Back to Hell Screen
Sample - Chapter One
The Mountain Temple
The path was rocky and the horse’s hooves slipped on the wet stones. Rain hung
in the air like a thick mist. In a gully a miniature waterfall had formed, its
muddy current splashing and gurgling downhill. Patches of wet fog hung between
the sagging branches of tall cryptomerias like giant jewelled cobwebs.
The tall rider sat hunched forward in the steady downpour, his big sedge hat joining seamlessly with the straw rain cape covering his body. At a turn in the path he straightened and peered ahead. Ah, finally! The curving blue-tiled roof and the red-lacquered columns of the main gate to the temple lay just ahead. Beyond the plaster walls, dimly seen in the greyness of mist and rain, rose a graceful five-storied pagoda and the many roofs of temple halls and monastic outbuildings.
The tired horse smelled stables and shook his head, releasing a shower of water. Its rider was Sugawara Akitada, returning to the capital from one of the far northern provinces. Akitada was still young, in his mid-thirties, and physically strong, but days of forced riding had worn him out. The steady cold rain had made this particular day’s journey across the mountains especially wearying, and now, in the fading light of early evening, he was forced to seek the temple’s hospitality: a simple room, a hot bath, and a vegetarian supper.
Two other travellers had reached the gate ahead of him. The man had already dismounted and was solicitously helping a lady from her horse. They both wore rain gear similar to Akitada’s, but the woman’s broad-rimmed hat was also covered by a thick veil, sagging with moisture. She rearranged it impatiently and walked up the steps to the gateway, the lavishly embroidered hem of her gown sweeping through the mud behind her.
As Akitada stopped to dismount, her companion struck the bronze bell at the gate. Its high clear metallic sound broke the peaceful splash and drizzle of the rain. Almost immediately the gate opened and an elderly monk appeared, looking uncertainly from the couple to the tall rider waiting behind them.
The woman’s companion, unaware of Akitada, explained, “We are travelling to Otsu and cannot go any farther today. Can you give us shelter?”
The monk hesitated. “Is the other gentleman with you?”
They both turned then to look in surprise at Akitada, who looked back calmly. Though he could not see the lady’s face behind all that wet veiling, he knew she was young, for she moved quickly and with studied grace. The man was stocky, well-built, and in his late twenties. He wore travelling clothes of good quality and, like Akitada, had a sword stuck through his sash. A gentleman, perhaps. Certainly a member of the affluent class. His face was not handsome, but open and friendly, and he bowed politely to Akitada before telling the monk, “Oh, no. There are just the two of us. This gentleman is a stranger to my sister-in-law and myself.”
The woman moved impatiently, extending a smooth white arm from under her rain cape to gesture to her companion to hurry. Multiple layers of fine silk, in shades from russet to lavender, peeked out from under the cream-colored satin sleeve of her robe. The embroidery on the sleeve and hem was of autumn leaves and chrysanthemums.
A very rich lady indeed, thought Akitada, who was tying his horse next to their mounts and noting the costly saddles. Bowing deeply to her, he hoped she would remove the veil so he could see her face. But he was disappointed, for she abruptly turned her back to him. He told the monk, “Please accommodate your guests first. I shall wait for your return.”
The lady ignored Akitada’s courtesy, but her companion bowed his acknowledgment.
“Are there many visitors here tonight?” the lady asked, slipping off her wet rain cape for the young man to pick up.
“Oh yes, madam,” the monk replied.
“And what sort of people might they be?”
“Oh, mostly ordinary,” said the old man, turning to shuffle barefooted down the long covered corridor to the right. They followed him. Akitada stepped up under the gateway to watch them walk away.
“Ordinary?” she asked, her voice rising a little. “What do you mean?”
“Mostly pilgrims, madam. And a group of players who put on bugaku dances for the local people. But don’t worry. They are in a different building.”
