I couldn’t tell you why, but I’d been walking for ages, and I was worn out and hungry. I felt as if I’d been wandering for a hundred years, maybe even since the first days.
Then, when I was one step from oblivion, there in the middle of a field, in a place where the pale sunlight gathered and fell lightly like a scarf, I came upon a crummy little udon cart.
A girl of about fifteen, her hair parted and tied back with a rubber band, was frying up some squid tempura.
‘Think I could have something to eat?’ I asked weakly.
‘Of course, that’s what we do.’
The girl seemed tired too. She had the forlorn look of someone toiling for a crime syndicate. A picture-perfect country bumpkin.
‘That depends. For fifteen yen, you get a quarter helping of udon. For thirty-five yen you’ll get twice that, plus a squid tentacle.’
‘Well, isn’t that something.’ I didn’t have any money on me, but I was enthusiastic, nonetheless. How could I not be, with the prospect of a meal before me. ‘I’ll take the thirty-five-yen special then, thanks. And could you do me a favor, throw in some scallions and a little bit of chili powder?’
‘Yeah, no problem.’
The scrawny girl whipped up the noodles for me with arms that were themselves like squid tentacles. I downed the whole thing in an instant, drinking every last drop of broth, then sighed.
‘That was truly delicious.’
‘Squid tempura udon, what a wonderful dish.’
‘The thing is, though, I don’t have any money.’
This time she didn’t say ‘yeah’. Strands of hair the color of withered grass blew into the girl’s face, and her doglike eyes clouded with tears.
‘Ahhh, what’ll I do? If I go home like this, I’ll get a tongue-lashing.’
‘No one has to know,’ I said.
‘Uh-uh. He checks everything. Every morning he marks down exactly how many balls of udon and exactly how many tentacles I take with me. He’ll beat me half to death.’
‘If it’s that bad, you should just run away.’
‘I can’t. I’m afraid of him.’ At the thought of her employer, the girl’s reedy body began to tremble.
‘Who is this guy?’
I envisioned a man with a glass eye stalking the halls of his gloomy manor on the overgrown heaths of Wuthering Heights.
‘My husband. We’ve got a kid too, so I can’t just leave.’
‘That so?’ I said in my best imitation of Humphrey Bogart. ‘Well then, take this. It’s worth plenty more than thirty-five yen.’
I handed her a silver-plated ring set with a translucent green stone. The girl eyed the trinket dubiously, like I was trying to pull one over on her, but when she put it on, an awkward grin spread slowly across her face, like a baby’s first smile. ‘It’s real pretty, huh?’
She let out a long sigh, then thrust the hand wearing the ring behind her back.
‘You aren’t going to change your mind, are you?’ She glanced up at me furtively from sly, grey eyes.
‘I told you, that’s for you.’
‘First time I ever saw something so pretty. Listen, I’ve gonna have to hide this. My husband’ll take it from me.’
I was so tired. It was only natural – I’d been walking since before the birth of Christ, at least.
‘I don’t suppose there’s anywhere around here I can rest.’
‘Hmm. Not unless you head into town.’
‘Town, huh . . . is that where you live?’
I was counting on the girl to pack up her cart and head home. The wan light of dusk had enveloped the area; it couldn’t be long now. But she just stood there, gazing idly into space. The sun had long since set, and the last traces of its light were reddening the ridgeline of the mountains.
‘Aren’t you going to go home?’
‘Someone else might come.’
‘Do you get customers all the way out here? More likely to get foxes, aren’t you?’
‘I get customers. I mean, you’re here, aren’t you?’ she said brusquely, then stood there in silence.
Was there anyone else left like me? Someone who walked and walked, who couldn’t think of anything but walking? Someone who’d been walking since long before her own birth, who could do nothing but keep on walking.
On and on, through war after war, as people die, devote themselves to reproducing, only to die again, until the Earth turns hard and cold, and the merciless blazing sun grinds to a halt halfway across the massive dome of the heavy blue sky.
The world will cease to spin, I suppose. The sun, in its death mask, will burn away the last traces of life clinging to the surface – the lichens, insects, even the bacteria – with its tongue of flame. And the Walker, the last woman standing, will she continue her great wandering circle through the sun’s mad tantrum?
‘Where are you headed?’ the girl asked me, with the blank look of an animal.
‘. . . to find my brother.’
Why that was what came out, I couldn’t say. But once I’d said it, it became a conviction. I walked in search of the brother of my blood, seeking the other half of myself.
‘Aww, I’m sorry, lady. Makes my life sound pretty good. I have a nice husband, cute kid, business is good – profits never drop below 100 yen a day! – so I really can’t complain.’
The girl took pity on me, which scored me a cup of hot, weak tea.
Once night was fully upon us, she packed up the cart and headed in the direction of what I assumed to be town. I walked along after her. It was that ‘town’ alright, the kind that everybody knows. The lamps from the bakeries and candy shops illuminated a street that seemed a little too wide.
‘Uwaa!’ The girl raised a happy cry and began to run, jouncing the balls of udon heaped on the cart. Two or three fell to the ground like clods of horse shit.
‘You came to meet me? I’m so glad. I love you, I love you!’
The girl threw her arms around a slender youth, little more than a boy. He held the hand of a child who toddled along beside him. Outside a bar, a middle-aged man sat on a stool, smoking and taking in the scene.
‘Hey, not in front of everybody . . . c’mon, save the mushy stuff for later.’ In a queerly squeaky voice that had only recently changed, the boy tried to maintain some semblance of whatever passed for his dignity.
‘How’d we do today?’
‘Look at this.’
Even though she’d said she needed to hide it, the girl (with an innocence that I could only assume was feigned) showed off the ring I’d given her.
‘What the hell is this?’
‘This lady ate thirty-five-yen worth of noodles, but didn’t have any money, so . . .’
And how this happened, I (once again) couldn’t really say, but next thing I knew, the boy was on the ground.
I guess he pounced on me, trying to knock me down. But he was a shrimpy little fellow, and when he lunged for my waist, I lashed out in a fit of rage, kicking him in the belly with the force of my mighty thighs.
‘Pay up! When you eat something, you gotta pay for it, everybody knows that.’
The boy raged at me from where he lay.
‘Feh, you little runt.’
I started to leave. I had to keep walking after all.
Just then, an automobile came barreling down the road and ran over their child with decorous aplomb, as if this were the sole reason for its existence. His severed head rolled across the ground and stopped at his parents’ feet.
‘How lovely,’ I said. The girl laughed. Everyone opened the stone voids of their mouths and laughed.
Image © melancholija