Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (34 page)

“Exactly. Once I have a secret I lock it away in a safe and swallow the key. I don't seek advice from others or reveal things to them.”

“Then how come—I'm not sure how to put this—you've confided in me?”

Menshiki was silent for a time. “It's hard to explain, but I got the feeling the first day I met you that it's all right to let my guard down. Call it intuition. And that feeling only grew stronger after I saw my portrait. I decided,
This is a trustworthy person
. Someone who would accept my way of seeing things, my way of thinking. Even if I have a slightly odd and twisted way of seeing and thinking.”

A slightly odd and twisted way of seeing and thinking, I thought.

“I'm really happy you'd say that,” I said. “But I don't think I understand you as a person. You go way beyond the scope of my comprehension. Frankly, many things about you simply surprise me. Sometimes I'm at a loss for words.”

“But you never try to judge me. Am I right?”

That was true, now that he'd said it. I'd never tried to apply some standard to judge Menshiki's words and actions. I didn't praise them, and didn't criticize them. They simply left me, as I'd said, at a loss for words.

“You might be right,” I admitted.

“And you remember when I went down to the bottom of that hole? When I was down there by myself for an hour?”

“Of course.”

“It never even occurred to you to leave me there forever, in that dark, dank hole. Right?”

“True. But that sort of idea wouldn't occur to a normal person.”

“Are you sure about that?”

What could I say? I couldn't imagine what lay deep in other people's minds.

“I have another request,” Menshiki said.

“And what is that?”

“It's about next Sunday, when Mariye and her aunt come to your place,” Menshiki said. “I'd like to watch your house then with my binoculars, if you don't mind?”

“I don't mind,” I said. I mean, the Commendatore had watched my girlfriend and me, right beside us, when we'd had sex. Having someone watch my terrace from afar wasn't about to faze me now.

“I thought it'd be best to tell you in advance,” Menshiki said, as if excusing himself.

I was impressed all over again how strangely honest he was. We finished talking and hung up the phone. I'd been holding the phone tightly against me, and the spot above my ear ached.

—

The next morning I received a certified letter. I signed the receipt the mailman held out for me, and got a large envelope. Getting it didn't exactly make me feel cheerful. My experience is that certified mail is never good news.

And as expected, the mail was from a law office in Tokyo, and inside were two sets of divorce papers. There was also a stamped, self-addressed envelope. The only thing accompanying the forms was a letter with businesslike instructions from the lawyer. It said that all I needed to do was read over the forms, check them, and, if I didn't have any objections, sign and seal one set and send it back. If there are any points that you're uncertain about, the letter said, feel free to contact the attorney in charge. I glanced through the forms, filled in the date, signed them, and affixed my seal. I didn't particularly have any
points that were uncertain
. Neither of us had any financial obligations toward the other, no estate worth dividing up, no children to fight a custody battle over. A very simple, easy-to-understand divorce. Divorce 101, you could say. Two lives had overlapped into one, and six years later had split apart again, that was it. I slipped the documents inside the return envelope and put the envelope on top of the dining room table. Tomorrow when I went to town to teach my art class all I'd need to do was toss it inside the mailbox in front of the station.

That whole afternoon I sort of half-gazed at the envelope on the table, and gradually came to feel like the entire weight of six years of married life was crammed inside that envelope. All that time—time tinged with all kinds of memories and emotions—was stuffed inside an ordinary business envelope, gradually suffocating to death. I felt a weight pressing down on my chest, and my breathing grew ragged. I picked up the envelope, took it to the studio, and placed it on the shelf, next to the dingy ancient bell. I shut the studio door, returned to the kitchen, poured a glass of the whiskey Masahiko had given me, and drank it. My rule was not to drink while it was still light out, but I figured it was okay sometimes. The kitchen was totally still and silent. No wind outside, no sound of cars. Not even any birds chirping.

I had no particular problem about getting divorced. For all intents and purposes we already were divorced. And I had no emotional hang-up about signing and sealing the official documents. If that's what she wanted, fine. It was a legal formality, nothing more.

But when it came to why, and how, things had turned out this way, the sequence of events was beyond me. I understood, of course, that over time, and as circumstances changed, a couple could grow closer, or move apart. Changes in a person's feelings aren't regulated by custom, logic, or the law. They're fluid, unstable, free to spread their wings and fly away. Like migratory birds have no concept of borders between countries.

