The Magic Chalk by KOBO ABE
Next door to the toilet of an apartment building on the edge of the city, in a room soggy with roof leaks and cooking vapors, lived a poor artist named Argon.
The small room, nine feet square, appeared to be larger than it was because it contained nothing but a single chair set against the wall. His desk, shelves, paint box, even his easel had been sold for bread. Now only the chair and Argon were left. But how long would these two remain?
Dinnertime drew near. “How sensitive my nose has become!” Argon thought. He was able to distinguish the colors and proximity of the complex aromas entering his room. Frying port at the butcher’s along the streetcar line: yellow ocher. A southerly wind drifting by the front of the fruit stand: emerald green. Wafting from the bakery: stimulating chrome yellow. And the fish the housewife below was broiling, probably mackerel: sad cerulean blue.
This fact is, Argon hadn’t eaten anything all day. With a pale face, a wrinkled brow, an Adam’s apple that rose and fell, a hunched back, a sunken abdomen, and trembling knees, Argon thrust both hands into his pocket and yawned three times in succession.
His fingers found a stick in his pocket.
“Hey, what’s this? Red chalk. Don’t remember it being there.”
Playing with the chalk between his fingers, he produced another yawn.
“Aah, I need something to eat.”
Without realizing it, Argon began scribbling on the wall with the chalk. First, an apple. One that looked big enough to be a meal in itself. He drew a paring knife beside it so that he could eat it right away. Next, swallowing hard as baking smells curled through the hallway and window to permeate his room, he drew bread. Jam-filled bread the size of a baseball glove. Butter-filled rolls. a loaf as large as a person’s head. He envisioned glossy browned spots on the bread. Delicious-looking cracks, dough bursting through the surface, the intoxicating aroma of yeast. Beside the bread, then, a stick of butter a large a a brick. He thought of drawing some coffee. Freshly brewed, steaming coffee. In a large jug-like cup. On a saucer, three matchbox-size sugar cubes.
“Damn it!” He ground his teeth and buried his face in his hands. “I’ve got to eat!”
Gradually, his consciousness sank into darkness. Beyond the windowpane was a bread and pastry jungle, a mountain of canned goods, a sea of milk, a beach of sugar, a beef and cheese orchard— he scampered about until, fatigued, he fell asleep.
A heavy thud on the floor and the sound of mashing crockery woke him up. The sun had already set. Pitch black. Bewildered, he glanced toward the noise and gasped. A broken cup. The spilled liquid, still steaming, was definitely a coffee, and near it where the apple, bread, butter, sugar, spoon, knife, and (luckily unbroken) the saucer. The pictures he had chalked on the wall had vanished.
“How could it…?”
Suddenly every vein in his body was wide awake and pounding. Argon stealthily crept closer.
“No, no, it can’t be. But look, it’s real. Nothing fake about smothering aroma of this coffee. And here, the bread is smooth to the touch. Be bold, taste it. Argon, don’t you believe it’s real even now? Yes, it’s real. I believe it. But frightening. To believe it is frightening. And yet, it’s real. It’s edible!”
The apple tasted like an apple (a “snow” apple). The bread tasted like bread (American flour). The butter tasted like butter (same contents as the label on the wrapper— not margarine). The sugar tasted like sugar (sweet). Ah, they all tasted like the real thing. The knife gleamed, reflecting his face.
By the time he came to his senses, Argon had somehow finished eating and heaved a sigh of relief. But when he recalled why he had sighed like this, he immediately became confused again. He took the chalk in his fingers and stared at it intently. No matter how much he scrutinized it, he couldn’t understand what he didn’t understand. He decided to make sure by trying it once more. If he succeeded a second time, then he would have to concede that it had actually happened. He thought he would try to draw something different, but in his haste just drew another familiar-looking apple. As soon as he finished drawing, it fell easily from the wall. So this is real after all. A repeatable fact.
Joy suddenly turned his body rigid. The tips of his nerves broke through his skin and stretched out toward the universe, rustling like fallen leaves. Then, abruptly, the tension eased, and sitting down on the floor, he burst out laughing like a panting goldfish.
