Saturday, June 09, 2007

Down the Takase River [Mori Ogai]


In Edo Period (1603-1868) Kyoto, when a criminal was sentenced to exile his relatives were summoned to the jail to say their farewells, and after that he was placed on a boat that would take him down the Takase River to Osaka. His delivery was overseen by a guard who worked under the authority of the Kyoto city magistrate, and it was the custom for the guard to allow one close relative to accompany the prisoner on the voyage. Doing so wasn’t official policy, but there was a tacit agreement that the practice would be tolerated.

Exile was of course reserved only for those found guilty of very serious crimes, but that does not mean that they were all evil people who had, for example, committed murder or arson as an ends to thievery. More than half of those sent down the Takase River found themselves in that situation due merely to unfortunate circumstances. One frequent passenger was the man who had entered into a double suicide pact, but had only managed to kill his lover and not himself.

The boat would start down the river with the ringing of the evening bell, carrying its passenger under the darkening Kyoto houses that lined both banks. They would head east, cutting across the Kamo River. The condemned and his chosen relative would invariably talk through the night about this grim state of affairs, rehashing the details of things that now could not be changed. The accompanying guard would learn in detail the tragic circumstances of the household that had created this criminal, said circumstances often being beyond the comprehension of a public official whose life consisted of taking public depositions and reading testimonies at his desk in the magistrate’s office.

Just as there are many types of people, there are many types of guards. Some were indifferent to the prisoner’s plight, and considered their talking as just noisy babbling. Others, however, felt compassion for their wards, and though their position prohibited them from showing it there was sorrow beneath their silence. Particularly sentimental or maudlin guards would even find themselves fighting back tears upon learning the tragic state of affairs of those they were charged with overseeing.

This is why becoming the escort for the Takase River boat was a job quite hated by those working in the magistrate’s office.

* * *

The events of this story must have taken place sometime during the Kansei Period (1789-1800), at about the time that Sadanobu Matsudaira was in office. One spring evening, as the cherry blossoms of Chion’in Temple fell to the sound of the evening bells, a prisoner unlike any before was loaded onto the Takase River ferry.

He said that his name was Kisuke. He was about thirty years old, and he had no fixed address. He didn’t have any close relatives to accompany him on his voyage, so he came to the boat alone.

The guard sent to accompany Kisuke was named Shobeh Haneda, and the only thing he had heard about this prisoner was that he had killed his own brother. In just the time that it took Shobeh to escort Kisuke from the prison to the docks, he had already noted how thin and pale Kisuke was, and that he was a meek, quiet man. He paid all due respect to Shobeh’s authority as an officer of the court, and he was compliant in all that was asked of him. It was also plain that Kisuke’s demeanor was not just a show of docility meant to put his captor at ease, as is sometimes seen among criminals.

This all seemed out of place to Shobeh, and for once he didn’t just pretend to watch his charge, but rather took careful note of all of his actions.

That evening the winds were calm, and the thin clouds that covered the sky created a nimbus about the moon. The coming warmth of summer could be felt, almost as a haze rising from the river’s banks and bed. Once they had passed the outskirts of Kyoto and crossed the Kamo River their surroundings became very still. The only sound was the water being parted by the boat’s bow.

Prisoners were allowed to sleep through the night, but Kisuke made no move to lie down. He simply sat quietly, looking up at the moon as it grew brighter and then dimmed again according to the thickness of the clouds covering it. His brow seemed untroubled, and his eyes seemed to have a gleam to them.

Shobeh was not watching Kisuke in the true sense of the word, but he never took his eyes off of his face. Inside, Shobeh was repeating to himself, “How can this be? How can this be?” No matter how he looked, Kisuke seemed to be having an enjoyable time, and that it was only out of deference to the presence of a government official that he didn’t start whistling a tune, or at least humming one.

“I have acted as an escort on this boat more times than I could count,” Shobeh thought, “and without fail my passenger has always been in such a wretched state that it was a hard sight to even look upon. So why is this man different? He looks as if he were out on a pleasure cruise! They say that this man killed his brother. Now perhaps his brother was an evil man, and maybe I don’t understand the circumstances under which he was killed. But no man could be in such a happy state after having murdered another person. Could this pale, skinny man be such a dreadful person that he doesn’t have the feelings of a human being? I just can’t believe that. Or maybe he’s lost his sanity? No, I don’t believe that, either. He certainly hasn’t said nor done anything that would incline me think so. So what is it about this man?” The more Shobeh thought on it, the less he understood.

