Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (42 page)

The room fell silent. Like a blank, white billboard.

Artistic creation, I thought to myself. Those words had a pull to them that drew all the silence in the vicinity into a single spot. Like air filling a vacuum. No, more like a vacuum sucking up all the air.

“If you're coming to my house,” Menshiki said gingerly, facing Shoko, “then perhaps we should go in my car. I'll bring you back here afterward. The backseat is a bit cramped, but the drive is so full of twists and turns—you'll find this much easier.”

“Of course,” Shoko said at once. “We'll ride in your car.”

Mariye's eyes were still on the white teapot. She seemed deep in thought. Of course, I had no idea what was on her mind, or in her heart. I had no idea what the three of them would do for lunch, either. But Menshiki was smart. He had it all planned—there was no need for me to sweat the details.

—

Shoko sat in the passenger seat, while Mariye settled in the back. Adults in front, kids in back. The natural way of the world—no prior consultation necessary. I watched from my front door as the car slipped down the slope and out of sight. I went back into the house, took the teacups and teapot into the kitchen, and washed them.

When I finished, I placed Richard Strauss's
Rosenkavalier
on the turntable, stretched out on the sofa, and listened.
Der Rosenkavalier
had become my fallback when I had nothing else to do. A habit implanted in me by Menshiki. The music was somehow addictive, as he had warned. An uninterrupted stream of emotion. Musical instruments in colorful profusion. It was Strauss who boasted, “I can describe anything in music, even a common broom.” Maybe he didn't say “broom”—it could have been something else. At any rate, there was something painterly about his music. Though what I was aiming for in my painting was very different.

When I opened my eyes a while later, there was the Commendatore. He was sitting in the leather easy chair across from me wearing the same Asuka-period clothing, his sword still on his hip. Perched on the chair, his two-foot frame looked quite demure.

“It's been a while,” I said. My voice sounded strained and forced, as if coming from somewhere else. “How have you been?”

“As I have told my friends in the past, time is a concept foreign to Ideas,” he said in a small but clear voice. “ ‘A while' thus lies outside my understanding.”

“It's a customary phrase. Please don't let it bother you.”

“I cannot fathom ‘customary' either.”

Fair enough. Where there is no “time” there can be no “custom.” I stood up and walked to the stereo, lifted the needle, and returned the record to its sleeve.

“As you may have surmised,” the Commendatore said, reading my mind, “in a realm where time flows freely in both directions such things as customs cannot exist.”

“Don't Ideas require an energy source of some kind?” I asked him. The question had been puzzling me for some time.

“It is a thorny question,” the Commendatore answered, frowning dramatically. “All beings require energy—to be brought into this world and to survive. It is a principle that holds true throughout the universe.”

“So what you're saying is, Ideas have to have a source of energy too. Right? In accordance with the universal principle.”

“Affirmative! It is an undisputed fact. Universal law binds us one and all—there can be no exceptions. Ideas are felicitous insofar as we possess no form of our own. We materialize when others become aware of us—only then do we take shape. Though that shape is but a borrowed thing, for the sake of convenience.”

“So then Ideas can't exist unless people are cognizant of them.”

The Commendatore closed one eye and pointed his right index finger in the air. “And what principle can be deduced from that, my friends?”

It took a long moment to wrap my head around that one. The Commendatore waited patiently.

“This is what I think,” I said at last. “Ideas take their energy from the perceptions of others.”

“Affirmative!” the Commendatore said cheerfully. He nodded several times. “You have a good head on your shoulders. Ideas cannot exist outside the perceptions of others—those perceptions are our sole source of energy.”

“So then if I think, ‘The Commendatore doesn't exist,' you cease to exist. Right?”

“Negative! In theory, you have a point,” the Commendatore said. “But only in theory. In reality, that is quite unrealistic. One is hard put to will oneself to cease thinking about a given matter. Namely, to determine to ‘stop thinking' about something is itself a thought—as long as one follows that path, that something continues to exist. In the end, to stop thinking about something means to stop thinking about stopping thinking.”

“In other words,” I said, “it's impossible for people to escape Ideas unless they lose either their memory or their interest in Ideas.”

“Truly, dolphins have that power,” the Commendatore said.

“Dolphins?”

