Kaijuphile.com presents 'Eyewitness'
Kaijuphile.com presents 'Eyewitness'
Kaijuphile.com presents 'Eyewitness'

Kosshi by Doug Wood

by Doug Wood

Eyewitness: Madoka, age 63, retired

I did not need the announcement on the television to tell me Godzilla was coming. Some things you just know. Like a premonition of rain in a clear blue summer sky. My left leg had been acting up for a few days. It was a throbbing pain that rose suddenly from beneath the muscle and sinew and kept time with my heart. Although it was a shadow of what I had felt when the cinder block had snapped my femur as a teenager, it still forced me to set aside whatever I was doing and to sit down until it subsided.

My daughter, Hikaru, said I should go see my doctor, but it wasn't the arthritis flaring up. My once-injured leg was speaking to me. And I listened to it because the ache of bones speaks more eloquently than any words. Some may call it an old woman's superstition, but in my long life I have learned to trust those things I cannot see or touch. Words are words, bones are bones. They both speak truth. To deny one would be as ignorant as denying the other.

When the yellow warning symbol appeared on the television two days before, I was not surprised. And when Masato, my grandson, began shouting from the living room where he was watching one of his superhero shows, I first calmly finished drying the last plate and racked it with the others. There was no hurry. I already knew what I would see.

Masato was kneeling in front the TV, holding tightly to his cherished toy raygun, when I came in. I'd always scolded him for sitting too close. It wasn't too many years past some children had suffered epileptic seizures watching a cartoon, and it worried me. But not today. He had backed away from his usual spot and watched the newscast with a rigid, wide-eyed attentiveness.

The low whispering in my leg suddenly returned. Sharp little needles of pain ran up to my knee as I knelt close beside him on the carpet.

The warning symbol in the corner of the screen had turned red. Godzilla was here. I put an arm around Masato's shoulder and he sank into my chest almost instantly. Together we watched in silence. When the monster's visage appeared on the screen, the pain flared suddenly. I grimaced and bit down a groan. Masato looked up, but I just smiled.

After a while I turned him to face me and said he should get his coat. He nodded solemnly and I rose and went into the kitchen to call Hikaru. When my son-in-law, Yusaku, passed away suddenly, she went back to work. Yusaku's father had come to love Hikaru as his own, and he located a secretarial position for her in a small publishing firm. The only drawback was the long commute. Two hours on a good day.

Hikaru and I worried about Masato being alone; it just wasn't healthy for such a young child, especially for one who had lost a parent so young. It would be like losing both. So I babysat him after school until she could pick him up. But with all that was going on now, it was highly doubtful she could make it back in time to take him to the shelter.

When I reached her cellphone, she agreed. The building she worked in had its own shelter in a reinforced sub-basement. She would stay there and Masato would come with me. I called Masato in and he spoke with her a moment while I retrieved the last two bento boxes from the refrigerator. I always made a week's worth of the lunch boxes on Sundays. Masato took them home one at a time for the next day but since schools would be closed until the emergency had passed, we would take them with us now. The shelters had limited resources. They always said bring any food and water one could.

We collected our things and then I took a last look around the apartment to make certain everything was off. While Godzilla held the power to level entire cities, government committees had determined much of the damage was, in fact, collateral and could have been avoided. An oven left running perhaps, or a hot lamp knocked over by the thunderous footfalls, miles from the actual path of destruction.

When I was satisfied, we left. Downstairs and outside, the streets and sidewalks were crowded. People were hurrying, but there was no sense of panic. Not yet. It would come though. It always did. I held Masato's hand and we started off.

The pain in my leg had not subsided as it had every time before. If anything, it was growing worse. But I bore it silently and kept moving. Masato trailed behind me. Once in a while I looked back. I could tell that he was nervous, but he held his head up and smiled. He understood what was happening, what was expected, and he was a very responsible child. I felt very proud. It was unfair to be burdened so young, but it couldn't be helped. The world was imperfect and one had to make do.

