Haruki Murakami



Alfred Birnbaum

Men Without Women - A Dazzeling New Collection of Short Stories - Out Now

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Published by Vintage 2003

14 16 18 20 19 17 15

Copyright © Haruki Murakami 1985
English translation © Haruki Murakami 1991

Translated and adapted by Alfred Birnbaum with the participation of the author. The translator wishes to acknowledge the assistance of the editor Elmer Luke

Version 1.0
Epub ISBN 9781448103683

Haruki Murakami has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

First published in 1985 with the title Sekai no owari to hādo-boirudo wandārando by Shinchosha, Tokyo

First published in Great Britain in 2001 by The Harvill Press

Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA

Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at:

The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9780099448785



About the Author

Also by Haruki Murakami

Title Page


1. Elevator, Silence, Overweight

2. Golden Beasts

3. Rain Gear, INKlings, Laundry

4. The Library

5. Tabulations, Evolution, Sex Drive

6. Shadow

7. Skull, Lauren Bacall, Library

8. The Colonel

9. Appetite, Disappointment, Leningrad

10. The Wall

11. Dressing, Watermelon, Chaos

12. A Map of the End of the World

13. Frankfurt, Door, Independent Operants

14. Woods

15. Whiskey, Torture, Turgenev

16. The Coming of Winter

17. End of the World, Charlie Parker, Time Bomb

18. Dreamreading

19. Hamburgers, Skyline, Deadline

20. The Death of the Beasts

21. Bracelets, Ben Johnson, Devil

22. Gray Smoke

23. Holes, Leeches, Tower

24. Shadow Grounds

25. Meal, Elephant Factory, Trap

26. Power Station

27. Encyclopedia Wand, Immortality, Paperclips

28. Musical Instruments

29. Lake, Masatomi Kondo, Panty Hose

30. Hole

31. Fares, Police, Detergent

32. Shadow in the Throes of Death

33. Rainy-Day Laundry, Car Rental, Bob Dylan

34. Skulls

35. Nail Clippers, Butter Sauce, Iron Vase

36. Accordion

37. Lights, Introspection, Cleanliness

38. Escape

39. Popcorn, Lord Jim, Extinction

40. Birds


About the Author

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and now lives near Tokyo. He is the author of many novels as well as short stories and non-fiction. His works include Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, After Dark and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. His work has been translated into more than forty languages, and the most recent of his many international honours is the Jerusalem Prize, whose previous recipients include J.M. Coetzee, Milan Kundera, and V.S. Naipaul.


After Dark
After the Quake
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Dance Dance Dance
The Elephant Vanishes
Kafka on the Shore
Norwegian Wood
South of the Border, West of the Sun
Sputnik Sweetheart
A Wild Sheep Chase
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running




Elevator, Silence, Overweight

THE ELEVATOR CONTINUED its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?

Every last thing about this elevator was worlds apart from the cheap die-cut job in my apartment building, scarcely one notch up the evolutionary scale from a well bucket. You’d never believe the two pieces of machinery had the same name and the same purpose. The two were pushing the outer limits conceivable as elevators.

First of all, consider the space. This elevator was so spacious it could have served as an office. Put in a desk, add a cabinet and a locker, throw in a kitchenette, and you’d still have room to spare. You might even squeeze in three camels and a mid-range palm tree while you were at it. Second, there was the cleanliness. Antiseptic as a brand-new coffin. The walls and ceiling were absolutely spotless polished stainless steel, the floor immaculately carpeted in a handsome moss-green. Third, it was dead silent. There wasn’t a sound—literally not one sound—from the moment I stepped inside and the doors slid shut. Deep rivers run quiet.

Another thing, most of the gadgets an elevator is supposed to have were missing. Where, for example, was the panel with all the buttons and switches? No floor numbers to press, no DOOR OPEN and DOOR CLOSE, no EMERGENCY STOP. Nothing whatsoever. All of which made me feel utterly defenseless. And it wasn’t just no buttons; it was no indication of advancing floor, no posted capacity or warning, not even a manufacturer’s nameplate. Forget about trying to locate an emergency exit. Here I was, sealed in. No way this elevator could have gotten fire department approval. There are norms for elevators after all.

Staring at these four blank stainless-steel walls, I recalled one of Houdini’s great escapes I’d seen in a movie. He’s tied up in how many ropes and chains, stuffed into a big trunk, which is wound fast with another thick chain and sent hurtling, the whole lot, over Niagara Falls. Or maybe it was an icy dip in the Arctic Ocean. Given that I wasn’t all tied up, I was doing okay; insofar as I wasn’t clued in on the trick, Houdini was one up on me.

Talk about not clued in, I didn’t even know if I was moving or standing still.

I ventured a cough, but it didn’t echo anything like a cough. It seemed flat, like clay thrown against a slick concrete wall. I could hardly believe that dull thud issued from my own body. I tried coughing one more time. The result was the same. So much for coughing.

I stood in that hermetically sealed vault for what seemed an eternity. The doors showed no sign of ever opening. Stationary in unending silence, a still life: Man in Elevator.

