The oldest villa owners were Prince and Princess Kaori and the aged widow of Kanzaemon Mashiba, founder of the Mashiba Bank. Mrs. Mashiba had announced that she would bring along her three grandchildren. There were several other guests from the area. In addition to Keiko and Ying Chan, Imanishi and Mrs. Tsubakihara were expected from Tokyo. Makiko had replied quite early that she would be traveling abroad. Under ordinary circ.u.mstances Makiko would have been accompanied by Mrs. Tsubakihara on her trip, but this time she had chosen another disciple as her companion.
Once a servant became a permanent employee, Honda was amused to note, Rie could drive her rather mercilessly, though she never gave up her sweet smile for outside help such as the chef and the waiters. She spoke politely and showed consideration in everything, anxious to prove to herself and others that she was beloved by one and all.
"Madame. What are we to do about the arbor? Shall I prepare drinks there too?" asked one of the waiters, already dressed in his white uniform.
"But it will be difficult for just the three of us to cover so much ground. Would it be satisfactory if we just left ice in the thermos bucket and requested the guests to help themselves?"
"Surely. The ones who stray as far as the arbor will probably be young couples anyway, and it might be just as well not to disturb them. Be doubly sure not to forget the mosquito repellent when it starts to get dark."
Honda was truly shocked to hear his wife speaking in such a manner. Her voice was pitched unnaturally high and her words floated on the air. The frivolity she had presumably despised more than anything in the world over the years now so infused her voice and words that he suspected her of sarcasm.
The alert movements of the waiters in their white uniforms seemed to have charged the household with straight lines. Their well-starched jackets, their youthful efficiency of movement, their apparent respectfulness, and their professional polish turned the household into a strange and refreshing world. All private matters were swept aside, and arrangements, consultation, commands, and orders flew about as if they were indeed the b.u.t.terflies in whose shape the white napkins had been folded.
A buffet had been set up beside the pool to permit the guests to eat in their swimming suits. The familiar appearance of the house had instantly changed. Honda's treasured desk, covered with a white tablecloth, now served as an outdoor bar. Although he himself had directed the alterations, once underway they turned into a kind of violent transformation.
Driven back by the gradually intensifying sunlight, he watched everything in amazement. Who had planned all this? And to what end? To spend money? to invite impressive guests? to play the role of the complacent bourgeois? to boast of the completed swimming pool? As a matter of fact, this was the first private pool in Ninooka either before or since the war. There are many generous people in this world who will forgive another's wealth if only they are invited to his house.
"Dear, please put these on," said Rie, bringing him a pair of dark-brown summer worsted trousers, a white shirt, and a bow tie with tiny brown polka dots. She placed them on the table under the beach umbrella.
"You want me to change here?"
"Why not? There are only the waiters. Besides I'm going to ask them to take an early lunch break now."
He took up the bow tie, the extremities of which were shaped like gourds. Holding one end between two fingers, he playfully held it up to the light of the swimming pool. It was an informal, miserable, limp strip of fabric. It reminded him of the procedure of the "summary order" of a police court. "Notification of summary procedure and demur of the accused." It was Honda himself who most detested the approaching party . . . except for one ultimate kernel, one scintillating point of hopelessness.
Old Mrs. Mashiba was the first to arrive with her three grandchildren. These consisted of an unmarried girl and her two extremely ordinary, bespectacled, and studious-looking younger brothers, one a senior and the other a soph.o.m.ore in college. The three immediately retired to the dressing rooms where they changed into swimming suits. The grandmother, wearing a kimono, remained under the umbrella.
"While my husband was alive, especially after the war, we fought at every election. I always voted Communist just to spite him. And then I was a great admirer of Kyuichi Tokuda."
The old widow adjusted her kimono collars incessantly or nervously tugged at her sleeves like a gra.s.shopper ducking its head and rubbing its wings. She was reputed to be a completely unconventional and entertaining person; hidden behind mauve gla.s.ses, sparkled prying eyes, relentlessly speculating on the finances of one and all. Exposed to her cold gaze, everyone felt as if he were her dependent.
