Read Beside a Burning Sea Online
Authors: John Shors
Tags: #Solomon Islands, #Fiction, #Romance, #War & Military, #shipwrecks, #1939-1945 - Pacific Area, #American Contemporary Fiction - Individual Authors +, #United States - Hospital ships, #Historical - General, #Pacific Area, #1939-1945, #Soldiers - Japan, #Historical, #Soldiers, #World War, #Survival after airplane accidents, #Fiction - Historical, #Nurses, #General, #etc, #Japan, #etc., #Love stories
“What do we need to be doing?” Isabelle asked. He made no response, and she gently squeezed his arm. “Joshua, what do we need to do to survive?”
He willed himself to address the present, the needs of the living. Sighing, he gestured toward the harbor. “What’s out there?”
She studied the sand and sea. “Nothing extraordinary.”
“Nothing? Look at the harbor, and then the land behind the beach.”
She did as he asked, her eyes sweeping about. “It’s a nice harbor. And . . . and there’s some flat ground behind the beach.”
Joshua nodded. “The harbor is perfect. It’s deep and big and amazingly protected. And the land behind the beach is suitable for a runway.”
An image of
’s helm flashed before him—piles of broken steel and glass and bodies. He remembered stepping outside to watch the bomber soar toward his ship. By the time he realized that it had dropped a torpedo, and that the weapon was gliding through the water toward
, all he could do was shout a series of futile commands.
“Joshua? What does the harbor matter to us? The land?”
He dragged himself away from visions of the dead in the same manner that a car is towed from an accident. “This island won’t be ours for long,” he finally replied. “It’s too perfect. Too strategic. Both navies are in these waters and both navies will slug it out here or near here. Whoever controls the Solomon Islands will put airfields on them and will control the skies of the South Pacific, will have the airpower to maybe win the war. And because of that someone’s going to claim this island. Maybe us. Maybe them. If it’s them we’re going to have to hide. Hide for as long as we can. That’s what we need to be doing. Figuring out how and where to hide. Because if the Japs come here and find us . . .”
“What? What, Josh?”
“We don’t want them to find us. You. Your sister. Me. We’d all be in great danger.”
She felt her heart quicken its pace. “Where will we hide?” she asked, glancing about the island.
“I don’t know. But we’ll find someplace. We’ll find someplace and we’ll wait. And no matter who comes here, we’ll be ready.”
“But . . . but couldn’t we take the lifeboat? Take it and find another island?”
“Another island could already be full of Japs. Or we could easily be captured at sea.”
She tugged at his hand. “Then let’s get ready. We need to organize everyone and start searching.”
He took a half step with her and then stopped. “Could we spend another few minutes here? I want to say good-bye. I . . . I need to say good-bye.”
Isabelle nodded and then gazed toward the sea, which shimmered as the strengthening sun beat down upon it. She wondered what lay beneath the waves inside
. She cringed at the memories that quickly invaded her—visions of the doctor she’d tried to save, of Annie almost drowning. Like other such memories, she forced them from her, turning her attention to Joshua. She watched a tear drop from his lashes. She saw his lips move, and when no sound came forth she knew that he was praying.
Her husband was a strong man, Isabelle knew. In that way, they were quite alike. In that way, she was drawn to him. But she couldn’t help but ask herself if she was right for him now. Could she best support him when she herself only knew how to press on, how to endure? Wouldn’t he be better off with a woman who could cradle his head on her lap and simply listen? A woman like Annie?
A year ago, Isabelle could have been that woman. But not now. Not after seeing so many die such hideous deaths. Not after smelling the foul stench known as war. She couldn’t sit and whisper that everything would be fine, because if truth be told, she’d said such words to boys who had needed to hear them. And she’d lied to those boys, because they had died before her eyes—died pleading for their mothers or lovers, morphine suppressing their pain but not their memories, not their tears.
Isabelle couldn’t lie to Joshua. As much as she wanted to comfort him, as much as she yearned to make him feel whole, she couldn’t be that woman. She couldn’t be that woman because she didn’t know if the end would be what he and she wanted, what they struggled and suffered to achieve. How could anything end well when an entire world was at war? When millions of men, women, and children were already dead and mostly unburied?
