HIS ART WAS THE ART of Seeing. Without camouflage. Extraneous elements removed. A grain of sand suggested the universe. The center held everything. All else was illusion.
Akiro placed a single sprig from the katsura tree outside into a black bowl on the lacquered wooden table before him. Autumn was still several weeks away, so the leaves contained only a slight hint of the lush purple they would turn. His ancient eyes studied the sprig till he was lost in it.
The sun’s last rays settled like rice flour on the vast open structure of the Atomic Bomb Museum across the courtyard. Akiro was the museum’s curator and this was his house, just a short walk from the Museum down the Path of White Stones. The sea smell was strong. The ocean was only a few hundred yards away. Gulls soaring above the cliffs cried occasionally. Soon Shuto, his son, would bring the Russian sea captain. Like the katsura branch, the Russian had many secrets to reveal.
Akiro traced the sprig to its end. It made him contemplate his own death. It was nearer than sooner, his doctors had told him, averting their eyes out of respect for his age and rank. It wasn’t the first time Akiro had faced death. As a young pilot he had been ordered to be Kamikaze. Only the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that had resulted in Japan’s surrender had spared him. The blasts brought him Shuto, too, but that was later. Kamikaze; the god-wind. Insanity. Nothing godlike about it. Just the criminal ambitions of men.
And now they were back.
He meditated to regain composure. The tide. The setting sun. The katsura leaves rustling in the breeze. Freshly raked grains of sand cooling in the gathering darkness.
“I am the Lamplighter,” he said softly.
Akiro was surprised he had spoken the thought out loud. He ran a long finger down his cheek and stroked his wispy beard. Age had taken his physical strength, but he knew what had to be done. That was his Art; seeing. Falsehoods stripped away. Conflict reduced to a single course of action.
Maki, his old servant, brought the tea as she did every afternoon at this hour. She had performed the ceremony daily for more than forty years. She knelt beside the table, pausing for a moment to inspect his placement of the branch in the black bowl, the only decoration in the room. Her mouth softened and she began the tea ceremony without wrinkling her nose in disfavor. Good, he thought. Lately she was getting easier to please. The two of us. Old dogs coming to an end.
He sought the curve again. A tiny sprout made him feel something. He realized he was only afraid of dying if he didn’t finish what he had come to think of as the culmination of his life’s work. After the war he had dedicated his life to building the museum so that no one would ever forget, and he had seen it grow in national importance till every Japanese school-child and millions of their silent and grief-stricken parents made the stomach-churning trip down its corridors. It was Akiro’s reminder that the Japanese, of all people, must make certain such things never happened again. But showing them the past hadn’t been enough. He saw that now. He had to show them the future.
“Akiro-san?” Maki’s ears were cocked.
“I hear, Maki. Bring them to me.”
Maki left with a rustle of her kimono. Moments later he heard her returning, along with the Russian captain’s heavy tread. As always with Shuto, he heard nothing at all till his son was almost next to him. Even that was a courtesy to the elder. Had the reedlike Shuto wished, his arrival would have been as silent as the space between heartbeats.
“Akiro-san,” said Maki, bowing. “Captain Kasimov.”
The blunt-faced captain wore a uniform jacket over a gray turtleneck sweater. Akiro motioned him to sit at the low table, but Kasimov pushed his officer’s cap back and stood his ground as if balancing against a swaying deck.
“Old man, I’ve got what you asked for. You have the money?”
Akiro nodded politely. “Would you care for some tea?”
“I don’t suppose you’ve got any vodka?” asked Kasimov.
Shuto coughed. Kasimov heard the warning in it and stopped. His black boots squeaked on the polished floor.
Akiro was pleased. A stupid man wouldn’t know Shuto for what he was. Pencil-thin, age indeterminate, eyes averted so that their intense amber color—like a tiger’s—remained hidden, baggy shirt and trousers. It all bespoke one who was unimportant. Kasimov was smarter than he let on, Akiro thought, which, of course, was why he had been able to secure the information.
The Russian handed Akiro a packet of papers. “These are the sailing orders for the Marshal Korlov. She left three weeks ago, escorted by the Akatsuki Maru. Everything’s there. Her route through the South Pacific. Crew list. Satellite relay system. Cargo manifest. They’ve been haggling over politics for months and couldn’t agree on much. Security’s a joke as far as I can see. You can check it.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Akiro touched a piece of inlay on the side of the table. A cleverly fitted door opened, revealing a briefcase filled with gold bars. “An intelligent man knows the wisdom of honor.”
For a moment Kasimov’s coarseness faded. Akiro motioned for Shuto to carry the case, and made a sign. He goes free.
Kasimov mumbled his thanks and followed Shuto out of the room. Akiro placed the packet in the drawer. Only one thing remained before he could set things in motion. He called Maki to bring his traveling clothes and went back to studying the katsura branch. It was slightly askew.
Akiro spent time pondering that.
* * *
Kasimov and Shuto stopped at the stairway at the edge of the cliffs. The Russian’s small motorcraft bobbed in the surf below.
