I have divided week 3 of my writing group/class into two sections, principally because the homework task from week 2 turned into a relatively long piece. We were given two lines of a poem selected at random and asked to write for 5-10 minutes each day using it as a starting point, progressively building on the previous day’s writing.
I’ll make my own comments on it, as well as update on the rest of week 3, in the next post. For now, here it is – the opening line is taken from the aforementioned poem fragment.
The ghost of a woman, her body overboard laid, in the waters around
Katsu muttered the words under his breath as he stared at the reflection in the pooling water beneath the steps. It had rained heavily last night and the city now glistened, the sun radiating back from hundreds of puddles that dotted the streets each time it found room between the clouds. He disturbed the surface of the water with his foot, just a light tap to send ripples racing towards the edges, and the reflected figure slipped from focus, breaking apart and reforming, undulating, until finally he could see only black.
He looked up at the steps themselves, at the source of the reflection. It wasn’t her. It wasn’t anyone anymore. The bomb frozen shadow etched forever into the concrete wasn’t his mother. There were no features to discern in that dark silhouette beyond a leaned-on walking stick but it didn’t matter. His mother hadn’t used a stick but that wasn’t how he knew that it wasn’t her. She hadn’t been here. She’d been on the river just as she was each day. She’d been on the Motoyasu river right before it boiled.
The ghost of a woman, her body overboard… he murmered again, turning away from the steps, and continuing on towards the river.
Yuri Mori hurried down to the boat, jostling amid the throng of women making their way towards the river. It made no sense, she thought, to live in the city and take this trip every day, down to the factories. Why didn’t they just move everybody down there, down towards the harbour ? Nothing made much sense to Yuri anymore.
A woman in front stumbled and fell to her knees as the crowd moved forwards. Other women pulled her to her feet. She looked down at her grey overalls now scuffed from the dust on the ground and raised her hands in mock dismay.
“My monpe. My beautiful monpe. However will I find a husband now ?”
“You are lucky Aiko” shouted another. “Now you have an excuse to visit Fukuya Store”
There were some weary laughs from those close to the exchange and the steady procession towards the river renewed. Yuri didn’t laugh. A year ago perhaps she would have. Defiant and proud bringing her son into the world and naming him for victory.
She shook her head, refusing to think of him, and pushed her way forwards towards the boat again. It must be eight o clock by now and she did not want to be punished for being late.
The call brought him to attention and he pushed himself upright in his chair.
“Thankyou Mr Anderson, that will be all.” Katsu’s English professor turned his gaze from a grinning Mr Anderson round to Katsu himself.
“Mr Moore, nice of you to join us again. Now, please, if you would, read us the passage on page nineteen”.
Katsu looked down at his book and began to read: “Give me the splendid silent sun…”
“No Mr Moore”. He was interrupted. “Much as you would all learn much from Whitman we won’t have that pleasure until next semester. Something more contemporary to get you started. Page nineteen please. It begins ‘the ghost of a woman, her body overboard’ “.
Katsu flinched at the words and began to shake his head slowly. A memory pinched him. He couldn’t quite grasp it, half remembered and hazy, but the words troubled him deeply. He knew that they would be painful to say.
“I can’t… Not that passage. Please Professor. Someone else ?”
“Mr Moore, this is not a good day for you, is it ?”. The class laughed. Someone called out “Look out Sir, maybe that Kats has lost his claws” and the class jeered again. “Please read the passage”.
The words swam on the page before him now. Ghosts and women and bodies. He felt a rush of embarrassment, of shame, on realising that tears had formed in his eyes. Angrily he pushed them back with his thumb and forefinger.
“Read it Kats” sneered the student next to him. The class took up the chant “read it, read it, read it” as the Professor half heartedly gestured with his palms for them all to calm down.
Katsu abruptly pushed his chair back from his desk and stood up, the chair legs scraping across the floor and quelling the mocking chant of the other students. He rubbed at his eyes again.
“Katsu. My name is Katsu. Katsu Mori. And I will not read this thing for you”. He glared around the room before running for the door.
The boat nosed out into the river belching diesel fumes. Yuri stood at the stern, as she always did, and watched the city start to slip away from her. She scarcely noticed as the boat sounded its horn to signal its departure, lost in her own thoughts. Her world – their world – was full now of sirens and horns and klaxons. She vaguely remembered the all clear sounding out just an hour ago. A cacophony of warning for a catastrophe that never came.
