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Authors: Yasunari Kawabata

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The House of the Sleeping Beauties (5 page)

BOOK: The House of the Sleeping Beauties

"But we haven't decided that she has our permission."

It did not, of course, seem natural to Eguchi that a girl accosted by one young man should suddenly become engaged to another. He knew that both were fond of his daughter. Well acquainted with both, he had thought that either would do for her. But was not this sudden engagement a rebound from the shock? Had she not turned to the second young man in bitterness, resentment, chagrin? Was she not, in the turmoil of her disillusionment with the one, throwing herself at the other? A girl like his youngest daughter might very well turn the more ardently to one young man from having been molested by another. They need not, perhaps, reprove her for an unworthy act of revenge and self-abasement.

But it had not occurred to Eguchi that such a thing could happen to his daughter. So probably it was with all parents. Eguchi may have had too much confidence in his high spirited daughter, so open and lively when surrounded by men. But now that the deed was done there seemed nothing strange about it. Her body was put together in a manner no different from the bodies of other women. A man could force himself upon her. At the thought of her unsightliness in the act, Eguchi was assailed by strong feelings of shame and degradation. No such feelings had come to him when he had sent his older daughters on their honeymoons. What had happened may have been an explosion of love on the part of the youth. But it had happened, and Eguchi could only reflect upon how his daughter's body was made, upon its inability to turn the act away. Were such reflections abnormal for a father? Eguchi did not immediately sanction the engagement, nor did he reject it. He and his wife learned considerably later that the competition between the youths had been rather vicious. His daughter's marriage was near when he took her to Kyoto and they say the camellia in full bloom. There was a faint roar inside it, like a swarm of honeybees.

She had a son two years after she was married. Her husband seemed quite wrapped up in the child. When, perhaps on a Sunday, the young couple would come to Eguchi's house, the wife would go out to help her mother in the kitchen, and the husband, most deftly, would feed the baby. And so matters had resolved themselves nicely. Although she lived in Tokyo, the daughter seldom came to see them after she was married.

"How are you?"

"How am I? Happy, I suppose."

Perhaps people did not have a great deal to say to their parents about their marital relations, but Eguchi was somehow dissatisfied and a trifle disturbed. Given the natures of his youngest daughter, it seemed to him that she ought to say more. But she was more beautiful, she come into bloom. Even though the change might be physiological one from girl to young wife, it did not seem that there would be this flower like brightness if a shadow lay over her heart. After she had her baby her skin was clearer, as though she had been washed to the depths, and she seemed more in possession of herself.

And was that it? Was that why, in 'the house of the sleeping beauties', as he lay with the girl's arm over his eyes, the images of the camellia in full bloom and the other flowers came to him? There was of course neither in the girl sleeping here nor in Eguchi's youngest daughter the richness of the camellia. But the richness of a girl's body was not something one knew by looking at her or by lying quietly beside her. It was not to be compared with the richness of camellias. What flowed deep behind his eyelids from the girl's arm was the current of life, the melody of life, the lure of life, and, for an old man, the recovery of life. The eyes on which the girl's arm rested were heavy, and he took the arm away.

There was nowhere for her to put her left arm. Probably because it was awkward for her to stretch it taut along Eguchi's chest, she half turned over his face again. She brought both hands together over her bosom with the fingers interlocked. They touched Eguchi's chest. They were not clasped as in veneration, but still they suggest prayer, soft prayer. He took the two clasped hands between his own hands. It was as if he were praying for something himself. He closed his eyes, probably in nothing more than the sadness of an old man touching the hands of a sleeping young girl.

He heard the first drops of night rain falling on the quiet sea. The distant sound seemed to come not from an automobile but from the thunder of winter. It was not easy to catch. He unfolded the girl's hands and gazed at the fingers as he straightened them one by one. He wanted to take the long, slender fingers in his mouth. What would she think, awakening the next morning, if there were tooth marks on her little finger and blood oozing from it? Eguchi brought the girl's arm down along her body. He looked at her rich breasts, the nipples large and swollen and dark. He raised them, gently sagging as they were. They were not as warm as her body, warmed by the electric blanket. He thought to bring his forehead to the hollow between them, but only drew near, and held back because of the scent. He rolled over the face down and this time took both the sleeping tablets at once. On the earlier visit he had taken one tablet, and then taken the other when he had awakened from a nightmare. But he had learned that they were only sleeping medicine. He was quick to fall asleep.

The voice of the girl sobbing awakened him. Then what sounded like sobs changed to laughter. The laughter went on and on. He put his arm over her breasts and shook her.

