We had very little in the days when the war was still far away, in the remote place I imagined all wars lived when I was a girl. When it finally came to our city in August 1945 it consumed what little we had left, and years later, when there was nothing left at all, I was forced to journey to America to begin my surgeries. Of course, when I was a child it had seemed to me that what we'd had in those early days was sufficient. All but the barest necessities had been taken from us, but we didn't know any better. I often thought of the war as some great famished beast that ate away at the heart of my people. But my family was no different from any other family in the Asaminami district, the area of the city we lived in, and my brother and I never missed what we'd never had. I do not know if our parents and grandfather felt the same way.
In what might seem a rare gift in the legacy of my family's suffering, my mother and father were lucky enough to die at the same instant, which, for me, is a slight but not insignificant consolation. Neither had to endure the other's death, or the death of my little brother, who followed them not long after. I was left with only my grandfather to take care of me, a scarred and disfigured girl of six with only half a face; and my grandfather had only me to take care of him. Ten years later, when Grandfather fell ill with tuberculosis and finally joined the rest of my departed family, I was in the process of getting a version of my face back, at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City. Before I left for America he had made me promise I would not, no matter the circumstance, return to him before the surgeons had completed their work and I was again his beautiful granddaughter. I kept that last promise, and as a consequence he died alone. But slowly my face--or at least a version of it--was restored to me, just as he had always said it would be.
As I have said, my brother and I did not feel the sacrifice as my parents or grandfather might have. We knew nothing different from what we were living through then. It had been like that all our lives, it seemed. The drone of high-flying airplanes, the piercing song the sirens played when a fire- or bombing-drill was staged, the general absence of men in civilian dress, blackout paper covering every window, nothing to eat but rice and bean-paste soup and cabbage. These things did not occur to me as anything special. We knew nothing but war. Planes trolled the skies above our heads. Sirens woke us most mornings. The trenches we'd constructed to contain the spread of fire split neighborhoods into sections. That men must wear uniforms seemed so normal that a young man seen wearing slacks and jacket and fedora looked wildly eccentric to my eyes. Similarly, my father stood out conspicuously. He had not been allowed to join the army. He had been forced to stay home.
The fear I heard in my mother's voice, too, was unexceptional, as were the attempts she made to mask it with reassuring pronouncements and stern, even confident instructions. Outside the home she obeyed my father, as tradition dictated. But inside, where it counted most, I learned, it was the other way around. When action was to be taken, or caution to be exercised, it was my mother who decided which action or cautionary measure. It was she who protected me and my brother, and cared for our grandfather when his breathing became weak or his rheumatism became unbearable, and it was she who tended to my father when he came home disoriented late at night (I didn't know what drunkenness was then), which he did more frequently as the war drew on.
One night I heard my father admit to my mother that he had brought shame to his family and to himself by failing to gain entry to the war. After hearing a loud noise, I'd risen from the mattress I shared with Mitsuo and watched my father cry into my mother's arms, as I stood there at the top of the stairs, hidden in shadow. He insisted that he had been condemned to live out his days branded a coward and a pacifist, a word which was new to me. Pitiful tears streamed down his face. My mother cradled his head and smoothed his cheeks as he pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers, as if trying to staunch the flow of tears. I wondered if I would be capable of this same tenderness my mother showed. I had never seen my father in this state. But I saw from how she held him in her arms that it was not unknown to her, and that this was something the grown-up world had suddenly, just then, thrust upon me.
My mother listened patiently. She let my father finish talking-crying, then got him in a chair and washed his face with a kitchen cloth. He was mumbling, looking down at his hands. I was afraid for him, and of him. He said the word children under his breath, and my little brother's name, but as far as I could tell he did not speak of me.
My father did not go to work the following morning. He stayed in his bed while we assembled downstairs and ate our gruel and rice-bran dumplings. After breakfast, my mother sent Grandfather to the bank, despite his sore legs, to tell the people there that Father was ill. I accompanied him through the streets to deliver our message.
Though we had all been affected by the war, and the network of trenches and water-filled ditches constructed in the event of an enemy firestorm now marked the city into grids, none of the buildings we passed had been destroyed. As we walked, my grandfather told me that even the enemy respected the beauty of some of our most ancient cities. Not even barbarians would consider destroying our lovely town. Trying to put me at ease, he told me that people of Japanese ancestry were living among the enemy, in distant America, where they had worked to convince their government to spare us. Naturally this knowledge did calm my anxiety, but I was agitated for another reason. What I had seen the previous night was with me still. I wondered if my grandfather knew about my father, and the real reason he was unable to represent us in the world that day.
The streets were already busy that morning. I watched the Miyajima streetcar make its slow crawl up from the harbor, where it always began its run, carrying the older men to their places of work, or housewives to their shopping. Work gangs from outlying communities assembled on street corners, waiting for their morning assignment. There was always more to be done in preparing our city for what might come, and not a morning went by when these work gangs did not collect on street corners in every district, focusing their attention on the tasks ahead. That day there were many soldiers in the streets and on the tram, and their presence further eased my nervousness. We knew they were our protectors, and I secretly understood my father's shame at not being permitted to be one of them on account of his leg, the consequence of a childhood affliction. It would have been a great honor for us. The fathers of many of the children in our neighborhood were away at the war, and at school these children were awarded a special status that I envied. The teachers told us that we were all able to contribute equally, whether at home or away at the war, but the daughters of soldiers were emboldened by the absence of their fathers.
