We have to continue to learn. We have to be open. And we have to be ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher understanding of reality.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

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Tác giả: Haruki Murakami
Thể loại: Tiểu Thuyết
Biên tập: Truong Ngoc Tuan
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Language: English
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Chapter 17: The Strange Man’S Strange Tale
A Wild Sheep Chase, II
The black-suited secretary took his chair and looked at me without saying a word. He didn’t seem to be sizing me up, nor did his eyes betray any disdain, nor was his a pointed stare to bore right through me. Neither cool nor hot, not even in the mid-range. That gaze held no hint of any emotion known to me. The man was simply looking at me. He might have been looking at the wall behind me, but as I was situated in front of it, the end result was that the man was looking at me.
The man picked up the cigarette case from the table, opened the lid and withdrew a plain-cut cigarette, flicked the tip a few times with his fingernail, lit up with the tabletop lighter, and blew out the smoke at an oblique angle. Then he returned the lighter to the table and crossed his legs. His gaze did not waver one blink the whole time.
This was the same man my partner had told me about. He was overdressed, his fingers overly graceful. If not for the sharp curve of his eyelids and the glass-bead chill of his pupils, I would surely have thought him homosexual. Not with those eyes, though. So what did he look like? He didn’t resemble any sort, anything.
If you took a good look at his eyes, they were an arresting color. Dark brown with the faintest touch of blue, the hue of the left eye, moreover, different from the right. Each seemed to focus on a wholly different subject.
His fingers pursued scant movements on his lap. Hauntingly, as if separated from his hand, they moved toward me. Tense, compelling, nerve-racking, beautiful fingers. Slowly reaching across the table to crush out the cigarette not one-third smoked. I watched the ice melt in the glass, clear ice water mixing with the grape juice. An unequally variegated mix.
The room was utterly silent. Now there is the silence you encounter on entering a grand manor. And there is the silence that comes of too few people in too big a space. But this was a different quality of silence altogether. A ponderous, oppressive silence. A silence reminiscent, though it took me a while to put my finger on it, of the silence that hangs around a terminal patient. A silence pregnant with the presentiment of death. The air faintly musty and ominous.
“Everyone dies,” said the man softly with downcast eyes. He seemed to have an uncanny purchase on the drift of my thoughts. “All of us, whosoever, must die sometime.”
Having said that, the man fell again into a weighty silence. There was only the frantic buzzing of the cicadas outdoors. Bodies scraping out their last dying fury against the ending season.
“Let me be as frank as possible with you,” the man spoke up. His speech had the ring of a direct translation from a formulaic text. His choice of phrase and grammar was correct enough, but there was no feeling in his words.
“Speaking frankly and speaking the truth are two different things entirely. Honesty is to truth as prow is to stern. Honesty appears first and truth appears last. The interval between varies in direct proportion to the size of ship. With anything of size, truth takes a long time in coming. Sometimes it only manifests itself posthumously. Therefore, should I impart you with no truth at this juncture, that is through no fault of mine. Nor yours.”
How was one to respond to this? He acknowledged my silence and continued to speak.
“You’re probably wondering why I called you all this way here. It was to set the ship in forward motion. You and I shall move it forward. By discussing matters in all honesty, we shall proceed one step at a time closer to the truth.” At that point, he coughed and glanced over at his hand resting on the arm of the sofa. “But enough of these abstractions, let us begin with real concerns. The issue here is the newsletter you produced. I believe you have been told this much.”
“I have.”
The man nodded. Then after a moment’s pause, continued, “I’m sure all this came as quite a surprise to you. Anyone would be unhappy about having the product of his hard labors destroyed. All the more if it’s a vital link in his livelihood. It may mean a very real loss of no mean size. Isn’t that right?”
“That it is,” I said.
“I would like to have you tell me about such real losses.”
“In our line of work, real losses are part of business. It’s not like clients never suddenly reject what’s been produced. But for a small operation like ours, it can be a threat to our existence. So in order to prevent that, we honor the client’s views one hundred percent. In extreme cases, this means checking through an entire bulletin line by line together with the client. That way we avoid all risks. It’s not easy work, but that’s the lot of the lone wolf.”
“Everyone has to start somewhere,” sympathized the man. “Be that as it may, am I to interpret from what you say that your company has incurred a severe financial setback as a result of the cessation of your bulletin?”
“Yes, I guess you could say that. It was already printed and bound, so we have to pay for the paper and printing within the month. There’re also writers’ fees for articles we farmed out. In monetary terms that comes to about five million yen, and we had planned to use it to pay off our debt. We borrowed money to invest in our facilities a year ago.”
