Bridge to Forgiveness

Chapter Three: Judgment Day

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Trapped between the fury of the fire and the black tsunami, tidal wave, the only place to go was up. Some climbed on top of others. Some were crushed. Father was vigilant about monitoring the movements of this unwieldy crowd. He anticipated the direction of the surge and kept us in rhythm with the arbitrary thrust and parry of the massive beast. He led us to a high point on the riverbank. We struggled to keep firm footing on this slanted earth, while the Tenma became a gruesome river of corpses, a tide of thousands of bloated bodies.

I was covered with burns. In my Father’s arms, I passed in and out of consciousness. Somehow, the rest of my family here on the riverbank seemed to have escaped serious injury. We stood under the black sky, by the swollen black river, with ravenous flames at our backs.

Day came and I woke, marooned with thousands of others on the beach. Blood smeared Father’s hands and shirt. It was my blood. I was seriously injured. I could feel the damp, gaping wound under my left shoulder blade. I could see the oozing hole on the outside of my left knee, which prevented me from walking. Jagged glass shards were embedded in my head above the left ear. Skin hung off my left forearm. The morning sun pierced the smoky skies. I felt fire all over me again. My wounds suppurated.

The surging black river quieted. Yokogawa Bridge was destroyed, but its pilings snared debris and hundreds of bloated bodies. Desperate survivors attempted to cross over, using the pilings and bodies as stepping stones. Most often, the current or the water-slick corpses stole their footing. The weak collapsed mid-stride, contributing themselves to this bridge of death.

Father continually scanned the crowd, looking for Mother and my baby sister. For a brief moment, he saw a familiar figure in the crowd. “Yoshiko! Yoshiko!” He rushed up. The startled, disfigured woman was a stranger.

Father returned. We saw him fold to the ground.

Each new body added to the fragile stability of the bridge of corpses. At ebb tide, Father decided it was time to cross. If Mother and little sister were still alive, we would have to leave them behind. Maybe we’d rejoin later. Although we were weakened, we couldn’t stay any longer on the riverbank with the spreading pack of frantic refugees, and expect to survive. The gruesome bridge offered a slim hope, but it was our only one.

We held hands and stepped across wide-eyed bodies. Father carried me, leading the others in single file, across the low tide to the other side. Father set me down on the bank and then solemnly touched each one of us, as if in blessing.

Sadayoshi asked for Mother.

“She’ll be with us again soon,” said Masuyo. Her cheek touched his.

The inferno burned behind the milling throng on the other side. When the tide rose again, the river burst through the grisly bridge, breaking the only escape route. Father bowed to his parents and asked for forgiveness. He could do nothing to ease their suffering. Bowing low, he vowed to find a way to bring us all to safety.

Lush rice paddies had once stretched out from this bank. But here the blast had left only a stretch of barren, smoldering clods. In front of us, a ragged field of blackened, limping skeletons inched their way to the rutted wagon road. We joined them. The march was silent except for the deep sighs and clumsy footfalls of the exhausted, injured, and dying. Father was my transport. He’d trip on brittle, desiccated bodies that, only moments before, had walked in front of us. And then Grandfather would help Father lift me up again, to get in step with the masses before being crushed.

A little girl squatted by her mother, trying to wake her from her last dream. The glassy-eyed parade marched around and over the girl, fixed on one goal only. Keep moving. One step closer to relief from throat squeezing, from pain, from the reality of history. Keep moving. Nothing but death interferes with the next step.

Black flies swarmed out of the sun-brightened air, feeding on our blood and pus. I swatted at them, but it was futile. We were overrun. They fed fearlessly.

When evening fell, the flies retreated to rest their sated bellies. A cluster of farmhouses crouched in the near distance. Excitement rippled through our sorry lot, as we approached a hive of harried people.

A community relief effort was in full swing. Ordinary citizens threw themselves into acts of mercy, distributing hot food, tea, and medical supplies. Hundreds of survivors sat on the ground, resting, sipping tea. Others stood in long lines for food and medical treatment.

The only doctor, his white jacket striped with blood, bent over one soul, then over another.

He treated those who were in the most danger and yet had a chance of surviving. Several nurses, identifiable by their hats, moved from person to person, assessing who should be treated first. The triage process was an endless run of spur-of-the-moment life and death decisions.

A relief worker, an elderly man with a kind, weathered face, said to a victim, “We are very, very sorry, we cannot do more. We are only simple farmers.”

Father remained patient. He helped those ahead of us in line receive their treatment. When it was my turn, a nurse’s soft, kind hands cleaned my wounds with warm water and plucked the larger pieces of glass from my scalp. She squeezed soothing cucumber juice over my burns. It was the only medicine available.

A food distributor handed me some warm tea, a small rice ball, and a slice of daikon, pickled radish. After what we’d experienced, the tastes were new and exquisite. We settled on rice straw strewn outside the barn.

Hiroshima burned so brightly in the distance that night never appeared. I closed my eyes and saw again maimed, disfigured forms pulling themselves forward by their elbows, their seared skin dripping from their bones. These were the yurei, living ghosts. I saw them, nightmare creatures plodding relentlessly after me. I burrowed into my Father’s arms.
That night I slept lightly, often waking up to the hiss of pyres being lit. Relief workers, covered in protective suits, quietly searched out the dead. They stacked them neatly in small pyramids on top of rice straw, then touched the kindling with a torch. The familiar smell of burning flesh threatened our newly found comfort. The Death Angels came for many people that night.

I must have finally given myself over to exhaustion and to faith: I was protected in the loving arms of my Father, because I didn’t recollect any more. I had become a zombie lost in a realm of horror. I had probably reached a saturation point, a limit of the amount of shock a child can withstand. My haven, my home, my classmates, everything I had ever known and cherished, had all been extinguished.

Blameless souls forever vanish
on this morning, this Judgment Day.
Our silent cries, to heaven we appeal,
scattered like the ash of withered leaves.
Our ebbing souls
cling to that lonely sky;
we try in vain to escape this sea of flame.
Oh, Hiroshima, once my haven,
why has your life been sacrificed?

I was left with only the loving arms of my Father, my scorched painful body and, I suppose, a will to survive. I have often wondered why I was spared.

© 2008 Takashi Tanemori with John Crump

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