Friday, April 15, 2011

Setting Sun

A man in a faded lab coat stands before a counter, tapping a needle. He holds it up to the dim electric bulb, squeezing the last bubble of air out. His index finger caresses the flawless glass as he examines the colorless fluid inside. The room is not chill, but a shiver runs through him. The night is not particularly warm, but a cold sweat beads his brow. For a moment, nothing else exists for him but the needle. It calls to him, and the hollow of his arm aches in response. Something in him enjoys the wanting. The grim hunger that promises fulfillment pervades him, and he fights the urge to give in just yet.
            From beneath a gentle brow his dark eyes drift from the syringe to the countertop, where there is nothing to entice him. Just another old veteran of this campaign, scarred by many battles; the beauty of the wood marred by dark stains and ugly scratches. Dr. Takonashi could not ignore the stains; he had seen too many of their sources. Too many times reaching out a gore-covered hand to find a tool had left a lingering legacy. Pained by the memories more than the crook of his arm, he turned to focus on something else.
            Behind the curtain, he hears the patients in this makeshift infirmary moan and scream and whimper. They are so close to him, yet so far away. Blocked by the meager barrier Takonashi erected for the suggestion of privacy from blind eyes and weeping sores. The cloth wall kept them out of his sight, but he could still hear their pain.
            Takonashi’s shoulders dip in exhaustion, but he cannot rest. Sleep is difficult; fitful and unsatisfying. Even when they die away to fitful sleep, the screams of the patients echo in the space behind his eyes, and would not go away. Images come to him, unbidden: caverns of raw flesh exposed by bloody tears from swollen, sightless eyes. A portrait of the emperor who failed on display at the officer’s mess. Himself, standing in front of a mirror donning his new uniform the day after he graduated from the University, the same day he joined the Army. Burning the last photograph of his parents after he hears of their death.
            Beyond the curtain, one of the patients begins screaming again. A man. The doctor realizes that the needle is still in his hand.
            The needle would stop the screams for a moment. He would open the curtain, and find the man by the sound of his screams, find the vein by touch with his experienced fingers, plunge the needle in and…the screams would stop. The man’s eyes will dilate, and the patient’s pain would be washed into another world.
            It is what he should do. His pain is as nothing to his patients. Takonashi does not move toward the sound of the screams. In his hand, the needle weighs heavier than its physical substance would suggest. Cold sweat stings his eyes, and the doctor knows his decision was made before this bout of guilt.
            With practiced ease the tourniquet is drawn. The doctor’s fingers tingle and go numb. Takonashi places the needle's gleaming tip against near the same spot as he had the day before, and the day before that. The wounds are ugly, puckered things, never allowed to heal. His pale blue veins stand out, rivers along the sallow geography of his arm.
            Behind the curtain that separates him from the infirmary, the doctor’s pain is drowned in the ecstasy of morphine. The weight of the world lifts from his shoulders and his eyes become flat and glassy. Tears he had been about to cry never fall from eyes that sit above dark, bruised shadows. Beyond the curtain, a scream slides into a long drawn-out rattling hiss and comes to a stop. The screaming man had died.
            The doctor pulls aside the curtain, and surveys the room which is both hospital and morgue. He gazes upon a hall of the dead and dying, and those cursed with a long and painful life.
            Takonashi beholds the survivors of Nagasaki.

            The years pass like seven petals, floating through the orchards in the autumn of life; small pink and white fragments of silk-smooth blossoms blown hurriedly about by whimsical winds.

