The yellow headlights split the fog into kijimuna, trickster spirits of the forest who shimmied in the cool downpour. Legends said they resembled toddlers with fat skulls, that they'd curse you with a broken boat or rosacea on your precious cheeks if you lied to them. Sometimes they’d leap from a banyan tree’s knotty roots and suffocate you awhile, just for kicks, but even that did not persuade Okinawans to call them evil. Pacifism is generous, after all, and brave—although mainly when it is tested.
Beyond the steamy windshield of the dented, gray Hyundai van, Hidari Wasayama served a formal complaint to the ghosts of the land around her, not so much to the kijimuna as to her great-grandfather, informing him that his nasty sense of humor was unwelcome, and that even if she was not a worthy person at heart, he didn’t need to hurt others because of it. Hidari drove slowly, hopeless but also calm, because the worst that could transpire was more suffering, and she had a plan for that already.
In the passenger seat her captor brushed a callused palm over his bald spot. In his other hand he held a knife. This man knew nothing of her life, nothing but the fact she was brown and blessed with age. Here, where the rain drilled into the earth and the wind scoured trees and ripped them from their roots, Hidari’s past crawled towards her like an amputee out of a foxhole, begging for the numb mercy of a bullet. And here she had discovered another white man with a weapon.
The Yankee creaked in his overtight t-shirt and mesh shorts, which ended far too close to his groin to feel at all pleasant about, especially with the hair situation he had going on. He wore lime green sneakers, plus Hidari’s mauve, orchid-patterned jacket to deflect the elements. All he required now was a little blush and eyeshadow; some lipstick to prepare him for the streets, for whichever man might deem him appealing during a Category-4 typhoon.
“A boat in a storm; I am not so sure, Adam.”
The man tightened his grasp on the door handle. Leg acting up. Swelling and the pulse of blood that tunneled through his head.
“You know what’s fucked up? This whole insane situation.”
“Indeed, it is stressful.”
“No. I mean here, The Rock, frigging Sushi-town. Why in God’s name are we helping you? We have to tiptoe around so we don’t offend no one, we smile while we clean your garbage, and you sandal-walking rice swipers hate us. Keystone of the Pacific; we should bomb the shit out of North Korea and call it a day. Jesus Christ.”
“What did you say? Tell me I’m wrong, shit. You’re lucky we’re here.”
Hidari hissed a stream of air out through her nose. The sound of her earrings jangled in the cramped space between them. Her hands shook on the steering wheel but still she maneuvered through the rain.
“You know nothing about Okinawa. If we stepped into your special country and built a single house on it without your permission, you would kill us and cry about the freedom of your citizens. What is it you say there? Double standard. I have seen America. I speak to the women groups, to the Congress. There are good people, yes, of course. But most who do not know. Never see where the leader goes to make the system run. It is disgusting.” Her voice wobbled and pitched at the end; close to tears. Adam, too, bristled with sadness, but he pruned it away until he reached the warm center of his outrage. In his mind: bitch bitch bitch bitch.
“You hit us at Pearl Harbor,” he said.
“This was Japan.”
“Oh, we’re going to split hairs? Yeah, you’re different. Japanese territory, Japanese target. You want a fucking apology?”
“Of course,” said Hidari.
“Sure, you guys don’t have shit on your nose. No shenanigans in China. Never tortured anyone. You’re lucky we didn’t shoot every one of you.”
“Lucky. Such mercy your grandfathers showed. Kindness of poverty and stolen land.”
“It’s called war, lady, all right? And we’re fighting terrorists right now, even if you don’t have the guns to do anything about it.”
The old woman stared into the misty road, navigating shrubs and trash and wires blown about by the typhoon. A high wind shrieked like an incoming plane and hurled thick drops of rain into the van, loudly enough to make them both flinch. “We chose to be peaceful.”
“You did? Well, maybe you learned a thing or two from getting bombed.”
Hidari reached over and slapped Adam in the head without ceding control of the wheel. He was too confused to swear, too shocked to make a move with the knife in his hand. She was an old woman; what would he do? What, in God’s name, was his objective here?
“You know,” said Hidari, “just because my friend is Chinese does not mean she will get you to Taiwan in a storm. You stake everything on…what is it? Great odds.”
“Might as well try this,” he said. Adam never gambled, not even in the pachinko parlors when the unit went out on the town. He had no knowledge of a good roll versus a bad; they were all doomed to failure sooner or later.
“Even if you find a boat, you will be in great danger. Are you a sailor?”
The man leaned into his window and cleared his throat. A clap of thunder rolled out over the fukugi trees and cycads that lined the road. “I’m a Marine.”
Hidari spared him a glance that was not without pity. Sulking boy with a bald spot, chewing his lip. “You killed someone?”
