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Robert Half

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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 30: The Further Decline Of Junitaki And Its Sheep
e caught the connecting train in Asahikawa and headed north over the Shiogari Pass, traveling by largely the same route the Ainu youth and the eighteen dirt farmers had taken a century before.
The autumn sun shone brilliantly though the last vestiges of virgin forest and the blazing red leaves of the rowan ash. The air was still and clear. So much so just looking at the scenery made your eyes hurt.
The train was empty at first, but midway a whole carload of commuting high school students piled in and we were plunged into their commotion, their shouting and dandruff and body odors and incomprehensible conversations and sexual urges with no outlet. This went on for thirty minutes until they disappeared all at the same station. Once again, the train was empty, with not a voice to be heard.
We split a chocolate bar between us and munched on it as the scenery paraded before our eyes. A tranquil light spilled over the ground. Everything seemed so far away, as if we were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. She whistled snatches of “Johnny B. Goode.” This may have been the longest we two had ever not spoken.
It was afternoon when we got off the train. Standing on the platform, I took a deep breath and gave myself a good stretch. The air was so fresh I felt as if my lungs were going to collapse. The sun on my arms was warm and sensuous, even as the air was three or four degrees cooler than in Sapporo.
A row of old brick warehouses lined the tracks, and alongside these was a pyramid stack of logs three yards long, soaked and dark from the rain of the previous night. After the train we’d come on pulled out of the station, there was no one in sight, only a flowerbed of marigolds that were swaying in the cool breeze.
From the platform, we could see a typical small-scale regional city. Complete with main street, modest department store, bus terminal, tourist information center. A singularly dull town, if first impressions were any indication.
“This is our destination?” she asked.
“No, not here. We’ve got another train ride from here. Our destination is a much, much smaller town than this.”
I yawned and took another deep breath.
“This is our transit point. Here’s where the first settlers turned eastward.”
“First settlers?”
In the time before our connecting train arrived, we sat down in front of the heater in the waiting room, and I related snippets of the history of Junitaki-cho. The chronology got a bit confused, so I used a page from my notebook to make a simplified timeline based on the summary at the back of the Authoritative History. On the left side of the page, I listed dates and developments in the history of Junitaki-cho and on the right the major events in the history of Japan in the same period. A fairly respectable chronological table.
For example, in 1905 Port Arthur fell and the Ainu youth’s son was killed in the war. And if my memory served me correctly, that was also the year the Sheep Professor was born. Incrementally, history linked up.
“Looking at things this way,” she said, comparing the left and right sides of the chronology, “we Japanese seem to live from war to war.”
“Sure seems that way,” I said.
“How did things ever get like this?”
“It’s complicated. I can’t really say. Not just like that.”
“Humph.”
The waiting room, like most waiting rooms, was deserted and unremarkable. The benches were miserably uncomfortable, the ashtrays swollen with waterlogged cigarette butts, the air stale. On the walls were travel posters and most-wanted lists. The only other people there were an old man wearing a camel-color sweater and a mother with her four-year-old son. The old man sat glued in position, poring through a literary magazine. He turned the pages as slowly as if he were peeling away adhesive tape. Fifteen minutes from one page to the next. The mother and child looked like a couple whose marriage was on the rocks.
“What it comes down to is that everyone’s poor, but we want to believe that if things work out, we’ll be through with poverty.”
“Like the people in Junitaki-cho.”
“Exactly. That’s why they worked themselves to death to break new ground. Even so, most of the settlers died poor.”
“How come?”
“It’s the territory. Hokkaido’s cold country, every few years there’s a killer frost. If their crops die, there’s no food to eat, no income to buy oil. They can’t even buy next year’s seeds. So they put their land in hock and borrow money at high interest. But no agriculture in any region is productive enough to pay off that interest, and in the end the land is taken away from them. That’s what reduces many farmers to tenant farming.”
I flipped through the pages of my Authoritative History and read to her: “By 1930, the number of self-employed farmers had fallen to 46 percent of the population of Junitaki-cho. They had been dealt a double blow, a depressed market compounded by a killer frost.”