“The laws of the universe have changed. My fate has changed, misfortune has taken its leave. Ah, the age of fulfillment, a world of desires realized… God, I’m sleepy. Well, then I’ll draw a bed. This chalk has became as precious as life itself, but a bed is sometimes you always need after eating your fill, and it never really wears out, so no need to be miserly about it. Ah, for the first time in my life I’ll sleep like a lamb.”
One eye soon fell asleep, but the other lay awake after today’s contentment he was uneasy about what tomorrow might bring. However, the other eye, too, finally closed in sleep. With eyes working out of sync he dreamed mottled dreams throughout the night.
Well, this worrisome tomorrow dawned in the following manner.
He dreamed that he was being chased by a ferocious beast and fell off a bridge. He had fallen off the bed… No, when he awoke , there was no bed anywhere. As usual, there was nothing, but that one chair. Then what had happened last night? Argon timidly looked around the wall, tilting his head.
There, in red chalk, were drawings of a cup (it was broken!), a spoon, a knife, apple, peel, and a butter wrapper. Below these was a bed— a picture of the bed off which he has supposed to have fallen.
Among all of last night’s drawing, only those he could not eat had once again become a pictures and returned to the wall. Suddenly he felt pain in his hip and shoulder. Pain in precisely the place he should feel it if he had indeed fallen out of bed. He gingerly touched the sketch of the bed where the sheets had been rumpled by sleep and felt a slight warm, clearly distinguishable from the coldness of the drawing.
He brushed his finger along the blade of the knife picture. It was certainly nothing more than chalk; there was no resistance, and it disappeared leaving only a smear. As a test he decided to draw a new apple. It neither turned into a real apple and fell nor even peeled off like a piece of unglued paper, but rather vanished beneath his chafed palm into the surface of the wall.
His happiness had been merely a single night’s dream. It was all over, back to what it was before anything had happened. Or was it really? No, his misery had returned fivefold. His hunger pangs attacked him fivefold. It seemed that all he had eaten had been restored in his stomach to the original substances of wall and chalk powder.
When he had gulped from his cupped hands a pint or so of water from the communal sink, he set out toward the lonely city, enveloped in the mist of early dawn. Leaning over an open drain that ran from the kitchen of a restaurant about a hundred yards ahead, he thrust his hands into the viscous, tarlike sewage and pulled something out. It was a basket made of wire netting. He washed it in a small brook nearby. What was left iin it seemed edible, and he was particularly heartened that half of it looked like a rice. An old man in his apartment building had told him recently that by placing the basket in the drain one could obtain enough food for a meal a day. Just about a month ago the man had found the means to afford bean curd lees, so he had ceded the restaurant drain to the artist.
Recalling last night’s feast, this was indeed muddy, unsavory fare. But it wasn’t not magic. What actually helped filled his stomach was precious and so could not be rejected. Even if its nastiness made him aware of every swallow, he must eat it. Shit. This was the real thing.
Just before noon he entered the city and dropped in on a friend who was employed at a bank. The friend smiled wryly and asked, “My turn today?”
Stiff and expressionless, Argon nodded. As always, he received half of his friend’s lunch, bowed deeply and left.
For the rest of the day, Argon thought.
He held the chalk lightly in his hands, leaned back in the chair, and as he sat absorbed in his daydreams about magic, anticipating began to crystallize around that urgent longing. Finally evening once again drew near. His hope that at sunset the magic might take effect had changed into near confidence.
Somewhere a noisy radio announced that it was five o’clock. He stood up and on the wall drew bread and butter, a can of sardines, and coffee not forgetting to add a table underneath so as to prevent anything from falling and breaking as had occurred the previous night. Then he waited.
Before long darkness began to craw quietly up the wall from the corners of the room. In order to verify the course of the magic, he turned on the light. He had already confirmed last night that electric light did it no harm.
The sun had set. The drawings on the wall began to fade, as if his vision had blurred. It seemed as if a mist was caught between the wall and his eyes. The pictures grew increasingly faint, and the mist grew dense. And soon, just as he had anticipated, the mist had settled into solid shapes—success! The contents of the pictures suddenly appeared as real objects.
“Oh, forget a can opener.”
He held his left hand underneath to catch it before it fell, as he drew, the outlines took on material form. His drawing had literally come to life.
All of a sudden, he stumbled over something. Last night’s bed “existed” again. Moreover, the knife handle (he had erased the table with his finger), the butter wrapper, and the broken cup lay fallen on the floor.
