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Les Archives du Coeur

The bike wheels skit and bounce on the loose dirt path. The smell of hot rubber and the smell of the sea: waves, to the left, and the final site coming into view from behind its fan of magnolia, cypress, and Japanese spruce. Completely unassuming, the final building on the tour through Teshima is nothing but dark wood and a plain, low roof. Compared with the gossamer space on the hillside, the pored concrete and soft wind of the Nishizawa and Naito museum, this last building could be mistaken for an office. But the way it looks out on the bare feet of sand that parts it from the sea, gives the sense that it is almost alive. That it sees something out there, where the waves break in the light of the white spring sun.

 

We lock the rented bikes outside and enter the last building on our tour of the island, which unlike the others does not have a Japanese name, but the French title of Les Archives du Cœur. The archives of the heart.

 

Inside is almost clinical: three rooms, different functions. Behind a glass partition an elderly Japanese man in a fedora sits in a chair, wires trailing from the exposure of his open shirt to a recording device, which seems to be registering the beat of his heart. On seeing us attempt to peer in through the openings of the venetian blinds, a woman in a pale blue smock stands and twists a glass wand to the side. White slats shutter: the glass opaque, though we still hear, very faintly, the sound of the heart.

 

‘This way, please,’ a woman says to us, and leads us to a door marked Heart Room. When she opens it, there is nothing but black. And the sound, far off, of a heart, under glass, pounding its affirmation. We look at each other — unsure, excited, ready to be lost — and step into the dark.

 

*

 

The words echo into the auditorium: along velvet seats, over the heads of state dignitaries, up into the upper level where booths of smoked glass secret people just like her, caught somewhere between an earpiece and a microphone. In that space where words turn themselves inside out. Below her, Nakayoshi Hirokazu speaks to the assembled representatives of the United Nations. The representatives do not hear him; the words spill out, crash over them in waves. They wait for her to speak, even though they can’t see her, even though they will act as though the words came from the man at the lectern. They wait for her to speak for him. Six seconds. This is the delay in translation.

 

It is a peculiar sensation. It’s easier for her to move between European languages, which for her have always seemed like coins: one side on the other, the words glued together at the back — je-I, speak-sprachen. One of the other interpreters, a German speaker originally from Romania, told her that German is the same as Japanese, that a speaker must wait till the end of a sentence for the rest to make sense, just as she does now, waiting for Nakayoshi to reach where the verb hides itself. She waits to snap shut the whole flux of his sentence, built of predicative phrases, honorific verb forms, the full stop of a particle. How is she supposed to convey this man’s inappropriately masculine phrasing? His aggressive interjections closed by a final ze? She hesitates, letting the subject float free: I… she says, though the word is not her own.

 

How wonderful it would be, she thinks, to erase his I beneath hers, make him sound, in English, like a mewling schoolboy, addressing himself politely to a stern schoolmarm. Serve him right. No one should be speaking the way he is in politics. But it is the golden rule: the translator does not lie.

 

She resigns herself to this peculiar dislocation, as if opening a small part of her, like a shoulder from a socket, except it isn’t bone or cartilage, but whatever delicate tissue language is comprised of. The words flow through her, linger on her tongue even when she has cast them into the void of the microphone, down into the earpieces of the audience below. He speaks, she speaks. The audience waits. Six seconds. She feels the words, spits them out. When Nakayoshi finally steps down, she has lost all sense of time. Looking at the different clocks around the room, she cannot tell which one is now.

 

A Korean man steps up to the podium and addresses the congregation in French, thanking the esteemed representatives for attending. Here she unstitches the words and rearranges them into Japanese, this time rendering it somewhat prim, a little cold. Something to show Nakayoshi how a real politician should sound.

 

On the train home, she pushes her headphones in until her ears ache. No music. Just two hours of surf. Even then, a few snippets of words, a few fragments, still intrude in her skull. Not her voice. Masculine ze’s zip to and fro in her head. French nouns with Korean vowels sit in it like blowfish, too swollen to get back out the thin channel of her ear. She tries to focuses on the quiet pouring into her, the sway of the train. People who are not her converse in her brain.

 

When she gets home, an e-mail from her supervisor is waiting in her inbox, telling her there have been complaints about the work she did that day.

 

Some of the foreign representatives, it reads, felt that your English was over-aggressive. Nakayoshi-san has also been in touch to tell us that he felt the Japanese you used was overly polite. In fact, he felt as if you were belittling him. He has asked us to remind you of your position. 

