Chapter 17

It’s my third night in the cabin. With each passing day I’ve gotten more used to the silence and how incredibly dark it is. The night doesn’t scare me anymore-or at least not as much. I fill the stove with firewood, settle down in front of it, and read. When I get tired, I just space out and stare at the flames. I never grow tired of looking at them. They come in all shapes and colors, and move around like living things-they are born, connect up, part company, and die.

When it’s not cloudy I go outside and gaze up at the sky. The stars don’t seem as intimidating as before, and I’m starting to feel closer to them. Each one gives out its own special light. I identify certain stars and watch how they twinkle in the night. Every once in a while they blaze more brightly for a moment. The moon hangs there, pale and bright, and if I look closely it’s like I can make out individual crags on the surface. I don’t form any coherent thoughts, just gaze, enthralled, at the sky.

Having no music doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. There’re lots of other sounds that take its place-the chirping of birds, the cries of all sorts of insects, the gurgle of the brook, the rustling of leaves. Rain falls, something scrambles across the cabin roof, and sometimes I hear indescribable sounds I can’t explain. I never knew the world was full of so many beautiful, natural sounds. I’ve ignored them my entire life, but not now. I sit on the porch for hours with my eyes closed, trying to be inconspicuous, picking up each and every sound around me.

The woods don’t scare me as much as they used to, either, and I’ve started to feel a kind of closeness and respect. That said, I don’t venture too far from the cabin, and stay on the path. As long as I follow these rules, it shouldn’t get too precarious. That’s the important thing-follow the rules and the woods will wordlessly accept me, sharing some of their peace and beauty. Cross the line, though, and beasts of silence lay in wait to maul me with razor-sharp claws.

I often lie down in the round little clearing and let the sunlight wash over me. Eyes closed tight, I give myself up to it, ears tuned to the wind whipping through the treetops. Wrapped in the deep fragrance of the forest, I listen to the flapping of birds’ wings, to the stirring of the ferns. I’m freed from gravity and float up-just a little-from the ground and drift in the air. Of course I can’t stay there forever. It’s just a momentary sensation-open my eyes and it’s gone. Still, it’s an overwhelming experience. Being able to float in the air.

It rains hard a couple times, but doesn’t last, and each time I run outside, naked, to wash myself. Sometimes I get all sweaty exercising, rip off my clothes, and sunbathe on the porch. I drink a lot of tea, and concentrate on reading, sitting on the porch or by the stove. Books on history, science, folklore, mythology, sociology, psychology, Shakespeare, you name it. Instead of racing straight through, I reread parts I think are most important till I understand them, to get something tangible out of them. All sorts of knowledge seeps, bit by bit, into my brain. I imagine how great it’d be to stay here as long as I wanted. There are lots of books on the shelf I’d like to read, still plenty of food. But I know I’m just passing through and will have to leave before long. This place is too calm, too natural-too complete. I don’t deserve it. At least not yet.

On the fourth day Oshima shows up late in the morning. I’m stark naked, sprawled on the chair on the porch, dozing in the sun, and don’t hear him approach. I don’t hear the sound of his car. Shouldering a backpack, he’s walked here up the road. He quietly steps up on the porch, sticks out his hand, and lightly brushes my head. Startled, I leap to my feet and scramble around for a towel. There isn’t one handy.

“Don’t sweat it,” Oshima says. “When I stayed here I used to sunbathe nude all the time. It feels great, having the sun on places it never reaches.”

Naked like this in front of him, I feel totally defenseless and vulnerable, my pubic hair, penis, balls all exposed. I have no idea what to do. It’s a little too late to cover up. “Hey,” I say, straining to sound casual. “So you walked up?”

“It’s such a nice day I decided to,” he says. “I left my car down by the gate.” He takes a towel draped over the railing and hands it to me. I wrap it around my waist and can finally relax.

Singing a song in a low voice he boils water, then takes out flour, eggs, and milk from his pack and whips up some pancakes in the frying pan. Tops these with butter and syrup. He then takes out lettuce, tomatoes, and an onion. He’s very careful with the kitchen knife as he chops up everything for a salad. We have all this for lunch.

“So how were your three days here?” he asks, cutting a piece of pancake.

I tell him what a wonderful time I had. I omit the part about going into the woods. Somehow, it’s better not to talk about it.

“I’m glad,” Oshima says. “I was hoping you’d like it here.”

“But we’re going back to the city now, aren’t we?”

“That’s right. It’s time to go back.”

Getting ready to leave, we briskly straighten up the cabin. Wash the dishes and put them away in the shelves, clean up the stove. Empty the water pail, shut the valve in the propane tank. Store the food that will last in the cupboard, throw the rest away. Sweep the floor, wipe off the tops of the tables and chairs. Dig a hole outside to bury the garbage.

