Oguri Mushitarô - "Incola Palustris—The Water Dwellers"

Timothy Iles, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 24, Issue 1 (Translation 1 in 2024). First published in ejcjs on 16 April 2024.

Abstract

A translation of the short story, "Incola Palustris—The Water Dwellers," by the Japanese author, Oguri Mushitarô (Oguri Eijiro, 1901-1946).

Keywords: Oguri Mushitarô, Japanese literature, modern literature, avant-garde fiction

Translator's Introduction


In his short forty-five years, Oguri Mushitarô (Oguri Eijiro, 1901-1946) produced a surprisingly large amount of fiction, in a range of styles—everything from adventure stories to detective fiction to "mad scientist" works that flirted with an abiding suspicion of science, technology, and progress. As a writer, Mushitarô saw moderate success during his lifetime, but critical attention had to wait until the publication of his collected works in the late 1960s. His writing style is readable and engaging, with little literary flourish, but instead an accessibility of vocabulary and grammar that makes reading quite straightforward. If we do not read Mushitarô for the love of language, then why should we read him? Quite simply for the picture his work creates of an increasingly "worldly" Japan—a Japan that finds increasing confidence in its own place in the world, in the world's acceptance of that place, and in the role which Japan can—indeed, "should," we have the feeling from Mushitarô's writing—play in an international arena of competing colonialisms.

This is a central feature of the story here; the reality of competitive colonialism hags over this short novella, and the reality of Japan's participation in it as an equal partner. The drama of the story drapes itself over the ideology that stands as a framework—Japan has a place in the world, a place that is, primarily, legitimate, as a colonial presence. In this sense, Mushitarô's work is of a piece with that of British novelists from the turn of the century. His work calls to mind the adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925) or Sax Rohmer (1883-1959), as "boys' own adventures" for Japanese adults who themselves had very little chance of travelling to the locales of Mushitarô's fictions. The action presents itself as a venue for escapist fantasy, and there's no apology that the audience, Mushitarô is certain, is a male one.

An increasingly confident, colonial Japan, an adventure story for men who may never have fully grown up, and set of exotic locations safely removed from the situation of a war—these are the qualities we find in this novella that embraces its politics in a way that would be audacious if we were unaware of the historical context of its creation. Oguri wrote this work in 1940, when Japan had sure hopes of victory in its expansionist enterprise on the Asian mainland, before embarking on all-out warfare throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The ideological stance behind this story is not inevitable, of course; there was domestic resistance to Japan's militarisation, even though most of that resistance had to hide itself or face significant consequences. Nonetheless, the ideology here is exuberant in its certainty; Oguri Mushitarô wrote fiction that fully accepts the notion that Japanese colonialism was appropriate, was right—not only for Japan, but for the subjects of the countries it was colonising.

In this regard, too, Oguri's work calls to mind that of British writers, who accepted, without question, Britain's just and certain right to colonise, and even though we can read this story as a slight, engaging adventure story, we can never fully turn away from that knowledge of colonialism's consequences, a knowledge far from Oguri's mind in 1940, but which would inevitably come to him soon thereafter.

—•—

Incola Palustris: The Water Dwellers

1. The Gargantua of Rio
 
It was in the afternoon, on New Year’s Eve, when Oritake Magoshichi appeared at my house carrying a bottle of Brazillian liquor known as “Pinga.” And so finally today Oritake would bring out a few of his treasures! I thought to myself, licking my lips in anticipation; while drinking this Brazillian liquor, he was sure to tell me about the river, Rio, force de deus, deep in the Amazon jungle. I waited for him to begin…
 
And yet, unexpectedly and completely contrary to my predictions, he announced the subject he would talk about to be “The Water Dwellers.” For a moment I even thought I had misheard him.
 
“By ‘water dweller’ you mean people actually living in the water, do you?”                        
 
“Just so,” he nodded, calmly. But if he meant a tribe of people actually dwelling in the water, it was just too nonsensical. As serious as I was, I even began to grow annoyed.
 
“Come, come, enough of jokes!” I said in the end, unable to forbear. “Humans aren’t frogs or fur seals, you know; you don’t mean to say they can live in the water. Come now, quickly—out with the real stuff!”
 
But at that, instead of answering, Oritake opened the bundle he’d brought, and took out what appeared to be a foreign magazine. It was the journal of the Argentinian Geographical Society—Revistra Geografica Americana. Oritake flipped through this, and there, clearly on the page he suddenly slapped with his plump hand, were the “Incola palustris,” people who lived within the bounds of a swamp. For a moment I was dumbfounded, listening to Oritake’s burst of laughter.
 
“Ahahaha! So, have I surprised the great demon-hunter? Nothing to say? How about it—shall we let this child go, and get down to a real talk?”
 
My three-year old child in Oritake’s lap opened his eyes wide. A favourite of children—Uncle Tarzan; Oritake wore that mask, too. He had a boyish face, and the sort of bland, featurless qualities that no other Japanese had these days—but at the same time, if he had extensive talents of prudence and discretion, it was precisely because of these that he could accomplish great feats in the untrodden paths of the demon world. And what would this tale of the water dwellers be? Slowly and deliberately, Oritake began to speak…
 
“As it happens, this is a story that I came upon by accident. I’d pointed out some carelessness in the planning for the assault against the river, Rio, force de deus, and so it had been postponed for one year. In the interval, while I’d been passing time in Rio de Janeiro, I was suddenly summoned by the Incola palustris, and became enwrapped in destiny.
 
“What’s that, you say? You ask me where on earth those water dwellers may be? Well now—don’t rush me—let’s drink some of this Brazillian pinga, and listen as I tell you what happened after April, autumn in Rio.”
 
•••—•••
 
Rio’s vento moderado is the pride of the Brazillian people.
 
The pleasantness of the balmy breezes that blow in autumn in Rio, with the scent of shuro palm flowers mixing with the gentle sea winds from the bay…
 
Oritake, coming aimlessly out of one of the floating cafés of the Avenue Beira Mar, awash in the twilight breeze that rustled the palm leaves, walked amongst the crowds towards the hill. Along that street were night clubs for first-class passengers, like the “Pompiños Enamor,” and the “Matto Virgem.”
 
