Saturday, 18 August 2012

Hands

 

The fence is endless, stretching out of the darkness and into darkness. It is day, but overhead the clouds are like lead, and the light so poor it seems to be night.

The fence is of chain and barbed wire strung on posts. The strands are rather far apart – but not too far. Nobody can climb through this fence.

The path past the fence is white concrete, and looks whiter than it really is in the gloom. It parallels the path, going on and on until the eye loses it, as it does the fence, in the darkness and the distance.

I’m walking down the path, my pistol heavy at my hip, my sword slapping against my side at every step. I look straight ahead, where the path merges with the darkness. I look ahead, not to my right, where the fence is; I know what I will see if I look in that direction.

I will see the hands.

I will see their hands and arms, stretching through the fence and reaching for me, the tips of their fingers – white as death, drained of blood – almost brushing the sleeve of my shirt. If I listen, I will hear them sigh; the sighing is softer than the wind, less important than the swish of grass under marching boots. I ignore the sighs. I do not hear them. I shall not hear them. I will not look at the hands and arms, reaching, reaching.


I snap awake. There is a night-light. The room isn’t completely dark – I can’t stand complete darkness anymore. There was a time when I could stand anything, but I am old now. I’m old, and things have changed. How they have changed.

The dream still has me in its grip. It’s a dream I have had many times over the years, and it’s growing more frequent as I age. There are variations – sometimes I am in a well with the hands reaching down, and sometimes I am on a hilltop and the hands strain up to touch me, to hold me and drag me down with them. But most frequently it’s the fence.

I’ve mentioned these dreams to nobody. They are nobody’s business but mine – and, besides, I am who I am. I can’t have anyone suspecting I am cracking up or going senile. And it’s not as though the dream can do anything to me. Not even the hands...

I blink and struggle to sit upright. This sort of thinking shall not do. I am Nakamura Kenji, and nobody – no business opponent, no personal enemy, and certainly no vaporous dream – has ever got the better of me.

I climb slowly out of bed and walk down the short hallway to the little kitchen. Certainly I should get someone to live with me – but the habit of years is hard to break. I have been alone since my wife died, and I never felt the need to share my time with anyone. But I am growing old, and my body is slowing down.

The tea I make is weak, almost flavourless, the way I have grown to like it. The tea helps me to concentrate, helps me to beat back the dream, to banish the shadows. When I think of it, the shadows the dream leaves behind are long and threatening. I am Nakamura Kenji, and I am not affected by dreams, but even then this dream lays an oppressive hand on my soul.

I return to bed, the aftertaste of the tea lingering on the back of my tongue. I walk along the darkened corridor, with the sureness of years of practice, although my steps are short and tottering, an old man’s steps. But once it was different. I walked as I walk in the dream, tall and strong and confident, and the years roll away, and I am young once more...

Back in bed, I lie on my back, staring up at the dimly-lit ceiling. This always happens after the dream, and most times I lie awake till morning. I can’t say I ponder the dream. The dream isn’t something to ponder on – it is.

Tonight, on a sudden impulse I am at a loss to explain, I reach out and switch off the night-light. I do not normally act on impulses. I have not come to be where I am by acting on impulses. But I am going to lie awake anyway, I think, so I might as well lie awake in the dark, for a change.

I try to remember when I first had the dream. It must have been a long, long time ago, just after the war. Not that it really matters when it began; I know whence it came. Normally I don’t think of it. It was a long time ago, more than seventy years, after all. But, again, just for a change, I decide, let me think of it all again, the time when I was young and strong and my back still unbent. Let me think back to Nanjing...


That was the winter when we fought the worm people, the winter when we drove them from Shanghai and up the Yangtze valley, the winter we surrounded and routed them at their capital and drove their armies into dispersed retreat. That was the winter when we showed the world that we, too, were a great and proud people. That was the winter of our glory. It was the winter of 1937.

