We’re at the final stretch run and for Day 30 of this 33-day Shigematsu Kiyoshi short story marathon we have “Lottery of Life”.
To put it plain and simple it’s that when we as a society begin to divide people into simplified groups like “losers” and “winners” or even “troublemakers” then we’re moving towards the next step of what needs to be done with groups who don’t agree with us. The last decade or so has seen many such changes to how we’ve begun to treat each other. Some of it borne out of fear and some of it from longstanding prejudices cultivated through ignorance and misinformation.
While there’s a need to separate those who can never change for the greater good, the means by which we do so will never be dry and clear-cut. Do we use methods that succeeds in saving lives but at the same just continue to forment the very hatred which separates a people into hating another group? There’s never a straight answer and sometimes the need to step back and reassess the situation the best way, but such things require for people to think with compassion and reason. It’s a shame that the very people we give the power and authority to make such decisions rarely practice one and the other to solve our problems.
Lottery of Life
Having kids is like playing the lottery.
That was how the police commissioner put it, with a grim smile and a sigh. He was the man in charge of domestic security.
“Sometimes you pick a winner, and sometimes you pick a loser.
Life is like that. You can’t control it.”
Kaim responded with a silent nod.
Not that he was convinced that you could divide people into “winners” and “losers.”
But that was how they did it here in this country that was the size of a city. He had no choice but to recognize it as reality because the man who kept the peace here believed it, and this nation was known for having the best public safety of all the countries in the region.
“Every kid in there is a loser,” he spat out, jerking his chin toward the juvenile prison visible from his office window.
Built to hold young criminals, this was the largest – and the most strictly run and most closely guarded – prison to be seen in any of the neighboring countries.
Its treatment of its young inmates was also the harshest.
“You’re a foreigner, Kaim, so you may not approve, but we have our own way of doing things.”
“I see,” Kaim said.
“Losers are losers. There’s nothing you can do to make losers into winners. It’s never going to happen. Far from it. If you coddle losers, they just turn into bigger losers and give the decent people a lot of trouble. See what I mean?”
“That’s one way of looking at things.”
Kaim’s deliberate irony was lost on the police commissioner.
“No. It’s the only way – if you’re going to have a safe, peaceful country,” he declared. “And we’ll expect you to abide by this view, too.”
Kaim had nothing more to say to him.
If he were to insist on confronting the police commissioner, he might be seen as questioning the authorities, which could land him in the adults’ prison. This would be easy enough to bring about for the police commissioner – and indeed for anyone in the city-state who stood on the side of the powers that be.
The commissioner glanced again toward the juvenile prison.
“They built that place eighty years ago,” he said. “Which is to say, the very first building they made when the present political system came into being was a prison to throw young offenders into.”
Kaim knew this.
For Kaim, whose life went on forever, events of eighty years before could well have happened yesterday.
Eighty years earlier, this country had experienced a coup d’etat. The revolutionary government ruled the people under a military dictatorship and jailed every last person suspected of disturbing the peace and order.
The government was especially wary of younger criminals.
“There’s a limit to how serious a kid’s crimes can be.
But let them get away with those, and the next thing you know they’re doing really bad stuff. They might be satisfied with shoplifting at first, but soon they’re into burglary, muggings, they start using weapons, and in the end they think nothing of killing people.
You have to nip them in the bud.”
The kids sent to prison were fed the absolute minimum to keep them alive. No doctor saw them if they fell sick or were injured. Subjected to such harsh imprisonment, they succumbed one after another, and more than a few of them ended up as cold corpses pitched out the back door.
Whenever one did manage to serve out his term and return to the outside world, he found it impossible to erase the brand of “loser.” Children with criminal records were soundly rejected by respectable society. The social system was structured in such a way that nothing worked for them: employment, marriage, even finding a place to live. Expelled by society, these boys and girls returned to crime as a way to stay alive, eventually ending up in adult prison.
With a bitter smile, the police commissioner said to Kaim, “I’m sure this all sounds terrible to an outsider like you.”
Kaim answered with a slight nod.
This only served to increase the bitterness of the commissioner’s smile.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said.
“And to tell you the truth, I sometimes think the system is a little too harsh on them, too.
