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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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’
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
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.
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.