Welcome to Easy Stories in English, the podcast that will take your English from OK to Good, and from Good to Great.
I am Ariel Goodbody, your host for this show. Today’s story is for pre-intermediate learners. The name of the story is The Hair Thief. You can find a transcript of the episode at EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Hair. That’s EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Hair. This contains the full story, as well as my conversation before it.
So today I’m reading you another story by Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, a Japanese author. If you didn’t listen last week, he is one of the most famous authors from Japan. He is sometimes known as the “father of the Japanese short story”.
The original title of this story is Rashoumon. Rashoumon is the name of a big gate in Kyoto, one of the largest cities in Japan. But this gate doesn’t actually exist anymore. There is a stone monument that says, “This is where Rashoumon was”, but in modern pronunciation it’s called Rajoumon, I believe.
When I say ‘a gate’… Well, Japanese “gates” are very, very big. They’re huge. Much bigger than any Western gate. Gates are an important part of both of the major religions in Japan, Buddhism and Shinto. They are a barrier, so they mark where the normal world ends and the sacred, or magical, world begins. But at the same time, they can’t be closed. They are always open. So they represent the fact that these worlds can mix.
They are in themselves a kind of space. So the big gates usually have rooms inside them. And in this story, one of the scenes happens inside the room of the gate Rashoumon.
You may be familiar with the film Rashomon, but actually the story is not this one. The same setting is used in the film as in this story, but the plot of the film Rashomon is from In a Grove, which is a story by the same author.
I’ve actually never seen the film, but I want to, because it’s apparently very good. But I can see why they chose this setting because it’s very, very moody. It’s very scary, very creepy. It’s just mysterious. So I think it would work really well in a film.
Anyway, I changed the name of this story because if you don’t know the film and you don’t know the author, the name “Rashoumon” probably doesn’t mean anything to you. Also, the podcast is called Easy Stories in English, so if the name of the story is a Japanese word, it might confuse some people. So my title is based more on what happens in the story.
Let me just talk about some words in the story that you may not know.
So one of the things that comes up is “wigs”. So, a wig is a kind of fake hair. So, people who are bald, people who have no hair, can use wigs, and also people who dress up for their job, maybe performers, would use wigs sometimes. Britney Spears cut off all her hair and then started wearing wigs, for example. Sometimes wigs are fake, so they’re made of plastic, but sometimes they’re made of real, human hair.
“Snakes” also come up. So a snake is a long, thin animal with no arms. I think most of you probably know what a snake is, but I just want to make it clear, so you don’t get confused. There is a snake in the Bible, so the Christian text, the Bible. The snake in the Garden of Eden tells Eve to eat the apple and everything went badly after that.
In the West and I think most parts of the world, people don’t eat snakes. And they don’t eat them in Japan either… usually. Well, I don’t want to ruin the surprise!
So, listen and enjoy!
The Hair Thief
It was a cold, wet evening in Kyoto. The servant of a samurai stood under Rashoumon, a big gate. It was raining a lot, and he was waiting for the rain to stop.
Nobody else stood under the wide gate. It had once been bright red, but now the colour was fading. Large parts of the paint were coming off. On some parts of the gate sat insects. Rashoumon was on a large street, so usually there would be other people there, waiting for the rain to stop. But nobody else stood under the wide gate.
The city of Kyoto, where the gate stood, had suffered many problems in the past few years. The earth shook, winds attacked the city, and there were great fires. Many people died. Those who survived had to become thieves and murderers. People went into temples and stole Buddhist statues, and broke them into pieces, so that they could use them to light fires. So with all this trouble, it was not surprising that Rashoumon was falling apart.
Animals, such as foxes, had made their homes in the ruins of the gate, and many thieves made their home there, too. People even brought dead bodies to the gate and dropped them there. They did not have the money to bury them. At night, the gate was so creepy that nobody went inside.
As I said before, there was a man standing below the gate, waiting for the rain to stop. I told you he was the servant of a samurai, but this was a lie. Actually, he had just lost his job. Normally, he would have gone to the samurai’s house to wait for the rain to stop. But because he had lost his job, he could not do this. He had worked for the samurai for many years, but because of the problems in Kyoto, many people had lost their jobs. So the man stood under Rashoumon, and thought about what to do.
He had two choices.
One, he could remain honest. This would mean he would certainly starve. He would die, because he had no food. Many people were starving to death at that time in Kyoto. His dead body would be dropped at this very gate.
