The UFO lands in Kushiro

by Murakami Haruki

translated by Eric Han

For five whole days, she spent all her time in front of the television. She did nothing but stare silently at the vistas of collapsed banks and hospitals, the shopping arcades scorched by fire, the sundered rails and expressways. Sunk deep into the sofa, lips pressed tightly together, she responded to nothing, not even when Komura called out to her. Not even a shake of her head or any sort of acknowledgement. He didnft know whether his voice was even reaching her ears.

His wife was from Yamagata, and as far as Komura knew, she didnft have a single relative or acquaintance in Kobefs vicinity. Even so, from morning to night she wouldnft leave her spot in front of the television. While he was watching, he never saw her eat or drink anything either.

She didnft even go to the bathroom. Apart from occasionally manipulating the remote control to change channels, she scarcely even shifted her body.

Komura would toast some bread, drink his coffee by himself and head off to work. Returning from work he would find his wife in front of the TV, in exactly the same position as he had left her in the morning. All he could do was fix a simple dinner from what was in the refrigerator, and eat it by himself. Even late in the evening when he became drowsy, she would still be staring at the late night news on the screen. She was surrounded on all sides by a stone wall of silence. Komura gave up and stopped calling out to her. On Sunday, five days later, he came home from work at his usual time to find that she was gone.

Komura worked as a salesman at a well established stereo component specialty store in Akihabara, Tokyo. The products he handled were strictly high-end; his earnings came mostly from his sales, and the resulting commission. Among his customers were a large number of doctors, and affluent business owners, basically the regional wealthy. Hefd been working there for nearly eight years, and his earnings were not bad from the very start. The economy then was manifestly prospering, real estate prices rose, and Japan overflowed with money. Peoplesh purses were jammed full of g 10,000 notes, which they were intent on spending from one end of the stack to the other. His products sold one by one, from the most expensive on down.

Trim, smartly dressed, and personable, Komura saw many different women during his single days. However, after he got married at twenty-six, his sexual desire and excitement had evaporated to a mysterious extent. For the five years after his marriage, he slept with no woman but his wife. This was not for lack of opportunity. More to the point, he had lost all interest in light and superficial romantic encounters. Instead, he desired nothing more than to go home, leisurely fix dinner with his wife, have a chat on the sofa, then join her in bed and make love. This was the type of life that he sought.

When Komura got married, his friends and coworkers alike, despite their individual differences, all shook their heads in disbelief. In contrast to Komurafs finely cut figure and fresh-faced good looks, his wifefs looks were unoutstanding. Nor was her unoutstandingness restricted to her outward appearance; you couldnft say her personality had any special appeal either. On top of which, she was taciturn by nature and constantly maintained a dour expression on her face. Owing to her short stature and girthy forearms, she also struck one as rather slow and bovine.

For Komura however, and without clearly grasping the reasons himself, only by spending his days beneath one roof with his wife was he able to totally release his tensions and be at ease. He came to look forward to the restful slumber he would enjoy every night. The strange dreams that had disturbed his sleep gradually faded. His erections were hard, and their sex was intimate. Anxieties about death, veneral disease, or the expansiveness of space left him as well.

For his wife, on the other hand, the cramped living conditions of the capitol of Tokyo disagreed with her, and she always yearned to return to her parentfs house in Yamagata. She thought constantly of her parents and two sisters there, and when those feelings would reach a breaking point, she would depart for home by herself. Her family there ran a traditional inn, and were fairly well off. Since her father fairly doted on his youngest daughter, he would gladly pay for her return fare. Komura had come home many times to discover his wife gone, and a note on the kitchen table saying she had gone back to Yamagata for a while. Even at those times, Komura never once voiced any complaints, and would only wait quietly for her return. Given a span of a week or ten days, his wife would return, spirits restored.

However, when she left five days after the earthquake, the letter she left said, gI have no intention of ever coming back.h Within, she had detailed concisely, and moreover specifically why she no longer wanted to live with him.

gThe problem is,h she had written, gthat you have given me nothing.h gTo put it more precisely, you have within you not one thing worthy of giving to me. You are a kind, gentle and handsome man, but my life with you has been akin to living with a lump of blank white space. But of course, that is not solely your own fault. I have no doubt that there will be plenty of women who would fall in love with you. Please do not phone me. You may dispose of the remainder of my things.h

Even so, there were hardly any of her things left. Her clothing, her shoes, her umbrella, even her coffee mug and hairdryer were missing. After Komura had left for work, she had probably assembled her effects and sent them off by UPS or something.

