The Scars of a Child
The Scars of a Child
Once and only once do you hear me? These are memories I had hoped to never share, even reminiscing ignites the haunting trauma of that day. I guess they are not memories then, more like ghosts, ghosts of silver ash.
I’m warning you Yume, it is a long story with a brutal ending. Are you certain you want to hear it? Alright then, I can dissuade you no more. The years have passed, but I remember as if it were yesterday. How could I forget?
They fell like snow - those delicate pink petals cascading to the ground from the sky. In a matter of days, the streets would be coated in a thin layer of this immortal frost. It was a resplendent sight that only spring knew. On the journey to school, my friends would swing on the branches to unleash a fleet of flowers that remained tangled in my hair for the rest of the day. Once in a while, bikes rushed along the roads littered with mounds of fallen petals. The sudden disruption sent floods of pink sailing through a cloudless sky, fluttering towards innocent passers-by. There was one street in particular, right by the River Arie, which housed countless aisles of these opulent trees. A torrent of flowers engulfed the path, overflowing into the river to mingle with the water as it ran its course. Most of my memories are coated in their iridescent pink glow, but the memories that burn brightest are those of my sakura tree, every season scarred by its modest beauty through my past - a past that now seems a fantasy. The day that beauty was lost, was the day Japan ran out of seasons.
You understand why I’m telling you about that tree, don’t you Yume? The reality of that event is too agonizing for me to recount directly. You told me that tree was planted when I was born, and somewhere along the way we began to grow together. That tree is my past, and therefore my past can be relived through that tree. Anyway, let me start at the very beginning...
It was a miracle. The entire region had been dusted in an unfamiliar white glow overnight, from the towns to the shrines - there was no escaping the glittering flurry. On the Southern coast harsh weather was usually blocked by the imposing mountains, they protect us, at least up to then they had. Much to my delight, this startling snowy ambush found its way to our neighbourhood, on Christmas Eve, no less.
Yume, do you remember our house? If you had seen it back then you wouldn’t have recognised it. The grey slate tiles on the roof, the walls that wrapped around the house and the golden stone walkways were all covered in this pure glaze that twinkled under the translucent moonlight. But nothing compared to the sight of our garden. A thin film of ice coated the pond, leaving the water lilies stranded in the motionless water. The bridges were more useful as slides than pathways and the komainu struggled to keep their dragon heads above the foam. These lustrous surroundings only served to frame my sakura tree. Against a sky of crisp blue, the leafless branches extended to the clouds, reaching to heaven itself. Whilst my beloved pink flowers were gone, the tree still appeared in full bloom with the snow clinging to each branch.
Our family has never seen Christmas as an important holiday, but that year our Oba-chan from England was staying with us and to make her feel more at home, I remember Haha desperately hunting down ornaments and tinsel. Despite her best efforts a Christmas tree could not be found - so my sakura tree was the next victim. On Christmas, I understood why so many people loved this holiday when it holds no traditional value to our country. A string of multi-coloured fairy lights were entwined delicately through the branches, all accompanied by round red and gold ornaments. Under the cover of night, each light dazzled like a miniature sun. Our entire family huddled outside, curling steam rose from the amazake nestled between our palms, as we watched, completely speechless.
As much as I wished for the snow to stay, by Omisoka there was no trace of my snowy wonderland. Apart from the pond on the brink of flooding, all else was as usual. However, there was no time to pine over its disappearance. You loved Oshogatsu didn’t you, Yume? It was one of my favourite holidays too. I remember Haha shaking our shoulders to ask for our help with the toshikoshi-udon and the osechi before dawn. That year, after you left, I was told to work twice as hard to compensate, but we ended up with more food than usual since you weren’t around to eat it before it got to the table! As always, we had the last family meal of the old year before Haha and I changed into our kimonos. Adorned with layer upon layer of ornate crimson silk embossed with delicate flowers and a white obi belt, I followed my parents and Takeshi to the nearby shrine. Within minutes we joined an expanding sea of people heading in the same direction, towards a suffocating shrine in the distance.
