Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (39 page)

“Seduce her?”

“I mean, that he isn't serious?”

“There's no way for me to tell,” I said. “I don't know Mr. Menshiki that well. They just met this afternoon, so nothing has happened between them yet. When two people's feelings are involved like this, things can change in subtle ways. What begins as a small feeling can grow into something really big, or the opposite can happen.”

“But I have a kind of hunch this time,” she asserted.

I sensed that I should believe her “kind of hunch,” baseless though it was. For I had a similar kind of hunch.

“So you're worried something could occur that might harm your aunt psychologically,” I said.

Mariye gave a quick nod. “My aunt's not a very cautious person, and she's not used to being hurt.”

“It sounds like you're the one looking after her, and not the other way around,” I said.

“In a way,” Mariye said seriously.

“How about you, then? Are you used to being hurt?”

“I don't know,” Mariye said. “At least I'm not about to fall in love.”

“You will someday, though.”

“But not now. Not until my chest gets a little bigger anyway.”

“That may happen sooner than you expect.”

Mariye made a wry face. I guessed she didn't believe me.

I felt a seed of doubt sprout in my own chest. Would Menshiki draw close to Shoko Akikawa to establish a firm connection with Mariye?

After all, he had said to me,
I couldn't tell anything in one brief meeting. I need to see her more.

Shoko would be an important intermediary—through her, Menshiki could see Mariye on a regular basis. After all, she was the one looking after the girl. To a greater or lesser extent, therefore, Menshiki had to place Shoko under his thumb. That shouldn't be too hard for a man of Menshiki's talents. Not child's play, perhaps, but close to it. I didn't like to think that Menshiki was harboring a plan of that sort. Yet perhaps the Commendatore had been right, and he was a man who couldn't help fabricating some scheme or other. From what I had seen, however, he wasn't that cunning.

“Mr. Menshiki's house is really impressive,” I said to Mariye. “You may or may not like it, but it wouldn't hurt to take a look.”

“Have you been there?”

“Only once. I went there for dinner.”

“It's on the other side of the valley?”

“Right across from us.”

“Can you see it from here?”

I pretended to think for a moment. “Yes, but it's far away, of course.”

“Show me.”

I led her to the terrace and pointed out Menshiki's mansion on top of the mountain across the valley. Bathed in the light from the garden lanterns, the building floated white in the distance like an elegant ocean liner sailing the night sea. Several of the windows were also lit up. The lights burning there were small and unobtrusive.

“That enormous white house?” Mariye exclaimed in surprise. She stared at me for a moment. Then, wordlessly, she turned back to the distant mansion.

“I can see it from my house, too,” she said eventually. “The angle's a bit different, though. I've always wondered who would live in a place like that.”

“It does stand out, that's for sure,” I said. “Anyway, that's Mr. Menshiki's home.”

Mariye spent a long time leaning over the railing looking at the house. A handful of stars twinkled above its roof. There was no wind, and a small, sharp-edged cloud hung there motionless. Like a paper cutout nailed to a plywood backdrop in a play. Each time the girl moved her head, her straight black hair glittered in the moonlight.

“Does Mr. Menshiki really live there all by himself?” Mariye asked, turning to me.

“Yes, he does. All alone, in that big house.”

“And he's not married?”

“He told me he has never married.”

“What kind of work does he do?”

“I'm not sure. Something connected to the information business, he said. Maybe having to do with tech. He doesn't have a regular job right now, though. He lives on the money he made from selling his old business, and from stock dividends and so forth. I don't know the details.”

“So he doesn't work?” Mariye said, wrinkling her forehead.

“That's what he said. Seldom leaves his home, apparently.”

He might well be standing on his terrace, watching the two of us through his high-powered binoculars just as we were watching him. What would run through his mind if he saw us standing side by side like this?

“You'd better head home,” I told Mariye. “It's getting late.”

“Besides asking about Mr. Menshiki,” she said softly, as if confiding something, “I wanted to tell you I'm really happy that you're painting my picture. I can't wait to see it.”

“I hope it turns out well,” I said. Her words moved me more than a little. It was strange how much this girl opened up when painting was involved.

—

I walked her to the door. Mariye put on her tight-fitting down jacket and crammed her Indians cap down over her head. Now she looked like a boy.

