She starts talking at the kitchen table after the dinner, following the casual chit chat. There is nothing extraordinary about it. She talks as if she just remembered it. She talks to me, to my mom and to her two children.
It was 1964 that our family moved from Osaka to Hiroshima. I was four then. It now takes only 2 hours by the bullet train, but back then it took a whole day even on the express train. “What kind of place is this Hiroshima?” I asked my grandpa. “It’s where Pika-don was dropped” was his answer. “They said no trees or grasses would grow there for the next 100 years, but … ”
Fresh leaves were all over in Hiroshima. On the day of arrival, Mom took me to the Peace Memorial Museum. In the evening, we were joined by Dad and three of us stayed in an inn near the central station. I woke up crying in the middle of the night. I had a dream of this mannequin woman whom I saw earlier in the museum. She was totally naked except for a white string around her loin. Her hair was burned and standing on end. She put her arms forward, the skin hanging from the tips of her ten fingers, just like the batter of Tempura slipping off. The woman was alive, and watching me. She was not crying or mad, but very quiet. Her eyes were kind and gentle. That was the scariest part of the dream.
The dialect spoken by the Hiroshima people was quite different from our Osaka dialect. While Dad kept himself busy working in his new office, Mom and I did not have a single person we knew in the town. Every day, she had a long walk on the streets with me tagging along. There were seven rivers flowing through the city. A big ruin with the round roof stood on a sandbank in the middle of them. Along the riverbanks stood rows of shanties. That is the Atomic Bomb Slum, said Mom. People who lost all by Pika-don live there. On the street, we often came across with people who had keloids scars on their faces, throats, or hands.
One day we found a forest not too far away from our house. It was a huge, fathomless forest. At least that’s how it looked to me, who had grown up in a commercial district of Osaka city. Dark and silent even in daytime, it was a bit scary. Mom said there was not such a rich nature in Osaka and that it was after all the right decision that we came to Hiroshima. Over and over, as if she tried to convince herself.
The forest became Mom’s favorite place to pass time, while Dad was scarcely at home. He was busy helping our country achieve the economic miracle. In the town, new buildings were emerging one after another, soaring to the sky. In the woods, however, the tree branches closed off the sky and the sound of cicadas echoed all around us. It was like a huge cathedral … or a dome. There, for the first time in my life, I captured cicadas with a butterfly net. There were so many of them that even a 4-year-old kid could catch them. When you put them in a small plastic case hanging from the shoulder, they got furious and vehemently waved their wings. High up on a tree, we also found a beetle with a beautiful rainbow on its back. Mom took my net and jumped for it. She uttered a joyful cry like a little girl. I put the beetle carefully in the case. Then we saw a swallowtail butterfly with blue wings. We took her and put her in the case, too. Now the case was full. It was vibrating with the maddening waving of the cicadas’ wings. In the evening as we left the wood, Mom told me to let them all go. I opened the lid of the case. The cicadas flew out right away. Then the rainbow beetle crawled out. But the butterfly could not come out. Her blue wings were torn away by the cicadas. Without the wings, she looked powerless and ugly. She could not make a slightest sound unlike the cicadas. All she could do was to watch me with her eyes. A pair of huge, sad, and gentle eyes.
I was a talkative kid in Osaka, preferring to talk to grown-ups rather than other kids. But in Hiroshima I became quiet. I felt self-conscious and even embarrassed with how our Kansai dialect sounded in this strange town. And being the only child, I did not know how to get to know the local kids. One day, Mom invited a couple of boys to our house and served them with sweets. I then started to hang around with them. Soon I mastered the Hiroshima dialect and, by the time I went to the elementary school, I was busy everyday swimming in the Ohta River, running around in the riverside field, or exploring the neighborhoods with other kids. I no longer went to that wood with Mom. I do not know how she spent her days back then. I doubt if she had found her friends yet.
The elementary school I entered was located near that wood. It was in the north of Hiroshima, right where the Ohta River made its first split. M was in the same class. But before we became friends, our moms got close to each other. M’s parents were tailors. I often came from the school to their tailor shop because my mom was there, just spending time with M’s mom or choosing her new dress. Soon M and I became ‘real friends’ and started to hang around in the tailor shop even when my mom was not there. We did our homework together among the piles of clothes in the second floor storage space. Sometimes M’s mom took us to a Sukiyaki restaurant next door for dinner. As for my mom, she was either seeing or talking on the phone to M’s mom all the time. I guess she finally got her ‘real (and only) friend’ in Hiroshima.
