take him someplace or play with him, but that was the extent of it.
Still, before long everyone started to look at my cousin and me as a pair, thinking that he was attached to me and that he was my favorite. For the longest time I couldn't figure out why. Now, though, seeing the way he tilted his head, his left ear aimed at me, I found it strangely touching.
Like the sound of rain heard long ago, his awkwardness struck a chord in me. And I began to catch a glimpse of why our relatives wanted to bring us together.

The bus had passed by seven or eight bus stops when my cousin looked up at me again anxiously.
"Is it much farther?"
"Yeah, we still have a ways. It's a big hospital, so we won't miss it."
I casually watched as the wind from the open window gently rustled the brims of the old people's hats and the scarves around their necks. Who were these people? And where could they possibly be headed?
"Hey, are you going to work in my father's company?" my cousin asked. I looked at him in surprise. His father, my uncle, ran a large printing company in Kobe. I'd never given the idea a thought, and nobody ever dropped a hint.
"Nobody's said anything about that," I said. "Why do you ask?"
My cousin blushed. "I just thought you might be," he said. "But why don't you? You wouldn't have to leave. And everybody'd be happy."
The taped message announced the next stop, but no one pushed the button to get off. Nobody was waiting to get on at the bus stop either.
"But there's stuff I have to do, so I have to go back to Tokyo," I said. My cousin nodded silently.
There wasn't a single thing I had to do. But I couldn't very well stay here.
The number of houses thinned out as the bus climbed the mountain slope.
Thick branches began to throw a heavy shadow across the road. We passed by some foreign-looking houses, painted, with low walls in front. The cold breeze felt good. Each time the bus rounded a curve the sea down below popped into view, then disappeared. Until the bus pulled up at the hospital my cousin and I just stood there, watching the scenery go by.
"The examination will take some time and I can handle it alone," my cousin said, "so why don't you go and wait for me somewhere?" After a quick hello to the doctor in charge, I exited the exam room and went to the cafeteria.
I'd barely had a bite for breakfast and was starving, but nothing on the menu whetted my appetite. I made do with a cup of coffee.
It was a weekday morning and one little family and I had the place to ourselves. The father was mid-forties, wearing a navy-blue, striped pair of pajamas and plastic slippers. The mother and little twin girls had come to pay a visit. The twins had on identical white dresses and were bent over the table, serious looks on their faces, drinking glasses of orange juice. The father's injury, or illness, didn't seem too serious, and both parents and kids looked bored.
Outside the window was a lawn. A sprinkler ticked as it rotated, misting the grass with a silvery spray. A pair of shrill, long-tailed birds cut right above the sprinkler and disappeared from sight. Past the lawn there were a few deserted tennis courts, the nets gone. Beyond the tennis courts was a line of zelkovas, and between their branches you could see the ocean. The early summer sun glinted here and there off the small waves. The breeze rustled the new leaves of the zelkova, ever so slightly bending the spray from the sprinkler.
I felt like I'd seen this scene, many years before. A broad expanse of lawn, twin girls slurping up orange juice, long-tailed birds flying off who knows where, netless tennis courts, and the sea beyond ... But it was an illusion. It was vivid enough, an intense sense of reality, but an illusion nonetheless. I'd never been to this hospital before in my life.
I stretched my legs out on the seat opposite, took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. In the darkness I could see a lump of white. Silently it expanded, then contracted, like some microbe under a microscope. Changing form, spreading out, breaking up, reforming.
It was eight years ago when I went to that other hospital. A small hospital next to the sea. All you could see out the window were some oleanders. It was an old hospital, and smelled of rain. My friend's girlfriend had her chest operated on there, and the two of us went to see how she was doing. The summer of our junior year in high school.
It wasn't much of an operation, really, just done to correct the position of one of her ribs that curved inward a bit. Not an emergency procedure, just the type of thing that would eventually have to be done, so she figured why not take care of it now. The operation itself was over quickly, but they wanted her to take her time recuperating, so she stayed in the hospital for ten days. My friend and I rode there together on a 125cc Yamaha motorcycle. He drove on the way there, me on the way back. He'd asked me to come. "No way I'm going to a hospital by myself," he'd said.
My friend stopped at a candy store near the station and bought a box of chocolates. I held on to his belt with one hand, the other hand clutching tightly the box of chocolates. It was a hot day and our shirts kept getting soaked, then drying in the wind. As my friend drove he sang some nothing song in an awful voice. I can still remember the smell of his sweat.
Not too long after that he died.

His girlfriend had on blue pajamas and a thin gown sort of thing down to her knees. The three of us sat at a table in the cafeteria, smoked Short Hope cigarettes, drank Cokes, and ate ice cream. She was starving and ate two sugar-coated doughnuts and drank cocoa with tons of cream in it. Still that didn't seem enough for her.
"By the time you get out of the hospital you're going to be a regular blimp," my friend said, somewhat disgustedly.
"It's okay-I'm recovering," she replied, wiping the tips of her fingers, covered with oil from the doughnuts.
As they talked I gazed out the window at the oleanders. They were huge, almost like a woods unto themselves. I could hear the sound of waves too. The railing next to the window was completely rusted from the constant breeze. An antique-- looking ceiling fan nudged the hot, sticky air around the room. The cafeteria had the smell of a hospital. Even the food and the drinks had that hospital odor to them. The girlfriend's pajamas had two breast pockets, in one of which was a small gold-colored pen. Whenever she leaned forward I could see her small, white breastspeep out of the V-necked collar.

The memories ground to a halt right there. I tried to remember what had happened after that. I drank a Coke, gazed at the oleander, snuck a look at her breasts-and then what? I shifted in the plastic chair and, resting my head in my hands, tried to dig down further in the layer of memory. Like gouging out a cork with the tip of a thin-bladed knife.
I looked off to one side and tried to visualize the doctors splitting open the flesh on her chest, sticking their rubber-gloved hands inside to straighten out her crooked rib. But it all seemed too surreal, like some sort of allegory.
That's right-after that we talked about sex. At least my friend did. But what did he say? Something about me, no doubt. How I'd tried, unsuccessfully, to make it with some girl. Not much of anything, but the way he told it, blowing everything out of proportion, made his girlfriend burst out laughing. Made me laugh as well. The guy really knew how to tell a story.
"Please don't make me laugh," she said, a bit painfully. "When I laugh my chest hurts."
"Where does it hurt?" my friend asked.
She pressed a spot on her pajamas above her heart, just to the right of her left breast. He made some joke about that, and again she laughed.

I looked at my watch. It was eleven forty-five but my cousin still wasn't back. It was getting close to lunchtime and the cafeteria was starting to get more crowded. All sorts of sounds and voices mixed together like smoke enveloping the room. I returned once more to the realm of memory. And that small gold pen she had in her breast pocket. ... Now I remember-she used that pen to write something on a paper napkin.
She was drawing a picture. The napkin was too soft and the tip of her pen kept getting stuck. Still, she managed to draw a hill. And a small house on top of the hill. A girl was asleep in the house. The house was surrounded by a stand of blind willows. It was the blind willows that had put her to sleep.
"What the heck's a blind willow?" my friend asked.
"There is a kind of tree like that." "Well I never heard of it."
"That's 'cause I'm the one who created it," she said, smiling. "Blind willows have a lot of pollen, and tiny flies covered with the stuff crawl inside her ear and put the girl to sleep."
She took a new napkin and drew a picture of the blind willow. The blind willow turned out to be a tree the size of an azalea. The tree was in bloom, the flowers surrounded by dark green leaves like a bunch of lizard tails gathered together. The blind willow didn't resemble a willow at all.
"You got a cigarette?" my friend asked me. I tossed a sweaty pack of Hopes and some matches across the table.
"A blind willow looks small on the outside, but it's got incredibly deep roots," she explained. "Actually, after a certain point it stops growing up and pushes further and further down into the ground. Like the darkness nourishes it."
"And the flies carry that pollen to her ear, burrow inside, and put her to sleep," my friend added, struggling to light his cigarette with the damp matches. "But what happens to the flies?"
"They stay inside the girl and eat her flesh-naturally," his girlfriend said.
"Gobble it up," my friend said.

