Posts Tagged ‘Hiroshima’

Hiroshima

July 29, 2010

This post is not for the faint of heart. I will not sugar-coat anything. Read it only if you are prepared to look the specter of war in the face. Since it is something I am often asked about and have been asked again quite recently, I will reflect on my visit to Hiroshima and remember what I can. (We’re coming up on the anniversary of the bombing in a few days.)

The story begins for me when I was in Mr. Jones’s fifth- or sixth-grade reading class at the end of the 1970s. (I don’t remember which year it was; I had him as a reading teacher both years.) In the class, we read part of a book that is seared forever into my memory: The Bells of Nagasaki (Nagasaki no Kane), by Dr. Takashi Nagai. The excerpt we read (which may have been more “adaptation” than “excerpt”) was called “Child of Nagasaki,” and focused on the true story of Dr. Nagai’s daughter Kayano.

Dr. Nagai had been diagnosed with leukemia before the end of the war; he most likely contracted it from years of exposure to the X-ray machine used on his patients. He was only expected to live about three more years at the most. Then came August of 1945, and the bomb.

Kayano — though she lived about thirty years before our time — was a child just like us. She had a bigger brother Makoto. To keep the two children farther from potential air raids, they had been taken a short distance outside Nagasaki to stay with their grandparents. When the bomb fell, Kayano was four years old.

On August 9, 1945, Kayano saw a flash in the sky as if the sun had exploded, and a force like an invisible hand threw her across the room. When she looked up, something like a monstrous black tree made of smoke was towering over Nagasaki. And from that point on, life for her was nothing at all like the lives we knew.

Her father, also hurled across the room and half-buried in debris, had severe facial cuts from flying glass, but he stayed at the hospital for three or four days, working round the clock to treat the injured and the dying who filled the wards and lined the halls. His own home and his wife had been incinerated in the initial blast. Mrs. Nagai, a Christian, had been reduced to a soft pile of ash with her rosary nearby.

Dr. Nagai, his head swathed in bandages, trudged to the grandparents’ home to check on them and the children; he firmly warned Kayano and Makoto not to touch the strange, black rain that was falling. A short while later, the grandmother made the trek to the Nagai home and brought back some bone fragments from the children’s mother. (This is not as morbid as it sounds to western ears; Japanese cremate their dead, and the charred bone pieces that remain after cremation are handled with honor according to funerary custom. These bone fragments are called okotsu and are often kept in the home for awhile before being placed in a family grave.)

Dr. Nagai himself lived for several more years. His spiritual journey led him from Shintoism to atheism and ultimately to Christian faith. He wrote bestselling books that related the experience of Nagasaki to the world; the income thus generated was channeled into various means of helping the victims of war. Makoto and Kayano grew to adulthood; Kayano became a teacher.

That reading assignment terrified me on a deeper level than any fictional horror story I’d read. Even as kids, we were all too aware of the missiles in the silos and in the submarines: missiles aimed at the U.S.S.R., missiles aimed at all the major U.S. cities, missiles aimed at the whole world, and tense nations squared off against one another, each with the power to launch an irrevocable armageddon. I imagined the things Kayano Nagai had seen; I imagined it happening in Taylorville, Illinois. It kept me awake at night.

I knew there was nowhere to run from a nuclear holocaust. Tour guides at Mammoth Cave, answering the inevitable question, would explain that no, even a deep cave would offer little protection from radioactive fallout: a cave is an open, breathing system, full of water and air from the surface. Unlike the tornadoes that frequently devasted farms and towns in the Midwest, nuclear weapons brought more than city-leveling explosions; they poisoned the air, the water, and the ground. You were far better off if you died in the initial blast, because to be alive after it, when the black rain fell, was a nightmare beyond the power of any words to convey. One phrase used by eyewitnesses to describe the condition of still-living victims of Hiroshima was “the Death-in-Life.”

Hiroshima, as I understand it, had been spared most of the relentless bombing experienced by many other Japanese cities. On that clear, late-summer morning in 1945 (August 6th for the Japanese, because Japan is a day ahead; in the States, we remember it as the 5th), people were beginning their routines — finishing breakfast, heading for work, thinking about what a hot day it would be. There was the faint drone of a plane. . . . But just a single aircraft, not a squadron of B-29s with their payloads of thunder and fire; just a single aircraft, and very high up, barely a speck in the sky. Nothing to be alarmed at.