The three young people who returned dressed for swimming possessed bodies typical of good families, modest and sleek-limbed. One after the other they jumped into the water and in a relaxed way began swimming. Honda regretted above all that Ying Chan was not to be the first to enter the water in his pool.
Soon Rie came from the house escorting Prince and Princess Kaori, who were already in their bathing suits. Honda apologized for having been unaware of their arrival and for not having come up to greet them. He scolded Rie for not warning him; but the Prince merely shook hands, dismissing the whole matter, and went into the water. Mrs. Mashiba watched this exchange with a bemused look as though she were observing boorish people. After the Prince had circled the pool once and climbed up on the edge, she spoke to him from where she was in her shrill voice: "How young and manly you are, Prince! Ten years ago I should have challenged you to a race."
"I may not be up to you even now, Madame. Just swimming fifty yards and I'm already out of breath, as you see. Anyway, how wonderful that we can swim in Gotemba, though the water's a trifle chilly."
He shook the drops from his body as though sloughing off ostentation. Black dots spattered on the concrete.
The Prince himself had not noticed that people sometimes regarded him as cold because of his great efforts to behave on all occasions with the nonchalance and informality that had come after the war. When it was no longer necessary to maintain dignity, he became confused about human relationships. Confident because of his elite position that he had the right to dislike tradition more than anyone else, he slighted those who held it in esteem in this day and age. That might have been all right if when he remarked that someone showed no progressiveness it had not come to mean the same thing as when he had commented in former days that someone was too low-born. The Prince rated all progressives, as he did himself, as "sufferers in the fetters of tradition." Thus, paradoxically, the next step would have him thinking of himself as a commoner.
When the Prince removed his gla.s.ses before swimming, Honda saw his face for the first time without them. They were for him a rather important bridge to the world. When his bridge was removed, his plain face held a certain vague melancholy, partly because of the glare. It was a melancholy where the gap between long-gone n.o.bility and the present was somehow confused, out of focus.
In contrast, the Princess, slightly plump in her bathing suit, was imbued with natural grace. When she floated on her back and raised one arm and smiled, she looked like some innocent, lovely waterfowl happily swimming against the background of Hakone. One could but a.s.sume that she was one of those rare people who knew what happiness was.
Honda was mildly irritated by the Mashiba grandchildren who, having emerged from the water, now surrounded their grandmother and were conversing politely with the Prince and Princess. The subject of the young people's conversation was exclusively America. The oldest girl talked about the fashionable private school where she had studied, and her younger brothers only about the universities where they were going once they had graduated from their respective j.a.panese colleges. Everything was America. Television was already widespread there . . . how nice if that were true of j.a.pan . . . but at the present rate it would probably be over ten years before they enjoyed television here . . . and on and on . . .
Mrs. Mashiba did not like conversations about the future. She interrupted immediately.
"You're all laughing at me, thinking I'll not be here to see it anyway. Very well, then. I'll appear as a ghost on your screens when you're watching every night."
The manner in which the grandmother ruthlessly controlled the young people's conversation was extraordinary, as was the way the youngsters immediately fell silent and listened the moment she spoke. Honda thought they were like three intelligent rabbits.
The host was becoming skilled in greeting his guests as they appeared one after another in their bathing suits at the entrance to the terrace. On the other side of the pool, flanked by two couples from neighboring villas, Imanishi and Mrs. Tsubakihara clad in street clothes raised their hands in greeting. Imanishi was wearing an aloha shirt with a large print design in which he was completely out of character, while Mrs. Tsubakihara wore her usual black kimono of silk gauze that resembled a mourning outfit. She was striving for effect: a single ominous black crystal set in the brilliance of the swimming pool. Honda saw through her right away and concluded that Imanishi had put on his ludicrous shirt to flout his simple mistress who was always trying to play roles quite unsuited to her.
Lagging behind the animated guests in their bathing suits, the couple slowly walked along the edge of the water that made their black and yellow reflections rock.
The Prince and Princess knew Imanishi and Mrs. Tsubakihara well. The Prince frequently attended postwar meetings of the so-called cultural elite and was on sufficiently friendly terms with Imanishi to talk quite informally with him.