Her gthingsh that she had left were nothing more than a bike for grocery shopping and a few books. Most of the Beatles and Bill Evans CDs were also gone from the rack, but those had been part of Komurafs collection since his bachelor days.

The following day, he tried calling his wifefs home in Yamagata. Her mother came on the line and said that her daughter didnft want to talk to him. She sounded rather apologetic. She told him that her daughter would be sending the documents along and that she just wanted him to place his seal on them and return them as soon as possible.

gEven if you want it 'as soon as possible,' divorce is such a weighty matter, wonft you give me some time to reflect on it?h Komura said.

gNo matter how much time you spend thinking about it, I donft think anything will change,h her mother replied.

gThatfs probably true,h Komura thought. No matter how long he waited, no matter how much he thought about it, they were unlikely to ever return to what they were. He understood that with great clarity.

A short while after he had affixed his seal on the documents, and sent them back, Komura took a one week paid holiday. His manager had heard the general outline of what had happened, and Febuary being a slow month anyway, approved his vacation without a complaint. Though his face showed that he had things to say, he ultimately kept his silence.

gKomura, I heard youfre taking a some time off, but what are you planning on doing?h his coworker Sasaki came over to inquire during their lunch break.

gWell, I donft know yet.h

Sasaki was about three years his junior, and single. Short in stature, he wore his hair closely cropped and wore round wire-rim glasses. He was garrulous and had a rather hard nosed character, thanks to which he was disliked by many people. The easy-going Komura, on the other hand, got along fairly well with him.

gItfd be a shame if you didnft go on a nice relaxing trip wouldnft it?h

gYeah,h Komura said.

Sasaki wiped his glasses with a hankerchief and gazed into Komurafs face, as if gauging his expression.

gKomura, have you ever been to Hokkaido?h

gNever,h Komura replied.

gDo you have any desire to go?h

gWhy do you ask?h

Sasaki narrowed his eyes and coughed. gTo tell the truth, I have a small package Ifd like to bring to Kushiro, and I thought, wouldnft it be great if you could bring it there for me? If you could do that for me, I would gladly pay your round trip air fare, not to mention be deeply indebted to you. Ifd also arrange to care of all your lodgings over there.h

gA small package?h

gAbout this size,h Sasaki said while forming a cube of about 10 centimeters with his fingers. gIt wonft be heavy.h

gIs it something work-related?h

Sasaki shook his head. gThis has absolutely nothing to do with work. Itfs one hundred percent personal. I canft have it handled roughly, so Ifd rather not send it by either mail or a shipping agent. If possible, Ifd like to have someone I know deliver it by hand. Actually, itfd be best if I did it myself, but I canft seem to get enough time off to go to Hokkaido.h

gItfs something important?h

Sasakifs clenched lips twisted subtlely, and he nodded. gBut itfs nothing breakable or dangerous, so therefs no need to be nervous. All you need to do is carry it there. Itfs not something liable to be picked up by the X-ray at the airport either. It wonft trouble you in the least. The reason I donft want to send it by mail is more emotional than anything else.h

February in Hokkaido would probably be frighteningly cold. To Komura however, hot or cold made no difference whatsoever.

gAnd to whom should I hand the package?h

gMy younger sister lives over there.h

Because Komura had not yet given any thought to his vacation plans, and moreover, found the very thought of organizing travel plans troublesome, he decided to accept Sasakifs proposal. Really, he didnft have any particular reason not to want to go to Hokkaido. Sasaki called up the airline and reserved a ticket to Kushiro on the spot. The flight was for two days later.

