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Yoko Ogawa

Translated from the Japanese by Motoyuki Shibata

Sometimes I ask myself: How many swimming pools have I encountered throughout my life? I’ve seen them at gyms, at school playgrounds, at amusement parks, at resort hotels in southern islands.

They’ve all had different shapes and functions. Some of them had a long slide, others had artificial waves coming at you, and still others had ropes dividing lanes, stretching straight along the serene surface. But I rarely changed into my swimming suit and actually got in. Mostly, I just watched from a distance. I’ve never liked swimming.

Nevertheless, whenever I come across a pool, even when I’m in a great hurry, or with friends, I can’t help stopping to look. I detect a slight smell of chlorine, sense the presence of water and find my way there. I examine everything about the pool: its size, water temperature, depth, its maintenance, how the bottom looks, and how efficient its filtration system is.

I’m aware that scrutinizing the pool doesn’t serve any purpose, but I just can’t help myself. No matter where I am, a pool becomes a special site for me.

About a year and half ago, I visited a small town in Eastern Europe to do some research for a new novel I was planning to serialize. On the outskirts of the town, there was a Nazi concentration camp. I was accompanied by a young man, an interpreter and tour guide, and the two of us walked across the front yard past numerous tombstones. We walked through the gate and examined the barracks one by one.

“Do you see that small tunnel over there? Beyond that tunnel is  a square where the executions took place.”

Next to the opening of the tunnel, there was a swimming pool. I was surprised; I hadn’t expected to find a pool here.

There was no water in it. It was a standard size, but the poolside was quite spacious. The handrails alongside the steps that once led to the water were rusted, and weeds grew through the cracks in the concrete floor. You could tell no one had swum in it for a long time.

“Prison guards and their families enjoyed their holidays here,” the young man said. “It was built by prisoners.”

It was the most tragic-looking pool I’d ever seen. And it was also the most similar to the pool we once had in our own backyard.

When you stood poolside, you could see the gallows on the other side of the tunnel. They were so shabby and pathetic that you had to wonder if you could really kill anyone with them. 

It was early summer and the sun was shining brightly. The breeze swayed through green weeds and white butterflies. There was nothing left at poolside to tell you that this was once a swimming pool: no goggles, no deflated rubber rings, no deck chairs.

Now the pool was just a concrete hole. A huge stone tomb, filled with emptiness of immense depth.

All of a sudden, I felt sick. My heart throbbed, I felt faint. I squatted down.

“Are you all right, ma’am?” My guide was a kind young man. He immediately supported me with his arms, took me to the shade of a poplar tree and set me down. “Why don’t you rest a while. Take it easy.”

With his light brown eyes he looked into my face. He mopped the sweat off my forehead with his handkerchief, massaging my back with his other hand.

We sat there for a long time. Once in a while a few visitors walked  through the tunnel, heading for the execution square, but no one paid attention to us. It was so quiet; all you could hear was the singing of birds.

The young man looked at me from time to time, smiling sympathetically. His hand on my back was large and soft. For no good reason, I felt as if it were my brother’s hand.


My younger brother was a swimmer. A backstroker. Ever since he started going to a swimming school in our neighborhood when he was three, he had swum every day. Every single day, except when he had his appendix removed and had to stay in the hospital for five days, and when the swimming school was flooded because of a typhoon. In my memory, my brother’s hair is always wet.

When he wasn’t swimming, my brother was usually hiding somewhere in our house. Behind the cabinet, between the dishwasher and the fridge, in the storage space along the edge of the landing—those were his favorite spots. He’d crouch there, too cramped to be comfortable, but he looked as if he believed good things would happen to him if he made himself small enough. The smaller, the better.

When our housekeeper got our dinner ready, it was my job to go around telling everyone. My father would be in his office drinking saké. My mother would be in the backyard drying my brother’s swimsuit, or in her room charting the results of the race he had participated in, or reading a book on swimming. Whatever she was doing, it had something to do with my brother. And my brother was the hardest to find. There were a great many hiding places in our house, and he was a quiet boy.

