An excerpt from The Shape of Things, which will be released by LCG Press Summer 2018.
I came to Ogawa’s office around six thirty, a little worried because I had left my work halfway through, and I would have to get up early the next morning to finish it. As soon as he saw me, he motioned for me to take a seat and continued putting the papers on his desk in several folders, which he carefully placed in his file cabinet under lock and key. While he did that, in my mind I went over the items we needed to discuss that evening. Ogawa had invited me to a business dinner and promised that we would have enough time to talk on our way there, and, if necessary after dinner, over a few drinks. The most pressing issue was my work schedule, which, lately, extended beyond the forty hours we had agreed on, followed in importance by the type of work itself: After two years in the company doing jobs that seemed as random as pieces in a puzzle, I wasn’t sure what was expected of me.
A rowdy autumn breeze with icy currents ran across the street. After a preamble in which I once again told Ogawa that I truly appreciated working with him, I reminded him of the terms of my contract in the most tactful way. Ogawa stopped for a moment and told me not to worry, that he was a man of his word, and that the overtime work would stop when we achieved our goal. He added, clearing his throat, that things would, little by little, fall into place, and that in due course I would see the full picture. I wanted to ask him to explain further, but I knew it was pointless; Ogawa would just pick different words to say the same thing or deploy another metaphor. He had done that before, and I suspected he would do it again. I felt my stomach sink; I didn’t know what else to say. He had me in his hands. I was not in a position to ask for an explanation or negotiate. Roxana was pregnant, and even though her father had sent us money to help with the additional expenses--and would do it again if necessary--we relied on my salary to survive.
Ogawa extended his arm, signaling to proceed, and told me that he “appreciated my understanding,” a phrase he often used in situations like this and to which I could respond to only by nodding my head, more out of good manners than anything else. By then, night had fallen. I realized that I did not know exactly where I was; if I had to return home, I wouldn’t know which way to go. The neighborhood was industrial with narrow streets that we entered after crossing a bridge over a canal, not far from Yokohama central station. Ogawa looked at his watch and said we had to rush. After passing several streets, lined with small factories of electrical materials and automotive spare parts, housed in buildings that looked like army barracks, we came to a narrow street that led into a ramshackle pier that seemed abandoned. To the left was an old and elegant traditional Japanese-style dark wooden home that we reached by a gravel path, lined with willow and cherry trees.
At the entrance, we were greeted by a middle-aged woman dressed in a fine sky-blue silk kimono, who led us silently through a large half-lit hall to a dining room with wooden sliding doors painted with figures of komainu, the mythical lion-dogs that guard the entrance of Shinto temples. When the woman announced our arrival, there was a commotion of welcoming voices and formal bows. My first impression was that most of the people there were bureaucrats or business executives, though some looked like their bodyguards. Ogawa insisted that I sit at his side, and, by way of introduction, he explained that I was his right hand at work, something that bothered me a little, given the circumstances, but I figured that Ogawa wanted to brag about having a foreigner on his payroll.
The dinner turned out to be in the fancy kaiseki style. The main dish was a delicious fish-head soup, followed by tiny portions of pickled vegetables and cuts of different meats that were served in dishes of various colors and patterns. At first I was a little nervous because I found the atmosphere tense, but little by little, thanks to a few glasses of beer, which were being refilled regularly, I felt better and started to get in the mood. The man sitting to my right said his name was Mori and his friendly chatter was full of funny anecdotes, though it centered on his hobbies, fishing and hunting, so I could not get a sense what his profession or business was. When we introduced ourselves, he said I reminded him of a Lebanese economist with whom he had worked with on a business venture a few years back and was wondering if I could be from the same family. I told him, jokingly, that unfortunately not, but that I didn’t rule out an ancestor from that part of the world. Mori replied--also in a humorous tone--that he understood, that everything was possible, and asked me if I believed in the concept of karma and reincarnation, a question that led us to a pleasant chat about Hinduism and Buddhism.
At some point, one of the guests, a bald man dressed in white, asked for a moment of our attention and, in a monotonous and somewhat generic manner, gave a short speech about the importance of traditional arts, in the way a librarian or a director of a provincial museum would, and invited us to enjoy the art exhibit in the adjoining room. Mori told me that if I wished, he would explain each piece of art, which, according to him, was made by an artist who was likely to become famous one day.
Most of the pieces were woodblock prints in bright colors, with mythical creatures, some of which had reptile or amphibian shapes and others, human figures with bird wings and beaks. Mori explained that some of the animals were not imaginary but based on drawings by people who had actually seen them, and he began to tell me a story about one of his hunting trips to the Japanese Alps, where he had seen a tsuchinoko, a kind of river snake with large fangs. He explained that they’re usually friendly and have a fondness for rice wine. While Mori was talking, I noticed a young Japanese woman dressed in a green velvet dress who was looking at us from the other side of the room. By the way she moved her head I thought she was signaling to me to come to her side, as if agreeing to something that I had asked her earlier. I felt immediately attracted to her, and when Mori paused to ask a waiter to bring him another drink, I excused myself, saying I had to make a phone call.
