by BJ Hollars
Before there was nothing, there was everything: a flash like magnesium, followed by the darkness. By 1945, the people of Hiroshima had grown accustomed to the flashbulbs that preserved them in photographs, though they remained unfamiliar with the curious light they glimpsed in the sky one early August morning.
What, they wondered, could possibly cause such a—
Across the ocean, there were men who could measure that light to the kiloton, men who had just three weeks prior, while hidden behind dark glasses. In the hours leading up to the test, scientists and soldiers gathered in New Mexico’s desert and placed bets on their creation’s destruction.
Will we incinerate the entire planet, they wondered, or simply some small part of it?
Sixty-six years later and 700 miles from Hiroshima, a high school buddy of mine—let’s call him John—glances up at a squawking speaker in his classroom in Sendai.
The voice on the speaker tries to warn him of what’s soon to come, but the warning comes too late.
Please prepare yourself for—
It is Friday, March 11, 2011. John doesn’t yet know it, but Japan’s most powerful earthquake in modern history has just struck the east side of the island, triggering a tsunami that is soon to swell the city’s shoreline.
This is not John’s first earthquake, but it’s his first earthquake like this—a world-churning undulation that grinds his teeth to dust. The event itself is indescribable, even for John, who for years will struggle to find a language to match its power. All he will say is that the quake broke his frame of reference, forced him to rethink all he knew of rock and water.
Growing up in Indiana, John and I’d never known disaster. Sure, we’d huddled alongside one another in our school’s hallways in the midst of tornado drills, but they were always just that—drills—and thus, the fear we felt was fake.
The real disaster came for him years later, in the form of an earthquake, a tsunami, and multiple partial nuclear meltdowns in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant just 50 miles away.
This was no drill. The fear was not fake.
Let it end, John prays while clinging to the carpet, please God, let it end.
Fifteen-year-old Taeko Teramae glanced up from her place in the telephone office to spot a strange shape in the sky. She leaned toward a friend, but before she could speak the building crumpled around her.
This was no earthquake, but an eruption of another sort.
The kind that brought silence, followed by a dozen cries of:
The school-aged girls accumulated voices rose up through the dust.
A deafening roar followed by a deafening wail until their teacher, Mr. Wakita, told them to behave.
Taeko behaved, staying mostly mum as she freed herself from the rubble. She breathed, only to find that the world now smelled like the ash from Mount Aso.
Come, Mr. Wakita called to her, can you swim across the river?
She could so she did, following her teacher to the river, then into it, then to the safety on the other side.
She was reunited with her parents—Mother! Father!—both of whom lied to their daughter’s broken face.
Your wounds are not serious, they assured her.
They knew nothing of radiation back then.
Once the shaking stops John runs to his girlfriend—let’s call her Hanako—and together, the pair retreats to their apartment. Hanako is native to Japan, an expert in earthquakes, and she, too, knows this one was different, that this was the kind that shakes snow from the sky as if shaking the leaves from the trees.
Suddenly, that snow is everywhere—a thick-flaked confetti drifting across John and Hanako’s faces. For half an hour they huddle at their bus stop, but when the bus does not come they continue on foot.
The streets are cracked but quiet, nothing but the ceaseless sound of idling cars going nowhere. The sidewalks are mostly the same, and though small clusters of people pass one another, no one speaks to anyone.
This silence isn’t out of the ordinary, nor is the sound of the idling cars. In fact, aside from the cracked window and crumbled walls, for the moment, their world remains almost unchanged. The only indication that something is awry is the long line of people outside the convenience store, all of whom are anxious to buy their bento box of food.
John and Hanako don’t need food; a six-month supply awaits them in their apartment. As they bypass the line, John is grateful for his foresight, glad to have thought of everything in advance.
It isn’t until they enter their apartment to see the toppled water cooler flooding the floor that he learns a valuable lesson.
Only in retrospect, John thinks, can you ever think of everything in advance.
