The Temple Of Dawn Part 20

An avalanche. A somber avalanche of honey that, overpowering everything with its suffocating sweetness, crushed the pillars of reason; all emotions were trans.m.u.ted into these mechanical, rapid palpitations. Everything melted. It was useless to struggle against them.

Where did this avalanche come from? Somewhere there existed the secluded dwelling of carnal desire, and when it sent forth orders from afar, no matter how defective the antenna, it stirred sensitively; and abandoning all, one instantly responded. How alike were the voices of pleasure and death! When one is summoned, all work at once becomes unimportant. As on a ghost ship abandoned by its crew, be it the entries in the log, the uneaten food, the half-polished shoes, the comb left before the mirror, or even the partially knotted ropes-everything breathes of the mysteriously departed men, everything is left as it was in the haste of departure.

The palpitations were signs of welling desire. Manifestly only ugliness and disgrace lay in store, yet these palpitations had the richness and the brilliance of a rainbow; something indistinguishable from the sublime burst forth.

Something indistinguishable from the sublime! That was the villain. Nothing was more unattractive than the fact that both the force moving one to the n.o.blest or most just of deeds and that inspiring the most obscene pleasure and the most ugly of dreams should spring from the same source and be accompanied by the same warning palpitations. Base desires merely cast base shadows, and if the temptation of sublimity did not flash in these initial palpitations, a man could still maintain a calm pride in life. Perhaps the root of temptation lay not in carnal desire but in this pretentious illusion of silvery sublimity, this vague and mysterious half-hidden peak among the clouds. It was the birdlime of "sublimity" that first ensnared a man and then made him yearn with unbearable impatience after the vast light.

Honda, unable to endure it longer, stood up. He peered into the obscurity of the adjacent bedroom to be sure that his wife was asleep. Again he stood alone in the bright study. Since the dawn of history he had been alone in this study, and he would still be alone in it when history came to an end.

He extinguished the light. The moon was bright, and the furniture took on vague contours; the desk made of a single piece of zelkova wood gleamed as though its surface were covered with water.

He leaned against the bookcase on the wall dividing the study from the next room, listening for signs of movement. He could hear something, but it did not seem to be that they were still up and talking. It was conceivable that, unable to sleep, they might be conversing, but not a single distinct word filtered through to him.

Honda removed some ten Western books from the shelf to free the opening of the peephole. The number of books and the t.i.tles were always the same. They were invariably old leather-bound tomes with gilt lettering on law in German that had come to him from his father. His fingers could tell each and every one by the difference in thickness. The order in which he removed them never varied. He could guess the exact weight of each and he knew the odor of acc.u.mulated dust. The touch and the weight of these solemn and imposing volumes and the precision of their arrangements were the indispensable formalities of his pleasure. There was no more important ceremony than that of reverently removing these stone walls of concepts and transforming the grim pleasure he would have in reading them into his wretched infatuation. Carefully, making no noise, he lowered each volume to the floor. With each book the pounding of his heart increased. The eighth was a particularly heavy tome. When he pulled it out, his hand felt numb from the dusty golden weight of the pleasure he experienced.

He completed the task faultlessly and then placed his eye to the peephole without b.u.mping his head. The subtlety of this skill was also of great consequence. How important each of these trifling matters seemed! As in some ritual, no detail could be omitted so that he might glimpse this other brilliant world. He was a lone priest left in the darkness. Strictly adhering to the ceremonial procedures long rehea.r.s.ed in his head-he was plagued by the belief that if he should forget any part of the ritual the whole structure would collapse-he carefully put his right eye to the hole.

One of the bedside lamps seemed to be lit and a dim light mottled the room. He had been clever to have Matsudo move the wall bed so that both now stood in his field of vision.

In the dusky light inextricably entangled limbs writhed on the bed immediately before him. A white plump body and a dusky one lay with heads in opposite directions, exhausting their wanton desires. It was a position naturally a.s.sumed when the mind tied to the flesh and the brain that engendered love attempted to obtain balance by reaching out to the farthest point in order to taste the wine fermented by that love. Two heads of black shadowy hair were intimately pressed against two black p.u.b.escent mounds also filled with shadows. The annoying wisps of disheveled hair strewn across the cheeks had become signs of love. Smooth, burning thighs lay in intimate contact with smooth, burning cheeks, while the soft bellies heaved like moonlit inlets. He could not hear distinct voices, but a sobbing, neither pleasure nor sorrow, vibrated the length of the torsos. b.r.e.a.s.t.s now abandoned by the partners innocently turned their nipples toward the light, trembling at times as though under an electrical charge. The depth of the night concealed in the aureoles around the nipples, the distance of the pleasure that made the b.r.e.a.s.t.s shudder, testified to the fact that every atom of their bodies was still isolated in maddening aloneness. They were feverishly striving to come closer, toward a greater intimacy, to fuse one into the other, but to no avail. Far away Keiko's red-lacquered toes flexed as if she were dancing on a sheet of hot iron, and yet they merely trod the empty twilight.

