My mother died, and then my father died, and since then I have lived all alone in this house. Two years ago, the nurse who took care of me when I was small died as well, of a heart attack. I believe I have cousins living in a village near the source of the river on the far side of the mountains to the north, but I have never met them. The mountainsides are covered with thorny trees and the summits are always cloaked in mist, so no one ever attempts to cross them. And since there is no map of the island—maps themselves having long since been disappeared—no one knows its precise shape, or exactly what lies on the other side of the mountains.
My father was an ornithologist. He worked at an observatory at the top of the hill to the south. He spent several months a year there, collecting data, photographing the creatures, and trying to hatch eggs. I loved to visit him and went as often as I could—using the excuse that I had to deliver his lunch. The young researchers were kind to me and spoiled me with cookies and hot chocolate.I think it’s fortunate that the birds were not disappeared until after my father died.
I would sit on my father’s lap and study his creatures through his binoculars. The shape of a beak, the color of the feathers around the eyes, the way the wings moved—nothing escaped his notice as he worked to identify them. The binoculars were too heavy for a little girl, and when my arms grew tired, my father would slip his hand under them to support the weight. When we were cheek to cheek like that, watching them take flight, I always wanted to ask him whether he knew what was in the drawers of the old cabinet in my mother’s studio. But just as I was about to speak, I remembered her profile as she gazed at the sliver of a moon through the transom window, and I never found the words. I contented myself instead with passing along my mother’s instructions to him to eat his lunch before it spoiled.
When it was time for me to go, he would walk with me as far as the bus stop. At a spot along the road where the creatures came to feed, I would pause to crumble one of the cookies I’d received from his assistants.
“When are you coming home?” I’d ask him.
“Saturday evening, I think,” he would tell me, looking uncomfortable. “Be sure to give my love to your mother.” He waved goodbye so vigorously that he nearly lost the red pencil—or the compass or highlighter or ruler or tweezers—stuffed in his breast pocket.
I think it’s fortunate that the birds were not disappeared until after my father died. Most people on the island found some other line of work quickly when a disappearance affected their job, but I don’t think that would have been the case for him. Identifying those wild creatures was his one true gift.
When the hats were disappeared, the milliner who lived across the street began making umbrellas. My nurse’s husband, who had been a mechanic on the ferryboat, became a security guard at a warehouse. A girl who was a few years ahead of me in school had been employed at a beauty salon, but she quickly found work as a midwife. None of them said a word about it.
Even when the new job was less well paid, they seemed to have no regrets about losing the old one. Of course, had they complained, they might have attracted the attention of the Memory Police.
People—and I’m no exception—seem capable of forgetting almost anything, much as if our island were unable to float in anything but an expanse of totally empty sea.
The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. Still wrapped in my blanket, I looked carefully around the room. The cosmetics on my dressing table, the paper clips and notes scattered on my desk, the lace of the curtains, the record shelf—it could be anything. It took patience and concentration to figure out what was gone. I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbors were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling softly.
Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird”—everything.
“The birds,” muttered the ex-milliner across the way. “And good riddance. I doubt anyone will miss them.” He adjusted the scarf around his neck and sneezed quietly. Then he caught sight of me. Perhaps recalling that my father had been an ornithologist, he gave me an awkward little smile and went off to work. When the others outside realized what had disappeared, they too seemed relieved. They returned to their morning duties, leaving me alone to stare at the sky.
The little brown creature flew in a wide circle and then vanished to the north. I couldn’t recall the name of the species, and I found myself wishing I had paid better attention when I’d been with my father at the observatory. I tried to hold on to the way it looked in flight or the sound of its chirping or the colors of its feathers, but I knew it was useless. This bird, which should have been intertwined with memories of my father, was already unable to elicit any feeling in me at all. It was nothing more than a simple creature, moving through space as a function of the vertical motion of its wings.
That afternoon I went to the market to do my shopping. Here and there I saw groups of people holding cages, with parakeets, Java sparrows, and canaries fluttering nervously inside, as if they knew what was about to happen. The people holding the cages were quiet, almost dazed, perhaps still trying to adjust to this new disappearance.
Each owner seemed to be saying goodbye to his bird in his own way. Some were calling their names, others rubbing them against their cheeks, still others giving them a treat, mouth to beak. But once these little ceremonies were finished, they opened the cages and held them up to the sky. The little creatures, confused at first, fluttered for a moment around their owners, but they soon were gone, as if drawn away into the distance.
When they were gone, a calm fell as though the air itself were breathing with infinite care. The owners turned for home, empty cages in hand.
