Twelve years have passed since Kei’s husband, Rei, disappeared and she was left alone with her three–year–old daughter. Her new relationship with a married man—the antithesis of Rei—has brought her life to a numbing stasis, and her relationships with her mother and daughter have spilled into routine, day after day. Kei begins making repeated trips to the seaside town of Manazuru, a place that jogs her memory to a moment in time she can never quite locate. Her time there by the water encompasses years of unsteady footing and a developing urgency to find something.
Through a poetic style embracing the surreal and grotesque, a quiet tenderness emerges from these dark moments. Manazuru is a meditation on memory—a profound, precisely delineated exploration of the relationships between lovers and family members.
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About the Author
Allison Markin Powell is a translator, editor, and publishing consultant. In addition to Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, The Nakano Thrift Shop, and The Ten Loves of Nishino, she has translated books by Osamu Dazai and Fuminori Nakamura, and her work has appeared in Words Without Borders and Granta, among other publications. She maintains the database japaneseliteratureinenglish.com.
Read an Excerpt
I WALKED ON, AND something was following. Enough distance lay between us that I couldn't tell if it was male or female. It made no difference, I ignored it, kept walking.
I had set out before noon from the guest house on the inlet, headed for the tip of the cape. I stayed there last night, in that small building set amidst an isolated cluster of private houses, run by a man and woman who, judging from their ages, were mother and son.
It was nearly nine when I arrived, two hours on a train from Tokyo, and by then the entrance to the inn was shut. The entrance was unremarkable: a low swinging iron gate like any other; two or three wiry, gnarled pines; nothing to indicate the lodge's name but a weathered nameplate, ink on wood, bearing the name "SUNA." Suna meaning sand.
"Unusual name, isn't it?" I asked. "Suna?"
"There are a few in the area," the mother replied.
Her son's hair was graying, though he looked my age, forty-five or so.
When he asked what time I wanted breakfast, it was as if I knew his voice. And yet it was obvious we had never met. Perhaps his voice reminded me of an acquaintance, only I couldn't think who. It wasn't the voice itself, it was a tremor in its depths that I recognized.
I don't need breakfast, I answered, and he emerged from behind the counter to lead the way. My room was at the end of the hall. I'll come back to spread the futon, he announced dryly, the bath is downstairs. When he was gone, I drew the thin curtain aside and saw the sea before me. I could hear the waves. There was no moon. I strained my eyes, peering out into the darkness, trying to make out the waves, without success. The room felt warm, stuffy, as if it had been readied long in advance. I slid the window open and let the cool air flow in.
THE BATH WAS dim. Condensation dripped, slowly, from the ceiling.
I let my thoughts turn to Seiji. I'll have to stay at the office to-night, he'd said. Back in Tokyo. He had described the nap rooms there for me more than once, but I could never picture them in detail. It's just a small, cramped room with a bed, that's all. We have three of them. If the door is locked, you know someone is sleeping inside, he tells me. Never having worked at a company, I picture a hospital room—that's the best I can do. A pipe-frame bed with a beige blanket, enclosed by a curtain; a pair of slippers set out on a floor made of a material that amplifies the sound of footsteps; at the head of the bed, a help button and a temperature chart.
No, it's not like that—just an ordinary, low-ceilinged room. Maybe a magazine lying on the floor that someone left behind. Ordinary. Seiji purses his lips. He never laughs aloud. When he smiles, it shows in his cheeks. This used to puzzle me; now I am used to it.
Whenever I stay in those rooms, he says, by the time I fall asleep, the night is paling. Toward dawn, it grows quiet. Most of the lights are out on every floor, and once it's dark the sounds that echo through the building subside, too. I stretch my exhausted body out on the stiff bed, but I'm so on edge, it's hard to fall asleep—I don't have any rituals for sleeping, not since I was a kid, but when I started spending nights at the office I took up my childhood practice again. I imagine myself floating in water, not half-submerged as I would be in real life, but lying right on the surface, stretched out perfectly still, First the back of my head and then my back, my bun, my heels, resting on the taut surface of the water, motionless, waiting, and as the parts of my body that come in contact with the water begin, little by little, to grow warm, I fall asleep, Seiji says, and once again purses his lips.
I WAS BACK from my bath. Unlike Sein, there was no need for me to sleep, so I didn't go to bed. Only when the sliver of outside color between the curtains began changing from black to blue did I feel tired. Seiji is probably nodding off right now, I told myself as I switched off the light and closed my eyes.