I started to get nervous. What if the machinery had malfunctioned? Or suppose the elevator operator—assuming there was one in the building—forgot I was here in this box? People have lost track of me before.

I strained to hear something, anything, but no sound reached my ears. I pressed my ear against the stainless-steel wall. Sure enough, not a sound. All I managed was to leave an outline of my ear on the cold metal. The elevator was made, apparently, of a miracle alloy that absorbed all noise. I tried whistling Danny Boy, but it came out like a dog wheezing with asthma.

There was little left to do but lean up against a wall and count the change in my pockets. For someone in my profession, knowing how to kill time is as important a method of training as gripping rubber balls is for a boxer. Although, in any strict sense, it’s not killing time at all. For only through assiduous repetition is it possible to redistribute skewed tendencies.

I always come prepared with pockets full of loose change. In my right pocket I keep one-hundred- and five-hundred-yen coins, in my left fifties and tens. One-yen and five-yen coins I carry in a back pocket, but as a rule these don’t enter into the count. What I do is thrust my hands simultaneously into both pockets, the right hand tallying the hundreds and five-hundreds in tandem with the left hand adding up the fifties and tens.

It’s hard for those who’ve never attempted the procedure to grasp what it is to calculate this way, and admittedly it is tricky at first. The right brain and the left brain each keep separate tabs, which are then brought together like two halves of a split watermelon. No easy task until you get the hang of it.

Whether or not I really do put the right and left sides of my brain to separate accounts, I honestly can’t say. A specialist in neurophysiology might have insights to offer on the matter. I’m no neurophysiologist, however. All I know is that when I’m actually in the midst of counting, I feel like I’m using the right side and left side of my brain differently. And when I’m through counting, it seems the fatigue that sets in is qualitatively quite distinct from what comes with normal counting. For convenience sake, I think of it as right-brain-totals-right-pocket, left-brain-totals-left-pocket.

On the whole, I think of myself as one of those people who take a convenience-sake view of prevailing world conditions, events, existence in general. Not that I’m such a blasé, convenience-sake sort of guy—although I do have tendencies in that direction—but because more often than not I’ve observed that convenient approximations bring you closest to comprehending the true nature of things.

For instance, supposing that the planet earth were not a sphere but a gigantic coffee table, how much difference in everyday life would that make? Granted, this is a pretty farfetched example; you can’t rearrange facts of life so freely. Still, picturing the planet earth, for convenience sake, as a gigantic coffee table does in fact help clear away the clutter—those practically pointless contingencies such as gravity and the international dateline and the equator, those nagging details that arise from the spherical view. I mean, for a guy leading a perfectly ordinary existence, how many times in the course of a lifetime would the equator be a significant factor?

But to return to the matter at hand—or rather, hands, the right and the left each going about its own separate business—it is by no means easy to keep running parallel counts. Even for me, to get it down took the longest time. But once you do, once you’ve gotten the knack, it’s not something you lose. Like riding a bike or swimming. Which isn’t to say you can’t always use a little more practice. Repetition can improve your technique and refine your style. If for no other reason than this, I always keep my hands busy.

This time I had three five-hundred-yen coins and eighteen hundreds in the one pocket, and seven fifties and sixteen tens in the other. Making a grand total of three-thousand eight-hundred-ten yen. Calculations like this are no trouble at all. Simpler than counting the fingers on my hands. Satisfied, I leaned back against the stainless-steel wall and looked straight ahead at the doors. Which were still not opening.

What could be taking so long? I tentatively wrote off both the equipment-malfunction theory and the forgotten-by-operator theory. Neither very realistic. This was not to say that equipment malfunction or operator negligence couldn’t realistically occur. On the contrary, I know for a fact that such accidents are all too common in the real world. What I mean to say is that in a highly exceptional reality—this ridiculously slick elevator a case in point—the non-exceptional can, for convenience sake, be written off as paradoxically exceptional. Could any human being capable of designing this Tom Swift elevator fail to keep the machinery in working order or forget the proper procedures once a visitor stepped inside?

The answer was obvious. No.

Never happen.

Not after they had been so meticulous up to that point. They’d seen to minute details, measuring each step I’d taken virtually to the millimeter. I’d been stopped by two guards at the entrance to the building, asked whom I was there to see, matched against a visitors’ list, made to produce my driver’s license, logged into a central computer for verification, after which I was summarily pushed into this elevator. You don’t get this much going over when you visit the Bank of Japan. It was unthinkable that they, having done all that, should slip up now.

The only possibility was that they had intentionally placed me in this particular situation. They wanted the elevator’s motions to be opaque to me. They wanted the elevator to move so slow I wouldn’t be able to tell if it were going up or down. They were probably watching me with a hidden TV camera now.

To ward off the boredom, I thought about searching for the camera lens. But on second thought, what would I have to gain if I found it? That would alert them, they’d halt the elevator, and I’d be even later for my appointed hour.

So I decided to do nothing. I was here in proper accordance with my duties. No need to worry, no cause for alarm.

I leaned against the elevator wall, thrust my hands in my pockets, and once more counted my change. Three-thousand seven-hundred-fifty yen. Nothing to it. Done in a flash.