“Shall I walk with you partway?” I asked.

“I'm fine. I know the path.”

“See you next Sunday, then.”

But instead of leaving, she paused for a moment with her hand on the doorframe.

“One thing bothers me,” she said. “It's that bell.”

“The bell?”

“I thought I heard it ringing on my way here. The same kind of jingling sound that the bell in your studio made.”

I was at a loss for words. Mariye's eyes were on my face.

“Where was it exactly?” I asked.

“In the woods. It came from behind the shrine.”

I listened to the dark. But I heard no bell. I heard no sound at all. Just the quiet of the night.

“Weren't you scared?” I asked.

Mariye shook her head. “If I leave it alone, there's nothing to be scared of.”

“Wait here just a second,” I told Mariye. I ran back to the studio. The bell was not where I had left it. It had vanished from the shelf.

36
WHAT I WANT IS NOT TO HAVE TO DISCUSS THE RULES OF THE GAME

After seeing Mariye off, I went into the studio, turned on all the lights, and combed every inch of the room. But the old bell was nowhere to be found. It had vanished from sight.

When had I last seen it? The previous Sunday, on her first visit, Mariye had taken the bell down and shaken it. Then she had returned it to the shelf. I remembered that. But had I laid eyes on the bell since? I couldn't recall. I had hardly set foot in the studio all week. Not once had I picked up my brush.
The Man with the White Subaru Forester
had stalled, and I hadn't yet started Mariye's portrait. I was what you might call “between paintings.”

Then, without my knowledge, the bell had disappeared.

But Mariye had heard it ringing behind the shrine when she passed through the woods. Could someone have returned it to the pit? Should I rush there now, see if I could hear the bell with my own ears?

Yet the prospect of hurrying off into the dark woods alone didn't appeal to me. Too many surprises in one day had worn me out. Whatever one might say, I had more than filled my quota of “unforeseen events.”

I went into the kitchen, pulled out the ice tray, plunked a few cubes in a glass, and doused them with whiskey. It was only eight thirty. Had Mariye safely navigated the woods and returned home through her passageway? I felt sure she had. No need for me to worry. This mountain had been her playground since she was small, she had said. And she was a lot tougher than she looked.

I took my time working my way through two glasses of Scotch, munched a few crackers, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. For all I knew, I might be roused in the middle of the night by a ringing bell. Around two a.m., as before. Nothing much I could do about that. If it happened, I would deal with it then. But nothing happened. As far as I knew, anyway. I slept like a log until half past six the next morning.

When I awoke, it was raining outside. A chilly rain, signaling the approach of winter. Quiet and persistent. It reminded me of the rain that had been falling that day in March when my wife announced that our marriage was over. I hadn't faced her as she spoke. For the most part, I had looked out the window at the rain.

—

After breakfast, I put on my vinyl poncho and rain hat (both purchased on my trip, at a sporting-goods store in Hakodate) and walked into the woods. I didn't take an umbrella. I circled the shrine and removed half the boards covering the pit. I made a careful search with my flashlight, but it was empty. No bell, and no sign of the Commendatore. Just to make sure, I decided to descend the metal ladder to check. I had never entered the pit before. The rungs sagged and gave an ominous creak with each step down. In the end, however, I found nothing. It was just an uninhabited hole in the ground. Perfectly round, it might have been a well were it not so wide. Had its builders intended to draw water from it, they would have made its circumference much smaller. And the construction of the wall was too intricate. It was just as the landscaper had said.

I stood in the pit for some time, lost in thought. I didn't feel trapped since I could see a cleanly severed half-moon of sky above. I flicked off my flashlight, leaned my back against the damp, dark stone wall, and closed my eyes as the rain pattered overhead.
Something
was running through my mind, but I couldn't grasp what it was. One thought would link to another, which in turn would link to still another thought. That chain was bizarre somehow, though I couldn't say exactly why. It was as if I had been swallowed by the act of thinking, if that makes sense.

The pit was thinking too, I could tell. It was alive—I could feel it breathing. My thoughts and those of the pit were like trees grown together: our roots joined in the dark, our sap intermingled. In this condition, self and other blended like the paints on my palette, their borders ever more indistinct.

