Read Sputnik Sweetheart Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami

Tags: #Literary, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Teachers, #Missing persons, #Japan, #Unrequited love, #Fiction, #Women novelists, #Businesswomen

Sputnik Sweetheart (10 page)

“The cat was so worked up it didn’t notice me watching it from the veranda. It was such a strange sight I laid my book down and watched the cat. The cat didn’t seem to tire of its solitary game. Actually, as time passed, it got more determined. Like it was possessed.”

Sumire took a drink of water and lightly scratched her ear.

“The more I watched, the more frightened I became. The cat saw something that I couldn’t see, and whatever it was drove it into a frenzy. Finally the cat started racing around and around the tree trunk at a tremendous speed, like the tiger that changes into butter in that children’s story. Finally, after running forever, the cat leaped up the tree trunk. I could see its tiny face peeking out between the branches way up high. From the veranda I called out its name in a loud voice, but it didn’t hear me.

“Finally the sun set and the cold late-autumn wind began to blow. I sat on the veranda, waiting for the cat to come down. It was a friendly cat, and I figured that if I sat there for a while, it would come down. But it didn’t. I couldn’t even hear it meowing. It got darker and darker. I got scared and told my family. ‘Don’t worry,’ they told me, ‘just leave it alone and it’ll come down before long.’ But the cat never came back.”

“What do you mean—‘never came back’?” Miu asked.

“It just disappeared.
Like smoke.
Everybody told me the cat must have come down from the tree in the night and gone off somewhere. Cats get worked up and climb tall trees, then get frightened when they realize how high they are, and won’t come down. Happens all the time. If the cat was still there, they said, it’d meow for all it’s worth to let you know. But I couldn’t buy that. I thought the cat must be clinging to a branch, scared to death, unable to cry out. When I came back from school, I sat on the veranda, looked at the pine tree, and every once in a while called out the cat’s name. No reply. After a week, I gave up. I loved that little cat, and it made me so sad. Every time I happened to look at the pine tree I could picture that pitiful little cat, stone-cold dead, still clinging to a branch. The cat never going anywhere, starving to death and shriveling up there.”

Sumire looked at Miu.

“I never had a cat again. I still like cats, though I decided at the time that that poor little cat who climbed the tree and never returned would be my first and last cat. I couldn’t forget that little cat and start loving another.”

T
hat’s what we talked about that afternoon at the café,” Miu said. “I thought they were just a lot of harmless memories, but now everything seems significant. Maybe it’s just my imagination.”

Miu turned and looked out the window. The breeze blowing in from the sea rustled the pleated curtains. With her gazing out at the darkness, the room seemed to acquire an even deeper silence.

“Do you mind if I ask a question? I’m sorry if it seems off the subject, but it’s been bothering me,” I said. “You said Sumire disappeared, vanished ‘like smoke,’ as you put it. Four days ago. And you went to the police. Right?”

Miu nodded.

“Why did you ask me to come instead of getting in touch with Sumire’s family?”

“I didn’t have any clues about what happened to her. And without any solid evidence, I didn’t know if I should upset her parents. I agonized over it for some time and decided to wait and see.”

I tried picturing Sumire’s handsome father taking the ferry to this island. Would her stepmother, understandably hurt by the turn of events, accompany him? That would be one fine mess. As far as I was concerned, though, things were already a mess. How could a foreigner possibly vanish on such a small island for four days?

“But why did you call me?”

Miu brought her bare legs together again, held the hem of her skirt between her fingers, and tugged it down.

“You were the only one I could count on.”

“But you’d never met me.”

“Sumire trusted you more than anyone else. She said you think deeply about things, no matter what the subject.”

“Definitely a minority opinion, I’m afraid.”

Miu narrowed her eyes and smiled, those tiny wrinkles appearing around her eyes.

I stood up and walked in front of her, taking her empty glass. I went into the kitchen, poured some Courvoisier into the glass, then went back to the living room. She thanked me and took the brandy. Time passed, the curtain silently fluttering. The breeze had the smell of a different place.

“Do you really,
really
want to know the truth?” Miu asked me. She sounded drained, as if she’d come to a difficult decision.

I looked up and gazed into her face. “One thing I can say with absolute certainty,” I said, “is that if I didn’t want to know the truth, I wouldn’t be here.”

Miu squinted in the direction of the curtains. And finally spoke, in a quiet voice. “It happened that night, after we’d talked about cats at the café.”

