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  • Based on a series of six drawings made by Mr. Masayoshi Takamoto, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing of August 6th, 1945. His interview and his drawings appeared a documentary called “Drawing A-Bomb Memories,” produced by NHK Television, Japan, in 2003.

    August is not a good time for fishing. My father always said the water gets too warm and the fish, who are just like people, get sluggish and reluctant to move around.

    That morning I went out at sunrise. It was such a calm day, I worried that the fish would be too lazy to swim but actually I got quite a good catch: five large mackerels and two beautiful black sea breams. After a few hours, I decided to go home. Even though it was still early, perhaps only eight o’clock, it was growing hot and unpleasantly humid.

    As I dragged my boat up onto the sand spit near my hut, there was a huge blue flash in the sky. It was so bright, it made me look up from tending to the boat. It was the strangest sort of lightning. It stung my eyes to look at it. Congratulating myself for bringing in such a good catch so early and missing the storm, I waited for the echo of thunder.

    Then the sky to the north filled with a pinkish colour, like the stain of pickled plums on rice, and I knew it wasn’t lightning. And still there was no sound. It wasn’t like any storm I’d ever seen before.

    A huge gust of wind raced over the sand. I felt its dryness and heat on my face and arms and hands. Not the pleasant warmth of a summer afternoon wind, it felt terrible as it picked up sand, stinging and brittle. For a moment, everything leaned towards the sea. The wood of my hut shrieked, the sea grass screamed, and it pushed me backwards. I couldn’t catch my breath.

    Finally, a great roar overran me. It made the grains of sand on the beach jump like fleas. To the north over the city, the sky turned almost black and the clouds began to roil the way they do when a storm at sea is coming but much faster, as if hours were minutes. It was as if the city was pulling the sky towards it and the clouds moved so quickly and violently I feared they might take the sea with them. Up they rose until all I could see was an enormous jellyfish of pink and grey and black smoke. It was taller than any mountain could be, reaching up into the heavens like an angry sea demon, grabbing at the sky. I was so frightened. Sooner or later it must fall back to earth, and its dark stinging tentacles would land on me, on Hiroshima, on everything.

    This was something to do with the war, I told myself – nothing to do with me. But still I pulled the boat further up onto the sand than usual, not wanting to lose it.

    Wars were city things. Of course, it was a sea thing too; I’d seen the huge metal ships leave from the big port at Hiroshima-Koh. But they were not really boats; they didn’t have nets, or squid lines, or lanterns for night fishing. They had guns and towers and men in uniforms. City ships.

    A number of years before, some enlistment officers had come around to my hut. I was quite surprised to see them; few people bothered to visit to my lonely spit of land, six kilometres from the town. They took one look at my clubfoot and laughed. “Useless,” they called me. They told me how shameful it was that I couldn’t serve my country. One of them, the youngest and fattest, began to walk with a limp, making fun of the way I moved. But even though they made me feel bad, I still noticed they were clumsy on the sand.

    When they left, I got up the courage to say something as they marched away single file over the dunes. “Useless? But you eat fish, don’t you?”

    They didn’t answer; their laughter blew through the salt grass and caught in it. That was when I decided that the war was their affair, not mine.

    Sometimes, when the wind blew in a certain way, it would pick up their laughter and I could hear it again, but I learned to ignore it. From what people said at the fish market, I figured that most of those boys probably died early in the war.

    So when the sky turned dark over Hiroshima, I put the catch into a bucket with some water, set out my net to dry in the wind, and went into my hut. Normally, I would have taken the boat up the Tenmagawa river into town to sell my catch, but the colour of the sky frightened me. The fish would keep for a while.

    At about noon, I chided myself for being lazy. The catch would spoil if I didn’t sell it soon. I stepped out of my hut and headed towards my boat. The sky was charcoal black and there was thunder and lightning to the north, but there was no rain. It didn’t even smell as if there would be. The air smelled more like fire or cooking. Still I was determined not to be lazy. I began to drag the boat towards the water and that’s when I saw the bodies.

    At first there were only a few, but still they shocked me. They floated by like burnt wood, rolling and bobbing as the currents caught them. One was close to the shore and I saw it very clearly. All the hair had burned away, and so had some of the skin. What was left was black and horrible. Tatters of cloth covered parts of it. What could have done this?

    Then I noticed a few more further off in the river, but in a similar state. I’d never seen a human body look like this. I could hardly tell whether it was male or female, and only the size showed whether they were adults or children.

