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South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.

33263

Title: South of the Border, West of the Sun.
Author: Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel).
Genre: Fiction, romance, philosophical fiction, music.
Country: Japan.
Language: Japanese.
Publication Date: 1992 (translated 1999).
Summary: Born in 1951 in an affluent Tokyo suburb, Hajime—beginning in Japanese—has arrived at middle age wanting for almost nothing. The postwar years have brought him a fine marriage, two daughters, and an enviable career as the proprietor of two jazz clubs. Yet a nagging sense of inauthenticity about his success threatens Hajime's happiness. And a boyhood memory of a wise, lonely girl named Shimamoto clouds his heart. When Shimamoto shows up one rainy night, now a breathtaking beauty with a secret from which she is unable to escape, the fault lines of doubt in Hajime's quotidian existence begin to give way. And the details of stolen moments past and present—a Nat King Cole melody, a face pressed against a window, a handful of ashes drifting downriver to sea—threaten to undo him completely.

My rating: 7.5/10
My review:


♥ I detested the term only child. Every time I heard it, I felt something was missing from me—like I wasn't quite a complete human being. The phrase only child stood there, pointing an accusatory finger at me. "Something's not quite all there, pal," it told me.

In the world I lived in, it was an accepted idea that only children were spoiled by their parents, weak, and self-centered. This was a given—like the fact that the barometer goes down the higher up you go and the fact that cows give milk. That's why I hated it whenever someone asked me how many brothers and sisters I had. Just let them hear I didn't have any, and instinctively they thought: An only child, eh? Spoiled, weak, and self-centered, I betcha. That kind of knee-jerk reaction depressed me, and hurt. But what really depressed and hurt me was something else: the fact that everything they thought about me was true. I really was spoiled, weak, and self-centered.

♥ Shimamoto was in charge of the records. She'd take one from its jacket, place it carefully on the turntable without touching the grooves with her fingers, and, after making sure to brush the cartridge free of any dust with a tiny brush, lower the needle ever so gently onto the record. When the record was finished, she'd spray it and wipe it with felt cloth. Finally she'd return the record to its jacket and its proper place on the shelf. Her father had taught her this procedure, and she followed his instructions with a terribly serious look on her face, her eyes narrowed, her breath held in check. Meanwhile, I was on the sofa, watching her every move. Only when the record was safely back on the shelf did she turn to me and give a little smile. And every time, this thought hit me: It wasn't a record she was handling. It was a fragile soul inside a glass bottle.

♥ Of all her father's records, the one I liked best was a recording of the Liszt piano concertos: one concerto on each side. There were two reasons I liked this record. First of all, the record jacket was beautiful. Second, no one around me—with the exception of Shimamoto, of course—ever listened to Liszt's piano concertos. The very idea excited me. I'd found a world that no one around me knew—a secret garden only I was allowed to enter. I felt elevated, lifted to another plane of existence.

And the music itself was wonderful. At first it struck me as exaggerated, artificial, even incomprehensible. Little by little, though, with repeated listenings, a vague image formed in my mind—an image that had meaning. When I closed my eyes and concentrated, the music came to me as a series of whirlpools. One whirlpool would form, and out of it another would take shape. And the second whirlpool would connect up with a third. Those whirlpools, I realize now, had a conceptual, abstract quality to them. More than anything, I wanted to tell Shimamoto about them. But they were beyond ordinary language. An entirely different set of words was needed, but I had no idea what these were. What's more, I didn't know if what I was feeling was worth putting into words.

♥ "Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a brother or sister?"

"No."

"Why not?"

I picked up the record jacket on the table. It was too dark to read what was written on it. I put the jacket down and rubbed my eyes a couple of times with my wrist. My mother had once asked me the same question. The answer I gave then didn't make her happy or sad. It just puzzled her. But for me it was a totally honest, totally sincere answer.

The things I wanted to say got all jumbled up as I talked, and my explanation seemed to go on forever. But what I was trying to get across was just this: The me that's here now has been brought up without any brothers or sisters. If I did have brothers or sisters I wouldn't be the me I am. So it's unnatural for the me that's here before you to think about what it'd be like to have brothers or sisters... In other words, I thought my mother's question was pointless.

