Fiction

Platanus

Illustration by Anna McIntyreAnna McIntyre

Mendoza was the perfect town for me and my ageing husband.

I don’t really remember how it ended up on our schedule. We always sit and watch TV together for a while before we go to bed, sipping wine, but for the past six months we had spent the greater part of that time looking through guide books about Argentina. We both agreed that Mendoza seemed like it would be nice, so I guess at some point it just came to seem obvious that we would go.

There was a time, back when my husband was married to his former wife, now deceased, when his company sent him to work in Buenos Aires. Apparently he ran a factory there. Listening to him talk about that period in his life, I always pictured myself sitting next to him, watching some extravagant tango show put on just for tourists, as if we were on our honeymoon. I wanted to do that. But when I considered it—well, I was thirty-five and he was sixty, and we were both so lazy that we found it a real bother just leaving the house, so there wasn’t much chance of it happening.

Still, we spent the whole winter dreaming about the trip, telling ourselves that when spring came we would simply have to get up and go.

We had started in Buenos Aires but, worn out by the lively hustle and bustle, we decided to stay a bit longer in that peaceful town near the mountains, and to take a leisurely walk every day while we were there.

We were staying in an old hotel at the edge of a big park. The outside of the hotel was gorgeous, but our room was so plain it was like staying in a dormitory. The window was kind of rickety and didn’t close all the way, so it got chilly at night. Outside the window you saw the thin branches of these trees, a whole bunch of them, shaking their leaves as if they were cold. And if you leaned out over the sill, way off in the distance you could see a mountain capped with snow. The air was startlingly cool, and every time I stuck my head out, my cheeks would flush.

Yes—a unique, very cold wind blew through that town.

When we went out walking at dusk, the chilly wind and the beautiful air, the lethargy of the people going this way and that, everything seemed so faint and fleeting that you could almost feel it in your bones. It occurred to me that this atmosphere might be what people call heaven. I’d heard that, a long time ago, a colossal earthquake had left the town buried, and somehow, when I looked around, that seemed to make sense. Everything looked so insubstantial, as if it had all been built from shadows of things in the real town, which had vanished.

Neither of us ever actually put the feeling into words, but we both liked the town a lot. More than anything, we enjoyed the loneliness. It felt so good it made you shiver. Our life in Tokyo was so totally lacking in energy that we had always felt overwhelmed by the surrounding city. Of course, we were still human, and like all humans we went through our daily routines, and every so often we argued or went out and met up with friends or laughed or got kind of wild—yet right from the start there was something strangely quiet about our life together. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed the sort of lonely feeling where it seems like your body is curling into itself, and I’ve always loved the stillness of early evening, and the way the sky in autumn seems so high, and walking the streets at night, all alone. And my husband carries the scent of that loneliness. That was one of the reasons I married him.

In Mendoza we rose early every morning, bundled ourselves in several layers of clothes, and then went out to take a leisurely stroll through the park. We would walk slowly to a certain lively street and get a cup of hot chocolate and some bread, always at the same café. My husband is skinny but he eats a whole lot, so it was fun just to sit and watch him. After that we would just go on sitting there, letting our minds wander, and when the afternoon rolled around we would make our way back through town to the hotel and take a nap. That was how we passed our days, for the most part.

Occasionally we would get up late in the morning and leave the hotel, go to a museum or visit a plaza or a winery or someplace like that. And that would be enough to fill another leisurely day.

Either way, when it got to be evening and we started feeling tired we’d get a drink at some bar and look through our guidebook, trying to decide where to go for dinner, and maybe ask the bartender for advice. In Mendoza, this style of life didn’t seem the slightest bit extravagant; it felt perfectly natural.