But these were all just generalizations, and I couldn't easily grasp the individual case here—that
this woman,
Yuzu, refused to love
this man,
me, and chose instead to be loved by someone else. It felt terribly absurd, a horribly ugly way to be treated. There wasn't any anger involved (I think). I mean, what was I supposed to be angry with? What I was feeling was a fundamental numbness. The numbness your heart automatically activates to lessen the awful pain when you want somebody desperately and they reject you. A kind of emotional morphine.

I couldn't easily forget Yuzu. I still wanted her. But say she were living in a place across the valley from my house, and say I owned a pair of high-powered binoculars—would I really try to peer into her daily life through those lenses? I sincerely doubted it. What I mean is, in the first place I wouldn't pick that sort of place to live in. It would be like building a torture rack just for me.

The whiskey did its job and I went to bed before eight and fell asleep. At one thirty a.m. I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. It was a long, lonely haul until dawn. I didn't read, didn't listen to music, just sat on the sofa in the living room blankly staring out into the empty, dark space. All sorts of thoughts swirled through my head. Most of which I shouldn't have thought about.

I wish the Commendatore were with me, I thought. I wish we could talk about something together.
Anything.
The topic didn't matter. Just hearing his voice would be enough.

But the Commendatore was nowhere to be seen. And I had no way to summon him.

30
IT REALLY DEPENDS ON THE PERSON

The next afternoon I mailed the divorce papers I'd signed and sealed. I didn't include any letter. I simply tossed the stamped return envelope with the documents into the mailbox in front of the station. Just having that envelope out of the house felt like a burden had been lifted. I had no idea what legal route these documents would take next. Not that it mattered. They could follow whatever path they liked.

And Sunday morning, just before ten, Mariye Akikawa came to my house. A bright-blue Toyota Prius climbed the slope with barely a sound and came to a stop near my front door. In the bright Sunday sunlight, the car sparkled, grandly, vibrantly. Like it was brand-new, just unwrapped. A lot of different cars had found their way to my place recently—Menshiki's silver Jaguar, my girlfriend's red Mini, the chauffeur-driven black Infiniti that Menshiki had sent for me, Masahiko's old black Volvo, and now the blue Toyota Prius that belonged to Mariye Akikawa's aunt. And of course my own Toyota Corolla station wagon (covered with dust for so long I couldn't recall what the original color had been). I imagine people have all sorts of reasons for choosing the car they drive, and of course I had no clue why Mariye's aunt had chosen a blue Toyota Prius. It looked less like a car than a giant vacuum cleaner.

The quiet Prius engine shut off, and the surroundings grew
that much
quieter. The doors opened, and Mariye Akikawa and the woman I took to be her aunt got out. The aunt looked young, though early forties would have been my guess. She had on dark sunglasses and a gray cardigan over a simple light-blue dress. She carried a shiny black handbag and had on low, dark-gray shoes. Good shoes for driving. She shut her door, removed the sunglasses, and put them in her handbag. Her hair fell to her shoulders and was neatly curled (though not with the excessive perfection of someone just emerged from a hair salon). No accessories, other than a gold brooch on her collar.

Mariye had on a black cotton sweater and a brown, knee-length wool skirt. I'd only seen her in her school uniform up till then, and she seemed different. Side by side they looked like a mother and child from a refined, elegant household. Though I knew from Menshiki that they weren't actually mother and child.

As always I observed them through a gap in the curtain. And when the bell rang I went to the entrance and opened the front door.

Mariye's aunt had a very tranquil, calm way of speaking. She had lovely features. Not the kind of beautiful woman that would turn heads, but neat, regular features. A natural, subdued smile graced her lips, like the pale moon at dawn. She was carrying a box of cookies as a present. I was the one who had asked to have Mariye model for me, so there was no reason for her to bring me anything, but she was probably the type of person who'd had it drummed into her since she was little that when you visit someone's house you always should bring along a present. So I simply thanked her and accepted it, and showed the two of them into the living room.

“Our house isn't so far from here, a stone's throw, really, but when you drive it's a roundabout road to get here,” the aunt said. (Her name was Shoko Akikawa, she told me, the
sho
written with the character that meant a traditional Japanese pan flute.) “I knew of course that this was Tomohiko Amada's house, but this is the first time I've ever been up here even though we live next door.”