I gave the same answer to Shimamoto. She gazed at me steadily as I talked. Something about her expression pulled people in. It was as if—this is something I thought of only later, of course—she were gently peeling back one layer after another that covered a person's heart, a very sensual feeling. Her lips changed ever so slightly with each change in her expression, and I could catch a glimpse deep within her eyes of a faint light, like a tiny candle flickering in the dark, narrow room.

"I think I understand what you mean," she said in a mature, quiet voice.

"Really?"

"Um," she answered. "There are some things in this world that can be done over, and some that can't. And time passing is one thing that can't be redone. Come this far, and you can't go back. Don't you think so?"

I nodded.

"After a certain length of time has passed, things harden up. Like cement hardening in a bucket. And we can't go back anymore. What you want to say is that the cement that makes you up has hardened, so the you you are now can't be anyone else."

♥ We held hands just once. She was leading me somewhere and grabbed my hand as if to say, This way—hurry up. Our hands were clasped together ten seconds at most, but to me it felt more like thirty minutes. When she let go of my hand, I was suddenly lost. It was all very natural, the way she took my hand, but I knew she'd been dying to do so.

The feel of her hand has never left me. It was different from any other hand I'd ever held, different from any touch I've ever known. It was merely the small, warm hand of a twelve-year-old girl, yet those five fingers and that palm were like a display case crammed full of everything I wanted to know—and everything I had to know. By taking my hand, she showed me what these things were. That within the real world, a place like this existed. In the space of those ten seconds I became a tiny bird, fluttering into the air, the wind rushing by. From high in the sky I could see a scene far away. It was so far off I could make it our clearly, yet something was there, and I knew that someday I would travel to that place. This revelation made me catch my breath and made my chest tremble.

I returned home, and sitting at my desk, I gazed for a long time at the fingers Shimamoto had clasped. I was ecstatic that she'd held my hand. Her gentle touch warmed my heart for days. At the same time it confused me, made me perplexed, even sad in a way. How could I possibly come to terms with that warmth?

♥ With ears perked up and eyes closed, I imagined the existence of a certain place. This place I imagined was still incomplete. It was misty, indistinct, its outlines vague. Yet I was sure that something absolutely vital lay waiting for me there. And I knew this: that Shimamoto was gazing at the very same scene.

We were, the two of us, still fragmentary beings, just beginning to sense the presence of an unexpected, to-be-acquired reality that would fill us and make us whole. We stood before a door we'd never seen before. The two of us alone, beneath a faintly flickering light, our hands tightly clasped together for a fleeting ten seconds of time.

♥ I disliked team sports of any kind of competition where you had to rack up points against someone else. I much preferred to swim on and on, alone, in silence.

♥ "Promise?" she asked.

"I promise."

"You won't hurt me?"

"I won't hurt you."

She looked down at her shoes for a while. Plain black loafers. Compared to mine, lined up next to them, they were as tiny as toys.

"I'm scared," she said. "These days I feel like a snail without a shell."

"I'm scared too," I said. "I feel like a frog without any webs."

She looked up and smiled.

Wordlessly we walked over to a shaded part of the building and held each other and kissed, a shell-less snail and a webless frog. I held her close against me. Our tongues met lightly. I felt her breasts through her blouse. She didn't resist. She just closed her eyes and sighed. He breasts were small and fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, as if designed solely for that purpose. She placed her palm above my heart, and the feel of her hand and the beat of my heart became one. She's not Shimamoto, I told myself. She can't give me what Shimamoto gave. But here she is, all mine, trying her best to give me all she can. How could I ever hurt her?

But I didn't understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.

♥ I had gone out with Izumi for just over a year, but that was without a doubt the happiest time we ever spent together. Naked, we had nothing to hide. I felt I knew more about her than ever before, and she must have felt the same. What we needed were not words and promises but the steady accumulation of small realities.

♥ If I stayed here, something inside me would be lost forever—something I couldn't afford to lose. It was like a vague dream, a burning, unfulfilled desire. The kind of dream people have only when they're seventeen.

♥ I was always attracted not by some quantifiable, external beauty, but by something deep down, something absolute. Just as some people have a secret love for rainstorms, earthquakes, or blackouts, I liked that certain undefinable something directed my way by members of the opposite sex. For want of a better word, call it magnetism. Like it or not, it's a kind of power that snares people and reels them in.