“So after all their struggles to clear a new land for themselves to farm, they only got deeper in debt,” she concluded.
As there were still forty minutes before our train, she decided to take a walk around town by herself. I stayed behind in the waiting room, had a Coke, and took up where I’d left off in another book I’d been reading. I was soon bored with it and put it away. I could not concentrate. My head was full of Junitaki-cho sheep chomping up all the print I could feed them. I closed my eyes and sighed. A passing freight train sounded its whistle.
A few minutes before departure time, she returned with a bag of apples. We ate them for lunch, then boarded the train.
The train had surely seen better days. Weak portions of the floorboards were buckled and worn. Walking the aisle was enough to make you sway from side to side. The seat coverings had lost their pile and the cushions were like month-old bread. An air of doom, mixed with toilet and kerosene smells, filled the car. I spent ten minutes trying to raise a window to let in some fresh air, but no sooner did I get it open than some fine sand blew in and I had to spend an equal amount of time closing the window.
The train had two cars. There was a total of fifteen passengers, lumped together by the common bonds of disinterest and ennui. The old man in the camel-color sweater was still reading his magazine. At his reading speed, the issue may have gotten to be three months old. One heavy middle-aged lady was training her gaze at a distant point in space outside, as if a critic listening to a Scriabin sonata.
The children were quiet too. They sat still and stared out the window. Occasionally, someone coughed with a dry rasp that sounded like a mummy tapped on the head with a pair of tongs.
Each time the train pulled into a station, someone got off. Whenever someone got off, the conductor also got off to collect the ticket, then the conductor would get back on. The conductor was so totally without expression he could have pulled off a bank robbery without covering his face. No new passengers ever got on.
Outside, the river stretched forever, muddy brown from the rains. Glinting in the autumn sun, it looked like a spillway of café au lait. An improved road along the river popped in and out of view, and infrequently there’d be a huge truck hurtling westward with a load of lumber. On the whole, though, the road seemed practically unused. Roadside billboards relayed their sponsors’ messages to no one, nowhere. I warded off boredom by looking at each new billboard, noting the sharp, urban appeal. A terrifically tanned girl in a bikini pursed her lips over a Coke, a middle-aged character actor wrinkled his brow at a tilted glass of Scotch, a diver’s watch lavishly splashed with water, a model in the midst of a slick, sophisticated interior, doing her nails. The new pioneers of advertising were carving a mean streak deep into the country.
It was 2:40 when the train reached its destination, Junitaki-cho. Somewhere along the line we had dozed off, apparently missing the station announcement. The diesel engine had squeezed out its last breath, and everything went silent. I woke with a start, the silence tingling on my skin. When I looked around, no other passengers were on board.
I brought our bags down from the rack, roused her with a couple of taps on the shoulder, and we got off. The wind that whisked the length of the platform was already tinged with a late-autumn chill. The dark shadows of the hills crept across the ground like fatal stains. Directly beyond the streets the two ranges of hills on either side of the town seemed to meet, neatly enfolding the town like two cupped hands protecting a match flame from the wind. The hills towered above the narrow station platform.
We stood there, rather at a loss, gazing at the scene for a few minutes.
“Where’s the Sheep Professor’s old homestead?” she asked.
“Up in the mountains. Three hours from here by car.”
“Do we head straight out?”
“No,” I said. “If we set out right now, it’ll be the middle of the night before we get there. Let’s stay here overnight and get a fresh start in the morning.”
In front of the station was a small rotary, which was empty. No one milling about. No taxis picking up or letting off customers. Just, in the middle, a bird-shaped fountain with no water in it. The bird looked vacantly up at the sky with an open mouth and nothing to say. Around the fountain was planted a circular bank of marigolds. One glance told you the town was far more run-down than it had been a decade ago. Almost no one was out on the streets, and the few that were seemed to share the distracted run-down expression of a town on the wane.
To the left of the rotary were a half dozen old warehouses, from the days of shipping by rail. Of old-fashioned brick construction, they had high-pitched roofs and steel doors that had been painted countless times, only to have been abandoned in the end. Huge crows perched in rows along the roof ridges, silently surveying the town. Next came an empty lot under a thicket of weeds that could make you break out in hives up to your shoulder, in the center of which were the remains of two old cars left out to the elements. Both cars were missing tires, their guts ripped out from beneath pried hoods.
