Authors: Haruki Murakami
Half a month after my third girlfriend died, I was reading Michelet’s La Sorciere. I knew that book well. In it, there’s a line that goes something like this:
“In the Lorraine region, there was a prominent Judge Remy who burned eight hundred witches, and was jubilant in his ‘Purge of Witches’. He’d say, ‘My justice is widespread, the other day we caught sixteen persons, and without hesitation we drowned them posthaste.’”
-Shinoda Ichiro, Translator
If I say my justice is widespread, it might be better to say nothing at all.
The phone rang.
My face was sunburned from my trip to the pool, and I was in the midst of cooling it off with calamine lotion. After letting it ring ten times, I brushed the checkerboard of neatly cut cotton strips off my face and rose from the chair to take the receiver.
“Afternoon. It’s me.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You in the middle of something?”
“Nope, nothing at all.”
I took the towel draped around my shoulders and wiped my stinging face.
“I had fun yesterday. Most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
“Hm, yeah…you like beef stew?”
“I made some, but it’d take me a week to eat all this all by myself. Wanna come over and eat some?”
“If it’s all right.”
“Okay, be here in one hour. If you’re late, I’m pitching it all into the garbage. Understand?”
“I just hate waiting, that’s all.”
Saying that, she hung up before I’d had a chance to open my mouth.
I lied back down on the sofa and stared at the ceiling for about ten minutes, listening to the Top 40
on the radio, then I took a shower and shaved my face cleanly with hot water, then put on a shirt and Bermuda shorts just back from the dry cleaner’s. It was a pleasant-feeling evening.
Watching the sun set parallel to the beach as I drove, I stopped at a place by the highway on-ramp to buy chilled wine and two cartons of cigarettes. She’d cleaned the table, and in the space between the shining white dishes, I was using the edge of a fruit knife to wrest the cork out of the bottle. The moist steam from the beef stew made the room humid.
“I didn’t think it’d get this hot. It’s like Hell.”
“Hell is much hotter.”
“Sounds like you’ve been there to see it.”
“I heard it from someone. As soon as you’re about to go crazy from the heat, they move you somewhere cooler. As soon as you recover a little, they toss you back into the heat.”
“Just like a sauna.”
“It’s like that. But sometimes, when people go crazy, they don’t put them back in.”
“What do they do with them?”
“Drop ‘em off in Heaven. Then they make ‘em paint the walls. After all, the walls always have to be perfectly white. They get real upset if there’s even a single spot. Hurts their image.
“Thanks to the constant painting from morning ‘til night, these guides usually ruin their windpipes.”
She didn’t ask any more after that. After carefully picking the debris from the cork from the inside of the bottle, I poured us two glasses.
“Cold wine, warm heart,” she said when we toasted.
“What’s that from?”
“A television commercial. Cold wine, warm heart. You ever seen it?”
“You don’t watch television?”
“I watch it a little. I used to watch it all the time. My favorite was Lassie. The original Lassie, I mean.”
“You really do like animals.”
“If I had the time, I’d watch it all day. Anything. Yesterday, I was watching this panel discussion with biologists and chemists. You see it?”
She took a sip of wine and then shook her head slightly, as if remembering something.
“You know, Pasteur had a lot of scientific intuitiveness.”
“…what I mean is, normal scientists think this certain way. A equals B, B equals C, so it follows that A equals C, you know what I mean?”
“But Pasteur was different. He already had A equaling C in his head, is what I mean. No proofs or anything. But the correctness of his theories was proven by history; during his life he made countless useful discoveries.”
“The smallpox vaccine.”
She set her wineglass on the table and narrowed her eyes at me.
“Um, wasn’t Jenner the one who made the smallpox vaccine? You sure you’re in college?”
“…rabies antibodies, then pasteurization, yeah?”
She managed to laugh without showing her teeth, a seemingly practiced skill, and then she drank her glass dry and poured herself a new one.
