A young woman and her experience one rainy day at a train station which changes her reality. Akutagawa Ryunosuke brings us a strange story indeed.
A Strange Story
By Akutagawa Ryunosuke
Translated by Hamish Smith
I went out with an old friend of mine, Murakami, for a walk through the main street of the
“I got a letter from Chieko not long ago. She says ‘hi’,” said Murakami, as he recalled a conversation he had with his younger sister who lives in the city of Sasebo.
“Is Chieko doing alright?”
“Yeah, she’s been doing quite well for a while now. When she came to Tokyo that time she had a severe nervous breakdown … but you probably heard about that.”
“I heard. But I didn’t know if it was a nervous breakdown she had, or something else.”
“Oh, you weren’t sure? When Chieko came over that time it was like she had lost her mind. Just when I thought she was going to cry, she would start laughing. And when I thought she was laughing… well anyway, she had a pretty strange story to tell me.”
“A strange story?”
Murakami held his answer and pushed open the glass door of a cafe. He then led me inside and we sat down at a table overlooking the comings and goings of the outside world.
“A strange story. She probably didn’t tell you. This is what she told me before she went back to Sasebo.”
“As you probably know, Chieko’s husband was in Europe during the war and stationed around the Mediterranean Sea, a commissioned officer of group ‘A’. She came over to see me while he was out there, around the time the war was finally coming to an end. Her nervous breakdowns had gotten worse. This was most likely because the letters from her husband, which had come every week, had stopped arriving without warning.
Chieko had been married barely half a year before she had to part with her husband, so she always looked forward to those letters. It got to her so much that if I had tried to tease her just a little, as I sometimes do, she probably would have slipped into a bout of depression.
It was right around that time. That day, yeah, it was that day, that national holiday. It had been raining all day and the afternoon was deathly cold. Chieko said she was going to the Kamagura district for the first time in a long time. She said that she was going out to see a friend of hers from school who had married a business man in Kamagura. I didn’t really think it would be worth going all the way out to Kamagura in the pouring rain, so me and the wife both told her to wait until the next day to go. But Chieko was adamant that she was going out that day, rain or shine. So she left in a huff, determined that that’s what she was going to do.
She told us, as she walked out the door, that she would probably stay over at her friend’s house and come back the next day. It was only a short while before she walked back through the door, dripping wet from the rain and blue in the face. She said that she had walked all the way from the central train station to the river-side train station in the rain without an umbrella. I asked why the hell she would do something like that, and, well, that’s the strange story.
It would have been when she got to the central train station – oh wait, it was probably just a little before that. She had just boarded the train, but all the seats were taken. She grabbed one of those hanging leather handles and looked out the window over the calm ocean. But the train was headed over Jinbo-Town, so there was no way that she could have seen the ocean. In the clearness above the traffic on the roads below she could see waves rising. She figured that the rain sloshing against the windows and the horizon looking really hazy would explain why she saw waves, but something in Cheiko’s mind snapped in that moment.
When she got to the central train station there was a porter in one of those red hats that porters wear who greeted her out of the blue. ‘How has your husband been?’ he asked. That’s strange enough as it is, but what was even stranger is that when the porter asked her this, Chieko didn’t think it strange at all. ‘Thank you. But I don’t really know how he’s doing as I haven’t heard a word from him as of late,’ she told the porter. Then the porter said, ‘let me go and check up on your husband, then.’ Now even though the porter said he would see her husband, her husband was far off overseas. It was that line which made her realize how insane the porter’s words were. The porter gave her a quick bow and disappeared into the crowd of people just as she was thinking of something to say. No matter how much Chieko searched for the man, she never saw him again. Well, more than just not being able to find him, she said that she couldn’t for the life of her remember what the porter’s face looked like; all the other porters seemed to look the same as he did. Chieko had no idea what was happening. She felt like she was being watched by everyone around her. More so than getting to Kamagura, she just felt that she needed to get out of the station. So without bothering to pop her umbrella she bolted out of the station like a dream and got drenched in the downpour.
When she told me this I figured it must have been her mental state and that she had come down with something. From the next day for three days straight she had a burning fever and kept mumbling, ‘please, forgive me,’ and ‘why don’t you come home?’ as if she was talking to her husband. But her divine punishment for trying to go to Kamagura didn’t end there. Even after her illness had cleared up, if she heard anything about porters she would mope around for the rest of the day and I could barely get a word out of her. One thing which made me laugh was when she saw a picture of a red hatted porter on a signboard for a shipping company and came straight back home without getting to where she was going.
This went on for about a month until her fear of porters and their red hats began to subside. ‘Hey, there was a porter with a cat-like face in that novel by Kyoka Izumi, wasn’t there? Maybe reading that is what caused all the madness,’ Chieko had said to my wife with a laugh. Then one day in March she had another run-in with a porter. From then until her husband came home, she never again went to the train station, regardless of what needed doing. That’s why she didn’t come to see you off when you went to Korea; she was scared of the porters.