Ten minutes later, we arrived at the designated shelter. It was the sub-basement of a department store. The line to get in was quite long. I leaned into the cool brick wall between displays windows with a sigh. My calf muscle was so tight, it felt like it would tear if I took another step. I removed a handkerchief from my purse and dabbed at the sweat on my forehead.

Masato looked concerned. “Gramma? Are you all right?”

“I'm fine. It's more walking than your grandmother is used to,” I said, and then quickly changed the subject. “You didn't forget anything, did you?”

“Nope,” he said, showing me his book bag. “Got all my homework and everything.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Did you bring your raygun?”

He looked away. Toys were frowned upon in this shelter.

“Masato? Answer me, please.”

He scuffed a shoetip on the concrete. “It's not a raygun. It's called the Star Polarizer. And... yeah, I did. Sorry, gramma.”

I patted him on the head. “It's all right. But you'd better keep it out of sight, okay?”

He smiled brightly and nodded.

The line moved too steadily to rest my weary leg for long. Every ten seconds or so, people picked up their backpacks or suitcases and shuffled forward a couple feet. Too much trouble to put down my purse and shopping bag, only to pick them up. So I stood, shifting my weight slightly, trying not to be so obvious Masato might notice. Even still, the pain was worse than ever before. I focused on the man in front of me, a frilly hat bobbing a few feet down, the marquee above the entrance – anything to take my mind off.

As we drew closer to the doors, I got out the laminated badge with Masato's name and information and looped it around his neck, then I did the same with mine. He looked at it upside down for a moment, and then smiled at me. I almost shuddered as another knitting needle of pain stabbed my left leg.

If only we'd had them then. I shook the thought from my head. Silly, sentimental old woman, I scolded myself. Now was not the time.

In a few minutes we stood at the head of the line. The shelter guard motioned us to stop while we waited for the previous group to get down the narrow stairs. No one wanted a jam forming. After a moment a whistle blew somewhere down below and we were waved inside.

Save for a few lights in the front to help us see, the department store stood in almost total darkness. Mannequins posed in the shadowy gloom further back, their arms stretched plaintively as if pleading with us to be taken to safety. We went down several flights of concrete stairs. Despite the jarring pain each step sent up my spine, I descended as quickly as possible.

At the foot of the stairwell a wide antechamber stood before a set of iron doors with rivets as wide as coins. Two more Shelter Guards waved us inside, the sound of a clicker counting heads almost lost in the great murmur of hushed voices and scuffing shoes. We passed between the open doors set into thick steel-reinforced concrete walls.

The shelter was an immense tomb and the sheer weight of it hung overhead like an oppressive curse. Originally it had been a bunker during the Pacific War and used as a warehouse after the end of hostilities. But after Godzilla attacked in 1954, the owner had it cleared out. The war-time graffiti, memos from purgatory etched in darkness, were painted over. Walls and pillars were strengthened, and when it passed inspection, it was designated one of the very first government-sanctioned emergency shelters. Despite the makeover, for those of us old enough to remember, the echoes of WW II still persisted.

We were motioned over to the far wall to a spot next to an old man. It looked as if he'd come prepared for a siege. He'd brought a sleeping bag and a metal frame covered by a blanket like a tent. A camper's backpack lay to one side, revealing canned foods and a plastic gallon jug of bottled water. On the other side rested a bag of toiletries, a Walkman radio, books and magazines, and, amazingly enough, an alarm clock. As we sat down he nodded and then, holding a book, slid back into the darkness of the inverted V. Inside a small light clicked on.

I almost laughed. It was so sweet and child-like, his little adventure. I spread out a blanket from the bag and Masato helped me sit down. I was relieved to have the weight off my leg. The throbbing pain lessened to a more bearable level, but it was still there, making its presence known with little twinges now and then.

The shelter filled up quickly with row upon row of people. Lovers, families, and those who came alone. I felt the most for them; it must have been very difficult to be alone in such circumstances. But in another sense, they really weren't. As long as the danger strode overhead, no one who huddled shivering in the darkness below was truly alone. We were all family for however long it lasted.

The cry of “Capacity!” came fifteen minutes after we sat down. Then a Guard drew our attention to the front of the room where she repeated the familiar litany of Shelter rules. Masato tugged on my sleeve.

