Excerpted from Murakami's recent novel, Killing Commendatore Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel Read Riot Material's review of Killing Commedatore
When I was fifteen, my younger sister died. It happened very suddenly. She was twelve then, in her first year of junior high. She had been born with a congenital heart problem, but since her last surgeries, in the upper grades of elementary school, she hadn’t shown any more symptoms, and our family had felt reassured, holding on to the faint hope that her life would go on without incident. But, in May of that year, her heartbeat became more irregular. It was especially bad when she lay down, and she suffered many sleepless nights. She underwent tests at the university hospital, but no matter how detailed the tests the doctors couldn’t pinpoint any changes in her physical condition. The basic issue had ostensibly been resolved by the operations, and they were baffled.
“Avoid strenuous exercise and follow a regular routine, and things should settle down soon,” her doctor said. That was probably all he could say. And he wrote out a few prescriptions for her.
But her arrhythmia didn’t settle down. As I sat across from her at the dining table I often looked at her chest and imagined the heart inside it. Her breasts were beginning to develop noticeably. Yet, within that chest, my sister’s heart was defective. And even a specialist couldn’t locate the defect. That fact alone had my brain in constant turmoil. I spent my adolescence in a state of anxiety, fearful that, at any moment, I might lose my little sister.
My parents told me to watch over her, since her body was so delicate. While we were attending the same elementary school, I always kept my eye on her. If need be, I was willing to risk my life to protect her and her tiny heart. But the opportunity never presented itself.
She was on her way home from school one day when she collapsed. She lost consciousness while climbing the stairs at Seibu Shinjuku Station and was rushed by ambulance to the nearest emergency room. When I heard, I raced to the hospital, but by the time I got there her heart had already stopped. It all happened in the blink of an eye. That morning we’d eaten breakfast together, said goodbye to each other at the front door, me going off to high school, she to junior high. The next time I saw her, she’d stopped breathing. Her large eyes were closed forever, her mouth slightly open, as if she were about to say something.
And the next time I saw her she was in a coffin. She was wearing her favorite black velvet dress, with a touch of makeup and her hair neatly combed; she had on black patent-leather shoes and lay face up in the modestly sized coffin. The dress had a white lace collar, so white it looked unnatural.
Lying there, she appeared to be peacefully sleeping. Shake her lightly and she’d wake up, it seemed. But that was an illusion. Shake her all you want—she would never awaken again.
I didn’t want my sister’s delicate little body to be stuffed into that cramped, confining box. I felt that her body should be laid to rest in a much more spacious place. In the middle of a meadow, for instance. We would wordlessly go to visit her, pushing our way through the lush green grass as we went. The wind would slowly rustle the grass, and birds and insects would call out all around her. The raw smell of wildflowers would fill the air, pollen swirling. When night fell, the sky above her would be dotted with countless silvery stars. In the morning, a new sun would make the dew on the blades of grass sparkle like jewels. But, in reality, she was packed away in some ridiculous coffin. The only decorations around her coffin were ominous white flowers that had been snipped and stuck in vases. The narrow room had fluorescent lighting and was drained of color. From a small speaker set into the ceiling came the artificial strains of organ music.
I couldn’t stand to see her be cremated. When the coffin lid was shut and locked, I left the room. I didn’t help when my family ritually placed her bones inside an urn. I went out into the crematorium courtyard and cried soundlessly by myself. During her all too short life, I’d never once helped my little sister, a thought that hurt me deeply.
After my sister’s death, our family changed. My father became even more taciturn, my mother even more nervous and jumpy. Basically, I kept on with the same life as always. I joined the mountaineering club at school, which kept me busy, and when I wasn’t doing that I started oil painting. My art teacher recommended that I find a good instructor and really study painting. And when I finally did start attending art classes my interest became serious. I think I was trying to keep myself busy so I wouldn’t think about my dead sister.
