UNTIL LAST YEAR, I worked in a small apartment on Nampeidai in Shibuya. In actuality, the apartment was not on Nampeidai proper, but was located away from the main street and all its spacious mansions, and thus the deposit and the rent were not so very expensive. Of the apartment’s two rooms, I used one as an office and the other as a reception room to speak with clients from magazines. My clients would often compliment me on finding such a conveniently sized workplace.
However, it was not I who had found this place. I had taken it over for Mr. Corgan, who had lived here until about four months ago. Corgan was a recently resigned priest from America. For fifteen years he had been doing research on early Christianity in Japan at a women’s college run by his religious order. Though only forty-eight, he was completely bald except for a few golden hairs growing sparsely at the top of his head. Due to his circular face and rotund build, I heard that the college girls called him Kewpie. I must admit that, to me as well, he seemed not so much a priest or a college lecturer as the kind of man you might see working in a butcher shop in downtown New York.
“My late mother used to paint houses in Berkeley,” he once told me. “Have you heard of Berkeley? They have a good university there.”
I never once asked him why he abruptly left the clergy. These past five or six years, there had been a veritable deluge of priests even in my circle of acquaintances gushing out of churches and monasteries. The phenomenon of malcontent clergymen deciding to change their lives, disillusioned with a Christianity that had long forgotten about pouring new wine into old wineskins, was one that had been seen in Europe for several years, and it had now spilled over into Japan as well. As for myself, I did not like the idea of poking about in the wounds of former priests merely out of curiosity.
I visited Corgan in this room, though only occasionally, during the four months prior to his return home. Often, a dark colored man with a bloated head named Takayama would be visiting when I came. Apparently, he was one of Corgan’s colleagues who was collaborating with him at the university in his research into the history of Kyūshū’s early Christians.
“When you go back home, let me have this room,” I requested of Corgan. His Kewpie doll face had smiled as he gazed carefully about the room he was to leave behind at last, looking as if he were trying to memorize the walls and windows. The sun was setting.
“It’s got roaches, you know. Are you sure you want it?”
“That’s hardly a problem, since I won’t be eating here.”
I loved the way the morning’s soothing rays came in through the east window. Corgan used one room as a study and the other as a bedroom. In the bedroom was a sofa bed he had bought on sale at a department store, but it reeked of body odor, a smell like blue cheese that was a bit much for me. Despite fifteen years in Japan and a love for Japanese food, Corgan still smelled like a white man.
He went to Kyūshū several times during the four months before he left. His purpose was to conduct his final investigation of Japanese Christian history.
“I’ve grown quite interested in Ōtomo Yoshimune,” he said one day in this room, facing Mr. Takayama and me. Then, too, the sun was setting as the three of us drank some Hida saké that I had brought. When Corgan drank, his face became as red as a Kewpie doll that had been soaking in a bathtub. At forty-eight, he was always complaining of high blood pressure.
Though he had enunciated the words Ōtomo Yoshimune quite clearly, I had no idea to whom he was referring. Mr. Takayama informed me that Ōtomo Yoshimune was the son of Ōtomo Sōrin. Ōtomo Sōrin was known well enough that even I had a vague idea of who he was. A Christian general of Bungo in Kyūshū, he had at one point brought Bungo Hyūga under his control. Afterward, his power declined, and he was eventually forced to enlist the help of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Yoshimune was Sōrin’s firstborn son.
“Yoshimune wasn’t much of a man, was he? Even his retainers used to make sport of him because he lost every battle his father Sōrin ordered him into.”
It was an odd feeling being told about Japanese history by a foreigner like Corgan, but after all, it was one of his areas of specialty.
