Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen
From far away came the bang of what I took to be a shotgun. Someone might be hunting birds in the mountains. Or else it was one of those automatic devices set up by farmers to shoot blanks to scare away sparrows, monkeys, and wild boar. Either way, the sound echoed with the feeling of autumn. The sky was high, the air slightly humid, and sounds carried well. I sat down on top of the stone mound and thought about the space that might exist beneath. Was someone really under there, ringing a bell, calling out for help? Were they like me, back when I worked for the moving company and got locked inside the truck and pounded on the side panels as hard as I could, hoping someone would rescue me? The image of someone locked up in a cramped dark space put me on edge.
After a light lunch I changed into work clothes (and by that I mean things I didn't mind getting dirty), went into the studio, and once more tried my hand at Wataru Menshiki's portrait. I had to dispel the image of someone shut away in an enclosed space, hoping for help, and the chronic sense of suffocation that induced in me. I had to keep my hands busy, and painting was the only solution. This time I put aside my sketchbook and pencil. They wouldn't help, I figured. I readied my paints and paintbrushes, stood facing the canvas, and, gazing deep into that blank space, I focused on Menshiki. I stood erect, focused my concentration, and pruned away any extraneous thoughts.
A white-haired man with young-looking eyes who lived in a white mansion on a mountain. He spent most of his time at home, had what appeared to be a hidden room, and owned four British cars. How had he moved when he was here? What kind of expressions did he have on his face, what was his tone of voice, what did he look at and with what sort of look in his eyes, how did he move his hands? I recalled each and every detail. It took a while, but all the fragments started to fall into place. In my mind now, a three-dimensional, organically constructed sense of the man began to come together.
With small brushstrokes I transferred the image of Menshiki that arose from this directly onto the canvas, without the usual rough sketch. The Menshiki in my mind was facing forward, face slightly tilted to the left, his eyes looking a bit in my direction. For some reason I couldn't picture any other angle his face should be. To me,
was Wataru Menshiki. He had to have his face slightly tilted to the left. And had to have both eyes looking a bit in my direction. I'm in his field of vision. No other composition would accurately capture him.
I stepped away from the canvas and studied the simple composition I'd done, pretty much with a single brushstroke. It was just a temporary line drawing, but I could sense from that outline a budding, living organism. With that as the starting point, it would naturally expand from there. Something was reaching out a handâbut what was it?âand had flipped a switch inside me. A sort of vague sensation, as if an animal hibernating deep within me had finally recognized that the season had arrived, and was slowly brushing aside the cobwebs of sleep.
I washed the paint off the brush in the sink and lathered my hands with oil and soap. I was in no hurry. This was plenty for today. It was best to not rush the work. When Mr. Menshiki next came to see me, as a live model, I could then flesh out this outline. I had a premonition that this painting was going to be very different from any portrait I'd ever done before. And this painting required the flesh-and-blood Menshiki.
Which was very odd, I thought.
How had Menshiki known that?
In the middle of the night I suddenly shot awake again. The clock next to my bed read 1:46, almost exactly the same time as the night before. I sat up in bed, listening carefully in the dark. No insects chirping; it was silent all around. As if I were at the bottom of a deep sea. A repeat of the previous night. But now it was dark outside my window. That was the only difference from the night before. Thick clouds covered the sky, completely hiding the nearly full autumn moon.
Everything was in total silence. No, that wasn't entirely true. Of course it wasn't. That silence wasn't total. When I held my breath and listened carefully I could catch the faint sound of the bell wending its way past the deep silence. In the dark of night someone was ringing that bell-like object. As on the night before, it was a fragmented, intermittent sound. And now I knew exactly where the sound was coming from. From the woods, underneath that stone mound. There was no need to check it. What I didn't know, though, was
who was ringing that bell, and to what end?
I got out of bed and padded out to the terrace.
There was no wind, but a fine rain had started to fall. An invisible silent rain wetting the ground. Lights were on over in Mr. Menshiki's mansion. From over here, across the valley, I couldn't see what was going on inside his house, but he seemed to still be awake. It was unusual to see the lights on this late at night. As the fine drizzle wet me, I gazed at those lights, listening to the faint tinkling of the bell.