 

She sighs. How could they forget the golden rule?

 

She hadn’t planned on going tonight; she was trying to cut back, to prove to herself that she could. But rereading the e-mail she realises just how much she needs it. Something stirs in her. She grabs her coat and goes out in the night, in search of the archive.

 

*

 

The Heart Room beats. As soon as the woman closes the door behind us, shutting out the last sliver of natural light, it starts: pounding, deep as earthquakes. Then light. Bulbs of strange contortion, the glass bare, pulses in time with a cat-purr bass. Heartbeats. Loud and from all sides, thudding through us, our eyes in the dark stunned by the flash of light that accompanies them. There is nothing else in the room. A couple of feet, six by four, around which we walk, dazed, in the sound of another living being.

 

Then it changes. Another heart begins to pulse, this time different to the first, yet common. We stay there, wandering in circles, as the hearts change places, transfer, communicate, in their own way, a message in which we find ourselves lost.

 

The lights flash: on and off, open shut. I can’t help but feel that this is what it must feel like, to be nestled in the chamber of a heart, the light controlled only by the Morse code of aorta, the opening of ventricles, and the wet thud of the rhythm that sustains it.

 

*

 

It’s getting harder to keep track of who he is meant to be, of who he is and where. Cockney to the woman at the shops, Irish to his neighbours. He bumps into a man on the street by mistake and apologises in a thick Dutch accent. At the laundromat, he is glad for the thrum of the machines, thudding heart-like, washing away any need for speech in lavender froth and seminal bleach.

 

Laundry day is his favourite day. He savours the quiet, the soapsuds drowning out all other voices. This late in the evening, there is no one else there except a woman with her head wrapped in a gold head-tie, reading a Kazuo Ishiguro paperback while a small child sleeps in her lap and another peers into the washers, marvelling at the ocean crashing against its plastic porthole.

 

‘Mum,’ he shouts.

 

‘Hush, now,’ she replies, without taking her eyes from the page peeled up in one of her hands, ready to move seamlessly to the next. ‘Don’t shout, it is rude.’

 

The clipped constants and long vowels drift into him, settle in his head with the sensation of cheese-wire pressed against gums. He doesn’t seek them out anymore, these voices. At the start he had, had ridden the bus all day listening to people speak, taking notes (rhotic, non-rhotic, diphthong-heavy, first-language interference). But now they settle in him like a house settles. It is all he can do to keep them under control, to remember where and when he speaks and as whom. When he speaks to himself in the mirror, he can no longer remember which voice is his. Is it the Northern Irish, the Doric, the Israeli, Castellano? He searches his face for a hint but the features there are so unremarkable, so sallow, he could be Spanish or North African, Scandinavian with liver failure. Is that him, the Icelandic one? He can no longer remember.

 

The child is pulling at flyers on a cork-board. Washing machine for sale. Flat for let. Women’s names and taxi numbers. Advertisements. Three months ago now since he called a number on that board offering accent training for actors. A way up the ladder. Another skill on the CV. Maybe he would finally get something more than a bit part. Finally break through. And it had helped, at first. Before he started losing himself in the roles. And now he doesn’t even have to act for it to happen: all he has to do is hear a voice and he loses his own.

 

The boy pulls a flyer off the cork-board and the green pushpins scatter on the linoleum.

 

‘Aremi,’ the mother scolds. ‘Come away.’

 

The child runs by the window; its reflection chases after it. Outside is night: the glass makes thing doubled, tripled, indistinguishable. He feels something out there in the dark, the way one feels an animal in the undergrowth. But when had he ever been in a forest? There are none in this city, and he cannot remember how he knows this, but something flashes in his mind, of a man with red hair holding a bag of blackberries and a dog running into the woods and a warning he can’t quite remember.

 

His laundry comes to a stop; he puts his hand the warm clothes, which look like so many parts of bodies — a torso of shirt, a foot of sock — that for a minute he feels entirely disarticulate. It feels good; it feels free. Seeing the woman staring at him, he gathers up his clothes, puts them in the bag and leaves as fast as he can. He wishes her a good night as he walks through the door. Her eyes widen in offence. The voice is a perfect imitation of her own.

 

*

 

After the Heart Room, the woman who led us through asks if we would like to record our own hearts to take part in the exhibit. I decline; my partner consents gladly.

 

In the room where moments prior we saw a frail gentleman let a nurse record his heart, I watch the same nurse move to apply recording instruments under my partner’s t-shirt, only for him to tear the thing off entirely, unabashedly revealing a white appendectomy scar and the skin where his tan fades in lines as soft as coasts. The nurse seems appalled by this sudden undress.

