On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon


Source: a section from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979, translated by William Weaver, 1981).


Note: Calvino mentioned Kawabata and Tanizaki as influences, but, as far as I can see, it reads more like a mixture of Mishima, phenomenology, and pornography.


The ginkgo leaves fell like fine rain from the boughs and dotted the lawn with yellow. I was walking with Mr. Okeda on the path of smooth stones. I said I would like to distinguish the sensation of each single ginkgo leaf from the sensation of all the others, but I was wondering if it would be possible. Mr. Okeda said it was possible. The premises from which I set out, and which Mr. Okeda considered well founded, were the following. If from the ginkgo tree a single little yellow leaf falls and rests on the lawn, the sensation felt in looking at it is that of a single yellow leaf. If two leaves descend from the tree, the eye follows the twirling of the two leaves as they move closer, then separate in the air, like two butterflies chasing each other, then glide finally to the grass, one here, one there. And so with three, with four, even with five; as the number of leaves spinning in the air increases further, the sensations corresponding to each of them are summed up, creating a general sensation like that of a silent rain, and—if the slightest breath of wind slows their descent—that of wings suspended in the air, and then that of a scattering of little luminous spots, when you lower your gaze to the lawn. Now, without losing anything of these pleasant general sensations, I would like to maintain distinct, not confusing it with the others, the individual image of each leaf from the moment it enters the visual field, and follow it in its aerial dance until it comes to rest on the blades of grass. Mr. Okeda's approval encouraged me to persevere in this purpose. Perhaps—I added, contemplating the form of the ginkgo leaf, a little yellow fan with scalloped edges—I could succeed in keeping distinct in the sensation of every leaf the sensation of every lobe of the leaf. On this point Mr. Okeda would not commit himself; at other times in the past his silence had served me as a warning not to let myself go in hasty conjectures, skipping a series of stages not yet checked. Bearing this lesson in mind, I began to concentrate my attention on capturing the tiniest sensations at the moment of their delineation, when their clarity was not yet mingled with a sheaf of diffused impressions.

Makiko, the youngest Okeda daughter, came to serve the tea, with her self-possessed movements and her still slightly childish grace. As she bent over, I saw on her bare nape, below her gathered hair, a fine black down which seemed to continue along the line of her back. I was concentrated on looking at it when I felt on me Mr. Okeda's motionless eye, examining me. Certainly he realized I was practicing on his daughter's neck my ability to isolate sensations. I did not look away, both because the impression of that tender down on the pale skin had overpowered me imperiously, and because, though it would have been easy for Mr. Okeda to direct my attention elsewhere with some common remark, he had not done so. In any event, Makiko soon finished serving the tea and rose again. I stared at a mole she had above her lip, to the left, and that brought back to me something of the earlier sensation, but more faintly. Makiko at first looked at me, upset, then lowered her eyes.

            In the afternoon there was a moment I shall not easily forget, though I realize how trivial it seems in the telling. We were strolling on the bank of the little northern lake, with Makiko and her mother, Madame Miyagi. Mr. Okeda was walking ahead by himself, leaning on a long cane of white maple. In the center of the lake, two fleshy flowers of an autumn-blooming water lily had opened, and Madame Miyagi expressed the wish to pick them, one for herself and one for her daughter. Madame Miyagi had her usual frowning and slightly weary expression, but with that hint of stern obstinacy which made me suspect that in the long story of her troubled relations with her husband, about which there was so much gossip, her role was not merely that of the victim; and in truth, between Mr. Okeda's icy detachment and her own stubborn determination, I could not say who finally got the better. As for Makiko, she always displayed the gay and carefree air with which certain children who grow up amid bitter family dissension defend themselves against their surroundings, and she had borne it within her, growing up, and now faced the world of outsiders with it as if taking refuge behind the shield of an unripened and elusive bliss.