The young woman shook my hand and told me she knew my name was Javier and hailed from a small town in the Andes, and that it was time we met. Her words disconcerted me because she spoke fluent Spanish, though with a peninsular accent, and in a familiar tone, as if she knew me and was pretending she didn’t or was making a joke. I asked her where we knew each other from, and she said nothing of the sort was true, that this was our first time meeting. I looked at her intently, and it occurred to me that she was someone I’d met at another business meeting with Ogawa. I mentioned this and she smiled. She said we were from different worlds, and it was the first time she saw me in hers. Ogawa and Mori were talking at the other end of the room and were looking in our direction, as if we were the topic of their conversation. The woman told me her name was Kyoko and that she was a flamenco dancer and then added that I had a penetrating gaze and let out a short laugh that seemed full of irony.
I’ll tell you about my life, she said in a firm tone, as if it were a matter between the two of us that was pending, and she got so close to me I could feel her mentholated cigarette breath. She told me that she had studied Spanish and history at college and that her favorite teacher had been a Portuguese man who looked like me, and that after graduation, she had gone to Seville to become a flamenco dancer and singer, something that had led her to discover that there was someone else within her, while at the same time there was also her. She told me that she had done an apprenticeship with a famous flamenco artist, but that she died a few years after they had met, and along with her teacher went her passion for those arts. She looked me in the eye and asked whether I believed her. I told her I had no reason to doubt her and inquired as to why she returned to Japan. She said that she didn’t really know, that such is life, in a tone that sounded like an apology. After a short silence, she said she was the artist who had made the works being shown and asked whether I knew that they were all demons. I congratulated her on her art show, and I told her that I knew some were, though not the kind that had bird wings or human faces and phallic noses. She said that they were from the same family, that only the form was different. The form, she repeated, and then said katachi and drew in the air with her finger the Chinese kanji ideogram for it: four lines in the shape of a house, and next to that three slanted strokes, almost horizontal. Kyoko asked if I understood, and I told her yes, that it was not difficult, though I didn’t understand at all why it was important to show me how it was written or why Ogawa and Mori were still looking at us with so much attention.
Kyoko seemed to be alert to the stares and started to guide me through the gallery, giving me additional details about the demons, some malevolent or just mischievous, others harbingers of good fortunes and prosperity. At some point, she pulled me along and told me that soon we would be invisible. We came to a door that she opened stealthily and led us into a courtyard where there was a rock garden of raked gravel, surrounded by a brick fence capped with terracotta tiles. The night was clear, and there was no noise other than the soft murmur of the sea in the distance. Kyoko took me by the hand and made me squat and told me that it was her favorite spot, where she spent many hours looking at the garden and the sky. I wanted to get up, but Kyoko told me to wait, that I had to watch the willows and cherry trees dance behind the fence. I looked at the trees and noticed they were swinging slowly at a steady pace, and the spectacle left me mesmerized for a few moments. I’ll show you something else, she said, and began to walk toward the other side of the garden. I followed her without a word but with the feeling that I was entering a danger zone. (I thought of Roxana waiting for me at home and the questions she would ask me about the evening.)
After three or four steps, I realized that there was a small teahouse on the left side of the garden. Kyoko opened the sliding doors and turned on the light. The enclosure had tatami straw floors and no furniture or decoration, just a rectangular table with an ashtray at the center. On the wall, there was a triptych of Japanese calligraphy. I recognized it immediately and said in a loud voice that it was identical to the one that Ogawa had given me for Christmas last year. I did them; they are a kind of motto for the club, Kyoko said and asked me if I knew what the kanji meant. I told her that Ogawa had explained that it was about “erotic allure,” “pride,” and “resignation,” the essence of all things Japanese. Kyoko said Ogawa knew that well. I asked her how long she’d know him, and she replied, all her life because he was her only living relative.
Kyoko sat down on her knees and lit a menthol cigarette. From where I was standing, near the door, I realized that she was a lot older than I thought and looked rather sickly. Her face was very pale, almost like a mask, and many tiny little blue veins ran across her hands and forearms. I asked her what kind of club this was and what sort of events it held. Kyoko looked at me with a shadow of a smile and, blowing out smoke, told me that it was all written in calligraphy and that if the meaning was not yet clear to be patient, that it would be known in due course. I felt a sudden anger I couldn’t hide, and I told her I was tired of puzzles, that I couldn’t get used to so much ambiguity. Kyoko got up and told me that I shouldn’t get angry, that she had not thought I was one of those foreigners who judged everything as if they were at home. I didn’t say anything and felt a bit embarrassed by my bad manners; in fact, I was annoyed with Ogawa, not with her.
Kyoko looked askance and told me that I should not think badly of Ogawa, who was an honest man with a pure heart and good intentions. I was surprised that she said this because it was more or less what I would tell Roxana whenever she suggested that Ogawa was not trustworthy and that he had deceived me and would continue to do so. I apologized and told her she was right and that I agreed with her. Kyoko smiled and told me to follow her back to the main house.
As we walked back, I felt I wanted to be alone to collect my thoughts. Moonlight bathed the rock garden, casting over it long shadows of the trees. I squatted as I had done before and gazed at the two rocks in the middle. The largest was like a rough irregular cube and seemed to be a giant, barren cliff, and the small one, which had a pyramidal shape though no apex, looked like some sort or reptile-like creature coming out of a lake. Kyoko, who had stopped a few steps forward—to also contemplate the garden--said in a low voice that we’d see each other later and left. I kept looking at the rocks, engrossed by their forms, and beyond at the willows and cherry trees that swayed with the wind. I felt I lived in this garden, in a place overlooking the rocks, desolate and immense. After a few moments, I felt calmer. I saw a wooden door in the corner. I could tell it had no lock or keyhole. I decided to get to the street through it and find my way home.