The night fell on my mother’s house, alive with smells of apple cider vinegar and fish sauce, and cold with the dying strains of winter. My son looked at me with scorn in his eyes and said, “I want to fight. Chichi would be ashamed if he saw me hiding like this, behind the skirts of old women.”
“Your father would be proud, Kazuki.”
“I’m going back to Tokyo to enlist.”
“Don’t leave me.” I clawed his sleeve.
“Useless woman.” He pushed me away and disappeared from my life, my only son, who I tried in vain to hide from the generals.
A mother knows forgiveness was beyond him. He remembered the welts on his legs, but forgot the years in my arms and the nights I stroked his back and whispered in the shadows, “Don’t cry. It’s all right. Don’t cry.” The balls of my thumbs rubbed under his shoulder blades, and his eyes grew calm. My fingertips kneaded the muscles that ran down each side of his spine, and the pinch of his mouth softened.
“He must learn,” his father said, wiping the blood from his cane. “The pain will make him strong. You will see, woman. You will see.”
The heel of my hand rolled the top of his shoulders, and he slept.
I volunteered to go: ammunition, food, and the comfort women from Korea shipped to the islands to serve the empire. The young girls were lured with promises of work, or snatched from their homes and brutally acquainted with their duties, but I went quietly, an empty shell with nothing left to give, and landed on Guam.
“She has magic hands,” I heard the older soldiers tell the younger men who preferred the pliable limbs and complacency of the damaged virgins. “Try her and see. Magic hands.”
And so the numbers grew, from three to six a night and more during the day, their sweaty, jaundiced skin stretched over bone and sinew, panting and heaving under my touch, the fumbling fingers prodding me like sticks, scratching me with jagged nails black from war and loneliness.
Sato stands before me, the riding crop pressed against the outside of his right leg. “Captain Takahashi is one of our most promising young officers, hand-picked by Major-General Horii himself. He is not happy with the other girls.”
I am on my knees. My eyes remain trained on the coconut husks piled like bodies in the corner of the tent; I know not to challenge the stare of the colonel. He taps the whip against the top of his boot. Thwup. Thwup. “I told him about you. About your magic hands.”
The canvas flutters like bird wings, a second man enters, and the black boots stride to where I am kneeling and stop. “Look at me, woman.” The voice is my husband’s when he was young, severe and stern and flat like a snake.
Slowly, I raise my head and join my hands to show my respect, trailing my eyes over the green and up to the face, knowing what I will see. “Kazuki,” I whisper, the shake in my voice betraying the fear and joy in my heart. “At last I have found you.” But my son has turned away with contempt in his eyes. He melts into the canvas, and then he is gone. “Forgive me,” I cry. “Forgive me.”
There is a hiss behind me and a burn across my shoulders. Leather bites into me, over and over, through the cotton of my dress. I swallow my cry as the whip tears at my skin between strips of cloth, and the pain is swamped by streams of wet. My hands cup the back of my head, and I slump to my side and curl in the dust, but the air continues to hiss with each stroke, and the fire continues to eat at my flesh.
“USE – less WO – man.” The colonel’s words lash with the whip – swup, swup – over and over. “How DARE you.” Swup. “How DARE you.”
The air is still. The voice of my sins–my own son– speaks calmly. “I want to try her. The others agree she has magic hands. I will see for myself.”
I can hear their voices and smell the fat they use to dress their boots as the colonel strides past, but my body is oozing through the cuts in my back, and I am afraid if I move, I will split open and seep into the earth. And then a hand is upon me, touching my shoulder, stroking my hair, and the voice is a whisper. “Don’t cry. It’s all right. Don’t cry.”
The night falls on my mother’s house, alive with smells of crushed garlic and grilled squid, and warm with the tail-end of summer. Kazuki sent me home, but was killed when the Americans landed later that month. I stare at my hands and try to forget, but a mother knows the torment of guilt, when magic just isn’t enough.