Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen
That was unexpected. I'd been positive he was the one who built that house. That's how closely I'd linked his imageâprobably corresponding to his wonderfully white hairâwith that white mansion on top of the mountain.
She continued. “Nobody knows what kind of work he does. What they do know is that he never commutes to work. He stays in his house all day, probably on his computer. His study is full of those devices. Nowadays if you know what you're doing, you can find out most everything online. A man I know is a surgeon who works entirely from home. He's crazy about surfing and doesn't want to leave the ocean.”
“A surgeon can work entirely from home?”
“They send him all the images and information about the patients, which he analyzes and then creates the protocols for the operations, sends these to the on-site staff, and monitors the operations remotely, sometimes giving them advice. Sometimes he uses a remote magic hand device to actually perform operations. That kind of thing.”
“What an age we live in,” I said. “I wouldn't like to have anyone operate on me like that.”
“I wonder if Mr. Menshiki is doing something similar,” she said. “No matter what kind of work he's doing, he's pulling in enough income. He lives alone most of the time in the huge house, occasionally goes on long trips. Probably trips abroad. In his house he has a home gym with lots of exercise machines, where he works out whenever he has a chance. There's not an ounce of fat on him. He mostly prefers classical music, and has a substantial listening room. A pretty luxurious life, wouldn't you say?”
“Where'd you get all these details?”
She laughed. “You seem to underestimate women's information-gathering skills.”
“You could be right.”
“He has four cars altogether. Two Jaguars and a Range Rover. Plus a Mini Cooper. He seems to like British cars.”
“Mini Coopers are made by BMW these days, and I believe Jaguar was purchased by an Indian corporation. So it's hard to call either of them British cars.”
“The Mini he drives is an older version. And whatever corporation bought Jaguar, it's still a British car.”
“Did you find out anything else?”
“Hardly anybody ever comes to the house. Mr. Menshiki prefers solitude. He likes to be alone, likes to listen to classical music and read a lot. He's single and well off, yet almost never brings women home. For all appearances he lives a very simple, orderly life. Makes you think he might be gay. Though there's some evidence that points in the other direction.”
“I'm thinking you must have a well-placed source of information.”
“She's not there now, but until not long ago he had a maid who'd come in a few times a week. She's the one who took out the garbage, went shopping for him at the local supermarket, where there were other housewives from the neighborhood and they'd start chatting.”
“I see,” I said. “That's how the jungle grapevine gets formed.”
“You got it. According to her, there's a kind of
in the house. He instructed her never to enter it. He made it quite clear.”
“Sounds like Bluebeard's castle.”
“Exactly. People often say that, right? That every house has a skeleton in the closet.”
That reminded me of the painting
hidden away in the attic. That might be a skeleton hidden in a closet too.
She went on. “The woman never did find out what was in that mystery room. It was always locked. But anyway, that maid doesn't work there anymore. Maybe she got fired for being a bit too talkative. He seems to be doing all the housework himself now.”
“He told me the same thing. That aside from a once-a-week cleaning service he takes care of all the household chores himself.”
“He seems very touchy about his privacy.”
“Be that as it may, but isn't the fact that you and I meet like this spreading through your jungle grapevine?”
“I doubt it,” she said in a quiet voice. “First of all, I'm very careful that it doesn't. And second, you're a little different from Mr. Menshiki.”
“Meaningâ¦,” I said, translating this into words that were easy to understand, “â¦that there are things about him that lend themselves to rumor, but not with me.”
“We should be thankful for that,” she said cheerily.
After my little sister died all kinds of things started to go wrong. The metalworking company my father operated went downhill, and he was so busy dealing with that he hardly ever came home. The atmosphere at home became strained. Long, heavy silences reigned over the house. It hadn't been that way when my sister was still alive. I wanted to get away from it all, and got even more absorbed in painting as a way to escape. Eventually I decided to attend art school and major in painting. My father was dead set against it. You can't earn a decent living painting, he argued. And I don't have the money to help raise an artist. The two of us argued about it. My mother intervened to smooth things over, and though somehow I was able to attend art school, my father and I never did reconcile.
If only my sister hadn't died, I sometimes thought. If she'd lived, my family would have been so much happier. Her sudden disappearance made our family fall apart. Our home became a site where people lashed out and hurt each other. I felt helpless, knowing I could never fill in the hole my sister had left behind.
