Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen
“This is where you stopped?” Mariye asked.
“That's right. I couldn't find a way to push it past this stage.”
“It looks pretty finished to me,” she murmured.
I stood next to her and looked at the painting again from her angle. Could she really see the man lurking there in the darkness?
“You mean I don't need to add anything more?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think you should just leave it like this.”
I swallowed. She was echoing what the man with the white Subaru Forester had said almost word for word.
Leave the painting alone. Don't touch it again.
“Why do you think that?” I pressed.
Mariye didn't answer right away. Instead, she studied the painting some more. She unfolded her arms and pressed her hands to her cheeks. As if they were hot, and she was trying to cool them.
“This painting is more than powerful enough as it is,” she said at last.
“More than powerful enough?”
“I think so.”
“You mean a
not so good kind
Mariye didn't answer. Her hands were still pressed to her cheeks.
“Do you know the man in the painting well?”
I shook my head. “No, to tell the truth he's a complete stranger. I ran across him a while back. In a faraway town when I was on a long trip. We never talked, so I don't know his name.”
“I can't tell if the power is good or not. Maybe it could be either good or bad, depending on the situation. You know, like the way we see things changes depending on where we're standing.”
“And you don't think I should let that power come to the surface, right?”
She looked me in the eye. “Suppose you did and it turned out to be a
not so good
, what would you do? What if it tried to grab you?”
She was right. If it turned out to be a
not so good thing
, or indeed an
, and it reached for me, what would I do then?
I took the canvas from the easel and set it back down on the floor, facing the wall. The moment its surface was hidden, the tension in the studio released its grip. It was a tangible sensation.
Perhaps I should pack it up and shut it away in the attic, I thought. Just as Tomohiko Amada had stashed
there, to make sure no one could see it.
“All right, so then what do you think of that painting?” I asked, pointing to
hanging on the wall.
“I like it,” Mariye said immediately. “Who did it?”
“It was painted by Tomohiko Amada, the man who owns this house.”
“It's calling out to me. Like a caged bird crying to be set free. That's the feeling I get.”
I looked at her. “Bird? What kind of bird?”
“I don't know what kind of bird. Or what kind of cage. Or what they look like. It's just my feeling. I think maybe this painting's a little too difficult for me.”
“You're not the only one. It's too difficult for me, too. But I'm sure you're right. There is a cry in this painting, a plea that the artist desperately wanted people to hear. I react the same way you do. But for the life of me, I can't figure out what that plea is.”
“Someone is murdering someone else. Out of passion.”
“Exactly. The young man has plunged a knife into the older man's chest, exactly as he planned. The man being murdered can't believe what's happening. The others are in total shock at what's taking place before their eyes.”
“Can there be a proper murder?”
I thought for a moment. “I'm not sure. It depends how you define âproper' and âimproper.' Many people regard the death penalty as a proper form of murder.” Or assassination, I thought.
Mariye took a moment to respond. “It's funny, a man's being killed, and his blood is flying all over the place, but it's not depressing. It's like the painting is trying to take me someplace else. Someplace where things like âproper' and âimproper' don't matter.”
I didn't pick up a brush that day. Instead, Mariye and I sat there in the bright studio talking about whatever crossed our minds. I kept a close eye on her, though, filing each expression and mannerism away in my mind. That stock of memories would become the flesh and blood of the portrait I wanted to paint.
“You didn't draw anything today,” Mariye commented.
“There are days like this,” I said. “Time steals some things, but it gives us back others. Making time our ally is an important part of our work.”
Mariye said nothing, just studied my eyes. As if she was peering into a house, her face pressed against the window. She was contemplating the meaning of time.
When the chimes rang as always at noon, Mariye and I moved from the studio to the living room. Shoko Akikawa was sitting on the sofa, wearing her black-rimmed glasses, reading her paperback. She was so deep in the book it was hard to tell if she was breathing.
“What are you reading?” I asked, unable to bear the suspense any longer.
