Norwegian Wood


I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through
dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport. Cold November
rains drenched the earth, lending everything the gloomy air of a
Flemish landscape: the ground crew in waterproofs, a flag atop a squat
airport building, a BMW billboard. So - Germany again.
Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the
ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Beatles'
"Norwegian Wood". The melody never failed to send a shudder
through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever.
I bent forward, my face in my hands to keep my skull from splitting
open. Before long one of the German stewardesses approached and
asked in English if I were sick.
"No," I said, "just dizzy."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Thanks."
She smiled and left, and the music changed to a Billy Joel tune. I
straightened up and looked out of the window at the dark clouds
hanging over the North Sea, thinking of all I had lost in the course of
my life: times gone for ever, friends who had died or disappeared,
feelings I would never know again.
The plane reached the gate. People began unfastening their seatbelts
and pulling luggage from the overhead lockers, and all the while I was
in the meadow. I could smell the grass, feel the wind on my face, hear
the cries of the birds. Autumn 1969, and soon I would be 20.
The stewardess came to check on me again. This time she sat next to
me and asked if I was all right.
"I'm fine, thanks," I said with a smile. "Just feeling kind of blue."
"I know what you mean," she said. "It happens to me, too, every once
in a while."
She stood and gave me a lovely smile. "Well, then, have a nice trip.
Auf Wiedersehen."
"Auf Wiedersehen."

Eighteen years have gone by, and still I can bring back every detail of
that day in the meadow. Washed clean of summer's dust by days of
gentle rain, the mountains wore a deep, brilliant green. The October
breeze set white fronds of head-high grasses swaying. One long streak
of cloud hung pasted across a dome of frozen blue. It almost hurt to
look at that far-off sky. A puff of wind swept across the meadow and
through her hair before it slipped into the woods to rustle branches and
send back snatches of distant barking - a hazy sound that seemed to
reach us from the doorway to another world. We heard no other
sounds. We met no other people. We saw only two bright red birds
leap startled from the center of the meadow and dart into the woods.
As we ambled along, Naoko spoke to me of wells.

Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene I hardly paid it any
attention. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make
a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that 18 years later I
would recall it in such detail. I didn't give a damn about the scenery
that day. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about the
beautiful girl walking next to me. I was thinking about the two of us
together, and then about myself again. I was at that age, that time of
life when every sight, every feeling, every thought came back, like a
boomerang, to me. And worse, I was in love. Love with
complications. Scenery was the last thing on my mind.
Now, though, that meadow scene is the first thing that comes back to
me. The smell of the grass, the faint chill of the wind, the line of the
hills, the barking of a dog: these are the first things, and they come
with absolute clarity. I feel as if I can reach out and trace them with a
fingertip. And yet, as clear as the scene may be, no one is in it. No
one. Naoko is not there, and neither am I. Where could we have
disappeared to? How could such a thing have happened? Everything
that seemed so important back then - Naoko, and the self I was then,
and the world I had then: where could they have all gone? It's true, I
can't even bring back her face - not straight away, at least. All I'm left
holding is a background, pure scenery, with no people at the front.
True, given time enough, I can remember her face. I start joining
images - her tiny, cold hand; her straight, black hair so smooth and
cool to the touch; a soft, rounded earlobe and the microscopic mole
just beneath it; the camel-hair coat she wore in the winter; her habit of
looking straight into my eyes when asking a question; the slight
trembling that would come to her voice now and then (as though she
were speaking on a windy hilltop) - and suddenly her face is there,
always in profile at first, because Naoko and I wer e always out
walking together, side by side. Then she turns to me and smiles, and
tilts her head just a little, and begins to speak, and she looks into my
eyes as if trying to catch the image of a minnow that has darted across
the pool of a limpid spring.
It takes time, though, for Naoko's face to appear. And as the years
have passed, the time has grown longer. The sad truth is that what I
could recall in 5 seconds all too soon needed 10, then 30, then a full
minute - like shadows lengthening at dusk. Someday, I suppose, the
shadows will be swallowed up in darkness. There is no way around it:
my memory is growing ever more distant from the spot where Naoko
used to stand - where my old self used to stand. And nothing but
scenery, that view of the meadow in October, returns again and again
to me like a symbolic scene in a film. Each time it appears, it delivers
a kick to some part of my mind. Wake up, it says. I'm still here. Wake
up and think about it. Think about why I'm still here. The kicking
never hurts me. There's no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes
with each kick. And even that is bound to fade one day. At Hamburg
airport, though, the kicks were longer and harder than usual. Which is
why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens
to be the way I'm made. I have to write things down to feel I fully
comprehend them.