Hatsumode, the first visit of the year to a shrine, was always my favourite part. At night, the shrine shone with eternal life from the hundreds of lanterns leading the way through a golden arch. Either side of the street to the shrine had an endless row of food stalls, each one exuding delicious smells that made my mouth water uncontrollably. Unfortunately, I had no time to savour this sensation. Before I knew it, Takeshi tugged me over to a yatai selling o-men masks. Soon our grinning childish faces transformed into elaborate foxes, as if we had gained the abilities of the animal too, we crept through the crowd to startle our unsuspecting parents. When we passed through the red entrance gate, we dipped our hands in the stone basin containing the pure water to be cleansed. Goodbye demons. In a few careful footsteps we filed into the area of worship and rang the bell, bowed twice, clapped twice and bowed again.
Then I said my prayer...
I have a good feeling about this year, please look after everyone I love and bring us luck.
I was confident that a new, better year was ahead. I lifted my head to gaze at omniscient statues when, abruptly, chimes from the bell in the distant Buddhist Temple began to ring.
On returning home, I retreated to the solitude of the garden. The sky was a vivid shade of purple as I stood alone in the garden, only myself and the cherry tree could be seen through the veil that masked all else. Even though the branches were bare, stars winked through the gaps in the wood as if imitating the leaves that would be blooming shorty. As I sighed contentedly, the breath turned into wisps of silver that escaped me forever. Gradually, I raised the lit lantern in my hand that I had brought from the festival by the shrine. The hook hugged the lowest branch of the tree gratefully, whilst the candle burned within - setting the word inscribed ablaze. The year of the Rooster. The fixed season of this zodiac year was autumn, and I was sure that was when my wishes would be granted. I watched the lantern slowly die into the night before I returned to the house renewed with hope. That solitary lantern still smoulders in my mind. Now, when I recall that memory I realise just how careless I was, one change of the wind and those flames might have devoured every slender branch that tree owned.
Looking back I seem so naive, but then again, no one saw it coming. No prayers could have stopped it. Nothing could.
Hey! No one is forcing you to listen you know, if you’re tired go home and sleep! Really, stretching your jaw? That’s the best excuse you can come up with Yume? If you want to hear the rest I’ll carry on.
With sparkling eyes and a resolute smile I gazed at my sakura tree. The passion of spring had enveloped the garden, colour emanated from everything the light blessed. Frail blush petals fluttered to the ground like the wings of thousands of butterflies. The date was March 3rd, the day we celebrate Hina Matsuri. Haha had set out the ceremonial dolls of the Emperor and Empress on the velvet red stand and, as usual, the miniature royal court sat below. Even though I was 17, I still tried to play with the dolls but my hands were slapped away before they touched the delicate porcelain. The only input I was granted was to pluck the cherry blossoms to take pride of place in the tiny imperial vase that decorated the top platform along with the golden separator and the two rulers. Every year the tree took my breath away with its awe-inspiring wonder when I went to select the blossoms, and every year I picked the smallest buds I could find. I always found, the most beautiful blossoms were revealed in time. From dawn to dusk, we sat under my sakura tree, carefree and content as green tea exchanged hands. The moment the sun reunited with the ground, Haha held up offerings of rice crackers to the dolls in the house, silently she prayed for our happiness and health. Our happiness and health. Sometimes I wish she prayed for herself, not just her daughters.
You know that superstition; the one about leaving the dolls up for too long and any daughters will not marry? That year you left, I had never seen Haha return those dolls to the box fast enough. I remember I laughed so much that green tea exploded from my mouth! A fond memory. It’s strange to think I actually have any.