“Gramma, what happens to people who don't follow the rules?”

“It's a very serious thing, Masato. There's a law against disobeying the shelter rules. The Guards will tell the police and you could get in trouble later on. Do you want that to happen to you?”

He shook his head and went back to listening. When the female Guard was finished, she held a conference with the other Guards. Some man called out a question soon after and the group broke up. And so began the long and sometimes thankless task of seeing to the needs of 250 frightened, irritated human beings. I have a great respect for the military, police, firemen, and medical people whose duties force them to stay aboveground during times of crisis. But in my opinion these Shelter Guards, volunteers all, were unsung heroes in their own right.

While Masato did his homework, I leaned against the cool brick wall and tried to get some rest. The pain in my leg kept cycling, dull knife to brilliant flame. I tried to keep as still as possible. Sometime later during a lull in the constant throbbing, Masato asked to go to the bathroom. We got a Guard's attention and he left, minding the rows like he was supposed to.

When I was alone, I shifted to one side and realized that sitting still had its price. My bad leg had fallen asleep and the pins and needles sensation increased the pain like nothing before. I ground my teeth, letting a small groan escape my lips.

The old man next to me came out of his makeshift tent. “You all right? You seem to be in some discomfort?”

I knew I couldn't fool him as I had Masato. The older one gets, the more attuned one becomes to pain. The more personal it becomes. I grimaced.

“It's my leg,” I said. “I broke it many years ago and it acts up occasionally.”

He dug into his backpack. “I have an extra inflatable pillow. Put your weight on this, it should help.”

I started to argue it wasn't necessary, but he was already blowing it up. He had to pause halfway and take some deep breaths.

“Remember when this used to be easy?” he said with a laugh

I smiled. “Yes, I do. Doesn't seem that long ago, does it?”

He cackled, showing missing teeth. “Only on days when the earth doesn't rotate.” He finished inflating the pillow and plugged it with a tiny whoosh of lost air. I shifted to one side so he could slide it under. “There. How's that feel now?”

With the pressure lessened on my leg, the pain was far more bearable. “Thank you very much,” I said.

“Please, think nothing of it,” he replied. “I always come to these shindigs over prepared anyway. So how did you break it? I know it can be pretty rough when you get to be our age.”

“It was a long time ago.” I looked him square in the eye. “Fifty years.”

He didn't say anything. A word would have been out of place there. He nodded and on an unspoken level we understood each other implicitly. He didn't need to know the details and I didn't need to relive the awful emotions to tell him. The same held true for him. He looked older than me by a few years. Of course, he had his own tale to tell of that terrible day, so long past.

But some things are best shared in silent contemplation. And that is what we did then. We bowed our heads in unison and commiserated in quiet, each understanding the other's losses with a sublime clarity that mere words do not allow.

In the chaotic days and weeks following Godzilla's second attack on Tokyo, when everything was in shambles, I was placed in a sanitarium until a relative from the countryside could be found to take me in. My broken leg healed in its white cast. Would that I could say the same for my memories. For a month, I woke from sleep screaming. No nurses ever came running. They were used to it by then. The dormitory was full of injured, orphaned children like me.

An elderly aunt took me in and I went to live far to the east. Looking back over fifty years, it could have been five hundred. The tiny village where I was to spend the remainder of my youth was nestled in a lush green valley between tree-covered mountains and seemed as if time had passed it by. Farmers living there tilled the rich land much as they had under the Shogunate. In summer the cicadas swarmed the deep forested hillsides, seemingly more numerous than the leaves. The buzzing chorus they sang reverberated so loud you could feel the vibration on your exposed skin.

My aunt lived in a lovely old home of tatami-floored rooms and sliding doors and opaque rice paper windows. Widowed, living alone, she made no apologies that, in addition to the obligation she felt toward my mother, she took me in to help her take care of things. And I didn't hold that against her. I never learned to love my aunt, but I did respect her and was grateful for what she had done for me.

