Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (68 page)

(Another note on the time frame: Menshiki went to my home that afternoon, where he bumped into Masahiko and they had a brief conversation. For some reason, though, Mariye was again unaware that he had left the house.)

Menshiki's unwavering routine was useful to Mariye. She could prepare herself emotionally, and plan her movements in advance. Unexpected events would have made it much harder on her nerves. She had grown familiar with Menshiki's pattern, and adapted herself to it. He almost never went out (at least to her knowledge). He worked in his study, washed his own clothes, cooked his own meals, and, in the evening, sat down in front of his Steinway and practiced. Sometimes there was a phone call, but those were infrequent. She could count them on her fingers. For some reason, he didn't seem to like phones all that much. He appeared to take care of his work-related communications—she had no idea how extensive they were—on the computer in his study.

Menshiki took care of the basic cleaning, but once a week he had a cleaning service come to him. Mariye remembered him mentioning that on their previous visit. I don't mind doing it myself, he had said. Cleaning can cheer me up, just like cooking. But it was clearly beyond him to keep such a big house tidy on his own. Thus the need for professional help. He had said he left the house for half a day when they came. What day of the week would it be? Maybe that's when I can make my getaway, Mariye thought. People will be bringing equipment, so the gate should be opening and closing as their vehicles come and go. Menshiki should be absent. So getting out might not be all that hard. That could be my one and only chance.

Yet there was no sign that the cleaners were coming. Monday was much the same as Sunday. Menshiki was making good progress with Mozart: his mistakes were fewer, and the whole piece was coming together musically. He was a careful and patient man. Once he set a goal, he stuck to it. Mariye had to admit she was impressed. Even if he could make it through without a hitch, though, how pleasing would his Mozart be to the ear? Listening to what was coming from upstairs, she had her doubts.

She was surviving on crackers, chocolate, and mineral water. She also polished off an energy bar full of nuts. And a can of tuna fish. Since she had no toothbrush, she brushed her teeth with mineral water, using her finger. She read issue after issue of the Japanese version of
National Geographic
. In the process, she learned about a number of further topics: the man-eating tigers of Bengal; the lemurs of Madagascar; the shifting topography of the Grand Canyon; natural-gas extraction in Siberia; the life expectancy of the penguins of Antarctica; the world of the highland nomads of Afghanistan; the grueling initiation rituals of New Guinean youth. She learned the basics about AIDS, and Ebola. Such miscellaneous information about nature might prove useful one day. Then again, it might be entirely useless. Whatever the case, no other books were on hand. She devoured back issues of
National Geographic
like there was no tomorrow.

Once in a while, she would slip her hand under her T-shirt to check the status of her breasts. But they didn't appear to be growing at all. If anything, they seemed to be getting smaller. She was also concerned about her period. According to her calculations, the next was due in about ten days. She had found nothing related to that condition in the storeroom. (Plenty of toilet paper was stockpiled in case of earthquake, but no sanitary napkins or tampons. It seemed that women and their needs didn't register with the owner of the house.) She'd be in big trouble if it started while she was in hiding. Probably, though, she would have escaped by then.
Probably.
It was hard to imagine putting up with another ten days of this.

—

The cleaners finally showed up on Tuesday morning. She could hear the lively chatter of women in the upper garden as they unloaded equipment from the back of their van. Menshiki had not done his laundry that morning, nor performed his exercise routine. In fact, he hadn't come downstairs at all. She had wondered if this could be why (Menshiki wouldn't change his daily schedule without a reason), and, sure enough, it was as she had guessed. Menshiki had probably driven his Jaguar out the gate at the same moment the cleaners' big van pulled in.

Mariye rushed to tidy up the maid's room. She gathered the empty water bottles and cracker packets and put them in a garbage bag, which she set out in a visible place. The cleaners would look after it. She neatly folded the blanket and quilt and returned them to the closet. She took care to erase every trace of her presence. Now no one could tell that someone had been living there for days. Then she slung her bag over her shoulder and crept up the stairs. Timing her moves, she darted through the hallway without attracting the cleaners' attention. Her heart pounded at the thought of the dangers of
that room
. At the same time, though, she missed the clothes hanging in its closet. She wanted to go back for one last look. Touch them with her hands. But there was no time for that. She had to hurry.