Honda realized that the room was filled with cool mountain air, but he felt as though the center of a furnace lay beyond the peephole. A shining furnace. He regretted that Ying Chan's back that he had examined so carefully during the day at the pool, perspiration flowing slowly down the spine, was turned toward him. Shortly the perspiration was diverted from its channel and trickled down the dark flank against the bed. It seemed as though he could smell the fragrance of some rich, ripe tropical fruit that had just split open.

Keiko shifted her body slightly to be on top, and Ying Chan tilted her neck, thrusting her head between Keiko's shining thighs. Naturally her b.r.e.a.s.t.s came into view. Her right arm encircled Keiko's hip, while her left hand gently caressed her belly. Intermittently little nocturnal lappings could be heard licking the banks of the harbor.

So beautiful was Ying Chan's sincerity that he was seeing for the first time that Honda even forgot to be surprised by this so treacherous conclusion to his love.

Her closed eyes were turned toward the ceiling, and her forehead was half buried in Keiko's sporadically convulsing thighs. Keiko's mimosalike hair almost completely covered her lovely, peaceful nostrils, now no longer cold and narrow. Ying Chan's bow-shaped upper lip was open and moist, and a busy sucking movement extended from her delicate chin to her cheeks that gleamed darkly. Presently Honda saw a line of tears flowing like some living animal from the shadow of her long eyelashes along her tightly closed eyes and down her cheek.

Within the limitless movement of waves everything was directed toward an as yet unknown summit. The two women seemed to be desperately striving to reach ultimate limits neither had ever dreamt of or hoped for. Honda felt as if there were some unknown pinnacle poised in the s.p.a.ce of the dark room like a brilliant crown. It was probably the Thai full-moon diadem suspended there above the two writhing women; only Honda's eyes were able to envision it.

The bodies of both women alternately extended and contracted and then collapsed as they buried themselves again in sighs and perspiration. The crown floated indifferently in the s.p.a.ce which their straining fingers almost reached. When the envisioned summit, that unknown golden limit was manifest, the scene was completely transformed, and Honda could see the two women entangled beneath his gaze only in their suffering and torture. They were battered by the dissatisfaction of the flesh, their gathered brows were filled with pain, and their hot limbs seemed to writhe as though trying to escape from what seared them. They possessed no wings. They continued their futile thrashings to escape from their bonds, from their suffering; and yet their flesh firmly retained them. Only rapture could bring release.

Ying Chan's beautiful, dark b.r.e.a.s.t.s were drenched in perspiration, the right one crushed and disfigured beneath Keiko's body, while the left, heaving vigorously, lay voluptuously on her left arm with which she was caressing Keiko's belly. On the constantly trembling mound the nipple slumbered, and with the perspiration the sphere glowed as if bright with rain.

At that moment Ying Chan, perhaps jealous that Keiko's thigh had freedom of movement, raised her left arm high and grasped it as though to claim it as her own. She placed it firmly over her head as if she could do without breathing. The imposing white thigh completely covered her face.

Ying Chan's whole side was exposed. To the left of her bare breast, an area her arm had previously concealed, three extremely small moles appeared distinctly, like the Pleiades in the dusky sky of her brown skin that resembled the dying evening glow.

Honda was shocked. It was as if his eyes had been pierced with arrows.

Just as he ducked his head and was about to leave the bookcase, he felt a light tap on his back. On withdrawing his head he discovered Rie standing there in her nightdress, her face frighteningly pale.

"What are you doing? I suspected as much."

Honda felt no guilt as he turned his perspiring forehead to his wife. He had already seen the moles.

"Look. Look at the moles . . ."

"Are you telling me to peek?"

"Go ahead. It's just as I thought."

Caught between dignity and curiosity, Rie hesitated for some time. Ignoring her, Honda walked to the bay window and seated himself on the built-in bench. Rie put her eye to the peephole. Having been unable to see his own posture when he had done the same thing, Honda could not bear to witness the demeaning position of his wife. Nevertheless, they had come to the point of sharing the same deed.

