This translation © 2017 Van C. Gessel. May not be quoted in any form without written permission from the translator.
The interpreter visited him again the following day. “Well? Have you thought it over?”
This time he didn’t speak like a cat toying with its prey. With a stern face he said, “Sawano is right, you know. You’d be better off not persisting in this pointless obstinacy. We’re not saying you actually have to mean it when you apostatize. It’s just for appearances—can’t you just say for the sake of appearances that you’ve abandoned your faith? If you do, we’ll certainly treat you well.”
The priest remained silent, staring at a single spot on the wall. The interpreter’s chatter passed through his ears without leaving a trace, more as meaningless babble than as something that might provoke him.
“Listen. Please don’t cause us any more trouble. I’m asking you in all sincerity. To be frank with you, this is hard for me, too.”
“Why haven’t you hung me in the pit?”
“The magistrate insists that I keep trying to persuade you, using reason if at all possible.”
With both hands resting on his knees, the priest shook his head in a childlike manner. The interpreter heaved a deep sigh and said nothing for quite some time. They could hear the flapping wings of a fly as it darted about.
“I see….Then you leave us no choice.”
Still seated on the floor, the priest heard the dull clang of the lock being shot. The blunt sound made it patently clear that all discussion had ended.
He had no idea how much torture he could endure. But for some reason, the tortures that had seemed so terrifying to him as he had wandered through the mountains did not seem real now to his debilitated mind and body. Everything now felt merely lifeless. At this point he felt as though a quick death was the only way he could escape from this endless, painful burden. He was weary of life, of struggling with God and with his faith. Inwardly he hoped that the exhaustion in his body and mind would grant the swift deliverance of death. Like a phantom, the image of Garrpe’s head sinking into the ocean floated before his eyes. He envied his compatriot. He envied Garrpe, who had now been delivered from all this torment.
As he anticipated, he was brought no breakfast the following morning. Near midday the lock to his cell was opened, and a large man he had never seen before, naked to the waist, jerked his chin and ordered: “Come out!”
The moment he stepped out of the cell, the man swiftly tied the priest’s hands behind his back. The rope dug mercilessly into his wrists, so tight that if he moved his body even slightly, a groan would erupt through his clenched teeth. As the large man tightened the rope, he spewed out curses the priest could not understand. A feeling shot through the priest that the end had finally come, but strangely enough that impression produced a clear and fresh excitement he had not felt to this point.
He was dragged outside. In the sunlit courtyard, three officers, four guards, and the interpreter sat in a row, facing him. The priest beamed a triumphant smile toward them—most particularly toward the interpreter. He was still smiling when it occurred to him that men cannot escape vanity no matter what situation they find themselves in. He was pleased that he still had sufficient composure to realize such things.
The large man effortlessly picked up the priest and sat him on an unsaddled horse. The beast more closely resembled an unkempt, emaciated ass than it did a horse. The animal lurched forward, with the officers, the guards, and the interpreter following on foot.
A crowd of Japanese was already waiting along the roadside for the procession to pass, and the priest smiled down at them from the back of the horse. An old man with his mouth agape in surprise. Children gnawing on melons. Women who looked up at him with idiotic grins but who suddenly shrank back in fright when his eyes met theirs. The sunlight cast varied shadows on each of those Japanese faces; suddenly a brownish clod struck his ear. Someone had hurled horse manure at him.
The priest had resolved that he would not let the smile fade from his lips. He was passing now through the streets of Nagasaki, riding on an ass. Just as that Man had entered Jerusalem on the back of an ass. It was that Man who had taught him that the noblest of all human expressions was a face that displayed the ability to endure humiliation and scorn. Now more than ever he wanted to maintain this expression up to the very end. This face, he thought, was the true face of a Christian among the heathen.
