My husband left for work as usual, and I couldn’t think of anything to do. I sat alone in the chair by the window, staring out at the garden through the gap between the curtains. Not that I had any reason to be looking at the garden: There was nothing else for me to do. And I thought that sooner or later, if I sat there looking, I might think of something. Of all the many things in the garden, the one I looked at most was the oak tree. It was my special favorite. I had planted it when I was a little girl, and watched it grow. I thought of it as my old friend. I talked to it all the time in my head.
That day, too, I was probably talking to the oak tree—I don’t remember what about. And I don’t know how long I was sitting there. The time slips by when I’m looking at the garden. It was dark before I knew it: I must have been there quite a while. Then, all at once, I heard a sound. It came from somewhere far away—a funny, muffled sort of rubbing sort of sound. At first I thought it was coming from a place deep inside me, that I was hearing things—a warning from the dark cocoon my body was spinning within. I held my breath and listened. Yes. No doubt about it. Little by little, the sound was moving closer to me. What was it? I had no idea. But it made my flesh creep.
The ground near the base of the tree began to bulge upward as if some thick, heavy liquid were rising to the surface. Again I caught my breath. Then the ground broke open and the mounded earth crumbled away to reveal a set of sharp claws. My eyes locked onto them, and my hands turned into clenched fists. Something’s going to happen, I said to myself. It’s starting now. The claws scraped hard at the soil, and soon the break in the earth was an open hole, from which there crawled a little green monster.
Its body was covered with shining green scales. As soon as it emerged from the hole, it shook itself until the bits of soil clinging to it dropped away. It had a long, funny nose, the green of which gradually deepened toward the tip. The very end was narrow and pointed as a whip, but the beast’s eyes were exactly like a human’s. The sight of them sent a shiver through me. They showed feelings, just like your eyes or mine.
Without hesitation, but moving slowly and deliberately, the monster approached my front door, on which it began to knock with the slender tip of its nose. The dry, rapping sound echoed through the house. I tiptoed to the back room, hoping the beast would not realize I was there. I couldn’t scream. Ours is the only house in the area, and my husband wouldn’t be coming back from work until late at night. I couldn’t run out the back door, either, since my house has only the one door, the very one on which a horrible green monster was now knocking. I breathed as quietly as I could, pretending not to be there, hoping the thing would give up and go away. But it didn’t give up. Its nose went from knocking to groping at the lock. It seemed to have no trouble at all clicking the lock open, and then the door itself opened a crack. Around the edge of the door crept the nose, and then it stopped. For a long time it stayed still, like a snake with its head raised, checking conditions in the house. If I had known this was going to happen, I could have stayed by the door and cut the nose off, I told myself: The kitchen had plenty of sharp knives. No sooner had the thought occurred to me than the creature moved past the edge of the door, smiling, as if it had read my mind. Then it spoke, not with a stutter, but repeating certain words as if it were still trying to learn them. It wouldn’t have done you any good, any good, the little green monster said. My nose is like a lizard’s tail. It always grows back—stronger and longer, stronger and longer. You’d get just the opposite of what what you want want. Then it spun its eyes for a long time, like two weird tops.
Oh, no, I thought to myself. Can it read people’s minds? I hate to have anyone know what I’m thinking—especially when that someone is a horrid and inscrutable little creature like this. I broke out in a cold sweat from head to foot. What was this thing going to do to me? Eat me? Take me down into
the earth? Oh, well, at least it wasn’t so ugly that I couldn’t stand looking at it. That was good. It had slender, pink little arms and legs jutting out from its green-scaled body and long claws at the ends of its hands and feet. They were almost darling, the more I looked at them. And I could see, too, that the creature meant me no harm.
Of course not, it said to me, cocking its head. Its scales clicked against one another when it moved
—like crammed-together coffee cups rattling on a table when you nudge it. What a terrible thought, madam: Of course I wouldn’t eat you. No no no. I mean you no harm, no harm, no harm. So I was right: It knew exactly what I was thinking.
