When the people are gone, when the trees are dead, when the animals are dead, when the sky is poisoned, the earth blackened and the rivers and seas fouled, the cockroach will be there. He will survive. He will be awake, hungry, scurrying in darkness through holocaust and nightmare--an elegant, six-legged silent witness and ancient sentinel. He will be waiting for you there. He will be among the survivors. Underground, in the wall, at the back of the cave, the cockroach will be there.
It was 11:09 in the morning, August 9, 1945. Forty thousand feet in the air, the enormous cloud began to break up and spread across the sky in swirling whites and grays. Below it, the Urakami Valley and the city of Nagasaki were invisible under the dark mass at the cloud's base. I hadn't moved or blinked or said a word for seven minutes.
"Are you deaf and mute, Zezen, or have you not seen death before?"
I turned slowly and looked up to the top of the castle wall. The Fleur-du-Mal stared down at me. His hair hung loose, down over his shoulders. His green eyes were hard and bright. Then the huge, wrought-iron gate to the castle began to swing open. The old hinges sounded like giant fingernails scraping a giant blackboard. "Come inside, Zezen," he said, "and leave the body of the woman inside the gatehouse, if you wish."
He waited for me to reply. I said nothing. Finally, he shook his head and said, "Have it your way, then, but the wind is shifting."
I looked back toward the cloud, which was breaking up rapidly. "Why should that make a difference?"
The Fleur-du-Mal raised his head and laughed. His brilliant white teeth gleamed against the sky. "Radiation, you idiot," he said. "Gamma, alpha, and beta radiation. That was an atomic bomb."
"What is an atomic bomb?"
"Come inside and I shall explain it to you. Otherwise, you will likely die. I doubt the Meq have ever faced a nuclear explosion, let alone what that insidious cloud contains. Or would you rather stand there and find out for yourself?"
I looked down at Shutratek's lifeless body. One eye had opened, so I leaned over and closed it, then stood and stared again at Nagasaki. Sailor and Sak had been on their way to a location near the Nagasaki railway station, close to where the Urakami River runs into the harbor. None of it was visible now. The whole city was silent under the blackness. I didn't move. I couldn't, I was frozen.
"They are all dead, Zezen," the Fleur-du-Mal said from above. "All of them--Zuriaa, Susheela the Ninth . . . Sailor and the Ainu. All of them."
I spun around. "You knew Sailor and I were in Nagasaki?"
"Please, Zezen, do not insult me. Of course, I knew. I knew the very hour of your arrival and I have been well aware of every one of your clumsy attempts at locating my many shiros." He scanned the sky and the horizon, then added, "Your time is up, Zezen. I am closing the gate. Adieu, mon petit."
He disappeared from view and the massive gate began to close. I glanced once more at Nagasaki and knew the Fleur-du-Mal was right. They were all dead, all of them. A wave of nausea passed through me. I thought of Sailor and felt a sudden sense of loss and despair I had only felt once before, on the day my own mama and papa died. Sailor was so much more to me than I even realized, more than a friend or a teacher. He was irreplaceable. Behind me, I heard the screeching of the hinges and looked back at the gate. It was almost closed. I half dragged, half carried Shutratek through the opening and just in time. The gate locked in to place. I laid Shutratek down on the stone floor inside the gatehouse, then looked up to see the Fleur-du-Mal standing next to me. I tensed instinctively. He could have easily slit my throat at any moment.
He sensed my fear and laughed bitterly. "Sometimes I worry about you, mon petit," he said. "Your nervousness is palpable. I am not going to harm you." He paused and smiled. "Now, follow me inside. Rapidement!"
"What about the woman?" I asked, nodding toward Shutratek.
The Fleur-du-Mal had already started walking. He stopped abruptly and sighed, shaking his head from side to side. "She is dead, Zezen," he said. "She will not be less dead by taking her inside the shiro. Leave her. Tomorrow, or perhaps the next day, when the air is safe, you may do with her what you wish. That is my final thought on the subject."
The Fleur-du-Mal turned and continued walking toward two heavy wooden doors directly under the lowest roof of a five-tiered wood and stone tower. Both doors were covered with iron straps, ancient protection against battering and cannon fire. The shiro was a magnificent structure and compound. I stared up at the five tiled roofs, one piled atop the other. I felt numb and strange. Sailor was dead along with an entire city full of people. Everything was surreal. I got to my feet slowly. The Fleur-du-Mal had said it cold and with a cold heart, but I knew he was right about Shutratek. I could not help her now and he gave me no choice. But what was I doing? Only a few hours ago I had set out to trap and kill him. Now I was agreeing with him and about to become a guest in his house. And why hadn't he killed me when he had the chance? Nothing made sense anymore. I followed the Fleur-du-Mal across the courtyard without another word.
