A FORTY-YEAR-OLD MAN

 

A FORTY-YEAR-OLD MAN was published in 1984 by Peter Owen Publishers in UK. When translated, original name of central character was changed from "NO-SE" to "SUGURO" because if it had been written in Roman letters as it sounds, it would have become “Mr. Nose” which would be strange. The translator got the permission to change the name to “Suguro” from the author when he was still alive. The episode tells you how labored translation could be.

 

 

 

A FORTY-YEAR-OLD  MAN

 

 

        1

 

People sometimes wonder when they will die, Suguro realized. But they never give much thought to where they will breathe their last.

No matter who dies in a hospital, the staff handle death as if they were mailing a package at the post office.

One evening the man in the next room, who suffered from intestina1 cancer, died. For a time Suguro could hear the weeping voices of the man’s family. Eventually some nurses went into the room, loaded the corpse onto a cart, and wheeled it down to the morgue. The following morning the cleaning woman was humming a tune as she sterilized the vacated room. Later that same afternoon, another patient would be admitted. No one would tell him that a man had died in his room the previous evening, and the new patient would of course have no way of obtaining that information.

The sky is cloudless. Dinner is brought around to the hospital rooms as usual, as though nothing at all has happened. On the streets below, beyond the windows of the hospital, cars and buses race by. Everyone is concealing something.

 

 

Two weeks before the day scheduled for his third operation, Suguro had his wife buy a myna bird. That particular kind of bird was considerably more expensive than a finch or a canary, and when he made the suggestion, a faint look of distress flashed across her face. But she nodded ‘All right,’ and forced a smile. Her cheeks had become thinner over the long months of caring for her husband.

In the course of his illness, Suguro had seen this smile many times. On the day the doctor had held the still-damp X-rays up to the light and declared, ‘With lesions like this, we’re going to have to operate,’ his wife had produced that unwavering smile in an attempt to salve his troubled mind. He had in fact been left speechless for some time when the doctors announced that they would be removing six of his ribs. In the middle of the night after that painful operation, when he had awakened still drowsy from the anaesthetic, the first thing he had seen was this smile on his wife’s face. Even when the second operation ended in failure and Suguro felt completely drained of life, that smile never fled from her face.

His three years in the hospital had whittled down their bank account to virtually nothing. Undoubtedly it was inconsiderate of him to ask her to use part of their dwindling funds to buy an expensive myna bird. But right now Suguro had a reason for wanting the bird.

His wife seemed to regard the request as merely the whim of an ailing man, for she nodded and said, ‘I’ll get one at the department store tomorrow.’

At dusk the next day, she came into the room carrying a large package in either arm. Their son followed along behind. It was a depressingly overcast December day. One of the packages contained his freshly-laundered pyjamas and underwear. He could hear the faint rustling of a bird inside the other package, which was wrapped in a cloth with an arabesque pattern.

‘Was it expensive?’

‘Don’t worry about it. They knocked something off the price for me.’

Their five-year-old son crouched excitedly in front of the cage and peered inside.

 Vivid yellow stripes trimmed the neck of the stark-black myna bird. It sat frozen on its perch, its chest feathers quivering-perhaps the train journey had been unsettling.

        ‘Now you won’t be all alone when we go home.’

Nights in the hospital were dark and long. Relatives were not allowed to stay in the rooms after 6 p.m. He always ate dinner alone, then stretched out alone on his bed, with nothing to do but stare at the ceiling.

‘Feeding it is quite a business. The man told me you have to dissolve the feed in water and then shape it into a ball about the size of your thumb.’

‘Won’t it choke on something that bit?’

‘No. He said it helps them learn to imitate all kinds of voices.’ She went into the kitchen provided for patients’ use. Preparing part of his diet was one of her responsibilities.

The boy poked at the bird with his finger, and it crouched panicstricken in one corner of the cage. ‘Daddy, they said this bird can talk. Will you teach him to say some things before I come next time?’

Suguro smiled and nodded to his son, who had been born in the maternity ward of this hospital nearly six years before. ‘Sure. What should I teach him? Would you like me to get him to say your name?’

