Douno was intent on finding the man to whom his parents had paid a staggering three million yen. That man had clawed the money from them at a time when they were already suffering so much because of Douno’s situation. Douno was incensed, but he had no idea who it could be. His parents and his sister were the only people who knew which prison he was in. As long as the three of them remained silent, no one else was supposed to have known.
While mulling over the different possibilities, Douno wondered suddenly if it may have been Mitsuhashi. But Mitsuhashi was neither short nor fat. Those physical features were hard to disguise; the man could not be him. Then who was it? Douno thought night and day of the man who had stolen three million from his parents.
Sewing at work about three days after his mother had come to see him, Douno caught himself trying to put the upper thread where the bobbin was supposed to go. The mistake jarred his nerves, but he figured it was just because he was lost in thought. But while fixing a spot he had sewed accidentally, Douno grabbed a pair of scissors thinking he was reaching for a seam ripper, and did not realize his mistake until he had cut a chunk of the cloth clean off. The succession of mistakes that he normally never made scared Douno and made him feel as if he were losing his mind. He knew that if he kept thinking about the three million, it would get to him. But no matter how much he tried to distract himself, every free moment he had, he found his thoughts gravitating back to it again.
After supper, Douno opened a borrowed book as usual. But he could not get past a single line. Who tricked my parents?―the thought circled round and round inside his head.
“Douno.” Douno winced at being called, and looked up.
“Tomorrow’s laundry day. You’ll be putting your socks out for the wash, right?” Shiba waved a scrap of paper in his right hand. “If you’re not gonna hand them in now, you’ll have to put them in the laundry bag yourself tomorrow morning. I’ll fill in your Laundry Request Slip in advance. Personal articles, right?”
Shiba gathered everyone’s socks, bunched them with string, and put them in the laundry bag. Douno was overcome by an impulse to ask Shiba, not because Shiba had initiated the conversation, but because Douno was desperate to ask anyone who would listen.
Shiba turned around. “Don’t wanna put it in the wash?” he asked, tilting his head.
“No... I... I wasn’t talking about laundry. I wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?” Shiba placed the laundry bag down on the tatami mat.
“Normally, only your family would know which prison you’re in, right?”
“No one else would know unless you tell them.”
“I guess...” Douno lapsed into silence, just as Kumon came butting in.
“What? What is it? Something happen?”
“No, it’s not much...” Douno answered vaguely. He tried to change the topic, but Kumon and Shiba questioned him so persistently, he found himself opening his mouth again.
“Someone claiming to be my old friend visited my parents. He told them he was in the police department, and that he’d make arrangements for me. My parents went ahead and gave him a token of gratitude, even though―”
“Uhhh, ‘token of gratitude’?” Kakizaki asked in a drawl. Kumon smacked him in the back of the head.
“Money, idiot. Cash.”
“I see,” Shiba said quietly, and gave Kumon a pointed look. Kumon also gave a furtive glance in Shiba’s direction.
“Douno, you know it’s against the rules here to tell anyone your address, or give someone else’s address out.” Shiba’s voice was sombre.
“Did you tell someone?”
Mitsuhashi crossed his mind.
“Did you tell Mitsuhashi?” Kumon asked. Douno felt his heart jump.
“But it can’t be Mitsuhashi,” he protested. “The man that came to my house was short and heavyset. He and Mitsuhashi are completely different body types.”
“Hmm,” Shiba said as he crossed his arms. “Mitsuhashi is out on parole, right? If he gets caught doing something bad during that time, his sentence will be doubled. He’s a smart one, so I can’t imagine him crossing such a dangerous line.”
“I think it’s Mitsuhashi,” Kumon said as he leaned across the table. “Your sentence’s short, Douno, so you’ll get out while he’s still on parole. He wouldn’t be able to pull that stunt once you got out, so he did it now. Maybe he got someone to do it for him, so it wouldn’t be traced back.”
“Ah, I didn’t think about that,” Shiba murmured.
As Douno listened to Shiba and Kumon talking, he too began to feel like it really had been Mitsuhashi. But the last thing he wanted to do was be suspicious of a man he had opened his heart to.
“But Mitsuhashi told me,” he insisted. “He said he was under false charges, too. He was planning for us to file a lawsuit together after I got out.”
“Mitsuhashi, under false charges? Bullshit,” Kumon spat. “He’s a fraud down to his bones. He was bragging about raking in cash from old people who live alone by doing door-to-door sales.”
Douno felt like someone had pulled a black curtain over his eyes. So Mitsuhashi had not been falsely accused. They had not shared the same predicament after all. What had he meant when he said he wanted to fight together when Douno was released from prison? He vividly recalled his conversations with Mitsuhashi. Was he lying when he said he operated a trading company, and that he could speak foreign languages? Were his earnest attitude, his sympathetic nod, his words―”oh, I know”, “of course, I understand”―all lies?
Come to think of it, the only times Mitsuhashi ever spoke about himself were when they were alone together at lunch or during exercise period. Since Mitsuhashi had mentioned not telling anyone about being false accused, Douno figured he had not wanted to be overheard by the rest of the inmates. But now that he thought about it, perhaps Mitsuhashi’s secrecy was to avoid being overheard and exposed. When he left, he had also not told Douno his address. Perhaps he was lying about having no arrangements―perhaps he had intended not to tell Douno all along. One straight line connected every incident with the truth. Douno gaped in disbelief at the knots in the table, unable to close his mouth. He had been tricked.