* * *

After a time Shobeh could no longer resist and called out, “Hey, Kisuke. Tell me what it is you’re thinking about.”

“Yes, sir,” Kisuke replied, but immediately seemed to worry that he had perhaps done something inappropriate, and so sat up straight and studied Shobeh’s expression to gauge his mood.

Feeling that he must give a reason for suddenly asking such a thing, an act inappropriate to the duties he was assigned, Shobeh explained, “No, don’t worry. There’s no particular reason for me to ask. I just wanted to ask you for some time now how you feel about being taken to the island of exile. I’ve taken many people there in this boat before. They all arrived here by different paths, but every one of them was saddened by their situation and would spend the entire night crying with whatever loved one had come to see them off. But to look at you, the fact that you’re being sent into exile doesn’t seem to trouble you at all. Why is that?”

Kisuke smiled. “Thank you for explaining yourself. Yes, I suppose that being sent to the island of exile would be a sad situation for most people. I can certainly understand that. But that is because they are leaving an easy life behind. Kyoto is a big city, with many people, but I doubt that you could find anyone there who has had a life as hard as mine. The magistrate is merciful, and has spared my life and sent me to the island. It may be a hard place to live, but it won’t be unbearable. Up until now, no matter where I went I was unable to find a place where I could live comfortably. But now I am compelled to live on this island by command of the government, and so I will finally find a place where I can settle down. I am terribly thankful for that. As you can see I was born into a weak body, but I never get sick. Though I will have to work hard on the island, I am sure that I will stay healthy. And not only am I being given the chance to live on the island, but I was also given 200 mon in coins. I have them right here.” Kisuke pressed his hand to his breast. The law at the time was that those sent into exile were to be given 200 mon in copper coins.

Kisuke continued: “As embarrassing as it is to say so, I’ve never had this much money in my purse at one time. I have constantly looked for work, and have done my best at any job that I managed to find. But any coins that I came by would immediately need to be paid to some person or another. When I did have enough money to buy something to eat, I would usually use it to pay off debts instead, but then having no money would need to make new debts. After I was put in jail I could eat without working, and so already felt bad for my imposition towards the magistrate, but to add to that once I was released I was even given this money. If I were to use it to buy food, then I would be again eating out of the hand of the magistrate, so I decided to save it. This is the first time I’ve ever had money of my own. I don’t know what kind of work I’ll be able to do once I arrive at the island, but I’m hoping to use it to start some new enterprise there.”

Shobeh replied, “I see,” but was so surprised at all this that he sank into silence for a time to think about what he had learned.

Shobeh had already lived long enough to see old age looming in his future, and had four children by his wife. His aged mother lived with them, making for a family of seven. He lived more frugally than was necessary, to the point where some might call him stingy. The only clothes he owned other than those necessary for his office were the night clothes that he slept in. Unfortunately for him, his wife came from the house of a wealthy merchant. She tried her best to live within the means of the rice stipend that was allotted to her husband, but nonetheless was brought up in lifestyle of a wealthy home, and so found it difficult to live with her purse strings drawn tight. The end of each month often saw the family short on money, and so Shobeh’s wife would secretly borrow money from her parents in order to balance the books. She had to keep this a secret, because her husband hated debts of any sort. Even receiving gifts from his wife’s family at major holidays, or receiving clothing for his children during the children’s festivals made him uncomfortable, so knowing that his family was receiving money just to make ends meet would cause him no end of suffering. But such things are difficult to keep secret, and the occasional disruption of the calm that was the norm in the Haneda household was invariably due to this.

Listening to Kisuke’s story, Shobeh couldn’t help but compare Kisuke’s situation with his own. “Kisuke says that even when he worked and got hold of some money, that money would immediately be handed over to someone else. A sad, pitiable state of affairs indeed. But if I were to compare his life to mine, would we truly be so different? My life, too, consists of taking my stipend from the government, and then handing it out bit by bit to others. The only difference between us is the amount of money involved in each transaction. And at least he has 200 mon in savings, which is more than I can say for myself!

