Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

 

The bell signalling the time rang out in the darkness. A grating, metallic sound, repeated four times. Tanne woke up and trembled. 4 a.m. He’d heard the sound since he was born, but never got used to it. Maybe it was the sharp clang, or how this bell controlled his frantic life. Tanne covered his ears with his hands but the bell continued to echo inside him. This morning’s bell seemed particularly jarring, pure hatred bubbling up to the surface. He couldn’t help but stop up his ears.

The people locked up in Administrative Camp 16 weren’t allowed clocks. In fact there wasn’t a single clock to be found, even in communal areas – the schools, shop floors, and factories. So they relied on the bell to tell them the time. It signaled to them when it was time to wake up, to finish work; told them when to eat and when to sleep. Ever since he was a child, he’d thought of time as something that came down from above, something forced on them.

There were many other things they were forbidden to have. They couldn’t have glasses, or false teeth. If they were missing teeth, or were handicapped through accident or illness, they just had to endure it. There were no books, and of course no magazines, newspapers, or radios. Tanne had never seen a television.

The only things Tanne had ever read were the shabby, hand-me-down textbooks at school. Their food, clothes, shoes, blankets and eating utensils were all rationed. Most of these goods were made within the enormous grounds of the Camp and were of such poor quality that they soon fell apart and were of little use. The river was nearby so they had plenty of water, but whenever there was a storm the water from the faucets turned muddy. The electricity was only on from four to five a.m., and again at night from ten to eleven p.m. It was during those short periods that people ate and quickly washed up.

Tanne had heard that one old man who’d lived in the Camp forever had complained that they were treated like animals. Predictably, he’d been quickly executed. The Supervisors ridiculed the people locked in the Camp, calling them a herd of goats. In the Camp elementary school that Tanne attended the teachers always yelled at them, saying, ‘Hey! You there. You little herd of goats!’

We might be the same as goats, Tanne thought, but the Supervisors said we need to know the time. In order to raise production, they had to meet their huge quotas within a set time. They might not be allowed any clocks inside the Camp, but they still made sure that the convicts knew what time it was, reminding them more often than they ever wanted to know.

The person in charge of ringing the bell to announce the time was called the Bell Striker. The Bell Striker climbed a ladder some ten metres up to the belfry and rang the bell every half hour from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m.. On the hour he would ring the appropriate number of times, and once on the half-hour. In other words, the nineteen hours that the bell was ringing, from four in the morning until eleven at night, the people of the Camp had to be awake.

Being a Bell Striker was a dangerous job, and was seen as a sort of punishment. The person assigned to it had to climb up to the tall, rickety belfry even when it rained or snowed or there was a storm; even on days when it was so blazingly hot that the iron ladder was too hot to touch. And then spend the day staring fixedly beyond the thick concrete walls at the clock tower rising high over the Supervisors’ village.

Tanne had heard the whispered rumors: that a large, white clock was set into the clock tower. That from the belfry you could catch a glimpse of the lives of the Supervisors. Naturally, the rumours made him curious.

Why don’t they just give him a watch? Tanne always wondered. But the Supervisors suppressed any independence among the convicts, and allowed them no freedom at all. The Supervisors made use of every second to drive the convicts as hard as oxen, allowing them barely a moment to themselves. When they occasion warranted it, they killed convicts without compunction. They justified this by saying that the people confined to the Camp were all convicts who had committed a terrible crime. Tanne, born in the Camp, had learned at school that this terrible crime was called treason against the State.

 

*

 

The only time the Bell Striker was allowed to come back down was at 6 a.m., at noon, and at 6 p.m., for twenty-five minutes each, to eat. The rest of the time he had to remain in place in the belfry, staring straight at the clock. He had to quickly use the toilet during those three breaks. He might have diarrhea, or be so cold his bladder was about to burst, but he had to hold out. At eleven p.m., after the last bell of the day was rung, he clambered down the ladder in the dark and went home, to sleep for three or four hours. Then, a few short hours later, before four a.m., he once more had to be up on the belfry.

The belfry did have a rough sort of roof, though its purpose was to protect the valuable bell from the elements and it wasn’t big enough to protect a person. A man could be young and strong, but once he’d been sent up to the belfry it would be only a matter of days before he admitted defeat. Some Bell Strikers slipped and fell off the ladder. Some inadvertently fell asleep on the belfry and tumbled off. Some were blown off by the wind. Very occasionally, one would be struck by lightning and die.

