The Bees that Disappeared
For a time after the Cold War ended and Japan’s bubble economy collapsed, I used to rent a house in a small middle-of-nowhere village on the Sea of Japan in southwest Honshu. After all the amalgamations and shake-ups of local government in recent years, the place doesn’t even have the same name any more, and most people I mention it to have never heard of it. But every now and then I’ll meet someone who knows the area, and they’re always amazed to hear that I’ve spent time in such an out-of-the-way place. They’ll give me a look that says, Why?
I don’t want to go into too much detail about it, but at the time I needed to get away from the big city for the sake of my health. Someone I knew from that part of the country told me about a house he thought would be ideal for an artistic type like me looking to kick back and recuperate in the countryside. Get back to nature and give your mind a rest, was how he put it. At first I went for quick getaways once a month or so. But my visits grew longer and more frequent, and soon I was staying for three months at a stretch.
It was a real rural idyll: mountains, rivers, paddies and not much else beyond fresh air and fluffy clouds in the sky. Most of the houses were concentrated along an old road that dated back hundreds of years. In spring, the blossoms were a sight to behold. I used to like the gyoiko cherry, with its soft green-and-pink petals, best of all.
It was during this period that I got to know K, one of the local mailmen. He was a quiet, serious young man with a pale, unusually clear complexion. How can I describe the texture of his skin, except to say that it reminded me of the membrane you find between the shell and the white of a hard-boiled egg? He was always clean-shaven, and the skin on his cheeks seemed almost transparent.
I can’t recall his features well enough to give an accurate description of his face, but I remember his pale skin vividly. Even then, it was his best-known feature. ‘You know, the kid with the good skin,’ people used to say if he ever came up in conversation. Postal workers spend their days outside and normally have a deep tan all year round. But for some reason K seemed immune to the sun. Even at the height of summer he would get nothing more than the slightest touch of red on his cheeks – and that was always gone the next day.
From the outset, I had no intention of having much to do with the villagers socially. But in the course of stopping by the post office to pick up letters and packages, I became friendly with the postmaster, a well-built fellow with a jovial, roly-poly face. It was through him that I learned that the villagers regarded me as something of an oddball. He undertook to act as a kind of intermediary, helping me to maintain the necessary minimum of contact with my neighbours. Over the course of my stays, I got to know the rest of his staff, including K, and occasionally they would ask me along to their gatherings.
K had one of the most inexpressive faces I’ve ever seen. But he didn’t inspire any animosity in me. Animals don’t show any emotion either. The squirrels and sparrows never smiled when they saw me coming – and I didn’t get angry with them. For me, K existed on a similar plane. He was a presence like the squirrels and sparrows, and like them, there was something soothing about the quiet way he went about his business. It felt almost therapeutic just watching him.
I often used to look out of the window when I heard his moped approaching. It was like the sound of an animal’s footsteps, the buzz of an insect’s wings.
One summer’s day, I saw him standing with a cicada clinging to his back, which was rod straight. For seven long years the cicada had lived underground, feeding on the earth beneath the village. How well it had chosen its perch for this first brief flight, I thought. There wasn’t much difference between K’s back and the trunk of a tree.
The postmaster filled me in on K’s background.
He was the second son of a local family that ran an apiary. When both parents died not long after K joined the post office, the elder son took over the family business. Everything went well for the first four years – until one day the bees from all two hundred-plus hives suddenly abandoned their larvae and disappeared. The two brothers were out of business. The technical term for it, I’m told, is ‘colony collapse disorder’. But perhaps the term didn’t exist back then. Certainly K’s brother hadn’t heard of it: he was convinced that pesticides were to blame and launched a lawsuit for damages against the farmer next door.
A court case was a rarity in such a peaceful village. The plaintiff and defendant were openly contemptuous of one another and frequently got into slanging matches outside court. In the end, it proved impossible to prove any link between the use of pesticides and the disappearance of the bees, and K’s brother lost his case.
He didn’t bother to appeal. He moved away from the village and K took over the house alone.
When I met him, he was in his late twenties. He was single and seemed likely to stay that way; there was certainly no hint of romance in his life.
The court case had unsettled the community, and the village felt sorry for K. To rectify matters, the farmer who’d won the case started to treat him with special courtesy. I guess he was trying to put his public image and his conscience back on the level. This magnanimity won him universal respect and admiration. I got to know the farmer later myself, and for the first time in my life I understood the humility of the falsely accused.
