I wake up just after dawn, boil water on the electric hot plate, and make some tea. I sit down beside the window to see what, if anything, is going on outside. Everything is dead quiet, with no sign of anybody on the street. Even the birds seem reluctant to launch into their usual morning chorus. The hills to the east are barely edged in a faint light. The place is surrounded by high hills, which explains why dawn comes so late and twilight so early. I go over to the nightstand where my watch is to check the time, but the digital screen’s a complete blank. When I push a few buttons at random, nothing happens. The batteries should still be good, but for some unfathomable reason the thing stopped while I was sleeping. I put the watch back on top of my pillow and rub my left wrist, where I normally wear it, with my right. Not that time’s much of a factor here.
As I gaze at the vacant, birdless scene outside, I suddenly want to read a book-any book. As long as it’s shaped like a book and has printing, it’s fine by me. I just want to hold a book in my hands, turn the pages, scan the words with my eyes. Only one problem-there isn’t a book in sight. In fact, it’s like printing hasn’t been invented here. I quickly look around the room, and sure enough, there’s nothing at all with any writing on it.
I open the chest of drawers in the bedroom to see what kind of clothes are inside. Everything’s neatly folded. None of the clothes are new. The colors are faded, the material soft from countless washings. Still, they look clean. There’s round-neck shirts, underwear, socks, cotton shirts with collars, and cotton trousers. Not a perfect fit, but pretty much my size. All the clothes are perfectly plain and design-free, like the whole idea of clothes with patterns never existed. None of them have any makers’ labels-so much for any writing there. I exchange my smelly T-shirt for a gray one from the drawer that smells like sunlight and soap.
A while later-how much later I couldn’t say-the girl arrives. She taps lightly on the door and, without waiting for an answer, opens it. The door doesn’t have any kind of lock. Her canvas bag is slung over her shoulder. The sky behind her is already light.
She goes straight to the kitchen and cooks some eggs in a small black frying pan. There’s a pleasant sizzle as the eggs hit the hot oil, and the fresh cooking smells waft through the room. Meanwhile, she toasts some bread in a squat little toaster that looks like a prop from an old movie. Her clothes and hair are the same as the night before-a light blue dress, hair pinned back. Her skin is so smooth and beautiful, and her slim, porcelain-like arms glisten in the morning sun. Through the open window a tiny bee buzzes in, as if to make the world a little more complete. The girl carries the food over to the table, sits in a chair, and watches me eat the vegetable omelette and buttered toast and drink some herb tea. She doesn’t eat or drink anything. The whole thing’s a repeat of last night.
“Don’t people here cook their own meals?” I ask her. “I was wondering because you’re making meals for me.”
“Some people make their own, others have somebody make meals for them,” she replies. “Mostly, though, people here don’t eat very much.”
She nods. “Sometimes they eat. When they want to.”
“You mean no one else eats as much as I do?”
“Can you get by without eating for one whole day?”
I shake my head.
“Folks here often go a whole day without eating, no problem. They actually forget to eat, sometimes for days at a time.”
“I’m not used to things here yet, so I have to eat.”
“I suppose so,” she says. “That’s why I’m cooking for you.”
I look in her face. “How long will it take for me to get used to this place?”
“How long?” she parrots, and slowly shakes her head. “I have no idea. It’s not a question of time. When that time comes, you’ll already be used to it.”
We’re sitting across from each other, her hands neatly lined up on the table, palms down. Her ten little resolute fingers are there, real objects before me. Directly across from her, I catch each tiny flutter of her eyelashes, count each blink of her eyes, watch the strands of hair swaying over her forehead. I can’t take my eyes off her.
“That time?” I say.
“It isn’t like you’ll cut something out of yourself and throw it away,” she says. “We don’t throw it away-we accept it, inside us.”
“And I’ll accept this inside of me?”
“And then?” I ask. “After I accept it, then what happens?”
She inclines her head slightly as she thinks, an utterly natural gesture. The strands of hair sway again. “Then you’ll become completely yourself,” she says.
“So you mean up till now I haven’t been completely me?”
