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Stolen Soul [盗まれた魂]

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That first week, Ogata slept fitfully.

Second Lieutenant Koito stood vigil beside the Sergeant to ensure his quick recovery, but no one seemed to give a damn about Ogata. After the Sergeant began walking around, Genji pushed the issue of finding a proper doctor for the man.

A heated argument ensued, and it was decided that a Russian surgeon should be fetched from the nearby hospital. A short, stout man whose heavy beard stank of fish, he arrived with a Russian soldier whose face was horribly scarred.

Inkarmat would’ve adored his mangled mouth and the blue eyes above it.

The surgeon spoke Russian to the Sergeant, explaining that Ogata’s enucleation needed cleaning before a conformer could be placed into the socket.

They woke Ogata with foul-smelling salts and alive to the pain for the first time, he shrieked until bringing up what little fluids remained in his stomach. Genji stepped in to hold Ogata’s arms over his head as a wood speculum was pressed into the bloodied socket.

Eyelid open, the doctor scraped at the hallow with a curette, shaving off pulpy bits of flesh. The disfigured soldier sat upon Ogata’s legs and took a strange joy in his suffering, while Genji couldn’t help but be haunted by Kenichi’s ruptured eyes.

When Ogata finally passed out, the doctor pressed an almond-shaped piece of glass into his socket. He removed the speculum and then gently pulled the eyelid down, knitting it shut with a single stitch.

Afterward, he shoved a brown bottle into Genji’s hand and spat at him in Russian. Sergeant Tsukishima explained that the ether was to keep Ogata’s pain in check.

Genji wasn’t sure why the caring of Ogata fell to him, but he took on the task without protest.

All swelling would subside within a week, but the bandage needed changing daily. The area around the eye was to be cleaned three times a day with fresh water and a soft rag, no salt-water from the sea.

Saline caked into a build-up that prevented tears, and tears were essential to healing.

Ogata never fully woke, and his lags of whining drove the others to shelter elsewhere. Genji tolerated his droning until exhaustion compelled him to place an ether-soaked rag onto the man’s face.

A local woman changed out the bedding furs each day, but she wouldn’t touch Ogata.

Sugimoto refused to go near him, and Shiraishi walked away from any mention of his name. Not even Asirpa spared Ogata a glance when forced inside to retrieve her bow.

Unwilling to let the man’s hygiene suffer, Genji removed his clothes every morning, scrubbing each piece before hanging them over a fire outside. Twice a day, he wiped down the sniper’s body and ran a fine comb through his hair to remove the oily build-up.

It had been a peaceful time until his comrades invaded the chad-ryv to discuss leaving Karafuto. Sugimoto convened the meeting and immediately began an argument by declaring his intentions.

“Shiraishi and I are taking Asirpa back to Hokkaido,”

“Word has been sent to First Lieutenant Tsurumi,” Koito countered. “Our rendezvous instructions are clear, that’s how we’ll all proceed,”

“We will proceed,” said Sugimoto. “However Asirpa wants to proceed,”

“He won’t hurt the girl,” Tsukishima assured.

Koito nodded, “That's right, he needs her,”

Shiraishi stared at the floor thoughtfully.

“And when he doesn’t need her?”

“I know what Tsurumi does to people that refuse to join his cause,” Sugimoto added.

“If she wants what’s best for her people,” Koito snapped. “She’ll cooperate,”

“Is that a threat?” Sugimoto snapped.

“We shouldn’t be discussing Asirpa without her being here,” Shiraishi said.

“She’s a child,” Koito smirked. “She doesn't need to be here,”

Sugimoto stepped into him, “What did you just say?” 

“Can you take this outside?” said Genji, coming between them.

Koito huffed, “We wouldn’t want to disturb your precious patient,”

“Why are you still tending to him?” Sugimoto asked.

“He’s a human being that needs help,” said Genji.

“That’s debatable,” Sugimoto mumbled.

