Introduction by Venetia Welby
Natsume Sōseki is known as the father of Japanese modernist literature, and he’s arguably the big daddy of all those Japanese cat books doing the rounds too. I Am A Cat is what started it all, back in 1906, a brilliant, biting thing: the satirical tale of a stray kitten wandering Meiji Japan and remarking (at epic length) on the strange ways of the human.
This unloved kitten was based on the unwell cat in a short story Sōseki had written the year before, ‘The Cat’s Grave’, and it was this that first drew me to Ten Nights of Dreaming –these ten surreal pieces inhabit the pages of the same Dover English translation. The ten dreams were originally serialised in the Asahi Shinbun in 1908, each one a hand on the reader’s head submerging her beneath the waters to our shared unconscious – which feels a recognisable place here, though we are also, clearly, in Japan.
The dream of ‘The Third Night’ is thrillingly creepy: now we are in nightmare territory. Every word, particularly those uttered by the eerie child on the narrator’s back, is heavy. The story captures the uncanny nature of the dream, its seamless shifts, and the simultaneous knowing and not knowing therein; the nagging sense of unease that builds to horrific revelation. Like all the best bad dreams, it stays with you.
The Third Night
This is what I dreamed.
I was carrying a child of almost six on my back. It was clear to me that he was my son. Mysteriously, however, he had gone blind at some point, and his head was shaved blue.
—When did you go blind? I asked him, and he replied, —What? I’ve been blind forever. His voice was unmistakably a child’s, but he spoke just like an adult. As an equal, in fact.
Green rice paddies lay to the left and right. The path was narrow. From time to time a heron’s form flashed in the gloom.
“We’ve reached the paddies, then,” the child on my back said.
“How did you know?” I asked, twisting around to see him.
“The herons — can’t you hear them calling?” he asked.
At this a heron did indeed let out two short cries.
I was beginning to fear this child, son of mine though he be. Who knew what lay in store for me, carrying something like him on my back? Wondering if there was somewhere I could dump him, I saw a large forest in the darkness that lay ahead. No sooner had I thought That might do it than I heard a chuckle from my back.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
The child did not answer me. “Am I heavy, Father?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “You’re not heavy.”
“I will be,” he said.
Keeping the forest in sight, I walked on in silence. The path through the paddies was irregular and winding, never quite leading where I wanted to go. Finally we arrived at a fork in the road. I paused for a moment right where the roads parted to catch my breath.
“There should be a stone marker,” the boy said.
Just as he said, a small pillar of stone stood nearby, eight inches square and as tall as my waist. According to the pillar, the left fork led to Higakubo and the right to Hottahara.* Dark as it had gotten, the red lettering was clearly visible. The characters were the same red as a newt’s belly.
“You’ll want to go left,” the boy ordered. Looking left I saw the forest from before rising into the sky, casting its dark shadow down over our heads. I hesitated.
“Don’t hold back on my account,” the boy said. Seeing nothing else for it, I began walking towards the forest. There were no more forks in the path now. Sure knows a lot for a blind kid, I thought to myself as we drew near the forest, and then heard the voice from my back again: “I know it makes things difficult, my being blind.”
“I’m carrying you, aren’t I? What’s the problem?”
“I appreciate that, but I won’t put up with mockery. Especially from my own father.”
I couldn’t stand any more of this. I quickened my pace to get to the forest and dump him as soon as I could.
“You’ll understand a little further on,” the boy said from my back. Then he spoke again, as if talking to himself. “It was an evening just like this, come to think of it.”
“What was?” I asked, strain in my voice.
“’What was’!” the child sneered. “As if you didn’t know!” And with this I began to feel as if I did know, somehow. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had happened, but I was sure it had been an evening just like this one. I also felt that I would indeed, understand a little further on — and that this understanding would be a terrible thing, so it was an imperative that I dump the boy, quickly, before it could arrive. I walked even faster.
It had been raining for a while now. The path grew darker by degrees. But the little boy clinging to my back shone like a mirror from which nothing escaped, casting a merciless light on every part of my past, present and future. What’s more, this boy was my own son. And blind, at that. It was unbearable.
“This is the place, right here. Right at the root of that cedar.”
I heard the boy’s voice clearly through the rain. Before I knew what I was doing, I had stopped. We had entered the forest at some point. The black thing a few paces ahead, I had to admit, looked like a cedar tree, just as the boy said.
“It was at the root of that cedar, wasn’t it, Father?”
“Yes,” I replied, without thinking. “It was.”
“The fifth year of Bunka — the Year of the Dragon.”
Fifth year of Bunka, Year of the Dragon: this sounded right to me.
“It was exactly a hundred years ago that you killed me.”
As soon as I heard these words, the knowledge burst into my head: one hundred years ago, in the fifth year of Bunka* — the year of the dragon — on a dark evening just like this, I had killed a blind man at the root of this very cedar tree. I’m a murderer, I realized at last, and as it hit me the child on my back was suddenly as heavy as a roadside statue of Jizō.*
*1 Higakubo and … Hottahara: Actual place names in the Tokyo of Sōseki’s day
*2 Fifth year of Bunka — Year of the Dragon: This corresponds to 1808 on the Gregorian calendar, precisely 100 years before the publication of Ten Nights Dreaming.
*3 Roadside statue of Jizō:“Jizō” is the Sino-Japanese name for the bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha. In Japan, Jizō is revered as a guardian of children, particularly those who die before their parents, and statues of Jizō can commonly be found by the roadside and in cemeteries.
Taken from Ten Nights of Dreaming and The Cat’s Grave, Natsume Sōseki trans. Matt Treyvaud, with kind permission of Dover Publications (2015). Buy the book at Dover's website here.
Venetia Welby is the author of two novels, Dreamtime and Mother of Darkness. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Irish Times, Spectator, London Magazine and anthologies Garden Among Fires and Trauma, among others. www.venetiawelby.com