THAT CALIFORNIA LIGHT
My mother looks at night across the San Francisco Bay at the city shining through the fog and what she sees is not the city or the fog but the California light. The light at night, which is like a match after you’ve snuffed it out and all you see is the afterglow where your fingers used to be. The matchlight that shines against the ceiling of fog, pale and red like the dying light she saw shining out of Tokyo that summer years ago when people died by the hundreds of thousands. When night after night all she saw was a dim sun stopped on its journey between sunset and sunrise to shine for a while where the B29s burned the ashes into dust, until all that was left the next morning, they said, was a grid of stone lanterns where the houses used to be and a black rain that sizzled when it hit the ground.
That’s what the children said who fled that summer up the road from Tokyo, fleeing the forty miles on foot with their parents pushing wooden carts in front of them loaded with all they could bear to carry, and maybe that was why the children talked but their parents never did. Not even when my mother walked among them on the hill that ran in front of her house. Not even when she put her pink-scrubbed hands next to their soot-stained ones and helped them push the last few miles.
These are the things that are burned together in my mother’s mind, that are tied so tightly nothing she does can take them apart. The creaking of the wooden axles. The silence of the parents. The smell of ashes. The California light. And even more, the nights when the sirens would go and they would head to the streets toward the holes in the ground that the city called shelters and they always knew that no matter how fast they went the ones from Tokyo would be there first. Because the ones who had seen the light up close slept every night wrapped in their evacuation clothes and left their fire-retardant hats and helmets at the foot of their beds. Because they kept their emergency supplies in a cloth by the door. And the rest of the city knew that in the shelters waiting for the all clear it was hard to say which was worse – what the kids said or what the parents refused to tell.
And one more thing. One more thing that comes to my mother with the light is the night on the fourteenth of August when nobody could sleep because of the stifling heat and also because of the rumors that went around that said the war was as good as over. They said the surrender had been decided and the emperor would give a speech on the radio tomorrow and everybody agreed that the Americans wouldn’t waste their time with anything on the last night of the war. So nobody slept even though there was nothing to be done but to sit on the porch and stare toward the horizon where for once it was dark and that too was a sign that the war was over. And that was when, suddenly, the light arrived except it wasn’t far away this time but right above, and my mother remembers it, that brilliant sun floating down softly over the midnight city and the sound you could hear which was the parents and the children from Tokyo rushing through the streets.
That California light. That California light. My mother looks to me and starts to speak about that night long ago but at the same moment I say something she can’t quite hear – something about how the city from a distance reminds me of the first time flying out of Narita, the lights spread out below us as far as we could see – and she lets her voice stop. I ask her if she remembers and though she does, she doesn’t answer because she sees in my eyes the light of lives carrying on, of the familiar rediscovered on the far side of the sea, and she knows that for me there is no way to explain the California light, no reason to even try.
AIR RAID SIREN
How could you have known? In your emails you had talked about the aching blue water, the sheer green cliffs. You had talked about the wind and how it would sometimes blow for days, you had talked about the rain and how it would come without warning, like a freight train bearing down and then just as suddenly gone. You had talked about the heat and the sun and the glare of your south-facing windows that meant sometimes the house was like an oven inside a fire. You told her to bring water, plenty of it and more. You told her to dress light but also to bring a coat. You told her to bring good shoes for hiking and sunscreen and sunglasses and a hat, please bring a hat. You told her to keep her money somewhere safe and carry your address around her neck and to make sure she brought a copy of her passport as well as her passport itself. You told her you would be waiting outside such and such a gate and you told her how to recognize the spot and you showed up almost an hour early just in case something unexpected happened with the flight. She said I’ll take a taxi and you said no mom, you don’t know the language, you’d only get lost.
You’d thought you’d covered everything. You were sure of it. You even asked your American friends – what else should an old Japanese woman be prepared for her first time abroad? And they had said relax, she’ll be fine, Hawaii is great for old people.
How could you have known? What could have reminded you of something as far from your mind as the testing of the Outdoor Siren Warning System? What could have reminded you of the noise at noon the first Monday of each month? Yes, now that it begins, you remember how it is. How the first note is a deep, low rumble and it climbs smoothly into a screaming wail, and the way it seems to come from everywhere at once and the way the wind picks up, it always picks up, as if the sound itself is sweeping the dead leaves across the asphalt and you remember thinking it sounded like an air raid siren but still you don’t realize what that means until you see your mother rooted to the street, her mouth hanging open as if drinking the sound in, and finally you remember too late. Your mother with her feet apart, her shoulders hunched like a cornered animal and though you reach out to her it’s like trying to get the attention of a stone and later you will tell your friends about how the traffic stalled around her and a big man in an aloha shirt had hung out the window of a tour bus shouting at her to get out of the way but still she wouldn’t move, she wouldn’t move.