Last month, by Gmail, I got the invitation to your funeral in Japan on March 11th. It took me a few breaths to remember that was the first anniversary of the 2011 Tohoko earthquake and tsunami. It would seem impossible to forget—even for the span of a few breaths–one of most the powerful earthquakes ever recorded, or a tsunami with waves 140 feet high. It would seem impossible to forget a force powerful enough to jilt the earth itself four inches off its axis, or leave us with days that are shorter. And then the meltdown of three of the seven reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Could I forget that for a moment? Or the heroism of your father Masao who saved the northern third of Japan?
And then there was you, Himamari.
Could I forget you?
That this was your funeral–and not one of the memorials taking place in Iwate prefecture and Sendai for the fifteen thousand or more killed in the Tsunami—and that you were not gone yet—yes, that took another couple of deep breaths. It is unusual to be invited to a funeral before there is a death, but as you said, “it is a Alice world now”. Knowing about a planned suicide does not mean you don’t try to stop it. So I left my ketch Sunflower stern anchored to some mangroves and got on the first of several planes that took me from Jamaica to London to Tokyo. And I brought you a copy of Alice with the original illustrations by Tenniel, although I prefer your illustrations. For the last year I have slept with your hand-drawn “Animé Alice” under my pillow, and when I can’t sleep sit up on deck under the stars and touch each page with my fingertips, while the boat rocks in Kingston harbor, and I listen to your CD playing in the cabin below deck. Your cover of Judy Mowatt’s “I Shall Sing” makes me hang my head. I keep your Alice wrapped in plastic as much as I can, as the salt air is hard on the rice paper.
There are factual things you never knew: in February of 2011, a month before the three-act disaster, I was sent by GE back to Japan to help upgrade the emergency response at Fukushima Daiichi. Although the TEPCO (Tokyo Power) report of earlier that year said there was “no need to take prompt action” about vulnerabilities at the plant, GE knew if Fukushima had a Three Mile Island, it would hurt the multi-trillion dollar nuclear power market for the next fifty years, and they pressured TEPCO to accept me as a consultant. I had a twenty year history in Japan, and first went there after graduating from Brown with a degree in East Asian studies. It was a pretty good deal: I was hired by JET in 1992 to teach Japanese high school students on Okinawa to speak English, but mostly I was sent from high school to high school to stand around and speak English as a model American, and so I talked about the Red Sox. After school, I played baseball or basketball with the kids or windsurfed over the coral reefs with some Japanese friends. I made $45,000 a year, paid no taxes and had no real expenses, drank sake every night, and slept on the beach in a hammock.
And then, one day, I dug in the sand.
This was one of the beaches in Okinawa where the marines came ashore in WWII, and the white sand I walked on barefoot was, in truth, soaked with blood. There were still the remains of tanks in the sand, and crumbling concrete fortifications that waved rusted rebar like a lunatic waves his arms. One day I moved the stones of the burial cairn of a Japanese soldier and dug down in the sand until I scraped at a pitted white bone with my fingernails. That night I ended up in surgery with an emergency appendectomy. The appendix burst just as the surgeon sliced open my abdomen, and I got a bad case of peritonitis, and almost didn’t make it through the night. Then I was sick for weeks in the hospital, and for the last week, I was next to a fellow gaijin with an arrhythmic heart, a guy named Bob McCormick from North Dakota who worked for GE at Fukushima, and when he saw me speak fluent Japanese with the nurses, he hired me.
And that was how, twenty years later, I was back at Fukushima in the month before the March 11th disasters. Most of the two decades were spent at various Japanese nuclear reactors, because they all were pretty much built with GE parts. I was a workaholic, and never took time out to even see Japan, or get married, or have a girlfriend. In that last month of February I worked eighteen hour days on emergency preparedness with everyone from firemen to engineers, right up to your father the plant manager Masao, so the plant would be better prepared in the event of, say, a 9.0 earthquake twenty miles away and fifteen miles under the sea that would send a forty-six foot wall of water crashing over the sea wall that took out the back-up diesel generators by simply washing away all their fuel.