Sometime later, M’s family built a house in the suburb on the upper stream of the Ohta River. It was a big house, a mansion with a pond and swimming pool, overlooking a golf course on the riverside. That was the first house I ever stayed overnight away from my parents or relatives. M and I spent many weekends together there. My mom came to pick me up, but very often ended up staying together, eating and chatting with M’s Mom till late at night. By the time she was finally ready to go home, I was already sleeping in M’s bed.
M was the biggest boy in the class, good at any sport. I was the shortest and not sportive, but instead loved books, insects, and the stars. M had a sister called Sacchan who was 2 years older than us. Sacchan was a bookworm too. My mom was even worse, a book addict. Sacchan and my mom often talked about the books they read. Those were not ‘stories’ but ‘literature’ and I could not keep up with their conversation. But it was a joy to me to sit down at the porch together with Sacchan and read books side by side, just as much as playing with M with GI Joe figures in our hands.
M and I, our two moms, and Sacchan. While two Dads were busy at work, the five of us spent so much time together at M’s house. It was as if we were one big family straddled on two households.
It was one of those days when M’s Mom started to talk. M and I must have been in the 4th grade. Sacchan in the 6th grade or the first year of junior high. As usual, I was at M’s big house, my mom and Sacchan were there too. M’s Mom cooked dinner for us, and we were still chatting at the table, when she started to talk, as if she just remembered it.
She talked about that morning. As a 12 year old girl. That she was standing on the platform of the central station, waiting for the train to the student military service at a plant. She talked about a sudden lightning and blast. That she was blown away to the train rails, where another young woman had already been lying, face down. Her face fell on the buttock of this woman, saving her from injury. But when she turned the woman’s body around, there was no nose in the woman’s face. Just a hole where the nose had been.
There was no train coming. So she started to walk. To her home, crossing the center of the city, or ground zero, from east to west. She talked about the hellish images she had seen, one by one, as she walked for miles. Herds of the ghosts wearing nothing but a white string around their loins. Their skins pealed from elbow down and were hanging from the tips of their fingers. A woman standing still with a charred kettle hanging from her wrist. People lying at the riverside, badly burned and asking for water. When she poured the water to their mouths from her flask, they said thank you, thank you dear, and died. And behind them, endless chain of bodies floating down the river towards the sea …
She talked on and on. Her voice never raising or wavering, but kept gentle and quiet. She talked about everything she had seen, and about anything she could remember. It was as if once she had started, there was no way to stop.
By then it was midnight. I remember how dark it was around us on the kitchen table, and how quiet. I couldn’t breathe. Or I was breathing the darkness and silence instead of the air. My mom was crying. M and Sacchan were speechless, their eyes wide open.
“I have never talked about it before,” she said finally. “Not to anybody. This was the first time.” The last remark was directed to her own children.
We drove home on the deserted road, Mom behind the wheel of her small yellow Corrola and me on the passenger sheet, seatbelt not even existing yet. We went along with the Ohta River and passed by the bridge behind my school. We were silent in the car. Silent, but somehow talking to each other without words.
Back then, I had no idea that of all the grown-ups around me, including my 4 grand parents, it was my Mom who would be leaving us first, and that was just 8 years away. I didn’t know that M’s parents, despite the radiation by the atomic bomb, would live long and happy. I didn’t know either that M would become a successful businessman in Singapore while Sacchan would be a novelist and one day write about that morning through the eyes of a 12 year old girl. Nor I, or for that matter most of the Japanese people, had any idea that atomic bombs were repeatedly brought in to the Japanese harbors by the US navies while our government flatly denied any such allegation. Godzilla was just an ordinary Kaijyu monster, nothing to do with the fear of a nuclear disaster, which would come back to us some 40 years later together with a big tsunami …
But I did know what was in Mom’s mind as she drove us home that night. For all the pain and sorrow that M’s mom suffered, by sharing her memory with us, she let us in. For the first time since we had come to this city, Hiroshima took the shape of M’s mom and opened its door for us. It accepted us as its own people. We finally got our new home. A new citizenship. Outside the car, I could see a huge black shadow, like a bulging mushroom. It was the wood where Mom and I caught the cicadas and the rainbow beetle. And that blue swallowtail butterfly. Through the reflection of my face on the car window, I felt her eyes, sad and gentle, watching me.
I still do now.
June 4, 2015