I remembered now how that summer she'd written a long poem about the blind willow and explained it all to us. That was the only homework assignment she did that summer. She made up a story based on a dream she'd had one night, and as she lay in bed for a week she wrote this long poem. My friend said he wanted to read it, but she was still polishing it, so she turned him down; instead, she drew those pictures and summarized the plot.
A young man climbed up the hill to rescue the girl the blind-willow pollen had put to sleep.
"That's got to be me," my friend put in.
She shook her head. "No, it isn't you. "You sure?" he asked.
"I'm sure," she said, a fairly serious look on her face. "I don't know why I know that. But I do. You're not angry, are you?"
"You bet I am," my friend frowned, half joking.
Pushing his way through the thick blind willows, the young man slowly made his way up the hill. He was the first one ever to climb the hill once the blind willows took over. Hat pulled down over his eyes, brushing away with one hand the swarms of flies buzzing around him, the young man kept on climbing. To see the sleeping girl. To wake her from her long, deep sleep.
"But by the time he reached the top of the hill the girl's body had basically been eaten up already by the flies, right?" my friend said.
"In a sense," his girlfriend replied. "In a sense being eaten by flies makes it a sad story, doesn't it," my friend said.
"Yes, I guess so," she said after giving it some thought. "What do you think?" she asked me.
"Sounds like a sad story to me," I replied.

It was twelve-twenty when my cousin came back. He was carrying a small bag of medicine and had a sort of unfocused look on his face. After he appeared at the entrance to the cafeteria it took some time for him to spot me and come on over. He walked awkwardly, as if he couldn't keep his balance. He sat down across from me and, like he'd been too busy to remember to breathe, took a huge breath.
"How'd it go?" I asked.
"Mmm," he said. I waited for him to say more, but he didn't.
"Are you hungry?" I asked. He nodded silently.
"You want to eat here? Or do you want to take the bus into town and eat there?"
He looked uncertainly around the room. "Here's fine," he said. I bought lunch tickets and ordered the set lunches for both of us. Until the food was brought over to us my cousin gazed silently out the window at the same scenery I'd been looking at-the sea, the row of zelkovas, the sprinkler.
At the table beside us a nicely decked-out middle-aged couple were eating sandwiches and talking about a friend of theirs who had lung cancer. How he'd quit smoking five years ago but it was too late, how he'd vomit blood when he woke up in the morning. The wife asked the questions, the husband gave the answers. In a certain sense, the husband explained, you can see a person's whole life in the cancer they get.
Our lunches consisted of Salisbury steaks and fried white fish. Plus salads and rolls. We sat there, across from each other, silently eating. The whole time we were eating the couple next to us went on and on about how cancer starts. Why the cancer rate's gone up,why there isn't any medicine that can combat it.

"Everywhere you go it's the same," my cousin said in a flat tone, gazing at his hands. "The same old questions, the same tests."
We were sitting on the bench in front of the hospital, waiting for the bus. Every once in a while the breeze would rustle the green leaves above us.
"Sometimes you can't hear anything at all?" I asked him.
"That's right," my cousin answered. "I can't hear a thing."
"What does that feel like?"
He tilted his head to one side and thought about it. "All of a sudden you can't hear anything. But it takes quite some time before you realize what's happened. By then you can't hear a thing. It's like you're at the bottom of the sea wearing earplugs. That continues for a while. All that time you can't hear a thing, but it's not just your ears. Not being able to hear anything is just a part of it."
"Is it annoying?"
He shook his head, a short, definite shake. "I don't know why, but it doesn't bother me that much. It is inconvenient, though. Not being able to hear anything."
I tried to picture it. But the image wouldn't come.
"Did you ever see John Ford's movie Fort Apache?" my cousin asked.
"A long time ago," I said.
"It was on TV a while ago. It's really a good movie."
"Um," I affirmed.
"In the beginning there's this new colonel who's come to a fort out west. A veteran captain comes out to meet him when he arrives, the captain played by John Wayne. The colonel doesn't know much about what things are like out west. And there's an Indian uprising all around the fort."
My cousin took a neatly folded white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his mouth.
"Once he arrives at the fort the colonel turns to John Wayne and says, 'I did see a few Indians on the way over here.' And John Wayne, this cool look on his face, replies, `Don't worry. If you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren't any there.' I don't remember the actual lines, but it went something like that. Do you get what he means?"
I couldn't recall any lines like that from Fort Apache. It struck me as a bit too abstruse for a John Ford movie. But it had been some time since I'd seen the film.
"I think it means that what can be seen by anybody isn't all that important ... I guess."
My cousin frowned. "I don't really understand it either, but every time somebody sympathizes with me about my ears that line comes to me. `If you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren't any there."'
I laughed.
"Is that strange?" my cousin asked. "Yep," I said. And he laughed. It'd been a long time since I'd seen him laugh.
After a while my cousin said, like he was unburdening himself, "Would you look inside my ears for me?"
"Look inside your ears?" I asked, a little surprised.
"Just what you can see from the outside."
"Okay, but why do you want me to do that?"
"I don't know," my cousin blushed. "I just want you to see what they look like."
"Okay," I said. "I'll give it a whirl."
My cousin sat facing away from me, tilting his right ear toward me. His ear was really nicely shaped. On the small side, but the earlobe was all puffy, like a freshly baked madeleine. I'd never looked at anybody's ear so intently before. Once you start observing it closely, the human ear-its structure-is a pretty mysterious thing. With all these outrageous twists and turns to it, bumps and depressions. Maybe evolution determined this weird shape was the optimum way to collect sounds, or to protect what's inside. Surrounded by this asymmetrical wall, the hole of the ear gapes open like the entrance to a dark, secret cave.
I pictured my friend's girlfriend, microscopic flies nesting in her ear. Sweet pollen stuck to their six tiny legs, they burrow into the warm darkness inside her, chewing on the soft, light pink flesh within, sucking up all the juices, laying tiny eggs inside her brain. But you can't see them, or even hear the sound of their wings.
"That's enough," my cousin said. He spun around to sit facing forward, shifting around on the bench. "So, did you see anything unusual?"
"Nothing different as far as I could see, from the outside at least."
"Anything's okay-even a feeling
you got or something."
"Your ear looks normal to me." My cousin looked disappointed. Maybe I had said the wrong thing.
"Did the treatment hurt?" I asked. "No, it didn't. Same as always. They just rummaged around in the same old spot. Makes me feel they're about to wear it out. Sometimes it doesn't feel like my own ear anymore."

