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The War Museum

From the collection Realm of the Dead translated by Rachel DiNitto forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press

Illustration by Nicole McKeever

The rain that had been falling since afternoon suddenly stopped.

But the sky darkened, and oppressive clouds descended onto the eaves.

I heard a loud voice at the door. There, on the black earth of the entryway stood an artillery lieutenant.

“Professor Noda?” he inquired, bowing.

He took off his high boots and came in.

“What brings you here?” I asked. His face was yellowish with a blue tinge, and his cheeks had a moist glow.

“I’ve been transferred to Tokyo, so I came for a visit.”

I had no memory of this soldier.

“Tokyo’s really changed. This neighborhood’s completely different. Have you been well, Professor?”

“Thank you for asking,” I answered, purposely vague. The lieutenant kept moving his yellow hands, as though stroking the objects around him.

“I saw you yesterday on Kudan Hill, and thought I’d come to ask your advice.”

I hadn’t left the house once yesterday. But the mere mention of Kudan Hill was enough to send a chill through my body.

The lieutenant stared at me with cold eyes. I cowered, overcome with uneasiness.

Somewhere in the distance I heard singing. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. Maybe it wasn’t even a song. It could have been crying.

Then the soldier’s expression changed. The color faded from his narrow brow and the luster on his cheeks disappeared, as though wiped clean.

Gripped with fear, I tried to speak, but I couldn’t raise a sound from my dry throat.

Startled by the sound of the rain starting again and battering the ceiling, I found my head awash in sweat down to my collar. I could hear the rain somewhere dripping onto the ceiling. The lieutenant was gone. But the traces of somebody’s presence remained. The frightful image of him departing flickered across my eye.

I went out in the typhoon to see the War Museum.

Kudan Hill twisted in the rain. The wind was blowing so hard I could barely walk, unable to tell the slope from the plain.

Artillery shells and the legs of horses were scattered on the ground in front of the museum. Some of the legs stuck straight up, their ankles twitching and jerking.

I had no choice but to step on the artillery shells and horse legs as I hurried to the entrance, everything feeling strangely pliant beneath my feet. I thought the softness was from the horse thighs, but even the artillery shells gave way limply.

The museum guards had no ears.

I slipped past them and went into the museum, but I found no swords or armor. Large glass cases stretched to the ceiling, and inside them lay dead uniformed bodies piled high, one atop the other. I fled from the stench and retraced my steps back to the entrance, only to find two guards scratching the nubs where their ears had been.

I managed to get out of the museum. I looked back and saw a huge cannon, as long as ten telephone poles and as wide as Kudan Hill itself. It belched pale smoke from its western-facing mouth.

Kimura Shin’ichi had gotten a job at a girls’ school in the countryside, so we met for a farewell drink.

Kimura led the way to a restaurant, down an alley off a side street at the base of Kudan Hill. I hadn’t known the alley even existed.

I was drunk in no time.

Kimura’s face was bright red. He took off his glasses.

Ich ging einmal spaziere. It’s all right if I’m a little off key, huh? Hmmm, hmmm. Mit einem schönen Jungen.

He started to get up, his legs strangely positioned. “Damn it! I forgot the words again.”

“And, so,” I asked, to make sure I got it right, “when is it that you’re leaving?”

“The twenty-ninth. Today is the twenty-seventh, so it’s the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s quick, huh?’

“Not really.”

“It is!”

“No, it isn’t!”

“Well, it’s not that far away.”

“Is so!” His expression turned angry.

The doors to our private room slid open, and in walked the artillery lieutenant. He went right past me and sat at the head of the table. He turned to say hello.

“How about a drink?” He stared at Kimura as he pressed me to pass the saké.

“How about you?” asked Kimura as he offered the lieutenant a cup. The two exchanged cup after cup of saké. I looked on and drank alone.

“Hey, Kimura,” I said, surprising myself with the loudness of my voice, “this soldier’s a strange one.”

“Professor Noda,” called out the lieutenant in a calm tone. “You shouldn’t say such things about me. After all, this is the first time we’ve met. How about a drink?”

After he offered me a cup, he waved his hands about in an odd way. His skin was bright yellow.

“Noda!” yelled Kimura, “I feel good! I’m leaving Tokyo, but I’m really happy!”