The GUIDE TO THE TOWN, posted next to the deserted rotary, was so weathered you could barely make it out. The only discernible words were JUNITAKI-CHO and NORTHERN LIMIT OF LARGE-SCALE RICE FARMING.
Directly in front of the rotary was a small street lined with shops. A street not unlike such streets anywhere in Japan except that the road was absurdly wide, giving the town an impression of even greater sparseness, and chill. On either side of the road was a line of rowan ashes, in brilliant foliage but somehow no less chill. It was a chill that infused every living thing, without regard for human fortune. The listless day-to-day goings-on of the town residents—everything—were engulfed in that chill.
I hiked my backpack up onto my shoulders and walked to the end of the five-hundred-yard-long commercial district, looking for a place to stay. There was no inn of any kind. A third of the shops had their shutters pulled down. A half-torn sign in front of a watch shop banged about in the wind.
Where the street of shops cut off abruptly, there was a large parking lot, again overgrown with weeds. In it were a cream-colored Honda Fairlady and a sports car, a red Toyota Celica. Both brand new. What a picture they made, their mint condition smack in the middle of a deadbeat town.
Beyond the shops, the road ambled down a slope to the river, where it split left and right at a T. Along this road were small one-story wood-frame houses, with dust-gray trees that thrust bram-bled limbs up into the sky. I don’t know what it was, but every tree had the most eccentric array of branches. Each house had, at its front door, identical large fuel tanks with matching milk-delivery boxes. And on every rooftop stood unimaginably tall television antennas. These silver feelers groped about in the air, in defiance of the mountains that formed a backdrop to the town.
“But there’s no inn,” she said worriedly.
“Not to worry. Every town has got to have an inn.”
We retraced our steps back to the station and asked the two attendants there where we could find one. Aged far enough apart to have been parent and child, they were obviously bored silly and explained the whereabouts of the lodgings in distressingly thorough detail.
“There are two inns,” said the elder attendant. “One is on the expensive side, the other is fairly cheap. The expensive one is where we put up important officials from the Territorial Government and hold special banquets.”
“The food is not bad at all there,” said the younger attendant.
“The other is where traveling businessmen or young folk or, well, where regular people stay. The looks of it might put you off, but it’s not unsanitary or anything. The bath is something else.”
“Though the walls are thin,” said the younger.
Whereupon the two them launched into debate over the thinness of the walls.
“We’ll go for the expensive one,” I said. No reason to economize. There was the envelope, still stuffed with money.
The younger attendant tore a sheet off a memo pad and drew a precise map of the way to the inn.
“Thank you,” I said. “I guess you don’t get as many people coming through here as you did ten years ago.”
“No, that’s for sure,” said the elder. “Now there’s only one lumber mill and no other industry to speak of. The bottom’s fallen out of agriculture. The population’s gone way down too.”
“Hell, there aren’t enough students to form proper classes at the school anymore,” added the younger.
“What’s the population?”
“They say it’s around seven thousand, but really it’s got to be less than that. More like five thousand, I’d guess,” the younger said.
“Take this spur line, boy, before they shut us down, which may be any day. Come what may, we’re the third deepest in the red of any line in the country,” the elder said with finality.
I was surprised to hear that there were train lines more run-down than this one. We thanked them and left.
The inn was down the slope and to the right of the street of shops, three hundred yards along the river. An old inn, nice enough, with a glimmer of the charm it must have had in the heyday of the town. Facing the river, it had a well-cared-for garden. In one corner of the garden, a shepherd puppy buried its nose in a food dish, eating an early evening meal.
“Mountaineering is it?” asked the maid who showed us to our room.
“Mountaineering it is,” I answered simply.
There were only two rooms upstairs. Each a spacious layout, and if you stepped out into the corridor, you had a view of the same café-au-lait river we’d seen from the train.
My girlfriend wanted to take a bath, so I went to check out the Town Hall. Town Hall was located on a desolate street two blocks west of the street of shops, yet the building was far newer and in much better shape than I’d expected.