“On that panel discussion show, that’s where they called it ‘scientific intuition’. Do you have it, too?”
“Almost not at all.”
“Don’t you wish you did?”
“It’d probably come in handy for something. I’d probably use it when there’s a girl I wanna sleep with.”
She laughed and went into the kitchen, then came back with the pot of stew and a bowl of salad and some rolls. Little by little, a cool breeze finally started to blow in through the open window.
We took our time eating while we listened to her record player. During that time she mostly asked me about college and my life in Tokyo. Nothing too terribly interesting. About the experiments where we used cats (of course we don’t kill them, I told her. mostly just psychological experiments, I said. However, in truth, in eleven months I killed thirty-six cats, large and small.), and the demonstrations and strikes. Then I showed her the scar from when the riot policeman knocked out my front tooth.
“You ever wanna get him back?”
“Not really,” I said.
“Why not? If I were you, I’d find him and knock out a few of his teeth with a hammer.”
“Well, I’m me, and it’s the past now, for everybody involved. More importantly, all those guys looked the same, so there’s no way I’d ever find him.”
“So you’re saying there was no reason for any of it?”
“The reason for going so far as to get your tooth knocked in.”
She grunted boredly and took a bite of her beef stew.
We drank our after-dinner coffee, washed and stacked the dishes in her tiny kitchen, then went back to the table and lit cigarettes as we listened to Modern Jazz Quartet.
Her shirt was so thin I could clearly make out the shape of her nipples, her cotton pants hung comfortably around her hips, and as an added bonus our feet kept bumping underneath the table. When this happened, I would blush a little.
“Was it good?”
“It was great.”
She bit lightly on her lower lip.
“Why don’t you ever say anything unless you’re answering a question?”
“Just a habit, I guess. I’m always forgetting to say important things.”
“Can I give you some advice?”
“If you don’t fix that, it’ll end up costing you.”
“You’re probably right. Still, it’s like a junky car. If I fix one thing, it’ll be easier to notice something else that’s broken.”
She laughed and changed the record to Marvin Gaye. The hour hand was almost pointing to eight.
“Is it okay if you don’t polish the shoes tonight?”
“I polish them at night. Same time I polish my teeth.”
She rested both of her skinny elbows on the table, then with her chin resting pleasantly on top of them, she sneaked peeks at me as we talked. This made me pretty flustered. I pretended to look out the window as I lit a cigarette, constantly trying to avert her gaze, but then she gave me an extra-strange look.
“Hey, I believe you.”
“That you didn’t do anything to me that night.”
“What makes you think so?”
“You really wanna hear it?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s what I thought you’d say,” she laughed and poured wine into my glass, then looked out the dark window as if thinking about something.
“Sometimes I think it would be wonderful if I could live without getting in anyone else’s way. You think it’s possible?” she asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Am I getting in your way?”
She gently reached her hand across the table and set it on my own, and after leaving it there for a while, she drew it back.
“I’m going on a trip tomorrow.”
“Where you going?”
“I don’t know yet. I want to go somewhere quiet and cool, for about a week.”
“I’ll call you when I get back.”
* * *
On my way home, sitting in my car, I was suddenly reminded of the first girl I ever went on a date with. It was seven years before.
The whole time we were on this date, from beginning to end, I feel like I kept asking, ‘Hey, isn’t this boring?’ over and over.
We went to see a movie starring Elvis Presley. The theme song went something like this:
We had a quarrel, a lovers spat
I write I’m sorry but my letter keeps coming back So then I dropped it in the mailbox
And sent it special D
Bright in early next morning
It came right back to me
She wrote upon it:
Return to sender, address unknown.
Time flows pretty quickly.