“Dolphins have the power to put the right or left half of their brain to sleep. Did my friends not know that?”

“No, I didn't.”

“Affirmative! It is why dolphins have so little time for Ideas. It is why they stopped evolving, too. We Ideas tried our hardest, but I am sad to say that all of our efforts led nowhere. It was such a promising species, too. Proportionate to their size, they had the biggest brains of all the mammals until humankind reached its full development.”

“So then you managed to establish a rewarding relationship with humans?”

“It is a known fact that, unlike the dolphin brain, the brain of the human species runs along a single track. Hence, an Idea that enters such a brain cannot be easily brushed aside. That allows us to draw energy therein, and thus sustain ourselves.”

“Like parasites,” I said.

“Nonsense!” said the Commendatore, wagging his finger like a schoolmaster scolding his wards. “When I say ‘drawing energy,' I mean the tiniest amount. A shred so infinitesimal the members of my friends' species are unaware. Too small to affect health, or hinder lives in any way.”

“But you told me that Ideas possess nothing like morality. Ideas are an entirely neutral concept, neither good nor bad. It all depends on how humans use them. In which case Ideas can have a beneficial effect in some cases, and a negative effect in others. Isn't that so?”

“E = mc
2
is neutral in itself, yet that Idea led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Then the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In reality. Is that what you are trying to say, my friends?”

I nodded.

“My heart bleeds for you—figuratively, of course; we Ideas have no bodies, and hence no hearts. But then again, my friends, all is caveat emptor in this universe.”

“What?”

“The Latin for ‘buyer beware.' To wit, a vendor is not responsible for how the buyer uses his wares. Can a shopkeeper determine what manner of man will wear the suit hanging in his window?”

“That argument sounds pretty fishy to me.”

“E = mc
2
gave birth to the atomic bomb, but by the same token it spawned a host of good things as well.”

“Like what, for instance?”

The Commendatore thought about this for a moment. He seemed to be having trouble coming up with a good example, however, for he said nothing, just vigorously rubbed his face with the palms of his hands. Then again, perhaps he simply saw no point in pursuing the discussion any further.

“By the way,” I asked, suddenly remembering. “Do you have any inkling where the bell in the studio disappeared to?”

“Bell?” the Commendatore asked, looking up. “What bell?”

“The old bell you were ringing at the bottom of the pit. I put it on the shelf in the studio, but when I looked the other day it was gone.”

The Commendatore shook his head in an emphatic no. “Oh, that bell. Negative! I have not laid hands on it recently.”

“So who do you think might have taken it?”

“How should I know?”

“Whoever it was has started ringing it somewhere.”

“Hmm. It is nothing to do with me. I have no use for it anymore. The bell was never mine alone. It belongs to the place, to be shared by everyone. So if it has disappeared, there must be a reason. No need to worry—it will show up sooner or later. Just wait.”

“The bell belongs to the place?” I said. “You mean it belongs to the pit?”

“By the way,” he said, not answering my question. “If my friends are waiting for Shoko and Mariye's return, it will not happen soon. At least not until nightfall.”

“And do you think Menshiki has something up his sleeve?” I asked my final question.

“Affirmative! Menshiki has an ulterior motive for everything. Never wastes a move, that fellow. It is the only way he knows. Using both sides of his brain, all the time. He could never be a dolphin.”

The Commendatore's form faded little by little, and then, like mist on a windless midwinter morning, it thinned and spread until it was completely gone. All that sat facing me now was an old empty armchair. His absence was so absolute, so profound, I had trouble believing that, until a moment earlier, he had been there at all. Perhaps I had been sitting across from empty space, nothing more. Perhaps I had only been talking to myself.

—

As the Commendatore had predicted, Menshiki's silver Jaguar took a long time to show up. The two beautiful ladies seemed in no rush to leave his home. I stepped onto my terrace and looked across the valley at the white house. But I could spot no one. To kill time, I went inside and started preparing dinner. I made soup stock, parboiled the vegetables, and froze what I would not be using. I kept myself busy doing whatever I could think of, but when I finished, I still had time on my hands. I returned to the living room, put Richard Strauss's
Rosenkavalier
back on the turntable, stretched out on the sofa, and read a book.

