An extract from “Escarpment”
Her uncle was waiting for us at the edge of a narrow country road. A grizzled old man, with his thick gray hair cropped to his skull and white stubble growing from his cheeks and chin, he carried a flashlight and a big gnarled stick.
“The stick is for the habu snakes,” Sachiko disconcerted me by saying as we got out of the car.
He gave her a big hug, and then looked me up and down in a very unfriendly manner, growling at her:
“Tell him it’s very dark inside. There are insects and snakes. Tell him that if he gets bitten by a habu, he could end up in hospital or dead. So he better stay close behind me and not go wandering off on his own.”
“Dave-san speaks Japanese very well, uncle.”
I smiled, trying to break the ice, and told him, without going into any detail:
“I got bitten by a habu a few months ago.”
He led us down a steep bank. The entrance to the Gama was very low, and the darkness swallowed us up. He turned on the flashlight and kept beating the ground in front of us to scare off snakes.
“The beaches where the American forces landed are not far from here. My village was directly in the path of their advance. We escaped into this cavern, 140 of us – mothers and children; sisters and teenage girls; grandpas and grandmas, older uncles and aunts. No able-bodied men. Our fathers and older brothers had been taken away from us months before.
“We knew what to expect if the Yankees found us. The Army had told us what to expect. Flyers were handed out. First, the flyers said, the Americans would rape the teenage girls; and then the children. They enjoyed children very much, boys as well as girls. They liked to rape them and to slice their throats in front of their mothers. Then they would rape the mothers, cut off their nipples and disembowel them. The Americans were not human. They were devils from Hell.
“The flyers instructed the men-folk that if they were threatened by the approach of American troops they were to kill all children first, then the women and finally themselves. If there were no men around, then the mothers must kill the children before ending their own lives.
“As the Americans moved inland and spread out, a unit found our cave. An officer called down to us not to be afraid, that nothing would happen to us; and he asked us to come out. But no one understood what he was saying.
“I was a toddler. I couldn’t do anything to protect my mother and my grandma from these devils. But there were some older boys among us. By older I mean ten or eleven, and they were armed with bamboo spears.
“They believed themselves already to be soldiers of the Emperor and had been given a kind of rudimentary training by the young men from the village before those young men were taken away to the front lines of the defense. The boys had marched up and down in the fields and charged with their bamboo spears bales of straw set up to represent American soldiers, killing them instantly.
“And now, they did not hesitate. Too quickly to be restrained by their mothers, a platoon of about ten little boys charged towards the entrance of the cave with their bamboo spears. Screaming death to the enemy. The screams only of little boys, but screams that the cave amplified into terrifying sounds.
“Remember that the Americans had fought their way up the Pacific against the constant nightmare of the blood-curdling banzai charge. At that moment, they did not know they were facing little boys playing the hero.
“They saw only figures bursting into the dark cave mouth. A nervous soldier fired his rifle at them; then another did likewise. Realizing the mistake that was happening, an officer shouted for his men to hold their fire, but by then it was too late. The boys lay dead.
“To the people cowering deep in the cave, that act was an affirmation of everything they had been told to expect. The devils had mercilessly gunned down ten little boys. Now they would sweep into the cave to rape, torture and kill everyone else.
“The old people had the strength to act immediately. They used the scythes they had cut the rice stalks with. By the time the American officers reached the carnage and put a stop to it, more than eighty of the villagers were dead.”
The old man’s flashlight beam showed me the scene of that brutal day, preserved over the decades as it was.
He showed me white bones, many of them small, some tiny. Fragments of skull, broken rice bowls, a sake bottle clogged with dust. He showed me cooking utensils, a wooden hair comb, an old hoe, a blood-soaked kimono. Showed me the rusty scythes.
“That comb belonged to my mother.”
I had seen. I would remember. I needed to get out. I turned my head, and my eyes searched for the sunlight at the cave’s entrance, but couldn’t find it. Panic gripped me; and a thought – there is no exit from this place.
For me, there was; and, sometime later, a seat on a flight back to Kobe. But for Sachiko’s uncle, and many thousands like him, there really is no way out of those caves.