The sky was slowly fading from red to ash as the sun descended the horizon. Like a ghost, the early winter’s chill crept upon the lakeside, and a peculiar, unnatural mist was now emitting from the nearby woods.
A sudden gust of air sent ripples dancing along the water’s surface. The boy exhaled, his own breath visible in the fading light, and wrapped his makeshift blanket tighter around his shoulders. He clenched his wooden rod tighter in his cold, trembling hands. Anything, he thought, praying for a catch. Even a trout will do. He’d been hoping for something bigger and meatier – a salmon, for instance – but he had been out here by the lake for far too long. It was cold, and getting colder by the minute, not to mention the curfew the villagers had to abide by, which was to return home behind locked doors immediately by sundown.
A sudden tug from the rod temporarily distracted the boy from his wistful thoughts. He jumped up, the blanket slipping from his shoulders, and peered over the edge of the water. Squinting his eyes, he was able to make out tiny shapes hovering underneath.
A tiny fish had latched itself to the hook on his rod. The shape next to it looked like another, bigger fish. A mother? Is she trying to save him? The boy thought sadly. He reeled his catch up, to see what would happen, and the mother responded by jumping up and shivering in the cold air. Sympathy welled up in the young boy’s chest, and, after a moment’s hesitation, he gently reeled his catch back into the water. He watched the mother reunite with her child, and they swam off together.
That was supposed to be dinner. And now you’re going to go back home hungry all because you felt sorry for it? The boy stared at his reflection, fading fast, and tried to ignore his growling stomach. He was hungry, but at the same time … watching that mother trying to get her child back …
As he walked home, he thought of his growling stomach, of his mother, and his baby sister. Guilt rose up in his stomach, but he tried to push it away. He had always been a sympathetic, caring child, which often caused him problems in the rough, harsh life of the village. His mother always told him there was nothing wrong with that, that being kind and thoughtful was just how he was, but he always felt overshadowed and small compared to the other boys his age. He would overhear them talking amongst each other about their own hunting excursions. About how one of them chased away a chicken while the other one took its eggs. About how one of them had set up a snare to catch two rabbits instead of one. And while he kept telling himself it was necessary, that it was crucial to hunt in order to feed yourself, it just felt … wrong. Harsh.
“Hayato! HAYATO!” The boy turned around and tried to identify the source of the voice before being engulfed by someone.
“Oy! Get off -” he started, and suddenly he was able to breathe again. He blinked. “Hiroshi! It’s you.”
“The one and only!” Hiroshi replied, raising his eyebrows. “Where’d you go off to for so long? Did ya catch anything good this time? Salmon, maybe?” He grinned ecstatically. “Huh, huh?”
Hayato put on his dignified face, chin up, and all. “I – um – it’s got nothing to do with you!” he said, folding his arms.
“Oooh! Find a pretty girl, Hayato? Got hung up ‘cause of that? Huh, huh?”
Hayato felt a blush creeping across his face. “Absolutely not. I’m only ten!”
“Aw, don’t gimme that!” his friend said, grabbing him and rubbing his head with his fist. Hiroshi just laughed.
“Oy! Stop!” Hayato said, trying to break free. Hiroshi let go, grinning. He was always smiling, that boy. “For God’s sake, Hiroshi. Let’s just get moving or we’ll freeze our noses off.”
“I hear you, I hear you,” he replied, picking up his basket of fish. Then he grinned. “Last one to the gates is a sore loser!” he yelled, and off he ran.
“You’re already a loser!” Hayato yelled, running after him and laughing. They slipped and stumbled on the rocky ground, but kept running. For a while, Hayato forgot about the cold, about the fish, about his hunger.
They ran through the village gates and came across a pair of cats. They were prowling around the dust bins and looked thirsty, with their tongues sticking out. Hiroshi passed by without a second glance, but Hayato paused to look at them, leaning on his knees and panting. He no longer felt cold, but he wasn’t sure about the cats. They looked thin and bony, and he saw that one was trying to keep the little ones warm while the other was looking for something to drink. Hayato watched them for a while, his chest swelling with the same feeling he’d felt for the fish. He pushed the hair out of his eyes, bent down, took off one shoe and walked to the water pump. The pump itself was old and the handle older and rustier, but he pulled and pulled at it, his little muscles aching, until at last water came spurting out. He filled his shoe and then closed the pump. He set down his shoe carefully in front of the cats, who seemed cautious and suspicious, but once they realized it was only water, they lapped it up and saved some for their kittens. Hayato watched them once again, his little heart growing at the sight.
Hayato turned around, blushing. “Hiroshi! You were standing there this whole time?” He felt so embarrassed – what would his friend think of him? Soft? Lame? Weak?
Hiroshi was just a few feet away, and his face told anything but. His eyes were kind and his smile gentle. “Don’t be embarrassed.”
He blushed even more. “Stop!”
“Here. Take these,” Hiroshi said, pulling out a few fish from his basket. He handed them to his friend.
