Issue 172, Winter 2004
Nakata visited the vacant lot for several days. One morning it rained heavily, so he spent the day doing simple woodwork in his room, but apart from that he bided his time seated in the weeds waiting for the missing tortoiseshell cat to show up, or the man in the strange hat. But no luck.
At the end of each day Nakata stopped by the home of the people who’d hired him and gave an update on his search—where he’d gone, what sort of information he’d managed to pick up. The cat’s owner would pay him twenty dollars, his going rate. Nobody had ever officially set that fee, word just got around that there was a master cat-finder in the neighborhood and somehow he settled on that daily rate. People would always give him something extra besides the money, too—food, occasionally clothes. And a bonus of eighty dollars once he actually tracked down the missing cat.
Nakata wasn’t constantly being asked to search for missing cats, so the fees he accumulated each month didn’t add up to much. He lived on his meager savings and a municipal monthly subsidy for the elderly handicapped. He managed to get by on the subsidy alone, so he could spend his cat-finding fees as he wished, and for him it seemed like a substantial amount. Sometimes, though, he couldn’t come up with any idea of how to spend it, other than enjoying his favorite grilled eel. Going to the bank involved filling out forms, so any leftover money he hid beneath the tatami in his room.
Being able to converse with cats was Nakata’s little secret. Only he and the cats knew about it. People would think he was crazy if he mentioned it, so he never did. Everybody knew he wasn’t very bright, but being dumb and being crazy were different matters altogether.
It wasn’t so unusual, after all, to see old folks talking to animals as if they were people. But if anyone did happen to comment on his abilities with cats and say something like, “Mr. Nakata, how are you able to know cats’ habits so well?” he’d just smile and let it pass. Nakata was always serious and well mannered, with a pleasant smile, and was a favorite among the housewives in the neighborhood. His neat appearance also helped. Poor though he was, Nakata enjoyed bathing and doing laundry, and the nearly brand-new clothes his clients often gave him only added to his clean-cut look. Some of the clothes—a salmon pink Jack Nicklaus golf shirt, for instance—didn’t exactly suit him, but Nakata didn’t mind as long as they were neat and clean.
Nakata was standing at the front door, giving a halting report to his present client, Mrs. Koizumi, on the search for her cat, Goma.
“Nakata finally got some information about little Goma,” he began. “A person named Kawamura said that a few days ago he saw a cat resembling Goma over in the empty lot, the one with the wall around it, over in the 2 -chome District. It’s two big roads away from here, and he said the age, coat, and collar are all the same as Goma’s. Nakata decided to keep a lookout at the empty lot, so I take a lunch and sit there every day, morning till sunset.
No, don’t worry about that—I have plenty of free time, so unless it’s raining hard I don’t mind at all. But if you think it’s no longer necessary, then please tell me. I will stop right away.”
He didn’t tell her that this Mr. Kawamura wasn’t a person but a striped brown cat. That would only complicate matters.
Mrs. Koizumi thanked him. Her two little daughters were in a gloomy mood after their beloved pet suddenly vanished, and had lost their appetite. Their mother couldn’t just explain it away by telling them that cats tended to disappear every once in while. But despite the shock to the girls, she didn’t have the time to go around town looking for their cat. That made her all the more glad to find a person like Nakata who, for a mere twenty dollars per diem, would do his best to search for Goma. Nakata was a strange old man, and had a weird way of speaking, but people claimed he was an absolute genius when it came to locating cats. She knew she shouldn’t think about it like this, but the old man didn’t seem bright enough to deceive anyone. She handed him his fee in an envelope, as well as a Tupperware container with some vegetable rice and taro potatoes she’d just cooked.
Nakata bowed as he took the Tupperware, sniffed the food, and thanked her. “Thank you kindly. Taro is one of Nakata’s favorites.”
“I hope you enjoy it,” Mrs. Koizumi replied.
A week had passed since he first staked out the empty lot, during which time Nakata had seen a lot of different cats come in and out.
Kawamura, the striped brown cat, stopped by a couple of times each day to say hello. Nakata greeted him, and chatted about the weather and his sub city.
He still couldn’t follow a word the cat said.
“Crouch on pavement, Kawara’s in trouble,” Kawamura said.
He seemed to want to convey something to Nakata, but the old man didn’t have a clue.
The cat seemed perplexed by this, and repeated the same— possibly the same—thought in different words. “Kawara’s shouting tied.” Nakata was even more lost.
Too bad Mimi’s not here to help out, he thought. Mimi’d give the cat a good slap on the cheek and get him to make some sense.
A smart cat, that Mimi. But Mimi wasn’t here. She’d never show up in a field like this, since she hated getting ticks from other cats.
Other cats filtered in and out. At first they were on their guard when they spotted Nakata, gazing at him from a distance in annoyance, but after they saw that he was simply sitting there, doing nothing, they forgot all about him. In his typical friendly way, Nakata tried to strike up conversations. He’d say hello and introduce himself, but most of the cats turned a deaf ear, pretending they couldn’t hear him, or stared right through him. The cats here were particularly adept at giving someone the cold shoulder. They must have had some pretty awful experiences with humans, Nakata decided. He was in no position to demand anything of them, and didn’t blame them for their coldness. He knew very well that in the world of cats he would always be an outsider.
“So you can talk, huh?” the cat, a black and white tabby with torn ears, said a bit hesitantly as it glanced around. The cat spoke gruffly but seemed nice enough.
“Yes, a little,” Nakata replied.
“Impressive all the same,” the tabby commented.
“My name’s Nakata,” Nakata said. “And your name would be?”
“Ain’t got one,” the tabby said brusquely.
“How about Okawa? Do you mind if I call you that?”
“Well, then, Mr. Okawa,” Nakata said, “as a token of our meeting each other, would you care for some dried sardines?”