Three-thousand seven-hundred-fifty yen?

Something was wrong.

I’d made a mistake somewhere.

My palms began to sweat. In three years of counting, never once had I screwed up. This was a bad sign.

I shut my eyes and made my right brain and left brain a blank, in a way you might clean your glasses. Then withdrawing both hands from my pockets, I spread my fingers to dry the sweat. Like Henry Fonda in Warlock, where he steels himself before a gunfight.

With palms and fingers completely dry, both hands dived into my pockets to do a third count. If the third sum corresponded to either of the other sums I’d feel better. Everybody makes mistakes. Under the peculiar conditions I found myself, I may have been anxious, not to mention a little overconfident. That was my first mistake. Anyway, an accurate recount was all I needed to remedy the situation, to put things right.

But before I could take the matter in hand, the elevator doors opened. No warning, no sound, they just slid open to either side. I was concentrating so hard on the critical recount that I didn’t even notice. Or more precisely, my eyes had seen the opening doors, but I didn’t fully grasp the significance of the event. Of course, the doors’ opening meant the linking of two spaces previously denied accessible continuity by means of those very doors. And at the same time, it meant the elevator had reached its destination.

I turned my attention to what lay beyond the doors. There was a corridor and in the corridor stood a woman. A young woman, turned out in a pink suit, wearing pink high heels. The suit was coutured of a polished material, her face equally polished. The woman considered my presence, then nodded succinctly. “Come this way,” she seemed to indicate. I gave up all hope of that recount, and removing my hands from my pockets, I exited the elevator. Whereupon the elevator doors closed behind me as if they’d been waiting for me to leave.

Standing there in the corridor, I took a good look around, but I encountered no hint of the nature of my current circumstances. I did seem to be in an interior passage of a building, but any school kid could have told you as much.

The interior was gloomy, featureless. Like the elevator. Quality materials throughout; no sign of wear. Marble floors buffed to a high luster; the walls a toasted off-white, like the muffins I eat for breakfast. Along either side of the corridor were tall wooden doors, each affixed with metal room numbers, but out of order. <936> was next to <1213> next to <26>. Something was screwy. Nobody numbers rooms like that.

The young woman hardly spoke. “This way, please,” was all she told me, but it was more her lips forming the words than speaking, because no sound came out. Having taken two months of lipreading since starting this line of work, I had no problem understanding what she said. Still, I thought there was something wrong with my ears. After the dead silence of the elevator, the flattened coughs and dessicated whistling, I had to be losing my hearing.

So I coughed. It sounded normal. I regained some confidence in my hearing. Nothing’s happened to my ears. The problem must be with the woman’s mouth.

I walked behind her. The clicks of her pointy high heels echoed down the empty corridor like an afternoon at the quarry. Her full, stockinged legs reflected clearly in the marble.

The woman was on the chubby side. Young and beautiful and all that went with it, but chubby. Now a young, beautiful woman who is, shall we say, plump, seems a bit off. Walking behind her, I fixated on her body.

Around young, beautiful, fat women, I am generally thrown into confusion. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because an image of their dietary habits naturally congeals in my mind. When I see a goodly sized woman, I have visions of her mopping up that last drop of cream sauce with bread, wolfing down that final sprig of watercress garnish from her plate. And once that happens, it’s like acid corroding metal: scenes of her eating spread through my head and I lose control.

Your plain fat woman is fine. Fat women are like clouds in the sky. They’re just floating there, nothing to do with me. But your young, beautiful, fat woman is another story. I am demanded to assume a posture toward her. I could end up sleeping with her. That is probably where all the confusion comes in.

Which is not to say that I have anything against fat women. Confusion and repulsion are two different things. I’ve slept with fat women before and on the whole the experience wasn’t bad. If your confusion leads you in the right direction, the results can be uncommonly rewarding. But of course, things don’t always take the right course. Sex is an extremely subtle undertaking, unlike going to the department store on Sunday to buy a thermos. Even among young, beautiful, fat women, there are distinctions to be made. Fleshed out one way, they’ll lead you in the right direction; fleshed out another way, they’ll leave you lost, trivial, confused.

In this sense, sleeping with fat women can be a challenge. There must be as many paths of human fat as there are ways of human death.

This was pretty much what I was thinking as I walked down the corridor behind this young, beautiful, fat woman.

A white scarf swirled around the collar of her chic pink suit. From the fullness of her earlobes dangled square gold earrings, glinting with every step she took. Actually, she moved quite lightly for her weight. She may have strapped herself into a girdle or other paraphernalia for maximum visual effect, but that didn’t alter the fact that her wiggle was tight and cute. In fact, it turned me on. She was my kind of chubby.

Now I’m not trying to make excuses, but I don’t get turned on by that many women. If anything, I think of myself as more the non-turn-on type. So when I do get turned on, I don’t trust it; I have to investigate the source.

I scooted up next to her and apologized for being eight or nine minutes late for the appointment. “I had no idea the entrance procedures would take so long,” I said. “And then the elevator was so slow. I was ten minutes early when I got to the building.”

