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
As Joshua wondered where that place could be, Isabelle and Annie walked up behind him. Isabelle brought him a banana that she’d cooked over some embers. Joshua had always enjoyed fried bananas, and though this one wasn’t drenched in butter and sugar, it still tasted sweet. As Isabelle and Annie quietly stood next to him, Joshua reflected on how fortunate he was to have met the sisters. Of course, he loved Isabelle, but a part of him also loved Annie, for she was like the little sister he’d never had.
“I think you can trust him,” Annie said, her words soft but rather abrupt.
“Who?” he asked, his mind elsewhere.
“Akira. I don’t think you have anything to fear from him. If you did, he would have let Izzy and I drown in that room.”
Joshua nodded, having put more thought toward the subject than he’d care to admit. “Well, I’m certainly in his debt for saving you. But if the Japanese land, where will his loyalty rest? Probably not with a group of Americans he’d have killed a few weeks ago.”
“I doubt he wants to kill anyone.”
Shrugging, Joshua was about to change the subject when he heard a distant drone. “Aircraft!” he shouted, running back toward the fire. Though the wall they’d built over the fire was solid, Joshua threw several palm fronds on the flames. The sound of the planes grew louder, soon becoming a buzz that seemed to echo off everything around them. It was as if they were standing atop a honeycomb, and thousands of bees were about to enter a massive hive.
The last time that Annie had listened to such a drone they had been attacked, and she took Isabelle’s hand within her own. The planes were very loud now. If Annie listened carefully, she could hear one engine misfiring among the steady hum of its companions.
Joshua looked toward Akira. “Zeros?”
“So sorry. I mean, yes. I think so.”
Staring upward, Joshua scanned for the source of the noise. The unseen sun still faintly illuminated the sky, but locating the planes was difficult, and Joshua gazed from clouds to solitary stars.
“There!” Nathan shouted, pointing.
The ever-so-faint outlines of fighter planes passed almost directly above. Leaning closer to Isabelle, Annie wondered how such small things could wreak such destruction. Had these planes just killed and were returning to their base, or were they just setting out? The sputtering plane made her think that they were returning from battle. How many Americans had they killed? How many boys from Texas and Oregon and Iowa had been maimed tonight?
As Annie avoided Akira’s eyes and imagined the suffering of the burn victims, Joshua did his best to count the fighters. He estimated that at least a dozen planes flew westward. With a range of well over a thousand miles, the Zeros could be headed anywhere. And yet Joshua had a sense that the pilots’ destination wasn’t far. The formation was simply too compact for a long journey at night.
When the drone of the planes had passed, Jake and Ratu piled more wood on the fire. In the absence of the Zeros, sounds of the waves and the wind and the insects once again infiltrated their world. Still shuddering and reliving the night of the bombing, Annie looked for someone to talk with. But Isabelle spoke quietly with Joshua, and most everyone else seemed to be staring skyward. Akira appeared to be watching her, but she didn’t feel like his company. And so she walked down to the sea and put her feet in the cool water, which not long ago had seemed so very warm.
In a stranger’s shoes,
I once watered my garden.
Rain makes leaves tumble.
Dawn came at a leisurely pace. Since the sun rose on the other side of the island, the world around their camp transitioned subtly from darkness to indigo to amber rays of light. The sea had quieted, and shimmered as if thousands of mirrors sparkled in the sun. Near the shore, a school of miniature fish broke the surface as the creatures fled a determined predator. Gulls hovered above the water, and when the little fish swam too shallowly the birds plummeted from the sky to consume them.
Ratu stood knee-deep in the harbor, a long spear held aloft, watching the water for signs of the big fish. He’d seen it twice and thought it to be a yellowfin tuna. His father had taught him how to spear such fish. They had often worked together, with Ratu driving large fish toward his father, who was usually able to deliver a killing blow. Sometimes a fish, upon seeing his father, would swim back toward Ratu. Striking a fast-moving target was quite difficult, and more often than not, his spear had penetrated only sand. But instead of displaying frustration of any sort, his father had patiently explained to him how fish thought—how they usually darted toward deeper water, how a hungry fish most likely wouldn’t stop chasing its prey even if threatened.
Once a shark had come between the two of them, and Ratu had watched in awe as his father flung his spear so forcefully that it went through the shark’s head and pinned the thrashing creature to the seabed. Later, after they’d gutted and cleaned it, his father had made a necklace for Ratu. From a leather cord he’d hung the shark’s largest tooth. As far as Ratu had been concerned, the necklace possessed near magical properties, and he didn’t take it off until one day when he lost it in the jungle. That night, upon seeing Ratu’s tears, his father had promised to find him a new tooth. But two weeks later, he’d left with the Americans.
After his father was gone, Ratu had hunted alone. He caught fewer fish, and even though he desperately wanted to kill a shark and make a necklace for his father, the one time a shark had turned in his direction, Ratu had fled toward shallower waters. Over the long and lonely months, he’d tried to ease his misery by bringing beautiful shells home to his sisters. And for a time their smiles had warmed him. But at night, sleeping on the floor of their hut, longing for his father’s stories, his tears had tended to be many.