“I've been living here, taking care of the place, since this spring,” I explained.

“Yes, I heard. I'm glad it turned out we're neighbors. I look forward to getting to know you better.”

Shoko bowed deeply and thanked me for teaching Mariye. “My niece really enjoys going to the school, thanks to you,” she said.

“I wouldn't say I'm exactly teaching her,” I said. “Basically I just enjoy drawing together with all the pupils.”

“But I understand you're a very skilled instructor. I've heard many people say that.”

That I found hard to believe, but I made no comment, letting these words of praise pass unremarked. Shoko was raised well, a woman who put a premium on social niceties.

Seated side by side like this, the first thing anyone would notice about Mariye Akikawa and her aunt is that their features didn't resemble each other in the slightest. From a little ways off they seemed a well-matched mother and child, but up close it was hard to find anything in common in their appearance. Mariye had lovely features, too, and Shoko Akikawa was without doubt quite attractive, but their features were poles apart. If Shoko Akikawa's features were aiming at gaining a wonderful balance, Mariye Akikawa's aimed at destroying equilibrium, demolishing a set framework. If Shoko Akikawa aimed at a gentle, overarching harmony and stability, Mariye Akikawa sought an asymmetrical friction. Still, one could sense from the mood between them that despite all this they had a warm, healthy relationship. In a sense they were more relaxed around each other than a real mother and daughter. They seemed to maintain a comfortable distance. At least that's the impression I got.

Of course I knew nothing about why a woman like Shoko, beautiful and refined, was still single, and put up with living far off in the hills like this in her older brother's home. Perhaps she'd had a lover, a mountain climber who'd perished in an attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Everest by the most arduous route, and had pledged to remain single forever, cherishing beautiful memories of her lover in her heart. Or perhaps she was having a long-term affair with a charming married man. In any event, it wasn't my business.

Shoko walked over to the windows on the west side and gazed with great interest at the view of the valley from there.

“It's the same mountain we see from our place, but this is a slightly different angle and it doesn't look the same at all,” she said, sounding impressed.

Menshiki's huge white mansion glittered on top of that mountain (and he was probably over there watching my house now through his binoculars). How did that mansion appear from her house? I wanted to ask, but it seemed risky to broach that topic right off the bat. It was hard to tell what that might lead to.

Wanting to steer clear of that, I quickly led them into the studio.

“This is where I'll have Mariye model for me,” I said to them.

“This must be where Tomohiko Amada did his painting,” Shoko said, gazing with great interest around the studio.

“I believe so,” I said.

“There's a different feeling here, even from the rest of your house. Don't you think?”

“I'm not sure. Living here day to day, I don't really get that sense.”

“What do you think, Mari-chan?” Shoko asked Mariye. “Don't you find there's an unusual sort of feeling to the room?”

Mariye was busy looking around the studio and didn't reply. She probably hadn't heard her aunt's question. I wanted to hear her reply as well.

“While the two of you are working here, I'll wait in the living room, if that's all right?” Shoko asked.

“It's all up to Mariye. The most important thing is creating an environment where she can feel relaxed. Whether you stay here or not, either way is fine with me.”

“I don't want Auntie to be here,” Mariye said, the first time she'd opened her mouth that day. She spoke quietly, but it was a terse announcement with no room for negotiation.

“That's fine. I'll do as you'd prefer. I figured that's how it would be, so I brought a book to read,” Shoko replied calmly, not bothered by her niece's stern tone. She was probably used to that sort of exchange.

Mariye completely ignored what her aunt said, and crouched down a bit, gazing steadily at Tomohiko Amada's
Killing Commendatore
hanging on the wall. The look in her eyes as she studied this rectangular Japanese painting was intense. She examined each and every detail of the painting, as if etching every element of it in her memory. Come to think of it (I thought), this might be the first time anyone else had ever laid eyes on this painting. It had totally slipped my mind to move the painting somewhere out of sight. Too late now, I thought.

“Do you like that painting?” I asked the girl.

Mariye didn't reply. She was concentrating so much on the painting that she didn't hear my voice. Or did she hear it but was just ignoring me?

“I'm sorry. She really goes her own way sometimes,” Shoko said, interceding. “She focuses so hard sometimes she blocks out everything else. She's always been that way. With books and music, paintings and movies.”