It was on March 9th—two days before the earthquake—that your father Masao handed me a ticket for the bullet train to Tokyo, and booked a week for me at the Ichiban Sheraton. Your father, as you know, loved all things Italian, and had been having me to dinner a couple of nights a week. In a lot of ways, he wasn’t very Japanese, your father. He drank whiskey hard, called out the stupidities of the Japanese government, TEPCO and GE, and overall, was far from a compliant salariiman: and it was only while stirring a marinara sauce with his left hand, soon after he handed me the ticket on the bullet train, that I learned he was hibakusha, the child of one of the survivors of Nagasaki, and had grown up with all that prejudice against the ‘contaminated ones’. It is strange to think a hibakusha would chose to make a career out of working what are really slow-cooking nuclear bombs. And it is stranger still to think that if Nagasaki radiation made him an outcast hibakusha, it was perhaps his hibakusha status that molded him into a man able to defy the Prime Minister of Japan’s direct order, continue to cool the three reactors melting down with sea water, and save Japan from an explosion at Fukushima the size of a dozen Nagasakis.
Your father sent me to Tokyo because he knew somehow after almost twenty years I was tired in my bones from overwork, but also because he had heard me listening to Bob Marley on my iPod one night when we were working in Diaachi Three. We were both re-inspecting venting pipes for microscopic weld cracks. He tapped me on the shoulder—it was two in the morning—and I jumped a foot, and he thought this was hilarious. Then he yanked my earphone out, put it to his ear, and said, “Bob Marley?”
He looked murderous.
He pulled me to his office by the elbow, we drank Jim Beam and talked again about the criminal nineteen foot seawall, and finally he reached in his brown steel desk and took out your schoolgirl photo and slid it across the desk. And then your father’s eyes moistened, and he said, “would you go see her?” And it came out over the next hours how your mother Sachiko had disappeared when you were three when your father left her family’s farm and took his first job at Fukushima Daiichi, and how at fourteen you ran away from home with the lead singer of a local reggae band called Sanshin Nanjaman. He said you were a dancer then, but now, three years later, the lead singer in a band called Fukushima Mon. And then he made me answer a question: why did Bob Marley come to Japan in 1979? I didn’t know Marley had, but then had to listen to your father give a short history of reggae in Japan, from recordings of Marley playing in 1979, on his first visit, with the band Pecker Power and the Flower Travellin’ Band, to Joe Yamanaka and Mute Beat, and the ‘tinny riddims’ of Naoya Matsuoko Minako. He was sure I would have met the singers in U-Dou or Platy, as he equated me with Okinawa. Your father knew everything—in his methodical engineer way—about reggae in Japan, but he also despised reggae, and as he played recording after recording for me, he burned me with kamikaze eyes, and he kept drunkenly challenging me (once I thought he was going to punch me) to answer the question again: why did Bob Marley come to Japan in 1979?
Then at dawn, he slammed the old paint-stained CD player in the bottom drawer of his desk, and took out a photo framed with purple wood and metal gold stars, and gently placed it in my lap. He motioned to it with a jabbing gesture, and grimaced at the ceiling. The arteries were popping in his thick neck. I looked down at the photo. You were sitting in a garden fenced with sticks at about age five. You were plump with black bangs that almost covered your pretty eyes and naked but for a little purple kimono. Someone—was it you?—had made a perfect circle of a hundred tomatoes, and you sat in the center of them, grinning at the camera with your mouth wide open as if you were singing, holding out two of the juiciest red tomatoes to the camera, and then I saw that it wasn’t a circle of tomatoes around you, but a heart.
As your father sipped, I studied the photo. The garden was disciplined, but brimming with the ingredients for an Italian meal: in addition to hundreds of tomatoes bending the vines, I spotted asparagus, broccoli, eggplant, bell peppers, hot peppers, zucchini and a neatly stoned off section of herbs like parsley, oregano, thyme, and basil. (I took my time studying the photo, because your father was weeping.) It was all farmland in the background, but on the horizon, no bigger than the tomatoes in your little hands, I saw the grey boxes of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors. There were shovels and gloves and wooden baskets, a wheelbarrow, and down in the corner of the photo, a long knife was plunged into soil that was like chocolate with a fresh tilling.
