subliminal message!

Grebe

Written by Murakami Haruki

Translated by Gabriel Rasa

 

When I emerged at the bottom of the narrow, concrete stairwell I found myself facing a long corridor extending straight ahead. Perhaps it was because the ceiling was unpleasantly high, but it put me in mind of a dried up sewage ditch. Here and there, the fluorescent lights were darkened with accumulated dust, which caused the light to be uneven as if it were being filtered through a fine net. To top it off, nearly a third of the fixtures were burnt out. I could barely make out the palm of my own hand. The place was silent, with only the strangely monotonous sound of my rubber-soled tennis shoes on the concrete echoing in the gloomy hallway.

I must have walked for two or three hundred meters—no, more like a kilometer. I didn’t think of anything, just kept walking. It was impossible to judge time or distance in that place and I ended up losing all sense of forward progression. But still, I must have been moving forward because suddenly I found myself standing in the middle of a T-intersection.

A T-intersection?

I pulled out a crumpled postcard from the pocket of my coat and reread it carefully.

“Please proceed straight down the hallway. At the end there will be a door,” the postcard read. I carefully examined the wall at the end, but there was neither shape nor shadow of a door. There was no trace that a door had ever been here, nor did it seem likely that a door might be installed any time soon. It was just a plain concrete wall, possessing nothing to draw the eye. No metaphysical door, no symbolic door, no metaphorical door, absolutely nothing.

Oh for Pete’s sake.

I leaned against the concrete wall and took a few minutes’ break to smoke a cigarette. Well, what to do now? Should I forge onward? Should I go back the way I’d came?

I say that, but to be truthful there was never any doubt of what I would do. Because in perfect honesty, there was nothing for me to do BUT forge onward. I was thoroughly fed up with my life of poverty. Monthly bills, alimony to my ex-wife, my tiny apartment, the cockroaches in the bathroom, the subway at rush hour, I was sick of it all. And then I found this cushy job. The work was easy, the salary so good it made my eyes roll back in my head. A twice-a-year bonus and a nice long summer vacation. There was no way I could give up this easily, not on account of one freaking door.

I crushed out the cigarette under my shoe, flipped a ten-yen coin into the air and caught it in the palm of my hand.

Heads—I’d take the right-hand corridor.

Down the corridor I took two rights, one left, went down ten steps, and then took another right. The air was chilly and felt somehow coagulated, like coffee gelatin. I thought about money while I walked, about the feeling of being in a good office with air conditioning, and about gorgeous girls. I could get my hands on all those things, all I had to do was find one single door.

Finally the long-awaited door came into view. From a distance it looked like a postage stamp, but as I drew closer it gradually got more door-shaped, and finally it became, indubitably, a door.

Door—the word was like music to my ears.

I cleared my throat once and knocked lightly, then fell back a step and waited for a response. Fifteen seconds passed, but there was no answer. I knocked again, a little harder this time, and fell back a step and waited. No answer.

Around me, the air had gradually begun to curdle.

Driven by my unease, I was on the verge of knocking a third time when the door opened without a sound. It opened like an act of God, independent of human hand, like the result of a wind that had blown in from somewhere. But of course it hadn’t opened on its own—I heard a click as a light switch was flicked on, and then the figure of a lone man materialized before me.

The man looked to be in his mid-twenties, about five centimeters shorter than I. Beads of water dripped off his freshly washed hair and he was wrapped in a reddish-brown bathrobe. His legs were unnaturally white and very thin, ending in very dainty feet. He had a face that looked almost cartoonish, except for the pleasant-looking smile that flickered over his mouth.

“Sorry about that, I was in the bath.”

“Bath?” I echoed, looking instinctively at my watch.

“It’s the rule. You have to take a bath after lunch.”

“I see,” said I.

“So, what business do you have here?”

I took the aforementioned postcard from the pocket of my coat and handed it to the man. He held it with his fingertips so as not to get it wet and read over it a few times.

“I’m about five minutes late,” I offered by way of excuse.

“Mm hmm,” he agreed and gave the card back to me. “You’re supposed to work here, huh.”

“That’s right,” I said.

“I didn’t hear anything about it, but I’ll convey you to my superiors anyway.”

“Thank you.”

“Right, so what’s the password?”

“Password?”

“No one told you the password?”

I shook my head dumbly. “No…”

“What a mess. I’m under strict orders from above not to admit anyone without a password.”

I dragged out the postcard yet again, but it still didn’t mention any password.

