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Authors: Ben Byrne


BOOK: Fireflies
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Copyright © 2013 Ben Byrne

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This edition published in 2013 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Byrne, Ben, 1977–, author
Fireflies / Ben Byrne.

Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-77089-391-7 (pbk.). — ISBN 978-1-77089-392-4 (html)

I. Title.

PR6102.Y74F57 2013 823'.92 C2013-903750-0

Cover design: Alysia Shewchuk
Cover image: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program

the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada

through the Canada Book Fund.

To my mother and father


In early 1945, the United States Army Air Forces began a campaign of low-altitude incendiary bombing against Japan. The raid on Tokyo, on the night of March 9, destroyed sixteen square miles of the city. An estimated one hundred thousand citizens perished in the firestorm.

On August 6, a single uranium bomb was dropped over the city of Hiroshima. Approximately seventy thousand people were killed, with at least as many dying of their injuries and from acute radiation syndrome by the end of the year.

On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war upon the Empire of Japan. Russian forces invaded Japan's colony in Manchuria later on that night.

On August 9, a plutonium bomb was dropped over the city of Nagasaki, killing at least forty thousand people. Associated deaths reached an estimated eighty thousand by the end of 1945.

On August 14, a radio broadcast was made in which the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) announced Japan's capitulation to the Allied powers. It was the first time the Japanese people had heard his voice.

Not quite dark yet

and the stars shining

above the withered fields

— Yosa Buson



August 1945




The sun must have just passed its zenith when I looked up and saw that everyone had left the factory except for me and Michiko, who was holding a shell casing, smiling at her warped reflection in the polished brass. I realized that His Imperial Majesty was about to make his speech, so I called to Michiko, and we hurried outside into the bright sunshine of the yard.

The other workers were already kneeling in the dust, facing a splintered table, where Mr. Ogura, our foreman, stood fiddling with the dial of a radio, which was making piercing whistles and strange whooshing noises. He scowled and waved us furiously to the ground, but just then a loud blast came from the speaker, and he dropped to his hands and knees, pressing his forehead into the gravel with a little whimper.

The stones stung the soft scars on my palms as I squinted around at the others. Mr. Yamada, the student, his hair as wild as ever, was staring at the ground. His fingers were twitching, and I could tell that he desperately wanted to light a cigarette but didn't dare. Behind him knelt Mr. Kawatake, the janitor, his lips moving as if he was praying. He looked just like a monk, I thought, in his shabby blue
, the sweat glistening on his bald head.

The crackling sound stopped and the signal became clear. A high, reedy voice echoed from the speaker and I heard Michiko snigger behind me. In fact, I had to hide a smile myself, because it was true — it sounded like a girl speaking, not the voice that anyone would have expected from the Son of Heaven.

I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on what the emperor was saying. But it was difficult to understand. His language was complicated and ornate, and his words floated in and out of the radio, drowned out every so often by roaring clouds of static. At one point, I understood him to say that “the trends of the world did not blow in Japan's favour,” and I thought that this must certainly be true, as I glanced up at the broken-down factory walls, the handcarts piled up with rubbish in the yard. Then, His Majesty said that he had “accepted the declaration,” and my heart gave a leap. But Mr. Ogura gave a hideous groan, like a dying actor at the kabuki; he sank to the ground, shaking with sobs, and it was then that I understood that Japan must have lost the war after all.

Mr. Kawatake really did look like a monk now: he was rocking back and forth, muttering the name of the Buddha under his breath. Old Miss Miyasaki was bent over in front of me, and I saw from the little shake of her hips that she was weeping. I noticed how frayed her belt was, the blue threads unravelling from the hem.

The emperor was speaking now about our soldiers “far away on the field of battle,” and I pictured Osamu, sunburned and hot on some island far off in the South Seas. In his last letter, he had written that his unit had all been gorging themselves on the bananas and other tropical fruits that grew down there. I'd imagined him lying in a hammock underneath the palm trees, stroking the thousand-stitch belt I'd sewn with ten-sen coins to protect him from the bullets and bring him good luck.