The following day at work, Sasaki handed him a small package somewhat like a funerary box, wrapped in brown paper. From the feel of it, it seemed to be made of wood. Just as Sasaki had said, it scarcely had any weight at all. Wide strips of clear celophane tape had been wrapped round and round over the paper wrapping. Komura took it in his hands and gazed at it for a while. He tried shaking it lightly, but received no sound in response.

gMy little sister will come to meet you at the airport. Shefs taken care of your accomodations too,h Sasaki informed him. gHold the box where she can see it, and stand by the exit of the gate. Therefs no reason to worry. Itfs not a very large airport.h

When he was leaving home he took the box and wrapped it in a thick shirt he had prepared as a change of clothes, and stuffed it deep into his bag. The plane was much more crowded than he had predicted. Komura, for the life of him, could not imagine what so many people were going from Tokyo to Kushiro to do. And as usual, the newspaper was completely buried under articles about the earthquake. He sat down at his seat and read the morning edition from cover to cover.

The number of fatalities continued to climb higher. Water and electricity remained cut off for the greater part of the area, and large numbers of people had lost their homes. The reality of their miserable plight was coming to light bit by bit. But to Komura, these details were strangely flat, as if projected onto a surface without any depth. Itfs echoes were distant and monotone. The only thing he could devote thought to was his wife, who was moment to moment growing steadily more distant from him.

He mechanically passed his eyes over the articles about the earthquake, from time to time thought of his wife, and then returned once again to the articles. When he tired of both thinking of his wife and following the words on the page, he would close his eyes and drift off into sleep. When he woke, he would think some more about his wife. Why did she follow the broadcasts about the earthquake so intently from morning to night, that she even forgot to sleep and eat? What on earth did she see in those images?

At the airport, two young women wearing overcoats of exactly the same color and pattern called out to Komura. One was nearly one hundred and seventy centimeters tall, had short hair and a fair complexion. From her nose to her protruding upper lip, her face had a strangely stupid-looking contour that recalled one of a short-haired ungulate. The other one was around one hundred and fifty-five centimeters tall, and apart from the fact that her nose was too small, was not a bad looking woman. Her hair was shoulder length hair was straight, and her ears stuck out. By her right ear lobe were two moles. Because she wore earrings, the moles especially stood out. Both women appeared to be in their mid-twenties. The two took Komura to a coffee-shop in the middle of the airport.

gIfm Sasaki Keiko,h the large one said. gI have to thank you for helping out my older brother. This is my friend Shimao.h

gNice to meet you,h Komura said.

gHello,h said Shimao.

gI heard from my brother that your wife recently passed away. . .h Sasaki Keiko said with a meek expression.

gUm, no, shefs anything but dead.h Komura paused for a moment before correcting her.

gBut my brother very clearly said that on the phone the day before yesterday. 'Since Komurafs wife just passed away. . .' he said.h

gNo, wefre only divorced. As far as I know, shefs living and quite healthy.h

gWhy, thatfs strange. I certainly shouldnft have misheard something as important as that.h

At having misunderstood the situation, she flashed a hurt expression on her face, as if she had been personally injured. Komura added a little sugar to his coffee, stirred it silently with his spoon, and took a sip. The coffee was thin and tasteless. It existed there not as substance, but as sign. Komura found it difficult to explain to himself just what on earth he was doing in a place like this.

g . .I must have mis-heard. Therefs no other way to explain it,h and so saying, Sasaki Keiko seemed to collect herself. She took a deep breath and bit lightly on her lip. gIfm sorry. I shouldnft have said something like that.h

gNo big deal. . . afterall, it amounts to about the same thing.h

As they were talking, Shimao sat grinning silently and peering at Komurafs face. She seemed to have taken a liking to Komura. He could tell by the look on her face, and the minute clues in her demeanor. The three of them fell silent for a while.

gAt any rate, Ifd like to take care of an important matter first,h Komura said. He unzipped his bag and pulled out the package he had been given from between his thick thermal undershirts. "Come to think of it, wasnft I supposed to have carried this package by hand?h thought Komura. gThey were supposed to recognize me from the package. How did these women know it was me?h

Sasaki Keiko extended both hands across the table, accepted the package, and gazed at it for a few moments. She tested its weight, and precisely as Komura had done, shook it several times by her ear. Her smile showed that there was no problem, and she tucked it away in a large-sized shoulder bag.

gI have to make one phone call. Wonft you excuse me for a bit?h Keiko told him.

gOf course itfs no problem. Go ahead,h replied Komura.

