Brought to Life
Translated by: Lisa Hannaford-Wong
Artwork by Etuscandy
“Little by little, the myriad colours of the crowd began to recede. Like shells on the dry sand, the colour of the garbage cans, the signs, the benches gradually faded. I sat down on the flattened grass, my arms around my knees. Then suddenly, I spotted a bench; and on this bench, sitting close to one another was a young couple. Who? […]”
heart racing, I readied myself to pass the shop and cast a sidelong glance
through the window […].”
ABE Kōbō, Kabe (The Wall)
She was there, in the window of Chanel.
I was visiting my youngest brother Kazuo, who had been living in Brussels for three years. He lives in Ixelles, and I was on my first stroll around the town when I came to the chic Avenue Louise. The home of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and the like. Gucci, Vuitton... Gucci, Vuitton and Chanel, too. And there she was, standing in the shop window, gazing up at the clouds.
Never in my life had I seen a woman with such a perfectly even complexion. Her skin was so smooth and luminous that she appeared to have been made of lapis lazuli, so silky and smooth, touched here and there with fine gold filigree. She stood motionless in a position that verged on indecent – but you’ll no doubt say that’s just the opinion of an old Japanese man who’s quite probably a little senile.
Kazuo had invited me for dinner, and since it is not advisable to keep your host waiting, I had to press on. But those eyes, staring off into a clear blue sky, Oh! The eyes of a dreamer.
The next day I noticed a man beside her. Had I been too enthralled the day before to notice? Whatever the case, he was there, too, – closer to her than I was – a tall fair-haired man wearing an expensive suit. I could just imagine him, a young dandy with more money than culture, probably only ever read the paperback English equivalent of Tanizaki just to prove that he can read. But in reality, he has about as much conversation in him as a paper parasol, too busy spending his money on clothes and cars. By the look of him, he can’t be more than twenty, but I’ve never believed that youth was an excuse for stupidity.
Still, he was handsome.
Did she love him? I don’t think so. Or rather, she couldn’t possibly. Not since I was there, not since I made the trip, every day, up Avenue Louise on my aching legs, for no other reason but to see her.
At first, I was insanely jealous of this young man. I wanted to hurl a brick through the window and drag him out onto the street. “I should be the one by her side,” I thought. “No other man could love her so purely, nothing could be more natural than our being together, dignified and without regret, we would dwell right here and watch the Wheel of Time go ‘round, we would be the last to witness death and birth across the seasons.” I must admit, I was given to thinking in such dramatic terms.
But – and this at least was a small victory for common sense – my jealousy faded away. After spending all those hours gazing at her, I saw that she never so much as glanced in the young man’s direction. All the while, I was engulfed, my eyes swam among the golden flowers of her azure silk clothing, and I imagined with remarkable accuracy the perfect curve of her nubile breasts.
The wall that stood between the world of dreams
and the world of reality seemed to crumble into dust.
One afternoon, I fell asleep
in front of the Chanel window.
In the 11th century there lived a monk named Eikan.
One day as he was praying fervently, he realized that the Buddha was sitting by his side. Confused, Eikan stopped. The Buddha then turned to him and asked:
“Eikan, why have you stopped praying?”
The monk replied that he wanted to be sure he was not dreaming.
This scene is such a moving sight that people still come to admire the statue named Mikaeri no Amida, which portrays the Buddha standing over the monk’s shoulder, and which stands between the Silver Pavilion and the Nanjen-ji, on the site of the Eikan-do Temple (1).
I quite like this story. But the only reason I’m telling it to you is so you’ll be able to picture the scene of a man who’s convinced he is dreaming. I think I must have reacted the same way when I caught a glimpse of the following two words: “HELP WANTED”
Two words, engraved on a gold-plated sign placed discreetly in the bottom corner of the window, almost at her feet – was it some kind of sign? Those two words were quite possibly the heralds of a divine power encouraging me to make a radical change in my life. This is how I would live out my days, I thought, I would spend the entire day, every day, at her side, speaking softly to her.
So it was inevitable. Compelled by the indefensible logic of a life addled by emotions, the next day I was in the shop meeting with the manager. The interview could not have gone worse. I knew little about Belgian culture and I was sure that he found me too old and unsuitable to serve the clientele in such a district. Too old. The whole wretched experience reached its lowest point when the inevitable question arose:
“And...(he hesitated at first), and why would you like to work for Chanel?