A group of Buddhist priests, enmity clearly etched on their faces, had gathered beneath the branches of a tall camphor tree, and when the ass carrying the priest approached, they menacingly raised sticks above their heads. The priest cautiously scanned the faces of the people lining either side of the road, hoping to identify a look that might indicate a Christian, but he saw none. Each face showed antipathy or hatred or even simple curiosity. But then, among them the priest discovered a pair of eyes pleading like a dog for pity, and he instinctively twisted his body in that direction. It was Kichijirō.
Kichijirō, his body wrapped in tatters, stood in the front row of spectators as the procession made its way past. When his eyes met those of the priest, he quickly lowered them and scrambled to hide himself in the crowd. As the priest looked down from his position atop the staggering ass, he knew that this man would follow him wherever he might go. This was the only man he knew among all these heathen.
It’s all right. It’s okay. I’m no longer angry with you. And the Lord is not angry with you, either.
The priest nodded his head toward Kichijirō, the same kind of nod he gave when he consoled a believer after confession.
According to the historical records, the priest’s procession on that day advanced from Hakata-machi through Katsuyama-machi and then to Gotď -machi. Once a missionary was apprehended, the magistrate’s office made it a practice to drag their prisoner as a spectacle through the streets of Nagasaki on the day before their execution. The processions always traversed the old section of the city, known as Nagasaki Uchi-machi, where homes were plentiful and the foot traffic incessant. It was customary for the executions to be held on the day following the procession.
When the port of Nagasaki was first opened by the daimyo Ďmura Sumitada, immigrants from the Gotď Islands banded together and built their homes in a region that came to be called Gotď -machi which had a panoramic view of Nagasaki Bay shimmering in the afternoon sun. Once the processions of captive priests reached this spot, the crowds who tailed after them jostled and shoved, just as they would when they attended a festival, to catch a glimpse of the strange-looking foreigners who were tied up and hoisted onto bareback horses. Each time the priest tried to shift the position of his trussed body, the sneers of the onlookers grew increasingly unkind.
Even though he tried to smile back at them, his face had frozen stiff. All he could do now was close his eyes and make every effort not to look into the sneering faces, the faces with bared teeth. Had that Man smiled gently when He heard the same kinds of shouts and angry bellows from the multitude that surrounded Pilate’s residence? The priest doubted that even He could have done that. “Hoc Passionis tempore, Now, in the mournful Passion time…” The words of the prayer at first spilled like gravel from the priest’s lips, but for a few moments he could not utter the remainder of the stanza. Finally he forced himself to mutter the subsequent words, “Reisque dele crimna, Every sinner’s crimes efface.” He was no longer bothered by the pain of the rope that dug into his wrists each time he moved his body; what tormented him was the fact that, unlike that Man, he could not feel love toward the multitude who railed at him.
“So, padre, how does it feel? No one is coming to your aid.” At some point the interpreter had started walking alongside his horse, and he shouted the words as he gazed up at the priest. “Every voice is mocking you, whether to your right or your left. You seem to think that you came to our country on their behalf, but not one of them needs you. You’re an utterly useless man!”
“Perhaps some among them,” with bloodshot eyes the priest glared down at the interpreter and shouted from atop the horse, “are quietly offering prayers.”
“How can you say that at a time like this? Listen to me. Years ago here in Nagasaki there were some 20,000 Christians in eleven churches. Where are they hiding now? Surely there are some among this crowd who were once Christian, but now they revile you to prove to everyone around them that they are no longer Christians.”
“Whatever humiliation you may heap on me, all it does is strengthen my resolve…”
“Tonight…” With a smile, the interpreter whacked the haunches of the horse with the flat of his hand. “Pay attention! Tonight you will abandon your faith. Lord Inoue was very clear about that. And when Lord Inoue is the one persuading the padres to fall, not once has he been wrong in his prediction. That was the case with Sawano…and now with you….”
The interpreter slowly walked away, both his hands clenched confidently. The only part of his words that hovered audibly in the priest’s ears were “That was the case with Sawano.” From horseback the priest shook his body to drive the words away.
