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Authors: Banana Yoshimoto

Hardboiled & Hard Luck

BOOK: Hardboiled & Hard Luck
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HARDBOILED

&

HARD LUCK

Banana Yoshimoto

Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich

First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Faber and Faber Limited

3 Queen Square London WC1N 3AU

Published in the United States by Grove Press, New York in 2005

All rights reserved

© Banana Yoshimoto, 1999

Translation © Michael Emmerich, 2005

First published in Japan by Rockin' On, Inc.

English translation rights arranged through Japan Foreign-Rights Centre/Writers House LLC

The right of Banana Yoshimoto to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

A CIP record of this book is available from the British Library

ePub version by Chapu

HARDBOILED

1

The Shrine

I was traveling alone, no destination in mind. One afternoon, I found myself walking on a mountain road.

It was the first road up the mountainside after the highway; I liked how it felt to be walking there, hidden under its lush canopy of green.

When I first set out along the road, I’d been gazing down at the lovely patterns formed by the play of shadow and light.

My heart was light then; I felt like someone starting out on a walk.

Looking at the map, I saw that the road was marked as a hiking trail, and that it would eventually rejoin the highway.

I strolled along, feeling fine, under an afternoon sun so warm it seemed like spring.

But the road was unexpectedly difficult, with lots of steep slopes.

I kept walking, throwing my heart into the task, as the sun slowly began to sink; by the time I noticed the evening star it was already gleaming in the brilliant indigo sky, its light as clear as a jewel’s. To the west, in a sky still tinted with traces of pink, the long, thin, late-autumn clouds, dyed in soft colors, were gradually being swallowed up by the darkness. The moon had risen. It was a small sliver of a moon, no wider than a fingernail.

“If I keep going at this rate,” I muttered to myself, “who knows when I’ll reach the town.”

I had been walking along in silence for so long, I had almost forgotten what my own voice sounded like. My knees were tired; my toes were beginning to ache.

“Good thing I went with the hotel. I’d be too late for dinner at an inn.”

I thought about calling ahead, but I was so deep in the mountains that I couldn’t use my cell phone. All of a sudden, I felt hungry. It wouldn’t be that much longer until I arrived at the small town where I had reserved a room. As soon as I get there, I’ll go and have a hot meal, I thought, slightly quickening my pace.

Suddenly, just as I came to a bend in the road that led back into a slightly more remote part of the mountain, beyond the reach of the streetlights, I was overcome by an extremely unpleasant sensation. I had the illusion that space itself had bent gelatinously out of shape, so that no matter how long I walked, I would never make any progress.

I’ve never had any sort of supernatural powers. But at a certain point I learned to sense things, even if only faintly, that my eyes can’t see.

I’m a woman. Once, just once, I went out with another woman. She could see things other people couldn’t. Maybe it rubbed off on me, or maybe being with her sharpened an instinct that I had always had, I don’t know. All I know is that sometime after we started living together, I began to notice when there was something odd in the air.

A few years ago, during a car trip, on a mountain road just like this one, she and  I parted forever. That day I was driving. If we aren’t going back to the same house, I’d rather travel on my own for a while before I return, so just let me out here, she begged. And she meant it. Now I know why you packed so much, I said. I realized that she had never intended to go home with me; she had made up her mind even before we left. For me to move out of her apartment was, in her eyes, a betrayal even more serious than I had imagined. I tried and tried to make her change her mind, but she remained firm. She was so determined I actually thought she might kill me if I didn’t do what she wanted.

She said:

I really, really don’t want to be there when you leave. I’ll take my time going home; you go on ahead. Just have your things out by the time I get back.

So that’s what I did. Even though it was her car.

The look on her face when we said goodbye. Her lonely eyes, the way her hair hung down over her face. The beige of her coat reflected forever in the rearview mirror. It looked as if she were about to be swallowed by the green that engulfed the mountain. She kept waving, forever. I had the feeling that she would always be there waiting for me.

Things that don’t matter at all to one person can hurt another so deeply it seems as bad as dying. True, I didn’t know all that much about her life. But I couldn’t understand why it would be so painful for her to watch someone pack up and leave her apartment. Maybe we just didn’t understand each other, I don’t know. It’s true that I’d had nowhere to live, that I used her. And the fact is, I never planned to stay with her, a woman like myself, for the long haul. We were living together, and she liked me. So when she got physical, I responded. That’s all there was to it. But before long, I realized that she saw things differently. Or rather, some part of me realized it, and I kept pretending I hadn’t noticed. I felt horrible about what I had done. She was still there inside me now, just as she always was: a life put on hold, a memory I didn’t know how to handle.

My memories solidified into a mass of any number of different images and cast a relentless shadow on my heart.

I glanced up at the road ahead, trying hard to pull myself together, to focus on the rigors of the hike. And there it was, right there in front of me: that mysterious shrine. There was no statue of Jizō, the guardian of children, nor of any one of the other figures one might expect to find in his place; there was nothing but the shrine itself and offerings of flowers, long chains of origami cranes, and sake—none of which had been set out recently. A thought rose in my mind before I could stop it.

Something incredibly evil is resting here—something that used to live in the vicinity. I’m sure of it.

I can’t explain why I felt this way. Maybe there used to be a statue of Jizō or something here, but it broke—maybe that’s all it was? Or maybe someone carried it off? I tried to believe this. But it wasn’t true. Something hung in the air there, without a doubt—a passion of terrible intensity that had kept accumulating new layers over the years until it became one dense mass. The feeling that came over me then was so creepy that I just stood and stared.

