Yet another QUT assignment done and dusted. However, this one had a little bit more meaning. This time, this was my last ever assignment for the year and now next year, I go into uni full time and learn what it is like to become an author.
This short story is about an island off the north coast of Japan – and yes, it is a real island – used for exile way back in the 1100-1200s. And Emperor Juntoku is a real character who was sent to Sado for that very crime. This story is half fact and half fiction.
Hope you enjoy!
Stretching over Sado
Water crashed along the side of the hull as the small, wooden boat was tossed to and fro with the force of the waves. Emperor Juntoku rubbed the smooth skin on his chin, hands bound tightly with chains. He had shaved just that morning before he had been seized by men in his chambers and thrown onto the rickety skiff. Soon, the skin there would be covered in dark hair and the hair on his head would be clumped with oil. His hands and ankles rattled loudly as he moved.
Gone were his silk robes, replaced with dirty rags for clothes which stunk of urine and death. Now he was treated like those found in his dungeons. Gone was his wife, his beautiful Azumi; only an imprint of stained pink lipstick remained on his cheek. Gone, all of it was gone.
The boat was thrown over another wave brutally and the prisoner clutched hastily at the thin bench, knuckles bone white with the pressure. His jail keeper sat facing him, rowing the boat in the direction where the last few years of the prisoner’s life would begin and end. The jailer grinned when he noticed his former Emperor’s fearful and weak movements.
The warden leant in close, easing up on the rowing for a moment. On his breath, Juntoku could smell alcohol. “It’s Hell where you’re going,” the jail keeper said and his grin widened; his grey and yellow teeth were more visible.
The jailer continued rowing and the rocky shore of Sado appeared in view. It was a small island off the north coast of Japan – just a pocket of land which was mostly a hillock, swathed in a carpet of green which gradually transformed into rocky shores as it descended towards the clear water. The sides of the small mountain gave way to rocky cliffs which cascaded into the ground like waterfalls. Juntoku’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. He stared up at the island with growing fear and unease, as if it was about to eat him whole with its jagged cliff side teeth.
As an emperor, Juntoku had sent many criminals to Sado for crimes as small as thinking about treason. Sado was the worst punishment one person could receive. Nobody knew what had happened on Sado or what it was like on the deportation island. The only thing people did know was that everyone was expected to die there.
The boat suddenly ran aground. Juntoku found himself no longer staring up at the island from a distance but at every single rock which lay on its redundant shore, rubbed smooth from the friction of the water; every blade of grass which crept along the surface of Sado. Juntoku pressed his body against the back of the skiff as far as he could go. He tremored violently, as if he was as fragile as a leaf.
The island was so bare, no form of civilisation existed as far as he could see. The closest things that resembled buildings were the trees which broke the hillock’s grassy rock faces. At first he couldn’t see the others who had been exiled before him. But then, as his eyes caught on milk white objects, lying at the bases of the pine trees, he realised he was must have been staring at them.
“Please,” he begged and wished he could somehow disappear into the wood of the skiff; anything to keep him from going on the island from Hell. “Please don’t make me go there. Please don’t leave me here all alone.”
The jailer merely shrugged. “You made your choice. When you participated in Go-Tuba’s attempt in displacing the Kamakura Bakufu. And now, you must pay for your choices.”
“I’m sorry,” the former emperor said. He struck his hands against the side of the boat, hoping the metal redundant chains would break. The boat rocked wildly with the action. Water splashed in and settled in the bottom of the skiff. “I’ll do anything to make up for my mistakes. That’s all it was. A mistake!”
Keys were shoved into the locks of Juntoku’s handcuffs and he was thrown out of the boat, rocks digging into his spine through his ratty clothing the moment he landed. He scrambled to his feet, watching as the boat slowly retreated away with the warden in it. He didn’t chase after it, just watched as it glided across the water, leaving him there on his own.
He turned back to the island and glanced around at its nakedness of civilisation with a shiver. He hoped his death would be swift.
Light transformed into darkness, the island became alive with the baby sounds of new beginnings, and the days lengthened with an intensifying heat, swallowing the darkness and bitter cold which had captured Sado like a prisoner. Full cheeks and the round belly of Emperor Juntoku was just a silhouette of the man he once used to be.