    Those first few bodies made me think that suddenly I’d been taken down to hell. But as more and more came, I became calmer. It was almost playful, the way they moved. They were like funny floats in the water, some fully clothed, some mostly naked, black in places, and red in others. I stood on the beach and watched them bob out to sea.

    In the afternoon even more arrived. Some floated by singly, others came in clumps, clinging to each other, the way city people do when they go to the Ebisan Festival. Some like to walk quietly alone, some promenade along in squeaking, laughing groups. It was just like that.

    By early evening I could not count the bodies. There were so many, it seemed crazy. I sat in the sand and watched them bump and jostle each other like bad-tempered housewives at the market. As the tide strengthened, eddies of water would catch them and spin them around for a bit before releasing them to the sea. Sometimes I thought they were dancing.

    A horse floated by. At first I thought it was a small whale, until it rolled and I saw its hooves, sticking straight up into the sky, as if it were running upside down. That’s how I felt – like the world had turned upside down. The river had become a parade like the ones my father had taken me to, to honour the Sea God. I couldn’t take part with a deformed foot, I was only an observer watching them go by.

    Other things came by, too. Bits of furniture, bits of roof, and some puzzling things I couldn’t identify. There was a sign, painted, advertising beer made from sweet potato. It occurred to me that some of the things floating by might be useful, but as I reached the water’s edge to see if I could grab anything useful, I saw the dead fish and eels and I felt ill.

    When it got too dark to watch the parade, I went into my hut and slept.

    * * *

    The next morning there were even more of them. I stood on a big rock, by the dune and looked across the Motoyasu-gawa. The width of the river was littered with them. Now they were very bloated and bobbed like cork buoys. It was harder to see what they were: male or female, young or old. Some didn’t look human at all.

    It was then I noticed her, perhaps because she was obviously a girl. Her clothes were tattered, but part of her school uniform still remained.

    She floated around the bend in the shoreline and stayed there, only a few metres from the beach. Many of her schoolmates float by, but every time a wave tried to pull her away, she resisted.

    Somehow it made me angry. I wanted to shout at her. This had nothing to do with me; she had no business being here. She should go with the rest of them, to the sea.

    I shut myself inside my shack, lay down and smelled the fish in my bucket. The smell was comforting – better than the smell of the river. It didn’t occur to me then that I was letting a day’s catch spoil; it didn’t seem to matter anymore.

    It didn’t occur to me to take my boat out fishing either. How far would I have to go out, before I could be sure not to catch one of those misshapen things in my net?

    Even as the day became hot, I stayed inside. I fixed some floats, mended a few holes in an older net. Finally I boiled up some peas and buckwheat. The thought of cooking and eating some of the fish didn’t appeal to me.

    * * *

    At sunrise the next day, I woke up feeling strangely energetic. I ate the leftovers from my dinner, drank a little water and went out, planning to get an early start.

    The sand was cold beneath my feet, and I purposely kept my head down until I reached the place by the dunes where I’d hung my nets. I gathered them up and stowed them in my boat. Then I made the mistake of looking out at the water.

    It seemed like there were no fewer than yesterday. This is crazy, I thought. How could this happen to my river? I walked around the spit, to where it met the sea. Was there an unending supply of dead people wanting to go to sea?

    As I cast my eye over the bodies, I spotted her. I recognized the body floating in the shallows. Why was she still there? I marched over to the edge of the water.

    “Get going, schoolgirl,” I yelled and pointed. “The sea is that way!”

    But she didn’t really move. She just bobbed up and down in a ridiculous, happy way, mocking me.

    “Just because you’re educated, doesn’t mean you can show me disrespect. I’ve learned my numbers and my letters. What more does anyone need to be a fisherman?”

    She didn’t respond and her silence made me feel ashamed. I was never very good at talking to people and, after my father died, I had very little practice at it. Perhaps if I spoke to her in a gentler way, she’d realize she had to go.

    “Miss, perhaps you are lost? Can’t you see your people over there? Hurry and go with them.”

    It didn’t help. Maybe the fact that she had no head made her progress impossible, but there were many without legs, or arms, or heads. They managed to find their way without problem.

    I began to worry she had formed an attachment to me. Perhaps she couldn’t leave. The thought made me very upset. How could it be my fault?