“Sounds good. One of my favorites, sardines.”
Nakata took a Saran-wrapped sardine from his bag. He always had a few sardines with him, just in case. Okawa gobbled down the sardine, stripping it from head to tail, then cleaned his face.
“That hit the spot. Much obliged. I’d be happy to lick you somewhere, if you’d like.”
“No, there’s no need to. Nakata’s grateful for the offer, but right now I don’t need to be licked anywhere, thanks all the same.
Actually, I’ve been asked by its owner to locate a missing cat. A female tortoiseshell by the name of Goma.” Nakata took the color snapshot of Goma out of his bag and showed it to Okawa.
“Someone told me this cat has been spotted in this vacant lot. So Nakata’s been sitting here for several days waiting for Goma to show up. I was wondering if, by chance, you may have run across her.”
Okawa glanced at the photo and made a gloomy face. Frown lines appeared between his eyebrows and he blinked in consternation several times. “I’m grateful for the sardine, don’t get me wrong.
But I can’t talk about that. I’ll be in hot water if I do.”
Nakata was bewildered.
“A dangerous, nasty business. I think you’d better write that cat off. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from this place.” With this Okawa stood up, looked around, and disappeared into a thicket.
Nakata sighed, took out his thermos, and slowly sipped some tea. Okawa had said it was dangerous to be here, but Nakata couldn’t imagine how. All he was doing was looking for a lost little cat. What could possibly be dangerous about that? Maybe it was that cat-catcher with the strange hat Kawamura told him about who’s dangerous. But Nakata was a person, not a cat. So why should he be afraid of a cat-catcher?
But the world was full of many things Nakata couldn’t hope to fathom, so he gave up thinking about it. With a brain like his, the only result he got from thinking too much was a headache.
Nakata sipped the last drop of his tea, screwed the cap on the thermos, and placed it back inside his bag.
After Okawa, no other cats showed up for a long time. Just butterflies, silently fluttering above the weeds. A flock of sparrows flew into the lot, scattered in various directions, regrouped, and winged away. Nakata dozed off a few times, coming awake with a start. He knew approximately what time it was by the position of the sun.
It was nearly evening when a huge, black dog suddenly appeared from the thicket, silently lumbering forward. From where Nakata sat, the beast looked more like a calf than a dog. It had long legs, short hair, bulging, steely muscles, ears as sharp as knife points, and no collar. Nakata didn’t know much about breeds of dogs, but one glance told him this was the vicious variety.
The kind of dog the military used in its K-9 corps.
The dog’s eyes were as glazed and lifeless as glass beads congealed from swamp water, and the skin around its mouth turned up, exposing wicked-looking fangs. Its teeth had blood stuck to them, and slimy bits of meat matted around its mouth. Its bright red tongue flicked out between its teeth like a flame. The dog fixed its glare on Nakata and stood there, unmoving, without a sound, for a long time. Nakata was silent too. He didn’t know how to speak to dogs—only cats.
Nakata breathed quietly, shallowly, but he wasn’t afraid. He had a pretty good idea he was face-to-face with a hostile, aggressive animal. (Why this was, he had no idea.) But he didn’t carry this thought one step further and see himself in imminent peril. The concept of death was beyond his powers of imagination. And pain was something he wasn’t aware of until he actually felt it. As an abstract concept pain didn’t mean a thing. The upshot of this was he wasn’t afraid, even with this monstrous dog staring him down.
He was merely perplexed.
Stand up! the dog said.
Nakata gulped. The dog was talking! Not really talking, since its mouth wasn’t moving—but communicating through some means other than speech.
Stand up and follow me! the dog commanded.
Nakata did as he was told, clambering to his feet. A thought crossed Nakata’s mind: Maybe this dog has some connection with the governor, who found out he was getting money for finding cats and was going to take away his sub city! He considered saying hello to the dog, then thought better of it. No amount of time would turn it into a friend.
Once Nakata got to his feet, the dog slowly started to walk away. It had a short tail and, below its base, two large balls.
The dog cut straight across the vacant lot and slipped out between the wooden fence. Nakata followed, and the dog never looked back. As they drew closer to the shopping district the streets grew more crowded, mostly with housewives out shopping.
Eyes fixed straight ahead, the dog walked on, his whole bearing overpowering. When people spied this giant, violent-looking beast, they leaped aside, a couple of bicyclists even getting off and crossing over to the other side of the street to avoid facing him.
Nakata no longer knew where they were. What was he going to do if he got lost and couldn’t find his way back? For all he knew they might not even be in Nakano Ward anymore. He craned his neck, trying to spot familiar landmarks, but no such luck. This was a part of the city he’d never seen before.
“Say, is this still Nakano Ward?” Nakata called out.
The dog didn’t respond or look around.
“Do you work for the governor?”
Again no response.
“Nakata’s just looking for a lost cat. A small tortoiseshell cat named Goma.”
This was getting him nowhere, and he gave up.
They came to a corner in a quiet residential area with big houses but no passersby, and the dog boldly strode through an open oldfashioned double gate set into an old-style stone wall surrounding one of the houses. The front door of the house was open. The dog went right inside, without hesitating. Before stepping in, Nakata took off his old sneakers and lined them up neatly at the entrance, stuffed his mountain-climbing cap inside his bag, and brushed grass blades off his trousers. The dog stood there, waiting for Nakata to make himself presentable, then went down the polished wooden corridor, leading him to what looked like either a sitting room or a library.
The room was dark. No lights were on. Farther back a black silhouette floated indistinctly, like a paper cutout. As Nakata entered the room the silhouette slowly turned. The dog, his duty done, came to a halt, plopped down on the floor, and closed his eyes.
“Hello,” Nakata said to the dark outline.
The other person didn’t say a thing.
“Sorry to bother you, but my name is Nakata. I’m not an intruder.”