The plane made a sharp turn and raced away from the city. It was about a quarter past eight.

One elderly man, sitting on a porch that faced away from the blast, suddenly had the entire house flipped over on top of him. I’m guessing you’ve also heard the famous account of the man who was vaporized, but whose shadow remained on the wall behind him — a human silhouette slightly lighter than the charred surface all around. No one at first had any concept of the magnitude of the destruction. Everyone thought it was a localized cluster-bomb, and that they’d had the misfortune to be near it. No one could conceive that such damage had been done by a single bomb.

I visited Hiroshima with some friends in — as nearly as I can figure it — about 1990. (Anyone who has my newsletters from that era can check this date, and maybe you can find an important detail or two that I’ve forgotten. I would love to be able to compare my memories now with what I wrote then. Maybe someday. . . .)

I remember arriving before noon and having a picnic lunch under some willow trees beside a little river near the Peace Park. Hiroshima, since long before the war, had been famous for its willow trees. They are green and shimmering, more slender and wispy than the big-crowned weeping willows I grew up with in the Midwest. (In Japan, willows are strongly associated with ghosts — they’re the trees beneath which ghosts appear. This is an ancient belief and has nothing to do with Hiroshima, but it’s ironic.) At that picnic near the Peace Park, I remember watching some ducks swim and feeding them with pieces of our lunch. I remember thinking about what the riverside must have looked like in late 1945. I had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that I could be standing there.

You may have seen pictures of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome) — the domed, skeletal girder framework of a building that was the only thing left standing after the bomb went off. The structure remained because it was in the blast shadow, directly under where the bomb exploded. (The bomb was designed to detonate in midair to maximize the force of its destruction. Its blast spread outward from that central point, so only that one building, standing beneath the “hole of the doughnut,” was spared. Well, it wasn’t spared, it was burned to a crisp — but its framework stayed up, and was still there in the early nineties. I’m not sure it’s still there; it seems I heard a rumor awhile back that it was in structural trouble.)

And I mean, it was the only thing left standing. In the museum you can see a 360-degree composite photo taken from ground zero. (Remember when “ground zero” had a more general meaning for Americans, referring to the point at which any bomb went off? Now we have our own “Ground Zero,” which overshadows any other use of the term.) This photo is in stark black-and-white, and occupies the wall of a large, round room, so you can turn all around and see it as if you were standing there at the bomb site. It shows nothing but devastation to the horizon in every direction — no buildings, no trees, no people, no vehicles — miles and miles of nothing.

One floor of the museum has glass cases displaying artifacts: sometimes barely-recognizable globs of melted and re-hardened metal that were once everyday objects.

I vividly remember a set of maps of various major world cities. With concentric circles and shading, each map showed the range and degree of effect if an atomic bomb equivalent to the Hiroshima device were to be detonated in that city. Only a couple years before, I’d been a student in the Chicago area; I spent a long time studying the Chicago map, noticing which part of the city would be utterly obliterated, which parts would experience collapsed buildings and immolation, which would undergo shattered windows and widespread fires . . . and how far outside Chicago there would be some effects . . . and how far the deadly radiation would extend . . . and how very, very far out you’d have to be to experience no effects. Studying the impact of a similar bomb on a city I knew pretty well brought the horror home on yet another level. [And that was a little old pioneer rinky-dink A-bomb -- a mere firecracker compared to the nukes of today.]

The museum had copies of the flyers dropped all across the Japanese countryside by Allied planes, flyers in Japanese urging the people to surrender, to stop supporting their government, whose policies were only leading them to increased suffering. There’s no way to measure it, but I wonder what effect, if any, such flyers had. When a farmer in his paddy picked one up and read it, did he think anything beyond “This is enemy propaganda”? I’ve heard from various friends and older people here that the Japanese government propagated the image of Americans as looking like demons, with faces like horses. (Of course American propaganda at the time portrayed much the same picture of Japanese as ill-favored, large-toothed, nearsighted monsters.) It is greatly to the credit of “the Greatest Generation” that, when U.S. troops arrived in Japan on occupation duty, people here were stunned at how different they actually were from the horrible reputation that had preceded them; I’ve heard that from several firsthand sources. Also, I knew a pastor of the Japan Lutheran Church who was a WWII veteran. He was stationed in Okinawa when American forces landed there. He’d been told to avoid capture at all costs, since the enemy would torture and kill him — so he fought like mad to escape from the tightening circle of green-clad soldiers. At last he was too starved and weak and exhausted to wriggle any farther, and they got him. And he said it was the best thing that had happened to him since the war began. He was well-treated, clean, and had food and water for the first time in many days.