She gave me a brisk I-know sort of nod. A hint of eau de cologne drifted from her neckline. A scent reminiscent of standing in a melon patch on a summer’s morn. It put me in a funny frame of mind. A nostalgic yet impossible pastiche of sentiments, as if two wholly unrelated memories had threaded together in an unknown recess. Feelings like this sometimes come over me. And most often due to specific scents.

“Long corridor, eh?” I tried to break the ice. She glanced at me, but kept walking. I guessed she was twenty or twenty-one. Well-defined features, broad forehead, clear complexion.

It was then that she said, “Proust”.

Or more precisely, she didn’t pronounce the word “Proust”, but simply moved her lips to form what ought to have been “Proust”. I had yet to hear a genuine peep out of her. It was as if she were talking to me from the far side of a thick sheet of glass.


Marcel Proust?” I asked her.

She gave me a look. Then she repeated, “Proust.” I gave up on the effort and fell back in line behind her, trying for the life of me to come up with other lip movements that corresponded to “Proust”. Truest?Brew whist?Blue is it?One after the other, quietly to myself, I pronounced strings of meaningless syllables, but none seemed to match. I could only conclude that she had indeed said, “Proust”. But what I couldn’t figure was, what was the connection between this long corridor and Marcel Proust?

Perhaps she’d cited Marcel Proust as a metaphor for the length of the corridor. Yet, supposing that were the case, wasn’t it a trifle flighty—not to say inconsiderate—as a choice of expression? Now if she’d cited this long corridor as a metaphor for the works of Marcel Proust, that much I could accept. But the reverse was bizarre.

A corridor as long as Marcel Proust?

Whatever, I kept following her down that long corridor. Truly, a long corridor. Turning corners, going up and down short flights of stairs, we must have walked five or six ordinary buildings’ worth. We were walking around and around, like in an Escher print. But walk as we might, the surroundings never seemed to change. Marble floors, muffin-white walls, wooden doors with random room numbers. Stainless-steel door knobs. Not a window in sight. And through it all, the same staccato rhythm of her heels, followed by the melted rubber gumminess of my jogging shoes.

Suddenly she pulled to a halt. I was now so tuned in to the sound of my jogging shoes that I walked right into her backside. It was wonderfully cushioning, like a firm rain cloud. Her neck effused that melon eau de cologne. She was tipping forward from the force of my impact, so I grabbed her shoulders to pull her back upright.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I was somewhere else in my thoughts.”

The chubby young woman blushed. I couldn’t say for sure, but she didn’t seem at all bothered. “Tozum’sta,” she said with a trace of a smile. Then she shrugged her shoulders and added, “Sela.” She didn’t actually say that, but need I repeat, her lips formed the words.

Tozum’sta?” I pronounced to myself. “Sela?”

Sela,” she said with conviction.

Turkish perhaps? Problem was, I’d never heard a word of Turkish. I was so flustered, I decided to forget about holding a conversation with her. Lipreading is very delicate business and not something you can hope to master in two months of adult education classes.

She produced a lozenge-shaped electronic key from her suit pocket and inserted it horizontally, just so, into the slot of the door bearing the number <728>. It unlocked with a click. Smooth.

She opened the door, then turned and bid me, “Saum’te, sela.”

Which, of course, is exactly what I did.



Golden Beasts

WITH THE APPROACH of autumn, a layer of long golden fur grows over their bodies. Golden in the purest sense of the word, with not the least intrusion of another hue. Theirs is a gold that comes into this world as gold and exists in this world as gold. Poised between all heaven and earth, they stand steeped in gold.

When I first came to the Town—it was in the spring—the beasts had short fur of varying colors. Black and sandy gray, white and ruddy brown. Some were a piebald of shadow and bright. These beasts of every imaginable shade drifted quietly over the newly greening countryside as if wafted about on a breeze. Almost meditative in their stillness, their breathing hushed as morning mist, they nibbled at the young grass with not a sound. Then, tiring of that, they folded their legs under them to take a short rest.

Spring passed, summer ended, and just now as the light takes on a diaphanous glow and the first gusts of autumn ripple the waters of the streams, changes become visible in the beasts. Golden hairs emerge, in scant patches at first, chance germinations of some unseasonal herb. Gradually whole fields of feelers knit out through the shorter fur, until at length the whole coat is gleaming gold. It takes not more than a week from start to finish for this ritual to transpire. They commence their metamorphosis almost at the same time; almost at once they are done. Within a week every animal has been completely transformed into a beast of gold. When the morning sun rises and casts newly golden over the world, autumn has descended upon the earth.

Only that long, single horn protruding from the middle of their forehead stays white from base to slender tip. It reminds one less of a horn than a broken bone that has pierced the skin and lodged in place. But for the white of their horns and the blue of their eyes, the beasts are gold. They shake their heads, as if trying on a new suit, thrusting horns into the high autumn sky. They wade into the streams; they stretch their necks to nibble on the autumnal bounty of red berries.

