Chapter 1 Excerpt: 815, A Hiroshima Story

2 Jan

 

815: A Hiroshima Story

A novel by Roger White

“Fate is in Heaven, the armor is on the breast, success is with the legs. Go to the battlefield firmly confident of victory and you will come home with no wounds whatever. Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death. When you leave the house determined not to see it again you will come home safely; when you have any thought of returning you will not return. You may not be in the wrong to think that the world is always subject to change, but the warrior must not entertain this way of thinking, for his fate is always determined.”

— Uesugi Kenshin, Feudal Ruler, Echigo Province, Japan

1530-1578

“What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.”

— Father Pedro Arrupe, 28th Superior General, Society of Jesus

1907-1991


Chapter One

 

In 400 B.C., Greek philosopher Democritus pondered the following: If one breaks a bit of matter in half, then breaks it in half again and again, how many times could it be broken until it becomes too small to divide anymore? He reasoned that there must be a point, too minuscule for the human eye to see, at which a particle cannot be further divided. This threshold, Democritus argued, was at the level of the atom. Satisfied with his finding, he concluded that nothing more truly exists except these basic blocks of matter and empty space: “By convention bitter, by convention sweet, but in reality atoms and void.” His peers, however, Aristotle among them, held Democritus’ revelation in very low regard, thus sweeping aside atomic theory for 2,000 years.

It was not until the late 18th century that a vanguard of philosophers and scientists, English chemist John Dalton among them, revisited the notion of a submicroscopic universe consisting of the most elemental units of matter—units that dictated the very nature of all existence. In his landmark work A New System of Chemical Philosophy, Dalton purported that “[t]hese observations have tacitly led to the conclusion which seems universally adopted, that all bodies of sensible magnitude, whether liquid or solid, are constituted of a vast number of extremely small particles, or atoms of matter, bound together by a force of attraction . . .” Over the next century, advancement of atomic theory, now championed by the best minds and distilled by technological progress, eventually opened the door for those who would delve deeper. On March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, a Jewish salesman and his wife celebrated the birth of a baby boy: Albert Einstein.

Yuki means “luck,” and of this, my brother had precious little. I suppose saviors seldom do. It is not their job to deal in luck.

On September 20, 1937, my family celebrated Yuki’s third birthday. I was nine; my sister, Hana, eleven. It had been a sun-soaked autumn afternoon, and hot, yet the air was as crisp as new linen, reflections off the Seto Inland Sea crystalline and white, as if all life had pure focus. Our family and a few friends chattered brightly on the covered deck of our home in Kure City. My father, Taro, whose name means “first born son,” was the third son of a career soldier. Taro was stationed at Kure Army Base across the city, and it was not his Army pay that provided our small, elegant home overlooking the sea. Our mother, Aya, married beneath her station. The peril of imminent poverty was a constant; Aya’s parents maintained unwavering expectations and a contempt tempered only by the hope that Aya might soon be an honored military widow. I, of course, knew none of this at the time. Even war, always near to each of us in this period, was somehow kept at arm’s length to Hana and Yuki and me because we lived in a children’s world. This would all change soon.

Amid the knot of emotions my father felt when his orders came, relief was surely the strongest. To Taro, a division of Chinese regulars would be a welcome alternative to life under the eye of our disapproving and brittle grandmother. Yuki’s birthday dawned two weeks before Taro’s unit departed, and Taro beamed, a proud father for the gathering. My father’s love for Hana and me was strong and sure, and the quiet safety I felt in his arms as a child would remain a precious memory throughout my life. We were his flowers. He would always greet us: “There is Hana, my lotus. There is Aimi, my cherry blossom.” But I knew, as did Hana, that when my mother produced Yuki for him, that Taro felt he had finally succeeded: a boy! The round and robust Yuki fashioned an expression on my father’s face that Aya had seen only once before, when Taro had taken home a festival prize of two new shoes and a shaku of stewed beans for having the strongest towing ox in all the prefecture. On the day of Yuki’s celebration, my mother was serving wine and milk after we had returned from the Shichi-Go-San festivities at the neighborhood Shinto shrine. On the way to the Shichi-Go-San ceremony, held to ensure health and prosperity for boys ages three and five, Yuki tripped on a deep crack in the walk and tumbled into the street, squarely in the path of a horse and cart hauling manure. We stood, frozen, as the great dappled horse trotted over Yuki, each hoof hitting only pavement. The cart wheels rolled on, leaving Yuki untouched between them. He didn’t utter a sound. My father picked him up and dusted him, then hefted him high in the air.

