A short story by classic Japanese mystery and horror writer Edogawa Ranpo, translated from Japanese by Lin King.
Was it a daytime nightmare, or did it really happen?
It had been a humid afternoon with the lukewarm, hair-raising wind of late spring brushing against my flushed cheeks.
I cannot even remember whether I was in the middle of an errand or simply taking a stroll. Either way, I found myself in some nondescript rundown district, walking down a wide and dusty street — the kind that continues on and on as far as the eye can see.
Discolored shops stood in silent rows, like unlined kimono faded from washing. Striped athletic uniforms of schoolchildren hung in the dust of three-foot shop windows. There was a store whose entire storefront was lined with an array of thin wooden boxes, each partitioned like Go chessboards and containing sand-like seeds of red, yellow, white, and brown. Dim, somber houses were filled to the brim with bicycle frames and tires. Between these dreary dwellings stood two- story structures with houses pressing in tightly on both sides, decorated with sooty paper lanterns hanging behind thin lattice-doors. A suggestive strumming of shamisen leaked out from within these claustrophobic establishments.
“Puck, kili-kili, a-pap-pah … a-pap-pah…”
A-pap-paaaaaah … the poignant melody evaporated into the hazy springtime sky.
A group of boys were skipping rope on the street. The long rope struck the ground forcefully and rose again to the sky. An unaccompanied child, his front exposed under his
inakajima kimono, darted past.1 The scene was like a high-speed film; there was something distinctly leisurely about it.
From time to time, a heavy wagon rattled by, making the road and the houses quake on its way.
Suddenly, I realized that something was happening directly ahead of me.
Fourteen or fifteen people, a mix of adults and children, had stopped in their tracks and were standing in a scattered semicircle by the roadside.
These people were all wearing a particular type of smile, the type that you would see on the faces of audiences watching a comedic farce. One of the men was laughing thunderously with his mouth wide open.
Curiosity made me go closer.
When I drew near, I noticed that one face was conspicuously solemn in contrast to all the other grinning ones. This pale face was orating enthusiastically on some unknown subject. The enthusiasm of his manners was too excessive for a street vendor’s spiel, yet the atmosphere of spectacle was too impertinent for a religious sermon. What in the world was going on here?
Without being fully aware of my own actions, I joined the semicircle and assumed position as a member of the audience.
The speaker was wearing a dark, bluish garment of silky fabric. He had a refined air in his appearance and seemed overall like a fairly cultivated man in his forties. He wore a yellow sash that was tightly fastened around his waist. Underneath a pretty head of hair that glittered like katsura leaves, he had a pale face shaped like a garlic clove, with narrow eyes and an impressive mustache shading his ruddy lips. These lips were in motion — moving with an indecorous sort of spit-spraying animation. Beads of perspiration covered his high nose, and two bare feet, coated with sand and dust, peeked out from under the hem of his kimono.
“……How much I loved my wife?”
His speech seemed to have just reached a climax. The man was speaking with a great deal of emotion, and after looking around from face to face for a few moments, he continued by answering his own question: “I loved her enough to kill!”
“…Sadly, the woman was a cuckold-maker.”
Laughter broke out among the spectators, and the speaker’s “I thought she might have gotten involved with another man” almost went unheard.
“Nah, she was probably already involved with another man.”
At this, there was another outbreak of laughter, even more uproarious than the one before.
“I kept on worrying and worrying,” the man said, shaking his head like a kabuki actor. “I couldn’t even focus on my work. Every night in bed, I begged my wife — I begged her to hold my hand.” More laughter. “I asked her to swear to me. Swear to me that she would never tear her heart away from me and give it to another man … but that woman, she wouldn’t grant me my one wish, no matter what I said. With her cunning, her coquetry, her wiles, she managed to gloss over the subject again and again. But even so, all this, this guile of hers, oh, how it tantalized me…”
Somebody called out, “Alright, alright! Thanks for bragging!” This was followed by more laughter.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the man continued, ignoring the heckling altogether. “Let me ask you, if you found yourself in my position, what on earth would you do?
“Could you go on living without killing her? …That woman, she looked so good when she wore her hair up, with the sides covering her ears.2 She could pin it up by herself really well … and there she was that day, sitting at her dressing table. Just about to pin up her hair. Her beautifully made-up face was turned in my direction, smiling sweetly at me with her crimson lips.
“I thought, this is the moment. This is the moment to make that desirable figure mine. For eternity.”
“I took the awl I had prepared beforehand and thrust it into the nape of her exquisite neck. Before her smile had time to slip away, with her large canine teeth still peeping from under her upper lip … she died.”
