The Dream of Hide-and-Seek

Kikuno Egi

In the summer of 1945 there was little food to eat, but still my husband and I and our three children -- our son Tadahito, who was nine; our oldest girl, Sachiko, who was four; and our second daughter, Fumiko, who was only four months -- were all healthy and living out each day as best we could in our home in Funairi Hommachi, Hiroshima. One day, however, our little happiness was obliterated in a flash of light.

I shall never forget the morning of August 6. I had just seen my husband off to the Japan Steel Works, where he had been conscripted to work, and the children and I were having the little bit of food we called breakfast. Suddenly there was an immense flash of light. I called out to the children to put on their protective hats and run for cover, but almost simultaneously a tremendous blast of wind rushed down on us, scattering everything in its path. Dust swirled in the air, blocking out the light and making it difficult to breathe. For a while I lay on top of Fumiko to protect her.

None of us had the faintest idea what had happened, but fortunately the children were not seriously hurt. Going outdoors, we saw old Mr. Arai, who lived across the street, pinned under his collapsed house. He was calling for help, and a number of people were trying to get him out. But he was hopelessly caught under a heavy post. His house had caught fire, and I can still hear his screams as he was burned alive.

Then I heard my husband's younger sister, who lived next door, calling out for help. She had been trapped in the toilet. Somehow I managed to pull a section of the wall aside and free her.

Running along the road, I could think of nothing but my husband. I wondered how far he had gotten before the flash. I prayed he was still alive and well. On the way I met him coming back. He was soaking wet from head to foot, and the upper part of his body was badly burned. He had been blown into the river by the blast as he crossed Meiji Bridge, and it had taken every ounce of energy he had to swim ashore. Staggering, skin hanging from his arms and face, he hardly looked human. Still he spoke in a firm voice: "Are you all right? There's still time to escape. Hurry to your family's home on Edajima Island. I'll be all right by myself." When I hesitated to leave him alone, he scolded me and said to look after the children.

From that time on, I became like someone in a frenzy. I wrapped a diaper around the wounded leg of one child, told Tadahito to carry Fumiko, put Sachiko on my back, and started out for Ujina Harbor as fast as my legs would carry me.

The people we met on the way were mostly naked and burned reddish brown. Their skin hung from their faces, arms, and legs. Some trembled, cried out, and then, before you knew it, they fell dead. The dying stretched out their hands and called for water with their last breath. But no one gave them any. In their flight people walked over children who shrieked in pain at the slightest touch. We were witnessing not something of this world, but a living hell.

Still, we all had to run as fast as we could because the flames pursued us. Now as I try to put down my memories of that time, I realize that it is impossible to describe them in words. Only someone who was there can understand.

When we finally reached Edajima Island, the long summer day had ended. So much had happened that we could do nothing but cry all night.

The next day we couldn't return to Hiroshima, which was still a sea of flames. But we did return, with my mother, on the eighth. I carried Fumiko on my back. The city lay in total ruins. Only two or three reinforced-concrete buildings, like the Fukuya Department Store, still stood in the center of town. To the north and west, as far as the eye could see, nothing was standing. Near Yokogawa Bridge we saw a horse that had burned to death. From the Red Cross Hospital to Takano Bridge were mountains of bodies. No doubt relatives and loved ones were searching for each one of them. The river at Meiji and Sumiyoshi bridges was filled with bodies. Soldiers were pouring kerosene on the dead and burning them. What words can describe scenes like these?

I clearly remember the sight of a small girl about Sachiko's age who had died with her hands covering her eyes and ears. I could not help thinking how terrified the child must have been, how she must have longed for her mother, how she would rather have died in her mother’s arms. I couldn't control the anger I felt. What had this child done? What had any of us done? I started crying and couldn't stop.

At the west of Sumiyoshi Bridge I saw Mr. Miura, the rice dealer in our neighborhood, sitting beside a small fire. To my remark, "I'm glad you came out of it alive. How is your family?" he said in a despondent voice, "My son died. I'm cremating his body now. My wife was burned to death in our house." What could I say to him? Two days later, I heard, he died himself.

At Funairi I met my older sister-- her child had died on the sixth -- who told me my husband was in the Enami Army Hospital. I hurried there, but couldn't find him among the huge number of burned people. But finally I heard him call out, "Here I am."

Delighted to think he was all right, I turned toward the voice, but burst into tears at what I saw. He was practically unrecognizable. His skin had turned black, was dry, taut, and peeling. Still I was thankful he was alive.

That day he wept as he promised he wouldn't die. He said he couldn’t leave me alone with nothing to eat, no house to live in, and three children to care for. That would be too much to bear.

I went back to Edajima that day and searched the whole island for tomatoes and squash to take to my husband. On the tenth, I returned to the hospital, this time taking Sachiko with me. My husband doted on all our children but was especially fond of Sachiko. He was overjoyed to see us and for a while wouldn't let Sachiko leave his side. This was the last time we were to see him alive.

On the eleventh, Sachiko fell sick and we couldn't make it to Hiroshima. On the afternoon of the thirteenth, I took all three children with me, but by the time we reached the city we were so exhausted that we had to ask an acquaintance to put us up.

At about five o'clock in the morning on the fourteenth, Sachiko began crying and wouldn't stop. She said she was sorry but that she couldn’t help it. "I want to stop, Mother, but I can't."

We had our breakfast and arrived at the hospital at about eight. We were shocked to find that there were only two or three people in the ward, which had been filled on our last visit. My husband was not among the remaining patients. A nurse who happened to pass by said, "Oh yes, I know who you mean. He had four false front teeth and kept calling for Sachiko." When I told her Sachiko was my daughter, the nurse held Sachiko tenderly in her arms and said, "Your father died this morning at about five o'clock. He was calling your name."

