Underground the tokyo ga.., p.11
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       Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, p.11

           Haruki Murakami
 

  In August, Shizuko was transferred to a hospital where there was a young doctor keen on therapy. And now she’s progressed to the point where she can move her right hand. Little by little, she’s able to move. Ask her, “Where’s your mouth?” and she’ll raise her right hand to her mouth.

  It’s still not easy for her to speak, but she seems to understand most of what we’re saying. Only the doctor says he’s not convinced she exactly understands the relationships between the family members. I always tell her, “It’s your brother come to visit,” but whether or not she knows what a “brother” is is another matter. Most of her memory has disappeared.

  If I ask her, “Where were you living before?” she can only answer, “Don’t know.” At first our parents’ names, her own age, how many brothers and sisters she had, her place of birth were all “Don’t know.” All she knew was her own name. But little by little she’s recovering her faculties. Presently she’s on two main therapy programs: physical recovery and speech recovery. She practices sitting in a wheelchair, standing on her right leg, moving her right hand, straightening her crooked leg, the vowel sounds—a, i, u, e, o.

  She can still hardly move her mouth to eat, so they feed her through her nose straight to the stomach. The muscles in her throat are stiff. There’s nothing actually wrong with her vocal cords, but the muscles that control them don’t move much.

  According to the doctor, the ultimate goal of therapy is for her to be able to walk out of the hospital on her own, but whether or not she’ll ever make it that far he won’t say. Still, I trust the hospital and the doctor, and I’m leaving everything in their hands.

  Now I go the hospital every other day. It’s 11:00 by the time I get home, which has me shifting between two schedules. I’ve put on weight, probably because I eat and drink late at night, just before bed.

  Three times a week I go alone after work. Sundays the whole family goes: my mother, too. Father’s back from the Cancer Center, but after long outings he gets a temperature, so he doesn’t come along.

  It’s all on my shoulders, but it’s my family, after all. My wife’s the one I feel sorry for: if she hadn’t married me, she wouldn’t have to put up with all this. And the kids, too. If my sister was well we’d be taking vacations, going places.

  But, you know, the first time Shizuko spoke, I was beside myself with joy. At first it was only a groan—uuh—but I cried when I heard it. The nurse cried too. And strangely enough, then Shizuko started crying and saying uuh aah. I have no real notion what her tears meant. According to the doctor the emotions in the brain take the unstable form of “crying out” when first expressed. So that was a first step.

  On July 23 she spoke her first words in front of our parents. Shizuko cried out, “Mama.” That was the first thing they’d heard her say in four months. They both cried.

  This year she’s been able to laugh. Her face can smile. She laughs at simple jokes, at me making farting noises with my mouth or anything like that. I’ll say, “Who farted?” and she’ll answer, “Brother.” She’s recovered to that extent. She still can’t speak too well; it’s difficult to tell what she’s saying, but at least she’s talking.

  “What do you want to do?” I ask, and she answers “Go for walk.” She’s developed her own self-will. She can’t see much, though, only a little with her right eye.

  The night before the gas attack, the family was saying over dinner, “My, how lucky we are. All together, having a good time”… a modest share of happiness. Destroyed the very next day by those idiots. Those criminals stole what little joy we had.

  Right after the attack, I was insane with anger. I was pacing the hospital corridors pounding on the columns and walls. At that point I still didn’t know it was Aum, but whoever it was I was ready to beat them up. I didn’t even notice, but several days later my fist was sore. I asked my wife, “Odd, why does my hand hurt so much?” and she said, “You’ve been punching things, dear.” I was so incensed.

  But now, after nearly two years, things are a lot better thanks to everyone at my sister’s company, my colleagues and my boss, the doctors and nurses. They’ve all been a great help.

  “Ii-yu-nii-an [Disneyland]”

  “Shizuko Akashi” (31)

  I talked to Shizuko Akashi’s elder brother, Tatsuo, on December 2, 1996, and the plan was to visit her at a hospital in a Tokyo suburb the following evening.