"There's the number 28," my cousin said after a while, turning to me. "That's our bus, isn't it?"
I'd been lost in thought. I looked up when he said this and saw the bus slowing down as it went round the curve coming up the slope. This wasn't the kind of brand-new bus we'd ridden over on but one of those older buses I remembered. A sign with the number 28 was hanging from the front. I tried to stand up from the bench, but I couldn't. Like I was caught up in the middle of a powerful current, my limbs didn't respond.
I'd been thinking of the box of chocolates we'd taken when we went to that hospital on that long ago summer afternoon. The girl had happily opened the lid to the box only to discover that the dozen little chocolates had completely melted, sticking to the paper between each piece and to the lid itself. On the way to the hospital my friend and I had stopped the motorcycle by the seaside, and lay around on the beach just talking and hanging out. The whole while we'd let that box of chocolates lie out in the hot August sun. Our carelessness, our self-centeredness, had wrecked those chocolates, made one fine mess of them all. We should have sensed what was happening. One of us-it didn't matter who-should have said something meaningful. But on that afternoon, we didn't sense anything, just exchanged a couple of dumb jokes and said goodbye. And left that hill still overgrown with blind willows.
My cousin grabbed my right arm in a tight grip.
"Are you all right?" he asked me. That brought me back to reality, and I stood up from the bench. This time I had no trouble standing. Once more I could feel on my skin the sweet May breeze blowing by. For a few seconds I stood there in a strange, dim place. Where the things I could see didn't exist. Where the invisible did. Finally, though, the real number 28 bus stopped in front of me, its real door opening. I clambered aboard, heading off to some other place.
I rested my hand on my cousin's shoulder. "I'm all right," I told him.

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The Blind Willow, and the Sleeping Woman

by Murakami Haruki

trans. by Eric Han

Translator's note: This work was originally published in the December 1983 issue of Bungakkai, and is thus one of Murakami's earlier published works. It was originally about 80 sheets of 400-character paper [genkô yôshi], but since he found it to be a little too long, he reworked it into a 45 sheet 'diet version' in 1995. The version I'm using was published in 1996, in the short stories collection, The Ghosts of Lexington, and is 36 pages in print. In the foreword he mentions that though there is no direct connection between this story and his 1987 novel Norwegian Wood, it was one of the short stories on which he drew to compose that later work.

_____________

When I closed my eyes, I smelled the fragrance of the wind. It was a May wind, swollen like a fruit. It had the pitted peel of a fruit, its slimy pulp, and its powdery seeds too. When the pulp disintegrated in the sky, the seeds became buckshot and dove into my naked breast. All that remained afterwards was a faint ache.

"Um, what time is it?" my cousin asked me. Because of the 20 centimeter difference in our height, he was always peering up at my face to speak to me.

I glanced at my wristwatch. "10:12."

"Is your watch on time?" he asked.

"I think so."

My cousin yanked at my wrist and took a look at the watch. His fingers were slim and smooth, but more powerful than they appeared. "Was it expensive?"

"No. It was really cheap," I said while scanning the watch face one more time.

There was no response.

When I looked toward my cousin, he was looking up at me with this troubled expression on his face. His white teeth peeking out between his lips, seemed like degenerated bone. "It was really cheap," gazing at his face, I repeated in clear, precise syllables. "But, it keeps fairly good time."

He nodded silently.

My cousin has a bad right ear. Soon after he entered elementary school his ear was struck by a baseball, and since then it often caused him difficulty in hearing. But even so, in most cases, it didn't prove to be an obstacle in his daily life. He continued to go to school as usual and otherwise live his life as before. Only, in class he would face his left ear toward the teacher, and always sat on the right side in the very first row. His grades weren't bad either, though there were times when he couldn't hear external sounds well, and times when he could. These came to him alternately, like high and low tide. And then there were extreme cases, coming perhaps once every six months, when he couldn't hear anything from either ear. It was almost as if the silence in his right ear had deepened until it bore down and crushed all sound on the left side as well. When that happened he naturally was unable to function normally, and had to take some time off from school. The doctors were unable to explain the reason for these occurrences because there were no other cases like it. Of course, they were also unable to treat the condition.

"Well, just because a watch is expensive doesn't mean its accurate," my cousin said, as if trying to persuade himself of that fact. "The watch I used to wear was pretty expensive, and it was always messed up. I had my parents buy it for me when I started middle school. But I lost it within one year, and ever since then I've made do without wearing a watch . . . because they wouldn't buy me another one."

"It must be inconvenient not to have a watch," I remarked.

"Eh?" responded my cousin.

"Isn't it inconvenient, not having a watch?" I rephrased myself while looking directly into his face.

"Not really," he replied, shaking his head. "It's not as if I were living up in the mountains by myself. . . and I can always ask someone the time."

"Well that's true," I said.

And with that, we again lapsed into silence.

I understood very well that I needed to be gentle with him, and make some conversation; I had to at least slacken his nervousness a little bit before we reached the hospital. But it'd been five years since we last met, and in that span of time, my cousin had gone from nine to fourteen, and I from twenty to twenty-five. That blank space of time had erected a translucent partition between us which we had difficulty penetrating. Even when I tried to make absolutely necessary conversation, the right words just wouldn't come to mind. And when my words faltered, or got stuck in my throat, he would always gaze up at me with a perplexed look on his face, his left ear slightly tilted toward me.

 "What time is it now?" my cousin inquired.

"10:29," I answered.

It was 10:32 by the time the bus arrived.

Compared to when I rode it back and forth from high school, the form of the bus had vastly modernized. The windshield in front of the driver's seat was much wider; the bus now looked like a large bomber with its wings wrenched off. Moreover, it was unexpectedly crowded. Although there weren't any passengers left standing in the aisles, it was too crowded to afford us seats side by side. We decided not to sit down and instead occupied the standing room in front of the rear exit; it wouldn't be a long ride anyway. Nonetheless, I couldn't figure out why there were so many passengers on the bus at this time of day. The bus route departs from a private rail station, circles around some hilly residential districts, and then returns back to the same station; there were no famous sites or facilities worthy of mention along the route. The bus was of course crowded during the school commute hours, since there were a number of schools along the way, but normally it should be utterly deserted at noon.

My cousin and I stood, clinging to a strap and a bar with one hand each. The bus gleamed like it had just been built and delivered from the factory. It's untarnished metal was so free of blemishes that you could see yourself clearly reflected in it, and the shag on the seats was taut and neat. An air of pride and optimism, so characteristic of new machines, exuded from the bus down to its each and every bolt.

The new form of the bus, and the unexpectedly large number of riders threw me into confusion. Maybe, completely unbeknownst to me, the route's circumstances had been completely transformed. I carefully surveyed the interior of the bus around me, then inspected the view out the window. But all I saw were the silent suburbs that had not changed in the slightest for as long as I could remember.

"Sure this is the right bus?" my cousin asked anxiously. He was probably worried by the puzzled look I had been wearing on my face ever since we boarded.

"It's fine," I said, half to persuade myself. "There can't be a mistake. There just aren't any other bus routes running through here."

"You used to take this bus back and forth from high school, right?" inquired my cousin.

"That's right."

"Did you like your school?"

"No, not really," I said in all honesty. "But I got to see my friends there, and I didn't find going all that painful."

He thought about what I said.

"Do you still see those friends?"

"No, it's been a long time since I last saw any of them." I selected my words carefully before answering.

"Why? Why don't you see them anymore?"

"Well, it's because we now live far away from each other." It wasn't really the truth, but there was no other way to explain it.

Near me sat an assembled group of senior citizens. All together, there were probably about fifteen of them. Actually, they were the reason why the bus was so crowded. Each and every one of them was well tanned; they were all uniformly bronzed down to the backs of their necks. Without exception, they were all also exceptionally thin. The men mostly wore heavy shirts, fit for mountain climbing, and the women austere blouses devoid of any decoration. The group was all holding what looked like small backpacks for light-mountaineering on their laps. They were all eerily similar in appearance, as if they were identical articles pulled from the same sample drawer. But still, they made an odd story. There just weren't any mountain climbing trails along this bus route. Just where were they going? Hanging from the strap, I gave it some thought, but couldn't come up with any viable explanations.