“This dog told me to follow him, so here I am. If you don’t mind terribly, I’ll be leaving.”
“Take a seat on the sofa, if you would,” the man said.
“All right, I’ll do that,” Nakata said, lowering himself onto a one-person sofa. Right next to him, the dog was still as a statue.
“Are you . . . the governor?”
“Something like that. If that makes it easier for you, think that.”
The man turned around and tugged at a chain on a floor lamp.
A yellow, antiquish light snapped on.
The man before him was tall, thin, and wearing a black silk hat. He was seated on a leather swivel chair, his legs crossed in front of him. He had on a form-fitting red coat with long tails, a black vest, and long black boots. His trousers were as white as snow and fit him perfectly. One hand was raised to the brim of his hat, like he was tipping it to a lady. His left hand gripped a black walking stick by a round, gold knob. Looking at the hat, Nakata suddenly thought: This must be the cat-catcher! The man’s features weren’t as unusual as his clothes. He was somewhere between young and old, handsome and ugly. His eyebrows were sharp and thick, and his cheeks had a healthy glow.
His face was terribly smooth, with no whiskers at all. Below narrowed eyes, a cold smile played at his lips.
“You know who I am, I assume?”
“No, sir, I’m afraid I don’t,” Nakata said.
The man looked a bit let down. “Are you sure?” he said, rising from the chair to stand sideways to Nakata, a leg raised as if he were walking. “Doesn’t ring a bell?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“I see. Perhaps you’re not a whisky drinker, then.”
“That’s right. Nakata doesn’t drink or smoke. I’m poor enough to get a sub city so I can’t afford that.”
The man sat back down and crossed his legs. He picked up a glass on the desk and took a sip of whisky. Ice cubes clinked in the glass. “I hope you don’t mind if I indulge?”
“No, I don’t mind. Please feel free.”
“So you really don’t know who I am,” the man said, gazing intently at Nakata.
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t.”
The man’s lips twisted slightly. “My name is Johnnie Walker.
Johnnie Walker. Not to boast, but I’m famous all over the world.
An iconic figure, you might say. I’m not the real Johnnie Walker, mind you. I have nothing to do with the British distilling company.
I’ve just borrowed his appearance and name. A person’s got to have an appearance and a name, right?”
Silence descended on the room. Nakata had no idea what the man was talking about. “Are you a foreigner, Mr. Johnnie Walker?”
Johnnie Walker inclined his head. “Well, if that helps you understand me, feel free to think so. Or not. Because both are true.”
Nakata was lost. He might as well be talking with Kawamura, the cat. “So you’re a foreigner, but also not a foreigner. Is that what you mean?”
“That is correct.”
Nakata didn’t pursue the point. “Did you have this dog bring me here?”
“I did,” Johnnie Walker replied simply.
“Which means. . . that maybe you have something you’d like to ask me?”
“It’s more like you have something to ask me,” Johnnie Walker replied, then took another sip of his whisky. “As I understand it, you’ve been waiting in that vacant lot for several days for me to show up.”
“Yes, that’s right. I completely forgot! Nakata’s not too bright, and I forget things quickly. I’ve been waiting for you in that vacant lot to ask you about a missing cat. Do you know Goma?”
“I know her very well.”
“And do you know where she might be?”
“I do indeed.”
“Is she nearby?”
Johnnie Walker nodded a few times. “Yes, very near.”
Nakata gazed around the room, but couldn’t see any cats. “So can I take Goma home?” he asked.
“It’s all up to you,” Johnnie Walker said, one eyebrow raised slightly. “If you make up your mind to do it, you can take Goma back home. And make Mrs. Koizumi and her daughters happy. Or you can break their hearts. You wouldn’t want to do that, I imagine.”
“No, Nakata doesn’t want to disappoint them.”
“The same with me. I don’t want to disappoint them either.”
“So what should I do?”
Johnnie Walker twirled the walking stick. “I want you to do something for me.”
“Is it something that Nakata can do?”
“I never ask the impossible. That’s a colossal waste of time, don’t you agree?”
Nakata gave it some thought. “I suppose so.”
“Which means that what I’m asking you to do is something you’re capable of doing.”
Nakata pondered this. “Yes, I’d say that’s true.”
“As a rule, there’s always counterevidence for every theory.”
“Beg pardon?” Nakata said.
“For every theory there has to be counterevidence—otherwise science wouldn’t progress,” Johnnie Walker said, defiantly tapping his stick against his boots. The dog perked up his ears again. “Not at all.”
Nakata kept quiet.
“Truth be told, I’ve been looking for someone like you for a long time,” Johnnie Walker said. “But it wasn’t easy to find the right person. The other day, though, I saw you talking to a cat and it hit me—this is the exact person I’ve been looking for. That’s why I’ve had you come all this way. I feel bad about having you go to all the trouble, though.”
“No trouble at all. Nakata has plenty of free time.”
“I’ve prepared a couple of theories about you,” Johnnie Walker said. “And of course several pieces of counterevidence. It’s like a game, a mental game I play. But every game needs a winner and a loser. In this case, winning and losing involves determining which theory is correct and which theories aren’t. But I don’t imagine you understand what I’m talking about.”
Silently, Nakata shook his head.
Johnnie Walker tapped his walking stick against his boots twice, a signal for the dog to stand up.
The dog led Nakata out of the study and down the dark corridor to the kitchen, which had only a couple of windows and was dark.
Though neat and clean, it had an inert feel, like a science lab in school. The dog stopped in front of a large refrigerator, turned around, and drilled Nakata with a cold look.
Open the left door, he said in a low voice. Nakata knew it wasn’t the dog talking but Johnnie Walker, speaking to Nakata through him.