  I was uncertain whether or not Tatsuo would allow me to visit her until the very last moment. Finally he consented, though only after what must have been a considerable amount of anguished deliberation—not that he ever admitted as much. It’s not hard to imagine how indelicate it must have seemed for him to allow a total stranger to see his sister’s cruel disability. Or even if it was permissible for me as an individual to see her, the very idea of reporting her condition in a book for all the world to read would surely not go down well with the rest of the family. In this sense, I felt a great responsibility as a writer, not only toward the family but to Shizuko herself

  Yet whatever the consequences, I knew I had to meet Shizuko in order to include her story. Even though I had gotten most of the details from her brother, I felt it only fair that I meet her personally. Then, even if she responded to my questions with complete silence, at least I would have tried to interview her …

  In all honestly, though, I wasn’t at all certain that I would be able to write about her without hurting someone’s feelings.

  Even as I write, here at my desk the afternoon after seeing her, I lack confidence. I can only write what I saw, praying that no one takes offense. If I can set it all down well enough in words, just maybe …

  A wintry December. Autumn has slowly slipped past out of sight. I began preparations for this book last December, so that makes one year already. And Shizuko Akashi makes my sixtieth interviewee—though unlike all the others, she can’t speak her own mind.

  By sheer coincidence, the very day I was to visit Shizuko the police arrested Yasuo Hayashi on faraway Ishigaki Island. The last of the perpetrators to be caught, Hayashi, the so-called Murder Machine, had released three packets of sarin at Akihabara Station on the Hibiya Line, claiming the lives of 8 people and injuring 250. I read the news in the early evening paper, then caught the 5:30 train for Shizuko’s hospital. A police officer had been quoted as saying: “Hayashi had tired of living on the run so long.”

  Of course, Hayashi’s capture would do nothing to reverse the damage he’d already done, the lives he had so radically changed. What was lost on March 20, 1995, will never be recovered. Even so, someone had to tie up the loose ends and apprehend him.

  I cannot divulge the name or location of Shizuko’s hospital. Shizuko and Tatsuo Akashi are pseudonyms, in keeping with the family’s wishes. Actually, reporters once tried to force their way into the hospital to see Shizuko. The shock would surely have set back whatever progress she’d made in her therapy program, not to mention throwing the hospital into chaos. Tatsuo was particularly concerned about that.

  Shizuko was moved to the Recuperation Therapy floor of the hospital in August 1995. Until then (for the five months after the gas attack) she had been in the Emergency Care Center of another hospital, where the principal mandate was to “maintain the life of the patient”—a far cry from recuperation. The doctor there had declared it “virtually impossible for Shizuko to wheel herself to the stairs.” She’d been confined to bed, her mind in a blur. Her eyes refused to open, her muscles barely moved. Once she was removed to Recuperation, however, her progress exceeded all expectations. She now sits in a wheelchair and moves around the ward with a friendly push from the nurses; she can even manage simple conversations. “Miraculous” is the word.

  Nevertheless, her memory has almost totally gone. Sadly, she remembers nothing before the attack. The doctor in charge says she’s mentally “about grade-school level,” but just what that means Tatsuo doesn’t honestly know. Nor do I. Is that the overall level of her thought processes? Is it her syna
pses, the actual “hardware” of her thinking circuitry? Or is it a question of “software,” the knowledge and information she has lost? At this point only a few things can be said with any certainty:

  (1) Some mental faculties have been lost.

  (2) It is as yet unknown whether they will ever be recovered. She remembers most of what’s happened to her since the attack, but not everything. Tatsuo can never predict what she’ll remember and what she’ll forget.

  Her left arm and left leg are almost completely paralyzed, especially the leg. Having parts of the body immobilized entails various problems: last summer she had to have a painful operation to cut the tendon behind her left knee in order to straighten her crooked left leg.

  She cannot eat or drink through her mouth. She cannot yet move her tongue or jaws. Ordinarily we never notice how our tongue and jaws perform complicated maneuvers whenever we eat or drink, wholly unconsciously. Only when we lose these functions do we become acutely aware of their importance. That is Shizuko’s situation right now.

