Read Sputnik Sweetheart Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami

Tags: #Literary, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Teachers, #Missing persons, #Japan, #Unrequited love, #Fiction, #Women novelists, #Businesswomen

Sputnik Sweetheart (8 page)

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I sipped a lemon soda I’d bought in the ship’s store and gazed at the deep blue sea and the tiny islands floating by. Most were less islands than crags in the sea, completely deserted. White seabirds rested on the tips of the crags, scanning the sea for fish. The birds ignored our ship. Waves broke at the foot of the cliffs, creating a dazzling white border. Occasionally I spotted an inhabited island. Tough-looking trees grew all over, and white-walled houses dotted the slopes. Brightly colored boats bobbed in the inlet, their tall masts inscribing arcs as they rolled with the waves.

A wrinkled old man sitting next to me offered me a cigarette. Thank you, I smiled, waving my hand, but I don’t smoke. He proffered a stick of spearmint gum instead. I took it, gratefully, and continued to gaze out at the sea as I chewed.

It was after seven when the ferry reached the island. The blazing sun had passed its zenith, but the sky was as bright as before, the summer light actually increasing in brilliance. As if on some huge nameplate, the name of the island was written in gigantic letters on the white walls of a building in the harbor. The ship sidled up to the wharf, and one by one the passengers walked down the gangplank, baggage in hand. An open-air café faced the harbor, and people who’d come to meet the ship waited there until they recognized the people they were looking for.

As soon as I disembarked I looked around for Miu. But there was no one around who might be her. Several owners of inns came up, asking me if I was looking for a place to stay for the night. “No, I’m not,” I said each time, shaking my head. Even so, each one handed me a card before leaving.

The people who’d gotten off the ship with me scattered in all directions. Shoppers trudged home, travelers went off to hotels and inns. As soon as the people who’d come to greet their returning friends spotted them, they hugged each other tightly or shook hands, and off they went. The two trucks and the Peugeot, too, were unloaded and roared off into the distance. Even the cats and dogs that had assembled out of curiosity were gone before long. The only ones left were a group of sunburned old folks with time on their hands. And me, gym bag in hand, thoroughly out of place.

I took a seat at the café and ordered an iced tea, wondering what I should do next. There wasn’t much I could do. Night was fast approaching, and I knew nothing about the island and the layout of the land. If nobody came after a while, I’d get a room somewhere and the next morning come back to the harbor, hopefully to meet up with Miu. According to Sumire, Miu was a methodical woman, so I couldn’t believe she’d stand me up. If she couldn’t make it to the harbor, there must be some very good explanation. Maybe Miu didn’t think I’d get here so quickly.

I was starving. A feeling of such extreme hunger I felt sure you could see through me. All the fresh sea air must have made my body realize it hadn’t had any nourishment since morning. I didn’t want to miss Miu, though, so I decided to wait some more in the café. Every so often a local would pass by and give me a curious glance.

At the kiosk next to the café I bought a small pamphlet in English about the history and geography of the island. I leafed through it as I sipped the incredibly tasteless iced tea. The island’s population ranged from three thousand to six thousand, depending on the season. The population went up in the summer with the number of tourists, down in winter when people went elsewhere in search of work. The island had no industry to speak of, and agriculture was pretty limited—olives and a couple of varieties of fruit. And there was fishing and sponge diving. Which is why since the beginning of the twentieth century most of the islanders had immigrated to America. The majority moved to Florida, where they could put their fishing and sponging skills to good use. There was even a town in Florida with the same name as the island.

On top of the hills was a military radar installation. Near the civilian harbor was a second, smaller harbor where military patrol ships docked. With the Turkish border nearby, the Greeks wanted to prevent illegal border crossings and smuggling. Which is why there were soldiers in the town. Whenever there was a dispute with Turkey—in fact small-scale skirmishes broke out often—traffic in and out of the harbor picked up.