 

‘I’m going to go wander,’ I say, wanting to remove myself from the embarrassment I feel where he doesn’t.

 

‘All right,’ he says, rolling his eyes, aware of my unease.

 

Aside from the Heart Room and the Recording Room, there is the Archive: a small computer containing information on all the hearts, with a pair of headphones gently tangled to the side. Somehow, shorn from the immediacy they possessed in the Heart Room, the heartbeats sound sadder, more forlorn, in this well-appointed office space with its already out of date computer. I take the headphones off and scroll through the records while I wait for him to be done. Some of the comments simply say things like ‘Alfonzo Riviera, 47. New York’ while others say ‘heart transplanted in 1997’ or even ‘passed in 2004’. Had any of the hearts we had heard been those of dead men, dead women? Who does a heart belong to once transplanted?

 

‘I heard there’s more of these, you know,’ a voice says. It comes from beyond the window, open just enough to let a cool breeze stir the municipal air of the archive. I push it open further and crane to listen.

 

‘Really? I thought this was the only installation.’

 

‘No, no, this is the only one that’s official,’ the voice is female, but the accent is somewhere between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Some stripe of American, I assume. ‘But apparently there are pirated copies of this.’

 

‘Why would anyone do that? I mean, it’s cool, but I wouldn’t go as far as to steal it.’ The second voice is male, slightly younger than the first.

 

‘Well,’ the first voice says. I imagine it leaning closer to the ear of the second, just as I lean closer to the window to make it out. ‘It’s some shady business where people go and pay to have a kind of psychedelic experience, an out of body kind of thing, or maybe it’s sex and they get off on it. I don’t know. But I heard Audie telling Gene about a girl she works with that goes to one. She doesn’t really talk about it, but she’s seen her going at night, ducking into an alley when she was walking just a bit in front of her on the way to the bus home after work. Shame, really. The girl’s Brazilian and it’s her first time away from home and she gets caught up in all that business.’

 

‘Sex?’ the second voice asks. ‘From this? I don’t know. I guess it’s kind of…intimate but not that intimate. I found it more. I don’t know — dissociative? Like I kind of forgot who I was for a second.’

 

‘Maybe that’s what they get off on.’

 

‘Maybe.’

 

‘Hey, babe, what are you doing?’ this voice familiar, booming from the door behind me. The voices outside the window stop.

 

‘I’ll tell you on the way home,’ I say, putting the headphones on as I sit back into the seat. Daniel MacLean, 23. Passed in ‘02. His heart beats loud and insistent in my ears, for all the world as if the organ had survived him.

 

*

There are no words. This is the best bit. This feeling she has as she steps behind a sheet of clear vinyl, into a room lit only by dim bulbs in bare cages. The air holds the metallic edge of blood. Far off in the building she hears the lowing of beasts. She has never questioned why this place should be housed within the recesses of a Kosher butcher, or why she should need to come round the back, through the alley where the blood runs out, why she should knock three times on the door and wait for it to open. But she does it, without knowing why. And there are no words. None.

 

A young woman with six hoops in her ear and an afro cut into soft spikes sits at the reception, if you could even call it that. A barrier taller than her head stops her seeing all but the women’s head and shoulders. They look at each other; the woman smiles in recognition, and says nothing. She would mistake this as a sign of intimacy had it not been the same the first time she came, so many years ago, driven through a late November night in the rain to find this place, voices that didn’t belong to her howling in her ears. Sanctuary, this is what she considers this place. The word comes to her in English — there is no concept of sanctuary in Japanese. She can say it as seiiki, which recalls only the old meaning, of a holy place. If she means it politically, she has to use the word hinansho, a place where one flees danger. Between the two words the sense of a secret gets lost. But this place is, for her, somewhere secret, holy, and safe, all at once. Sanctuary, she thinks, savouring the crispness of the consonants, as the woman rises from behind the desk and leads her by the hand into the dark.

 

It is intimate; somewhere between a doctor’s examination and sex, how this woman takes her limbs in her strong, smooth fingers — fingers that have disappeared in the dark, transformed now into only the smell of cocoa butter and fresh nail polish — and places her own body into a large leather chair. The leather is soft and supple; she recalls the bovine sounds elsewhere in the buildings, but here, in the heart of it, there is only silence, total darkness.