“Even when Hideyoshi invaded Korea, Yoshimune reluctantly joined in the battle. He didn’t have much faith in himself as a fighter, but he had no choice but to do as Hideyoshi commanded. As he was approaching P’yŏngyang with six thousand troops, a huge Chinese army suddenly came across the border to aid Korea. Just like the recent Korean War. Konishi’s army in P’yŏngyang panicked and sought Yoshimune’s support, but he ignored them and fled. Hideyoshi flew into a rage, condemning Yoshimune as the most cowardly man in Japan, confiscating his land, and locking him up in a temple in Yamaguchi. Hideyoshi took more than his land—he took his wife as well.”
“Even then, Yoshimune didn’t do a thing. After Hideyoshi died, he was pardoned by Ieyasu. But he sat idle during the battle of Sekigahara and incurred the disfavor of Ieyasu as well. As punishment, Ieyasu had him exiled to Yokosawa in Akita. Up there he lived in rags with two servants, cinched a rope around his waist, flogged himself every day, and died like a beggar.”
“Of some illness?”
“No, probably of malnutrition.”
“How old was he?”
“Forty-eight. Just like me.”
As Corgan uttered the words “just like me,” a sad smile crossed his round face. I stared directly at him, not out of interest in Yoshimune, but rather out of interest in the psychology of someone who would delay his return home for four months to research such a man. People have character flaws and weaknesses that they cannot seem to overcome, try though they might, and sometimes these flaws and weaknesses can shape a man’s destiny. These were my thoughts. The man Yoshimune had once tumbled helplessly down the slope of his own flawed character toward destruction; perhaps in this man of Japan, the forty-eight-year-old ex-priest Corgan had found a likeness of himself.
It was a rainy June day when he left for home. I brought a gift and saw him off at Yokohama port. In order to save on the costs of travel, Corgan left on a cargo-passenger ship headed for San Francisco. She was a worn-out old ship named the Maria Teresa, and out of her rusty rear scupper she expelled a white liquid reminiscent of water after rice has been rinsed in it. The only ones there to see him off were five or six female students, Mr. Takayama, and myself. Nobody from his congregation nor any member of the clergy came. Of course, that was because he had fallen away from the priesthood. Above the ocean, white seagulls cried as they flew through the rain, and Corgan looked down at us from the deck.
“It’s a shame,” I said to Mr. Takayama.
“It’s the same as in the Communist Party, isn’t it? They don’t look favorably on people who leave their ranks,” he replied coolly.
The apartment manager did not have much of a liking for Corgan either.
“He was always late with his rent. And he made a big fuss about a few cockroaches.”
Of course, resigning from the priesthood and a professorship had denied him his means of income. He had taught English to some of his former students to get through these last four months. It was understandable that he was late with his rent, and it was not his fault that he could not stand to have cockroaches crawling around his kitchen.
“And he had this girl that he’d bring home with him.”
Seeing my odd expression, the manager explained himself.
“Of course it’s all right for an ordinary man to bring girls home, but he was a pastor, after all. A girl from the neighborhood bar would come visit the pastor’s apartment.”
It did not surprise me that a priest’s reputation should go down when he renounced his priesthood. Of course, the clergy tried to avoid speaking of such subjects as far as possible, but among the congregation were many voices that freely whispered gossip. The feeling of having been betrayed by one in whom they believed, and the disillusionment that followed, would cause them to look upon their former priest with a prejudiced eye. With Corgan it was the same. I heard rumors that he favored only the students who did well in their studies, or that he neglected his teaching duties in favor of his research. One woman from the congregation told me that even while still a priest, he would sometimes change into street clothes and go drinking in bars at Shinjuku. When I countered by asking what was wrong with a priest going drinking, she had no reply.
“I heard that Kewpie had a girlfriend in some bar around here,” I mentioned to Mr. Takayama in the room that had become my office. “The manager was grumbling about it.”
“If it was a bar around here, I took him there once,” said Mr. Takayama. Then, cocking his head to one side, “I wonder if it was her?”
That evening, I asked him to come with me to the bar he had mentioned. I was curious as to what kind of girl Corgan would have had as a girlfriend.