CHAPTER 9

A
fter their conversation at the harbor café about cats, Miu and Sumire went grocery shopping and returned to the cottage. As usual, they relaxed until dinner. Sumire was in her room, writing on her laptop computer. Miu lay on the sofa in the living room, hands folded behind her head, eyes closed, listening to Julius Katchen’s recording of Brahms’s ballads. It was an old LP, but the performance was graceful, emotional, and utterly memorable. Not a bit presumptuous but fully expressive.

“Does the music bother you?” Miu asked once, looking in at the door to Sumire’s room. The door was wide open.

“Brahms never bothers me,” Sumire said, turning around.

This was the first time Miu had seen Sumire writing so intently. Her mouth was tight, like a prowling animal’s, her eyes deeper than usual.

“What are you writing?” Miu asked. “A new Sputnik novel?”

The tenseness around Sumire’s mouth softened somewhat. “Nothing much. Just things that came to mind that might be of use someday.”

Miu returned to her sofa and sank back down in the miniature world the music traced in the afternoon sunlight; how wonderful it would be, she mused, to play Brahms so beautifully. In the past I always had trouble with Brahms’s smaller works, especially the ballads, she thought. I never could give myself up to that world of capricious, fleeting nuances and sighs. Now, though, I should be able to play Brahms more beautifully than before. But Miu knew very well:
I can’t play anything. Ever again.

At six-thirty the two of them prepared dinner in the kitchen and ate out on the veranda. A soup of sea bream and fragrant herbs, salad, and bread. They had some white wine and, later, hot coffee. They watched as a fishing boat appeared in the lee of the island and inscribed a short white arc as it sailed into the harbor. No doubt a hot meal was awaiting the fishermen in their homes.

“By the way, when will we be leaving here?” Sumire asked as she washed the dishes.

“I’d like to stay one more week, but that’s about as long as I can manage,” Miu replied, looking at the calendar on the wall. “If I had my way, I’d stay here forever.”

“If I had my way, me too,” Sumire said, beaming. “But what can you do? Wonderful things always come to an end.”

F
ollowing their usual routine, they went to their rooms before ten. Miu changed into long-sleeve white cotton pajamas and fell asleep the moment her head hit the pillow. But soon she woke up, as if shaken by the beating of her own heart. She glanced over at the travel alarm clock next to her; it was past twelve-thirty. The room was pitch-black, enveloped by total silence. She sensed someone nearby, hiding with bated breath. Miu pulled the covers up to her neck and pricked up her ears. Her heart thumped loudly, drowning out everything else. It wasn’t just a bad dream spilling over into wakefulness—someone was definitely in the room with her. Careful not to make a sound, Miu reached out and pulled aside the window curtain an inch or two. Pale, watery moonlight stole into the room. Keeping perfectly still, she swept the room with her eyes.

As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could distinguish an outline of something gradually forming in a corner of the room. In the shadow of the closet beside the door, where the darkness was deepest. Whatever it was, it was low, rolled into a thick ball like some large, long-forgotten mail bag. An animal? A large dog? But the front door was locked, the door to her room shut. A dog wouldn’t be able to get in.

Miu continued to breathe quietly and stared fixedly. Her mouth was dry, and she could catch a faint whiff of the brandy she’d had before going to bed. She reached out and drew the curtain back a little farther to let more moonlight in. Slowly, like unraveling a tangled thread, she could make out the shape of the black lump on the floor. It looked like a person’s body. Hair hanging down in front, two thin legs bent at an acute angle. Someone was sitting on the floor, balled up, head between legs, scrunched up as if to protect herself from something falling from the sky.

It was Sumire. Wearing her usual blue pajamas, she crouched like a bug between the door and the closet. Not moving. Not even breathing, as far as Miu could tell.

Miu breathed a sigh of relief. But what in the world was Sumire doing here? Miu sat up quietly and switched on the lamp. Yellow light lit the entire room, but Sumire didn’t budge an inch. She didn’t even seem to realize the light was on.

W
hat’s the matter?” Miu called out. First in a small voice, then more loudly.

There was no response. Miu’s voice didn’t appear to reach Sumire. Miu got out of bed and walked over to her. The feel of the carpet was rough against her bare feet.

“Are you sick?” Miu asked, crouching beside Sumire.

Still no answer.

