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Excerpt: 'Click,' Chapter 8



When my older brother came home from the war, he had no legs. He lost them in a place called Luzon, in the Philippines, where our Japanese soldiers were fighting the Americans. My brother, Taro, was advancing with his platoon through the jungle toward the enemy position, when the grenades started falling from the trees like big fat fruit. He said he didn't even know what hit him.

Luzon is in the tropics, Taro said. He had shipped out a week earlier, and everything was new to him and strange. He said it was so hot it felt like your skin was melting, like it would just fall from your bones. My brother liked the heat. He liked the cold too. He used to love walking and hiking in the mountains. He loved looking at plants and insects, and identifying them by their names. Back in Sapporo, where our family is from, he used to take me on long walks in the woods, or along the beach, and tell me all the names of everything we saw — the trees, the flowers, even the shells that washed up from the sea. And not just the Japanese names, either. He knew the names in English, and he knew the scientific names too. These were in Latin, which is a language so old that nobody even remembers how to speak it anymore — and that shows you how smart my brother is. He wanted to be a scientist and study botany, which is the science of plants. He was studying this in university when they drafted him and sent him to war. Now he can't be a scientist. He can't take walks anymore either.

He didn't tell me a whole lot about the day he lost his legs, but I know him pretty well, and I can picture it in my mind. He was probably marching along with the rest of his buddies, just waiting for the enemy to jump out from behind the thick curtains of leaves and start shooting at them. He was probably scared, at least at first, because Taro wasn't cut out to be a soldier, even though he was the oldest son. I'm the second, but I'm more of the soldierly type — crazy, fearless — at least that's what our mother said. Frankly, between you and me, Taro was kind of a sissy. I loved him like crazy, but he was more of a scholar or a teacher, with his round glasses and skinny wrists. He would have made a really great scientist.

But it's too late for that. There he was, scared out of his wits, following his platoon through the jungle. It was meltingly hot, and the damn fat tropical leaves kept smacking him in the face. Huge spiders dangled from vines in front of him, catching him up in their sticky webs. The insects were humming and screeching, and the jungle buzzed with life. And sooner or later, in spite of his fear, old Taro would have gotten interested, you know? He couldn't have helped it. He would have gotten interested because to him, the spiders and the fat-leaved plants were a hell of a lot more fascinating than killing people you hadn't even met yet.

I figure he started to lag behind a little, and maybe he even stopped to inspect a little snake dangling from a tree limb, or to study the underside of a leaf. And that's when the heavy fruits started dropping from the trees.

Plop! The grenade dropped onto the spongy jungle floor, and maybe it bounced a little, and then another dropped. They looked like miniature pineapples, but of course they weren't. Nor were they coming from the trees above. They came from way back, beyond the trees, where the Americans were hiding in ambush. Up ahead, Taro's sergeant was yelling, Throw them back! Throw them all back! but Taro couldn't hear very well because he had lagged too far behind. By the time he understood the sergeant's order and ran over to pick one up, it was too late. The pineapple exploded at his feet, and the last thing he recalls is his body being lifted up from the earth toward the jungle canopy and the sky beyond.

"What happened then?" I asked.

He shrugged and rubbed the place where his leg used to be. "Don't remember coming down again," he said.

The way I see it, that's a good thing.

Now, I should introduce myself properly. My name is Jiro, which means "second" in Japanese, because I was the second-born son. Taro is named Taro because he was the first. When Taro was drafted into the army and lost his legs, he was almost eighteen. It was 1944, and I had just turned nine at the time, but I was small for my age. My mother says it's because I didn't get enough rice to eat during the war, due to all the food shortages, but I didn't care. I was small, but I was scrappy, and I would have made a great soldier. Back then, I wanted nothing more than to be shipped off to Luzon in the Philippines to kill Americans, and when Taro was drafted, I thought I would drop dead from envy.

I would gladly have gone to fight in his place and left him to study his books so he could become a scientist. But the one thing you learn during war is that you can't pick and choose, and in the end, pretty much everyone is a loser. Some people lose their lives, others lose their families or their honor. My brother lost his legs. He was one of the lucky ones.