“Oh ho, what a name, the Matto Virgem—the sort of thing you can find anywhere.” Not exactly staggering with a comfortable drunkenness, just as he was about to pass unsteadily through the rear door of the “Pompiños Enamor,” with a rush of air from the roisterous interior, something was thrown heavily out in front of him. Looking closely, it was a suitcase. Just then, a man’s shrill, angry voice came from inside.
 
“Get out, get out, get out! If I were sending a useless tramp like you out to work, I’d lose all face! Get out!”
 
Everyone has seen this type of scene in movies many times—someone’s being fired, grabbed by the neck and a kick to the behind, thrown out with a bang—but it’s a characteristic of Latin America to do even this with exaggeration. Aha, I thought to myself, it seems as though a performer here is about to get the chop. What kind of person would he be—for sure he’ll come out with shoulders hunched in dejection, I should think… Even though he was more or less drunk, Oritake, suitcase in hand, watched the exit for the person who was certain momentarily to appear.
 
If it hadn’t been for even those few seconds of loitering, I probably wouldn’t have gone off to that secret realm where the Incola palustris lived, enduring the deepest Amazon for that one strange reason… the cursed place known as Esteros de Patino—that is, the swamplands of Patino…
 
Soon, with great composure, a large man appeared; he seemed completely to fill the doorway. As he came down the stairs to the road he looked here and there about the ground; he soon noticed Oritake.
 
“Ah, captain, you picked that up for me, didn’t you.”
 
“I kept an eye on it for you. But anyhow—you seem to have had it; this must be something pretty important to you. So—I hereby hand it back to you.”
 
And yet I had a very strange feeling about this guy. It was impossible to imagine him the fired performer, thrown out like a cat. His sturdy, broad shoulders, like a bolt across a door; his stout limbs, concealing a perfect flexibility; his height, his build, like a perfectly-proportioned Hermes; even other men could fall for him.
 
And yet, his garments were startlingly old—nothing looked like he was a club performer. Oritake began to think that he’d done something unthinkable, that he’d been wrong to hand over the suitcase.
 
“But this really is yours, isn’t it?”
 
“Haha—captain, you did hear everything, didn’t you?” the man roared with laughter.
 
“That guy with the shrill voice who kicked me out is Oriveira, the manager here. I interrupted that little runt openly, and implored him to be more patient, that I’d be a big hit starting tonight, but he wouldn’t listen to a thing I said. All the trouble came, most unreasonably, from him.”
 
He was jovial and speaking with rapid ease; he didn’t seem in the least despondent at having been fired—almost like little Lord Fauntleroy, he seemed on the spoiled side—he made a remarkable impression in his demeanour, even his voice.
 
“I was passing myself off as a female version of Gargantua, and I was hired here at the Pompiños Enamor just four days ago. My first night—taking off the women’s underwear and so on, I made everyone laugh. But, they didn’t even ask me to come back.”
 
“Withdrew the offer, did they?”
 
“Well, they did make it; but to tell the truth, I think it was just for show. I’m a complete amateur, but when I think about lasting even three nights at a picky place like Pompiños Enamor, I get pretty impressed with myself.”
 
“Surprising,” said Oritake, himself amazed; “You don’t even know the first thing about Gargantua, do you.”
 
“Not a thing; but if I could have done it, I could have done anything—if you’ve been the master, you can be the maid.”
 
With that, he took a couple of breaths of the dark night air, gazed vacantly at the stars for a while, but then suddenly, as if realising something, he abruptly spun around. He clearly wanted to speak with the captain about something. For that, he said that here wasn’t the place, and vigorously hurried Oritake off towards a small alley across the street.
 
“What’s up?”
 
“Actually, I want you to look at this.” In his palm sparkled two or three pebbles he’d taken from his pocket. Taking them in hand, Oritake saw that they were rough diamonds, as yet unpolished. He thought they must have been from ten to twenty carats… But more than that, it was their feel, as if they’d just been dug out of the earth, that Oritake thought odd. He quickly handed them back.
 
“You stole these, didn’t you—that, or they’re contraband.”
 
“Well, let’s talk about that later on. But from the look of you, you’re Japanese, I think. There are colono, Japanese immigrants in Santos and São Paulo, but you seem to be visiting here in Rio—like you’re with the Embassy. Well, whatever customs house you’re from, no bother; I think you’re a fine fellow. And if you weren’t such a fine fellow there’d be no point in talking with you; plus, I think you’ll go along with me. What do you think—I can probably sell these for a good price, but about how much, do you think?”
 
But Oritake was staring at one stone in particular; it would have been a true rarity if it really had been found in Brazil—he was enthralled by its green colour. Even if it had been only a small stone, to exhibit such a gorgeous lapis lazuli colour, in such remarkably high quality, was truly rare. There would never be anything like this in Brazil…
 
“There’s no way this is from Brazil, right? Is it from Africa? Or British Guinea?
 
“What do you mean—these are fresh out of the ground—there’s still mud on them! But still—they’re not from Brazil, not even Dutch Guyana—these are from a new mine in South America.”
 
If his mood were different, he might have had something to say about this, but unfortunately, Oritake’s character held neither passion nor even interest in diamonds. The man readily gave up on Oritake’s attitude, and popped the stones back into his pocket.
 
“Actually, these are pretty much extras for me. Tax evasion’s a big deal in this country. If I were to forget to be careful and hang on to these, I could be arrested,” with this, he chuckled, as if he were about to say goodbye; he took a step or two but then he stopped, gazing up at the sky. Calmly, he thrust out his chest, and said, as if boasting, “Now, let me see, how does it go—‘I was cast out, and darkness overcame me.’ But if I’m daring, being a beggar is fine; being a gaucho is fine…”
 
From time to time, the man was more charming than a woman. More and more strongly, Oritake felt that he didn’t want to part from this mysterious fellow.
 
He had an admirable brashness, and an extraordinary manner; he seemed refreshingly free from disagreeableness. And yet, Oritake could more or less infer who this man was—he was either a thief, a smuggler, or a fence. In any event, he was the sort to have diamonds of unknown provenance; but no matter—regardless of who he was, he was an agreeable sort, and it was Oritake’s usual mood when he was tipsy to stand a drink for anyone he’d taken an interest in.
 
“How about it—come for a drink!”
 
“A drink!” said the man, with an elated expression. “I’d thought to ask you for at least a meal, but I’d be grateful for a drink. Obrigado. This way, captain.”
 
At that, we went into a restaurant on Rua Rio Blanco—and this was the starting point of my strange summons by the Incola palustris.
 