Evening haze began to coil around the hospital room. Outside the window dim lights flickered in each of the wings of the hospital. A squeaky food wagon passed down the corridor.

Suguro’s wife returned with a plate of food. ‘The house is empty tonight, so we ought to be heading back.’ She wrapped the plate in cellophane and set it on a chair. ‘You’ve got to eat all of this whether you’re hungry or not. You must build up your strength before the operation.’

At his mother’s prodding, the boy said, ‘Goodbye, Daddy. Take care of yourself.’ At the door his wife turned back once more and said, ‘Keep fighting.’

And that smile lit up her face again.

His room was suddenly quiet. With a flutter the myna bird darted about its cage. Sitting on his bed, Suguro peered into the mournful eyes of the bird. He recognized that it had been capricious of him, but he had several reasons for imploring his wife to buy this expensive bird.

Ever since the failure of his second operation, flowed by the decision that once entire lung would have to be removed, the necessity of seeing people had pained Suguro. The doctors always spoke confidently when they talked to him about the approaching surgery, but he could tell from their expressions and from the way they avoided his eyes that the chances of success were slim. His problems were complicated by the fact that after his second abortive operation, the pleurae had adhered tightly to  the walls of his chest.The greatest danger posed by the imminent surgery was the massive haemorrhaging that  would occur when those adhesions were stripped away. He had already heard stories of several patients in the same predicament who had died on the operating table. He no longer had the strength to  greet visitors and joke with them, feigning high spirits. A myna bird seemed the ideal companion.

As the age of forty crept up on him, Suguro began to derive pleasure from studying the eyes of dogs and birds. Viewed from one angle, those eyes seemed cold and inhuman; yet from another perspective they appeared to brim with sorrow. He had once raised a pair of finches, but one of them had died. He had held the tiny bird in the palm of his hand before it expired. Once or twice it struggled to open its eyes, as though in final desperate defiance of the white membrane of death that was gradually stealing across its pupils.

He came to be aware of eyes filled with a similar sorrow observing his own life. Suguro felt particularly that those eyes had been fixed on him since the events of a day many years past. The eyes were riveted on him, as if they were trying to tell him something.

 

2

 

A bronchoscope test was one of the required pre-operative examinations. A metal tube with a mirror attached was plunged directly down the patient’s throat and into the bronchi to examine them. Because of the miserable position they had to assume for the test-stretched out on the examination table with the metal rod thrust down their throats-the patients called this test. ‘The Barbecue.’ It was all the nurses could do to hold down their victims as they writhed in pain and coughed up blood and spittle from their throats.

When the test was completed and Suguro limped back to his room, wiping the blood from his battered gums, his wife and son were waiting for him.

‘Your face is as white as a sheet.’

‘I had a test. The barbecued chicken thing.’

By now Suguro was numb to physical pain,and it no longer frightened him.

‘Daddy, how’s the myna bird?’

‘He hasn’t learned to say anything yet.’

Suguro sat on the edge of the bed and tried to calm his irregular breathing.

‘Just before we left, Yasuko called from Ōmori. She said she and her husband were coming over today to see you.’ His wife had her back to him, tying on an apron as she spoke, so he could not read the expression on her face.

‘With her husband?’

‘Uh-huh.’

        Yasuko was his wife’s cousin. Four years ago she had married an official of the Economic Planning Agency. One look at the man’s sturdy neck and broad shoulders and Suguro was impressed  that he had seen the model of the aggressive businessman.

Suguro lapsed into silence. His wife seemed to feel some constraint and ventured, ‘Yasuko could…If you’re worn out from the tests, I can call and tell her not to come.’

‘No, it’s all right. If they’re going to the trouble of coming…’

He lay down on the bed. Pillowing his head on his arms, he stared up at the ceiling, which was stained with rain leaks. The borders of the stains had yellowed. It had been raining on that night, too. In a confessional smaller and darker than this hospital room, he had knelt down, separated by a metal grille from an old foreign priest who reeked of wine.

‘Misereatur tui Omnipotens Deus...’

The old priest lifted one hand and intoned the Latin prayer, then turned his head to the side and waited quietly for Suguru to speak.