Shiba came around behind him and placed a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Mitsuhashi was a bastard, but you weren’t careful enough, either, Douno. There are a lot of cases like that, where trusting inmates exchange addresses with each other, and one ends up being cheated by the guy who gets out first.”
“I don’t believe it,” Douno whispered. He balled his hands into fists on the tatami mat and gritted his teeth. A despair more arresting than what he felt at the moment of his conviction overtook his body. Boiling wrath made him shake from head to toe.
“I’ll―I’ll take him to court!” He sprang up and reached for the buzzer to call the guard over, but was intercepted by Shiba.
“You have no proof,” Shiba said firmly. “Even if you file a claim in court, all Mitsuhashi has to say is that he has no idea, and that’ll be the end of it. You, on the other hand, will be sent to solitary for unlawful communication because you told him your address. It’ll affect your parole.”
Douno sank back down onto the tatami mat. He knew who was responsible, yet he could do nothing. It was his own fault, yet he could do nothing.
“You’ve told your parents to file a complaint, haven’t you? All you can do now is wait.”
But if Mitsuhashi was not caught―if he got away―Douno would have no choice but to admit defeat. Tears rolled down his face at the realization. His parents had already been pushed to the margins of the society by the fact that their son was in prison; Mitsuhashi had added insult to injury by further syphoning three million yen from them. But Douno was even more angry that the man had used his trust to make money. Fiend, thief, burglar, liar... liar.... Douno slowly raised his head. He caught the expressionless man in a corner of his eye and lunged at him, grabbing him by the front of his shirt.
“Oh―hey! Come on!” Shiba hastily pried Douno off Kitagawa.
“You knew!” Douno accused. “You knew Mitsuhashi was going to―to trick me out of my money. Didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded.
Kitagawa remained expressionless at Douno’s angry outburst.
“Douno, lower your voice,” Shiba warned. “If the guard comes―”
Douno ignored him. “Answer me!” he bellowed. Kitagawa smoothed the crumpled spot on his shirt where Douno had grabbed him, and gave a short exhale.
“I don’t know anything.” His voice was flat. “I don’t know anything about it. I just told you that Mitsuhashi is a liar because that’s what he is.”
The bell rang, signalling rest period before lights-out. At the same time, the window facing the hallway opened with a bang, the guard’s face appearing through the bars.
“Hey! What’s this noise about?” he barked.
Shiba stepped forward.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he bowed his head. “I think the TV was turned up too high. We’ll turn it down.”
Deep creases appeared between the guard’s eyebrows as he twisted his face into a scowl.
“You should know that television hours start after nineteen o’clock and only after nineteen o’clock. Are you saying you turned on the TV before designated hours?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Shiba apologized. “My daughter is sprinting in the national championships today. They’re being held in Kobe, and I was worried about the weather.”
Evidently the words “daughter” and “national championships” had some effect on the guard, for he let them off with nothing more than a warning.
“I don’t care what reason it is,” he snapped. “Watching television is forbidden outside of designated hours. Don’t make me remind you again.”
After the guard left, the other four cellmates began to fold up the table, lay out their futons, and change into their pyjamas. Douno remained sitting on the floor in a trance. He knew he was being spoken to, but could not move. Shiba laid his futon out for him.
“Get your ass moving and change, or we’ll get into trouble again,” Kumon hissed. Douno finally changed into his pyjamas. “Don’t forget to fold your uniform,” Kumon added. “Look, I know you’re in shock at being frauded, but our cell is going to lose TV privileges if we gets points docked because of you, alright?”
Douno folded his discarded uniform and slipped into his futon. Suddenly, a wave of tears surged from the depths of his body. He was fraught with guilt towards his parents―guilt and shame that such an enormous sum had been stolen because of his own carelessness. He cursed the wicked man who had tricked him. If curses could kill, he thought fervently, all the while mentally damning the man to hell. Vermin like Mitsuhashi did not deserve to live. Douno felt like he could give his life for the opportunity to escape and kill Mitsuhashi, or to have someone kill him in exchange.
Douno sank his teeth into his pillow to resist the urge to scream. He attacked the pillow again and again, as if he intended to tear it apart with his teeth. His jaw began to feel numb and his pillow turned sticky with saliva. He did not even notice Kumon and Kakizaki giving him disturbed looks.
His mind filled with the same words: “I hate him”, “I want to kill him”―and somewhere in the midst of it, fleetingly, “I want to die”. He wished he could. He had not only brought hardship upon his sister and parents, but he had done it twice, three times over. He attracted trouble merely by living. He knew he ought to disappear.
Douno dozed a little around dawn. It was the start of another normal day, yet he felt as if someone had wrapped a thin membrane around his mind. He felt only the vaguest sense that he was alive.
Douno did not touch his breakfast. Even after heading out to the factory and beginning his work, he felt absent-minded. Staring at the straight stitches made him feel like he was an unfeeling machine. He left his lunch untouched, and at supper, he sat without even bothering to take a pair of chopsticks from the box.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Shiba asked him. Douno did not care to answer.