Most of my memories are plagued by ‘what ifs’ and March 9th was no exception. Late that night the phone rang disrupting the peaceful silence that had washed over the house. Alarmed footsteps immediately raced down the stairs. Bleary eyed, I trudged down the stairs to investigate. Faces. That’s all I could see. Horrified, alarmed faces. Chichi stood rooted to the ground, the creases on his face deepening as his eyes filled with desolation. Haha was desperately trying to keep her voice composed, but in vain. Her tone trembled in sheer terror with tears threatening to escape at any moment. Both of her hands clutched the receiver as if her life depended on it, I could see her shaking. Abruptly the call was cut off. In seconds Haha’s knees caved under her and her body submitted to gravity, hysterical wails of sobbing caused her to convulse violently. Tears hurtled to the floor and shattered into a million shards. Chichi grabbed for the receiver to haphazardly push the recall button. I rushed to wrap my arms around Haha’s back. Panic. Raw panic.
Hours passed. Horror-induced, sleepless hours. Chichi finally gathered the courage to switch on the television. I held my breath as it sounded, disrupting the ominous silence that had taken command the house. Only Takeshi had slept through the panic, the rest of us had waited, waited for the unknown. It was only until the news enlightened me that I became aware of the situation. Tokyo was the victim of an air raid. Dread consumed me as I clutched my hands over my mouth. My parents always tried to prevent me from learning anything about the war with the USA and truthfully I was happy to be blind. Content to ignore the danger our country faced, our family faced, we faced. Now it was real. All too real.
As dawn broke, the sun shattered through clusters of grey clouds. Numbness reigned. Not the kind I would be grateful for, the kind that buries emotion, but the kind that leaves you empty, irrevocably empty. The television screen displayed image after image of burning buildings standing solitary within mounds of rubble. It was too soon to identify the dead. I wordlessly begged that your name would not be among the slaughtered innocent. Rain tumbled against the window pane, even the skies were crying.
One word. That’s all it took to restore everything I believed in. The second time the phone rang we were ready, Chichi answered faster than I blinked. Tear stained faces awaited the answer to their unknown. As soon as I heard the weak hello the constriction of grief vanished, allowing air to fill my lungs. Relief. I still had my older sister. But what if I didn’t? What if you didn’t make it out of the city in time? What if you died? Tormented by these thoughts, my feet rushed to find a sanctuary, a place where I was safe. Before my mind could catch up, I ran to my sakura tree through the panes of hair clinging to my cheek. Droplets scraped my face and splintered into pieces. Tears and stray blossom petals began to mix with the rain to run down my face, a feeling of total helplessness and fear took over.
Hundreds of thousands died in the heart of Tokyo that day, it really was a miracle that you survived Yume. After that incident, I remember thinking that the war would be over. I thought enough lives had been taken in the name of war and the fighting would stop. I truly believed that never again would I have to fear for my family’s lives. Japan could be at peace. Say what you want, but I know we are protected. Haha’s prayers were to keep her daughters happy and healthy, it must have worked, and we are still here defying reason, even if we don’t want to be.
As if to distract Japan from the trials ahead, that summer surpassed all the previous years, the weather was warmer, the festivals bigger and life finally started to revert back. At least that’s what I thought. You were lucky you were on holiday with your university friends Yume. I thank God that Japan kept you safe.
After breaking up for the summer in my second year at high school, I planned to make the most of every second that time would grant me. Lately, my parents had kept the news away from us, they always kept those channels off the TV when we were in the room and there would be no newspapers in sight. Not that I objected this time. If ignorance gave me peace of mind then I was grateful. Just short of a week into the summer holidays, my friends and I went to the first Matsuri of the season. The humid summer air trembled with life under the sunset. Armed in our cotton yukatas we marched to the centre of the blazing light where stall after stall greeted us on the horizon, floats congregated in the middle and snaked through the crowds. In seconds, I felt my hand being dragged towards the cotton candy stall with glass wind chimes suspended above it. We wandered around the festival ground, eating away at the fluffy clouds. I couldn’t help thinking that the pink reminded me of my cherry blossoms - but I don’t think they would have tasted as good. In the midst of night, the beating of the drums grew more distant as we moved out to the edge of the festival grounds, releasing us from the confines of the crowd. Soon we were all gathered on top of a nearby hill overlooking the festival under the cobalt backdrop laced with stars.
In that moment, all seemed right with the world. It was easy to forget the mounting anxiety and, to some extent, forget about the war. Loud bangs erupted from the sky sending shocks of colour spiralling off in all directions. The explosions were mirrored in the water below, everything surrendered to the mosaic of sparks igniting the sky, and all the subtle elements that made up our city were submerged by the display. We sighed in wonder, stunned at the sight.
As the fireworks began to fade into the darkness, one of my friends pulled out five sparklers which were met by enthusiastic smiles. Each bearing a sparkler, we lit the end and watched a shooting star become alive in our hands. We traced them against the sky, creating our stamp on something that others considered out of reach, untouchable. Nothing was out of reach...
The following season, most of my friends touched the sky and they shone brighter than any star could hope to do. It pains me that they are the ones looking down at me, that I fell behind.
You must remember being told the story behind Tanabata when we were little, right Yume? I loved that story. Every night in summer I would beg Haha to recite it before bed. That’s probably why you were glad when the summer Star Festival was over and you could have a break from that story being repeated every night.
Every July 7th we would write wishes and every year mine would revolve around passing my exams - but not that year. That year my content heart wished for something entirely different. I wished that everything would stay the same...
Ruthlessly, Haha set me to work as soon as I dragged myself out of bed. In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation I fled to the garden and set to work cutting coloured paper under the shade of the sakura tree. Now it was summer all the cherry blossoms had thawed and lush green leaves replaced them. When enough gold paper stars and strips of coloured paper had accumulated, I started to hang the stars on our bamboo tree next to the water fountain. By the time I was finished, the sky had been dyed a vivid purple and voices shouted for me to hurry up into the car. In a short drive, a large body of water came into view, supporting a small army of wooden river boats. We joined the crowd gathered at the water’s edge which sparkled with amber lights from the windows that adorned the towers. Once the moon reached its peak, legions of candles were released from the boats. Silently they drifted across the dark abyss. As the boats continued their journey forward they left a trail of blue flames behind, nothing could swallow their light. The blur of colour sent shivers down my spine. Ripples of water spurred the radiant lights in swirling motions causing the watcher to enter a trance. This was the closest to paradise the earth would ever know but even time managed to claim that.
Once we returned home Haha collected the strips of paper I had slaved over earlier and we all gathered around the bamboo tree ablaze with golden stars. Bestowed with all the happiness I thought was possible it seemed selfish to wish for anything more. The blue tanzaku waited patiently until I finally found the words for it to carry.
May we all be this happy in many years to come, may time pass with no change.
August 9th was the first day of the new season. How can the beginning become the end so quickly? Not even in my most venomous nightmares could I have imagined that day or the events previously. Forgive me if I stutter Yume. Forgive me...
Three days ago Hiroshima became Japan’s largest graveyard. I remember when I heard the news, disbelief, despair then dismay. Even our homes were not safe, yet in my juvenile mind fighting was reserved for the battlefield. At what point did those locals become soldiers? When did the wooden panels on their walls comprise their coffins? Nowhere was safe. Time was a mercy bestowed to us. The world I knew melted into a single moment of dread. Bravery can only be summoned by those who stand a chance against adversity – but what chance did I have? The floor rapidly closed in and around my trembling body as I collapsed in defeat.
Three days ago the USA razed Hiroshima to the ground with an atomic bomb, slaughtering untold numbers of people in the blink of an eye. Seconds. In seconds, people were reduced to air. Air that was now so unbreathable and toxic, that it contaminated anyone who dared retain their life. What life? Can you call a life tainted by cancer’s venom anything other than unimaginable suffering? Suffering. Only the innocent suffered.