Miu noticed that Sumire was holding something in her mouth. A pink washcloth that was always hanging in the bathroom. Miu tried to pull it out, but Sumire’s mouth was clamped down hard. Her eyes were open but unseeing. Miu gave up and rested a hand on Sumire’s shoulder. Sumire’s pajamas were soaking wet.

“You’d better take your pajamas off,” Miu said. “You’re sweating so much you’ll catch cold.”

Sumire looked stupefied, not hearing anything, not seeing anything. Miu decided to get Sumire’s pajamas off; otherwise her body would freeze. It was August, but sometimes nights on the island were chilly. The two of them swam nude every day and were used to seeing each other’s bodies, so Miu figured Sumire wouldn’t mind if she undressed her.

Supporting Sumire’s body, Miu unbuttoned the pajamas and, after a time, was able to get the top off. Then the bottoms. Sumire’s rigid body gradually relaxed and ended up limp. Miu took the washcloth out of her mouth. It was soaked from her saliva. There was a perfect set of teeth marks in it.

Sumire had no underpants on under the pajamas. Miu grabbed a towel nearby and wiped the sweat from her body. First her back, then under her arms, then her chest. She wiped her belly, then very quickly the area from her waist to her thighs. Sumire was subdued, unresisting. She appeared unconscious, though looking into her eyes Miu could make out a glint of comprehension.

Miu had never touched Sumire’s naked body before. Her skin was taut, smooth like a young child’s. Lifting her up, Miu found that Sumire was heavier than she had imagined, and smelled of sweat. Wiping the sweat from her, Miu felt again her own heart thumping in her chest. Saliva gathered in her mouth, and she had to swallow again and again.

Bathed in moonlight, Sumire glistened like some ancient ceramic. Her breasts were small but shapely, with well-formed nipples. Her black pubic hair was wet with sweat and glittered like grass in the morning dew. Her limp, naked body was completely different from the one Miu had seen under the blazing sun at the beach. Her body was a mix of still girlish elements and a budding maturity blindly wrenched open by the painful flow of time.

Miu felt like she was peering into someone’s else’s secrets, something forbidden she shouldn’t be seeing. She avoided looking at the naked skin as she continued to wipe the sweat off Sumire’s body, all the while replaying in her mind a Bach piece she’d memorized as a child. She wiped the sweaty bangs plastered to Sumire’s forehead. Even the insides of Sumire’s tiny ears were sweaty.

Miu felt Sumire’s arm silently go around her own body. Sumire’s breath grazed her neck.

“All you all right?” Miu asked.

Sumire didn’t reply. But her arm held on a bit more tightly. Half carrying her, Miu helped her into her own bed. She laid Sumire down and drew the covers over her. Sumire lay there, unmoving, and closed her eyes.

M
iu watched her for a while, but Sumire didn’t move a muscle. She seemed to have fallen asleep. Miu went to the kitchen and drank several glasses of mineral water. She took a few deep breaths and managed to calm down. Her heart had stopped pounding, though her chest ached with the tension of the last few moments. Everything was cloaked in a choking silence. No voices, not even a dog barking. No waves, no sound of the wind. Why, Miu wondered, is everything so deadly still?

Miu went into the bathroom and took Sumire’s sweaty pajamas, the towel she’d used to wipe her down, and the washcloth with the teeth marks and tossed them into the hamper. She washed her face and gazed at her reflection in the mirror. Since coming to the island she hadn’t dyed her hair, which now was pure white, like newly fallen snow.

When Miu went back into her room, Sumire’s eyes were open. A thin translucent veil seemed to cover them, but a glimmer of consciousness had returned. Sumire lay there, the covers up to her shoulders.

“I’m sorry. Sometimes I get this way,” she said huskily.

Miu sat down on a corner of the bed, smiled, and reached out to touch Sumire’s still damp hair. “You should take a good, long shower. You were really sweating.”

“Thanks,” Sumire said. “I just want to lie here.”

Miu nodded and handed Sumire a fresh bath towel, took out a pair of her own clean pajamas from the dresser, and laid them beside Sumire. “You can use these. I don’t imagine you have another pair, do you?”

“Can I sleep here tonight?” Sumire asked.

“All right. Just go to sleep. I’ll sleep in your bed.”

“My bed must be soaked,” Sumire said. “The covers, everything. And I don’t want to be alone. Don’t leave me here. Would you sleep beside me? Just for tonight? I don’t want to have any more nightmares.”