Keiko shouldered the bag, and headed off to a telephone box in the distance. Komura followed her receding form with his eyes for a while. Her upper body was fixed rigid; it was only her lower half that moved fluidly, like a machine. Watching her way of walking, he had the strange sensation that he had been inserted, suddenly and randomly, into some scene from the past.

gHave you been to Hokkaido before?h Shimao inquired.

Komura shook his head.

gItfs far away isnft it.h

Komura nodded. Then he looked around at his surroundings. gBut, sitting here, doing this, I donft really get the feeling that Ifve come a long way. Strange thing isnft it?h

gItfs because of airplanes. The speedfs too great,h Shimao answered. gThe body moves, but the consciousness canft keep pace.h

gThat might be it.h

gDid you want to have 'come a long way'?

gProbably.h

gBecause your wifefs gone?h

Komura nodded.

gBut, no matter how far you go, you can never escape from yourself,h Shimao said.

Komura, who had been staring absent-mindedly at the sugar container on the table, looked up at Shimaofs face.

gThatfs true. Itfs exactly as you say. No matter how far I go, I can never escape from myself. Itfs like a shadow; it follows you whereever you go.h

gYou must have loved your wife a lot.h

Komura evaded the question. gYoufre Sasaki Keikofs friend right?h

gThatfs right. Wefre partners.h

gWhat kind of partners?

gAre you hungry?h Without answering his question, Shimao returned a question of her own.

gIfm not sure,h Komura said. gI feel like Ifm hungry, but at the same time I feel like Ifm not hungry.h

gLetfs the three of us get something warm to eat. Eat something warm, and youfll feel more at ease.h

Shimao drove. The car was a compact Subaru four-wheel-drive. From its rickety condition, itfs mileage must have been over two hundred thousand kilometers. There was also a huge dent in its rear bumper. Sasaki Keiko took the passenger seat, and Komura sat in the cramped rear seat. Her driving was not all that bad, but the roar of the engine in the rear seat was terrible, and the suspension was rather weak. The automatic down-shift hit like a blow, and the heating system worked only erratically. When he closed his eyes, he was assaulted by the illusion of being stuck inside a washing machine.

The snow did not accumulate on Kushirofs roadways. There was only old, dirty, ice-crusted snow, messily heaped up on both sides of the streets, like words that have lost their use. The clouds hung low, and though there was still some time before sunset, the whole area was already thoroughly dark. The wind slashed through the gloom and raised a screeching wail. He hardly saw any people walking along the street. The scenery was desolate, and seemed frozen right down to the traffic signals.

"For Hokkaido, this is a place where the snow doesnft accumulate much,h Sasaki Keiko, looking back, explained in a loud voice. gWefre on the coast, and also, the wind is really strong here. So as soon as the snow accumulates, it gets blown away. But cold, it certainly is. Dreadfully so. Cold enough for your ear lobes to snap off.h

gPeople who get drunk and fall asleep on the street often freeze to death,h Shimao added.

gDo you see bears in this area?h Komura asked.

Keiko looked Shimaofs way and laughed. gHey, hefs asking us about bears.h

Shimao also broke out laughing in the same way.

gYou see, I donft really know much about Hokkaido. . .h Komura explained, trying to excuse himself.

gWe have an interesting story about bears,h Keiko told him. gNow, donft we?h she said to Shimao.

gAn Ex-Treme-Ly interesting story,h Shimao added.

However, the conversation stopped there, and they didnft begin their bear story, nor did Komura bring himself to ask. Shortly afterward, they reached their destination. It was a large ramen restaurant by the side of the road. They parked the car, and the three of them entered the restaurant. Komura ate some hot ramen, and had some beer. The restaurant was dirty and vacant, and the tables and chairs were wobbly. The ramen was delicious however, and by the time he finished eating he indeed felt a little more at ease.

gKomura, while youfre in Hokkaido, is there anything you want to do?h asked Sasaki Keiko. gI heard that youfre going to be staying here for about a week.h

Komura gave it some thought, but still couldnft come up with anything.