“I know,” said the man.
“Then there is the question of our ongoing contract with the client. Our position is very weak, and once there’s been trouble with an advertising agency, clients avoid you. We were under a one-year contract with the life insurance company, and if that’s scrapped because of this, then effectively our company is sunk. We’re small and without connections, but we’ve got a good reputation that’s spread by word of mouth. If one bad word gets out, we’re done for.”
Even after I’d finished, the man stared at me without comment. Then he spoke up. “You speak most honestly. Moreover, what you tell me conforms to our investigations. I commend you on that. What if I had them offer you unconditional payment for those canceled insurance company bulletins and suggest to them that they continue your present contract?”
“There would be nothing more to tell. We’d go back to our boring everyday affairs, left wondering what this was all about.”
“And with a premium on top of that? I have but to write one word on the back of a name card and you would have your work cut out for you for the next ten years. And none of those measly handbills either.”
“A deal, in other words.”
“A friendly transaction. I out of my own goodwill have done your partner the favor of informing him that the P.R. bulletin has ceased publication. And should you show me your goodwill, I would favor you with a further display of goodwill. Do you think you could do that? My favor could prove quite beneficial. Certainly you don’t expect to go on working with a dull-witted alcoholic forever.”
“We’re friends,” I said.
There ensued a brief silence, a pebble sent plunging down a fathomless well. It took thirty seconds for the pebble to hit bottom.
“As you wish,” said the man. “That is your affair. I went over your vita in some detail. You have an interesting history. Now people can generally be classified into two groups: the mediocre realists and the mediocre dreamers. You clearly belong to the latter. Your fate is and will always be the fate of a dreamer.”
“I’ll remember that,” I said.
The man nodded. I drank half the watered-down grape juice.
“Very well, then, let us proceed to particulars,” said the man. “Particulars about sheep.”
The man changed positions to pull a large black-and-white photograph out of an envelope, setting it on the table before me. The slightest breath of reality seemed to filter into the room.
“This is the photograph you used in your bulletin.”
For a direct blowup of the photograph without using the negative, the image was surprisingly clear. Probably some special technology.
“As far as we know, the photo is one you personally came upon and then used in the bulletin. Is that not so?”
“That is correct.”
“According to our investigations, the photograph was taken within the last six months by a total amateur. The camera, a cheap pocket-size model. It was not you who took the photograph. You have a Nikon SLR and take better pictures. And you haven’t been to Hokkaido in the past five years. Correct?”
“You tell me,” I said.
The man cleared his throat, then fell silent. This was a definitive silence, one you could judge the qualities of other silences by. “Anyway, what we want is a few pieces of information: namely, where and from whom did you receive that photograph, and what was your intention in using such a poor image in that bulletin?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say,” I tossed out the words with a cool that impressed even myself. “Journalists rightfully do not reveal their sources.”
The man stared me in the eyes and stroked his lips with the middle finger of his right hand. Several passes, then he returned his hand to his lap. The silence continued for a while. I couldn’t help thinking what perfect timing it would be if at that instant a cuckoo started to sing. But, of course, no cuckoo was to be heard. Cuckoos don’t sing in the evenings.
“You are a fine one,” said the man. “You know, if I felt like it, I could stop all work from coming your way. That would put an end to your claims of journalism. Supposing, of course, that your miserable pamphlets and handbills qualify as journalism.”
I thought it over. Why is it that cuckoos don’t sing at nightfall?
“What’s more, there are ways to make people like you talk.”
“I suppose there are,” I said, “but they take time and I wouldn’t talk until the last minute. Even if I did talk, I wouldn’t spill everything. You’d have no way of knowing how much is everything. Or am I mistaken?”
Everything was a bluff, but it made sense the way things were going. The uncertainty of the silence that followed showed I had earned myself a few points.
“It is most amusing talking with you,” said the man. “Your dreamer’s scenario is delightfully pathetic. Ah well, let us talk about something else.”
The man pulled a magnifying glass out of his pocket and set it on the table.
“Please examine the photograph as much as you care to.”
I picked up the photo with my left hand and the magnifying glass with my right, and inspected the photo methodically. Some sheep were facing this way, some were facing in other directions, some were absorbed in eating grass. A scene that suggested a dull class reunion. I spot-checked each sheep one by one, looked at the lay of the grass, at the birch wood in the background, the mountains behind that, the wispy clouds in the sky. There was not one thing unusual. I looked up from the photo and magnifying glass.
“Did you notice anything out of the ordinary?”