Oddly enough, that idea I’d had of a Buenos Aires honeymoon… well, however you looked at it, this trip could no longer be that, and yet somehow our days in Mendoza felt a lot more like a honeymoon than the days we had spent going to see tango shows and looking at all the different-coloured buildings in La Boca, which is the sort of thing people usually do on their honeymoons. We felt an odd kind of satisfaction, a feeling we wouldn’t have had if we had been living a similar life in Tokyo. The town and the climate and the old buildings all worked together to create an atmosphere that lent our serene day-to-day existence its special colour. The coldness, the mountain air, the great height of the sky. And then there was the way the big leaves of the trees lining the streets just kept dropping from their branches, dancing down in the wind… how the sight of it sank straight down into your heart. It felt as if we had been living this way, here in this town, for ages, and day by day our life in Tokyo just kept slipping farther away.

“You know, this place is a lot like Yamanashi,” my husband said one morning at the café, very quietly. “Sure brings back a lot of memories.”

My husband’s parents had lived in Yamanashi. There was no one we knew left in the prefecture now, so we never went there.

“Something about the air and the colour of the sky here is really similar. It’s funny, there’s nothing special about this town at all, but I just never seem to get tired of it.”

I guess not, I thought, and once again found myself facing the unfamiliar scenery that stretched away into the distance. Back before my parents even began to consider having me, my husband had a place in the midst of scenery like this, lived and worked in a culture unknown to me.

Of course, my parents were opposed to our marriage, and my husband’s only relative, his older sister, had been against it too. I think that’s natural.

I had gone out with younger people a few times, but I couldn’t stand all the energy they had. No matter how much fun I was having, I’d always end up letting my attention slide over to the darkness on the windowpane, the silhouettes of birds dissolving into the sky on their way to someplace distant, the wings of a moth fanning open and then closing again, lightly resisting the wind—things like that. Even people who began by wrapping this penchant of mine in a blanket of warmth would eventually come out and say that being with me made them feel lonely, that being around me wasn’t any fun, that kind of thing, and even if they never came out and said it, they would have the kind of expression on their faces that showed they were thinking it when they left.

As for my husband, there was no denying that he was a dirty old man with a taste for younger women, but even so you could sense something quiet in him, maybe because of his age. Though he didn’t have much class, and there was a side to him that was energetic and short-tempered, the impression he left you with was always very quiet, very still. And his clothes always exuded this nice smell that called up all kinds of memories. It was the same smell I’d encountered in the wardrobe at my favourite grandfather’s house. When I was little, I used to go over to his house to play, and I’d climb into that wardrobe and huddle there surrounded by that smell, giving myself a rest. And in the dark of the wardrobe, though I was still just a child, I would think about how I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the smell anymore after my grandfather died, and since I knew he didn’t have much longer, I’d make up my mind to inhale as much of it as I could while I still had the chance. When I thought about that kind of thing, I’d always start to feel terribly alone, and I’d start to wonder if there was anything at all in the world that went on forever. And then I discovered memory. I decided that the dried-out scent had penetrated so deeply into my cells that it must be eternal. Thinking this thought in the darkness of that wardrobe, I began to feel a little stronger. I wasn’t worried about what happened to people after they died. The wonderful aroma that I’d breathed in so vigorously would embrace me for as long as I lived. Once I was able to think that way, the darker the darkness became—the more it frightened me to know that eventually a day would come when I’d no longer be able to emerge from the wardrobe and find my grandfather’s beaming face waiting for me—the more assured I became of my own existence.

It never even occurred to me then that I might come across this same smell again, many years after my grandfather actually died.

Why exactly my husband’s sister decided to stop being angry about our marriage after having been so firmly against it is another interesting matter. One reason was that I went to a lawyer and had a document prepared, which I then signed, stating that when my husband died I would only ask to be given the apartment we were then living in and the smallest sum that would cover my living expenses, and that if we had children I would take however much I needed to raise them, but that I had no intention of inheriting everything. My parents were still in perfect health and I was their only child, so I’d never had to worry about money. And so the idea of getting rich off of my husband had never even crossed my mind, and at any rate I had never heard anything about his having secretly amassed any particularly large sums of money. Though if you think things through, it wouldn’t really have been surprising if he had been fairly rich, considering that he had worked very diligently right up until retirement age, and that his wife had died, and that they hadn’t had any children. But whatever the case, my husband’s sister had never seemed particularly fussy where money was concerned, and so for a long time I went around thinking how hard it can be to tell what people are really like.

