Kōji thought about the sunlight that shone brightly into the connecting corridor that led to the bathhouse, cascading over the windowsill, spreading out like a sheet of white glossy paper. He didn’t know why, but he had humbly, passionately loved the light streaming down through that window. It was divine favor, truly pure—dismembered, like the white body of a slain infant. Leaning against the handrail on the upper deck, he marveled at how the abundant early-summer morning sun that his body now comfortably soaked up was at this very instant, in some remote place, joining with the small, exalted, and fragmented sunlight of his memories. It was difficult to believe that this sunlight and the other were of the same substance.
If he were to trace the diffuse light in front of him, as though reaching hand over hand for a great, sparkling banner, would he eventually touch the tip of a hard, pure tassel of sunlight? And if so, was that pure tassel tip the far, far end of the sunlight? Or was it the distant origin itself of the abundant sunlight right in front of him?
Kōji was traveling aboard the Ryūgū Maru 20, which had departed from Numazu bound for West Izu. The back-to-back benches on the upper deck were sparsely occupied, and the canvas awning sang in the breeze. On the shore, fantastically shaped rocks soared precipitously like a black castle, and high above in the sky, bright cumulus clouds drifted about in disarray. Kōji’s hair was not yet long enough to be disturbed by the persistent wind.
He had regular and firm features, and his somewhat old-fashioned warrior’s face and relatively bony nose made him appear like someone whose emotions were easily controlled. But his face was capable of hiding things. My face is like a well-crafted, carved wooden mask, he thought when he was in good humor.
There wasn’t much pleasure in smoking a cigarette while bearing the brunt of the wind, for it soon deprives the mouth of both the taste and the fragrance of the smoke. But Kōji didn’t remove the cigarette, continuing to draw deeply on the butt until a strange and bitter sensation filled the back of his head. He had no idea how many he’d smoked since leaving Numazu at nine thirty that morning. He couldn’t stand the dazzling pitch and roll of the sea. To his unaccustomed eyes, the vast view of the world around him was nothing more than a vague, widely shining, and remote series of linked objects. He turned his thoughts back once more to the sunlight.
There was nothing more tragic than seeing the miraculous sunlight divided into four by the black window frame. Although Kōji loved the sunlight, having joined the crowd by its side, he had always just quickly passed it by. Ahead was the bathhouse, in front of the entrance to which he and his fellow prisoners had first formed a queue and waited their turn. From inside, a cheerless buzzer sounded at three-minute intervals, accompanied by the vigorous sound of water. Despite the powerful reverberation, the sound of the turbid, heavy water vividly brought to mind a rank liquid the color of dead leaves.
The numbers one to twelve were written on the floor in green paint, in double horizontal columns close to the entrance to the spacious changing room. Twenty-four men lined up by these numbers to wait their turn. Three-minute-interval buzzer . . . The slosh of water. A moment of quiet, then the sound of smacking flesh as somebody slips and tumbles on the wet floor, followed by a burst of laughter, which quickly subsides. Three-minute-interval buzzer . . . The men who had been waiting undress together and, having deposited their clothes on a shelf, move forward and line up over the two rows of horizontal numbers in front of the bathhouse entrance. Those numbers were painted yellow.
Kōji noticed the soles of his bare feet were neatly within the circle of the painted number. The inmates who had been standing in exactly the same spot three minutes earlier were now immersed in the bathtub. Steam, billowing out from the bathhouse, faintly enveloped Kōji’s naked body: the muscles of his lower thorax, sparsely covered with hair, his flat stomach, and, below this, his hanging shame surrounded by a dark tangle of hair. It was a limp, drooping shame, and resembled the carcass of a dead rat caught up among flotsam in a stagnant stream. He considered this: I have converged shame from around the world and acquired this slightly dirty bundle, in much the same way as if I might have acquired a single point of light having converged with a lens the sun’s rays.
He gazed at the ugly backside of the man standing in front of him. The world before his eyes was entirely obscured by ugly, pimple-covered backs and backsides. The door did not open. The soiled flesh door did not open. Three-minute-interval buzzer . . . The sound of water. Many backs and backsides began to stir, moving as one through the steam, before plunging into the midst of the great, narrow bathtub. Immersed up to their necks in the tepid, foul-smelling, murky water, everybody fastened their gaze on the hourglass on the warden’s table. The three-minute flow of fine cinnabar granules appeared and disappeared amid the billowing steam. Bathing, washing, renewed bathing, exit. A red lamp glowed dimly close to the letters “Bathing.”
