Nawa” (“The Rope”) by Kobo Abe

tim rogers
Nov 1 · 27 min read

Hello. Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited video game Death Stranding releases a week from today (I’m writing this on 1 November, 2019). Several years ago, Kojima revealed a trailer for the game which opened with a quote from a short story by the Japanese author Kobo Abe.

Now that I have played the whole game (for the purpose of producing a review video for Kotaku.com) I know that the game itself opens with that same quote.

(SPOILERS: this is the first thing you see after choosing “New Game” on Death Stranding’s title screen!)

So for the purpose of writing a review of this game, I considered it appropriate to reread the story and ruminate on its themes. I had struggled through it seventeen years ago, in Japanese, and found Abe’s language difficult at times, though largely I got the gist of it and boasted for many years that I’d read all of Abe’s Japanese short stories. Though today, being older and more tired, I saw fit to track down the story in English.

I could not find an English translation of that story.

So, in celebration of the game’s upcoming release and in commemoration of a conversation I had with Hideo Kojima himself about this story all the way back in 2004, I translated the story from Japanese into English for your enrichment.

(Also so I could off-handedly mention my having done so in the middle of a one-hour-long review video I made for Kotaku.com. The game is marvelous, by the way. We’ll be talking about it for years. You can also read Heather Alexandra’s text review on Kotaku.com.)

I’m not a scholarly translator of literature. I am largely self-taught, and as a professional I primarily translate video games and comic books. Japanese speakers more fluent than me might notice flaws in my translation of this delightfully tricky little work of literature. I apologize for those flaws. I performed this translation quickly, so that I can meet the deadline for my review. I’ll make an effort to polish this translation up in the next few days.

In its current state, however, I expect you’ll be able to derive at least thrice as much meaning from it as I did when I read it in Japanese seventeen years ago.

One final note: I preserved Abe’s exact dot count for the ellipses. I’m sorry: the man loved to alternate between six and three dots. I feel like some meaning sleeps there, within the quantity of the dots. I dare not disturb it. Likewise, if it appears that this story shifts tenses repeatedly and at inscrutable moments, I assure you I did so to retain the exact tenses of the original Japanese.

No, wait! One more note: If you read this story and find yourself intrigued by Kobo Abe’s style and themes, his excellent, iconic, newcomer-friendly novel The Woman In The Dunes is widely available in an excellent English translation. If you’re looking to get into surreal Japanese literature, it is a wonderful starting point. (Better than this weird story, to be honest!) Also, watch the famous, beautiful film based on the book, as well. It, like other Death Stranding touchstones such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris, is on the Criterion Channel.

With that, here’s the story:

“Nawa” (“The Rope”)

by Kobo Abe

A man . . . . . . sixty-two years old . . . . . . of thinning head-hair, wearing ocher-colored work clothing beneath the dirty collar of which we see deep vertical wrinkles . . . . . . under his ear, a pale-peach-colored scar that has begun to fester . . . . . . sticking out his chin, both elbows pressed stiffly against the sides of his head, stares intently into a hole in a wall.

The hole . . . . . . about two fingers’-widths tall, in a plank wall about three tatami mats’ distance from a thin futon shoved into the corner of a one-tsubo* [*old Japanese measurement system; about 3.3 square meters] room upon whose dirt floor kitchenware is scattered.

The man continues to peer . . . . . . on the other side of the hole, a graveyard for dead “tools” . . . . . . surrounded on three sides by a tall wood-plank fence, only one side facing the river, a graveyard of scrap iron corpses. The ascending dust of the nearby highway beyond the high pile of red-rusted ruins forms whirlpools in a sour-tasting wind. A tangled bundle of barbed wire tightly seals off the space between the fence and the concrete boat dock that faces the river. There are only two methods for getting inside: either through the wooden gate installed in the side of the man’s shed, or by boat upon the river.