“Come, let’s enjoy ourselves,” said the lieutenant, rising from his seat. “The farewell party’s on me.”

Or so he seemed to say.

And with that the three of us stood up.

We got inside the lieutenant’s car and drove around the dimly lit town. Just as the shadows on the car windows started to blur, we came to a stop in front of a bright entryway.

Inside, the table was soon covered with food, and a pretty geisha served us saké. The lieutenant stared at us as he rose from the table. Beating out an odd time with his foot, he clapped and sang.

I looked around the room, and I felt like I was about to remember something, but out beyond the open veranda it was pitch black.

The lieutenant’s song reminded me of something I’d heard on a rainy day long ago.

He stopped mid-song and sat down across from me. He reached out his yellow hands to grab my neck.

“Now, now,” said the geisha as she brushed his arms aside. “Chinese mushrooms and the regimental colors are a ladder. Let’s stop, OK?”

She assumed a theatrical pose as she spoke those meaningless words.

I have no idea how much saké we drank after that. Something out in the dark garden flickered on and off.

The geisha grew more and more beautiful. But when she stood up, she looked ridiculously tall, her hair brushing the ceiling.

Kimura had long since fallen asleep, sitting down with his head hanging forward.

“Hey, hey!” called the soldier in a frightening voice. Kimura’s shoulders twitched and shook.

“Hey,” called the lieutenant again.

Kimura stood bolt upright in shock. His face was deathly pale.

The lieutenant spun around to face me.

“Professor Noda,” he said, “your ride is here.”

The geisha stood up in a panic. She grabbed my shoulder and led me out of the room.

Once I was seated in the car, it sped off on a pitch-black river, the dark water catching the light and flickering back at me.

The wind gusted all night, as if somebody was banging on my shutters.

The noise frightened me, but I managed to drift in and out of sleep.

A bestial cry seeped out of my wife’s mouth, waking me.

Her eyelids twitched violently and eerie sounds escaped her parted lips.

I called to her a couple of times in panic.

She seemed to be speaking in that animal-like voice to me.

I became more flustered as I kept trying to wake her. I reached out and shook her by the shoulders.

She cried out in an awful voice and opened her eyes.

“My God, that was scary,” she said with a deep sigh. Her hands and feet shook as she lay in bed.

“What happened?’ I asked, trembling.

“It was such a horrible nightmare, I don’t even want to talk about it.”

“But you’ll feel better if you do.”

“But it was so strange, with that dead body sleeping next to me.”

“Whose body?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t make out the face, but whosever it was, it was big.”

“That’s when you started to struggle and scream?”

“No. It got worse first.”

My wife covered her face with her open hands.

“The body started moving. It was turning towards me, reaching its hands for me. I was so frightened I couldn’t breathe, and then I screamed.”

“And then what?”

“I had to get out of there, so I began to struggle. I couldn’t move, so I screamed as loud as I could. The body got up and leaned toward me, reaching out its hands—it was terrible.”

“What’d you do?”

“When it touched my shoulder, I yelled and woke up.”

My wife breathed a sigh of relief and raised herself up in bed. She looked at me, puzzled. “You’re pale as a ghost! What’s wrong?”

I fell back asleep.

The sound of the wind eventually died down.

It got very quiet all of a sudden, and I felt like I was sinking. When I opened my eyes, there was finally some dim light in the window.

I thought about all that had transpired as I fell asleep again.

First the lieutenant and now this corpse. They couldn’t have been real. The dead body was in my wife’s dream so the lieutenant must have been in mine.

But what about Kimura?

I left him with the lieutenant and that geisha. What happened back in that restaurant with the dark garden?

I realized the soldier must have killed him.

Or maybe that happened in somebody else’s dream.

It was even possible that I had already been killed in some stranger’s dream.

But to die like that . . . It just couldn’t be.

But my wife hadn’t mentioned the smell.

I shouldn’t have reached out to touch her. Which hand was it anyway?

The right, yes, the right. All those right hands lined up atop the fence at Kudan Hill. A sight to behold.

From wrist to fingers, they were all moving.

It frightened me. I wanted them to stop.

But a soldier was saluting them.

I guess that was OK.

I stopped thinking about it, and with my mind at ease, fell deep asleep.

