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art by Void lon iXaarii

Survivors

M. Bennardo is the writer of over 40 short stories appearing in Asimov's Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and others. He is also editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies. He lives in Cleveland. Find him online at mbennardo.com.
Nobody ever asked me the secret to survival. You didn't ask either, but I'll tell you anyway.
It's cowardice, O-hana, so that's how we'll survive. You and I and all the others in our cave--with a million tiny acts of cowardice.
I didn't start out as Japanese. I'm still not sure if I am, despite what everyone seems to think--the Okinawan soldiers who found me in the crater, the student-nurses who brought me juice and sticky slices of mango at the hospital, the thin doctor with the mustache who says he is my father. And you too, O-hana.
None of you seem to notice that I am six feet tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. None of you seem to notice I only speak and understand English, and a couple words in Polish.
Somehow I understand you, though I don't know how. I can even read the characters on the brass dog tag strapped around my chest under these hospital pajamas.
There's no name on it--just a company, a unit number, and my own serial number. I could be anybody, but you tell me that my name is Aragaki-san. I guess that's what you would have called the Japanese soldier who jumped into the crater beside me. Meanwhile, the thin doctor with the mustache calls me Isamu. I guess that's what he called his son.
I was American to begin with, either in reality or in some vivid dream. I came from Milwaukee, the son of Polish immigrants. When I reported to the draft board, bitter, sullen, my stomach full of ice, the officer there looked at the collision of Zs and Ss and Ks in my name and said, "We're fighting this war for you, son."
It was four years since the invasion of Poland and two since Pearl Harbor, but I didn't contradict him. I didn't say, Don't fight for me--I don't want your war. Instead, I said, "Yes, sir."
It was the first of many tiny acts of cowardice. The first of many tiny steps I took to survive the war.
I liked the first hospital best, before we evacuated to this cave. Before the Americans got so close. The Americans? We Americans? Either way, I liked the low stone walls, the wooden ceiling, and the cool sea breeze through the open windows.
I liked the thin doctor with the mustache too--the one who calls me Isamu, the one who says he is my father. I fear he's dead now, blown up with the rest of the hospital and the patients who couldn't be moved.
He would have stayed with them. He was no coward.
I liked you, O-hana, and the rest of the student-nurses. You said you came from high school along with your teachers and classmates. You said you brought your books to study, laughing and thinking the war would be over in a matter of days. How long ago was that? Months, years, eternities?
I wonder if my American unit had already landed on Okinawa by the time you joined up as a nurse. I wonder if I was in the crater with that Japanese soldier, the one who must have been called Aragaki Isamu. I wonder if I was Japanese already. I wonder if I was on my way here.
You want to hear about my million acts of cowardice? They're very much alike, but first you must imagine we're in battle. I rattle my gun at you and you rattle your gun at me, each of us afraid that the other will rattle it first.
We hear that some of the Japanese are carrying sharpened sticks or bamboo poles. We hear that some of them are peasant boys pressed into service, younger than our own kid brothers. But still I rattle my gun. Rat-a-tat-tat, it jumps and jerks in my hands. I don't stop to see who is coming, if they have a rifle or a broomstick. Rat-a-tat-tat, they fall like stalks of wheat.
We hear that there are civilians hiding in the caves. We hear there are nurses and wounded with them. But I shoot my tommy gun and hurl my grenades. I hang back on the charges and never take point. I never volunteer for anything.
I didn't ask for this war, I didn't ask to be here. But I am, and I am trying to survive.
It could have been you, O-hana. If things had turned out differently, I could have rattled my gun at you. In frenzy and fear, I could have hurled my grenade into this cave.
Did I tell you about the crater, O-hana? That was another of my million acts of cowardice. But passive, that time. Not active.
The Japanese soldier flopped down not ten feet from me, seeking shelter the same as I was. My gun was jammed, half taken apart in my hands, and he flopped down over the rim--just him and me, alone in that crater where a bomb had exploded days before.
I looked at him, but there was nothing I could do. He looked at me, but he never raised his gun. Seconds ticked by and explosions thudded around us--shouts, screams, the pinging and whizzing of bullets. What a god-awful mess, what a god-awful sound.
But still, the seconds passed. Two, three, four, five. That's an endless eternity in battle. He could have cut me in half a dozen times over. I would have done it, almost as a reflex, if my gun hadn't been lying in my lap in three pieces. Rat-a-tat-tat, and I survive a few minutes longer, until the next crisis in cowardice.
Yet, he never moved. He never raised his gun. We just sat looked at each other, eye to eye.
Then the grenade dropped into the crater--there were the two of us now, and one live grenade. I saw it first, watched it arc gently through the air and land with a plop in the mud, sticking fast exactly where it fell. A second later, he saw it too.
I don't know if it was instinct or choice, O-hana, but down he went. He fell on that grenade, his arms squeezed tight to his sides to keep the blast in, and then he screamed--
And somehow I woke here, where you all say I am him.
You know how the thin doctor with the mustache cried when he saw me. You were there. You know how he always said he was my father. He never needed a dog tag to recognize me.
"I prayed for you to come here," he said, squeezing my hand. "I prayed to see you again."
But he couldn't be the father of a Polish boy from Milwaukee. He couldn't be the father of a cowardly American soldier who had never before been to this place. But still he sat and squeezed my hand. Still he cried when he saw me alive.
"I'm not the boy you think I am," I said. "I didn't fall on the grenade."
"It doesn't matter, Isamu," said the doctor. He must have thought I was full of the usual guilt and shame of surviving soldiers. He must have thought I believed I should be dead. "It doesn't matter, my son."
But he didn't understand, O-hana. It matters that his real son jumped and I didn't.
I'd have done the same even if I'd been in the crater with my unit. It wasn't because I saw him as an enemy that I failed to try to save him.
I wasn't thinking American or Japanese. I wasn't think friend or foe. All I was thinking was how to get out, how to save myself. And all he was thinking was how to save me.
I don't know why I was spared, O-hana. I don't know why I've come here, why I've been given my enemy's father's hand to hold.
(My enemy? What a strange word! My nightmare, more like. My fear. My bogeyman that would cut me down if I didn't properly complete the rituals I learned to protect against him--the rituals of pointing and squeezing, of pulling a pin and throwing. Why else had we repeated them so many times, if they were not rituals and talismans to us, religious practices to dispel our demons?)
There are wounded here in our cave. There are soldiers and civilians. There are students, like you, who left their schools to be nurses.
Already in my mind's eye, I can see the grenade tumbling through the rock cleft. Already, I can see it skittering out onto the cave floor. I can see your frightened face, O-hana, and hear the American voice yelling "Fire in the hole!"
I see myself waiting, again, for someone else to make the sacrifice.
I told you already, O-hana, that the way to survive a war is with a million tiny acts of cowardice. But perhaps there is another way. If a grenade falls among ten men and all of them are cowards, then all ten will die. But if even one of them is courageous, then the other nine will live.
But I've talked too long, O-hana. I've said too many things that don't make sense. Hssst--Quiet! There's someone outside the cave. Will he be courageous or cowardly, O-hana? Will he stop to see if we are soldiers or not?
Aragaki Isamu would surely have checked. He would have looked before he shot, as he did when we sat in the crater together. Am I so lucky to meet another soul as courageous as he? Quiet, quiet, O-hana--with empty hands, now I go to find out.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

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