Look, a boy said, pointing out his classroom window, a B-29.
Thirteen-year-old Yoshitaka Kawamoto looked. Or attempted to look as he rose from his chair and headed toward the window.
Then, the blast, followed by the same wails Taeko heard in the telephone office:
Yoshitaka woke to find himself trapped beneath debris.
Woke to the sound of familiar voices belting out the school song.
They sang to attract a rescue team, though eventually their dust-caked voices gave out. Yoshitaka’s voice was the last to quit, though by the time it did, he’d freed himself from the rubble.
He became the rescue team, searching his shattered school for someone in need of saving.
Eventually he unearthed a classmate with a broken skull and a single eye but with breath still in his body.
Yoshitaka tried to save him but could not—the boy’s lower half was buried deep.
The boy reached for a notebook in his chest pocket, cried Mother! Mother! as Yoshitaka retrieved it for him.
You want me to take this along to hand it over to your mother? Yoshitaka asked.
Mother! Mother! the boy replied.
Yoshitaka nodded, then burst through the smoke toward the playground, kicking at the hands that reached for his ankles.
What he needed was water—something to clear his throat—so he ran toward the Miyuki Bridge over the Kyobashi River. But when he arrived at its bank, he learned that the river was clotted with dead people.
Still, he drank deeply as a mushroom cloud blossomed overhead.
He knew nothing of radiation back then.
John and Hanako marvel at the wreckage inside their apartment, amazed at how everything has found its wrong place.
Here are the books and here is the water, they think, but why are they together?
Tiptoeing over the soggy pages, they make their way to the fridge. The earthquake has rendered them powerless, and though they risk spoiling the food, they open the fridge door all the same.
Inside, they find an inordinate supply of milk, cream, and blueberries, and since they cannot yet wrap their heads around what has occurred—(or what is occurring inside reactor one at the Fukushima plant)—they whip the cream and dip the berries and feast amid destruction.
It is not a last meal. Why would it be?
They knew nothing of radiation back—
Eiko Taoka and her one-year-old son rode the streetcar in search of a wagon. Their apartment building was soon to be evacuated, and a wagon was needed to assist in their move.
As the streetcar neared the station, Eiko’s arms began to grow weak. She’d been holding her son for quite some time, and as she adjusted him in her arms, she caught the attention of the woman seated directly in front of her.
I will be getting off here, the woman said. Please take this seat.
Eiko thanked the woman, but as she and her son prepared to sit she noticed a strange smell, a strange sound, and then, darkness.
Eiko’s one-year-old son was staring out the window when the glass blasted from the streetcar. His face shattered, but even then he turned to his mother and smiled.
In the three weeks he had left to live, Eiko gave her son what comfort she could, offering him her breast and allowing him to suckle everything she had inside her.
The radiation, too.
John and Hanako try to sleep, but eventually they just stop trying. They have lost their faith in the earth. The aftershocks continue throughout the first night, though what scares them most isn’t the possibility of another major quake, but what even a tremor might do to the already compromised structure of their apartment.
Their hearts flutter with every shift of the bed sheets.
I should have seen it coming, John thinks as he lies in bed. There were just so many signs.
He means literal signs. Signs on buses and streets and the sides of buildings—all of them warning of the long overdue earthquake soon to strike Sendai. The signs were not a prophecy but a promise, though over time, had become so ubiquitous that even John of Indiana knew better than to believe them.
A few nights before The Earthquake struck, another earthquake struck. It didn’t cause John to grind his teeth to dust, but it did stir him awake.
He sat up, turned to Hanako, whispered, What if this is the foreshock?
Senkichi Awaya, mayor of Hiroshima, sat down to his morning breakfast. His thirteen-year-old son, as well as his two-year-old granddaughter, joined him.
Perhaps he quartered an orange for young Ayako, poured Shinobu a cup of tea.
Sweetheart, perhaps he said, be careful not to spill the—
The clink of a teacup, followed by a fireball.