On my way to the morgue I silently asked my husband why he had broken his word, why he had left me and the children alone with nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and no place to go. At the entrance to the morgue I realized why there were so few patients in the ward: they had all been moved here. An indescribable odor filled the air. Somehow I was not afraid. Since he had died only that morning, my husband was not far from the door. He was completely naked, and I had nothing to cover him with. Two or three maggots wriggled on his face.

That night we kept a long vigil while soldiers cremated his body on the Enami Firing Range. When nine-year-old Tadahito said, "I'm sleepy. Let's go home," I suddenly realized that we had no home to return to. That fiendish bomb had determined our fate, thrusting me and the children into the life of misery my husband had foretold before his death.

We had no clothes but what was on our backs and two or three diapers for Fumiko. In a hut that we rented on Edajima, all four of us slept on a single mattress I got from my sister. We had no electric lights and no tatami mats on the floor. We had no land to raise food on, and no clothing to barter with. People all over Japan were going hungry. The best we could do was to go to the fields tilled by my parents and brothers and gather leaves, yam vines, and mugwort, making them into a kind of soup. In September it rained every day, keeping me from going to the mountains to find edible herbs or to the beach to hunt shellfish.

Tadahito cried desperately when he saw some local children eating steamed yams. Holding him close to me, I cried with him, wishing the bomb had never fallen and that my husband was still alive.

Rice rations were a month late, and the people in charge refused to sell me some of the piles of rationed squash and potatoes that were on hand. "You're not the only ones going hungry," they said.

With absolutely nothing to eat, my children and I would soon have starved to death. But one day we staggered to the rationing center in a neighboring village, and there our story found sympathetic ears. "It’s a good thing you came, or Edajima would have had its first starvation cases," the man there said, and gave us some wheat flour and vegetable scraps.

We had no footwear. I improvised by putting thongs on any wooden clogs or pieces of board that I picked up on the beach. And on top of all this poverty and misery came illness. I developed an unidentifiable fever, my hair fell out, and I got very weak. Sachiko, who before the bombing had never been sick a day in her life, came down with a bad case of jaundice because, the doctor told us, her liver was in, bad condition. Fumiko got boils on her head, something like erysipelas. At one point, all four of us were in the hospital at the same time.

Probably the most intolerable of all was the way the other villagers always suspected us when something disappeared. For instance, when someone stole yams from the fields that some sailors were cultivating, we were immediately suspected since we were the poorest people in the village. Once we were even called into the village office to be questioned. When I protested that I could never steal anything because my children were witnesses to everything I did, the investigator said, "Kids keep their mouths shut if their parents tell them to."

This was so humiliating and insulting that I decided to commit suicide. When I let this thought slip out, Sachiko said, "Mother, please don't. But if you have to, kill me first while I'm asleep." I never dreamed I would ever hear such words from a girl only four and a half years old. But none of the children objected to the idea of death. Life was so hard that they couldn't even say they didn't want to die. Yet they had patiently put up with everything.

Just thinking about it, I was overcome with pity and love for my children. I realized that instead of thinking of taking them with me in death, I should try my utmost to make them happy. I vowed to consider any future temptations to commit suicide as incentives to go on living, no matter how hard life became.

It was dawn by the time I reached this decision. Feeling myself very weak, I spoke to the children in my heart, saying that there was no longer any need for suicide. I asked their forgiveness and promised to do my best in the future.

At last I managed to contact the Japan Steel Works, where my husband had worked, and they sent some money for the funeral expenses and as a token of sympathy. I was specially happy and relieved to get the two blankets they sent. Winter was setting in, and I used the blankets to make warm clothes for the children. The year of the bombing, I made do with the cotton-crepe kimono my younger brother's wife had given me.

We went on living in this way until October 29, 1946, the day of the Hiroshima Festival. I had decided to take the children to see the festival since they had so little enjoyment in their lives. We all boarded the ferry connecting the island of Edajima with Hiroshima. The children had been excited and happy since early morning. It warmed my heart to see them smiling.

But at the pier, the boat became unbalanced and capsized. The hold, where the four of us had gone because Fumiko was still breast-feeding, was soon flooded. In spite of the excruciating pain I felt when my lungs filled with water, I did not want to be helped. All I could think was, "If we can stand the suffering a little longer, we'll all go to be together with Father."

But Tadahito's call for help brought me back to reality. He was still alive, and I could not leave him to be an orphan. I began struggling with all my might, and I soon saw a little light in a corner above me. I don’t remember what happened after that. The next thing I knew I was on dry land. Tadahito had been saved. That morning Sachiko--whose name means "happiness"--died, followed in the evening by Fumiko. Sachiko was five years and four months old, Fumiko one year and six months.

They had first lost their father. And as a mother I had been too weak to do much for them. They had never even had good food to eat. Probably the best thing Sachiko ever had eaten in her whole life was the fresh green seaweed her father brought home from the sea off Yoshijima Prison, which I had combined with other things to sprinkle on steamed rice.

For months I thought of the pitifulness of their lives and of my own impotence. For hours on end I sat without moving, like someone insane. Then one night I had a dream. In it, my husband, Sachiko, and Fumiko were having a wonderful time playing hide-and-seek. Afterward I came to think that my husband had been unable to bear our suffering and decided to take the two girls to be with him. I looked at the children’s deaths in a different light and came to know a measure of calm.

In 1949 I remarried. My present husband has been good to Tadahito. I still suffer from low blood pressure and constant inexplicable headaches and cannot go a month without a doctor.

One bomb plunged countless people into a hell that continues even today. Because I know what Hiroshima was like, I abhor nuclear experiments by any nation whatever. I'm old now, but as long as I live I will go on speaking out against the misery of nuclear warfare.

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