Read Sputnik Sweetheart Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami

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

Sputnik Sweetheart (9 page)

The place where Miu and Sumire were staying was a small cottage with a veranda facing the sea. White walls and a red-tiled roof, the door painted a deep green. A riot of red bougainvilleas overgrew the low stone wall that surrounded the house. She opened the unlocked door and invited me inside.

The cottage was pleasantly cool. There was a living room and a medium-size dining room and kitchen. The walls were white stucco, with a couple of abstract paintings. In the living room there was a sofa set and a bookshelf and a compact stereo. Two bedrooms and a small but clean-looking tiled bathroom. None of the furniture was very attractive, just cozily lived in.

Miu took off her hat and laid down her bag on the kitchen counter. Would you like something to drink? she asked. Or would you like a shower first? Think I’ll take a shower first, I said. I washed my hair and shaved. Blow-dried my hair and changed into a fresh T-shirt and shorts. Made me feel halfway back to normal. Below the mirror in the bathroom there were two toothbrushes, one blue, the other red. I wondered which was Sumire’s.

I went back into the living room, and found Miu in an easy chair, brandy glass in hand. She invited me to join her, but what I really wanted was a cold beer. I got an Amstel from the fridge and poured it into a tall glass. Sunk deep in her chair, Miu was quiet for a long time. It didn’t look like she was trying to find the right words, rather that she was immersed in some personal memory, one without beginning and without end.

“How long have you been here?” I ventured.

“Today is the eighth day,” Miu said after thinking about it.

“And Sumire disappeared from here?”

“That’s right. Like I said before, just like smoke.”

“When did this happen?”

“At night, four days ago,” she said, looking around the room as if seeking a clue. “I don’t know where to begin.”

“Sumire told me in her letters about going to Paris from Milan,” I said. “Then about taking the train to Burgundy. You stayed at your friend’s large estate house in a Burgundy village.”

“Well, then, I’ll pick up the story from there,” Miu said.

CHAPTER 8

I
’ve known the wine producers around that village for ages, and I know their wines like I know the layout of my own house. What kind of wine the grapes on a certain slope in a certain field will produce. How that year’s weather affects the flavor; which producers are working hardest; whose son is trying his best to help his father. How much in loans certain producers have taken out, who’s bought a new Citroën. Those kinds of things. Dealing in wine is like breeding thoroughbreds—you have to know the lineage and the latest information. You can’t do business based just on what tastes good and what doesn’t.”

Miu stopped for a moment to catch her breath. She seemed unable to decide whether she should go on or not. She continued.

“There are a couple of places in Europe I buy from, but that village in Burgundy is my main supplier. So I try to spend a fair amount of time there at least once a year, to renew old friendships and gather the latest news. I always go alone, but this time we were visiting Italy first, and I decided to take Sumire with me. It’s more convenient sometimes to have another person with you on trips like this, and besides, I’d had her study Italian. In the end I decided I
would
rather go alone and planned to make up some excuse to have her go back home before I set out for France. I’ve been used to traveling alone ever since I was young, and no matter how close you are to someone it’s not that easy to be with someone else day after day.

“Sumire was surprisingly capable and took care of lots of details for me. Buying tickets, making hotel reservations, negotiating prices, keeping expense records, searching out good local restaurants. Those kinds of things. Her Italian was much improved, and I liked her healthy curiosity, which helped me experience things I never would have if I’d been alone. I was surprised to find out how easy it is to be with someone else. I felt that way, I think, because there was something special that brought us together.

I
remember very well the first time we met and we talked about Sputniks. She was talking about Beatnik writers, and I mistook the word and said ‘Sputnik.’ We laughed about it, and that broke the ice. Do you know what ‘Sputnik’ means in Russian? ‘Traveling companion.’ I looked it up in a dictionary not long ago. Kind of a strange coincidence if you think about it. I wonder why the Russians gave their satellite that strange name. It’s just a poor little lump of metal, spinning around the earth.”

Miu was silent for just a moment and then continued.

A
nyhow, I ended up taking Sumire with me to Burgundy. While I was seeing old acquaintances and taking care of business, Sumire, whose French was nonexistent, borrowed the car and took drives around the area. In one town she happened to meet a wealthy old Spanish lady, and they chatted in Spanish and got to be friends. The lady introduced Sumire to an Englishman who was staying in their hotel. He was more than fifty, a writer of some sort, very refined and handsome. I’m positive he was gay. He had a secretary with him who seemed to be his boyfriend.

“They invited us for dinner. They were very nice people, and as we talked we realized we had some mutual acquaintances, and I felt like I’d found some kindred spirits.

“The Englishman told us he had a small cottage on an island in Greece and would be happy if we used it. He always used the cottage for a month in the summer, but this summer he had some work that kept him from going. Houses are best occupied, otherwise the caretakers will get lazy, he told us. So if it isn’t any bother, please feel free to use it. This cottage, in other words.”

Miu gazed around the room.

W
hen I was in college I visited Greece. It was one of those whirlwind tours where you leap from port to port, but still I fell in love with the country. That’s why it was such an enticing offer to have a free house on a Greek island to use for as long as we wanted. Sumire jumped at the chance, too. I offered to pay a fair price to rent the cottage, but the Englishman refused, saying he wasn’t in the rental business. We batted some ideas around for a while, and ended up agreeing that I would send a case of red wine to his home in London to thank him.

“Life on the island was like a dream. For the first time in I don’t know how long I could enjoy a real vacation, without any schedule to worry about. Communications are a bit backward here—you know about the awful phone service—and there aren’t any faxes or the Internet. Getting back to Tokyo later than originally planned would cause a bit of a problem for other people, but once I got here it didn’t seem to matter anymore.

“Sumire and I got up early every morning, packed a bag with towels, water, and sunscreen, and walked to the beach on the other side of the mountains. The shore is so beautiful it takes your breath away. The sand is a pure white, and there are hardly any waves. It’s a little out of the way, though, and very few people go there, particularly in the morning. Everyone, men and women, swims nude. We did, too. It feels fantastic to swim in the pure blue sea in the morning, as bare as the day you were born. You feel like you’re in another world.

“When we tired of swimming, Sumire and I would lie on the beach and get a tan. At first we were a little embarrassed to be nude in front of each other, but once we got used to it, it was no big deal. The energy of the place was working on us, I suppose. We’d spread sunscreen on each other’s backs, loll in the sun, reading, dozing, just chatting. It made me feel truly free.

“We’d walk back home over the mountains, take showers and have a simple meal, then set off down the stairs to town. We’d have tea in a harbor café, read the English paper. Buy some food in a shop, go home, then spend our time as we pleased until evening—reading out on the veranda, or listening to music. Sometimes Sumire was in her room, apparently writing. I could hear her opening up her PowerBook and clattering away on the keys. In the evening we’d go out to the harbor to watch the ferryboat come in. We’d have a cool drink and watch the people getting off the ship.

T
here we were, sitting quietly on the edge of the world, and no one could see us. That’s the way it felt—like Sumire and I were the only ones here. There was nothing else we had to think about. I didn’t want to move, didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to just stay this way forever. I knew that was impossible—our life here was just a momentary illusion, and someday reality would yank us back to the world we came from. But until that time came I wanted to enjoy each day to the fullest, without worrying about anything. We loved our life here. Until four days ago.”

O
n their fourth morning there, they went as usual to the beach, skinny-dipped, returned home, and left again for the harbor. The waiter at the café remembered them—the generous tips Miu always left didn’t hurt—and greeted them warmly. He made some polite comment about how beautiful they looked. Sumire went to the kiosk and bought a copy of the English newspaper published in Athens. That was their only link with the outside world. Sumire’s job was reading the paper. She’d check the exchange rate and translate and read aloud to Miu any major news item or interesting article she happened to run across.

The article Sumire picked to read aloud that particular day was a report of a seventy-year-old lady who was eaten by her cats. It happened in a small suburb of Athens. The dead woman had lost her husband, a businessman, eleven years before and ever since had lived a quiet life in a two-room apartment with several cats as her only friends. One day the woman collapsed facedown on her sofa from a heart attack and expired. It wasn’t known how much time elapsed between her attack and her death. At any rate, the woman’s soul passed through all the set stages to bid farewell to its old companion, the body it had inhabited for seventy years. The woman didn’t have any relatives or friends who visited her regularly, and her body wasn’t discovered until a week later. The doors were shut, the windows shuttered, and the cats couldn’t get out after the death of their mistress. There wasn’t any food in the apartment. There must have been something in the refrigerator, but cats don’t possess the skill to open fridge doors. Starving, they devoured the flesh of their owner.

Taking an occasional sip of her coffee, Sumire translated the article in stages. Some bees buzzed around the table, settling to lick the jam a previous patron had spilled. Miu gazed at the sea through her sunglasses, listening intently to Sumire’s reading.

“And then what happened?” Miu asked.

“That’s it,” Sumire said, folding the tabloid in half and setting it on the table. “That’s all the newspaper says.”

“What could have happened to the cats?”

“I don’t know . . . ,” Sumire said, pursing her lips to one side and giving it some thought. “Newspapers are all the same. They never tell you what you really want to know.”

