All the stories you’ve been telling tonight seem to fall into two categories. There’s the type where you have the world of the living on one side, the world of death on the other, and some force that allows a crossing over from one side to the other. This would include ghosts and the like. The second type involves paranormal abilities, premonitions, the ability to predict the future. All of your stories belong to one of these two groups.
In fact, your experiences tend to fall almost totally under one of these categories or the other. What I mean is, people who see ghosts just see ghosts and never have premonitions. And those who have premonitions don’t see ghosts. I don’t know why, but there would appear to be an individual predilection for one or the other. At least that’s the impression I get.
Of course some people don’t fall into either category. Me, for instance. In my thirty-odd years I’ve never once seen a ghost, never once had a premonition or prophetic dream. There was one time I was riding an elevator with a couple of friends and they swore they saw a ghost riding with us, but I didn’t see a thing. They claimed there was a woman in a gray suit standing right next to me, but there wasn’t any woman with us, at least as far as I could make out. The three of us were the only ones in the elevator. No kidding. And these two friends weren’t the type to deliberately play tricks on me. The whole thing was really weird, but the fact remains that I’ve still never seen a ghost.
But there was one time—just the one time—when I had an experience that scared me out of my wits. This happened over ten years ago, and I’ve never told anybody about it. I was afraid to even talk about it. I felt that if I did, it might happen all over again, so I’ve never brought it up. But tonight each of you has related his own scary experience, and as the host I can’t very well call it a night without contributing something of my own. So I’ve decided to just come right out and tell you the story. Here goes.
I GRADUATED FROM HIGH SCHOOL at the end of the 1960s, just when the student movement was in full swing. I was part of the hippie generation, and refused to go to college. Instead, I wandered all over Japan working at various manual labor jobs. I was convinced that was the most righteous way to live. Young and impetuous, I guess you’d call me. Looking back on it now, though, I think I had a pretty fun life back then. Whether that was the right choice or not, if I had it to do over again, I’m pretty sure I would.
In the fall of my second year of roaming all over the country, I got a job for a couple of months as a night watchman at a junior high school. This was in a school in a tiny town in Niigata Prefecture. I’d gotten pretty worn out working over the summer and wanted to take it easy for a while.
The gate to the pool banged away in the wind like some crazy person who alternately shakes his head and nods.
Being a night watchman isn’t exactly rocket science. During the day I slept in the janitor’s office, and at night all I had to do was go twice around the whole school making sure everything was okay. The rest of the time I listened to records in the music room, read books in the library, played basketball by myself in the gym. Being alone all night in a school isn’t so bad, really. Was I afraid? No way. When you’re eighteen or nineteen, nothing fazes you.
I don’t imagine any of you have ever worked as a night watchman, so maybe I should explain the duties. You’re supposed to make two rounds each night, at 9:00 P.M. and 3:00 A.M. That’s the schedule. The school was a fairly new three-story concrete building, with eighteen to twenty classrooms. Not an especially large school as these things go. In addition to the classrooms you had a music room, a home ec room, an art studio, a staff office, and the principal’s office. Plus a separate cafeteria, swimming pool, gym, and auditorium. My job was to make a quick check of all of these.
AS I MADE MY ROUNDS, I followed a twenty-point checklist. I’d make a checkmark next to each one—staff office, check, science lab, check…. I suppose I could have just stayed in bed in the janitor’s room, where I slept, and checked these off without going to the trouble of actually walking around. But I wasn’t such a haphazard sort of guy. It didn’t take much time to make the rounds, and besides, if someone broke in while I was sleeping, I’d be the one who’d get attacked.
Anyway, there I was each night at nine and three, making my rounds, a flashlight in my left hand, a wooden kendo sword in my right. I practiced kendo in high school and felt pretty confident in my ability to fend off anyone. If an attacker was an amateur, and even if he had a real sword with him, that wouldn’t have scared me. I was young, remember. If it happened now, I’d run like hell.
Anyhow, this took place on a windy night in the beginning of October. It was actually kind of steamy for that time of year. A swarm of mosquitoes buzzed around in the evening, and I remember burning a couple of mosquito repellent coils to keep them away. The wind was noisy. The gate to the swimming pool was broken and the wind made the gate slap open and shut. I thought of fixing it, but it was too dark out, so it kept banging all night.
My 9:00 P.M. round went by fine, all twenty items on my list neatly checked off. All the doors were locked, everything in its proper place. Nothing out of the ordinary. I went back to the janitor’s room, set my alarm for 3:00, and fell fast asleep.