More than two thousand years ago, when Greek civilization was at its peak, this island, situated along the main route to Asia, flourished as a trading hub. Back then the hills were still covered with green trees, used in a thriving shipbuilding industry. When Greek civilization declined, though, and all the trees had been cut down (an abundant greenery never to return again), the island quickly slid downhill economically. Finally, the Turks came in. Their rule was draconian, according to the pamphlet. If something wasn’t to their liking, they’d lop off people’s ears and noses as easily as pruning trees. At the end of the nineteenth century, after countless bloody battles, the island finally won its independence from Turkey, and the blue-and-white Greek flag fluttered over the harbor. Next came Hitler. The Germans built a radar and weather station on top of the hills to monitor the nearby sea, since the hills provided the best possible view. An English bombing force from Malta bombed the station. It bombed the harbor as well as the hilltop, sinking a number of innocent fishing boats and killing some hapless fishermen. More Greeks died in the attack than did Germans, and some old-timers still bore a grudge over the incident.

L
ike most Greek islands there was little flat space here, mostly steep, unforgiving hills, with only one town along the shore, just south of the harbor. Far from the town was a beautiful, quiet beach, but to get to it you had to climb over a steep hill. The easily accessible places didn’t have such nice beaches, which might be one reason the number of tourists stayed static. There were some Greek Orthodox monasteries up in the hills, but the monks led strictly observant lives, and casual visitors weren’t allowed.

As far as I could tell from reading the pamphlet, this was a pretty typical Greek island. For some reason, though, Englishmen found the island particularly charming (the British
are
a bit eccentric) and, in their zeal for the place, built a colony of summer cottages on a rise near the harbor. In the late 1960s several British writers lived there and wrote their novels while gazing at the blue sea and the white clouds. Several of their works became critically acclaimed, resulting in the island’s garnering a reputation among the British literati as a romantic spot. As far as this notable aspect of their island’s culture was concerned, though, the local Greek inhabitants couldn’t have cared less.

I
read all this to take my mind off how hungry I was. I closed the pamphlet and looked around me again. The old people in the café, as if they were contestants in a staring contest, gazed unceasingly at the sea. It was already eight o’clock, and my hunger was turning into something close to physical pain. The smell of roast meat and grilled fish drifted over from somewhere and, like a good-natured torturer, seized me by the guts. I couldn’t endure it anymore and stood up. Just as I picked up my bag and was about to start searching for a restaurant, a woman silently appeared before me.

T
he sun, finally sinking into the sea, shone directly on the woman, whose knee-length white skirt rippled slightly as she strode down the stone steps. She wore small tennis shoes, and her legs were girlish. She had on a sleeveless light green blouse and a narrow-brimmed hat, and she carried a small cloth shoulder bag. The way she walked was so natural, so ordinary, she blended into the scenery, and at first I took her for a local. But she was heading straight for me, and as she approached I could make out her Asian features. Half reflexively I sat down, then stood up again. The woman removed her sunglasses and spoke my name.

“I’m sorry I’m so late,” she said. “I had to go to the police station, and all the paperwork took a long time. And I never imagined you’d be here today. Tomorrow at noon at the earliest, I thought.”

“I managed to make all my connections,” I said.
The police station?

Miu looked straight at me and smiled faintly. “If it’s all right with you, why don’t we go have something to eat and talk there. I’ve only had breakfast today. How about you? Are you hungry?”

“You’d better believe it,” I replied.

S
he led me to a taverna on a side street near the harbor. There was a charcoal grill set up near the entrance, and all kinds of fresh-looking seafood cooking away on the iron grate. Do you like fish? she asked, and I said I did. Miu spoke to the waiter, ordering in broken Greek. First he brought a carafe of white wine, bread, and olives. Without any toasts or further ado, we poured ourselves some wine and started drinking. I ate some of the coarse bread and a few olives to ease my hunger pangs.

Miu was beautiful. My first impression was of that clear and simple fact. No, maybe it wasn’t that clear and that simple. Maybe I was under some terrible mistaken impression. Maybe for some reason I’d been swallowed up in some other person’s unalterable dream. Thinking about it now, I can’t rule out that possibility. All I can say for sure is that at that moment I saw her as an extremely lovely woman.

Miu wore several rings on her slim fingers. One was a simple gold wedding band. While I tried hurriedly to mentally put my first impressions of her in some kind of order, she gazed at me with gentle eyes, taking an occasional sip of wine.

“I feel like I’ve met you before,” she said. “Perhaps because I hear about you all the time.”

“Sumire’s told me a lot about you, too,” I said.

