Part 1 Part 2
It happened the last week of June. That day it was clear all morning, with no sign of anything that might obstruct the sun. The rain started in the evening, so I ended up soaked on my walk home from school. Naturally, I had left the house without an umbrella, but I didn't even think of stopping on the way home to buy one. I wasn't carrying anything that couldn't get wet.
There was no one around the lake that I always passed by. Wooden benches were installed at regular intervals, turned lonesomely toward the water. The opposite bank of the lake, blurred with rain, was foggy, and a haze hung between the water and the woods. There was no sign of life; the quiet sound of rain alone reigned over the lake and woods. My eyes were arrested by the unearthly scene, and I stood for a long while staring at the water. It was so cold the early summer seemed like a lie.
The quiet lake that spread before my eyes had stolen Murai's friend away. Its waters reflected an ash-colored sky. I was walking toward the lake as if being sucked in, but I didn't realize this until I was stopped by a thin fence.
The thought that Murai's friend might still be near this lake remained with me. They said his body had been removed. But he could still be there, like Yukimura, rising, sinking into the lake again and again. I thought it would be worth it to search the area more thoroughly. Even if he wasn't visible to human eyes, maybe the kitten would be able to find him. Murai needed to speak with his dead friend. That's what I thought. I had to come here with the kitten sometime.
I left the lake and began to walk home. When I got home, there might be a towel ready for me in the entryway. She could know that I'd be coming home soaked, and wait for me with dry clothes. Maybe she'd put out hot coffee to warm me up.
I felt an incomprehensible pain. I wondered how long this lifestyle could last. She would leave at some point. To that place where everyone goes eventually. Why didn't she leave now? Did she decide not to the moment she lost her life? Maybe she worried about the kitten she would leave behind.
The police said that the person who stabbed Yukimura was a robber. They still hadn't found the culprit. Once in a while police officers would come to the house, talk, and leave. While it was obvious she was loved by everyone, she didn't appear to have any close friends her age in the neighborhood. It couldn't be said that the crime was committed by someone she knew, just that she was attacked, unfortunately, by a robber who had come randomly to the house. It was a sad accident, equal to being struck by lightning and killed, or dying in an airplane crash.
In this world, there are many things that make you want to lose hope. Both Murai and I don't have the power to oppose that; all we can do is fall onto our knees and pray to God. We must wait for the sadness to pass over us with closed eyes and stopped ears, curled into ourselves.
What could I do for Yukimura?
I arrived home in the middle of thinking, and picked up the towel placed in the entryway. I changed into dry clothes, and as I drank from a cup of steaming coffee I realized that I had a headache. I was sick with a cold.
I was fated to pass two days lying in my futon. I was groggy and suffering from a heavy pain, like an iron ball, in the middle of my head. Every muscle in my body was like soggy cotton, and over those two days I transformed into the dullest creature the world had ever seen.
The kitten often jumped up on my chest as I slept. Each time I felt the kitten's four small feet above me on the futon, and heard it meow, the husk over my heart slowly softened. The kitten had already gotten too big to be called a kitten anymore.
Yukimura nursed me to health. When I woke up, a wet rag was laid over my forehead. Next to my pillow was a washbasin full of water, and a water pitcher and headache medicine had been put out.
I had no will to stand. All I did was close my eyes and sleep. As I dozed I felt the presence of Yukimura, walking: the faint sound of her coming upstairs, bringing the rice porridge she'd made. And with that, the sound of a bell - the one tied around the kitten's neck. She sat close beside me, and I knew she was staring at my sleeping face. I felt her kind gaze.
In the midst of my 102°F fever, I dreamt.
Yukimura and I, and the kitten, were walking around the lake. The sky was huge and deep blue, and the trees of the forest stood overwhelmingly taller than us. The three of us, struck by the sun, left three dark, distinct shadows on the brick pathway. The lake was clear as a mirror, and on the other side of the water's surface I saw a perfect reproduction of our world. My body was so light I thought I could fly into the air with each step I took.
Yukimura took pictures of things with the camera that hung from her neck, too big for her body. I didn't know her face, or even how tall she was. But in my dream she had a face that I had known for a long time, and I understood that it was her. She walked quickly, urging me on. I felt her pure curiosity and youthful spirit of adventure as clearly as if she said, "I want to see more things! I want to capture them on film!"
A little further behind us, the kitten was trying its best to keep up with tiny steps. Its fur waved in the breeze that blew by.
The sun was reflected on the water's surface, and glittered like scattered jewels.
When I opened my eyes I was in my own pitch-dark room, and outside I could hear the hacking of a car's exhaust pipe. I looked at my watch and it was the middle of the night, and the towel that had cooled my head had fallen off to the side.
Then I cried, for the overwhelming happiness of the dream I'd had. I wasn't sad because I wished Yukimura was alive.
It was a dream that I should never have had. It was a world my fingertips would never brush, no matter how much I stretched out my hand and hoped. That world was overflowing with light, but it would never accept me. I sat up in my futon, cradling my head, and sobbed. My tears fell one after the other, and disappeared into the futon. I had changed at some point during my life with Yukimura and the kitten. I had mistakenly believed that I might be able to live in a happy world, like normal people. That was why I'd dreamed of that world. When I opened my eyes I was made to realize the truth, and it tore unbearably at my heart. And I had tried so hard to make that world my enemy, hate it, to protect myself so this wouldn't happen.
At some point the door to my room had opened, and the kitten was now beside me, staring up at me. Yukimura was probably next to me too, gazing with deep interest at this weak, sick college student. Why so low? I felt as if she were tilting her head.
"It's no use. I can't live like this. I tried, but it never works out right..."
Yukimura looked worried, and sat beside me. I couldn't see it, but I felt it.