"I wonder if the therapy this time is going to hurt," my cousin asked me.

"Well, I don't know," I replied. "I haven't heard any of the specifics."

"Have you ever had a doctor check out your ear before?"

I shook my head. Come to think of it, I'd never had a doctor look at my ear in my whole life.

"Was the therapy up to now very painful?" I inquired.

"No, not all that much," my cousin replied with a sour look on his face. "Of course, it's not like it didn't hurt at all. At times, it hurt some, but I wouldn't say it was extremely painful."  

"Then I guess this time will probably be about the same as before. From what your mom told me, it doesn't seem like they're going to do anything vastly different from before."

"But, if they don't do anything different, then I won't get any better this time either."

"Now we don't know that. There's always that chance it'll work, you know."

"Suddenly, like a cork popping out?" my cousin said. I glanced at his face, but it didn't seem like he was being intentionally ironic.

"Changing doctors can change the entire feeling of the situation, and what's more, small differences in procedure can make a great difference. We shouldn't just give up like that."

"I didn't say I was giving up," my cousin replied.

"But, you're getting fed up with it?"

"I guess so," he said and sighed. "The worst part about it is being afraid. It's scary imagining the pain that's on its way. I hate it worse than the actual pain itself. Can you understand that?"

"I think so," I answered.

Quite a lot happened during the spring of that year. Due to certain circumstances, I quit my job that I had held for two years at a small advertising agency in Tokyo. Around that time, I also broke up with a girl I had been seeing since college. The following month, my grandmother died from intestinal cancer; to attend her funeral, I packed one small bag and returned to this town for the first time in five years. At my house, my room was exactly as I had left it. The books I read were still on the shelves; the bed I slept in, the desk I used, and the records I listened to, they were all still there. But, everything in the room was desiccated and stale, and had long since lost its color and odor. It was only time itself that had ground to a marvelously rigid halt.

After my grandmother's funeral, I had planned to rest at home for maybe two or three days, and then head back to Tokyo. It wasn't as if I had no job leads there, and I fully intended to give them a shot. I also wanted to move out of my apartment, to make a fresh start.

But, as time went on, it became more and more troublesome to get up and go. Or rather, to express it more precisely, I had already become unable to leave even had I wanted to. I cloistered myself in my room, listening to old records, and re-reading books from my past, and at times plucked at the grass in the yard. I didn't speak to anyone besides my family.

It was on one such day, that my aunt came by and told me that my cousin would now be going to a different hospital, and asked whether I would be so kind as to accompany him there. Really she ought to go herself, she said, but had an important matter to deal with on that day. I had no reason to turn her down; I certainly had the time, and since it was near my old school, I knew exactly where the hospital was. My aunt, telling me to have a decent meal together with him, handed me an envelope with some money in it.

The reason my cousin was to switch hospitals had much to do with the fact that his treatment at the previous hospital had been largely ineffective. On the contrary, his deafness cycle started coming at even shorter intervals than ever. When my aunt vented her grievances at the doctor, he responded by declaring that the problem was not the result of external, medical factors, but instead due to his home environment; it turned into quite a row. So in all honesty, no one actually expected that changing hospitals would quickly put him on the path toward recovering his hearing. They would not say it out loud of course,  but most of the people around him had already half given up on him and his ears.

Though our homes were rather close by, my cousin and I weren't really that familiar, mainly because of an age gap of over ten years. We only saw each other when my relatives dropped by and took me to go off somewhere, or let us play together. Imperceptibly however, we somehow became joined together and seen as a pair. Basically, they assumed that he had become especially attached to me, and that I had singularly taken him under my wing. For the longest time, I couldn't understand the reasons behind that. Looking at him now, seeing his posture with his head slightly inclined and directing his left ear toward me though, I strangely couldn't help being struck with affection for him. Like the sound of the rain I'd heard long ago, I had taken a liking to something about his awkward little movements. I felt that I now understood a little better why all my relatives had connected the two of us.  

As the bus passed the seventh or eighth stop, my cousin again looked up at me with an anxious expression on his face.

"It's still ahead?"

"It's still ahead. It's a really large hospital, so there's no way we could have missed it."

I absentmindedly watched the senior citizens' hat cords and scarves fluttering in the wind blowing from the windows. Just who were they anyway? And where were they going?

"Hey, are you going to work for my father's company?" my cousin asked me.

Surprised, I looked back at his face. My cousin's father, in other words my uncle, operated a major publishing firm in Kobe. But, I had neither thought of that possibility, nor caught a whiff of it from anyone else.

"That's the first I've heard of that . . ." I replied. "But, why this all of a sudden?"

My cousin reddened in the face. "I just thought that, maybe, you were," he answered. "But, wouldn't it be great if you did? Then you'd be able to stay here. Everyone'd be so happy to have you around."

A recording announced the upcoming bus stop, though no one had pressed the stop button. There was no indication of anyone waiting at the stop either.

"But, there are things I need to do back in Tokyo," I told him. He nodded in silence.

There isn't a single thing that I needed to do, anywhere. But, this is the one place where I absolutely cannot be.

As the bus ascended a slope, the residential homes began to thin out, and the thick foliage on the tree branches started throwing deep shadows on the surface of the road. The variously colored foreign residences, surrounded by low fences, also came into view. The wind turned imperceptibly chillier. As the bus navigated the curves in the road, the sea by turns emerged and withdrew from sight. My cousin and I contemplated the scene together until the bus arrived at the hospital.

My cousin told me he wanted me to wait outside since the treatment would take some time, and he would be fine by himself. I gave the doctor in charge a terse greeting, exited the examination room and made my way to the cafeteria. I was famished, a result of having skipped breakfast that morning, but nothing at all on the menu seemed appetizing. Ultimately, I only ordered a coffee.

Being a weekday morning, there was only one group of family visitors in the cafeteria besides me. The man in his mid-forties whom I made out to be the father, wore navy blue striped pajamas, and vinyl slippers. The mother, and the two identical female twins were evidently visiting him. The twins wore matching white, one piece jumpers, and were both slumped over the table, drinking orange juice with solemn expressions on their faces. The father's condition, whether illness or injury, did not appear particularly acute, and parents and children all wore bored looks on their faces.

Outside of the window stretched a grassy yard. The sprinklers there clattered about as they revolved, and scattered splashes of white light above the emerald grass. Two birds with long tails cried piercingly as they sliced straight across the tableaux, and quickly vanished from sight. Before the lawn were a number of tennis courts, but their nets had been stripped off, and no one was about. Beyond the courts stood a row of zelkova trees, and I saw the sea peeking through the interstices between their branches. The minute waves here and there reflected the early summer's brilliant sun. A breeze rustled the young zelkova leaves, and gently disturbed the vector of the mist projecting from the sprinklers.

I was struck by the sensation that I had witnessed this exact scene somewhere, long long ago. Broad grassy yard, twin girls drinking orange juice, long-tailed birds flying off, and beyond the tennis courts bereft of nets, the blue sea . . .  But that was merely a mirage. It had a certain verisimilitude, and an intensity to it, but I understood perfectly well that it was a mirage. This was, after all, my first visit to this hospital.

I rested both feet on the chair in front of me, inhaled deeply and closed my eyes. In the utter darkness, a white lump came into view. Like a microorganism under a microscope, it distended and contracted noiselessly. It morphed, spread out, splintered apart, and then solidified again into one mass.

It'd been eight years since I went to that hospital. It was a small one by the shore. Outside its cafeteria windows, all you could see were oleander shrubs. And because of its age, it always gave off that rainy day smell. My friend's girlfriend had undergone chest surgery there, so my friend and I had gone to pay her a visit. It was the middle of our junior year summer break.