A large thundercloud, its edges rimmed with gold, drifted across the bay that gleamed in the afternoon light. The cloud looked white and enormous, like a palace in the sky. Of all the countless thunderclouds the priest had seen, he had never experienced the emotions he felt as he looked now at this one. For the first time he realized how beautiful was the hymn the Japanese Christians had sung in former days: “Let us go, let us go, let us go to the temple of Paraíso. Though the temple of Paraíso isfar…” The only irreplaceable support left for him was the knowledge that that Man had tasted the same terror that was now causing him to tremble. The joy of realizing that he was not alone. In this same ocean, the two Japanese peasants who had been lashed to stakes had, after a full day of suffering, “gone to that distant temple of Paraíso.” The delight of joining them and Garrpe, and also that Man on the cross, suddenly rippled through the priest’s breast. The image of that Man’s face, more alive than it had ever been for him before, pressed in upon him. The suffering Christ, the enduring Christ. He prayed fervently that his own face could draw ever closer to the face of that Man.
With raised whips the officers on either side of the horse drove a portion of the multitude back. The people who had swarmed around like flies fell obediently silent, watching with uneasy eyes as the procession moved away. The afternoon drew to its close, fading into the light of dusk, which flickered on the red roof of a large temple on the left-hand side of the sloping path. The hills he could see just beyond the village stood out even more vividly than before. Once again, horse dung and pebbles were hurled at him and struck his cheeks.
Walking beside the horse, the interpreter repeatedly remonstrated with him. “Listen to me, I won’t steer you wrong. Just say the words, ‘I apostatize.’ Please! This horse isn’t going to take you back to your cell.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“The magistrate’s office. I don’t want to cause you pain. Please, take my word for this. Won’t you just say the words, ‘I apostatize’?”
The priest sat atop the horse, biting his lip and saying nothing. Blood oozing from his cheeks trickled down to his chin. The interpreter hung his head and walked drearily ahead, one hand resting on the horse’s flank.
With a push from behind, he stumbled into the pitch-dark enclosure, and at once a foul stench struck his nostrils. It was the smell of urine. The floor was completely soaked in urine, and he stood motionless until he could stifle his feelings of nausea. Eventually he was somehow able to distinguish between walls and floor in the darkness, and with his hand pressed against one wall he took a step or two forward, but he immediately ran into the opposite wall. He tried measuring the size of his enclosure by stretching out both arms: his fingers touched the walls on either side.
He tried to listen for sounds, but he could hear no voices. He couldn’t tell what part of the magistrate’s compound he might be in. Since he could hear no sounds, he concluded that no one was nearby. The walls were made from timbers, and when he reached up his hand to touch them, his fingertips felt some sort of deep crevices in the wood. At first he thought they were joints where the planks of lumber met, but he reconsidered after he thought he could sense some pattern to them. As he felt the crevices more carefully, he identified the letter L. That was followed by the letter A. LAUDATE EUM, it read. He felt all around the words with his palms like a blind man, but his fingers found nothing other than those characters. No doubt some other missionary had been cast into this cell, and for the benefit of those who would follow him, he had carved the Latin words for “Praise to the Lord” into the wall. He was certain that the previous missionary had never abandoned his beliefs while he was imprisoned here, that his faith had continued to burn fervently. Left alone in the darkness, that realization suddenly moved the priest to the verge of tears. He sensed that in some manner or other he would be protected to the very end.
It was the middle of the night, but he had no idea exactly what time it was. After he had been paraded through the streets, he was brought to the magistrate’s office, where for many hours he was repeatedly pelted with the same sorts of questions as always by the interpreter and an official he had never seen before. Where did you come from? Where is the headquarters of your order? How many missionaries were there in Macao? Yet they did not press him to apostatize. Even the interpreter’s manner had changed completely, and in a matter-of-fact manner and with an expressionless face he translated the words of the official. A scribe recorded the interrogation on a large sheet of paper. When the pointless inquiry was finished, the priest was brought to this cell.
