Half Life Connections

by Robert Kibble

Death on a Rock
(publishing on Dec. 9th)
Paper Cuts
(publishing on Dec. 10th)
A Single Snip of the Scissors
(publishing on Dec. 11th)

Death on a Rock

Hanako stares at a photograph of a shadow that has nothing to cast it.

Her daughter is bored.  The weather is hot.  “I don’t know why we have to come out here.”

Hanako is hot too.  She isn’t enjoying the journey, but she never expected to.  Hanako is making this pilgrimage because she feels she has to see the spot for herself.  To see where it happened.  She thought Ami would find a connection here.  Or at least she hoped Ami would find a connection.  She prayed that she and Ami could find a connection.  She doesn’t reply to her daughter.  What is there to say?

“I thought trains in Japan were supposed to be all sci-fi,” says Ami.

Hanako has never been on a bullet train before.  This is a high-tech marvel.  It has special clamps which will grip the rails if it detects an earthquake, faster than the driver can react.  This is the finest of the world’s engineering, but somehow fails to inspire Ami.

Hanako would love to spend time touring her ancestral homeland, but that time is not now.  That is not what she is here to do.  This journey is about seeing for herself something she has seen in a photograph.  Something she has felt viscerally.  Something she has cried herself to sleep over.  This journey is about closure.  Ami, she realises too late, is not helping.

“What’s the point of going to Tokyo and then not letting me shop?  It’s like the absolute capital of shopping anywhere.  Are we staying there on the way back?”

Hanako believed this would be different.  Spiritual, perhaps.  She kept thinking of it as a pilgrimage, but pilgrims rarely dragged twenty-three-year-olds around with them.  She’s read so much about this area, about this journey.  It isn’t living up to what she’d hoped.

Hanako wants to pray, to settle herself into the right mentality.  Into a way of seeing the world, a way of connecting with the physical objects that make it up.  She wants to understand her mother.  She wants to feel how her mother must have felt, growing up here.  She wants to make a connection, to older or younger generations.  She hoped for both.

Ami opens an Asahi.  Her third since leaving Tokyo.  And those weren’t her first drinks of the day.  Ami is bored.  She drinks when she is bored.  She shops when she is bored.  She is often bored.

Hanako wonders if actually being born in Japan would have made a difference, for her or Ami.  She always felt herself Japanese, because her father told her so, even though she was born in San Francisco and had an American father.  Her father told her it was good to be different.  Hanako found it hard when people said things at high school about her eyes, or the colour of her skin.  She learned to keep quiet and meld into the background.  She didn’t feel that the war they all learned about was just good versus evil.  Hanako’s mother had died in that war.  Her father had told her about Yazuko, about how sad it was that Hanako had to grow up without a memory of such a loving mother.  He tried his best to love enough for two.

The train pulls into the station.  Hanako stands, and Ami follows, still grumbling.

Hanako knows where she has to go.  She has researched this, time and time again.  She has studied maps and guidebooks and has seen it with others’ eyes, but not with her own.  That is what is important to her now.  Not “seeing it”, as in seeing a photograph.  She has to sense it.  She has to understand what the place feels like.  The spirits of a place mean something.  The spirits of the objects.  The spirit of what happened.

The streets are pristine.  The people move about as if this is just an ordinary place.  Hanako looks at them and struggles to understand why they don’t stop to pray.  Ami looks at the shops and can’t understand why they don’t stop to shop.

Ami is relieved to be off the train, but hates the heat.  She is worried about her makeup.  She follows her mother through the streets until they come to some steps.  Some ordinary-looking steps.  Ami doesn’t understand what’s so special about them.

Hanako holds up her photograph.

She moves it in front of her, so it lines up.  There is a shadow on the photograph.  A shadow of a woman.  A woman holding something in her hand.

Ami gets bored of looking at the steps and looks at the photograph.  Something is wrong, she knows.  She looks back at the steps as if the answer is to be found there, and the image in the photograph appears to her.  The shadow.  What is wrong with the shadow?

There is nothing to cast the shadow.

Ami realises with a start, and looks at her mother.  “Is that grandmother?” she asks, finally understanding why they’re here.