However, any children wanting to get inside do not need methods. Without regard to methods, children can permeate like a liquid leaking in through even the narrowest crevice. To make matters worse, children absurdly enjoy dead things. For example: to assert their ownership, they’ll kill insects and poke them with pins. They’ll kill birds and make graves. They’ll break their own toys on purpose, and softly slip just one of its inner springs or gears into their pockets. Such children would obviously not miss out on such a scrap-corpse dumping ground as this.

The man repositioned his knees and continued intently staring. . . . . . . of course, if he could, he’d chase them off right away. That is in fact the man’s function. However everything he has tried has failed. Maybe he could raise his voice, shout at them. They’d simply return the shout three-fold, and that’s the end of that. Kids have a knack for dreaming up screamable insults.

If scattering them off is no good, maybe he could catch them and give them a severe punishment. He could sneak over to them, quietly seal the wooden gate from inside to block off their path of retreat, and corner them. However, that would be like chasing rats into a grassy field. All that rusted scrap metal about, its cut and broken edges sharp like fangs. A labyrinth made of finely cut sharp fangs. The kids would go about their play like the man isn’t even there.

If catching them is impossible, how about throwing something at them? Yes, there are plenty of objects scattered about here that would be suitable for throwing. Inconveniently, however, just about every kid these days has some knowledge of baseball. One time, a shard of scrap iron came flying toward his ear. Luckily it only grazed him, though the wound had festered, and continues to hurt with an aching twinge that soaks through to his bones — particularly on days after he drinks a lot of shochu.

Yes, the incorrigibility of these children is such that it’s impossible to imagine anyone being able to deal with them. The man is already 62 years old; also, he’s got the rheumatism in one knee. Pretty soon that knee isn’t going to be able to do anything, much less deal with such kids. . . . . . . These are his thoughts as he continues to peep through the hole.

*

He had thought it was a great idea. He spent half a day carving a hole. Right at the time the kids were about to come home from school, he quickly sat down behind the hole and watched, waiting. He knew they’d come soon. If he could just ascertain the kids’ secret passage with his own eyes, he would promptly go around from the outside and seal it shut. (This is it, right here!) . . . . . . However, he detected no hint of the kids. By nighttime, he’d seen no sign of them; they must have found another road. It turns out there was more than one road.

And the next day, it was the same. The day after that, and the day after the day after that, it was the same.

The hole he’d worked so hard to dig ended up not serving its function. However, somehow he found himself unable to quit peeping out of the hole. The presence of the hole alone served as the reason he could not keep himself from looking. As though the peeping itself were the purpose of the hole, he sat in front of the hole, motionless. Aside from the occasional alternation from left eye to right, or the wiping off of the forehead sweat that trickled toward invading his vision, he kept his neck stiffly firm, enduring the pain in his back and hips, his gaze never wavering. . . . . . . eventually, the kids will tire of playing, and come through this way . . . . . . crestfallen, cooling his bloodshot eyes with the back of his hand, he lays down to rest. This daily routine had been going on for half a month.

However, today is a special day. Today, he finally saw for the first time what he had been waiting for.

There are fewer of them than usual — five in total. One boy is older, though the rest of them are about ten years old each. Today they have a guest: a little puppy. It seems that they’ve been acting cruelly to the puppy before bringing him with them, because from the time the man first sees it the puppy is whining tragically. Out of some expectation or premonition, the man stiffens his entire body. Perhaps the expressions on the boys’ faces disturb the man even more than the puppy’s pitiful cries: The boys’ expressions are all bizarrely white and stiff, as though some terrible ritual is about to take place. Speaking nary a word, with curiously composed attitudes, they come walking down through the scrap iron.

Soon they find a diagonally buried iron plate. They dig that plate out, set it flat on the ground, and stand around it. The oldest boy lays the puppy face up on the plate and holds it down. A boy wearing a baseball cap with transparent green saliva on it extends his hand toward light-peach-colored diarrhea. The five heads of the children hanging over the scene obscure the man’s vision. However, when the boy begins regulatedly moving his hand up and down, the man understood. Another boy leans back his neck whitely in the afternoon sun, and let out a shrill laugh.