The middle of winter was the worst. The air was piercing cold, and there was nothing to block the wind. The iron ladder would freeze and be slippery, but if you grabbed it your hands would stick. Panic and try pulling them off and all the skin of your palms would rip off, and word had it that some people this happened to felt such agony and despair that they leapt to their deaths. In the summer Bell Strikers had to battle thirst and blazing heat, and soon grew exhausted. That’s why – so the rumor went – the bell sounded so faint in mid summer.

Even if the Bell Striker tried to sit down and take a rest on top of the belfry, there was a Supervisor with a rifle at the clock tower, a sharpshooter keeping watch over him, and he couldn’t let down his guard for a second. Several years ago, a Bell Striker had fallen asleep leaning against the bell and when the Supervisor at the clock tower noticed this he shot him down. Tanne had heard that Supervisors sometimes shot at the Bell Strikers just to show off how good a shot they were.

And any Bell Strikers who talked about the glimpses they had of the Supervisors’ village were taken away somewhere and disappeared. In the Camp disappeared meant being taken to a secret Supervisory location (rumored to be underground), horribly tortured, and then killed. The Supervisors encouraged people to inform. Working hard and informing regularly on other convicts was proof of your loyalty to the State. If a convict was seen as loyal, he could rise in rank in the convict hierarchy. This was why Tanne and the others never spoke their true feelings, even to their family. No one knew what anyone else was thinking, even within the home.

The Supervisors lived with their families in a safe, comfortable place, protected by a high wall. They lived like rich people, eating vegetables and fruit, and fresh meat from the livestock barns, all supplied by the convicts. The Supervisors’ job was to re-educate the convicts, who had committed serious crimes, make them work hard – and to raise profits in the Camp. The Supervisors were, almost to a man, vicious and cruel, and were proud of how roughly they treated the convicts, as if they were indeed a mere herd of goats.

The only thing in the Supervisors’ village visible from the Camp were the red tin roofs of the houses. The roofs always sparkled because there were convicts whose job it was to polish them. One had to be careful not to look up at these red roofs, for if you did a whip would lash out at your back. So the convicts never looked at the Supervisors’ village, never made eye contact with the Supervisors themselves. If they did happen to see one, they quickly prostrated themselves on the ground and made sure to look down.

Those convicts who did go into the Supervisors’ village never spoke of what they saw or heard there. When Tanne was a child, one of his classmates had helped transport crops over to the Supervisors’ village and had come back all excited about a large, square, concrete pond he’d seen in the center of the village where the children were happily splashing around. I wonder if that’s what they call a swimming pool, his classmate had said enviously.

The next morning someone had apparently informed on his classmate to the teachers, and his classmate was whipped for over an hour in front of everyone. Then he had to go without lunch for a month, and the teachers looked for every opportunity to harass and beat him. This classmate of Tanne’s fell sick and, half year later, died.

Knowing full well how dangerous it was to see anything in the village, the Bell Striker did not look at anything in the village there, even as he stared at the clock tower. If by chance he did happen to see something, he would never talk about it to other convicts. A long time ago, an old man who retired from being the Bell Striker because he could no longer read the hands of the clock, tore his own tongue out, afraid that he might murmur something about the Supervisors’ village in his sleep. He was afraid of the repercussions on for his family if he did blurt out something out.

With thoughts of all this running through his head, Tanne struggled to get up. As he did, he heard a deep sigh. It was his mother, lying next to him, stirring, no doubt, struggling to get up before the four-thirty bell rang.

Last night, after the two of them had eaten their corn gruel, she had returned to the sewing factory to go back to work. Tanne didn’t know what time she got back because he was already asleep. Night was over in an instant, and without any time to rest, another trying, painful morning had come. Despite being the end of March, it was terribly cold this morning.

Sensing her getting up behind him, Tanne closed his eyes once more. The annual Promotion of Labor Week had begun two days ago, which meant there were no classes at junior high. Tanne had been assigned to work in the hog pen, a relatively easy job, and didn’t have to show up until 7 a.m. I’m lucky, he thought. Maybe the teachers treat me better since I’m the child of a First Rank Convict. Tanne grinned.

Vegetable waste and corncobs were sent over to the hog pen to feed the piglets. The job had its advantages: there were always some kernels of corn still clinging to the cobs, or still-edible vegetables mixed in the waste. Anyone assigned to work in the hog pen automatically began to drool at the thought of the food they could pick up.

‘Are you going to eat something, Tanne?’

