The apartment was probably a little on the wrong side of what was healthy for their budget, but newlywed Hajime Negi wanted to please his wife. He didnít tell her that he had had to borrow money from the bank for the apartment and as a result would have to work overtime at the office to pay it back and wouldnít have much time for her. Had he been confident enough to say so, she might have told him that they really didnít need such a nice apartment and that she would have been satisfied with a less up-market one. Hajime wasnít that type of person.
To make up for it he tried to make the most of their time together when he did manage to be at home. His wife was deliriously happy in the way that only new brides could be. She had always wanted a home of her own, and was having the time of her life cleaning and rearranging the furniture in the apartment. One day she asked Hajime to install some new shelves in the wardrobe in the room they were using for storage. Hajime had the suspicion that his wife wanted to turn that room into a childís bedroom. So, one afternoon on the weekend while his wife went grocery shopping, Hajime tried to turn his hand to carpentry. He managed to measure out the boards properly and mark the places where he was going to put the nails, that was the easy part. Then came the problem of actually hammering the nails in. Hajime wasnít much of a handyman to begin with, and the awkward position he had to sit in inside the wardrobe didnít help. The first time he tried he missed and nearly hit his thumb. The second time he did hit his thumb. The third time he finally managed to hit the nail, but the nail went right through the back of the wardrobe and fell down.
Hajime frowned and forgot his sore thumb for a moment. There was a hole at the back of the wardrobe. Sticking his finger in it he realised that what he had thought was the wall was actually a false panel.
Curiosity made him more daring. Hajime hooked his finger in the false panel and tried to pull it out. It shifted a little, shaking a cloud of plaster free that he made him sneeze. Finally it came loose and a crack appeared along the back of the wall about two feet from the ground. Frowning, Hajime inserted his fingers into the crack and pulled. The whole thing came out.
Carefully Hajime lifted the panel out of the wardrobe. Once he had placed it against the adjacent wall he returned eagerly to the floor of the wardrobe to see what he had found, his list of chores for the day forgotten. Inside the cavity was a chest. Hajime ran his fingers over it, and, finding somewhere to grip, heaved it out. It was heavier than he expected and he strained his muscles, but he managed it. Once he had it in the open he inspected it again.
The chest was large, approximately one by two feet and about fifty centimeters deep. It was built of a dark wood, and when he dragged his hand across its surface to wipe away the dust, it swallowed his reflection in the lacquer. There was no design or pattern on the surface, nothing that might give a hint as to its origins, but it was elegantly constructed, like a womanís jewelry box. This chestís beauty lay in its almost stark simplicity. Maybe it was something the apartmentís previous owner had forgotten and left behind. Or maybe it had been the owner before the previous, or the one before that. Whoever it belonged to, maybe Hajime could sell it or return it for a reward.
Feeling a little like an intruder who has come upon a sacred temple, Hajime tried to look for a way to open it. After a minute of careful scrutiny Hajime found the catch. There was no lock, merely a silken black cord tied in an elaborate knot. Hajime made several attempts to undo it, but it was too smooth and he couldnít even find where it began. He was about to give up when it simply fell apart. Hajime thought that his attempts had loosened it.
Putting the silk to one side Hajime lifted up the lid and looked eagerly inside. At first he thought that the chest was empty, it was so dark. Then he realised that the chest wasnít empty, it was just that whatever was in it was black. Packed into the chest were several identical cases of such a size as to hold a picture frame. They were stacked against each other like thick cards.
The underside of the lid also proved to hold something. There was a pocket there, not unlike those in violin cases where string and resin is kept, with a lid of black velvet. Unhooking it Hajime found his first hint of what this find could be. Set out in perfect organisation was a set of painterís brushes. There were several of them of all sizes, and judging from their worn heads, had been in frequent use.
There was another smaller pocket beside this one inset into the lid. Opening that one Hajime had to move quickly as some things fell out. Pieces of silk, black silk, like that which had been tied around the chestís catch. Why they were there Hajime couldnít imagine.