He feels like a long time has passed. The puppy has ceased crying. The fireworks from the boat race site nearby light up half the sky, giving an appearance like cotton waste within the yellow smoke from the old rubber factory.

“This is boring!” the kid in the baseball cap said, letting go and wiping his hand on his pants with a look of dissatisfaction.

“You gotta grow up……” someone interjected.

Only the older boy extended his hand toward the puppy’s head two, three times, with the same hesitating motion. The other boys had gotten bored. In that moment, the puppy spun around and got up, and with a groveling motion rolled and fell off the iron plate. It hits the ground fleeing in a hurry.

However, it seemed something is wrong with its hind leg joints; it’s dragging its hips along the ground; it shuffles forward slowly on its front legs. The boys all begin to laugh.

“He’s like a seal . . . . . . look at him! . . . . . . like a stupid baby seal . . . . . .”

The man behind the hole raised his eyes and annoyedly clicked his tongue. It felt like they were cruelly toying with him. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and immediately clung back to the hole. Uneasily, he figured that the kids would soon leave in a hurry. However, now the kids were enthusiastically playing with something else. They didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving at all. The man became enraged.

(Of course, this uncharacteristic feeling did not convince him to consider……)

The kids’ play changed into something more innocent. The puppy had seen an opportunity and crawled into a gap in the mountain of scrap iron. The kids had taken to pretending the puppy was some kind of wild beast. Playing at big game hunters, the kids each carried fragments of scrap iron or sticks, crawling one by one toward the center of the scrap pile, poking and prodding enthusiastically. This play, also, did not continue for long: they chased the dog out from between a crevice in the scrap iron. How would they play now? . . . . . . Their eyes fell on a red-rusted boiler pot. . . . . . . the inside of the pot was big enough for three kids to comfortably fit inside. However, the opening was too small — though big enough enough for a puppy. The boys sealed the puppy inside the pot. Now the puppy became a lion, either caught in a trap or waiting in its den.

The pot had many holes in it to peep through, small holes from bolts. The boys, playing at big game hunters again, stabbed in sticks and dropped in fragments of iron through those holes.

Holding a long iron stick at the ready at the mouth of a small hole, one excited boy screamed.

“Hey, we gonna finish this thing off soon or what?!”

Is he gonna stab him with that stick? No, another boy is opposed.

“Calm down, man; if we really kill it, it’s gonna bleed all over . . . . . .”

“Shit; bang bang bang bang!!”

“Let’s sell ‘im to the zoo!”

“Do people eat lions?”

“You idiot! We could sell his fur for a high price!”

“Bang bang bang bang!”

“If we sell him, you think we’d get more than 10,000 yen?”

“Probly more than like 30,000!”

Somehow, the whole crowd was able to peer at their catch. The man, irritated, wiped his palm sweat off on the thigh of his pants. The boys reached their hands into the hole and tried to pull the puppy out. However, the pot was deeper than the boys’ arms were long. No matter what, they couldn’t grab the puppy. Once more, the puppy began to intermittently whine. Just then, the older boy had an idea. He made a loop by bending a wire, thinking he could use it to pull the puppy out. He straddled the pot and dropped the loop in carefully.

The boys were soon cheering. The older boy pulled the loop discerningly upward. However, he was not able to pull the puppy out. The puppy fell on the way up; the cheers turned into a sigh, which vanished. An instant’s commotion floated on the wind from the boat race site across the bridge. A semi-diesel-engined small boat was riding upriver. The man wiped the sweat from his knuckles; the boys adjusted the angle of the loop of wire.

In the sooty sky, the four-PM sun glittered like melting nickel. A clumpy mass of yellow smoke blew out of the old rubber factory’s smokestack. The boys were fixed to the hole in the top of the boiler, eagerly playing the part of persistent fishermen, repeating the same action again and again. The man continued to watch all of this from the other side of his hole in the wall.