gHow about something like a hot spring? Do you want to relax in a hot spring? We have a small, rustic-style one nearby.h

gThat wouldnft be bad,h Komura said.

gI think youfll like it for sure. Itfs a good place, and there wonft be any bears.h

The two of them looked at each other and again laughed oddly.

gHey, Komura. Is it ok to ask about your wife?h Keiko said.

gYeah, itfs ok.h

gWhen did your wife leave you?h

gIt was five days after the earthquake, so that makes it more than two weeks ago I guess.h

gDid it have something to do with the earthquake?h

Komura shook his head. gI donft think so.h

gBut I wonder if therefs a connection somewhere,h Shimao said, slightly tilting her head to the side.

g . .and, like, you just donft know about it,h Keiko chimed in.

gThat sort of thing happens, you know,h Shimao said.

gWhat sort of thing is 'that' sort of thing?h Komura asked.

gWell, basically,h Keiko explained. gI have this acquaintance who had an experience with someone like that.h

gIs this the one about Saeki?h inquired Shimao.

gYeah,h said Keiko. gTherefs this man named Saeki. Hefs about forty years old, lives in Kushiro, and works as a hair-dresser. Last autumn, his wife saw a UFO. She was driving alone, in the middle of the night outside town, when she sees this giant UFO landing in a field. Whoosh. Just like Close Encountersh One week later, she leaves home. It wasnft like there were any problems in their household, but just like that, she disappears, and never comes back.h

gAnd was never seen again,h Shimao added.

gThe UFO was the cause?h Komura asked.

gWe donft know the cause. But one day, without a note, and leaving two elementary school aged children behind, she just went off somewhere,h Keiko said. gAnd, the one week before she left, she talked about nothing but the UFO to anyone who would listen. She pretty much didnft give it a rest for a whole week. She just went on and on about how big it was, how shiny it was, that sort of thing.h

The two of them waited for the story to sink into Komurafs head.

gIn my situation, there was a note,h Komura said. gAnd no kids.h

gThen, youfre at least that much better off than Saeki,h Keiko replied.

gKids are a serious matter,h Shimao said, nodding.

gShimaofs father left when she was seven,h Keiko explained, raising an eyebrow. gHe ran away with her momfs younger sister.h

gOne day, out of the blue,h Shimao said, smiling.

They fell into silence.

gPerhaps she didnft run away from home, but was taken away by the aliens on board that UFO,h said Komura, attempting to rescue the moment.

gThere is that possibility,h said Shimao with a serious expression on her face. gYou hear about stories like that a lot.h

gOr, perhaps, she was strolling along the side of the road when she got eaten by a bear. . .h Keiko offered, and the two broke out laughing again.

When they left the restaurant, the three of them made their way to a nearby love hotel. Outside of town, there was a street where stoneworks that carve grave memorials alternated with love hotels, and Shimao guided the car into one of these. It was a curious building constructed to emulate a western castle. Triangular red flags flew at its apex.

Keiko went to the front desk to pick up the key, and the three of them rode the elevator up to the room. The windows were tiny, and by an equal degree, the bed absurdly large. Komura took off his down jacket and hung it up, and while he was in the bathroom doing his business, the two of them deftly filled the tub with hot water, adjusted the lamp dimmers, checked the heater, turned on the TV, examined the room service menu, tested the bed-side switches, and investigated the contents of the refrigerator.

gSomeone I know runs this hotel,h Sasaki Keiko said. gThatfs why I had them prepare the largest room for you. As you can see, itfs not half bad. Never mind that it's a love hotel. You donft mind do you?h

Komura told her that he didnft mind.

gI certainly think staying here is much more luxurious than staying at a cramped, run-down business hotel near the train station.h

gThatfs probably true.h

gThe hot waterfs ready, so why donft you get in the tub?h

Komura did just as he was told and got in the bath tub. The tub was diasgreeably spacious, to the extent that it made you uneasy to get in all by yourself. In most situations, the people who come here probably got in the bath in twos.

