Sewing for the Heart

By Yoko Ogawa

Art by Kike Besada.

Yoko Ogawa writes creepy, ominous gothic novels and stories—sort of like a Japanese Flannery O’Connor or Shirley Jackson. Except sexier and a lot more Asian. She came to prominence in the late 80s in her native Japan and has since written more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, all of them commercially and critically viable.

Hotel Iris (2010), for instance, tells the story of Mari, a teenage girl who works in a desolate hotel by the ocean. When she falls into a twisted romance with an older man, a translator of Russian novels who may or may not have murdered his wife and who also likes to beat and humiliate Mari during sex, the teenager has a realization: “It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order,” she thinks. “It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word ‘whore’ was somehow appealing.”

“Sewing for the Heart” is from Yoko’s new collection, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (Picador February 2013), and it’s as perversely tantalizing as anything she’s written. In the story, a comely cabaret singer with the outlandish birth defect of a heart that developed outside her body hires a reclusive bag maker to sew a satchel to protect the misplaced organ. 

We’ve paired this story with Spanish artist Kike Besada’s collages. Kike dug through old medical journals that he found in an NYC thrift store and cut out pictures of bags, hearts, hospitals, and all sorts of other things in order to come up with just the right macabre imagery for a story that is heartfelt in the most literal sense.

“Dr. Y from Respiratory Medicine. Dr. Y from Respiratory Medicine. Please contact the pharmacy immediately.”

The public-address system had been repeating this announcement for some time. I wondered who Dr. Y was and where he could be, as I studied the hospital directory. Central Records, Electroshock Clinic, Conference Center, Endoscopy… It was all like a foreign language to me.

“Why do they keep paging this Dr. Y?” I asked the woman behind the information desk.

“No one’s seen him this morning,” she said. She seemed annoyed by my question, and I was sorry I had bothered her.

“Could you tell me where to find the cardiac ward?” I said, getting to my real question. I pronounced each word slowly and carefully, hoping to quiet the pounding of my heart.

“Take that elevator to the sixth floor.” She pointed past a crowd of people gathered in front of admitting; I noticed her nail polish was chipped.

*

 

I am a bag maker. For more than 20 years now I’ve kept a shop near the train station. It’s just a small place, but it has a nice display window facing the street. Inside, there are tables for the bags and a mirror, and a workshop in back, behind a curtain, with shelves for my materials. The window features a few purses, an ostrich handbag, and a suitcase. A jauntily posed mannequin clutches one of the purses, but her face is covered in a fine layer of dust since I haven’t changed the window in years.

I live on the second floor, above the shop. My apartment has just two rooms—an eat-in kitchen and a living room that doubles as my bedroom—but the place is bright and pleasant. On clear afternoons, the sun streams in through the window and I have to move the hamster’s cage under the washstand. Hamsters don’t like direct sunlight.

In the evening, after closing shop, I go upstairs, take off my work clothes, shower, and eat my dinner. This takes next to no time. When you live alone as I have for many years, daily life only becomes simpler and simpler. It’s been a long time since I’ve cleaned up the bathroom for someone, or changed the towels, or so much as made dressing for my salad. I have only myself to please, and that doesn’t take much.

But compared to the world upstairs, my life with my bags below is quite rich. I never weary of them, of caressing and gazing at my wonderful creations. When I make a bag, I begin by picturing how it will look when it’s finished. Then I sketch each imagined detail, from the shiny clasp to the finest stitches in the seams. Next, I transfer the design to pattern paper and cut out the pieces from the raw material, and then finally I sew them together. As the bag begins to take shape on my table, my heart beats uncontrollably and I feel as though my hands wield all the powers of the universe.

Now, you may be wondering why I get so excited. You may be thinking that a bag is just a thing in which to put other things. And you’re right, of course. But that’s what makes them so extraordinary. A bag has no intentions or desires of its own; it embraces every object that we ask of it to hold. You trust the bag, and it, in return, trusts you. To me, a bag is patience; a bag is profound discretion.  