The rain started to pick up and I went back inside, but couldn't go back to sleep, so I sat on the sofa in the living room and turned the pages of a book I'd been reading. Not a particularly difficult book, but no matter how I focused nothing registered. I was merely tracing the words from one line to the next. Still, it was better than simply sitting there listening to the bell. I guess I could have put on some music to drown out the sound, but I didn't feel like it. I had to hear it.
Because that was a sound directed at me.
I understood that. And as long as I didn't do something about it, it would no doubt go on ringing forever. Suffocating me every night, robbing me of a good night's sleep.
I have to do something.
Take some action to stop that sound. To do that, I first had to understand the meaning and purpose of that soundâof that signal that was being sent out. Why was somebody sending out from this mysterious place a signal to me every single night, and who was it? But I felt too choked, my mind too confused, for logical thought. There was no way I could handle this alone. I had to talk to somebody about it. And at this point I could only think of one person.
I went back out on the terrace and looked over at Mr. Menshiki's mansion. Now the lights were all out, with just a glimmer of outdoor lanterns in the garden.
The bell stopped ringing at 2:29 a.m., almost the same time as the night before. Soon after the bell stopped the insects' chirping returned. And as if nothing had happened, the autumn night was once more filled with the clamor of nature's chorus. Everything was a repeat of the previous night.
I went back to bed and went to sleep listening to the insects. I felt confused and anxious, but like on the night before, I soon fell asleep. Plunged into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Rain started falling early in the morning, and stopped before ten. Slowly, the sun began to peek out. Moist wind from the sea slowly pushed the clouds off to the north. And at one p.m., on the dot, Menshiki showed up at my place. The time signal on the radio and the front doorbell sounded at almost precisely the same moment. Many people are punctual, but seldom do you find anyone that precise. And it wasn't that he stood in front of the door, patiently waiting for the appointed time, timing his ringing of the front doorbell with the second hand on his watch. He drove up the slope, parked in his usual spot, and headed toward the front door at his usual pace and stride, and at almost the same instant he pushed the button for the front doorbell the time signal on the radio chimed. Pretty impressive.
I showed him into the studio, and had him sit on the same dining room chair as before. I put Richard Strauss's
on the turntable and lowered the needle. I started at the point we'd ended up with last time. Everything was a repeat of the previous sitting. The only difference was that this time I didn't offer him a drink, and instead had him pose for me. I had him seated on the chair, facing forward, looking to the left, his eyes slightly facing toward me. That's what I wanted from him this time.
He followed my instructions exactly, but it still took a while until he got the position and pose right. The angle and look in his eyes wasn't exactly the way I wanted them. The way the light struck, too, wasn't like my mental image. I don't usually use a model, but once I do, I tend to have a lot of demands. Menshiki very patiently followed my nagging directions. He never looked put out, never complained. I pegged him as a person experienced in putting up with all sorts of trials and difficulties.
When he finally got the pose right I said, “I'm very sorry, but try to hold that pose without moving.”
Menshiki said nothing, only his eyes indicating that he understood.
“I'll try to finish as quickly as I can. It might be hard, but please be patient.”
Once again he nodded with his eyes. He kept his gaze still, his body unmoving, literally not moving a muscle. He did have to blink a few times, but I couldn't even tell if he was breathing. He was so still he looked like a lifelike statue. I couldn't help but be impressed. Even professional art models find it hard to get to that point.
As Menshiki endured posing, I worked on the canvas as quickly and efficiently as I could. I concentrated, eyeing his figure, and moved my brush as my intuition dictated. I was using black paint on the white canvas, and with a single fine brushstroke fleshed out the outline of his face I'd already drawn. No time even to re-grip the brush. In a limited amount of time I had to capture the various elements that made up his face and get them down on canvas. At a certain point the process switched over to something close to autopilot. It's important to bypass your conscious mind and get your eye and hand movements in sync. There's no time to consciously process every single thing your gaze takes in.
This demanded a very different type of process from me compared with the numerous portraits I'd done up till thenâthe countless “business items” I'd leisurely painted based solely on memory and photographs. In about fifteen minutes I'd gotten him from the chest up on canvas. It was just a rough, incomplete outline, but at least I was able to capture an image that seemed to breathe a sense of vitality, one that managed to scoop out and capture the sort of internal movement that gave birth to who this person was. If this were an anatomical drawing, though, it would be just the bones and muscles, the internal part alone boldly laid bare. It needed actual flesh and skin laid on over it.