Shiraishi scolded, “Sugimoto,”

“How will we proceed with Ogata?” Tsukishima asked.

“Ogata Hyakunosuke is going back to Asahikawa to answer for his crime,” Koito frowned at the slumbering sniper. “He’s going back if I have to carry him on my shoulder the entire way,”

“What crime?” Genji thought of his own desertion.

Koito narrowed his eyes, “Did the bullet move, Tanigaki?”

Genji touched to the back of his head as Tsukishima stood.

“That was uncalled for, Sir,” he said and then exited.

“He’s a deserter and a murderer, Private,” Koito spoke through his teeth. “He’s going to answer for everything he did during the war, and afterward here in Hokkaido,” and with that, he exited the ryv.

“What bullet is he talking about, Tanigaki?” asked Shiraishi.

“I got shot at 203 Hill,” Genji said.

“It’s still in there?” Sugimoto asked.

“A portion went into the back of my head,” he replied.

Shiraishi felt around Genji’s hairline, “Can you feel it?”

“I feel it when it rains,” he pushed his hand away.

“It’s a pain in the ass when a round hits someone else before finding you,” Sugimoto mused. “It’s busted to shit when it breaks the skin and does everything but kill you,”

“It’s a partial,” he explained. “By the time I got to a triage ship, the entry wound healed. They kept me laid up for weeks, making sure its first victim’s blood didn’t infect me,”

“This is where Sugimoto tells you about this leg,” Shiraishi wandered out. “I need to eat breakfast, so I’ll skip the gruesome details,”

“A broken round pierced my thigh bone,” said Sugimoto. “The damn bone healed around it, they wanted to break my leg to remove it,”

Suddenly, Ogata moaned out, his body twisting and turning under the furs. Genji rushed to cradle his jaw, and Sugimoto demanded to know what he was doing.

“I’m trying to wean him off the ether,” he said, rubbing Ogata’s temples until he quieted. “This helps him sleep when the pain wakes him,”

Sugimoto curled his lip, “Let him hurt,”

“Just go, Sugimoto,” he sighed.

Sugimoto knelt beside him, “He tried to kill you, Tanigaki,”

“The first day we met,” he snapped. “I held Asirpa at gunpoint, I threatened her life,”

Tension lined Sugimoto’s lips.

“I would’ve shot her then, but not now,” he added. “People change if given a chance, Sugimoto. No one’s ever given Ogata a chance,”

“We’re leaving in two days,” Sugimoto stood. “With or without Ogata,”

“You can’t leave him here,” said Genji. “He’ll die,”

“I can live with that,” Sugimoto collected his gun and moved toward the door. “Asirpa knows she didn’t kill him, that’s all that matters,”

“You’re wrong, Sugimoto,” Genji said.

“I can live with that too,” he said, walking out of the ryv.

After a few moments alone, Koito’s stinging taunt prompted him to touch the dimpled skin behind his ear.

“Tanigaki-nispa?”

Startled, Genji fell over and found Asirpa standing there.

“You’re not staying here with Ogata, are you?” she asked.

“We’re all going back to Otaru,”

Asirpa shook her head, “Sugimoto just told mister Tsukishima that if he doesn’t leave Ogata behind, we aren’t going to help the Lieutenant,”

“You can’t let him do that, it’s not the right thing-”

“—Isn’t it?” she glanced at Ogata. “I’ve never been so angry with anyone in my life,”

Hands knotted, she stepped to the bed.

“I trusted you!” she declared. “You were my only friend after losing Sugimoto! You ate with me, talked with me, and you listened to me! That’s what you did!”

Genji reached for her, but she moved from his touch.

“You were never my friend! It was always about the gold!” she cried. “I’m tired of people pretending to care when all they want is that gold!”

Ogata remained asleep.

“You aimed your rifle at me, you said people like me shouldn’t exist,” she said, trembling. “People like you shouldn’t exist! The world is too good for people like you!”