His mother turned to him. She had built a fire in the stove and was preparing corn gruel. Tanne didn’t respond. If the gruel got cold, it hardened and became lumpy. But if you ate it when it was still hot it was all gone in a few spoonfuls. He agonized over which to choose.

‘When’re you leaving?’ his mother asked.

‘I’m working at the hog pen so I have to be there at seven.’

‘That’s good. Be sure to pick up anything you run across there. Even scraps. You never know what you’ll find.’ These were her usual, matter-of-fact instructions. She ate her gruel, then ladled out Tanne’s portion into the aluminum bowl and passed it to him. The aluminum bowl was so thin and flimsy that just holding it made it bend.

‘Mom, did you work late last night?’

Tanne looked at his mother, who was shrinking with every passing year. With the hard labor she did, and chronic malnutrition, her back was bent, her arms thin, her joints gnarled. She was not yet forty, yet her face was as wrinkled as an old woman’s.

‘Pretty late. I was sewing Japanese men’s suits.’

‘What’s a suit?’ Tanne asked.

‘Fancy clothes.’

It seemed like too much trouble to explain, apparently, and she stood up. She stretched and began buttoning up her short work uniform.

‘I didn’t get lunch because I didn’t reach my quota. With my eyes so bad, though, I have trouble threading a needle.’

Somehow Tanne couldn’t sympathize with her. Everyone was working their hardest just to survive, he thought, so what could you do? If you complained you’d be deemed a malcontent and end up punished.

‘Mom, be careful what you say.’

Tanne said this casually, but his mother seemed shocked and stared at him fearfully. Tanne was surprised, realizing that she was worried he might inform on her. In fact, there actually were many examples of this. Families like theirs – convict families where the couple met in the Camp, got married there, and had children – were the kind that informed most on other family members.

Families in which the father was accused of treason and the whole family was taken into custody were united and always helped each other. The family of his classmate Hyo, for example. Tanne thought of Hyo as he put away the aluminum bowl. It had only been a year since Hyo had come to the Camp, but he was already terribly thin and no longer spoke much to Tanne.

‘Well, I’ll be off,’ his mother said.

As she set off for the sewing factory the light buzzed, flickered a few times and then went out. A few moments later the bell signaling five a.m. hurriedly rang out. Either they’d shut off the electricity a little bit before five, or else the time signal was late.

Clearly someone had been remiss or blundered. The Supervisors were in charge of electricity, and it would be embarrassing if they had made an error and shut off the electricity before the time signal. No doubt the Bell Striker would be punished. It made no sense, but that was the logic the Supervisors operated under.

Who was the Bell Striker these days? Tanne wondered, wrapping his mother’s blanket around him. It was a thin blanket but the extra layer warmed him. He was happy to have the extra hour to sleep. Before he could fall asleep gain, though, his stomach growled. He’d just eaten the gruel, but was still hungry. The scant rations had only stimulated his hunger more.

The 6 a.m. bell had the usual calm sound. Tanne awoke again and peered inside the iron pot on the stove. Half the corn gruel, now cold and hard, remained in the pot. His mother must have made extra to have for dinner, he thought.

He knew he should save it, but couldn’t help himself and ate the leftovers. He washed it down with some thin, salty pak choi cabbage broth. If only there was some meat in it, he imagined, how great that would taste, and he couldn’t stop drooling at the idea. Eating the same exact food, day after day, you never felt satisfied. Pretty soon, though, would be the season when they could pick mushrooms and wild plants in the hills, and the snakes and frogs awoke from hibernation. When that happened they should be able to eat all sorts of things. This morning Tanne had a faint sense of hope, something he rarely experienced.

The path to the hog pen ran straight along the river. In front of the Camp was a large river, in back, steep hills. The Fourth Class convicts lived in the valley at the base of the farthest hill. It was dark there and cold, for the sun never reached the valley. Each valley was assigned to one rank, with Third Class in one valley, Second Class in the next. First Class convicts like Tanne’s family were assigned stand-alone houses, in which the mothers and their children lived, nearest the Supervisors’ village.

When you became a First Class convict, you were encouraged to marry as a kind of reward. You weren’t allowed to choose your partner, of course, but marrying was proof that you were an outstanding convict, and everybody aspired to this. Tanne’s was one of these superior families. Tanne was proud of this fact. His father was a First Class convict and worked in the cement factory. Men and women weren’t allowed to live together, even if they were married, so Tanne didn’t see his father often, but Tanne loved it when he did stop by the house, for he always brought some delicious treat like fish from the river or wild grapes.