That afternoon, when the mayor could not be reached, the city treasurer sifted through the wreckage of the mayoral residence and found Senkichi’s scorched skeleton inside.
His reign was over. Radiation was now in control.
On Saturday morning John and Hanako wake to find their world has not yet changed.
Yes, they are still without power, but otherwise, it is a normal Saturday morning following an earthquake.
They leave their apartment and search the row of nearby shops for an outlet to charge a phone. What they find instead are swarms of people with similar plans, gripping their phones and waiting for the outlets.
Guess we’re out of luck, John thinks, though as they return to their apartment, Hanako spots a beacon—a glowing traffic light—just beyond their home.
Could it be? they wonder. Is it back?
They bustle up the stairs, swing wide the door, and find their luck has changed.
The power is back, which means their lives are back as well. They have running water, Internet, and more food than they can eat.
Their good fortune is enough to keep them in Sendai while others flee.
We are safe here, they think, while fifty miles away, the core of a reactor melts.
Ten days after the blast that killed her father, brother, and daughter, Motoko Sakama, boarded a train to see what remained of her father’s city. When she stepped from the train, she found that what little remained was all but unrecognizable.
Motoko walked for miles, until at last reaching the home where her injured mother lay.
I am so sorry, her mother said, for the death of Ayako.
Motoko’s mother explained how Senkichi, Shinobu and Ayako had just finished breakfast as the air-raid warning lifted.
How for a moment, everyone felt fine.
Initially, when Motoko’s father and brother’s skeletons were recovered, her young daughter was nowhere to be found. But upon closer inspection, once the ash was swept clean, the two-year-old’s skeleton was unearthed alongside Senkicki’s.
The grieving Motoko was left to draw but a single conclusion:
My father held my daughter as their bodies burned away.
For a moment, everyone felt—
By Sunday evening their world begins to change. John and Hanako have heard rumors of problems at the Fukushima plant, and though they are just rumors, they are enough to give John pause.
In a search bar, he types: how to survive fallout.
John’s Internet search yields more than he ever wanted to know. Suddenly he knows its language: radiation, contamination, alpha, gamma, beta.
John and Hanako discuss the possibility of leaving. Of flagging a taxi, or renting a car, or purchasing plane tickets. The problem, though, is that the taxies are low on gas, the rental cars rented, and thus, even with plane tickets in hand, there is no way to reach the airport.
Add to this the unspeakable problem of radiation: the knowledge that every time you open a door there’s no telling what might slip inside.
John stares at the vents, the windows, the doorway, and thinks: Every crack is a killer.
He wants to tape the cracks shut as one website suggested, and though he has no tape, he knows where he can find some.
He pulls on a sweatshirt, a surgical mask, waves goodbye and walks out the door.
Then, he steps back into his city (which is dead), and the streets (which are empty), and tries to reorient himself in a place that once felt like home.
But his home is now populated with ghosts, the buildings are ghosts, and each window in each building is just another entry point for the radiation to make more ghosts.
John turns a circle, thinks of the bustle of the people on that street the week before. Thinks how before it took to trembling, the world was something else—something it would never be again.
Still, some parts remain unchanged. Like the office building just a few blocks away, which he enters, heading toward a supply closet he’d noticed in passing months prior.
There is no one anywhere, so he helps himself to the tape.
He helps himself by helping himself to the tape.
Weeks before the blast, a young student leaves Hiroshima to enjoy his summer break among family. He is the sumo wrestling champion of his small town, and he enjoys his hero’s welcome.
As the break came to its end, the young man’s friends took the train back to school, though the young man decided to stay home for one day more.
A bomb dropped in the time between, and the young man became one of the few young men of his class to survive.
Like Motoko, he, too, got off the train to find a landscape mostly stripped of landmarks.
And he, too, walked the crumbled streets trying to remember what was once where.
He walked until he discovered a metallic taste in his mouth.
