The Ash Garden

The Ash Garden


Initially I did not believe I would ever get my face back. The day we arrived in New York City I was more doubtful than ever. After our reception at the airport we boarded a bus and drove down Fifth Avenue, the rain streaking in a diagonal line across the window until the bus came to a stop, waiting for a light. Gazing outward in wonder, I turned my head at a slight angle to avoid touching my scar to the cool glass. As the motor fell to a soft rumble, I saw a group of black men, a thing I'd never seen before, standing in a loose circle around a cardboard table. One of these men wore a wool hat with turned-up earflaps. Small beads of silver rain sparkled like mercury over the cloth, and I watched with amazement as his dark fingers darted through the air. It was an image of exotic and frightening beauty. He looked in the direction of the bus idling at the intersection, flanked by a police escort. It was simply a glance, not focused at first, just a movement of the head-then we locked eyes. In school back home we were taught about the shameful injustices suffered in America by the poor, and the Negro, and I felt there was something prophetic about this first encounter. I saw my own fate running parallel to his. I saw his astonishment, his eyes like a flaring match, and the strange articulation of his facial muscles. I was the object of this surprise, as he was of mine. I painted him quickly in my imagination, as if capturing a bird in flight, trying to hold on to that astonishment. His eyes moved over me, and in his own way I knew he was making his own picture of the strange little girl with that dark shadow on her face.

The gears ground as the bus started slowly to life again and the man turned back to his circle. I watched his shoulders, my neck with the receding scene until he was gone. Once he was out of sight I returned my attention to the silver puddles in the street and the bright American flags slapping in the wind as they hung from the building facades, as if from the bows of ships.

Despite our exhaustion there was much conversation among the girls on the bus that day. Giddy and nervous, we talked quickly and quietly and called hushed exclamations of surprise to one another. Even though Helen Yokoyama, our interpreter and guardian, had grown up in San Francisco, she seemed encouraged by our curiosity and high spirits and tried to answer what questions she could about this city she'd never lived in. At first I tried to listen to her speak, but there was too much to see.

Earlier that morning our plane had landed at Mitchell Air Force Base on Long Island. I had emerged haggard and groggy along with the other twenty-four girls, aged between eleven and twenty-two years, after a five-day trip from Japan via Wake and Johnston Islands, Hawaii and-San Francisco. Some of us wore scarves to hide our scars. Unsure and shaking in the chill early morning, I wove my fingers together and looked down at the tarmac. I knew only a few words of this language. Already I missed where I had come from, and the only person I had left there.

The cameras had gathered around us before we were fully off the plane. We were used to a certain amount of attention. I had expected perhaps the same level of interest on the part of the newspapers here as in Japan, but what greeted us that morning was nothing I could have imagined. Dozens of reporters clustered at the bottom of the gangway, asking questions and taking pictures, their flashbulbs reflecting off the shiny tarmac like lightning bolts. Dr. Barsky and the others from the hospital greeted us all with welcoming handshakes. The reporters continued snapping photographs and hurling questions through the rain as we waited to offer our small hands, questions that Reverend Tanimoto, the organizer of the program, attempted to answer.

"Why only girls, Reverend?"

"The decision was made;' he answered. "It was ours to make."

"Is it something Japanese? Are there no boys who need this care in Japan"

"There are many. More than you can imagine."

That evening, one of the doctors hosted a reception for the new arrivals. All the Americans were dressed very finely. We wore the secondhand dresses that the Salvation Army had provided for us earlier that day. Unlike the clothing we were used to wearing, these dresses were clean and unripped and close to the right size for our ages. My first dress was the color of a blue sky, with white trim, tracing the hem- and necklines like clouds. Turning slowly, I admired it in the mirror in the community-center basement. Hardly any of us could remember the last time we'd seen clothing this pretty. But Sachiko, one of the younger girls, had unknowingly been given a dress whose polka dots mirrored the scars on her body. She became upset and began to cry as she stood in front of the mirror I was sharing with her. We exchanged dresses, and though the new one didn't fit as well as the blue dress, I was happy to have it.

Before that night I had never seen rich people. All twenty-five of us stood to one side of the room and waited to be told what to do. Some of the women, even those with long gloves pulled to the elbow, tried to talk with us through Reverend Tanimoto or Helen Yokoyama. One woman pointed to me, with her eyes more than anything else, through the crowd of cocktail drinkers. She smiled as if an idea had just then popped into her head. I'd seen her talking with the reverend and Bernard Simon, a surgeon from Mount Sinai who had volunteered his services to the project. I lowered my eyes, as was natural for a girl to do, afraid that I somehow had offended the woman. I wondered if she'd noticed that my dress, too small, made me look large and awkward and my figure prematurely developed. I attempted to wish away the interest she seemed to have taken in me, but in a moment they were at my side and she began to speak.

She had large teeth and blond hair; very beautiful, I thought. She was polite enough to look directly into my good eye. I was fearful, though, having no idea why she had found me of any interest. With the help of the reverend, she began by asking me about our journey to America.

"Do you like America?"

"I have not had much opportunity to see America;" I said, after her question was translated for me.

"But do you like America. Americans?"

I smiled and nodded, as I had been told to do when I didn't know how to answer a question.

"Do you know what television is?"

"Yes," I nodded. The next morning, the reverend and Helen came to the hotel and told me there was a TV program in Los Angeles that was interested in our story, which all the newspapers had been writing about. I asked why these people should like to know the story of a group of deformed and hideously ugly girls. I was sitting on my bed. He sat beside me. "Don't talk like that, Emiko," he said. "Show respect. The Americans can be people of compassion. They can be like us. Many of them regret what has happened. Almost ten years have passed now. There are people who want to help ensure that the bomb will never be used again."

"But it was used;" I said.

"Yes. It was. But we can help show people that it is a terrible weapon. We can show people what it does:"

I said nothing.

"They want to help us;" he said, "by raising money that will be used during our stay. They will give us the opportunity to tell America our story. Once our story is told they will never use the bomb again. Takako has already agreed."

Takako had sat next to me on the plane, and we'd shared a room during our stopover in Hawaii. She'd been visiting relatives in Hiroshima when they dropped the bomb on us. I liked her and thought she would be a good person to visit Los Angeles with, despite the bad leg which forced her to walk at an exceedingly slow pace, and to sit and rest often. Although the surgeons could do nothing about her smashed leg, I envied Takako for the fundamental difference between us. She had gone alone to visit her uncle and aunt in Hiroshima, which meant her parents were still alive in her hometown, and when I considered I decided I would give up both legs, not just one, for the same to be true for me.

"Yes; I said, bowing. "I will help."

I didn't know how far away Los Angeles was, on the other side of the country, back in the direction we'd just traveled. I was sixteen now and, though severely scarred, I still had the energy and boundless curiosity of any girl that age. By then the burns on my face and back did not limit my freedom of movement. Of course I could smile only out of one side of my mouth, but my general mobility had not been affected. This was a time when such a long trip was a small sacrifice in exchange for television. Although I knew only a few words of English-learned from my grandfather, who had picked up some of the language during his stay in England, and the postwar radio program called Kamu Kamu Eigo-I believed this might be the reason I was chosen. We were mostly uneducated girls with no foreign languages or particular skills between us, myself included.

I had touched the real ocean, not just the bay on which my hometown was situated, only once before in my life, barely four days before, on our stopover in Hawaii. However excited I was at the prospect of doing so again, I chose not to reveal this, because I knew that the trip was considered an important job-though I did not yet have a clear picture of what it entailed-and that it must not be sidetracked by a young girl's whim to gaze upon the ocean that was her link to home.

The day we landed in Los Angeles was beautiful and warm, unlike the one we'd left behind back in New York. A man from the television show greeted us at the arrivals gate, holding a cardboard sign spelling out "Tanimoto." Without acknowledging me or Takako, he shook the reverend's hand and tipped his hat to Helen, then led us to his car. I couldn't understand any of the conversation he carried on with the reverend and Helen. Instead I watched the gray highway and the speeding new cars driving on either side of us and wondered where the Japanese my grandfather had told me about were-those who had tried to convince the people here not to harm our city. It seemed now that those people had been no more than an invention of his imagination. I asked no questions, because none was asked of me.

It was during that ride, however, that Takako and I began to guess something more regarding our involvement here. We had been invited in order to help raise money for our stay in America, but exactly what our role should be was yet to be explained to us. Helen sat in the back seat with us, leaning forward slightly as she listened to the reverend and the driver speaking.

Occasionally the driver looked at me and Takako in the rearview mirror. His smile was embarrassed and uncomfortable.

We sat quietly with our hands in our laps. Barely able to contain myself, I shuffled my feet on the floorboards and fiddled nervously with the pleats in my dress. I raised my eyes from time to time and saw the flash of the driver's teeth in the mirror, and his pink cheeks bouncing in time to the bumps in the hard road beneath us, and the cars speeding past outside the windows. I wondered if his eyes could tell me anything more. He spoke very quickly. I thought even Helen, who was from here, must have difficulty understanding him. Takako and I exchanged glances.

"Enough of that; Helen said. "We will be there soon." I still did not have a clear understanding just where it was we were going. I could see Takako was as eager as I was. We smiled and rolled our eyes and shook our heads, staring into our laps, still full of disbelief. We could not comprehend the gravity of what was slowly dawning on us. After Helen returned her attention to the conversation in the front seat, Takako spoke behind her back in a whisper, but I understood perfectly. I shook my head with a clipped motion that was meant not to be detected by the adults. No, no. Not us. They would not put such ogres as us on the television.

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Excerpted from The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock. Copyright © 2001 by Dennis Bock. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.