Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  Tsukuru didn’t say anything for a moment, and then spoke. “I heard that at the time Shiro was murdered, she was living in Hamamatsu?”

  “She was there for almost two years. She lived alone and taught piano to children. She worked for a Yamaha piano school. I don’t know the details of why she moved all the way to Hamamatsu, though. She should have been able to find work in Nagoya.”

  “What kind of life did she lead?”

  Aka took a cigarette out of the box, put it between his lips, and, after a short pause, lit it.

  “About half a year before she was murdered, I had to go to Hamamatsu on business. I called her and invited her to dinner. By this time the four of us had really gone our separate ways and hardly ever saw each other. We’d get in touch every once in a while, but that was it. My work in Hamamatsu was over sooner than I expected, and I had some free time, so I wanted to see Shiro for the first time in a while. She was more collected and calm than I’d imagined. She seemed to be enjoying having left Nagoya behind and living in a new place. We had dinner together and reminisced. We went to a famous unagi eel restaurant in Hamamatsu, had a few beers, and really relaxed. It surprised me that she was able to drink. Still, there was a bit of tension in the air. What I mean is, we had to avoid a particular topic.…”

  “That particular topic being me?”

  Aka shot him a hard look and nodded. “It still made her uneasy. She hadn’t forgotten it. Apart from that, though, she seemed perfectly fine. She laughed a lot, and seemed to enjoy talking. And everything she said sounded normal. It struck me that moving to a new place had been great for her. But there was one thing. I don’t enjoy bringing this up, but—she wasn’t attractive like she used to be.”

  “Wasn’t attractive?” Tsukuru repeated the words, his voice sounding far away.

  “No, that isn’t quite the right expression,” Aka said, and thought it over. “How should I put it? Her features were basically the same as before, of course, and by all standards, she was definitely still a beautiful woman. If you hadn’t known her when she was a teenager, you’d think she was pretty. But I knew her from before, knew her very well. I could never forget how appealing she was. The Shiro in front of me now, though—she wasn’t.”

  Aka frowned slightly, as if recalling that scene.

  “Seeing Shiro like that was very painful. It hurt to see that she no longer had that burning something she used to have. That what had been remarkable about her had vanished. That the special something would no longer be able to move me the way it used to.”

  Smoke rose from Aka’s cigarette above the ashtray. He continued.

  “Shiro had just turned thirty then, and she was still young. When she met me she had on very plain clothes, with her hair pulled back in a bun, and hardly any makeup. But that’s not really the point. Those are just details. My point is that she’d lost the glow she used to have, her vitality. She was always an introvert, but at her core there had been something vital and alive, something that even she wasn’t totally aware of. That light, that radiance used to leak out by itself, emerging from between the cracks. Do you know what I mean? But the last time I saw her, it was all gone, like someone had slipped in behind her and pulled the plug. The kind of fresh, sparkling glow, what used to visibly set her apart, had disappeared, and it made me sad to look at her. It wasn’t a question of age. She didn’t get that way simply because she’d gotten older. When I heard that someone had strangled Shiro, I was devastated, and felt really sorry for her. Whatever the circumstances might have been, she didn’t deserve to die like that. But at the same time I couldn’t help but feel that the life had already been sucked out of her, even before she was physically murdered.”

  Aka picked up the cigarette from the ashtray, took a deep drag, and closed his eyes.

  “She left a huge hole in my heart,” Aka said. “One that’s still not filled.”

  Silence descended on them, a hard, dense silence.

  “Do you remember the piano piece Shiro used to play a lot?” Tsukuru asked. “A short piece, Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays’?”

  Aka considered this and shook his head. “No, I don’t recall that. The only one I remember is the famous piece from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. ‘Träumerei.’ She used to play that sometimes. I’m not familiar with the Liszt piece, though. Why are you asking?”

  “No special reason. I just happened to recall it,” Tsukuru said. He glanced at his watch. “I’ve taken so much of your time. I should be going. I’m really happy we could talk like this.”

  Aka stayed still in his chair, and gazed straight at Tsukuru. He was expressionless, like someone staring at a brand-new lithograph with nothing etched in it yet. “Are you in a hurry?” he asked.

  “Not at all.”

  “Can we talk a little more?”

  “Of course. I have plenty of time.”

  Aka weighed what he was about to say before he spoke. “You don’t really like me very much anymore, do you?”

  Tsukuru was speechless. Partly because the question had blindsided him, but also because it didn’t seem right to reduce his feelings for the person seated before him into a simple binary equation of like or dislike.

  Tsukuru carefully chose his words. “I really can’t say. My feelings are definitely different from back when we were teenagers. But that’s—”

  Aka held up a hand to cut him off.

  “No need to mince words. And you don’t need to force yourself to like me. No one likes me now. It’s only to be expected. I don’t even like myself much. I used to have a few really good friends. You were one of them. But at a certain stage in life I lost them. Like how Shiro at a certain point lost that special spark.… But you can’t go back. Can’t return an item you’ve already opened. You just have to make do.”

  He lowered his hand and placed it on his lap. He began tapping out an irregular rhythm on his kneecap, like he was sending a message in Morse code.

  “My father worked so long as a college professor that he picked up the habits professors have. At home he always sounded like he was preaching at us, looking down on us from on high. I hated that, ever since I was a child. But at a certain point it hit me—I’ve started to talk just like him.”

  He went on tapping his kneecap.

  “I always felt I did a horrible thing to you. It’s true. I—we—had no right to treat you that way. I felt that someday I needed to properly apologize to you. But somehow I never made it happen.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Tsukuru said. “That’s another situation where you can’t go back.”

  Aka seemed lost in thought. “Tsukuru,” he finally said, “I have a favor to ask.”

  “What kind?”

  “I have something I want to tell you. A confession, you might call it, that I’ve never told anybody before. Maybe you don’t want to hear it, but I want to open up about my own pain. I’d like you to know what I’ve been carrying around with me. Not that this will make amends for all the pain you endured. It’s just a question of my own feelings and emotions. Will you hear me out? For old times’ sake?”

  Tsukuru nodded, uncertain where this was going.

  Aka began. “I told you how, until I actually went to college, I didn’t know I wasn’t cut out for academic life. And how I didn’t know I wasn’t cut out for company life, either, until I started working in a bank. You remember? It’s kind of embarrassing. I probably had never taken a good, hard look at myself. But that’s not all there was to it. Until I got married I didn’t understand how I wasn’t suited for marriage. What I’m saying is, the physical relationship between a man and a woman wasn’t for me. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

  Tsukuru was silent, and Aka went on.

  “What I’m trying to say is, I don’t really feel desire for women. Not that I don’t have any desire at all, but I feel it more for men.”

  A deep silence descended on the room. Tsukuru couldn’t hear a single sound. It was a quiet room to begin with.

bsp; “That’s not so unusual,” Tsukuru said to fill in the silence.

  “You’re right, it’s not so unusual. But to confront that reality at a certain point in your life is a hard thing. Very hard. You can’t just dismiss it with generalities. How should I put it? It’s like you’re standing on the deck of a ship at sea at night and suddenly you’re thrown overboard, alone, into the ocean.”

  Tsukuru thought of Haida. About how in the dream—and he presumed it was a dream—he’d come in Haida’s mouth. Tsukuru remembered the utter confusion he’d felt at the time. Being thrown overboard, alone, into the sea at night—the expression hit the mark exactly.

  “I think you just need to be honest with yourself, as much as you can,” Tsukuru said, choosing his words. “All you can do is be as honest and free as you can. I’m sorry, but that’s about all I can say.”

  “I know you’re aware of this,” Aka said, “but although Nagoya’s one of the largest cities in Japan, in a way it’s not all that big. The population’s large, industries are doing well, and people are affluent, yet the choices you have are unexpectedly limited. It’s not easy for people like us to live here and still be honest with ourselves and free.… Kind of a major paradox, wouldn’t you say? As we go through life we gradually discover who we are, but the more we discover, the more we lose ourselves.”

  “I hope everything will work out for you. I really do,” Tsukuru said. He truly felt that way.

  “You’re not angry with me anymore?”

  Tsukuru gave a short shake of his head. “No, I’m not angry with you. I’m not angry with anybody.”

  Tsukuru suddenly realized he was using the familiar omae to address Aka. It came out naturally at the end. Aka walked with Tsukuru to the elevators.

  “I may not have a chance to see you again,” Aka said as they walked down the hallway. “So there’s one more thing I wanted to tell you. You don’t mind, do you?”

  Tsukuru shook his head.

  “It’s the first thing I always say at our new employee training seminars. I gaze around the room, pick one person, and have him stand up. And this is what I say: I have some good news for you, and some bad news. The bad news first. We’re going to have to rip off either your fingernails or your toenails with pliers. I’m sorry, but it’s already decided. It can’t be changed. I pull out a huge, scary pair of pliers from my briefcase and show them to everybody. Slowly, making sure everybody gets a good look. And then I say: Here’s the good news. You have the freedom to choose which it’s going to be—your fingernails, or your toenails. So, which will it be? You have ten seconds to make up your mind. If you’re unable to decide, we’ll rip off both your fingernails and your toenails. I start the count. At about eight seconds most people say, ‘The toes.’ Okay, I say, toenails it is. I’ll use these pliers to rip them off. But before I do, I’d like you to tell me something. Why did you choose your toes and not your fingers? The person usually says, ‘I don’t know. I think they probably hurt the same. But since I had to choose one, I went with the toes.’ I turn to him and warmly applaud him. And I say, Welcome to the real world.”

  Tsukuru gazed wordlessly at his old friend’s delicate face.

  “Each of us is given the freedom to choose,” Aka said, winking and smiling. “That’s the point of the story.”

  The silver door of the elevator slid open soundlessly, and they said goodbye.

  Tsukuru got back to his apartment in Tokyo at 7 p.m. on the day he had met Aka. He unpacked, tossed his laundry in the washer, took a shower, then called Sara’s cell phone. It went to voicemail and he left a message telling her he had just gotten back from Nagoya and to get in touch with him when she could.

  He waited up until after eleven, but she didn’t call. When she did call back, the next day, a Tuesday, Tsukuru was in the cafeteria at work eating lunch.

  “Did everything go well in Nagoya?” Sara asked.

  He stood up and went out into the corridor, which was quieter. He summarized his meetings with Ao and Aka, at the Lexus showroom and Aka’s office on Sunday and Monday respectively, and what they’d talked about.

  “I’m glad I could talk to them. I could understand a little better what happened,” Tsukuru said.

  “That’s good,” Sara said. “So it wasn’t a waste of time.”

  “Could we meet somewhere? I’d like to tell you all about our conversations.”

  “Just a minute. Let me check my schedule.”

  There was a fifteen-second pause. While he waited, Tsukuru gazed out the window at the streets of Shinjuku. Thick clouds covered the sky, and it looked like it was about to rain.

  “I’m free in the evening the day after tomorrow. Does that work for you?” Sara asked.

  “Sounds good. Let’s have dinner,” Tsukuru said. He didn’t need to check his schedule. It was blank almost every night.

  They decided on a place and hung up. After he switched off the cell phone, Tsukuru felt a physical discomfort, as if something he’d eaten wasn’t digesting well. He hadn’t felt it before he’d spoken to Sara. That was for certain. But what it meant, or whether it meant anything at all, he couldn’t tell.

  He tried to replay the conversation with her, as accurately as he could remember it. What they’d said, her tone of voice, the way she’d paused. Nothing seemed any different from usual. He put the cell phone in his pocket and went back to the cafeteria to finish his lunch. But he no longer had any appetite.