Taro, being almost ten years older than me, was always taller, but when he was shipped back from Luzon, he was shorter. We finally tracked him down in an army hospital outside Tokyo. There were wounded soldiers everywhere, in the rooms, in the hallways. When we found the bed with his name on it, it was empty.

"He's dead!" our mother cried, throwing herself across the bare mattress and starting to weep.

I wanted to cry too, but just then I heard this rackety noise like a street vendor's cart, and I turned to see Taro. He was sitting on a wooden plank with wheels on it. He rolled himself awkwardly across the concrete floor and came to a halt at my feet.

"Well," he said, looking up at me. "Guess I can't call you 'Little Brother' anymore."

Our father had been killed during a fire bombing, and Taro was the only family we had left. When we heard he was alive, my mother and I traveled all the way down from Sapporo to the hospital in Tokyo to find him. The trip was almost impossible back then because the tracks had been bombed, and many of the trains had stopped. There were curfews at night, and our Emperor had come on the radio to surrender, and we knew that the Americans were on their way. We were terrified of them, or rather my mother was. To tell the truth, I was too, although I took care not to show it. We learned in school that Americans were evil oni, long-nosed devils, who would hurt us in terrible ways, especially our women. So while we traveled, I was on the lookout for American devils, ready to protect my mother.

The first time I saw one up close was at a train station in Tokyo. He was as tall as a giant, with scary pale eyes and colorless hair and skin as pale as a mushroom. At first I thought he was a ghost. His mouth was stretched wide from side to side, baring his enormous teeth, which confused me because I never thought that ghosts had teeth. Then he started walking toward us, and I realized he couldn't be a ghost because in Japan our ghosts don't have legs.

If he wasn't a ghost, he must be an American.

I stood up tall and stepped bravely into his path, in front of my mother.

"Damé!" I cried. "Stop!"

The American stopped. He spoke some gibberish that I couldn't understand and held out his hand. In it was a bar wrapped in bright colored paper, with English writing on it that I couldn't read.

"It's candy!" my mother said. "Jiro-chan, take it!"

I was hungrier than you can even imagine, but I knew better than to trust the food offered by an oni. I looked right into those evil blue eyes, curled my lip, and shook my head.

The American's mouth got small. He shrugged his shoulders. He unwrapped the bar and took a bite, humming and raising his bushy eyebrows, making a big show of how tasty it was. He held it out again, and I could see now that it was chocolate, and I could smell its delicious smell. My mouth started to water.

My mother stepped in front of me. She bowed deeply to the American and held out her hand. I could see her fingers trembling, she was so hungry.

Other big-nosed American soldiers were standing around. They started to laugh, like my mom was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. My face turned hot and red.

A group of children spotted us and came running.

"Chodai! Chodai!" they cried, jumping up and down. "Pu-leee-zu, candy!"

The American soldiers had lots of candy bars. They threw them on the ground and made the children scramble. They tossed them farther and farther away, and made the children run. It was a game to them. The Japanese children, dressed in filthy rags, were pushing and shoving and snatching the bars from the dirt and from each other. The American soldiers in their clean, pressed uniforms were laughing.

"No!" I wanted to scream to the children. "Throw them all back!" But I knew it was no use. They were too hungry. We all were. I turned away and saw my mother peeling the wrapper off a small piece of chewing gum. It wasn't even food! I reached over and slapped her hand and knocked it to the ground. Wordlessly, my mother picked it up again and put it in her sleeve. There is no way to describe the shame I felt.

I didn't know it then, but that American soldier was Mr. Gee. The next time I saw him was in the hospital ward, and I didn't recognize him as the soldier with the candy bar. He was with a group of American army doctors, and they were going from ward to ward, inspecting our injured Japanese people. Mr. Gee had a camera, and he was taking pictures of the wounded.