As dusk falls over the Town, I climb the Watchtower on the western Wall to see the Gatekeeper blow the horn for the herding of the beasts. One long note, then three short notes—such is the prescribed call. Whenever I hear the horn, I close my eyes and let the gentle tones spread through me. They are like none other. Navigating the darkling streets like a pale transparent fish, down cobbled arcades, past the enclosures of houses and stone walls lining the walkways along the river, the call goes out. Everything is immersed in the call. It cuts through invisible airborne sediments of time, quietly penetrating the furthest reaches of the Town.

When the horn sounds, the beasts look up, as if in answer to primordial memories. All thousand or more, all at once assume the same stance, lifting their heads in the direction of the call. Some reverently cease chewing the leaves of the broom trees, others pause their hoofs on the cobblestones, still others awaken from their napping in that last patch of sun; each lifts its head into the air.

For that one instant, all is still, save their golden hair which stirs in the evening breeze. What plays through their heads at this moment? At what do they gaze? Faces all at one angle, staring off into space, the beasts freeze in position. Ears trained to the sound, not twitching, until the dying echoes dissolve into twilight. Then suddenly, as if some memory beckons, the beasts rise and walk in the same direction. The spell is broken and the streets resound with countless hooves. I imagine flumes of foam rising from underground, filling the alleyways, climbing over house walls, drowning even the Clocktower.

But on opening my eyes, the flow immediately vanishes. It is only hoofbeats, and the Town is unchanged. The beasts pour through the cobbled streets, swerving in columns hither and yon, like a river. No one animal at the fore, no one animal leading. The beasts lower their eyes and tremble at the shoulders as they follow their unspoken course. Yet among the beasts registers some unshakable inner bond, an indelible intimacy of memories long departed from their eyes.

They make their way down from the north, crossing the Old Bridge to the south bank, where they meet with others of their kind coming in from the east, then proceed along the Canals through the Industrial Sector, turn west and file into a passageway under a foundry, emerging beyond the foot of the Western Hill. There on the slopes they string along the elderly beasts and the young, those unable to stray far from the Gate, waiting in expectation of the procession. Here the group changes directions and goes north across the West Bridge until they arrive at the Gate.

No sooner have the first animals plodded up to the Gate than the Gatekeeper has it opened. Reinforced with thick horizontal iron bands, the doors are rugged and heavy. Perhaps fifteen feet high, crowned with a bristle of spikes. The Gatekeeper swings the right of these massive doors toward him effortlessly, then herds the gathered beasts out through the Gate. The left door never opens. When all the animals have been ushered out, the Gatekeeper closes the right door again and lowers the bolt in place.

This West Gate is, to my knowledge, the sole passage in and out of the Town. The entire community is surrounded by an enormous Wall, almost thirty feet high, which only birds can clear.

Come morning, the Gatekeeper once again opens the gate, sounds the horn, and lets the beasts in. When they are back within the dominion, he closes the door and lowers the bolt.

“Really no need for the bolt,” the Gatekeeper explains to me. “Nobody but me is strong enough to open a gate this heavy. Even if people try teaming up. But rules are rules.”

The Gatekeeper pulls his wool cap down to his eyebrows, and there is not another word out of him. The Gatekeeper is a giant of a man, thick-skinned and brawny, as big as I have ever seen. His shirt would seem ready to rip at a flex of his muscles. There are times he closes his eyes and sinks into a great silence. I cannot tell if he is overcome by melancholy, or if this is simply the switch of some internal mechanism. Once the silence envelops him, I can say nothing until he regains his senses. As he slowly reopens his eyes, he looks at me blankly, the fingers of his hands moving vaguely on his lap as if to divine why I exist there before him.

“Why do you round up the beasts at nightfall and send them outside the walls, only to let them back in again in the morning?” I ask the Gatekeeper as soon as he is conscious.

The Gatekeeper stares at me without a trace of emotion.

“We do it that way,” he says, “and that is how it is. The same as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.”

Apart from opening and closing the Gate, the Gatekeeper seems to spend his time sharpening tools. The Gatehouse is arrayed with all manner of hatchets, adzes, and knives, so that his every free moment is devoted to honing them on his whetstone. The honed blades attain an unnatural gleam, frozen white, aglow from within.

When I look at the rows of blades, the Gatekeeper smiles with satisfaction, attentively following my gaze.

“Careful, one touch can cut,” says the Gatekeeper, pointing a stocky finger at his arsenal. “These are not toys. I made them all, hammered each one out. I was a blacksmith, and this is my handiwork. Good grip, perfect balance. Not easy to match a handle to a blade. Here, hold one. But be careful about the blade.”

I lift the smallest hatchet from the implements on the table and swing it through the air. Truly, at the slightest flick of the wrist—at scarcely my thought of it—the sharpened metal responds like a trained hunting dog. The Gatekeeper has reason to be proud.

“I made the handle, too. Carved it from ten-year-old ash. Some people like other wood, but my choice is ten-year ash. No younger, no older. Ten-year is prime grain. Strong and moist, plenty of flex. The Eastern Woods is my ash stock.”

“What ever do you need so many knives for?”

“Different things,” says the Gatekeeper. “In winter, I use them the most. Wait till winter, I can show you. Winter is mighty long here.”

