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AKUTAGAWA, Ryūnosuke

The servant crept up to the top step of the steep staircase, his feet as silent as a gecko’s. He straightened out his body as much as he could, stuck his neck out as far as possible, and cautiously peered into the tower. As the rumours had said, a number of corpses had been discarded in the tower, but the firelight wasn’t as bright as he had expected, so he couldn’t tell how many. Although the light was dim, what he did know was that some of the bodies were wearing kimonos, and others were naked. Predictably, the corpses’ numbers counted both men and woman, mixed together amongst the dead. The bodies looked so much like clay dolls, that you might doubt that any of them had ever even been alive. Their mouths open and their arms outstretched, they were strewn haphazardly across the floor. And while the higher parts of their bodies—like their chests and shoulders—caught some of the dim firelight, they cast shadows on the lower parts, and the corpses were as eternally silent as a mute.

The servant instinctively covered his nose from the putrid stench of the rotting bodies. But the next instant, his hand fell away from his face. A strong emotion had almost completely robbed him of his sense of smell.

It was at that moment that the servant first caught glimpse of the person squatting among the corpses. It was an emaciated, little, old, white-haired woman in a dusky-red kimono. The old woman was carrying a lighted pine torch, and staring at one of the corpses’ faces. Judging from the length of its hair in places, it was probably the body of a woman.

For a while, moved by six parts fear and four parts curiosity, the servant forgot even to breathe. To borrow a phrase from the writers of the chronicles of old, he felt as if ‘the hairs on his head and body had grown thick’. The old woman thrust the handle of the pine torch into the space between the floorboards. She placed both hands on the corpse’s head, and like a monkey picking the lice off its child, she began to pull out strands of the corpse’s long hair, one-by-one. The hairs seemed to be coming out with very little effort.

Each time she plucked one of those hairs, the servant grew a little bit less frightened. And each time she plucked one of those hairs, the intense hatred that he now felt for this woman grew a little bit stronger. No—it is probably misleading to say that he hated her, per se. Rather, it was a revulsion against all forms of evil, which was growing stronger by the minute. At that moment, if someone again raised the question that the servant had been thinking about under the gate—whether he would starve to death or become a criminal—the servant would almost certainly have chosen starvation, without an ounce of regret. Like the torch the old woman had jammed between the floorboards, this was how ardently the man’s heart burned against all that was evil. 


Translation by René Malenfant