As Hiroko went down the stairs to the basement, she looked to her right, out of the small landing window. The morning sun shone bright on the water of the harbour, and the superstructure of the old freighter on the quay gleamed like fresh paint. She passed the ship on the way to work and back every day, close enough to see that the superstructure and hull were pitted and corroded with rust and holes. But in the light of the morning the old ship was beautiful.
The stairs were broad and shallow till the ground floor, but then they were very narrow and steep on the way to the basement. There was at least a light, a dim yellow bulb hanging from a cord from the ceiling above the stairs. She stepped aside as one of the clerks from one of the ground floor offices came up the stairs with an armful of files. The clerk pushed past her with a murmured apology. She knew him by sight, a pimply youth with narrow features. There was a large reddish stain on his face that never ceased to fascinate her. She stole a glance at it as he passed. The bottom of it was covered by his collar, but the rest, as always, reminded her forcefully of a map of Hokkaido. She had often resisted the temptation to ask him if he was from that island.
She would have turned and looked up the stairs after him, but the pain struck then, lanced up from her back and made her double, gasping. She had only been back at work for four days, and it was just five days more than that since she had had the accident. The doctor, old Nakano-san with the white beard, had wanted her to stay in bed for several days more, but there was no question of that. She had to work because of the baby. She could not risk losing the job. Whatever her needs, they came after those of the baby.
“You may be a widow,” her friends had consoled her after she had got the news about her husband, “but at least you’re pregnant. Soon enough you won’t be alone any more. You’ll have him back with you, because you’ll have the baby.” It had sounded trite then, and it had proved trite in the months that had passed. She had drifted away from those friends.
The baby – she was a fine baby, Keiko was, two months old now, and Hiroko’s mother was with her now, every day, while her daughter worked to earn enough to feed and clothe all the three of them. Times were not easy, and the old lady took in sewing on the side, but although her fingers were nimble with a lifetime of stitching her eyes were dim and everyone knew she wasn’t up to it any more. So for all practical purposes it was Hiroko whom they all depended on. Hiroko was very aware of this.
When the pain had abated somewhat she straightened up, holding on to the wall by one hand, and continued on down to the basement. She was glad nobody had seen her doubled up in agony. They might order her to go home, and after she was gone they might decide that she was to be let go for health reasons. She dreaded having to look for another job. And as what could she find new work? A maidservant?
The basement was narrow and dank and, apart from the single bulb that hung from the ceiling, the only illumination were a line of tiny skylights up near the ceiling. The basement was lined with shelves, and the shelves were loaded with files in brown paper wrappings. The file covers had large black numbers scrawled on them to indicate the departments they belonged to. Those belonging to her office almost completely filled a shelf on one side, down at floor level. She bent to search for the one her supervisor wanted.
Something struck her then, a tremendous blow on her back, a blow so hard that she went sprawling and the files went sliding out of her arms. A blinding flash momentarily filled her vision and her head struck something, the pain of it making her almost pass out.
A giant hand seemed to clutch the building and pull it up by the foundations, shaking the entire edifice savagely to and fro. Along with it there was a noise, a rumble as though giants from the pits of hell were ripping up from the underworld, and then came the wind like a breath of fire, the wind that smashed into the walls like a hammer, like the blazing fist of some terrible god, and then she passed out.
She woke to complete darkness. There was a terrible pain in her head, and at first she thought she would not be able to move. Somehow she managed to clamber to her stocking feet – she had lost her shoes. Her head rang with the pain, and when she reached out a hand to steady herself she recoiled with a cry. Her hand had touched one of the metal shelves, and it was so hot that it burned her fingers. The heat came off the wall, so strong that she felt as if she would burst into flames in an instant.
Cautiously, not daring to feel her way, navigating by instinct, she tried to find her way to the stairs. The bulbs had all gone out. Most of the shelves had been thrown to the floor, and she trod on a carpet of files. By now she had begun to see a little. When she had come in, the high tiny skylights had shown a few rectangles of blue sky. Now night seemed to have fallen outside, and only a leaden light came through that showed almost nothing.
When she came to the stairs she stopped, astonished. The stairway seemed to be full of rubble. Blocks of concrete and fragments of brick obscured the steps and formed high mounds over the stairs. She had to climb over them, and as she went the bricks and mortar ripped at the thin stockings and went sliding from below her. She stopped once or twice and called out. Nobody answered. She made the last turning of the stairs, where she had passed the clerk with the Hokkaido birthmark, and then she stopped still.