As Oshima locks up the cabin, I turn to look one last time. Up till a minute ago it felt so real, but now it seems imaginary. Just a few steps is all it takes for everything associated with it to lose all sense of reality. And me-the person who was there until a moment ago-now I seem imaginary too. It takes thirty minutes to walk to where Oshima parked the car, and we hardly exchange a word as we go down the mountain road. Oshima’s humming some melody. I let my mind wander.

At the bottom, the little green sports car blends into the background of the forest. Oshima closes the gate to discourage trespassers, wraps the chain around it twice, and locks the padlock. Like before, I secure my backpack to the rack on the back of the car. The top’s down.

“Back to the city,” Oshima says.

I nod.

“I’m sure you enjoyed living all alone with nature like that, but it’s not easy to live there for a long time,” Oshima says. He puts on sunglasses and fastens his seatbelt.

I sit down beside him and snap on my seatbelt.

“In theory it’s not impossible to live like that, and of course there are people who do. But nature is actually kind of unnatural, in a way. And relaxation can actually be threatening. It takes experience and preparation to really live with those contradictions. So we’re going back to the city for the time being. Back to civilization.”

Oshima steps on the gas and we start down the mountain road. This time he’s in no hurry and drives at a leisurely pace, enjoying the scenery and the rush of wind that whips through his bangs. The unpaved road ends and we start down the narrow paved road, passing villages and fields.

“Speaking of contradictions,” Oshima suddenly says, “when I first met you I felt a kind of contradiction in you. You’re seeking something, but at the same time running away for all you’re worth.”

“What is it I’m seeking?”

Oshima shakes his head. He glances in the rearview mirror and frowns. “I have no idea. I’m just saying I got that impression.”

I don’t reply.

“From my own experience, when someone is trying very hard to get something, they don’t. And when they’re running away from something as hard as they can, it usually catches up with them. I’m generalizing, of course.”

“If you generalize about me, then, what’s in my future? If I’m seeking and running at the same time.”

“That’s a tough one,” Oshima says, and smiles. A moment passes before he goes on. “If I had to say anything it’d be this: Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”

“Kind of an ominous prophecy.”

“Like Cassandra.”

“Cassandra?” I ask.

“The Greek tragedy. Cassandra was the princess of Troy who prophesied. She was a temple priestess, and Apollo gave her the power to predict fate. In return he tried to force her to sleep with him, but she refused and he put a curse on her. Greek gods are more mythological than religious figures. By that I mean they have the same character flaws humans do. They fly off the handle, get horny, jealous, forgetful. You name it.”

He takes a small box of lemon drops out of the glove compartment and pops one in his mouth. He motions for me to take one, and I do.

“What kind of curse was it?”

“The curse on Cassandra?”

I nod.

“The curse Apollo laid on her was that all her prophecies would be true, but nobody would ever believe them. On top of that, her prophecies would all be unlucky ones-predictions of betrayals, accidents, deaths, the country falling into ruin. That sort of thing. People not only didn’t believe her, they began to despise her. If you haven’t read them yet, I really recommend the plays by Euripides or Aeschylus. They show a lot of the essential problems we struggle with even today. In koros.”

“Koros? What’s that?”

“That’s what they called the chorus they used in Greek plays. It stands at the back of the stage and explains in unison the situation or what the characters are feeling deep down inside. Sometimes they even try to influence the characters. It’s a very convenient device. Sometimes I wish I had my own chorus standing behind me.”

“Are you able to prophesy?”

“No such luck.” He smiles. “For better or for worse, I don’t have that kind of power. If I sound like I’m always predicting ominous things, it’s because I’m a pragmatist. I use deductive reasoning to generalize, and I suppose this sometimes winds up sounding like unlucky prophecies. You know why? Because reality’s just the accumulation of ominous prophecies come to life. All you have to do is open a newspaper on any given day and weigh the good news versus the bad news, and you’ll see what I mean.”

Oshima carefully downshifts at each curve, the kind of practiced gear shifting you hardly notice. Only the change in the sound of the engine gives it away.

“There is one piece of good news, though,” he says. “We’ve decided to take you in. You’ll be a staff member of the Komura Memorial Library. Which I think you’re qualified for.”

Instinctively I glance at him. “You mean I’m going to be working at the library?”