So then, in the evenings, when I’ve finished my dinner, I sit on the couch by the window and drink a cup of Chinese tea. I turn off the lamp in the room and look down on the street below. The passersby are cast in a seductive shadow. People drift by under my window—strolling couples, men returning late from the office, women from the bars, drunks—and all of them are carrying bags. Here’s a filthy one with two long scratches on the side. That puffy one seems to mimic the face of its owner. That one’s cracked and faded, as though it was left out in the rain. In the moonlight I see these details, savor them for a few seconds as they pass below my window.

As I sit and watch the bags, the hamster runs on his treadmill. Hamsters are nocturnal, so he seems to wake up when I turn off the lamp. From time to time he makes a tiny sneezing noise, but nothing more.

A woman with a shoulder bag passes by. Her hips twist and the bag turns toward me, revealing a clasp on the front. The strap cuts into the material of her blouse. Next comes a woman carrying a Boston bag. She holds the handle so tightly, it seems her fingers might leave a deep impression on the leather. There must be something very important inside.

The hamster stuffs his cheek with sunflower seeds. I take a sip of tea. My hands ache from a long day of gripping the needle and the awl.

I can make any kind of bag a customer wants: bags for artificial limbs, bedpans, rifles, eggs, dentures—any size and shape you can imagine. But I have to admit I hesitated when she told me her request, one I had never heard before and I’m sure I’ll never hear again.

“I would like you to make a bag to hold a heart.”

“A heart?” I blurted out, thinking I must have misunderstood. Then I coughed to cover my confusion and offered her a seat. She slipped off her coat and hung it over the back of the chair before sitting down. The coat was too heavy for the season and a bit too big. Her movements were graceful, but they seemed calculated somehow, almost intentionally seductive.

“A heart—” I began again.

“I was told you could make any kind of bag.” She took off her sunglasses and tapped the table with her long fingernails.

“I can,” I said, slowly opening my sketchbook as I struggled to collect myself. “And you want a bag for a heart?”

“That’s right,” she said. Her voice had an impressive coldness to it—I could almost imagine its tone freezing my eardrum.

She was tall and slender with gently sloping shoulders—all wrong for a shoulder strap. Her hair was curly and long in back. She kept her eyes lowered, but her manner was anything but timid.

There was a moment of awkward silence. Something about her had set my nerves jangling, even before she had uttered her request. Perhaps it was the crocodile purse on her lap. It was a beautiful piece of work, but it was stretched out of shape and the leather had lost its luster—probably from improper cleaning. It seemed weary. Customers who come here to order new bags naturally bring their old ones with them, and they tell me a lot about the people carrying them.

“A number of places have turned me away,” she said, taking me into her confidence. She brushed a wisp of hair away from her eyes and turned to look at the row of samples on the shelf.

It was then that I realized that I had been bothered not by her purse but by the unnatural bulge on the left side of her chest. It was clearly not her breast; the swell of a breast is different. This looked more like a tumor that had grown between her collarbone and her armpit, unbalancing her natural symmetry. But it wasn’t a tumor. 

*

“I’ve tried everything,” she said. “Silk, cotton, nylon, vinyl, paper… nothing is right. It has to be kept warm—heat loss can be fatal—but then there are the secretions. If the material is too absorbent, it sucks up all the moisture. But then again, something like vinyl doesn’t breathe.”

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine. It worked normally enough, but its unique location made it extremely vulnerable. She had to avoid bumping it or exposing it to the air, yet still keep it supported next to her body. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a bag she wanted—at least not like any I’d made in the past—but she was a customer, and I was determined to do my best to satisfy her.

“I think seal skin would be ideal,” I said, going to the shelf to get a sample. “It’s soft and strong, and it repels moisture while providing superior insulation—just what a seal needs. And it’s easy to care for.”

“It sounds perfect,” she said, taking the piece of leather. She stroked the surface, turned it over, crumpled it in her hand. “But I’m afraid the shape will be a bit complicated, like a bra for just one side. It has to be very sturdy but still not damage the membrane. Do you understand?”

“I believe so. Just tell me exactly what you want,” I said, starting to sketch in my book. In fact, I had no idea what I was trying to draw, but I didn’t want to disappoint her.

“It needs to have a snug fit. Too loose and it rubs the sack around the heart, but if it’s too tight, it cuts off the circulation. It’s a matter of striking the right balance.”

