As a writing exercise, I was asked to re-imagine a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in a more contemporary setting. I could imagine none more appropriate:
A puddle plunked where the stone of the platform should be. Darkness in daytime. The kind of day Japan had seen too many of, the kind that wiped Pompei and Krakatoa maybe. The dark shifted a little, just enough to show a bit of sky instead of roof.
I climbed, through or over what I still don’t know. I climbed the way a man does when he hasn’t figured yet if he’s half-buried or half-dead. I stopped when there was nothing left to climb. When I thought, maybe both.
Tuesday, a handful of yen and a pack of smokes had bought a night in Mrs. Ying’s comfort house near the unfinished imperial bunker outside Nagano. I’d been sent to fetch minister Tōgō south for a meeting with Stalin’s man. If Japan was the land of the rising sun, it had seen brighter days. But the mighty imperial navy had shown its stuff, and so had imperial mettle. The meeting was to take place inside the great Mitsubishi torpedo and ammunition plant. We’d helped Stalin beat Hitler just by remaining neutral. In coming years, we’d help him beat the Americans just by staying alive. At least, that was the message on Tuesday.
This was Thursday. Tōgō was dead. The train station was gone above the platform—the ammunition plant too, and the Kawanami shipyards and—hell, all of Nagasaki. Not peppered by American bombers. Not burning and scarred and broken up. Gone. Erased. From the river to the hills.
Brown twilight drifted with smoke and the smell of burning flesh, and hung over fire and misery in all directions. Across the way, the cathedral gate poked up columns like logs from a fire. The dome lay in filth like a turned-out chamber pot. Where cherry trees had marked the canal, there wer eonly tangled girders, curling shattered roofs, and piles of tile and brick. Close by, there were other piles, heaps of rubble and ordinary things: chair legs, a shoe, a silver bento melted and charred. The station clock lay on a mound of rubble and charcoaled limbs. The face was black. The hands were gone. Flash-burned shadows read eleven o’clock.
Behind me, the rail line was just another heap, a tunnel from the mighty empire south into hell. Tōgō was dead, and the prefect. But it didn’t take a prefect to read what it meant. It meant the war was over, the empire done. Like an over-confident sumo apprentice, Japan had forced its enemy across the ring, only to be crushed by his weight.
And that was it. Two million dead and a generation of fanatics who so balled up history it was good for nothing but setting fires. Well, they were burning now—just as bright and warm as Tōjō and the emperor had dreamed, I imagined. If they had feared and hated America as neighbor, they could hate him nowas sovereign. But the time for fear was over. What more could an American president take than the emperor had surrendered to pride?
From the east, towards the medical center, came a lone woman’s cry. A chorus of moans suffused the middle distance. Nothing moved around me but fire and falling debris. The ball field by the river would be open land. Somewhere to the east, I’d find survivors. Somewhere in coming days, I‘d meet new masters.
I‘d survived the war. I damn sure wasn’t going to choke on peace. My boot crunched through what had been a centuries-old temple. I bowed toward the bay– toward the twilight gray of the sea, and recalled the English we had once amused ourselves by learning from the wireless.
“Welcome to Japan, most honorable sir. Would you please to buy some smokes?”
Better to deal with foreign devils than die for a disgraced god.