When we entered the bank, my grandfather asked for Mr. Hatano, the manager. We waited silently at one end of a large room for him to meet with us. Finally his office door opened and he emerged. He crossed the hardwood floor, a stack of papers clutched under his right arm, and bowed respectfully to my grandfather. His shoes creaked. He smelled of soap and hair grease.
"I have been sent by my daughter," my grandfather began, after returning an equally deep bow, "Mrs. Yokuo Amai, to tell you that my son-in-law, Haruki Amai, a diligent employee of this institution, is ill today and is unable to honor his responsibilities. I am to tell you that he will be well tomorrow and that he is deeply regretful he cannot take his post today."
This was my grandfather's particular way of speaking, but it was a manner appreciated by those of his generation, a part of which the man he was addressing seemed to be.
We walked home hand in hand, slowly because of Grandfather's bad legs. I did not ask if he knew he'd been entrusted with a lie. It occurred to me that I might be the only one, besides my mother, to know the true cause of my father's malaise. My child's mind wrestled with this, and finally I decided that my mother must have good reason to do what she had done, though I still had no idea what that could be. Her decision was based on an adult interpretation of the world that was beyond my experience.
She was sitting by my father's bed, talking quietly, when we returned. I heard her voice through the wall and waited patiently for her to come downstairs before I asked her permission to take Mitsuo to the river, a five-minute walk from the house, where we liked to play under the Bantai Bridge.
For months, after waking up in the Red Cross Hospital, I was forced to lie on my stomach in order to let the wounds on my back breathe and heal. My left eye had sealed over with scar tissue and pus since I was shipped here from the Oshiba Aid Station, where we had been taken after being found near the river by a group of soldiers. Mitsuo's cot sat to the left of mine. When the doctors conferred over him I was able to see only their legs and shoes, because I could not lift my head. But my ears were among the few things that had not been damaged. I listened to their voices, and soon began to hate how they spoke when they discussed my brother. They said he was a lost case and soon would die. They wondered aloud what kept him alive. Every morning they seemed surprised that he had survived the night. There was no hope for him, they said.
Nor did I like how they discussed my own condition, gathering around my bed like old men talking politics at a newsstand, bending my arms, poking at my burns. We seemed to them interesting experiments, as you might find the extended and exceptional life of a gnat or beetle interesting. They would stop briefly between our beds, add or subtract some observations from each of our charts and move on again to the next bandaged patient.
The ward was thirty-eight footsteps in length. I knew this because I had counted the paces of a nurse as she moved from end to end, tending to her helpless patients. It was a narrow room, wide enough only to accommodate the length of a cot on either side, with a space running up the center along which new patients could be rolled in or the dead removed on a squeaking gurney. The walls of unpainted plaster, a dull white-gray, had been fashioned roughly. In certain sections I was able to make out the horsehair and straw mixed into the plaster, material that rose to the surface of the wall at the head of my bed like roots pushing up through a sidewalk. Four lamps hung from the wooden ceiling on long black wires. Sometimes the lamps moved slightly when a breeze entered the ward through the windows, which were opened most mornings in order to release the fetid night stink that grew under our bedsheets while we slept. There was one picture in the center of the ward, on the far wall, preserved under a sheet of glass which one of the nurses dusted each morning. This was a portrait of Emperor Hirohito, at whom I could not look directly. This was not due to my awkward position in the bed but because he was more god than man to us then and such unabashed glaring would have shown grave disrespect.
Copyright 2001 by Dennis Bock. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Knopf.
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