She pursued the topic, but Akitada could no longer make out the words. He slipped out of his wet rain cape and took off the sedge hat, chuckling at the lady’s fears that she might have to rub shoulders with the common people. He reflected ruefully that she had evidently not approved of him either, when she saw him in his cheap rain gear and on a hired horse. Underneath the straw cape he wore a sober brown hunting robe over fawn-colored silk trousers which he had tucked into his leather riding boots. A long sword was pushed through his wide leather belt. His slender, deeply tanned face with the heavy eyebrows might have belonged to a scholar or a warrior, but was to his mind ordinary. And he thought his narrow straight back and waist and the broad shoulders lacked both grace and muscular bulk.
He laid his wet straw cape and hat on the railing of the balustrade and looked out across the large courtyard toward the main temple hall. Memories stirred of visits to this place back in the days of his childhood. He had been accompanied by his imperious mother and two younger sisters, along with nursemaids and servants. How would he find them now? Was his mother still alive? The message of her severe illness had reached them two weeks earlier, on their homeward journey, and Akitada had pushed ahead alone, leaving his wife and small son to follow more slowly with the luggage and servants.
Now he was only a short day’s ride from the capital and worried about what he would find. Akiko, the elder of his two sisters, had married an official during his absence and moved away, but Yoshiko was still at home. He tried to imagine his mother ill, her fierce strength gone, and only the bitterness remaining. He sighed.
Steady streams of water descended along the chains suspended from the monstrous snouts of rain spouts above him and splashed with a great din into pebble troughs. Across the courtyard the tall pagoda rose into the mist, its top lost above the clouds. The scent of pines hung in the air and mingled with the sweetish odor of wet straw and sedge. But for this miserable rain he would have made better time and arrived home this very night. Instead, he and his horse were near physical collapse after hours of trudging through deep mud and roaring torrents.
The gatekeeper returned, his soles whispering softly on the smooth boards of the gallery. “Forgive the delay, sir,” he said, glancing at Akitada’s clothing and sword. “Has your honor come to worship or for lodging?”
“Lodging only, I’m afraid.” Akitada produced a visiting card and handed it to the monk, who peered at it and bowed deeply.
“A great honor, my lord,” he said. “May I conduct you to the abbot?”
Akitada suppressed a sigh. He was bone-tired and in no mood for courtesies over fruit juice, but the visit was obligatory for men of his rank.
This time the monk turned to the left and led the way to the inner courts of the temple and its monastery. After an eternity of galleries and corridors, he paused before an unadorned door made of beautifully polished wood. It was opened by an acolyte, a boy of ten or eleven. In the room behind him sat a very old man on a small dais.
“His Reverence, Genshin,” murmured the monk.
Genshin was frail, almost skeletal, and his skin stretched like yellowed paper across his shaven skull. He wore a dark silk robe and a very beautiful stole patched from many-colored pieces of brocade. A string of amber beads slid slowly through fingers thin as the claws of a bird. His eyes were closed, the lids almost transparent, and the thin, pursed lips moved silently.
“Reverence?” whispered the gatekeeper. “Lord Sugawara wishes to pay his respects.”
A bead moved as they waited, and then another. Finally the thin lids lifted and faded eyes looked at Akitada. “Sugawara no Michizane?” Genshin’s voice sounded like the rustling of dry leaves.
Michizane, long dead though never forgotten? “No, Your Reverence,” said Akitada stepping forward and bowing deeply. “I am afraid I have little in common with my illustrious ancestor. I am Akitada, most recently provisional governor of Echigo.” He said it with an odd mixture of pride and humility. Echigo had been a punitive and punishing assignment, and only he knew how hard-won his achievements had been.
The abbot shook his head confusedly. “Governor? I thought . . .” His voice trailed off and the lids closed again.
Apparently the courtesy visit was going to be more difficult than Akitada had anticipated. He sought for words that might wake the old man to some semblance of conversation. “I have been recalled to the capital. A few years ago I held a minor position in the Ministry of Justice.”
The lids lifted marginally. “Justice?” Genshin pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Yes. Justice. Why not? It’s an appropriate choice. Please be seated, Akitada. I am delighted that you have come to see me.”
