This is the third chapter of a story I am translating titled “House Ephemera” (蜉蝣の家) by Hatasu Shikishima (識島果).
Thanks to Sherayuki for helping proofread this chapter.
You can read the full Japanese text of this chapter here.
See this page which contains a brief synopsis and links to other chapters (as they are posted).
As usual, whether I continue translating this will depend on feedback/views from various sources. If you like it, please consider leaving a comment here or vote for it on this survey of things I should translate.
Chapter 3: The man who knew everything
Lo and behold, it wasn’t long until my next encounter with the man.
That day, after searching through a large bookstore near the train station for a certain reference book unavailable at the college bookstore, I was about to head over to the section of modern Japanese books, as I often do. I was curious to see if there were any new publications that would interest me. He was in front of the bookshelf, right next to the section I was headed for. Just like that night, he stood motionless, wearing a neat long-sleeve shirt and that old Chesterfield coat.
I stopped there on the spot, reference book under my arm, and saw that he had also realized my presence. He gave me a slight bow that I returned clumsily. It had been evening when we first met, so it felt strange to see him during the day like this. He still had a clean-cut air about him, yet in the bookstore’s well-lit interior he looked like a typical, everyday foreigner searching for a book. To tell the truth, I even felt an inkling of disappointment. Even though our conversation that night had been comprised of only a few words, the strangely beautiful image of him framed by the backlight of the train remained etched deeply in my mind.
I felt compelled to greet him as a matter of courtesy, especially after the awkward experience the other day of clinging to his arm and asking for his contact information.
“What might you be looking for?”
“I’m not searching for anything in particular.”
His answer was practically a whisper. There was something about his voice that reminded me of that day at the station. Something stirred deep within me.
“I have some time. If you don’t mind, let’s head over to a café.”
Shocked to receive such an offer from him, I could only nod. Despite the measure of disillusionment I’d felt, my interest in him was far from gone. There was no line at the cashier. He stood silently in wait as I hurried to check out.
The man and I were led to one of the innermost tables in the dim interior of the café, Miles Davis playing quietly in the background. I ordered an Earl Grey tea, he a coffee. There was something about the unusual situation of sitting across a table from someone whom I knew practically nothing about that excited me a little. He was likewise wordless but showed no sign of being nervous.
Without any real conversation to speak of, our drinks arrived. I poured warm milk into my tea and gave it a cursory stir. Suddenly I looked up, startled. Long, pale fingers raised his coffee cup. Amber eyes glowed faintly, gazing down onto the rippling surface of the jet-black liquid. To me, everything about this man was picturesque, like a true work of art. He seemed even more enigmatic in the dim lighting, projecting a mysterious charm. I got the sense that this faint, delicate thing he possessed–which I could only call an aura–would quickly shrivel up and die if left under the glaring sun.
After taking a sip of coffee, he introduced himself.
“Please call me Ricardo.”
“Of the famous Equivalence Theorem?”
He smiled when I instinctively blurted this out, memories of high school rushing back. Ricardo. Judging from his name, I guessed he was British. The background music transitioned to Dave Brubeck’s classic song Take Five.
“Do you like books?”
When I asked him this, making reference to finding him in the bookstore, Ricardo nodded.
“The times have sure changed. Books are cheap.”
After saying this, he mumbled in an undertone, “Because long ago they were quite expensive.”
“Oh really? I actually feel that lately book prices have been on the rise.”
“The other day, I read the book Kokoro,” he said suddenly, ignoring my comment.
“Isn’t that by Natsume Sōseki?”
“Have you read it?”
“I read it once in middle or high school.”
“Indeed,” Ricardo said with a nod.
I didn’t find this out until later, but he was in fact very well-read, if not extremely well-educated. We ended up meeting like this frequently, and without fail, I was amazed by the breadth of his knowledge. He was a philosopher, scientist, and an author of literature. On top of that, he was also well-versed in Japanese culture. Now that I think of it, his bow that day we met in the bookstore was indistinguishable from that of a Japanese person.
I’ll tell you another story about him.
On a different day, when we were ordering drinks at the same café, all of a sudden a middle-aged man sitting nearby grasped his chest in agony. His coffee spilled and the waitress looked back over her shoulder to see what happened.