For a long time—I’m not sure how many years—my parents kept her room exactly as it was. Textbooks and study guides, pens, erasers, and paper clips piled on her desk, sheets, blankets, and pillows on her bed, her laundered and folded pajamas, her junior-high-school uniform hanging in the closet—all untouched. The calendar on the wall still had her schedule noted in her minute writing. Itwas left at the month she died, as if time had frozen solid at that point. It felt as if the door could open at any moment and she’d come in. When no one else was at home, I’d sometimes go into her room, sit down gently on the neatly made bed, and gaze around me. But I never touched anything. I didn’t want to disturb, even a little, any of the silent objects left behind, signs that my sister had once been among the living.
I often tried to imagine what sort of life my sister would have had if she hadn’t died at twelve. Though there was no way I could know. I couldn’t even picture how my own life would turn out, so I had no idea what her future would have held. But I knew that if only she hadn’t had a problem with one of her heart valves she would have grown up to be a capable, attractive adult. I’m sure many men would have loved her, and held her in their arms. But I couldn’t picture any of that in detail. For me, she was forever my little sister, three years younger, who needed my protection.
For a time, after she died, I drew sketches of her over and over. Reproducing in my sketchbook, from all different angles, my memory of her face, so I wouldn’t forget it. Not that I was about to forget her face. It will remain etched in my mind until the day I die. What I sought was not to forget the face I remembered at that point in time. In order to do that, I had to give form to it by drawing. I was only fifteen then, and there was so much I didn’t know about memory, drawing, and the flow of time. But one thing I did know was that I needed to do something in order to hold on to an accurate record of my memory. Leave it alone, and it would disappear somewhere. No matter how vivid the memory, the power of time was stronger. I knew this instinctively.
I would sit alone in her room on her bed, drawing her. I tried to reproduce on the blank paper how she looked in my mind’s eye. I lacked experience then, and the requisite technical skill, so it wasn’t an easy process. I’d draw, rip up my effort, draw and rip up, endlessly. But now when I look at the drawings I did keep (I still treasure my sketchbook from back then), I can see that they are filled with a genuine sense of grief. They may be technically immature, but they were the result of a sincere effort, my soul trying to awaken my sister’s. When I looked at those sketches, I couldn’t help crying. I’ve done countless drawings since, but never again has anything I’ve drawn brought me to tears.
My sister’s death had one other effect on me: it triggered a very severe case of claustrophobia. Since I saw her placed in that cramped little coffin, the lid shut and locked tight, and taken away to the crematorium, I haven’t been able to go into tight, enclosed places. For a long time, I couldn’t take elevators. I’d stand in front of an elevator and all I could think about was it automatically shutting down in an earthquake, with me trapped inside that confined space. Just the thought of it was enough to induce a choking sense of panic.
These symptoms didn’t appear right after my sister’s death. It took nearly three years for them to surface. The first time I had a panic attack was soon after I’d started art school, when I had a part-time job with a moving company. I was the driver’s assistant in a box truck, loading boxes and taking them out, and one time I got mistakenly locked inside the empty cargo compartment. Work was done for the day and the driver forgot to check if anyone was still in the truck. He locked the rear door from the outside.
About two and half hours passed before the door was opened and I was able to crawl out. That whole time I was locked inside a sealed, totally dark place. It wasn’t a refrigerated truck or anything, so there were gaps where air could get in. If I’d thought about it calmly, I would have known that I wouldn’t suffocate.
But, still, a terrible panic had me in its grip. There was plenty of oxygen, yet no matter how deeply I breathed I wasn’t able to absorb it. My breathing got more and more ragged and I started to hyperventilate. I felt dizzy. “It’s O.K., calm down,” I told myself. “You’ll be able to get out soon. It’s impossible to suffocate here.” But logic didn’t work. The only thing in my mind was my little sister, crammed into a tiny coffin and hauled off to the crematorium. Terrified, I pounded on the walls of the truck.
The truck was in the company parking lot, and all the employees, their workday done, had gone home. Nobody noticed that I was missing. I pounded like crazy, but no one seemed to hear. I knew that, if I was unlucky, I could be shut inside there until morning. At the thought of that, I felt as if all my muscles were about to disintegrate.