Shoko was charmed by Menshiki. That much was certain. She looked at him differently than she looked at me. Her eyes shone. He was a most attractive middle-aged man, to say the least. A handsome and wealthy bachelor, well dressed and well mannered, a man who lived in the mountains in a huge mansion with four English automobiles stored in its garage. It was no mystery why so many women in this world might find him charming (to the same degree they might find me less than desirable). Yet it was equally certain that Mariye had a deep distrust of Menshiki. She was a girl of keen instincts. Perhaps she had intuitively divined that he was concealing the reasons for his behavior. Thus she maintained a careful distance. At least that was how it appeared to me.

What was going to happen? I was naturally curious, yet at the same time I had vague misgivings. My curiosity and those misgivings were therefore in direct opposition. Like an incoming tide meeting the outgoing current at the mouth of a river.

It was shortly after five thirty when Menshiki's Jaguar made its way back up the slope. As the Commendatore had predicted, it was already dark outside.

39
A CAMOUFLAGED CONTAINER, DESIGNED FOR A SPECIFIC PURPOSE

The Jaguar eased to a stop in front of my house, and Menshiki emerged. He walked around the car to open the door for Mariye and Shoko Akikawa, lowering the passenger seat so that Mariye could climb out of the back. The girl and the woman got into the blue Prius. Shoko rolled down the window and politely thanked Menshiki (Mariye, of course, turned the other way). Then the two drove home without stopping by to say hello. Menshiki watched them until they were out of sight, took a moment to (I assumed) recalibrate his mind and adjust his expression, and walked to my front door.

“I know it's late, but do you mind if I drop in for a few minutes?” he asked rather shyly.

“Sure, please do. I'm not busy right now,” I said, showing him in.

We went to the living room; he sat on the sofa, while I sat in the easy chair that the Commendatore had just vacated. I thought I could feel the Commendatore's shrill voice still reverberating in the air.

“Thank you so much for today,” Menshiki said to me. “I owe you a lot.”

No thanks were necessary, I said. I really hadn't done anything.

“But if it hadn't been for your portrait—indeed, if it hadn't been for you, period—this chance would have passed me by. I would never have met Mariye face-to-face, never come this close to her. Everything has hinged on you—you're like the base of a folding fan. I'm concerned that you may not be enjoying that role, however.”

“Nothing could make me happier than helping you out like this,” I said. “But I must confess, it's hard to figure out how much is accidental and how much is planned. That part of it does bother me.”

Menshiki thought for a moment. “You may not believe this,” he said, nodding, “but I didn't plan any of this. Maybe it's not all pure coincidence, but almost everything has unfolded quite naturally.”

“So I'm the catalyst that happened to set those events in motion? Has that been my role?” I inquired.

“Catalyst? Yes, maybe you could say that.”

“To tell the truth, though, I feel more like a Trojan horse.”

Menshiki looked up at me, as if squinting into a bright light. “What do you mean?”

“You know, the hollow wooden horse the Greeks built. They hid their warriors inside and presented it as a gift to the clueless Trojans, who dragged it inside their fortress. A camouflaged container, designed for a specific purpose.”

Menshiki took a moment to respond. “In other words,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “you think I may have exploited you, used you as a kind of Trojan horse? To get close to Mariye?”

“At the risk of offending you, I do feel a little that way.”

Menshiki narrowed his eyes, and the corners of his mouth curled in the beginnings of a smile.

“I guess that can't be helped. But as I just said, this has been a series of unexpected coincidences. To be honest, I like you. My affection for you is personal, and very natural. I don't find myself liking many people, so when it does happen I try to take it seriously. I would never exploit you for my sole convenience. I know I can be selfish, but I'd like to think that I'm able to draw a line between friendship and self-interest. You're not being used as a Trojan horse—not now, not ever. So please don't worry.”

He didn't seem to be making this up—his words had the ring of truth.

“So did you have a chance to show them the painting?” I asked. “My portrait of you in your study?”

“Of course. That's why they came in the first place. They loved it. Though Mariye didn't say anything. She's a girl of few words, as you know. But I could tell how strongly she felt. It showed in her face. She stood in front of the portrait for a very long time. Just stood there, not speaking or moving.”

In fact, I couldn't remember the portrait very well, though I had finished it only a few weeks before. That was my pattern—the moment I launched into a new painting, the one I had just finished slipped from my mind. Only a vague and general image remained. I did retain a physical memory, however, of the sense of achievement I got from working on it. That palpable sensation meant more to me than the completed work.