It was about two years after the verdict – not long after my first visits to the village – that people began to notice K’s unusual talent.
The first to realize it was a boy in the fifth grade. A classmate had moved away and the boy, as class captain, was put in charge of compiling a little album with a photograph signed by the whole class to send to their former classmate in Osaka. Not long after it was mailed, the package was returned as undeliverable. Since it was too big to fit in the mailbox, K knocked on the door and handed it to the boy in person.
The boy looked so crestfallen that K took pity on him and looked up the address right then and there. One of the numbers in the address was wrong. K wrote out a fresh address slip himself, slapped it onto the package and took it away for redelivery.
When the boy looked at the customer copy of the new address slip, he was astonished to see that K’s writing was exactly the same as his own. What did it mean? The boy assumed it must be part of K’s special service: he was doing him a favour by making it look as though the boy had written the address himself without needing to ask a grown-up for help. When he mentioned it at dinner that night, his parents squinted at the slip suspiciously.
‘Are you telling me the mailman deliberately copied your handwriting?’
‘He lined the labels up and then scribbled it down really fast.’
‘You’re sure this isn’t your writing?’
‘I told you! The mailman wrote it!’
The next to notice was an old lady who used to give calligraphy classes near the elementary school.
She was in her eighties by then and had realized with horror that her command of the brush was deserting her. K stopped by her house one day to collect a large box she wanted to send to her grandchildren. Once again, he filled in the blanks on the form with characters that were indistinguishable from the old woman’s now somewhat shaky hand.
But unlike the young boy, she didn’t take kindly to this at all. In fact, she was quite hurt. She didn’t say anything right away, but after K left she brooded on what had happened until she couldn’t bear it any more. Clutching her copy of the form, she walked to the post office to complain.
At first, no one could make much sense of what she was trying to say. Not surprisingly. It was a simple enough sequence of events, but not one that was easy to explain. She ended up tying herself up in knots. Coming on top of the insult she had received, the frustration of not being able to make herself understood reduced her to tears. Eventually the message got through. The label on which K had described the contents of the package as ‘cake, clothes, soft toys’ was passed from hand to hand until everyone in the post office had had a chance to scrutinize it. No doubt about it – the handwriting was the same. It was impossible to tell K’s writing apart from the name and address that the old lady had written herself.
‘I’m really very sorry. I’m sure it was just a slip of the pen. He was writing standing up. I’m sure no offense was intended. But he should be more careful. I will have a word and make sure it doesn’t happen again.’
Whether the postmaster’s apology was accepted was hard to say. The old lady rambled on for a bit about how lonely her life was, and then went home.
The postmaster’s story left me puzzled. ‘What’s it all about?’ I asked.
He took out a sheet of paper with seven or eight lines of handwriting on it.
‘Look at this. The first few lines are written by me. Then I asked K to take over. Can you tell where?’
I studied the handwriting carefully, but I couldn’t see where there was any difference at all. When K got back to the post office, the postmaster spoke to him about the old lady’s complaint. K vehemently denied having insulted a customer; in fact, he seemed genuinely shocked by the idea. The postmaster peered at the copy the old lady had left behind. ‘It started to get to me,’ he said. ‘I decided I was going to get to the bottom of it once and for all.’ So he picked up a life insurance pamphlet that happened to be lying around and copied the first few lines onto a sheet of paper. Then he handed the sheet of paper to K and asked him to copy out the rest of the paragraph ‘approximating my handwriting.’ After just a moment’s hesitation, K did as he was told. Swiftly and smoothly, he copied the next few sentences on to the sheet of paper, his hand never pausing.
‘This is where it changes. Everything from here on is K,’ the postmaster said, pointing to a spot in the middle of the third line. That was when I experienced the astonishing extent of K’s gift. I strained to figure out the single character that marked the switch. I couldn’t tell at all.
K could replicate anyone’s handwriting perfectly; all he needed was a few lines as a sample. Everyone knows people who are good mimics of voices and accents, but this was something else.
