Authors: Kōbō Abe
The Woman in the Dunes
Translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders
First published in 1964
The Woman in the Dunes
Kōbō Abe, pseudonym of Kimifusa Abe, was a Japanese writer, playwright, photographer and inventor. One of the premier Japanese novels of the twentieth century,
The Women in the Dunes
(first published in 1962) combines the essence of myth, suspense, and the existential novel.
In a remote seaside village, Niki Jumpei, a teacher and amateur entomologist, is held captive with a young woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit where, Sisyphus-like, they are pressed into shoveling off the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten the village.
One day in August a man disappeared. He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day away by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him. Investigation by the police and inquiries in the newspapers had both proved fruitless.
Of course, missing persons are not really uncommon. According to the statistics, several hundred disappearances are reported every year. Moreover, the proportion of those found again is unexpectedly small. Murders or accidents always leave some clear piece of evidence, and the motives for kidnapping are normally ascertainable. But if the instance does not come under some such heading, clues—and this is especially true in the case of missing persons—are extremely difficult to come by. Many disappearances, for example, may be described as simple escape.
In the case of this man, also, the clues were negligible.
Though his general destination was known, there had been no report from the area that a body had been discovered. By its very nature, it was inconceivable that his work involved some secret for which he might have been abducted. His quite normal behavior had not given the slightest hint that he intended to vanish.
Naturally, everyone at first imagined that a woman was involved. But his wife, or at least the woman he lived with, announced that the object of his trip had been to collect insect specimens. The police investigators and his colleagues felt vaguely disappointed. The insect bottle and net were hardly a feint for a runaway trip with a girl.
Then, too, a station employee at S–– had remembered a man getting off the train who looked like a mountain climber and carried slung across his shoulders a canteen and a wooden box, which he took to be a painting set The man had been alone, quite alone, the employee said, so speculation about a girl was groundless.
The theory had been advanced that the man, tired of life, had committed suicide. One of his colleagues, who was an amateur psychoanalyst, held to this view. He claimed that in a grown man enthusiasm for such a useless pastime as collecting insects was evidence enough of a mental quirk. Even in children, unusual preoccupation with insect collecting frequently indicates an Oedipus complex. In order to compensate for his unsatisfied desires, the child enjoys sticking pins into insects, which he need never fear will escape. And the fact that he does not leave off once he has grown up is quite definitely a sign that the condition has become worse. Thus it is far from accidental that entomologists frequently have an acute desire for acquisitions and that they are extremely reclusive, kleptomaniac, homosexual. From this point to suicide out of weariness with the world is but a step. As a matter of fact, there are even some collectors who are attracted by the potassium cyanide in their bottles rather than by the collecting itself, and no matter how they try they are quite incapable of washing their hands of the business. Indeed, the man had not once confided his interests to anyone, and this would seem to be proof that he realized they were rather dubious.
Yet, since no body had actually been discovered, all of these ingenious speculations were groundless.
Seven years had passed without anyone learning the truth, and so, in compliance with Section 30 of the civil code, the man had been pronounced dead.
ONE August afternoon a man stood in the railroad station at S––. He wore a gray peaked hat, and the cuffs of his trousers were tucked into his stockings. A canteen and a large wooden box were slung over his shoulders. He seemed about to set out on a mountain-climbing expedition.
Yet there were no mountains worth climbing in the immediate vicinity. Indeed, the guard who took his ticket at the gate looked at him quizzically after he passed through.
The man showed no hesitancy as he entered the bus standing in front of the station and took a seat in the back. The bus route led away from the mountains.
The man stayed on the bus to the end of the run. When he got off, the landscape was a mixture of hillocks and hollows. The lowlands were rice paddies that had been divided into narrow strips, while among them slightly elevated fields planted with persimmon trees were scattered about like islands. The man passed through a village and continued walking in the direction of the seashore; the soil gradually became whitish and dry.
After a time there were no more houses, only straggling clumps of pine. Then the soil changed to a fine sand that clung to his feet. Now and again clumps of dry grass cast shadows in hollows in the sand. As if by mistake, there was occasionally a meager plot of eggplants, the size of a straw mat. But of human shadows there was not a trace. The sea, toward which he was headed, lay beyond.