‘I…’Suguro began, then paused. For a long while he had debated whether to come to this chamber and confess what he had done. Finally he had summoned the courage and come here, hoping to tear off the gauze and diseased flesh that clung to his wound.

‘I…’I… when I was a child, I was baptized because my parents wanted me to be, not because I wanted to. As a result, I went to church for many years as a formality, because it had become a habit. But after that particular day, I knew that I could never cast off the ill-fitting clothes my parents had dressed me in.

Over the years those clothes themselves had adhered to him, and he knew that if he discarded them, he would be left with no protection for his body or his soul.

‘Hurry,’ the priest urged him quietly, the smells of wine and of his own foul  breath spewing together from his mouth. ‘The next person is waiting.’

‘I haven’t been to Mass for a long time. My daily actions have been lacking in charity...’  One after another Suguro let the inconsequential sins spill forth. ‘I have not been an exemplary husband or father in my home.’

These words are absurd!  I’m here on my knees muttering absolutely ridiculous phrases! Through his mind flashed the faces of friends who would mock him if they could see him now. His words were more than ridiculous―they were filled with a vile hypocrisy that had become a part of him.

This was not what he had come to say. The matter which Suguro felt compelled to confess to the one who stood beyond the reeking old priest had nothing to do with these insignificant, petty transgressions.

‘Is that all?’

Suguro sensed that he was about to perform an act of even baser dishonesty.

‘Yes. That’s all.’

‘Recite the Hail Mary three times. Do you understand? He died for the sins of us all….’ When he had delivered this simple admonition and prescribed the simple  penance in an almost mechanical tone, the priest again lifted his hand and chanted a Latin prayer. ‘Now...go in peace.’

Suguru got up and walked to the door of the tiny chamber. How can they claim that a person’s sins are forgiven through such a perfunctory ceremony? He could still hear the priest saying, ‘He died for the sins of us all….’ His knees throbbed slightly from kneeling on the floor. Behind him he sensed those sorrowful eyes, staring at him with a pain greater than he had seen in the eyes of the finch that had died in the palm of his hand….

‘Good morning. Good morning. Good morning!’

‘You’ll just confuse the poor bird if you talk that fast.’ Suguro got out of bed, put on his slippers, and went out onto the veranda. He crouched next to his son in front of the birdcage. The bird had cocked its head and was listening quizzically to the boy’s voice.

‘Come on! “Good morning.’’ Say “Good morning!’’’

The metal birdcage reminded Suguro of the confessional. A gridwork partition just like this had separated him from the foreign priest. In the end he had not confessed what he had done. He had been unable to speak the words.

‘Say it! Why won’t you say it, birdie?’

‘It can’t say it.’

His wife looked at him, surprised by his remark. Suguro stared at the floor. There was a knock at the door, and the white face of a woman peered in. It was Yasuko.

3

 

‘I kept thinking we ought to come see you. I’m really sorry. Even my husband says I’m terrible.'

Yasuko was wearing a white Ōshima kimono with a finely-patterned jacket. She sat down next to her husband and balanced her handbag on her lap.

‘These probably aren’t any good, but try them anyway,’she said, handing Suguro’s wife some cookies from Izumiya. Like Nagasakiya sponge cake, this was a confection which visitors almost invariably felt obliged to bring to a patient in hospital.

And like the cookies, the expression on the face of Yasuko’s husband made it obvious that he had come solely out of a sense of obligation towards his relatives. If I die, Suguro thought absently, he’ll feel obliged to put on a black arm-band and come to the funeral. But the moment he gets home, he’ll  have Yasuko sprinkle salt on him to exorcize the pollution of death.

‘Your colour looks very good,’ Yasuko was saying. ‘I’m sure everything will be all right this time. Why, what could go wrong? All you have to do is convince yourself that bad luck is behind you now.’ Then Yasuko turned to her husband to solicit his concurrence. ‘Isn't that right?’

‘Umm-hmm.’

‘My husband’s really the one in danger-he’s never had a day’s illness in his life. He’s out partying late every night with business meetings and this and that. They say it’s better to be sick once than never at all, so I’ll bet your husband will outlive us all. You’ve got to be careful too, dear.’