“He has good fortune,” my father said.

Now on our family’s covered rear deck facing the glassy sea, Taro again held Yuki under the boy’s arms, lifting him. My mother, Aya, whose name means “colorful,” bent in her usual black kimono to serve more wine. Hana and I sat, doing our best to demonstrate respectful attention. However, our older cousin Akira was in attendance. He was fourteen, and he was lithe. My father tossed Yuki in the air, and Yuki giggled and gasped with delight. Obviously anxious to escape the oblique angles of intent and inflection aimed at him by Hana and me, Akira politely stood and walked to Taro.

“May I?” Akira asked.

My father nodded, giving the boy over. Akira held him as Taro had. Yuki smiled and slobbered, reaching a hand to his cousin. Akira tossed him once, and immediately upon catching him, tossed him higher. Yuki squealed.

“Careful,” my father said automatically.

The deck was cherrywood, originally open to the southern sky. But when she had her first child, Hana, my mother wanted to nurse in the shade as she watched the boats on the Seto Sea. So Taro surreptitiously gathered some precious scrap metal from the Army base and built her a roof. Where the metal panels overlapped, my father had secured them with three-centimeter pins. The first good storm to blow in from the inland sea ripped the pins out and sent one panel scything into our neighbor’s garden. Taro then replaced the pins with thick carpenter’s nails. The nails, each as long as a man’s finger, Taro had driven down into the top of the roof to meet a corresponding slat of wood underneath. The long lower halves of the nails were exposed to the deck below, and my father later told my mother he had meant to cut them off, or at least bend them. He never got around to it.

Our cousin tossed Yuki again, sending him laughing high into air. Then came the fourth toss. Yuki left Akira’s arms, propelled like a happy rocket. We watched, stone, as we had when Yuki fell under the horse earlier that day. Akira was an athlete, with natural muscle, and he knew his strength. He knew he could send his little cousin as high as the ceiling without touching it. Akira didn’t see the carpenter’s nail.

The fourth toss.

We saw it many times. In our dreams. In our wishful replays of time, in which things could be changed, in which we could stop events that aren’t to be stopped.

Yuki soared, free and smiling, his cousin’s open hands waiting for him like two white, graceful petals. My mother turned from her pouring, somehow knowing to watch. My father’s jaw tensed. He said nothing, but he knew. Instinct had him hold his breath. At the apex, Yuki’s broad smile remained, but his eyes went blank, dull. There was a strange, wet, almost imperceptible cracking sound, like the snapping of a single raw soba noodle. At the apex, Yuki’s flight paused – time ceased – and he hung there, adhered to the deck ceiling for two eternal beats. The carpenter’s nail.

Yuki descended into Akira’s arms, and our world was altered.

The walls were gray, and the ceiling was ivory at the prefectural hospital. Although the September heat outside shined through the pale sky so that it made rippling ribbons of distant vision, it was mitigated by excited breezes now and again. The breezes themselves were merely the heat pushed and pulled, but they felt good against the skin. Within the narrow hospital walls, windows were shut tight. The air was difficult and heavy to take. We sat in white chairs along the gray wall, my father, my mother, Hana, and me, our faces wet like moist, fat plums.

Determined not to weep, my mother nervously leaned and fussed with Hana’s hair, which was tightly bound at the back into a single tail. Hana kept her black hair bound so at all times; only when she slept did she undo the tail. Hana’s name meant “delicate flower,” but I was silently conflicted about any possible correlation. My sister’s ears were large and round, and they perched at wide angles to her slender head. Hana’s insistent cloistering of her hair only made matters worse. She was teased often by the crueler classmates, who likened her ears to that of the fins of a chozame river sturgeon or the great wings of the white oleanders that bloomed in the nearby countryside every summer. I watched my mother needlessly slick back Hana’s hair, and I immediately understood why she did it. She was keeping herself busy. So I kept myself busy watching her. My father caught his breath and released it over and over. He covered his face with his hands and sagged forward, then he rose from his chair and walked to the doors of the emergency ward. The doors had no windows, but he stood there nonetheless, as if closer proximity would improve the situation. Then he returned to his chair and slumped into it. Taro repeated this many times. And still we waited.