Nakata did as he was told. The avocado green refrigerator was taller than he was, and when he opened the left door the thermostat came on with a thump, the motor groaning to life. White vapor, like fog, wafted out.
Inside was a row of about twenty round, fruit-like objects, neatly arranged. Nothing else. Nakata bent over and looked at them fixedly. When the vapor cleared he saw it wasn’t fruit at all but the severed heads of cats. Cut-off heads of all colors and sizes, arranged on three shelves like oranges at a fruit stand. The cats’ faces were frozen, facing forward. Nakata gulped.
Take a good look, the dog commanded. Check with your own eyes whether Goma’s in there or not.
Nakata did this, examining the cats’ heads one by one. He didn’t feel afraid—his mind focused on finding the missing little cat. Nakata carefully checked each head, confirming that Goma’s wasn’t among them. No doubt about it—not a single tortoiseshell.
The faces of the bodyless cats had strangely vacant expressions, none of them appearing to have suffered. That, at least, brought Nakata a sigh of relief.
“I don’t see Goma here,” Nakata said in a flat tone. He cleared his throat and shut the refrigerator door.
Are you absolutely sure?
“Yes, I’m sure.”
The dog stood up and led Nakata back to the study. Johnnie Walker was still seated in the swivel chair, waiting for him. As Nakata entered, he touched the brim of his silk hat in greeting and smiled pleasantly. Then he clapped his hands loudly, twice, and the dog left the room.
“I’m the one who cut off all those cats’ heads,” he said. He lifted his glass of whisky and took a drink. “I’m collecting them.”
“So you’re the one who’s been catching cats in that vacant lot and killing them.”
“That’s right. The infamous cat-killer Johnnie Walker, at your service.”
“Nakata doesn’t understand this so well, so do you mind if I ask a question?”
“Be my guest,” Johnnie Walker said, lifting his glass. “Feel free to ask anything. To save time, though, if you don’t mind, I can guess that the first thing you want to know is why I have to kill all these cats. Why I’m collecting their heads. Am I right?”
“Yes, that’s right. That’s what Nakata wants to know.”
Johnnie Walker set his glass down on the desk and looked straight at Nakata. “This is an important secret I wouldn’t tell just anybody. For you, Mr. Nakata, I’ll make an exception, but I don’t want you telling other people. Not that they’d believe you even if you did.” He chuckled.
“Listen—I’m not killing cats just for the fun of it. I’m not so disturbed I find it amusing,” he went on. “I’m not just some dilettante with time on his hands. It takes a lot of time and effort to gather and kill this many cats. I’m killing them to collect their souls, which I use to create a special kind of flute. And when I blow that flute it’ll let me collect even larger souls. Then I collect larger souls and make an even bigger flute. Perhaps in the end I’ll be able to make a flute so large it’ll rival the universe. But first come the cats.
Gathering their souls is the starting point of the whole project.
There’s an essential order you have to follow in everything. It’s a way of showing respect, following everything in the correct order.
It’s what you need to do when you’re dealing with other souls. It’s not pineapples and melons I’m working with here, agreed?”
“Yes,” Nakata replied. But actually he had no idea. A flute?
Was he talking about a flute you held sideways? Or maybe a recorder? What sort of sound would it make? And what did he mean by cats’ souls ? All of this exceeded his limited powers of comprehension. But Nakata did understand one thing: He had to locate Goma and get her out of here.
“What you want to do is take Goma home,” Johnnie Walker said, as though reading Nakata’s mind.
“That’s right. Nakata wants to take Goma back to her home.”
“That’s your mission,” Johnnie Walker said. “We all follow our mission in life. That’s natural. Now I imagine you’ve never heard a flute made out of cats’ souls, have you?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Of course you haven’t. You can’t hear it with your ears.”
“It’s a flute you can’t hear?”
“Correct. I can hear it, of course,” Johnnie Walker said. “If I couldn’t hear it none of this would work. Ordinary people, though, can’t detect it. Even if they do, they don’t realize it. They may have heard it in the past but don’t remember. A very strange flute, to be sure. But maybe—just maybe—you might be able to hear it, Mr. Nakata. If I had a flute on me right now we could try it, but I’m afraid I don’t.” Then, as if recalling something, he pointed one finger straight up. “Actually, I was about to cut off the heads of the cats I’ve rounded up. Harvest time. I’ve got all the cats that can be caught in that vacant lot, and it’s time to move on. The cat you’re looking for, Goma, is among them. Of course if I cut her head off, you wouldn’t be able to take her home to the Koizumis, now would you?”
“That’s right,” Nakata said. He couldn’t take back Goma’s cut-off head to the Koizumis. If those two little girls saw that, they might give up eating forever.
“I want to cut off Goma’s head, but you don’t want that to happen. Our two missions, our two interests, conflict. That happens a lot in the world. So I’ll tell you what—we’ll negotiate. What I mean is, if you do something for me, I’ll return the favor and give you Goma safe and sound.”
Nakata lifted a hand above his head and vigorously rubbed his salt-and-pepper hair, his habitual pose when puzzling over something. “Is it something I can do?”
“I thought we’d already settled that,” Johnnie Walker said with a wry smile.
“Yes, we did,” Nakata said, remembering. “That’s correct. We did settle that already. Pardon me.”
“We don’t have a lot of time, so let me jump to the conclusion, if you don’t mind. What you can do for me is kill me. Take my life, in other words.”
Hand resting on the top of his hand, Nakata stared at Johnnie Walker for a long time. “You want Nakata to kill you?”