Isabelle put her head against his shoulder and cried with him. She cried for those aboard
. She cried for her husband. And she felt so very alone until he turned and kissed her lightly upon the brow.
SEEING THAT HER rescuer was asleep, Annie decided that the time was right to inspect his wound, and carefully untied his soiled bandages. Her patient’s thigh was swollen—the torn flesh red and oozing blood. Afraid of infection, Annie leaned forward and smelled the wound, which, had it gone bad, would have likely emitted a pungent odor. To her relief, she couldn’t detect any sign of decay. Of course, she needed to clean the wound properly and restitch it—otherwise an infection was almost inevitable. But she needed supplies for such a procedure.
Hoping the boy and the engineer would find what she needed, Annie carefully rebandaged the wound. As she worked, she looked at her patient’s face, wondering why he’d saved her. Though his face was the color of an old newspaper and though it was the face of the enemy, she found his features to be strong and likable. His skin was smooth and almost flawless—marred only by faint lines near his eyes and on his forehead. His cheekbones and chin were prominent, hinting at the strength she knew he harbored. She’d never seen hair as straight and black as his. Not even on any of the other Japanese patients. His hair reminded her of a cloudy night—thick, dark, and dominant.
Annie studied him for a few more minutes before rising. She then looked for others in their party but could see no one. She hoped people were discovering the supplies they’d need, that medicine would be found. It certainly needed to be. If it wasn’t, she’d have to simply boil water, clean her rescuer’s wound, and hope.
A large white bird dropped into the water before her, diving for an unseen fish. Annie looked toward the gap in the harbor, which revealed the azure vastness that was the sea. She couldn’t believe that something so beautiful was the surface upon which so many men died such bloody deaths. Even though she knew that the Germans and Japanese desperately needed to be defeated, she also knew that war was repulsive and she wondered why it wasn’t fought upon something equally unsightly. After all, war turned beautiful things—whether men or forests or cities—into scarred remnants of what they once were. How was the sea alone able to resist this change?
She turned toward the voice, surprised to see that her patient had rolled to his uninjured side and was looking at her. “For what?” she replied.
Annie wasn’t sure what to say and so she said nothing. Finally, she glanced at his eyes. “In the water . . . you knew my name. May I ask yours?”
“Of course,” he answered, bowing his head. “I am Akira.”
She tried to silently repeat his name and found that it was easy. “May I ask another question?”
“What . . . were you reaching for? At the end, when we made it to the beach. You were reaching for something.”
Akira turned toward the water. He suddenly remembered his vision of the little girl. He felt chilled without her before him and longed to see her again. “So sorry, but I do not know for certain,” he replied quietly. “But perhaps . . . perhaps I saw a spirit. Or as you might say . . . an angel.”
. I . . . I mean, yes.”
Annie had spoken to many dying men and had heard many such things. She’d been told of angels and darkness and tunnels of light, and believed in these visions. “Did she . . . did this angel save us?”
Akira nodded. “She saved me.”
“And why . . . why did you save me?”
He smiled briefly. “You ask many questions, yes?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”
“Please do not worry,” he said kindly. Though once highly proficient in English, Akira spoke slowly, as more than five years had passed since he’d tried to think in the language he adored—to him the language of Shakespeare and Dickens and Yeats. “I like questions,” he added. “Very much. But no one has asked me such things for a long time.” He paused to stretch his leg, grimacing in pain.
“Don’t move it. You should keep it still until I restitch it.”
He bowed slightly. “A pity that . . . they broke. You did an excellent job on your first attempt.”
“Thank you,” Annie replied, looking around, wondering when the others would return, nervous about being alone with the prisoner. She wished she had something to give him for his pain, which she knew must be considerable. “And thank you for saving me,” she added. “Thank you very much for that, and for being so . . . brave. I’m sorry I was weak. Sorry that you had to carry me.”
“There is no need to be sorry.”
“I wanted to swim. I tried. I really did. But I’m still recovering from malaria. And I just . . . I just didn’t have the strength.”
“I did not carry you far. And you do not have to thank me. You helped me, yes? I merely helped you.”
“You almost died helping me.”
He shrugged. “Such a death . . . would have been honorable.”
