Manazuru, p.1

Manazuru, page 1



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  I WALKED ON, AND something was following. Enough distance lay between us that I couldn’t tell if it was male or female. It made no difference, I ignored it, kept walking.

  I had set out before noon from the guest house on the inlet, headed for the tip of the cape. I stayed there last night, in that small building set amidst an isolated cluster of private houses, run by a man and woman who, judging from their ages, were mother and son.

  It was nearly nine when I arrived, two hours on a train from Tokyo, and by then the entrance to the inn was shut. The entrance was unremarkable: a low swinging iron gate like any other; two or three wiry, gnarled pines; nothing to indicate the lodge’s name but a weathered nameplate, ink on wood, bearing the name “SUNA.” Suna meaning sand.

  “Unusual name, isn’t it?” I asked. “Suna?”

  “There are a few in the area,” the mother replied.

  Her son’s hair was graying, though he looked my age, forty-five or so.

  When he asked what time I wanted breakfast, it was as if I knew his voice. And yet it was obvious we had never met. Perhaps his voice reminded me of an acquaintance, only I couldn’t think who. It wasn’t the voice itself, it was a tremor in its depths that I recognized.

  I don’t need breakfast, I answered, and he emerged from behind the counter to lead the way. My room was at the end of the hall. I’ll come back to spread the futon, he announced dryly, the bath is downstairs. When he was gone, I drew the thin curtain aside and saw the sea before me. I could hear the waves. There was no moon. I strained my eyes, peering out into the darkness, trying to make out the waves, without success. The room felt warm, stuffy, as if it had been readied long in advance. I slid the window open and let the cool air flow in.

  THE BATH WAS dim. Condensation dripped, slowly, from the ceiling.

  I let my thoughts turn to Seiji. I’ll have to stay at the office tonight, he’d said. Back in Tokyo. He had described the nap rooms there for me more than once, but I could never picture them in detail. It’s just a small, cramped room with a bed, that’s all. We have three of them. If the door is locked, you know someone is sleeping inside, he tells me. Never having worked at a company, I picture a hospital room—that’s the best I can do. A pipe-frame bed with a beige blanket, enclosed by a curtain; a pair of slippers set out on a floor made of a material that amplifies the sound of footsteps; at the head of the bed, a help button and a temperature chart.

  No, it’s not like that—just an ordinary, low-ceilinged room. Maybe a magazine lying on the floor that someone left behind. Ordinary. Seiji purses his lips. He never laughs aloud. When he smiles, it shows in his cheeks. This used to puzzle me; now I am used to it.

  Whenever I stay in those rooms, he says, by the time I fall asleep, the night is paling. Toward dawn, it grows quiet. Most of the lights are out on every floor, and once it’s dark the sounds that echo through the building subside, too. I stretch my exhausted body out on the stiff bed, but I’m so on edge, it’s hard to fall asleep—I don’t have any rituals for sleeping, not since I was a kid, but when I started spending nights at the office I took up my childhood practice again. I imagine myself floating in water, not half-submerged as I would be in real life, but lying right on the surface, stretched out perfectly still, first the back of my head and then my back, my butt, my heels, resting on the taut surface of the water, motionless, waiting, and as the parts of my body that come in contact with the water begin, little by little, to grow warm, I fall asleep, Seiji says, and once again purses his lips.

  I WAS BACK from my bath. Unlike Seiji, there was no need for me to sleep, so I didn’t go to bed. Only when the sliver of outside color between the curtains began changing from black to blue did I feel tired. Seiji is probably nodding off right now, I told myself as I switched off the light and closed my eyes.

  It was past nine when I woke, and the room brimmed with light. The roar of the waves was louder than the night before. At the front desk, I asked the way to the cape. The son took a pencil and paper and traced the outline of the promontory; then, in the center, he drew in the roads. It looks like something, doesn’t it, this shape? I said. Maybe, I don’t know. The son’s voice reminded me of someone, but still I couldn’t think who. I recognized the shape immediately. It was the spitting image of a dragon: the head, from the neck up. Even the whiskers were there, under the nose.

