Prisoner No. 25 (The Arsonist Sings In Her Cell)

(inspired by the writings of Tomoe Yamashiro, unionist imprisoned in Japan during World War II)

The arsonist sang in her cell. The guard at the door wore a black cape, its hem edged in snow. The prisoner saw snowflakes in his hair and imagined stars on the ceiling of her windowless room. The guard called to her. “Prisoner No. 72, do you have a lover?” “Ah, yes,” she replied, “many.” “How many?” the guard asked. She stretched out her hands. “See my fingers? That many.” “Name them,” he demanded, but the woman only laughed and continued her song.

Prisoner No. 25 sewed in her cell quilted uniforms for an imperialist army, and waited for letters from her husband imprisoned hundreds of miles from her cold, aching fingers. To evade the censors he wrote in code. “I have planted seeds in the mountain snow” meant that he had spoken to the convicts, taught them the names of stars, told them of the unity of the constellations. Once, when she had worked in a factory, he had asked, “Why do the women stand at their machines and even in the heat of the day, talk of their children, their lovers, poems they will never write? Why hasn’t poverty silenced them?” She knew the reason, but lacked the words to answer. “Teach me your language,” she said. When war came the militia took her away because she was married to a man who called her comrade.

Tomorrow two guards will bind a white silk band over Prisoner No. 72’s eyes, tie two slender cords around her throat, and lead her to a gallows. They will command her to sit on the floor of newly cut timber. They will stand at each side, the ends of the cords stretched tight in their hands. The warden will nod slightly, and the executioners will pull. “I can see snow and stars,” the arsonist will sing, “and fire.” Only Prisoner No. 25 will hear her song.

From inside her red kimono’s sleeve, No. 25 takes pen and paper. “Dearest husband,” she writes, “remember the question you asked? Why do women sing when their lovers perish in the Manchurian snow or a stifling Indonesian jungle, when their sons die of dysentery and their daughters are sold as prostitutes? I know the answer, but the censor will blacken my words, just as my father blackened my eyes before I ran away to you. Tomorrow an arsonist dies. The factory where she wired munitions for the emperor’s army is now ashes and rubble. Tomorrow I will bathe in cold water which will run down my back in joyous waves. I will remember our wedding day, your hands on my bruised and naked face, and I will sing the arsonist’s song. Her music will light your cell. We are singing, husband, in unison we are singing. Can you hear? Listen comrade. “Burn,” we sing, “burn, burn.”


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