I walked up to the Livestock Section in Town Hall, introduced myself with a magazine namecard from two years before when I’d posed as a freelance writer, and broke into a spiel about needing to ask a few questions about sheep raising, if they didn’t mind. It was pretty farfetched that a women’s weekly magazine would have need for a piece on sheep, but the livestock officer bought the line immediately and conducted me into his office.
“At present, we have two-hundred-some sheep in the township, all Suffolks. That is to say, meat sheep. The meat is parceled out to nearby inns and restaurants, and enjoys considerable favor.”
I pulled out my notebook and jotted down appropriate notes. No doubt this poor man would be buying the women’s magazine for the next several issues. Which, admittedly, made me feel embarrassed.
“A cooking article, I assume?” he stopped to ask once he’d detailed the current state of sheep raising.
“Well, of course that’s part of it,” I said. “But more than that, we’re looking to paint a total picture of sheep.”
“A total picture?”
“You know, their character, habits, that sort of thing.”
“Oh,” said my informant.
I closed my notebook and drank the tea that had been served. “We’d heard there was an old sheep ranch up in the hills somewhere.”
“Yes, there is. It was appropriated by the U.S. Army after the war and is no longer in use. For about ten years after the Americans returned it, a rich man from somewhere used the place for a villa, but it’s so far out of the way that he finally stopped going up there. The house is as good as abandoned now. Which is why the ranch is on loan to the town. We ought to buy it and turn the place into a tourist ranch, but I’m afraid the finances of this township aren’t up to it. First, we’d have to improve the road …”
“On loan?”
“In the summer, our municipal sheep farm takes about fifty head up into the mountains. There isn’t enough grass in the municipal pasture and it’s quite fine pastureland up there, as pastures go. When the weather starts turning bad around the latter half of September, the sheep are brought back down.”
“Would you happen to know when it is that the sheep are up there?”
“It varies from year to year, but generally speaking it’s from the beginning of May to the latter half of September.”
“And how many men take the sheep up there?”
“One man. The same man’s been doing it these ten years.”
“Would it be possible to meet this man?”
The official placed a call to the municipal sheep farm.
“If you go there now, you can meet him,” he said. “Shall we drive there?”
I declined politely at first, but I soon learned that I couldn’t otherwise get to the sheep farm. There were no taxis or car rentals in town, and on foot it would have taken an hour and a half.
The livestock officer drove a small sedan. He passed our inn and headed west, taking a long concrete bridge to cross over a cold marshy area, then climbing up a mountain slope. Tires spun over the gravel.
“Coming from Tokyo, you probably think this is a ghost town.”
I said something noncommittal.
“The truth is we are dying. We’ll hold on as long as we have the railway, but if that goes we’ll be dead for sure. It’s a curious thing, a town dying. A person dying I can understand. But a whole town dying …”
“What will happen if the town dies?”
“What will happen? Nobody knows. They’ll all just run away before that, not wanting to know. If the population falls below one thousand—which is well within the realm of possibility—we’ll pretty much be out of a job, and we might be the ones who have to run out on everything.”
I offered him a cigarette and gave him a light with the sheep-engraved Dupont lighter.
“There’s plenty of good jobs in Sapporo. I’ve got an uncle who runs a printing company there, and he needs more hands. Work comes from the school system, so business is steady. Really, moving there would be the best thing. At least it’d beat monitoring shipments of sheep and cattle way out here.”
“Probably,” I said.
“But when it comes to actually packing up and leaving, I can’t bring myself to do it. Can you see what I mean? If the town’s really going to die, then the urge to stay on and see the town to its end wins out.”
“Were you born here in this town?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, but did not go on. A melancholy-hued sun had already sunk a third of the way behind the hills.
Two poles stood at the entrance to the sheep farm and between them hung a sign: JUNITAKI-CHO MUNICIPAL SHEEP FARM. The road passed under the sign and led up a slope, disappearing into the dense autumn foliage.
“Beyond the woods there’s the sheep house and behind that the caretaker’s quarters. What shall we do about you getting back to town?”
