Mr. and Mrs. Gisei,
I am writing to urge you both to maintain composure during this confusing time. My words must seem ridiculous to you. Under these circumstances, I would imagine that even performing a task as mundane as reading a letter—no matter how polite and gently worded it may be—must appear nothing short of an impossible feat. I am only an old man with a pen. Nonetheless, I implore you both to remain calm and continue reading.
Mr. Gisei, please maintain a steady hold on yourself for the sake of your wife. You must be her strength. At a moment like this one, she has no one to look to, save you. Mrs. Gisei, you are a woman and, though time has rendered your womb as barren as Carthaginian earth, you are still your husband’s bride. You have a responsibility not to cause him further concern.
Even now, you must both bear in mind that death is inseparable from life, solace can exist even in the absence of hope, and the only granted certainty is that you will both die today. Within this very hour. I will tell you why, but first there must be rules.
This is a rule: forget about the gun currently trained on your heads. The gun will still be there, regardless of whether or not you think about it, and thinking about it will only distract you from what is truly important and that is the words in front of you.
I can certainly imagine how surprised you must have been when a uniformed courier appeared at your door so late at night. How absurd he must have looked in that bellhop’s outfit and that ridiculous little hat, like an organ grinder’s monkey. So absurd that you didn’t notice the strange black object in his hand? You must have been startled by the speed and precision with which he subdued your struggles, bound your limbs, and affixed a ball-gag in your mouth. Do not let the outfit fool you. He is a professional. If you have to think of him as something, think of him as Mr. Hitori.
This is also a rule: if either of you attempt to escape or communicate with one another, if you should do anything besides continue to read, Mr. Hitori has instructions to shoot Mrs. Gisei in both of her knees. This will be quite painful and, of course, it will ruin those lovely silk pajama bottoms she wore to bed.
As a point of clarification, I want you to know that Mr. Hitori is not me. He cannot even read this letter because he is an American-born Korean who does not speak more than a few words of Japanese. There are other differences between us, but our chief distinction is that—while he will be the one that will fire a bullet into each of your brains—I am your actual murderer and he is not. Do not blame Mr. Hitori. Many men would strangle their mothers for half the amount that I am paying him. His primary task is to ensure that you both read this letter. I apologize for any measures he has taken under his own recognizance to compel you in this regard. If he is doing his job correctly, he will have already told you to grunt each time you are both ready for him to turn the page. His secondary task is to end both of your lives at an appointed time. Know that, when the time comes, there will be a hollow pop and then nothing.
It will seem strange to you, but earlier today photojournalists from a host of international news organizations took my picture as I stood in the company of a dozen rescued Sudanese orphans. I held them close to me while the cameras flashed and all I could think about was bone fragments and pulped brain matter. Yours, specifically. But I digress.
Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, know that, while I have provided you with enough time to read my entire letter, there is not enough of it to waste in useless struggle or speculation. I will not tell you how many or how few minutes you have left, save that it is a matter of minutes. Their expiration is fixed and immutable. I have measured the threads of your lives and soon I will close the shears. But if you read steadily, if you do not over-hurry, perhaps you will understand. What follows is not an excuse. What I am doing to you is inexcusable. While the lives you have led were not perfect, they were—in my opinion—honest. Mr. Gisei, your career at the Shinjuku pharmaceutical firm was well regarded by your superiors; I have personally read several of their consistently positive evaluations of your yearly performance. You retired last year with the genuine respect of your peers. In 2003, you successfully overcame your addiction to Xanax with the assistance of your friends and family. It is admirable to struggle, fall, and rise again. You have financially supported your older brother, Hideki, since he lost everything in a failed real estate venture. It is admirable to take care of your family, even when they let you down.
Mrs. Gisei, you broke off your engagement with your college sweetheart in order to honor the wishes of your family and marry Mr. Gisei. You bore and raised his two sons, both of whom are experiencing modest but genuine success in their respective fields. When your mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s you brought her into your own home and personally tended to her for the five years it took her to die. Though you have occasionally contacted your ex-fiancé, neither of you were ever unfaithful to your spouses. It is admirable to stay true to your commitments. In 1979, you were pregnant with Mr. Gisei’s third child. You arranged an abortion the day after you found out. It is admirable to take control of your own life. After the procedure, you went to the Purple Cloud Temple and spent three days asking for forgiveness from the life that had been growing inside you. Though I cannot be certain, I would imagine that you cried. It is admirable to take responsibility for your decisions.
I am telling you these things it in order to demonstrate that there is a purpose; that the wheels which turn behind the visible world are occasionally set in motion by the hands of man or, in my case, a malformed thing that wears the suit of a man. Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, understand that I chose you to die but I did so neither for punishment nor revenge. I find those notions absurd—sliding retributions back and forth like abacus beads as if there was such a thing as balance. Your murders are not something that should happen; they are something that must happen. I studied your lives before I sent Mr. Hitori to you with an envelope in one immaculately gloved hand and a silenced pistol in the other.
There is something about me that no living person knows and I will share it with you. Although the world at large believes that I am Japanese, although all of my friends, business partners, and even my three children unquestioningly consider me to be Japanese, I am not Japanese. I was born in 1932, in China, five weeks after the puppet-state of Manchukuo was officially declared to exist in accordance with the machinations of the Japanese imperial government. I am Chinese. While I am no nationalist, these things matter. We should all be permitted the dignity of knowing how our death originated, what organ the cancer began in, what factory floor the bullet shells were pressed on. I offer you that dignity now.
My father was a minister of the Manchukuo government, a position which conferred no real political power. It was his vice-minister, Mr. Takahashi, who would make the actual administrative decisions. My older sister, Zhu, and I were oblivious to the larger events around us. We had no idea that, outside the confines of our mansion, thousands of people were being enslaved, exploited, and murdered.
My memories of that time are of beauty. Bejeweled statues and scrolls of intricate calligraphy and all the finest art produced by centuries of Chinese history. My father told us that he was protecting it, protecting what was left of China from the imperial government and its greedy bureaucrats. He told Zhu and I that we had to keep it a secret or it would all go away. He let me hold a jade crane that was over a thousand years old. I did not know the kind of danger he was putting us in. I did not know that he had spent years secretly gathering every piece of ancient art he could find, all while hiding his activities from his Japanese masters.
There was a time when I was convinced his only motives were practical, that he must have known the art would be one of the few things that would retain its value no matter who controlled our country. However, I am writing this letter using an artifact from his collection; a fountain pen that was once held by an Emperor. Embossed on its surface is an elaborate silver filigree depicting a five-toed dragon. I look at it and wonder if my father may truly have been moved by the illusions of beauty and nation. No matter.
I passed my oblivious days beneath the care of my tutors. My sister and I would sit before our mother while she read us Buddhist sutras. The moment she was finished with her sermonizing, Zhu and I would steal away to our own adventures. There was a system of caves that ran beneath our estate, tunnels my father had secretly excavated for his own purposes, and it was in those stone hollows where my sister and I would play. We would pretend that the caves were Naraka, a place our mother had warned us about in her endless lectures—a realm deep beneath the earth where people with bad karma are reborn into lives of agony and punishment. She said there was a special place down there for children who misbehaved, but we were not afraid. My father had laughingly told us that children never need fear torment. So we would go into those caves and play that we were devils and chase one another through the darkness. Naraka was just a game to us. We were only children and we did not know that hell could be real and encompassed entirely within the hearts of men.
My father, I have come to realize, was a shrewd but not particularly cunning man. It was only a matter of time before the Japanese began to suspect him. Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, I am sure that you are beginning to appreciate how sudden and random it seems when uncontrollable forces, like men with guns, come to blow your life apart. Imagine how it felt when my mother shook me awake and told me we had to leave everything behind. My father used dynamite charges to destroy the house I had lived in all ten years of my life. I remember hearing the explosion as we ran through the darkness.
Of course, no Chinese home would grant refuge to a collaborator and his family. My father bribed criminals to hide us and, once they had his money they immediately went to the Japanese to collect even more. My father must have sensed them coming because, not long before they arrived, he went into the toilet and opened his throat with a straight-razor.
Men came for us, smashing their way through the rotten wood door. My mother was seated like a desolate empress, one hand holding my wrist and the other holding Zhu’s. One of the men told her to stand up. She said no, that she obeyed no man but her husband and at the moment he was occupied in the washroom. Even when the man drew his knife and waved it in her face, she would not stand. He stabbed her through the heart and she made a tiny sigh, as if most of her spirit had already left her body and the tiny fraction that still remained was relieved to follow in its wake. Mrs. Gisei, you know what it is like to watch your mother die. Granted, after years of changing her diapers, perhaps you even entertained fantasies of stabbing her through the heart yourself. Regardless, it is a singularly educational experience.
I do not remember what I thought or felt. The thing that I am now does not have the same heart as the child I was then. Even as I write these words, I feel nothing but a sense of practiced repetition, the distinct feeling that I have had to teach myself that these things happened to me. Perhaps they never did, though I do not seek to philosophize about subjective reality or add layers of metatextual ambiguity to your reading experience. So much is obscured by doubt, filtered through fragments of traumatized recollection and my own obvious madness. Please keep in mind that the only immutable reality is that you will both die at the conclusion of this letter.
Zhu and I were separated. They put me on a crowded bus full of prisoners dressed in stained rags. They brought us to a huge, concrete building. The Japanese had told the local authorities that it was a lumber mill, and so the soldiers stationed there called us logs. I did not know what was going to happen to me and that was a blessing. I had been remanded to the custody of Division 2 of the Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory, otherwise known as Unit 731.
I remember my cell. It was a small cold dim place. Sometimes big men would come and take me out of it. They would escort me through clean, electrically-lit halls, to the room where the procedures were performed, and sometimes we would pass other prisoners. I once saw a white man in the hallways. He had an enormous, brambly beard and bulging eyes. His arms had been amputated and reattached to the opposite sides of his body. They hung inanimate and already rotting, held in place by perversely neat sutures.
I would hear screaming all the time. It was so constant that eventually I barely noticed it at all. The only sounds that would surprise me were the occasional explosions. It turned out the scientists were testing grenades on living targets—an experiment that seems to me like a foregone conclusion, but I am no scientist. I did not give much thought to the other logs. There was too much pain.
It was another small, electrically lit room where the doctors did their work on me. In my recollections of these men in white coats, for some reason they all have my father’s face… except for the one with the clipboard. He was old and bald. He was in charge of the others. The guards would undress me, strap me to a cold metal table, and hold me down while the doctors did their work. I do not know how many times it happened.
Broad swaths of my skin became translucent. I remember seeing the thin veins pulsing beneath it and wondering why I couldn’t will them to stop, why I couldn’t still their idiotic, repetitive motion. When I went to touch them, I found that my skin stuck to my fingers and came away in thin, painful strands.
There were injections. Thick plastic gloves. Petri dishes. Swabs. Sometimes there were knives and the guard had to strain to hold me down. The procedures, in accordance with unit policy, were performed without anesthesia to avoid tainting their data.
I spoke some Japanese. My father had insisted I learn it. I tried to put it to use now. I cried out to them in their own language to stop, to please stop. Help me. Stop. Help me. Please. These were the words I would repeat to myself constantly, ritualistically, in the months that followed, laying on the floor of my cell while huge scabs formed all across my body like a caterpillar’s cocoon. Help me. Stop. Help me. Please. I forgot the rest of language, forgot that my mouth could be made to produce any other sound.
I never hated the guards who held me down or even the doctors who would bandage me with the same professional care they had taken in mutilating me. All of my hatred was for the old, bald doctor. He would not touch me. He would watch me writhe and scream and then scribble little notes on his clipboard. Even now, though I have been transmuted into something entirely other from that suffering boy, I remember that hatred. Why don’t you see me? That’s what I wanted to ask him. How can you look at me and not see me? Perhaps this is why I take the time and care to know my own victims so well. I hope you feel seen, Mr. Gisei. I hope you feel known, Mrs. Gisei. I might be a devil straight from the twisted, recursive hells of Naraka, but at least I make no pretensions of clinical detachment.
I would lay shivering and immobile in my cell, sometimes afraid that I would die and sometimes afraid that I would go on living. My entire body would itch intensely and I would feebly tear at my scabs. They fed me a thin, tasteless broth. Sometimes there were pills half-heartedly mashed into it and I would drink it anyway. Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, in this regard human beings are no different than dogs or rats. Whatever the state of the mind or soul, no body wants to give up the life inside it.
Once in a while, a medic would come to my cell, to re-apply my bandages or take samples of my scabs. I would say those words. Stop. Help me. He would ignore them. Gradually, the scabs fell away, revealing what was left of my skin—gray and scarred unrecognizable. I would burn. I would freeze. It seemed endless. Until the day the guard opened my cell and brought me to the room where the doctors were waiting. That was the day they gave me the injection that killed me.
I was strapped to the table. I was held down. This time, the note-taker lay down his clip-board and administered the procedure himself. The other doctors watched. He held a massive hypodermic needle that he fastidiously sterilized. Then he shuffled to the edge of the table and looked down at me as if to say “This might pinch.”
Then he rammed the needle through my sternum.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t scream. I remembered my mother, the soldier who killed her, the knife. Help me. My father and the jade crane. Please. My mother, my skin, the knife. Please stop. My mind flew out of that room, across Manchukuo, to the ruins of my father’s house. Help me. Down into the caves. Help me. Naraka. Deeper, deeper than ever before. Help me. Naraka. Please. It’s waiting for me there. Help me please. It’s always been waiting. Naraka. I went down into that cave and I never came back again.
And what was my last thought as a human being? Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, I will tell you now that I wondered why he had bothered to clean the needle.
But it is no ghost that pens this letter or guides Mr. Hitori’s able hand. Yes, for a time I lay insensate in a realm beneath the living world, but only a part of me stayed there. Something found me in that place. It saw that I had been hollowed out and it crawled inside. I felt it in the desperate gasp that filled my lungs as I returned to my body, when my eyes flickered open upon a new world.
The sky was above me and twisted all about me were pale human limbs. Frozen hands, frozen faces. They were piled high; naked, bald, twisted in rigor mortis. This was the altar of my rebirth. I felt nothing as I descended it.
I began to walk. Each step carried me through the mists of a gray fugue. Everything was vague and nameless save the few objects that made themselves real to me. There was the blackened stump of a lightning-split tree. There was an enormous, iron wheel sunk halfway into the earth. They appeared only for a moment in deference to me, revealing the symbols of a secret alphabet that I now had the right to know. I was no longer human. I had become something else: darkness made manifest in the shambling ruins of a human child.
I wandered through that still twilight without memory or purpose. I was not alarmed when I saw the shapes of men in the distance, many men moving towards me. Even when I saw their uniforms and rifles, I did not think to fear. If I had known then that they were a platoon of Japanese soldiers on patrol, it would have made no difference. They saw me and that was enough to stop them in their tracks.
Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, please reflect on the strange wonder that, even in the midst of war, some horrors are still magnificent enough to give men pause. But then, neither of you knew anything of true horror until very recently. Like you, those soldiers learned a lesson that day. They were around me, whispering and arguing. Eventually, one was pushed forward. His eyes were wet and shook in their sockets. He raised the butt of his rifle, making ready to bring its mercy down on my skull. But then my mouth began to make those uncontrollable sounds again. They were the words I had repeated so often in my cell and on the operating table. Japanese words. Stop. Please. Help me.
They all began to shout at one another. My mutilated skin meant I could have been anything, could have been anyone’s son passed through a fire and left to die. Anyone might be a casualty by now. Listen to it speak. Listen to what it’s saying.
Then the soldier who had been chosen to bash my brains out, he set his rifle down. He reached into his pack and from it he pulled a thick wool blanket. He bundled it around me, covering my nudity and my scars. Then he effortlessly lifted me into his arms; I must have weighed next to nothing. He whispered something to me that I am sure was intended as a kindness. He was a person like the two of you, Mr. and Mrs. Gisei. A person who gets to keep the trappings of human decency, a person who gets to stay a person. I would have bitten his throat out, if I had possessed the strength. But my body was diminished past endurance and, as I lay swaddled and pressed against that soldier’s chest, sleep flowed over me.
I do not know what infernal miracle preserved my wretched life. I only know enough to guess. I have read the Japanese government’s classified files concerning Manchukuo, files that only I and a handful of others know to exist. Those meticulous records taught me much about the details of my own life. In their pages, I saw the official notes on the investigation of my father, along with the order for his execution. I learned how that my beautiful Zhu, the constant companion of my childhood, was left to rot in a comfort women camp, where she eventually died of infection. Can you guess what I felt when I read this information, Mr. Gisei? If your first thought was “nothing” then congratulations on paying attention. I even know the names and fates of the doctors who experimented on me. The worst ones were secretly given amnesty by the United States government in exchange for their research data. I take a certain joy from that, Mrs. Gisei, in part because it means the other logs and I made a meaningful contribution to the advancement of medical science and mostly because it confirms the, shall we say, pessimistic worldview that metastasized in me during my time as a guest of Unit 731.
The files showed me all of that, but I was never able to find a record documenting the procedures that were performed on me. The old man scribbled all those notes, it seems, for nothing. Is it not a shame? We have lost the data which proved that a human soul can be extracted and murdered.
My file must have been lost in the panic that heralded the Soviet invasion in the months prior to Operation August Storm. The staff of Unit 731 did not have the time to dig graves deep enough to hide even a fraction of their crimes. They simply drove the bodies into unpopulated areas and dumped en masse. There must have been too much confusion to tell the difference between the dead and the nearly dead. A bit of chaos and they lost all sense of scientific procedure. I am sure both of you are now wishing that they had done a better job of maintaining their professionalism. But remember, Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, history took only one shape—this one—and it increasingly resembles a corkscrew burrowing its way through a human skull.
I left China, my mind floating in a soot haze at the edges of consciousness and sense. I have dim memories of a cramped refugee ship and the ocean’s low rumble. I was brought to a large port-city in Kyushu where the soldier handed me off to some female relation of his. She was a thin woman with cool hands and she force-fed me until I was strong enough to walk again. I still had no memory, but I learned rudimentary Japanese quickly and it was not long before I slipped away from my would-be caretaker before I did anything too terrible to her.
My disfigured flesh often proved to be a surprising advantage for my life in Japan. People saw my skin and assumed I’d been caught in an Allied fire-bombing. As a result, many of them extended hospitality to me no matter how bad off they themselves were. I wandered throughout southern Kyushu, surviving on that generosity, searching for something I could not name but knew I needed to find. I had such a longing in me; it was as if my fingers were meant to be an inch longer and I could feel always the phantasm of that absence.
Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, it occurs to me now that I should assure you both that I derive no sexual pleasure from either your current suffering or impending death. By way of addressing that concern, I freely admit that my time with Unit 731 rendered me physically incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure. My children are adopted. I required them for the sake of appearance. They were raised by hired caretakers. I never married. I tell you this because, while you will never be able to understand exactly what my motives are (that’s not what this letter is for, not really), I am confident it is possible for you to understand what they are not.
Shall I describe my rise to material power & wealth? It’s a fairly predictable and prosaic affair. There was the horde of Chinese art hidden in the caves beneath our former estate and I alone knew of its existence. There was my fortuitous partnership with an American, an officer with the occupational force. He was an obtuse but useful man who listened to Wagner incessantly. The great tragedy of his life, I once heard him opine, was that he had been stationed in Japan instead of proud Germany. It was his insatiable need for high quality opera LPs that first brought him into contact with the post-War black market and into the circle of my acquaintance. In the decade following Hiro Hito’s surrender, we undertook the covert acquisition of my father’s collection and we sold it, piece by piece. We made a fortune and I became acquainted with the wider world. Our clientele was made up of European aristocrats, gauche Imams, nouveau riche Americans, and dozens of very respectable museums. By the time I was twenty-four, the collection was exhausted. My partner relocated to South America to live like a king with opera blaring in every room of his palace.
For my part, I stayed in Japan and invested wisely. I established construction companies to rebuild the cities, channeled funds into reestablishing the infrastructure. I was a driving force behind the so-called economic miracle that restored the nation which, while not my actual native land, had gone to such extraordinary lengths to make me what I am. Nearly a quarter of all the buildings in Tokyo still contain materials provided by my companies. My wealth grew exponentially as Japan rose from the ashes of the war and into unheard of prosperity. I, in a strange way, became an icon of the new Japan; the war-scarred patriot who defied adversity and, like the very country that he had so valiantly championed, transformed defeat into opportunity. I have funded most of Japan’s major political figures. The LDP asks for my approval before it appoints a Prime Minister. I have shaken hands with three different American Presidents—although, to be fair, one of them was Nixon.
Dozens of heads of state and internationally syndicated publications have hailed me as one of the generation’s greatest philanthropists. I have contributed billions to fight world hunger, fund waste-management in the third world, and combat incurable diseases. I have even been described as a living saint. Mr. Gisei, even in your desperate extremity, I hope you can find it somewhere in yourself to think this is as funny as I do.
Doubtless, suspicions have begun to creep into one or both of your minds. Has this letter been an elaborate fiction? Perhaps I am actually Mr. Hitori and the true scope of your present situation is nothing more significant than three people in a small room, one of whom happens to be a dangerous lunatic. Rationally speaking, why would I restore and exalt a country and people I have every reason to despise with all my being? Yes, you have good cause to doubt the content of this letter and regard all that you have been forced to read until this point far as a cruel farce.
Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, in complete and perfect candor, I am not writing this extremely long letter for your benefit. Nor are these words meant to sooth my conscience over having ended your small, honest lives. I am not seeking to absolve my guilt by making you two understand how painful and unusual my life has been. I do not feel guilt, not over you or anything I have ever done. We are nothing more than circumstance, bound by the causal chains that drag us along our inviolable march to the abyss. This letter is not for either of you. This letter is for me. You are only the ones reading it at gun-point. Thank you in advance for your understanding.
An hour ago, I concluded my daily longevity treatments. I dismissed my personal physician—a Swede whose skill is equaled only by his discretion. I feel no fear when he and his machines touch me. My body would have succumbed to its own frailty long ago if not for him and I have never forgotten that practiced art of passing into an impenetrable nullity where pain and thought cannot enter. Yes, even now, I do not want to die. I once saw a prophecy writ in a mushroom cloud and I must live to witness its fulfillment.
My skin was still moist from the treatments and, to prepare myself for writing this letter, I stood naked in front of a full length mirror. The deeper scars on my chest look like toothless, salivating mouths. This is the only mirror I own. Under any other circumstance, I vigilantly avoid my own image. I do this for the same reason I have used my resources to suppress all records of Unit 731 and their activities, assuring that the Japanese government will continue to vigilantly deny any acknowledgment of culpability for the crimes against the human spirit that took place in Manchukuo, and to actively work towards a time when these matters will never again be discussed or even vaguely recollected. But sometimes I have no choice but to unhouse my mirror and regard myself as I truly am, and it is then I have no choice but to write a letter like this to people like you.
At this point, it should come as no surprise that this is the fourth time I have written an account of my life to a captive audience. The recipients are always a married couple—I do not know exactly why, perhaps it has to do with my irrevocable virginity, although I suspect that the truth is it’s just easier this way. Mr. Gisei, if it were only your own life on the line, would you have indulged me to this degree? But the thought of your poor bride’s knees being shot out in front of you, ruining those indulgent pajama pants? Yes, it is certainly easier this way. My writing process, such as it is, always begins when I, by whatever chance, happen to see them, this married couple—in this case, you two—with my own eyes and recognize in both of them the mixture of simplicity, conventionality, and sincerity that some might call decency or even goodness. Whatever one might label that quality, it shines out to me like a beacon when it is truly present in people. Once my instincts have been confirmed by an exhaustive background check, I grant myself permission to set events in motion.
The first time it was a German couple, Mr. and Mrs. Opfer, in Frankfurt and that was twenty years ago. The original Mr. Hitori (there is a new one each time, all of them wear the same uniform) had such trouble compelling them to stop struggling and read the damn letter that he did actually shoot Mrs. Opfer in the kneecap. Since then, I have been sure to stipulate the existence of that consequence as near to the beginning of the letter as the formalities of composition will allow. The letter they read was significantly shorter than this one and far more of an incoherent ramble—I was obsessed with recapturing the minute details of my childhood and torture. I had not yet learned the importance of thoughtful editing. Still, there was something tremendously satisfying and irreproducible about those first clumsy strokes.
The second couple was Parisian, Mr. and Mrs. Agneau, twelve years ago. Upon comparing the reports of each Mr. Hitori, it seems they read the most attentively. Though it is possible you two will out-do them. That letter was a mire of abstractions and pontifications. In it I continually hinted at the false possibility that a correct interpretation of the text might reveal a hidden word or phrase that would cancel Mr. Hitori’s orders. I no longer feel the need to indulge in that particular form of cruel pretense.
The third couple was American, from New York, Mr. and Mrs. Tribute. I had business at the UN and I glimpsed the two of them from the window of my limousine, working together to repair their son’s bicycle. Mrs. Tribute actually attempted to throw her own head in front of the bullet intended for her husband. She missed, although that Mr. Hitori swore it was only by an instant, and in any case she did not have much time in which to regret it. That was two years ago and the letter was very similar, although I wasted too much of it attempting to articulate the historical and cultural intricacies of my dual identities.
You may have noticed both that you two are my only Japanese couple to-date and also that there obviously was a time when I found this impulse easier to control.
