Sakura's Day by Ernie Wang
Editorial intern Sara Larson on today’s bonus story: “Sakura’s Day” is a heart-wrenching story about a Japanese family in the wake of WWII. As a lover of history, I found myself talking about this piece to anybody who would listen, including my mom and my dogs. Stitch, Spencer, Pepper, and Peanut will be thinking about this story for years to come.
Papa comes back for Sakura’s memorial. I thought she would survive. Children are resilient, they told us back when they had town hall meetings every week immediately after the war, and we believed. We believed everything they told us, except for Mama, who didn’t believe at all. They said children are resilient, and they’re going to rebuild our nation, and we believed, and then Sakura died.
With the number of recent memorials, I thought nobody would show up for hers, but they do, or rather, those who remain do. The classroom warms with bodies, and voices whisper rumors of who’s next, who’s disappeared, who’s lost their child, who’s lost their mind.
Sakura was my little sister. Her last words to me were, “Hiroshi, thank you for taking care of me.” I had promised her I would not leave her side. And she smiled, and she fell back asleep, and the next morning she did not wake up.
We survived the bombing, and that made us hopeful, but only for a couple of days, and then we came to the realization that most of us weren’t going to make it past the year, and so people began to move away, to spend their days in the countryside where they grew up, or else they preempted it all and walked two days to the ocean where the still-fiery horizon pulled them off the cliff.
And now there’s those who remain, and they show up for Sakura, and Mama greets them as they enter the brick middle school, one of the few buildings standing, and into the classroom. She wears her black kimono, and I want to tell her I can see her undergarment through the tatters, but she is busy bowing and apologizing. I am sorry to have troubled you, she says. I am sorry to have taken time from your busy day.
I am sorry for your loss, they bow back.
Mama pauses when she sees Papa standing in the far corner. He makes his way toward her. Thank you for coming, she says, and he nods. The others can’t see him. Only Mama and I can. And Sakura, until she died. He gives me a thumbs up and makes his way back to the corner.
We are in mid-prayer when an old man and a squadron of American soldiers enter the classroom. The room is instantly silent. We lower our gazes and shrink in our seats. Under the desk, Mama reaches for my arm. I look around and see other parents also reach for their children. The soldiers’ boots scuffle the floor. They make their way to the front of the classroom, and they turn and face us. An old white soldier begins to speak in English. There is assuredness in his voice. When he pauses, the man translates.
“On behalf of General Macarthur and the United States of America, we offer our condolences,” he says. A soldier steps forward and places a bouquet of flowers onto a desk. We are silent. A mother tightly clasps her child’s mouth, muffling his cries, as tears stream onto his filthy shirt. At the other end of the room, a boy without his parents cups his mouth to stifle his own sobs, as those nearby glare at him.
The old white soldier speaks again. “Are the parents of the deceased present?”
It is my turn to cup my hand over my mouth. I squeeze my eyes shut.
“I said, are the parents of the deceased present?”
Mama stands. I begin to stand as well, but she shoves me back into my seat.
“Hai,” she says quietly.
She makes her way to the front. When she stands next to them, she comes up no higher than the chest of the shortest soldier. A young soldier looks her up and down and smiles.
The old white soldier hands her a small booklet.
“Accept these ration coupons,” he says, “and our condolences.”
She accepts the coupon book with both hands and bows.
“Sankuu yuu,” she softly answers. I grip the edge of the desk as she makes her way back. Her posture is straight, her shoulders are square, she stares straight ahead. When she sits back down, she reaches for my hand. Her hand is shaking so hard that even my shoulder reverberates, and she grips my hand so tightly that I bite my lip.
Nobody continues with the prayers after the soldiers leave. When we are sure they are not coming back, the children cry out loud, and the parents let them. Several join in with sobs of their own. Papa sits on the floor, his arms wrapped around his knees. He has grief and resignation painted into the creases of his face. He turns and looks at me and nods, and he vanishes. Mama stands and walks to the front of the room. She faces us and bows, and she apologizes. I am sorry to have troubled you, she tells us. I am sorry for your troubles, the others respond. In the back of the room a baby wails. A father shushes her.
We never had a proper burial for Papa, for Papa or the three other pilots from our town. We first hear the news of their deaths when we, Mama and Sakura and me, are in town shopping. It’s ration distribution day. The gray loudspeakers on every major intersection snap to life, and after a moment of static, the familiar metallic voice comes through the loudspeakers and announces that the mission has been a success. Mama freezes. I look around. Everybody has also stopped in their tracks. The silence amplifies the hisses from the loudspeakers. We repeat: the mission has been a success, the nasally voice blares. Our courageous fighter pilots have honored our great nation. Glory be to our divine emperor. We repeat: the mission has been a success.
We all remain at a standstill. Then Mama tightens her grip and turns us in the other direction. “We’re going home, children.”
“Mama, what happened?” Sakura looks up and pulls Mama’s hand. “Is Papa okay? Is Papa coming home?”
“Glory be to our divine — what horseshit,” Mama spits. Sakura and I say nothing. Mama continues. “This is absolute madness,” she says. “Madness and men will drive us to extinction.” Sakura starts to cry, and Mama quickly apologizes. “Everything is fine, Sakura,” she says, and Sakura’s sobs abate when I make the connection between the news and Papa. I whimper. Sakura begins to cry again. Mama looks at me for a moment before squeezing my shoulder and then gently pulling us once again in the direction of home.
We run into a neighbor, and Mama and he exchange greetings. They express shock at the news. I don’t know what to make of this, the neighbor says, and Mama nods. But our pilots have honored our country, he says. Mama does not reply. He looks down and sees me sniffling. He frowns.
“Stop crying, Hiroshi,” he says. “Be a man.”
Mama stiffens. She shakes her head as he walks away before turning to me and says, “Never mind him, Hiroshi. Cry to your heart’s longing.”
The first time Papa comes back is when Sakura’s health begins to deteriorate late one night. She coughs, and blood darkens her pillow. She wheezes and she coughs more, until her lips glisten red, and that’s when she looks at me with terrified eyes and asks me to not leave her side. Mama and I had seen this happen to a neighbor a week earlier, and the neighbor didn’t last long at all, so we react to Sakura’s condition less with panic and more with resigned fear.
Mama wipes the blood off Sakura’s cheek and sweeps the hair off her damp forehead. She sings a folk song, one of Sakura’s favorites, a song about fireflies and glowing lanterns, and that makes Sakura smile. The song ends, and the house is quiet. Outside, crickets chirp into the night. Sakura coughs and spits blood onto Mama’s hand. Sakura apologizes. Mama shushes her. She stares at Sakura and then shuts her eyes.
“Are you tired, Mama?” Sakura asks. “Why don’t you get some rest? Hiroshi will take care of me.” She coughs and gasps for air.
Mama does not respond. Her eyes remain closed as she strokes Sakura’s cheek.
When she opens her eyes, she says, “I’m going to help you, Sakura.” She heads for the door and stoops to put on her shoes.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“Hiroshi, watch out for your sister,” she says as she exits the house.
I lay with Sakura in her futon. We stare into the ceiling and talk about how we’ll catch dragonflies and make pinwheels when she gets better. We’ll make a beautiful pinwheel for Mama, because she takes care of us so well, and she’s very tired these days. I promise Sakura that I’ll even take her down to the creek and show her how to catch tadpoles, and that makes her really excited.
We talk until we get tired, and then I must have dozed off, because I awaken with a jolt when I hear Sakura say, “Hello, Papa. Hooray, you’ve come home.”
It takes a moment to register, but then my eyes snap open, and I sit up and see Papa kneeling over Sakura and wringing a dripping washcloth over a plastic basin filled with ice. He places the damp cloth on Sakura’s forehead, and he smiles at me and winks and presses his index finger on his lips.
“You’re looking good, Hiroshi,” he says, and I want to throw myself around him, but instead, I say, “Welcome home, Papa.”
Sakura pipes in.
“Do I look good, too, Papa?” she asks.
Papa studies her and says, “Better than you ever have, little chestnut.” He flips over the washcloth on her forehead.
“Hiroshi’s going to show me how to catch tadpoles, Papa,” Sakura says.
“Is that right?” Papa says, and he smiles and he says, “You have a very excellent brother.”
Sakura says, “I have the best brother ever,” and I say, “You do, Sakura,” and we all laugh.
“Papa,” Sakura says with closed eyes later that night.
“Yes, little chestnut.”
“Will you stay with me all night?”
“Papa,” Sakura says.
“Yes, little chestnut.”
Papa traces his finger over Sakura’s cheek.
“I’m sorry,” he says quietly. He looks up and turns toward the doorway. I follow his gaze.
Mama stands in the doorway, exhausted and carrying a small bag.
“Hi, Mama,” Sakura says. “Papa’s here.”
“Indeed,” Mama says. She walks toward us. “It is very wonderful to have you home, Papa,” she says.
“It is wonderful to be home,” he says.
Mama sits down, next to Sakura. She caresses Sakura’s cheek. She leans over and kisses her forehead. She takes the bag and empties pills onto the floor.
“How do you feel?” Mama asks Sakura. Sakura does not answer. For a moment, I think she’s fallen asleep, but then she coughs violently.
“Sakura,” Mama says. “Take these.”
“Okay,” Sakura says with a fading voice. She swallows the pills, and she thanks Mama, and she lies down and tells Mama that I’m going to teach her how to catch tadpoles.
“Did you thank Hiroshi for taking care of you?” Mom says.
“Hiroshi, thank you for taking care of me,” Sakura says with a barely audible voice, and she closes her eyes. Mama caresses Sakura’s cheek until she is sure that Sakura is asleep.
“I am sure the medicine will work,” I say.
The house is silent.
Mama turns and faces Papa.
“Tanaka-san is organizing a picnic for next week,” she says. She steadies one hand with the other. “I think I’ll bring vinegar rice cakes,” she says. She keeps her eyes locked on Papa.
“Your vinegar rice cakes are truly one of a kind,” he says.
And then Mama lowers her head. She covers her face with her hands, and she begins to convulse. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen her cry. Once she starts, she cannot stop, and I stay up the whole night watching Mama cry as Papa wrings the washcloth and places it on Sakura’s peaceful, burning face.
Ernie Wang resides in Las Vegas. He has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his work appears or will appear in McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Threepenny Review, and the 2018 PEN America Best Debut Short Stories.