In a town called Madauros, where the sage Apuleius was born, there once lived a woman who used magic to lure men to bed. She would burn locks of their hair in a cauldron, together with some herbs, and chant a few words. One day, she fell for a young man and tried to gain his love in this way, but she was tricked by her maid. The witch thought she was burning the young man’s hair, but it was just a tuft plucked from a goatskin bottle that had been hanging in a tavern across town. Late that night, the leather bottle — filled with wine — raced across town to the woman’s door.
I came across a story like this in an Anatole France novel I was reading the other day.
It reminded me that love almost never goes according to plan, even with the aid of witchcraft.
If we simply obeyed our instincts to return to the prehistoric world of eight-limbed Androgynes, allowing ourselves to couple up like shoes in American factories — where lefts and rights are thrown together from heaps of identically-sized units — the millions of men and women on the planet could pair up in millions upon millions of ways. The way I see it, contests of love held in Aphrodite’s name have nothing whatsoever to do with divine will. Clearly, as far as God is concerned, a left-facing ten-and-a-half made of yellow leather is a perfect match for a right-facing ten-and-a-half made of yellow leather.
Man and woman, man and woman. If that’s all there is to it, what makes us burn like we do for heartrending love?
Young Y fell in love.
The object of his desire was a tragedienne reputed to rival even Sarah Bernhardt.
Yet Y was only a petty officer in the thirtieth cavalry. That being the case, he lacked even the conceit necessary to question the sheer hopelessness of his love for the famous actress. He was a garden-variety fan at first. On his weekends off, he searched the city for her movies, even the ones he had already seen two or three times. Soon, however, the projection of her face — ever-shadowed in intense pathos — was fixed large in a close-up across the silver screen in his mind.
Y thought: How could I let myself fall prey to a love so misguided? Can I really go on loving her in secret for the rest of my life?
But he couldn’t think of any other way.
One day, as luck would have it, none of the movie houses in town were showing her films. Unwilling to give up so easily, however, Y had the urge to take an evening walk past where she lived. Needless to say, he knew her address because he had seen it printed in a movie star guidebook somewhere.
The tragedienne lived in a park, in a pine grove facing a large lake. Her plain, wooden two-story house, with its violet-colored blinds, reflected in the surface of the lake together with the tall trees surrounding it. Y sat on a bench by the water’s edge, put his hands on the hilt of his saber, propped his chin on his hands, and heaved a heavy sigh.
Y sat like that for an hour. He found himself more disconsolate and anxious than when he was vainly engrossed in her image on some postcard or movie screen; his heart was overcome with a powerful, passionate emotion much more like the real thing. Soon the sunlight on the water began to fade and an evening breeze sighed high in the pines. Then Y heard a window crack open. He lacked the nerve to look right at the house, so he watched the reflection in the lake instead. The pale face of the woman who undid the blinds swayed back and forth gently. Y’s uniformed back stiffened. For a moment, the white face in the window glanced in Y’s direction, then disappeared inside. He heard the voice of a boy calling a dog. Then a piano started to play on the second floor. Tchaikovsky’s Barcarolle…
Y sat still there for another hour.
It was night now.
A rosy light was glowing in the warm-looking window.
At points, a sylphlike figure flitted past the lace curtain.
Arc lamps flickered on across the park. Filles de joie walked through the light towards Y.
“Hey, Mr. Soldier Boy. I just turned thirteen,” said one, a woman whose thinning hair — barely a handful was left — was done up in a giant pink ribbon.
Unafraid of being spotted, Y stood up forcefully, bowed in the direction of the window across the lake and headed home, his spurs and blade jangling rhythmically as he marched off…
Y’s weekend routine changed. He still went when a film starring his beloved actress was playing somewhere, but he would always go to the matinee. In the evenings, he made it a point to stop by the park and look at her house from afar.
This habit of his persisted for a long time. It rained twenty-one times — six times so hard that Y’s coat was soaked and his boots were filled with rainwater. On those days, of course, the warm window was shuttered forbiddingly.
Thirteen times, the fog was so thick that Y could barely make out the lit-up window.
Twelve times, although the park was far from windy, the lake moved so violently that the house failed to appear in its windblown surface.
On those nights when the evening moon was at its most beautiful, Y distinguished himself from the park’s myriad strollers by playing popular songs on his harmonica. (When it came to the harmonica, Y was second to none in his regiment.)
When you really love someone, there’s no need for shame, no cause for rebuke, regardless of the audacity of your actions — even if you go to sleep right on your lover’s doorstep. Anything we do in the name of love is imbued with a certain beauty… Y had once loved reading Plato’s Symposium, and he swore by Pausanias’ discourse on love. Thus his spirit wasn’t easily broken.
It wasn’t the rain or fog but the women of the night that got under Y’s skin. He couldn’t stand to see his total devotion to an immaculate love — something practically empyrean — tarnished by the vulgar advances of those hideous devils. Whenever the huntresses’ aimless footsteps drew close on the sidewalk, Y would promptly spit on the pavement and leave.
One fateful day, Y was leaning back on his bench and watching the sun set over the lake when suddenly two hands landed softly on his shoulders. Turning around, Y discovered a comely maid with an apron wrapped around her waist; she was shooting him a forlorn look as if she had something she wanted to say.
The young monk of love asked her: “Is something the matter?”
“You, you aren’t thinking about drowning yourself in the lake, are you?” She stammered.
“Huh?” Y asked back.