It was past nine when I woke, and the room brimmed with light. The roar of the waves was louder than the night before. At the front desk, I asked the way to the cape. The son took a pencil and paper and traced the outline of the promontory; then, in the center, he drew in the roads. It looks like something, doesn't it, this shape? I said. Maybe, I don't know. The son's voice reminded me of someone, but still I couldn't think who. I recognized the shape immediately. It was the spitting image of a dragon: the head, from the neck up. Even the whiskers were there, under the nose.
I'd say it's a bit under an hour to the tip on foot, said the son. It'll take longer if you walk slowly, his mother called out from the hack room. Oh, and—I haven't made up my mind yet, but I might want to stay tonight, too, if you have a vacancy? I had seen no sign of other guests, I was the only person there last night, I was sure, so I thought I would only have to ask and they would say, Of course, you're welcome to stay. But the son cocked his head, uncertain.
The fishermen come on Fridays. We're usually full up, as long as the waves aren't too choppy. Try giving us a call later. I nodded ambiguously, and left. According to the schedule at the bus stop, the next bus wasn't for half an hour. I wanted to leave my bag at the train station. I could make it to the station in half an hour, even on foot. I peered up the steep incline, wavering, then decided to wait. I went down to the shore.
The ocean is dull. Nothing but waves tumbling in. I sat on a mid-sized rock and stared out over the sea. The wind blew hard. Every now and then a damp burst of spray reached me. The first day of spring had long since come and gone, but the day was chilly. Sand fleas scuttled out from under the rocks, then retreated.
I never planned to come and spend the night here. I had to meet someone at Tokyo Station, we had art early dinner, it was seven when we finished. I was headed for the platform of the Chi:lei line when, unbidden, my feet turned and led me instead to the Tökaidö line, a train came, I got on. I'll go as far as Atami and then turn back, the Chäo Line runs pretty late, it'll be fine, I told myself, and all of a sudden I felt so alone, I endured the loneliness as best I could, and then, unable to bear it, I got off the train. Manazuru was where I disembarked.
I descended from the platform, walked along a narrow corridor, and exited the gate. The station faced a plaza. The information kiosk had been closed for hours. I asked the taxi driver to take me to a guest house. It's small, he told me, but it's a decent place. He let me out in front of the house with the nameplate:
I called Mother from the train. What should I put in Momo's lunch tomorrow? she asked. You can use anything but the chicken in the refrigerator, I started to say, then changed my mind. Use anything, anything at all. I'm sorry, going off all of a sudden, I said. Mother replied, That's all right. Her voice sounded very distant. I had the sense something was following me then, too, and turned to look, but I was alone, standing in the space between two cars, where I had gone to use my cell phone. No sign of any-one, not even a shadow.
I thought I glimpsed the ocean from the train window. In the darkness, I couldn't be sure it was the water, or sure it wasn't. Every so often my work takes me away from home, I leave Mother and Momo alone, together, but I never simply go, without warn-ing, the way I did this time. I don't stay out with Seiji. He has kids of his own. Three kids, and a wife. His middle child is Momo's age. Ninth grade.
I RODE THE bus back to the station, then started out again, on foot, toward the cape.
Surprising, I thought, that they let me stay, without even asking what I was doing there: I had only one small bag with me, and by the time I arrived it was no longer even early evening. I pondered the name on the nameplate, as well. Sum. Odd that it didn't strike me last night. It wasn't the sound of the name. It was that I couldn't think of a given name that went well with it.
The road was straight with a gentle incline. Near the port, it began to trace the line of the shore. Each passing car swerved away, giving me a wide berth. Closer to the station there had been people heading in the other direction, but here the street was empty. I approached a cluster of inns and restaurants serving fresh seafood; beyond them there was only the steadily ascending road. In the inns and restaurants, no sign of life.
I did know who the son's voice reminded me of. My missing husband, who disappeared without warning twelve years ago—my husband, as he went to sleep. When drowsiness eddied around him like a haze, straddling that threshold, his voice like a child's. Kei. When he said my name, there was sweetness deep in his voice, a hint of moisture, so that for some reason I heard him, beneath the familiar adult male skin, as someone on the cusp of manhood, a boy, or perhaps a young man, it was hard to say which.
My husband vanished, leaving nothing behind. To this day, I have had no news.