“Exactly so,” I said. “But that’s true for any bag, and I think you’ll find my work to your satisfaction.”

“I hope so,” she said, and then she smiled for the first time since coming into the shop. She crossed her legs and sat back, fidgeting with the temples of her sunglasses. Her subtlest movements caused the lump on her chest to shift, as though she had stirred a small, slumbering animal. I noticed that she kept her left arm cradled next to her body to protect the heart; no doubt she wore the heavy coat for the same reason.

“But it’s not just a simple sack,” she continued. “You’ll need holes for the veins and arteries. I suppose you should baste it together first to make sure everything matches up. And it needs a strap to hang around my neck.”

It occurred to me then that I would have to see her exposed heart at some point in the process—a prospect that disturbed me. I had never seen a human heart before, and the thought filled me with fear and disgust.

*

The woman removed her blouse and bra without a moment’s hesitation, as though I weren’t even there. I had led her upstairs to my apartment and had drawn the curtains. The hamster’s cage had been stored under the sink; he was sleeping peacefully.

I was shocked to see the heart beating—for some reason, I had imagined it would be inanimate. But there it was, pulsing and contracting. It seemed to cringe under my gaze. Then there was the blood flowing in the vessels. It was clear, not red, pumping through the fine veins and arteries and then disappearing into her body.

Her left breast hung lower than her right, and there was a slight hollowing above it to accommodate the heart. But the skin was firm, like that of a younger woman, and the nipple was perfectly normal. It seemed odd to be looking at a woman’s breast but feeling no desire to touch it or to take the nipple between my lips. Instead, I found myself longing to caress her heart.

It could fit in the palm of my hand. A pale pink membrane of delicate muscle tissue surrounded it. What extraordinary, breathtaking beauty! Would it feel damp if I cupped it in my hands? Would the membrane rupture if I gave it a squeeze? Could I feel it beating? Feel it shrink from my caresses? I wanted to run my fingertips over each tiny bump and furrow, touch my lips to the veins, soft tissue on soft tissue, the pressure of her pulse against my skin… I could easily lose myself to these thoughts, but I knew I had to keep this desire in check, had to play my role and make the perfect bag for this heart.

“Let me wash my hands first,” I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling.

“Please do.” Her tone was impassive.

The hamster stirred, startled by the sound of my footsteps coming to the sink, but then he fell silent again.

I washed my hands with great care. Like a surgeon in a TV drama, I lathered the soap and scrubbed right up to my elbows, then used a brush on my nails and cuticles. But when I went and stood in front of her, I found myself paralyzed, unsure where to begin.

The woman stood, back straight, arms at her side. The slope of her shoulders was even more pronounced now that they were bare; it was most likely due to the cavity in her chest, which had caused her ribcage to contract. She had a mole on her right shoulder, and her collarbones jutted sharply above her breasts. There was no excess fat anywhere on her body… I allowed all of this to distract me from looking at her heart, even though it was directly in front of my eyes. The desire was overwhelming.

As I stepped closer to her, I sensed that I had somehow shrunk in her presence. Then I pulled out my tape and started taking measurements. Its shape was complicated, and it was a long process. I had to delicately measure the diameter of each vein and artery, the subtle tapering of the ventricles, and every centimeter of its beating surface. I worked with great care to avoid any more contact with the heart than was necessary. What if the measuring tape stuck to the viscous membrane, or if germs passed on from my hands to the vulnerable organ? I was a mass of anxieties.

“You needn’t be so timid,” she told me. “It’s tougher than it looks.” She must have sensed what I was feeling. It was unlikely she had allowed many strangers this view of her heart, yet she seemed perfectly comfortable with the situation and not the least bit wary or embarrassed.

But the heart itself still appeared to be cowering in fear, the blood vessels trembling with each contraction. From close up, the sinews and folds of muscle seemed to conceal a mysterious code.

Then my finger accidentally brushed against it.

It was so warm! Warmer than anything I had ever touched before! The heat shot through my hand, filling my body and emptying my head.

The measuring tape dropped at my feet.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered. I gathered up the tape as she stood over me. My fingertip was still tingling. I could hear the hamster sucking at his water bottle.

