Poetry Porch: Forgiveness


A Childs Tale 
by Charles Fishman

            for Tadataka Kuribayashi 

I. April 12, 1945

The night before the evacuation, your father
procured some sugar, so your mother could make
botamochi, a rice-cake dumpling coated with bean paste:
such sweetness was rare in that time of scarcity
and the dinnerthe last you would share with your parents
was a gift of memory only the distant future would open

Next morning, along with the other students, your teachers led you
to Yokogawa Station: this was your farewell to Hiroshima

                                    * *

When you arrived at Tsutsuga Village,
you were housed in Saihoji Temple         The copper roof
glowed with a quiet effulgence and the dinner of sekihan
rice cooked with red beanswas nutritious and satisfying

This was a wonderful haven, yet the night
could not be salvaged by rice cakes and official welcomes
This shrine did not cater to families, only to the newly
orphaned, and the taste of separation and loneliness
was in your mouth

It was cold in the mountains     and life at the temple
was harsh         A few holiday excursions taught you
the difference between exercise and labor     between
hunting for firewood and hunger         Once, at school,
when there was nothing sweet to eat, you licked a tray
of water colors     and, soon, lice took up residence on your body
A few of the young teachers were kind, but a child needs a mother

At Saihoji Temple, some children hid in a room to weep

                                    * *

One day, a visit from parents was permitted, but rules
had to be followed         Your mother adhered to the strictures
and brought you only the sparest foods: parched
sesame seeds, pickled ume . . .          Reunions are always
painful, for it is sweet to be cared for again and the new
parting is deep, inescapable, and may be lasting

This day, though, your mother cut your hair
in the precincts of the temple         She cut the hair
of one child after another: you remember her
with the clipper in her hand

II. August 6, 1945

There was summer in the mountains . . .
food was scarce and each bowl of rice was precious
Instead of lice, there were fleas, but you knew the sutras
by heart and some of your friends had learned to make sandals
Near the temple, a small river gurgled over stones     leaves
grew green and abundant     the feel of cool water
made time and sorrow disappear

                                    * *

In a shrine adjacent to the school, you learned Morse code
A cool breeze blew under the gingko trees, and the cicadas
newly emerged from their shelter in the earthsignaled
their pleasure in those days of endless summer

. . . something warm brushed your cheek     as if the hot August sun
had been reflected off a mirror     and Tsutsuga Village trembled
A column of pink clouds rose above the mountains     rose higher
deepening in the intensity of color: all the pink in the universe
had been swept up into these clouds

Later, the light darkened and papery cinders fell from the sky
thin slivers of scorched wood     curled scrapings of metal     bits of bone
and skinthese, too, rained down         You know this now,
but on that day the pinkest clouds in creation were enough to ponder
the burnt remnants of paper were enough

III. September 3, 1945

At the beginning of September, the postcard arrived
It was about your mother but not from her: she couldn’t have
written this flat note to her son and the handwriting was definitely
not hers         Someone at the reception center in Miyajima
had known how to contact you

                                    * *

Your teacher stayed with you on this new journey
that could only conclude with death         On the way,
you saw that the castle town of Hiroshima was a field
of charred ruins     that only rats and flies could be content
to live there         There was little to see from the boat
out of Miyajima-guchi     merely the towering archway
of the Shinto shrine and the shrine of Itsukushima,
wrapped in a film of beauty

                                    * *

In the center, survivors were lying on futons . . .
In that cavernous room, a small woman like your mother
was difficult to find and, when you saw her, your heart stopped
for a moment: she was lying face-down in the bed clothes,
and she had grown smaller

When you looked more closely, you saw the burns
on her back: her whole body had dwindled and she was
unable to move         This woman, your mother, who had cut
and combed the hair of other women’s children, could not
turn herself over

                                    * *

She could still speak, though slowly and with no volume,
so you learned by listening closely: she had been exposed
to the flash while helping to demolish buildings near Tsurumi Bridge
she had seen Mrs. Takai burn to death in front of her
and her own back had accepted the firethe fire and the gas
had inched to the center of her body

From the top of Hijiyama Hill, she had looked back     she had seen
the death of the city

It was later that she learned how your father had died

IV. September 15, 1945

You were a good son, Tadataka, and cared for your mother
in those final hours         You spoke gently and lovingly to her
and cleaned her chamber pot     you gave her last day on earth
a small portion of dignity

Let it go now, that pain that stabs your heart: the small infractions
you remember were forgiven by her         You were a child
yet you taught the living the meaning of duty and bravery

Before she died, your mother was unable to speak     still
she smiled on you         Take the knife from your heart
the sharp blade of memory

                                    * *

On the third day of your vigil, her pain broke and she lay
in a bell of calmness         The tears on her cheek blessed
your life and gave you a million words: one day,
they would find your lips         From her pain her silence
and her tears, all you knew of historyand what you knew
of being humanwould enter you

                                    * *

When you returned to Tsutsuga Village, you remembered
the big torii you had seen from Miyajima’s bathroom window
The gateway to the shrine had appeared to you     and then
the B-29 bomber had flown over

Remove the knife from your heart! What could a small boy do?

                                    * *

You returned to the village . . .          The road from Miyajima-guchi
seemed endless     but an old man shared the long train ride
and other guardians appeared as you walked

You reached the front gate of Saihoji Temple at dawn

Copyright © 1997 by Charles Fishman. Used with permission of Charles Fishman.

Notes: Tadataka Kuribayashi has served at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) for more than 30 years. This poem is based on an anonymous translation of Kuribayashi's account, posted on the World Wide Web.