Of Women: A Story


I AM writing a tired story for young readers not because I want to be different, or because I am unconcerned with young readers’ tastes. I write it rather because I know it will please them. Young readers are tired and old themselves these days, and my story can bring them no discomfort and no surprises. It is a story for those who have lost hope.

In Tokyo on February 26th of this year, the young army officers revolted. On the same day I sat with a friend beside a charcoal brazier. We knew nothing of the revolt. We were talking of women — of women’s nightgowns.

“I still don’t see. Be concrete — like a realistic story. When you talk about women it has to be like a realistic story. Will she have on perhaps a long red silk one?”

Each of us was conjuring up a picture of the woman who would make it possible to go on living. He had finished his. She would be a mistress, a fragile mistress, twenty-eight years old. She would live in rented second-floor rooms up an alley just east of the river. She would have with her only her fatherless daughter, five years old. My friend would go to see her on the night of the midsummer river festival, and he would draw pictures for the child. A circle filled in with yellow crayon, “That’s the full moon.” The woman would have on a pale blue terry-cloth kimono, and her sash would be embroidered with wisteria.

And now, pushed on by his questions, I was describing mine.

“It, won’t be crepe. Crepe always looks dirty. For people like us it has to be something smart.”

“How about pajamas?”

“Even worse. There’s nothing less exciting than pajamas. And with only the tops on she’d look like something out of the funny papers.”

“Then maybe you’ll have a terry-cloth kimono too?”

“No, a man’s kimono, a cotton one, just back from the laundry. With heavy stripes. A narrow belt of the same material. She ties it in front like a judo jacket. I know — a night kimono like the ones you get at a hotel. That’s it. She makes you think a little of a boy.”

“Well, now. You talk about how worn out you are, but you still have a lively eye. But then there’s nothing livelier than a funeral, I suppose. How does she do her hair?”

“Any style but Japanese. Japanese style is oily and it gets in the way. And it comes in such ridiculous shapes.”

“A nice, unaffected foreign hairdo, how would that be? I know — she’s an actress. Like someone from the old Imperial Repertory.”

“I don’t like actresses. They worry about their damned reputations.”

“Now you’re being funny.”

“I’m not being funny. Love is a dangerous thing. You can’t be too careful about it.”

“But we aren’t getting very far. We’ll be realistic. We’ll take her on a trip. When you get women on the move you find out all sorts of things about them.”

“She doesn’t move much. She’s a sleepy sort of woman.”

“Aren’t you reticent, though? I see I must be firm. After all, we have to get her into that hotel kimono, don’t we?”

“Well, let’s try starting out from Tokyo Central.”

“Fine, fine. You’ve promised to meet at Tokyo Central.”

“Last night I said we ought to go on a trip, and she nodded. I said I’d be waiting at Tokyo Central, and she nodded again. That’s all the promise there was.”

“Wait. She’s a novelist.”

“No, she’s not a novelist. I don’t have a good reputation with lady novelists. She’s a painter. A tired painter. There must be rich lady painters somewhere.”

“Is that so much different from a novelist?”

“Hmmm. Maybe we’ll have to settle for a geisha. Anyway, she’s the kind of woman you can’t surprise any more.”

“Have you been with her before this trip?”

“It seems as though I have, and it seems as though I haven’t. If I have, the memory of it is no more than a dream. I see her no more than three times a year.”

“Where do you plan to go?”

“Not over two or three hours from Tokyo. A hot spring in the mountains somewhere.”

“Don’t get excited. She isn’t even at the station yet.”

“We made no more of a promise than that, and I know she won’t come. Still she might, just possibly. I go to the station not really hoping. She is not there. I think of going on alone. But I wait.”

“Your baggage?”

“One suitcase. It is getting late, five to two. Then I look around.”

“And there she is, smiling.”

“Not smiling. She has a serious expression. ‘I’ve kept you waiting,’ she says in a low voice.”

“She reaches for your suitcase.”

“But I refuse to let her have it. I say I’ll carry it myself.”

“You have the tickets. Second class?”

“First class or third class. Third class.”

“You’re on the train.”

“I go with her to the diner. White tablecloth, flowers, landscape going by outside — it’s not unpleasant. I drink beer absent-mindedly.”

“And you press her to have a glass.”

“I do not. Something soft for her.”

“It will be summer.”


“And you just sit there drinking beer absentmindedly.”

“ ‘Thank you for coming,’ I say. It sounds terribly gentle. I am pleased, and I find myself getting a little sentimental.”

“Now you’re at the hotel. It’s evening?”

“And the important part begins. From there we go to the baths.”

“You go separately of course.”

“She absolutely refuses to go with me. So I go first. When I get back she has changed to a hotel kimono.”

“Let me take it from there — I see fairly well how it’s coming out. You can tell me if I’m wrong. You go out on the veranda and sit in the rattan chair. You light a cigarette. A Camel. You work away at it. The autumn leaves are bright red in the evening sun. After a while she comes back. She spreads her towel on the veranda railing. Then she stands quietly behind you, looking in the direction you are looking, submissively. You have found the hillside before you beautiful, and she takes it in as you have seen it. This does not last long, five minutes at most.”