When I found him, I would pat him on the top of his head and he would look up, as if to say, “Okay, I’m coming.” If he was doing his homework he would put it away, or if he was listening to the transistor he would take out his earphones and switch off the radio. He would gradually emerge, dusting off his pants.

He moved extremely slowly in the house. Opening the door to our dining room, or reaching for the pepper on the table, he stretched out his arm as if hesitating, almost timidly. I assumed it was because he stayed in water so long that he no longer felt comfortable out of it.

My brother was two years younger than I, but for many years I felt like he was the older one. In his fifth or sixth year at grade school, his record started getting better and better. He went to distant towns I’d never seen, to take part in competitions. His photos appeared in the local papers, and coaches from other swimming schools paid us a visit, hoping to recruit him. All this made him look older than he actually was. He had to practice every day and had no time to play with friends. If he did have a little time, he hid himself away. That was his only relief.

He knew so much, though. He told me about things I couldn’t believe he’d had time to learn: the material and structure of a beehive; Tchaikovsky’s relationship with his nephew; how to make cottage cheese; the definition of zero and infinity.

None of it seemed to be of much practical value, but it did impress me. He didn’t brag about his knowledge; he talked as if he were telling a fairy tale, sprinkling it with humor. From between the bureau and the wall, or under the kitchen sink, his voice sounded thoughtful and contemplative.


It was when my brother was in his second or third year at grade school that he told me about his former life.

“I was attacked by bats and killed,” he told me. “It was a long time ago, before our grandmothers were born, or our great-grandmothers, or our great-great-grandmothers. I was a shepherd, but one day I wandered into a cave and vampire bats tore me to pieces. That’s how I died.”

“Not a very glorious way to die,” I said.

“It was dark and humid inside the cave. All the bats started flapping their wings at the same time, which made it even darker. I couldn’t see anything. I could hear the bells on my sheeps’ necks in the distance.”

Then my brother told me in detail about the moment he died. The shape of bats’ fangs, the smell of blood spurting out, how it felt to have his flesh ripped from his bones; he remembered everything.

A horrible story, but I wasn’t scared in the least. In fact, I felt excited. I thought being a shepherd was excellent work for my brother. A shepherd only ran around in fields. He didn’t have to swim in pools.

“And then I had to enter my mother’s womb, so I ran really hard inside the cave. I was worried I might miss it. But I finally made it, just in the nick of time.”

I wondered if our mother’s womb had really been his destination. Could it be that my brother had made a mistake? I was tormented with doubt. It was a cruel thought, crueler than the vision of his bloody death. I didn’t dare talk about it.

“The next time I die,” my brother said, “I don’t want you to bury me in the earth.”

“Why not?”

“Because I hate slugs. Burn me to ashes, and put me inside you. That’s the best way.”

My brother knew where he’d come from, and where he would go.


The house we lived in was a Western-style building our grandfather, an artist, built for himself. It was spacious enough, but it needed repairs.

I still don’t know for sure how our father made a living. Probably by selling off our grandfather’s paintings and other things he’d inherited. Our summer house by the sea had been already sold when I was very small.

Yet my father did engage in the antique business. He had studied art while he lived in Europe as a young man. He didn’t have any place of business—people just came to our house, leaving some glassware, tableware, or jewelry with my father, who eventually found a buyer for it. Strange men would come and spend time in my father’s office.

Our mother lived solely to love my brother—to love him in her own way. My brother was doing well at competitions: that was her greatest joy. She made every kind of sacrifice for him, and demanded that my father and I do the same. She researched manufacturers of swimsuits the world over to obtain the swimsuit with the least possible resistance. She went to school to acquire a dietician’s license. She idolized a dubious fortune-teller, and with his help did her best to improve my brother’s astrological fortune. She sold some of our grandfather’s paintings without my father’s permission, and donated the money to the swimming school so they could buy an underwater camera.