She slipped through the front door undetected, and ran up the curved driveway. The gate had been left open, as she had anticipated. It made no sense for anyone working there to open and close it each time they passed through. Her face as she stepped out onto the road was a picture of normality.

Should I really be able to leave this easily? she thought outside the gate. Shouldn't I have to pay a higher price? Go through some sort of painful rite of passage, like the teenage tribesmen of New Guinea? Endure a ritual like that as a badge of courage? Those thoughts did not linger, however. They were dwarfed by the liberation she felt at having made her getaway.

The day was overcast, with low-lying clouds that threatened cold rain at any minute. But Mariye's face was raised to the sky. As if she were on the beach at Waikiki, gazing up at the swaying palm trees. She took several deep breaths, giddy with her good fortune. I am free, she thought. My feet will take me anywhere I want to go. My nights spent trembling in the dark are over. That fact alone made her grateful to be alive. It had been only four days, but now the world appeared so fresh, each tree, every blade of grass charged with such wonderful vitality. She found the smell of the wind exhilarating.

Yet this was no time to dawdle. Menshiki could have forgotten something and come driving back at any time. I should get away from here, she thought, and fast. Adopting what she hoped was a nonchalant expression, Mariye tried to smooth her wrinkled school uniform (she had been sleeping in it for days) and straighten her hair to avoid arousing suspicion as she trotted down the mountain.

At the foot of the slope, she turned up the road on the other side. But she did not take her usual route home—rather, she headed for my place. She had something in mind. But the house was empty. She rang the bell repeatedly, but no one came to the door.

Giving up, she went around to the back and took the path through the woods to the pit behind the little shrine. Now, however, a blue plastic sheet covered the pit. The sheet hadn't been there before. It was held firmly in place by cords attached to stakes driven into the ground. Stone weights were lined up on top. It was no longer possible to peek inside. In her absence, someone—who, she didn't know—had sealed it. Probably they considered it a safety hazard. She stood in front of the pit and listened for a while. But she heard nothing.

(My note: The fact she didn't hear the bell could have meant that I hadn't arrived yet. Or possibly that I had fallen asleep.)

Cold drops of rain began to fall. I should go home, she thought. My family is worried about me. But how could she explain the last four days? She had to think of something. She couldn't let on that she had been hiding at Menshiki's all that time—that was out of the question. It would create an even bigger mess. The police had probably been notified of her disappearance. If they knew that she had broken into Menshiki's home, she'd be charged with trespassing. She would be punished.

What if she claimed that she had fallen into the pit by accident, and had been unable to get out for four days? That only when her teacher—
me,
in other words—came by was she able to climb to safety. Mariye had expected me to play along with this scenario. But I hadn't been home, and the pit's opening had been secured with a plastic tarp. Thus her plan fell through. (Had that scenario unfolded, I would have had to explain to the police why Menshiki and I had brought in heavy equipment to uncover the pit, which might have led to even thornier problems.)

Claiming temporary amnesia was the only other story she could think of. Nothing else came to mind. She would say that those four days were a blank. That she couldn't remember a thing. That when she came to, she was lying alone on the mountain. She would stick with that—there was no other way. She had seen a TV show that hinged on that idea. She wasn't sure if people would swallow an excuse like that. The police and her family would grill her. They might send her to a psychiatrist or counselor of some kind. Even so, a claim of amnesia was the only option. She would have to mess up her hair, splatter mud on her legs and arms, and add a few scattered cuts and bruises to make it look as if she had spent all that time in the mountains. It would be an act she would have to carry through to the very end.

And in fact that was what she did. It was hardly a masterful performance, but she could come up with no alternative.

—

This was what Mariye revealed to me. She had just finished her account when Shoko Akikawa returned. I heard her Toyota Prius pull up in front of my house.

“I think you should keep quiet about what really happened,” I said to Mariye. “Don't tell anyone but me. It will be our secret.”

“Of course,” Mariye said. “Of course I won't tell anyone. Even if I did, they wouldn't believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“Does this mean the circle is closed?”

“I don't know,” I said. “Maybe not all the way. But I think we can rest easy. The dangerous part is over.”

“The virulent part.”

“That's right,” I said. “The virulent part.”

Mariye studied my face for a full ten seconds. “The Commendatore,” she said in a small voice. “He really exists.”

“That's right,” I replied. “He really does.” And I killed him with these hands.
Really.
But of course I couldn't tell her that.

Mariye gave a single nod. I knew she would keep our secret. It was a secret we would share forever.

I wished I could have told Mariye that the clothes that had protected her from that
something
had been worn by her late mother before she married. But I couldn't. I didn't have the right. Neither did the Commendatore. There was but one person in the world who did, and that was Menshiki. But he would never exercise it.

We all live our lives carrying secrets we cannot disclose.

63
BUT IT'S NOT WHAT YOU'RE THINKING

Mariye and I had a secret. An important secret shared by the two of us alone. I described my time in the underworld, and she told me exactly what had happened to her at Menshiki's mansion. We wrapped up the two paintings,
Killing Commendatore
and
The Man with the White Subaru Forester,
as tightly as we could and stored them in the attic of Tomohiko Amada's house. Nobody else knew about that, either. The owl did, of course, but it wasn't going to talk. It would hold our secret in perfect silence.

Mariye came to visit from time to time (she hid it from her aunt, using her secret passageway). We put our heads together to try to figure out what our experiences had in common, comparing the timelines right down to the smallest detail.

At first, I worried that Shoko would suspect that Mariye's four-day disappearance and my three-day “long-distance trip” were somehow related, but the idea seems never to have entered her head. Nor did the police direct their attention to that coincidence. They were ignorant of the passageway, so they dismissed my home as just another house on the next ridge over. Since I did not number among the Akikawas' “neighbors,” they never came to interview me. Nor did it appear that Shoko had told them I was painting Mariye's portrait. She probably didn't see it as relevant. Had the police put Mariye's absence and my trip together, I could have been placed in a delicate situation.

—

I never completed my portrait of Mariye Akikawa. It was almost done, but I feared where finishing it might lead. Menshiki, for one, would move heaven and earth to put his hands on it. That much was clear, no matter what he might say to the contrary. I had no intention, however, of letting him install the painting in his private “sanctuary.” That could be dangerous. So in the end I left it unfinished. Mariye, however, loved the painting (“It shows how I think these days,” was how she put it), and wanted to keep it near her if possible. So I readily gave it to her in its unfinished state (along with the three sketches I had promised earlier).

“I think it's cool,” Mariye said. “It's a work in progress, and I'm a work in progress too, now and forever.”

“None of us are ever finished. Everyone is always a work in progress.”

“How about Mr. Menshiki?” Mariye asked. “He looks very finished to me.”

“I think he's a work in progress too,” I said.

Menshiki was far from being a completed human being. From what I could tell, anyway. That is why, night after night, under cloak of darkness, he reached out to Mariye Akikawa across the valley on his high-powered binoculars. He couldn't help himself. That secret allowed him to maintain some sort of personal equilibrium. It was for him the equivalent of the long balancing pole that tightrope walkers carry.

Of course, Mariye was aware that Menshiki was peeking into her house. But she never revealed it to anyone (apart from me). She never told her aunt. What possessed him to do something like that? It mystified her. Yet for some reason she didn't feel like pursuing it any further. All she did was keep her curtain closed. The sun-bleached orange curtain stayed tightly shut at all times. She also made sure that the light in her room was off when she changed for bed at night. Elsewhere in the house, however, his voyeurism didn't bother her. Sometimes she even thought she enjoyed it. Perhaps she found some meaning in the fact that
she alone
knew what was going on.

According to Mariye, Shoko and Menshiki were still seeing each other. Her aunt would jump in the car and drive off to his house once or twice a week. Their relationship appeared to be sexual (Mariye hinted at this in a very roundabout way). Her young aunt never said where she was going, but Mariye knew. When she came back, her complexion was rosier than usual. In any case—whatever the nature of that peculiar void within Menshiki—Mariye was powerless to interfere in their affair. She could only let them continue on as they were. All she wished was not to be drawn into whatever was going on between the two of them. That she be allowed to stand at a safe distance, outside the whirlpool of their relationship.

I doubted that she could pull that off. Without realizing it, she would be sucked in sooner or later, to a greater or lesser degree. From the periphery, unavoidably toward the center. Menshiki was wooing Shoko Akikawa, but always with Mariye in mind. Whether he had planned it all from the start or not, he couldn't help himself—that's the kind of man he was. And, like it or not, I had brought them together. He had met Shoko in this house. That's what he had wanted. And when Menshiki wanted something, the guy knew how to put his hands on it.

Mariye wasn't sure what Menshiki would do with that closetful of shoes and size 5 dresses. She guessed he would keep them—whether they were stored in that closet or in another place. However his relationship with Shoko Akikawa turned out, he wouldn't be able to discard them, or burn them. That was because the wardrobe had become a part of his psyche. The clothes would be forever enshrined within his spiritual sanctuary.

I decided to quit teaching my painting class near Odawara Station. “I'm sorry, but I need to focus on my art,” was how I put it to the director. He took it in stride. “It's a shame,” he said. “Everyone says you're a wonderful teacher.” His words didn't sound altogether false, either. I thanked him, and promised to stick it out till year's end. By then, he had located a good replacement, a retired high school art instructor in her mid-sixties. She struck me as a very nice woman, with eyes that resembled those of an elephant.

—

Menshiki called from time to time. No practical matter was ever involved—we just chatted. Each time he would ask if there had been any change in the pit behind the shrine, and each time I would tell him no, there hadn't. That was the honest truth. The blue plastic sheet was still stretched across the opening. I went to check sometimes when I was out for a walk, but never saw any sign that it had been tampered with. The stones holding it down hadn't been moved either. There were no more strange or suspicious events connected to the pit. I never heard the bell in the middle of the night, nor did the Commendatore (or anything else) emerge from it. It was just a big hole sitting quietly in the middle of the woods. The clump of tall pampas grass flattened by the backhoe was growing back, concealing the area around the pit once again.

As far as Menshiki knew, I had been in the pit the whole time I was missing. True, he couldn't explain how I had gotten inside. Yet he had found me there—that was an indisputable fact. As a result, he never connected Mariye's disappearance and mine. He could only see the overlap of the two events as some kind of strange coincidence.

Discreetly, I probed to see if he had an inkling that someone had been hiding in his house for four days. But he had seen no telltale signs. He was wholly in the dark. In which case, whoever had been standing outside the closet in the
forbidden chamber
was most likely not him. But then who had it been?

Although Menshiki called, he no longer came by for visits. Perhaps he no longer needed to hang out now that Shoko was in his grasp. Or maybe he had lost interest in me. Or both. It didn't matter to me one way or the other (though there were times I missed the sound of his Jaguar V8 purring up the slope).

Nevertheless, the occasional phone calls (always before eight in the evening) suggested that Menshiki felt we should stay connected in some way. Perhaps the fact that he had revealed to me that he
might
be Mariye's biological father weighed on his mind to some extent. I don't think he worried that I would blurt it out—to either Mariye or Shoko Akikawa—somewhere down the line. He was sure I would guard his secret. He could read me well enough to know that, like he could read all people. Yet it was
so foreign
to Menshiki to have bared his heart to anyone, whoever they might be. He had an iron will, but maybe even he found it exhausting to keep secrets to himself all the time. He must have really needed me on his side when he made his confession. And I had struck him as relatively harmless.

Whether or not he had exploited me from the beginning, however, I still owed him my gratitude. It was he who had rescued me from the pit. Had he not come along, if he hadn't lowered the ladder and then yanked me up to the surface, I would have become a dried-up corpse. In a sense, then, Menshiki and I had each placed our lives in the other's hands. That meant that our accounts were even.

Menshiki just nodded when I told him that I had given
A Portrait of Mariye Akikawa
to Mariye in its unfinished state. I guess he no longer needed the painting that much, though he had commissioned it. Or he saw no meaning in an unfinished work. Or his mind was on other things.

A few days after Menshiki and I had this conversation, I put a simple frame on
The Pit in the Woods
, placed the painting in the trunk of my Corolla, and took it to his house. This was the last time we would meet face-to-face.

“This is for saving my life. Please accept it,” I said.

He seemed to like the painting a lot. (I thought it was pretty good myself.) He offered to pay me for it, but I turned him down. I had received too much money from him as it stood. There was no need for further obligations on either side. We had become neighbors who lived across the valley from each other, no more, and I wanted to keep it that way.

—

Tomohiko Amada passed away the Saturday of the week I was rescued from the pit. He had been in a coma for three days, and in the end his heart simply stopped beating. It shut down quietly and naturally, like a locomotive pulling into the last station. Masahiko was by his side throughout. He called me soon after.

“He went peacefully,” he said. “That's the way I would like to go. I thought I could even detect a smile.”

“A smile?” I asked.

“Maybe it wasn't a true smile, strictly speaking. But that's the way it looked. To me, anyway.”

“I'm very sorry about your father,” I said, choosing my words, “but I'm glad he went peacefully.”

“He was semiconscious until midweek, but he didn't seem to want to leave any parting words,” Masahiko said. “I guess he had no regrets—he lived his ninety years to the fullest, doing what he wanted to do.”

You're wrong, I thought. He had regrets. In fact, he bore a very heavy burden. Yet only he knew what that burden was. Now there was no one left who knew, and it would remain like that forever.

“I'm afraid I'll be out of touch for a while,” Masahiko said. “Dad was famous in his own way, which means I have to take care of all kinds of things. I'm the son and heir, so I can't say no. Let's get together and talk after things have settled down a little.”

I thanked him for taking the trouble to let me know, and we hung up.

—

Tomohiko Amada's death cast an even deeper hush over my home. But that was only natural. He had lived there for a long time, after all. I shared the house with that silence for several days. It was intense, but not unpleasant. You could call it a pure silence, in that it was not connected to anything else. A chain of events had come to an end. That's how it felt, anyway. It was the kind of hush that comes when matters of major importance are finally resolved.

One night about two weeks after Tomohiko Amada's death, Mariye came to talk to me, stealing to my house in secret like a cautious cat. She didn't stay very long. Her family was keeping close watch on her, so she didn't have the freedom to come and go that she had enjoyed before.

“My breasts seem to be getting bigger,” she said. “My aunt and I went shopping for a bra. The stores carry something called a ‘beginner's bra.' Did you know that?”

No, I said, I didn't. I glanced at her chest but saw nothing new beneath her green Shetland sweater.

“I don't see much difference,” I said.

“That's because the padding is thin. If it were any thicker, people would see the change right away and think you stuffed something inside. So you start thin and then work up from there. It's more complicated than I thought.”

Mariye told me that a female police officer had questioned her at length about where she had been those four days. The questioning had been gentle most of the time, yet on occasion the woman had become very firm. But Mariye had stuck with her story: she could remember only that she'd been roaming the mountain and had gotten lost. The rest was a complete blank. She thought she'd survived on the mineral water and chocolate she always carried in her schoolbag. That was all she would say. Otherwise, she kept her mouth clamped shut. She was good at keeping quiet. Once the police were sure that she had not been kidnapped and held for ransom, they took her to a hospital to have her cuts and bruises examined. They wanted to know if she had been sexually abused in any way. When it was clear that no abuse had taken place, the police lost interest. She was just another runaway kid who had gone missing for a couple of days. Hardly a rare occurrence.

Mariye threw away everything she had been wearing during that time: her dark blue blazer, checked skirt, white blouse, knitted vest, loafers—everything. She bought a whole new set of school clothes to replace them. She wanted to start fresh. Then she went back to her life as if nothing had happened. The only difference was that she quit attending the painting class (she was too old for the children's class anyway). She hung my (unfinished) portrait of her on her wall.

It was hard to imagine what kind of woman she would grow up to be. Girls of that age can change in the blink of an eye, physically and emotionally. I might not even be able to recognize her in a few years. I was thus very happy to have painted her picture (unfinished though it was) as she was at thirteen, freezing her image in time. In this real world of ours, after all, nothing remains the same forever.

—

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