The bees, as if sensing something, flew up in the air and with a ceremonious buzz circled for a while, then settled again on the table. They returned to their jam licking.

“And what was the fate of the cats, one wonders,” Sumire said, tugging at the collar of her oversize T-shirt and smoothing out the wrinkles. With the T-shirt she wore shorts but—Miu happened to know—no underwear underneath. “Cats that develop a taste for human flesh might turn into man-eating cats, so maybe they were destroyed. Or maybe the police said, ‘Hey, you guys have suffered enough,’ and they were acquitted.”

“If you were the mayor or chief of police in that town, what would you do?”

Sumire thought about it. “How about placing them in an institution and reforming them? Turn them into vegetarians.”

“Not a bad idea.” Miu laughed. She took off her sunglasses and turned to face Sumire. “That story reminds me of the first lecture I heard when I entered a Catholic junior high school. Did I ever tell you I went to a very strict Catholic girls’ school for six years? I attended a regular elementary school, but I went into that school in junior high. Right after the entrance ceremony a decrepit old nun took all us new students into the auditorium and gave a talk on Catholic ethics. She was a French nun, but her Japanese was fluent. She talked about all kinds of things, but what I recall is the story of cats and the deserted island.”

“That sounds interesting,” Sumire said.

“You’re shipwrecked, washed up on a deserted island. Only you and a cat made it to the lifeboat. You drift for a while and wind up on a deserted island, just a rocky island, with nothing you can eat. No water, either. In your lifeboat you have ten days’ worth of biscuits and water for one person, and that’s it. That’s how the story went.

“The nun looked all around the auditorium and she said this in a strong, clear voice. ‘Close your eyes and imagine this scene. You’re washed up on a deserted island with a cat. This is a solitary island in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost impossible that someone would rescue you within ten days. When your food and water run out, you may very well die. Well, what would you do? Since the cat is suffering as you are, should you divide your meager food with it?’ The sister was silent again and looked at all our faces. ‘No. That would be a mistake,’ she continued. ‘I want you to understand that dividing your food with the cat would be wrong. The reason being that you are precious beings, chosen by God, and the cat is not. That’s why you should eat all the food yourself.’ The nun had this terribly serious look on her face.

“At first I thought it was some kind of a joke. I was waiting for the punch line. But there wasn’t any. She turned her talk to the subject of human dignity and worth, and it all went over my head. I mean, really, what was the point of telling that kind of story to kids who’d just entered the school? I couldn’t figure it out—and I
still
can’t.”

Sumire thought it over. “Do you mean whether it would be OK, in the end, to eat the cat?”

“Well, I don’t know. She didn’t take it that far.”

“Are you a Catholic?”

Miu shook her head. “That school just happened to be near my house, so I went. I liked their uniforms, too. I was the only non-Japanese citizen in the school.”

“Did you have any bad experiences?”

“Because I was Korean?”

“Yes.”

Again Miu shook her head. “The school was quite liberal. The rules were pretty strict, and some of the sisters were eccentrics, but the atmosphere was generally progressive, and no, I never experienced any prejudice. I made some good friends, and overall I’d say I enjoyed school. I’ve had a few unpleasant experiences, but that was after I went out into the real world. But that’s nothing unusual—it happens to most people.”

“I heard they eat cats in Korea. Is it true?”

“I’ve heard the same thing. But nobody I know does.”

I
t had been the hottest time of day, and the early-afternoon town square was nearly deserted. Most everyone in town was shut up in a cool house, taking a nap. Only curious foreigners ventured out at that time of day.

There was a statue of a hero in the square. He’d led a rebellion in mainland Greece and fought the Turks who controlled the island, but he was captured and put to death by skewering. The Turks set up a sharpened stake in the square and lowered the pitiful hero onto it, naked. Ever so slowly, the stake went through his anus, and finally all the way to his mouth; it took him hours to die. The statue was supposedly erected on the spot where this happened. When it was erected, the valiant bronze statue must have been quite a sight, but over the intervening years, what with the sea wind, dust, and seagull droppings, you could barely make out the man’s features. Island folk hardly gave the shabby statue a passing glance, and the statue itself looked like it had turned its back on the world.

S
peaking of cats,” Sumire had blurted out, “I have a very strange memory of one. When I was in second grade, we had a pretty little six-month-old tortoiseshell cat. I was on the veranda one evening, reading a book, when the cat started to run like crazy around the base of this large pine tree in the garden. Cats do that. There’s nothing there, but suddenly they hiss, arch their backs, jump back, hair standing on end and tail up, in attack mode.

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