"You're dreaming, you're dreaming. What are you dreaming of?"

There was something ominous in the silence that followed the laughter. But Eguchi too was heavy with sleep, and it was all he could do to feel for the watch at his pillow. It was three thirty. Bringing his chest to her and drawing her hips toward him, he slept a warm sleep.

The next morning he was again aroused by thr woman of the house.

"Are you awake?"

He did not answer. Did the woman not have her ear to the door of the secret room? A spasm went through him at indications that was the case. Perhaps because of the heat from the blanket, the girl's shoulders were exposed, and she had an arm over head. He pulled the quilt up.

"Are you awake?"

Still not answering, he put his head under the quilt. A breast touched his chin. It was as if he were suddenly on fire. He put his arm around the girl's back and pulled her toward him with his foot.

"Sir! Sir!" The woman rapped on the door three or four times.

"I'm awake. I'm getting dressed." It seemed that she would come into the room if he did not answer.

The woman had brought water and toothpaste and the like into the room.

"And how was it?" she asked as she served his breakfast. "Don't you think she's a good girl?"

"A very good girl." Eguchi nodded. "When will she wake up?"

"I wonder."

"Can't I stay until she's awake?"

"That's exactly the sort of things we can't allow." The woman said hastily. "We don't allow that even with our older guests."

"But she's too a good girl."

"It's best just to keep them company and not let foolish emotions get in the way." She doesn't even know she's slept with you. She won't cause you any trouble."

"But I remember her. What if we were to pass in the street?"

"You mean you might speak to her? Don't do that. It would be a crime."

"A crime?"

"It would indeed."

"A crime."

"I must ask you not to be difficult. Just take sleeping girls as sleeping girls."

He wanted to retort that he had not yet reached that sad degree of senility, but held himself back.

"I believe there was rain last night." he said.

"Really? I didn't notice."

"I definitively heard rain."

On the sea outside the window little waves caught the morning sunlight in near the cliff.


Eight days after his second visit old Eguchi went again to the 'house of the sleeping beauties'. It had been two weeks between his first and second visits, and so the interval had been cut in a half.

Was he gradually being pulled in by the spell of girls put to sleep?

"The one tonight is still in training." said the woman of the house as she made tea. "You may be disappointed, but please put up with her."

"A different one again?"

"You called just before you came, and I had to make do with what I had. If there is a girl you specially want I must ask you to let me know two or three days in advance."

"I see. But what do you mean when you say she's in training?"

"She's new. And small."

Old Eguchi was startled.

"She was frightened. She asked if she mightn't have someone with her. But I wouldn't want to upset you."

"Two of them? I shouldn't think that would be so bad. But if she's so sound asleep that she might as well be dead, how can she know whether to be frightened or not?"

"Quite true. But be easy with her, She's not used to it."

"I won't do a thing."

"I understand that perfectly."

"In training?" he muttered to himself. There were strange things in the world. As usual, the woman opened the door a crack and looked inside. "She's asleep. Please, whenever you're ready." She went out.

Eguchi had another cup of tea. He lay with his head on his arm. A chilly emptiness came over him. He got up as if the effort were almost too much for him and, quietly opening the door, looked into the secret room of the velvet.

The 'small' girl had a small face. Her hair, disheveled as if a braid had been undone, lay over one cheek, and the palm of her hand lay over the other down to her mouth. And so probably her face looked even smaller than it was. Childlike, she lay sleeping. Her hand lay against her face, or rather, the edge of her relaxed hand lightly touched her cheekbone, and the bent fingers lay from the bridge of her nose down over her lips. The long middle finger reached to her jaw. It was her left hand. Her right hand lay at the edge of the quilt, which the fingers gently grasped. She wore no cosmetics. Nor did it seem that she had taken any off before going to sleep.

Old Eguchi slipped in beside her. He was careful not to touch her. She did not move. But her warmth, different from the warmth of the electric blanket, enveloped him. It was like a wild and undeveloped warmth. Perhaps the smell of her hair and skin made him think so, but it was not only that.

"Sixteen or so, maybe?" he muttered to himself.

It was a house frequented by old men who could no longer use women as women. But Eguchi, on his third visit, knew that to sleep with such a girl was a fleeting consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness in being alive. And were there among them old men who secretly asked to be a sadness in a young girl's body that called up in an old man a longing for death. But perhaps Eguchi was, among the old men who came to the house, one of the more easily moved. And perhaps most of them but wanted to drink in the youth of girls put to sleep, to enjoy girls who would not awaken.