Odd, he thought, and in an attempt to purge himself of the taste he took a drink of water. (He knew nothing of radiation back then.)
The young man grew sick, and soon, his sumo wrestling days were over.
He could not fight two things at once.
The young man grew up, grew older, and though he and his wife were desperate for a child, after years with no luck, they began to wonder if his exposure had made it impossible for them to conceive.
It did not.
In fact, one day many years later, even the young man’s daughter would have a daughter—who we call Hanako—and sixty-six years later, she and John will sit in their apartment and know his fear firsthand.
It is not metal they taste that night, but blueberries and cream.
It is not the family’s first nuclear incident, but their second.
Two and a half years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, John and I meet up for a beer.
Sitting cross-legged on my parents’ couch, he tells me about the earthquake, the aftermath, and his decision to open the apartment door in an effort to retrieve the tape.
Was it worth it? I ask. Did you do the right thing when you opened the door?
John pauses, picks at the beer label.
Were you in Mr. Kuelling’s senior seminar class? he asks.
I shake my head no.
John describes how the teacher assigned them to read Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and how even as a high schooler, John had been troubled by a particular scene in the book; one in which a toxic chemical cloud drifts toward the main character and his family as the character stops to fill up for gas.
When I first read that book, I remember thinking, ‘Why doesn’t he get back in his car while the gas pumps?’ John says. ‘Why does he just stand out there breathing in the toxins?’ But then, after the radiation started spreading throughout Sendai, suddenly I got it. I understood why the guy doesn’t get back in the car.
Why? I ask. Why does a guy stay outside in a chemical cloud?
Because, John says, when you love your family, you don’t open the door—you never open the door—unless you’re going to get some tape.
On that August morning, thirty-three-year-old Isao Kita kept his eyes fixed on the sky. As the chief weatherman in the Hiroshima District, it was his job to do so. Isao cocked his head at a sound, then watched as a blinding flash far brighter than the sun erupted directly before him.
Glass broke, heat entered, and Isao winced as the smoke cut his city in half.
Though it was his job to understand the weather, he knew not what to make of the strange black rain that followed.
He could hardly believe the way that rain stuck to every limb and every leaf it touched. Stuck to every body—every hand and foot and face left unprotected.
The rain marked the people and the place, and Isao, the chief weatherman of Hiroshima that morning, took note.
It couldn’t be washed off, he later remarked. I couldn’t be washed off.
On the Wednesday following the earthquake, John finds an unread message in his inbox.
According to a friend, beginning at dawn, one bus every hour is rumored to arrive from Yamagata.
Perhaps this might be your way out? the friend suggests.
That night, John and Hanako don’t sleep. Instead, they decide how best to fit their lives into a suitcase. There is no room for sentimentality; all they take is a hard drive and dried fruit.
They zip their suitcase, lock their door, then start off toward the station.
It is three a.m. and raining, and though the rain is not black, John wonders: What exactly is acid rain?
They huddle beneath the bus station awning for hours, though even there they can’t dodge the droplets that splatter sideways against their skin. Their breaths are shallow beneath their surgical masks, which makes them feel safe.
Less is more, John thinks as he breathes. Less is more.
They distract themselves by watching the line grow behind them, and then—far more troubling—grow ahead of them as well.
People are cutting, John realizes. They’re stealing our seats and our lives.
He considers confronting them but doesn’t.
No one confronts anyone.
Despite that the lines are long and the buses are few, nobody says a thing.
They simply clutch their umbrellas and wait for the line to move forward.
When the first bus arrives at six a.m., John and Hanako fill the last two seats.
Dr. Kaoru Shima—the proprietor of Shima Hospital—was assisting a colleague in nearby Mikawa when he learned of his city’s destruction.
In this way he was spared, though his hospital was not.
In fact, Shima Hospital was ground zero, transforming the two-story structure to ruins, and the bones of his patients to dust.
