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.