“It’s downhill. I can manage on foot. Thanks for everything.”
The car pulled out of view, and I walked between the poles and up the slope. The last rays of the sun added an orange tinge to the already golden maple leaves. The trees were tall, patches of sunlight filtering down through the boughs and shimmering on the gravel road.
Emerging from the woods, I came upon a narrow building on the face of the hill, and with it the smell of livestock. The sheep house was roofed in red corrugated iron, pierced in three places by ventilation stacks.
There was a doghouse at the entrance to the house. No sooner had I seen it than a small Border collie came out on a tether and barked two or three times. It was a sleepy-eyed old dog with no threat in its bark. When I rubbed its neck, it calmed right down. Yellow plastic bowls of food and water were placed in front of the doghouse. As soon as I released my hand, the dog went back in the doghouse, satisfied, aligned its paws with the portal, and lay down on the floor.
The interior of the sheep house was dim. No one was around. A wide concrete walkway led down the middle, and to either side were the sheep pens. Along the walkway were gutters for draining off the sheep piss and wash water. Here and there windows cut through the wood-paneled walls, revealing the jaggedness of the hills. The evening sun cast red over the sheep on the right side, plunging the sheep on the left side into a murky blue shadow.
The instant I entered the sheep house, all two hundred sheep turned in my direction. Half the sheep stood, the other half lay on the hay spread over their pen floors. Their eyes were an unnatural blue, looking like tiny wellsprings flowing from the sides of their faces. They shone like glass eyes which reflected light from straight on. They all stared at me. Not one budged. A few continued munching away on the grass in their mouths, but there was no other sound. A few, their heads protruding from their pens, had stopped drinking water and had frozen in place, fixing their eyes on me. They seemed to think as a group. Had my standing in the entrance momentarily interrupted their unified thinking? Everything stopped, all judgment on hold. It took a move by me to restart their mental processes. In their eight separate pens, they began to move. The ewes gathered around the seed ram in the female pen; in the males-only pens, the rams vied for dominant position. Only a few curious ones stayed at the fence staring at me.
Attached to the long, level black ears that stuck out from the sides of the face were plastic chips. Some sheep had blue chips, some yellow chips, some red chips. They also had colored markings on their backs.
I walked on tiptoe so as not to alarm them. Feigning disinterest, I approached one pen and extended my hand to touch the head of a young ram. It flinched but did not move away. Tense, wide-eyed, rigid. Perhaps he would be the gauge of my intrusion. The other sheep glared at us.
Suffolk sheep are peculiar to begin with. They’re completely black, yet their fleece is white. Their ears are large and stick flat out like moth wings, and their luminous blue eyes and long bony noses make them seem foreign. These Suffolks neither rejected nor accepted my presence, regarding me more as a temporary manifestation. Several pissed with a tinkling flourish. The piss flowed across the floor, under my feet, into the gutter.
I exited the sheep house, petting the Border collie again and taking a deep breath.
The sun had set behind the mountains. A pale violet gloom spread over the slant of the hills like ink dispersing in water. I circled around the back of the sheep house, crossed a wooden bridge over a stream, and headed toward the caretaker’s quarters. A cozy little one-story affair, dwarfed by a huge attached barn that stored hay and farm tools.
The caretaker was next to the barn, stacking plastic bags of disinfectant beside a yard-wide by yard-deep concrete trough. As I approached, he glanced up once, then returned to the task at hand, unaffected by my presence. Not until I was in front of him did he stop and wipe his face with the towel around his neck.
“Tomorrow’s the day for disinfecting the sheep,” he said, pulling out a crushed pack of cigarettes and lighting up. “This here’s where we pour the liquid disinfectant and make the sheep swim from end to end. Otherwise, being indoors, they get all kinds of bugs over the winter.”
“You do all this by yourself?”
“You kidding? I got two helpers. Them and me and the dog. The dog does most of the work, though. The sheep trust the dog. He ain’t no sheepdog if the sheep don’t trust him.”
The man was a couple inches shorter than me, solidly built. He was in his late forties, with close-cropped hair, stiff and straight as a hairbrush. He pulled his rubber gloves off as if he were peeling off a layer of skin. Whacking himself on his pants, he stood with his hands in his patch pockets. He was more than a caretaker of sheep; he was rather like a drill sergeant at a military school.