When rest period came around, Douno immediately got into his futon. He spewed curses at Mitsuhashi mentally, loathed himself for being stupid enough to be tricked, and contemplated the ways he could die.
Even dying was a challenge in prison. He could not do it in his group cell, for one. He thought of applying for a solitary cell, but had heard that applications by fourth-class inmates would not even be considered. He wondered if he could go to the washroom during work and hang himself there. He did not remember there being any rafters he could tie a rope to, so he decided he would check tomorrow.
Once he decided that he would kill himself, Douno felt a little better. But when he thought about the fact that he was going to die for a man like Mitsuhashi, the base of his stomach burned with anger and frustration. However, he always came back to the thought that death would free him of this suffering, too―forever. Thus he settled on the decision that he did want to die after all.
The next morning, Douno ate just two bites of breakfast. He headed to the factory, and during his morning break he went to the washroom only to be disappointed. There were no rafters or nails he could hang a rope from. He thought of biting his own tongue, but did not have the courage to do it immediately. He also wanted to leave a will.
Douno ate half of his lunch before putting his chopsticks down. After cleaning up his dishes, he approached the bookshelf, but did not feel the urge to read anything. He saw no point in it anymore. He gazed reflectively at his surroundings in the small cafeteria while feeling a touch of futility at the idea that his life’s last moments would be inside a prison.
Somebody was approaching him. It was Natsuki, a man in his fifties who lived in the cell across from him. He smelled badly. It had gotten better with the arrival of winter, but when Douno had first come to prison, the man had reeked of vomit.
“Howdy, Douno,” Natsuki said. Douno only remembered speaking a handful of words with the man. They were not close at all. Douno inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. Natsuki smirked.
“So I heard Mitsuhashi screwed you out of a lot of money.”
Douno could feel the saliva pass through his throat. It made a loud gurgle. How did Natsuki know? Douno had only told the members of his own cell.
“Who did you hear that from?”
Natsuki stuck a pinkie into his right nostril and dug a wad of something out.
“Kakizaki, the idiot. Said you’re so done in you look like you’re about to die.” Natsuki guffawed, then whispered with stinking breath into Douno’s ear. “The guy was telling me what a naive and straight-laced kid you are. He figured your prim-and-proper parents would have money saved up. Who’da known he’d be right on?”
“Y―You knew about this?”
“You bet I knew. He told me personally not to lay my hands on his prey.”
Douno’s balled fists were shaking.
“You could have warned me, at least,” he said quietly. “Thanks to him, my parents are...”
Natsuki scoffed and hunched his shoulders.
“Why the hell should I care about your parents? You can blame yourself for getting reeled in.”
Natsuki turned his back, apparently satisfied that he had said what he had come to say. In the next instant, Douno found himself grabbing Natsuki by the back of his collar. He forced the man to turn around, and swung a fist straight at his face. A dull crack resounded. The man staggered and fell over onto his back. Douno straddled him. As the man’s face twisted in fear, Douno slugged him over and over.
“Douno, stop it!” Shiba grabbed him by the armpits from behind, but Douno wrestled free. As Natsuki tried to crawl away, Douno dragged him back by his ankles, took hold of the man’s head and smashed it against the floor.
“The hell do you think you’re doing?” bellowed a guard, appearing in a flash. The emergency alarm went off. Four guards came running, and in a manner of moments, they had restrained Douno’s arms and legs.
“Let go! Let go of me!” Douno kept shouting until a towel was shoved into his mouth. When he continued to struggle, the guards mercilessly kicked him in the back and stomach. The pain made his breath catch and his movements stop. The guards took the chance to drag him out of the cafeteria.
Douno was taken to the interrogation room, where he was stripped of his factory uniform, underwear and all. He was changed into something that resembled a lab coat and a pair of underwear with an open seam in the crotch. Next, he was outfitted with a type of leather belt with leather wrist restraints, which secured his right hand behind him and his left hand in front. When he would not stop yelling, he was also muzzled with some kind of material.
Douno was half-dragged by two guards to the basement, and thrown into an empty room only about three square metres in area. All the walls were lined with a soft sponge-like material. The floor was linoleum, like an old hospital. Douno continued to scream through his gag, banging his head against the walls and floor numerous times as he tumbled around, until he finally stretched out, exhausted. Only then did he realize that he was in some kind of “secure cell”.
Once the inferno of his rage had passed, he was overwhelmed by listlessness and powerlessness. Douno pressed his face against the linoleum floor and wept. Mucus and tears ran freely from his nose and eyes, but since his arms were secured he could not even wipe his face. Soon, exhausted from weeping too, he passed out into a deep sleep.
He did not know how long he had been asleep for―but he awoke to a violent chill and a strong urge to urinate. There was nothing in the room which resembled a toilet; there was only a single hole in the floor about ten centimetres wide in the right corner of the room. Douno remembered someone mentioning that the toilet in a secure cell was just a hole. He walked over to the hole and squatted down, and his penis slid out from the open seam in his underwear. Without his hands, it was hard to aim his penis. As he fumbled, soon he could not hold it in anymore; he ended up wetting the floor around the hole and even splashed a little of his foot. His feeling of despair worsened, and Douno curled up like a cat in a corner of the room. He wanted to die. He had been planning to. Why did it have to end up like this?
Douno did not want to think of anything. But in this empty space, there was nothing he could do other than think.
For three days, Douno was left alone with his leather wrist restraints and gag. On the fourth day, there was an interrogation. Douno was sentenced to a punishment called “light solitary confinement” for a week. During factory work hours, he had to remain sitting either cross-legged or on his knees in his secure cell.
His wrist restraints and gag were taken off, but he had no one to talk to, no work to do; it was a living hell to sit all day in a space devoid of any stimuli whatsoever. The only things that marked the passage of time were his three meals daily. He was chronically dizzy, and became prone to tripping and falling while on his feet. Douno felt his body slowly beginning to break down. Sitting in silence, he began to hear a buzzing in his ears that refused to leave, and persisted into the night.
On the evening seven days after he was sentenced to solitary confinement and ten days after he was placed in the secure cell, Douno was finally allowed to go back to his group cell. The ringing in his ears showed no signs of disappearing even after his return. In the secure cell, he had longed to hear any human voice, but now whenever he heard a voice he felt like covering his ears.
Shiba and Kumon tried to talk to him, but Douno refused to answer. He did not want to, and he was afraid of associating with people. People were not normal here. Everyone here manipulated and betrayed each other. The prison guards were the same: they had put him into a secure cell without so much as a decent investigation, had bound his wrists with leather, and had not even allowed him to wipe his excrement after he had relieved himself. Douno felt like this place had stripped every last shred of shame from him.
The next morning after returning to the group cell, Douno shaved his face for the first time in eleven days. The man in the mirror had hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes, and looked almost like a ghost. He felt disgust well up inside him, and before he knew it he had shattered the mirror with his bare fist. The mirror broke with a loud crash. Douno stood dumbly in front of the destroyed remains. In an instant, Shiba had grabbed the electric razor from him and sent him sprawling to the floor with a shove.
“What the hell is gong on?” yelled a guard, who had come running at the noise.
“I’m sorry, sir. I was shaving and I bumped my elbow against the mirror. I’m very sorry. I’ll clean it up immediately. I’ll pay for the broken mirror out of my wages.” Shiba apologized profusely with Douno’s razor in hand. The guard seemed convinced that it was not done on purpose, and made Shiba clean up the broken fragments under his supervision before collecting the dustpan and broken glass and taking it away. After the guard left, Shiba gave a short sigh and turned back to Douno.
“You alright? Your hand isn’t hurt or anything?” he asked gently.
Douno’s spine froze at his kind tone. He half-trembled, half-shook his head, and fled to a corner of the room.
“How about a ‘thank you’, huh?” Kumon snapped. “You were about to be sent right back into solitary.” Douno’s mind did not register his words. Instead, his suspicions towards Shiba burgeoned. Why didn’t Shiba leave him alone? Why did he insist on helping? Perhaps this man was approaching him with a friendly face, only to trick him when he opened up. Douno grew paranoid.
Roll call was immediately afterwards, followed by breakfast. Douno’s hands shook badly as he held his chopsticks. He could only finish half of his meal, which he threw up in the washroom not long afterwards. At the factory, he had trouble getting anything done. He could not sew straight. His hands shook, and he sewed the same seam over so many times that he ruined the cloth.
He ran into Natsuki at lunchtime in the cafeteria. When their eyes met, Natsuki visibly flinched and looked away. Back in the secure cell, Douno had loathed this man so much he felt he could kill him, but now all the aggression had vanished somewhere.
Rather, Douno wished he could die. He wanted to die and be freed from his suffering. He did not want to stay here a second longer. He wanted a way out, even if it meant being taken out as a corpse.
Douno barely ate his lunch, and whatever he ate he soon threw up. It was bathing day that day, and to no one’s surprise he lost consciousness and keeled over in the showers. He was taken to the infirmary, where he dozed for about three hours. He was deemed to be in regular health, and sent promptly back to his cell. It was suppertime when Douno returned, but again, he could barely eat even half.
Even sitting made him tired, but since he was not allowed to lie down, he put his head down on the table. During his time in the secure cell, he had yearned desperately for even a single book to read; now that he was in a situation where he could, he did not even feel like picking one up. Finally, nineteen o’clock rolled around and it was time for rest period. Douno remained leaning listlessly against the wall, so Shiba put out his futon for him. Kumon told him to get changed, so he changed into his pyjamas. Even after he got inside his futon, his ears were still buzzing and his mind was muddled and hazy.
“Think he’s a goner?”
Douno could vaguely hear the conversations about him. He was insane. He had gone mad. He was probably done for. His eyes were closed, but time passed by without bringing sleep. A trigger could be anything. His feet were not getting warmer at all. Even a small thing like that was enough to make tears well up in his eyes. He rolled over on his stomach, buried his face into his pillow, and wept. Quiet footsteps approached, and stopped in front of the cell. Douno lifted his face at the sound of the window opening, and saw the night guard staring at Douno through the bars.