Genji opened his arms as she ran at him.

He held her tight to his chest as she screamed; rage should never hold court in a child’s heart. After a few moments, she detached from him and steeled herself again at Ogata’s bedside.

“I must forgive you, but not today,” she turned from the sleeping figure and confronted Genji. “I cut the poison from your leg once, remember?”

Genji nodded and took her hand.

“Leave him behind, Tanigaki-nispa,” she whispered. “He’s poisonous, too much for anyone to cut out,”

After she departed, he considered her words.

“I don’t know what to do,” he fell to his knees, and with his head pressed to the bedding, he clutched the blanket. “I’ve been given so many chances, and yet there was no room in my heart to spare him a chance.”

In a flash, he was on the ice, face to face with a man who at first had no reason to think he was about to be attacked.

“Deep down, I knew it was an accident, but I was so angry, I couldn’t forgive, I just couldn’t,” tears welled up in his eyes. “The moment I saw Kiroranke, I went after him like an animal, just I like did to Kenichi!”

Genjiro cried so fervently that he failed to notice Ogata’s hand close around his index finger.

 

*

 

What goes around, comes around, big brother.

Blood trickled from the darkness under his visor and made a line down to the tip of his nose. The first foul drip fell hot upon Hyakunosuke’s lip, the second stung his eye. One grunt dissolved the specter until there was nothing but white linen.

There was white linen over his face!

He grabbed at the fabric in a panic and poorly aimed, drummed his fingers hard against the damaged eye. Agony seized his sinuses and screaming just made the pain worse.

“It’s all right…” a deep voice brought vapors that turned the world black.

 

**

 

What goes around comes around...

The back of Yuusaku’s uniform was soiled with the foul-smelling mud of Mukden. His brother’s presence flickered in the dark, his attention fixed on something beyond the wood planks that lined the ceiling.

A gentle lulling rocked Hyakunosuke’s gut; everything swayed except him. He craned his neck to see what captured his ghostly brother’s sights and found Tanigaki down on one knee in the lamplight.

Shadows danced upon the crates as strong arms lifted a wooden bucket. Water rained over the Matagi’s head and left a glistening sheen down his broad back; his only regret in allying with Kiroranke was his inability to pursue Tanigaki Genjirou.

How dare you…

“—You’re dead,” he hissed. “Go away!”

How dare you think such things…

“Shush,” the Matagi smelled of soap. “You need to rest,” 

“We’re on a ship,” Hyakunosuke protested, his throat raw.

The vapors entered fast, and with them came more sleep.

 

***

 

Total recall delivered a different kind of pain.

He’d faltered on the pack ice, his brother confronting him with an arrow aimed—no, it was the girl, Asirpa. She’d let loose when Sugimoto cried her name. The bolt had struck hard, and the bitter cold numbed its violence.

Hyakunosuke lay now in the steerage of a ship, nestled tight in a bed of straw between battened crates.

A fire burned nearby—no, it was a thick bellied lamp filled with paraffin. Fast asleep in its warm glow was the Matagi, naked under a whale skin blanket.

The worn muscles in his stomach made sitting up near impossible, but when he finally managed, he felt a tug on his arm. A length of rope fixed his right wrist tight to a ballast chain.

A shadow appeared, bundled up and hooded against the darkness.

“Don’t douse me again, Tanigaki!”

Firm hands pushed him onto his back before a vaporous rag touched his face.

“I’m sorry, Ogata, I can’t have you giving away our position…”

 

****

 

Hyakunosuke tested the binding and found it looser today.

Beside his head, a tin of petroleum jelly, no larger than his thumbnail, rested atop a pile of blood-stained gauze.

Next to where he lay and dressed in the rags of an Ainu, the Matagi busied himself over a white enamel bowl.

An eye trained on the bigger man’s back, he plucked up the tin and pinched open its lid. He managed to scoop a glob free with his thumb and slowly moved his hand across his waist to deposit the muck onto his wrist.