For the first time the man stopped. He wiped the perspiration from his face with his sleeve and gazed around. With deliberation, he opened the wooden box and from the top drawer took out several pieces of pole that had been bundled together. He assembled them into a handle and attached an insect net to one end. Then he began to walk again, striking the clumps of grass with the bottom of the shaft. The smell of the sea enveloped the sands.
Some time went by, but the sea still could not be seen. Perhaps the hilly terrain obstructed the view. The unchanging landscape stretched endlessly on. Then, suddenly, the perspective broadened and a hamlet came into sight. It was a commonplace, rather poor village, whose roofs, weighted down with stones, lay clustered around a high fire tower. Some of the roofs were shingled with black tile; others were of zinc, painted red. A zinc-roofed building at the hamlet’s single crossroad seemed to be the meeting house of a fishermen’s cooperative.
Beyond, there were probably more dunes, and the sea. Still, the hamlet was spread out to an unexpected extent. There were some fertile patches, but the soil consisted mostly of dry white sand. There were fields of potatoes and peanuts, and the odor of domestic animals mingled with that of the sea. A pile of broken shells formed a white mound at the side of the clay-and-sand road, which was as hard as cement. As the man passed down the street, children were playing in the empty lot in front of the cooperative, some old men were sitting on the sagging veranda repairing their nets, and thin-haired women were gathered in front of the single general store. All movement ceased for a moment as they looked curiously at him. But the man paid no attention. Sand and insects were all that concerned him.
However, the size of the village was not the only surprising thing. Contrary to what one would expect, the road was gradually rising. Since it led toward the sea, it would be more natural for it to descend. Could he have misread the map? He tried questioning a young village girl who was passing by just then. But she lowered her eyes and, acting as if she had not heard a thing, hurried on. Yet the pile of shells, the fishing nets, and the color of the sand told him that certainly the sea lay nearby. There was really nothing yet that foretold danger.
The road began to rise more and more abruptly; more and more it became just sand.
But, curiously enough, the areas where houses stood were not the slightest bit higher. The road alone rose, while the hamlet itself continued to remain level. No, it was not only the road; the areas between the buildings were rising at the same rate. In a sense, then, the whole village seemed to have become a rising slope with only the buildings left on their original level. This impression became more striking as he went along. At length, all the houses seemed to be sunk into hollows scooped in the sand. The surface of the sand stood higher than the rooftops. The successive rows of houses sank deeper and deeper into the depressions.
The slope suddenly steepened. It must have been at least sixty-five feet down to the tops of the houses. What in heaven’s name could it be like to live there? he thought in amazement, peering down into one of the holes. As he circled around the edge he was suddenly struck by a biting wind that choked his breath in his throat. The view abruptly opened up, and the turbid, foaming sea licked at the shore below. He was standing on the crest of the dunes that had been his objective!
The side of the dunes that faced the sea and received the monsoon winds rose abruptly, but straggling clumps of scrub grass grew in places where the incline was not as steep. The man looked back over his shoulder at the village, and he could see that the great holes, which grew deeper as they approached the crest of the ridge, extended in several ranks toward the center. The village, resembling the cross-section of a beehive, lay sprawled over the dunes. Or rather the dunes lay sprawled over the village. Either way, it was a disturbing and unsettling landscape.
But it was enough that he had reached his destination, the dunes. The man drank some water from his canteen and filled his lungs with air—and the air which had seemed so clear felt rough in his throat.
The man intended to collect insects that lived in the dunes.
Of course, dune insects are small and soberly colored. But he was a dedicated collector, and his eye was not tempted by anything like butterflies or dragonflies. Such collectors do not aspire to decking out their specimen boxes with gaudy samples, nor are they particularly interested in classification or in raw materials for Chinese medicines. The true entomologist’s pleasure is much simpler, more direct: that of discovering a new type. When this happens, the discoverer’s name appears in the illustrated encyclopedias of entomology appended to the technical Latin name of the newly found insect; and there, perhaps, it is preserved for something less than eternity. His efforts are crowned with success if his name is perpetuated in the memory of his fellow men by being associated with an insect.
The smaller, unobtrusive insects, with their innumerable strains, offer many opportunities for new discoveries. For a long time the man had also been on the lookout for double winged flies, especially common house flies, which people find so repulsive. Of course, the various types of flies are unbelievably numerous, and since all entomologists seem to think pretty much alike, they have pursued their investigations into the eighth rare mutant found in Japan almost to completion. Perhaps mutants are so abundant because the fly’s environment is too close to man’s.