LAUDATE EUM: Pressing his face against the wall, he conjured up in his mind, as he so often did, the face of that Man. Just as a youth on a long journey imagines the face of a dear friend, the priest tried to picture the face of Christ whenever he felt alone. Since his capture, the image of that Man’s face had been seared into the backs of his eyelids, most especially on that night in the prison when, from a different kind of yearning, he heard the chafing together of the leaves on the trees in the grove. Even here in the darkness that face was beside him, not uttering a word, but looking at him with eyes filled with tenderness. (When you are suffering…) It almost seemed as though that face was speaking to him (I, too, suffer beside you. I will be with you until the end.)
As he thought of this face, he also recalled the face of Garrpe. (Soon I’ll be with Garppe again.) Sometimes, at night, he dreamed of that dark head, floating in the ocean as he swam after the tiny boat. After each such dream, the priest felt unbearably ashamed that he had abandoned the Japanese Christians. When he could no longer endure the guilt, he tried to avoid thinking about Garrpe.
He heard some kind of voices in the distance. They were howling voices, like two fighting dogs, but each time he tried to make out what they might be, the voices fell silent; then, a short time later, they would resume their droning for a long while. The priest gave a soft chuckle. He realized it was the sounds of someone snoring.
One of the guards has had too much to drink and is sleeping like a log!
The snoring continued for a time, then broke off; it was alternately loud and soft, and at times it sounded like an out-of-tune whistle. It struck him as somehow hilarious that, while he sat in this darkened enclosure, his emotions in a knot as death stared him in the face, some other person was able to snore away without a care in the world. Why is life so full of these ironies? He softly sighed.
That interpreter was so certain that I’d apostatize tonight, but if he knew how at ease I feel in my heart…
With that thought, the priest drew his face away from the wall as a smile spread across it. He could almost see the carefree face of the snoring guard.
With snoring that serene, it wouldn’t even cross his mind that I might try to escape.
He had not the slightest desire to flee his captors, but just to take his mind off his circumstances, he pushed against the cell door with both hands. It was bolted solidly from the outside and did not budge.
In his head he knew that death was pressing in on him, but strangely that knowledge was not accompanied by any sense of its emotional reality.
Yes, death truly was close at hand. When the snoring ceased, the ominous silence of the night surrounded the priest from all sides. The silence of the night didn’t mean that there were no faint sounds. Like a wind blowing through the trees, the darkness suddenly carried the fear of death into his heart. He clenched both his fists and cried out in a loud voice. As he did so, the fear subsided like the ebbing tide. Then it came surging in again. He tried earnestly to pray to God, but the only image that came in scattered fragments into his mind was the twisted face of that Man as His blood fell like drops of sweat. It brought the priest no consolation whatsoever to think that that Man had surely tasted the fear of death just as he did now. Wiping his brow with his hand, he tried to divert his thoughts by pacing around the narrow cell. He had to keep moving.
Eventually he heard a human voice in the distance. Even if it had come from a guard who was about to begin the tortures, that would still be preferable to this darkness as cold as a knife blade. The priest hurriedly pressed his ear against the door so that he could hear the voice a bit more distinctly.
The voice seemed to be reproaching another person. A second, a voice of pleading, rose in response. Two men appeared to be arguing far down the corridor, but then they moved closer to his cell. As he listened to these voices, the priest for some reason thought of something totally unrelated. It was such foolishness: The reason that the darkness frightens people, he thought, is because we have inherited the instinctive fears of primitive man before they had any means of illumination.
“You don’t have to say that! Get out of here right now!” One man was scolding another. “Listen—calm down!!”
The other man shouted through his tears, “I’m a Kirishitan! Let me see the padre!”
The priest recognized that voice. It was the voice of Kichijirō: “Let me see the padre!”
“Shut up! If you don’t calm down, I’ll give you a beating!”
“Beat me, please! Beat me!”
The voices twined together like cords, then were joined by yet another man’s voice. “Who the hell is this?!”
“He’s a madman. A beggar who’s been coming here since yesterday. Claims he’s a Kirishitan.”