The third girl I slept with, she called my penis my
* * *
I once tried to write a short story with the theme being each person’s raison d’etre. In the end, I never finished the story, but for a while I kept thinking about people’s various reasons for living, and thanks to that it went from a strange habit to an obsession. It was a habit that had absolutely no effect on anything. This impulse stuck with me, chasing me for roughly eight months. Riding the train, the first thing I did was to count all the passengers, I counted the stairs in the stairwell, and if I’d had enough time I’d have counted my heartbeats. According to my records of that time, from August 15, 1969 to April 3, I went to three hundred fifty-eight lectures, had sex fifty-four times, and smoked six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-one cigarettes. During that time, when I counted everything, I seriously considered telling someone about my habit. So I told as many people as I could, giving them what I thought were very reliable numbers. However, naturally, the number of cigarettes I smoked, stairs I climbed, and the size of my penis were things nobody was interested in. So, without losing sight of my own raison d’etre, I became very lonely.
* * *
Thanks to all that, I know that when I found out about her death I was smoking my six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-second cigarette.
That night, the Rat didn’t drink a drop of beer. It wasn’t a good sign. Instead, he drank five Jim Beams on the rocks in a row.
We drank in a dark corner of J’s Bar, killing time with the pinball machine. We fed who knows how much change to the machine to purchase this slaughtered time; a perfect waste. However, the Rat was as earnest as ever, and because of that it was nearly a miracle that I managed to win two of the six games we played.
“Hey, what happened?”
“Nothing,” said the Rat.
We went back to the counter and drank beer and Jim Beam.
Saying almost nothing, we listened absentmindedly to records playing one by one on the jukebox. Everyday People, Woodstock, Spirit in the Sky, Hey There, Lonely Girl…
“I have a favor to ask you,” said the Rat.
“What is it?”
“There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Looking a little confused, the Rat finally nodded.
“Who else is there?” he said quickly as he took the first sip of his sixth glass of whiskey.
“You have a suit and a necktie?”
“I do, but…”
“Tomorrow at two p.m.” the Rat said, “Hey, what the hell do you think girls eat to survive?”
“The soles of their shoes.”
“No way,” said the Rat.
The Rat’s favorite food was pancakes. He’d pile a bunch of them up on a deep plate and cut them neatly into four sections, then pour a bottle of Coca Cola on top of them.
The first time I visited the Rat’s house, beneath the soft sunlight of May, he had them out on the table and was in the middle of shoveling that odd concoction into his stomach.
“The great thing about this food is,” the Rat said,
“it’s food and drink rolled into one.”
The overgrown yard was full of trees, and birds of many shapes and colors were gathered there, eagerly pecking at the white popcorn scattered on the grass.
I’ll tell you about the third girl I slept with. It’s really difficult to talk about dead people, but it’s even harder to talk about dead young women. It’s because from the time they die, they’ll be young forever.
On the other hand, for us, the survivors, every year, every month, every day, we get older. Sometimes, I feel like I can feel myself aging from one hour to the next. It’s a terrible thing, but that’s reality.
* * *
She wasn’t what anyone would call a beautiful girl. However, saying ‘she wasn’t a beauty’ probably isn’t a fair way to put it. ‘She wasn’t as beautiful as she could have been’ seems like an accurate way to describe it, I think.
I have only one picture of her. The date is written on the back, August 1963. The year Kennedy was shot in the head. She’s sitting on a seawall, a beach seemingly near some summer resort, smiling slightly uncomfortably. She’s wearing a short, Jean Seburgstyle hairdo (no matter what anybody says, it reminds me of Auschwitz), wearing a long-edged gingham one-piece dress. She looks clumsy, beautiful. It’s a beauty that could pierce the most delicate regions of the heart of the viewer.
Her thin lips pressed together, her tiny, upturned nose looking like a dainty insect’s antenna, her bangs looking as if she’d cut them herself, dangling carelessly across her wide forehead, her slightly bulging cheeks, upon which tiny pockmarks, remnants of pimples can be seen.
When she was fourteen years old, that was the time in her twenty-one-year lifetime when she was the happiest. And then she disappeared so suddenly, is all I can think. For what purpose, what reason such a thing could be possible, I have no idea. Nobody does.