“This boy is doing something none of you can do,” my mother would often say. And she was right. 

Neither my father nor I could swim a hundred-meter backstroke. My brother, on the other hand, established a new junior high-school record when he was fourteen.

The only time we all went out together was when my brother took part in a race. Even my father, who usually just fooled around with his antiques and was indifferent to his family, reluctantly obeyed his wife on those days.

“Who will root for him if his family doesn’t?” my mother said to my father. “This is the only chance you have to remind him that you are his father.”

Whether it was an outdoor or indoor pool, whether it was brand-new or old and shabby, the seats in the grandstand were always cold and hard. The smell common to all pools rose from beneath our feet.

The whole Sunday was lost to my brother’s race, but I was never resentful. I loved watching my brother swim; he swam so beautifully. Much more elegantly than the other kids. His hips moved steadily along the surface, his ankles were supple, and his arms captured water precisely. Everything was in perfect harmony. Even if he didn’t win, I was satisfied just watching him swim.

The big problem was how to quiet our mother. She always went berserk cheering for him. She stood up, stamped her feet, and hollered like a banshee, holding in one of her hands what her fortune-teller had told her was that day’s lucky item: a rose, a silver fork, or a wine opener. Without letting go of that talisman, she dexterously handled her camera and took numerous snapshots. I once told her that she was just wasting film because she could never photograph his face from this distance. But she wouldn’t listen.

“Lady, sit down for God’s sake,” other spectators around her complained. Some of them looked at one another, grinning resignedly. But nothing affected her. Even if my brother did wonderfully, I was often made miserable by our mother’s behavior.

My father drank, even at the pool. He would sneak out a small bottle from his pocket and take a sip. “The guy on lane 4, he would be .3 seconds shorter if he improved on his turns,” he would mumble to himself. “That kid on lane 6 is no good. He was so-so until the semifinal, but is totally uncoordinated in the final.” Yet he never commented on my brother.

When the race was over, my mother would proceed to the locker room and embrace my brother. People stared, but she didn’t care.

“You did a great job. I’m so proud of you,” she said, no matter how he did in the race. She was convinced that praising him all the time and feeding him self-confidence would lead to better results. She picked up that idea in How to Control Sporting Spirits, a book she was often reading.

The two of them looked as if they were dancing. My brother left his body to our mother, looking neither embarrassed nor annoyed. He just stared off into the distance. His eyes looked as if he were mulling over some profound problem, something far more serious than the backstroke.

I stayed aside, praying that this ritual would be over soon. My father leaned on the wall, belching. The collar of my brother’s sportswear was tainted by my mother’s lipstick. Her shrill voice reverberated through the dim corridor.

In those days my brother kept our family united, though barely. His backstroke was the source of everything; it was our sole grace.


“We’ll build a pool in the backyard,” our mother announced one day, shortly before my brother started junior high.

“Which backyard?” my father asked, appalled. Our housekeeper emitted a sound that might have meant admiration or shock. My brother was sitting behind the cabinet, his back turned to us.

“In our backyard—where else?” my mother said.

We did have a backyard, but I didn’t think it was spacious enough for a pool. My mother was utterly confident.

The construction started immediately. The brick path was torn off, the lawn dug up, the sundeck demolished. Soon there was a swimming pool, of 18m x 7m. It occupied almost the whole yard. Its presence was overwhelming, dwarfing the house itself. We had to step carefully so we wouldn’t fall in going from the gate to the front door, or passing between the hedge and the edge of the pool. Anyone visiting our house was shocked when they got to the gate and saw what we’d done.

We could see the pool from every room in the house. In fact, it was all we could see. I didn’t think such a tiny pool would be of any use for my brother, but he dutifully used it every day, except in mid-winter. He used it to check on his form, or to practice his turn.

“Pull in your chin,” my mother’s voice echoed. My brother’s coach had pointed out that the position of his chin was the only flaw in his swimming.