For surgery, it wasn't a particularly difficult operation; they said they were only straightening a misaligned bone in her chest that she had been born with. It wasn't a condition that demanded urgent attention, but since it would have to be taken care of some time or other, they decided to do it then. The operation itself was finished in a flash, but bed rest after the procedure was crucial, so she remained in the hospital an additional ten days. We rode tandem on my friend's 125cc Yamaha motorbike to get there. He drove on the way there, and I drove on the way home. It was he who asked me to go with him. "I really don't want to go to a hospital by myself," he had told me.

My friend had first stopped first at a confectioner's in front of the train station and purchased a box of chocolates. So, while we were riding, I gripped his belt with one hand while clenching the chocolates in the other. It was a scorchingly hot day, and our shirts were drenched in sweat then blown dry by the wind, over and over. While he was driving the bike, he sang some unidentifiable tune in a hideous, off-pitch voice. Even now, I can still remember the smell of his sweat. It wasn't long afterwards that he died.

His girlfriend was wearing blue pajamas with something like a thin, knee-length gown flung over it. The three of us sat at the cafeteria table, smoking Short Hopes, drinking cola, and eating ice cream. She was starved beyond belief, and proceeded to also devour two thickly powdered sugar donuts, over a mug of cocoa, heavily laden with cream. Even so, she still didn't seem satisfied.

"You'll be one huge pig by the time you leave this hospital," my friend exclaimed in amazement.

"Fine by me. This is my recuperation period." she retorted, while wiping her oily fingers on a paper napkin.

While the two of them were conversing like that, I was gazing out the window at the stand of oleander bushes. They were so large that together they almost constituted a forest. I also heard the sound of waves; the metal railing on the window sill had almost completely been corroded by the salt air. A fan, looking more an antique than anything else, hung from the ceiling and churned the humid air about the room. The hospital's smell completely permeated the cafeteria. The food, the drink, as if by previous agreement, also conveyed that same hospital odor. I noticed that her pajamas had two breast pockets, and in one she had inserted a gold ball point pen. When she stooped forward, I could see, through the V shaped neckline, the flat, white skin of her chest, which had not been touched by the sun.

At that, my reflections suddenly came to a stand-still. "Just what happened after that?" I mused. I took a sip of cola, gazed out at the oleander, caught sight of her chest, and then what? I shifted in the plastic chair, and with my chin resting on my hands, tried excavating one stratum deeper into my memory. Like prying off a cork with the tip of a slender knife.

. . . I defocused my eyes, and tried imagining the doctors slitting open the flesh of her chest, inserting their latex covered fingers and resituating her bone. But, I found the image too unrealistic, too fanciful. Akin to some sort of parable.

That's right, after that we talked about sex. It was my friend who did the talking. And what was he going on about? It was probably about something that I had done; like how I came on to some girl, and got turned down. It must have been something along those lines. And even though the original event was not especially noteworthy, he related it with such exaggeration, wit, and absurdity, that his girlfriend burst into laughter. Even I couldn't help laughing. He really was an excellent story teller.

"No, don't make me laugh," she managed to gasp out. "My chest really hurts when I laugh."

"Where does it hurt?" my friend inquired.

She pressed a finger on her chest through her pajamas, above her heart, a little in from her left breast. He then proceeded to make some joke relating to that, and she laughed again.

I looked at my watch. It was 11:45, and my cousin still had not returned. Lunch-time was drawing near, and the cafeteria was beginning to fill up. Various sounds and bits of conversation were mixing together, enveloping the room like cigarette smoke.

Returning once more to the realm of memory. Thinking of that gold ball-point pen in her breast pocket.

. . . right. She was drawing on the back of a paper napkin with that ball-point pen.

She was drawing a picture. The napkin was too fragile, and her pen point kept catching, but she persisted in sketching out a hill. On top of the hill was a small house. Inside the house, a woman was sleeping. Blind willows grew thickly around the house. The blind willows that were forcing her into a deep slumber.

"What the hell is a blind willow?" demanded my friend.

"It's the name of a plant."

"Well, I've never heard of it."

"That's because I made it up," she replied with a grin. "You see, the blind willow has this really potent pollen; it gets carried by tiny flies into her ears, and that's what makes her fall asleep."

She took a new napkin and sketched the blind willow. It was about the same size as an azalea bush. Though its flowers were in bloom, they were completely enveloped by fat green leaves, which rather resembled thick bundles of lizards' tails. The blind willow bore not the slightest resemblance to a normal willow.

"Got any cigarettes?" my friend asked me. I tossed a lighter and a sweat dampened carton of Short Hopes to him across the table.

"The blind willow may appear small, but it has incredibly deep roots," explained his girlfriend. "In actuality, after it reaches a certain age, the blind willow stops growing upward, and instead extends down, down, deeper into the earth. Almost as if it were drawing nourishment from the darkness."

"And so basically, the flies carry its pollen, burrow into her ear, and cause her to sleep," my friend reiterated, while struggling to light one of the soggy cigarettes. "And then . . . what are the flies doing?"

"They're eating her flesh of course, deep inside her body," she said.

"Munch, munch," my friend added.

That's right. That summer she had composed a long poem about the blind willow, and related to us the outline of its plot. It was her sole homework assignment for summer vacation. She had thought up a story to go with a dream she had one night, and spent the following week in bed writing it down. My friend wanted to read it, but she demurred, saying that she still hadn't fleshed out the details. In lieu of that, she offered to explain the plot through illustrations.

There was a young man ascending the hill to rescue the woman who had been put to sleep by the blind willows.

"The young man's me, definitely," my friend burst in.

His girlfriend shook her head. "No, the young man's not you."

"And you would know?" asked my friend.

"Yes, I would," she replied with a serious look on her face. "I don't know how, but that's the way it is. Are you hurt?"

"Of course," my friend said frowning, and only half-jokingly.

The youth slowly ascended the hill, all the while slashing his way through the blind willows that grew profuse, and impenetrable. Actually, the hill was so overgrown with blind willows that he was the first person to even attempt to climb it. The visor of his hat pulled low over his eyes, he advanced step by step, all the while swatting away the swarming flies. To meet the sleeping girl face to face. To wake her from her profound, endless slumber.

"But in the end, on top of the hill he finds that the girl's already been eaten hollow by the flies, right?" my friend interjected.

"In a sense, yes," she replied.

"So, if she was, in a sense, completely devoured by the flies, then couldn't you say, in a sense, that it's a depressing story?" my friend announced.

"Well, I guess so," she said after a thoughtful pause. "What do you think?" she asked me.

"It sounds like a depressing story to me," I answered.

It was 12:20 by the time my cousin came out. He wore an unfocused expression on his face, and was dangling a bag of medicine from his fingers. From the moment he appeared at the entrance of the cafeteria, it took some time for him to find my table. He was walking a little unsteadily, as if he were having some difficulty balancing himself. He plopped down in the seat opposite mine, and swallowed an enormous breath, as if he had been so occupied that he had forgotten to breathe until that moment.

"How was it?" I inquired.

"Hmm," he said. I waited a while for him to say something more, but time passed and he still didn't continue.

"You hungry?" I asked him.

My cousin nodded silently.

"Do you want to eat here, or get on the bus and eat somewhere in town? Which would you prefer?"

He glanced suspiciously about the room, and then told me that here would be fine. I bought some meal tickets, and ordered two lunches. Until the food arrived, my cousin silently gazed at the scene out the window ”V the sea, the stand of zelkova trees, the sprinklers ”V the same scene I had so recently been scrutinizing.