  She can swallow soft foods like yogurt and ice cream. It has taken long months of patient practice to reach this stage. Shizuko likes strawberry yogurt, sour and sweet, but unfortunately most of her nutrition is still squeezed in by tube through her nose. The air valve that was implanted in her throat while she was hooked up to an artificial respirator still remains. It’s now covered with a round metal plate—a blank souvenir of her struggle with death.

  Her brother slowly pushes Shizuko’s wheelchair out into the lounge area. She’s petite, with hair cut short at the fringe. She resembles her brother. Her complexion is good, her eyes slightly glazed as if she has only just woken up. If it wasn’t for the plastic tube coming from her nose, she probably wouldn’t look handicapped.

  Neither eye is fully open, but there is a glint to them—deep in the pupils; a gleam that led me beyond her external appearance to see an inner something that was not in pain.

  “Hello,” I say.

  “Hello,” says Shizuko, though it sounds more like ehh-uoh.

  I introduce myself briefly, with some help from her brother. Shizuko nods. She has been told in advance I was coming.

  “Ask her anything you want,” says Tatsuo.

  I’m at a loss. What on earth can I say?

  “Who cuts your hair for you?” is my first question.

  “Nurse,” comes the answer, or more accurately, uh-errff, though in context the word is easy enough to guess. She responds quickly, without hesitation. Her mind is there, turning over at high speed in her head, only her tongue and jaws can’t keep pace.

  For a while at first Shizuko is nervous, a little shy in front of me. Not that I could tell, but to Tatsuo the difference is obvious.

  “What’s with you today? Why so shy?” he kids her, but really, when I think about it, what young woman wouldn’t be shy about meeting someone for the first time and not looking her healthy best? And if the truth be known, I’m a little nervous myself.

  Prior to the interview, Tatsuo had talked to Shizuko about me. “Mr. Murakami, the novelist, says he wants to write about you, Shizuko, in a book. What do you think about that? Is it all right with you? Is it okay if your brother tells him about you? Can he come here to meet you?”

  Shizuko answered straightaway, “Yes.”

  Talking with her, the first thing I notice is her decisive “Yes” and “No,” the speed with which she judges things. She readily made up her mind about most things, hardly ever hesitating.

  I brought her yellow flowers in a small yellow vase. A color full of life. Sadly, however, Shizuko can’t see them. She can make things out only in very bright sunlight. She made a small motion with her head and said, “Uann-eyhh [Can’t tell].” I just hope that some of the warmth they brought to the room—to my eyes, at least—rubs off atmospherically on her.

  She wore a pink cotton gown buttoned to the neck, a light throw over her lap from under which a stiff right hand protruded. Tatsuo, by her side, took up that hand from time to time and patted it lovingly. The hand is always there when words fail.

  “Up to now, Shizuko, you’ve spoken in short words only,” says her brother with a smile, “so from our point of view, it’s been easier to understand. Recently, though, you seem to want to speak in longer sentences, so it’s a bit harder for us to follow. I suppose that means you’re making progress, but your mouth still can’t keep up.”

  I can scarcely make out half of what she says. Tatsuo, of course, can discern lots more. The nurses even more still. “The nurses here are all young and earnest and sincere. We owe them a show of gratitude,” says Tatsuo. “They’re nice people, isn’t that right?”

  “Aayiih-ee-uh [Nice people],” agrees Shizuko.

  “But sometimes,” Tatsuo continues, “when I don’t understand what Shizuko’s saying, she gets really angry. You don’t want me to leave before I get what you’re saying, do you? Like the last time. Isn’t that right, Shizuko?”

  Silence. Embarrassed silence.

  “Hey, what are you so shy about?” Tatsuo teases her. “You said so yourself, didn’t you? You wouldn’t let Brother go before he understood.”

  At that Shizuko finally breaks into a smile. And when she smiles she really lights up. She smiles a lot more than most people, though perhaps she simply has less control over her facial muscles. I’d like to imagine that Shizuko always smiled that way, it blends in so naturally with her face. It strikes me that she and her brother probably carried on this way as children.

