Excerpt of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
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Functional, Hiroko Tanaka thinks, as she stands on the porch of her
house in Urakami and surveys the terraced slopes, the still morning
alive with the whirring of cicadas. If there were an adjective to best
describe how war has changed Nagasaki, she decides, that would be it.
Everything distilled or distorted into its most functional form. She
walked past the vegetable patches on the slopes a few days ago and saw
the earth itself furrowing in mystification: why potatoes where once
there were azaleas? What prompted this falling- off of love? How to
explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch
than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than
schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans.
An old man walks past with skin so brittle Hiroko thinks of a paper
lantern with the figure of a man drawn on to it. She wonders how she
looks to him, or to anyone. To Konrad. Just a gaunt figure in the
drabbest of clothes like everyone else, she guesses, recalling with a
smile Konrads admission that when he first saw her - dressed then,
as now, in white shirt and grey monpe - he had wanted to paint her.
Not paint a portrait of her, he added quickly. But the striking contrast
she formed with the lush green of the Kagawas well-tended garden
across which she had walked towards him ten months ago made him
wish for buckets of thick, vibrant paint to pour on to her, waterfalls
of colour cascading from her shoulders (rivers of blue down her shirt,
pools of orange at her feet, emerald and ruby rivulets intersecting
along her arms).
I wish you had, she said, taking his hand. I would have seen the
craziness beneath the veneer much sooner. He slipped his hand out
of hers with a glance that mixed apology and rebuke. The military
police could come upon them at any moment.
The man with the brittle skin turns to look back at her, touching
his own face as if trying to locate the young man beneath the wrinkles.
He has seen this neighbourhood girl - the traitors daughter -
several times in the last few months and each time it seems that the
hunger they are all inhabiting conspires to make her more beautiful:
the roundness of her childhood face has melted away completely to
reveal the exquisiteness of sharply angled cheekbones, a mole resting
just atop one of them. But somehow she escapes all traces of harshness,
particularly when, as now, her mouth curves up on one side,
and a tiny crease appears just millimetres from the edge of the smile,
as though marking a boundary which becomes visible only if you try
to slip past it. The old man shakes his head, aware of the foolishness
he is exhibiting in staring at the young woman who is entirely unaware
of him, but grateful, too, for something in the world which can still
prompt foolishness in him.
The metallic cries of the cicadas are upstaged by the sound of the
air siren, as familiar now as the call of insects. The New Bomb! the old
man thinks, and turns to hurry away to the nearest air- raid shelter,
all foolishness forgotten. Hiroko, by contrast, makes a sharp sound
of impatience. Already, the day is hot. In the crowded air- raid shelters
of Urakami it will be unbearable - particularly under the
padded air- raid hoods which she views with scepticism but has to
wear if she wants to avoid lectures from the Chairman of the Neighbourhood
Association about setting a poor example to the children.
It is a false alarm - it is almost always a false alarm. The other cities
of Japan may have suffered heavily in aerial raids, but not Nagasaki.
A few weeks ago she repeated to Konrad the received wisdom that
Nagasaki would be spared all serious damage because it was the most
Christian of Japans cities, and Konrad pointed out that there were
more Christians in Dresden than in Nagasaki. She has started to take
the air- raid sirens a little more seriously ever since. But really, it will
be so hot in the shelter. Why shouldnt she just stay at home? It is almost
certainly a false alarm.
Excerpted from Burnt Shadows
by Kamila Shamsie. Copyright © 2009 by Kamila Shamsie. Excerpted by
permission of Picador, a division of Macmillan. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.