One evening in fall, she and I set out for the Autumn Festival. My husband had a cold and couldn’t come, so it was just the two of us. There was no wind blowing at all, and we began to hear the piping of the flutes and the rhythm of the drums while we were still quite a distance away. Having nothing to talk about, we walked on in silence. Brilliant yellow gingko leaves rustled beneath our feet as we walked. We passed the tall wooden floats and the portable shrine as their bearers hefted them off in the other direction, and kept walking, looking around at all the families who seemed to be having so much fun, and at the lively groups that had gathered before the brightly lit stalls that lined the walkway on both sides, all the way down to the main shrine, where we eventually arrived. Unlike the Summer Festival, which is very bright and cheery, the Autumn Festival had a slightly subdued sort of atmosphere that I really enjoyed a lot.

We bought some cotton candy and some fried noodles, and as we were eating them we gradually began to relax. My husband’s sister is shaped like a beach ball, perfectly spherical, and she eats everything in a way that makes it look absolutely delicious, like she’s really savouring the flavour—she’s even better at this than my husband—so it felt good to watch her. And it was fun just looking at all the food in the stalls, glowing in the light of the bare bulbs. The things you saw here were different from everyday foods—they seemed almost like toys that had been made specially for the festival.

“I should probably buy something for the invalid, too. I’m sure he’s getting hungry,” I said, remembering my sick husband.

I decided to get him a box of octopus fritters.

“You know, they look so good,” I said, “maybe I should get a few for us to have as a snack? ” I went on to explain that the peculiar uncooked gooiness of the takoyaki you got at these stalls was what made them so good. You’ve got to eat them while they’re still piping hot, scalding your mouth, hunting for bits of octopus that you can hardly tell are there—that’s when they’re best, I said.

The man working the stall deftly spun the fritters around in their iron molds, turning them like magic into balls, then sprinkled them with green flakes of dried seaweed and doused them with their special brown sauce.

My idea was to bring a box of fifteen back to my husband, and split a box of ten with his sister. I made my way to the side of the cobblestone walkway to get away from the tide of people and suggested that we eat.

“You know,” said my sister-in-law then, “ten is quite enough for him. Why don’t you and I sit down over there and eat the box of fifteen!”

I was going to reply that I would be fine with just a few, but something in the way she had spoken, something about the earnest light that glittered in her eyes struck a chord of some sort—called up the heat of a memory. I have a cousin who’s much, much younger than I am. I used to take her to festivals when she was little, and… yes, I have a feeling she used to say the same sort of thing.

“Yes, let’s just eat them ourselves—let’s do that,” I said.

Illuminated by the light of the stalls’ bare light bulbs, my sister-in-law’s brightly smiling face looked like a child’s. The number of fritters we ate didn’t matter as far as food went; it was a sign of affection, a number that would soothe flames of jealousy. It was a scale used to measure love.

Something occurred to me as I ate my fritters, putting away enough to leave me stuffed: You know, in a certain way I’m probably like their mother. And as soon as this thought entered my head, it began to seem as if I had seen the face of this old lady in front of me, now deeply lined with wrinkles, as it had been when she was a child. Suddenly the purple of her worn clothes, the rounded-out tips of her shoes, her big cloth bag—it all began to seem kind of cute. My sister-in-law had lost her husband a few years earlier, and then their only child, a daughter, had married and gone off to the Kansai region. Aside from a woman who came during the day to help out around the house, she lived all alone. Suddenly I realized that the reason she had been so opposed to the wedding was completely, absolutely, utterly the same as the reason she had wanted to eat the fifteen fritters. It was really nothing more substantial than that, I could see this now. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to have to give up the money, it was that she had no other family left—no doubt the idea of losing the person who thought about her the most really frightened her. In a sense I was their child, in a sense I was their parent. That’s how it seemed to me then. And I understood that from now on, in the course of our day-to-day lives, there was something we would all share, something my husband and his sister had left behind them at some point in their lives. And so—dipping into the realm of the specific—I bought my husband some dessert, a kind of bread with a sweet filling that’s baked in a circular mold, and we went home. I took a few sweets and wrapped them up separately for my sister-in-law to take back with her. It wasn’t her appetite that was important, I just wanted her to feel that I was thinking of her. If that sort of feeling goes out of people’s lives, they just become more and more avaricious.

