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Authors: Yôko Ogawa

Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Psychological, #Sports

The Gift of Numbers

BOOK: The Gift of Numbers
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Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and
the Professor

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ISBN 9781409076667

Version 1.0

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1

We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because,
he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root
sign.

"There's a fine brain in there," the Professor said, mussing my
son's hair. Root, who wore a cap to avoid being teased by his
friends, gave a wary shrug. "With this one little sign we can come
to know an infinite range of numbers, even those we can't see."
He traced the symbol in the thick layer of dust on his desk.

Of all the countless things my son and I learned from the Professor,
the meaning of the square root was among the most important. No doubt he would
have been bothered by my use of the word
countless
—too sloppy,
for he believed that the very origins of the universe could be explained in
the exact language of numbers—but I don't know how else to put it. He
taught us about enormous prime numbers with more than a hundred thousand places,
and the largest number of all, which was used in mathematical proofs and was
in the
Guinness Book of Records
, and about the idea of something beyond
infinity. As interesting as all this was, it could never match the experience
of simply spending time with the Professor. I remember when he taught us about
the spell cast by placing numbers under this square root sign. It was a rainy
evening in early April. My son's schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug. The light
in the Professor's study was dim. Outside the window, the blossoms on the
apricot tree were heavy with rain.

The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured
out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate
guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those
guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one.
He had a special feeling for what he called the "correct miscalculation,"
for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the
right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts
came to nothing.

"Then what happens if you take the square root of negative
one?" he asked.

"So you'd need to get -1 by multiplying a number by itself?"
Root asked. He had just learned fractions at school, and it had
taken a half-hour lecture from the Professor to convince him that
numbers less than zero even existed, so this was quite a leap. We
tried picturing the square root of negative one in our heads:
The square root of 100 is 10; the square root of 16 is 4; the square
root of 1 is 1. So the square root of -1 is ...

He didn't press us. On the contrary, he fondly studied our expressions
as we mulled over the problem.

"There is no such number," I said at last, sounding rather tentative.

"Yes, there is," he said, pointing at his chest. "It's in here. It's
the most discreet sort of number, so it never comes out where it
can be seen. But it's here." We fell silent for a moment, trying to
picture the square root of minus one in some distant, unknown
place. The only sound was the rain falling outside the window. My
son ran his hand over his head, as if to confirm the shape of the
square root symbol.

But the Professor didn't always insist on being the teacher. He
had enormous respect for matters about which he had no knowledge,
and he was as humble in such cases as the square root of
negative one itself. Whenever he needed my help, he would interrupt
me in the most polite way. Even the simplest request—that I
help him set the timer on the toaster, for example—always began
with "I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but ..." Once I'd set the
dial, he would sit peering in as the toast browned. He was as fascinated
by the toast as he was by the mathematical proofs we did together,
as if the truth of the toaster were no different from that of
the Pythagorean theorem.

 

It was March of 1992 when the Akebono Housekeeping Agency
first sent me to work for the Professor. At the time, I was the youngest
woman registered with the agency, which served a small city
on the Inland Sea, although I already had more than ten years of
experience. I managed to get along with all sorts of employers,
and even when I cleaned for the most difficult clients, the ones no
other housekeeper would touch, I never complained. I prided myself
on being a true professional.

In the Professor's case, it only took a glance at his client card to
know that he might be trouble. A blue star was stamped on the
back of the card each time a housekeeper had to be replaced, and
there were already nine stars on the Professor's card, a record during
my years with the agency.

When I went for my interview, I was greeted by a slender, elegant
old woman with dyed brown hair swept up in a bun. She
wore a knit dress and walked with a cane.

"You will be taking care of my brother-in-law," she said. I tried
to imagine why she would be responsible for her husband's
brother. "None of the others have lasted long," she continued.
"Which has been a terrible inconvenience for me and for my
brother-in-law. We have to start again every time a new housekeeper
comes.... The job isn't complicated. You would come
Monday through Friday at 11:00 A.M., fix him lunch, clean the
house, do the shopping, make dinner, and leave at 7:00 P.M. That's
the extent of it."

There was something hesitant about the way she said the words
brother-in-law
. Her tone was polite enough, but her left hand nervously
fingered her cane. Her eyes avoided mine, but occasionally
I caught her casting a wary glance in my direction.

"The details are in the contract I signed with the agency. I'm
simply looking for someone who can help him live a normal life,
like anyone else."

"Is your brother-in-law here?" I asked. She pointed with the cane
to a cottage at the back of the garden behind the house. A red slate
roof rose above a neatly pruned hedge of scarlet hawthorn.

"I must ask you not to come and go between the main house
and the cottage. Your job is to care for my brother-in-law, and the
cottage has a separate entrance on the north side of the property. I
would prefer that you resolve any difficulties without consulting
me. That's the one rule I ask you to respect." She gave a little tap
with her cane.