“Their visit sure lasted a long time,” I said.

Menshiki gave an embarrassed shrug. “After they'd seen your painting, I gave them a light lunch and showed them around. A tour of my house and the grounds. Shoko seemed interested, you see. The time flew by.”

“I bet they were impressed.”

“Shoko was, I think,” Menshiki said. “Especially by my Jaguar XKE. But Mariye didn't say anything. Maybe she didn't like my house. Or maybe she's not interested in houses in general.”

I guessed she probably couldn't care less.

“Did you have a chance to talk to her?” I asked.

Menshiki shook his head no. “She opened her mouth two or three times at most. And what she said was almost meaningless. She generally ignores me.”

I kept quiet. I had no special thoughts on the matter, but I could picture the scene. Whenever he tried to start a conversation with Mariye, she would clam up, just mumble a word or two. Once Mariye made up her mind not to speak, trying to reach her was like ladling water onto a parched desert.

Menshiki picked up an ornament from the table, a glossy ceramic snail, and inspected it from a variety of angles. The snail had been one of the very few decorative objects left in the house. Probably a piece of Dresden china. The size of a smallish egg. Purchased long ago, perhaps, by Tomohiko Amada himself. Menshiki gingerly returned the snail to the table. Then he raised his head and looked across at me.

“I guess it will take her a while to get used to me,” he said, as if addressing himself. “I mean, we've only just met. She's a quiet child to begin with, and thirteen is said to be a difficult age, the beginning of puberty. All the same, being with her in the same room, breathing the same air—it was a precious experience, priceless really.”

“So then your feeling hasn't changed?”

Menshiki's eyes narrowed slightly. “What feeling do you mean?”

“That you don't care to know if Mariye is your child.”

“No, that hasn't changed a bit,” Menshiki said without hesitation. He chewed his lip for a moment before continuing. “It's hard to explain. But when she's near, and I look at her face and watch her move, this odd feeling comes over me. The sense that somehow my life up to now may have been wasted. That I no longer understand the purpose of my existence, the reason I'm here. As if values I'd thought were certain were turning out to be not so certain after all.”

“And for you these sorts of feelings are extremely odd, am I right?” For me, they were par for the course.

“That's right. I've never experienced them before.”

“And they started after spending several hours with Mariye?”

“Yes. You must think I'm some kind of idiot.”

I shook my head no. “Not at all. I felt the same way when I hit puberty and met a girl I liked.”

Menshiki gave a small smile. There was something rueful in it. “That's when the pointlessness of all my accomplishments and successes, and all the money I've accumulated, hit me. That I'm no more than an expedient and transitory vehicle meant to pass a set of genes on to someone else. What other function do I serve? Beyond that, I'm just a clod of earth.”

“A clod of earth.” I tried saying the words. They had a strange ring.

“To tell the truth, I was down in the pit when that realization hit me. Remember, that pit we uncovered behind the shrine, underneath the pile of rocks?”

“How could I forget?”

“If you'd felt like it, you could have abandoned me there. Without food and water, my body would have shriveled and returned to the soil. I would have been no more than a clod of earth in the end.”

I didn't know what to say, so I remained silent.

“It's enough for me,” Menshiki said, “that the
possibility
exists that Mariye and I are related by blood. I feel no compulsion to find out if it's true or not. That mere possibility has sent a beam of light into my life—now I can look at myself in a new way.”

“I think I understand,” I said. “Maybe not every step in your reasoning, but the way you feel. What I don't get is what you're expecting from Mariye. In concrete terms.”

“It's not that I haven't given that question any thought,” Menshiki said. He looked down at his hands. They were beautiful hands, with long fingers. “People devote a lot of energy to thinking about things. Whether they want to or not. Yet in the end we all just have to wait—only time can tell how events play out. The answers lie ahead.”

I remained quiet. I had no clear idea what he had in mind, and no compelling desire to find out. Were I to know, my position might become even more difficult.

“I've heard Mariye is much more forthcoming with you,” Menshiki said after a long pause. “That's what Shoko said, at least.”

“That's probably true,” I said cautiously. “We seem to be able to talk quite naturally when we're in the studio.”