A couple months after I started living there, I came home from school one day to find my aunt and a strange women sitting across from each other in the main room. I didn't announce my arrival. Instead I watched quietly for a long moment, hoping to overhear what they were saying. But neither of them spoke a word. They just knelt opposite on the tatami floor, their gray-haired heads bowed as if lost in meditation. The folds of their flowered kimonos pooled about them like the snowy drifts of white cherry-blossom petals that billow in the spring. Eventually I tiptoed to my room, puzzled by what I had seen.

Later when my aunt called me to dinner, the other woman was gone. I knelt at the table as my aunt scooped rice into a bowl and asked who she had been.

“We knew each other in the war,” she said. “Our sons served on the same ship and died when it sank. Every so often she crosses the mountain and visits me.”

“But you weren't talking.”

My aunt smiled. “No. She never does. We just kneel across from each other for an hour or two in silence and then she leaves.”

“Isn't that strange?” I said.

My aunt shook her head. “We understand each other. No words are necessary to say what we need to say.”

I didn't understand what she meant. In my youth and inexperience, I thought only words could convey sorrow. But I saw that woman many times over the years before the mountain grew too tall to cross. And I watched her share those quiet moments of grief with my aunt; and as I reflected and came to terms with my own, in time I came to appreciate its excruciating empathy. Like the beauty of a simple, bare flower arrangement, or a tea ceremony where every elegant sweep of the hand is so exact and perfect it's almost the pure essence of movement, its bone and marrow and essential nature. In time, I perceived the perfect effortlessness of silence. When I closed my eyes I could taste it on my tongue. Salty, like invisible tears.

My parents' bodies were never identified. They had no laminated badges like they do now. As a dutiful daughter, once every year I visited the gravesite. To clean the tombstones, burn incense, and offer a prayer. It felt hollow somehow. When I was young, I'd had nightmares of their gravestones floating away with nothing to anchor them to the earth. But over time I came to understand it didn't matter if they weren't there. Their spirits went wherever I went. They lived forever in my memories of their love.

We could have sat there for hours, that old man and I. But in a while, Masato returned. We bowed our heads to each other a final time. Then he turned away, as did I, without saying another word.

Masato didn't say anything, but he had a serious look on his face as he sat back down. He kept craning his neck, looking through the crowd as if trying to locate someone. I thought perhaps he'd seen a classmate and didn't say anything. I shut my eyes and with the pillow supporting my leg rested for the first time that day. Soon I drifted into a light sleep.

When I woke up, I noticed the time on the old man's alarm clock. It was far past Masato's usual dinner time.

“Masato? Are you hungry?”

He looked up from his textbook and nodded. I dug around the bag, pulled out the bento box, and handed it over. I loved the expectant look that came over his face when he opened my bento, like he was opening a Christmas present. This time though, I was disappointed. He stared at the artful arrangement of food as always, but then his expression fell. He seemed distracted by something.

“What's the matter?” I asked. “Aren't you hungry?”

Masato shook his head. “No, that's not it.” He looked across the shelter just as he had when he returned. “When I went to the bathroom before, I saw someone from school. I'm not too sure, but I think he's here all alone. Would it be okay if I asked him over so he could have some bento too?"

I almost burst into tears. How had we been blessed with such a child? “You are such a good boy. Go ahead.”

He held up a hand until a Guard saw and came over.

"Can I go see a friend of mine?” Masato said. “He's away over in the corner by the bathroom."

The woman bit her lip. I glanced behind her at the signal on the far wall. It looked like a standard traffic light, turned sideways, and served the same function for the shelter. The light was currently yellow which meant movement was severely restricted.

"Please?” I said. “He believes a classmate of his came alone. If so, we would like to invite him to sit with us and have something to eat."

I held up the bento box so she could see. She blinked at it. I smiled. Sometimes I overdid my bento because it was for Masato. Just one of the more pleasant privileges of being a grandmother.

"If he's really alone," she said, “I guess it's okay. Try to be quick about it, okay?”

Masato moved to go. “Thank you!”

"Masato-chan?" I reached in the bag and pulled out the other box. "I brought two. Your friend can have the other."

