As they talked I glanced out the window at the oleanders. They were huge, almost like a forest unto themselves. I could hear the sound of waves too. The railing next to the window was completely rusted from the constant breeze. An antique-looking ceiling fan nudged the hot, sticky air around the room. The cafeteria had the smell of a hospital. Even the food and drinks had that hospital odor to them. The girlfriend's pajamas had two breast pockets, in one of which was a small gold- colored pen. Whenever she leaned forward I could see her small, white breasts peep out of the V-neck collar.
The memories ground to a halt right there. I tried to remember what had happened after that. I drank a Coke, gazed at the oleanders, snuck a peek at her breasts-and then what? I shifted in the plastic chair and, resting my head in my hands, tried to dig down further in the layers of memory. Like gouging out a cork with the tip of a thin-bladed knife.
I looked off to one side and tried to visualize the doctors splitting open the flesh of her chest, sticking their rubber-gloved hands inside to straighten out her crooked rib. But it all seemed too surreal, like some sort of allegory.
That's right-after that we talked about sex. At least my friend did. But what did he say? Something about me, no doubt. How I'd tried, unsuccessfully, to make it with a girl. Not much of a story, but the way he told it, blowing everything out of proportion, made his girlfriend burst out laughing. Made me laugh as well. The guy really knew how to tell a story.
"Please don't make me laugh," she said, a bit painfully. "My chest hurts when I laugh."
"Where does it hurt?" my friend asked.
She pressed a spot on her pajamas above her heart, just to the right of her left breast. He made some joke about that, and she laughed again.
I looked at my watch. It was eleven forty-five but my cousin still wasn't back. It was getting close to lunchtime and the cafeteria was starting to get more crowded. All sorts of sounds and voices mixed together like smoke enveloping the room. I returned once more to the realm of memory. And that small gold pen she had in her breast pocket.
. . . Now I remember-she used that pen to write something on a paper napkin.
She was drawing a picture. The napkin was too soft and the tip of her pen kept getting stuck. Still, she managed to draw a hill. And a small house on top of the hill. A woman was asleep in the house. The house was surrounded by a stand of blind willows. It was the blind willows that had put her to sleep.
"What the heck's a blind willow?" my friend asked.
"There is a kind of tree like that."
"Well, I never heard of it."
"That's 'cause I'm the one who created it," she said, smiling. "Blind willows have a lot of pollen, and tiny flies covered with the stuff crawled inside her ear and put the woman to sleep."
She took a new napkin and drew a picture of the blind willow. The blind willow turned out to be a tree the size of an azalea. The tree was in bloom, the flowers surrounded by dark green leaves like a bunch of lizard tails gathered in a bunch. The blind willow didn't resemble a willow at all.
"You got a cigarette?" my friend asked me. I tossed a sweaty pack of Hopes and some matches across the table.
"A blind willow looks small on the outside, but it's got incredibly deep roots," she explained. "Actually, after a certain point it stops growing up and pushes further and further down into the ground. Like the darkness nourishes it."
"And the flies carry that pollen to her ear, burrow inside, and put her to sleep," my friend added, struggling to light his cigarette with the damp matches. "But what happens to the flies?"
Translated by Philip Gabriel. Copyright (c) 2006 by Haruki Murakami
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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