Hisho's Birds

Chapter 8

Two days later, Eikou and his magistrates descended from the Imperial Palace and traveled to a military base in the western quarter of Shisou.

Under normal circumstances, interrogations of the imprisoned took place deep in the foundations of the outer palace. The accused was summoned there to facilities operated by the Department of Justice.

In this case, however, any attempt by Shudatsu to escape would cause an uproar. A civilian who noticed him during transport might take matters into his own hands. So upon consultation with the marshals assigned to him, they decided to visit him at the jail instead.

Convicts sentenced to penal servitude were transported to a work farm. Those consigned to hard labor on public works projects were not incarcerated in a single location but were moved to wherever they were needed. Those who had not yet been sentenced were held with regular inmates in the stockade at a military installation.

p. 159

Eikou and his colleagues proceeded to the heart of the military base. Passing through a cordon of guards and watchmen, they entered the stockade and were escorted to a room made ready for the interrogation. It was not a large room to start with, with no windows to speak of, and boasted only a sliver of a skylight high up on the walls.

Thick iron bars divided the dim interior in two. Eikou and his magistrates sat on the raised floor on one half of the room. A short time later, the prisoner was escorted in by a detachment of prison guards and soldiers.

The prisoner was Shudatsu.

A strange sensation came over Eikou. This unremarkable man is Shudatsu. Eikou knew from the reports that Shudatsu was a slender man of average height. Until that moment, he truly expected there would be something more to the man.

But there was no foreboding aura of peril about him, no particular power in his gaze, no overweening sense of achievement or ambition. To be sure, he appeared tired and bored, though not to any abnormal degree. There was nothing of the “monster” about him. Truly an “everyman.”

“This is Kashu,” said the jailer. He sat him down in a chair bolted to the floor and threaded the chain fastened to the manacles through an iron ring at his feet. Then with a bow the jailer left the room.

A pair of soldiers remained to watch over him. They stood silently a respectful distance away, their faces impassive no matter what they heard. Whatever was said in the interrogation room, they heard nothing and said nothing. It was part of the job description.

p. 160

Shudatsu kept his eyes lowered. He didn’t yank at his chains. However exhausting it must have been to sit in that position, he showed no signs of bravado or resistance.

Eikou looked at him for a long minute before opening the case file. “You have been charged with sixteen crimes. Is there anything you wish to say about these criminal proceedings?”

Shudatsu didn’t answer. He stared off into the distance.

“Anything would be fine,” Eikou said. “Surely you have some comment, some observation to make about the predicament you now find yourself in?”

He received no answer and felt at something of a loss. He asked about each of the sixteen indictments, the particulars of the charges, the motives for every crime, the circumstances surrounding every incident. But at most all he got in return was a nod of assent, or an “Ah” or “Yeah.” Nothing that came close to an explanation.

Eikou gave up. Sotsuyuu took over. Sotsuyuu said he wanted to know about Shudatsu’s state of mind. He asked about his parents, the town he grew up in, how he was raised, what kind of thoughts occupied him.

Shudatsu demonstrated no inclination to answer and simply stared off into the distance, doing a good job of pretending the rest of them didn’t exist. Though he didn’t have a choice about being dragged in there, carrying on a conversation was entirely up to him. He wasn’t about to plead for his life or present a list of demands.

p. 161

He averted his eyes, refused to make eye contact, and maintained a brazen silence.

Perhaps unable to stomach the attitude, Jokyuu spoke up. “Maybe it’s about time you rethought that attitude of yours.”

The irritation evident in his voice suggested that Shudatsu had carried on like this the last time they met. Shudatsu glanced at him. A slight smile creased his lips, closer to a display of scorn.

“Doesn’t look like you have any intention to mend your ways.” Jokyuu’s voice rose, rather like steam rising under pressure. “Among the victims you so blithely killed were a young child and a baby. You’re telling me you don’t have any regrets at all?”

Shudatsu didn’t return Jokyuu’s gaze, only muttered to himself, “Not particularly.”

“Not a speck of remorse for the atrocious acts you’ve committed?”

Shudatsu barely bothered to shrug.

“Not a single note of apology to the families of the victims. No inclination to compensate them for their loss?”

The harsh tone of Jokyuu’s voice finally drew Shudatsu cold eyes to his. “Compensate them? How?”

“That is—”

p. 162

“No apology is going to bring the dead back to life. As long as nobody’s getting reincarnated here and now, the families sure aren’t going to be giving me a pass on anything. So what’s thinking about it supposed to accomplish?”

Eikou interceded before Sotsuyuu could ask another question. “In other words, you understand that there is no recompense for what you have done. Which suggests that you understand something of the pain and suffering you’ve inflicted on the families of the victims.”

“I suppose.”

“When did you come to this realization? From the first time you committed a crime? Or only after you’d been arrested?”

“I’d say from the start.”

“What was the substance of this realization?”