As Ratu now hunted the yellowfin tuna, he thought of his sisters and mother, wondering what they were doing. He missed his siblings far more than he cared to admit. He even missed watching them pretend to be mothers. They’d always made him be the father, and as he now stalked the big fish, he wished that he was talking in a deep voice and laughing as his sisters brought him tea or kava.
Thirty paces up the beach from Ratu, the rest of the camp’s members had gathered around the fire. Joshua had brought everyone together—after he’d risen early to pray for the dead and beseech God to grant him strength. He had been telling the group what he thought about the planes they’d seen the night before, about how he believed that either a Japanese base or an aircraft carrier was near. “We need to explore every last inch of this island,” he said, reminding himself that most of the survivors weren’t trained in war and would need specific instructions. “Where is there more water? Are there caves? Other places to hide? Because within a few days, we should leave this spot.”
“But isn’t the harbor the best place for us?” Scarlet asked.
“Well, yes and no,” he answered. “It’s great for us, but it would also be great for the Japs. And that’s why we have to move.”
Joshua proceeded to split up the group. Jake, Ratu, and Scarlet would explore the nearby beaches on the west side of the island. Roger would climb more of the many hills. Nathan and Annie would stay at camp with the patient while Joshua and Isabelle investigated the island’s eastern side.
Roger was delighted to hear that he’d be free to travel alone. His plan had worked perfectly. The captain had realized that no one could keep up with him, and so the fool had sent him off alone. How easy it is to manipulate people, Roger thought, pleased with himself. How utterly predictable and pathetic people are.
As the camp disbanded, Roger grabbed a spear, a canteen, and two bananas. He also rubbed some soot from the fire on himself to ward off the ever-present insects. Without saying a word to anyone, he started walking toward the island’s interior. Once within the jungle, Roger became a part of it, his movements even quieter than those of the previous day. He’d learned to look for brightly colored birds, and to circumvent them, as they always protested his presence. And he’d discovered that it was best to walk on ground that he could see, for leaves often hid dry twigs that snapped underfoot. Such precautions convinced Roger that being in the jungle was akin to being a spy, for awareness of all of his surroundings was crucial to remaining undetected.
Once he reached the location where his radio was buried, Roger knelt in the underbrush and waited—needing to ensure that no one had followed him or stumbled upon the spot. After about five minutes, he began to dig. Soon the wooden box was in his hands, its presence comforting and powerful. The pistol inside gave him the power of life or death, and he basked in that power the way a dictator presides over a terrified populace.
“I can kill any of you maggots,” he whispered, longing to feel the gun, hating his fellow survivors for the smiles that came so easily to them. “I can put a barrel in your mouth and make you do whatever I want.”
Though carrying the box and spear was difficult, Roger relished the challenge. He was never tempted to leave the spear, as it was always possible that he’d be forced to kill in silence. And so he walked through the jungle with the spear held parallel to the ground. The deeper he penetrated into the island’s interior, the larger the foliage became. Impossibly massive banyan trees created their own forests, their trunks and limbs home to seemingly every species of frog and lizard, snake and butterfly. Under such behemoths, only thin shafts of sunlight struck the ground, and moss and ferns dominated the damp soil.
Eyeing the tallest rise within his field of vision, Roger continued to move quickly. To make certain that he couldn’t be followed, he found a creek bed and walked upon a series of worn boulders. He soon leapt as far from the creek as possible, landing amid chest-high ferns. His feet struck something hard and he was surprised to see thick bones beneath him. Leaning down, he inspected the bones and decided they were remnants of a wild boar. Hoping that he’d have a chance to hunt such game with his spear, he continued onward.
The hill that he soon climbed would have winded the captain, but Roger made his way up easily. As he rose, the rich soil vanished and only rocks and bushes surrounded him. Toward the top of the hill, the ground beneath him became much steeper. He was climbing now, struggling up rock faces and slippery slopes. As he came upon a stone outcropping, he noticed a bird’s nest that had been fashioned of driftwood. Two large, brown eggs lay in the nest. Knowing that he needed as much sustenance as possible, Roger broke the eggs open and quickly drank their contents.
Near the top of the hill, Roger found almost exactly what he’d hoped to discover—a bathtub-shaped depression surrounded by shoulder-high rocks and shrubbery. Setting his spear aside and carefully cradling the box, he jumped into the depression and immediately opened the clasps of the box. For a moment, he was tempted to light a cigarette. In fact, he held his teeth tightly together at the prospect, imagining the warm sensation of smoke as it traveled deeply into him. The smoke would dispatch the headache that surged from behind his eyes and would put him at peace. And yet the smoke could betray him, for the other survivors might smell its scent on him and wonder how he’d gotten cigarettes to the island. Angrily cursing his fellow castaways for causing this predicament, Roger vowed not to give in to temptation.
After briefly caressing the pistol, Roger withdrew the green radio. Flicking a switch, he was relieved to see that the radio had power. He turned up the volume and twisted the dial until he hit a frequency that he’d memorized. He then placed the headset over his ears. Static greeted him.
