Keystone Trigger

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Chapter 41

Hidari murdered her son and daughter with a rock. It was her duty, because her husband was serving as a boeitai. There were no guns—they were forbidden by the Japanese from owning them, so she’d made a snap decision between stick and stone, and had decided bludgeoning would be a more painless way to eliminate her loved ones before the Americans got to them. Her son, who was younger, she crushed with one blow, but her daughter had required three. Between the second and third swings Hidari had wavered, standing with blood on her fingers and sleeve, chewing her lip to keep from unhinging herself with a venomous moan.

“Momma,” said Reiko, through lips the regal scarlet of deigo blossoms.

Hidari knelt to meet her daughter’s eyes. She waited. All the spirits swirling around inside those precious marbles, irreplaceable. Then she stove in the girl’s forehead and slipped her finger, by mistake, into the split skull. It came away wet. With the child convulsing below her, she raised her hand again and brought it down; raised and lowered, until Reiko’s face became like a rice ball when you push your thumb into it. Hidari found herself hissing through her teeth in satisfaction, charged with loathing, repugnant though it was, for her children, with the wish to burn them and expunge their names from history. She prayed that her husband, wherever he was, would die screaming, alone.

The village of Gopai’s parents—all ninety-one of them—delivered their children to the afterlife. For protection. Old Sanayoko had procured a hatchet from someplace, so he'd hacked open his daughter’s carotid with a single strike, despite the blunt, malformed edge. Blood fountained onto the healthy grass of the lawn, and the spreading pool shone as a glossy counterpoint to the cloudless sky.

Outside there were only sounds of labored breathing and mewling. War reigned on the rest of the island, so they knew the Americans were en route. They’d been told of it. Warned and ordered to dispatch their families in order to spare them the horrors of captivity.

Hidari watched the faces of her children for a short time, then turned away. Sanayoko stood with his wet hatchet.

“It is done,” he said. The dewlaps of his neck shook as he exhaled.

With great timidity Hidari swiveled back towards her children. Reiko was eight, Jun barely four. They looked like iki-ningyou dolls left behind after an exhibition. They wore their dress clothes because they’d sang for the village this morning: the Imperial anthem. Lt. General Ushijima’s aide was supposed to have been in attendance, although this must have been village gossip, because he never showed.

Gopai held its celebrations here, on the patch of grass where the children had died. The annual tug-of-war contest had been planned for August, even if rope fiber was in short supply. The village figured it should not abandon customs simply because it was wartime. In fact, a week from today’s date was the festival of Yukka Nu Hii, when the men would race their dragon-boats around the island to thank the gods for the year’s bounty. So far, the weather had been propitious, but they knew the sky would grow dark again with American planes, the chop and buzz of foreign bombers.

Today, though, no one could detect the danger. Hidari scanned the faces of her fellow parents—mostly women, except for Sanayoko, who was cleaning his hatchet with handfuls of grass—to learn how to behave after the sacrifice.

No officer had arrived to supervise. Only a young sergeant and his aide, climbing out of a motorboat to inform Gopai of the approaching Yankees. Conch shells in the clear waves, boots crunching them deeper into the beach. The non-com gathered the village council and instructed them in government-sanctioned martyrdom.

“But the Army will be victorious.”

“Yes. But to protect your families from the vicious American soldiers, you must dispose of them now.”

This had been difficult to understand.

“Dispose. Destroy them humanely, the children especially. You know the Americans will violate them.”

“And us?”

“There are cliffs nearby, yes? Leap into the sea to show the force and dignity with which the Japanese people conduct themselves. We will allow no prisoners.”

The sergeant had not entertained further questions. After he left, the village discussed the order in strident tones.

“Quiet. I don’t want my daughter hearing of this.”

“Or my sons.”

“Well, we have to do it,” said Old Sanayoko. “It’s for our country.”

“The country is most important.”

“Tokyo must be preserved.”

The discussion rose and fell in volume. The day grew warmer, but a pleasant breeze wafted over the gentle hills. Ferns and palms waved within white sand, which bounced away the sharpness of the morning sun.