From that day on, my husband’s sister no longer seemed to be so angry that we had gotten married, and she started phoning us all the time. I always feel really glad that I didn’t misread that moment. It was one of those rare times when people offer you a glimpse of the darkness that lies way down in the recesses of their hearts. It’s easy to look away, but if you go even deeper, you find something wonderfully adorable, like a baby. In those deepest reaches, the lonesome light that I take as my nourishment glitters.

One morning when we were sitting as we always did at one of the tables along the sidewalk at our café in Mendoza, a dog came over to us. He curled up on the hem of my coat and settled there, not moving. He was a mutt with a strange face. I tried to give him some bread but he wouldn’t eat it. Instead he rubbed his head up against me like a cat, asking me to pet him.

“You think we could take him back with us and keep him? ” said my husband, with a perfectly serious expression on his face.

That’s the kind of thing that makes him so adorable.

“He’d have to be quarantined for months—the poor thing would have a terrible time,” I said. “Besides, this town is his home. Taking him with us would probably make him a lot less happy than he is now.”

I went on stroking the dog’s head. He had a small head. His body was thin and muscular, and he had a sort of aura about him that told you he had been traveling a lot. I kept stroking him, pouring in all the love I could summon, as if he had been our dog for his entire life.

“That’s true. But if we had a little fellow like this, after I died you wouldn’t have to be alone, would you? ” said my husband.

“Don’t even talk like that! You think too far ahead. Besides, you can never tell—the dog or I might die first.”

“That’s true. But you know, it’s funny. It’s really only since I married you that I started thinking about that sort of thing.”

“All right, that’s enough about the future,” I said, and smiled.

The dog fell asleep. His weight was pulling on my coat, and he was rather heavy, but I stayed just as I was. The kerosene heater was lit, its mesh bright red, and my face felt hot. On the street the passersby were dressed in various kinds of clothes, as was appropriate in this rather wishy-washy season. People in clothes that were just right for early spring, people in winter clothes, other people wearing sweaters but no jackets… and everyone was walking along at a very leisurely pace, as if they had nowhere in particular to go. My husband ordered a ham sandwich specially for the dog. He took a bite himself, then set it down by the dog’s nose. The dog sat up a little and started wagging his tail as he picked out the ham and ate it. After that he offered me his head again, asking me to stroke it, and then, after a bit, he jumped up and trotted away.

“Looks like he just came to fill up on love,” I said.

“It does, doesn’t it? ” my husband said, nodding sadly.

“If it makes you that sad, maybe we should have a baby? ” I said.

“I’ve spent my whole life thinking about myself, you know,” he answered. “I don’t really like the idea of having you stolen from me by a baby.”

He almost seemed to be talking to himself.

It clouded up in the afternoon, and the air got even chillier. We didn’t have anything in particular to do, so we went to this place called “The Hill of Glory.” Since it was so cold, there were a lot of couples in the parking lot who didn’t even get out of their cars. Everyone was huddled close together, sitting very still, like birds in winter. All these people had come to spend their day off here, in this lovely, boring town. Up at the top of the hill stood a bronze statue so enormous it was startling. My husband looked at the guidebook, then explained that the statue represented the courage General San Martìn had shown when he set out to liberate Chile with the five thousand soldiers of the Army of the Andes. Many other statues had been erected around the general. These soldiers and horses were dashing forward, gazing up into the sky. They all blended together into a single form, everything wildly helter-skelter, full of power and movement, and the sculptures were so skillfully executed that it felt strange to see the figures standing still. Looking at the hair of the people and the manes of the horses in that strong wind, you almost got the impression that they really were whipping around in the gusts.

And this made you feel something very different from courage—a sense of how pointless it was for these statues to remain so long here in this same place, in this same land. Continuing to gaze out over a town from which something had gone, at a world that was already lost. When I looked down over the rows of buildings in the distant town, the golden light of dusk was leaking ever so faintly through the cloudy sky, and everything was steeped in sepia. Here and there the mountains still had a little snow left on them, and in the sun that snow was shining.