 
2. Off by One
 
The man was a Paraguayan named Campos. To be exact, his name was Campos Figreido Montejinos. After graduating from university in the Paraguayan capital, Asunción, he first worked as a ranch hand, then a matador, then a commissioned officer in the Paraguayan army; listing everything he’d done would easily take several lines. While gulping down drinks, vigorously and without hesitation, his spirits began to arc like a rainbow.
 
“If people pay attention to small chances, they lose out on the big ones, you see. I try to grab the big chances, the ones that come to someone once in a lifetime. I think it’s the same with women—there’s only one woman for a man to love in his life. Don Juan or Casanova may have gone on a spree hunting for women, but that was only because they were searching for that single, eternal woman—well, at least that’s how I interpret it. That is, I’m an extremist, you see.”
 
“That’s you’re philosophy of wandering, isn’t it. Fleeting riches, happinesses—they don’t amount to much.”
 
“That’s it. And by the way, while we’ve been talking I’ve realised—tonight is the night for the announcement of the Bicho.”
 
The Jogo do Bicho is a particular “animal lottery” in Brazil. Anteaters have a certain number; wild boars another; different numbers are given to various animals. The winning numbers would be announced that night at midnight. Amidst the flower-scented breezes from the Ilha de Paquetá, the two piled up an accumulation of shot glasses while they waited for the lottery announcement. Oritake was once again plastered.
 
“Hunh—you’ve really got a lottery ticket… Hey—Campos—I just can’t help thinking that’s really funny…”
 
“Hahaha—is it really all that funny, that poor old me holds on to his one lottery ticket like a signboard? But don’t think I’m going to win—that’s my fortune, ya know… I had my fortune told, and this much is a sure thing…”
 
When twelve o’clock finally drew near, everyone became deathly quiet. I could imagine there was probably not a single soul who didn’t have a lottery ticket—that’s how surprisingly popular the lottery was. At last the winning numbers began to flow out from the radio. Of those, the voice from the radio announced that the grand prize, for 50,000 mil-réis, was among the rattlesnake series—the series that Campos himself held. The voice continued; number 59621. With that, Campos groaned.
 
“What’s up, Campos—did you win?”
 
“Off by one, captain—have a look at this.”
 
He looked; Campos’s ticket was indeed off by one; number 59620. Just one number… Intoxicated by his own fate more than by the liquor, Campos in silence stared at the table. Oritake was by then already fast asleep.
 
And so, it was nearly sunset the next day when he woke up. Campos was on the bed beside him, mending a pair of pants with remarkably skillful handiwork. Was this the same Campos from the night before? he asked himself; if it were, then Campos must have carried him there on his back. Ah, that’s it, he thought—the lottery was off by one… he shut his eyes tight, and the memory of the previous day began to run across the back of his eyelids like an old movie… At that, Campos smiled.
 
“You’re awake are you, amigo?”
 
Last night he was “captain;” today’s it’s changed to “amigo,” has it. Sewing away with handiwork readily comfortable with a needle and thread, Campos continued, “What do ya think—I’m going to be a happily married, good family man. I’m going to mend everyone’s clothes like this.”
 
“You’re good at it, aren’t you.”
 
“Sewing, cooking—there’s nothing I can’t do, even if I say so myself. I’ve even got a new design for corset fasteners.”
 
Even if this eccentric man were to be a thief, Oritake felt he could never dislike him. Call it a case of kindred spirits, or a miraculous unity of minds—but the two had become firm, fast friends. Campos would probably become Oritake’s house guest for the time being—and so, that evening became once again a chance for them to drink away their hangovers.
 
“Actually, captain, I’ve got a story I’d like you to hear,” began Campos, apparently purposefully.
 
“It’s about being off by one in last night’s Bicho. That got me to thinking about it pretty much. Now look. The winning number was 561 in the rattlesnake series, and mine was 560, just one short. So, I got to thinking about what it would have meant to be up by one. And I got to thinking—well, like this—wasn’t I close to a once in a lifetime lucky break, something really unbelievably big?”
 
“Trying to put one over on me, are you?” laughed Oritake, in amusement; “the interpretation in my country is pretty much the opposite.”
 
“Why’s that?”
 
“Well, in my country, the meaning of being off by one is, you get right up close to good luck, right up to it, but you just can’t catch it—that one little last distance is always just too much to overcome, and you end your life always just unable to catch it—it’s a pretty extremely bad meaning.”
 
“Che! It’s no omen,” blurted out Campos with a dismissive click of his tongue, his confidence unbroken. “In any case, I thought my through right to the very end—with enough will power, good luck is on its way—luck I couldn’t ever run away from. So, I’ve got a huge favour to ask you. I’ve just got to try my luck—I’ve just got to try to grab that luck that’s just one number away.”
 
“And for that—”
 
“Captain, lend me some money. I’m going to the casino tonight.”
 
For a while, Oritake stared at Campos’s face. He may have been brazen, he may have been audacious, but a guy who could come straight out and say, without the slightest hesitation, without the least timidity, something so bold, was quite a rarity. He was happily impressed. Well, well, he thought—things being as they may, luck would surely come to Campos. If he could help this thief wash away his past, he would be gaining some secret karma.
 
At any rate, Oritake’s salary was $500 per week; he couldn’t spend it all on his own; and if it came to $1,000 or $2,000 at most, he certainly wouldn’t be feeling any pains about it. Fine, he said, accepting Campos’s proposal.
The Pompiños Enamor is the largest casino in Rio. Oritake had already been introduced there, but the trouble was, what to do about Campos—the fact of the matter was that he’d tried to pass himself off as Gargantua but had been thrown out. But Campos himself had no worries; perhaps he was full of self-confidence; he was certainly brazen. He started by admiring himself after shaving off his moustache, saying that, now, he doubted whether anyone would know him as Campos the narcissist, who had survived three days as Gargantua. And so, the next night, they went to the Pompiños Enamor.
 
The nightclubs of Rio, a pleasure ground for first-class passengers and their companions… This is where they go to squeeze out their purses and wallets, to squeeze them until they’re penniless—and so, the seamiest in Rio’s pleasure grounds all gather, without exception, at the casinos.
 
“Você aposta um, friend? Do you gamble?” The voices came echoing sharply from the roulette clubs. The shining white breasts of the women, the scent of cosmetics, singing voices, the sounds of the paddles sweeping money from the roulette tables… Just as the two entered the cabaret, the lights suddenly went out.
 
