It was my father who died first in the war. He dug emplacements for the Japanese Imperial line near Shuri Castle. How he perished, I do not know, because no one ever found his body, but some sergeant’s tattered logbook listed him KIA on June 1, 1945. I say prayers every week for the man who wrote his name, an Okinawan’s name, and committed it to our version of history.
Next, a howitzer killed my husband Ouya near Araha Beach, where couples now walk the shore in sight of Heiwa Air Force Base. He died by 105mm American shell. Since my mother had succumbed to malaria two years before the war, I became an orphan at twenty-three. I was lucky, because many were orphaned before they had lived a single year. I grew up reflecting on my good fortune; that I had survived, that my brother had survived, that I was given a chance.
In May of 1945 my family consisted of Ouya, my daughter Reiko, my son Jun, my father Ryu, my brother Shinzo, and me. We lived in the village of Gopai, on Runio Island, which boasted perhaps four hundred people during that time. It is a small place, as you might know, lying some thousand meters from the main island’s eastern coast. Back then, we lived without radio or electricity. My husband farmed, and I tended to the children, the household gods, the religious services.
Jun was obedient; he listened to his father, he performed his chores without complaint, and he savored the games of other children. Reiko, however, failed to listen. She was like me. In my own youth, I had struggled against the constraints of my culture, and wished to do things men did. Why could I not fish on the ocean? Why could I not race boats or farm? Why could I not be with a woman?
Eventually, I learned to accept my place. As most cultures go, Okinawa is quite lenient towards its females (as if we are “fortunate” to be spared violence and suppression), but I was never satisfied with the role expected of me. I wanted to voice my ideas. Loudly. For years my mother punished me, explaining that I must fit in if I wanted to find a useful husband. Eventually I learned to appease her, and by doing so I learned to appease Ouya, some ten years later.
I never loved my husband. I convinced myself I loved him to satisfy the social law of family. I pretended to enjoy my calm village life, and I taught the supposed joys of that life to my children, but I regretted every minute. In fact, I was relieved to learn Ouya had died, although I certainly felt a kind of sorrow.
After the war I entered into a twelve-year relationship with another woman. I had nothing except Shinzo, who was sixteen, who earned pennies building houses for the soldiers who stole our land. And I had my girlfriend. During much of this time I worked as a prostitute in downtown Naha, in secret, catering to American soldiers, Japanese, Okinawans. Mostly soldiers. My brother never knew directly, though I suspect he suspected. I must say it was a dreadful career, but I lived it, and I cannot change what happened.
Since those days I have suffered under a countrywide cloud of shame, although it is my belief that prostitutes are neither wicked nor dirty, and that our culture spits on the sex worker as it smiles on the man who buys sexual pleasure.
When my lover asked me to marry her, I refused—because I was a prostitute, because others would look down on us, because I was afraid. Do I deserve respect, then? For any remembered shred of this?
The young are taught to respect the old, as the elderly are taught to respect the young—on trains for instance, when we give up our seats for them.
We have passed Keiro no Hi and its celebrations, its festivals of age, but we can never dismiss our goal: to respect the world, which is far more humorous and ancient than we can properly appreciate. Over the past year I have seen young men and women act with superb grace and kindness in their daily lives: the boy who assists his grandmother with her lacquering, helping to stud shells in the clay; the high schooler who rides her bike to her grandparents’ house after class to make them dinner, since arthritis renders them unable to cook; the children who dance in the eisa spectacles to preserve a beautiful tradition. All these deeds and a thousand more give me hope for a better world. These young people are not acting out of a sense of mere obligation—most of them, anyway. They care about creating harmony, and they understand one must start with her immediate sphere of influence before a wider effect can spread.
My neighbor’s granddaughter, Aomi, lives in Tokyo, yet she returns every Keiro no Hi to spend a weekend with him. She earns her own plane fare and travels alone, knowing that her mother is unable to take a day off from work to go as well. She brings gifts and the latest gossip from the mainland. It lifts my heart to see the pair of them walking along the shore beside my village, sharing their perspectives on life. Aomi is sharp-minded; she grasps figures quickly; she is working hard to gain entrance to Waseda University. When I think of the future I picture this young woman, following the arc of her life.
Does her big-city irreverence shock me? Yes. Her style differs from our ways in Tsugunai, but I know that underneath these idiosyncrasies lies a deep respect for her elders. She would not return to Okinawa every year otherwise.
You youth are the island’s most precious souls. Remember you are not to blame for what you have inherited. Remember you are culpable for what your children inherit.