            Kumi sits in a room on a bed which is high off the ground, like a table. Her back is very straight, and her hands rest lightly on her knees, just as in class. The nurse had left the room only a few moments ago, having made sure she had properly exchanged Kumi’s school uniform for the loose colorless smock she now wore.
            Dr. Takonashi enters and favors Kumi with his watery-eye smile, his dark eyes squinting behind thin spectacles, the edges of his mouth turned up just enough to show he is, in fact, smiling.
            “Hello.” He greets her.
            “Good morning Dr. Takonashi.” Kumi chirps, giving a head nod with some shoulder action in lieu of a bow, due to the fact she is sitting, which the doctor returns.
            “What is your name, my dear?” The doctor asks.
            “Watanase Kumiko.” The girl replies.
            Their eyes lock. Not staring but…resting on each other. She is first to break the contact, looking away, letting his eyes roam carefully over her, her aside-glance straying back on occasion into his slow-blinking, constant eyes. Her legs and bare knees are slung over the table and dangle above the floor.
            “Kumiko.” The doctor says. Kumi imagines him tasting the syllables in his mouth. “That is such a pretty name. And how do you feel today?” The doctor inquires.
            At first, Kumi answers with a mechanical shrug, the rise and fall of both shoulders. The overhead light reflected in her eyes changes slightly. Kumi knows she shouldn’t look the doctor in the eyes. Her mother wouldn’t approve if she were here. She also knows the doctor is still looking at her.
            “My mouth hurts.” She says.
            “Ah.” The wrinkle between the doctor’s eyebrows tightens slightly. “Where does it hurt, Kumiko?”
            “The top of my mouth, near the back.” Kumi replies. There is something in her voice, like the look cornered animals have in their eyes.
            “Let’s have a look then, shall we?” He says, turning, and opens a drawer of an old solid-wood counter, the top of which is somewhat scarred and stained. The hand returns with a long, thin piece of wood.
            “Open your mouth, please.” The doctor orders, and Kumi does as she is told, letting her jaw fall downwards, revealing small white teeth and a bright pink tongue. The doctor removes a small flashlight from the pocket of his white lab coat.
            “And please stick out your tongue. Very good, thank you.” He presses the wooden board down slightly on her tongue, the little light dancing on the back of her mouth.
            His eyes never leave her mouth as he calls for the nurse.
            “Yes, Doctor Takonashi?” says the nurse, coming from the other room.
            “There is inflammation in the adenoids. I’m going to have to cut them out. Please bring my implements.” He says. Kumi thinks the way he talks to the nurse is colder than the one he talks to herself.
            “Of course Doctor Takonashi.” The nurse replies and scuttles off. The doctor flicks off the flashlight and replaces it in the pocket of his lab coat, disposing of the tongue depressor and donning a pair of thin rubber gloves.
            When the nurse enters again, she carries a chrome-bright tray with a white cloth, laid out with small, sharp things. The tools on the tray gleam.
            Calmly, the doctor selects a thin scalpel. The nurse comes around behind Kumi and gently presses her into a more reclined position, so Kumi’s back rests lightly against the bed.
            With his left hand, the doctor opens Kumi’s mouth and tilts her chin up and to the left. He is still holding the scalpel, like a pen. Then the scalpel goes in, and Kumi feels something hard against the top of her mouth. She tries not to press her tongue against it, but the taste of metal engulfs her, and she nearly gags.
            Several sharp pains come, and the flavor of steel and plastic is replaced by sickly-sweet copper, and this time she does gag, sitting forward to retch. A torrent of liquid metal comes over her chin and into the pan the nurse had presciently placed there.
            Kumi looks at the pool of her own blood and the small gobs of pinkish meat laying there. The doctor places the scalpel on the tray to be sterilized later. He doesn’t look at Kumi, trying to avoid her eyes. The nurse leaves. Kumi wipes her mouth and tries to speak.
            “Doctor…” Kumi manages, swallowing blood.
            “Yes, Kumiko?” The doctor gives her his full attention now that the nurse is gone.
            “ can call me Kumi. It is my secret name.” Her mouth tastes funny, and she’s forced to swallow to speak.
            “Have we…met before?” The doctor asks. Kumi cannot speak, her mouth hurts so much, and she only nods.
            “Nagasaki. At the field hospital, the infirmary. I remember a little girl.” He seems unsure of himself. “She was there with an older woman, a sister or mother.” A stupid tear trickles down her cheek. Kumi meets the doctor’s eyes, and they share a moment of suffering.
            “Kumi.” He says. “Let me give you something for the pain.”
            There is a needle. It seems huge to her. She feels him lay it against her skin, and then the penetration – not so much aware of pain, but the needle is cold, so cold. There is a sense of pressure, as something is forced into her veins with steady, practiced hands. Kumi doesn’t feel much different. The pain is still there, but less urgent. Her throat feels slick. Kumi sees the nurse return.
            “See that she rests well. I have given her something to make her sleep.” Takonashi informs the nurse.
            Dr. Takonashi leaves the room without waiting for the nurse to carry out his orders. Kumi knows he knows she will. He has other patients to see.
            In the waiting room, she hears him call.
            “Who is next?”