But I digress. I also knew a Christian man who worked in the offices of the Japan Lutheran Church and was a survivor of Hiroshima. He was cheerful and pleasant, but had limited mobility and some spinal disfiguration.

Do you know that the city where I live, Niigata, was very nearly the recipient of the second atomic bomb? There are copies of the orders on display in the Hiroshima museum — I’ve read them. The American high command issued orders to drop the bombs on the primary targets of “Hiroshima and Niigata.” The Hiroshima bombing took place as planned. When the second plane flew over Niigata, the city was having its typical weather that I’m always complaining about: solid cloud cover. The bombardier couldn’t see a thing through his scope. So, following the Plan B protocol, the plane turned south to Nagasaki. I’ve often reflected on that. If Niigata had had nice weather on August 9, 1945, most of the people I know here would either have died or would never have been born. Dr. Nagai of Nagasaki would likely have succumbed quietly to his leukemia; his wife would have had more years to pray the rosary in this vale of tears; and Kayano wouldn’t have seen her terrible “tree” in the sky. But there would have been other Dr. Nagais, other Kayanos up here in “Snow Country.”

Finally, the thing I remember most about the Peace Park and museum at Hiroshima: one wall inside the museum is covered with pictures drawn by children who experienced the bombing. They’re bright, colorful sketches, some messy, some very neat. I don’t imagine that anyone could gaze at those images and read the children’s hand-lettered reports without feeling it on the deepest level. Even after all these years, tears are coming to my eyes at the mere memory of it.

When we were kids, my cousin and I wrote illustrated stories about zombies, or about the attacks of dinosaurs, grizzly bears, or sharks. Like most little boys, we delighted in all things gruesome. The pictures at Hiroshima are quite similar to what my cousin and I produced for fun — mayhem, body parts not where they should be, heavy use of the red crayon. But these were not stories born of the imagination. These were things the kids had seen, and the subjects of the pictures were their family members, their classmates, their teachers, their neighbors. For me, those drawings and words from children are the most eloquent and powerful testimony of what happened at Hiroshima.

Finally, two stories from a friend who was a little girl in Oosaka during the war. (Yes, that’s “Osaka,” but the “o” is actually long, or double.) Unlike the atomic bomb sites, Oosaka was very heavily hit by the conventional bombing raids. This friend of mine was the only member of her class to live through the war. Imagine that — think of those black-and-white photos from our elementary-school days; imagine X’s drawn across the face of this friend, that friend, that friend, the teacher . . . X’s drawn over every single face but yours.

She tells of how, during one bombing raid, a group of her classmates were all scrambling to get inside a bomb shelter; everything around them was going up in deafening explosions, plumes of fire, the ground shaking, rubble flying . . . for some reason, she didn’t make it to the shelter — she fell down or something. Then the next contact bomb landed squarely on top of the shelter, and everyone who had made it inside was killed.

And she tells of wandering down to the river after the bombing raid. She stood on the riverbank, but she could not see the water — not any of it — because the entire riverbed was choked with human bodies. The same phenomenon took place at Hiroshima, and probably at Nagasaki: to escape the horrible heat, the burning, and the thirst, multitudes headed for the river. No river was big enough to accommodate them all.

Hiroshima today is a bustling city again — rebuilt, like nearly all of Japan. The willows are back, and I’d guess they have plenty of ghosts appearing beneath their tremulous branches in the silver moonlight. What’s old in Japan is very old — temples and shrines date back centuries, over a thousand years in many cases. But most of Japan changes its face again and again. I’ve never seen neighborhoods morph as quickly as they do here. You come home from work and a house or building you always pass is suddenly missing. You come home the next day, and a new one has taken its place.

