In the early evening, my mother and father packed soap and towels into their wooden buckets, we slipped on our winter jackets, and the three of us walked to the nearest bath house. My small feet grew tired in no time and I slowed down. “Let’s keep walking, Yuko.” They grabbed my hands tightly and swung me into the air.
On the main street, some of the stores selling tofu, fruits and vegetables or fish were getting ready to close for the night. I looked for other vendors selling food on a wheeled cart like the lady who made takoyaki balls with a piece of octopus inside the dumplings with sweet soy sauce and shaved bonito flakes on top. I kept looking around. It was winter and my parents wanted to keep walking. They seldom let me buy any of those street foods but they did let me play the goldfish scoop game on our way home. I was very good at scooping the goldfish. I would squat by the large pool where hundreds of baby goldfish were swimming, holding a round paper scooper in my hand, searching carefully for a fish small enough that I could catch. I had to be both slow and swift so I would not break the paper. If I managed to catch three fish before the paper scooper broke, the man would give me a tiny one as a reward. But not this night. That would have to wait for a warmer day.
Suddenly the loud siren went off. It did that every night at five o’clock. My mother gasped, stopped to look up the purple sky. There was nothing to see. Then she took a deep breath and said, “It still frightens me.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It sounds like the air raid siren that warned us about the American B-29s.” She resumed her walk.
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“We had to hide in the underground shelter and watched the Americans drop the firebombs on our city.”
“We’re almost there,” my father said, still holding my hand. “Let’s keep going.”
By the time we got to the bath house, my cheeks were warm and my feet hurt from walking in shoes that were becoming too small for me. At the entrance, we took off our shoes, put them in a tiny cubby hole, and said good-bye to my father. My mother gave a few coins to the lady sitting in the elevated cashier’s booth and as soon as we stepped inside the women’s changing room, she charged ahead looking for empty lockers.
I followed her, slowly moving among the large bodies of naked women changing clothes, drying off, and taking care of their children. I loved watching the babies lying on the raised cots, cooing, flapping their arms, and kicking their legs as their mothers sprinkled baby powder all over their pink skin until they looked like white mochi rice cake buns. I liked the scent of the baby powder and wished I were one of them lazily being taken care of under the warm ceiling light.
My mother found a locker and we began to undress. She helped me get unstuck from my tight turtle neck sweater. Once naked, she opened a large sliding glass door, held my hand, and we slowly stepped inside the steam filled bathing room.
“Let’s clean our bodies first.” She took me to the wash area and we sat in front of a large mirror and a pair of faucets—hot and cold. She filled our bucket with the hot water and washed her body with soap. I did the same. When we were clean, we were ready to step into the large bathtub, but I hesitated.
“Come in, Yuko. It’s nice and warm.”
But I knew it would be scalding hot.
“You’ll get used to it,” she said, holding my hands and pulling me toward her. Inch by inch, I slid my frozen feet and legs into the tub until my skin did not feel the burning pain anymore. I sat next to her on the step inside the hot tub.
The wall between the women’s and men’s bathing rooms was made of ceramic tiles with an image of snow-capped Mount Fuji rising beyond the great waves. Above the wall, there was an opening from the ceiling and I could hear the men’s voices.
“Otouchan, can you hear me, Dad?” My voice echoed before it was drowned in the splashing water and the cacophony of voices. My father didn’t respond. Several women looked in my direction as I shouted.
“Shhhh, Yuko.” My mother said, pressing her finger on her lips. She then turned and gave a quick apologetic bow to the other women. “That was too loud,” she whispered to me.
“I’m thirsty.” I dog paddled to the water faucet at the corner of a large bathtub. The cold water tasted like the shaved ice we ate in the summer. I was about to swim back to her.
“Stop. Yuko, it’s not a swimming pool here. You mustn’t bother other people,” she said sternly.
“How old is your daughter?” A skinny old woman with raisin-like nipples asked my mother, and smiled at me.
“She’ll be five in a few months.”
“What a big five-year-old.” The old woman raised her eyebrows.
“She’s big for her age but still acts like a baby, as you can see.” My mother always talked about me behaving like a big baby but I never did. My grandma Hanako said the same thing to her neighbors whenever we ran into on the street. The grown-ups seemed shocked to find out I was still whatever the age I was and commented on how tall I was.
“One day you’ll be taller than your husband,” a woman said, and everyone laughed hard.
“She’ll have to go to America to find a husband,” another said, and they were in tears. I didn’t know what was so funny.
Back in the bathtub, the water was getting hotter. I stood up on the step, ready to jump out.
“Not yet,” my mother said.
“Let’s count to twenty.” She gave a long pause between numbers. “Ichi…ni…san…shi.…” No sooner did she reach twenty than I jumped out of the torture and moving fast to a faucet to drink some more cold water.
“Walk,” she said again. “You’ll slip on the floor and break your head. Your brain’s your central command system so you never want to injure it.” My mother was full of worries.
She brought me back to sit in front of the faucets again and began scrubbing my head and body as if I were covered with grime. “Ouch,” I protested.
When we were thoroughly cleaned and I felt like I had no skin left, she said we needed to go right back into the tub one last time.
“No. I’m done, Okaachan, all clean.”
“Let’s make ourselves completely warm so we won’t catch a cold on our way home.” She rose and turned to the tub. It was then I noticed red marks on her bottom for the first time. They looked as though a sharp knife had slashed her pale skin many times.
“You have red scars.” I pointed at her back.
She craned her neck to see at herself and slid into the water. She leaned forward and whispered in my ear. “It’s keloid. I’ll tell you a secret if you come into the tub with me.”
Keloid sounded like a deadly disease. I followed her. This time the water didn’t feel burning hot any more.