At the neighboring table, a tidily dressed middle aged couple was eating sandwiches and discussing a friend who had been hospitalized for lung cancer. They went on about how he had stopped smoking five years ago, but it had been too late, and how one morning he woke up coughing a stream of blood. The wife asked the questions, and the husband answered them. Cancer can, in a sense, be seen as the crystallization of one's lifestyle and inclinations, explained the husband.

Lunch consisted of hamburg steaks and fried whitefish. Salad and rolls were also included. We silently sat across from each other, and ate our meal. All the while, the couple at the next table continued their absorbing conversation on cancer's origins. About why cancer cases have risen so sharply of late, and why they haven't been able to develop a wonder drug, and so forth.

"No matter where you go, it's all about the same," my cousin told me in a deflated voice, looking down at his hands. "Everyone just asks the same sort of questions, and then examines my ears the same way."

We were seated on a bench at the entrance of the hospital. From time to time, the wind rustled the green foliage above our heads.

"Sometimes, you just altogether lose your sense of hearing?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied. "I completely lose my hearing."

"How does that feel?"

My cousin tilted his head slightly and gave it some thought. "By the time it dawns on me, I already can't hear anything. But you know, it takes some time for me to figure it out. So when I've realized what's happening, I'm already completely deaf. Like I'm wearing ear plugs, on the bottom of the sea. And then, it continues for a while. While it's happening of course, I can't hear anything, but it's not just about my ears. Not being able to hear is just one part of it."

"Is it an unpleasant feeling?"

He gave his head a sharp, abbreviated shake. "I don't understand why, but I don't find it unpleasant. But, it's inconvenient in a lot of ways. Because I can't hear anything, you know."

I considered what he said, but somehow the image just didn't come through very well.

"Have you every seen John Ford's ”„Fort Apache'?" he inquired.

"A long long time ago," I said.

"It was just on TV. Isn't it a great movie?"

"Yeah," I concurred.

 "It kicks off with this new colonel arriving to take command over a fort in the West. This veteran lieutenant comes out to meet the colonel, and that's John Wayne. The colonel still doesn't know much about the circumstances out in the West, but the Indians around the fort are raising a revolt."

My cousin pulled a folded white handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his lips.

"When they arrive at the fort, the colonel turns to John Wayne and says, ”„On my way here, I saw quite a few Indians.' To which John Wayne coolly responds, ”„It's alright. The fact that your Excellency has seen Indians means that there are no Indians there.' I've forgotten the exact dialogue, but that's basically how it goes I think. Do you understand what he meant by that?"

I couldn't recall whether or not there really was a line like that in ”„Fort Apache'. For a John Ford movie, the line struck me as just a little too cryptic. Still, it had been a long time since I saw the movie.

"Like maybe, things that just anyone can see, really aren't that important? . . . I'm not sure I get it."

My cousin furrowed his brow, "I don't really understand it either, but whenever people sympathize with me over my ears, somehow that line comes to mind. ”„The fact that you've seen Indians means that there are no Indians there.'"

I laughed.

"Is that funny?" my cousin inquired.

"Yeah, it is," I told him, and he also laughed. It'd been a while since he last laughed.

After a long pause, my cousin asked me in a confessional tone, "Hey, would you mind taking a peek into my ear?"

"Peek into your ear?" I said, a little surprised.

"You know, just looking in from the outside would be fine."

"No problem, but why?"

"Well, it's just that . . ." he stated, blushing, "I thought maybe you could tell me how it looks."

"Sure," I told him, "let's have a look."

My cousin reseated himself facing backwards, and directing his right ear toward me. Seeing it afresh in this way, it really was a well shaped ear. Though diminutive in construction, the flesh of his earlobe was full and plump, much like a fresh baked madeleine sponge cake. It was the first time that I had ever gazed so fixedly at anyone's ear. Inspecting an ear this way makes you realize that morphologically speaking, the ear is somewhat of an enigma compared to the other organs of the human body. Of its various parts, some are immoderately winding and twisted, while others rise or drop precipitously. Perhaps, in the process of evolving toward optimal sound collection and self-protection, the ear had quite naturally taken on this mysterious configuration. Surrounded by contorted walls, the ear's single orifice gapes darkly, like the entrance to a secret cavern.

I thought of the miniature flies nesting and feeding inside of her ears. With sweet flower pollen clinging to their six legs, they dive into her tepid darkness, nibble on her peach colored flesh, slurp up her nectar, and deposit their tiny eggs in her brain. But even so, I couldn't see their bodies. I couldn't hear the sound of their wings.

"Ok, that's good enough," I told him.

He spun around and resituated himself on the bench, facing front again. "How was it? Anything out of the ordinary?"

"Well, not as far as I could tell. Looking from the outside like this, there wasn't anything out of the ordinary."

"Even like, a sense of something amiss . . . nothing like that?"

"It's a perfectly normal looking ear."

My cousin appeared disappointed. Perhaps I had said the wrong thing.

"Did the treatment hurt?" I asked.

"Not really. It was just like all the previous times. They root around in the same places, in the exact same way; I feel like my ear's been rubbed raw. You know, sometimes it doesn't even feel like my own ear anymore."

"Number twenty-eight," my cousin faced me and announced, a short while later. "We want the number twenty-eight bus, right?"

I had been ruminating on something else the entire time. Hearing him, I raised my head just in time to glimpse the approaching bus decelerating as it negotiated an uphill curve. It wasn't the modern bus we had so recently ridden, but a familiar one from the past. Affixed to its front was the number {28}. I made to stand up from the bench. But I didn't make it. Just as if I had been cast into the center of a raging torrent, I had lost command of my limbs.

At that moment, I had been thinking of the box of get-well chocolates that we had brought with us that summer afternoon. As she so happily lifted the lid off the box, we saw that the dozen little chocolates had melted into an unrecognizable liquid mass and adhered to the paper, the box, everything. On the way to the hospital, my friend and I had taken a break at the seashore. There, we had flopped down on the dunes and chatted about all sorts of things. The two of us had left the box of chocolates out in the fierce August sunlight all the while. And so, because of our carelessness and impertinence, the chocolates were ruined, melted to nothing, and lost forever. We should have felt something about this. One of us, it doesn't matter who, should have had something meaningful to say about this. But on that summer afternoon, we felt nothing, cracked some lame joke about it, and departed. And thus we abandoned that hill, left it overgrown with blind willows.

My cousin forcefully grabbed hold of my right arm.

"Are you alright?" he inquired.

I pulled my consciousness back to reality, and stood up from the bench. This time, I made it. I once again felt on my skin the memory-laden May wind that was blowing past. For a matter of moments, I was standing in a curious, twilit place. A place in which all that I could perceive with my eyes did not exist, and only that which I could not, did. But just as suddenly, the very real number twenty-eight bus came to a stop before my eyes, and the door to reality opened before me. I got in, and began moving toward some other place.

I placed my hand on my cousin's shoulder. "Everything's fine," I said. 

  

rev. 7.27.02

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Three German Fantasies

by HARUKI Murakami

Translated by Keith Leslie Johnson


1. Pornography vis-a-vis a museum-in-winter.

Sex. Intercourse. Coition. Copulation. There are many other words, but what I always conjure up in my mind (from the spoken word, the act, the phenomenon) is a museum-in-winter.

A museum-in-winter

Of course, I realize that there's quite some distance before you arrive at "museum" from "sex." You must make countless subway transfers, shuttle beneath office buildings, let the seasons fly by in a limbo. But as these are irksome only to the utter novice, if you should complete but once that circuit of consciousness, you could find your way from "sex" to that museum-in-winter before you knew it.

