Dokushin (The Bachelor)
by Mori Ogai (tr. C. E. Zambrano)
Winter in Kokura is not something one would call winter. A cold wind blows from the sea to the northwest and grazes one edge of Nagato, sending the withered leaves of the tangerine trees over the sandy surface of a yard–with a rustling sound the wind makes play with the leaves for a time before finally blowing them under the veranda. As the dusk deepens on such days every house shuts its doors while the night is yet young.
Soon the land is white with snow. From time to time the sound of the denbin‘s bells can be heard as they trot along, cutting through the snow with each step.
Those who are not from these parts aren’t likely to understand what is meant by the word denbin. There are two practices which, though not seen even in Tokyo, have been imported to Kokura from abroad—this denbin is one of them. At the foot of Tokiwa Bridge stands a rounded pillar. This is for posting advertisements. The bills are in a variety of colors—red, blue, yellow—written in big letters and with pictures drawn in a rough style, advertising newly opened shops, plays and other types of public entertainment. Of course, there is only one such pillar, and since there is no need for advertisements other than what one can post here as well as upon the stone wall in Daimonmachi, handwritten advertisements are far more numerous than printed ones. Even among the pictures in these advertisements, there are no such elegant images as the affiche one might see in Paris. But in any case the fact that such a pillar exists is impressive. This pillar is the other.
The one we are concerned with now is the denbin. Ever since Heinrich von Stephen,1 born in the police state of 19th-century Germany, so masterfully developed the postal network laid throughout the land, there is certainly little inconvenience in the sending and receiving of letters; but that is for items of business that may be concluded in anywhere from a day to a month. For errands that must be concluded within a day’s time, the post will be too late. Even a rendezvous, if it is an appointment for tomorrow at such-and-such time, might be arranged by post. However, when it is an urgent matter, and one must meet this very night, the post is no good. At such times there are of course those who might send a telegram. But this is going too far.2 Such a formal method of communication is utterly lacking in delicacy. No doubt at times like these what one wants is an errand boy. Those who stand at street corners, wearing hats bearing their company’s insignia, who will undertake any errand, from the delivery of letters within the town to the carrying home of parcel’s bought while in town which one cannot be bothered to carry around—these are the denbin. In exchange for one’s letter or parcels, one receives a receipt bearing the company’s seal. The process is simple and efficient. These denbin in Kokura are none other than the errand boys we so direly needed for our rendezvous.
Now, this talk of denbin seems to have gotten rather long-winded. On snowy nights in Kokura, from outside on a quiet night can be heard the denbin’s bell—ding, ding, ding—ringing at a brisk tempo.
One also hears the sweet voice of a girl calling “kari ka kari ka, come and get it” to a tune as she passes by. She has strapped to her shoulders a tin container like that with which one goes out to collect plants, but in it she has placed the karintō3 she sells, walking along holding a small lamp.
The denbin and karintō seller are there all year, but in the summer it is rather the fortune tellers who push themselves upon the ears, and one hardly heeds the sound of the denbin’s bells or the voice of the karintō seller.
On evenings like this there are perhaps those who sit under the warmth of their okigotatsu. But actually it is not so cold.
There is ice stuck to washbasins the following morning.4 Little of this will last longer than two days. At the latest, the wind changes on the third day. Snow and ice alike melt away by then.
1) A German man known for vastly improving the postal service in Germany. Mori Ogai spent some time studying in Germany from 1884-88, during which Heinrich von Stephan was actually still alive.
2) The phrase “cutting chicken with a meat-cleaver” is used. The modern English “overkill” might be apt if this were a more recent story.
3) A cheap sweet. Karintō are basically sticks of fried dough that are coated with sugar.
4) Like in “The Bonfire,” the “tense” of this story’s first part is present. We see the past tense in most of the narration that will follow, however.
As always, thank you for reading. I’m not so sure my English is up to par in this first section of the story, but once all 6 sections have been posted I will likely repost the story in full with revisions. Until next time!