Tanne looked over at the cement factory far past the river. He hadn’t seen his father for over a half year and missed him.

A thin boy was hurrying along in front of Tanne. From the distinctive square shoulders it had to be Hyo. Tanne trotted up alongside him.

‘Hyo, where are you going?’

Hyo, clearly malnourished, raised his pointy chin. When he saw it was Tanne a look of fear came over him.

‘To help with the work at the cow sheds.’

The cow sheds were next to the hog pens. Tanne found it strange that a Fourth Class convict like Hyo would get a good job like that, but he said nothing. Maybe Hyo was tasting the fruits of being an informant.

Hyo’s father had been a high-ranking person in the State, Tanne had heard. They had lived in a magnificent house in the capital, traveled abroad, had wonderful food to eat. But then his father made a fatal error and the entire family was arrested. And his parents, grandmother, and two younger sisters all came to the Camp. As if to deliberately belittle his former high position, Hyo’s father was assigned to clean the factory. Even if you had a high position in society, in the Camp you might end up at the bottom.

Tanne had heard, though, that if you worked very hard and built up points you could rise in rank and eventually be released. So Hyo’s family should make the effort. Tanne’s father had said this. Tanne felt very sorry for Hyo, so emaciated he was hardly recognizable.

‘Hyo, next time you want to go see the train?’

‘Where?’ Hyo asked, his eyes wondering.

Tanne pointed to a spot beyond the Supervisors’ village. Trains even came to the Camp sometimes. Tanne had heard about them but never actually seen one. Hyo knew a lot about various conveyances and Tanne thought it would be fun to go with him. But Hyo looked uninterested.

‘I don’t care about trains,’ he said.

‘How come?’ Tanne asked, disappointed, but Hyo edged away, anxious, and ran off towards the cow barn. As Tanne watched him go he recalled one particular incident. Tanne had opened his textbook and was looking at the page with pictures of various forms of transport. On that page it said, ‘In our country we have all different kinds of conveyances – airplanes, automobiles, trains, motorcycles, and bicycles,’ with drawings of each next to the text. The plane depicted was a military airplane, and under cars, next to drawings of a bus and a military truck, was a drawing of a black, boxy automobile, labeled passenger car. Tanne loved that drawing of a passenger car.

Hyo, who’d been peering at this beside him casually said, ‘I’ve been on an aeroplane, too.’

Tanne was surprised. This was the first person he’d ever met who’d been on an aeroplane. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘When did you ride in it?’

But Hyo had suddenly disappeared from sight. He hurriedly turned around and saw his teacher dragging Hyo by the ear out to the hallway.

‘What are you trying to do, you criminal? Show off?’ the teacher growled.

Tanne heard a loud slap, and he shut the textbook. Their conversation had obviously brought unwanted attention from the authorities. Which would explain Hyo’s wariness around him now. The thought made Tanne sad.

That afternoon, as they were cleaning out the hog pen, a Supervisor came by and asked which one of them was Tanne. Tanne stepped forward. As he idly brushed the back of a pig with a handful of straw, the Supervisor spoke, not looking at Tanne’s face. ‘Your old man was a moron. He fell off the belfry and died. You’re to come with me immediately.’

‘But sir, my father is working in the cement factory. Are you quite sure about this?’

As soon as the words left his mouth, he got slapped.

‘Idiot! Are you calling me a liar? Just go!’

Getting slapped so hard by an adult like this, Tanne’s cheek swelled up and felt numb. His right ear had gotten cut as well, and blood was dripping out. Could his father really be dead? And if he really had fallen from the belfry, then that meant it had been his father who had rung that hasty first bell this morning. And the bell that was late to signal lights out. Tanne was shocked, and turned pale.

He ran to the belfry as fast as he could and when he got there he found a group of black-clad men below it. There were a dozen or so Supervisors, gazing down at something. Any gathering of Supervisors was a frightening thing, but when Tanne realized that in the middle of this group lay his father’s dead body, his knees began to shake.

An older Supervisor noticed Tanne, turned around and shouted at him.

‘So you’re the guy’s son, huh? Take at look at how stupid his face looks now that he’s dead.’

Tanne timidly peeked, and saw his father lying there, mouth open. His mouth was full of blood. There was a bullet hole in his chest, dark blood flowing out.

‘This guy couldn’t even handle being a Bell Striker.’

