Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Mandarin Oranges

Lavender Country wishes its readers a happy lunar new year! In celebration of this traditional holiday, Lavender Country brings you a beloved classic short story from acclaimed Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. Sit back and enjoy~ 

    It was a cloudy winter evening. I was sitting in a corner of the second-class cabin of the Yokosuka –Tokyo train, vacantly waiting for the siren signaling the train’s departure. In the lighted carriage, there was no commuter other than me, which was a rare occurrence. Out on the dim platform, there was not even a sight of people sending off commuters today—another rare thing—but only a caged puppy howling away melancholically from time to time. All this scenery intriguingly bore a close resemblance to my mood at that time. The indescribable lethargy in my mind was much akin to a gloomy snow-clouded sky casting a relentless shadow on the ground. I kept my hands in the pockets of my coat, not even having the energy to flip through the evening paper inside them.

    But the siren soon rang. Feeling slightly brighter, I leaned my head on the window frame behind, subconsciously waiting for the station before my eyes to inch back. Yet, before that happened, clamoring sounds of wooden sandals emerged from the fare gates, and with the cursing voice from the conductor, the door of the cabin opened up. A girl aged 13 to 14 came in a flustered state and at the same time, the steam train gave a shake and slowly began to move. The pillars of the platform, each of which was an eyesore, water carriages which looked like they had been forgotten, and then a red hat, which was a celebratory gift to no one inside the train in particular, in fact everything, fell away behind with lingering attachment amidst the smoke of coal blowing against the windows. Becoming relieved, I lighted a cigarette, started to lift up my listless eyelids and took a short look at the face of the girl, who had settled down on a seat in front.

    With dull hair pinned up in a bundle, chapped marks crisscrossing her cheeks, which were tinged to an unsightly red, that was a girl who looked everything like a country bumpkin. What was more, on her knees, where a dirt-smeared and yellowish green woolen muffler drooped down to, was a large bundle. And inside the frostbitten hands around the bundle, she clasped firmly and preciously on to a red third-class cabin ticket. I did not like the uncouth look of this girl. And neither was I happy with her filthy clothes. Finally, her dumb mind, which could not even tell the difference between second- and third- class, was infuriating. Hence, partly to put her existence out of my mind, I now blankly laid out the evening paper in my pockets on my lap and cast a look at it. Just then, the outside light casting on the papers turned suddenly into the electric lights of the cabin, the originally blur print unexpectedly emerging vividly before my eyes. Needless to say, the steam train had now entered the first of many tunnels on the Yokosuka route.

    Yet, even when I glanced across the pages lit by the electric lights of the cabin, as a consolation to my blues, all the world carried was a surfeit of mundane matters. Peace negotiations, marriages, corruption, obituaries—as I felt as if the train was heading in the wrong direction the moment it entered the tunnel, I scanned across these dreary articles in a mechanical fashion. But of course even during that while, I could not help staying conscious of the fact that that girl, with a countenance that seemed to depict a despicable and lowly reality to all, was sitting before me. This steam train in a tunnel, and this country bumpkin of a girl, and again this newspaper swamped with mundane news—what were these if not symbols? What were these if not symbols of an inexplicable, lowly and dull life? Everything turned worthless to me and I chucked the unfinished newspapers aside, leaned my head against the window frame once more and closed my eyes like death had befallen on me, starting to doze off.

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    A few minutes later, I suddenly felt a startling sensation and instinctively looked around. Unknown to me, that girl had moved to me side and was repeatedly attempting to open the window. Nevertheless, the heavy glass refused to bulge. That chapped face grew redder and redder; her panting sounds blended with intermittent sniffles entered my ears incessantly. Of course, this was certainly insufficient to arouse any sympathy from me either. Yet, it was clear that the steam train was now approaching the exit of the tunnel, with hillsides carpeted with dry grass in the dusk coming into view. Despite that, this girl was trying to lower the glass panel that trouble had been made to close away—the reason of which I could not comprehend. Or rather, to me, that could only be perceived as but the fickleness of this young girl. Hence, as I kept my hostile feelings welling up inside me, I glared coldly at the way her frostbitten hands fought a bitter battle with the window glass, as if praying that it would forever remain a futile endeavor. Before long, with a reverberating colossal sound, the window panel fell promptly down, just as the view of the tunnel collapsed behind the train. With that, coal-dissolved black air abruptly changed into choking fumes and flooded into the inside of the cabin from the square opening. Now, I already had been suffering from a throat ailment before this ruckus. This smoke attacked my face without even giving me time to cover up with a handkerchief, such that I ended up coughing away so much that taking a breath was almost an impossible feat. Yet the girl failed to notice my predicament. Sticking her head out of the window, she looked intently towards the direction the train was moving in, as the wind blowing into the dusk rustled her sidelocks. While I stared at her figure standing in the coal smoke and electric lights, the outside had gotten visibly brighter. Had the fragrance of the soil, the grass and the water not streamed in soothingly, and my cough finally coming to a halt, I would no doubt have ordered the window shut even if I were to lash at this young girl I had not known prior.

    However, at this time, the steam train had already slipped steadily past the tunnel and was passing through a rail crossing on the outskirts of an impoverished town sited among the grass hills. Near the crossing were all shabby straw roofs and tiled roofs squalidly cramped together. A solitary whitish flag moved languidly in the dusk light. Just as I thought about how we had left the tunnel at last, I saw that beyond the forlorn fence of the crossing were three red-faced boys huddled close together. As if weighted on by the overcast sky, all three were of diminutive stature. Not only that, they wore clothes of dull colors similar to the bleak town outskirts scenery. When they saw the train passing overhead, they raised their hands in unison and in their tender voices, belted out unintelligible shouts with all their might. Then it was that moment. The girl, whose body was half out of the window, suddenly stretched out her frostbitten arms and with a forceful wave across, about five or six mandarin oranges of the delightful shade of the warm sun rained down on the children. I unconsciously held my breath. At that point, everything was clear. The girl, who was probably on her way to work as a young maid, had thrown the mandarin oranges kept carefully in her pockets from the window to thank her brothers, who had taken the trouble to see her off at the crossing.

    The rail crossing by the town in the dusk light, the three kids shouting like young birds, and the vivid colors of the mandarin oranges scattered onto them—all went past the windows in the blink of an eye. In my heart however, that scene had been heart-wrenchingly seared on. After which, I felt a kind of strange cheeriness gushing up within me. Raising my head in high spirits, I looked closely at that girl like she were a different person. The girl had since returned to her seat in front of me, her unchanged chapped cheeks covered in her yellowish green woolen muffler, hugging her large bundle and clasping on firmly to a third-class ticket… …

    At this moment in time, the indescribable lethargy and the inexplicable, lowly, dull life started to become a little forgettable .

Original translation by Lavender Country. Reproduction without permission is strictly forbidden.

Image adapted from Desktop Nexus

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