Of course, I didn't tell him that Mariye had come to visit me from the adjoining mountain through a hidden passageway. That was our secret.

“Do you think it's because she's gotten comfortable with you? Or because she feels some personal connection?”

“The girl is fascinated by painting, maybe artistic expression in general,” I explained. “If a painting is involved, there are occasions—not always, mind you—when she's quite comfortable talking. She's not a typical child, that's for sure. When I taught her at the community center, she didn't speak much to the other kids.”

“So she doesn't get along with children her own age?”

“Maybe. Her aunt says she doesn't make many friends at school.”

Menshiki pondered that for a moment.

“She opens up with Shoko to some extent, I guess,” he said.

“So it seems. From what I've heard, she's much closer to her aunt than she is to her father.”

Menshiki merely nodded. His silence seemed charged with implication.

“What sort of man is her father?” I asked him. “Have you checked?”

Menshiki looked to the side and narrowed his eyes. “He was fifteen years older than she was,” he finally said. “By ‘she' I mean his late wife.”

Of course, “late wife” meant Menshiki's former lover.

“I don't know how they got together, or why they married. I have no interest in those things,” he said. “Whatever the case, though, it's clear he loved his wife dearly. Her death was a terrible shock. They say he was a changed man after that.”

According to Menshiki, the Akikawas were a big landowning family in the area (much as Tomohiko Amada's family was in Kyushu). Although they had lost nearly half of their property in the land reform that followed World War Two, they retained many assets, enough that the family could get along comfortably on the income they produced. Yoshinobu Akikawa, Mariye's father, was the first of two children and the only son, so when his father passed away at an early age he became the head of the family. He built a house for himself at the top of the mountain they owned, and set up an office in one of their buildings in Odawara. From that office, he managed the family properties in the city and its environs: several commercial and apartment buildings, and a number of rental houses and lots. He also dabbled in real estate. In other words, while he kept the business going, he made no attempt to broaden its scale. The core of his enterprise consisted of looking after the family's assets when the need arose.

Yoshinobu married late in life. He was in his mid-forties when he tied the knot, and his daughter (Mariye) was born the following year. Then, six years later, his wife was stung to death. It was early spring, and she had been walking alone through a big plum grove they owned when she was attacked by a swarm of large hornets. Her death hit him hard. To wipe away anything that could remind him of the tragedy, as soon as the funeral was over he hired men to raze the plum trees, and yank their roots from the earth. What was left was a dreary and barren plot of land. It had been a beautiful grove, so its destruction was painful for many. Moreover, for generations those living nearby had been permitted to pick a portion of the abundant fruit to make pickled plums and plum wine. As a result, Yoshinobu Akikawa's barbaric act of retaliation deprived many local residents of one of the small pleasures they could look forward to each year. Still, it was his mountain, the plum grove was
his
, and no one could fail to understand his fury—at the hornets and the trees. As a consequence, those complaints were never voiced in public.

Yoshinobu Akikawa turned into a rather morose man after his wife's death. He hadn't been particularly social or gregarious to begin with, and now his introverted side only grew stronger. His interest in spiritual things deepened, and he became involved with a religious sect whose name was unknown to me. It is said that at one point he spent some time in India. At great personal expense, he built a grand hall for the sect's use on the outskirts of town, where he began spending much of his time. It's not clear exactly what takes place there. But it appears that a daily regimen of stringent religious “austerities” and the study of reincarnation helped him find a new purpose in life after his wife's death.

These activities reduced his involvement in the business, but his duties hadn't been all that demanding in the first place. There were three longtime employees more than capable of managing things when the boss failed to show up. His visits home became more infrequent. When he did return it was usually just to sleep. His relationship with his only daughter had, for some reason, grown more distant after his wife's death. Perhaps she reminded him of his dead wife. Or perhaps he had never really cared for children. In any case, as a result the child never really took to her father. The responsibility for looking after Mariye went to his younger sister, Shoko. She had taken leave from her job as secretary for the president of a medical college in Tokyo and moved to the house atop the mountain near Odawara on what she expected to be a temporary break to look after the child. In the end, though, the arrangement became permanent. Perhaps she came to love the girl. Or perhaps she couldn't stand idly by when her little niece needed her so much.

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