“Since we’re just talking about differences in scale, I can now see how savings of a mere 200 mon could make this man so happy. That I now understand. What I still cannot comprehend, however, is how he can be so free of want, how he can consider what he has sufficient.

“Kisuke had to work hard to find employment, and once he did no doubt he would work his fingers to the bone. Even so, he was satisfied with whatever meager existence he could manage. After having to work so hard to feed himself, his imprisonment meant being given food without even having to work for it. That must have been quite an improvement for this man. It may have been the most enjoyable time of his life.”

Thinking thus over differences in the level of their incomes, Shobeh discovered a large difference between himself and Kisuke. Despite coming up a little short from time to time, Shobeh was usually able to live within the limits of his stipend, though things were often tight. However, he had never been satisfied with his station. Most of the time he felt neither blessed nor cursed, but always carried with him a submerged feeling of apprehension. “What could I do were I to be relieved of my position? What if I were to become ill?” he would think. On the occasion when he would discover that his wife had again borrowed money from her parents, his dread would rear up and move to the forefront of his thoughts.

“What could cause this difference in people?” he thought. “I could put it off to the difference between being single and having a family, but I know that’s not the case. Even if I were single, I know that I would never be like Kisuke. Our differences go much deeper.”

Shobeh’s thoughts turned to human life. When one is ill, one wishes that the illness would go away. When one is without food, one wishes for something to eat. When one finds himself without reserves to fall back on, he wishes that he had saved. Even when one does have reserves, he wishes that he had saved more. And so on. No matter what one’s situation, one strives to improve upon it. “Except for this man Kisuke,” Shobeh realized.

Shobeh looked at Kisuke in wonder. He thought that he could almost see a nimbus forming about Kisuke’s head as he looked up at the sky.

* * *

Keeping his eyes on Kisuke’s face, Shobeh called out “Kisuke-san...” This time he added the honorific -san to Kisuke’s name, but he did so unconsciously. He realized the inappropriateness of his manner of address as soon as the words left his mouth, but words spoken cannot be recalled.

“Yes?” answered Kisuke, seeming suspicious of his guard’s sudden politeness, and so timidly looking at Shobeh’s face so as to again gauge his mood.

Ignoring the awkwardness of the situation, Shobeh said “I’m sorry to keep asking you questions, but I heard that you’re being sent to the island because you killed someone. Would you tell me how that happened?”

Kisuke looked terrified, but muttered “Yes, sir.” He continued: “I’ve done such an awful, terrible thing, and I have no excuse for my actions. Looking back, I don’t know why I did what I did. I can only think that I was in some sort of trance.

“When I was still small, both of my parents died of plague, leaving me and my younger brother. At first the people in our town took care of us like they might watch after a pair of stray puppies, and as we grew we managed to avoid starving or freezing to death by running errands for people in the neighborhood. As we became older and were able to look for work, my brother and I did our best to stay together and to help each other as we could.

“Last autumn, my brother and I were working threading looms for a weaver in Nishijin. My brother, however, fell ill and was unable to continue working. We were living in a hovel in Kitayama, crossing the Kamiya Bridge to get to where we worked. Every evening when I came home with food my brother would apologize for my having to work for the both of us.

“One day, when I arrived home as usual my brother was doubled over on his futon, which was soaked in blood. Surprised, I threw aside the bamboo-skin bundle that I was carrying and ran to his side, crying out to him. He looked up at me, his jaw and both cheeks covered in blood, and could not speak. With each breath he took air would whistle through a wound in his neck. Not understanding what had happened I tried to move to his side asking, ‘What’s wrong? Did you cough up blood?’ My brother placed his right hand on the ground and pushed himself up a little. He kept his left hand at his throat, and I could see clotted blood oozing from between his fingers.

“The look in my brother’s eyes told me not to come any closer, and he worked his mouth until he was finally able to speak. ‘I’m sorry. Please forgive me,’ he said. ‘I knew that I would not recover from this illness, and wanted to make things easier on you by hurrying my death. I thought that I would die immediately if I were to cut my throat, but all that’s happened is that now I breathe through the wound, and won’t die. Thinking that I only needed to cut deeper I tried to ram the blade in, but it slipped and went off to the side. The blade is still in my neck. I’m sure that I can finally die if you’ll just pull it out. Please, don’t make me speak any further. Remove this thing from my neck, and let me die!’