  I’d say it’s a bit under an hour to the tip on foot, said the son. It’ll take longer if you walk slowly, his mother called out from the back room. Oh, and—I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I might want to stay tonight, too, if you have a vacancy? I had seen no sign of other guests, I was the only person there last night, I was sure, so I thought I would only have to ask and they would say, Of course, you’re welcome to stay. But the son cocked his head, uncertain.

  The fishermen come on Fridays. We’re usually full up, as long as the waves aren’t too choppy. Try giving us a call later. I nodded ambiguously, and left. According to the schedule at the bus stop, the next bus wasn’t for half an hour. I wanted to leave my bag at the train station. I could make it to the station in half an hour, even on foot. I peered up the steep incline, wavering, then decided to wait. I went down to the shore.

  The ocean is dull. Nothing but waves tumbling in. I sat on a mid-sized rock and stared out over the sea. The wind blew hard. Every now and then a damp burst of spray reached me. The first day of spring had long since come and gone, but the day was chilly. Sand fleas scuttled out from under the rocks, then retreated.

  I never planned to come and spend the night here. I had to meet someone at Tokyo Station, we had an early dinner, it was seven when we finished. I was headed for the platform of the Chūō line when, unbidden, my feet turned and led me instead to the Tōkaidō line, a train came, I got on. I’ll go as far as Atami and then turn back, the Chūō Line runs pretty late, it’ll be fine, I told myself, and all of a sudden I felt so alone, I endured the loneliness as best I could, and then, unable to bear it, I got off the train. Manazuru was where I disembarked.

  I descended from the platform, walked along a narrow corridor, and exited the gate. The station faced a plaza. The information kiosk had been closed for hours. I asked the taxi driver to take me to a guest house. It’s small, he told me, but it’s a decent place. He let me out in front of the house with the nameplate: “SUNA.”

  I called Mother from the train. What should I put in Momo’s lunch tomorrow? she asked. You can use anything but the chicken in the refrigerator, I started to say, then changed my mind. Use anything, anything at all. I’m sorry, going off all of a sudden, I said. Mother replied, That’s all right. Her voice sounded very distant. I had the sense something was following me then, too, and turned to look, but I was alone, standing in the space between two cars, where I had gone to use my cell phone. No sign of anyone, not even a shadow.

  I thought I glimpsed the ocean from the train window. In the darkness, I couldn’t be sure it was the water, or sure it wasn’t. Every so often my work takes me away from home, I leave Mother and Momo alone, together, but I never simply go, without warning, the way I did this time. I don’t stay out with Seiji. He has kids of his own. Three kids, and a wife. His middle child is Momo’s age. Ninth grade.

  I RODE THE bus back to the station, then started out again, on foot, toward the cape.

  Surprising, I thought, that they let me stay, without even asking what I was doing there: I had only one small bag with me, and by the time I arrived it was
no longer even early evening. I pondered the name on the nameplate, as well. Suna. Odd that it didn’t strike me last night. It wasn’t the sound of the name. It was that I couldn’t think of a given name that went well with it.

  The road was straight with a gentle incline. Near the port, it began to trace the line of the shore. Each passing car swerved away, giving me a wide berth. Closer to the station there had been people heading in the other direction, but here the street was empty. I approached a cluster of inns and restaurants serving fresh seafood; beyond them there was only the steadily ascending road. In the inns and restaurants, no sign of life.

  I did know who the son’s voice reminded me of. My missing husband, who disappeared without warning twelve years ago—my husband, as he went to sleep. When drowsiness eddied around him like a haze, straddling that threshold, his voice like a child’s. Kei. When he said my name, there was sweetness deep in his voice, a hint of moisture, so that for some reason I heard him, beneath the familiar adult male skin, as someone on the cusp of manhood, a boy, or perhaps a young man, it was hard to say which.

