Your father is gone. And now you are my Atlas—my world revolves in your tiny hands. Your father’s country forced him to hold something much more wearisome than my world. They sent him to fight with it in my homeland. A draft, they say. It may be a heavy weight for you later, and for that I’m sorry, my son. But for now, you’re too young to care—the pink ribbon of your mouth can’t even twist into a smiling bow yet.
This America is unfamiliar and frustrating to navigate. There are a lot of words here my mouth can’t pronounce, like emotions, colors and the name of the state we live in. My Japanese tongue makes it especially difficult. The people have rigid backs and are stiff to help when I ask—no one will teach me, not like your father did.
I want you to know how he died when you ask. But when his commanding officer delivered a flag to my door, he told me no one knew what happened, other than my Otto was shot. So, I will tell you a story befitting the man he was. His heart in my story is the same as his heart in reality. I know it well, so you will hear the truth regardless of what happened. He will grow in your heart, shape you and his lineage won’t be broken.
Otto landed close to Shuri castle, where the Americans took a Japanese underground HQ. Humidity flourished over him like a hibiscus blooming all at once when he got off of the plane, but he was excited to see the castle. He had seen pictures from old history books I brought with me when we were married and he always wanted to see it.
He was assigned to keep guard at night around the castle. The US army infiltrated the headquarters during Operation Iceberg and allocated troops to keep guard while others searched for hidden tunnels, reports, anything that could stop a potential surprise attack. As he rode to his first shift his face was calm, but his mouth perked with content. He didn’t have to think about killing anymore. The area was secure and he was going home in a month.
He could spend his nights among high red columns, gold and green dragons slithering across roofs, maws lined with ivory fangs to scare away typhoons. Though the smoke hadn’t yet settled, he imagined the palace suffused with starlight, so mystical with beauty that the pair of Shisa guarding the gates would move while he wasn’t looking. He had always wanted to stand between the Shisa, the male on his left, mouth closed to keep in good luck, and his beloved mate with her mouth wide open to catch it.
But as the Jeep reached the hilltop, blinding construction lights cut through smoke and dust flurries. There was no castle, but machines gnawed through smoldering piles of stone, emphatic in victory. Splintered trunks of columns lay like beached red whales, massive and doomed to suffocate from their own fallen greatness. Soldiers and officers trotted through rubble, overlooking toothless, decapitated dragons, and Shisa thrown from their partners.
Otto’s comrades unloaded from the Jeep and followed the lieutenant who drove them. But Otto sat and stared. The symbol of his wife’s island, the Shisa, the Castle, the Beauty, lay shattered before him. He could do nothing. The lieutenant shouted for him, but he didn’t move.
The man yanked Otto from the Jeep by the arm. Otto followed silently as the lieutenant stationed him with another private at the back of the perimeter among shredded trees and bullet-gravel. Half of the palace’s main hall spilled over in tatters on most of his post. While the other private lit up a cigarette once the lieutenant left, Otto stared off, lost.
“Hey, Otto,” the private said. His cigarette pulsed in time with his speech. “You’re weirdin’ me out standin’ all eerie-like. Could you sit down or somethin’?” Otto obeyed and came to the pillar his comrade sat on. Just before he sat down himself, he stopped short. His eyes searched the air for what his ears caught. “What? What is it?” the private asked.
“Someone crying,” Otto said. The sound was muffled, but diffused through the air like fog. Soft, pathetic and hopeless, “A girl.” Otto followed the sound, slowly making his way through the rubble. He pushed through a fallen palm tree and found a tunnel hidden behind a stone door. “C’mon,” he said, and the private scampered in behind him.
“Oh, God, it reeks of death,” the private placed handkerchief on his face. Otto took out his flashlight. As the light rushed before them, the small crying turned into a shriek. They turned a corner and the private ran, “I’m getting the lieutenant,” he said, rushing.
On the ground, next to shuttering candles, sat a 15 year-old girl, a mess of soot and sobs. One of the last Star-Lily corps nurses, taken from her family to mend mangled Japanese soldiers. Those she healed abandoned her in that secret bunker, with the hopelessly wounded. Their deaths perfumed the air. She stared at Otto as his light roved over the six bunks. Each held empty husks of flesh and army fatigues.
“Daijyoubu des,” he said quietly, “It’s okay.” She twitched and whimpered.
“No, no. Go away,” she said. She scuffled back to a table of two-bit medical supplies, half-used antiseptics. Her hands scuttled about the table, searching in the dark. “They told me what you would do. They left it here for me so I wouldn’t suffer. I won’t let you touch me. I won’t.”
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Otto said, stepping closer, “Let me help you. We can find your family.” But her hands still beetled over the table and she cut her fingers on scalpels. Then she stopped. Quiet.
Otto moved his flashlight over the table. He could see her scarred hand resting on a drawer knob. She pulled the drawer back, placed her hand inside and pulled out a small pistol. Otto heard footsteps from the entrance.
“Listen to me, please. They lied. We want to help you. Don't hurt yourself.” But the girl pulled back the hammer, awkwardly. Her little hands nearly dropped the machine.
“Otto!” The private and the lieutenant rushed in. Otto looked back. The girl began to raise her gun, but the lieutenant ripped his gun from its holster quicker.
But Otto was fastest.
He shouldered the girl out of the way. The lieutenant shot my Otto. She crumpled on the floor and cried again. The lieutenant stopped, his gun still extended, watching my husband drowning in the air like a fish.
My son, this is the man your father was. This story places his hands on your heart, and frames it to grow in the same shape his did, so that his lineage will never break. And that I will never lose him again.