“Sir, are you alright?” the waitress said, voice raised and tense.
The man, teeth clenched tightly, answered with something approaching a groan.
“I’m sorry. I’m fine. It’s just that sometimes I get this sharp pain in my chest…”
His face was white as a ghost and drenched with sweat. Watching him, I too broke out into a cold sweat. I was a medical student certified as a student doctor, however I’m embarrassed to say this was the first time a healthy-looking person had, out of nowhere, began to suffer before my very eyes. During training, it was common for the “patient” to complain of pain, but that “patient” usually wore a hospital gown and lay in bed. However, I was unaccustomed to an ordinary person suddenly becoming a “patient” in an everyday place like this. To me, the environments of “everyday life” and “hospital” were separated, completely isolated from one another. I cast my eyes down and stared at the coffee dripping from the edge of the table onto the well-polished floor. Inside I was nearly panicking, no better than the waitress. To this day, I still have a crystal-clear memory of that shameful moment.
But Ricardo, sitting across from me, stood up without a sound and squatted down next to the suffering middle-aged man. He proceeded to check the man’s pulse on both wrists while asking, “Does your back hurt?” The waitress appeared surprised by his fluent Japanese, but the older man, no time to be concerned with such things, answered immediately from behind clenched teeth.
“It hurts…my back…”
“Is the pain shifting around?”
After the middle-aged man nodded weakly to a quick succession of questions, Ricardo turned to the waitress and said, “Please call an ambulance. Immediately.”
He had suspected an aortic dissection.
After the man was taken away in an ambulance and some semblance of calm began to return to the cafe, I finally broke the silence. Ricardo had already started on his second cup of coffee.
“How did you know?”
He seemed to briefly consider the meaning of my question, but soon after responded in a hushed voice.
“He had broken into a terrible cold sweat and was pale. Furthermore, his skin was cold, pulse weak, and there was a pulse differential between left and right arms. Nothing more. By the way, did you see his yellowish teeth? If I were to brave a guess, I’d say they were evidence of an extended smoking habit.”
I understood what he was talking about, but not more than a textbook understanding. Feeling miserable and disgusted with myself, I lowered my gaze to the coffee cup. Spirits low, I managed to get a few words out.
“Are you a doctor, by chance?”
Thinking back, at the time I was not only disappointed in myself but also felt Ricardo had somehow betrayed me. It was a terrible shock to think that an otherworldly person like him might be involved with, even working in the same field as me.
“If so, then your experience greatly excels mine. It’s terribly embarrassing to say this after what just happened, but I’m a 5th-year medical student.”
Contrary to my expectations, Ricardo answered in the negative.
“There was a time when I had studied such things. That’s all.”
I was dumbfounded. While diagnosing the middle-aged man, Ricardo could not have been more calm.
“That’s impossible, but you…”
“You see, I have way too much time on my hands…”
He spoke nonchalantly, then cast down his eyes as if not wanting to pursue the matter any further.
There was something about Ricardo’s demeanor at that moment that further deepened the mystery about him.
Even more than a sense of mystery, I felt a great envy of him. I yearned to learn more, much more about this man. My admiration for him was not unlike that an elementary school child has for his teacher.
“So, why do you think K died?” Ricardo asked me before we parted ways. I froze, unsure of what to make of this unexpected question. He smiled as if amused by my reaction.
“My apologies. I’m talking about Kokoro. You said you read it.”
I frowned, still at a loss to determine his intentions.
“What exactly do you mean?”
“What do you think kills people?”
I was struck speechless by the sharp edge in his voice.
“Spend some time thinking about that. We can discuss it the next time we meet.”
With that, Ricardo left.
I mulled over his question on my way back to the place where I lived alone. I decided to stop by the bookstore once more, picking up a copy of Kokoro. It was 432 Yen.
When I reached home, I took out my smartphone from my jacket pocket and turned on the power; it had been off the entire time I was with Ricardo. There were 13 unanswered calls from my mother. I turned it off again and plugged it into the charger. I prepared a quick meal with whatever I could find in the kitchen, took a bath, and got ready for bed. I placed Kokoro upon my desk before slipping under the covers.