I first marked you two for death in Kyoto. I apologize for the bluntness of that phrase, “marked for death”, but any euphemism I might use in its place would only be more horrific. You were in the audience at a Noh production of Dojoji. Normally, I find Noh Theater unbearably tedious, but my oldest son (a professional scholar of Japanese history) had insisted that I accompany him to this production. Watching it from the vantage of my private box, I found that it excited something in me. Do you remember the legend of Dojoji Temple, Mr. and Mrs. Gisei? You saw it yourself but I suspect that, given your present circumstance, you might have some difficulty recollecting the specifics.
A handsome and virtuous monk is caught in a sudden rain and forced to seek shelter. Unfortunately, the only nearby enclosure is already occupied by a beautiful older woman whom the monk wisely recognizes as a sure source of temptation. But the lady is very kind in her attempts to coax him out of the storm and the monk eventually agrees to share the close quarters with her. What happens between them that night is their business alone, varying from telling to telling depending on the perversity of the teller’s imagination. The point is that, with the dawning of the next day, the monk is overcome with shame, either for the desires he acted upon or for the desires he resisted. He knows that the lady has fallen in love with him and perhaps he loves her as well, so he preserves himself by fleeing while she sleeps. When she finally wakes and finds herself quite abandoned, the lady is seized by a torrent of rage and sorrow so intense that she transforms into a monstrous serpent. She relentlessly pursues the monk across oceans and mountains, finally catching up with him as he hides in the bell of Dojoji Temple. Reunited, the serpent and the monk die together, consumed by the flames of her passion.
As I watched this old legend played out once more on stage, I could not help but think—and with an unusual amount of intensity—how profoundly stupid it is. My heart actually began to beat noticeably faster, something that had not happened outside of my physical therapy sessions for decades. What deep and abiding idiocy, to think that intensity of feeling is what transforms a person into a monster. As if to feel beyond reason is not exactly the quality that defines what it is to be human. Take the two of you, for example. How much and how hard have you felt since Mr. Hitori began his work? The sheer terror, obviously, but the anger as well. And perhaps even love had its own place in this nightmare.
Feeling is not what turns humans into serpents. That is what I came to as I watched those masked actors caper to ridiculous music and felt the throbbing in my chest. It is the absence of feeling that allows a man to become a monster. And, at the very moment in which that thought entered my mind, I glanced down into the audience and I saw you two, Mr. and Mrs. Gisei. I saw Mr. Gisei place his hand over yours, Mrs. Gisei, and you looked at him and, with your face in profile, I saw a smile that told me everything I needed to know. I decided that instant that both of you would die together, bound on the floor of the home you shared. Then I felt my heart slow and it was very reassuring.
Please understand, I cannot let myself be seen by living eyes. I will not allow that to happen yet. I acquired a vast fortune and took on the trappings of a saint, all to prevent people from seeing me until the time was right to be seen. But eventually I found that it was not enough. I needed to open the throat of a lamb. I needed the blood to spill down into Naraka. So, as long as I write a letter and send a Mr. Hitori whenever I feel that I might be near to giving myself away, I can appease the thing that mewls and writhes inside me.
Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, can you even begin to comprehend why you died? And you are dead already, aren’t you? I always lie about having provided enough time to read the entire letter. As I said, it is not for you. I wonder how far you managed to get, Mrs. Gisei, before you heard the hollow pop, saw your husband, and knew that I lied. Pardon my presumptuousness, but I can practically imagine the look on your face. Mr. and Mrs. Agneau managed to get just past my description of my American business partner, and they were the best readers of the three. Perhaps you two managed to get farther?
I sincerely hope that you are the last couple I write to. Not to spare future innocents, mind you, but because I believe that the world is, at last, turning into a place where I will no longer have to conceal what I really am. The mushroom cloud prophecy that emerged from this little island nation suggests to me a future where monsters like myself can shamble into plain view and do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. The time of the Bodhisattvas has passed into so much dust. There will be no more hiding, no more need for masks. Our urge to annihilate ourselves and one another is our only destiny. Mr. and Mrs. Gisei, you are so lucky to be dead.
Soon, I will place the call to summon Mr. Hitori in his ridiculous outfit. For now I can lay down my father’s pen and live as if I were still a man. I will continue on until I see the world become Naraka. I am eclipsed, untouched, in the dark. I am safe. No one can find me here. Mr. Hitori will destroy these pages utterly and their words shall be commended to the eyes of the dead alone, to your eyes.
No one at all