I don't know why, but neither Shoko nor Mariye asked whether the painting was by Tomohiko Amada, so I didn't venture to explain. And of course I didn't tell them the title,
Killing Commendatore
, either. I wasn't too worried that they'd both seen the painting. Neither one probably would notice that this was a special work not included in Amada's oeuvre. Things would be different if Menshiki or Masahiko spotted it.

I let Mariye examine
Killing Commendatore
to her heart's content. I went to the kitchen, boiled water, and made tea. I put cups and the teapot on a tray and carried it to the living room. I added the cookies Shoko had brought as a gift. Shoko and I sat on chairs in the living room and sipped tea while chatting about life in the mountains, the weather in the valley, etc. This kind of relaxed conversation was necessary before I began to work in earnest.

Mariye kept studying
Killing Commendatore
by herself for a while, then finally, like a very curious cat, slowly made her way around the studio, picking things up and checking them out along the way. Brushes, tubes of paint, a canvas, and even the old bell that had been exhumed from underground. She held the bell and shook it a few times. It made its usual light jingling sound.

“How come there's an old bell here?” Mariye, facing a blank space, didn't seem to be addressing her question to anyone in particular. She was asking me, of course.

“The bell came nearby, from out of the ground,” I said. “I just happened across it. I think it's connected with Buddhism somehow. Like a priest would ring it as he recited sutras.”

She rang it again next to her ear. “Kind of a strange sound,” she commented.

Once more I was impressed that such a faint sound could have reached out from underground in the woods and found me in the house. Maybe there was some special way of shaking it.

“You shouldn't touch someone else's things without permission,” Shoko Akikawa cautioned her niece.

“I don't mind,” I said. “It's not valuable.”

Mariye seemed to quickly lose interest in the bell. She returned it to the shelf, plunked down on the stool in the middle of the room, and gazed at the scenery out the window.

“If you don't mind, I was thinking of starting,” I said.

“All right, then I'll stay here and read,” Shoko said, an elegant smile rising to her lips. From her black bag she took out a thick paperback with a bookstore's paper cover. I left her there, went into the studio, and shut the door between it and the living room. Mariye and I were alone in the room.

I had Mariye sit in a dining room chair, one with a backrest. And I sat on my usual stool. We were about six feet apart.

“Could you sit there for a while for me? You can sit however you'd like. As long as you don't change your position too much, it's okay to move around. No need to sit completely still.”

“Is it okay for me to talk while you're painting?” Mariye asked probingly.

“No problem at all,” I said. “Let's talk.”

“That drawing of me you did the other day was great.”

“The one in chalk on the blackboard?”

“Too bad it got erased.”

I laughed. “Can't keep it on the blackboard forever. But if you like that kind of thing I can do as many as you want. It's simple.”

She didn't reply.

I picked up a thick pencil and used it as a kind of ruler to measure the various elements of her facial features. Different from a croquis, when drawing a dessan you need to take time and make sure you have an accurate grasp of the model's features. No matter what kind of painting it ends up being.

“I think you have a real talent for drawing,” Mariye said after a period of silence, as if remembering.

“Thank you,” I said. “Hearing that gives me courage.”

“You need courage?”

“Sure I do. Everybody needs to have courage.”

I picked up a large sketchbook and opened it.

“I'm going to sketch dessan of you today. I enjoy painting with oils directly on a blank canvas, but today I'll stick to drawing detailed dessan. That way I can gradually understand the kind of person you are.”

“Understand me?”

“Drawing someone means understanding and interpreting another person. Not with words, but with lines, shapes, and colors.”

“I wish I could understand myself,” Mariye said.

“I feel the same way,” I agreed. “I wish I could understand myself, too. But it's not easy. That's why I paint.”

Using a pencil, I quickly sketched her face and figure from the waist up. How to transfer her depth to a flat medium was critical. And how to transplant her subtle movements to something static—that too was vital. A dessan sketch determines the outline of those.

“My breasts are really small, don't you think?” Mariye asked, out of nowhere.

“I wonder,” I said.

“They're like bread that didn't rise.”

I laughed. “You've just started junior high. I'm sure they'll get bigger. It's nothing to worry about.”

“I don't even really need a bra. The other girls in my class all wear bras.”

Certainly it was hard to see any development through her sweater. “If it really bothers you, you could always pad your bra,” I said.

“You want me to?”

“Either way's fine with me. It's not like I'm painting you to capture your breasts. You should do whatever you like.”

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