“If you’re going to cry about it, make sure you never end up here again.”
If he had really done something bad, perhaps those words would have deeply affected him. But there was simply no way Douno could feel remorse when he had been forced into this place for doing nothing.
Was it wrong that he had ventured to believe someone in prison? Was everything wrong right, and everything right wrong in this place? Were words like “common sense” and “justice” simply nonexistent here?
After the guard walked away, Douno slowly propped himself up. He stared vacantly at the wall for some moments before he slipped out of his futon and stood in front of the sink and mirror.
A blurry shadow emerged from the darkness. Douno tried banging his forehead against the corner of the mirror. He felt something warm and runny, but peculiarly, it did not hurt. He banged his head over and over until a voice yelled from the hall window.
“What’re you doing over there?” Douno turned around to see a guard glowering as he shone a flashlight at him.
The words “secure cell” crossed Douno’s mind. He vividly recalled being bound by leather handcuffs and being thrown into that place. I don’t want to be put in there again―just as the thought occurred, Douno found himself bowing his head to the guard.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m sorry. I was going to the washroom, and I slipped... I fell down. I’m sorry for making noise. I won’t do it again. I’m sorry.”
The night guard gave him a doubtful look and shone the light on Douno’s face.
“What happened to your forehead?”
“This is... I slipped and hit my head on a corner.”
The night guard apparently thought it too troublesome to pursue further.
“Be careful next time,” he said shortly before walking on. The commotion had woken Shiba and Kitagawa, who were now looking this way.
“I’m sorry for making noise.” Douno lowered his head to them both in a clumsy bow, and slipped back into his futon. As he stared up at the ceiling, tears streamed from the corners of his eyes and did not stop. If he sobbed, it would make noise. If he got a reprimand from the guard, he would be deducted points again. If they lost ten points or more, television would be banned for the whole cell. Everyone would blame him. Sorrow seeped through the cracks of the reality of losing television privileges. Douno felt such utter futility that he felt his jaw would come unhinged.
His very existence, his thirty years living a more-or-less decent life, seemed so insubstantial. Soon he began to wonder if he really wasn’t equivalent to trash. He didn’t care who―he wanted someone to save him. He wanted someone to take him out of here. He wanted someone to say he wasn’t wrong about anything, that he was right. Tears accumulated inside his ears. Help me, help me, help me... he repeated in his heart.
He heard footsteps approaching from far away. At nighttime, it was easy to sense footsteps, no matter how quietly the person walked. Probably because of the previous commotion, the guard carefully shone the light into every corner of the cell before moving on. Douno waited long enough until he thought the guard had gone. He opened his eyes and glanced over to the hall window, and was startled to find Kitagawa staring back from the futon beside him.
Douno felt awkward as realized that the man must have seen him blubbering. He turned his face up and closed his eyes. Even with his eyes closed, the tears kept running down his cheeks. Suddenly, something swelled in his throat and threatened to burst out of his mouth. Douno sank his teeth into his wrist. If he didn’t, he felt like he would forget the time and place and begin screaming. Once the storm of emotions passed, he let go of his wrist. Unable to close his mouth, he left it half-open as he gazed at the ceiling. His jaws began to chatter as if he were in the cold.
“Help me, help me, help me, help me, help me, help me, help me....”
Douno did not realize he was speaking out loud until he felt his lips trembling. He could feel the curses oozing out of his body. A gentle hand was placed on his head, and Douno snapped his eyes open. The hand slowly stroked his hair. It repeated the same movements over and over, as if to soothe a very young child. There was no mistake; it was the man beside him. Douno pulled his futon up to his eyes. If he was found sleeping with his face covered, he knew would get a warning from the guard. He knew, but could not bring himself to show his face again.
His tears spilled over and refused to stop, flowing even more freely than before, but Douno could not understand why.
Morning came, and only then did Douno realize he had nodded off.
“Uhhh, whut happened t’your forehead?” drawled Kakizaki. Douno smoothed it over with the excuse that he had tripped and fallen last night.
Kitagawa was the same as ever. He had comforted Douno, but did not seem to expect any acknowledgement for it. Douno, frankly, was grateful. Crying usually only made his exhaustion accumulate, but this morning his chest felt lighter as if a great load had been taken off. This was despite the fact that his circumstance had not changed since yesterday.
He was hungry, so he cleaned off his plate at breakfast. When they headed out to the factory, Douno found himself not having to rip his stitches and sew them over and over again. At this rate, he would be able to finish the morning’s quota in time for lunch.
I guess I should at least say thanks, Douno thought while he worked. Kitagawa’s silence did not change the fact that Douno had indeed been comforted by that touch last night. Yeah, but, whispered his other self. Isn’t this Kitagawa’s plan? Perhaps he was only showing a little kindness to make Douno feel indebted, and once Douno humbled himself and thanked him, Kitagawa would demand exorbitant compensation. Kindness did not always simply equate to goodwill here. Just because someone seemed nice, it did not mean that they actually were. The incident with Mitsuhashi had taught Douno more than enough of that.
On one hand, Douno was apprehensive, but on the other hand, he was sick of himself for doubting everything. What if Kitagawa had comforted him out of pure goodwill, out of sympathy? Douno’s honest wish was to thank him, and he felt Kitagawa was deserving of no less. But he did not want to be tricked again.