            Autumn turns to winter, and the peach blossom trees are bare. Yet even in the most barren times, something may grow. Seven shoots break through the snow, and turn newborn flowers to pale spring light.

            Takonashi stared at his belongings. How many years had he stayed at this school? Yet there had been hardly anything of value to pack for their trip. He wrapped a few clothes of no great value around his faded lab coat. The bundle of diplomas, military papers, and a copy of his letter of resignation to the principal he placed in a large manila envelope. From his small shelf he selected a small hardbound book by Lafcadio Hearn, the only gift he’d received in ten years, and an English medical dictionary with his life savings tucked into the cover. The bottle of sake he had saved for them to share he took down from his hiding place. Everything he cared to own fit well enough into his small, bamboo frame suitcase. He’d bought her one just like it.
            Of course, he was also bringing his medical bag. He could hardly elope without the tools of his livelihood. All the medicines, needles and knives he would need in an emergency, or to set himself up in a small village. Sitting at the bottom lays a clear glass bottle, a pale and unreadable label on one side, with a steel cap. It is about half full.
            Next to the bottle was the small kit containing his works: the syringe, with replacement needles, and a length of coiled rubber tubing. The vein at Takonashi’s temple pulses a little. He listens to his heart throb, and feels the steady beat at the great arteries on the back of his neck, and his throat…and down to rest on the bandage over the inside of his arm.
            A knock sounds politely on the door, distracting the doctor as he kneels down to reach for his bag.
            The room was still, sunlight shining through an open window covered by a screen. All was quiet. The person at the door knocks again. “Takonashi-kun?”
At the sound of his name, Takonashi removes himself from his awkward position and opens the door. “Yes?”
            Kumi stands there, smiling at him. The light of the window flashes over her flawless skin for a moment, and her dark hair frames face. She laughs and falls into his arms. His callused hands caress taut, young skin.
            “Are you packed yet?” She whispers into his ear.
            “Yes my darling.” Takonashi says as he grips her tighter, and pulls her through the door.
            While she takes off her shoes, Takonashi takes her suitcase and places it next to his own. Together, the lovers enter the adjoining tea room and lower themselves onto the lightly padded pillows in front of the low table.
            “When do we leave?” Kumi asks.
            “We have a few hours before it is time to catch the train to Tokyo.” Takonashi replies.
            “Then we can be married…” he says Kumi as she settles against him and nuzzles his head.
            “Yes.” Kumi says “But we have some time before that. Time enough…”
            Kumi twists to rest her arms on his shoulders, her forehead resting against Takonashi’s own, and the lovers stare into each other’s eyes. Her smile becomes less innocent, more seductive. He returned her smile with his own. Sometimes he had trouble keeping up with her youthful energy, but somehow he matched fire and enthusiasm she showed in their love games.
            Suddenly, Takonashi became more aware of the throb in his temples; the bandage over the wound in his elbow was loose and was coming off in his sleeve. He kept the arm still as his left hand scratched the hairs on the back of her neck.
            In throaty whispers, Kumi murmurs endearments to him. The slight sheen on her skin, the sleepless teenage eyes, and the conspiratorial tone creeping into Kumi’s voice arouse him. At the same time, they look into each other’s eyes and see recognition there—she has become like him. Takonashi feels the bandage slip almost onto his wrist.
Something trickles from the wound. They kiss.
            At this, Kumi grabs his arm at the elbow and squeezes with unknowing strength. Takonashi gasps through their kiss, and Kumi bites his lip to keep him from calling out. At last they break apart…and he sees her impish grin. There is always a little pain to heighten the pleasure. They have both come so far since they met. The thrill of taboo settled on them in the beginning, but now…now they just feel the same need.
            All Takonashi feels is his desire. His—no—their addiction.
            “I want you to do it to me.” She whispers in his ear. “I need a taste before we go.”
            With a nod leaves the room, and returns with his medical bag. Kumi reaches in his bag for the needle, the tube, and the small steel-capped bottle. She is as eager, as willing as the first time.
            There is enough in there for them both.


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