“If I told you what it was,” she said with a smile, marking her spot and closing the book, “it would jinx it. For some reason, every time I tell someone what I'm reading, I'm unable to finish. Something unexpected happens, and I have to break off partway through. It's strange, but it's true. So I've made it my policy not to reveal the title to anyone. I'd love to tell you about the book once I'm done, though.”
“No worries. I'm quite happy to wait until you're finished. I could see how much you're enjoying it, so I got curious.”
“It's a fascinating book. Once I get into it I can't stop. That's why I've decided to read it only when I'm here. This way, two hours pass before I know it.”
“My aunt reads tons of books,” Mariye chimed in.
“I don't have that much to do these days,” her aunt said. “So books are how I get by.”
“Do you have a job?” I asked.
She removed her glasses and gently massaged the crease between her eyebrows. “I volunteer at our local library once a week. I used to work at a private medical college in Tokyo. I was secretary to the president there. But I gave it up when I moved here.”
“That was when Mariye's mother passed away, wasn't it?”
“At the time, I thought it would just be temporary. That I would stay only until things got sorted out. But once I started living with Mariye it became hard to leave. So I've been here ever since. Of course, if my brother remarried, I would move back to the city.”
“I'd go with you if that happened,” Mariye said.
Shoko smiled politely but didn't say anything.
“Why don't you stay for lunch?” I asked the two of them. “I can whip up a pasta and salad in no time.”
Shoko hesitated, as I knew she would, but Mariye seemed excited by the idea.
“Why not?” she told her aunt. “Dad isn't home.”
“It's really no problem,” I said. “I've got lots of sauce already made, so it's no more trouble to cook for three than for one.”
“Are you sure?” Shoko said, looking doubtful.
“Of course. Please do stay. I eat alone all the time. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day. I'd like to share a meal with others for a change.”
Mariye looked at her aunt.
“Well, in that case we'll take you up on your kind invitation,” Shoko said. “You're quite sure we're not imposing?”
“Not at all,” I said. “Please make yourself at home.”
The three of us moved to the dining area. They sat at the table, while I prepared the meal. I set the water to boil, warmed the asparagus-and-bacon sauce in a pan, and threw together a quick salad of lettuce, tomato, onion, and green peppers. When the water boiled, I tossed in the pasta and diced some parsley while it cooked. I took the iced tea from the fridge and filled three glasses. Mariye and her aunt watched me bustle about as if witnessing a rare and strange event. Shoko asked if there was something she could do. No, I replied, she should just relaxâI had everything under control.
“You seem so at home in the kitchen,” she said, impressed.
“That's because I do this every day.”
I don't mind cooking at all. In fact, I've always liked working with my hands. Cooking, simple carpentry, bicycle repair, yard work. I'm useless when it comes to abstract, mathematical thought. Mental games like chess and puzzles are just too taxing for my simple brain.
We sat down at the table and began to eat. A carefree lunch on a sunny Sunday afternoon in autumn. And Shoko was a perfect lunchtime companion. She was gracious and witty, full of things to talk about and with a great sense of humor. Her table manners were elegant, yet there was nothing pretentious about her. I could tell she came from a good family and had attended the most expensive schools. Mariye left all the talking to her aunt and concentrated on her meal. Later, Shoko asked for my recipe for the sauce.
We had almost finished our lunch when the front doorbell gave a cheerful ring. It was no surprise to me, for just a moment earlier I thought I had heard the deep purr of a Jaguar engine. That soundâthe polar opposite of the whisper of the Toyota Priusâhad registered in that narrow layer between my conscious and unconscious minds. So it was hardly a “bolt from the blue” when the bell chimed.
“Excuse me for a second,” I said, rising from my chair and putting my napkin down. Leaving the two of them at the table, I went to the front door. What would happen now? I didn't have a clue.
I opened the door, and there stood Menshiki.
