By Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Translated into English by Nathan Collins
Our story begins after nightfall.
Under the Rashō Gate, a servant waited for the rain to cease. He was alone in the wide space—alone, but for a single cricket that had come to rest along one of the gate's massive columns, its red lacquer peeling here and there. Given the Rashō Gate's location astride Suzaku Avenue, one might expect to the see at least two or three others waiting out the rain, perhaps a woman's painted bamboo hat or the cap of a court official. Yet the man was alone.
You see, for the past few years, disasters such as earthquakes, whirlwinds, fire, and famine had been ongoing occurrences in Kyōto. The devastation inside the capital was extreme. An old text tells of Buddhist images and altarpieces taken from temples and smashed up, the ornately decorated wood—red lacquered, silver adorned, gilded—stacked along the side of the road to be sold as kindling. Because of events inside the capital, maintenance of the Rashō Gate was, even more than before, neglected and finally forgotten. Taking advantage of that abandonment, petty crooks came to roost. Thieves came to roost. And in the end, it even became common for the unclaimed dead to be dumped there. By then, the gate had become so unsavory that nobody would set foot near it after dark.
Instead, crows came to gather in great numbers. In daylight, you could see any number cawing as they flew circles around the gate's ornate tiled roof. And at sunset, they stood out like sesame seeds scattered across the reddened sky. Naturally, the crows came to pick at the meat of corpses left at the gate—although on that day, possibly due to the late hour, not even a single bird could be seen. Only, here and there, hardened white crow droppings dotted the crumbling, overgrown stone steps. The servant, in a blue kimono once dark but now faded from over-washing, sat on the uppermost of seven steps and picked at a large pimple on his right cheek as he absent-mindedly watched the falling rain.