Death in an Evacuation Camp of One Who Never Saw Japan
May 7, 2012
When they remembered his death for every year after, every 16th of November, they would remember his face before his wavering eyelids stilled, and his glistening body under the light of the kerosene lamp before its warm sweat lifted up into gentle vapour at its final stirring. Then they would remember themselves on that night cramped tightly around the cot on which he lay. They couldn’t allow themselves voices then and allowed nothing to escape their mouths nor eyes. They swallowed carefully and their hands were stiffly clenched, the skin tightening grittily across bleak bones in their laps. They sat in the dingy outer circle of the single light that flickered and brightened and flickered and brightened and the grey of the woolen blanket covering the lower portion of their brother’s body seemed to seep into their faces as if by osmosis. There it settled until the flame of the lantern shone momentarily at its brightest then again resettled unflinchingly. They could feel, each of them, the grey spreading softly into their complexions, into their eyes and they watched him through a dim veil.
He was still beautiful, they thought, even through this grey. And it then seemed to them that the veil lay delicately upon him now as if tired, suspended dust had quietly fallen upon the black depth of his hair, along the sleek upward slope of his half-closed lids, the slender length of his nose and across all his taut angles. Each fluttering of his lips or eyelids sprinkled up particles, silver and illuminated into the light. They were continually waiting for him to rise to let all of it shift into nothing or back into the neat folds of the blanket. They recalled the occasional rustling of his legs beneath those folds and thought how foreign his beauty seemed at that moment—so still, so reticent, and so unlike the brother they knew. Their Juji, tall, limbs spanning lithe ground, hair waving in the wind, was always in finely-honed motion; even as he stood before them talking his long fingers would gently flex and fan. And when he spoke it was with that same ease of expression, without any fear of striding straight into the eyes of whomever he was speaking to. He always had that engaging Japanese manner of seeking affirmation of whatever he had said. And they remembered always answering yes, that was so. They recalled Juji on the logs at the mill nimbly maneuvering them onto the flume, never once falling into the water, never once falling away from the beauty of his balanced grace. Everyone knew Juji and watched him.
Then they recalled seeing Teru slowly raise her hand from her lap to the lamp to try to adjust its flame so that it would stop wavering. It was old and kept feeding unevenly on kerosene. None of them wanted to see him in those flickering flames when all his pain glimmered across to their faces. They heard once again the sound of their mother’s broom scratching at the ice forming in the crevices of the walls. They saw her staring at the cold corners surrounding her Juji who was dying.
Before he died, his head tilted itself back, his mouth fell slightly open and out of its dark hollow came a strangely ungracious gurgling cough. For that moment they could not recognize him. They quietly remembered the silence that followed. Teru began gently sponging his body with warm water as it could still respond to her touch, her face growing more expressive with each stroke. They remembered the sound of the water splashing against the side of the steel bucket placed near the cot as being a much too everyday kind of sound to settle around a dead person. Their father who had sat for so long, small and old in the dark with Juji’s trousers in his lap, held them in his tense moist hands, crying dryly. For as long as they knew their father, he had always been old but then, he looked still more callously aged. Their hands unclenched bit by bit, their father slowly stopped crying and their mother stared into the corners.
All this they recalled and the thinness of the walls that splintered with each new wave of cold outer wind, the wooden table with its uneven legs ever shifting on uneven ground, and the cold dirt beneath their buttocks. They saw the clear particles of ice ever forming in numb corners of this room. This room, this shack was not to be distinguished from any of those with which it formed a row, and row upon row formed block upon block in a hastily erected ghost town delineated at its fraying edges by many dark strong mountains. This was where they remembered Juji dying and the way they would remember how he must have felt dying here—after having been swept up and aside, and buried among cold mountains hoping not to be forgotten, too afraid to say something to be remembered. It was so much the way they had all felt but kept trying to live past feeling long after they had left the place.
They take out an old photograph every November 16th; sometimes between November 16th’s. They clutch at its corners and renew the bitterness they look for in each of their own faces in the photograph. The coffin lies in the foreground—a mail-order coffin sent for from Vancouver, and they all peer over top of its greyness, black and white faces trying to express a carefully hidden and complex anger that could never let itself be shown in two shallow dimensions.
He was taken in the coffin to a vague clearing at the uneven edge of the camp’s blocks where over and under him his friends placed twigs and dry branches. They watched as the flames began, so orange and intense that they could not erase the grey of the coffin which softly peeked in and around the flailing arms of the fire. His friends kept the flames healthy and burning poking them here and there. They remembered the terrible smell and leaving for their house and finding their father in the dark again with Juji’s trousers. In the morning he left for the clearing with a tin can in his hands.
Juji’s death reminds them all of what he suffered, what they suffered knowing he died so far from their father’s home and so far from his own mistaken home in the half-comforting company of only those as homeless as he. When they look into their worn photograph that is what they see—they see their timidly homeless faces staring up at themselves across their dead Juji’s body in the grey coffin.
This short story was published in the University of Toronto Review when Kerri was a student there. It was the first time she saw her words in print.