            Kneeling on a rock at the bank, I leaned out until I could grasp the nearest shoot of the floating water lily, and I tugged at it gently, careful not to break it, to make the whole plant float toward the shore. Madame Miyagi and her daughter also knelt and stretched their hands out toward the water, ready to grasp the flowers when they came within reach. The bank of the little lake was low and sloping; to lean forward without too much risk, the two women remained behind my back, stretching out their arms, mother on one side, daughter on the other. At a certain moment I felt a contact in a precise point, between arm and back, at the level of the first ribs; or, rather, two different contacts, to the left and to the right. On Miss Makiko's side, it was a tense and almost throbbing tip, whereas on Madame Miyagi's side, an insinuating, grazing pressure. I realized that, through a rare and sweet chance, I had been grazed at the same moment by the left nipple of the daughter and the right nipple of the mother, and that I must bend every effort not to lose that chance contact and to appreciate the two simultaneous sensations, distinguishing them and comparing their spells.

            "Push the leaves away," Mr. Okeda said, "and the stem of the flowers will bend toward your hands." He was standing over the group of the three of us as we leaned toward the water lilies. In his hand he had the long cane with which it would have been easy for him to pull the aquatic plant close to the shore; instead he confined himself to advising the two women to perform the movement that prolonged the pressure of their bodies against mine.

            The two water lilies had almost reached the hands of Miyagi and Makiko. I rapidly calculated that at the moment of the last yank, by raising my right elbow and immediately pressing it again to my side, I could squeeze Makiko's tiny, firm breast, whole. But the triumph of the water lilies' capture upset the order of our movements, and so my right arm closed over a void, whereas my left hand, which had abandoned its hold on the shoot, fell back and encountered the lap of Madame Miyagi, who seemed prepared to receive it and almost hold it, with a yielding start which was communicated to my whole person. At this moment something was determined that later had incalculable consequences, as I will recount in time.

Passing again beneath the ginkgo, I said to Mr. Okeda that in the contemplation of the shower of leaves the fundamental thing was not so much the perception of each of the leaves as of the distance between one leaf and another, the empty air that separated them. What I seemed to have understood was this: an absence of sensations over a broad part of the perceptive field is the condition necessary for our sensitivity to concentrate locally and temporally, just as in music a basic silence is necessary so that the notes will stand out against it.

Mr. Okeda said that in tactile sensations this was certainly true; I was much amazed by his reply, because I had indeed thought of my contact with the bodies of his daughter and wife while I was communicating to him my observations on the leaves. Mr. Okeda continued talking about tactile sensations with great naturalness, as if it were understood that my discourse had had no other subject.

            To shift the conversation to different ground, I tried to make the comparison with the reading of a novel in which a very calm narrative pace, all on the same subdued note, serves to enforce some subtle and precise sensations to which the writer wishes to call the reader's attention; but in the case of the novel you must consider that in the succession of sentences only one sensation can pass at a time, whether it be individual or general, whereas the breadth of the visual field and the auditory field allows the simultaneous recording of a much richer and more complex whole. The reader's receptivity with respect to the collection of sensations that the novel wants to direct at him is found to be much reduced, first by the fact that his often hasty and absent reading does not catch or neglects a certain number of signals and intentions actually contained in the text, and second because there is always something essential that remains outside the written sentence; indeed, the things that the novel does not say are necessarily more numerous than those it does say, and only a special halo around what is written can give the illusion that you are reading also what is unwritten. At all these reflections of mine, Mr. Okeda remained silent, as he does always when I happen to talk too much and am unable finally to extricate myself from my tangled reasoning.

In the following days I happened to find myself very often alone in the house with the two women, because Mr. Okeda had decided to carry out personally the library research that until then had been my chief task, and he preferred instead for me to remain in his study, putting his monumental card file in order. I had well-founded fears that Mr. Okeda had got wind of my conversations with Professor Kawasaki and had guessed my intention to break away from his school to approach academic circles that would guarantee my future prospects. Certainly, remaining too long under Mr. Okeda's intellectual tutelage was harming me: I could sense it from the sarcastic remarks Professor Kawasaki's assistants made about me, though they were not aloof to all relations with other tendencies, as my fellow students were. There was no doubt that Mr. Okeda wanted to keep me all day at his house to prevent me from spreading my wings, to curb my freedom of thought as he had done with his other students, who were by now reduced to spying on one another and denouncing one another for the slightest deviation from absolute subjection to the master's authority. I had to make up my mind as soon as possible and take my leave of Mr. Okeda; and if I postponed it, this was only because the mornings at his house during his absence produced in me a mental state of pleasant excitement, though of scant profit to my work.