After getting out of the bath, Sasaki Keiko was nowhere to be seen. Shimao was drinking a beer, and watching TV by herself.

gKeiko went home. She said she had some things to take care of, and so had to excuse herself a little early. She says shefll come pick you up tomorrow morning. Hey, would it be alright if I stayed here and had some beer with you?h

Fine by me, said Komura.

gIfm not getting in the way? Like if you want to be alone, or like you can only totally relax when no onefs around?h

Komura told her that she was by no means getting in the way. While wiping his hair dry with a towel, he drank a beer and watched a television program with Shimao for a while. It was a special feature about the earthquake. The same images were being recycled over and over. Leaning buildings, collapsed roadways, tears running down an elderly womanfs face, confusion and directionless anger. During a commercial break, she took up the remote control and switched off the set.

gSince wefre here together, why donft we talk?h

gSure.h

gWhat should we talk about?h

gWhile in the car, the two of you mentioned something about bears, right?h said Komura. gAn interesting story about bears.h

gRight, the bear story,h nodded Shimao.

gWell, Ifd like to hear more about that.h

gNo problem.h

Shimao retrieved a fresh beer from the refrigerator and refilled their glasses.

gItfs kind of a dirty story. You wouldnft get offended if I were to tell that type of story would you?h

Komura shook his head.

gEvery now and then, you know, there are guys who object.h

gIfm not like that.h

gItfs a story about a personal experience, so hey, itfs pretty embarassing.h

gIfd like to hear it, if you donft mind.h

gAbout three years ago, which was about when I entered community college, I was going out with this guy. He was a college student one year my senior. He was also the first person Ifve slept with. We went hiking, just the two of us, to a mountain way in the north.h

Shimao paused to take a sip of beer.

gSince it was autumn, the bears were out. Since bears in autumn are foraging for provisions for hibernation, they can be quite dangerous. People get attacked sometimes. Just three days before, a hiker was attacked and was seriously injured. Thatfs why the local residents handed us a bell. It was about the size of a wind chime. They told us to keep ringing it while we hiked. If we did that, the bears would think 'hey, therefre people coming,h and not come out. You see, bears donft attack humans because they want to. Though bears are omnivorous, they eat mostly vegetables, so they have no reason to attack humans. Basically, when they inadvertantly come across some humans on their territory, they get surprised, or maybe angry, and attack reflexively. Thatfs why if we walk around ringing a bell, they avoid us. Does that make sense?h

gYeah.h

gSo, the two of us were walking along the mountain trail ringing the bell. And then, when we got to a place where there wasnft anybody around, he suddenly tells me that he wants to do it. Well, I wasnft against the idea, so I said sureh We left the path and went deep into some bushes where no one would be able to see us. Then we laid down a bit of plastic tarp. But then, I suddenly got scared of bears. I mean, how embarassing would that be if, while we were having sex, a bear came up from behind and killed us? Ifd hate to die like that. Wouldnft you feel the same way?h

Komura concurred.

gSo, while one hand was ringing the bell, we had sex. From start to finish, ring-ring-ring.h

gWho did the ringing?h

gWell, we alternated. When one hand got tired we switched off, and when that hand got tired, we switched back. It was incredibly strange, having sex all the while ringing a bell,h Shimao said. gEven now, sometimes when Ifm in the middle of having sex I remember that episode and burst out laughing.h

Komura laughed a little too.

Shimao clapped her hands a few times. gThatfs great, I made you laugh, Komura!h

gOf course,h said Komura. But come to think of it, it had been a long time since he had laughed. Just when was the last time he had a good laugh?

gHey, would it be alright if I got in the tub too?h

gOf course it would.h

While she was in the bath, Komura watched a television variety show hosted by a loud-mouthed comedian. It wasnft that funny, but whether that was the showfs fault or his own, Komura couldnft judge. He drank some more beer, then opened up and ate the package of nuts that was sitting in the refrigerator. Shimao took a very long time in the bath, but when she emerged she was wearing only a towel wrapped around her chest. She plopped down on top of the bed. Then, removing the towel, she slipped feline-like under the blankets. She peered directly into Komurafs face.

gKomura, when was the last time you had sex with your wife?h

gLast year, at the end of December, I think.h

gHave you done it since then?h

gNo.

gNot even with somebody else?h

Komura closed his eyes and shook his head.

gWhat I think you need right now, Komura, is a fresh start so you can start letting yourself enjoy life again,h said Shimao. gIsnft that right? Tomorrow we might have an earthquake, or you could be taken away by aliens. You might even be eaten by a bear. No one knows about that sort of thing.h

gNo one knows . . .h Komura repeated those words.

gRing-ring,h said Shimao.