He was wearing a white button-down shirt, a fancy wool vest with an intricate pattern, and a bluish-gray tweed jacket. His chinos were a light mustard color, his suede shoes brown. A coordinated and comfortable outfit, as always. His white hair glowed in the autumn sun. The silver Jaguar was behind him, parked next to the blue Toyota Prius. Side by side, the two cars resembled someone with crooked teeth laughing with his mouth wide open.
I gestured for him to enter. He was so tense his face looked frozen, like a plastered wall only half dry. Needless to say, I had never seen him like this before. He was always so cool, holding himself in check with his feelings packed out of sight. He had been that way even after an hour entombed in a pitch-black pit. Yet now he was as white as a sheet.
“Do you mind if I come in?” he said.
“Of course not,” I answered. “We're almost through with lunch. So do come in.”
“I really don't want to interrupt your meal,” he said, glancing at his watch in what seemed a reflex motion. He stared at it for a long time, his face blank. As if he had a quarrel with how the second hand was moving.
“We'll be done soon,” I said again. “It's a very basic meal. Let's have coffee together afterward. Please wait in the living room. I'll make the introductions there.”
Menshiki shook his head. “Introductions might be premature at this stage. I stopped by assuming they'd already left. I wasn't planning to meet them. But I saw an unfamiliar car parked in front and wasn't sure what to do, so Iâ”
“You came at the perfect time,” I said, cutting him off. “Nothing could be more natural. Just leave everything to me.”
Menshiki nodded and began to take off his shoes. Yet for some reason he seemed to have forgotten how. I waited until he had struggled through the procedure and showed him into the living room. He'd been there several times before, yet he stared at the room as though it was his first visit.
“Please wait here,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “Just sit down and relax. It shouldn't take more than ten minutes.”
I left Menshiki sitting there by himselfâthough it worried me a bitâand went back to the dining area. Shoko and Mariye had finished their meal in my absence. Their forks rested on empty plates.
“Do you have a visitor?” Shoko asked in a worried voice.
“Yes, but it's all right. Someone from the neighborhood just happened to stop by. I asked him to wait in the living room. We're on friendly terms, so there's no need for formality. I'll just finish my meal first.”
I ate what remained of my lunch. Then I brewed a pot of coffee while the two women cleaned up the dishes.
“Shall we have our coffee in the living room?” I asked Shoko.
“But won't we be intruding on you and your guest?”
I shook my head no. “Not in the slightest. It's a stroke of luckâthis way, I can introduce you to each other. He lives on top of the slope on the other side of the valley, so I doubt you've ever met.”
“What is his name?”
“Menshiki. It's written with the characters for âavoidance' and âcolor.' âAvoiding colors,' in other words.”
“What an unusual name!” Shoko exclaimed. “I've never heard anyone mention a Mr. Menshiki before. The addresses of people across the valley are close to ours, but there's little coming and going between the two sides.”
We placed the pot of coffee, four cups, and some milk and sugar on a tray and carried it out to the living room. To my surprise, Menshiki was nowhere to be seen. The room was deserted. He wasn't on the terrace, either. And I doubted he was in the bathroom.
“Where did he disappear to?” I said to no one in particular.
“Was he here earlier?” Shoko asked.
“Until a few minutes ago.”
His suede shoes were gone from the entranceway. I slipped on my sandals and opened the front door. The silver Jaguar was parked exactly where he had left it. So he hadn't returned home. The sun reflecting off the Jaguar's windows made it impossible to tell if anyone was inside. I walked over to check. Menshiki was sitting in the driver's seat, rummaging around for something. I tapped on the window, and he rolled it down. He looked lost.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I want to check the air pressure in my tires, but I can't find the gauge. It should be in the glove compartment, but it's gone.”
“Is there some kind of rush?”
“No, not really. I was sitting there in your living room when it started to bother me. Couldn't recall the last time I checked.”
“So there's no trouble with them?”
“No, nothing in particular. They seem normal.”
“Then why don't you forget about the tires for now and come back in? The coffee is made, and two people are waiting.”
“Waiting for me?” he said in a hoarse voice. “Are they waiting for me?”
“Yes, I told them I'd introduce you.”
“Oh dear,” he said.
“Why oh dear?”
“Because I'm not ready for introductions yet. Not emotionally prepared.”
He had the baffled, fearful look of someone ordered to jump from the sixteenth floor of a burning building to a net that looked the size of a drink coaster.
“You should come,” I said, not mincing words. “It's really not a big deal.”
Menshiki nodded and got out, closing the car door behind him. He started to lock it before realizing how unnecessary that was (what thief would stray up here?), so he stuffed the key in the pocket of his chinos.
Shoko and Mariye were waiting in the living room. They rose to greet us as we entered. My introductions were simple and straightforward. A common human courtesy.
“Mr. Menshiki has also modeled for me. I painted his portrait. He happens to live nearby, and we've been friends since we met.”
“I understand you live on the other side of the valley. Have you been there long?” Shoko inquired.
Menshiki blanched at the mention of his home. “Yes, I've been living there for a few years. Let's see, how many is it nowâthree years perhaps? Or is it four?”
He turned to me as if for confirmation, but I didn't respond.
“Can we see your home from here?” Shoko asked.
“Yes,” Menshiki said. “But it's really nothing to brag about,” he added. “It's awfully out of the way.”
“It's the same on this side,” Shoko said affably. “Simple shopping is a major expedition. Cell phone service and radios are hit-or-miss. And the road is terribly steep. When the snow is thick, it gets so slippery I'm afraid to take the car out. Luckily, it doesn't happen that oftenâjust once, five years ago.”
“You're right,” Menshiki said. “It rarely snows here. It has to do with the warmth of the wind coming off the ocean. The ocean exerts a powerful influence on our climate. You seeâ¦”
“In any case,” I broke in, “we should be thankful it snows so rarely here.” I feared he was about to launch into a lecture on the structure and effects of the warm sea currents along the coast of Japanâthat's how wound up he was.
Mariye was looking back and forth at her aunt and Menshiki throughout this exchange. She seemed to have formed no opinion about Menshiki as of yet. Menshiki, for his part, acted as though Mariye wasn't there, focusing on her aunt as though bewitched.
“Mariye here is letting me paint her portrait,” I said to him. “I asked her to model for me.”
“I drive her here every Sunday morning,” Shoko said. “It's not far as the crow fliesâfrom your eyes to your nose, you might sayâbut the road twists and turns so much we have to take the car.”
Menshiki finally turned to look at Mariye Akikawa. But his eyes didn't focus on any part of her faceâthey buzzed about nervously like a fly in winter, searching for a place to land. Yet they never seemed to find one.
“These are what I've drawn so far,” I said, coming to his aid. I handed him my sketchbook. “I haven't started painting yetâwe've just wrapped up the preliminary stage.”
Menshiki stared at the three dessan for a long time, devouring them with his eyes. As if the drawings of Mariye somehow meant more to him than Mariye herself. This wasn't true, of courseâhe simply couldn't bring himself to face her. The dessan were a substitute, nothing more. It was the first time he had been close to her, and he was having a hard time controlling his feelings. Mariye, for her part, regarded the floundering Menshiki as though he were some kind of strange animal.
“They're superb,” Menshiki said. He turned to Shoko. “Each is so full of life. He's really captured her!”
“I totally agree,” she said, beaming.
“All the same, Mariye is a very difficult subject,” I said to Menshiki. “Painting her is a challenge. Her expression is constantly changing, so it takes time to grasp what's at the core. That's why I haven't gotten around to the actual painting stage yet.”
“Difficult?” Menshiki said. He looked at Mariye a second time, squinting as though dazzled by her light.
“The three dessan should show very different expressions,” I said. “The slightest facial movement radically transforms the whole atmosphere. When I paint her portrait, I have to get past those superficial differences to grasp the essence of her personality. Otherwise, I'd be conveying only part of the whole.”