“So you’ve come to ask something, eh?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Well, do your askin’.”
“You’ve been in this line of work a long time?”
“Ten years,” he said. “If that’s a long time, I don’t know, but I do know my sheep. Before that I was in the Self-Defense Forces.”
He threw his hand towel around his neck and looked up at the sky.
“You stay here through the winter?”
“Well, uh,” he coughed, “I guess so. No other place for me to go. Besides, there’s a lot of busywork to take care of over the winter. We get near to six feet of snow in these parts. It piles up and if the roof caves in, you got yourself some flat sheep. Plus I feed them, clean out the sheep house, and this and that.”
“When summer comes around, you take half of them up into the mountains?”
“That’s right.”
“How difficult is it walking so many sheep?”
“Easy. That’s what people used to do all the time. It’s only in recent years you got sheep keepers, not sheep herders. Used to be they’d keep them on the move the whole year ’round. In Spain in the fifteen hundreds, they had roads all over the country no one but shepherds could use, not even the King.”
The man spat phlegm onto the ground, rubbing it into the dirt with his shoe.
“Anyway, as long as they’re not frightened, sheep are very cooperative creatures. They’ll just follow the dog without asking any questions.”
I took out the Rat’s sheep photograph and handed it to the caretaker. “This is the place in the photo, right?”
“Sure is,” said the man. “No doubt about it: they’re our sheep too.”
“What about this one?” I pointed with my ballpoint pen to the stocky sheep with the star on its back.
The man squinted at the photograph a second. “No, that’s not one of ours. Sure is strange, though. There’s no way it could’ve gotten in there. The whole place is fenced in with wire, and I check each animal morning and night. The dog would notice if a strange one got in. The sheep would raise a fuss too. But you know, never in my life have I ever seen this breed of sheep.”
“Did anything strange happen this year when you were up in the mountains with the sheep?”
“Nothing at all,” he said. “It was peaceful as could be.”
“And you were up there alone all summer?”
“No, I wasn’t alone. Every other day staffers came up from town, and then there’d be some official observers too. Once a week I went down to town, and a replacement looked after the sheep. Need to stock up on provisions and things.”
“Then you weren’t holed up there alone the whole time?”
“No. Summer lasts as long as the snow doesn’t get too deep, and it’s only an hour and a half to the ranch by jeep. Hardly more than a little stroll. Of course, once it snows and cars can’t get through, you’re stuck up there the whole winter.”
“So nobody’s up on the mountain now?”
“Nobody but the owner of the villa.”
“The owner of the villa? But I heard that the place hasn’t been used in ages.”
The caretaker flicked his cigarette to the ground and stepped on it. “It hasn’t been used in ages. But it is now. If you had half a mind to, no reason why you couldn’t live there. I put in a little upkeep on the house myself. The electricity and gas and phone are all working. Not one pane of glass is broken.”
“The man from Town Hall said nobody was up there.”
“There’s lots of stuff those guys don’t know. I’ve gotten work on the side from the owner all along, never spilled a word to anyone. He told me to keep it quiet.”
The man wanted another cigarette, but his pack was empty. I offered him my half-smoked pack of Larks, folding against it a ten-thousand-yen note. The man considered the gratuity for a second, then put one cigarette to his lips and pocketed everything else. “Much obliged,” he said.
“So when did the owner show up?”
“Spring. Wasn’t yet spring thaw, so it must’ve been March. It was maybe five years since he’d been up here. Don’t rightly know why he came after all this time, but well, that’s the owner’s business and none of mine. He told me not to tell a soul. He must have had his reasons. In any case, he’s been up there ever since. I buy him his food and fuel in secret and deliver it by jeep a little at a time. With all he’s got, he could hold out for a year, easy.”
“He wouldn’t happen to be about my age, with a moustache, would he?”
“Uh-huh,” said the caretaker. “That’s the guy.”
“Just great,” I said. There was no need to show him the photograph.
A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel - Haruki Murakami A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel