Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen
“That would be nice.”
“I made it a little while ago in the coffee maker. Is that okay?”
“That's fine. I'll take it black, if you don't mind.”
I went into the kitchen, poured coffee into two cups, and carried them back out.
“I notice you have a lot of opera recordings,” Menshiki said as he drank the coffee. “You're a big opera fan?”
“Those aren't mine. The owner of this place left them. Thanks to them, though, I've listened to a lot of opera since I came here.”
“By owner you mean Tomohiko Amada?”
“Do you have a favorite?”
I gave it some thought. “These days I've been listening to
a lot. There's a bit of a reason for that.”
“What kind of reason? I'd like to hear, if you don't mind?”
“Well, it's personal. Nothing important.”
too, and listen to it a lot,” Menshiki said. “I heard it once in a small opera house in Prague. This was back just after the fall of the communist regime.
“I'm sure you know this,” he continued, “but
was first performed in Prague. The theater was small, and so was the orchestra, and none of the singers were famous, yet it was a wonderful performance. They didn't have to sing really loud like in a big opera house, and could express their feelings in a very intimate way. Impossible at the Met or La Scala. There you need a well-known singer with a booming voice. Sometimes the arias in those big opera houses remind me of acrobatics. But what operas like Mozart's need is intimacy, like music. Don't you think so? In that sense the performance I heard in Prague was the ideal
He took another sip of coffee. I said nothing, observing his actions.
“I've had the opportunity to hear performances of
all over the world,” he went on. “In Vienna, Rome, Milan, London, Paris, at the Met, and even in Tokyo. With Abbado, Levine, Ozawa, Maazel, and who else?â¦Georges PrÃªtre, I believe. But the
I heard in Prague is the one that, strangely enough, has stayed with me. The singers and conductor weren't people I'd ever heard of, but outside, after the performance, Prague was covered in a thick fog. There weren't many lights back then and the streets were pitch black at night. As I wandered down the deserted cobblestone streets I suddenly ran across a bronze statue. Whose statue, I have no idea. But he was dressed as a medieval knight. The thought struck me that I should ask him out to dinner. I didn't, of course.”
He smiled again.
“Do you often go abroad?” I asked.
“Sometimes for work I do,” he said. As if a thought occurred to him, he remained silent. I surmised that he didn't want to talk specifics about his job.
“So, what do you think?” Menshiki asked, looking me right in the eye. “Did I pass the test? Will you paint my portrait?”
“I'm not testing you. We're just getting together for a talk.”
“But before you begin a painting you always meet and talk with the client. I heard that if you don't like the person, you won't paint his portrait.”
I glanced over toward the terrace. A large crow had settled on the railing, but as if sensing my gaze, he spread his glossy wings and took off.
“I guess that's possible, but fortunately I haven't met anyone I don't like yet.”
“I hope I'm not the first,” Menshiki said with a smile. His eyes, though, weren't smiling. He was serious.
“Don't worry. I would be more than pleased to paint your portrait.”
“That's wonderful,” he said. He paused. “This is kind of selfish of me, but I have a little request myself.”
I looked straight at him again. “What kind of request?”
“If possible I'd like you to paint me freely, and not worry about the usual conventions involved in doing a portrait. I mean, if you want to paint a standard portrait, that's fine. If you paint it using your usual techniques, the way you've painted till now, I'm all right with that. But if you do decide to try out a different approach, I'd welcome that.”
“A different approach?”
“Whatever style you like is entirely up to you. Paint it any way you like.”
“So you're saying that, like Picasso's painting during one period, I could put both eyes on one side of the face and you'd be okay with that?”
“If that's how you want to paint me, I have no objections. I leave it all up to you.”
“And you'll hang that on the wall of your office.”
“Right now I don't have an office per se. So I'll probably hang it in my study at home. As long as you have no objection.”
Of course I had none. All walls were the same as far I was concerned. I mulled all this over before replying.
“Mr. Menshiki, I'm grateful to you for saying that, for telling me to paint in whatever style I want. But honestly nothing specific pops into my head at the moment. You have to understand, I'm merely a portrait painter. For a long time I've followed a set pattern and style. Even if I'm told to remove any restrictions, to paint as freely as I want, the restrictions themselves are part of the technique. So I think it's likely I'll paint a
portrait, the way I have up till now. I hope that's all right with you?”
Menshiki held both hands wide. “Of course. Do what you think is best. The only thing I want is for you to have a totally free hand.”
“One other thing: if you're going to pose for the portrait, I'll need you to come to my studio a number of times and sit in a chair for quite a while. I'm sure your work keeps you quite busy, so do you think that'll be possible?”