Inside the shiro it was dark and cool and completely silent. I could see several windows off to one side, but they were all shuttered. There was no furniture, except for two hand-carved wooden chairs sitting against one wall. The Fleur-du-Mal locked the reinforced doors with a long iron key bigger than his own hand, then turned to me. "This way," he said, motioning me toward a stone stairwell that led only down. He reached up and removed a screened lantern from the wall and lit it. I paused at the top step. "Please, you first, Zezen," he said with a slight grin. "Youth before beauty," he added, laughing.
He held the lantern high over our heads and we started down. After ten steps the stairwell turned ninety degrees, then again after ten more steps. With the Fleur-du-Mal at my back, I expected to feel the net descending, the prickly feeling of fear I nearly always felt in his presence, but I didn't. I felt no fear whatsoever.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"You shall see soon enough. Keep walking," he said without emotion.
Finally, three stories beneath the ground floor of the shiro, our descent ended. We were standing on the stone floor of a long hall that led to our left and right. The Fleur-du-Mal pointed the lantern to the right toward a heavy wooden door, which was reinforced with iron straps like the doors above. As we approached, the door opened slowly and a short, middle-aged Japanese man in Western dress was standing in the doorway. He wore extremely thick, round glasses, making his eyes look as big as walnuts behind them. He was not surprised to see us and he did not look at us as ordinary boys. He knew we were Meq, I could sense it.
The man smiled wide. "Hello, mister. Yes, hello, yes? Hello, hello."
"Out of the way, Koki," the Fleur-du-Mal told him. "Bring us tea."
"Yes, yes," the man answered. "Tea . . . hello, yes?" He was still smiling and staring at me.
"Hello," I said. His smile widened. His teeth were stained brown and he smelled of tobacco.
"Now!" the Fleur-du-Mal said firmly.
"Yes, yes," the man replied. He glanced once more at me, then turned and scurried away into the depths of a huge room with Persian rugs covering the stone floors and elegant tapestries and modern paintings covering the walls. The room was brightly lit and looked warm and inviting. It was filled with Spanish leather chairs, English oak tables, and Belgian lamps. Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts and sculpture were everywhere. There was nothing Japanese about it.
"You are staring, Zezen. Are you not well?"
"No, no, I was just . . . I mean, I didn't expect . . ."
The Fleur-du-Mal laughed loudly. "Quickly," he said. "Inside, and make yourself comfortable."
I stepped into the room a few paces and looked back over my shoulder. He was locking the door with the same long key he'd used on the other doors. "Who is that man?" I asked.
"Pay him little mind," he said, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand.
"But who is he?"
The Fleur-du-Mal paused and sighed. "His formal name is Naohiro Nishi. However, I refer to him as Koki, an abbreviation for Kokkuro-chi, the Cockroach."
"Yes . . . it is a long story and not worth explaining. Simply stated, he owes me a debt, or shall we say his family owes me a debt. I need him for various services when I am in Japan. And there you have it. Please, take a seat. Koki will be out shortly with tea. You look as though you need it, mon petit."
"What did you do for his family?"
The Fleur-du-Mal stared at me with piercing green eyes and I noticed that not only was his hair longer and hanging loose, but he was also missing his ruby earrings. "If you must know, nearly eighty-five years ago, I saved them all from certain death. Now, that is quite enough said on the subject."
I sat down carefully on one of the leather chairs and watched him. He moved gracefully, lighting screened lanterns on the wall and various candles strewn about the enormous room. I didn't know whether to believe him or not. I had never known the Fleur-du-Mal to save anyone except himself from anything.
"Did you realize, Zezen," he said from the far end of the room, "this entire space was once used exclusively as a torture chamber and prison?"
I waited a moment. I glanced over at the locked, reinforced door. "And now it isn't?" I replied with the greatest irony I could muster.
He laughed and then disappeared somewhere in the shadows, saying, "I must change into something more comfortable. Relax, mon petit, and enjoy your tea."