At a certain point, it felt as though the walls of the pit were beginning to close in. My heart made a dry sound as it expanded and contracted in my chest. I felt I could hear its valves open and close. The sensation chilled me, as if I were approaching the realm of the dead. That world didn't strike me as altogether unpleasant, but it was not yet my time to enter.

I returned to my senses with a start. I untangled myself from my train of thought, which had run on without me, then flicked on my flashlight and looked around. The ladder was still where it had been. The sky above my head was the same. I breathed a sigh of relief. For all I knew, the sky could have vanished and the ladder disappeared. Anything could happen in this place.

With great care, I climbed from the pit one rung at a time. Only when I had emerged and was standing on the wet ground did my breathing finally return to normal. It took even longer to get my heartbeat under control. I peered down into the pit one last time. With my flashlight, I illuminated every inch of the dirt floor. But it was just a normal, everyday kind of pit. It was not breathing or thinking, nor were its walls closing in. It just sat there in silence, absorbing the chilly mid-November rain.

I moved the boards back into place and set the rocks on top. I arranged them with care, making sure that they were exactly as they had been before. That way I would know if someone moved them. Then I stuck my rain hat back on my head and walked home along the same path I had come on.

As I walked through the woods, I wondered where the Commendatore had gone. I hadn't seen him for at least two weeks. Strangely, I missed having him around. Without realizing it, I had come to feel a certain kinship with the two-foot man with the tiny sword at his side, despite his odd way of speaking, his voyeurism when my girlfriend and I were making love, and the fact that I had no clear idea what he was. I hoped nothing bad had happened to him.

When I got home, I went straight to the studio, sat down on the ancient wooden stool (the stool Tomohiko Amada must have used when he was working), and studied
Killing Commendatore
hanging there on the wall. I often did that when I wasn't sure what to do—in fact, I studied it endlessly. It was a painting I never tired of, no matter how often I looked at it. It should have been displayed in a museum as a prized example of Japanese art, but instead, it graced the wall of this small studio, and I was the only one who could enjoy it. Before me, it had been hidden in the attic, unseen by anyone.

It's calling out to me
, Mariye had said.
Like a caged bird crying to be set free
.

The more I studied the painting the more I realized Mariye had hit the nail square on the head—something was desperately struggling to escape that enclosed space. It longed for a place less confined, for freedom. It was the strength of that will that gave the painting its impact. Whether we understood the meaning of the bird and the cage or not.

—

I felt the urge to paint something that day. Powerfully. I could feel it mounting within me. Like the evening tide coming in. It was still too early, though, to work on Mariye's portrait. That could wait until next Sunday. And I didn't feel like going back to
The Man with the White Subaru Forester
either. As Mariye had pointed out, a dangerous force lurked beneath its surface.

A new canvas sat on the easel, ready for Mariye's portrait. I sat on the stool studying it for a long time. Yet nothing came to me—no image of what to paint. The blank stayed blank. What should be my subject matter? After a while, at last, the answer rose to my mind.

I stepped away from the easel and took out my big sketchbook. Then I sat on the floor, crossed my legs, leaned back against the wall, and began to draw a chamber of stone in pencil. Not my usual soft pencil but a much harder one. It was a sketch of the strange pit we had found under the pile of rocks in the woods. I had just come from there, so it was fresh in my mind, and I rendered it in as much detail as possible. I drew the intricately fitted wall of stones. I drew the ground around the pit, and the beautiful pattern of the wet fallen leaves. The stand of pampas grass that had once hidden the pit lay flattened by the backhoe.

As I sketched, the eerie sensation that I was merging with the pit returned. It wanted me to draw it. Accurately, and in great detail. In response, my hand moved without conscious guidance. It was a pure act of creation, and it brought with it a kind of joy. When I returned to my senses, I realized that a length of time had passed (I had no idea how much), and that the page in my notebook was covered with pencil lines.

I went to the kitchen, gulped down several glasses of cold water, reheated the coffee, and carried a cup back to the studio. I placed the open sketchbook on the easel and sat down to take a second look, this time from farther away. There was the pit in the woods, in realistic detail. It looked somehow alive. Even
more
alive than the real thing. I got off the stool and examined it up close, then studied it again from a different angle. Only then did it hit me how much it looked like a woman's genitals. The clump of pampas grass flattened by the backhoe resembled her pubic hair to a T.