But you have to realize that we’re not just punishing bad kids: We’re also holding them up as an example to the good ones. What would they think if they saw the ex-criminals out on the street again walking along like nothing ever happened? They’d just figure that even if they got their hands dirty and spent a few years in jail, they could just go back to their old lives, that society’s punishment is no big deal, that they can get away with murder. We wouldn’t want our kids to be like that, would we? So the only thing is for us grownups to teach them. Look at those guys, we can say. All it takes is one bad deed and your life is over. So you’d better listen to your parents and teachers and be good.”
He definitely had a point.
Kaim was willing to grant him that.
But still, the commissioner must have noticed a hint of shadow crossing Kaim’s face, and he shifted his tone of voice.
With bureaucratic conviction, he declared, “The authorities have received word that there is going to be a coup. Of course the military have everything under control, so there is nothing to worry about. They could suppress it right now if they wanted to. They could easily attack the agitators and capture the ring leaders of the plot. In this case, though, they have decided to let it get started in order to smoke out every last one of the reactionary elements.”
According to the government’s intelligence, the uprising was scheduled to occur that very night.
“We are prepared to just about any eventuality, but there is always the possibility of the unexpected. If there were a riot inside the juvenile prison timed to coincide with the rebellion, that could be a real problem.”
This is why Kaim had been hired as a temporary prison guard – a bodyguard for the state.
“We’re counting on your skills as a seasoned warrior, which is why we’re entrusting you with such a major responsibility. Be sure you live up to our expectations. If you have to resort to violence, we have no problem with that. Whatever you do, it will be for the sake of law and order. It will be in order to protect the happy lives of the decent citizens of our nation. Carry out your duties with complete dedication of body and soul.”
The commissioner handed Kaim a one-page document.
It was, literal, a license to kill.
“And without the slightest restraint. All the prison guards have one of these.”
“If you hesitate to impose the ultimate punishment on a single ‘loser,’ then countless ‘winners’ among the upstanding citizenry must suffer the consequences. You understand, I’m sure. Once a loser, always a loser. Rather than living with such a burden, they themselves might be happier to have you kill them and get it over with.”
Kaim accepted the document from the commissioner without comment.
“that completes our contractual arrangement. Now assume your post.”
With a perfectly straight face, the commissioner cautioned Kaim. “Just make sure you don’t let any foolish compassion get in your way.”
The season was mid-winter, but Kaim found no hint of fire burning in the juvenile prison. In their tiny solitary cells, the young inmates, wrapped in ragged blankets, lay helplessly in the dark. Painful moaning came from one cell, suggesting its inmate might be running a fever. From another cam the unbroken shrill mean laughter that could only mean the person’s mind had snapped.
“What you see is what you get,” said the veteran guard guiding Kaim on his first round of inspection.
“Not one of those faces shows any life. So even if something were to happen, these pitiful creatures couldn’t do a damn thing. They’re ‘losers’ all right. They’re breathing, but that’s about it.”
“Is there really no possibility of them being rehabilitated and becoming winners?”
The other guard gave Kaim a momentary blank stare and then said with a laugh and a wave. “No, no, no, none at all.”
Eighty years since the revolution, and the change of generations had replaced virtually all the people from that time. Since coming of age, this prison guard, who had no memory of life before the revolution, had been implanted with the ideas that people were either “winners” or “losers,” and he surely never doubted it.
“They went out of their way to hire you, so it might be a little strange for me to say this, but I’m sure the kids in here are never going to riot, no matter how wild things get on the outside. Splash a little cold water on them, and they’ll quiet right down. There’s almost none of them you have to worry about.”
“Well, I can’t claim that about every single one of them. There are even losers among the losers, unfortunately.”
The guard showed Kaim to the end of the hall, and there he opened the lock on a door so thick it could be mistaken for a section of wall.
“Beyond here are the punishment cells. This is where we throw the incorrigible losers- the ones who have caused trouble on work details, the ones who take a defiant attitude, the ones who show no sign of remorse for their crimes.”
Suddenly it was clear to Kaim.
It was clear to him because he had experienced countless battlefields in his life.
The punishment cells were darker and far colder than the regular cells. But from the depths of the darkness – from within each individual cell – there emanated a quiet heat that could not be felt from the regular cells.
The people in here were alive.
They were not simply breathing. They were alive with real passion.
“The crimes that originally got them locked up here were nothing much – a little burglary, some purse-snatching, flashing a knife, stuff like that. If they had just quietly served out their terms, they’d be out now, living obscure lives somewhere.”
Instead, they resisted, and kept resisting.