Douno was still mulling things over when lunched rolled around. He made his way to the cafeteria and sat down. They had shifted seats since Douno first arrived, but he was still beside Kitagawa as usual. Today’s meal was oyakodon, with a side of bean sprouts dressed in sesame and two shishamo fish. Some devoured it in five minutes flat, but Douno slowly chewed on his mouthful of barley rice.
He was preoccupied with the actions of the man beside him, perhaps because he was thinking so hard about whether he should thank him or not. Kitagawa also ate very quickly, and never left anything uneaten. But today, his chopsticks stayed paused above the fish. They wandered a little as if in uncertainty, then, in one decisive move, Kitagawa whisked the fish up and stuffed the both of them at once into his mouth. He screwed his eyes shut, and deep creases formed between his eyebrows as he chewed intently. Inmates were not punished for leaving their meals uneaten; Douno wondered why Kitagawa did not just leave the fish if he hated it so much. But at the same time, he was amused by the sight of the man pulling a face as he ate.
Once their meal was over, Kitagawa began to watch the television installed in the wall. He showed no signs of picking up a book or chatting with someone else. Come to think of it, even in their cell, Kitagawa would always stand in a circle of chatting inmates without ever speaking up on his own. Their cellmates Kumon, Shiba, and Kakizaki, on the other hand, were currently completely occupied in their conversations with people from other cells.
The television was playing a show that was apparently geared towards middle-aged or older housewives, for words like “health” and “cholesterol” were being thrown around frequently.
Kitagawa turned around. His emotionless eyes looked almost angry, and Douno was put on guard.
“About last night... er, thank you.”
Kitagawa twitched his right eyebrow and cocked his head.
“It made me feel a bit better, so....”
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa said as if it were none of his business, and turned back to the TV. It was not like Douno had expected anything. He thought maybe the man would at least say “that’s nice” out of politeness, but there was none of that. Gazing at the aloof and taciturn man, Douno felt like the person who had stroked his head last night was someone totally different. He was even more stumped about why the man had chosen to comfort him. He could read nothing of the man’s intent from his profile.
“Aren’t you gonna read?” The man abruptly turned to ask him. Douno, who had assumed the man was watching TV all along, was startled by the sudden question. He tripped over his words as he answered.
“You always read after you eat.”
“Oh, right. Maybe not today, though.”
Kitagawa turned back to the TV. The man’s abrupt timing made it strangely difficult to carry a conversation. Douno was just reflecting on the thought when the man spoke up again.
“Why did you say thank you to me?”
He was bringing back a conversation that Douno assumed had long ended. He looked down and clasped his hands again, trying to deal with the awkwardness of being asked to explain his gratitude.
“Well, because I thought I ought to.”
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa said in answer, and shifted his eyes back to the TV again. What a strange guy, Douno thought, and before long, lunch was over. As they took roll call and got back to work, Douno reached a conclusion of sorts in his mind. Yes, Kitagawa was a little peculiar, but that was to be expected. After all, he would not have killed someone if he was a normal human being with common sense. Feeling strangely satisfied, Douno engrossed himself in his work.
The incident happened at suppertime. Today’s meal was fried chicken, Chinese-style vegetable soup, kimchi, and an apple. It was Douno’s first time having fried chicken since getting into prison, and for once the meal was delicious.
Even Kumon, who always had something to complain about the food, munched contentedly. “This is good stuff,” he beamed. Douno also went straight for the two pieces of chicken without so much a glance at the rest of his meal. It was odd―he felt like the act of eating and the ability to think it delicious was directly connected to being alive.
“Is the chicken good?” a voice beside him asked. Douno looked over to see Kitagawa with one piece of chicken left on his plate. You’ve eaten one yourself, he thought, but answered anyway.
“Yeah, it’s good.”
Kitagawa then picked the last piece of chicken off his plate and plopped it onto Douno’s. Douno felt the blood recede from his face. He hastily turned to look behind him, ensured that the guard was not looking, and threw the chicken back at Kitagawa.
Sharing meals was strictly forbidden in prison. This was to prevent stronger inmates from bullying the weaker ones out of their food. If inmates were caught exchanging food, even on mutual agreement, they were given a warning. Sometimes they could get a ticket, or worse, given a formal reprimand.
Once an inmate was sentenced to punishment, his parole was pushed back for half a year. Since Douno’s sentence was short to begin with, his last reprimand resulted in him losing his parole altogether. He now had to serve his full sentence. Any number of tickets or reprimands would not prevent his release from prison, but Douno wanted to spend the few months of his sentence in peace, and he wanted to do everything in his power to avoid being marked out by the guard in charge.
Kitagawa gazed alternately at Douno’s face and the rejected chicken, then popped the chicken into his mouth. He finished eating it without another word. Maybe this man was trying to get him into trouble. Douno renewed the apprehension in his heart. Just because the man had done a kind deed or two, it did not mean that he could trust him. He was the kind of man to end up here, after all. He was not a man Douno could afford to let his guard down around.