“Not at all,” I said.
The man showed no visible sign of disappointment.
“I seem to recall that you majored in biology at university,” the man said. “How much do you know about sheep?”
“Practically nothing. I did mostly useless specialist stuff.”
“Tell me what you know.”
“A cloven-hoofed, herbivorous social animal. Introduced to Japan in the early Meiji era, I believe. Used as a source of wool and meat. That’s about it.”
“Very good,” said the man. “Although I should like to make one small correction: sheep were not introduced to Japan in the early Meiji era, but during the Ansei reign. Prior to that, however, it is as you say: there were no sheep in Japan. True, there is some argument that they were brought over from China during the Heian period, but even if that were the case, they had long since died off in the interim. So up until Meiji, few Japanese had ever seen a sheep or understood what one was. In spite of its relatively popular standing as one of the twelve zodiacal animals of the ancient Chinese calendar, nobody knew with any accuracy what kind of animal it was. That is to say, it might as well have been an imaginary creature on the order of a dragon or phoenix. In fact, pictures of sheep drawn by pre-Meiji Japanese look like wholly fabricated monstrosities. One might say they had about as much knowledge of their subject as H. G. Wells had about Martians.
“Even today, Japanese know precious little about sheep. Which is to say that sheep as an animal have no historical connection with the daily life of the Japanese. Sheep were imported at the state level from America, raised briefly, then promptly ignored. That’s your sheep. After the war, when importation of wool and mutton from Australia and New Zealand was liberalized, the merits of sheep raising in Japan plummeted to zero. A tragic animal, do you not think? Here, then, is the very image of modern Japan.
“But of course I do not mean to lecture you on the vainglory of modern Japan. The points I wish to impress upon you are two: one, that prior to the end of the late feudal period there probably was not one sheep in all of Japan; and two, that once imported, sheep were subjected to rigorous government checks. And what do these two things mean?”
The question wasn’t rhetorical; it was addressed to me. “That every variety of sheep in Japan is fully accounted for,” I stated.
“Precisely. To which I might add that breeding is as much a point with sheep as it is with racehorses, making it a simple matter to trace their genealogy several generations. In other words, here we have a thoroughly regulated animal. Crossbreeding with other strains can be easily checked. There is no smuggling. No one is curious enough to go to all the trouble to import sheep. By way of varieties, there are in Japan the Southdown, Spanish Merino, Cotswold, Chinese, Shropshire, Corriedale, Cheviot, Romanovsky, Ostofresian, Border Leicester, Romney Marsh, Lincoln, Dorset Horn, Suffolk, and that’s about all. With this in mind,” said the man, “I would like to have you take another look at the photograph.”
Once again I took photo and magnifying glass in my hands.
“Be sure to look carefully at the third sheep from the right in the front row.”
I brought the magnifying glass to bear upon the third sheep from the right in the front row. A quick look at the sheep next to it, then back to the third sheep from the right.
“And what can you tell now?” asked the man.
“It’s a different breed, isn’t it?” I said.
“That it is. Aside from that particular sheep, all the others are ordinary Suffolks. Only that one sheep differs. It is far more stocky than the Suffolk, and the fleece is of another color. Nor is the face black. Something about it strikes one as howsoever more powerful. I showed this photograph to a sheep specialist, and he concluded that this sheep did not exist in Japan. Nor probably anywhere else in the world. So what you are looking at now is a sheep that by all rights should not exist.”
I grabbed the magnifying glass and looked once more at the third sheep from the right. On close examination, there, in the middle of its back, appeared to be a light coffee stain of a mark. Hazy and indistinct, it could have been a scratch on the film. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks again. Or maybe somebody actually did spill coffee on that sheep’s back.
“There’s this faint stain on its back.”
“That is no stain,” said the man. “That is a star-shaped birthmark. Compare it with this.”
The man pulled a single-page photocopy out of the envelope and handed it over directly to me. It was a copy of a picture of a sheep. Drawn apparently in heavy pencil, with black finger smudges all over the rest of the page. Infantile, yet there was something about it that commanded your attention. The details were drawn with great care. Moreover, the sheep in the photograph and the sheep in the drawing were without a doubt the same sheep. The star-shaped birthmark was the stain.
“Now look at this,” said the man, taking a lighter from his pocket and handing it to me. It was a specially made, heavy, solid silver Dupont, engraved with the same sheep emblem I’d seen in the limo. Sure enough, the star-shaped birthmark was there on the sheep’s back, plain as day.
My head began to ache.
A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel - Haruki Murakami A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel