The Blind Man – SHIMAKI Kensaku

It occurred on August the 3rd, a day near the end of Koga’s sentence, one of those rare days where he was permitted to use the bath. These bath days came around only once every five days, and although he was only permitted a measly fifteen minutes for washing—which included dressing and undressing—it was not difficult to imagine how much Koga looked forward to them. On top of this, that year’s summer was the hottest in forty years. Within the prison, the heat was even more oppressive than outside; at least one person collapsed from heatstroke per day, and it wasn’t rare to see men suddenly go mad. “You got syphilis or something?” Koga often heard the guards sneer to his fellow inmates. “Apparently it can creep up right into your brain and make you lose your nut like that! You better watch out, yeah?” Unsure if they were being serious or just messing with the prisoners, Koga simply listened in silence every time this occurred.

Almost boiled alive by the sweltering heat, the bodies of even the healthiest men in the prison decayed into those of an invalid. Unfortunately for Koga, his cell faced west, and so he was forced to spend half of each long summer day being cooked by the sun. When the heat was unbearable, Koga stood up tall near the window, thrust his head as close to the bars as possible, and gasped like a fish out of water, trying to breathe in even the tiniest amount of fresh air. He was prone to spacing out while sitting down and working, where his vision would cloud over for moments at a time. He would always be brought back to his senses as his head came slamming down onto the desk and the stack of envelopes he was sealing. But the thing that ailed Koga the most were painful heat rashes and the insects that vied for his blood. Looking at the bluish-white veins that trailed underneath his skin, it was difficult to describe Koga as anywhere close to healthy.

It hadn’t yet been a year since his incarceration, and so his skin had been still youthful and supple until only a few months prior, but now as the dog days began, it grew red and inflamed. His scarlet prison clothes became drenched in sweat, the rough fabric clinging stickily to his flesh. Even in the night there was no repose as insects crawled over his ravaged skin, sucking at his blood. Waking with a start, Koga peeled back his futon to reveal the rush matting underneath. This caused the greedy trail of nocturnal insects to scatter, as he disturbed these fellow lodgers who had probably feasted on the blood of the many death row convicts who had inhabited this cell long before him. The groans and sighs of his fellow insomnolent prisoners came trickling into his cell, almost as if they were conversing with one another.

Under such circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine how much Koga longed for that fifteen-minute break which came only every five days where he was permitted to take a bath.

The tub was small, just wide enough for Koga to squat inside. Maybe it was because he was a convicted prisoner, but Koga was always the last to use the bathtub every wash day, and this was true on this August day as well. Just how many other men had dirtied this tub water before him? The comings and goings of the other prisoners meant the tub was only half full, and upon the water’s surface floated swollen, whitish pieces of filth and clumps of grease. As Koga put his foot in, the bottom of the tub was slimy to the touch, and he could feel what he thought was the scraps of some bandages tickling his skin. Koga looked over at the wash area, and there he saw globules of snot strewn over the concrete flooring. The smell of piss and stagnant river water drifted over towards him. But everyone had long grown used to the dirt and grime. After all, you wouldn’t last a day if you acknowledged the filth, and Koga was no different. He proceeded to immerse the rest of his body into the bathwater. His inflamed skin twinged upon contact with the water. Sitting with his eyes firmly shut, the tepid water up to his shoulders, Koga felt something almost maternal within him, almost as if he’d returned to his mother’s breast in the days of his childhood.

This feeling was not to last for long, for the voice of the guard came pouring through the peephole in the washroom door. “Time’s up. Get out, now.” Propelled by the guard’s statement, Koga began hurriedly washing himself. He twisted the tap, but not a drop emerged from the steel pipe. Multiple days of drought had caused the water tank to run dry, either from overuse or evaporation. Soaking his washcloth in the bathwater, he began scrubbing his body and face clean. After all, the rash had spread to even his face like an outbreak of pimples and he wished to clean wherever it was. Before Koga even had time to finish, a loud bang and the opening of the washroom door signified he needed to get out immediately. Without even time to even wipe his body dry, he was marched back to his cell, his working clothes hanging from his shoulders. Glancing down, Koga noticed some whitish filth, who knows if his or someone else’s, clinging moistly to his chest and arms.

This all occurred just before noon on that day.

Later that evening, as he was working in the dim light of the lamp, Koga felt a vague, hot, itching sensation behind both eyes. He decided not to pay it too much attention, however. After all, other prisoners suffered from pink eye during the change from spring to summer and it was said to be aggravated by their labour in those dark, dust-filled rooms. Not only that, Koga had already been suffering from a certain eye infection. He’d been applying eyedrops already, so he merely assumed this itchiness to be attributed to this unfaltering illness instead. Indeed, his eyes already tended to ache more when he had to work in the dark, and there were even mornings where it hurt to open them, caked in sleep. Due to all this, Koga didn’t pay much heed to the strange sensation behind his eyes. Even now, he can remember that night, which he spent rubbing and rubbing his hot eyes in that strange place between dreams and waking.

The next morning, he woke to a lethargy that coursed through his whole body, but he knew this wasn’t just exhaustion from the heat; he recognised the symptoms as that of a fever. Both his eyes were swollen and dreadfully itchy. Bringing his hand up to his face, he could feel his swollen lymph nodes underneath his ears. A strange yellow liquid, softer than usual eye discharge, was trickling out of his eyes, not stopping no matter how much he kept wiping it away. Where is this coming from? Koga thought over and over in a panic, as his unease continued to grow. Eventually he lowered the alarm and called for the doctor.

After a long wait, a young doctor finally appeared. “So, what’s the problem?” he asked light-heartedly as he pinched at Koga’s eyeball. Just as he did, a thick cream-coloured liquid splattered out, staining the cuff of the doctor’s sleeve. It was conjunctival mucus which had built up behind Koga’s eye. Staring at it and Koga’s pair of bloodshot eyes, the doctor whispered, “This isn’t good…”

The doctor stood frozen for a moment, unable to look away from Koga’s inflamed strawberry of an eye and Koga grew more anxious as he was unable to see himself what was happening in front of him. The doctor seemed to have made up his mind, for he began swabbing at Koga’s eye with an alcohol covered swab.

“Have you had gonorrhoea before?” The doctor asked, choosing the scientific term as he believed Koga to be an intellectual. “No,” Koga replied, and the doctor paused again. Eventually, he seemed to have reached a conclusion for he asked next, “When did you last take a bath?” Upon hearing that Koga had taken one during the afternoon of the previous day, the doctor closed his eyes again, deep in thought.

Translated by Arthur Reiji Morris

Original title 盲目 (mо̄moku)

*Extract from the complete work

Categories Literature, Shimaki, TranslationTags , , , , , ,

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