by Gen Del Raye
He asks her why she married him. That threadbare, already balding man. That man who came from nowhere, owned nothing, who had to introduce himself to her parents when he asked for her hand. Who her mother had looked away from with eyes that held only one question, and for whom she had lied, nodding. Why, in the summer of her twentieth year, beautiful, pale, staring clear-eyed down the barrel of five years of desperation without the patronage of a well-off family, she had let herself down on him. He asks if it was because of the shortage of men. She’s surprised he knows. How few there were. How very, very few.
She thinks back to it. She cups her hands around her ears because she wants to hear the way the cicadas seemed to whisper that summer, not roar as they had always done from the branches of the persimmon trees. She closes her eyes and tries to smell it. That summer where something she had seen very little of had ended as quickly as a thunderstorm turning into soft, warm rain. The patter of worn-down soles falling on hard-packed dirt, on trails along orchards and on the thin dykes between rice paddies, the rows of spider lilies. How sparse they were at first, and how they’d all thought that more would follow just as soon as the trains came in from Kagoshima and Ehime, and the trucks and the ships. How quickly the homecoming ended, like an embarrassed silence.
He arrived four days before the others, walking through the orchard alone, carrying a bundle of fabric in his arms as gleaming and intricate as a false promise. He looked ragged and dirty, yes, but more than anything he seemed lonely, and this had taken her by surprise. She had expected him to be brave, or maybe sad. She had expected a hidden darkness, a place where the things she had heard about but not seen would be rotting in their souls. Instead she saw a kind of simple hopefulness that seemed cut out of the air of that warm, calm day, that day when even the clouds were blue, and the round, waxy leaves of the persimmon trees shone as brightly as pebbles at the bottom of a stream.
He nodded to her first – shallow, carefree – and she nodded back – cautious, guarded.
It’s going to be a glorious night, he said. Yes it will. Oh yes, it will.
Even from a distance she could hear him breathing, a pinched, vacuum-cleaner swish that she would later learn was because of his twisted nose but on that day she thought was like the sound of a man with his face against a scented kerchief, or a flower, or a sun-beaten envelope; a man pulling air and moss and damp into his lungs from the warm earth. She thought it was a pure sound, a gentle sound. She stepped toward it.
Hello, she said, and then she glanced at the bundle in his arms.
You want it? he said. It’s light and strong.
Her fingers touched her neck uncertainly. They’ll want it back, won’t they?
He laughed and said, You haven’t heard, and his voice as he said it was as kind and as simple as a bronze bell. With one hand he hoisted the bundle into her arms and with the other he brushed against her shoulder, and he let his fingers hang there as he said again that it would be a glorious night. Yes sir. Most definitely it will.
That touch. That summer. That waning afternoon when she thought she knew, sensed somehow in that voice and that glance. When she thought she could stop caring whether the rumble over the horizon was four engines or two, high altitude or low, when she thought that the rations would soon be lifted, that she could stop straining her ears for the sound of sirens. That day when she thought she could let the children fly their imaginary planes and their 7.7mm guns without fearing for the things they dreamed, when by ones or twos and then by the dozens and hundreds she thought she would see the boys come home as men, not broken and beaten like she had always feared but bright and warm, the sunlight reflecting baby-blue against their laughter, their square fingertips, their impossibly gleaming gifts.