Saturday, March 14, 2009


Sometimes mothers and daughters speak of hate by which they usually mean, “You have hurt me”; “You disapprove of me” or “You reject me,” but that is not really hate. Like boxers in a ring, they tiptoe around one another, dodging blows and occasionally hitting home. Rarely, something happens which neither had taken into account and one person doesn't get up and when that happens, what they called hate becomes like a problem which has been puzzled over so long that it has become meaningless. When looked at afresh one can see that the other was not so very different after all, and that will be enough.

My mother looked fierce as she lay burnt and damaged and it made me angry. There was a pain in her that had made her so afraid that she had turned against the world. I wanted to shake her and tell her that I was not her enemy, that she had made her choices and that I hated her for them but how do you shake a burned woman and tell her you hate her? As she slept, her face was hard, tight and strained and as I watched, I pretended that she was a burned old woman, someone's mother. As I combed her hair, thin gray strands that had once been proud and black came away. The useless hair darkened and grew moist in my hand and I knew then with a sad and stupid surprise that I did not want her to die.

After the silence, nothing was ever the same. The Ota River stood like a stagnant steel sheet: the only interruption to the flattened landscape of charred tree stumps and concrete husks. Lifeless beneath the fierce opaque sky: gray and broken, the distant hills offered the only relief. Like startled creatures emerging from their hiding places, the city's bridges extended their wary links, spanning desolation with desolation. What had once been homes, shops and peoples’ livelihoods’ were reduced to kindling, power poles leaned at unnatural angles: limp and powerless. The facade of a bank maintained what dignity it could whilst buried up to its second floor in the splinters it had financed. Unwilling and unable to leave the familiar for the horrors yet to be understood, dazed people functioned as best they could.

Scorched into the wall facing me were the outlines of people who had been passing the tower when the blast occurred. Like a flashbulb immortalizing the moment, they had been incinerated in an instant and their shadows were all that remained. My mind could not make sense of what I saw and for a moment, I thought that if I walked to the other side of the wall I would find the people waiting behind it. As I turned away, I knew that I had entered a changed world where there were no secrets, where people stood revealed: their possessions, their emotions, their bodies raw and broken before me. Hiroshima was not in ruins: it had been obliterated.

My mother lived at Koi, three miles west of the blast area. A neighbour had seen her leave the house on the morning of the blast but she had not returned. The house was old and solid; it was where I had grown up and where my mother chose to stay after my father's death. I looked up at the dirty, yellow sky where the sun, its power usurped, had been broken into a thousand pieces and smeared across a threadbare gray blanket. Powerless to break through, the heat was oppressive.

Field hospitals had been set up on Hijiyama Hill and at the Army's East Parade Ground where the Navy Medical Service Corps had been deployed. Row after row of patients lay in tents or on open ground. Two thousand bodies a day were cremated, so that the smell of burning flesh wafted over those already burned.

It took me three days to find her, on a basketball court at the Koi National School. Lying on a piece of board she was one of hundreds of wretched souls abandoned to their fates. The woman I saw before me seemed so small, so alone that it took me a moment to recognize her. Staring ahead, an orange scarf was wound tightly around her shoulders and gave the impression that her head was rising above a cordon of flames. Her eyes, once vibrant and defiant, were tired and dim, sagging but watchful. Waiting. Perhaps for me, perhaps seeking assistance or pleading to be left alone. I started to smile and then stopped myself. I felt foolish and quickly looked away and then in my confusion, back. She had not looked away.

My mother's burns were limited to those parts of her body which had been exposed, and they seemed less severe than the horrendous cases I had seen, where the skin had peeled from the body leaving raw painful wounds open to infection and almost impossible to treat. There were abrasions on her nose, a cut beneath her left eye and her skin was burned from her chin and extended to her throat. She was in shock, her clothes torn, her blouse missing, she was dirty and exhausted but she could move. I saw her expression changing, straining, drawing me with her eyes as she tried to speak and then to lift her head and then exhausted, fall back. I leant forward, my face so close I could feel her breath on my skin. I pushed my ear to her mouth:

“You've come”.

Was it relief? Surprise? An accusation? I couldn't be sure. Her voice was a whisper. “Take me home”. In those words lay the only hope she had.