Suddenly, my father curtained his face with his large hands and sobbed, softly. Tears pooled instantly in my eyes, and I lost clear sight. Seeing my father so, I wanted only for things to be right again. Taro was my mantle, my shield. From the pit of my belly, a fear gnawed. I was nauseated. I worried for my safety, our future. Then a squat man in a white cotton mask and scrubs turned the corner up the hall. Behind him marched six men wearing black socks, black shoes and nothing more. We sat petrified, family tradition against the unusual, until the nude parade went by.

“Recruits,” Taro said.

Hana burst into a bubbling giggle.

I laughed, too, laughed hard against the round tears cascading down my cheeks. As the last of the pale buttocks disappeared into a room far down the hall, the doors to the emergency ward swung open.

“Howaito-san?” the slight doctor inquired, removing his cotton mask as Taro rose to give a shallow bow and shake his hand. The two men talked in close quarters, in whispers, and I could not hear. Then the doctor put a bracing hand on my father’s shoulder and turned away, leaving us alone again.

My father faced us, betraying no emotion. “He said we should make funeral arrangements. Yuki will not survive until morning.” Between Hana and me, Aya shrunk face down into her kimono, her raven hair meeting the black silk, making my mother seem to disappear into folds of darkness.

We went home that evening without my mother. She disobeyed Taro, and she sat up all night in that stiff white chair in the hall of the prefectural hospital. They wouldn’t let her see her son, but they could not make her leave. The night was still and solemn at our house, as was the surface of the Seto that lay beyond our deck. It seemed the great Inland Sea was waiting, too.

“How is Akira?” I asked Hana, after she and my father returned from our cousin’s house three blocks from ours. I had been instructed to stay home while Taro gave the sad news to his sister-in-law’s family.

“He attempted seppuku,” Hana said breathlessly. “They have had to restrain him.”

“Oh, God.” I reeled at the thought of two deaths come from this. “Is he injured?”

“No,” Hana reported. “No incision. Apparently, he tried to use an apple peeler.”

My mother told us later that she had been informed more than once that night that the hour was at hand. Still she never began her prayers for the dead and dying. She refused to believe them. And Yuki survived, quite belligerently. After he defied the doctor’s initial pronouncement, he further complicated things by quickly regaining a modicum of vitality. During Yuki’s first week of recuperation, his head swelled to almost twice its normal size. Inner cranial pressure was choking his brain, the doctor gravely told Taro, and if he lasted the week, he would be no more than a vegetable. By midweek, however, the swelling had subsided, and Yuki opened his eyes. When he laughed and reached out for Aya’s arms, we squealed in unabashed delight. That was when we noticed his eyes. They functioned in a bizarre, chameleon-like fashion, the left eye moving an instant faster than the right. Each of us took turns hugging and petting our baby boy, careful to avoid the great gauze square that protected the top of his head. Holding his face in her hands, Aya beheld her only son, her head angled in the bliss that is a mother’s love. The attending doctor came up quietly behind us, shaking his head, confounded. He told my mother to ask Yuki if he knew who she was, and she did so.

“Ah,” Yuki answered.

“What?”

“Ah,” he repeated, trying unsuccessfully to pronounce haha, the casual term for mother that all children knew before their second year.

I would come to find that his chameleon eyes and his verbal difficulties were by far the least fantastic of Yuki’s symptoms.

My father’s Army unit was scheduled to depart for the Chinese theater in two days. Fresh troops were needed in defense of Manchukuo, according to the newspaper. Despite China’s agreement to the truce that liberated the province from the ruthless Manchurians, the Chinese continued to antagonize, as evidenced by the Roko Bridge Incident in July and their unabashed provocations that led to so much bloodshed at Shanghai, my father reported. The day that Yuki came home from the hospital was Taro’s final day of furlough, and my father was set on spending every possible moment with his family. It was with great effort that I held back my tears. Taro soothed me, as he always had, assuring me that his was a reserve unit only and that the Chinese forces were far inferior to that of the Imperial Army. “I hear they are throwing clods of dirt at us in Shanghai now,” he laughed. “They have no mechanized units at all. Their training is shoddy.” The vision of my noble father in full military regalia, dodging no more than enemy sod, dissipated my black cloud, and I soon found myself in spirited play.

