I don’t know if ghost is the right word, but it definitely isn’t something of this world-that much I can tell at a glance.
I sense something and suddenly wake up and there she is. It’s the middle of the night but the room is strangely light, moonlight streaming through the window. I know I closed the curtains before going to bed, but now they’re wide open. The girl’s silhouette is clearly outlined, bathed by the bone white light of the moon.
She’s about my age, fifteen or sixteen. I’m guessing fifteen. There’s a big difference between fifteen and sixteen. She’s small and slim, holds herself erect, and doesn’t seem delicate at all. Her hair hangs down to her shoulders, with bangs on her forehead. She’s wearing a blue dress with a billowing hem that’s just the right length. She doesn’t have any shoes or socks on. The buttons on the cuffs of her dress are neatly done up. Her dress has a rounded, open collar, showing off her well-formed neck.
She’s sitting at the desk, chin resting in her hands, staring at the wall and thinking about something. Nothing too complex, I’d say. It looks more like she’s lost in some pleasant, warm memory of not so long ago. Every once in a while a hint of a smile gathers at the corners of her mouth. But the shadows cast by the moonlight keep me from making out any details of her expression. I don’t want to interrupt whatever it is she’s doing, so I pretend to be asleep, holding my breath and trying not to be noticed.
She’s got to be a ghost. First of all, she’s just too beautiful. Her features are gorgeous, but it’s not only that. She’s so perfect I know she can’t be real. She’s like a person who stepped right out of a dream. The purity of her beauty gives me a feeling close to sadness-a very natural feeling, though one that only something extraordinary could produce.
I’m wrapped in my covers, holding my breath. She continues to sit there at the desk, chin propped in her hands, barely stirring. Occasionally her chin shifts a fraction, changing the angle of her head ever so slightly. As far as anything moving in the room, that’s it. I can see the large flowering dogwood just outside the window, glistening silently in the moonlight. There’s no wind, and I can’t hear a sound. The whole thing feels like I might’ve died, unknowingly. I’m dead, and this girl and I have sunk to the bottom of a deep crater lake.
All of a sudden she pulls her hands away from her chin and places them on her lap. Two small pale knees show at her hemline. She stops gazing at the wall and turns in my direction. She reaches up and touches the hair at her forehead-her slim, girlish fingers rest for a time on her forehead, as if she’s trying to draw out some forgotten thought. She’s looking at me. My heart beats dully in my chest, but strangely enough I don’t feel like I’m being looked at. Maybe she’s not looking at me but beyond me.
In the depths of our crater lake, everything is silent. The volcano’s been extinct for ages. Layer upon layer of solitude, like folds of soft mud. The little bit of light that manages to penetrate to the depths lights up the surroundings like the remains of some faint, distant memory. At these depths there’s no sign of life. I don’t know how long she looks at me-not at me, maybe, but at the spot where I am. Time’s rules don’t apply here. Time expands, then contracts, all in tune with the stirrings of the heart.
And then, without warning, the girl stands up and heads toward the door on her slender legs. The door is shut, yet soundlessly she disappears.
I stay where I am, in bed. My eyes open just a slit, and I don’t move a muscle. For all I know she might come back, I think. I want her to, I realize. But no matter how long I wait she doesn’t return. I raise my head and glance at the fluorescent numbers on the alarm clock next to my bed.3:25. I get out of bed, walk over to the chair she was sitting on, and touch it. It’s not warm at all. I check out the desktop, in hopes of finding something-a single hair, perhaps?-she left behind. But there’s nothing. I sit down on the chair, massaging my cheeks with the palms of my hands, and breathe a deep sigh.
I close the curtains and crawl back under the covers, but there’s no way I can go back to sleep now. My head’s too full of that enigmatic girl. A strange, terrific force unlike anything I’ve ever experienced is sprouting in my heart, taking root there, growing. Shut up behind my rib cage, my warm heart expands and contracts independent of my will-over and over.
