The Elephant Vanishes
Written by: Haruki Murakami
Narrated by: Jay Rubin

I MET HER NEAR the end of September. It had been raining that day from morning to night—the kind of soft, monotonous, misty rain that often falls at that time of year, washing away bit by bit the memories of summer burned into the earth. Coursing down the gutters, all those memories flowed into the sewers and rivers, to be carried to the deep, dark ocean.

We noticed each other at the party my company threw to launch its new advertising campaign. I work for the PR section of a major manufacturer of electrical appliances, and at the time I was in charge of publicity for a coordinated line of kitchen equipment, which was scheduled to go on the market in time for the autumn-wedding and winter-bonus seasons. My job was to negotiate with several women’s magazines for tie-in articles—not the kind of work that takes a great deal of intelligence, but I had to see to it that the articles they wrote didn’t smack of advertising. When magazines gave us publicity, we rewarded them by placing ads in their pages. They scratched our backs, we scratched theirs.

As an editor of a magazine for young housewives, she had come to the party for material for one of these “articles.” I happened to be in charge of showing her around, pointing out the features of the colorful refrigerators and coffeemakers and microwave ovens and juicers that a famous Italian designer had done for us.

“The most important point is unity,” I explained. “Even the most beautifully designed item dies if it is out of balance with its surroundings. Unity of design, unity of color, unity of function: This is what today’s kit-chin needs above all else. Research tells us that a housewife spends the largest part of her day in the kit-chin. The kit-chin is her workplace, her study, her living room. Which is why she does all she can to make the kit-chin a pleasant place to be. It has nothing to do with size. Whether it’s large or small, one fundamental principle governs every successful kit-chin, and that principle is unity. This is the concept underlying the design of our new series. Look at this cooktop, for example….”

She nodded and scribbled things in a small notebook, but it was obvious that she had little interest in the material, nor did I have any personal stake in our new cooktop. Both of us were doing our jobs.

“You know a lot about kitchens,” she said when I finished. She used the Japanese word, without picking up on “kit-chin.”

“That’s what I do for a living,” I answered with a professional smile. “Aside from that, though, I do like to cook. Nothing fancy, but I cook for myself every day.”

“Still, I wonder if unity is all that necessary for a kitchen.”

“We say ‘kit-chin,’” I advised her. “No big deal, but the company wants us to use the English.”

“Oh. Sorry. But still, I wonder. Is unity so important for a kit-chin? What do you think?”

“My personal opinion? That doesn’t come out until I take my necktie off,” I said with a grin. “But today I’ll make an exception. A kitchen probably does need a few things more than it needs unity. But those other elements are things you can’t sell. And in this pragmatic world of ours, things you can’t sell don’t count for much.”

“Is the world such a pragmatic place?”

I took out a cigarette and lit it with my lighter.

“I don’t know—the word just popped out,” I said. “But it explains a lot. It makes work easier, too. You can play games with it, make up neat expressions: ‘essentially pragmatic,’ or ‘pragmatic in essence.’ If you look at things that way, you avoid all kinds of complicated problems.”

“What an interesting view!”

“Not really. It’s what everybody thinks. Oh, by the way, we’ve got some pretty good champagne. Care to have some?”

“Thanks. I’d love to.”

As we chatted over champagne, we realized we had several mutual acquaintances. Since our part of the business world was not a very big pond, if you tossed in a few pebbles, one or two were bound to hit a mutual acquaintance. In addition, she and my kid sister happened to have graduated from the same university. With markers like this to follow, our conversation went along smoothly.

She was unmarried, and so was I. She was twenty-six, and I was thirty-one. She wore contact lenses, and I wore glasses. She praised my necktie, and I praised her jacket. We compared rents and complained about our jobs and salaries. In other words, we were beginning to like each other. She was an attractive woman, and not at all pushy. I stood there talking with her for a full twenty minutes, unable to discover a single reason not to think well of her.

As the party was breaking up, I invited her to join me in the hotel’s cocktail lounge, where we settled in to continue our conversation. A soundless rain went on falling outside the lounge’s panoramic window, the lights of the city sending blurry messages through the mist. A damp hush held sway over the nearly empty cocktail lounge. She ordered a frozen daiquiri and I had a scotch on the rocks.

Sipping our drinks, we carried on the kind of conversation that a man and woman have in a bar when they have just met and are beginning to like each other. We talked about our college days, our tastes in music, sports, our daily routines.

Then I told her about the elephant. Exactly how this happened, I can’t recall. Maybe we were talking about something having to do with animals, and that was the connection. Or maybe, unconsciously, I had been looking for someone—a good listener—to whom I could present my own, unique view on the elephant’s disappearance. Or, then again, it might have been the liquor that got me talking.

In any case, the second the words left my mouth, I knew that I had brought up one of the least suitable topics I could have found for this occasion. No, I should never have mentioned the elephant. The topic was—what?—too complete, too closed.