They called for better treatment of inmates. They appealed for an end to discrimination against former prisoners. The number of their “crimes” multiplied, until it became clear they would never get out of there alive.
“They’ll just go straight from here to the adult prison when they grow up. It’ll be twenty or thirty years before they can breathe the outside air again – if they can live that long, which would be quite an accomplishment.”
The guard concluded with a belly-shaking laugh, which was interrupted by a voice echoing from a dark cell.
“Stop that laughing.”
It was a quiet but commanding voice, though one that retained a hint of boyishness.
A look of fear crossed the guard’s face, though he quickly reverted to a sneer.
“This is the biggest pain we’ve got,” he said.
“His name is Diran. They say he was the leader of a gang of juvenile delinquents on the outside, but here he’s just a noisemaker.”
The guard picked up a bucket of water from the corridor floor with a thin sheet of ice on its surface and heaved the contents into Diran’s cell.
“This is what works best on these kids.”
Behind the bars, the drenched boy had rolled himself into a ball.
“This should be enough for them to freeze to death, but the water itself freezes again in the early morning. So then their hair and eyelashes – and any other hair they’ve god – gets coated in ice. Some of them have lost fingers and toes to frostbite.”
The guard laughed again.
Diran lay there curled up, but his eyes were shining with such intensity, it was as if he were trying to melt the ice with the heat seething in his breast.
Kaim knew those eyes. They were the eyes of a warrior. And not just any warrior, but one on the very front line in a losing battle who watches for a chance to turn the battle in his favor.
And Kaim knew something else – that the system was beginning to unravel. It had kept the people in a state of suppression for eighty long years, ever since the revolution, but the very moment of its undoing had arrived.
The prison fires started that night.
“Kaim! It’s the coup!”
The guard came running to report the situation on the outside. Fires had been set throughout the city, he said.
This was, of course, the uprising that government intelligence had anticipated. Martial law was declared, and the government was mobilizing the entire police force and army. Word had come, too, that the ringleaders were already under arrest.
One element, however, had been wholly unanticipated.
The guard informed him, “The wind is strong tonight.”
Fanned by unseasonable winds, the flames were racing through the city.
“On orders from the commissioner: we are not to fight fires in the juvenile prison, is that clear? Do not engage in firefighting here.”
In other words, no one would be coming to save the inmates.
“It can’t be helped,” said the guard. “The army and the fire department have all they can do to put out fires in the city and evacuate the people. They can’t spare any men to protect this place. And we’ve been ordered to join in the rescue effort in town.”
“I guess that means we let the kids out.”
This was a given, Kaim assumed. Left locked up in their cells, the young inmates would burn to death.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the guard shot back. “These kids are all losers. We’ve gone to the trouble of locking them in here, and now we’re supposed to let them out?”
“Are you serious?” Kaim replied.
“Are you serious? I can’t believe you’d say anything so stupid. I’m telling you, they’re losers. We don’t have time to save them, and we’re certainly not going to let them run loose. The commissioner would never allow such a thing.”
He obviously meant every word he was saying.
They were planning to let them die.
The flames were spreading quickly, and screams could be heard throughout the prison.
There was no time to appeal directly to the commissioner, and such an appeal would only end in failure, he was sure.
“Give me the cell keys,” Kaim said.
“You’re joking,” the guard laughed.
There was only one thing to do.
Without a word, Kaim landed a punch in the guard’s solar plexus.
The guard went down in a heap, and Kaim tore the clump of keys from his belt.
The first cell he opened was Diran’s.
The boy came out looking confused.
“Are you one of us?” he asked Kaim. “Are you with the coup?”
“Not interested,” he answered.
“So why are you letting us go?” Diran asked.
“Because I don’t like dividing people up into ‘winners’ and ‘losers.'”
“Thanks,” Diran said.
Sporting a big grin, he took the keys from Kaim and turned away to start opening the other cells.
“I want you to come back,” Kaim said to him from behind.
“This is an emergency evacuation. When the sun comes up and the fires are out, I want you to come back here. You kids still haven’t finished paying for your crimes.”
“You must be kidding.”
“Not at all,” Kaim said. “If you kids run away, that’ll just prove they’re right – ‘Once a loser, always a loser.’ Is that all right with you? Don’t you want to show the ones who rule this country that they’re wrong – that people can change?”
“But we’ll never get another chance like this!”
“This coup is going to fail. You can run around all you want, but they’re going to catch you in the end. You’ll always be branded ‘losers.’ They might even kill you when they catch you.”
Diran turned to stare at Kaim.
The prison was already surrounded by flames. Against this bright red backdrop, Diran’s eyes still burned with the fighting spirit of a warrior.
“The country’s political system can’t last much longer. The day will come when you kids can leave the prison with your heads held high. I absolutely believe that. And because I believe it, I don’t want to see you die for nothing.”
Kaim turned from Diran to pull the guard up form the floor.
“Come back at sunrise.”
With this final admonition to Diran, Kaim hoisted the guard onto his back and trudged away.
These events occurred fifty years ago.
An air of freedom pervades the country now when Kaim visits fifty years later. True, he does catch glimpses of young toughs and juvenile delinquents where the nightlife thrives, but he feels this is just a sign of the free and easy times.
And old man calls to him, “Are you a traveler?”
When Kaim nods, the man says with a smile, “You’re in luck. We’re having a celebration in Revolution Square today. I hear the grand old man of the revolution is going to attend. It’ll keep going all night long.”
“That’s right. I see you’re too young to know what happened here in the old days. We had a coup fifty years ago on this very day. The coup itself was put down in one night, but the rebel troops set fires all through the city, so the rest of us were running around like crazy in all directions.”
Fanned by the wind, the flames quickly enveloped the whole city, and a lot of the city people were stranded on a sandbar downwind.
“I was one of them. I had my pregnant wife and baby daughter with me, so I couldn’t just dive into the river to escape. Before we knew it, sparks were raining down on the sandbar, and I figured we were done for – we’d all burn to death as soon as the dry grass caught fire.”
Just as he was giving up hope, he says, a helping hand was extended to them from the most unlikely source.
“The kids from the juvenile prison came to help us. They were all skin and bones, and their prison uniforms were falling apart. The prison staff hardly fed them a thing, but they pooled what little strength they had. They saved old folks and children from the sandbar, and they struggled to douse the fires that caught in the dry grass. I saw one boy carry a child across the river and collapse and die the second after he reached the other shore, and some of the ones who were fighting grass fires were overcome by the smoke and burned to death. They risked their lives to save us. Their own lives were not worth living, but those ‘losers’ risked their lives to save ‘winners’ like us.”
When the sun came up and they could be sure that the fires were safely out, the young inmates went back to the juvenile prison.
“Yes, it’s true. The place was an absolute hell for them, but they went back inside just the same. Not one of them took advantage of the confusion to run away. They played it strictly by the rules, wouldn’t you say? We were really moved by their behavior, and people started saying that maybe these ‘losers’ had their good points after all. Maybe ‘once a loser, always a loser’ was wrong.”
The whispers spread throughout the country, quietly but surely.
Soon the view emerged that the treatment of juvenile prison inmates should be improved.
Another increasingly widely-held view was that society ought to welcome ex-inmates more warmly once they had paid for their crimes.
Finally, the change in attitude toward ‘loser’ children took the shape of dissatisfaction with the political system that had continued to foster such a dictatorship and, forty years ago, a second coup occurred.
“This next coup took the shape of a citizens’ revolution that involved the masses, and for that reason it succeeded. That’s how the form of government we have today got its start.”
Listening to the old man’s reminiscences, Kaim finds himself smiling and nodding again and again, deeply moved.
The last thing the old man tells him is the name of the hero who led the revolution and became the first president of the new government: Diran.
Tens of thousands of people have gathered in Revolution Square. As fireworks are sent aloft and a brass band plays the rousing national anthem, the grand old man of the revolution takes the stage amid thunderous cheers and applause.
Advanced in years now, and having long since removed himself from the center of politics, Diran still has that youthful, firey gleam in his eyes.
There is no way for him to spot Kaim among the assembled throng. And even if he were to notice him, he could never imagine that this young man, unchanged from fifty years ago, was the temporary prison guard on that fateful night.
Still, the old hero proclaims,
“People can change! There are no ‘winners’ or ‘losers!'”
His words are greeted with cheers and fireworks, and the excitement of the celebration reaches its peak.
Kaim makes his way to a stand at the far end of the square and buys himself a cup of liquor.
He raises his cup to the hero of the revolution, who, from his distant vantage point, appears to him no larger than a speck.
He downs the drink in a single breath. When the intensely strong liquor has passed his throat, it leaves a sweet and mellow aftertaste.