Guo Du means transition in Chinese. Life’s a series of transitions, a stream of consciousness and illusions, rising and falling like waves. I write to capture them before they disappear.
“THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT”
Winston Churchill was the last famous person to have warned us of that.
But we still refuse to learn because facing history’s dark pages is upsetting.
“Banzai! Banzai!! Tennouheika Banzai!!!”
The euphoric cheers filled Eleanor Thompson with disgust rather than horror. There was no fear left in her. She felt only revulsion, pure and intense, incinerating her numb body.
Her stomach went into spasm. A mouthful of acid erupted. She chocked, biting hard on the stick tied over her mouth to prevent her from chewing up her tongue. Pungent liquid spouted from her mouth. Some shot up the nose. She coughed and blew it out, surprised by the force.
Beasts. Vile beasts.
No! Beasts don’t do this. No other animal would line up — drinking, smoking, singing, exchanging hometown tales — while waiting to force sex on another animal tied to a chair. Only these sub-bestial demons could. Sure, rapes happen during war times. She had heard many stories since becoming a military nurse, horrifying stories which would have been absolutely unseemly for a girl like her just a year before. War had abruptly moulted her well preserved innocence, presented a new stark face of the brutal world. Women bearing the consequence of men’s aggression seemed nothing new. But never so brazen, organised and endorsed.
Never like this…
She looked down. The blanket had slid from her shoulders, bunching at the waist. She was trembling slightly, from rage rather than the cool December air. Vomit and blood was crawling down her chest. She could not feel it on the skin, but the sight was gratifying. “Good. Filthier the better!” She heard her own exhausted voice inside, as if coming from the far end of a long dark tunnel, then closed her eyes.
“Banzai! Banzai!! Tennouheika Banzai!!!”
An eery silence followed.
The young soldier walked over and wiped her chin and neck with a yellow cloth, avoiding her breasts as if too shy and polite to touch her naked body. He poured some water into her mouth. She swallowed what she could. She had not eaten all day. Starvation would be a gratifying prospect. But she couldn’t resist water. She felt it soaked up by withered flesh.
She stared at him, trying to burn a hole in his head with willpower. He focused on her chin, wiping it gently, meticulously, nearly ceremoniously. Ha! These fiends and their impeccable manners. She convulsed an imperceptible chuckle.
He returned to his chair by the door and gazed at the floor.
A voice came through the speakers downstairs, loud and lurching.
Uproarious Banzai! Banzai!! punctuated the victory speech.
Then they sang.
He hummed along.
You and I are from the same cherry blossom, blooming in military school. Once bloomed, we’re destined to break up. Let’s break up splendidly for our country...
Ichiro had sang Doki-no-Sakura a thousand times, but never seen cherry blossom in military school. His training was tough and hasty, in the wrong season. But he always loved cherry blossom.
Sakura! So brilliant. So poetic.
Two years ago, in his hometown, he sat in a blizzard of falling petals with grandma. He had no memory of his parents. Grandma had brought him up. They had each other and not much else. Grandma had tears in her eyes.
“Obaasan, you never cry!”
“Just the wind Ichiro,” she squeezed her eyes. “You take care in the army.”
“So sorry I can’t be around to serve you obaasan.”
“Don’t be silly. I don’t need serving. You’re a big boy now. You have a duty to the country and Emperor.” A petal landed on her cheek. She picked and dropped it. “Why are we at war?” she murmured, mostly to herself.
“Obaasan!” Ichiro was embarrassed. “So sorry. Only Japan can liberate Asia from the colonialists. It’s our duty! Our destiny!”
Grandma did not answer. She looked up at the drifting flowers and sang in a broken whisper: Sakura petals fall. Look how splendid! Nature dances, from treetop to me, back to the soil. A new life has been seeded...
Instead of new life, Ichiro now saw that Sakura fell because they had died.
She was about my age this morning. His thought returned to the room. Now she looks thirty years older.
He was reluctant at first.
“Your turn Ichiro! You’re last!”
“What’s the matter? Too soft down there?”