“Esta é branca, pele e branca,” came a voice singing on the stage, “White, so white is my skin,” and with this, up went the curtain. But of course, this being the Pompiños Enamor, it wasn’t just a leg that emerged. Leaving the cabaret for a moment to moisten their mouths, suddenly Campos, noticing something, called out to stop someone; jerking his chin, he asked, “Boy, who is that woman there?”
 
The bus boy looked in that direction, and then grinned.
 
“Sir, you really have a good eye! That slim blond there? I can arrange things for you, but in any case, he’s beautiful but he’s expensive!”   
 
Campos interrupted him angrily, saying he’d gotten it wrong.
 
“That’s not who I meant. To the right, in the black dress—I doubt she’s working here?”
 
“Ah! Her!” said the boy, taking a gambling chip, and grinning. “She’s staying at the Gloria Hotel; she comes here from time to time to play roulette, but as to what she’s doing in a place like this, we really couldn’t say.”
 
Maybe she couldn’t be called young any more. She had an oval face, and that impression of quality she gave off, just like a white lily, stood out conspicuously in those surroundings. Campos was staring at her with feverish eyes, and in no time, he’d entered into that fateful casino.
 

3 The Demon Sphere—Tocó da Feto, The Foetus Stump
 
 
There are many twists in the destinies of men, and if there are those who shout out with fervour, “Você quer matar bicho?”—“Hey, you think you’re proud enough to kill the Devil?”—there are those who wilt like tired flowers, saying “hoje é azar!”—“bad luck today!” when they get three diamonds in a row. And yet, without showing any enthusiasm, Campos was utterly and completely wiped out playing cards.
 
Staring at Campos with eyes that said, “Well, would you look at that! It looks like I was right about being off by one!”—Oritake unexpectedly gasped. Campos had put down his cards and nimbly stood up, saying to one and all in the room, as if he were scrutinising each of them, “Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to consult with you all in earnest. As you can see, I stand before you flat broke, and yet I do not give in! And that is because I still have a security left… I would like to show it to you all, and wager it—all or nothing—against anyone who will take my bet!”
 
At that, Campos dug something from his pocket, and placed it, rattling, on the table top. There was an audible gasp as the room caught its breath—in dumbfounded amazement, staring at the rough diamonds and unpolished gems, still covered in earth, in the brilliantly shining lights…
 
“Hey, hey, hey—don’t just stand there—say something!” Campos’s voice grew coarse as he began to lose temper with the silent crowd. “Listen—I’m not selling these five diamonds, right? I don’t mean that I want to turn a handful of these into ready cash—it’s not the diamonds that matter, but the diamond field. Can’t any of you greedy people hear the billions, the trillions, rustling and crying out in this gravel?” Scooping up the earth from the table and letting it fall back, Campos stated his terms.
 
“I’m wagering the whereabouts of a new diamond mine, the likes of which will never again be seen in this world. First off, I want one of you to assign a value to this; then, I want someone to offer me that amount. Isn’t there anyone at all here, anyone who’ll bet against me and make me tell the location of the mine?”
 
At once a voice called out “Fifty million cruzeiros!” from a corner of the room, but Campos didn’t even bother to turn around. After that, in stages—fifty-five million, sixty million—the bidding reached seventy million, but then, abruptly, the voices stopped.
 
Most of all, who would give this strange personage, who’d seemed to have blown in like the wind, any real credence, with all his talk of diamonds and diamond fields? The members of the wealthy class who frequented this place were half suspicious, and half greedy; as matters stood, they were understandably nervous, seeing how quickly the offers had risen to seventy million. Campos thought he had to actualise matters…
 
“Now, where on earth could this diamond field be? And how on earth did I come to find it, hmm? Let me tell you all the gist of the story. But come now—do me the favour of stopping being so stingy… only seventy million? If I don’t hear more I’ll end right now and make my way home…”
 
With that, Campos began speaking, fluidly and eloquently, virtually everyone in the casino—and not only the casino, everyone from the dance floor to the cabaret, as well—having gathered round to listen. The very first words he said caused great agitation amongst everyone.
 
“This new diamond field is in a region known as ‘Gran Chaco’. I suspect this is the first time you’ve ever heard of Gran Chaco, hmm?”
 
There were still four undeveloped regions in South America. One was, as everyone knew, the deep Amazon; another was the upper reaches of the Orinoco River; and next, in Patagonia, in the extreme south, the untrodden areas where complete dinosaur fossils emerged. The fourth was this Gran Chico.
 
Stretching from the 20th to the 27th parallel south, ranging across the three countries of Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, a land of dense forest, swamps, and prairies—Gran Chaco, an ominous, demon-haunted garden… Strange beasts and insects swarmed there, and not even the Mattaco Indians—to say nothing of researchers!—had yet set foot in its innermost regions.
 
“But it’s within this Gran Chaco region that the Pilcomayo River flows,” continued Campos without pause.
 
“That river flows out of the northern jungles of Argentina’s Formosa Province, as you all know, a long-disputed border region between Argentina and Paraguay. Both sides had built fortifications on the north and south sides of the river, and even now the situation is pretty critical. And why, you may ask, has this border dispute arisen? Greed on one side or another? Faulty treaty provisions? In fact, the reason for the dispute is this very river itself, the enigmatic, incomprehensible, monstrous Pilcomayo.”
 
“And yet, ladies and gentlemen, one and all, I’m sure you know of the fearful place this river runs through, Esteros de Patino, that is, the wild wetlands of Patino. Actually, in Brazil, it goes by a more common name—rather than Patino, it’s known as Tocó da Feto. Even I had heard that name.”
 
A commotion went around the room at the name the Wetlands of Patino, and its nickname, Tocó da Feto, “The Foetus Stump.”
 
Now, undoubtedly, dear readers, you may be thinking the name “Foetus Stump” is quite a suspiciously odd name. By “stump,” I mean bracken—ferns that are as thick as your thumb; quite a monster! They grow as thick as trees; when they’re cut down, their stumps form something of a magical—or cursed!—place; and knowing just this, I’m sure you can imagine what sort of area the Tocó da Feto was. And yet it was first known from the strange, demon-like qualities of the Pilcomayo River.
 
The Pilcomayo had never had a very precise course. The soil was a soft, alluvial stratum without bedrock, and thus, because the river snaked and meandered terribly, the current was without force; there was so no settled river course; it was ceaselessly overflowing, ceaselessly moving. Today’s river would be gone tomorrow, and tomorrow’s wetlands would be the next day’s river; just like a fickle adulteress, the Pilcomayo was ceaselessly changing its bed. The most terrifying place of all within this watershed were the Patino Wetlands, Tocó da Feto.
 
Till then, no one had gone upstream along that river—the rank weeds and vegetation growing in the water were truly overwhelming, so that oars could not cut through them. Accordingly, the land was neither Paraguay’s nor Argentina’s, under international laws of prior occupation. The Japanese had pushed further along than the French in occupying the southern archipelago, and so it had become a Japanese possession. And yet around the end of the summer of 1932, it was decided that the Argentinian government would at last accomplish occupation of the territory.
 
The Pilcomayo completely erased the wild Tocó da Feto wetlands. Three rivers now emerged from there—two became known as the Rio Mysterioso and the Rio Curioso, and as the third, the main flow of the Picomayo wriggled out to the south. The goal of an expedition under the direction of Professor Ramos Gimenez was to investigate those three river courses and, if circumstances permitted, to probe what could be called the riddle of the Gran Chaco, the Tocó da Feto.
 
The expedition endured extreme hardship, and at last, after a year and a half, was able to stand at the southern corner of the Tocó da Feto. Just then, something mysterious enough to sway the attention of the world occurred.
 
The entire area was covered by fine reeds—well, so they were called, but they were as thick as one’s arm; here and there feto gigante, enormous reeds, rose like clenched fists. Below them was decaying, rotting mud. Suddenly, about one hundred metres ahead of where Professor Gimenez was standing, something like a woman with long, tangled hair rose straight out of the water. The professor was startled—looking closely, it was indeed a woman. And yet, as he had the impression she was bending over as if to bathe, she disappeared into the water.
 
A woman. After all, a human being, and not any other form of of life. And yet, this certainly didn’t mean it was a human who could live in the mud and could breathe under water! And so, half-believing, half-suspicious, he passed the rest of that day as if in a dream. The next day, two team members, their faces pure white, came racing to the professor’s tent.
 
They had gone into the Tocó da Feto, they told him, collecting shrimp, when suddenly a man’s face had appeared in the mud. It was a completely expressionless face, like a Japanese Noh mask; when it looked at them—as amazed, as shocked as they were—it kicked up the mud and sank into the water. At this point, the existence of the water dwellers was confirmed beyond doubt. The professor gave them the scientific name, Incola palustris, but because this amounted to such an unimaginably preposterous situation, it was scoffed at by the academic societies of the world.
 
And thus, with this glimpse through the gateway of the Tocó da Feto, its mysterious puzzle increased yet again. But at this point, the third person to see the Incola palustris, guaranteed to come up whenever anyone mentioned exceedingly strange tales, appeared—and this was none other than Campos.
 
“Last year, I was serving as a volunteer lieutenant in the Paraguayan army. Anyone with any kind of education could become an officer in that country… I’d been given my general orders, and sent to my posting—a place called La Madrid within the jurisdiction of the Pilcomayo Bastion. As soon as I arrived, I made a suggestion to the commanding officer, that the bastion should give up its territory, that all the troops should put down their weapons, and that they should all form an expedition party, going in to raise the Paraguayan flag in the Tocó da Feto. But when I said all this to him, he chewed me out horribly! ‘What kind of a terrible thing to say is that, have the troops put down their weapons!’ Filled with resentment, I said to myself, fine! I’ll go by myself—I shudder when I think back on it now, but I jumped straight to the idea in a fit of anger.
 
“But the saying, ‘Sincerity can move the Gods’, is a lie. I prefer it as, ‘Injustice can move the Gods.’ I traversed in ten days—ten days of sinking into the mud—the road that had taken Gimenez a full year. As to how, well, the fact of the matter is that by chance I managed to avoid the quagmires, and to thread my way, one chance in a thousand, nonetheless, through all the dangerous spots.
 
“And so, on the day at last I first set eyes on the Tocó da Feto, I met something truly surprising. Four or five metres ahead of where I was, something stood up, dripping with water. It was a person. What Gimenez had said wasn’t a lie. Incola palustris, whom we might even term amphibian human beings—a mystery that for how many millions of years had been sinking away with the unexplored Tocó da Feto!
 
“He was clothed in moss, or scraps and rags—I couldn’t tell which; when I looked closely, though, he was beyond doubt a human man. On his chest was a large, fist-shaped bruise, but other than that, there was not the least difference between us. Thinking so, though, without warning he raised one arm and threw something, aiming right at me. At this, he was no longer on the water. I wondered what the water-dweller had thrown at me; cutting a feto gigante, I swept up the bundled pieces. When I picked them up, they seemed to be something like fossilised leaves. Two of these were bound up together with moss; from inside came these diamonds.”
 
At this, Campos cast a scowling glance around the room.
 
“Now, folks, I’ve told you all this, and I’m sure you’re satisfied. And as to where, in all the thousand square kilometres of the Tocó da Feto, those water dwellers came from, well—I’ve got landmarks. Now how about it—how much to estimate all this is worth, hmm?”
 
No one spoke. Just as the veins on Campos’s forehead started to show, a beautiful voice came from a corner.
 
“Five hundred million cruzeiros. For that amount, I’ll bet against you.”
 
Pushing her way through the extreme tumult of the surging multitude, her white breast flickering in and out of sight; Campos, holding his breath, his face idiotic, gazing absently at the person who appeared—it was the woman whom he had earlier compared to a white lily…

 

4. Souls of the Dead or Dwellers in the Water?
 
His eyes fixed on the woman’s face, as if to burn into it, Campos saluted her with a short bow of his upper body; “I accept,” he said.
 
“Now how shall we settle the game? If it’s out of three rounds, we have to keep going to the end. I don’t imagine there would be any objections if it were a single round…”
 
“But I don’t really know the card games they play here…”
 
Her voice trembled slightly—even such a woman as that; her flushed cheeks held an even greater beauty. She had a naïve, hesitant way of speaking, in which even now her sheltered upbringing could be glimpsed. Why on earth would such a woman, never seen even in the vicinty of a night club, challenge Campos to such a large wager? And in Campos, too, how had it happened—his liveliness had suddenly disappeared… His eyes seemed blurred as if with fever, and where were his extraordinary lightheartedness, his frankness, his cynicism! They had faded away as if toying with Campos…
 
“Well, then, how would Escada de maō be?”
 