Akitada suppressed his puzzlement and sat, wondering how to explain to this senile cleric that only the accident of a rainstorm had driven him to this Buddhist temple. Aloud he said, “I am here for a brief rest only, your Reverence, a chance to gather my thoughts and refresh my spirit.” And that was not far from the truth.
“Ah!” Genshin nodded eagerly. “Of course. Then listen: He who seeks the Law will find it in the mountain groves. And remember, that which seems real in the world of men is but a dream and a deception. Though the reverse is also true. Now be at peace, my son!” He gave Akitada an encouraging nod and raised a frail hand in farewell, then closed his eyes again and resumed his prayers.
Disconcerted, Akitada looked at the gatekeeper. The man did not seem in the least troubled by his master’s incomprehensible behavior.
“If you will follow me, my lord,” the man whispered, “I will conduct you to your quarters.”
Akitada got up, relieved that the visit was over, when the abbot said suddenly, “Show him the hell screen!”
The monk acknowledged the order, and Akitada followed him out, chafing under the need to view some painted screen before being allowed to retire.
The lateness of the hour and the overcast sky made the light poor. They passed through a labyrinth of dark, quiet corridors, emerging now and again into the grey light of covered galleries. Akitada caught glimpses of wet gravelled courtyards and heard the sound of steady rain, before delving again into the silent obscurity of another hall or corridor.
Akitada lost all sense of direction and was following sleepily when they turned a corner and he came face-to-face with a monstrous creature. Light flashed from its bulbous eyes, and its slavering lips bared sharp fangs. Akitada saw a raised weapon and started back, his hand reaching for his sword. Then he took in the rest of the life-sized statue of a guardian spirit in ornate armor and the flaming sword raised threateningly above its head. The flickering of an oil lamp in the air current of their passing had caused the masterful carving to appear momentarily alive.
The room beyond the figure was filled with shelves of ritual objects used in Buddhist ceremonies: gilded bronze bells, thunderbolts, scepters and wheels of the law jostled gongs and plaques of every size on stands and tables.
“It’s getting dark,” said his guide and took up a pierced bronze lantern, lighting the candle in it from the oil lamp.
They went on. The flame of the lantern flickered as they walked, transferring gigantic swooping birds and moving branches from the decorative pattern of the lantern onto the walls and ceiling. Sharp looming shadows distorted pillars and doorways into swaying tree trunks and cavern openings until Akitada felt he had passed into another world. He stumbled with tiredness and disorientation. The long journey up the mountain and the strangeness of this temple had taken their toll. Shaking his head to rid himself of the sense of having wandered into some nightmare, he abruptly remembered his horse in the rain outside the temple gate.
His guide said, “Your horse has been stabled, my lord.”
Akitada stared at the old monk’s back. Had he spoken out loud, or was this monk a mind reader? And how much longer must he follow the shuffling footsteps?
“We are almost there,” said his guide and opened another door.
They entered a very large, empty hall. One whole wall was covered with dark curtains, and a strange smell, part mineral and part resin, hung in the air. The monk reached for a rope to pull up the draperies. Akitada’s eye fell on one section where the fabric had parted first. He started back with a cry.
The lantern light shone on a gruesome image. A child, a small boy no more than five or six, was sitting there. His rounded features were distorted in agony and he held up two bleeding stumps where his hands had been.
His guide said reassuringly, “It’s very realistic, but it’s only a painting, sir. That’s the hell screen His Reverence wanted you to see. He is very proud of it. It isn’t finished yet, but we think it will be quite wonderful. The artist is Noami, a man who is most devout and meticulous. He has been painting the screen for the past year.”
The monk held up his lantern to illuminate another section. “This is the hell of the slashing blades. It will be much clearer by daylight, of course, or when there are many candles burning in the hall.”