"That amusing man has just arrived," he remarked to Honda.
As soon as Imanishi was seated, he took out the crumpled wrapper from a pack of imported cigarettes, threw it away, and drew out a new package. When he had stripped off the wrapping, he tapped the bottom and skillfully extracted a cigarette. "I can't sleep at all these nights," he said perfunctorily as he put it to his lips.
"Are you worried about something?" the Prince asked, placing the plate from which he had just been eating on the table.
"Not especially. But I've got to have someone to talk to in the middle of the night. We talk and talk until morning, and when the sun comes up we feel like committing suicide. Then we solemnly take sleeping pills. But we wake up and nothing has happened. The morning's the same as ever."
"What sort of conversations do you have night after night?"
"There's ever so much to talk about if you know that this is going to be your last. We cover every possible subject in the world. What we've done, what others have done, what the world has experienced, what mankind has gone through, or things a forgotten continent has dreamt of for several thousands of years. Anything will do. There are all kinds of subjects. The world is going to end tonight."
The Prince looked most interested and questioned further.
"But if you're alive the next day, what do you talk about then? You've covered everything."
"That's no problem. You just talk it all over again."
Amazed by this answer that sounded as though Imanishi were putting him on, the Prince fell silent.
Honda stood to the side listening. He did not know how serious Imanishi was. "By the way, what ever happened to the Land of the Pomegranate?" he asked, recalling the weird tale he had once heard.
"Ah . . ." said Imanishi, turning his cold eyes on him. His face looked more dissipated than ever these days, and it contrasted strangely with the colorful Hawaiian shirt and the American cigarettes, creating, Honda felt, the impression of a certain type of interpreter who worked for the Occupation Forces. "It's been destroyed! It exists no more."
This was his usual manner of speaking and the statement in itself did not surprise Honda. But if the millennium of s.e.x, once called the Land of the Pomegranate, had perished in Imanishi's illusions, it also had to disappear in the mind of Honda, who hated these fantasies. It existed no more. Imanishi was guilty of slaughtering the fantasy, and Honda could imagine how he must have been intoxicated by the fanciful bloodletting in destroying the kingdom he had created. He could picture the harrowing scene that night. He had created by words and destroyed by words. Although the kingdom had never possessed reality, still it had once manifested itself somewhere, and now it was destroyed by cruel whim. Seeing Imanishi's drug-roughened yellowish brown tongue lick his lips, Honda vividly pictured imaginary mountains of corpses and rivers of blood.
Compared to the desires of this sallow weakling, his own wants were far more quiet and modest. Yet they were equally impossible of fulfillment. Seeing Imanishi who showed not a trace of sentimentality and hearing him announce with his typically affected nonchalance the destruction of the Land of the Pomegranate, Honda was pierced to the core by the frivolousness of it all.
But his thoughts were immediately interrupted by Mrs. Tsubakihara speaking in his ear. The fact that she whispered in a particularly low voice bespoke the fact that she had nothing of importance to relate.
"This is just between you and me. You know that Makiko's in Europe, don't you?"
"So I hear."
"I'm not talking about the trip itself. I just wanted to tell you that she didn't invite me to go with her this time. She took some vulgar and untalented pupil along. But of course I'm not criticizing that. Only she didn't tell me anything about her going. Can you believe it? I went to see her off at the airport, but I was so overcome I couldn't say a word."
"I wonder why she didn't mention it. The two of you were practically inseparable."
"We were not only inseparable, she was my G.o.ddess. And my G.o.ddess deserted me.
"It's a long story, but when her family was in great difficulty after the war-her father, a poet too, was an officer-I came to her a.s.sistance before anyone else. I asked her advice in everything. I concealed nothing from her. And I think I lived and wrote poetry just as she wished me to. The feeling of body and soul joined to a G.o.ddess kept me alive, though I was a mere sh.e.l.l after I lost my son in the war. My feelings didn't change at all even after she became so famous, but the only bad thing was that there was too much of a gap between her talent and mine. Or rather it became even clearer than ever to me after I was deserted that I had not had a shred of talent to start with."
