He first came to the Iris one day just before the beginning of the summer season. The rain had been falling since dawn. It grew heavier at dusk, and the sea was rough and gray. A gust blew open the door, and rain soaked the carpet in the lobby. The shopkeepers in the neighborhood had turned off their neon signs along the empty streets. A car passed from time to time, its headlights shining through the raindrops.
I was about to lock up the cash register and turn out the lights in the lobby, when I heard something heavy hitting the floor above, followed by a woman's scream. It was a very long scream--so long that I started to wonder before it ended whether she wasn't laughing instead.
"Filthy pervert!" The scream stopped at last, and a woman came flying out of Room 202. "You disgusting old man!" She caught her foot on a seam in the carpet and fell on the landing,but she went on hurling insults at the door of the room. "What do you think I am? You're not fit to be with a woman like me! Scumbag! Impotent bastard!"
She was obviously a prostitute--even I could tell that much--and no longer young. Frizzy hair hung at her wrinkled neck, and thick, shiny lipstick had smeared onto her cheeks. Her mascara had run, and her left breast hung out of her blouse where the buttons had come undone. Pale pink thighs protruded from a short skirt, marked in places with red scratches. She had lost one of her cheap plastic high heels.
Her insults stopped for a moment, but then a pillow flew out of the room, hitting her square in the face, and the screaming started all over again. The pillow lay on the landing, smeared with lipstick. Roused by the noise, a few guests had now gathered in the hall in their pajamas. My mother appeared from our apartment in the back.
"You pervert! Creep! You're not fit for a cat in heat." The prostitute's voice, ragged and hoarse with tears, dissolved into coughs and sobs as one object after another came flying out of the room: a hanger, a crumpled bra, the missing high heel, a handbag. The handbag fell open, and the contents scattered across the hall. The woman clearly wanted to escape down the stairs, but she was too flustered to get to her feet--or perhaps she had turned an ankle.
"Shut up! We're trying to sleep!" one of the guests shouted from down the hall, and the others started complaining all at once. Only Room 202 was perfectly silent. I couldn't see the occupant, and he hadn't said a word. The only signs of hisexistence were the woman's horrible glare and the objects flying out at her.
"I'm sorry," my mother interrupted, coming to the bottom of the stairs, "but I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"You don't have to tell me!" the woman shouted. "I'm going!"
"I'll be calling the police, of course," Mother said, to no one in particular. "But please," she added, turning to the other guests, "don't think anything more about it. Good night. I'm sorry you've been disturbed ... . And as for you," she went on, calling up to the man in Room 202, "you're going to have to pay for all of this, and I don't mean just the price of the room." On her way to the second floor, Mother passed the woman. She had scraped the contents back into the bag and was stumbling down the stairs without even bothering to button her blouse. One of the guests whistled at her exposed breast.
"Just a minute, you," Mother said into the darkened room and to the prostitute on the stairs. "Who's going to pay? You can't just slip out after all this fuss." Mother's first concern was always the money. The prostitute ignored her, but at that moment a voice rang out from above.
"Shut up, whore." The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel. It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger. Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn.
I turned to find the man standing on the landing. He waspast middle age, on the verge of being old. He wore a pressed white shirt and dark brown pants, and he held a jacket of the same material in his hand. Though the woman was completely disheveled, he was not even breathing heavily. Nor did he seem particularly embarrassed. Only the few tangled hairs on his forehead suggested that anything was out of the ordinary.
It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order. It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word "whore" was somehow appealing.
"Shut up, whore." I tried repeating it to myself, hoping I might hear him say the word again. But he said nothing more.
The woman turned and spat at him pathetically before walking out the door. The spray of saliva fell on the carpet.
"You'll have to pay for everything," Mother said, rounding on the man once more. "The cleaning, and something extra for the trouble you've caused. And you are not welcome here again, understand? I don't take customers who make trouble with women. Don't you forget it."
The other guests went slowly back to their rooms. The man slipped on his jacket and walked down the stairs in silence, never raising his eyes. He pulled two bills from his pocket and tossed them on the counter. They lay there for a moment, crumpled pathetically, before I took them and smoothed them carefully on my palm. They were slightlywarm from the man's body. He walked out into the rain without so much as a glance in my direction.
I've always wondered how our inn came to be called the Hotel Iris. All the other hotels in the area have names that have to do with the sea.
"It's a beautiful flower, and the name of the rainbow goddess in Greek mythology. Pretty stylish, don't you think?" When I was a child, my grandfather had offered this explanation.
