I was not the first pick to translate Kirino Natsuo’s Grotesque. Kirino’s agent went the rounds of other translators before being directed to me. And once she found me, she did not give me a contract on the spot. I had to “try out” for the job.

She sent me several pages from the first chapter (but not the opening pages) and gave me a deadline. The assignment arrived just as I was on my way to my father’s log cabin in eastern Tennessee. He had built the cabin by hand over a period of time beginning in the late 1970s and by the early 1990s, he had made it quite “comfortable,” for anyone longing for a rugged mountain adventure. The cabin was one room with a sleeping loft. In the late 1980s he added a utility room. This was followed by the addition of a well and electricity allowing for a modest bathroom equipped with a flush toilet and shower stall. Before you imagine the cabin was luxuriously outfitted, I should note that the facilities he added were all salvaged from elsewhere and showed the chips and dings of their past lives. Still, it was a marked improvement over the earlier outhouse with its pink toilet seat and hiding hornets.

For me, the cabin was the perfect retreat for contemplation. There was enough electricity to fire my laptop and heat water. Being midsummer, the days were long, and I did not need to depend on the weak light from the single bulb as there was a large sliding glass door to let in light. It did get hot during the day under the tin roof. But with the slider open in the evening, the cabin cooled down, and it was pleasant to fall asleep listening to the crickets and distant owls.

My father’s cabin

In July, I packed up my laptop and dictionaries and drove the ten hours from St. Louis to the cabin for the long weekend retreat. It was there, on the oilcloth table cover, that I set up my office and went to work on those twenty pages. Coincidentally, the pages the agent selected included the scene where the narrator, her sister and parents, are staying at a mountainside cabin for the New Year’s holiday.

The narrator, her mother, and her sister travel to a local hot springs for the outdoor bath, and this is where we really come to recognize the narrator’s hatred of her sister. Even now reading those passages of the creepy hot springs trip sends chills down my spine.

Outside the night had fallen and the stars were out. The air had turned cold. A cloud of white steam hovered over the bath. Unable to see the bottom of the pool, it looked eerie, like a black pond. Something glittery and white floated in the middle of the pool. It was Yuriko’s body.
[. . . . ]
Yuriko was floating on her back in the steamy water looking up at the sky. The women and children, submerged in the water up to their shoulders, surrounded her and stared at her wordlessly. I looked at Yuriko’s face and was horrified. I had never seen her look so beautiful. She was almost godlike.
[. . . . ]
I suddenly noticed what it was. Yuriko’s eyes gave off no light. Those eyes in that perfect face of hers were completely without light. Even a doll’s eyes will have a white dot painted in the center to suggest light, won’t they? As a result, a doll’s face is sweet and charming, and yet Yuriko’s eyes were dark ponds. The reason she had looked so beautiful floating in the bath was because the light from the stars had been reflected in her eyes.

[The sisters leave the neighbor’s cabin where they had celebrated New Year’s Eve.]

I yanked the door open and stepped out ahead of her into the darkness. I don’t know why I was so angry. The cold air stung my cheeks. The snow had stopped falling, and it was pitch black. The mountains were there looming over us, pressing in around us, and yet they had dissolved into the darkness of the night and were completely invisible. With no light but the flashlight, Yuriko’s eyes must be those black pools again, I thought. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her. I became frightened by the knowledge that I was walking alone through the darkness with a monster. I gripped the flashlight and started running.

“Wait!” Yuriko shrieked. “Don’t leave me!

Eventually Yuriko stopped screaming, but I was too scared to turn around. I felt like I was walking with my back to an eerie pond. Something was crawling up out of it and chasing me. Angry to have been left behind, Yuriko was running after me. When I finally turned around, her face was directly in front of me. I gazed slowly over the white sculpted features of her face now illuminated in the light reflected off the snow. Her eyes were the only features I could not see. I was scared.

“Who are you?” I blurted out. “Who the hell are you?”

As I sat alone in the cabin at night, surrounded by woods and the cries of the crickets, thinking about the monstrous Yuriko and her misanthrope sister, I couldn’t help be feel slightly terrified. I had my dog Taru with me, a German Shepherd, and that helped. But I was truly isolated. My father’s cabin is on top of a mountain ridge overlooking nearly 50 acres of woodlands. The road to the top is now impassable, but in 2004 it was still possible to drive to the cabin door. Possible, but treacherous. I was glad when my self-imposed translation retreat was over.

Later, Kirino told me that she first came up with the idea for her novel when she was visiting a friend who had a cabin in Gunma Prefecture, nestled in the mountains. I doubt her friend’s cabin was as “rustic” as my father’s! But it made me feel a special bond with the author, knowing that we had both experienced the magic of the mountains at different ends of the creative process. Over the years I have found that my best writing comes to me in the mountains.

Photo at the top by Gantaro on Unsplash