    I pulled my boat across the sand, to the shore that faced out to sea, away from the river and all its clutter. I stayed out all day just off Ninoshima Island, next to the oyster beds, not even bothering to lower my nets into the water. Laying in my boat, I looked up at the sky and tried to remember everything I knew about ghosts. Surely that was it: she was a ghost who would not leave. Something I had done had caused her to linger.

    It wasn’t until nightfall that I made my way home. I was expecting to see the lights of the port, but the whole bay was dark. There was a moon, but it only peeked through the clouds now and then. I found my way back by the smell.

    * * *

    The following day I woke late. A great sleepiness tugged at my body, pinning me to my bed, and for a long time, I could not fight it. I dreamt a big grey octopus had come and covered me, blocking out all the air and light. It pressed down and down until I woke-up gasping for breath.

    When I finally got up, I made some buckwheat gruel and ate it slowly, thinking about how to make it right with the ghost of the dead girl in the river. I rummaged through my things until I found the bright green plastic bowl with a daisy painted on the side. It had washed up on the beach the summer before and I’d kept it because it looked so cheerful.

    I poured a fistful of buckwheat into the bowl and took it out to her. Laying it gently in the water, I pushed the bowl towards her. Then I put my hands together and bowed.

    “Please forgive my earlier bad temper. I pray for your soul and the souls of your ancestors and your school companions. May they come and find you and take you away with them to heaven.”

    I said this prayer many times, hoping the more I repeated it the stronger it would be. At first I felt a little awkward, but I glanced at her as I said the words, and noticed she didn’t bob quite so much. She seemed calmer.

    * * *

    That afternoon, I took my boat up the Motoyasu-gawa. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see, but as I neared the city, it was almost impossible recognize. The stench was acrid and made my throat hurt and my eyes water. Houses and buildings were damaged and smoking on either side of the river. By the time I reached the Minami-Ohashi Bridge, there was nothing on either side, just lumps of smouldering rubble. People who looked more like ghosts than humans walked along the side of river calling out names. What could I do for them? I was just a fisherman. I turned my boat around and went home.

    At mouth of the river I passed the little cove where she had been floating but couldn’t see her. My heart suddenly felt glad. My plan had succeeded, my prayers had worked. She was gone.

    Although I had seen terrible things on the river and in the city, I went to sleep feeling very calm and fortunate, assured that whatever bond had held her to me was broken. A curse had been lifted off my soul.

    * * *

    But she was back at dawn. As I began to gather up my fishing gear, a movement in the little inlet caught my eye and, even though the day had begun warm, my heart froze.

    “No!” I ran to the edge of the water. “Please, Miss. Please go away!”

    She rolled over in the water and I noticed she no longer had any arms. Something had taken them.

    “It’s not my fault this happened to you. It’s not my fault that you died.”

    Of course there was no answer, only the hissing sound of the water sucking at the sand and the lapping sound of water. I felt strangely dizzy and took a big breath, but I could no longer stand up. Suddenly I was so cold, as if I had fallen into the winter sea. My body began to shake violently, so I lay down and burrowed into the warm sand to get some heat. With my eyes closed, I could see the parade of dead people drifting by on the current, with her at the front. People on the side of the river were crying out her name, every girl’s name: Mitsue, Keiko, Asuka, Misaki, Nanako… She’d been my companion for days, and still I didn’t know her name.

    What had happened here? So many dead – so many – and this poor headless girl with no name; I had stared at her and yelled at her and told her to go away.

    I stood up and brushed myself off. “I am so ashamed,” I cried. “Forgive me please.”

    I knew what I had to do. When I finally realized it, it felt I had been asleep for many days, as if it had not been she who was lost, but me.

    I took my boat out to where she floated. When I got close, it was hard to recognize what she was. But I knew, then. I knew she was a poor, dead schoolgirl. Her trunk was bloated and mottled, and one of her legs was missing, too, but that didn’t matter. I knew who she was.

    I used my net to surround her and pulled her damaged body into the boat and took her to shore.

    When I lifted her out, I began to cry. There was almost nothing left of her. Perhaps she had weighed 35 or 40 kilos, but the sea had taken so much of her, she was terribly light. It was so easy to carry her over to the dune. It shouldn’t have been so easy.

    In the sand by the sea-facing dune, I made a grave where I could dig a deep dry hole. I wrapped the fishing net around her as neatly as I could and put her in the grave. Her head toward the grasses, and her feet towards the sea, the way I’d buried my father.

    When I’d filled in the hole, I lay down beside it and cried for three days.

    A collection of over 2,000 drawings by the A-Bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are available online at the Peace Database
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