I tried to hurry on to something else, but as luck would have it she was more interested than most in the case of the vanishing elephant, and once I admitted that I had seen the elephant many times she showered me with questions—what kind of elephant was it, how did I think it had escaped, what did it eat, wasn’t it a danger to the community, and so forth.

I told her nothing more than what everybody knew from the news, but she seemed to sense constraint in my tone of voice. I had never been good at telling lies.

As if she had not noticed anything strange about my behavior, she sipped her second daiquiri and asked, “Weren’t you shocked when the elephant disappeared? It’s not the kind of thing that somebody could have predicted.”

“No, probably not,” I said. I took a pretzel from the mound in the glass dish on our table, snapped it in two, and ate half. The waiter replaced our ashtray with an empty one.

She looked at me expectantly. I took out another cigarette and lit it. I had quit smoking three years earlier but had begun again when the elephant disappeared.

“Why ‘probably not’? You mean you could have predicted it?”

“No, of course I couldn’t have predicted it,” I said with a smile. “For an elephant to disappear all of a sudden one day—there’s no precedent, no need, for such a thing to happen. It doesn’t make any logical sense.”

“But still, your answer was very strange. When I said, ‘It’s not the kind of thing that somebody could have predicted,’ you said, ‘No, probably not.’ Most people would have said, ‘You’re right,’ or ‘Yeah, it’s weird,’ or something. See what I mean?”

I sent a vague nod in her direction and raised my hand to call the waiter. A kind of tentative silence took hold as I waited for him to bring me my next scotch.

“I’m finding this a little hard to grasp,” she said softly. “You were carrying on a perfectly normal conversation with me until a couple of minutes ago—at least until the subject of the elephant came up. Then something funny happened. I can’t understand you anymore. Something’s wrong. Is it the elephant? Or are my ears playing tricks on me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with your ears,” I said.

“So then it’s you. The problem’s with you.”

I stuck my finger in my glass and stirred the ice. I like the sound of ice in a whiskey glass.

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘problem,’ exactly. It’s not that big a deal. I’m not hiding anything. I’m just not sure I can talk about it very well, so I’m trying not to say anything at all. But you’re right—it’s very strange.”

“What do you mean?”

It was no use: I’d have to tell her the story. I took one gulp of whiskey and started.

“The thing is, I was probably the last one to see the elephant before it disappeared. I saw it after seven o’clock on the evening of May seventeenth, and they noticed it was gone on the afternoon of the eighteenth. Nobody saw it in between because they lock the elephant house at six.”

“I don’t get it. If they closed the house at six, how did you see it after seven?”

“There’s a kind of cliff behind the elephant house. A steep hill on private property, with no real roads. There’s one spot, on the back of the hill, where you can see into the elephant house. I’m probably the only one who knows about it.”

I had found the spot purely by chance. Strolling through the area one Sunday afternoon, I had lost my way and come out at the top of the cliff. I found a little flat open patch, just big enough for a person to stretch out in, and when I looked down through the bushes, there was the elephant-house roof. Below the edge of the roof was a fairly large vent opening, and through it I had a clear view of the inside of the elephant house.

I made it a habit after that to visit the place every now and then to look at the elephant when it was inside the house. If anyone had asked me why I bothered doing such a thing, I wouldn’t have had a decent answer. I simply enjoyed watching the elephant during its private time. There was nothing more to it than that. I couldn’t see the elephant when the house was dark inside, of course, but in the early hours of the evening the keeper would have the lights on the whole time he was taking care of the elephant, which enabled me to study the scene in detail.

What struck me immediately when I saw the elephant and keeper alone together was the obvious liking they had for each other—something they never displayed when they were out before the public. Their affection was evident in every gesture. It almost seemed as if they stored away their emotions during the day, taking care not to let anyone notice them, and took them out at night when they could be alone. Which is not to say that they did anything different when they were by themselves inside. The elephant just stood there, as blank as ever, and the keeper would perform those tasks one would normally expect him to do as a keeper: scrubbing down the elephant with a deck broom, picking up the elephant’s enormous droppings, cleaning up after the elephant ate. But there was no way to mistake the special warmth, the sense of trust, between them. While the keeper swept the floor, the elephant would wave its trunk and pat the keeper’s back. I liked to watch the elephant doing that.

“Have you always been fond of elephants?” she asked. “I mean, not just that particular elephant?”

“Hmm … come to think of it, I do like elephants,” I said. “There’s something about them that excites me. I guess I’ve always liked them. I wonder why.”

“And that day, too, after the sun went down, I suppose you were up on the hill by yourself, looking at the elephant. May—what day was it?”

“The seventeenth. May seventeenth at seven P.M. The days were already very long by then, and the sky had a reddish glow, but the lights were on in the elephant house.”

“And was there anything unusual about the elephant or the keeper?”

“Well, there was and there wasn’t. I can’t say exactly. It’s not as if they were standing right in front of me. I’m probably not the most reliable witness.”