I'm not lying. You really could. Perhaps I should explain a little.

When sex becomes urban conversation, when copulative undulations fill the darkness, as ever, I'm standing in the entrance to the museum-in-winter. I hang my hat on the hat rack, I hang my coat on the coat rack, I place my gloves, one atop the other, on the corner of the reception desk, then, remembering the scarf wrapped around my neck, I remove it and place it over my coat.

The museum-in-winter is not very large at all. The collection, its taxonomy, its operating philosophy are by any standard amateurish. First off, there's no unifying concept. There's a figurine of an Egyptian dog deity, a protractor used by NapolEon III, a bell found in the Dead Sea caves. But that's it. There's no way to connect the display pieces at all. They sit hunched over in their cases, eyes fixed shut like orphans mortally seized by cold and starvation.

Inside the museum it is extremely quiet. There is a little while yet before the museum opens. I retrieve from my desk a butterfly-shaped metal key and wind the grandfather clock near the entrance. Then I adjust the hands to the right time. I--that is, if I'm not mistaken--work here at the museum.

As always, the quiet morning light and the even quieter presentiment of sex fills the museum like almond extract. I make my rounds, opening curtains, opening radiator valves. Then I neatly arrange our fifty-pfennig pamphlets and stack them on the reception desk. I adjust the necessary lighting (which is to say, for example, when I press button A6 at the mini-Versailles Palace, the king's chamber lights up, etc.). I also check the watercooler. I maneuver the stuffed European wolf a little farther back into its display out of children's reach and restock the liquid soap in the washroom. Even if I didn't think to remember each of these tasks one by one, my body of itself would complete them. This, in other words-well, I'm not sure exactly how to put it--is the me-ness of me.

After all this I go to the little kitchen and brush my teeth, get some milk out of the fridge and heat it in a saucepan over a little portable range. The electric range, fridge, and toothbrush are by no means extraordinary (they were bought at a mom-and-pop electronics shop and corner convenience store), but inasmuch as they are within the museum, they appear somehow relic-ish. Even the milk looks like ancient milk, drawn from an ancient cow. At times it all gets quite confusing. I mean, as concepts go, is it more precise to say that the museum erodes the quotidian, or does the quotidian erode the museum?

Once the milk is warm, I take it and sit down in front of the reception desk. As I drink I open the mail left in the slot and read. Mail separates into three categories. First, you've got things like your water bill, the archeological circle newsletter, notice of telephone number change from the
Greek consulate, and other kinds of administrative correspondence. Next are letters written by people who've visited the museum, chronicling various impressions, grievances, encouragements, suggestions, etc. I think that people are prone to come up with an assortment of reactions. I mean, all of this stuff is just so old. Think how it must irk them to have the late Hun period wine flask next to the Mesopotamian coffin! But if the museum were to cease confusing and irking its clientele, where else could they go to be irked?

Once I've mindlessly filed away the letters into these two categories, I reach into the desk drawer and grab a few cookies to finish off my milk. Then I open the last type of letter. This type is from the owner and, as such, is extremely concise. Written in black ink on artsy egg-colored paper are my instructions:

1. Pack up urn at display #36; put in storage.

2. To compensate, take sculpture-stand from A52 (minus sculpture) and display
at Q21.

3. Replace light bulb at space 76.

4. Post next month's holiday hours at entrance.

Of course I comply with every instruction: I wrap the urn in canvas and put it in storage; to compensate, I take the sadistically heavy sculpture-stand and, near-herniating, put it on solo display; and standing on a chair, I replace the light bulb at space 76. The urn at display #36 was a museum-goer's favorite, the sadistically heavy sculpture-stand looks awful by itself, and the replaced light bulb was itself quite new. These were not the sort of things which would have pushed themselves to the forefront of my mind. After doing exactly as I was told, I tidy up my dishes and put away the cookie tin. It's nearly opening time.

Before the washroom mirror I comb my hair, fix the knot of my necktie, and make sure that my penis is properly erect. No problems.

*urn #36, check

*sculpture-stand A52, check

*light bulb, check

*erection, check

Sex crashes against the museum doors like a wave. The hands of the grandfather clock read a precise 11 in the a.m. The wintry light, as if slowly drawing its tongue over the floor, extends subduedly into the room. I cross the floor slowly, undo the latch and open the door. The very instant I open the door everything changes. The little lights in Louis XIV's chamber flicker on, the saucepan ceases to lose its heat, and urn #36 slips into a soft, jellylike slumber. Overhead a bunch of bustling men echo their footfalls in a circle. I even quit trying to understand people. I can see someone standing in the doorway, but I don't care. As far as I'm concerned, they can keep right on standing there. Whenever I think about sex, I'm always in the museum-in-winter, and we are all there, hunched over like orphans, seeking a little warmth. The saucepan is in the kitchen, the cookie tin is in the drawer, and I am in the museum-in-winter.


2. The Hermann Goering Stronghold, 1983.


What on earth did Hermann Goring envision when he hollowed out that hill in Berlin and constructed his enormous stronghold? He literally hollowed out the entire hill and filled it up with concrete. It stood out strikingly in the diffuse twilight like an ominous termite mound. Once we'd clambered up the steep slope and stood on top, we could look down and see into the heart of East Berlin, where the street lamps had just been turned on. The batteries which faced in every direction would have afforded a view of the enemy forces closing in on the capital and could probably have repelled them. No bomb could have toppled the stronghold's thick walls, and certainly no tank could have scaled its steep slopes.

The stronghold contained enough supplies--rations of food, water, and ammunition--to house 2,000 SS officers for a number of months. Secret underground passages crisscrossed below like a maze, and a marvelous air conditioner supplied fresh air to the stronghold interior. Hermann Goring boasted that even if, for example, the Russians or Allies surrounded the capital, those inside the stronghold would have no need to fear; they could survive indefinitely inside his indestructible fortress.

But in the spring of 1945, when the Russian army stormed into Berlin like the season's last blizzard, the Hermann Goring stronghold was silent. The Russian army torched its underground passages with flamethrowers and detonated high explosives in an effort to eradicate the stronghold's very existence. But the stronghold would not be eradicated. There were only a few cracks on the concrete walls.

"You could never bring down Hermann Goring's fortress with Russian bombs," laughed my young East German guide. "They could barely bring down Stalin's statue!" For who knew how many hours, he'd been leading me around the city, showing me the lingering traces of the Battle of Berlin in 1945. Did he think I had some strange desire to see the aftermath of Berlin's WWII? I couldn't guess. But I was surprisingly eager, and since it seemed inappropriate to explain what I really wanted to see, I followed him around the city until late into the afternoon. We'd first met that very day in a cafeteria near Fernsehturm, where I'd gone for lunch.

However odd our union, my guide proved to be very competent and was frank with me. As I followed him around, visiting the battle scenes of East Berlin, I slowly began to feel as though the war had ended but a few short months ago. The whole city was still riddled with bullet wounds.

"Here, look at this," my guide said. He showed me some bullet holes. "You can tell right off which bullets were Russian and which German. These ones so deep they nearly blew the wall in two are German, these others that practically pop out are Russian. The craftsmanship's different, you know?"

Of all the East Berliners I met while I was there, his was the most understandable English. "You speak English very well," I said praisingly.

"Well, for a while I was a sailor," he said. "I've been to Cuba and Africa--I even spent some time on the Black Sea. So I picked up some English along the way. But now I'm an architectural engineer ..."

We descended from Hermann Goring's stronghold and after walking briefly through the city, we entered an old beer hall on Unter den Linden. Perhaps because it was Friday night, the hall was stiflingly packed.