He must have found my explanation somewhat confusing.
I could tell by the way he looked at me. Then, at the end of the interview, I shook his hand and calmly asked him:
“Tell me honestly, I don’t have a chance, do I?”
I couldn’t hold it against him. After all, who would have hired an old man who not only spoke French poorly but knew only Japanese poetry?
No, I couldn’t hold it against him, and yet a vague emotion stirred inside me. A volcano had erupted, three finger-widths below the navel, and the lava was rising almost instantly to my temples. The time it took me to bolt out of the boutique – from the manager’s desk to the doorway – seemed like an eternity. I felt I had aged as many years as the seconds it took me to cross the floor, and I could sense the squalid gasp of death upon me. At that very moment, as I stood petrified within two steps of the door, I was stricken by a strange terror: What if death were to separate us too soon, she, so young, and I, the fool? Surely it was still too soon?
I stood there looking at Amelia (this is the name I gave her until I came to know her real name), looking at her and telling myself that it might be the last time. The thought made me dizzy. Perhaps I should steal her away as everyone looked on, speechless. Steal her, and whisk her far, far away, to the distant land of the cherry blossom.
I moved closer to touch her. To touch her skin, just once... I moved closer to her with the stealth of a cat and reached out my hand... At the very last second, I stopped; I ran out of the boutique as fast as my old legs could carry me, vowing to return to Tokyo as soon as possible and never again set foot in the country where I had so painfully humiliated myself.
Two years later, that is, one week to the day, I was walking through the Asakusa district of Tokyo. I was on my way to pay my annual visit to Sensō-ji. The streets in that area are usually bustling with activity, but the crowds that day were so thick that I grew tired very quickly. It was hot, and I was having difficulty making my way. I bought a can of tea from a vending machine and sat down in a nearby rest area. A few birds were chirping; a dozen or so tourists, mainly seniors, sat around in groups of three or four. Some of them were chewing on candies, their faces lit up by impish grins. I sat there slightly bewildered, watching hundreds, maybe thousands, of people pass by me on their way to Sensō-ji. There was no telling how many cameras were there, their owners looking for the best angle to take a photo of the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Just watching all of those people arrive, often by motor coach, well, the whole thing made me dizzy.
I thought I would find a bit more quiet nearby, on the banks of the Sumida. I finished my tea and stood up, when just then my eyes met those of a woman who had a curiously familiar look about her. Oh, for a second my mind was playing an evil trick on me, pretending not to recognize her... Automatically, I looked away and trained my eyes on the temple, the vending machine, my shoes. But it was no good, my gaze went immediately back to the woman, who had become separated from the rest of the throng for five or six seconds. The golden flowers on her clothes were already disappearing from view, conveying the irony of it all with greater finesse than I am capable of here.
After all that time I thought I was over her. But her appearance had stirred up a maelstrom of feelings that were stronger than ever.
I had to get to the bottom of things. I had no choice but to break my promise, and in three days I was on a plane to Brussels. I hadn’t even advised my brother, but it didn’t matter, as I was I headed straight for Avenue Louise.
I was right.
I looked in the shop window, and there they were. All except her.
I leaned up against a nearby bench and wept for a long time. I was weeping for joy, though, for as of that moment, I vowed I would not give up until I found her.
Tomorrow I return to Japan. Most people would say that to find a face in Tokyo would require a miracle. But she will wait for me. After all, hadn’t she travelled all that distance just to see me again? Yes, I would find her, for love is stronger than anything else.
After all wasn’t it the strength of love that brought her to life?
(1) The Eikan-do Temple is part of the Zenrin-ji and is located on the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto.
Vincent Thibault lives and works in Quebec City. His many and varied interests have led him to travel widely seeking inspiration for his works of fiction and non-fiction. In his short stories, he brings to life the themes of rebirth, ego, happiness, love and death, dramatizing the topics examined in his essays on Buddhist philosophy. “Brought to Life”, the short story translated here into English is a selection from Thibault’s second book of short stories, entitled La Pureté (2010), which draw their inspiration from Japanese fiction. La Pureté was published in 2010 by Les éditions du Septentrion under the Hamac imprint (http://www.hamac.qc.ca/collection-hamac/purete-548.html). The author's website is http://www.vincentthibault.com/.
Lisa Hannaford-Wong is a professional translator who lives in Ottawa, Canada. She has pursued translation as either a hobby or a career path for approximately 20 years.