The sun was burning my forehead, and I wondered if His Majesty would carry on talking for much longer. He was mumbling now about a cruel weapon the Americans had used, a terrible new weapon that might “annihilate the entire world.” He told us that we would face many hardships, that we must endure the unendurable, and that he hoped we would understand. There was a crackle of static, then silence.

We carried on kneeling there for some time, without saying a word. The old ones were quietly weeping, while the rest of us stared into space. Finally, Mr. Yamada stood up, strode over to the radio, and turned it off with a loud click. He took out his cigarettes and lit one up, then offered them around to everyone else. For some reason even I took a cigarette, though I had never smoked before in my entire life.

There was the strain and whir of a cicada somewhere nearby and the scuffle of a rat amongst the rubble. I thought that we should all be getting back to our work fairly soon, but then realized that, in all likelihood, it would no longer be necessary.




Dried victory chestnuts! Lieutenant Koizumi had pressed them into my hand that morning, the mad bastard, out of sight of the burly blond American guard, as if we'd been samurai, preparing our weapons and armour on the eve of battle. I rubbed my thumb over their hard shells, like the skulls of mice, as we stood in a ragged line within our barbed wire enclosure before a field radio our captors had brought out. Half a dozen of us; all that was left of our unit. Heads bowed and necks burning in the livid sun, straining to listen to the wooden oracle, whirling now with our fates.

The emperor's voice was barely audible above the hiss of insects in the malignant jungle beyond, the crash of surf and the screech of the emerald parrots that the American captain kept. As His Majesty spoke, a fragment of poetry echoed in my mind.
Je me crois en enfer, donc j'
y suis
 . . . I believe I am in hell, therefore I am.

The voice slowly dwindled into faint static. The volume of the jungle seemed to increase sharply. Loud, sudden cheering burst from the guardhouse bunkroom; there was the sound of thudding fists upon wooden planks and the unearthly caterwauling of victory.

From behind me there came an odd gurgle. Wetness touched my neck and I spun around to see Koizumi stagger forward, a sharp glitter in his fist. His gashed neck squirted crimson blood onto the yellow sand. With bulging eyes, he raised his hand to his neck as if to staunch the flow. Then he toppled like a drunken, sacrificial horse, as the blood leaked through his fingers. A cry came from the guard; there was the click of a rifle. A horror seeped along my spine.

Je me crois en enfer, donc j'y suis

I believe I am in hell, therefore I am.




The plane twinkled like the morning star above Fuji-
and I stopped walking and stared.
, I thought, shielding my eyes from the sun.
No. Hold on
 . . . The plane sailed toward me, and I clapped my hands to my ears as the deafening engines roared right over my head.

No machine gun turrets under the rear fuselage. A black F mark on the tip of the silver tail.
An F-13!
Reconnaissance. I grinned triumphantly as the plane disappeared over the charred remains of the city. They'd never flown low enough to spot before.

So Japan really has lost the war,
I thought.
America and Britain have thrashed us.
I shrugged and carried on trudging along the road.

It was annoying to think that the planes wouldn't be coming anymore. Whenever the sirens had started blaring across the city, the red light flashing on the telegraph pole outside our window, I'd jumped out of bed to watch, while Satsuko yelled at me to pull on my air defence helmet and rush down to the shelter to join our mother. It was as exciting as being at the cinema, I thought, as wave after wave of silver Hellcats and B-29s thundered past, their bombs drifting down through the night like blossoms.

They were both gone now, though, after the big fire raid back in March. Since then, I'd been sleeping in ruins, scavenging for tins of food in old houses. Now, the burns on my face had turned to thick rubbery welts, squishy with pus when I touched them, and my ribs were sticking out from my chest. I'd decided to head for the countryside in the hope of finding something to eat.

