Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  Finally she disappeared in the trees. All he saw in the rearview mirror now was the deep green of a Finnish summer. The wind seemed to have picked up again, and small waves rippled on the surface of the lake. A tall young man in a kayak appeared on the water, slowly and silently slipping through the water like some gigantic whirligig.

  I’ll probably never be back here again, Tsukuru thought. And never see Eri again. We each have our paths to follow, in our places. Like Ao said, There’s no going back. Sorrow surged then, silently, like water inside him. A formless, transparent sorrow. A sorrow he could touch, yet something that was also far away, out of reach. Pain struck him, as if gouging out his chest, and he could barely breathe.

  When he reached the paved road, he steered the car to the side, switched off the engine, leaned against the steering wheel, and closed his eyes. His heart was racing and he took slow, deep breaths. And as he inhaled, he suddenly noticed a cold, hard object near the center of his body—like a hard core of earth that remains frozen all year long. This was the source of the pain in his chest, and the difficulty breathing. He had never known, until this moment, that such a thing existed inside him.

  Yet it was this pain, and this sense of being choked, that he needed. It was exactly what he had to acknowledge, what he had to confront. From now on, he had to make that cold core melt, bit by bit. It might take time, but it was what he had to do. But his own body heat wasn’t enough to melt that frozen soil. He needed someone else’s warmth.

  First he had to get back to Tokyo. That was the first step. He turned the key and started the engine again.

  On the road to Helsinki, Tsukuru prayed that Eri wouldn’t be caught by any bad elves of the forest. All he could do at this point was pray.

  Tsukuru spent the remaining two days of his trip wandering the streets of Helsinki. It rained occasionally, just a light sprinkle that didn’t bother him. As he walked, he thought of many things. There was much he needed to consider, and he wanted to gather his thoughts before he returned to Tokyo. When he got tired of walking, or of thinking, he’d stop by a café and have a coffee and a sandwich. He got lost, not knowing where he was, but that didn’t bother him either. Helsinki wasn’t a huge city, and streetcars ran everywhere. And for him right now, losing sight of where he actually was felt good. On his last afternoon in the city he went to Helsinki Central Station, sat on a bench, and watched the trains come and go.

  From the station he called Olga on his cell phone to thank her. I found the Haatainens’ house all right, he told her, and my friend was definitely surprised to see me. And Hämeenlinna was a beautiful town. That’s great, Olga replied. Wonderful. She seemed genuinely happy for him. I’d like to take you out to dinner to thank you, he said. I appreciate the invitation, Olga said, but today is my mother’s birthday and I’m having dinner with my parents at home. But please be sure to tell Sara hello from me. I will, Tsukuru replied. And thank you for everything.

  In the evening he had seafood and half a glass of chilled Chablis at a restaurant that Olga had recommended near the harbor. As he sat there, he thought about the Haatainens. Right now the four of them must be seated around their table. Was the wind still blowing on the lake? And what was Eri thinking about, at this very moment? The warmth of her breath still grazed his ear.

  He arrived back in Tokyo on a Saturday morning. He unpacked, took a leisurely bath, and spent the rest of the day busy with random tasks. As soon as he got back, he thought of calling Sara, and had actually picked up the phone and dialed her number. But then he put the phone down. He needed more time to think. It had been a short trip, but so many things had happened. It still felt unreal to be back in the middle of Tokyo. It felt like just a short time ago he’d been beside the lake in Hämeenlinna, listening to the transparent sound of the wind. No matter what he said to Sara, he needed to choose his words carefully.

  He did the laundry, glanced through the newspapers that had piled up, then went out before evening to shop for food, though he had no appetite. Probably because of jet lag, he got terribly sleepy while it was still light out, lay down in bed at eight thirty, and fell asleep, only to wake up before midnight. He tried reading the book he’d started on the plane, but his mind was still a blur, so he got up and cleaned the apartment. Just before dawn, he returned to bed, and when he awoke it was almost noon on Sunday. It looked like it was going to be a hot day. He switched on the AC, made coffee, and had a cup with a slice of toast and melted cheese.