At his pillow there were again two white sleeping tablets. He took them up and looked at them. They bore no marks or letters to tell him what the drug might be. It was without doubt different from the drug the girl had taken. He thought of asking on his next visit for the same drug. It was not likely that the request would be granted. But how would it be to sleep as of the dead? He was much taken with the thought of sleeping a deathlike sleep beside the girl put into a sleep like death.

'A sleep like death': the words brought back a memory of a woman. Three years before, in the spring, Eguchi had brought a woman bak to his hotel in Kobe. She was from a night club, and it was of the dead? He was much taken with the thought of sleeping a deathlike sleep beside a girl put into a sleep like death.

"A sleep like death." The words brought back a memory of a woman. Three years before, in the spring, Eguchi had brought a woman back to his hotel in Kobe. She was from a night club, and it was past midnight. He had a drink of whisky from a bottle he kept in his room and offered some to the woman. She drank as much as he. He changed to the night kimono provided by the hotel. There was none for her. He took her in his arms still in her underwear.

He was gently and aimlessly stroking her back.

She pulled herself up. "I can't sleep in these." She took off all her cloths and threw them on the chair in front of the mirror. He was surprised, but told himself that such was the way with amateurs. She was unusually docile.

"Not yet?" he asked as he pulled away from her.

"You cheat, Mr. Eguchi." She said it twice. "You cheat." But still she was quiet and docile.

The whisky had its effect, and the old man was soon asleep. A feeling that the woman was already out of the bed awoke him in the morning. She was at the mirror arranging her hair.

"You're early."

"Because I have children."


"Two of them. Still very small."

She hurried away before he was out of bed.

It seemed strange that she, the first slender and firm fleshed woman he had embraced in a long while, should have two children. Hers had not been that sort of a body. Nor had it seemed likely that those breasts had nursed a child.

He opened his suitcase to take out a clean shirt, and saw that everything had been neatly put in order for him. In the course of his ten days' stay he had wadded his dirty linen and stuffed it inside, and stirred up the contents in search of something at the bottom, and tossed in gifts he had bought and received in Kobe. And the suitcase had so swelled up that it would no longer close. She had been able to look inside, and she had seem the confusion when he opened it for cigarettes. But even so, what had made her want to put it in order for him? And when had she done the work? All of his dirty underwear and the like was neatly folded. It must have taken time, even fir a woman's skilled hands. Had she done it, unable to sleep herself, after Eguchi had gone to sleep?

"Well…" said Eguchi, gazing at the neat suitcase. "I wonder what made her do it?"

The next evening, as promised, the woman arrived to meet him at a Japanese restaurant. She was wearing Japanese kimono.

"You wear kimono?"

"Sometimes. But I don't imagine I look very good in it."

She laughed a different laugh. "I had a call from my friend at about noon. She said she was shocked. She asked if it was all right."

"You told her?"

"I don't keep secrets."

They walked through the city. Eguchi bought her material for a kimono and obi, and they went back to the hotel. From the window they could see the lights of a ship in the harbour. As they stood kissing in the window, Eguchi closed the blinds and pulled the curtains. He offered whisky to the woman, but she shook her head. She did not want to lose control of herself. She sank into a deep sleep. She awoke the next morning as Eguchi was getting out of bed.

"I slept as if I were dead. I really slept as if I were dead."

She lay still, her eyes open. They were misty, washed clean.

She knew that he would be going back to Tokyo today. She had married when her husband was in the Kobe office of a foreign company. He had been in Singapore for two years now. Next month he would be back in Kobe. She had told Eguchi all this the night befire. He had not known that she was married, and married to a foreigner. He had had no trouble luring her from the night club. He had gone there on the whim of a moment, and at the next table there had been two Occidental men and four Japanese women. The middle aged woman among them was an acquaintance of Eguchi's, and she greeted him. She was apparently acting as guide fir the men. When the two men got up to dance, she asked whether he would not like to dance with the other young woman. Halfway through the second dance he suggested that they go out. It was as if she were embarking in a mischievous frolic. She readily came to the hotel, and when they were in his room, Eguchi was the one who felt the greater strain.

And so it was that Eguchi had an affair with a married woman, a foreigner's wife. She had left her children with a nurse or governess, and she did not show the reticence one might expect of a married woman. And so the feeling of having misbehaved was not strong. Certain pangs of conscience lingered on all the same. But the happiness of hearing her say that she had slept as if she were dead stayed with him like youthful music. Eguchi was sixty four at the time, the woman perhaps in her middle or late twenties. Such had been the difference in their ages that Eguchi had thought it probably his last affair with a young woman. In the course of only two nights, of a single night, indeed, the woman who had slept as if dead had become an unforgettable woman. She had written saying that when he was next in Kobe she would like to see him again. A note a month later told him that her husband had come back, but that she would like to see him again all the same. There was a similar note yet a month later, He heard no more.

"Well." Old Eguchi muttered to himself. "She got herself pregnant again, with her third one. No doubt about it." It was three years later, as he lay beside a small girl who had been out into a sleep like death, that the thought came to him.

It had not come to him before. Eguchi was puzzled that it should have come now. But the more he turned it over in his mind the surer he was that it was a fact. Had she stopped writing because she was pregnant? He was on the edge of a smile. He felt calm and reposed, as if her welcoming her husband back from Singapore and then getting pregnant had washed away the impropriety. And fond image of the woman's body came before him. It brought no stirrings of lust. The firm, smooth, tall body was like a symbol of young womanhood. Her pregnancy was but a sudden working of his imagination, but he did not doubt it to be a fact.

"Do you like me?"

"Yes, I like you. That's the question all woman ask."

"But…" She did not go on to finish the sentence.

"Aren't you going to ask what it is like about you?"

"Al right. I won't say any more."

But the question made it clear to him that he did like her. He had forgotten it even now, three years later. The mother of three children, would she still have a body like that if a woman who had had none? Fondness for the woman flowed over him.

It was as if he had forgotten the girl beside him, the girl who had been put to sleep. But it was she who had made him think of the Kobe woman. The arm bent with the hand against the cheek was in his way. He grasped it by the wrist and stretched it out under the quilt. Too warm from the electric blanket, she had pushed it down to her shoulder blades. The small fresh roundness of the shoulders was so near as almost to brush against his eyes. He wanted to see whether he could take a shoulder in the palm of one hand, but held back. The flesh was not rich enough to hide the shoulder blades. He wanted to stroke them, but again held back. He gently brushed aside the hair over her right cheek. The sleeping face was soft in the gentle light from the ceiling and the crimson curtains. Nothing had been done to the eyebrows. The eyelashes were even, and so long that he could have taken them between his fingers. The lower lip thickened slightly toward the center. He could not see her teeth.

For Eguchi when he came to this house, there was nothing more beautiful than a young face in dreamless sleep. Might it be called the sweetest consolation to be found in this world? No woman, however beautiful, could conceal her age when she was at her best asleep. Or perhaps this house chose girls whose sleeping faces were particularly beautiful. He felt his life, his troubles over the years, fade away as he gazed at her small face. It wood have been a happy night had he even now taken the tablets and gone off to sleep. But he lay quietly, his eyes closed. He did not want to sleep… for the girl, having made him remember the woman in Kobe, might bring other memories too.

The thought that the young wife in Kobe, having welcomed her husband back after two years, had immediately become pregnant, and the intense feeling, as if the inevitable, that it had to be the case were not quick to leave Eguchi. It seemed to him that the affair had gone nothing to sully the child the woman had carried. The pregnancy and the birth were a reality and a blessing. Young life was at work in the woman, telling him all the more of his age. But why had she quietly given herself to him, without resistance and without restraint? It was, he thought, something that had not happened before in all his near seventy years. There had been nothing in her of the whore or the profligate. He had less sense of guilt, indeed, than he now had in this house, beside the girl so strangely put to sleep. Still in bed, he had watched with pleasure and approval as the woman quietly hurried off to the small children awaiting her. Probably the last young woman in his life, she had become unforgettable, and he did not think that she would have forgotten him. Though the affair would remain a secret throughout their lives, leaving no deep cuts, he did not think that either of them would forget.

But it was strange that this girl in training as a 'sleeping beauty' should have brought back the Kobe woman so vividly. He opened his eyes. He stroked her eye slashes gently. She frowned and turned away, and her lips parted. Her tongue shrank downwards, as if withdrawing into her lower jaw. There was a pleasing hollow down the precise center of the childlike tongue. He was tempted. He peered into the opened mouth. If he were to throttle her, would there be spasms along the small tongue? He remembered how, long before, he had known a prostitute even younger than this girl. His own tastes were rather different, but she was the one who had been allotted to him by his host. She used her long, thin tongue. It was watery, and Eguchi was not pleased. From the town came sounds of drum and flute that made one's heart beat faster. It seemed to be a festival night. The girl had almond eyes and a spirited face. She rushed ahead, despite the fact that she obviously had no interest in her customer.

"The festival." said Eguchi. "I imagine you're in a hurry to get to the festival."

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