"That's not true, I'm sure," said Honda, to be polite, squinting in the light from the swimming pool.
"No, I know it now perfectly well. There's no harm in facing it, but it's clear to me that she must have known from the very beginning. Can you think of anything more cruel? Knowing that I was completely without talent, she led me around by the nose, made me obey all her commands, and sometimes patted my back and used me as much as she wished. Then she discards me like an old shoe and goes off to Europe with some other wealthy, fawning disciple."
"Let's put aside the question of your talent. Makiko possesses outstanding ability and you know that's always accompanied by ruthless cruelty."
"Just as a G.o.ddess is cruel . . . But, Mr. Honda, how can I go on living after being deserted by a G.o.ddess? Without the one who knew my every thought and deed, what can I do?"
"How about religion?"
"Religion! It's no use believing in some invisible G.o.d who possesses no risk of treachery. It won't work if I can't have one who watches over me and tells me to do this and not that, who leads me by the hand into every action, and from whom I can conceal nothing, before whom I am purified and feel no shame."
"You'll always be a child . . . and a mother."
"Yes, Mr. Honda, I shall indeed."
Already tears were br.i.m.m.i.n.g in Mrs. Tsubakihara's eyes.
The Mashiba children and two new couples were in the swimming pool at the moment. Prince Kaori joined them, and they tossed about a large rubber ball with green and white stripes. The sound of splashing water, the shouting, and the merry laughter added brightness to the diffused light in the pool. The swaying blue surface was whipped up, breaking into a flurry of whitecaps. The water that had been licking quietly at the corners of the pool was now rent by the muscular shining backs of the swimmers, who made deep gashes in its sparkling surface. These instantly closed again and were transformed into quivering swells that engulfed those in the pool. The spray that rose among the shouting on one side produced countless oily rings of light on the other, all elaborately contracting and expanding.
The green and white striped ball, the instant it flew among the swimmers, appeared in chiaroscuro. The color of the water, the tones of the bathing suits, even the people playing there were unrelated to human feelings of any depth. Yet this amount of water and its movement, the laughter and the shouts of the people, somehow all evoked a feeling of tragedy in Honda's mind. He wondered why.
Could it be because of the sun? He looked up to the sky where the light appeared distorted by the deepness of the blue, and began to sneeze. Just then Mrs. Tsubakihara addressed him in her familiar tearful voice, m.u.f.fled by the inevitable handkerchief that covered her face: "What a good time they're having! Who would have imagined during the war that this would ever be possible. I wanted so much to have Akio experience this . . . at least once."
It was after two when Rie escorted Keiko and Ying Chan onto the terrace in their swimming suits. After having waited so impatiently and for so long, Ying Chan's appearance seemed to Honda much too routine.
Keiko, in a bathing suit with black and white vertical stripes, seemed voluptuous from across the pool. It was difficult to believe that she was nearly fifty years old. The Westernized life she had led from her childhood had helped to produce long and shapely legs totally unlike those of other j.a.panese women. Her carriage was excellent, and when seen in profile talking with Rie her curves flowed with statuesque majesty, and the sovereignty of buxom flesh was apparent in the symmetry of the swelling b.r.e.a.s.t.s and b.u.t.tocks.
Ying Chan provided an ideal contrast beside her. Clad in a white suit, she was holding a white rubber bathing cap in one hand and pushing back her hair with the other in a relaxed pose, one leg extended beyond the other. In her manner of placing her leg slightly forward, visible from a distance, was a kind of tropical asymmetry that excited people. Strong and yet slim, the long thighs supporting a well-developed torso somehow imparted a feeling of precariousness. In this she was most different from Keiko. In addition, the white suit brought out the brownness of her skin. The encased b.r.e.a.s.t.s and their dusky ripeness reminded Honda of the fresco at the Ajanta cave temple depicting the dying dancer. From this side of the pool he could clearly see her teeth gleaming whiter than her bathing suit when she smiled.
As she drew nearer, Honda stood up to greet this girl he had so eagerly awaited.
"Now everyone's here," said Rie, hastening over, but he made no reply.
Keiko greeted the Princess and waved to the Prince in the pool.