A few hours later, I was on the bullet train to Tokyo, slicing through the rice fields at 150 kilometers per hour. In a folder on my lap I had directions to the Sheraton in the Mikano district, and to Babylon 666, the club you would be playing at that night. Someone had left a paperback novel on the train—a novel by Mishima–and I tried to read it, but it caused me too much anxiety to be existing—even for a few hours—without the frame of a job. The last time I had just read a novel for pleasure was when I windsurfed in Okinawa that year after college.
I dumped my suitcase on the bed in the Sheraton, and yanked shut the curtains, as the light was severe that day. But I yanked the curtain so hard it ripped its little wheels out, and so I just ripped it the rest of the way down, and then stood there with this awful shroud over my forearms, looking out over the traffic of a Tokyo workday. Until evening, I lay on the bed and looked down at my Thom McCann dress shoes. Then I got up, took a shower, and lay naked on the bed looking at my reddish toes for a couple of more hours. The fact that I had a goal: to find you at your club, Himamari, was a very good thing. I dug in my suitcase and pulled out a sun-bleached t-shirt—it was a favorite back in my Okinawa days—put on a leather jacket, and headed into the night.
There was a big crowd outside the industrial garage doors of Babylon 666, and three naked to the waist bouncers. One of the big guys with an earphone and a Muslim skull cap pulled me from the crowd. I paid the cover, and fought my way to the bar, and then the empty stage. I could see backstage behind the yellow curtains from my angle, and spotted you right away. You had the same bangs, and you were the same exuberant child as in your father’s photo. But what I recognized most of all was your mouth: you were singing backstage, warming up, and jumping up and down in that springy Rastafarian way, but your open singing mouth was so you. Something about it was so ecstatic.
You took the stage and said:
Ikkyoku me, kore wa Kami no koto
You had me from those very first words.: This first song is about divine issues. I’ve learned a lot about reggae and its sense of the divine in nature since moving to Kingston—you could say I moved to Kingston for reggae—but I have never felt as, to put it simply, happy as I did that night, listening to your band Fukushima Mon, crushed so hard against the bandstand by Japanese rasta-loving teenagers that I had to push back to fill my rib cage with a breath. Every time you stopped bouncing up and down across the stage, threw your arms open like you were rejoicing in sparks thrown down from Bob Marley’s big spliff up in heaven, pulled the microphone up to your mouth, every time you sang a note, I got this electric pulse that travelled from the soles of my feet up through my chest and out the top of my head. It was about in the middle of your second set that you looked directly at me, and you smiled in a way that was so gentle, that I mouthed, “I love you.” It was not like me at all—in fact it was the first time I had ever said those words to any woman–and I left the front of the stage and tried to hide in the dancing crowd.
I remember this lyric from near the end of your show. You sang:
Shiki ga irodoru yutaka na color
Daichi ga umidasu minori no aka
Wakai ibuki ga hanatsu pawaa wa mugendai
I carved it in English on a mahogany plank I found drifting in Kingston Bay, and now it hangs in the galley of my ketch:
Rich colors of the four seasons
Red of the harvest that the earth bears
The unleashed power of the breath of youth is infinite
As I said, there was a huge crowd, so I was surprised when your long show was over, and everyone was milling around, that you found me at a table in the back.
“I saw you,” you said. “Singing in Japanese.”
I admitted I had tried to sing along, but stopped because I wanted to hear your voice.
I said your voice made me see rice fields.
It was the most poetic thing I could think to say, and I wanted to say the right thing.
You bowed your head. “That is my goal.”
“Yes,” and then with a smile added, “Or maybe tomatoes.”
You played with your dreads, which were painted gold. “Do you like the gold?” you asked.
I said that no gold would suit you, too.
“Thanks,” you said. “I’m thinking of washing it out. I’m more roots reggae than rapper-dancehall.”
The guy I took to be your boyfriend or just your bass player was now staring me down from another big table where he sat with the rest of the band and a lot of groupies. All the girls had some gold in their dreads, and wore daisy-duke cut off jeans and knee high socks.
You sang a few bars of Bob Marley’s Exodus:
Open your eyes and look within
Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?
I was caught looking at the medallion dangling between her breasts. Your white schoolgirl shirt was open, and you had on a purple bra. The gold medallion was as large as my fist, and at the center was a disk of jade.
You took the disk in your two hands and stretched out your long white neck to look down at it with theatrically wide eyes. “My father had it made when I was born. He came from a family of metal craftsmen in Nagasaki. My name means Sunflower.” Then for a long time you looked down at the disk, and then raising your eyes—and I saw for a second a sadness that scared me—you asked, “Would you help me write a song I’m writing in English?”
I said I’d help you, but that you spoke English very well. I said I wasn’t much of a writer, and that if I had any training, it was in systems management.
“Not American English! I want it to sound Jamaican.”
You shook your head and sighed deeply.
“I’m working on a song called ‘Durty Gul’.”
“Dirty Girl?” I said, and you said, “Dirty. Like the dirt. I love dirt.”
I wanted to know more, but your boyfriend/bass player was playfully punching my arm. Then he was less playfully gripping my arm at the bicep. “Who da mon dat kill Bob Marley?” he asked suddenly, several times, and flashed a gold tooth.
“Why would he know?” you said, slapping his chest. “Let go of his arm, Yoshiki.”
He glared at me, but dropped his arm.
“Yoshiki’s crazy,” you said. “He’s sure the CIA killed Bob Marley. And he doesn’t like me talking to men, either.”
I stood there and looked at Yoshiki, who asked angrily if I knew “Tony Rebel” and then sang: come, come, come, judgment a come, come, come while all the time making an inventory of his dreadlocks—which went to his waist–inch by inch.
Then he dropped his dreads and got in my face and sang:
Minna akogareru no kuni
Nihin ni genbaku otoshita Americka
Which he sang then in English, not trusting my Japanese:
The free country everyone love
This America drop the bomb on Japan
You pushed Yoshiki away from me and said, “We’ve got to go. I’ve got to get these guys to practice my new songs,” and then you added, “Do you speak Chinese, too? Next year, I plan to take the band to Beijing. They need songs about dirt.”
I said I just knew a little Chinese, but told you how much I’d enjoyed your music.
You closed your eyes. “You’re the first one,” she said. “All the others just want to fuck me.” You did a vocal exercise, and I saw your pretty mouth open in that way, as if you were singing the world into existence. “You’d think he’d not send old American men to check on me,” she said, touching her white shirt. “They all have a thing about the Asian schoolgirl look.”
“You knew all the time?”
You closed your eyes for a moment and then reached out and touched my hand, “Why don’t you come to another concert?” you asked. “We play here every Wednesday, and at Bushido’s on Saturday night.”
I lied and said my trip to Tokyo was about over.
“You have to get back before the plant blows up,” you said. You didn’t look like you were joking.
Of course, this was the day before, so looking back, well, what can I say, Himamari?
You took the medallion off your chest and kissed it. “It will someday, you know,” you said. “I’ve known it since I was a little girl in Fukushima. I saw it in nightmares that started a few years after my father went to work there. He wasn’t supposed to work there. We lived on my mother’s family farm in Tomioka, and he was supposed to be a farmer. But he looked at Fukushima Daaichi every day plowing in the field, and it took over his brain. I could see the reactors from my bedroom window, and I didn’t want that to happen to me, so when I was eight I papered over my window and from then on, even when I was in the yard, or the garden, or getting in and out of the car, I’d not look over there. I walked around for years with my eyes on the ground, and my father thought I was just being a good Japanese girl.”
It seemed for a moment you were in a deep trance, but then you looked at me and said with a small amount of alarm, “You do work at Fukushima, right?”
I thought we had established that, but you looked so worried that I reached out and held your arm and said, yes.
“Of course,” you said nodding, “It shows in your face, and in your hands.”
It struck me that this couldn’t be true, but I drank my beer and looked at my hands.
“But you like reggae music,” you said, as if I was a big question mark.
You stared into my eyes, and said, “Sometimes men who worked with my father at the nuclear plant would come after work to our farmhouse. We had a stone path to the front door my mother put in when my parents were first married. It was like a Zen garden. You had to step from stone to stone, or you stepped on dirt. And those nuclear men treated it like a minefield, like if they stepped off the stones they would be blown apart.”
