An Evening Walk
By Raleigh Ellisen
As she did every summer day Mitoyo prepared a cup of tea and a few crackers when Koichi returned from his long hours as a railway dispatcher. They talked about events of their day, and, while neither mentioned it, they hid their disappointment that there was no letter from their son Kenji. After his tea Koichi took one cigarette from a pack, carefully placed it in his shirt pocket, and started on his long evening walk.
Koichi rarely varied from his usual route, along the Ota River, past the Fukaya Depato, and up a slight incline to Aioi Bridge –the Blue Bridge some called it. The clang and rumble of streetcars traveling to and from the city center resounded through the warm, humid evening.
Koichi was a dispatcher at the railway marshaling yards where he directed incoming trains to the harbor loading docks and dispatched others out of the city. Lately there had been a shortage of freight cars to carry cargo north and east to the rest of the country. Almost daily he argued with his supervisors pleading with them to spare freight cars from military needs. He rarely won the arguments, but he grudgingly recognized the frustrations of army officers who competed with him for rolling stock.
On his evening walk, Koichi paused at the bridge, waiting for a streetcar to pass, and crossed to the small park that adjoined the Industrial Promotion Hall, its round, concrete dome visible throughout most of the city. The hall no longer was devoted to trade and business events. Its sturdy concrete wings now housed minor government agencies and the offices of several major lumber companies. He had often visited the lumber companies to arrange for the arrival of flat cars of lumber, which would be loaded on boats headed for military outposts.
To the east Koichi could see Mt. Gosasau tinged red by the setting sun. Behind him, the square turrets of Hiroshima-jo –broad island castle– were silhouetted against the sky. Beyond the castle, Mt. Chausu, its wooded slopes softened blue by evening haze, cast a long shadow over the city. Koichi entered the park and traced a path he had followed many times. Once he would have been accompanied by Mitoyo, his sons, Kenji and Takano, and by his daughter Miya. Now he walked alone: Mitoyo too weak to walk great distances; Kenji somewhere in the Pacific; Miya working as a nurse in Osaka; Takano killed defending some atoll Koichi could not even find on a map.
The park was small, tucked in between the bridge and a parade ground at which soldiers took their morning exercises. Sandy paths shaded by ginkgo and cherry trees curved through the park. Wooden benches lined the paths. Some were empty. On others young couples sat, sailors on leave sitting quietly with their sweethearts, sharing a few quiet moments before returning to duty.
Koichi made his way to the far corner of the park where Go players, old men creased and stooped with age, congregated under a large, stately camphor tree. Players arrived early in the day, and games continued until early evening. Observers watched silently, commenting quietly on clever or unexpected moves. The last games were ending. Players put away tiles in small cloth bags, folded game boards, and headed back toward the Aioi Bridge and their homes in the city. Koichi hailed some of the players, exchanging small talk about the day’s news and their families. He shared his concerns with one man whose son had also not written in several months.
He walked on to a secluded corner of the park. The heat of the day had not yet begun to temper. No breeze stirred the trees where swarms of invisible cicadas rasped their tune, veiling the city sounds. Across the river a few street lights shone. Others flickered on one by one. Three young boys played tag on their bicycles, racing along the paths, calling to each other as they dodged and turned. Worn tires stirred up swirls of dust, and downy, white feathers left by pigeons who swooped down to feed in the park during the day and returned to their roosts in the dome. Koichi found his favorite bench and lit his cigarette. A young couple walked by, arms around each other’s waists, the girl’s head resting on the young man’s shoulder. He and Mitoyo had walked the same paths many years ago, holding hands, dreaming of a future together. Koichi thought of Miya who had a sweetheart in Osaka, a doctor she admired. Each letter she wrote hinted at her love for the young man. He thought of Kenji, somewhere in the Pacific. His last letter said only that his unit did not know where they were headed. The months since that letter from Kenji meant only one thing, though Koichi and Mitoyo held unspoken hope that he was safe. A letter would soon arrive, perhaps tomorrow.
As his cigarette burned down, Koichi began a ritual he practiced every night, always at the same bench. When the letter announcing Takano’s death arrived, Koichi had created a small shrine behind the bench, a cone of ginkgo twigs entwined with bits of red ribbon. Beneath the cone he had placed a photo of Takano and a small scroll of remembrance. A few coins, some white feathers, and a red marble, one of Takano’s favorites, completed the shrine. Koichi carefully tapped unburnt cigarette tobacco on the shrine so Takano could share the cigarette, just as they had shared one last cigarette on the bench the night before Takano left for the atoll.
From his pocket Koichi took a piece of paper and a small pencil. He began his nightly letter to Kenji. This one dated 5 August 1945.