Annie wasn’t sure what to think of his words. “So why . . . why did you do it? Why didn’t you just save yourself?”
Akira looked upward, searching for a trace of the little girl. Finally, he replied, “Once, I saved myself. And once was . . . a mistake. A terrible mistake. It is much better to save others.”
“Are you a doctor? How do you save people?”
“A doctor? No. Once I was teacher. But . . . so sorry to say, not now. I have fought in this war for five years. Five years too long.”
Annie wondered if he’d killed Americans. She wondered if she should be talking to him in this manner. Perhaps she should simply leave him alone. He was a prisoner, after all. He was Japanese and foreign and seemed so different from anyone she knew. However, in light of the fact that he’d almost died saving her, she decided that leaving him would be an act of betrayal. Also, as a nurse she was accustomed to chatting with her patients and believed that such conversations did them a great deal of good. “Sorry,” she finally replied, “I think you told me that before.”
“I think you were almost drowning at that time.”
“And what was it you taught?” she asked, no longer wanting to speak about the previous night.
He smiled, happy that he’d saved this kind nurse who had treated him so gently. “I was most fortunate,” he said. “I taught Western history and advanced English to university students. And, of course, haiku.”
“Haiku? What’s that?”
Akira wanted to ask her to sit and, after hesitating for a moment, politely motioned for her to do so. Though his leg ached, the sudden thought of teaching someone something other than the art of war was immensely appealing. For the first time in five years, he didn’t have soldiers to direct, didn’t have to focus his mind on creating plans that would maim and kill. And not thinking of death, even for this single moment, was completely liberating. “Do you like poems?” he asked.
She shrugged, wiping sweat from her eye. “I don’t know, really. I suppose so.”
“In Japan, haikus have been told for centuries. They are our most famous kind of poems.”
“Isn’t a poem . . . a poem?”
Akira smiled again, pleased by what he sensed was her growing interest in the subject. “You would like, yes, to know more?”
Unsure, she looked around and saw no one. Her eyes drifted back to his ugly wound. Certain that it ached, and believing that he wanted to talk and presumably take his mind off the pain, she nodded. “Yes, please.”
He bowed slightly. “I am honored to tell you.” When she didn’t respond, he continued, “Though many different forms of haikus exist, usually a haiku has three lines. And usually the first line has five syllables. The second has seven. And the third has five.”
“Why in that form?”
“A haiku poem has a rhythm—five, seven, five.”
“A rhythm like a song?”
“Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.”
Not used to being so quickly questioned but enjoying her inquisitiveness, he smiled. “A haiku often has one word that describes a season. That way, the listener can imagine what the scene looks like.”
“So many rules,” Annie replied. “I didn’t know that poems had so many rules.”
“Yes. And one more. A haiku has two lines that are connected, and one that is . . . how do you say? . . . independent. But each thought gives the other deeper meaning.”
“Can you . . . it’s all so confusing. Do you have an example?”
Akira studied her, the conversation reminding him of his teaching days. Had he really spent years talking like this? Teaching bright minds and watching them bloom? How fortunate he had been. How utterly foolish to have not realized his profound blessing. “One moment, please,” he replied, trying to quickly conjure a haiku. “Maybe something like this, yes? ‘No end to the sea, / But a beginning spreads west. / Warm her face will be.”
Annie smiled for the first time since
sank. “I like it. And another? Can you talk about people?”
He nodded, closing his eyes to remember someone from his past, someone free from the taint of recent memories. He thought of his mother. He saw her slide open the door to his room. She wore a kimono and had brought him a sweet from the city. She’d always brought him sweets. He smiled at the memory and said, “She wore red that day, / A day of ice and limp trees. / I so miss such sweets.”
Annie repeated the little poem in her mind, counting out the syllables. As she was counting, she noticed figures in the distance. They carried wood and other objects. Standing up, she said, “I should help them. It looks like they’ve got more than they can handle.”
“I think so.”
She started to leave but then stopped. “Thank you, Akira. Thank you for teaching me about the poems.”
He nodded, pleased to have shared his old passion. “Tonight,” he said, “before you sleep, please think of one. Better to think of one, yes, than to ponder these times?”