“That’s right,” Johnnie Walker said. “Truthfully, I’m sick and tired of this life. I’ve lived a long, long time. I don’t even remember how old I am. And I don’t feel like living any longer. I’m sick and tired of killing cats, but as long as I live that’s what I have to do— murder one cat after another and harvest their souls. Following things in the correct order, step one to step ten, then back to one again. An endless repetition. And I’ve had it! Nobody respects what I’m doing, it doesn’t make anybody happy. But the whole thing’s fixed already. I can’t just suddenly say I quit. And taking my own life isn’t an option. That’s already been decided too. There’re all sorts of rules involved. If I want to die, I have to get somebody else to kill me. That’s where you come in. I want you to fear me, to hate me with a passion—and then terminate me. First you fear me. Then you hate me. And finally you kill me.”
“But why—why ask me ? Nakata’s never ever killed anyone before. It’s not the kind of thing I’m suited for.”
“I know. You’ve never killed anyone, and don’t want to. But listen to me—there are times in life when those kinds of excuses don’t cut it anymore. Situations when nobody cares whether you’re suited for the task at hand or not. I need you to understand that. For instance, it happens in war. Do you know what war is?”
“Yes, I do. There was a big war going on when Nakata was born. I heard about it.”
“When a war starts people are forced to become soldiers. They carry guns and go to the front lines and have to kill soldiers on the other side. As many as they possibly can. Nobody cares whether you like killing other people or not. It’s just something you have to do. Otherwise you’re the one who gets killed.” Johnnie Walker pointed his index finger at Nakata’s chest. “Bang!” he said.
“Human history in a nutshell.”
“Is the governor going to make Nakata a soldier and order me to kill people?”
“Yes, that’s what the governor will do. Tell you to kill somebody.”
Nakata thought about this but couldn’t quite figure it out.
Why in the world would the governor do that?
“You’ve got to look at it this way: This is war.
You’re a soldier, and you have to make a decision. Either I kill the cats or you kill me. One or the other. You need to make a choice right here and now. This might seem an outrageous choice, but consider this: Most choices we make in life are equally outrageous.” Johnnie Walker lightly touched his silk hat, as if making sure it was still in place.
“The one saving grace for you here—if indeed you need such a thing—is the fact that I want to die. I’ve asked you to kill me, so you don’t need to suffer any pangs of conscience.”
Nakata wiped away the beads of sweat that had formed on his hairline. “But there’s no way Nakata could do something like that.
Even if you tell me to kill you, I don’t know how to go about it.”
“I hear you,” Johnnie Walker said admiringly. “You’ve never killed anybody before, so you don’t know how to go about it. All right then, let me explain. The knack to killing someone, Mr.
Nakata, is not to hesitate. Focus your prejudice and execute it swiftly—that’s the ticket when it comes to killing. I have an excellent example right here. It’s not a person, but it might help you get the picture.”
Johnnie Walker stood up and picked up a large leather case from the shadows below the desk. He placed it on the chair where he’d been sitting and opened it, whistling a cheery time. As if performing a magic trick, he extracted a cat from out of the case.
Nakata had never seen this cat before, a gray-striped male that had just reached adulthood. The cat was limp, but its eyes were open.
It looked conscious, though only barely. Still whistling his merry tune—“Heigh-Ho” from Disney’s Snow White, the one the Seven Dwarves sang—Johnnie Walker held up the cat like he was showing off a fish he’d just caught.
“I’ve got five cats inside this case, all from that vacant lot.
A fresh batch. Just picked, fresh from the grove, so to speak. I’ve given them all injections to paralyze them. It’s not an anesthetic— they’re not asleep and they can feel pain, but they can’t move their arms or legs. Or even their heads. I do this to keep them from thrashing about. What I’m going to do is slice open their chests with a knife, extract their still-beating hearts, and cut their heads off. Right in front of your eyes. There’ll be lots of blood, and unimaginable pain. Imagine how much it’d hurt if somebody cut open your chest and pulled out your heart! Same thing holds true for cats—it’s got to hurt. I feel sorry for the poor little things. I’m not some cold, cruel sadist, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
There has to be pain. That’s the rule. Rules everywhere you look here.” He winked at Nakata. “A job’s a job. Got to accomplish your mission. I’m going to dispose of one cat after another, and finish off Goma last. So you still have some time to decide what you should do. Remember, now—it’s either I kill the cats or you kill me. There’s no other choice.”
Johnnie Walker placed the limp cat on top of the desk, opened a drawer, and with both hands extracted a large black package. He carefully unwrapped it and spread out the contents on the desk.
These included a small electric saw, scalpels of various sizes, and a very large knife, all of them gleaming like they’d just been sharpened.
Johnnie Walker lovingly checked each and every blade as he lined them up on the desk. Next he got several metal trays from another drawer and arranged them, too, on the desk. Then he took a large black plastic bag from a drawer. All the while whistling “Heigh-Ho.”
“As I mentioned, Mr. Nakata, in everything there’s a proper order,” Johnnie Walker said. “You can’t look too far ahead. Do that and you’ll lose sight of what you’re doing and stumble. I’m not saying you should focus solely on details right in front of you, mind you. You’ve got to look ahead a bit or else you’ll bump into something. You’ve got to follow the proper order and at the same time keep an eye out for what’s ahead. That’s critical, no matter what you’re doing.”
Johnnie Walker narrowed his eyes and gently stroked the cat’s head. He ran the tip of his index finger up and down the cat’s belly, then picked up a scalpel in his right hand and without any warning made an incision straight down the stomach. It all happened in an instant. The belly split wide open and reddish guts spilled out. The cat tried to scream but barely made any sound at all. His tongue, after all, was numb, and he could hardly open his mouth. But his eyes were contorted in terrible pain. And Nakata could well imagine how awful this pain was. A moment later blood gushed out, wetting Johnnie Walker’s hands and running down his vest. But he didn’t pay attention. Still to the accompaniment of “Heigh-Ho,” he thrust his hand inside the cat’s body and with a small scalpel skillfully cut loose the tiny heart.
He placed the gory lump on his palm and held it out for Nakata to see. “Take a peek. It’s still beating.”
Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he popped the heart into his mouth and began chewing silently, leisurely savoring the taste. His eyes glistened like a child enjoying a pastry hot from the oven.
He wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and carefully licked his lips clean. “Fresh and warm. And still beating in my mouth.”
Nakata stared at the scene before him without a word. He couldn’t look away. The smell of fresh blood filled the room.
Still whistling his jolly tune, Johnnie Walker sawed the cat’s head off. The teeth of the saw crunched through the bone and severed it. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. The neck bone wasn’t very thick, so the whole operation was quickly finished. But the sound had a strange weight to it. Johnnie Walker lovingly placed the severed head on the metal tray. As if relishing a work of art, he narrowed his eyes and gazed at it intently. He stopped whistling for a second, extracted something stuck between his teeth with a fingernail, popped it in his mouth and carefully tasted it, then smacked his lips, satisfied, and gulped it down. Next he opened the black plastic bag and casually tossed in the dead cat’s body like some useless shell.
“One down,” Johnnie Walker said, spreading his bloody hands in front of Nakata. “A bit of work, don’t you think? You can enjoy a nice fresh heart, but look how bloody you get. No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red. A line from Macbeth.
“This isn’t as bad as Macbeth, but you wouldn’t believe the dry-cleaning bills. This is a special outfit, after all. I should wear a surgical gown and gloves, but I can’t. Another rule, I’m afraid.”
Nakata didn’t say a word, though something was beginning to stir in his mind. The room smelled of blood, and strains of “Heigh-Ho” rang in his ears.
Johnnie Walker pulled out the next cat from his bag, a white female, not so young, with the tip of her tail bent a little. As before, he stroked the cat’s head for a while, then leisurely traced an invisible line down her stomach. He picked up a scalpel and again made a quick cut to open up the chest. The rest was the same as before.
The silent scream, the whole body convulsing, guts spilling out.
Pulling out the bloody heart, showing it to Nakata, popping it in his mouth, chewing it slowly. The satisfied smile. Wiping the blood away with the back of his hand. All with “Heigh-Ho” as background music.
Nakata sank back in his chair and closed his eyes. He held his head in his hands, the fingertips digging into his temples.
Something was definitely rising up within him, a horrible confusion transforming his very being. He was breathing rapidly, and a sharp pain throbbed in his neck. His vision was changing drastically.
“Don’t poop out on me yet, Mr. Nakata,” Johnnie Walker said brightly. “We’re just getting to the main event. This is the best part! I hope you’ll appreciate how hard I’ve tried to make this entertaining for you.”
Whistling his tune, he took out the next cat. Sunk in his chair, Nakata opened his eyes and looked at the next victim. His mind was a complete blank, and he couldn’t even stand up.
“I believe you already know each other,” Johnnie Walker said, “but I’ll do the honors anyway. Mr. Nakata, this is Mr.
Kawamura. Mr. Kawamura, Mr. Nakata.” Johnnie Walker tipped his hat in a theatrical gesture, greeting first Nakata, then the paralyzed cat.
“Now that you’ve said hello, I’m afraid we move right into farewells. Hello, good-bye. Like flowers scattered in a storm, man’s life is one long farewell, as they say.” He gave Kawamura’s soft stomach a gentle caress. “Now’s the time to stop me if you’re going to, Mr. Nakata. Time’s ticking away, and I won’t hesitate. In the dictionary of the infamous cat-killer Johnnie Walker, hesitate is one word you won’t find.”
And indeed without any hesitation at all he slit open Kawamura’s belly. This time the scream was audible. Maybe the cat’s tongue hadn’t been fully paralyzed, or perhaps it was a special kind of scream that only Nakata could hear. An awful, bloodcurdling scream. Nakata closed his eyes and held his trembling head in his hands.
“You have to look!” Johnnie Walker commanded. “That’s another one of our rules. Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on. In fact, things will be even worse the next time you open your eyes. That’s the kind of world we live in, Mr.
Nakata. Keep your eyes wide open.”
Nakata did as he was told.
Once he was sure they were open, Johnnie Walker made a show of devouring Kawamura’s heart, taking more time than before to savor it. “It’s soft and warm. Just like fresh eel liver,”
Johnnie Walker commented. He then lifted a bloody index finger to his mouth and sucked it. “Once you’ve acquired a taste for this, you get hooked. Especially the sticky blood.”
He wiped the blood off the scalpel, whistling cheerily as always, and sawed off Kawamura’s head. The fine teeth of the blade cut through the bone and blood spurted out everywhere.
“Please, Mr. Walker, Nakata can’t stand it anymore!”
Johnnie Walker stopped whistling. He halted his work and scratched an earlobe. “That won’t fly, Mr. Nakata. I’m sorry you feel bad, I really am, but I can’t just say, Okay, will do, and call this off. I told you. This is war. It’s hard to stop a war once it starts.
If you don’t want any more cats to be killed, you’ve got to kill me.
Stand up, focus your hatred, and strike me down. And you’ve got to do it now. Do that and it’s all over. End of story.”
Johnnie Walker started whistling again. “Next comes the Siamese,” he said and then extracted a limp Siamese from his bag, which of course turned out to be Mimi.
“So now we come to little ‘Mi Chiamano Mimi.’ The Puccini opera. This little cat really does have that elegant coquetry, doesn’t she? I’m a big Puccini fan, myself. Puccini’s music is kind of—what should I call it?—eternally antagonistic to the times. Mere popular entertainment, you might argue, but it never gets old. Quite an artistic accomplishment.”
He whistled a bar from “Mi Chiamano Mimi.”