Though absurdly situated, our pool was stunning. The blue at the bottom and the color of the clear water merged beautifully, and the mixture shimmered in the sun, and in the dark of the night. Even dead leaves and bugs began to sparkle as soon as they fell in the water, as if they had become something special and charmed.

The pool looked even more beautiful when my brother was swimming in it. The waves spreading from his body, the splashes leaping out from around his toes, the sense of the air he breathed in—everything adorned the pool lovingly.

The change started on my brother’s fifteenth birthday. He had grown more than six inches in a year, had developed more muscles, and his swimming was a lot more dynamic. He was taller so he was even more cramped in his little hideouts, but the habit hadn’t worn off. He had been chosen to be one of the candidates for the coming Olympic Games, and was scheduled to leave for the United States in a week, to swim in the Junior World Championship.

I gave him a Brahms LP that he’d asked for as a present: Brahms’ First Symphony. He said he’d tape it and listen while he was on the plane. I wasn’t sure if it was the right kind of music for travel. To me, the opening sounded so lonely and ominous.

On that day, so many things went wrong. First, the telephone went out of order—there was no sound coming out of it when you lifted the receiver. The television was next—it switched itself off all of a sudden, and nothing doing after that. No use pushing and pulling all the buttons. Our housekeeper had made a whole pot of stew, but just when she lowered it from the stove both handles of the pot snapped off. The rusty iron flakes rained on the white stew.

The good-natured lady kept apologizing, almost in tears.

“Don’t you worry,” my mother cheered her up. “The pot and stew took on all the bad luck for us. There’s nothing to worry about now. Our boy will surely win in America.”

But that was by no means the end of it. When my brother got up the next morning, he had his left arm raised, and after that, he never brought it down.

I didn’t worry much when I saw him coming down the stairs that way, assuming he probably had stiff shoulders, or maybe he was practicing imagery training. But even after he came out of the bathroom and sat at the kitchen table, he stayed in that position.

“What’s wrong, honey?” My mother spoke up first. “Why do you keep your arm raised?”

I asked him, too. It was impossible not to. But he wouldn’t say anything.

The left arm was shot up like an arrow—the elbow, the fingers, all were in a straight line—and stuck to the ear. The palm faced front. It looked as if he had been in the middle of a stroke but suddenly stopped just before the left hand went into the water. There was nothing wrong with the rest of his body. I watched his whole body closely, but everything was normal. Still, his left arm couldn’t have looked weirder.

He ate his breakfast with his left arm like that. Using only his right hand he managed to spread butter on his toast, drizzle honey on it, slice ham with a knife and drink milk. He didn’t seem to feel inconvenienced at all. He looked like someone who had always gotten by with only one arm.

“Put your hand down,” my mother said. “You look terrible. Besides, your arm will get fatigued. What’ll you do if anything goes wrong with your shoulder? You are about to swim in a very important race. Why don’t you say anything? Just cut that out. Put your hand back to the normal position, for God’s sake.”

My mother grabbed his arm, tried to force it down, but it wouldn’t budge. The arm was firmly stuck there, as if it and the ear had become inseparable while he was asleep. My mother was pulling with all her might, but my brother was calmly sipping his tea.

“Leave him alone,” our father said.

Why was he doing this? Why didn’t he put his arm down? The question was constantly repeated, but my brother never told us why. Not only did he not tell us why, but now he almost said nothing at all. He wouldn’t go to school, he didn’t go into the pool. Needless to say, the trip to the U.S. was canceled. He withdrew even further.

He seemed to find every possible hiding place in our house. In the laundry basket; inside the fireplace after the fire had gone out; beneath the sofa; behind the bundled curtains… he would locate those unlikely spots, squeeze himself in and crouch there for hours. The arm remained in the same position. With one arm raised, it was easier to squeeze into a small space.