“More precisely, from now on you’ll be a part of the library. You’re going to be staying in the library, living there. You’ll open the doors when it’s time for the library to open, shut them when it’s time to close up. As I said before, you seem to be a pretty self-disciplined sort of person, and fairly strong, so I don’t imagine the job will be very hard for you. Miss Saeki and I aren’t all that strong physically, so it’ll really help us out a lot. Other than that, you’ll just help with small day-to-day things. Nothing to speak of, really. Making delicious coffee for me, going out shopping for us. We’ve prepared a room that’s attached to the library for you to stay in. It’s originally a guest room, but we don’t have any guests staying over so it hasn’t been used for a long time. That’s where you’ll live. It has its own shower, too. The best thing is you’ll be in the library so you can read whatever you like.”

“But why-” I begin to say, but can’t finish.

“Why are we doing this? It’s all based on a very simple principle. I understand you, and Miss Saeki understands me. I accept you, and she accepts me. So even if you’re some unknown fifteen-year-old runaway, that’s not a problem. So, what do you think?”

I give it some thought. “All I was looking for was a roof over my head. That’s all that matters right now. I don’t really know what it means to become part of the library, but if it means I can live there, I’m grateful. At least I won’t have to commute anymore.”

“Then it’s settled,” Oshima says. “Let’s go to the library. So you can become a part of it.”

We get on the highway and pass a number of towns, a giant billboard for a loan company, a gas station with gaudy decorations, a glass-enclosed restaurant, a love hotel made up to look like a European castle, an abandoned video store with only its sign left, a pachinko place with an enormous parking lot, a McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, Yoshinoya, Denny’s… Noisy reality starts to surround us. The hiss of eighteen-wheelers’ air brakes, horns, and exhaust. Everything near me until now-the fire in the stove, the twinkle of the stars, the stillness of the forest-has faded away. I find it hard to even imagine them.

“There are a couple of things you should know about Miss Saeki,” Oshima says. “When she was little, my mother and Miss Saeki were classmates and very close. She says that Miss Saeki was a bright little girl. She got good grades, was good at composition, sports of all kinds, and could play the piano well, too. She was the best at whatever she tried. And beautiful. Of course she’s still quite a stunning person.”

I nod.

“When she was still in grade school she had a sweetheart. The eldest son of the Komura family-a distant relative, actually. They were the same age and made a handsome couple, a regular Romeo and Juliet. They lived near each other and were never apart. And when they became adults they fell in love. They were like one body and spirit, according to my mother.”

We’re waiting at a red light, and Oshima looks up at the sky. When the signal turns green, he steps on the gas and we zoom out in front of a tanker truck. “Do you remember what I told you in the library? About how people are always wandering around, searching for their other half?”

“That part about male/male, female/female, and male/female?”

“Right. What Aristophanes said. How we stumble through our lives desperately fumbling for our other half. Miss Saeki and that young man never had to do that. They were born with their other half right there in front of them.”

“They were lucky.”

Oshima nods. “Absolutely. Up to a point.”

He rubs his chin with his palm like he’s checking out how well he shaved. There’s no trace of a razor-his skin is as smooth as porcelain.

“When the young man was eighteen he went to Tokyo to go to college. He had good grades and a major he was interested in. He also wanted to see what the big city was like. She went to a local college and majored in piano. This is a conservative part of the country, and she came from an old-fashioned kind of family. She was an only child, and her parents didn’t want her going off to Tokyo. So the two of them were separated for the first time in their lives. Just like God had cut them cleanly apart with a knife.

“Of course they wrote to each other every day. ‘It might be good for us to try being apart like this,’ he wrote her. ‘Then we can really tell how much we mean to each other.’ But she didn’t believe that. She knew their relationship was real enough that they didn’t need to go out of their way to test it. It was a one-in-a-million union, fated to be, something that could never be broken apart. She was absolutely sure of that. But he wasn’t. Or maybe he was, but simply didn’t accept it. So he went ahead and went to Tokyo, thinking that overcoming a few obstacles would strengthen their love for each other. Men are like that sometimes.

“When she was nineteen Miss Saeki wrote a poem, set it to music, and played the piano and sang it. It was a melancholy melody, innocent and lovely. The lyrics, on the other hand, were symbolic, contemplative, hard to figure out. The contrast gave the song a kind of spirit and immediacy. Of course the whole song, lyrics and melody, was her way of crying out to her boyfriend, so far away. She sang the song a few times in front of people. She was ordinarily shy, but she loved to sing and had even been in a folk music band in college. Someone was very impressed by the song, made a demo tape, and sent it to a friend of his who was a director at a record company. He loved the song and had her go to their studio in Tokyo and record it.

“It was her first time in Tokyo, and she was able to see her boyfriend. Between recording sessions they were able to love each other, as before. My mother said she thought they’d had a sexual relationship since they were around fourteen. Both were rather precocious, and like many precocious young people they found it hard to grow up. It was as if they were eternally fourteen or fifteen. They clung to each other and could again feel the intensity of their love. Neither one of them had ever been attracted to anyone else. Even while they were apart, no one else could ever come between them. Sorry-am I boring you with this fairy tale romance?”

I shake my head. “I have a feeling you’re about to come to a turning point.”

“You’re right,” Oshima says. “That’s how stories happen-with a turning point, an unexpected twist. There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story. Anyway, the record went on sale and was a huge hit. It kept on selling-a million copies, two million, I’m not sure of the exact figure. At any rate it was a record-breaking number at the time. Her photo was on the record jacket, a picture of her seated at a grand piano in the studio, smiling at the camera.

“She hadn’t prepared any other songs, so the B side of the single was an instrumental version of the same song. With a piano and an orchestra, she of course playing the piano. A beautiful performance. It was around 1970. The song was on all the radio stations at the time, my mother said. This was before I was born, so I don’t know for sure. This was her one and only song as a professional singer. She didn’t put out an LP or a follow-up single.”

“I wonder if I’ve heard that song.”

“Do you listen to the radio much?”

I shake my head. I hardly ever listen to the radio.

“You probably haven’t heard it, then. Unless it’s on some oldies station, chances are you haven’t. But it’s a wonderful song. I have it on a CD and listen to it every once in a while. When Miss Saeki’s not around, of course. She hates any mention of the song. She doesn’t like anyone bringing up the past.”

“What’s the name of the song?”

“‘Kafka on the Shore.'” Oshima says.

“‘Kafka on the Shore’?”

“That’s correct, Kafka Tamura. The same name as you. A strange coincidence, don’t you think?”

“But Kafka isn’t my real name. Tamura is, though.”

“But you chose it yourself, right?”

I nod. I’d decided a long time ago that this was the right name for the new me.

“That’s the point, I’d say,” Oshima says.

Miss Saeki’s boyfriend died when he was twenty, Oshima goes on. Right when “Kafka on the Shore” was a hit. His college was on strike during the period of student unrest and shut down. He went to bring supplies to a friend of his who was manning the barricades, just before ten one night. The students occupying the building mistook him for a leader of an opposing faction-he did resemble him a lot-and grabbed him, tied him to a chair, and interrogated him as a spy. He tried to explain that they’d made a mistake, but every time he did they smashed him with a steel pipe or baton. When he fell to the floor they’d kick him with their boots. By dawn he was dead. His skull was caved in, his ribs broken, his lungs ruptured. They tossed his corpse out on the street like a dead dog. Two days later the college asked the national guard to come in, and within a couple of hours the student revolt was put down and several of them were arrested and charged with murder. The students confessed what they’d done and were put on trial, but since it wasn’t premeditated two of them were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and given short prison sentences. His death was totally pointless.

Miss Saeki never sang again. She locked herself in her room and wouldn’t talk to anybody, even on the phone. She didn’t go to his funeral, and dropped out of college. After a few months, people suddenly realized she was no longer in town. Nobody knows where she went or what she did. Her parents refused to discuss it. Maybe even they didn’t know where she’d been. She vanished into thin air. Even her best friend, Oshima’s mother, didn’t have a clue. Rumors flew that she’d been committed to a mental hospital after a failed suicide attempt in the deep forests surrounding Mount Fuji. Others said a friend of a friend had spotted her on the streets of Tokyo. According to this person she was working in Tokyo as a writer or something. Other rumors had it she was married and had a child. All of these, though, were groundless, with nothing to back them up. Twenty years passed.

No matter where she was or what she was doing all this time, Miss Saeki didn’t hurt for money. Her royalties for “Kafka on the Shore” were deposited in a bank account, and even after taxes still amounted to a substantial sum. She got royalties every time the song was played on the radio or included in an oldies compilation. So it was simple for her to live far away, out of the limelight. Besides, her family was rich and she was their only daughter.

Suddenly, twenty-five years later, Miss Saeki reappeared in Takamatsu. The ostensible reason was her mother’s funeral. (Her father had died five years before, but she hadn’t come to the funeral.) She held a small service for her mother and then, after things had quieted down, sold the house she’d been born and raised in. She moved into an apartment she’d purchased in a quiet part of the city and seemed to settle down again. After a time she had some talks with the Komura family. (The head of the family, after the death of the eldest son, was his younger brother, three years younger. It was just the two of them, and no one knows what they talked about, exactly.) The upshot was Miss Saeki became head of the Komura Library.

Even now she’s slim and beautiful and has the same neat, smart look you see on the record jacket of “Kafka on the Shore.” But there’s one thing missing: that lovely, innocent smile. She still smiles from time to time, definitely a charming smile, but it’s always limited somehow, a smile that never goes beyond the moment. A high, invisible wall surrounds her, holding people at arm’s length. Every morning she drives her gray Volkswagen Golf to the library, and drives it back home in the evening.

Back in her hometown, she had very little to do with former friends and relatives. If they happen to meet she makes polite conversation, but this seldom goes beyond a few standard topics. If the past happens to come up-especially if it involves her-she makes a quick, smooth segue to another topic. She’s always polite and kind, but her words lack the kind of curiosity and excitement you’d normally expect. Her true feelings-assuming such things exist-remain hidden away. Except for when a practical sort of decision has to be made, she never gives her personal opinion about anything. She seldom talks about herself, instead letting others talk, nodding warmly as she listens. But most people start to feel vaguely uneasy when talking with her, as if they suspect they’re wasting her time, trampling on her private, graceful, dignified world. And that impression is, for the most part, correct.

So even after settling back into her hometown, she remained a cipher. A stylish woman wrapped in refined mystery. Something about her made it hard to approach her. Even her nominal employers, the Komura family, kept their distance.

Eventually Oshima became her assistant and started to work in the library. At the time Oshima wasn’t working or going to school, just staying at home reading and listening to music. Except for a few people he exchanged e-mails with, he hardly had any friends. Because of his hemophilia, he spent a lot of time going to see a specialist at the hospital, riding around town in his Mazda Miata, and except for his regular appointments at the University Hospital in Hiroshima and the occasional stay at the cabin in the Kochi mountains, he never left town. Not to imply that he was unhappy with this life. One day Oshima’s mother happened to introduce him to Miss Saeki, who took an instant liking to him. The feeling was mutual, and the notion of working in a library intrigued him. Oshima soon became the only person Miss Saeki normally dealt with or spoke to.

“Sounds to me like Miss Saeki came back here in order to become head of the library,” I say.

“I’d have to agree. Her mother’s funeral was just the opportunity that brought her back. Her hometown must be so full of bittersweet memories that I imagine it was a hard decision to return.”

“Why was the library so important to her?”

“Her boyfriend used to live in a building that’s part of the library now. He was the eldest Komura son, and a love of reading was in his blood, I suppose. He liked to be alone-another family trait. So when he went into junior high he insisted on living apart from the main house, in a separate building, and his parents gave their okay. The whole family loved reading, so they could understand where he was coming from. If you want to be surrounded by books, it’s fine with us-that kind of thing. So he lived in that annex, with nobody bothering him, coming back to the main house only for meals. Miss Saeki went to see him there almost every day. The two of them studied together, listened to music, and talked forever. And most likely made love there. The place was their own bit of paradise.”

Both hands resting on top of the steering wheel, Oshima looks over at me. “That’s where you’ll be living now, Kafka. In that room. As I said, the library’s been renovated, but it’s the very same room.”

Silence on my part.

“Miss Saeki’s life basically stopped at age twenty, when her lover died. No, maybe not age twenty, maybe much earlier… I don’t know the details, but you need to be aware of this. The hands of the clock buried inside her soul ground to a halt then. Time outside, of course, flows on as always, but she isn’t affected by it. For her, what we consider normal time is essentially meaningless.”

“Meaningless?”

Oshima nods. “Like it doesn’t exist.”

“What you’re saying is Miss Saeki still lives in that frozen time?”

“Exactly. I’m not saying she’s some living corpse or anything. When you get to know her better you’ll understand.”

Oshima reaches out and lays a hand on my knee in a totally natural gesture. “Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

We’re about to merge onto the main highway. Before we do, Oshima stops the car, puts up the top, and slips a Schubert sonata into the CD player.

“There’s one other thing I’d like you to be aware of,” he goes on. “Miss Saeki has a wounded heart. To some extent that’s true of all of us, present company included. But Miss Saeki has a special individual wound that goes beyond the usual meaning of the term. Her soul moves in mysterious ways. I’m not saying she’s dangerous-don’t get me wrong. On a day-to-day level she’s definitely got her act together, probably more than anybody else I know. She’s charming, deep, intelligent. But just don’t let it bother you if you notice something odd about her sometimes.”

“Odd?” I can’t help asking.

Oshima shakes his head. “I really like Miss Saeki, and respect her. I’m sure you’ll come to feel the same way.”

This doesn’t really answer my question, but Oshima doesn’t say anything. With perfect timing he shifts gears, steps on the gas, and passes a small van just before we enter a tunnel.

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