Demons 悪魔

A short story about a demon by literary legend Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Translated by Richard Medhurst.

By Akutagawa Ryunosuke
Translated by Richard Medhurst

Padre Organtino’s eyes could discern things invisible to others. It was said that in particular, he could plainly observe the forms of demons that came up from hell to tempt people. Anyone who had seen his blue eyes believed this to be true. It was an indisputable fact, at least among the Christians who went to worship Deus at the foreign temple.

An old manuscript says that Organtino described the appearance of demons he saw in the streets of Kyoto to the great warlord Oda Nobunaga. They were strange little creatures with human faces, bats’ wings, and goats’ legs. Organtino told of how he had seen them many times, either clapping their hands and cavorting on the ringed shafts at the top of pagodas or crouching in fear of the sunlight under four-legged gates. And that is not all. He also said he had seen demons clinging to the back of Buddhist priests from the mountain or hanging from the hair of court ladies.

But of Organtino’s various demons, the most interesting for us must be the one he observed sitting cross-legged on the palanquin of a certain noblewoman. The author of the old manuscript interpreted this tale as an allegory by Organtino… One day Nobunaga fell in love with the noblewoman and tried to bend her to his will. However, neither the lady nor her parents were inclined to let him have his way. Then, for the sake of the lady, Organtino borrowed the words of a demon to chastise Nobunaga for his unruly behaviour… Of course, it is difficult today to decide whether the writer’s interpretation is correct or not. At the same time, that doesn’t really matter to us.

One evening, outside the gate of the temple used for teaching the Christian faith, Organtino laid eyes on a demon sitting on the lady’s palanquin. But unlike the other demons, this one had a face as beautiful as a jewel. And from its folded arms and bowed head, it seemed to be deeply agonising over some matter.

Organtino feared for the noblewoman’s safety. For the lady, who was as devout a Catholic as her parents, to be possessed by a demon would be very serious indeed. So the padre approached the side of the palanquin and, through the power of the cross, captured the demon with ease. Then he carried it by the scruff of the neck into the inner sanctuary of the temple.

In the sanctuary, candles smouldered in front of an image of the Lord Jesus Christ. Organtino made the demon sit down there and questioned it closely on why it had been up on the lady’s palanquin.

“I thought that I would corrupt the woman. But at the same time, I didn’t want to corrupt her. On seeing that pure soul, why would anyone have the urge to sully it in the fires of hell? I wished to make it all the more pure and without blemish. And yet, as I continued to think on that, ultimately the desire to ruin her also rose within me. Caught between those two inclinations, I was puzzling over our fates on the palanquin. If I hadn’t been doing so, I would probably have vanished to the depths of hell before I saw your shadow, and I would have escaped this sad predicament. We are always like this. The more we wish not to corrupt, the greater our desire to corrupt becomes. Is there any other such strange anguish? Each time I feel this torment, it seems that the clear light of Heaven I saw so long ago and the pitch black of hell I see now have become unified within my small chest. So please pity me. I am so very lonely.” Saying this, the demon with the beautiful face burst into tears…

The manuscript legend does not tell us what happens to the demon. But what does the story mean to us? When we read it, it is enough that we feel its spirit of entreaty…

Organtino, pity us as well as the demon. We feel the same kind of anguish.

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English translation © 2015 Richard Medhurst. All rights reserved.