“I can clear my schedule anytime. I was the one, after all, who asked that you paint me from real life. I'll come here and sit quietly in the chair as long as I can. We can have a good long talk then. You don't mind talking?”
“No, of course not. Actually, I welcome it. To me, you're a complete mystery. In order to paint you, I might need a little more information about you.”
Menshiki laughed and quietly shook his head. When he did so, his pure white hair softly shook, like a winter prairie blowing in the wind.
“I think you overestimate me. There's nothing particularly mysterious about me. I don't talk much about myself because telling all the details would bore people, that's all.”
He smiled, the lines at his eyes deepening. A very clean, open smile. But that can't be all, I thought. There was something hidden inside him. A secret locked away in a small box and buried deep down in the ground. Buried a long time ago, with soft green grass now growing above it. And the only person in the world who knew the location of the box was Menshiki. I couldn't help but sense, deep within his smile, a solitude that comes from a certain sort of secret.
We talked for another twenty minutes or so, deciding when he would come here to model, and how much time he could spare. On his way out, at the front door, he once more held out his hand, quite naturally, and I took it without thinking. A firm handshake at the beginning and end of an encounter seemed to be Menshiki's way of doing things. He slipped on his sunglasses, took the car keys from his pocket, boarded the silver Jaguar (which looked like some well-trained, slick, oversized animal), and gracefully eased down the slope, as I watched from the window. I went out on the terrace and gazed at the white house on the mountain he was heading back to.
What an unusual character, I thought. Friendly enough, not overly quiet. But it was as if he hadn't said a single thing about himself. The most I'd learned was that he lived in that elegant house across the valley, did work that partly involved the Internet, and frequently traveled abroad. And that he was a big fan of opera. Beyond that, though, I knew very little. Whether or not he had a family, how old he was, where he was from originally, how long he'd lived on that mountain. He hadn't even told me his first name.
And why be so insistent on me being the one to paint his portrait? I'd like to think it was because I had talent, something obvious to anyone who saw my work. Yet it was clear that this was not his sole motivation for commissioning me to do the painting. It seemed true that portraits I'd done had drawn his attention. That couldn't be a complete lie. But I wasn't naive enough to accept everything he told me at face value.
Soâwhat did this man, Menshiki, want from me? What was his endgame? What sort of scenario had he prepared for me?
Even after we had talked, I still had no idea how to answer these questions. The mystery, in fact, had deepened. Why, for one thing, did he have such amazingly white hair? That kind of white wasn't exactly normal. I recalled an Edgar Allan Poe short story in which a fisherman gets caught up in a massive whirlpool and his hair turns white overnight. Had Menshiki experienced something just as terrifying?
After the sun set, lights came on in the white concrete mansion across the valley. Bright lights, and plenty of them. It looked like the kind of house designed by a self-assured architect unconcerned about things like the electric bill. Or perhaps the client was overly afraid of the dark and requested the architect to build a house where lights could blaze from one end to the other. Either way, viewed from afar, the house looked like a luxury liner silently crossing the ocean at night.
I sprawled out on the chair on the terrace and, sipping white wine, gazed at those lights. I was half expecting Menshiki to come out on his terrace, but that evening he didn't appear. But if he had, how should I have acted? Wave my hand in a big gesture of greeting?
I figured that, in time, my questions would be answered. That's about all I could expect.
After my Wednesday-evening art class, when I taught an adult class for about an hour, I stopped by an Internet cafÃ© near Odawara Station and did a Google search for the name Menshiki. I came up empty-handed. There were lots of online articles with the character
in them, as in
âdriver's licenseâand the
appeared in ones about partial color-blindnessâshiki
. But there didn't seem to be any information out there in the world about a Mr. Menshiki. His statement that he took anonymity seriously seemed, indeed, to be the case. I was assuming, of course, that Menshiki was his real name, but my gut told me he wouldn't lie about something like that. It didn't make sense for him to tell me where he lived but not tell me his real name. And unless he had some compelling reason, it seemed to me that if he were to make up a phony name, he would choose one that was more common and didn't stand out so much.
When I got back home I called Masahiko Amada. After chatting a bit I asked if he knew anything about the man named Menshiki who lived across the valley. I described the white concrete house on the mountain. He had a vague memory of it.
“Menshiki?” Masahiko asked. “What kind of name is that?”
“It's written with the characters that mean âavoiding colors.'â”
“Sounds like a Chinese ink painting.”
“But white and black are counted as colors,” I pointed out.
“In theory, I supposeâ¦.Menshiki? I don't think I've heard the name. I wouldn't know anything about anyone living on a mountain across the valley. I mean, I don't even know the people living on
side of the valley. Is there something going on between the two of you?”
“We sort of connected,” I said. “And I was wondering if you knew anything about him.”