  My husband vanished, leaving nothing behind. To this day, I have had no news.

  I THOUGHT IT might be some spirit of the sea that was following me. My husband loved the sea.

  I ignored it, forged on toward the tip of the cape. My breathing deepened. Because I am walking fast, I supposed. The small cloth bag, all I was carrying, swung at my side. I bought a bottle of green tea at a vending machine. I had deliberated briefly whether I wanted it hot or cold, and chose hot. I carried it for a time. Then, just like that, the thing that had been following was gone.

  The sky is narrow here, I thought. Perhaps it was the sheer-ness of the mountain jutting up at my right. A bird was flying, a kite. Flying low. A squat finger of rocks thrust out into the ocean; only there did the kite soar up.

  I’m settled now, I think. I don’t recall how I lived the first two years after he disappeared. I asked Mother to let us stay with her, accepted any work that came, and gradually I had a life to live. That was when I met Seiji. We became involved almost immediately. What does that mean, anyway? We became involved.

  When Momo was born, as she fed at my breast, I thought: She is so close. How close this child and I are. She is closer now, I thought, than when she was inside me. She was not adorable or loveable, that wasn’t it. She was close.

  To become involved is not to be close. It isn’t exactly to be distant, either. When two people become involved, and also when they do not, there is, always, a little separation.

  A bus passed by. I was getting tired. The bus stop was only a hundred meters ahead, but I didn’t run. The bus drove by without stopping. Another line of seafood restaurants appeared. Seagulls perched on the roofs. Only one restaurant had an OPEN sign hung out, its lights on. Artificial light looks so helpless in the daytime. I went in.

  I ORDERED A set lunch. Horse mackerel sashimi.

  The fish wasn’t minced, as it generally is, but sliced into pieces as large as the ball of my thumb and served with finely chopped ginger and perilla leaves. The mixture was sensuously moist and slightly chewy—the cook must have let the fish marinate in soy sauce for a time. I finished everything: the soup, a fish-bone stock flavored with miso, and a heaping bowl of rice.

  I was the only customer. The cook came out and gruffly took my order, then went behind the counter and dished out the soup and the rice. He brought the food to me himself. When he leaned over to set the tray down, I noticed a tear in the sleeve of his white uniform that had been carefully mended.

  A wide window looked out on the sea. The kite kept flying in the same pattern as before. Seagulls flew by, too. Earlier I had heard the shrill whistle of their cries and the flapping of their wings; inside, the motion was not accompanied by sound, and the absence unsettled me. It was like watching a silent film.

  We went to two silent films at the National Film Center, my husband and I. There was a narrator who read the intertitles that flashed on the screen between each bit of action in a dramatic, sing-song tone. He only did the first movie; there was no narrator for the second.

  “I prefer it this way,” I said. My husband nodded. Yeah, me too.

  Sometimes, of late, I forget him. It’s strange, when his presence used to be so thick. When his sudden departure only made his presence thicker.

  I THOUGHT IT was rain, but it was spray.

  I was on the shore, and the sea was a good ten meters away. A strong wind blew. A chill came over me. When we eat, the heat is drawn away from our hands and feet.

  “The blood collects in your stomach,” Mother likes to say. Momo’s school must be letting out about now. She has only an hour of class on Fridays. She looks just like my husband. Every few years the pendulum swings: first she resembles me, then him. Since she started junior high, she has looked like my husband. The line of her jaw is sharp, her eyes are large. Her complexion is dark.

  The tip of the cape wasn’t far. Suddenly the incline grew steeper. The cliff was gone, and in its place a wood had appeared. A footpath led deep into it.

  Again something was following.

  This one is a woman. I’ve never told anyone about these things that come and follow me. This includes my husband, of course. Today my memory of him is thick. It hasn’t been this way for a while. An image of his hometown comes to me. The town was near the Inland Sea. On a mountainside. Each road comes to a dead end near the top, leaving the wind nowhere to go, and in those places, especially, the scent of the tide hangs and eddies.

