Read Sputnik Sweetheart Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami

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

Sputnik Sweetheart (16 page)

Time reversed itself, looped back, collapsed, reordered itself. The world stretched out endlessly—and yet was defined and limited. Sharp images—just the images alone—passed down dark corridors, like jellyfish, like souls adrift. But I steeled myself not to look at them. If I acknowledged them, even a little, they would envelop themselves in meaning. Meaning was fixed to the temporal, and the temporal was trying to force me to rise to the surface. I shut my mind tight to it all, waiting for the procession to pass.

How long I remained that way, I don’t know. When I bobbed to the surface, opened my eyes, and took a silent breath, the music had already stopped. The enigmatic performance was finished. I listened carefully. I couldn’t hear a thing. Absolutely nothing. No music, no people’s voices, no rustle of the wind.

I tried to check the time, but I wasn’t wearing a watch. I’d left it by my bedside.

The sky was now filled with stars. Or was it my imagination? The sky itself seemed to have changed into something different. The strange sense of alienation I’d felt inside had vanished. I stretched, bent my arms, my fingers. No sense of being out of place. My underarms were clammy, but that was all.

I stood up from the grass and continued to climb uphill. I’d come this far and might as well reach the top. Had there really been music there? I had to see for myself, even if only the faintest of clues remained. In five minutes I reached the summit. Toward the south the hill sloped down to the sea, the harbor, and the sleeping town. A scattering of streetlights lit the seacoast road. The other side of the mountain was wrapped in darkness, not a single light visible. I gazed fixedly into the dark, and finally a line of hills beyond floated into sight in the moonlight. Beyond them lay an even deeper darkness. And here around me, no indication whatsoever that a lively festival had taken place only a short while before.

Though the echo of it remained deep inside my head, now I wasn’t even sure I’d heard music. As time passed, I became less and less certain. Maybe it had all been an illusion, my ears picking up signals from a different time and place. It made sense—the idea that people would get together on a mountaintop at 1:00 a.m. to play music
was
pretty preposterous.

In the sky above the summit, the coarse-looking moon loomed awfully near. A hard ball of stone, its skin eaten away by the merciless passage of time. Ominous shadows on its surface were blind cancer cells stretching out feelers toward the warmth of life. The moonlight warped every sound, washed away all meaning, threw every mind into chaos. It made Miu see a second self. It took Sumire’s cat away somewhere. It made Sumire disappear. And it brought me here, in the midst of music that—most likely—never existed. Before me lay a bottomless darkness; behind me, a world of pale light. I stood there on the top of a mountain in a foreign land, bathed in moonlight. Maybe this had all been meticulously planned, from the very beginning.

I
returned to the cottage and downed a glass of Miu’s brandy. I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t. Not a wink. Until the eastern sky grew light, I was held in the grip of the moon, and gravity, and something astir in the world.

I pictured cats starving to death in a closed-up apartment. Soft, small carnivores. I—the
real
me—was dead, and they were alive, devouring my flesh, chewing on my heart, sucking my blood. If I listened very carefully, somewhere far far away I could hear the cats lapping up my brain. Three lithe cats, surrounding my broken head, slurping up the mushy gray soup within. The tips of their red, rough tongues licked the soft folds of my mind. And with each lick of their tongues, my mind—like a shimmer of hot air—flickered and faded away.

CHAPTER 14

I
n the end we never found out what happened to Sumire. As Miu put it, she vanished like smoke.

Two days later Miu came back to the island on the noon ferry together with an official from the Japanese embassy and a police official in charge of tourist affairs. They met with the local police and launched a full-scale investigation involving the islanders. The police put out a public appeal for information, publishing a blown-up version of Sumire’s passport photo in a national newspaper. Many people got in touch, but nothing panned out. The information always turned out to be about someone else.

Sumire’s parents came to the island, too. I left right before they arrived. The new school term was just around the corner, but mostly I couldn’t stand the thought of facing them. Besides, the mass media in Japan had caught wind of events and had begun to contact the Japanese embassy and the local police. I told Miu it was about time for me to be getting back to Tokyo. Staying any longer on the island wasn’t going to help find Sumire.