In fact, in my work I was often distracted; I sought every pretext to go into the other rooms, where I might come upon Makiko, catch her in her privacy during the various situations of the day. But more often I found Madame Miyagi in my path, and I lingered with her, because, with the mother, opportunities for conversation—and also for sly joking, though often tinged with bitterness—arose more easily than with the daughter.

At supper in the evening, around the piping-hot suki-yaki, Mr. Okeda examined our faces as if the secrets of the day were written there, the network of desires, distinct and yet interconnected, in which I felt myself wrapped and from which I would not have liked to free myself before having satisfied them one by one. And so from week to week I postponed my decision to take leave of him and my poorly paid job with no prospects of a career, and I realized that it was he, Mr. Okeda, who kept tightening, strand by strand, the net that held me.

            It was a serene autumn. As the November full moon approached, I found myself conversing one afternoon with Makiko about the most suitable place for observing the moon through the branches of the trees. I insisted that on the path under the ginkgo tree the carpet of fallen leaves would spread the moon's reflected glow in a suspended luminosity. There was a definite intention in what I said: to propose to Makiko a meeting under the ginkgo that same night. The girl answered that the lake was preferable, since the autumn moon, when the season is cold and dry, is reflected in the water with sharper outlines than the moon of summer, often shrouded in mists.

            "I agree," I said hastily. "I can't wait to be with you on the shore at the moonrise. Especially"—I added—"since the lake stirs delicate sensations in my memory."

            Perhaps as I uttered that sentence the contact of Makiko's breast returned to my memory too vividly, and my voice sounded aroused, alarming her. The fact is that Makiko frowned and remained a moment in silence. To dispel this awkwardness which I did not want to have interrupt the amorous daydreaming to which I was abandoning myself, I made an unwise and involuntary movement of the mouth: I bared and clenched my teeth as if to bite. Instinctively Makiko jumped back with an expression of sudden pain, as if she had really been given a bite at some sensitive spot. She recovered herself at once and left the room. I prepared to follow her.

            Madame Miyagi was in the next room, sitting on a mat on the floor, carefully arranging flowers and autumn branches in a pot. Advancing like a sleepwalker, unaware, I found her crouched at my feet, and I stopped just in time to avoid hitting her and knocking over the branches, striking them with my legs. Makiko's movement had roused in me an immediate stimulation, and this condition of mine did not escape Madame Miyagi, since my careless steps had brought me upon her in that way. In any case, the lady, without raising her eyes, shook against me the camellia blossom she was arranging in the pot, as if she wanted to hit or thrust back that part of me extending over her or even toy with it, provoke it, arouse it with a striking caress. I lowered my hands to try to save from disorder the arrangement of the leaves and flowers; meanwhile, she was also dealing with the branches, leaning forward; and it so happened that at the very moment when one of my hands slipped in confusion between Madame Miyagi's kimono and her bare skin and found itself clasping a soft and warm breast, elongated in form, one of the lady's hands, from among the branches of the keiyaki [translator's note: in Europe called Caucasian elm], had reached my member and was holding it in a firm, frank grasp, drawing it from my garments as if she were performing the operation of stripping away leaves.

            What aroused my interest in Madame Miyagi's breast was the circle of prominent papillae, of a thick or minute grain, scattered on the surface of an areola of considerable extension, thicker at the edge but with outposts all the way to the tip. Presumably each of these papillae commanded sensations more or less sharp in the receptivity of Madame Miyagi, a phenomenon I could easily verify by subjecting them to slight pressure, localized as much as possible, at intervals of about a second, while observing the direct reactions in the nipple and the indirect ones in the lady's general behavior, and also my own reactions, since a certain reciprocity had clearly been established between her sensitivity and mine. I conducted this delicate tactile reconnaissance not only with my fingertips but also by arranging in the most suitable fashion for my member to glide over her bosom with a grazing and encircling caress, since the position in which we had happened to find ourselves favored the encounter of these diversely erogenous zones of ours, and since she indicated her liking and her encouragement by authoritatively guiding these routes. It so happens that my skin also, along the course of the member and especially in the protuberant part of its culmination, has points and passages of special sensitivity that range from the extremely pleasant to the enjoyable to the scratchy to the painful, just as there are points and passages that are toneless or deaf. The fortuitous or calculated encounter of the different sensitive or hypersensitive terminations, hers and mine, prompted an array of various reactions, whose inventory looked to be extremely laborious for us both.