“Ronin to Edo,” he said softly in Japanese into the mouthpiece. “Repeat, Ronin to Edo.” The static continued, and Roger gently turned the dial to make sure he had the proper frequency. “Repeat, Ronin to Edo. Over.”
“Edo here,” a metallic voice that Roger recognized replied. “How are the cherry blossoms?”
“Always best at dawn.” The code complete, Roger continued, “Operation White Crane successful. Eight surviving chicks with me in nest. Over.”
A brief moment of static preempted Edo’s reply. “Understood,” the voice said. “Leave chicks in nest. Mother coming to roost in twelve to fifteen days. Report again in six days.”
Roger removed his headset, wiped his sweat from it, carefully placed the radio back into the box, and wondered what he’d do with the vast amount of money that would soon be his. With such wealth he could buy his own island. He could buy cars and women and guns. Best of all, he could savor the power that his wealth created. Of course, he was too important to the Japs for him to disappear for any length of time. They would arrive and kill or imprison the other survivors, and somehow he’d ultimately find himself once again with American forces. And once again he’d betray them.
Twelve to fifteen days, he thought excitedly, watching an immense beetle climb up a rock. Imagining that the creature was Joshua, Roger pressed the tip of his spear into the beetle’s back until the insect was impaled. He then held the beetle near him, so that he could closely watch it struggle. The insect tried to free itself for a surprisingly long time, its head and mandibles and legs twisting this way and that. Finally, the beetle began to twitch and tremble.
Yes, Roger thought, everything will happen in twelve to fifteen days. People will die and people will suffer. And I’ll get to decide who does what. And whoever so much as looks at me the wrong way when I get back to camp will be the first to get a spear in the back.
His mind churning with possibilities, Roger longingly touched the gun and the cigarettes. They spoke to him, and their words were as powerful as love or religion or drugs were to others. Reluctantly, he put both temptations away and started to bury his box. Once it was safely hidden, he smashed the beetle between his thumb and forefinger, lifted his spear, and returned to the jungle.
“WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR WIFE?” Annie asked Nathan. The pair sat close together under the limited shade of a coconut tree. Less than ten paces away, Akira used a stick to write in the sand.
“She understands me,” he replied, shielding his eyes from the sun. “She understands me and she doesn’t ask me to do things that I’m incapable of doing.”
“Like . . . like pretending that I know all the answers. Like being able to buy her expensive things.”
Annie watched an ant struggle up a rise in the sand. She’d never realized that sand was the landscape upon which so many creatures traveled. “And what do you give her?”
He turned away from the bright sun so that he no longer faced her. “Two things, I think. I try to be a good husband and a good father. I try to keep her and the children happy. I’m not really interested in anything beyond that. I don’t see how I can do more than that.”
“I don’t think you need to.”
“You don’t? I don’t need a big car and more stripes on my uniform?”
“No, of course not.”
Nathan smiled and looked across the sea, as if he could somehow gaze into his distant home and watch his loved ones. Knowing where his thoughts lay, Annie glanced toward Akira, wondering what he was drawing in the sand. Feeling somewhat guilty for ignoring him the past night, she turned to Nathan. “I’ll be back.”
“Sure, take your time.”
Annie moved toward Akira. The sand was already warm under her feet, as if the earth were running a temperature. When Annie’s shadow fell upon him, Akira looked up and said good morning. She made no immediate reply, as her first thought was of his wound. She didn’t see any blood on the bandage and knew that her stitches had held. “It is a nice morning, isn’t it?” she finally concurred.
He nodded slowly, his head rising and falling like the swells beyond the harbor. “Strange, yes, to war in paradise?”
“You made us fight here,” Annie said, somewhat instinctively, remembering the previous night. “Your country brought the war to these islands. Just like it did to Singapore and China and Thailand and Malaya.”
Akira took a deep breath, and she thought he was going to debate the matter. Instead he said, “So sorry for the Zeros. Even for me, a terrible sound.”
She hadn’t expected such an apology and wasn’t sure how to respond. Finally, she said, “I don’t like . . . the sounds of war.”
“Neither do I.”
“I’ve had too many patients cry at such noises.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, as if her words stirred something deep within him. “Will you please sit?” he asked, politely gesturing to the sand beside him. Once Annie settled onto the beach, he said, “The sound of Zeros is—”
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted, “but could we please talk about something else?”
He brought his hands together and bowed. “So sorry. Please forgive me.”
“I just think that we should . . . talk about something other than war. Besides, the morning’s too beautiful for such talk.”
“Yes, yes, you are right. We should talk of something else.”
Annie looked at the sand before him. “What were you writing?”
He cleared his throat. “These are Japanese characters.”
“Yes. Each character is its own word,” he replied, tracing his work. “I was writing a haiku.”
“Do you mind if I ask what it says?”
Akira looked at his poem, shaking his head with mild frustration. “It is unfinished, as the words are not right. They feel . . . awkward. Unfortunately, it has been three years since I last wrote.”