He looked for the moon concealed by a cloud through the metal screen in the bay window. Behind the cloud, edged in light, the moon sent forth beams in all directions and cloud cl.u.s.ters trailed away in similar stateliness. The stars were few, and he saw only one shining brightly, scarcely touching the tops of the cypress trees.

When Rie had done peeping, she lit the lamp in the room. Her face was shining with joy.

She walked to the bench and sat down. Already she was cured.

"I'm stunned. . . . Did you know about that?" she said in a warm, low voice.

"No. I just found out."

"But you said it was just as you thought."

"That's not what I meant, Rie. I was talking about the moles. Some time ago you raked through my study in Tokyo and read Matsugae's diary, didn't you?"

"I hunted through your study?"

"It doesn't matter. I'm asking if you read Matsugae's diary."

"I . . . I don't remember. I'm not interested in other people's diaries."

When Honda asked her to bring him a cigar from the bedroom, she obediently followed his command. She even lighted it, shielding it with her hand from the wind that came through the window screen.

"The key to transmigration is in Matsugae's diary. You saw them too, didn't you? The three black moles on her left side? Those moles were originally on Matsugae."

Rie, thinking of other things, was indifferent to what Honda was saying. She probably thought her husband was looking for excuses. Honda pressed her, wishing them to have the memory in common.

"Well, you did see them, didn't you?"

"I can't say. But the scene was horrible. You never know about people, do you!"

"That's why I'm saying that Ying Chan is the reincarnation of Matsugae."

Rie gazed at her husband with pity. It was only natural that a woman who believed herself cured should try in turn to act as such. This woman who had so savagely confirmed reality was now ready to infect her husband with the roughness that burned her skin like salt water. Rie was no longer the Rie of old. Although she had once desired to transform reality she had wisely learned to believe in it. She had learned that without changing herself, the world could be transformed through observation. She rather looked down on her husband's world, without realizing that she had in fact become a co-conspirator by having been a voyeur too.

"What's all this about reincarnation? How ridiculous! I didn't read any diary. At any rate, I've finally calmed down. Your eyes must have been opened too, but I was suffering from something that didn't exist at all. I was wrestling with an illusion. Now that I realize it, I suddenly feel tired. But everything turned out for the best. There's nothing to worry about any more."

The two were sitting at either end of the bench, an ashtray between them. Honda, concerned that Rie might be cold, closed the window; the smoke from his cigar slowly eddied up under the light. They were silent, but the silence was not the same as that which had occurred that morning.

Their hearts were bound together by the odiousness of what they had observed, and Honda felt momentarily how good it would have been if they could have been like so many other couples in the world, if they could flaunt their impeccable moral rect.i.tude like immaculately white ap.r.o.ns across their chests, sit at table three times a day and proudly eat to their satisfaction, if they could a.s.sume the right to disdain other things in the world. But in reality they had merely been transformed into a couple of voyeurs.

Yet each of them had not seen the same thing. Where Honda had discovered reality, Rie had found out her illusions. The process whereby they had reached this common point was the same for both in that they had not yet recuperated from their fatigue and their work had been futile. What remained now was mutual consolation.

After a while Rie yawned so widely one could see to the back of her mouth.

"Don't you think we should start thinking about adopting a child?" she said most appropriately, combing back her disheveled hair.

Death had flown from Honda's heart the moment he had seen Keiko and Ying Chan together. Now there was reason to believe that he might be immortal. "No," he said with determination, plucking a piece of tobacco from his lip, "it's better to live by ourselves. I prefer not having any heir."

Honda and Rie were no sooner awakened by a violent pounding on the door than they smelled the smoke.

"Fire! Fire!" a woman was shouting. When the couple, joining hands, ran out the door, the second-floor corridor was already filled with swirling smoke, and the person who had roused them was gone. Covering their mouths with their sleeves, the two ran coughing and choking down the stairs. The pool with its water flashed through Honda's mind. They would be safe only if they could reach it without delay.

As they burst out onto the terrace and looked at the pool, they saw Keiko holding Ying Chan and crying to them from the far side. That the fire was already sweeping through the house was obvious, for though the lights had not been turned on, the reflections of the two women were nonetheless clearly visible on the surface of the water. Honda was amazed by the personal appearance of both Keiko and Ying Chan. Their hair was disheveled, but both were wearing the dressing gowns they had brought with them. Honda was clad only in his pajamas and Rie was wearing her night kimono.

"I woke up coughing because of the smoke. It must have come from Mr. Imanishi's room," said Keiko.

