Ito Jiro had been trying to improve his mind, which is why he heard the news in English.
After he and Arata had done the supper dishes and cleaned up, Jiro had turned the television to CNN, as he did every night. At first he thought there had been a bombing, or something like that cult in Tokyo a few years back—he saw frantic people, a woman screaming, emergency workers in hazmat suits.
He forced himself to focus on the unfamiliar language: “...people, all desperate for flights to the US and Canada, while in Liverpool police have been forced to seal off the port after violence erupted when all Dublin and Dun Laoghaire ferries left port early to escape the encroaching terminus...” Jiro didn’t know what “terminus” meant, but it sounded like the English word for “end.” On the screen, a teenaged boy wailed, a baby bottle in his hand.
It’s like the Bomb all over again, he thought. People were disappearing, just puffing into the air.
No...not all people. That’s not what they were saying. As the sun rose onto a place, all children there vanished, leaving the adults, as far as he could tell, unscathed. Every child. All over the world. This wasn’t the Bomb. This was worse.
“What’s going on, Grandpa?” said Arata, drawn to the screen by scenes of chaos. He didn’t know English.
Jiro closed his eyes. “There has been an earthquake,” he said. “In...in England. We should pray for them.”
“Oh,” said Arata, then wandered to his little desk in the corner of the room. Arata, Jiro’s great-grandson, his last descendant and his dearest one, was five years old.
Jiro sat down heavily, his vision swimming. They vanished with the rising sun. It was 6:37; the weak February sun was already setting. And sunrise was late this time of year, especially this far north. Maybe he had time—but he was 89 years old; even if he could find a car, he could no longer see well enough to drive. Could he run? It was hard even to walk for any length of time. And he didn’t think he could lift Arata for more than a minute. It was hard even to bathe him. They lived on the east coast, but Japan was narrow. Even if he were strong and young, there was nowhere to go.
Arata was singing to himself as he drew. Jiro slowly levered himself to his feet, stood awhile to get his breath, then walked to the boy.
“Hey. What...what are you drawing?”
The plump little boy didn’t look up from his paper. “It’s a rocket ship. See?” He held it up.
“Why, that is fine. Very fine.” Jiro’s chest was tight. He hoped he wasn’t having a heart attack. “That is very fine,” he repeated. He couldn’t think what else to say.
Somehow, he managed to put the boy to bed without screaming.
After Arata was asleep, Jiro knelt over him and brushed the boy’s smooth cheek with his knobbed, twisted old man’s hand. He stayed there for a while. Then he got himself a beer and watched the television with the sound low. He had no idea what was causing it, nobody did. But it was on all the news channels. It was real. Jiro suspected it was some new super-weapon, maybe something electromagnetic. Pretty soon, someone would be at war, if they weren’t already. Jiro hadn’t gotten drunk since the war, but he wished he had something stronger in the house than beer. He was glad that Aoi, Arata’s mother, wasn’t alive to see this happen.
Maybe there were riots already, in the big cities. But Niseko was a tiny town, and it was silent. He fancied he could even hear the sea, over the murmured horrors from the television.
Five children, twelve grandchildren, all adults—and two great-grandchildren. But Miyoko was sixteen. He hoped that would be old enough. He wondered if it was painful, to disintegrate like that.
Jiro had never seen the point of suicide. During the war, they had told him, of course, that if you were about to lose, your duty was not to surrender like some sort of selfish coward, but to die, and if possible, take as many of the enemy with you. And he had nodded with all the rest, young faces glowing with the usual patriotic zeal.
But he had never really, seriously considered that anybody might actually want to stop living. Every day he was alive was beautiful, no matter what was going on. Selfish? Maybe, but he couldn’t help it. Even when his wife had died twenty years before, even when he had lost his granddaughter, the beat of his own heart and the breath in his lungs had been too sweet.
Jiro sat in front of the television all night.
Before the sky was even pale, he got up, joints aching in the cold. He brushed his teeth. He showered. His hands were shaking, but he even shaved. And when he tied his tie, the knot was as neat as he could make it. He put on warm clothes. He wrote a letter to his children and left it on his desk. He wondered if anybody would read it; maybe the world was ending.
Then he woke Arata up. “We’re going for a walk,” he said. As the boy sleepily ate his breakfast, Jiro drank a cup of tea. He would miss tasting things.
On the way out, Jiro made sure to turn the television off and the thermostat down. The sky was beginning to pale. Jiro crept slowly along the path towards the sea, planting his stick into the snow with every step. It wouldn’t do to slip and fall now, to break something. The boy tried to keep pace with his grandfather, but then, bored, he would dart ahead, or scamper off the path to gaze at ice-laden trees, at frosted windows.
By the time they reached the sea cliffs, it was almost dawn. Carefully, the old man picked his way up the slippery rocks and the boy followed him.
“Look,” Jiro said. “Isn’t it beautiful?” They stared out to sea.
“Bu...ti...ful,” Arata said.
Jiro’s heart was pounding, and he felt clammy under his sweater and coat, too hot and too cold at the same time. But he had made it; even now, everything still worked, although not as well as it once had. He would probably live a few years longer. After Arata was dead. He tried to imagine life without him, and found that he couldn’t.
He ruffled the boy’s hair, then set his stick down, stepped behind him, and gripped Arata’s shoulders with both hands. Arata didn’t flinch: Jiro himself had been caned at school, as had his own sons, but in all his short life, nobody had ever done this child harm.
“Little fellow, do you remember the prayer I taught you?”
“Yeah.” Arata twisted his finger in his mouth.
“Can you say it for me?”
“Nam...Namu Amida Butsu.”
“And do you remember why we say it?” The sea wind was so cold against Jiro’s face; he was crying by now. Everything was blurring into light.
“If you say it, you’ll be born in the Pure Land.”
“Do you believe it?”
“Yeah, but why...”
“Close your eyes,” Jiro whispered, and pushing the boy in front of him, stepped forward off the cliff.
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