He found a probable answer to that when he turned his attention to the cases that took up most of the chest. Picking one at random he pulled it out and felt something shift inside. The case was stiff and covered in dull black leather. When angled against the light Hajime could see that there was some design emblazoned on it, lines where the leather had been pressed smooth. He couldnít see what it was, but he did find a clasp on one side. It was held shut by a thin silken black cord tied into an elaborate endless knot.
Hajime frowned, and looked at the other cases. All of them were tied closed in exactly the same way. None of them would open, except one. The knot on that one fell apart the moment Hajime touched it, slipping through his fingers like dark water. By now Hajime had come to the conclusion that he had gone too far to back out now, and opened the case without hesitation.
There was a piece of canvas inside the case. Hajime slid it out and spread it over the floor. He frowned. The canvas was a painting. Hajime knew nothing about art, but he was pretty sure that this wasnít a masterpiece or anything. It was almost childish, yet there was a certain dignified quality to it that Hajime could only associate with an adult.
He looked at it more closely. Hajime became lost.
The background was slate grey but it was hardly visible since nearly all of the canvas was filled with white circles. Each white circle had a small black line at the edge, like a mouth. Now that Hajime though about it, the white circles seemed like representations of faces in profile, scores of them, without eyes or noses. There was only one that stood out. It was placed in the upper left-hand quadrant, and it was black. It had an open mouth and a pair of white eyes that stared directly out of the canvas. Despite the faceís stylized simplicity, Hajime couldnít help but think that it was drowning.
Drowning, in a sea of faces that didnít notice or care.
Hajime didnít know how long he sat there on the floor staring at the picture. Suddenly there was the sound of a door unlocking. Hajime started, jolted out of a haze of passing faces on a street where he didnít exist. Shoving the picture into its case he stuffed it and the pieces of silk clumsily into the chest. He braced himself against the floor to use his legs to push the chest back into the wall cavity, then grabbed the false panel and put it pack in its original position just as his wife came looking for him.
His wife frowned. Her husband was sitting in the wardrobe. "Dear, what are you doing?"
Hajime stared at her for a moment, pulling himself out of a swirl of white faces. His chest, he noticed suddenly, felt tight. Suddenly he leapt to his feet, and, crossing the distance between them in two steps, pulled his wife into a harsh embrace.
Hajime buried his face in his wifeís hair. It smelt of apple shampoo. She fell quiet in his arms, then hesitantly reached up to hold him close.
"Dearest," asked his wife worriedly, "whatís wrong?"
Hajime closed his eyes. "Nothing," he murmured, losing his voice in her hair, " Ö nothing. Iím just Ö glad youíre here."
It was the first time he had used the chestís contents. It had been sitting in its lair for years, never looked at or thought about ever since it had first been given to him just like it had been given to all those before him. It had come to him empty. He wondered if that was significant.
The brush lay heavy in his hand like it had done for the past two hours. Itís always the beginning thatís the worst to start.
Finally, with slow hesitancy, he decided on the grey. He didnít know why, but he did. He poured a little out onto the plate and mixed in a few drops of water. Then he dipped in the brush and swept the grey over the canvas with precise strokes, trying with every stroke to understand what this tension was, to give it a name, this tension that he had woken up with this first day when he had nothing to anticipate and no one to meet and wondering why he had bothered getting up because no one would notice if he did or not. First layer done, he watched the paint dry then applied another. He repeated this a third time. After that he reached for the white and painstakingly fill the grey with circles. On the table beside him the clock ticked away as regular as metronome beats and as final as the drum at the execution ground. He switched brushes and poured out the white.
It will be six hours before he finishes, six hours without break or rest. When finished he will look at his work once and turn away. Before the paint dries he will put it in a box where it will never see the light of day and lock it with silk. He will never see that painting again, but he will know itís there, locked away, and about as comprehensible as the stars.
He wonít care. The next morning he will get up like always. And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that Ö
Return to Archive | next | prologue