“Did you check online?”
“I did a Google search but struck out.”
“How about Facebook or other social media?”
“I don't know much about those.”
“While you were asleep with the fish in the Dragon King's palace, like in the fairy tale, culture has forged on ahead. Not to worryâI'll check them for you. If I find anything, I'll give you a call.”
Masahiko was suddenly silent. On the other end of the phone it felt like he was contemplating something.
“Hold on a sec. Did you say Menshiki?” Masahiko asked.
“That's right. Menshiki. The
he said. “You know, I do remember now hearing that name before. Maybe I'm just imagining it.”
“It's such an unusual name I'd think if you heard it once you wouldn't forget it.”
“Agreed. Which is why maybe it's stuck in a corner of my mind. But I can't remember when I heard it, or in what context. It feels like when you have a small fishbone stuck in your throat.”
If you remember, let me know, I said. Will do, Masahiko promised.
I hung up and then had a light meal. While I was eating, a call came in from the married woman I was having an affair with. Do you mind if I come to your place tomorrow afternoon? she asked. No problem, I replied.
“By the way, do you know anything about a person named Menshiki?” I asked. “He lives in the neighborhood.”
“Menshiki?” she repeated. “Is that the last name?”
I explained how it was written.
“I've never heard of him,” she said.
“You know that white concrete house across the valley from me? He lives there.”
“I remember that house. The one you see from the terrace that really stands out.”
“That's his house.”
“Mr. Menshiki lives there?”
“So what about him?”
“Nothing, really. I just wanted to know if you knew him or not.”
Her voice grew one tone darker. “Does that have something to do with me?”
“No, nothing to do with you.”
She sighed, as if in relief. “Well, I'll see you tomorrow afternoon. Probably about one thirty.”
“I'm looking forward to it,” I said. I hung up and finished eating.
The call from Masahiko came a little while after that.
“It seems like there are a few people with the name Menshiki in Kagawa Prefecture down in Shikoku,” Masahiko said. “Perhaps this Mr. Menshiki has roots in Kagawa. But I couldn't find any information anywhere on a Menshiki living now around Odawara. What's his first name?”
“He didn't tell me. I don't know what kind of work he does, either. Something tech related. If his lifestyle is any indication, he must be doing pretty well. That's all I know. I don't even know how old he is.”
“I see,” Masahiko said. “In that case, that might be the best you can do. Information is, after all, a product, and if you pay enough you can neatly cover your tracks. Even truer if the person knows a lot about technology.”
“You mean Mr. Menshiki erased his footprints?”
“Could be. I spent a lot of time online, searching through sites, and didn't get a single hit. It's such an eye-catching name, yet there's not a thing online. Which is all pretty strange. I know you're a little naive when it comes to things like this, but for someone who is fairly active in society to completely block any information about themselves and have nothing at all get out on the webâthat's no mean feat. Even information on you, and on me, is out there and available. There's information on me I didn't even know. If that's true for nobodies like us, you can imagine how much harder it is for some big shot to erase their digital presence. Like it or not, that's the world we live in. What about you? Have you checked out the information that's out there on you?”
“You should keep it that way.”
“That's the plan,” I told him.
One aspect of my job is gathering all kinds of information. That's the sort of business I'm in.
Those were Menshiki's own words. If he could get hold of information that easily he could probably erase it as well.
“By the way, Mr. Menshiki said he looked me up on the Internet and saw a few of my portraits there,” I said.
“And he asked me to paint his portrait. He said he liked the portraits I've done.”
“But you turned him down because you're no longer in the portrait business. Correct?”
I was silent.
“Are you telling me you didn't?” he asked.
“Actually, I didn't turn him down.”
“How come? Weren't you set on not doing any more?”
“The fee is pretty hefty, that's why. I thought it might be okay to do one more portrait.”
“For the money?”
“That's a big reason. I'm making hardly any money anymore, and I have to think about how I'm going to make a living. My expenses right now are minimal, but still, with one thing and another the money keeps flowing out.”
“Huh. So, how much is the fee?”
I named the amount. Masahiko let out a whistle.
“Wow,” he said. “That certainly makes it worth taking on. I bet you were surprised when you heard how much he'd pay?”
“Yeah, of course I was.”
“Maybe I shouldn't say this, but there can't be any other odd people out there willing to pay that much for one of your paintings.”
“Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you're not a talented artist. You do solid work, and people recognize that. I think you're about the only one of our classmates from our art school class who's managed to make a living doing oil paintings. What level of living we're talking about, I have no idea, but anyway it's admirable what you've accomplished. But honestly? You're no Rembrandt, or Delacroix. Or even Andy Warhol.”
“I'm well aware of that.”
“If you are, then you understand how exorbitant that fee is he's offering, right?”