You held my eyes my eyes for a moment, and then went on: “Just before I left home for good with my boyfriend at fourteen, when I wasn’t practicing my music, I liked to work in the garden. I was very upset at the time because I knew I was going to have to run away from my father, and the only things that calmed me were reggae music, and having my hands in the dirt. Sometimes my first boyfriend would stand there with his guitar and sing to me as I planted and weeded and watered the garden. It made me very happy, and the plants liked it too. He was twenty-two, and had been to Jamaica, and had dreads to his shoulder. He thought my father, and anyone who worked at Fukushima, was a true citizen of Babylon, the oppressor, and to be hated. And he talked Jamaican rasta patois. So my father’s co-workers came by, and they would be making their way across the stone steps, and he—his name was Hibikilla—would sing louder and shake his dreads, and they knew he was cursing them. Rastas do not believe the meek shall inherit the earth, but that it is right to stand up to Babylon’s injustice, evil and oppression with the strength of a lion. So he shook his dreads—his lion’s mane—at those nuclear engineers and workers, and then finally one day he and my father got in a big fight, and I walked down the road with Hibikilla—we see cars as instruments of Babylon—and so, now I am in Tokyo, in exodus from the dirt of my ancestors, but I sing about the dirt of Fukushima, and I know someday I must return there, and place my hands in it again, and grow things again in that dirt.”
And with that, you lowered your head.
I ordered another beer and watched as you, and then the rest of your band, got up to leave. Yoshiki stormed out first, spearing his guitar case into the crowd. Kazuhiko followed waving his drum sticks magically in the air, then you, Himamari, turned back and flapped your medallion at me. It caught on the lights and sent a dozen reflections skittering across the black ceiling like fish.
A minute later, you came back into Babylon 666 with Yoshiki. You came up to me looking exasperated, and Yoshiki came right out with it and said, “Who killed Bob Marley?”
A glance at you, and I knew to say, “The CIA.”
Yoshiki grinned and nodded and put out his fist, and we bumped them several times, and then he pulled me into an embrace and said all was “Irie” between us now. As Yoshiki turned to loudly pronounced to some other rastas that all was “Irie” with the gaijin now, you whispered in my ear, “Tell my father he is to be a grandfather.”
I looked at Yoshiki, and you nodded.
And then you were gone.
And early the next morning—five days earlier than planned—I got back on the bullet train, and headed back to work at Fukushima Daichi. At noon on March 11th, I got off the train at the Fukushima station, and instead of going to work, I drove along the coastline, and pulled over at Tomioko. It was a quiet day, but the sea was ashen in color. And then suddenly trucks raced past me, and as I looked down at the harbor, I saw fishermen leaping into their boats along the dock, and within minutes, twenty boats were heading straight out to sea. This was still an hour before the earthquake. I learned later that animals had been fleeing to high ground all morning. Maybe the fishermen took cue from the animals, otherwise, how did they know? Only three of those fishing boats made it up and over the 100 mile an hour wave of the tsunami that was soon to head toward the coastline.
Back at the nuclear plant, it was eerily peaceful, and birds were singing as I headed into building A. But as I walked toward the main control room, there was an incredible rumble, and I was thrown against the wall. The shaking got stronger and stronger, and as I stumbled to the control room, I saw pipes ripping off the wall. Workers were fleeing all around me, yelling about the coming tsunami. In the control room, your father bowed to me formally, and not long after the tsunami crashed over the seawall, and plucked up the 5,000 ton fuel tanks for the backup diesel generators. Your father and I stood together outside and watched them sink into the sea. We both knew that without the backup generators, when the main power died and there was no way to pump cool water into the six reactors, we would have no way to keep the nuclear fuel from melting down.
It was dark and silent in the control room. Then some of the senior nuclear engineers found a few flashlights. No one was speaking, but I heard a magic marker squeaking on a white board, and a flashlight played over it:
15:42 Nuclear Emergency
15:48 Loss of power
And the engineer was adding:
16:36 Cooling Systems Shut Down
The last line was the ‘Chernobyl’ line.