I switch on the light and wait for the dawn, sitting up in bed. I can’t read, can’t listen to music. I can’t do anything but just sit there, waiting for morning to come. As the sky begins to lighten I finally sleep a bit. When I wake up, my pillow’s cold and damp with tears. But tears for what? I have no idea.
Around nine Oshima roars up in his Miata, and we get the library ready to open. After we get everything done I make him some coffee. He taught me how to do it just right. You grind the beans by hand, boil up some water in a narrow spouted pot, let it sit for a while, then slowly-and I mean slowly-pour the water through a paper filter. When the coffee’s ready Oshima puts in the smallest dab of sugar, just for show, basically, but no cream-the best way, he insists. I make myself some Earl Grey tea.
Oshima has on a shiny brown short-sleeved shirt and white linen trousers. Wiping his glasses with a brand-new handkerchief he pulls from his pocket, he turns to me. “You don’t look like you got much sleep.”
“There’s something I’d like you to do for me,” I say.
“I want to listen to ‘Kafka on the Shore.’ Can you get hold of the record?”
“Not the CD?”
“If possible I’d like to listen to the record, to hear how it originally sounded. Of course we’d have to find a record player, too.”
Oshima rests his fingers on his temple and thinks. “There might be an old stereo in the storeroom. Can’t guarantee it still works, though.”
We go into a small room facing the parking lot. There are no windows, only a skylight high up. A mess of objects from various periods are strewn around-furniture, dishes, magazines, clothes, and paintings. Some of them are obviously valuable, but some, most, in fact, don’t look like they’re worth much.
“Someday we’ve got to get rid of all this junk,” Oshima remarks, “but nobody’s been brave enough to take the plunge.”
In the middle of the room, where time seems to have drifted to a halt, we find an old Sansui stereo. Covered in a thin layer of white dust, the stereo itself looks in good shape, though it must be over twenty-five years since this was up-to-date audio equipment. The whole set consists of a receiver, amp, turntable, and bookshelf speakers. We also find a collection of old LPs, mostly sixties pop music-Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder. About thirty albums, all told. I take some out of their jackets. Whoever listened to these took good care of them, because there’s no trace of mold and not a scratch anywhere.
There’s a guitar in the storeroom as well, still with strings. Plus a pile of old magazines I’ve never heard of, and an old-fashioned tennis racket. All like the ruins of some not-so-distant past.
“I imagine all this stuff belonged to Miss Saeki’s boyfriend,” Oshima says. “Like I mentioned, he used to live in this building, and they must’ve thrown his things down here. The stereo, though, looks more recent than that.”
We lug the stereo and records to my room. We dust it off, plug it in, connect up the player and amp, and hit the switch. The little green light on the amp comes on and the turntable begins to revolve. I check the cartridge and find it still has a decent needle, then take out the red vinyl record of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and put it on the turntable. The familiar guitar intro starts to play. The sound’s much cleaner than I expected.
“Japan has its share of problems,” Oshima says, smiling, “but we sure know how to make a sound system. This thing hasn’t been used in ages, but it still sounds great.”
We listen to the Beatles album for a while. Compared to the CD version, it sounds like different music altogether.
“Well, we’ve got something to listen to it on,” Oshima concludes, “but getting hold of a single of ‘Kafka on the Shore’ might be a problem. That’s a pretty rare item nowadays. I tell you what-I’ll ask my mother. She’s probably got a copy tucked away somewhere. Or at least she’ll know somebody who does.”
Oshima raises a finger, like a teacher warning a pupil. “One thing, though. Make sure you never play it when Miss Saeki’s here. No matter what. Understood?”
I nod again.
“Like in Casablanca,” he says, and hums the opening bars of “As Time Goes By.”
“Just don’t play that one song, okay?”
“Oshima, there’s something I want to ask. Does any fifteen-year-old girl come here?”
“By here you mean the library?”
