The snow had already begun to settle as we drove in toHiroshima. The streets looked new and in the clouded light there was hardly an edge to any shadow we could see. Matty Whitman was still driving, he had most of the way there and had a yellow stain on the corner of his lip from holding his cigarettes there. It suited his stubble. I felt excited to finally be there not knowing what for. As a city it was nothing I really knew of except for its end of the war.
“I’m pulling over,” he said. It was a fair call, he’d been driving for almost six hours.
“Real good job,” said Kuniko. “You been driving so long ay.” She was sitting in the front passenger seat. I was sitting in the back.
“I love it best when you arrive somewhere in the morning.”
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“I’m pulling over, I don’t even care if this is a park or not.”
“Whit, this is for truck ay.” Kuniko picked up her English from our friends back home.
“What truck could fit down this street?”
“Japanese truck ay.” She snickered with a straight face.
“The minivan fits exactly in the space painted on the road.”
“Mum will be upset if her car is towed.”
We jumped out and wrapped scarves around our necks, zipped up our insulated coats. The snow descended in the breeze at the angle of a kite string and the air was clean of smells. It was just past eleven am and there were people quietly moving in orderly precessions on the footpaths with shopping bags and children. We walked until we found a whiteboard out the entrance of a small Yukki-niku restaurant that advertised an all you can eat and drink lunch special for 2500 yen.
“That’s us.” We went in.
Inside the restaurant it was dimly lit and warm with no windows. The seating in the thin room was divided into six booth areas around tables with a hotplate in the centre. We ordered three lunch specials from the mama-san who delivered two large plates of cut meats with a bowl of kimchee and two litres of larger in a jug. We were the only customers.
“The basic principles of a nuclear explosion are quite simple.” If Whit began a monologue we usually listened. If you could crack open his head on the right day you might just find Oswald’s book suppository. “Think of the uranium as a rubber ball completely covered in dynamite, it detonates, the force compresses the ball into itself. The compressed centre then erupts out with such force atoms tear, causing a nuclear reaction, a force of magnitude.”
Kuniko was grilling the cuts of meat as we talked. She started with ox tongue, pork bellies and sirloin. There was an extractor fan above us but the smoke from the hot-plate still made our eyes water.
“It’s a peaceful thing when snow is settling,” I said. “Like it’s slowly forgetting the place.”
Whitman asked, “Will it get very deep, Magpie?” We called her that because when she came home from a night out she always had a collection of different lighters, anime figures, and occasionally drugs. “Do we have chains?”
“I don’t know these ay.”
“If we get stranded in HiroshimaI’m finding somewhere I can eat whale.” The tobacco stain on his lip, you had to take him seriously. “These beers go down fast in the smoke. Lunch special to isshoni sake wo moraemasuka, soretomo beer dake desuka?”
“Only beer ay.”
I said, “They basically caused a war without people.”
“The Cold War, exactly. Just detonations under oceans.”
“Mushroom clouds in back country.”
“Exactly. Our explosions are bigger please stay the fuck away.”
Four Salary Men walked in wearing charcoal suits.
I said, “I drew them on my desks at school, ay. All over, I had rockets and mushroom clouds going off everywhere.”
“I drew penises,” he said. “Same thing really.”
“You are penis ay.” Kuniko had a way of keeping her face so blank after saying something it could insinuate all kinds of things. I looked over at the booth with the Salary Men. It was a comfort I’d discovered living in Japan, not ever concerned with offending others around you with what you may say. The men nodded to each other and probably talked business. To them gaijin were translucent people.
Whitman went for a cooked piece of ox tongue but not before his and Kuniko’s chopsticks meet in combat.
“I have map ay,” she said. “I think we can walk toPeaceMuseumfrom here.”
“Get it out and we’ll have a look.” He systematically began to devour slices of ox tongue off the hot plate, replacing each piece with an uncooked piece so the hotplate remained full. The fat from the meat dripped through the hotplate causing the charcoals underneath to flame and the smoke thickened. I drank more beer to wash the taste out of the back of my throat. By the time we ordered our second jug of beer and third plate of meat another table of businessmen had entered and sat across from us.
I said, “I don’t think I’ve eaten this much red meat before.”
“You eat too much ay.”
“I’m going to drink too much,” Whitman said. “Are the extractors even on?”
“What meat is this?”
“How many litres have we drank?”
“I think three.”
“There were so many sad people after the bomb,” she said. “My father told me ay, everyone was so sad.”
“This city is beautiful.”
“It’s beautiful here because everything is new, there wouldn’t be a building here over fifty years old.” I emptied the second jug of beer into our glasses. Kuniko’s was only half empty but Whitman and I appeared to be taking the all you can quite seriously. I had managed an hour or so nap in the back on the way there but still I felt remarkably removed from myself. It dawned on me that this wasn’t something people should do before they visited a war memorial; all this red meat and alcohol.