The countryside was enemy territory for a fourteen-year-old boy. I was an Asakusa kid, fiercely loyal to my noisy neighbourhood and the Senso Temple, no matter how dull and lifeless the place had become, according to my father, since the Pacific War had begun. As for those country bumpkins, with their sunburned faces and wooden lunch boxes, well, I'd come to hate their guts during the six months when my school had been evacuated from Tokyo to the rural villages two years before.

I spent the evening crouched in a ditch, watching a farmer patrolling back and forth across his field. As soon as night fell, I wriggled out on my belly into the mud, rooting about in the crop until my hand came finally across a withered bunch of leaves. I tugged at it, and a spindly shoot emerged from the soil. A clammy hand fell upon my own.

I leaped up, petrified. A pale silhouette stood in front of me in the darkness.
A ghost child
, I thought,
a gruesome kappa troll!

I screamed. The thing screamed back. For a second, we stood there, howling together. Then, as my eyes adjusted, I saw that it was another boy like me, around twelve years old and sickly thin. He smiled and mumbled something, then reached out his hand toward me.

I jumped forward and smashed my fist into his face. He fell down with a whimper and I leaped on top of him, shoving his face into the mud. I stuffed the daikon into my mouth, biting off chunks as I ran away into the night. I told myself later that I hadn't had a choice. He wouldn't have lasted much longer in any case.

I hid in the ditches during the day and slunk out at night like a fox to steal whatever I could from the fields. It wasn't much fun. Rats twitched in the stubble and ran over my bare feet. Horseflies bit my sweaty skin. One afternoon, as I lay soaking wet in a half-drained paddy field, a hissing sound came from the sprouting stalks nearby. I froze. A moment later, I saw it.
A Green General
. It looped toward me in sickly coils. Then it slithered over my bare back and slipped down into the water. I splashed out of the paddy, moaning. My belly and legs were thick with leeches. I ran into the wood and rolled about on the ground, tearing away their bodies until I was covered in slime.

The countryside was fraught with terrors I could have never imagined from my old Tokyo bedroom. As darkness fell, the supernatural creatures I knew only from the kabuki plays I had watched with my father became suddenly, terrifyingly conceivable: luminous families of fox spirits roaming abroad to bewitch me; kappa trolls lurking in the river, intent upon dragging me to their watery lair . . . All were now eerily palpable in the murmur of the wind across the fields, in every whimper and shriek of the night animals in the forest.

I could feel myself growing fainter, and finally, I began to hallucinate. My mother would run out from the trees at sunset, her arms outstretched, her hair on fire. Scarecrows would wave at me from the fields, and I'd see my burly father in his
coat and chef's apron, grinning and beckoning to me. One night, as I was crossing a wooden bridge over a narrow river, I heard a faint voice calling my name.

Hiroshi! Hiroshi-kun!

I leaned over the rail. There, in the flowing river, was my sister Satsuko. Pleading with me to come back to her, just as she had on the night of the fire raid, when I'd run away and left her to die in the Yoshiwara canal.

I collapsed into a shed at the edge of an orchard as the moon shone down through the broken roof slats. I awoke suddenly in the night to see a huge, broad-shouldered farmer looming over me, bellowing a curse as he lifted up his thick wooden staff. Somehow, I managed to scramble out between his legs. I sprang through the moonlight and hid amongst the crooked, ghostly trees.

The sky was glowing orange and pink the next morning as I found myself walking alongside a train track. Before long, a battered locomotive came creaking along the rails. I leaped up onto a coupling and gripped onto the side of the carriage as it trundled on through the countryside.

Before long, the fields gave way to a patchwork plain of ruin. A river grew wide beside us and I realized that I was being dragged inescapably back to Tokyo. The train finally shuddered to a halt at Ueno Station, and I slid down and made my way into the cavern of the ticket hall. Throngs of men and women in torn and buttonless shirts lay on rush mats, their mouths opening and closing like dying fish. I climbed down the steps to the subway, and curled up on a patch of damp ground by the wall of a cistern. Finally, I fell asleep, alone amongst the clammy crowd that now filled the tunnels and passageways like an army of hungry ghosts.

BOOK: Fireflies
5.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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