I’m a sceptic by nature and I found the whole business a bit hard to swallow. So one day not long before Christmas I decided to test K myself. I scribbled the first few lines of ‘Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ on a piece of paper and asked K to finish the song. Apart from the seasonal relevance, the sheer length of the lyric made it the perfect material for my purposes. A few days later, I got the results. K brought the paper round in person. He had written out the whole song. And if I hadn’t known better, I would have been convinced I had written it myself. The copy was so perfect it was creepy.
I apologized for having doubted him, but he didn’t seem to mind. A hint of a smile wrinkled his perfect white cheeks. I decided to hold on to the sheet of paper. When I looked at it again some months later, I realized with a jolt that I could no longer tell where my writing left off and K’s began.
Perception is a strange thing. Things can go undetected for years, but as soon as one person notices, everyone else suddenly starts to make the same discovery. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. People scratch their heads, asking themselves why they never noticed something so obvious before. They think back carefully on the past and after a while they begin to realize that, in a funny kind of way, they were somehow aware of it all along.
I suspect this was as true of K as of anyone else. I don’t think he’d ever really understood how unusual his talent was. I have my reasons for thinking this – but I’ll get to that a bit later.
I once asked someone who’d known K since they were both kids whether K had always had this gift. ‘First I heard of it,’ he said. When I asked him what K’s real handwriting had looked like back then, he just laughed. ‘How the hell should I know? Do you remember what your elementary school classmates’ handwriting looked like? Kids’ handwriting sucks! And besides, it changes completely by the time you grow up.’
Fair enough. As it happens, I do recall several notes that my friends wrote in school yearbooks and things like that. But probably he was right: for all I know their handwriting now bears no resemblance to what I remember.
No one had seen K’s own handwriting. In fact, it was doubtful whether such a thing existed. It seemed likely that he wasn’t deliberately imitating people’s writing at all. It just happened. Whenever he came to write something, the characters would come out looking exactly like whatever handwriting he had seen most recently. He simply couldn’t help himself.
It was as though his own handwriting had been overwritten, and was now unrecoverable. Strange as it may sound, when I looked at K’s writing I got the funny feeling that it was the rest of us who had the truly remarkable skill. I mean, why is it that I am able to write characters today that look just like the ones I wrote yesterday, without any example to copy?
For a while, K’s freakish talent stirred up a certain amount of amazement and surprise in the village, but it didn’t last long. After all, his gift wasn’t actually much use for anything. ‘It’s an impressive party trick, I suppose,’ the postmaster said with a laugh. ‘You could knock ‘em dead with that in the bars. But K never even goes out drinking!’ If we’d had the Internet back then, no doubt someone with too much time on his hands would have spread the story online. But as it was, the only ones who even knew of K’s existence were the people in the village.
K hadn’t changed at all. He was the same reserved young man with the blemish-free complexion, whose unruffled presence had an effect on me as soothing as nature itself.
Four years passed. Now in his thirties, K was still single, and there were no rumours linking him with anyone. Although he was still relatively young, his loneliness and isolation were already marking him out as different.
It happened one day in early May, between the Golden Week holidays. Just after lunch, a middle-aged man came storming into the post office, his face flushed with anger. He had moved away from the village, and was now living in Tokyo. Most of what I’ve written so far I heard indirectly from the postmaster. But on this occasion I happened to be in the post office to drop off a parcel, and I witnessed everything firsthand.
The man was calling for K by his surname. ‘Get him out here! Get him out here now!’ With the worst possible timing, K picked this exact moment to come back from his rounds.
‘You! You’re responsible for this! You wrote this!’ the man said.
We all looked at the piece of paper the man was waving in the air. It was a copy of someone’s will.
K stood rooted, his eyes quailing. The postmaster stepped forward with a smile and asked what was wrong.
The man‘s father had been bedridden for several years. The burden of looking after him had fallen on the younger brother and his wife, who still lived in the village. Their mother was dead. The elder son had left to attend university in Tokyo and stayed on after graduation. ‘But that’s what our father always wanted!’ he said. He came home on frequent visits, and things had always been on good terms with his father. ‘And now he’s dead, my brother and his wife suddenly turn up with this, claiming it’s the will. Well, it’s the first I ever heard of it.’ According to the terms of the will, the bulk of the old man’s property, including considerable land, would go to the younger brother. There was never any talk of this before, the man said. ‘It’s outrageous! Preposterous! I don’t believe it!’
It was true, he admitted, that the handwriting resembled his father’s. But you couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes. K must have written it. K was always coming and going with the mail, and he knew his younger brother and his wife well. They must have paid him to forge the will. There was no other explanation.
The man’s bloodshot eyes were practically popping out of his skull. I felt sure what he was saying was just slander. There was no way K would get involved in a scheme like that. I was quite convinced, even though in fact I didn’t really know K that well.
It was at this juncture that the situation suddenly took an unexpected turn.
K denied forging the will. But, he said, the brother and his wife had asked him several times to write things on the old man’s behalf. I was stunned. We all were. If that’s true, I thought, you don’t have to say it here and now, for heaven’s sake. K’s words dispelled any shadow of doubt from the brother’s mind. For a second, he looked stunned. Then he began to caw exultantly: ‘So you admit it! You did it. And all of you, you’re witnesses – you heard him say it! He admits it! He admits it!’
And so K became caught up in the tussle over the brothers’ inheritance. It drained him, mentally and physically. His testimony stayed the same. The father wanted to write a letter to a friend, and asked K to take dictation. He didn’t want the friend to worry, and thought if the handwriting was the same as usual it might help to set his friend’s mind at ease. He was only trying to help, K said. But the idea that he had forged the man’s will was absurd.
Handwriting analysts were called in to give their expert opinion. Without exception, they said that the writing in the will matched that of the deceased in every particular. This didn’t do much to help, however, since they also mistakenly identified several other samples of K’s ‘copies’ as originals. The fog of confusion that hung over the courtroom only thickened.
Eventually, the court decided that the will was genuine. But the elder brother was not alone in refusing to accept the verdict, and a number of people in the village continued to suspect that K was guilty. From that day on, K became a focus for rumour and gossip of every kind. Even that spotless complexion of his began to suffer.
Until then, I hadn’t been on especially friendly terms with K. I don’t think anyone was, to be honest. Several times I suggested grabbing a bite to eat together, but he always turned me down. The postmaster and quite a few people in the village were genuinely worried about him and wanted to help. It wasn’t that people disliked him, exactly. But he was aloof, and wouldn’t allow anyone to get close.
In spite of this, I started to visit him at home during the trial in an attempt to cheer him up a bit. Wednesdays and Sundays were his regular days off, but on Wednesdays he always seemed to be out somewhere in his car, so if I went over to see him it was generally on a Sunday.
Not that he ever invited me inside. He never offered me so much as a cup of tea. Instead we would stand by the front door or sit on the veranda and chat. Actually, I did most of the talking. K would just nod and occasionally contribute a mumble to show he was listening.
Even so, I never got the impression that my presence was unwelcome. It was probably because I was an outsider that he opened the door to me at all, rather than pretending to be out the way he did with everyone else. When I left, he stood in the garden and watched until I disappeared from sight. But if I ever turned back and waved, he never responded.
For some reason I couldn’t really explain, I liked him. I knew he was an oddball, but that made it easier to forgive his foibles. I didn’t find his eccentricities annoying anymore; if anything, I found them endearing.
The first hint of what was really going on arrived last New Year’s, though I didn’t recognize the signs until much later.
The house was bitterly cold, and this was the first time I had ever stayed there over the New Year holidays. I wrote a stack of forty or so New Year’s greeting postcards and dropped them into the village mailbox. A few days later, one of them came back with the notice UNKNOWN AT THIS ADDRESS. The card was to a friend from high school. We had never been especially close, but for some reason we had continued to send each other New Year’s cards.
As I sat warming myself by the heater I looked the card over. Something about it was strange. I read the message I’d scrawled next to the printed holiday greetings: ‘How are you doing? I hope you’re well. As the years go by, I seem to get than ever about staying in. Must be my age! If you’re ever passing this way, drop me a line. It’d be good to chat about the old.’
Huh? Had I been drunk when I wrote this? ‘I seem to get than ever about staying in.’ Not good, not good at all.
What I remembered writing – or what I meant to write – was this:
‘How are you doing? I hope you’re well. As the years go by, I seem to get worse than ever about staying in touch. Must be my age! If you’re ever passing this way, drop me a line. It’d be good to chat about the old days.’
I wrote bland messages like this to all the people I hardly saw. I might as well have had them pre-printed and saved myself the effort. But in this short pro forma greeting, three words were missing: worse, touch, days.
I was astonished by my carelessness. I gave the postcard a wry shake, half expecting a few more words to tumble out. But I couldn’t quite laugh it off. I had been confident that my extended stays in the peace and quiet of the countryside had improved my physical condition beyond recognition. But now it occurred to me that I might have been wrong. Perhaps this was some new symptom of my illness manifesting itself – a sign that my condition was not improving, but getting worse all the time.
I was back in the village for a two-week visit in the spring. I’d been looking forward to seeing the cherry blossoms again, but they were just buds on the branches when I arrived.
One chilly, overcast day I had just had lunch and was stretching out on the tatami for a snooze when the postmaster phoned to say he wanted to ask my advice. He’d been getting complaints again. It seemed that someone in the village with nothing better to do was in the habit of writing down the lottery numbers printed on his New Year’s postcards before putting them into the mail. This year, for the first time, one of these numbers had been drawn for a ‘first-class’ prize – but no one had been in touch to share the good news. The person was convinced that ‘your weirdo mailman’ had stolen the card with the winning number.
Some people will complain about anything, I thought. But the postmaster said there was more to it than that. Even though no one had complained about undelivered cards, he had decided to do a bit of detective work. He dug up an unused New Year’s card from the post office supply, a card whose number had been drawn to win a free sheet of stamps. He noted the number, then sent the card to a friend under an assumed name. Bizarrely, the card his friend received had a different lottery number. ‘What do you think it means?’
‘Well, K can copy anyone’s writing, right? So maybe he switched the cards and took the one with the winning number.’
‘But surely he wouldn’t go to all that effort just for some stamps?’
‘Well, how do you explain it then?’
I was stumped. There was nothing I could say. The postmaster said he was going to confront K face-to-face. Would I mind going with him? K seemed to be more open with me than with anyone else, he said. I agreed – but I wanted to make one thing clear: ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ I said. ‘He’s not open with me at all.’
K’s garden was ablaze with tulips. He had one of those old village houses without a gate or fence – you’re on the grounds before you realize it. I flinched as a bee flew in front of my face. Fragments of broken flowerpots littered the short path to the front door.
We rang the bell; no reply. But I knew that K was always at home on Sunday. He was probably hiding, waiting for us to go away. I tried the door. Unlocked. The postmaster and I exchanged glances. He nodded silently.
We shouted up into the house in case he hadn’t heard us, and then stepped inside.
I started to worry that something might have happened. But I was also dying to see what kind of life K had been living cooped up here all alone. I’m sure the postmaster was thinking the same thing.
It was a typical old house. The floorboards creaked with every step we took, making a noise like waves crashing on shingle. The house was practically empty; except for the fact that there was not a speck of dust anywhere, you’d have assumed no one lived there at all.
We continued down the corridor into the living room and on into the kitchen. Honey jars filled every inch of space in both rooms. Some of them were empty; others had never been opened. On the table was a plate bearing evidence of a recent meal of toast and honey. The postmaster took it all in with a look of pity.
There were three rooms upstairs: a bedroom and, separated from it by sliding screens, a storeroom. The last room was only the one in the house with a proper door.
We listened carefully. There was no sign of anyone on the other side. We plucked up our courage and turned the knob.
The postmaster pushed the door slowly. It opened with a creak. He stepped in and then stopped. ‘What the –? Oh my goodness, what is this?’
I craned my head to see around the postmaster’s broad shoulders. What I saw there left me speechless.
It was a small room. Three of the walls had been fitted with steel racks, and piled on the shelves were stacks and stacks of postcards. The postmaster staggered forward like a sleepwalker until he stood in front of one of the shelves and reached out a trembling hand for one of the bundles. He flicked through the cards and heaved a sigh of despair. ‘Oh my goodness. What on earth has he been doing?’
I stepped alongside to see for myself. All around us were stacks of undelivered postcards, addressed in all kinds of handwriting to places up and down the islands of Japan. In every case, the space for ‘sender’s name’ was filled with the names of people we knew in the village. These were not postcards that had come from outside; every one of them had been picked up locally.
The thought that K was guilty after all swept away any lingering reservations I might have felt about intruding. I stomped around the room grabbing handfuls of postcards from their neat piles. They were perfect, without a single bend or crease. He had piled them up as he collected them, so that they had sorted themselves into chronological order. There were no cancellation postmarks, but in many cases the sender had written the date by hand. The oldest stack seemed to be next to the old rosewood desk by the window. The cards there were dated four years earlier.
‘Don’t tell me this has been going on for four years!’ The postmaster sat down on the floor, which was covered with several layers of thin carpet, and held his head in his hands. My heart went out to him. It was no joke. There were going to be some tough questions asked of the man who was supposed to be in charge.
‘But why did no one notice?’ I asked. ‘You’d think someone would have said something by now.’
He raised his face to look at me.
Overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what we’d found, I’d forgotten all about why we’d come to K’s house in the first place. It came back to me now with a rush.
‘He must have copied them all by hand.’
‘All of them? You think he was actually sending the cards all the time?’ I asked.
I picked up a batch of postcards and fanned them out like a hand of cards. No one could have doubted that they had been written by different people. The handwriting was utterly different from one card to the next.
I looked over at K’s desk. The surface was covered with every conceivable kind of writing implement – from ball-points and fountain pens to brushes, glow-in-the-dark highlighters and mechanical pencils.
The postmaster and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
‘It’s the only explanation. Think of how much mail we send out every day and nothing’s ever . . . But which ones are these? What does he keep: the originals or the copies?’
I walked over to the end of the rack and rummaged through the most recent piles. The out-of-season New Year’s card wasn’t hard to find. I held it up for him to see, and the postmaster finally roused himself to come over to look.
‘This is it – this is the card I sent the other day!’ he said. ‘But . . . is this really my writing? Look, the lottery number ends in 73. That means . . . this is the original. He’s been holding onto the originals all this time.’
Did that lessen the severity of his offence? I mulled it over as I looked through the piles of cards from the previous December. They were bound together with rubber bands. I hunted until I found my own bundle, tied together with a rubber band like all the others. I recognized my handwriting right away. Among them was the card I had sent to my old friend from high school – the original of the one that had been returned as undeliverable. On the card I had actually written myself, there was not a single letter missing.
But where was K? Suddenly, I was overcome by a sense of foreboding. We made our way through the house again, calling his name, but there was no sign of him anywhere. Every time the postmaster reached out to slide back the screens, he had a look of terror on his face. What were we going to find on the other side?
We went out into the garden and walked around to the back of the house. Should we call the police? K’s car was still in the garage. When we peered into the dim gloom of the barn, there was K himself, hunkered down close to the ground.
The barn was full of empty beehives that obviously hadn’t been touched for years. There was something about the sight of them that reminded me of the fortress of postcards upstairs.
A dozen bees buzzed around him. His eyes were fixed in front of him, where a single bee sat motionless on the palm of his hand.
‘Look,’ he said in a whisper, ‘they’ve started to come back.’
He spoke without turning to face us.
‘Don’t worry; I made sure that everyone received their copy in good time. I held on to all the originals.’
‘Why? What’s the big idea?’ the postmaster asked indignantly.
Slowly, K stood up. His body shook as he rose to his feet. And then, with one swift swoop, he smashed the bee that had been perched in his palm to the ground. For perhaps the first time, I recognized normal human emotion on his face. With a shudder I realized what it was: anger – seething, pent-up, festering anger.
He looked at the two of us in turn, glaring at us with red eyes that seemed to jut from his pale, emaciated face. I braced myself, afraid that he might lunge at me. The postmaster was wincing too under the force of his stare.
But K turned to look down at the palm of his right hand, where the bee’s tiny sting stuck from his skin like a tiny needle. He pulled it out without a word and held it up in front of my eyes.
I didn’t know what to do. We both stood looking at the sting. The bee must be dead then, I thought, or dying.
K was arrested and charged with various offences under the postal law. In court they asked for a psychiatric evaluation of K’s fitness to stand trial, and in the end it was a whole year before the thing was over. The charge was ‘interfering with the mail’. They found him guilty and came down on him hard. The judge gave him two and a half years. I‘d been expecting a suspended sentence at the most and was horrified by how harshly they treated him.
The postmaster took responsibility for what had happened and resigned. Naturally the story attracted some attention in the media, but in those pre-Internet days, K’s little drama was soon forgotten.