Let's see, now, what was Naoko talking about that day?
Of course: the "field well". I have no idea whether there was such a
well. It might have been an image or a sign that existed only inside
Naoko, like all the other things she used to spin into existence inside
her mind in those dark days. Once she had described it to me, though,
I was never able to think of that meadow scene without the well. From
that day forward, the image of a thing I had never laid eyes on became
inseparably fused to the actual scene of the field that lay before me. I
can describe the well in minute detail. It lay precisely on the border
where the meadow ended and the woods began - a dark opening in the
earth a yard across, hidden by grass. Nothing marked its perimeter -
no fence, no stone curb (at least not one that rose above ground level).
It was nothing but a hole, a wide-open mouth. The stones of its collar
had been weathered and turned a strange muddy-white. They were
cracked and chunks were missing, and a little green lizard slithered
into an open seam. You could lean over the edge and peer down to see
nothing. All I knew about the well was its frightening depth. It was
deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the
world's darknesses had been boiled down to their ultimate density.
"It's really, really deep," said Naoko, choosing her words with care.
She would speak that way sometimes, slowing down to find the exact
word she was looking for. "But no one knows where it is," she
continued. "The one thing I know for sure is that it's around here
Hands thrust into the pockets of her tweed jacket, she smiled at me as
if to say "It's true!"
"Then it must be incredibly dangerous," I said. "A deep well, but
nobody knows where it is. You could fall in and that'd be the end of
"The end. Aaaaaaaah! Splat! Finished."
"Things like that must happen."
"They do, every once in a while. Maybe once in two or three years.
Somebody disappears all of a sudden, and they just can't find him. So
then the people around here say, "Oh, he fell in the field well'."
"Not a nice way to die," I said.
"No, it's a terrible way to die," said Naoko, brushing a cluster of grass
seed from her jacket. "The best thing would be to break your neck, but
you'd probably just break your leg and then you couldn't do a thing.
You'd yell at the top of your lungs, but nobody would hear you, and
you couldn't expect anyone to find you, and you'd have centipedes and
spiders crawling all over you, and the bones of the ones who died
before are scattered all around you, and it's dark and soggy, and high
overhead there's this tiny, tiny circle of light like a winter moon. You
die there in this place, little by little, all by yourself."
"Yuck, just thinking about it makes my flesh creep," I said.
"Somebody should find the thing and build a wall around it."
"But nobody can find it. So make sure you don't go off the path."
"Don't worry, I won't."
Naoko took her left hand from her pocket and squeezed my hand.
"Don't you worry," she said. "You'll be OK. You could go running all
around here in the middle of the night and you'd never fall into the
well. And as long as I stick with you, I won't fall in, either."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I just know," she said, increasing her grip on my hand and walking
along in silence. "I know these things. I'm always right. It's got
nothing to do with logic: I just feel it. For example, when I'm really
close to you like this, I'm not the least bit scared. Nothing dark or evil
could ever tempt me."
"Well, that's the answer," I said. "All you have to do is stay with me
like this all the time."
"Do you mean that?"
"Of course."
Naoko stopped short. So did I. She put her hands on my shoulders and
peered into my eyes. Deep within her own pattern. Those beautiful
eyes of hers were looking inside me for a long, long time. Then she
stretched to her full height and touched her cheek to mine. It was a
marvelous, warm gesture that stopped my heart for a moment.
"Thank you."
"My pleasure," I answered.
"I'm so happy you said that. Really happy," she said with a sad smile.
"But it's impossible."
"Impossible? Why?"
"It would be wrong. It would be terrible. It - "
Naoko clamped her mouth shut and started walking again. I could tell
that all kinds of thoughts were whirling around in her head, so rather
than intrude on them I kept silent and walked by her side.
"It would be wrong - wrong for you, wrong for me," she said after a
long pause.
"Wrong how?" I murmured.
"Don't you see? It's just not possible for one person to watch over
another person forever and ever. I mean, suppose we got married.
You'd have to work during the day. Who's going to watch over me
while you're away? Or if you go on a business trip, who's going to
watch over me then? Can I be glued to you every minute of our lives?
What kind of equality would there be in that? What kind of
relationship would that be? Sooner or later you'd get sick of me. You'd
wonder what you were doing with your life, why you were spending
all your time babysitting this woman. I couldn't stand that. It wouldn't
solve any of my problems."
