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from the July 2012 issue

Apollo’s Head

It was a pleasant evening in late autumn. I was taking my usual shortcut home through the wooded campus of my university with its many tall ginkgo and zelkova trees. Strolling along, I came to a spot where the sunlight streamed through the branches of some ginkgos, which were especially beautiful at that time of year. Their yellow leaves flashed like cymbals, seemingly filling the air with their golden music. They danced to the ground in profusion, accompanied in my head by Scriabin’s Two Sonatas, the piece I had just practiced with my piano teacher.

Suddenly, a pale gleam of light near the base of a tree caught my eye. Peering into the undergrowth, I perceived a bluish flame encircled by a golden aura. Before I knew what I was doing I’d pushed aside the brambles to locate its source. There before my eyes was the head of a young man—or perhaps I should say a boy. I must be different from other women, for I neither fainted on the spot nor shrieked and fled. I stood transfixed, unable to take my eyes off the strange glowing head. Perhaps the best way to describe it was that I felt bewitched. The head possessed an exquisite beauty I’d never seen except in statues of deities. For a brief moment I thought it must be the head of a doll made from some special material, but I quickly realized it was a real human head. While this should have meant the head was lifeless, that did not appear to be the case.

Its eyes were open. I saw the pupils move and the eyelids blink. But its eyes were not focused on me or on anything in particular. They had a vacant look. When the head lowered its gaze, its long, thick, girlish eyelashes cast a melancholy shadow over the face. I boldly reached out and pushed back a lock of hair from the forehead. Though the hair was cold to the touch, the flesh underneath felt warm.

At last I came to my senses and was overcome with fear, like any normal person. I ran home, leaving the head as it was. I told myself that what I’d seen in that golden halo had been a hallucination, or perhaps the aftermath of a hideous crime. Someone must have murdered that poor boy, cut off his head, and thrown it into the woods, I thought. It’s as simple as that. No doubt it’ll be in the papers or on TV tomorrow. I'll just pretend I know nothing about it.

Having set my mind at rest with this absurd reasoning, I went to bed. But my sleep was fraught with nightmares. I hardly slept a wink that night. I couldn’t shake the feeling the head had been alive. In my dreams I saw it reattached to its naked body—a body halfway between a boy’s and a young man’s. It brought to mind a statue of Apollo hewn from Pentelic or Parian marble, the only difference being that his skin was not heavy like stone but white and supple like a young sapling. I dreamed I was naked, too, my body entwined around the marble statue’s treelike trunk. Despite his lack of any discernable identity or personality—or perhaps because of it—the statue seemed to be my true lover. At this point my dream became confused. The next thing I knew I’d knocked Apollo down and mounted him, pinning him to the ground. Then with a single stroke I cut off his head, like Kumagai Naozane slitting the handsome young Taira Atsumori’s throat on the beach at Ichi-no-tani. It came off effortlessly, as though it were a cactus.

What malice had driven me to such an act? As I lay awake pondering this, I had the odd feeling that in some abstract sense I’d actually murdered my lover. When the mental strain became too much to bear, I reached a decision: I resolved to retrieve the head.

Dawn was just breaking as I entered the woods carrying an overnight bag. The boy’s head lay exactly where I’d left it, unchanged except for some ginkgo leaves entangled in his hair.

"Good morning. Did you sleep well?"

Of course, the head made no response. Brushing the leaves away, I quickly slipped it into my bag. As I did so, I noticed several blood vessels pushing out like shoots from the stump of his neck, but I didn’t pause to make a closer inspection. The main thing was to get the head home without being seen.

The success of my early morning adventure put me in high spirits. The head no longer frightened me. Perhaps I'll take him to bed with me tonight, I told myself. But I knew it was just the adrenaline speaking—I had no intention of doing any such thing. Truth be told, I’d always had an aversion to animals and had never even petted a dog or cat.

For the time being I set the head in a shallow porcelain bowl, the kind used for flower arrangements. I filled it with water, having gotten the notion that otherwise it would dry out. But then I noticed he seemed a bit wobbly, and it occurred to me, naturally enough, that I might place him on one of those spiked metal plates for holding flower stems. As expected, it did just the trick. It didn’t strike me as particularly cruel, and his face betrayed no pain. He just continued staring off into space through half-open eyes, as though in a vegetative trance. Yes, those were the perfect words to describe the head’s demeanor. It dawned on me that I’d been thinking of the head as a houseplant. Later it might be good to pot him, I mused, but for now I'll stick with hydroponic cultivation, as one does with hyacinth and crocus bulbs.