He attempted many times to complete the act, but try as he might things just didnft seem to work, and Komura finally gave up. That was a first for him.

gYou were thinking of your wife, werenft you?h inquired Shimao.

gYeah.h Komura said. But to tell the truth, his head was filled instead with scenes of the earthquake. They came to him like a slide show presentation: one image floating into view before disappearing, followed by another image floating up, then disappearing in turn. Expressway, conflagration, smoke, mountain of debris, fissures in the roadway. No matter what, he couldnft disconnect that series of soundless images.

Shimao pressed her ear into Komurafs naked chest.

gIt happens,h she said.

gYeah.h

gI donft think you need to worry about it.h

gIfll try not to worry about it.h

gBut I guess guys really do worry about that sort of thing, huh?h

Komura was silent.

Shimao lightly tweaked Komurafs nipple. gHey Komura, you said that your wife left you a note didnft you?h

gYeah.h

gWhat was in that note?h

gShe wrote that living with me was like living with a lump of blank white space.h

gA lump of blank white space?h Shimao tilted her head and gazed at Komurafs face. gI wonder what she meant by that?h

gThat I have no inner substance, I think.h

gYou have no inner substance?h

gMaybe not. But I donft really know. Ifve been told that I have no inner substance, but what is einner substanceh anyway?

gYes, youfre right. If you think about it, what does ' inner substance' mean anyway?h Shimao said. gMy mom loves to eat the skin part of the salmon, and used to say all the time how great it would be if there were a salmon that was all skin. So, there might be some cases where not having an einner substanceh would be good, donft you think?h

Komura tried imagining a salmon that was all skin. But, supposing that there was a salmon that was composed entirely of skin, then wouldnft the salmonfs einner substanceh be the skin itself? Komura respired deeply, and her head rose and sank steeply along with his chest.

gHey, I donft know whether or not you have any einner substance,h Komura, but to me youfre wonderful. I think there are plenty of women in the world who would love and understand you.h

gThat was in the note too.h

gThe note from your wife?h

gYes.h

gHmm,h said Shimao in a bored tone. Then she again put her ear to Komurafs chest, and he felt her earring against his skin like an unknown foreign object.

gBy the way, about that box that I brought with me,h Komura said. "Just what was in it?h

gIs it troubling you?h

gIt wasnft up until now. But now, for some reason, it strangely is.h

gSince when?h

"Just now.h

gSuddenly?h

gYes, when it occured to me, suddenly.h

gI wonder why it should suddenly trouble you like that.h

Komura stared at the ceiling for a time. gI wonder why.h

For a while, the two of them listened intently to the howling of the wind blowing past. Komura knew neither where the wind was blowing to, nor where it was blowing from.

gWell, about that box,h Shimao spoke in a muted voice. gYour inner substance was inside it. You unwittingly brought it here and handed it over to Sasaki with your own two hands. Thatfs why your inner substance will never come back.h

Komura sat up in a flash and looked down at her face. At her small nose and the moles by her ear. In the deep silence, his heart raised a great, dry thumping noise. His bones creaked as he bent over. For just a single moment, he was struck by the thought that he was on the brink of incredible violence.

gThat was a joke,h Shimao said, studying Komurafs expression. gI just randomly blurted out whatever came to mind. It was a bad joke. Ifm sorry. Just forget I said it, ok? I didnft mean to hurt you, you know?h

Komura quieted his emotions, glanced about his surroundings, and buried his head into the pillow once more. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. The expansiveness of the bed around him was like the sea at night. He could hear the sound of the frozen wind. The furious rhythm of his heartbeat shook his bones.

gHow is it? Are you starting to have the sensation of having come a long way?h

gI feel like Ifve come from very far away,h said Komura, honestly.

With the tip of her finger, Shimao traced a complex pattern like some sort of magical charm on Komurafs chest.

gBut, itfs only just begun,h she said.