A Quiet Lifeby Kenzaburo Oe
“[These] ordinary lives . . . are movingly illuminated . . . portraits drawn with affection, insight and that wry humor . . . that is one of the defining qualities of [Oe’s] talent.” –The New York Times Book Review
Kenzaburo Oe is one of the most original and important writers of our times, and nowhere is his genius more evident than in A Quiet Life–an uncanny blend of the real with the imagined, of memoir with fiction. A Quiet Life is narrated by Ma-chan, a twenty-year-old woman. Her father is a famous and fascinating novelist; her older brother, though severely brain-damaged, possesses an almost magical gift for musical composition; and her mother’s life is devoted to the care of them both. Ma-chan and her younger brother find themselves emotionally on the outside of this oddly constructed nuclear family. But when her father accepts a visiting professorship from an American university, Ma-chan finds herself suddenly the head of the household and at the center of family relationships that she must begin to redefine.
“One of Oe’s masterpieces . . . a metafiction that mingles fact, fiction, philosophy and poetry with an ease that conceals just how ingenious, daring, original and far-reaching the work really is.” –Boston Globe
“[These] ordinary lives . . . are movingly illuminated . . . portraits drawn with affection, insight and that wry humor . . . that is one of the defining qualities of [Oe’s] talent.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Oe is a supremely gifted writer, able to “fictionalize” the most significant elements of his life as can few others, and his work has enormous impact.” –The Washington Post
a quiet life
This all happened the year Father was invited to be a writer-in-residence at a university in California, and circumstances required that Mother accompany him. One evening, as their departure drew near, we gathered around the family table and had our meal in an atmosphere slightly more ceremonious than usual. Even on occasions like this, Father is incapable of discussing anything important concerning the family without weaving in some levity. I had just come of age, at twenty, and he started talking about my marriage plans as if they were a topic for light conversation. I had never been much of a talker, and more recently had fallen into the habit of not disclosing my private thoughts to him. So while the table talk now centered on me, I merely listened to it, though attentively.
“At any rate, present your minimum requirements,” Father, who had been drinking a beer, suddenly said to me, undaunted by my reticence. Expecting only a perfunctory reply, however, he kept glancing at me with his somewhat impatient smile.
Quite inadvertently, I brought myself to tell him about an idea I had now and then entertained.
“My husband has to be someone who can afford at least a two-bedroom apartment, since Eeyore will be living with us. And I want to live a quiet life there,” I said, the blunt tone of my own voice ringing in my ears.
I detected bewilderment in both Father and Mother the moment I closed my mouth. Their first reaction was to smother what I had said with laughter, as if to suggest that my idea was merely an amusing, childish fantasy. But this is the way conversation in our family usually proceeds, the way Father orchestrates it, his forte. Eeyore, as my brother is called, is four years older than I, and he works at a welfare workshop that employs people with mental handicaps. Now if I were a new bride, and were to bring someone like Eeyore along to live with us, how would my young husband react? Even if I had told him about my plans before our marriage, wouldn’t he simply dismiss them as strange and irrelevant? And then, on the very first day of their life together, his new brother-in-law, a giant of a man, shows up at the small apartment he had gone to such trouble to find–how surprised the inexperienced young man would be.
Sensing that there was some serious motive behind my parents’ jocular conversation, I felt tense and hung my head to avert my eyes. What I said may have sounded unreasonable, but having said it, it became all the more im portant to me.
“I’ve been told all along that I don’t have a sense of humor, and I quite agree,” I continued, unable to stay quiet any longer. ‘maybe there’s a hidden message in what you’re saying. ” In any event, that’s what I think. I can’t conceive of marriage in concrete terms yet, because I don’t have anyone particular in mind. I consider all the possible situations, but run into a dead end, no matter where I start, and that’s why I think this way.
“The present conversation, too, tells me that my obsession is ludicrous ” for I don’t think anyone would marry me with Eeyore along. ” Anyway, Papa, Mama, you’re not telling me how to actually get around that dead end, are you?”
This was all I said, though I was abundantly aware I needed to elaborate. Every so often I revert to my childhood habit of standing beside Mother, as though in attendance, and talking to her while she puts on her makeup in her bedroom. I spoke to her the next morning this way, picking up from where I had clammed up the evening before. I had sort of–to use my younger brother O-chan’s* pet phrase–rehearsed what I would say to her. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that something had made me rehearse it subconsciously. ”
I, too, was disappointed with what I had said the night before. I probably would have been better off saying nothing at all. I retreated to my bedroom, but sleep evaded me. I thought about all sorts of things, and with frayed nerves, I was seized by the premonition of a terrible dream, a nightmare in which I saw myself standing all alone in an empty, desolate place. An awareness of the reality that I was still awake lingered within me, and mingled with the dream. I remained in this state of mind–sad, lonely, detached–knowing full well that my body was lying on the bed.