"But your problems are not going to continue for the rest of your life,"
I said, touching her back. "They'll end eventually. And when they do,
we'll stop and think about how to go on from there. Maybe you will
have to help me. We're not running our lives according to some
account book. If you need me, use me. Don't you see? Why do you
have to be so rigid? Relax, let down your guard. You're all tensed up
so you always expect the worst. Relax your body, and the rest of you
will lighten up."
"How can you say that?" she asked in a voice drained of feeling.
Naoko's voice alerted me to the possibility that I had said something I
shouldn't have.
"Tell me how you could say such a thing," she said, staring at the
ground beneath her feet. "You're not telling me anything I don't know
already. "Relax your body, and the rest of you will lighten up.' What's
the point of saying that to me? If I relaxed my body now, I'd fall apart.
I've always lived like this, and it's the only way I know how to go on
living. If I relaxed for a second, I'd never find my way back. I'd go to
pieces, and the pieces would be blown away. Why can't you see that?
How can you talk about watching over me if you can't see that?"
I said nothing.
"I'm confused. Really confused. And it's a lot deeper than you think.
Deeper ... darker ... colder. But tell me something. How could you
have slept with me that time? How could you have done such a thing?
Why didn't you just leave me alone?"
Now we were walking through the frightful silence of a pine forest.
The desiccated corpses of cicadas that had died at the end of summer
littered the surface of the path, crunching beneath our shoes. As if
searching for something we'd lost, Naoko and I continued slowly
along the path.
"I'm sorry," she said, taking my arm and shaking her head.
"I didn't mean to hurt you. Try not to let what I said bother you.
Really, I'm sorry. I was just angry at myself."
"I suppose I don't really understand you yet," I said. "I'm not all that
smart. It takes me a while to understand things. But if I do have the
time, I will come to understand you - better than anyone else in the
We came to a stop and stood in the silent forest, listening. I tumbled
pinecones and cicada shells with my toecap, then looked up at the
patches of sky showing through the pine branches. Hands in pockets,
Naoko stood there thinking, her eyes focused on nothing in particular.
"Tell me something, Toru," she said. "Do you love me?"
"You know I do."
"Will you do me two favors?"
"You can have up to three wishes, Madame."
Naoko smiled and shook her head. "No, two will do. One is for you to
realize how grateful I am that you came to see me here. I hope you'll
understand how happy you've made me. I know it's going to save me
if anything will. I may not show it, but it's true."
"I'll come to see you again," I said. "And what is the other wish?"
"I want you always to remember me. Will you remember that I
existed, and that I stood next to you here like this?"
"Always," I said. "I'll always remember."
She walked on without speaking. The autumn light filtering through
the branches danced over the shoulders of her jacket. A dog barked
again, closer than before. Naoko climbed a small mound, walked out
of the forest and hurried down a gentle slope. I followed two or three
steps behind.
"Come over here," I called towards her back. "The well might be
around here somewhere." Naoko stopped and smiled and took my
arm. We walked the rest of the way side by side. "Do you really
promise never to forget me?" she asked in a near whisper.
"I'll never forget you," I said. "I could never forget you."

Even so, my memory has grown increasingly dim, and I have already
forgotten any number of things. Writing from memory like this, I
often feel a pang of dread. What if I've forgotten the most important
thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all
the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?
Be that as it may, it's all I have to work with. Clutching these faded,
fading, imperfect memories to my breast, I go on writing this book
with all the desperate intensity of a starving man sucking on bones.
This is the only way I know to keep my promise to Naoko.
Once, long ago, when I was still young, when the memories were far
more vivid than they are now, I often tried to write about her. But I
couldn't produce a line. I knew that if that first line would come, the
rest would pour itself onto the page, but I could never make it happen.
Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to
start - the way a map that shows too much can sometimes be useless.
Now, though, I realize that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of
writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts. The more the
memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to
understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her.
Naoko herself knew, of course. She knew that my memories of her
would fade. Which is precisely why she begged me never to forget
her, to remember that she had existed.
The thought fills me with an almost unbearable sorrow. Because
Naoko never loved me.