All attempts were made to save him. A great many psychiatrists, counselors, psychologists and clerics interviewed him. Our mother went to see her fortune-teller every day. My brother was put into a hospital. He even went to live in the mountains for a change of air. But nothing worked. My brother never put down, even for a moment, his left arm. He never even relaxed his elbow, or slightly turned his palm. With his arm just that way, he took baths, read books, changed his clothes.

I grew suspicious, even though I loved him. I thought he might put his arm down while no one was watching. He had to get tired of this game, right? So I once sneaked a look into his room. I was extremely careful, taking a peek from the crack between the door and the frame. My brother was about to listen to Brahms’ First Symphony. Using only his right hand he pulled the record out of the sleeve, sprayed cleaning fluid on it, and put the needle down. He adjusted the volume, opened the window about two inches, and lay down on his bed. The left arm was just as it always was. Not even a millimeter different from the established position.

My mother became hysterical. She fell into despair. “Pull in your chin, pull in your chin,” she mumbled to herself all day long. She immersed herself even further in the world of fortunetelling. Frightened of curses and spells, she turned half of our drawing room into a bathroom, claiming that the room faced an ill-fated direction. She regularly changed the wallpaper throughout the house according to the lucky color of each month, based on what her fortune-teller told her. My father sunk into the bottomless world of alcohol.

Yet we never drained the pool. No one swam there, but the pool was filled with water to the brim. We knew that we would lose all hope if it went dry.


Five years. My brother turned twenty, and I was twenty-two. The time of his life when he could swim at his fastest was passing quickly. The Olympic Games had come and gone. The next one was to be held the following year.

I had graduated from college, and found a job at a manufacturer of seals. On my days off I wrote fiction just for myself. Our housekeeper got married and left. The day she went away, she stroked my brother’s arm, which had remained raised up all those years. She wept. My brother had dropped out of high school, made no attempt to find any job and just stayed home every day. He helped our father once in a while, sorting out and packing his wares. Though he used only one hand, he never dropped or damaged a single precious antique.

In five years, you can get used to almost anything. We were accustomed to my brother’s unnatural posture by now. No one tried to force him back.

Cut off from circulation, his left arm gradually turned livid. The fingertips were worst, like dead twigs. The shoulder joints became stiff, the skin turned dry, the muscles withered. When you touched his arm by accident, it felt alarmingly cold. It seemed that his left arm had simply decided to die, without consulting the rest of his body.

Things had changed in a way we’d never expected, yet my relationship with my brother was still pretty much the same. He still knew a lot of things, and he enjoyed impressing me. He often invited me to his hidden “abode” when we were alone. Only it was difficult for both of us to squeeze in, so I just stuck in my head. Our faces were close to each other, and we could talk.

“Do you think this is strange?” my brother asked me about his left arm one time. We were in the narrow space between the bookshelf and the wall. We had brought in pancakes and cocoa, and had been talking about nothing much. He made the pancakes.

I shook my head. I really meant it. “It’s alright,” I said.


“Sure. I love to see you this way.”

“I let everyone down.”

“Do whatever you want to do. You’ve been chased by stopwatches for so long, now it’s time to relax.”

The space was dim, and his face was in shadow. He might have smiled, or he might have sadly looked down. I couldn’t tell. His right shoulder was hunched, and his knees were folded. His left arm was in the deepest corner, lurking in the dark.

He took a bite of a pancake. 

“These are great,” I said. “Thank you.”

He nodded shyly, his fork still in his mouth. I wanted to remember this aroma for a long time to come, even if my brother went somewhere far away.

On my twenty-third birthday, I asked him for a present: to let me see him swim, just once more. I had to muster my courage to ask. I was afraid he might get me wrong and think that I wanted him to put his arm back. I just hoped to see him swim the backstroke, no matter what position his left arm was in. That was all I wanted.

I needn’t have worried: he agreed at once. It was a late spring night, and though there was no wind, the chilly air surrounded our feet when we got near the swimming pool. The water was clean. Not a single piece of trash floated on the surface. The four lights dimly illuminated the water.