After filling his empty stomach, Argon lay down on the bed.
“Well, what shall it be next? It’s clear now that the magic doesn’t work in daylight. Tomorrow I’ll have to suffer all over again. There must be a simple way out of this. Ah, yes! a brilliant plan— I’ll cover up the window and shut myself in darkness.”
He would need some money to carry out the project. To keep out of the sun required some objects that would not lose their substance when expose to sunlight. But drawing money is a bit difficult. He racked his brains, then drew a purse full of money… The idea was a success, for when he opened up the purse he found more than enough bills stuffed inside.
The money, like the counterfeit coins that badgers made from tree leaves in the fairy tale, would disappear in the light of the day, but it would leave no trace behind, and that was a great relief. He was cautious nonetheless and deliberately proceeded toward a distant town. Two heavy blankets, five sheets of black woolen cloth, a piece of felt, a box of nails, and four pieces of squared lumbers. In addition, one volume of a cookbook collection that caught his eye in a secondhand bookstore along the way. With the remaining money he bought a cup of coffee, not in the least superior to the coffee he had drawn on the wall. He was (why?) proud of himself. Lastly, he bought a newspaper.
He nailed the door shut, then attached two layers of cloth and a blanket. With the rest of the material, he covered the window, and he blocked the edges with the wood. A feeling of security, and at the same time, a sense of being attack by eternity, weighed upon him. Argon’s mind grew distant, and lying down on the bed, he soon fell asleep.
Sleep neither diminished nor neutralized his happiness in the slightest. When he awoke, the steel springs throughout his body were coiled and ready to leap, full of life. A new day, a new time… tomorrow wrapped in a mist glittering gold dust, and the day after tomorrow, and more and more overflowing armfuls of tomorrows were waiting expectantly. Argon smiled. overcome with joy. Now at this very moment, everything, without any hindrance whatsoever, was waiting eagerly among myriad possibilities to be created by his own hand. It was a brilliant moment. But what, in the depths of his heart, was this faintly aching sorrow? It might have been the the sorrow that God had felt just before Creation. Beside the muscles of his smile, smaller muscles twitched slightly.
Argon drew a large clock. With trembling hand he set the clock precisely at twelve, determining at that moment the start of a new destiny.
He thought the room was a bit stuffy, so he drew a window on the wall facing the hallway. Hm, what’s wrong? The window didn’t materialize. Perplexed for a moment, he then realized that the window could not acquire any substance because it did not have an outside; it was not equipped with all the conditions necessary to make it a window.
“Well, then, shall I draw an outside? What kind of view would be nice? Shall it be the Alps or the Bay of Naples? A quiet pastoral scene wouldn’t be bad. Then, again a primeval Siberian forest might be interesting.”
All the beautiful landscapes he had seen on postcards and in travel guides flickered before him. But he had to choose one from among them all, and he couldn’t make up his mind. “Well, let’s attend to pleasure first,” he decided. He drew some whiskey and cheese and, as he nibbled, slowly thought about it.
The more he thought, the less he understood.
“This isn’t going to be easy. It could involve work on a larger scale than anything I– or anyone–has ever tried to design. In fact, now that I think about it, it wouldn’t do simply draw a few streams and orchards, mountains and seas, and other things pleasing to the eye. Suppose I drew a mountain; it would no longer be just a mountain. What would be beyond it? A city? A sea? A desert? What kind of people would be living there? What kind of animals? Unconsciously I would be deciding those things. No, making this window a window is serious business. It involves the creation of a world. Defining a world with just a few lines. Would it be right to leave that to chance? No, the scene outside can’t be casually drawn. I must produce the kind of picture that no human hand has yet achieved.”
Argon sank into deep contemplation.
The first week passed in discontent as he pondered a design for a world of infinitude. Canvases once again lined his room, and the smell of turpentine hung in the air. Dozens of rough sketches accumulated in a pile. The more he thought, however, the more extensive the problem became, until finally he felt it was all too much for him. he thought he might boldly leave it up to chance, but in that case his efforts to create a new world would come to nothing. And if he merely captured the inevitably of partial reality, the contradictions inherent in that reality would pull him back into the past, perhaps trapping him again in starvation. Besides, the chalk had a limited life-span. He had to capture the world.
The second week flew by in inebriation and gluttony.