Whitman said, “One more jug.”
“You drink too much ay. You’ll be too drunk to goPeaceMuseum.” Perhaps she was a little offended, it was hard to tell. Whitman got up stumbling only a little, then proceeded over to the mama-san behind the counter at the front of the restaurant.
“Have you been here before, Magpie?”
“Yes, with my school ay. It is very sad.”
“What do you see?”
“Shadows, all that’s left.”
“I’m glad you helped me get here, hard to know how to act though.”
“We all different ay.”
“She’s irritable now,” Whitman said sitting back at the table with a jug half the size of the first two. “I think we’ve managed our money’s worth.”
“All she would give you?”
“Only size left apparently. I ordered another plate of meat.”
“You pig ay.”
“Just half the size. Am I the only one who read the sign out front?”
We sat in the restaurant for what must have been another hour. The smell of smoke was in our coats when we left. We continued up the length of a covered street stopping in a store to buy Kuniko an anime figure and take our pictures in a purikura. When we reached the end of the covered street the cold was refreshing yet no match for how drunk I had managed to get at lunch. Though, the cold did seem to relieve the pain in my stomach.
“What would worry you more living here,” he asked. “Ghosts or radiation?”
We arrived at a junction to Peace Boulevard where we crossed a bridge and the Peace Museum came into view as the wind picked up out in the open. I buttoned my coat further and tried desperately to light a cigarette while Kuniko crouched over to shelter me from the wind.
“I bought us a treat.” As I looked up at Whitman he was fumbling a hand through his coat pocket. Somehow the cigarette in his mouth was already lit. “Here we are.” He pulled a sheet of red film out of his pocket which had sections containing individual pills. “I visited the Nishinari-ku in Osaka before we left.”
“You fucking crazy, man,” Kuniko said as she straightened to look.
“Akadamas. Tranquilizer he told me.” He held them out so the sheet flapped in the wind.
“Yes please, Dr Whit.” Kuniko titled her head back and stuck out her tongue. With her hair blown away from her face and the snow rolling behind them, it was a moment that was immediately stitched into the more durable seams of my memories there.
“Give me your cigarette,” I said.
“My lighter won’t work out here.”
“They’re sweet ay.”
“Sure, why not.”
We left the bridge by using an off-ramp that led down to the cemented courtyard of the Peace Memorial Museum. The building was white and divided in two, the left side a couple of storeys high with a skywalk to the second building that was on raised cement pillars and aligned with thin vertical widows. We went inside and paid the entrance fee and left our smoky coats at the desk.
Inside the museum there were people walking around display cabinets in all the silence they could muster with their hands held behind their backs. We passed a wall with black and white prints of the city after the blast. There was only rubble that could be made out, no definable shapes were left.
“Sumimasen, Kabe kara hazushite kudasai.” It was an old Japanese man in a dusty green suit with a name tag I couldn’t read.
“Were you there?”
“Nani? Sumimasen, eigo ha shaberemasen.”
“Step back, Nat. You can’t lean on the wall ay.” Kuniko pulled me off the wall and wrapped my arm around her shoulder.
“He’s up ahead there, see?” He held his hands behind his back as he read something on the wall. He shook his head.
“I drank too much.”
“Me too ay.”
I concentrated on walking and breathing and finding areas without other people.
I said, “It’s really warm in here.” My neck and back was sticky.
“It’s nice and warm. Look, Nathan.” She pointed to a glass cabinet, in it an infant’s tricycle burned and disfigured.
“What happened to the kid?” There was a small, burnt helmet displayed with the bike.
“Gone ay,” she replied.
“I have to walk, I need more air.” We walked away from the cabinet and into another room where there were no other people.
“Your face is wet ay.”
“They’ve got it way too hot in here, are they doing it on purpose?”
“We can sit for a moment. Do you want to look at the stone first?”
“Over here.” She took my arm off her shoulder and pulled me to the wall on the other side. Was it actually stone or a print of one I couldn’t tell, I had lost my depth of perception.
“That’s a stain on the wall,” I asked.
“That’s a shadow.”
“A shadow of what?”
“A shadow of a person, all that was left behind after it go off.”
“Jesus.” Seared into stone, a person.
“A force of magnitude,” she restated.
When I came to it was the shadowed moist patch on the thigh of Kuniko’s jeans I saw first. It took me a moment or two to realize how it got there and where it had come from.
“Tomadachi wo okoshite ne,” someone said. “Mousugu iku kara.”