“Warm today, isn’t it, Daiki?” Juntoku turned his head to look at the tree with its green shrubby branches and peeling trunk. “Shedding layers? Good idea.” He laughed and ran his hand along the rough condition of the tree. “My Azumi always said I could lose a few pounds. You need to find that figure lying underneath all of that skin of yours, Daiki.”
Juntoku wandered down towards the shore and his eyes scanned the horizon, resting on the land he could glimpse out to sea. He imagined his Japan with its red framed temples and pink cherry blossom trees from where he stood, and the reminiscences pierced his heart like a knife.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” someone whispered from behind him.
Juntoku yelped and spun around, searching for the source of the sound. “Who’s there? Daiki?” But what he saw behind him made his heart come to a screeching stop and his mouth to plummet open. “Azumi? Is that you, my beloved wife? What are you doing here?”
His wife stood behind him, dressed in a silk, white kimono, smiling softly at him. “I came to find you,” she said. “You could have still had it, you know? Japan could have still been yours and you could have still had me. You could still have your balconies dusted with cherry blossom petals, you could still have your fancy buffets, and you could still have everything. But instead, you threw it all away, including me and including yourself. And for what?”
Juntoku stared at his wife sadly. He reached out to grasp her hands in his but she pulled away. “I was just doing what I thought was right.”
“And now you must suffer. You were happy. But now you are trapped here. Forever.”
Juntoku dropped to his knees by the water, forced to kneel with the weight of the accusation. He held his head in his hands and sobbed uncontrollably. “I’m sorry!” he cried. “I’m so sorry, my Azumi. I didn’t mean it. I wish I could take it back. I wish I could have you back.” He spun on the balls of his feet towards his beloved Azumi and crawled across the rocks towards her. “I can make it up to you, my beautiful Azumi. Just please, let me make it up to you. Forgive me.”
He took her hand into his. Her fingers were cold, pale and as white as cotton. “Your fate rests here now. Your punishment doesn’t lead elsewhere. This is where you must remain and then, maybe then, once you’ve spent forever here, I might come to forgive you.”
He dropped his head in relief. Forever was a very long time and already, Juntoku was feeling very weary. He rested his poor, ageing and tired body beside his beloved wife’s and drew her closer. Her head lolled to the side, coming to rest over his beating heart.
“Oh, Azumi,” he whispered. “How long it feels since I last saw you.” He traced a finger against the skin on the inside of her wrist. How pale she was. Never could he remember a time where she had looked so frosty and colourless.
His eyes caught on the coastline of Japan for the second time that day. He smiled wistfully. “Look over there,” he said and pointed out across the Sea of Japan. “I used to be the Emperor, you know?” He laughed a little bit and then shook his head in wonder. “Funny how life turns out sometimes, isn’t it?”
He glanced down at his wife who lay sprawled in his arms. Her hair was gone, and for a moment, he blanched. But then he realised he probably didn’t look much better than she did. A lone tear fell onto his hollow cheek and slid down to spill onto his partner’s bald head. “Oh, how good of a life we once had. Stupid of me to throw it away like I did.” He sobbed a little bit. “But at least, I can now remain with my beautiful Azumi forever.”
Juntoku rested his head against hers and allowed for his eyes to slip closed wearily. Behind closed eyelids, Juntoku saw his beautiful wife standing a few feet away from him. Her hair was back to its shiny, long and dark brown quality, her figure was still slim and her skin still held its healthy tan colour, her brown eyes were bright with life.
He followed her down a hall made from polished wood with shoji screens. Juntoku was dressed in one of his finest blue silk robes which were patterned by darker blue circular patterns.
Azumi led her husband out into the courtyard which opened up before their royal temple. There was a crowd gathered and at the moment he appeared, it erupted in cheers and cries. Some of his advisors stepped forward and embraced him. For so long he had been deprived of all this. So much time he had spent on the island from Hell.
The crowd knelt down onto their knees and bowed to Juntoku with arms outstretched towards his feet. Emperor Juntoku felt tears well up in his eyes and he broke down in front of his people; his face turned as red as a bull fighter’s flag as tears stained his cheeks.
Opening his eyes, his gaze caught across the Sea of Japan for the final time. His tears came to a gradual stop and for a split second, he smiled and whispered, “I am Juntoku, Emperor of Japan.”
In his dreams, Emperor Juntoku continued to wander the corridors of his temple with his wife, Azumi, beside him. But his body would never leave Sado, the exile island from Hell. There, with his hand locked around Azumi’s skeletal one, he fell into a deathly sleep.