The closest comparison might be the power of perfume. Perhaps even the master blender himself can't explain how a fragrance that has a special power is created. Science sure can't explain it. Still, the fact remains that a certain combination of fragrances can captivate the opposite sex like the scent of an animal in heat. One kind of fragrance might attract fifty out of a hundred people. And another scent will attract the other fifty. But there also are scents that only one or two people will find wildly exciting. And I have the ability from far away, to sniff out those special scents. When I do, I want to go up to the girl who radiates this aura and say, Hey, I picked it up, you know. No one else gets it, but I do.

♥ Every time we met, we had sex four or five times, literally till my juices dried up and the tip of my cock swelled and ached. Despite the passion, and the violent attracted we each felt, it never occurred to either of us that we might become long-term lovers. We were in the midst of a whirlwind that would, in time, will be the last, only fanned the flames of desire that much higher.

I wasn't in love with her. And she didn't love me. For me the question of love was irrelevant. What I sought was the sense of being tossed about by some raging, savage force, in the midst of which lay something absolutely crucial. I had no idea what that was. But I wanted to thrust my hand right inside her body and touch it, whatever it was.

♥ I hurt myself deeply, though at the time I had no idea how deeply. I should have learned many things from that experience, but when I look back on it, all I gained was one single, undeniable fact. That ultimately I am a person who can do evil. I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centered, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I care for a wound that would never heal.

♥ Just after I turned twenty, this thought hit me: Maybe I've lost the chance to ever be a decent human being. The mistakes I'd committed—maybe they were part of my very makeup, an inescapable part of my being. I'd hit rock bottom, and I knew it.

♥ I consider this the third stage of my life—the twelve years between my starting college and turning thirty. Years of disappointment and loneliness. And silence. Frozen years, when my feelings were shut up inside me.

♥ If it hadn't rained then, if I had taken an umbrella (which was entirely possible, since I seriously debated doing so before I left the hotel), I would never have met her. And if I hadn't met her, I'd still be plugging away at the textbook company, still leaning against the wall in my apartment at night, alone, drinking, and babbling to myself. Makes me realize how limited our possibilities ever are.

♥ But I wasn't entirely comfortable with this arrangement. I felt I was taking a dishonest shortcut, using unfair means to get to where I was. After all, I was part of the late-sixties—early-seventies generation that spawned the radical student movement. Our generation was the first to yell out a resounding "No!" to the logic of late capitalism, which had devoured any remaining postwar ideals. It was like the outbreak of a fever just as the country stood at a crucial turning point. And here I was, myself swallowed up by the very same capitalist logic, savoring Schubert's Winterreise as I lounged in my BMW, waiting for the signal to change at an intersection in ritzy Aoyama. I was living someone else's life, not my own. How much of this person I called myself was really me? And how much was not? These hands clutching the steering wheel—what percentage of them could I really call my own? The scenery outside—how much of it was real? The more I thought about it, the less I seemed to understand.

♥ "..Did you see that Disney film in elementary school—The Living Desert?"

"Yeah," I answered.

"Our world's exactly the same. Rain falls and the flowers bloom. No rain, they wither up. Bugs are eaten by lizards, lizards are eaten by birds. But in the end, every one of them dies. They die and dry up. One generation dies, and the next one takes over. That's how it goes. Lots of different ways to live. And lots of different ways to die. But in the end that doesn't make a bit of difference. All that remains is a desert."

..Everyone just keeps on disappearing. Some things just vanish, like they were cut away. Others fade slowly into the mist. And all that remains is a desert.

♥ On the way, I sat down on a guardrail and watched a large crow that was cawing from the top of a traffic signal. The four a.m. streets looked shabby and filthy. The shadow of decay and disintegration lurked everywhere, and I was part of it. Like a shadow burned into a wall.