There is a place for the beasts outside the Gate. An enclosure where they sleep at night, transversed by a stream that gives them drink. Beyond that are apple trees, as far as the eye can see, vast wooded seas that stretch on and on.

“Nobody but you watches the animals,” says the Gatekeeper. “You just got here, though. You get used to living here, and things fall into place. You lose interest in them. Everybody does. Except for one week at the beginning of spring.”

For one week at the beginning of spring, the Gatekeeper tells me, people climb the Watchtower to see the beasts fight. This is the time when instinct compels the males to clash—after they have shed their winter coats, a week before the females bear young. They become so fierce, wounding each other viciously, one would never imagine how peaceful they usually are.

These autumn beasts crouch in a hush, each to each, their long golden fur radiant in the sunset. Unmoving, like statues set in place, they wait with lifted heads until the last rays of the day sink into the apple trees. When finally the sun is gone and the gloom of night draws over them, the beasts lower their heads, laying their one white horn to earth, and close their eyes.

So comes to an end one day in the Town.



Rain Gear, INKlings,

I WAS CONDUCTED into a big, empty room. The walls were a white, the ceiling a white, the carpet a mocha brown—all decorator colors. Yes, even in whites, there are tasteful whites and there are crass whites, shades that might as well not be white.

The opaque windows blocked all view to the world outside, but the light that was filtering in could only be sunlight. Which placed us somewhere above ground. So the elevator had risen. Knowing this put me at ease: it was as I had imagined after all.

The woman motioned for me to sit on the leather sofa in the center of the room. I obliged, and crossed my legs, whereupon she exited by a different door.

The room had very little furniture. Before the sofa was a low coffee table set with a ceramic ashtray, lighter, and cigarette case. I flipped open the cigarette case; it was empty. On the walls, not a painting, nor a calendar, nor a photo. Pretty bleak.

Next to the window was a large desk. I got up from the sofa and walked over to the window, inspecting the desk as I passed by. A solid affair with a thick panel top, ample drawers to either side. On the desk were a lamp, three ballpoint pens, and an appointment book, beside which lay scattered a handful of paperclips. The appointment book was open to today’s date.

In one corner of the room stood three very ordinary steel lockers, entirely out of keeping with the interior scheme. Straight-cut industrial issue. If it had been up to me, I would have gone for something more elegant—say, designer wardrobes. But no one was asking me. I was here to do a job, and gray steel lockers or pale peach jukebox was no business of mine.

The wall to my left held a built-in closet fitted with an accordion door. That was the last item of furnishing of any kind in the room. There was no bookcase, no clock, no phone, no pencil sharpener, no letter tray, no pitcher of water. What the hell kind of room was it supposed to be? I returned to the sofa, recrossed my legs, and yawned.

Ten minutes later, the woman reappeared. And without so much as a glance in my direction, she opened one of the lockers and removed an armload of some shiny black material, which she brought over to the coffee table.

The black material turned out to be a rubberized slicker and boots. And topping the lot was a pair of goggles, like the ones pilots in World War I wore. I hadn’t the foggiest what all this was leading up to.

The woman said something, but her lips moved too fast for me to make it out.

“E … excuse me? I’m only a beginner at lipreading,” I said.

This time she moved her lips slowly and deliberately: “Put these on over your clothes, please.”

Really, I would have preferred not to, but it would have been more bothersome to complain, so I shut up and did as told. I removed my jogging shoes and stepped into the boots, then slipped into the slicker. It weighed a ton and the boots were a couple of sizes too big, but did I have a choice? The woman swung around in front of me and did up the buttons of my slicker, pulling the hood up over my head. As she did so, her forehead brushed the tip of my nose.

“Nice fragrance,” I complimented her on her eau de cologne.

“Thanks,” she mouthed, doing the hood snaps up to right below my nose. Then over the hood came the goggles. And there I was, all slicked up and nowhere to go—or so I thought.

That was when she pulled open the closet door, led me by the hand, and shoved me in. She turned on the light and pulled the door shut behind her. Inside, it was like any clothes closet—any clothes closet without clothes. Only coat hangers and mothballs. It probably wasn’t even a clothes closet. Otherwise, what reason could there be for me getting all mummied up and squeezed into a closet?

The woman jiggled a metal fitting in the corner, and presently a portion of the facing wall began to open inward, lifting up like the door of the trunk of a compact car. Through the opening it was pitch black, but I could feel a chill, damp air blowing. There was also the deep rumble of water.

“There’s a river in there,” she appeared to say. The sound of the water made it seem as if her speaking were simply drowned out. Somehow I found myself understanding what she was saying. Odd.

“Up toward the headwaters, there’s a big waterfall which you pass right under. Beyond that’s Grandfather’s laboratory. You’ll find out everything once you get there.”

“Once I get there? Your grandfather’s waiting for me?”

“That’s right,” she said, handing me a large waterproof flashlight with a strap. Stepping into total blackness wasn’t my idea of fun, but I toughened up my nerve and planted one foot inside the gaping hole. I crouched forward to duck head and shoulders through, coaxing my other foot along. With all the bulky rain gear, this proved no mean effort. I turned and looked back though my goggles at the chubby woman standing inside the closet. She was awfully cute.