"I'm exhausted after the experience," she said in her rich, smooth voice, showing no sign of fatigue. "I'm too bad a driver to take the car from Karuizawa to Tokyo, pick up Ying Chan, and come all the way over to Gotemba. We're lucky to be here at all. I wonder why all the cars steer clear when I drive. It's like driving in no man's land."
"They're obviously impressed by your dignity," said Honda. For some reason, Rie laughed nervously.
In the meantime Ying Chan, oblivious to everyone, stood with her back to the table, her hands playing with her white cap, enchanted by the water tossing in the light. The inner surface of the white rubber cap gleamed occasionally as though it were oiled as she toyed with it. Honda was utterly captivated by the sight of her body, and it was only considerably later that he finally noticed something green glittering on one finger. It was the emerald ring with the golden guardian deities.
The instant he saw it, Honda's joy knew no bounds. It was a sign that she had forgiven him and that the Ying Chan who wore the ring had become the Ying Chan of former times. The rustling of the forest at the Peers School in Honda's youth, the two Siamese princes and the melancholy of their eyes, the announcement of Princess Chantrapa's death which had been received toward the end of summer in the garden at the southern villa, the long flow of time, the audience with the young Princess Moonlight in Bangkok, the bathing at Bang Pa In, the ring that had surfaced again in postwar j.a.pan-the entire past was woven into a golden chain that linked up with his longing for the tropics. Only when she wore the ring did Ying Chan form a series of brilliant melancholy leitmotifs constantly stimulated in his intricate memories.
He heard the humming of bees close to his ear and caught the fragrant odor of the breeze that reminded him of roasted wheat, the unmistakable scent of summer. The Hondas were not particularly fond of flowers, and the garden had none of the beauty of Fuji's summer plains where pinks and gentians bloomed. But in the fragrant wind the scent of these fields and the dust stirred by the American Army maneuvers, at times dyeing the sky above yellow, delicately commingled.
Ying Chan's body was breathing at Honda's side. Not only that, but it welcomed summer as if hypersensitive to its special infection; she was infected by summer from head to toe. The texture of her skin resembled the glow of some strange Thai fruit sold on the marketplace in the shade of the mimosa. It was a bare body that in time had ripened and matured, signifying some accomplishment or promise.
As he reflected, he realized that the last time he had seen her unclothed was when she was seven, twelve years ago. The childish, slightly distended belly, which he remembered so vividly, had now flattened, but as if in compensation, the little flat chest had developed voluptuously. As she was preoccupied with the noise in the pool and was standing with her back turned toward the table, Honda could observe in detail the cords which, tied at the nape of her neck and falling down both sides, connected at the hips, the area in between forming a lovely straight line of bare back down to the crevice of her b.u.t.tocks. Just above he could see the descending curve hesitate briefly at her coccyx, like the quiet basin of a small waterfall. The covered b.u.t.tocks had the roundness and exquisiteness of a full moon rising. The cool of night seemed contained in the exposed flesh, while brightness appeared to radiate from the hidden flesh. The parasol barred her smooth skin with light and shadow; one arm in the shade was like bronze, but the other in the sun was like the polished surface of Chinese quincewood. Yet the skin, repelling both air and water, was not merely smooth, it had the moistness of amber orchid petals. The bone structure, which at a distance appeared delicate, was actually strong and well proportioned, though small.
"Well, shall we go in?" said Keiko.
"Yes, let's." Ying Chan looked back vivaciously and smiled. She had been waiting for these words.
Then she placed the white swimming cap on the table and raised her arms to put up her lovely black hair. The quick, rather negligent movement afforded Honda, who was in a good position, the opportunity of seeing under her arm the lower part of her side. The top of the suit was cut like an ap.r.o.n, and the part over her b.r.e.a.s.t.s had a cord pa.s.sing through it and around the back of her neck, where the two ends were tied and then caught by loops at the back. The bib was cut low enough to reveal the rise of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, and her sides were hidden only by the narrow sashlike ends which formed the loops for the cords at the back. Therefore, though the lower side was always visible, when her arms were raised, the narrow strips of fabric were displaced, fully exposing parts previously hidden. Honda saw that the firm expanse of skin there was no different from other areas. Not a single imperfection or blemish. She was unperturbed even in the sun, and not a suggestion of a mole was discernible. Joy welled within him.