“Prefer a Chinaman’s ass instead?”
Ha ha! Ha ha!
“Dummies!” he bawled, dropping his pants. “Watch!”
But his penis was limp. It made him furious. He barked at her: “Whore! Cow!” then slapped her and spat at her face. The soldiers hooted with laughter.
“They’re beasts. Treat them as beasts,” Saburojiro had told him. He was two years older, and had joined the army a year before. “Spit on them! Then you won’t feel bad about killing them more than you do squishing a worm.”
Saburojiro was shot in the throat in Sai Wan, on their first day in Hong Kong.
“Cow!” he spat again, chin wet with saliva froth. The tantrum somehow woke his penis. He gripped the chair arms, knuckles white, khaki pants around ankles, and inserted, moaning way too loud. She cringed, eyes narrowed to a slit of searing despise, injecting venom into his soul. May all of you and your children and grandchildren burn in eternal hellfire.
He avoided her eyes. “Never look into a cow’s eyes,” Grandma had told him. “It brings bad luck.”
The soldiers cheered on, clapping to his fitful rhythm. He lost his erection, and pretended to have climaxed.
“So fast Ichiro!”
That was his first time with a woman, kind of.
Kan Bei! Kan Bei! The drinking had resumed downstairs.
Victory! Commander Takashi Sakai was now the Governor of Hong Kong.
Takashi Sakai Banzai!
Although he had to keep guard and could not join the celebration, he felt pride rising within. Saburojiro had died for a good cause. His spirit could now go home to find peace and beauty among sakura trees.
A wave of melancholy overtook him. He started humming Doki-no-Sakura, dedicated to Saburojiro. Although we die somewhere else, in Yasukuni Shrine we shall be cherry blossoms, and meet again at the same treetop comes springtime. . .
This gaijin woman... Now that they were alone, spooked him.
The thought of the boys returning for more of her also tormented him. She was his woman now, somehow, secretly.
After becoming soldier, he had often felt unsure and empty. “Never feel or think. Just do what everyone else does,” his youthful guru Saburojiro had advised. But this mitigation strategy had collapsed since the morning. He was now torn apart by anger, sadness, shame, regret, and intense loneliness. One minute, he had a burning desire to try it again with her, just them two this time. The next moment, he wanted to shove the bayonet into her heart, then drown in her blood.
Enraged by the confusion and weakness, he sprang up, kicked the chair over, and stepped outside. The guard next room poked his head out. “Everything okay?”
“Ah! Just too happy about victory! So sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Let’s drink to that later Ichiro!”
“Yes we will. Let’s celebrate!”
She loved everything Christmas: presents, carols, knickknacks, pudding, stockings, goose, ham, berry sauce, and, most of all, gingerbread.
“Eleanor’s the best ginger-house architect in the Empire!” Papa said. It was a manor with a paddock ranged by two biscuit ponies, guarded by a snow-couple with long frosty noses. The manor was owned by a happy family: Papa the engineer, Mum who roasted the best goose in England, Little Thomas who’d turn thirteen next March, and Eleanor, the best architect in Gingerland.
“If I were a boy,” she had told Papa. “I’d study to be an architect.”
“Girls can now be architects too darling. Believe it or not, a lady designed the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.”
“Wow!” She had pondered the novel possibility.
“The boys’d be scared of you,” Mum had warned, playfully, also thoughtfully.
She decided to join Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service instead. Mum and Papa were sad but encouraging. “Darling, it’s our duty. We’re proud of you.”
After dinner, she continued to decorate the small banyan tree that Captain Hickey had trimmed into a coniferous outline. Billy Boy, a recent amputee, had helped. The young man was turning twenty on Christmas Day, one leg less. But his spirit had won everyone’s heart. Something about these Canadians. They seemed a good balance. More relaxed than the men back home, quite at ease with women, but still polite and respectful.
“If I were a boy, I’d become a fighter pilot, then study architecture after the war.” She told Captain Hickey as he put the tree up.