Atop the bridge, suddenly many tens of cars’ horns begin to honk all at once. Perhaps they are urging on a car stopped in front of them? Despite this not being a rare occurrence, one of the boys nonchalantly raises his eyes from the hole and looks back toward the bridge. Then, he yells in surprise.

“Hey! Somethin’ weird’s goin’ on!”

Two young girls were creeping up out of the river, ascending the stone steps of the wharf.

Both girls were soaking wet. From their heads and their ears and their skirts, water drops dripped. Also, one of them was dragging a long rope made of Manila hemp. The rope, too, was dripping wet.

Their wide-open, big eyes, the shape of their nose: you could tell these two were sisters.

Looking past their common features, however, you can see that in their expressions these two girls are quite different. The one dragging the rope looks older — ten, or eleven. Her wet hair sticking to her forehead; she is skinny with an oval face. Her face appears strangely coldly adultlike with an air of childish refusal, like she had tired of supplication and closed a door. The younger girl is maybe nine or eight. She wears a rat-colored skirt and a red blouse. Unlike her sister, she has a round face, which is cherubic at a glance — except for her mouth, which is stretched horizontally, giving the impression that she is consciously smiling thinly.

Dripping drops of water, the two girls slowly ascended the stone stairs. Behind the rope-dragging girl with the sunken expression, the younger sister with the strange smile peered ahead, her neck tilted diagonally. . . . . . . The boys stood wordless, staring, looks on their faces like they could not comprehend what they were seeing. The man, too, on the other side of the hole, forgot about the pain in his knees. The wind blowing about between the three fences made the boys’ shirttails flap like little flags; the girls’ clothes and hair hung as though dead. Where the heck did they come from, and what were they coming here to do?

The older girl looked about, checking her surroundings, and ejected a faint sigh. The younger girl, continuing to smile her weird little smile, indicated the boys.

“This place is probably okay, right?” the older sister muttered.

“Probably,” the younger sister said in a husky voice unexpected for her age. Then the two girls began to wring out the hems of the skirts clinging to their skinny hips.

One of the boys boldly asked, “Where did y’all come from?”

The younger sister raised her voice in laughter; the older sister stayed quiet. Just like that, they began to approach, in a straight line. Casually they closed the distance between themselves and the boys. They sat down with their backs to the scaldingly sun-hot western side of the boiler pot.

“Hey! You can’t do that!”

“We’re usin’ that!”

However, the older sister didn’t even flinch.

“Aw, come on. Just for a little bit.”

Calmly, the younger sister’s thin smile floated onto her face.

“We just wanna dry our clothes on this.”

Even if that were the case — they seriously could dry their clothes there — their behavior came across as just too eerie. The older boy planted his feet and said, “Well! In exchange, how about you lend us that rope!”

“‘In exchange’ for what?”

Every mouth began suddenly talking at once.

“There’s a puppy in here, he, uh, he fell in this pot here”

“That’s a heckuva nice rope . . . . . .”

“We got a live catch here!”

Thus entreated, the sister gazed into the hole in the boiler, and screamed in delight.

“Hey sis, there really is a dog in here!”

“You idiots!”

The man moves his eyes away from the hole and snorts in annoyance. Painfully, with his bad knee still bent, he totteringly begins to walk. He passes through the dirt-floored room and exits to the river; mumblingly muttering (stupid rotten little limp-dicked brats), he stands and urinates. . . . . . . . . (I can’t even piss out half of what I got in here . . . . . .) A ferryman sees the man, screams something, and begins throwing rocks. The man spits and continues urinating.

On his way back, he suddenly stopped in front of the shed. Right around the corner of the fence, someone was looking into a knothole in the fence, peering into the scrapyard.

The old watchman tensed his neck and stuck out his lower lip. With his dentures floating in his mouth, it was as though his face had triplicated. He felt as though he had terribly lost face. He plunged toward the man. He angrily shouted as though from on high as the other man stood up.

“Hey! What the heck are you doing here?”