“You’re awake,” Tanigaki brought the bowl to his bedside.

“If you deliver me to Tsurumi,” he croaked. “He’ll kill me.”

Tanigaki avoided his gaze and gathered up the gauze, dropping the tin to the floor.

“Are you listening to me?” he asked when the Matagi ducked and felt around the floor for the tin.

Tanigaki returned with a brown bottle in his hand, “Are you going to scream?”

“I’ve screamed enough,” he said, shaking his head.

Tanigaki, oblivious to Hyakunosuke’s wiggling right arm, dunked a small rag into the washbowl.

“Sugimoto convinced Tsukishima and Koito to leave you in Karafuto,” he said, removing the bandage.

“Sugimoto extended me mercy,” he winced as the rag gently dabbed at his sensitive skin.

“Asirpa tried to change his mind,” Tanigaki explained. “She didn’t want your death on his conscience,”

“Your conscience recovered fast,” wrist slick, he twisted his hand slowly in the bind. “Unless that confession you made was bullshit,”

Tanigaki patted the eye dry, “I’ll never forget my part in Kiroranke’s death,”

“The tears were a nice touch, snotty nose too,”

“I meant every word I said,” he applied a clean patch of gauze and then gently wrapped a fresh bandage around Hyakunosuke’s head. “I’ll never forgive myself,”

“Killing me just adds another notch, you know,”

“You’re going back to Tsurumi because it’s the only way I’ll ever be free,” he said, mouth turned down. “I don’t care about the gold, or the Imperial Army, not anymore,”

“You’re handing me over to get your scrap of Ezo?”

“It’s more than that,” he said quickly. “He’s got Inkarmat and if I don’t offer him something in return for letting me walk away with her-”

“—I guess that settles it then, right, Tanigaki?”

He dunked the rag into the bowl and wrung it out.

“It’s fine,” said Hyakunosuke, his wrist nearly free. “Death was going to find me eventually,”

Tanigaki drew the rag across the back of his own neck.

“Christians have this tradition called confession,” he added. “Will you hear my confession, Tanigaki?”

“I’d make a poor sacrament lead,” said the Matagi. “My sins are as numerous as yours,”

“You know about the Catholic faith?” he asked, carefully wrenching his hand free.

“The Russians have their version,” the Matagi replied. “Then there’s the Portuguese,”

“You’re turning me over to be shot, Tanigaki,” he pleaded. “Won’t you at least hear me out?”

After a sigh, the Matagi sat seiza, “What do you have to confess?”

“I was seven the first time it happened, Tanigaki. The funny thing is, I actually like taking it up the ass. It feels so good when it’s done right,”

Suddenly uncomfortable, the Matagi lowered his gaze.

“There were rules in my grandpa’s house, and one of them was to never touch his carbine. I took that carbine to the marsh one day, the same marsh I went to with my grandma. The ducks waddled up to me, thinking I brought them some crumbs.

“That’s where he found me. He was drunk, and I knew it because when he got drunk, he walked the marsh barefoot in his hippari. He demanded to know what I was doing. That’s how he instigated every conversation with me. What are you doing, boy?

“Sometimes, I still feel his grip around my wrist, dragging me into the reeds. That first time he slapped me around good because I fought him. Afterward, I laid underneath him and just counted his breaths.”

Tanigaki whispered, “I’m sorry, Ogata,”

“He cried too, the same way you did back in Karafuto. He carried me to the lake and washed me. He was so gentle, Tanigaki, he handled me like a broken cup he wanted to keep. I never felt more wanted in my life.

“You see, the Ogata’s weren’t physical people, Tanigaki. There were no hugs in our home, no kisses, no pats on the head. I’d see other kids in town holding their parents’ hands or being carried in their parents’ arms, I envied them so much,”

Hyakunosuke flexed his liberated hand.

“I was so desperate to be touched after that. It turned me into a real seducer. He tore my ass up every time, but it was worth it just to have those arms around me after he shot his load,”

“You didn’t seduce him,” he whispered. “You were a child,”

“One day, I waited for him with my clothes off, Tanigaki. My first mistake. He was so angry. Called me a whore like my mother before beating the shit out of me,” he glanced the Matagi and saw a tear fall from his eye. “He wasn’t ashamed of hurting me, he was ashamed of my power over him,”

“He hurt you,” said Tanigaki. “You didn’t provoke him-”

“—I limped back to the house and tried to sneak inside, but grandma caught me. She took one look at me and asked if grandpa touched me. I lied and said some man got hold of me, but my grandma wasn’t a fool.

“The whole time she scrubbed me down, she went on about him spoiling me like he did my mother. You see, there was a reason my mother left home so young, Tanigaki, a reason she turned out the way she did,”

Tanigaki shook his head, “Ogata-”

“—Grandpa liked them young, and it didn’t matter what was between your legs. My grandma was eleven when she got pregnant. Her family forced her to marry him, but when she bore my mom, she was free of his futon,”

“Your grandfather’s a degenerate,” Tanigaki snapped.

“My skin hurt after she scrubbed me. She put me in a hot tub of water and gave me some knotweed tea to sleep it off. When I woke the next day, I couldn’t find my grandpa. I took his carbine out, but he never came.

“A few weeks later, the owner of the rice fields came looking for him. Grandma claimed that my grandpa ran out on her, and she offered up my mother to convince him of the truth,” Hyakunosuke swallowed hard. “I remember seeing them through the window. He just pounded into her, and she just laid there with this empty look on her face. She looked right at me, Tanigaki, without a hint of passion in her eyes,”

“Ogata,” he said. “You weren’t responsible for her or that situation,”

“I eventually killed my mother, Tanigaki. Her mind and heart were broken, and so I released her from this world. Don’t ask me how I did it.  My mother was a soulless bitch, and I’m tired of being the one that has to tell her story.”

Hyakunosuke sensed him moving closer.

“After burying her, grandma sold everything and moved us to Mito. She toiled in a brothel, scrubbing men’s sins out of kimonos and pillows,” he turned to the Matagi. “That coin enabled my rise in the world, Tanigaki. I went from a good school to the army academy, and she went from washing obi to wrapping one around her neck,”

“It’s not your fault, Ogata,” he whispered.

“The day I enlisted was the day she killed herself. She died for me, and I let the city toss her into an unmarked grave. She never hugged me, but I understood why. She refrained for my sake, Tanigaki. She knew that showing me the physical love I craved would weaken my resolve. She refrained, just like you did with my brother at 203 Hill,”

Tanigaki gave a start.

“Second Lieutenant Hanazawa Yuusaku,”

Tanigaki recoiled as if burned.

“I know all about the two of you, Matagi.”

“Nothing went on between us,” he exclaimed.

“Did he tell you about me?” Hyakunosuke demanded. “His big brother that no one liked, and he couldn’t understand why,”

“You,” he whispered. “You took him to that brothel,”

“What a fool I was, thinking that he was incorruptible,” Hyakunosuke leered. “I simply didn’t use the right bait,”

Tanigaki’s face went red with shame.

“You’re wrong about him, Ogata-”

“—I followed him to where you were sleeping in the trenches,” Hyakunosuke sat up and swung his legs over the hay bed. “Oh, the way he looked at you, I knew that look. I’d seen that look on my grandpa,”

“You saw nothing-”

“—When he started crying,” he laughed. “You took your hat off and shielded his face so no one would see,”

“Men looked up to him-”

“—You lent a sympathetic ear just like the one you’re giving me now,” he focused on the clear path between the crates beyond. “I heard every fucking word that day. How he always wanted a brother, and how I turned out to be so vile,”

Tanigaki appeared lost in the memory.