"When I was a kid... I haven't changed much since then, but I was a painfully shy kid. Even when we were gathered with relatives, I wouldn't speak with anyone. I was bad at speaking even then. I had a younger brother, but he wasn't like that, he enjoyed speaking with relatives, with anyone. Everyone loved him, and doted on him. I was jealous. I wanted to be like that too..."
But it was no use. It was impossible. No matter how much I tried, I couldn't act like my brother did. I was too awkward to be loved by everyone like I wanted to.
"I had a pretty aunt, my father's little sister, and I loved her. My aunt took to my little brother, and they often played together, laughed and talked a lot. I wanted to be included but I couldn't do it. No, once I was able to join them. My heart was pounding. My aunt talked to me, but I couldn't give her the childlike, innocent answer that adults want to hear. And she looked disappointed in me."
A heavy anguish settled in the bottom of my heart, and I thought I would choke. Yukimura was staring hard at my face.
"I meant to try as hard as I could. But it's no use. I won't be accepted. It's too painful to live in this world for people like me, who can't do anything competently. I would rather be blind. When I'm shown the bright world, it's like my own dim shape is thrown into relief, and my heart feels like it's being crushed. When that happens I want to cut out my own eyes."
I felt a warmth on my cheek. I knew it was the warmth from the palm of the hand of that person sitting beside me. But I tried to forget it.
One day, the kitten went missing. At dinner time it still hadn't appeared, and Yukimura's clothes, the clothes it always used as a bed, were thrown about, empty. I folded and stacked them, and put them away in the corner. It was too late for it to be still out on a walk. Yukimura couldn't leave the house or garden, so she was unable to search outside. I could see her anxiety and agitation for the lost kitten in the way she scattered things everywhere.
Maybe it was lost. I hoped that was all it was. I got tired of worrying and decided to walk around the neighborhood, searching. I imagined the worst outcomes, and in my head I suddenly came across the kitten, now grown cold, lain out over the ground. Animals like dogs and cats are often flattened by cars.
Terror welled in my chest. I realized again that a surprisingly large part of my heart was occupied by the kitten. Each time I turned a corner and saw only empty ground, my heart was calmed. I don't know how many times I did this before the sound of a car horn rang out behind me. I turned and Murai's Mini Cooper was there. I ran to the driver's seat window.
"I've been taking care of the cat that belonged to the old owner of my house, but it hasn't come home, and I'm out searching for it. It's a white cat. Murai, have you seen it anywhere?"
"I didn't know you had a pet. I saw a stray cat earlier but it was brown. I haven't seen a white kitten yet," Murai answered.
He must have seen how disappointed I was, because he decided to help the search for the kitten. We left his Mini Cooper at my house for the moment, and searched the neighborhood on foot. Luckily, there was space to park his car. We searched until night with a flashlight, looking for the kitten.
But we couldn't find it. Unable to do anything else, we returned to the house. Inside it was in shambles. It was obvious that Yukimura was worried: the television was on, and everything she'd taken out remained thrown around. I was unable to concentrate on anything, looking at the disorder.
It was the first time that I had let Murai into the house. He wanted to come over sometimes, but I always made up a reason that he couldn't.
After we washed our sweat-covered faces, there were two cups of tea ready on the living room table. Murai was mystified.
"Last time I looked that tea wasn't there, right? You went to the sink with me. Who made the tea?" He tilted his head. "Anyway, I'm beat. I feel like having a drink. To get some life back in me, you know? I bet you can find something."
I didn't have any kind of alcohol on hand, so I had to walk eight minutes to the store to buy some. It looked like Murai was too tired to take a single step further. In the store, as I struggled over the choices of alcohol, I thought about Murai, waiting back at my house. I worried about him, hoping Yukimura wasn't showing him some inexplicable phenomena, or playing mean tricks. That night we drank, then disbanded.
"Let me pet the kitten when you find it," Murai said as before he left. When he was gone I cleaned up my mess of a house.
If the kitten was gone, I wouldn't know where Yukimura was. It was lonesome, not hearing the ring of its bell. She must have thought that it was somewhere hiding in the house. She had probably moved the television and the shelves so she could search behind them.
When I went upstairs, the black curtains of the dark room were half open. It looked like Yukimura was still occasionally using this room to do something or other. Various things had been moved. The drawers were opened, and the photo paper had been struck by the light, and was now unusable. It made me think of myself, that useless college student who had a happy dream.
The kitten returned on the following day.
I was tidying the old newspapers that Yukimura had thrown around. The newspapers she had collected, never throwing one away, were beginning to yellow. I wondered, why newspapers? Then I thought I had heard the kitten meowing from somewhere in the garden.
I had half given up, so for a second I didn't believe what I'd heard. But once again, from the garden I heard what was definitely the kitten, and the faint sound of a bell. More certain that I wasn't wrong, I felt breathless with happiness. I was so relieved I wanted to cry.
I couldn't be bothered to put on my sandals, just went to directly to the porch and stepped barefoot down into the garden. I looked around, but I didn't see anything but tall weeds and the ripening tomatoes in the vegetable garden. Just then I realized I hadn't searched on the other side of the fence. The garden was interrupted by a fence, and on the other side there was a family by the name of Kino. It was that Mrs. Kino who rode the noisy bicycle. There might have been a hole somewhere in the fence, and after going through to the other side, the kitten might have been unable to return.
I didn't have to go ask next door at the Kino's next door, because just then Mrs. Kino herself came over to my house. She held the kitten in her arms.
That evening I thought constantly about the kitten, Yukimura, and Murai. Listening to the kitten meow beside me, I strengthened my resolve.
"I want to apologize, but he isn't here anymore."
I remembered what Murai had said as he thought of this dead friend.
We had to go to the lake. I felt that, strongly.