"Who knocked on our door?"

"I did. I knocked on Mr. Imanishi's too, but he hasn't come down. What shall we do?"

"Matsudo! Matsudo!" Honda shouted, and the chauffeur came running along the edge of the swimming pool.

"Mr. Imanishi and Mrs. Tsubakihara are in there. Can't you go help them?"

They looked up and saw flames shooting out of the second-floor windows along with dense white smoke.

"That's impossible, Mr. Honda," the chauffeur said, carefully considering the situation. "It's too late now. Why didn't they get out?"

"They must have taken too many sleeping pills," Keiko remarked. Ying Chan buried her face in Keiko's breast and began to cry.

Apparently the roof had caved in, for flames shot high into a sky filled with flying sparks.

"What are we to do with the water?" said Honda helplessly, looking at the swimming pool that was so reddened with reflected flames and sparks that it would seem that in touching the water one's hand would be burned.

"Yes, I think it's too late to put out the fire, but perhaps we should douse the valuable pieces in the living room. Shall I bring a bucket?" asked Matsudo without making a move.

Honda was already thinking of something else.

"How about the fire department? I wonder what time it is now."

No one had a watch. They had all been left behind.

"It's three minutes past four. The sun will be up soon," said Matsudo.

"How provident of you to have thought to bring your watch," Honda said sarcastically, regaining his a.s.surance as he discovered he was capable of sarcasm even in such circ.u.mstances.

"It's an old habit. I always sleep with my watch on," placidly answered the properly dressed Matsudo.

Rie, dazed, had seated herself in a chair next to the folded beach umbrella.

Honda saw Ying Chan remove her face from Keiko's breast, hastily fumble through the breast pocket of her dressing gown, and take out a photograph. The gloss of the picture was enhanced by the flames. Glancing distractedly at it, he saw that it was a completely nude Keiko leaning against a chair.

"I'm glad this was not burned," said Ying Chan, smiling. As she looked up at Keiko, her white teeth gleamed in the light of the flames. His memory functioned amidst a welter of thoughts, and Honda recalled the scene just before Katsumi had broken into her bedroom. This was the same treasured picture that Ying Chan had been looking at then.

"Silly," said Keiko, tenderly putting an arm round her shoulder. "What did you do with the ring?"

"The ring! Oh, I've left it in the room," Honda heard her say distinctly. He was seized by a fear that the flaming silhouettes of his two friends might appear in the far windows of the second floor, screaming in terror. They were most certainly dying there. Probably they were already dead. This might well be why the fire gave the impression of quietness despite the grating and roaring.

The fire engine still had not come. Honda thought of the telephone in Keiko's house which was being remodeled and sent Matsudo running over to call the Gotemba Fire Station at Nimaibashi.

The holocaust had enveloped the entire second story, and the first floor was filled with smoke. As the wind happened to be coming from the direction of Fuji to the northwest, smoke did not blow toward the pool, but the dawn chill crept up the spines of the onlookers.

The fire changed at every instant. Mingling with sounds like colossal footsteps amidst the flames came the intermittent noise of things bursting. With each sound Honda a.s.sociated some burning object: now a book, now the desk. He visualized pages turning over, swelling like roses.

The volume of fire increased in proportion to the smoke. The heat could be felt even on this side of the swimming pool, and the rising hot air carried up cinders and sparks. During the short time before they turned to ash, the cinders were gold, reminding one of the flutter of golden wings of fledglings leaving their nest. It seemed as though things were departing. In one area of the sky radiant with soaring flames, the outlines of the cloud banks hidden in the dusky light of dawn were now defined.

A roaring, probably caused by falling beams on the second floor, rose from the house. Then a section of outer wall was rent by flames, and a window frame engulfed in fire fell into the pool. The subtle decorative flames imparted to the falling black object the momentary illusion of being a window of the Marble Temple in Siam. A sizzling pierced the air as the frame plunged into the water. They jumped back from the pool.

The house, gradually losing its outer walls, took on the appearance of a gigantic burning bird cage. Tatters of delicate flame fluttered from every c.h.i.n.k and every crack. The house was breathing. It was as though the source of a deep and vigorous life breath existed within the flames. From time to time the shape of some familiar piece of furniture, some former lifelike shadow would appear in their midst, but it would collapse instantly covered in brilliance and turn into joyfully dancing flames. The upsurging fire would suddenly shoot out like a snake's tongue only to disappear again into the smoke, while red faces of flame would suddenly appear from the dense black fumes. Everything happened with incredible rapidity, fire and fire joined hands, smoke wrapped about smoke, all attempting to reach a single summit. The upside-down burning house dropped mixtures of flame deep into the swimming pool, and the limpid dawn sky was visible through the tips of fingers of fire.