“One minute is plenty. Five minutes and you would never come out of it.”

“Dinner is brought in. There is sake with it. Do you drink?”

“Wait. ‘I’ve kept you waiting,’ she said at the station, and she hasn’t said anything since. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to give her another line?”

“I don’t think so. It would ruin everything if she said the wrong thing.”

“So she comes in from the veranda and sits down to dinner without a word? Isn’t that a little awkward?”

“But you are talking to the maid. Nothing awkward about it.”

“I’m not, though. Softly and clearly she says, ‘I can take care of it, thank you,’ and the maid goes out. It happens quickly.”

“I begin to see her a little better.”

“She pours sake for me. She does it badly, like a small boy. She looks unconcerned. She holds the sake in her left hand still, and she leans on her right hand and reads the newspaper spread out on the mat beside her.”

“ ‘There’s been a flood in Kyoto.’ ”

“No, something that tells more of the times. There’s been a fire in the zoo. A hundred monkeys burned alive in their cages.”

“Shocking. Let’s just have her read tomorrow’s horoscope.”

“I finish the sake. ‘Let’s eat,’ I say. We eat, only the two of us together. There is an omelet. I feel wretched. I stop eating as though I have remembered something. I turn to the desk. I take manuscript paper from my suitcase and begin writing feverishly.”

“And why do you do that?”

“Because I am weak. I feel myself in a corner and I have to strike a pose. Something I was born with. Or more like something that was waiting for me from before I was born. Anyway, I am in a very bad mood.”

“You’re floundering, we might say.”

“I have nothing to write. I write the alphabet over and over again. As I write, I tell her there’s something I have to finish in a hurry, before I forget. Why doesn’t she go out and look at the town? I feel sure she will find it a nice, quiet town.”

“So now you begin to smash things up. Well, there’s no help for it. She nods. She leaves the room after she has dressed.”

“I roll over as though someone had pushed me. I look around the room.”

“You read the horoscope in the evening paper. ‘Beware of travel.’ ”

“1 smoke a Camel. Three sen apiece. A luxurious feeling. I am rather pleased with myself.”

“The maid comes in and asks how she should lay the mattresses.”

“I jump up. ‘Separate,’ I say jovially. I want a drink, but I control myself.”

“It must be about time for the woman to come back.”

“Not yet. I watch the maid leave, and I do something strange.”

“You don’t run away?”

“I count my money. Three ten-yen notes, two or three yen in change.”

“When the woman comes back you begin writing again. ‘Am I too soon? she asks, a little timidly.”

“I don’t answer. ‘Don’t wait for me. Go on to bed,’ I finally say. It is a little like an order. I write on, ‘. . . abcdefg.’ ”

“ ‘If you’ll excuse me then,’ she says.”

“ . . . hijkl . . . wxyz.’ I tear up the paper.”

“Going a little mad now.”

“Can’t help it.”

“You aren’t ready for bed yet?”

“I go for another bath.”

“It’s getting chilly and you need something to warm you up.”

“Chilly? I don’t notice. I feel twisted somehow. I soak like a moron for an hour or so, and when I get out I’m a real apparition. Boiling red. I get back to the room and she is in bed. The light is on by her pillow.”

“Is she asleep?”

“Her eyes are open, Her face is pale. Her lips are drawn tight and she stares at the ceiling. I take some sleeping medicine and get into bed.”

“With her?”

“No. After I have been in bed about five minutes I get up quietly . . . no, I get up briskly.”

“You want to cry.”

“I’m angry. I glance at her. She is tense. I feel better. I open my suitcase and take out a book. Sneers by Kafu or some such. I get back into bed.

I turn my back to her and forget myself in the book.

“Isn’t Kafu a little unfragrant?”

“Make it the Bible then.”

“I see what you mean, but . . .”

“ Maybe something in the nature of an illustrated romance? ”

“What you read is very important. We shall have to give it some thought. Ghost stories? There must be something . . . Pascal would be too stiff. Some sentimental poems? Too near. There must be something.”

“I know. My own book. My short stories.”

“And so we enter the wilderness.”

“I begin with the preface. I read on and on, but I have little idea what I am reading. ‘Save me,’ I am saying.”

“She has a husband, I suppose.”

“Behind me I heard a sound like the flowing of water. I shuddered. It was a very slight sound, but it touched me like a flame. She had turned over quietly in bed.”

“And then?”

“‘I’m going to die,’I said. She too . . .”

“Stop. You’re not making this up.”

He was right. The next day the woman and I tried suicide together. She was not a geisha and not a painter. She was a woman of poor family who worked in my house as a maid.

She turned over in bed, and because of it she died. I survived. It is seven years now, and I am still alive.

Translated by Edward Seidensticker