A few weeks later, a friend of her husbands who had been in America came back to Japan for the first time in two years. Chieko left the house early in the morning to go and greet him, but, as you know, our neighborhood is a quiet one so there was hardly anyone on the streets in the middle of the day. Down one of those empty streets someone had placed a flower-shaped paper pinwheel windmill, the type you wouldn’t normally think twice about. It was cloudy and windy that day, so the colored paper fins of the windmill were spinning around in a frenzy. Chieko said that just looking at the thing was enough to make her uneasy, and when she looked back down the street she saw a man wearing a red hat crouched down facing the opposite direction. Naturally this would have been the one who was selling the pinwheel windmills, or maybe just some guy having a smoke. But when she saw that red hat she got the same strange feeling she had last time, so she figured she should get out of there. But nothing happened. Well, until she got to the station.
Just as she was making her way through the crowd of people at the ticket gate on her way to greet her husband’s friend, someone came up behind her and said, ‘your husband has taken an injury to the right of his chest. That’s why you haven’t been getting any letters.’
Chieko spun around, but there was no porter, or anyone else, behind her. All there was, as I’m sure you can imagine, were naval commissioned officers and their wives. Naturally there was no way that those people would say something so out-of-nowhere to her, and what the voice had said was just so strange. But, at any rate, she would have been happy that at least there were no red-hatted porters around.
From there she went through the gates, just like everyone else, she saw her husband’s colleague as he was going from the entranceway to get into a car. As she did, she again heard a voice behind her clearly say ‘lady, it looks like your husband will be coming home next month.’ Again she spun around to see who it was and again there was no one there but the men and their wives waving them goodbye. There was no one behind her, but there were a couple of porters a distance away in front of her who had been loading up cars with luggage.
She wondered about one of the porters, who looked over in her direction with a strange kind of grin. When Chieko saw the grin, she turned so pale that even the people walking past noticed. But when she tried to calm herself down she realized the two men she thought were porters, was actually just one man. On top of that, the one porter hauling luggage was a completely different person to the one who had laughed at her. And she couldn’t for the life of her remember exactly what the laughing porter looked like, as her memory had turned cloudy. No matter how hard she tried to remember, all she could picture was the red cap on his head, with his nose-less and eyeless face not coming to mind. Then Chieko told me the second part of her strange story.
Just one month later, which would have been a bit before or after you trip to Korea, her husband came home. Due to an injury to the right hand side of his chest, he had been unable to write any letters, which was really strange as what that porter had said turned out to be true. ‘Chieko is always thinking of her husband, so naturally she would know that,’ my wife as a joked. Then about another fortnight after that, Chieko went with her husband to his post in Sasebo, but when they arrived his unsent letters were already sitting in the letterbox. They were surprised to see those letters, but the strange story didn’t end there.
Not long after, Chieko and her husband were standing at the central station when a porter in a red hat, who had carried their luggage, poked his head in the window of the train and gave them a greeting or something. As soon as her husband laid his eyes on the porter he suddenly went white, or at least that’s what she told me, a little embarrassed.
It turns out that her husband had gone out with a bunch of his buddies to a café while was stationed in Marseille, and for some reason there was a Japanese porter there wearing a red hat. The porter came over and asked, as if they already knew each other, how he had been. Now of course there would be no reason for a Japanese porter to be hanging around Marseille. But her husband said that he didn’t think much of it, told him about the injury to the right hand side of his chest and when he was due to arrive home. One of his friends was drunk and knocked over his glass of cognac. When Chieko’s husband turned his attention back to Japanese porter, all signs of him had disappeared from the cafe.
So who the hell was it? When he talks about it now, he still can’t quite tell if he was dreaming or if it was real, even though he was wide awake at the time. On top of that, none of the other guys there with him looked like they had noticed the porter in the red hat. In the end he just decided not to mention it to anyone else. Chieko told him about her two run-ins with strange red-hatted porters when he got back to Japan.
So he figured that the porter in the red hat which he had seen in Marseille was the same, but it sounded too much like a ghost story. Because he was on his way to being promoted, didn’t want to worry his wife and felt as if people would scoff at his story, he didn’t say a word up until that day. But the man he saw that day in Japan was the exact same man he had seen in Marseille, there wasn’t a single eyelash out of place. When her husband stopped talking, she bit her lip for a moment before saying with a terribly uneasy voice ‘But, isn’t that a bit strange? It was the same man, right down to his eyelashes, but why is it I can’t actually recall his face at all? When I saw him through the window, I knew it was him,’…”
Murakami stopped mid-story when he saw three of his friends walk into the café, sit down at a nearby table and wave to him. So we stood up.
“Well then, I suppose I had better go. I’ll come and see you one more time before you head back to Korea.” I exited the cafe and let out an absent minded sigh.
That was three years ago, and I had finally understood why she had broken our promise to go and secretly meet at the central train station, saying that she always wanted to be a faithful wife, in a letter she had sent me.
English translation © 2016 Hamish Smith. All rights reserved.