He had best begin by observing environment. That there were many environmental variations simply indicated a high degree of adaptability among flies, didn’t it? At this discovery he jumped with joy. His concept might not be altogether bad. The fact that the fly showed great adaptability meant that it could be at home even in unfavorable environments in which other insects could not live—for example, a desert where all other living things perished.
From then on he began to manifest an interest in sand. And soon this interest bore fruit. One day in the dry river bed near his house he discovered a smallish light-pink insect which resembled a double-winged garden beetle (_Cicindela japonica Motschulsky__). It is common knowledge, of course, that the garden beetle presents many variations in color and design. But the form of the front legs, on the other hand, varies very little. In fact, the front legs of the sheath-wing beetle constitute an important criterion for its classification. And the second joint on the front legs of the insect that had caught the man’s eye did indeed have striking characteristics.
Generally speaking, the front legs of the beetle family are black, slender, and agile. However, the front legs of this one seemed to be covered with a stout sheath; they were round, almost chubby, and cream-colored. Of course, they may have been smeared with pollen. One might even assume some sort of condition—the presence of hair, for example—which would cause the pollen to adhere to the legs. If his observations were correct he had certainly made a most important discovery.
But unfortunately he had let it escape. He had been too excited, and besides the beetle’s pattern of flight was confusing. It flew away, and then as if to say “Catch me!” it turned and waited. When he approached it cautiously it flew away again, turned around, and waited. Mercilessly tantalizing, its course had at last led it to a clump of grass into which it disappeared.
The man was completely captivated by the beetle with the yellowish front legs.
When he had observed the sandy soil, it seemed to him that his guess was correct. Actually, the beetle family is representative of desert insects. According to one theory, their strange pattern of flight is a snare for the purpose of enticing small animals away from their nests. Prey such as mice and lizards are lured out in spite of themselves, wander into the desert, and collapse from hunger and fatigue. Their bodies then become the beetles’ food. These beetles have the elegant Japanese name of “letter-bearer” and present graceful features, but actually they have sharp jaws and are ferocious and cannibalistic by nature. But whether or not his theory was correct, the man was unquestionably beguiled by the mysterious pattern of the beetle’s flight.
And his interest in sand, which was the condition for the beetle’s existence, could not help but grow. He began to read everything he could about it. And as his research progressed he realized that sand was a very interesting substance. For example, opening to the article on sand in the encyclopedia, he found the following:
SAND: an aggregate of rock fragments. Sometimes including loadstone, tinstone, and more rarely gold dust. Diameter: 2 to 1/16 mm.
A very clear definition indeed. In short, then, sand came from fragmented rock and was intermediate between clay and pebbles. But simply calling it an intermediate substance did not provide a really satisfactory explanation. Why was it that isolated deserts and sandy terrain came into existence through the sifting out of only the sand from soil in which clay, sand, and stones were thoroughly mixed together? If a true intermediate substance were involved, the erosive action of wind and water would necessarily produce any number of intermingling intermediate forms in the range between rock and clay. However, there are in fact only three forms that can be clearly distinguished from one another: stones, sand, and clay. Furthermore, sand is sand wherever it is; strangely enough, there is almost no difference in the size of the grains whether they come from the Gobi Desert or from the beach at Eno-shima. The size of the grains shows very little variation and follows a Gaussian distribution curve with a true mean of 1/8 mm.
One commentary gave a very simple explanation of the decomposition of land through the erosive action of wind and water: the lighter particles were progressively blown away over great distances. But the particular significance of the 1/8-mm. diameter of the grains was left unexplained. In opposition to this, another book on geology added an explanation along these lines: Air or water currents set up a turbulence. The smallest wavelength of this turbulent flow is about equal to the diameter of the desert sand. Owing to this peculiarity, only the sand is extracted from the soil, being drawn out at right angles to the flow. If the cohesion of the soil is weak, the sand is sucked up into the air by light winds—which, of course, do not disturb stones or clay—and falls to the ground again, being deposited to the leeward. The peculiarities of sand would seem to be a matter of aerodynamics.