Escada de maō was a game for two players, but of course everyone, the woman included, knew it wasn’t the sort of game to be played in a casino. A ripple of laughter started from around the room—to wager five hundred million cruzeiros in a game that girls would play against each other! This was something to see only once in a thousand years. Amidst the clamorous laughter, the woman wrote a cheque, from the Rio de Janeiro branch of the National City Bank; apparently, she was an Amereican, and her signature read Royce Wainwright.
 
Glancing that signature, Campos gaped in dazed amazement, as if all of his thoughts had temporarily scattered. What had given him such a shock? He even had to go to the window and let the breeze wash over him, truly something unusual for Campos.
 
“Campos, buddy, what’s up? You’re looking like you might actually lose the bet!” Even Oritake had begun to worry about the outcome of the wager, noticing how quickly Campos’s demeanour had changed. The attention of the whole room focussed on a single point, and the game of Escada de maō for five hundred million cruzeiros at last began.
 
I won’t describe the game in great detail; ultimately, Campos’s victory seemed unshakeable. There were two cards in his hand—the ace of hearts, and the ten of diamonds. He threw the ace of hearts, and kept the ten of diamonds. The tension drained from the room, and people began to set up a commotion—gambling five hundred million cruzeiros on a whim was just too much, after all, they said; and the sound of fluttering fans increased.
 
“Indeed, after all, being off by one really seems to have hit the mark for this guy’s fortune. Would his meteoric rise start with this five hundred million? Member of parliament, general, president…? In Latin America, such things could happen…”
 
Just as Oritake was thinking this, standing behind Campos, something happened that made him gasp despite himself. It was as if Campos had suddenly given up on his aggressive attack; with a flash, he threw that ace of hearts—that even a child would have known to place last—it was an incredible reversal! Amidst the shock of the crowd, in an instant the game was decided.
 
Campos had lost; Royce had won.
 
“What the…?! Has Campos fallen for her…?!” thought Oritake, in stunned amazement. There was no need now to ask Campos whether his blunder had been intentional. “Man this guy’s quick to fall in love!” thought Oritake as they groaned, looking at each other for a moment. But the next day, everything became clear.
 
As promised, the next day Royce came to call on Campos. She had come to collect her five hundred million, but when she heard about the situation, was understanding. Perhaps because she was wearing a chic outfit today, white Royce seemed all the more pure.
 
“Mr. Oritake, do you know of a medical scientist from your country, Dr. Mikami Jūshirō? He was in a great struggle with the Argentinian government, trying to force them to establish a reservation for the Patagonian people…”
 
“Indeed, I have heard of him. He disappeared last year in Patagonia…”
 
“No, that wasn’t in Patagonia. And I wonder whether you know of the paper he published when he was a student, the ‘Petrin Theory’?”
 
Mikami Jūshirō was quite eminent amongst nisei expatriate Japanese. While still at school he had already published what would become his Petrin Theory on the cause and principles of petrification.
 
Petrified materials were originally plants; but as some types die out, they begin to manifest specific tissues or formations. For example, if a pine tree dies, it will simply decay, but Japanese cedar can sometimes become petrified—known as “lignitised,” or “divine” cedar. That is to say, this is a component for petrification, and what is manifested in this way is something close to being extinct. Dr. Mikami, however, had theorised that there were such components in even the human bloodlines; he argued that there were even ethnicities that had in actuality already manifested such features. In fact, he had compared the bloodlines of mixed-race children—the greater proportion of Argentinian people—with the Patagonian people from the south, a race on the verge of extinction.
 
A specific component of petrification which was present in the Argentinians was absent in the Patagonians. In other words, the Patagonians, truly about to become extinct, were in contrast ethnically younger. Mikami used this in his struggle with the Argentinian government, arguing that the decline of the Patagonians was not a natural occurrence, and that the heartless Argentinian government, instead of creating a preserve, on the contrary thought it desirable for the Patagonians to disappear and be done with it. Dr Mikami thought that even if he had to appeal to the global public, he would save the Patagonians, and he proceeded directly to Patagonia.
 
There, the natives of Patagonia—a land of deserts of snow and ice, barren plains, skies of sorrow and gloom, frenzied west winds—perpetually lacking nourishment, were dying from tuberculosis. Mikami thought he would do his best to administer medicines, because, ultimately, if a reserve couldn’t be made somewhere from the deserts of frost and ice, there would be no way to save them…
 
Mikami’s zeal and love of humnanity as a Japanese person appealed to the entire nation, and was just about to become a mass movement—but just at that moment, he suddenly disappeared. A year had already passed since then, but Dr. Mikami’s whereabouts were still utterly, puzzlingky unknown. Having heard everything Royce had to say, Ortitake turned kindly eyes towards her, and said, “My dear girl, I think you’ve fallen in love with Dr. Mikami…”
 
“We were at the same university together,” she said, her eyes, too, burning. “Because of all he’s done, Dr. Mikami is despised by the Argentinian government. I came to south America thinking he must be a secret prisoner somewhere in Argentina—I’ve tried everything, searching everywhere…”
 
The desk trembled slightly under the arm that supported her forehead…
 
“But in the end I had to give up,” she continued; her heartbreak was obvious. “I spared no expense, and exhausted every means, but I just couldn’t find out where Dr. Mikami is. Half-despairing, I came to Rio; I’d heard about the night clubs, and I wondered what sort of places they were. Somehow I had the feeling I should look in on the Pompiños Enamor, and so I went there.”
 
“By why did you feel you should bet against Campos? After all, you don’t have anything like five hundred million cruzeiros, do you.”
 
“Well,” Royce’s face suddenly flushed, “it was Campos’s tale of having seen the water dwellers. Hearing that story, I thought I could do it. The water dweller with the fist-shaped mark on his chest—Dr. Mikami has exactly the same mark, you see!” The welling storm of her emotions seemed to break over Royce.
 
“And so, Campos must have seen Dr. Mikami—that water dweller must have been Dr. Mikami!”
 Suddenly the room felt as silent as the grave. Was Dr. Mikami the water dweller in that demon-infested place, the Tocó da Feto? If he were there, in the swamp, and were actually living there, then the man known as Dr. Mikami had been the apparition, right from the start… Campos just then let out a sigh.
 