  My husband’s mother passed away two years before he disappeared, when Momo was one. His father still lives there, in the same town. We do not see each other.

  DID MY HUSBAND want to die?

  Or did he disappear because he wanted to live?

  Living, dying. Perhaps he had no such thoughts, either way. The trees grew sparse and the pavement widened. The road ended in a roundabout. That must be the bus that passed earlier, waiting at the final stop. The driver was gone. The door was open.

  Suddenly the sky opened up. The waves pounded far below. I saw whitecaps shattering. I saw people, one here, there two, descending narrow, twisting paths toward the base of the cliff, where the waves petered out. Figures as small as fingers.

  Jump from here, and a second later I’m dead. The thought came, but I cut it off midway. At the words a second later. Overcome, not by the impiety of the idea, but by a dull lethargy like the start of a fever. Death is not so distant that I can play with it. Neither, of course, is it so close.

  I was still gazing down the cliff when two hikers reached the base. They raised their hands straight overhead, stretching perhaps, and though I could not guess how such tiny, finger-sized people might be feeling, invigorated or sore, the scene was exhilarating. The wind sent the clouds careening, leaving only clear blue above. Manazuru. I mouthed the name to feel it in me, then stared for a time at the base of the cliff, and lusted.

  I SELDOM LUST for things with a form. Seldom, that is, anymore.

  Sometimes it leads to joy, sometimes to a gut-wrenching loneliness, and sometimes it goes nowhere, only hovers, disconnected, lost. I call it lust, wherever it leads. This is nothing more, however, than a name I call it.

  The door of the station-bound bus stayed open long after the recorded message announced that the bus was leaving. A man with a child climbed up into it. The child dashed to a seat all the way at the back. The man followed more slowly.

  The bus took a road different from the one it had come by. It never filled up. Riders disembarked as new ones boarded, then those who had boarded disembarked. Aside from me, only the man and the child in the last seat rode to the final stop. The plaza in front of the station was full of cars. It seemed odd. Last night, it was so empty.

  The child, led by the hand, stepped off the bus. The pair crossed the road at the crosswalk, and the child rapped on the window of a car parked across the way. The back door popped open; the man picked up the child and got in. They l
ive here, maybe. Not just passing through.

  I slid a thousand-yen note into the vending machine to purchase a ticket. I never intended to spend a second night. I asked only to hear the answer. Tonight, the woman and man named Suna would welcome crowds of fishermen. The wind was dying down. No sooner had I climbed the steps to the platform than a local train arrived.

  “I’M HOME,” I said.

  Momo sighed ambiguously. That was all.

  Lately, she’s seemed sullen. She isn’t really in a bad mood; at her age, it takes energy to be cheerful. You think she is being sullen when she is simply being.

  I brought you a present, I said, holding out a package of squid shiokara. She nodded. I had bought it at a stand in the station at Odawara, descending to the gallery below the tracks when I got off the local train to transfer to the express. Momo liked shiokara even as a child, despite its intense flavor. Squid fermented in its own salted viscera. My husband liked it, too. I can’t say whether or not she takes after him, though, because so do I.

  Mother was out shopping. When I opened the door, the house had a subtly different smell. Mother’s cooking has a more pungent aroma than mine. What did you have for lunch? I asked. Momo thought for a second, then said, Chicken, it tasted sort of sweet.

  I went to my room to change. The gray skirt I had considered wearing then decided against the day before was splayed on the bed where I had thrown it, frozen in the same disarray. I put it on a hanger, hung it in the closet. The air around me loosened. I had only been gone a day, but it takes less than that for the air in an empty room to harden.

  When I returned to the living room, Momo had opened a magazine. Maybe I should get a haircut, she mumbled. You’d look nice with short hair, I said. And again she became sullen. We’re having hotpot for dinner, she said after a while. When did this happen? When did she stop being so close? She is too close to be distant, now, and too distant to be close.

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