Kōji remembered the hourglass clearly, and he recalled the stench of the water as it had clung tenaciously to his body—and the delicate cascade of cinnabar that flowed beyond the steam. He had been fascinated by the strangely quiet way the granules wholeheartedly flowed through the slender glass neck and unceasingly undermined themselves from within. The close-cropped heads of twenty-four people floating in the middle of the dirty water. Their grave expressions. Immersed in the water with serious, animal-like eyes. That’s exactly how it was. Among all the trivialities of the prison, there existed something with a marvelously pure sanctity. That hourglass was also sacred. The cinnabar granules ran out. The warden pressed the button, and again the cheerless buzzer sounded. The prisoners stood up all at once, and many wet, hairy thighs advanced toward the duckboards. There was no sanctity at all in the sound of the buzzer . . .
The boat sounded its whistle twice. Kōji walked in the direction of the wheelhouse and gazed through the glass door at a young steersman wearing short rubber boots and jeans. The steersman sounded the whistle again, pulling with one hand on the white knob of a cord hanging from the ceiling while turning the brightly polished brass steering wheel with the other. The boat made a detour and began its entry into the port of Ukusu. To one side lay a narrow, sprawling, gray town. A Shinto shrine gate appeared as a single spot of red on the round mountaintop. In the harbor, an ore factory’s cargo crane extended its arm toward the glaring sea.
Kōji was telling himself, I have repented. I am a different person now. This thought had likely as not been repeated countless times, always with the same rhythm, and as always it took the form of a resounding incantation. I have repented . . . In this way, even the freshness of the West Izu coastline became entwined in Kōji’s penance—the crispness of the scenery itself, the verdure of the mountains, and the very clouds that, in Kōji’s eyes, appeared to be quite detached from reality. For it was easy to believe that it ought to be so in the eyes of one who had repented. This notion had, like a single bacterium, nested itself in Kōji’s body one day while he brooded in his cell, surrounded by bars, within the prison walls. And then, in an instant it had reproduced, until his flesh became riddled with remorse, his sweat, too, became the sweat of repentance, even his urine. Even the odor emitted by his youthful body became for Kōji the odor of repentance. It was a cold, gloomy, though in some ways also clear and bright—and yet extremely physical—odor. The odor of stable litter for an animal—repentance.
The ground above the shore gradually took on a yellow tinge with green pine trees dotted here and there, and this changing scenery signaled that the boat, which had left Ukusu, was now approaching Koganezaki. Kōji descended a flight of steps and went to the stern. A crowd of children had gathered around one of the ship’s crew, who was making a half-hearted attempt to catch fish. He threaded an artificial fly onto a length of fishing gut, to which he then secured some hemp line before casting the lot far out into the sea. In a flash, the fishing gut leapt out through the air, glittering as it went, and then sank beneath the surface of the water.
Before long a saury was caught. The fish, which resembled a large horse mackerel, was reeled in, its hard belly thrashing against the unyielding water with a metallic ring. The fish having been landed, Kōji no longer felt the urge to watch it as it lay in the man’s hand, and he transferred his attention to the sea.
Over to the left, the bare reddish-brown cliffs of Koganezaki loomed into sight from around the ship’s prow. The sunlight cascaded down from the heavens directly above the cliff top and appeared like a smooth sheet of gold plate as it covered and illuminated every intricate undulation. The sea at the foot of the cliff was especially blue. The bizarre forms of the sharp rocks jostled with one another as they towered up out of the sea, and the swelling, upward-surging water turned into fine white threads before flowing down again from every crag and corner.
Kōji watched a seagull. It was a magnificent bird. I have repented, I . . . and he began his reverie once again. The Ryūgū Maru 20 left Koganezaki behind and, turning in the direction of the next port, Iro, set out intently along the coastal sea lane. The lighthouse at the entrance to Iro harbor gradually came into view on the port side. Along the long narrow bay, the rows of houses and the forested mountains seemed to overlap each other, congealing into a single, flat picture. As the boat came farther into the bay, however, the sense of distance between objects and buildings quickly increased; between the ice-crushing tower and the ice plant, between the lookout tower and the house rooftops, and the congealed picture increasingly gained perspective as if it had been thinned with hot water. Even the dazzling surface of the inlet seemed to unfold, and the pale reflection of the concrete quay was no longer simply a line of white refined wax.
Standing slightly apart from those who had come to welcome the boat, a single figure waited under the eaves of the warehouse, a sky-blue parasol concealing her face. Kōji found it difficult to reconcile the vivid, charming image in front of him with the starved vision he had been desperately clinging to for so long. There was no reason to believe he had been starved of sky blue. But if he had been, it would have been the color of repentance.
Copyright © 2018 by Yukio Mishima. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.