♥ It wasn't one of Ellington's best-known tunes, and I had no particular memories associated with it; just happened to hear it once, and it stuck some chord within me. From college to those bleak textbook-company years, come evening I'd listen to the Such Sweet Thunder album, the "Star-Crossed Lovers" track over and over. Johnny Hodges had this sensitive ad elegant solo in it. Whenever I heard that languid, beautiful melody, those days came back to me. It wasn't what I'd characterize as a happy part of my life, living as I was, a balled-up mass of unfulfilled desires. I was much younger, much hungrier, much more alone. But I was myself, pared down to the essentials. I could feel each single note of music, each line I read, seep down deep inside me. My nerves were sharp as a blade, my eyes shining with a piercing light. And every time I heard that music, I recalled my eyes then, glaring back at me from a mirror.

&hearts" "Shimamoto-san. Will I see you again?"

"Probably," she replied. A smile played around her mouth. A smile like a small wisp of smoke drifting quietly skyward on a windless day. "Probably."

♥ Look at the rain long enough, with no thoughts in your head, and you gradually feel your body falling loose, shaking free of the world of reality. Rain has the power to hypnotize.

♥ "..I don't know anything about new novels. I only like old ones, mostly from the nineteenth century. Ones I've read before."

"What's wrong with new novels?"

"I guess I'm afraid of being disappointed. Reading trashy novels makes me feel I'm wasting time. It wasn't always that way. I used to have lots of time, so even though I knew they were junk, I still felt something good would come from reading them. Now it's different. Must be getting old."

♥ "..Now I love my job. You know, sometimes my bars feel like imaginary places I created in my mind. Castles in the air. I plant some flowers here, construct a fountain there, crafting everything with great care. People stop by, have drinks, listen to music, talk, and go home. People are willing to spend a lot of money to come all this way to have some drinks—and do you know why? Because eeryone's seeking the same thing: an imaginary place, their own castle in the air, and their very own special corner of it."

♥ "But you don't know how empty it feels not to be able to create anything."

"I'm sure you've created more things than you realize."

"What sort of things?"

"Things you can't see," I replied. I examined my hands, resting on my knees.

She held her glass and looked at me for a long while. "You mean like feelings?"

"Right," I said. "Everything disappears someday. Like this bar—it won't go on forever. People's tastes change, and a minor fluctuation in the economy is all it'd take for it to go under. I've seen it happen; it doesn't take much. Things that have form will all disappear. But certain feelings stay with us forever."

♥ "People want to be bowled over by something special. Nine times out of ten you might strike out, but that tenth time, that peak experience, is what people want. That's what can move the world. That's art."

♥ "I'm sure tomorrow will be much better," I told her.

I wanted to believe that too. When I opened my eyes tomorrow, the world would be new, and every problem would be solved. But I couldn't swallow that scenario. For I had a wife and two daughters. And I was in love with someone else.

♥ Shimamoto's gaze again shifted to her hands on the table. She lightly spread her fingers, as if checking all ten of them.

"Hajime," she began, "the sad truth is that certain types of things can't go backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can't go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that's how it will stay forever."

♥ Watching the children grow, day by day, I could feel myself aging. All by themselves, regardless of any plans I might have for them, my children were growing bigger. I loved my daughters, of course. Watching them grow up made me happier than anything. Sometimes, though, seeing them grow bigger by the month made me feel oppressed. It was as if a tree were growing inside my body, laying down roots, spreading its branches, pushing down on my organs, my muscles, bones, and skin, forcing its way outward. It was so stifling at times that I couldn't sleep.

♥ Since starting to see Shimamoto again, I made love to Yukiko more often. Not out of guilt, though. Loving her, and being loved, was the only way I could hold myself together.

♥ So I called a designer and an interior decorator to discuss remodeling the bars. They were overdue for a little remodeling anyway, and it was high time I did some serious thinking about how I ran my business. Just like with people, with bars there's a time to leave them alone and a time for change. Being stuck in the same environment, you grow dull and lethargic. Your energy level takes a nosedive. Even castles in the air can do with a fresh coat of paint.

♥ Hard physical effort left no room to think, and keeping my body always in motion helped me concentrate on the trivia of daily life. Daydreaming was forbidden. I tried my best to concentrate on whatever I was doing. Washing my face, I focused on that; listening to music, I was all music. It was the only way I could survive.