A rowdy band walked by, playing loudly for some promotional campaign. Riotous notes burst from the large trumpet. “This is Manchuria, some hundred miles from my home country,” chorused the children as they marched.
“Ladies and gentlemen, listen — the band’s spreading the word about me. Taro Magara is a murderer, a murderer. That’s what it’s saying. That’s what it’s spreading.”
Laughter broke out yet again. The man’s speech, accompanied by the taiko drumming of the band, was a sound I would remember for the rest of my life.
“I sliced my wife’s corpse into five pieces. Hear me out. One piece of torso, two arms, two legs, making a total of five pieces … it was a downright shame, but there was no way around it … they were plump, pure, fair-skinned legs … didn’t any of you hear the sound of that water?” The man suddenly lowered his voice. His head protruded forward and his eyes grew wild with horror, all but declaring outright that he was about to confess something of utmost importance.
“Until the Minanuka day marking twenty-one days of her death, I left the water in my home running.3 The five pieces of my wife’s dismembered body were cooling inside a barrel, you see. And that, ladies and gentlemen,” here his voice became so quiet that it was almost impossible to hear, “that’s the secret trick. That’s the secret trick — for preventing the corpse from rotting away … that is what is known as the making of adipocere.”4
“Adipocere…” The entry on “adipocere” in a medical book came before my mind’s eye, complete with the author’s musty illustration. What in the world was this man trying to say? A mysterious, untraceable terror made my heart feel as hollow as a toy balloon.
“…And so my wife’s greased-up body and oily white limbs became a lovely wax figure.”
Someone cried out rudely: “Hahahaha! What a routine, eh? How many times did you rehearse this little gig yesterday?”
“Oy, ladies and gentlemen,” the man’s tone grew suddenly loud. “Do you still not understand even after I’ve said so much? You all probably believe that my wife has run away from home. But hey, listen closely: the woman was, in fact, murdered by yours truly. There, are you shocked? Wahahahaha!”
His laughter cut off like a severed string, and in a split second the solemn expression returned to his face. He began again in a soft whisper.
“By this point, the woman has truly become my property. I no longer have to worry, not even a tiny little bit. When I want to kiss her, I can kiss her. When I want to hold her tight in my arms, I can do that as well. This was my one wish, you know … but then, if I’m not careful, things could get dangerous. Because I’m a murderer, you see. I might get found out by a policeman at any time. And so I came up with an excellent idea. A hiding place … where no policeman or detective or anyone like that would ever take notice. Here, all of you, have a look-see for yourself. This corpse is decorating my storefront quite delightfully right this moment.”
The man’s eyes landed on me. I immediately whipped my face away from his gaze. The things behind him had been sitting in front of my nose all along but had gone unnoticed until now: a white canvas awning … “drugs” … “guaranteed medicine” … a familiar round, Gothic script, and, behind the glass, a human anatomical model.5 This man was the owner of a pharmacy called “Such and Such Drugs.”
“See, I told you she’s there. Please, go on and take a closer look at my precious woman.”
What made me do it, I wonder? Before I knew it, I had gone under the awning.
A woman’s face met my eyes from behind the glass case. She was smiling sweetly, with her canine teeth showing. Under the tumorous glaze of the waxwork, her skin looked like real human flesh that had been blackened. The one piece of definitive evidence that proved this was no manmade dummy were the downy hairs that covered the entire surface of the body.
My heart sprung up to my throat. Stumbling, I fled from the awning, barely able to keep myself standing in my frenzied state. Then, taking care not to be spotted by the man, I slipped away from the crowd.
…Turning back, I saw that there was a police officer standing behind the spectators. He, like everyone else, was chuckling along heartily while listening to the man.
“What are you laughing at? Are you just going to stand here and laugh when your duty’s calling to you right in front of your face? Do you not understand what this man is saying? If you think he’s making it up, go under that awning and see for yourself! Tell me if that isn’t a human corpse being exhibited in broad daylight, in the middle of Tokyo!”
I wanted to smack that buffoon of a policeman on the shoulder and tell him all this, but I simply didn’t have the willpower to carry it out. With my head spinning, I staggered away unsteadily.
I continued on my way down that boundless, endless white road that seemed to stretch on and on and on. The shimmering haze of heat made the street poles sway like strands of seaweed.
1. Inakajima (田舎縞), a rural style of traditional clothing.
2. Mimi-kakushi (耳隠し), a hairstyle for women popular in early-1920s Japan.
3. Minanuka (三七日), 21st day after a birth or a death.
4. Adipocere (translated from shirō 屍蠟), also known as corpse wax, is a wax-like substance that forms from the body fat in corpses and prevents putrefaction.
5. “Guaranteed medicine” translated literally from uke-ai-kusuri (請合薬), a term with no other recorded literary usage.