The third week passed in despair resembling insanity.
Once again his canvases lay covered with dust, and the smell of oils had faded.
In the fourth week Argon finally made up his mind, a result of nearly total desperation. He just couldn’t wait any longer. In order to evade the the responsibility of creating with his own hand an outside for the window, he decided to take a great rick that would leave everything to chance.
“I’ll draw a door on the wall. The outside will be decided by whatever is beyond the door. Even if it ends in failure, even if it turns out to be the same apartment scene as before, it’ll be far better than being tormented by this responsibility. I don’t care what happens, better to escape.”
Argon put on a jacket for the first time in a long while. It was a ceremony in honor of the establishment of the world, so one couldn’t say he was being extravagant. With a stiff hand he lowered the chalk of destiny. A picture of the door. He was breathing hard. No wonder. wasn’t the sight beyond the door the greatest mystery a man could contemplate? Perhaps death was awaiting him as reward.
He grasped the knob. He took a step back and opened the door.
Dynamite pierced his eyes, exploding. After a while he opened them fearfully to an awesome wasteland glaring in the noonday sun. As far as he could see, with the exception of the horizon, there was not a single shadow. To the extent that he could peer into the dark sky, not a single cloud. A hot dry wind blew past, stirring up a dust storm.
“Aah… It’s just as though the horizon line in one of my designs had become the landscape itself. Aah…”
The chalk hadn’t resolved anything after all. He still had to create it all from the beginning. He had to fill this desolate land with mountains, water, clouds, tress, plants, birds, beasts, fish. He had to draw the world all over again. Discouraged, Argon collapsed onto the bed. One after another, tears fell unceasingly.
Something rustled in his pocket. It was the newspaper he had bought on that first day and forgotten about. The headline on the first page read, “Invasion Across 38th Parallel!” On the second page, an even larger space devoted to a photograph of Miss Nippon. Underneath, in small print, “Riot at N Ward Employment Security Office,” and “Large-scale Dismissals at U factory.”
Argon stared at the half-naked Miss Nippon. What intense longing. What a body. Flesh of glass.
“This is what I forgot. Nothing else matters. It’s time to begin everything from Adam and Eve. That’s it—Eve! I’ll draw Eve!”
Half an hour later Eve was standing before him, stark naked. Startled, she look around her.
“Oh! Who are you? What’s happened? Golly, I’m naked!”
“I am Adam. You are Eve.” Argon blushed bashfully.
“I’m Eve, you say? Ah, no wonder I’m naked. But why are you wearing clothes? Adam, in Western dress—now that’s weird.”
Suddenly her tone changed.
“You’re lying! I’m not Eve. I’m Miss Nippon.”
“You’re Eve. You really are Eve.”
“You expect me to believe this is Adam— in those clothes—in a dump like this? Come on, give me back my clothe. What am I doing here anyway? I’m due to make a special modeling appearance at a photo contest.”
“Oh, no. You don’t understand. You’re Eve, I mean it.”
“Give me a break, will you? Okay, where’s the apple? And I suppose this is the Garden of Eden? Ha, don’t make me laugh. Now give me my clothes.”
“Well, at least listen to what I have to stay. Sit down over there. Then I’ll explain everything. By the way, can I offer you something to eat?”
“Yes, go ahead. But hurry up and give me my clothes, okay? My body’s valuable.”
“What would you like? Choose anything you want from this cookbook.”
“Oh, great! Really? The place is filthy but you must be pretty well fixed. I’ve changed my mind. Maybe you really are Adam after all. What do you do for a living? Burglar?”
“No, I’m Adam. Also an artist, and a world planner.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. That’s why I’m depressed.”
Watching Argon draw the food with swift strokes as he spoke, Eve shouted, “Hey, great, that’s great. This is Eden, isn’t it? Wow. Yeah, okay, I’ll be Eve. I don’t mind being Eve. We’re going to get rich—right?”
“Eve, please listen to me.”
In a sad voice, Argon told her his whole story, adding finally, “So you see, with your cooperation we must design this world. Money’s irrelevant. We have to start from everything from scratch.”
Miss Nippon was dumbfounded.
‘Money’s irrelevant, you say? I don’t understand. I don’t get it. I absolutely do not understand.”
“If you’re going to talk like that, well, why, don’t you open this door and take a look outside.”
She glanced through the door Argon had left half open.
“My God! How awful!”
She slammed the door shut and glared at him.
“But how about this door,” she said, pointing to his real, blanketed door. “Different, I’ll bet.”
“No, don’t. That one’s no good. It will just wipe out the world, the food, desk, bed, even you. You are the new Eve. And we must become the father and mother of our world.”
“Oh no. No babies. I’m all for birth control. I mean, they’re such a bother. And besides, I won’t disappear.”
“You will disappear.”
“I won’t. I know myself my best. I’m me. All this talk about disappearing—you’re really weird.”
“My dear Eve, you don’t now. If we don’t recreate the world, then sooner or late we’re faced with starvation.”
“What calling me ‘dear’ now, are you? You’ve got nerve. And you say I’m going to starve. Don’t be ridiculous. My body’s valuable”
“No your body’s the same as my chalk. If we don’t acquire a world of our own, your existence will just be a fiction. The same as nothing at all.”
“Okay, that’s enough of this junk. Come on, give me back my clothes. I’m leaving. No two ways about it, my being here is weird. I shouldn’t be here. You’re a magician or something. Well, hurry up. My manager’s just probably fed up with waiting. If you want me to drop in and be your Eve every now and then, I don’t mind. As long as you use your chalk to give me what I want.”
“Don’t be a fool! You can’t do that.”
The abrupt, violent tone of Argon’s voice startled her, and she looked into his face. They both stared at each other for a moment in silence. Whatever was in her thoughts, she then said calmly, “All right, I’ll stay. But in exchange, will you grant me one wish?”
“What is it? If you stay with me, I’ll listen to anything you have to say.”
“I want half of your chalk.”
“That’s unreasonable. After all, dear, you don’t know how to draw. What good would it do you?”
“I do know how to draw. I may not look like it, but I used to be a designer. I insist on equal rights.”
He tilted his head for an instant, then straightening up again, said decisively, “All right, I believe you.”
He carefully broke the chalk in half and gave one piece to Eve. As soon as she received it, she turned to the wall and began drawing.
It was a pistol.
“Stop it! What are you going to do with that thing?”
“Death, I’m going to make death. We need some divisions. They’re very important in making a world.”
“No, that’ll be the end. Stop it. It’s the unnecessary thing of all.”
But it was too late. Eve was clutching a small pistol in her hand. she raised it and aimed directly at his chest.
“Move and I’ll shoot. Hands up. You’re stupid, Adam. Don’t you know a promise is the beginning of a lie? It’s you who made me lie.”
“What? Now what are you drawing?”
“A hammer. To smash the door down.”
“Move and I’ll shoot!”
The moment he leaped the pistol rang out. Argon held his chest as his knees buckled and he collapsed to the floor. Oddly, there was no blood.
Eve laughed. Then, raising the hammer, she struck the door. The light streamed in. It wasn’t very bright, but it was real. Light from the sun. Eve was suddenly absorbed, like mist. The desk, the bed, the French meal, all disappeared. All but Argon, the cookbook which had landed on the floor, and the chair were transformed back into pictures on the wall.
Argon stood up unsteadily. His chest wound had heal. But something stronger than death was summoning him, compelling him—the wall. The wall was calling him. His body, which had eaten drawings from the wall continuously for four weeks, had been almost entirely transformed by them. Resistance was impossible now. Argon staggered toward the wall and was drawn in on top of Eve.
The sound of the gunshot and the door being smashed were heard by others in the building. By the time they ran in, Argon had been completely absorbed into the wall and had become a picture. The people saw nothing but the chair, the cookbook, and the scribblings on the wall. Staring at Argon lying on top of Eve, someone remarked, “Starved for a woman, wasn’t he.”
“Doesn’t it look just like him, though?” said another.
“What was he doing, destroying the door like that? And look at this, the wall’s covered with scribbles. HUh. He won’t get away with it. Where in the world did he disappear to? Calls himself a painter!”
The man grumbling to himself was the apartment manager.
After everyone left, there came a murmuring from the wall.
“It isn’t the chalk that will remake the world…”
A single drop welled out of the wall. It fell from just below the eye of the pictorial Argon.
-Translated by Alison Kibrick
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- April 21, 2009 / 3:07 am