Hence, we can add this to the first definition as “b”: a particle of crushed rock of such dimension as to be easily moved by a fluid.
Because winds and water currents flow over the land, the formation of sand is unavoidable. As long as the winds blew, the rivers flowed, and the seas stirred, sand would be born grain by grain from the earth, and like a living being it would creep everywhere. The sands never rested. Gently but surely they invaded and destroyed the surface of the earth.
This image of the flowing sand made an indescribably exciting impact on the man. The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out.
Certainly sand was not suitable for life. Yet, was a stationary condition absolutely indispensable for existence? Didn’t unpleasant competition arise precisely because one tried to cling to a fixed position? If one were to give up a fixed position and abandon oneself to the movement of the sands, competition would soon stop. Actually, in the deserts flowers bloomed and insects and other animals lived their lives. These creatures were able to escape competition through their great ability to adjust—for example, the man’s beetle family.
While he mused on the effect of the flowing sands, he was seized from time to time by hallucinations in which he himself began to move with the flow.
His head bent down, he began to walk, following the crescent-shaped line of dunes that surrounded the village like a rampart and towered above it. He paid almost no attention to the distant landscape. An entomologist must concentrate his whole attention within a radius of about three yards around his feet. And it is one of the fundamental rules that he should not have the sun at his back. If the sun should get behind him, he would frighten the insects with his own shadow. As a result; a collector’s forehead and nose are always sunburned.
The man advanced slowly at a steady pace. With every step the sand splashed up over his shoes. Except for shallow-rooted weeds that looked as though they would shoot up in a day if there were any moisture, there appeared to be no living thing. Once in a long while, tortoise-shell-colored flies would flit around, drawn by the odor of human perspiration. However, precisely because it was such a place, he could expect to find something. Beetles are not especially gregarious, and they say that, in extreme cases, a single beetle will cordon off an area of as much as one square mile. Patiently, he kept walking round and round.
Suddenly he paused in his tracks. Something had stirred near the roots of a clump of grass. It was a spider. Spiders were of no use to him. He sat down to smoke a cigarette. The wind blew ceaselessly from the sea and, far below, turbulent white waves beat against the base of the sand dunes. Where the dunes fell away to the west a slight hill crowned with bare rock jutted out into the sea. On it the sunshine lay scattered in needlepoints of light.
He had difficulty getting his matches to light. Out of ten tries not one had caught. Along the length of the match-sticks he had thrown away, ripples of sand were moving at about the speed of the second hand of his watch. He focused his attention on one wavelet, and when it arrived at the tip of his heel he arose. The sand spilled from the gathers in his trousers. He spat, and the inside of his mouth felt rough.
So probably there weren’t too many insects. Perhaps the movement of the sand was too violent. No, he shouldn’t be so quickly discouraged; his theory guaranteed that there would be some.
The line of dunes leveled off, and a section jutted out on the side away from the sea. He was lured on by the feeling that in all probability his prey was there, and he made his way down the gentle slope. Here and there the remains of what seemed like a wind fence made of wattling marked off the point of the promontory, beyond which, on a still lower level, lay a plateau. He went on, cutting across the ripples of sand, which were hewn with machine-like regularity. Suddenly his line of vision was cut off, and he stood on the verge of a cliff looking down into a deep cavity.
The cavity, over sixty feet wide, formed an irregular oval. The far slope seemed relatively gentle, while in contrast the near side gave the feeling of being almost perpendicular. It rolled up to his feet in a smooth curve, like a lip of heavy porcelain. Placing one foot gingerly on the edge, he peered in. The shadowy interior of the hole, set against the luminous edge, already announced the approach of evening.
In the gloom at the bottom a small house lay submerged in silence. One end of its ridgepole was sunk diagonally into the sand wall. Quite like an oyster, he thought.
No matter what they did, he mused, there was no escaping the law of the sand.
Just as he was placing his camera in position, the sand at his feet began to move with a rustle. He drew his foot back, shuddering, but the flow of the sand did not stop for some time. What a delicate, dangerous balance! Breathing deeply, he wiped his sweaty palms several times on the sides of his trousers.
A coughing broke out next to him. Unnoticed, an old man, apparently one of the village fishermen, was standing there almost touching his shoulder. As he looked at the camera and then at the bottom of the hole, the old fellow grinned, screwing up his face, which was wrinkled like a half-tanned rabbit skin. A sticky secretion encrusted the corners of his reddened eyes.