Douno finished his meal and flipped open the weekly magazine that had just arrived. He had completely forgotten that he had ordered it at the beginning of the month. The insect-like buzzing in his ears was fading, and he could now concentrate well enough to read.
Douno suddenly shivered as he felt a chill come on. He sneezed twice in a row. It had been cold in the secure cell, and since then he had begun to sneeze occasionally. Douno wished he could curl up in a blanket, but he knew he would get a warning if he was caught using a blanket before rest hours.
Douno flipped through the magazine, looking for something that might distract him from the cold. He found a crossword puzzle. He had picked a pencil off the shelf and was just about to get started on it when a hand appeared and slammed the magazine shut. It was Kitagawa. Douno felt a twinge of irritation, but felt it too troublesome to argue. He opened the page to the crossword puzzle again. Once more, the hand appeared and flipped the magazine shut, this time resting on the cover as if to prevent him from opening it again. Having it done once was irritating; by the second time, it was getting on Douno’s nerves.
“Please don’t give me a hard time,” he said quietly, suppressing his anger. The hand holding the book down refused to budge. When he tried to pry Kitagawa’s hand off by force, Kitagawa only put more weight onto it. The two glared at each other silently.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough, you two,” intervened Shiba, who had apparently been watching their exchange. “Kitagawa,” he remonstrated, “you have to put it into words, or else Douno won’t understand.” Then, he turned to look at Douno.
“You see,” he said, “we aren’t allowed to do crossword puzzles. If you’re caught doing one, you’ll be sentenced to punishment.”
Douno was startled to hear the word “punishment”.
“God knows why,” Shiba added, “but I think someone must have used it in the past as some kind of code to try to communicate with people outside.”
Douno had not expected something as innocent as this to be a target for a reprimand. It was not like he was dying to do the crossword anyway, and he did not want to take any unnecessary risks. Douno flipped the crossword page closed and looked at his feet in embarrassment. He could not look the other man in the face. Kitagawa had been warning him out of kindness all this time. But there was no way Douno could have understood that crosswords were not allowed if Kitagawa did not say anything―he felt a flash of anger at the man’s lack of verbalization, then immediately regretted his selfishness. If Kitagawa had not told him at all, Douno would have been punished.
When he looked up, his eyes met with Kitagawa’s. Judging by his expression, he seemed to be expecting Douno to say something.
“I’m sorry I misunderstood. Thanks for telling me.”
Kitagawa narrowed his eyes.
“Mm-hmm,” he said softly. Douno felt like the man was mocking him, and instantly regretted apologizing.
Douno’s feet were still cold when rest period came around and he got into his futon. No matter how much he rubbed them together, they did not warm up. He fell asleep preoccupied with the cold, and was not surprised to wake up the next morning with a runny nose.
That day turned out to be one of the two medical checkups that occurred weekly. Douno requested for cold medicine when the caretaker came around in the morning, but since his body temperature was only thirty-seven degrees, he was given a “bathing ban” by the medical officer and was let go without any medicine. Douno had a history of long colds, and he was worried about what was to come. Unfortunately, his predictions came true.
Douno’s joints began to ache in the afternoon, and he felt his temperature rising. He felt heavy and lethargic. He had no appetite. He forced himself to eat to maintain energy, but threw it back up soon afterwards.
His head was pounding and his nose would not stop running. Unable to endure any more, Douno rang the buzzer. Within minutes, a guard’s face appeared at the window.
“What is it?” he said.
“Number 145, Douno, sir.” He bowed to the officer beyond the metal bars. “I have a headache and my nose won’t stop running. Would I be able to get some cold medicine, sir?”
The guard glared at him.
“Didn’t you report to the medical officer today?”
“I asked for a checkup, sir. But I was only given a bathing ban and no medication.”
“If a bathing ban is what the medical officer decided, then that’s what you’ll get. You must have caught a cold because you lacked discipline.”
Don’t call me for such insignificant things, the guard’s arrogant attitude seemed to say. Douno was struck speechless. Once the guard was gone, Shiba spoke up behind him.
“You won’t be able to get medication,” he said quietly. “It’ll have to get pretty serious until they’re willing to give you any. They won’t even put you in a normal hospital until you’re nearly dead. You’ll just have to wait until the next checkup.”
Douno sank down in despair. He had no choice but to endure it. He was unwell, yet they refused him medication. He even felt anger creeping up at the state of Japan’s prisons. What would they do, then, if an ill inmate died because they neglected him?
He felt a violent chill down his spine. If he died, that would be it. Dead men did not need food. Inmate No. 145 happened to catch a cold, and unfortunately for him it worsened and led to his death. The end.
Douno waited longingly until rest period came at nineteen o’clock, and got into his futon. He lay shivering, and his nose was still running. They were given only a set amount of tissues weekly for blowing their noses. Douno could not afford to waste them, so he used each tissue until it was soaked with mucus. When he ran out of tissues, he had no choice but to use his towel. But even that soon turned sticky and wet. Douno was forced into the miserable situation of wiping his snot with his own snot. Even after lights-out, the only sound in the cell was that of Douno’s sniffling. He knew the night guard could unmistakably hear it, too, but the guard did not say anything.