‘Ummm-hmmm.’ Yasuko’s husband muttered his assent as he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. Then he glanced at Suguro and hurriedly stuffed them back.

‘Go ahead and smoke. It doesn't bother me.’

‘No.’ He shook his head in perplexity.

        Yasuko and Suguro’s wife began talking amongst themselves. Their conversation apparently dealt with an old friend whom neither Suguro nor Yasuko’s husband had heard of. As the topic of conversation shifted to who had married whom, and then to a recital which a certain dance teacher was giving, the two men, excluded from the discussion, could only look at one another in awkward silence.

‘That’s a lovely obi, Yasuko.’

‘Don’t be silly. It was cheap.’

Yasuko was wearing a crimson obi with her white Ōshima kimono.

‘That crimson suits you very well. Where did you have it made?’

‘The Mitsudaya. In Yotsuya...’

This was unusual cynicism for his wife. Suguro knew that she thought it was vulgar to wear obis like this one, and he was left to wonder what had prompted this caustic remark to Yasuko. Maybe it was because she didn’t have that sort of obi herself. The kimonos and obis she had brought with her when they were married had disappeared one after another. It had dawned on Suguro that without saying anything she had been selling them over the last three years while he had been in the hospital. But he realized now that simple covetousness had not been the only motivation for her remark, and he was startled.

The crimson of Yasuko’s obi reminded him of the colour of blood. Blood had spattered the smock of the doctor at the little maternity clinic where he had taken Yasuko.It must have been Yasuko’s blood.And,to be more precise, partly his blood, too. The blood of something that had come about between him and Yasuko.

When it had happened several years before, Suguro’s wife had been in a bed in the matenity ward of this same hospital. She had not been admitted for delivery. There was considerable danger that the birth would be premature, so she had been put into the hospital for nearly two weeks. If the child were born prematurely, it would weigh less then 700 grams and would have to be cared for in an incubator, so the doctor had given his wife regular injections of special hormones.

Yasuko was still not married then, so she often came to visit Suguro’s wife in the hospital. Bringing Bavarian cremes instead of Izumiya cookies. She would toss out the faded flowers in her cousin’s room and replace them with roses. The studio where she studied dancing was in nearby Samon-cho, so it was no trouble for her to stop by the hospital on her way home.

Often when the bell rang to signal the end of visiting hours, Suguro would turn up the collar of his overcoat and accompany Yasuko outside. He would turn back to stare at the wing of the maternity ward. With the lights shining in each tiny window, the ward looked like a ship docking at night.

‘You’re going to have to go back home by yourself and eat alone, aren’t you...? That’s miserable. You don’t have a maid, do you?’ Yasuko frequently commented, nestling down into her shawl.

        ‘What am I supposed to do? I can buy a can of something and take it home.’

        ‘If that’s what you’re going to do ..I..Would you like me to cook dinner for you? How about it?’

Looking back on it now, Suguro was no longer sure whether he had seduced Yasuko or she had tempted him. It made no difference. A relationship-whether love, or a union born of loneliness, or one without any special justification-had swiftly developed between them. When Suguro tugged at her arm, she had spilled over onto him, her eyes narrowed to slits, as if she had been waiting for this. They tumbled together onto the bed which had belonged  to Suguro's wife before their marriage. When it was over, Yasuko had sat in front of his wife’s mirror stand and, lifting her white arms to her head, had straightened her tousled hair.

The day before his wife was readmitted to the hospital for the actual delivery, Yasuko had fearfully announced to Suguro, ‘I think I’m pregnant. What are we going to do?’

His face twisted disgustingly, but he said nothing.

‘ Oh. You’re afraid, aren’t you? Yes, of course you are. Because you can’t tell me to go ahead and have the child.’

‘That not it...’

‘Coward!’ She began to cry.

        After his wife was admitted to the hospital, Suguro returned to his deserted house and sat down alone in the small bedroom. The declining sun shone through the window and onto the two beds. One was his wife’s bed, where he and Yasuko had come together in an embrace. Suddenly Suguro noticed something small and black glinting like a needle at the edge of the straw mat.  It was a woman’s hair-pin. He had no way of knewing whether it belonged to his wife, or whether Yasuko had left it behind that day. Suguro held the small black object in the palm of his hand, staring at it for a long while.

