The radio seemed so certain. The voices were so proud, so stirring. The sacred war was going well. It was nearly over. It made his chest swell.
Father would be home soon, Mama promised. He would take them to a bigger place, one with space for Hana-chan, who never stopped crying. Mama said the baby was hungry. Who wasn’t?
Six months later and the radio is silent. No good news. No songs to glorify the Emperor. No electricity.
No Father either. Mama doesn’t talk about him anymore. Not since that day a few weeks ago when the young soldier knocked on the door and bowed, his caked with mud, and delivered that telegram. That awful telegram.
Now no food.
Mama hasn’t eaten in days and she’s gone dry. Nothing for Hana-chan. No milk and no money to buy any. He has to do something.
Huddled in the corner, his arms around his knees, he looks around the room, murky in the wan light from a single window. Not much remains of their meager belongings.
His stomach hurts.
He watches Mama giving his sister water. Hana-chan’s cries don’t seem as loud lately. Maybe he’s getting used to them.
Mama blows gently on the baby’s face. She glances over at him and smiles gently.
“Come sit with us, little man. Warm yourself.”
He pushes himself to his feet and shrugs his skinny shoulders. He feels a little shaky.
“I need to move around,” he says in his high-pitched voice. “I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
Mama purses her lips and nods. “Be careful.”
He clatters down the rickety stairs. He crosses the shabby lobby and pauses, watching the street through the warped glass in the ornamental door. It’s empty. It’s early, barely light.
He turns up the collar on his thin shirt and steps outside, his bare feet in sandals. The October wind is icy. Unusual. It’s often warm this time of year. It still smells like smoke.
Better than babyshit.
He looks around carefully. No rats. No dogs.
Does he dare?
He has to. Mama, she has to take care of the baby. It’s up to him to find some food. He has to go now.
He sets out across the ruins. It’s the first time since that night six months ago when he and Mama dashed across the streets, dodging the burning buildings and the desperate neighbors. He’s stayed close to home since then.
He used to roam as far as the docks, exploring and playing with the other children, but nothing looks familiar now. He keeps to the side of the dirt road, away from the holes and piles, trying not to draw notice. He trots past the temple his family used to attend. Two walls are standing, a smashed triangle of roof leaning against one of them.
That pile there, the one with the charred rickshaw, that was the Sasaki family. He remembers the mother trying to save the baby strapped to her back, the padding smoldering, then her trousers flaming, her husband’s too. They fell where they stood.
He tries to concentrate on what he’s doing, but he can’t keep the images from flashing across his mind.
The bombing was bad enough. Hearing the sirens every night, the drone of the big planes. Never knowing the target. Waiting for the explosions.
Then the fire, the night it happened everywhere, the entire city filled with live sparks and then bits of burning wood and paper. It felt like it was raining fire.
Bursts of light flashed high in the sky and fell to earth, whistling. A huge glow spread over the city, showing the big planes, flying low, their wings slicing through columns of smoke rising from the ground.
The voice blaring through the intercoms was calm as always. “Take shelter. Do not panic. Take shelter. More attacks coming.”
People stood in gardens and watched, spellbound by the spectacle. Red puffs of anti-aircraft guns sent dotted red lines across the sky. Thousands of cylinders dropped with a rushing sound like a downpour and then exploded into flames. Frail wooden houses bloomed alight.
He realizes he’s been running. He stops and leans over, hands on knees, breathing hard, fiery images flooding his memory.
He spots a group of bigger boys in the distance. He heard they ran in packs now. He hides behind a water barrel outside the husk of a house.
That night, the night of the fires, he remembers he jumped in a water barrel because of the intense heat. He splashed Mama and his sister until they were soaked.
Then they ran across the streets, where telegraph poles and overhead trolley wires fell in tangles, him pulling his mother by the arm, her other arm holding the infant.
Today the wind is stiff, but nothing like the night of the fires. He saw a burning plank sail through the air and hit a man, killing him instantly. Fanned by heavy gusts, the flames spread as fast as people could flee.
Coils of black, choking smoke surrounded them, but there were unexpected open spots, where he and Mama coughed and gulped the good air. They couldn’t hear each other over the roar of the firestorm.
Now the breeze blows the cinders like dirty snow over the acres of crumbled structures and charred rubble. When the bigger boys pass out of sight, he hurries past a shuttered shopping district. He waves to Mrs Kuraki, mother of his friend Kenji, who died of the burns he suffered that night.
Isamu steers clear of the homeless in their lean-tos built against standing walls or collapsed roofs. He stays away from the few remaining brick or block structures, fearing the desperate people who shelter in the hollowed-out interiors.
He cuts across another block of desolation, girders in gestures of supplication sticking out of the blackened ground. His feet are completely gray.
He catches sight of the Sumida and trots over the bridge spanning the river. When he looks down, he sees the thousands of bodies that clotted the water that night, living people splashing among the burned and drowned, a putrid stew of ash and flesh. The ghastly smell – will it ever leave? He retches and runs.
The next thing he knows he pulls up again, gasping. He’s missed the last minute or two, caught up in what took place months ago.
After that night, he refused to leave the room for more than a few minutes. Stunned and numb, he spent those months staring at the walls and waiting for the terrible announcements to begin again.
Instead the soldier appeared in his dirty boots, bowing to Mama, leaving behind the yellow telegram and the awful emptiness.
“I’m sorry, Isamu. I know you miss your father.”
Mama opened her right arm for him. She was holding Hana-chan with her left. He shook his head.
And then a day came, not long ago, when the air over Tokyo filled with airplanes, hundreds and hundreds of them, bombers and smaller fighters all flying over the city at the same time. He was convinced his life was over. He was almost glad.
But they didn’t drop any death. Just leaflets. The Allies were celebrating the Emperor’s surrender.
He reaches the port and the wind shifts, replacing the smoke with the smells of tar and rust, the metallic tang of water.
He spies a different gang of local boys, six or seven of them, dragging and shoving a heavy box, looking behind them for pursuers. He ducks behind a huge container until the sounds of their struggle fade away.
He peeks around the corner and studies the scene. It never seemed so large before. Each the size of a large truck, the containers are arranged in long rows. They stretch as far as he can see.
He can barely glimpse the docks.
Large, pale men are working about 50 yards away, lifting and loading wooden crates. As he gets closer, he can hear them talking to each other in a language that sounds to him like spitting.
They must be Americans.
He feels a wave of revulsion. These are the men who destroyed his life. But waiting in line for the toilet yesterday, he heard two street vendors talking about the invaders.
“Joe has so much food he doesn’t know what to do with it all,” one said.
Isamu means to get some. If he can only figure out where they keep it.
He swallows his disgust and approaches the men, wending past piles of equipment and large carts. One yells at him and waves him away, but he smiles and keeps coming.
Suddenly, a bulging net slams onto the asphalt, barely missing him. He jumps to the side. Huge hairy arms grab him from behind and swing him to the side. A metal box slams the concrete where he was standing.
Isamu kicks as hard as he can and feels his feet hit a man’s legs. His sandals fly off and he drops to the ground.
“Ow! Take it easy, kid.”
Isamu looks at the box that just missed him. Is that where they store their food? How can he steal something that heavy by himself? He needs a new plan.
He picks up a sandal. The big man hands him the other one. He gestures for Isamu to move away. He points overhead at a large crane.
Isamu watches as the massive machine lifts another bulging net. The man gently shoves him away, points to the net and shoos him.
The boy backs further down the pier, still entranced by the crane. He skirts two other work parties, the tall Americans shouting at one another as the full nets deposit gigantic crates, jeeps and other goods on the crowded docks.
He continues to the end, where he wraps his arms around his chest against the chill and gazes out at Tokyo Bay. All the ships that arrived in the past few days, hundreds of them, fill the harbor. Isamu is amazed. Giant battleships, dozens of smaller ships, little boats zipping from one to another. So many Americans.
How can he get one to pay attention to him?