“But I have to tell you, Mr. Nakata, it took some doing to catch Mimi. She’s clever and cautious, very quick on the draw. Not the type to get suckered into anything. One tough customer. But the cat that can elude Johnnie Walker, the matchless cat-killer, has yet to be born. Not that I’m bragging or anything, I’m just trying to convey how hard it was to nab her. . . At any rate, voila! Your friend Mimi! Siamese are my absolute favorites. You’re not aware of this, but a Siamese cat’s heart is a real gem. Sort of like truffles.
It’s okay, Mimi. Never fear—Johnnie Walker’s here! Ready to enjoy your warm, cute little heart. Ah—you’re trembling!”
“Johnnie Walker.” From deep inside himself Nakata managed to force out the words in a low voice. “Please, stop it. If you don’t, Nakata’s going to go crazy. I don’t feel like myself anymore.”
Johnnie Walker laid Mimi down on the desk and as always let his fingers slowly crawl along her belly. “So you’re no longer yourself,” he said carefully and quietly. “That’s very important, Mr. Nakata. A person not being himself anymore.” He picked up a scalpel he hadn’t used yet and tested its sharpness with the tip of his finger. Then, as if doing a trial cut, he ran the blade along the back of his hand. A moment later blood oozed up, dripping onto the desk and Mimi’s body. Johnnie Walker chuckled. “A person’s not being himself anymore,” he repeated. “You’re no longer yourself.
That’s the ticket, Mr. Nakata. Wonderful! The most important thing of all. O, full of scorpions is my mind! Macbeth again.”
Without a word, Nakata stood up. No one, not even Nakata himself, could stop him. With long strides he walked over to the desk and grabbed what looked like a steak knife. Grasping the wooden handle firmly, he plunged the blade into Johnnie Walker’s stomach, piercing the black vest, then stabbed again in another spot. He could hear something, a loud sound, and at first didn’t know what it was. But then he understood. Johnnie Walker was laughing. Stabbed in the stomach and chest, his blood spouting out, he continued to laugh.
“That’s the stuff!” he yelled. “You didn’t hesitate. Well done!”
Laughing like it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. Soon though, his laughter turned into a sob. The blood gurgling in his throat sounded like a drain coming unplugged. A terrible convulsion wracked his body, and blood gushed out of his mouth along with dark, slimy lumps—the hearts of the cats he’d eaten. The blood spewed over the desk, onto Nakata’s golf shirt. Both men were drenched in blood. Mimi, too, lying on the desk, was soaked with it.
Johnnie Walker collapsed at Nakata’s feet. He was on his side, curled up like a child on a cold night, and unmistakably dead. His left hand was pressed against his throat, his right thrust straight out as though reaching for something. The convulsions had ceased and, of course, the laughter. But a faint sneer still showed on his lips. Blood puddled on the wooden floor, and the silk hat had rolled off into a corner. The hair on the back of Johnnie Walker’s head was thin, the skin visible beneath. Without the hat he looked much older and more feeble.
Nakata dropped the knife and it clattered on the floor as loudly as the gear of some large machine clanking away in the distance.
Nakata stood next to the body for a long time. Everything in the room had come to a standstill. Only the blood continued, silently, to flow, the puddle slowly spreading across the floor.
Finally, Nakata pulled himself together and gathered Mimi up from the desk. Warm and limp in his hands, she was covered in blood but apparently unharmed. Mini looked up as if trying to tell him something, but the drug kept her mouth from moving.
Nakata then found Goma inside the case and lifted her out.
He’d only seen photos of her, but felt a wave of nostalgia like he was meeting a long-lost friend. “Goma. . .,” he murmured.
Holding the two cats, Nakata sat down on the sofa. “Let’s go home,” he told them but he couldn’t stand up.
The black dog had appeared from somewhere and sat down next to his dead master. He might have lapped at the pool of blood, but Nakata couldn’t remember for sure. His head felt heavy and dim, and he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His mind began to fade and, before he knew it, sank down into the darkness.
The Koizumis were overjoyed by Goma’s return. It was past ten p.m. but the children were still up, just brushing their teeth before bed. Their parents were drinking tea and watching the news on TV, and they welcomed Nakata warmly. The two little girls, in pajamas, jostled each other to be the first to hug their precious pet. They quickly gave Goma some milk and cat food, which she eagerly tucked into.
“My apologies for stopping by so late at night. It would be much better to come earlier, but Nakata couldn’t help it.”
“Don’t worry about the time,” Mr. Koizumi said. “That cat is like a member of the family. I can’t tell you how happy we are you could find her. How about coming in and having a cup of tea?”
“No thank you, Nakata must be going. I just wanted to get Goma back to you as soon as possible.”
Mrs. Koizumi went to another room and returned with Nakata’s pay in an envelope, which her husband handed to Nakata. “It’s not much, but please accept this token for all you’ve done. We’re very grateful.”
“Thank you very much. Much obliged,” Nakata said, and bowed.
“I’m surprised you could find her in the dark like this.”
“Yes, it’s a long story. Nakata can’t tell the whole thing. I’m not too bright, and not so good at giving long explanations.”
“That’s quite all right. We are so grateful, Mr. Nakata,” Mrs.
Koizumi said. “I’m sorry it’s just leftovers, but we have some grilled eggplant and vinegared cucumbers we’d like you to take home.”
“I’d be happy to. Grilled eggplant and vinegared cucumbers are some of Nakata’s favorites.”
Nakata stowed the Tupperware container of food and the envelope in his bag. He walked quickly toward the station and went to a police box near the shopping district. A young officer was seated at a desk inside, intently working on some paperwork.
His hat was on top of the desk.
Nakata slid the glass door open. “Good evening. Sorry to bother you,” he said.
“Good evening,” the policeman replied. He looked up from the paperwork and gave Nakata a once-over. Basically a nice, harmless old man, was his professional assessment, most likely stopping by to ask directions.
Standing at the entrance, Nakata removed his hat and stuffed it in his pocket, then took a handkerchief from the other pocket and blew his nose. He folded up the handkerchief and put it back.