"So this is it—the head you were talking about?"

Toru, my fiancé, sounded almost disappointed. To tell the truth, I hadn't wanted to tell him about the head. But since he came over to my place several times a week and occasionally spent the night, I realized I couldn’t keep it a secret from him indefinitely.

When I’d told Toru, as casually as I could, what had occurred since my discovery of the head, he’d expressed a strong desire to see it. Apparently, the thought of viewing the live head of a beautiful young man struck a chord of macabre curiosity in him. But in truth there wasn’t anything grotesque about the head. It didn't inspire ecstasy, as the head of John the Baptist had for Salomé, though I confess, like her, I playfully tried kissing it on the lips several times. I was gratified to detect a response—not that he stuck his tongue into my mouth, but his lips moved ever so slightly against mine. I had the sensation of forcing a kiss on an innocent boy.

"So this thing is alive, sitting here like this?" asked Toru.

"Yeah, he really sucks up water. See how the veins in his neck have shot out like roots? At this rate I wouldn’t be surprised if he begins flowering soon."

"I wonder if it has human consciousness,” said Toru. “I mean, it’s looking at us, but do you suppose it’s thinking anything?"

Unfortunately, the most one could say about the head was that he seemed to be in a vegetative state. Unlike the real Apollo, there was no spark in his eyes. They were open but didn’t see anything. After I explained this to Toru we fell into a passionate embrace, shamelessly making love in front of the head. The boy remained as beautiful and silent as a flower, elegantly perched in his bowl like a water lily asleep in the midday sun.

"You’re right,” said Toru, sounding turned off. “It’s definitely not human.”

He was right of course. But if you ask me, the head was more beautiful than any man. He had a noble, delicate—even fragrant—beauty. By comparison, my fiancé Toru was a foul-smelling beast. Be that as it may, the following year, once we were married, Toru and I were due to go off to Europe together. His only genuine attribute was his musical genius. That day we sat down at two pianos and practiced Ravel's La valse and Lutoslawski’s Variations.

Over the winter months the head underwent a dramatic transformation. He began to look less and less like a beautiful youth, turning red and hard like a pomegranate. When spring arrived he suddenly swelled to the size of a watermelon and took on a leafy green color. Little white hairs, or soft thorns, sprouted all over his surface, giving him the air of an exotic cactus. Then colorful flowers, a bit like pink hyacinths, blossomed where there had once been locks of hair. More flowers followed—amaryllises and purple orchids—all blooming out of season. Retaining its original human shape, the giant cactuslike head was transformed into a riot of flowers, reminding me of a painting by Arcimboldo.

Once the flowers were gone the head started to bear fruit of various shapes, colors, and sizes, giving him a bizarre lumpy appearance. I sampled several which tempted my appetite. Each had a strange, unique flavor, but none left me craving more. After I’d picked off all the fruit the head resembled the cratered surface of the moon. In time these pockmarks vanished and the head became smooth and spherical, as nondescript in appearance as a winter melon. This proved to be the final incarnation of my Apollo's head. When I cut him open with a kitchen knife the resemblance to a winter melon proved more than superficial—the flesh was white and seedless. I couldn’t help but be moved by the dreary simplicity of it. What had become of the intricate mass of brain tissue, nerves, and blood vessels that once must have filled the head of that beautiful youth?

Anyway, I’ve had great success cultivating the fruits I picked, which, like the head, I placed in water. When summer came I put them where they’d get plenty of sunshine, and they’ve since thrived. They’re now turning into heads, each with a distinct human face. By autumn I expect to have dozens of heads growing in my sunroom. By the way, in case you’re wondering, Toru broke off our engagement and went off to Europe on his own. He said he couldn't live with a woman obsessed with growing heads.

"Apolon no Kubi" by Yumiko Kurahashi. Copyright © 1985 by Sayaka Kumagai. Originally published in Japan in 1985 in Kurahashi Yumiko no Kaiki shohen by Ushio Publishing Co., Ltd., Tokyo., and republished in Otona no tame no kaiki shohen by Takarajimasha, Inc., Tokyo. English translation rights arranged with Sayaka Kumagai through Japan Foreign-Rights Centre, Tokyo. Translation © 2012 by Ian MacDonald. All rights reserved.

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