“Are you inspecting?”
It was a thin voice, blown by the wind, rather as if it came from a portable radio. But the accent was clear and not particularly difficult to catch.
“Inspecting?” Flustered, he concealed the lens with his palm. He shifted his insect net into full view. “What do you mean? I don’t understand. I’m collecting insects. My specialty is sand insects.”
“What?” The old man did not seem to have understood.
“Collecting insects,” he repeated again in a loud voice. “Insects. In-sects. I catch them like this!”
The old man appeared dubious. Looking down, he spat. Or perhaps it would be more exact to say he let the spittle ooze from his mouth. Snatched from his lips by the wind, it sailed out in a long thread. Good heavens, what was he so nervous about?
“Is there some inspecting going on in this vicinity?”
“No, no. As long as you’re not inspecting, I really don’t mind what you do.”
“No, I’m not inspecting.”
The old man, without even nodding, turned his back and, scuffing the tips of his straw sandals, went slowly away along the ridge.
Some fifty yards further on—when had _they__ come?—three men dressed alike, apparently waiting for the old man, squatted silently on the sand. The one in the middle had a pair of binoculars, which he was turning around and around on his knee. Soon the three, joined by the old man, began to discuss something among themselves. They kicked the sand at their feet. It looked as if they were having a violent argument.
Just as he was trying unconcernedly to go on with his search for the beetle, the old man came hurrying back again.
“Then you’re really not someone from the government office?”
“The government office? You’re quite wrong.”
Abruptly he took out his business card, as if to indicate that he had had enough. The old man’s lips moved laboriously.
“Ah! You’re a schoolteacher!”
“I have absolutely no connection with the government office.”
“Hmm. So you’re a teacher.”
At last he appeared to understand, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled up. Carrying the card respectfully, he went back again. The three others, apparently satisfied, stood up and withdrew.
But the old man returned once again.
“By the way, what do you intend doing now?”
“Well, I’m going to look for insects.”
“But the last bus back has already gone.”
“Isn’t there any place I can stay here?”
“Stay all night? In this village?” The man’s face twitched.
“If I can’t stay here, I’ll walk on to the next village.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m in no special hurry.”
“Well, why go to all that trouble?” He suddenly became loquacious. “You can see this is a poor village,” he said in an accommodating tone. “There isn’t a decent house in it, but if it’s all right with you I’ll put in a good word and see what I can do to help you out.”
He did not seem to bear any ill will. They were just being cautious—perhaps on the lookout for some prefectural official who was scheduled to come on a tour of inspection. With their sense of caution appeased, they were merely good, simple fisherfolk.
“I should be very grateful if you would. Of course, I will expect to show my appreciation… I am particularly fond of staying in village houses.”
THE sun had set and the wind had slackened somewhat. He walked along the dunes until he could no longer distinguish the pattern hewn by the wind in the sand.
There seemed to be nothing that faintly resembled crops.
Orthoptera—small-winged crickets and white-whiskered earwigs.
Rhynchota—red-striped soldier bugs. He was not certain of the name, but surely it was a type of soldier bug.
Of the sheath-winged insects which he sought: white-backed billbugs and long-legged letter-droppers.
He had not been able to spot a single one of the beetle family that was his real aim. And indeed for that very reason he was anticipating the fruits of the next day’s battle.
His fatigue brought faint spots of light dancing on his retina. Then, in spite of himself, he stopped walking and fixed his eyes on the surface of the darkening dunes. It was no use; anything that moved looked like a beetle.
As he had promised, the old man was waiting for him in front of the cooperative offices.
“I’m sorry for all this trouble.”
“Not at all. I only hope you’ll like what I found for you.”
A meeting seemed to be in session in the offices. Four or five men were sitting in a circle, from which shouts of laughter rose. On the front of the entry hung a horizontal plaque with large lettering: LOVE YOUR HOME. The old man said something; abruptly the laughing stopped, and he walked out leading the others. The shell-strewn road floated vague and white in the twilight.
He was escorted to one of the cavities on the ridge of the dunes at one end of the village.
From the ridge a narrow path went down the slope to the right. After they had walked on awhile, the old man leaned over into the darkness and, clapping his hands, shouted in a loud voice: “Hey! Granny! Hey, there!”