 

A large pair of padded headphones are placed over her ears. There is hissing in the dark; without sight she sees snakes, pouring from somewhere, imagines them crawling over her. And then it kicks in: what she has been waiting for, that sound, from everywhere at once, thrumming in her bones. The beat of a heart. Her own, channelled through a microphone affixed to her chest by electrode pad. Not a stranger’s. Not a dead heart. Not a pig’s heart sewn into a human body. Not a heart part plastic, pumping minerals with odd valves and strange pressures. But her, her own heart, present in each bright flush of crimson. She listens. The heart speaks nothing but itself, its pounding insistence. And it is impossible to translate.

 

*

 

After the quiet of the islands in the West, I had expected Tokyo to be nothing but noise: the shrill ring of an arcade game, subway announcements, cries of hawkers before the neon pavilions of all-night karaoke. But some change has occurred in the week since our arrival to Japan, somewhere between the train station bento and late night sashimi and ordering in restaurants by pointing at pictures. The Japanese language, until then impenetrable, has started crumble. As if some wall of sound, now in new light, has begun to show is bricks, and piece by piece, be taken apart. The fragments swirl: konnichiwa, irashaimase, kashikomarimashita. Meaningless. Other people’s voices repeat in my mind, and though I try to keep them quiet, to banish them with English phrases like how do you do and some weather we’ve having, or when that doesn’t work, I am I am I am, nothing seems to help. I don’t mention it for fear of ruining the holiday. Instead I eat ibuprofen from our first aid kit when the headaches get too much and try to enjoy our last week abroad.

 

Shibuya on our last night, a Macanese restaurant with Tiki torches and over-sized hyacinths painted on the walls. The waiter eyes us nervously from across the room, afraid of another interaction where language fails us all. Every time we make to order he gestures for a woman to come speak to us in English. My partner orders another bottle of wine and says arigatō to her bowed head. I see her smile as she walks away, amused by this small gesture of humility.

 

‘I can’t stop thinking,’ he says, washing papaya salad down with the last of the wine. ‘About what you said that woman was saying about there being other archives du coeur.’ This last he says with no approximation of the French, in keeping with his middle class comfort with mistakes. ‘I mean, it was great. A really… I don’t know, I guess it was kind of intimate, if you can even say that. But it made me feel close to whoever’s heart it was. I just can’t help thinking what kind of people would want that experience. Who would need it?’

 

‘I was looking through the recordings,’ I say. ‘A lot of those hearts are dead now. And some were transplants. It’s strange, isn’t it? That you could feel close to a dead heart, or one that wasn’t somebody else’s to begin with. I mean, I guess the point of the exhibit is that it does that, make you feel close, but it only works because we assume the heart is…key. But you know how we point to our chests when we say who me? Well, in Japan they apparently point at the nose.’

 

The waiter comes over and refills our glasses, whispering shitsurei shimasu so as not to disturb us. Still, the words get recorded; some device in my head picks them up whether I want it to or not, and proceeds to hit play. The words repeat, pulse, alive. I gasp the freshly poured wine.

 

‘Easy,’ he says. ‘You don’t want to be hungover for the flight.’

 

‘I just wish we were home already.’

 

‘But it’s been good, though, hasn’t it?’

 

‘It has,’ I say. ‘But we’ve been gone too long. I’m ready for creature comforts. English, again.’

 

‘But it’s such an adventure isn’t it? Everywhere we go these days, everyone speaks English. It’s hard to get a sense that you’re anywhere else. McDonald’s, Starbucks, it’s the same on Lexington as it is in Milan. I like being here,’ he says. ‘You get the idea that you’re actually somewhere different. That anything could happen.’

 

‘I suppose,’ I say. ‘But you feel comfortable anywhere you go. It’s harder for other people to be far from home.’

 

He puts his hand over mine.

 

‘Home is where the heart is, babe,’ he says.

 

Sometimes it feels as though we speak different languages.

 

*

 

It is raining: lush, cinematic rain. He folds his laundry in the dark, listening to the water beat its quiet hush and how it turn the cars on the street into nothing but sighs. The white noise fills his head like balm. By the time he has balled the last of his socks and put them away, he is calm, almost. In the dark of the flat, he feels once more himself. In part, at least.

 

The phone rings.