Oshima tilts his head and gives it some thought. “Not as far as I know,” he says, staring at me like he’s looking into the room from a window. “That’s a strange thing to ask.”
“I think I saw her recently,” I say.
“When was this?”
“You saw a fifteen-year-old girl here last night?”
“What kind of girl?”
I blush a bit. “Just a girl. Hair down to her shoulders. Wearing a blue dress.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Could be a sexual fantasy,” Oshima says, and grins. “The world’s full of weird things. But for a healthy, heterosexual kid your age, having fantasies like that’s not so strange.”
I remember how Oshima saw me buck naked up at the cabin, and blush even more.
During our lunch break Oshima quietly hands me a single of “Kafka on the Shore” in a square little jacket. “Turns out my mom did have one. Five copies, if you can believe it. She really takes good care of things. A bit of a pack rat, but I guess we shouldn’t complain.”
“Thanks,” I say.
I go back to my room and take the record out of the jacket. The record looks like it’s never been played. In the record jacket’s photo, Miss Saeki-she was nineteen, according to Oshima-is sitting at a piano in a recording studio. Looking straight at the camera, she’s resting her chin in her hands on the music stand, her head tilted slightly to one side, a shy, unaffected smile on her face, closed lips spread pleasantly wide, with charming lines at the corners. It doesn’t look like she’s wearing any makeup. Her hair’s held back by a plastic clip so it won’t fall into her face, and part of her right ear’s visible through the strands. Her light blue dress is short and loose-fitting, and she has a silver bracelet on her left wrist, her only accessory. A pair of slender sandals lie next to her piano stool, and her bare feet are lovely.
She looks like a symbol of something. A certain time, a certain place. A certain state of mind. She’s like a spirit that’s sprung up from a happy chance encounter. An eternal, naive innocence, never to be marred, floats around her like spores in spring. Time had come to a standstill in this photograph.1969-a scene from long before I was even born.
I knew from the first that the young girl who visited my room last night was Miss Saeki. I never doubted it for a second, but just had to make sure.
Compared to when she was fifteen, Miss Saeki at nineteen looks more grown-up, more mature. If I had to compare the two, I’d say the outline of her face looks sharper, more defined, in the photo. A certain anxiousness is missing from the older of the two. But otherwise this nineteen-year-old and the fifteen-year-old I saw are nearly identical. The smile in the photo’s the same one I saw last night. How she held her chin in her hands, and tilted her head-also the same. And in Miss Saeki now, the real-time Miss Saeki, I can see the same expressions and gestures. I’m delighted that those features, and her sense of the otherworldly, haven’t changed a bit. Even her build is almost the same.
Still, there’s something in this photo of the nineteen-year-old that the middle-aged woman I know has lost forever. You might call it an outpouring of energy. Nothing showy, it’s colorless, transparent, like fresh water secretly seeping out between rocks-a kind of natural, unspoiled appeal that shoots straight to your heart. That brilliant energy seeps out of her entire being as she sits there at the piano. Just by looking at that happy smile, you can trace the beautiful path that a contented heart must follow. Like a firefly’s glow that persists long after it’s disappeared into the darkness.
I sit on my bed for a long time, record jacket in hand, not thinking about anything, just letting time pass by. I open my eyes, go to the window, and take a deep breath of fresh air, catching a whiff of the sea on the breeze that’s come up through a pine forest. What I saw here in this room the night before was definitely Miss Saeki at age fifteen. The real Miss Saeki, of course, is still alive. A fifty-something woman, living a real life in the real world. Even now she’s in her room upstairs at her desk, working away. To see her, all I need to do is go out of this room and up the stairs, and there she’ll be. I can meet her, talk with her-but none of that changes the fact that what I saw here was her ghost. Oshima told me people can’t be in two places at once, but I think it’s possible. In fact, I’m sure of it. While they’re still alive, people can become ghosts.
