Nakamura-san was the most irritable old man in the entire street where Yoshio lived. All the children said so, and they feared him so greatly that they did not even dare to tease him from a safe distance, the way children will. They said the old man was a madman, and a sorcerer to boot.
The only one who didn’t fear him was Yoshio himself, because Nakamura-san liked him very much, and sometimes in the evening would sit on his doorstep and tell stories.
Usually these stories would be of the ancient times, of Samurai warriors fired with the Bushido spirit, and of evil Tengu demons, half man and half bird, who would wait in the forests to trick people they came across. But there was always one line of stories that Nakamura-san told that Yoshio would wait for, that of the Samurai Harado Iori Ryutaro, who was the greatest of all the Samurai who had ever lived.
Harado had been an evil man once, Nakamura-san said. Though born to the Samurai class, he had gone astray early, and had become a thief and a killer for hire, one of the worst of the criminals who lay in wait for travellers on lonely highways. But one day he had picked the wrong target. It had been a ronin who was on pilgrimage to a monastery, and not even a hardened cutthroat and murderer was a match for a Samurai, even if he was only a ronin.
Once the masterless Samurai had easily defeated and captured the robber, he had pressed the tip of his katana to Harado’s throat. “You can turn away from this life,” he had said, “and come with me. Or you can die now. The choice is yours.”
Purely to save his life, Harado had agreed to go with the ronin, intending to escape when he could. But that had led to one thing after another, adventures each of which was more hair-raising than the last, and little by little Harada had himself become a Samurai. In time, he had grown to be the greatest of them all.
Harada had been invincible, Nakamura-san said, so that even the gods were afraid to take him on in combat. But he was merciful and gracious, so much so that before every battle he would burn incense in his helmet, so that perchance the enemy took his head the smell would not offend their nostrils. But he never, ever, lost, and the only heads that rolled belonged to those who dared challenge him in combat.
Endless were the tales Nakamura-san told of the Samurai Harada Iori Ryutaro. Each time he told a different story, an even more marvellous one, and each time Yoshio would thrill to his heart to hear of the exploits of the great warrior, and how he succoured the poor and helpless, and stood up for them against the great lords and the criminals.
“And never forget, Yoshio-san,” he would say formally, “that the great Samurai is real, that he lives in the sky, and that when you really need him, you need only to call to him for help, and he will come.”
Of course, Yoshio didn’t believe that part. Who could, even if he weren’t Christian and told to believe that only the Lord Jesus Christ offered help in times of need? But that didn’t stop him from thirsting after the stories, each of which seemed to be more imaginative than the last.
Today, though, Yoshio had no time to do more than wave to Nakamura-san as he followed his parents to church. The old man was sitting at his window, and waved back, though Yoshiro hoped his parents hadn’t seen it. His parents didn’t approve of his hanging around Nakamura-san.
“Poor old man,” Honourable Mother said. “You shouldn’t bother him with your questions. Let him have some peace.”
“Don’t let him fill your head with non-Christian ideas,” Honourable Father said shortly.
There wasn’t much chance of that today, because they were headed off to church. It was a heavily cloudy day, and Yoshio would much rather have stayed at home, reading perhaps, or maybe helping Honourable Father dig the garden. Honourable Father had been gardening a lot lately, because there had been less and less food to go around. Yoshio had so long got used to going hungry that he hardly noticed it any longer.
His parents stopped to talk to a lady in a formal kimono. He recognised her. It was Mrs Mitsuda, whom he had met several times. She was very severe-looking, but Honourable Mother said she was actually very nice. She had a daughter, Hiroko, who was with her. Hiroko worked, Yoshio had heard, in an office down on the docks, but today was Sunday, of course.
Hiroko smiled at Yoshio. She was very beautiful, and he thought sometimes he ought to marry her when he was older. “How are you, Yoshio-san? The way you’re growing, soon you’ll be big enough to be a soldier.” She’d looked quickly over her shoulder, but her mother and Yoshio’s parents were busy talking and hadn’t heard.
“We’re going to the country tomorrow,” she whispered, leaning close to Yoshio. “My uncle asked us to come. He says it isn’t safe in this town any longer, from the Gaijin.”
“The Gaijin?” Yoshio asked, though of course he knew what she was talking about.
“You know, the B29s.” Hiroko pointed up at the sky. “You listen to the radio?”
Before Yoshio could answer, Honourable Father called to him. His parents and Mrs Mitsuda had evidently finished talking. “We’re getting late for church.”
Yoshio ducked his head politely to Mrs Mitsuda and Hiroko, just as he’d been taught. His parents had already started walking away, and he had to hurry. He could hear mumbled snatches of their conversation.
“Some people have all the luck,” Honourable Mother said longingly. “The country...”
“It’s no better than here,” Honourable Father replied. “In many ways it’s worse.”
“As though we wouldn’t go to the country if we could,” Honourable Mother said. Yoshio could hear the anger in her voice. “At least the country is safe. It...”
“We’re already late for Mass,” Honourable Father interrupted. “Shall we talk about this later?” His back was so stiff that Yoshio knew he was furious, and that there would be problems when they got back home. A charcoal-powered truck chugged past, and he turned his head away to avoid the smoke.
A blinding flash of light raced across his field of vision, so fast that he barely registered it. The next moment he was hit by a blow which struck him from his head to his feet, so hard that he few through the air. The world spun around him, and went black.
When he opened his eyes he was looking at Harado Iori Ryutaro’s face.
The Samurai filled the sky above him, his face working and twisting with some emotion which Yoshio couldn’t interpret. Perhaps it was anger or contempt, he thought, and he tried to shrink away. But he was lying on the ground, on his back, and it was impossible to shrink back any further.
Then the Samurai spoke.
“What has happened to you, my friend Yoshio?” Despite his fearsome face, which still writhed and worked, his voice was gentle. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes,” Yoshio whispered. His voice rustled in his head, like dried leaves. “Nakamura-san told me about you.”
“And what else did he say?”
“That if I asked for help, you would be there,” Yoshio said.
The Samurai’s immense face looked regretful. “There are times when that is no longer possible,” he said. “Besides, the world has forgotten me. I have no power to help when nobody even believes I exist. But, Yoshio, my friend?”
“Yes?” he whispered.
“One day, I promise you, I will come down from the sky again, and you and I will stand side by side.”
“We will. But you must be brave. Are you brave?”
“I don’t know,” Yoshio whispered.
The Samurai chuckled, his face beginning to fade away along with his voice. “That means you are. If you weren’t, you’d have said you are brave. But you must get up now.”
“Be brave, Yoshio, and we’ll meet again.”
Yoshio shook his head and opened his eyes again. The Samurai’s immense face had disappeared. Something else hung over him, blocking out the sky.
At first he didn’t know what it was. It was so dark that he thought night had come, and then he realised that it was a cloud. It was, however, like no cloud he had ever seen before. It twisted and boiled on itself, as though writhing in torment. Ominous colours flashed and morphed in it, both in the bulging top and in the gigantic twitching leg which connected it to the ground.
Yoshio stared up at this cloud in fascination. It kept growing, filling out more and more of the sky, taking on even stranger colours and appearances. Now it looked like a monstrous toadstool, growing out of the earth, one that was so poisonous that nobody would even venture close to it. It looked like something that would break its connecting leg and come crashing down on the city.
There was no telling how long he might have sat looking up at the cloud if the buildings around him hadn’t begun to burn. He saw the flames out of the corner of his eye with astonishment, and suddenly realised where he was. He tried to get to his feet, and managed with some difficulty.
“Honourable mother?” he said, looking around, and his voice trailed away. “Honourable,,,”
The city had disappeared. On either side, as far as he could see, there were only ruins blown flat. Fires were rising everywhere, and he was vaguely conscious of great heat. The air felt hard to breathe.
“Father?” he repeated, not sure if he spoke or if his mouth was merely moving. “Mother?”
There was no sign of them. He could not even be sure where he had been before the flash, and where they had been. Everything seemed to have vanished, smashed down as by a giant's fist, except for a smouldering hunk of metal nearby. Looking at it, he suddenly knew it for what it was. It was all that was left of the charcoal- burning truck which had been driving past him when the flash came.
“Eeee!” someone screamed. He turned to look. A young woman was running down the middle of the street, completely naked. He was astonished. It was the first time he had ever seen a naked woman, and he gaped at her, from her bouncing breasts to the triangular patch of black hair between her legs. Then she came closer, and he recognised her. It was Hiroko Mitsuda.
“Hiroko-san,” he tried to tell her, “you must put on clothes. It’s not right running like this, and...” But she took no notice of him at all, Still screaming, she brushed past him and ran away into the smoke from the gathering fires.
Suddenly, as though she had unlocked a door, there were people. They walked towards him from the direction of the cloud, moving as though they did not know where they were going. They didn’t even look like people. Some of them were naked like Hiroko-san. Some didn’t seem to have much skin left. None of them took any notice of him.
“Honourable Father?” he asked blankly. There was no reply. After some time he walked a little way towards the twisting leg of the cloud. Nobody tried to stop him. “Honourable Mother?” But there was nothing.
It was not fear that drove him to follow the shambling crowd, nor was it the gathering fires. It was something else, a feeling he had no word for, just a vague idea that perhaps, somewhere in the crowd, he might find someone, some anchor, some link to the world he knew. The fires on both sides were blazing brightly now, and those in the crowd who could were starting to hurry. Others could not, and lagged behind. He saw a few simply sit down on the street and wait for the fire.
“Grandfather,” Yoshio tried to tell one of these, an old man with a delicate face and a wispy beard. “You shouldn’t give up like this. I’ll help you.” But the old man’s tired eyes looked through him as though he wasn’t there, and Yoshio was forced to move on.
And then, up ahead in the crowd, Yoshio saw a familiar face. It was old Nakamura-san, still in the happi coat he’d been wearing earlier for some reason. He was only a short distance ahead, and Yoshio tried to hurry to catch him up, but suddenly his limbs felt immensely weary. He felt as though he could not take another step. But still he went forward as quickly as he could, because he had to talk to Nakamura-san and tell him about the Samurai and what he’d said.
“Nakamura-san,” he whispered. “Nakamura-san.”
But even then, as his weary limbs pushed him onward, he knew it would be no use at all.
[Dedicated to the victims of the atom-bombing of Nagasaki, 9th August 1945.]
Copyright B Purkayastha, 2014