*

I learned she was a singer, and that she performed regularly at a club nearby. After I had stitched together a sample of the bag for her heart, I went in secret to hear her sing. It was the first time I had ever gone to see a customer outside my shop. In fact, even in the shop I tend to have no more to do with them than is absolutely necessary. I feel that my connection to them should be solely through my bags. So if I had to explain why I made an exception in this case, I would say that I had no particular interest in the woman herself, but that I simply wanted to see her heart in the outside world.

The club was larger and quieter than I had thought it would be, which I hoped would allow me to spy on her without being recognized. The candlelit tables scattered around the room glowed in a haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke; the floor was littered with peanut shells. The woman stood next to a grand piano in a circle of orange light at the front of the room.

She was wearing a long, tight purple dress made of silky material. And over it was a sequined cape that sparkled in the spotlight—a clever disguise for the lump on her chest. Still, she probably would have preferred something more stylish; the cape reminded me a bit of a nun’s habit.

I sat down at a table in the corner and ordered a beer. It hardly mattered what I ordered, since I can’t drink alcohol. The waiter put a bowl of peanuts on the table and left.

The people at the other tables were drinking quietly. No one seemed to be looking at her, though I suspected that some of them must have been aware of her secret.

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into each other, bone on bone… her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.   

The song ended, and like everyone else in the club, I applauded. When she bowed, I worried gravity would pull her heart from her dress. But almost immediately, she began another song.

The day arrived for the first fitting of the bag. The weather was sunny and mild, but she appeared in a heavy coat just as she had when she first came to see me.

The room was warm, even with the curtains closed. The hamster had left his nest and was sleeping on the wire floor of the cage. Though he normally slept in a ball, today he was stretched out full length.

The woman’s chest was dripping with sweat, but that made the skin glow whiter than ever.

“Tell me if it hurts you in any way,” I said. She nodded but said nothing.

It was indeed a strange bag. The complicated shape of it was difficult to achieve. I had assembled nine different pieces of leather into an asymmetrical balloon with seven holes of varying size. The bottom of it was an oval, but the bag tapered toward an opening at the top that fastened with hooks. The strap for her neck was long and somewhat awkward, as the leather hadn’t had time to soften. I was afraid she might get tangled in it.

It looked like a spider, or a work of modern art. Or a fetus that had just started to grow.

I undid the hooks. Even before I touched the heart, my fingers could feel the heat; it made my head spin and my palms sweat.

“Hurry up,” she said, sounding irritated.

“Yes, of course,” I answered, fastening the hooks as quickly as I could. “I’m sorry. Shall I attach the strap as well?” 

“Please do,” she said. Her arms hung at her sides, and she made no effort to look at the bag. My hand passed through her hair and fastened the strap around her neck. I took a step back and wiped my palms on the front of my apron. Then I took a deep breath.

The bag suited her to perfection. The lustrous finish of the leather set off the color of her skin; and its shape fit elegantly along the curve of her breast. The veins and arteries peeking out at the edges, the leather pulsing almost imperceptibly with each contraction, the strap caressing her graceful neck—I had never seen anything like it.

Her blouse and slip were discarded on the couch. The loudspeaker at the train station droned softly in the distance. I stood and admired my handiwork.

“The hole for the artery here is too high,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Please fix it.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’ll make the adjustment.”

The bag conformed to her every movement, protecting her heart like a faithful servant.

“It is nice and light,” she continued, “but the hooks rub my side.”

“I’ll use smaller ones and move them around to the front.”

“Yes, that might help.” She continued to test the fit—loosening the strap, rolling her shoulders, and finally striking a pose as though a microphone were in her hand.

*

"What’s that?” she said, pointing at a little bag sitting on the shelf above the sink.

“It’s for the hamster,” I said as I refilled her teacup.

“The hamster?” 

We had removed her heart from the bag, and she was buttoning up her blouse.

“I put him in it when I take him out for a walk. He seems to enjoy it.”

“Did you make his bag, too?”

“Of course.”

She stared curiously at the pouch: a simple thing compared to hers, with nothing more than a few air holes in the side.

“I never knew there were so many different kinds of bags,” she said.

I took a sip of tea and looked out at the bright sunlight.

*

The bag was almost finished. The leather was a soft cream color, the cutting and stitching were precise down to the millimeter. I had hung a sign on the door announcing that the shop would be closed until further notice and had spent long hours at my worktable. A regular customer had even called to ask me to repair her makeup case, but I turned her away. 

The beauty of the heart oppressed me, but my hands were steady as I worked. I had managed to make a thing that no one else could have made.

*

The hamster died. It might have been the heat wave, or maybe I neglected him because I was so absorbed in my work. I had fed him and cleaned his cage every other day—for three years and eight months—but he died anyway.

He lay still in my hand, teeth sticking out from his half-opened mouth. His body was still soft, but he already felt cold to the touch. I had no idea what to do with him, so I put him in his pouch, left my apartment, and wandered the streets of the town. I walked along the banks of the river, through the park, and around the reservoir, but I couldn’t find a place to get rid of him. From time to time, I stopped to unzip the pouch and check on him, but he was definitely dead. 

When I got tired of walking, I stopped in at a hamburger place. I didn’t really want a hamburger, but it was too much trouble to find a real restaurant.

I could barely eat half the food on my plate, and the coffee was almost undrinkable. When I went to throw away the trash, I slipped the hamster out of the pouch, on the tray next to my food, and slid him into the bin. I don’t think anyone noticed.

He must be covered in ketchup by now.

*

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“Just what I said. I won’t be needing the bag.” She took a cigarette from her purse and lit it.

“But it will be done in a day or two... ”

“I know it seems absurd to cancel the order at this point, and you have every right to be angry. But it all happened so suddenly—I can hardly believe it myself.” She let out a puff of smoke, and I watched it float toward the ceiling. “I’ve known for some time that it might be possible to put my heart back in place, but the operation always seemed too risky. Then I found a marvelous surgeon who told me he could do it using a new technique.” She went on like this a while longer, but I wasn’t listening.

“I’ll be going in the hospital next week, and I’ll be rid of this depressing thing forever.” She glanced down at her side with a look that was almost scornful.

“But it’s a wonderful bag. Here, see for yourself. I’ve moved the hole for the artery and switched to smaller hooks. I’m sure you’ll like it.” I held it out for her to see. “I just want to reinforce the stitching here and adjust the strap and it will be done.”

“I’ll pay you for it, of course. But I won’t be needing it now. I won’t have anything to put in it.”

“But see how exquisite it is. You won’t find a bag like this anywhere else. The insulation, the breathability, the quality of the materials, the workmanship… ” 

“I said I won’t be needing it.” As she stood to go, she brushed the bag from the table and it lay there on the floor, as still as a dead animal.

*

“Dr. Y from Respiratory Medicine. Dr. Y from Respiratory Medicine. Please contact the pharmacy immediately.” The announcement played again, but Dr. Y was apparently still missing.

The elevator was crowded with doctors and nurses and patients with drip bags of yellow liquid, but I forced my way in and pressed the button for the sixth floor. I was sure I’d be able to find her room. I would pretend I was just visiting her, or I could say I wanted her to pay me for the bag. After all, I ought to get something for all my work.

First, I’ll apologize for the other day—very humbly, in order to regain her trust. And then I’ll say what I’ve come to say: “Making your bag has been a very important experience for me. I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to make a piece like this again. Still, I’m happy you’re getting the operation and won’t need the bag. But I do have one final request: I’d like to see it put to its intended use just once. I know it’s asking a lot, but I’d be very grateful. I promise I’ll never bother you again, but nothing is more painful for a craftsman than knowing all his hard work was for nothing. Just this once, and I’d be eternally grateful.”

She’ll take off her gown, and I’ll fit it on her.

“Are you satisfied, then?” she’ll ask, anxious to be rid of me.

“Thank you,” I’ll say, but when I reach for the bag, I’ll cut her heart away, too.

And then it will be mine alone.

The bag is in my left pocket. I tried to fold it flat, but there’s a little mound in my pants. I don’t think anyone will notice. The shears in my right pocket prick my thigh as I wait.

The elevator chimes, the number 6 lights up, and the door opens.

Translated by Stephen Snyder

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