On the advice of a friend from his middle-school days, he took Yasuko to a tiny maternity clinic in Setagaya. Unaccustomed to such matters, Suguro did not even khow whether he should ask for a ‘termination of pregnancy’ or an ‘abortion’.

‘Is this your wife?’ When the nurse behind the glass reception window asked the question, Suguro’s face stiffened and he could not answer. Beside him, Yasuko responded clearly, ‘Yes, I am.’

When she and the nurse had gone inside, he sat down in the small, chilly waiting-room. He thought about the look on Yasuko’s face as she had answered, ‘Yes, I am.’ There had been no trace of vacillation in her expression.

A cockroach darted along the wall of the waiting-room. There was a stain like a handprint on the wall. As he flipped through the pages of the out-of-date, coverless magazine he held on his lap, Suguro’s mind naturally was elsewhere. As a baptized Catholic, he was well aware that abortion was prohibited. But he was intimidated by the possibility that his wife and family might find out what  he  was doing now, and learn of his relationship with Yasuko. He wanted to close his eyes to everything in order to preserve the happiness of his home. Eventually the old doctor opened the door and came out. The bloodstain that raced diagonally across his smock must have come from Yasuko. Instinctively, Suguro looked away....

‘We’ve just come back from Izu,’ Yasuko was saying. ‘No, not to the hot springs. I went along to carry his golf-clubs. Have you noticed I’ve started putting on weight? Well, he encouraged me to take up go1f, since absolutely everybody is playing golf these days. But I hate doing what everyone else is doing’.        

Suguro’s wife listened to her cousin’s words with that same smile on her face. According to her husband, Yasuko had been trying since childhood to best her cousin in everything. The two girls had studied classical dance together;at a recital, Suguro’s wife had danced the Tamaya, and Yasuko had wept because she had to dance the less showy Sagimusume. It therefore seemed likely that she had brought up the subject of golf now in a conscious attempt to compare her own active husband with the sickly man her cousin had married. The golf enthusiast continued to sit wordlessly across from Suguro, apparently anxious to conclude the tedious visit.

        ‘Is this your wife?’ ‘Yes, I am.’ On the day of Yasuko’s wedding, Suguro was able to see that unruffled expression on her face once again.

The new bride and groom stood at the entrance to the hotel reception room, flanked by the go-betweens and nodding repeatedly to the guests who came to offer their congratulations. Suguro and his wife passed along the line and stood before the newlyweds. Yasuko was wearing a wedding dress of pure white. When her eyes met Suguro’s, she narrowed them into slits like a Buddhist statue and peered into his face. Then she gently bowed her head.

‘Con...gratulations,’ Suguro breathed in a nearly inaudible voice. The stains on the clinic wall and the splotch of her blood on the doctor’s coat darted across his mind like shadow pictures. The bridegroom stood stiff as a mannequin, his hands clasped in front of him. Suguro realized at once that this man knew nothing.

When the reception was over, Suguro and his wife walked through the deserted lobby of the hotel and went out in search of a taxi. As they passed through the door, his wife muttered as if to herself, ‘What a relief for Yasuko.’

        ‘Yes She’s got a full-time job now as a wife.’ For such a mundane reply, his voice sounded a bit strained.

        Then abruptly his wife said, ‘Now everything will be all right…for you ...and for us…’

        Suguro stopped and stole a quick glance back at her. For some reason that familiar smile slowly formed on his wife’s face. She hurriedly climbed into the taxi that had stopped in front of them.

She knows everything. For a while the two sat side by side in the taxi without uttering a word. The smile had not melted from her lips. Suguro was unable to fathom the meaning of that smile. All he knew for sure was that his wife was not the sort of woman who would ever voice those feelings again…

‘Once this operation is over, everything will be all right. But you’ve been the real trooper, Yoshiko….You’ve looked after him for three years now.’ Yasuko turned towards the bed. ‘Once you get out of the hospital, you must be especially good to your wife, or you’ll be punished for it!’

        ‘I’m already being punished,’ Suguro mumbled, looking up at the ceiling. ‘As you can see.’