The entire top of the building had fallen in. She stood in the centre of a pile of crushed, fallen masonry, shattered furniture, and fragments of glass. The heat pressed in on her from all sides, and she could hear the wind. Overhead the sky had gone entirely black, but it was not night. The sky boiled and curled, and she realised that some kind of immense black cloud hung over her.
“Help me!” she screamed suddenly, fear overtaking her. She tried to claw her way up the piles of rubble, but went sliding back. Something cut her ankle – she reached down, pulled out the piece of glass, and scrambled up the pile again – and went sliding right back. And then the tears came, of fear and pain, and she stood on the top step looking up at the coiling and shuddering black sky, and then the rain began to fall.
It was a black rain, black and sticky, and the first drops struck her arms and face with a kind of ugly caress, not like the fresh touch of real rain. The rain drove her back down the stairs, and she retreated to the first landing, from where she could watch it fall. It came down for a long time, and then it stopped. But the heat was still intense, and it was growing hotter, and the cloud above was beginning to glow faintly red as it surged and coiled.
At last she understood that there was a fire somewhere, and she became more afraid of burning to death than she was of stepping in the puddles left by the strange black rain. Besides she was growing increasingly worried about little Keiko and about her mother. Whatever the thing was that had happened, earthquake or fire or volcanic eruption, she had begun to fear that it had struck and damaged much more than this building or this street or even the docks. Her mother and child were halfway across the city, but they must be terrified and worried about her. And of course she was terrified and worried about them.
Hiroko had come to the foot of the pile of rubble again and was standing there, looking for a way out, when she saw someone looking down at her from the top. She only saw him silhouetted against the strange black sky. She called to him. He seemed to see her, raised a hand, and suddenly disappeared. She scarcely had time to be frightened before he was back, and then he was throwing something down at her; she saw the unmistakable motion of his arm and shoulder. It came sliding down the rubble and landed at her feet – rope, a length of rope.
“Tie the end round your waist,” she heard a voice call, as if from a far distance. “I’ll pull you up.” And he did, although she fell halfway up and never quite got up again so he had to virtually drag her up the last bit.
She lay on the top of the pile of rubble, gasping, looking up at the black pall above. It had begun to dissipate slightly, and enough light had come through to show her the face of the man bending over her. It was the clerk with the birthmark, and now it no longer seemed like Hokkaido to her. It no longer seemed shaped like anything. Then she realised that his face was burned badly.
“Anyone else down there?” he was asking her, and shaking her by the shoulder. “Is there anyone else down there, Hiroko-san?”
She was too numbed even to be surprised that he should know her name. Without moving, still lying on her back, she shook her head. “Iie. Nobody.” The clerk with the burned face looked down at her and nodded. “I’m going,” he said suddenly, and turned and scrambled away.
“Keiko!” she screamed suddenly, panic surging back. She sat up and scrambled to her feet. “Keiko – I’m coming!” The rope was still around her waist, and with a tug she tried to set it loose. It did not come loose, and she pulled at it until she realised that she was only tightening it further. Then she took a piece of glass that lay at her feet – her stockings were torn away now, and her feet, she noticed, bare and bleeding – and began sawing at the rope until it gave way. Her hands were cut as well, but she scarcely felt a thing. Sliding down the pile of rubble, she followed the same route the burned clerk had taken, and came down to the street.
Once there, for the first time, she looked around.
The street was gone. There were only piles and mounds of rubble, and low shattered walls. Nobody seemed to be anywhere, and then a man wandered by, and then another, and another. She could see none of them clearly because of the haze that still filled the air, but they all moved in perfect silence. She turned slowly around, looking and fighting down a mindless scream.
A wall of flame rose into the air further along the docks. Even as she looked, it moved visibly closer. Still she stood, watching helplessly, until she could hear the crackling of the fire, and then she turned and walked away, not quite knowing where she was going, no longer quite knowing where or even who she was. She walked past the old ship, which still floated, but listed crazily. She stepped over a burned corpse in the street, and another, and wandered through the ruins towards the centre of her city.
No longer even capable of thinking of her daughter or mother or even of herself, she wandered dazed through the dead and the dying, the maimed and the numbed, and her bleeding feet left their prints on the ruined streets of the city of Hiroshima.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2010/12