I shook my head and smiled a wry smile. I mean, how Freudian can you get? I imagined some egghead critic fulminating on the drawing's psychological implications: “This black, gaping hole, so reminiscent of a woman's solitary genitalia, must be understood functionally, as a symbolic representation of the artist's memories and unconscious desires.” Or something of the sort. Seriously!

Yet try as I might, I couldn't get the connection between the strange circular pit in the woods and a woman's sex out of my head. So when the phone rang a short while later, I had a hunch it would be my married girlfriend.

And it was.

“Hi,” she said. “Some free time just opened up, and I was wondering if I might stop by.”

I glanced at my watch. “Sounds good. Let's have lunch together.”

“I'll pick up something simple on the way,” she said.

“Great idea. I've been working since morning, so I haven't prepared anything.”

She ended the call. I made the bed, picked my clothes up off the floor, folded them, and returned them to the chest of drawers. I washed the breakfast dishes in the sink and put them away.

Then I went to the living room, placed my usual record—Richard Strauss's
Der Rosenkavalier
, conducted by Georg Solti—on the turntable, and read on the sofa while I waited for her to arrive. What kind of book was Shoko Akikawa reading, I wondered? What could have so captivated her?

My girlfriend showed up at twelve fifteen. Her red Mini pulled up in front of my house and she got out, a paper bag from the grocery store in her arms. Although a quiet rain was still falling, she carried no umbrella. Wearing a yellow vinyl raincoat with a hood, she walked quickly to my door. I met her there, took the bag, and brought it to the kitchen. She removed the raincoat, exposing the brilliant green turtleneck underneath. Beneath the sweater were two very attractive bulges. Her breasts weren't as large as Shoko's, but they suited me just fine.

“Have you been at it all morning?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But it's not a commission. I felt like drawing, so I came up with something on my own, just for fun.”

“Just passing the time, huh?”

“Yeah, a bit like that.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Not all that much.”

“That's good,” she said. “Why don't we eat afterward, then?”

“Fine by me,” I said.

—

“You were awfully passionate today. Is there a special reason?” she asked. It was afterward, and we were lying in bed.

“I wonder,” I said. What I might have said was, maybe it was because I spent the whole morning madly sketching a strange six-foot-wide hole in the ground and, partway through, my mind made a connection between the hole and a woman's vagina, which must have turned me on…But I couldn't.

“It was because I haven't seen you for so long,” I said instead.

“You're sweet,” she said, tracing a line on my chest with her fingertips. “But be honest—sometimes don't you want a younger woman?”

“No, I've never thought about that.”

“Really?”

“Not once,” I said. I was being truthful. Our sexual relationship was pure pleasure for me, and I had no desire to seek out anyone else. (My desire for Yuzu, of course, was of a wholly different order.)

I decided not to tell her about Mariye Akikawa. If she learned that a beautiful thirteen-year-old girl was modeling for me, it would only spark her jealousy. It seemed a woman at any age—thirteen, forty-one, you name it—felt she was facing a delicate time in her life. This was one thing my modest experience with the opposite sex had taught me.

“Still,” she said. “Don't you think it's strange, the way women and men hook up?”

“Strange in what way?”

“I mean, look at us. We haven't known each other that long, yet here we are lying together naked, making love like this. Completely vulnerable, with no sense of shame. Don't you think it's weird?”

“Maybe you're right,” I murmured.

“Try to think of it as a game. Maybe not only that, but a kind of game all the same. Otherwise what I'm saying won't make any sense.”

“Okay, I'll try,” I said.

“A game has to have rules, right?”

“Yeah, you need those.”

“Baseball, soccer, all the sports have a thick rule book, right, where the rules are written down to the tiniest detail, and then umpires and players have to memorize them all. Without that, the game can't take place. Isn't that so?”

“You're absolutely right.”

She paused, waiting for the image to sink in.

“So what I'm trying to say is, have we ever sat down and discussed the rules of
this game
that we're playing? Have we?”

I thought for a moment. “Possibly not,” I said finally.

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