Kimura was scheduled to leave on the morning express from Tokyo Station. I went to see him off.

The late spring sky was clear, and pigeons circled the clock tower.

There was no sign of Kimura, even though his train was about to leave.

I figured there must be others like me, there to see people off, but I couldn’t tell who was who.

He might have come by a local rail line and gone straight to the platform. I hurried through the wicket and went to the area where the steam trains were arriving.

But Kimura wasn’t there either.

There wasn’t one familiar face in the crowd of well-wishers.

I weaved my way through the crowd, up and down the length of the train.

A person stood before a window holding a bouquet of flowers. Two or three bright red flowers stood out, rising and falling like the flickers of a small flame.

The train started to pull out, and the area in front of me got very bright. I felt like I might fall onto the empty tracks, but was finally able to steady myself.

I got off the train at the last stop. There was a Chinese restaurant at the end of the street. A frighteningly large Chinese man stood tall in the doorway.

I went in.

Another large Chinese man, just like the one out front, stood silently at the back of an unnecessarily spacious, black, damp earthen floor entryway. The men were identical. I thought maybe it was the same person, but that wasn’t possible.

The second man smiled unexpectedly and came toward me. Then he took my order.

I sat in the dirty chair and thought things over.

My mood seemed to finally be improving, but this didn’t last long.

Why didn’t Kimura show up? And my uneasiness about the Chinese man returned.

He brought my food one dish at a time. It was all very good. I hadn’t eaten all day and I was hungry.

I felt like trying some Chinese liquor.

A bottle on the far shelf had a red label with Chinese characters. I asked for some of it, but the Chinese man said there wasn’t any. Next to the bottle with a red label was one with a blue label. How about that one? I asked. The answer was the same.

Then he said, “You didn’t eat this morning, so you came back home. That pretty lady treated you well last night, huh?�

I didn’t say anything.

“But I can tell you’re worried about something. It shows on your face. Your friend died, huh? That’s too bad.�

He looked down at me with a grin.

As I climbed Kudan Hill, I could see that the sky inside the giant torii gate was a beautiful ocean blue. Light glimmered off the leaves and trunks of the cherry trees lining the path.

I walked across the cleanly swept stone pavement and stood at the door to the War Museum.

“Over here, please,� said a low voice.

I turned around in surprise and saw a military policeman standing across the walkway.

“Over here, please,� he said again. He was talking, but not a single muscle in his face moved. He shifted his left foot slightly forward and resumed his previous position.

A delivery boy passed by me, cap in hand, his body leaning forward as he dragged his bicycle and approached the policeman.

The policeman spun around and walked off in the opposite direction, leading the boy away like a prisoner.

I stood at the museum entrance, unsure of what to do. A quick walk through the museum and I’ll feel better, I thought. I knew that such frightening things couldn’t exist.

But still, I felt a baseless resistance mounting in me, and I couldn’t let go of it.

Finally, I went in.

The museum was narrower and brighter than I’d expected. I hurried past the displays of bows and arrows, flags, and armor.

The museum was full of large glass cases.

These held life-size mannequins dressed in old armaments.

When I passed by a display of hundreds of bare swords, I felt a sharp, stinging pain in my face and fingertips.

I broke into a run as I moved among the display cases.

A guard, dressed in a raincoat and wooden sandals, glared at me suspiciously.

I went past the guns and the decoratively patterned cannons. I was close to the exit when I caught a glimpse of a larger display case hidden in the shadows. Six mannequins, looking very lifelike, stood in uniform. Their faces and hands had that same eerie, yellow skin. It made me want to retch.

I rushed outdoors as the guard at the exit gave me a panicked look.

The next day I went to Kimura's house in the suburbs.

A "for rent" sign hung on the gate.

I went next door to inquire.

"Kimura left over ten days ago," an old man with a long beard explained.

"Was he leaving directly for the countryside?"

"Yes. He's always been such a help to my son, so I went myself to see him off."

"Over ten days ago?"

"Yes. It's coming up on two weeks now."

The old man pulled on his beard in contemplation.


Uchida Hyakken

Uchida Hyakken (1889-1971) was the author of over fifteen volumes of fiction, essays, diaries and poetry. An essay of his was adapted into the movie Madadayo, which was directed by Akira Kurosawa.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2006

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