“Of course I do.”
he lives near you.”
“ââBy chance' is putting it mildly.”
I didn't say anything.
“There might be something else to it. Didn't that cross your mind?” he asked.
“Sure, I thought about it. But what else there could be, I have no clue.”
“So you accepted the job?”
“I did. I start the day after tomorrow.”
“Because the fee's so good?”
“The fee's a big part of it. But that's not all. There are other reasons,” I said. “Honestly, I want to see how things are going to play out. See with my own eyes why he's willing to pay so much. And if there're really other motives at work, I want to find out what they are.”
“I see,” Masahiko said, and paused. “Well, if there are any new developments, let me know. I'm intrigued.”
Just then I recalled the horned owl.
“I forgot to mention it, but there's a horned owl living in the attic,” I said. “A little gray horned owl that sleeps on a beam during the day. At night it goes out the vent hole and hunts. I don't know how long it's been here, but it seems to have roosted.”
“In the attic?”
“I heard a sound from the ceiling, so I climbed up during the day to check on it.”
“Really. I didn't know you could access the attic.”
“There's an opening in the closet in the guest bedroom. It's a tight space, though. Smaller than what you might think of as an attic. But just the right size for an owl to roost in.”
“That's a good thing, though,” Masahiko said. “With an owl there, no mice or snakes will get in. I've heard it's a lucky omen to have an owl roosting in a house.”
“Maybe that lucky omen brought me that high portrait fee.”
“That would be nice if it did,” he laughed. “You know the English expression âa blessing in disguise'?”
“Languages aren't my strong suit.”
“A camouflaged blessing. A blessing that's changed appearance. At first glance it seems unfortunate, but it turns out to bring you happiness. There are things that should be the opposite, too, of course. In theory.”
In theory, I repeated to myself.
“Better keep your eyes open,” he said.
“Will do,” I said.
At one thirty the next day she came to see me, and as always we headed straight for bed. While we had sex we hardly said a word. It was raining that afternoon, an unusually heavy shower for autumn, more like a midsummer downpour. Heavy raindrops, carried on the wind, rapped against the window, and I think there were a few flashes of lightning, too. A thick bank of dark clouds passed over the valley, and when the rain let up, the mountains had taken on a darker hue. Flocks of birds that had taken shelter from the rain somewhere now twittered back and were busily hunting down insects. Right after rain was the perfect lunchtime for them. The sun shone from breaks in the clouds, making the raindrops on all the tree branches sparkle. While it had been raining we were deep into making love, and I had barely given the falling rain a second thought. And just as we were finishing, the rain abruptly stopped. Almost as if it were waiting for us.
We lay naked in bed, wrapped in a thin bedcover, talking. Mostly we talked about the grades her two daughters were getting in school. The older girl was good at school and had very good grades. She was a placid child who never caused any trouble. The younger daughter, in contrast, hated to study and would never settle down at her desk to do homework. But she was cheerful and upbeat, and quite good-looking as well. Self-assured, popular, good at sports. Maybe we should give up on having her do well at school, her mother said, and let her go into the entertainment field? I'm thinking of eventually putting her into one of those schools that train child entertainers, she said.
If you think about it, it was kind of strange. I was lying there next to a woman I'd known for only about three months, listening to her talk about her daughters, whom I'd never laid eyes on. She was even asking me my opinion on what sort of path they should take in life. And the two of us there, without a stitch on. Admittedly, though, not a bad feeling, to take a random peek into the lives of people I hardly knew. Brushing past the lives of people I would never have anything to do with. Their lives felt right before me, yet also far away. As she talked, the woman toyed with my now flaccid penis, which was slowly coming back to life.
“Have you been painting anything these days?” she asked.
“Not really,” I answered honestly.
“No creative urge welling up?”
I hesitated. “â¦Well, tomorrow I have to start on a commission I got.”
“You're going to paint on commission?”
“That's right. Have to earn some money sometimes.”
“What sort of commission?”
“Is it, by any chance, a portrait of that person you mentioned on the phone yesterday, Mr. Menshiki?”
“It is,” I said. She was so sharp at times it took me by surprise.
“And you want to know something about this Mr. Menshiki, right?”
“At this point he's a mystery. I met him once and we talked, but I still have no idea what sort of person he is. I like to know what kind of person I'm going to paint.”
“You should just ask him directly.”
“He might not give me a straight answer,” I said. “He might only tell me what he wants me to know.”
“I could look into it for you,” she said.
“You can do that?”
“I might have an idea.”
“There were zero hits on him on the Internet.”
“The Internet doesn't work well in the jungle,” she said. “The jungle has its own communications network. Signaling with drums, tying a message around a monkey's neck.”