A smile creased Shudatsu’s cheeks. “Even trash like me has to live. Try getting a job or a place to live once you got that tattoo on your face. A man’s got to eat. A man’s got to sleep.”

Eikou asked, “Do you think you’re trash?”

p. 163

“Isn’t that what you all think?” Shudatsu scoffed. Almost a laugh. “Human refuse. A beast without a shred of human compassion. An eyesore. Nothing that belongs in the pretty world you live in. Far from it, an obstacle, an obstruction. The rubbish of a valueless life. A mess to clean up and put out its misery. The faster the better.”

Shudatsu leaned back and stared at the sunlight streaming through the skylight overhead.

“If you want to kill me, then go right ahead. I don’t want to be stuck inside this cage either. A clean, quick death would solve everybody’s problems.”

Eikou felt a sense of loathing welling up inside him. This was a cunning man. While acknowledging his crimes, he cast himself as the victim and the rest of them as his oppressors.

“You remember Shunryou? He was the boy you killed in Shisou last summer. You strangled him for twelve sen.”

Shudatsu only nodded.

“Why did you kill him?”

“No particular reason.”

“There is never no particular reason.” Eikou pressed, “Why did you have to kill the child?”

p. 164

As if exhausted by such persistence, Shudatsu sighed. “The kid was being a pain in the ass.”

“You assaulted a child. Threatening him would have been enough. Or you simply could have taken the money from him by force.”

“Threatening him would have produced more tears and attracted more attention. If I took it from him by force, he could have run off and caused a stink.”

“So you killed and robbed him. For twelve sen.”

Shudatsu nodded.

“Why? You had money in your pocket, didn’t you? What was so important about Shunryou’s twelve sen?”

“Who said anything about it being important?”

“Then why?”

“Whatever.”

“There must be more to your actions than that. What were you were thinking when you attacked that child? Go ahead. Spell it out for me.”

Shudatsu gave Eikou a bored look. “So I spell it out for you. Then what? You don’t think I’m ever going to repent. What are you pestering me for? All I’ve done is kill a bunch of people.”

“It’s something we are duty bound to do.”

p. 165

As Enga said, Shudatsu must have reasons of his own for killing the child. Clarifying those reasons could possible point to a way of saving criminals like him. Then there was Shunryou’s father, who cried out to know why his son had to die. Eikou felt duty bound to answer at least one of their demands.

Shudatsu sighed mightily. “Well, if you had to twist my arm, because I wanted a drink.”

“With the money in your pocket, you could have drunk yourself under the table.”

“I didn’t want a drink that bad.”

Eikou stared back him, unable to grasp what the man was saying.

“What I mean is,” Shudatsu said, “I happened to be passing by and knew the kid had twelve sen on him. The mom said so. I’d just passed by a bar. The signboard out front advertised one glass for twelve sen. Right then and there I was in the mood for a drink, but not so bad I was going to fork over twelve sen. And then I stumbled across the kid with exactly twelve sen on him.”

“And?”

Bingo. That’s what I though. Exactly twelve sen. Just right.

Eikou blinked in disbelief. Jokyuu and Sotsuyuu opened their eyes wide in sheer astonishment.

p. 166

Sotsuyuu said in a flustered voice, “Sure there was more on your mind than that.

“That’s all there was,” he said calmly. “Call it back luck, then.” He could just as well been referring to a disinterested third party.

The bitter realization occurred to Eikou—the man himself possessed no powers of self-analysis. His was an unexamined life. He had no substantive awareness of his crimes and was not about to face up to his actions and gain that awareness. Calling himself “trash” was the tortoise shell he crawled inside, and he was content to stay there forever. No words were going to persuade him otherwise and no words could wound him.

Eikou tasted the gloom in the air. Their profound discomposure arose from that instinctive loathing for the murderer in their midst. Something that man completely lacked.

Separating Shudatsu and Eikou was a barrier as solid as the iron bars in front of them. Surmounting that barrier was difficult enough for Eikou and his magistrates. Shudatsu did not even intend to try. He despised them no less than they detested him.

Some men were beyond redemption.

Eikou again was ashamed to confirm that shameful though. At the same time, he had to wonder what he expected from the man. Examining his actions and the nature of his crimes, it was clear Shudatsu was never going to reform his ways. He seethed and he loathed. And like Keishi, refusing to reform was for him some sort of revenge against the world.

p. 167

Reading through the voluminous case files, that conclusion was now more apparent than ever. Nevertheless, he and his magistrates had to meet Shudatsu in person to ascertain for themselves whether he could turn over a new leaf. This was their last thread of hope.

Sotsuyuu said under his breath, “We’ve dismissed any issues related to age and mental competency. Neither are there any grounds for arguing negligence or the weight of popular opinion.”

As a rule, the clemency magistrate did not state his conclusions in front of the defendant. Regardless—

Sotsuyuu said, as if spitting out a bitter pill, “I can make no case for mitigating circumstances.” Speaking those words aloud, he might have hoped to wound Shudatsu.