♥ Away from Tokyo, in the great outdoors, Yukiko and the children were relaxed and happy. They picked flowers, watched birds with binoculars, played tag, splashed about in the river. Or else they just lay around in the yard. But they didn't know the truth. That on a certain snowy winter day, if my plane had been grounded, I would have thrown the, all away to be with Shimamoto. My job, my family, my money—everything, without flinching. And here I was, my head still full of Shimamoto. The sensation of holding her, of kissing her cheek, wouldn't leave me. I couldn't drive the image of Shimamoto from my mind and replace it with my wife. Just as I could never tell what Shimamoto was thinking, no one had a clue to what was in my mind.

♥ An outsider would probably have said we had an ideal life. Certainly I was convinced of it at times. I was fired up about my work and was taking in a good deal of money. I owned a four-bedroom condo in Aoyama, a small cottage in the mountains of Hakone, a BMW, a Jeep Cherokee. And I had a happy family. I loved my wife and my two daughters. What more could anyone ask for? If, say, Yukiko and the kids had begged me to tell them what they should do to be even better to me, to be loved even more, there was noting I could have said. I could not imagine a happier life.

But since Shimamoto had stopped coming to see me, I was stuck on the airless surface of the moon. If she was gone forever, no one remained to whom I could reveal my true feelings.

..The abandoned bowling alley parking lot, my melting snow in my mouth and feeding it to her. Shimamoto in the airplane, in my arms. Her closed eyes, the sigh from her slightly parted lips. Her body, soft and limp. She wanted me then. Yet I held myself back, back on the surface of the moon, stuck in this lifeless world. And in the end she left me, and my life was lost all over again.

♥ The moments of time linking night and dawn were long and dark. If I could cry, it might make things easier. But what would I cry over? Who would I cry for? I was too self-centered to cry for other people, too old to cry for myself.

♥ "..My father worked in an investment firm for forty years. Worked hard from morning to night. But all he left behind was a crummy little house. Maybe he just wasn't good at it. Every night, my mother was hunched over the household account books, worried over a hundred or two hundred yen that didn't balance. That's the kind of family I was raised in. You said you can only come up with eight million yen. Yukiko, we're talking about real money here, not Monopoly money. Most people ride to work every day, smashed together in packed trains, put in overtime, knock themselves out, and still couldn't come near making that much in a year. I lived that kind of life for eight years, so I know. And there was no way I could make eight million yen. But you probably can't picture that kind of life. ..You can blithely say that in half a month the money we invest will double. Eight million yen will turn into sixteen million. But something's very wrong with that kind of thinking. I've found myself sucked into that mind-set, and it makes me feel empty."

♥ I was struck by a violent desire to confess everything. What a relief that would be! Yukiko, see, there's another woman I love, someone I just can't forget. I've held back, trying to keep our world from crumbling, but I can't hold back anymore. The next tie she shows up, I don't care what happens: I'm going to make love to her. I've thought of her while I've masturbated. I've thought of her while I've made love to you, Yukiko... But I didn't say anything. Confession would serve no purpose. It would only make us miserable.

♥ I used to like to walk the city streets, gazing at the buildings and shops, watching all the people. I liked the feeling of moving through the city on my own two feet. Now, though, the city was depressing and empty. Buildings were falling apart, all the trees had lost their color, and every passerby was devoid of feelings, and of dreams.

♥ "For a while is a phrase whose length can't be measured. At least by the person who's waiting," I said. .."And probably is a word whose weight is incalculable."

♥ "Lovers born under an unlikely star," she said. "Sounds like it was written for the two of us."

"You mean we're lovers?"

"You think we're not?"

I looked at her. She wasn't smiling anymore. I could make out a faint glimmer deep within her eyes.

"Shimamoto-san, I don't know anything about you," I said. "Every time I look in your eyes, I feel that. The most I can say about you is how you were at age twelve. The Shimamoto-san who lived in the neighborhood and was in my class. But that was twenty-five years ago. The Twist was in, and people still rode in streetcars. No cassette tapes, no tampons, no bullet train, no diet food. I'm talking long ago. Other than what I know about you then, I'm in the dark."

"Is that what you see in my eyes? That you know nothing about me?"