  After he took a shower, he phoned Sara’s home. The phone went to voicemail. Please leave a message after the beep, the message said. He hesitated, then hung up without saying anything. The clock on the wall showed that it was just after one. He was about to call her cell phone, but thought better of it.

  She might be having lunch on her day off with her boyfriend. It was a little early for them to be making love. Tsukuru recalled the man he’d seen her with, walking down Omotesando hand in hand. He couldn’t wipe the picture from his mind. He lay down on the sofa, images buzzing through his head, when suddenly it felt as if a sharp needle had stabbed him in the back. A thin, invisible needle. The pain was minimal, and there was no blood. Probably. Still, it hurt.

  He pedaled his bike to the gym and swam his usual distance in the pool. His body remained oddly numb, and as he swam he felt like he fell asleep a couple of times. Of course no one can swim and sleep at the same time. It just seemed that way. Even so, as he swam, his body moved on autopilot, and he was able to finish without any further thoughts of Sara, or of that man, going through his mind. For that, he was thankful.

  He came home from the pool and took a thirty-minute nap. It was a deep, dreamless sleep, his consciousness switching off as soon as his head hit the pillow. Afterward he ironed a few shirts and handkerchiefs and made dinner. He grilled salmon with herbs in the oven, drizzled lemon over it, and ate it with potato salad. Tofu and scallion miso soup rounded out the meal. He had half a cold beer and watched the news on TV. Then he lay down on the sofa and read.

  It was just before 9 p.m. when Sara phoned.

  “How’s the jet lag?” she asked.

  “My sleep cycle’s messed up, but otherwise I feel fine,” Tsukuru said.

  “Can you talk now? Or are you sleepy?”

  “I’m sleepy, but I can hold out another hour before I go to bed. I have to go to work tomorrow and can’t very well take a nap at the office.”

  “That’s good,” Sara said. “Someone called my home around one this afternoon. That was you, right? I keep forgetting to check my messages and just noticed I missed a call.”

  “That was me.”

  “I was out shopping in the neighborhood.”

  “Um,” Tsukuru said.

  “But you didn’t leave a message.”

  “I’m not very good at leaving phone messages. I get kind of nervous and don’t know what to say.”

  “You could have at least said your name.”

  “You’re right. I should have at least done that.”

  She paused for a moment. “I was quite worried about you, you know. Whether your trip went well. You should have left a short message.”

  “I’m sorry. I know, I should have,” Tsukuru apologized. “By the way, what did you do today?”

  “I did the laundry and went shopping. Cooked, cleaned the kitchen and the bathroom. Sometimes I need that kind of quiet day off.” She fell silent for a while. “So, were you able to take care of everything in Finland?”

  “I got to see Kuro,” Tsukuru said. “The two of us had a good long talk. Olga really helped me out.”

  “I’m glad. She’s a nice girl, isn’t she?”

  “She really is.” He told her about driving an hour and a half out of Helsinki to a beautiful lakeside town to see Eri (or Kuro). How she lived in a summer cottage there with her husband, her two young daughters, and a dog. How she and her husband made pottery in a small studio nearby.

  “She looked happy,” Tsukuru said. “Life in Finland seems to
agree with her.” Except for some nights during the long dark winter—but he didn’t say this.

  “Was it worth going all the way to Finland?” Sara asked.

  “I think so. There are some things you can only talk about face-to-face. It cleared up a lot of things for me. Not that I’ve found all the answers, but it was definitely worthwhile. On an emotional level, I mean.”

  “That’s wonderful. I’m very happy to hear it.”

  A short silence followed. A suggestive silence, as if it were measuring the direction of the wind. Then Sara spoke.

  “Your voice sounds different. Or am I just imagining things?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m tired. I’ve never been on a plane for that long before.”

  “But there were no problems?”

  “No, no real problems. There’s so much I need to tell you, but once I start, I know it’s going to take a long time. I’d like to see you soon and tell you the whole story, from start to finish.”