Miu nodded. You’ve done so much already, she said. Really. If you hadn’t come, I would have been completely lost. Don’t worry. I’ll explain things to Sumire’s parents. And I’ll handle any reporters. Leave it up to me. You had no responsibility for any of this to begin with. I can be pretty businesslike when I need to be, and I can hold my own.

S
he saw me off at the harbor. I was taking the afternoon ferry to Rhodes. It was exactly ten days since Sumire had disappeared. Miu hugged me just before I left. A very natural embrace. For a long moment, she silently rubbed my back as she held me. The afternoon sun was hot, but strangely her skin felt cool. Her hand was trying to tell me something. I closed my eyes and listened to those words. Not words—something that couldn’t coalesce into language. In the midst of our silence, something passed between us.

“Take care of yourself,” Miu said.

“You, too,” I said. For a while we stood there in front of the gangplank.

“I want you to tell me something, honestly,” Miu said in a serious tone, just before I boarded the ferry. “Do you believe Sumire is no longer alive?”

I shook my head. “I can’t prove it, but I feel like she’s still alive somewhere. Even after this much time, I just don’t have the sense that she’s dead.”

Miu folded her tanned arms and looked at me.

“Actually I feel exactly the same way,” she said. “That Sumire isn’t dead. But I also feel like I’ll never see her again. Though I can’t prove anything either.”

I didn’t say a word. Silence wove itself into the spaces of everything around us. Seabirds squawked as they cut across the cloudless sky, and in the café the ever-sleepy waiter hoisted yet another tray of drinks.

Miu pursed her lips and was lost in thought. “Do you hate me?” she finally asked.

“Because Sumire disappeared?”

“Yes.”

“Why would I hate you?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice was tinged with a long-suppressed exhaustion. “I have the feeling I’ll never see you again, either. That’s why I asked.”

“I don’t hate you,” I said.

“But who can tell about later on?”

“I don’t hate people over things like that.”

Miu took off her hat, straightened her bangs, and put the hat back on. She squinted at me.

“That might be because you don’t expect anything from anyone,” she said. Her eyes were deep and clear, like the twilight darkness on the day we met. “I’m not like that. I just want you to know that I like you. Very much.”

A
nd we said goodbye. The ship edged backward out of the harbor, the propeller churning up the water as it lumbered through a 180-degree change of direction; all the while, Miu stood on the wharf watching me go. She had on a tight white dress and occasionally reached out to keep her hat from flying away in the wind. Standing there on that wharf on this little Greek island, she looked like something from a different world, fleeting, full of grace and beauty. I leaned against the railing on deck and watched her for the longest time. Time seemed to stand still, the scene forever etched on my memory.

B
ut time began to move again, and Miu became smaller and smaller until she was a vague dot, and finally she was swallowed up whole in the shimmering air. The town grew distant, the shape of the mountains indistinct, and at last the island merged into the mist of light, blurred, and vanished altogether. Another island rose up to take its place and likewise disappeared into the distance. As time passed, all the things I left behind there seemed never to have existed at all.

Maybe I should have stayed with Miu. So what if the new school term was starting? I should encourage Miu, do everything I could to help in the search, and if something awful happened, then I should hold her, give her what comfort I could. Miu wanted me, I believe, and in a sense I wanted her as well.

She’d grabbed on to my heart with a rare intensity.

I realized all this for the first time as I stood on the deck and watched her disappear in the distance. A feeling came over me, like a thousand strings were tugging at me. Perhaps not full-blown romantic love, but something very close. Flustered, I sat on a bench on the deck, placed my gym bag on my knees, and gazed out at the white wake trailing behind the ship. Seagulls flew after the ferry, clinging to the wake. I could still feel Miu’s small palm on my back, like a soul’s tiny shadow.

I planned to fly straight back to Tokyo, but for some reason the reservation I’d made the day before was canceled, and I ended up spending the night in Athens. I took the airline shuttle bus and stayed at a hotel in the city the airline recommended. A pleasant, cozy hotel near the Plaka district which, unfortunately, was crowded with a boisterous German tour group. With nothing else to do, I wandered around the city, bought some souvenirs for no one in particular, and in the evening walked to the top of the Acropolis. I lay down on a slab of stone, the twilight breeze blowing over me, and gazed at the white temple floating up in the bluish floodlights. A lovely, dreamy scene.