Hayato blinked. “Hiroshi …”
His friend blushed. “Just - just take them, will you!” He shoved them into Hayato’s arms and then ran off.
“What? No, Hiroshi, that’s yours – wait!”
“Curfew!” he called out. Hayato glanced around and noticed the village guards walking about, making sure everyone was inside. He ran off towards his house as quietly as he could. It was way past curfew time, and his mother would be worrying.
Once he reached his house, he opened the door and stepped inside. It wasn’t an actual house – just two rooms connected to each other, a living room and a ‘kitchen’, or so his mother liked to call it. There were some who had houses grander than this one, but still, Hayato thought, as he folded up his tattered blanket, they at least had a roof to protect them from the rain.
But not from the bombs.
Hayato froze and looked around. Where had that voice come from? He gulped and tried to calm his suddenly shaking fingers. Outside, he heard the first few drops of rain splatter against the window. A few seconds later, it turned into a steady stream, and all he could hear was pitter-patter pitter-patter.
“Hayato? Are you all right, dear?”
“Mom!” He ran up to her and gave her a hug; he felt scared, and couldn’t explain why, or how.
“Oh, my, you’re cold all over!” his mother exclaimed. She bent down slowly – for she was heavily pregnant – and ruffled his hair. “It must have been the lake. And to think you were out there for hours …” Thunder boomed and lightning flashed outside. The flash illuminated the room and then faded. “Would you like to help me light the candles?”
Hayato nodded. He already felt a little better. But first … “Here,” he said, handing her the fish.
She clapped her hands. “What a catch!” she remarked. “My boy is proving to be quite the fisherman, isn’t he?”
Hayato beamed at her praise, but then blushed and looked away. He knew he didn’t deserve that praise, but his mother looked so happy …
She got up and smoothed her skirt. “Hayato, can you put these in the kitchen for me?” She smiled affectionately. “Just leave the cooking to me.” And by ‘cooking’, he knew she meant deboning, which was something Hayato just couldn’t do.
He gathered candlesticks and placed them all around the house. One next to the window, one on the wooden table and one next to the old couch his mother slept on. Then he gathered up some matches and lit them, watching the flame dance before lighting up the candle. In a few minutes, the house looked cozy yet mysterious.
Hayato gathered up the remaining matches and was returning them to the cupboard when he heard something fall to the floor. He turned around. “Mom!” He ran over to her. “Mom, are you all right?”
She was crouched on the floor, and sweat beaded her forehead. Hayato placed his hand on her back to steady her and felt her breathing. She was taking deep breaths with her eyes closed. One hand was placed on her stomach, and Hayato put his small hand over hers. She squeezed it and opened her eyes, forcing a smile. “Oh, Hayato. I’m fine. You needn’t worry, you silly boy.”
Relief flooded his chest. “But,” he started, “Why did you fall like that?” He held tight to her hand.
She got up, slowly, and steadied herself. “I think, Hayato …” she started, then hesitated. A few seconds later, she smiled. “ … I think your little brother or sister wants to see you more than anything.”
Hayato looked at her stomach. Every day, it seemed to grow bigger and bigger. He looked at her, eyes wide. “The baby – it won’t pop out, will it?” He could imagine it now: his mother’s stomach split open, blood splattered everywhere, and in the midst of it all, a crying baby.
It was horrifying. “Can’t you tell it to wait?” He had to make sure to call the village doctor if the baby was going to pop out.
His mother laughed, and it was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. “Oh, Hayato. The baby doesn’t pop out!” She laughed some more, then clutched her stomach. “Well, now that I think about it, it does pop out, in a way …”
“But don’t you worry – not in the way your imagination says it does!”
He put his hands on her shoulders and spoke in the most serious voice he could: “Mom, you tell me if you feel like the baby is going to pop out, okay? I’ll run and call the doctor, or the lady next door, or … or Hiroshi’s mom –” He felt flustered. “Okay? Promise.”
She kissed his forehead. “Okay, my little angel. I promise.” She put a hand on his cheek, then got up. “Would you like to help me in the kitchen?”
He nodded, and a few minutes later, he was rinsing the fish under the small faucet. His mother chopped up whatever vegetables she’d been able to find at the market that day – parsnips, dry carrots and hard potatoes. Fresh produce was hard to grow these days, especially with winter coming.
She set aside the chopped vegetables and went over to Hayato, who had finished with the fish. “Time to remove the bones,” she said. She took her knife and cut through the thick membrane of skin. Hayato looked away as she carefully pulled out small bones. She knew what he felt, but didn’t say anything.
When all the fish had been deboned, she boiled some water in a pot and set another pot over that one. They always cooked all their food under boiling water, as fire was dangerous in their small houses. A few minutes later, the fish were added to the pot, along with the vegetables. She set a small plate over the pot as their dinner cooked. Then she went over to the faucet and rinsed the knife, and then washed her hands.
After they had eaten, Hayato watched her as she cleaned the kitchen. Her brown hair hung over one shoulder, and she moved gracefully and swiftly as she wiped the counters and swept the flour, humming a tune to some forgotten poem all the while. Her eyes were relaxed and bright, but if Hayato looked deeper, they looked a little sad too, like she was thinking of something else. Or, he thought, waiting for something.