In time I realized that behind and to the side of me in the dream stood another person with feelings the same as mine. Without turning around to look, I knew that this was the Eeyore-to-be. This Eeyore-to-be, who at any moment would step out obliquely from behind me, was an attendant to a bride, and the bride was me. Primly dressed in my wedding gown, I stood lonely in that desolate place with the Eeyore-to-be as my attendant, with no idea who the groom was. Dusk was setting in on that vast, vacuous wasteland. Such was the dream I dreamt. ”
Deep in the night I awoke. And as I recalled the dream, the loneliness welled back up in me with a vengeance, and with such vividness that I could no longer lie in the darkness of my room. So I went upstairs and turned on the night-light, which Eeyore uses so as not to stumble when he goes to the bathroom, and entered his room, through the door which he lets stand ajar. I bunkered down at the foot of his bed, wrapped my knees in the old beat-up blanket I had unconsciously brought with me–an act reminiscent of my childhood behavior–and listened to the sound of his heavy, deep-sleep breathing, which seemed to surpass the norm for human lungs. Not an hour had passed when, in the pale darkness, he got out of bed and quickly went out to the bathroom just across the hall, He took not the least notice of me, and I felt all the more lonesome.
The loud gurgle of urination seemed to last forever, but when Eeyore returned, be came to me. Like a big dog nuzzling at his master, he crouched and pushed his head against my shoulder and sat down beside me with his knees drawn up, apparently intending to sleep that way. I suddenly felt so happy. After a while, like a discreet adult stifling laughter, yet with a soft, pure, and childlike voice, he said, “Is everything all right with Ma-chan?” Feeling utterly whole again, I helped him back into bed, waited until sleep revisited him, and went back to my room.
The fall semester abroad was about to start, and this took place the last day of summer, just one day before their departure. Father was reading the paper on the sofa by their over-stuffed, heavy-looking suitcases when he suddenly exclaimed, “Eeyore’s got to start doing something for exercise again! Like swimming!” He was addressing neither Mother, who was working in the kitchen, nor me: rather he sounded like he was talking to himself after a lot of painful deliberation.
“Exercise? I’m a very good swimmer,” Eeyore would have replied after a moment of belated thought, evoking laughter from everyone in the family–if, as usual, he had been there beside Father, lying flat on his stomach on the carpet, composing music.
Had Eeyore been there, Father’s words would not have come rolling down on me, like a log or something, and just remained there. Eeyore is the buffer in the family–he’s not wholly unaware of it–and he plays his role humorously.
But Eeyore wasn’t there when Father suddenly mentioned exercise. If I remember correctly, I had already returned home after taking him to the welfare workshop in the morning, and was helping Mother clear the breakfast table when Father, the only one who had slept in, blurted out those words about exercise as he put down the morning paper. As I said, I felt weighed down by an unknown, loglike object. Then, when I started tidying up the living room, soon after Father had gone up to his study, I saw, in the morning paper he had left sprawled on the table, an article reporting that a mentally retarded youth had assaulted a female student at a camp school. The assault appeared to be motivated by sex.
I think the belligerent sensation, the Hell, no! Hell, no! that welled up in me, was not really a spontaneous reaction but one I had prepared all along. As a matter of fact, I had recently given vent to it on a number of occasions with those very words–words that Eeyore calls “rough” and reprimands me for using. Still, all too frequently, for some time now, my eyes have caught headlines decrying such sexual “outbursts’ by mentally handicapped people. The newspaper we subscribe to, in particular, seemed to be running a covert campaign against such people, and these accounts appeared so often, as in that day’s morning edition, that I once suggested to Mother that we take a different paper. Yet Father had reacted with good grace to the paper’s campaign denouncing the “outbursts,” as though he believed that they were actually taking place. And without even a word about the article, he had stammered that Eeyore should take up something for exercise–an attitude I found repulsive, annoyingly depressing at best.
Eeyore is definitely at a sexually mature age. I see many robust boys, in their twenties like Eeyore, while commuting to classes and on campus. I won’t say this for all of them–in particular, I don’t at all feel this way about my fellow volunteers–but now and then I detect in a boy’s stare a radiation that seems to emanate from something sexual deep inside him. And all those sexy weekly magazine ads that hang everywhere in the commuter trains!
But if Father, from such general preconceptions, had worried about “outbursts “from Eeyore–in the same way the newspaper reporter worried about them–and had claimed that exercise a necessary measure (!?) to prevent them, then wouldn’t there be something “banal” about Father that comes from his not seeing the facts clearly? I think I was reacting against this.