“Is there something I can do for you?” the policeman asked.
“Yes, there is. Nakata just murdered somebody.”
The policeman dropped his pen on the desk. For a moment he was speechless. “Here, why don’t you sit down,” he said dubiously, pointing to a chair opposite him. He reached out and checked that he had his pistol, baton, and handcuffs on him.
“Thank you,” Nakata said, and sat down. Back held straight, hands resting in his lap, he looked straight at the officer.
“So what you’re saying is. . . you killed somebody?”
“Yes. Just a little while ago.
The young officer took out a form, glanced at the clock on the wall, and noted the time. “I’ll need your name and address.”
“My name is Satoru Nakata, and my address is—”
“Just a moment. What characters do you write your name with?”
“I don’t know about characters. I’m sorry, but I can’t write. Or read, either.”
The officer frowned. “You’re telling me you can’t read at all?
You can’t even write your name?”
“That’s right. Until I was nine I could read and write, but then there was an accident and after that I can’t. Nakata’s not too bright.”
The officer sighed and laid down his pen. “I can’t fill out the form if I don’t know how your name is written.”
“Do you have any family?”
“Nakata’s all alone. I have no family. And no job. I live on a sub city from the governor.”
“It’s pretty late, and I suggest you go on home. Go home and get a good night’s sleep, and then tomorrow if you remember something come and see me again. We can talk then.”
The policeman was nearing the end of his shift and wanted to finish up all his paperwork before he went off duty. He’d promised to meet a fellow officer for a drink at a nearby bar when he got off, so the last thing he wanted to do was waste time talking to some crazy old coot.
But Nakata gave him a harsh look and shook his head. “No, sir, Nakata wants to tell everything while he still remembers it. If I wait until tomorrow I might forget something important. Nakata was in the empty lot in the 2-chome section. The Koizumis had asked me to find their missing cat, Goma. Then this huge black dog suddenly appeared and took me to this house. I don’t know the address. I’ve never been to that part of town before. But I’m pretty sure it’s in Nakano Ward. Inside the house was a man named Johnnie Walker who had on a funny kind of black hat. A very high sort of hat. Inside the refrigerator in the kitchen there were rows of cats’ heads. About twenty or so, I’d say. He collects cats, cuts off their heads with a saw, and eats their hearts. He’s THE PARIS REVIEW 235 collecting the cats’ souls to make a special kind of flute. And then he’s going to use that flute to collect people’s souls. Right in front of Nakata, Johnnie Walker killed Mr. Kawamura with a knife.
And several other cats. He cut open their stomachs with a knife.
He was going to kill Goma and Mimi, too. But then Nakata used a knife to kill Johnnie Walker.
“Johnnie Walker said he wanted Nakata to kill him. But I didn’t plan to kill him. I’ve never killed anybody before. I just wanted to stop Johnnie Walker from killing any more cats. But my body wouldn’t listen. It did what it wanted. I picked up one of the knives there and stabbed Johnnie Walker two times. Johnnie Walker fell down, all covered with blood, and died. Nakata got all bloody then, too. I sat down over on the sofa and must have fallen asleep.
When I woke up it was the middle of the night and I was back in the empty lot. Mimi and Goma were beside me. That was just a little while ago. Nakata took Goma back, got some grilled eggplant and vinegared cucumbers from Mrs. Koizumi, and came directly here. And I thought I’d better report to the governor right away. Tell him what happened.”
Nakata sat up straight through this whole recitation, and when he’d finished he took a deep breath. He’d never spoken this much in one spurt in his life. He felt completely drained. “So please report this to the governor,” he added.
The young policeman had listened to the entire story with a vacant look. Goma? Johnnie Walker? “I understand,” he replied.
“I’ll make sure the governor hears of this.”
“I hope he doesn’t cut off my sub city.”
Looking displeased, the policeman pretended to fill out a form.
“I understand. I’ll write it down just like that: The person in question desires that his subsidy not be cut off.
Is that all right then?”
“Yes, that’s fine. Much obliged. Sorry to take your time. And please say hello to the governor for me.”
“Will do.” The policeman couldn’t help adding a personal aside: “You know, your clothes look pretty clean for having killed someone and gotten all bloody. There’s not a spot on you.”
“Yes, you’re entirely correct. To tell the truth, Nakata finds it very strange too. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Nakata slid the door open and was about to leave when he stopped and turned around. “Excuse me, sir, but will you be in this area tomorrow evening?”
“Yes, I will,” the policeman replied cautiously. “I’m on duty here tomorrow evening. Why do you ask?”
“Even if it’s sunny, I suggest you bring an umbrella.”
The policeman nodded. He turned and looked at the clock.
His colleague should be phoning any minute now. “Okay, I’ll be sure to bring one.”
“There will be fish falling from the sky, just like rain. A lot of fish. Mostly sardines, I believe. With a few mackerel mixed in.”
“Sardines and mackerel, huh?” the policeman laughed.
“Better turn the umbrella upside down, then, and catch a few.
Could vinegar some for a meal.”
“Vinegared mackerel’s one of Nakata’s favorites,” Nakata said with a serious look. “But by that time tomorrow I believe I’ll be gone.”
The next day when—sure enough—sardines and mackerel rained down on a section of Nakano Ward, the young policeman turned white as a sheet. With no warning whatsoever some two thousand sardines and mackerel plunged to earth from the clouds.
Most of the fish were crushed to a pulp as they slammed into the ground, but a few survived and flopped around on the road in front of the shopping district. The fish were fresh, with a smell of sea about them. The fish struck people, cars, and roofs, but not, apparently, from a great height, so no serious injuries resulted. It was more shocking than anything else. A huge number of fish falling like hail from the sky—it was positively apocalyptic.?
—translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel