Recently I participated in a translation contest where I had to translate two works for submission. One was a short story by Yoko Ogawa called Tear Seller/涙売り. It is a weird story. But I did it! I would’ve liked a couple more edits, but the deadline came fast.
Anyway, here it is, a Japanese short story! For those looking for the original (for Japanese practice or whatever) it can be found on the contest’s site HERE.
From Yoakeno fuchi wo samayou hitobito / Those Who Wander The Edge of Dawn
Until I was the age of 18, I made a living by selling my tears. My regulars included the likes of a music university’s violin professor, a circus band’s clarinet player, and a flamenco café’s guitarist. Everybody really loved my tears. If something came up before an important concert, or even just between practice sessions, they would immediately call upon me and I would rush over to them to sell my tears.
“Aah, I’m saved! I really can’t do anything without these,” were the kinds of things they would say.
To studios, concert halls, street corner spaces, music shops, homes, villas, homes of their lovers… in any case, my situation in life was rushing around to specified places, even in the middle of the night. 365 days a year, no days off. This was because one never knows when a musical instrument will go out of order. It is affected by the weather, of course, but the instrument will also change its tone depending on the light adjustments of the venue, the passion of the audience, and most importantly, the condition of the performer. It was in those times that I was called upon.
There was also one customer who asked for something which surpassed the original role of the tears; in other words, he thought of me as something like a protective charm. For that person (he was a great cellist), what was more important than the tears was the fact of me being there.
“I am here.”
Saying that, I would put the palm of my hand to his back. In doing so, he would be instantly freed from his anxiety, form a reposed smile, and walk out towards the spotlight.
That man, even when he would not buy tears from me, would pay me more money than any tears would bring in just for standing in the wings of the stage. Even so, his cello was so brilliant that I was unable to stop myself from being moved to tears, anyway.
However, I did not only sell to professional performers. And it wasn’t like I thought of my own tears as just a selling tool. For example, there was the time I met an elementary school student fighting hard with recorder practice in the corner of a park. Or alternatively, the time I found a reed organ thrown away in a garbage dump. I quietly drew close to them and spread my tears on the instruments. Even in circumstances where I would not receive any money, when I feel like I can be of use, I will send my tears without constraint.
I’m not exactly sure when it was I realized my tears would fulfill a role for instruments. No matter what the instrument, when my tears were rubbed in, their tones instantly improved. Even xylophones with peeled coating and rusted triangles would chime a sound as if it came from the bottom of a deep cave. By only dropping some tears onto the top of a broken organ, the clockwork inside will begin to move once more.
I do not know the cause. One time some scientists from a research facility wanted me to let them analyze the elements of my tears, but I refused. What use would such a thing have been? My tears are my own and I have no intention to be instructed on how they should be used by others. Having my tears collected while being stared at by people I’ve never seen before in an experiment room with suspicious instruments and inspection equipment lined up – just thinking about it makes me shiver.
In the beginning, my tears were all only sold to an elderly musical instrument shopkeeper. But then rumours spread bit by bit, and customers started showing up who wished for me to continuously supply them with tears directly, so it became my style to deal with them personally without going through the music shop. It seemed the old man was doing some quite shady business behind my back. As I told him that our transactions were over, he became infuriated, and started to harass me. Putting rotten chicken entrails in my mailbox, hanging half-dead crows to my doorknob, hitting sea cucumbers against my window, those sorts of things. He was probably intending on making me cry then snatching up the tears. Soon, my home was filled with a bad stench and there were complaints from the neighbourhood association, as well, so it became difficult to continue living there.
I took a chance and decided to go out on a wandering journey. There was just no other way for me to escape the music shopkeeper, who would locate me no matter where I moved into and curse at me, “I’ll hit you with all sorts of smells!” All that was necessary for me was my tear glands and tear sac, so I am able to move all by myself. It’s not anything difficult. Doing this, I became a wandering tear seller.
I heard there was a violin regarded as an exquisite instrument that had human blood mixed into its coating. Just as I had thought, it may be that no matter what era it is, there exist people who can unconsciously communicate with instruments. It’s the same as those people who, without any effort, are born with the ability to read the hearts of animals or hear the voices of the trees. It’s just that while with blood, where you paint it on once and it will soak deep into the grain without evaporating with the passage of time, tears are different. Unfortunately, the time tears stay in the instrument is not so long. Along with the tone of the instrument, they are easily sucked away by air pockets.
That’s why as long as instruments are demanded, I will continue to shed my tears for life.
I still hold dear the treasures from my time selling tears, in a candy can tied with a light peach-coloured ribbon. There’s a picture postcard from a performance trip, a cassette tape recorded just for me, a musical score chart made as a birthday present, a cut piece of chord, a concert program, a photo, a handkerchief, and more. On the postcard there’s a picture drawn on it of scenery from a faraway town of which I probably will never get the chance to visit. There is a poem confessing love on the corner of the score sheet, and my initials are sewn into the handkerchief.
However, now I no longer undo that can’s ribbon. The memory of those who sought my tears have run far away. Within the can the program has probably been eaten by bugs and the cassette tape stretched out, the once beautiful melody becoming noise painful to the ears.
Even the cellist who treated me like an important protective charm died a long time ago. Apparently he drew his last breath alone by himself in his practice room with his cello resting on his shoulder. I heard rumours that the position he was in then looked as if he was giving his beloved cello a farewell kiss. I can’t help but pray that even a mere droplet of my tears had remained in that cello.
What brought an end to that lifestyle is such a simple reason it is almost embarrassing. So simple that I am unsure of what words to express it with. Basically, I loved.
On a day right near my 19th birthday, I met a man. It was when I was returning home from sending tears to a circus musical troupe’s clarinet performer. When I was walking alone along the path that goes from the open area of a zoo where the circus tent was pitched to the railway station, I could hear peculiar music. “Peculiar” was all I could say for that type of music which I was hearing for the first time in my life. Being a bit familiar with instruments, I found myself sucked towards the source of the sound in a daze, my interest piqued wondering just what exactly sort of instruments were being used.
Soon after, I discovered a musical group of five men and women taking up a spot underneath some poplar trees. However, at first, I wasn’t convinced that it was really them playing the music. I had my doubts about them that the music was just being played from a radio and they were simply dancing along to it. This was because every single one of them were without clothes and not one was wielding a musical instrument.
They were a body music group. Without using a single instrument, they were people who use only their own bodies to play sounds. The person standing in the very middle whistled. That was responsible for the melody. The person to their right was dressed up in a thong and slapped their own bottom, the person to the left used their palms to block and open the holes of their ears, and another person plucked at their waist-long hair. That was the situation.
And then he, separate from the circle, was displaying movements much stranger than the other members. While for the other people I understood which part of their bodies were being used to create sound, no matter how hard and close I listened, that point was unknown with him. He was simply wriggling the joints within his body.
There were only a few spectators. Everyone had probably just gone to the circus. When compared to actual instruments the volume of the performers was overwhelmingly quiet and, to be honest, they were lacking in panache. Even the people who stopped by were just watching from afar with dubious expressions on their faces and there wasn’t a single person who could say the group was making any music.
It was a song from a movie, or a foreign lullaby, but it had reached its end. There was barely a dispersed applause, and it was nothing more than a sympathy applause for the lonely music group. I caught glimpses of some coins inside a cap that must’ve been taken off by one of the five members, so there was no doubt they were professionals. However, there was no signal from them to be given more coins; without a single word of explanation, they just started the next song.
It took some time until I figured out what song it was due to the interference from the sound of the wind. It was a jazz standard. It was the first time I had ever heard such humble jazz.
I was very curious as to what sound the joint dance man was creating, what part he was responsible for, so I concentrated with all my attention. The fact that my instrument specialist ears could not pick up on it was frustrating.
He was immersed within the “performance” while swinging his hair and flinging sweat. From his ankles to his knees, hips, hands, and neck, he continuously moved complexly. The shadows of the leaves of the poplar trees flickered against his naked upper body. It was as if he was writhing within the passionate embrace of the shadows.
Soon, at last, my ears were able to catch it – flowing at the bottom of the melody, his sound. Creaking his joints, he was taking on the rhythm. He was the Joint Castanet.
Then, suddenly, a man come cutting into the music group’s circle in a nasty, violent mood.
“No, no! You can’t just do as you please in a place like this. Get out of here at once!”
He appeared to part of the circus troupe. Perhaps he felt that they were interfering with his own performance. He cussed the group out with vulgar language, then on top of it all shoved the Joint Castanet’s chest. Unable to put up any resistance, the Joint Castanet fell onto his back. Instantly I ran over, helped him up, and protested to the circus member. I cannot remain silent when I see instruments handled poorly.
“Stop this violence. What trouble are they causing you? They aren’t doing a thing wrong to anything. They were just performing music. Music so quiet it’s almost too quiet, at that!”
The other music group members stood still, unable to hide that they seemed more surprised at my intrusion rather than the circus member’s violence.
“It’s alright. Thank you. Please don’t worry about us……”
The Joint Castanets’ voice was as quiet as the tone of castanets themselves. This was how he and I met.
From then on I joined the body music group and ended up moving around together with them. Of course, no part of my body had use as an instrument, so I did not stand on the performance stage. I was behind the scenes. I tuned them with my tears.
I stopped selling my tears to performers. I had no choice, I have my limits; not even I could shed tears limitlessly. All my tears were devoted to the body music group (or if speaking directly from the heart, to the Joint Castanet), leaving no surplus to sell to clients. The tears that were at one time planned to be taken using such means as rotten entrails were now only shed for the Joint Castanet.
Seeking public spaces to perform, the group travels all over, so there is no change to my lifestyle. It is just the story of a wandering tear seller who became exclusive to a body music group.
“Tears really are warm, aren’t they? I never knew.” said the Joint Castanet.
“Yep. Freshly shed tears are warmer than body temperature.”
“Yeah, they really are warm.” he closed his eyes dreamily.
I hunched over him as he lay, dropping tears onto every joint of his body and rubbing them in diligently. If I blinked, large amounts of tears would come overflowing. They were tears of joy to be able to touch him as much as my heart desired.
“The tears I’ve sold up until now would all become cold. You’re the only one I can give fresh tears to. You understand what that means, don’t you?”
There was no response. Drowning in the sensation of the tears, he was unable to hear my voice.
For the amount of physical work he does, his body is surprisingly delicate. Any unnecessary muscles might just get in the way of sounding off his joints to the outside. The moment I put my hand to his skin a sense of touching raw is transmitted to me. There is a rawness as if I am directly grasping his bones without any skin or muscle.
His joints also possess a great wealth of expressions. His movements are so complicated, so flexible, that it gives the illusion that each joint has its own independent will. When he performs before my eyes, I feel like I can see how the unevenness of his fine bones come together to produce a series of movements. He can make every different sound with every joint within his body. A sound akin to a tremor from his femur joints, a sound like the sigh of a small bird from the first joint of his little finger, that sort of thing. Without rest, he combines the sounds at will.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” I’ve asked him after some worry.
“I’m fine,” the Joint Castanet replied casually. “It’s not like I’m grinding my joints together any more than other people. I just take that creaking and turn it into lymph vibrations.”
I tried to visualize the vibration of his lymph inside his body. It was more graceful and sultry than the sound of any instrument I have encountered in the past.
Could there be an instrument more reserved than the Joint Castanet? Compared to violins and pianos and such, where there is a focus on technique and spreading splendid sounds by pulling chords, playing on keys, and doing this and that, the Joint Castanet just creates ripples in his small collection of lymph – no bigger than an accumulation of tears. My tears are the perfect fit for this treasured instrument.
His joints absorbs tears like it was sand. I know that the tears pass through small crevices, smoothing his bones and increasing the transparency of the lymph. Sometimes I forget my place and it becomes painstaking trying to suppress my deep desire to kiss him on his joints. The tears are spoiled if they are touched by things such as flakes of skin, saliva, or bread crumbs that have contacted the lips. That’s why I do my best to control myself.
When the tuning has finished, without a word he sounds his joints just for me. Even better, it is my most beloved joint: the ankle of his left foot. I hold his foot and put my ear to his ankle. As I did so, a sound like a single teardrop, dripping into a fountain deep within a cave, reached my eardrum. That is my reward for being so demurely patient.
Performance spots for the body music group are limited and it is rare to perform in a proper hall. At best it’s on the roof of a department store or in a public hall; most of the time it’s an open-sky performance such as the time I first met them.
We get ready under the shade of the trees of a park or open space. They undress, do their stretches, confirm the song order, and then begin tuning themselves. I’ve already finished tuning the Joint Castanet, so next are the remaining four members: the Whistler, Ear Whistler, Hair Harp, and Bum Drum. They cooperate amongst themselves and apply each other’s tears that have already become cold from a bottle.
I don’t take part in anything except providing the glass bottle. I just watch over them carefully from a bench a small distance away. I make the excuse that it is because I lack experience with body music, but in truth I don’t want to even touch anyone besides the Joint Castanet. However, the kind-hearted Joint Castanet helps everyone. He pushes open the ear canal of the Ear Whistler, holds a mirror for the Bum Drum, and straightens the loose hair at the neck of the Hair Harp with a comb.
But the thing I cannot forgive more than anything is how he applies tears to the lips of the Whistler using his pointer finger. Why must he be so kind to that whistling woman? Since it is her lips, she can reach them with her own hands just fine. She is probably feeling full of herself just because she leads the melody and slightly stands out. What’s worse, those are my tears being smeared onto her. When I think about how in both the lymph of the Joint Castanet and the whistling woman’s lip wrinkles are the same tears – mine – I start to panic and it becomes difficult to breath.
I separate myself from them and hide in the shade of some bushes. So I can cry. When I am crying is when I am the calmest.
I pull out the special glass bottle. It’s a specially customized cylindrical glass bottle made into a “U” shape that I requested from a glass maker I know. On each mouth of the bottle there are rubber plugs made as lids and the width between them is made to just match the space between both of my eyes. So by just lining up the glass bottle underneath both my eyes, I can collect tears without having to touch them.
However, as someone who only demands especially high quality tears, I’m not satisfied with collecting standing up. I cannot handle having impurities mixing with the tears that touch my lower eyelashes or the lower edges of my eyes. That is where I go on all fours. I get on all fours and catch the vertically falling tears in the glass bottle.
I can hear the sounds of the body music group from the other side. I pictured how the Joint Castanet and the Whistler looked combining their strength, harmonising and fusing the sounds emitting from their bodies, and I cried. Drop by drop, the tears collected in the bottom of the glass bottle. No doubt I was mistaken for being sick and vomiting. A total stranger called out to me, “are you alright?”
I said while crying, “Yes, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. Instead, please listen to the body music performance over there.”
I am not conceited, but ever since I joined the body music group, their music level has risen remarkably. There has been an increase of thickness in their sound, sharpness has appeared in their rhythm, and passion has become abundant. The expressions on the faces of the group members has naturally perked up, their moods have brightened, and the number of spectators – and coins – has grown. That whistling woman has been whistling and swinging around her neck, brimming with confidence as if the changes are all her achievement. The Bum Drum has been bathing in the light and shining, the Hair Harp has been playing a vibrato so enchanting honey bees come to her, and the Ear Whistler’s ear lobes have been dyed a rose colour. However, I know quite well; the reason the group’s music has become so magnificent is because of the Joint Castanet. Because of the tears that are carefully rubbed into the Joint Castanet.