Tanne stared down at his father’s corpse, his mind a blank. His father was supposed to be living in the dorm at the cement factory, and working hard there, so why was he made a Bell Striker? Tanne had no idea. How could a First Class convict like his father, who’d been given permission to marry and have a child, end up like this? Tanne didn’t know what to think. He suddenly found himself pressing his hurt cheek with his hand and, for some reason he couldn’t quite fathom, grinning.

‘You climb up there next.’

Someone suddenly shoved his shoulder, and Tanne’s forehead smacked into the iron ladder. Perhaps finding this funny, several of the Supervisors laughed. In spite of himself, Tanne laughed as well.

‘The guy’s laughing. What is he, a moron?’

Someone kicked Tanne in the legs from behind. He fell over, and wound up grovelling in the black soil like a frog, dirt in his mouth. Overcome by a reality he’d never imagined, Tanne was laughing no more. Peel back one layer from the real world and you found a dark, hellish place.

‘Get up there right now! From today you’re the Bell Striker.’

A man poked him the back with his rifle and Tanne grabbed onto the ladder and began to climb. He was scared. The ladder tottered back and forth, and he’d never been up this high in his life. It frightened him to look down, so he made himself look up as he scrambled up one rung, then another. When he got to the top of the belfry he found a tiny platform, a metre long on each side. The whole platform swayed in the wind, and there were cracks in the flooring and he could see the ground below. Tanne was terrified and on the verge of tears. Even when break time came he feared he’d be too frightened to climb down again. The bell was a cheaply made copper one. It hung from a stout chain, and a metal hammer lay tossed aside on top of the platform.

Tanne looked down and saw that the Supervisors, perhaps bored with it all, had dispersed. Convicts were in the midst of carrying away his father’s body. They would carry it to a graveyard somewhere in the hills. There would be no grave marker, so he would never know where his father was buried. Tanne whispered a silent farewell to his father and turned to look for the clock tower in the Supervisors’ village.

The clock tower, a hundred metres away, was easy to spot. It wasn’t pure white, as he’d imagined, but grey, which was disappointing. The tower itself was so impressive, though, he couldn’t help staring at it. The clock was set into the wall of the massive tower. Tanne had only seen clocks in his textbook and he drank in the shining face of the clock, with its large hands. He’d realized now how vain he’d been, proud of being the child of a First Class convict. He had lived his entire life in ignorance, but now he knew the truth: from the moment he was born, he was fated to live as a convict, a child who had to pay for the crimes of his parents.

Tanne spotted a Supervisor, half leaning out a window to one side of the clock. He was aiming a rifle and looking in Tanne’s direction. If Tanne neglected his job even a moment, he’d be shot down. But this didn’t bother him, for he was absorbed in looking at this village surrounded by a wall.

There was a paved street inside the village, and walking along it was a girl in a red skirt, holding the hand of a woman in black trousers, most likely her mother. In the garden of a house an older man in white clothes was shelling beans in a leisurely way. Another man was riding along on a strange contraption, smiling. This must be what they call a bicycle. Tanne was amazed. This was an entirely new world and he was enthralled. This was the real thing. Who needs textbooks anymore? He could understand now, a little, why Hyo made such fun of them. Not just Hyo – all the people sent to the Camp from outside had seen so much that Tanne had never experienced. He realized how much he’d missed out on.

After a time, beyond the Supervisors’ village, he saw a train arrive. It was a four-car train, and men were working all around it, unloading goods, stacking them into piles.

‘Hyo – I saw it too!’

Tanne was so happy he waved his hands.

‘Tanne – pay attention to the time!’ a Supervisor down below suddenly yelled, and Tanne hurriedly faced the clock tower. It was a few minutes after two. He frantically struck the clock twice. On the second strike the hammer slipped, and the bell sounded muffled.

‘I’ll overlook it this time,’ the Supervisor yelled, his expression frightening, ‘but from now on watch the clock and ring the bell loudly.’

Tanne bit his lip, but soon his eyes wandered to the village. He quickly spotted the large, concrete pond his classmate had talked about. It was brimming with water and boys were floating little boats on the surface.

Before he realized it, he was lost in watching the village once more. It was already past two-thirty. In the window of the clock tower, the man was aiming his rifle. Tanne knew he was about to be shot, but he didn’t care. Maybe his father had felt exactly the same way. Tanne turned away from the clock tower. Smiling, he looked far off in the distance, and gazed at the stationary train.

 

 
Image © Neil Adams
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