Still, there were no irises blooming in the courtyard, no roses or pansies or daffodils either. Just an overgrown dogwood, a zelkova tree, and some weeds. There was a small fountain made of bricks, but it hadn't worked in a long time. In the middle of the fountain stood a plaster statue of a curly-haired boy in a long coat. His head was cocked to one side and he was playing the harp, but his face had no lips or eyelids and was covered with bird droppings. I wondered where my grandfather had come up with the story about the goddess, since no one in our family knew anything about literature, let alone Greek mythology.
I tried to imagine the goddess--slender neck, full breasts, eyes staring off into the distance. And a robe with all the colors of the rainbow. One shake of that robe could cast a spell of beauty over the whole earth. I always thought that if the goddess of the rainbow would come to our hotel for evena few minutes, the boy in the fountain would learn to play happy tunes on his harp.
The R in IRIS on the sign on the roof had come loose and was tilted a bit to the right. It looked a little silly, but also slightly sinister. In any event, no one ever thought to fix it.
Our family lived in the three dark rooms behind the front desk. When I was born, there were five of us. My grandmother was the first to go, but that was while I was still a baby so I don't remember it. She died of a bad heart, I think. Next was my father. I was eight then, so I remember everything.
And then it was grandfather's turn. He died two years ago. He got cancer in his pancreas or his gallbladder--somewhere in his stomach--and it spread to his bones and his lungs and his brain. He suffered for almost six months, but he died in his own bed. We had given him one of the good mattresses, from a guest room, but only after it had broken a spring. Whenever he turned over in bed, it sounded like someone stepping on a frog.
My job was to sterilize the tube that came out of his right side and to empty the fluid that had collected in the bag at the end of it. Mother made me do this every day after school, though I was afraid to touch the tube. If you didn't do it right, the tube fell out of his side, and I always imagined that his organs were going to spurt from the hole it left. The liquid in the bag was a beautiful shade of yellow, and I often wondered why something so pretty was hidden away inside the body. I emptied it into the fountain in the courtyard, wetting the toes of the harp-playing boy.
Grandfather suffered all the time, but the hour just before dawn was especially bad. His groans echoed in the dark, mingling with the croaking of the mattress. We kept the shutters closed, but the guests still complained about the noise.
"I'm terribly sorry," Mother would tell them, her voice sickly sweet, her pen tapping nervously on the counter. "All those cats seem to be in heat at the same time."
We kept the hotel open even on the day grandfather died. It was off-season and we should have been nearly empty, but for some reason a women's choir had booked several rooms. Strains of "Edelweiss" or "When It's Lamp-Lighting Time in the Valley" or "Lorelei" filled the pauses in the funeral prayers. The priest pretended not to hear and went on with the service, eyes fixed on the floor in front of him. The woman who owned the dress shop--an old drinking friend of Grandfather's--sobbed at one point as a soprano in the choir hit a high note and together it sounded almost like harmony. The ladies were singing in every corner of the hotel--in the bath, in the dining room, out on the veranda--and their voices fell like a shroud over Grandfather's body. But the goddess of the rainbow never came to shake her robe for him.
I saw the man from Room 202 again two weeks later. It was Sunday, and I was out doing some errands for Mother. The sky was clear and the day so warm I'd begun to sweat. Some kids were on the beach trying to get the first tan of the year.The tide was out, and the rocks along the coast were exposed all the way to the seawall. Though it was early in the season, a few tourists could be seen on the restaurant terraces and the excursion boat dock. The sea was still chilly, but the sunlight on the seawall and the bustle in town made it clear that summer was not far off.
Our town came to life for just three months each year. It huddled, silent as a stone, from fall through spring. But then it would suddenly yield to the sea's gentle embrace. The sun shone on the golden beach. The crumbling seawall was exposed at low tide, and hills rising from beyond the cape turned green. The streets were filled with people enjoying their holidays. Parasols opened, fountains frothed, champagne corks popped, and fireworks lit up the night sky. The restaurants, bars, hotels, and excursion boats, the souvenir shops, the marinas--and even our Iris--were dressed up for summer. Though in the case of the Iris, this meant little more than rolling down the awnings on the terrace, turning up the lights in the lobby, and putting out the sign with the highseason rates.
Then, a few months later, the summer would end just as suddenly as it had begun. The wind shifted, the pattern of the waves changed, and all the people returned to places that are completely unknown to me. The discarded foil from an ice cream cone that yesterday had glittered festively by the side of the road overnight would become no more than a piece of trash. But that was three months away; and so, without a care, I went out to do Mother's shopping.