Ying Chan forced the gathered ma.s.s of hair under the bathing cap and set out for the swimming pool with Keiko. By the time Keiko realized that she was still holding her cigarette and had returned to the table, Ying Chan had already entered the water. a.s.suring himself that Rie was nowhere about, Honda whispered in Keiko's ear as she stooped to crush her cigarette in the ashtray: "I see she's wearing the ring."
Keiko said nothing, but winked knowingly. Little wrinkles, usually invisible, appeared at the corners of her eyes.
While he was gazing rapturously at the two swimmers, Rie returned and seated herself at his side. Intently watching Ying Chan leaping like a porpoise out of the sparkling water and plunging back in, a smile on her face, Rie said in a grating voice: "With a body like that she ought to have a lot of children."
IN THE LIBRARY that night Honda could not interest himself in the usual books.
In a seldom-opened desk drawer he found a copy of Court Proceedings. For lack of anything better to do, he started reading. It concerned the sentence delivered in January, 1950, designating Honda as the legal possessor of his present holdings.
He opened the large file, which was bound by a black cord, on an English escritoire covered with Moroccan leather.
Main clause: Decision no. 9065 of 15 March 1902 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce and National Forestry, whereby nationally owned land is nonreimbursable is hereby reversed. The defendant shall return to the plaintiff those national forests itemized elsewhere. Legal costs are to be borne by the defendant.
Nothing was more miraculous than the fact that the forests and mountains in a region of f.u.kushima prefecture, which originally had had no connection whatever with Honda, should now comprise the bulk of his wealth and support the disintegration of old age. Although it so happened that he had achieved victory, it had little to do with the original suit that had been brought in 1900, turned down once in 1902, then tenaciously pressed for half a century regardless of the vicissitudes of history. The cryptomeria forests, which people never frequented at night, and their damp undergrowth had again and again repeated their natural life cycle to afford him the manner of life he led today. How would some stranger pa.s.sing through the forest early in the century have felt if, moved by the n.o.bility of the treetops thrusting into the blue sky, he were to discover that their only raison d'etre was to support a man's follies fifty years later?
Honda listened. The sounds of insects were still rare. His wife had gone to bed in the adjacent room. The house was pervaded with the coolness that suddenly follows the coming of night.
The party to celebrate the opening of the pool had ended about five o'clock, and all the guests except Keiko and Ying Chan were to return to their own homes. But Imanishi and Mrs. Tsubakihara obstinately refused to leave. They had come with the intention of staying overnight. As a result both dinner and sleeping arrangements had had to be replanned. Mrs. Tsubakihara was oblivious to the inconveniences she created.
The Hondas, Keiko, Ying Chan, Imanishi, and Mrs. Tsubakihara made their way to the arbor, where they stayed for some time.
Honda's original project had been to a.s.sign Keiko to the outer guest room and reserve the inner one next to the study for Ying Chan, but the change of plans required that he a.s.sign the second room to Imanishi and put Keiko in with Ying Chan. That scotched the scheme to use the peephole to observe Ying Chan sleeping alone. With Keiko there she would certainly be more reserved.
The words and phrases of the court doc.u.ments conveyed no meaning to him.
Sixthly, in item 15 of Instruction no. 4, "Others shall be recognized as de facto owners under the regulations of the Tokugawa government and those of each fief" signifies that in addition to the cases of recognized possession set forth in items 1 to 14, when it can be ascertained that possession was generally recognized, the property may be returned to the recognized owner. "General recognition" means . . .
He looked at the clock and saw that it was already five or six minutes past twelve. Suddenly his heart stopped as if he had stumbled over something in the darkness. Hot, indescribably sweet palpitations commenced.
They were familiar to him. When he had lurked in the park at night, when what he had been expectantly awaiting was about to happen before his eyes, his heart would begin to palpitate as if pestered by a swarm of red ants.
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