The bar was on the corner where Nampeidai crossed the main road that connected with the tollway. It was a completely unremarkable bar with a sign on the door reading “Servers Wanted.” There was a gas station across the street where a young man in white work clothes was washing a car. As I descended the narrow stairs and pushed on the door to the underground room, which smelled of cement, I saw a waiter playing a game of dice with two women. There were no customers.
“Come on in!” the women said. No sooner had we sat down in a booth than the women slid in beside us and immediately put their hands on our knees. The chubbier of the two was the proprietress, and the kinder-looking one a server. Neither of them seemed to recognize Mr. Takayama, and after a bit of standard banter, I asked, “There was a foreigner who used to come to this place, wasn’t there?”
They asked which foreigner I was referring to, since there were three who were regulars at this bar.
“He had a face like a Kewpie doll.”
“Oh, Kewpie!” they both laughed. “We call him that, too. He’s Kumi’s boyfriend.”
Kumi was the proprietress’s niece, they said. She would come sometimes to help with the bar. They weren’t sure whether she would be in today, but the waiter said, “She’s coming.” We played dice with the waiter while waiting for her to arrive. Presently, a pale, delicate-looking young woman wearing blue jeans appeared.
“That’s Kewpie’s friend,” said the kind-looking server. Even as she spoke, Kumi handed a large paper sack filled with vegetables to the waiter and said, “He’s already gone back home to his country, hasn’t he? I wanted to see him off, but I couldn’t make it because of a fever.”
“She was sick with a bladder infection at the time,” the proprietress informed me. Indeed, a look at her face revealed that she was obviously not in good health. With her blouse buttoned over a small chest and her jeans pulled over hips that were no more than skin and bone, she was a stark contrast to the plump proprietress. She looked more like a girl than a woman. The employees said that Corgan would come to this bar once a week and drink alone, sitting on a stool, never in one of the booths.
“He certainly was quiet,” continued the proprietress in a teasing tone. “I don’t think he really liked us.”
“That’s not true!” argued Kumi as she placed a piece of cheese on a plate. “Kewpie was just shy.”
“Did you ever go to his apartment?” I jumped in. Kumi responded unflinchingly, “Yes, I did. One time I took him a sandwich when he was in bed with a cold.”
After that, I began frequenting that bar. Since I had more money than Corgan had, I would sit in one of the two booths rather than on a stool, and would sometimes invite Kumi to sit with me. Sometimes, under the influence of a little saké, I would place my arm around her. From the frailness of her shoulders, even without undressing her I could imagine her sunken stomach and childlike legs. I never had any desire to sleep with her.
One day, while I was washing my hands in the lavatory, Kumi came in. She stood behind me, staring at my reflection in the mirror. Then, suddenly, she asked, “Umm, would you be willing to lend me a little money?”
Rubbing the soap over my hands, I asked what she needed it for. She said that her mother had an emergency and needed twenty thousand yen. She continued to stare at me, squinting as though nearsighted. Thinking this woman much like a little mouse, I reminisced about Corgan.
“I could help you. But first I want you to tell me more about Kewpie,” I said, still cloudy from drinking. “Did he ever hit on you?”
“He’s not that type of guy.”
“Yes, but you went to his apartment, didn’t you?”
“We just talked, nothing more.”
“What did you talk about?”
“All sorts of things. His family, his mother….”
“What happened with his mother?”
“When he became a priest, he said nobody was more pleased than his mother.”
“He quit the priesthood.”
“Yes, that’s what he said. When Kewpie talked about his mother, he got all choked up, like he was about to cry.”
With a spirit of malice, I began slowly to draw ten-thousand-yen bills out of my wallet, one by one. I could feel Kumi’s stare on my hand.
“You never kissed him?”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
“So you two never did anything?”
“Nothing…except I spanked him once.”
“Well, Kewpie asked me to.” She answered as if that were entirely reasonable.
“And? What did he do then?”