  That afternoon and the whole next day, Tsukuru, accompanied by a brand-new employee as his assistant, inspected several stations that required new elevators. With the new employee helping him to measure, Tsukuru checked the blueprints, one by one, that they kept at the office against the actual measurements at the sites. He found a number of unexpected errors and discrepancies between the blueprints and the actual sites. There could be several reasons for this, but what was more important at this point was to draw up accurate, reliable blueprints before construction began. If errors were discovered after they’d begun construction, it would be too late, like combat troops relying on a faulty map when landing on a foreign island.

  After they’d finished their measurements, they went to talk with the stationmaster about potential problems the rebuilding might cause. Repositioning the elevators would change the configuration of the entire station, which in turn would affect passenger flow, and they had to make sure they could structurally incorporate these changes. Passenger safety was always the top priority, but they also had to be certain that the station staff could perform their duties with the new layout. Tsukuru’s job was to synthesize all these elements, come up with a rebuilding plan, and include this in an actual blueprint. It was a painstaking process, but critical because people’s safety was at stake. Tsukuru patiently managed it all. This was the kind of process that was exactly his forte—clarifying any problems, creating a checklist, and carefully making sure each and every point was handled correctly. At the same time, it provided a wonderful opportunity for the young, inexperienced new employee to learn the ropes on site. The employee, whose name was Sakamoto, had just graduated from the science and engineering department at Waseda University. He was a taciturn young man, with a long, unsmiling face, but he was a quick study and followed directions. He was skilled when it came to taking measurements, too. This guy might work out, Tsukuru thought.

  They spent an hour at an express-train station with the stationmaster, going over the details of the rebuilding project. It was lunchtime, so they ordered in bentos and ate together in the stationmaster’s office. Afterward they chatted over tea. The stationmaster, a friendly, heavyset middle-aged man, told them some fascinating stories about things he’d experienced in his career. Tsukuru loved going to sites and hearing these kinds of stories. The topic turned to lost property, more specifically to the huge amount of lost-and-found items left behind on trains and in stations, and the unusual, strange items among them—the ashes of cremated people, wigs, prosthetic legs, the manuscript of a novel (the stationma
ster read a little bit of it and found it dull), a neatly wrapped, bloodstained shirt in a box, a live pit viper, forty color photos of women’s vaginas, a large wooden gong, the kind Buddhist priests strike as they chant sutras …

  “Sometimes you’re not sure what to do with them,” the stationmaster said. “A friend of mine who runs another station turned in a Boston bag once that had a dead fetus inside. Thankfully, I’ve never had that kind of experience myself. But once, when I was a stationmaster at another station, someone brought in two fingers preserved in formaldehyde.”

  “That’s pretty grotesque,” Tsukuru said.

  “Yes, it sure was. Two small fingers floating in liquid, kept in what looked like a small mayonnaise jar, all inside a pretty cloth bag. Looked like a child’s fingers severed at the base. Naturally we contacted the police, since we thought it might be connected to a crime. The police came over immediately and took the jar away.”

  The stationmaster drank a sip of tea.

  “A week later the same police officer who’d taken the fingers stopped by. He questioned the station employee who’d found the jar in the restroom again. I was present for the questioning. According to the officer, the fingers in the jar weren’t those of a child. The forensics lab determined that they belonged to an adult. The reason they were so small was that they were sixth, vestigial fingers. The officer said that sometimes people have extra fingers. Most of the time the parents want to get rid of the deformity, so they have the fingers amputated when the child’s still a baby, but there are some people who, as adults, still have all six fingers. The ones that were found were an example—the fingers of an adult who had had them surgically removed, then preserved in formaldehyde. The lab estimated the fingers to be those of a man, age mid-twenties to mid-thirties, though they couldn’t tell how long it had been since the fingers had been amputated. I can’t imagine how they’d come to be forgotten, or perhaps thrown away, in the station restroom. But it doesn’t seem that they were connected to any crime. In the end the police kept them, and no one ever came forward to claim them. For all I know, they may still be in a police warehouse somewhere.”

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