We were intent on these exercises when, rapidly, from the opening of the sliding door, Makiko's form appeared. Obviously the girl had remained in expectation of my pursuit and was now coming to see what obstacle had delayed me. She realized at once and vanished, but not so quickly as not to allow me time to notice that something in her dress had changed: she had replaced her tight sweater with a silk dressing gown which seemed made purposely to keep falling open, to become loosened by the internal pressure of what was flowering in her, to slide over her smooth skin at the first attack of that greed for contact which that smooth skin of hers could not fail, in fact, to arouse.

            "Makiko!" I cried, because I wanted to explain to her (but really I would not have known where to begin) that the position in which she had surprised me with her mother was due only to a casual confluence of circumstances that had routed along detours a desire which was unmistakably directed at her, Makiko. Desire that her silk robe, loosened or waiting to be loosened, now heightened and rewarded as in an explicit offer, so that with Makiko's apparition in my eyes and Madame Miyagi's contact on my skin I was about to be overcome by voluptuousness.

Madame Miyagi must have become clearly aware of this, for, grasping my back, she pulled me down with her on the mat and with rapid twitches of her whole person she slipped her moist and prehensile sex under mine, which without a false move was swallowed as if by a sucker, while her thin naked legs clutched my hips. She was of a sharp agility, Madame Miyagi: her feet in their white cotton socks crossed at my sacroiliac, holding me as if in a vise.

My appeal to Makiko had not gone unheard. Behind the paper panel of the sliding door there was the outline of the girl, kneeling on the mat, moving her head forward, and now from the doorway her face appeared, contracted in a breathless expression, her lips parted, her eyes widened, following her mother's and my starts with attraction and disgust. But she was not alone: beyond the corridor, in the opening of another door, a man's form was standing motionless. I have no idea how long Mr. Okeda had been there. He was staring hard, not at his wife and me but at his daughter watching us. In his cold pupil, in the firm twist of his lips, was reflected Madame Miyagi's orgasm reflected in her daughter's gaze.

            He saw that I was seeing. He did not move. I realized at that moment that he would not interrupt me, nor would he drive me from the house, that he would never refer to this episode or to others that might take place and be repeated; I realized also that this connivance would give me no power over him, nor would it make my submission less burdensome. It was a secret that bound me to him but not him to me: I could reveal to no one what he was watching without admitting an indecorous complicity on my part.

What could I do now? I was destined to become more and more ensnared in a tangle of misunderstandings, because now Makiko considered me one of her mother's numerous lovers and Miyagi knew that I lived only for her daughter, and both would make me pay cruelly, whereas the gossip of the academic community, so quick to spread, nourished by the malice of my fellow students, ready to help also in this way their master's calculations, would throw a slanderous light on my frequent presence in the Okeda home, discrediting me in the eyes of the university professors on whom I most counted to change my situation.

Though tormented by these circumstances, I managed to concentrate and subdivide the generic sensation of my sex pressed by the sex of Madame Miyagi into the compartmented sensations of the individual points of me and of her, progressively subjected to pressure by my sliding movements and her convulsive contractions. This application especially helped me to prolong the state necessary to the observation itself, delaying the precipitation of the final crisis by evincing moments of insensitivity or partial sensitivity, which in their turn merely enhanced immeasurably the immediate return of voluptuous stimuli, distributed in an unpredictable fashion in space and time. "Makiko! Makiko!" I moaned in Madame Miyagi's ear, associating convulsively those instants of hypersensitivity with the image of her daughter and the range of sensations incomparably different which I imagined she could arouse in me. And to maintain control of my reactions I thought of the description I would make of them that same evening to Mr. Okeda: the shower of little ginkgo leaves is characterized by the fact that in each moment each leaf that is falling is found at a different altitude from the others, whereby the empty and insensitive space in which the visual sensations are situated can be subdivided into a succession of levels in each of which we find one little leaf twirling and one alone.