I recognized the man immediately. He was buying toothpaste at the housewares shop. I hadn't looked at him carefully that night at the Iris, but there was something familiar about the shape of his body and his hands as he stood under the pale fluorescent light. Next, he seemed to be choosing laundry detergent. He took a long time with the decision, picking up each box, studying the label, and then checking the price. He put a box in his basket, but then he read the label again and returned it to the shelf. His attention seemed completely focused on the soap; in the end, he chose the cheapest brand.
I cannot explain why I decided to follow him that day. I didn't feel particularly curious about what had happened at the Iris, but those words, his command, had stayed with me.
After leaving the shop, he went to the pharmacy. He handed over what appeared to be a prescription and was given two packets of medicine. Tucking these into his coat pocket, he walked on to the stationer's, two doors down the street. I leaned against the lamppost and cautiously looked inside. He had apparently brought a fountain pen to be repaired, and there was a long exchange with the shopkeeper. The man dismantled the pen and pointed at one piece after the other, complaining about something. The owner of the store was clearly upset, too, but the man ignored him and went on with his complaints. It occurred to me how much I wanted to hear his voice. Finally, the shopkeeper seemed to agree reluctantly to his demands.
Next, he walked east on the shore road. He wore a suit,and his tie was neatly knotted, despite the heat. He held himself stiffly and looked straight ahead as he walked, keeping a good pace. The plastic bag containing the laundry detergent dangled at his side, and the packets of medicine made a bulge in his coat pocket. The street was crowded, and from time to time his bag bumped a passerby, but no one noticed or turned to look back. I was the only one who seemed to see him, and that made me all the more intent on my strange little game.
A boy about my age was playing the accordion in front of the giant clock made of flowers in the plaza; perhaps because the instrument was old, or because of the way he played it, the song sounded sad and thin.
The man stopped and listened for a moment, though no one else seemed interested in the boy's performance. I watched from a short way off. In the background, the hands of the clock turned slowly around the floral face.
The man threw a coin in the accordion case. It made a soft thud. The boy bowed, but the man turned and walked off. Something about the boy's face reminded me of the statue in our courtyard.
How far was I going to follow him? The only thing that I'd bought on Mother's list was the toothpaste. I began to worry. Mother would be angry that I was still out when the guests started arriving, but I couldn't take my eyes off the man's back.
He reached the excursion boat dock and stepped into the waiting room. Was he planning to take a ride? The room wascrowded with families and young couples. Several times a day, the boat sailed out to an island about a half hour away from the shore, briefly docking at the wharf before returning to the mainland. The next boat wouldn't be leaving for twenty-five minutes.
"Young lady. Why are you following me?" At first, I didn't realize he was speaking to me--the room was so noisy and the words so unexpected--but finally I recognized the voice that had shouted at the Iris. "Is there something I can do for you?"
I shook my head quickly, startled to have been caught, but the man seemed even more frightened than I was. He blinked nervously and ran his tongue over his lips. I found it difficult to believe that this was the same man who had uttered that magnificent command at the Iris that night.
"You're the girl from the hotel, aren't you?"
"Yes," I said, not daring to look directly at him.
"You were sitting at the front desk that night. I recognized you right away."
A group of elementary school children filed into the waiting room, pushing us back against the windows. I wondered uneasily what the man intended to do with me. I'd never planned to speak to him, but now I didn't know how to get away.
"Did you have something you wanted to say? Perhaps you were going to scold me?"
"Oh no! Not at all ..."
"Still, I apologize for the other day. It must have been unpleasant for you." His tone was polite, quite unlike theman who had shouted in the lobby of the Iris, and this somehow made me even more nervous.
"Please don't worry about what my mother said. You were very generous when you paid the bill."
"But it was a terrible night."
"That awful rain ..."
"Yes, but I mean I'm still not sure how things ended up the way they did ... ."
I remembered that I had found a bra wadded up on the landing after they left that night. It was lavender, with gaudy lace, and I had gathered it up like the carcass of a dead animal and tossed it in the trash bin in the kitchen.
The children were running wildly around the waiting room. The sun was still high in the sky, sparkling on the sea outside the window. The island in the distance, as everyone in town seemed to agree, was shaped like a human ear. The excursion boat had just rounded the lobe of the island and was heading back toward us. A gull rested on each post of the pier.
Now that I was standing next to him, the man seemed smaller than I had imagined. He was about my height, but his chest and shoulders were thin and frail. His hair was even more neatly combed now, but I could see a bald spot in back.