“What did happen, exactly?”

I took a swallow of my now somewhat watery scotch. The rain outside the windows was still coming down, no stronger or weaker than before, a static element in a landscape that would never change.

“Nothing happened, really. The elephant and the keeper were doing what they always did—cleaning, eating, playing around with each other in that friendly way of theirs. It wasn’t what they did that was different. It’s the way they looked. Something about the balance between them.”

“The balance?”

“In size. Of their bodies. The elephant’s and the keeper’s. The balance seemed to have changed somewhat. I had the feeling that to some extent the difference between them had shrunk.”

She kept her gaze fixed on her daiquiri glass for a time. I could see that the ice had melted and that the water was working its way through the cocktail like a tiny ocean current.

“Meaning that the elephant had gotten smaller?”

“Or the keeper had gotten bigger. Or both simultaneously.”

“And you didn’t tell this to the police?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “I’m sure they wouldn’t have believed me. And if I had told them I was watching the elephant from the cliff at a time like that, I’d have ended up as their number one suspect.”

“Still, are you certain that the balance between them had changed?”

“Probably. I can only say ‘probably.’ I don’t have any proof, and as I keep saying, I was looking at them through the air vent. But I had looked at them like that I don’t know how many times before, so it’s hard for me to believe that I could make a mistake about something as basic as the relation of their sizes.”

In fact, I had wondered at the time whether my eyes were playing tricks on me. I had tried closing and opening them and shaking my head, but the elephant’s size remained the same. It definitely looked as if it had shrunk—so much so that at first I thought the town might have got hold of a new, smaller elephant. But I hadn’t heard anything to that effect, and I would never have missed any news reports about elephants. If this was not a new elephant, the only possible conclusion was that the old elephant had, for one reason or another, shrunk. As I watched, it became obvious to me that this smaller elephant had all the same gestures as the old one. It would stamp happily on the ground with its right foot while it was being washed, and with its now somewhat narrower trunk it would pat the keeper on the back.

It was a mysterious sight. Looking through the vent, I had the feeling that a different, chilling kind of time was flowing through the elephant house—but nowhere else. And it seemed to me, too, that the elephant and the keeper were gladly giving themselves over to this new order that was trying to envelop them—or that had already partially succeeded in enveloping them.

Altogether, I was probably watching the scene in the elephant house for less than a half hour. The lights went out at seven-thirty—much earlier than usual—and from that point on, everything was wrapped in darkness. I waited in my spot, hoping that the lights would go on again, but they never did. That was the last I saw of the elephant.

“So, then, you believe that the elephant kept shrinking until it was small enough to escape through the bars, or else that it simply dissolved into nothingness. Is that it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “All I’m trying to do is recall what I saw with my own eyes, as accurately as possible. I’m hardly thinking about what happened after that. The visual image I have is so strong that, to be honest, it’s practically impossible for me to go beyond it.”

That was all I could say about the elephant’s disappearance. And just as I had feared, the story of the elephant was too particular, too complete in itself, to work as a topic of conversation between a young man and woman who had just met. A silence descended upon us after I had finished my tale. What subject could either of us bring up after a story about an elephant that had vanished—a story that offered virtually no openings for further discussion? She ran her finger around the edge of her cocktail glass, and I sat there reading and rereading the words stamped on my coaster. I never should have told her about the elephant. It was not the kind of story you could tell freely to anyone.

“When I was a little girl, our cat disappeared,” she offered after a long silence. “But still, for a cat to disappear and for an elephant to disappear—those are two different stories.”

“Yeah, really. There’s no comparison. Think of the size difference.”

Thirty minutes later, we were saying good-bye outside the hotel. She suddenly remembered that she had left her umbrella in the cocktail lounge, so I went up in the elevator and brought it down to her. It was a brick-red umbrella with a large handle.

“Thanks,” she said.

“Good night,” I said.

That was the last time I saw her. We talked once on the phone after that, about some details in her tie-in article. While we spoke, I thought seriously about inviting her out for dinner, but I ended up not doing it. It just didn’t seem to matter one way or the other.

I felt like this a lot after my experience with the vanishing elephant. I would begin to think I wanted to do something, but then I would become incapable of distinguishing between the probable results of doing it and of not doing it. I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance, though it could be that my perceptions are playing tricks on me. Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair, and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way. It’s probably something in me.

I continue to sell refrigerators and toaster ovens and coffee-makers in the pragmatic world, based on afterimages of memories I retain from that world. The more pragmatic I try to become, the more successfully I sell—our campaign has succeeded beyond our most optimistic forecasts—and the more people I succeed in selling myself to. That’s probably because people are looking for a kind of unity in this kit-chin we know as the world. Unity of design. Unity of color. Unity of function.

The papers print almost nothing about the elephant anymore. People seem to have forgotten that their town once owned an elephant. The grass that took over the elephant enclosure has withered now, and the area has the feel of winter.

The elephant and keeper have vanished completely. They will never be coming back.