I remained motionless for several moments and closed my eyes. I tried to relax, but my mind kept returning to the white light of the atomic bomb and the rising, ugly, swirling, black cloud over Nagasaki. It was death on a scale that was unimaginable. Suddenly I began to tremble and shake, first in my hands and fingers, then all over my body. I opened my eyes wide and attempted to stand. My legs wobbled and buckled and I sat back down. Images of Sailor being burned and blown apart turned over and over in my mind. I couldn't make them stop. I heard myself moaning, "No, no, no, no." I stood up again and forced my legs to move, walking in a tight circle. I stared down at the pattern in the Persian rug beneath my feet. Every part of the beautiful woven design seemed to move and change shape, turning into flaming dragons and demons, all with their tongues out and eyes bulging from their sockets. And they were screaming, screaming and howling with laughter. I put my hands over my ears to make them stop, yet they only got louder and louder. Then I felt someone touch my shoulder. "Mister, hello, mister," a voice said. I opened my eyes and saw Koki's smiling face. He was pointing toward a small cup filled with steaming liquid, sitting on an end table next to the leather chair. "Tea," he said, then added, "Hello."
"What? Oh, yes, of course." My voice was dry and raspy, and I cleared my throat. "Thank you, Koki, thank you." He nodded once and bowed modestly, then started to leave again. He was nearly out of sight before I said, "Koki, wait!" He stopped instantly and turned to face me, still smiling. "Please," I said, "please . . . don't go. I mean, have a seat, I'd like to . . . to . . . I have a question for you."
He walked back toward me slowly. His smile faded and he seemed hesitant, even fearful. He wouldn't come any closer than ten feet. I motioned for him to take a seat in one of the chairs, but he ignored the gesture and kept his distance. I saw his face twitch once and his hands began to tremble slightly. My own trembling had ceased. "Do not be afraid, Koki," I said. "I would never hurt you. Do you understand?"
At least thirty seconds of silence passed and his eyes never left mine. Finally, in a soft and barely audible voice, he said, "Yes, mister."
I sat down in the leather chair and asked him again to take a seat. Shaking his head back and forth, he refused and stayed where he was. I picked up the cup of tea with both hands and blew on it, then took a sip. He never blinked and never looked away. "Do you know what has happened, Koki?" He made no response. "Up there," I said, pointing at the ceiling. "Outside . . . to the south . . . in Nagasaki . . . do you know what has just happened?"
He seemed confused and looked up. "Nagasaki?" he asked. He was blinking rapidly now.
"Yes. Do you have family in Nagasaki?" The question confused him even more and he glanced back over his shoulder, then looked up again. I tried another question. "Do you know what happened in Hiroshima three days ago?"
"Yes, Hiroshima. Do you know about the bomb, the atomic bomb?"
Koki stammered and muttered something to himself, but never answered. Instead, he began rocking from side to side in a rhythmic motion and turned his head toward the wall. He moved back and forth in perfect time, and seemed to be staring at something, or into something, or possibly nothing. I thought I heard him humming deep inside--a last chant or lost prayer.
Before I could ask him anything else, a voice behind me said, "I am afraid Koki is not aware of current events, Zezen." It was the Fleur-du-Mal and I had not heard him approach. Walking into view, he was wearing an elegant silk kimono, cut to his specifications. His hair had been pulled back and tied with his familiar green ribbon and he was once again wearing his ruby earrings. He sat down casually in a chair opposite mine. He let a slow grin spread across his face, then continued. "Let us say, Koki does not get out much."
I ignored the comment and looked back at Koki. He was deep inside his trance. "Where is he staring?" I asked.
"Most certainly at Goya," the Fleur-du-Mal answered. "Koki has been fascinated with Goya for years."
I followed Koki's gaze toward the stone wall. Five paintings hung in a row--three by Pablo Picasso from his classical style of the twenties, and two by an artist unfamiliar to me. I walked over to get a closer view of the paintings. The artist's name was Candido Portinari and his style had the influence of Picasso, but definitely not Francisco de Goya. Nor were there any Goya paintings, drawings, or prints anywhere on the wall. There were only the five paintings and one unusual object attached to the wall with iron clamps--a human skull. I glanced at Koki. His hands shook and he rocked back and forth and his eyes never left the skull. I turned to the Fleur-du-Mal. "I see no Goya painting."
"Not 'painting,' Zezen. Goya. Koki is staring at the skull of Francisco de Goya." The Fleur-du-Mal paused, grinning, then added matter-of-factly, "In 1899, during an exhumation in Bordeaux, it seems to have gone missing. At the time, and at the very least, I thought Goya's head might serve as an interesting conversation piece." He paused again and looked at Koki. "Alas, it has not."
Excerpted from The Remembering by Steve Cash. Copyright © 2011 by Steve Cash. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.