Madam madam madam, don’t you see? Don’t you see? I’ve come here to propose to you. From deep deep deep down deep down deep. I had to crawl all the way up here up here up. Awful, it was awful, I had to dig and dig and dig. Look at how it ruined my claws! I could never have done this if I meant you any harm, any harm, any harm. I love you. I love you so much I couldn’t stand it anymore down deep down deep. I crawled my way up to you, I had to, I had to. They all tried to stop me, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. And think of the courage that it took, please, took. What if you thought it was rude and presumptuous, rude and presumptuous, for a creature like me to propose to you?
But it isrude and presumptuous, I said in my mind. What a rude little creature you are to come seeking my love!
A look of sadness came over the monster ’s face as soon as I thought this, and its scales took on a purple tinge, as if to express what it was feeling. Its entire body seemed to shrink a little, too. I folded my arms to watch these changes occurring. Maybe something like this would happen whenever its feelings altered. And maybe its awful-looking exterior masked a heart that was as soft and vulnerable as a brand-new marshmallow. If so, I knew I could win. I decided to give it a try. You arean ugly little monster, you know, I shouted in my mind’s loudest voice—so loud it made my heart reverberate. You arean ugly little monster! The purple of the scales grew deeper, and the thing’s eyes began to bulge as if they were sucking in all the hatred I was sending them. They protruded from the creature’s face like ripe green figs, and tears like red juice ran down from them, splattering on the floor.
I wasn’t afraid of the monster anymore. I painted pictures in my mind of all the cruel things I wanted to do to it. I tied it down to a heavy chair with thick wires, and with a needle-nose pliers I began ripping out its scales at the roots, one by one. I heated the point of a sharp knife, and with it I cut deep grooves in the soft pink flesh of its calves. Over and over, I stabbed a hot soldering iron into the bulging figs of its eyes. With each new torture I imagined for it, the monster would lurch and writhe and wail in agony as if those things were actually happening to it. It wept its colored tears and oozed thick gobs of liquid onto the floor, emitting a gray vapor from its ears that had the fragrance of roses. Its eyes sent an unnerving glare of reproach at me. Please, madam, oh please, I beg of you, don’t think such terrible thoughts! it cried. I have no evil thoughts for you. I would never harm you. All I feel for you is love, is love. But I refused to listen. In my mind, I said, Don’t be ridiculous! You crawled out of my garden. You unlocked my door without permission. You came inside my house. I never asked you here. I have the right to think anything I want to. And I continued to do exactly that— thinking at the creature increasingly terrible thoughts. I cut and tormented its flesh with every machine and tool I could think of, overlooking no method that might exist to torture a living being and make it writhe in pain. See, then, you little monster, you have no idea what a woman is. There’s no end to the number of things I can think of to do to you. But soon the monster ’s outlines began to fade, and even its strong green nose shriveled up until it was no bigger than a worm. Writhing on the floor, the monster tried to move its mouth and speak to me, struggling to open its lips as if it wanted to leave me
some final message, to convey some ancient wisdom, some crucial bit of knowledge that it had forgotten to impart to me. Before that could happen, the mouth attained a painful stillness, and soon it went out of focus and disappeared. The monster now looked like nothing more than a pale evening shadow. All that remained, suspended in the air, were its mournful, bloated eyes. That won’t do any good, I thought to it. You can look all you want, but you can’t say a thing. You can’t do a thing. Your existence is over, finished, done. Soon the eyes dissolved into emptiness, and the room filled with the darkness of night.
—translated by JayRubin
○ On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning | (Included in “The Elephant Vanises”)
○ A Shinagawa Monkey (The New Yorker, February 13, 2006)
○ Town of Cats (Excerpt from 1Q84) (The New Yorker, September 5, 2011)
"If you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take. … When you’re with other people, your mind isn’t your own."
"I don’t believe in influence. I think that in order to be an artist, you have to move. When you stop moving, then you’re no longer an artist. And if you move from somebody else’s position, you simply cannot know the next step. I think that everyone is on his own line. I think that after you’ve made one step, the next step reveals itself. I believe that you were born on this line. I don’t say that the actual footsteps were marked before you get to them, and I don’t say that change isn’t possible in your course. But I do believe we unfold out of ourselves, and we do what we are born to do sooner or later, anyway.”
Agnes Martin’s interview for John Gruen | ARTnews in 1976.