Hanako nods, and as Ami looks back, she sees the shadow, then imagines a woman standing.  A woman standing on a Monday morning in 1945.  The first Monday in August.  As a single bomber plane flies overhead.

Ami sees the figure casting the shadow now.  A clear figure.  A figure who, in an instant, ceased, and was written only onto the steps she sees in front.  She wouldn’t have known it was about to happen.  She might have turned at the sound of the plane.

Ami is lost, horrified, captivated by this cessation.  By this mortality.  She feels sick.  She stares at a place where a living breathing thinking human being simply stopped, written into a shadow on some stone steps.  She is knocked backwards by it, but she – she herself – does not cease as a result.

She does, however, shut up.

A connection has been made.

Paper Cuts

Dear Ami.

Ami hates where this is going already.  Why would Zac write to her?  She hasn’t received a personal letter since her mother wrote to her at university.  She stares at it, imagining the content: “I’m sorry I shouted last night.”  That’s what it’ll say.  Then how much he loves her, how it’s easier to say it in a letter.

He’s a fool sticking with her so long.  She’s a fool sticking with him.  They’re not “in love”.  They’re comfortable, even happy sometimes.  But is this the man she’ll marry?  He keeps asking about kids.  He wants kids.  Ami’s not so sure.  Is he “the one”?  There was that stupid film with Anne Hathaway where she judged by her foot lifting off the floor when they kissed.  Ami’s foot doesn’t budge.

Ami has a box next to her, from her recently-dead grandfather’s attic.  She’s been clearing out the house.  She’s got some black-and-white photographs of unknown people, and has found a folded-up piece of paper tied with a red ribbon.  A love letter, perhaps?  Written from Yazuko to Coleman – Ami’s maternal grandparents – and then kept in this box for decades?  Maybe written when he was away in the navy, with Yazuko’s loyalties torn?

“Coleman,” it begins.  So cold.  No nickname, like “smoochy” or something…  There’s a flutter in her stomach – this isn’t right.

“This needs to be brief…”

Nothing is good when it needs to be brief.  Ami looks at the picture of her grandmother, looking stern.  Of a different age.  But there had always been that beautiful “love across the continents” thing.  That was unusual back then.  Ami was part Japanese, and proud of it.

“…so please forgive my abruptness.”

Please forgive.  Why even say that?  Just get on with it.

“I have found someone else.”

Ami reads this line over and over.  As if by rereading it won’t say the same thing.  She looks at the photograph of Yazuko, looking every bit the woman who would always look after her husband – it didn’t fit.

“I will not be returning to America when the war ends.”

What?  Why?  To stay in Japan on a whim, leaving behind a young child who barely knew her?  A child who would go on a pilgrimage to Japan, trying to understand.  A child who never knew what her mother had done.  A child who would grow up and have her own daughter – Ami – whom she would not abandon.

It was true she didn’t return.  Ami grew up hating the bomb that killed her grandmother, but now has a new hatred – for that decision, even though returning then would have meant being sent to an internment camp.  FDR, that great bastion of progressiveness, the only president elected four times, still put the Japanese into camps.  Ami learnt about it from The Karate Kid.  She liked that film.  Miyako was cool.

And even after the war ended, what Japanese person would’ve wanted to come back to America?  To face what?  Racism?  There was plenty of that.  Would her grandfather have suffered too having a Japanese wife?  He had a half-Japanese daughter.

“Please consider yourself freed from any obligation towards me.  Yazuko.”

What kind of a parting is that?  What mother could turn and say that she wouldn’t be coming back like that?  No obligation.  How cold was that?

Zac intrudes into her thoughts, with his letter.  She reads another line, hoping for light relief from her swirling confusion.

“I said the wrong things.  I’m sorry.  I love you, Ami.  You know that.  I haven’t said it out loud, but you know.  If you really don’t think this is working, that’s your decision.  I think we have a future.”

Not distraction enough.  Ami knew her grandmother had returned to Japan to visit family, but the war had broken out and she’d been stuck.  Things changed in an instant, and people didn’t always have control.  Not like Ami did now.  Not like her choice whether to stay with a sap who doted on her or remain free.