“Now, Royce, it’s my turn to tell you a tale. Why didn’t I try to win the wager against you—why, when I was about to win, did I suddenly lose? I knew you were Royce Wainwright—a girl anyone would dream about!—right from the start.
 
“To tell the truth, there was writing on those fossilised leaves the water dweller threw at me, but I’d almost rubbed it all off when I gathered them all up. Only your name, Royce Wainwright, was left…”
 
“I want to cry! Dr. Mikami must have wanted to use those diamonds as payment, must have hoped for you to deliver them to me…”
 
This was all the very definition of a ‘strange coincidence’. We couldn’t know whether Dr. Mikami were still alive, or whether he’d died and become a ghost—but in any case, he’d begged Campos to get a message to Royce, the woman he loved. That was the only hard fact in the whole story. All the rest was just too strange to comprehend; but if we looked at it all from Royce’s perspective…
 
Royce’s ardour was not yet exhausted. She spent the day persuading Oritake to go with her to the Tocó da Feto, even if the journey were to be in vain; at last, he was made to agree to go with her to Gran Chaco. With Campos, the three of them left Rio de Janeiro, setting out for the Tocó da Feto.
 

 
5. The Ever-Changing Labyrinth
 
Professor Gimenez had surveyed the marshes that encircled the Tocó da Feto, and had left behind a map that recorded the places that served as stepping stones across what seemed very much like a sea chart. The existence of that map in the American Geographical Society turned out to be a great help; after a gruelling journey, they arrived at the Tocó da Feto. On the way, they had faced jaguars in the jungles around Formosa, just past the Paraguayan border, and chaco wolves as they came onto the pampas, and had completely worn themselves out trudging with one hundred Guarani labourers—but the scenery at their first sight of the Tocó da Feto!
 
There was no horizon, just a vast expanse of bog and swamp, covered in algae and aquatic plants, and only a glimpse of water. From amidst the sparse, fine reeds which topped the  swamp, the colour of a sorrowful and gloomy death, feto giganté reeds caressed the sky, like weird, raised fists. As for animal life, there were only a few reptiles—indeed, this was quite possibly the dwelling place of the web-footed, moss-covered Incola palustris. It was the night of the fifth day of their journey.
 
It was a gloomy, desolate place; only the croakings of frogs were audible. Standing on eitherr side of the oipen fire beside the tent, Campos and Oritake were feeding the flames with strong licor de cana rum. As the flames finally caught the living reeds, Oritake asked, “Campos, what sort of feelings do you have for Royce?”
 
“…”
 
“From the moment you first saw Royce, I’ve known there was something. I mean, if you hadn’t fallen for her, there’d be no reason for you to have deliberately lost the bet—you don’t shake a stick at five hundred million!”
 
“Captain, I’ve always thought you were a samurai, you know!” Said Campos, a truly unexpected look on his face.
 
“I’ve got a duty to confess everything to Royce. And with that duty, I just couldn’t swindle money out of her. I’m always telling myself, if your heart is light, you can wander wherever you like, just like the pampas winds—that’s what I’m always telling myself.”
 
“I’m sorry,” Oritake said, simply, “falling in love is falling in love, but that’s something else all together, isn’t it? But I think, in your life, there’s going to be that one woman for you—and Royce is that woman.”
 
“Man, you do go on,” said Campos, fed up. “True enough—I love that woman. Love her, love her—just can’t endure it. That’s all you want to hear, isn’t it, Captain?” Campos laughed, as if he were hiding something behind his smile.
 
But the questions were, were there really water dwellers? And more—was the figure of Dr. Mikami whom Campos met a phantom, or had his way of living changed, becoming able to live at the bottom of a swamp? Those were the only two questions the kept coming back, around the clock.
 
“I’m pretty much in awe of Royce’s tenacity,” said Campos. “For five days straight she’s been looking at nothing but water.”
 
“Well, that Dr. Mikami you saw probably wasn’t a ghost after all,” for the first time, Oritake touched on that matter. “Like I’ve been saying—even if he’d changed into someone able to live in the water, and gone into the swamp, I doubt Mikami could possibly still be alive.”
 
“Yeah, what kind of a thing would that be!” said Campos; as if wrapped in smoke, he continued, “You laughed, didn’t you, at the idea of the water dwellers. How could Mikami, a man, go into the swamp and live—you understood that, didn’t you.”
 
“Maybe I did understand. But apart from you, Gimenez too saw him. I’m starting to think that the water dwellers really do exist.”
 
These extremely odd words from Oritake were realised just ten days later. During that time, the natives brought any number of floating trees to act as pillars, and built a set of paths across the swamp; it was almost like setting up seismographs to measure even the slightest movements. The target was the spot where Campos had seen Dr. Mikami—the five-branched, giant reed. In addition, they’d made ready more than one thousand feet of wisteria vines for three people to use.
 
“The three of us are about to dive to the bottom of the swamp.”
 
Campos and Royce were amazed at Oritake’s grave tone, as if he were giving orders. Even a turtle would only be able to dive ten feet, at best. And they were about to dive how many hundreds of feet into the bottomless mud, without even diving apparatus? But Oritake was a noted expert. With a sense of impending peril, the two followed Oritake’s decree, and crossed the floating trees; they came to the terminal point, the giant reed.
 
“There’s nothing out of the ordinary, not change at all from before, at the bottom of the swamp,” said Oritake as they cam to the giant reed. “Don’t think of anything at all, the two of you—just do as I do. Don’t hesitate—jump in at the same spot where I jump in. Got it?”
 
Oritake took a big gulp of air. The swamp, dyed red, reflecting the blood red clouds of the sunset, was gaudily, poisonously beautiful, just like something decayed. His body slipped lightly from the floating logs, and as if he had plunged straight into the mud, he was at once out of sight. The other two jumped in one after another. They suffered briefly, as if the mud were smuthering them, but that feeling disappeared after only a moment or two, and then, with a sudden start, they felt joy—could fill their lungs and breathe!
 
“Mr. Oritake, what is this place? Where are we?” Royce called out to Oritake in the pitch-black darkness, amazed beyond all amazement at how strange it all was. Humid, damp air, the smell of decaying ground, and slimy moss clinging to her reaching hands. From somewhere not very nearby came Oritake’s voice in reply.
 