“You are totally yourself even now,” she says, then thinks it over. “What I mean is a little different. But I can’t explain it well.”
“You can’t understand until it actually happens?”
When it gets too painful to watch her anymore, I close my eyes. Then I open them right away, to make sure she’s still there. “Is it sort of a communal lifestyle here?”
She considers this. “Everyone does live together, and share certain things. Like the shower rooms, the electrical station, the market. There are certain simple, unspoken agreements in place, but nothing complicated. Nothing you need to think about, or even put into words. So there isn’t anything I need to teach you about how things are done. The most important thing about life here is that people let themselves be absorbed into things. As long as you do that, there won’t be any problems.”
“What do you mean by absorbed?”
“It’s like when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.”
“When you’re with me, then, you’re a seamless part of me?”
“What does it feel like? To be yourself and part of me at the same time?”
She looks straight at me and touches her hairpin. “It’s very natural. Once you’re used to it, it’s quite simple. Like flying.”
“You can fly?”
“Just an example,” she says, and smiles. It’s a smile without any deep or hidden meaning, a smile for the sake of smiling. “You can’t know what flying feels like until you actually do it. It’s the same.”
“So it’s a natural thing you don’t even have to think about?”
She nods. “Yes, it’s quite natural, calm, quiet, something you don’t have to think about. It’s seamless.”
“Am I asking too many questions?”
“Not at all,” she replies. “I only wish I could explain things better.”
“Do you have memories?”
Again she shakes her head and rests her hands on the table, this time with the palms faceup. She glances at them expressionlessly.
“No, I don’t. In a place where time isn’t important, neither is memory. Of course I remember last night, coming here and making vegetable stew. And you ate it all, didn’t you? The day before that I remember a bit of. But anything before that, I don’t know. Time has been absorbed inside me, and I can’t distinguish between one object and whatever’s beside it.”
“So memory isn’t so important here?”
She beams. “That’s right. Memory isn’t so important here. The library handles memories.”
After the girl leaves, I sit by the window holding my hand out in the morning sun, its shadow falling on the windowsill, a distinct five-finger outline. The bee stops buzzing around and quietly lands above the windowpane. It seems to have some serious thinking to do. And so do I.
When the sun is a little bit past its highest point, she comes to where I’m staying, knocks lightly, and opens the door. For a moment I can’t tell who I’m looking at-the young girl or her. A slight shift in light, or the way the wind blows, is all it takes for her to change completely. It’s like in one instant she transforms into the young girl, a moment later changing back into Miss Saeki. Not that this really takes place. The person in front of me is, without a doubt, Miss Saeki and no other.
“Hello,” she says in a natural tone of voice, just like when we passed in the corridor of the library. She’s wearing a long-sleeved navy blue blouse and a matching knee-length skirt, a thin silver necklace, and small pearl earrings-exactly as I’m used to seeing her. Her high heels make short, dry clicks as she steps onto the porch, a sound that’s slightly out of place here. She stands gazing at me from the doorway, as if she’s checking to see whether it’s the real me or not. Of course it’s the real me. Just like she’s the real Miss Saeki.
“How about coming in for a cup of tea?” I say.
“I’d like that,” she says. And, like she’s finally worked up the nerve, she steps inside.
I go to the kitchen and turn on the stove to boil water, trying to get my breathing back to normal.
She sits down at the dining table in the same chair the girl had just been sitting in. “It feels like we’re back in the library, doesn’t it?” she says.
“Sure does,” I agree. “Except for no coffee, and no Oshima.”
“And not a book in sight,” she says.
I make two cups of herbal tea and carry them out to the table, sitting across from her. Birds chirp outside the open window. The bee’s still napping above the windowpane.
Miss Saeki’s the first one to speak. “I want you to know it wasn’t easy for me to come here. But I had to see you, and talk with you.”
I nod. “I’m glad you came.”
Her trademark smile plays around her lips. “There’s something I have to tell you.” Her smile’s nearly identical to the young girl’s, though with a bit more depth, a slight nuance that moves me.
She wraps her hands around the teacup. I’m gazing at the tiny pearl piercings in her ears. She’s thinking, and it’s taking her longer than usual.