And that was how the birds disappeared.
Something rather unexpected happened the next day. I was eating breakfast and watching television when the doorbell rang.
From the violent way it rang, I could tell that something unpleasant was about to happen.
“Take us to your father’s office,” said one of the officers from the Memory Police whom I found standing in the doorway. There were five of them, dressed in dark green uniforms, with heavy belts and black boots. They wore leather gloves and their guns were half-hidden in holsters on their hips. The men were nearly identical, with only three badges on their collars to tell them apart—though I had no time to study them closely.The Memory Police had simply wanted to eliminate all trace of anything relating to birds.
“Take us to your father’s office,” echoed a second man, his tone the same as the man who had spoken first. This one wore badges in the shapes of a diamond, a bean, and a trapezoid.
“My father died five years ago,” I said as slowly and evenly as I could, trying to remain calm.
“We know,” said another man, wearing insignia shaped like a wedge, a hexagon, and the letter “T.” As though his words had been some sort of signal, the five officers marched into the house without even removing their shoes. Suddenly, the corridor was filled with the clatter of boots and guns.
“I’ve just cleaned the carpets,” I said. “Please take off your shoes.” I knew I should have said something more forceful, but this simple request was all that came to mind. It hardly mattered, since they paid no attention to me and were already climbing the stairs.
They seemed to know exactly where they were going, and a moment later they were in my father’s office on the east side of the house, setting to work with remarkable efficiency. First, one of them opened all the windows, which had been sealed shut since my father’s death. Meanwhile, another one used a long, thin tool like a scalpel to force the locks on the cabinets and the desk drawers. The rest ran their fingers over every inch of the walls, apparently in search of secret compartments.
Then they all began to riffle through my father’s papers, pawing at his notes, drafts, books, and photographs. When they came upon something they considered dangerous—in other words, anything that contained the word “bird”—they threw the item unceremoniously on the floor. Leaning against the door frame, I fiddled nervously with the lock as I watched them work. The Memory Police, just as I’d heard, went about their assigned tasks in the most efficient manner. They worked in silence, their eyes fixed, making no unnecessary movements.
The only sound was the rustling of papers, like the fluttering of wings.
In no time at all, a mountain of paper had formed on the floor. Nearly everything in the room had to do with my father’s work in some way. Documents covered with my father’s familiar handwriting and the photographs he had taken at the observatory flew out of the officers’ hands one after the other. There was no doubt that they were creating chaos, but they went about it in such a precise manner that they gave an impression of careful order. I felt I should try to stop them, but my heart was pounding and I didn’t know what to do.
“Please be careful,” I murmured, but they ignored me. “These are the only things I have from my father.” Not one of them so much as turned to look at me, and my voice was lost in the pile of memories on the floor.
Then one of the officers reached for the handle on the bot- tom drawer of the desk.
“There’s nothing in there that has to do with birds,” I cried out. It was the drawer where my father kept family letters and photographs. The officer—this one wore a badge made up of concentric circles, as well as one shaped like a rectangle and another like a teardrop—continued his search. The only offend- ing item in the drawer was a photograph of our family with a brightly colored rare bird—I no longer recall the name—that my father had managed to hatch from an egg he had incubated. The man carefully gathered up the remaining photographs and letters and put them back in the drawer. That was the only kindness shown that day.
When they had finished sorting through everything, they took the items piled on the floor and shoved them into large black plastic bags they pulled from pockets inside their jackets. It was clear from the brutal way they stuffed the bags that they were going to dispose of everything they took. They had not been looking for anything in particular; they had simply wanted to eliminate all trace of anything relating to birds. The first duty of the Memory Police was to enforce the disappearances.
I realized at some point that this search was unlike the day they took my mother away. Today, they seemed to have found everything they wanted, and I was fairly sure they would not be back. My father was dead, and the memory of the birds was gradually fading from the house.
The search had taken an hour and had yielded ten large bags. The office had grown quite warm from the bright sun that streamed in. The polished badges shone on the officers’ collars, but none of the men appeared to be sweating or suffering from the heat in any way. They shouldered two bags each and carried them to the truck they had left parked outside.
The room had changed completely. The traces of my father’s presence, which I had done my best to preserve, had vanished, replaced by an emptiness that would not be filled. I stood in the middle of that emptiness, feeling myself on the verge of being drawn into its terrible depth.
From The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.
Copyright © 1994 by Yoko Ogawa. Translation copyright © 2019 by Yoko Ogawa. Reprinted
by permission of Pantheon, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division
of Penguin Random House, LLC.