I stopped drawing pictures of her. After I entered art school the things I wanted to paint were phenomena and objects that didn't have intrinsic meaning. Abstract paintings, in other words. Things in which all sorts of meanings were encoded, where new semantic meaning arose from the interweaving of one sign and another. I plunged into a world that aimed at that type of completeness, and was able to breathe normally for the first time in forever.
Creating those kinds of paintings, though, didn't lead to any decent jobs. I graduated, but as long as I stuck to abstract painting my father was rightâI had no hope of earning any money. So in order to make a living (I'd already left my parents' home and needed to earn money for rent and food) I was compelled to take on portrait work. By doing a conventional job, painting those utilitarian paintings, I was somehow able to survive as an artist.
And now I was about to paint a portrait of Wataru Menshiki. The Wataru Menshiki who lived in the white mansion on top of the mountain across the way. The white-haired man the neighbors had heard all sorts of rumors about, this clearly intriguing person. He had picked me out, hired me for a huge fee to paint his portrait. But what I discovered was that at this point I
even able to paint a portrait
. Even that kind of conventional, utilitarian art was beyond me. I'd truly become hollow, an empty shell.
We should wordlessly go to visit her, pushing our way through the lush green grass.
This random thought struck me. If we could, how truly wonderful that would be.
The silence woke me. That happens sometimes. A sudden sound will cut the silence, waking a person, and sometimes a sudden silence will cut through sounds, waking you.
I shot awake and glanced over at my bedside clock. The digital display read 1:45. After a moment I remembered that it was 1:45 a.m. on Saturday night, or rather early Sunday morning. Earlier that afternoon I had spent time with my married lover in this bed. She went home before evening, I'd had a simple dinner, read for a while, and gone to sleep after ten. I'm generally a sound sleeper, and don't wake up until the morning light wakes me. So having my sleep interrupted like that in the middle of the night was unusual.
I lay there in the darkness wondering why I'd awakened at this hour. It was a typical, quiet night. The nearly full moon was a huge round mirror floating in the sky. The scenery on earth was whitish, as if washed with lime. But nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. I half sat up and listened carefully. And finally realized something
different from usual.
It was too quiet.
The silence was too deep. It was a fall night, yet no insects were chirping. Since the house was built in the mountains, after sunset the insects invariably started their ear-splitting chirping, a chorus that went on until late at night. (It really surprised me to learn this, since until I lived here I always thought they only chirped early in the evening.) The sound was so piercing it made me think that insects had conquered the world. But this night, when I woke up, there was not a single screech or chirp. It was disconcerting.
Once awake, I found it hard to get back to sleep. I reluctantly crawled out of bed, and threw a light cardigan over my pajama top. I went to the kitchen, poured myself some Scotch, added a few ice cubes from the ice maker, and drank it. I went onto the terrace and gazed at the lights of the houses through the woods. Everyone seemed to be asleep, no lights on anywhere in any houses. All I saw was a scattering of tiny security lights. The area around Menshiki's house across the valley, too, was surrounded by darkness. And like before, there were no insects chirping. Had something happened to them?
After a while I heard a sound I wasn't used to. Or perhaps
like I heard it. A very faint sound. If the insects had been chirping as loudly as usual I probably never would have caught it. But the profound silence that reigned allowed it to reach me, though barely. I held my breath and strained my ears. It wasn't the chirp of any insects. Not a naturally occurring sound. It was the sound some implement or tool might make, a kind of jingling sound. The sound a bell, or something close to it, might make.
There would be a pause, then the sound. A deep silence, then that sound ringing out a few times, then deep silence once more. As if someone were patiently sending out an encoded message. But it wasn't repeated at regular intervals. Sometimes the silence in between rings was longer, sometimes shorter. And it didn't ring the same number of times. I couldn't tell if their regularity was intentional or capricious. At any rate, it was such a faint sound that if I hadn't focused and listened hard I wouldn't have caught it. But once aware of it, in the deep silence of the middle of the night, with the moonlight so unnaturally bright, that unidentified sound irretrievably ate its way into my awareness.
I was flustered, wondering what it could be, then decided to just go outside and see. I wanted to trace the source of that mysterious sound. Someone, somewhere, was ringing
something or other
. I'm not bold. But going out into the dark night alone then didn't frighten me. Curiosity won out over my fears. And the weirdly bright moonlight might have encouraged me, too.