Kichijirō’s voice suddenly echoed loudly through the corridor. “Padre! Forgive me! After I turned you in, I followed you here to ask you to hear my confisãn. Forgive me!”
“What are you saying? Just calm down!”
Kichijirō was slapped by the prison guard, and a crack like the snapping of a tree limb sounded through the hall.
“Padre! Forgive me!”
The priest closed his eyes and began to intone the Sacrament of Penance. There was a bitter taste on the tip of his tongue.
“I was born a weakling! A weak-willed man can’t become a martyr! What am I to do? Oh, why…why was I born into a world like this?”
The voice halted like a break in the wind, then faded off into the distance. The priest suddenly recalled the image of Kichijirō when he returned to Gotō as a hero of the faithful. Surely if this were not an age of persecution, such a man could have lived out his life as a cheerful, happy-go-lucky Kirishitan. “Into a world like this…Into a world like this…” The priest jabbed his fingers into his ears in an effort to block out the memory of that doglike howl.
Just now I uttered the prayer of forgiveness for Kichijirō, but I don’t think the prayer came from the depths of my heart. He had chanted the prayer because it was his duty as a priest. That’s why it still clung to the tip of his tongue like the aftertaste from a bitter morsel of food. Though he no longer bore any malice toward Kichijirō, the smell of the dried fish the man had fed him in the course of betraying him and the recollection of the scorching thirst he had suffered were graven deeply into his memory. He harbored no feelings of anger or hatred, but he could not rid himself of contempt toward the man. Once again he pondered the scornful words that Christ had spoken to Judas.
They were the very words that for years had baffled him every time he read them in the Bible. And it wasn’t just those words; to be honest, he never felt that he could really understand what role Judas had played in that Man’s life. Why had that Man included among His disciples one who would eventually betray Him? Even though He would have been fully aware of Judas’s true intentions, why did He feign ignorance of them for so long? It almost seemed as though Judas was a puppet manipulated so that Man could hang on the cross.
And besides…if that Man was the epitome of Love, why did He ultimately cast Judas away? Why did He leave Judas to hang himself in the field of blood and sink into eternal darkness?
When he was at the Seminary, and even after he had been ordained a priest, such questions had floated to the surface of his consciousness like turbid water bubbles that rise up in a swamp. Each time that had happened, he had fought to avoid the conclusion that those bubbles were casting dark shadows over his faith. Now, however, the thoughts came rushing in on him with a persuasive force that he could not withstand.
The priest shook his head and sighed. The hour of final judgment was upon him. A man cannot comprehend all of the mysteries recorded in the Bible. But the priest wanted to know. He wanted to understand completely. “Tonight you will most certainly apostatize,” the interpreter had declared confidently. Almost in the same way that Man had said to Peter, “This night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” But there were still many hours before the dawn; it was not yet time for the cock to crow.
Ah, I can hear the snoring again! It sounded like a pinwheel being spun by a breeze. The priest sat down on the urine-soaked floor and laughed like an imbecile. How peculiar humans are! That idiotic snoring, like moans that rise and fall in volume…The ignorant do not fear death. They can sleep like swine, snoring with their mouths hanging open. He could almost see the face of the slumbering guard. The man’s face would be flushed from excessive drinking and fleshy from much eating—the very picture of good health; and yet how brutal he would appear to his victims. No doubt this guard’s brutality was not of the polished sort but the kind of cruelty that men of the lower classes exhibited toward domestic animals and pets that they regarded as their inferiors. He had seen such men in the countryside of Portugal. It was unlikely that this guard would give any thought at all to the pain that his actions would soon inflict upon others. It was just this sort of men who had slaughtered that Man—that Man who was the crystallization of everything that was most beautiful and good in the dreams of humanity.
