By Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Translated into English by Nathan Collins
Minutes later, halfway up the wide ladder to the Rashō Gate tower, the man arched his back as if he were a cat and silently held his breath while assessing the situation. A flame from above bathed his right cheek in a dim light. It was a cheek with a red pus-filled pimple poking out through stubble. When he had first started up the ladder into the tower, the servant expected to find nothing but dead bodies within. But from this vantage point, he could see that someone above had lit a torch. Even more, the murky, yellow light seemed to be moving about, projecting swaying shadows across the ceiling's thick layer of spider webs. No normal person would be lighting a torch up inside the Rashō Gate on this rainy evening.
The servant, stepping as silently as a lizard, crept near the top of the ladder. Flattening his body against the wall as much as he could, stretching his neck forward as much as he could, trembling with fear, he peeked inside. Just as he had heard, a number of corpses lay within, discarded there, but because the firelight's reach fell short, he could not tell how many bodies there were. In the vaguely lit room, he could tell only that some were naked and some were clothed. Needless to say, males and females alike were mixed together. The bodies, scattered on the floor like clay dolls, mouths gaping, arms outstretched, made him question even that they had once lived and breathed. Moreover, the bodies, as eternally silent as a deaf-mute, caught the faint light of the flame only on such elevated portions as their shoulders and chests, the rest in shadow seeming all the darker.Reflexively, the servant drew his hand up to cover his nose against the stench from the decomposing bodies. In the next instant, however, his hand dropped. A strong feeling swept over him and robbed him of his sense of smell.
The servant saw, for the first time, a person crouching among the bodies—an old woman in a kimono the color of tree bark, short, slender, grey-haired, and monkey-like. The crone, a burning fragment of pine wood in her right hand, was peering into the face of one of the corpses. Judging from the length of its hair, this was probably the body of a woman.
Moved by six parts fear and four parts curiosity, the servant forgot for a time even to breathe. To borrow a phrase from an ancient text, he felt as if "the hairs all over his head and body had fattened." The old woman wedged her pine torch between two floorboards, placed her hands around the neck of the corpse, and, like a monkey picking lice from its child, she began to pluck out one strand of the long hair at a time. The hair seemed to follow her hand as she plucked it.
With each single strand of hair she plucked, the servant's terror slowly faded. And at the same time, he began to feel an intense hatred toward the old woman. No, to say he hated the old woman might be incorrect. More likely, he felt an enmity toward all evil, which grew stronger with every minute. If he were now pondering the question he had asked himself down below—to become a thief or to die from starvation—perhaps he would have chosen, without a hint of regret, to starve. His hatred of evil, like the old woman's torch still wedged into the floor, blazed now with a violent flame.