Doctor’s orders prescribed strict bed rest for Yuki. My mother tried earnestly to enforce this, but Yuki would have none of it. It was obvious to Hana and me that our father was quietly proud of his boy’s vigor, but each time Aya would look to him for support, Taro would dutifully scold Yuki to stay down. Still, our brother insisted, and even Aya relented when he began toddling around our front lawn, chasing the shuttlecock Hana and I batted back and forth in our game of hanetsuki.

Though it had been only two weeks since the accident, much had seemed to change. The sultry days of September had passed into a cool early October, and the plump cicadas perched in the gingko and cherry trees serenaded our play every evening. At Nigata Elementary, I had been chosen to represent my class in the school talent display at the upcoming Kure Port Festival. I soared with pride with this announcement, wondering what tune I would play on my bamboo flute. Hana then informed me that the fourth-grade contribution to the festivities involved a short play only, traditionally showcasing our prefecture’s industry and natural resources. Hana had played a succulent maguro tuna when she had been chosen. I found that I would represent the beauty and pride of one of Kure’s principal industries. I would be a battleship.

The war had come home to our neighborhood, as many of the men in my father’s unit were from Kure and the surrounding towns and villages. Children with fathers departing for battle wore their strips of red cloth on their chests, round little badges of great honor. We were proud, excited, and terribly afraid. And I had begun my strange and wonderful relationship with my baby brother. Through our next eight years together, Yuki and I would play and fight and love and hate – and forge the most uncanny, mysterious connection I have ever known.

The next morning, a Saturday, Taro’s unit gathered at the Kure Army Base, where a long, sand-brown train would take our fathers and uncles and brothers far away. A strange storm teased and threatened from the sea. Black clouds full of lightning and rain assaulted the bay, yet we remained untouched, save an angry wind that snatched hats and turned shoulders. My father claimed it was a good omen—the kamikaze come to usher them to victory. I wished the rain would come ashore to camouflage my sorrow. My sister Hana kept giving me sideways glances and rolling her eyes as I wiped mine. How could she be so sure in her smug disdain, I wondered. Did she know something I didn’t? She was two years older, so obviously she was more learned in the ways of war and emotion. Perhaps it was as my father had said, perhaps taking the field against the Chinese was no more dangerous than routine drills. I took solace in my sister’s displeasure. I was overreacting; our father would be home from his fulfillment of duty with souvenirs, with the coins that he always brought us from his unit’s maneuvers, and with stirring tales of triumph.

Little Yuki played at our mother’s side, leaning into the persistent wind, stumbling and laughing, oblivious to the clusters of military men bidding their families goodbye. Aya kept shushing him and dispatching Hana and me to keep him from rollicking into the other groups. Finally, Aya reached into her purse and gave him a piece of paper and pencil. Since the accident, Yuki had become fascinated with drawing. His creations were little more than haphazard lines and scribbles, but he would spend hours in rapt endeavor. He took the paper and pencil our mother offered him, and he immediately sat himself down on the slate gray pavement.

Someone blew a shrieking whistle, and the men in their tan uniforms began pulling away from their loved ones and falling in line. Taro took turns quickly hugging each of us. He picked me up and let me hide my face in his neck.

“Otochan,” I found myself sobbing. “Father, don’t go away.”

“Aimi,” he whispered. “My blossom. I need your strength. I need your smile while I’m gone. Please, for me.”

I pushed a crooked smile in place, then I buried my face into my father again. His unique aroma, that wisp of Shiseido shaving lotion and clean sweat that I knew so well, I drank in between my staccato breaths.

“Aimi, I have told Hana to be at mother’s side. She will need her help. You,” he said, putting me down, “I need you to help look after Yuki. He may need special care. You know that, don’t you?”

I nodded, eyeing Yuki busy at his doodles. The doctors, despite Yuki’s remarkable progress—or perhaps in retaliation for it—stubbornly insisted that he was either steadily succumbing or spiraling downward to the eventual intelligence of a tuber. Yuki stopped his scribbling momentarily to watch a young couple nearby. The wife, a slender and small thing dressed all in white, put something in her soldier’s palm and closed his hands around it. “For bravery,” she said, and they held each other desperately. I turned from this to regard my parents.

