A lot of things had happened that spring. A situation developed at work and I ended up quitting my job at a little advertising firm in Tokyo where I’d been working for two years. Around the same time I broke up with my girlfriend; we’d been going out since college. A month after that my grandmother died of intestinal cancer, and for the first time in five years I came back to this town, small suitcase in hand. My old room was just as I’d left it. The books I’d read were still on the shelf, my bed was still there, my desk, and all the old records I used to listen to. But everything in the room had dried up, had long ago lost its color and smell. Time alone had stood still.
I’d planned to go back to Tokyo a couple of days after my grandmother’s funeral to run down some leads for a new job. I was planning to move to a new apartment, too; I needed a change of scenery. As the days passed, though, it seemed like too much trouble to get off my butt and get going. To put a finer point on it, even if I’d wanted to get up and get going, I couldn’t. I spent my time holed up in my old room, listening to those records, rereading old books, occasionally doing a little weeding in the garden. I didn’t meet anybody, and the only people I talked to were members of my family.
One day my aunt dropped by and asked me to take my cousin to a new hospital. She should take him herself, she said, but something had come up on the day of the appointment and she couldn’t. The hospital was near my old high school, so I knew where it was, and since I had nothing else going on, I couldn’t very well refuse. My aunt handed me an envelope with some cash in it for us to use as lunch money.
This switch to a new hospital came about because the treatment he’d been getting at his old hospital hadn’t done a thing to help. In fact, he was having more problems than ever. When my aunt complained to the doctor in charge, he suggested that the problem had more to do with the boy’s home environment than anything medical, and the two of them went at it. Not that anybody really expected that changing hospitals would lead to a quick improvement in his hearing. Nobody said as much, but they’d pretty much given up hope that his condition would ever improve.
My cousin lived nearby, but I was just over a decade older than him and we had never been what you’d call close. When the relatives got together I might take him someplace or play with him, but that was the extent of it. Still, before long everyone started to look at my cousin and me as a pair, thinking that he was attached to me and that he was my favorite. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why. Now, though, seeing the way he tilted his head, his left ear aimed at me, I found it strangely touching. Like the sound of rain heard long ago, his awkwardness struck a chord with me. And I began to catch a glimpse of why our relatives wanted to bring us together.
The bus had passed by seven or eight bus stops when my cousin anxiously looked up at me again.
“Is it much farther?”
“Yeah, we still have a ways. It’s a big hospital, so we won’t miss it.”
I casually watched as the wind from the open window gently rustled the brims of the old people’s hats and the scarves around their necks. Who were these people? And where could they possibly be headed?
“Hey, are you going to work in my father’s company?” my cousin asked.
I looked at him in surprise. His father, my uncle, ran a large printing company in Kobe. I’d never given the idea a thought, and nobody ever dropped a hint.
“Nobody’s said anything about that,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
My cousin blushed. “I just thought you might be,” he said. “But why don’t you? You wouldn’t have to leave. And everybody’d be happy.”
The taped message announced the next stop, but no one pushed the button to get off. Nobody was waiting to get on at the bus stop either.
“But there’s stuff I have to do, so I have to go back to Tokyo,” I said. My cousin nodded silently.
There wasn’t a single thing I had to do. But I couldn’t very well stay here.
The number of houses thinned out as the bus climbed the mountain slope. Thick branches began to throw a heavy shadow across the road. We passed by some foreign-looking houses, painted, with low walls in front. The cold breeze felt good. Each time the bus rounded a curve the sea down below popped into view, then disappeared. Until the bus pulled up at the hospital my cousin and I just stood there, watching the scenery go by.
“The examination will take some time and I can handle it alone,” my cousin said, “so why don’t you go and wait for me somewhere?” After a quick hello to the doctor, I exited the exam room and went to the cafeteria. I’d barely had a bite for breakfast and was starving, but nothing on the menu whetted my appetite. I made do with a cup of coffee.
It was a weekday morning and one little family and I had the place to ourselves. The father was in his midforties, wearing a navy-blue-striped pair of pajamas and plastic slippers. The mother and little twin girls had come to pay a visit. The twins had on identical white dresses and were bent over the table, serious looks on their faces, drinking glasses of orange juice. The father’s injury, or illness, didn’t seem too serious, and both parents and kids looked bored.
Outside the window was a lawn. A sprinkler ticked as it rotated, misting the grass with a silvery spray. A pair of shrill long-tailed birds cut right above the sprinkler and disappeared from sight. Past the lawn there were a few deserted tennis courts, the nets gone. Beyond the tennis courts was a line of zelkovas, and between their branches you could glimpse the ocean. The early summer sun glinted here and there off the small waves. The breeze rustled the new leaves of the zelkovas, ever so slightly bending the spray from the sprinkler.
I felt like I’d seen this scene, many years before. A broad swatch of lawn, twin girls slurping up orange juice, long-tailed birds flying off who knows where, netless tennis courts, the sea beyond…But it was an illusion. It was vivid enough, an intense sense of the real, but an illusion nonetheless. I’d never been to this hospital in my life.
