“The Most Terrifying, Most Beautiful Thing”
In a train carriage, conscious of the worn nap of the upholstery rubbed so bare as to appear to reflect the soiled window, Myeko bends to sit. Outside, past Yokagara Station, the squat wooden houses are fitted so close together that they flow past like an overcrowded harbour. For its part, the late summer sun is well-risen and well-anchored as on an invisible tether that could be tied off anywhere including to the train engine itself or to somewhere in the sky. The illusion of security it gives as it follows them is absolute and Myeko is glad of it. So far, the war has little touched Hiroshima directly, but can this last? The ring of mountains in the far distance seems to promise as much. They have always been protective.
Myeko is as immaculately groomed as she can be in these times. She looks out over the undamaged areas of the city that have escaped the attentions of “Mr B.” – “Mr B.!” the silly ones have named the B52 bomber, running out their front doors and calling to each other, pointing and shading their eyes better to see the death-dealing behemoth droning high above them. Everyone has been prepared for so long, with shelters dug, cement poured, bags of essentials stacked at the ready, drills performed until one hardly needs be fully awake to do them, so that an expectancy verging on impatience charges the air for “Mr. B” to recognize their efforts and not find them wanting. There are even those who boast that their preparations are beyond reproach and certainly more than sufficient against whatever may fall from the sky. She knows nothing of this and must heed what others say.
One day, she had come home from school to find her American book gone from her bedside table. At dinner, a look and a nod from her father tell her all and she accepts their meaning. It is a small sadness among the world’s much greater sorrows. Not that she understands how matters might improve by her not reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last Of The Mohicans. Her father does not deny her the book out of hatred. The serious manner of his slight bow is a warning of danger, that is all.
According to his report of the event, the pilot witnessed, “the most terrifying, most beautiful thing” he had ever seen. Future images taken from space of the universe itself would show something on an infinitely grander scale but similar in effect: stars and galaxies being born in the thunder clouds of creation and destruction. Perhaps, as an old man, with the comfort of his cigar in hand, seeing these photographs had especially reminded him of what he had done.
At her train window, Myeko blinked and blinked when the white light lit up the already bright morning, raising her arm against the new and blinding sun to protect her eyes. A few seconds of incomprehension filled the train carriage and then the whole of it was going over and the passengers transformed into flying debris, ordnances of flesh mistakenly designed to rupture and explode against hard and protruding surfaces and then to lie like broken marionettes whose flowing blood swiftly congealed, coming to rest like spilled sawdust.
With her arms broken and neck twisted, Myeko remained motionless, in shock, aware of a cooling lubricant at the back of her head as she recorded images about her that mirrored her own condition. Somehow this immense unity of circumstance both appalled and gratified her, and she felt at peace, believing it to be the end of things. She could not identify what she was hearing but the sound of it had to mean imminent annihilation. Wildly, she imagined a monstrous wounded angel crashing into the universe. The other-worldly being was, in fact, the disintegrated city piling up against the undercarriage of the train. She did not see, as many in the city and beyond did, the triumphant mushroom cloud rising upon its stem until it finally poked its obscene head above the sky. And no one could see how dreams looked when they were destroyed, but everyone knew the sight of it would be unbearable and fled from the destruction that went deeper even than their melted flesh.
Many a soul could never recover.
Buried along with everything else, time continued to run like an underground stream beneath the surface of things. Aboveground, moments must be following upon each other but without significance to the train passengers. At first even those who were fit could not move. All who were still alive had been shocked out of their bodies and flooded the wreckage with simple awareness while their inert flesh nested on shattered glass, stretched across the wrong ends of things, lay upon burst and crumpled baggage. Elbows were jammed into eye sockets, hands had reached for another’s throat and come to rest there, knees had sunk into soft stomachs. When, at last, consciousness of these effronteries began to dawn, those who could extricated themselves not neglecting to make polite apologies.
With the war come so completely and suddenly upon them, Myeko unaccountably felt relieved for those who had been awaiting its arrival with such impatience. There was an instant in which she did not imagine or entertain a thought of their probable complete destruction. They still proudly lived in her mind. She could not see the hanging flesh, or the charred lumps that just moments ago had been a parent, a sister, a brother. Conscientiously delivered to hastily established crematoria, these remains would disappear into mounds of ash that indiscriminately supplied marked and sealed envelopes should a claimant appear.
