Carrie Meadows |
SONS, YOU WILL BEAR MORE THAN MY MEMORY
Like dew drops
on a lotus leaf
This is not my story. My uncle brought it back from the Pacific, along with a crumpled silk scroll painted with Japanese characters. He’d been on liberty with his two-beer ration and a deep desire to escape the men he’d slept between night after night in canvas bunks stacked hardly a nose length from one to the next. The Japanese surrender was final, but his squadron routinely patrolled the waters surrounding Tokyo Bay, and this was his first venture into the area outside Yokosuka base. That evening of land leave with dusk like a threadbare sheet folding in on the sun, my uncle slipped on a patch of wet ground and caught the toe of his shoe on the arm of an elderly Japanese man. My uncle had been at Saipan the summer before, and his post at the destroyer’s guns had positioned him to see what prompted the most seasoned soldiers to hug their chests: men, women and children descending into the ocean from Banzai Cliff like a fantastic bird’s discarded feathers, their red, green and blue robes, their white and burgundy blouses billowing about their heads with the impatient ruffling of the tide’s breath. My uncle was not yet nineteen the night he wandered beyond the base, and he rolled the dead man to his side with trembling hands. It was then that he realized the mud he stood in was the man’s blood, then that he saw the coil of intestines on the ground. He found the silk only a few steps outside the sphere of bloodied soil—jisei, a death poem in the tradition of the samurai.
This is not my story, but it rests in my mind alongside others that I can claim by country and by kin. Stories packed away like photographs of a lost love, stories I think about with absurd frequency and, still, hope to forget. They describe what is in my culture the supreme act of weakness and shame. Blasphemy. For man belongs not to himself, but he is a temple, the sacred dwelling place of God’s spirit. And so the story of my grandfather was for a long time hidden from me, how he gathered his Patsy Cline records into his lap and wrapped his lips around his revolver (I imagine he mumbled the words of Just a Closer Walk With Thee even as he held the metal with his tongue and teeth). My grandmother said he had trouble moving about comfortably in this world, said he was lost in a way only the Lord could explain. Did he awaken inside the pearly gates? My great-grandfather plowed his cornfields even as he spit red, as day after day his lungs filled heavy with blood. If a man works himself too far while understanding full well that on that day his body will fail, can he land his feet in Glory? Are these men the same, one thumbing the trigger, the other kicking at the plow’s blunt blade? If in their actions they have knowingly taken from God the same thing, then how do we name them? Suicides?
My uncle lies in a hospital bed, and he recounts the stories of our ancestors. “There are differences,” he says. “None of us—we’re not the same.” He is the only person in my family to speak of these men; to invoke their memories, my mother told me long ago, is to draw demons from the shadows. I trace the I.V. from his arm to the clear bags hanging above my uncle’s bed. Last night he took too many—ten times his daily dose—of the pills his doctor prescribes to ease the pain in his knees and hips. “I’m just a tired old man,” he says. “And you—”
He shakes his finger in front of my nose. “You don’t understand, not yet.” He closes his eyes. “I’m tired. Let me rest.”
For those who jumped from the cliffs at Saipan, the man who offered his entrails to the ground, redemption is found. The jisei is their final farewell.
A stranger’s silk scroll hangs in my uncle’s den. Translated, it reads: My body relinquished, even now my soul sings.
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