On the evening of August 6, Dr. Shima returned to Hiroshima, stood alongside the busted Chamber of Commerce building and shouted to the survivors.
The director of Shima Hospital is here! he cried triumphantly. Take courage!
He knew nothing of anything then.
By day’s end, John and Hanako step off a train platform in Akita, a city 160 miles northwest of Sendai.
Their flight to Tokyo isn’t scheduled until the following day, so they wander the city, staring at a world so seemingly unchanged. Everywhere, people are shopping, clutching their bags with one hand while holding their phones with the other.
People smile, people laugh, people snap selfies on the street.
Have you not heard of Fukushima? John wants to scream at every passerby. Or a city called Sendai?
Dumbfounded, John and Hanako slide into a booth at a family restaurant and pretend they are a part of this unchanged world. They mull over the menu, studying their many options.
Within minutes, the waiter arrives to take their order.
They are famished and they are alive so they want everything.
Pizza, pasta, chocolate cake.
Make that two slices of cake, John says.
When the pizza arrives, John notices distress on the waiter’s face.
I’m so sorry, the waiter says, but the kitchen informs me that we have run out of fresh basil. There was an earthquake—perhaps you have heard?—and the trucks were unable to make the trip.
John stares down at his feast while the poor man begs, Please sir, will you accept my apologies?
Dr. Shima set up his makeshift hospital at the primary school near the center of town. There, he did what he could, but as the bodies piled high, Dr. Shima realized he needed a way to dispose of the dead in order to make way for the living.
He ordered a crematorium be built in the school’s playground, where for days, the bodies of his townspeople burned.
Day and night one could smell the odor of burning flesh and watch the flickering fire of the funeral pyre, the doctor later recalled.
This time, fire was the cure, and though Dr. Shima treated the cuts and broken bones, he knew nothing of the purple spots that began dappling people’s skin.
Radiation, he’d later learn. The word is radiation.
It is the same America he always knew—complete with seven-dollar bagels and five-dollar coffees and a surplus of television screens.
From a TV in the terminal, he watches as Charlie Sheen speaks of tiger blood.
Have you not heard of Fukushima? John wonders as he stares at the screen. Or a city called Sendai?
Hanako pulls him to the baggage claim, where they soon hear a swarm of well-wishers cheer the safe arrival of a mother and father and their teenage son. The trio grins at their compatriots, making a grand display of pumping fists and flexing muscles while pointing to their matching T-shirts.
John glances their T-shirts and is surprised to see an outline of Japan and a red dot near his city.
The T-shirts read: i survived earthquake 9.0!
More hooting, more hollering, more high fives than John can handle.
A TV bleats: Actor Charlie Sheen claims that he has tiger blood…
Come on, John says. We need to get out of here.
One summer evening many years back, a friend and I obliterated every last ant on the planet. At least it felt that way. We were seven, and on that moon-drenched night, found a field behind our houses and turned its anthills to dust. Soon, that field would be a neighborhood anyway, but before the steamrollers rolled in we flattened the land by hand. We thought that we were helping.
As John and I sit in my parents’ living room drinking our beers, we refrain from speaking of those men in the New Mexico desert. We don’t talk about ants, either, or whisper the names of the people who perished so long ago. In fact, we don’t talk about the old disaster at all, just the one that is still ongoing.
People won’t really know how bad it is for years, John says. Not until the uptick in cancer, and the birth defects, and the shrinking attention spans. We won’t know just like we didn’t know with Chernobyl.
What about your health? I ask. Yours and Hanako’s?
We won’t know either, he says.
In that moment on the couch, I might’ve said any number of things, but I don’t say any of them.
Instead, I watch as John’s eyes glaze over as he studies his beer bottle.
After a moment, he returns to me, clear-eyed, and tries to give me the old smile.
But enough about me, he says, delivering his line, tell me, what’s new with you?
BJ Hollars is the author of three nonfiction books—Thirteen Loops:Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, and Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.