With an oversized flashlight in my hand, I unlocked the front door and stepped outside. A single light above the entrance threw out a yellowish tint. A swarm of flying insects was drawn to that light. I stood there, ears perked up, trying to see what direction that sound was coming from. It really did sound like a bell, but not an ordinary one. It had a deeper, dull, uneven ring. Maybe it was some special percussion instrument. But what was it, and why would someone be ringing it in the middle of the night? The only residence in the vicinity was the house I was living in. If indeed someone nearby was ringing that bell, it meant they were trespassing.
I looked around to see if anything could serve as a weapon. All I had in my hand was a long cylindrical flashlight. Better than nothing. I grasped the flashlight tightly and headed toward the sound.
I turned left from the front door, which led me to a small set of stone steps. I climbed up the seven steps and entered the woods. I walked up the gentle upward-sloping path that cut through the trees, and before long came to a clearing where there was a small shrine. Masahiko had said that the shrine had been there for a very long time. He didn't know the origins of it, but in the mid-1950s when his father had purchased the house and land from an acquaintance, the shrine already existedâ¦On top of a flat stone was a sanctuary with a simple triangular roofâor, more accurately, a small wooden box made to look like a sanctuary. It was about two feet high and a foot and a half wide. It had originally been painted, though by now the color had mostly worn off, leaving one to imagine what it had once been. In the front was a small double door, and I had no idea what sort of offering was set up inside. I didn't check, but probably there wasn't anything enshrined inside. In front of the doors was an empty white ceramic pot. Rainwater had accumulated, then evaporated, over and over, leaving a number of dirty stained lines inside. Tomohiko Amada had left the shrine as it was. Not bringing his hands together in prayer as he passed it, not cleaning it, he simply let it be, swept by rain and wind. For him it must have been not a shrine, but just a plain, spare box.
“He had no interest in faith or worship or the like,” his son had explained. “He didn't care a wit about things like divine punishment or retribution or anything. He said those were stupid superstitions, and looked down on them. It wasn't that he was brazen about it, it's just that he's always held to an extremely materialist view of things.”
Masahiko had shown me the shrine the first time he took me to see the house. “You don't find many houses these days that come with their own shrine,” he laughed, and I agreed.
“When I was a kid, though,” Masahiko went on, “it creeped me out to have that kind of weird thing on our property. So when I stayed over I avoided coming near here,” he said. “Even now, to tell the truth, I'd rather not go near it.”
I wasn't a person who often thought in materialistic terms, but just like his father, Tomohiko Amada, having the shrine nearby didn't bother me. People in the past set up shrines in all kinds of places, much like the little Jizo and Dosojin statues you see next to roads in the countryside. This shrine blended naturally into the scenery in the woods, and when I went on walks I often passed in front of it but never gave it much thought. I never prayed to it, or made any offerings. And I didn't feel anything significant about having that sort of thing on the property where I was living. It was just part of the kind of scenery you'd find anywhere.
The bell-like sound seemed to be coming from near that shrine. Once I set foot in the woods, the tree branches above me blocked the moonlight and everything got suddenly darker. I carefully made my way forward, lighting the path with the flashlight. The wind would occasionally pick up, as if remembering to blow, rustling the thin layer of leaves on the ground. The woods at night felt totally different from walking there in the daytime. The place was operating under the principles at work at night, and those principles didn't include me. That said, I didn't feel particularly afraid. Curiosity spurred me on. I felt compelled to locate where that strange sound was coming from. I tightly gripped the heavy cylindrical flashlight, its weight calming me.
The horned owl might be in these woods somewhere, I thought. Hidden in the darkness on a branch, waiting for its prey. It would be nice if it were nearby. In a way that owl was my friend. But I didn't hear anything that sounded like the hooting of an owl. The night birds, like the insects, were keeping quiet.
As I made my way forward, the bell-like sound became ever clearer. It continued to ring out intermittently, irregularly. The sound seemed to be coming from behind the little shrine. It sounded much closer, but was still muffled, like it was filtering out from deep inside a narrow cave. The silence between each ring had grown longer, and the number of rings was decreasing. As if the person ringing the bell had grown weak, become worn out.