Ever since, my parents no longer neglected the news in front of us. What’s that saying? Better the devil you know. Mourning families placed flowers outside their gates as a symbol of respect and the flowers outside our gate were a mix of red and yellow amidst bamboo leaves, bluntly, the thought of them made me sick. All I saw were petals dipped in crimson blood and the yellow of the sun, which no longer graced us as it had been blocked by a gloating shadow. Each time I glanced in their direction I felt my knees going weak. The day after the catastrophe, I walked through the living room to see the television buzz with disturbingly graphic scenes that would comfortably fit inside any horror film, from the very Devil’s work. Too late. My world – waking and sleeping – from then on was coloured blood red, but it was at night I heard screaming and final gasps of breath. No escape from the carnage imprinted in my subconscious.
Nothing made sense anymore but if this was reality I did not want anything to make sense. A soothing beautiful lie, that’s all I wanted, for someone to take away the terrifying truth. Warnings. They were a daily cause of dread, until they were not needed anymore. On that morning, the air raid alarm, which we were unfortunately no stranger to, screeched along with the rooster at dawn. Panic spread like an epidemic but they only lasted until the all clear at 8:30am. Most people decided to carry on with their daily lives after spending the morning in the air raid shelter, but Chichi refused to let any of us leave the safety of the house. Even before the bomb went off he saved us, my high school was only a mile from the centre of the blast and Takeshi’s junior school half of that, without him we would have been killed instantly.
Noon. A deafening blast roared from the North. Looking above was our biggest mistake, a sight only hell could know rose up. Infernal colours ripped through the sky, which gouged a wound so deep in the bloody clouds that it revealed a black abyss. Shards of a demonic light were unleashed on innocent passers-by hundreds of miles below. A torrent of impenetrable grey smoke bloomed to form a plume that would be the last thing many people saw. As soon as this hellish mushroom cloud appeared on the flaming horizon my hand grasped Takeshi’s wrist, for comfort or protection I’m not sure. Following instinct I dragged his paralysed body behind me tugging his arm socket with a force I did not think I was capable of. In a moment of desperation I tore my eyes from their destination. They fell like snow – the trees that once embodied this land - by the time their golden leaves reached the ground, a smouldering flame had claimed their existence. My heart raced, fighting a battle with my ribcage to free itself but I kept running. Chichi yelled from behind to run and that was all I registered, all too aware of death stalking us like prey. With my final reserves of strength I opened the hatch to the basement. Takeshi immediately clambered in before I followed. I refused to close the hatch without them so we waited at the base of the stairs, heads bowed and chests heaving. I abandoned them. I realise that now. I left my own parents to die.
I guess that’s why it’s called Fall in America, right?
Every fibre of my being wanted to climb those stairs but invisible ropes held my legs in place. All too quickly the hatch swung shut. I shouted for them, hoping that I would hear anything over the howling that raged on the other side of the hatch. Blinded by my tears, I rushed over to wrench the hatch open but Takeshi grabbed my arm this time. His relentless grip prevented me from reaching the hatch and the deafening thunder over our heads alerted me that my parents had been cut down. My family broke and would forever remain shattered. They were only seconds away from salvation.
The trees leaves turned red.
The streets burned red.
The bark turned to ash.
People burnt to ash.
The seasons turned until time ran out.
You know as well as I do, Yume, that it was my fault. No amount of regret can ever take that away from me. Sacrifice? That’s what you want to call it? No. Sacrifice involves giving hope to those you save and there is no hope in this desolate wasteland. We were so close, she almost…
I bear that on my conscience, it is their ghosts who haunt me at night and the tormented shadow of our brother, Takeshi, who lost his battle with cancer only a few short months after. Their faces remind me of what that bomb took away from me, of what I now have to live without. Too much has been ripped from me to become whole again. I know that will never change Yume despite what the hospital claims. Physically my health could improve but these scars run too deep to be reached by human hands.
A single cherry tree. A tree that symbolised my whole existence. It once stood proud. It once decorated each season with wonder. Now it’s gone, cremated just like hundreds of thousands of people were and so has the life I lived alongside it. But roots run deep, so I still pray that one day I will see my sakura tree bloom again.