Jokyuu nodded. The expression on his face was no less contemptuous. “Considering the nature of the offense, I rule for a sentence of death.”

“The clemency magistrate concurs,” said Sotsuyuu.

The sentencing and clemency magistrates agreed. It was left to Eikou to hand down a decision.

Shudatsu glared back at them, the contempt shining in his eyes. He showed not the slightest fear in the face of those who would decide his fate.

“So you’re going to kill me, eh?” he said with scornful smile.

In the final analysis, there was no forgiving what he had done. That’s what they were saying. He was a monster blind to the consequences of his own acts, possessed of no empathy for those he had harmed. A living, walking eyesore. So go ahead and die. Isn’t that what it all came down to?

p. 168

Eikou took a deep breath. “Shudatsu’s crimes are clear. His reasons for committing them incomprehensible. However, we cannot say that we must kill him because we cannot comprehend what he has done. The death penalty cannot be used in such a rough fashion. I understand the profound sense of unease that must arise from the desires of the bereaved for retribution, from the outrage of the people, from the existence of criminals among them whose actions surpasses human understanding. But the penal system should not operate in those realms.”

Sotsuyuu let his gaze fall as he almost seemed to flinch.

“Though his Highness has declared a stay on executions, this is because commuting prison sentences is the ideal to which the kingdom aspires. Getting swept away by personal feelings about what is unforgiveable and applying the death penalty in frivolous ways would establish a dangerous precedent. Given the current state of affairs, there is always the fear that a restoration of capital punishment would lead to its overuse. In that case, the Department of Justice has the responsibility of reining it in. However, if we establish a precedent according to our subjective emotions, and the deteriorating state of affairs compels its excessive use, we have reason to doubt that, in the end, it could be suitably restrained.”

Eikou lowered his voice before continuing.

“Nonetheless, in the final analysis, I believe a fear of the gallows forces us to recoil at the thought of murder. Just as it is not illogical to see an execution as a homicide, it is not illogical to see our abhorrence of murder in terms of our own deaths.”

Which was why Eikou and his magistrates wanted to meet Shudatsu. If the possibility of reform resided within him, they would have taken the death penalty off the table.

p. 169

“In either case, we find ourselves closer to instinct than reason. My person feelings are nothing more than what they are, but these primal responses together form two halves of the whole, creating the root and branch of the law. As it states in the Divine Decrees: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not oppress the people. And yet that is probably why capital punishment can be found in the penal code.”

No less nonplussed himself, Jokyuu nodded.

“To start with, the penal code itself if replete with contradictions. Telling us not to kill, on the one hand, while commanding us to on the other. The sentencing magistrate numbers the crimes on the one hand, and the clemency magistrate reduces them on the other. The penal code stands on less firm ground than ever. When we stop and think about it, that seems to be the very intent of the Divine Providence handed down by Heaven. Wavering back and forth between the two, we must seek the most suitable common ground in each individual case.”

“Heaven—” Sotsuyuu muttered.

We have concluded that we cannot apply any one principle to the suspension of the death penalty or to its reinstitution. The importance of our reactions to the embrace of capital punishment and to the fear of capital punishment will not change. All that remains is whether Shudatsu himself possesses the will to change. However—”

Eikou’s voice trailed off.

p. 170

Shudatsu abruptly spoke up. “I ain’t repenting of nothing.”

With a start, Eikou raised his gaze. Shudatsu’s scowling face rose into view. The prisoner’s face was painted with derision. A dark smile twisted his lips.

“That’s one thing that’s never gonna happen.”

Eikou nodded. “I see. How regrettable.” He turned to his magistrates. “The death penalty thus becomes unavoidable.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth but Shudatsu roared with laughter. The laughter of the victor. At the same time, a futile feeling of defeat seeped into the cell.

This being was completely out of harmony with existence—by erasing it in its entirely they could hope to accept the unacceptable. By severing Shudatsu from their midst, they were attempting to restore order to the world.

As if being handed a defeat, Eikou and his magistrates hung their heads. Crimson light filled the room. The searing rays of the setting sun slanted through the skylight. The shadows cast by the iron bars cut the room in half like a knife.

It seemed a sort of omen.

They rejected Shudatsu’s existence, removed him from the equation. Those stark incompatibilities gone, the world momentarily righted itself. But this was only the beginning. The kingdom was in decline. The same way a deteriorating kingdom spawned swarms of youma, do did society split apart in strange and sundry ways.

The seams were unraveling out of sight. With nothing and no one to blame directly, the people would increasingly turn on everything and everyone. And so the collapse would continue, both of the kingdom and its subjects.

His head still lowered, Eikou got to his feet. Jokyuu and Sotsuyuu followed suit. The laughing prisoner remained there behind the bars. Eyes downcast to avoid the sight of him, with heavy and plodding feet, they left the room.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.