I was used to absurd demands from my employers—that I wear
a different color ribbon in my hair every day; that the water for tea
be precisely 165 degrees; that I recite a little prayer every evening
when Venus rose in the night sky—so the old woman's request
struck me as relatively straightforward.

"Could I meet your brother-in-law now?" I asked.

"That won't be necessary." She refused so flatly that I thought I
had offended her. "If you met him today, he wouldn't remember
you tomorrow."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand."

"He has difficulties with his memory," she said. "He's not senile;
his brain works well, but about seventeen years ago he hit
his head in an automobile accident. Since then, he has been unable
to remember anything new. His memory stops in 1975. He
can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he
has no idea what he ate for dinner last night. In the simplest
terms, it's as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside
his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record
over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty
minutes—no more and no less." Perhaps because she had repeated
this explanation so many times in the past, the old
woman ran through it without pause, and with almost no sign of
emotion.

How exactly does a man live with only eighty minutes of
memory? I had cared for ailing clients on more than one occasion
in the past, but none of that experience would be useful
here. I could just picture a tenth blue star on the Professor's
card.

From the main house, the cottage appeared deserted. An old-fashioned
garden door was set into the hawthorn hedge, but it was
secured by a rusty lock that was covered in bird droppings.

"Well then, I'll expect you to start on Monday," the old woman
said, putting an end to the conversation. And that's how I came to
work for the Professor.

 

Compared to the impressive main house, the cottage was modest
to the point of being shabby: a small bungalow that seemed to
have been built hastily. Trees and shrubs had grown wild around
it, and the doorway was deep in shadows. When I tried the doorbell
on Monday, it seemed to be broken.

"What's your shoe size?"

This was the Professor's first question, once I had announced
myself as the new housekeeper. No bow, no greeting. If there is
one ironclad rule in my profession, it's that you always give the
employer what he wants; and so I told him.

"Twenty-four centimeters."

"There's a sturdy number," he said. "It's the factorial of four."
He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and was silent for a moment.

"What's a 'factorial'?" I asked at last. I felt I should try to find
out a bit more, since it seemed to be connected to his interest in
my shoe size.

"The product of all the natural numbers from one to four is
twenty-four," he said, without opening his eyes. "What's your telephone
number?"

He nodded, as if deeply impressed. "That's the total number of
primes between one and one hundred million."

It wasn't immediately clear to me why my phone number was
so interesting, but his enthusiasm seemed genuine. And he wasn't
showing off; he struck me as straightforward and modest. It nearly
convinced me that there
was
something special about my phone
number, and that I was somehow special for having it.

Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he
talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or
do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They
were safe, a source of comfort.

Every morning, during the entire time I worked for the Professor,
we repeated this numerical q and a at the front door. To the
Professor, whose memory lasted only eighty minutes, I was always
a new housekeeper he was meeting for the first time, and so every
morning he was appropriately shy and reserved. He would ask my
shoe size or telephone number, or perhaps my zip code, the registration
number on my bicycle, or the number of brushstrokes in
the characters of my name; and whatever the number, he invariably
found some significance in it. Talk of factorials and primes
flowed effortlessly, seeming completely natural, never forced.

Later, even after I had learned the meanings of some of these
terms, there was still something pleasant about our daily introductions
at the door. I found it reassuring to be reminded that my
telephone number had some significance (beyond its usual purpose),
and the simple sound of the numbers helped me to start the
day's work with a positive attitude.

He had once been an expert in number theory at a university.
He was sixty-four, but he looked older and somewhat haggard, as
though he did not eat properly. He was barely more than five feet
tall, and his back was so badly hunched that he seemed even
shorter. The wrinkles on his bony neck looked a little grimy, and
his wispy, snow-white hair fell in all directions, half-concealing his
plump, Buddhalike ears. His voice was feeble and his movements
were slow. If you looked closely, though, you could see traces of a
face that had once been handsome. There was something in the
sharp line of his jaw and his deeply carved features that was still
attractive.

Whether he was at home or going out—which he did very
rarely—the Professor always wore a suit and tie. His closet held
three suits, one for winter, one for summer, and one that could be
worn in spring or fall, three neckties, six shirts, and an overcoat.
He did not own a sweater or a pair of casual pants. From a housekeeper's
point of view, it was the ideal closet.

I suspect that the Professor had no idea there were clothes
other than suits. He had no interest in what people wore, and even
less in his own appearance. For him it was enough to get up in the
morning, open the closet, and put on whichever suit wasn't
wrapped in plastic from the cleaners. All three suits were dark and
well-worn, much like the Professor himself, and clung to him like
a second skin.

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