It was the night security guard, making his rounds in the parking lot, who finally heard the noise I was making and unlocked the door. When he saw how agitated and exhausted I was, he had me lie down on the bed in the company break room and gave me a cup of hot tea. I don’t know how long I lay there. But finally my breathing became normal again. Dawn was coming, so I thanked the guard and took the first train of the day back home. I slipped into my own bed and lay there, shaking like crazy for the longest time.
Ever since then, riding in elevators has triggered the same panic. The incident must have awoken a fear that had been lurking within me. I have little doubt that it was set off by memories of my dead sister. And it wasn’t only elevators but any enclosed space. I couldn’t even watch movies with scenes in submarines or tanks. Just imagining myself shut inside such confined spaces—merely imagining it—made me unable to breathe. Often I had to get up and leave the theatre. That was why I seldom went to movies with anyone else.
When I was thirteen and my little sister was ten, the two of us travelled by ourselves to Yamanashi Prefecture during summer vacation. Our mother’s brother worked in a research lab at a university in Yamanashi and we went to stay with him. This was the first trip we kids had taken by ourselves. My sister was feeling relatively good then, so our parents gave us permission to travel alone.
Our uncle was single (and still is single, even now), and had just turned thirty, I think. He was doing gene research (and still is), was very quiet and kind of unworldly, though an open, straightforward person. He loved reading and knew everything about nature. He enjoyed taking walks in the mountains more than anything, which, he said, was why he had taken a university job in rural, mountainous Yamanashi. My sister and I liked our uncle a lot.
Backpacks on our backs, we boarded an express train at Shinjuku Station bound for Matsumoto, and got off at Kofu. Our uncle came to pick us up at Kofu Station. He was spectacularly tall, and even in the crowded station we spotted him right away. He was renting a small house in Kofu along with a friend of his, but his roommate was abroad so we were given our own room to sleep in. We stayed in that house for a week. And almost every day we took walks with our uncle in the nearby mountains. He taught us the names of all kinds of flowers and insects. We cherished our memories of that summer.
One day we hiked a bit farther than usual and visited a wind cave near Mt. Fuji. Among the numerous wind caves around Mt. Fuji this one was the largest. Our uncle told us about how these caves were formed. They were made of basalt, so inside them you heard hardly any echoes at all, he said. Even in the summer the temperature remained low; in the past people stored ice they’d cut in the winter inside the caves. He explained the distinction between the two types of caves: fuketsu, the larger ones that were big enough for people to go into, and kaza-ana, the smaller ones that people couldn’t enter. Both terms were alternate readings of the same Chinese characters meaning “wind” and “hole.” Our uncle seemed to know everything.
At the large wind cave, you paid an entrance fee and went inside. Our uncle didn’t go with us. He’d been there numerous times, plus he was so tall and the ceiling of the cave so low he’d end up with a backache. “It’s not dangerous,” he said, “so you two go on ahead. I’ll stay by the entrance and read a book.” At the entrance the person in charge handed us each a flashlight and put yellow plastic helmets on us. There were lights on the ceiling of the cave, but it was still pretty dark inside. The deeper into the cave we went, the lower the ceiling got. No wonder our lanky uncle had stayed behind.
My kid sister and I shone the flashlights at our feet as we went. It was midsummer outside—ninety degrees Fahrenheit—but inside the cave it was chilly, below fifty. Following our uncle’s advice, we were both wearing thick windbreakers we’d brought along. My sister held my hand tightly, either wanting me to protect her or else hoping to protect me (or maybe she just didn’t want to get separated). The whole time we were inside the cave that small, warm hand was in mine. The only other visitors were a middle-aged couple. But they soon left, and it was just the two of us.
My little sister’s name was Komichi, but everyone in the family called her Komi. Her friends called her Micchi or Micchan. As far as I know, no one called her by her full name, Komichi. She was a small, slim girl. She had straight black hair, neatly cut just above her shoulders. Her eyes were big for the size of her face (with large pupils), which made her resemble a fairy. That day she was wearing a white T-shirt, faded jeans, and pink sneakers.
After we’d made our way deeper into the cave, my sister discovered a small side cave a little way off the prescribed path. Its mouth was hidden in the shadows of the rocks. She was very interested in that little cave. “Don’t you think it looks like Alice’s rabbit hole?” she asked me.