The house was not safe to inhabit, however, apart from broken windows the sunroom was undamaged and seemed suitable for our immediate needs. A tree had fallen across the garden dislodging two large stones so that they now filled the pond that they had once over-looked. For some reason it comforted me and I felt this was how it should have been all along. My mother used to say the pond calmed her and that whenever she smelled the jasmine she felt better about whatever was troubling her. It was where she belonged.

She was on her way to the Asano library at Kamiyacho Crossing when she had the sensation of being carried through the air at what was a terrifying speed but which felt as if she were floating on a blinding white light, as if the sky had split open. There was a deafening roar and she hurtled through a doorway hitting the wall with such force that she thought she would pass out. Lying there stunned, wondering if she had broken any bones she realized that behind her was emptiness. The doorway of the building she had been thrown into was all that remained and from what she could tell, those around her were dead. Thinking that the city had been hit by a surprise air-raid she expected to hear sirens and screams and commotion, but there were none to be heard. What struck her most was the silence. There was a burning sensation on her skin; she remembered starting to vomit and then nothing until waking up in the Rescue Station.

In the living room, I found a photograph of my mother: hand-colored and vivid. It had been taken when she was fourteen or fifteen and I remembered it from many years ago. It sat on a wooden chest which had belonged to my grandmother and which she used to store papers, letters and cards: remnants from before her marriage. The chest sat beside her chair, sealed by the photograph, memories of a past life. This girl stood before a painted backdrop of the kind found in a photographer's studio.

It was an image of the sea, with green and white folds of foam and life. My mother stood before this backdrop in a kimono of crimson silk that had been woven for her as a birthday gift from her parents and she said when she put it on, she felt that the world was hers for the asking. She stood poised and confident and held aloft a paper fan of gold, purple and dazzling red as if she were signaling. Her hair was soft and loose and her eyes shone into the future. I once told her that she looked like the guardian of the ocean, warning all who approached to respect its beauty and to tread carefully before its might. She was silent for a moment, I thought she hadn't heard me, but she turned and looked at me and said that it was just canvas and paint and I should know better. Then she said something that made me realize that as a girl she had imagined a different future to what her life had become. She brushed my hand from her shoulder and I saw resentment in her eyes. I wondered if it was at me. She said there was no use in pretending and we never spoke of it again. One day the photograph was gone and I knew that if I were to open the chest I would find it neatly stored away: wrapped in the irrelevant folds of a faded kimono.

I went outside and I sat by the pond and although I had been gone for many years it took but a moment for the past to return. I had left her behind and when I could have come back, I didn't. I felt that I would have suffocated. A force that was stronger than me, of love and memories and obligation would have engulfed me. I was afraid of the pain of truth and chose instead to say nothing. I was afraid of my past, and my future and I knew I had left her confused. I hoped that she was wise enough to know better but even as I thought it, I knew I was lying. I could not be my mother.

I had found a tea canister floating in the pond. The canister contained paintings I had done as a little girl: a bridge, a tree, a house: silly, meaningless dabs of paint. There was a photograph and I recognized myself as the girl in her sailor suit, her shoulders pulled back and her right arm stiff by her side. I stood to attention, staring obediently at the camera, but my attention was on the fact that my father was behind me. Even now, I can feel the heat from his watchful body. My mother is in a ceremonial kimono, hair strictly divided into two flat, black slabs, tight and controlled, resignation in her face as she stares patiently ahead with her hands clenched in her lap. The anger that I felt then returned, as I thought of the uncertainty with which her entire Being consisted: someone afraid who never thought it could be otherwise. Someone I refused to become.

“My life is my choice”. Her voice was firm.

“What choice. You sit there, you criticize me, and all you have ever done is
accept a life carved out for you”.

“What do you have for all the trouble you've caused? Nothing! You drift around lost and alone”.

“It's you who have nothing. I will look and keep looking until I find whatever it is that will give my life some meaning. You will never have that. If I die looking I have rejected all the things that people fill up their lives with. People like you with your empty marriage and your empty days”.

“You criticize me but you have no right. Sometimes being still is enough. If things don't work out as we had hoped, they can work out in other ways we had never even thought of. Why do you feel it is all right to criticize me? One day you might know”.