“He looked like he was about to cry then, too. That’s all. Why are you asking me this? It doesn’t matter!”
Someone else came into the lavatory, so we cut off our conversation and I headed back to my booth. Kumi began chopping up blocks of ice with the waiter as though nothing had happened.
I returned to my office late that night. The desk lamp cast dark shadows over the small room. This had been Corgan’s bedroom when he lived here. It had the blue-cheese stench of his body odor. I realized how lonely his last four months here must have been.
The second month after Corgan left, the summer grew unusually hot. I installed a small air conditioner in my office, but it did not work particularly well. When I would step out of the apartment to get a meal, the din of the traffic on the main road assaulted me and the hot air blasted my face.
In the middle of this heat, I heard something strange. It may seem ridiculous, but it is actually quite interesting. There was a statue of the Blessed Mother in a small convent on the outskirts of the city of Akita that had shed tears. The statue was carved out of wood and was just shy of a meter in height. One day as a sister was praying in the chapel, the statue’s face was suddenly drenched in sweat, and tears began to flow from its eyes. After that, the statue wept every day, right before the sisters’ eyes. Not only did it cry, but a wound appeared in its palm and began to bleed.
This incident never made it into the newspapers, but persisted as a constant topic of conversation among church members throughout that summer. It perplexed some and made others so uncomfortable that they denied it outright. The clergy did not speak of it at first, but as the story spread rapidly in the blazing summer, there were priests in Tokyo who became furious, saying that such superstitious nonsense had nothing to do with true religion.
One hot day, I took Mr. M— from a magazine company to Kumi’s bar and told this story of the Blessed Mother to the waitresses.
“I believe it,” said the kind-looking waitress. The waiter merely shrugged his shoulders with a look of scorn. “Maybe I’ll go and take a look at it,” said Kumi, polishing a cup, “since my mother lives in Akita.”
“Your mother lives in Akita?” I asked. She had never mentioned as much when she asked for money. In fact, she never returned the twenty thousand yen, pretending as if she had forgotten.
“Would you do an article about that Mary statue?” asked Mr. M—.
As for myself, I certainly could not believe in such a wild fancy. I felt as did the priests in Tokyo, that such preposterous things had nothing to do with true religion. All the same, I was quite interested in the psychology of the nuns who would spread such a tale.
“Have you heard from Kewpie?” I asked.
“No, nothing,” said Kumi, shaking her head. It seemed as if his existence were fading from her mind.
“This girl used to sleep with a priest from America who quit the clergy,” I told M—, pointing to Kumi. I felt a spirit of malice again. “Didn’t you, Kumi?”
“We never slept together! Besides, Kewpie was much older than me.”
“Then why did you visit his apartment so often?”
“Because I felt bad for him! He always seemed so lonely.”
The other employees listened intently to our conversation, smiling vaguely.
“If you felt bad for him, why did you spank him?”
“Because,” Kumi started with a blush, “I told you! He asked me to.”
“How did he ask?”
“He said, ‘Spank me…in my mother’s place.’”
“You spanked him?” the waitress asked mockingly. Kumi began to cry from everyone’s teasing. I sipped at my whisky and water, suddenly ashamed of myself.
After we exited the bar, Mr. M— from the publishing company stopped and called me out.
“What’s wrong with you? Why did you go on teasing the girl like that? She’s a nice girl.”
“I don’t know.”
I shook my head. Maybe jealousy, I thought to myself. Yet I never once wanted to sleep with Kumi. If it had been jealousy, it was a different type of jealousy.
As September continued, the heat subsided somewhat. I boarded a plane to Akita with Mr. M— to get more details on the mysterious happening at the convent. Rice paddies blossoming with yellow stretched out on both sides of the road from the airport to downtown. A layer of white clouds hovered above the mountains to the northeast. The convent was in a small glen outside the city, fenced in by green mountains and capped with white clouds.