The other man’s response was absolutely not what he had expected. He appeared unflustered, and with no apparent guilt. With a supplicatory expression, he pressed his left hand’s middle finger — his index finger had been cut off at the root — to his lips, and strongly waved his right hand to the left and right in front of his face. The flustered one, it turns out, was apparently the old watchman.

“What the heck are you . . . . . . ?”

“Hey, are you the watchman here?”

“And if I say I am?”

“Might this be, ah, the entrance to somewhere?” The man narrowed his lips, turned his dejected gaze to the ground, and muttered. “The thing is, ahh, my, uh, my daughters . . .”

“Your daughters? . . . . . . There’s no daughters of anybody here — ”

“No, really, my daughters . . . well, take a peek through this hole here . . . . . . you’ll see there are some . . . some awful brats, and . . . . . .”

“I’m not gonna look through no hole, no. You see, this place is off limits . . . . . .”

“That’s why, well, well, that’s why I’m saying you should have a peek in that hole.”

“Are you trying to tell me my fate?”

“. . . . . . Fate?”

“Like I told you, this place is off limits.”

“God darn it . . . that’s why I’m saying, if you’ll just take one peek in there, you’ll understand . . . . . . there are just some, some really awful kids in that off limits place there . . . . . . if you could just, somehow, get them out of there, take them somewhere else . . . . . . please, mister . . . . . .”

As the watchman looked down upon the man fixed in place peeking through the knothole, his discomfort changed into a feeling of superiority. That filthy, smelly head . . . . . . if he stomped on it, soup’d come dribbling out of that swollen head . . . . . . The watchman wasn’t THAT old yet; and he was at least dextrous enough to have all his fingers, even if he was already in the process of dropping dead of alcoholism . . . . . . suddenly, the other man screamed. While screaming, he repeatedly gestured at the fence with his fingers. The watchman pressed his eye to a nearby hole in the fence.

*

At first he did not quite grasp the meaning of the scene before him. The puppy had been forced to sit atop the pot. It seemed that somehow, while the watchman had not been looking, the children had succeeded in safely recovering the puppy from the inside of the pot. On either side of the pot, the two girls stood facing each other. The boys stood a ways back, surrounding them. That’s it. That’s everything the watchman could see. What the heck about this had gotten the guy so worked up?

The older sister spoke some words urging her younger sister. The younger sister stood at the ready, and as she did so, he finally drank in the meaning of the situation. The girls’ hands and the puppy were bound together by the single rope. The rope left the older sister’s hand, wrapped around the puppy’s neck once, and arrived at the younger sister’s hand. On the older sister’s heave-ho signal, the two sister’s simultaneously pulled the rope in opposite directions. The puppy painfully waved its neck left and right, attempting to get free, retreating backward. Of course, it couldn’t get free; however, it did not suffer any sort of fatal wound, either. The strengths of the two girls were too different; despite the girls’ efforts the puppy gravitated toward the older sister and then fell down to the ground.

The boys stood as still as hard, dead frogs; not a one of them made any offer to help. The older girl lifted up the fallen dog, pressed it to her chest, and tilted its neck.

“You’re right; this is terrible.”

“Just absolutely terrible brats . . . . . .”

And then, an even more terrible thing began. The girl handed the puppy to her little sister, and now tied her end of the rope around a fat pipe arm sticking out of the side of the pot, pointing toward the sky in the shape of the hiragana letter “く.” Then they put the puppy back on top of the boiler pot, and tied the rope around the puppy’s neck. It seemed like they intended to pull together.

“Absolutely — terrible!”

“Those are . . . my daughters . . .”

“Ah, that’s . . . that’s definitely gonna do it . . .”

“That’s why I’m beggin you, mister . . . . . .”

“Alright, I’ll make an exception and open the door just this once . . .”

“Yes, sir, please . . . . . .”

The senile watchman returned to the shed to get the key. Taking care to appear neither compassionate nor sympathetic, he carried himself cheerfully, hiding the pain in his leg.