For an account of the Nagasaki bombing and its aftermath, I think it would be hard to find a better book than The Bells of Nagasaki, by Dr. Takashi Nagai.

For Hiroshima, I very highly recommend the book Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Some years ago, I encountered this book when I was trying to learn speed-reading so that I could get through more of the books I’m always wanting to read. I started reading Hiroshima quickly, but it’s a book that deserves a person’s undivided attention. I slowed down almost immediately and read it word-for-word. It follows the lives of several unrelated people — real people from various walks of life, one of them a priest who wasn’t even Japanese — all of whom were in Hiroshima on the day of the bombing. Through interviews and painstaking research, Hersey reconstructs their experiences of that day and the days following. And then he jumps forward a couple decades with follow-ups on what they were all doing then, what their lives had been like since the bomb. It’s one of those books that should be a part of the education of everyone living in our times; it’s a book you won’t ever forget.

Thunder and Providence

July 3, 2009

Do you know what’s coming next Wednesday? In the early morning hours — to be precise, at six seconds past 4:05 a.m. – the time and date will be:

04:05:06/07/08/09.

Aren’t you glad you found that out? Otherwise, you would have missed it entirely — you probably would have been sleeping or something. Now you can celebrate the moment by running around your yard shouting, waving a couple of sparklers you’ll save from the 4th just for the purpose. That’s what I’d be doing . . . if I had a yard.

Anyway — Happy Fourth of July!

I’ve been thinking hard about this holiday over the last few days.

Not long ago, I read an article about George Washington, which described how he miraculously escaped death on several occasions, both as a young man and during the Revolution. I’m talking miraculous – he should have been toast, but wasn’t — close-range bullets strangely not hitting him, and one instance in which a British soldier had him in the sights of a newly-developed, far-shooting rifle . . . but didn’t realize who this tall, imposing fellow was, and decided it just wasn’t decent to kill a man in such a way. And without the leadership of Washington, it’s very possible — even probable — that the nearly hopeless American army would have been completely hopeless, and the war lost.

A friend this week was telling me about how, by nearly any historian’s estimation, the Revolution was a war that the Americans never should have won. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and severely lacking in training, battle experience, and seasoned leaders. They suffered some terrible defeats. What saved them again and again — and eventually turned the tide of the war — was geography, and the weather, and what many great minds of the time could only attribute to Divine Providence: the hand of God shaping human history.

Throughout my life I’ve connected Glory Day — July 4th — with freedom. But for me growing up, that meant “freedom from school.” I linked the holiday to the fun of fireworks and cookouts and spending time with friends and relatives met only rarely. Fun, fun, fun: but that fun and that freedom were bought at a heavy price.

There was a scene in the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, that really brought the impact of the Revolution home to me. Mel Gibson’s character, an American farmer, comes out onto his porch and sees a line of British redcoats advancing into view from among the trees in his pasture. As I sat there in the theater, that scene jolted me to the core. THAT was the Revolution: enemy troops in your pasture, stepping around the trees you climbed as a kid. Enemy troops in your yard. Shooting at you.

That was the reality then, and it’s the reality today for many people in the world.

It’s about a different war, but I know anyone who saw Saving Private Ryan on the big screen will never forget it. Yes, I mean the first half-hour or so, the intensely realistic depiction of the Allies coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy, under the muzzles of the German guns. When I saw that film, I seriously questioned what I was doing as a writer. At the time, I was working on The Fires of the Deep, a fantasy that takes place during a war. My book included several large-scale battle scenes of precisely that type. The movie made me ask myself whether I had any right to be doing that — to be using war as a part of a fiction book written to entertain readers. I, who have never fought in a war . . . writing a book about war . . . war as entertainment. I felt I should burn the manuscript and go start apologizing to veterans.

Tolkien had far more of a right, if anyone does: he fought in World War I, lost something like three of his four closest friends in the Battle of the Somme, caught trench fever, and was invalided home. So when he writes of battle, it’s quite real. He knows whereof he speaks, and he never misrepresents war. When we read LOTR, we come away knowing that war is a dark, sorrowful thing.

It’s true that martial conflict has always been an element explored and utilized by the poets and writers of the human race, because war is what we humans do, as much as we do anything else. Certainly its drama, its consequence, and its absolutes help to define characters, and writers love to work with stuff like that.