A glance at our dosimeters told us, as expected, the radiation levels were rising rapidly in the control room: nuclear meltdown had begun. But we didn’t know anything else about what was going on inside the reactors, because without electricity, none of the gauges were operational. Every engineer in that room knew not only were they doomed when the six reactors blew up, but the northern third of Japan would be uninhabitable for 30,000 years.
The engineers turned to look at your father. He was silent for a minute, and then told the men to all run to their cars. When he said that, I saw a few of the engineers head toward the doors. But he explained he wanted them to: run to their cars and bring back their car batteries. When they did, lugging them in one by one, he used them to power up some of the pressure gauge in reactor one, and we learned that the overheating rods were turning the last of the cooling water into steam and hydrogen, and that the pressure in the reactor was already in the red zone.
The cardinal rule in nuclear power is: never vent into the atmosphere. But it was either vent this hydrogen and steam—and all the radiation that would escape with it—or wait for the reactor unit to explode. But the vents, too, operated on electricity. And there was no electricity.
Once again, the engineers looked to your father. He grabbed some manuals, motioned to me and two other engineers, and we poured over them by flashlight. And then your father said loudly: “I need a volunteer to go with me.”
There was silence.
It was possible to move the vents by hand by turning two steel wheels. But to do so meant entering the reactor core, and that was probably a suicide mission. Your father at this point sent home—if they still had a home or families with fifteen thousand dead and hundreds of thousands of homes lost—over two hundred and fifty workers. And then he asked again for a volunteer. I raised my hand, but he shook his head and said something about “47 Ronin”.
I have since read a great deal about the “47 Ronin” and how these forty-seven samurai avenged the death of their Lord after two years of careful planning, and then committed mass seppeku on his grave, after showing him the head of his enemy. It is a true story that gets at the heart of bushido, the samurai code of honor.
An engineer by the name of Kazuhiko Kokubo raised his hand a few moments later. We all watched your father and Kazuhiko put on hazmat suits, and I walked with them as far as the steel door into the reactor.
At 67 millisieverts, your father and Kazuhiko had nine minutes to get to the wheel. It was done, but while in the reactor core, your father took—on top of the general extreme radiation exposure– a beta radiation burn when he stepped into a puddle and the water breached the seal on his right boot. He never spoke about this burn at the time.
It was after this that your father led a group of Tokyo firefighters (later called by the media the “Fukushima 50”) in the placing of a pipeline from the ocean into the reactor core. I helped with this operation, and at times we were spied on by American drones flying low overhead, as we in turn watched our dosimeters spike wildly, at times into the deadly 1000 millisievert zone. Your father dragged the final length of fire hose into the actual reactor core. It was the placing of this hose-which poured seawater around the overheating nuclear rods—that kept the reactor from exploding like ten Chernobyls. The use of this pipe defied the direct order of the Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, to not use seawater to cool the reactor. Perhaps the Prime Minister was thinking of the twelve thousand tons of radioactive water that would spill back into the sea: most people seem to have forgotten about the cesium, strontium and plutonium in all those thousands of tons of glowing water, more than fifteen thousand terrabecquerels of radiation, now swilling around the world’s oceans.
Just as few think anymore about the tens of thousands of terrabecquerels of radiation released into the world’s atmosphere when we vented the reactors.
But I know this, Himamari: not one person thinks–except me–about the day your father walked into a hospital lobby in Kyoto two months later.
Kazuhiko Kokubo, the engineer who volunteered to enter the reactor and turn the vent wheel with your father, was dying of radiation poisoning, and your father went there to honor him and say goodbye. The official line was that Kazuhiko had a pre-existing illness. When your father arrived at the hospital, he was told in the lobby that Kazuhiko had died an hour earlier, and that he could not see the body, as it was classified as radioactive waste. On the way back to his car your father collapsed, and from his hospital bed, he called me on his cell phone. The call wasn’t a surprise. For two months your father had done nothing but work to stabilize Fukushima Daiichi. I worked alongside him, and saw his hair fall out onto the desk in his office. But he just swiped his hair into a trash can, and refused to see a doctor. The only thing on his desk now—and it was always piled high with reports in the past–was the childhood picture of you with the tomatoes. When I arrived at the hospital the doctors told me he had a few days to live, perhaps even just hours.
