Artifacts of War
Virgilio and his son, Isko, hiked up Sokehs Rock, scaling the sheer basalt cliffs with the aid of banyan root. Though Isko was only seven, he was nimble enough to keep up without causing his father too much concern for his safety. High above the mangrove swamp, they came across three anti-aircraft guns left behind by the Japanese. Thirty years after the war, the cannons remained pointing eastward, as if American bombers still might one day appear on the horizon. Salty air and the alchemy of time had transformed iron into layers of rust, brittle as garlic peels, held in place only by kudzu vines.
“There were no battles here, though,” Virgilio said matter-of-factly. “The war bypassed Pohnpei entirely.” War to him meant more than just being prepared to fight. As a child in the Philippines, Virgilio witnessed the Bataan Death March lumber through his village, emaciated American and Filipino soldiers collapsing in the road, left to die in the gutters. The villagers were unable to come to their aid, lest they be beaten by the Japanese. Whenever Isko asked his father what it was like to witness the Death March, Virgilio would shrug and say, “It was war. It’s just the way it was.” Virgilio was not one to indulge the morbid curiosity of his son, who was too young to learn the details of such atrocities.
On the southern side of the island near Awok Pass, in the shallow waters of the barrier reef, Isko and his little sister, Lilibeth, swam over a large crater in the coral shelf, the bottom suddenly giving way to a floor of pristine sand 20 feet below. They treaded water at the very center, masks and snorkels resting on their foreheads. How strange the crater felt, perfectly circular, man-made yet alien, as if the atmospheric pressure had somehow dropped within its perimeter. Isko imagined a white tower of water, of coral and shell, shooting up like the fist of Neptune, reaching skyward with a roar, coming down in a hiss.
“This was probably just a bomb test,” Virgilio told his children from the boat, casting his lure to the edge of the crater, sitting back, adjusting his sunglasses. “The real battles were fought farther west, in Chuuk Lagoon and Palau.”
At a construction site across the street from their house, in the muddy tracks of a bulldozer, Isko found, unearthed, a small cobalt-blue bottle with Japanese characters embossed in the glass. He rinsed it in the river, gently tapped out the dirt within, and held it to the sun, letting its sapphire shadow fall across his face. “It must be a medicine bottle,” Lilibeth declared, having decided it was too small for something potable like sake or beer. They were certain the characters meant antibiotics or penicillin, used to treat wounded Japanese soldiers in the hospital that surely once stood across the street from their house.
“Maybe,” Virgilio said, but he was dubious.
Yoshio, a Pohnpeian man who worked with Virgilio at the Ag Station, left one day to visit Japan. Isko and Lilibeth tagged along to see Yoshio off. The tiny thatched-roof airport was crowded with relatives and friends, the women in bright floral prints, the men in button-down shirts and dress shoes instead of T-shirts and flip-flops. Yoshio’s shoulders were heavily draped with plumeria leis and ginger flower. As he hugged everyone good-bye, his eyes brimmed with tears, though he would be back in just two weeks.
“Yoshio is going to see his brother, who he hasn’t seen since they were very small,” Virgilio explained to Isko and Lilibeth on the drive home. “Some Japanese soldiers, when they were stationed here, married local girls, started families. But when the war ended, they were only allowed to bring back one child; not even their wives, just one child.”
The cannons perched on Sokehs Rock, the craters in the reef, the blue medicine bottle, these artifacts of war had little resonance with Isko, who saw them as mere fodder for make-believe, until the day Yoshio left for Japan, when Isko was suddenly able to envision the children who were taken away, chosen, after long and tearful deliberation, to grow up in Japan, as culturally Japanese as their brown skin allowed them to be. The faces of these children haunted the brothers and sisters who remained behind, faces that never grew old, wailing and confused, carried off in the arms of their fathers onto ships that would never return.
“Can you imagine?” Virgilio asked, more to himself than his children, shaking his head. “Terrible to have to choose.” Isko could see in Lilibeth’s eyes that she, like he, could not bear to imagine who their father might have chosen. Isko was grateful his father never had to.
Jay Ruben Dayrit’s work has appeared in a handful of magazines, literary journals and anthologies, including Sycamore Review, Minnesota Review, Santa Clara Review, Nexus, The Yale Quarterly, WIRED Magazine, His 2: brilliant new fiction by gay men (Faber & Faber), and What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future (Riverhead Books). He is a recipient of the Headlands Center for the Arts Artist-in-Residence Grant and the San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artists Grant and a member of Seventeen Syllables, an Asian American writers collective. Originally from Kolonia, Pohnpei in the Federated State of Micronesia, he now lives and works in San Francisco.
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Image of Sokehs Rock (modified): Matthew Wingate NOAA Public Domain
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