They weren't interested in soldiers like Taro who had been wounded on the battlefield. They only wanted to examine the civilians, old men and young ladies and children, who had been sent up from Hiroshima and Nagasaki where they dropped the big bombs. Atom Bombs. Bombs that made people's skin melt and fall from their bones. This is what the Americans wanted pictures of, and I hated them for that.

It is hard to tell a foreigner's age just by looking, but I guessed that Mr. Gee was younger than the doctors who were ordering him to take the pictures. He seemed nervous, being near all those wounded people. I think he felt sorry having to take their pictures. I could understand his feeling. I mean, we used to have a camera too, and we liked to take snapshots when we went on holiday. But we were not on a holiday, and who would want to remember this? It seemed to me better just to forget, and yet, I couldn't forget, nor could I forgive Mr. Gee for taking those pictures.

I saw him again a couple of weeks later. Taro had been discharged, and he had joined up with a group of wounded veterans from the hospital, begging for alms on a street corner by the train station. He didn't want to be a beggar, but he didn't have much choice. Our mother had never recovered from the shock of seeing her eldest son with no legs, and she had fallen ill with a sickness of the nerves, caused by an excess of grief. I was still only ten, and too young to support a sick mother and a crippled brother. I did odd jobs when I could find them, but mostly I pushed Taro around on his plank to and from the station. At night we slept in a rooming house with the other wounded veterans, in a small dark room the size of a closet.

All of the vets in Taro's group were missing something — arms, or legs, or eyes, or ears — but somehow, together, they got along pretty well. The ones with legs carried the legless ones about. The ones with arms fed the armless. The ones with all their fingers played sad, old songs on an accordion. Luckily, all of them could sing. They wore the white robes of repentance over their ragged military uniforms, and they painted signs in large Japanese characters, saying how war was bad, and they were sorry they had fought and caused so much grief and suffering.

At first, people gave them money, but as the months passed and the war began to fade from memory, people began to ignore them. I watched from across the street.

"It's like you're all ghosts," I said. "Invisible. They walk right by you!"

"They're ashamed," Taro said.

At the end of the day, when I pushed my brother home over the pitted streets, he was so tired he had trouble hanging on to his plank. His injuries had weakened him. When we passed in front of a noodle stand, he motioned for me to stop.

"Wait," he said. He untied the corner of his shirt and handed me two coins, his share of the day's money. "I could sure use some noodles."

I bought a bowl and brought it back to him. The steam from the soup rose up and bathed my face, and the fat noodles glistened. I hadn't eaten all day, and I thought I would faint, I was so hungry. I handed the bowl to him. He sniffed the fragrant steam. "Mmm," he said. "Delicious." He inhaled again, then handed the bowl back to me. "You have the rest."

"But you didn't eat any!" I exclaimed.

"I don't need to," he said. "Ghosts get fat from smelling the steam."

When Mr. Gee showed up, I recognized him by his camera. He was standing off to one side, watching the veterans sing and play the accordion. A little girl sidled up to Taro and put a coin into the alms can. Taro bowed his head and thanked her. They were about the same height, the little girl and the legless veteran who was my elder brother. Mr. Gee dropped to his knee. He raised his camera and began taking pictures.

The sight made my blood boil, just like it had in the hospital when I saw him taking pictures there. Taro had told me that the Americans were studying the radiation damage done by the atom bomb, and the pictures were necessary for science. But this was different. There was no good reason I could see, scientific or otherwise, to take snapshots of my brother's shame. And maybe because we were near the train station, I recalled the candy bar incident, and the arrogant laughter of the American soldiers, and all of us Japanese kids, starving and begging for food and getting only gum and bars of chocolate.

Something inside me snapped. The next thing I knew, I had my arms around Mr. Gee's thick American neck. I was clinging to his back like a monkey, trying to pull him to the ground. His camera strap was in my fist, and I was strangling him with it. I wanted to rip the camera from him and crush it in the dirt, as though by destroying his machine I could wipe out all the suffering his photographs contained.

Excerpted from Click. Chapter © 2007 by Ruth Ozeki. All rights reserved. Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.

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Ruth Ozeki