From the depths of the darkness at their feet a lamp flickered, and there was an answer.
“Here I am! Here! There’s a ladder over by the sandbags.”
Indeed, without the ladder he could not possibly have got down. He would have had to catch hold on the cliff with his bare hands. It was almost three times the height of the house top, and even with the ladder it was still not easy to manage. In the daytime, he recalled, the slope had seemed to him rather gentle, but as he looked at it now, it was close to perpendicular. The ladder was an uncertain thing of rope, and if one lost one’s balance it would get hopelessly tangled up. It was quite like living in a natural stronghold.
“You needn’t worry about anything. Have a good rest.”
The old man turned around and went back, without going all the way to the bottom.
Sand poured down from overhead. The man had a feeling of curiosity, as if he had returned to his childhood. He wondered whether the woman was old; she had been called granny. But the person who came to meet him, holding up a lamp, was a smallish, nice sort of woman around thirty. Perhaps she was wearing powder; for someone who lived by the sea, she was amazingly white. Anyway, he was extremely grateful for her cheerful welcome, from which she could not conceal her own pleasure.
Indeed, if it had not been for the warm reception, the house itself would have been difficult to put up with at all. He would have thought they were making a fool of him and would doubtless have gone back at once. The walls were peeling, matting had been hung up in place of sliding doors, the upright supports were warped, boards had replaced all the windows, the straw mats were on the point of rotting and when one walked on them they made a noise like a wet sponge. Moreover, an offensive smell of burned, moldering sand floated over the whole place.
Well, everything depended on one’s attitude. He was disarmed by the woman’s manner. He told himself that this one night was a rare experience. And, if he were lucky, he might run up against some interesting insects. It was certainly an environment in which insects would gladly live.
His premonition was right. No sooner had he taken the seat offered him beside the hearth, which was sunk in the earthen floor, than all around there was the sound of what seemed to be the pitter-patter of rain. It was an army of fleas. But he was not one to be overwhelmed by such things. An insect collector is always prepared. He had dusted the inside of his clothing with DDT, and it would be wise, before he went to sleep, to daub some insecticide on the exposed parts of his body.
“I’m just fixing something to eat. If you’ll just wait a few minutes more…” the woman said, half standing and taking the lamp. “Can you get along without the light for a moment, please?”
“Do you only have one lamp?”
“I’m sorry, yes.”
She laughed, a little embarrassed. On her left cheek a dimple appeared. Apart from her eyes, she had undeniable charm, he thought. Perhaps the look in her eyes was the result of some affliction. No matter how much make-up she used, she could not conceal the inflamed corners. Before going to bed, he decided, he would without fail apply some eye medicine too.
“It doesn’t make any difference, but first I would rather like a bath.”
“Don’t you have one?”
“I’m terribly sorry, but could you put it off until the day after tomorrow?”
“The day after tomorrow? But I won’t be here the day after tomorrow.” In spite of himself he laughed aloud.
She turned her face away with a drawn-up expression. She was disappointed, he supposed, and, of course, with country folk there is no attempt at pretense. He ran his tongue several times over his lips with a feeling of embarrassment.
“If you don’t have a bath, some water that I could pour over me would do just fine. My whole body’s covered with sand.”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have more than a bucketful of water either. The well is pretty far away.”
She looked quite abashed, and he decided to say no more. He was soon to realize, unpleasantly, the uselessness of bathing.
The woman brought in the meal: clam soup with boiled fish. Very much a shore meal, it seemed. That was all right, but as he began to eat she opened a large paper umbrella and put it over him.
“What’s that thing for?” He wondered if it were some kind of custom of the region.
“Well, if I don’t put this up, the sand will get in your food.”
“How is that?” he said, looking up in surprise at the ceiling, where, however, there were no holes at all.
She followed his eyes to the ceiling. “The sand sifts in everywhere. Almost an inch piles up if I don’t sweep it up every day.”
“Is the roof faulty?”
“Yes, pretty much so. But even if the thatching was brand-new, the sand would sift in anyway. It’s really terrible. It’s worse than a wood borer.”
“A wood borer?”
“An insect that eats holes in wood.”
“That’s probably a termite, isn’t it?”
“No, no. It’s about this big… with a hard skin.”