Akitada sincerely hoped not. Even given the fact that the people in it were not really life-sized, the realism of the details was painful The horrors of the scenes before his eyes were quite shocking enough by the faint light of a single lantern. Hell screens were, of course, not uncommon in Buddhist temples, being an aid to teach people the penalties of their sinful lives. But this . . . this was beyond anything he had ever seen before. He saw nude men and women who were writhing in the clutches of black demonic creatures, while streams of blood poured from terrible wounds made by swords, pikes, and halberds. The mutilated child was one of many victims. Near him his mother clutched a halberd which had entered her stomach and protruded from her back, while a huge black-winged demon slit her throat, releasing a fountain of gore. More demons were slashing the face of a beautiful lady with sharp knives, and her handsome young lord had lost both legs and was crawling away on the ground, leaving a broad trail of blood behind him.
The monk said proudly, “It looks very real, doesn’t it? And look at the flames of the burning hell! It makes you feel hot just to look at it.”
It did indeed. Red, orange, and yellow flames filled a large area of the screen, and in the flames humans could be seen, writhing, their skin scorched and blistered, their mouths and eyes wide with screams of agony. Here, too, demons, black-skinned and long-haired, drove reluctant naked creatures into the flames with burning torches or tossed them into a river of glowing lava.
Akitada shuddered. What kind of faith was this that celebrated human suffering, and what sort of mind could call up such scenes of horror and agony?
“Noami has been working here tirelessly day and night, except when he goes home to make more sketches for the next scenes,” said Akitada’s guide. “I have seen some of them. He will paint the judge of the dead next. Emma will be right here, in the center, and his attendants will stand around him, and the soul of someone just dead will be kneeling here, with demons waiting to take him to the hells of fire or of ice. The rest of the screen is also blank, but it will depict the freezing hell. Noami says he cannot start that yet until winter gets here.”
Akitada blinked. “Until winter gets here?”
“Oh, yes. Noami always works from nature. I myself have seen him build a fire in the courtyard to paint the smoke you see there.”
Akitada looked respectfully at the bluish black clouds which rose from the flames of the burning hell. They looked real enough to choke him. “Let us go!” he said. “I am tired.”
The monk drew the curtain again. “It’s not much farther,” he said.
They left the hall of the hell screen and walked down another dim corridor. Turning the corner, the monk pushed open a sliding door. “Here we are. These rooms are reserved for official guests. It is much quieter here than in the visitors’ courtyard. Especially today. We have a group of travelling actors staying with us. They have given a performance of bugaku and are to travel on tomorrow. I am afraid they may be very noisy tonight. We do not allow wine in the temple grounds, but such people rarely abide by the rules.” He went to light an oil lamp on a tall stand in the corner.
“I am too tired to care,” said Akitada, hoping the chatty monk would get the message. The room was plain and perfectly empty except for a yellowed calligraphy scroll suspended on one wall.
“Someone will bring you food and bedding,” said the monk. “The bathhouse is at the end of the gallery to the right. I hope you will rest comfortably. May Amida bless you!”
Akitada murmured his thanks, and the old man bowed and shuffled off.
The air was stuffy from disuse. Akitada walked across the bare floor and threw open the shutters. Outside was a tiny courtyard, no more than a few square yards enclosed by high plaster walls. It was getting dark, and the two small shrubs growing in one corner next to a stone lantern were indistinct in the gloom. They were surrounded by a patch of moss, black with moisture and outlined by swirling patterns of raked gravel. The gravel glistened wetly in the light from Akitada’s room, but the rain had slowed to a drizzle and only trickles of water fell from the eaves above in a regular, soothing pattern of small sounds. Akitada breathed in the fresh, pine-scented mountain air gratefully. That hell screen had shaken him more than it should have. He had seen so much of violent death in his lifetime that a mere painting ought not to upset him to this degree. He shook his head. It must be his exhaustion. He decided to leave the shutters open to air out the room, and hoped the promised bedding would arrive soon. He needed sleep more than food.
