Katsu muttered the words of the poem under his breath as he stared at the reflection in the pooling water beneath the steps. The ghost of a woman, her body overboard laid, in the waters around. 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. He knew that 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 that wasn’t how he knew that it wasn’t her. He had no memories of his mother that weren’t borrowed from photographs but he knew she hadn’t been here because she’d been on the river. Just as she was every day after he’d been taken away.
She’d been on the Motoyasu river right before it boiled.
The ghost of a woman, her body overboard… he murmured again, turning away from the steps, and continuing on towards the bank.
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 towards the boat again. It must be eight o clock by now and she did not want to be punished for being late.
As the boat nosed out into the river Yuri stood at the stern, as she always did, and watched the city start to slip away. Diesel leaking in the boat’s wake refracted the light on the water into a rainbow as it caught the early morning sun. She closed her eyes and gripped the rail, scarcely noticing as the boat sounded its horn to signal its departure; their world was full of sirens and horns and klaxons. She vaguely remembered the all clear sounding out just an hour ago as it did each morning but it scarcely registered these days; a cacophony of warning for a catastrophe that never came.
That was why they’d sent him away. They said he would be safer in the hills. 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 and picked out a lone plane in the sky. Just a speck in the distance but coming closer. As it approached the women on the boat gazed upwards at their distant visitor.
“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.
“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 you should 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.
“The man who had him was no worse than many in the hills. Don’t judge him too harshly, he took him in, kept him even after the city was destroyed. It is difficult for outsiders to understand how it has been since the war. For some here the sense of shame in defeat has been too hard to bear and they take it out where they can.”
“Hiba…ku.. ?” started Cousins.
“Hibakusha” corrected the Director. “It means people affected by the explosion but that’s perhaps too literal. It has come to mean more than that here since the bomb. There were so many stories about radiation, so much fear. I’m afraid that survivors have faced terrible discrimination.”
“But the boy was outside of the city. Wasn’t he beyond the reach of the bomb ? Beyond the area affected by fallout ?”
“Yes but he is an orphan with no history. Or no known history at least. People are suspicious. I doubt that we will find a home for him here.”
“He has 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.”
Katsu Mori leaned on the railings and stared down into the depths of the Motoyasu, the first time he’d seen it since leaving Japan thirty years ago. What had he expected to find ? There were no answers here. He wasn’t even sure he knew what he was looking for anymore. He had spent his life dislocated since that bright August day that ended the war. Raised first in the hills surrounding the city, working farmland as soon as he was old enough to be of use, before being handed in to the orphanage on Ninoshima. It was supposed to be a temporary refuge but he’d stayed for three years, no family in his homeland willing to make him a part of them. Eventually Cousins had found him a place in America. In time his anger had faded and he’d come to be grateful. In time he’d built a new life out of the wreckage of his old one; pieced together a second family in the country that had torn his first one apart.
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. 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. He thought it looked like a ghost. There was a black and white photograph of his mother in the inside pocket of his suit jacket but he didn’t need to get it out to imagine her face swimming in and out of focus on the surface of the waves. Yuri. Yurei. Ghosts were the souls of the dead that were unable to find peace. She would be glad that he lived, even as he lived with the nagging, restless displacement of those orphaned by the bomb.
A woman’s face appeared in the water next to his own, smiling up at him; a quizzical, worried smile.
“What do you see Katsu ?”
Katsu looked up from the water and turned to his wife.
“I guess I see my home Asuka. I see home.”
“We can come back. Like I’ve always said, if you want to come back here for good then that’s what we’ll do.”
Katsu smiled at his wife and shook his head. “You know how children grow up and, when it is time, when they are ready, they leave home ? I see my home here Asuka but I am ready to leave it now,” said Katsu before whispering “the ghost of a woman, her body overboard laid, in the waters around…”
“What’s that ?” asked Asuka, tilting her head to look at her husband, concern in her eyes.
“Just a poem they made me learn in school,” answered Katsu. “It always stayed with me. I wanted to see where she finally laid.” He looked out over the Motoyasu and tried to imagine his mother’s last moments. A woman he didn’t know, had never really known. Just one victim in thousands. Silently he vowed to take back what little he knew of her story, of all their stories, and keep them alive in the years to come. The ghosts should haunt us all, he thought.
Asuka 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.
This is the twentieth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. This one was also specifically written to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/