I stretched my legs out on the seat opposite, took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. In the darkness I could see a lump of white. Silently it expanded, then contracted, like a microbe under a microscope. Changing form, spreading out, breaking up, re-forming.
It was eight years ago when I went to that other hospital. A small hospital next to the sea. All you could see out the window were some oleanders. It was a hospital, and it smelled of rain. My friend’s girlfriend had her chest operated on there, and the two of us went to see how she was doing. The summer of our junior year in high school.
It wasn’t much of an operation, really, just done to correct the position of one of her ribs that curved inward a bit. Not an emergency procedure, just the type of thing that would eventually have to be done, so she figured why not take care of it now. The operation itself was over quickly, but they wanted her to take her time recuperating, so she stayed in the hospital for ten days. My friend and I rode there together on a 125cc Yamaha motorcycle. He drove on the way there, I drove on the way back. He’d asked me to come. “No way I’m going to a hospital by myself,” he’d said.
My friend stopped at a candy store near the station and bought a box of chocolates. I held on to his belt with one hand, the other hand clutching tightly the box of chocolates. It was a hot day and our shirts kept getting soaked, then drying in the wind. As my friend drove he sang some nothing song in an awful voice. I can still remember the smell of his sweat. Not too long after that he died.
His girlfriend had on blue pajamas and a thin gown sort of thing down to her knees. The three of us sat at a table in the cafeteria, smoked Short Hope cigarettes, drank Cokes, and ate ice cream. She was starving and ate two sugarcoated doughnuts and drank cocoa with tons of cream in it. Still that didn’t seem enough for her.
“By the time you get out of here you’re going to be a regular blimp,” my friend said, somewhat disgustedly.
“It’s okay—I’m recovering,” she replied, wiping the tips of her fingers, covered in oil from the doughnuts.
As they talked I glanced out the window at the oleanders. They were huge, almost like a forest unto themselves. I could hear the sound of waves too. The railing next to the window was completely rusted from the constant breeze. An antique-looking ceiling fan nudged the hot, sticky air around the room. The cafeteria had the smell of a hospital. Even the food and drinks had that hospital odor to them. The girlfriend’s pajamas had two breast pockets, in one of which was a small gold-colored pen. Whenever she leaned forward I could see her small, white breasts peep out of the V-neck collar.
The memories ground to a halt right there. I tried to remember what had happened after that. I drank a Coke, gazed at the oleanders, snuck a peek at her breasts—and then what? I shifted in the plastic chair and, resting my head in my hands, tried to dig down further in the layers of memory. Like gouging out a cork with the tip of a thin-bladed knife.
I looked off to one side and tried to visualize the doctors splitting open the flesh of her chest, sticking their rubber-gloved hands inside to straighten out her crooked rib. But it all seemed too surreal, like some sort of allegory.
That’s right—after that we talked about sex. At least my friend did. But what did he say? Something about me, no doubt. How I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to make it with a girl. Not much of a story, but the way he told it, blowing everything out of proportion, made his girlfriend burst out laughing. Made me laugh as well. The guy really knew how to tell a story.
“Please don’t make me laugh,” she said, a bit painfully. “My chest hurts when I laugh.”
“Where does it hurt?” my friend asked.
She pressed a spot on her pajamas above her heart, just to the right of her left breast. He made some joke about that, and she laughed again.
I looked at my watch. It was eleven forty-five but my cousin still wasn’t back. It was getting close to lunchtime and the cafeteria was starting to get more crowded. All sorts of sounds and voices mixed together like smoke enveloping the room. I returned once more to the realm of memory. And that small gold pen she had in her breast pocket.
…Now I remember—she used that pen to write something on a paper napkin.
She was drawing a picture. The napkin was too soft and the tip of her pen kept getting stuck. Still, she managed to draw a hill. And a small house on top of the hill. A woman was asleep in the house. The house was surrounded by a stand of blind willows. It was the blind willows that had put her to sleep.
“What the heck’s a blind willow?” my friend asked.
“There is a kind of tree like that.”
“Well, I never heard of it.”
“That’s ’cause I’m the one who created it,” she said, smiling. “Blind willows have a lot of pollen, and tiny flies covered with the stuff crawled inside her ear and put the woman to sleep.”
She took a new napkin and drew a picture of the blind willow. The blind willow turned out to be a tree the size of an azalea. The tree was in bloom, the flowers surrounded by dark green leaves like a bunch of lizard tails gathered in a bunch. The blind willow didn’t resemble a willow at all.
“You got a cigarette?” my friend asked me. I tossed a sweaty pack of Hopes and some matches across the table.
“A blind willow looks small on the outside, but it’s got incredibly deep roots,” she explained. “Actually, after a certain point it stops growing up and pushes further and further down into the ground. Like the darkness nourishes it.”
“And the flies carry that pollen to her ear, burrow inside, and put her to sleep,” my friend added, struggling to light his cigarette with the damp matches. “But what happens to the flies?”
“They stay inside the woman and eat her flesh—naturally,” his girlfriend said.
“Gobble it up,” my friend said.
HẾT PHẦN 2