We stood quietly for a moment, looking out at the sea. There was nothing else to do. The man grimaced in the bright sunlight, as though he'd felt a sudden pain.
"Are you taking the boat?" I asked at last, suffocated by the silence.
"I am," he said.
"People who live here don't usually ride it. I did it only once, when I was little."
"But I live on the island."
"I didn't know anyone actually lived there."
"There are a few of us. This is how we get home." There was a diving shop on the island and a sanatarium for employees of a steel company, but I hadn't known about any houses. The man rolled and twisted his tie as he spoke, creasing the tip. The boat was getting closer, and the children had begun lining up impatiently by the gate. "The other passengers have cameras or fishing poles or snorkels--I'm the only one with a shopping bag."
"But why would you want to live in such an inconvenient place?"
"I'm comfortable there, and I work at home."
"What kind of work?"
"I'm a translator--from Russian."
"Translator ...," I repeated slowly to myself.
"Does that seem odd?"
"No, it's just that I've never met a translator before."
"It's a simple sort of job, really. You sit at a desk all day long, looking up words in a dictionary. And you? Are you in high school?"
"No, I tried it for a few months, but I dropped out."
"I see. And how old are you?"
"Seventeen ...," he repeated, savoring each syllable.
"There's something wonderful about taking a boat to get home," I said.
"I have a small place. It was built a long time ago, a cottage on the far side from where the boat docks. Just about here on the ear," he said, tilting his head toward me and pointing at his own earlobe. As I bent forward to look at the spot, our bodies nearly touched for a moment. He pulled back immediately, and I looked away. That was the first time I realized that the shape of an ear changes with age. His was no more than a limp sliver of dark flesh.
The excursion boat blew its horn as it pulled up to the dock, scattering the gulls in a cloud. The loudspeaker in the waiting room announced the departure, and someone unhooked the chain at the entrance.
"I have to be going," the translator muttered.
"Good-bye," I said.
"Good-bye." I felt as though we were saying something far more important than a simple farewell.
I could see him from the window as he joined the line of passengers and made his way along the pier. He was short, but there was no mistaking his suit in the crowd of tourists. Suddenly, he turned to look back and I waved to him, though it seemed absurd to be waving to a stranger whose name I didn't even know. I thought he was about to wave back, but then he thrust his hand in his pocket, as if embarrassed.
The boat blew its horn and pulled away from the dock.
Mother was furious when I got home. It was past five o'clock, and I had forgotten to pick up her dress at the dry cleaner's.
"How could you forget?" she said. "You knew I was planning to wear it to the exhibition tonight." Someone was ringing the bell at the front desk. "It's the only dancing dress I have, and I can't go without it. You know that. The exhibition starts at five thirty. I'll never make it now. I've been waiting all this time. You've spoiled everything."
"I'm sorry, Mama. I met an old woman in town who was feeling ill. She was pale and shaking all over, so I took her to the clinic. I couldn't just leave her there ... . That's why I'm late." This was the lie I'd come up with on my way home. The bell rang again, enraging Mother.
"Go get it!" she screamed.
The "exhibition" was nothing more than a humdrum little function where shopkeepers' wives, cannery workers, and a few retirees could dance. It was a miserable thing, really, and if I had remembered the dress, she would probably have decided that it wasn't worth the trouble to go.
I have never seen my mother dance. But it makes me a little queasy to imagine her calves shaking, her feet spilling out of her shoes, her makeup running with sweat, a strange man's hand at her waist ... .
Since I was a little girl, Mother has praised my appearance to anyone who would listen. Her favorite customers are the big tippers, but the ones who tell her I'm beautiful run a close second, even when they aren't particularly sincere.
"Have you ever seen such transparent skin? It's almostscary the way you can see right through it. She has the same big, dark eyes and long lashes she did when she was a baby. When I took her out, people were constantly stopping me to tell me how cute she was. And there was even a sculptor who made a statue of her--it won first prize in some show." Mother has a thousand ways to brag about my looks, but half of them are lies. The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me.
If Mother is so intent on paying me compliments, it might be because she doesn't really love me very much. In fact, the more she tells me how pretty I am, the uglier I feel. To be honest, I have never once thought of myself as pretty.
She still does my hair every morning. She sits me down at the dressing table and takes hold of my ponytail, forcing me to keep very still. When she starts in with the brush, I can barely stand it, but if I move my head even the least bit, she tightens her grip.