“See that house—,” she said, pointing at the tragedienne’s two-story home, “I think you’re in love with somebody who lives there. No, I know it. But I’m not saying that’s bad or anything. Don’t worry about that…”
“No, wait. See…”
Y was uncharacteristically flustered.
“I just want you to tell me who she is. Who is this woman you love so madly?”
“What? Why would you even ask a stupid question like that?”
“Stupid? Hardly. I mean, I was just thrown out of that house because of you and your incredible infatuation.”
“Come on, I don’t buy that.”
“You really don’t get it? Okay, let me explain. The lady of the house was the first to notice you. I’m sure you know who she is. They say she’s the only one who can hold her own opposite Lederer. She saw you sitting here in your uniform weekend after weekend. Well, it didn’t take her long to put two and two together. One day, she asked the footman to check the color on your facings. When he reported back to her that they were orange, like she thought, she said: ‘So he’s a petty officer from the thirtieth. Maybe if he were a dragoon, but not some petty officer… He has to be in love with one of the maids.’ So she questioned us all, one by one, but nobody came forward. Meanwhile, she was particularly suspicious of me. You see, the rest of the girls are rather homely — not the sort a man would easily fall for. But I had no idea who you were, so I stood my ground. Still, she insisted that a love so pure — even from the most lackluster of men — is a thing of incomparable beauty. She said that any woman unmoved by so powerful an emotion is bound to lead a miserable life, squandering every chance to know true love. Then she started crying, standing up for you. She became indignant. She told me that today was going to be my last day here and called me a cold woman, indifferent to the feelings of others. Now what… now what am I going to do?”
Y was so embarrassed that he actually considered jumping into the lake right in front of her.
“Just tell me the truth. If you really do love someone, who is she? Even I know — all too well — how wonderful it is be loved by a man. But I can’t imagine that you actually feel that way about me. If I jumped to the wrong conclusion, I’d be mortified! Besides, there’s no rule saying that a petty officer can’t fall head over heels in love with a world-famous actress, even if she says there is.”
“No — wait a second. How could I ever be that full of myself? Hahahaha.” Y felt just like a miserable clown.
“You mean…” Her eyes widened.
“Yes, my wildflower. You’re the only one I love. I swear it, my Beatrice! I’m sorry… What should I call you?”
“That’s right. Beatrice… But how did you know?”
The young woman was bathed in the silver glow of the arc lamps; her eyes were brimming with tears.
“I first saw you by chance. I was walking by when I saw you lowering the blinds. I fell in love with you right then and there. That’s how I am: I obsess. Every single night since, I’ve dreamt about you, calling out for you in my sleep, ‘Oh, my beautiful maid’ … the other officers are always giving me a hard time about it…” Y slipped his arm around her shoulder as he spoke.
For the slightest moment, she turned away, looking offended. Then, shaking her shoulder, she laughed.
“Did I really lower the blinds? Are you sure that was me?”
“Positive! I saw you calling the dog by the back door, too.”
“Really? I’m so happy!”
Then they kissed.
As usual, the streetwalkers were making their rounds. When they walked past, the women saw the couple and cleared their throats: Ahem!
The couple stood up.
“Let’s go to my aunt’s house. I have my own room there, so we won’t be bothered.”
Reasonably shocked, Y asked, “You mean you want to… even though we just met?”
“Huh? Who said anything about sleeping over? You’re a funny one. But it’s okay. You can spend the night.”
Y and the young woman locked arms gleefully. They cut through the park and hailed a taxi. What the young woman had called her aunt’s house turned out to be a shoddy boardinghouse in a dark part of town in the hills. As she took Y by the hand and climbed the narrow staircase, a sickly-looking woman coming down the stairs pinched the young woman’s ear, chuckling as she went by. Y could swear she looked just like the pink-ribboned woman who had propositioned him his first time in the park.
Y had to fight the urge to drop her hand and run away. Behind cracked-open doors, filthy lodgers watched Y with envy.
“Beatrice, will you go to the front and make a phone call for me?” Y asked, as if the thought had just occurred to him.
“Central District—Number 2790. Tell her ‘goodnight’ for me. Just that.”
“How sweet! Who is she?”
“Nobody you need to know about. Just call her. If she asks who’s calling, make something up: piano teacher, doctor, studio assistant, whatever you like…”
When she left the room, Y tumbled onto the bed and laughed as hard as he could.
He grabbed the wine bottle on the vanity and poured himself cup after cup — in celebration — as a farewell to his youth……
The next morning, while she was brushing his uniform, Y asked the woman:
“How much do I owe you?”
She smiled. “You don’t owe me anything. The others and I have had a bet going for a long time now, to get you into bed…” But Y handed the woman his whole wallet — even though there wasn’t much inside it. Then he went home.
Not long after that, Y married a childhood friend who worked in a hat factory. He was the best of husbands.
On Watanabe (born in Hokkaido in 1902) wrote darkly comical short stories, screenplays and essays in the mid to late 1920s, the heyday of modernist fiction in Japan. He was first recognized by literati Junichiro Tanizaki and Kaoru Osanai for his film script, Shadows (Kage, 1924). Watanabe also garnered some attention translating stories by Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells and others. Watanabe died in a traffic accident in 1930. He was only 27.
David Boyd translated this story from Japanese as part of the BCLT mentoring scheme, mentored by Michael Emmerich. The Japanese mentorship was supported by the Nippon Foundation.