“Why not be an engineer with us.” Hickey was referring to the Royal Canadian Armed Service Corp.
“My Papa’s an engineer too you know.”
“But you’re a girl, Sister Eleanor.” Billy teased. He had felt a throbbing pain in his stump, and was lying down next to the tree to rest whatever was left of his right leg.
“Thank you for the prudent reminder Private Billy.”
“At least you don’t have to face the Japs in battlefield and risk losing a leg,” said Billy.
“You’ve only lost half of one, don’t exaggerate,” Hickey smiled, patting Billy’s good leg gently. He nearly added: “What about Nanking? Women are committing suicide rather than face the Japs in occupied territories.”
Eleanor was pensive, fighting a similar thought. She fixed Father Christmas, reincarnated from Sister Margret’s old red socks, to the tree top — here! — then turned to assure the Canadians: “We’re safe here. Great Britain has never surrendered. We can take reasonable comfort in that track record can’t we?”
“Yup!” Hickey agreed without looking, focusing on hanging cardboard snowflakes to the branches instead.
It was December 17th, one day before Japanese forces crossed the harbour from Kowloon, something that Eleanor still felt sure will not happen. Faith was all she had left.
The wind had been freakish. The school bell tolled erratically in the middle of the night.
“It’s creepy,” her roommate Sister Margaret had remarked.
“The clapper tie’s come undone, that’s all,” she had tried to sound reassuring. “Seasonable though isn’t it? Probably a good omen.”
Before dawn, like a nightmare coalesced into reality, they precipitated out of darkness.
“We’re unarmed Sir. This is St. Stephen’s College Hospital. You’re not —” They listened to Doctor Black and Captain Whitney from the ward. The nurses and patients were holding hands, palms cold and sweaty. Nobody seemed to be breathing.
When they were taking the young nurses away, Hickey lunged forward and grabbed her by the arm. It was the last time she felt the touch of a human.
“No!” he screamed.
Bayonets plunged into him simultaneously. No warnings. No fuss. She heard a faint hiss. It could have come from her own heart.
“You can’t do that!” cried Billy from his bed, bouncing one leg. A soldier, smelling like alcohol, shoved a bayonet into him, then made a hellish squeal when yanking it out, releasing a jet-stream of blood. Another hiss.
Maddened by the sight, the other soldiers descended on the patients, shrieking savagely.
“No!” was also her own last word, as they dragged her away.
Ichiro stole a lingering glance.
Her eyes were shut, shrivelled lids collapsed into sunken sockets. Her exotic golden hair had turned rusty. Her nose was tiny rather than typically long. Slightly upturned, it reminded him of the mischievous forest dwarfs in the gaijin fairy book obaasan had given him long ago. Her alabaster thighs were now blue, green, red, and yellow. She seemed more at peace than a moment ago. She could have been very pretty, he sighed. Sakura petals fall. Look how splendid!
You and I are from the same cheery blossom…
Kan Bei! Kan Bei!!
The celebration was getting rowdy.
They would be up soon. He felt a twisting pain inside.
Abruptly, he barked at her from the doorway: “Slut! Whore!”
The sleigh glided noiselessly over fluffy clouds. Father Christmas was driving, merrily swirling a whip above the reindeers. In the backseat, she leaned on the Reaper’s boney arm, comforted by the roughness of his cloak, feeling safe next to his faceless form. She closed her eyes, and started to hum Papa’s favourite Christmas hymn.
Remember Adam's fall, O thou man, O thou man... From heaven to hell!
Remember Adam's fall,
How we were condemned all
To hell perpetual,
There for to dwell. . .
- May they rest in peace -
Captain Hickey, Doctor Black and Captain Whitney were real names of some of the victims massacred at St. Stephen’s College (a field hospital at the time), Hong Kong, on 25th December 1941. The Japanese Imperial Army cremated over 100 bodies in the school yard the following day. Eleanor was fictional; but the crime committed against her and countless other women was not. It remains a lesson to be learnt.
Doki-no-Sakura was a popular Japanese military song which remains well circulated on YouTube.