That was why they’d sent him away. He will be safe in the hills they’d said. It’s your duty. Japan must have men for the future and you must work for its present. It is the right thing, the honourable thing, to do.
He had been barely a year old when the military police prised him from her arms, tears running freely down her face.
A distant “burr” pulled her back from her thoughts. She raised her head to locate the sound, different to the usual, abrasive aural interruptions to their days, and picked out a lone plane in the sky. Just a speck in the distance. But coming closer.
“What’s your name child ?” asked the tall man in the long coat. He didn’t look like the others. He was American, Katsu was sure of that, but he didn’t wear a uniform like the ones he’d seen on the streets coming into the city or the ones in charge of the boat they’d taken him on.
“He can’t understand you. We only took him in today.”
“Another from the hills ?” said the tall man.
“Yes. Far as we can tell he’s been there for six or seven years. The farmer didn’t want to give him up – he told us we were taking a good worker.”
“You think he was mistreated ?”
“Perhaps. Life in the hills is hard Mr Cousins. Life in Japan is hard but we can support him here and educate him. When you go back tell them about Katsu – tell your friends about him and the ones like him. That is what we use the money for.”
Cousins bent down to look more closely at the boy. His face was dirty and he carried scratches and bruises; perhaps the kind of scratches and bruises any eight year old boy might wear. Perhaps. He gently pulled the boy’s face up, lifting his chin so that the Director of the orphanage might also see. He raised his eyebrows by way of question.
“Beatings are common Mr Cousins. The man who had him was no worse than many in the hills. It is difficult for you to understand how it has been since the war. For some the sense of shame in defeat was too hard to bear and they took it out where they could.”
“He had no family at all ?” asked Cousins.
“None that we can trace. The farmer says he was taken from his mother when he was very young. He was given him by the police. It happened a lot, to keep the children safe.”
“The mother ?”
“She was in the city” said the Director. “We don’t know where but she must be dead. What was it the farmer called her ?” He paused, thinking. “Yurei. Yes, that was it. Yurei.”
“Her name ?”
“No, Mr Cousins. Yurei. It is not exact but in your language it means ghost”
The women on the boat gazed upwards at the plane high overhead.
“Another one ? What do they want with us today ?” said one.
“Don’t worry Miyu. Look how far away it is. Those cowards don’t bomb us from up there anymore”. It was Aiko who spoke, her overalls still dusty at the knees from where she’d slipped over.
“Perhaps they are bringing you your new monpe Aiko” laughed another woman.
“They are taking photographs I expect” said Miyu.
“Yes” said Aiko. “Photographs of us beautiful Japanese women in our fine clothes ! Their American women are too ugly for them !” She looked up at the sky, leaning back to present her dirty monpe, and gave a broad smile. The other women laughed and joined in with Aiko’s clowning, posing for an imagined photographer’s flash.
Yuri looked up the boat, turning her eyes away from the receding city, and briefly allowed herself a smile at her fellow women. Temporary respite from thinking of her lost son, her little Katsu. She clung to the hope that the war would soon end and she could take back her child.
It was her last thought before the world turned white, the boat was thrown from the water, and she and the women were burned to ash.
Katsu Mori leaned on the railings and stared down into the depths of the Motoyasu, the first time he’d seen it since leaving the refuge on Ninoshima all those years ago. Light danced on the water rippling against the wall of the jetty as the sun broke cover. The river was choppy here, continually broken by passing boats. Katsu shielded his eyes, raising his hand to his forehead, as if to try to see past the shimmering surface.
What had he expected to find ? There were no answers here. He wasn’t even sure he knew what he was looking for anymore, just that he had spent his life dislocated. A ghost. Perhaps not quite a ghost. Ghosts were the souls of the dead that were unable to find peace, he thought. He lived but he lived with the nagging, restless displacement of those orphaned by the bomb.
A cloud overhead rolled across the sun dimming the twinkling lights on the water. Katsu gazed down, his own reflection now visible, staring back at him. A woman’s face appeared in the water next to his own, smiling up at him; a quizzical, concerned smile.
“What do you see Katsu ?”
Katsu looked up from the water and turned to his wife.
“I see my home Asuka. I see home.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder and, together, they looked back down at the river, back down at their own reflected, ghostly faces. A plane taking off from Hiroshima airport climbed above them and they watched its silhouette in the water before the sun reemerged and it disappeared in a dazzle of lights on the waves.