The second option was to become a thief. He did not want to do this, because the samurai had taught him to be an honest man. He kept thinking through his problem, but his mind came to the same decision each time. He would have to become a thief. Still, he was afraid. He didn’t want to be a thief.
The man sneezed many times. Atchoo, atchoo, atchoo! The cold weather made him feel sick. He wished he could sit by a fire and heat up. Even the insects that were sat on the gate had gone now, because it was so cold.
He looked up at Rashoumon. There were stairs in the side of the gate that lead up to a small room. That was where people put the dead bodies. It was going to be very creepy, but he had no choice. He needed to get out of the cold. So he would have to spend the night there. He put his hand on the sword he had on his belt, and started to climb the stairs.
A few seconds later, he saw something move in the room above. He held his breath and watched. Someone had made a light up there, and they were moving around in the room. The light was yellow, and made the room look even creepier. He tried to keep as quiet as he could, and went up the rest of the stairs.
At the top, he could see several dead bodies lying on the floor. The light was weak, and it was too dark to see how many there were. Some were naked, and others still had their clothes. They looked so still, that it was hard to believe they were ever alive. The smell was so strong that he had to cover his nose with his hand.
In front of one of the bodies was an old woman. She had grey hair, and was holding a torch, which was where the light was coming from. She was looking right into the face of a dead woman with long, black hair. As he watched, the old woman grabbed the black hairs and pulled them out one by one.
At first, the man was afraid. But his fear quickly turned into hate. This woman was evil, and she made him feel a strong hate of all evil. His hate burned like the old woman’s torch.
Why was she pulling the hair out of the dead? It was hard to know whether she was truly evil, because he did not know why she did it. But pulling hair from the dead in Rashoumon, in the middle of a rainy night, was a serious crime to him. He quickly forgot that he had thought about becoming a thief.
He stepped forward, his hand on his sword. The old woman turned, and jumped up. She was shaking with fear. She waited for a moment, and then jumped towards the stairs.
‘Monster! Where are you going?’ he shouted. He stood in front of her so she could not go down the stairs. She tried to push him away, and they started fighting. They fell onto the floor, and fought beside the dead bodies. He grabbed her arm and pulled it around her back, so that she couldn’t move. Her arms were nothing but skin and bones. She was silent.
He pulled out his sword and held it under her nose. She was still silent. She shook, and her eyes were wide open. Her breath was slow and heavy. Her life was in his hands.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’m not a police officer. I’m a stranger who was passing by this gate. I won’t arrest you or hurt you, but you must tell me what you’re doing up here.’
The old woman looked at him with sharp eyes. ‘I pull out the hair to make wigs.’
The evil in her disappeared. Suddenly, she was an old woman, shaking with fear. She was just an old woman who stole hair from the dead to make wigs. She probably only made a small amount of money from them. But he still felt hate for her. The old woman saw this, and spoke.
‘Making wigs out of hair of the dead may seem a great evil to you. But the people who have been dropped here are not good people. This woman, with the black hair, used to trick people. She took snakes, and cut them up, and sold them as dried fish. The city guards bought her snake meat, and said it was delicious fish.
‘If she hadn’t died, she would still be selling her snake meat as fish. But still, what she did wasn’t wrong. If she hadn’t done it, she would have starved to death. So it can’t be wrong. She had no other choice. She would probably think the same about me pulling out her hair.’
The man put his sword away and listened to her. He felt courage, suddenly. When he grabbed the woman, he had felt hate. Now he felt courage. He stopped asking himself if he should starve to death or become a thief. The idea of starvation was now unbelievable.
‘Are you sure?’ he said. ‘Are you sure that the black-haired woman would think that what you do is right, because you need it to live?’
‘Then it’s right if I steal from you. If I don’t steal from you, I’ll starve to death.’
Then he pulled her clothes off her body and kicked her so that she fell onto the dead bodies. He ran down the stairs with her yellow clothes under his arm and disappeared into the night.
The old woman cried, and slowly stood up. She picked up her torch and went to look down the stairs. Beyond the light of the torch, there was only darkness, unknowing and unknown.
I hope you enjoyed the story. You can support the podcast by leaving a review on iTunes. Search for Easy Stories in English, give us a star rating, and say what you like about the show. It would really help us grow. Thank you for listening, and until next week.