I possess my death. She is in my hands and within the spirals of my inner ears. She is in the balls of my eyes because she is my eyes. If you are having a bad day, my eyes are also your death. My death creeps carefully around the spiral of your inner ear and pushes out buds through the branches of your fingers.
He met Misaki Konishi in his living room. When he entered Misaki was squatting down, reading. The servant barely cleared his throat before announcing the visitor’s name: Itakura no Goro. The old man raised his face and made a slight movement of the head in the direction of his guest. He responded martially. Ask my wife to prepare the tea. The servant disappeared behind the sliding door. Misaki tried to stand up. Aren’t you going to help me? he said. The samurai hurried to do so, looking away so as not to humiliate him. Now standing, the old man placed a hand on his lower back and gave a bow, possibly ironic, to which Itakura once again responded in earnest. The old man smiled: I see that your heart remains in Kyushu; you are from Kyushu, no? From Nagoya. You are among friends. The old man purposefully looked towards his stick, which had been left on the floor. The samurai stepped forward to pick it up, and held it out to him. A beautiful city, Nagoya; I’m from a fishing village; they call me Misaki because that’s where I’m from; the name with which I was born is Ogata, Ogata Konishi. Itakura nodded, barely closing his eyes, which made the old man smile again. I tell you, you’re among friends, he said. Leaning on his stick, he indicated the panel which opened to the garden, at the back of the living room.
To Itakura it seemed that, more than being old, Misaki represented age itself. Did you leave any family behind in Nagoya? he asked. A wife, and two male children. They’ll have opportunities in the city, they won’t be forced to do as I did. They didn’t stay in Nagoya, they went to Hara, said Itakura. A flash of consternation took hold of Misaki’s face for a second. His interlocutor noticed it, but did not want to bother the old man with a personal question, and instead showed interest in the kakemonos that hung on the walls. They were my father’s, replied Misaki, he bought and sold drawings between one war and another and ended up with a collection; that’s where my liking for business must have come from. Itakura nodded discreetly. He was both things, a driver of men, but also someone who knew how to enjoy the benefits of a bit of money, I’m the same; you are a ronin, aren’t you? Itakura responded negatively: I work for the daimyo. Kumigashira? The samurai replied: Monorashira, but I have a very small division, twenty men. From Nihon? Just one, the rest are Negroes, Indians, mulattoes, Filipinos. That’s more than enough for the task I wish to entrust to you, said the old man. He sighed, then continued: I too was a soldier. Itakura straightened his back, or made a gesture which revealed that it was totally rigid. With all due respect, he said, I know who Ogata Konishi is: you were a general. Sodaisho, the old man finished, and for the first time in the conversation it was evident from how energetic his vowels were that he was a man who had commanded multitudes. But I fell into disgrace, for the same reasons as you, and now I am an old and foolish trader who can no longer defend his own merchandise; I am going to pay you very well so that you may carry out the task as I myself would have done it. Itakura lowered his head.
Before drawing back the sliding door that gave onto the garden, Misaki halted. You’ll have to excuse my wife during the tea ceremony, she has not got the hang of it. Itakura looked at him with curiosity. And she did not let me educate my sons as drivers of men, and therefore I have to resort to strangers – no offence intended. Itakura shook his head almost imperceptibly. Her name is Josefa, said the old man, looking him in the eye. He noted with satisfaction that Itakura showed no surprise whatsoever. She’s Spanish, he continued; my sons are called Esteban and Bernabé Misaki, just imagine: the sons of Ogata Konishi. He shook his head in a somewhat comical resignation as he said it. At least they are with you, Itakura replied. He made an extra effort so that his words would not transmit the compassion the old man inspired in him or the sadness of his own case. Misaki fixed his gaze on the roof of his living room and said in good humour: What times we have been chosen to see, Itakura, a sodaisho whose sons couldn’t slice a melon with a katana; a monorashira who gives orders to mulatto samurais. Itakura smiled. They are well trained, he said, but they are not samurais; they are no more than mulattoes with swords. Likewise, I know who Itakura no Goro is, said Misaki; I know what your men have done for this han. He opened the door. Behind the corridor, the garden was bursting with the liquid exuberance of the tropics. A servant approached Misaki. Don Diego, he said to him in Spanish, Doña Josefa says can you hurry, the tea is getting cold. The old man gave Itakura a look that pleaded patience. Don Diego? It’s my name here in Veracruz, replied Misaki, Don Diego de la Barranca. They advanced through castor plants towards the tea house. My servant will collect you, he said, to close the conversation. Make sure you stay wherever he found you; it will be worth your while.
The death I possess is my death. Only if I entrust her do I continue to live. Someone approaches and sees nothing more than death. It burns him.
I begin this letter in a city called Orizaba, in the han of New Spain, an immense country in an empire a thousand times bigger than the mikado. I am writing at night, while my battalion sleeps. I write because I have been thinking about you.