He grinned and gave me a big hug. "Okay! I'll tell him!" And then he hurried off.

The female Guard giggled and turned to go.

“Excuse me,” I said. “May I have your name and phone number? After this is over, I'd like to make a bento for you, too, if that's all right.”

She demurred. “Oh no, ma'am, that's not necessary.”

“Please?” I insisted. “To repay you for your kindness.”

She glanced around nervously. “Well, I don't know if that's really proper...”

I held the box again. As the tantalizing smell wafted up, her reluctance melted away. It's uncouth to admit you can do something well, but I do make good bento.

“Okay,” she said, grinning. “That does smell terrific. Are you a gourmet chef or something?”

I blushed. “No, I'm just a grandmother.”

“That explains that, then,” came a voice from the tent. “Somebody eat that bento before there's a riot in here. Che. I'm eating cold pork n’ beans.”

We exchanged looks and then burst into a soft laughter, a scarce quantity in the heavy, fearful atmosphere of the shelter, where whimpered tears were more common.
It sounded so good. The sound of life and high spirits in the face of danger and uncertainty.

“And you, too,” I said to the tent flap, when I'd caught my breath. “I want your name and number as well.”

“You don't have to ask me twice,” came the reply.

Masato returned with his classmate, Satoshi, not long after. They ate the bento and played videogames on Satoshi's handheld device while I rested my tired eyes. There was something about the two children eating the food I'd made, being safe and happy in my presence, that quieted the whispers from my leg for a time.

An hour or two later, Masato had had his fill of videogames and comics and fell asleep. I wrapped him in a blanket, gently so as not to disturb. Satoshi leaned against the wall and kept playing, his face pinched in concentration and a blue pulsating illumination. Tiny explosions issued from the headphones.

I had a difficult time picturing him as Masato's classmate. He was as different from Masato as night from day. Hair unkempt, jeans worn and ripped at the knees, and a sneaker showing a big toe keeping time with the game music. Had he really come here alone? Something told me he had. But then where were his parents?

“Satoshi-kun?” I said. “May I ask you a question?”

Lost in the game world, he blinked at the sudden change. “Uh, sure. Whaddya want to know?”

He had brought videogames and comic books, but nothing else that I could see. No food, no water. Most families have emergency kits at home they bring. “You don't seem as prepared as everyone else. Did you come here straight from school?”

He looked embarrassed. “Not exactly straight from school.”

“Did you go home first?”

He shook his head no.

Masato had leaned into me. I gently laid him down and moved over to Satoshi. The pain shot up my leg but I ignored it. Softly I said: “Your parents. Do they know where you are?”

“Guess not. But my mom works in Yokohama. So I figured there weren't no point in going home on account’a she wouldn't be there.”

Thirty seconds. We had been thirty seconds away from safety when the building's side fell. The pain in my leg sang.

“Satoshi, she could have left a message. She's probably very worried.”

He put the game in his lap and scratched at his exposed toe. “I suppose.”

“There's no supposing about something as important as that,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even. “Your Mother loves you very much.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I guess so.”

And I suddenly understood. I saw him, a mirror image. Masato's. Mine. “They are your parents,” I said. “They love you very much. Sometimes things happen beyond your control. Things get in the way. But it doesn't mean they've stopped loving you. Sometimes you have to listen to what isn't said.”

Suddenly there was a huge banging on the shelter door, the sound reverberating loud enough to wake babies crying. A male Guard ran from the front of the room and opened one of the doors.

Masato stirred and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “What's going on?” I shushed him and told him to go back to sleep.

After a hurried conversation, a man and a woman rushed inside. They ran down the aisles, calling out “Satoshi! Satoshi!” over and over.

Satoshi! Satoshi!

The boy looked at me, and the tears flowed, and I nodded. “Go to them.”

“Mom? Dad?” His voice cracked. “I'm over here. I'm okay, I'm over here.” He ran down the aisle and fell into his mother's outstretched arms.

Masato rose and leaned into me. Together we watched the joyous reunion. I held my grandson tightly and prayed silently to heaven -- Let these broken bones be healed. Let them pain us no more.

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