“Now, you just . . . . . . wait over there, okay?”

While back at the shed, he peeked out through the hole in the wall. It looked like the daughters’ experiment had been a success. With worried expressions on their faces, the children stood around the tiny animal, blood filling its eyes; it no longer moved.

Key in hand, he went back to the gate; the man’s face was pale, the edges of his eyes bloodshot, his face smeared with tears.

“Alright, get a grip.”

“It’s just . . . I can’t believe these children . . .”

When he opened the gate, the kids all turned around in unison. The dead puppy hung from the rope tied around the pipe. It hadn’t yet died completely; its hind legs every now and again twitched quietly. . .

Rubbing his hands together, the man gradually approached the girls. Sidling up to them, he spoke in a voice like you might use to patronize a cat.

“C’mon, Yoshiko . . . . . . big sister . . . . . . let’s get on home, eh? . . . . . .”

The little sister, her thin smile floating back to her face, looked up at her big sister. The big sister touched her little sister’s arm; encouraging her along, they deftly stepped back a safe distance. The father followed them at the same speed. However, this was not an easy place for adults to pass through; eventually he would have to take the long way around.

“C’mon, don’t be so selfish . . . . . . I’m asking you, just listen to your daddy for a second . . . . . .”

“I don’t wanna die, you know . . . . . .” the younger sister said, while retreating, seeking agreement from her big sister.

“What kinda idiot says something like that so loudly! You’re pathetic!”

The daughters retreated three steps; the father had to take six. The daughters escaped six steps; the father had to take twelve.

“If you wanna die so bad, you can die by yourself!”

“What are you saying! You kids don’t understand. Your daddy has been alive four or five times longer than you have; you gotta listen to me.”

“I don’t wanna be in pain!”

“There’s always gonna be pain!”

“That dog was in pain, big sister.”

“Oh, come on; it was only a little bit of pain . . . . . . if it were still alive, it’d have to put up with pain for the rest of its life!”

“You should just die by yourself!”

“Stop saying stupid things! I’m not gonna neglect you girls . . . . . . telling me to die alone . . . how can you say such selfish things! Come on, please . . . . . . listen to what I have to say, come on, put your daddy’s mind at ease . . .”

No matter how long this went on, he couldn’t catch up with them. At the end of the rope dangled the puppy with the dragging legs. The man, as though seeking assistance, looked back to the wooden gate, then looked around at the young boys. The young boys had hurriedly retreated to the end of the fence. Then one by one they disappeared.

“Alright, I got it . . .” The man’s will to chase had gone; buried up to his arms in scrap iron, he dejectedly stood stock still. “Just go ahead and make your dad suffer as much as possible forever, then . . . . . . you kids, as long as you’re alive, your daddy can’t die, you know . . . . . . seriously, you blockheads! How — where are you gonna manage to eat dinner tonight?”

“I have a hundred yen,” the older daughter muttered.

“One hundred yen?!”

“I got it from my estranged old father.”

“Really? Show me!” His voice sprang out thoughtlessly.

“No; I’m gonna buy something and go home.”

“Is that so . . . . . .”

The man averted his eyes in an unlucky manner. His averted gaze for a time wandered at his feet. Then, he had an idea. He quickly removed his shoes. While proffering his shoes to the girls, he said, in an extremely hurried manner, “Okay, here, take these; you can sell them for a hundred yen . . . . . . I mean, today, the wind is . . . . . . you feel it? It’s blowing from the north, it’s a southerly wind . . . . .”

“Aw, I thought you said you weren’t ever gonna bet on boats again . . .”

“I mean it this time . . . . . . on a day with a wind like today, there’s somethin’ special . . . . . . something big opens up on a day like today; your daddy knows these things . . . . . .”

“Uh, is that a hole in the bottom of those shoes . . .”

“Ah, heck, that’s why I’m sayin sell them for a hundred yen . . . . . . see, if the soles were fixed up and you took em to a pawn shop you definitely wouldn’t get less than three hundred yen for shoes like these . . . . . . c’mon, let me have that hundred yen . . . . . . c’mon, give it quick — the final race is about to start . . . . . .”

“If we buy your shoes from you, you won’t die?”

“Kid, you ain’t learned nothin; what I’ve been saying is, as long as you kids are alive there’s no way your daddy’s gonna die!”

After exchanging his shoes for the hundred-yen coin, the man did not return to the wooden gate. He continued along the path by which the young boys had made their escape; he forced himself out through their secret passage. At the same time, from outside the fence came a sound of many shoes running off all at once. Perhaps the young boys had not gone home after all, and had stuck around to watch the events unfold from a knothole in the fence.

The older daughter, still holding her father’s old shoes, set them gently upon the ground. The younger daughter, her thin smile floating on her face, light kicked the shoes away. Then the two girls untied the rope from the pipe, and let the now-unmoving puppy onto the ground. The older daughter disposed of the puppy’s carcass in the river.

The watchman from the shed let out a groan, and closed his eyes. Behind his eyelids, he sees two swaying white shadows. He can’t take it anymore: he can’t stay closed up behind this hole anymore. Dragging his leg, he stumbled out into the scrapyard, and closed the wooden gate with his rear hand.

“Hey, young ladies, would you like a hundred yen?”

His voice was shrill; his capillaries swollen in his nostrils; having coughed so much, his voice struggled to come out.

“You girls’ old man, ah, that, ah, that kinda wastrel . . . who ever heard of a guy walkin’ barefoot out onto a highway just to go bet on a boat race . . . . . . how about it? Would you like a hundred yen?”

The daughters, the river at their backs, small-ly, absentmindedly, peace-of-mindfully, are simply standing there.

“Hey, how about it, I said — I’m saying I’ll give you a hundred yen . . . . . . that sorta old man, you can abandon him . . . . . . what is he talkin’ about, a southerly wind . . . . . . saying somethin’ special is gonna happen today; that’s nonsense . . . . . . right? Right? Hey, you there, little one, why are you always smiling that eerie smile?”

The younger daughter’s lips horizontally widened even more . . . . . . no matter how you looked at it, she appeared to be laughing . . . yet, with that very expression on her face, big overflowy blobs of tears formed in both of her eyes at once.

“I am not laughing!” Heaving with sobs, she suddenly faced the middle of the scrapyard and began walking.

“I was born with this face!”

Casting a sidelong glance at the man, the big sister also began walking. The younger sister picked up her father’s shoes; the big sister picked up the rope; together they walked, as though intending to make their way outside by passing through the mountain of scrap metal.

“Hey, please, wait! You mean you don’t want this hundred yen . . . . . . a dad like that, you should — you oughta abandon him, let him drop dead on his own . . .”

“Well, you see, daddy might strike it rich and bring it home, so . . . . . .”

“Here, a hundred yen! . . . . . . No, how about a hundred yen for each of you! . . . . . . Put that together, that’s two hundred yen!”

The younger sister unexpectedly stopped walking. She stood in front of the boiler. She inclined her ear toward one of the many peeping holes, and released a seemingly surprised exclamation.

“Big sis, I can hear the sound of the ocean!”

Without thinking, the older sister also stopped walking.

“Don’t you mean the sound of the wind?”

“No, I don’t — it’s the sound of the ocean; it is! Here, check it out; yep, that’s the sea! You can see the ocean!”

Thus persuaded, the big sister peeks in. During this time, the watchman has caught up with them; gripping the big sister’s wrist, he pressed a one-hundred-yen coin into her hand.

“Here, one hundred yen!”

However, the girl is so immersed in staring into the hole that she does not even try to shake her hand free. What could possible be enthralling these girls like this? His curiosity entangling him, he too begins to want to peer into the hole.