Adam felt on his body for cigarettes, but of course there were none. He checked the glove compartment, came up with a crushed pack of Seven Stars, matches. In disbelief Hidari watched the nervous rote of his tobacco-lighting, the fierce huddle and careful handling of the knife, which never left the man’s grip. Did Tatsuo smoke, then? In secret? Forty years and her neighbor had never told her.
“Overseas,” Adam said.
A puff, plume of smoke. Curt tip of his head.
Adam turned to gaze out the window, but the driving rain enveloped everything except the blurred shadows of trees. Hidari shifted into third and slowed down and puttered around a sharp bend. A passing car flashed its lights in warning.
“The road ahead may be flooded.”
The van rocked down a slope and waded into centimeters of water. Here the path was uneven, the gravel swept away or punched deep in the muck, and they slid with each concentrated gust like sand grains afloat in a drifting oyster. After a few meters they stopped. The engine revved, but the tires spun without finding purchase.
Hidari said, “We are at the bottom of a hill, so the water has pooled.” On either side of them wide, pendent ferns whipped back and forth in surrender.
“If that dinky-ass car could make it through, this van sure as hell can.”
“The van is very old.”
“So’s the driver.”
“That is extremely rude.”
They sat perched in the dip's froth, between two hills, water lapping the runners of the Hyundai and a gloomy dawn breaking around them.
“Should we get out?” said Adam.
Hidari lit her own cigarette. She grunted in the lucid way of a man staring across a chasm. “I do not expect I will be able to push this van forward. And with your leg … ”
“Hit the gas again.”
The old woman released the clutch and stomped the pedal, but the van only squealed in place. Branches snapped in the trees nearby.
“Perfect. Outstanding. Screw this.”
“You do not even have a plan, Adam.”
“I don’t need a plan! Or fine, I do, but shut up. So we’re on an island. There are tons of boats. I just need to steal one and leave. They had a bunch of them where you live, right? All along the shore. Hell, my head must be drugged up to forget that. All those sake bombs.”
“Small boats,” said Hidari. “For fishing. Most have no engine.”
Adam made the calculation in his head, figured it was useless to go back now. He might just abandon his mission if he didn’t press forward. “Taiwan, it’s what, five hundred miles? And there aren’t any ferries?”
“Not in a storm.”
Defeated silence seeped through the cab. Smoke hung, twisting around their heads like the kijimuna, who might, even now, be quietly sniggering at them. The air was warm but a bracing chill seeped through the cracks in the doors.
“I spent my life fighting bases on Okinawa. I was a one-tsubo landowner. I protested the building over my farmland, when your people took away the home where I was born. These are all crimes against the island.” She leaned her elbow against the dashboard, a bracelet dancing down her wrist to the wattles of her forearm. “Japan has not protected us. Article 29 of the constitution is simply lies.”
“Hell, they give you money for it.”
Hidari ashed her Seven Stars into the cupholder. “To make us addicts. The payment for land we gave no permission to build upon insults us. More than this, it is theft. Would you let someone demolish your house and build a runway over it?”
“It’s not the same—”
“Yes or no?”
Adam fumed on his frayed pleather seat, the hair on his neck raised for confrontation. “You attacked us at Pearl Harbor. And North Korea—”
“Answer my question.”
“Fuck you, lady.”
“So brave. You are afraid to tell what you know inside.”
“I know that you’re full of shit.”
“So you say I am lying to you about my home. Is this what you mean?”
Adam squeezed his fists until purple veins surfaced along his arms and neck. He seemed to depart, inside, for a distant room, killing someone or running away from the apartment where he should’ve stayed behind. Hidari thought he looked rather like a troll having an aneurysm. “No, all right? What do you want to hear? Of course no, but this is a jacked-up place. I didn’t ask for it. I signed up, I get sent here. Not my problem.”
“No, of course. Okinawa is not America’s problem. It does not care about our lives or our feelings. Must keep nukes in case the other Asians get out of hand.”
“Hey, it’s for your fucking protection. Remember that earthquake, tsunami? We helped out bigtime with that shit. And here, we clean up after every goddamn typhoon. I sweat my balls off clearing away brush and shit a few weeks ago, you can’t say I didn’t. And we pay half the damn workers on the island, to boot.”
“Wrong. Five percent are employed by bases.”
“Whatever. It’s a lot of fucking money. And with that curfew, all those bars'll dry up like knitting club pussy. You bozos need us, my friend.”
“I suppose the prostitutes need you, too.”
“Hey, that shit happens everywhere. Don’t tell me they keep their little chopsticks clean in Tokyo. Or down here, for that matter.”