“Thank you, you've been very patient,” I said. “That's enough for today. You can take it easy now.”
Menshiki smiled and relaxed his pose. He stretched his hands above him and took a deep breath. He slowly massaged his face with his fingers to loosen up the tense muscles. I stood there taking a few deep breaths. It took a while for my breathing to return to normal. I was exhausted, like a sprinter who'd just finished a race. I'd had to work speedily, with intense concentration, and with no room for compromise, something I hadn't experienced for quite some time. I'd had to flex long-dormant muscles, and though I felt tired, it also felt good.
“Like you said, sitting for a painting is a lot harder work than I'd imagined,” Menshiki said. “When I think about you painting me, it feels like my insides are slowly being scraped away.”
“The official view in the art world is that it's not being scraped away but rather transplanted to a different place,” I said.
“Transplanted to a more permanent, lasting place?”
“Yes, if the painting is a true work of art.”
“Like, for instance, the nameless mailman who lives on in Van Gogh's portrait of him?”
“He probably had no idea that, well over a century later, countless people around the world would visit art museums, or look through art books, and gaze intently at his portrait.”
“I'm sure he never had a clue.”
“It was some odd painting done in a corner of a shabby country kitchen, painted by a man who, whichever way you look at it, was a little off.”
“It's kind of weird,” Menshiki said. “Something that, on the face of it, shouldn't be so lasting ends up having permanent value.”
“Not something that happens every day.”
I suddenly thought of
. Through Tomohiko Amada's hand, was the Commendatore given permanent life, even though he was stabbed to death in the painting? And who was this Commendatore anyway?
I offered Menshiki some coffee. That would be nice, he replied, and I went to the kitchen and made a fresh pot. Menshiki remained on the chair in the studio, listening to the opera record. The coffee was ready as the B side of the record came to an end, and we went into the living room to drink it.
“So, does it look like you can do a good portrait of me?” Menshiki asked as he delicately sipped his coffee.
“I'm not sure yet,” I answered honestly. “I don't know if it will turn out well. The way I've painted portraits up till now has been so different from this.”
“Because you're using an actual model this time?” Menshiki asked.
“That's one reason, but only a part of it. I don't know why, but it's like I'm not able anymore to paint the sort of conventional portraits I've done up till now. I need a different method and procedure, but those are still out of reach. I'm still fumbling in the dark.”
“Which means you really are changing. And I'm the catalyst for that changeâwouldn't you say?”
“You may be right.”
Menshiki thought for a while before speaking. “As I told you before, it's entirely up to you what style of painting you do. I'm a person who's always seeking change, always in flux. And it's not like I'm hoping you'll paint some conventional portrait. Any style, any concept is fine. What I want is for you to depict me exactly as you see me. The methods and procedure are up to you. I'm not hoping I live on like that mailman from Arles. I'm not that ambitious. I just have a healthy curiosity to see what sort of painting will emerge from this.”
“I appreciate your saying that. I just have one request,” I said. “If I can't come up with a satisfactory painting, then I'd like to forget the whole thing.”
“You won't give me the painting then?”
I nodded. “I'll return the advance, of course.”
“All right,” Menshiki said. “I'll let you be the final judge. Though I must say I have a strong hunch it's not going to turn out that way.”
“I hope your hunch turns out to be correct.”
Menshiki looked me in the eyes. “But even if the painting's never completed, I'd be very happy if, in some way, I'm able to help you change. Truly.”
“By the way, Mr. Menshiki,” I said, broaching the topic a little while later, “there's something I wanted to get your advice on. Something personal, nothing to do with the painting.”
“Of course. I'll be happy to help if I can.”
I sighed. “It's kind of a weird story. I might not be able to tell the whole story in the right order, so it makes sense.”
“Take your time, tell it in whatever order is easiest for you. And then we'll consider it together. The two of us might come up with a good idea that you couldn't come up with on your own.”