Or someone. Your father, perhaps.
Hayato felt a chill run down his spine. He glanced around the house, and the shadows cast by the candlelight suddenly seemed more ominous and looming. He took a long, shaky breath. Of course, he was being ridiculous. There was no one hiding in their house, no one under the couch, no one inside the cupboard. But, alas, he was only a child, and his mind was simply acting the way a child’s mind does.
All the same, he thought of his father. He’d been one of the few men who’d volunteered to venture outside the village, in hopes to find any other areas of civilization besides theirs. Also, to check the status of what was happening ‘out there’ – as Hiroshi liked to call it – the rest of the countryside, the city, and maybe even the capital itself. How the government was running, how the city was holding up. News was hard to catch in their village, as the surrounding villages had been burned down, and theirs was the only one for miles.
His father, along with the other men, hadn’t come back yet, and it had been some months now. Their fate was currently unknown – whether they were alive or dead or captured was anyone’s guess. Hayato could tell this upset his mother, but she rarely showed it. Hayato could only tell how she was really feeling if he spied on her when she was alone, which he rarely did, because he felt like his mother deserved some alone-time once in a while.
When she was finished in the kitchen, she went over to the couch and sat down slowly, and sighed. She closed her eyes and leaned back. Hayato went and joined her, cuddling next to her. His mother put her arm around him. “Hayato,” she said, a while later, eyes still closed. “What would you like to name the baby?”
“Well … if it’s a girl …” he thought about it. “I think … I think Saika is a pretty name,” he said, feeling shy all of a sudden. His mother had never asked him about the baby before.
“Saika? Oh, that’s a pretty name,” she exclaimed. “It means ‘a flower with lots of colors’.
“That is pretty,” he agreed.
“And if it’s a boy?”
“Hmm …well, I’ve never really thought about it. Somehow, I’ve always had this feeling it’s going to be a girl.”
“Is that so? Well, in that case, we’re going to name her Saika. I’ve decided.”
“But aren’t you going to have a say in the name?”
“She’s going to be your sister! Your first sibling. So it’s only up to you to decide the name. Besides, I think it’s a wonderful name.”
“If you say so …” Hayato let out a sudden, loud yawn. “Whoops!”
She laughed. “It’s time we went to bed, I think.” She looked outside the window. The rain showed no sign of stopping, and the wind was howling through the cracks and crevices of the house. “Why don’t you sleep with me on the couch? We’ll be warmer that way.”
“Are … are you sure?” Hayato asked, sounding uncertain. Could they both fit on the couch? “I’m fine on the floor …”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” She got up and walked over to the closet. “I’ll grab this blanket too.” Then she blew out the candles as she came back to the couch. The only light visible was the lightning flashing outside. Hayato cuddled next to his mother as she lay down.
When he was certain she’d fallen asleep, he put a hand on her stomach and felt his little sister – sister, he was sure of it – let out a small kick. He giggled. His mother was right – Saika really did want to see him. “Just wait a little longer,” he whispered, feeling his eyes close. “I’ll be the best older brother you’ll ever have. I’ll take you outside and show you how to hunt and fish and we can walk by the river with Mom and feed the ducks. And you can help her with dinner and we can light the candles together, and then when it’s time to sleep, we can whisper ghost stories to each other.” He smiled in the dark as sleep came over him. “I’ll take care of you and protect you, Saika. I promise.” And with that, he fell asleep.
Outside, the sky wept, but so did his mother.
She’d been awake the whole time, and had started to sob quietly as she heard her son talking to his unborn sister. She carefully got up, walked over to the window and peered out, tears dripping down her face. She had a sudden dreary feeling in her gut, and she couldn’t shake away the feeling that something was coming, something terrible. She’d been hearing rumors, disturbing rumors, about an impending raid on the village. Not that there hadn’t been raids before … but she had a bad feeling about this one, that this time, it wasn’t going to be an average raid. Yes, she thought, clutching her stomach. Something is coming, something horrible and I won’t be able to protect my son, my only child … She covered her mouth as tears rolled down her face. Panic gripped her tighter than ever as she watched her son, fast asleep. So young, so little. She wished her husband were here, she wished he had never left, because she had never felt so scared and alone like she did in that moment.
There was nothing to do but wait. Wait for what, she did not know, but it was clear she wasn’t going back to sleep, so she simply took a chair and sat next to the window, watching the rain, listening to the wind, and waiting.
A few hours later, she was still awake, and saw a bright light coming closer and closer to the horizon. She stood up. It’s here. She no longer felt scared; just numb.
She walked over to the couch, sat next to her son and covered his ears, steeling herself at the same time.
A few seconds later, a blinding white light illuminated the entire village, and the blast that followed shook the village down to its core.
Outside, the rain kept falling and the wind kept blowing, and nature was oblivious towards the ensuing chaos and horror about to take place.