“I burned up all my memories,” she says, deliberately choosing her words. “They went up in smoke and disappeared into the air. So I won’t be able to remember things for very long. All sorts of things-including my time with you. That’s why I wanted to see you and talk with you as soon as I could. While I can still remember.”
I crane my neck and look up at the bee above the window, its little black shadow a single dot on the sill.
“The most important thing,” she says quietly, “is you’ve got to get out of here. As fast as you can. Leave here, go through the woods, and back to the life you left. The entrance is going to close soon. Promise me you will.”
I shake my head. “You don’t understand this, Miss Saeki, but I don’t have any world to go back to. No one’s ever really loved me, or wanted me, my entire life. I don’t know who to count on other than myself. For me, the idea of a life I left is meaningless.”
“But you still have to go back.”
“Even if there’s nothing there? Even if nobody cares if I’m there or not?”
“That’s not why,” she says. “It’s what I want. For you to be there.”
“But you’re not there, are you?”
She looks down at her hands clasping the teacup. “No, I’m not. I’m not there anymore.”
“What do you want from me if I do go back?”
“Just one thing,” she says, raising her head and looking me straight in the eye. “I want you to remember me. If you remember me, then I don’t care if everybody else forgets.”
Silence descends on us for a time. A profound silence.
A question wells up inside me, a question so big it plugs up my throat and makes it hard to breathe. I somehow swallow it back, finally choosing another. “Are memories such an important thing?”
“It depends,” she replies, and lightly closes her eyes. “In some cases they’re the most important thing there is.”
“Yet you burned yours up.”
“I had no use for them anymore.” Miss Saeki brings her hands together on the table, her palms down the way the young girl’s were the first time. “Kafka? I have a favor to ask. I want you to take that painting with you.”
“You mean the one in my room in the library? The painting of the shore?”
Miss Saeki nods. “Yes, Kafka on the Shore. I want you to take it. Where, I don’t care. Wherever you’re going.”
“But doesn’t it belong to somebody?”
She shakes her head. “It’s mine. He gave it to me as a present when he went away to college in Tokyo. Ever since then I’ve had it with me. Wherever I lived, I always hung it on the wall in my room. When I started working at the Komura Library I put it back in that room, where it first hung, but that was just temporary. I left a letter for Oshima in my desk in the library telling him I wanted you to have the painting. After all, the painting is originally yours.”
She nods. “You were there. And I was there beside you, watching you. On the shore, a long time ago. The wind was blowing, there were white puffy clouds, and it was always summer.”
I close my eyes. I’m at the beach and it’s summer. I’m lying back on a deck chair. I can feel the roughness of its canvas on my skin. I breathe in deeply the smell of the sea and the tide. Even with my eyes closed, the sun is glaring. I can hear the sound of the waves lapping at the shore. The sound recedes, then draws closer, as if time is making it quiver. Nearby, someone is painting a picture of me. And beside him sits a young girl in a short-sleeved light blue dress, gazing in my direction. She has straight hair, a straw hat with a white ribbon, and she’s scooping up the sand. Steady, long fingers-the fingers of a pianist. Her smooth-as-porcelain arms glisten in the sunlight. A natural-looking smile plays at her lips. I’m in love with her. And she’s in love with me.
That’s the memory.
“I want you to have that painting with you forever,” Miss Saeki says. She stands up, goes to the window, and looks outside. The sun’s still high in the sky. The bee’s still asleep. Miss Saeki holds up a hand to shield her eyes and looks at something far off, then turns to face me. “You have to go,” she says.
I go over to her. Her ear brushes against my neck, the earring hard against my skin. I rest both palms on her back like I’m deciphering some sign there. Her hair brushes my cheek. She holds me tight, her fingers digging hard into my back. Fingers clinging to the wall that’s time. The smell of the sea, the sound of waves breaking on the shore. Someone calling my name from far, far away.
“Are you my mother?” I’m finally able to ask.
“You already know the answer to that,” Miss Saeki says.
She’s right-I do know the answer. But neither one of us can put it into words. Putting it into words will destroy any meaning.