I found your father naked on his hospital bed, his legs and arms spread wide. His skin—which was covered in pimpled red sores—was open and oozing. There was grey skin falling in sheets off his foot that had taken the beta burn.
He—through blistered lips–asked me to find you.
I sprinted to the parking lot.
In Tokyo, everyone was wearing masks. At Babylon 666, the owner told me you had quit your band, and were working at a “Citizen’s Radiation Monitoring Station” and gave me directions to a local supermarket, where I found you running a primitive geiger counter over the groceries of a long line of frightened mothers, many with masked children in hand. Two of the children had nosebleeds while I stood there waiting for you to finish your shift. I helped one of the mothers with a bleeding child. She was so upset she could not even think to sit the child down and have her tip her head back. But then the child’s nose didn’t stop bleeding, and I said something to the frantic mother like, “this works normally.”
And then you looked over and said, “Normal is no longer normal.”
The child’s mother was breaking down as the nosebleed was getting worse, and the hysteria was spreading to those women in line to have their groceries checked for radiation. I suggested we take the child to a hospital, and the four of us got into your father’s car.
And it was then I told you about your father.
And it was then you told me about your abortion.
The gold was gone from your hair, and you were wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a cotton haki-maki that held your hair back neatly from your face.
You spoke nonstop all the way to Kyoto Hospital of the cesium in breast milk, of thyroid exposure, of wildly fluctuating levels of radionucleotides on fruits, vegetables and rice, of how mothers-to-be counted the fingers and toes on the ultrasounds of their babies-to-be, of the uncertainty and invisible threat of strontium and plutonium breaking DNA strands, and how the slow, creeping psychological pressure and lack of control was pushing people you knew into listlessness, depression and addiction, about how every conversation was about: where were you on March 15th when the radiation reached Tokyo, and what did your children eat and drink that day?
You spoke of government lies and cover-ups, and how the Japanese were cursed by a conformity such that no was sure what to do for themselves, and how you didn’t know what to do, and how that was killing you. At the time it didn’t cross my mind that when you did decide what to do, it would kill you.
As I sped north to Osaka—hoping we made it in time for you to say goodbye to your father Masao—I remember you kept repeating under your breath: the ordinary is over.
It was just as I turned into the hospital—almost hitting an ambulance—that you turned to me and said, “I don’t even know your name.”
I was about to tell you, but you suddenly held your hands over your ears and said not to tell you.
You then looked at me after I parked the car and said, “I will call you ‘Eri’.
I liked that name: My Protector.
That was the first of two names you would dub me with over the next months. I wish you had never given me the second name.
Your father was not dead, but when we entered his room was fully dressed, sitting in a yellow chair, waiting for you, Himamari.
He bowed to you, and asked to be taken home to his farm. His desire to check out caused a small uproar at the hospital, and in the end I had to ram your father in his wheelchair past a crowd of doctors, nurses and hospital executives. He laughed about it as we drove north, and asked over and over in a whispery voice if I was in the mafia. It was his Italian thing. But I had signed in when I went to the hospital and put down that I worked for TEPCO at Fukushima Daiichi, and there would be swift fallout—so to speak— from my actions in freeing your father.
An hour later we came to the police blockade at the edge of the twelve mile radiation evacuation zone around Fukushima Daiichi, and I rolled down your father’s window, and he flashed his work badge at the policemen, and they saluted him as a high executive and said: hai and raised the barrier. We passed towns that were nothing but wood and rubble, and we stopped for cows lying in the street. The cows had been freed before the farmers fled, and now many were fat on the grass, and enjoying the warmth of the road. What we didn’t know was how many hundreds had died of starvation, chained in their stalls. We also saw dozens of orphaned dogs and cats roaming the ruins.
And soon after that an ostrich blocked our way. The ostrich was the symbol of TEPCO, and this ostrich was kept around for corporate events, but somehow had gotten free.