He felt a sudden anger toward these vulgar, discordant noises that were disturbing him on this most important night of his life. The priest began to feel that these noises were making a mockery of his life, and he stopped laughing and began to pound on the wall with his fists. The guard did not awaken, just as that Man’s disciples had slumbered, completely indifferent to the agony that He was undergoing in the garden of Gethsemane. The priest began hammering the wall even more violently.
He heard a lock being turned. Someone was scurrying down the long corridor toward his cell.
“What’s wrong? What’s the matter, padre?”
It was the interpreter. In a voice like that of a cat toying with its prey, he said, “No doubt you’ve grown afraid. So, come now, no more need for stubbornness. If you just speak the words ‘I apostatize,’ everything will become comfortable for you. You’ll be released from all the strain in your mind, and you’ll relax…just relax…relax.”
“It’s that snoring I can’t bear!” the priest cried in the darkness.
The interpreter fell silent, as though he had been taken by surprise. Then he said, “He called it snoring. Did you hear that, Lord Sawano? The padre called it snoring!”
The priest had not realized that Ferreira stood behind the interpreter.
“Lord Sawano, you should tell him what it really is.”
After a pause, the voice of Ferreira, which he had listened to every day in the distant past, said softly and sadly, “That isn’t snoring. It’s the moans of the Kirishitans being tortured in the pit.”
Like an aging beast, Ferreira crouched motionless outside the priest’s cell. The interpreter, as he had done so often before, pressed his ear against the tightly bolted door, trying to determine what was happening inside the cell. When he realized there would be no response no matter how long he waited, he clucked his tongue and muttered in an anxious, raspy voice, “Don’t tell me he’s died! But no, no. Kirishitans aren’t allowed to put an end to the life that they have received from their Deus. Lord Sawano, the rest is up to you.”
The interpreter turned and disappeared into the darkness, his feet padding on the floor. Even after the sound of his footsteps faded away, Ferreira remained silent, crouched down without moving. His body seemed to float up in the dark like a ghost. It looked as thin as paper and as tiny as a child. So small that perhaps the priest could hold it in the palm of his hand.
“Rodrigues?” He put his mouth by the door. “Rodrigues, can you hear me?”
There was no response, so he repeated the same words. Then he said, “Somewhere on that wall…there should be some letters I carved. Unless the letters have been scratched out, it says LAUDATE EUM. The wall to your right…about in the middle. Can you feel them?”
There was no response from inside the cell. It was as though an impenetrable, inky darkness had gathered in the space where the priest was confined.
“I was…in there…the same as you,” Ferreira stammered, pausing after each phrase. “I was locked up in there…the same as you, and that night was colder and darker than any night I had ever experienced.”
The priest listened distractedly to the old man’s confession, his head pressed firmly against the planks of the wall. He knew full well how dark that night was without needing the old man to tell him. He was most concerned that he not succumb to Ferreira’s enticements—the enticements of this man who was trying to gain the priest’s sympathy by stressing that he, too, had been locked up in this dark space.
“I heard their cries, too. The groans of the people who had been suspended over the pit.”
No sooner had Ferreira finished speaking than the priest once again heard the rise and fall of those voices that sounded like snoring. No—the priest was now fully aware that those were not the sounds of snoring but the moaning voice of someone hanging upside down over the pit, exhausted and barely able to breathe.
While I’ve been crouching here in the dark, someone has been dangling out there, moaning, with blood oozing from his nose and mouth. I had no idea; instead of praying for him, I laughed at him. With that thought, the priest lost all his mental bearings. Those sounds struck me as funny, and I laughed out loud at them. And arrogantly enough, I believed that I was the only one here tonight suffering as that Man did. But there is another very nearby who is suffering far more than I for His sake.
“This is absurd!” A voice not his own muttered incessantly inside his head. “And you can still call yourself a priest? A priest whose duty it is to take upon himself the sufferings of others?” O Lord, why do you still mock me even in this moment?! He wanted to shout out to the heavens.
“LAUDATE EUM: Praise to the Lord. I carved those words into that wall,” Ferreira repeated. “Can you find them? Look for them.”