"The chicken here is quite popular," the guide said. So I ordered chicken and rice with beer. The chicken actually wasn't bad, and the beer was great. The room was warm and the noise and bustle pleasant.

Our waitress was a drop-dead gorgeous Kim Carnes look-alike. She was platinum blonde with blue eyes, a small, trim waist, and pretty smile. She brought our beer steins to the table, holding them admiringly, the way she would an enormous penis. She reminded me of a girl I once knew in Tokyo. She didn't look like this girl, nor resemble her in any way, but somehow they were subtly alike. Perhaps some aftereffect of Hermann Goring's dark labyrinth was conflating them in my mind.

We had already drunk plenty of beer. The clock read close to ten. I had to be at the S Bahn at Friedrichstrasse station by twelve. My East German traveler's visa expired at midnight, and if I was so much as one minute late it would be extremely troublesome.

"On the outskirts of the city there is an old battle site that's still really torn up," the guide said.

I was staring idly at the waitress and didn't hear him.

"Excuse me?' He continued, "Russian and SS tanks attacked each other head on, right? It was the real climax of the Battle of Berlin. The wreckage is at an old marshalling yard, but it's remained exactly how it was back then. All the broken tank parts and stuff, I mean. We can borrow a friend's car and be there in no time ..."

I looked at my guide's face. It was thin over his gray corduroy coat. He placed both hands on the table. His fingers were long and delicate,
unsailorlike.

I shook my head, "I've got to be at the Friedrichstrasse station by midnight. My visa'll expire."

"How about tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow morning I'm leaving for Nuremberg," I lied.

The youth looked a bit disappointed. A wave of exhaustion rolled suddenly across his face. "It's just that if we went tomorrow, we could take my girlfriend and some of her friends along. That's all," he said as if in explanation.

"Aw, that's too bad," I said. I felt as though a cold hand was squeezing all the nerve bundles in my body. But what could I do? I didn't know. Here I was absolutely lost in this strange battlescarred city. Eventually though, the cold hand loosened, retreated like a tide from my body.

"Well ... hey, Hermann Goring's fortress was great, right?" He said with a smile. "Nobody's been able to bring it down in forty years."

From the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden you can see quite clearly in all directions. To the north, S Bahn station. To the south, Checkpoint Charlie. To the west, Brandenburg Gate. To the east, Fernsehturm.

"Well, don't worry," said the youth. "Even if you took your time you could make the station in about fifteen minutes. Got it, okay?"

My wristwatch read 11:10 p.m. Yes, I'm all right, I told myself. We shook hands.

"It's too bad we couldn't go to the marshalling yard, eh? And then the women, eh?"

"Yes, regrettable," I said. But to him, what could possibly have been regrettable about our not going? Walking alone, northbound on the Friedrichstrasse, I tried to imagine what Hermann Goring had envisioned that spring of 1945. But really, no one will know what the Reichsmarshal of the Thousand Year Empire was thinking. Goring's beloved and elegant Heinkel 117 bomber squadron lay in the Ukrainian wilderness like hundreds of bleached bones, the corpse of war itself.

3. Herr W's Midair Garden


The first time I was taken to see Herr W's midair garden was on a fog-heavy November morning.

"Well, she isn't much," said Herr W.

And he was right. The midair garden just sat there floating in a sea of fog. It was roughly eight yards long and five wide. Other than the fact that it was airborne, it differed in no other way from a regular garden. Well, let me rephrase that: it was a garden certainly, but by terrestrial standards, it was third-rate. The grass was dried up in patches, the flowers were eerily unnatural-looking, the tomato vines were all withered, and it lacked even a wooden fence. The white garden furniture looked as though it had come from a pawnshop.

"I told you it wasn't much," Herr W repeated as if in apology. He had been watching my eyes the whole time. But I wasn't particularly disappointed, I hadn't come to see splendid arbors, fountains, animal-shaped shrubbery, or Cupidean statues. I just wanted to see Herr W's midair garden.

"This is better than any of those ostentatious, earthbound gardens," I said, and Herr W seemed a little relieved.

"If only I could float a bit higher, then it'd really be a midair garden. But things being as they are ..." Herr W said. "Would you take some tea?"

"That would be lovely," I said.

Herr W reached into a canvas something of indiscriminate shape (daypack? basket?), pulled out a Coleman stove, a yellow-enameled teapot, and thermos full of water and began preparing the tea.

The air was extremely cold. I was wearing a thick down jacket and a scarf wrapped around my neck but they didn't seem to be helping. As I sat there shivering I watched the fog flow southward beneath me. Floating over the fog, I felt as though we were drifting off into terra incognita.

When I mentioned this to Herr W over hot jasmine tea, he chuckled slightly. "Everyone who comes here says the same thing. Especially on really foggy days. Especially then. Like we'll drift off into the stratosphere over the North Sea, eh?"

I cleared my throat and pointed out the other possibility, "Or into East Berlin."

"Ah, yes, yes," said Herr W, stroking a withered tomato vine. "That's part of the reason why I can't make this a proper midair garden. If I go too high, East German police start getting nervous. They keep their spotlight and machine guns trained on it! Obviously they don't open fire, but it's still not very pleasant."

"No, I suppose not," I said.

"And also, like you said, if it were any higher, there's no guarantee that we wouldn't get caught by a stiff breeze and wind up in East Berlin. And then where would we be! We'd probably be arrested as spies, and even if we survived we'd never make it back to West Berlin!"

"Hmm," I said.

Herr W's midair garden was tethered to the roof of a claptrap four-story building near the Berlin Wall. Since Herr W kept it floating no more than eight inches off the roof, you'd mistake it for just another rooftop garden if you didn't look closely. Maintaining a maximum altitude of eight inches on such a marvelous midair garden is not the sort of feat most people could have duplicated. Everyone said Herr W managed because he was such a "quiet, nonconfrontational sort."

"Why don't you move the flying garden to a safer location?" I asked. "Like Koln or Frankfurt, or even farther into West Berlin? Then you could go up as high as you like and no one would mind."

"Nonsense!" Herr W shook his head. "Koln! Frankfurt!" He shook his head again. "I like it here. All my friends live here! In Kreuzberg! It's just fine here!"

He finished his tea and pulled a Phillips portable record player out of a container. He placed a record on the turntable and flipped the switch. Soon the second movement of Handel's Wassermusik flowed forth. The brisk trumpets sounded clearly through the dull and overcast Kreuzberg sky. Could there have been another composition better suited to Herr W's midair garden?

"You really ought to come back this summer," Herr W said. "The garden is absolutely wonderful then. Last summer we had a party every day! Once we had twenty-five people and three dogs up here!"

"It's a good thing no one fell off," I said, amazed.

"Actually, two people have fallen off: got drunk," said Herr W, chuckling. "But no one died: the awnings on the third floor are quite sturdy."

I laughed at that.

"We've even hauled up an upright piano before. Pollini came and played Schumann. It was quite splendid. As you know, Pollini is a bit of a midair garden fanatic. Lorin Maazel wanted to come but I couldn't fit the whole Vienna Philharmonic up here, you know."

"Of course not," I agreed.

"Come again this summer," Herr W said and shook my hand. "Summer in Berlin is quite a sight. In summer this place is filled with smells of Turkish cooking and children laughing and music and beer! That's Berlin!"

"I very much wish to return," I said.

"Koln! Frankfurt!!" Herr W repeated, shaking his head.

And thus, Herr W's midair garden awaits summer's arrival, hovering just eight inches over the sky of Kreuzberg.



KEITH JOHNSON holds degrees in English and Japanese and is currently a
graduate student at Boston University


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