  “Not long ago,” says Tatsuo, “Shizuko would cry and complain—‘No, don’t go!’—when it was time for me to leave. Each time I repeated the same thing until she gradually stopped fussing: ‘Brother has to go home or else the kids will be lonely from waiting. It’s not just you, you know, —— and —— get lonely too.’ Eventually Shizuko got what I was saying, which is great progress, isn’t it? Though it must get awfully lonely being left here, I admit.”

  Silence.

  “Which is why I’d like to visit the hospital more often and spend longer talking to my sister,” says Tatsuo. In actual fact, however, it’s hard enough for Tatsuo to visit the hospital every other day. He has to travel fifty minutes each way back and forth from work.

  After work Tatsuo sits with his sister for an hour and talks. He holds her hand, spoon-feeds her strawberry yogurt, coaches her in conversation, fills up the blank spaces in her memory little by little: “We all went there and this is what we did …”

  “When the memories we share as a family get cut off and lost like this,” he says, “that’s the hardest thing to accept. It’s as if it has been cut away with a knife.… Sometimes when I’m going back over the past with her, my voice starts to quaver, then Shizuko asks me, ‘Brother, you okay?’”

  Hospital visiting hours officially end at 8 P.M., but they’re less strict with Tatsuo. After the visit, he collects Shizuko’s laundry, drives the car back to the office, walks five minutes to the subway, and travels another hour, changing three times before he gets back home. By the time he gets there the kids are asleep. He’s kept up this regimen for a year and eight months now. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t exhausted; and no one can honestly say how much longer he’ll have to continue.

  Hands on the steering wheel on the way back, Tatsuo says: “If this had been caused by an accident or something, I could just about accept it. There’d have been a cause or some kind of reason. But with this totally senseless, idiotic criminal act … I’m at my wits’ end. I can’t take it!” He barely shakes his head, silencing any further comment from me.

  “Can you move your right hand a little for me?” I ask Shizuko. And she lifts the fingers of her right hand. I’m sure she’s trying, but the fingers move very slowly, patiently grasping, patiently extending. “If you don’t mind, would you try holding my hand?”

  “O-eh [Okay],” she says.

  I place four fingers in the palm of her tiny hand—practically the hand of a child in size—and her fingers
slowly enfold them, as gently as the petals of a flower going to sleep. Soft, cushioning, girlish fingers, yet far stronger than I had anticipated. Soon they clamp tight over my hand in the way that a child sent on an errand grips that “important item” she’s not supposed to lose. There’s a strong will at work here, clearly seeking some objective. Focused, but very likely not on me; she’s after some “other” beyond me. Yet that “other” goes on a long journey and seems to find its way back to me. Please excuse this nebulous explanation, it’s merely a fleeting impression.

  Something in her must be trying to break out. I can feel it. A precious something. But it just can’t find an outlet. If only temporarily, she’s lost the power and means to enable to it to come to the surface. And yet that something exists unharmed and intact within the walls of her inner space. When she holds someone’s hand, it’s all she can do to communicate that “this thing is here.”

  She keeps holding my hand for a very long time, until I say, “Thank you,” and slowly, little by little, her fingers unfold.

  “Shizuko never says ‘hurt’ or ‘tired,’” Tatsuo tells me driving back later. “She does therapy every day: arm-and-leg training, speech-training, various other programs with specialists—none of it easy, it’s tough going—but when the doctor or nurses ask her if she’s tired, only three times has she ever said ‘Yes.’ Three times.

  “That’s why—as everyone involved agrees—Shizuko has recovered as much as she has. From being unconscious on an artificial respirator to actually talking, it’s like something out of a dream.”

  “What do you want to do when you get well?” I think to ask her.

  “Aeh-ehh,” she says. I don’t understand.

  “‘Travel,’ maybe?” suggests Tatsuo after a moment’s thought.

  “Ehf [Yes],” concurs Shizuko with a nod.

  “And where do you want to go?” I ask.

  “Ii-yu-nii-an.” This no one understands, but with a bit of trial and error it becomes clear she means “Disneyland.”

 
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