 

It’s me, says a woman on the other end. He knows he should know her, but the voice is lost in the others in his head, labelled, somewhere, in the dark recesses where memory is kept. He speaks with her accent. This one feels different, as if it, or something very close to it, might have belonged to him, once. She tells him about people he thinks he knows, would remember, surely, if he saw them. But at this distance it seems as though they are far away, in another place. When the call is over and they say goodbye, he cannot remember what was said, or how the voice sounded. In the dark, he tries to resurrect it, imitate himself. He can’t remember it, no matter how hard he tries. All the other ones come take its place: the woman from the laundromat, the Irish man on the bus, Canadian, Filipino, South Korean, Thai, Geordie, New Haven, Glasgow, Qatar. The voice he had used on the phone is inaccessible, though it is the only one he wants to remember.

 

The flat is too quiet, his mind too hot. He goes out into the night, umbrella in hand. The raindrops bounce and scatter on the taut vinyl. The streets are deserted. Most of the shops have closed, only a few restaurants still shine their lights across the slick macadam and concrete. He has no stomach for food, or for liquor, or for anything, really. He simply wanders, feeling as though there is something out there he has to find. Is this how a junkie finds a score, he wonders, by some compass embedded in the veins? He walks in circles, avoids the subway, finds himself compelled to keep going until, eventually, he finds himself in a back alley, with a large open grille, and the smell of old blood almost hidden beneath the rich scent of petrichor. There is a door: a Japanese women emerges from it, her hair slick with rain in a matter of seconds. She looks at him, quickly, then averts her eyes and moves off into the night, as if ashamed to have been seen here. He feels something pass between them, some small affinity, but then she is gone.

 

He knocks on the door, three times, though he doesn’t know why. It opens. The path inside is dark, and no one else is there to guide him, only the low cries of cows off somewhere in the distance. He wanders until he comes upon a room, behind a sheet of clear vinyl, lit by strange bulbs and lacking furniture save a high desk, behind which a woman sits. She looks at him and smiles. It feels almost scandalously intimate. As if she knows him. As if she understands. He expects her to speak, but instead she simply smiles, gets up, takes him by the hand and leads him off into the dark, where he listens to the persistent thrum of something living, some animal vibration. It speaks something to him: something he cannot mimic, something he can barely understand, but which, with each shudder of aorta and myocardium, reminds him of who he is, or who he was meant to be. Who he might have been, once.

 

*

 

People come and go. The visits last about twenty minutes, roughly; I keep time with my watch, which tells me I should be going back to the hotel room soon, before he wakes without me and worries. But I find it hard to pry myself away from keeping watch on his public bath in a Yotsuya back alley, where men and women have been coming and going now for four hours, at least, and most likely long before I found it on a sleepless walk around the hotel, trying to cast the Japanese words from my head — shitsurei shimasu, the waiter says, over and over, irashaimase.

 

What do they come here for? How do they even know about this place?

 

A stupid question. I know they must feel what I feel — a kind of pull, like magnetism. I take a drink of the iced coffee I picked up at a convenience store, and a bite of curry pan as I check my watch. A man, part Asian of some descent the other clearly Black, emerges from the doorway looking satisfied. At first I thought it was prostitution, or drugs, maybe, but considering the varied clientele it seems like it must be something different. Not to mention that strange pull. Another glance at the watch. 5:40. We have to be out of the hotel by seven to make our flight. But how can I leave without seeing for myself?

 

A look down the street. No one else is coming. Perhaps it is too late, or perhaps there is a lull in appointments. Had the people even made appointments? Another five minutes and still no one. I steel myself. 5:47. It’s now or never.

 

The deep blue cloth on the entrance peels back with a flutter. A water feature burbles in a reception area of pale wood and green cushions, while a white egg puffs citrus vapour at an interval of six seconds. A man is sitting on a chair behind a desk.

 

He looks at me and smiles. It is shockingly intimate; as if he has known me my entire life, as if he knows me in a way I do not. Better. He smiles, stands, reaches his hand out and takes mine. And there are no words. Quiet blossoms in my head, big soft clouds of it. Not a single word as he leads me deeper into this building that I recognise, now, whose function I think I can understand.

 

There is a seat, headphones, an electrode pad glued to a chest. But there are no words. And I think, as the headphones slide over me, about all those people who came here before, about the other archives, out there somewhere, disguised as bath houses and tattoo parlours and butcher’s yards, about the people who go there, who need them. How to describe it? The need for this pulse that is my own fed back to me, for this thudding, this message relayed in heartbeats like the galloping of some beast. I can’t. There are no words. And that’s the best bit — there are no words, here, in the heart of the archive.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a writer and translator from Glasgow, Scotland. He is on the shortlist for the 2015 White Review Short Story Prize.

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