Your father said quietly, “The ostrich is like TEPCO: it sticks its head in the sand when there is danger.”
He looked at me and laughed quietly, and I saw that even laughing was causing him a great deal of pain.
At your family farm, you and I helped your father from the car. For a moment he stood erect, but then slumped against you and slid to the ground. You got the wheelbarrow from the garden and filled it with pillows. I placed your father in the wheelbarrow, and taking the two handles, rolled him up his driveway. Your father raised his hand as we turned toward the farmhouse, and you bent down to his lips, and then said, “he wants to go to the garden.”
You took a handle of the wheelbarrow, and together we rolled your father to the garden. When we came to the wooden gate, he raised his hand and pointed, so we pushed the wheelbarrow over the soft soil, between the rows of tomato plants. The garden—despite the earthquake and tsunami and nuclear meltdown–was neatly planted and growing. Your father must have tended it when he got home from work each night, but he must have done it at times by the light of his truck headlights. I saw you looking around, and then bend over and cup a tiny, green tomato in your hand.
Your father motioned to get out of the wheelbarrow, and you ran to the farmhouse and returned with blankets and more pillows, and we made a bed in the garden, and together placed him gently on it. And it was late that night, surrounded in the dark by green tomatoes, with you holding his hand, that he died. I lay on the hood of the car that night, close enough to hear you singing to your father. I remember you singing Judy Mowatt’s “I Shall Sing” over and over, and you told me later your father pressed your hand as a sign to sing it again.
In the morning, I walked over to the garden and found you asleep with your head on your father’s chest. I stood and looked at the golden sunflower medallion around your neck as it glittered in the sunrise.
You awoke when a three legged dog—with the bone showing–ran barking past the garden, and went in the farmhouse and brought out tea. You said someone needed to care of all the animals left behind, as they were ‘sentient beings’. I knew the water in your well was probably very radioactive. We sipped the tea and you told me about the Rastafarian idea of ‘sitting in the dirt’: a way of awakening to nature and getting away from the corrosive ‘doing’-oriented mindset of all that is Babylon.
Then you told me about the Japanese idea of teikkai, of knowing where your food was grown, how it was grown, and who grew it. You plucked a green tomato and bit into it. I wanted to stop you, or tell you to wash it with bottled water from the car, as I could almost see the radioactive isotopes.
I suspected then how this would end. That in less than a year I would return here, and alone dig a second grave in the garden.
There were blue flies landing on your father, and I told you about Kazuhiko Kokubo, the engineer who entered the reactor to open the vents, and how his body was classified as radioactive waste and taken away. You stood and walked to an outbuilding and came back with two shovels. Together, we dug a grave in the path between the tomatoes. As I dug I thought about how we were at the very heart of the twelve mile radiation exclusion zone, and how the Japanese government said no one would be able to live here again for thirty years. I had glanced at my dosimeter back at the car, and your farm was at 45 millisieverts, and so was one of the hottest spots in the hot zone. Raising my eyes as I dug, I could see what you avoided looking at as a little girl: the six grey boxes of the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi.
Your father was placed at the bottom of the grave in a sheet, and you turned away as I covered him with dirt. When the dirt was level, you replanted six small tomato plants in a neat row down the length of his body.
You got a guitar from the house, and sang a song over the grave. It was your song “Durty Gul”, and I remember the lines:
I walk on air
From mountaintop to mountaintop
Dirt in my hands
I walk on air with flowers in my hair
TOM PAINE’s short story collection, Scar Vegas (Harcourt), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Pen/Hemingway Award finalist, a Village Voice “Writer on the Verge” pick, an Esquire “Hot List” book, a Barnes and Noble “Discover New Writers” pick and was featured on National Public Radio. Stories in this collection were published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Playboy, The Boston Review, the New England Review, Zoetrope, the Oxford American and Story as well as in the award anthologies The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize (twice), Best New Stories from the South, American Fiction X: Best Stories from Unpublished Writers, and The KGB Bar Reader. His novel The Pearl of Kuwait (Harcourt) was featured on public radio, reviewed nationally, and was recently optioned. A graduate of Princeton and the Columbia MFA program, he is an assistant professor in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire.