This week, we’re reading The Blossom and the Firefly by Sherri L. Smith, a powerful WWII romance between two Japanese teens caught in the cogs of an unwinnable war.
Scroll down to read the excerpt!
My father’s voice wakes me—thick as wool, slightly scratchy. “Get up, Hana. It’s time to get going.” Music fills the room in a cresting wave. He must be playing the koto again.
Then a hand rocks my shoulder gently. I roll onto my back, flat on my futon, and open my eyes. There is no music. And I remember: my father has gone off to war.
My mother is there, kneeling beside me. She pours hot water from a kettle onto a fresh towel in the washbasin.
“Quickly now. Don’t make Sensei wait.”
She slips out of the room, and I lie there staring at the ceiling. Wooden slats, darkness. The sun will rise soon.
I get up. I roll my futon into a bundle, then push it into the closet. I kneel by the basin and unravel the hot towel with burning fingertips. Steam rises off of it like a sail in the wind. I drape it over my face, carefully wiping the corners of my eyes, my mouth. I breathe. Rinse the towel. Slide the cotton yukata from my shoulders to my waist and wipe my chest, my arms. They said the bruising would go away in a week or two. It’s been three. What was once black and purple is now yellow and green, almost gone, but not quite. There is a stiffness that has not left me. But I no longer limp. I should be pleased.
I finish my towel bath and pull my uniform from the closet. Baggy monpé pants, deep blue, gathered at the ankles and at the waist. I push aside my work shirt and retrieve the rest of my school uniform. Blue jacket. Middy blouse with rounded collar—a bit loose lately. My mother has taken it in twice already, as food has grown less plentiful, folding in the seams without cutting the cloth, tacking the excess fabric down with optimistically loose stitches. As if food and peace are on the horizon and I will need those extra inches back. For now, the cotton bunches uncomfortably beneath my arms, but we must make do. This is a season of emergencies. As was the last season. And the one before.
I pull on white tabi socks, split between the big and second toe. Brush my hair in quick, long strokes and tie it into a knot at the back of my neck.
In the kitchen, a rice ball and a weak cup of hot tea await me. I use the tea to wash the taste of ash and dirt from my mouth. It’s there every morning now, these past three weeks, no matter how I scrape my tongue or rinse with water. The rice sticks in my throat, but I know my duty. For a week I would not eat, and I fainted on my first day back with my classmates. Now I do not faint. I swallow the rice, drink the tea.
“Okā-san, I’m leaving,” I call to my mother.
She is in the front room, the one that contains my father’s tailoring business. The morning is dim outside, the house darker still. She sits at a low cutting table, sorting through scraps of fabric too small to be of use on their own. When the sun comes up fully, she will pull back the shutters and sew the scraps together by the light of day. Something can always be made of what remains, she says. I hope she is right.
“Have a good day, Hana. Give Kaori-sensei my best. And see if your farmer has any onions to trade. This patchwork would make decent pants for children.”
“I will, Okā-san.”
My mother believes I still work in the fields with my classmates, that I help the farmers indoors with their tallies, their bookkeeping—hence my clean collar, my school uniform instead of work clothes. She believes this because it is what I have told her. It’s what we have been instructed to say to protect our families from worry. And the first lie I’ve ever told my mother.
I bow, slip my feet onto my platform geta, the cloth thong tucked snugly in the notch of my tabi, and slide open the front door.
There are both Western and Japanese houses here in Chiran. On the main street around the corner, many buildings have hinged doorways; some even have display windows. Covered in blackout cloth now, of course. The whole world has become darker in recent years. Lanterns at night are targets for the enemy.
Mariko is waiting for me across the wide road. I avoid the splashing stream that runs along the gutter. A gray-and-white carp glides by, headed for the river. Mariko is shivering. It’s chilly today. April is always unpredictable. By noon, we will be sweating, no doubt.
Soon, Sachiko joins us, and Hisako, Kazuko. One by one, or in twos and threes, the eighteen girls in my unit gather on the corner. We are the girls of Chiran Junior High School. Almost identical in our dark blue uniforms, white collars tucked in to make us less visible from the air. We wear our hair in braids or ponytails to keep it off our faces as we work.
Sensei arrives and claps us to attention. The sky is turning pearly gray. Shops are beginning to open their windows. Chiran is waking up. Everyone needs to take advantage of the daylight while it lasts.
And then we hear the rumble of the truck. And our workday begins.
The brakes argue with the road as the truck stops in front of my class. One by one, we climb into the back. They no longer pick us up at the junior high. The school is a hospital now. Our teacher enters last, pausing to catch her slipping geta so it doesn’t fall into the road, and shuts the truck gate with both hands. We slide down the wooden bench and she sits. The truck complains an old man’s gripe of grinding bones and dry joints, and lurches forward.
It runs up the rutted road, squeak-jostling at every bump, our young bodies flying up and down, as though on horseback. Mariko huddles against me for warmth, though the humidity is slowly rising. The road dwindles, leaving behind the roar of the river, the old samurai houses with their stone walls topped by high green hedges and tidy gardens framing the rolling peak of Hahagatake. The low-slung village homes built of disapproving wood, stained dark with age and rain. The countryside is ripe with the familiar scent of kuromatsu pine and cherry trees—with fewer blossoms now. We have to harvest at the shrine these days. We pass tea and sweet potato fields, climbing the gentle slope to Chiran Army Air Force Base. The sun is about to rise.
We arrive at the base and tumble out of the truck bed, clap our palms twice on the back door to let the driver know we are free of the wheels. The truck grumbles forward, pulling for home. We pause a moment, chattering like birds, like acolytes calling down a blessing of normalcy for the day. And then we begin.
We pinch each other’s cheeks for color, comb the dust and leaves from our black hair. Only our youth keeps our cheeks plump and glowing. Beneath our thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years, we are old women with youthful, useful bones.
Sensei claps for our attention. We don our best smiles and clip-clop like trained ponies to the runway. We scoop our arms full of cherry blossoms, the branches showing like black bones through the creamy pink flesh, like starving women, once great beauties, with some beauty still. The pink-and-white petals fall like sighs, like hopeless love in a movie, in a song.
We line the pitted runway, treacherous in our wooden shoes, their raised soles marking the dusty gravel with soft equal signs. We are equal to the task. We are Japan.
The Tokkō Tai appear, olive uniforms sharply creased, flight jackets left behind. They won’t need them where they are going. Their duty keeps them warm.
Saké is poured. Toasts raised. The generals give their speeches; the boys say their prayers. We accept their offerings. Gifts and letters. We offer courage in return.
We are the future of Japan.
These are our warriors.
They will save us.
The boys mount the steps to their aeroplanes, climbing toward heaven.
The girls wave goodbye.
The girls wave goodbye.
The girls wave goodbye.
Until there is no one left.