Flame and Black Rain

Satoko Matsumoto

For several days the weather had been hot and clear. We were hoping against hope for a little cooling rain. The previous night, the air-raid alarm had sounded several times. I was sweaty with having run back and forth between the house and the shelter and wanted to take a bath. With a bar of the poor-quality soap that was regarded as a treasure in those days, I washed my body and started washing my hair. Soap suds got in my eyes. I was blinking helplessly when a tremendous flash of light suddenly swept over everything. Throwing on some clothes, I picked up my two-year-old daughter, who was playing under a chair in the living room. It was lucky that she was indoors. Often, in summer, she went out to play in nothing but panties.

Suddenly, as I was holding her to me, the house collapsed, pinning us under the wreckage. My first efforts to extricate myself and my daughter only brought more debris tumbling down on us. Slowly and carefully, I crawled out. It took a long time. Once out of doors, I was appalled at what I saw. Every building in the city seemed to have been razed. Nothing stood to give any indication of the familiar skyline that had been there only minutes earlier. Mount Eba, never visible from our house, stood clearly revealed in front of me.

In the swirling dust and smoke, I could make out ghostly human figures moving toward us from the east. The roads were buried under rubble, and the people picked their way among ruins. Some of them were completely naked. Others had on trousers. Only a few carried bundles. At first, I thought I noticed tatters of clothing hanging from some of them. Then I realized that it was skin flayed from their bodies to expose raw flesh. A woman -- it was at first hard for me to determine her sex -- was wandering about, oblivious of her own condition but calling the names of her loved ones. When my own husband had died some time earlier, I had thought I knew the meaning of hell; but what I had experienced then could not be compared with what confronted us all in the destroyed and burning city.

Fire had started spreading from all directions. Not one of the fire wardens, who usually strutted about with such self-importance, was to be seen. I heard someone shout that we must hurry if we wanted to cross the river, for the Oguchi Bridge had caught fire. I immediately decided to cross and to head for the foot of the mountain in the western part of the city, which seemed to be the only safe place. A man who had been walking in front of me fell to the ground. Putting out my hand to help him, I saw that he was already dead. One after another, people died, some of them with a cry for water on their lips.

Then it began to rain, large, heavy drops lashing the wounded flesh of the burned. In agony, these people fled to nearby fields to hide under whatever vegetation they could find. Before long, I noticed something strange about the rain. It was not clear and fresh, but dark, turbid, and sticky, like crude oil. It adhered to my hair and to my skin, which were already covered with reddish dust from the debris of my collapsed house.

As the rain began to let up, American aircraft flew in from the south, circled low, and flew northward. Some of the refugees from the Hiroshima holocaust shook their fists at them and cursed. By the time we reached the foothills, the number of refugees had diminished. I at first entertained the idea of crossing a small river not far away and going to the other side of the mountain to a village to which I had sent some of my personal property for safekeeping. Then I remembered what I had been told at the time. The people there were willing to accept luggage for storage but did not welcome refugees. There was already a food shortage in their village, and extra mouths to feed could not be tolerated. After reflecting for a while, I saw that the only thing for me to do was to return to what was left of our home in the hope of finding some food. On our way back we saw countless corpses charred and spattered with blackish rain. In a shallow river dead bodies lay in twisted, grotesque positions. I could only hope that the tide would come and wash them out to sea.

Back at the place where our house had once stood, I began to rummage among the rubble to find food, and especially one emergency sack -- bearing a tag with our name on it -- in which I had set aside a small store of provisions. It had apparently been stolen. I wanted to wash our clothing, but there was no water. In the evening, by the light of the raging fires, I was continuing the search for food when I found the small child of one of our neighbors. The little girl, who was pinned under the wreckage of a house, was smeared with dust, excrement, and dried urine. I could not imagine what might have prompted the mother, usually completely devoted to her daughter, to abandon her this way.

Throughout the long night, with the two babies at my side, I sat clutching my widow's pension certificate, my only hope for an income, and resolved not to let the ordeal of the days ahead defeat me. Earlier, both my mother-in-law and my own elder brother had left Hiroshima without telling me. At the time, I had felt alone and betrayed. Now I held no grudge. I was glad that they had evacuated the city before the great havoc descended.

I had suffered no external injury; still it was painful to spend the interminable night on the damp ground in the lurid glow of the fire that was consuming what was left of the city. Occasionally, black shadows of American aircraft passed overhead. I saw many shooting stars flash across the sky. Someone sent a chill up my spine by saying that the unusual number of them must mean that many soldiers were dying in the islands of the South Pacific.

In the gloom of the night, I found no rest. At first, I moved to try to find a spot not soaked with dew. In my new position, I heard people calling for water. There was none to give them, and I could not bear listening to the agonized pleas. I spent the entire night wandering from one place to another.

In the morning, someone brought a supply of balls of steamed rice for us, but the heat of the summer and of the fires had caused the rice to sour. As hungry as we were, we found it difficult to eat the spoiled food. The heat had other grim effects. It caused wounds to fester and to breed maggots. Flies tormented the victims by clustering on their open wounds.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the heat became intolerable. Finally, I found an old shutter door that I used to make a shade under which we could rest. From a broken pipe nearby a thin trickle of water dripped. We washed our faces and hands with it but were unable to remove the stains left by the black rain of the day before. All around us, people -- even those who were apparently healthy -- continued to fall down dead.

Later the same day, I returned to our neighborhood, where I learned that a village called Miyauchi had been designated as our evacuation location. With the two babies, I set out at once. It took us a whole day to reach the village, where we were allowed to remain only three days before being forced to return to Hiroshima.

Gradually I grew lonely for my own family. On August 14, 1945, the three of us set out for the village of Kuchi, my mother's home village. I did not know what would await us there. I suspected that the house where my mother had been born and raised would be too small to accommodate us. Still, I wanted to go where there were people I might know.

When we arrived in Kuchi, I found to my relief that my mother, father, and younger brother and younger sister had escaped the horror of Hiroshima and were living in the house of our uncle, a poor farmer. My daughter and I were afflicted with diarrhea and we had lice. When I remember them, even today, my head itches. The day after we reached Kuchi, the war ended.

My father was injured, though apparently not seriously. Before long, however, he developed symptoms of radiation sickness, notably petechia, or purple spots on the skin. He suffered great pain. On the evening of August 22, when he had gone to the field to try to take his mind off his agony, he suddenly fell dead.

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