“A long time ago I abandoned someone I shouldn’t have,” she says. “Someone I loved more than anything else. I was afraid someday I’d lose this person. So I had to let go myself. If he was going to be stolen away from me, or I was going to lose him by accident, I decided it was better to discard him myself. Of course I felt anger that didn’t fade, that was part of it. But the whole thing was a huge mistake. It was someone I should never have abandoned.”
I listen in silence.
“You were discarded by the one person who never should have done that,” Miss Saeki says. “Kafka-do you forgive me?”
“Do I have the right to?”
She looks at my shoulder and nods several times. “As long as anger and fear don’t prevent you.”
“Miss Saeki, if I really do have the right to, then yes-I do forgive you,” I tell her.
Mother, you say. I forgive you. And with those words, audibly, the frozen part of your heart crumbles.
Silently, she lets go of me. She takes the hairpin out of her hair and without a moment’s hesitation stabs the sharp tip into the inner flesh of her left arm, hard. With her right hand she presses down tightly on a vein, and blood begins to seep out. The first drop plops audibly to the floor. Without a word she holds her arm out toward me. Another drop of blood falls to the floor.
I bend over and put my lips on the small wound, lick her blood with my tongue, close my eyes, and savor the taste. I hold the blood in my mouth and slowly swallow it. Her blood goes down, deep in my throat. It’s quietly absorbed by the dry outer layer of my heart. Only now do I understand how much I’ve wanted that blood. My mind is someplace far away, though my body is still right here-just like a living spirit. I feel like sucking down every last drop of blood from her, but I can’t. I take my lips off her arm and look into her face.
“Farewell, Kafka Tamura,” Miss Saeki says. “Go back to where you belong, and live.”
“Miss Saeki?” I ask.
“I don’t know what it means to live.”
She lets me go and looks up at me. She reaches out and touches my lips. “Look at the painting,” she says quietly. “Keep looking at the painting, just like I did.”
And she leaves. She opens the door and, without glancing back, steps outside and closes the door. I stand at the window and watch her go. Quickly she vanishes in the shadow of a building. Hands resting on the sill, I gaze for the longest time at where she disappeared. Maybe she forgot to say something and will come back. But she never does. All that’s left is an absence, like a hollow.
The dozing bee wakes up and buzzes around me for a while. Then, as if finally remembering what it’s supposed to be doing, it flies out the open window. The sun shines down. I go back to the table and sit down. Her cup is sitting there, with a bit of tea left in it. I leave it where it is, without touching it. The cup looks like a metaphor. A metaphor of memories that, before long, will be lost.
I take off my shirt and change back into my sweaty, smelly T-shirt. I put the dead watch back on my left wrist. Then I put the ball cap Oshima gave me on backward, and the pair of sky blue sunglasses. Finally I tug on my long-sleeved shirt. I walk into the kitchen and drink a glass of tap water, put the glass in the sink, and take a final look around the room. At the dining table, the chairs. The chair the girl and Miss Saeki sat on. The teacup on top of the table. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. You already know the answer to that.
I open the door, go outside, and close the door. I walk down the porch steps, my shadow falling distinct and clear on the ground. It looks like it’s clinging to my feet. The sun’s still high in the sky.
At the entrance to the forest the two soldiers are leaning against a tree trunk like they’ve been waiting for me. When they see me they don’t ask a single question. It’s as if they already know what I’m thinking. Their rifles are slung over their shoulders.
The tall soldier is chewing on a stalk of grass. “The entrance is still open,” he says. “At least it was when I checked a minute ago.”
“You don’t mind if we keep the same pace as before?” the brawny one asks. “You can keep up?”
“No problem. I can keep up.”
“It’ll be a problem, though, if we get there and the entrance is already shut,” the tall one comments.
“Then you’re stuck here,” his companion adds.
“I know,” I say.
“No regrets at having to leave?” the tall one asks.
“Then let’s get going.”
“Better not look behind you,” the brawny one says.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” the tall one says.
And once again I set off through the forest.
Once, as we’re hurrying up a slope, I do glance back. The soldiers warned me not to, but I couldn’t help it. This is the last spot you can see the town from. Beyond it we’ll be cut off by a wall of trees, and that world will vanish from my sight forever.
There still isn’t a soul on the street. A beautiful stream runs through the hollow, small buildings line the street, the electric poles casting dark shadows on the ground. For a moment I’m frozen to the spot. I have to go back, no matter what. I could at least stay there until evening, when the young girl with the canvas bag will visit me. If you need me, I’ll be there. I get a hot lump in my chest and a powerful magnet’s pulling me back toward the town. My feet are buried in lead and won’t budge. If I go on I’ll never see her again. I come to a halt. I’ve lost all sense of time. I want to call out to the soldiers in front of me, I’m not going back, I’m staying. But no voice comes out. Words have no life in them.
I’m caught between one void and another. I have no idea what’s right, what’s wrong. I don’t even know what I want anymore. I’m standing alone in the middle of a horrific sandstorm. I can’t move, and can’t even see my fingertips anymore. Sand as white as pulverized bones wraps me in its grip. But I hear her-Miss Saeki-speaking to me. “No matter what, you have to go back,” she says decisively. “It’s what I want. For you to be there.”
The spell is broken, and I’m in one piece again. Warm blood returns to my body. The blood she gave me, the last drops of blood she had. The next instant I’m facing forward and following the soldiers. I turn a corner and that little world in the hills vanishes, swallowed up in dreams. Now I just focus on making it through the forest without getting lost. Not wandering from the path. That’s what’s important now, what I have to do.
The entrance is still open. There’s still time until evening. I thank the two soldiers. They lay down their rifles and, like before, sit down on the large flat rock. The tall soldier’s still chewing on a bit of grass. They’re not out of breath at all after our breathless rush through the woods.
“Don’t forget what I told you about bayonets,” the tall soldier says. “When you stab the enemy, you’ve got to twist and slash, to cut his guts open. Otherwise he’ll do it to you. That’s the way the world is outside.”
“That’s not all there is, though,” the brawny one says.
“No, of course not,” the tall one replies, and clears his throat. “I’m just talking about the dark side of things.”
“It’s also real hard to tell right from wrong,” the brawny one says.
“But it’s something you’ve got to do,” the tall one adds.
“Most likely,” the brawny one says.
“One more thing,” the tall one says. “Once you leave here, don’t ever look back until you reach your destination. Not even once, do you understand?”
“This is important,” the brawny one adds.
“Somehow you made it through back there,” the tall one says, “but this time it’s serious. Until you get to where you’re going, don’t ever look back.”
“Ever,” the brawny one says.
“I understand,” I tell them. I thank them again and say good-bye.
The two of them come to attention and salute. I’ll never see them again. I know that. And they know that. And knowing this, we say farewell.
I don’t recall much of how I got back to Oshima’s cabin after leaving the soldiers. As I made my way through the thick forest my mind must have been elsewhere. Amazingly, I didn’t get lost. I have a vague memory of spotting the daypack I’d thrown away and, without thinking, picking it up. Same with the compass, the hatchet, the can of spray paint. I remember seeing the yellow marks I’d sprayed on tree trunks, like scales left behind by some giant moth.
I stand in the clearing in front of the cabin and gaze up at the sky. The world around me is suddenly filled with brilliant sounds-birds chirping, water gurgling down the stream, wind rustling the leaves. All faint, but to me it’s like corks have been pulled from my ears and now everything sounds so alive, so warm, so close. Everything’s mixed together, but still I can make out each individual sound. I look down at the watch on my wrist, and it’s working again. Digital numbers flash on the green screen, changing each minute like nothing had ever happened. It’s 4:16.
I go into the cabin and lie down on the bed in my clothes. I’m exhausted. I lie there on my back and close my eyes. A bee is resting above the window. The girl’s arms glisten in the sunlight like porcelain. “An example,” she says.
“Look at the painting,” Miss Saeki says. “Just like I did.”
White sands of time slip through the girl’s slim fingers. Waves crash softly against the shore. They rise up, fall, and break. Rise up, fall, and break. And my consciousness is sucked into a dim, dark corridor.