  “That sounds good. Let’s get together. Anyway, I’m glad your trip to Finland wasn’t a waste of time.”

  “Thank you for all your help. I really appreciate it.”

  “You’re quite welcome.”

  Another short silence followed. Tsukuru listened carefully. The sense of something unspoken still hung in the air.

  “There’s something I’d like to ask you,” Tsukuru said, deciding to take the plunge. “Maybe it would be better not to, but I think I should go with what I’m feeling.”

  “Certainly, go ahead,” Sara said. “It’s best to go with your feelings. Ask me anything.”

  “I can’t find the right words, exactly, but I get the sense that—you’re seeing someone else, besides me. It’s been bothering me for a while.”

  Sara didn’t respond right away. “You get that sense?” she finally asked. “Are you saying that, for whatever reason, you get that sort of feeling?”

  “That’s right. For whatever reason, I do,” Tsukuru said. “But like I’ve said before, I’m not the most intuitive person in the world. My brain’s basically set up to make things, tangible things, like my name implies. My mind has a very straightforward structure. The complex workings of other people’s minds are beyond me. Or even my own mind. I’m often totally wrong when it comes to subtle things like this, so I try to avoid thinking about anything too complex. But this has been weighing on me for a while. And I thought I should ask you, instead of pointlessly brooding over it.”

  “I see,” Sara said.

  “So, is there someone else?”

  She was silent.

  “Please understand,” Tsukuru said, “if there is someone else, I’m not criticizing you. I should probably mind my own business. You have no obligation to me, and I have no right to demand anything of you. I simply want to know—whether what I’m feeling is wrong or not.”

  Sara sighed. “I’d prefer you didn’t use words like ‘obligation’ and ‘rights.’ Makes it sound like you’re debating the revision of the constitution or something.”

  “Okay,” Tsukuru said. “I didn’t put it well. Like I said, I’m a very simple person. And I don’t think I can handle things while I feel this way.”

  Sara was silent for a moment. He could clearly picture her, phone in hand, lips pursed tight.

  Her voice was soft when she finally spoke. “You’re not a simple person. You just try to think you are.”

  “Maybe, if you say so. I don’t really know. But a simple life suits me best, I do know that. The thing is, I’ve been hurt in my relationships with others, hurt deeply, and I never want to go through that again.”

  “I know,” Sara said. “You’ve been honest with me, so I’d like to be honest with you. But can I have a little time before I respond?”

  “How much time?”

  “How about—three days? Today’s Sunday, so I think I can talk on Wednesday. I can answer your question then. Are you free Wednesday night?”

  “Wednesday night’s open,” Tsukuru said. He didn’t have to check his schedule. Once night fell, he seldom had plans.

  “Let’s have dinner together. We can discuss things then. Honestly. Does that sound good?”

  “Sounds good,” Tsukuru said.

  They hung up.

  That night Tsukuru had a long, bizarre dream. He was seated at a piano, playing a sonata—a huge, brand-new grand piano, the white keys utterly white, the black keys utterly black. An oversized score lay open on the music stand. Beside him stood a woman, dressed in a tight, subdued black dress, swiftly turning the pages for him with her long pale fingers. Her timing was impeccable. Her jet-black hair hung to her waist. Everything in the scene appeared in gradations of white and black. There were no other colors.

  He had no idea who had composed the sonata. It was a lengthy piece, though, with a score as thick as a phone book. The pages were filled with notes, literally covered in black. It was a challenging composition, with a complex structure, and required a superior technique. And he had never seen it before. Still, he was able to sight-read it, instantly grasping the world expressed there, and transforming this vision into sound. Just like being able to visualize a complicated blueprint in 3D. He had this special ability. His ten practiced fingers raced over the keyboard like a whirlwind. It was a dazzling, invigorating experience—accurately decoding this enormous sea of ciphers more quickly than anyone else, and instantaneously giving them form and substance.