Miu thought about it and nodded. “But first put on a pair of pajamas. I don’t think I’d like having somebody naked lying right next to me—especially in such a small bed.”

Sumire got up slowly and pushed back the covers. She stood up, still naked, and tugged on Miu’s pajamas. She leaned forward and slipped on the bottoms, then the top. It took some time to get the buttons all fastened. Her fingers wouldn’t work right. Miu didn’t help, just sat there watching. Sumire buttoned up the pajamas in such a deliberate way it struck Miu as an almost religious ceremony. The moonlight made her nipples look strangely hard.

She might be a virgin, Miu suddenly thought.

After putting on the silk pajamas, Sumire lay down again, on the far side of the bed. Miu got in next to her, where the scent of sweat remained strong.

“Can I,” Sumire began, “just hold you for a while?”

“Hold me?”

“Yes.”

While Miu wondered how to respond, Sumire reached out and clasped her hand. Her palm was still sweaty, warm and soft. She reached both hands behind Miu. Sumire’s breasts pushed against Miu, just above her stomach. Sumire pressed her cheek between Miu’s breasts. They remained that way for a long time. Sumire seemed to be shaking, ever so slightly. She must be crying, Miu thought. But it was as if she couldn’t let it all out. Miu reached around Sumire’s shoulder and drew her closer. She’s still a child, Miu thought. Lonely and frightened, she wants someone’s warmth. Like that kitten clinging to a pine branch.

Sumire shifted her body upward a bit. The tip of her nose brushed Miu’s neck. Their breasts pressed together. Miu gulped. Sumire’s hand wandered over her back.

“I really like you,” Sumire said in a small voice.

“I like you, too,” Miu said. She didn’t know what else to say. And it was the truth.

Sumire’s fingers started to unbutton the front of Miu’s pajamas. Miu tried to stop her. But Sumire wouldn’t stop. “Just a little,” Sumire said. “Just a little
—please.

Miu lay there unresisting. Sumire’s fingers gently traced the contours of Miu’s breasts. Sumire’s nose flickered back and forth at Miu’s throat. Sumire touched Miu’s nipple, stroked it gently, and held it between two fingers. Hesitantly at first, then more boldly.

M
iu stopped speaking. She looked up, searchingly, at me. Her cheeks were slightly flushed.

“There’s something I need to explain to you. A long time ago I had a very unusual experience, and my hair turned pure white. Overnight, completely. Since then I’ve dyed my hair. Sumire knew I dyed my hair, and since it was too much trouble after we came to this island, I gave it up. Nobody knows me here, so it didn’t matter. But knowing you’d be coming, I dyed it again. I didn’t want to give you a strange first impression.”

Time flowed past in the ensuing silence.

I
’ve never had a homosexual experience, and never considered I had those tendencies. But if that’s what Sumire really wanted, I thought I could oblige. At least I didn’t find it disgusting. As long as it was with
Sumire,
that is. So I didn’t resist when she started feeling me all over, or when she stuck her tongue inside my mouth. It felt strange, but I tried to get used to it. I let her do what she wanted. I like Sumire, and if it made her happy, I didn’t mind whatever she did.

“But my body and my mind are two different things. A part of me was happy that Sumire was caressing me so lovingly. But no matter how happy my mind was, my body resisted. My body wouldn’t yield to her. My heart and my head were aroused, but the rest of me was like a hard, dry stone. It’s sad, but I couldn’t help it. Of course Sumire picked up on that. Her body was flushed, and gently damp, but I couldn’t respond.

“I told her how I felt. ‘I’m not rejecting you,’ I said, ‘but I just can’t do that kind of thing.’ Ever since
that
happened to me, fourteen years ago, I haven’t been able to give myself physically to anyone in
this
world. It’s something that’s out of my hands, decided somewhere else. I told her that if there was anything I could do, you know, with my fingers, or mouth, I would. But that isn’t what she wanted. I knew that already.

S
he kissed me on the forehead and said she was sorry. ‘It’s just that I like you,’ she said. ‘I’ve worried about it for so long, and I had to try.’ ‘I like you, too,’ I told Sumire. ‘So don’t worry about it. I still want you to be with me.’

“As if a dam had burst, Sumire sobbed into her pillow for the longest time. I rubbed her bare back as she cried, from the top of her shoulder to her waist, feeling all her bones. I wanted to cry along with her, but I couldn’t.

“And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.

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