Those who unhappily did not make it into the cart of pure and complete annihilation, the partially spared, gathered their liquefied organs and their sticky folds of skin in their hands and fled that radioactive light with monstrosities of the flesh hitherto not seen already set to bloom from the burning of it.
The American pilot had noted the progress of the train around the city’s perimeter as his plane droned toward the designated coordinates of release. The innocence of it had charmed him for a moment and its vulnerability had impinged upon his thoughts but he had made no effort to calculate the total effect of the event he was about to unleash, for he knew that the sum of it was more than he could ever account for. His face had not shown this failure of the imagination as he gazed upon the peaceful scene below. It had registered as a virginal target and, puffing on his cigar, he had given the release command with a certain amount of satisfaction.
When the letter came from America, the nausea that Myeko experienced caused her not to open it for a month and she did not know why she did not simply destroy it. It sat on her bureau in the small room that her aunt and uncle had provided her. She had not propped it against the mirror as a reminder of its existence as she had in the past with letters from her pen pal but still its flat and inconspicuous presence weighed upon her. One day brought a dutiful lifting of the spirit and she took the letter to her small window that directly overlooked the flowing waters of the Kyo River on whose bank her aunt and uncle had rebuilt their house.
Her uncle often told the story of their escape. How they had been breakfasting on the veranda that hot August morning. They had finished eating and were idly watching one or two small skiffs sail by when a light “like the snowy peak of Mt. Fuji exploding” replaced the ordinary light of morning. In a moment they found themselves flying out of their seats and airborne, their breakfast table and chairs magically about them, and her uncle saw the skiffs also caught up whether on a wave or in the air he could not tell. The next moment he was in the water with his wife clutching at him. Of his house he could see no more than the foundations on the river bank. Where had it gone? A special wind, he marveled, had carried him and his wife to safety. It had privileged them, he would now declare, to honour the dead and to care for their surviving niece.
Myeko sat in the chair that she kept by the window for the view and looked again at the familiar return address: Jonathan Springborne … New Hampshire, U.S.A. Fingering the foreignness of the paper and gazing at the line of stamps, she cut open the soiled and creased blue envelope and withdrew the letter within. Six years had passed but she recognized the carefulness of the hand in the large awkward script and an old feeling of companionship that she had forgotten passed through her as she began slowly to read.
This will be my last letter for awhile as the previous three have been returned to me, and I have not heard from you.
It makes me very sad that our two countries are at war and I hope that one day our correspondence may continue again. In all likelihood, with things the way they are, I shall be drafted when I come of age if I have not already signed up. What can you do when your country is at war, and was attacked? I cannot tell you how much I hate the idea now that I have come to know you. What would you think of me as a soldier fighting against your people? I can only imagine.
As I said in my other letters, I managed to get a translation of The Tale Of Genji (I had to send to New York for it!) and I have been reading it along with the original that you sent me. It amazes me how refined and developed was Japanese society at a time when, quite frankly, my people had not so much to boast about. (Between you and me, I would far prefer to find myself in Europe fighting against the Germans.) How are you managing with The Last Of The Mohicans? The language is very flowery and poetic for the subject matter but Mr. Cooper gives a good idea of what this land and the spirit of its people are like.
Did I tell you that I plan to study forestry? This spring will see my last year of high school. What are your thoughts for the future? I cannot wait for this war to end. Even though I am an American, there are other things I would like to do than shoot a gun. We are not very good at geography, you know, and if we happen to win, I do hope that Hiroshima escapes the fighting.
Do try and write to me! A letter might get through and that would be especially wonderful at this time.
Your friend, Jonathan
She smiled when she finished and, without rereading any of it, she carefully refolded and deposited the letter with its boyish sentiments in one of her bureau drawers. She would not casually throw it away and neither would she particularly treasure it. Sufficient to put it out of sight and out of mind. She had struggled to read it. The Last Of The Mohicans had gone with everything else and the English of her school years had long been fading.