“Any obligation.”

It was an odd way of putting it.  “I have found someone else.”  It was deliberate.  An act of malice.  She looks down into the box and sees more photos, one showing Yazuko and Coleman with friends.  One woman has a young daughter and looks very thin.  Ami turns the picture over.  There’s a little cross on the back, and a date.  April 1945.  Did this woman die in the camps?

Ami pictures her grandmother again.  Had she known?  Had Coleman told her about the camps?  Had she known their friend had died?  What happened to the young girl?  She went through the letter again.  “Any obligation.”  This was calculated.  Ami realises she was wrong – it wasn’t malice.  She pictures her grandmother, back in Japan, hearing the news.  Perhaps she knew.  Perhaps she knew there was a terrible wind coming.

She sees Yazuko again, not malicious, but crying.  Writing a letter knowing she was separating herself from everything she loved.  Making it possible for the man she loved to love again.  He never did.  He wrapped that letter in ribbon.

Ami wonders if Coleman had realised.  The ribbon suggests he had.  He certainly bore her no ill-will, although that could have been because she died so soon after.

Ami imagines writing a letter sacrificing everything you love for the sake of everything you love.

Spending your last days alone, knowing you would never see your family again.

Ami pictures her grandmother, writing the words ending her family, for her at least.  Loneliness.  Separation.  Sorrow.

Ami looks back at Zac’s letter.

She likes Zac.  A lot.  He’s not “the one”.  He’s not everything she’s wants in life.  He’d be a compromise.  Yazuko and Coleman might have been, too.  But Ami likes Zac.  Maybe she even loves him.  They were happy.  Mostly.

Maybe that happiness, that connection, that compromise, that link to another human being, so fragile and precarious – maybe that’s what love is.

Ami picks up the phone.

A Single Snip of the Scissors

“What the hell is this?”

I look up at Zac, but I don’t need to.  I know four things already.  One, he’s got the letter I gave to Jane.  Two, if I survive I’m going to kill Jane.  Three, this is not the time to have this argument.  Four, this fucking hurts.

Number four would be higher up if I weren’t already biting down hard on the gas and air.

I drift away from the pain that was threatening to engulf me.  I heard singing a little while ago.  I think it was my voice.  The gas and air is amazing.  Zac wants an answer.

He won’t get one.  Not now.  Not now I’ve got this far.

“You!” I shout, intending to go further, but that’s all I can manage with the breath I get before another scream – a scream oddly separate from me.  I meant to say “you are getting what you always bloody wanted.”

I hope that’s true.  I hope he gets everything, but I’ve made my choice.  If it’s me or the baby, he gets the baby.  You don’t get second chances at forty-six, and besides, there’s a fair chance they’ll be able to treat me after.

“How could you hide this from me?”

Zac’s voice gets in between screams and waves of pain, all coming from somewhere else now.  I’m fading.  I can feel my body getting further away.  I don’t want to remember him shouting at me.  That’s not how this should end.  He should be happy.

I drift again, the pain there, but a foreign entity.  Some more words in my ears.

Oh my God.  Something breaks through the numbness.  What’s happened?  I’ve lost feeling in my legs.  Zac shouts out.  I don’t know if that’s a bad sign.

Something moves.  Someone moves.

A tiny ball of blood is held up in front of me, and I try to focus.  There are features on it.  Her.  I smile and try to move a hand up to reach it.  Her.  She kicks.  Her eyes are shut.  I can see her face.  Cut that cord and she’s safe.  Safe from all the disease running round my body.  “Cut it!”

The midwife looks surprised.  She was about to put a clamp on the umbilical anyway.  She clips it, and then a pair of scissors makes that tiny creature separate, safe, a genuine human being.  Zac’s read the letter, so he knows that whatever happens I want her to be named after my grandmother, after a woman before me who sacrificed everything for her family.

My fingers touch little Yazuko’s face, and I look over at Zac.  He’s crying.  I hope I make it back.  We’d make a wonderful family.

The world goes dark.

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