“When I was a child, bed bugs attacked me. I kept scratching with my nails, until I started to bleed. You should never do what I did because you could get infected.”
Infected? It sounded serious.
“Since we had very little food or medicine during the war, my body didn’t fight back and heal. The infection grew worse and your grandmother had to fetch some Chinese medicine from her neighbors. When it was finally healed, I had these permanent scars.”
“You didn’t have food?”
“We had very little because of the war.”
“When I was a child, we were fighting a war against the Americans.”
“The Americans, like those in the Little Rascals?”
She chuckled. Then her face turned serious. “Remember the siren you heard earlier? During the war, every time the siren went off, we knew the Americans bombers called B-29s were coming. They came at night and dropped firebombs all over the city.” She paused, looking away, some place I wouldn’t see.
“They burned our neighborhood, the houses, hospitals, and factories. The bridges and roads were also destroyed. Our stores were burned, too.” She was quiet for a moment. Then said, “That’s why we had no food.”
“Where was your house? Was it burned, too?”
“We lived in southern Osaka; a city called Ikuno. When the siren went off, we hid in the underground shelter. From there I could see the sky turn crimson red.”
As she said it, I remembered seeing a fire at night a few weeks earlier on our way back from the bath house. The red flames and grey smoke spread fast over the dark sky. I was horrified thinking that it might be our house that was burning and we wouldn’t have a place to sleep any more. It turned out to be someone else’s house, but the fire in the night sky looked terrifying all the same. I wondered how my mother and her family escaped the firebombs.
The water felt hotter, and I was red like a steamed river prawn. “I want to get out now.”
She continued as if she hadn’t heard me, talking almost to herself. “One night, the bombing was more intense than usual. I was scared. We quickly hid in the underground shelter and this boy next door, he was sixteen, said to me, ‘Look!’ pointing at the American B-29s. ‘You watch this,’ he said, ‘for you may never see a sight like this again in your life.’ I kept watching the red burning sky. It was horrible, just horrible.”
As if she had finally noticed that I was dying from the heat, she stood up, and with that, I jumped out of the tub. We rinsed off our bodies with clean water before we left.
In the changing room, as my mother turned her back to me to open our locker, I saw the painful looking marks on her fair skin again. She wrapped a towel around her body, now pink like a crying baby’s face.
“If it weren’t for the war, I would’ve been a healthier child, like you,” she said to me, now smiling. “I would’ve been a teacher or a nutritionist.” Before she put her clothes back on, she weighed herself on a scale. The images of the red burning sky and the scratching of her buttocks came back.
“What happened to your house?” I asked.
“Our house didn’t get burned, but most of our neighbors were hit badly. We decided it would be a matter of time before we’d all be dead, so we left Osaka in a hurry, and moved to Fukui, where your grandmother Sadako lives.”
“No bombings there?” I asked.
“Fukui was safer, but we weren’t free from the B-29s. They came and dropped firebombs there, too. When the war finally ended in August, your grandma, Sadako, wanted us to return to Osaka, but some of her relatives in the city told her not to come back. The city was damaged and there were orphans and injured people everywhere, all half-starved and nearly dead, crowding the streets.”
I wanted to know more, but she said we must hurry to meet up with my father outside. We stepped out to the entrance and apologized for making him wait. He didn’t seem upset. We put our shoes on, bundled up against the cold, and walked briskly home. On the way, we passed a large construction site.
“They found another unexploded ordnance in here,” my father said to my mother.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“One of the American bombs that never went off,” he answered.
I peeped in through a space in the wall of the site and saw an enormous hole plunging down into the ground beyond where I could see.
As we continued home, my mother walking slowly, holding her round stomach, I knew this would become more difficult for her. Soon, my father would complete construction of our own bathing room, with a deep wooden tub and private wash area. It would be the first of any house on our street.
This meant I wouldn’t be able to scoop goldfish near the market in the evenings, but I was happy skipping the long walk in the cold wind.
I continued to bathe with my mother and she continued to scrub my back, but I could wash my own hair now.
“Did you like the snow?” I asked her one night about Fukui, where she and her family moved.
“No, I didn’t like it at all. We had to walk for miles in the knee-deep snow to our new school and we didn’t have snow boots.”
I wished we had more snow in Osaka.
“It got so cold, we all developed frostbite on our feet. We eventually had to stay home our first winter.”
“You didn’t have food, you said. How did you eat?”
“My mother sold her silk kimonos to a farmer for a bag of potatoes.”
“Potatoes?” It didn’t seem fair.
“We had a goose but couldn’t eat it because we needed the eggs.”
“What happened to the goose?”
“When the goose died, we ate grasshoppers.”
“You’re so lucky you were born after the war ended.” She said this often. “There’s no bombing anymore and you can eat all the food you like.”
I thought about my favorite butter-sauteed spinach, egg omelet with chives, and dried baby anchovies on hot steamy rice. She always told me never to waste any food, “not even a grain of rice.” Now I understood why.
“Now, I’m getting out.” She stood up slowly.
“Wait. How did you eat the grasshoppers?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” she said, getting out of the water.
I stayed in the tub and played in the water, making bubbles and waves.
“Don’t stay too long, Yuko,” my mother called from outside the bathroom. My skin was all wrinkled, so I climbed out of the tub, thinking of tomorrow.
Tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, my mother would tell me more stories. About how she and her family lived, in the snow, with little food. The harshness of it. Compared to mine. I couldn’t wait.
It was only there in the bathtub that she told me her stories. Just me. I wished for a sister in spring, but for now, I wanted to be her only child. I didn’t want her stories to end.
Image Source: Molly Des Jardin / Flickr Creative Commons