It’s also true that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, one of the best-known and enduring novels of the Civil War, was written by a man who was not a soldier and had no firsthand experience of the war.

So I haven’t given up writing about war (and I didn’t burn the manuscript), but I hope I handle combat as the sad and horrifying inevitability it is in this sin-darkened world.

I have a cousin who is a veteran of Vietnam. Like Tolkien, he lost very close friends in the slaughter. He came home full of metal fragments for which, even now in July 2009, he is having surgeries. He hates the 4th of July — not for what it means, but because of its physical stimuli: in hot, sultry, steamy weather, the sky is full of explosions, and the air is laced with the smell of gunpowder. It’s far too close a reenactment of what he experienced over there. The 4th is a holiday he grits his teeth and gets through.

When he read my story “Seawall,” the climactic battle story at the end of the Agondria cycle, he offered me his experience. “Let me tell you some things about what a person thinks and feels just before and during combat.” I would never have asked him to relive such things, but you can believe I listened with both ears and took very thorough notes. I revised “Seawall” accordingly — so if you read it, you’ll know that the battle parts are as close to the real thing as I can get them — I who do not know war and have no right.

While we’re on this topic: people ask me, since I live in Japan, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “What’s it like?” . . . “Have you been there?” . . . “What do people think?” Yes, I’ve been to Hiroshima, but not to Nagasaki. I’ve seen the “Atomic Bomb Dome” — the one gutted, domed building that was left standing in August of 1945, because it was in the blast shadow, directly under ground zero. I’ve seen the Peace Park and the museum there, and that, too, is an experience I’ll never forget. Aside from all the written accounts, the films, the photos, and the half-melted artifacts on display there, three things in particular are etched in my memory:

One is a 360-degree photo, floor to ceiling, that covers the wall of a circular room in the museum. This picture (probably a carefully-pieced composite) was taken at the blast center. It shows flat, charred wreckage to the horizon in every direction. Where there was once a city full of people.

Another is a wall of maps for comparison. The maps are of several major cities in the world, with different colored circles showing you the effects of a bomb equal in strength to that dropped on Hiroshima. I picked out Chicago, where I’d gone to school for four years, and I spent quite a while studying which suburbs would be vaporized, which would be flattened, which would be set ablaze. . . . When it’s a city you know something about, there’s a lot you think about.

Finally, the museum has a long, long wall of illustrated accounts of the atomic explosion and the days afterward . . . done by children. Children who lived through it — what they saw, what they thought, what they felt, what they did. Big, childlike letters and colorful pictures. The pictures are very much like the gruesome scenes we kids (okay, we boys) drew for amusement, from our imaginations. But these were scenes that kids like ourselves actually saw.

The single most memorable piece we played in junior high band class was an arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It started out through a few verses with beauty and grandeur and mounting tension — a brave young country careening toward internal war. In the middle section, after the melody had risen to a kind of scream, all the wind instruments dropped out, and a grand timpani solo took over. The percussionist pounded the kettledrums, rattling the windows. Hooves, rifles, cannon fire . . . North and South, clashing headlong . . . John Brown, convinced “that the sins of this guilty country cannot be purged away but with blood.” Then the shots faded, the smoke rose, and a muted trumpet played a sorrowful lament. Finally, the other voices came back, reacquiring harmony, gathering strength. As a kid in junior high, I got goosebumps every single time we played it.

This isn’t a post about delight and enchantment this week. Maybe it’s a theme I should have saved for Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day. But I thought Glory Day, this time at the height of summer when we live to the fullest and read and write, watch movies, travel, and dream, would also be a good time for us all to remember a respect for our materials, whatever they may be. Those materials come to our hands at a price. Our freedom is the result of sacrifices made on our behalf . . . and it is the gift of a Power greater than ourselves, ordering our days.

Near the end of Saving Private Ryan, the Tom Hanks character delivers a stern speech to Private Ryan, reminding him that his life, too, has been purchased at a great cost, so Ryan has a duty now to use his life well.

Is that not our only response to Providence? G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Here dies another day during which I have had eyes, ears, hands, and the great world around me. And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed TWO?”

And in the words of the unforgettable Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society:

“What will your verse be? Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Something Like a Dragon

June 19, 2009

By grace, 2,015 words written on the new book today! Whenever I throw word counts around, it’s not my intention to boast. And sheer numbers of words, of course, mean nothing: enough monkeys with enough typewriters could bang out an enormous number of words. I mean only 1.) to demonstrate that there is forward progress, and 2.) to establish credentials. What gives me the right to hold up my head and talk about writing as if I know something is not the things I’ve published: it’s the fact that, today, I’ve been walking the walk, with my fingers on the keys, choosing certain phrases over certain other phrases, figuring out how to get a little more of the story out of the excavation site without damaging it too severely. So the book is on track and moving ahead nicely. (Or, as Spock says in the recent excellent film: “Thrusters on full.”) Soli Deo gloria! [The story is told that J.S. Bach wrote that phrase on every manuscript when he composed music: Soli Deo gloria — Glory to God alone.]

That “excavation” theory of writing is set forth clearly by Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I think he’s exactly right. How about this [my own variation]? — “Writing is bagging the smoke.” It’s attempting to throw a curtain around the misty shape that coalesces — just for a moment — within your reach. If you can get the curtain around it, you can preserve it (or at least its shadow) in a fixed form for yourself and others to enjoy. If you can’t, it’s gone again, because it’s always drifting, always changing, like the clouds in a summer sky. Ooo, I like that! (This cloud motion theory explains why, if you would tackle the same idea at different times of your life, you’d get significantly different stories.) Though you may not believe it, I am still on topic here. . . .

So it’s high time we talked about that dragon! To refresh your memory, and so that you don’t have to go back to a previous post to see the poem in question, here again is “Glory Day.” (The term “Glory Day” refers to the Fourth of July, which for me has always been a symbol of the height of summer . . . the time of freedom and imagination, the season “better-than-which-it-does-not-get.” I wrote this poem at some point during my college years. Specifically, I remember that I wrote it on a 5th of July, the day after Glory Day, sitting on a folding chair facing north across the field between my house and Chris’s house, in the shade of the maple trees at the northeast corner of our yard, with the barn directly behind me. The barn is gone now, but most of those trees are still there.)

“Glory Day”

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.

 

That’s sort of a sonnet: it has 14 lines. But look at the strange rhyme scheme: ABBABBA ACDCDAA. In a departure from normal sonneting (sonneteering?), I compressed the part before the break and expanded the part after the break. See the overlapping effect in what’s normally the first eight lines (now seven)? — ABBAABBA has become ABBABBA. With that overlap, and by carrying that A-rhyme through as I did, I was trying to emphasize unity, that all these elements of the poem are inextricably woven together (“seamless throughout,” like that garment the soldiers didn’t want to tear but cast lots for instead).

In other words, the dead cat is the dragon. The beans, the heat waves, the maple shadows, the creeper, the tracks of time-snails: all these are the dragon, and they are the thunder, and the thunder is the cat, and the dragon is the image of the invisible wind mirrored in the beans that sway. All these things are part of growing up on a farm, where death and life are bound up together; where life bursts from the soil every spring . . . where fragile green things grow from the cracks of old dead fence-posts . . . where everything goes to sleep in the winter, blanketed with snow . . . and where there’s always the smell of something dead wafting from behind some hedgerow (“In ahind yon oul fail dyke / I wot there lies a new slain knight. . . .”) Moreover, it’s all bound up in “Glory Day,” the A-rhyme, the phrase found in the title and in the first and final lines of the poem. “Glory” is freedom and celebration and fireworks in the sky; it’s wonder and youth and being alive, learning and growing; but it’s also a word lodged in the Beyond, isn’t it? Believers in Christ live in “the hope of glory.” We speak of “the glory to be revealed in us.” . . . “We have beheld His glory.” . . . “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” . . . We often set “glory” as the condition opposed to the here and now: there are those of us alive now, and there are “the saints in glory.” So it’s a loaded word — and, I hope, a loaded poem.

Thank you to everyone who put forth a theory as to what the “something like a dragon” is! I appreciated them all, and every one of them was a good answer. A couple of you “went public” and gave us your ideas in official comments; a couple more slipped them to me by e-mail. Your theories about the dragon included:

a rumbling train, the sounds of its progress echoing the thunder;

a row of hills undulating in the distance;

a river, stream, or the Flatbranch Creek;

and even the “raccoon lugging a knapsack” from Maxine Kumin’s “The Presence”!