My husband and I sat on the stairs, looking at it all.

“It’s cold, isn’t it? ” he said.

“It really is. I’m freezing.”

“Why don’t we go back to town and get that drink… what’s it called? The hot milk where you drop in that hard chocolate stuff and stir it in? ”

“Oh, yeah. A Submarino.”

“We’ve had a lot of those on this trip.”

“It’s turned into a sort of habit.”

“Can’t get them in Japan, after all.”

When exactly was it, I wonder… perhaps we were still dating? One Valentine’s Day, it had occurred to us all of a sudden that we ought to have some chocolates. I hunted up a cute little box that I had in my room, but when I opened it, we discovered that it was empty. We started to have a real craving for chocolate then, so we walked to a nearby convenience store. It was a cold night, the wind was whirling, and the stars were twinkling so dazzlingly it almost gave you a headache. The air was so clear you felt like it might shatter. None of the chocolates arranged on the shelves really looked very good, and so I said, Rats, they don’t have what I want, and he said, I know! Why don’t we buy some milk and cocoa powder and make some really good hot chocolate! So the two of us went back to my toasty apartment, cautiously brought the milk to a boil, stirred in some cocoa and a pinch of cinnamon and cardamom, and mixed up some extremely delicious hot chocolate. We were careful not to let the milk boil over; we didn’t make it too sweet; we warmed our mugs before pouring in the chocolate… and the whole time we concentrated so intently on what we were doing that it was like we were carrying out some sort of ceremony, and that made the hot chocolate taste even better. Thinking back on that night now, it seems as if we spent an extraordinarily long time drinking it. But why is it that whenever these focused, pleasurable memories are reawakened within me, they always make me feel slightly lonely?

“Do you think we can see our hotel from this hill? ” I asked.

“I doubt it. Not with all the trees.”

“I wonder what those trees on the street by the hotel are called.”

“Those ones with the big leaves? They’re—you know. Platanus.”

“Oh yeah, they come up in some song, right? ”

“That’s right. I know the one you mean. Walking down this wintry path, where the withered leaves of the platanus dance . . .

I’m unable to restrain myself, so I turn and look back… . Is that even right? Now my travels begin…? No, no, I remember, it’s—I turn and look back, and find nothing but the blowing wind… You know, I’ve had that song in my head ever since we arrived in this town.”

“I really love it that we know the same songs, despite the big age gap between us.” My husband laughed, seeming pleased. Beyond his profile, I saw trees swaying wildly in the wind, distant mountains, and the overcast sky.

“It was in one of my music books in school,” I said.

In those days, as I stood singing at the top of my voice in that classroom—the music room, awash in afternoon sun—it never occurred to me to imagine that one day I would find myself in the midst of scenery like that described in the song, in some distant country.

Already the street that passed in front of our hotel was the view in town that loomed largest in my memory. That scene with the wind blowing, dried-out leaves as large as the palm of your hand, dancing like mad across the surface of that broad, straight street—all this set against the blue of the sky, or colouring the pitch-black darkness of the deep nights… the scene left my head in a state of complete confusion. Seeing all this always made it impossible for me to think. All I could do was watch the leaves dance here and there, watch as in an instant they buried the world before my eyes.

“I like watching those big leaves,” I said.

“Me too. Why don’t we go back to town and take another walk down that street. Then we can think about what to do tonight.”

“All right, let’s do that.”

We stood up together. I took his arm and started walking.

When I turned to look back, the general was still up there in his spot, courageously astride his horse, gazing off into the distance. It seemed to me that it would be nice if time just continued forever like this. But sooner or later, without much of a wait for either of us, time would hand our two lives back over to nothingness. And yet, even then, here in this town, the hair of all those bronze statues would be whipping in the wind, and those same gusts would be scattering the leaves of the platanus trees along that street by our hotel.

I felt then that I might not be afraid to die.

Translated by Michael Emmerich.