“Ah. Well, it’s a long-horned saw beetle then.”
“A saw beetle?”
“Long whiskers and reddish, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s sort of bronze-colored and shaped like a grain of rice.”
“I see. Then it’s an iridescent beetle.”
“If you let it go on, beams like these rot away to nothing, you know.”
“You mean the iridescent beetle?”
“No, the sand.”
“It gets in from everywhere. On days when the wind direction is bad, it gets up under the roof, and if I didn’t sweep it away it would soon pile up so heavy that the ceiling boards wouldn’t hold it.”
“Hmm. Yes, I can see it wouldn’t do to let the sand accumulate in the ceiling. But isn’t it funny to say that it rots the beams?”
“No. They do rot.”
“But sand is essentially dry, you know.”
“Anyway, it rots them. If you leave sand on brand-new wooden clogs they fall apart in half a month. They’re just dissolved, they say, so it must be true.”
“I don’t understand the reason.”
“Wood rots, and the sand rots with it. I even heard that soil rich enough to grow cucumbers came out of the roof boards of a house that had been buried under the sand.”
“Impossible!” he exclaimed rudely, making a wry face. He felt that his own personal concept of sand had been defiled by her ignorance. “I know a little about sand myself. Let me tell you. Sand moves around like this all year long. Its flow is its life. It absolutely never stops—anywhere. Whether in water or air, it moves about free and unrestricted. So, usually, ordinary living things are unable to endure life in it, and this goes for bacteria too. How shall I put it… sand represents purity, cleanliness. Maybe it serves a preservative function, but there is certainly no question of its rotting anything. And, what’s more, dear lady, to begin with, sand is a respectable mineral. It couldn’t possibly rot away!”
She stiffened and fell silent. Under the protection of the umbrella which she was holding, the man, as if hurried, finished eating without a word. On the surface of the umbrella so much sand had collected he could have written in it with his finger.
And the damp was unbearable. The sand of course was not damp; it was his body that was damp. Above the roof the wind moaned. He drew out his cigarettes, and his pocket was full of sand. He had the feeling he could taste the bitterness even before he lit one.
He took an insect out of the bottle of potassium cyanide. Before it stiffened he fixed it with pins; at least he could preserve the shape of the legs. From the washstand outside came the sound of the woman cleaning dishes. Did no one else live in the house? he wondered.
When she returned she silently began to prepare the bed in a corner of the room. If she put his bed here, where in heaven’s name did she intend to sleep? Naturally, in that inner room beyond the hanging mat. Besides these two there didn’t seem to be anything that faintly resembled a room. But it was a very strange way of doing things—to put the guest in the room by the entry and let the hostess sleep in the inner one. Or did she have an invalid unable to move sleeping in the inner room? he wondered. Maybe. Certainly it would be much more natural to assume so. In the first place, one could hardly expect a solitary woman to go to much trouble looking after passing travelers.
“Are there other people…?”
“What do you mean, ‘other people’?”
“People in your family or…”
“No, I’m quite alone.” The woman seemed to be aware of his thoughts and suddenly gave a forced and awkward laugh. “Everything really gets so damp because of the sand, even the blankets.”
“Well, what about your husband?”
“Oh, yes. Last year in the typhoon…” she said, busying herself unnecessarily with smoothing and patting down the edges of the matting which she had finished spreading out. “Typhoons are terrible around here. The sand comes thundering down like a waterfall. Ten or twenty feet pile up in a night no matter what you do.”
“As much as twenty feet?”
“At times like that, you can’t ever catch up with the sand no matter how much you shovel. He ran out with my little girl—she was in middle school then—yelling that the chicken houses were in danger. I was too busy taking care of the house and had to stay in. When morning finally came and the wind died down, I went out to look. There wasn’t a trace of the chicken houses… or anything else.”
“Were they buried?”
“That was awful! Horrible! The sands are frightful.”
Suddenly the lamp began to sputter.
“It’s the sand.”
She got down on all fours and stretched out her arm. Laughing, she snapped the lamp wick with her finger. At once it burned brightly again. In the same posture she gazed at the flame, smiling that unnatural smile. He realized that it was doubtless deliberately done to show off her dimple, and unconsciously his body stiffened. He thought it especially indecent of her just after she had been speaking of her loved ones’ death.