As usual, our father was passed out in his office, and our mother was at her fortune-teller’s. There were no lights on in the house, and only the pool was alive and breathing.

“Don’t try too hard,” I said, suddenly worried. “Just stay afloat—that’s enough for me.”

“Yes,” he said, his back turned to me. I found that his body hadn’t declined as much as I’d feared. His chest was still thick, and there was no flab in the stomach. He had hardly changed from the days when he was a swimmer.

But that made his left arm even more incongruous. It no longer seemed part of his body. It retained absolutely no trace of the ability to make powerful strokes. It seemed as though all his agony was concentrated in his arm, and the outstretched limb shot up into the air like a fossil.

My brother put one foot into the water, then the other. Small waves spread rings over the surface. He bent his knees and sank his head into the pool. His hair got wet in no time. It was just like the old days. I heard the water drip.

He floated effortlessly. His body hadn’t forgotten the feel of the pool. The light, once it permeated the water, was even clearer, illuminating his skin. My brother was surrounded by water and light.

His ankles bent nicely, and the arm—though only the right arm—arched in the dark, went into the water, and resurfaced, drawing a beautiful curve. Water splashed from his fingertips. His eyes kept looking at a single spot, and the line of his body, from his back to his hips, slid along the surface like a knife. There was no unnecessary movement whatsoever. Everything was in complete harmony-—even the left arm.

Squatting on what little was left of the lawn, I watched my brother. He made a turn when he got to the end, and swam another lap. Between us, there was only the sound of water. My brother was offering me whatever I wanted, just by swimming his backstroke.

Then, all of a sudden, his left arm came apart from his shoulder. 

It drifted away, like a snapped branch or a rotten fruit. I almost shouted, then I covered my mouth with my hand. My brother’s swimming didn’t change at all. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, and no blood came out. He swam by in front of me so gracefully. He touched the wall with his right hand, curled himself, and made a quick turn. The left arm was buoyed on the waves created by his strokes, and it drifted across the surface, slightly changing its direction.

I tried to pick the arm up. I knelt poolside, not caring if I got wet, and reached for it. The water felt cold. I wanted to draw his arm into my arms, nestle my cheek against it, give my warmth to it. I thought that was all I could do.

But no matter how far I stretched, the arm remained just beyond reach.


“How do you feel now, ma’am?” the young man asked.

“Much better, thank you.”

We could hear the leaves of the poplars rustle when the wind blew. The sunlight was as strong as ever. The young man kept stroking my back.

Once drained, the pool rapidly deteriorated. There were soon deeper cracks in the concrete, the drain got rusty and filled with trash. The pool remained in that condition for a long time: the ruins of our family.

When our father died of cirrhosis, they couldn’t carry the coffin across the yard, and had to pass diagonally across the bottom of the pool to take it to the hearse. My mother threw everything concerning my brother’s backstroke into the pool, and burned it all: swimsuits, journals, graphs, photos, trophies. Traces of soot remained on the bottom of the pool, just ashes.

I hear from my brother about once a month. There’s a shell-shaped pool in the courtyard of the hospital, he writes. We can use it whenever we like. It’s a clean and pleasant pool. We patients take turns cleaning it. It’s not a very big pool, and you get to the other end in four strokes. It would be nice to have a bigger pool, but I can’t really complain. I still swim the backstroke only. Everyone praises my swim, and I feel very proud. Every time he writes, he writes about the pool. It’s already ten years since he was committed.

“Would you like to go back to the hotel for a rest? I can go to the parking lot and get the car here.”

“No, that’s all right. Thank you. Let’s go and see the gallows.”

I stood up. The young man supported my shoulder.


About the author

Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962 in Okayama prefecture and now lives in Ashiya, Japan. Her fiction has been published in Manoa and The New Yorker, and a collection of her novellas is due out from Picador next year. ​

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