It turned out that K had started his collection not long after he first became aware of his talent four years earlier. Since then, he had been picking out the prepaid postcards from the mail and taking them home. Day after day, he had copied them out – in characters that were indistinguishable from the handwriting of the card’s original sender. I don’t know what made him choose to concentrate on prepaid postcards of all things. No doubt he had his reasons. At busy times he was writing up to sixty postcards a day – an average of more than ten thousand cards a year. On average these postcards are apparently somewhere between 0.20 and 0.22 mm thick. If you piled up all the cards he’d copied over the course of four years, they would reach eight meters high. These were the cards we had found in his house, crammed onto the shelves that filled the room.
He never socialized and hardly slept. He spent his evenings copying and then took the copies with him to work in the morning. The originals were added to his collection. Because of K, all the postcards mailed from the village arrived a day late – but in four years not one person had complained.
A substantial chunk of his meagre wages went on postcards and stationery. He must have gone through fifty thousand yen a month on postcards alone. Every Wednesday he would drive around the nearby towns buying up all the postcards he could lay his hands on. He was quite a celebrity in the local post offices and convenience stores.
After the arrest, the cards K had been hoarding were mailed to their intended recipients, along with a note of apology.
The postmaster came over to see me, grumbling about the hassle and headache it had caused him. But at the same time, he said, he had to admit that he felt a pang of regret. ‘Every postcard written in this village for the last four years was there in one place. It seemed a shame to let them go. They’re scattered all over the country now.’
Naturally enough, the people who had written the cards were furious. For a while it was the scandal of the village, the only thing people talked about. But what about the addressees who finally received their cards, sometimes after a delay of several years? In most cases, this was their first introduction to K. After the initial surprise, people reacted in a variety of ways. Some were angry, of course, but a surprising number found the whole thing hilarious.
Unfortunately, many of them had already thrown away the copied cards they’d received from K, the postmaster told me with a sigh.
‘Is that normal?’ he asked. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m in the business myself – but personally, I could never throw away a handwritten postcard.’
Those who had held onto K’s copies were awed by the evidence of his remarkable gift. They lined up the originals alongside the copies and compared them minutely. If it hadn’t been for the postmark, it would have been impossible to tell them apart.
As time went by, another fact began to emerge.
K hadn’t simply copied the cards faithfully. That’s how he had started out. But as time went by he began to practice his own peculiar brand of censorship. According to the testimony of people who still had the cards in their possession, K’s copies were often missing letters or words. And the number of deletions grew as the years went by. It was almost certainly deliberate. Some people had noticed the missing words, but no one really paid them any mind.
For example, K omitted any mention of the word ‘bad’ and any of its variations from his texts. At first glance, this might not seem like the kind of thing that’s likely to come up much in a greeting-card context, but it occurs more than you might think: trips delayed ‘because of bad weather,’ people grateful to be recovering from ‘a bad cold,’ or grateful that this or that dreaded eventuality had turned out ‘not to be too bad after all.’ Several other words with negative connotations had also been cut: ugliness, poison, poverty, regret and so on. Up to a point, this sort of made sense.
But in his more recent work, K had taken to deleting less obviously offensive words: words like wax, knees, comb and trap.
The postcard that had been returned to me with several words missing was from K’s late period, when his censorship was at its most unforgiving.
According to the last New Year’s card I received from the postmaster, K disappeared from the village after his release, and has not been seen there since. The house was abandoned, and later sold by K’s brother, who lives far from the village.
After K’s arrest, I began to visit the village less frequently and gradually fell out of touch with the postmaster. I realized that I had made a full recovery, and I felt that staying in the village any longer was likely to do me more harm than good.
But K’s blemish-free complexion and the bee sting he held between his fingertips that day have continued to occupy a special place in my memory.
Where is he now, I wonder, and what is he doing? I felt a strange rush of excitement the other day when I received a postcard from a friend and happened to notice two characters missing. Could this be K’s handiwork? Had he somehow written this and squirrelled the original away in his hiding place wherever he was living now? The thought sent me on a hunt for the New Year’s card with the missing words. But I must have put it away in a safe place and forgotten where. I’ve looked and looked, but I can’t find it anywhere. ?
Translated from the Japanese by Paul Warham.
Photo by Alejandro De La Cruz