I had hurt her. I knew it as I avoided her eyes. I had stung her but it was true and if I had hurt her, I felt alive. I felt she had heard me. I had hurt her.

My voice was tired, a whisper:

“You make me say these things. You've always fought me, tolerated me, shut me out”.

I wanted her to argue with me, tell me it wasn't true, tell me I had it all wrong. I wanted her to talk to me. But my mother couldn't do that, I didn't know that then.

Her voice was flat. “We shut each other out”. Before me, she lay dying.

My body was wrapped in wool and it reassured me. The morning was cool and the light was soft as it shared my world. I felt the cold air in my nostrils, embracing my skin. I felt cleansed. It was a quiet time as I stood in the garden and saw indigo dissolve into a confection of reds and pinks and the softest of yellows. I witnessed the landscape appear before me like a magician's trick: from a dark corner emerged a tree and then more trees, a wall materialized: its stone damp, cold and forbidding. Before long the yellow rays, stronger now, would stretch to caress it, bring it warmth, perhaps a place to rest and gather thoughts before moving on.

What was that sound? Music? It came from nowhere and then there was silence, except for the steady wheeze of my mother's breathing. I looked at the pond and saw leaves and twigs and I wanted to cry. You were so quiet; I worried that you would go without saying goodbye. Your burns were minor, you should have healed but you were bleeding: your gums, your nose. You were wasting away before me. You were so tired and I saw that you had passed blood. I didn't know if I would be strong enough. The breeze distracted the trees, sending them scurrying to one side while it stole past and washed my face as I washed yours. I knew you were dying and I could only feed you sugared water. I had never noticed that your front teeth were slightly crooked. The light made them glisten and revealed a vulnerability that made me gasp and I felt my heart would burst with sorrow for having uncovered a useless truth between your quick, short breaths.

I thought of my life in Tokyo, where I had run so long ago and I wondered where my home was. Was I moving towards something or away from something? Where could I go? Or could I only come back? For two days I was frightened, as if someone had wrenched the masks from my face and confronted me with a hopelessness I could not bear. It was as if a lifetime of regrets were realized in a moment. Deprived of the ability to reason I removed myself from the world which I could not join and sought refuge in sleep.

I didn't say goodbye. I awoke to the silence and I knew. The room was so still, I folded my arms around my legs, and I looked at you, so quiet and brave. I moved to touch your hand and you were cold. When I was asleep, you left me as I once left you. I simply left. Would you have called me selfish? I was tired and I slept while you lay dying beside me. Perhaps if you were not weak and wasted you would have covered me, gently so as not to disturb my rest.

That afternoon I walked to a point in the Hijiyama Hills from where I could see the city before me. The air was sharp and it bit into my face as I neared the top of the hill. I felt alive as if with each step someone was slapping me into consciousness. Earlier that day the Emperor had broadcast the news of our surrender and I thought of the Empress I had seen long ago and wondered what would become of her. I marveled at how quiet the streets were, soon to fill with the Occupying Forces. Clouds of smoke crept across the sky from the crematoriums: it was a part of the city now.

Within the smell of the jasmine lay the song of my mother. It is in the air, it is nowhere, she is all around me in a rush of sensations so overpowering they eclipsed the devastation before me. I watched a woman who was stooped over, an orange scarf wound tightly around her shoulders. Behind her was the dark hole of what looked to be a partially buried fireplace, and as she collected firewood, exuding calm and peace, she looked at me. A slash of color against the gray and without warning, with so little reason that it shocked me, she smiled.

“Let us run!” cried my mother as she took the hand of a little girl. Her eyes met mine, I saw caution and warmth but still I pulled away. I was afraid, I am afraid now but the hand is gone and I have myself to rely on. I will not stay, for I have never belonged but I take her with me in a different way and somehow that is enough.


AFTER THE SILENCE earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.


Peter Paton lives in Sydney, Australia. He has written a number of short stories and a novella, and is currently working on his first novel. "This story started with the idea of a daughter brushing her mother's hair and then took on a life of its own. To create something from nothing and to have that touch something in others fulfils me. That's why I write."