The tiny convent was completely silent. I shouted a greeting but received no response. We walked around to a large cabbage patch in the back, where a woman dressed to work in the fields was washing vegetables in a bucket. She was one of the convent’s nuns. This was a lay convent, meaning that the nuns here worked all day just as do ordinary people, teaching classes, running a nursery, and the like.
A flustered Mr. M— returned from talking with the nun. “She says that they don’t talk to reporters, because they don’t want anyone to get any wrong ideas,” he reported, and then asked my advice. I had been standing a short distance away, smoking a cigarette. His shoes were covered in mud from tromping through the cabbage patch.
“Will they let us take a look at the statue of the Blessed Mother?”
“Yes, she says that the chapel is open to anyone.”
We went back around to the entrance, fretting all the while about the mud on our shoes, and peered in at the chapel off to the side. It was a mat-floored room of about thirty square feet, with an altar in the center and the Blessed Mother statue placed to one side. Upon closer inspection, we could see that the Madonna, with her hands stretched out to either side, was almost one meter tall and made of unvarnished wood. Only her neck and face seemed to have been dyed a darker shade of brown, as if they had been soaked with some kind of liquid. Her face was that of an utterly exhausted woman.
“It looks like she just gave birth,” muttered Mr. M—. His wife had recently borne a child, so it is possible that the statue reminded him of her face at that moment. As for myself, it reminded me of the way my mother looked right after she died. Thirty years ago, when my mother died in the middle of the night, I had been out on the town in Shinjuku with my friends. When I heard that she was dying, I rushed as fast as I could to be with her, only to find that she had breathed her last just an hour before I arrived. A number of members of her church were kneeling around her, burning dim candles at the head of her bed. As my mother lay there with her hands clasped together, her face in the candlelight looked exhausted, a shadow of suffering visible between her eyebrows. For a long time, that shadow of suffering would return to my mind again and again.
“No evidence of tears or bloodstains, are there?” said Mr. M—, looking disappointedly at her hands. “So it was just a hoax after all.” Just then, I sensed the presence of the nun in her work clothes and turned around. She had heard Mr. M— from the entryway, and merely shook her head forcefully and stared at us. Her intense, ingenuous eyes seemed to say, It’s no hoax. It really happened.
That evening, we visited Akita University’s college of medicine to meet with a professor and his assistant who had tested samples of blood and tears from the statue. The college of medicine was located in a newly developed area outside of the city. The hospital with its glowing windows resembled a ship on the ocean. In a barren research laboratory on the fourth floor we heard about the tests from a plump man with a ruddy complexion whom I will call Professor O—.
“I handed a piece of gauze that I brought from the convent to Assistant Professor S— in the forensics lab. I figured that if I told him anything, he might become biased, so I simply gave him the gauze with the explanation that it was for some research of mine. So S— didn’t know at the time that the sample had been taken from the statue of Santa Maria.”
“And? How did the tests come out?”
“It was impossible to determine what the sweat was, but the tears and the blood were unmistakably human. The blood type was B.”
“But we just looked at it a few hours ago,” countered Mr. M—, “and there were no wounds in the statue’s hands.”
“They disappeared. Apparently, the wounds were originally in the shape of a cross, but then they grew rounder and deeper. They only lasted for a day.” I could not bring myself to believe that this chubby Professor O— was deceiving us. For one thing, there was no benefit to him in lying.
“The sweat and tears had an interesting smell, too.”
“Yes, an indescribably pleasant smell. The most pleasant thing I’ve ever smelled, in fact. After that day, the whole chapel would sometimes be filled with that smell.”
“We couldn’t smell anything…but the Blessed Mother’s face did look rather exhausted.”
“I hear that the expression looks different to everybody,” Mr. O— said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “When children come into the room, for example, it fills with that smell, and the statue looks as if it has a kindly smile on its face.”
“Professor, do you believe that?”
“Well, it certainly is fascinating. Just the fact that the samples were scientifically proven to be what they were supposed to be is fascinating.”
Professor O— accompanied us to the elevator. Mr. M— and I were silent as we listened to the elevator’s low hum.
Finally, Mr. M— broke the silence. “For some odd reason, I’m all worn out,” he sighed. “I feel irritated and uneasy.”
I could understand how he felt. In my mind, I had been juxtaposing the image of my dead mother’s face with the Madonna’s exhausted one. I had seen the image of Our Lady of Lourdes in paintings and wooden statues when I went to France, but its face had not had such an expression.
“But he says that the face looks kind to some people.”
“It’s probably just the angle of their vantage point and the way the light hits the face, don’t you think?”
“We didn’t even smell anything.”
“Do you think it really happened? It just seems too unbelievable.” Mr. M— insisted that he simply could not believe in such strange happenings.
The following day, we had some time before our flight, so Mr. M— and I took a cab down to Lake Tazawa. Just as on the previous day, rice paddies blooming with yellow surrounded us on all sides, and white clouds hovered above the mountains. The trees had not yet begun to change colors, but the white clouds and clearly visible folds of the mountains produced a sensation of autumn. We passed a few villages, drove through a few small towns, and after nearly two hours, I saw a signboard which read “Yokosawa Village.”
“Stop the cab,” I said to the driver, remembering that when Corgan had mentioned Ōtomo Yoshimune, he said that the unfortunate man had been exiled to some place in Akita with a name like Yokosawa or Yokoyama, there to meet an end to his miserable life.
“Is this it, I wonder?” I was not sure that we were in the right place, but this village, with its run-down farmhouses scattered sparsely over a landscape backed with hillocks and thickets, seemed a perfect setting for that man’s last years. Corgan had said that Yoshimune wrapped himself in rags, cinched a rope around his waist, flogged himself every day, and eventually died of malnutrition.
“Does it get very cold here?” we asked the middle-aged cab driver, who looked honest enough. He nodded.
“Well, the snow gets very deep,” he replied.
I received a postcard from Corgan. It was from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, saying simply that he was living in New York and that life was hard. He made no mention of how he was making a living. I thought how difficult it must be for a forty-eight-year-old ex-priest to find a job.
I called Mr. Takayama, who told me that he had also received a letter from Corgan complaining that there were no publishers in America interested in his research on the history of early Christianity in Japan. He had ended his letter with “My life is a failure.”
I took Mr. Takayama to Kumi’s bar that evening for the first time in quite a while. As it was early evening, most customers had not shown up yet. The proprietress was nowhere to be seen, so the waiter and waitress were playing cards. As usual, Kumi was polishing the cups.
“What’s with the rosary?” we asked Kumi, noticing the shimmering beads around her neck. Needless to say, a rosary is something that Christians hold in their hands when they pray, similar to Buddhist prayer beads.
“Kewpie sent it to me. It sounds like he’s doing well,” she answered, watching me carefully, as if trying to discern something. Since the day we last spoke of him, it seemed as if Kumi had been intentionally trying to avoid talking about Corgan.
“Why would he send that to you?”
“Because I told him before that I wanted one,” she replied timidly, watching my expression. “The one he had was a memento from his mother, so he said he’d give me another later.”
“What did you want it for?”
“Because it makes a cute necklace.”
The small girl’s rosary of transparent glass beads with a silver cross at the bottom did indeed look good around Kumi’s thin, frail throat. But a rosary was for praying, not for hanging around the neck. I felt a little sorry for Corgan.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” the proprietress said as she came out and noticed me.
“I took a trip to Akita.”
As I told them about the statue of the Blessed Mother, Kumi and the waitress stared wide-eyed. The proprietress and the waiter both wore doubtful expressions.
“I believe it,” mumbled the kind-looking waitress in a voice filled with wonderment. “I think that kind of thing really does happen.”
“What makes you believe that?” the boy said half mockingly. “You’re not even Christian.”
“I may not be Christian, but that part about Mary smiling when children come into the room…. I want to believe in that.” She sighed, a distant look in her eyes. It occurred to me that perhaps this waitress had an unhappy childhood, or perhaps she was thinking of a child of her own who had been separated from her.
“It’s so disreputable a story,” broke in Mr. Takayama, “that a Christian culture organization is planning on writing up a public statement.”
“A public statement?”
“Yes. This kind of story gives ordinary Japanese a chance to scoff at Christianity. They won’t stand for it. It’s nothing more than the wild fancy of a few nuns.”
Suddenly, the eyes of the Akita nun in her work clothes, shaking her head vigorously, came into my mind. It’s not a hoax. It really happened, those intense eyes had seemed to say.
“So the church in Tokyo is unhappy with the whole thing?”
“It’s causing quite a problem. Akita’s a little behind the times, they’re saying.”
Indeed, a young friend of mine, a church member, complained to me about my magazine story on the image of the Blessed Mother. His tone was furious. “I didn’t think that you would take such nonsense seriously,” he said.
“Maybe I should have a look myself,” Kumi said suddenly. “I’m going back to Akita for the new year. Maybe while I’m there I could go to that convent.”
“Go take a look,” said Mr. Takayama with a smirk, turning over an empty glass. Kumi asked with agitation, “This Mary doesn’t do anything mean to people, does she? Like putting a curse on them or making them sick?”
“Mary? Never!” I laughed as I drew out a map of the convent for her. “She’s the Blessed Mother Mary, for goodness’ sake!”
Autumn came to a close, and winter began. I had completely accustomed myself to my office. The memories of Corgan that had lingered in these two rooms had completely disappeared. This was partly because a piece of the view we both used to look out on had gone. A large apartment building was under construction. Every day a different view presented itself to my eyes.
In the meantime, the ruckus caused by the rumor about the Blessed Mother statue had died down as well. Quite a few church members from Tokyo had gone to that convent, half out of curiosity and half from serious desire, but just as with me, the nuns refused to answer anyone’s questions. It was as if the nuns of that tiny convent were standing alone, desperately guarding the Blessed Mother’s secret from the scornful pointing fingers of the world.
On the sixth of January, one evening while I was working late, a sudden phone call interrupted me. “Come over here!” said the voice of the waitress from the bar. In her voice was the excitement of a person who had been searching for something lost and had found it. “Right away!”
“Please, come anyway!”
I stopped what I was doing and ventured out into the bone-chilling evening. It was only four o’clock, but already a dreary dusk had descended. Upon seeing me, the waitress and Kumi both fell silent.
“It has a scent.” Kumi drew the rosary out of her sweater pocket. The tiny glass beads sparkled like a chandelier.
“I had some time during the holidays to visit that convent in Akita. I saw it.”
“You did? What did its face look like?”
“It looked lonely and sad. I was thinking that it looked like the mother who Kewpie would always talk about. Then, the room started to fill with this nice smell. The nun who was with me said, ‘It’s been a while.’”
“It was probably just perfume.”
“No, there’s no perfume that smells like that. The smell seeped into my necklace, but nothing else.”
I took the rosary and held it to my face. A gentle fragrance, neither strong nor sharp, emanated from the glass beads. I could not determine what kind of fragrance it was. Suddenly, the word tenderness came into my mind. Yes, that was it. If there were a scent for the tenderness in people’s hearts, it would smell like this. It was the scent of my mother when I was a child. It was that scent that had been absent from my heart for so long. When I had gone to see the Blessed Mother, she had not bestowed this scent upon me. I felt this to be the Blessed Mother’s judgment on me—a judgment on my prideful life and my self-righteous faith.
Translated from the Japanese by Aaron Cooley
Read Mary Kenagy Mitchell’s conversation with Van Gessel, Shūsaku Endō’s primary English translator since the 1970s and Aaron Cooley’s teacher.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.