By Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Translated into English by Nathan Collins
The old woman, opening her eyes even wider than before, steadily looked over the servant's face. Her eyelids red, she regarded him with the sharp gaze of a hawk. Then, her nose and lips, joined as one among wrinkled folds, moved as if she were chewing on something.
Within her scrawny neck, her Adam's apple began to move. Then from her throat came a wheezing, gasping voice, like a crow cawing.
"I was taking this hair, I was taking this hair, to make it into a wig."
The servant was disappointed at how mundane her answer turned out to be. He was disappointed, but at the same time, his previous hatred swept over him with a cold contempt. That feeling, doubtless, would remain with him. The old woman, still holding in her hand a long hair snatched from the corpse's head, muttered haltingly in a voice like the murmuring of a frog.
"Well, listen, I know that taking hair from a dead body might be wrong. But it's no sin to do something like that to the kind of people that end up here. This woman whose hair I have just been taking, for instance, used to cut snakes into five-inch strips, dry them, and sell them in the palace guardrooms as dried fish. If the plague hadn't killed her, she would probably still be going there to sell them. Even worse, her 'dried fish' supposedly tasted good, so the guards would always buy them to eat with their rice. Now, I don't think what she did was wrong. If she hadn't done it, she would have starved to death, so she couldn't help it. I don't think what I've been doing is wrong, either. If I don't do it, I would surely starve to death too, so I can't help it."
That was basically what the old woman said.
The servant had returned his sword to its sheath, but his left hand still rested on its hilt. Calmly, coldly, as he listened to her speak, his right hand, as usual, picked at the red, pus-filled pimple on his cheek. But as he listened, a courage welled up within him—a courage he had lacked beneath the gate, and a courage wholly different from when he climbed up into the tower and captured the old woman. Not only did the servant cease to worry about starving or becoming a thief, but he banished all such thoughts completely.
"This woman knew what it was to face starvation," the crone was insisting. "She would understand, and I'm sure she would forgive me."
"I'm sure she would," replied the servant, his voice now derisive. He advanced within a pace of her, and in one swift movement, drew his hand from the pimple on his cheek and grabbed her by the shoulder."Well then, I guess you wouldn't be upset if I stole your clothes," said the servant. "If I don't, I'll starve to death."
Quickly, he stripped off her clothing. She was grasping after his legs when he kicked her down onto the pile of bodies. It was only five steps back to the ladder, where the servant folded the tree-colored kimono under his arm and scrambled down and back into the night.
The old woman remained among the naked corpses for a short time, as if she too were dead. But soon she rose, moaning, groaning, and with the aid of the still-burning torch, she crept to the top of the ladder. She peered down into the bottom of the gate, her short white hair dangling.
Nothing awaited below but the cavern of night, empty and black.
The servant, oblivious to the rain, had already hurried off into the streets of Kyōto to pursue his new life as a thief.