“I’ve seen them!” Spurred by anger, the priest finally shouted. “Shut your mouth! You have no right to speak those words!”
“I have no right. I certainly have no right. As I listened through the night to those voices, I lost all capacity to praise the Lord. The reason I ultimately fell is not because I was hung over the pit. For three full days…I hung upside down over that pit filled with excrement, but I never uttered a word against God!” Ferreira’s cry was more like a howl. “The reason I fell…are you listening? Pay attention! I fell because after I was put back into this cell, God did nothing to help those whose groaning voices I could hear. I prayed to Him with all my might, but God did nothing. That’s why I fell!”
“Go ahead and pray. Right now those Kirishitans are suffering pain so unbearable that you will never be able to understand it. They were there yesterday. They’re still there. Even at this very moment. Why do they have to suffer so much? And you can’t do a thing for them. And God isn’t doing anything for them, is He?”
The priest stopped up both his ears with his fingers and shook his head like a madman. But Ferreira’s voice and the moans of the faithful relentlessly pounded against his ears. Stop it! Stop it! Lord, you must break your silence now!! You must say something to prove to this world and its people that you are righteous, that you are good, that you are a being of love, and to declare to them that you are absolute!
A great shadow passed across his heart, like the shadow cast by the wings of a bird as it skirted by the mast of a ship. The wings of the bird transported him back into a series of memories, including one death after another among the faithful Kirishitans. At those times, God had been silent. He had been silent beside the ocean where a misty rain was falling. He uttered not a word in the courtyard as the rays of the sun beat directly down when the one-eyed man was slaughtered. The priest had still been able to endure the silence through those trials. No, not endure; he had done everything he could to push these fearsome doubts far from him and avoid thinking about them. But it was different now. These groaning voices were demanding to know why God was always silent.
“Right now in the courtyard,” Ferreira mumbled sadly, “three pathetic farmers are hanging upside down. Every one of them was strung up after you came here.”
The old man was telling the truth. When the priest strained his ears to listen, the groans he had thought emerged from one source now suddenly split into separate voices. It wasn’t one voice that cried out loudly, then softly; the soft voice and the loud voice were jumbled together, but they were coming from different positions.
“The night I was sent here, five men were hung over the pit. Those five voices blended together and were carried to my ears on the wind. And here’s what the officer told me. He said that if I would apostatize, those men would be immediately pulled out of the pit, their bonds would be loosed, and they would be given salve for their wounds. ‘Why don’t they apostatize?’ I asked. He laughed and explained that they had declared their apostasy time and time again. But he stressed that they would not save the peasants until I apostatized.”
“You…” The priest whimpered, “You should have prayed for them.”
“Oh, I prayed for them. I kept on praying for them. But my prayers did nothing to relieve their agony. The officers had drilled tiny holes behind the ears of those men. Blood trickled slowly from their wounds and from their noses and mouths. I know how painful that is, because I suffered it in my own body. Prayers cannot relieve such agony.”
The priest remembered. He remembered clearly that when he had first met Ferreira at the Saishōji, he had seen a quivering scar like a scorch wound on the temple of his former mentor. Even the brownish color of that wound still flickered on the backs of his eyelids. He pounded his head repeatedly against the wall to drive the image from his mind.
“Those men will receive eternal joy to compensate for their sufferings here on earth.”
“Don’t try to rationalize this away,” Ferreira responded softly. “Don’t attempt to conceal your own weakness with flowery words.”
“My weakness?” The priest shook his head, but he had lost confidence. “No, you’re wrong. I believe that those men will be saved!”
“I’m quite sure you consider yourself more important than those men. At least your own salvation is very important to you, isn’t it? If you renounce your faith, those people will be taken out of the pit. But you won’t even consider apostasy. You’re afraid to betray the church in order to rescue them. You fear becoming a stain on the church as I have.” Ferreira spat the words out angrily, but his voice grew gradually weaker. “It was the same with me. On that dark, cold night, I was in the same situation as you are now. But…is what you’re doing an act of love? Priests claim that they are trying to live as Christ did. If Christ were here now…” Ferreira fell silent for a moment, but he quickly added with clarity and force, “I am sure that Christ would have apostatized for them.”