“Don’t do something stupid,” Aya instructed. “If it gets bad, hide. Run if you must.” I didn’t consider my mother unpatriotic; she was simply an even-keeled pragmatist. She figured Taro could best serve the Empire by surviving to help her raise his children, not by carelessly dying in some ramshackle Shanghai alleyway. Hana and I admonished our mother with our glares, but I secretly agreed with her. My father pursed his lips and issued a crisp shake of the head to his wife as she brushed and picked at his uniform. He shouldered his long rifle, adjusted his scabbard, and bowed, giving me a sly wink. Run, father, I silently pleaded as he turned from us and joined his fellows. Run and cover yourself and stay safe, and return to us. I watched Taro in formation as an officer began taking roll, and I wondered if Taro’s mother had charged his father similarly. Both of his parents were dead, gone long before Yuki was born, before I had turned four. I never really knew them, except for vague images of grandfatherly arms and memories of hints of grandmotherly smell, and the stories Taro told of his father’s service in the great Russian war. Aya’s parents were conveniently absent from Taro’s sendoff. I have little doubt that had they attended Taro would have pursued Gram Manami across the Army base with his longsword. Manami, whose name is a combination of mana, or “affection,” and mi, or “beauty,” was sour and coarse-looking. Hana and I often joked in private that our radiant mother must have been adopted, and Hana bristled whenever Manami suggested, as she did often, that Hana was the very image of her in her youth. Typically, when she and Gramp Yori made a rare appearance at our home, Gram Manami was scornfully silent with regard to her son-in-law. During their most recent visit, however, upon Yuki’s return from the hospital, Manami just couldn’t help herself. She and Aya were taking tea on the deck. Taro had just finished forlornly hammering the deck ceiling’s nails, pounding them down to harmless angles. Little Yuki was mimicking our father, using his toy hammer to drive imaginary nails here and there into the floor. “I still can’t quite believe it all,” my mother said. Gram Manami noted that Yuki’s eye movements were queer. “Yes.” Aya nodded slowly. “His speech is affected, as well. We’re not certain of any other affliction. It could be months before anything else manifests. Even years, the doctor said. It’s just . . . so surreal.” “So tragic,” Manami added dramatically. She stood and inspected one of the nails Taro had hammered down, then she inspected Taro at a distance. “So avoidable,” she said, loudly enough. I cannot recall ever seeing such an expression of naked fury as the one that steadily fixed itself upon my father’s face.  He said not one word. It was surely deference to Aya and the stature of her father that prevented Taro from crumpling up the old woman and heaving her from his deck. Gramp Yori bobbed serenely in the rocker next to Manami, pretending not to hear. Taro stiffly strode into the house and stayed there until his in-laws departed. Aya could only shake her head at her mother and utter a helpless sigh. All I knew about my grandparents’ standing in the community was that Gramp Yori was in manufacturing. I didn’t know what he manufactured or where he manufactured it, but even at the tender age of nine I understood this: there was money in it. As schoolchildren, we studied about the Meiji Restoration and our national slogan of fukoku kyohei — “enrich the country, strengthen the military.” By the early 1900s, our country was a power on par with those in the Western world, and the men who put us there reaped the benefits. Taro simply said old Yori was in the right place at the right time. My grandparents’ house across the inlet from us was not a palace, but with eight rooms, four baths, four gardens, and a private temple on six parcels of land, it could not be labeled austere. They had three servants and a motorcar, and they wanted Taro to retire from the military and go to work for Yori. Taro politely refused. When my father re-enlisted after Yuki was born, Yori wrote a letter to the Ministry of War requesting reconsideration due to family hardship. When that gamut failed, Gram Manami began inquiring as to when Taro’s unit might be dispatched to the front.

So here was Taro’s commander, barking his troops into formation, marching them to a train that would take them to another camp and another debarkation point, fulfilling Gram Manami’s wish. As the last of the men boarded the train and families waved their farewells, the purple blue skies that had hung so ominously over us finally let go, and fat drops of cold rain spattered on the pavement. Soon the rain came like water spilling over a fall. I looked up, thankful, and I wept amid the sound and the chaos. I turned, expecting another chastisement from Hana, but she was weeping, too. So was my mother. “Come,” Aya finally said. She snatched up Yuki, and we ran with the others for dry shelter.

The tottering streetcar we took for the crosstown journey to home was stuffed with wet, silent, stubbornly smiling people. It was one of the most Japanese of traits—to smile. It mattered not if you loathed the person in your company, if your soul was in the deepest throes of the abyss, if you were giving birth to a sea heron, you always presented a pleasant demeanor. I never knew differently. I smiled at the ancient woman pressed against me, her damp and dingy blouse offering an odor of fungus.

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