So I told him the story, start to finish. How I suddenly woke up just before two a.m. and heard a weird sound in the darkness. A faint, far-off sound that I could only catch because the insects had stopped chirping. A sound like someone ringing a bell. When I tried to trace the source, it seemed to be coming from between the cracks in a stone mound in the woods behind my house. That mysterious sound continued for some forty-five minutes, intermittently, with irregular intervals of silence between. Finally it stopped completely. The same thing happened two nights in a rowâtwo nights ago and last night. Someone might be ringing that bell-like thing from underneath the stones. Maybe sending out a distress call. But could that be possible? I was starting to doubt my own sanity a little. Was I just imagining things?
Menshiki listened to my story without comment, and remained silent even after I finished. He'd listened intently to what I'd said, and I could tell he was thinking deeply about it.
“A fascinating story,” he said a little while later. He lightly cleared his throat. “As you said, it's certainly out of the ordinary. I wonderâ¦if possible, I'd like to hear the sound of that bell myself, so could I come over tonight? If you don't mind?”
This took me by surprise. “Come all the way over here in the dead of night?”
“Of course. If I hear the bell too, that would prove you're not hallucinating. That's the first step. If it is an actual bell, then let's try to locate the source, the two of us. Then we can think about what to do next.”
“If you don't mind, I'll come over here tonight at twelve thirty. Does that work for you?”
“That's fine, but I don't want to put you outâ”
A pleasant smile graced his lips. “Not to worry. If I can help you, nothing would make me happier. Plus, I'm a very curious person. What that bell in the middle of the night might mean, and if someone is ringing it, who that isâI'm dying to know. You feel the same way, don't you?”
“Of courseâ” I said.
“Then let's go with that. I'll see you tonight. And there's something else I thought of.”
“I'll tell you about it later. I have to make sure of something first.”
Menshiki got up from the sofa and held out his right hand. I shook it. As always, a firm handshake. He looked happier than usual.
After he left I spent the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen cooking. Once a week I prepare all my meals. I put them in the fridge or freezer, then get by on these for the week. This was my meal-prep day. For dinner that evening I added macaroni to some boiled sausage and cabbage. Plus a tomato, avocado, and onion salad. In the evening I lay on the sofa as always, reading while listening to music. After a while I stopped reading and thought about Menshiki.
Why had he looked so happy when we said goodbye? Was he
so pleased to be able to help me out? Why? I didn't get it. I was just a poor, unknown artist. My wife of six years had left me, I didn't get along with my parents, had no set place to live, no assets, and was simply hanging out in a friend's father's house. Menshiki, in contrast (not that there was any need to make a comparison), had been successful at business at a young age, and made enough to live comfortably for the rest of his days. At least that's what he had told me. He was good-looking, owned four British cars, and lived in luxury in a huge mountaintop mansion without, apparently, doing any real work. So why would a person like that be interested in someone like me? And why would he make time in the dead of the night to help me out?
I shook my head and went back to reading. Thinking about it wasn't going to get me anywhere. It was like trying to put together a puzzle that was missing some pieces. I could think all I wanted and never arrive at any conclusion. But I couldn't help but think about it. I sighed, and put the book on the tabletop again, closed my eyes, and listened to the music. Schubert's String Quartet no. 15, played by the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet.
Since coming here, I'd listened to classical music every day, most of it German (or Austrian), since the majority of Tomohiko Amada's record collection consisted of German classical music. His collection included the obligatory nods to Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Vivaldi, Debussy, and Ravel, but that's all. Since he was an opera fan there were, as you might expect, some recordings by Verdi and Puccini. But compared to the substantial lineup of German opera he didn't seem as enthusiastic about these.
I imagined Amada had intense memories of his time studying in Vienna, which may have accounted for the deep absorption in German music. Or it could have been the opposite. Maybe his love of German music had come first, and that's why he had chosen to study in Vienna instead of France. I had no way of knowing which had come first.
Either way, I was in no position to complain that German music was the preferred type in this house. I was a mere caretaker, and they were kind enough to let me listen to the records there. And I enjoyed listening to the music of Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, and Beethoven. Not forgetting Mozart, of course. Their music was deep, amazing, and gorgeous. Up to then in my life I'd never had the opportunity to really settle down and listen to that type of music. I'd always been too busy trying to make a living, and didn't have the wherewithal financially. So I decided that, as long as I'd been provided this wonderful opportunity, I'd listen to as much music here as I could.