One might also say a tractor — a solitary tractor crawling across the distance in the vastness of a field can take on a mystical aspect. All these answers are good, and all can be right together.

As for me, I wasn’t thinking as literally as you all were. For me, the dragon isn’t necessarily anything physical or material. It’s more an abstract concept, suggested by those amazing and unsettling shadows the wind leaves in grain fields, which motif I’ve used again and again in my writing. [From my poem The Horror in the Wind: “The wind in shapes / and shadows masks / the dreadful footfalls of the gods.” And from “Seawall”: “Across the slopes, the wind stirs the green asili stems in vast wandering arcs, as if unseen creatures larger than dragons are playing there.”] Jesus mentions this phenomenon, too, doesn’t He, when He’s talking to Nicodemus?

The dragon-like thing crawls south. For me, south is the direction “toward warmth, toward imagination, toward enchantment.” South is the “good” direction. At that time in my life, “north” meant college and cold, hard work and the big city; “south” meant home and freedom.[Treebeard has the line in the LOTR movies about how he's always enjoyed walking south, because it always feels like he's walking downhill. I hear you, 'Beard!]

My intention in this poem, then, is that on the day when all these elements are present: the green, the tree shadows, the dead cat needing to be buried, the heat waves, the passage of time, the thunder — on this day, the wonder and terror and joy and grandeur almost manifest themselves in a tangible shape. That thing crawling south is wonder itself. It’s the shape of something that has no shape; it’s the expression of something that cannot be expressed. (Heh, heh! Sounds like I’m talking about Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith!) All you can do is get the general idea.

Whew! That’s more than anyone ever wanted to know about “Glory Day”!

I was thinking about this use of a dragon to represent something abstract and larger, and it occurred to me that animals — in particular, big animals — are sometimes used this way. It seems to be an ancient and fundamental device.

I need to quote again from my story “A Tale of Silences,” which appeared in Cicada, January/February 2006. This tale is set in a mountain village in Japan in 1970, about 25 years after the war. The main character is an old man named Jii who has lived all his life in the village, which is now slated for obliteration through the construction of a new dam which will flood the area. The story tells of Jii’s last year in the village.

One night, he is awakened in total darkness by strange sounds, and he realizes a bear has gotten into his house and into the very room where he’s been sleeping. For a long time he lies there, not daring to move, and eventually the bear (for reasons unknown) goes away. Jii ponders what this encounter has meant. Here’s the excerpt:

As Jii sawed, chopped, and bundled sticks, he watched the forest, wondering if his bear would return. At times he was sure he could feel eyes upon him, peering from the underbrush. Once he thought he heard husky breathing nearby, but it might have been a breeze in the pine branches. And once, just as a broken limb he’d sawed off dropped into the decomposing leaves, he saw a bear on the next ridge. It was black against the dull sky and huge, bigger than any he’d ever seen. Slowly its head turned in his direction. When the eyes found him, Jii was somehow sure this had been the bear in his house. It gazed at him for a long time, then ambled into the trees.

Later, at dusk, the bamboo swayed in the wind. Sipping hot tea, Jii watched from the window. He envisioned human figures coming and going among the grove’s shifting shadows: himself and Fusa, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes young, once hand-in-hand for the first time. . . .

Paler each day, the sun sought to warm the land by showering more and more thin light, the last of its summer store. It sparkled from the few sere leaves, blazed on the streams, and suffused morning mists like a golden forgetfulness. Jii felt an urgency in the clamoring light; soon all the bears would go into their dens. Before they began their long sleep, and all the land with them, something must be done. Some secret, Jii began to think, must lie hidden near at hand, some riddle of dying leaf or unturned stone that, if solved, would bring peace and clarity. He became convinced that the bear had come to call him out before the valley was lost, to awaken him from his den in the deep years, to lead him to an answer for which he did not quite grasp the question. All he knew, as surely as he knew the sun sank earlier each evening behind the purple height, was that time was running out.