Although the gluttonous, pampered life of the Mexicans has not changed me, I have had to adapt so much that you would not recognise me. I wear boots, I do not ride an armoured horse, I have no helmet, I wear my hair tied in a ponytail at the back of my head and not on the crown, I wear black trousers, black shirts. The only aspect I have kept from how I dressed when I left Nihon is the sotei-no-o because I cannot get used to carrying the katana on my waist, pushed into a leather belt, as the Spaniards do. This habit of using iron is good for showing off, but hopelessly clumsy for everything else.
I arrived in New Spain in charge of a squadron of our soldiers. In Manila they had contracted us to defend a port over here called Akupuruko, and to protect the merchandise which must cross the country, from one ocean to another, on its way to Europe. As time passed and we were not able to return to Nihon, my samurais began to disperse: they married and set up dwellings in the horrible, pestilent cities in which the Mexicans live, or they grew tired of the chaos and went to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Many died in combat. As the white men in this country only accept orders from those who are more fair-haired and blue-eyed than they are, I substituted the soldiers I lost with the cantankerous men whom I encountered on my travels, the majority of whom had been slaves or whose parents had been slaves. In my platoon, they are permitted to bear arms and go on horseback, no matter where they are from or what colour they are. In Nihon, we would not be able to defend a city from a band of squirrels, but over here my army of half-breeds, my pardos, can halt the air in the trees. I am proud of them and they are loyal although they do not have the slightest notion of what honour is. The daimyo has not once paid what it owes us for defending it, but we are permitted to pay ourselves discreetly, and we do just that.
I also have two officials. Sabu is a samurai, although he was born in Puebla. He is a little younger than you, but he is learning fast. I promised his father, who was pierced in an ambush by many swords, that I would look after him as if he were my son. Do not be jealous. I am sure that in Nihon someone is doing the same for you. The other is called Cherian Zacarías Mampilly and he comes from the kingdom of Cochín, in Kerala. He is a giant, half-Portuguese and half-Indian; the Spaniards think he is a Negro and the Negroes think he is a Spaniard. He can close the fingers of his enormous hands around a grapefruit without crushing it, he can crush a head with his fingers as if it were a grapefruit. For the time being, they are my family.
My death does not think, she does not grow, she does not go anywhere.
She is my death, the death that awaits those who wish to speak with her.
Itakura found Zacarías and Sabu seated on the same stone on which he had left them. They were outside the town hall stables, looking straight ahead. They didn’t ask any questions when he sat down next to them. They waited like this for hours, no one saying a word. Misaki’s retainer arrived when night was falling. He was accompanied by a man whom he introduced as Don Pablo, who said he was a herder. None of the three men believed him because he was white and most probably Spanish; he had blonde, receding hair and light eyes; his horse was magnificent. When he took off his hat to greet them, he kept it at chest height, as the tercios did. He held his hand out with a smile, from which a great number of teeth were missing. None of the three extended their hand to reciprocate the greeting. We don’t need a herder, said the samurai in Japanese, looking at Misaki’s servant. And the merchandise? said Zacarías, to finish off. It’s in a hold at the docks. The Spaniard watched them without showing any distress at the fact that he didn’t understand their words. How will we recognise it? continued Zacarías. Don Pablo will take you, said the retainer, and bent his spine by way of saying goodbye. The three men got up from the stone. And what do we do with this imbecile? asked Zacarías, pointing quite openly at the bogus herder. I’ll go ahead with him to the port, said Itakura. You two go and get the battalion. Don’t cross through the city, get to the docks outside the wall, I don’t want any scandals. The last order was only thought, not spoken, but his lieutenant understood all the same.
To Itakura, Veracruz had always seemed more of a calamity than a port. The street that led from the town hall to the customs office also served as a gutter for the city during rainy periods – which, in his opinion, was always – and so to get to the port in a direct way it was necessary to walk with your boots sinking in a river of mud and shit through which everything found its way to the sea, including the already swollen corpses of dogs, goats, cows, and luckless men.
They went through the alleys, but there was such commotion in the streets and such a din emanating from this commotion that they did the journey on foot, pulling their horses along by their bridles. It was the time of day at which the residents of Veracruz went out onto the streets en masse, in order to keep doing what they had been doing all day inside their houses: nothing. Itakura noticed, as he advanced by Don Pablo’s side – both men in front of their horses – that people were opening the way for them: evidently the foreman was more important than he was making out to be. He didn’t try to make conversation with him, partly because he didn’t like spies and partly because he knew that when he spoke, he imposed tonalities onto the flat language of the Castilians which in Japanese sounded aristocratic and martial, but were completely mangled in Spanish: nobody understood a word he said. Soon they reached the city walls and went through the gate to the port. The guards not only let them pass without looking at their documents, they also gave a martial salute to Don Pablo, who ignored them.
The docks were always in a good state: the health of its commerce mattered more to the empire than that of its subjects.
If anyone comes for me, he must know that it was my death that brought him.
My death is your death.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Álvaro Enrigue is a Mexican author based in New York. His novel Sudden Death will be published in England by Harvill Secker.
Rahul Bery, a secondary school teacher and translator from Spanish and Portuguese, is based in Cardiff. He has translated essays and stories by Daniel Galera, Cesar Aíra and Enrique Vila-Matas, all for this publication.