Hidari leaned into the cushion behind her, taking stock of the aches in her arms and legs. (Not enough.) She drew in a ponderous breath and released it while scrutinizing the murky curtain of rain that staked out their boundaries. She took a drag of her cigarette and crushed it out. “Of course you are right. Women on Okinawa were denied the right to inherit land. We are trampled by Okinawans, Japanese, Americans. All men. I have spoken at the conferences, I understand this. We were forced into prostitution after the war, we pay for our brothers’ educations, and they spit on us for sleeping with the soldiers. It is never fair.”
Adam rubbed his bald spot, looked away into the blue violent matrix outside. “Well shit, I know that. Nothing’s fair.”
“It is true.”
“So I don’t feel bad.”
Hidari paused. She smoothed out the folds of her golden dress, to use up the energy she had collected during their argument, and inspected this hunched-up man more closely. Hard boundaries with him. Built in a tough, stifling infrastructure; not unlike the more warlike politicians in Tokyo.
“I don’t feel bad I have to come here and drive on the other side of the fucking road, clean up your storm trash, clean a bunch of goddamn missiles. That’s my job. When I was overseas, I had to shoot people, and that was my job then. I didn’t have a choice. That’s what it means to be a Marine. You don’t get a choice.”
“You signed up.”
“I signed up because there was a thick goose-egg nothing for me at home. You understand that? I don’t know what you think, but America’s not a block party with spare ribs and Scarlett Johansson giving you dome in a bathtub. Not my life, lady. America’s the fucking jungle, and the Corps was the nicest goddamn thing ever swung my way. Nicer than Jersey.”
“So you run, then?”
Adam blew snot through his nose and wiped it on a Mos Burger receipt from the glove compartment. He crinkled it up and stowed the balled paper in his shorts pocket, as though risking a fine if he did not. At length he said, “You know, maybe we should just pull out. Let you guys see what reality is like. You’d be begging to have us back, I guarantee it. When China and Dim-Sum-Un set up shop, you’ll be asking yourselves why the hell you ever let us go. You think we like being out here? I’m not an idiot, I know it’s nice, but we don’t have to spend all our goddamn tax money.”
“The Japanese government pays for everything; your camps run free of rent. Of course you stay, because Japan pimps us out for your benefit. You would be foolish to leave in such a situation.”
Adam pressed his fist against his head so the knuckles whitened. In the other he cradled the kitchen knife. “Aren’t you arguing my point, now?”
“Foolish only if you are self-interested, and do not care about free peoples or democracy, as your President says.”
“Hey, we’re freer than fucking China, all right?”
“One should not define himself through comparisons.”
“Oh don’t go all fucking Buddha on me, lady. We’re the best option this hot little rock has, and that’s the whole bit. Japan hit you like a sac-fly in WWII, and we rebuilt you, at least. We didn’t toss you off the fucking cliffs like the Imperial Army. No one’s perfect, shit, especially when it comes to guys killing each other.”
“I stand against Japan every day. I call the governor, I make petitions. I go to the construction site and wait with others so the bulldozers cannot cross. I speak outside the walls of bases and go to the unions. But I stand against your country, too, because you refuse to see how you hurt us, even as you tell us to our face how easy we have it. Was it easy when I had to touch your disgusting soldiers for coins to feed myself and brother? Or should I be thankful to get money? Should I thank them when they spill themselves inside me? When I sat in the night learning to cry without noise? Should I thank them for stealing my only property and not apologize? Should I walk into the base today and offer myself to your commander in gratitude? Should I?”
Hidari shook with tears and unbound, snarling anger. Adam turned away, out of shame, out of panic. He had never seen an old woman sob like this. In Iraq, he had come across crowds of weeping grandmothers, but he could move away, push them into the background of blocks and dust.
“I’m fucking sorry, Jesus, what do you want? I didn’t do any of that. I wasn’t even alive for it.”
“I didn’t do any of it either!” Hidari shrieked so the lines quivered in her bronze, handsome face. Her lip curled back to reveal improbably white teeth. She wiped her eyes with her dress sleeve and tamped down a sob in her chest.
Adam was beaten. Fire a projectile and he could react; this was tougher to field, and not only because he was wielding the clumsy instruments of his inner person. His stomach and limbs hurt; his injured leg was numb and bloodless.
“My name’s Glen,” he said.
Hidari folded her small hands across her lap. She appeared chastened by her own outburst, her body curled upon itself, shell-like, protective, upset with her station in fate. Mabui, mabui.
“I said my name is Glen. I guess you know I made that other garbage up. I mean, I’m sorry about what you were saying. All the hooker stuff. Life’s a bitch. That’s what we say in America. Life’s a bitch.”
“It’s hard for Japanese, er, Okinawan people to say.”
They breathed together in the storm’s noise.
“Why didn’t you run away?”
Hidari sniffed, bitterly it seemed. She smiled and shook her head so that her hair, close to her skull and tight in a tensile bun, jiggled slightly. “To where?”
“Like when we stopped first. If I was you I would’ve sprinted out the door and just booked it.”
The old woman shrugged. Her eyes swallowed the eldritch glow outside and lit into emeralds for a second. “I have nothing,” she said. “I have my petition and my speaking, but I have nothing.”
“You got a house with shit in it.”
She chuckled without mabui, without soul. “Things, yes, I have things. Family, no.”
“All right. You said something about a brother, though.”
“He died ten years ago.”
Hidari wrapped her arms around her belly as she suctioned air and let it vanish as a poison. “My children have been dead a long time.”
“I shouldn’t have asked.”
“In Okinawa, community and family is most important. Everything you do is for people around you. I speak for my country around the world, in government and in crowds. I have given myself to this island for more than sixty years. Everyone has been taken from me. Tatsuo, the neighbor, he works. In his spare time, he plays croquet with other men, or goes to the bullfights. I do not do this. I cannot, it is my error. It is difficult to be with others, but I wish for company. I am a poor example of the Okinawan spirit. Still, I give myself to the island. It is all I have. One day I will die and we will be no closer to freedom, but I will at least not feel 100% useless. That is what I hope for. To not be useless.”
Glen sucked on his front teeth. Using his elbows he pushed himself to a straightbacked pose in his seat and stubbed out the cigarette on his leg and jammed the butt in his pocket. From his fingertips he wiped flakes of ash as he sniffed the earthy tobacco tang in the air.
“Useless, shit. Everyone said I was useless. You do something you believe in, that’s good. That’s what I did. I did my shit overseas, I didn’t ask people for anything. Only time I felt all right. With people who watched you, no matter what.”
“Across the sea.”
“Everything else was shit. That’s a rib-tickler, right? That goddamn desert was the only place I felt even a little happy. Not even here, and this looks like paradise. Well, not now.” He smiled grimly, prompting a specimen of her own from the old woman.
“Others protected you.”
“With the 4th Marines, you knew what you were. And everyone was the same, except for fucking pogues. Best time of my life.”
Glen stopped, shook his head. He fell inside his mind’s trenches, slipping through the bonds of brotherhood that were always meant to catch you. Once a Marine, etc. And here he was crawling off to Taiwan?
A spider crept up the center console and Glen screamed. He stabbed at it with the knife, gouging a hole in the old pleather. The creature scurried toward him, over the armrest, and he threw himself into the car door as if a crocodile had lunged for his throat. Calmly Hidari reached over, past the flailing knife, and cupped the spider in her hand. She opened the driver’s side door and tossed the offender into the wet bushes, where it disappeared under a froth of water.
“It is gone.”
Glen chuffed, dropped his protection. His teeth ground so loudly Hidari heard the sharp, porcelain squeak.
“Fucking bugs, man. Shit. That was what you never got used to. Big-ass scorpions.”
He started crying. Without hesitation Hidari patted his shoulder. “Something occurred with these.”
In Jersey City, he had had nightmares. Glossy cockroaches that massed over his body, into his mouth and nose. They would kill him in a heartbeat, in order to roost inside his entrails. The mere thought of those sticklike legs against his flesh shut him down, induced an unstoppable nausea. Scorpions in Fallujah, hands down, were worse than the mortars.
“Fucking had a heart attack, almost.”
“You are good.”
“I know, I know, shit. I hate spiders, man. Bugs.”
“There are many in Okinawa.”
“Like I don’t know? In the shop they’re everywhere in the summer. I can’t even think about them.”
“You are okay, now.”
“What’s with the mother stuff? I’m American, right? Don’t you hate me?”
“All that shit about us invading your land, taking it?”
“I try not to hate.”
“Fucking better than me, man. I hate a lot of things.”
“This does not make you happy.”
Glen softened. He pawed the beginning of scruff under his lip, prickly and blonde. “No, I don’t know. Probably not.”
The rain strengthened beyond a roar; it was the dump of a process past any control. There was nothing to do. They waited. They hoped or prayed for an end with a minimum of bloodshed. Stranded there in the wet cleft, they felt things had been shaped to convey a message: warning of danger, or simply pressing them to stop and acknowledge the other’s shaky breath. Perhaps it was the kijimuna’s doing. Maybe Hidari’s great-grandfather, Sho Norito. Either way, the typhoon was their origin, the cards of their fate thrown away to an empty audience. Outside the rain became like boisterous clapping, and the clouds faces of those who came before, spectators, taking odds.