“I’m sure they just forgot to write it,” I said. “In any case, you can send me along to your superiors.”

“I’d need the password for that.” So saying, he made to search his pockets for cigarettes. Tragically, the bathrobe didn’t have any pockets. I offered him one of my own and held out my lighter for him to use.

“Ah, much obliged… it’s just that… you can’t remember anything that might have been a password?”

This discussion was getting us nowhere. I had no idea what the password might be. I shook my head.

“Look I don’t like this sort of mess any more than you do, but the people up top, they’ve got their own ideas, y’know? You understand, right?”

“I understand.”

“The guy who worked here before me, he got the axe just for letting someone through—just one person!—who claimed to have forgotten the password. And good jobs are in short supply these days.”

I was in agreement with that. “Say, do you think maybe you could give me a little hint?”

The man leaned against the door and blew cigarette smoke into the air. “That’s not allowed.”

“Just a tiny one?”

“But—there might be a hidden microphone somewhere.”

“Oh, I guess you’re right.”

He mulled over that for a little while, then whispered in my ear. “Okay. It’s a very simple word, and it’s related to water. It will fit in the palm of your hand, but you can’t eat it.”

It was my turn to ponder.

“What’s it start with?” I asked.

“ ‘G,’” he said.

“Gastropod?” I hazarded.

“Wrong,” he said. “Two more.”

“Two more what?”

“Guesses. If you’re wrong two more times then that’s the end of it. I’m sorry, but I’m already risking trouble by bending the rules for you.”

“And I appreciate it,” I said. “But I’d be really grateful if you’d give me one more small hint. Like how many letters the word has or something…”

“And before long you’re going to suggest that I should give you the whole thing.”

“I would never!” I protested, feigning innocence. “Just tell me how many letters are in it.”

“Five,” he said with resignation. “It’s just like my dad always said.”

“Your dad?”

“My dad used to say—‘If you polish other people’s shoes, the next thing you know they’re making you tie their shoelaces.’”

“I see.”

“Anyway, five letters.”

“Related to water, fits in the palm of your hand, but you can’t eat it,” I reiterated.

“Right.”

“A grebe,” I said.

“You can eat grebes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Probably. Although they might not taste very good,” he said uncertainly. “And anyway, they don’t fit in your hand.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

“No,” he said.

“A grebe,” I insisted. “Handheld grebes are so unappetizing that not even a dog would eat one.”

“Hold up,” he said. “First of all, the password is not grebe.”

“Yes it is. It’s related to water, fits in your hand, and you can’t eat it, and it’s also five letters.”

“No, your logic is faulty.”

“How?”

“Because the password isn’t grebe!”

“Then what is it?”

He was rendered temporarily speechless. “I can’t tell you that!”

“Because there isn’t one,” I declared as icily as I was capable of. “There isn’t a single word besides grebe that is related to water, fits in the hand, is inedible, and has five letters.”

“But there is,” he insisted, sounding on the verge of tears.

“No there isn’t.”

“Yes there is!”

“There isn’t any proof of that,” I said. “Besides, doesn’t grebe satisfy all the requirements?”

“But… there might be dogs somewhere that like to eat handheld grebes.”

“Where? And what kind of dogs would those be?”

“Uhhhh,” he mumbled

“I know a lot about dogs,” I informed him authoritatively, “and I’ve never seen a one that would eat a handheld grebe.”

“They’re that bad?”

“Dreadfully bad.”

“Have you ever eaten one?”

“No! Why would I eat something that disgusting?”

“Oh… I suppose you’re right.”

“So will you take me to your superiors now?” I asked bluntly. “Grebe.”

“I guess I don’t have a choice,” he said. “I’ll take you and see how it goes, but I don’t think it will do you any good.”

“Thanks. I owe you one,” I said.

“But—is there really such a thing as a handheld grebe?”

“Oh yes.”

 

The handheld grebe wiped the lenses of his glasses with a velvet cloth and gave a sigh. The molars on the lower right side of his jaw throbbed. Dentists, he thought. I’m sick of them. Dentists, life or death decisions, car payments, broken air conditioners… He tipped his head back and leaned into his leather armchair, contemplating death. A tranquil death, like the bottom of the ocean.

The handheld grebe sleeps here.

Then the intercom buzzer rang.

“What?” the handheld grebe shouted at the machine.

“You have a visitor,” came the voice of the gatekeeper.

The handheld grebe glanced at his wristwatch. “He’s fifteen minutes late.”