There was some talk at Eeyore’s welfare facility, too, of several incidents that had almost been “outbursts.” But according to what I heard from some of the mothers who had come to pick up their children, these “outbursts’ were moderate, even merciful, compared to the glares of robust, able-bodied youngsters. Still, who could have known, as I quietly listened to them from my seat at their side, that a voice rang in me so loud as to almost make me cry, Hell, no! Hell, no! In any case, nothing had happened that should have involved the police.
When Eeyore first began commuting to the welfare workshop, I merely accompanied Mother when she took him there; and I recall there was practically nothing near the building at the time, just vacant lots. But since then, many wood-frame apartment houses with beautiful facades have mushroomed in the area, and it’s often dangerous to cross the street with those structures blocking the view. So if there had been an assault, surely the new residents would have begun a movement against the welfare workshop.
One windy day early this spring, on my way back from the welfare workshop, where I had taken Eeyore, I turned at the corner of a fenced-in used-car lot to walk along a side street of the always wretchedly busy Koshu Boulevard. Since attendance for the day had been taken and the absence reports had already been submitted to the center office, I knew the boy I had seen wasn’t one of Eeyore’s workmates. But this seemingly mentally retarded boy had pulled down his pants to his knees to expose his pure white buttocks and was fondling his genitals while gazing at the grimy cars beyond the fence. ‘my, oh my!” exclaimed Mrs. A, one of the mothers who was walking back with me, a take-charge type of woman, quick in making decisions and taking action. ‘ma-chan, you stay right here,” she said, ‘mrs. M and I will go first!” Having brought me to a halt with these enigmatic words, she briskly headed toward the boy.
Three other women, who happened to be abreast of us on the other side of the street, also began to move to censure the boy’s behavior. Reaching him first, though, Mrs. A made him pull up his pants, and helped him with the satchel he had left on the side of the road. She made sure which direction his school was in, and wasted no time sending him off. The three women, left standing there with no opportunity to voice their complaints, reproached us over their shoulders as they resumed walking.
This is what Mrs. A, who had started toward the station, said when I caught up with her: “If those neighborhood housewives hadn’t been there, and if we didn’t have to worry about people mistaking the boy for one of ours, I’d have let him do it to his heart’s content!”
It was then Mrs. M’s turn to say, ‘my, oh my!” Like Mrs. A, she said this in consideration of a young girl’s presence, but in my heart I concurred with Mrs. A. And this made me repeat to myself, Hell, no! Hell, no! for I had blushed and even become teary-eyed, which seemed somehow indecent, and I gritted my teeth in anger.
While it is not my intention here to fault the boy in any way, I have never seen Eeyore engaging in the act–at least not where the eyes of a family member might spot him. We also know that, unlike the boy, he has never done it elsewhere; and to be quite honest, I have a hunch he won’t ever do it. I must confess, though, that my feelings regarding this matter are mixed, for the thought that he will never do it doesn’t necessarily ease my mind, much less make me feel happy. ”
Eeyore has a fundamentally serious streak in him, which makes him reject all sexual playfulness. Father prefers light-hearted banter about such things, though Mother says he was seriousness personified when he was a student, that his facetiousness is a second nature he acquired with great effort. Eeyore, however, is of the exacting, stoic sort. So I wonder if, when he hears “”peck,” which is frequently uttered in our house, he consciously endures the word, however much he dislikes it.
“Peck” is Father’s four-letter word, which lends itself to levity like silk off a spool. I know this usage isn’t found in the dictionary, but Father uses it like a wild card, so to speak. Still, if I were to stand in Father’s defense, I would say that I understood his need to invent it, for if any impropriety involving sex were to arise, some situation he himself could not well cope with, it would be in his own best interest to treat it more like a scandalous joke than as an embarrassing predicament.
I recall something that happened to Eeyore when he was in the secondary division of a special-care school for the handicapped. One day, at home, he was, as usual, lying on the living room carpet, listening to FM radio and composing music. And then he turned on to his other side, and he did so in such an awkward manner, thrusting his hips back, as it were, with obvious embarrassment. Father saw this and said to him, his voice louder–at least as I heard it–than necessary’, “Eeyore, your peck’s grown. Now go to the bathroom!”
So off he went, wobbling like a woman you might see in a hospital with something abnormal about her underbelly. I thought of his grown “peck” hurting as it brushed against his underwear, and I wished to help him in any way I could. But at such times Eeyore became extremely defensive–to the point that he would have pushed my hand away had I tried to do anything. Mother said she was helpless as far as the grown “peck” was concerned.
There were also times when we would come face to face with Eeyore’s “peck.” Eeyore has always worn diapers when going to bed. As he grew, the vinyl covers they had in the neighborhood stores became too small for him, so whenever we happened to go downtown, Mother and Father looked for something larger in the department stores. An instructor at the special school said he wanted all bed-wetting problems solved, and suggested that we get Eeyore up at night, between eleven and twelve, and take him to the bathroom. Mother usually did this, sometimes Father, but I took care of everything when Father was away traveling and Mother was too tired to get up. In those days I was up anyway, preparing for my high school entrance exams.