As I looked more closely, I noticed ten or so pitch-black stones, each shaped like a small egg, that had been arranged in a circle right in the middle of the shrine. There was something very eerie about them too.

I got out of there quick, trying as much as possible to keep the ring of stones out of my view. During my travels, I had sometimes come across such things. There are, without a doubt, places in this world where something has settled, and it’s best for us little humans not to get involved.

I thought of various places I had visited in the past: caves I had seen in Bali and Malaysia that were so deep they made me shudder; sites in Cambodia and Saipan that brimmed with achingly dark passions left over from the war. I had visited many such places when I was young, accompanying my father on business trips—maybe that was another reason I became as sensitive to these things as I did. And it’s true, when I ask about places where I’ve felt that something is wrong, they usually turn out to have borne witness to something terrible.

Ultimately, though, it’s living people that frighten me the most. It’s always seemed to me that nothing could be scarier than a person, because as dreadful as places can be, they’re still just places; and no matter how awful ghosts might seem, they’re just dead people. I always thought that the most terrifying things anyone could ever think up were the things living people came up with.

As I rounded the bend, the eerie feeling I’d had suddenly slipped away, drawing back from the area around my shoulders, and I found myself surrounded once more by the sounds and sensations of a quiet evening.

Night lowered its heavy curtain. The entire area was flooded with air so clear it made me feel wonderful. When a breeze blew up, fallen autumn leaves of all different colors danced up through the dusk, fluttering toward me. I felt as if I were wrapped in a piece of cloth woven in some beautiful dream.

So I forgot my fear altogether, and walked on.

After a while, the slope evened out into a gentle decline and the road widened. No sooner had I noticed the lights shining through the silhouettes of trees than I found myself arriving, all at once, in that small town. Little stores lined both sides of the street; the train station, which had ticket machines but no stationmaster, was flooded with light; and while hardly a soul was out and about, the houses were lit up.

The tavern was already packed with local men who had gathered to have a good time after work, so it would have been awkward for me to barge in. I decided to go into a run-down shop that sold
udon
.

The owner was just about to close up and seemed extremely annoyed to see me, but he grudgingly told me to come in, so I did. I was worn out from walking, and dying to sit down.

It was a small establishment: there were only four tables set out on the concrete floor. On my table stood an empty shaker labeled “Seven-Spice Hot Pepper” that looked as if it had probably been empty for about a century.

The man boiled the noodles in an offhand manner, then set the bowl before me. There you go, he said. The sounds of the variety show on TV echoed through the shop, but this only heightened the loneliness of the place. The noodles were so wretched I shuddered at the thought of eating them, and when I tried to order a beer the man told me he didn’t have any. Considering how bad this place is, I’d have been better off eating at the hotel restaurant, even though it’s sure to be overpriced and not very good, I thought.

The man was waiting for me to finish eating, fidgeting all the while... on the other hand, the noodles tasted terrible and they were barely even warm, and to top it all off, they had gotten so mushy they were falling apart... I had a hard time getting them down. Thinking it might brighten my mood to check and see where my hotel was, I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the map. As I withdrew my hand, I heard something fall to the floor with a clonk.

An icy chill ran through me, piercing right to the bottom of my heart.

Lying on the floor was a black, egg-shaped stone just like the ones I had seen at that creepy shrine.

No way, it can’t be one of those, it’s just a coincidence. I tried to believe this, but I couldn’t. I tried to tell myself that the sight of those stones had frightened me so much that I blanked out for a second and put one in my pocket without remembering. But I didn’t believe this either. If I had done something like that, I would have feared for my sanity, of course, but that would have been a lot better than what I was feeling now.

I stared at the stone for a while in a kind of trance, then decided to forget the whole thing and leave it where it was, there on the floor of this nasty shop. Stop following me, I thought. Please.

The cool, collected part of my mind kept telling me there was no way a stone could have just walked into my pocket; it had probably just slipped in earlier, while I was eating my lunch outside. Either way, I decided not to think too deeply about it.

I wanted to get to the hotel as soon as possible; I wanted to be in a room of my own. I yearned to do ordinary things in an ordinary way, to watch TV, wash my hair, have some tea. The description of the hotel said it had a bath fed by hot springs. Yes, I would go stretch out in the hot water...

The man had started sweeping the shop, so I stood up, leaving the rest of my
udon
uneaten. The last thing I saw as I walked out was the man’s broom sending the stone skittering over toward one of the walls.

2

The Hotel

The lights were already out at the front desk. The carpet in the lobby looked a bit grubby and smelled like mold. But I was used to staying in places like this, so it didn’t bother me. I was just thrilled to have arrived.

I rang the bell several times, and eventually a woman emerged from the room behind the desk—a Japanese-style room with
shōji
screens and a
tatami
floor. She was thin, somewhere in her mid-fifties, and her eyes were very sharp.

At first the woman looked as if she wanted to ask me why I was so late, but as soon as I told her I hadn’t eaten, she became very friendly.

The restaurant’s open till ten, she told me, so if you go in right now you’ll still have time to eat. I’ll explain the situation and ask them to keep the kitchen open if you want to run up and put your bag in your room—just promise me that you’ll come right back down. There’s only one ramen shop around here, you know, and it’s closed today.

BOOK: Hardboiled & Hard Luck
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