“Chotto gomenasai,” Kuniko replied. “Kare ha kibun ga yokunai. Nathan you have to wake up.” There was a security guard standing over us. Kuniko and I were on a seat still in the room with the shadow on the wall. “You fell asleep ay.”
“Is that my drool?”
“Yes, common, you too heavy ay.”
“Arigatou gozaimasu,” the guard said. “Kono tsuro wo massugu itte kudasai.”
“What the hell is happening?”
“You pass out.”
“On your leg, I had my mouth open the whole time?”
“You pin me there ay, I couldn’t get up.”
“How long have we been there?”
“Long time ay. We have to get out of here the place is closing.”
“Oh god, I must have looked like hell.”
“Maybe they think you are very sick from what you see.”
We hurried along a raised hallway with large windows. Kuniko kept looking behind us, probably to check we weren’t being followed. The shame began to well in me.
“The place is closing, how long was I out?”
“Long time ay. I couldn’t get you off me, you too heavy.”
“Hell, Kuniko. I’m sorry.”
We exited through glass automatic doors that opened out onto a massive white cement courtyard. The wind was a refreshing snap that seemed to lift the drowsiness. At the other end of the courtyard I could see Whitman standing by a stone arch near the river. The snow had ceased to fall, only patches remained on the stone and grass.
“Wakey wakey, Nathan.” He handed me my coat.
“I missed everything. Why didn’t you try and wake me?”
“We tried, bro. You were lights out, end of story.” He poked the tip of his tongue out through the corner of his mouth, wetting it before he placed another Mild Seven cigarette there. “What’s this say, Kuniko?” He pointed to the bronzed plaque posted in the centre of the archway.
“This is for young girl who die from cancer.” Hung from the arch were strings threaded with hundreds of coloured paper cranes. The way they were carefully folded they all fit neatly into the next. Their symmetry was beautiful and blew in the wind. The time it must have taken to fold them all.
“Does it tell you why all the paper cranes are here,” he asked.
“There is a thousand on each string.”
“The time it must have taken.”
“Why a thousand?”
“Chotomate, Whit san. I have to read it first.”
“I can’t believe I passed out,” I said.
“It was a lot to comprehend,” he replied.
“I can’t remember a thing. It was my idea to come here.”
“Don’t worry about that. You’re missing the most important part.”
“The museum is closed. Kuniko has a patch on her jeans from my drool.”
“This is the Genbaku, the dome.” He pointed up past the arch to the decrepit building on the other side of the river. I could see the skeletal remains of a dome above it; just the iron framework was left. The building, some three storeys high, had been completely eviscerated and only one side of the façade remained without windows or colour. “At 8:15 on Monday morning, August 6, 1945, the world’s first hostile nuclear weapon detonated 300 metres above that dome. No leaflets were dropped before the attack, citizens were given no warning or ultimatum; they were left to begin their week as they had always done before. One hundred and thirty pounds of uranium. The radius of the epicentre was a mile. Five square miles of the city was destroyed in an instant. Seventy-thousand people gone.” I stood back from the arch as he spoke and tried to imagine the eruption of light and heat above the dome. The wind blew off the river. “The energy released from the bomb was powerful enough to burn through clothing on victims ten miles away. The threads of their garments were emblazoned onto their flesh as scars.”
“You saw this inside?”
“Photographs and testimonials. Some witnesses claimed to have seen the bones of their hands in the heat flash.”
Kuniko said, “These are for girl who died of leukaemia ten years after. Sadako was very sick in hospital and told she had less than a year to live. She knew if she could fold one thousand paper cranes she would get wish so she began folding them before she die.”
“Did she manage to fold a thousand,” he asked.
“It doesn’t say. These cranes are folded and left here to help remember her.”
“Or to help forget.”
“I think here it is same thing ay.” Kuniko straightened up and wrapped another length of her scarf around her neck. “Samoi nay.”
“Friggin cold. Let’s get back to the car, hopefully it’s still there.”
“We’re not driving to Miyajima now ay. We should find Love Hotel and get some rest.”
“Are they going to hire a room to a couple of gaijin and a Japanese chick?”
“I don’t think they care ay. Come on, Nat san.”
They headed back across the courtyard past thePeaceMemorialMuseum. Kuniko appeared happy to be heading back to the warm of the car and began to skip. I paused a moment before I left because it occurred to me to take one of the pieces of string with a thousand paper canes so that I had something to remember the place. Memorabilia for something I barely remembered. Some of the cranes lifted in a howl of wind and I stood there, eyes fixed, with my hands secured in my coat pockets. They were beautiful; an array of colour and discipline in such a delicate gesture of grief. I never lifted a hand to take one, realizing there it was the ghosts that frightened me more than the radiation. So I followed my friends across the courtyard and the strong wind helped me walk upright and forget how grey I felt.