Night gradually began to break. In this enclosure, where until now the darkness had congealed, a faint white light started dimly to appear.
“Christ would surely have apostatized for others.”
“That’s impossible!” The priest buried his face in his hands and cried in a strained voice between his fingers. “It’s not possible!”
“Christ would have apostatized. In the name of love. Even if it meant sacrificing His all.”
“Torture me no further! Go away! Go far, far away!!” The priest sobbed loudly. With a dull rattle the lock was unfastened and the door opened. The white light of dawn poured through the open door.
“Come.” Ferreira gently placed his hand on the priest’s shoulder. “You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.”
Staggering, the priest dragged his feet forward. Ferreira pushed him from behind as he put one foot ahead of the other as though he were wearing heavy leaden fetters. In the pale light of dawn, the corridor down which he walked seemed to stretch straight ahead of him without any end. Ahead of him, the officers and the interpreter stood like three black figurines.
“Lord Sawano, is it finished? I see. Then we can prepare the fumie? No, we can notify the magistrate’s office later.”
The interpreter placed a box he was cradling in both arms on the floor and opened the lid, taking a large wooden plank from inside.
“Remember, you will now perform the greatest act of love that has ever been performed…” Ferreira tantalizingly repeated the words in the priest’s ear. “The clergy of the church will certainly condemn you for this. You’ll be cast out from their midst in the same manner that they scorned me. But there is something greater than the church, greater than our missionary labors. It’s what you’re about to do…”
The fumie was now at his feet. Inlaid in the dirty gray plank of wood, its grains rippling like tiny waves, was a crude copper medallion. It bore the unsightly face of Christ, His spindly arms outstretched and a crown of thorns circling His head. With turbid yellow eyes, the priest looked down at this depiction of that Man’s face that he had not encountered until he arrived in this country.
“Come now,” said Ferreira. “Take courage!”
O Lord. For such a long, long time, so frequently I could not begin to count how often, I have imagined your face. I’ve pictured it dozens of times, with even greater urgency, since I came to Japan. When I was hiding out in the mountains near Tomogi, when I crossed the sea in a tiny boat, when I wandered through the hills, and that night in the prison. Each time I prayed, I thought of your face as you prayed; when I felt alone, I imagined your face as you gave a blessing; on the day I was captured, I thought of how your face must have looked as you carried the cross. Your face was inscribed deep within my soul and lived within my heart as the most beautiful thing, the noblest thing in all this world. And now, I am about to lift this foot and trample on that face.
The feeble light of daybreak. The rays of light fell on the priest’s bare, rooster-thin neck and his jutting collarbone. The priest lifted up the fumie and brought it up to his face. He wanted to press his own face against this face that had been ground under the feet of so many. The face of the man in the fumie had been worn down by all the feet that had trodden upon it, and that hollowed-out face looked up at the priest with sorrowing eyes. It looked as though a single tear was about to trickle from one of those eyes.
“Ah!” The priest shuddered. “This is so painful!”
“It’s only a formality. What difference does it make if you just go through the motions?” The interpreter was agitated and eager to have this over with. “You can just step on it as a formality.”
The priest raised his foot. A dull, heavy pain surged through that foot. This was no mere formality. He was now going to tread upon what he had considered the most beautiful thing in his life, what he had believed to be of the greatest purity, what had fulfilled the loftiest ideals and dreams of mankind. Oh, how painful his foot felt! At that moment, the man in the brass engraving spoke to the priest: “It’s all right to trample. Go ahead and step on me. I know better than anyone else how your foot aches. It’s all right to trample. I was born into this world to be trampled upon by you and by all of mankind; I bore my cross so that I could share in your pain.”
When the priest placed his foot on the fumie, dawn broke. Far in the distance a cock crowed.