Within the pot, many shafts of fleeting light were running in parallel. At the bottom of that pot, a black, large mass undulated. What was it? If he strained his eyes, the sense of the ocean didn’t not come to him. No, wait . . . . . . the old man, unable to believe it, closed his eyes, and then looked again one more time . . . . . . indeed, it’s the ocean! . . . . . . It is, without a doubt, the ocean! . . . . . . Now that he knows it is in fact the ocean, it becomes more and more ocean-like . . . . . . From a deep valley, a twinkling incline flashes before his eyes; just when he thought it had suddenly shattered, his field of vision widens, and everything his eyes can see has become an ocean.

“It’s a boat . . . . . .” At his ear, the older daughter whispered. Now he too could see a boat. He could see the boat, a white, small, dot-like boat near the horizon.

“The ocean is going to come spilling out!” the older daughter yelled; and he, too, feeling the same way, hastily pulled his face away from the hole. . . . The outside world, unchanged from before, was still a scrapyard.

The old man suddenly felt intolerable fatigue. His knees trembling, he could barely stand. The young girls, carrying the old shoes and the rope, had walked off. Of course, he lacked even the energy to call out and stop them. All he could do was think about how he couldn’t understand if it was true that the younger daughter had been born with that face, or if she was in fact actually laughing.

*

Night came. The big sister dragging the rope and the little sister carrying the old shoes were sluggishly walking along a low row of houses underneath the national highway. It was a dark, streetlightless street on which an excessive number of planks cover random ditches. Straight ahead, there’s a crumbling barracks. A low window with boards stuck on instead of glass. Slide away the plank, and one is immediately in the middle of the room. After making sure that their father is fast asleep, they sneak around to the back entrance. There has never been a door in the back; coming and going has always been free here.

The two girls, stepping even more quietly than before, approached their father’s pillow. The big sister pinches their father’s nose to confirm the soundness of his sleep. This may seem reckless, though if he is not sleeping deeply enough to not wake even through this, that will interfere with the task to come. Their father irritatedly moves his head to the side, though the rhythm of his sleeping breath continues undisturbed.

First, they have to twine the rope around their father’s neck. However, passing the frayed end of the rope through the space between his neck and the futon would be like passing a cotton thread through a silkworking needle. Is there nothing they can use as support? They spy the handle of a duster. They tie it to the end of the rope; it works well. They pass it through twice, wrapping it around the neck.

Now they just have to do what they did with the puppy. Fastening one end to the handle, they both pull together. However, they just can’t get the positioning of the handle and their father’s neck right. The whole futon drags along the ground, winding up in a randomly different position. Just when it seemed as though the tip of the rope was about to come loose from the handle, their father suddenly turned over in his sleep. Some slack came to the rope; they had to refasten it again. However, it was still better than if he had turned to face the opposite direction. Alright; let’s not linger here any longer. The two girls breathed deeply and put their entire bodies’ weights onto the end of the rope.

In an instant, their father’s eyes opened. With an expression like he could not believe what was happening, he looked at the two girls. He tried to say something, though it did not become words: instead, his swollen tongue popped out of his mouth. He tried to grip the rope, blindly lashing out at space until before long he’d used up all the energy in his hands; two, three times his body tremblingly sprung up, and then he expired.

Their work done, the two girls felt as though their lungs were about to be torn to shreds. They’re so absorbed in the activity of breathing heavily that for a while they do not speak to one another. After a while, they casually notice several thousand-yen bills and many hundred-yen coins jutting out from beneath their father’s pillow.

The daughters take out one one-hundred-yen coin, and in exchange neatly return the old shoes to the side of their father’s pillow.

*

“The Rope” and “The Stick,” together, are one of humankind’s oldest “tools.” “The Stick” is for keeping evil away; “The Rope” is for pulling good toward us; these are the first friends the human race invented. Wherever you find humans, “The Rope” and “The Stick” also exist.

Even now, they are like members of our family, infiltrating and living in every residence.

August, Showa Year 35 (1960)

— translated by tim rogers, 31 october 2019

tim rogers

Written by

director of games @actionbutton. will soon publish a novel (“chronicle of a tennis monster”).

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