“I see,” Menshiki said, dutifully impressed. He looked back and forth between the three sketches and Mariye, comparing them. In the process, his face, which had been so pale, began to regain some of its color. Red dots popped up at first, then the dots grew to blotches the size of ping-pong balls, then baseballs, until in the end his whole face had turned rosy. Mariye watched him, fascinated, but her aunt politely turned away. I grabbed the coffee pot and poured myself another cup.
I felt I had to break the silence. “I'm thinking of starting the actual portrait next week. You know, on canvas with real paint,” I said to no one in particular.
“Do you have a clear image what it will look like?” asked Shoko.
“Not yet,” I said, shaking my head. “I won't know in any concrete way until I'm sitting in front of the canvas with a brush in my hand. Hopefully, the inspiration will hit me then.”
“You painted Mr. Menshiki's picture as well, didn't you?” Shoko asked me.
“Yes, last month.”
“It's a beautiful portrait,” Menshiki said emphatically. “The paint has to dry a bit more before it can be framed, but it's hanging on the wall of my study. I'm not sure âportrait' does it justice, though. It's a painting of me, but of something other than me, too. I don't know how to put itâI guess you could say it has
. I never get tired of looking at it.”
“You say it's you, yet it's not you at the same time?” Shoko asked.
“I mean it's a step beyond your typical portraitâit's deeper, more profound.”
“I want to see it,” Mariye said. They were the first words she had spoken since we had moved to the living room.
“But Mariyeâ¦you shouldn't invite yourself into someone'sâ”
“That's perfectly all right!” Menshiki said, cutting off her aunt's rebuke as if with a sharp hatchet. His tone was so jarring that we allâincluding Menshiki himselfâwere stunned.
“Please do come take a look,” he continued after a moment's regrouping. “It's so rare for me to meet someone from the neighborhood. I live alone, so you needn't worry about disturbing anyone. Any time at all would be fine.”
Menshiki's face was even redder by the time he finished. It appeared that we hadn't been the only ones shocked by the urgency in his voice.
“Do you like paintings?” Menshiki asked, this time directing his question to Mariye. His voice was back to normal.
Mariye gave a small nod.
“If it's all right with you, why don't I stop by again at this time next Sunday?” Menshiki said. “I could escort you to my home and we could all look at the painting together.”
“But we shouldn't inconvenience youâ” Shoko said.
“I want to see the painting!” Mariye was firm.
In the end it was agreed that Menshiki would come to pick up the two of them the following Sunday afternoon. I was invited too, but I declined, citing an important errand. The last thing I wanted was to get sucked in any deeper. From now on, let those who were involved look after things. I would remain the outsider, however the situation turned out. I would be the mediator, nothing moreâthough even that had not been my intention.
Menshiki and I accompanied the beautiful aunt and her niece outside to give them a proper send-off. Shoko looked for some time at the silver Jaguar parked next to her Prius. Like a dog lover appraising another person's dog.
“This is the latest model, isn't it?” she asked Menshiki.
“Yes, this is their newest coupe on the market,” he answered. “Do you like cars?”
“No, it's not that. It's just that my late father drove a Jaguar sedan. I used to sit next to him, and every so often he'd let me hold the wheel. The Jaguar hood ornament takes me back to those times. Was it an XJ6? It had four round headlights, I think. And an inline six-cylinder 4.2-liter engine.”
“That is the III series, I believe. A truly beautiful model.”
“My father drove that car for ages, so he must have really liked it. Although he complained about the terrible mileage. And it had one minor malfunction after the other.”
“That model in particular is a real gas guzzler. And the wiring was probably faulty. The electrical system has always been the Jaguar's Achilles' heel. But if it's running smoothly, and if you don't mind shelling out for gas, you can't beat a Jaguar. For driving comfort and handling, no other car matches itâit's got a charm all its own. Most people, though, are really turned off by things like gas consumption and mechanical glitches, which is why the Toyota Prius is the one flying off the lots.”