“We don’t have much food. What little we have has been requisitioned by the Imperial Army. Even if we stayed alive, how long would we last?”

“There’s food inland. My wife’s cousin lives in Nago. He said just recently they were eating three meals a day.”

Impassioned cries flared up. Old Sanayoko tried to marshal the debate, but the women wouldn’t listen. Hidari stood in the corner of the municipal agent’s office, which was also his home, inspecting the hand-made table Chuo, the representative, had built before he was called to duty. She thought of her husband Ouya sweating in a trench somewhere.

“Listen up,” said Mrs. Chuo. “We are going to perform our duty for Japan.”

The adults fell silent.

“You heard the sergeant. We have no other choice. Do you want to see the Americans tear our children apart and rape them? Or us? What is nobler: a self-chosen death, or a brutal slaughter at the hands of foreigners? I have made my choice, friends. We must follow orders. For Japan.”

“For Japan,” several of the parents agreed.

Hidari untightened her focus on the dark, lacquered table, letting it fill her eyes instead of admiring the details of the grain.

“Well, when do we do it?”

“Before noon. It will be hot, then. Say an hour before noon. We will take the children to the Game Field and do it there, quickly. Everyone together. We mustn’t leave anyone out.”

“I have a newborn.”

“The newborns have it the easiest. They will not understand.” Mrs. Chuo looked grim but uneasy. Her eyes, which were normally bright and cloudless, were dull with fatigue. Tired from praying for her son.

Hidari passed the five hours with dread, picking up her needlework and putting it down, fixing tea that she didn’t drink. Her children threw rocks and rubbed their feet in the grass.

On the killing field, holding the stone, Hidari recalled her daughter’s wriggling toes. She fought back a wave of vomit and dropped the weapon that had ended her family line. In a daze she peered around her.

“Nayu is not here.”

Hidari approached Old Sanayoko, who was staring at his hatchet like it might cut through this world and grant entry to paradise. She half-expected him to start swinging.

“Nayu is not here.”

Sanayoko said nothing, only examined his blade.

“I think she is hiding her child.”

Hidari did not know why she voiced this theory. Nayu’s absence wounded her in a way her children’s deaths were not able to, for their shock would only sink in after the war was over, and the long battle for peace in a foreign occupation began. In some ways she only registered their deaths after the Reversion, when America and Japan formally reattached Okinawa to Japan. The deepness of her loss penetrated still deeper with the knowledge that Reversion had not taken the Americans away, and had bound her island closer to the nation that ruined her family.

“I am going to look.”

Boulders on the shore. Wind and incoming clouds shaped like caterpillars. Hidari gave herself to the island, fairly. The earth accepted her love and swallowed her crimes, past and future.

She found Nayu weeping in their rocky alcove near the island’s edge.

“It’s time,” she said.

The young mother clutched her daughter to a thin and cinnabar breast. Hidari seized her hand without mercy, without sense or agency. Today was a time of abandonment for greater goods.

Hidari met her friend’s stare; the soft, slyly disguised love. She wished more than anything else to kiss her tears until her tongue removed them. But she pulled the girl out of the darkness and stopped to attend the distant whine of a Zero engine.

Into the public sphere for Yamato.

When it was done, when the men and women had hurled themselves from the cliffs that overlooked Okinawa proper, and the waves closed over like shoji concealing a tryst, only Nayu and Hidari remained.

“I am a coward,” said Hidari.

“Yes. And we are alone, with this island to ourselves. Like we prayed for.”

They had done their best to wash the blood from their hands and clothes, but heavy flecks still remained, and the stains caught the light as the sun eased into its crimson shade. Wide shafts of red pierced the clouds like the spokes of a wheel. Inside Hidari and Nayu was a poisoning emptiness. In their souls, their mabui. They stumbled to the cave and shed their clothes as spirits might in the quiet darkness, divested of anything human but the wish to continue, certain above all things they would not.

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