Back then Nakamura Kenji was not the man he would later become, the man whose word could make corporate empires rise and fall, the man whose face would repeatedly cover business magazines. No, Nakamura Kenji was a raw sub-lieutenant, just out of the training college and at the head of his first command...

I remember the night before the fall of the city, when the worm army was already in full retreat and burning houses and farms as it fled. Sergeant Watanabe Kiyoshi – he was later killed fighting in Burma – was my second in command. When I think of him now, I have no memory of what he looked like, but I remember his eyes. They were not a human being’s eyes. They were the eyes of a tiger, the eyes of a wolf.

“You must learn to kill, Nakamura-san,” Watanabe had told me that night, with the glow of fires reddening the sky. The fires shone in his eyes, so that he looked like a demon. “You must learn the art of killing.” It was far too direct a speech for a senior sergeant to make to a sub-lieutenant, but Kiyoshi was a veteran of the Shanghai battles, and I was a mere newcomer, too intimidated by my own men to even give them effective orders. The commands I gave sounded like requests, even to my own ears.

“I have killed,” said I, remembering the Chinese soldier in his faded blue uniform I had seen through the scopes of a sniper rifle, and how his head had jerked backwards and his gun dropped from his hand when I squeezed the trigger. Had it been only that morning? “I know how to kill,” I repeated.

“That sort of killing!” Watanabe had shaken his head, and someone among the troops chuckled. “If you permit me to say this, Nakamura-san, that sort of killing isn’t real killing. Real killing’s not at the other end of a sniper scope. Real killing,” and he licked his lips, I remember this very well, “real killing is where you see the fear in your enemy’s eyes before you skewer him with your bayonet or,” he glanced at my sword, “chop him in half with that.”

I had watched a column of light tanks clank and clatter past so I didn’t have to look at him. “I don’t know if I can kill like that,” I said. “I doubt if I’d want to. In any case, the sort of war we’re fighting doesn’t give much opportunity for sword-play, does it?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised, Nakamura-san,” Watanabe had boomed. “Once you get used to killing, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is.”

The next evening we were in Nanjing. The gate to the enemy capital had fallen that afternoon and the remaining Chinese soldiers were retreating across the Yangtze but some had remained and were mixing in with the worm civilians. It was chaos everywhere.

“Orders,” the Colonel’s aide told me, when I went to meet him, leaving Watanabe in charge of my men. “Those are the orders, from Prince Asaka himself.” And by the time I came back, it had already begun.

“Killing is more than fun, Nakamura-san,” Watanabe had told me the other night. “Killing is a duty.” And so the major had informed me.

I found that my men had not waited for orders – it had begun already, the heaps of corpses were already piling up. I didn’t interfere – I was ordered not to interfere – and, yes, I watched, and I learned. Yes, slowly, I began to learn.

Human life is not sacred, this I knew. Human life, even my own, is as nothing. So of what value is the life of a mere worm? My life is forfeit to the Emperor, this I have been told since the moment I joined the military; and if my life is not mine, of what value are these lives?

And I watched, and I learned, yes, I learned.

One day I killed my first Chinese with the sword. He was one of the soldiers who had hidden in the Safe Zone, and we had found him and dragged him out. He was a sturdy man, no longer young, with deep lines alongside his mouth and nose. His arms were bound behind his back and he was hobbled as well.

All that morning I had watched my fellow officers behead worms with their swords. Chinese prisoners, some hundred of them, had been lined up before a dry ditch. One by one they had been made to kneel and then their heads were chopped off. It was sword practice.

 Sakamoto, my colleague from the training college, had already dispatched six or seven in this way. It seemed easy when he did it, the head toppling while the body still knelt. The Chinese were remarkably silent, and not one of them tried to resist or run away, not that it would have done them any good. I stayed back until Captain Hondo’s eyes fell on me. He had been directing the practice.

“You, Nakamura. Wash your sword with that one’s blood!”