But all I felt was an incomparable loneliness. Before I knew it, the world around was drained of color. From the shabby mountaintop, the ruins of those empty feelings, I could see my own life stretching out into the future. It looked just like an illustration in a science fiction novel I read as a child, of the desolate surface of a deserted planet. No sign of life at all. Each day seemed to last forever, the air either boiling hot or freezing. The spaceship that brought me there had disappeared, and I was stuck. I’d have to survive on my own.

A
ll over again I understood how important, how irreplaceable, Sumire was to me. In her own special way she’d kept me tethered to the world. As I talked to her and read her stories, my mind quietly expanded, and I could see things I’d never seen before. Without even trying, we grew close. Like a pair of young lovers undressing in front of each other, Sumire and I exposed our hearts to each other, an experience I’d never have with anyone else, anywhere. We cherished what we had together, though we never put into words how very precious it was.

Of course it hurt that we could never love each other in a physical way. We would have been far more happy if we had. But that was like the tides, the change of seasons—something immutable, an immovable destiny we could never alter. No matter how cleverly we might shelter it, our delicate friendship wasn’t going to last forever. We were bound to reach a dead end. That was painfully clear.

I loved Sumire more than anyone else and wanted her more than anything in the world. And I couldn’t just shelve those feelings, for there was nothing to take their place.

I dreamed that someday there’d be a sudden, major
transformation.
Even if the chances of it coming true were slim, I could dream about it, couldn’t I? But I knew it would never come true.

L
ike the tide receding, the shoreline washed clean, with Sumire gone I was left in a distorted, empty world. A gloomy, cold world in which what she and I had had would never ever take place again.

We each have a special
something
we can get only at a special time of our life. Like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it’s gone forever. What I’d lost was not just Sumire. I’d lost that precious flame.

What is it like—on
the other side
? Sumire was over there, and so was the lost part of Miu. Miu with black hair and a healthy sexual appetite. Perhaps they’ve run across each other there, loving each other, fulfilling each other. “We do things you can’t put into words,” Sumire would probably tell me, putting it into words all the same.

I
s there a place for me over there? Could I be with them? While they made passionate love, I’d sit in the corner of a room somewhere and amuse myself reading
The Collected Works of Balzac.
After she showered, Sumire and I would take long walks and talk about all kinds of things—with Sumire, as usual, doing most of the talking. But would our relationship last forever? Is that natural? “Of course,” Sumire would tell me. “No need to ask that. ’Cause you’re my one and only true friend!”

B
ut I hadn’t a clue how to get to that world. I rubbed the slick, hard rock face of the Acropolis. History had seeped through the surface and was stored inside. Like it or not, I was shut up in that flow of time. I couldn’t escape. No—that’s not entirely true. The truth is I really don’t want to escape.

T
omorrow I’ll get on a plane and fly back to Tokyo. Summer vacation is nearly over, and I have to step once more into that endless stream of the everyday. There’s a place for me there. My apartment’s there, my desk, my classroom, my pupils. Quiet days await me, novels to read. The occasional affair.

But tomorrow I’ll be a different person, never again the person I was. Not that anyone will notice after I’m back in Japan. On the outside nothing will be different. But something inside has burned up and vanished. Blood has been shed, and something inside me is gone. Head down, without a word, that
something
makes its exit. The door opens; the door shuts. The light goes out. This is the last day for the person I am right now. The very last twilight. When dawn comes, the person I am won’t be here anymore. Someone else will occupy this body.

W
hy do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?

I turned faceup on the slab of stone, gazed at the sky, and thought about all the man-made satellites spinning around the earth. The horizon was still etched in a faint glow, and stars began to blink on in the deep, wine-colored sky. I gazed among them for the light of a satellite, but it was still too bright out to spot one with the naked eye. The sprinkling of stars looked nailed to the spot, unmoving. I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.

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