“Calling me vile I could abide, I’d been called much worse in this life,” Hyakunosuke gnashed his teeth. “But for him to say I was just like our father, that I couldn’t abide,”

Tanigaki stood, hand cradling his stomach.

“When he kissed you, and you didn’t pull away, that was noble, Matagi, but you were a true soldier, loyal to the division,” Hyakunosuke mocked. “He offered you his virginity, and you refused to put our lives at risk by spoiling the flagbearer,”

Tanigaki glared at him, “Ogata-”

“—I wasn’t sure if Tsurumi put you up to it, the way he’d put me up to it, but damn if you didn’t get the job done!” it hurt Hyakunosuke to laugh. “My brother would’ve followed you anywhere, even to a brothel,”

“I was asked to be his friend!” the Matagi shouted.

“But there was more, wasn’t there?” he demanded. “That final push, when you shoved that flag into his hands and told him to follow you out. The look in his eyes, it was so pathetic. He finally found a man willing to take a Russian bullet for him,”

Tanigaki’s hand went to the back of his head.

“Pity you took a Japanese bullet instead,” Hyakunosuke planted his feet firmly on the floor. “I fired the shot that tore through my brother’s brain and lodged itself into that thick Matagi skull of yours,”

“You were there when I opened my eyes,”

“I was ready to dig that fragment out until Tsurumi galloped through on his horse, ordering everyone back to the trenches. You stood up like happened, but then you saw my brother and cried like a baby,” slowly Hyakunosuke stood. “You dragged Yuusaku back to the trench-”

“—Why’d you kill him?” Tanigaki cried. “All he ever did was love you, Ogata! He wanted an ally against his father’s plans for him!”

“Our father didn’t even invite me to his wake,” steadily he took first steps toward the Matagi. “He brought you out of recovery to see my brother off into the next world. Brought you into his home and sat you next to his wife!”

“He was my friend!”

“We all know what happens to your friends, don’t we Tanigaki?” Hyakunosuke teased. “We all had reputations in the Division-?”

“—Shut your mouth, Ogata!”

“Son of a wildcat is a wildcat, too,” Hyakunosuke grinned. “Share a whore with the Matagi, and you’ll end up on his shaft, just like her,”

He jumped up, his hands balled into fists.

“Are you going to let your anger get the better of you again, Tanigaki?” he goaded. “Are you going to let your emotions cloud your judgment to the point that someone loses their life, again?”

“You’re a vile man, Ogata Hyakunosuke!”

“I can hear Kiroranke screaming your name!” he lunged when Tanigaki came at him, tackling the taller man’s shins and toppling him to the ground.

Impaired by his monocular vision, he charged sloppily through the maze of crates, whimpering when sharp corners brought pain. He stumbled on the stairs and pushed through the metal door.

Daylight blinding him, he fell against the starboard grate and peered over its edge. The ship was moored to a bollard on the dock by a thick anchor chain.

He pulled his shirt off and twisted its ends to make a rope before climbing out onto the dense, knotted metal. Both ends tight in his grasp, he rolled off the chain and then dangled in the air.

Far below, strangers toiled about unaware of presence. He kicked his legs in unison, desperate to build enough momentum to start sliding down.

Suddenly, twine fell across his face, it then dragged behind his ears and tightened under his chin.

He thrust a hand between it and his throat, releasing the shirt and falling from the chain. The constricted twine forced his knuckles against his jugular, and he choked as the enraged Matagi reeled him sloppily up the hull.

Hyakunosuke needed to keep breathing long enough to reach the underside of Tanigaki’s boot. At the precipice of the grate, he came alive and stuck both feet to the railing.

He snatched hold of the rope and yanked Tanigaki over the top rail. Screams echoed from below as he pulled himself onto the deck

Down on the cobblestones, a crowd gathered around the fallen Tanigaki, spread eagle with a halo of blood around his head growing larger with each passing moment.