“Be careful. You mustn’t stray from the river or go down a side path,” she cautioned, stooping down to peer at me.

“Straight ahead, waterfall?” I shouted.

“Straight ahead, waterfall,” she repeated.

As an experiment, I mouthed the word “sela”. This brought a smile and a “sela” from her, before she slammed the wall panel shut.

All at once I was plunged into darkness, literally, without a single pinprick of light. I couldn’t see a thing. I couldn’t even make out my hand raised up to my face. I stood there dumbfounded, as if I’d been hit by a blunt object, overcome by the chilling realization of my utter helplessness. I was a leftover wrapped in black plastic and shoved into the cooler. For an instant, my body went limp.

I felt for the flashlight switch and sent a welcome beam of light straight out across nowhere. I trained the light on my feet, then slowly took my bearings. I was standing on a three-meter-square concrete platform jutting out over bottomless nothingness. No railing, no enclosure. Wish she’d told me about this, I huffed, just a tad upset.

An aluminum ladder was propped against the side of the platform, offering a way down. I strapped the flashlight diagonally across my chest, and began my descent, one slippery rung at a time. The lower I got, the louder and more distinct the sound of water became. What was going on here? A closet in an office building with a river chasm at the bottom? And smack in the middle of Tokyo!

The more I thought about it, the more disturbed I got. First that eerie elevator, then that woman who spoke without ever saying anything, now this leisurely jaunt. Maybe I should have turned down the job and gone home. But no, here I was, descending into the abyss. And for what? Professional pride? Or was it the chubby woman in the pink suit? Okay, I confess: she’d gotten to me, and now I had to go through with this nonsense.

Twenty rungs down the ladder I stopped to catch my breath, then continued another eighteen rungs to the ground. At the bottom, I cautiously shined my light over the level stone slab beneath my feet and discovered the river ahead. The surface of the water rippled in the flashlight beam. The current was swift, but I could get no sense of the depth or even the color of the water. All I could tell was that it flowed from left to right.

Pouring light into the ground at my feet, I slowly made my way upstream. Now and again I could swear something was moving nearby, but I saw nothing. Only the vertical hewn-rock walls to either side of the river. I was probably anxious from the darkness.

After five or six minutes of walking, the ceiling dropped low—or so it seemed from the echo. I pointed my flashlight beam up but could not discern anything above me. Next, just as the woman had warned, I saw what seemed to be tunnels branching off to either side. They weren’t so much side paths as fissures in the rock face, from which trickled veins of water that fed into the river. I walked over and shined my flashlight into one of the cracks. A black hole that got bigger, much bigger, further in. Very inviting.

Gripping the flashlight tightly in my right hand, I hurried upstream like a fish mid-evolution. The stone slab was wet, so I had to step carefully. If I slipped now or broke my flashlight, that’d be it.

All my attention was on my feet. When I happened to glance up, I saw a light closing in, a mere seven or eight meters away. I immediately switched off the flashlight. I reached into the slicker for my knife and got the blade open, the darkness and the roar of the water making a perfect cover.

The instant I switched off my flashlight, the yellowish beacon riveted to a pinpoint stop. It then swung around in an arc to describe two large circles in the air. This seemed to be a signal: “Everything all right—not to worry.” Nonetheless, I stood poised on guard and waited for them to move. Presently, the light began to come toward me, waving through empty space like a giant glowbug coupled to a higher brain. I stared at it, right hand clutching the knife, left hand on the switched-off flashlight.

The light stopped its advance scarcely three meters from me. It motioned upward and downward. It was weak. I eventually realized it was trying to illuminate a face. The face of a man wearing the same crazy goggles and slicker as I had on. In his hand was the light, a small lantern like the kind they sell in camping supply shops. He was yelling to me over the noise of the water, but I couldn’t hear him; and because it was too dark, I couldn’t I read his lips.

“… ing except that … time. Or you’d … in that regard, since …,” the man appeared to be saying. Indecipherable. But he seemed to pose no threat, so I turned my flashlight back on and shined it on my face, touching a finger to my ear to signal that I could barely hear him.

The man nodded several times, then he set down his lantern and fumbled with both hands in his pockets. Suddenly, the roar subsided from all around me, like a tide receding. I thought I was passing out. Expecting unconsciousness— though why I should be passing out, I had no idea—I braced myself for a fall.

Seconds passed. I was still standing. In fact, I felt just fine. The noise of the water, however, had faded.

“I came t’meet you,” the man said. Perfectly clear.

I shook my head, tucked the flashlight under my arm, folding the knife and pocketing it. Going to be one of those days, I could just tell.

“What happened to the sound?” I asked the man.

“Oh yes, the sound. It was loud, wasn’t it? I turned it down. Sorry about that. It’s all right now,” said the man, nodding repeatedly. The roar of the river was now the babble of a brook. “Well then, shall we?” he said with an abrupt about-face, then began walking back upstream with sure-footed ease. I followed, shining my flashlight in his steps.