And there’s another important fact: I’m drawn to that ghost, attracted to her. Not to the Miss Saeki who’s here right now, but to the fifteen-year-old who isn’t. Very attracted, a feeling so strong I can’t explain it. And no matter what anybody says, this is real. Maybe she doesn’t really exist, but just thinking about her makes my heart-my flesh and blood, my real heart-thump like mad. These feelings are as real as the blood all over my chest that awful night.
As it gets near closing time Miss Saeki comes downstairs, her heels clicking as she walks. When I see her, I tense up and can hear my heart pounding. I see the fifteen-year-old girl inside her. Like some small animal in hibernation, she’s curled up in a hollow inside Miss Saeki, asleep.
Miss Saeki’s asking me something but I can’t reply. I don’t even know what she said. I can hear her, of course-her words vibrate my eardrums and transmit a message to my brain that’s converted into language-but there’s a disconnect between words and meaning. Flustered, I blush and stammer out something stupid. Oshima intervenes and answers her question. I nod at what he’s saying. Miss Saeki smiles, says good-bye to us, and leaves for home. I listen to the sound of her Golf as it exits the parking lot, fades into the distance, and disappears.
Oshima stays behind and helps me close up for the night.
“By any chance have you fallen in love with somebody?” he asks. “You seem kind of out of it.”
I don’t have any idea how I should respond. “Oshima,” I finally say, “this is a pretty weird thing to ask, but do you think it’s possible for someone to become a ghost while they’re still alive?”
He stops straightening up the counter and looks at me. “A very interesting question, actually. Are you asking about the human spirit in a literary sense-metaphorically, in other words? Or do you mean in actual fact?”
“More in actual fact, I guess,” I say.
“The assumption that ghosts really exist?”
Oshima removes his glasses, wipes them with his handkerchief, and puts them back on. “That’s what’s called a ‘living spirit.’ I don’t know about in foreign countries, but that kind of thing appears a lot in Japanese literature. The Tale of Genji, for instance, is filled with living spirits. In the Heian period-or at least in its psychological realm-on occasion people could become living spirits and travel through space to carry out whatever desires they had. Have you read Genji?”
I shake my head.
“Our library has a couple of modern translations, so it might be a good idea to read one. Anyway, an example is when Lady Rokujo-she’s one of Prince Genji’s lovers-becomes so consumed with jealousy over Genji’s main wife, Lady Aoi, that she turns into an evil spirit that possesses her. Night after night she attacks Lady Aoi in her bed until she finally kills her. Lady Aoi was pregnant with Genji’s child, and that news is what activated Lady Rokujo’s hatred. Genji called in priests to exorcise the evil spirit, but to no avail. The evil spirit was impossible to resist.
“But the most interesting part of the story is that Lady Rokujo had no inkling that she’d become a living spirit. She’d have nightmares and wake up, only to discover that her long black hair smelled like smoke. Not having any idea what was going on, she was totally confused. In fact, this smoke came from the incense the priests lit as they prayed for Lady Aoi. Completely unaware of it, she’d been flying through space and passing down the tunnel of her subconscious into Aoi’s bedroom. This is one of the most uncanny and thrilling episodes in Genji. Later, when Lady Rokujo learns what she’s been doing, she regrets the sins she’s committed and shaves off her hair and renounces the world.
“The world of the grotesque is the darkness within us. Well before Freud and Jung shined a light on the workings of the subconscious, this correlation between darkness and our subconscious, these two forms of darkness, was obvious to people. It wasn’t a metaphor, even. If you trace it back further, it wasn’t even a correlation. Until Edison invented the electric light, most of the world was totally covered in darkness. The physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two. They were directly linked. Like this.” Oshima brings his two hands together tightly.
“In Murasaki Shikibu’s time living spirits were both a grotesque phenomenon and a natural condition of the human heart that was right there with them. People of that period probably couldn’t conceive of these two types of darkness as separate from each other. But today things are different. The darkness in the outside world has vanished, but the darkness in our hearts remains, virtually unchanged. Just like an iceberg, what we label the ego or consciousness is, for the most part, sunk in darkness. And that estrangement sometimes creates a deep contradiction or confusion within us.”