‘There, that’s just what  I’m talking about!’ Yasuko’s laugh was conspicuously loud. ‘I’m  always saying that to my husband, aren’t I, dear? How hard all this has been on Yoshiko.’

‘Not at all. I’m...totally insensitive to the whole thing.’

There were thorns and private meanings concealed beneath each of their remarks. But Yasuko’s husband was bored, and he twiddled his thumbs on his lap. ‘Don’t you think we ought to be going?’ he said. ‘You shouldn’t wear out a sick man.’

        ‘You’re right. I’m sorry. I had no idea…’

        Her casual remark pricked at Suguro’s chest. It was a suitable end to their conversation. Yasuko’s husband had ‘no idea’ what was going on. And the remaining three pretended to have ‘no idea’ what was happening, when in fact they merely refrained from saying anything out loud. They all behaved as though nothing had happened. For his sake. And for their own.

‘Good morning. Good morning!’ On the veranda, their son was still trying to teach the myna bird. ‘Say it! Why won’t you say it, birdie?’

 

            4

 

Three days before the operation, the drab days were suddenly filled with activity. Nurses wheeled him off to measure the capacity and function of his lungs, and a score of blood samples were taken. They needed to know not only his blood type, but also how many minutes it would take his blood to coagulate when it began to flow from his body on the operating table.

It was early December. Since Christmas was approaching, from his room he could hear the choir from the nursing school practising carols during their lunch break. Each year on Christmas Eve the nurses sang carols for the children in the paediatrics ward.        

‘I suppose I should make the same preparations this time as for the other operations?’ Suguro asked a young physician. An experienced surgeon would be wielding the scalpel of course, but this young doctor would be assisting.

‘Well, you’re and old hand at surgery now, Mr Suguro. There’s really nothing you need to do to get ready.’

‘They turned me into a boneless fillet of fish last time….’ This was how patients referred to the extraction of ribs from the chest cavity.‘This time I guess I’m going to end up a one-winged airplane…’        

The young doctor smiled wryly and turned his head towards the window. The voices of the Christmas chorus flowed in annoyingly, singing a japanese folk-song:

 

A blast of the steam whistle,

And already my train is leaving Shimbashi...

 

‘What are my odds?’ Suguro spat out the question, his eyes fixed on the doctors’s face ‘What are my odds of surviving this next operation?’

‘This is no time to get faint-hearted. You’ll be just fine.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes...’ But there was a brief, painful moment of hesitation in the young doctor’s voice. ‘Of course I’m sure.’

 

The mountains at Hakone

Are an impregnable pass.

Not even the impassable barrier at Han-yu

Can compare...

 

I don’t want to die. I don’t want die ! No matter how painful this third operation is, I don’t want to die yet. I still don’t know what life mean, what it is to be a human being. I’m idle and I’m lazy, and I go on deceiving myself. But, if nothing else, I have finally learned that when one person comes in contact with another, it is no simple encounter-there is always some sort of scar left behind.If I had not come in contact with my wife, or with Yasuko, their lives might have turned out very differently.

Once the doctor had gone, Suguro turned to the myna bird, which had been moved from the veranda into his room, and whispered, ‘I want to live ...!’ The newspaper at the bottom of the cage was covered with white droppings and strewn with half-eaten balls of feed. The bird hunched its black body and stared at him with those sorrowful eyes. The yellowish-brown beak reminded him of the foreign priest’s nose. Its face, too, resembled the face of the tippling father.

I couldn’t he1p what happened between Yasuko and me. And I had no choice  but to go to that clinic. It wasn’t  a sin. It was just something that happened between Yasuko and me. But as a result, one ripple has expanded into two, and two ripples have grown into three. Everyone is covering up for everyone else…

The myna bird cocked its head and listened silently to his words. Just as the priest seated in the confessional had wordlessly turned his ear to listen.

        But then the bird leaped to the upper perch, wagged its behind, and dropped a round turd onto the floor of the cage.

        Night came. The night nurse and a doctor began looking into each room. He could hear their footsteps in the distance.

‘Everything all right?’

‘Yes. Just fine.’

        The light from their flashlight crept along the wall of his darkened room. There was a rustle of movement as the myna bird shifted inside its covered cage.

One ripple expands into two, then three. It was he who had first cast the stone, he who had created the first ripple. And if he died during this next operation, the ripples would likely spread out further and further. The actions of a human being are never self-contained. He had built up walls of deception around everyone, and initiated lies between three individuals that could never be obliterated. It was a deceit worse than glossing over the death of somone in a hospital.

        Three more days until  my operation. If I survive… I guess I’ll be spending this coming January here in the hospital, too.

        In January, Suguro would turn forty.

        ‘At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities...’ Confucius once wrote.

        He shut his eyes and tried to force himself to sleep.

 

                          5

 

The morning of his  operation arrived. It was still dark in his room when the nurse awakened him. He had been given a sedative the night before, and his head was heavy.

6.30 a.m. The hair is shaved off his chest in preparation for surgery. 7.30 a.m. An enema is administered. 8 a.m. An injection and three pills are given for the first stage of anaesthesia.

Suguro’s wife and her mother softly opened the door to his room.

They peered inside, and one of them whispered, ‘I don’t think he’s asleep yet...’

‘Stupid! Do you think one shot is going to knock me out? I’m not a newcomer at this, you know.’

        ‘You should try not to talk too much,’ his mother-in-law said anxiously.

        ‘Don’t move around.’

Yasuko has probably even forgotten that I am having surgery today. With a hairclip poked in her hair like a brass a fitting, she was probably heating up coffee for her public-servant husband right now.

        Two young nurses came in pushing a wheeled bed. ‘Well, let’s go, Mr Suguro.’

        ‘Just a minute.’ He turned to his wife. ‘Would you bring the birdcage; in from the veranda? I suppose he’s entitled to a goodbye, too.’

Everyone smiled at this jest.

‘All right, all right.’ His wife returned, carrying the bird cage. The bird peered out at Suguro with those penetrating eyes. You’re the only one who knows what I could not tell the old priest in the confessional. You listened to me, without even knowing what any of it meant.

 ‘I’ ready now.’

        They lifted Suguro and laid him face-up on the bed. With a creak it started down the hallway. His wife walked alongside, pulling up the blanket that seemed ready to slide off.

‘Ah, Mr Suguro. Keep smiling!’ someone called after him.

They passed patients’ rooms and nurse’s stations on both sides, went by the kitchen, and into the elevator.

When the elevator stopped on the fifth floor, the bed gave a squeak and moved down the corridor, which reeked of disinfectant. The closed doors of the operating theatre lay just ahead.

        ‘Well, Mrs Suguro. This is as far as you can go…,’ a nurse said.

Family members were not allowed to proceed any further.

        Suguro looked up at his wife. That smile flickered again on her drawn face. That smile, which seemed to show up on any and all occasions.

In the operating theatre his gown was stripped from him and a blindfold was placed over his eyes. When he was shifted to the hard operating table, several hands hooked down the sheet that was thrown over his body. To facilitate the insertion of needles for the intravenous blood transfusions, hot towels were placed on his legs to distend the vessels. Near his ears he could hear the rattle of metal instruments being arranged.

‘You knew this anaesthetic works, don’t you?’

 ‘Yes.’

‘All right. I’m going to place the mask over your mouth.’

A smell of rubber filled his nostrils. The rubber mask covered his nose and mouth.

‘Please count after me.’

‘Yes.’

‘One.’

‘One.’

‘Two.’

‘Two...’

His wife’s face flashed across his mind. She knows everything. Is she just waiting for everything to be quietly resolved? When did I drive her to such an extremity of self-deception…?

‘ …Five.’

‘Five.’

Suguro fell into a deep sleep.

It seemed like only one or two minutes later when he opened his eyes. But it was after dark that same day before he slowly began to awaken from the anaesthetic.

Directly above him was the face of the young doctor. And his wife’s smile.

‘Well, hello there!’ He tried to be droll but immediately dropped back into a heavy sleep. It was nearly four in the morning when he awoke again.

‘Well, hello there!’ he tried a second time.

He could not see his wife. The grim-faceed night nurse was wrapping the black cloth of a blood-pressure gauge around his right arm. The rubber hose of an oxygen inhalor was thrust  into nostril, and tubes from the plasma bottles trailed from his les. There were two black holes in his left breast, vinyl tubes poking out from them. Through these tubes a noisy machine sucked the blood which was collecting in his chest cavity and siphoned it into a glass bottle. Suguro’s throat was parched.

‘Water...water, please.’

‘You aren’t allowed any.’

His wife tiptoed into the room with an ice-bag.

‘Water, please.’

‘You’ll have to wait.’

‘How long was I in surgery?’

‘Six hours.’

He wanted to say. ‘I’m sorry,’ but he did not have the strength.

He felt as though enormous boulders had been stacked up on his chest. But he was accustomed to physical agony.

A pale streak of light illuminated the window. When he realized that dawn was near, he felt for the first time that he would survive. His luck had indeed been extraordinarily good. His joy was great.

However, he continued to spit up phlegm laced with blood. Normally, this blood would clear up within two or three days after surgery, evidence that the blood from the wound on the lung had thoroughly coagulated. But in Suguro’s case, even after four or five days the thread of blood did not disappear from his spittle. And his fever would not subside.

Doctors filed one after another in and out of his room; out in the hallway they discussed his predicament in hushed tones. Suguro knew at once that they suspected a leak in his bronchi. If that were the case, various bacilli would cluster around the wound and complicate his condition with thoracic empyema. He would have to undergo surgery several more times. The doctors hastily commenced injections of antibiotics and began to administer ilotycin.

        In the second week, the blood finally vanished from his phlegm and his fever gradually began to decline.

‘I can tell you this now...,’ his surgeon smiled, sitting down on a chair next to Suguro’s pillow. ‘You just barely made it. This whole thing  has been a dangerous feat of tightrope-walking.’

‘During the operation, too?’

        ‘Yes. In the middle of surgery your heart stopped for several second.That gave us a real scare. But your luck has held strong.’

         ‘You must have accumulated many good deeds over the years, Mr Suguro,’ laughed the young doctor, who stood off to one side.

        After a month he was finally able to pull himself up, using the rope that hung over his bed. His legs had withered, and he was without seven ribs and one entire lung. He stroked his meagre body with his emaciated arms.

‘Oh, say. What’s happened to my myna bird?’ he asked abruptly one day. During his long struggle with the disease, he had forgotten all about the bird. The nurses had agreed to look after it for him.

His wife lowered her eyes.

‘It died.’

‘How?’

‘Well, after all, the nurses didn’t have time to look after it. Neither did I. We fed it, but one really cold night we forgot to bring it back into the room. We shouldn’t have left it out on the veranda all night.’

Suguro was silent for a few moments.

        ‘I’m sorry. But I feel as though it took your place        . …I buried it at home in the garden.’

        He couldn’t blame her. Certainly his wife had not had the leisure to fret over a bird.

‘Where’s the cage?’

‘It’s still out on the veranda.’

        His head still swimming, he slid his feet into his slippers. Supporting himself with one hand on the wall, he made his way to the veranda, one step at a time. The dizziness eventually passed.

The sky was clear. Cars and buses raced along the road below. The wan summer sun trickled into the empty birdcage. The bird’s white droppings clung to the perches; the water trough was dry and stained brown. There was a smell to the deserted cage. It was the smell of the bird, of course, but the smell of Suguro’s own life was also a part of it. The breathy odour of the words he had spoken to the creature that had once lived inside this cage.

        ‘Everything will be all right now,’ his wife said as she held onto him to support him.

        He started to say, ‘No, it won’t.’ But he caught himself and said nothing.

 

Translated by Van C. Gessel

 

 

 

 

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ENDO Shusaku
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ENDO Shusaku

Novelist. March 27, 1923 ~ September 29, 1996. Born at Sugamo, Tokyo. The 10th President of The Japan P.E.N. Club. He is one of the greatest modern Catholic novelists who tried to have monotheistic Catholicism take root in pantheistic Japanese society. He won many prominent literary awards, one of which is the Akutagawa Award for White Man in 1955. He also received “Ordine di San Silvestro Papa” from the Roman Curia in 1970. He was awarded the Order of Culture in 1995. A member of Japan Art Academy.

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