e devised no further schemes for some time. Namoto’s practical joke had left an impressive impact. Several men had been hospitalized afterward, in fact, from heat prostration. Nevertheless, his savagery continued almost unabated, and again someone managed to obtain poison. Again heated arguments. “I don’t care what they do to me,” the would-be assassin had muttered. “At least that rotten devil will get what’s coming to him. And he’ll never hurt anyone again.”
“Yes, but what will happen then?” someone else challenged. “Not just to you but to all of us—the whole squadron?” After a day or two the poison was poured down the toilet.
Barely a week later I underwent my first unpleasant experience in the air because of a far less deadly alternative. Our rancor against The Mantis had reached another crest, and we were contemplating more games. Certainly our relationship with that strange person was bizarre, to say the least—indeed, even incredible. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain the perverse spirit that enticed us to continue in the face of such retaliation. The term “sado-masochism” seems most appropriate here, however, for in striking back against Rentaro Namoto we inevitably emerged on the losing end.
That latter in mind, we decided our next attack should at least be more subtle than, say, tripping him down the stairs. “How about a good, strong laxative in his food?” Nakamura said, “enough to make him shit his pants, shit enough to fertilize a whole rice paddy?”
“He already does that with his mouth,” Moriyama said.
“Sleeping pills!” Oka exclaimed. “Why not sleeping pills? He’d never make morning formation. Then he’d be in big trouble—they might even demote him to private, even throw him out.”
Tanaka, the man with whom I had fought earlier, laughed boisterously. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Rentaro Namoto a shinpei. We’d give him such a bad time he’d go over the fence the first week.”
I shook my head. “No. No matter what else you say about him, The Mantis is tough. He would never break.”
“Aaa,” Tanaka sneered, “he’d bawl for his mother the first day. He’d go hang himself.” I stared at him in disbelief, fighting down the anger. The feeling had been festering ever since our scrap on the airstrip. One thing I could always count on with Tanaka—we would rarely agree on anything. And always, that impudent grin. I could imagine smashing his stupid face in, changing it so that even his mother wouldn’t recognize him—except for one thing. The grin would still be there.
“All right, shinpei” I said, “go ahead and get the sleeping pills. We’ll see who’s right.”
“All right, shinpei’ He gave an exaggerated bow. “I will since everybody knows you don’t have the guts for it.”
“Oh, really?” I snapped. “Well, at least I’ve got enough to take you on. That doesn’t call for any guts at all, in fact.” At that point we would have come to blows a second time if our friends had not prevailed upon us to calm down.
Despite our animosity, I found myself eagerly awaiting the results of Tanaka’s efforts. Unfortunately, he was never able to procure the necessary pills. How anybody had managed to obtain poison, in fact, was a mystery most of us never unraveled.
Gradually another plan took form which everyone involved responded to with enthusiasm, and it also included the men from another barracks. “We’ll fix your hancho if you’ll help us fix ours,” Nakamura advised them. “What we need right now are the needles from every man’s sewing kit in your barracks. We’ll trade you our own in a day or two.” At first there was great reluctance, but eventually we prevailed because of the plan’s uniqueness and apparently minimal risk.
Shortly after ten one night while The Mantis was enjoying himself in town, four of us sneaked into his room and turned down the covers on his bed. Next we inserted the needles heads downward into his mattress so that the points barely projected above the surface. Then we carefully re-made the bed, having stretched the undersheet so taut that nothing was visible beneath it, and returned to our quarters.
There we sat on our cots in the dark, whispering and laughing. “I hope he has sweet dreams,” someone said.
“Their holy men sleep that way in India,” Yamamoto said. “We can’t have them outdoing us.” We were all brimming with mirth and hilarity, partly, no doubt, because of our anxiety.
“Hey, hey, look at me,” Oka called. “I’m Namoto—I’m lover boy!” Staggering down the dark aisle, he yawned and stretched blissfully. “Good night, my children. Pleasant dreams,” he murmured and slowly lay back on his cot. We watched closely in the dim light as Oka’s eyes closed then suddenly popped open, his mouth forming a silent, agonized scream. Legs and arms flailing, he catapulted to his feet and began leaping about wildly, yelping and clutching at his rear.