“Around your mountain cabin-that’s real darkness.”
“Absolutely,” Oshima says. “Real darkness still exists there. Sometimes I go there just to experience it.”
“What triggers people to become living spirits? Is it always something negative?”
“I’m no expert, but as far as I know, yes, those living spirits all spring up out of negative emotions. Most of the extreme feelings people have tend to be at once very individual and very negative. And these living spirits arise through a kind of spontaneous generation. Sad to say, there aren’t any cases of a living spirit emerging to fulfill some logical premise or bring about world peace.”
“What about because of love?”
Oshima sits down and thinks it over. “That’s a tough one. All I can tell you is I’ve never run across an example. Of course, there is that tale, ‘The Chrysanthemum Pledge,’ in Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Have you read it?”
“No,” I reply.
“Tales of Moonlight and Rain was written in the late Edo period by a man named Ueda Akinari. It was set, however, in the earlier Warring States period, which makes Ueda’s approach a bit nostalgic or retro. Anyway, in this particular story two samurai become fast friends and pledge themselves as blood brothers. For samurai this was very serious. Being blood brothers meant they pledged their lives to each other. They lived far away from each other, each serving a different lord. One wrote to the other saying no matter what, he would visit when the chrysanthemums were in bloom. The other said he’d wait for his arrival. But before the first one could set out on the journey, he got mixed up in some trouble in his domain, was put under confinement, and wasn’t allowed to go out or send a letter. Finally summer is over and fall is upon them, the season when the chrysanthemums blossom. At this rate he won’t be able to fulfill his promise to his friend. To a samurai, nothing’s more important than a promise. Honor’s more important than your life. So this samurai commits hara-kiri, becomes a spirit, and races across the miles to visit his friend. They sit near the chrysanthemums and talk to their heart’s content, and then the spirit vanishes from the face of the earth. It’s a beautiful tale.”
“But he had to die in order to become a spirit.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Oshima says. “It would appear that people can’t become living spirits out of honor or love or friendship. To do that they have to die. People throw away their lives for honor, love, or friendship, and only then do they turn into spirits. But when you talk about living spirits-well, that’s a different story. They always seem to be motivated by evil.”
I mull this over.
“But like you said, there might be examples,” Oshima continues, “of people becoming living spirits out of positive feelings of love. I just haven’t done much research into the matter, I’m afraid. Maybe it happens. Love can rebuild the world, they say, so everything’s possible when it comes to love.”
“Have you ever been in love?” I ask.
He stares at me, taken aback. “What do you think? I’m not a starfish or a pepper tree. I’m a living, breathing human being. Of course I’ve been in love.”
“That isn’t what I mean,” I say, blushing.
“I know,” he says, and smiles at me gently.
Once Oshima leaves I go back to my room, switch the stereo to 45 rpm, lower the needle, and listen to “Kafka on the Shore,” following the lyrics on the jacket.
You sit at the edge of the world,
I am in a crater that’s no more.
Words without letters
Standing in the shadow of the door.
The moon shines down on a sleeping lizard,
Little fish rain down from the sky.
Outside the window there are soldiers, steeling themselves to die.
Kafka sits in a chair by the shore,
Thinking of the pendulum that moves the world, it seems.
When your heart is closed,
The shadow of the unmoving Sphinx,
Becomes a knife that pierces your dreams.
The drowning girl’s fingers
Search for the entrance stone, and more.
Lifting the hem of her azure dress,
She gazes- at Kafka on the shore.
I listen to the record three times. First of all, I’m wondering how a record with lyrics like this could sell over a million copies. I’m not saying they’re totally obscure, just kind of abstract and surreal. Not exactly catchy lyrics. But if you listen to them a few times they begin to sound familiar. One by one the words find a home in my heart. It’s a weird feeling. Images beyond any meaning arise like cutout figures and stand alone, just like when I’m in the middle of a deep dream.