Miu beamed. When she smiled, and then only, charming small lines appeared at the corners of her eyes. “I guess we can forgo introductions, then.”

I nodded.

What I liked most about Miu was that she didn’t try to hide her age. According to Sumire, she must be thirty-eight or thirty-nine. And indeed she looked that age. With her slim, tight figure, a little makeup and she’d easily pass for late twenties. But she didn’t make the effort. Miu let age naturally rise to the surface, accepted it for what it was, and made her peace with it.

M
iu popped an olive into her mouth, grasped the pit with her fingers, and, like a poet getting the punctuation just right, gracefully discarded it in an ashtray.

“I’m sorry to call you up like that in the middle of the night,” she said. “I wish I could have explained things better then, but I was too upset and didn’t know where to begin. I’m still not totally calm, but my initial confusion has settled a bit.”

“What in the world happened?” I asked.

Miu brought her hands together on the table, separated them, brought them together again.

“Sumire has disappeared.”

“Disappeared?”

“Like smoke,” Miu said. She took a sip of wine.

She continued. “It’s a long story, so I think I’d better start at the beginning and tell it in the right order. Otherwise some of the nuances might not come through. The story itself is quite subtle. But let’s eat first. It’s not like each second counts right now, and it’s hard to think straight if you’re hungry. Also, it’s a bit too noisy to talk here.”

The restaurant was filled with Greeks gesturing and talking boisterously. So that we didn’t have to shout at each other, Miu and I leaned forward across the table, our heads close together as we talked. Presently the waiter brought over a heaping plate of Greek salad and a large grilled whitefish. Miu sprinkled some salt on the fish, squeezed out half a lemon, and dripped some olive oil onto her portion. I did the same. We concentrated on eating for a while. As she said, first things first. We needed to assuage our hunger.

How long could I stay here? she asked. The new term begins in a week, I replied, so I have to be back by then. Otherwise things will be a bit sticky. Miu gave a matter-of-fact nod. She pursed her lips and seemed to be figuring out something. She didn’t say anything predictable, like “Don’t worry, you’ll be back by then,” or “I wonder if things’ll be all settled by then.” She came to her own private conclusion, which she tucked away in a drawer, and silently went back to her meal.

After dinner, as we were having coffee, Miu broached the subject of the airfare. Would you mind taking the amount in traveler’s checks? she asked. Or else I could have the money transferred to your account in yen after you return to Tokyo. Which do you prefer? I’m not strapped for funds, I answered, I can pay it myself. But Miu insisted on paying. I’m the one who asked you to come, she said.

I shook my head. “It’s not like I’m being polite or anything. A little bit later on, and I probably would have come here of my own accord. That’s what I’m trying to say.”

Miu gave it some thought and nodded. “I am very grateful to you. For coming here. I can’t tell you how much.”

W
hen we left the restaurant, the sky was a brilliant splash of colors. The kind of air that felt like if you breathed it in, your lungs would be dyed the same shade of blue. Tiny stars began to twinkle. Barely able to wait for the long summer day to be over, the locals were out for an after-dinner stroll around the harbor. Families, couples, groups of friends. The gentle scent of the tide at the end of the day enveloped the streets. Miu and I walked through the town. The right side of the street was lined with shops, small hotels, and restaurants with tables set up on the sidewalk. Cozy yellow lights shone in small, wooden-shuttered windows, and Greek music filtered down from a radio. On the left side the sea spread out, dark waves placidly breaking on the wharves.

“In a while the road goes uphill,” Miu said. “We can take either some steep stairs or a gentle slope. The stairs are faster. Do you mind?”

“No, I don’t,” I answered.

Narrow stone stairs paralleled the slope of the hill. The stairs were long and steep, but Miu’s sneaker-clad feet showed no signs of tiring, and she never slackened her pace. The hem of her skirt just in front of me swished pleasantly from side to side, her tanned, shapely calves shone in the light of the nearly full moon. I got winded first and had to stop to take some deep breaths. As we made our way up, the lights of the harbor got smaller and farther away. All the activities of the people who’d been right beside me were absorbed into that anonymous line of lights. It was an impressive sight, something I wanted to clip out with scissors and pin to the wall of my memory.

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