"Nothing's written in your eyes," I replied. "It's written in my eyes. I just see the reflection in yours. ..Sometimes when I look at you, I feel I'm gazing at a distant star," I said. "It's dazzling, but the light is from tens of thousands of years ago. Maybe the star doesn't even exist anymore. Yet sometimes that light seems more real to me than anything. ..You're here," I continued. "At least you look as if you're here. But maybe you aren't. Maybe it's just your shadow. The real you may be someplace else. Or maybe you already disappeared, a long, long time ago. I reach out my hand to see, but you've hidden yourself behind a cloud of probablys. Do you think we can go on like this forever?"

"Possibly. For the time being," she answered.

"I see I'm not the only one with a strange sense of humor," I said. And smiled.

She smiled too. The rain has stopped, without a sound there's a break in the clouds, and the very first rays of sunlight shine through—that kind of smile. Small, warm lines at the corners of her eyes, holding out the promise of something wonderful."

♥ "Probably."

"Again with the probablys."

"A world full of probablys."

♥ "South of the border, west of the sun," she said.

"West of the sun?"

"Have you heard of the illness hysteria siberiana?"

"No."

"I read this somewhere a long time ago. Might have been in junior high. I can't for the life of me recall what book I read it in. Anyway, it affects farmers living in Siberia. Try to imagine this. You're a farmer, living all alone on the Siberian tundra. Day after day you plow your fields. As far as the eye can see, nothing. To the north, the horizon, to the east, the horizon, to the south, to the west, more of the same. Every morning, when the sun rises in the east, you go out to work in your fields. When it's directly overhead, you take a break for lunch. When it sinks in the west, you go home to sleep."

"Not exactly the lifestyle of an Aoyama bar owner."

"Hardly." She smiled and inclined her head ever so slightly. "Anyway, the cycle continues, year after year."

"But in Siberia they don't work in the fields in winter."

"They rest in winter," she said. "In the winter they stay home and do indoor work. When spring comes, they head out to the fields again. You're that farmer. Imagine it."

"Okay," I said.

"And then one day, something inside you dies."

"What do you mean?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. Something. Day after day you watch the sun rise in the east, pass across the sky, then sink in the west, and something beaks inside you and dies. You toss your plow aside and, your head completely empty of thought, begin walking toward the west. Heading toward a land that lies west of the sun. Like someone possessed, you walk on, day after day, not eating or drinking, until you collapse on the ground and die. That's hysteria siberiana."

I tried to conjure up the picture of a Siberian farmer lying dead on the ground.

"But what is there, west of the sun?" I asked.

She again shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe nothing. Or maybe something. At any rate, it's different from south of the border."

♥ A quiet smile nothing could ever touch, revealing nothing to me of what lay beyond. Confronted with that smile, I felt as if my own emotions were about to be lost to me. For an instant I lost my bearings, my sense of who and where I was.

♥ "But, Hajime, you have a wife and two children. And you love them. You want to do what's right for them."

"Of course I love them. Very much. And I want to take care of them. But something's missing. I have a family, a job, and no complaints about either. You could say I'm happy. Yet I've known ever since I met you again that something is missing. The important question is what is missing. Something's lacking. In me and my life. And that part of me is always hungry, always thirsting. Neither my wife nor my children can fill that gap. In the whole world, there's only one person who can do that. You. Only now, when the thirst is satisfied, do I realize how empty I was. And how I've been hungering, thirsting, for so many years. I can't go back to that kind of world."

♥ "Hajime," she whispered, "are you sure this is all right? Are you sure you want to throw away everything for my sake?"

I nodded. "Yes. I've already made up my mind."

"But if you'd never met me, you could have had a peaceful life. With no doubts or dissatisfactions. Don't you think so?"

"Maybe. But I did meet you. And we can't undo that," I said. "Just as you told me once, there are certain things you can't undo. You can only go forward. Shimamoto-san, I don't care where we end up; I just know I want to go there with you. And begin again."

♥ Suddenly I recalled the Shimamoto I'd seen in the parking lot of the bowling lanes—stiff and white as a sheet. I recalled clearly what I'd seen deep within her eyes. A dark space, frozen hard like a subterranean glacier. A silence so profound it sucked up every sound, never allowing it to resurface. Absolute, total silence.