The melody is beautiful, simple but different, too. And Miss Saeki’s voice melts into it naturally. Her voice needs more power-she isn’t what you’d call a professional singer-but it gently cleanses your mind, like a spring rain washing over stepping stones in a garden. She played the piano and sang, then they added a small string section and an oboe. The recording budget must have kept the arrangement simple, but actually it’s this simplicity that gives the song its appeal.
Two unusual chords appear in the refrain. The other chords in the song are nothing special, but these two are different, not the kind you can figure out by listening just a couple of times. At first I felt confused. To exaggerate a little, I felt betrayed, even. The total unexpectedness of the sounds shook me, unsettled me, like when a cold wind suddenly blows in through a crack. But once the refrain is over, that beautiful melody returns, taking you back to that original world of harmony and intimacy. No more chilly wind here. The piano plays its final note while the strings quietly hold the last chord, the lingering sound of the oboe bringing the song to a close.
Listening to it over and over, I start to get some idea why “Kafka on the Shore” moved so many people. The song’s direct and gentle at the same time, the product of a capable yet unselfish heart. There’s a kind of miraculous feel to it, this overlap of opposites. A shy nineteen-year-old girl from a provincial town writes lyrics about her boyfriend far away, sits down at the piano and sets it to music, then unhesitantly sings her creation. She didn’t write the song for others to hear, but for herself, to warm her own heart, if even a little. And her self-absorption strikes a subtle but powerful chord in her listeners’ hearts.
I throw together a simple dinner from things in the fridge, then put “Kafka on the Shore” on the turntable again. Eyes closed, I sit in the chair and try to picture the nineteen-year-old Miss Saeki in the studio, playing the piano and singing. I think about the love she felt as she sang. And how mindless violence severed that love forever.
The record is over, the needle lifts up and returns to its cradle.
Miss Saeki may have written the lyrics to “Kafka on the Shore” in this very room. The more I listen to the record, the more I’m sure that this Kafka on the shore is the young boy in the painting on the wall. I sit at the desk and, like she did last night, hold my chin in my hands and gaze at the same angle at the painting right in front of me. I’m positive now, this had to be where she wrote it. I see her gazing at the painting, remembering the young boy, writing the poem she then set to music. It had to have been at night, when it was pitch-dark outside.
I stand up, go over to the wall, and examine the painting up close. The young man is looking off in the distance, his eyes full of a mysterious depth. In one corner of the sky there are some sharply outlined clouds, and the largest sort of looks like a crouching Sphinx.
I search my memory. The Sphinx was the enemy Oedipus defeated by solving the riddle, and once the monster knew it had lost, it leaped off a cliff and killed itself. Thanks to this exploit, Oedipus got to be king of Thebes and ended up marrying his own mother. And the name Kafka. I suspect Miss Saeki used it since in her mind the mysterious solitude of the boy in the picture overlapped with Kafka’s fictional world. That would explain the title: a solitary soul straying by an absurd shore.
Other lines overlap with things that happened to me. The part about “little fish rain from the sky”-isn’t that exactly what happened in that shopping area back home, when hundreds of sardines and mackerel rained down? The part about how the shadow “becomes a knife that pierces your dreams”-that could be my father’s stabbing. I copy down all the lines of the song in my notebook and study them, underlining parts that particularly interest me. But in the end it’s all too suggestive, and I don’t know what to make of it.
Words without letters
Standing in the shadow of the door…
The drowning girl’s fingers
Search for the entrance stone…
Outside the window there are soldiers, steeling themselves to die…
What could it mean? Were all these just coincidences? I walk to the window and look out at the garden. Darkness is just settling in on the world. I go over to the reading room, sit on the sofa, and open up Tanizaki’s translation of The Tale of Genji. At ten I go to bed, turn off the bedside light, and close my eyes, waiting for the fifteen-year-old Miss Saeki to return to this room.