She combs in camellia oil, making sure every hair is lacquered in place. I hate the smell. Sometimes she pins it up with a cheap barrette.
"There," she says, with deep satisfaction in her voice, "all done." I feel as though she's hurt me in a way that will never heal.
I was sent to bed without any dinner that night--the usual punishment since I was little. Nights when my stomach is empty have always seemed darker, but as I lay there I found myself tracing the shape of the man's back and ear over and over in my mind.
Mother took extra care with my hair the next morning, using more oil than usual. And she made an even bigger fuss about how pretty I am.
The Iris came into being when my great-grandfather fixed up an old inn and turned it into a hotel. That was more than a hundred years ago. In that part of town, a restaurant or hotel was either supposed to have an ocean view or to be right on the beach. The Iris didn't qualify on either count: it took more than half an hour to walk to the sea, and only two of the rooms had views. The rest looked out over the fish-processing factory.
After Grandfather died, Mother made me quit school to help at the hotel. My day begins in the kitchen, getting ready for breakfast. I wash fruit, cut up ham and cheese, and arrange tubs of yogurt in a bowl of ice. As soon as I hear the first guests coming down, I grind the coffee beans and warm the bread. Then, at checkout time, I total the bills. I do all of this while saying as little as possible. Some of the guests try to make small talk, but I just smile back. I find it painful to speak to people I don't know, and besides, Mother scolds me if I make a mistake with the cash register and the receipts are off.
The woman who works for us as a maid comes just before noon, and she and Mother begin cleaning the guest rooms. In the meantime, I straighten the kitchen and the dining room. I also answer the phone to take reservations, or to talkto the linen company or the tourist board. When Mother finishes the cleaning, she comes to check on me. If she finds even one hair out of place, she immediately combs it down. Then we get ready to welcome the new guests.
Most of my day is spent at the front desk. The space behind the desk is so small and cramped you can reach just about anything you need without moving--the bell, the old-fashioned cash register, the guest book, the pen, the phone, the tourist pamphlets. The counter itself is scarred and dark from all the hands that have touched it.
As I sit slumped behind the desk, the smell of raw fish drifts in from the factory across the way, and I can see the steam from the machines that make fish paste seeping through gaps in the factory windows. Stray cats are always gathered under the delivery trucks, waiting for something to spill from the flatbeds.
My senses seem sharpest when the guests are all checked in, settled in their rooms getting ready for bed. From my stool behind the desk, I can hear and smell and feel everything happening in the hotel. I can't say I have much experience or even any real desires of my own, but just by shutting myself up behind the desk, I can imagine every scene being played out by the people spending the night at the Iris. Then I erase them one by one and find a quiet place to lie down and sleep.
A letter from the translator arrived on Friday morning. The handwriting was very beautiful. Taking refuge in the corner behind the desk, I read it as discreetly as I could.
My Dear Mari,
Please forgive me for writing to you like this, but it was such a great and unexpected pleasure to speak with you on Sunday afternoon in the waiting room at the dock. At my age, few things are unexpected, and one spends considerable effort avoiding shocks and disappointments. I don't suppose you would understand, but it is the sort of mental habit you develop when you reach old age.
But this past Sunday was different. Time seemed to have stopped, and I found myself being led to a place I had never even imagined.
It would be only natural that you despise me for the disgusting incident I provoked at the hotel, and I had been hoping even before we met to make a proper apology. But the open and completely unguarded way you looked at me left me so bewildered that I was unable to say anything to the point. Thus, I wish to offer you my apologies in this letter.
I have lived alone for a long time now, and I spend my days locked away on the island with my translations. I have very few friends, and I have never known a beautiful girl like you. It has been decades since anyone waved good-bye to me the way you did. I have walked alongthat dock countless times, but always alone, never once having cause to turn back to look for anyone.
You waved to me as if I were an old friend, and that gesture--insignificant to you--was enormously important to me. I want to thank you ... and thank you again.
I come into town every Sunday to do my shopping, and I will be in front of the flower clock in the plaza about two o'clock in the afternoon. I wonder whether I shall have the good fortune to see you there again. I have no intention of trying to extract a promise from you--think of my request as simply an old man's ramblings. Don't give it a second thought.
The days seem to grow steadily warmer, and I suspect you will be busier at the hotel. Please take care of yourself.
P.S. I know it was rude of me, but I took the liberty of finding out your name. By coincidence, the heroine of the novel I am translating now is named Marie.
HOTEL IRIS. Copyright © 1996 by Yoko Ogawa. English translation copyright © 2010 by Stephen Snyder. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.