Sunday, August 07, 2005

A Bright Light


woke up as she had every morning for the past six months. Tired but optomistic, she looked forward to another bleak day at the city office. As a fourteen-year-old and as a young girl, she had little understanding of the politics of war. Such things were discussed by the old men with whom she worked. She knew it was atopic that affected her daily life but still it was something she'd rather not think about. And a clear August morning gave her no reason to think about any further.

That is, until the air raid siren screamed.

Her mother immediately turned on the radio to see what was happening, to learn if there was anything they had to do, any specific place to where they had to evacuate. But the siren stopped and the radio announced that everyone should return to their normal routine. What's so normal about our life? thought Y.

Once upon a time, Y would ask her mother to switch stations to listen to popular songs, but all she ever got was the news. But today, as with every other day lately, her mother turned off the radio after the announcement, her way of saving electricity for the ar movement. So silently, she ate her breakfast of miso soup. There was no rice, as it all went to the military. They rarely had fish to eat--perhaps something someone caught in the river behind her house--but that was a luxury reserved for dinner. But she did have chunks of potatoes and daikon radish in her soup, something that some of her classmates did not enjoy.

After eating, she washed her face and hands with cold water from the flat tin basin, as she prepared to go to work. Her younger brother was just waking up and getting dressed in his black uniform to go to elementary school. Her mother had few words of comfort after coming home from Chosen--the name the Japanese had chosen for its Korean colony. No one really knew what was happening, except for the news of bombings in Tokyo and Nagoya, but a bad economy, more frequent air raid warnings and news of the deaths of friends and relatives was enough to make most suspect that things were not going well, and to drag morale down. So when Y went to work, all she and her mother could muster was a perfunctory exchange: Itte mairimasu (I go and will come back); Itte rasshai (Go and come back).

She lived along the banks of Honkawa, the main river that flowed through the middle of Hiroshima. During more leisurely times, she would crawl down the steep, rocky banks and dive into the river to swim with her brother to wash away the heat of Japan's searing summers. It seems like decades ago, she thought as looked down toward the river as she walked to work. She turned the corner, crossed the bridge over Honkawa and made her way toward the city offices near Hiroshima castle.

Ohayou-gozaimasu, she greeted everyone in her office with a good morning as usual and then turned to sit at her desk when suddenly there was a bright flash. It came through the window at first, but soon it seemed to permeate through the very wall of the city building. There was no sound and the light began to fill the whole room in slow motion, bleaching the everyone and everything white.

It's brighter than the sun. Everything's so white. What is it? These thoughts flashed through her mind in a millisecond.

Then everything turned black.


lowly, Y regained her consciousness, although there was nothing to suggest that she was actually conscious. She opened her eyes to look around, but it was pitch black. Dazed and disoriented, she tried to figure out where she was.

I went to work. I said good morning to Mr. Shimizu. Her mind tried to recall what had happened, but it was difficult. It was hot and her legs burned. She tried to reach down to feel what was wrong, but she could not. Her whole body was pinned down by something heavy and she could not move.

But with each passing moment, she began to get her bearings. She became aware the moans around her. If nothing else, this told her that she was alive, if barely. She recognized Mr. Shimizu's voice. He was the section chief where Y worked. By the beginning of 20th year of Showa, there was a dearth or able-bodied workers, so everyone who had graduated elementary school had to work. Y felt lucky at the time. She didn't really like school, and many of her friends were forced to work in factories outside the city, some as far away as Kure, where the Naval shipyard was located. Thanks to her grandfather's connections, she was assigned a municipal desk job where she filed and served tea. Since her commute was short, she could wake up later and return home from work earlier than any of her friends. She was the envy of her classmates, but in a playful sort of way.

On Sundays, when they didn't have to go to work, they would often gather at Y's house to go swimming in river right behind her house. From the back door, there was a short but steep grassy incline that led to a stone embankment, from which there were a few steps that led directly to the river. But the girls rarely used the steps. Instead, they would jump directly into the deep river, using he steps only to return to the top of the embankment to jump in again. Once in the water, they swam across to the other side then back, then they'd scream and giggle and carry on.

The river had a purifying effect on them. The waters cleansed their young hearts, washing away the soot and grime of the adult life they were forced to live, and allowed them to be fourteen-year-old girls again. If even for a few hours on Sunday.

"Yoshiko, you're so lucky to live so close to work," said Atsuko as she stretched out grass above the the embankment .

"Yeah," agreed Setsu as she started to spread out her lunch in front of her. "I have to take a train out to Hatsukaichi everyday. Do you know how early I have to wake up?"

"Gee, sorry." Yoshiko laughed. "But being so close to work is not always good, you know. I get off at five o'clock and come straght home. There's nothing to do."

"Oh, how sad," they all whined sarcastically, then giggled as they devoured their modest lunch of rice balls.

But during the week, it really was boring for Y. She was one of the rare youngsters to get an office job and she was surrounded by adults. When the clock struck five, Mr. Shimizu would look for her immediately. "It's five o'clock. Go straight home now. Don't take any side trips," he would say everyday on cue. Mr. Shimizu was one of the few men younger than 50 still living in the city. But he had a bad leg from a childhood accident and could not serve in the military, although he always insisted that he wish he could go to the battlefield to do his duty. These comments were always annoying to Y. Who'd want to go to war? Who'd want to die? But his comments after work were always welcome. Even if they both knew she had nowhere to go after work except home, it was a small kindness that seemed to be in short supply, like rice and meat.

"Yes, I will," she replied obediently.

In the darkness, it all seemed so far away


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