“You turned the sound down? Then it’s artificial, I take it?”

“Not at all,” the man said. “That’s natural sound, that is.”

“But how do you turn down natural sound?” I asked.

“Strictly speaking, I don’t turn it down,” the man replied. “I take it out.”

Well, I guess, if he said so. I kept walking, saying nothing. Everything was very peaceful now, thanks to his softening the sound of the water. I could even hear the squish-squish of my rubber boots. From overhead there came a weird grinding as if someone were rubbing pebbles together. Twice, three times, then it stopped.

“I found signs that those INKlings were sneakin’ in here. I got worried, so I came t’fetch you. By rights INKlings shouldn’t ever make it this far in, but sometimes these things happen. A real problem,” the man said.

INKlings?” I said.

“Even someone like you, bet y’wouldn’t fancy runnin’ into an INKling down here, eh?” said the man, bursting into a loud guffaw.

“I suppose not,” I said. INKling or whatling, I wasn’t up for a rendezvous in a dark place like this.

“That’s why I came t’get you,” the man repeated. “Those INKlings are bad news.”

“Much obliged,” I said.

We walked on until we came within hearing of what sounded like a faucet running full blast. The waterfall. With only a quick shine of my flashlight, I could see it wasn’t your garden variety. If the sound hadn’t been turned down, it would have made a mean rumble. I moved forward, my goggles wet with spray.

“Here’s where we go under, right?” I asked.

“That’s right, son,” said the man. And without further explanation, he headed straight into the waterfall and disappeared. I had little choice but to head straight into the waterfall, too.

Fortunately, our route took us through what proved to be a “dry” part of the waterfall, but this was becoming absurd. Even all suited up in this rain gear, I was getting drenched under sheets of water. And to think the old man had to do this every time he entered or left the laboratory. No doubt this was for information-security purposes, but there had to be a more graceful way.

Inside the waterfall, I stumbled and struck my kneecap on a rock. With the sound turned down, I had gotten confused by the sheer discrepancy between the non-sounds and the reality that would have produced them had they been audible. Which is to say, a waterfall ought to have a waterfall’s worth of sound.

On the far side of the falls was a cave barely big enough for one man. Dead center was an iron door. The man pulled what looked like a miniature calculator out of his pocket, inserted it into a slot, and after he maneuvered it a bit, the door opened silently inward.

“Well, here we are. After you,” said the man. He stepped in after me and locked the door. “Rough goin’, eh?”

“No, uh … that wasn’t …”

The man laughed, lantern hanging by a cord around his neck, goggles and hood still in place. A jolly ho-ho-ho sort of laugh.

The room we’d entered was like a swimming pool locker room, the shelves stacked with a half dozen sets of the same gear we had on. I took off my goggles and climbed out of the slicker, draping it over a hanger, then placed my boots on the shelf. The flashlight I hung on a hook.

“Sorry t’cause you so much trouble,” the man apologized, “but we can’t be slack on security. Got t’take the necessary precautions. There’s types out there lyin’ in wait for us.”

INKlings?” I prompted.

“Yessir. And those INKlings, in case you were wonderin’, aren’t the only ones,” said the man, nodding to himself.

He then conducted me to a reception room beyond the lockers. Out of his slicker, my guide proved to be a kindly old man. Short and stout; not fat so much as sturdily built. He had good color to his complexion and when he put on his rimless spectacles, he was the very image of a major pre-War political figure.

He motioned for me to sit on the leather sofa, while he himself took a seat behind the desk. This room was of exactly the same mold as the other room. The carpet, the walls, the lighting, everything was the same. On the coffee table in front of the sofa was an identical smoking set, on the desk an identical appointment book and an identical scattering of paperclips. Had I been led around in a circle back to the same room? Maybe in fact I had; maybe in fact I hadn’t. Hard to memorize the precise position of each scattered paperclip.

The old man looked me over. Then he picked up a paperclip and unbent it to scrape at a fingernail cuticle. His left index finger cuticle. When he’d finished with the cuticle, he discarded the straightened paperclip into the ashtray. If I ever get reincarnated, it occurred to me, let me make certain I don’t come back as a paperclip.

“Accordin’ t’my information, those INKlings are like this with the Semiotecs,” said the old man. “Not that they’re in cahoots, mind you. INKlings’re too wary, and your Semiotec’s got his own agenda planned out way ahead. So cooperation’s got t’be limited to the very few. Still, it doesn’t bode well. The fact that we’ve got INKlings pokin’ around right here, where there oughn’t t’be INKlings ‘tall, just shows how bad things are. If it keeps on like this, this place’s goin’ t’be swarmin’ with INKlings day and night. And that’ll make real problems for me.”

“Quite,” I concurred, “quite.” I hadn’t the vaguest idea what sort of operants these INKlings were, but if for any reason they’d joined forces with the Semiotecs, then the outlook wasn’t too bright for me either. Which was to say that the contest between our side and the Semiotechnicians was already in a delicate balance, and the slightest tampering could overturn the whole thing. For starters, I knew nothing about these INKINK