In front of Narazaki was a gate.
It was an old, enormous wooden gate. There was something written on it, but the characters had faded and Narazaki couldn’t make them out. Should I go straight in? Narazaki was unsure. There’s something strange about this place. But isn’t it just a normal house? It seems more like a house than a church or temple.
The gate cut through the frigid air and towered over Narazaki. It seemed like it was looking down on him, testing him, about to pass down some sort of judgment. Looking up at the gate, Narazaki was made aware of the smallness of his own body. He wasn’t ready to go in, so he walked past. The building was surrounded by tall brick-and-clay walls, and Narazaki couldn’t see inside.
He recalled Kobayashi’s report. Ryoko Tachibana had certainly belonged to this group. The founder was named Shotaro Matsuo, a man who called himself an amateur intellectual. The group seemed to be some sort of religious organization, but they didn’t have a proper name, they weren’t registered as a religion, and the whole concept of “believing in” their faith seemed foreign to them. They didn’t worship a particular god—in fact, the group’s focus seemed to be pondering the question, “Is there a god?”
What were they? Narazaki didn’t understand.
As he passed the gate, Narazaki thought to himself, I always do this. I always hesitate. It was as though he wanted to spend the rest of his life stuck, the days sinking away heavily. Though they were unhappy, he wanted to savor that unhappiness. The languor seemed to be his very flesh, and he could never leave it. But he had decided to stop living that way. He would follow the pull of the gravity he had begun to feel within himself. He would give himself up to whatever came. He didn’t care what would come of it.
He made one loop around the building. I am walking now, Narazaki thought. Walking, without paying attention to anything. How can I walk this way? Like my heart and other organs just keep moving on their own. Like they’re strangers wriggling in my body. Narazaki took a deep breath. What am I thinking? It’s because of that gate—it’s messed up my mind.
He was here to find out what he could about Ryoko Tachibana.
He was back in front of the gate. It was still too big. Just as he was about to open it, he noticed the intercom. His finger reached toward the button. He wasn’t ready. What will happen if this is a cult? Maybe they’ll lock me up. His pulse quickened. Maybe I’ll be brainwashed and go mad. Maybe I’ll wind up one of those paranoid nut jobs without even realizing I’ve been brainwashed into acting that way. Narazaki pressed the button. He heard a dull chime. I pushed it. It’s too late now.
“Yes?” It was the voice of a middle-aged woman. Not what Narazaki had expected.
“Is Shotaro Matsuo in?”
“To whom am I speaking?”
Narazaki’s body tensed up. No going back now.
“My name’s Toru Narazaki. I’m . . . I’m not really anyone.”
If I ask where Ryoko Tachibana is right away, they probably won’t tell me. I’ll just pretend I’m interested in their group, and ask about her a little at a time. I’m not going to join them or anything. Narazaki realized he was smiling.
“So you’re not with the media?”
“No. If you want, you can look through my things.”
“You need to see the old man—I mean, Matsuo-san—about something?”
There was a pause, and then the gate finally opened from the inside. Three people came to meet Narazaki: a middle-aged man and woman and a younger woman. Narazaki had imagined they’d all be dressed in white shrouds or something, but all three were wearing normal clothes. The middle-aged woman had on an apron printed with Rilakkuma, the brown cartoon bear. Narazaki was a bit surprised.
“Please, come in.”
Narazaki entered. On the other side of the gate was a large open space. Faintly blue gravel covered the ground, which was scattered with stepping stones. It looks like a Shinto shrine, Narazaki thought. But there were no tori gates. There was also a large pond, but there didn’t seem to be any koi.
The middle-aged woman in the Rilakkuma apron said, “I’m sorry for asking, but you really aren’t with the media?”
“No. I’m just curious about your religion.”
“Religion?” asked the middle-aged man. There was a little white in his short-cropped hair, but the expression on his face was youthful. “Well, we don’t practice any religion here.”
“It’s hard to explain,” the younger woman said. “Do you want to learn about healing power?”
“Healing power?” Narazaki asked. He was a bit surprised.
“You’re not interested in that? Well then, we should start with his talks.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea.” The middle-aged man laughed at Narazaki’s confusion. “We can let him inside the house, can’t we? He doesn’t look like he’ll cause any harm.”
Several people were sitting on the wooden veranda that ringed the mansion. Narazaki felt their stares as he was led from the gate into the house. Is this okay? Narazaki wondered. How are they letting me through so easily? He had no choice but to follow.
The mansion was large but old, and, compared to the exterior, the inside was unimpressive. Narazaki was taken to a spacious tatami sitting room at least forty square meters in size. Its stillness seemed to be in direct proportion to its size. He took a seat on a cushion.
“Your name was Toru Narazaki, right? I’m Yoshida,” said the middle-aged man.
“My name is Mineno, and the woman in the apron is Tanaka-san,” the young woman added. Mineno had thin eyes. She was beautiful.
“Where did you hear about us?”
“From a friend.”
“A friend? Ah, I see.”
What did she see? He had hoped they would press him further. He had answers prepared for them.
The young woman spoke again. “I know you went out of your way to come here, but I’m sorry to say Matsuo-san isn’t in.”
“He’s not here?”
“No. He’s been sick.”
Yoshida laughed. “It’s funny, right? The man heals others, but then goes and gets sick! And on top of that, he can’t use his healing powers on himself, so he winds up in a university hospital, getting treated with Western medicine!”
“Shut up!” Mineno told Yoshida. But she was holding back her laughter, too.
What was going on? They were laughing at their leader getting sick?
“We should explain,” Mineno said. “Healing power is mostly just a joke. Matsuo-san doesn’t really think he can heal people.” She smiled. “And it’s a bit strange for us to let you in even though he’s in the hospital, but we have a rule to not send anyone away.”
“How much do you know about this place?” asked Yoshida, as the woman with the Rilakkuma apron came in, carrying tea.
Narazaki thanked her. He still didn’t have the courage to say what he wanted. “Honestly, I don’t know much.”
“That’s impressive, showing up without knowing anything,” Yoshida said, laughing. “So, shall we tell you a little about this place? Don’t get your hopes up. We’re not a religion, so we can’t be sure we’ll meet your expectations. The people who’ve shown up lately have come expecting too much. We have to make sure they don’t get disappointed and cause any trouble.”
Here was what they told him.
Shotaro Matsuo, the owner of the mansion, often meditated alone in his garden.
Long ago, there were no walls, and passers by could see him meditating. He was known in the neighborhood as a weird old man. No one knew about his past, or even if he’d always lived there. It seemed he had just appeared one day in this old mansion that everyone had assumed was abandoned.
One day, an old woman suffering from an inexplicable pain in her legs stopped by. She asked Matsuo to pray over her. Even doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing the pain, so she visited every faith healer she could, but she saw no improvement. “You’re always sitting here, meditating,” she said. “You might have some kind of power. Won’t you pray for my legs, just to see?”
Matsuo was surprised, and said he didn’t have that sort of power, but he invited the old woman into his mansion for tea. Matsuo lived with his wife, Yoshiko. The three of them talked about many things. Both Matsuo and his wife, Yoshiko, sympathized with the woman’s pain. Matsuo tried rubbing the woman’s legs, but nothing happened.
“Thank you anyway,” the woman said. “Can I come again?”
The Matsuos nodded. She visited for several weeks, and the woman’s legs began to get better.