When you turned on the light, Eeyore would immediately awaken, but he wouldn’t spontaneously initiate any movement. Seeing him lying there, his form heaving under the blanket, you would think he was a bear in hibernation. You would start by stripping off the blanket, and find him sprawled out every which way. Then you began taking off his pajama pants. While still lying there, totally inert, he would du his bit, making subtle movements to help you with the task.
If his diaper was still dry, you would use it again after taking him to the toilet, so you would carefully remove its adhesive tape to keep its folds and creases the same. You could tell immediately by its sodden warmth if it was already wet, but when you made it in the nick of time, you would be as happy as a hunter who had bagged some game.
Yet it was precisely in this situation that there was a problem. As soon as you removed the adhesive tape, Eeyore’s “peck” would spring up with a force that would all but send the diaper flying. But after the diaper was removed and everything below his waist was exposed, there would be little left to do, for Eeyore would raise his upper body, get out of bed, and stand up by himself. No matter how often I did this, though, I could never get used to the smell of his breath, which reeks like some beast, or the foams produced when alloying metals. It’s totally different from the sweet smell of his breath during the day: different, too, from the odor of his mouth when he has his attacks. ”
Thanks to the conscientious instructor, Eeyore’s diaper-wetting was cured virtually overnight–a half year after the instructor made his bold suggestion–when Eeyore spent, a night at the special school dormitory for a dry run to prepare the children for camping trips and the like. Since then, I don’t think anyone in the family has seen his “peck” rise as it did before, with the virility of the serpents on Medusa’s pate. Come to think of it, it’s been years since I’ve seen him double up into that awkward posture with his elongated “peck.” But because Eeyore is of a serious mettle, and since he’s the kind of person who doesn’t allow himself to conceal such things from the eyes of his family, I wonder if this means that his “peck” has ceased to grow.
When I told Mother what I thought, she replied, in a lowered tone of voice, “Perhaps that period has passed. A short youth, wasn’t it?” Father was then in the living room, but had been listening in on our kitchen conversation, and said, “All in all, it’s nothing bad. We don’t need to be anxious anymore. That’s the long and short of it.” I resented this.
“We don’t know if that’s good or bad for Eeyore!” I protested in my heart. If his youth is gone, surely he won’t do anything like what that boy was doing on the street. But again, I don’t really know very much about such things. As far as my feelings go, something makes me want to say that I’d rather not be spared the anxiety. But more than this, I think to myself, Hell, no! Hell, no!
Despite the mental preparation I had made for all the things that might occur, the first week after my parents departed from Narita presented me with a host of wholly unanticipated events that set my mind awhirl. Because I was able to sleep only four or five hours at night, I would lie on my bed a couple of times a day between my chores and doze off, and sometimes I got so absentminded that I made two entries in the ‘diary as Home” I had promised Mother I would keep. There was a lot to write about, though.
Every little thing I had to attend to did, in a way, help forget my loneliness and anxiety. Nonetheless, I was vaguely perturbed by a nagging awareness of two matters, perhaps two persons. Something categorically carnal about them hung suspended in the middle of my body, right above my stomach. I refer to the two men who, at the height of my exasperation, I called “fanatics.” Father seemed taken aback by this way of referring to them but was silent, while Mother cautioned me not to speak this way in front of others.
The men started coming to our gate, at least once a week beginning late last year, to bring us presents of a sort. We knew nothing about them, but it was because of their odd behavior that I began calling them fanatics. One of the men brought a bouquet of small flowers, not the kind you find at a florist’s, but one that was bunched together in a peculiar fashion. The bouquet was like a cheerless classmate with downcast eyes who one day. when you’re not on guard, usurps your inner thoughts. The other man brought water in a half-pint sake bottle stoppered with a cork. This one just went away after leaving the bottle on the brick wall by the gate, but once I confronted him face to face when I went out to receive the delivery of a year-end gift. He was a hefty, muscular person, like a monk who practices rigid religious austerities, and under his broad brow were the light-brown dots of eyes set too far apart.
The bouquet man rang the bell on our gate and offered the flowers to whoever answered. He was a diminutive person with the bearing of a bank teller or a schoolteacher, and always attached to his flowers was a letter in a small envelope. I never read any of them, but because the envelopes bore the letterhead of his workplace, got the impression he was comparatively normal. Father and Mother made little if any mention of him, but come to think of it, I remember there was a big commotion in the house many years back, possibly because of this man. It happened in the small hours of the morning, but oblivious to everything in those days, I had slept through most of it, and only very vaguely remember sensing that there had been some kind of trouble. Now I wanted to know what it was, so I asked Eeyore if he remembered what had happened. “Ah! We really had trouble! A police car came, but I didn’t hear any siren!” His reply came in the usual belated fashion, yet he seemed to have a clear memory of the incident. “What kind of trouble was it?” I asked. Eeyore then lowered his eyes and said, with touching sincerity, “I’m in trouble! I’m in trouble!” From the way he tried to skirt my question, I assumed Father had told him to be quiet about it.
The appearance of such visitors was the high point, but there were also letters and phone calls that I felt were of the same nature, and as far as I krrow they increased after the telecast of a lecture called “The Prayers of a Faithless Man,” which Father had given at a women’s university. As someone who has had to directly put up with numerous nuisances, I can argue that there was no need for Father to go and tell everyone he was a “faithless man.” And though I don’t think he meant to offend anyone, for him to talk of prayers after admitting he professed no faith was, in my opinion, a breach of common courtesy. In this sense, he did make a social blunder, for which I think he well deserved some minor castigation. “But why do we have to go through this!” I protested to Mother once, and I think Father heard about it later. Anyway, that’s when I first called the two visitors “fanatics.”
Actually, Father seemed to bear all this as a kind of reprimand to himself, but thinking there might be a visitation after he, the person responsible for the family, had gone, and apparently feeling some guilt toward me, he wrote to the bouquet man and implored him to stop visiting. And so the delivery of the small bouquets ended. There was no way to get in touch with the water-bottle man, however, so the week before their departure, Father kept turning his eyes toward the gate as he worked in the living room, and was prepared to hand the man a similar letter, but he never appeared. Then, on Saturday, when dusk had fallen, we found another bottle on the gate, but no trace of the stranger.
After Father and Mother had left for California, I continued to worry about what I would do in the event I was again confronted at the gate by the water-bottle man. It would be depressing enough just to see a bottle there, let alone suffer another encounter with him.
Father’s letter to the man rested untouched on a visiting-card tray by the front door. I was aware of its presence, but I let it sit there, for it’s never to my liking to pry into someone else’s correspondence, whoever its sender or receiver may be. Mother’s first phone call to me after they had settled into one of the faculty quarters was to say that Father was anxious about the letter, and that he was having second thoughts about the water-bottle man getting it, for in it he had mentioned that he and Mother would be overseas for some time; this, he worried, might fan a zealous flame in the man, and make him want to see Eeyore protected by the power of his faith. ” Then Father came on the phone instead of Mother and appeasingly said, “Even so, Ma-chan, I hope you don’t become too apprehensive,” which left me feeling he was being a bit irresponsible.
We kept the bottles in the corner of our storeroom in the order they were brought to us, for Mother worried that the stranger might ask for them back. The array of bottles, identical in shape, with tight corks fitted evenly on them, presented an awesome sight. The bottling was obviously the handwork of an amateur, and though the water in the bottles didn’t look as though it had been boiled to kill the germs, when I picked up one of the earlier ones and gave it a shake, I saw no signs of fermentation, and again I felt the eeriness that gelled right above my stomach. ”
One evening ten days after my parents’ departure, a disturbance erupted on the block right next to ours, which brought a rush of police cars, their sirens ripping the air, unlike the police car in Eeyore’s memory. I already know what happened, but I will write as though I am recalling exactly how I felt and what I thought at each point in time. I have already been writing this way about the water-bottle man.
The sirens of patrol cars suddenly began pressing in from all around, and I was so shocked that my mind went completely blank. When I rose from my chair, still without a single thought in my head, all the blood seemed to drain out of my body, and I was forced to slouch down on the dining table, where I had been writing a report. I panicked like this because, at the time, Eeyore was at the barbershop.
The barbershop is on the corner where the bus route meets the street in front of the railway station, and it has always been my job to take Eeyore there, and pay the barber in advance. Eeyore has had his hair cut there for years, so he is familiar with the procedure. He seems to get a kick out of the young proprietor, who asks him repeatedly when his hair is just about done, “Is this all right? Is this all right?” And he loves the slow walk home, I suppose because of the refreshed feeling that a haircut gives. It suited me fine that Eeyore would come home by himself, because it’s rather weird for a young girl to sit and wait in a barbershop lounge.
As the patrol car warnings sounded from all directions, I checked to see whether Eeyore had returned home, but he hadn’t. O-chan was at cram school for his university entrance exams, and I intensely regretted falling out of the habit of not staying by Eeyore’s side until his haircut was done.
Nevertheless, bracing myself, I dashed outside in my jogging shoes. I ran the course Eeyore takes home, and at the third corner, a block just off the route connecting the house and the barbershop, in a quarter where there were a number of stately mansions, their grounds, buildings, and hedges just as they were in the past, I saw four police cars. The passing summer lingered in the twilight air, and its dying light could be seen in the perspiration on the faces and necks of the neighbors who had come out for an evening stroll, and were now milling around watching the policemen go about their work.
My body was already leaning in that direction, but I resisted the urge to start running again, and with a pounding chest, I said to an old man who was standing on the street near our house in calf-length drawers, “A traffic accident, sir?”
The old man turned his face, of classic features, toward me, and from his expression you would have thought he’d been watching a riveting TV serial about the ups and downs of life. This told me, vaguely, that the matter the police were investigating up ahead was nothing so simple as a traffic accident, but something more intimate and involved. With his already sanguine complexion even redder with emotion, the old man said, in a dread-inspiring voice, “It’s no traffic accident. A molester, it seems. You’d better not take that road.”
I bowed to him, turned with a good swing of my shoulders, and before I knew it, continued running along the route Eeyore should have been taking home. “Well, well!” I said to myself, savoring the rush of relief. “A molester, is it? I haven’t heard of a gay molester anywhere in this country. Eeyore’s safe! He’s safe!” But Eeyore wasn’t there at the barbershop; nor were there any customers, in the waiting lounge or in the chairs, but just the barbers cleaning up for the day.
The “Is this all right?” proprietor raised his body, bent over the floor he was sweeping, and said, perplexedly, “Your younger brother left for home some time ago,” making the not-uncommon mistake of thinking that Eeyore was younger.
On the way home, I was struck with a new fear. Until then I had optimistically figured Eeyore was safe, since I had never heard of a gay molester. But couldn’t it have been the other way around, that Eeyore had victimized someone? He wouldn’t, at first, have meant to. He had probably just been trying to be kind to a cute little girl, but had frightened her instead. ” And Eeyore just hates screaming and wailing. ”
But Eeyore was home, safe and sound, sitting on the sofa, perusing the coming week’s FM program guide in the evening paper. I sat down beside him and calmed the throbbing of my heart. He quickly glanced toward me, with a look of wonder, and quietly continued to mark off titles of classical music compositions with a red pencil. From his closely cropped head came the scent of hair lotion, and from his sport shirt came the green-smelling scent of lush vegetation! I immediately felt relieved, but from the next day on, I keenly recalled this green-leaf scent as material evidence of my distress. And then, that evening, when I went outside to close the front gate, there, sitting on the brick wall, was another bottle, the first in some time–not that I longed to see another one–and I felt totally exhausted.
The local page of next morning’s paper carried an article about the molester. The report said that an elementary schoolgirl had been victimized, and that a series of assaults identical in nature had been committed since the end of last year–which was news to me–and that the culprit was still at large. And a couple of days later, as I was sweeping the path from our porch to the front gate, I heard two of our neighbors talking: the woman who lives across from us, and another woman her age who always goes shopping with her to the stores in front of the station. I guess they didn’t know I was there, because they were standing on the paved street, on the other side of the closed gate and one step down, while I was inside the gate, my body stooped over a short garden broom, sweeping.
“The pervert was lying in wait at the corner of the block where the mansions are. He seized the girl and pushed her into the hollow of a hedge, then grabbed both wrists with one hand and pinned her down. Then he kept moving his other hand where the legs of his pants meet, and squirted something on her face.” I think I also heard the words “facial emission.” “How dreadful if he has AIDS. The girl’s face was drenched, with her tears too.” “Why didn’t she cry out?” “Perhaps he punched her hard, and she was too frightened.” “That, reminds me. The other day, I saw someone standing rock-still by the hedge with his back toward me. “”
I had to sweep in front of the gate, too, so I stepped out and bowed to the women, whereupon they smiled back at me and promptly changed the subject. Before I was done with the sweeping, one of them went back into her house as the other hastily pedaled away on her bicycle.
The women’s conversation imparted an even more ominous vigor to the movements of my floundering heart, which had been possessed by distress since the day after the pervert’s appearance. The women had started talking about a figure standing by the hedge, but had dropped the subject when they caught sight of my small, round head emerging above the gate. Yet it was this part of their story that had fallen on me with a heavy thud–for the fact is, the distress had become so great that, while feeling apologetic toward him, I had tested Eeyore.
The day before, Eeyore and I had gone to a coffee shop on the street in front of the station. Paying the cashier in advance for his coffee, I asked Eeyore to go home alone because I needed to pick up a few things at the supermarket. I then hid in, and watched from, the shade of a pagoda tree whose small, yellowed leaves had already begun to shrivel. Finishing his coffee, Eeyore emerged, and in his placid tension was a soft expression that might, at any moment, have broken into a smile; in other words, he was in a good mood. He was taking delight in carrying out, by himself, the special suggestion he had gotten from me. He waited cautiously for a break in the stream of cars to cross the busy bus route, and then continued walking, slowly, as though on an old-fashioned pleasure stroll.
If he walked the course we always take to and from the station, then my distress would prove a needless worry. And indeed he turned the corner as we always do, then continued on the same well-trodden course. I think I already felt very relieved. But when he came to the crossroads where the disturbance had occurred, he turned south, in the opposite direction. His gait was steady, which was unusual in view of the disorder in his legs, and he moved them firmly forward. In time he stopped in front of an old mansion with an untended hedge consisting mainly of a clump of azalea shrubs that had grown thick and scraggly in the summer sun. Then he forcefully thrust his right shoulder into one of the hedge’s hollows, and stood there as though hiding himself.
I don’t think I stopped to watch him for even a minute. I just couldn’t, though there were no passersby. I saw, coming in our direction, only the figures of two uniformed schoolgirls, who in the distance looked like magpies or crows. However, being totally flattened by my distress, I desperately ran up to Eeyore’s side and said, my voice breaking, “What’s the matter? What happened? You took the wrong road. Let’s go home!”
While reading over what I had written in the ‘diary as Home,” I realized that another ten days had passed since then. But it’s weird, even mystifying, for at the time, although I must have been overwhelmed by the great mass of my distress, not a trace of it remained, its serious weight notwithstanding, once this period had passed. Still, living through those hellish days had made a new person out of me, in a way, I guess. I say this because I, the always withdrawn coward that I am, accomplished something I had never dreamed of.
That, day, too, it never cooled off, and in the windless, stagnant air, only the faint evening glow in the western sky was beautiful. Going out to get the evening paper, I saw that, another water-filled bottle had been left on top of the wall by the gate. It somberly mirrored the twilight air, and as though a lens had gathered the sunset hues, the confined water surface right below the cork reflected a reddish sheen–which I felt was like the flush on the face of a con artist who has just sold you a bill of goods. If the bottle had been left there only minutes ago, I could run out and give it back to the man, I thought. I then became totally absorbed in this idea, as when one gets excited about something and blood rises to the head.
I returned to the porch-side window to make sure, through the lace curtains, that Eeyore was still lying on the floor, on his stomach, composing music. Then I quietly closed the door and wheeled our bicycle up to the gate. I put the bottle of tepid water in the wire basket attached to the bike’s handlebars–carefully setting it on its side to give it some stability, though it rolled this way and that once I started pedaling–and sped off down the road toward the station.
I raced straight to the bus route, turned south, and coasted down the pedestrian walk all the way to the intersection with a traffic light. If I made a left, I would be on the street that meets the one to the station. However, the traffic there was still heavy, despite the time of day, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make out the water donor even if I did catch up with him. After all, I had seen him only once, and my memory of his face wasn’t all that vivid. So I decided that, if possible, I should search for him, one street after another, along the several that few people take at dusk, which run north and south, perpendicular to the one we take from our house to the bus route. And if I saw him on one of them, I would be able to identify him. ”
When I was a little girl, still free from all cares, we used to spend the summers in our mountain cabin in Gumma, and Father once said I ran like a pony. And now, actually pumping my shoulders like a horse, I pedaled on the bike I hadn’t ridden for some time, first north on the street nearest the bus route, and peered up and down the streets whenever I hit an intersection. I turned at the north end and sped along the road running east and west, until I came to the next corner. When I turned south, I spotted two figures, one bigger than the other, entangled in a knot. They were clenched together at the junction of two hedges, the farther one of dense, closely pruned fragrant olives running along the street side of an old mansion, the closer one of dwarf cypresses, poorly cared for, bordering the neighboring mansion.
I jammed on the brakes after I had gone another good five or six meters. The two figures, a man and a girl, seemed to be scuffling. The man had on a dark, grass-colored raincoat, despite the fine weather, and the girl, who wore a light pink one-piece dress, appeared to be in the upper grades of elementary school, or in middle school. He had pushed her down with one hand and forced her to squat between his legs. He had thrust his other hand into the front of his raincoat, and was frantically moving it back and forth. ”
My immediate course of action was so peculiar that I felt like laughing when I later related my part in the story to the police. I raised myself off the saddle, lowered my head, and quickly pumped the pedals, just like the scout in a game we played when I was a child. Then I raced past the scuffling pair while loudly ringing the bell. Going past them. I caught, out of the comer of my eye, a glimpse of the man in the raincoat glaring at. me with his brown-dot eyes.
I stopped some fifteen, sixteen meters ahead, jumped off my bike, turned around, hopped astride the seat again, and with one foot on the ground, looked right at him. All the while I kept ringing the bell. By then the movement of the man’s hand where his raincoat parted had ceased, but the other hand continued to restrain the girl with a seemingly strong force. He kept that face with too much space between the eyes turned toward me, and appeared to be busy wondering what to do. Then he raised the hand he had withdrawn from the front of his raincoat and waved it at me as though shooing away a dog.
I furiously shook my head, so mortified I could have burst into a fearful wail. Then I caught sight of a woman, who appeared to be. in her mid-thirties, looking down from the second-story window of her boxlike house, which had been built on one of the lots the owner of the mansion beyond the unkempt hedge had divided off and sold.
“Hey!” I hollered. “Please help!” The woman opened the window with a clamor, leaned out to look up and down the street, and with a quick thrust of her head over her shoulder called to someone behind her.
Sensing a new turn of events, I looked back and saw that the man had released the girl. He was about to quickly walk away in the other direction, his shoulders slanted at an oddly acute angle. Finally the girl began crying out loud as she hobbled on her knees to safety. Still ringing the bell, I slipped past her and went after the man. Noticing I was chasing him, he stopped in his tracks and turned to glare at me with those tiny eyes of his. And I stopped, for the most I could do was stare hack at him from a distance. Before long, the man dashed into a side street with an incredible vigor, his raincoat fluttering on his back like Batman’s cape.
The culprit was caught by the woman’s brother, who had quickly wheeled out his motorbike and, unlike me, who had simply followed the molester, beaten him to the bus route. But I was the one–though all I did was belatedly give chase on my bike while furiously ringing the bell–who was able to point out to the police that the pale, perspiring, panting man who pretended to know nothing was indeed the pervert I had seen molesting the girl. In this sense, then, I believe I played my part well enough.
The woman’s brother and her husband pinned the man from both sides until the police came, while the woman stayed with the little victim and kept comforting her. I felt uneasy because the man with the brown-dot eyes, which were like those of a febrile catfish, was staring at me, even as he was being held. From what I later heard from the police, though, the man said he didn’t make an all-out effort to flee because he knew I had remembered his face.
The man apparently also admitted to bringing all those bottles to our house. Until hearing this, I had felt very queasy about the dampness on the front of my skirt. Then it dawned on me that the cork had come out of the bottle I had put in the basket on the handlebars.
The next day, I came down with a fever and couldn’t get out of bed, so Eeyore took a few days off from his work at the welfare workshop, and O-chan prepared our meals. “I took nutrition and balance into consideration, sort of,” he said as he prepared the table, but the assortment was all instant food he had bought at the supermarket–on sale, for that matter. It was funny, though, since what he set out gave the semblance of well-chosen fare. This was about the only time while I lay in bed that I felt my heart uplifted, for I was possessed by a ponderous fear, morning, noon, and night.
Why had the water-bottle man been a molester? The police said that the bottles of water merely gave him an alibi. If someone had asked why he was loitering around this residential area, he would say he was merely delivering water to our house. To make his alibi even more plausible, he had intentionally chosen a house of a person whose name occasionally appeared in the papers. Still, I think there was something unusual in the way the man kept staring at me while he had the girl pinned down, or when he was trying to get away, and even after he was caught. I sensed those brown-dot eyes had revealed to me, my Father’s daughter, the inside of a “fanatic’s’ mind with an interest in Father’s prayers.
Even as the night wore on, sleep did not come to me, and in that same half-dreamlike state I often fall into I thought of something even more fearful. Though the man was a molester, he won’t be long in prison. So as soon as he gets out, won’t he come around the neighborhood, lie in wait for me in one of the hedges, and, remembering me through that stare of his, catch me, and force me down to my knees with that same strength? And like that girl who was hit so hard she couldn’t even cry, I, too, would be unable to offer the slightest resistance. That cold water which never becomes stale would be poured from that small bottle into my eyes, my nose. ”
One day, autumn in the air and my fever finally gone. I went shopping with Eeyore to the supermarket in front of the station. I felt very weak, and so I had Eeyore, who has a strong pair of arms, carry the two shopping bags for me as we slowly walked home. But when we came to the crossroads where one of the streets led to the old mansion hedged with a clump of shrubs, where I had once seen him stand alone, he turned in that direction, and walked on ahead as though leading me there.
“What’s the matter, Eeyore? That’s the long way home,” I protested in undertones as I reluctantly followed him.
Eeyore again pushed one shoulder into the hollow of the azalea bush, and stood there straining his ears with a serious expression on his face. I could hear the restrained notes of someone practicing the piano. Eeyore listened for a while, then he turned to me with a placid, contented look.
“That’s Piano Sonata K. 311,” he said. “But it’s all right now. The rest shouldn’t be difficult. Not at all!”
I realized then that I, too, would be able to rise above the distress that possessed me. Sure, there will always be new worries, but what could they amount to, compared to that distress. ‘s