“Pleasure doing business with—” Kasimov began.
Shuto flowed like water and struck Kasimov in the solar plexus with stiffened fingers, paralyzing his breathing center. Kasimov fell to the ground and pain filled his eyes. What had gone wrong?
“Akiro gave his word,” he managed to gasp.
“And he kept it,” said Shuto, speaking for the first time. “My father is an idealist, with strong principles.”
“Then . . . ?”
Shuto shrugged. “I have different burdens.”
Too late, Kasimov saw his mistake. Shuto wasn’t the loyal servant of his father as he had been led to believe. Kasimov also realized that Akiro didn’t know it.
Shuto’s fist shot out and Kasimov went slack. Shuto took the gold, then searched the Russian for anything else of interest before shoving the body off the cliff.
* * *
In Akiro’s dream: His intended bride tried to tell him a joke, but she was laughing too hard to tell the end. He laughed with her. It was a fine summer day. He and some of his fellow pilots had gotten leave from their squadron. The mood of desperation in Tokyo in the summer of 1945 was abated for a while by their good spirits. They borrowed a car and sped to the lush picnic gardens in the hills outside Hiroshima.
Then Akiro saw the Light . . .
The wheels hitting the runway woke Akiro with a start. He had slept the entire flight to Tokyo. As soon as they stopped, Shuto went outside, seeing to things. Their limousine turned out to be a Mercedes, evoking a partnership that never failed to alarm Akiro. Shuto drove, equally as lithe in traffic. Ido Miagi, the man they were going to meet, would be late, but not overly so, a compromise between the demands of his position as the leader of his political party, and the respect that Akiro was due.
Mind-sets. Akiro saw everything through his experience on one single life-changing day. Hiroshima was a lens welded into place which could never be removed. Traffic, for him, became a sea of tightly packed, melted coffins. The crowds were plains of ash. In downtown Tokyo, the government buildings’ vast columns only reminded him of how easily atomic winds toppled the mightiest works.
He grimaced when they passed the Yasukuni shrine near the Imperial Palace. Few things aroused Akiro’s hatred like the old Shinto institution, once the center of the government-sanctioned cult of militarists who had spawned the Second World War. The grand notion of sacrificing oneself for the Emperor had been born here, the lie of nobility in death. There was still a military museum on the grounds with flags and letters painted in blood, and displays venerating the suicide units. For years, no one in office dared visit it for fear of resurrecting the antiwar sentiment that ran so deep in the nation. Now politicians stood before it posing proudly for pictures, glorifying the past. Akiro turned away in disgust.
His meeting with Miagi could not be at his office. They drove instead to a small teahouse where privacy was insured by long family tradition. It was dark and quiet. Akiro shed his shoes and was taken into a room that held only a table surrounded by cushions.
A screen slid open and Miagi walked in. He wore a dark business suit. He bowed and extended his hand. Akiro took it gravely. Miagi slid to the cushions across from Akiro. It was a fluid movement, interesting because Miagi was a big man.
“They’ve gotten their way,” Miagi said without preamble.
“How big is the order?”
“By the end, one hundred tons of plutonium. Weapons grade.”
“Aie,” Akiro swore. “They can never use that much.”
“For the reactor, anyway,” Miagi agreed. “You were right, I see that now. I would not have believed it possible.”
“Anything is possible, human stupidity being what it is.”
“History must not be allowed to repeat itself. Are you ready?” Miagi asked.
Akiro put the two objects he had brought from Hiroshima on the table. An old hand-drawn map of Japan and the southern islands, and a lamp. Both were works of art, vividly colored. Akiro put a match to the wick. The flickering light made the mountains, lakes, cities, and towns all seem as if they were in flames.
“You see?” he asked.
Miagi passed him a small leather notebook. Akiro felt Shuto stir, somewhere out of sight. Had Miagi intended harm, his hand would never have reached Akiro.
“You will find all the account numbers in here. Forgive me, Akiro-san, do you understand wire transfers and the like?”
“Shuto handles all that.”
“A last matter. I am Zen enough to approve your plan in spirit.” Miagi sighed. “But practical, too. Do you know you can never come back? They will hunt you. Are you prepared to sacrifice yourself?”
Akiro thought of his grim-faced doctors. “It is not so great a price to pay for the enlightenment of a nation.”
Miagi smiled. “A good phrase. You should have been a politician. That is what I will call it. Afterwards. Good-bye, my friend.”
Akiro doused the light and rolled the map into its case. Shuto stepped out of the shadows and thumbed through the notebook.
“A lot of money here,” he said.
“Disburse it as necessary.”
Shuto pocketed the book. “I’ll tell the driver where to take you. It’s better for me to go alone where I have to.”
“When will I see you again?”
“On the ship.”
They bowed formally. Akiro was reminded of the woman who birthed the boy, of her painful life and death, and of the marks Shuto bore because of it. Shuto was already gone by the time he walked out the front door into the sunlight outside. Even among the vast crowds, Akiro felt isolated.
He was remembering the Light, and everything that came after.