I confess I am tired of living. This will be my last communication with the world, as I choose to commit suicide and recover what respect might be possible for me. In every way I have failed to integrate myself with Okinawa, though I have struggled for decades for such peace. I am gay—this is no crime, although there is great pressure in our culture to pretend one is not. I am outspoken—this is no crime, although it disrupts harmony and social cohesion. I am a former prostitute—this, at one time, was a crime, but I do not blame myself for what I have done.
Still, I have resolved to end my life. There are some things that cannot be forgiven. Perhaps you will respect me, and perhaps you will not.
I love you all,
Etsu shivered in bed. Her head clenched and sent molten spokes through the backs of her eyes. She wanted to vomit, but she had thrown everything up long before. Had Reiko failed to tell her about this? A lesbian and ex-prostitute. She traced her thumb over the handwritten kanji, gnawing her lip, too groggy to comprehend. Hidari in heels strutting down Kokusai-dori to haggle over her body. The weight of her pain driving her to suicide. Etsu flipped over the pages, as though looking for blood or tears or evidence of the completed act.
An impulse drove her to open Reiko’s laptop. She dug in her pocket for the flashdrive—hers, not the specious one given by thugs—and uploaded her article. To Reiko’s boss she addressed an email with the text: for tomorrow’s edition. The Standard was a small paper, and the editor-in-chief trusted Reiko’s judgment, if only because she worked herself into the ground. It could work.
A smile cut through her nervous fog, and she felt a stark clarity that everything had built to this insignificant point. Etsu did not break rules. When she hit send, she wiped her prints with a tissue, as if to hide evidence of a crime. Elation spread through her in a warm rush, fanned into her skull and colored her cheeks deigo-blossom red.
Standing up, however, led to dizziness. She sat on the mattress, grabbed her head, and counted haltingly to ten while Grandpa Nakano winked in his heavenly condo.
Take care of that weapon, little clownfish.
After a grunt forceful enough to banish her memories, Etsu pushed herself upright and shuffled into the hall to find everyone except Reiko in the kitchen. Outside the window a gray-blue whorl of clouds scudded by, empty of lightning. To Etsu it looked like the sky dragging away her future, way across the East China Sea, to a coral-bone atoll in a dying ocean, where Ensign John Harriman waited with a whiskey and lady who wasn’t her mother.
Sorry about that vanishing act, honey, but I had plans. You, uh, want a drink?
The others halted their discussion to help her into a chair, which she allowed with some reluctance. Then they settled back into the anxiety they’d been nursing for the past two hours.
“I apologize, I just woke up.”
Haruki hunkered more deeply into his seat and pawed the first tufts of a mustache. His wide, amber eyes watered with overwork. “Reiko left some time ago. She said there was an emergency and that she would be back, but we don’t know when. Glen is gone too, separately. He, ah, escaped from his handcuffs and ran away through the front door. So we’re deciding what to do, I guess.”
Dana poured tea for the student, and Etsu drank with the steam rising into her face, warping the air around the table. Disappearances. She called her friend’s number, then her desk at the office. She pressed her fingers against her temples until spots blossomed in her vision.
“You were keeping him here?”
“Reiko handcuffed him. We were deciding what to do, but he squirmed out. Just sitting at the table and he bolted out the door.”
“You didn’t chase him? And the police?”
“The police are looking for Dana and I, as a matter of fact. So is the military. Until we figure out what is happening, we did not wish to call. We assume Glen is after a boat, though.”
“And he could hurt people. Kidnap Reiko’s father, or kill him.”
Yoshio asked her to dinner. The officer forced her cat in the evidence bag and squeezed out the air before zipping it shut. She hid on the toilet while criminals threatened her friend, who had left. Who was missing. “Ms. Wasayama, how are you feeling in all this?”
“My dear, it is you who were injured. I should be asking you this question.”
Etsu studied her eyes for signs of defeat, of loneliness, but all she saw were the remnants of tears, a thin crust of red.
“I am fine. Slight headache. I still remember my school notes, at least.”
“Thinking of others before yourself.”
Etsu nodded. People should be no other way.
“I, too, am fine, then. Have I seen you at a protest before? A student?”
“That is fine, very fine. I invite you to all others. I will remember.”
“That is an honor, Ms. Wasayama. But I am inexperienced, and I have none of your skills.”
“Trust me, you are too flattering. My only skill is stubbornness.”
“A very important one.” Haruki warmed his hands around his tea; Dana rose to sit on the couch in the other room. “I’ve forgotten, I’m afraid. That her Japanese is not so good.”
“We can switch to English,” said Etsu. “Although I don’t really know it.”
“That is quite all right. She is just tired.”
Lightning sutured the sky behind the window, providing a high-contrast shot of wet rooftops, plus a few lights in the other homes. A palm tree near a café curled into an arch beneath the wind.
“As I was saying before, I suppose, I will go look for him,” said Hidari. “Glen wishes to flee the country, he has committed some crime. Professor Tamashi tells me an American was seen kidnapping that young girl, Kumiko Natsuharu. This happened in Okinawa City. Perhaps it is this that he runs from. If so, the Americans will most likely catch him, and he will get away. From us. To be truthful, I am not sure what I want. I have seen much of Glen since he stumbled into my backyard, and I feel some responsibility for this. I took him in, I did not turn him over to the police because I felt sorry for him. It is a long story to say why.”
Etsu looked at her hands, smooth and untested. The nails showed not even a sign of distress, except she worked hard, incorrigibly. “And where will you go, if you go?”
The docks at Naha. The soldier didn’t know where Reiko’s father lived, but she didn’t put it past him to break into someone’s home and kidnap a suitable pilot.
“I will go with you,” said Etsu.
Hidari grunted, tapped her fingers on the table. “I can manage on my own.”
“I would like to, if it is all right.”
The old woman thought for a moment, lowering her head, then jerked it up quickly so her earrings jangled. “Of course, absolutely it is all right. I appreciate the company. The Drs. Tamashi can rest here in the meantime, if you think it is safe. Reiko mentioned there were men here?”
“Two gangsters, yes. They wanted us to print an article about—well, never mind now.”
Hidari placed a call before she left. Her friend Nayu, as luck would have it, failed to pick up in this grotesque marathon of distress. Busy with her boards, then, or sleeping. Yes, it was late, she was only sleeping. Hidari tried to laugh, but no sound escaped her throat. Sho Norito screamed for peace in his resting place on Runio Island. Mabuya, mabuya. Hidari sighed. A second blessing would have eased her heart.
“My dear,” she told the voicemail, “it is me. I wish to tell you how much I value your companionship. All these years, you have sustained me. At this late stage, with all we have between us, I can say that I am sorry to have not accepted your proposal. Often I think of that first day we were alone and am comforted, despite everything else. So thank you, for the good and the unpleasant. I also wish to say…”
The call dropped. Hidari stared at the white, blinking screen in her hand and stowed away the device. The lights in the apartment died and came back on.
At the doorway Dana said, “Good luck. I’m so sorry about your friends, again. They did not deserve what happened. They were very good to me.”
A shuddering breath, downcast eyes turned suddenly skyward. “It is another burden we must carry. That I must, I suppose.” Her wounded mabui, her pain that infected the others and made them die. She should have gone straight to Gopai, no questions asked, and appeased that ancestor of hers.
“It is not your fault. Not in any way.”
Hidari nodded, as if to calm the psychologist. She said the same things to people over the phone at the island’s sexual violence hotline. She turned away.
In the hallway, Etsu suddenly embraced the old woman, taking in her sweat and salt and fragrant clothes. The graduate student wept without guilt or shame. Hidari turned round and relaxed into the young woman’s arms, uninterested in explanation. Who needed to justify tears in a typhoon? They descended the concrete stairs in silence.
Haruki and Dana discussed leaving for home, or a hotel, but ended up lounging in Reiko’s apartment out of inertia. Probably the yakuza would not resurface; they had sent their message.
“Did Etsu look all right to you?” Haruki worried his thumb against the hem of his shirt. “She might have what your soldiers get; what do you call it?”
“Traumatic brain injury? Perhaps, I don’t know. I should have checked. I should have done a lot of things, Ruki.”
“You did everything you could, Dana, and more. You’re a full-fledged hero. Phoenix Goodheart.”
Dana smiled, but there was a grief embedded in her skin. She grabbed her husband’s hand to stop it twitching.
“If we get kidnapped and tied up, I’m expecting Mr. Bond to save us.”
He shot her his smoky glare, the layabout actor once again, but they were too spent to laugh.
“Haruki,” she said.
“Tell me anything, my dear.”
She shook her head; the dense halo of hair shimmied like a tremor-proof skyscraper, sliding gradually back to equilibrium. Her face was scrubbed of adornment and worn, somehow true in the way a patient’s sudden confession was true after ten sessions of bullshit and awkward evasion. “It doesn’t matter. It’s nothing. Let’s sleep.”
But in Reiko’s bed they could not resist having sex, for it seemed it would be a long while before they could do so comfortably again. They stared into each other’s eyes, affirming their realness, clasping hands and shifting in cherished rhythm.
“I feel like a kid again,” said Haruki, and they both laughed. Release of tension. They came at the same time, as they did often, with muffled cries of happiness. Haruki cleaned up, nervous about the smell, but Dana seemed not to care. She saw only her husband.
“‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, I still don’t know what play that is.”
“Forget about it. It’s not important. It’s not even American.”
Haruki kissed her forehead. Dana nuzzled up against his ribs and shut her eyes. The sledging of rain ebbed away into the distance, intimating relief, only for it to surge back with a volley that escalated to a constant, snarling note. They didn’t care. The world was confined to these four walls around them. Curled up like hideaways, the couple passed into dreamless delay, cozy in their warmth, safe in the strange womb they’d stumbled inside.
Kobo and Yasu waited outside the front door; one rolling an imaginary joint, nerves loosened with painkillers, and one turning a wooden fetish in his hands. To either side of them the hallway extended into watery, yellow gloom. Every resident was silent.
“Shall we make a ryuka prior to entry?”
Kobo stowed the carving in his pocket and smoothed out the fibers of his beard. “Your turn. Last time you messed up.”
“Yes, I suppose I did. Even the calligraphy of Buddhist scripts have some brush slips, as they say. Here goes:
“Helping a fool who pays us well
Is a definite risk
But confidence goes a long way
To coming out on top.”
“Not bad,” said Kobo. “Confidence.”
They knocked. The gangsters made no effort to hide. They heard the squeak of feet against floor; someone watching through the peephole.
Kobo waved, smiling broadly. The watcher shuffled away. Yasu knocked again.
“May we borrow some arame? I’m afraid we’re all out.”
“I don’t like arame.”
“Kobo, obviously that’s not important.”
“You’re saying my feelings don’t matter?”
“Are you really asking this? Of course they do. You’re an excellent man. A quiet, efficient partner; but we have a more pressing issue at hand. Now let’s let ourselves inside. Be prepared.”
“It’s just two girls,” he grumbled, but reached for his gun anyway.
The first kick stove in the middle section of the door. The second, from Kobo’s stout leg, propelled a thick shard into the apartment, opening a sizable gap. The hinges tore loose and Yasu caught the frame before it fell. Kobo covered him with his weapon.
No one in the den, or kitchen. They glided back-to-back, securing the first room before looking to the other doors. Bathroom, bedroom, presumably. They halted.
Breathing, patter of rain.
A faucet turning in the neighboring apartment, garbage disposal shuddering.
Left door, right door.
They moved right. A tepid sheen of sweat glazed their faces. White short-sleeved shirt and slacks on Yasu, afro and sport coat for Kobo. Looking like steely dance partners.
“Hello in there,” said Yasu. “I want you to know this is a matter of business. We have only one goal, and it is Ms. Wasayama. Please surrender her to us and everyone will be safer. Also happier.”
“Not her,” said Kobo.
“Shh. I’ll give until the count of three, how about that? Then, unfortunately, we’ll have to shoot people. I always detest executions by pistol: deeply unfulfilling. And the mess. But I suppose the police won’t mind, we’ll think of some way to ensure their cooperation. Right, the counting. One.”
Kobo trained his weapon on the left door. As he steadied his breath, he hunkered down into his center of gravity, immovable, prepared to perish by shell or knife. His afro left a print in the back of his companion’s shirt.
Yasu noted the light distribution, the sofa covered in clothes, the scattered pen and paper. Vinegar smell of sick in the air.
Yasu nodded toward his door. They moved in tandem to the threshold and he turned the knob, revealing darkness, the shape of a bed and dresser.
“You would not enjoy hiding from me, I warn you. Come out now and we’ll talk, it will be nice, I’ll even brew tea. As long as you don’t mind the neighbors being able to watch from the hall.”
He stepped in, panned to the right as Kobo swung left. No one in the corners. He flipped on the light: walk-in closet, final crevice for a rat.
“My associate and I can fire thirty rounds into that little closet in under four seconds. You may wish to consider surrendering.”
Heartbeat, pulse under cool skin. Yasu ripped the covers from the bed, ducked and looked beneath.
“I’m tired of this,” said Kobo.
“You’re making my associate weary, I’m afraid. He’s more likely to be reactive in such a condition, which portends poorly for you. Don’t you want to get this over with? We don’t need to hurt any of you.”
“Just her, yes. But she deserves it.”
“Pretty bad lady.”
“Agreed. I suppose we’ll have to do this the long way.”
He ripped open the closet door; nosed around with the gun. Kobo watched the other half of the room and the den beyond.
Yasu checked beneath the bed again. He rifled in the closet. He nodded toward the other door.
Kobo led this time. He slow-stepped across the den, rapped once, and jiggled the knob. He smiled and turned the knob again, but it didn’t budge.
“Hello in there, assholes,” he said. “Please allow me to kick this door in.”
Haruki and Dana opened up at once.