His eye fell on the scroll. He carried the light closer to read the inscription: “Higher Truth and Common Truth are different and the two cannot be one, though they are known as the Twofold Truth.” He frowned. It made no sense. The abstract philosophies of the Buddhists struck him as irrational, mere conundrums to dazzle the ignorant. How much more humane and instructive were the teachings of Confucius, who had a useful lesson and practical virtue for every circumstance of life.
He replaced the lamp and decided to go in search of the bath house.
It was just where the old monk had said it would be. Mercifully, both the undressing room and the bath itself were empty except for the attendant, a young monk, naked apart from a loin cloth and glistening with sweat and steam.
Relieved that the young man did not engage in chatter, Akitada stripped quickly, hanging his clothes on one of the hooks on the wall above the wooden benches, and walked naked into the bathing room. The attendant handed him a bucket filled with steaming water and a small cloth bag filled with rice bran. Akitada squatted near the drain and scrubbed himself down. The sudden warmth caused by the friction of the bran was pleasant. After sluicing off with the bucket of water, he climbed into the large wooden trough, filled to the brim with almost unbearably hot water.
Gasping with the shock, he lowered himself gingerly to the submerged seat and let the water rise to his neck. Discomfort changed into a deep sense of well-being. With a sigh of relief, he relaxed, leaning his head back against the rim of the trough, and emptied his mind.
The attendant disappeared to the outside, and Akitada heard him stoking the firebox under the bath. He returned with considerately gentle movements and took his seat against the wall. The fire crackled softly, and the steam formed beads on Akitada’s face. It was too much trouble to brush them away. He closed his eyes and dozed off.
Male voices and laughter penetrated his slumber gradually but persistently until he returned to awareness of his surroundings. On the other side of the wall someone was pounding out a rhythm on a wooden surface. A man was chanting. The words were inaudible, but the sounds were pleasing. Akitada sighed and closed his eyes again. He allowed his mind to drift with the melody and thought of his flute. He wished he had brought it, but the urgency of his mother’s sickness had driven the matter from his mind. He wondered again how ill she was. His sister’s letter had sounded frantic. Serious illness usually meant death, and as a rule it came quickly. Perhaps he would be too late even for the funeral. He sighed again, the weight of his fears back on his shoulders.
Next door the music ceased abruptly. A great stomping ensued, accompanied by hoarse cries and shouts. Akitada turned his head to stare at the wall. Whoever had disrupted his peace, it was neither monks nor pilgrims.
Just then a woman’s shrill laughter made Akitada sit up in dismay. Females in the monks’ bathhouse?
He cast a worried glance at the young attendant and saw that he was standing up, his eyes grown round with shock and his wet skin flushed all the way to his shaven head. What would he do if naked females invaded his celibate male space? Akitada was annoyed himself. All he needed after his miserable wet journey and the nerve-racking tour of the monastery was for some uncouth men and women to burst in on him in his bath.
The attendant gathered his courage and went into the changing room, closing the door behind him. The noise stopped instantly, there was a brief exchange, then the young monk returned, looking agitated. “My apologies, sir. It’s the players. They must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I told them that they were not permitted here, but they would not go away. I don’t think they will come in, but I shall run and fetch help.”
“Thank you.” Akitada closed his eyes again, wondering how long the players would linger. There was the matter of walking back out to get his clothes.
A door slammed behind the attendant. Then there were voices again, some sort of argument. A man kept saying, “Why?” A woman was pleading. Other male voices joined in. Akitada caught a few words. Her name appeared to be Ohisa and she had been dismissed. Ohisa sobbed, and someone shouted, “He can’t do that!” The voices grew louder and angrier. Akitada stood up and climbed out of the bath, his face thunderous.
Grabbing a towel from the rack, Akitada slung it around himself before flinging open the wooden door and glaring at the people in the undressing room.
He had a quick impression of startled eyes--four men and one woman, all fully dressed, the woman young and very pretty, the men of different ages--before they all gasped and rushed for the door in a panic, to disappear down the corridor. The scene was so funny that Akitada’s ill humor fled and he began to chuckle. His amusement increased when he was joined by four or five elderly monks and the attendant. The old monks were voluble in their outrage at having their privacy invaded by a woman and cast dubious glances at him. He became aware of his wetness and undid the towel to dry himself. After scandalized glances, all but the attendant withdrew rapidly.