The Chinese looked at me just once, as I approached. I don’t know what he saw in my eyes and I no longer remember what I saw in his; but I remember his neck bared for my stroke, and how I raised my arms and brought them down in a short arc, and the sudden thudding resistance of the neck, and then the Chinese was toppling.

“Easy, wasn’t it?” Hondo grinned. “You’ll learn, boy.”

Yes, I learned. In those weeks, a lot I learned. Each time my sword was washed with blood, I learned, and in other ways, besides.

I learned several minor truths, and I learned one Great Truth, one that has stood me in good stead since that day.

In the screams of prisoners being used for bayonet practice, I learned that killing is easy, and gets easier the more one does of it. Standing before the violated corpse of a young mother, who had begged for her life and at last tried to buy it with a ring, I learned, too, that looting and rape are pleasant and good for morale, and that there are fewer more pleasant things than inflicting fear when one can inflict fear. I learned that a human is no more than a goat or a chicken, and that a man can die as easily and meaninglessly as a fowl can, and that life is as meaningless as death, and equally to be scorned. Yes, I learned that as well. But those were minor truths, as one might think for oneself.

There was the Great Truth, though: the Truth that says that nothing really matters anymore; when the tide of blood is loosed on the world, life and death having ceased to have meaning, then there is no meaning to the world, and, therefore, anything and everything is justified to get one’s goals. There is no right or wrong, and this is the Greatest Truth of all.

It has stood me in good stead since that day.

One afternoon I stood in front of a burning building and watched burning scraps of paper rain down all around me. Idly, I picked up a piece of that paper. The unburned part was thin and yellowed, obviously of great age. Perhaps that building had been a library, I had thought, and pitched a hand grenade into the fire. And this from me, Nakamura Kenji, who had once loved reading delicate poetry!

You understand how much I had learned.

Rape was so casual that I stopped thinking about it; what the worms did to each other was so far beneath my human level of comprehension that what we did to them was without importance. Does it matter to the man who stamps the life of a cockroach out whether the cockroach has dreams? I have only vague memories; women tied to chairs and raped, women killed and then raped, women raped and then killed, women raped to death. How did it matter? They were worms.

One day in the late winter I stood beside the Yangtze, downstream, and watched the river bring the corpses in. They stacked up like driftwood, and the smell of them was scarcely tolerable even from far up from the bank. I remember seeing the corpse of a woman, breasts enormously distended, with a rotting baby still clutched in the crook of one arm, come floating in. The soldiers with me fired at the breasts of the dead woman and popped them like balloons, and I laughed even as they laughed. It was funny.

That evening, I remember, we had received some new reinforcements, straight out of training, and they were looking at me with faces full of fear. I had no idea why – after all, I was their officer, and there was no reason why they should fear me. Tomorrow, in any case, Sergeant Watanabe Kiyoshi and I would teach them the finer points of using the bayonet, and they needed the toughening-up. But I remember that night, when I went into my quarters and looked into the mirror, I could scarcely recognise my eyes. They were a killer’s eyes, those of a soulless murderer. I was happy; I was gratified. At last, I thought, I am fit to be a warrior for the Emperor. At last, I truly belong.


I must have dozed off for a moment. What useless line of thinking was I on? I remember vague thoughts about yellow-uniformed soldiers in forage caps and puttees, and the swords, flashing, and bound worms toppling headless into the ditches they had dug beforehand. How does it matter? It was long ago, and it was far away, and none of it matters any more.

I switch the night-light on and look at the vague shadows on the ceiling. Some of the shadows look like faces. I look at them and slowly, the room begins to spin, and fades away...

I am walking along the river bank, and the corpses are piled one on top of the other, the Chinese worm corpses, and I walk past them, and I know they are reaching for me with their bloodless hands and sighing with their voiceless voices. I know, but I am Nakamura Kenji, and they can do nothing to me, so long as I do not look at them and I do not hear.



(Dedicated to the victims of the Rape of Nanjing, Dec 1937 to Feb 1938.) 


Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12

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