Later, Jii again encounters the bear up close:

The great bear had come — the mountain’s nushi. As if sunlight were shining on his back, Jii felt a comfort, his fear melting away. The terror of the nushi’s first visit was gone, but still Jii could not turn around. A sense of his own insubstantiality kept him unmoving, as if to stir in the nushi’s presence might cause him to dissolve in light. He lowered his head, filled at once with weariness and a peace he had not known since childhood — the earliest days and nights of consciousness, the only time in mortal life that one rests completely. Sinking to the floor before the nushi’s gigantic paws, Jii slept.

Do not fear, said a voice to him in his dreams.

This Japanese concept of a particular area’s nushi  or “lord” — the guardian and master of a certain mountain, forest, or river — has to some degree been introduced to western audiences through the film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the Shinto gods of the forested mountain take the forms of gigantic animals.

It’s interesting, this manifestation of things powerful and divine in the forms of animals. . . .

In Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder, I recall that one of those haunting, enthralling black-and-white pictures shows a pathless forest, and the hind parts of some huge, bear-like animal just visible as the creature passes behind a tree. I don’t have access to my copy of the book right now — anyone out there with a copy, can you confirm this memory? I was intrigued by how the artist chose to depict only part of the animal — and not the head.

In my own first, unpublished novel The Threshold of Twilight, I included a great Well called Twilintarn, which was a point where worlds intersected. Some tremendous, powerful Presence moved over the water there — the Keeper of Twilintarn — so terrible that to see it directly was death, as some unfortunate villains found out. From the glimpses we get of the Keeper, it seems to be a four-footed animal, though of colossal proportions.

In that same book, there is a wild Stag running through the fantasy world: a noble animal which is the embodiment of our own world, this one in which we live. Yes: in that world, our world runs around as a wild Stag. If the Huntsman with his black arrows kills the Stag, our world will perish. And already as the story begins, the Stag is wounded, its steps faltering.

How about Melville’s Moby-Dick? Isn’t the white whale really more than a whale? Doesn’t it represent something bigger?

Lurking in the shadows behind the Old Testament are Leviathan and Behemoth. Both halves of the world have their dragons, some good, some bad. Looming large in my childhood was King Kong: an animal of gigantic size, ruling his lost island of wonder. It’s not a stretch to say that Kong is a symbol of what is wild, free, beautiful, and should not be touched by humankind.

And then there’s Aslan, a lion and the Lord. There are humans and humanoids in Narnia; C.S. Lewis might easily have given his Christ figure a human shape, but he did not.

Back to that picture from The Book of Wonder, of the great beast moving among the trees, and only its hindquarters visible. . . . Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by the passage in Exodus 33, in which Moses has asked to see God’s glory. God reminds Moses that no one may see God’s face and live, but He offers this alternative:

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

I quoted here from the New International Version. I checked four or five different translations of the passage. A couple say God’s “back”; one said “from behind”; and two used the phrase I remember hearing/reading as a child: God’s “back parts.” As a wide-eyed child thinking of this encounter, I always imagined that “back parts” sounded more like part of a quadruped than a human figure. (Yet God has a “hand,” too, that He puts over Moses’s eyes.) It’s pointless to read too much into “back parts,” which is only a translation. [Hey, you guys who have studied Hebrew -- I know there are at least two of you! -- This would be an excellent time to help us out!]

But what is clear is that Moses had a “Glory Day” experience here! We can’t see the face of God . . . or that of the Keeper of Twilintarn. Jii’s bear comes to him in the pitch blackness. We can’t see the wind, but we see its shadow in the grain, and we feel its power. We can’t clearly see what crawls south, but we know it’s something like a dragon, anyway! We behold God’s glory, and we press on toward glory. And we write, attempting to throw the sheet over the ghost.

Grrooinnkkk! Hey, it’s Midsummer’s Eve this week! There may be Good Folk dancing in your garden! When the Eve falls precisely is a matter of which you prefer and when the weather is best: I’d place it on Saturday night or Sunday night if you prefer the solstice, or Wednesday night if you want to go with the eve of the birth of St. John the Baptist.

Grrooiinnkk again: Are you ready for this? My agent has given me the green light to make this announcement. Through the outstanding work of my amazingly incredible agent, we have found a publisher for The Star Shard as a book! Though some details are still being worked out, and more revision is coming, Houghton Mifflin has graciously agreed to give the book a home.

So it’s truly a happy Midsummer’s Eve, and Soli Deo gloria!


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