The area around the shrine had been cleared and the moonlight shone beautifully on everything. Stepping silently, I walked over behind the shrine. There was a tall thicket of pampas grass and, led by the sound, I pushed my way into the thicket. There I found a small mound of square stones casually piled up, a kind of ancient burial mound. Though perhaps it was too small to be called that. At any rate, I had never noticed it was there before. I'd never gone behind the shrine, and even if I had, the mound was hidden in the midst of the pampas grass. You weren't going to see it unless you had some reason to wade into the thicket.
I approached the mound and shone my flashlight directly upon it. The stones were old, but weren't in their natural form, and had clearly been chiseled into squares. They had been carried up onto the mountain and piled up behind the shrine. The stones were of different sizes, most of them covered in moss. There wasn't any visible writing or designs on them. There were twelve or thirteen stones altogether, by my count. In the past, the mound might have been taller and more orderly, but maybe an earthquake had made part of it crumble. The bell-like sound somehow seemed to be filtering out from the cracks between those stones.
I lightly rested my foot on top of the stones and searched for the source of that sound. But no matter how bright the moonlight, it was next to impossible to locate it in the dark of night. And what if I did happen to locate it? What then? I couldn't lift these heavy stones myself.
At any rate it seemed like someone below the stone mound was ringing the bell. I was sure of it. But
? It was at this point that an enigmatic fear began to well up inside me. Instinct told me not to get any closer to the source of that sound.
I left, and with the bell ringing behind me hurried back along the path through the woods. Moonlight filtering through the branches cast a suggestive mottled pattern on my body. I emerged from the woods, rushed down the seven stone steps, got back to the house, went inside, and locked the door. I walked to the kitchen, poured a glass of whiskey straight, no ice, no water, and gulped it down. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. I took my glass of whiskey out to the terrace.
From the terrace I could hear the bell only faintly. If I hadn't listened carefully I wouldn't have been able to catch it. But the point was, the sound continued. The interval of silence between each ringing of the bell was definitely lengthening. I listened to that irregular repetition for some time.
What in the world lay beneath the stones of that mound? Was there a space there, and somebody locked inside who was ringing that bell, or whatever it was? Maybe it was a signal for help. But no matter how much I thought it over, I couldn't think of a single plausible explanation.
I might have thought about it for a long time. Or maybe it was but a moment. I had no idea. My sense of time had vanished. Glass of whiskey in hand, I sank back into the lounge chair, shuffling back and forth in the maze of consciousness. And then it hit me. The bell had stopped. Everything was enveloped in a profound silence.
I stood up, went into the bedroom, and looked at the digital clock. It was 2:31 a.m. I didn't know the precise time the bell had started ringing, but since it had been 1:45 when I woke up, I surmised the bell had gone on ringing for at least forty-five minutes. Soon after the mysterious sound ceased, the insects began chirping again, as if probing the new silence that had arisen. As if all the insects in the mountains had been patiently waiting for the sound of that bell to stop. Holding their breath, cautiously assessing the situation.
I went back to the kitchen, rinsed out my glass, then slipped back into bed. By this time the autumn insects were a lusty chirping chorus. I should have been too worked up to sleep, but the straight whiskey did the trick and I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. A long, deep sleep, bereft of dreams. When I woke again it was already bright outside the bedroom.
That day, before ten a.m., I walked out again to the little shrine in the woods. I couldn't hear that enigmatic sound, but I wanted to study the shrine and stone mound once more in the daylight. I found a stout oak walking stick in Tomohiko Amada's umbrella stand and took that with me. It was a sunny, pleasant morning, the clear autumn sunlight throwing the shadows of leaves across the ground. Birds with sharp bills flitted busily from one branch to another, squawking as they searched for fruit. Up above, a straight line of pitch-black crows was winging its way off somewhere.
The little shrine looked worn and shoddy in the daylight. Bathed in the bright, whitish light of the nearly full moon the shrine had looked deeply meaningful, even a bit ominous, yet now in the light of day it seemed like nothing more than a faded, seedy-looking wooden box.
I went behind the shrine, shouldered my way through the tall thicket of pampas grass, and emerged in front of the stone mound. It seemed completely transformed from the night before. What I saw before me now were merely square moss-covered stones long abandoned in the mountains. In the moonlight it had appeared like part of ancient historical ruins, covered with a mythic slime. I stood on top of the mound and perked up my ears, but couldn't hear a thing. Other than the screech of insects and the occasional bird chirp, it was silent all around.