Something was falling from the sky. It came in a streak of white. Like a comet. Like a shooting star. A whistle of warning against the lavender sky.
Of course, Tsuyako didn’t notice it at all. The task at hand was too demanding for her to lose focus for even a moment.
Tsuyako could navigate those branches like a spider monkey. After years of climbing, she had come to know her lilac tree as an old friend. She had memorized every foothold in its jagged trunk, every cluster of blooming white flowers, every vein in every quivering leaf. Still, one misstep would send her crashing to the grass below. She couldn’t afford to concentrate on anything but the next move she would make.
The longest limbs of the tree scraped the roof of her home with sharp fingernails. The paint around the kitchen window was chipped and ragged from years of scratching. Her father wanted to cut the tendrils off long ago, but she begged him not to until he returned the saw to its corner of the shed. Those branches created the perfect bridge from the tree to the roof.
When she first started climbing to the roof, her father almost had a heart attack. He told her she’d break her neck one day, and he was probably right. But Tsuyako didn’t care. Not as a child, and definitely not now. At thirteen years old, she was sweet as a summer peach and lively as a lark. In a year she would begin working in the factory with her mother and all the other women in the Chugoku region, manufacturing radios from morning till evening. She had to enjoy her sunrises while she still could.
Crouching beneath the tangle of leaves overhead, she crawled along the oldest, thickest spur until she was mere feet away from the rooftop. The branch wobbled beneath her weight as she rose to her feet. She lifted her arms like a professional tightrope walker, steadying herself.
And she jumped.
It started with her heels lifting from the branch, then the balls of her feet rolling forward, until finally her toes left behind anything solid. The wind whipped at her hair. The morning air stung her cheeks. Her heart felt light enough to fly out of her chest, yet it was completely full at the same time.
She was free.
Laughter bubbled from Tsuyako’s lips as she landed on the slant of the roof. She stumbled but did not fall. She never fell.
From here, she could see all of her city. The radio factory seventeen blocks away. The children trekking to school with backpacks mounted on their shoulders like turtle shells. The grandmother selling momiji manju at a street stand. The horizon was so hazy that Tsuyako could not tell where the sea ended and heaven began. The Motoyasu River looked like the silver veins of a sleeping giant, snaking through the city, bleeding out into the Pacific. The ocean was just a sliver in the distance, too far away to be seen from the ground. When the war is over, she thought, I’m going to go to the ocean, and I’ll swim and swim and swim, and I’m never going to stop.
Tsuyako had been doing this for four years. Every morning, she’d look over the city, like a pirate in the crow’s nest, and watch the ocean for any sign of the war. It was no secret that the Americans were staining the Pacific red with her country’s blood. Every time she opened her door, she half expected to see soldiers fighting at her doorstep. Today all she could see were the metal ships marching into the harbor and the airplanes soaring overhead like lost doves. Other than that, there was nothing.
The sun began to wake. He rose from the ocean and spun the sky into cotton candy as he stretched. Slowly, color returned to the world, and the scene of black and white before Tsuyako was filled with life. Tsuyako had seen this a hundred times before and she wanted to watch it a thousand times more. Although it should have grown boring, it never did. Every morning she found a new shade of purple in the sky, or the sunlight would strike the mountains at a new angle, and she fell in love all over again.
That’s when the city shattered.
It started with her heels lifting, then the balls of her feet, until finally her toes left behind anything solid. Something was hot against her face, but it wasn’t the sun. Something was throwing her off her feet, but it wasn’t the wind. Something was falling from the sky, and it had just landed.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Light shone through her eyelids, clogging her vision with red. Every cell in her body was being shredded like paper. The world around her fell away like ashes. Hiroshima was on fire.
She thought, This is where the world ends.
For the first time, she let herself fall.