An amusing performance, one that nearly broke us into convulsions. Then Yamamoto and Nakamura launched their own versions, and by now everyone in our section was awake, listening. “What this time?” someone groaned.
“Oh, Oka and Kuwahara and those othergokudo,” Moriyama replied. “More of their stupid tricks, getting the whole squadron into trouble again.” It was now after eleven, and eventually we went to sleep.
Following morning chow all the men from our barracks were summoned to Namoto’s office in the orderly room. For a moment he sat there, contemplating the ceiling, idly drumming his fingers on the chair arms and trying to decide, it appeared, whether we were actually worthy of his attention. Projecting from the top of the table in front of him in four neat, silver rows were sixty needles.
Eventually he plucked one of them up and sighted at a spot on the wall with it, closing one eye. “Well?” he said. No reply. “We never thought of this one when I was in pilot school. Very clever. Yes indeed—very clever!” Suddenly his chair slammed upright. Regarding us balefully and shaking his head, he said, “And, of course, you don’t know a thing about these, do you?” Stiffening, he pointed at Nakamura. “You, pimple face!” Nakamura’s acne had worsened considerably of late for some reason. “Let’s have an answer!”
Nakamura swallowed, struggled to reply, and failed.
“Splendid! A nice, direct answer. It seems rather strange, though, my fine pimple face, that you manifest no surprise, no lack of understanding. Apparently you know what I’m referring to—correct?”
Nakamura swallowed again. “No,” he managed at last. “I mean, no honorable hancho-dono.”
“Hmmm. . . .” The Mantis mused. “Not a very convincing liar, is he?” He plucked another needle from table. “So all right!” Rising abruptly, he commenced pacing the room. Once he paused before Moriyama, staring at him through cold, remorseless eyes. Even his eyes were mantis-like. “No, no. . . you wouldn’t know, would you? Too stupid.” Casually he flipped Moriyama’s nose so hard his eyes watered. Then we were dismissed.
As we filed out, however, he called, “Just one minor detail, friends. Every single man in this squadron will bring his sewing kit to morning formation. See that the other sections are informed.”
Upon discovering that all our kits contained the requisite needle, The Mantis appeared impassive. He merely complimented us upon our strategy, adding that he had prepared a special token of appreciation. Then we were dismissed.
The morning passed rather tranquilly. Even our physical training was uneventful. Then came our flying lessons, and The Mantis unveiled his plan. “A short time ago,” he observed, “some of you apparently became rather warm while wearing your flying suits. Worked up a slight sweat. Even became a bit weary—correct?” He nodded slowly, steadily, confirming his own words. “Well, that may have been somewhat unkind, now that I think about it. So today, just to show you what a grand fellow I am, we will forego the hot suits during flying practice. How does that strike you?”
Minutes later as I climbed into the rear cockpit of an Akatombo, the instructor before me turned, and I realized that it was our old nemesis from basic training. Sakigawa, alias The Snake. “Greetings, Kuwahara.” His grin was both mischievous and empathic. As I began to fasten my safety belt, he shook his head. “No safety belts allowed, Kuwahara—Namoto’s orders.”
“No seat belt?” I was shocked.
“Afraid not,” he replied, “sorry.” Another surprise. The Snake actually sounded as if he meant it, as if perhaps he even liked me!
We took off, climbing rapidly. At about five thousand feet The Snake glanced back at me. The sunlight glinted on his goggles, and his eyes appeared to be mere slits. “Hang on tight!”
Already the chill air was buffeting me through the open cockpit.
“Don’t let go!” Seizing the dead controls, I watched and felt the world turn upside down-felt it rushing toward us. We were forming a lazy loop, and I pulled my chin against my chest, thrusting my knees upward beneath the control panel. Black spots clotted my vision, and we began our first descent, pulling out, slicing into a cloud bank. I had almost tumbled from the cockpit!
The spots faded slightly, but already we were heading into another loop. Terrified, I grasped my seat straps, and felt the sky wrench at me like the hands of a giant, tearing at the corners of my mouth, at my clenched eyelids, roaring ferociously within my ears. Desperately, I tightened every muscle, grimacing, striving to resist the tearing, freezing wind.
For a time, I did not know whether we had leveled out or not, literally which side was up. As I struggled to regain my breath, we nosed over into sharp, downward spiral By now my forehead was freezing, my stomach churning savagely. I had never known such overwhelming nausea. The vomit erupted from my throat, even my nostrils, spraying about the cockpit, sheening off into the air.
My vision blurred, and I struggled desperately to keep from fainting. At last, though, we were preparing to land. The black spots were slowly fading, but I was so numb from the cold Sakigawa had to assist me from the cockpit.
All of the men in our squadron underwent the same experience that day, and for several minutes afterward most of us were unable to stand.
Our facial muscles were so cold it was impossible to speak. We were so devastated, in fact, that The Mantis half apologized. “After all, men,” he piously intoned, “this is the Imperial Army Air Force. You must accustom yourselves to things like this or end up as miserable failures. The mind and spirit must learn to prevail over the body!”
Unfortunately, that was not the only unpleasant occurrence in the Akatombo, not by any means. Only a week or so later, I underwent a far worse one, something so amazing that to this day I cannot fully explain it. Moreover, the consequences were far more traumatic than any I had yet encountered.
Six of us were flying formation at about ten thousand feet, The Mantis in the lead, when his voice buzzed over the intercom,
“Today we will find out just how well you have learned your maneuvers. We will now play follow the leader.” Second in formation, I followed behind as he made a wide bank right, angled into a dive and began to loop up and back the opposite direction. I followed him all the way with relative ease, pulling out close on his tail. Then, for some strange reason, instead of slowing, I accelerated.
Sensing our proximity, The Mantis veered and began climbing, but I followed precariously near. It was an odd sensation, one wherein I seemed to be under the control of some perverse force beyond myself, as though suddenly I had been hypnotized. The Mantis performed a half loop, righting himself at the apex, and by now he was ranting into my ear phones. “Get off my tail, you madman! You stupid idiot! Drop back!”
Already the rest of our flight was trailing at some distance. The Mantis angled into a steep dive, and I followed as though attached by a cable. Had he been piloting a faster, more maneuverable craft I could not have stayed with him. But his attempts to escape in the trainer were futile. Twisting, rolling, climbing, circling. . . all to no avail. It was impossible to shake me, and with each passing second the thought of crashing into him, snuffing out his miserable life in mid-air, became more appealing—overwhelmingly. Simultaneously, I was terrified beyond measure.
Cutting in a tight left circle, The Mantis bawled, “Turn right! Turn right!” The order, meant nothing. It had no more meaning than the quacking of a duck or the braying of a jackass. Instead, I turned left, cutting inside his arc, and we missed colliding by only a few feet.
Desperately, The Mantis headed full throttle for the mountains above Fukugawa, and soon we were roaring between their shoulders, winnowing insanely down a long ragged valley. A bearded ridge loomed before us, and I pulled back on the stick as The Mantis climbed frantically— almost too late! His wing nicked off the tip of a pine. Still I followed, the victim of a terrifying yet relentless compulsion, and we continued to climb as one. Now we were ascending above the first peak, circling. Some extraordinary power beyond comprehension seemed to have virtually fused our two aircraft together.
Seconds later, something utterly unexpected happened, something incredible. Uttering a final, frantic oath, The Mantis bailed out! I watched in wonderment as his parachute billowed like a huge silken mushroom, snapping the plummeting figure beneath it into slow motion. Angling gently away on the morning breeze, it gradually grew smaller, and soon the figure beneath it was no larger than a doll. Then it was gone, vanishing into the folds of a distant valley. Moments after that, something flashed against the mountainside beyond. Namoto’s Akatombo had come to rest.
By now my head was roaring, my body like a swarm of bees. Perhaps I would have simply crashed somewhere, resolving it all forever, except for the warning voice buzzing against my ear drums. “Kuwahara! Go back, go back! Remember your family, remember the Emperor! You have an obligation!” It was The Snake, circling just above.
The entire episode, like the fragments of a bad dream, had lasted only a few minutes. Somehow I joined the main formation as sanity returned along with feelings of terrible dread. Minutes later I was landing with the others at Hiro, and approximately two hours after that I was summoned before the Commanding Officer. By now our frolic over the mountains of Fukugawa had attracted much attention.
The Mantis was already there, having been retrieved by one of our military vehicles soon after his parachute landing. He appeared to be uninjured except for a two or three scratches on his face and neck, apparently the result of tree branches. His eyes stared through me, bleak and frozen with hatred as I entered the office of our commanding officer, Captain Yoshiro Tsubaki.
“Be seated, Kuwahara,” the Captain said courteously. I sat, feeling a bit like someone on the electric chair, but our commander seemed completely unperturbed. “Now. . . .” he began, closing a large, black loose-leaf binder and pushing it to one side of his desk. “I wish to determine as precisely as possible what actually happened out there over Fukugawa this afternoon.” He frowned slightly and pursed his lips. “And above all, why. We will hear from you first, Namoto.”
The Mantis shot me an oblique glare. “Honorable Commanding Officer, I must tell you that this man is completely insane!” Tsubaki’s eyebrows arched quizzically. “An absolute lunatic.” The eyebrows arched still more. “During a routine flight practice, he disobeyed every order he was given and did everything in his power to ram me. Had I not bailed out, we would both be dead. He—”
“Exactly how long did he pursue you?” Tsubaki interjected. Did I detect I faint purr of irony? It was impossible to be certain.
“For several minutes, Honorable Commanding Officer. In fact, he—”
“An inexperienced trainee, and you were unable to elude him? Namoto’s features constricted. “The Akatombo does not possess the requisite speed and maneuverability, Honorable—”
“Yes, but even so. . . .” Namoto glowered, anger and humiliation seeming to exude from his very pores. The Captain stroked his jaw, frowning thoughtfully. “Curious. . . very curious. Many strange things have occurred since I arrived at Hiro, but never, never anything like this.”
Opening the drawer to his left, he extracted a pad of lined, yellow paper then plucked up a pencil as though to take some notes. Instead, however, he merely twirled it a time or two between his fingers and began tapping it on the desk top. “Of course, we have lost a hancho or two from time to time.” The Mantis stiffened, staring into the wall.
Still tapping the pencil, Mikami shot me a searching glance. “So what do you have to say about this, Kuwahara?”
I struggled to speak yet hadn’t the slightest idea how to reply. The words stuck in my throat, and after a moment the Captain merely gave a slight nod as though seeking to liberate them. “I do not know, Honorable Commanding Officer,” I stammered. My throat was painfully dry like that of someone languishing in a wasteland, my voice an embarrassing croak. “I. . . I, cannot explain.”
“Was it your intention to kill this man?”
I swallowed. “No, Honorable Commanding Officer. I just—”
“So what possessed you?” Tsubaki leaned forward on his elbows exploring my eyes intently with his own as though, perhaps, that would permit him to examine my brain. “Were you trying to retaliate in that manner?”
“No, Honorable Commanding Officer.” That was my second lie. “So desu ka!” The words hissed softly between his teeth.
“Were you. . . .” He bobbed his head a little from side to side, casting a reflective glance about the ceiling. “Were you trying to show off for the others? Impress your fellow trainees?”
“Honorable Commanding Officer!” The Mantis snapped, correcting me, but our inquisitor silenced him with an impatient wave of the hand. “So. . . hmmm, and when did you decide to do this thing?”
I swallowed again. My throat was dryer than ever. “I didn’t. I mean, I don’t know, Honorable Commanding Officer. I just followed—as he instructed us to. I—I just followed him.”
“So des. But weren’t you following a little too close for comfort? Obviously Sergeant Namoto thought so. He was so uncomfortable that he promptly bailed out permitting one of our perfectly good training planes to crash and burn.” Namoto’s jaw muscles tightened. His nostrils narrowed.
“I am extremely sorry, Honorable Commanding Officer,” I said and realized how foolish I sounded, how utterly senseless the entire absurd episode must seem to anyone of sound mind. Yet there was nothing more to say. The Mantis had commanded us to play follow the leader. I had followed.
For some time Tsubaki sat there, fingers locked, absorbed in thought. Once he massaged his brow. Once he shook his head and swore softly. Our commanding officer was a small man, one who would pass unnoticed even on the streets of Onomichi. But the military environment seemed to draw forth the largeness of his personality, his spirit. As on the day of his oration at the end of basic training, I could sense the big man dominating a smaller man’s body.
“Do you know what I wanted to be back in my college days?” he said suddenly. We both glanced at him startled. “I wanted to be. . . as a matter of fact, I was determined to be. . . a psychiatrist. However. . . .” He reached in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, struck a match on the sole of his shoe, and lighted up. For a moment he puffed introspectively, squinting and expelling the smoke in rich blue swirls. “You know how these things go. Costs a lot of okane to become a doctor.”
Another puff, exhaling and jetting the smoke through his nostrils. Squinting almost painfully now. “Perhaps, private, you are like I was. My mother was a widow, and she worked like a slave to buy me a bicycle.” His expression was nostalgic. “I was—oh, not more than ten. Never even knew my father. But anyway, my older brother taught me how to ride.” He smiled faintly. “At least, he tried. Let’s put it that way.”
He shifted, leaning back in his chair, arms folded. “My brother already had a bicycle; Stole it, as I recall.” For some reason the thought struck us all as quite humorous, and Tsubaki even laughed a little. “Anyway, he was going to teach me the right way. ‘Follow me!’ That’s what he kept saying. ‘Just do what I do.’ I hardly even knew how to balance the damn thing, but that didn’t matter. I had to follow him.”
Another puff. “So. . .” He pursed his lips, frowning pleasantly, absorbed in the distant past. “We were going along this narrow, little road out in the country, and I was beginning to get the hang of it. But every time I’d ask a question, my brother would just repeat himself. ‘Follow me—do everything I do.’ Before long, though, I started following too closely, and my front wheel must have hit a rock, because it rammed me into his rear wheel, and we both went down. Right into a newly dunged rice paddy!”
Suddenly all three of us were laughing—three comrades. That was the only time I ever heard The Mantis laugh, and it was like the cawing of a raven.
“Just do everything I do”! We were about ostracized from the community for a while after that.” Our captain shook his head and wiped his eyes, but it was impossible to tell whether the tears were from laughter or cigarette smoke. Perhaps both. “Silly damned brother. ‘Just do everything I do!’” Then he grew more serious. “Dead and gone now. Killed a long time ago during the war in China.”
There the conversation ended, and I was sent to the guardhouse to “reflect upon the consequences of your actions” or words to that effect. Certainly the commanding officer had treated me with astonishing consideration, but The Mantis wasted no time in seeking to balance the scales. Quietly he ushered me into my private prison, closing the door behind him.
“Maybe that stupid commander doesn’t intend that you should pay for this,” he muttered. For an instant my shock at his disrespect to Captain Tsubaki outweighed my fear regarding what lay ahead. Then I saw the club. “But believe me, you shall. For this indignity, you shall be repaid in full!” Reflexively, I ducked and flung up my arm to ward off the blow, but it came too fast, too hard. There was an explosion in my brain, and I seemed to hear the sound of wood against my skull—hear it with my entire body. Then I was swallowed into a great, swirling, black hole. No pain. Nothing.
Gradually I became aware of sensations, but for a time I was no particular person, merely a glimmer of something in an area of unfeeling. No sensation, except for the cold and dampness. Eventually words formed in my mind. “What am I doing in the ocean?” It occurred to me that I was dead. When you are dead they bury you beneath the earth, but somehow you keep sinking, sinking until you reach the ocean. You lie there quietly at the bottom of the ocean where it doesn’t hurt, beneath all harm. None, if you lie quietly with serenity and acceptance. But, of course, it is dark there and cold, very cold.
Yet something puzzled me. . . the sense of hardness. I was lying face down, carefully working my hands and fingers outward across the surface maintaining me. A floor—concrete. A concrete floor. Then, vaguely I began to remember. For a time I could not recall who I was, but I had angered someone, humiliated someone, incurred his animosity. I could feel the mounting hatred, growing powerful and virulent like the stench of a rotting carcass.
Who or what was the source, and how did it happen? Slowly my brain began to clear, echoing the last words I had heard: “For this indignity you shall be repaid in full.” The floor was not only cold and hard, it was also damp, and the taste of sea water lay on my tongue, sea water with a faint coppery flavor. Then I touched my face, feeling a sticky oozing sensation. It was beginning to throb, and the throbbing was expanding into my head. Above my left ear was a large swelling, half welt, half lump. My face was also very bruised and sore. It was impossible to determine how long I had lain there. Minutes or hours, I could not tell.
I touched my face again, felt the stickiness, and looked at my finger tips. They were smeared with blood, blood that looked as black as tar in the dim light. Now I remembered almost everything, but Namoto had struck me on the side of my head. Why the blood on my face? Perhaps I had scraped it as my body hit the concrete.
Painfully, I sat up, staring at an oblong square of light on the floor at my feet. The light was sectioned, and my gaze ascended slowly toward its source, the barred window. Struggling to arise, I hobbled to it and peered out.
Hiro was quiet, except for the remote, faintly strident voice of a han – cho marching recruits in the distance. Evening now. Again, I explored my face and decided from its extreme tenderness and the extent of the bruising that The Mantis had also used his feet. The guardhouse was merely a small empty room—no table, no cot, no chair, not even a straw tatami to lie upon.
For several minutes I simply stood there, gripping the bars, and looking out as the shadows of night extended. Not much to see except for an expanse of hard, yellow clay and an unlighted barracks. Soon my legs began to sag, and I eased myself to the floor, back scraping down the wall to keep from falling. Then I worked my way into the corner, drawing my knees up to rest my head and arms on them.
A clicking at the door startled me. It opened slightly as a guard leaned inside to place something on the floor. “Here’s your chow and a blanket,” he said. The door clanged shut. Suddenly I was very hungry, ravenous. Only rice, pickles, and water, but I gulped it all down in seconds like an animal, smearing my nose and chin. My face throbbed savagely, yet it didn’t matter. Some rice had fallen on the floor, but I pinched it up,
devouring it to the last kernel. Then I licked the bowl and my fingers.
The light pattern was brightening on the floor now, extending. Spreading my thin blanket, I lay on its outer edge and slowly, in great pain, rolled up in it. By rolling tight I could have two layers over and under me. A cold fall night was filtering through the bars, and for a time I shivered helplessly. Gradually, though, I became warmer and lay there, feeling the breath ease in and out of my mouth and nostrils. Somehow, by concentrating on each soft inhalation and exhalation, I could ease my misery.
Anyway, I had humiliated The Mantis irreparably I told myself. I had not only stayed with him but out flown him. Ironically, although I had insisted earlier that it could never be done, I myself had broken his steel nerve and vindicated the entire squadron. In a way, I was glad that he had treated me so viciously. Maybe he would consider that enough, and possibly the morrow would set me free. Eventually, I fell asleep.
My hopes, however, were in vain. My sojourn in the guard house proved to be the worst experience of my entire training. All the next day I waited, longing for release, but only two incidents lessened the emptiness of those hours. Once I was permitted to visit the latrine in the building nearby, and that evening I received another bowl of rice and pickles. This time I ate more slowly, carefully savoring each morsel. I tried to remind myself that food was unimportant, that one’s attitude was actually what counted. After all, hadn’t the early samurai been able to forego any food for days? When food was unavailable, they would sit calmly, picking their teeth, pretending to have just completed a sumptuous repast.
Completing my own sumptuous repast, I rolled up once more in my blanket, hoping to sleep until the morning. Hoping, in fact, that perhaps I could sleep most of the remaining time away. After about two hours of fitful dozing, though, I arose and began pacing about my cell. The floor had not grown any softer, nor had my special rolling-up technique kept the cold from gradually penetrating.
My shoulder blades and hip bones were becoming sore. One can only relax on concrete for so long. The left side of my head continued to ache viciously from the club blow, and my eyes were still black from The Mantis’ feet. Even though I could not see myself, I could tell from the painfully swollen tissue that he had kicked my face more than once. I decided that at least the punishment was probably over, that release would come soon.
The afternoon had vanished, and evening was thickening when someone called my name. “Kuwahara!” I awakened, startled, wondering if I had merely been dreaming. Several times during the day, words had sounded in my own mind. “Kuwahara! Hey, come over to the window!” No mistake this time. Undoubtedly, I decided, my friends were concerned about me. Maybe they had even brought some food.
“Gripping the bars, I peered out into the gathering darkness. A cricket was chanting faintly, muted by the cold. “I’m here—who is it?”
“Are you all right? Let’s see your face. Is it getting any better?” The words filled me with hope.
Pressing my swollen visage part way through the bars, I whispered, “Nakamura? Who is it?”
“It is I!” a fiendish voice snarled, and something cracked, searing my face like a blow torch. Screaming, I staggered back against the wall. The Mantis had been crouching there with his whip. As I slumped to the floor, he hissed, “Why carry on so, young bastard? I was only checking to make sure that your face is all right.”
The lash mark traveled from my mouth upward across my cheek and the lower corner of one eye. The eye was watering profusely, and after several long minutes of agony I worked my way back to my blanket and draped it about my shoulders. Awkwardly, I rolled back up in it once more, leaving one hand free to gently stroke and pat the injured area. Each time I stopped it began to smart and burn insanely.
Thus I continued, deep into the night, dozing fitfully, trying over and over to will away the pain. At about four a. m. it began to diminish a bit, and at last I slept more peacefully. Eventually I awakened to discover that the window had turned from gray to blue, and I arose to begin pacing about my cell. Off on the air strip motors were revving—a wonderful sound that made my skin tingle. Then a dismaying thought struck me. If I remained in the guardhouse much longer, my chances for making fighter school would be eliminated. My head began to teem with sickening possibilities, and at that moment the door grated open.
It was my friend, The Mantis. “Come over here!” he ordered. “Turn around!” So, another whipping. Well, I had received plenty of those before. Bitterly, I complied, telling myself that it was at least a break in the monotony, but I was no more prepared for what followed than I had been for my lash to the face that previous evening.
The first blow slammed me to my hands and knees. The second flattened me on the floor. The Mantis was using a length of wet rope about an inch and a half in diameter.
Time and again that day the same punishment was repeated. Heavy, braided rope with harsh, prickly strands, freshly soaked in water to increase its weight and solidity. One lash usually flung me down, and if it failed to knock me unconscious, I fainted from pain anyway. Again and again and again. . . waiting from one lashing to the next, quivering and moaning, swearing, pleading to the god who had forgotten me. When the guard opened the door for my daily trip to the latrine, I smothered a cry. When my supper came, I cowered in the corner, trembling. For several minutes after the guard’s departure I continued to shake, gnawing on my knuckles. The rope treatment had been coming about every two hours.
Somehow the third day blurred into the fourth, and early that morning rational thought returned. I began to wonder how The Mantis would react if the tables were turned. Could I make him cringe, and grovel, plead for mercy? Well, I had accomplished the unimaginable only a short time earlier, forcing him to abandon his plane.
Nevertheless, his reaction seemed exceptionally atypical. To my knowledge that was the only time anyone had shattered his cold and calculating demeanor, his unyielding self control. Even my current punishment, though fraught with vengeance, was administered with machine-like aloofness.
Once I recalled our survival training in the mountains near Hiro. The Mantis had kept us without sleep for nearly four days, without food for two. I remembered the picture vividly: grim recruits surrounding him with loaded pistols, determined to take his life regardless of the cost. But the man had displayed no emotion whatsoever, not even the faintest trace of uneasiness. He had merely eyed them coldly and remarked, “Why do that? You’ll only get into serious trouble—trouble that will make this seem like a school picnic.” Gradually they had wavered and
backed down. “After all,” he had added, “you have been learning how to eat and sleep ever since you were born. Now you must learn how not to eat and sleep.”
And this was the man I had managed to humiliate! Namoto not only hated me but, as I was beginning to realize, he felt morally obligated to “repay me in full.” True, he was a sadist of the first order, but my punishment would have been severe regardless. It is the moral duty of a Japanese to repay an injustice as well as a favor.
Eventually my thoughts returned to fighter school. It was still my grandest goal. Indeed, it mattered more than ever now. For a while I could not recall how many days had passed. Maybe I could still qualify. That was all that mattered. I scarcely even thought of home.
Then the flash of optimism was gone. The door lurched open with an ominous clank, but by now I had lost all control. “Kill me!” I shouted. My voice was like the sound of a wood rasp. “Kill me and get it over with!”
Slowly he approached, rope in hand. “Get up, Kuwahara!”
“No!” I shouted, “No-you can’t make me!”
Instead, I cursed him: “Konchikusyo! Bakayaro! Gaki!”
He loomed over me, cobra-like, rope readied. “All right, if you want it on the floor—” I thrashed out, kicking his shins, and The Mantis staggered backward, cursing me with every foul word he could think of, and he knew more than I did.
So again! Again, I had shattered his calm, and he hated me more than ever for it. I tried to roll away as the rope lashed across my neck, nearly breaking it. Then it came again and again, like repeated strikes of lightning. I could even feel its livid yellow color. Again the black hole yawned, consuming me.
Some time later the door opened once more. I stared vacantly.
“No,” I barely croaked. The arm raised, the rope descending ravenously, and there it was once more—the black hole. The wonderful, blessed, great, dark hole. Oblivion.
By afternoon I lay thinking about the hole. It was very good, my only hope now, yet it could hold me only so long. Inevitably, I would drift to
the surface. Occasionally, when the light began to expand I would swim back down toward the depths, but each time my stay was shorter. That hole and the dark corner of the cell shared a mutual relationship. Why did I always have to return? Why couldn’t I stay down? Why? Why?
Then it came to me with exciting certainty: I could stay down forever!
A sense of triumph, near elation, filled my soul. Idly I began dragging myself about the room, feeble and crippled like an old man, but that didn’t matter. I was looking for something that would work—my metal rice bowl perhaps. Possibly I could crush it to create a jagged edge. I bent down, groaning, and picked it up. Or grind it on the cement floor until the edge was knife sharp.
Propping the bowl sidewise against the wall, I tried several times to stomp on it without success. Plane motors were grumbling in the sky now, a continual crisscross of sound. Glancing at the barred window, I saw a dragonfly. Slowly, miserably, I limped my way toward it, toward the light. The insect’s wings shimmered silver, making a strange brittle sound as it danced off into the day.
Gripping the bars, I peered out, hoping to trace its flight but to no avail. It had vanished. The window ledge was shoulder high, indented about six inches to the bars, and suddenly I had my answer. Yes, a perfect ledge! Men had done it that way before —a bench, table, a railing. . . a ledge” A ledge like this one would be ideal. Simply thrust my tongue out, clamp it between my teeth, lock my hands atop my head. . . then slam my chin against the ledge—hard, with all my strength. That way my tongue would be bitten off and I would bleed to death. Yes, more than one man had died that way at Hiro. How simple! How wonderful!
Fingers interlaced, I locked my hands upon my head, testing the idea carefully, very slowly, to determine the exact angle of impact between my chin and the ledge. It would be absolutely essential to do it correctly, not botch the job and simply mangle my tongue. Otherwise, I might survive to speak nothing but gibberish. Definitely not the time for a mistake. Thrusting my tongue out still further, I clamped it tighter attempting to assess the level of pain. No doubt it would be very painful, agonizingly so. That was the only problem. Nevertheless, I would bleed copiously, and it probably wouldn’t last long.
Again, I performed my special test, chewing tentatively. A tongue was a strange thing, really, a highly incongruous organ. For some reason it didn’t seem consistent in any way with the rest of my anatomy. Strangely, as well, I was not especially afraid, not nearly as much as I might have imagined. Instead, my body was slowly burning, simmering in a kind of sympathetic vibration to the fading drone of motors.
Then the dragonfly returned and balanced delicately upon the outer ledge as though bearing a message. What was it I had learned in school biology? Something about how a caged dragonfly, without food, would eventually begin eating its tail, never ceasing until it had devoured nearly half its own body. Surely, therefore, I could do a small thing like biting off the tip of my tongue.
What immense, almond-shaped eyes it had! I had never realized that eyes could look like that. I stared in fascination at the shimmering, blue body—at the transparent filament wings. Why did it have four instead of two? I pushed my finger toward it and the dragonfly flared upward and sidewise, balanced upon the air and vanished.
Blankly I stared into space. Then I glanced down at my hands, watched them open and close of their own accord. My hands were shaped like my mother’s; that was what she had always said. The nails had those same half-moons. Once more, this time with a devout sense of finality, I locked my hands over my head, and felt my hair. It was dirty hair, matted with blood, sweat, and grime. But it was mine. It was important, my own special hair. I held a palm against my forehead and stroked my fingers down very carefully over my nose and mouth. They were battered and swollen, but they were mine, my own nose and mouth, and they were unique. The plane motors were suddenly growing louder, louder than I had ever heard them.
Well, I would wait for just a little while. Yes, I would kill myself, but I would wait for just a little while. Slowly, agonizingly, knees sagging, I slumped to the floor and began to cry.