The wind changed direction and smoke blew toward the pool, sending the spectators further from the water. Although they could not detect it with certainty, and although no one mentioned it, they knew surely that the odor of burning human flesh was present in the smoke, and they covered their nostrils with both hands.

Rie suggested that it would be best to go to the arbor since dew was falling. The three women, turning their backs on the fire, started toward the arbor across the lawn just mowed the previous day. Honda remained alone.

He felt insistently that he had seen this somewhere before.

Flames reflecting in the water . . . burning corpses . . . Benares! How could he not have dreamed of recapturing the ultimate he had seen in that holy land?

The house had turned into kindling and life had become fire. All triviality had returned to ash and nothing but the most essential was important, and the hidden, gigantic face had turned up its head abruptly from the flame. Laughter, screams, sobs were all absorbed in the clamor of the flames, the crackling of wood, the distorted panes of gla.s.s, the creaking of the joints-sound itself was enveloped in an absolute quiet. Roasted tiles cracked and fell, one by one the fetters were released, and the house turned into a brilliant nakedness. .h.i.therto unknown. The light cream section of outer wall on the first floor which had not yet burned suddenly wrinkled and turned brown; and at the same time, the fire thrust violently through a light smudge of smoke. The smooth speed of transformation into flames and their shiftings in finding an escape were unimaginably exquisite.

Honda brushed sparks from his shoulders and sleeves. The surface of the swimming pool was covered with embers and ashes that swarmed like duckweed. But the brilliance of the fire penetrated everything, and the purification of the Mani Karnika ghat was reflected mirror-fashion in this small, limited area of water, in this sacred pool created for Ying Chan's bathing. What was different here from the funeral pyres reflected in the Ganges? Here too were fire and wood, and the two human bodies, slow to burn, were doubtless writhing and threshing in the flames. They no longer felt pain; the flesh merely imitated and repeated the forms of suffering as it resisted destruction. Such were the two corpses. This was precisely the same as that clear fire in the evening dusk at the floating ghat. Everything was being rapidly reduced to const.i.tuent elements. Smoke rose high into the sky.

The only thing missing was the face of the sacred white cow that had turned and stared straight at Honda from the other side of the flames.

When the fire engine arrived, the fire had already died down. Nevertheless, the firemen conscientiously hosed the house. A rescue was attempted, but they found the two corpses completely incinerated. The police arrived and requested Honda to verify the scene of death. But as the staircase had collapsed, it was difficult to reach the upper floor, and Honda gave up. On being told of the habits of Imanishi and Mrs. Tsubakihara, the officer in charge commented that the cause of the fire had probably been their smoking in bed. If they had taken sleeping pills about three, then the time of the drug's maximum effect would have coincided with the onset of the fire, doubtless starting from a lit cigarette dropped on the quilt. Honda did not accept the idea of suicide. When the officer spoke of "double suicide," Keiko, listening at one side, broke into unrestrained laughter.

When things settled down a bit, Honda would have to present himself at the police station to make a deposition. He was sure to be busy today. He must send Matsudo out to purchase food for breakfast, but it would be some time yet before the stores opened.

As there was no other place to go, everyone gathered in the arbor. In her faltering j.a.panese Ying Chan brought up the subject of a snake she had seen as she ran from the fire. It had appeared on the lawn and slithered away with unusual speed, the distant fire glinting on its oily brown scales. Listening to her, all of them, especially the women, felt even more the penetrating chill of the air.

Just then, Fuji the color of red tile at dawn, one sparkling brush mark of snow near its summit, appeared before them. Even under these circ.u.mstances Honda's eyes shifted involuntarily from the red mountain to the morning sky immediately beside it. The habit was almost unconscious. He could clearly see the distinct form of a winter Fuji.


IN 1967, it happened that Honda was invited to a dinner party at the American in Tokyo. There he met the head of the American Cultural Center in Bangkok. His wife, somewhat over thirty, was Thai, and people said that she was a princess. Honda was sure that she was Ying Chan.

Ying Chan had gone home shortly after the fire at Gotemba in 1952 and Honda had had no news since then. Momentarily he believed that she had unexpectedly returned to Tokyo after fifteen years as the wife of an American. This was not impossible, and it would be quite typical of Ying Chan to pretend not to know him at all when she greeted him at their introduction.

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