Akitada hung the wet towel on one of the drying racks and put his clothes back on, then made his way, still smiling, back to his room.
Someone had come in his absence to leave a tray table with food and drink and to unroll his bedding. The fare was vegetarian--rice cakes stewed with wild mushrooms, fried bean curd, pickled eggplant, cucumber, and green soybeans, along with a dish of toasted millet mixed with honey. Akitada sampled cautiously. It was delicious, and he reflected gratefully on generations of monks who had devoted their ingenuity to making palatable the grains and plants they were allowed to eat. He was sitting near the open door to the small garden, breathing in the moist mountain air and eating everything on his tray. When the bowls were empty, he drank thirstily the fruit drink in the small flask. It tasted peculiar but not unpleasant. Outside, the rain slowed until there was only a soothing, steady, soft drip-drip from the gutters.
His body pleasantly relaxed and sated, Akitada’s eyes became heavy, and he crept into the quilts and went to sleep.
He slept very deeply, but soon he was troubled by a horrible dream. In it he was naked and pursued by blue demons who had flames spurting from their fangs and reached for him with curved claws. In his rush to escape them, he passed hundreds of other naked men and women, also running and screaming. He dashed toward a huge, steaming vat, thinking to hide behind it from his pursuers, but when he reached it, he found it filled with more screaming people. They were being boiled alive by two gigantic demons who were blowing their fiery breath against the sides of the vessel. The nearer demon scooped him up with a huge ladle, which he lifted over the bubbling cauldron. Akitada clutched the rim of the ladle, gauging his chances of jumping clear of the monstrous cauldron, and took a frantic leap into space. For a heart-stopping moment he hung suspended in the steam above the upturned faces of boiling souls, then he found himself landing on his feet in a courtroom.
The judge in gorgeous robes sat on a high throne. His large eyes flashed as he stroked his beard. Akitada fell to his knees and touched his head to the floor. But no one seemed to take notice of him. The guards, more blue demons, were dragging in an elderly woman, pale and aristocratic in her fine robes, her long white hair trailing behind her. To his horror, Akitada recognized his mother. Other demons stepped forward to lay charges against her, while she knelt in stoic silence. Akitada wanted to defend her, but his tongue was paralyzed. Slamming his baton on his knee with a loud thwack, the judge pronounced sentence, and the blue demons carried his mother away to hell. When Akitada raised his eyes to the judge to plead for mercy for her, he saw that he was looking at his own face.
He was the infernal judge, stroking his beard, hearing charges against poor sinners brought before him. Akitada heard himself pronouncing sentence after sentence: The burning hell for the cold-hearted, the frozen hell for the lustful, the realm of the hungry ghosts for gluttons, and the torture of swords and knives for the violent. He gave sentence after sentence, thwacking his baton, watching the blue demons in their armor carrying the wailing souls out, his eyes following them to an execution ground, where the demons cut off limbs and heads with smooth strokes of their flaming swords, until the dismembered bodies piled up into mountains, and the blood flowed between them like a river. Then the mountains began to topple and the river of blood to rise, and Akitada was crushed by an avalanche of death and drowned in a torrent of blood.
Akitada came upright with a strangled shout. It was dark and he gasped for breath, flinging out his arms against the nightmare. Realization came slowly. He wiped the sweat from his face and pushed back his bedclothes. The cool night air felt good on his perspiration-drenched skin. He could not recall ever feeling a greater sense of horror and blamed the dream on his exhaustion and fear for his mother. The extraordinary sights he had seen the previous evening had then produced the particular phantasms which still haunted his mind, their very sounds lingering vividly in his memory. He listened.
But all was quiet and peaceful in his room. Outside only an occasional drop of water broke the stillness.
Then, suddenly: a single high-pitched scream--stifled instantly.