It was the first time I'd been face-to-face with death. So I'd had no distinct image of what death really was. But there it was then, right before my eyes, spread out just inches from my face. So this is the face of death, I'd thought. And death spoke to me, saying that my time, too, would one day come. Eventually everyone would fall into those endlessly lonely depths, the source of all darkness, a silence bereft of any resonance. I felt a choking, stifling fear as I stared into this bottomless dark pit.

Facing those black, frozen depths, I had called out her name. Shimamoto-san, I had called out again and again. But my voice was lost in that infinite nothingness. Cry out as I might, nothing within the depths of her eyes changed. Her breathing remained strange, like the sound of wind whipping through cracks. Her regular breaths told me she was still on this side of the world. But her eyes told me she was already given up to death.

As I had looked deep into her eyes and called out her name, my own body was dragged down into those depths. As if a vacuum had sucked out all the air around me, that other world was steadily pulling me closer. Even now I could feel its power. It wanted me.

..And looked into her eyes. I could see my face reflected in them. Deep within her eyes, in the always bottomless depths, there was a spring. And, ever so faintly, a light. The light of life, I thought. Someday it will be extinguished, but for now the light is there. She smiled at me.

♥ Once, in the midst of it, when I was inside her, she became possessed, crying violently and pounding on my back with her fists. All the while, I held her tightly to me. If I didn't hold her tight, I felt, she would fly off into pieces. I stroked her back over and over to calm her. I kissed her neck and brushed her hair with my fingers. She was no longer the cool, self-controlled Shimamoto I knew. The frozen hardness within her was, bit by bit, melting and floating to the surface. I could feel its breath, far-off signs of its presence. I held her tight and let her trembling seep inside me. Little by little, this is how she would become mine.

♥ I remembered her eyes, looking over at me in the car. That intense gaze burned into my cheeks. It was more than a mere glance. The smell of death hovered over her. She really was planning to die. That's why she came to Hakone—to die, together with me.

"And I will take all of you. Do you understand that? Do you understand what that means?

When she said that, Shimamoto wanted my life. Only now did I understand.

..What desperate end had she reached? Why? And more important, who had driven her to such desperation? Why, finally, was death the only possible escape? I was grasping for clues, playing the detective, but I came up empty-handed. She just vanished, along with her secrets. No probablys or in a whiles this time—she just silently slipped away. Our bodies had become one, yet in the end she refused to open up her heart to me.

Some kinds of things, once they go forward, can never go back to where they began, Hajime, she would no doubt tell me. In the middle of the night lying on my sofa, I could hear her voice spinning out these words. Like you said, how wonderful it would be if the two of us could go off somewhere and begin life again. Unfortunately, I can't get out of where I am. It's a physical impossibility.

..I would never see her again, except in memory. She was here, and now she's gone. There is no middle ground. Probably is a road you may find south of the border. But never, ever west of the sun.

♥ I wanted to give her an answer to her question, but I couldn't. Of course I didn't want to leave her, but who was I to say that? Me—the guy who was going to throw his whole family away. Just because Shimamoto was gone, never to return, didn't mean I could blithely bounce back to the life I'd had and pretend nothing had happened. Life isn't that easy, and I don't think it should be.

♥ Because memory and sensations are so uncertain, so biased, we always rely on a certain reality—call it an alternate reality—to prove the reality of events. To what extent facts we recognize as such really are as they seem, and to what extent these are facts merely because we label them as such, is an impossible distinction to draw. Therefore, in order to pin down reality as reality, we need another reality to relativize the first. Yet that other reality requires a third reality to serve as its grounding. An endless chain is created within our consciousness, and it is the very maintenance of this chain that produces the sensation that we are actually here, that we ourselves exist. But something can happen to sever that chain, and we are at a loss. What is real? Is reality on this side of the break in the chain? Or over there, on the other side?

♥ Color returned to the world, and I no longer had the helpless feeling that I was walking on the surface of the moon. Vaguely, as if looking through a glass window at changes happening to someone else, I could detect a minute shift in gravity and a gradual sloughing off of something that had clung to me.

Something inside me was severed, and disappeared. Silently. Forever.

♥ "I don't want to leave you," I said. I shook my head. "I probably don't have the right to say this, but I don't want to leave you. If I left you now, I don't know what would happen to me. I don't want to be lonely ever again. I'd rather die."