When the alarm went off at 3:00, though, I woke up feeling weird. I can’t explain it, but I just felt different. I didn’t feel like getting up—it was as if something was suppressing my will to get out of bed. I’m the type who usually leaps right out of bed, so I couldn’t understand it. I had to force myself to get out of bed and get ready to make my rounds. The gate to the pool was still making its rhythmic banging, but it sounded different from before. Something’s definitely weird, I thought, reluctant to get going. But I made up my mind that I had to do my job, no matter what. If you skip out on doing your duty once, you’ll skip out again and again, and I didn’t want to fall into that. So I grabbed my flashlight and wooden sword and off I went.
It was an altogether odd night. The wind grew stronger as the night went on, the air more humid. My skin started itching and I couldn’t focus. I decided to go around the gym, auditorium, and pool first. Everything checked out okay. The gate to the pool banged away in the wind like some crazy person who alternately shakes his head and nods. There was no order to it. First a couple of nods—yes, yes,—then no, no, no…. It’s a weird thing to compare it to, I know, but that’s what it felt like.
Inside the school building it was situation normal. I looked around and checked off the points on my list. Nothing out of the usual had happened, despite the weird feeling I’d had. Relieved, I started to head back to the janitor’s room. The last place on my checklist was the boiler room next to the cafeteria on the east side of the building, the opposite side from the janitor’s room. This meant I had to walk down the long hallway on the first floor on my way back. It was pitch black.
Inside it was a hatred like an iceberg floating in a dark sea.
On nights when the moon was out, there was a little light in the hallway, but when there wasn’t, you couldn’t see a thing. I had to shine my flashlight ahead of me to see where I was going. This particular night, a typhoon was not too far off, so there was no moon at all. Occasionally there’d be a break in the clouds, but then it plunged into darkness again.
I walked faster than usual down the hallway, the rubber soles of my basketball shoes squeaking against the linoleum floor. It was a green linoleum floor, the color of a hazy bed of moss. I can picture it even now.
The entrance to the school was midway down the hallway, and as I passed it I thought What the—? I thought I’d seen something in the dark. I broke out in a sweat. Regripping the wooden sword, I turned toward what I saw. I shone my flashlight at the wall next to the shelf for storing shoes.
And there I was. A mirror, in other words. It was just my reflection in a mirror. There wasn’t a mirror there the night before, so they must have put in one between then and now. Man, was I startled. It was a long, full-length mirror. Relieved that it was just me in a mirror, I felt a bit stupid for having been so surprised. So that’s all it is, I told myself. How dumb. I put my flashlight down, took a cigarette from my pocket, and lit it. As I took a puff, I glanced at myself in the mirror. A faint streetlight from outside shone in through the window, reaching the mirror. From behind me, the swimming pool gate was banging in the wind.
After a couple of puffs, I suddenly noticed something odd. My reflection in the mirror wasn’t me. It looked exactly like me on the outside, but it definitely wasn’t me. No, that’s not it. It was me, of course, but another me. Another me that never should have been. I don’t know how to put it. It’s hard to explain what it felt like.
The one thing I did understand was that this other figure loathed me. Inside it was a hatred like an iceberg floating in a dark sea. The kind of hatred that no one could ever diminish.
I stood there for a while, dumbfounded. My cigarette slipped from between my fingers and fell to the floor. The cigarette in the mirror fell to the floor, too. We stood there, staring at each other. I felt as though I was bound hand and foot, and couldn’t move.
Finally his hand moved, the fingertips of his right hand touching his chin and then slowly, like a bug, creeping up his face. I suddenly realized I was doing the same thing. As though I was the reflection of what was in the mirror and he was trying to take control of me.
Wrenching out my last ounce of strength I roared out a growl, and the bonds that held me rooted to the spot broke. I raised my kendo sword and smashed it down on the mirror as hard as I could. I heard glass shattering, but didn’t look back as I raced back to my room. Once inside, I hurriedly locked the door and leaped under the covers. I was worried about the cigarette I’d dropped on the floor, but there was no way I was going back. The wind was howling the whole time, and the gate to the pool continued to make a racket until dawn. Yes, yes, no, yes, no, no, no....
I’m sure you’re already guessed the ending to my story. There never was any mirror.
When the sun came up, the typhoon had already passed. The wind had died down and it was a sunny day. I went over to the entrance. The cigarette butt I’d tossed away was there, as was my wooden sword. But no mirror. There never had been any mirror there.
What I saw wasn’t a ghost. It was simply—myself. I can never forget how terrified I was that night, and whenever I remember it, this thought always springs to mind: that the most frightening thing in the world is our own self. What do you think?
You may have noticed that I don’t have a single mirror here in my house. Learning to shave without one was no easy feat, believe me.
Haruki Murakami is an internationally acclaimed Japanese writer whose many novels include Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird, and Kafka on the Shore.
Philip Gabriel is professor of Japanese literature at the University of Arizona and head of the Department of East Asian Studies. He has translated four books by Haruki Murakami, including Kafka on the Shore, selected by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best books of 2005.
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