However, I am still not satisfied. Even if they are the same tears, the quality changes on what type of tears they are. Tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears from being moved, tears of frustration… there are truly many types of tears. When I first started selling tears I collected all of them all together in the glass bottle no matter what kind they were, but gradually I realized they had a different hue, temperature, and feel depending on the situation they were shed in. Naturally, differences in the benefits they give instruments will show, as well.
The crudest type are the tears shed from cutting an onion. As an immature tear seller, the tears would be needed quickly and so I often employed this method. Even if it was my job to shed tears, it was not like I had some prepared at any moment’s notice when sudden orders were taken, like 15cc of tears at the performance hall by the afternoon of that day. Therefore, I always had onions hanging off my hips.
However, I must say that onion tears are the worst product line to send as a professional. They are not sprung out from the deepest parts of the body, from the core of one’s heart; they merely just overflow from the surface of the eye like a conditioned reflex. On top of that they are mixed with the onion’s juices.
So, what could the highest quality tears be? They are the tears born from pain. A pain that no medicine will serve, that makes you writhe in agony, which penetrates the body. A pain that, if you could, you would never want to remember again. There is nothing more pure than the tears that flow at that time. In tears of sadness or frustration, the cloudiness of the heart will be revealed without fail. But the source of tears of pain is the body and flesh itself. They are tears shed at the sacrifice of putting one’s own body in danger. There are no calculations, no jealousy, and no sweetness. The bigger sacrifice you pay, the happier the instrument is.
Unfortunately, I have shed tears of pain only a few times, and even then it was at the level of toothaches or migraines. In spite of this, there was one time where those tears were shed and something spectacular happened. Indeed, the greatest solo concert of that great cellist’s life, which earned him a medal from a queen in attendance, was when tears of pain were used during tuning.
I wish to collect tears of pain for the Joint Castanet. The whistling woman and the other members probably won’t mind using the usual tears. They are satisfied with them. Satisfied enough that it would even be fine if I used onion tears.
But the Joint Castanet is special. Because the sound he plays is so reserved, if I don’t lend a hand, who else will realize the existence of the spring of pure lymph deep within his body? The whistling women is no more than a woman who pucks her lips in ecstasy just from getting crude tears spread on her lips by the Joint Castanet.
I made the resolution to pay any sacrifice necessary in order to shed the top-class tears of pain. For me, who has wandered carrying nothing but my tear sacs and tear glands, it is a resolution to pay every sacrifice I can afford to.
For starters, I cut off my left pinky toe. Even without my left pinky toe, I can still quite easily rub tears into the Joint Castanet. To the side of the Joint Castanet as he lay in waiting for his tuning, I raised up a kitchen knife, took aim, and brought it down. I covered my mouth with both hands as to not let him hear my moan of pain. From stifling my voice, fortunately, a wealth of tears seemed to appear. While paying attention not to dirty him with blood, I dropped my tears on top of his joints.
Next was my right pinky toe, then next after that was the left foot’s fourth toe, and so I continued to steadily sever. Just as I had thought, tears of pain have an almost endearing splendor. A pain where your hair stands on end, you cannot breathe, and then you imagine the smile of your beloved despite feeling like vomiting yourself. The ankle sound he lets me hear as a reward at the end of tuning sessions makes him ever dearer to me. Restraining the urge to kiss him is difficult day after day.
After I lost all my toes, I chose my lips. If I do not have my lips, the desire to kiss will stop welling up. I will no longer be jealous of the whistling woman, either.
My calves, earlobes, nipples, tongue; there is an abundance of things I can sacrifice. Thinking of it that way, I was happy. My ovaries, vocal cords, cheeks, urethra. I lost all sorts of things. Tears of joy nearly started overflowing by accident, but I fought them back with all I had. I continued shedding tears of pain just for the Joint Castanet.
I wonder if at some point I will lose everything and be left with nothing but my tear glands and tear sacs. As long as I just have those, nothing else is necessary. After all, I am a wandering tear seller.