She stretched out a hand and placed it on my chest. And looked deep into my eyes. "Forget about rights. I don't think anyone has those kinds of rights," she said.

.."I always feel like I'm struggling to become someone else. Like I'm trying to find a new place, grab hold of a new life, a new personality. I guess it's part of growing up, yet it's also an attempt to reinvent myself. By becoming a different me, I could free myself of everything. I seriously believed I could escape myself—as long as I made the effort. But I always hit a dead end. No matter where I go, I still end up me. What's missing never changes. The scenery may change, but I'm still the same old incomplete person. The same missing elements torture me with a hunger that I can never satisfy. I guess that lack itself is as close as I'll come to defining myself. For your sake, I'd like to become a new person. It may not be easy, but if I give it my best shot, perhaps I can manage to change. The truth is, though, if I put in the same situation again, I might very well hurt you all over again. I can't promise anything. That's what I meant when I said I had no right. I just don't hve the confidence to win over that force in me."

"And you've always been trying to escape that force?"

"I think so," I said.

Her hand still rested on my chest. "You poor man," she said. As if she were reading aloud something written large on a wall. Maybe it really was written on the wall, I thought. .."It's not a question of rights, or right or wrong. Maybe you are a hopeless person. A worthless person. And you might very well hurt me again. But that's not what's important here. You don't understand a thing."

"Most likely I don't," I said.

"And you don't ask anything," she said.

I opened my mouth to say something, but the words wouldn't come out. She was right: I never did ask her anything. Why didn't I? I had no idea.

"Right are what you build from here on out," Yukiko said. "Or rather, we build. We thought we'd constructed a lot together, but actually we hadn't made a thing. Life went too smoothly. We were too happy. Don't you think so?"

I nodded.

Yukiko folded her arms over her chest and looked at me. "I used to have dreams too, you know. But somewhere along the line they disappeared. Before I met you. I killed them. I crushed them and threw them away. Like some internal organ you no longer need and you rip out of your body. I don't know whether that was the right thing to do. But it was the only thing I could do at the time.... Sometimes I have this dream. The same dream over and over. Someone is carrying something in both hands, and comes up to me and says, 'Here, you've forgotten something.' I've been very happy living with you. I've wanted for nothing and never had any complaints. Still, something is chasing me. I wake up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat. I'm being chased by what I threw away. You think you're the only one being chased, but you're wrong. You're not the only one who's thrown away something, who's lost something. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I think so," I said.

"Maybe you will hurt me again. I don't know how I'll react then. Or maybe next time I'll hurt you. No one can promise anything. Neither of us can make any promises. But I do still love you."

♥ Eyes closed, I listened to the movements within my body. I might very well be changing. And I had to change.

I don't know if I have the strength to care for Yukiko and the children, I thought. No more visions can help me, weaving special dreams just for me. As far as the eye an see, the void is simply that—a void. I've been in that void before and forced myself to adjust. And now, finally, I end up where I began, and I'd better get used to it. No one will weave dreams for me—it is my turn to weave dreams for others. That's what I have to do. Such dreams may have no power, but if my own life is to have any meaning at all, that is what I have to do.

Probably.

♥ Standing in front of the mirror, I could see changes in my body. At night, at the stillness, I swore I could hear the sound of my flesh growing. I was about to be clothed in a new self, about to step into a place where I'd never been.

♥ Time to wake my daughters. It was well past dawn, and they had to get up. They were the ones who needed this new day, much more than I ever would. I'd go to their bedroom, pull back the covers, rest my hand on their warm bodies, and announce the beginning of a new day. That's what I had to do. But somehow I couldn't stand up from the kitchen table. All strength was drained from my body, as if someone had snuck up behind me and silently pulled the plug. Both elbows on the table, I covered my face with my palms.

Inside that darkness, I saw rain falling on the sea. Rain softly falling on a vast sea, with no one there to see it. The rain strikes the surface of the sea, yet even the fish don't know it is raining.

Until someone came and lightly rested a hand on my shoulder, my thoughts were of the sea.
Tags: 1960s in fiction, 1990s - fiction, 1st-person narrative, 20th century - fiction, fiction, foreign lit, infidelity (fiction), japanese - fiction, music (fiction), mystery, philosophical fiction, romance, translated
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