After the quiet footsteps receded into the distance, something soft touched Douno’s face. He wondered what it was, and realized it was a tissue. Someone else’s, because he had used up all of his own. He opened his eyes through his hazy consciousness and saw Kitagawa peering into his face.
Exchanging items between inmates was forbidden. Even for something as small as a single tissue, if they were caught, they were punished. The amount of tissues supplied weekly was not a large amount. If one ran out from giving too many away, he could ultimately even face difficulties wiping his bottom in the toilet. Once he thought of that, Douno felt guilty about being given Kitagawa’s precious tissues.
Kitagawa sat up slowly and snatched Douno’s snot-laden towel away. He took it to the sink and began to wash it. They were only allowed to wash their towels twice a week at designated times. Washing without permission in the middle of the night was absolutely against the rules. Douno fretted, but Kitagawa paid no mind to him. He continued to wash the towel, letting the water run only so much as to not make noise, then placed the towel on Douno’s forehead. The cold, moist towel was so soothing, the comfort seemed to penetrate to his brain.
“Thank you.” Douno’s nose ran even as he said those words, and he blew his nose into what was presumably Kitagawa’s tissue. “I’m sorry for using yours up. Really...”
He heard quiet footsteps. Kitagawa removed the towel from Douno’s forehead, and hid it under the uniform folded by his pillow. When the footsteps faded away, he placed it back on Douno’s head.
“You know, you don’t have to do this,” Douno whispered. “If the night guard finds you, you’ll get put into solitary. I mean it, really...”
Douno refused two more times after that, saying “it’s okay”, but Kitagawa did not let up. Douno eventually fell asleep, still sniffling wetly. When he came to, it was morning.
His nose continued to run after he awoke, and he felt dizzy. For breakfast, he only drank his miso soup and left the rest untouched. Work was not very taxing since most of it was done sitting down, but the factory was freezing. He shivered violently even while wearing a knitted top and bottom underneath his uniform. As he sewed soft, thick woollen ladies’ coats, he longingly imagined how nice it must feel to curl up in one of them and lie down.
Lunch was curry rice, but Douno had no appetite. It came with apple salad and milk dressing, which was the only thing he could manage to eat. Just as he was about to put his spoon down leaving his curry untouched, a hand reached over and quickly switched his plates. The apple salad with milk dressing which he had just eaten was taken away, and a new plate of apple salad was placed before him. Kitagawa, having observed that it was the only thing Douno could eat, and had given his own portion to him. The factory guard was not looking this way.
“Th―thank you.” Douno ate the apple salad without complaining. As he ate, he wondered why Kitagawa had been so kind to him, last night as well as the night before. Perhaps the fried chicken, too, which Douno had thought was a plan to get him into trouble, had been out of kindness.
Once their meal was over, Douno walked unsteadily to the sinks to deposit his dishes. He wanted to sit down, but Kitagawa grabbed his arm on the way back. He was taken to the bookshelves at the back of the cafeteria. He was yanked on the arm and forced into a squatting position.
“Is this book interesting?” Kitagawa was showing him a photo book called Temples of Japan. Douno wanted to sit down and rest, but could not ignore the man who had been so kind to him.
“I haven’t read it,” Douno replied, still squatting. Kitagawa brought his hand up to Douno’s face and opened his palm. There were three white pills in his hand. Kitagawa tilted Douno’s chin up and pressed his hand against Douno’s mouth. Still unable to fathom what was going on, Douno let the pills fall into his mouth and swallowed them along with his spit. He could not bring himself to ask what kind of pills they were. There was no way he could ask here, anyway. But by the afternoon, his runny nose had definitely subsided a little.
Once the long day was over, he returned to the group cell. With an effort, he managed to eat half of his dinner. Unable even to read a book, he had put his head down on the table when Kitagawa pulled at his arm again. He was taken to the shelves, where he was discreetly given three pills again. Douno swallowed them quickly. Once he had taken them, Kitagawa returned to the table as if nothing had happened, sat down cross-legged on the floor cushion and listened in on Shiba and Kumon’s conversation.
At night, Douno felt his fever rising again. His nose was not running as much, thanks to the medication, but his head ached. Once it was lights-out, Kitagawa found time in between the night guard’s rounds to wet a towel and cool Douno’s forehead. Douno’s nose had not completely stopped running, and before long he was sniffling again. Since he had used up all of Kitagawa’s tissues, Douno tried his best to get by without blowing his nose. Suddenly, Kitagawa reached over and pinched Douno’s nose.
Douno was surprised when the man then used his palm to wipe his nose. Like he had done with the towel, Kitagawa waited for the right opportunity to slip out and wash his hand. When Douno started sniffling again, he repeated the same thing. Douno was sure that even a lover or parent would balk if asked to do the same thing. He knew he would. Kitagawa was neither a parent nor a lover. They were not even close. Why was he being so kind? Douno found himself deeply moved, even, by Kitagawa’s compassion.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “But thank you.”
“Mmm,” Kitagawa said, in an answer that was hardly an answer, and continued caring for Douno without a word. No one could be this considerate superficially―perhaps Kitagawa was really kind, Douno thought. Even if it turned out to be false, Douno felt like he could at least believe that Kitagawa’s actions at this very moment were true.
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).