“My brother let his left hand fall away, and again his breath whistled through his wound. Even if I knew what to say I was unable to speak, and stood there looking at the wound in my brother’s neck. It appeared that he had held a razor in his right hand and had cut across his throat, but having not died from that wound he had plunged the razor deep inside. The handle protruded a couple of inches out of the wound. I was transfixed by the scene, and not knowing what I should do looked up at my brother’s face.

“My brother just stared at me. I was finally able to manage to say ‘Wait here, I’ll go find a doctor!’ My brother gave me a hateful look, and holding his left hand to his throat again said, ‘What do you expect a doctor to be able to do? Hurry up and end my suffering! Pull this blade out!’ I remained standing there, still staring at my brother and unsure of what I should do.

“At such times the look in one’s eyes can speak volumes. My brother’s eyes were becoming angrier and angrier, pleading with me to quickly end his torment. My head was spinning like the wheels of a cart, and my brother’s stare continued to deliver his plea. His countenance grew fiercer and fiercer, until he seemed to be staring at me with the hatred he would bear his worst enemy.

“I finally gave in, and knew that I had to do as my brother demanded of me. ‘Alright then, I’ll pull the blade out,” I told him. Upon saying so my brother’s expression changed. He looked relieved, even happy. ‘I’ll have to do this in one swift yank,’ I thought, and so knelt on one knee and leaned forward. My brother lowered his right hand, and removing his left hand from his neck lowered the elbow of that arm to the floor and lay down. I got a firm grip on the razor’s handle, and slid the blade out without hesitation.

“Just then, an old woman from the neighborhood opened the front door and came in. I had asked this woman to look after my brother, to bring him his medicine and such. It had already become quite dark in the house, so I’m not sure how much she saw, but she let out a gasp and ran back out, leaving the front door open. When I pulled the razor out I had tried my best to do so quickly, and to pull it straight out, but I remember the sensation of cutting some place that had not yet been cut. The blade was facing outward, and so that is probably the direction that I cut deeper into. When the old woman entered the room I was standing there holding the razor, and I stared vaguely at her as she ran off. Seeing her leave I looked back at my brother, only to find that he had already stopped breathing. A dreadful amount of blood had come from his wound. I placed the razor next to his head, and watched his face through half-open eyes until the elders of the neighborhood came and took me away to the town hall.”

Kisuke had been looking slightly up at Shobeh as he told his tale, but now his gaze dropped down into his lap.

Kisuke’s story seemed sensible. It was perhaps a little too polished, even. No doubt this was because he had recalled the events of that day many times in the half year since his arrest, and had to carefully repeat it both during questioning at the city hall and while under investigation by the magistrate’s office.

Listening to Kisuke’s tale, Shobeh was able to visualize the scene described as if he had been there himself. Halfway through the story, he had begun to wonder if what he was hearing could really be called fratricide, or any kind of murder for that matter, and upon reaching the story’s end was no closer to resolution on that point. Kisuke’s brother had asked Kisuke to remove the razor, knowing that doing so would bring about his death. One could take the position that by pulling the razor out Kisuke did indeed kill his brother. But the brother would have died regardless, even if Kisuke had not removed the blade. The brother wanted to die quickly, unable to bear the agony of a slow death, something that Kisuke, too, found himself unable to watch. Kisuke ended his brother’s life in order to spare him from anguish. Is that really a crime? Shobeh knew that killing is no doubt a crime, but should it be when the killing is for the purpose of relief? Shobeh found himself unable to come to a conclusion.

Shobeh thought on this for a time, but in the end decided that he could only accept the decision made by his superiors, that it was best to rely on authority. Shobeh decided that the magistrate’s decision would be his own as well. But even after settling on such a resolution Shobeh couldn’t help but feel a sense of injustice, and a desire to ask the magistrate about some things.

The misty-mooned night wore on, and the boat carried the two silent figures, sliding over the black surface of the Takase River.

2 comments:

Tony said...

The Creative Commons-licensed photograph of the Takase River at night (with cherry blossoms, no less!) is from Flickr user Koncha. Thank you for releasing your photographs with a CC license!

The original Japanese text of this story can be found here (using modern Japanese) or here (in the original Japanese).

Goran said...

Thanks for putting the story here! I had to read it before tomorrow's Japanese literature exam. XD