  Absorbed in his playing, his body was pierced by a flash of inspiration, like a bolt of lightning on a summer afternoon. The music had an ambitious, virtuoso structure, but at the same time it was beautifully introspective. It honestly and delicately expressed, in a full, tangible way, what it meant to be alive. A crucial aspect of the world that could only be expressed through the medium of music. His spine tingled with the sheer joy and pride of performing this music himself.

  Sadly, though, the people seated before him seemed to feel otherwise. They fidgeted in their seats, bored and irritated. He could hear the scraping of chairs, and people coughing. For some reason, they were oblivious to the music’s value.

  He was performing in the grand hall of a royal court. The floor was smooth marble, the ceiling vaulted, with a lovely skylight in the middle. The members of the audience—there must have been about fifty people—were seated on elegant chairs as they listened to the music. Well-dressed, refined, no doubt cultured individuals, but unfortunately they were unable to appreciate this marvelous music.

  As time passed, the clamor they made grew louder, even more grating. There was no stopping it now, as it overwhelmed the music. By now even he could no longer hear the music he was playing. What he heard instead was a grotesquely amplified and exaggerated noise, the sounds of coughs and groans of discontent. Still, his eyes remained glued to the score, his fingers racing over the keyboard, as if he were possessed.

  He had a sudden realization. The woman in black, turning the pages of the score for him, had six fingers. The sixth finger was about the same size as her little finger. He gasped, and felt a shudder run through his chest. He wanted to look up at the woman standing beside him. Who was she? Did he know her? But until that movement of the score was over, he couldn’t spare a moment’s glance away. Even if there wasn’t a single person now who was still listening.

  At this point Tsukuru awoke. The green numbers on his bedside clock read 2:35. His body was covered in sweat, his heart still beating out the dry cadence of time passing. He got up, tugged off his pajamas, wiped himself down with a towel, put on a new T-shirt and boxers, and sat down on the sofa in the living room. In the darkness, he thought about Sara. He agonized over every word he’d spoken to her earlier on the phone. He should never have said what he did.

  He wanted to call her and take back everything that he’d said. But he couldn’t call anyone at nearly 3 a.m. And asking her to forget what he’d already said was all the more impossible. At this rate I might well lose her, he thought.

  His thou
ghts turned to Eri. Eri Kurono Haatainen. The mother of two small girls. He pictured the blue lake beyond the stand of white birch trees, and the little boat slapping against the pier. The pottery with its lovely designs, the chirps of the birds, the dog barking. And Alfred Brendel’s meticulous rendition of Years of Pilgrimage. The feel of Eri’s breasts pressed against him. Her warm breath, her cheeks wet with tears. All the lost possibilities, all the time that was never to return.

  At one point, seated across from each other at the table, they were silent, not even searching for words, their ears drawn to the sounds of the birds outside the window. The cries of the birds made for an unusual melody. The same melody pierced the woods, over and over.

  “The parent birds are teaching their babies how to chirp,” Eri said. And she smiled. “Until I came here I never knew that. That birds have to be taught how to chirp.”

  Our lives are like a complex musical score, Tsukuru thought. Filled with all sorts of cryptic writing, sixteenth and thirty-second notes and other strange signs. It’s next to impossible to correctly interpret these, and even if you could, and then could transpose them into the correct sounds, there’s no guarantee that people would correctly understand, or appreciate, the meaning therein. No guarantee it would make people happy. Why must the workings of people’s lives be so convoluted?

  Make sure you hang on to Sara, Eri had told him. You really need her. You don’t lack anything. Be confident and be bold. That’s all you need.

  And don’t let the bad elves get you.

  He thought of Sara, imagined her lying naked in someone else’s arms. No, not someone. He’d actually seen the man. Sara had looked so very happy then, her beautiful white teeth showing in a broad smile. He closed his eyes in the darkness and pressed his fingertips against his temples. He couldn’t go on feeling this way, he decided. Even if it was only for three more days.

  Tsukuru picked up the phone and dialed Sara’s number. It was just before four. The phone rang a dozen times before Sara picked up.

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