“You could call this a huge, underground forest. In the past, this was gorge, thick with trees, but there must have been a landslide that completely filled it in. The Pilcomayo sought out a channel, and the water soaked into the soft, silty, alluvial layer, gradually opening up a path throughout these underground, covered trees. Wherever it may go, wherever it may end, this is the underground labyrinth of the Tocó da Feto, twisting and diverging like an ants’ nest. Water pours in from above, and so its shape is constantly changing. And even if gaps open up beneath the surface of the water, the algaes and weeds the Pilcomayo carries down soon cover them up.”
 
“So this must be where Dr. Mikami fell into—when Campos met him, he must have come up out of here!”
 
“That’s right. But we probably can’t hope that he’s still alive.”
 
Saying this, he called out to Campos.
 
“Campus, you laughed at me bringing a seismograph, right? But this labyrinth is always changing, and so there are always small movements. Now, even if we expect that diamond field to be in cascalho, in gravel, I’ve begun to think that it was once in a ravine—but is now far underground.”
 
He turned on his flashlight for the first time. The trunks of the buried trees stood like pillars in the soft, moss-covered earth. Paying close attention to their footsteps, the three slowly, steadily advanced forward. After twisting and turning for a while, they found carved onto a tree figures and a map. Royce looked closely, her heart pounding…
 
—I, Dr. Mikami Jūshirō, a Japanese expatriate, have entered this labyrinth. After being shuffled from prison to prison throughout each region of Argentina, I have been taken, along with four political prisoners, to the Tocó da Feto. Chased by machine gun bullets, we were driven off into the swamp. Amongst the political prisoners was the famous actress, connected with the revolution, Emilia Vidali. She, too, has undoubtedly settled here. From time to time, I can hear something like a softly singing voice, but so far, I have not been able find her—this labyrinth is complex and vast. But after coming here, I can finally win victory! What made this jungle, what created this sunken labyrinth, was probably at first the invasion of the white people; their victims have all long since died and rotted away. In contrast, I haven’t set eyes on a single Guarani native. In short—here, I can fully prove Petrin Theory in whites!
 
—It’s very easy to survive here; throughout the four seasons, this area maintains a constant temperature, never freezing, never getting too hot. For food, there are blind shrimp, and varieties of aquatic plants. There are diamonds at the bottom, but they are completely useless here. Today I went up above ground to explore the way out; the stand-off between the Paraguayan and Argentinian armies continues. I gave diamonds to that man, and begged him to communicate with Royce, but I wonder whether he will…
 
Royce sobbed Dr. Mikami’s name for a while. This was most likely his last writing… On the map were signs indicating something like Trasela del coro, an altar piece, or Puerta de Hierro, the Gates of Iron, but it was most probable that the path from that time was quite different from now. And yet, with this, the riddle of the Water Dwellers was solved.
 
The woman whom Professor Gimenez saw was undoubtedly Emilia Vidali, and he had probably caught sight of a fossilised corpse that had emerged from the swamp—he must have jumped to the conclusion that he was peering at a Water Dweller.
 
As they moved on from there, the path would widen, the path would narrow, and as it meandered, it descended. At one point, suddenly the field of view opened, and they came out into a hollow, faintly shining with the light of luminous moss.
 
There was a procession of lofty tree trunks, from what had formerly been an enormous, above-ground forest. There was a protrusion of something like driftwood, but it could even have been rock. No sooner had they arrived, dumbfounded, at this wondrous place, than Royce’s piercing cry rang out!
 
“Ah! There’s someone there!”
 
Indeed, stretched out in the faint light of the distant, luminous moss, wearing rages that could have been leaves, or could have been clothes, was an emaciated man. Perhaps he had heard her voice—he raised his hand, but he was too weak to move.
 
“It’s Dr. Mikami!” Royce called as she inadvertently dropped her binoculars.
 
But how malicious was Fate—they had come this far, to the end of their vine ropes. They had never had hopes of coming so far, to this hollow sunk in the mud; such good fortune was completely unexpected, and now, before their very eyes, Royce’s heartrending misery…
 
“I’ll go look, but in this condition, he’ll never make it back…,” said Campos, resolutely.
 
As Royce looked on, her eyes filled with tears of gratitude, he untied his vine rope and descended into the hollow. Campos’s motto had always been, “Audacity leads us to God.” He reached Dr. Mikami, and, carrying him in his arms, was at last on his way back. Just as he lifted him up to pass him over to Oritake, though, he missed his footing, and plunged into the depths. From the resulting tremor, a crevice opened up, and the mud and water began to flow…
 
By the time they could call his name he had sunk up to his chest. For a moment his face went deathly pale, but then, smiling as if in resigned acceptance, he turned to Oritake.
 
“It’s no good—I’m done for. You all had better go back. Look—the ground above me is already starting to cave in.”
 
 “Oh, Campos, forgive me!” sobbed Royce, as if she would die; as hopeless as Campos was, slowly sinking into the mud, so much the worse was Royce’s heartbreak.
 
“Campos,” said Oritake, his voice breaking.
 
Campos turned to him, and said, “Off by one—that’s what the Jogo do bicho meant, to be off by one…”
 
“Boa viagem,” he said, turning to Royce, “be careful on the way back.”
 
As the two set out on the way back, their piercing thoughts slicing at them, they could hear Campos’s voice ringing in their ears, reciting a verse from Cyrano de Bergerac—as Cyrano, at the end of his life, was confessing his hidden love:
 
I never knew a woman’s gentleness.
My mother found me homely. Sister, none;
And as to lady-loves, they would have laughed
At me. Through you, at least, I had a friend;
Through you I've known the spell a gown can bring!
 
With a gasp, the sensation of carrying Dr. Mikami suddenly flying away from her, Royce realised that Campos had loved her, that Campos had died for her… The recitation continued—
 
“Philosopher, scientist, poet, swordsman, musician, voyager throughout the heavens, and martyr for love! Campos Montecino sleeps here!”
 
And the voice ceased.

—First published in March, 1940, in New Youth. Republished by Kadokawa Publishing, July 10, 1978, in 人外魔境 (Realms of Mystery)

About the Author

Timothy Iles, PhD, Associate Professor of Japanese Studies, University of Victoria, Canada, received his doctorate at the University of Toronto. He is, sadly, the last, instructor of Japanese literature, cinema, theatre, and premodern history at the University of Victoria, and is the General Editor of the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies.

Email the author

Back to top