On our route to my father's place of employment to deliver our deceitful message, an odd sensation crept over me. He might indeed be ill, I considered, but he suffered from a different sort of illness from the one we meant to suggest. I was not supposed to know this, of course. My mother was not aware I had heard what had passed between them the night before. But telling a lie--and to the bank! This seemed dangerous and exciting, and opened up for me a new world of unknown possibilities.
We turned left, then right onto the business street, where my father's bank was located. Many of these buildings had been here longer than my grandfather, which seemed an impossibly long time to me. Sometimes I liked to walk along this street--and others, in different neighborhoods--and imagine Grandfather here, as he might have appeared at my young age of six. He had spent the whole of his youth in Hiroshima and, in my mind, it was not difficult for me to create a picture of him as a boy. I used my little brother's small frame as a stand-in when I thought back to what it must have been like, in another century. My imagination simply drew his clear, youthful face and body over my grandfather's old, wrinkled one. I painted his portrait in my head, and a streetscape of what Hiroshima had looked like back then, without soldiers carrying rifles on every corner and blackout paper pasted over every pane of glass. I painted men who wore their dark robes like lords, and wealthy landowners and women costumed in traditional flame-colored kimonos, which had been replaced during the war years by the durable monpe pantaloons all women had taken to wearing.
When we entered the bank, my grandfather asked for Mr. Hatano, the manager. We waited silently at one end of a large room for him to meet with us. Finally his office door opened and he emerged. He crossed the hardwood floor, a stack of papers clutched under his right arm, and bowed respectfully to my grandfather. His shoes creaked. He smelled of soap and hair grease.
"I have been sent by my daughter," my grandfather began, after returning an equally deep bow, "Mrs. Yokuo Amai, to tell you that my son-in-law, Haruki Amai, a diligent employee of this institution, is ill today and is unable to honor his responsibilities. I am to tell you that he will be well tomorrow and that he is deeply regretful he cannot take his post today."
This was my grandfather's particular way of speaking, but it was a manner appreciated by those of his generation, a part of which the man he was addressing seemed to be.
We walked home hand in hand, slowly because of Grandfather's bad legs. I did not ask if he knew he'd been entrusted with a lie. It occurred to me that I might be the only one, besides my mother, to know the true cause of my father's malaise. My child's mind wrestled with this, and finally I decided that my mother must have good reason to do what she had done, though I still had no idea what that could be. Her decision was based on an adult interpretation of the world that was beyond my experience.
She was sitting by my father's bed, talking quietly, when we returned. I heard her voice through the wall and waited patiently for her to come downstairs before I asked her permission to take Mitsuo to the river, a five-minute walk from the house, where we liked to play under the Bantai Bridge.
For months, after waking up in the Red Cross Hospital, I was forced to lie on my stomach in order to let the wounds on my back breathe and heal. My left eye had sealed over with scar tissue and pus since I was shipped here from the Oshiba Aid Station, where we had been taken after being found near the river by a group of soldiers. Mitsuo's cot sat to the left of mine. When the doctors conferred over him I was able to see only their legs and shoes, because I could not lift my head. But my ears were among the few things that had not been damaged. I listened to their voices, and soon began to hate how they spoke when they discussed my brother. They said he was a lost case and soon would die. They wondered aloud what kept him alive. Every morning they seemed surprised that he had survived the night. There was no hope for him, they said.
Nor did I like how they discussed my own condition, gathering around my bed like old men talking politics at a newsstand, bending my arms, poking at my burns. We seemed to them interesting experiments, as you might find the extended and exceptional life of a gnat or beetle interesting. They would stop briefly between our beds, add or subtract some observations from each of our charts and move on again to the next bandaged patient.
The ward was thirty-eight footsteps in length. I knew this because I had counted the paces of a nurse as she moved from end to end, tending to her helpless patients. It was a narrow room, wide enough only to accommodate the length of a cot on either side, with a space running up the center along which new patients could be rolled in or the dead removed on a squeaking gurney. The walls of unpainted plaster, a dull white-gray, had been fashioned roughly. In certain sections I was able to make out the horsehair and straw mixed into the plaster, material that rose to the surface of the wall at the head of my bed like roots pushing up through a sidewalk. Four lamps hung from the wooden ceiling on long black wires. Sometimes the lamps moved slightly when a breeze entered the ward through the windows, which were opened most mornings in order to release the fetid night stink that grew under our bedsheets while we slept. There was one picture in the center of the ward, on the far wall, preserved under a sheet of glass which one of the nurses dusted each morning. This was a portrait of Emperor Hirohito, at whom I could not look directly. This was not due to my awkward position in the bed but because he was more god than man to us then and such unabashed glaring would have shown grave disrespect.
Many nights I could not sleep for the pain that occupied my body like a razing army, and for the news my grandfather had brought soon after he found us here, almost three weeks after the bomb. He told me that our parents had been killed. He told me he had found Mother lying in the street, and Father still in bed. There can be no mistake, he said. You must be strong. After he left that day I tried to destroy the image of their deaths that I held in my head. I did all I could to forget the feeling that came over me the instant the mud around us had turned to stone. But I could not dispel the burning heat in my lungs, and the pain I felt on my skin as it split when the flash of light burned across our path and seared our grandfather's resemblance into Mitsuo's flesh...
Copyright © 2001 by Dennis Bock. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.